It’s no longer her house but she still calls it home. Once a month she drives two hours east to visit her mother in Riverside. She thinks this ritual irritates Michael, who tries his best to overlook her lower middle-class upbringing. At Cal, as undergrads they were equals. However, after graduation their divergent socio-economic status became apparent. An internship position at The San Francisco Times wouldn’t pay her rent so, they became roommates. A wedding shortly followed. It made sense. They were young, in love and she got pregnant. Months later she found herself, fifty pounds heavier, moving into in a Spanish style McMansion in the Pacific Palisades Highlands.
Now, it’s night in Riverside and the sky is black. Clouds cover the stars. She pulls her white Escalade onto the crackled driveway of her childhood home and turns off the engine. It’s quiet. From habit, she turns back to check on the kids and sees the empty leopard-print car seats, then inhales deeply, remembering that this time she’s traveled alone. The grey interior of the car still smells like sour milk. Ava’s bottle had leaked yesterday on the way to Kaitlin’s AYSO practice. Afterwards, she’d been so anxious to get all three children bathed and put to bed that she’d forgotten to clean the spill. Motherhood seems to demand perfection. Any mess would come back to haunt you just like this sour milk.
She gets out of the car and carries her bags to the front door. The house is dark but she knows her mother is there, waiting for her. Her mother, Arlene appears in the doorway wearing a housecoat and slippers. “Hope the traffic wasn’t too bad,” Arlene says and reluctantly turns on a light.
“I waited till the kids were asleep,” she says.
“That was smart,” Arlene says and heads into the kitchen.
Heather walks down the hall and into her old bedroom. She sets down her laptop bag and small suitcase. Suddenly, she’s exhausted. She lies down on the fresh smelling queen-sized bed and looks up at the popcorn ceiling. She thinks that if she were a better daughter that she’d call a contractor and have it checked for asbestos. And, if she were a better mother, then she’d have sacrificed going to her reunion and stayed home. Suddenly, she’s reminded of her teenage years spent in this room, chewing her nails and consumed with getting good grades and boyfriends. What was she so concerned about? She was a dutiful student, the skin on her thighs and breasts were still smooth and firm. She should have ditched school and worn bikinis to the community pool while she had the chance. Motherhood has made her expand and sag in places that would never fully recover. She’d wasted so much of her youth wondering and worried about her future. Now, it’s here.
The kitchen cabinets open and close. In this way, she is being called to dinner.
She walks down the dark hallway. The wooden dining table is set for three. Her father has been dead for ten years but her mother believes that setting his place is a sign of respect. Heather thinks it’s creepy and she wonders if she’d do the same for Michael. She pulls out the old fashioned chair. Its legs are unsteady. The dining set once belonged to her grandmother and so it’ll never be replaced. Just like the delicate china plates and chipped crystal glasses which line the display cabinet in the corner. Her mother sets a large plate of meatloaf in the center of the table. She cuts off two pieces and places them gently on each plate besides the salad and the corn.
“Hoped you’d be hungry,” her mother says.
Heather nods, picks up her fork and takes a bite of the thick bloody meat. She chews slowly. It tastes both salty and sweet. Her mother looks pleased as she washes it down with a swig of milk.
“How are the children and Michael?” her mother asks hopefully.
“Great,” Heather says and takes another bite.
“I wish you’d have brought them,” says her mother. Her face forms parentheses when she smiles.
“It would’ve been too hectic, with the reunion,” Heather says. “Besides, it’s good for Michael to have some time alone with them. It seems like all he does is work.” She stabs another piece of meatloaf with her fork.
“Anything new with you?” Arlene asks.
Heather shrugs. She can’t answer truthfully so she says nothing. She chews another large bite. The grandfather clock tics loudly. She stares at its alabaster face and slow moving hand. “I’m mostly with the girls,” she says.
Her mother nods thoughtfully as she chews with tight lips. “Motherhood can be its own reward,” Arlene says.
They listen to the clock.
Eventually her mother stands and picks up her plate. Relieved, Heather watches her as she walks into the kitchen. Her shoulders have risen and rounded. Even her gait is different now. She carries herself like a retired greyhound.
“Dinner was good,” Heather says standing and carrying her own plate into the kitchen. Her mother is washing her dish. Heather scrapes leftovers into the plastic trashcan. The garbage is full. She begins to knot the bag.
“Don’t worry about that,” her mother says.
Heather puts down the bag, goes to the dining room and returns with the clean place setting.
“Just leave it on the counter,” her mother says and gently nudges her out of the kitchen.
Heather returns to her old bedroom feeling like she should call Michael to let him know she’s arrived safely but she doesn’t want to risk waking the kids. Maybe she’s made a mistake leaving them.
“Will you be ok all by yourself?” she asked Michael earlier, as she stuffed a pair of high heels into her already full suitcase.
“It’s not a big deal,” Michael said. “Besides, it’s just for the weekend. Anything’s better than having to go to your high school reunion.”
“You’re probably right,” she said and kissed his cheek. Still, she wondered how he’d manage an anxious one- year old, a brooding seven-year old and a pre-adolescent. She imagined dirty diapers, decapitated Barbie dolls and overtired children greeting her when she returned home Sunday night. Or maybe he’d do a better job at parenting then she did. Maybe the house would be clean and the kids would be happy. That thought worried her more than anything else.
She opens her laptop to check her email and Facebook but forgets that the house doesn’t have Wi-Fi. She stares at the computer screen, desperate to find anything to occupy her mind. She clicks onto the Word icon and opens a blank page. More than anything else, writing has a way of calming her and so she begins:
What if my children don’t need me as much as I think they do?
I am away from my kids for the first time in years. It’s only for my high school reunion and I know that Facebook makes the whole thing superfluous, but I promised my best friend from high school, Angie that I’d be there. Besides, I thought a weekend away would be relaxing. I also thought that I’d be getting in touch with who I used to be before the three children: the younger and more exciting me. It was the person who danced in the pit at Grateful Dead shows and snowboarded before it was mainstream. The one who was going to change the world? Now I wonder if that person ever existed at all.
I feel old. Since I’ve been away all I’ve done is worry. Not about them getting hurt or missing me. But, about them not needing me. What if my husband who works 60 hours a week can also take care of everything at home on the weekend? Can he get Kaitlin’s shin guards on and then to her soccer game on time? Will he put Ava down for her nap before he “misses the window” that our sleep coach has set for us? How will he help Dylan with his rainforest diorama without me? I guess we will see on Sunday night. Hopefully, the house will be a mess when I return home.
Note: The ModernMom Chronicles is a fictional novel. The story is not a personal blog, nor is it based on existing people or events.