By Cathy A. E. Bell
Highway 50 is a memory map of smells. The dead rot of leaves compete with the wet scent of new growth. The promise of rain in the spring air makes me giddy like a child on Easter morning. My brother Dave and I are taking our eleven-year-old niece Cassidee home to La Junta, a small town where Dave and I grew up on the southeastern plains of Colorado. I’m driving us through the sprawling, open land while Dave points out familiar landmarks and Cassidee sings along with the radio in the backseat. Cattle-yard odor drifts in through the cracked windows, and Dave and I laugh through grimaced faces. Then we breathe in deeply. The scent of country. The scent of home.
Dave and I are looking forward to driving by the houses and schools of our childhood. Perhaps the urge to reminisce together is how we navigate this new phase of our lives so recently upon us: middle age. Even though our lives in Denver are separate now, we are reminded that we come from the same strands of DNA and the same places. I wonder if reliving our childhood through day-long drives, as we often do, gives us insight to the ways the past intertwines with the now. Sometimes we don’t know how we really feel until we come close to the object that excites us, or haunts us, or excites and haunts us all at once, like our mother.
Every few miles, we glimpse the Arkansas River. The slow-moving river parallels us about half a mile to the north, bending this way and that, its banks crowded with cottonwoods. We pass cows, road-side produce stands that aren’t yet open, and fields carpeted with bright green winter wheat.
Cassidee is the daughter of my half-sister on my father’s side. Cassidee is my only niece so I take her for visits as often as I can. During her spring break, I took her shopping and to eat at restaurants that can’t be found in small towns, and I gave her a ceremony and gifts marking her entrance into womanhood. Since I don’t have children, and because Cassidee lives with her dad instead of her mom (as I did), I feel an urge to mother her, an urge to give her the guidance I craved at her age. I had longed to call my mom the day I began to menstruate, but we weren’t speaking then. In the two years Mom and I didn’t talk that time, I had grown into a teenager and by the time we made up, she barely recognized me. Our relationship has always been on-again, off-again and I know that on this drive I will have to face her ghost because before we can get to La Junta, we have to drive through Manzanola, a town less than a dozen blocks long and half as wide. A town where she lives.
Any time I drive through this stretch of the highway in recent years, my breathing becomes shallow, a reaction to being close to things when it’s better to be far.
We drive past a used tire shop, an antique store, and a run-down gas station. Boarded up windows and faded For Sale signs line the streets. When we were kids, these small towns were alive with restaurants and shops, but now cattle ranchers and farmers are the only commerce left.
I try to keep my emotional armor in place as we drive through town, but then Dave asks, “Hey, do you want to drive by Mom’s ranch since we’re so close?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I guess,” I say. Secretly, I’m glad he asks. “Do you think we can find it? It’s been a long time.”
It’s been five years since we’ve seen her. We can’t even be sure she lives here anymore, but chances are, she hasn’t moved and is probably at home. She might be drinking a cup of coffee, smoking a cigarette on her covered porch, and watching geese in the pond, or she could be with her third husband Ed, dressed in her plaid flannel jacket, stretch pants, and tennis shoes, checking in on the calves born in the last month.
She’s been married to Ed for almost twenty years. Because of Mom’s tendency to cast out her loved ones, it seems unlikely that she could be married to one person for almost half the length of my life, but Ed endures somehow. I admire him for figuring out the secret to my mother’s devotion.
The smallest things had always set Mom off. She’d pretend like everything was fine until the day it wasn’t, all the while adding to her mental tally of my wrongdoings (not paying enough attention to her on a visit, or mentioning her house was dusty, or dating a black man). When the list was long enough, she’d spring her reasons on me all at once, but never in person. Instead, she’d write me letters. No matter how many there were over the years, getting them in the mail never hurt any less.
I’ve tried not to take her hatred personally. She ends her relationships (her mother, sisters, and father, too) for inexplicable reasons. It’s not only me. But still, I’m not comforted entirely—being the rejected daughter holds a heavier weight.
“Did we pass the turn already?” I ask Dave.
“Yeah, it’s back there,” he says. I turn around at the next block and backtrack. I pull off Highway 50 and make a right onto an even smaller two-lane highway. The path looks familiar though Mom only lived here for a few years before she quit speaking to us the last time. Before, she lived in an old, red, two-story farmhouse, tucked in a little valley among the hills and canyons, sage brush, and juniper.
I missed that ranch. Every time I visited her she had something new to show me: her latest bounty from farm auctions (antique crocks, an old sewing machine, a loom), flower gardens she’d planted (hollyhocks and lilacs), and the latest kind of animal she was raising (pigs, goats, dogs). Mom’s enthusiasm was infectious and our visits were full of hugs and kisses and catching up. Sometimes I’d even lay my head on her lap like a little girl, trying to make up for lost time. She’d smooth my hair and say, “It’s so good to have you here, honey.” When I left each time, Mom would load me up with a cage full of parakeets or a box of fabric from a farm auction or a plant. But my favorite time to visit was spring because that’s when the baby animals arrived.
Over an Easter weekend in my early thirties, Mom took me up to the loft of the farm house to show me her new incubator. She was excited to hatch her own eggs for the first time (rather than ordering live chicks), and carefully opened the drawer so I could see the brown, beige, and ivory ovals being kept warm. “If this works out well, I might try some geese and ducks next year instead of just chickens,” she said.
Sunday morning, I was sitting on the couch reading and heard peeping sounds. I ran up the stairs, two at a time, and pulled the drawer open to see chicks pecking holes through their shells. “Mom!” I yelled, “The babies are hatching!” She brought me up a basket to put them in. “Here you go. Just set them all in there. I’ll be downstairs finishing up breakfast,” she said.
As carefully as I’d once held a fragile praying mantis, I picked up each newborn as it broke free. I ran my finger over their yellow or brown heads before placing them in the basket. I’d never witnessed anything more amazing, all the babies coming into the world on Easter morning. The gift baskets full of chocolate bunnies and Golden Books I’d received as a child didn’t compare to this surprise.
After twenty minutes, one chick still struggled to escape his shell. I picked up the egg and broke the fragments away for him. The chick’s brown feathers were stuck together, still moist. His body was bent as it had been in the shell and he seemed flattened. I held the misshapen hatchling, knowing his fate wasn’t good. Sadness lassoed around my chest. Maybe Mom would know what to do.
“Mom?” I called again. “Something is wrong with one of them.”
She came back up the stairs and looked. “Yeah, I don’t think there’s hope for that one.”
“What are we going to do with him?” I asked.
“Probably just feed it to the dogs.”
This was her world raising animals. Birth and death. Often in the same day. She helped cows give birth on snowy nights, raised baby chicks, and when needed, shot sick animals, all without a thought. Once when I came to visit and asked where my favorite, fluffy, five-pound mutt was, the dog who always sat on my lap and went everywhere with me, she said, “Ed came into the house one day while I was drinking my coffee. He asked me if I knew I ran her over. I had no idea. The truck slid in the mud when I pulled up to the house.” I nearly cried out from the horror of the dead dog, but Mom showed no emotion. Maybe she cried the day it happened or maybe she was just numb with all the death around her. Any time she felt the slightest bit of guilt, she turned cold and hard. Perhaps she turned cold and hard with me, over and over again, because she was pushing away some kind of guilt. I’ll never really know.
As we drive towards Mom’s Manzanola ranch, the warming sun burns off the morning clouds. The sky begins to change from patchy gray to bright blue. We pass a boarded-up feed store and bump over the railroad tracks and that quickly we are on the outskirts of town.
I glance at Dave in the passenger seat. Even though our mom doesn’t want us in her life, she is present every time either one of us looks at the other. We have her blue eyes and full lips. She’s never far, especially for me. Every day I see her hands in mine: large palms, long fingers, wrinkled knuckles; and as I grow older, I’m shocked to sometimes see her in the mirror, instead of myself.
For years I hated Mom for disowning me again that last time. Any thought of her was so painful, I just avoided the subject altogether, but writing about my early years, when Mom and Dad were married, has peeled away some of the protective varnish around my heart. I think sometimes she really did love me. For the first three years of my life, when Mom was only seventeen, eighteen, and nineteen, she diligently filled out my baby book in her beautiful, round handwriting. “At 7½ months Cathy waves bye, laughs like a goat, throws kisses, says Momma and Daddy and baba for bottle.” She wrote of how I loved my baby brother, David, and how I giggled when my dad chased me around the house. My first two sentences were “Oh, pretty!” and “Momma, see!”
And I know she must have loved me because I remember sleeping on the couch next to her—maybe I was two—blankie clutched in my hand, near enough to touch her while she folded laundry and watched TV. When she tried to carry me to bed, I cried and she turned right around and put me back on the couch next to her.
But her love has been capricious. She loves me for a while and then she sends a letter telling me it’s over. In my twenties she wrote, “I gave birth to you. Let’s just leave it at that.” Those words burned into my psyche. The unloved daughter. When she loved me, I felt whole. When she disowned me, I was broken. Up until my mid-thirties, I’d try to win her back again and again, and usually I would.
“I remember it’s past the river a ways,” I say.
We’re getting closer now. I’m leaning forward against the steering wheel, feeling like we’re on one of our typical adventures—it’s a game Dave and I play—finding these places.
“Yeah, past the river. And then we turn right somewhere after that. Which road was it? Road A? Road B?” Dave asks.
We drive over the bridge and look at every dirt road, searching for a landmark to jolt our memories, but there aren’t many. It’s a vast, barren land, still brown from winter. Unlike the growth near the river, trees are scarce here.
Dave spots the Road B sign. “Wait, slow down. There it is! Turn here!”
Cassidee has shed her seatbelt and is scooted up between our seats now. She leans on the console. She’s excited, so I don’t make her put the belt back on—for now.
As we pull onto Mom’s narrow dirt road I ask Cassidee to find my hat. “Quick!” I say. “I need a disguise just in case we pass her on the road.” Dave is on the side of the car closest to her house, but I decide Mom and Ed won’t recognize him. He’s transformed himself into a biker since his divorce two years ago. His hair is pulled back in a ponytail and a long, bushy goatee hides the good-looking guy underneath. But Dave is more brazen than I am. I don’t think he’s worried about being spotted. It’s mostly been me who’s been disowned. Dave only gets cut off by default. It’s like we’re a package deal and she can’t love just one of us.
I put on my hat and sink down into the seat.
The houses sit far, far apart out here; it’s mostly flat land and fences. I turn off the radio and all we hear is the crunch of gravel beneath the tires.
I went back to therapy after Mom’s very last letter came five years ago. I had emotionally come undone, again. I wasn’t sure how to navigate my life without a mother. I had written an essay about my bond with my paternal grandmother and Mom found it online. Mom wrote in part: “I read your essay. You’ve hurt me for the last time. Don’t ever call or come to my house again.” Maybe Mom was upset because I wrote that my grandmother told me the story of my birth more times than Mom had. Or maybe it was the part where Gram says, “The nuns at the hospital all thought you were my baby.”
All the other letters that came before were signed “Sandy.” This letter was signed “Mom.” I sensed a hesitation in her signature, maybe the blue ink pooled on the paper. Perhaps she thought my loss would be greater if she remained my mother until the end.
“That’s not it,” I say as we drive by the first house. Getting close, I almost forget Cassidee is in the back seat. Soon another house comes into sight.
“There it is!” Dave says. “That’s the one.”
I slow down. My pulse quickens. I’m afraid and not sure what she’d do if she sees us.
The small one-story house sits away from the road with its back to us. The dirt driveway is long, and I can’t help but feel the anticipation I used to when approaching her home. When things were good between us she’d greet and hug me the moment I got out of my car. “Hi, Pumpkin! I’m so glad you’re here!” She’d offer a spread of food when we walked into the house and when I left, she’d load me up with fresh eggs from her chickens (pink, green, and blue), pork sausage ground by the local butcher, and anything else that would fit in the car.
Dave and I point out the window: Look, you can see the barn! And that round metal roof—that’s the garage, remember? And her pond was on the other side of the house. It looks just the same.
Cassidee appears puzzled and wonders why we’re so excited and yet so afraid of being found out.
She doesn’t understand how a mother can quit being a mother. Even though her mother, my sister, has battled drug addiction, poverty, and even a nine-month term in prison, my sister always loved her children. Cassidee knows other kinds of mother-pain, but she doesn’t know the sense of abandonment. I’m thankful she’ll never have to drive by her mother’s house, afraid her mother will see her.
“What would your mom do if she saw you?” she asks.
“I don’t know. Probably tell us to go away,” I answer.
“Really? A mom could do that?”
A hawk circles high above us, looking for a snake or a chick, making a silhouette against the sun.
We get quiet as we pass by the house. Even if she were on the porch or feeding the baby cows, we wouldn’t see her since the porch and front door face away from the road. Her world is on the other side of the house, protected from the outside, protected from us.
I make a clumsy U-turn on the narrow lane, worried she might look out her window and recognize my white Saturn.
I joke that we’re stalking our mother. Dave is defensive and shakes his head. “No, we’re not.”
As we drive away from her house, I know what we have just done is an admission—one without words—a truth not spoken that we miss our mother. We don’t say it, but driving by is enough. We are still drawn to her, despite our efforts not to be.
I’m not sure exactly how my brother feels, but I can finally admit that I miss my visits with her: the ranch; her sitting at the kitchen table, bottle-feeding a rejected baby goat on her lap; the smell of straw and manure; the quiet and the star-filled nights. I miss my mother’s tall, round body hugging me—her large, wrinkled, ranch hands wrapped around my back; the smell of her, soap and cigarettes, maybe chicken feed and hay, but mostly a motherly sweetness that can’t be named, like how baby animals know the smell of their mothers. They don’t have to think about the scent; it just is. A connection from birth.
As we approach the river, I ask Dave, “Do you think she felt us just then? Maybe some motherly instinct kicked in that made her think of us, just because we were three hundred feet from her house?”
He thinks for a while before he answers. The river runs quietly under the bridge.
“I don’t know…maybe.”
I don’t say anything, but I think that maybe, just maybe, in that little moment, she stopped what she was doing and longed for us, too.
It is possible. A mom could do that.
CATHY A. E. BELL writes creative nonfiction and is a member and volunteer at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver, CO. When Cathy is not writing or volunteering, she’s earning her living at the University of Colorado Denver fixing computers and servers (and other geeky things). She’s been published in The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, and other literary journals. Visit her blog http://cathyaebell.com or say hello on Twitter: @cathyannelaine