Mama’s Stockingsby Cynthia Mitchell
When I was getting ready to go on a date with a boy I didn't much like, I went into my parents' room to borrow a pair of my mother's stockings, size A. Her stockings, removed from their flat Hanes packages and rolled into small balls, sat on the pretty green paper that lined all my mother's dresser drawers. Her stockings took the right side and her fancy jewelry sat on the left. I was tempted to take a pair of Barely Black, but Mama wouldn't let me wear dark hose until I turned sixteen, and that was five months off. She didn't allow me to shave my legs either, but I did without her realizing. When I picked up the Pearl hose, I noticed that the green paper lining the drawer was uneven, and I rummaged around a bit, moving some of the stockings out of the way. The lining was raised an inch or more from the bottom. I locked the door to my parents' bedroom before looking further.
Beneath the green paper, I found letters, scads of them, addressed to Louise, my mother's name, and some to Weezie, a name no one had ever called her. I slid one of the letters, written in scratchy, vaguely familiar script, out from the pile. It was then, when I unfolded the letter, that I found the proof - not proof I'd been looking for, but tangible proof of something I'd known deep in my gut: A man, not my father, was in love with my mother. And, since she saved the letters so carefully and privately, I figured the feeling was mutual.
I'd both known this and not known it for several months. More than once, I'd watched my mother not answer the ringing phone in the kitchen, but instead go racing up the stairs to her bedroom to pick up. I'd followed her up the stairs and had heard, before her door closed, the tender opening in her voice when she said, hello. My mother's excitement as she ran up the stairs so matched my own, when I was hoping that a boy I liked would call, that I'd recognized it.
That in-between state of nearly but not quite knowing suited me. I had boys of my own to contend with, and I didn't mind imagining my mother also swooning as long as her passion remained in some undefined space. Finding the letters changed that, and something that I'd considered to be partly romantic and partly destructive (what would happen to Daddy if it were so? And what would happen to me?) became a fact. It is true that facts are hard, and sometimes it hurts to learn one.
The next day I asked my best friend Molly if she knew anyone who was having an affair. That's the word I used, not knowing what to call love that wasn't marriage or just before it, but was some other mysterious and desirable thing. Right away Molly told me that she'd heard her mother say to someone, Molly wasn't sure whom, that Dr. Duffy was in love with his nurse. What a far cry from the response I was expecting. Dr. Duffy was my doctor and Molly's doctor, too. He had thick eyebrows that Molly and I had made fun of when we were younger. With Carol-Ann? His nurse, Carol-Ann, was married and she had twin girls just six years old. She'd asked me to babysit more than once, and now I could say for sure I was glad I'd never agreed to sit for her. This was more than confusing. Especially because the letters hidden in my mother's drawer were from the same man, Everett Duffy. Dr. Duffy's wife had died before I was born, and the ladies in town gossiped about him, though the only woman he escorted anywhere was his sister. I decided not to tell Molly about the letters and I let her go on about Carol-Ann's blond twins and what did Carol-Ann think she was doing, she had a good-looking husband already. I guess by not telling Molly, I was protecting Mama. In retrospect, this was a mistake, because without my intending it, our friendship changed. It was only later that I was angry at myself. The result of my snooping was a secret of my own that I kept from Molly and from my father.
When I saw Dr. Duffy's name at the bottom of the first letter I opened, I wasn't fully surprised. I swear my mother said that name nearly every day in some context or another. Often at dinner, she would say to my father, I ran into Everett Duffy at the supermarket and …. When I saw the wealth of letters, I felt a gigantic, Ah ha. An enormous Yes, I knew it. I hadn't been a silly girl who made up romantic stories. I'd been alert and sophisticated. I spent a lot of time wondering whether Daddy knew what I knew. I searched his face for distress or sadness, but most of the distress seemed to be mine.
It was a disturbing and mixed thing to have my knowledge confirmed. While I'd imagined my mother in the midst of a romance, at the same time, I'd been able to imagine that the signs I'd noticed added up to nothing. That was no longer possible, and that was the year my mother stopped being my mother. I still poured our tea and sat with her at the kitchen table, but now the things she said and the advice she gave me came, not from a mother, but from a woman with a secret. And I couldn't discuss the biggest thing on my mind because it was just that - her secret. I imagined standing in the doorway to the kitchen and asking her while she was slicing peaches. No, not then, because Daddy could come in at any minute. I thought of asking her when she drove me to my music lesson. That way I wouldn't see her eyes when she heard my question. Yet, as often as I thought about it, I wasn't sure exactly what the question was. Do you love Everett Duffy? No, I couldn't bring myself to ask that. It would sound strange and loud and my own words would frighten me. Do you still love Daddy? Maybe that was what I needed to know. Over and over, I practiced ways to ask her, but I never did.
That was the year I thought I was in love with Douglas English. His family moved to Atlanta from New England and he wore faded blue work-shirts with his khakis and had wavy brown hair that reached his chin. The other boys in my school had hair-cuts that made their ears stick out and they wore golf shirts, each with a tiny alligator marking a fickle heart. Douglas English's blunt Northern accent made him mysterious and forbidden. The first time he came over after school, Daddy mistook him for a delivery boy, that's how different he was. He was the first boy to unbutton my blouse, and he did it real slow and he looked at my breasts for quite some time. He hadn't even been drinking. Stone sober, he looked at me, unable to control the smile on his face, and I felt my skin come alive from the inside out. It occurred to me then that the secret parts of people are infinite. Later I fell in love with his boney body fully clothed pressed hard on top of mine. It would be a few years before any other boy would equal that.
Mama knew I liked him and she would let us stay up late in the living room talking until one a.m. when she would come downstairs in her pajamas and robe and tell Douglas English he had to go home because she was worried about what the neighbors would think. I made note of this - my mother with about fifty love letters hidden beneath her silk stockings was worried about the opinion of other people. I was a teenager with a boyfriend and there was nothing wrong with that. My mother, on the other hand, kept her drawer of secret letters at the same time that she mentioned Dr. Duffy nearly every night at dinner, even if it was just to say she saw Everett Duffy out mowing his lawn. That was about when I started to realize most things don't make nearly as much sense as one thinks they would.
It was about that time that Mama got younger, more like me, I guess, is what I mean. She'd always had her hair done every Friday morning, and she applied her make-up carefully so that it looked as if she wore none at all. But, she began to look more and more the way she looked in her wedding pictures, moist and aglow. I concluded love did this, though she may have started using a new face cream. And I suppose, while she got younger, I got older. I thought a lot about her situation which was now mine too, because I kept her secret. Crazy thoughts came to my mind in math class, during band practice, and when Molly and I were hitting tennis balls. Did he send those letters in the mail? Surely not, because the mailman knew our family and he knew Dr. Duffy, and you might not think it, but Atlanta can be a small town. Maybe the mailman told people Mama had an illness that required constant instructions from her doctor. Usually the mail came in the morning when I was at school and Daddy was at work. On Saturdays Daddy played golf, but I was often at home. I noticed Mama listened for the mail to clear the door slot, and she would go to get it right away. She no longer said to me, See if the mail's come, will you please? She went herself.
I began to worry for my mother's heart. I thought how hurt she would be if Everett Duffy were to run off with Carol-Ann or if Mama were to hear that he wrote love letters to other mothers. And I worried for my dad who was living right next to his wife who had a secret life. Sometimes when Daddy needed a partner for a tournament, he invited Everett Duffy to golf with him. I wondered if my mother and Dr. Duffy ever saw each other at the very same time that I knew they did. I hoped he didn't come to our house.
I read only three letters. They were personal and I felt wrong even reading those. The first went on and on about her soft arms and said he couldn't live without her. The next was a short rhyme written on a prescription pad like the one he gave me when I had an ear infection. It had Everett Duffy, MD printed on it. His scratchy writing was hard to decipher, but his name printed there was plain as day. The last one said sappy things about her loose summer dresses.
There I was, learning about desire for the first time, and I thought for sure I was grown up at last. I fell in love with another boy that year, a boy who read philosophy. Because of this, my girlfriends all said I would go somewhere far away for college. I did just that, and I believe I got perspective on that complicated layer of life on which Mama loved Daddy at the same time that she loved Everett Duffy.
Daddy died on the golf course when I was nineteen. I'd loved him thoroughly all my life, and I counted on him even more after my discovery, since I had no idea what Mama might do. I was glad Everett Duffy wasn't playing golf with Daddy on that day because I know he would've tried to save my father, and I'd have always wondered, if Daddy had died then, whether Everett had tried hard enough. The summer after Daddy died, Douglas English moved away. I became loyal to Daddy and stopped dating sexy, mysterious boys and started falling in love with steady, responsible boys, one after another. And Mama and Everett Duffy got married, and even though she hadn't worked a real job since before I was born, Mama became the receptionist in Dr. Duffy's office and Carol-Ann was out of a job.
Once I asked Mama if she trusted Everett and she said, well yes, she did, of course, but then she said no, she didn't, not completely. I wondered if that incomplete piece was what kept her loving him so hard. By now Everett Duffy has been in my life almost as long as Daddy was, if you count the years when he was just my doctor.
Sometimes I ask Mama if she misses Daddy, and I can see in her eyes that she does. Once in a while I want to tell her about reading the letters. I want to tell her she could have found a better hiding place. She told me once, just a few years back, that Daddy would've been pleased to know that she and Everett had married. When I asked what she meant, she said, your daddy knew I had a thing for Everett.