My father used to say about my mother that she read so many books, he could hear pages turning inside her when she lay down beside him at night. Eerie, he said. Gave him the willies how she always had her nose stuck in some book or other. Not any more, though. Now she just watches Schuller every week, his“Hour of Power.” She’s got her eyes on my son, Sam, who just hurled a block at the T.V. screen.
“Don’t any of his baby friends speak English?”
“He doesn’t have any baby friends.”
“Well. Take him outside, Lucy. All I ask is one hour Sunday morning.”
I pack Sam, kicking and screaming, into his snowsuit.
We throw melba toast bits into the slush and speculate about what will walk out of the woods behind my mother’s house. Bird, bear, bull. I feed words into my son and listen as they come back to me in another tongue. He hasn’t got the hang of this yet. A male cardinal watches us for a long time from the limb of a diseased oak. When he finally screws up all his courage and swoops down on our offering, Sam runs for him and gobbles up the toast himself. Inside, on the screen, I see the gleam of Schuller’s glasses. Whatever he says must be right on target. My mother is nodding her assent.
At the airport my husband sadly pushes the hair out of my eyes, in search of me, and whispers reviens vite. For months he asks me to change my hair. We pore over magazines together trying to find something appropriate to the shape of my face. When we think we have it, I take an issue of Cosmo into a stylist who renders me the victim of some unnatural disaster. My husband cooks me wonderful meals for weeks afterward, as penance. Every time he puts Sam and me on a plane for America, he photographs us; he takes something out of my purse at the last minute to keep. It is a miracle to him that we return. While we are gone he studies maps, does what he can to build courage. He will come with me one day, he promises. He puts his mouth strangely around the word Oklahoma, repeating it until he gets it right. I have been cruel at times, telling him about gun racks routinely mounted on pick-up trucks. Recreating in morbid detail a dinner I was served that was completely brown, down to the black bottom pie for dessert. Red-necks that would hang him by his silk scarves. I hoard for myself the endless flat skies, pot-bellied ponies and the smell of clover hay as if they are family jewels. I don’t want to hear it retold, any of it. The way we drive and what we eat in the morning, how we look in a shopping center. Not yet anyhow.
When we return to the house my mother is sitting at her desk, writing out a check. I peer over her shoulder. It’s made out to Schuller.
“The church is in trouble.”
“He’s conning you.”
“He asked in a very dignified way. Kind of like it hurt him to have to ask. Whereas Oral Roberts cries.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean when he was trying to get his hospital built and he was asking the viewers for donations, he cried. When you were in high school, giving all your part time money to that overseas thing, did I speak up? Nylon slips sent to starving Africans. At least I know where my dollars are heading.”
I remember the article I read about Schuller’s sleek building in Orange County. How it was built by Philip Johnson, the architect from Cambridge.
“Where are your dollars heading. Mom?”
“Right back to me. Haven’t you noticed how beatific I am these days?”
She laughs and hands me a cigarette she’s just lit. No filter. I smoke quietly and watch Sam who shakes his head no, no, no.
“When are we going to get that husband of yours to visit? I’ll cook him all the best things I know and learn a few words of French. Or if he doesn’t like that I’ll just sit and smile, like we’re old friends or something. Tell him, Lucy. I could be dead tomorrow.”
“He’ll come. Mom. Maybe next year.”
When I announced that I was moving to France, no one was surprised. My mother took off for two days and returned with four huge pots of moisturizing cream made up especially for me by a friend she has in the Ozarks.“The air is different over there. Don’t come back to me looking like some of the pictures I’ve seen. Young as you are.” We told my father on a Saturday, I remember. He was working under the car that day without his safety glasses and shouted when motor oil dripped into his eyes. He called a hospital near the house and they told him to rinse out his eyes every twenty minutes throughout the day until about four o’clock. Every twenty minutes I would hear him muttering, father’s complaints.“Lucy, you there? Buddy of mine from Texarkana caught him self one hell of a case of syphilis over there. First pair of black stockings I ever saw in my life was in Paris, there in the Place Pigalle. Nearly fell off the damn bus. You can get yourself in a peck of trouble over there, young lady.” The night before I left, my mother threw a big party, filling the house with uncles and aunts, cousins she swore she’d never speak to again. When everyone had found a place to sit and she’d passed around her plates of cocktail cheeses and olives, she cleared her throat real loud and said something she thought would unify the evening, make it clear why we were all gathered together.
“Lucy, stand up and show everybody the long scar on your knee.”
Everyone nodded and studied the half-moon that breaks just below my kneecap. My niece wanted to touch it.
“This is a girl who tried very hard to dig her way to China. Might have succeeded, too, if that axe hadn’t hung her up so bad.”
Mom is a believer in fate and destiny. She continued, since she had everyone’s attention.
“When all the other kids were out pretending to be horses, this one was drawing make-believe maps. All bright-colored with crazy names like Mutabunga. Really! She made county lines and everything. Says to me once when she was in bed with pneumonia that if God put a big huge straw into the Atlantic and sucked as hard as He could, people in New York would start talking Spanish.”
She turned to the room she’d filled with my father’s sisters and brothers, her arms folded serenely over her chest. All those sisters and brothers who had carried on about her over the years. That I would spend my first year in Europe cleaning toilets, eating meals alone or in the kitchen with children meant nothing. My move to France was her vendetta. It was, however, my mad cousin Ella who gave me my true, my finest farewell. She led me quietly into the guest room and cleared out a space for us on the coat-filled bed. The air smelled like sweet perfume and animal pelts.