When Mummy started setting up her easel in the kitchen, two rooms away, it was safe for me to move carefully off the couch in the playroom, where I’d been told to settle (and to be quiet), to the doorway. From there, I could see through the dining room into the kitchen and could watch Mummy as she painted.
I called her “Mummy,” but she wasn’t really my mother. My real mother lived far away and I only saw her for one month in the summer and then a week at Christmas or one at Easter. I called her “Mommy” and tried to make the two names sound different. I didn’t want my real mother to think I liked this one even a little bit. But I couldn’t say that out loud or Daddy would yell at me or have Mummy put soap in my mouth. So I said it with the different sounds in those two words.
David and I had eaten our breakfast together. Then David, who Daddy said was now my “new” brother, went off to school. But I had a fever—Daddy had tested my forehead with the back of his hand—and he said I should stay home this morning. Mummy didn’t look happy, but anyway Daddy told me to run to the other room and get on the couch and stay there until he came home at lunchtime.
I was not happy, either, but I was a little happy at the same time. I was not happy partly because I liked school (and I knew that David, who did not like school, would be sad because I was not there) and partly because I didn’t like to be home alone with Mummy. But I was a little happy, because now maybe I would be able to watch her as she did what she did while we were gone each day.
So I stayed quietly on the couch, reading my Misty of Chincoteague book for the umpteenth time. Every time I read it, I saw new things in the drawings. This time I saw the water splash up from the hoofs of the horses as they ran along the beach and the dunes. I knew the water wasn’t really moving, but still, I could see it splashing up. The only drawings of horses or water that were more alive than the ones in that book were the ones Mummy drew.
While I read, Mummy cleaned up the breakfast things. She sometimes hummed when she did that, but this morning she didn’t hum. It seemed to me that the pans and dishes made more noise than usual in the slate sink. I was afraid that, because she was not happy, she wouldn’t want to paint this morning. That would ruin my morning even more than it already was.
After she finished the dishes, I heard her coming into the dining room and buried my face even deeper in my book. She put something away in the dining room cupboard and then, sure enough, came into the playroom. She didn’t stop, and I didn’t look up from my book. But I knew she looked over to check on me and then went on to the front hall and upstairs to make beds and get dressed.
I behaved myself while she was upstairs, reading my book and listening for the sound of her footsteps on the uneven wood floors up there. After a while, I heard some humming, and then her steps came down the stairs, so I held the book up near my face again. She swished through the room, her colorful dress a whirl in the side of my eyes, and I was pretty sure she’d forgotten I was even there.
Now I could hear her setting things up: the easel scraping on the floor and the cupboard doors opening so that she could get her paint cases and brushes out, and then the water flowing into the jar she used to clean the brushes and keep them soft. So finally I felt brave enough to get down from the couch and creep over to the door. I stayed down low, hoping that the dining room table and chairs would hide the part of my face that stuck out.
The light in the kitchen came from the window over the sink, so she always set things up so that she didn’t block it, which meant she was looking away from the sink and a little bit in my direction. But really, she was looking at her painting, so I knew she wouldn’t notice me. I was sad that I couldn’t see her actually put the colors on the canvas. But I had snuck a look at the painting yesterday, when we came home from school. The easel and the painting were always put away up against the wall in the back hallway, and if I was quick I could take one boot off, let it drop, and then reach over and pull the painting away from the wall and sneak a look before I took the other boot off. It was another picture of the rocks in Maine with the water crashing up over them. I loved it right away, because it was so alive, even though there was still a lot of work to do on it.
I sat and watched Mummy paint for a while, but then my back got sore, so I took a break, leaned back against the end of the couch, closed my eyes, and just listened. Because now, when Mummy was actually working on her picture, she wasn’t just humming, she was singing. Her song was flying over and around the easel, out through the dining room, and around me, wrapping me in high notes and trills, bird-songs and waterfalls, such beautiful sounds that all I could do was be still and let them pour into me.
What she sang was opera. I knew this because on weekends she would play operas on the record player in the living room. Sometimes, outdoors, I would try to echo the sounds she made, but I could never come close. That was okay, though: her singing always filled me up with how beautiful it was.
Just like her paintings did. They were all over the walls of our house—except there were none in my bedroom. David had two pencil drawings of horses’ heads hanging in his bedroom, but Mummy was his real mother, so that was okay. You wanted to reach out and pat their soft noses and push the hair out of their huge eyes.
All of a sudden, the squawking noise of the telephone interrupted everything. It was at the other end of the dining room, so I scrunched way back against the couch. I would be safe if she just went to the phone and then back to the kitchen when she hung up. The song she was singing trailed away as she walked over to the window seat and sat down.
“Hello? Oh, Betty, hi. . . . No, I’m still here. . . . Yes, I know, that was the plan. But the brat has a fever or something, so she’s home from school and I’m stuck here babysitting. . . . I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe not till next week. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Was she planning to go somewhere today? No wonder she had been banging pots in the sink this morning. But Daddy took the car this morning, so how she was going to get wherever it was?
“Yes, he was expecting me. I need to call him and tell him it’ll have to be another time. I had a bunch of my paintings all packed up to show him, too. Damn! I don’t know how much longer I can take this. . . . Yes, I know I’m being impatient, but dammit, Betty, I know I’ve got talent, and I’m sure Manning would see it and give me some encouragement. . . . Good question. To be honest, I don’t know what I expect from him. If I could just, oh, I don’t know, apprentice with him or something. . . . Yes, I know he lives in Connecticut and I’m stuck here in West Nowhere, Massachusetts. But if he would just—I don’t know, just tell me he sees something worthwhile in my work, make me feel like someone out there appreciates what I’m doing. . . . Oh, of course, Walter loves what I do, but he’s no art critic. He thinks the way I fold his underwear is art, for heaven’s sake. No, it’s just not enough, Betty. Not by a long shot. I’m getting so discouraged. Sometimes I think. . . . What? Oh, no, no, Betty, I didn’t mean anything by that. . . . No, I do not need you to come over. I’ll be just fine. Really, I will. And thanks for calling. You’ve gotta let me go now, so I can call Manning and tell him I’m not coming. Yes, thanks. . . . Okay, bye now.”
I was frozen where I sat, partly from what she said but also from not knowing what she would do next. But then I heard the sound of crying. Mummy was crying. I had never heard her cry. She had been angry plenty of times, storming around, jerking chairs away from tables, pounding her hands against the walls, throwing things. But never crying. I wanted more than anything to stick my head out far enough to see her, but I couldn’t make myself move.
At least I was safe here. She said she needed to call this Manning person, so maybe when she stopped crying she’d do that. I started to relax a little, but then she got up from the bench and—oh no! she was coming around the table to where I was hiding. No time to move, so I just hunched, trying to be as little as I could. And it worked, because she sailed right by me again, to the front hallway, up the stairs, rushing now, all the way down the hall to the far bedroom, where she slept now in the bed with my father.
He’d be home for lunch soon, I realized; the clock on the piano said 11:15. I suddenly remembered where I was. It would not look good for him—or her—to find me here. So I scrambled back onto the couch. I picked up my book but then thought about it in my best Nancy Drew fashion. It would look better if they found me asleep—or at least pretending to be. I put my Misty book on the floor, pulled the afghan over me, turned my face towards the back of the couch where it couldn’t be seen, and started thinking about things.
The first thing I thought was how unhappy Mummy was. I thought I was the miserable one, not her. I hadn’t ever thought she had anything to be unhappy about. But that took me to my second thought, which was how surprising it was that she didn’t know how beautiful her paintings were. She needed someone named “Manning” to tell her? Why? Anyone with eyes could see how full of life and color and movement her paintings were, even the little sketches that didn’t get finished, on napkins or envelopes left on the back counter of the kitchen, even one in the dust on top of a dresser in the upstairs closet.
And she was really sad, so sad that she had planned to do something about it. I was sad lots of time, wondering why my mother didn’t live here anymore, why she had gone away with my younger brother and sister but had left me here with my father, and then later with my father and Mummy and her son. But I had never really thought about doing anything to fix things. What could I do, after all, a nine-year-old girl who was never left alone? Except after school when I could go down to the horse barns if I came home by five—but I loved going to the horse barns; I would never run away from there, for heaven’s sake!
But Mummy had plans to go somewhere. Today. If I hadn’t stayed home with a fever, she’d already be gone. Maybe she planned to take a taxi to the Greyhound station downtown. Whatever. She was a grownup, so she could do things. And she was going to take a bunch of her paintings to this man named “Manning” (a funny name for a man) and ask if he would take her as an apprentice. Johnny Tremain was an apprentice, learning how to make things out of silver. Is that what Mummy was asking, that this Manning man take her in and teach her how to paint? But she was already better than anyone else, Manning or any other painter I could imagine.
Suddenly, I heard her footsteps upstairs. They sounded louder and heavier, and there was some banging as they came down the steps. I didn’t want to turn around to look, but I couldn’t help myself. There was a last bang as she reached the bottom step, and then I could see that she was carrying the extra big beige suitcase that she had brought with her when she and David first came here three years ago. It made another bang as she put it down close to the front door, and then, before I could turn back so she’d think I was sleeping, she marched into the playroom.
I knew I was in for it. But I was wrong. She stopped, turned back to the closet in the front hallway, and took out her brown wool coat and then her shiny mink coat and threw them both over the suitcase. Then back to the closet, this time for her rubber boots, the ones with the fake heels that made her look taller and more elegant even in bad weather. Those she dropped next to the suitcase.
Then she just stood there. It looked like she was staring straight at me, but she didn’t say anything and I couldn’t tell whether she was trying to burn me up with her ray-gun eyes or didn’t even see me. Suddenly, she came towards me, stopping just in front of where I was lying on the couch. Her eyes were very wet and red, from where she had been crying before. I sat up as she began to speak.
“You can tell your father that now it’s his turn to look after my son. Tell him it’s payback for the years I had to look after you. Tell him not to bother to look for me, because I’m gone. And I won’t be back until I’m good and ready. If I ever am!”
My mouth was hanging open after all those words. I didn’t know if I could even remember them to tell them to my father. She whirled around and stormed out to the kitchen, where I heard her opening cupboards and doors and slamming them shut again.
After a few minutes, she came back, heading again to the front door. This time she was carrying her easel, her boxes of paints, and a big huge package like a giant envelope, tied with a string. I guessed it had some of her paintings in it. So maybe she was going to see that Manning man, after all. She put everything down, and then she turned back towards me.
For a minute, I was scared she would come over and this time maybe wallop me, even though I hadn’t even moved from where I was when she yelled at me before. But she didn’t. She just stood there next to her things. She was a whole room away from me, but it seemed to me her eyes were full of more tears. Or maybe not. Maybe I just thought so because I could feel that my own eyes were filling up.
It was quiet for a few whiles. I could hear the grandfather clock in the front hall ticking. Then there was the sound of a car out front, and a horn honked. For another second or two, neither of us moved. Then, she turned around and started picking up some of her things—and at the same time I raised my hand up and said, “Bye, Mummy.”
But my voice was very soft. I could hardly hear myself so I don’t think she heard me.
When she was gone, it was very quiet. After a long time, I got up and went into the kitchen. I opened the cupboards where she kept her paints and saw that they really were gone. Then I went to the back hallway, and her easel was gone, too. But the painting she had been working on was there. It was facing out now, so I could see that she had done a little more work this morning on the water splashing against the rocks.
But I knew for sure now that it would never be finished. And I would never hear the bird-songs and trills again. It was pretty clear Mummy was going somewhere else to find someone who could tell her what everyone else knew, that she was a wonderful painter. I wished I had been able to tell her how beautiful her paintings were, how wonderful her singing was. I felt the tears start down my cheeks as I thought about the things I would have said to Mummy if I hadn’t always been too afraid.
And then I thought, no, not “Mummy.” Today I would call her “Mommy.” Maybe not tomorrow, but just for today she would be “Mommy.”