This essay was originally printed in the Iowa Review.
She liked to walk in the neighborhood on summer evenings, and would get me to join her by saying, “Let’s go look in people’s windows.”
Linda Lee Gosney Brown was born on Oct. 6, 1938; she died on April 8, 1989, when she was 50 and I was 28 and my brother was 23, between the time she called for my father and the time he made it from his recliner to the bedroom, her mitral valve blown out like a flat tire at high speed, gone in a heartbeat.
Nine months and five days after her wedding, she gave birth to me.
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One time when I was sunbathing on the deck and felt something poking me in the hip, I opened my eyes and there she was with a spatula, deadpanning, “It’s time to turn you over.”
Once when I was a teen sleeping a Saturday away, she lured me with a cheerful call from the kitchen: “The Red Cross was here, and they brought doughnuts.”
One morning I took two pretzel sticks from a bowl of them on the kitchen counter, looked in the bathroom mirror to arrange them like vampire fangs, headed back toward the kitchen with my hands in a scary vampire pose, and met her coming around the corner, her hands in a scary vampire pose, pretzel fangs stuck under her lip.
One Halloween when I was sick, she trick-or-treated for me; another Halloween she dressed up to answer the door and silently handed out candy enshrouded in my red Sears ribcord bedspread and a cheap devil mask; and throughout the year, she would use my brother’s astronaut mask, which had a pane of transparent plastic over the eyes, when she was cutting onions.
She had cut from a magazine a particularly startling photo of Richard Avedon—cropped so only half his face, only one raptor eye, was showing—and for a while we took turns hiding it for each other to find, until she found an unbeatable place that made me yelp when I found it: under the toilet lid.
She let me read at the dinner table.
She was only slightly exasperated with me the time I got gum stuck in my hair because I had tried storing a chewed piece behind my ear like Violet Beauregarde did in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
She dealt gently with me when I called my fifth-grade classmate Midge a bitch.
She dealt gently with me when I yelled variations on the F-word in the basement with all the fury and frustration I had ever hurled into a single word, not realizing the sound would travel through the ductwork; rather than punishing me—the mortification of having been heard by my grandmother was enough—she wanted to learn what had me so angry.
That time in kindergarten when I was trying to play British with Craig Robson and meant to say, “Pip, pip, old chap,” but said, “Tit, tit,” instead, and Craig was worldly enough to know those words and turned me in, she was fascinated to know how I knew British people said that.
For a while she and Craig Robson’s mom, Barbara, (neither of whom was fat) and some of the other neighborhood moms rode together to weekly Weight Watchers meetings, and then to lunch.
There was a time when my strongest yearning toward heaven was the hope of seeing my mother again.
At the visitation the night before her funeral, I felt helpless dismay and betrayal when I saw a gaggle of church women in the corner, listening to the one who five minutes earlier had asked me what happened, and whose seeming concern for me now looked like gossip-gathering; and I wanted to choke the insurance salesman church member who had done several unethical things to try to get my parents’ business and who kept standing there in his plaid sport coat talking, holding up the line of people who wanted to speak to us, unable to see how uncomfortable he was making my father; and I wanted to smite the stranger (who I recently learned was no stranger but my father’s Uncle Frank) who thought he was paying a compliment when he called my mother’s body a beautiful corpse; and I was already weary of church people fishing for more when they said they’d heard I was in D.C. when she died—was I there on business?—and telling them I was visiting a friend, which was true, although I had also gone for a pro-choice march that weekend, a march that took place while I made the stunned, disbelieving, desperate drive home; so it was a balm and a benediction and a heart-healing kindness when Barbara Robson (who had also gone with Mom and some other moms to NOW meetings for a brief season in the 1970s) simply said, “So, you were in Washington,” and I simply said yes, and she smiled and said, “I’m glad you were there.”
There was a time when my strongest yearning toward heaven was the hope of seeing my mother again.
Hers is the most worn modern Bible I have ever seen, but outside of church I seldom witnessed her reading it.
I never heard her pray.
When I was 11, after the family had stopped going to church, she started sending me to church camp each summer, and it’s been within the last five years that it finally dawned on me that the flicker of something on her face the year I greeted her and Dad at the end of the week with the news “I got baptized!” might have been disappointment that she didn’t get to witness a watershed she probably had prayed for.
She sang to me when I couldn’t sleep: “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” and something by Peter, Paul and Mary, and “My Grandfather’s Clock,” which I would request even though, or perhaps because, it made me cry.
She sang “Hey, babe, wanna boogie?” because she liked John Hartford, whom we had seen in concert at Wheeling College, and because, I think, she knew the gravity-defying magical realism of the line “We could boogie on the ceiling if you think you might be able” (a line she might have made up) thrilled me.
She kept a radio in the kitchen and listened to the top 40 while she washed dishes, and whenever Michael Martin Murphey’s “Wildfire” came on, she would pretend she didn’t notice, until the chorus’s melisma of “Wi-i-i-i-i-ild-fi-ire,” which she sang loud and off-key just to annoy me.
She didn’t interfere the time Dad beat the breath out of me for something I didn’t do.
She didn’t spank me ever again after the day she broke a wooden spoon across my backside, the handle still in her hand, the jagged bowl skittering across the linoleum with a cold sound that frightened us both.
The way she expressed anger was not to express it.
When she decided it was time for me to know about sex, she gave me a book for Christmas, The Wonderful Story of How You Were Born.
When she drank—at social events, maybe once a year—she asked for a gin and tonic; at home her drink of indulgence was Pepsi in her tall mug with a peacock on it, tilted, two ice cubes, the pop poured slowly down the inside.
When she was a bank teller, she was moved up to the second window, the one that got the most traffic.
She built a library of quilting fabric and organized it by hue and tint; she had made several quilts as gifts and was finally working on one for herself.
She loved the ocean, and I think the most joyous I ever saw her was the morning the two of us rented bicycles and explored Rehoboth Beach on what would turn out to be her last summer vacation; and if there is one thing in my life I could go back and do over again, it would be—how to say it? how to lay down this beachstone of regret I’ve carried for 22 years?—to not have preferred biking alone the next morning.
My brother’s grail quest is to bake an apple pie like Mom’s.
She loved going to weekend matinees with the two of us, and she so prized theater naps that after the first time, we were always instructed not to wake her if she fell asleep, which is why she sat through The Empire Strikes Back without ever seeing Yoda.
She liked to stay and watch the credits.
She loved well-made, handcrafted things and warmed her home with pottery, hand-loomed rugs, a Shaker box, all bought at one or another of the arts-and-crafts festivals we went to each year, purchases she often followed by saying, “This will be yours when I kick off.”
She won the Bausch & Lomb science award in high school, as did my brother, who didn’t know Mom had won it until we found hers while cleaning out her dresser after she died.
For a few years, after heavy rain or seasonal winds would leave their debris around our corner lot, she wouldn’t just tidy the sidewalk; she would sweep our edge of the street.
When I was in graduate school and someone at a social event asked my parents about their children, Dad, the parent who thought compliments went to our heads, said I was a professional student; Mom, the encourager, countered, “Frank thinks everyone who went past the eighth grade is a professional student.”
She had learned to drive as a teenager, in a boyfriend’s car, but she had let her license lapse and did not drive, though she did all the navigating on trips, because it made my father nervous to drive in unfamiliar places.
Her two younger brothers had gone to college, and she was finally going to go that fall in a program at Wheeling College designed for life-seasoned students, and when Dad and I went to the mall to get him new shoes for the funeral, we stopped by the salon and canceled the hair appointment she had scheduled so she could have new hair when she picked out glasses at her eye appointment, so she could have a fresh prescription when she took the vision test to get her learner’s permit, so I could teach her how to drive the Dodge she had bought a week before she died, so she wouldn’t have to rely on anyone to get her to school and back, but in which she had never done more than sit in the driver’s seat and imagine where she would go.
In the journal I gave her for what turned out to be her last Christmas, the last entry, three days before she died, is The car’s here. That’s the first step. Got to save some money fast.
In the mid-1970s she was so impressed by a 60 Minutes piece on Bonnie Consolo, a woman damaged by thalidomide who drove, shopped, and cooked with her feet, that she taught herself to pick things up with her feet—in case she ever lost the use of her hands, she said, but her Mona Lisa smile when she practiced this feat hinted that it was more for the novelty and satisfaction of accomplishing something unnecessary and remarkable.
It’s not true that she didn’t like to have her picture taken, though one member of my family often says this, based on the fact that she appears in so few; the truth is she appears in so few because she was usually the one holding the camera.
In our next to last conversation, we quarreled.
She told me sometimes when she was reading—and I think when she said this she was reading Susan Sheehan’s Is There No Place on Earth for Me?, or I might have made that up—she would think, “Maybe this is the kind of book Laura will write someday.”
Among the accounts with her name on them at the bank, there was a recently opened savings account with a balance of $9.
She asked me several times to read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, not quite to the point of persistence, not nagging or begging, but with a quiet unspoken pleading—she loved it, and she wanted to talk about it with someone she knew would love it too; I had read The Last Picture Show, and I knew I would like the writing enough to ride along with the plot (I understood it was not a Louis L’Amour type of Western), but I didn’t, and I’m not sure why; maybe it was just the resistance that even an adult child feels when a parent asks her to do something optional—I could feel her yearning, and maybe that scared or dismayed me in ways I still can’t name, or maybe I thought I had too many other “important” things I wanted to read, this being the years I was in grad school and had developed a bookaholic habit of acquiring them faster than I could ever read them, a habit that is yet uncured, which is sometimes serendipitous, because on one of the four bookshelves in my bedroom, here is her swaybacked copy, which I still haven’t read, but which I’ve already possessed by writing my name in, and when I finally start reading the first page—such a simple, easy thing to do, no resistance at all—oh God, forgive me, I’m hooked by the first sentence and smitten by a half-sentence in the middle of the second paragraph, “Pigs on the porch just made things hotter,” and by the second chapter I understand she probably wanted to talk about the affection the writer bore for these characters, and his attention to their interior lives, which is probably the same reason she begged me to read some Barbara Pym, and now that I’ve passed 50 myself, maybe by reading this book I can put away the security blanket of regrets and wallow no more in the same pond that made child-me ask for a song I knew would make me cry.
At her funeral, when the preacher began his eulogy, he called her by my name.
The turquoise felt-tip pen I gave her with that journal still writes.
This essay was originally printed in the Iowa Review.
My mom is special in a lot of different ways, but here are just a few of them. She always compliments me in my work and my stories. She thinks they are funny, and so do I. She also cooks me a special homemade meal for my birthday. She will always make sure I am healthy and active. And she will read me a book every night and give me hugs and kisses. We make up handshakes and jokes together. She tries to make me laugh when I am sad about something. Like, she sings to be funny, but not a lot. She will try to sing a Britney Spears song in opera - it is so funny. I am usually the one who makes her laugh. She takes naps with me when I am sick. She makes me a sick couch and makes sure that I have everything that I need. I love that! She is always there for when I am sick or hurt. I love it when she "nurses" me back to health because then I feel like her little baby again. We take pictures of each other and talk on the phone a lot when she goes out of town.
My mom is always a special person to me and to others. I think that I should win this essay because everyone should know just what a special mom does for her kids.
- Jaycee Mountain, 9, Deerfield School
Mother: Cori Green
My mom is wonderful. She is kind and generous. She cares for me every day and night (and makes dinner). She is always saying how bright I am. She is really as sweet as honey. My mom is very gentle and careful, and she's organized, too. And oh, how wonderful she is! I really do love her. She's really bright and super pretty. My mom is my hero, and she loves me a lot. Her name is Kaki, and to me it's like saying my favorite color. She's always thinking about the bright side and not the negative side! When I am scared, she always comes and calms me down. Every night my baby brother wakes up, and every night she goes in his room and puts him back to bed, and she is never cranky! (I just don't get it.) She definitely is the greatest mom on earth.
- Maci Movsovitz, 9, Quail Run School
Mother: Kaki Movsovitz
I ran across the article about writing an essay explaining why your mom is special, and I think, man, I don't have a chance, there's too many people going to enter. As you can tell, I finally got up the courage to write it. Everyone is going to say the most obvious things like her cooking, cleaning and how she understands everything. Well, that is great, but what's the difference from their mom and mine? That is simple - my mom is a mom to everyone. She always gives someone a chance. My friends love and confide in her for advice. She's the kind of mother who you can walk downtown with and not be embarrassed. My mother is always getting calls from my friends wanting to know if they can come over and hang out. My mom has taken me to my first concerts, and she's my best friend. We have the kind of relationship that I can say "I love you" and not have her ask, "And what do you want?" I can crank the music up in the car, and she will rock out with me. We hardly ever fight, and we share each other's clothes. Yes, she is beautiful, a great cleaner and an awesome cook, but I know no one can say they have a mom like mine. She is my best friend, mother, adviser, protector, manager, and most of all she is Mary Beth Retke.
- Ashley Morris, 16, Lawrence High School
Mother: Mary Beth Retke
My mom, Kathy Frye, is the greatest mom in the universe because she lets me call people and go to friends' houses.
Some people say they hate their mom because she's too protective. She always has to know were you're at and stuff like that. I like it when my mom does that because it lets me know how much she loves and cares for me, because she does not want anything to happen to me.
My mom always makes us kids clean the house. I like to because it helps her out. I mean she does pay all the bills, and all the extra things I like, but don't need. She doesn't only do that, she also cooks dinner and is a manager at Great Clips.
I can talk to my mom about anything. No matter what it is, if I need advice or have a question, she's always there to answer me. If a kid is bullying me and saying things that aren't true, she tells me I'm pretty, and nobody can take that away.
My mom is special because there's nobody like her. She does things like have a "girls day" for my sister and me. No matter what happens, if we're having a bad day, she will always find a way to have fun.
I would like to thank my mom. Most people's moms don't do all that fun stuff. So that's why I know my mom is the greatest mom and person in the universe.
- Amanda Frye, Perry Lecompton Middle School
Mother: Kathy Frye
My mom is the coolest mom in the world because she works a lot of hours just to make good money so we can eat and go places. But because she works all the time, my sister and I don't see her as much as we'd like. When we do see her, which is usually on the weekends, we have lots of fun; like she likes to ride three-wheelers. She helps with any problems I have at school, or what is nice to wear, and she helps me straighten my hair. My mom is amazing in every way possible. She is always there for my sister and me.
- Mikalia Munoz, Perry Lecompton Middle School
Mother: Vivian Munoz
My mom is the biggest helper in the family. She cooks, cleans and does the laundry. She takes me shopping in downtown Lawrence. My mom is a life saver! If it wasn't for her I wouldn't be here and we wouldn't have our pig Jo-Jo. (She loves pigs).
My mommy also coaches and takes us to our sporting and school events. We lounge in our pool (cattle tank), we go on walks and bathe in the bathtub, read and lay in bed and watch HGTV.
She loves mowing, and she is teaching me how to mow!
My mom works hard at work as a nurse, but when she comes home she still has time for everyone else.
I don't know how she takes care of my dad, brother and me without any complaining. My mom is awesome!
- Kennedy Morey, 9, Tonganoxie Elementary School
Mother: Jan Morey
My mom is a genuine piece of artwork
created by the Almighty One.
She was crafted by His perfect Hands until she was done
Then she was lovingly placed on this earth
to become my wonderful, perfect mother!
- Shelby Holmes, 11, Veritas Christian School
Mother: Ann Holmes
She taught me how to sing, walk and jump. We go on walks by the park. We sing in our basement. We jump on the trampoline.
She shows she loves me by saying it all the time. She kisses me all day long. She hugs me all the time.
She cooks hotdogs for me. She makes me feel better when I'm sick. She takes me to my soccer practice.
We watch birds together. We clean up the house together. We play basketball together. She is a fast runner. She is funny. She thinks all the time. She is very calm. And I am glad she is my mom.
- Jackson Mallory, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Kristen Mallory
Things we do together! We go on walks together as we sing songs. We ride bikes together, bouncing up and down the hill. We like to go to Sonic and get malts.
Things she does for me! She likes to take me to the park. If I need help getting out of a tree, she comes running and helps me! She helps me with my homework when I need help.
Things she taught me! She taught me to skate on the rocky road. She taught me to climb trees, and she taught me to read some.
How she shows she loves me! She reads me a story every night. She gives me gifts not only on a holiday. She loves to give me hugs.
What my mom likes to do! She likes to play volleyball and she likes to play tennis. And she likes to cook.
- Abigail Parsons, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Deanna Parsons
My mom is special because she loves me and we do things together. We like to dance and watch movies. Things she does for me is: She cooks, cleans and buys me stuff I need. She cooks for me when I'm sick. She buys me flashlights and water.
I know she loves me because she shows me and does it. I can describe my mom as smart, funny and swift. She taught me to swim, sing and dance. I love my mom a lot.
- Alexandra Clark, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Christina Clark
She goes to chess tournaments with me so I can get ratings. She takes time off work so she can go to a wedding with me. She taught me how to cook food. She cleans and organizes my room. She helps me figure out how to use toys. She teaches and loves to read. Most of all she plays badminton. She cooks for me when it's dinner time. She buys toys for me. She makes sure I get better when I'm sick.
- Mark Briggs, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Ivy Shane Briggs
Me and mom like to be funny and play together. We like to play cards and board games.
She loves to watch Rachael Ray, and she likes to play tennis, too! And she does a lot for me, but I'm just going to name some. She cooks for me, takes me where I need to go and watches me.
She taught me these things. How to talk, ride a bike, and play games like Scrabble and Sorry.
- Lee Andrews, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Jaime Wagner
My mom taught me some microbiology. I did not know much. But I learned some. One time my brother wanted to see a wild raccoon. Carrie, my mom, told us if an animal had rabies, it could bite you, then they would kill it and see if it had rabies. Carrie told me about when I lived in Virginia and Florida.
Carrie pays for school. So does dad. Carrie buys good food. Carrie is going to get a sweet job.
Carrie always says good night. Carrie helps me in the morning by fixing my hair. Carrie is there at special times. Carrie is really nice. Carrie likes reading about things. Carrie is funny.
Carrie drives me to the club. Sometimes we go to restaurants. Carrie and me go to Dillons. I get gum.
- April Hodges, 7, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Carrie Hodges
Me and my mom watch funny videos together and play Battleship, and we also play tag. She makes dinner and gives me cool presents and drives me to cool places. She taught me how to clean and walk and play soccer. My mom makes me smart and gives me hugs and tucks me in at night. My mom is tall and has brown hair and brown eyes and is quick.
- Kyle Berry, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Casandra Blevins
She plays with me she is not mean to me at all. She plays soccer with me, and that's my favorite sport.
My mom is special, and she's silly, too. She tells good jokes.
She taught me how to speak. Good thing she taught me how to speak or I wouldn't be able to write. Or I wouldn't be able to hear what other people say to me. She also taught me how to swim. Good thing, too, because I'm a good swimmer, and I like to swim. She also taught me how to walk. Good thing, too, because I would not be able to run or play or hike, and I like to do all of those things.
The way she shows she loves me are she reads to me at bedtime and she plays with me. She helps me with my homework. She buys me things, and she buys for my school, and she feeds me when I'm hungry.
- Ray Faith, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Sarah Faith
Did you know my mom likes to cook? And she likes to play with me. Me and my mom like to throw the football or throw the Frisbee. My mom buys me clothes and games. When my mom goes shopping, I get something if I was very good at the store. My mom helped me learn to ride a bike. And she sometimes takes me fishing. When my string gets stuck she tries to get it unstuck. If she can't, she cuts some of the string off. But so far she has got it unstuck.
- Harold Herd, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Jessica Cameron
My mom buys a lot of candy, like lollipops, candy bars and gum. She buys me toys, like Legos and robots.
She hugs me really hard. She kisses me a lot. She lies next to me all the time.
She taught me how to walk. Every time I tried, I fell down. She taught me a lot of things.
We go to the Great Wolf Lodge and go down the water slide. We go to the park and go down the slides. We play all kinds of games like Monopoly.
- Eric King, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Jody King
My mom taught me to cook grilled cheese. We read together at 8:00. My mom is a nice person to me. She helps me with homework. She makes things for me. She plays board games with me. We plant flowers in the garden. We eat at El Mezcal, my mom's favorite.
- Bowen Hudson, 7, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Chrissy Hudson
Me and my mom walk at the park. She gives me the number to call dad. Me and my mom read.
My mom is 39. We play go fish. She is a kind and nice mom. She taught me how to tie my shoes, she makes my bed for me in the morning. We go places. She taught me how to make a paper airplane.
- Dylan Hudson, 7, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Chrissy Hudson
My mom shows me she loves me by paying for school so she lets me learn. She cooks for us. I'm glad. She plays games with us. She does a lot for me. She washes clothes so I have some clothes. She reads so I can sleep good. She vacuums the floor for me so I do not step on anything. She loves to read and she plays games a lot, and we play them together. We go to the park and play. We eat together as a family. We read books. She taught me how to read so I can read fast. We plant a garden so the yard looks pretty.
- Robert Down, 8, Wakarusa Valley School
Mother: Michele Teter
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