A Short Story about Motherhood by Margaret Welsh.
I’m in a dimly lit room with a much younger nurse calling me “dear”. She positions me at a slight angle over the two sheets of glass and raises my arm—I hope my pits don’t stink—and then takes my right breast to rest on the bottom pane of cold glass. Starting at the base of my pectoralis muscle she smoothes the slack flesh of my teat down and down and down like someone preparing a homemade pizza crust. The fact that this nurse is portly provides me cheap status over her in my mind. My tits may be slackened and used-up. I may be closer to my grave, but at least I’m not fat! While she squishes my mam and takes the picture, my once-pert tit bleeds even further across the glass and I am anxious to leave. I feel sorry for myself; and, am worried now that I have cancer, because someone looked.
I decide that it’s important not to buy pre-made Valentine’s Day cards for my children to hand out at school. Whatever happened to doilies and construction paper hearts and glue? Back in my car with ambient NPR, an image of my mother shimmers forth. She is calm and sewing something extraordinary. I narrow my eyes in the rearview mirror at the car close behind me and growl, “I’ll set the pace buddy.” I set my mind to craft making. I head to Target. They have that stuff there—right?
Last year, I volunteered to submit a craft idea for my daughter’s first grade class. The winning craft gets made by the students then sold at a school fundraiser to represent each class. This school is a non-competitive; supportive; progressive friendly; communitarian; diverse; child-centered; parent-supported; developmental village environment.
I’m not very good at making things, but why the hell couldn’t I throw my vision of beauty into the ring? No one will ever choose it – this is a very DIY crowd. But to my surprise my idea won. The old competitor was back in the saddle!
I was tasked with collecting materials on a budget and organizing twenty-eight children and parent volunteers into an assembly line to manifest my vision. The idea wasn’t a bad one but it was very difficult to execute. I wandered Griffith Park looking for sticks; queried bored sale people at Home Depot about small hooks; and, tried to not hit my fingers when hammering at tiny nails. An Ellen-Jamsien was very hard on me at the art supply store when I came in looking for ModgePodge. She was an Elmer’s glue puritan. The things that go on…
The night before we were to assemble this craft, I cut my finger with scissors working with purple felt. It is 9:00 p.m. and there is a lot of blood, so I call my friend who I know is addicted to prescription drugs. He brings me a Vicodine, which I take and then burrow into bed. I’m wondering what the big f***ing deal about Vicodine is when after twenty-minutes the little drug fairy appears. She beats her wings around my wound. She clutches pain against her green breast and flits away with a wink.
The school charged little for my project that year and gave them an obscure placement at the craft fair. Well- meaning friends told me in high voices what a nice job I did! That was last year. This year a formidable parent – a professional painter – commands us to make clocks from clay and we do. They were fabulous. But I can cut a heart shape and glue it to a doily without hurting myself. I can even shower it with glitter when I’m done and call it a Valentine. I didn’t give up a twenty-five year career in acting for nothing. So with this I toss the doily packs onto the messy kitchen table to begin. Two skid across the table and onto the floor.
The night before this chore, my husband and I are in downtown Los Angeles. I surprise him with a hotel room for his birthday and the dirt-smudged children bid us a disinterested goodnight then are slowly rotated through the lobby door by relatives. Michael and I are immediately transported to Saigon or Vienna! It has been so long that we have been alone and on the loose in the world that we immediately start to panic for the ticking clock. Out on the street after a quick view of the room we are walking around downtown Los Angeles. This is like scratching a phantom limb if you are from New York, but we take it.
We enter an art gallery with nice people inside. The ceiling is full of giant holes with tangles of wires and rebar visible. Only about an eighth of the gallery is in use and it is lit by lights clamped on apple boxes. The rest is dingy darkness. Giant papier mâche skeletons to celebrate El Dia De Los Muertos are everywhere, even though it is February. There’s not much to say about the work except “Wow! These are so big! ”
I put my name on the mailing list anyway, as per my new vitality. I feel an excited longing spread through my chest for something I can’t place. We walk around for a few lighted blocks and marvel at the small shops and restaurants. Our conversation turns earnest about how LA’s Downtown scene is finally happening. We cannot go left one block because things get quickly scary: no street-lights and a bustling underworld of destitute homeless people. I comment that Downtown LA has the edge that Manhattan lost long ago…Michael agrees, and then we are quiet for a while. We come to a happening spot and charge in. We sit at the bar and order food and drinks and make out in public. We continue to comment on the smallest of moments to stretch time.
Back at the house the next morning things are chaotic. I’m standing over the cluttered table thinking about picking up the doily packs that have just slid onto the floor. My industrious brother-in-law is fixing lights, installing door-knobs and whittling chairs out of palm fronds in the yard for all I can tell. He feels sorry for Michael and me because we are so stupid, and comes biannually to fix easily fixable things around our house. There is a bustling energy in the house—the kitchen door to the backyard is open and it’s a gorgeous bright day but I feeling a creeping melancholy. To shake it off I summon the children and when they don’t appear on the third shout I see my energy gauge drop into the red. I’m in trouble. I go get my espresso pot, my genie bottle. I twist at her waste and fill her basket with coffee, the magic, black sand. The flame pops up on the stove and I turn away and I wait. It will give me energy but compromise the patients. I feel sad as I stare into the pretty bright day and the lush green grass of February. The light is all wrong. If I were back east that light would denote spring, not winter. This western light has always made me feel homesick.
One of the kids comes passing through the kitchen and I stop it—it’s the girl. I tell her she has to hop up into her chair and start making Valentines. Her shoulders slope forward like a cartoon and her ruby lips protrude. She has other plans. I want to hand out a mild scold but hold back. She takes her seat, in spite of the lips. Then the boy comes bolting in and hops onto his chair like a squirrel. He says he is excited to draw pictures of wars on the Valentines. Not what I had planned, but I’ve given myself few choices for some reason. I tear open one of the doily packs and start peeling them apart. I explain to my kids that they will glue paper hearts to these like I did when I was a little girl. I wait for a response—she’s bored, he’s drawing. I press on. I will cut out the hearts. They will put glue on the doilies then sprinkle glitter on the glue. I tell them that it will be fun and pretty and that everyone will be really happy to get one. My girl doesn’t budge. She glares. She is stubborn. I pour the glue into a dish and present paint brushes. I’d seen that somewhere. I say it’ll make it all easier. Her arms remain folded. She states that she doesn’t care if other people give her cards. She won’t make any and doesn’t care about Valentine’s Day. This pisses me off because she has figured out (too soon) how dumb this “holiday” is, but I dig in and threaten that she won’t go to tea with her grandmother if she doesn’t change her sour attitude and get gluing.
I can see now the twenty-eight homemade cards she will certainly get, all written on and signed by her classmates. I seethe to myself how much I’m doing this for her anyway. Trying to make the path to friendship just a little easier – she’s not the most popular girl after all – thoughts that get snarled immediately because they’re harsh and not at all true and I don’t want her to be the most popular girl and ugh…how I hate myself and admire her secretly!
I fold the red paper thrice and trace out my half-heart on its folded edge. I’m encouraged when the little multiple hearts unfold like an accordion and the thought flashes that I should try my hand at a novel. My girl begins to resentfully comply. My son is still working on one doily – coloring little stick people having a war.
It doesn’t look nice or festive and I lean in. “You need to glue a red heart on that.” I hope my pleasant tone here can reset the descent into ugly family time. He refuses, so I coax with glitter. He responds gleefully! The coffee is ready and I step away to prepare a cup and try to get over myself. At some point I get an areal view of an emerald mountain range on the floor and the empty green glitter canister’s top which has rolled near the pantry. My husband enters and hits the floor with a hand sweeper and dustpan, sniping that although glitter is pretty, it’s a bad idea. His mother is suddenly there and agrees with him. Disapproving of me? My son is still wetting the same now torn doily with more glue and my daughter is dreamily watching pink glitter slip from her fingertips onto the floor on the other side of the table. We have fifty-six doilies to go.