By Jennifer Knee.
Holding the old clock in her hand, she ran a finger down the side and wondered when last it worked. The darkly stained wood reminded her of chocolate bars, and if she looked closely at the front glass cover she could see the nearly invisible crack. It happened at age five.
Though her mother told her not to touch it, the pretty clock beckoned from the hallway table and she wanted to hold it just once. At the harsh snap of her name from behind her, she remembered being startled and frightened. It slipped from her hands. Her mother was furious. Her father only smiled and said in his deep, kind voice ‘children are curious, Lil’.
Her stomach clenched much like her hand. Hot, stinging tears crept into her eyes and clung there as if afraid to fall. She set the clock down and opened her fist one finger at a time. Half-moon indents marred her palm from where her fingernails pressed too tightly.
“You always loved that clock.”
As she spun, a squeaky scream escaped.
“Mom! You scared me.”
With her graying hair pulled back in a messy bun, face pale from lack of make-up and faded house dress, her mother looked as tired as she felt.
“Sorry. I just thought, you should have that clock. Your Dad would have wanted you to, Em.”
Emily swallowed and felt like a golf ball was lodged in her throat. There would be no crying in front of her mother. Someone needed to be strong, and it always needed to be her. At a young age, her mother impressed upon her that girls did not have raging displays of emotion. That would never be tolerated in this house.
Smoothing her hands on her slacks, as if it would wipe away the wrinkles from kneeling for hours, looking at photos of her father, Emily looked toward the kitchen. Tea sounded soothing. It was about the only thing she thought her stomach could tolerate right now.
“I don’t know, Mom. I think it belongs there.”
Wrapping her arms around herself, she passed her mother and into the kitchen of her childhood. There were touches here and there making it modern, but it was mostly as she remembered. She remembered quiet dinners at the table, her father reading the paper or breakfasts alone before school while her mother fussed with the laundry in the little room off the kitchen. She remembered blowing out the candles on her birthday cake while her friends sang around her. Of all the places in the house, in the kitchen, most of all, she remembered her mother.
Setting the kettle on the glowing burner, she reached above her head to pull tea from the cupboard. Vision blurring, she held the boxes in her hands until the scent of mint invaded. Peppermint. They both needed a tea as soothing as that one.
“Peppermint tea good, Mom?”
Her mother already sat at the table. “Yes, thank you.”
It didn’t take long for the water to heat. They sat across from one another, steaming mugs of tea cupped in each of their hands. The quiet stretched between them, a strange and uncomfortable moment that neither of them moved to fill.
Emily wondered if she hurt her mother by refusing the clock. If she was honest with herself, she knew that she didn’t refuse only because having the clock in her home would be a constant ache every time her eyes fell on it. Leaving the clock would be a punishment to her mother, a reminder of a five year old girl and a man who sided with his daughter over a clock.
“The funeral was nice.”
Blinking, Emily felt brutally torn from her thoughts. “What?”
“They did a wonderful job. The eulogy was so fitting, and your father would have been happy to see how many people came.”
“I… Mom, are you really talking about this?”
“Yes I am. Why not?”
It wasn’t a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah. Someone died. What did it matter how many people came to the funeral or if the funeral was well orchestrated? Grief dominated, and though she knew many people said a funeral should celebrate a person’s life, she couldn’t see how burying someone celebrated their life.
“It’s just… I mean… It’s Dad’s funeral!”
Her mother sipped her tea and lifted her chin a fraction. “I realize that, Emily.”
“I don’t understand you. I never will.”
A shadow crossed her mother’s face, an expression she couldn’t read.
“What are you talking about?” her mother asked.
“You. Us. Growing up. We had a horrible relationship.”
Almost imperceptibly, her mother’s grip tightened on the mug before she set it down. The older woman sat back in her chair, shoulders rising as she dropped her hands into her lap.
“Emily, everything I did while you were growing up was to help turn you into the strong and successful woman you are today.”
Lips thinning until it almost pained her, Emily lifted her tea bag from the water and dunked it again, repeating the motion several times. Her eyes remained on the ceramic mug. It said something about Ohio being the Buckeye State, but the writing was faded from so many washes.
Raising her eyes to meet her mother’s, hoping her hands became steady, Emily pushed her dark braid over her shoulder. She never intended to talk to her mother about this. Did she bring it up now because her father’s death left an ugly, gaping wound in the core of her being that oozed so much emotion and grief she couldn’t contain it?
“And you think, Mom, that I couldn’t have become that woman without being supported, loved, nurtured?”
“That’s not what I meant, I-”
“I may be successful and strong, but I’m not happy,” Emily said.
Her mother folded her arms, leaned forward.
“I’m your parent. I wasn’t put on this earth to make you happy. That’s up to you.”
Dragging a hand through her bangs, Emily released a forceful breath. “Mom, you’re missing the point.”
“Then tell me, Emily. What is the point?”
She threw her arms wide. “I wanted to hear I love you! I wanted to know you were proud of me!”
“Of course I was.”
“How was a little kid supposed to know those things, Mom?”
Silence, as her mother looked down at her own mug, sighing. Emily wasn’t certain if her mother was annoyed or didn’t know what to say.
“See? You can’t even say it now.”
Her tone was hushed, almost too low to hear. “I do love you, Emily. I’ve always been proud of you. Why is this coming out now? Why haven’t you told me these things before?”
Emily tightened two fingers around the handle of her mug. Lifting it, she drank half the cup of cooling tea.
“Because you aren’t exactly easy to talk to. I was scared of you as a kid.”
“Scared?” A peculiar, perplexed look came over her face.
“That’s… But why today, Em?”
Dark brown eyes so like her own pleaded from beneath gray, mussed bangs.
But she came this far. Stopping now seemed weak. “I-because of that stupid clock, because Dad died, because I don’t know!”
Her mother’s shoulders drooped and she looked as old as Emily had ever seen her look. Weariness appeared evident in the dark smudges beneath her eyes, the lines between her brows and the paleness of her skin. The contrast from the mother she remembered, the one she hurled her venom toward, left her devoid of the fire that drove her only moments before.
“I’m sorry, Em. I never meant to hurt you.”
Rubbing at her own grainy eyes, Emily nodded. “I think I know that now, Mom. I’m sorry too. I don’t know what got-”
“It’s okay, I do. Grief. You lost your Dad, and it brought up childhood memories you thought you’d forgotten. I’m just sorry the ones with me in them weren’t great.”
Emily reached out and grasped her mother’s hand. “They weren’t all terrible, Mom. I guess I just needed things you didn’t know how to give. Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe that’s something I need to work through, and maybe I’ve been holding on to resentment for too long.”
The smile that formed on her mother’s lips held a tinge of wistfulness and a healthy dose of weariness.
“Healing is sometimes hard. But you’re a strong woman, and I know that whatever you want to do, you will. If I had it to do over again, Em, I would do it differently.”
Emily felt herself smile for the first time all day. “Thank you, Mom. That means a lot.”
“I’m glad. Now come on. Let’s go look at those pictures together.”
They rose in tandem, taking their mugs to the sink.
“I’ll take the clock.”
JENNIFER KNEE is a writer, mother and nurse. She loves taking care of people, creating and spending time with her family and friends. When she isn’t doing those, she can be found reading a good book, making greeting cards or singing karaoke. She believes life is meant for living and giving.