The Stiffening

(My short story The Stiffening was originally published in The Absent Willow Review)

I was eight years old when I realized that I never saw my mother sitting. Ever. Or lying in bed or immersed beneath a blanket of suds in our old claw foot bathtub. She was always upright. Afternoons would find her in the kitchen, tending something on the stove or wiping down counters with a dish rag.

This is how I remember her: Thick black hair spilling over broad shoulders and sturdy legs clad in a print skirt and Woolworth stockings. She loved to cook, to bring a steaming and pungent plate of collard greens to the table, to serve my sister Trina and me a slice of her famous orange pound cake. Even though she was on her feet all day mixing batter at Xavier’s Donuts, the sound of a metal spoon clanking against a pot usually met me and Trina when we came home from school.

Older than me by three years, Trina was the more thoughtful sister. “Mom, you work too hard. Sit down and let me fix you a plate,” she would say.

Mother brushed off Trina’s concerns with a smile as she brought a bowl or glass to the table.  “That’s alright, baby. You and Valise enjoy your free time.”

Then those lean, long legs carried Mother into the living room, where she would pull back the curtains she had stitched by hand. Home from school, the other girls on the block would be practicing their drill routines in the street, or the staccato thumping of twin ropes on asphalt would drift in through the screen door as my neighbors played double dutch. They never invited me to join their games. “Double-handed,” I was called. That meant I turned the rope too clumsily for their liking and out of rhythm. Mother never beheld this festival of flailing limbs from a chair by the window like our elderly neighbor Miss Isabel, who wore wigs and scolded the neighborhood kids as if they were her own. Nor did she recline on the front stoop, a glass of too-sweet iced tea in hand, chatting with Miss Irene or Mr. Alphonse, an unmarried couple who lived in the bungalow next to ours. She stood, arms crossed, in the middle of our bay window, as if she were controlling all activity on the street with a glance.

Every girl tries to find her mother’s fingerprint in her own life — whether to embrace it or slough it off — and I was no different. Although Trina and Mother were closer, I was the daughter who resembled her the most. My hairline mimicked hers, a fuzzy stream that meandered along my temples and ended at my ears in a vortex of tight curls. Moles, like dark flowers, dotted our cheeks, while Trina had the smooth brown skin of my father, long dead. Mother and I were often complimented for our long, dainty fingers that we inherited from my grandmother Hallie, who used to hang wash from a clothesline with wooden pins and who once rode three buses to The Valley every day to clean homes. This is where the similarities ended. The more I watched that tall, hazel-eyed woman, the more I realized I was not like her. I preferred reading in my room to cooking, and I had no desire to pick up around the house. Serving people bored me. But I could sit and squat and kneel, and I had never even seen Mother bend her legs.
One night, my suspicions about Mother were confirmed. Unlike other eight-year-old girls I knew, my nose was always buried in books about ghosts and werewolves, and one particularly scary story caused me to awaken with a start. My bedroom was so small, it could only house my twin bed and a faux wood roll-top desk. My chamber, Trina called it. I heard my sister snoring in the room next door. Even after the nightmare melted away, leaving its icy residue against my collarbone, I was still afraid to close my eyes. After Daddy died, Mother discouraged us from coming in her room at night. She said we were big girls, which is why we had rooms of our own. As I crept down the hallway, there was no moonlight streaming through the bathroom window, no glow visible beneath Mother’s bedroom door from the television. Just blackness. I reached for the knob.

Mother’s room smelled of rosewater. It was the only thing she used to wash her face, which was as lineless as lard and just as smooth. A woven basket filled with yarn and needles sat on her nightstand. Knitting was another activity that gave her something to do with her hands, although she never sat in the rocking chair by her window to crochet. It was a peculiar sight to see her standing, yarn and needles in hand, with just her behind resting against the windowsill, her shoulders framed by the Santa Susana Mountains in the distance, as if she were holding the range aloft. But what was more peculiar that night was the sight of those fluffed pillows where no head had rested, the three doilies, like oversized snowflakes, placed on the smooth bedcovers.

From behind me came a low wheezing, like an overweight man struggling to breathe. I jumped, more afraid than I’d been when I awakened from my dream. In the darkness, I turned to see Mother propped in the corner by the edge of the dresser, nearly hidden by her open closet door. That choking noise was coming from her. Her eyes were closed. The closet door, nearly shielding her body, looked like the raised lid of a coffin. I didn’t bother to awaken her, to ask why she wasn’t asleep in her bed, lying down like a normal mother. What frightened me more than the woman I loved standing upright in a flannel nightgown, snoring like an asthmatic man, was that she had been dreaming for hours on her feet — and she was smiling. I backed toward the open door and quickly left her bedroom.

I never mentioned that night to anyone, not even to Trina. It was one of those painful discoveries I needed to keep to myself — like finding out your mother is balding, or smokes, or drinks whiskey from a jelly jar. I watched my schoolmates’ mothers carefully to see if they were always on their feet as well. But the women on my block were sitters — on porches, bus stop benches and hard plastic Laundromat chairs. Whenever I went to Christy’s house after school, we would find her mother sitting at a table, playing Bid Whist with her friends. And whenever I spent the weekend at Becky’s house, her mom lounged around in a pink negligee doing crossword puzzles and smoking Marlboro cigarettes.

In spite of her disability, my mother wasn’t diminished in my eyes. She seemed whole to me, more whole than the women at Grimes A.M.E. Church who knelt by the altar to pray. Mother’s lips were always stretched in a wide smile, ready to laugh with you, or joke with you, or kiss away your tears. I grew defensive of her, as if she stuttered, ready to protect her from the taunts that were sure to come from the girls on my block when they discovered her … condition. They noticed everything, especially the older girls — every new hairstyle, every secret relationship, every blemish. They wouldn’t come right out and ask, “Why can’t your mama sit down, Valise?” No, they would couch their insults in song as the double dutch rope beat time on the asphalt:

Mail man, mail man
Do your duty
Here comes Miss Posie
With the big ol booty
Left foot/right foot
Left foot/right foot
Here comes Miss Posie
Always standin’ around
Left foot/right foot

Left foot/right foot

‘Cause she can’t sit down

But those taunts never came. Over the years, the neighborhood kids surely looked through our bay window and saw Mother’s constant parade from living room to dining room to kitchen, never once relaxing on our green leather sofa. They watched her at the wake for Miss Irene’s father, standing by the sanctuary door handing out fans with the funeral home’s name and address emblazoned on the underside. They saw her standing at the side door of the high school auditorium, cheering and taking pictures, as Trina walked across the stage to receive her diploma. But no one ever mentioned that they never saw her sitting, that they had never known her legs to bend. Years of vertical living didn’t seem to weaken her. She still walked around as erect as ever in a print skirt and thrift store stockings.

One night, I sat on her bed as she leaned against the window sill, sewing. I fingered the white tulle that I would wear down the aisle in a few weeks, watching Mother’s quick fingers.

“Don’t you ever get tired?” I asked her.

She smiled, her moist brown skin as lineless as it was when I was eight.

“You know I love to sew. It won’t be long now, baby.”

“Not that, Mother. You never rest.”

Even her sighs smelled of rosewater. “Helping folks keeps me strong.”

I patted the bedspread. “Sit with me while you sew.”

A frown creased her brow, the first sign of irritation I noticed in a long time.

“I can’t do that, Valise.”

“Why not, Mother?” I indicated the floral cover again. “You can rest while you work.”

Those greenish-brown eyes singed my heart. “The day I sit down is the day I die,” she said, parking her needle in the stiff white material. “Standing is in my blood. It was in your grandmother’s blood, and it’s in yours too.”

I swung my legs around on the bed and leaned back against the pillow. “It must have skipped a generation,” I said with a laugh.

Mother watched as I pulled first one leg, then the other to my chest. Then she said, “You can’t stop the stiffening. It’s in the blood.”

I sat up. “What stiffening?”

Mother resumed her sewing. After a few minutes of burying and retrieving the needle, she said, “Think of Mom-Mom Hallie, baby.”

I thought of my mother’s mother, whose thick gray hair was always wrapped in a scarf, whether she did housework or not. I sometimes accompanied her to the homes of the Wozniaks and McCrackens, skipping my fingers along the sticky keys of a grand piano as Mom-Mom mopped floors, wiped crumbs from an oak table. Whenever we rode those three buses across town to The Valley, she stood — pocketbook under one arm, the other arm holding the metal strap above her head, even when the bus was half empty.

“Standing is good for the heart,” she used to say. Whenever Trina, Mother and I went to her house for a visit, my grandmother was always bustling around the kitchen, quick to bring a steaming and pungent plate of collard greens to the table, to serve us a slice of her famous orange pound cake.

“She was always upright,” I said aloud.

“Always upright,” Mother repeated. “As far back as I can remember. The only time I saw her lying down was when we buried her.”

I flexed my toes as if to flick away those hateful words. “There must be some medicine to cure it.”

“If there is, I never found it. I tried them all — even the recipe for a ‘strengthening tonic’ that belonged to your great-grandmother Annie Lou, a concoction of nettle leaves, High John root, garlic and wormwood.”

She grimaced as if refusing a spoonful of the bitter mixture. Her legs, clad in beige stockings two shades lighter than her skin, seemed to lengthen, as if bolstered by the tale.

“I refuse to accept that, Mother. I love movement too much.”

“So did I, Valise. You think I love fixing food for other people? Always serving, always helping, always mixing batter?” Her laugh was edged with sorrow. She paused to rethread the needle, and those dainty fingers shook a little. “I couldn’t even cook when I met your father. But I learned, and you will too. I wanted to be a ballerina. ”

“I never knew you wanted to dance.”

“I know you didn’t, baby. Your daddy knew my secret, and he took it to his grave. I didn’t want nobody to pity me or for you girls to be teased. I know how vicious kids can be,” she said. “I had to shape my life around the stiffening. The kitchen was like a pair of earrings or Mom-Mom Hallie’s brooch, something I wore to seem like a normal woman. I prayed things would be different for you and Trina, but it’s not to be. A few days ago, she called me crying because… ”

“Because what?” I said, feeling as if my legs had already begun to tighten. As if sensing my terror, Mother reached over to touch me, her fingers grazing my hair. Seeing that stiff motion, I was reminded that my mother had never stooped to pick me up as a child, had never tucked me in at night.

“Because she was at Grimes, and she went to the altar, but she couldn’t kneel to pray …”

Later, I think about our conversation while fingering the dress she made. I’m standing in a small church on Adams Boulevard, half-listening to the minister’s words. My sister, my bridesmaid, moves like a woman on stilts in her peach-colored dress, as if newly learning to navigate the floor. Across the room, Mother fights back tears. Trina bought her a digital camera for Christmas, and she stands in the back of the sanctuary the entire ceremony, crying and snapping pictures.

Stiffening is in our blood, Mother said. An erect life. A life lived in kitchens, at counters and in the back of buildings. “Standing is good for the heart,” Mom-Mom used to say, but she didn’t look so sure in her silver-blue casket, her legs horizontal at last. Her skin had the ashen sheen of a defeated woman.

My groom, Nathan, lifts my veil, and I give him a distracted kiss. I can’t cook, can barely make a bed, and I’m not ready to embrace a life on my feet. Nathan threads his arm through mine, and we walk down the aisle to greet our well-wishers. It almost feels as if he’s pulling me down the wine-red carpet, holding me upright, but I know that isn’t so. I will be upright for years to come. As we make our way to the back of the building, I feel a curious thickening in my legs, a melding of muscle and bone and blood. It seems as if everyone in the sanctuary can hear the hollow clicking of my knees locking into place, a wooden dirge that rivals the organist’s upbeat song. I glance over at Mother standing in the corner, the sleek black camera shielding her eyes like a mask. She lowers the camera and blows me a kiss.

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