|Apr/May 2005 Nonfiction|
My mother was rallying the troops.
In the living room, the motley crew of late-flowering hippies and artist-types did their best to not laugh, while she implored them. Scott, her young lover, looked bored and was leafing through a Loompanics catalogue, which I'd been reading over his shoulder. Alongside offerings of civil rights and anti-nuke bumper stickers, there were instructional materials on tax evasion, bomb building, and hashish preparation.
"Vikki's stepmother is coming to town. And she's very..."
I watched her face contort, as she searched for a fitting word. Then she continued. "Straight. And we can't have the house looking like this."
I looked around. For "Random House," as the communal residence was called, nothing seemed especially out of place. In the living room, there were guitars leaned against one wall, stacks of books here and there, and a few mildly scandalous pieces of art. I saw no problem here, at least, though I was worried about the bathroom. Even the most laid-back observer could not avoid noticing the impressive accumulations of pubic hairs, representing the ethnically diverse cross-section of humanity that tended to disrobe in there. And Linda, my stepmother, was not "laid-back."
I considered the toiletries. There were salves made from exotic botanicals and insect byproducts, toothpastes from Tom's of Maine (before they began adding fluoride to their products), and, most worrisome of all, the container with a handwritten label that read "potash." At nine years of age, I had no idea that "potash" was nothing more than potassium hydroxide, a legitimate ingredient used in soaps, and not "pot ash," or the creatively recycled remnants of joints. For years now, I'd been watching my mother and her friends while they smoked, curious as to why I'd never seen anyone collecting the ash, but I'd never thought to ask about it.
Linda was coming to town with some of the women—though they called themselves "girls"—from her office. They'd planned the excursion some time ago, and were going to hit all the usual tourist spots: Colonial Williamsburg, the Outlet Mall, and, of course the Williamsburg Pottery. These were places most locals I knew held in contempt, even while they depended on those same businesses for their livelihoods; Scott, for instance, was a cab driver, and tourists were his bread and butter.
It was clear, then, that Linda's trip was not made to see me; she was stopping by, before the long drive back to Northern Virginia, because she felt obligated to do so. At least, that was my assumption. Linda and my dad had only been married a few weeks when my mother had decided she needed to be on her own—though I would get to spend vacations with her, as I was doing now. So Linda had been tossed quite suddenly into stepmother role. I did not think she wanted me.
Now my mother had successfully commanded her housemates' attention, and was delegating assignments. There was some debate about how to handle the sunroom, which was filled with a rich variety of plants—all of which were legal—but then, there was the mannequin to contend with. God only knew which department store the statuette, consisting of a woman's pelvis cut off at the femur and above the navel, had first been stolen from, but she'd become an icon of sorts. My mother knew this display of nudity would likely shock Linda's modest sensibilities. The mannequin would be stashed in the closet, she said.
But someone protested. Couldn't they just dress the mannequin? Reluctantly, she agreed.
Of course, there isn't much clothing one can put on a mannequin of such dimensions, whose original function, in the department store, had presumably been to model underwear. So one of the housemates dashed upstairs, located her fanciest panties—fashioned from a silken fabric, with a tiger-stripe design—and, assuring my mother that they were clean, placed them on the statuette, adding a display of peacock feathers around the base for a flourish.
Now the mannequin seemed almost demure, with her cloth-covered butt facing the window closest to the front porch. Hopefully, Linda wouldn't even notice the underwear-model as she came in and sat down with my mother and me for some benign conversation and tea at the newly spotless kitchen table.
As the debate over the mannequin was wrapping up, I received my cleaning assignment: the bathroom. Using positive self-talk (like I'd read about in the pop-psych paperbacks I'd seen laying about), I choked back my dread and ascended the stairs, then methodically scrubbed down each of the bathroom's surfaces—including the floor, with its layers of hair encrustations. Then I rinsed each surface with hot water, repeating the cycle until the bathroom was not only hairless but sparkling.
As I was finishing, the phone rang. My mother hollered up the stairs: it was Linda. I bounded to the phone like an eager dog, realizing, with some surprise, that I'd actually missed her and had been looking forward to her visit. I hoped she wasn't canceling.
In fact, she was calling to say she was on her way and needed directions to the house. I squealed with excitement. My father, who'd stayed behind, had nothing to do with this visit, so Linda's coming to see me was her own choice; maybe, I thought, Linda loved me after all.
Before we hung up, I wracked my mind for any anecdote from the summer's activities that might make my stepmother proud, but I was drawing a blank. Mostly I'd wandered around Duke of Gloucester Street—"D.O.G. Street," as we called it—while my mother worked. Then I remembered Linda's passion for keeping a clean house. I knew she'd be impressed with this day, the whole household's valiantly pulling together at my mother's nearly militaristic command, in a flurry of housekeeping, in preparation for her arrival.
So I squealed, "We've been cleaning all day long!"
In the next room, I heard something crash to the floor, followed by the unmistakable sound of my mother, sighing.
After I hung up with Linda, I asked my mother if anything was wrong. She explained, as gently as possible, that the idea behind the massive cleaning effort had been to make it appear as if the house always looked this way.
"Oh," I said, looking at the floor.
"But don't worry," she said, touching my chin and raising it so I'd meet her gaze. "Everything will be fine."
Then I heard a car in the driveway.
I'd thought it would just be Linda, that her friends would continue shopping and wait for her to rejoin them. But from the sunroom window I saw the whole group exiting the car, each woman stepping daintily after my stepmother over the gravelly ground leading to the front porch. The women glanced about nervously, as if they'd been brought to a meeting with members of a cannibal tribe and not an innocuous band of hippies.
My mother rushed out with me to greet them, but the rest of the housemates seemed to be hiding. Perhaps they were even more afraid of these white, well-coiffed, middle-class ladies than the ladies were of them. Still, I considered the Random bunch to be members of my extended family, so I'd hoped to introduce Linda to each of them. I thought for certain she'd admire Scott's skillful guitar licks. Surely, she'd find Leora's laughter to be as infectious as I did. And, she'd have to love Greg's amazingly lush garden, just visible from the porch steps where we all sat down.
But when I suggested we stroll over there, my mother glared and changed the subject. (Years later, I would learn of Greg's pot plants amid the stunning sunflowers.) Then she rolled out one of her anecdote-rich, funny stories—the pithy kind, with a thousand intertwined threads.
The magic of her storytelling had always been in its broad appeal. One could have little in common with my mother and still find threads from her narratives with which to identify. From my perch on the lower steps, I gazed up at her with my usual reverence.
And I was not alone. All the women seemed awestruck. Some, it seemed, were actually staring at my mother.
Or—were they staring past her?
Then I remembered the mannequin. There she was, right behind my mother's head. Why had the tiger-striped panties seemed "demure" in comparison with the mannequin's lily-white butt, I wondered. The minutes wore on, and my thoughts drifted from my mother's storytelling and the women's uneasy laughter. I watched the fallen crepe-myrtle blooms as they wafted over the red brick and assembled themselves into phenomenal patterns.
Then, too soon, it seemed, the visit was over—without Linda's or her friends' so much as stepping foot in the house, even, I was disappointed to note, to use the bathroom.
Hugging Linda goodbye, I realized something strange: I'd not only wanted her to love me and each of my mother's housemates, I'd wanted her to love my mother, too. I'd thought that if the two of them "hit it off," then perhaps Linda would tell her mother-in-law, who'd approved of her son's second marriage, but not his first, that my mother wasn't so wretched, after all. I'd grown weary of my grandmother's trashing her, and as always, I dreaded my return home.
More than twenty years later, while my grandmother lay on her deathbed, I would learn something astonishing: unbeknownst to me, Linda had repeatedly confronted her over the badmouthing, even before she and my dad married. She'd said it wasn't right, that it hurt a child to hear the grandma she loved, speaking about her mother that way.
Evidently, she had loved me all along.
This, despite never having seen that bathroom's transformation from its natural state of filth, to a glistening, perfectly chemical condition of cleanliness. And despite the specter of tiger-striped, silken panties on the disembodied ass of a stolen department-store mannequin, staring at her from behind my mother's head.