by Christine Rice
Each week, through in-depth profiles and behind-the-scenes features, The Urbaness works to inspire you with stories of women living the good life in Chicago. Now, we’re delighted to bring you—our readers—into the fold. Recently, we put out a call for writers, artists, and thinkers—anyone who could wax poetic on the topic of mothers and nurturing. The response we received was astounding, and we’re eager to share the stories of real women and their true-life experiences living in this city we love. Today, we continue our True Stories series with Chicago writer Christine Rice.


Roll Credits


There’s a black and white photo of my parents at their wedding reception that captures them moments before plunging a silver blade into a frilly edged cake. My dad’s suited shoulder touches Mama’s bare arm as he leans into her. Mama looks blissful. Her heart-shaped face and almond eyes contrast dad’s hollowed cheekbones and square jaw. She’s wearing a cream sheath dress and her hair frames her face in perfect black pin curls. My dad looks happy but there’s something about the set of his jaw that throws me off; it looks like determination; it looks like he was thinking, I’m going to try my damndest to make this work.

*

Never underestimate the power of sitcoms. Sitcoms molded my psyche as forcefully as my parents’ guidance. The Brady Bunch, Happy Days, Bonanza, The Partridge Family and even the freakishly disturbing Bewitched taught me that family is everything. You make a mistake? Family gets you out of it.

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The shows’ neat and tidy plotlines helped make sense of the world. Character X screwed up. Characters Y and Z helped her get out of it. Character X learned a valuable lesson. Roll credits.

Even as an only child, I identified with those families. And then everything changed.


The shows’ neat and tidy plotlines helped make sense of the world. Character X screwed up. Characters Y and Z helped her get out of it. Character X learned a valuable lesson. Roll credits.

*

After nearly 25 years of marriage, Mama watched her husband shoulder all of his belongings out the back door. He was stoic, my dad, and didn’t put much stock in talking about why he left or what they could do to save the marriage. That afternoon, when I came home from my summer job, I found Mama lying on the floor, feet propped on the couch, arm draping her wet eyes. When I asked what was up, she told me that my dad had left.

Where’d he go, I wanted to know.

He left me.

*

Only children take on burdens without even knowing we’re taking them on because, when you don’t have siblings, you get used to doing everything yourself. So, not knowing any better, I set out to fix my parents’ marriage. The characters in my sitcoms overcame misunderstandings, crazy capers and high jinks. It couldn’t be that hard, could it?

I tried calling him at work, left messages, but he wouldn’t call back. In the evenings, after nearly wordless dinners, I would drive all over town looking for his car; cruising two-lane country roads, past cornfields punctuated by an occasional restaurant or bar or subdivision. At that time, our small Michigan town was morphing from farm community to suburb and, since there weren’t many places to hide, I fully believed that he could be found.


Only children take on burdens without even knowing we’re taking them on because, when you don’t have siblings, you get used to doing everything yourself. So, not knowing any better, I set out to fix my parents’ marriage.
I hadn’t considered that he might not want to be. I hadn’t considered that he’d found someone else. Even after school specials, with their daring plotline forays into the death of a family pet or young love hadn’t allowed their writers to imagine a parent simply leaving and not looking back.

*

All this happened in 1981, right after I graduated from high school. At that time, in my extended family, we knew one divorced person and she’d left her husband because he was a drunk. That’s it. One. Mama had seven brothers and sisters and dad had 11. Single parents in shows were always widowed; I didn’t even know anyone in our neighborhood or at school whose parents were divorced.

This was uncharted and terrifying territory for my mother and she simply didn’t know how to react. The shock of my father leaving launched her into a deep and impenetrable sadness. At the time, I didn’t know about depression. I’d really never even considered her a person apart from being a parent. This fact strikes me as odd, so many years later and with kids of my own. But it was true. Her family life defined her.

Every Sunday, her brothers and sisters gathered to make koosa, kibbeh, rolled grape leaves, cabbage rolls—the Lebanese fare of their parents—and eat and talk. Mama’s sisters were also her best friends and, during those family dinners, with the adults in the dining room and us kids exiled to the kitchen, when their voices hushed, I would instinctively know they were discussing my dad.

He’ll come back, Sadie, don’t worry, they assured her.

But he never did.

*
A few weeks before I left for a college near Chicago, Mama and I stopped at the drive-up A & W to order hotdogs and root beers. A blistering Michigan summer had finally cooled to make way for fall’s big show.

Mama sipped her root beer, “You excited about college?”

“I guess.” I’d considered postponing college but hadn’t told her. By this time, I’d shed the family sitcom model and fancied myself a young Mary Richards. After all, Mary Tyler Moore’s character broke sitcom stereotypes. Moore’s character supported herself as a television producer; an independent career woman when most female characters were wives, mothers or seeking a man to support them (and don’t even get me started on those jaunty outfits). And, yet, I couldn’t resolve leaving Mama for college. What kind of selfish person would leave when her mother could barely get out of bed?

Maybe I should wait. Go next fall.
She knew I’d wanted to get out of that town, to start my life, No. You should go now.

I put up a weak defense.

That’s that. We’re not discussing it.

Looking back, it must have taken everything she had, all of her strength and courage to let me go. She could have awed me with guilt. She could have.

But she didn’t.

*

In my twenties, after I’d moved to Chicago, Mama and I traveled to Europe. One day, while on a train in Italy, we reached our stop and she detrained while I retrieved our bags. No porter or even other travelers could be found on the platform and, looking back, that absence of humanity seems oddly dreamlike.

Before I handed her our last bag, the train started up. I had been carrying everything—our passports, cash and identification—and the next stop would be hours away.

I watched her recede in the distance and suddenly had the paralyzing realization that this was her life: someone was always leaving and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.

The train picked up speed. Contemplating jumping off a moving train is, to say the least, unnerving. But I couldn’t leave her there. Not all alone, without a dime, without knowing the language or a single person for thousands of miles. About twenty yards of platform separated me from abandoning her and, when I finally jumped, I lost my footing and landed hard on the platform. As the train pulled away, she rushed over to check me for broken bones like she used to when I was a little kid.

She wanted to know what I was thinking? Who jumps off a moving train?

I told her that I couldn’t just leave her there.

I would have been okay, she assured me.

After nearly a decade after dad left, I believed her.

*


I watched her recede in the distance and suddenly had the paralyzing realization that this was her life: someone was always leaving and there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.
Mama moved in with us five years ago and she marvels at Chicago springs. Tangled branches, with their budding leaves, flash new-green against the sky. Flowering trees drip pastel blooms. Dandelions sprout in sidewalk cracks.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know she’s ninety-one. She’s mentally very sharp and still lovely with her wash-and-set, grey eyes and smooth Mediterranean skin.

I’m not going to sugar coat this: having her with us is simultaneously wonderful and infuriating. She’s nearly deaf but refuses to wear hearing aids. She’s diabetic but stocks up on candy and cookies and insists it’s for her granddaughters. A degenerative spine disease results in glacially slow walking. Grocery runs take her three to five hours. Walgreens is usually a good three-hour trip. She buys her granddaughters candy and gum and cookies and gives them cash at random times with the instructions, Buy something nice. The girls adore her.

The other day, Mama dropped something and, like a geriatric character in Shameless, let loose a string of obscenities. When she rounded the corner, startled to see her granddaughters in the living room, she toddled by, gripping her walker and, in her sweetest grandmotherly voice said, “God bless you girls.”

*

She joined us for dinner for her 50th Mother’s Day and, as I helped her back to her place, she looked into my face. This would be one of those moments, like the perfect endings in my childhood sitcoms, when she’d tell me how much she loved me, how much she appreciated me and how, as her only child, I’d made her life complete.

Honey, she began.

Yes?

Turmeric tea.

I waited. What about it?

Dr. Oz says it’s good for your memory.

I’ll buy you some when I’m at the store.

Without missing a beat, she added, Not for me. For you.

I helped her up the last step where she stopped before grabbing my hand.

Honey

Yes.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself. There are millions of only children and you don’t hear them complaining.

Who was complaining?

At dinner…you said something about being an only child.

I said there weren’t many only children when I was growing up. That there are more now.

There weren’t many divorcees, either. And you don’t hear me complaining.

It’s true. I hadn’t heard her complaining.

We’ve done just fine. We’re not the only ones.

She was right, of course. She helped rewrite the script. Now we wait to see how it ends.



Christine Rice’s work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Detroit’s Metro Times and Metro Parent, The Good Men Project, and her radio essays have been produced by WBEZ Chicago. She’s a Chicago Now blogger at www.chicagonow.com/what-would-royko-do/ and the managing editor of another flippin’ lit mag called www.Hypertextmag.com. Most recently, her fiction has appeared in CellStories.net and F Magazine. She’s been a cashier, summer-stock theater usher, video writer & producer, ski instructor, corporate communications specialist, journalist, teacher, mother, writer, and editor. She’s damn near done with a novel-in-stories and currently teaches in the Columbia College Chicago Fiction Writing Department where she also edits their award-winning publication Hair Trigger.



2013-05-21