I never understood why my mother wiped down the coffee table with a damp dishrag after every time we ate dinner. Is that filthy of me to not understand? Spills, yes, I understand. By all means, red Kool-Aid rings have no place on the dinner table. Flecks of beef stroganoff Hamburger Helper should be promptly disposed of as soon as this episode of Full House is over. But my mother would wipe down the orange wood of the table regardless of whether it needed it or not. She would sponge up salt kernels or pepper flakes or even nothing at all, so far as I could see, leaving a damp shine over what had once been a large round dining table prior to my father sawing its legs off in the garage to better see the TV over.
Tonight at the kitchen sink I find myself making a mental note to wipe down the coffee table when I am done washing the last of the dishes. The coffee table probably doesn’t need it; I never spilled any salad dressing or left an errant lettuce leaf there, but I would just feel better if I wiped it down. I wonder if I should feel proud that I am finally enough of an adult to clean things even if they do not obviously scream, “Wash me!” I wonder what my mother was doing at my age. Probably dishes.
At my age, twenty-six, my mom had a nine-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son, my sister and brother, not even babies or toddlers but full on semi-independent children. When my mom was my age, I wasn’t born yet, and wouldn’t be for another six years. I wonder what my mom was like at twenty-six. I feel like I have a good idea of her life up to age sixteen, when she got pregnant, and I think I know about how my mom and dad got married a few months before my sister was born, and then my dad joined the Marines. For the next couple of years my mom and sister lived in Kansas City while my dad was stationed in California and then Hawaii. Or maybe it was Hawaii, then California. At some point my mom and sister joined my dad in California and then at some point they all came back to Kansas City. And then when my mom was twenty-one she had my brother, and from that point until eleven years later when I was born is a great mystery to me.
I don’t know if my dad was around when my mom was my age. This might have been one of the many years my dad was an over-the-road truck driver, hauling freight from one end of the country to the other, returning home every couple of weeks before heading out on another run. This might have been the year my brother snuck into the coat closet and ate his entire bag of Halloween candy in one sitting, emerging from the parkas with chocolate-ringed lips, and when my dad came home a week later he gave my brother a spanking because Mom couldn’t bear to do it. Or maybe I’m revising the memories of others, and mom did it herself because my dad wasn’t around to the things dads do, like spank the children.
I don’t know how my mom was at twenty-six outside the lens of my brother and sister’s memories. I wonder what she did after putting them to bed at night, in that strange twilight of a child’s imagination where parents run wild as the kids sleep. Did she fix herself a Jack and Coke, of which she so famously could drink only one before approaching strangers at the bar with a slightly slurred, “Don’t I know you?” Did she fall asleep in her chair watching the ten o’clock news, with her arms crossed over her chest and her mouth falling open, small clicking noises coming from the back of her throat, not quite a snore but not quite a breath? Did she stay up covertly listening to Karma Chameleon on cassette tape while my father was off somewhere driving into the night, clinging to the last vestiges of classic rock with his 8-track collection stashed in milk crates in the cab of his 18-wheeler? She probably stayed up doing dishes.
In the months before I moved away from home, I would occasionally cook dinner for Momma, no quinoa patties or jalapeño basil stir fry like I’d make for myself, but dishes she would like, things she could identify because she raised me on them: Shepherd’s pie, stuffed peppers, vegetable soup. She would compliment my cooking and my chest would expand with pride, though I’m not sure if I can really cook that well or if she was just sad about me leaving. After dinner Momma would help me clean up, and I washed the dishes while she dried them. Sometimes we would talk, other times we were silent, our only soundtrack the cheers and whistles from Dad’s football game floating in from the living room. And it seems only fitting that even in these bittersweet moments of goodbye, the work never ends, and Momma was right there beside me, doing dishes.