The last time I saw my mother, we stood in my sister’s kitchen, surrounded by the smell of celery sautéed in a pound of butter. It was Thanksgiving and she poured what seemed like a gallon of chicken broth over the celery and onions and tiny mountains of cornbread stuffing mix. She stirred quickly, her lips pursed, her shoulders tense. I studied her gestures, wrote down ingredients and measurements as fast as I could. I wanted my favorite recipe of hers for my own.
“Slow down.” I said. She opened another can of broth, and I laughed, “More!”
“You need one large can,” she said, exasperated. “ Maybe two.” But, this was the fourth one she’d opened. “It’s all about consistency,” she said, but she failed to explain what that meant exactly. I scribbled, pound of butter, lots of celery, several cans of broth. I wrote “consistency” in all caps. She reached for the herbs. Shook. Tossed. Put them down again. I lost track. When the dressing turn into mush more than anything else, I leaned in to smell her breath for a hint of alcohol, wondering if she’d already been drinking.
My mother loved her occasional bottle of wine. Growing up, it was either a glass of Chardonnay on the edge of her Jacuzzi tub filled to the top with bubbles, or a plastic cupful of Merlot next to her as she cooked dinner those weekends we vacationed at the ranch. Harmless, it seemed at the time. But in the last few years, since my parents had divorced, she passed on the wine for something harder, drinking like I did in college. One Sunday afternoon, I had watched her do shots of tequila with her boyfriend during a football game on TV. She hated football. And, hard liquor gave a person wrinkles, she’d always said. I blamed her boyfriend, but her drinking only increased after they broke up.
Another bag of stuffing went into the pan, in an effort by my mother to balance out the broth, I assumed. Then, she shoved the wooden spoon into the corners and pulled at the mixture. Agitated, she pushed into my shoulder a bit and whispered, “The turkey is still frozen. I told him to take it out yesterday morning,” she said. “Dinner will be late now. He never listens.”
He, my step-father, sat on the couch and stared at the TV. They had not spoken since they walked in the door that day. She shot him looks from the kitchen and grumbled about him. Bitterness seeped from her. They’d been together for a while but married for less than a year; I barely knew him, really, so I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t defend him, couldn’t agree with her either. I simply put my arms around her and hugged her. Hard. Partly to offset her mood and partly to reclaim my mother: her strong back, her laugh, deep and forgotten, the scent of her hair as it tickled my nose.
* * *
The last time I spoke to my mother was the next New Year’s Eve; she called me from a phone pulled into a bathroom. “I feel smothered,” she said. I could tell she covered the mouthpiece with her hand. I envisioned her sitting on the floor next to the toilet, the phone cord stretched to capacity. “I can’t breathe,” she told me. There were too many people, she said, too much drinking.
When I heard, “too much drinking,” I rolled my eyes and mouthed my mom to my husband.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Watching a movie with a couple of friends,” I said, stepping into the kitchen for a little privacy. “It’s quiet, really. We’re not doing much.”
“I wish I were there with you,” she said, and I rested my forehead on the refrigerator, the phone still pressed to my ear and an ache in my chest. I listened as she told me about the crowd of her husband’s family in her brother-in-law’s living room. About my step-father’s young daughter, who pulled at my mother, begging for her attention, driving her crazy, she said.
I straightened a dishtowel.
“I’d love to be watching a movie with you at your house,” she said.
I didn’t believe her.
She hadn’t visited me in years. And, when I saw her at Thanksgiving, she’d been distracted. Busy. Still, I would have made a place for her on the couch, would have put my arm in hers, would have leaned my head on her shoulder. Instead, I cut the phone call short, afraid the conversation would turn desperate.
Two weeks later, I wished I had kept her on the line.
* * *
I lied before, about the last time I saw her.
My mother died on a Sunday in January, and, because she died alone, an autopsy was inevitable, the coroner revealing what we already suspected: that the line of liquor bottles on the kitchen counter hadn’t been poured out in the sink. Hadn’t been consumed in moderation.
When my sister and I were allowed to see her, she lay under a white sheet tucked tight around her arms and legs. Her body was washed, and her ivory skin bore no sign of makeup. And I thought, it’s true, what they say. That the dead look like they’re sleeping. She could have just stepped out of the shower and climbed back into bed for another fifteen minutes of beauty rest. Because, she was just that: beautiful, the only hint of death visible in the way the right side of her mouth sloped downward, frozen in this final position, the mortician told us later, because of the way she lay on the pillow that night.
I was grateful to see my mother like this, without makeup. For the last several years, she hid behind eyeliner that grew thicker as she sank deeper into alcohol, and her foundation had begun to look unnatural. Lying there, though, under the white sheet, she was absolutely my mother, released in that odd way that bodies are when death comes, no longer held under the thumb of liquor. A reflection of the woman I used to know: the model, the actress, the mother who pulled me close at bedtime and marked me with a kiss, leaving an imprint of her red lipstick that hung on my forehead until morning.
I wanted to touch her, run my hands along her bare shoulders, draw my finger over the arch of her eyebrow, the one with the scar from that car accident long ago. I wanted to rest my head on her chest.
But, I kept my distance.
Kept my hands at my side.
Afraid to break the illusion.
Christi Craig lives and writes in Wisconsin, working by day as a sign language interpreter and moonlighting as a writer. Her stories and essays have appeared online and in print, and she was a Finalist in Glimmer Train’s Family Matters Competition. Visit her website at christicraig.com for more on her writing, and follow her on Twitter @Christi_Craig.