Working Title: “Ava”
Word count: 2,754
“I know I’m right. Fifty million French men can’t be wrong,” my mother Ava stated as though it were a fact.
I grabbed my three-year-old daughter Lily who was running around the living room with her arms out like an airplane. She wriggled in my grasp when I tried to sit her on my lap. Her curly locks were frizzing, making my nose itch.
“Not the fifty million Frenchmen again,” I retorted. From the time I was a little girl, my mother would try to win any argument with the fictitious French men. I later learned she picked up this phrase from the 1929 musical comedy called, of course, “Fifty Million French Men.”
Ava got up to get a new pack of cigarettes from her purse and walked to the fridge to grab orange juice and vodka so that she could make a Screwdriver.
“That husband of yours is irresponsible, and it’s going to get you into trouble. Why does he have to leave a company that’s paid him good money?” she said.
“Because they weren’t treating him well, and this new business is his passion. Sometimes we have to follow our dreams, Mom.” I stood up so that I was not looking up at her, but I would never be able to look her in the eyes. She’s six feet tall, without heels. “I have to go to the hospital again. Dad won’t be released until tomorrow.”
Ava slammed her drink on the counter. Orange droplets jumped out of the glass. Lily walked towards the freezer pointing her finger and shaking her head, repeating the word “Pocklepee.”
“Can she have a popsicle?” I asked.
“You got to see him last week. This is my week.”
“He had a heart attack, Mom. A minor one, thank goodness, but I want to make sure he’s okay.”
“Why can’t Dana take care of him? She’s his wife now.”
“Please, Mom. Don’t do this.”
She waved her hand and went to her bedroom, slamming the door shut.
Dad had a small room to himself on the fourth floor of the hospital. When I got there he and Dana were both immersed in their reading. When I gently knocked on the door, which was ajar, both their heads popped up. Dana rushed over to give me a hug and then she immediately picked Lily up in her arms.
“You should have told me you were coming.” Dana showered the crown of Lily’s head with kisses, “And it’s wonderful to see my granddaughter.”
“How are you doing, Dad?” I gave him a hug. He grabbed my hand and squeezed it.
“I’m hanging in there. They’re supposed to let me out tomorrow.”
Dana offered to take Lily to the cafeteria to have some Jell-O. As soon as she left, my guard came down. The tension between my parents always manifested in stomach pain. I felt my face tighten.
“Does Ava know you’re here?”
“I don’t want you stressing yourself out over this, sweetheart. It’s not worth your health.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I want to be here with you. I don’t know why she gets into such a rage.”
“Well,” he let out a yawn, “your mother is a character. She’s always been that way, and I don’t expect that she’ll ever change. I think that’s the sad and honest truth.”
“Did you ever worry that I was going to turn out like her?”
“I never thought about it that way. I loved your mother. I still do, but I couldn’t make her happy and that rage of hers was hard to deal with. I’m sorry you got caught in the middle.”
“I just don’t want her to be so angry and negative all the time,” I said softly. My vision blurred as tears welled up in my eyes.
“I know. But you need to take care of yourself too. You have a child who needs you.” He kissed the top of my hand, patting it gently. “By the way you two aren’t staying with her are you?”
“No. We’re staying at the Sheridan.”
“Good. That woman smokes like a fiend. You don’t need Lily breathing that in.”
I gathered my things slowly, reluctant to leave. I didn’t know when I was going to see him again. We lived on opposite sides of the country now and each visit was precious. My father was in his late seventies and his health was always fragile. There was no guarantee that I would ever see him again.
“Give Adam my love,” he said when I reached the door.
“I will. He wishes he could’ve come on this trip, but right now the business needs his full attention.” I turned and waved, trying my best to smile.
A few nights later, just before I was supposed to return to California, Ava asked me to have dinner with her and her friend Milly. Dana and my father, who was home now from hospital, offered to watch Lily for the night. I bought a bouquet of yellow roses for Milly and a bottle of wine for the three of us.
Milly lived in a brownstone in Central Park East. Her late husband had been a lawyer. When he was still alive, my parents used to play Bridge almost every weekend. This was before my parents divorced nearly twenty years ago. After the divorce, Milly chose to forgo her friendship with my father so that she could continue being friends with Ava. My mother was successful in painting my father as the bad guy, the “no good bum.”
My mother was in one of her better moods that night. Her face looked radiant as she told Milly and I stories about her most recent affair with a taxi driver. I sat quietly, nursing the glass of wine I had been sipping for almost two hours. It was so rare for me to see her happy, that I just wanted to appreciate the moment.
“I swear that man can’t follow speed limits to save his life. If the music is fast, he drives fast. If the music is slow, he drives slow.” Ava rested her elbows on her knees, giving us a look like she had a secret to share. “We almost got kicked off our flight to Las Vegas. I had to use the ladies room when they started boarding the plane, so he boarded without me so he could get us seats. Well, when I finally boarded the plane, I saw him, and, without even thinking I said, ‘Hi Jack!’ Everyone on that plane jumped two feet in the air.”
“Speaking of getting kicked out,” Milly began, “Did you know our friend Beth’s son was expelled from his university for getting caught with marijuana. Can you imagine? This brilliant boy, who worked so hard to get into school, is now back living with his parents. It must be hard to be that age now. In my day it was alcohol. The drugs still existed, but you never really heard anything about it. But nowadays these kids have a buffet with all these different, new kinds of drugs at their disposal, not to mention the peer pressure that goes with it.”
My mother glanced in my direction, “Well, you know it started with the flower children. What one generation accepts, the next embraces. But I’ll tell you something, I’ve tried marijuana before – ”
“You have?” Milly and I both exclaimed.
“Jack bought some for us a couple of times. He loved it, and so I gave it a try. It’s all right. But I still don’t know what all the fuss is about.”
“Didn’t you feel something?” Milly asked.
“Maybe a little, but I really didn’t have that much. I still prefer my Luckys.” I noticed the corners of Ava’s mouth raised just slightly. It looked like a coy smile to me.
“Have you ever wanted to try pot, Milly?” I was curious. I could immediately feel Ava’s attention shift towards me.
Milly ran her hands over her legs, as though she were trying to smooth out the wrinkles in her slacks. She seemed to be looking out, but at nothing in particular.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever given it that much thought. But I guess I wouldn’t mind trying it someday.”
Milly saw that my mother was still looking at me. She swiveled in her chair so that she was looking right at my face. “Do you smoke pot?”
I pulled out an old Bayer tin case and displayed the contents.
“Sheryl Margot Lennox!” My mother said, trying to snatch the tin from my hand.
“Wait just a second, Ava. I have questions.” Milly gently persuaded my mother to sit back down, “Do you seriously carry this around with you, Sheryl?”
“I’m not going to take my chances and leave it in the hotel room.”
“But how did you get it on the plane?”
“There are ways,” was all I was going to say.
“Does Lily –“
“So you’ve been keeping this a secret from everyone?”
“I don’t go around advertising this fact about me. I’m almost forty years old. This is who I am, and this is something I enjoy. I don’t think that we should criminalize marijuana.”
No one said a word. My mother pulled out another cigarette. I set the tin down, and sunk into the sofa cushions. I never intended to share this fact about my life, and I’m not even sure why I bothered. Maybe the conversation about pot gave me the false sense of comfort in sharing this secret of mine. Or perhaps I was willing to be ridiculous, if it meant finding something that would make me feel more connected with my mother.
I don’t know who brought it up first (I think it was Milly), but they decided that Milly wanted to “try it.” From the way Milly handled herself, I wondered if she had been completely honest about this being her first time. They both maintained their composure as though they were trying a new wine. I stifled a chuckle watching them. I had never imagined ever experiencing this moment with my mother.
When my mother lit the joint, the usual feeling of tension that I felt in my body when I was around her began to alleviate. She had always been a formidable, intimidating figure whose hostility and negativity had overwhelmed me since I was a child. I had survived my years living with her by turning inward, by creating an internal world where I could escape. Even now, I endured abdominal pain, a manifestation of the stress I internalized. Yet, here she was before me, older and more delicate looking. The way that she sat on the couch, her face softening into a peaceful expression, reminded me of how she could have been. It took me almost thirty years to understand that it wasn’t my father’s or my fault that she was so unhappy and angry. I understood now that we would never have the kind of relationship that most mothers and daughter had and the realization of this often made me feel angry towards her. But now I wanted to share a bond with my mother before it was too late. What if I repeated this history with my own daughter?
“So is this what you learned in college?” My mother said, her voice tinged in sarcasm.
“After college. I dated an artist named Tommy, who liked to smoke before he went into the studio.”
Milly went to her collection of records, pulling one out and putting it on a turntable. I recognized Sammy Davis’ voice immediately. Milly sang, her body swaying to the music. My mother started to giggle.
“That song was playing, the night your father proposed to me at the Supper Club in Atlantic City,” my mother said softly when the music ended.
I awoke the next morning to the sound of cabinet doors slamming. My ears were ringing, a side effect of the alcohol. I got up from the couch in my mother’s living room, carefully stepping over piles of newspapers and knitting supplies so I could get to the kitchen. My body erupted in a hot flash by the time I reached the doorway. She was spilling coffee grounds all over the counter, trying to make a pot of a coffee. The cigarette in her mouth was still unlit. Her face looked drawn. She hadn’t washed her face, and the makeup was smudged beneath her eyes and cheeks.
“When are you bringing Lily over?” she said, not looking at me.
“Our flight leaves in the early afternoon, and I still have to pick her up from Dad’s.”
“That son of a bitch,” she muttered.
“You had her all to yourself last week when he was in the hospital. He hardly got to spend any time with her.” I approached my mother slowly, putting my hand on her shoulder. “Don’t be mad at him. He’s not doing well.”
“Don’t touch me,” she hissed, pulling away. “You’re an unfit mother. I should take Lily away from you.”
“You’re not going to threaten me, Mom. Lily’s my child, and you’re never going to take her away from me.” I gathered my things from the other room. She was still standing in the same place when I returned.
“You know, I didn’t move to California just for the weather. I can’t deal with your rage. It hurts me physically.” I patted my stomach. “I’ve lived in constant fear of your mood swings. You’ve refused to get help, so you left me no choice but to get away from you. I think it would be best if we didn’t talk for a while.”
I stood there, waiting for her to respond, but she didn’t move. I slammed my fist onto the counter.
“Why can’t you just be happy like you were last night? Why do you want to push me away?”
She kept staring at the coffee pot. There was no sign of reconciliation, and I turned to leave, damp from sweat. When I reached the door, her voice echoed through the narrow hallway.
“Go to hell.”
“May I speak to Sheryl Benson?” The female voice had a New York accent.
“This is she.” I set down the stack of bills I was paying, and closed the bedroom door.
“My name is Barbara Stratford. I’m a friend of your mother’s.”
“Did she ask you to call me?”
“Well, no . . .not really. I think you might want to see her. She’s not well, and she’s all by herself, with the exception of me. I’m the only one who comes by anymore.”
“That’s what happens when you push people away,” I said coolly.
“I know she can be a difficult person, but she is your mother.”
“Barbara, I know you want to help, but you can’t possibly understand the situation between my mother and me. Let me ask you a question. Is she still in a rage?”
The silence on the other end lingered, “Barbara?” I asked again.
“She’s not a well woman. I don’t think she can help herself.”
I knew where this was going. It had happened before. Every few years for the past decade I got a call from one of my mother’s few friends trying to persuade me to call her. I felt sorry for Barbara. “I don’t wish her bad, but this isn’t something I can fix. I’ve sent her letters over the years to try to stay in touch with her, but she never responded. She stopped all contact with her granddaughter too, who also sent her cards over the years.”
“She doesn’t have long. Don’t you want to see her before she passes?”
“If she really wants to see me, all she has to do is call me and say that she loves me, or even just sound happy, and I’ll be on the next flight.”
“I understand. I don’t know what’s going to happen to your mother, but I don’t blame you for how you feel. Thank you for letting me talk to you.” Barbara hung up, and I went into the bathroom to blot my eyes with a tissue.
When I walked into the kitchen, Lily was sitting on the counter reading a magazine. College-bound and eager to leave home, she had often talked about going back east for her undergraduate studies. Though I kept my feelings to myself, the thought of her going so far away made me feel desperate to find a way to keep her here.
“Do you remember your Grandmother Ava?” I asked.
Her face, so reminiscent of Ava’s, looked at me with curiosity, “A little. She liked to play Sammy Davis or some kind of music like that. Isn’t she the one who always said ‘Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong?’”
I could feel the tension dissipating in my body. The weight of guilt was just a little less. “You’re right. She sure did. Your Grandmother is quite a character.”
“Do you miss her?”
Lily wrapped her arms around me, like she used to when she was little. Though now she was quite a bit taller than me.
“As long as I have you – that’s all I need.” I said, holding onto her tightly.
Some people don’t feel like they have closure until they say goodbye. A part of me knew that I would never speak to my mother again after that fateful morning in 1978. I had to let her go. It has gotten easier over the years, but I always leave a little room for hope in case those fifty million Frenchmen tell me my mother has changed.