This week's homework is to write a story about how a name in our family came to be. Mine starts at the end of last week's story.
Sal walks into the house, as cool as the late fall air that follows her through the door. Her hawk-sharp eyes take us all in, then narrow on me. “Hi. You must be my cousin. So has Mom kept you entertained?” There’s no hug, handshake, or chance for me to respond - just a wry look and cryptic grin before she turns to Mommy. They hug like long lost friends. “Joycie, you look great. You haven’t changed since that last time I saw you when I was, what, eleven or so? I’m so glad you came.”
“Sally Jo Mayo, you are a sight for sore eyes. What a lovely young woman you’ve become. Your mom told me the men in Europe all wanted to marry you, and I can certainly see why.” Mommy is glowing, smiling, resting her hand gently on the arm of Sal’s black leather jacket.
“I’d forgotten how sweet you are, Joycie. You sure did a great job raising your boys. We had so much fun last spring.”
Joycie again. She is an entirely different person here than the woman I call Mommy. If calling her Joycie is what it takes to get her to smile and laugh from a place I didn’t even know existed before now, I wish with every part of me that I could call her Joycie.
Mommy and Sal continue their conversation while Bea watches quietly with her bright blue eyes dancing above a happy smile. I wonder how it’s possible to feel so alone in this circle of women whose blood I share. I didn’t realize it until just now, but I was expecting Sal and I to fall in love with each other and to become instant best friends. I didn’t expect her to choose Mommy over me.
I study the person who has just gone from potential sister to possible enemy. She is lovely: tall, thin, with thick curly black hair, milky Irish skin, and the most expressive eyebrow arch I’ve ever seen. She looks like Bea, with a wilder, less cosmetic-assisted beauty. Her voice holds a hint of Bea’s huskiness and her words hold the power to put her at the center of the universe.
“Mom, did you get Joycie and Debbie’s room ready? I’ll drive us to dinner, Joycie, so you don’t have to deal with the traffic around here. Are you guys about ready? We need to get going before it gets too crowded.”
I’ve had it with being ignored and left out. “Mommy are you sure you’re okay with Greek food? I’m sure it’s not too late to go somewhere else.” Sal chose this restaurant because it’s one of her favorites. I’ve never had Greek food before and have really been looking forward to it. Mommy, however, is not an adventurous eater, and I’m willing to forego the adventure to get her back on my side.
She looks at Sal, beaming. “I’ll try anything once. I can always get a hamburger if nothing else on the menu looks good.”
With one eyebrow cocked and that closed smile, Sal’s eyes find mine. I smile my wide smile back, determined not to let her see weakness, not sure how to read her face. Is she acknowledging how stupid Mommy sounds, or is that an I-win-and-you-lose look?
I’m not sure just how much Sal knows about me. Whatever it is came from my mom through hers. Based on what Mommy said driving over from Spokane today, I would say I didn’t come off looking good, which might explain Sal’s coolness toward me. By the end of the conversation, I was sorry I’d started it.
“Mommy, have you told Bea anything about me?”
“Of course. She’s like a sister to me. We don’t have any secrets.” Mommy stubbed out her Pall Mall in the overflowing ashtray, making it clear she meant to stub out any further questions.
I risked one more anyway. “What did you tell her?”
“I told her all those things I couldn’t tell Daddy and the boys to protect both them and you.” Her voice was developing an edge I wanted to step far away from, but my need to know was far greater than my need for safety in that moment.
“So she knows about my baby, and the adoption?” I kept my eyes focused on the road ahead and my voice as soft and even as possible. I would not let her anywhere near the pain those words threatened to explode to the surface.
“Yes. And she knows you flunked out of that fancy college you insisted on going to. I did decide not to tell her about your baby’s father being black – and married. I don’t want her to think I didn’t teach you anything at all.”
At that point, she turned on the blinker, punched in the lighter and pulled out another cigarette from the crumpled pack in the overflowing purse next to her. “This is the exit to their house. We’re almost there.” Conversation over.
Riding shotgun as Sal drives us to the restaurant with our moms chattering away in the back seat, I’m thinking how glad I am about all the things Mommy doesn’t know about me. I’m also remembering Bea was really glad to see me, so maybe she doesn’t care the same way Mommy does. I read judgment in Sal’s silence behind the steering wheel, and I try to cushion myself from its chill with words.
“Mommy and I have been looking forward to this trip for a long time. I can’t believe I have all these cousins I’ve never met. What are your brothers like? Mommy’s been talking about them both a lot since she and your mom got back together. What did you think of my brothers? I really want to hear about your trip to Europe. I’ve always wanted to go, but Mommy says I’m too young.”
“You call her Mommy?” Sal doesn’t take her eyes off the road, but her eyebrow goes up and her voice drips with scorn.
Really? This is how she wants to start things? And with our moms in the back seat?
I glance over my shoulder and realize I could confess every single one of my sins to Sal and neither of our moms would hear. They are so involved in some story about Grandaddy, Bea’s dad and Mommy’s grandfather, it’s as though nothing else exists.
I turn back to Sal wishing she’d brought up anything, even my baby, instead of this. The best I can do is to try to sound nonchalant and not defensive. “I’ve always called her Mommy. So do the boys. It’s what Daddy calls her, too. They call each other Mommy and Daddy.”
“You know it’s weird, right?” I hear a shift in Sal’s voice, although her eyebrow stays up. The scorn softens to something I can’t quite identify.
“I guess so. But it’s the only thing I can call her. Believe me I’ve tried other things. Nothing else works.”
“What do you mean nothing works? All you have to do is say Mom instead of Mommy like your brothers do. Or even Mother. It’s not that hard.” The scorn is back in full force and Sal’s eyes bore into me searching for intelligence it’s clear she’s sure she won’t find.
Tears I refuse to release sting my eyes, and words I can’t say in this car glue themselves into a great lump I try to swallow away.
I tried Mother - once. What I got in return was, “Don’t you take a tone with me young lady. I will not stand for your disrespect.” I’ve tried Mom a number of times. She smirks at me when I say it, and I can’t stand giving her the satisfaction. No, I don’t know what she’s smirking at, but if I call her Mom it feels like I’m giving in to something I can neither define nor accept. I can’t do it.
“What do you call Bea?” I push the question out, hoping to divert the tears I’m barely managing to control.
“Mom or Betty Jo. I’ve never called her Mommy and I never would. It sounds too babyish, too much like I need her to take care of me. Besides I’ve always been the one to take care of her. I don’t need to be taken care of.”
Her unspoken words hang in the air between us, blaring, “You are a baby. Only babies call their moms Mommy. You need to be taken care of.” I want out of this car. Now.
“Are you girls having a good talk up there? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could be friends just like Joycie and I are? Then the four of us could have all kinds of fun together. Wouldn’t that be great, Joycie? You and me and our girls?”
Saving both of us the embarrassment of coming up with a good lie to answer Bea’s question, Sal says, “We’re here. I hope everyone is hungry. The stuffed grape leaves and baklava here are better than I had in Greece last summer.”
Painting by Katrina Christofferson from Flickr