Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
After Europe


She had changed. Her darling girl carried a lift in her shoulders, a stance she’d mastered overseas, without Margaret’s reminders. It was a posture a mother wished for in a daughter, yet hoped could be achieved by her influence. Now, when they spoke, Bonnie seemed to hold her mother’s gaze as if challenging Margaret to be the first to look away. Even her scent, previously a light floral bouquet, took on an earthy tone, almost heady, certainly dank, and root-like, reminiscent of the mushrooms that Margaret sometimes chopped fresh into soup.

Surely, Margaret thought, she has slept with a man, perhaps a Frenchman since Bonnie had not made it as far south as Italy. She could not be sure, of course, if her daughter had lost her virginity or not. Of course, she might have lost it in high school; she’d be naïve not to think so. Margaret had always thought she would know for certain, like you hear about, that she could see it, glowing, a beacon announcement on her daughter’s face, though she understood it was none of her business.

Jim was no use. He wouldn’t have a clue what she was talking about if she tried to explain it. He gave the usual kisses on the tops of heads to them both and humped over papers at his desk.

As Margaret dusted the bone china rimmed in gold, the tiny sprays of pink flowers, green stems and leaves, that would one day go to Bonnie, she felt she could break the fine cup, her hands fueled by the ache in her heart.

Don’t be silly, she told herself. But just in case, she closed the glass door on her chore and went outside where she knew she would find her daughter.

Bonnie was reading in the hammock under the magnolia tree wearing the same cut-off denim shorts and red bandana halter shirt she’d been wearing for the past four days. Her wrists were wrapped in POW bracelets like manacles rubbing her delicate bones. Her feet were bare. Her toenails were filthy.

Margaret promised herself she would not nag, but Bonnie had been home for two weeks and had only two weeks more before college started. She had not done a thing except loll under the tree reading books in French. Her dirty travel clothes still lay in a heap on her closet floor and that stupid red backpack that Jim had purchased for her, sticking a plane ticket in the zipper compartment—and by doing so had paved her way to go—needed a good bleaching. They had different germs in Europe, and different dirt­­­­, it seemed, darker dirt. Margaret had insisted that Bonnie leave the pack, at the very least, in the garage.

“Hi, Bonnie.”

Margaret leaned against the tree, her hands folded and tucked against her buttocks to protect her skirt from getting snagged by bark. She hoped to look like she was out for a stroll in the yard.

“Hey, Mom.” Bonnie did not bother to look up.

Margaret read the title of her daughter’s book, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She pulled her shoulders back. She felt a blush creep up her neck to her face. She remembered when she read that novel, a banned book, as a young mother, while she fed her oldest son his bottle. The part about anal intercourse, which she had to read several times before she was certain what she had read, had turned her off from relations for awhile, though Jim never suggested she ever engage in such a thing. It had left him completely stumped, though, her coldness and she was too shy to explain. That’s how it was then. She knew the world was changing, but she had her own way of changing with it.

“Bonnie, I’m glad you had a good time on your trip. We wanted you to. We, meaning, your father and I.”

Bonnie looked up and smirked. “Who else would we be, Mom?” She laughed and returned to her reading.

Margaret did not understand the joke, but she would ignore it. She would press on.

“Bonnie, you need to get moving on your packing list. College is different than high school. It’s not the same kind of lark. You should prepare.”

“Okie dokie, ma mère. Tout de suite.” She crossed her ankles, and turned a page.

Clearly, this was all the response Margaret would get. She began to walk back to the house when she felt anger rise within her. It surged inside her chest and pounded. It warmed her face. Her hands curled into fists. She felt perspiration trickle under her blouse and the light sweater she had put on though it was the middle of August because Jim kept the AC running as if they had deep pockets. Drips of sweat slid down her neck.

Bonnie was acting like a brat, no, a slut. She was a slut and she was slovenly and she was about to ruin her chances to become something smart in the world. She was a headed to Wellesley, Margaret’s alma mater, a dream that Margaret had pushed.

She turned and marched back to the hammock. She picked up a stick, a magnolia branch, from the ground, and used it to fling the book from her daughter’s hands, and as she did it, she did not think, this is ludicrous, this is insane behavior, she only thought, I will not even touch that filthy book, let the worms feed on it.

Bonnie sat up and grabbed the stick.

“What the fuck are you doing, Mother? Are you crazy?”

Margaret let go of her end and walked backwards until she was leaning once more against the tree, only this time, she did not protect her skirt. This time she slid down, aware that her skirt had risen above her knees, aware that her bottom, shielded only by her thin slippery panties, the kind Jim still liked her to wear in lieu of cotton, was in contact with the bare ground. How odd to be thinking of Jim and her panties now, when she had just accosted her daughter. But that’s how it had been since Bonnie had come back: her daughter, a tempest in a teacup.

Bonnie dismounted the hammock and leaned over Margaret. She rested her hands on her mother’s shoulders, jostled her.

“Are you okay? Mom, are you?”

Margaret flapped at Bonnie’s hands feeling meaner inside than her mere slaps indicated; she was sure she must looked as if fighting off a fly.

Bonnie stood and stepped back. “Fine. I’m getting Dad.”

Margaret watched her daughter skip towards the house, a young doe, and slip through the sliding doors to Jim’s study. She stood, straightened her clothes, and headed in the other direction, to the side door into the garage. She was not going to allow her husband to see her this way, to have the two of them, Bonnie together with Jim, make fun of her. She climbed into her husband’s Land Cruiser, his mid-life crisis present to himself after Bonnie had left for Europe. He, too, had become stranger. She opened the automatic garage door, but she did not start the engine.

Margaret knew that she wouldn’t speed away in Jim’s hulking vehicle. She didn’t have it in her. It was not like her to unleash unexpected behaviors, and though she hoped to have taught Bonnie how to control sudden impulses, she knew that Bonnie had seen through Margaret’s veneer ever since she was a wee child.

With four children under the age of seven in the house, whenever Margaret had the desire to fly off the handle, she’d remember how her mother had taught her to stop, to imagine a row of angels all lined up in little white dresses. They were there to help. See them, listen to them, and count them. When you get to ten, you’ll find you have surpassed your troubles.

As a mother herself, whenever Margaret had tried to use this technique, she’d notice that Bonnie paused from whatever mayhem she’d been employed in with her brothers to stare. When Margaret wanted to tell her mother’s ghost to go to hell, she was sure that little Bonnie was reading her mind, could hear the swears in her head. Back then, when Margaret wanted to rush from the house and drive away, she knew that Bonnie could sense her fragility and she felt ashamed.

Now, in her husband’s Land Rover, Margaret repeated the mantras she had recited to her children. Never run away from your problems. Face trouble full on. There are no little angels. You have to do it alone.

Margaret pulled her sweater closed in her fist, felt her heart beat against her knuckles and leaned forward to rest her head on the steering wheel. Remember where you come from, Margaret, she told herself. Remember who you are.

The day after the hammock incident, Margaret decided that she would leave the house for the afternoon, that perhaps her hovering made it easier for Bonnie to slack off. In the past, with the mother presence removed, the older kids used to step up. Sometimes, she’d take off a whole day to go into Boston to shop and come home to a clean house and a chicken roasted, homework done and the children in clean pajamas; Jim had filled the void. Precious little Bonnie had run to hug her legs.

Today when she returned in time to make supper, she noticed a group of bicycles scattered in her driveway. They were flanked with open panniers lined with garbage bags puffed up like tissue paper in a gift bag. She had to park by the garden shed. The clothesline on the other side of the magnolia tree sagged with orange tent pieces, men’s briefs and t-shirts, socks that had once been white.

In the dining room, Bonnie sat at the table with four clumsy boys, about her age. They were glommed together like a pack of raccoons, their hands holding cookies. They were showered and slick, smelling of Jim’s shampoo. Two of them had towels from the master bath around their necks.

“Mom,” said Bonnie. “Look who I found. They’re biking the États-Unis. They’re from Switzerland. I rode through their very hometown on my trip.”

Bonnie pressed her hands to her chest, Margaret thought, as if her heart would spill out. Her daughter’s cheeks were the color of wild roses. Margaret put her hands to her own cheeks, remembering how wan she had looked in the mirror at the department store.

“We’re managing to communicate with my bad French.” Bonnie was positively breathless.

The boys laughed. The bone china teacups were set out, without saucers, without a tablecloth. They contained remnants of tea.

“Say hello, ma mère!

“Hello,” said Margaret.

“Say bonjour.” She laughed.

Again, Margaret felt as though Bonnie were laughing at her and she felt small and perhaps she deserved it. Though she never laughed in her own mother’s face, she recalled that she sometimes tried to make her mother look provincial on purpose, like the time she brought home marzipan from the specialty shop near ballet school. She asked her mother to make her some when her mother had never heard of marzipan and Margaret had felt a small lift in her chest, a sudden boldness. What goes around comes back around, Jim always said.

“Where’s Jim?” she asked.

“Dad’s at the hardware store, Mom. Where else?”

“Could you follow me into the kitchen, s'il vous plaît?” She paired the French phrase with a smirk.

Margaret led Bonnie to the kitchen but kept walking right out the door and onto the screened porch.

“What are you thinking, Bonnie? Those boys are complete strangers. And your father is nowhere in sight. Who knows what they might do? How long have they been here?”

“Relax, Mom. They’re cool. I had all kinds of people take me in off the road and give me a good meal. There’s a travelers’ code. It’s the way of the world.”

“And the china, Bonnie.” Margaret lowered her voice. “You should ask first.”

“You’re always saying that it’s my china, Mother.”

“Shhh. Well it’s not, not yet. And, you leave the cups now. I’ll be the one to wash them and put them away.”

“They’re all yours.” Bonnie arched her eyebrows and folded her arms under her breasts.

While Margaret’s take-charge command had shored her briefly, Bonnie’s response, once again, seemed somehow to put her down, and Bonnie looked taller today, which was not possible. She wore a strapless top that hung over a floaty skirt that Margaret had never seen. Her shoulders were tan and her arms ropey and fit. Her hair was washed and she’d finally shaved her armpits. She looked rested and happy. Perhaps what Margaret saw was good health and confidence. What kind of mother would not be pleased to have such a beautiful daughter, gracious with her guests, elegant almost? But her worry was justified. She knew about the wide world and what could happen.

“You think, you know, Bonnie. You think you know. But what about what happened to that Portuguese girl you told me about, the one in Ireland.”

Laughter roared from the dining room.

“I should go back, Mom. I invited them to stay for dinner.” Her voice softened, as if she remembered something. “I thought you wanted me to be nice.”

But the moment ended. Margaret felt her daughter’s hands press her shoulders and spin her around.

“Don’t worry. We’ll do all of the cooking and all of the cleaning up. We’re making macaroni and cheese. You can go watch your shows.”

She felt a slight push from behind. The nerve Bonnie had, to assume she could just take over the kitchen and relegate her mother to some simple television programs.

Margaret was not about to sit and watch TV while her daughter and four drooling giants messed up her counters and burnt her pots, yet she did not know how to stop it either. It was as though with Bonnie’s return from Europe, an alien force had entered her peaceful domain. She only knew that she must employ herself with a useful task until Jim came home and helped her sort things out.

She went to the laundry room where Bonnie had the washer and the dryer humming along, no doubt, stuffed with sweaty boy clothes, not her own, but the shirts and pants of strangers, literally, plucked right off the road. Margaret reached into the cabinet and took down a plastic bottle of Clorox. She found a bucket and scrub brush under the sink.

As she passed back through the kitchen, she saw Bonnie on her tiptoes, bare feet, pouring salt into a stockpot of boiling water. One of the boys leaned into her from behind. His hand grazed her daughter’s hip. Then Bonnie turned to face the boy and Margaret saw the sleepy expression in her daughter’s eyes. She watched her splay her hand on the boy’s chest as if she’d known him for years. Bonnie raised her other arm to flip back her hair, arching her shoulders, arching her breasts high, with complete ease of her body.

Margaret would have never acted this way in public and especially not in her mother’s kitchen, but she recognized the gesture. She had employed similar gestures with Jim, years ago, when she still needed to assure him that it was okay to proceed. Now Margaret knew for certain that her daughter had known a man, perhaps more than one, perhaps a hundred. She knew that kind of thing went on and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do to stop it.

No one noticed she was in the room. She felt invisible, standing there with rubber gloves and a bottle of bleach, but no matter, she had better things to do.

Margaret found the backpack in the garage and dragged it into the yard under the magnolia tree. The sun was shining. There was a late summer breeze. No rain in the forecast. It was the perfect weather for giving that ridiculous red backpack a solid scrubbing.

Jodi Paloni‘s collection of linked stories was runner up in the 2015 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction. She won the 2013 Short Story America Prize, placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest, and was a finalist in the 2016 Maine Literary Award Short Works Competition. Jodi earned an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her stories and reviews appear in a number of literary journals. She lives and writes in Maine.

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You nailed the mother's fear of her daughter's blooming sexuality. I loved the image of the daughter at the stove with the boy, and the mother's reaction. Oh, and the ending was perfect. C'est si bon! Jodi.
Thanks for reading, Darrelyn. I'm so glad you enjoyed the ending. Endings can be very difficult and this one seemed to come out of somewhere I could relate to as a mother. Happy Writing!
You had me when the mother got mad and used the magnolia branch to fling the book out of Bonnie's hands! Loved reading this, Jodi. I look forward to seeing these characters again. And I agree with D about the ending.
Achingly beautiful, Jodi. Thank you. I never had a daughter, but you put me there, right inside the skin of the mother. More please!
Thanks for reading, Ona. And thanks for introducing me to Literary Mama a couple of years back.
I identified with the mom's feeling of her daughter being a stranger and the feeling of being invisible in her daughter's life. Her own inadequacies and insecurities result in her daughter's communication feeling like insults and putdowns. Perfectly reflected that horrible feeling of your emotions propelling you to act almost crazy.
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