Every now and then, I indulge in an unhealthy little fantasy: I imagine that my mom didn't die twenty-six years ago. The information we received at the time (multiple injuries due to blunt force) was entirely wrong. In fact, she's been living in a seaside village in Spain, making dresses out of cornmeal sacks for the local children and flirting with the guitar-playing mayor, who looks like Antonio Banderas. But that lifestyle has grown tiresome, and she knocks on my door. I open it and there she is, in a gingham shirt and skin-tight blue jeans, holding her purse. Dazzling smile, good bosom...she puts her arms around me, and I'm lost in the scent of White Shoulders and hairspray. Then, we go to lunch. (If my instincts are wrong, and there is a heaven, it will be spent going for cheeseburgers and Cokes with my mom.)
At lunch, I feel shy, uncertain. Is this woman the god of my 7th year, filling cavernous Tupperware containers with homemade cookies, staying up all night making polka-dot Easter dresses? The mom who arranged to have "The Happy Hollisters" delivered to our door, volume after glorious volume?
Or is she the happily married woman of my 10th year, watching Johnny Carson and broiling steaks with my dad after I've gone to bed...or hiring a babysitter and going out with my dad several nights a week, to movies, to dinner, to hotels? The mom who said, "Are you sure you need glasses, Polly--are you absolutely certain? Because you're cuter without them."
Or is she the hero of my 13th year, marching into the office of my 8th-grade gym teacher and demanding that my C-minus grade be changed? "Has she been absent a single day? Has she failed to try a single time?" I imagine her voice imperious, her posture threatening...the very opposite of me. By that time, she'd joined the workforce, and she spent her days (oh-so-appropriately attired in hot pants and low-cut vests) with hard-working, hard-living men. But she took a couple hours off, morphed into Mother Bear mode, and strong-armed a B-plus out of Mrs. Rockwood (who was really very kind and very helpful later that year, when--in American History--I started my period all over the back of my black-and-white-checked skirt).
Or is she the sex kitten of my 17th year, wearing a red vinyl mini skirt and matching knee-high boots to a production of "Ben-Hur" in which I played a leprous servant? The woman who flirted expertly and incessantly with co-workers, cousins, neighbors, cops, Mormon bishops, and school teachers, causing my best friend, Holly, to say, "It must feel weird to be outclassed by your own mom."
Or is she the determinedly open-minded partner-in-crime of my 20th year, allowing me to work with her at a peace-time army post, selling Coors to young men in olive-drab T-shirts and black Nazi boots? Despite an extended rocky patch in her own marriage, she was always on the lookout for a husband for me. "You need someone like him," she said one evening, nodding toward a helicopter pilot from Idaho, whom she'd been chatting up. "He's tall and handsome, a bit older than you, and a very devoted husband and father." I continued washing glasses at the bar sink, listening to Linda Ronstadt on the jukebox. "He went home with me last night," I said, forever changing the mother/daughter relationship. "He's an adept lover, but probably less devoted than you've been led to believe."
Or is she the almost-pathetic, almost-divorced Miss Kitty of my 23rd year, reacting poorly to the news that Marshal Dillon has unceremoniously left town? Shopping compulsively, sunbathing compulsively, confiding in me compulsively (and sometimes regrettably)...furious, daunted, and bewildered, but still more achingly alive, more radiant and charismatic, than other grownups I knew.
Or, finally, is she the equal of my 25th year, living happily (if not yet serenely) with my dad in Southern California, sending me frequent and affectionate letters, Travis McGee paperbacks, and all things red-and-white-checked for the kitchen I was decorating--in the nest I was feathering--with a man of my very own? A fond (and final) memory is of this particular year, early autumn, sitting side by side with my mom on a couch in her furnished apartment, translating Spanish greeting cards that we'd just bought on sale at Newberry's. We laughed uncontrollably because, according to our Spanish/English dictionary, "merendar" means "to have an afternoon snack" or "to skin someone." "Which meaning do you suppose the author had in mind when he wrote this thank-you note?" I asked, and we collapsed against each other, hysterical. The next morning, she drove me to the airport, hugged me, and I never saw her again.
But thanks to the mind's ability to reject reality and embrace fantasy, she's back! Everything's okay! And she's eager to shave her legs, get her hair done, and visit her sisters and a handsome man or two. When we visit my aunts, I go in; we chat, we have chocolate cake. But other places, I wait patiently in the driveway while she goes in alone (she was always a bit of a slut, but only in the very finest sense of the word).
Later, we shop. She's surprised at some of the changes that have taken place in the world: the availability of over-the-counter yeast infection medication, the matter-of-fact disappearance of both the record album and the cassette tape, the surprisingly enduring career of Tom Jones. I watch as she buys Hershey bars and lingerie and perfume. She sprays the inside of her freckled wrist with something seductively musky, chooses two shades of lipstick that can be combined to create the perfect shade, signs her check with two distinctive capital N's. I adore her, and I find reasons to sidle up next to her, to breathe her in. I'm crushing on her--no doubt about it--and she smiles at me, fondly, tenderly. She picks up a bracelet, scrutinizes it, and then turns to me, her expression unchanged but affectionate. "You're a good girl, Polly," she says, and I smile shyly, fairly sure it's a compliment.
That night (it's a lengthy fantasy), back at my house, I try to explain how horrified I was when I heard the news, when my brother called me at work and said, "Dad's okay, but Mom's dead." How I dropped the phone as if it were burning my fingers, how I screamed over and over again. How a woman at work, a woman her age, tried to comfort me, and I shouted, "I wish you were dead--not her!" And how other typists, illustrators, and writers--frightened and embarrassed--watched while I screamed and swore and thrashed.
Then, I was just sad. Sad and waiting, the way one waits at night, with clenched teeth and wide eyes, when the power suddenly goes out. A year of paranoia followed, a year of unwise decisions and rapidly dissolving will. I felt white-hot hatred for anyone with a mother, and especially for anyone who took that blessing for granted. Old friends called (mostly those old friends in olive-drab T-shirts), and I said, "My mom died," and they were kind or philosophical or uncomfortable, but none of them said what I needed to hear: "Stay right where you are. I'm on my way over, and I can fix everything."
She listens patiently to my sad tale, occasionally patting me and making soft cooing sounds. I tell her that I eventually forgave my husband for not suffering as much as I had, and, two years after her death, we welcomed a beautiful baby son who was quite happy for someone born without a maternal grandmother. Decades passed, and I became older than she'd ever been, embodying many of her strengths and just as many of her weaknesses.
Our heartfelt chat has exhausted me, and I fall asleep curled up next to her, this woman who caught me smuggling Oreos into the bathroom when I was six (a fistful of them cleverly shoved down my underpants) and calmed my guilty and overwrought tears. When I'm sleeping soundly, she no doubt uses my cell phone to call some guy she's been jonesing for, someone rugged and rangy, with an easy smile.
Well, the fantasy usually ends here, although sometimes it includes a wonderfully detailed future together: a cozy apartment for her above the garage, long car trips with increasingly difficult rounds of Twenty Questions, steaming mugs of cocoa during Bond movies.
I remember having the measles when I was about ten, and lying on the Naugahyde couch, watching "Bewitched." My mom was lying on the other couch, reading "Airport." It truly seemed that nothing could go wrong, that nothing could vanquish this feeling of safety, of permanent connection. Now, when I'm sick (or driving or ovulating or breathing), I think about my mom, and I feel like a little girl, clapping to keep Tinker Bell alive. But, in this case, something goes horribly wrong, and Tinker Bell dies.