My mother told me that I was the daughter she had always wanted. What this meant in practice was that I was the child she could spoil with dolls and swaddle in pink, a color that usurped its way into everything from the sheets I slept in to the leotard and tights I wore to ballet class. I didn’t mind the dolls. But by the time I was four, I’d had enough of pink and tried to exile it from my world.
“No more pink,” I told my mother one day. “I don’t like it.”
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” she said, the laugh lines around her eyes crinkling in playful malice.
I stomped my foot and fumed.
Whether because of my recalcitrance or her own boredom, my mother’s rosy-colored obsession gradually lessened. But her desire to dress me up like a doll did not, even after I started school. For my kindergarten Christmas concert, she sewed me a blue velvet dress with pink flower trim that I wore with tights and black patent leather Mary Jane shoes.
After that, there was no stopping my mother.
She designed polka-dotted bloomers edged in lace for me to wear under dresses and jumpers she decorated with bright flower and ladybug patches and tied back my hair with giant grosgrain ribbons she sewed herself. My mother even knitted me a little green cap decorated with orange pom-poms going down one side.
Other mothers thought my clothes were adorable.
“Does your mother make what you wear?” they’d ask.
“Yes,” I’d say in a small, embarrassed voice.
Their sons and daughters thought my outfits were ridiculous and didn’t hesitate to tell me so—when they weren’t trying to pull up my dresses to see what color bloomers I had on.
“You look like a clown,” they would tell me, guffawing.
It wasn’t enough that my mother insisted I wear her creations. She also believed she had to school me in various household arts. “It’s how we do things in Italy,” she said. So she taught me how to knit and crochet and use a needle and thread to sew buttons, patch holes and embroider. And when I was tall enough to reach into kitchen cupboards without standing on tiptoe, my mother made me her cooking assistant.
It seemed I was destined for domestication. But I couldn’t understand why. Before I was born, she had been a biochemist who had observed life under microscopes and supported my father while he had been building his bookbinding business in Kansas City. Yet she told me little about that white-coated and decidedly unfeminine, life, which I imagined as far more exciting than the one she felt it her duty to teach me about.
I disappointed her, of course. Outside of my pink cage, I was a tomboy who roamed our shaggy Southern California seaside property on Fernhill Drive with no shoes on and tracked up my mother’s clean linoleum floors with dusty footprint halos. But one place inside the house that I did grow to love in spite of myself was the kitchen. That was where I saw the best side of my mother, whose moods could change like the weather.
What drew me there at first were the smells: of warm baking bread; of red sauce, broth or minestrone simmering on the stove; of freshly cut onion, crushed garlic and newly zested lemon rinds. A woman who never stopped moving, my mother found a kind of peace in the kitchen. Later I realized it was because it was a place where she could not only pour out her prodigious energies into something that gave life: it was also where she could mix, measure and experiment without anyone looking over her shoulder and judging her.
As I began engaging with the implements of her kitchen, my mother introduced me to a well-worn hardback Betty Crocker cookbook she’d had bought as a newlywed in Ithaca, New York, in the early1950s. It wasn’t the photos of perfect dishes fresh from the oven or stove that caught my eye though. Rather, it was the sketches of smiling, impeccably groomed females in high heels, bouffant dresses and pearls. To a girl with perpetually scabby knees, the women looked like they came from another planet.
“Did you dress like this back then, too?” I asked her once.
“Oh, I liked nice clothes,” my mother said. “But not to wear at home.”
I thought about the polyester pants and shirts that were her unofficial house uniform and the colorful outfits that crowded her closet, unworn. Was that why she dressed me up—because I spent my time outside of the house and she inside it?
While I had the run of our kitchen, my mother was unwilling to let me do anything that fell too far outside the perimeter of our home. This included walking to and from my elementary school, which was just a block from where we lived. By the time I was 9 or 10, the situation had grown intolerable.
“Why can’t I walk home by myself?” I complained.
“There are people who hang around schools, bad people,” she said. “And they can hurt you.”
“But everyone else walks home alone, Mom.”
“Basta. Enough. No more discussion. I do this to keep you safe.”
And that was that. Every afternoon I saw her waiting for me by the flagpole near the entrance of the playground. I wanted to dig a hole in the sandbox and hide. My mother had crossed an ocean and a continent to live on the shores of the Pacific. Yet she seemed intent on teaching me that limits existed to how far girls could stray from home.
By the time I got to junior high, my mother’s coddling mutated into something far darker. My new school, Malibu Park Junior High, was now a twenty-minute drive north up the Pacific Coast Highway rather than a 5-minute walk up Fernhill Drive, the hilly, winding road where we lived. When I asked my mother to take me to things like orchestra practice and school dances she did, but always grudgingly. That all changed after I started eighth grade.
“I can’t see well at night when I drive. It’s just too dangerous,” she said. “Why don’t you ask your classmates for rides?”
Fortunately, several of them lived in my neighborhood. I asked two, Carolyn Sheets and Janet Lindboe, if their mothers would drive me to afterschool activities like orchestra. Both parents agreed and never complained—at least not to me. It was Carolyn who made it clear how their families really felt about my requests.
“Couldn’t your mom maybe take us sometimes?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“She won’t do it. And if I don’t go, the music teacher will mark me down.”
The Sheets and the Lindboes realized that it was hopeless and never said anything to me again. For that year and the one that followed, they—and I— accepted my status as the extra child on loan from the house on Fernhill.
My mother’s behavior no doubt seemed as odd as it was unreasonable to the neighbors who helped me. But it had come to seem normal long before she began refusing me rides to school activities. One morning when I was twelve years old and just starting to get accustomed to having menstrual cycles, I awoke to discover that I had blood in my underwear but no sanitary supplies and immediately went to rouse my mother.
“Why don’t you get him to take you?” she said, her sleepy voice edgy with irritation.
“But it’s so early! He’s probably not even up yet.”
“Well, I can’t.”
I hurried into the bathroom, stuffed my underwear with toilet paper and rushed across our property to the bookbinding workshop apartment where my father—now separated from my mother—lived and knocked on his door. The words spilled out of my mouth the minute I saw his unshaven face.
“Dad, I got my period and need to go to the store.”
“Why isn’t your mother helping you?”
“She won’t go.”
Muttering under his breath, my father pulled on a pair of pants and a shirt and drove me one mile to the pharmacy at the Point Dume Plaza.
Not long after that, my mother told me she could see my breasts under the clothes I wore.
“It’s time you started wearing a bra,” she announced.
I grimaced. Other girls my age had begun wearing bras. But I was perfectly content to continue wearing camisole undershirts, which struck me as more comfortable.
“Will you take me to Bullock’s to buy one?” I asked.
“Ask your father. You go shopping with him anyway,” she told me.
And so my mother taught me my next lesson. As long as I didn’t make any demands of her, all was well. The minute I began to ask things of her that other parents seemed to give without thinking, I was on my own.
My brother Fred told me later on that my mother had never been enthusiastic about driving even when he was growing up. She hated getting behind the wheel so much that she had turned down a prestigious research fellowship at UCLA. “Twenty-five miles up and twenty-five back on the Pacific Coast Highway and she said no,” my brother said, his eyes rolling.
Still, he had managed. He was older and a boy, the one who got gifted an old Ford Galaxy from my father when he was 16 and could drive himself to and from things like school, Boy Scout meetings and polo practice. I was younger and a girl, the one whose mother expected her to ride busses and wouldn’t learn to drive until she was 19.
After my parents divorced in 1975, my mother actually did make the drive up the Coast Highway to Beverley Hills where she worked as clerk in the back offices of Gucci. At that point, she was too worried about money to complain about driving. When she was laid off a year-and-a-half later, she decided to try teaching at Santa Monica College.
SMC offered her an evening class for adults in gourmet dessert baking, which she jokingly referred to as her “kitchen chemistry” course. One day—perhaps it was a weekend because no one else was there—she drove me to my junior high school to look at the room where she would be teaching. As it happened, it was the same place where I took my own home economics classes.
While my mother set to work checking the utensils and equipment she would be using, I wandered into a room that my teacher, Mrs. Schelkopf, used as a storage area. Normally the door was locked but when I turned the handle, it opened. Inside was a hodgepodge of books, papers, pots, pans, sewing supplies and mannequins.
I walked to a cabinet and began peering inside drawers. Soon I came across a stash of tiny lipsticks scattered over pamphlets with pictures of smiling teenage girls that extolled the pleasures of growing up. Snickering, I opened a tube and absently smeared some color onto my mouth. Seconds later, a handful of tubes disappeared into a small handkerchief, which I then stuffed into an empty coat pocket.
When I returned, my mother was getting ready to leave. We walked back to her blue VW sedan. Just before she started the engine, she stared at me and frowned.
“What’s on your lips?” she asked. When I didn’t say anything, she repeated her question more sternly. “What’s that on your lips, girl?“
“Lipstick,” I said.
“Where did you get it?”
“I found it in the storage room.”
My mother looked at me hard. Then she noticed the bulge in my coat.
“Show me what’s in your pocket,” she demanded.
I shifted uncomfortably then took out my handkerchief and opened it. She sucked in her breath.
“You stole them!”
“I didn’t think it would matter,” I mumbled. “There were so many of them.”
“Madonna Santa! For God’s sake, do you know how much trouble this could have caused for me if someone had seen you take all of this?”
My heart sank straight to my toes. The lipstick meant nothing to me, but the teaching job meant everything to my mother. Even if she had wanted to, she had been away from the laboratory too long to get a research job. Yet here I was, a teenager who had brought her mother low through willful misbehavior. She was hurt: and secretly, I was glad.
But it was my mother who ultimately revealed herself to be immune to consequences her actions had on those around her. After just two or three sessions, my mother would walk away from the cooking class and her contract with the college.
“How could you do this, Rose?” her supervisor asked. “The students will be so disappointed. And I’m just flabbergasted.”
In private, my mother told me she didn’t feel appreciated for all the work she had been putting in. “I just wasn’t enjoying it,” she said. The excuse sounded flimsy. My mother complained about needing a job; and yet she had quit the one she had. Then I thought about the 15-minute drive to and from her class. Could that have been the problem?
The reasons were, of course, more complicated than my mother was willing to admit. Not long after my thievery, she turned over most of the grocery shopping duties to me without a word of explanation. We had just arrived at the local Market Basket, which was about twenty minutes from where we lived on Point Dume. My mother handed me the grocery list I had taken down from her dictation.
“After you get the total, come back out and I’ll write you a check.”
I blinked in surprise.
“You’re not coming with me?”
“You know what to buy,” she said, looking at me through sunglasses she wouldn’t take off. “God knows you’ve seen me do it enough times. I’ll be waiting.”
Most trips after that happened without incident. But sometimes, I would return with a grocery-laden shopping cart to find her tapping her fingers on the steering wheel and huffing in annoyance.
“I said to be quick about it,” she would shout. Ignoring her, I would begin loading the bags into the trunk of her car while my mother continued to splutter.
It was only much later that I realized that her arbitrary, often antisocial ways were ruses to hide anxieties she never discussed. Whether those fears stemmed from her heavily accented though perfect English, her foreignness, both or something more, I would never know for certain. What was clear was that however powerless she may have felt outside the house, she reigned supreme within it; and that I, as her one and only subject, was becoming her liaison to a world that discomfited her.
I wondered if things would get better in high school, which was two years away. Getting out on my own, even if it meant doing the shopping by myself, was my fondest dream. But I would need a car and my father had no spare vehicle to give me. Even if he’d had one, I doubted that my mother would ever practice driving with me. So I tried to feel my way around the issue.
“Mom,” I asked, “once I get to tenth grade, can I accept rides from friends?”
“No,” she said. “Young people are just too prone to getting into accidents.”
“So I guess that means no dates then?”
My mother’s response was quick and sharp.
“Not until you’re 18.”
What my mother really meant was that sexual exploration was off limits. Doll-children didn’t feel desire; or if they did, it was only after they left the mothers who didn’t want to be responsible for consequences that might overwhelm them.
My mother’s own sexuality baffled me. She had no difficulty with nudity and would sunbathe naked on our patio. Even in old age, she had a habit of walking around her cottage in the Arizona retirement village unclothed. But when I was a teenager, my father revealed that my mother had thrown him out of their bedroom not long after I was born. Only one other man—a British business attaché named James—came into my mother’s life after she officially divorced my father. And that was by accident.
While she had been unemployed, my mother hit upon the idea of selling yarns as her businessman father had done. If Paolo Marinozzi and the Gucci brothers could make money selling quality goods made in Italy, then she could, too. It didn’t matter that she had no entrepreneurial experience. “It’s in the family,” she would say, as though blood ties to a businessman were all it would take to be successful.
After more than two years of researching the addresses of yarn stores across the country and doing direct mail campaigns that only brought a handful of clients, she decided the answer to her problems lay in expanding her product line. That was when she contacted the British consulate in Los Angeles.
Jim was my mother’s age. When my mother and I first met him at the door of our house in the summer of 1980, I had to bite down on an urge to laugh at the awkward comb over that covered the crown of his balding head. Then he spoke.
“So delighted to meet you,” he drawled.
I was instantly smitten. My mother led him into the library and I slipped into the kitchen to bring out a batch of Scottish shortbread cookies I had baked for the occasion.
“Thank you, my dear,” he said when I offered him the plate. He bit into a cookie and winked. “Yes, that’s lovely, very lovely.”
He likes them, I thought. Tongue-tied but ecstatic, I scurried out of the room, forgetting to close the door behind me.
“She wants to marry a British man when she grows up,” I heard my mother say. Jim sounded amused and a little proud.
“Oh, I’m not surprised. British men do know how to treat women.”
I was mortified.
It would be almost two hours before Jim left. After he did, I found my mother basking in the afterglow of an unexpectedly happy encounter. She announced that they had decided to have lunch the following Sunday at the Sand Castle Restaurant in Paradise Cove. “He’s got a lot of ideas that could help me,” my mother said. Her eyes sparkled in a way I’d never seen.
For the next week, my mother routinely scrutinized the image reflected back in the mirror of her pink-tiled bathroom vanity. My mother was 55 years old. But with her short, salt-and-pepper hair and radiant olive skin, my mother was still a beautiful woman.
“Do you think I should put some dark streaks in my hair?”
“You look nice just the way you are,” I said.
“Maybe I’ll get a trim,” she murmured, ignoring me.
She called the stylist she saw in Beverly Hills every six weeks and made an appointment. As it turned out, though, not even he could work his customary magic. A day or two before her date, my mother descended on the main bathroom armed with one box each of natural dark brown and natural black Miss Clairol, a pair of yellow Playtex gloves, and an air of grim determination. With the precision of the scientist she had been and the delicacy of the artist she imagined herself to be, she set about transforming the hair that had suddenly seemed so unacceptably gray.
That Sunday, Jim and my mother ate seafood in Paradise Cove and walked along the beach made famous on one of my favorite TV shows, The Rockford Files. They had gone out to discuss business. But when my mother talked to me about the lunch, business wasn’t uppermost in her mind. It was the fact he’d recently ended a relationship with the American woman who was also the mother of a young daughter.
“Jim really loves that little girl,” my mother said, looking slightly crestfallen. Then with a surge of brightness she added, “He did say he would call, though.”
My mother would have to wait more than two weeks to hear from Jim again. When she finally did, it wasn’t good news “I’m so sorry, so terribly sorry,” he said on her answering machine, half-eating his words from embarrassment. “I just can’t manage this.” Weeks went by as she sat by her machine limp as a rag doll, listening over and over to the voice of the man she would never see again.
I started high school that fall. And when I did, the screws around my growing need for freedom tightened even more. I now had to travel 20 miles to Santa Monica, which meant 45-minute trips to and from my house on the school bus every day. If I had to stay late, I needed to find a telephone and call my mother. An hourly bus ran between Malibu and Santa Monica, but that only helped me during the daytime. Under no circumstances could I ever come home after dark.
Tired of asking my neighbors for rides to nighttime performances, I dropped out of orchestra and joined the forensics club instead. Competitions were during daytime, which meant I could take the bus.
It took exactly two tournaments before I ran into trouble with my mother.
I bussed my way to Palos Verdes High, where I got an honorable mention for a dramatic reading I did of a short essay I’d written and phoned my mother to tell her about it. At the second competition at my high school in Santa Monica, I was too busy flirting with a tall curly-haired senior named Matt who wrote poetry to call home. When finally I returned to Malibu, it was dusk and my mother was furious.
“Why didn’t you phone? I was so worried about you!”
“Everything was fine.”
My mother scowled at me. Her eyes seemed to bulge out of their sockets.
“Well, what if they hadn’t? What then?”
“I was safe, Mom. Nobody bothered me.”
“Yes, but I didn’t know that. You should have phoned me. I was just about ready to call the sheriff’s department.”
I let my mother’s haranguing wash over me. The next tournament was a week later at Hollywood High; maybe I would see Matt again and even win another award. My world suddenly seemed rosier than it had in a long time. On the Friday before the tournament, I reminded my mother that I would be going into town the next day for the meet.
My mother looked at me.
“You’re not going to that tournament or any other one again,” she said quietly.
“But I worked for weeks on those monologues!”
My mother had heard me practice and knew the hours I had put in. She’d even offered encouragement. “Very good,” she’d said. “You’ll do well.”
But now her voice was cold.
“I don’t care,” she said. “If I say you’re not going, you’re not going.”
Speechless, I ran into my bedroom, slammed the door and began to sob. First it had been orchestra. Now the debate team. Why did my mother always want to get in the way of the things I wanted to do?
The following Monday at school, I tried to explain my absence to the forensics coach. She had no sympathy for me.
“You can’t do that,” Miss Fernandez said, “and especially not at the last minute.”
“But my mom…it wasn’t my choice. She made me stay home.”
Tears of frustration welled up in my eyes.
She softened slightly. “I see. And I’m sorry. But you’ve got to understand that even one no-show makes the whole team look bad.”
“What am I supposed to do then?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you need to think about whether or not you can stay on.” That day, I left the forensics team.
I felt trapped. If I didn’t do exactly what she said, she had threatened to send me to live with my father. She knew how attached I was to our house and how much I hated the lover who later became his second wife. Yet her conscience wasn’t entirely clear.
Once, out the blue, she turned a troubled face to me and said, “You think I’m your jailer, don’t you?” I didn’t answer. By then, I had learned that my best defense was to keep silent. For as long as I had to live under her roof, I would become just like the dolls that stared dumbly into space from the shelves of my pink-walled bedroom.
This is a reprint of work originally published in Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal.
M. M. Adjarian has published her non-fiction and poetry in The Provo Canyon Review, The Milo Review, The Baltimore Review, The Prague Revue, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, Animal, Verdad, South 85, Eunoia Review, Crack the Spine, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Poetry Quarterly. At present, she is working on a family memoir provisionally titled The Beautiful Dreamers.