Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter 7

The next day, Milly opens the mailbox and pulls out a stack of junk mail, much of which is addressed to Ellen Tanner. I wonder what it feels like to see her mother’s name so often, though it’s clear to me now that you hardly need a pile of catalogs to keep your mother on your mind.

“Anything good?” I ask, sitting on the stoop, watching her spread out the mail on the porch.

She holds up a letter from the U.S. “Look! It’s from your mum! Open it!” Milly says, presenting the envelope to me as if it’s a FedEx from an enchanted forest.

“I will,” I say, underplaying it as best I can. I can see how curious she is.

“Now!” She hovers by my shoulder. I can smell her primal jealousy. I hand her a catalog and tell her to pick out a top she likes, but she won’t be distracted. “Read it!” Her interest in my mother elevates my own, like when you see someone staring into the distance and you automatically turn to see the object of their attention.

“All right, but find a cool outfit,” I say, tapping the catalog.

The letter’s nothing special. They watched Crocodile Dundee in my honor. They think Paul Hogan is Mel Gibson. My dad backed over the mailbox with the car again. Why won’t he use the rearview mirror? The orange daylilies by the driveway have bloomed. I shake my head as I read.

“What?” She wants to know what’s making me grin.

“My mom is telling me about her flowers.”

Toward the end, my mom discloses that she’s concerned about John, like maybe he’s going to sneak into my room at night and force himself on me. John! Some prig at the club probably made a crack about Joey Buttafuoco, and now my mom’s up at night, picking off her fingernail polish. The letter ends with my mom’s strong suggestion that I lock my door at night.

“What?” Milly asks, dying to know what made my expression darken.

“You know, sometimes, my mother is just—” I don’t know how to end the sentence. I don’t know what I can tell her.

“What?” She wants to daughter vicariously.

“I don’t know what she’s talking about. She doesn’t always make sense.”

The thing about mothers, I want to say, is that once the containment ends and one becomes two, you don’t always fit together so neatly. They don’t get you like you want them to, like you think they should, they could, if only they would pay closer attention. They agonize over all the wrong things, cycling through one inane idea after another: seat belts, flossing, the Golden Rule. The living mother-daughter relationship, you learn over and over again, is a constant choice between adaptation and acceptance.

The only mothers who never embarrass, harass, dismiss, discount, deceive, distort, neglect, baffle, appall, inhibit, incite, insult, or age poorly are dead mothers, perfectly contained in photographs, pressed into two dimensions like a golden autumn leaf. That’s your consolation prize, Milly Tanner. Your mother will never be caught sunbathing in the driveway in her bra or cheapened by too much drink. She’ll never be overheard bitching to the phone company or seen slamming her bedroom door in fury. Your mother will always be perfect.

But who would say such things to a girl so electric with envy?

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