This is a piece I wrote at a Hugo House class this spring, taught by Cathy Kirkwood, called “Writing the Other.”
She stands in her kitchen, near the refrigerator, as far from the sink full of dirty dishes as she can get. It does not help that there is a small window above the sink that looks out into the back garden. She hates washing dishes. The kitchen never sheds its smell of cabbage, which she has to cook almost every night to make ends meet. She doesn’t mind the smell as much as her son does. To him it is the smell of poverty.
She is wearing the old apron, stained from years of her sloppiness while cooking and baking. It is too big, and envelops her small frame, she wraps the ties around her waist twice but the bib part still hangs loose. She hears the laughter of her older sons coming in from outside the window and wonders uselessly what they have done this time. It isn’t as if she can stop them, after all. She tastes the last swallow of beer she had right after her husband left for work. She is testing herself, waiting to have more until after lunch.
That morning she woke up afraid, as usual; afraid of what, she was never sure. Probably everything. Nearly everything made her afraid, the few things that didn’t, like the taste of her own mother’s chocolate cake, were from her past. She’d been dreaming about something – what was it? – oh, yes, she’d been dreaming about her mother, in fact. About the day her mother died from a long illness. She’d gone down to breakfast, and her father had said her mother had passed away in the night, then sent her to school. In her dream, she screams. In real life she’d been silent.
She remembers thinking that day as she walked to school that she was going to do something with her life to make her mother’s spirit proud. Maybe she would be a nurse. Or a teacher. But her father could not afford to keep her in school after he remarried. She was sent to clean the house of a wealthy family, and soon wound up moving in with them. The only things she brought from home were a few dresses, two pairs of shoes (one for working, one for church), clean underthings to last one week before laundering, and a picture of her mother. In the picture her mother is smiling, holding her new baby daughter in her arms.
Now, standing in her kitchen, hiding from the dishes, she remembers her old bedroom, walls painted pale green, and the little white dresser that held her things. Standing on the dresser is that photo, her mother holding her as a tiny baby. She doesn’t know where that photo is now. In all the packing and unpacking of following her husband, it has disappeared. Did someone take it on purpose, she wonders. She remembers one mover, a large man with alcohol on his breath who followed her a little too closely as she gave him packing instructions. He’d picked up the picture out of an open box and made a comment about needing to wrap it carefully, as the frame looked valuable. She’d snatched it back and carried it with her as she finished with him. She wondered if he’d taken it.
She didn’t care, not really. It was all part of her distant past. Whether it was lost or stolen didn’t matter anymore. Her mother and father, her bedroom and dresser, they were all gone now. She had this life, and the fear that never really left her. She shook herself and walked deliberately to the sink, filling it with hot soapy water.