A Mother, Not a Queen
I hide in the pantry. Behind me, cans of corn and peas stand at attention. They’re flanked by boxes of pasta and pancake mix, like pawns and rooks. A metal rack hangs on the inside of the door stacked with paper goods. The seeker in our game will pass my position when he scouts the kitchen. I know his strategy; I am his mother.
His route will force him through the dining room and around the corner where I take cover behind the pantry door. Should I jump out and ambush him? No, he must be the conqueror. I pull the door closer using the rack hanging at my face, but the fortress can’t swallow me andthe vegetables, so it cracks ajar. That is perfect. I don’t want to make the game too difficult.
I poise, taut as a soldier, but the pile of unfolded laundry on my bed and the chicken thawing in the sink invade my thoughts. I regroup and ready myself for battle. Chores erupt as often as Sisyphus’ stone rolls down the mountain, but this gate of time with my son will close, just as Sisyphus’ freedom ended. My son might not remember this day, but I pray our game, compressed with other treasured times, will build a bulwark to elevate and support him with love and confidence in his future.
Again, I tense. Feet slap on the wooden floor. A chair knocks against the dining table, and my son charges my way. He careens around the corner where I wait, but this time my mother’s intuition fails me. Rushing into the kitchen, my son rams the pantry door. The rack on the door assaults my face, and lightning strikes my eye.
The door rebounds from the blow, revealing him standing with feet apart, hands raised in victory, and a plastic sword thrust through his belt. Pride stretches across his face.
“I found you. I found you.”
I see him through one eye. Explosions of pain fill the other and ignite a fuse of fear, which detonates anger. Words shoot words through my teeth.
”You nearly blinded me,” I bellow. “I’m going to have a black eye.”
His hands fall. His face falls. My tears overrun their walls, and I flee to my bedroom behind a locked door where I cannot inflict more damage. Slumped on the floor, I rock with my hand covering my injury. What have I done? Someone, please take the queen. She is unfit to play.
Soon, I will find him, apologize and cocoon him in my arms. He needs to know the accident was not his fault and that I love him. I understand he needs to know this, because I remember what it was like being his age when I needed to know.
At three years of age, I stomped to my bedroom with Mama shooing me from behind. When I reached my bed, I grabbed my elbows and turned to face her.
“I’m too old for a nap. Naps are for babies.”
“Suzanne, get on your bed.”
I crawled onto the wrinkled sheets, then flipped and flopped.
“Don’t you get out of your bed,” she said as she turned to the hall.
Then Mama did the unthinkable. She shut my door. We never closed bedrooms since the air conditioner in the kitchen window cooled the whole house. With the click of the door, she cut me off. She didn’t want me bothering her and our neighbor, JoAnn, who had rung the doorbell and barged into our house a few minutes before. JoAnn now sat in my chair at the round table in the kitchen talking with Mama, while heat and silence crowded the air in my bedroom.
My knee itched and then my shoulder. Spiders seemed to crawl in my hair. I scratched and turned over, but I couldn’t stand the stillness. I rolled off the bed to escape the room and protest. My hands circled the doorknob, but words sifted through the door and stopped me from twisting it open.
I dropped to my belly and lay next to the crack under the door. The carpet smelled musty and prickled my cheek, but voices seeped through, and I wanted to hear what they were saying about me.
Usually JoAnn did all the talking in her voice that sounded like it blew across a lake of ice. Mama only puffed whiffs of air. But today, Mama’s voice sounded heavy, like I could hold her words if I used both hands. She was telling JoAnn something about my father and me.
“In the hospital on the day Suzanne was born, I told Bill, ‘This one is yours.’ ”
Those words were the only ones I heard, because they knocked me away from the door. I knew what Mama said. My breath whooshed out of my ribs. She didn’t want me. My body turned cold, and I scrambled back on the bed, yanked the sheets over my head, and buried my face into the pillow. I didn’t want Mama to see or hear me. I didn’t want to give her one more reason to be sorry that I had been born.
Most years when I blew out candles numbered on a cake, or later when my folks called to wish me happiness and recite the birthday prayer, my father reminded me that he was present for my birth and that I was his. He said it with affection, and despite the realization that Mama’s confession stood stark in a field of her love, the phrase still stung.
As I grew, I reacted without awareness to Mama’s statement. I tried to earn my place in the family by not being a burden and by diffusing Mama’s stress. When I walked beside her, as she pushed the cart down the grocery store aisles, I did not ask for candy or toys that reached out to me from the shelves. When she stuck a ten-dollar bill on my dresser for a week of chores done, I tried to return it. I ghosted around my father, softening his moods. I became the people pleaser and the peacemaker.
Though there were downsides to my roles, I developed sensitivity to people and learned to treat them with thoughtfulness. But years later, maturing and mothering, with its successes and defeats, allowed me to see my mother, Gwen, in a new light. I came to know her as a person. She enjoyed teaching fourth graders and painting watercolors. She relished avocados and Willie Nelson but suffered in the cold. We enjoyed swapping books, and when we talked on the phone, I asked about her mahjong friends, and she asked what I was cooking for supper.
Both Mama’s love and her words spoken in frustration shaped me. Will the harsh words I fired at my son shape him? My eye will heal, but will he? Will he scar within, or will the hide-and-seek defeat take its place in a playground of love, shaping him into a man of character? Maybe in the future, when my son loses a skirmish with his three-year-old, he will reach in his arsenal for this memory, and he, too, will accept himself as an imperfect parent and will teach his child what it is to be human.
As much as I want to be a perfect mother, like the rows of canned vegetables aligned shoulder to shoulder in the pantry and the chess pieces poised on the battlefield, I bumble, and the pieces tumble to the floor. I hope my mistakes will reveal, not a dethroned queen, but another human with foibles and hopes and delights. Remove me as queen, but leave my flawed mother’s love.
Reader, writer, thinker, hiker, Suzanne Marshall is the mother of three grown sons and is a former science teacher and reference librarian. She writes a weekly blog found at SuzanneDMarshall.com. and has been spotted marveling at creation while gardening or hiking trails with her husband.