My mother lives in a little yellow house on John Street in Whiting, Indiana, where the Chicago skyline looms across the northern edge of town, where British Petroleum’s refining towers, which flank the town’s southern edge, burn both night and day, their white eyes flaming through the rain that has made me late for my Thanksgiving visit.
The smell of that burning gas, thick and noxious, has made its way through the floor and windows of the car, my left temple pulsing with the same taut pull that accompanies my migraines. I squint and keep my eyes on the road.
The yellow house is my mother’s second in Whiting. She and my older brother moved there over five years ago, in a mad dash from the trailer that she purchased after she divorced my father. One of her dogs attacked a neighbor, and rather than give up the dog, Mom packed her belongings in the dead of night and left the trailer, mortgage unpaid, the carpets marked with pawprints and cigarette ash.
The dog is still with Mom—Sophia, a lanky shepherd mix that Mom keeps locked in her bedroom. She is too afraid to walk the dog, so Sophia sits in my mother’s bedroom for hours, classical music blaring from the clock radio.
“She’s happy with me,” my mother says. She breaks a dog treat in half and hands it to Sophia, who slinks under the table and nuzzles my knee frantically, her mouth shut against a high pitched whine that she can’t seem to stop.
The throb in my head does not stop, either. I drink three cups of coffee and let my mother serve me two bowls of the chicken soup she has made. She moves slowly, taking a good ten minutes to move from the coffeemaker to the soup bowl, her hand resting on her back hip as she complains about work: managers that miscount her cash drawer, grocery baggers that give her lip.
“I just count my blessings that I have a job in this economy,” she says. She shows me her winter coat, which she says is now too big for her.
“I must have lost ten pounds!” she shrieks, her eyes lighting as she wraps the coat around her, the broken zippers dangling at her knees. “I think that’s pretty darn good!”
Her gray men’s sweatshirt gives her a paunch that she doesn’t have, masking the actual shape of her body. I have no idea what my mother’s body looks like under all those clothes, what weight she’s gained or lost—or whether I should even be concerned.
Right now, I have to choose not to be, have to choose which worries will keep my attention. I drink my coffee and gauge my headache, which seems to have lessened, the faint reek of cigarette smoke a softer irritation than the gas fumes.
Mom continues to chat. She tells me about the neighborhood stray cats, which she feeds on the front porch, and about a girl at the grocery store whose mother is a meth addict.
“I love these people,” she says, her smile gummy and smooth, her front teeth rotted beneath her upper lip. “I just get to take care of them, and ask about their days, and they all come to my line because they know I care!”
This is a major victory for my mother, who throughout my lifetime has never enjoyed a single job. Not at the town hall as a secretary, nor at the Styrofoam factory an hour west of that trailer, at the very end of Sauk Trail, where I would come at six in the morning to pick her up, my mother emerging from the steel factory doors, her small frame illumined in the pink morning light, hair high on her head, her jaw set against whatever insult she had received in the night about her speed, her legs, her front teeth.
But at the grocery store, she has life. In this kitchen, she has life, too, something less agitated than it has been in former days. Regardless of the anxiety that I try to subdue, something is different here this visit: something is lifting, or has been lifted, and my mother seems to be moving more freely, her laughs more genuine, her movements less frantic.
And in this kitchen, I seem to be moving more freely, too—the headache is gone, my fingers have stopped drumming the table. My mother picks up my empty bowl, moves to the sink.
“I have to say I’m sorry, again,” my mother says. “I’m so sorry for everything, for all of it, and I’m just going to keep saying I’m sorry until the day I die.”
She starts crying. Before I can realize what I’m doing, I am wrapping my arms around her, kissing her cheek as she wipes the bowl, as her lip trembles.
“Well, Mom, you are just loved and forgiven.” I kiss her again. I pour myself another cup of coffee. Mom sighs, and her shoulders quiver for just a moment.
“You keep saying that, and I know that, someday, I’m going to believe you,” she says, wiping the bowl dry.
I pour myself another cup of coffee. I take my place at the table. She picks up the conversation, and I sip the cup as my mother keep speaking, as Sophia, the dog named for wisdom, lays at our feet. As the evening light falls to dark.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Written by: Allison Backous Troy