The First Time My Mother Saw the Ocean (About my Mother)

It wasn’t till she died. I found out that she was the kind of woman who hid cash between her mattresses. $120. My uncle found it. She was the kind of woman whose most remarkable jewelry came from the Salvation Army. And that was her splurging. My mother.

After her funeral, my relatives and I drove to my mother’s downtown apartment to pack it up. The government subsidized apartment held the stink of her many-smoked Winston cigarettes. That sour ashy odor had been sucked into the drapes, couch, and carpet. The kitchen/living room was dim because there was only one window. The bedroom had the other window. Though dank, the apartment was tidy. We five—me, my mother’s two sisters, one of their daughters, and my half-sister—exchanged words only when they didn’t know what to do with an object. Amy, do you think you might want this? Amy, do you think we should just throw this away? My mother didn’t own nice things, which made it harder to throw her few possessions away.

I got the sense from my aunts that I had the emotional seniority, the most authority over my mother’s possessions, as my mother’s oldest daughter. In this way, with their deferring to me, they denied their own attachment to my mother, and they also denied my un-attachment to her. They knew that my mother fell apart more than she lived, that she dropped me off at her parents house when I was four or five and never returned, that my father came for me when I was six, that he fell apart, too, but he did the job. (He didn’t do the job well. Alcoholics, they come first. They are the center of the world—theirs and, by the force of their natures, those around them. But he did the job by the fact of showing up.)

My mother didn’t show up. She just couldn’t manage to do her job—not that of a mother, nor could she hold down a paid one. A number of years ago, she called me at work. It was the only time she ever called me at work. She called me rarely and irregularly, and she wouldn’t do so during the day—she’d make most of her calls when I was asleep and she couldn’t sleep, sometimes at 2