Summer 2010 - THE POTOMAC

The Madness in the Mothers
   Robin Billings

    There was a madness in the mothers. No one mentioned it, because it wasn’t like you could really see madness, all lined up for you in rows or anything like that. But when the madness started piling up, you couldn’t help but wonder if it was a disease the mothers were catching from living in their same-looking little rectangle houses up and down the blocks in the neighborhood.

     Some of the mothers died strangely and suddenly. In the winter I heard about how a mother fell asleep with her head under a pillow and she was asleep so she didn’t know she couldn’t breathe, so she smothered herself to death by accident.    

     And a few doors down from my house, a mother who was kind of new to the block, so nobody knew her very well yet, she locked herself in the bathroom in the middle of the day - right there in the middle of the day, with all her kids, four of them, two doors down from us, out in the front yard, and her new baby over with the neighbor lady - and about dinnertime another mother saw the kids still out in the yard and one of them kind of crying, so she went inside and banged on the bathroom door, and then another mother, the mother who’d been watching the baby, came in to help her bang. When they finally got the door open, there was the new mother to the neighborhood, lying in watery blood, naked and dead, and her children out in the hall, crying for her and wanting to see her and be held by her. That’s what the mother who found her said. She said that was a mortal sin, leaving her babies in the lurch like that.

     And there was madness in some living mothers, like Mrs. Cecilia Halloran. Cecilia was always slapping her oldest girl Mary across her face. I saw her do it a few times at their house when I was bored and I walked down to visit.

     You couldn’t step a toe out of line around Cecilia, and that was hard not to do when you never knew where the toe line was, or how not to cross it. It seemed to change every day with that mother.

     Any time anything at all didn’t go her way, Cecilia came down with a headache she called one of my migraines, and it was weird because she’d smile when she’d say it to someone, one of my migraines, like they made her special or something, and her children had to whisper, and their house had to stay dark inside like somebody was holding a funeral in there, and nobody could go over there, not even in the yard, because Cecilia swore she could hear sounds even out in the yard. And her children couldn’t go to friends’ houses either, because when Cecilia was suffering, everybody in her family needed to suffer. They just had to stay in there in the dark and be quiet and do chores at a slow enough pace not to make any noise.

     I knew about having to be a good girl and quiet at my house, so I wasn’t surprised to cut through the Hallorans’ back yard sometimes and see the sisters sitting under a tree in the middle of the day, whispering after their chores were done, so Cecilia didn’t come to the back door screeching because Mary or her sisters had laughed too loud or had too much fun or something. But even more than slapping at Mary, she liked to lay into one of her other daughters, Julia.

     “Julia,” she’d scream out into the yard. Only Cecilia didn’t say it like that. She didn’t say Julia.  She screamed out Jue-ya instead, and she thought she was enunciating and being all correct, and that made it even more of a madness, for her to say it, and for us, sitting out under the tulip tree with the long pod seeds that looked like green beans hanging up there over us; and the sun spraying its warm rays like a splatter painting all through the tree; and we would’ve been so happy there, sitting in the grass, that’s all, but for the sound of Jue-ya, Jue-ya, coming from the back stoop of their house, and not being able to laugh at her mother yelling it out all stupid and wrong like that. Not laugh out loud, anyway. Because the thing is, you’re just stuck with people when you’re young, and you don’t know they don’t matter. Because they matter right then, because you’re stuck with them. So you have to be quiet about some things.

     Once, Jue-ya’s lip got cut on her mad mother’s ring during a backhanded slapping session. I stood in the backyard and watched it happen. Then Cecilia turned around and looked at me standing there watching her, and she got all huffy and told me to go home. I hated her a long time before I knew I was allowed to hate people.

     I walked across their back yard away from their pod seed tree and down their driveway alongside their house, running my fingertips along the tall stringy-branched bushes with yellow flowers that made the boundary line of the Hallorans’ yard all the way down the driveway to the sidewalk. The soft flipping feeling of branch after branch stayed half fluttery, half numb on my fingertips a long time after I’d left the bushes behind.
          When I had dinner over there sometimes, the father of the family told jokes about stuff like eating beans and farting, and he’d grin around at us while he talked.

     He called Cecilia Cee-Cee. It sounded like see-see.  He said he’d been calling her that forever. One time he said Cee-Cee liked going on the Ferris wheel when they were young.  It didn’t seem right, a mad mother ever liking a Ferris wheel.

     I couldn’t picture it.

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