“I’ll be ready when the time comes,” my mother says, mocking me. That’s my mom. She often parrots what I’ve said. Holding me to words I uttered at 16 or five minutes ago. The sun streams across the cafe table. She would have a cigarette lit and smoldering in an ashtray if they still allowed such things.
She repeats: “I’ll be ready when the time comes.” She means ordering her brunch, she also means dying, death. She’s like that. Double entendre. She likes to hear herself talk. Apparently, I said this once, regarding death, when I was 15.
The cafe chirps bright and happy. Quaint tables with their round-back chairs gathered up. Everything intimate and charming in here. Mom loves the pecan pancakes, but won’t admit it until the waitress comes. I love the goat cheese and spinach frittata. We are consistent with our adoration, always have been. People talk, talk, talk—leaning into one another—all around us. The espresso machine sucks at the milk. Our waitress floats her way over, as if she’s just wandering by, but then she stops short and smiles. My mother smiles at her. “Lovely day,” my mother says. Then: “I’m ready.”
We order. And we don’t talk about the death hovering around us, not here—but out there, once we get back into my childhood home—we do. Appointments and whispering hushes about my dad, her husband. Everything quiet and gauzy. The bulk of our words slowed down to the slightest syllables.
For now, we pretend we aren’t those people, and play out this happy story here in the cafe where we used to go to after shopping sprees. My dad was never invited. It has always been just us, talking new bathing suits and padded versus unpadded shoulders, talking peg leg, boot cut. We roll with the fashions.
Dad seemed proud when we carted home those handled shopping bags. He smiled like: “This is America, and I’m part of the dream. I work so you can buy these things with tags you never wear. This is my destiny.” Unlike other dads he never made fun of our shopping, never made fun when mom changed out the holiday tablecloth each year going from harvest leaves to snowmen to Easter eggs. He gathered all the pride in. Now, though, pride is not on his mind. Breathing is a big preoccupation.
Mom picks at her food. She says, “Ball and chain. What a strange expression.” She only lets me in on half of the conversations in her head. She spits it out midway, and then looks at me for input.
“Yes,” I say with caution. “Ball and chain is a strange expression.” I do believe that. It’s true. I take a small bite of my toast. Rye. Butter soaked in. “Butter is so good, isn’t it?” I say.
“He said that once,” she says.
Mom looks at me then, like I’m not her daughter at all. “He called me his ball and chain,” she says. “Dad. Early on. I swore at him, and then left the house for two days. Wouldn’t come back. This is before he got my temper in check.” She laughs, a girlish kind of chuckle I’ve never heard from her before. For a second I glimpse her, younger, with long red hair, a mischievous smile, freckled, taking pride in her outbursts. It’s hard for me to imagine her swearing. This is not the mother I ever knew. She’d been squelched by the time I came along. Although once I now remember her spilling furniture polish and saying, “Sh…..ugar. Sugar.” And I remember repeating that to my father when he spilled his coffee. And I do remember that morning with the windows steaming up in the cold kitchen. I remember my father giving my mother a look. And my mother settling into herself some more, stirring the oatmeal, tapping the wooden spoon crisply on the pan’s side.
“You left,” I say. “Where’d you go?” I sip my coffee.
“Oh, I went here and there,” she says. A triangle of pancake perches on the end of her fork. “He got the picture though. He understood that not just one of us made the rules. I think he got the picture.” She chews thoughtfully. “I was ready though, wasn’t I?”
Our waitress surfs her way toward us again, holding the coffee pot aloft.
“Yes,” she says. “Yes, I was.”
Photo by Dean Pasch