Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
So Much Water

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We'd sunned ourselves all morning, Mom and I, side by side, on lounge chairs by the swimming pool of my rented vacation condo. Slick with tanning gel, broiling under the July sun, just steps from the Atlantic, we watched my children, Sam and Veronica, cannonball one another, bob under and then explode from the water, liquid crystals spraying high above them. One screeched, "Marco," and the other "Polo." Marco Polo Marco Polo Marco Polo.

"I don't get that game," said Mom, gazing at them from behind her big, black sunglasses.

"It's like tag, or blind man's bluff, but underwater," I said. "They shut their eyes instead of using a blindfold."

"Easy to cheat. Just open your eyes."

"Hard to play with only two."

Again, both kids dove underwater and then exploded out of it, shouting the first, then last, name of the Italian merchant traveler. Marco Polo.

I shrugged. "It wears them out."

"That's a good thing," Mom said, sounding doubtful. She went back to her book, LaVyrle Spencer's The Fulfillment, leaving me to keep an eye, both eyes, on my kids, who hardly ever ran out of energy. My book, Garcia Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, lay unopened on the lounge chair next to me.

The condos, two towers, faced the ocean, and offered water views from our sixth-floor unit. The swimming pool was wedged between the towers, on the second story, above a row of boutiques and bistros. The waves and white sand beach were just downstairs, but my kids preferred the pool, which was long and narrow, shallow at both ends. They were afraid of jellyfish and sharks, of crabs and eels and stingrays, of the waves tugging at their knees, their ankles. They were afraid of everything that might happen out there in that heaving water even if we, their mother and grandmother, on point for the Beach Patrol, sentried the water's edge, sharp-eyed and attentive as the gulls wheeling in the blue summer sky.

Mom sighed, way louder than necessary.

"We picked this place because of the pool," I told her, tugging at the thread of a conversation we'd been starting and stopping throughout her visit. "We wanted the kids to have that option."

"Options, options," said my mother.

"Marco Polo," I answered.

A pretty, blond lifeguard in a red maillot, a silver whistle hanging from a lanyard around her neck, circled the concrete deck of the pool. She crouched down to say something to the kids. Then the three of them laughed. Sam and Veronica squirted mouth water at each other. They were the only ones in the pool.

"Your kids are scaredy-cats."

"They're not!" I repositioned myself, trying to get comfortable on the lounge, or maybe just protect myself from my mother's target practice. "Read your book."

But Mom kept watching my kids, my silly, lively kids, who were at least as brave as any other kids their ages, six and eight. They wore matching neon-colored bathing suits they'd picked out themselves; trunks for Sam and a two-piece for Veronica. The fabric was printed with hallucinogenic sea creatures, everything they were afraid of in the ocean.

"If you're going to vacation by the ocean, your kids should learn to swim in it."

"They will. In time."

Cool and calm, the good mother, I watched my kids jump and swim and splash each other, Marco Polo, but something burned me from the inside out, Mom zapping me with her stun gun, her theories and philosophies.

"If you want to go down to the beach, Mom, just go. We're not stopping you."

She shrugged. A boom box near the lifeguard's chair played an all-Motown station, the Supremes singing Baby Love; Marvin Gaye and Tammi Tyrell, Ain't No Mountain High Enough.

"You kids were fish, remember?" Mom said. "You'd swim in anything."

Now she was dredging up the past, one of her favorite pastimes, mostly because she could create herself as the heroine of every story, the perfect mother.

Now she was dredging up the past, one of her favorite pastimes, mostly because she could create herself as the heroine of every story, the perfect mother. Though it was true that my sisters and I were fish when we were little. True, too, that my earliest and happiest memories were set in a Cape Cod cottage Daddy built for us on a bluff overlooking the Fore River Shipyard Basin in Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Mom, to hear her tell it—and she told it every chance she got, even to strangers who might, for example, take the lounge chair next to her—had raised her own children, five daughters, to be strong, independent, and self-empowered. Not only were we fish—my girls will swim in anything!—we had, one after the other, earned our Red Cross Lifesaver badges, a critical skill when you grew up near the water. More water when we'd vacationed on Cape Cod, Block Island, and in Atlantic City and Newport; made camping trips to cold, black lakes in upstate New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont and to Cedar Lakes in southern New Jersey. Even after Mom and Dad divorced, we visited him in Wellfleet, spent days at Cahoon Hollow or Sandy Neck. So much water so close to home.

Okay, so Mom had raised us to be strong, independent, and self-empowered, whereas my currently absent husband and I were raising our kids to be wimps. We gave in on everything. We always let them have their own way. Plus we gave them everything. Every night, ice cream cones or water ice! And amusement park rides! Every night!

"Don't give them everything," my mother warned me time and again. "You shouldn't give kids everything. They won't learn how to be strong."

Back when we were really little, the ebb and flow of river tides had shaped our days. When the tide was in, we swam in cold, dark water and lay on old blankets on its pebbly shore. It wasn't quite a beach, though my father, every spring, gathered men from the neighborhood to clean the shoreline with rakes and shovels. Then he'd convince one of his connections in city hall to haul in several truckloads of sand. By the end of the summer, the sand would have been washed back into the sea.

When the tide was out, we dug for clams. We feasted on them steamed and dipped in melted butter over newspapers at our outside table. Sometimes, on Friday nights, Mom put them into a chowder.

And always, as instructed by my mother, my sisters and I fried our skin under the throbbing sun, slathering it with a pungent concoction of baby oil and iodine that Mom mixed herself. She kept it in an old baby bottle, the crosscut in its rubber nipple releasing orange oil in manageable spurts.

My mother loved the sun. If you knew anything at all about her, you knew she loved the sun. If you knew anything at all about my mother and father together, you knew she loved the sun, and Daddy loved her with a tan—the richer, the more walnutty, the better.

Nightly, after our baths, again instructed by my mother, my sisters and I glazed one another with cleanser from a round, blue jar. We went to bed on sun-dried sheets in just our underpants. Seared by the sun, I used to drift off to sleep, imagining I was on fire, that I glowed. When our skin browned and bubbled, we pulled it off each other's backs in strips.

"Just sayin'," Mom said, her eyes, behind her sunglasses, glued to The Fulfillment. "They can't learn if you don't teach them."

"Okay, I get it, Mom. You were a better mother than I am, superior in every way. Hats off to ya'."

Cage match heating up, my husband Doug would say if he were here. He liked to watch. But he wasn't here. He was working in the city and due in late Friday afternoon.

Mom sighed, less dramatically this time. "Let me go make lunch," she said. "Least I can do."

I watched her go, a good-looking woman still; her hair, once brunette, now shimmering silver white. Dignified and self-possessed, despite the depredations of arthritis in her knees and fingers. Her swimsuit was modest and expensive, in a swirling blue-green pattern shot through with metallic threads. A small skirt skimmed the tops of her legs, a style appropriate for older women whose thighs, no matter how thin or fit they might be, begin to look like candles melting. Over it Mom wore the lacy white cover-up I bought for her at a boutique downstairs. She'd seen it in the window and fallen in love with it. I liked to make her happy. Least I could do.

A few years before, on a similar vacation, at another rental at a different beach, when she'd also come to help while Doug was working, she'd been appalled that my Sam, at three, was still in diapers. It just about killed her that Sam always knew when he was going to have a BM, her acronym of choice. He'd disappear for a few minutes, then return, his fragrant diaper announcing what we'd already figured out, demanding, in his own particular language, to be changed.

"If he can do that, he can certainly use a toilet," she said. "I've watched him and he goes right on schedule. You're way too easy on him."

After that, my mother cornered Sam, captured him, and sat him on the toilet, following the schedule she'd surmised. I have no idea what happened in the bathroom while she sat on the tub's edge waiting, but, by the end of the week, Sam's toilet training was complete. Mom pointed out that he was quite proud of his "kerplunk." He never had an accident.

"See, I've saved you a fortune in those so-called disposable diapers," she said, triumphant, though I stopped her from tallying up the precise cost of Sam's diaper usage.

Score one for Nana, though her relationship with Sam was never quite the same. Sam liked to keep a safe distance between himself and her. Not that she noticed, or cared. She was the grown-up, after all. You shouldn't try to be friends with your children.

Soon enough, Mom reappeared, carrying our lunch on a big melamine tray imprinted with sailboats. She'd reapplied her lipstick, combed her hair. She smiled, the perfect hostess, turning lunch into a party, though the menu was my choice, not hers. Vegetarian hot dogs, organic sweet potato chips, carrot and celery sticks, and chilled bottles of iced green tea. She set everything on a white table beneath a blue and pink umbrella

"Come and get it, yummy, yummy," she called out to Sam and Veronica, who scrambled from the water to the table, dripping chlorinated water, not bothering with towels. Each grabbed a veggie dog and handfuls of the chips.

"Yummy, yummy," Mom repeated, brightly, as I joined them, pulling a chair up to the table.

Of course, Mom did not consider this lunch yummy yummy, but she'd promised, earlier in the week, during an argument at the local grocery store, where we'd searched mostly in vain for good vegetarian food, to keep her mouth shut about what I fed my kids. You're the parent, you get to choose, that's my philosophy, she repeated more times than I could count. Not that I understand it. I don't. Ice cream every night, but no meat. What's wrong with meat? A little chicken breast. Some sirloin tips.

Sam had sidled up to me, the safe place, drenching me with dripping pool water. Watching him chow down, shoving one big hunk after another into his bluish mouth, you could believe that the vegetarian hot dogs were, in fact, yummy yummy.

"Whoa, whoa, slow down." Mom reached, however gently, for his arm. "You're supposed to chew 20 times or more."

Sam looked at me to see if this was true, and I nodded yes. He shrugged. When he took his next bite, Veronica began to count for him. "One, two, three, four. . . ." She reached 12 before gulping, almost choking on unchewed hunks of her own pup, and collapsed into unfathomable giggles.

"I had to boil them because they wouldn't broil," said Mom. "They just turned black and shriveled up."

"You're just not used to cooking veggie meats."

"Veggie meats? Isn't that an oxymoron?" She smiled, proud that she'd lobbed such a fine word at me, oxymoron.

"Soy. They're made from soy. Just read the directions on the package, Mom. I'm pretty sure it says, Do Not Broil."

Mom looked at her own lunch on its bright, blue paper plate, a soy hot dog in a wheat bun, smothered in organic ketchup, relish, and mustard. She looked at it as though it threatened to bite her back. But she picked it up and, ever so slowly, bit into it. All three of us watched her. She chewed contemplatively, and I gave her a warning look: Don't say anything negative in front of Sam and Veronica.

"A memory," she murmured, still masticating and looking at her food. "Mmm. That's what it is. A memory."

"A memory?"

"It tastes like a memory of a hot dog," she said. "Not exactly a real hot dog."

"Well, my kids don't have memories of real hot dogs because they've never eaten them."

It just about killed her not to answer. Instead, she gave me one of her looks, an eloquent one that told me—though she barely moved a facial muscle—what a self-righteous elitist I'd turned out to be; me, with my Ph.D. in Comp Lit, my tenured university position. Smarty-pants, I expected her to call me. Because I was no longer just an ordinary know-it-all; I was a professional know-it-all. Got paid for it. To her chagrin. Yes, much to Mom's chagrin. Or so it seemed to me.

"Admit it," she demanded. "Admit that the burgers and franks and fries cooking on the boardwalk downstairs smell wonderful."

"They do, they do, they do," my children chorused. I ignored them. I ignored her. Then Sam and Veronica were done. They raced to the pool's edge and jumped in.

"Wait," wailed my mother, standing, running to the pool's edge. "They're supposed to wait. They might get a cramp."

"Mom," I called, standing now myself, rushing after her. She was so embarrassing sometimes. "Look." I pointed to the pool, which gave off the sharp stench of chlorine. "It's shallow. Even if they do get a cramp, which they won't, I could jump in and rescue them."

"They should play by the rules," Mom cried, so loud that the pretty lifeguard turned to look. "I always made you kids play by the rules."

"What rules? Waiting after eating isn't a rule. It's a suggestion."

"It's a precaution," Mom compromised. "Right? Isn't it a precaution?" she asked the lifeguard, who smiled and nodded yes. "Isn't waiting after eating a sensible precaution?"

The lifeguard nodded and turned away. She wasn't going to get into the middle of us.

"Okay, Mom, it's a precaution," I conceded. "But it's not a rule."

Mom and I went back to our lounge chairs, pink and white like the umbrellas, and also faded by the sun. Mom took off her lacy cover-up and sat with her back to me, reapplying to her calves an SPF 4, the tanning gel she'd begun to use when, on the advice of her doctor, she stepped up from baby oil and iodine. That's when I noticed a knob of darkened skin below her left shoulder blade, a queer asymmetrical extrusion, maybe a quarter of an inch across, with ragged borders, jagged peaks, and deep gullies in variegated shades of gray and black and brown. By instinct, as if it were a ball of fuzz or a black fly, I brushed it with my fingertips. Mom jumped, surprised. Over her shoulder, she looked back at me. I moved in closer, leaning over to peer at it, this frill of flesh half-hidden by the shimmering latex of her swimsuit. Yes, a mole, a big ugly mole, the size of a stinkbug, protruded at the apex of the bodice and the bra strap. A small, dark thing that, I could tell by touching it, had dug deeply into her.

"How long has that been there?" I asked, retreating, taking off my own robe, tossing it onto another lounge, one heaped with towels, the children's sweatshirts, and my novel.

"What? What's been where?" Mom hated that I might know something about her that she didn't know herself.

"That mole. The one below your shoulder blade."

"No mole there that I know of," she answered, and then added, as if it explained everything, "I don't have eyes in the back of my head."

"What happened to them?"

She turned to me with a sly smile, recalling her past power. Back when my sisters and I were growing up, she saw everything. Mom's laser eyes penetrated pockets, purses, and schoolbags; also walls, doors, and the spaces under beds. She saw into the backs of bureau drawers and beneath the scented paper lining them. Yes, my mother was both nearsighted and farsighted. She had eyes everywhere. For her, seeing backward was routine.

"I don't need them anymore," she said. "What a relief."

I don't get what she meant by this, what a relief. I reached over and put my hand, palm flat, onto her freckled, basting shoulder. With my index finger, Mr. Pointer, I traced down to the mole.

"It's right here," I said, tapping its ferocious surface. "Probably under your bra strap most of the time."

"I can't feel it." She flinched and pulled away. "And I don't have anyone to check my back."

Click. Another button pressed: Mom's loneliness since the divorce, which had happened when I was a teenager, maybe 20 years before. Get over it.

Mom picked up The Fulfillment and stretched out on the lounge, her skin slick and coppery.

"Haven't you read that before?"

She nodded yes.

"Why don't you read something new?" I asked, but chomped down on the rest of my sentence before the words escaped—something challenging instead of cheesy romance.

"It's a world I like to go back into every now and then," Mom said, yearning, maybe wistful, like a character from that story, though I'd never read it. "It's like a vacation. Keep your eye on them, okay?" She nodded toward Sam and Veronica, before turning back to her book.

As if I wouldn't. So I watched my rambunctious kids, less than two years apart in age, which Mom had declared a good thing when I told her of my second, unplanned and unexpected pregnancy. A really good thing, according to her, since I'd waited so long to procreate, and no child should be raised alone. "I was done with all this by the time I was your age," she never tired of reminding me—especially if I mentioned that I was tired; that my children wore me out. My age, 35, at that time. I watched my children, splishing and splashing, fishy out of water, mermaid on the deck, wishing for their energy, at least a little bit of it. Yet I pondered Mom's forever lamentation, her loneliness since Dad left her oh so long ago. It rippled outward, like the water, when the kids were cannonballing. Or maybe it seeped like water into me. When I was with her, I couldn't get away from it, me with my extended education, my Red Cross Lifesaver badge.

No, my mother did not have anyone to check her back, had not for many years. Not that she'd ever tried to find anyone after Daddy left. After Daddy left, she never dated again. At first, she was too busy raising us. Her claim. Then she announced, again to anyone who'd listen, "I'm a one-man woman. . . ."

She took pride in this belief, that she was a one-man woman even though her ex, Daddy, was clearly not a one-woman man.

Mom stayed behind in that Cape Cod cottage on the water. She stayed alone in the house we'd grown up in. Stayed there without anyone to check her back. Still she loved the sun, still loved living near the beach, but her gleaming, burnished skin—the skin Daddy once had loved—began mottling and wrinkling. Over the years, pleats gathered at her elbows and her knees; a baleful sac drooped under her chin. Crow's feet ruched the edges of her eyes. Many people told me my mother was still beautiful. What a shame she's alone. And I suppose it was true, that she was still beautiful, and it was a shame she was alone. But she was a one-man woman, that's what my mother was, and that one man was gone. Into another life, another marriage.

So Mom lived alone. In recent years, many years now, as my sisters and I started our own families, she spent weeks at a time staying with one of us or another, a carpetbagger, "jetting" as my sisters and I put it, up and down the Eastern Seaboard on our dime. She took turns at our houses. Three weeks in Hilton Head; a month in Cundy's Harbor; Christmas in Stowe, at the Trapp Family Inn.

Poor Mom! we giggled to each other whenever she tried to throw a pity party for herself. Of course I loved her, we all did. We, I, loved having her around. But sometimes her never-ending sadness worked my last nerve.

Daddy had no such trouble moving on. He moved on to other jobs and wives and homes, each of the latter larger than the last. I thought of Daddy's homes as nesting houses, like Russian dolls, each hidden in a larger one, except for the first one, the smallest, where Mom had stayed, and which could never be pried open and nothing else could ever fit inside it.

As for Daddy's wives, all were more or less the same size and shape, slim-hipped and large-breasted, like my mother once had been. The wives were the same size, more or less, but each one was younger, newer, and shinier than the last one. Unlike Daddy's houses, the newer wives did not become larger and, hence, capable of containing all the others. Instead, each seemed tighter, smoother, harder, and less capable of opening. The most recent is a few years younger than I. She has yet to reproduce. She never will.

Mom dragged her feet until it was almost Christmas, even though I'd clued in all my sisters, and all of us got on her case. At last she went to the dermatologist who did an immediate biopsy. She told no one until she got the results: malignant melanoma. That small, dark thing that had bitten into her so long ago. Right after that, surgeons cut a hunk out of her back, tissue all around that mole. Then they returned for more. Stage IV.

Mom blamed me for noticing the mole, as if, by pointing it out to her, I'd put it there. That hideous tumor.

"You should mind your own goddamned business," she said when she found out that I'd told my sisters, which I'd done as soon as I got home from our vacation. Yes, I called them all, and enlisted their help in getting her to see a doctor as soon as possible. Instead of appreciating my concern, Mom blamed me, Dr. Smarty Pants, for "ruining my life." That's what she said in that last phone call before she stopped speaking to me altogether. She told my sisters that she would have preferred not to know. She would have preferred ignorance.

Just before Easter, when Mom went into the hospital for what turned out to be the last time, she was still giving me the silent treatment. My sisters couldn't knock her out of it. Even Doug tried. No dice. "Shoot the messenger," he said after she hung up on him, too.

For weeks, I stumbled around the cage, wary of its boundaries, its barbed wire. I couldn't find my fighting partner. I couldn't find a way out.

According to Mom's wishes, her caregivers affixed to her chart and her headboard a fluorescent orange sticker scrawled with the letters DNR—Do Not Resuscitate. During those last days, between the pain of the metastases, the pain meds, and exhaustion, Mom's moments of lucidity were few. That's when I took a chance. Humble, remorseful—Why had I opened my big mouth? Why had I pointed out that mole?—I walked out of the cage. I went to the hospital and took my turn with my sisters, sitting with Mom, holding her hand, whispering stories, and humming songs. My beautiful mother, shriveled now, her skin the texture of an old boot, unrecognizable except for her shimmering crown of white hair.

Once, when I was alone with her, she woke up and asked for water, but was too weak to sip it through the straw. I put some ice chips into her mouth, with my hands, the ice melting between my fingers and her lips. I wiped the dribbles up with a soft cloth, and then I kissed her mouth.

"Annie," she said, her voice a raspy whisper. "Oh, Annie, you're such a sweet girl. You always have been. Thank you so very much."

Annie is my youngest sister.

From her hospital room, I could look down at the water of Quincy Bay and the Fore River. In the far distance, I could see the enormous rusted edifices, the cranes, catwalks, and scaffoldings of the shipyard, now shuttered and abandoned, where both Mom and Dad had worked. Where they met, and began to date, just after World War II. Mom had been a billing clerk; Dad, a naval architect. Mom, of course, stopped working once the war was over and she married.

Looking down toward the water, I knew that if I swam the river backward, it would bring me to that Cape Cod cottage where we'd grown up, the house Daddy built for us on the bluff above the river, and then abandoned. Where Mommy ended up living alone. Still I had trouble believing what the doctor said, that Mom's melanoma, one of the slowest growing of cancers, had begun back then, during those radiant hot days when we laughed and swam and sunned ourselves by the water. And now, during the final round of our struggle, Mom neither beat nor overpowered me, know-it-all that I am, me, with my degrees, my Red Cross Lifesaver's badge. She just erased me. I was gone, and soon she would be, too.

One day, on my way to Mom's hospice room, I glimpsed Daddy's new wife in a waiting room, fiddling with her rings and bracelets. I was not surprised, then, to see him, in a pinstriped suit, his tie ever-so-slightly loosened, slumped in a chair at the foot of Mom's bed.

"He's here for us," emphasis on "us," one of my sisters, maybe Karen, maybe Rebecca, announced before I'd even asked the question. Then Mom, as if she'd picked up his scent, or felt him shifting in his seat, opened her eyes. She saw him there, leaning forward, as if about to speak to her.

"Is that Daddy?" A smile flitted across her face. "Did Daddy come home?"

Nobody answered her, but Mom seemed satisfied. She closed her eyes and went back to sleep, her smile, a memory, still flickering across her once-beautiful face. She didn't speak again.


Julia MacDonnell has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. She’s the mother of three grown children and the grandmother of one. She is the author of two novels, Mimi Malloy, At Last! and A Year of Favor, and the nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories, a quarterly journal of literature and art.

She has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia, and another in creative writing from Temple, and is professor emeritus at Rowan University, where she’s taught workshops in fiction and creative nonfiction for many years. A passionate reader and an abiding advocate for social justice in the lives of mothers and children, MacDonnell lives in southern New Jersey.

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