Their trip to Disneyland.
In a bittersweet rush, Ruby remembered all of that day; the screams of older kids on scarier rides, the sudden, plunging darkness of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, the rollicking music of Country Bear Jamboree, the sugary residue of cheerios, eaten while you walked, the magic of the Electrical Light Parade. Ruby had watched it from the best seat in the house–on her daddy’s shoulders.
And she understood what Caroline had done. Caro, who couldn’t stand conflict or confrontation … Caro, who just wanted everything to be normal.
It had hurt her sister to look back on these years.
Better to simply … go on. Start over. Pretend that there had never been happy summers spent on these shores, in these rooms.
Ruby released her breath in a heavy sigh and boxed the photographs back up. Her sister was right. It was too damned hard to see the past in Kodachrome.
God … she’d already lost her equilibrium in this house, and it had only been a day. Suddenly she was wound tightly, full of nervous energy. She had to get back on track. Remember why she was here.
The magazine article. That would keep her focused.
She unzipped the side pocket of her suitcase and withdrew a yellow legal pad and a blue pen. Then she crawled up onto the dusty bed, drew her knees in …
… and stared down at all those blue lines.
We want your thoughts, your memories, what kind Of mother you thought she was.
“Okay, Ruby,” she said aloud. “Just start. You can always change the beginning later.”
It was the first rule of comedy writing; it should work here, too.
She took a deep breath, released it slowly, and wrote the first thing that came to mind.
In the interest of full disclosure, I must tell you (she decided to talk directly to the Cache’ readers) that I was paid to write this article. Paid handsomely, as they say in the kind of restaurants where a person like me can’t afford to order a dinner salad. Enough so that I could trade in my beat-up Volkswagen Bug for a slightly less beat-up Porsche.
I should also tell you that I dislike my mother. 132 No, that’s not true. I dislike the snotty salesclerk who works the night shift at my local video store.
I hate my mother.
That seems like a pretty harsh statement, I know. We’re taught in childhood not to use the word “hate” because it represents a blight on our own soul, perhaps even a karmic misalignment. But silencing a word doesn’t eliminate its meaning.
It’s not like I hate her for no reason, or even for a stupid, petty reason. She’s earned my contempt. To explain, I have to open the door to my mother’s and my life, and welcome you in as friends.
The story of us starts eleven years ago, in a place few of you have ever seen: the San Juan Islands up in Washington State. I grew up in a small farmhouse on a patch of land that had been homesteaded by my great-grandfather. The island.. the to … . my house … they all belong on Hallmark cards. I went to school with the same kids for thirteen years; the only crime I can recall happened in 1979, when Jimmy Smithson broke into the local pharmacy, ripped open all the condom packages, and wrote “Peggy Jean likes sex” in Dial soap on the front window.
And then there was my family.
My dad was-is-a commercial fisherman who repairs boat engines in the winter months to make ends meet. He was born and raised on Lopez Island; he is as fixed in that place as one of the ancient trees that line the main road.
Although my mother was born off-island, she was a local by the time I came along. She volunteered for every town charity event and was a fixture around school.
In other words, we were a perfect family in a quiet little town where nothing ever happened. In all my growing-up years, I never heard my parents argue.
Then, in the summer before my seventeenth birthday, everything changed.
My mother left us. Walked out the door, got into her car and drove away. She didn’t call or write all that summer, she just … vanished.
I can’t remember now how long I waited for her to return, but I know that somewhere along the way, in the pool of a thousand tears, she became my Mother, and then, finally, Nora. My mom was gone. I accepted the fact that whatever she wanted out of life, it wasn’t me.
I could describe what it was like, the waiting, but I won’t. Not even for the money. The worst of it was my father. For my last two years of high school,
I watched him … disintegrate. He drank, he sat in his darkened bedroom, he wept.
And so, when Cache came to me, asking for my story, I said yes. Hell yes.
I figured it was time that America knew who they were listening to, who was giving them moral advice.
Like the rest of you, I heard her message stream over the airwaves: Commit to your family and make it work. Be honest. Hold fast to the vows you made before God.
This from a woman who walked out on her marriage and abandoned her children, and –
She tossed down the pen and paper and went to the doorway, poking her head out. “Yeah?”
“Can you breathe okay, with all this dust?” Ruby rolled her eyes. As always, her mother was as subtle as an exclamation mark. “I see you found enough air in your lungs to scream at me,” she muttered, hurrying downstairs.
As she passed her mother’s bedroom, she heard a sneeze.
Ruby smiled; she couldn’t help it.
In the kitchen, she knelt in front of the cabinet beneath the sink and opened the doors. Everything she needed to clean the house, and in quantities large enough to clean any house, stood in four straight rows. When she realized that the supplies were organized in alphabetical order, she burst out laughing.
“Poor Caro,” she whispered, realizing how badly her sister wanted everything to be tidy. “You were definitely born into the wrong family.”
Then, as tired as she was, she started to clean.
Nora tried not to watch her daughter clean the house.
It was simply too irritating.
Ruby dusted without moving anything, and she clearly thought a dry rag would do the job. Oh, she’d brought out the industrial-size can of Pledge, but she’d left it sitting on the tile counter in the kitchen. When she started mopping the floor with soapless water, Nora couldn’t help herself.
“Aren’t you going to sweep first?” she asked from her wheelchair, tucked into the open doorway of her bedroom.
Ruby slowly turned around. Her face was flushed-from what exertion, Nora couldn’t imagine. “Excuse me?”
Nora wished she’d kept silent, but now there was nowhere to go except forward. “You need to sweep the floor before you mop … and soap in the water is a big help.”
Ruby let go of the mop. The wooden handle clattered to the floor. “You’re criticizing my cleaning technique?”
“I wouldn’t call it a technique. It’s just common sense to-”
“So, I have no common sense, either.”
Nora sighed. “Come on, Ruby. You know better than that. I taught you-”
Ruby was in front of Nora before she could finish the sentence. “You do not want to bring up the things you taught me. Because if I do as I’ve been taught, I’ll walk out that door, climb into the minivan, and drive away. I won’t even bother to wave good-bye.”
Nora’s irritation vanished; regret swooped in to take its place. She sagged like a rag doll in her chair. “I’m sorry.”
Ruby took a step back. “According to Caro, those are your favorite words. Maybe you should think about what it really means to apologize before you bother.” She stomped back to the kitchen sink, grabbed some liquid soap, and squirted a stream into the white plastic bucket. Then she began mopping again; her strokes were positively vicious.
Nora sat there, watching. The thwop-squish-clack of the mop moving across the floor (streaking clumps of dirt, Nora noticed but obviously didn’t mention) was the only sound in the room.
Finally, Nora wound up the nerve for a different approach. “Maybe I could help?”
Ruby didn’t look at her. “I stripped the bed upstairs. The sheets are piled on the washing machine. You could take care of your bed and start a load of laundry.”
Nora nodded. It took her almost an hour of maneuvering in her chair to strip the sheets off her bed, roll into the cubicle-size laundry room, and start the first load. By the time she finished, she was wheezing like a dying crow.
She rolled back into the kitchen and found that the room was sparkling clean. Ruby had even replaced the horrid plastic flowers on the table with a fragrant bouquet of roses.
“Oh,” Nora said, taking her first decent breath since coming into the house. “It looks beautiful. Just like-”
Nora understood that Ruby didn’t want the past mentioned. It didn’t surprise Nora, that reaction. Ruby had always been an expert at denial. Even as a child, she’d had the ability to compartmentalize and forget. She could box up whatever she didn’t want to face and store it away. It had been this very trait that had allowed her to shut Nora out of her life so completely.
Out of sight for Ruby had always meant out of mind. Nora decided not to let it be so easy this time. “I thought I’d help you make dinner.”
Ruby turned to look at her. There was a look of genuine horror on her face.
Nora smiled. “You look like John Hurt, just before the alien popped out of his chest. Close your mouth.”
“There’s no food. We-I-have to go shopping.”
“We both know Caroline better than that. In these cupboards, I guarantee you, are the makings for several emergency dinners. Probably labeled as such. All we have to do is look around.”
“You don’t need my help, then. I’ll just run upstairs-”
“Not so fast. I can’t reach everything. We’ll need to work together.”
Ruby looked like she’d just bitten down on a lemon. “I don’t know how to cook.”
Nora wasn’t surprised. “You were never too interested in it.”
“I got interested in it when I was seventeen. Not that you would know this.”
Direct hit. “I could teach you now.”
Nora refused to be hurt by that comment. She wheeled into the kitchen. With her back to Ruby, she scavenged through the cupboards, finding several cans of tomatoes, a bag of angel-hair pasta, an unopened bottle of olive oil, jars of marinated artichoke hearts and capers, and a container of dried Parmesan cheese. She pulled out everything she needed and set the supplies beside the stove. Then she waited patiently.
Her patience didn’t last as long as she would have liked. “Ruby?” she said at last.
Ruby walked over to the stove. “Okay, what do want me to do?”
“See that big frying pan hanging on the rack-no, the bigger one. Yes. Take that and put it on the front burner.”
It hit with a clang.
Nora winced. “Now put about a tablespoon of olive oil in it and turn on the gas.”
Ruby opened the oil and poured in at least a half cup.
Nora could practically feel her h*ps expanding, but bit back a comment as she reached for the can opener. She was proud of herself for saying simply, “The measuring spoons are in the top drawer; to your left.” Then she opened the canned tomatoes. “Here, add these. And turn the flame to low.”
When Ruby had done that, Nora went on. “Cut up the marinated artichoke hearts and add them. Maybe a half cup of that canned chicken broth would be good, too.”