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A Tale of Two Mothers

(by Bex O'Brian)

It was a few minutes before five in the evening on a Sunday. I wandered into my bedroom, chewing on a piece of toast I had made, leaving the bread and butter out on the counter in the kitchen. My sister was sitting on my bed, her expertly packed weekend bag at her feet.

“You shouldn’t eat between meals,” she said. “My mother never lets me.”

I shrugged to hide my shame. My mother let me do everything. Eat between meals. Eat with my hands. Eat nothing but baked beans on toast for months on end. Besides, I had seen no signs of any dinner of any kind in evidence while making my toast. Catch as catch can. I swallowed my last bite, aware of the spill of bread crumbs all down my front. My sister sighed. There was obviously no hope for me.

That Sunday, I had just turned eight, and Mercy was ten. The blurred landscape of early childhood was beginning to come into focus. And nothing was clearer than the disparity between our domestic lives. One neat. One, not so much. A sister is a sister is a sister (to paraphrase Gertrude Stein), but I was starting to glean that when you have different mothers, you are going to exist in a crazy cauldron of jealousy (she got to have two Christmases), confusion, covetousness, loneliness (why was she only with me once a fortnight?), but mostly you are going to live in a world of comparisons.

Her house. My house. Her mother. My mother. No two women could be less alike.

At five on the dot, the doorbell rang. And there was Marcus, my father’s first wife, her coat cinched around her thin waist, her hair perfectly coifed, her teeth straight.

Greeting her was my mother, smiling her gap-tooth smile, pulling her ratty cardigan across her heavy bust, her fingers nicotine- and ink-stained (take that, Jo March!), her hair a fright.

As the slightly nervous pleasantries were exchanged, and Marcus reined her daughter into her protective orb, my own fervent brain was churning over the fact that my father had had sex with this woman, let alone shared meals. Having seen my mother naked, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why my father would abandon so fine a specimen. Maybe it had all been a terrible mistake, which would, by my reckoning, make me a mistake. Looking around our shabby-chic apartment, that seemed a real possibility.

“Did you have a nice time, darling?”

Mercy nodded. But not very demonstratively. And as they picked their way down ice-covered stairs into the cold Canadian night, I was scraped by the knowledge that my sister was heading back to order, warmth, ritual, candlelight dinners, cloth napkins. I had long made a habit of nagging Mercy into telling me about her other life. It all had to be hearsay because her stepfather (a former business partner of my father) didn’t want any aspect of Marcus’s past polluting his hard-won domain. Back in the ’60s, before blended families, children weren’t innocent victims to be protected; they were instruments of war.

I’d listen misty-eyed as she told me about closets where the linens were all neatly stacked, how outside shoes were forbidden in the house, and how all the hairbrushes were soaked and cleaned once a week. But what fascinated me most was that dinner was served promptly at 7 pm.

“Every night?” I asked.

“Every night. And,” Mercy went on to tell me, “Friday is always steak and chips. Sunday is fish fingers. And while it’s not a rule, Wednesday is usually chicken.”

“But Friday steak is a rule?”


My sister might as well been trying to convince me that she had found the secret to eternal life, it all sounded so improbable.

I was sick with jealousy. Why did I have to have the mother who was often found staring into the fridge, head-cocked, brow-knit, confused as to why there was no food? Why did I have to have the mother who worked! Worse, she was a writer and was always locked up in her office. Whenever I tried to get her attention, I would hear this pitiful plea from the other side of the door. “Darling, I can’t stop. I’m under deadline.” (Deadline, I word I learned to dread long before I had my own deadlines.) Why couldn’t I have what my sister had: a mother who had painted toenails, knew what the hell a glue gun was, and made steaks every single Friday night?

I’m an adult now, and in the great wheel turn of empathy, I can see how fraught those weekends must have been for my mother. She wanted to impress her stepdaughter, who by everyone’s account was by far my father’s favorite, and there I was, pointedly pointing out that Mercy’s mother probably didn’t use garlic in quite the same amount so they were all left with stinky breath, or that her mother never was so tired that they had to settle for grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner.

My complaints didn’t pierce my mother’s ego. If anything, she would give me a surreptitious pinch, or a light flick to my ear.

But there were the terrible times when Mercy, pushing her plate aside, would say, “This doesn’t taste the way Mum makes it.” I would see my mother, the small implosion into self, followed by a worried glance over to my father.

Many years later, while chatting on the phone with her, she started to wax poetic about how freeing it was to eat dinner at our house, what fun it was not to know what was going to be on the table, or what time that mystery meal might be set down. “Plates on our laps, eating in front of the T.V! A paper towel as a serviette.” When I told her how much I had envied steak night, she laughed, “God, those meals felt like a prison sentence.”


Bex O'Brian was, until recently, a columnist at Salon, and is a contributor to Dorothy Parker's Ashes. She is the author of the novel Radius.


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