“PAINTING” MOM


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“PAINTING” MOM
Hi, I’m Ben. This is the story about my mother and me. It begins with the familiar return from college and a difficult re-insertion into the home life that I had left four years earlier and had not been part of except for Christmas holidays and the summer after my first year. Each summer after that I had worked a dream job as part of the crew for a company chartering sailboats in the Caribbean. I did that for the first two months after graduation but, due to the sagging economy, the company was f***ed to let me go. So there I was, on my parents’ doorstep, degree in hand and a few hundred bucks in my pocket, and no job prospects whatsoever. So much for my degree.
I guess Mom and I were both a little surprised by each other. I hadn’t been back to the west coast since the past summer so it had been more than a year since we’d seen each other. The deep tan caught Mom by surprise, probably because each time she’d seen me at Christmas it had had four months to wear off from the previous summer. Also, I was wearing summer garb — shorts and a t-shirt with the sleeves torn off — so my lean, twenty-two year old frame clearly showed the healthy lifestyle I had been living.
Looking at Mom, I could see that she had been making changes of her own. The Simon and Garfunkel tune, The Boxer, wafted out of the living room. Mom was wearing some kind of loose, hippy, tie-dyed long shirt over a pair of almost shredded jeans, an outfit straight from the seventies. Her hair, normally just brushing her shoulders, had been allowed a few more inches of freedom. In addition to the extra length, it was much bushier, its wavy blonde and reddish strands creating a tawny took befitting a younger woman ready for fun. Other than that, Mom looked much the same: a slender woman not much more than five feet tall with a nice figure despite her aversion to strenuous exercise.
We both laughed in pleasant surprise.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were coming so I could pick you up?” Mom admonished me as the taxi pulled away.
“I wanted to surprise you,” I said.
Actually, I didn’t want to be a bother. I was kind of bummed out showing up at home almost broke. Truth be known, if I could have found a job, I wouldn’t have come home.
“Well, you did that.” Mom suddenly jumped up and kissed me again. “I’m so happy to see you!”
Mom turned around and led the way into the house.
“Are you hungry?” she asked.
“Starving,” I said. I wasn’t really but I knew Mom would want me to eat something and it would take the pressure off conversation if she was busy doing something and my mouth was full.
“Take your bags up to your room while I make you something to eat,” she said. “It’s just the way you left it, and come down right away to tell me what you’ve been doing. You can unpack later.”
As I turned to go up the stairs, I cast a last glance at Mom’s retreating figure. What had happened to my insurance-rep Mom? Where were the conservative business suits and crisp skirts and blouses? A tie-dyed shirt, faded denims and old tennis shoes? What had happened on the home front in the last year?
My apprehensions at coming home were over-ridden by my curiosity. I did just what Mom said; I tossed my suitcases into my old room and rushed downstairs. I had to find out what had caused this change in my mother.
Tomato sandwiches and a large glass of milk were already waiting for me on the kitchen table and Mom was just setting a teapot down with a tall, slim mug decorated with some kind of pseudo-medieval design in pastel colors.
Mom asked me what I’d been up to right away but when I started eating she slipped into telling me all about what she’d been doing. Evidently, she had had a life changing experience that led her to quit the insurance business to take up sculpting full time. Dad wasn’t too happy about the loss of income but she had put her foot down and refused to change her mind. She was going to become a sculptor, a professional one, whether he liked it or not. However, she admitted that she felt under pressure to sell some of her works now that it had been almost a year since she’d quit her job.
I finished the first sandwich and Mom insisted I tell her what I’d been doing, interrupting me as soon as I started to apologize for not being able to come to my graduation because they just couldn’t afford to fly across the country.
“I really feel guilty about that,” she said, stretching her hands out to hold mine, the one not holding a sandwich.
It didn’t take long for me to tell her about the sailing charters, something I’d already told her and Dad about before, and how the economic downturn had resulted in the failure of the company. I had the impression Mom just wanted to hear my voice.
“So, here I am, broke and without a job,” I laughed, picking up the other half of the second sandwich.
“Oh, dear,” Mom said.
Before I took a bite, I asked Mom what had happened to make her quit her job. I was curious but also wanted to change the subject from my situation. I had already dwelled on it enough by myself. Mom launched into a story about not feeling well for a long time, always feeling tired, and a list of other symptoms. I listened half-heartedly until she said the dreadful word.
“Cancer?” I blurted, my mouth full of half-chewed bread and tomatoes.
Mom nodded.
“Cancer?” I repeated.
“Yes, breast cancer.”
My eyes dropped to Mom’s breasts, a rather insensitive thing to do right after a woman has just told you she has breast cancer.
“I still have them,” Mom laughed, seeing the direction of my gaze.
I blushed profusely and looked down at the sandwich in my hand.
Mom laughed out loud. “Don’t feel bad. Every single man that hears about it does that. All my friends’ husbands, even the ones who heard about it through their wives, as soon as they see me, they look at my chest. We all get quite a kick out of it. Jenny said, ‘Now we know what the girls at Hooters feel like’.”
I didn’t recognize Jenny as one of Mom’s regular friends. “Who’s Jenny?”
“Oh, just a girl I met at the clinic. She’s about your age, very pretty but a little different.”
“She had cancer?” I asked.
Mom ignored the question. “Come on,” she said, reaching out to grab my sandwich-free hand. “Look.”
As soon as I looked up, Mom retrieved her hand and used both to heft her breasts.
“See…healthy as a horse.”
“What about the cancer?” I asked, my eyes staying on Mom’s breasts, nicely show-cased by the curved brackets of her hands.
“False alarm,” Mom said as if it was a little thing but I noted a trace of relief that belied her light-hearted dismissal. Mom had obviously been scared silly, the little twitch in her cheek betraying her true feelings. She must have been afraid for her life.
“So you’re ok?” I persisted.
“Absolutely,” Mom banged her hand flat on the table for emphasis. “But your Dad…now, I’m not sure he’s alright.”
“Why?”
“Well, all these changes have upset him, especially me wanting to be a sculptor.”
“Sculptress,” I corrected her. I have no idea why I said that.
“Sculptress. I like the sound of that. Anyway, changes happened and your Dad is having a hard time dealing with it. He thinks things should have gone back to the way they were as soon as we heard the good news. He just doesn’t realize what a life-changing experience it is to hear that awful word. It changes everything. Nothing is the same and there’s no going back.”
Mom reached out to grasp my hand again, this time holding it between both of hers. She looked me seriously in the eye.
“You understand, don’t you.”
I nodded, pausing with the last bit of sandwich inches from my mouth. “Of course,” I said. “Everything’s different.”
Mom released my hand. “It’s amazing, actually. I feel so alive now. I feel like I know what’s important and what’s not but Ken just doesn’t get it.
“He’ll come around, Mom.”
I popped the last of the sandwich into my mouth and watched Mom slowly shake her head.
“I don’t know,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
I cast my eyes down to Mom’s medium-sized breasts and noticed something else that was different. Mom was wearing a regular t-shirt under the tie-dyed shirt but that was all. For the first time in my life, I really saw my new mother, the braless one.
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“You won’t find anything around here to make a career out of,” Dad said the same thing for the third time using different words.
“I know, Dad. I get it. I’m just going to get my shit together for a couple of months and then get my name out there.”
“Get your shit together? That’s just great. Your mother’s finding herself and you’re ‘getting your shit together’. Perfect. Just perfect.”
“Dad, I need a stable address and somewhere I can get steady access to the internet. And, frankly, a bit of a rest. I’ll find something, probably in LA. Until then, I’m going to help Mom.”
“Doing what? Stirring mud so she can make statues out of it?”
“No, I’m going to build a website so she can display her stuff and sell it. You should see it. Some of it’s pretty good and will probably sell in the city.”
“I have seen it and she has tried to sell it at every fair and market around here for almost a year. She hasn’t made a hundred bucks.”
“She said she’s sold about a thousand.”
“Well, a thousand then, but she’s spent five grand on that studio out back and all that crap for making figurines.”
“Statues,” I corrected my father. “They’re miniature garden statues.”
“Whatever.”
“Dad, she’s had a big shock.”
“We’ve all had a shock but it’s time to move on, get back into the swing of things.” Dad stopped walking and ran his right hand through his hair, then released a long sigh. “I know, Ben. I know. It’s just that…well…I thought she would be getting back to normal but it doesn’t look like she’s going to, or even wants so. I don’t know what to do,” Dad lamented, his exasperation evident.
“Just give her some room,” I suggested.
“Room? Room? I given her all the room in the world and all she’s done is go further off track.”
“Maybe she really needs to go in a different direction, Dad. It happened to her. The cancer happened to her, not to us.”
“Yeah, well it affects all of us. I don’t know how much more of this I can take.” Dad ran his hand through his hair again. “All our friends are talking about it. She’s doing nude statues, you know. Have you seen them? And that’s not the half of it.”
I ignored his question. In fact, I hadn’t seen them but suspected they were underneath the tarp in the far corner of Mom’s studio.
“How about you give her a while longer, maybe another two or three months?”
“Two or three more months?” Dad looked at me, stunned.
“Yeah, a couple of months or so. I’ll get a website up and send some emails off and we’ll see what happens. I think people will be interested in her sculptures and if they’re not, well maybe Mom will realize sculpting has to be a hobby and she’ll go back to work.”
I felt guilty stringing Dad along. I didn’t think Mom was ever going to return to work, not as an insurance agent anyway, but the carrot worked—the one about sales rather than returning to work as I thought.
“You really think people in the city might buy that stuff.”
“There’s the possibility. Yeah, I think so.”
I wasn’t convinced but I needed Dad to think there was a chance so he’d give Mom a breather. She needed it.
“Ok, son. Two months then.”
“Three, Dad. Three.”
“Ok, three.”
Dad walked away with a spring in his step.
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