This Great Society - Writing


Illustration: Shari-Anne Vis (Gibson)

Pamela Stemberg: Tea for Mommy
Illustration: Shari-Anne Vis (Gibson)


            I drop the needle on the album and walk slowly to the center of the living room. Waiting for the drum roll, I stand head down, fingers holding the cardboard brim of a New Year’s derby marked 1971.

             Joel Gray announces, ‘Frauline Sally Bowles!’ I look past my round, lumpy nine-year-old body in the neon green leotard to the audience I imagine staring back at me from the wood-framed mirror above the couch.

            ‘What good is sitting alone in your room,’ I sing and spread my arms. I walk sideways across the room, step tap, step tap, step tap, until my knee touches a chair. I dance back to the other side, being careful not to leave the reflection of the mirror.

            ‘Life is a Cabaret …’ plays from the record player. I stop and listen to the argument coming up from the basement bedroom. My voice of my older sister, Totsy, is loud, but I can’t make out the words. Mommy says something; I strain to understand, but nothing.

            I go to the shiny black railing that frames the stairs going down. Leaning over the rickety banister, I hang my head upside down. My fingers lock around the rail to keep me from tumbling over. I hold my breath, listening for the words.

            ‘I … No! … I …’ Totsy shouts.

            ‘Eavesdropping? Ehhhh?’ my father says making a ‘Sherlock Holmes discovering the culprit’ voice. He snuck in from the kitchen where I thought he was just a minute ago. Annoyed, I turn my head to see his shoes and then twist myself and look up. He is watching me over his black-rimmed glasses, waiting for me to straighten up.

            ‘Do you need something to do?’ he asks.

            ‘No, Daddy,’ I say, standing. ‘They were loud and I couldn’t hear the music.’

            ‘Turn up the music,’ he says and walks back into the kitchen where he is starting the sauce for tomorrow’s lunch.

            Daddy makes lunch for us every Sunday. Meatballs, pasta and sometimes braciole or sausage. Mommy complains about his cooking, saying he is always experimenting with the flavours. She thinks she does everything better than everyone, but her sauce is too plain. I would never tell her that I don’t like her cooking. She’d be so mad, she’d make me eat boiled eggs for the rest of my life.

            I put the needle on the record again.

            ‘She wasn’t what you called a blushing flower …’ I go back to singing. I turn my back, look over my shoulder, and sing ‘as a matter of fact she rented by the hour,’ giving my best Mae West wink to the mirror.

            The voices get louder and then die again. I need to know what is going on downstairs. Totsy’s fights with Mommy are usually short. Totsy yells about her drinking. Mommy yells back. Totsy runs away. Fighting for this long means something big is happening. I leave the music playing, hoping they won’t hear me coming down the stairs.

            Daddy cooks in the kitchen. When he turns his back to me, I slip onto the first step, stop and continue, holding my breath at every creak. I reach the bottom step and face the closed door.

            ‘What’s that?’ Totsy says. I freeze and wait for the door to open. She begins to speak. I breathe out.

            ‘You’ve got to tell her,’ Totsy says. Tell who? Bunny? Aunt Marion? Me?

            ‘When I’m damn good and ready,’ Mommy yells at Totsy.

            ‘When? You’ll never be ready. She’s nine,’ Totsy says.

            ‘Oh leave me the hell alone. It’s none of your business,’ Mommy says in a quiet voice.

            ‘You’re not her mother! If you don’t tell her about Bunny, I will,’ Totsy says.

            ‘You do that and you’ll live to regret the day you were born,’ Mommy says.

            I breathe in. I turn. The words, ‘not my mother,’ roll around in my head. My thinking slows. Each word is separate. Bunny. Is. My. Mother.

            I take a step up. ‘Bunny is my mother’ feels out of place, as if something is not right. ‘Bunny is my mother’ feels right, as if I’ve known it all along. Bunny is my mother: why don’t I live with her? I can’t answer that question.

            Maybe she didn’t know how to tell me? Was she afraid of Mommy? Does Phil know? Maybe she didn’t want to tell Phil because he would not want to marry her? Does Phil’s family know? When I reach the top of the staircase, I stop and put my hand on the wall. The Cabaret finale plays on the stereo.

            Mom. Mommy. Mother. Ma. I try to imagine calling Bunny ‘Mom.’ It doesn’t make sense; I’ve never lived with her. I should be living with my real mother, right now.

            I walk into the dining room and sit down at the table. The broken television set, the drab walls and the lampshade covered with layers of cobwebs. I don’t have to stay here. Finally, I can leave this house. I’ve never felt welcome anyway. I had a bedroom, and then I shared a bedroom; now I sleep in the living room. I keep saying the front steps are the next stop. Totsy says I’m crazy, they would never put me out in the street, but she took my bedroom. I can’t trust her. Mommy would tell me I’m wrong, but I’m right. I don’t belong here, this isn’t my real family, Bunny is my real family and she has a new house where I can live with her happily ever after.

            I’ll move in with her! She doesn’t have to lie any more. She’ll be able to take me home. She won’t need to pretend I’m her sister because now I know that I’m her daughter.

            I get up from my chair and twirl around the table bumping into chairs and making myself dizzy. I turn and stand in front of the dining room mirror. My hazel eyes are bright and shiny, and there is a blue ring around the outside of my iris making the green pupil stand out. Little wisps of blond hair stand off the top of my head. I smooth them down because I look crazy with my eyes shiny and my hair standing up. My smile is big and toothy. I hug myself, pretending it’s Bunny’s arms around me.

            Do I look like her? I stand back and look at my body. My legs are longer and my body is shorter, but we’re almost the same height, so I’ll probably grow. Her hair is light brown and mine is dark blond. The eyes are similar, the same colour of green and the same shape. I’m her daughter.

            I sit back down at the dining room table, holding my arms tight against my chest with fists crisscrossed over my chest to contain my excitement. I’ll go to a new school. I’ll make new friends. A few cats, not 19. A mother that doesn’t embarrass me by getting drunk or loud. Phil will teach me photography, we’ll go to restaurants, we’ll visit artist friends, we’ll have parties … and I’ll be part of it! With my own room, with my own bed, with my own dresser! No more sleeping in the living room, on a couch with frayed arms and cat-clawed legs. A normal life; I’ll have a normal life!

            ‘Everything’s coming up roses and lollipops! Everything’s coming up roses and lollipops!’ I sing loudly as I jump up from the table.

            Totsy comes up the stairs as Daddy walks out of the kitchen, ignoring me dancing and singing in front of him. I stop singing to see if she says anything to him about the fight.

            ‘Did your mother want tea?’ Daddy stops Totsy before she gets to the last step.

            ‘How would I know? She wasn’t telling me anything,’ she says, obviously angry, but she doesn’t say why.

            He shakes his head as he goes down the stairs passing around her.

            Wanting to tell her, I run up to Totsy as she stands at the top of the stairs. Then I stop, not sure of what her reaction will be and turn around and run back into the dining room. Standing at the dining room doorway, she looks at me. I put my hands over my mouth to stop myself from talking.

            I can’t contain myself.

            ‘I know!’ I say in singsong.

            ‘You know what?’ She asks, stopping in front of me, a small half-smile on her face.

            ‘I know who my mother is,’ I say, leaning forward and wagging my finger at her.

            Totsy freezes in place, then, after a few seconds of silence, launches her body across the room and throws her arms around me. The octopus grip she has on me is too tight, and I can’t get out.

            “Poor little Hoopy,” she says into my hair.

            I don’t expect her reaction. Bunny being my mother is not bad. I untangle her from my body, start talking, and try to distract her from the fact that I’m not sad. She doesn’t understand that I can leave now. Leaving is good for me, good for her, good for everyone! I’m excited; thinking about living with Bunny makes me happier than I’ve felt in a long time.

            ‘I want to live with Bunny,’ I say to her.

            Totsy stares at me. She steps forward, stops, looks down at the floor and reaches out to me. I move back, her arm falls back to her side.

            ‘Umm, you’re going to have to call Bunny and ask her,’ she says. ‘We’ll call her later.’

            ‘I’ll call her now. Do you think Mommy and Daddy will let me go live with her?’ I ask.

            ‘Oh, I’m not sure,’ she says, looking away from me.

            ‘She’s my mother, she should take me. She doesn’t have to lie anymore, so I can go live with her now.’

            I take up the pink heavy phone on the dining room table and dial Bunny’s number. Totsy watches me make the phone call. I turn my back, so I can’t see her staring at me. While the phone is ringing, I think about Bunny’s reactions. I imagine her happy and welcoming. We can finally be a family, a real family. What would it be like to have her as my mother all the time?

            ‘Hi,’ I say when Bunny answers.

            ‘Hello,’ Bunny says.

            My stomach is tingly, but it’s not only excitement—it’s nervousness about asking to live with Bunny. My heart is beating fast as though I’d ran around the block. The phone receiver feels heavy in my hand.

            ‘I have to tell you something,’ I say, realizing I can’t turn back now, don’t want to turn back. I take a deep breath and shut my eyes tight.

            ‘I know about you … I … I know you’re my mother, not Mommy.’ I said it.

            After a few seconds, she asks, ‘Who told you?’

            ‘Totsy and Mommy were fighting and I heard,’ I say. ‘Can I come live with you, now?’

            ‘You can’t come now.’ she says, no hesitation. I stare at the beige wall in front of me.

            ‘But … but, you just bought the new house,’ I say about the brownstone in Brooklyn they are redoing. ‘There’ll be room for me.’

            ‘It’s not like that … It’s not the right place for you to live right now,’ she says.

            ‘But you and Phil are living there.’

            ‘Only on weekends,’ she laughs a little, making me feel stupid. ‘Living with Mommy is much better for you right now.’

            “No, it’s not. I’m better with you,” I plead.

            ‘You don’t understand. There are problems.’

            ‘But you can’t leave me here,’ I say. ‘You’re my mother. I want to live with you.’

            ‘Maybe when we have the house fixed up. Okay, Hoopy?’ she asks, acting as though I’ll say okay and give up.

            ‘I won’t take up much space. I promise. I’ll do anything,’ I say, realizing that my mother doesn’t want me to live with her.

            “We’ll see,” she says.

            ‘I don’t want to live here anymore. I want to live with my family,’ I say.

            ‘They are your family, too,’ she says.

            ‘But they aren’t you. They aren’t my mother.’

            ‘You can stay with us next weekend when we work on the house,’ she says as though that will make a difference.

            ‘Don’t you want me to live with you?’ I say, unable to believe she doesn’t want her own daughter.

            ‘Of course I do,’ she says. ‘When I left, you were too little and you were already calling her mommy. It was better for you. Not so confusing.’

            ‘Now I know. I won’t be confused. Next year?’ I bargain.

            ‘We’ll see. I don’t think the house will be ready by then.’

            ‘Okay, the year after that,’ I say, trying to get her to commit to a date.

            ‘We’ll see,’ is all I get out of her, which means no.

            ‘Can I at least have a room?’

            ‘We’re sleeping on the floor in the living room. We don’t have a bedroom. You can help us work on it. Okay?’ she says calm and sweet.

            ‘Okay,’ I hear myself saying.

            ‘It’ll be fine,’ she says to me. She’s lying.

            ‘Yes.’ I sit down, phone receiver in my hand.

            ‘We’ll talk again tomorrow. Goodnight,’ she says ending the conversation.

            ‘Goodnight.’ I hang up, still sitting at the table. The pink phone with its dirty dial sits silent in front of me. I fantasize about Bunny calling back, saying she spoke to Phil and they want me to come live with them, but the telephone doesn’t ring no matter how hard I stare at it.

            Daddy comes up the stairs. I go over in my mind telling him. I’m not sure if I should tell or not. I can’t contain myself. Someone has to be happy that I know who my mother is.

            ‘Guess what?’ I say, meeting him at the top of the basement steps.

            ‘What?’ he asks.

            ‘I know a secret,’ I singsong.

            ‘You do? What about?’ he asks me.

            ‘Bunny is my mother,’ I say.

            ‘Oh ferchrissakes! Don’t tell ya mother. She’ll have a fit.’ At the same time, he hits his forehead with his palm as if he remembered something he had forgotten for a long time. I think about telling him I want to live with Bunny, but it doesn’t seem like the right time.

            He pushes up his black horn-rimmed glasses with his large hands. He stares at me. He seems to be searching for a lecture about the nature of life or something, but he has nothing to say.

            ‘I shouldn’t tell Mommy?’ I ask.

            ‘I’ll tell her, when I think she’s ready. She’d be so mad if she knew that you found out,’ he says, leaning down and speaking quietly to me.

            When Mommy flew into a rage, everyone was scared of her, including him. She’d make me stand in front of her while she hit me, threatening to make it worse if I ran. I was eavesdropping, so finding out about Bunny was my fault. I don’t want to be in trouble for sneaking around and listening to their conversation when I wasn’t supposed to.

            ‘I swear to God, I won’t tell her,’ I say to him, crisscrossing my heart and holding my hands, palms up, in front of him.

            ‘Good,’ he says, nodding his head. He walks into the kitchen, turns on the gas under the kettle to make tea for Mommy.


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