Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter 30

John is working the flight to Singapore the day Milly first comes to me to ask for help. Seventeen weeks. That’s how long she held out.

“Can you read my story? We have to have someone check it before we turn it in.” She’s not happy to have to call on me but she has no other options.

“I’d love to,” I say, setting aside my journal.

“You write a lot,” Milly says.

“You don’t have a diary?”

She shakes her head.

“It’s fun. I just write down what happens every day.” She looks unsatisfied. “So that way, after July, I can remember you. And your crazy brother.”

“And Evan.”

I smile. I can’t help it. “Yes, him, too.”

She holds out her paragraph about Tasmania.

Every now and then, when I had a really good paper, I’d ask my mom to read it. I did not ask because I valued her feedback. I asked because I wanted praise, her praise, which was hard to come by. But it never worked. She bypassed artistic merit and centered on everything I considered small-minded and beside the point: spelling, grammar, punctuation. She considered my incisive analysis of Macbeth, “Not So Fast, Lady McB!,” a massacre of the English language. What are all these dashes? What’s wrong with commas? Why so many parentheticals?

Milly’s Tasmania paper is one sentence with a dozen conjunctions.

“It’s excellent!” I lie to Milly, thinking, How hard was that, Mother?

“Thank you!”

But I can’t help it. “Let’s just fix the spelling here.” I have to edit her, improve her, and she’s not even my kid.

“No,” she says, snatching the paper before I can touch my pencil to it. “I like it this way.”

“Good. You’re right. It’s great the way it is.”

“Remember Natasha?” she says out of the blue.


“The girl—from the park—the one who thought you were my mum?”

“Oh, Natasha. Yes, I do.”

“That was so funny when she thought you were my mum. Wasn’t it?”


“I mean, you and me, we don’t even look alike. Do we?”

“You’re way prettier.”

I wait for her to say something more, but she’s busy feeling pretty. As she moves toward the door, she turns and says, “I’m working on a project for you in art.”

“Me? Really?”

She nods. “Everyone is making something. Because of Mother’s Day.”

“Oh,” I say, barely able to find my voice. “We can give yours to your dad.”

“He won’t be here on Friday.”

“But he’ll be here Sunday.”

“The tea is Friday.”

“The tea?”

“The tea at school. That’s when we give out the presents. You’re going to be surprised.”

I already am.

That Friday, I go to Milly’s classroom. I sit in the back near the door, careful not to block the view of the real mothers.

Mr. Graham welcomes us and explains that the children have been working very hard the last few weeks, thinking about the “special people” who take care of them. I hold Milly’s stare.

“We’ve been talking about all the ways we can show appreciation,” Mr. Graham goes on.

“Like not whingeing,” a boy in Milly’s class says, making all the mothers, and me, chuckle.

“That’s right!” Mr. Graham says. “And we’re very excited to share our gratitude with a poem. Are we ready?” I’m not. Is Milly? “Okay. Here we go.”

“Mothers …” says the first girl.

“…  sing us songs …”

“…  feed us vegetables …” Mothers elbow each other and wink at their children as they perform.

“…  and take us for pizza …”

“…  and treat us to bikkies!” adds the boy who called out not whingeing, drawing another big laugh.

“Mothers read to us …”

“…  take us to the park …”

“…  to the movies …”

“…  to the library …”

“…  to dance class …” Milly says, unfazed. As I exhale, a few moms turn to me with a nod of appreciation for the situation. We are all impressed with Milly.

It’s not until after I put her to bed that night that I can bring myself to think about my mother and the reams of things she did for me that could and should have softened me. What is it about a living mother that makes her so hard to see, to feel, to want, to love, to like? What a colossal waste that we can only fully appreciate certain riches—clean clothes, hot showers, good health, mothers—in their absence.

On Sunday morning, I hear John and the kids in the kitchen whispering. An ad on the television says, “This year, make sure Mum knows how much you need her!”

A moment later, the new Milly appears at my door with toast and tea, two homemade cards, and a present wrapped in newspaper. Martin comes in behind her with a picked flower. All the crusty chapping on his lips is gone. I did that.

They sit on the end of my bed, waiting for me to try the toast and sip the tea.

“So good, thank you,” I say.

“Read the card,” Milly says.

Happy day to Kelly. From Milly. That’s all it says. Inside, she’s drawn a stick figure waving to me. I open the present. A brown polka-dotted ceramic disk.

“It’s a chocolate-chip cookie,” she explains.

“Of course it is. Thank you so much. I love it,” I say, squeezing her knee. I should get out of bed, but I’m afraid to face John. How can he stand this charade?

“Would you care for some fruit?” Milly asks in a waitressy voice.

“I would love some.”

She hops off the bed and heads to the kitchen.

“Are you going to the hospital?” Martin asks me.

“What? No—”

“I don’t want to come see you in the hospital.”

“You won’t have to. I’m not going to the hospital. I’m not sick—”

“But I said to Daddy that next year I was going to make you a vase, and he said you won’t be here next year.”

“Oh! That’s because I have to go home, remember? I can’t live here. I have to go to the United States. Where my parents and my brothers live.”

“When will you be back?”

“Well, I don’t know.”


“I don’t know, because Australia is super far away from America. But I can write you and call you and send you photos and—”

“How will you get home?”

“On an airplane.”

“In the sky?”

“Yes, in the sky.”

Milly returns with a bowl of pineapple chunks.

Martin reaches for the bowl. “Can I have some?” For Martin, it’s pineapple first, Keely’s departure second.

“Don’t eat Keely’s fruit,” Milly snaps. “Go in the kitchen if you want some.”

He hops up.

“Martin!” I stop him. “Do you know what I’m saying? About going home?”

“Yeah,” he says as he rolls out of my room. “You’re going in the sky.”

What does going in the sky mean to Martin? Is that where his father works, his father who is standing in the kitchen in sweatpants and slippers? Or is that where his mother went?

That afternoon, the kids are out back playing and the air inside is muggy with unsaid things, things like Mother’s Day sucks. John is doing paperwork at the kitchen table. Pop wanders in and out the backdoor with bits of laundry. Evan said he was heading over to his father’s house to hang out with his brother and sister, his mysterious other life, but he’s still here. I try to get an adult conversation started—there was news about terrible riots in Los Angeles this past week—but no one bites.

Why don’t they leave each other? What keeps these men here, pressed up against each other? Surely Pop could find more conversation and activity in a retirement community. Evan could move in with Thomas, drink beers and watch late-night TV and be young. John could pack up the kids and sell this house and start again.

Standing in the hall, adjusting my headphones to get ready for a walk, I catch Evan folding the red wool blanket in the living room and realize that he has not stayed for Pop or the kids. This is not an obligation, the tragic fulfillment of a bedside promise to his mother. He stays because this is where she was. He stays to be near her. These are her things—the sofa that followed her from apartment to first house to second marriage, the photos she chose to keep, her recipes, her blanket. To leave Lewiston is to leave the only place where he might sit for a morning in her favorite spot or smell her scent on a pillow or come across her gardening gloves and secretly slip his hands into them, opening and closing his fists in fantastic synchronicity with her memory.

If my mom died and I couldn’t call her up inside myself, I’d pull on a pair of elastic-waistband pants, pour a touch of Smirnoff over ice, and phone a girlfriend to play cards. If that didn’t work, I’d try reading a library book on a beach chair, and if that didn’t work, I’d take her rosary beads and shake them like a shaman until she came back to me, until I could see her and hear her and feel her again.

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