I had a funny feeling. Friday, February 22, 1966 didn’t start out right.
For one thing, this wasn’t the plan. My mom and I had strategized the after-school itinerary before I left for school in the morning. I had a lot on my mind: my eyeliner, for example, hadn’t gone on smoothly. The hem on my mod, mini pleated black-and-grey wool skirt was falling out, and to make matters worse, I was not all that prepared for my oral book report on “Kon Tiki.” So, the plan we had formulated over my morning pop tarts was not, at this moment, so relevant to me. On the other hand, and from my perspective as a high-school freshman, our plan was all that my mother had to think about.
When it was time for her to pick me up from school, the plan was that I would call my mom from the pay phone located on the bare, cement wall outside the gym. She would know that I was ready for a ride home and that would shave minutes off my pre-Friday-night dance preparations. Otherwise, taking the lumbering school bus home, with its too-frequent stops for the disgorgement of students, would be a mind-numbing waste of my time.
I kept my end of the bargain. I called home but no one answered the phone. I pictured it otherwise. My mother would hear the phone ring and choose the closest extension to her. If she were in the kitchen, the obvious choice would be the avocado-colored kitchen wall phone with the stretched out curly-cued cord now dangling close to the floor. But, if she were napping on the couch, she would run to answer the black rotary phone with the fabric-covered cord that sat atop the desk in my father’s den. This was the room that my mother had fashioned in a décor resembling a stage set for “How The West Was Won.” The desk on which the phone rested had faux gouges chiseled into its surface and an uneven perimeter…you know, like a real cowboy might have in his ranch house. My dad never went in there. Our family unit of 3–mom, dad, and me–gathered in the living room. That’s where the TV was.
Instead, it was I who used that phone once I arrived home to find an empty house. I must have jumped the gun when I hung up the pay phone’s receiver with a satisfactory click and decided with 13-year-old’s logic that if my mother didn’t answer the phone she was just not paying attention. It never occurred to me that she probably was on her way to school because the lag time between the end of my school day and her not hearing from me indicated to her that she better just come to the high school. I contrarily decided that no answer equaled no problem; I took a ride with a neighbor’s mom.
It was my mother who used the pay phone from school once she arrived to find her daughter wasn’t there. She called home and I answered.
“Did you see me?” I asked my mother over the phone. “Because I saw you!” I chirped into the receiver. I had seen her in her white Corvair with red interior that, as we sped by in my neighbor’s brown Buick station wagon, made me immensely proud of my mom. She commanded the steering wheel of her sports car behind two-toned, sleek sunglasses. Her striated grey hair twisted into a chic and modern chignon. Even sealed up in that car and whizzing by me, she didn’t look like anyone else’s mom. But, she hadn’t seen me.
“No, honey, I didn’t,” she replied. “But how did you do on the test?” she asked.
“I got a B+!” This was a significant outcome to us both as she too had an investment in the result. She had repeatedly quizzed me from my stack of 3×5 lined index cards long past my bedtime. My mom told me I would do well on the quiz. If she had confidence in me, I would be o.k. She had trust in me and had helped me believe in myself. We were a team.
It was strange to roam around an empty house. In my very early elementary-school years, my mother and father both worked and did so far from our suburban home. There were highways and even a tunnel involved in their long commute. It was best for them, I guess, to have me attend school closer to their offices. But, once my mother was defined by the limitations of her nebulously described “heart disease,” her life…our lives…were recalibrated. For a year, she was told by her doctor to remain in bed. She wasn’t allowed to drive, to travel to places in high altitude, to fly, to iron, to walk up hills unless she did so backwards. Obviously, she refrained from hill climbing entirely. And, most startling was that she, now, was always at home. This I loved. It was novel, reassuring, and felt like the normalcy I had both imagined and craved. My mother grew restless, however, without a purpose—once I left for school. She required naps, and her body craved them. She also found that a cocktail at the stroke of 5:00 p.m. was something cheery to look forward to each day.
The enormous glass clock that hung over the mantle in our living room chimed 4:00 p.m. This was the clock that marked familial events. The big, gaudy timepiece noisily reminded us when it was dinnertime or when Ed Sullivan was on. We never missed an SF Giants baseball game that aired on the radio. I was never late for school; my father left for work at exactly the same time each morning. My mother knew when it was time to take her next pill.
So, I saw, by glancing at the time that now was the hour to indulge myself without repercussions. It was time to watch “Dark Shadows!” It absolutely was the very best afternoon daytime soap ever with its grown-up, twisted plots and sultry characters all of whom hung out in a creepy, Gothic mansion situated on some undisclosed rocky coastline. Usually, my mother and I watched this show together and would laugh at the stilted dialogue and outrageous, but so enviable, costumes. Once my mom got home, she would be so relieved that I could fill her in on the closing episode for the week—always a cliffhanger. Even that detail never escaped our amusement. A cliffhanger from the people who live on the cliffs! She would get such a kick out of that.
I was immediately sucked into the world of my TV show curled up, catlike, at the end of our crimson-colored sofa where the fading sun’s filtered light warmed up the corner. It became my spot and was to the side of where my mother always sat in her brown-and-gold tweed-upholstered club chair with the matching ottoman. The side table to its left had an empty coaster placed there that in an hour would serve as mini throw rug to my mother’s highball glass.
Then, I heard the sirens. They were faint and in the distance but nonetheless I was aware of them. At first, I thought they were coming from the television show, but within seconds I knew they were approaching from the direction of the main road a few blocks away from my house.
I looked up at that living room clock with its ornate glass panels streaked with gold as if its beveled edges and sheer size weren’t decorative enough. It was 4:20 p.m. It was way passed the time it took to get from my high school back home. Where was mom?
I listened again to the oncoming sirens and could sense their direction as they headed from our town’s fire station to the direction of my high school. It took me only another minute to rush to the Ponderosa den’s black desk phone. I called my neighbor and mother’s best friend, Jeanne.
“Jeanne!” I blurted out. “Can you hear those sirens? They are headed toward my mom. She should be here by now. She’s not here. Where is she? We need to go find her!” My hysterics were not getting through to Jeanne. She never interrupted me.
Instead she replied calmly, “Honey, please. Your mom probably stopped by the market or went to get gas. She’ll be right home. I’m in the middle of getting ready for company, but you call me if she isn’t home in 20 minutes.” She hung up the phone.
Twenty minutes? This outrageous reply was making me desperate. I was terrified. I called her back.
I pleaded through my tears, “Jeanne, you have to take me to my mother. You have to! I’ll be right over.” And, I hung up.
I ran out the door but quickly ran back to the house because I had forgotten to turn off the TV, and I needed to grab the bottle of pills that always stood sentry next to her living room chair. I flew through the garden gate, hearing the jangle of the bells which my mother had hung off the gate to better hear people entering the front yard. Across the street and up the steep driveway I ran. Jeanne was already in her car and the motor was running.
“Get in. You know, honey, this is not like what it seems. You’re mother is fine,” her calm voice did nothing to appease me because I was certain, as irrefutably convinced as I had ever been, that my mother was dead. And, so I did not reply to Jeanne. We drove on in silence.
As we turned the corner on the school’s street, the same corner that was the school bus’s first stop after leaving the parking lot, there was her white Corvair—seemingly abandoned. The scene didn’t make sense to me. The familiar car, of course, was a clue. But where was my mom? There too was an assemblage of emergency vehicles. The driver’s door of my mother’s car was open to reveal it’s plush, red interior — the exact same red as the fire engine that blocked the street from traffic. We couldn’t pass through. I heard Jeanne say softly, “Oh my God,” as I threw open her car door and ran toward my mother’s car.
I couldn’t find my mother. I was running faster and I thought that as I approached I would surely see her. We would laugh about this; she would spot me and immediately she would ask if I brought her nitroglycerin pills to relieve her angina, which of course I had thought to bring with me. Instead, the fireman stopped me and said that my mother was inside the ambulance and I could help by telling him what sort of health problem my mother had. He stopped me when I began to list her 11 medicines. Too much information, I guess. I begged him to let me see her. In the kindest way possible, the fireman put his big, comforting hands on my shoulders and looked directly into my eyes. Gee, he was handsome…and so tall!
“The ambulance has to leave immediately to take care of your mother. You won’t be able to see her now. I’m very sorry.”
“Here,” I said to the attentive fireman. “Take her pills. She will need them.”
It wasn’t until we had followed the ambulance about 100 feet that I said to Jeanne, “They didn’t turn the siren on, Jeanne. My mother is dead. I know that. I’ve always known that.”
Jeanne drove me back to her house and in the interim between being with Jeanne and reuniting with my father, I ran through the plot of Friday’s “Dark Shadows” program so I wouldn’t forget to tell my mother everything that happened. She couldn’t really be dead. I alternated between two possible outcomes…the one where my mother lives and the other, the one I feared to be true, where she doesn’t.
Eventually, my father came to Jeanne’s door but he didn’t step inside. I saw his glistening eyes and his loosened necktie. His hair wasn’t combed and looked almost silly as if he had been in a wind tunnel. I knew which outcome had prevailed. He softly made a proclamation of sorts, “Nomi, your mother has died.” I pushed myself into his chest so I could inhale his comforting scent and be absorbed by his commiserating embrace. The man was numb and reflexively folded his arms around me as if he didn’t know where else to place his limp limbs. We were holding each other upright.
As we walked down Jeanne’s steep driveway, we grabbed onto each other like two old ladies needing each other for support. On the street, he reached for my hand. I turned to my father and asked, “Daddy, do you think I should go to the high school dance tonight? Should I call my friends?”
“Probably not this dance–not tonight,” he said. “Your friends will understand,” he added. “You and I need to be together.”
But we weren’t. We each found a crumb or two of comfort in our solitude; he sat in the living room and watched T.V.; I went to my bedroom. As I scrunched myself between my bed sheets without undressing, I wondered if the fireman remembered to give those pills to my mother. If I could have handed them to her myself, I thought, things might have turned out differently.
May I put you on hold?