by Susan Cohen
The house is bathed in black. There are no lights to guide me. I move slowly, step by step on the icy walkway covered with snow, clinging to the iron railing. When I reach the landing, I stamp the snow off my boots and ring the doorbell.
I hear the quiet, gentle, familiar sound of the chimes echoing through the hall and then wait patiently for the lights to flip on and to hear the sounds of footsteps on the carpet. But minutes later, the house is still dark.
The car is sitting in the driveway covered with a layer of snow, and I don’t see any fresh footprints along the walkway. My mother never goes to bed before the 9:00 movie. My heart beats faster, remembering how last winter she was anchored like in her chair, robotically bringing a cigarette to her lips, one after the other.
Reaching into the ceramic pot through a clump of gray snow, I feel the sharp edge of the key and then try to push the front door open with a firm shove. It resists opening as if it’s frozen shut, and I need to muster up all my strength until it finally gives in. I wonder when the door was opened last.
“Anybody Home? Mom?”
The electric radiator is clicking away, struggling to heat the air through a film of dust. I fight the urge to sneeze.
I am beginning to regret my decision to hitchhike home to retrieve the backdrop for “Midsummer’s Night Dream.” I came without warning because I didn’t want my mother to get excited, make a fuss, and start shopping and cooking, but I forgot after one year at college that she had a habit of folding inside herself during the cold dark days of winter.
I slide open the kitchen door, and I see my mother surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke. She doesn’t jump up, shout my name in surprise and wrap me in her arms. Instead, she is staring at the upper left-hand corner where the kitchen cabinet meets the ceiling. Deep in concentration, her eyebrows meet in the middle of her forehead, and her eyelashes flutter as if she is dreaming sitting upright in her chair.
The plan was to take her to a restaurant for dinner and then borrow her car to drive to the summer cottage where the backdrop is stuffed in a trunk in her bedroom. But I can’t leave her this way. I decide to take her with me. Perhaps the memories of sticky hazy afternoons dangling her feet into the lake from the dock will reignite and warm her spirit.
After I rinse and load dishes in the dishwasher and scrub away fried egg glued onto a frying pan, I sit opposite her at the kitchen table. I push aside a burning cigarette that’s dangerously close to an open newspaper.
She startles when I gently touch her hand.
“You want to drive with me to the summer cottage?”
Her gaze moves down from the ceiling and but she doesn’t look at me. It’s more like she sees through me.
“It would be nice to get out of the house, don’t you think?”
I pat her hand gently. She nods, gets up from her chair, and slowly heads towards the coat closet. This is a good sign.
I watch her quietly as she slips on the same ankle-length mink coat she has been wearing for over thirty years. Miraculously preserved, it’s still soft and shiny, and I feel an impulse to pet it, just like I did when I was a child.
Thrusting her hands into the deep pockets of her coat, she pulls out a red wool hat with a pom-pom and a brightly striped scarf that I wore when I was in junior high. If she was pushing a shopping cart, she could be mistaken for a homeless person. On a good day, I could tell her I am calling the fashion police, and she would laugh.
In the car, we sit on the icy cold seats and put on our seat belts. I crank the heater all the way up. A chill from the night air seeps in as my Mom opens her window a small crack and lights up a cigarette.
She blinks as she exhales as if the smoke is stinging her eyes. I am waiting for her to ask about my studies or ask if I am seeing someone. As much as I long to hear her voice, I’m not in a mood to answer either question. All I hear is the purr of the fan.
Suddenly she giggles. I don’t know why she’s laughing. It’s silly to visit a summer home in the dead of winter, but I wouldn’t call it funny. My grip grows stronger on the wheel until my knuckles turn white as I drive down the ramp and merge into the middle lane of the highway.
“Hope you’re in shape. We have to hike through the snow to our back door.”
She’s doesn’t turn to face me but keeps her gaze straight ahead at twelve o’clock.
“Have you been to the summer cottage in the winter before?”
I am afraid she has been hypnotized by watching the white lines fly by, one after the other, and is now even further away from me. Perhaps I won’t be able to coax her out of the car, and I begin to fear we will be doomed to driving forever. I fiddle with the radio until I find a light rock station. Putting my hands firmly on the wheel, I keep the speed at a steady 65 miles per hour.
Then I hear Carole King’s voice. I see myself, thirteen years old sitting on my twin bed looking at my poster of a fluffy white baby seal taped on my wall, and I begin to sing,
“It’s too late, baby, now it’s too late.”
“What does this mean?”
She’s speaking! Her voice is sweet and soft, like a bashful child. But then I am confused, and I don’t know how to answer. There are several different possibilities. She might want to know why we are driving to the summer cottage or maybe the significance of life itself.
“Are you asking what the song means?”
She nods her head up and down. Something as simple as being heard feels magical. My shoulders soften.
“A woman fell out of love and wants to end her relationship.”
“Yes, but what does it mean?”
“I guess there comes a point in a relationship where you just can’t try anymore.”
Then my mother exhales smoke with a loud sigh. She seems satisfied with my answer for now.
I want to ask her what “it’s too late” means to her. But I am afraid her answer will bring memories that will force her back inside her shell. I have memories of my own. Like the night my father came home late after making full professor; purple balloons strung along the ceiling, a bottle of champagne sitting in a sea of melted ice, cheese dreams with a hard crust from turning cold. At midnight my mother jumped, thinking she heard his footsteps on the landing was the sound of a tree branch blowing in the wind, rubbing against the windowpane.
A sign announces a familiar exit up ahead, and I panic because I can’t remember if I’m supposed to take it. I try to bring back the warmth from the hot sun beating on the roof, the sound of crickets through the open window to remember if this is the exit l took last summer. Meanwhile, the exit is coming closer. I need to decide.
I feel a sharp tug on the steering wheel and the car veers sharply to the right. Terrified, trying to regain control, I grab the wheel and pull to the left. The car begins to skid. It spins into a circle and then falls gently against a snowbank with a muffled crunch.
I turn towards my mother, looking straight at me for the first time, and I let her have it.
“What were you thinking? You could have killed us! If you reach for the wheel again, I am going to put you in the back seat. Do you want to sit there all by yourself?”
My mother is squished against the car door, looking small and helpless, but now she is looking me straight in the eye as she tries to defend herself, “The exit was coming closer, and you were listening to the radio and not paying attention..”
“Why can’t you speak to me instead of grabbing the wheel? Why do you have to act crazy and scare the hell out of me like this?”
This is a familiar pattern. The withdrawal, a blowup, and then the gentle trickle of confessions and regrets. A slow slide to something that resembles normalcy where you say what you feel, and it’s possible to breathe love in and out.
We drive in silence for a few minutes.
“Sorry I yelled at you. But you could have killed us.”
“Why are we going to the summer cottage, anyway?” Her voice is stronger, challenging me. Only now she realizes how strange it is to go to a summer cottage in the dead of winter.
“I want to get the backdrop for our production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
“Ah, yes, it’s stuffed in the antique trunk in my bedroom.”
I sigh and take a deep breath. Although the spell is broken, there are more challenges ahead. I haven’t thought this through. The snow might be so deep or icy that it is impossible to hike to the back door. I didn’t even think to bring a shovel. The door could be frozen shut. Even if I succeed in prying it open, it would still take a miracle to hop through all the lawn furniture stored in the hallway, find that trunk, pry it open, and drag out that backdrop. Even if I can set it free and reclaim it, it might be stained by mildew or, even worse, became a nest for baby mice or squirrels.
As we approach the lake, there are fewer and fewer street lights, just an occasional spot of yellow between long dark corridors. When we reach the road closest to our house, there is a windy ribbon of snow leading to our back door. The snow has a slight crust on it, like cake icing.
Before I can take the key out of the ignition, my mother opens the passenger door, and a blast of cold air comes into the car.
She places her right boot on the snow, and she manages to stand momentarily when suddenly the layer of ice beneath her foot gives way with a loud crunch. With one foot six inches below the other, she begins to lose her balance but manages to steady herself with her two hands extended out on either side. Images flash in my head of her twisting her ankle, me trying to lift her back into the car, looking for an emergency room back home late at night. But she’s filled with energy and isn’t discouraged in the least bit.
She laughs, “I ate too many cookies. I am just an old fatty.”
“Mom, it’s not you. The mink coat weighs a ton.”
I walk around the car and have us swap coats so that she can wear my light down jacket to reduce her weight. As I slip on my mother’s mink coat, there is the faint smell of sweat mixed with a hint of Channel Number 5 that I give her every year for Christmas.
“I will hug you from behind to help you keep your balance. One, two, three march!”
We sink just a little bit. Thankfully the edges of the ice aren’t sharp.
I start chanting a song we sang together when we hiked through the woods in the summer years ago.
Left, left, I had a wife, but she left. My wife left me with 36 children, and there is no gingerbread left.
Crunch, crunch, crunch, our feet keep pace with the beat. The snowdrifts form a peak reaching up to the roof.
“Oh my Lord, where is the door? Mom, I need to set myself free so I clear the snow.”
I release my arms from around my mother’s waist to walk around her from the left. At first, the ice supports my weight, but then after just a few seconds, my foot crashes through. I grab onto my mother for support. We stagger and fell to the ground giggling, making two small craters where we lay side by side, our backs on the snow, our eyes to the sky. The snow isn’t wet but instead squishes under our bodies like a soft cushion. There is a grounding feeling of being flush with the earth.
I look up to see a long band of stars packed so close together they form a swirl across the sky. I feel like I am a child again at the Planetarium, seeing a black field filled with lights. There is awe in seeing the width and breadth of forever.
“Mom, look at the arm of the Milky Way. It’s beautiful.”
“Did you know that there is a whole generation of children that have never seen the big dipper? New laws are forcing businesses to shut off their lights so people can see the night sky.”
Ah, here is the mother I love, quoting US News and World Report, a river of words traveling through topics all over the world and through time. There is that opening of the chest, the spark to the brain, the rapid exchange of thoughts and ideas, insightful, thoughtful, and rational.
“Mom, we could talk all night. But if we don’t move, we’ll freeze to death. How can I even find the door through all this snow?”
My mother chuckles and then laughs.
“Mom, why are you laughing? You’re scaring me with this laughter of yours.”
“The backdrop is back home in the attic.”
“I brought it back last summer when we closed the cottage. I thought you might need it for college.”
“And you just remembered now?”
I reach over and place my gloved hands on my mother’s neck as if I want to strangle her. We wrestle in the snow like we are two little kids.
We follow our footsteps back to the car. This time separately, my mother leads, and I walk behind her, putting my feet in the same impressions in the snow. After we settle in the car and fire up the heat, I hear about my cousin’s wedding and my uncle’s retirement. After half an hour, she snores lightly.
I open the door to my home that this time surrenders to my touch easily, tuck in my mother, and place a kiss on her cheek.
Lying on my childhood bed staring at the wallpaper with vines running up and down the walls, I think about the patterns of my shared life with my mother; the laughter, silence, withdrawal, absence, hospitalizations, medications, and her homecoming to start the cycle again. There are no facts but only theories about what triggers her slow disappearance; a bad gene, chemical imbalance, poor nutrition, failed marriage, empty nest, boredom, loneliness. Perhaps it’s all of these things, or maybe it’s something simpler. Her spirit is searching for the calm that comes from having a witness, a caring soul to exchange her thoughts and feelings, the positive energy that comes from breathing love in and out.
Susan Cohen has had her work appear in Cyclamens and Swords, All Things Girl, Adanna Literary Review, Six Hens, and Chaleur Magazine and has been shortlisted twice for Glimmer Train short story awards. She is also the co-founder of a PR firm located North of Tel Aviv.
Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!