the Daughter the Mother

by Jessica Dalton

The mother never lied about her age. The daughter couldn’t tell you why—she could have knocked a few years off, at least, and spared herself all those rabid little hints other women liked to drop, about how much shop-work it must take to keep the old face running, and what a scandal it was, somehow, like a moral failing, that at thirty-seven she could have passed for the daughter’s double, at forty-three for her older sister, at forty-seven, her hip young aunt. If you didn’t look your age, the only decent thing you could do was take advantage of it, apparently. You weren’t supposed to laugh and say you owed it all to genetics and Pond’s cold cream and that Botox sounded like something you put in the toilet tank to keep the bowl clean. Nobody would believe it, though it was all true, the daughter could attest. The mother even got by without Clairol, morphing naturally over the years from a honey to a champagne to a platinum blonde.

The daughter (a mousy brunette at the roots and far too susceptible to the blandishments of the beauty page editors) has come to work.  It is morning, it is raining, and she has come downtown to the Howard J. Slover Community Building, once-proud site of local government, until it fled to newer, squeakier premises just off the bypass and left its old shell to scavenging nonprofit entities like the Literacy Council. The daughter has come to assistant-coordinate as per her title, to answer phones, make appointments, and help minimum-wage immigrants navigate the exigencies of the GED, because it will be good to do something normal. At least that is the cliché; and what a comfort it has been to resort to it, too. She will get hugs, when she goes in the door, and there will be cards on her desk, surprisingly tasteful ones with thoughtful, well-written messages inside, because what does an English degree do if not make you thoughtful and well-written?  (It certainly doesn’t make you employable.)

The rain is the misty kind that works in under the umbrella to condense on your nose, and the daughter keeps her face turned away from it as best she can while walking toward the building. This is why she does not see the silver Honda Accord that pulls splashing into the parking lot. It beeps to get her attention. This startles her, and her body keeps on moving without her permission; the Honda has to pursue her to the curb. The same color as the rain and impervious to it, it glides to a stop, so she has to stop, too. One of the fogged windows slides down, and a man leans across the passenger seat to speak to her. The daughter knows him, of course: men she does not know do not accost her in parking lots. His name is Kenton, and he is her mother’s husband. He wants to talk to her. He has to talk to her. Please will she get in the car. She gets in the car. He has cut the wipers off, and she can watch the rain bead up on the windshield and slide: the tears, maybe, that she is not crying.

The subjects of husbands requires a short digression. First, briefly, there was Mark—he had a band, they met in college, no bookie on the planet would have given you odds. Then came Lloyd, who lasted somewhat longer and was responsible for the daughter’s existence. A dentist, a dedicated birdwatcher, a very quiet man, it didn’t make much difference in the house when he left. He lives in Portland now, with Barbara, his second wife of longstanding, and their two boxers (Facebook has lately allowed the daughter to get closer to him). The reason for the divorce was irreconcilable differences. After it, the mother began taking little commissions in interior design through her friends, who understood how important a flexible work schedule was for the single parent. To be fair, she had a real feel for style, an eye for color. Before long, her friends didn’t have to get her commissions, and instead starting bringing Bill from church or Ted from the office: amiable, suitable divorced dads whom the mother politely declined, to a man. Focused on her career and child, she said. The daughter likes to think of her mother as having torrid affairs during this period, with clients and the husbands of clients, snatching moments in showrooms and half-furnished penthouses; she has no proof of this, but still likes it as a theory.

Kenton is Fair-Isle Irish with that arresting combination of pale skin, dark hair, and blue eyes, and ordinarily he looks good disheveled and stubbled, but he has gone way past that point now.  He says, “Ginny, I …”, then puts his head down against the steering wheel and sobs, while the daughter shifts from haunch to haunch in the other bucket seat and wonders if there was ever anything more embarrassing than someone else’s genuine emotion. 

Finally, lifting his head and staring out at the wet plastered asphalt, Kenton delivers himself of his phrase: “Please don’t let it be like this, Ginny.”

The daughter says, “It’s not …”  Important?  Her fault? 

“I know this is harder for—I know you had her for longer than—I know …” and he trails off again, gripping the steering wheel like it could guide him down the track of whatever train of thought is currently escaping him. The daughter shuffles her feet in the tangle of power jacks and circuit boards on the floor. Kenton is an IT tech. He has been trying to float his own consultancy, that’s how he and the mother met; she hired him to set up an inventory system for her new gallery.  He has an MBA from the same local state college where the daughter pursued her baccalaureate (it was familiar, it was affordable, she could live at home and save on her loans). They were probably even on campus at the same time: they are, after all, almost the same generation. When the mother announced her engagement to Kenton, her girlfriends got together and bought her a bunch of powder-blue Mylar balloons that said It’s A Boy!

Kenton says, “I made the—arrangements—but please, if there’s anything you want—”

The daughter feels a flash of resentment at this: completely irrational as an emotion because wasn’t it she who walked out, wasn’t it she who said, you handle it, I don’t care? But he could have left out that ‘please.’ That ‘please’ is offensive. 

“Thank you,” she says aloud, because what do you say? “I’m sure everything will be fine.”

Kenton laughs, chokes. “She would’ve wanted you there.”

What do you say, what do you say? “I know.”

“We were—” (wan, saintly) “—the two most important people in her life.”

“I know.”

Finally he looks at her. “See, now you’re angry again.”

At the wedding, the daughter had walked the mother down the aisle, at the mother’s request, because what better to mark the end of so many things: the daughter’s adolescence, their family-of-two, the mother’s exemplary turn as a single parent; and it was exemplary, the daughter knows. From how many classmates, fellow daughters of divorce, did she hear the stories growing up—awkward introductions to Mommy’s New Friend, creepy-uncle-on-the-sofa interludes. The daughter has nothing like that to resent. The daughter has nothing at all to resent. At times it can be maddening.

Kenton is still looking at her. 

“I’m sorry,” he says, and the daughter feels touched for a moment, before she realizes that he is not commiserating with her for her featureless childhood, her crises of identity, but apologizing for himself. 

“I didn’t mean to upset you, honestly, Gin, believe me.”

The daughter believes him, but would like to see him work a little harder for forgiveness. She sighs and looks away out the window, but with temperance, with maturity. Kenton carries on.

“I will admit—I’ll be the first one to admit—that I’m not making much sense right now. But I just don’t understand why you’re blocking me like this!”

“You ‘just don’t understand.’” She says it too loud. Maturity, temperance, are receding fast. 

“All right. Okay. We’re both emotional. This is an emotional thing. I should have realized that.” He takes a deep, shuddery breath. “I should have given us a little more time. We can talk about it later. I’ll be calmer, you’ll be calmer—”

“You be calmer,” the daughter says. “You be calmer all by yourself.” She swings open the car door.

God, Gin! This is what I mean! Can you just set aside that—that—”

“I have no intention”—she speaks over him—“of discussing it with you now or later or at any time—”

“—reaction! Just for a moment!” He’s beseeching. “People give their blood to their family. They donate kidneys, bone marrow—”

“This is not,” she shouts, “the same!”

(In that quiet little room off the ER, the intern on duty had tried to explain: “A pulmonary embolism can happen to anyone, at any age, there’s no good way to predict—although, of course, there are risk factors like smoking, pregnancy—”

And Kenton, already in the first heady rush of grief, had interrupted. “But we wanted a baby.”)

He says, “I just think it’s your perspective that’s causing the problem—”

She says, “Oh my god, the problem. I am now ‘the problem’.”

(The intern had floundered “—wouldn’t say there’s any known link to fertility procedures like in vitro—really probably nothing anyone could have done—” while Kenton, looking for flagellation, looking for a wound to rake, had plowed on: “The clinic is five hours away and I know long plane trips are famous for causing clots—” But then a senior surgeon had joined them, and things became smooth and highly professional: “—an unresponsive state, all the tests show—it is legally and ethically acceptable at this point to remove support—”)

She says, “You find five other women and describe this scenario—”

He says, “You’re acting like I’m some kind of monster!”

In the course of imparting the news of her mother’s death to those who should know, the daughter has learned to brace herself for the near-universal cry: “But she was so alive!” As if everyone can sense the nature of her mother’s unfinished business. Some people leave a book half-read, a grocery list tacked to the fridge, plane tickets for a vacation never to be. The mother left a test tube, in a freezer, in a lab in New Jersey. The daughter pictures its contents like the illustration in her high-school biology text: a tiny pink sunburst. The ovum, the female gamete. The best that could be found in her mother’s admittedly mature ovaries, waiting to be united with Kenton’s vigorous sperm, and implanted in a womb. It could be, as Kenton had pointed out while they were waiting for the people from the funeral home to arrive, any womb. A young, healthy, currently underemployed womb perhaps, one that was convenient to hand and, not least, alive (luckily, almost, it would seem, for this very purpose). It was somewhere around this point that the daughter had walked out. Her and her womb both.

Now Kenton sits back in his seat, his eyes pouched with tears, and says, “I thought you might feel honored, Ginny.” His voice is soft and sad. “I thought you might think of it as… a way to be close to your mother one last time. The last gift you could give her.”

And once again she is left standing flat-footed and graceless, the unreasonable one, the one with the dirty mind, the one who ran and told when her crayons were stolen, only to have the teacher come and find the thief sweetly sharing them with the other children— “Virginia, you must not be selfish.

She gets out of the car, catching her pumps on the mat and banging her elbow on the doorframe. “Hire a surrogate. Get a sex change.” Why can she, the English major, never find, which it matters, a choice of words that do not resemble B dialogue from a canceled reality show? But she is past caring at the moment. “Do whatever you want. But do not involve me—”

“All right,” Kenton makes soothing gestures with his hands for her, the unreasonable one, the one who overreacts. “I won’t mention it again.”

She shuts the car door—she doesn’t slam it, grant her that much—but the mirroring window slides down again. Kenton is giving her times and locations: the funeral home, the crematorium, her mother’s favorite restaurant where everyone is invited afterward for drinks. Donations are to go to a charity that microfinances women entrepreneurs in third-world countries, he thought her mother would like that. The daughter nods and nods and nods. 

Finally, with an air of forgiveness so palpable it could choke you, Kenton puts the car in gear and circles the parking lot to the exit. The daughter cannot get her magnetized badge to work in the employees’ door because her hands are shaking that badly. Years ago, in an essay for a freshman Lit class, she wrote passionately and at length about how John Donne was wrong, that no man could be anything but an island, trying to make sense of distant beacons glimpsed through fog, flotsam washed up on the shore. In the margin, her professor scribbled, Interesting theory, but you’ve missed the point of the assignment: see me & we’ll revise. At the end of their meeting, as she was getting up to leave, he had smiled at her, and said that he knew the first semester could be daunting, but it got better, and she should go out more, be around people. She had stuttered politely and fled before she found herself confiding that being around people only made her feel more stranded within herself. 

Finally, the right combination of slot, slide, and push: the door deigns to admit her. The shutting, metaphorically speaking, of a door, while satisfying on many levels, may still leave behind a kind of gap, an echo in the part of the psyche devoted to the possible. A daughter becoming a mother; the daughter the mother now; a daughter with a mother’s daughter, and that would have equaled what?—aside from two: but two is more than nothing, and less than a crowd, and with two on an island neither would have to be alone. Together they might spend their days searching the shoreline for bottles with notes, scanning the horizon from the top of the cliffs, looking for some sign that they are not the only ones of their kind.



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