A short story about the complicated relationship between a mother and a daughter.
By: Madeleine Kemo
I took my seat next to the window, my tote in my lap. I leaned my forehead against the cool glass, exhausted in every sense of the word. The sounds of quiet chatter droned on around me, but I was more focused on the light taps on the window, like a child’s fingers drumming, from the drizzle of light rain outside. For the first time in over a year I would be stuck alone with my mother. It was practically some form of torture inflicted on me by the universe. She would welcome me in and then close the door and lock it behind her. Of course I tried to stay away as long as possible, but the guilt that was so deeply rooted in my person had finally overcome me. It wasn't that I didn't love her, but more that she loved me too much. I was suffocated and overwhelmed in her presence. A terrible thing to even think, but nonetheless true. The train rolled through the next few stations in the area before setting out on its journey. I tried hard to look distracted by the scene outside so as to not be approached and have to share my seat. But that rarely works and this time was no exception. I sighed at the sight of the faded reflection, in the raindrops running down the window, of an old woman moving slowly toward me. Once she was seated I subtly tilted my head back to get a better look at my company for the next three hours.
Every inch of her skin was pale and wrinkled, with some sunspots on her face and hands. Her hair was short and curly, thin and grey. Without needing to inhale too deeply, I could tell that she was a smoker. The strong, bitter smell wafted around her and I tried not to cough as my throat tingled, fighting me. Her eyes were grey and pointed toward her feet but I knew she was studying me in her peripheral. As I studied her, the intercom above my head clicked and the static made me flinch. I turned my head back toward the window. The static dissipated as the conductor’s voice came through the speaker.
“Next stop, Baltimore Maryland. 3:20 arrival time.” I looked down at my obnoxiously pointless apple watch. 12:13. I didn't even try to stifle my sigh. The train started clicking on the track until each individual click ran into one another and was no longer distinguishable. Looking out the window, the objects in my nearsight became blurry, but I stayed focused on the skyline in the distance: Steady and unchanging except for a slight shrinking effect. About thirty minutes went by before I could no longer see it’s brilliance, but the image remained steady and unchanging on the back of my eyelids.
“Where ya headed?” Her voice was soft and scratchy at the same time, as if it were once silky smooth but the smoking finally caught up to her.
“Baltimore.” My voice was flat and uninterested.
“Me too.” I could have guessed as much. The old woman still was looking down and did not turn to me even after I shifted to face her more directly. Her seeming lack of interest drew me in. I made a mental note of yet another example of how human beings seem to want what we can’t have, myself being no exception. I had boarded this train with every intention of avoiding human interaction. However as soon as this stranger presented an attitude of indifference toward me, her attention was something I inexplicably craved.
“I’m Maggie.” A smile twitched around the corners of her mouth at my blatant introduction. After a moment she lifted her head and looked at me with the slightest smile on her face.
“Lucile.” She offered her hand and I shook it carefully. It was bony and thin, yet somehow strong, her grip firm like that of a successful businesswoman. Instead of going through the motions of formalities, I began to offer up information.
“I’m going to visit my mom.”
“Oh how lovely. I’m going to visit my daughter.” I smiled. She tried to smile back but it was tight as though it hurt her. Her posture was slouched and small, worn down from many years of raising a family, I assumed. Unsure what to say next I watched her, waiting to see if she would offer anything else. She did.
“I haven’t seen her in a long time.” The words fell, dead out of her mouth, as if it were something she were just remembering, but would rather not. I nodded slowly, still not quite confident in a response. I didn’t need one. She began talking with a comfort as if we had known each other our whole lives. Although I originally wanted to be left alone, I was thankful for her voice filling the space between us. She wasted no time.
“I got pregnant with Anna when I was twenty. The peak of my youth. I thought that my life was ruined. I wanted an abortion but my parents wouldn’t let me so I was set to put her up for adoption. But when she came out and they handed her to me I couldn’t do it.” She wasn’t looking at me. Just staring far off into the seat in front of her. Her eyes were glazed over and images from a life she lived a long time ago played in her mind like a movie. I didn't think to interrupt for even a second.
“Anna ended up being very collocky. I was on my own and didn’t sleep much the whole first year. I struggled to make ends meet and developed postpartum depression. Of course at that time no one was getting diagnosed for mental disorders. Such a scary time.” Her voice trailed off. She stared blankly for a few minutes and her eyes became glassy. But she pulled back the tears that were threatening to spill out. When she realized I had no intention of interjecting, she continued.
With no required prerequisites to raising a child, she seemed to have jumped in unprepared and failed miserably. She confided in me things that she had never shared with anyone else and I was baffled at her level of comfort. But upon deeper speculation, the whole interaction was actually very natural. Of course a stranger on a train would be the perfect vessel to let the things you most hated about yourself, and the things you were most ashamed of overflow and spill out into the empty space between you. Our time together was limited. Within less than three hours the train would clatter to a stop and we would stumble off and walk to our waiting family members. My mother, her daughter. The ultimate ending of our companionship was inevitable. I knew nothing of this woman's life and knew none of the people in her life, so spreading her stories would be an empty gesture. She would be able to walk away from this encounter feeling a significant weight lifted off her shoulders, maybe without even remembering my name or the color of my hair. So I listened.
She told me of the yelling. The yelling that never ceased in a tiny house her parents helped pay for so that her and Anna wouldn’t have to live with them. There was one time she told me, when Anna was five. She had come home covered in mud with brand new clothes completely ruined. That day Lucile had hit her daughter. Not hard, she tried to reassure me, as a single tear welled up and rolled down her sagging face. Anna had grown up and distanced herself from her mother with a deep pitted sense of loathing. The two rarely talked in their otherwise empty house. And when they did, it seemed Lucile tended to repeat the same mistakes of expressing disappointment or frustration toward Anna, which was always reciprocated.
“I love her more than anything. I just never knew what to do with those feelings. I wanted to be a good mother but I was so young and there was something dark inside me.” Impulsively I touched her hand. I knew she was speaking of something too far gone to cure.
She looked at me with a pain in her face that I had seen before only in my own mother, a kind of desperate longing that only one kind of love could fill. The love between a mother and a daughter. Empty tears continued to run down her cheeks but she did not make a sound. The pain in my chest was not sharp, but a deep lasting ache that not even time could fully heal. Maybe I could heal it for my own mother, so that the deep aching would not be with her, like it was with this woman, forever. Our lives were drastically different, and it was a leap, but I prayed in my head that the universe might be better for me going to see my own mother. That something could be repaired.