Like the interviews you read
about glossy women in glossy magazines, I am documented too. I
wonder if all the details in the world even begin to get to the
bottom of me. My mother’s questions are all wrong, contrived and
pointing, but on good days I answer them anyway. My clipped
responses seem even more insignificant in my mother’s neat
script, documented in the scrapbooks.
I have even timed my mother
working from the family room in 30-minute increments, measured out
by afternoon sitcoms. Each scrapbook page takes her nearly three
hours to finish. Each binder holds 50 pages at least. Twenty books
chronicle the first three years of my life--three hours of my
mother’s life traded to document three minutes of mine.
“I won’t come up while
your friend is here, if you don’t want me to, honey,” my
mother promises. Palpable disappointment weighs down the corners
of her eyes. “But this is a big deal, this is your first friend
over,” she says. Before I begin to feel too guilty, her face
slips into that familiar, wistful smile. First Friend Over,
she repeats, like a line in a poem, or the title to a collection
of short stories. This cadence, too even, balls up in the pit of
my stomach like crumpled paper.
But that afternoon my mother
is good. She greets Jala at the door, her lipstick freshly
applied, her apron ironed and slightly askew. After that, my
mother excuses herself to the kitchen where something in the oven
already smells rich and sweet.
On our way to the staircase,
Jala and I pass the dining room. Jala cranes her neck to look
inside. “What the f is that stuff?” she whispers, “Is
your mom a serial killer or something?” I sink my fingers into
the crook of her arm. I want to pull her upstairs, but instead we
stand frozen in front of my mother’s workspace.
In contrast to the rest of
our house, all the surfaces in the dining room are covered with
materials: rivets and raffia; photo corners and wheat glues;
specialty scissors. Overfilled corkboards, heavy with my image,
line the far wall. A full sized paper cutter, with its jaw swung
open, gawks at us.
I look past everything to
the fat leather binders that hold the finished scrapbook pages.
They tower in tall stacks in front of the bay window, in case of
fire. A timer goes off in the kitchen and Jala flinches from my
“You okay, Carlie?” Jala
asks. Her eyes are still two headlights illuminating the spectacle
of my mother’s workspace.
“I am,” I say as if
waking up from a dream. “But I can’t hang out with you today.”
Leaving, Jala looks
bewildered. I watch her disappear before shutting the front door.
Then I find my mother in the kitchen, staring out a back window.
“My friend, Jala, she had
to leave,” I say to the back of her head.
“Oh. That’s too bad. The
“I mean she had to leave
because of your room.”
“Don’t be silly, dear.”
“Why do you have to have
all that stuff?”
“I don’t know what you’re
talking about, Carlie.” I want to believe her, but something
knowing flashes in her eyes.
“Why is our house so
weird?” I continue, “Why are we so weird?”
Why are you so weird?
I want to say.
My mother’s face looks
empty as a frame.
“Do you want a cookie?”
she finally offers.
I shake my head and run
When I come back down I see
the sad curve of my mother’s back in the dining room. I make a
show of closing kitchen cabinets noisily, but she just sits.
“Mom, you wanna take some
pictures of me in a little bit?” I finally say. Her smile is
weak at first, then, reaching for an instant camera in her purse,
it hastens. I pose for her in front of the front door that is
safely closed to the world now. I laugh high and shrill for my
mother behind the camera, and in turn she grows giddy.
When we are done, she sits
back in her favorite chair and labels the pictures she has just
taken. Carefully she places them in a manila envelope, dates it,
and puts it in her files.
“Could you manage dinner
tonight, Carlie, honey?” she asks “Something frozen, maybe. It’s
just that I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
I look around and see that,
except for her workshop, our house is immaculate. The laundry is
folded; framed photographs on the mantle want for dust. My mother
is a model housekeeper and a fulltime nurse, but her real work is
capturing me. I’ve snooped through her filing cabinets and she
is years behind.