By Trish Annese
Each morning my mother pours her sorrows into a cup of tea, only to swallow them down so she can gather them once more for the next day’s brew. Most days I join her and we sit and sip our cups together at the kitchen table, mine sweet with too much sugar and cream, hers black like coffee. We don’t talk. And although I would like to look at her, I cannot. Nor do I remember when this not-looking began. As a child I always sought my mother’s eye. Now, at eighteen, on the day of my departure for college, I am unable to answer the questions that hide in her gaze. Instead, I duck my head to take in the texture of woven cloth that covers the table beneath my folded hands.
My mother has led a kitchen life. For a woman, the kitchen can be a sorrow or a joy. For my mother, it has been the former; for her, the kitchen means waiting and wanting and food left cold. It means late-night vigils and morning rows. Years have passed for my mother, and each smile, each longing, each disappointment has been buttressed by the smell and the burn of the kitchen’s heat.
For so long I have wanted to fly from this place and her sadness. Right now, sitting in her kitchen and avoiding her gaze like I believe I can avoid her power, I do not know that her sadness is a part of me and I cannot run. It will shape me, and I will lose the ability to form myself when I am in its grip. But I do not know this now, as I sit at her table and drink her tea and try to avoid her searching stare; I am so full of this idea of free that my shoulders itch with the wanting of wings.
The day is gray. The roaring sky of the previous night broke to a drizzly morning, and a chill has crept through the house and settled in the kitchen despite the oven’s heat. The tea warms us momentarily but is finished too quickly, and we are left shivering in the darkened room.
There’s something for you in the closet. Upstairs, she intones. I am surprised that she is speaking to me, but I move dutifully from my seat and head upstairs to find what I know is a present shuffled away behind some items on a shelf in the closet of her bedroom.
Is it wrapped? I ask.
Of course it’s wrapped.
On the shelf. The top one.
I putter around in the closet for a bit, haphazardly glancing from floor to shelf. When I cannot find it, I yell, I can’t find it.
I hear the scrape of her chair as she pushes away from the table. She mutters as she mounts the hall stairs. When she joins me in the closet, I know she is angry by the way she sucks her teeth. She reaches to a place I could never have seen from my height, rummages among the cache of outdated purses piled there, and yanks a plastic bag with a drawstring from the pile. She reaches her hand in the bag, pulls out an artfully wrapped gift, and hands it to me.
Right in front of your nose.
And what she really means is that she believes my refusal to see her gift is just one more of the innumerable slights she has had to suffer at my careless hands.
Sorry. Thank you. I mumble the words, holding the box stupidly.
We return to the kitchen, where I set the box on the table.
The package is wrapped in brown paper. When I look more closely, I can see that it is hand painted with tiny shells and starfish. I know she has done this work herself. I untie the ribbon with ginger fingers and lift the top from the box. Nestled within tissue is a sweater, knit by hand with fine alpaca wool. It is a rich chocolate color—one that suits me well—and looks like the smell of fire on a crisp autumn afternoon. I remove the sweater from the box and hold it to my chest. I want to smile, but something prevents the corners of my mouth from moving.
It’s a good color on you.
Yes. Thanks. I love it.
I cannot conceive of what my mother feels precisely, so I ignore the catch in her voice when her words trail away; she would not call it a catch, would deny any feeling but anger, but I have watched her sadness long enough to recognize its shape.
This sadness of hers depletes me, mostly because I don’t understand it, but the breathing helps. I force my ears to breathe, my eyes, my hair, my fingertips. I school myself in the art of air and find space for it to enter and mingle with her sorrow and my longing so that, like a wind in dry leaves, it can swirl and eddy my corollary sorrow away into summer sunlight.
I retreat to my bedroom to retrieve the small present I will leave with her. It is a collection of shells from our most recent trip to Florida, when each day we rose before the sun to walk the stretches of sand beyond our hotel. Every year of my childhood, she and I would scavenge seashells on trips like that one, tracing the water’s ragged lips against soft cheeks of sand to sift for small remembrances we’d gather in bright green and pink buckets before returning to the lanai of our room and sitting with the sun on our faces as we compared our collections. My mother enjoyed the inventory of these hauls especially. She would sift through the shells, holding them up one by one, naming them and demonstrating the ways they resembled their various monikers: cats’ paws and ladies’ slippers.
On that last vacation, however, she could not be satisfied; she’d troll the beach, selecting and discarding shell after shell. She’d lift a conch to her ear, closing her eyes and reaching her neck to the sun, while I looked away, pulling at the skin near the nail on my thumb. In the end she would scowl and cast it to the ground. It’s too faint, she’d complain. At the end of each morning, she would have little to show for her efforts. To be fair, there were few shells left intact after the storms that spring—some scallops and limpets—but a few days after we’d arrived, we woke to a beach strewn with whelks. For a while we collected them, and she was pleased with such substantial finds until we realized they still housed the creatures that lived inside. The local shell diggers advised us to put them back, but my mother got the idea that we could boil the animals out of their homes and have the shells to keep. For days the small efficiency we rented smelled like rotten fish as she boiled soft flesh away from the shell walls. By the end of the week, the whelks had lost their sheen to the astringency of bleach and lay piled by the sink in russet clumps. My mother stood and listened to each one, trying to find the perfect ocean echo. When she couldn’t, she left the cleanup to me and spent the rest of the vacation reading the paper and flipping channels on the TV. Each evening, the ambient sounds and forced conviviality of game shows filled the small room we shared, slight balms for the silence mushrooming between us.
I return to the kitchen and set a small box on the table in front of her. She looks down at it, then up at me, taking me in from above the line of her glasses. Inside the box, nestled against the pale silk I have used to line it, is a single whelk, waxed to a high sheen, and a selection of cat’s paws and scallop shells, some of the few I was able to scavenge from our time at the beach, white and pink and clean, resilient and beautiful.
For you. A present.
She raises her chin slightly and sets to untying the ribbon. She lifts the box to peer at its contents. She shakes the shells onto the table and one, a cat’s paw, falls pink against the dark linoleum floor. She looks up and catches my eye, holds it. I can feel the heat rise in my face. I can see that she likes my gift, that she thinks it is thoughtful and is the kind of meaningful memento a daughter should pass to her mother upon leaving the nest for the first time.
Her palm comes down hard on the table. I stay still. Her nostrils flare. She takes a moment to quiet her breath, and then she smooths the shells from the tabletop to the box and replaces its lid. Slowly, with a single finger, she guides the box across the table until it stops inches from where I sit. Her finger, smooth nailed and dry, hovers in the air above the gift. In this moment reside the lessons of kindnesses doubted, lovers’ whispers unraveled, and promises postponed. I swallow. Say nothing. That long finger lingers, pointing, it seems, to the heartbreaks ahead.
You think I don’t know my own daughter? You will need this memento more than I.
She turns to the window and contemplates the row of peonies in the backyard. I open my mouth to speak. Close it. Outside, the sun breaks through the morning gray, and a shallow light stills the movement of clouds. Because the sweater fits me so well and I cannot stand the thought of living without the color of fall, I seize it and shove it into the outside pocket of my packed bag.
No. You are wrong, I say. I won’t.
My mother returns her gaze to the kitchen, now filled with light, and she stands. I inhale and wait, steeling myself against the breath of sorrow she emits, and I look her in the eye. A low buzz sounds at the base of my skull. I want to turn on my heel and leave, but something—Finality? Fear? A wisdom I don’t yet know I have?—holds me, and I step forward to briefly rest my arms around her shoulders. The skin of her cheek feels loose and cool beneath mine. We stay linked for the breath of a moment, until she gives my arms a brittle shrug. I grab the bag with the coveted gift inside, sling it over my shoulder, and turn from my mother’s kitchen eyes before lunging for the front door, where I finally exhale and escape into the pale noon light.