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The Goddess House

By Susan Lago

Great-Aunt Gert is wearing a multi-colored fez and clenching a rose between her teeth. This is the invitation to her 90th birthday party and I am unaware of what it portends.

We make plans to drive from New Jersey to Boston – I, my husband, and two children. And my mother. We’ll leave Friday afternoon and drive back  Sunday. My mother will drive up with us and we’ll stay in the same hotel. My mother calls and asks if I’ve made reservations yet. I promise I’ll get to it.

My mother calls and asks, “Can I sleep in the room with you? I can sleep in the bed with the two kids,” she says.

I tell her that the double bed will barely fit two children.

She says, “They’re teeny people.”

I remind her that they are twelve and nine and nearly as tall as she is.

She says she’ll sleep on the floor.

I don’t want to hurt her feelings, but I know this is a bad idea. I picture the five of us sharing one bathroom. I say it would be more comfortable if she got her own room.

“It’s too expensive,” she says.

I tell her I’ll talk it over with my husband and get back to her.

Two years ago my mother was diagnosed with cancer: adenocystic carcinoma of the lung. The doctor explained to us that this particular cancer isn’t responsive to chemotherapy, but that it is slow-growing. Two years later she’s still going strong. However, the refrain that underlies my all my interactions with her is: What if this is the last time? What if this is the last Passover, the last birthday, the last winter? What if this is our last trip together and I told her she couldn’t stay in our room?

Neither my husband nor I want my mother to stay in the room, especially after a four-hour car ride.

I remember the trips we used to take to Boston when I was a child. My parents would vow to make an early start: up at five a.m., out the door by six. We’d drive straight through with no stops, they’d say. But we would oversleep and, when we finally left, have to go back for something we forgot. We’d get underway at 9:30, stop at a diner for breakfast, and wouldn’t get going again until 11:00. My parents would play games with us - spot license plates from all fifty states; alphabet hunt, twenty questions - and keep us entertained for about forty minutes. Then my little sister would have to go to the bathroom.

“No stops,” our stepfather would remind us.

She would whimper.

“Maybe we should look for a place,” my mother would suggest.

“I told them to use the bathroom before we left the diner,” my stepfather would protest, “besides there’s not another exit for at least five hundred miles.”

By then my sister would be crying. It would turn out that my stepfather was exaggerating, because, right about then, a rest stop would materialize. My mother would drag us all inside and insist that I go too, even though I didn’t have to.

Back on the road, we’d ask “are we there yet?”

“We’re not even out of New Jersey!” my stepfather would yell.

My sister and I would keep ourselves busy for the next five hours by bickering, until both my parents were furious. By the end of the day, none of us would be on speaking terms. I call my mother and offer to pay for a separate room She says not to worry, she’ll take care of it herself.

I offer to drop her off at Aunt Gert’s while we take the kids sightseeing so she can visit her cousins.

“No,” she says. “The party’s enough for me. I don’t need to spend more time with those people. The last time I saw Aunt Gert,” my mother says, “she was showing slides of her seventy-fifth birthday. I told her I remembered the party; I was there. She didn’t even remember I was at her seventy-fifth birthday.”

“Mom, she’s ninety years old,” I say.

“I know,” my mother says. “Don’t worry about me. I can wander around Boston by myself.”

Guilt.

My sister calls from California where she has moved to find herself. Previous moves to New Mexico and Maui didn’t work so now she’s trying Santa Barbara. She’s working in a coffee shop-slash-bakery until she can get her feng shui business off the ground. I tell her about Aunt Gert’s party.

“Are you crazy?” she yells. “Don’t you know Mom’s an emotional twelve-year-old when she’s around her family? Cancel. Now.”

I tell her it’s too late; I’ve already made plans.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she says.

I picture myself standing on the edge of a precipice. My sister is screaming at me not to jump.

I take a drive to clear my head and get lost. I have no sense of direction. If instinct tells me to turn left, I should turn right. Even if I try to trick myself and turn right when my instinct tells me to turn left, I’m still wrong. I find myself on a dead-end street: Snake Den Road. I inch along, looking for a place to turn around. At the end of the road is a purple house. Not a typical house, more like a huge can turned on its side. It’s painted psychotic lavender, the color of neon purple eye-shadow from the 1970’s. There is a purple Volvo, a swing hanging from purple ropes, and purple wrought-iron chairs and tables scattered about the yard. A purple mailbox cants to one side. Next to it is a small sign: Goddess House.

I think to myself, my mother would love this house.

At sixty-six, my mother is not your typical chicken soup kind of grandma. As far back as I can remember, she’s been on a spiritual quest. When I was a child, while other families vacationed at Disney World or the Jersey shore, my family visited an ashram, helped prepare dinner for fifty at a commune, and shed clothes at a nudist colony.

Her most recent exploration has been divination, using a pendulum to communicate with a spirit guide. It’s kind of like a Ouija Board on a string. The pendulum has revealed to her that she has had many incarnations going back more than ten million years to when she was a high priestess in Atlantis. Before that she was a life-form on another planet. She imparts this information as a true part of her personal history, like her wedding day or the time she broke her arm falling off a beach ball.

There is a message on my answering machine. She has made reservations at the Winthrop Motel.

“Don’t worry about me,” she says. “I can take a cab from your hotel.”

I call my mother. I beg her to cancel the reservation. But it’s too late.

“This will be easier for everyone,” she says. She can get a ride to the party with her cousin Ilene.

“I thought you didn’t want to visit with anyone,” I say.

“It’s okay. You spend time with your family. Don’t worry about me.”

I tell her I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings. She says she knows she has unrealistic expectations.

I think about my sister’s advice. I talk to my husband.

“I think we should cancel,” I say.

“I think you’re right,” he says.

“I really want to go, but it’s getting too complicated,” I say, looking for justification, absolution.

“We’ll go in April,” he says, “when it’s warmer.”

I tell the children we’re not going. They accept this easily, with no questions.

I lie to my mother. I lie. To my mother. I tell her that my husband can’t get the day off.

“We can go without him,” she says.

“No,” I say. “I don’t want to go without him.”

“We can go Saturday and drive back the next day.”

“No,” I say. “That’s too much driving.”

“Are you sure he doesn’t have to day off?”

“Yes,” I say, my voice trying to sound as if it isn’t lying.

“Check and make sure and call me back,” she says.

My mother calls back an hour later.

“I’m your mother,” she says. “I know you’re lying.”

I fold like a pair of deuces in a high stakes poker game. We argue. I tell her I lied to spare her feelings. She tells me her feelings were never hurt.

“It’s like you’re trying to make me feel guilty,” I say. “There’s no right answer.”

She tells me I’m wrong. She had fully intended to make plans to see her family. She really didn’t mind that I didn’t want her to sleep in the room, didn’t want her to go sightseeing with us. We each present our versions of what transpired. We argue like lawyers.

“Okay,” I tell her. “We’ll go.”

I tell my husband and kids we’re going to Boston. The children accept this easily, with no questions.

I think about the Goddess House. I imagine the owner of the house is not plagued by self-doubt. She is telling the world: this is who I am. The owner of this house wouldn’t lie to her mother. She’d tell her, “too goddamn bad, Mom, get your own room, make your own plans. I love you, but I’ve got my own life to live.”

My mother calls.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean to cause you anguish. You’re off the hook. You don’t have to go.”

“We’re going,” I tell her. “We’re going to Boston.”

Susan Lago recently had a story, The Babysitter, appear in Scrivener's Pen. She is enrolled in the Graduate Writing Program at William Paterson University and is a member of the IWWG.

Photos courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.


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