July 4, 1976. Our town parade, when everything waves—beauty queens and politicians sprouting from convertibles washed and dried in the street with soft rags the night before, Betsy Ross flags nodding off porches. Firemen’s kids pelt non-firemen’s kids with hard candy, sirens moan, only this time, nobody’s hurt. Everyone still smokes.
And later, in the simmering summer dark, my mother jams her thumb in the slamming screen door, then weeps over the bathroom sink just before the fireworks are set to go off.
Perhaps the water pouring over her thumb feels like the only kindness in her life that night, with three shaggy kids, a pissy husband, and not enough money, never enough money, jobs coming and going.
Perhaps she’s thinking, I didn’t sign up for this.
I’m five, and I’ve cried—when my mother punishes me for pocketing a pack of Dentyne in the Bradlees, after I drop my milkshake, all those times Billy convinces our parents to snap the hall light off. That’s when my bed is soaked in shadow, and all the shapes I can name in the daylight—doll dresser picture-book—dissolve into mute strangeness, bleak and unrecognizable, these unreliable objects, refusing familiarity.
Some tears are real; some, ginned up. But it’s July 4th, I’m five, and my mother is the kind of person who tangles with Stop & Shop cashiers when they overcharge for paper plates, the mom who can draw us to her soft hips with a single don’t-push-me holler launched from five backyards away.
How has she forgotten herself here at the sink, neglected to remember who she is in the order of things?
Also, does the house smell like hot dogs? Do sparkler sticks lie spent and black on the front steps, do fireflies begin their blinking as bats cut low over the brook? Perhaps my hair smells like chlorine from the community pool, and I’m connecting the dots between mosquito bites starring my shins. I’ll bet you this: We make contact. Billy pinches me, Michael flicks a towel at Billy’s ass, hunts him down for a wedgie.
I’m telling you, I forget so much. But I remember this: What moms do. What kids do. What dads do: Clean. Complain. Earn money. Stay together.
I remember that jammed thumb. The center will not hold, not when it’s sodden with tears. Water smooths, weakens; salt corrodes. And she’s everything—my mom, not my dad—alpha, omega, amen. I know the truth, my instinct slashes right through his black belt in karate, the stories about fishing and hunting and, later, dodging a stray bullet in North Philly, to find my mom, the core, the tiniest nesting doll and the one I’m counting on to straighten up, dry off, and make the whole world spin.
Even now, on this star-spangled night, before I can ride a two-wheeler or lace up my own sneakers, I know everything was better before I was born. She was blonde and thinner, but I made her dark—loosened her belly, leached gold from her hair, kept her home, even if she was the first person in her family to graduate college.
Day after day, I observe and do the math: Motherhood = forced subtraction. She and her sore thumb are at a loss, stationed in the wrong bathroom, the kids’ bathroom, not the blue bathroom where Saturday nights she leans against the vanity, pressing her lips to spread Revlon’s Cherries in the Snow across the field of her mouth, the bathroom where I perch on the toilet seat with the frosted blue bottle of Avon’s Rapture cologne, the scent with the stopper that resembles a tulip, or a flame, sinuous. Rapture—not a word I can use in a sentence, but a word whose implications I understand (lady, high heels, leaving the house)—seven suggestive letters unfurling in gold script across the curvy torso of the bottle.
The blue bottle sits in the blue bathroom in the blue house where everything happens—the new kitten pukes in that corner, the tall mother cries in this one—not for the first time in her life, but the first time in mine, so the first time that matters.
Because the world is small as she spins it, and on July 4, 1976, the world is this stout blue house, four bedrooms, five people inside, and I am five. So, a jammed finger, one that didn’t even break, didn’t even leave a scar, mothered by a stream of cool water, sparks everything tonight.