Short Story Competition – First Place: Memories of Ma

We don’t like talking about mother.

People never bring her up around here. They don’t even whisper about her or what she did, and we don’t like to think about it neither. But that’s mother, not Ma. No one knew Ma like us. But you seem nice, we think, and you’ll be our first guest in years. It’s been a bit rough lately. We found out a few weeks back that sis died. We hadn’t heard from her in a long time, but it was still sad for us. But enough with the blues, come in, come in. It’s Ma you want to hear about.

It’s funny. After it all happened, there were dozens of reporters like you flocking around here. What was she like? They screamed. Tell us! Was your mother always so violent? Did she ever harm you too? This last question bugged us the most, ‘cause if people knew the truth, they’d know that our recollection of Ma, then and now, is not a painful one.

We don’t remember much from the earliest days, though who really does? We have various images and blurs from when we were little, fading in and out of perception. Our father’s hush, sis’s girlish squeal, Ma’s bright young smile. But what we can both agree on is this: our Ma’s eyes were always tired, even in the beginning. Deep lines beneath them, dark. No glimmer. But at that age we didn’t care to notice; they were the sparkling diamonds of the universe.

Back then, Ma was always caring to us and sis. We both have a memory of a day when she brought us to the playground off Hay Street. We were young: four, five, six maybe, though we’re not too sure. The climbing frame seemed a grand castle to us, the grass our emerald sea, and our Ma, the queen of the land. We have an image of us climbing the stairs, running foot by foot, then racing down the slide. It shone a bright yellow, and it twinkled in the sunlight. We slid down time and time again, and always at the bottom was our Ma, her arms outstretched and her face looking up with joy, getting bigger and bigger with our descent. Our father watched from the sidelines, but it was Ma who caught us, lifting our bodies up for hugs, the sand of the box swirling around us in a whirlwind rush. We’ve since visited that park. They’ve torn down the structure we once knew. The new one is slate and sterile and reminds us of burlap.

As the years went on and our numerical identities entered double digits, the voices of our parents began to rise, raging loudly, two great sonorous machines battling against each other’s power. But we didn’t hear the full blast of it, not then. The sounds were all muddled as if underwater, blocked by swinging doors, late nights beneath bed sheets, pats on the head, and Ma’s hushed voice: “don’t worry sweetie, mommy and daddy are just fighting right now.” But real quickly, that turned into “don’t worry sweetie, we won’t have to listen to daddy anymore.” On the final night, Ma’s hand grasped our wrists firmly, as if holding the handle of a fateful blade. A wild blur in the pale moonlight. An unfocused swipe past the rusty swing set that hung in our front yard. The seats were rocking back and forth, the wind was howling, and when the car door slammed shut, the bang vibrated off through the blackness of the world. But that’s how we remember that. It could have been a dull daytime for all we know.

The next few years were a tumult of moves in what we now call the “flurry of houses.” We drove around. Ma had managed to buy a rusty old bender, so we rode state to state, living in one place until we could afford to travel to the next. The car sprawled across the land, our Ma the scout, we her troop of rabbles, a great caravan of desert fellows trotting along. These were the best times, the most fun. The roads seemed to grow, creeping outwards like the tentacles of some great beast. We were getting into our teens by then, sippin’ on sodas. And while you might think that “adolescence” warranted some rebellion on our part, the constant pick-me-ups forced us to stick with Ma. We remember her bringing home our first record player. It had been in the Westerway apartment. Ma had been so excited. We’d had little money, but she surprised us with a 45, Bill Haley and his Comets. That was our favourite, the comets shooting through our living room—so small it could have been a closet, but big enough for the four of us and the streaking stars. Streaks of dust climbed up the windows so we couldn’t see outside, but the music roared through us. We danced, Ma sang. When the chimes ring five, six, and seven/we’ll be right in seventh heaven. Good times these were, the best, when Ma was happy sis was happy we were happy.

It’s kind of funny. We don’t exactly remember the change, ‘cause it sure wasn’t sudden. This wasn’t no Hollywood trigger. Ma was getting a lot of sand in her eyes, ‘cause more and more we noticed that she was crying up, the salty tears grainy from the dirt, sticking to her leather skin, the folds on her cheeks like cloth. We remember her becoming less… we don’t know how to put it, friendly? “Please wash the mugs, kids, so we can get back to the music” went to “Wash! Now! Ma’s gotta work!” And the sleeping, we don’t know, we just remember a lot of it. By the time we were done with high school, and the songs of our youth were beginning to fade into the ground, Ma found a permanent job at a diner, not near the coast like she’d always wanted, but in a rotten nobody’s town, the same one we live in now. And then we went our separate ways. Sis got into this big university in the east, while we travelled around. We drove trucks, delivered mail, anything we could to keep moving. We didn’t want to let go as sis had. We tried to always be there for Ma, but you know. Life gets in the way sometimes.

We got the call soon after they invented cell phones, or at least soon after we got them. In a way, we weren’t surprised by what they told us, and at the same time, it was the greatest shock of all. Mother had been different for quite some time, and her actions could have just been a release, a downward whoosh of a knife cutting her agony apart. It’s hard to say, but we don’t like to think about that side of her. And whenever one of you reporters comes along, we always try to say the same thing, that our Ma was kind. So make sure you put that in whatever article you write, sir. Remember the music. Remember our Ma, not our mother.

By Nicholas Handfield-Jones

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