Running Away to Home – Part 2

The preceding is an excerpt from Available As Is: A Midlife Widow’s Search for Love published by She Writes Press. Copyright 2022. Used with permission.

No one ever told me the details of my mother’s death. I remember I heard the words “anemia” and “pneumonia,” but not much else. There was no funeral or memorial service, no counseling or follow-up. Thalia’s death at forty-two seemed a biological embarrassment never to be discussed. Dad didn’t talk about it and I didn’t want to upset him by asking. My mother had gotten sick and vanished. Exactly how it had happened didn’t matter.
The actions inside our house were small and muted—meals were cooked, laundry was done, beds were changed. I got a house key, a daily list of chores written out by my dad, and a stranger in my house: an afternoon babysitter, a disaffected blonde high school senior who started showing up after school and occasionally made out with her boyfriend on our couch until I tattled on her to my dad.
Every night for dinner Dad and I had meatloaf, super lean meat drying out in the oven as it melded with hunks of carrots and celery. The sides bubbled up in the pan and the top was covered in an atomic glop of tomato paste that promised nothing good underneath. It emerged a pallid brown flecked with pink, the crests charred to black bleeding to nuclear red underneath. A murder of ingredients. I didn’t know where this recipe came from, only that it was the only thing my dad knew how to cook.
“Not meatloaf again!” I wanted to scream, but I knew I couldn’t. My dad was doing the best he could. Before Mom died, his time alone with me was limited to Saturday afternoons at the museum or the planetarium, so he didn’t know what to do. Kids were supposed to eat nutritious meals and he was providing one. I wondered what he would have chosen to eat if he were by himself. What would a man want to eat after his wife just died? Probably nothing. He would have come home from work and had a gin and tonic plus a few crackers or nuts. That meatloaf was for me.
When Dad cut into the loaf, the steam rose up, the brown smell of defeat, of too little fat embarrassed by its own presence. He augmented it with broccoli and an anemic salad of iceberg lettuce with a few pallid tomatoes. The house had turned gray, a fuzziness overlaying the bright blue kitchen cabinets and counters chosen by my mother, her awful white vinyl recliners with the chrome trim, and her fake fur white pillows that felt like fiberglass, all of it the height of 1970s suburbia pretending it lived in New York.

I wondered why we couldn’t we get a live-in housekeeper like the families with dead mothers got on Family Affair or The Courtship of Eddie’s Father. She could have done my chores and made us dinner so we didn’t have to eat meatloaf every night. She could have asked about my day when I got home from school and brought me milk and homemade chocolate chip cookies. Everyone knew a sad kid was supposed to be taken care of, not greeted with a list of chores. Dad should at least have told me how great I was doing, but I was pretty sure he thought only in equations.

We did have a cleaning lady who came every other week. Dad gave her some of Mom’s old clothes, and one day she arrived wearing my mom’s pantsuit—polyester, salmon-colored slacks with a matching Pucci-print tunic. I’d last seen my mother wear that outfit to host a bridge game, when I’d helped her put out little pastel-covered mints that tasted as lackluster as they looked. I wanted to tell the cleaning lady that those clothes were too nice to wear for cleaning the house. Mom only wore them when company came over, even if they were super ugly.
But Mom had taught me I needed to be super polite to the cleaning lady so she didn’t think I was treating her like a servant. So I hid in my bedroom, not wanting to see my mom’s clothes stretched out on a different body. Didn’t the cleaning lady understand that she was wearing clothes that belonged to someone else? Someone who was alive just a few weeks ago? Someone who was my mother?
I was mad at Mom for wearing ugly salmon slacks and spending all that time worrying about her hair and not trying hard enough to stay alive. She always had to nag me to clean up my room, to do the few chores I did have. Maybe I made her more tired by being so unhelpful. So tired that she got sick and died.
I wanted endless sick days watching old movies with cups of hot chocolate and the cat on my lap. I wished I could have told Dad, and my fifth-grade teacher and the mean school principal who yelled at me for running in the hallway, that my mom had just died and it was a big deal and everyone needed to be nicer to me.
But I never spoke up. I had learned from my dad we did not appear weak. We handled everything on our own, from mealy brown meatloaf to blood-red sorrow.

Debbie Weiss

Debbie Weiss is a former attorney who earned her MFA in creative nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California in 2020. She turned to writing after George, her husband and partner of more than three decades, died of cancer in April 2013, and she found herself living alone for the first time in her life. Weiss’s essays have been published in The New York Times’s “Modern Love” column, HuffPost, Woman’s Day and Reader’s Digest, among other publications. She lives in Benicia, CA. Explore more from Debbie at her website:

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