By Linda Murphy Marshall
Looking out the family room window of her Eisenhower-era rancher, an elbow on her hip to support the weight of her son, her free hand brushing stray cereal flakes from her blouse, Kate watches her mother as she makes her way up the driveway. Seeing the older woman fills Kate with longing.
Fighting the impulse, she does a visual run-through of her home, seeing it through her mother’s eyes with its couch’s too-busy palette of orange-rust-yellow-colored designs that seemed like such a good idea when she and her husband bought it five years ago to jazz up the room. There’s also a beige corduroy chair with telltale food stains, a slight odor from her son’s recent bout with the flu, and who knows what crumbs under the cushion, as well as the once off-white wall where the faintest outline of red magic marker scribbling is still visible under fresh paint, a remnant from the no more than two minutes when she let her son out of her sight and he channeled Jackson Pollock. The house looks beat up.
“I found this on the street,” her mother announces as she marches through the door and past Kate after taking her grandson out of her arms, placing something in her daughter’s crumb-whisking hand.
A tile in the shape of a heart, it would fit into a one inch square box if her mother had given it to her as a gift. A ten-cent beige tile you’d buy with hundreds of others from the bargain aisle at a hardware store to create a sink backsplash, maybe for a basement bathroom. It must have fallen unnoticed out of a paper bag filled with hundreds of other identical heart-shaped tiles.
What does she want me to-do with this? Kate wonders, gazing at the heart in her hand as her mother coos and baby talks at her son in an unfamiliar language. Does this heart mean something? Kate asks herself, locked in the lifelong habit of analyzing her mother’s every word, look, movement. Am I supposed to throw it away or keep it? Why did she give it to me? She longs to ask her mother, but catches herself in time.
Her mother has moved on, and perches on the edge of the orange-rust-yellow couch—to ensure minimal contact with it?—her grandson on her lap. She clasps his hands in hers, playing patty-cake and peek-a-boo with him, ignoring Kate’s attempts at small talk.
“Where did you find this, Mom?” Still standing, Kate squeezes this question in between rounds of her mother’s hand-clapping and cheek-kissing and cooing with her son.
“What? I don’t know. On your street, where I parked the car,” her mother answers, flicking her wrist in the direction of the door, her eyes still riveted on her grandson. But she hesitates a split-second before replying, getting her bearings, as though she’d lost the context of the question, maybe had forgotten about the tile.
Not one to overstay her welcome, she leaves after half an hour, relinquishing her grandson to Kate, then straightening her A-line skirt and fluffing her hair in preparation for tackling the next item on her to-do list. Visit grandson: check. Now on to pick up milk and eggs at the grocery store, drop off shirts at the dry cleaners, make a hair appointment, go to bridge club, begin dinner prep. Pecking her daughter on the cheek mid-stride as she heads out the door, she reminds Kate about an upcoming family dinner before exiting, her mind already on to the next errand before her Saks heels hit the driveway.
Watching her mother make the trip back down the driveway to her Cadillac, her son’s head resting on her shoulder, Kate opens her free hand and examines the tile in her open palm. The tile is warm now, its shape imprinted on her skin. She has been holding it this whole time, clenching it like a long-lost friend since her mother first handed it to her.
Not now, not today, maybe not even this week, but soon she will take the tile to a jeweller to have him drill a hole in the heart and put a sterling silver jump ring through the hole so Kate can wear it as a necklace, concrete evidence that her mother loves her.