My Mother's House
by Leslie Lindsay
“I want to see her house,” my sister says after our mother’s funeral. “Do you know how to get there?”
“Now?” I say.
My husband nods, says, “We should go.”
I know the fear should be gone, that the half-life of my mother’s toxicity has faded, but she’s still solid, lurking. Present.
The scenery is familiar, the land of my conception. And now, with my mother’s death, there is no need to go back. Ever.
Though it’s been months and months—years—since I’ve been to my mother’s duplex, I have an astonishing memory. I know exactly how to get there. We pass farmland and split-rail fences, the glowing orb of the sun.
My husband says, “I wonder if it still stands?”
“What do you mean?”
“A terrible thing happened there. Is it even habitable any longer?”
I pull back, stare from the window. I know what he’s getting at. Bodily fluids. Decay. Odor. My mother, who made homes beautiful as an interior designer, rendered hers uninhabitable. Her body found days—perhaps weeks—later, a cocktail of psychiatric drugs, some unknown substance in a vial, her shoes on the floor at the bottom of the bed. Flies and larvae blackened the gummy blinds, an incessant humming, life springing from death. Silver frames tarnished, a scatter of glimmering glass shards. Beauty, even in the deterioration.
I imagine a parched segment of land, crisp golden earth, the dwelling gone. Ashes to ashes. I see it roped off, cautioning others. A condemned sign.
The car inches along my mother’s street. The duplex comes into view. Squat. Grayed. Dusty. Mashed blinds in the front window. Chipped driveway. Who would know? What happened inside?
“There it is,” I say.
A shuddering breath goes through my sister. “I’ve seen enough.”
Hours ago, at my mother’s funeral, I trained my eyes on the metal box at the altar. Fragments of her damaged psyche were contained within. So too was the sparkle of her creativity, the glitter of her generosity, the shimmer of tenacity. The ripeness of her decay shifted within, almost intestinal.
As a child, our house quivered and crumbled. Where once a tiny fissure of unease lay, it expanded into a gaping fault line, large and jagged. I watched as it opened wide, swallowed the entire house in a single gulp, rejecting parts indigestible: shards of glass and thick mortar, brass door knockers, shiny kickplates.
As I sat under the blue tent, a sudden, urgent surge of emotion wracked my body. Deep and visceral, as if an entire energy force had slipped inside me, moved about, then exited. My mother? A great, heaving shudder swelled within me, and still, no tears fell.
In the distance, a panting pierced my ears. An animal, something else; the air’s slippery whisk. It was a man. A stranger. He wandered, lost. He peered from branches of an ancient, gnarled walnut tree. Do I know this man? He was thin, wiry. His face hardened by time, a rough life, though he was young, not much older than me.
“Dan.” It was nearly a question. I glanced to my husband, who nodded, eyes soft. I teetered across the pitted grass, careful to avoid graves. The sun was wound high in the sky, luminescent. Sweat beaded along Dan’s brow, dark circles bloomed under his arms, a halo of darkness flared on his back. His moist muscle and sinew burned through the cloth of his shirt as we embraced. Dan was hollowed out, carved from the effects of living with my mother, their relationship fraught with addiction, mental illness, poverty, and jail time. Each one of these they shared.
He lowered his head and wiped his eye with the back of his hand. I had been a specter to him in these years, the few he and my mother were married— the daughter she said she claimed, but who was never around because we were estranged. Yet he’s the one who appeared ghostly, shaken.
I hugged him again. “I’m so sorry.”
Dan bowed his head like a broken bird. “You don’t need to be. It was your mother’s decision.” Then, “I’m sorry, too. I am sorry it had to end this way.”
How does a mother leave her children? With wretched heartache, cleaving. A here and there. A stringy release of pocked with indiscretion, there is no order. None.
I think of my drowned childhood home, the summer of 1989, how it was all at once flooded with a blanket of water, a tumultuous overturning of furniture and memories, doors knocked off hinges, windows bulging with the weight. Yet in my mind it is untouched, preserved with furnishings, floating as if in a broken snow globe, a membrane of time. That was when my mother had her first psychotic break, spinning and swirling fragments of our carefully constructed life.
Now, more than thirty years later, at a different dwelling, I think: this man left my mother. He left this little duplex. I feel elated for him, that he got out before it got too bad. A swell of sunshine creeps above the roofline, a shingle flaps in the wind. There’s a black reflection of nothingness radiating from the storm door.
Will she come trudging down that chipped walk, her once-luminous smile now crooked, that upper molar grayed, and invite us inside? No. She won’t. I find this realization at once jarring, but also comforting.
Mothers. How natural, how necessary, beckoning children inside.
Yet our mother, creative and brilliant and once quite gorgeous, was ravaged by the unseen torment of mental illness. If only, somehow, I could rid her of the pain, help scrub away the grit of her tumult.
Once, my mother said she and Dan were “having a ball,” making that place their own. The marriage soon grew rocky. She complained that he was lazy and indifferent and that she couldn’t possibly do everything alone. Once, my mother said Dan shat on the kitchen floor. That he was drunk and angry. Is this the truth? A delusion? A prophecy?
I’d like to think Dan left that house neat as a pin. The hearth swept bare, dishes washed. I’d like to believe the windows were scrubbed clean, that he left it as empty as Satan’s heart: not a cobweb, not a crumb.
“This is nice stuff, Leslie.” My mother fingers the plum-colored fabric. “Raw silk.” Her words are loose and wobbly. “I paid good money for this.”
I thought about the apartment I’d be getting in August. In my mind I had planned every last detail; the landlord was outfitting the place with new appliances, carpet, fresh paint. I had already signed the lease and made periodic stops to check progress.
The fabric was not part of my color scheme. I had plans for cobalt blue and white, a spin on the Greek islands. “It’s beautiful,” I say to my mother. “But—I don’t have a use for it. It would go to waste. Sorry, Mom.”
She wads the fabric and tosses it into a box. “You’re so ungrateful.” She scrambles to another corner of the room. “This sewing machine,” she says, brightening. “It’s worth a lot. Why don’t you take it?”
“Mom—I don’t sew. I don’t have time.”
My mother appears dejected, bloated. She leads me to a floral couch and forces me to sit. Her arms wrap around my shoulders and press into me. My neck pinches.
“Mom,” I say, muffled. Is she trying to kill me? “Mom,” I try again. “I should get going.”
She pulls back, startled. “But you’ve only just got here. Don’t you like the new-improved mom I’ve become after my time in heaven?”
I know how my mother operates: she provides some nebulous statement, ensnaring me into her lair. I won’t indulge her.
“Tomorrow’s Monday. I have work. I have a class.”
My mother’s lips screw together. She’s likely considering something hurtful to say but settles on, “I understand.”
“Do you? Thank you, Mom,” I say. “I wish I could stay longer.” This is not true, but I know it will appease. I know she will loosen her grasp.
My mother softens. “I need to tell you something, now that you’re twenty-one.”
“I don’t know if I should.”
“Do you know what the biggest heartbreak of my life is?”
I’m not sure where my mother is going with this. No matter what I say, it won’t be enough. It will be wrong.
“No, Mom. What?”
I feel the ravenous thrumming of my heart as if it were wedged in my throat. This is a parasympathetic response: fight or flight. I don’t respond.
“You,” she repeats, “are the biggest hole in my life. You don’t love me.”
Could I argue otherwise? I don’t love the way my mother makes me feel. I don’t love what she has stripped me of: my childhood. But my mother is always my mother and doesn’t that warrant love?
“That’s not true,” I say.
“But you’re not saying you do.” My mother had a way of wrapping herself around the truth, of becoming ensnared with it. I am thrown back to that first hospitalization, in St. Louis, the summer of 1989, when I visited her in the padded room. All she wanted was for me to say I loved her. I could not muster those words then, and not now. Does that make me a terrible daughter?
“Spend the night, play hooky,” my mother says, as her face brightens. “A sleepover!”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “I told you.” I stand and run my hands down my shorts. “I need to get on the road. Three hours to Columbia,” I remind her. “It’s getting late.”
“You’re driving yourself?”
“Who’s in the car with you? Your dad?”
“I came alone. You know this.”
My mother squints. “You know the way?” Her questioning is paranoid and suspicious: a test. “Which roads do you take?”
“The whole way?”
“There are a few turns.”
“Like what?” She lifts her chin.
“73, 54,” I say with a sigh. “Mom, I know the way.” I place my hand on the doorknob; my mother blocks it with her body. I reach for it again, gently pushing her aside.
“You’re pushing me,” my mother squawks. “You little bitch, you’re pushing me.” Her brow furrows, her mouth comes alive.
A scrim of sweat beads along my hairline. I have to swallow the darkness my mother is pouring from her lips. I remain frozen, stunned at the doorway.
“Do you remember the hamster?” she asks.
I can’t forget.
When my mother came home from the psychiatric hospital following her first episode and I was ten, my hamsters had a whole clot of babies. Tiny, writhing, pink bodies. They grew downy fur and drank sweet milk from their mother, growing larger. I was eager to show them to my mother, to participate in something together. I took my mother by the hand, led her up the stairs to my bedroom and opened the cage where the hamsters lived. I scooped a baby into my palm. “Careful,” I said, lowering the creature into my mother’s hands. “They’re quick.” My mother turned her palms into a bowl, ready to cradle the hamster. But her hands trembled, she fumbled. The hamster fell from her palms, a tiny plink, a dull thud on the corner of my bookshelf. The hamster was paralyzed, dragging his back legs behind him in a trail of waste. How short-sighted of me, allowing my mother to embrace a juvenile. And if a tiny creature’s life can be truncated by her ineptitude, what might she do to me?
I think about what is gone and what remains: I have to go.
In the driveway, I fumble with my keys. My hands tremble. I sense my mother’s weighty presence, a dynamic energy, ready to pounce. My mother swats at the keys, knocking them from my hand, an explosion of rapturous laughter.
I bend, retrieve the keys, and lift the door handle. I must get out of there. My mother wrangles my arm, pulls it behind me. My Greek mythology class comes into focus. The Myth of Icarus. My mother is Icarus and I am the sun. She soars around me, orbiting closer; the physics of the scenario awkward, anemic and wildly out of balance. My mother plays dangerously; she gets too close to the flame. But I am stronger. I break free.
I let the car envelop me. I lock the doors and crank the ignition. My mother squints, scrutinizes my car, the license plate.
I back out of the driveway. Like the sun on the horizon, the scene melts. Greek mythology had been a freshman class, but I remember; as Icarus, Lynne will die.
I’m shuddering, lost in thought, driving. Somewhere on Highway 73, a state highway patrol car trails me. I check the odometer: not speeding. The lights of the cruiser are not on. I do not stop. I adjust the radio. No siren. Weather-worn barns blur past, blackened trees silhouette against the darkening sky. The patrol car is relentless. I grip the wheel. The cruiser follows through winding roads, up hills, along Macks Creek, Cherry Grove, Buffalo.
And then, gone, slipping into the atmosphere.
After my mother’s funeral, I see a woman. Not quite a therapist, not quite a medium. She is Greek and smells of onion and something sweet and sticky. She calls herself a spiritual journey coach, an intuitive healer, and comes recommended by someone who does Reiki—energy work. She says I am carrying a substantial amount of emotional weight in my gut.
Then the spiritual journey coach asks, “Who died before your mother?”
I tell her, “My great-grandmother, Edith.”
She nods and gazes into the distance, as if conjuring something.
I remain still, inert.
“Your mother…” she begins. Her eyes are unfocused, glassy. “Is with Edith. They are together. Your mother… she is seeing things upside-down. She is seeing things anew.”
“But is she okay?” I want to know.
“Why wouldn’t she be?”
My mother’s ashes are nestled next to my great-grandmother’s body—she was buried whole—bones and all. But not my mother. She is dust returning to the earth because maybe, if she is as infinitesimal as possible, she might not be as potent, she might not burrow into the next generation. And the one after that. Or the next one. But she will remain forever in the earth.
I am afraid to sleep. I do not sleep. The events following my mother’s funeral roil tumultuously around my mind. I recount every word said in those sunny hours—every gesture, every glance, every touch. The feeling of the spiritual coach’s gentle hand on my chin, her telling me to write about my mother, to dream about my mother; she said, “Don’t do it for her. Do it for you.”
I wake in a fit of perspiration following a dream.
My mother and I are biking on a dampened black top. Night is upon us; the sky holds a blanket of mist. I feel dread, like a silent responsibility to assist my mother to safety. Despite the slipperiness of the trail, our tires are surprisingly secure. And I wonder, what is this metaphor?
My mother asks, “Where are we going?” Her voice is childlike, eager.
“To the lodge,” I puff. “Up ahead.”
She tells me there is no lodge, there’s nothing.
“Keep looking,” I say. We pedal harder, faster, cresting hills and coasting down, the wind in our hair, the mist coating our teeth.
We arrive at winding wood plank trails and a large, timber-framed structure. The scent of cedar and rain hang in the air. I look to the right, below us, and all I see is a reflective pool of water shimmering in the starlight.
I feel an overbearing need to shed something—a heaviness—I’ve been carrying. I park my bike and enter the restrooms at the edge of the lodge. I tell my mother to wait, that I’ll be back. She nods, obediently, and I feel like this is too easy.
In the bathrooms, it’s grimy and putrid. I swallow, try not to breathe. I think I see the glimmering reflection of a glassy eye; a rodent, perhaps. There’s an unbearable need to flee, but doing so will lead me back to my mother, to the source of the heft I am trying to rid from myself. I must do something. The weight of carrying my mother is exhausting. Her allusivity is oppressive, foul; I cannot bear it any longer. I break through the door. “We need to go,” I say.
Mom bounces on her toes; a smile splits her face. “What are we going to do tomorrow?”
My eyes sweep back to the bathroom. I think of what bathrooms signify: cleansing, elimination, shredding of waste. “Mom,” I say. “Tomorrow, we go back.”
My mother refuses to leave. She lurks like the fleeting dream of autumn, of death and decay and yet, boundless beauty. She lies close to me, all pinks and golds and auburns, like the tender ache of a new soul. I feel her flesh near mine, her puffs of breath on my cheeks. I say, “Go away,” and brush my shoulder, shaking off her essence. I tip my head and continue reading, flipping pages, feeling her heat, her piercing gaze in my warm, solid home, an oasis of shelter.
I go back to the intuitive healer. She says, “You want to be free; you have so much to offer, but something—someone—is tethering you. Like an umbilical cord.”
Her brows shoot up. “You know? You feel this, too?”
I tell her my mother is like a nest of newborn rats. Pink, blind. That she is writhing—seeking comfort and warmth in the afterlife—how can she possibly be okay?
The woman tips her head, “Is she the rat? Your mother? Are you sure?”
“Think of what a rat represents,” she says.
Filth. Disease. Feces. Viciousness.
She intuits my thoughts, shakes her head. “Clever. Intelligent. Trainable. Ambitious. Resourceful. Creative.” She pauses, then adds, “You.”
Again, in my mind’s eye, I see the hairless newborn rats. Miniscule snout-like features, translucent lids, bulging dark spots where organs lie, the heaving of delicate rib cages, the pulse of blood-filled chambers. I see tiny rubescent placentas, like thimbles, pink umbilical cords no thicker than thread.
“What does a mother rat do?” the woman asks.
She makes a nest. She prepares. She lies down.
“She cares for them.”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”
“She snips their umbilical cords. She sets them free.”
Leslie Lindsay is the award-winning author of Speaking of Apraxia (Woodbine House, 2012). Her work has been published in The Awakenings Review, Pithead Chapel, Common Ground Review, the Ruminate blog, Cleaver Magazine (both craft and CNF), The Nervous Breakdown, Manifest-Station, Brave Voices Literary Magazine, forthcoming cover art in Up the Staircase Quarterly, other photography in Another Chicago Journal and poetry in Coffin Bell Journal. Leslie reviews books widely and interviews authors weekly, www.leslielindsay.com. She is a former child/adolescent psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic and has taken writing workshops and classes at Northwestern University and University of Wisconsin-Madison. Leslie resides with her family outside Chicago.