I was six years old the day my mom seemed suddenly different to me.
This one day. This single moment.
It was a fault line that shook everything in my world for several stunned seconds. The flutter of a heavy veil showing a glimpse of face I’d never seen.
This one day. This single moment.
I was six. Just a little kid. At that age, my childish eyes saw her as one thing and one thing only: Mommy. I was busy making mud pies in the backyard. Rolling down the glossy hill across the street. Swinging on the park swings. These are the things that consumed me. I had no sense of her personhood. No concept of her “self.” Those things didn’t exist for me. I was aware only that Mommy was a blonde goddess, golden and rippling through my life like a banner. I couldn’t possibly understand that she was also a kind of hermit crab, forever scavenging new and better shells to keep her and cloak her. It confused me: the sun of her appearance, the brittleness of her heart. I wanted to bask in that sun; I wanted to live in that heart, but it wasn’t that kind of sun and it wasn’t that kind of heart. No matter what new shell she found to house her hidden self, it was never big enough to hold me, too. Yes, she clothed me, fed me, put me to bed, but she never played. Never acted silly. Never let down her guard with me or my siblings. She simply didn’t know how.
Sometimes, I would flutter about the living room in a made-up ballet, hoping to catch her eye. Her real eye. An eye that might actually see me, not that veiled eye she preferred to use. Mommy, hi! Watch! Watch me! as I wobbled like a top across our smooth cream carpet. Sometimes, sometimes, she would glance at me vaguely and say, Oh, you’re my little sunshine and I’d look, hopeful, at her golden face only to see that, no, it was that shrouded eye gazing back at me again. Not the real one. I tried so hard to find that real eye. But I was just a little kid. I didn’t know her history then. How she was slugged and beaten and struck with heavy objects her whole life until she had fled home for the blessed respite of a rigorous college education. I was only aware of being hungry for her, of always trying to be as good as good could be in the hopes of getting just a tiny extra piece of her.
Of her looking at me with love with her real eye.
She was a golden goddess and I craved her my entire childhood.
That day was a summer day. A pool day. My mom, my sister, and I wandered across the lazy street to the giant neighborhood pool to swim the day away. During the summers, I craved this pool nearly as much as I craved my mom. Entire days passed where I was not dry until bedtime. Entire nights passed where I dreamed of nothing but jumping in that pool again. Entire summers passed where my blinding yellow hair was green or bronze or shiny gold from too much chlorine. I was a fish, a dolphin, a gliding manta ray.
But what I really wanted to be was a water ballerina.
I’d seen them once, you see. At Sea World. These perfect floating creatures, these glittering eels, twirling underwater in weightless sequined circles. Their ballet was never wobbly like mine, never teetering or unsteady. Water, I decided, was the key. It smoothed out everything. Sure, the Sea World creatures were sleek and polished and didn’t wear bathing suits with pink ruffled bottoms, but I tried not to think about that. Every day in the pool, I practiced and convinced my older sister of the importance of this, too — for the sake of our future as world famous water ballerinas. Side by side we worked, pink-ruffled bottom and blue-ruffled bottom, twisting and flipping and somersaulting for hours. I thought if I could learn to arch my back and curve my foot just so, like those perfect Sea World mermaids, maybe mom would finally look at me with her real eye and be proud.
At one point that day, during this strenuous workout, I surfaced and saw her. Mrs. Parker. The fattest lady I knew. The meanest lady I knew. She was a stack of old inner tubes. She was a walrus. She terrified me. Her skin was orange like Tang. Her hair was red like flames and, on that day, stacked high in a ridiculous mountain of curlers. I heard myself starting to giggle nervously at her until my mom shot me a single warning glance from her deck chair. Mrs. Parker sashayed over to the stairs at the shallow end and dipped in a foot the size of a pot roast.
My sister and I resumed our important work. Flipping, splashing.
Mrs. Parker dangled her fat foot in the water just a few feet away.
“Stop splashing,” she commanded.
We didn’t. We couldn’t really hear her. We were half underwater.
We splashed, twirled.
“STOP splashing. You’re getting my hair wet.”
Still, we didn’t. We were busy ballerinas.
“I SAID STOP SPLASHING!!!”
My head broke the surface just in time to hear her yelling. The rest happened so fast, all at the same time it seemed. My sister splashed closest to the walrus. Too close, too close. As she screamed, Mrs. Parker plunged a thick fist into the pool, grabbed my sister by the neck, and thrust her brown head under the water, holding her there. I huddled nearby in the water, only my eyes bulging above the surface, like a frozen little hippo. My sister’s neck was lost in that giant fist. I could see her brown hair floating around her head. I didn’t know what to do. I opened my mouth to scream, but water rushed in to drown it. Let her go! Let her go! Let my sister go! I could hear it in my head, but I couldn’t get it out. I shivered in the warm blue water.
At that same instant, I saw it. The flash of gold as my mom leapt across that deck, roaring like a wounded lion.
In a split second, a seismic second, her brittle shell shattered and I saw her real eye. An eye so raw and bitter, so full of hidden rage, that it was bound to break free somehow …. it had to …. some day. No flimsy shell could contain the universe of betrayal that burned behind that eye. A supernova of pain. It had to burst out, explode.
And this was the day.
I was terrified and I was mesmerized.
“LET HER GO, YOU BITCH!! LET MY DAUGHTER GO!!!”
She didn’t even sound human, my mom. She roared and growled and threw herself headlong at this mound of woman twice her size. Who was this Mommy? What was that word? I started to cry big heaving sobs. My sister was being drowned. My mom was going crazy. I just wanted to be a water ballerina. I sobbed harder and peed in the pool from fear.
Then I saw her do it. My mom, my golden mom, plunged into that water, wrestled my sister up and safe, wound her arm back and slugged that orange walrus with such primal force she fell backward onto the deck shrieking in outrage.
But mom’s roar was louder.
“DON’T YOU EVER — DON’T YOU EVER COME NEAR MY GIRLS AGAIN, YOU BITCH!! DON’T YOU EVER!!”
That word. Mommy didn’t use that word.
She collapsed at the side of the pool with my sister sputtering to breathe in her arms. Then she saw me there, still trembling in the pool.
And she looked at me with her real eye.
“Tracey, get out of that pool right now.”
You obeyed that eye in an instant.
As I stumbled out of the pool, still sobbing, she grabbed me hard. It hurt how she grabbed me, but she held us, my sister and me, at the edge of that pool, tighter than I’ve ever been held in my life, tighter than I’ve ever wanted to be held.
“Mommy …… Mommy …..” we heaved in her arms.
I don’t know what happened to Mrs. Parker in those moments mom held us tight by the pool. To this day, I don’t remember. I only remember she was gone when we finally got up to leave. In spent silence, mom collected our things, took us each by a hand, and led us across the street toward home. On the way, I stole wide-eyed glances at her face, but it was dim, guarded. She didn’t look back at me.
In our room, my sister and I shook and sobbed while we wriggled out of our wet bathing suits. At the dinner table, I looked anxiously at mom for signs of her real eye again, but the veil had fallen back into place. A new shell had been found.
She had seemed suddenly different and now she was suddenly the same.
It was temporary, this shell. I would see her real eye again many times, directed at me, but right then, that night, when she tucked me into bed with her careful veiled eye, I breathed a sigh of relief.