Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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My mother refused to accept Zack as my live-in boyfriend. She said our relationship was vague. Marriage, her topic of conversation at every Sunday dinner, worried me more than irritated me. At least that is what I told myself, and almost believed it. Lately, she wanted everything defined, known.

"There are no guarantees." I pointed out her life: "One man after another, sometimes men just for one night leaving twenty dollar bills on the night stand."

"You had a roof over your head didn't you?"

"So did Jennifer, and her mother worked an office job."

My mother waved her hand at me and turned away. We'd had this conversation before, yet I kept waiting for an apology or a better explanation, some kind of personal responsibility for those nights; after all, in the mornings it was my duty to change and wash her sheets while she spent the day in prayer. I knew somewhere in me it was futile to wait. Nevertheless I had my expectations.

Zack and I sat next to each other on the sofa, and my mother scooted forward in the chair with her feet flat on the floor with her tea cup balanced in its saucer on her lap. She stared at us.

"You're living in sin," she said.

"Everyone lives in sin," Zack said, cautiously, firmly.

"You wouldn't make a good priest."

"Why not? They need priests like me."

"Guilt," she placed her cup and saucer on the coffee table and then stomped her foot. "Where is your guilt?"

I had it all. Wasn't I the reason she couldn't make the bills, buy my food and clothes, had to take in men? Was she glaring at me right then, or did I misremember? Was it me who glared fiercely at her?

"Will your friend Zack kindly take me home?"

And so he did, while I cleaned the kitchen and wondered at my rage toward the pan that after vigorous scrubbing wouldn't come clean. I threw it in the trash.

Every since that Sunday, she had one reason or another why she couldn't come over, nor invite us to her apartment. Consequently, I decided to take the day off -- let June run the office and hope to hell she wouldn't crash the computer again -- to drop in on my mother.

I arrived at her complex, placed my foot on the first step, and looked up. A bird, mottled brown flew overhead into a tree where there were others chirping to the traffic, their sounds as frantic as the fast- paced cars.

The window next to my mother's door was closed, but the curtain was pulled back a little. My mother's dyed black hair darkened further in contrast to her light blue house dress. She wore round-shaped glasses, so I knew she saw me. I wanted to turn around and go home, spend the day doing things for myself, then make a nice dinner for Zack.

My mother dropped the curtain. I walked up two more steps and stopped. Would she answer the door? How hard would I try to make her do it? I took a step down. The air, warm and dry, didn't move--a promise of a stifling afternoon.

I studied the dry skin around my fingernails until a sound forced me to keep going up, my flip-flops slapped the concrete steps, my hand on the flimsy vibrating railing. Down below, a Hispanic gardener came around the corner sweeping his gas-powered leaf blower through the air, pushing blades of cut grass back into the lawn. A cigarette butt rolled under a bush by the stairs, each of his movements smooth and quick until he paused and lifted his hat, wiped off sweat, and then he glanced up at my mother's window and nodded before she once again dropped the curtain. He continued along the walkway never once acknowledging me. And old, familiar feeling in my stomach spread throughout my body.

I banged on my mother's door and her window with my fist -- hard, relentless knocks. I knew she couldn't tolerate too much noise, it made her anxious, and sure enough, she opened the door letting me in.

"I thought you were a confused burglar," she said.

"You saw me walking up the stairs."

"I didn't realize it was you."

Had she always lied like this and I'd just never really called it that until now?

My mother's apartment almost sparkled. The tiny kitchen floor was freshly waxed, the counters were clear of any clutter, not even a toaster or the microwave.

"Where's the microwave I gave you?"

"Sold it."

I couldn't look at her. She knew I'd bought her a top-of-the-line microwave and that she'd acted thrilled and touched, a moment between us I treasured. "When?"

"Three months ago, last year, two weeks ago, don't remember." She put her hands on her hips, "Don't give me that expression, Amanda, it's a microwave, not the Hope Diamond."

I sat on her sofa, sank into the cushions, and placed the points of my elbows on my knees resting my hands on my hot cheeks. Wasn't it the daughter who was supposed to be angry?

"Want some tea?" she asked.

I shrugged, which she took as a yes, and I listened as she put on the kettle and set cups in saucers.

"Come over here," she said.

"I'm fine right here."

"I want to read you in the tea leaves."


"I've taken up fortune telling."


She set two white cups on the table and asked what kind of leaves I wanted: chamomile, orange spice, black. I didn't answer and she chose for me, no doubt thinking chamomile the one I needed the most. She sprinkled in the tea leaves, then poured hot water into the cups.

I pulled out a chair. "I came to ask you to come to dinner this Sunday."

She handed me the cup. "Drink, but leave some in the bottom.

"This is silly. Besides it's too hot."

She waited with her folded hands on the table, her eyes bright with expectation, her lips pressed together. A faint smell of garlic drifted around me, mixed with the cleanser she had recently used. I wondered about her mind.

I tilted my cup and didn't want to get a mouthful of loose tea leaves.


"There is no point to this, Mother." But I drank it anyway. When I finished the tea, I showed her.

"Hold the cup in your left hand and swirl it clockwise three times, remaining very quiet."

I did.


"Mother, I don't believe in this stuff."

She pushed the saucer toward me, "Turn it upside down while I count seven seconds."

The liquid filled the saucer, threatening to spill over the sides onto her ivory lace tablecloth.

"You left too much," she said while turning the cup upright. "Face the handle my way." She sighed. "Carefully."

She moved her face close to the cup of soaked leaves and made humming sounds.

"I think you have this mixed up with the Ouija Board," I said.

She shook her head and leaned forward. "See this, near the rim?"

"You mean the leaves?"

"What does this look like to you?"

I only saw leaves, not a bird, not clouds, not a snake, nor any bugs.

"Do you know what a chain means?" she asked.

"I don't see a chain."

"Right here. That is clearly a chain."

"No it is not."

She peered into the cup again. She said, "An engagement, a wedding. In the near future."

I grabbed the cup and dumped the leaves in the trash. I washed the cup, squirted in more soap and rinsed it until it was thoroughly clean. I dried it, then put it into the cupboard. My mother held the liquid-filled saucer while standing beside me the entire time.

"I suppose you're going to tell me you get a crucifix in your leaves," I said, walking out of the kitchen.

"How did you know?"

She eventually came into the living room and sat next to me.

"Why can't we talk?" I asked in a whisper.

She turned away from me and we remained silent. I wanted to shake her. Her life wouldn't make any sense if I married. Why couldn't she see that?

"What do you think of my new hobby?"

"It's sure better than sleeping around."

My mother gasped and grabbed the collar of her housedress. "That wasn't a hobby, but our survival."

"It was the eighties in Van Nuys, not Victorian England."

She stood and looked down on me. "God has forgiven me. So should you, sometime."

"How can I, when at sixteen you thought I should take on your form of prostitution?"

"That's enough, Amanda."

I was never allowed to call it by that name, so it was okay when she wanted her virginal daughter to get trapped into such nonsense. I moved out instead. But I realized just then that I'd never really left.

I went toward the bathroom, pausing at her bedroom where a collection of Virgin Mary statuettes were encircling a burning candle.


"What is it now?"

"You have a candle burning unattended."

We stared at each other.

"It's my new collection," she finally said. "A man friend gets them for me on Ebay."

"What man friend?"

"What is it you want, Amanda?"

"I want you to be a normal mother. You never even tried."

She reached out for me and tenderly rubbed my cheek. "You are such a child. Maybe it's good you aren't married."

"Glad you see it my way," I said.

She smiled, but it was forced, the wrinkles around her eyes suddenly very deep. The sadness in her eyes made me take a step back. I had never seen that before, and it must have been what she felt when she looked at tea leaves and saw what was revealed. I knew this would be the closest thing to an apology I would receive, and I had to accept it.

"Will you come to dinner next Sunday?"

"I'll think about it." Her hands were by her side as if they never touched me.

When I walked down the steps, I turned to see if she was there at her window. She hastily dropped the curtain.

Noreen Austin received her MFA from Antioch University. Her work has appeared in Watershed, The Crimson Crane, and ken*again. She was one of the featured readers in the Literary Salon at the Zebulon Lounge in Petaluma, California. She is currently working on short stories and a novel and lives in Northern California with her wonderful 15-year-old son. She can be reached at:

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