Mother of Pearl by Sally Bellerose
Mom and Dad sit at the kitchen table arguing over which makes a better grilled sandwich, provolone or cheddar, and whether or not they had relations, that is to say sex, before they were married.
She doesn’t like to hand over the chore of making lunch, but Mom is enjoying the conversation about the premarital relations they did or didn’t have so much that she can’t tear herself away from the table.
I’m hungry. I rummage through the fridge.
“Not until the wedding night.” Mom shakes her head and smiles like she’s both denying and encouraging Dad for the first time. “Your memory is playing tricks on you again.”
I tend to believe Mom if only because she’s maintained a relatively consistent version of the story since I first heard it, which, not coincidently, coincided with the onset of my puberty over forty years ago. I’ve long since stopped being disconcerted by their well established sport of taunt and flirt.
The bit about waiting for the wedding night wore itself out as a cautionary tale decades ago. I lived with my future ex-husband before we married. My sister wore a maternity gown to her wedding. But Mom didn’t hold up her own virtue to chastise us, exactly. Mom’s virginity tale has more to do with pride than virtue. Early on, we kids were made aware that sex is a hard thing to contain. If Mom’s children weren’t able to control ourselves, well, at least we have a mom who was. Pre-marital virginity is one of Mom’s accomplishments, like producing daughters who became nurses and teachers and a son who owns lake and beach front property.
Dad aims his grin, insistent and teasing, at Mom. There is a pillow behind him, under him, and on both sides of him, to keep him supported and upright in the chair. “The Buffalo Club. You couldn’t stop kissing me. It was embarrassing.”
“Never in the Club.” Mom grins back, flirty but resolute. The eighty-year-old skin surrounding her eyes crinkles up a bit more. “After. On the steps. With the porch light on. And you couldn’t stop kissing me. I was barely eighteen. You were twenty-eight.” She states these last two lines as definitive points for her side. She rests her case for the moment and sips her coffee.
Dad is expressionless. His eyes get heavy, like he might doze off, but his hand pops up off his lap and wakes the rest of his body. “What? Are you saying we never kissed at the Club?” He’s missed a beat in the banter but he’s back with his signature smirk. “Taking advantage of an old man whose memory is shot to hell?” Dad makes a show of his disappointment. “We got pictures somewhere.” He looks around the room trying to remember where the pictures might be.
The pictures are a fact. I’ve seen them; Mom and Dad kissing at a corner table. All of their “kids” have heard the story that goes with the picture and could identify the location as the Buffalo Club. The Club is still open and not five miles from this kitchen.
Mom’s eyes narrow in concentration. Her memory, while much better than Dad’s, is not what it used to be. She had forgotten either kissing in the bar or that there was a picture of them kissing in the bar. Either way she’s lost this point to pictorial evidence.
“Kissing a man in a bar.” Dad turns to me. “Imagine that, she was barely eighteen.”
I shake my head mechanically. “Disgraceful.” There’s not much to get excited about in their refrigerator. I’m side tracked from my cheese quest by a piece of dried out corn bread. “How about Swiss? You don’t have Provolone or Cheddar.”
“Swiss?” They grimace in unison. “For grilled cheese?” Mom says. “There’s Provolone in the freezer.”
Dad gives the Provolone a dismissive wave of his hand. “Who eats Provolone for breakfast?” We’re about to have lunch but we’re flexible about the proper naming of things. He frowns. “What was it?” This is the phrase he uses when he’s lost his place in the conversation.
“Kissed.” Mom steers him back. “Never the other, not before we were married. We kissed and necked a little. It was a different world and I wasn’t that kind of girl.”
“That was a long war,” Dad says. I take him to mean World War Two not the battle to get Mom to do “the other” before they were married.
“There are only a couple slices of bread left,” I say.
“Freezer,” Mom says, mildly irritated by my inability to comprehend that what’s not in the fridge is in the freezer.
“Pete Rowstowski let me borrow his car.” Dad nods with satisfaction at having remembered this.
“Back from the Philippines. No job yet. Keeping a young girl up half the night. And I had to go back to the factory the next morning, didn’t I? But what did you care?” Mom crosses her arms over her chest, daring him to disagree.
Dad leans back with his eyes closed the better to enjoy her indignation. “You were a cute little thing. Made me forget that war. Better than a sleeping pill.” He pulls his head back and purses his lips like he’s refusing some bitter medicine. “Why can’t I remember what I want to and forget that damn war? All the pills I take now.”
“Pete Rowstowski let you borrow his car,” Mom prompts.
“Big green car. Big back seat. Always hay or something all over that back seat.”
© 2005-2008 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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