Wish You Were Here
By Cassandre DiBonaventura
On the outside, you never would have guessed that misery marinated within her. It wasn’t that she didn’t look her age. She certainly did. It wasn’t that she had skin as smooth as beach sands. On the contrary, profound wrinkles of a hard history pleated her face. But she didn’t focus on that. It just wasn’t her style. In the midst of those deep ridges, shining green eyes and a bright, yet somehow goofy smile, stole the show.
She poured her red hair from a box of Clairol or whatever brand might be on sale. Her curls came from that same aisle in the grocery store. She didn’t care if the home perm had too much frizz or was flat in the back because she was still fabulous and would tell you so.
Her clothes were throw-aways but earned rave reviews. She didn’t shop at second hand stores for the prices, but because they catered to her tastes. Second hand, but to her: Brand new. She’d add a set of plastic dangle earrings and a clunky brass broach that might be the shape of love. Back then she was the only straight women to sport Birkenstocks. And why wouldn’t she? They were the perfect accessory for her flowing tie-died skirts.
People flocked to her. People believed in her. Mostly women. Because even if she didn’t have the most progressive advice, they liked the way she said it. Mothers, daughters, newly-weds. In her world, whoever spoke the loudest had the best advice. That made her Confucius.
She made the rules in her game and everyone thanked her for letting them play. They didn’t know she let everyone play. There were no outsiders. The rich and snobby considered her a hoot. White trash deemed her a queen. To her, people were people and that’s how she made the world feel.
She was the first eccentric woman I ever met.
She was my mother.
When I was a child, I cringed when she erected a faded pink toilet in the front yard and planted her favorite flowers within the bowl. When the school bus dropped me off, I prayed, “Please, don’t let them see the toilet.” But they always did. Their thinking that it was the funniest thing ever didn’t damper my humiliation. When she took me to school and did laps in the dirt parking lot before getting out of the truck to do a little dance in her robe and those god-awful shoes (yes, the Birkenstocks), I died. Like a cat, I lived many lives that year.
My friends thought she was just “too cool.” Mine was the first mother to wear toe rings, pierce our ears at home and get tattooed. Their mothers would never do anything so fun. Oh, those poor, poor deprived children. In the grocery store aisle, only my mother liked to loudly ask what kind of feminine products I preferred. Only my mother told my embarrassing childhood stories to my friends. Only my mother insisted on giving birth to her children at home...and sometimes with an audience.
Only my mother. Back then, I screamed this thought with absolute mortification. I say it still, but now you’ll sense appreciation in my tone. Only my mother...
I understand now what made her who she was. It wasn’t that my mother was proud to be poor, but that she made the best of things. She laughed loud and often with her friends because that was the side they needed to see. She didn’t share her problems because she realized they had problems of their own. She was their escape.
But that was then...
Somehow, through time, the woman I once knew has been replaced by another. On the outside, not much has changed. She’s still got more piercings in her ears than most people have holes in their bodies. As each of us seven kids have moved out, we left a little extra spending money in her pocket. So, she’s upgraded her dress a bit. She deserted the home perms in the eighties where they belong and darkened her red hair to a rich burgundy. And now, oh, yes, now...she has “tails.” Long waves hang down her back that resemble the mullet of the 90s. And, yes, she’ll still tell you she’s fabulous. But that’s the cover of the book. Within, where it matters, the pages have changed.
She doesn’t laugh as much anymore. Those deep lines embedded in her cheeks, the ones that once accented her bright eyes, are now a map of anger. Notched with loathing, her voice calls to criticize, to accuse. The flock that once followed has now eased cautiously away to avoid the front line and her fire. She is alone.
Suddenly, she sees the world as it is and has kept score against anyone who’s ever done her wrong. Beyond that, she keeps a tally against herself. Because she was never the perfect parent, she must now spend an eternity repenting and paying for her sins. It’s a fight for her, a battle between her pride and a world she thinks pines to see her tears. In just a few years, her cup drained from half full to half empty.
For those of us in her troops, we long for the mother of yesterday. Yes, she was hard, but I never doubted her intentions. What went wrong could never be my focus. In the nature of how she raised me, it just isn’t my style. If anything, I’d like to send her a postcard: Wish you were here.
If she knew the appreciation we have now that we could never show then, she might come back. I wonder what she would have thought of the woman I’ve become. I wonder if she’d appreciate my own collection of flowing ankle-length skirts. I wonder if we both talked loudest, who would win. And if in the grocery store she loudly asked what type of feminine products I prefer, now I’d actually smile when I’d say, “Only my mother...”