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Today's Story by Wayne Scheer

"She's so calm it's scary"

Three Generations

Although I was only eight at my father’s wake, I admired how my mother remained in control of her emotions.  I had caught her crying in the hospital when she thought no one saw her and I heard her cry in the bathroom when we went home the night Dad died.  But at the wake, she flitted from guest to guest, assuring them she felt fine, smiling as they reminisced about my dad.

“A good man,” they all agreed.

“Tragic he died so young.”

“If you and Emily ever need anything.”

My mother nodded, and asked if she could get anyone something to eat or drink.

That evening, I tiptoed down the stairs to listen to her talking to her sister. “It’s been a shock,” Mom said.  “But I have to concern myself with Emily.  She and I will be fine.”

Aunt Lindsay wanted us to move to Georgia, where Mom was from, and live with her and Uncle Warren. Mom wouldn’t hear of it.  “My life is here.  Our life.  We have to get on with it.”

She sounded so confident, it made me feel better.  But later that night, when I woke up from a bad dream, she said something I would never forget. “Life is filled with surprises, Emily.  Just when you think you know what’s coming next, something unexpected happens. It’s like watching a scary movie.”

I remember crying when she said that.  “But I don’t want to see a scary movie.  I want my daddy.”

She let me cry for a while before whispering, “That’s enough. We have to move on, honey.”

When I looked up, I saw her eyes red, but no tears.

Now, thirty years later, I wonder about my mother’s ability to control her emotions.

I think about what she passed on to me and what I might be passing on to my daughter.

Mom, I learned, was the kind of woman who had a knack for taking control of her life.   Before she married, she had taught elementary school and quit when I was born.  I suppose that would identify her as a stay-at-home mom, but I hardly remember her at home.  She always had a meeting to attend or an emergency to take care of.  She’d come home after I was in bed, lie down next to me and talk about her day–an argument she had with someone or a law that had to be changed.  I liked that she treated me as a grown-up.  She called me her confidant, long before I knew what the word meant, saying my father was far too concerned with the laws of nature to concern himself with the laws of man.

I remember my father often picking me up from school and taking me back to his office.  I’d do my homework at his big wooden desk while he talked on the telephone, worked on his computer, or wrote on his blackboard.

It seemed strange how he had a blackboard in his office, like the one in my classroom, but I wasn’t allowed to touch it.  He and someone he worked with–Professor Krugor–wrote numbers and letters on it and talked in what sounded like a foreign language.  My father described it as “doing physics.”  He worked at a college, although I never saw him teach a class.  His specialty was statistical mechanics and thermodynamics.  I had no idea what that meant and still have only a vague notion.  I remember when I was about twelve, telling a friend that my father would have won a Nobel Prize had he lived.

My mother seemed unimpressed with Dad’s work.  Soon after he died, she cleaned out his desk at home and put all his papers and folders into boxes.  She called Professor Krugor and he came to our house and picked them up.  I never saw the professor again, but I imagined him continuing Dad’s work.  For years, I kept track of Nobel Prize winners in physics, looking for Krugor’s name.  I wanted to make sure if he won, my dad got credit, too.

To Mom, it seemed like Dad existed in the distant past.  She rarely mentioned him, but patiently answered every one of my questions about him and even put together a scrapbook of old photographs and other things she found of his.  Although I thumbed through the book often, I never saw her look at it.

“That’s the past,” she’d say, with an audible sigh.  “You can’t move forward if you’re looking backwards.”

People expected my mother to return to teaching, but she said she needed a new career to match her new life.  She found a job with a group of landscape architects.  I never knew her to be interested in gardening–Dad always mowed the lawn–so when she told me what landscape architects did, I was surprised.

“Life is full of surprises,” she reminded me.

I grew up normally enough, I suppose.  I did well in school and Mom urged me to join after-school activities, from chorus to science club.  I played soccer and basketball as well as the trumpet.  “The more you experience, the more fun life will be,” Mom repeated those words so often it became her personal mantra.

After the job with the landscape architects, she sold real estate, became a partner in a woman’s clothing store and went back to school to become a chiropractor.  Recently she had been taking flying lessons, so I prepared for another metamorphosis.

She had her share of what she referred to as “gentleman callers”–Mom loved slipping into a vocabulary straight out of a Tennessee Williams play–but I never knew a man to sleep over.

I asked her once why she never remarried.

Her response was classic Mom.  “Oh, honey.  I did that already.”

She seemed happy for me when I told her about Jack, whom I met my sophomore year in college.  “Just don’t get pregnant,” was her motherly advice.  “It reduces your options.”

I heeded her warning about the pregnancy, but Jack and I married soon after we graduated.  Our daughter, Kaitlin, was born a year later.  I had been working in the lab of a pharmaceutical firm, but quit when the baby was born.  Mom was supportive, although I always sensed disappointment.  When she asked me if I intended to go back to work or have more children.  I laughed.  “Oh Mom, I did that already.”

The truth is as much as I enjoyed raising Kaitlin, part of me resented the time she demanded.  I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to do, but I feared I was missing out on something.

Jack had a good paying job in the art department of an advertising company.  He doted on Kaitlin while I became involved in book clubs and charity auctions and antiquing with my mother.  Mom had become rather expert in Depression artifacts and traveled throughout the country buying and selling.  On a long drive to rural Arkansas, she asked if I considered myself happy.  I shrugged and said, “I guess you can call me a happily married woman.”

“That’s not what I asked, honey.”

I changed the subject.

Jack and I did have a happy marriage.  I mean, we fought now and then, but, mostly, we   enjoyed raising our daughter as a couple.  Despite my trips with Mom, I was home most of the time and developed into a pretty good cook and homework tutor.  Jack and I always went to PTA meetings and other school functions together.  Without fail, he’d leave work early if Kaitlin had a concert or school play.

Wednesday was our date night.  It started when Kaitlin was a baby, and we kept it religiously.  Just two weeks past her tenth birthday, we went to a small restaurant we both liked.  I loved the pecan-crusted trout, which I ordered with garlic mashed potatoes and French beans.  Jack normally tried the special.  Even if it included ingredients he didn’t think he’d enjoy, like capers, he’d order it.

While we sipped a bottle of pinot grigio, which he had ordered because he knew I liked it, he took my hands and in a voice sounding frighteningly like that of an oncologist informing a patient of an inoperable cancer, he said, “I’ve met someone else.”

I thought he was joking, and started to smile, until I saw his eyes tear.  Like a character in a bad novel, he was saying, “I didn’t mean it to happen, but I fell in love.”

I glared at him.  I wanted to say, ‘You mean you meant to fuck her, but you didn’t mean to like it so much?’  I wanted to slap him and throw my wine in his face–that seems so satisfying in the movies.  Instead, I thought of my mother telling me how life is like a scary movie and when you think all is calm, someone jumps out from behind a door.  So I took a deep breath and returned to my trout, asking only one question.

“Does Charlie Fahr do divorce law?”

He looked at me, wiping away tears with the back of his hand.  “Is that all you have to say?”

Of course that wasn’t all, I thought.  I wanted to ask him who he was sleeping with, was she better than me in bed?  How could he throw away the past eleven years on some bimbo?  How could he do this to Kaitlin and me?  I wanted to scream and cry and kick my feet, but I refused to give him the satisfaction.

Except for the way my hand shook when I sipped my wine, we looked like two ordinary people enjoying dinner.

Joy, my best friend since high school, offered to help me cut off his balls.

“Shit happens,” I said.  “No use fighting it.”

“You’re strong,” she said.  “Maybe too strong.  What you need is a good cry.  Then we’ll cut off his balls.”

Jack moved in with his new love and we arranged for Kaitlin to live with me during the week and Jack on weekends.  Jack agreed to pay my mortgage as long as Kaitlin lived with me.  I got one car–the newer one–he got the other, and we split our savings evenly.  Our lawyer–Charlie had referred us to a divorce attorney, saying it wasn’t wise for a friend to be involved–claimed we acted like his first adult clients.

And except for me occasionally pounding my fists into Jack’s pillow on nights I couldn’t sleep, I adjusted.  I had a daughter to care for.

Kaitlin missed her father.  There were times she cried pathetically and the only way to calm her was to call Jack.  He’d rush over and hold her in his arms and read to her.  I’d watch them and wonder why I couldn’t hold her like that and cry with her.

Mom, Kaitlin and I became a threesome.  On weekends, we’d go on antiquing trips and create wonderful fantasies of what life had in store for Kaitlin.  Mom always reminded her to live life as an adventure, expecting the unexpected.

Kaitlin grew stronger as we grew closer.  By middle school, she began skipping weekends with her father.

Jack and I had an interesting exchange around that time.  He said what he loved about Cheryl, his new wife, was that she showed emotion.  “She isn’t afraid to cry.”

“You mean like a child,” I said.  “Like the way Kaitlin used to.  You’re a caretaker, Jack.  That’s what I once loved about you.  But I’ve moved on and Kaitlin is growing up.”

He stared at me and shook his head.  “You don’t understand, do you?  You’re just like your mother.  And Kaitlin’s just like you.”

I felt like I had been slapped in the face, like there was something wrong with me. What was I doing to Kaitlin?  Then I remembered he was the lying bastard who had cheated on us.

But it served no purpose to rehash all that, so I thanked him for being there for our daughter and walked him to the door.  I wanted to cry and beat my fists on the wall.  But Kaitlin was in the next room.

I didn’t cry when my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer.  After exploratory surgery showed that the malignancy had spread to her stomach lining and beyond, it seemed like a good time to let the tears flow.  But Mom sat stoically, nodding and listening to the doctor.  He offered a slim hope with further surgery and chemotherapy–about ten percent for another three years.

I tried to be positive for my mother. “One in ten chance of living longer,” I told her.  “If you had a one in ten chance of winning the lottery, I bet you’d feel pretty confident.”

“This isn’t the lottery, dear.  It’s my life.  And I don’t want to end it bald and nauseous.”

She reacted to the doctor’s news with her customary acceptance, followed by an eerie excitement.  A week later, she called to say she had booked herself on a twenty-four day European cruise that would leave in three weeks.  I didn’t even know she had a passport.

She had always lived frugally, using Dad’s life insurance money only for special needs, like when the roof needed replacement and my college tuition became due.  Now, she seemed almost relieved. “For the first time in my life, money is no longer a concern.”

“But, Mom,” I tried pleading with her. “Your health. You need to talk with more doctors about chemo or other treatment.”

“I don’t have time for that,” she said.  “My life’s taken a new turn.”

Kaitlin was a senior in high school at the time.  I sat her down and explained what we’d been told.  I expected tears.  Instead, she nodded, tightened her lips and asked how much time Grammy had left.  I told her the doctor said without chemo, less than a year.

“Can I visit her right now?”

“Call first,” I said.

She did, and when she came home she said, “Grammy’s going to be all right.”

I thought she was in denial.  I tried explaining the situation as clearly as I could.

“I understand,” she said.  “Grammy will likely die within a year.  But she’s all right.  She’s looking forward to her cruise.  She said her only regret is that she won’t have time to learn to fly.”

I called Jack later that night and asked if he thought Kaitlin’s reaction was normal.  “She’s so calm, it’s scary.”

“I know,” he said.  “I’ve lived with it.  It is scary.”

I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stamp my feet or scratch out his eyes.

“If this were a movie,” he said, as if he had prepared this line for a long time, “and you and your mother were men, John Wayne or Clint Eastwood would have played you as heroes.”

I never liked the John Wayne character.  He always struck me as sad.  So self-contained.  So alone.

Of course, I said none of this to Jack.

Kaitlin and I didn’t have time to grieve at my mother’s wake, making sure everyone had plenty to eat and drink.  The guests recalled all she had done in her life, her adventures.  They spoke of her as if she were an abstraction.  Her friends admired her, but didn’t know her very well.

That night, Kaitlin and I went through Mom’s things–her papers and old photographs.  In her closet, I found the scrapbook she had made of my father’s memories. I had completely forgotten about it.  I was surprised how worn it was and how it smelled of my mother’s perfume.

Tears filled my eyes and rolled down my cheeks.  For the first time since I was a child, I cried.  When I glanced at Kaitlin’s face, I saw she was crying, too.

She never looked more beautiful.


Wayne Scheer has locked himself in a room with his computer and turtle since his retirement. (Wayne’s, not the turtle’s.)  To keep from going back to work, he’s published hundreds of short stories, essays and poems, including, Revealing Moments, a collection of flash stories, available at http://www.pearnoir.com/thumbscrews.htm. A film adaptation of his short story, “Zen and the Art of House Painting,” can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/18491827.   He’s been nominated for four Pushcart Prizes and a Best of the Net.  

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