Mother Gosling

Fiction / Brodie Gress 

:: Mother Gosling ::

      Around the time I became twen­ty-sev­en, half as old as my moth­er, I was irri­tat­ed to learn that life was exact­ly what she had warned me it would be.

          “What­ev­er you study, make mon­ey with it,” I remem­ber her telling me, dur­ing the first of our many calls, when I asked her what my col­lege degree should be. I’d just fin­ished my first semes­ter of col­lege, still unde­clared. I was lean­ing toward music, unwill­ing to let it go, but my moth­er pushed me oth­er­wise. She was end­less­ly prac­ti­cal, like when she bought me a Dave Ram­sey book for my high school grad­u­a­tion or emailed me a list of mechan­ics as her first cor­re­spon­dence with me after col­lege began. Despite that, I real­ized that I did in fact like my family—even my annoy­ing younger sib­lings, even my down-to-earth mother.

          As grat­ing as her val­ues were, I fol­lowed them. As a com­pro­mise, I dou­ble majored in music and busi­ness, the sec­ond of which made of cours­es I found sti­fling to sit through but which also led to a paid intern­ship qua bud­ding career in the non­prof­it sec­tor. I thanked my moth­er for her advice, dur­ing the first time I called her after I got my job.

          My father was there, too, dur­ing our calls, in the back­ground cheer­ful­ly yelling greet­ings to me over my mother’s shoul­der: How was the non­prof­it, was I enjoy­ing my non-rais­es and no-perks yet, and I’d laugh and tell him to bug off. I knew he had his issues with his fam­i­ly, but he had the ears of my broth­ers and sis­ter. I gave mine to my moth­er. Us two eldest daugh­ters. The more I called my moth­er, the more I learned about her. She had her own ordeals, with her orig­i­nal fam­i­ly, whom I’d only ever seen dur­ing hol­i­days grow­ing up.

          As our calls and vis­its rolled on, I learned that my Grampa—my sweet, fun­ny Gram­pa who car­ried me on his shoul­ders and made me my first violin—had been a shit­hole father.

          “She’s stay­ing home again,” my moth­er said, annoyed with her mid­dle sis­ter, over the first phone call we had when I’d start­ed my job. “Twila said she’d come this time, she swore, but you know she always backs out last minute. Gigi—your cousin Lorraine’s youngest, you remember—came down with the flu, and Lor­raine called her moth­er like always. I told Twila she couldn’t always swoop in and help Lor­raine every time, or Lor­raine would nev­er be a con­fi­dent mother.”

          “Oh, Mom,” I said, my con­stant inter­lude upon her sto­ries, to let her know I was lis­ten­ing, that she was heard, even if I didn’t under­stand all of it. All I could real­ly under­stand, dur­ing her many sto­ries, was that moth­er­hood was some­thing I wasn’t sure I would ever want.

          “And I remind­ed Twila we were sup­posed to decide what to do with Grampa’s old scrap­yard art today, that Mom—Gramma—had request­ed she be there, but Twila just waved me off. You decide, Geor­gia, you’re the eldest, she said, but you know she’s just going to crit­i­cize what­ev­er I decide to do … Oh, but I’m just let­ting off steam. She’s busy, like Ulyssa. We all are. I have the most time out of any of us, I’m sure, even with babysit­ting Ned.”

          My moth­er often spoke like that. She’d snow­ball her mem­o­ries and thoughts into a long and detailed dia­tribe against her sis­ters, but then she’d catch her­self and find a gra­cious con­clu­sion, as if pen­i­tent. But I was always dis­ap­point­ed when the grace came. My moth­er sound­ed human when she com­plained, so very human. I felt like I could tell her my prob­lems, too, air my own griev­ances with my job, the guy I was sort of dat­ing now, the way the world was going, and over the phone I’d hear her mm hmm, to let me know, in turn, that even if she didn’t under­stand all my frus­tra­tions, that she lis­tened. That I was heard. 

          I have a strong mem­o­ry, once—when I was a child, I raid­ed my mother’s dress­er and tried a pair of gleam­ing red flats I nev­er saw her wear. I thought they were the most beau­ti­ful shoes, with lit­tle rhine­stones gleam­ing from the shoe’s tongue. When I put them on, I found them ill-fit­ting, but I walked around my mother’s room, then down the hall, and then to my room, where I chas­tised my dolls for loaf­ing around on the shelf doing noth­ing. I heard my broth­er, a baby then, wail, and I turned to find my moth­er glar­ing dag­gers at me. She wrenched my hand.

          “Take those off,” she said with the warmth of ice­berg let­tuce. I hur­ried my feet out of them. “Don’t go through my dress­er again. That was so thought­less of you, Ann.”

          Despite the decades, the expe­ri­ences, and any oth­er gulfs that dis­tanced us, I still try to put on my mother’s shoes. I still try to wear my moth­er, try to walk how she would walk, talk how she would talk, feel how she would feel. An impos­si­ble task.


          A few nights before her father died, Geor­gia was stir­ring beans in a bub­bling pot, sea­son­ing them with salt and pep­per, adding a lit­tle brown sug­ar and sharp ched­dar for her grand­son Ned, when her phone rang.

          “Dad’s not well,” her sis­ter Twila said over the phone.

          “He’s been unwell for a while now.”

          “No. It’s bad this time.”

          Her father died in the hos­pi­tal, at last of his liv­er can­cer. The doc­tor tried to explain it sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, that the can­cer had metas­ta­sized and made short work of its dwellings, but Geor­gia couldn’t help but notice the tim­ing. A week before, she and her sis­ters had final­ly con­vinced him to enter assist­ed liv­ing. Their mom couldn’t take care of him on her own, and his daugh­ters couldn’t make the time for him. He had fought for the longest time—how he clung to that dying light—and this rapid death of his felt to Geor­gia like a final spite.

          She’d been jilt­ed. At last, her father and moth­er would have been sep­a­rate. Geor­gia would have final­ly had the chance to vis­it her father alone, under the pre­tense of a lov­ing daugh­ter. The nurs­es would have admit­ted her. She would have walked into his room, exchanged pleas­ant hel­los. He would have invit­ed her to sit down, stare out the win­dow at him. And just when he start­ed to ask her if she remem­bered jar­ring straw­ber­ry jam with him and her broth­er, or the time he pranked her prom date with his gun, that’s when she would have told him exact­ly what she remem­bered. What her broth­er had bab­bled to her, before he’d died. Her moth­er no longer there to medi­ate her vol­canic rage. No. At last, she and her father would have had words.

          But he’d tak­en that from her, too, sneak­ing out the back door toward death. He left his fam­i­ly with noth­ing but a body to get rid of. He had a barn full of junk, an unruly plot of land, and no sav­ings for a funer­al. Her, Ulyssa, and Twila were left to cov­er much of their mother’s health­care. Geor­gia and her sis­ters decid­ed on cre­ma­tion. Her moth­er didn’t protest, though she did ask whether they couldn’t put some of her life insur­ance toward his funer­al. Geor­gia told her she’d look into it, and she didn’t.

        Only a few of the fam­i­ly arrived for his inurn­ment: Geor­gia, her sis­ters and moth­er, and Ulyssa’s chil­dren. Ulyssa had made hers come, while Geor­gia had let her own chil­dren decide.


          “Do you want to come to Grampa’s funer­al?” My moth­er called me to ask.

          I had loose mem­o­ries of my grand­fa­ther, dis­joint­ed but hap­py ones. I was one of his first grand­chil­dren. He’d been a farmer and car­pen­ter, I knew. He had shown his work at some of the local fairs near where I grew up, I remem­ber. One of my ear­li­er mem­o­ries involved him. 

          When my moth­er was hav­ing my baby broth­er, Dad at the hos­pi­tal with her, Gram­pa and Gram­ma came to babysit us. Gram­pa took us out for a stroll, walk­ing down our dri­ve­way until we got near the lake, answer­ing ques­tions from my broth­ers and sis­ter and me about child­birth. Then I saw the geese and pulled Gram­pa back with my lit­tle hand.

          “No, Gram­pa!” I told him. “Geese are awful. They always chase me.”

          “Annie, dearie, look closer.”

          He put me on his shoulders—Grampa still took care of a small farm, his body sinewy and tough—and from his shoul­ders I could see the geese a lit­tle eas­i­er. They seemed less threat­en­ing. I real­ized they were hud­dled around a nest full of cheep­ing goslings.

          “Fam­i­ly always looks out for its own,” he’d told me when he gave it to me. “Did I ever tell you about the time I got into a star­ing match with a goose in my toma­to garden …”

          And look­ing back now I can see where my moth­er had got­ten her tal­ent for weav­ing sto­ries. Gram­pa did voic­es, spread his hands wide, and con­stant­ly winked while telling his sto­ries, so much you weren’t sure how much he was fab­ri­cat­ing, whether it even mat­tered, his sto­ries were always that good. He would tick­le me and make me laugh, and I remem­ber now—it’s so obvi­ous to me now, the mem­o­ry like an opti­cal illu­sion, where your eyes final­ly see the trick and you can’t unsee it once you do. I remem­ber that Mom would always decide then that she need­ed to tuck my shirt in more, or comb my hair, has­ten­ing Gram­pa to end his sto­ry. I had liked Gram­pa, back then, and years lat­er when my moth­er told me about her father, I found it unset­tling to square my Gram­pa and her father as one and the same.

          “I wish I could,” I told my moth­er over the phone, “but we have this big fundrais­er com­ing up at my work, and I can’t take time off for it. Could I send a card instead?”

          “That’d be fine. I’m sor­ry you’ll be busy,” she said, not push­ing the mat­ter fur­ther. When I put down my phone, I couldn’t help look­ing to my wall, where a vio­lin hung. My welling grief pricked of hot shame.


          But Ulyssa’s chil­dren did attend the funer­al. They all took time off, each of them flew in, every one of them suc­cess­ful, at least by rudi­men­ta­ry mea­sures. One of them worked as an inter­na­tion­al con­sul­tant for tech com­pa­nies. Anoth­er worked for a law firm in Chica­go, had recent­ly scored a clerk­ship with a dis­trict court judge. The third had mar­ried an indie filmmaker—cineaste auteur, as he called him­self over Thanks­giv­ing dinner—after his first divorce. Each of them eulo­gized their Gram­pa, and Ulyssa cried. Geor­gia did, too, though not as much.

          Back at her mother’s house, in the liv­ing room where they’d always held hol­i­day par­ties, Geor­gia passed along a tray of pigs in a blan­ket, not par­tic­u­lar­ly hun­gry. Ulyssa’s chil­dren excused them­selves with their jobs and fam­i­lies, and Gram­ma announced she was exhaust­ed and turned in for her after­noon nap, leav­ing the three sis­ters to clean up the food they’d put out.

          “Mom can come live with me,” Ulyssa said. “She’s always want­ed to live in the city, and Dick and I have more than enough space now that Nash has his own place.”

          “That sounds fine to me,” Twila said. “Why don’t we all go out to McFee’s? It’s been a day; let’s go let off steam.”

          She just want­ed a drink, Geor­gia knew, though nei­ther Geor­gia nor Ulyssa could under­stand how Twila could even stand the smell of alco­hol. Rather than say any­thing, Geor­gia got up and col­lect­ed everyone’s plates to wash them in the sink, not wish­ing to stay in the liv­ing room any longer. She knew Ulyssa was right.

          The next week, Geor­gia sat in her car, clean­ing cad­dy in the pas­sen­ger seat, lock­ing her eyes on the front door to her mother’s home, pro­ject­ing her wor­ries and angers onto its pan­eled face. It was fun­ny how much eas­i­er sit­ting still became, the more she aged. An hour, two hours, four, ten, a hun­dred: how­ev­er long she sat didn’t mat­ter much. Her mind was over­flow­ing with thoughts now, and she was grate­ful for any time she got to rest and relin­quish them. She’d unscrew the cap to them, pour them out on the ground, feed the grass with them, pol­lute the riv­er with them, toss them care­less­ly out an open win­dow. She refused to hoard them, like her moth­er. Some thoughts were non­sense, some unpleas­ant, some repet­i­tive. At times, she might wet her hands with a thought and mark a tree, curse it for­ev­er, no mat­ter, she would do it. What­ev­er it took, to free a thought of its words, dis­solve it into some sense­less state she no longer had to deal with.

          Her thoughts crys­tal­ized and meta­mor­phosed, and Geor­gia shook her head to send them fly­ing away. She climbed out of her van and entered the house.

          Inside she found Ulyssa, stand­ing in the cor­ner, exam­in­ing a por­trait of their moth­er with her sis­ter and broth­er, in front of their old home in Ken­tucky. Ulyssa held it in her hand, exam­in­ing every cor­ner of it. She wasn’t dust­ing it, wasn’t check­ing the frame for loose screws, and when she hung it back up it was slight­ly askew. Ulyssa wouldn’t be able to spot askew things, of course, Geor­gia thought. Her work at the con­sul­tan­cy firm filled her head so much she couldn’t remem­ber how to man­age her own home, which is why Geor­gia was there every week, to clean out the oven, scrub out the dish­wash­er, step into the dark cor­ners of homes few oth­ers would think of when there, and with time spent so long in such cor­ners. Geor­gia knew how clean­ing a home could reveal it to be a fam­i­ly archaeology.

          “Didn’t think you were com­ing today.”

          Ulyssa smiled at her old­er sis­ter, and the two embraced.

          “I took a per­son­al day,” Ulyssa said. “Got some work done early.”

          In their mother’s room, their moth­er lay in her bed, threw a weak smile at her daugh­ters. Grand­ma wasn’t sick, but rather tired. Geor­gia imag­ined the mat­tress call­ing to her, embrac­ing her, encour­ag­ing her to lie still, sink. 

          “There’s no need to clean,” their moth­er said, like she always did, since Geor­gia had been a child. “I’ll get to it later.”

          When their moth­er fell asleep, Geor­gia start­ed sweep­ing the kitchen of crumbs and chas­ing the ants away, while Ulyssa retched and retreat­ed to the liv­ing room to pore over their mother’s med­ical records. Ulyssa had always been book­ish that way, Geor­gia recalled, com­fort­able in her bed­room get­ting lost in her fan­ta­sy nov­els, or the Bible. Geor­gia won­dered if she, too, would have been book­ish, had she not been sad­dled with chores. Their moth­er had tried to get Ulyssa to han­dle the laun­dry, at least, but Ulyssa proved so for­get­ful that their moth­er quit ask­ing and went to bed instead.

          “Do you think we did it right?” Ulyssa called out from the silence.

          “Did what right?”

          “His funeral.”

          Geor­gia swept the last of the debris and emp­tied it into the trash can, refus­ing to notice the spare crumb or two under­neath the bot­tom cab­i­nets. Clean­ing was nev­er over. She sim­ply tam­pered and fend­ed off every room’s unend­ing yearn­ing to rot back into the dirt.

          “It was what he deserved.”

          Their phones rang, Twila tex­ting them to ask how the clean­ing was going. Ulyssa thumbed a response before slid­ing her smart­phone back into her purse, scan­ning the bills from the nurs­ing home for incon­sis­ten­cies, Geor­gia figured.

          “Would you be mad if I said I miss him?”

          “No,” Geor­gia lied. She knew Ulyssa could tell. They both remem­bered what he’d been like. Yet, despite that their father had soft­ened over the years and giv­en Ulyssa an eas­i­er child­hood, despite their diver­gent paths in adult­hood, despite how she envied and maligned them under her breath, Geor­gia would not deny her sis­ters their grief.


          “Why don’t you spend more time with your sis­ter?” Mom used to egg my lit­tle sis­ter and me. We would throw each oth­er shrugs then go back to our rooms, Jen­na talk­ing with her friends over the cord­ed phone we still had, me prac­tic­ing the vio­lin. One Fri­day, Mom quit ask­ing and sent us both out to get bags of ice from the gro­cery store. She gave us fifty dol­lars and remind­ed us about the JCPen­ney in the town square. We tried to bring up that we had plans.

          “Can­cel your plans,” she told us. “You need new clothes, the both of you, and those fifty dol­lars are your allowance.”

          We didn’t get an allowance, typ­i­cal­ly, so we sul­len­ly let our friends know, me call­ing them and Jen­na log­ging onto the fam­i­ly com­put­er to mes­sage them—calling on the phone is lame, she loved to tell Mom and me. I drove us both downtown.

          At the JCPen­ney, we flicked through the racks, most of the clothes we liked priced well into the for­ties and fifties, more than Mom had fig­ured. We could either each get some under­gar­ments or a few t‑shirts. Jen­na groaned.

        “All the clothes here are lame,” she said from the oth­er side of the dis­count rack. “Per­fect for you. Buy your­self a lame out­fit. Just tell Mom we had a won­der­ful time and told each oth­er our secret crush­es or whatever.”

          “Who is your secret crush?”

          “No one.”

          “You sure it’s not Cory Anheuser?”

          “What?” Jen­na squeaked.

          “You for­got to log out. Saw some mes­sages that would get you grounded …”

          “He’s just a friend.” She blushed. “Mind your own business.”

          I poked Jen­na through the rack, mak­ing her jump. While I laughed, she unracked a pair of ripped jeans and threw them at me, and I retal­i­at­ed, both of us rel­ish­ing this oppor­tu­ni­ty. Mom nev­er let us brawl at home; she yelled for us to keep it down, that we were giv­ing her a headache. Jen­na threw one shirt too far and pelt­ed anoth­er cus­tomer, who scowled and told an asso­ciate. The asso­ciate came by to tell us we would have to leave, berat­ing us to learn some man­ners before we could shop at JCPenney’s again. We exit­ed in snick­ers, and out­side I showed Jen­na the shirt I’d shoplifted.

          “Didn’t know you had it in you, nerd,” my sis­ter punched me. “But ugh, the goose shirt? You would pick the lamest one, throw that in the trash.”

          “It reminds me of Grampa’s sto­ry about the geese,” I said. “I’m get­ting a goose tat­too on my shoul­der one day. A goose play­ing a vio­lin, and under­neath it the words, Did I ever tell you the one …Like what Gram­pa always says.”

          “You can’t do that. Mom will kill you.”

          “No, she wouldn’t, she has a tattoo.”

          “Not the tat­too, idiot. She hates Grampa.”


          I stopped, and Jen­na stopped, too, like I was anchor­ing her in place. What she said didn’t make sense, like she’d told me the sky was green.

          “She hates him. Duh.”

          “No, she doesn’t. He’s her dad. He annoys her, sure, but she can’t hate him.”

          “She does, though.”

          “How do you know?”

          “It’s obvi­ous. She always shoots Gram­pa glares, and not like her usu­al glares, but mean glares, like when that guy cat­called you and me at the mall and she cussed him out. She shoots Gram­pa the same kind of glare, and she always grabs my shoul­der before she lets me hug him. Doesn’t she grab at you, too?”

          “That’s ridicu­lous. Why would she take us to his and Gramma’s every Christmas?”

          “I don’t know. Appearances.”

          “You’re stu­pid,” I said. “You’re a child. You don’t know what you’re talk­ing about.”

          Jen­na gri­maced and turned back toward the car, leav­ing the dis­cus­sion flat. We drove all the way back home in our usu­al silence, bag of ice in the back shim­mer­ing. When we got back, Jen­na went to her room, and I told Mom we’d had a won­der­ful time, that we’d learned a lot about each oth­er. Mom was hap­py, until in the com­ing weeks when she noticed us pass­ing each oth­er silent­ly in the hall­way again. I could feel her watch­ing my back.

        “You’re ground­ed,” she told me dri­ly one day. “I’ve told you to clean your room a thou­sand times, sick of pick­ing up after you.”

          “I was lit­er­al­ly going to do it tonight!” I yelled back.

          “Do it now.”

          The next Christ­mas, I couldn’t shake what my sis­ter had said. I close­ly watched my grand­fa­ther, dressed up in a San­ta hat and suit, as he roamed around, giv­ing all my lit­tle cousins hugs, presents, and stories.

          “Hi there, Annie Dearie,” Gram­pa laughed when he approached me, and my mem­o­ry nev­er burned hot­ter than when my mom’s fin­gers dug into my palm, leav­ing deep imprints before let­ting go.

          Gram­pa held out a gift to me, watch­ing me unwrap it with that San­ta Claus twin­kle he could muster. It was a vio­lin, one with birds carved into the tail­piece, one he’d made him­self. “Give ‘ole San­ta a hug.” 

          “Tell Gram­pa thanks, Anna,” Mom said, and I hugged Gram­pa. The cozy warmth I used to feel so eas­i­ly around him felt too hot, almost des­per­ate. I resent­ed my sis­ter for her words.

          “Thank you,” I told him, and he winked at me. I watched the whole par­ty and real­ized he and Mom rarely spoke direct­ly to each oth­er, real­ly only through my sib­lings and I. Mom spent most of the par­ty in the kitchen with Gram­ma, or her sis­ters. I saw Jen­na busy with her new disc play­er, and I thought I caught a smug smirk on her down­turned face.

          Every Christ­mas after, I couldn’t help star­ing at the accent wall at moments, feel­ing the past alight on my shoul­ders, dig­ging its talons in, draw­ing blood.


          Some long time after her father’s funer­al, alone at her mother’s house, halfway through giv­ing the liv­ing room a quick dust­ing, Geor­gia paused to exam­ine the accent wall. She must have seen it a thou­sand times, the book­shelves dot­ted with plants and col­lec­tions of strange books: a pho­to album of old gas sta­tions, yel­lowed pen­ny dread­fuls, mis­shapen pur­chas­es from a local book­mo­bile. But she thought of the news she’d seen ear­li­er. Israel and Pales­tine, old ten­sions flar­ing up into bombs and bul­lets, why his­to­ry could nev­er rest in peace, she didn’t know.

          She remem­bered a pho­to of the sole pink crib among the wreck­age, and then she imag­ined this wall, also cracked and splin­tered. She imag­ined her old dolls behead­ed and ampu­tat­ed, their stuff­ing splat­tered across the lawn. The high­way out­side fis­sured, blast­ed, sunken under the weight of war. Her old high school bell bot­toms and turtle­necks, untouched among the smell of burn­ing cloth and poly­ester poi­son­ing the air. The insan­i­ty of it all.

          “Mom,” she called to her moth­er, “Did you see the news about Pales­tine and Israel?”

          “What news?”

          “The mis­sile strikes.”

          “There was a mis­sile strike? Where?” Gram­ma walked into the room, look­ing about it fear­ful­ly. Mom—Georgia sighed.

          “Nev­er mind.”

          She set about tak­ing the books off, final­ly giv­ing them a long over­due dust­ing. Her moth­er set­tled into the old reclin­er in the cor­ner, the wide one with the lamp hang­ing over it. Geor­gia had always thought all the fur­ni­ture in this house gave too much. None of it was firm; sit­ting any­where in the house was as if a sink­hole threat­ened to swal­low her up.

          “Israel and Pales­tine. They’ve always been at war,” her mom said, “as long as I can remem­ber. Gram­pa used to joke that they could set­tle their fights with corn­hole and a tobac­co pipe to pass around.”

          “Sure,” Geor­gia said. She couldn’t imag­ine her father paci­fy­ing any­one, and she wished her moth­er would quit call­ing him Gram­pa around her.

          “I miss him.”

          The books on the top shelf were coat­ed in dust, and Geor­gia leaned up to wipe their spines off, one by one.

          “It was heart­break­ing to see you cry, Geor­gia,” her moth­er con­tin­ued. “I know you and he had dif­fer­ences, but he loved you in his own way.”

          “I wasn’t cry­ing for him. I would nev­er shed a tear over him.” 

          Her moth­er recoiled from Geor­gia, like she was a snake, and it angered her so much, that her moth­er could despise her for this, but she wouldn’t pre­tend noth­ing had been swept under the car­pet. She wouldn’t let her feel­ings go to the grave with her father.  She did know why it couldn’t rest.

          “You both act­ed like it’s Ernie’s fault he drank him­self to death, but what Dad did to us—to him!—followed him. Admit it, you know it.” Geor­gia shot her moth­er a look of revul­sion. “And you stayed mar­ried to him, all these years. You made me let him walk me down the aisle. You made my chil­dren meet him every holiday.”

          “Geor­gia,” her moth­er ceased being a grand­moth­er. Time rolled back, and Geor­gia was a teenag­er, her moth­er try­ing to cow her. “Your father did his best. Farm­ing was thank­less work, and you and your broth­er were hard­ly angels. Ernie always stayed out late at the riv­er with friends, and he crashed the trac­tor. The cost of repairs and lost crops set us back for months. And you, screw­ing that hip­pie every week­end, for God’s sake he could have knocked you up—”

          “You sad­dled us with all the chores while Ulyssa and Twila did jack shit around the house, of course we act­ed out. That doesn’t excuse—”

          “I don’t want to hear this.”

          Her moth­er walked down the hall, stonewalling any fur­ther con­ver­sa­tion. Georgia’s anger shook through all her bones, and she wrung her dust rag as if break­ing a neck, before she stormed out of the house. Furi­ous that her moth­er still act­ed that way, that she couldn’t roll time for­ward to the present. She wasn’t a child anymore.

          Nei­ther was I.


          “I’m sor­ry!” I tried to say, for the thou­sandth time in that house­hold, felt like, when I was ten.

          “Drop­ping your baby broth­er on his head, how care­less could you be?” My moth­er snapped at me, tow­er­ing over me in rage as she held my sob­bing baby broth­er, the third of my younger broth­ers. “You could have hurt him, could have caused head trau­ma. I hope you’re nev­er a mother.”

          I said some­thing back to her, but I don’t remem­ber the rest. Nev­er a moth­er. Never.

          She told me to go to my room, and I oblig­ed her, while she tend­ed to Nathan, feel­ing his head for bumps and bruis­es, hold­ing him and bounc­ing him while he squalled.

          She did apol­o­gize, lat­er that night. Or, she apol­o­gized in her own way. She told me she had trou­ble rein­ing her words in some­times, that she didn’t mean half of what she meant, she was just vent­ing. She said she was sure I could be a won­der­ful moth­er, if I want­ed. I told her it was okay, that I knew she didn’t mean it.

          “So why can’t I for­get it?” I told my ther­a­pist two decades lat­er. “Nathan turned out fine. It’s just, when he had a speech delay, or when he kept get­ting lost in the store when we went with Mom, I thought … I couldn’t help think­ing it was because I dropped him. That I cracked his head like an egg.”

          That sto­ry, like a switch, made me cry every time I told it to myself. I was so used to blam­ing myself for what hap­pened to oth­er peo­ple, I told my ther­a­pist, like I was con­stant­ly fail­ing them.

          My ther­a­pist would wait, offer me a tis­sue, and once more tell me, with unbe­liev­able patience, that I’d been the child, not the par­ent. I wasn’t to blame. She’d remind me that my moth­er, too, couldn’t help revert­ing to child­hood, some­times. We all cling to these old pat­terns we learned, despite our best efforts, she said. She tried to say it, over and over again, like she was call­ing out to me as I let a storm blow me every which way.

          “You’re right,” I’d tell her, before we start­ed our breath­ing exer­cis­es. And I would cling to what my ther­a­pist said, for as long as I could, while ward­ing off those deeply root­ed rots, threat­en­ing to sup­plant every kind word ever spo­ken to me.

          Bruis­es, lash­ings, break­ing, curs­es, regrets.


          Bruis­es, lash­ings, break­ing, curs­es, regrets.

          I pic­ture lash­ings. Belt­ings. Beer bot­tles break­ing. The scenes I’ve seen on TV, the sounds I’ve heard over pod­casts, the scarce hints my moth­er gave me—I stitch them, com­pos­ite them, con­coct them, into what I imag­ined hap­pened to my mother.


          I pic­ture Gram­pa, not as a grand­fa­ther but a father, few­er wrin­kles but stained with dirt on his brow, his face nev­er smil­ing. I pic­ture his hands cal­loused from the fields, his legs threat­en­ing to buck­le under­neath him, his skin burn­ing with the heat of the sun. I pic­ture him walk­ing back to the house and see­ing his truck’s bumper dent­ed, damaged—why, he could eas­i­ly guess. I pic­ture him think­ing of his own child­hood, what his par­ents had said to him, done to him, and what their par­ents had said to him, and so on and so forth, words, ges­tures, par­ent­ing reach­ing back through the ages.

          I pic­ture him growl­ing, then hear­ing through the win­dow his old­est jab­ber­ing over her phone, his son pick­ing at a gui­tar, his two lit­tlest scream­ing at each oth­er in the back­yard. All of them so fuck­ing loud.

          I can nev­er fol­low him inside.


          It was some time before I told her, years after my moth­er con­fessed her child­hood to me. I didn’t tell her through a call but a vis­it, my first since Grampa’s funer­al. She was shar­ing with me, late one night over the kitchen table, how the funer­al went. A quick and qui­et affair. A few things Ulyssa and her chil­dren had said. Some food they shared at Gramma’s. Mom talked about the pigs in the blan­ket that were passed around, describ­ing them in ful­some detail. How good they tast­ed, how she hadn’t had any in years, how Twila had added a strange pick­le rel­ish to them that some­how worked.

          “She’s real­ly learned some­thing from those cook­ing class­es, I sup­pose,” Mom told me. “Maybe I’ll take her up on her invi­ta­tion sometime.”

          She stared at the table for a bit before pick­ing up her book, lick­ing her fin­ger and turn­ing the page. How eas­i­ly she could enter a book, as the TV news blared mute beside us. I remained at the table with her, until I aired what I’d come home to say.


          She looked up from her book.

          “I’m sor­ry Gram­pa hurt you,” I told her. “I can’t imag­ine how you car­ried that all this time.”

          Like how “I love you” car­ries so many mean­ings and con­no­ta­tions, “I’m sor­ry” does, too. This wasn’t one of my usu­al apolo­gies. Not the polite ones I told strangers I bumped, nor the frus­trat­ed ones I told my ex-boyfriend for for­get­ting he was cel­e­brat­ing May 4th with his friends,  when I asked him to pick up some milk and but­ter, nor even the guilt-rid­den one I told my friend when she told me not to ask her to touch her hair,.

          No. I didn’t say this sor­ry out of man­ners. This sor­ry was the one you screwed up courage for.

          In the sec­onds after, Mom took a sharp breath before piv­ot­ing. She told me it was noth­ing, I shouldn’t both­er myself over it. It was years ago, old his­to­ry. She start­ed a sto­ry about Twila and Ulyssa com­ing over for East­er, bring­ing their grand­chil­dren for a play date with Ned. Gram­ma would come, too, wouldn’t that be some­thing, four gen­er­a­tions in one house­hold, a small mir­a­cle. Mom said every­thing but what I want­ed her to say. She didn’t say how much it meant to her, that I rec­og­nized her pain.

          And she didn’t, as my heart of hearts want­ed, in turn say sor­ry to me.

          But I think I’ll always be dis­ap­point­ed by my moth­er, that way, if I pic­ture her as nobody but my moth­er. So, I tell myself the sto­ry of Geor­gia, as a balm for those wounds. Per­haps I could brave more ques­tions with her, rather than stitch­ing her sto­ry out of scraps, but I don’t wish to pry her open. She’ll always be my moth­er; the real Geor­gia is hers.

          I rose from my chair, telling my moth­er good night.

          “I love you, Mom.”

          “Good night, Anna.”


          I pic­ture my moth­er, unsure why she couldn’t return such a sen­ti­ment into three tidy words that night. Maybe the con­fines of those words angered her. Of course she loved me. She would throw her­self in front of a car for me, for all her chil­dren. The end­less root­ing for pock­ets of cash, the slights she and her hus­band suf­fered end­less­ly at their jobs, the back pain they’d endured, the surg­eries they’d put off, vaca­tions can­celled, dreams dis­in­te­grat­ed … When she thought of the pay­less work she’d done, the weeds he’d hacked and toi­lets he’d scrubbed, she want­ed to think of how they’d toiled to do bet­ter by their chil­dren, her and Tim both. But my mother’s imag­i­na­tion could trick her.

          She some­times thought of my father, her hus­band, hack­ing weeds by the creek, his back to her, and when the man turned around, she saw her father, my grand­fa­ther. My moth­er Geor­gia would yelp, angry with her­self. Why would her mind play this trick on her? she’d ask, in a cru­ci­fy­ing tone. Tim was qui­et, sen­si­tive, fac­tu­al. He didn’t rise to her lev­el in her angri­er moments, because he knew she’d inher­it­ed the worst thing from her father, a tem­per she failed to rein in most days, so why, why, why would her mind do this to her, what was it try­ing to tell her, and she couldn’t help smack­ing her head with her book before head­ing to the liv­ing room to read from it, some emp­ty-head­ed mys­tery she fig­ured out halfway through, bad­ly edit­ed copy she couldn’t help ink­ing over, some inan­i­mate object she could poke and prod with­out any guilt over the consequences.


          My moth­er was right about what life was like, among many things. Life was long. Life was repet­i­tive. Life was chas­ing after mon­ey you’d nev­er have enough of, work­ing jobs you’d grow to hate just to get more of it. Life was geese mak­ing you late for work.

          Even in the city, per­haps espe­cial­ly so, I see geese. The geese wad­dle around the grass strips between busy roads, haughty toward the human traf­fic honk­ing around them, beg­ging them to get on with their day. They trav­el in flocks, peck­ing the grass for worms, left­over food, what­ev­er suits their appetite. I see them con­stant­ly, and I usu­al­ly ignore them. All my mem­o­ries of them blur togeth­er. All but one.

          It was a hot August day. I was already run­ning late to work, impro­vis­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion about bud­get num­bers, idling before my office at the last traf­fic light, per­sis­tent­ly red. And just before it turned green, a goose and its fledg­ling began cross­ing the street in front of me. I almost slammed my horn with my fist before I looked clos­er and saw.

          The goose was rush­ing its child along, peck­ing at its lit­tle head with fury, like the poor thing couldn’t walk fast enough for its moth­er. The gosling ran and stum­bled, and the parent’s ire grew. It jabbed again, so sharply I touched my own head. I sat still, obliv­i­ous to the cars behind me. I was lost and out of body—what did it mean, what did it mean, what did I mean—my work for­got­ten, the time no more a num­ber on my dash­board but sum­mer grass, crick­et har­mo­ny, soft arms squeez­ing me.

          The geese dis­ap­peared behind the hedge, and I was late to work.

From the writer


:: Account ::

After my dad’s moth­er had passed away, we were tour­ing his fam­i­ly home­stead. There, he shared with my broth­ers and I all the chores he and his sib­lings woke up each day to do, what all the dif­fer­ent machin­ery was for, and the pranks and hijinks they inflict­ed on each oth­er. After I drove home, I sat with my mom at the kitchen table and told her I want­ed to record my dad nar­rat­ing his mem­o­ries, and I had the good sen­si­tiv­i­ty to offer her the same. She said she had no desire to revis­it her past, and that’s when she told me, for the first and only time.

That sum­mer, when my grandmother’s funer­al took place, the first sum­mer of COVID-19, I was part of a vir­tu­al work­shop that had formed dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. I lat­er found myself at a cof­fee shop try­ing to write a sto­ry for them to read, as good as the last one we’d read. Like many of my sto­ries, this one slipped out through my fin­gers, demand­ing to be told. I can tell I care about a sto­ry when the first draft pours out of me like molten gold, how­ev­er much tam­per­ing it needs lat­er in revision.

This semi­au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal sto­ry is my way of explor­ing gen­er­a­tional trau­ma; it’s in no way non­fic­tion. I’ve nev­er asked my moth­er again about the vio­lence she suf­fered from her father, but fic­tion lets me make up answers to the inces­sant ques­tions I have, with­out both­er­ing my moth­er over it. I have my own com­pli­cat­ed mem­o­ries of my par­ents, and this sto­ry start­ed out with a pro­tag­o­nist like myself. Yet as I wrote, I grew inter­est­ed in the sto­ries and tri­als of eldest daugh­ters like my moth­er, and I changed the nar­ra­tor into one like my old­er sister.

My moth­er wouldn’t like me writ­ing this sto­ry, and like many writ­ers, I feared I was appro­pri­at­ing mate­r­i­al which wasn’t mine. Yet, I’ll put my name on this any­ways. I doubt many fam­i­lies appre­ci­ate hav­ing a writer amidst their ranks, but writ­ers have got to write. It’s my hope who­ev­er reads this sto­ry will say I’ve craft­ed it justly.

I’d like to acknowl­edge my fel­low writ­ers in my work­shop for chal­leng­ing me to write my very best, and I’d like to acknowl­edge my fam­i­ly, too, par­tic­u­lar­ly my old­er sis­ter and mother.

Brodie Gress is a gay writer based in Louisville, Ken­tucky. He has pub­lished fic­tion and poet­ry with Polaris, Chelsea Sta­tion Mag­a­zine, The Rotary Dial, The Rain­town Review, and Forces. He works as a tec­ni­cal writer at a med­ical dis­tri­b­u­tion facil­i­ty, and he for­mer­ly taught and tutored writ­ing and com­po­si­tion at the local com­mu­ni­ty col­lege. He is work­ing on a novel.