For most of my adult life, my domestic duties were few: I shopped for one, then two; ate out most nights; ran a quick towel over barely used dining tables. Spent my time, instead, “building a career,” relishing in the freedom to travel, to party, to pursue my dreams.
But in “advanced maternal age,” I entered the world of parenting, where I find myself answering to “Mommy” 55 million times a day; chopping onion and garlic for real, home-cooked meals; washing, drying, folding; stopping by five grocers countless times per week because none provides everything needed.
When I am worn out from my duties, from my career of “midwifing” my students’ dreams, from a conflict with my husband, struggles with my teenage stepson, and tussles with my toddler, I now and again break. God bless the soul in my path. On the rare occasion, I yell. More often, I erect the iron wall. My sexual self dries up, my kitchen runs bare, the stove sits in its corner, stark and cold. I keep the flame contained within me, cursing expectations and demands, assumptions and ingratitude. My heart shrivels to the size and texture of the peach seed the beetles and birds have left in my backyard after devouring the flesh of the fruit.
In a moment of stillness, a stolen minute of peace, I envision my grandmother.
She is standing at her kitchen table, kneading a wad of dough, her fingers dusty with flour. She turns to her gas stove, stirring a pot of fig preserves as hungry mouths wait to savor the sticky sweet meat, to spread it, while hot, across steaming, buttered biscuits.
There she is again, this retired maid, sitting in her den, working at her Singer sewing table. The back screen door opens and slams. It’s Herbert, her eldest, holding a bucket in one hand and a splay of catfish (one of them still jumping) in the other. “Ready to clean, ma?” he grins, revealing a gap between long teeth. And then, a soft knock at the front door: a neighbor, requesting prayer and a cup of brown sugar. Grandmama pulls her blessed Pompeiian olive oil from the pocket of her housecoat, anoints the woman’s forehead and begins praying, her eyes on the ceiling.
By contrast, my mother was far from domestic, hated to clean anything except her sports car, whose red enamel rivaled candy apples at the parish fair. I cannot recall watching my mother wash a single cup. Her fingers curled, instead, around guitar strings and Silhouette Romance novels. She was an artist. Divorce and dashed dreams transfigured her into a single mother of five, a fulltime worker and commuter. I was a silhouette behind her door, caught between her snatches of fantasy and our reality.
Now, as a woman, a wife, a mother, a writer, a worker, I tiptoe across this same tightrope of fantasy and reality. Every now and again, I run across it without falling, before fear and worry set in and time turns against me. I bend over my laptop like Grandmama bent over her Singer, like my mother bent over her guitar, sinking self into instrument. Once, I picked up a guitar and tried my hand against its wires—anything, to keep from writing. Acoustic bass strings reverberated through the hollow wood, against and into my breasts, attempting to fine-tune the fibers of my stubborn heart.
Why, oh why, didn’t I listen to Mama, who tried to teach me all those years ago how to hold fingers against strings, sliding soul onto air? But while her teaching fingers were double-jointed, filled with an internal lubricant that lent a natural flexibility, making it hard at times to distinguish fingers from strings, my pupil ones were not, and I gave up, retracting my joints, so stiff and awkward.
Am I my mother’s daughter?
Except I evoke pick and needle through my pen, even as I turn the oven back on in the dark hours of morn, while family and obligations still sleep. The oven light casts a square of yellow on the white refrigerator. I contemplate moving some story of life across this screen, watching truth drop its veil, dancing, falling and turning cartwheels to the murmur of the refrigerator, the hum of Grandmama’s sewing machine, the strum of Mama’s guitar.