A Silver Thorn
She was making a list. It wasn't a list that was any different from any other type of shopping list that mothers make—eggs, milk, cereal, vodka. Vodka was scratched off shortly thereafter. Sylvia—my mother—was sitting at the table in the sun room just off the kitchen. She was wearing a creamy summer's dress with intricate blue stitching covered on top by a bulky woolen sweatshirt from the early 60's. She was horribly mismatched, but that was my mother. A large-brimmed sunhat was perched over a thick auburn braid, even though she was indoors. Under the sunhat lived a set of large-rimmed sunglasses that she'd likely forgotten already.
All of the windows were cranked open to allow the fresh spring air to flow freely into the room. The door, too, was opened with a screen pitch to keep the bugs out. A large hand-thrown mug of tea was sitting on front of her, filled with an aromatic home-made brew of mint tea and whatever other herbs she collected from the garden and threw into the tea ball. Her list book was cracked open and she was writing in her customary blue ink on the back of another list. Among other things, Sylvia was a compulsive list maker. One of the few lingering reminders of her presence in our house, even years later, were the industrial storage cabinets in the basement that were filled in no particular order with her list books.
Currently she was staring into her tea, holding her pen in the wrong hand. The steam from the tea made her eyes water, but she didn't blink away the tears. The sun had to have been blinding her as well, but she seemed oblivious to external stimuli. A warm breeze blew into the kitchen from all sides, passing through all other sides as it fought to get in or out in the bustle of the room. The scents of that room in the morning drew heavily upon Sylvia, and she took great joy in sitting there, eating juicy cantaloupe with her herbal tea and her list book.
Every now and again, she would scribble something in messy handwriting as she did not move the pen from her left to her right hand when she wrote.
I noticed all of this because I am a terrific voyeur. I was standing in the kitchen, fiddling with the knobs on the stovetop to light the kettle. I would offer my mother more hot water for her morning brew of tea in only a few minutes, but presently I could not enter the room and distract her. The morning wasn't much different from any other morning, but there was a hint of delusion in the air.
The kettle began to whistle, interrupting her thoughts. Panicking, I clicked the knob back. I didn't want her to know I was here so soon. I wanted to watch the sun turn her hair into honey, and turn her green eyes into a reflection of our lawn, peppered with multicolored flecks of flowers. I wanted the dirt-patch freckles to glow in the morning light. I wanted a lot of things, but I didn't want her to greet me.
But she did. Scooting her au-natural chair against the wooden floor she abandoned her list book and tea. There was no where for me to hide, and so I stood next to the stovetop, waiting for her to come into the room. The magic garden of her face was gone, leaving only my mother again. I offered a smile.
Bending down, my mother pulled me into a deep embrace and kissed my own shaggy blonde hair. She beamed, stroking the back of my head and not saying anything for some time. "Good morning, my beautiful boy," she cooed softly. I was uncomfortable, but not unused to this behavior. I always woke up earlier than either of my sisters, and was treated specially because of it. In the mornings, there was no stress. In the morning, there was just my mother, myself, and my mother's neurosis.
Standing to full height, she took the kettle from the stovetop. "Would you like a mug of tea?" She asked me, already pulling out my special mug from the cabinet. My mother had an affinity for throwing her own pottery, and made the majority of bowls, plates, mugs and platters in the house. We had matching mugs, Sylvia and I, because we were morning people and my sisters were not. Mine was smaller than hers, but it still made me feel important nonetheless.
Sylvia left the glory of the sunroom for only a moment to pick me fresh herbs from the window box. She picked my favorite combination meticulously—spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint and three leaves of lemon balm. My younger sister Gracie found it a repulsive mixture, and my older sister Margaret—known to the family as Maggie—refused to try it. Even Sylvia found it to be a distasteful mixture, but didn't hesitate to make it for me.
It has often been said that Sylvia did not love us. This is a gross misstatement. Sylvia loved us all very dearly—there was nothing more important to her in her twelve years of rearing us than her children. Not a thing in the world. We were her sphere, and she wasn't the least bit displeased about it. But Sylvia was not always a good mother. There are countless examples of this. The neighbors ridiculed her. They said she wasn't raising us properly. They said she was a kook. But we didn't hear this, not straight away. It was mostly hidden from us, even in our school days. There were times when we suspected it ourselves, but we didn't exactly talk about it either. Knowing your mother was a loony was hard enough for any child to bear, but talking about it—well, it just didn't happen.
It wasn't long before Gracie rolled out of bed, pajamas rumpled. Mr. Foxtrotters, her teddy bear, was being dragged down the stairs with her by the hand. Both members were invited to tea with us. Only Mr. Foxtrotters complied, and Gracie instead picked up a huking arc of dripping fruit and a piece of banana bread, swinging her small legs back and fourth as she hummed quietly to her food. Her starkly blonde hair was all over the place, but it didn't bother any of us. Every now and again a sticky finger would push the hair out of her face, but that was the extent of it all.
Maggie was the last to come down, and this morning she was grumpy. She too took a piece of banana bread, her hunk much larger than Gracie's, and a glass of chocolate milk. She sat at the table with us, moodily staring out the window. My mother returned to her list book. Her pen was in the right hand now and she was scribbling a few more notes down. Time elapsed, and the food stopped coming. My mother ushered us upstairs to get dressed. It was time to go to the store.
It only made sense that she should have been making a list to go to the store. We were obedient and friendly toward our mother when she made the suggestion to go, but inside we were grumbling. Going to the store with Sylvia was always an arduous task. We could only buy the worst of foods—bran muffins and organic butter. On every trip we'd examine foods that we longed to buy, just once. We mewled requests at her, but she rarely gave in. I can count the times on one hand that she ever really bought us our Lucky Charms, our Coca Colas, our favorite candies. Every time she shot us down, instead offering us bran muffins and fresh fruit. It was a drag, but there was little we could do about it.
Within the hour we were all piled into the mud-brown Buick station wagon, with its protuberant faux-wood band down the side and the storage rack on top. Maggie got to sit in front with Sylvia, and I was jealous. But, being twelve, Maggie was finally old enough to get the privilege of the front seat, and who was I, little Malcolm, seven years old, to deny her?
Our trips to the store all began in relatively similar ways. We set out in a tight-knit school, huddled together for safety from stray shopping carts and big food trays that occasionally came shooting down the aisles. I was patrolling my mother's left flank, Maggie her right. Gracie was perched upon my mother's hip on my side with Mr. Foxtrotters still clinched to her chest. My mother picked up the usual- the bran muffins, the bananas, the jícama, red peppers, carrots. But then she did something peculiar—she put Gracie down and sent us all off with only the instruction, "get anything you want."
For a few moments, we all stared at Sylvia in suspicion. Was this some sort of cruel trick that she was intending to play on us? I hoped not. But I couldn't be sure. I didn't trust this new change of heart—and, in hindsight, for good reason. We all stared at each other for a few more moments before my mother ushered us off.
It only took a few moments for us start carrying armfuls of food back to the cart. It was full in no time—boxes of waffles, jars of peanut butter, cola, sugared cereals, ice cream. Anything that was taboo in our house was chucked into the cart. Sylvia's inner health nut had to be dying, but we were oblivious. We were too busy gathering our own treasures to notice any of her pains or sorrows—twelve years, with the oldest child, of pristine nutrition were all going down the drain. There was something else that hurt Sylvia, though, something I wouldn't figure out until only a few years ago. The real hurt that she felt was not the motherly anxiety of having children with clogged arteries and plus-size pants, it was that we were just so damn happy to be liberated from what we were accustomed to. The pure, unbridled happiness was what killed her. She hated the fact that we didn't love the lifestyle she subjected us to unquestioningly, that we longed for something so different from her. I think that was part of the reason she left. Sylvia hated to be a burden—now, of course, this is not a decision made in a sound mental condition—and she didn't want to burden us with her lifestyle any longer.
The grocery bill was astronomical. I watched my mother painstakingly count out tens and twenties and hand them to the grocer, who gave her the queerest look I've seen in my life. She must have thought we were reincarnating the fad of stockpiling fallout shelters. Hell, she even looked old enough to remember stocking a fallout shelter. There weren't many of them around any more, not in the 70's.
My mother and siblings and I could not bring all the groceries to the car by ourselves. Our bag boy had to make a run with us, and even he seemed to break a sweat in the strain. There was a lot of food there—I mean, a lot. Most of it was imperishable, some of it microwave-friendly. There were a lot of frozen TV dinners and things that didn't involve a lot of cooking—the most advanced culinary mind in the house, after my mother, was a twelve year old. Sylvia may not have been of sound mental health, but she certainly knew her children.
It took hours to load the groceries. We had a grand time, playing Jenga with the boxes and organizing and reorganizing. More imperishable food went into the garage. Dairy got precedence in the fridge, followed by vegetables and some fruits. The freezer had to be shut quickly in order to avoid an avalanche of frozen treats from bombarding us. But we managed to find a home for everything, with much frustration on everyone's part.
And then came the fun.