As We Gather Around Ourselves

Phyllis Brotherton

Phyllis Brotherton

My mother’s grave is anything but quiet.

*

The hospice nurse lifts the bed sheet and explains the blue of my mother’s toes, a natural process by which blood begins to leave the extremities and gather around the heart. This is the beginning.

*

Denise and I recline on our love seat. I observe our feet crossed before us: my toes painted an inherited red, hers down-to-earth natural. We are as different as our toes. A couple for eighteen years, we have one sure thing in common. We are mothers—of a daughter and a son. Her daughter, in love again after a divorce, is contemplating a move to Minnesota. My son, living across town, might as well live in Minnesota.

*

In 1978, after my father dies, I visit my mother on her isolated farm. Snow drifting against the north side of the house, we clean out a closet. Above the hangers is a shelf of her paperbacks. A piece of paper falls out, a list of goals and wishes. On her list: Write a book. She dismisses it as a silly notion she once had. Later that winter, she paces the halls of the farm house alone, crying and screaming at her husband for dying; painstakingly does his chores in the frozen dawn, until she slips on the ice and breaks an ankle. A quiet widower who has lost his wife to cancer offers to help out. He eventually becomes my stepfather.

*

I walk back and forth past my mother’s last acrylic painting, hung outside my writing room like a shrine, a lighthouse next to a small shack. Her brush strokes are broken into the crooked teeth of a white picket fence, orange and yellow cotton-ball flowers on a pallet of dark green grass. This is all foreground; a foreshadowing. I can still recall her room of easels, the bedroom wall covered in color charts, the mug of brushes, and my mother bent over those final flowers. She has forgotten how to make coffee and do almost everything and, it seems, now this. Her second husband leans over to help her finish, this painting and this life. He measures and traces for her, with a carpenter’s precision, an outline of the shack.

*

Unable to find her way back home one day after visiting a sick friend, my mother relinquishes her car keys. My stepfather drives her to see her son, my brother, who lives in the far reaches of the state. As they leave, her daughter-in-law takes her aside in the kitchen and says there’s no need to come back. It is never clear why. This is a story I found hard to believe, yet she continued to tell me.

*

My son and I mail Christmas gifts to each other across town. Replying to his emailed thank you, I invite him for lunch wherever he wants. No reply. Is he struggling to decide, hoping for the intervention of a bad cold? After a few days, I send a text that something has come up and suggest possibly another time, relieving him of his inner turmoil and maybe also mine.

*

Early on, I learn to prefer painted toes from my mother; hers always some version of blue-based or fire-engine red. Her toes were juxtaposed against marble-white feet with an unusually high arch; feet that, in the right country and century, might have been praised. My toes are those of my father; the painted nails not curved and girlish, but square and troublesome, prone to growth down and inward.

*

Mom walks along beside me, as if she could go all day and follow me anywhere. The Oklahoma north wind stings our watering eyes. I dab her tears as she hums. Two scissor-tails, arriving optimistic from Mexico, wobble on the telephone wires and grip tiny toes to hang on. Mom pulls a clump of weeds and gifts them to me. We brace forward. In the silence of the moment, broken only by our feet tramping gravel, I ask what she’s thinking. She answers, “Everything.”

*

The last lighthouse of her painting life stands against an angry sea with her forever blue of hopeful sky. All of her paintings contain some version of this blue. I called these paintings her “blue period,” as if there were other periods. After her funeral, my stepfather turns in the passenger seat of my brother’s SUV and tells us most of her paintings were done with the help of an art teacher, who was the real painter, adding he wanted to make sure we knew. It reveals to me a side of him I do not want to know.

*

Here we are, Denise and I, feet up, fighting disappointment; mothers getting a grip on the fact that our adult children are no longer blindly loyal. They recede into the distance like a fading memory, at least that part of them that needed us; no longer a single rapt audience.

*

My stepfather faithfully takes care of my mother for years before relinquishing her to a nursing home. Under the cottonwoods, sitting in two rusty lawn chairs, he spoons her favorite strawberry shortcake into her mouth and walks with her around and around the fenced-in yard. He brings her teeth and favorite dress to the funeral home and insists on an open casket. She looks her old self again, when she accompanied him to bluegrass festivals, camped out at family reunions, boiled coffee over a fire and shared sticky buns at midnight.

*

I whisper low at her bedside, close to her face, her breath now sporadic between gaps of utter quiet. My brother has come and kneels at her other side. “Kenny is here, Mom. Kenny is here.” Her whole body reacts, shifts. She tries to move her head in his direction. Eyes closed, she smiles a half smile, as her face transforms to white.

*

How do we, two mothers, two wives, reinvent ourselves into roles other than mother? How do we transform, gather around ourselves; nurture each other toward the end? This morning we drink hot tea, don florescent gym clothes, shove our toes into running shoes and walk fast toward a sun rising over blue Sierras. Our skin flushes warm, hearts pump. With a rush of circulating blood, our toes begin to tingle.

11 Comments

  1. Your story is beautiful. It makes me feel the joy and the sorrow as if it is my own life. You are an amazing writer.

  2. She is an amazing writer, individual and wife whose stories make the reader feel as though they see and feel every word in the story.

  3. I am not surprised at the haunting beauty of this piece. You are an amazing writer, and one who captures many of our life experiences in words. I read this aloud to Sandy and both of us find your southern voice familiar and heart-warming. Brava, Phyllis. Brava!

  4. Amazing, speaking as friend! It touched my soul.

  5. So beautiful. Thank you for this.

  6. Thanks for articulating the things we do with such eloquence.

  7. This is great, Phyllis. Congratulations!

  8. Phyllis writes with such beautiful imagery, and emotion which is palpable but never cloying. I loved the rhythm of this piece. A wonderfully touching and yet haunting story.

  9. Such a beautiful story. I resonated with this story on a deep level. Thank you for sharing.

  10. It is quite unbelievable that someone can actually put words to the deepest of emotion. I applaud you and your keen ability to capture life in its most raw form.

  11. Your words found purchase with me, losing both parents when I was much younger though. And my son, lost to all of his family feels like a death. Thanks for sharing your work.

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