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The Mothers
By Ann Sale

     I know how to open the door. That tightly drawn door that shuts away the story of your mother. Your door isn’t necessarily heavy and sticky with old glue and lack of use but some are. Some ‘mother doors’ are flimsy, even cracked open just a little. Those are the ones sheltering stories of mothers who didn’t live long or were too marginal in personality, or dominated by their own mothers or in-law mothers or husbands. But when you open any of the doors there is always a scent. Roses, oppressive and heavy, usually hang about in the air. 

     Occasionally something delicate, hinting of fresh mountain fields scattered with tundra flowers, comes spilling out.  Even the musky smell of woods after a storm can overwhelm you.

     When Alice, my girlhood friend threw wide the door to her mother it smelled of wet diapers and dry unopened wooden caskets just the way her house always smelled when we played there hiding among the piles of wrinkled, sun dried clothing, chased by her chubby toddling baby brother. Her mother was tall, unapproachable, and edgy, her almost black hair caught firmly under pins, net or scarf. She stalked rather than walked, always on her feet, always busy, her parsonage home always under constant assault—never clean enough, her children equally unsatisfactory. I don’t remember ever hearing her laugh.

     Our braids may have been the only bonds between Alice and me. Hers were thin and long and plaited so tightly they lay shiny and slick like black entrails down her back. Mine, in direct opposition were like fat handfuls of coarse field wheat bursting free at every juncture leaving little to bind together at the ends. We both had frizzes though. That’s what we called the uncontrollable wire brush curls framing our round girlish faces. Her frizzes were dark; mine blond and no one else had them. 

     When Alice opened her door such a welter of sludge and backed up detritus came piling out that she spent years with a psychiatrist getting rid of it. Eventually her poor old mother was even forced into ‘family therapy’; striped naked in front of a stranger. It was her black roots that showed, only that, but her sense of shame had nearly ruined them all. 

     Alice’s energetic, laughing father was a minister and a beloved one. Irish in both look and manner, his church was relatively well to do. With three young children and a large parsonage to keep, his wife purchased a certain freedom from the usual churchly obligations visited on the ‘preacher’s wives’ of her era. None of the parishioners knew her very well. Some, curious as cats, inquired about her education, where she was from and who her ‘people’ were. University educated, from a comfortably remote state, her responses were true, spare and accepted. The lies and soul shattering fear only blossomed when Aunt Carrie threatened to visit.  Excuses as weak as a new born possums held her at bay most of the time but occasionally some shadowy authority intervened and Alice’s mother allowed the visit. We never saw Carrie. Her visit, about the duration of a summer storm, called a halt to all calls and callers. If Alice came to play at my house my mother might insist on taking her home, Carrie might have been at the window, or even have stepped outside though such a thing was cleverly discouraged. Carrie was the dark one you see. Someone might have thought Carrie was the maid.

     Little Henry, the baby, was so roundly blond all fear inducing whispers must have rolled right off of him. Alice’s sister Nell was another story. Pressed from the same mold as her mother she was smart, tall, an early compensator. Preacher’s daughter hardly held up against the information she quickly assimilated. She had ‘the blood’. It was possible she could produce a child, a throw back who would look like Aunt Carrie. Taking care of that matter, Nell never married and became for all the world exactly like Aunt Carrie in personality and popularity. She was not a frequent guest.

     Alice compensated too. She bore two children, blond like the almost albino husband she easily acquired. A music teacher, no one else had wanted him and he was as astonished as a mouse in a maze when she first paid him attention. She owed though. God hadn’t let her birth a child her own mother couldn’t look on with pride, so she paid her dues and adopted a pitiful boy, orphaned from birth and beset with physical and mental deformities. Then she was unhappy and laid her burden, as heavy as wet sand on the soul of her mother.
The psychiatrist had been kind, carefully categorizing, separating Alice’s choices from her Mother’s history. He sought to comfort, reminding them this is America—home of the hybrid-and seeking to spread the balm of African strength and beauty over their terror. Her mother never lost her dignity though Alice wept bitterly and flailed at the air in her anguish. It was unfortunate, but with her father now dead there wasn’t much money so after tearing their souls to shreds, mother and daughter settled exhaustedly into the same car. Alice’s mother stayed in Alice’s home during the therapy—there was no other place to go. Actually there was an alternative. Without ever explaining herself to either the doctor or her daughter, Alice’s mother dressed her already clean body in a freshly laundered nightgown, drew the bathtub full to the top with soothing, warm water and quietly sank below its surface. 

© 2002 Ann Sale All Rights Reserved. 
Ann Sale can be contacted via email at


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