The Bench

     The bench was a surprise, an afterlife construct that stood at the crossroads of the path that I had walked down. All around me was an impenetrable mist. But I was not afraid. Birdsong filled the air, and I heard joyous barking in the distance. No one else was sitting on the bench. My heart felt sick, my body ached. I sat down, and waited for a while, curious to see what would happen next.

     My mother came down the path a few moments later. She, too, had died, some twenty years ago. She still wore the scowl she always had, but I was no longer intimidated by her judgment. I had healed, from her, from my father. She sat down and said nothing. I said, "I'm surprised you sat down next to me."

     "Why?" She seemed to be puzzled. "This bench is important. I was sent here. I cannot move on until I have a conversation with you. Why are you are so important in my life? I cannot fathom. Now, here you are, in your death, holding me up yet again. What do you want?"

     I shrugged. If this was the afterlife, I could handle it. This bench was nice. With my newfound confidence, my studied calmness, I could almost relax, next to my mother. But I had learned the hard way that she was sly, and manipulative, and she thought nothing of the devastation she had created in my life. "I'm just as surprised," I said. "You're not usually known for wanting to talk to me. You're usually all about, 'this is what I think,' or 'this is how it is.'"

     My mother smiled wryly. "Was I really so bad?"

     "You liked to damaged me. You liked to humiliate me, in public. Do you remember the time, in the library, when you loudly announced that I was such a little baby, that I didn't know anything about the birds and the bees."

     "You didn't," she sniffed.

     "And you never taught me," I answered, remembering.

     "I did ....not," her voice fell. She stared at me, panic stricken. "Well, maybe I didn't. You don't talk about those things."

     "We were alone, until you decided to make it an issue. It wasn't necessary."

     She said nothing, but frowned. I was compelled to say something more. This sudden truthfulness was intriguing. "Once," I continued, "You asked me why I never came to you for advice."

     "And you never did."

     "Yeah, I did. And I really needed you, right then. I needed your help, but you were reading a book and you pointedly ignored me."

     "Sorry," she sniffed. "You could have said something. You know, I'm not a mind reader."

     "I did. You ignored me. You were much more interested in that book--Agatha Christie, was it? I think you read that book a dozen times."

     She thought about this a moment. "I did." She sighed. "Damn," she said. "And yes, I did pointedly ignore you."

     That was a surprise. "Wow," I said, impressed. "Truth."


     "So, you actually admitted it." A stream of memories flowed through my mind, individual incidences, lies, and manipulations. All of her drama, always at my expense.

     "So?" She scowled. "This bench is placed here for a reason. It's a place for review, to reflect on how you lived your life, and think about your next life. That path before us? Go one way, and you move on. Go another way, and you return back to the way you were. There is nothing more on this bench but truth." Softly, she said, "And I have been told to be here."

     "Karma," I concluded.

     "Don't get excited."

     "But you're here," I noted.

     "I had to be. You had some business. I couldn't move on to my next life until you showed up. So, here I am."

     "And that's it?" I asked, a little disappointed. "You have to sit next to me and talk to me because you want to move on? Am I in your way? Tell me, mother, why did you even bother to have me, if you didn't want me around?"

     "Circumstance," she answered.

     "What circumstance?" I asked.

     "I had to distract your father. Your brother...."

     "Mr. Golden Boy? He died last year. Didn't you meet him on this bench?"

     My mother bit her lip. She said, "I had to convince your father that your brother was h-his."

     "Oh," I said, smiling.

     "'Oh?' What does that mean?"

     "We got an ancestry kit," I explained. "We found out he was illegitimate." I grunted. "You know, you used to look down on women who had a so-called accident, yet, there you were, knocked up by some other guy."

     "Your father had affairs as well," she sniffed.

     "I'm sure he did. He probably couldn't wait to get away from you, your criticism, your snarky responses, your insatiable neediness. It took its toll on me, on my brother....Well, Dad could just stay away. Did you see him here, on this bench?"

     My mother bit her lip. She shook her head.


     For the first time, I could see that all of the lies, the judgment, the narcissistic bullshit, was finally coming back to her. My mood eased. I liked this bench. If it meant that my mother would change her ways in her next life time, well, I was all for it.

     "You know," she said, after a moment, "I wasn't born this way."

     "What do you mean?" I asked.

     "I was raised this way. For all the bullshit I dished out at you, well, my own mother did the same to me."

     "Nana?" I asked in surprise.

     "Yes." She said, "She loved having you grand kids. She particularly wanted you. She always wanted to be able to read to you and teach you how to bake and crochet. I never learned. She never had time for me. She was always busy." Her voice trailed off. She frowned as a thought came to her head. "Always too busy, taking care of my father, doing all the cooking, the cleaning, plus she worked overtime in a factory." She nodded, as if understanding. "Yes, she did."

     "So, then, you learned to be, what, tired? Impatient? Demanding? What?"

     My mother sighed. "I learned to do what I had to do, my whole life. I learned to take care of just myself, to put myself always, always, first and foremost. If you came out on the wrong side of that, so be it. What's done is done."

     "No," I shook my head. "Maybe that's what you thought you had to do, but I vowed that that cycle would end with me."

     "Wait a minute! There!" she pointed in the air as if she could see me. "You were--you were--eight?"

     "Young, huh?" I said, digging into her a little bit.

     "But you still did what you needed to. You still looked out only for yourself."

     "Well, sure. Nobody else what going to," I admitted.

     "And you knew that even at eight," she said. She shook her head. "I can see all that, all the times I picked at you. I believed all your brother's lies, when he tried to blame you for all his shenanigans. I can see how profoundly depressed you got, how the school wanted to send you into counseling. We wouldn't do it. No. We wouldn't put money into helping just a mere girl to get better."

     "Just a girl, Mother. That's how you always put it."

     She nodded and sighed. "Yes. Just. And only. That was your father. I had to go along with that. He'd threaten--all sorts of things. But," she continued, "When he died, he never sat on this bench. Now I have that on good authority. I don't know where he went to, after he died. I hope he's found some happiness."

     "And you, Mom? What about your happiness?"

     She shook her head. "We are given what we are given," she said. "That's how it goes."

     "No, it isn't," I said. "I may have grown into some of your narcissistic tendencies, but I learned to control them. I got the counseling I needed after all."

     "But you were still alone," my mother noted.

     "Yes, I was, and no, I wasn't. I am stronger, and far more complete that I ever was as a child. I will never go back that way."

     My mother nodded. I sat in silence. For once, I wished that we could stay here forever. But Mom looked around, suddenly restless. "Well, I've done my time. I want to move on."

     "Why? We were doing so well. Do you have to go?"

     "No, but I want to enter my next family."

     "Do you know anything about them?"

     "No," my mother said. "I will take what I get."

     "But you could maybe find some happiness. Maybe you could choose your next family. Maybe they will be wealthier, or more generous, or maybe they will truly love you. Wouldn't you want that?"

     "I will get what I get. I'm not going to wait for some pie in the sky."

     "Why not?" I asked, ever the optimist.

     She waved me off. She rose and started down the path she came from. She paused. "You know, you could come with me. We might become sisters, maybe even twins. At least we could live in the same generation. What do you say? Come with me?"

     I thought about it, but I remembered my eight-year-old self, declaring to myself that it ends with me. "I'm good," I said. "Good luck to you. I hope it works out. But I think I'm going to stay here for a while. I think I want to explore the truth of my life. I want to remember things, absorb things. I want to think about what comes next." I smiled. "You go on," I said to my mother. "I hope you find a good life, next round."

     My mother cocked her eyebrow. I could feel her judgment waft over me. She did not approve. "Suit yourself," she said in disgust. She turned away, and went back down the path she came from, into the mist, and out of sight.

     And I? I sat on the bench at the crossroads of my soul.

     It has made all the difference.    

June 06, 2024 16:25

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