“You have to admit, this is grade-A people watching,” Mama says. She is clothed from head to ankle, beach hat firmly secured on her head, shaded by a large umbrella. She cannot tolerate sun.
I can, but I’m under the umbrella with her, reluctant to leave her side. People watching is always better with Mama in earshot.
“That guy over there’s getting a crust on him,” I say, gesturing to a stocky man sprawled on a deck chair. “Brown as a bad baguette.”
Mama eyes his heavy-link necklace and Rolex watch. “East coast. They always fry themselves to death.” She pulls her long-sleeved t-shirt down so it covers her wrists.
“Remember that beach in Spain?” I say. “All those pale women, wearing nothing but jewelry and thongs?”
“Oh, God. What were they? Russian? Bulgarian?” Mama rolls her eyes. “Your poor dad. What a disappointment. He was expecting miles of sand and Spanish beauties, and instead he got those Eastern bloc ladies, with thighs like kielbasas.”
A girl with a thick blond ponytail brings us chilled washcloths and icy glasses of Pinot Grigio. We toast to Tuesday. The wine sluices down our gullets– we feel the chill as it works its way down–and we watch her tanned legs as she walks away.
“Look at that hair,” Mama says wistfully. “In my next life, I’m going to have hair like that.”
I watch the hair bob and sway as she walks, audacious, like the tail of a Palomino pony. “We did get the bummer hair gene,” I say. “Mine’s like duck fuzz.”
“Hey. Careful,” Mama says, pointing to her hat-covered scalp, and we laugh.
“Well, if God’s taking orders, the next time around, I’m having hair like Catherine Zeta-Jones.” I put the cold washcloth behind my neck and press down.
“Agg, why bother?” Mama says, worrying her washcloth around one ear. “She married that wrinkled old goat. Talk about a waste.”
“Good hair is never a waste. Not that we’d know.”
“Eh, it’s all right.” Mama waves her hand dismissively. “We got the skinny butts.”
She’s got a point. We toast: “To skinny butts.”
A fifty-something woman, not blessed with the skinny butt gene, walks past us in a leopard-print bikini. “Now that’s confidence,” I say. “Good for her.”
“You could wear that.”
I look down at my chocolate brown one-piece and matching cover-up. “Um, no. There’s a statute of limitations on bikinis.” I knead the doughy lump just South of my belly button. “An over-forty, two-kid jelly belly need not apply. My bikini days are over.”
Mama pulls a face. “Always the critic. Just wait ten years. You’ll be dying for that body you’re sneering at right now.”
I fuss with my cover-up, move it down to mid-thigh, then feel stupid doing so. “Why do I do that? Why have I always done that? I mean, now? I look at pictures of myself in my twenties, and I was cute. But at the time? Never knew it. Felt like dogmeat. Never appreciated one thing about that body or that face.”
“I think it’s called human nature. Or at least the nature of females.” Mama scans the sea of oiled bodies. “Would you go back?”
“Fuck, no! I was a moron in my twenties. Look who I dated.”
I study the poolside menu. “Do you want a bowl of 30 chilled grapes? Sounds fancy, right? How did they come up with 30, exactly? Do you suppose they experimented? ‘Let’s go with 15…nah, too skimpy…how about 20? Eh, not quite right…how about 30? Brilliant! 30 is the magic number.’ Kinda weird, don’t you think?”
Mama lifts her Pinot Grigio. “I have grapes here, thanks. I’m not hungry. I’m perfect.”
And she is. It is. There’s this crazy ivory fountain nearby that bubbles and spurts like something out of Roman Holiday. The weather’s not too hot and not too cool, and the Pacific breeze licks our heels every so often; we wiggle our toes at the joy of it.
We have books. Juicy ones, and sometimes we share little bits that are especially tempting.
“Hey Mama, listen to this: ‘So when her boss, a doughy dickhead with a 7 handicap and an American flag painted on the tail fin of his Gulfstream, came to Boston to thank me personally, I shook his hand firmly enough to make his man boobs shake.’”*
She laughs. “Jesus.”
“I like it. That’s some sassy dialogue.”
We’re quiet for a while, absorbed in the words of others. Palomino ponytail asks us if we want anything else. Mama declines, but I take another glass of wine, just for thrills.
Mama gazes at the aquamarine stream burbling from the fountain, adjusts her hat, and spies a little girl with springy curls who isn’t sure she wants to brave the water.
“God, look at her.”
She’s got the tender, cherubic layers of fat on her thighs that my girls never had–my scrawny, alien-looking girls, all bone and sinew–and she puts her thumb in her mouth, sucks twice and startles. She removes the thumb immediately, scanning out of the corner of her eye to see if her mother has noticed. We’re smitten.
“She’s delicious. It almost makes me want another.”
“Don’t you dare. I’ll come down and strangle you myself.”
“I know. I’m done. But still. God. Look at her.”
Mama drinks the last sip of Pinot. “Do you think she’ll remember this afternoon? This amazingly beautiful place? She can’t be over two.”
“I don’t know.” Curly girl finally gathers courage, sticks one foot in the water. She squeals, shakes the water off her foot, and her mother laughs. “Memory is so weird. So much of it is fuzzy for me but then there are these bright flashes…these moments that run through that are so clear. Almost like I’m still there.”
Mama turns to me. “Tell me. Growing up. What do you remember?”
I falter, clumsy and rattled by the question. It seems both too personal and too late.
I take off my sunglasses and blink at the daylight, buying time.
“Okay. That Christmas Eve when we drove around looking at Christmas lights–C and I were in our pajamas–and then it got so icy that Daddy couldn’t get the car back up that big hill. And he told you to get in the back of the TravelAll with us, because your weight would add traction?” I laugh. “You reacted with so much outrage…’Oh thanks, Ronald, as if I weigh so much.”
Mama smiles. “Damned if it didn’t work, too. Ack. Your father.”
“That day in seventh grade when you decided I could wear makeup. You took me to that little French boutique store, and that henna-haired lady gave me a makeover. You bought me a handful of those really pricey, quality cosmetics after. Then we went for ice cream. I felt so grown up. And so loved. You didn’t take me to the drugstore–you got me really nice things, like you trusted me with them.”
Suddenly I feel thick in the throat and take a big sip of wine. “Believe me, that rite of passage is getting passed down to my girls when it’s time.
Being snowed in in that small North Dakota house, baking bread. Remember how the kitchen had those saloon-style doors that you walked through to get to it? God, I loved those doors. You always let me make my own little loaf. I was so proud of it when it came out of the oven, like I’d done some amazing thing.”
I look down at my glass and extend it to Mama. “You want some?”
She shakes her head. “Thanks, but I have to be careful. Lately it makes me tired.”
“Ah, you’re the perfect traveling companion,” I say, putting the glass by my side. “More for me.”
“You know, those things you mentioned…those things you remember…they weren’t the big things, were they?” But Mama doesn’t look surprised when she says it.
I am, though, when her point hits mark. I am surprised. Because she’s right. My parents took me to London, Paris. I kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland and walked Hawaiian beaches. I got new cars and an expensive education and diamond earrings in my stocking one Christmas.
And I do remember those things, I do. But the first morsels of memory that pop into focus aren’t those things at all. Instead, it’s pajama-clad ice storms and the cashmere feel of French lipstick and the smell of warm bread, waiting for jam.
I lean into Mama, resting my cheek next to hers. The curly-haired girl stuffs Goldfish crackers into her mouth and her mother says, “Annaleise, slow down. Don’t cram it into your mouth like that.” Brown baguette man rises and gathers his towel, done for the day. The Pacific laps against the rocks and the fountain burbles. And I know that I’ll remember.
*dialogue courtesy of Harlan Coben
Reproduced with permission, © Dana Talusani, originally published at The Kitchen Witch.
Dana Talusani, sometimes known as “The Kitch Witch,” is a former teacher, writer, and personal chef. She is a born storyteller who writes about all things family and food on her scrumptious blog, The Kitchen Witch. Her essays, musings, and recipes may also be found on other fine venues around the web.
Part 8 in a series on mother-daughter relationships.
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