by Sandra Derrick
|Skylyn Reyes never would have considered, being a generous woman, that growing up without a mother might have been better than having been reared by a careless one. It wouldn’t have crossed Sky’s mind in a random thought—say, as random as her mother, Eve, entered and fled from her life—that there was greater possibility without such a mother. Eve was not much liked, was a bit of a recluse, and when she came out of her shell, well, most might have preferred that she hibernate a little longer. There can be something alluring about cruel people, their honesty, their blunt drama and easy flight, that if you weren’t the daughter, if you weren’t the one burdened by absence, you might allow this person gratuitous entry into your life. But all this is somewhat theoretical, for we’d be nowhere without our mothers.Eve’s longest commitment to her daughter was after the birth, an entire year that Sky wouldn’t remember. Handed her off to Sky’s father, Brad, like she was one of those inanimate objects, a lamp or a framed poster of some worth with a hint of sentiment, something you didn’t want to sell, that you preferred in storage. Brad finished work every day at five, never stayed a minute less or more. Drywall dust powdered his brown hair white, caught under his nails with a thickness like concrete. “She’s in the crib, milk’s in the fridge,” Eve said. He thought she was in a good mood, rhyming that way. Even with the car’s engine humming outside, he didn’t think twice. Off for something else at the store, something forgotten. He looked in on his daughter sound asleep and returned to the living room to watch “MASH.”
Within a few years of Eve’s departure, Brad married an obese Mexican woman who would later have her stomach stapled and subsequently believe it necessary to wear makeup: Juanita, who renamed herself Janet as though the name alone would impair neighbors’ senses, no longer aware of her dark skin in a Mormon-majority town. Juanita kept a strict regimen in the household by which the demands were to be kept up by Sky. Daily, she collected the dirty clothes Juanita left on the floor and washed them in the tub. With a written checklist, Sky cleaned each room, in the living room—dusting and vacuuming, in Juanita’s bedroom—cleaning the penguin figurines her stepmother collected while she watched Sky from her bed. It resembled the Cinderella tale, the malevolent stepmother and compliant stepdaughter, and this would be the tale Sky would have chosen if asked for a mirrored fictional account. Sky would not have mentioned Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy’s The Benevolent Frog or the Danish fairytale, The Flea and the Professor. There were no children’s books in the house and she nearly flunked school every year. Reading, math, and science were all a struggle. (I can’t imagine a home without books. Mine has an entire wall stacked alphabetically, each bookcase categorized–science, biography, and history.)
During Sky’s seventh year, Eve showed up in a borrowed ‘65 Ford pick-up truck, its right front end dented like a ceaseless wink, no seatbelts. Such a jalopy created the illusion that Eve was making up for lost time, taking Sky back with her into the past. Brad loved his daughter and was glad for her to be with Eve, but he lacked authority, did not even ask where, how long. He did not think to say no, see her on my terms. He got a warm feeling in the gut when Sky caught her first trout, when she took responsibility for all those chickens that Janet purchased then abandoned. Brad may best be understood as a doer, not a thinker, may best be described as amicable but not caring, not careful. He had all his teeth pulled at age thirty-nine after they started rotting. Never wore his dentures while fishing as though it were a bad omen. Brad packed a duffle bag of clothes and a stuffed animal, a giraffe, left the bag partially unzipped so that the beast’s head poked out. Not always rough around the edges, that Brad. He spoke to Sky before walking her to the truck. “Remember,” Brad said, “she’s not right in the head. Keeps her sad.” Sky lingered in the doorway, watched her mother fidget with the radio or the air conditioning, her face scrunched up in dissatisfaction like hot air and bad music were simultaneously blowing out. A glow framed Eve’s head, and even though it was from the sun setting behind her, Sky thought it was some greater force recognizing the mystery of this woman, the mystery, it seemed, of mothers.
Eve listened to country music, had a good singing voice that soothed Sky. They parked at Coyote Lake and Eve drank, asked Sky to read the sign. COYOTE LAKE – SWIM AT YOUR OWN RISK. Sky couldn’t get past the first word so Eve howled and Sky did too. They laughed and her mother held her too tight, when zippers make imprints in skin, like pinching. “You see, I’m teaching you to read,” she said, “read in the dark.” Sky had many questions but knew not to ask any, was solicitous when speaking to Eve, whom she never referred to as mom. Sky thought their relationship was similar to how she acted around spiders. To catch them, one had to be heedful, one wrong move and they scurried away, got under and behind things you couldn’t get your hands around.
Sky didn’t see her mother again until her teens. At most a random postcard would arrive, southern Arizona, northern California, Eve just close enough to be sensed on the periphery of home. Never a signature, always Moved again. FYI. Sky was in the yard tossing feed. She had been avoiding her homework, the reading of The Taming of the Shrew, unaware of what a shrew was, and without a dictionary. She asked Brad and he said he didn’t know, but it didn’t sound like a good word, and if it needed to be tamed, then maybe it was wild. Eve approached her while the boyfriend waited at the truck, a different one, newer, the boyfriend and the truck, and he looked off like it was inconsiderate otherwise, acted as though he might actually understand deference.
“My god, are you pregnant?” Eve asked.
Sky shook her head. Her cheeks were as red as ripe tomatoes even though there was nothing to be embarrassed by, but the thought of it.
“Don’t fib, Sky. You’re as big as a house.”
“I’ve been on these drugs,” she said.
Eve took her to the doctor that very day. They thought Sky was lying. She was given various pregnancy tests before they changed her meds, Eve in disbelief that Sky was still a virgin. Concerned by her low test scores and lack of friends, the school nurse had referred Sky to a doctor who prescribed Tricyclic antidepressants, and she had gained weight steadily. The hormones had overdeveloped her breasts, and Sky slipped on her stepmother’s bra once after folding laundry, horrified that the cup fit. (My breasts, areolas the size of dimes, are small. My mother once caught me stuffing my bra with shoulder pads cut from sweaters. She laughed at me, of course, and told me I’d have enough problems with my pretty face, and that big boobs were a backache, not a blessing.) When Brad said they didn’t have money for Sky to buy new clothes, she added material to the waistbands of her pants, at first by stapling them and later advancing to a needle and thread. No one thought to explain that her dry mouth and exhaustion were side effects. Always sluggish around the house, at times the distance from here to there formidable, like a threat. Sky would have enjoyed a drawing on a piece of prescription paper, the doctor’s pen conveniently in his doctor’s white jacket pocket, explaining the drugs’ molecular structure, which contains three rings of atoms, something. Her weight went down after she was taken off of the meds, but her mother wasn’t there to see it.
“If you do anything right, don’t go and get pregnant young like me,” Eve said. They drove back to Brad’s in silence, Sky understanding that this shame, this embarrassment you experience with your mother as witness, was a natural occurrence in mother-daughter relationships.
That night at Brad’s they ate outdoors, Kentucky Fried Chicken on paper plates, drank Miller, the stepmother sitting in her own chair (too large to get into the sliver of space at the picnic table). The boyfriend was a talker, logger, longshoreman, told stories about his buddies on the docks that had everyone laughing, said his nickname was Pretty Freddie. Sky thought of him as the lizard man, his hand thick and scaly on her knee under the picnic table. And then stumbling later to find her in her bedroom, not one doll, all stuffed animals stacked in a pyramid at the head of her bed, two of each kind like Noah’s Ark. Duplicating the Abrahamic tradition was not Sky’s intent. She didn’t know about the Great Flood, of God’s judgment deeming one man, his family, and core couplings of animals fit for rescue. In her fantastical world, she wanted each animal simply to have a mate. Freddie expunged the toys with a sweep of his hand and sat on the bed. He smelled of the docks, of rotting wood and algae, leaning in to run his finger behind Sky’s ear. “The girl doesn’t need to be put to bed anymore,” Eve said from the doorway. She hooked her finger behind Freddie’s collar and pulled him out of the room.
When Sky was feeling an unfamiliar confidence, her body slimmer, her pale blonde hair past her shoulders, Eve showed up and asked her to stay the summer with her. Sky’s boyfriend, Thomas, who would propose to her next year on her seventeenth birthday at an age requiring parental permission, which her stepmother would begrudgingly give, begged her not to go, considered popping the question so as to keep her in town.
“We’ll only be fifty miles away from each other,” Sky said.
What Thomas wouldn’t say was this: I’m scared. Your mother’s a freak and who knows what might happen with that. And the most pressing issue—her breasts. They’re huge, he wanted to say. You’ll have every guy lookin’. Thomas, lacking any ready wit, kept his mouth shut, sent her off with a photo of himself in her back jeans pocket.
Sky’s visit with her mother lasted three weeks, long enough for her to be hired at George’s Fine Diner where George waltzed with Sky to entertain customers and himself (an old and lonely man in his sixties). And who else sits at Sky’s table on her last day but B-actor Bruce Campbell and Sky said, “You’re Bruce Campbell.” He said, “Yes, I am. You’re the only person in this town who’s recognized me. I’ve been here for weeks.” What Sky recalled of this visit was Eve’s book collection, shelves of romance novels and how-to books on canning fruits and vegetables. Sky thought her mother might explain the various men who visited at any hour of the day, but all she spoke of were the deer, how they were worse this past spring, how she hung Dial soap to keep them from the yew and holly plants. And, of course, in Sky’s memory, Bruce Campbell’s order: egg whites, orange juice no pulp, toast almost burnt, and his autograph, which Sky requested, written on a billing slip. (This is not hearsay. I’ve seen it framed, a spot of oil above the signature, his name clearly legible, not how I’d imagine a more famous actor’s autograph.) Though they didn’t fight, Sky returned to Eve’s home one night finding her bags packed and waiting by the front door. “You want me to go?” Sky was wearing her uniform from the restaurant, black polyester pants and a white polo with a past employee’s nametag: Jenny. “Can’t you tell when it’s time?” Eve asked.
Plastic sunflowers covered the wicker arch for the marriage ceremony and were the centerpiece at each table for the reception. Her dress not white, but gray. The priest was a Texan who had just moved to Arizona and unluckily for Sky and Thomas, it was the first wedding he officiated. He referred to God as a female, apologized, then said, “Well, who knows?” The stepmother laughed. Thomas surely debated this silently. The priest stumbled on her name, calling her Shy, once, then twice. “Shylyn Reyes, do you take . . .” Sky felt an urgent need to correct him. She took these vows seriously, was considered wise for her age, being seventeen, working two jobs, and being, as most people saw her, though a bit guileless, genuinely kind. “Sky,” she said, “like,” and pointed upward. The dumbfounded priest stared at the ceiling, white and uneven, blank as his expression.
“S-K-Y,” Brad shouted, all of his false teeth in place. He knew which occasions called for his dentures, and would wear them decades later at Sky’s funeral.
“Ah, Skylyn, Skylyn,” the Texan said, as he imagined beyond the roof.
Everyone took shots of Tequila from a bottle of El Tesoro and then the owner of the El Camino, Sky’s cousin, drove them around the town with a lime wedge in his mouth and a bottle between his legs. In the bed of the vehicle the bride and groom sat on rusty beach chairs, waving as the horn beeped, waving as people shouted Congratulations from their porches and yards.
The house the newlyweds rented was just ten miles from Sky’s father’s house. They couldn’t afford a honeymoon and Sky, at times a romantic, lit candles in the bedroom. She hid her stuffed animals under the bed, wore the slinky red thing her friend gave her as a bridal gift, and on the stereo, The Beach Boys. The band spawned images of tropical places, far off and ethereal. As newlyweds they made love often but did not conceive.
Sky had prepared two hundred lunches at the time of the accident. Cinder blocks fell at the job site, toppling down on Thomas’s left shoulder. Surgery was performed, and then came his appointments for rehabilitation. Thomas liked the look of the physical therapist, slight, thin as a rail, imagined her lithe body collapsing as easily as a folding chair to fit under his arm and go home with. He wore cologne to his therapy appointments and didn’t do his homework. When his therapy coverage ended, he was left with complications—could not abduct his arm more than eighty degrees. Illegally, and without Sky knowing, he purchased more pain meds. Never curious how it worked in there, the synthetic opiate attaching itself to specific proteins, opioid receptors located in the brain, spinal cord, and gastric tract. Thomas snorting his quick high, closing his eyes, and feeling the drug take effect. He did not try to imagine his spinal cord in complicated yet intentional paths, though he did picture the drug carried through his body like a postal carrier delivering mail in his truck, riding along his specific route. The dealer talked in slang, Hillbilly Heroin, Oxycotton, OC. The dealer, always laughing while exchanging money, always saying something about the next ride, the wave, flow, and his girlfriend in the car, filing her nails in the dark.
Sky was burdened with Thomas’s debt since he had charged his lifestyle on their joint accounts, cash advances for drugs, for dinners with the physical therapist who had offered her sympathy after seeing him struggle to get his jean jacket over his bad arm. A brand-new Jeep Cherokee sat in the driveway, enough to make Sky gasp at the sight, but not drop the eggs she was holding. Thomas left with the charge cards and, oddly enough, one of Sky’s stuffed animals, the brown bear, belted in the passenger seat, the engine on and the window rolled down. As he backed out of the driveway, something jumpstarted in Sky and she fought, pulled the door open, half on his lap, one leg hanging out, the Jeep swerving in the yard. Larger than he, Sky sat on top of Thomas, took him to his ex-boss’s house, dropped him there. She drove home, crying, then laughing, her husband having been under her ass, how at one point she thought him dead since he wasn’t squirming anymore. Once home, Sky sat in the driveway inside the Jeep she didn’t want, and, though not for long, felt a moment of calm. The calm after the storm, she thought, and did not question if this saying was correct just because it felt so right at that moment, him gone. What she didn’t know at the time was that I was there, the size of a pinhead.
Thomas cared nothing for me while I was growing up. Sky attempted to keep in touch with him, but no money trickled in for child support. No birthday cards, no father in the bleachers while slapping a base hit in softball, no father casting threats through eye contact with timorous boyfriends. And what they say about girls raised without fathers is true. I was obsessed with friends’ fathers, made certain to be noticed. Happened to be the one awake at sleepovers, allowing the faucet to run for too long, the water overflowing in my glass until the father comes to see who is restless. Happened to speak nothing like my peers, no giggling, no awkwardness. The only men who touched me were divorced and by thirteen I’d lost my virginity on a kitchen table to Matthew Lessing, the father of Daisy, our team’s pitcher. Only looking back could I say I was the type of person you wouldn’t want your daughter to be friends with.
My father married for the third time, his wife named Shelly and preoccupied with self-reminders. The bathroom, with its abalone shell soap dish, sand dollars lining countertops with the tenacity of stenciling. Shelly was so removed from Thomas’s past she’d prefer me not to be there. I sought him out, finding Thomas in Blackwater, a town south of Phoenix, with only a few hundred residents. Thomas told me that Shelly ironed every article of laundry, even his hankies, he said, taking one folded in quarters out of his pocket as evidence. He said Shelly is good at the domestic stuff, but when she’s at the work parties, any socializing and she freezes up. People call her Silent Shelly and then they don’t call her at all. Thomas gesticulated, like the thought of her social awkwardness did not upset him, yet his hand swayed this way and that, his fingers pointing off to the next wife.
Unannounced, I met Eve for the first time in northern California while my mother was still alive, behind her back. Never told her. I visited Eve’s workplace, where she was the receptionist for a family doctor, and lied, not revealing who I was, pretending to be vacationing on the coast for the week. There was nothing very truthful about the day since I devised a pain in my abdomen as the reason for the visit. “Where does it hurt?” she asked. I placed my hand below my naval as though this gesture might give me credibility. She was surprisingly good at small talk. Not at all moody and apathetic as I’d pictured her. I was in my mid-twenties then and sat in the waiting room with a magazine on my lap, my appointment penciled in for that same day, right after the doctor returned from his lunch break. Eve told me about some of the well-to-do patients who lived on Highway 1. “People are foolish,” she said, describing a man who burned himself by ironing his shirt while wearing it and a boy who stabbed himself in the chest in an attempt to open a CD wrapper with a knife. “Rich, stupid people,” she said. I smiled throughout the storytelling and thought I could sit there all day and listen to her. I believed, then, that I’d return every so often, the excuse – a work retreat, another vacation—lying was easy enough.
I explained my experiments, how I was working with a lab team in identifying how Salmonella survives inside macrophages. “They’re cells in the immune system that engulf invading bacteria and kill them,” I said. I would have assumed she’d nod politely while reading one of her romance books behind the desk, where I couldn’t see her hands, but she didn’t. She asked what Salmonella looked like under a microscope and I described them, their rod shapes. “Seemingly innocent,” I said, and as I talked about the various cells, I knew if I loved anything then, it was my work.
After Eve left her desk to use the bathroom, I pocketed a pen with the doctor’s name on it. My heart rate increased the same way I believed my mother’s must have as a child, when Eve would drop by, Sky anxious yet excited, my mother never really knowing what would happen—where they would go, what they would do, and, most disappointing, how long it would last. I fantasized about asking Eve to dinner, revealing who I was like I was some trophy, evidence of my mother’s success, her keenness in raising me wholly different than Eve, as though Sky’s childhood was her blueprint she turned upside down to shape me. But I wasn’t fooling myself. If I mentioned who I was, she’d turn on me, become the most uninviting woman I’d ever met, a bit like myself, I supposed, if another woman were judging me.
“Everything okay?” Eve asked.
I was standing at the desk with the magazine rolled up in my hand like I was about to swat a fly.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s odd. My stomach, it feels better. It just stopped hurting.” I went to clap my hands together to dramatize the disappearance of my non-existent ache, and dropped the magazine to the floor.
“Maybe you should still see the doctor. You’re sweating,” she said.
“Summer,” I said, and shrugged a shrug that gave the exact impression I’d wanted, as though this was the most normal of circumstances and a most casual gesture for the situation.
The only other time I came by was almost ten years later, after Sky’s death. My daughter was four and I introduced her properly, great granddaughter to great grandmother, no longer feeling any reason to lie about our relationship. I did not take small pleasure in watching Eve comprehend my place in this lineage, her granddaughter, as I thought I might. Eve shook the hand that my daughter offered. “Pretty, isn’t she?” I asked, and Eve nodded, looking at my daughter intently, maybe for physical evidence of herself. Eve didn’t inquire how Skylyn had passed away and I did not offer. She asked about the funeral and I told her it was last week and all I could do for her was to give her the location of the headstone. With my daughter at my side, there was no anxiety. I walked out as easily as I walked in and never saw her again.
2 thoughts on “A Biography of Mothers”
sandra stringer you are a writer whom i will never forget. your words are your own, always have been. i do appreciate them. thank you monkey.
Sandra, it’s beautiful. The way you describe everything…just hits me right in the heart. I want more. Please keep in touch.