Valerie hesitated before opening the door to her mother’s apartment in the Westwood Active Living Village. The so-called village comprised six four-story buildings set around a swimming pool and a large hall that served as a community center. Flyers covered the bulletin board in the vestibule. Colorful announcements for yoga classes, trips to the beach, bridge nights, AA meetings, and other events vied for Val’s attention. When Val checked in at the office and asked for the key to her mother’s apartment, the woman at the desk startled her by saying, “Good morning, Ms. Sheehan. It’s so nice to meet you. I’m Lucy. Here’s the key to your mother’s apartment. You can go right up. Building 3, second floor, apartment 3208.” Lucy handed Val the key, smiling brightly at her.
Val’s mother had put her on the list of people who could have a key. I suppose she had to put someone’s name down, thought Val. It’s not like she had ever had any real friends or other family.
Valerie had never been to this place. Her mother had moved in six years ago, after her husband, Valerie’s father, had died. Valerie and her parents had not spoken since ten years before her father’s death, when Val had come out as a lesbian to them. Sixteen years of estrangement and then, yesterday, the phone call had come. Val had gotten a plane out this morning.
Until she had come out to her parents after college, Val had been her father’s pride and joy. He was a strict disciplinarian, but Val was an amiable child, so there were few struggles between them. She grew up basking in his praise. She did well in school and he bragged about her to everyone. But one declaration about who she loved had ruined it. Her father would not have it. He had stood in silent rage. Val’s mother’s face had held a pained expression as she looked down at the carpet. Valerie walked out the door. She had not spoken to her parents since. They had never reached out to her, either. Val had thought that her mother might contact her after her father died. She was sure she had seen a tiny glimmer of non-hate in her mother’s eyes that day. Val had considered calling her mother, but so many years had gone by, she hadn’t known what she would say. Her mother had not been the one to inform her of her father’s death. Valerie had heard about it from an old neighbor. Valerie decided then that maybe she had misinterpreted her mother’s reaction. Maybe she had been just as angry as Val’s father. The pain of it had hit her again as if it was fresh.
She had heard from the neighbor that her father had left nothing for his wife and child. There was no life insurance policy, nor any investments. Valerie’s mother had never worked outside the home. Her father had forbidden it. Valerie never remembered her mother being happy, just quietly accepting of everything her father had dished out. And he had dished out plenty. He drank too much. He was verbally abusive and dismissive of his wife. Val’s father had ruled that house with an iron fist. Valerie had assumed, however, that the man was a good provider. “Good provider” was a phrase often used to excuse men for all their other sins. As a child, Val had thought little about her mother. The woman was simply there. She cleaned the house, she cooked, she looked presentable.
Val’s mother voiced no opinions. She was also proud of Valerie, but in a quieter way. Looking back, Val realized that her father’s pride was more about him, about how he saw himself as a father. By the time she was old enough to realize how sad her mother’s life must have been, Val was away at college. After graduation, when she made the big announcement, her life became completely separate from that of her parents.
Valerie’s mother had had to sell the house and most of its contents when her husband died. She had moved into this “active living village” because it was all she could afford on her widow’s pension.
Valerie turned the key and walked in to her mother’s apartment. She set her suitcase down and stared around in awe. The apartment was tiny, an L-shaped room with a kitchenette in the shorter part of the L. A closet stood to the left and a bathroom to the right of the front door. Her mother had come down far in the world. She had lived in a 3-bedroom house with a large garden, in a white-collar neighborhood for most of her adult life. She wondered if it upset her mother, this turn of events, or if she simply accepted it quietly, like she had accepted her less-than-ideal husband.
At second glance, the apartment was not a sad place at all. It was brightly and cheerfully decorated. The couch/bed had a hand-knitted throw in shades of blue and purple. There was a rocking chair in the corner with a reading lamp next to it. A small, tiered table with library books had a pair of glasses sitting atop it, awaiting the return of the reader. An inspection of the drying rack in the kitchen revealed dishes and utensils chosen with an artistic eye. The clothes in the closet made Valerie wonder if she was in the wrong apartment. They were entirely too colorful for her mother to wear. A quick look at the table next to the door had mail addressed to Alice Sheehan, so Val must be in the right place. But this space did not seem to fit her mother at all. There were a few items that Valerie recognized from her childhood. The reading lamp was familiar to her, as were photos in frames here and there. Most of these were old photos of Alice’s parents, aunts, and her brother Michael. Val’s high school graduation photo was there along with a few of her as a young child with her mother, posing in front of some landmark or other. Photos of Val’s father were conspicuously missing. There was a small container on the coffee table shaped like a travel trunk with a tiny padlock. On top of a small, glass-fronted bookcase was a mantle clock.
The clock sat in a mahogany casing with wood inlay designs; the casing itself perched on tiny, ornate wooden feet. Serpentine-style clock hands were jet black against the clock face yellowed with age. There was a key lying on top of the clock, which was used to wind the mechanism. Valerie remembered this clock with great fondness. It was the only secret she and her mother had shared. It was the only rebellion, insignificant as it was, that her mother had perpetrated against her father.
The clock had belonged to Alice’s Uncle Mike. Alice had inherited it when he had died. It was one of two things in the house that Alice had owned outright. The other was the tea set that Alice had gotten when her own mother had died. She took great care with Uncle Mike’s clock, polishing the casing weekly and keeping it in good working order. She had lovingly shown Valerie how to open the back of the clock, insert the key, and wind the clock carefully, taking care not to over-wind it.
One day, when Valerie’s parents were going to be away for the day, her father ordered her to stay at home. Val protested she wouldn’t be able to go to the movies with her friends as they had planned. But her father was firm. No going out. He refused to give Val her allowance for the week until they got back from the out-of-town wedding, lest she disobey. Shortly before they left, her mother came up to her room. “I know you wanted to go to the movies and that your father didn’t give you any money, but maybe you can ask Uncle Mike,” she had said. Alice had then winked, which Val had never seen her do.
As soon as her parents’ car had gone around the corner, Valerie ran downstairs to open the mantle clock. There was money lying there, enough to go to the movies and get a drink and popcorn.
Every once in a while, when Valerie’s father would forbid an activity or a purchase, Alice would hide money in Uncle Mike’s clock for her. Every time it happened, Val thought she saw her mother straighten up a bit, her hunched shoulders relaxing, just for a while.
Valerie went now to the clock and picked it up. She released the latch and opened the door in back. Inside was a small envelope with the words “the trunk on the coffee table” written on it. Inside the envelope was a key.
The length and width of the trunk was the size of a paperback book and it stood about six inches tall. The box had a small padlock. She unlocked it and opened the box. In it was a letter addressed to her and a savings account book. She opened the savings account book first and leafed through to the balance. Val stared in shock at the amount. She glanced at the front of the book to see, with another jolt of shock, that it was a joint account with both her and her mother as account holders. Where did this money come from? It made no sense that her mother would have so much money.
She opened the letter and read. The letter was an apology from her mother. In it, she wrote about how horrible a mother she had been to abandon Val like that when Val had come to her parents with her announcement and her father had disowned her. Alice admitted there was no excuse for her behavior, that Val was right to cut her off. Alice did not ask for forgiveness from Val. She felt she did not deserve forgiveness. She understood why Val hadn’t called after her father’s death, that of course Val would be too afraid to try, that she would fear another betrayal by Alice herself. Alice wrote she had been afraid to contact Val, assuming it was too late to make amends.
The money, the note explained, was the proceeds from her father’s investments and his life insurance policy. Her father had originally left both his investments and life insurance to Val. Alice explained her husband had not trusted Alice to know how to deal with money after he died and so he had left it all to Val, assuming that Valerie would take care of her mother. After Val came out to them, her father had reluctantly changed the beneficiary to Alice.
Alice had not felt right about keeping the money. She put it all in a savings account to be left to Val in Alice’s will. Alice also admitted in the letter that she had gotten some small satisfaction in allowing her husband’s friends and family to think that he hadn’t taken care of her after his death.
So, Valerie thought, he left his family something. He was a good provider. And that was all he was, she thought sadly. He was an abusive husband and an uncaring father. Valerie wasn’t sure she even wanted the money. Like her mother, she was loath to take it. Also, like her mother, she thought of a tiny rebellion that would give her a bit of satisfaction. She’d take the money and put it in her kids’ college funds. The grandfather they would thankfully never know would pay for their education. She was more like her mother than she realized. The thought made her smile.
Oh, Mom, Val thought, why did we wait? Why didn’t we reach out? So many wasted years. Years we could have had. You could have come to my wedding. You could have celebrated the births of my children, your grandchildren.
A sudden knock on the door shook Valerie out of her maudlin thoughts. She stood up, wiped her eyes, and went to open the door. A woman of about her mother’s age stood there.
“Hello!” she said, chirpily. “You must be Valerie! I feel like I know you from Alice’s description. I went to get the key and Lucy told me you were here. I need to get some phone numbers. I have to find people to step in for your mother or this place will fall apart! She practically runs the joint. When she isn’t working or volunteering down at the animal shelter. You know your mom, always running around, never sitting still. Such vitality! Don’t you worry about anything, I’ll take care of calling everyone. I’m Barb, by the way.”
“Vitality?” asked Val, grabbing onto one of words Barb had used. Nothing Barb said made any sense at all.
“Oh, honey,” said Barb, “I’m so sorry. I know. It’s hard to imagine Alice—so full of life!—struck down like that. Who would have thought that she’d have a heart attack? It was so sudden and unexpected. Oh, I should shut up now. You’re overwhelmed. I’ll just grab this phone book and be on my way.” Barb took a small, green book from the table and turned toward the door. She stopped and turned back.
“Sweetie, are you okay? Should I make you a cup of tea?”
Val snapped out of her fog and said to Barb, “No, no. I’m fine. I think I will have a cup of tea.”
“Sure,” said Barb, patting Val on her forearm, “You do that.”
Val decided a cup of tea was exactly what she needed. So many new things to think about. Her mother had turned into a different person after her father had died. No longer downtrodden by an overbearing man, she had blossomed into a woman who was “full of life,” a person who “runs the joint.” Valerie didn’t know her mother as that woman. She wished she had had the chance to do so. It was all so sad. Val hadn’t contacted her mother in the last sixteen years because her parents’ rejection had hurt and Alice hadn’t contacted Val because she felt guilty for choosing her husband over her child. Wasted years, Val thought, again.
The first cupboard Val opened held plates, bowls, and glasses. Val opened the second cupboard and smiled. There was her mother’s tea set, just as Val remembered it from her childhood. So, thought Val, my mother didn’t change completely. Here’s a part of her I recognize.
Val took the pot and one cup and saucer from the cupboard and made tea. She remembered coming home from school and finding her mother in the living room, the teapot, covered in a quilted cozy. The sugar bowl, creamer, silver tea strainer and two cups and saucers sitting with the pot on a tray on the coffee table. She would sit and have a cup of tea with her mother. They’d talk about Val’s day. Alice never talked about her own day. She only ever wanted to hear about Val’s. As Val got older, she sat with her mother less and less. She had reached the age when she had secrets, the small secrets all girls had from their mothers and the enormous one that Val was sure only she had.
Val sat at the small table and drank her tea. She thought about who her mother had been, how she had transformed herself. Val realized she was happy that her mother had found happiness. She nodded her head decisively and stood up. Val cleaned up the dishes, checked the address in her cell phone and walked out of her mother’s charming, little apartment, locking it behind her.
Twenty minutes later, Valerie stood in front of a door, took a deep breath, and opened it. The woman lying in the hospital bed opened her eyes.
“You came,” said Alice, smiling.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” said Valerie, reaching out to take her mother’s hand. “Everything is going to be fine. You’re going to be fine. We have time.”
© 2018 Liza Cameron Wasser