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Call Your Mother

Mom and me at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

[Note: This essay has been published before, but in honor of my mother who passed away 15 years ago today, I’m revisiting it with a few minor edits. I’ve often described my mother not unlike M&M candy: hard and crusty on the outside, soft and sweet on the inside.]

I pulled a bag of blueberries from the freezer to make some muffins. Due to favorable growing conditions and some savvy harvesting, from time to time I can relive a bit of the past season, until next summer’s crop. The cooler air and barren trees are bitter reminders that people, too, come and go like seasons in our lives. My mother and I planted a relationship seed of our own one spring that did not survive another season. As crazy as she made me, I’d give all the blueberry crops in the world, to share a muffin with my mother. ***
The spring before she died, my Mother and I spent three glorious days as travel companions to beautiful Sedona, and the awe-inspiring Grand Canyon National Park. And it took eighteen months of self-directed primal scream therapy to reconcile my sanity from a trip which included sleep deprivation, several apologies, a foreign relations nightmare and one gigantic (I mean really, really big) blueberry muffin.

To say Mother traveled as well as a constipated three-year-old is an insult to toddlers everywhere.

“How long do we stand here watching that thing go around and around until our bags show up? I’m tired,” she said, keeping the conversation lively. “Where’s the bathroom? Look at the car rental line. We only have three days.”

Two seconds after tossing the bags in the trunk, she proposed a plan to split the trip’s expenses. “Food, travel, the hotels – everything,” she said.

We’d charge all expenses to my credit card. Later, my Dad would reimburse my full credit card bill, and I was to give Mother back half, in cash. They don’t teach enough of these creative money strategies in school. Still, my parents stayed married for fifty years.

From Phoenix airport and for the two hour drive up the mountains to Sedona, the car window remained down while Mother chain-smoked and criticized the shape of the clouds.

The unseasonable chill prickled my skin, a nice respite from my mother’s sermon on hot flash cycles and drooping vaginas.

She promised the plague of menopause would one day turn me into someone she would admit to not knowing.

Midway on the drive I pulled into a Verde Valley rest stop. In twenty-four hours no more than a one-ounce bag of airline peanuts had passed my lips. Whereas my mother survived on black coffee and Snickers bars, I required food with a shorter shelf life. When my tuna on toast arrived, she cut it in half. The splitting began.

That night in the motel room she lit a cigarette and opened the balcony slider which overlooked the picturesque Sedona highway traffic. She insisted fresh air at high altitudes improved her breathing and the coolness tempered her flashes.

I piled blankets, extra bed sheets and four bathroom towels over my shivering body. She pulled off half.

Somewhere in my dreams came a whisper: “It’s hot in here. I’m turning on the fan.”

At one a.m. I woke to the sound of chattering teeth. Mine. Mother hovered over me still whispering: “The whirling noise from the overhead fan is keeping me awake.”

At three a.m. the fire alarm went off.

Mother hurried to crack open the door. Her eyes darted in a REM sleep pattern I envied. In her most diplomatic Boston tone she said, to no one in particular: “What the hell are you people doing? Practicing a God damn Chinese fire drill?”

I nudged her away as twenty buses full of Oriental tourists descended on the motel. Men and women scurried up and down hallways in short quick steps. They dragged over-sized luggage and slammed doors with the choreographed precision of Rockettes. Several nodded politely as they passed by, shouting in a language we did not understand. But I’m sure they wondered if this American mother and daughter had weighed the pros and cons of traveling to Arizona together.

In the morning, before the drive to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, we stopped at the Coffee Pot for breakfast. I looked forward to eating a hearty meal in preparation for the day hike planned for myself. The waitress set a plate of pancakes, bacon and eggs in front of me and an empty plate and coffee for my Mother.

As Mother reached for one of my pancakes, I pricked her hand with the fork. She didn’t flinch.

“I had six children with no anesthesia.”

“Listen, lady,” I said. “You’re going to make out financially in this deal. Get some food.” She helped herself to a pancake and shoved half the bacon in her purse, for later.

The waitress handed Mother the bill, who handed it to me.

For years the family heard Mother’s slim bucket list included a hot air balloon ride. Here was the chance to cross it off. All went well until the pilot fired up the burner. Just say, it would have been easier to rip a leg off a raw chicken than it was to get one of hers in the basket. I apologized to the captain who refunded my money despite the posted ‘No Refund’ policy. He offered a few extra bucks if I could stop her from frightening the other riders in line.

“Don’t do it,” she said to the people. “They can’t even steer the thing. You’re gonna fall from the sky and die. Is that what you want?” She glared in my direction and threw both hands in the air, a well-known Italian hand gesture, basically telling me where I could go.

Except for the frequent click of a cigarette lighter, for the next two hours we drove to the Grand Canyon in silence. At one point when I cleared my throat, she barked back. “We’re not talking right now.”

We sat side by side on a bench at the Visitor’s Center and admired the spectacular wonder before our eyes.
“It looks fake,” she said after two minutes of reflective silence. “How long are we going to stay?”

Despite security barricades, I seriously contemplated sneaking underneath to hurl myself over the edge. Instead I handed her a bag filled with cold drinks, a sandwich she could split with a park ranger or transport donkey for all I cared, a pack of cigarettes, three candy bars and a trashy romance novel. She’d be good for a month.

Approaching the path to the Bright Angel Trail, I turned back and caught her smiling, watching me. She pivoted away, lit a cigarette and buried her head in fictional affairs of the heart. When I returned hours later she was in the gift shop making conversation with the clerk, securing her twenty percent senior discount, waiting for my credit card.

The next morning, as we waited for our flight at the airport, I bought us coffee and me a muffin. My mother tallied up the credit card slips and bitched over our seat assignments.

“The airlines made a mistake,” I said. “So they gave you a first class seat. Just enjoy it.”

“What about you? You’ll be in the back of the plane all alone.”

“I think I can live without you for a few hours.” I said this as I unwrapped and buttered a blueberry muffin the size of an eight-inch layer cake. My mother eyed the thing but kept her poker face as she slid our three day tab across the table.

“I’ll get your father to write you a check. We should plan another trip.”

I brushed her words away. My focus was on the gargantuan baked good sitting like a mountain between us. It took two hands to place half in front of her. The irony of the moment hung out there. Our eyes locked.

“That butter is going to kill you,” she said, fiddling in her purse for a cigarette.

I pointed to the butt between her manicured fingers. “Really? And those aren’t?”

She held her cool eyes on me for a long time. Her voice softened a tad. “I have offered to share everything with you this whole trip and you wanted everything all for yourself.”

“Oh, yes, arrest me for eating a whole sandwich, all by myself.”

“You’re not funny,” she said. “Someday I’ll be gone and you won’t be able to share anything with me.”

I waited for the other shoe to drop, the one she always dropped. My mother kept her soft side in a secret compartment. It came out on rare occasions, like fine china, and this moment didn’t seem too special. She had a flare for the dramatic sometimes, and I thought this might be one of those times. Still, I took her lead and caved, and let my sarcasm fade.

“Mom, I would like to split this blueberry muffin with you.”

Her eyes sparkled. She nodded and managed the only full smile I’d seen in three days. Then she grabbed her first class ticket and stood up. “Fuck you,” she said and faded into the crowd.
The oven timer went off and the coffee was ready. I cut and buttered the muffin, and then pushed half aside. In the spring, a new crop of blueberries will bud and bloom. I’m hoping there will be lots to share.

P.S. If your mother is still around, call her. If she’s no longer here with you, send her a good thought today. The muffin’s on you.


Imagine: Personal

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