When little Amanda came into the world kicking and screaming, Susan felt a rush of both love and fear. “Can I do this? What if she doesn’t like me?” she asked the delivery nurse with eager eyes.
“Oh I wouldn’t worry about that yet. Just focus on keeping her alive and getting sleep when you can,” the nurse assured her with a wink.
A few days later Susan emerged from her bedroom and felt sick when she saw herself in the hallway mirror. That baby has destroyed me, she thought as she poked at the dark circles under her eyes and tried to smooth her bird’s nest hair. She had tried to follow the nurse’s advice on sleep but Amanda seemed adamant against it. The baby cried all throughout the night and needed constant attention. Times like these made her question whether she could really do this on her own.
The next morning Susan woke up to a new sound coming from the bassinet. She rolled over and peered into it to find Amanda cooing and waving her tiny arms. Then she giggled. Susan jolted out of bed with a newfound energy and plucked up her daughter. She held her to her chest as tears of joy streamed down her face. Maybe I can do this.
When the time came for Amanda to start kindergarten there were more tears. From both of them. Amanda clung to her mother’s leg at the school’s entrance and pleaded with her to go back to the car. “I want to do arts and crafts with you at home! I don’t need school.” Little tears stained Susan’s dress as her own tears formed in her eyes. She loved how much her daughter enjoyed painting with her and couldn’t wait to see Amanda develop into an artist as well. She imagined them opening a studio together once her daughter became old enough, but quickly shook those thoughts from her mind as she refocused on getting Amanda into that school for her first day.
Amanda grew to enjoy going to school and she seemed to come home with more energy each day. “Mom! Let’s play hide and seek!” Amanda shouted as she returned from her last day of second grade. Susan sighed in exhaustion as she flopped onto the couch. She had just finished a long shift at the diner and needed to put her feet up. Selling her art was never enough to cover the bills so she had worked in restaurants over the years to make ends meet. “I need to rest, but you go have fun with the neighbors. I bet they’ll want to play.” Amanda’s head dropped in defeat as she trudged out the door.
The third grade seemed to change Amanda. She became absorbed into her friendships and lost interest in spending time with her mother. She also became demanding for the details of who her father was and why he wasn’t around. Susan’s chest tightened when she could see the blame in her daughter’s eyes every time they had that fight.
“Hi honey, how was your day?” Susan had the day off from work and anticipated getting in some painting time.
“Fine.” Amanda responded without looking up from the friendship bracelet tied to her wrist.
“How about we clean up the house, then get to some painting? I picked up new canvasses today, and look, I got a new bottle of your favorite color.” She showed her daughter the shiny new bottle of magenta paint.
“That’s not my favorite color anymore.” Amanda rolled her eyes and looked out the front window toward her best friend’s house.
“Ok, I have plenty of other colors to choose from. Can you work on your room while I clean up the kitchen?”
“I don’t feel like cleaning my room and I don’t want to paint anymore either. I’m going to Britni’s house.” She huffed to the door and slammed it behind her.
In middle school Amanda became even more distant and went to her friends’ houses nearly every day after school. She often had dinner with other families even when Susan cooked her favorite meals. “Why don’t you invite friends over here sometimes? They might like it.”
Amanda looked down at her feet, “My friends have better snacks at their houses so why would they want to come over here?”
“What snacks do they have?”
“The good stuff you never let me get like Oreos, ice cream, and lots of soda.”
“Oh, I see. Junk food. Great.”
“See! You’re so negative and judgmental, that’s why my friends don’t come over!” Amanda flipped her long hair over her shoulder and stomped off to her room.
The next day Susan shopped for groceries and noticed a package of Oreos in the snack aisle. She clenched her jaw at the thought of her daughter consuming such crap, but grabbed it anyway. She set it out on the counter when she got home, but Amanda nibbled from it over a few days when Susan wasn’t around and never mentioned it.
The next Saturday morning Susan turned on the radio and started singing along to Joni Mitchell’s “California” as she made pancakes with blueberries, like she did when Amanda was little. She closed her eyes to take in the memories. The scent of fresh fruit and sizzling batter had been her daughter’s weekend alarm clock for those years, and Susan hoped the memory would spark some appreciation.
“Where’d you find music this old?” Amanda jabbed as she slid into a chair at the kitchen table.
“Be nice or you don’t get your pancakes.”
“Okay, fine, it was just a joke,” Amanda’s hands raised to the air in surrender.
Susan arranged the breakfast on the table and sat down with a grin. “Happy Saturday - eat up!” They didn’t find much to talk about, but Susan could feel a spark of reconnection as her daughter devoured her food and cleared the table after they were both finished.
Over the next few years Amanda had lost all interest in art and seemed more fascinated by numbers somehow. Susan felt rejected, but tried to be supportive. When it came time to apply to college Susan realized just how different she and her daughter were. “The University of Texas? And accounting? Are you sure?” she asked, her nose scrunched up in disbelief.
“Yes, mom. It’s a great school and accounting is a good path for me. There will be tons of job opportunities and you know I enjoy numbers more than art. Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Of course it’s fine you want to go into accounting. I’m just surprised. And Texas is so far away. And isn’t it considered the South?”
“Yes, but Austin’s not as bad. It’s supposed to be really fun. Can’t you just be supportive? You know I’ll get loans and work some side jobs to cover the costs.”
“Okay, I support your decision, I’m just trying to wrap my head around it.”
“Well it turns out I have a good chance of getting in so that’s probably where I’ll end up. In case you haven’t noticed, I’m smart and I work hard, so this is a good move for me.”
“Yes, I know you’ll have a good chance of getting your top choice. I’m sorry, I’m just going to miss you.” Susan’s heart sank at the thought of even more distance widening between them.
A week before her high school graduation Amanda burst into the house to tell her mother the news. “I’m going on a trip!” Her face glowed with enthusiasm.
“A trip? Who are you going with?”
“Britni, obviously. We just decided on our destination and we have a full week planned out.”
“Oh wow, are you going across the country?” Susan had a flashback to over twenty years ago when she and her best friend had driven to New York. It was one of the best times of her life and she felt her shoulders shift back as she remembered the freedom she felt at that time. Two girls out on the open road, their whole lives ahead of them. “Did I ever tell you about my trip to New York when I was about your age?”
“Yes, mom. New York is cool, but we’re going a different route to end up in Florida. People can actually swim in the ocean there! We’re looking forward to some serious beach time. And we’ll stop in Austin along the way so I can get a preview of my new home.”
Susan cringed at this but didn’t let her face show the knife in her chest. “That sounds exciting. I wish I had something fun like that to look forward to.”
“Hey, this is my graduation week. Can you just be happy for me?”
“Of course. I am! I’ll help you pack when you’re ready. And you can bring my good camera with you. I want to see lots of photos when you get back.” Susan hugged her daughter from the side as her eyes became misty.
Two years later Susan collected a stack of bills, and felt overwhelmed with trying to get online banking set up for automatic payments. She also needed a spreadsheet to keep track of spending but wasn’t sure where to start with that. She grabbed the phone and nearly tapped on Amanda’s name, but reminded herself her daughter was having fun in college and shouldn’t be bothered with this. She scrolled to another name in her phone, calling a friend from work to help her instead.
In Austin, Amanda walked down the Drag with some classmates looking for food. She noticed a colorful mural covering the side of a restaurant building and recognized some painting techniques her mother had shown her growing up. She reached toward her phone to snap a photo and send it to her mother, but her friend pulled her into the pizza place before she could get to it.
Over the years Amanda flew home to spend some holidays with her mother, but she had settled in Texas and created her own family there. She loved her job managing the accounts for a big company out there and it kept her busy.
Many years later, Amanda was up late catching up on work emails. She switched to another tab on her laptop and noticed that she had only taken a few vacation days from her job over the past two years. She needed a break.
Her ears perked up at the song playing for a commercial on the tv across the room, “Oh, but California… California, I'm coming home…” She looked up to the mantel to see the framed photo of her mother from her gallery’s opening celebration. She beamed with pride and Amanda could still hear her mother’s laughter that evening as she rejoiced in the recognition of her life’s work. Amanda realized it had been a few months since she called her mother and over a year since she visited.
On the following morning Susan found herself packing up her house to move into a retirement home. She sorted her things between “keep,” “storage,” and “donate” piles. Her paintings would be the last thing to figure out. The amount of wall space to display them in her new room broke her heart. Her phone rang as soon as she opened a kitchen cupboard to decide which dishes to keep.
“Mom, pack a suitcase for a week. I’ll give you more details later,” her daughter instructed without preamble.
“What? What do you mean? I don’t get it. And hello, dear. How are you?”
“I’m fine. But just pack a suitcase with plenty of comfortable clothing and shoes. Maybe a bathing suit too.” She hung up, leaving her mother confused on the other end.
Four hours later Amanda’s plane landed and she searched for the car rentals area with excitement. She grabbed the keys and drove the 90 minutes to her mom’s house. When she got there, she knocked on the door rather than using her key. Now’s not the time to give mom a heart attack!
Susan opened the door and her eyes widened in shock. “What are you doing here? Wow, I wasn’t expecting you!”
“I know,” Amanda squealed, “I wanted to surprise you.”
“Well you certainly did.” Susan’s eyes crinkled in a smile.
Amanda rolled her suitcase inside and fell onto the couch.
“Are you staying here? You know I’m moving out in a few days, right?”
“Nope, we’re not staying here. We’re going on a trip.”
“What? Where are we going?” Susan clutched her chest in confused amusement.
“Well I figured it’s a nice time of year to visit New York, and I need a break from work. Plus you’re about to settle into a pretty mundane existence…”
“Hey!” Susan pouted her lips in protest.
“It’s true though! I’m thinking another adventure will do you good while you’re still young and kicking.” Amanda pulled out a large paper map and showed her mother the route she had planned. “We can use the GPS on my phone if we get lost, but I’m guessing it would be fun for you to navigate the old school way with this.”
“Oh! Yes, I can do that. Wow, this is crazy. It reminds me of the time my friend took me along with her over fifty years ago. I was so scared at first, but it ended up being the trip of a lifetime.”
“Exactly,” Amanda gestured to her mother’s bedroom, “now grab your suitcase and let’s get going.”