You called me this morning.
“Hi!” your voice crackled from across the Atlantic Ocean.
“Hi, Mom!” I shouted back.
I had not heard from you for almost a month, since you returned to Morocco after the New Year. Soon after my daughter’s birth four years ago, you were awarded a Fulbright to teach English literature outside the capital city of Rabat. Within a year, you bought an apartment downtown and signed up for Arabic lessons.
“It’s Gi Gi!” I whispered to my daughter, Mae Mae, who lay on the sofa bed this morning with a 103 fever and the chills. (You refuse to be called “Grandma” or any variation that’s close.)
I thought it would make Mae Mae feel better to hear your voice. It’s rare that we hear from you when you’re in Morocco because your cell phone rings, perhaps, half of the times I try. And you have not yet learned how to e-mail.
“Look,” you said. “I only have 30 seconds on this phone card, but just wanted to call and say how much I miss you!”
So, I let you talk, as I do most of the time. I usually listen to the details about your life abroad — the mint tea and the king — but don’t remember how to tell you about myself. Growing up, I tried to get you to listen to me by causing a scene. I didn’t know how to earn your love back then, and I still don’t know how to do it today.
When the phone went dead, I stood there holding the receiver. This is what I’d wanted to say:
Listen to me, Mom.
Hold me, Mom.
I love you, Mom.
I wanted you to come to my door with some chicken soup and tell me that everything was going to be okay. I wanted you to recite details about the times I had a high fever as a kid and how, in time, it passed. Often, I go through my days feeling that if I had you in my life all the time, everything would be perfect. I would never find myself alone like this with a sick child. You would be there, sitting on the sofa with us, reading chapter books out loud, our knees touching.
The last time you visited me here in California, it was Christmas. You gave me a vibrant red button-up sweater that was made for a tall big woman, not the petite 5′ 2″ one I am. I swam in it, but absolutely loved the color. When I put it on, I felt like I was wearing a warm blanket, the red bursting around me with love. I wanted you to pick me up, as if I were a baby, and hold me.
You opened my gift to you: a Junior Raglan “Literary Mama” shirt. After unwrapping it, you slipped it right over your blouse, beaming.
You loved the shirt, I think, because you are a literally a “Literary Mama.” Since before I was born, you have taught high school and college English, and during the past two decades, you have become an impressive poet. One of the most recent poems you wrote describes me when I was pregnant.
You wrote, “Continuity: I close my eyes, knowing we are not lost and see Rachel? She is making a little boat of bones, the small ribs turning night and day.” Your last line is: “how did you get there? So stubborn, so insistent.”
I never asked you about that last line, but today, I wonder what it means. You come from a mid-western divorced Irish-Catholic family of five kids. You were raised with strict rules that you did NOT follow, but deemed necessary to repeat to me, like, “No sex before marriage.”
I did not follow them, either. I was a shy, straight-A student all through school, but at home, I talked back and slammed doors. I snuck out to sleep with my boyfriend. But I kept our family secrets — about your family’s depression and alcoholism — with my lips shut tight. When I got pregnant, you fumed about the fact that I was an unwed mother. You told me that having a biracial baby would not be easy.
On Christmas, I explained the Literary Mama shirt to you: “Mom, this is part of a new online magazine I’m writing for–”
“Oh, really? How fabulous!”
I swallowed hard, thinking that I could never write about you like I’m doing right now. You might read it, and I would be in big, big trouble. But then I realized you have never looked at this magazine. If you did, you never told me. So I am writing about you. You will never read this. You will not hear what I’m saying.
If you did read this, could we begin anew? Could we be like those mothers and daughters I eavesdrop on, the ones who trade baking recipes, buy new clothes together, and hug for a long minute?
As you left my place at Christmas, you stopped me at the top of the stairs.
“I want to talk to you,” you said in a grave voice.
I sensed that something was wrong. At first, I thought that maybe someone in our family was dying. Then, I wondered if you were going to ask me something serious about my life. Maybe this was my chance to open up. I could finally tell you what was going on.
“It’s about your kitchen–”
“My kitchen?” I said, confused.
“It’s the bacteria. With all those dishes piled up in the sink, I’m worried about bugs.”
And then, with a quick squeeze, you were out the door. Silently, I watched you stroll back to your car. Then, I turned around and trudged into my kitchen. I knew, in that moment, you were not going to change. You were not going to be the mom I wanted you to be.
I stood there with my arms folded across my chest and looked around. There were plastic bowls filled with leftover cereal and milk, along with strawberry jelly stuck to the counter, flyaway popcorn covering the stove, a half-eaten granola bar, and a box of opened Saltine crackers. I had woken up at 6 a.m. to clean, but in between putting the toys away, scrubbing the bathroom and vacuuming, I didn’t get to the kitchen. I always panicked before you visited, wanting to make my home perfect for you. I thought you would understand if the dishes were dirty. Tears rolled down my cheeks.
I had failed you. And you had failed me, too. Within moments, my grief transformed to rage. I wanted to run back to the door and yell at you:
Why don’t you come back here and help me then?
Too bad I don’t have a maid like you do!
I hate you!
When I’m 57, like you, I hope that I’m having an expatriate adventure, too, eating couscous on my sunny balcony with my Arabic-speaking friends and bargaining over sandals with the local leather guy.
But, unlike you, I hope that I’m close to my daughter. I hope I will help her wash the dishes in the sink. I hope I’m near enough to laugh with her and cry with her, when needed.
Lastly, as a Literary Mama, I hope that, as you did for me, I will teach my daughter to write honestly, even when it hurts.