"My Mother's Rebellion"
“He’s late.” My mother turned off the gas flame under the pot.
“He’ll be here,” I said.
She looked at me for a long moment then kicked her high heels under the kitchen table. In her stocking feet she ran to the bathroom. She turned on the sink faucet full blast.
It was my job to pretend she was in there washing her face for half an hour. It was my job to pretend I didn’t hear those sobs.
When she stepped out of the bathroom she was wearing a two-piece gray wool suit with a red rose crocheted at one elbow, and Persian blue and orange buttons dancing unevenly down the jacket. The skirt was long and severe.
“What paramilitary organization did you join?” I asked.
She smiled that comic, self-deprecating smile that melted the butcher with the sad mustache and the long-legged man who came once a month and read our gas meter. That smile seemed to no longer have any effect on my father. “Your grandmother’s rules of dress,” She pulled a typewritten sheet of paper out of her apron pocket. “1. All two piece outfits must be converted to one and conversely all one piece outfits must be converted to two. 2. Wherever there is a hole sew a decorator patch. 3. Make sure the dress is several sizes larger than the subject. 4. Change ordinary buttons to something antique, Oriental or unexpected.”
“We could learn to sew,” I said.
“Anytime we pick up scissors, your grandmother shouts, ‘You’ll kill yourself.’ Some great aunt in Russia accidentally stabbed herself.” Mother took off the jacket. A black-maroon crepe blouse shimmered in the lamplight.
“That’s a horror.”
“It was distressed.” She put on a plaid shirt and jeans. My father was right. She did look better in her work clothes.
“Why does Grandma do it?” I asked.
“Because she was poor and because she means well.” Mother’s large child eyes stared at the ceiling as if it were a cloud of cement about to descend. “Maybe lots of dictators mean well.”
“I don’t mind Grease-ball Shelby’s hand me downs,” I said. “But you should have something pretty.”
She blinked at me then frowned. “Most of our clothes money comes from Mother. We’re in the position of all revolutionaries. We have to steal funds from those we hope to overthrow.” She hung the skirt on a wire hanger then sneezed. “I’m starting to hate wool.”
“Grandma says wool is smarter.”
“Smarter than what?”
“You still love her, don’t you?” I asked.
“Of course. I just don’t want to wear any more of her creations.” She opened Vogue to a picture of a sleek woman in a sports car. The woman wore a long, form fitting, white cotton dress.
“Grandma hates cotton,” I said. “She says only the Irish wear cotton, and people from Iowa.”
My mother drummed a finger on the woman’s high, cheekbones. “Her husband would come home.”
Mother, into the third suit, was dripping wet. It was late August. Even in the back of the store we could feel the stiff, prickly wind blowing off the Mojave Desert. The wind turned our beach town into a hot and hostile place. An impenetrable row of men’s coats served as the dressing room curtain. The chipped wall mirror sent back our angular, distorted reflections.
Laden with wool, Grandma appeared at the end of the coat row. “What’s taking you so long? I thought you’d be through and out for more.” Grandma draped the suits over the men’s coats. “I prefer the beige. But you can’t miss with any of them. Which did you like of the first group?”
“None,” my mother said.
“They were too big,” I said.
“So, I’ll cut.”
“Grandma, they’re so heavy.”
“It’s only the shoulder pads that make them look that way.”
“California is different from New York,” I began.
Grandma looked at me as if I was crazy. She fingered the material of the suits my mother had tried on. She stared at bone buttons. “They don’t make them like this anymore.” She sighed. “I’ve got to get back to Mrs. Grossman or she’ll change the tags on me. When she sees I’m interested she gets her red pencil.” Grandma disappeared around the coat row.
“What about our speech?” I said. “California is different from New York. We admire the fluidity of its society; the flexibility of its rules. It’s stylish to dress for comfort. Life shouldn’t carry the additional burden of heavy clothes in a hot climate.”
“Cotton is cool.” Mother whispered the speech’s conclusion as if it were a prayer. “Cotton is California. Cotton will bring your father back home.” Her shoulders sagged.
“Reasoning with Grandma is like reasoning with an army tank,” I said. “It’s not our fault were cowards.”
That frown was back. Mother pulled on her jeans. “There are two rows of cotton dresses right here.”
She pushed her way around men’s coat sleeves until she came to the center of the store. Sunlight streaked the dirty windows. Clothes racks gleamed too hot to touch. Two saleswomen circled a customer. Grandma and Mrs. Grossman were talking about a mutual acquaintance. She slipped on a department store escalator.
We ducked our heads and hurried to the protection of floor length robes. Past the robes peppermint and pumpkin colored dresses called to us.
My mother stroked a dress that was the color of a watermelon. “It’s so light.” She buried her face in the skirt. “I know this sounds foolish, but it smells like sunshine.”
“Try it on.”
“Nothing is perfect, but it has charm.”
Grandma, two aisles over said, “Herringbone tweed and at this price.”
“You’re right. It’s too risky.” I ran my finger along a blue and white gingham dress with spaghetti straps. “At least now we know where they are.”
Mother hugged the watermelon colored dress to her chest. “Let’s make a run for it.”
I stood on guard at the end of the coat row. The sun poured its vengeance on the bargains. Through the store window, I watched the outside world that I was only beginning to discover.
“How is it?” Mother asked.
I walked to the mirror. Cotton showed off her curves. The watermelon color made her face shine. “Beautiful.”
“You don’t think it’s too youthful?”
“What is that rag?” Grandma stepped toward us. Her “meat chopper” earrings swayed across her heavy neck.
My mother coughed. “Don’t you like it?”
“I wouldn’t dust tables with it.”
“We thought it looked California-ish,” Mother said.
“California.” My grandmother said the word as if it were a curse. “What’s brought on this craziness – worry over that drunken of yours?”
“My. My. Isn’t that beautiful? Did you ever see anything so gorgeous on her?” Mrs. Grossman walked over to my mother, and pushed her bra straps down. She stepped back as people do when they look at paintings. “I don’t know any of my customers who could wear it better.”
Grandma’s face reddened. My mother looked from one woman to the other. “Do you really think so, Mrs. Grossman?”
“You look like you stepped out of Rodeo Drive. This dress was from one of the stores there. There’s a cigarette burn on the inside of the hem. But who looks at hems?”
“Ridiculous.” Blood appeared in the corner of Grandma’s eye.
“I love the dress,” my mother said.
Mrs. Grossman looked at my mother, who was smiling uncertainly, and my grandmother, who snapped her purse shut.
“Of course, if you were looking for something more tailored,” Mrs. Grossman said.
“I wasn’t,” my mother said.
“Take that rag off.” Grandma pulled at the dress.
“You’ll tear it.” Mrs. Grossman tugged at Grandma’s wrists.
“They’ll ruin it,” I shouted at my mother. “Take it off.”
“Never,” my mother said.
I wrestled with Grandma’s arm and her elbow landed in my eye. A saleswoman with glasses that bobbed up and down on a chain around her neck fought her way between Grandma and Mrs. Grossman. “That’s one of our distressed dresses from Saks Fifth Avenue,” the woman panted.
The word Saks had a magical effect on Grandma and Mrs. Grossman. They each stepped back and let go of the watermelon skirt.
Aside from a small tear on the seam, the dress was undamaged. A nervous smile fluttered on my mother’s face. The saleslady, with the dangling eyeglasses, brought Grandma a glass of water. After she settled herself in the store’s only chair, Grandma handed crinkled paper money that smelled of peppermints to the saleslady. My mother slid her jeans in one of Mrs. Grossman’s bags that had “Rinaldi’s Grocery” written across it.
Grandma, her eye gleaming like a Cyclops, followed her daughter, in the cotton dress, to the car.
My father called to say he’d be late. “We’re having a special spinach salad,” my mother gurgled into the phone. “Not really your kind of food anyway.” Her face turned pink. “But when you do get home, I have a surprise for you.”
She whisked vinegar and oil together. “Maybe I haven’t shown your father I’m interested in his world.”
“You mean the fights?” I danced a little as my father had taught me and I shot jabs at a mythical opponent.
Mother stood, in her dress, and stocking feet, and thrust out her right hand. “That’s a hook,” I said. “Hook with your left, straight with your right.”
Poking and punching, we danced in the kitchen. It felt good to move muscles we had never used before. At last, exhausted, we fell into our chairs. “To the pugilists.” Mother raised her teacup. “To the warriors.”
My mother and I bowed out of treks with her parents to the beach: food enough for a Russian winter, Noxzema smeared on every exposed body part, a toe wetted then plucked from the ocean and the lament for Grandma’s brother who had been torpedoed in home territory.
In our cottons (I wore my gym clothes) we walked barefoot by the Pacific. Two weeks earlier, that same ocean had received a gift from us – a carton of distressed tweeds.
Grandma had barely recovered from the shock of the cotton dress when our next door neighbor gave my mother a pair of shoes that were too small for her.
Mother stroked the sandals. “Maybe your father didn’t notice the dress because I didn’t have the right shoes.”
When Grandpa saw the shoes he said, “Where did you get those pagan heels? They belong on a harlot.”
My mother laughed.
We sat in Grandma’s garden where cacti, roses and hibiscus bloomed. The stunted, blossoming plants had come to resemble my short, over-endowed grandmother.
“You’re trying to attract attention.” Grandpa was dressed in a suit and tie. He was a blond, blue-eyed Jewish immigrant who had escaped from the Cossacks. He believed dove-gray slacks and a white shirt (“Episcopalian clothes) were the least offensive to the gentiles.
“I want to be a California woman,” my mother said.
“People will think I’ve raised a tramp,” Grandpa said.
“Mary Hyatt gave her the shoes,” I said.
Mother’s smile was sly. “She’s an Episcopalian.”
Grandpa blinked at a black and yellow swallowtail butterfly hovering over a prickly pear. His eyes got sad.
I thought of snowy Russian winters, birch trees with black and white bark, old Jewish men in black hats huddling in gray winter light. Were Grandma’s hot pink bougainvillea and my mother’s watermelon dress too much color for him?
Mother bent down and kissed his balding head. “Have a good afternoon, Dad.”
We walked home. Mother’s dress rustled. A truck driver with a tattoo on his arm of a heart and an arrow that was for a girl named Shelia leaned out of the cab. “Hey little lady, want a ride?”
Lots of boys looked at me the way that man was looking at my mother. If the right boy looked at me, ribbons of heat shimmered through my body. Still, it felt funny to have a man who was not my father stare at my mother as if she were a lamb chop.
“No thanks.” Mother’s smile was radiant. He looked for a long time. The truck lurched forward and turned the corner.
The insistent ring of a stove timer broke the evening’s silence. Through a lit and steamy window, we could see a woman bending at her oven.
“Is that all you want? Marriage?” Mother’s sharp tone surprised me, and made me feel guilty. Maybe I shouldn’t like it so much that boys looked at me. Had the truck driver reminded her of that day seventeen years ago when a cocky Irishman walked into the bookstore where she stood on a ladder taking inventory, and said to her, “Hey lady, you got great legs.”
I looked at the woman carving a roast. “That won’t happen to me.”
My father spent less time at home and his excuses became more careless. One night when he was sitting at the table, I captured him.
“Is it a bantam who weighs 100 to 118 pounds?”
He blinked then looked at his beer.
“Explain to me again how Garcia won on a TKO.”
“What do you think of your wife’s new dress? We think it’s the color of a watermelon.”
He glanced at Mother. “She’s wearing jeans.”
Her smile died. She slapped the oven mitt against her side. Outside on the street, car brakes squealed.
“The Buick. Visiting Royalty.” My father downed his beer. “And I’m in my socks.” His work boots, caked with mud, lay collapsed on the laundry room floor.
In a moment, Grandpa in his suit, and Grandma, with a hat that had a waving sea of purple feathers, walked into our kitchen.
“I see that you are imbibing again,” Grandpa said to my father.
“Your observation is correct.”
“I hardly think that alcohol is a sensible, rational approach to your pecuniary difficulties.”
It was beginning. Not just the outside war, but the war inside me, the Jewish part of me versus the Irish. I sidled up to my mother, searched her face for that sheepish, conspiratorial smile, the smile that says, “Here we go again” but that smile didn’t come.
Grandma, tilting her head, feathers waving, said to my mother, “My, my. You look so thin.”
“She’s fine,” my father said.
Grandma poked his mash potatoes with a fork. “When was the last time you looked at her?”
Mother stood at the stove, twirling a serving fork. She had the narrowed, unseeing eyes of a serial killer.
“What kind of a dinner is this?” Grandma said. “Goy food.”
“I’m a Goy,” my father said.
“You’re a fool,” Grandma said.
“Oh, are they synonyms? Somebody better tell Roget.”
“You’re a drunk,” Grandma shrieked. “Drunk. Drunk. Drunk.”
“I prefer to handle this,” Grandpa said.
Grandma wasn’t listening. She turned and marched down the hall.
A moment later, something crashed in my parents’ bedroom. I ran down the hall. Grandma, with her hat still pinned to her head, lay on the floor. “Where are those shoes? Where is that dress?” she panted. A tipped chair rested on the floor next to her. Mother’s closet door was open.
“What dress? What shoes?” my father said.
“This one,” Mother sailed the sandal with the tiny heel past my father’s head.
“What is this violence?” Grandpa asked.
“Get out,” Mother shouted. “All of you out.” She waved her arms and herded my grandparents and father to the back door and down the stairs. “Get out.” Her hand landed on my shoulder.
“You don’t mean me.”
“But I’m not one of them. I’m on your side. We’re two peas in a pod, remember?”
She must not have remembered. She waved her skinny arm. “Out.”
I stumbled down the stairs. Wet grass soaked my sneakers. The yard smelled of jasmine and oranges. Mother stood on the top step. She flapped her arms. She looked as if she were about to take flight. “I’m not going to listen to you anymore.”
“That drunk’s got you crazy,” Grandma said.
Mother looked at her parents. “I’m sick of your fears. Your Cossacks. If I’m weak and dependent, who made me that way? Who said, ‘Careful, you’ll tire yourself’ every time I took a step? Who told me I was foolish, incompetent?”
“That’s my girl,” Father said.
My mother stared down at him. “You loved me because I needed protection from my crazy parents. You put me in your pocket and now you say I can’t deal with the world, and that’s why you won’t come home. You won’t come home because you don’t love me anymore.”
My father stepped back from the stairs and stared out into the night, as if anything out there was better than what was in front of him. Grandma looked at her daughter. “You don’t mean what you’re saying. You’re just upset.”
“Can we come in now?” I asked. “It’s cold out here.”
“Get used to it.” She slammed the door.
I was wearing a halter and shorts. The ocean breeze cut through me. She felt the same way about me as she did about them. I was the enemy. I hugged myself. I let the tears come.
“She’s gone crazy. Your drinking pushed her over the edge,” Grandpa told my father.
“It was your Cossacks,” my father said. “You are not an Episcopalian.” He eyed Grandma. “And those creations of yours. Clothes for Amazons on fright night.” Music from the kitchen radio drifted out into the night. Was she dancing in there?
In a moment she opened the door a few inches and crooked her finger at me. “I knew it,” I told them. “She wants me.” I walked up the stairs and stood on the step just below her.
“Aren’t you tired of being Neville Chamberlain to Grandma’s Hitler?” she said.
“Chamberlain. He’s the one who gave Czechoslovakia away?” I climbed the top step. Mother and I were eye level.
“Aren’t you tired of being Laurel to my Hardy?” she said.
I inched closer to her.
“Two peas in a pod are still two little peas.” She slid something blue and white through the crack in the door. It was the dress I touched at Grossman’s. She pressed spaghetti straps and part of the bodice into my fingers. “You should find your own things to be mad at. Get your own revolution.”
She shut the door for the final time. Huddled together for warmth, we stood out there together, her father, her mother, her husband, and me, her daughter, waiting for her to let us in.
Penny Perry, a seven time Pushcart nominee, is the author of the poetry collection Santa Monica Disposal and Salvage from Garden Oak Press. Her novel, Selling Pencils and Charlie was a finalist in the San Diego Book Awards. Her new poetry collection Woman with Newspaper Shoes was published on June 20th, 2022 by Garden Oak Press. She is a co-fiction and non-fiction editor at Knot Magazine.