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My Mother’s Landscape
by Mary Jo Balistreri


The screen door bangs shut behind me as I follow
the scent of chocolate chip cookies. You sit
at the gleaming maple table puzzling a crossword.
Everything is perfect: The kitchen, like a glossy page
in House Beautiful shines with polish, wax,
and light. Baby breath and sweet peas fill a glass
vase that sparkles with trapped sun. Your apricot
lipstick and rouge match the crisply ironed
shirtwaist. As I walk toward the table,
you turn on cue . Even your smile is perfect.

In another scene, slumped in my assigned chair
at the same table, I plead my case--the graduation
of my fiancée from Michigan State. It falls on June
ninth, our shared birthday. For you, it is similar
to a sacrament, an outward sign of grace that not even God
interferes with. But this graduation is a big deal. Driving
with John's parents in my first air-conditioned car
is a Coney Island thrill. As Dad suggests another date
for our celebration, you withdraw into wounded rage.
Storm clouds, dark and furious, gather in deafening silence.

It wasn't until I was married that you even mentioned
your Dad's alcoholism and your childhood job of reporting
his whereabouts. I never asked how you felt when your mother
left to sell door-to- door cosmetics to support the family
or if you were lonely, left at home with a grandmother
who neglected you in favor of your older brother. Where
exactly did it hurt inside and was that when you learned
to file your feelings?

I still remember the shock of your fiftieth wedding
anniversary. Sitting across from you, you turned to Dad
and asked, "Should we tell them?" Spellbound, my husband
and I listened to your story--how you and Dad met at a Wednesday
matinee in International Falls, both on the entertainment circuit.
How you'd known each other a week and got married. "One week!"
we practically shouted. This was the woman I grew up with. Watching
you and Dad that night, giddy with your wild courtship,
we were charmed. Dad had called you gold-drop, the red-blonde
curls that framed your face hanging like golden jewels. He spoke
of the darkened theater where he sang, and how
when you walked in with your picture hat,
the lobby haloed your face;
how he sang just to you from the stage
and had never sung better. We heard of extravagant
picnics, motor boats you raced at a moment's notice.

After, I wondered if the war had taken the spark from your life,
or the effort of trying to make an ordered world out of childhood
chaos. Maybe it was the tedium of marriage, or the challenges
of raising a family. I wanted to know, could one ever enter
the landscape of another life, especially one's mother?

There were no answers, except this one: your anniversary
was a turning point for me. After that night, you climbed
back into your body and danced. You water-colored
the canyons and deserts of Arizona, humming songs in your studio
and doing dance steps to the radio as you prepared dinner.
You played Bony Maronie the piano and joined your
friends for dinner. You and I sported matching socks
and shorts for miniature golf team competitions with our husbands,
and on a the starlit night on the Prescott town square, you
and Dad glided as elegantly as the couple in Renoir's
"Dance at Bougival."

When you were diagnosed with lung cancer and given six
short months to live, I raged at God—or was it you—
for disappearing before you died. Again. By that time,
you and I could sit in comfortable silence. I rubbed your body
with lotion and we laughed at your perfect house, my
attempts to marry perfect husbands.

That last week in the hospice I stayed by your bedside
watching the fullness you had gained grow taut
and translucent. We listened to Silent Night
and Nat King Cole and your stillness seemed strong, serene.
I remembered how you waited for me all those school
years ago; only now, the door flung wide open. You
were pouring out light.

Originally published in Joy in the Morning ( Bellowing Ark Press)

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