My mother used to look to her dreams for inspiration, thumbing through half remembered fuzzy images as the sun poked its head from over the dewy green hills that surrounded the farm. She’d write her crooked scrawl in a tattered journal she kept under the bed, and try to capture the messages sent by the universe that she believed lay hidden amongst the scenes in her head. But that changed with the Mac.
Now she slept in, then spent her mornings on Pinterest, You Tube or Google. She’d search things like…how to be the best you, how to make fabulous chicken stew and what makes you-you…who needed to hunt through vague mysteries sent by the universe when you had a world of answers at your fingertips?
As a girl my mother hadn’t made it past grade school. She’d spent her youth helping on the farm, and after her mother died, she did the raising of the kids. But with her computer came knowledge — she spent hours on line, ate slept and drank it — bathed and luxuriated in it. And she shared her new-found knowledge with her best friend Kathy May over lemonade on the porch. They’d rock back and forth in matching wicker chairs, their bare feet warm against the aging splintered wood, their fans a blur trying to beat the heat. And my mother would regurgitate the information as if her friend was a baby bird and her life depended on it. The words slid from her tongue like they were precious jewels that she alone possessed, each one deeply colored, multi-faceted and shining — treasures for her to share with the hapless souls of the world who didn’t have the internet. Souls like her life-long friend Kathy May. My mother’s googled-thoughts would flow out as if she’d come up with them on her own, as if they were truth, gospel or song. She’d shout and preach and hum and I’d often hear Kathy May giggle or guffaw — and all of it was important — sacred somehow. Like if she pieced together all the snippets she’d gathered from the glowing screen — the recipes, the politics, the articles on how to reduce strife, erase wrinkles, scent your farts and lucid dream — they’d become ingredients that when mixed would make a blue ribbon life. And Kathy May, like the good sidekick she was, would take them in and nod and bob her head, rocking and fanning and sipping her drink, occasionally murmuring “mmm-hmmm” or “lordy-that’s what I think!” My mother, happy in the spotlight, would spew out facts about the proper flour to bake a paleo cake, the dreadful state of world affairs, or the slow decline of squirrels…and I’d sit inside on the rug, just beyond the screen door listening to it all.
My parents were already old when they had me, so that by now one might see us walking the supermarket aisles or planting bulbs in the garden and think they were my grandparents. A lifetime on the farm had toughened their skin and laid great rivers upon their faces and arms. My father had a wrinkle so deep on his forehead I used to think that if I set a pencil there it would not fall, or that if I smoothed it with my fingers all the worries he held would somehow spill out.
My father had decided to buy my mother the MacBook Pro after my uncle Bob came for a visit and told him we could now get ‘the web’ at the farm. My father said he got it for her because she was such a good wife, but I think he did it to atone for his drinking. Or maybe it was merely to distract her and still the constant flood of talking that flowed his way day after day. My mother could “talk the ears off a hen” he’d say. And I’d sit and wonder if chickens even had ears.
For as far back as I could remember my mother had lived as if she weren’t in the same room as us. Her physical self was there, but the part that made her — her — was tucked away somewhere, as if she removed it like an old sweater she no longer wanted to wear. She’d chatter to fill the air with sound, so it’d seem like the other way ‘round. But her words weren’t really aimed at us, they were a coping mechanism for something that was missing, something we couldn’t fix — something that’d long been covered in dust. My father and I were walking ghosts. And the only time I saw it differently was when she was with Kathy May — part of me knew long ago, that she loved her most.
It’s two years now, since the Mac arrived and took over the coveted seat at the head of the table. And if my father’s plan had been to quiet his wife, he’d failed. She had a new found zest for life and an air about her that comes when one begins to learn beyond the borders of the farm. And Kathy May, who used to make the long trek from town once or twice a week, was now a permanent fixture next to my mother on the porch and sometimes on the lawn. If anything, the farm was louder. The sound of two dear friends bonding over a world they’d never seen echoed from the stoop and floated out over the stalks of dying corn and the aging red tractor, taunting the land with talk of faraway places and celebrity faces and how to mix a proper gin fizz.
Not long after my mother was connected to the world via her precious Mac, people in town started to talk behind her back and stare, and she just went about her business as always barely noticing they were there. My friend Gwen’s mother was a waitress at the Prairie Dog Cafe. She said her mother often saw my mother there with Kathy May. Gwen said they sat together sharing a shake or grilled cheese and that her mother overheard them talking about things that would make a “Christian woman weak in the knees”. I’d laugh it off and pretend I didn’t see the way my mother looked at Kathy May, with a kind of love these parts couldn’t understand. I saw them once, a long time ago, down by the pond, walking hand in hand. I told myself that’s what friends do. But now, under the seduction of her new cyber world, I heard them too…talking about things my mother had found on the Mac. Places and things that made their words change from mere sentiment to deep longing and regret. Sometimes I wondered at these places and things. Maybe they were a real threat? I half expected to wake one morning and find my mother gone. She’d finally pack the Samsonite that’d never been used, and leave a letter to my father….Dear John…
It happened on a bright June day. I walked from the bus stop, passing Sunflowers wilting in the heat, their heads bent forward on limp stalks like a gathering of old women in faded hats dipping their chins to talk. The dogs were sleeping in the shade of the Oak and someone had written ‘wash me’ in the dust on the tailgate of my father’s Ford. I was thinking of graduation and what it meant when I stepped onto the empty porch, then into the dark of the house where I found my mother sitting alone in front of the Mac. There were tears on her cheeks and her hands were limp in her lap. She didn’t hear me come in and I quietly moved to stand behind her and look at the screen. She had pulled up Pinterest and typed only ‘Death’ where normally would be words like ‘frosting’ or ‘dream’. I started to ask her what she was doing, when she pushed enter and scrolled to a quote by Buddha that said, “The trouble is you think you have time.” She bent her head and I held my breath.
From upstairs I heard my father’s boots on the floor, the unmistakable walk that was his sound alone — a slight scraping, shuffle and tap. His bad leg and cane created their own tune of loss, as if the truth had come flooding back when he woke from his nap. My mother slammed the computer closed and I backed away into the shadows. She was still in her robe, and her usual rose colored lips were un-painted and chapped. She padded towards the door, swiping a mug from the table on her way out. I watched her through the window as she took her favorite seat, her back to me and her head like a small brown coconut. She sipped from her mug and upstairs my father was making the sounds of an old man, re-living parts of his life that only he could see, the after effect which was sometimes so hard to watch I’d get on my bike and leave.
Now, I was frozen on my feet, despite the heavy heat of the day, despite the new love I’d found at school, and the report card with an ‘A’. I hadn’t planned on telling my mother any of this, we’d drifted apart over my high school years. But, I thought of sharing now, of trying to break through the wall and shatter the ominous air that hung like heavy tears. I walked slowly to the rug by the door, shrugged off my pack and sat on the floor. I wrapped my arms around my knees and waited. For some sign of what to do, for my mother to come back through the door and explain, for my father to leap down the stairs and say it was all just a silly game — this life. We sat there in silence, me on the rug, my mother on the porch — until the sun started to set and I built up the courage to walk out.
I leaned against a post whose paint was peeling and cracked. My mother was still in her chair, not rocking, not talking — and I struggled to hear her breath. Beside her Kathy May’s chair remained empty, and the rolling fields spread out in front of us as far as we could see. A giant group of starlings shifted like a living cloud against the sleepy sky, first forming an arch — a black bridge leading to nowhere, then a woman’s leg, long and curvy — toes pointed toward the outline of town, then a slithering serpent frantically searching for something…they fanned out then came together in a tight ball of black momentarily blotting out a bit of sky then separating again in a display of ordered chaos. After a few moments my mother said, “I googled it. It’s called a murmuration,” she paused a few beats then, “But even after reading what they had to say about it, they couldn’t explain the magic of these birds.” It was the first time my mother expressed any doubt about something she’d read online and despite the heavy moment I felt the corners of my mouth twitch, hesitant to lift and bloom into a smile. I wanted desperately to ask, to be certain if what I suspected was true, but for that moment it was enough to know that something had changed. And we stayed there, two strangers who were once one when I was just the size of a pea. And we watched as the glorious cloud of birds dipped and darted and shifted shape — and listened as thousands of wings made the sound of a distant sea — and, perhaps for my mother, moved her just a bit closer to what she wished could be.
For the image above, and other artwork I created inspired by my short stories, please visit my artist page on Redbubble.