Their Little Mother
Their little mother sat like a sweet ragamuffin doll in the small chair that was deliberately covered with thick blue cotton to serve her ailing body. Her once so beautiful chestnut hair was held back by a brown net. The top of her head was all pink under wisps of white and her rosy cheeks drooped in satiny folds on both sides of her pouting mouth.
She sucked her chapped lips in a sudden panic while her hands groped into the space that was left after her oldest daughter got up to go to the kitchen to fetch a welcome treat for Helen. They had told her Helen was here, so she had looked for some familiarity in the touch of that foreign hand, but she only became more confused.
Their little mother started to cry. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa
The sisters exchanged meaningful pitying glances with Helen. Their mother’s mind was failing as she became more and more childlike with the passing of the weeks. Helen could see that, couldn’t she?
There was a time when mamma dominated them all with her strict wishes and constant demands for tokens of unfailing love. Only Helen seemed to always thwart her will no matter how hard she tried.
“We try to keep her happy always,” Anna said with a deep sigh of one who feels put upon yet welcomes the attention it affords. She took the brunt of it as she was the oldest and the one with no children to worry about. Being left in charge, she had become the head of the family.
“What else can I do when they all come to me with any decision that involves family members?” she asked Helen with a nervous little laugh.
“I understand Anna dear, you must be tired of all the work.”
“Oh no, it’s nothing. No, nothing at all,” Anna said as she put a supporting hand to her aching back.
“Of course, it is a lot of work,” Lila joined in cheerfully. “But you’ll never hear Anna complain.”
“You should let me do some of the work while I’m here,” Helen suggested.
“I won’t hear of it, dear Helen. I simply won’t hear of it. You are my guest.”
“But I’m also your sister,” Helen said quietly as she watched Anna disappear, down the long corridor toward the kitchen, in a flurry of protests.
Lila took Anna’s place. With tender kisses and willing hands she continued to feed their little mother. Helen wondered if Lila heard what she just said. If she had, she was not betraying what seemed like a silent conspiracy to exclude her even to this day.
There had always been a picture in Helen’s mind, when in distant America, of how she would be the one to coddle and pamper poor mamma. How she would be able to talk about all the things that had accumulated in her mind and crowded her heart over the many years. How mamma would smile with understanding as forgiveness would light up her fast fading eyes.
All would be healed.
The blows of mamma’s frustrated hands had rained on her when she wanted to marry a beautiful dark-skinned boy no one would approve of. Not even her father had come to her defence. He only rescued her from being locked in her room for days on end when he grew tired of having his evening meal constantly interrupted by the cries and lamentations of his wife and her recalcitrant daughter. Yet until the day he died, Helen had been convinced that he had been on her side but that he had not known how to show it.
After three days of bread and water, she had finally been allowed to rejoin the family at dinner. Anna, beautiful but still unclaimed, had looked at her from the other end of the room, a triumphant pout on her exceptional face.
Little Lila had talked incessantly from her perch on Anna’s arm.
From that day on, Helen fostered one wish only -- to soothe her festering wound. Her desire to get away sent her into the arms of a man she barely knew but whose promises were enough to convince her that life could be better. In time she learned to love John. And time, she had hoped, would draw her close again with her family.
“So you had a good trip then?” Lila asked while restraining mamma’s clawing hands.
“It was a good trip. Thank you, Lila mou.”
Helen looked nervously toward the hall as she listened for Anna’s busy hands that were sending familiar noises from the kitchen. She then turned her attention back on her younger sister who was once again focused on mamma.
Lila had been beautiful when she was young. She had long black hair and eyes that were blue like the patches on the china cow that poured milk. Papa had brought it back from Holland after one of his many voyages abroad. Helen remembered the shy smile that spread on Lila’s porcelain face the time she came home to attend Anna’s wedding. It was the first time since she was a little girl that Lila had seen her.
It was then that the full impact of the choices she had made in her life became clear to Helen. Lila appeared as a symbol for all that she had lost. The beauty of her young girl’s face should have been familiar to her, but it seemed so remote. Helen had wanted to reach out and take Lila into an embrace, yet all she managed was a strange smile in return after the customary and polite kisses.
The next time Helen came back Lila was a grown woman, smiling at the rain of red petals and white rice that fell about her as she was led, hand in hand with her new husband, around the altar. Still beautiful she was, crying on her wedding dress as mamma pressed wet cheeks against hers.
Then for years Helen came no more. She got busy with her children until father died. Helen stood once more like an outsider as her sisters, their bodies complacent with age, fussed gaily over grieving relatives who commented on mamma’s apparently regained youth. Papa had not left even a greeting behind for her. He hadn’t even asked for her, they said.
“How’s John, Eleni mou?” Anna asked as she came back from the kitchen, tray in hand. Her feet were swollen in the satin slippers which caused her great embarrassment, as if not getting dressed properly for this visit was a sin that needed absolving. Even after Helen suggested that among sisters there was no need for such formality, the apologies had only ceased gradually.
With an elegant twist about her heavy hips, Anna bent down to place the tray with the steaming little cup of coffee and the tall glass of water onto the round serving table next to Helen’s chair. Then she went back to the kitchen to fetch a sweet she had made only that morning.
“And how are the children?” Lila asked during a moment’s respite from mamma who was as much of a handful as either of their children had been while still in the high chair. “Greg? Vicky?”
“They’re fine Lila. Thank you,” Helen replied gratefully. “Greg is finishing his Master’s now and Vicky has started her first year at university.”
“They’re good children,” Anna said generously, waving her hands about to prompt Helen to start eating and drinking.
Their mother, meanwhile, had grown quite annoyed at the fact that no one was paying her any attention. She pulled at her dress and kept trying to get out of her chair.
“Ah, little mamma,” Anna crooned, bending over to tickle the cheeks coloured by a myriad of burst vessels. “Ah, little mamma. Tell us then: what did you just eat?”
“Nothing!” Mamma lisped with a mischievous smile on her face. Anna and Lila looked at one another, their shoulders shaking with laughter that danced through the enclosed air of the small salon.
“Ah, little mamma,” Anna chanted as her hand was being clasped in the strong grip of mamma’s skinny hand. She gently released herself to return Helen’s empty cup to the kitchen.
Perplexed, mamma searched for Lila’s waiting hand. Attempting to cover it with kisses, she only managed to kiss her own hand over and over again.
Anna, coming back with a little glass of amber liqueur on a tiny red tray, drew Lila’s attention to this little scene. Helen managed a sad smile as her sisters burst out laughing again.
It always seemed to Helen that once she had left, they all started functioning as a blissfully happy family where mutual support and caring were matter of fact. After papa died and the house became too big for mamma to look after properly, it was decided that mamma should move in with Anna.
This was Anna’s apartment they were in. Lila lived in the one just down the hall. With the help of a woman who came in every day, plus the benevolent support of their husbands and the exuberant but fickle assistance of Lila’s three children, the two sisters took turns making sure mamma would never be left to fend for herself.
“How long will you be staying?” Anna asked thoughtfully.
I’d like to stay forever, Helen wanted to cry out. She remained silent when she caught the smile that fleeted like the shadow of an airy cloud on white-washed walls between her two sisters. She got up, suddenly feeling cold on this sunny blue December morning.
“I really should go and unpack,” she said. “And maybe I’ll get some rest. The trip, you see.”
“Of course, dearest,” Anna said getting up with some difficulty yet eager to oblige. “I’ll show you to your room.”
On the way through the hall, where pictures of children and family gatherings hung left and right, Helen reached out to touch Anna’s arm, but she drew back when her sister turned to look at her. An anxious flutter made her search for words.
“I can stay as long as is necessary,” she finally said, choking back a burn of tears.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, my dear Helen. We get along just fine,” Anna said as she walked on with shoulders that seemed more straightened out than ever.
Helen watched her tired feet come down one after the other on the black and white marble tiles of the long hall. Yes, she wanted to say, you’re fine.
But I’m not.
When Anna turned down the sheets on the bed, Helen took her arm and asked her to sit on the bed. She wanted to stay and talk for a while.
“I’m sorry dear,” Anna said kindly. “But it’s mamma, you see.”
“What is it then about mamma, Anna? She has always favoured you. And Lila. I’ve learned to live with that. But you. Why do you keep such a distance from me?”
“Mamma has always loved you as much as any of us,” Anna admonished.
“But you were such a difficult child. You would always say that papa was your favourite. You made her cry so often.”
“No Anna. She never liked me.”
“How can you say that? She was such a good mother. A perfect mother. We were her whole life.”
“Maybe that explains some of it,” Helen said quietly.
“What do you mean by that?” Anna asked, interested for the first time since they started to talk.
“If all you are allowed to do with your life, is bound up in the family....”
“I have to go now, Helen.” Anna got up in a nervous rush. “I can’t leave her alone for too long.”
“But Lila is with her!”
“I need to go. I’m sorry.”
And so am I, Helen thought after her sister left. So sorry that for some incomprehensible reason mamma had never loved her as she had loved the other two sisters. Even now mamma still had the power to keep her excluded.
As Helen lay down on the bed to take a rest, she could hear the lighthearted chatter in the distance. The fuss and the care between women related by blood.
Such a happy perfect little family they made, with such a perfect loving little mother.