I took the framed photograph out of the top drawer of my dresser and moved you, with silent ceremony, to the wall above the kitchen sink. In the picture, you are sixteen, your hair long and straight, your teeth still crooked, your face unlined, your brown eyes troubled. It is the only picture I have ever seen of you from that era before me, and it is easy to see my face in your half-smile. I like looking at it when I am cooking or washing dishes, and I like to imagine Corey communicating with you in some way while he cooks, as he often does, for our friends and us. Of course, he never met you, and the stories he has heard are not altogether heart-warming. He is witness to the inherent sadness that is a constant companion to me and lives with your ghost as I do, comforting and caring for me throughout myriad breakdowns brought on by memory, anniversary, sometimes a song, sometimes a television commercial. In the kitchen, though, there is always music playing, and I find myself laughing a little as I remember us composing family feasts while Diana Ross and The Supremes played from the speakers in your kitchen in Tennessee, creating a rhythm to our chopping and kneading, peals of laughter and wine glasses clinking in a toast to how far we had come and “wouldn’t Miss Ross be proud of this jambalaya?”. Who knows if Diana Ross even likes jambalaya, but that wasn’t the point, was it?
The last time we saw each other was my 37th birthday. I had driven the twelve hours from south Florida to the home of your newest family in Clarksville, stopping only for gas, bathroom breaks, and caffeine. In your seventh and last marriage, you had found the security and family for which you had always longed. Now that you were safe and sound and happy, I was 800 miles away, always running to stand still. I had known, somehow, that it was important that I make this pilgrimage, that this would be the last time I would hear you say my name or taste your famous scrambled eggs. I always looked forward to sharing my birthday with you, it being your day more than mine, after all. It had become a tradition for us to share a bottle of champagne while you told the story of my birth, my favorite part always that you had chosen another name for me, but had been overridden by my father, who didn’t know how to spell Jaunce. You had fallen asleep after a long natural labor with a ten-and-a-half-pound baby and were therefore not able to protest. When you woke, I was a junior. During this last visit, I knew you couldn’t drink, so I left the Dom Perignon (your favorite, not mine) at home, knowing I would surely need it upon my return. As soon as I arrived, I noticed with horror how your health was so rapidly failing, how the chemotherapy had riddled your body with searing pain and somehow reduced your mind to an almost child-like state. You were demanding and abrasive, which wasn’t entirely new, but there was a desperation that both angered and frightened me because you were beyond reason. I ended up making the scrambled eggs because you were feeling poorly. They were just as good as yours, but you would never admit that. After breakfast, I went downstairs to nap on the couch before the long drive home and you slept in your chair, wearing that sweater, your mouth open and your breathing labored. You lamented when you woke that you didn’t want me to leave and I snapped at you, much to the chagrin of all in the room, that I had a life to live and bills to pay, that I hated that town and nothing would ever convince me to live there again, least of all you. I knew that I had hurt your feelings, but I was too angry to care, and I left in a hurry after kissing you on your cheek and thanking your family for their hospitality, telling your husband to “keep me posted".
We spoke only once more, and you told me that your only hope was for me to find a man to “take care” of me, that all you wanted was for me to “settle down”. This, of course, infuriated me. I let you have it, telling you that the last thing I needed in the world was a man to complete me, that I wasn’t anything like you, that I was whole on my own and that I took great offense to the idea that I should follow in your footsteps in the search for the perfect man. Because, really, had it gotten you that far? You could have your seven husbands, your six failed marriages, your indiscreet affairs, your three types of cancer, each one more aggressive than the last. Not unlike the husbands, as it turned out. I would live life as a confirmed bachelor, happy with a life of intimate friendships and the occasional one or two-night stand. You laughed that off and commented on how I was born stubborn and that it wasn’t really any of my business what your hopes were for me, anyway. I was sitting outside beside a swimming pool, phone to my ear, smoking cigarettes and drinking white wine, and I knew without a doubt suddenly that this was it; the last time I would hear your voice. I told you I loved you despite all the damage and there was a brief silence. All that had never been said, all that needed to, lived between us in those few seconds. You said, “I love you too, Teddy”. We were silent for another few seconds and then said goodbye.
The next time I saw you, of course, you weren’t really there. The funeral director was a friend of mine from high school, and he was as gracious and kind as anyone has ever been to me. He suggested I spend a few moments alone with you before everyone arrived to pay their respects and he closed the door silently as I stood, not exactly sad, but certainly lost, looking down at the body which had given me life, now lifeless. I didn’t say anything. You wouldn’t have heard me, anyway. The pastor you had never met referred to you as a virtuous woman and I cringed. After the service, your friends gathered around me, weeping and reaching out for comfort and I stood, stoic and suited, until the last guest left. At your house after the service, the family gathered in the kitchen with fried chicken and whiskey. I found myself in your “dressing room”, the guest room that had been converted to a closet filled with your clothes, a makeup table, your collection of first edition hardcover Danielle Steel novels, framed photographs, and the wigs you had worn when your hair fell out. I sat on the floor beside the chair where you always sit, where you had died, and smelled the sweater that rested on its arm. Your scent had changed during your illness, but there was something still there, however faint, that I knew instinctively as “mother”. The sweater hangs in our office now. Sometimes I wear it. I couldn’t bring myself to ask for the chair.
On the morning I got married, I stepped out of the shower and, as I caught my eye in the mirror, I saw your face in my face. It was the first time since you had died three years earlier that I ever really felt your presence. I heard you telling me you were happy that I had found love, that of course I was complete before, but that wasn’t everything so much better now, and weren’t you right, after all? I laughed and played Diana Ross and The Supremes while I dressed and poured a glass of champagne, toasting the journey, the destination, all of it, and you. The ceremony itself was understated. My best friend drove from Columbus, Ohio to be our sole witness; Corey and I spoke traditional vows with little fanfare, and it was all over in less than thirty minutes and we were off to lunch. But we were married and while we had tried to play it down, there was no getting around the truth that everything had, in fact, changed. I did now belong to someone, and while I had never relied on certainty before, I knew I was finally, really safe. That safety is what let you back into my life, and when I came home, an altogether different and married man, the first thing I did was find that photograph. I had buried it in the same drawer where I kept all of your divorce and custody documents, the ones that stated in no uncertain terms that you were unfit to be my mother and that it wasn’t safe for me to be in your care. I pushed the papers aside and found the picture where I had left it, in a red frame with a torn-out calendar page from the day you died. There was no question when it came to where you would most want to be placed in my home, and I went to the kitchen. You are there now, just where I need you to be, framed and safe in a warm kitchen where music always plays and love is served, as it should be, at just the right temperature and right on time.