The discussions I have with my mother are loud, creative, and endless. You wouldn’t call them fights. They most often revolve around shopping, aesthetics, and color. I don’t mind. It keeps her from drilling me about private matters like my love life or my legal hassles. We are out looking at swatches right this minute—have been for weeks now, while anticipating her sick husband’s departure. Poor Leo’s heart blew a gasket. He refused surgery and took his last month on the couch in their house. Now that her third husband has died, Ma’s decided she is off men for good. She seems determined to redecorate her life.
“Leo was a good man. I loved him as best I could. Three’s a charm, they say, don’t they?” she tells me. “And to tell you the truth, Leo was a little short in the charm department.” I bite my lip. Leo was nice enough. “This time,” she says, “I am going to have a place for myself and myself only. I get the whole say.”
But she insists I come along and watch as she becomes something new. I have better things to do but what the hell. She is my mother. It couldn’t be pleasant, having Leo dying, although she only lifts one shoulder when I try to see how much she might care. She can’t do a full shrug for Leo. Likely she’s tired of trying.
She’s been starting phone conversations with stuff like “You never know when something will happen and you go just like that.” A kind of guilt thing, just to make sure I’ll toddle along, This morning I got a dollop of “These times we have with each other are precious… and besides, I’m buying lunch.” She also said that if I really wanted the small oriental from the den or the drop-leaf from the dining room, it was in my best interests to help her get new stuff. So, I’m here.
My mother is a Champion Shopper. All her friends tell her as much. She always "knows somebody who will show us things they wouldn’t show to just anybody." I think she really believes that. A particular damask, or a new shipment of teak they hide until she comes in and then, only then, are they compelled to give her a peek and the opportunity. “First dibs, Mrs. C. Just for you.”
Now we are at Zimoni Brothers warehouse looking at bolts of cloth. “You like this?” my mother inquires. “Is it salmon or peach, would you say?”
The color is the color. Could she live with it or not is the real question. “Looks like cantaloupe to me,” I answer, figuring it doesn’t matter what we call it.
“Yeah, melon,” my mother says. “I just read where the whole range of melon colors is very soothing and makes the complexion look good, you know? Like candlelight? Ok. We’ll get this for the drapes. Zimoni? Where are you? We got places to go, after. Choof! I’m breathing dust. You give me four yards extra for free from the top of the roll so I’m sure you’re using clean. You come measure tomorrow morning by eight. I got the funeral at one.”
The funeral for Leo would slam the coffin lid on marriage. “That’s that,” my mother says. “The men always die. They must be the weaker sex. I won’t miss them, I decided.”
It’s hard to miss Leo. He never said much of anything to me and already I can’t remember his face. Her second husband spent more time in the service than at home and got blown up two days before his tour ended. My actual father, the one she said she loved, drowned one night while walking home after too much champagne at a neighbor’s house. He forgot we had just installed a pool in our back yard. I was seven.
“You know, Claudia,” my mother says. “I was always married. I was always thinking about what a man needed—for food, for a big chair, for comfort—like that. Now I want to see what I like when it’s just me. Leo liked me in blue, I bought blue. Your father, only white sheets. White table clothes. White china. With Sam . . . he had a thing for beige and brown. Everything beige or looking like dirt. Earth tones? Feh.” She stops fingering a tapestry that is way too paisley, a demented weaving of teal, taupe, and aubergine. “You remember your father? With everything white? You were so young.”
“Oh, yeah, I remember, Ma. You know what else I remember? I remember making supper one night when Pa Sam was on leave. You yelled at me because I made pork chops and mashed potatoes and turnips. You said you drew the line on beige suppers. Said it was like eating Army issue khaki. I thought you were saying it was ka-kah. You remember?”
“I remember. Even carrots would have made a difference. Think Japanese, I always said. The food should pay attention to color as well as taste. You like this burgundy velvet? I want one of those fainting couches in the bedroom. I like the look of lolling. I think I will be a very good loller. Don’t you?”
“So far, you don’t seem like much of a slug, Ma. You look more like Bette Midler with those high heels on. You move so fast. All the time. You make me tired. I could come over and loll. Show you how it’s done.”
“Zimoni! Bring this velvet thing with you when you come tomorrow.” Zimoni was hovering happily. “This one, Mrs. C? Or the horse-cocked roll? Ohmigod. Excuse me. I didn’t mean to talk dirty. The wine roll, you mean. The burgundy is darker, see?”
“Fine. Looks more like a claret, but with you it doesn’t matter. It’s time for lunch. Shantung Gardens or the Tuscan Table, Claudia?”
“Italian,” I say. Zimoni must have gotten to me subliminally.
Over a linen cloth, right by a window so we can watch the world, according to my mother, I notice that she can’t seem to help but be upbeat. Odd, with a death just yesterday and the funeral tomorrow. But I swear she looks younger than I’ve seen her in years.
“Pukey green pants at three o’clock,” my mother says, so I look out the window to see an older man. Retiree? A golfer? Anyway, bad pants.
“So? What do you think? You think I can go it alone? Leo left me well set up, you know.”
I don’t know. But I’m hoping. Maybe she’ll want to invest a little in my store. I’ve finally settled out of court after a rental car blew a radiator cap practically in my face. I had been on a business trip in Boston for a software company. Most of the scars are under my hairline if I wear bangs, but I started to freak at the thought of traveling anymore and have decided to do something different with my life.
“Hell-lo-oo. Where are you? I asked you a question. What do you think of a single mother? What do you picture me up to, say a year from now?”
“I think you can do whatever you want to do, Ma. What about me?”
“What about you? Are we talking about you, now?”
I got some pretty good start up money. Mostly I want to move on and not think about going to court two years or more down the road. Civil cases are a pain and sap energy better spent elsewhere. Plus, going to court would have required in person testimony from my secret on the road romance. Married of course. We know too many people in the business and a lawsuit would have… well, not helped. I look at the whole thing as a chance to bail. My mother would have found out. His wife would have found out. Messy, messy, messy.
“Do you think I can go it alone?” I ask her.
“What do you mean, alone. You haven’t been alone? Is there something I don’t know? You aren’t talking about me, I hope. I’m not going anywhere. Are you?”
“That’s not what I mean. I quit my job.”
“Uh, oh. That was a good job. What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking that it was a good job but I don’t want to travel anymore. No planes, no cars. I want to be able to walk where I’m going. Maybe take cabs if I have to. But that’s not why I brought it up.”
“You brought it up because you feel sorry for me and you want me to know you’ll be around in case I get lonely?”
“Sure. That. But also, I have an idea of what to do with the settlement money from the car company and I want to run it by you.”
My mother whips her big red head of fluffy curls around fast. She’s been looking for the waiter for the last five minutes. He’s forgotten the slice of lemon she needs for her tea. She won’t use the lemon she’s squeezed on her sole. That is a wedge. She needs a pale disc shaped piece for the tea. Appearances, appearances.
“You want more than the rug, don’t you. I know you. Don’t tell me I don’t.”
“I know you know me, Ma. It’s just that I thought of it when you mentioned Leo leaving you well taken care of.”
“That’s my money, little girl. He wasn’t your father, you know.”
“I know. I wasn’t asking if he left anything for me. That’s absurd.”
“Well,” I take a deep breath and suck down half of a very nice cabernet. When my eyes stop watering, I realize my mother’s eyes have wandered over to the dessert cart. “I took out a lease on a store front. It’s right near my loft. I’m going to start a—”
“Claudia, look. Look at that cart. See what I’ve been telling you? See what they did? They put all the light colored desserts together and all the berried ones in the middle like a mishmash and stuck everything chocolate on the bottom. What do you say about that?”
“Not much. I’m full.”
“No, no. Presentation. You think it looks good? Why don’t people ask me about things like this? You think I should talk to the manager or the pastry chef? They could sell more desserts if they… what kind of a store?”
“Black and White.”
“Not the decorations. What kind of store are we talking about? Clothes? Jewelry? Gourmet Foods? What.”
“Everything and anything that’s black and white. That’s the idea.”
“Things with no color. This is your idea?”
“Yeah. I was thinking about black and white movies. I was watching what they did with shadows, and how they got depth. How rich it all looked. Textured. I don’t know.”
“But what did the movies do? They changed to color as soon as they could. You think that was an accident? You think people like being color blind? You think everything can be black and white? What’s wrong with you? There’s something I’m missing here. You keep talking and I’ll figure out what’s going on. Go on. Go.”
“There’s nothing wrong, for heaven’s sakes. Did you hear us at Zimoni’s? How many hours, no, years, have we had conversations about the dumbest things… like the Palette of Meals, or, or, uhm, your walls… with this husband they’re champagne, with another they’re harvest gold, egg shell, sea foam, whatever… I can’t see it. You show me these swatches and paint chips and bolts of cloth, or point to the dessert cart and I just plain old don’t get it. It’s a waste of time.”
“So you think trees would be better in black? What are you, a vampire?”
“I’m talking about a store, Ma. Not the whole world. I’m trying to think of a way to make things simpler. Also, to stand out. Too many choices. I can’t stand it sometimes when I’m reading the magazines. I mean, what the hell does This Year’s Neutral mean? Sometimes it’s navy blue or gray or used looking old ka-kah khaki. Not beige, not bone, not ecru, or tan… cripes. I guess you don’t like the idea, huh?”
“Hmn? Oh. Sorry. I was thinking of something else.”
“Oh, maybe I could go in with you.”
“Go in where?”
I slump into the upholstered chair, one that my mother first maintained was a sage green, but now thinks is perhaps more of a moss. Yet I’m not surprised. My mother is rarely interested in anything that doesn’t have her in the middle of it. But how could we possibly work together? Damn.
“Let me get this straight. You want to open a store. You don’t want to travel. You want everything to be black or white. You have some money to do this, but you want more money. I’m telling you, if you want money from me, you’re gonna get me as well. You got a name for this thing?”
“Hah! I like it. Elegant. Retro. I’m thinking a monitor going all the time showing really classy movies, musicals, Fred Astaire, Cab Calloway. Black and white, right?”
“Ok. But see, what you’re missing is someone just like me.”
“Oh, I’m not missing you, Ma.”
“Listen, smarty. You think I don’t know anything about business? One thing I know is that someone has to travel. Go to the big trade shows. See what’s new. Flea Markets. Juried Crafts Fairs. High quality stuff. What am I if not a shopper? I’m not a wife. You don’t need a mother. You need a partner. And I’m telling you… I’m it. Are we clear? Is this black and white enough for you?”
“You really want to do this, Ma? Get involved, tied down? I figured you’d go for cruises. Take up golf. What about the lolling plans on the burgundy-claret-merlot-pinot noir chaise?”
“Hey. This way I travel like a real businesswoman. In business class, thank you very much. I see cities I’ve never seen before. Coasts. Fancy restaurants all over. People will get to know who I am and with what I’m spending… they’ll take me out. Wines and dines.” Her face turns pinkish with excitement. Maybe more of a rosy glow.
“Ma. I just don’t know if we could… ”
“You did it. You hated it. I always envied you, traveling on business. Having people meet you at the airport and show you their company… look at you for ideas. I got some ideas.”
I realize she’s talking about spending a lot of money. I realize she is, indeed, the best shopper, with way more patience than I’ll ever have for finding just the right thing. “You can stick with the theme, Ma?”
“Sure. I was just thinking how much I always loved porcelain. And long black dresses. I can find someone who will make new record jackets for old vinyl recordings. Like our own private label. Wines and champagnes in our own black bottles. See about getting a liquor license, will you?” She is free associating all over the place and I am filling up the shelves in my head with her sense of style and her great ideas. My Ma is cool. It’s just hard to admit.
“So?” she says. “Are we settled? Yes or no? I have a funeral to get pastries for. Partners?”
Deep breath, Claudia. I look at her flashy eyes. She’s full of life. “Partners.”
“All right then. I gotta go. Today the cold cuts. Tomorrow the funeral. The next day I’ll get business cards. And a laptop. You be at the mortuary by noon, ok?”
“Leo took good care of me. Now we’re gonna take care of each other for awhile, you and me. Like we used to.” She gets up, makes a scribble sign to the waiter who hustles over with the check.
As I start gathering my things, along with my popping thoughts, she turns quickly to me. “You sit, have a Sambuca. And I’ll tell you something else. After three buying trips, maybe sooner, I’m going to find you the love of your life. You think you had one. But you didn’t yet.”
“What do you…”
“You think I don’t know about Mr. Married Man? Oh, puh-leeze. Just leave it to me. I don’t need one… but you should have a husband. You’re a nice girl. Woman. Lovable, I might add. Leave it to me. I’m going.”
She starts to click clack off toward the door, her little round butt aiming her in new directions. Then she turns. “You know how many gorgeous Christmas ornaments we can get in white? And right after that, New Years? Black sparkles? Bugle beads? And we will have every perfect black bathing suit that anyone makes. We got a hit on our hands.”
As she walks out the door, I hear her mumble, “Ebony sculptures, alabaster…”