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Owning My Mistake

by Charles C. Cole

I loved both my parents, maybe my mom slightly more because she was more approachable, quieter, smaller, and a gentle nurse even when out of uniform. She was the type of person you told your most private fears and secret ambitions to.

Contrarily, I always felt I was interrupting Dad’s news or game shows. Dad had a way of eating peanut butter loudly and, unfairly to him, that bothered me, though I never said anything. He had false teeth that he sometimes took out in front of me, absently, like stretching his neck. And even when I was child, he’d never just let me win at board games in which he was clearly the better player. We all judge, don’t we?

Though my siblings are much older now, I will always be the youngest. My oldest sister will always be the second mother. My middle sister will always be the lost child. My youngest sister will always be the model parent.

My mother once said to me, comparing me to my much-older lawyer brother, in a way that I think was intended as a compliment, “He’s the brains, dear, but you’re the heart.”

One day, several months after Dad had died in his early eighties, Mom was having issues with her well pump. In rural Maine that means no water. She was still living, now alone, in the house they had built themselves. I drove her on errands, visited a few nights a week for dinner, was general moral support. Mom called me at my office on a hectic day and I, more or less, told her to deal with it. This was not my shining moment, and I regretted it immediately. I regret it still.

When I stopped at her house after work, Mom refused to answer the doorbell. I’d completely forgotten: Mom sulked expertly. I knew she kept a spare key near the cellar door, so it was easy to find my way in. A bare ceiling bulb lit the room garishly. There was a dusty, old stool with an empty, cracked bucket on it, just inside, I think to block me out, but it was light and easy to move aside.

I found Mom sitting on the bottom step of the basement stairs, which were still unfinished after 25 years. Looking tinier than ever and huddled close to the woodstove, she resembled a dejected Cinderella, if her dreams had never come true. Her breathing sounded labored, and she was looking off into space.

“There you are! When you didn’t come to the door, I thought you fell. I thought you were hurt.”

“No, you didn’t,” she mumbled.

“So, you’re okay?”

“I’m fine. Sorry to disappoint you!” she hissed. My mom rarely displayed anger. Inhumanly cold silence had always been her blunt weapon of choice.

She turned to the bare, efflorescence-spattered concrete wall, away from me. There were cobwebs hanging like Spanish moss inches from her face. Mom had never been comfortable around bugs.

“Look out for spiders,” I warned. “I’ll get a broom and knock it down.”

She reached out in a flash and pulled the soot-gray cloud out of the air, wiping the debris on the side of her denim pants. Any other moment, she would have jumped up to wash her hands.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“No, I’m not. Thank you for asking,” she said. “I’m old and alone. I’m done.”

“You’re not alone. Did something happen?”

She exploded to her feet and took a couple of steps toward me. “I used to say you’re an angel, but you’re the devil! You’re the devil!” Her dark Italian eyebrows pinched together dramatically.

“How’s your well pump?” I asked, pushing my way through this unexpectedly ugly scene, but trying not to look away.

“Fine. Fixed. It was a fuse.”

“Sounds easy,” I said.

“Not for me,” she replied.

‘So, it wasn’t expensive. And it’s behind you. Good for you. Something to check off your bucket list,” I joked.

The phone rang. Neither of us moved to answer it. I had a good idea it was my wife, checking in. She was home taking care of our three young children, or she would have joined me to bear witness.

Mom stared at me, lips pursed, eyes preternaturally dark. At that moment, I could feel no love between us. I deserved the reaction.

The phone rang again.

“I’ll just let myself out,” I said, backing out, giving up. “Glad you survived the ordeal. Dad would be proud.”

“Of one of us,” she said pointedly.

“Are you still coming for dinner tomorrow?” I asked. “The kids have been asking about you.”

“If you still want me.”

“Of course we do.”

The next night she was her old self. The kids climbed about her like kittens with a mother cat. She read stories and helped them at bath time. She avoided eye contact with me. My wife, who had missed the action up close and personal, acted like it had never happened. Good for her. I was still bruised, but this had been just one recent event in a lifetime defined by mutual support, or so I reminded myself.

When she was leaving, Mom abruptly reappeared at our door. “I found a book of your poetry,” she said, handing me an unfamiliar composition notebook. “They’re lovely. You should have them before something happens, before they get lost.” She grabbed my chin and gave me a quick kiss. “Good night, dear.”

Unbeknownst to me, over the years Mom had cut out every original poem I’d written in high school and college, from our primitive literary magazines, and had collated and transcribed them longhand into one lovely, personal notebook. You have to understand, poets were second to priests for close to godliness, for Mom. It was a lovely, completely unexpected gesture.

Neither of us ever talked about that terrible night again. There was no need.

Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole

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