Mary Higbee is a retired middle school English teacher living in northern California. After years of encouraging her adolescent students to write, Mary is now applying what she taught to her own work. Recently, her creative nonfiction pieces were published in the Barnstorm Journal and the Coachella Review Online Blog. Mary self-published a memoir entitled Lessons from Afar about her experiences of opening a secondary school in South Sudan.
I wash the crumbs from the silverware drawer and rearrange the mugs and bowls in orderly rows in the cupboard. Matthew and I sort his toys into plastic bins. "Is this apple pie for tonight?" Jim asks. "No, it's for my parents' visit," I answer while rearranging the contents of the freezer so the pie will fit. "Are we having this chili? No, don't tell me. For your parents' visit," Jim teases. "Do you think maybe your mom and dad are coming to see you and their grandson, and not for the food?" "I know, really, I do. I just want it to be nice. It's not like my parents drop in every Sunday," I tell Jim. My mother's and father's cross country road trip to see us coincides with Matthew's second birthday. I envision a birthday cake and candles and three generations around the table. I am not disappointed by our week together, and I mentally collect the Hallmark-like moments as if they are gold stars on an elementary class chart. There are no plans for my parents' visit to extend into a second week, but my father is called back to Indiana on business. Jim and I invite my mother to stay until he returns. She and I have time to look through the shoebox of photos she has brought me. The images inspire storytelling, and we laugh at our remembrances of long-ago holidays. Most photos show my two sisters and me wearing the dresses my mother made for us. Even though the pictures are in black and white, I recall the color of each dress—the wide sashes tied in bows and how fancy I felt twirling in the full skirts. I remember money was tight in our household growing up, but you would never guess looking at the pictures of three well-dressed girls. This unplanned time with my mother is the longest period I have spent with her since leaving home. For the last eleven years, except for short visits, we have been separated by nearly two thousand miles. By the third week, the lifestyle I had created for the first part of the visit with pre-planned menus and an organized household reverts to our usual routine. The laundry basket overflows with clothes to be folded. Matthew's toys migrate back to the living room where he likes to play, and meals don't always end with a homemade dessert. For something new to do, I invite my mother to come with Matthew and me to a Mom and Toddler Class. We leave Matthew at the Children's Center and join the moms seated in a circle. Suzanne, the facilitator, asks me to introduce my guest. "I would like you to meet my mother, Phyllis, who is visiting me." I turn toward my mom sitting next to me. I take in her appearance as if it is a first impression—the purse on her lap, her forest green pantsuit, the small diamond studs in her ears, and the reddish-brown color of her short curls from a box of Clairol Nice n' Easy. Looking at her, the word "lady-like" comes to me. The term belongs to my mother's generation and describes the expectation she held for her young daughters. "Phyllis, welcome. We like having grandmothers visit. I am sure you're enjoying time with your grandson." Suzanne says warmly. She shifts her position to address us all. "Today, Sonya would like to share." Sonya, the mother of a three-year-old named Jennifer, says in a low voice, "I don't know where to begin. My husband left me--left our home. He has been having an affair with a co-worker. He says he doesn't love me anymore and wants a divorce." Her news elicits murmurers of concern. Sonya continues, "I have spent the last week thinking about how to create a new life. I need a lawyer and a job. Then I will have to figure out daycare for Jennie." The mention of her daughter brings glittering tears to her eyes. Suzanne says, "Sonya, thank you for trusting us with your news. Does anyone have any thoughts for Sonya?" The women respond with attorneys' names, offers to watch Jennifer when Sonya has appointments, and suggestions for looking for a job. Looking less dejected, Sonya replies, "Saying this out loud helps me know what I need to do. Thank you for listening." I notice my mother is nervously toying with the clasp of her purse, and when our eyes meet, her smile seems forced. The meeting concludes, and we pick up Matthew. There is minimal conversation between us during the ride home and while we eat lunch. "A cup of tea?" I ask after Matthew settles down for his nap. I can't read my mother's mood, and the vague tension hanging between us is like a gauzy curtain, something you can only partially see through. I want to talk about it but hesitate and feel a familiar prick of anxiety. I take a breath and say, "Mom, what did you think of this morning?" My mother looks thoughtful before answering, "It surprised me." I don't expect that answer. "In what way?" "Well, it surprised me Sonya told a room full of people about her husband's infidelity and upcoming divorce." I hear the undercurrent of disapproval. Her answer reminds me of childhood admonishments not to tell anyone about our family business. I sip my tea, giving her time if she wants to say more. "It was not only that Sonya told you about her heartbreak and worries, but it was also how all of you reacted to her news," my mother explains. I focus on keeping my tone light. "How did we react?" My mother looks across the table at me. "You and the other moms didn't seem to be critical of her situation—quite the contrary. Everyone listened to her story and offered help. It was interesting to watch." "Mom, what interested you about it?" I ask. "Well, appearances matter,” she answers. “I was taught to keep my feelings and troubles to myself." Her statement seems like a final declaration—the end of the conversation. I am unprepared when my mother reaches her hand out to me. In almost a whisper, she says, "It has never felt safe to share feelings of discouragement and sadness like your friend Sonya did today." I choose my words carefully. "How has it been to keep things to yourself, Mom?" My mother looks away from me. Wanting to give her a moment to consider my question, I study the geometric design on the table cloth. She turns back to me and answers with a single word, "Lonely." Childhood scenes flash through my mind--my dad losing his job, a move to another state that took my mother away from her family, my grandfather dying. My memories are of my mother coping during difficult times, but her admission reveals she hid unhappiness and pain. It is as if she is holding up a mirror, and in its reflection, I glimpse the way a daughter can be like her mother.