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