*Featured Art: “Quicksand By The Sea” by Natalie Lifson
Mother stood by the front door clutching her $59 Eastern Air Line ticket in one hand, her worn zippered purse in the other, and waited for the taxi’s honk. She wore a thick dark wool coat, a staple of the St. Louis winter. Her powder blue cotton sweater peeked out at her neckline. I envisioned it caressing her shoulders as she sat on the front porch of her rented Ocean Ave. apartment, entertaining a suitor or two. By the time she’d land in Miami, Mother would have discarded her cold weather garb as effortlessly as a snake sheds its skin. She’d walk off the plane leaving a trail of coat, gloves, scarf and two teenage daughters behind. Like Clark Kent exiting the telephone booth as Superman, Mother would step onto the tarmac as the sexy divorcee ready to romp in her Florida beach playground.
Her unmatched Samsonite luggage lined the hallway, the large beige piece bruised by too many thuds into baggage compartments. The smaller suitcase held Mother’s powder and rouge compacts, shapely curved bottles of Tabu perfume, and a blue glass jar of Noxema cold cream that whooshed it all away like an eraser eradicating the day’s work. That morning I helped pack her make-up bag, placing fragile containers in designated pockets lined with plastic, tightening caps to avoid leaks, and making sure fire engine red nail polish sat next to matching Revlon lipstick. This was a task I had mastered.
“Thanks, Renee,” Mother offered, snapping the lock into place. For what? Helping you flee again?
Miami Beach was the city of refuge for Mother’s second husband who had run from the brief marriage that culminated their long courtship. She promptly packed up and followed, announcing to my older sister Arline and me that her presence was necessary to finalize their divorce. Two years and a bunch of missed junior high parent-teacher meetings later, I knew better.
This visit home evolved as all the others. She arrived with the pretext of staying for good. I would race down the apartment building’s two flights of stairs as soon as I heard the cab door slam. My arms wrapped tightly around her waist, as if by doing so I could hold her still, root her like the arching oak tree on the front lawn.
“Renee, you’re getting so tall!” Mother embraced me, her teased and sprayed hair scraping like steel wool against my cheek. Turning to my sister she gushed, “Arline, my goodness, you’re a young adult!” Of course she was. At 19, she was a veteran of the secretarial pool at Pittsburgh Plate Glass, Co., and had been catapulted into the role of on-site caretaker of me, her teenage kid sister. As far as I could tell, my sister paid the grocery bills too.
Mother spent her first week home in the kitchen, creating limited but tasty dishes: fried chicken that crunched; pot roast wading in gravy; salmon patties that popped in the fry pan and filled our two bedroom place with a fishy smell. I didn’t mind. The meals were a welcome relief from the food we gulped down in her absence: Swanson chicken potpies, Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks, Kraft American cheese sandwiches.
On weekends she called a friend about a ride to the Sunday night single’s dance at Casaloma Ballroom where she’d foxtrot and flirt. I loved watching Mother dance; as a child I’d try to mimic her steps while she sashayed around the living room, sometimes grabbing me to join her.
“Hey, Ethel, anybody driving out tonight?” Mother had never learned to drive. Why should she? We hadn’t owned a car since my father left almost decade earlier. “Yes, I know…the weather. Yeah, I’m back.” Was that a “for now” I heard her mumble into the phone?
Our Aunt Ruth would try to coax Mother out of the house and back to her pre-Florida work routine. “Molly, the Delmar bus runs every 20 minutes. Call Famous & Barr; your salesgirl job is waiting, I’m sure.” Older than my mother by three years, Ruth stood in our kitchen, hands on her wide hips, a pilled cardigan and flowered house dress covering a body grown plump from two kids and years of cooking for her family. Mother could still show off her body in a two-piece swimsuit that outlined curved breasts, firm arms and shapely legs.
“Ruthy, I’m not going back to boxing up cakes and doughnuts for some fat-assed rich women!” That was the extent of my mother’s job-hunting.
Gradually Mother’s cooking faded, along with her tan. No longer in the kitchen when I rushed home from school, she’d be lounging on the cushions of our faux velvet couch, a scratchy wool blanket covering her lap and legs. Coffee mug in one hand, a Viceroy in the other, she alternated between sips and puffs. Cigarette butts accumulated and the Folgers got cold as she watched episodes of “Search for Tomorrow” or “All My Children”. Modern Screen, with a smiling Doris Day and Rock Hudson on the cover, lay at her side next to a half-eaten box of Fig Newton’s. If she kept at it, she’d outgrow her bikinis.
“Hey mom, what’d you do today?” She’d look up and shrug, then go back to the Philco black and white TV screen. As theme music signaled the start of a new soap, I’d head for the kitchen and grab a Hostess Snowball, biting into its crunchy shredded coconut, elastic marshmallow, and crumbly devil’s food cake. We only bought them when Mother was in town. That and the Twinkies were part of the “make mother happy” playbook. Pulling out my loose leaf and calculus book, I yelled, “Mom, I’ll be doing some homework.” Was she even listening?
Maybe the rain lasted too long, or maybe she hadn’t found a worthy dance partner, or maybe she just had to boomerang back. “Girls, I’ve got to return to Florida. Still some loose ends to wrap up,” she announced at the kitchen table one evening, sipping from the cup of decaf she always drank at dinner. Her half-finished cigarette glowed in the ashtray and I pictured her disappearing into a cloud of tobacco smoke. Arline grabbed her plate and turned to scrape a clinging glob of mashed potatoes into the red plastic garbage pail. Water gushed from the faucet. Palmolive dish liquid released a flowery aroma. I clanked my dish and utensils onto the countertop, tugged open a kitchen drawer to retrieve a terrycloth towel. We were in formation: Arline washed. I dried. Mother finished her meal.
Now, in the final throes of her departure, she stood by the doorway rummaging through her pocketbook. Coins jingled as she pulled out her change purse. I watched from my twin bed, witnessing a familiar scene. I couldn’t see the woman who boasted about graduating high school in three years only to work in bakery shops; the young wife who had the chutzpah in the 1950s to escape an unsatisfying marriage; or the jilted lover who ran after her man and found a paradise. I only saw that my mother was about to leave again; so I unleashed the one last weapon I had in this tug of war.
“If you go back I’m not going to visit you again this summer. I’m not going to visit you ever! Ever! Don’t leave. Don’t leave.” My sister was lying in the other bed, flipping pages of Photoplay magazine. I turned to her, wanting back up. Arline kept reading.
Mother looked up, as though remembering I was there. Her forehead creased as she snapped her purse shut with a twist of the clasp. Did my threat work? Would she actually change her mind? Maybe we did matter. She breathed deep, as though taking a drag on an absent cigarette. No, she squeezed her airline ticket even tighter, as if fortifying her resolve.
“Why, Renee. I love you. You know I’ll write you and your sister every day,” taking a small step towards me. Yeah I knew. I was quite familiar with the red, white and blue trimmed par avion envelopes that would begin arriving, sometimes two in one day. Her writing us was supposed to make me feel better? Letters offered no solace when I was aching from menstrual cramps or crying if not invited to a dance. Letters wilted and smudged as tears dropped.
“Don’t leave!” I repeated. I was tired of explaining to friends and teachers why my father wasn’t around, and now why my mother was gone. Must my sister keep signing my report cards?
Mother hesitated, turned her head away and resumed the search for wallet or lipstick or maybe both. She wouldn’t be looking for the keys to our apartment. Those she always left behind. “I know you girls will let me in next time,” Mother had laughed earlier, placing them on the tarnished silver-plated tray atop her dresser.
We always did.
* A version of this essay was originally published in the winter 2017 issue of The Coachella Review.