I keep mum when my daughter Maggie tells me that she’s baking a sugar-free birthday cake for my five-year-old granddaughter. She’s reaching out to me for the first time in years, and I sure don’t want to muck things up. During the drive to the health food store in Bethesda, I tolerate her I-can’t-believe-you-smoked-while-you-were-pregnant tone while she lectures me on how sweets wreak havoc on the immune system.
My Pick’n Save back home looks pretty gosh darned good compared to this place. I bite my tongue instead of asking Maggie why organic produce looks so mangy, or if all the employees are required to pierce their nostrils, or why she chooses to shop in a store that smells like a scented bathroom candle. Little Kaya and I follow her up and down the aisles in search of some magical artificial sweetener her acupuncturist recommended.
“Found it.” Maggie reaches for a rectangular box decorated with a drawing of a mint leaf. “This is the sweetener, Say-Lo; I remember the name because it sounds like J.Lo.”
“The Italian singer with the round derrière?”
“She’s Puerto Rican, Mom.” Maggie laughs, and then Kaya and I join in. The joke’s on me, and that’s okay, as long as we’re all laughing together.
A bearded clerk gives Maggie the once-over while he rings up the Say-Lo. And why not? My Maggie’s pretty again, in a bohemian kind of way. She doesn’t have to resort to the bottle (L’Oréal No. 12) like I did once I hit my mid-thirties. A natural honey color tints her long braid, and she keeps herself real slim and trim. Thank the good lord, she’s over that phase where she dyed her hair black and ate junk and made herself as unappealing as possible. This was right before she flitted off to London, and we didn’t speak for years.
The clerk gestures to us. “No question you three apples fell from the same tree.” He points his index finger at me but looks at Kaya. “Now, is this your mom’s twin sister?” With that twinkle in his eyes, he’s starting to remind me of a scruffy Cary Grant.
“She’s my grandma, silly.” Kaya giggles and points to my ash blond hair (L’Oréal No. 30).
I cup her cheek, the perfect half of a peach, and gush. “You’re kind, young man.” Good golly, it’s been a long while since anyone’s noticed my looks. But here I am, the source of both Maggie’s and Kaya’s dimples and blond hair, a sharp contrast to our olive skin. A striking combination, if I do say so myself.
Kaya waves goodbye to the clerk, and I reach for her hand as we exit the store. I squeeze her chubby fingers, which one day will become long and tapered like mine. This humidity is uncivilized for a midwestern girl like me. I take a handkerchief out of my handbag and dab my upper lip. “Doesn’t that clerk remind you of Cary Grant a little?”
“He’s a big flirt.” Maggie rolls her eyes.
“What’s a flirt?” Kaya asks as she hops into the back of Maggie’s wagon and buckles her car seat.
“A person who makes people feel good about themselves so they’ll like him,” Maggie says, starting the car.
“People are going to flirt with you like crazy, Kaya. You’re such a pretty little thing,” I smile at her in the rearview mirror.
Maggie’s jaw tenses. She’s so fussy about this topic. Can’t I appreciate my granddaughter’s beauty?
“Kaya and her daddy and I have big discussions about inner beauty, about the importance of kindness and respect.” Maggie’s doing that thing she does with her husband, where they pretend that they’re talking to each other: “Kaya cleaned up her room today, Eric. All by herself.” But this time I can’t tell if her intended audience is Kaya or me.
“And inclusion, Mommy. That means that you let everyone play with you.” Kaya has obviously rehearsed this line.
“That’s right, sweetie.” Maggie shoots me a look, the remnants of a familiar anger that I still don’t understand. I never worked so hard at anything in my life as I did raising my girls, devoting myself to them, helping them strive for perfection. If my mother had paid attention to me like that when I was a girl, I would have luxuriated in her love like a kitten basking in a warm patch of sunshine. I thought when Maggie became a mother she would understand the sacrifices I made for her, the hours I spent learning her cheerleading routine while she was at school, so that I could help her make the squad. Which she did.
But I’m not going to let any of that spoil my weekend; you can imagine my surprise last month when Maggie called and asked me to fly to Washington to help out with Kaya’s party. Sure, we see each other three or four times a year — Christmas, birthdays, and whatnot — but this is the first time she’s really invited me into her life. Eric is a diversity trainer, and luckily for me, he had to attend a big, fancy corporate retreat in Miami for this weekend. So here I am, ready to roll up my sleeves.
* * *
My mother thinks that baking a sugar-free carrot cake for a five-year-old’s birthday party is moronic, as she’s been screaming at me by her deliberate silences since I took her to the Bethesda Natural Food Co-op this afternoon. I’m not going to let it get to me; our parenting styles are just completely opposite — thank God — and she’s going to have to accept that eliminating sugar from our diet is an important choice I’m making for our family.
I prepare a quinoa and cilantro dish I clipped from Organic Weekly, steam some kale, and broil a nice piece of salmon for us. After dinner, I bathe Kaya, whose body hums with excitement over the party; it takes three chapters of Charlotte’s Web for her to drift off to sleep.
My mother is scouring the salmon pan with an S.O.S. pad when I join her in the kitchen.
“Thank goodness she finally went down; I don’t want her to be pooped out for her party.” She smiles at me, which incites a fresh wave of guilt over my anger with her this afternoon at the co-op. I ruined her moment with Alex, or the Compliment Man, as Eric and I’ve nicknamed him. I pick up a bag of carrots, and we grate them until our fingers turn orange.
“Look.” I point to our stained hands.
“That’s carotene.” She rubs her fingers together. “Your father loved carrots. Remember that ginger-carrot ring I used to serve on Christmas Eve?” Her voice softens as it always does when she remembers my father, who died from a heart attack the year before I met Eric. That’s when we really started talking regularly again. “One of you girls wouldn’t touch it.”
“Guilty.” I raise my hand weakly. “But I do remember our baking adventures.”
My mother’s the most fun when she’s baking. We used to make batches of M&M oatmeal cookies to sell at my sister Kat’s swim meets, and I bet if I put on some Captain and Tennille, she’d start dancing, despite her recent hip replacement.
Maybe Eric’s idea of inviting her to help with Kaya’s party wasn’t so bad. “Birthday parties are Helene’s thing, Maggie. Besides, she’s so lonely without your dad,” he said last month, on the drive home from picking strawberries with Kaya. I thought he was just trying to get off the hook for booking his Florida meeting without checking the family calendar. My attitude changed when my friend Hannah, who’s become quite reflective since her baby was born, started talking to me about redemption. She and Eric agree that my only shot at having a good relationship with Kaya is to mend things with my mother.
Not that things are all that bad with my mom; I mean I don’t hate her anymore. I’m not saying I could live in the same city with her, like Kat, but it was different between the two of them when we were younger, less intense. Kat was a jock, which was not as important to my mother as being pretty, actually, the prettiest. She was so invested in my looks that I felt like she was breathing through my lungs sometimes.
Now that I’m a mom, I can’t imagine taking such pleasure in my daughter’s appearance. I want to show my mother that raising children is about instilling values and building self-esteem, not pushing them so hard to be on top of the heap that they grow fat, pimply, and miserable out of spite. I can’t imagine what it would take for her to get that.
The next morning, Hannah and her baby Goldie arrive at 10:30 on the nose. Kaya bounces downstairs wearing her favorite pair of overalls and a dingy Snow White T-shirt Sam bought her at the Orlando airport two years ago. My mother examines her, and I know what she’s thinking, and I’m definitely not going to run around Washington like a lunatic, hunting down outfits made out of non-kid-friendly fabrics, not to mention the matching hair ribbons, socks, and shoes.
Only five children show up for the party. I’m hoping that some of the parents will stay, just to fill out the room, but they don’t.
“August is a tough month to host anything in Washington. The city just clears out,” Hannah explains to my mother.
My mother’s eyes dart around the room. “Go get me one of your scarves, Maggie, and I’ll lead the girls in a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.” She just can’t help herself.
“This is a choose-your-own-theme birthday party, Mom.” I try to keep the annoyance out of my voice. I’ve explained this to her about a dozen times. “It’s empowering for these girls to make this experience what they want it to be for themselves.”
My mother puts out her hands to Goldie, who nuzzles her fuzzy head against the collar of a blouse I haven’t seen before. Babies adore my mother. The two settle into a wicker rocker in the sunroom and watch Kaya and her friends play.
Hannah keeps me company while I put the finishing touches on the goody bags in the kitchen. I try to focus on her deliberations over when to wean, but my attention slides toward the living room, where I can see Kaya’s reflection in the glass cabinet.
She stands with her hands on her hips and points to three girls. “You three go draw, and when I say time’s up, then Chloe and Jade will switch, and you can come play house with me,” she orders. During her parent conference last winter, her teacher had described this bossy behavior, which we initially chalked up to her classmate Daphne Mettleman’s bad influence. After Daphne moved to Toronto, we attributed these bossiness to Kaya’s burgeoning leadership abilities.
The three girls dutifully march off to color on a small table Eric built for Kaya, who turns her attention to Chloe and Jade, the anointed guests. “Okay, so I’m the mommy. Chloe, you’re the daddy.”
“What am I?” Jade asks.
Kaya pauses, tapping her cheek with her index finger in concentration, while Jade waits in silence. “You’re the dog.”
Jade’s shoulders slump, and her chin quivers.
“Here, put this in your mouth.” Kaya gives her a ratty old tennis ball she must have found in the yard.
Chloe giggles nervously.
It feels like red heat is smoking off of my chest. I hope to God that my mother is so enraptured with Hannah’s baby that she’s not catching this. Should I step in? Reprimand Kaya on her birthday? I wish Eric were here.
“You’re next, Chloe.” Kaya hugs her redheaded friend, an action that does not match the malice of what she’s just said.
Chloe just purrs at Kaya’s affection and picks up the tennis ball. Holy shit, my daughter is cult leader material.
I look at Hannah intently, feigning oblivion to the goings-on in the sunroom. “So, what will you do with Goldie if you go back to work full-time?” I try to drown out the girls, because I’m hearing Kaya through their ears, and she’s not sounding so great. But something about Kaya’s power over these little girls tugs at the borders of my consciousness. Although I’m not exactly proud of her behavior, I’m a little in awe of her power.
“Girls, time to serve the cake!” I interrupt Hannah’s answer mid-sentence, in a high-pitched voice I barely recognize.
The girls gather around a card table my mother has decorated with pink balloons and streamers. My mother places the round layer cake in front of Kaya while I hunt down our camera. A halo of candlelight bathes Kaya’s face and hair, and she’s my angel again. I snap a shot of her blowing out all six candles on the first try. My mother plucks out the slender candles, covered in a gummy orange substance and white frosting. The cake’s a big hit, and when Jade asks for seconds, my mother nods at me with approval. I’ve spent the better part of my life pissed off at her, but right now I feel prouder than the day I ran home breathless with the news that I had been voted captain of the cheerleading squad.
* * *
Kaya “woopses” the first time during her birthday bounce on the next-door neighbor’s trampoline, a few hours after her friends have gone home. What a sight! An orange geyser flies overhead, clear into the blue sky. Maggie and I chalk this up to the heat, the excitement, and too much activity on a full tummy. Then the cake comes out both ends while Maggie is bathing her, and again when the poor dear stretches out on her Sleeping Beauty bedspread. We assume she’s finished when we bring her down to the playroom to cuddle and listen to the rest of Charlotte’s Web, but she gets sick all over the wicker chair, sullying the page where Charlotte spells her first word. Maggie carries her to the bathroom, but only after Kaya has managed to make quite a mess of the sunroom, where it looks like orange you-know-what really did hit a fan. I’m guessing she snitched another piece of cake before dinner. There is nothing worse than the sound of a child retching. I run down to the corner market and buy some Gatorade and good old-fashioned Coca-Cola, like I used to give Maggie and Kat whenever they got sick.
When I return, Maggie has turned off the air-conditioning and opened the windows to ventilate the sunroom. The thick air carries the scent of bleach and Say-Lo, which smells like burnt rubber. Maggie might have been better off baking a yellow cake. “Hand me that 409, dear. I’ll wipe down this chair,” I offer after Kaya has finally fallen asleep.
Maggie doesn’t answer me because the phone rings. I begin to dig into the crevices of the wicker chair, trying not to breathe in too deeply. Her voice is full of apology as she talks to Chloe’s mother. “I spoke with Poison Control already. It’s not toxic in the quantity I used for the cake.” She hangs up and sweeps her wet hair off her neck. “Don’t, Mom. I know what you’re thinking,” she says through the hair band she’s holding in her teeth.
“I’m not saying a word.”
“You’re thinking why didn’t I just buy one of those sheet cakes from the Giant, all lard and sugar, with princesses and mounds of pink and purple frosting?”
That’s exactly what I’m thinking, but I’ve done a very good job of keeping quiet, and I’m sure not going to throw kerosene on this fire. “Actually, I was thinking about what marvelous self-esteem Kaya has developed. She has quite a Svengali effect on those little girls.” No big surprise, she’s smart and gorgeous, but if I mention her looks, Maggie will flip into one of her moods. Pretty is bad. Confident is good. Got it.
Maggie answers the phone again. “How many times?” she asks, then gives her Poison Control song and dance and hangs up. “Jade ate a lot of cake.”
“Oh, dear.” Maggie’s nervous; her chest is breaking out in those red blotches. Maybe she’ll feel better if we talk about our dazzling Kaya. “Your daughter was directing Jade and a couple of her friends while they played with their tiny dolls. Polly Pockets, I think she called them. Cute. And assigned two mommies to one child.”
Maggie removes the soiled slipcover from one of the couch pillows. “Kaya has a lot of classmates with same-sex parents in her preschool.”
Why the huffy attitude? What on earth could I have said? I muster up a smile and reach for another roll of paper towels. My, it feels like a sauna in here. My blouse sticks to the dampness of my underarms.
Maggie continues talking in that tone of hers. “So the preschool furnishes some of the dramatic play areas with only mommy dolls and others with daddy dolls.”
I wasn’t going to say anything about the tennis ball incident, but it’s always like this with Maggie. I’m her punching bag. “Jade had a bad day. Kaya was pretty tough on her, told her that she had to be the dog when they played house.” I give the chair another good squirt of cleaner.
Maggie’s ears turn crimson. “Eric and I appreciate the diversity in her preschool. We want Kaya to know that everyone, regardless of his or her sexual preferences or race or religion, should be loved and accepted for who they are.” She’s heaping naked pillows on top of one another.
“And when Jade started to cry, she went in for the kill.” I lower my voice, knowing that my calm is just going to make her hotter. I gave birth to this girl, taught her her first word, and bought her her first brassiere; I know where she hides the silver.
Maggie ignores my comment. “These are our core values.”
Oh, for Pete’s sake, I might just have to wait in line behind Kaya for the toilet. “Your little girl runs the show. She’s got the others lining up for her approval.”
“Kaya has not yet learned the social skills to manage all of the girls who vie for her attention. It’s a developmental issue.” Maggie’s voice is loud.
Hooey. My arms and legs tingle with anger, and beads of perspiration are pooling under my lower lip. I’m about to tell Maggie she can move to London or Timbuktu, and I’m still her mother and I can still read her and her little girl like a Harlequin. I saw everything. Kaya will always be on top of the heap, despite her parents’ mumbo jumbo about equality. And I’ll tell little Miss We-Treat-Everyone-with-Respect that I saw her watch Kaya take charge of those little girls and I caught a smile poking through her lips like a teenybopper’s nipples in the frozen food aisle. She can’t deny how delicious it feels to watch your child win.
Before I can say any of this, the phone rings again, and Maggie looks at the caller I.D. “This is a nightmare.” She says in a tone of dread. “Hi, Nina . . . oh, that’s such a sweet thing to say.” Now she sounds chipper. “I’d love to chat, but we’re just putting our house back together. Thanks for calling.” Maggie grins. “Thank God Nina’s daughter doesn’t eat wheat!”
I can’t tell if Maggie’s happy that the little girl didn’t get sick or that someone actually called to compliment her on the party. She looks like she did when she used to do those tap routines for my mother, eager to please, vulnerable to my mother’s boozy indifference. (And Maggie was the favorite.) I wanted to mess up my mother’s Greta Garbo hairdo, scoop my little girl up in my arms, and cover her with kisses.
The anger vacates my body, and now I’m just dog-tired. And sad. Why do Maggie and I fight when she needs me the most? My limbs feel heavy, and my eyes burn. I want to hug my daughter, but I can’t face her turning away from me again. “Remember when I hired the Mary Kay lady to make up all our faces at your sweet sixteen?”
“Who knew that poor Karen Anderson would break out in such a rash? What was that chemical she was allergic to?”
“One of the dyes in the blusher, I think.” Methylparaben, I’ll never forget that one. “See, dear, I’m not so old that I can’t remember what it’s like to ruin a child’s birthday party.” I offer this as an olive branch, but Maggie’s laughter trails off. The only sound in the room is my paper towel digging into the crevices of the soiled wicker chair.
* * *
Fuck Eric. If he hadn’t been such a lunkhead and booked that retreat, he’d be here right now helping me clean this mess up, and my mother wouldn’t be comforting me for ruining Kaya’s birthday party. Stupid, stupid, stupid. I should have researched the side effects of that damned sweetener. What kind of acupuncturist smokes, anyway? I wish my mother would just go upstairs and take a bath or something, but there’s a part of me that wants her to stay. Story of my life.
We use two rolls of paper towels to clean the chair. It actually feels good to wipe away the mess with my mother. When I was a little girl and I was worried about a test or remembering my lines for a school play, I would lie in bed and wait for my mother to come sit on the edge and stroke my forehead. Just like that, my worries would dissolve, like the graphite designs on Kaya’s Etch A Sketch when you shake it. Presto. Gone. The sheer act of the telling made them disappear. Okay, here goes nothing.
“Kaya makes her friends tell her secrets if they want to play with her. Jade told Kaya that another girl’s mother — a pediatrician, no less — makes her eat off the floor. ‘Germs on her terms,’ she calls it, some business about immunity boosting. Kaya told everyone during circle time, and the little girl was so embarrassed that she cried for the rest of the day.” I deliver my confession in one breath.
“Did the little girl come to the party?” Her tone is soft.
“What do you think?” I half-chuckle, but I can feel tears creeping up behind my eyeballs. “No wonder the other mothers quit the Mean Girls, Zero Tolerance Task Force as soon as I joined.”
“Mags, maybe it wasn’t because of you.” Her voice softens further.
I can’t remember the last time my mother called me this. For a second my shoulders relax, and then the tension returns with a snapping sensation. Must be muscle memory. “I can’t lie to myself anymore. Some of the mothers hate me.” I wish my voice wasn’t shaking. “They say I can’t see how manipulative Kaya is, that I encourage it because I’m proud of her power.”
“No,” I answer too quickly.
In an act of rare generosity, she lets my half-truth go. And I refrain from pointing out the similarities between our collective egotistical bad-parenting moments.
“How do you know this?” she asks.
“I overheard a couple of mothers talking at the school auction. Only five of the ten girls we invited came to Kaya’s party.”
My mother’s eyes are filling up with tears; I’ve seen her cry only a handful of times in my life. She puts down her sponge, and for the second time tonight she moves toward me, and I wonder again if she’s going to gather me up in her arms and hold me. She pauses and then sits down.
“They hated me too,” she says, as if it’s the first time she’s given it a thought. Now she looks like a rumpled little girl, slumped into a corner of the sunroom, with a wad of dirty paper towels in her hand. She’s shrunk. Years of tanning have leathered her skin, and a tiny pouch hangs over the waistband of her pink Lily Pulitzer capris. Her blouse is wrinkled. I want to tell her that it’s okay, that every call she made to the school, every diet she put me on, every backseat coaching session she gave Kat and me, she did because she loved us, in her way. I forgive her for making me practice my cheers in the driveway until my fingers turned numb from the autumn Wisconsin cold, and for relentlessly comparing my looks to the other girls’, and for the stony silences on the way home from running errands, after the butcher or the bank teller smiled at me while she batted her eyelashes. Did I choose to get fat and dye my hair because I wanted her to back off, or because I wanted the butchers and mailmen and electricians to flirt with her and not me? Or both?
I want one of those double-hanky moments portrayed on the family television dramas I used to watch as a child, where everyone hugs and cries and then trots off to the kitchen to scoop out big bowls of ice cream with hot fudge sauce. But my kitchen still smells like Say-Lo, an aroma I will forever link to vomit and humiliation. And my mother does not bring out my inner compassionate TV drama daughter; I am stuck as the petulant teenager who ran from her like hell. Instead of hugging her, I speak a truth, because right now that’s the best I have to offer.
“I bet those mothers loved it when I went through my little rebellion.”
Without a beat she returns my lob. “Why do you think I stopped shopping at Food Lane? You were the talk of the checkout line.” The depth of the shame I caused her exposes itself to me like a tooth in need of a root canal. For the first time in my life, I can actually see her as someone other than the person who makes me crazy.
She points to the baseboard and sprays 409 on a fossilized box elder, snow-boot scuff marks, and a crooked line of blue crayon. We kneel before this shrine of daily life and pick up our sponges. The detergent has cleansed the orange tint from our skin, returning it to its natural color, perhaps a little pinker and puffy from the heat. We share the same tapered fingers and small, unattractive nail beds that manicures only magnify. An age spot the shape of an egg sprouts between my mother’s first two knuckles. Otherwise, our hands are identical, I notice as we scrub the old stains.