I didn’t know what was in the bag, but I felt pretty sure nothing good would come of it. Something about the way my mother swaggered into the living room, her skin flushed from scheming, her raincoat agape, and the bag dangling over her shoulder like a fresh catch, two fingers curled through the hanger. No, I was positive. Nothing good would come of this at all.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing to the book splayed open on my knees. I held it up so she could see the silver-stenciled bells, the nesting doves along the yellowed spine.
Sometimes, for a reason I never could explain, I found myself drawn to my parents’ wedding album. I would sit there in the big yellow chair studying their pictures, immersing myself in the story of their past life—which did not include me but without which I would not exist.
At thirteen, this paradox had begun to sting, like salt water flooding a wound. No other way but this way, the voice in my head would say.
Laying the bag down, my mother moved toward me, perched on the arm of the chair. I watched her patent leather pump slide on and off her heel as she gazed at the picture, then over at me, then lifted the collection out of my lap and laid it to rest on her own.
“Look how thin your father was there,” she remarked, tracing his long body with her thumb. “Guess how much he weighed on our wedding day?”
I shook my head. “No idea.”
“One hundred sixty-five pounds! Can you believe that?”
“It sounds like a lot,” I agreed.
“Are you blind?” Actually, I was—half-blind anyway—but I knew my mother didn’t want to discuss that. “Look how skinny he is! He’s narrow as a fishing rod and twice as long.” Her tone conveyed a strange mix of pride and disapproval.
I looked again, but all I saw was my father younger, his hair dark like engine grease, his sweet, familiar smile.
My mother closed the book and held it dramatically between her hands. “Now he’s so fat he’s popping the buttons off his pants.” Shaking her poodle-permed hair: “Who would have ever thought?”
“But you said he was too skinny before.”
“There’s filling out, Julie, and then there’s filling up and growing a gut the size of Canada! Imagine what he would say if I had let myself go.”
My guess was probably nothing, since my father struggled to get a word in edgewise, even when it was important. I don’t think she would have let him shout “Fire!” if our house were about to combust.
“We’ll get back to the matter of your father later. Right now there’s something I want to show you.”
I followed my mother into the dining room, wading through a shallow pool of newsprint and grocery lists. I noticed she had cut an ad from The West Seattle Herald, but this was not uncommon practice. My mother had long ago appointed herself the private archivist of our suburban world and something of a cosmetologist for the local community. “Even history could use a face lift!” her banners would read, and I imagined her traipsing through the streets—with her seamstress scissors or her gardening shears—snipping away at each offending thread and shoddy blossom.
“Something else for the scrapbooks?” I asked—perhaps a recipe for a cheap quiche that included six servings of vegetables, or an editorial on the rise of sexual deviance following Lawrence Welk’s retirement.
“Not quite. It’s a writing contest.” And sure enough, it was.
This Mother’s Day tell us why your mother’s an inspirational woman. Pick up an entry form at any Bon Marche department store for complete details. Prizes include cash, merchandise, and the chance to meet local news anchor Jean Enersen at a special mother-daughter lunch.
“You’re going to meet Jean Enersen,” my mother grinned, circling the submission deadline in red ink. She picked up my hand and gave it a squeeze. “We’re going to meet Jean Enersen.”
Dear Bon Marche “Inspirational Woman” Essay Committee,
I would like to nominate my mother as an inspirational woman because she has a tremendous amount of know-how and a phenomenal ability to get things done. Sometimes she knows what people need just by looking at them, and even if they think she’s wrong, her track record suggests she is able to improve them considerably.
When I heard my father’s car on the drive, I put down my pencil and peeked out the window. The round, pink heads of our rhododendrons partly obstructed my view, but if I craned my neck, I could see him—waving to a neighbor, tugging the trash bin back from the curb, stopping to slip a breath mint into his mouth, then searching his pockets for the keys. Did he ever gulp? I wondered. Did his loafered feet ever turn cold? Others saw a tall, good-looking man in a polo shirt and pleated pants. Little tassels on his shoes. A briefcase tucked under his arm. But how else could I see him, standing there on our stoop, smoothing the silver cowlicks in his screen-door reflection? How else could I see him but as an unsuspecting duck, preening himself outside the yuletide oven?
The interception was immediate. I smelled buckshot before I stepped into the hall.
“What a terrific suit!” my father exclaimed. As is sometimes the way, he didn’t realize that he’d been hit. He didn’t know that he was bleeding.
“There’s a catch,” my mother said. I pictured her then, blowing smoke from the musket barrel.
“What’s that?” My father held his prize up to the light, admiring—three pieces, pinstripes, navy and white. Too dressy nowadays for the opera or ballet, though my mother might disagree. My mother believed in dressing to the nines when everyone else had stopped at sevens.
“It’s not the right size…yet,” she clarified.
I stood behind the jade plant, silent and slightly camouflaged. I loved my father, but I wasn’t willing to risk a stray bullet.
“What do you mean? Can we exchange it?” He checked the measurements. “Oh, you’re right. It’ll never fit.”
“But that’s where you’re wrong, Bill. It will fit—if you make a commitment to get back to a reasonable size.” I watched the color drain slowly out of his face till his skin turned granite, gray.
“Don’t worry,” she promised. The gun, safe in her holster then, dark suede with deep-set jewels. “I’ll help you. There’s nothing we can’t accomplish together.”
It is night now—the cover of darkness. My mother has left us unsupervised while she attends an A.A.U.W. meeting. My father opens another pack of hot dogs and tells me to pick a movie from the shelf. By “movie,” he means James Bond.
“Sean Connery or Roger Moore?” I ask. There is one with Timothy Dalton, but my father insists it is too promiscuous.
“I’m in the mood for something modern,” he says, which is code for Roger Moore. If he wanted Sean Connery, he would have said “something classic.”
“How about For Your Eyes Only?” I try to sound casual, though it’s Carole Bouquet I’m thinking of—the florid perfection of her name, the florid perfection of her…embodiment.
“That’s a good one,” my father concurs. He is still rattling around in the kitchen behind the louvered doors. “Maybe the best so far. Let’s put it on.”
I kneel before our bright-screened oracle, slide the VHS tape from its sleeve, then pause a moment to contemplate the cover. Roger Moore as James Bond wears a sharp suit and holds a sleek pistol under his chin while the woman above and behind him displays spike heels, bikini briefs, and a massive weapon in her one free hand. This, I know, is Melina Havelock and her menacing crossbow, Carole Bouquet’s revenge-driven alter ego. But where is her face? I wonder. What have they done with the rest of her body?
“Do you want something to eat?” my father calls. “I can cut up a hot dog and mix it in with some Ramen.”
I don’t remind him that we’ve already had dinner, that our fruit parfaits are waiting in the fridge. I don’t caution him that Mom will come home later and snoop around the kitchen, searching for evidence of this transgression—discarded cellophane, nutrition labels, salty Ramen powder tinted light for chicken, dark for beef, and a disturbing shade of orange for flavored shrimp.
“I’m ok,” I say. “I’m not hungry.”
“Suit yourself.” He comes forth from the kitchen, relaxed now in his bathrobe and slippers. In one hand, a platter of steaming franks, withered at the ends the way he likes them. An apron cinched tight around his neck to ward off stains. In the other hand, a sweating can of soda.
“Can I ask you something, Dad?”
“Shoot.” He draws a TV tray up to the couch and stretches his legs out on the ottoman.
“Why do you like James Bond so much?” For now, this seems a safer question than why he likes hot dogs.
“Same reason you like it, I’ll bet.”
I think of Carole Bouquet in the white swimsuit, her graceful flex and curve among the coral, the lovely cords of muscle along her inner thighs. Then, all at once, my hands turn hot and scratchy—as if I’m wearing mittens, but I’m not. “Really?”
“Sure. It’s the adventure, the thrill of the chase, using the fancy gadgets and beating the bad guys and coming out on top in the end. Everybody wants to be James Bond,” my father proclaims, daubing his hot dog with mustard thoughtfully. “Well, everybody likes the adventure, and every man wants to be James Bond.”
“So do you think every woman wants to be a Bond Girl?” My mother has recently told me that every woman wants to be Miss America, and I can see how the two could be compatible professions.
“No, no. That’s not what you want to aspire to.” He sounds more like a father now and less like a fan. I can tell he is censoring himself to make this a moral lesson. “A lot of those girls—they don’t have much of a brain in their heads, and they’re a little loose when it comes to…dating.” This, I understand, is code for sex. “But you know, you don’t have to be a Bond Girl to end up with a man like James Bond. That’s the beauty of it. You can go to school, run in the right circles, and someday you’ll be a doctor and the wife of a successful, good-looking man.”
“I’d rather be a secret agent,” I sigh.
“Well,” my father nods, reaching for the remote, “wouldn’t we all.”
My mother picks me up from eighth grade, and we drive together to Southcenter Mall. If we must go shopping—and my mother says we must—I wish it could be downtown, where the foot traffic is more interesting, the buildings more grand, and the water beckons beyond every slope and bend. There are things worth seeing downtown.
“And no parking that isn’t metered,” my mother reminds me. “And homeless people lurking by every door.”
And Pike Place Market. And Pioneer Square. And baristas with tattoed spider webs on their pretty, bony arms.
“We have two orders of business today,” she says, pulling a crumpled sheet of Steno paper from the bottomless pit of her purse. “First, we need to pick up the official entry form for your writing contest, and second, we need to get your father some shirts. Maybe a corset while we’re at it,” she mutters. Then, as I meet her eyes, I know I’m done for. “But before we do anything else”—her large hand fishing till she finds it—“we need to touch up our lipstick.”
In the lingerie department, I stand mesmerized by the scantily clad mannequins, each adorned with a different color lace. All lack faces and many lack heads and a few are simply torsos without arms; no hands to gesture, no fingers to wag in caution or disbelief.
“May I help you?” a heavily perfumed woman with high hair asks my mother. My mother in turn nudges me.
“Julie? Isn’t there something you’d like to ask the sales lady?”
“Why don’t they put heads on all the mannequins?” I demand. “Doesn’t that seem a little creepy to you?”
“Not at all,” she replies, her voice creamy as tapioca pudding—which, incidentally, I have never liked. “The purpose is to highlight the undergarments, focus your attention on the fit, not the face.” As if faces were distracting. As if life would be so much easier without them. Here she motions toward a matching set of bra and panties, both teal, with a white, pin-pocked stomach stretching in between. No one has even bothered with the navel.
“Besides,” my mother instructs, “it’s your own face you’re meant to imagine there. Picture yourself wearing these things.”
I tried. I had been trying. And when we watched the Miss America Pageant, I did imagine the silver sash draped across my shoulders, the diamond tiara placed upon my head. I listened as my mother spoke back to the young starlet on television: “You’re like a clothes hanger, you know that? You’d look good in a gunny sack.” It was the same contradictory tone again—this time, jealousy mixed with admiration.
“We’re really here because my daughter is going to nominate me for the Inspirational Woman contest.” My mother smiles coyly at the clerk, as though it were my idea.
“Marvelous! And I’m sure you’ve heard about our prizes.” She steps behind the counter and hands me a thin sheet of paper and a small cardstock square. I thank her before my mother can jab me deeply in the ribs.
“It’s pretty self-explanatory, I think,” she says. Her face is the color of apricots, and hard as I squint, I can’t make out a single pore. “There, on the little postcard, is a list of prizes. First prize includes a hundred-dollar check and a brand-new lingerie wardrobe for mother and daughter!”
“And don’t forget—” my mother directs, head bobbing her approval—“lunch with Jean Enersen.”
Now we return to the matter of my father. I follow my mother on her slow patrol through the men’s department. A pattern emerges: check the washing instructions, consult the price tag, scowl and murmur something under the breath. “He has to get out of the Big and Tall Shop. I’m tired of paying specialty prices because he had too many second helpings.”
Just as her bad mood begins to settle like dust over a frontier town, my mother spots a beacon of good cheer. Kicking the tumbleweed out of her way, she strides toward him, this glossy face with clefted chin in a sales promotion photograph. “Do you see this?” she asks. I was blind, but I wasn’t that blind. “Do you see this man?” I nod my head. “This is what a man should look like—chiseled bones, broad shoulders that taper to a slender waist.”
“May I help you ladies find anything today?” A young man wearing an olive green tie and braces on his teeth leans across the clothes rack and smiles.
“We’ll take one of these to go,” my mother replies, pointing to the picture of the Stafford Shirt Man.
“Of course. Is there a particular size you’re looking for?”
“It’s a joke,” she says curtly. “The man in the picture—he’s quite a looker.”
Now the sales clerk blushes in an if-you-say-so kind of way, and my mother revels in his awkward retreat. “Not for me, mind you. I’m happily married. But soon my daughter will be dating, and I want her to set her sights appropriately high.”
Where, oh where, are a sarsaparilla and a pair of flapping saloon doors when you need them?
Dear Bon Marche “Inspirational Woman” Essay Committee,
I would like to nominate my mother as an inspirational woman because she is extremely perceptive and also resourceful. Nothing gets past her, no matter how small, and she has never encountered an obstacle she couldn’t overcome. My mother used to be a school teacher, and she held her students to the highest possible standards. Though we don’t receive report cards, my father and I are no exceptions to her rule.
During spring vacation, I lingered every morning at the kitchen table, waiting for my writer’s block to dissolve. What could I say about my mother that was equal parts nice and true? I racked my brain. I counted the number of cars packing onto the ferry boat, the number of people milling around on deck. This was something amazing about me—how far-sighted I was, how clearly I could see into the distance.
My mother dialed my father’s number on our bright-white rotary phone. “Bill, is that you?” A pause. “Why can’t I hear you? Do you have something in your mouth?” I looked up from my three-ring notebook and my cereal bowl. A bolt of lightning shot down my throat. “I want the truth, Bill. What are you eating?”
By the time my father returned from the office, my mother had worked herself into a frenzy.
She had moved his new suit from the closet to the hat rack in the hall, making it the first thing he saw when he walked in the door. My mother was no Miss Moneypenny, and my father was no James Bond.
“Is this all a game to you?” Her words pelted him like tennis balls from an automated cannon. My father never had the fortitude to duck.
“All those fat cats at your office—think they’re too big for their britches, huh? Except the joke’s on them because their britches are getting too small.” I had to hand it to her. My mother could really mix some metaphors.
“It was a retirement party for Don Ingles. I was just having a little piece of cake—just to be social.”
“At ten o’clock in the morning? How gullible do you think I am? You’re going to social your way right into a 44, Mister. That’s what’s going to happen to you.”
My father raised his hand like a crossing guard bartering with a semi. “Let’s not do this in front of Julie, all right?”
I was doing leg stretches on the carpet with some resistance bands my mother had bought at a garage sale. We took turns using them, she in the morning and I in the afternoon.
“Don’t make Julie your scapegoat, Bill. Now go in the bedroom and put on the suit.”
He set down his briefcase and shook his head. “What are you talking about?”
She pointed to the gray and white garment bag that hung beside him like a shadow—just his height. “Put it on, and let’s see what kind of progress we’re making.”
“It doesn’t fit,” he replied, still not getting it, still not understanding that the suit was a new yardstick, one made of fabric, not wood.
“That’s ridiculous. I’m not going to put it on.” He brushed past her, heading for the basement door.
She followed with the suit—“Which only proves you have something to hide!” Her hair was fresh out of hot rollers and still uncombed as she chased him down the stairs, her bathrobe dragging.
The shouting continued, followed by the slamming of doors. Mittens, our scrawny cat, slunk toward me and pawed at my shoulder until I let him outside. I pulled my leg warmers off and gazed at the grandfather clock. So many hours to go, I thought. And no other way but this way.
By the time my parents stormed through the dining room, I had perched on the piano bench but was still too nervous to play. What would be the proper accompaniment to this melodrama? My mother liked show tunes, and my father liked country. They were both fans of the Big Band Era. Benny Goodman’s “And the Angels Sing”? Tommy Dorsey’s “I’m Getting Sentimental over You”?
“You’re either going to put on this suit, or you’re never going to hear the end of it!” my mother screamed.
“Look away!” my father commanded as he ran past me in his jockey shorts and clingy white t-shirt.
“I married Prince Charming, not Captain Blubber Gut!” I heard the garment bag slap against his back. More like a wallop from the force of it.
“Goddamnit, Linda, that hurts!”
“You know what’s going to hurt a lot more—dying of a heart attack at fifty! And I will not be a widow—do you understand me? I will not dress in black and cry my eyes out over my big fat husband who didn’t have to flush his whole life down the drain!”
More mixed metaphors. Then, my father’s voice, soft, desperate: “What kind of example are you setting for our daughter?”
My mother unzipped the bag—an unmistakable sound. “Put on the suit, Bill. Or in spite of everything else, she’ll think you’re a coward, too.”