“You need a daughter,” my mother told me toward the end of her life. “Somebody to take care of you like you take care of me.” I have two grown sons, but according to her, daughters-in-law were not the same as daughters. “So, I’m going to get you one,” she promised.
The daughter she was looking for would be about thirty-five, small and smart—a dig at my intellectual pretensions. She asked if it made any difference to me if my daughter was brown, black, white, or Asian, or a nurse. I decided to play along. I said color wouldn’t be a deal breaker and proposed inventing a social networking site to find this daughter, a Match.com for orphan girls looking for mothers and mothers looking for daughters. Mother fingered the checkbook that was always by her side. “The internet harbors thieves,” she said.
Mom once interviewed a very pregnant woman in the grocery store in her search for a daughter. She was steering the store’s motorized cart while I lingered behind, ready to play the role of road manager if she backed up unexpectedly or missed a turn. I tried not to be too annoying. When she came upon the pregnant woman, she asked, “What is it?”
“A girl.” The woman said she already had two sons, so this would be her daughter.
“My daughter needs one,” Mom said, gesturing toward me.
The pregnant woman rested a hand on her belly. She seemed wary, but so satisfied. I felt a twinge of useless regret.
“I’m just teasing,” Mom said to her. The whole idea was a piece of whimsy. Sure, I would have liked to have a daughter and yes, my mother would have liked to be able to walk in the grocery store.
Back home, I toted her groceries in from the car as she leaned helplessly on her walker. “I hate this,” she said. “You taking care of me.”
I replied with what I thought was a good answer. “It’s what daughters do.”
“So, then, if daughters take care of mothers, what will happen to you when you’re really old, like me? You need one. I will find her.”
I’m not sure what it meant, this promise. Sometimes it seemed to be a deal. She would get a daughter for me if I kept her out of assisted living. Perhaps she was bothered by the fact that I was the last in a line of farm matriarchs who endured oblivion, got themselves out of poverty, and raised their daughters to do the same. She had taken care of her mother all her life, and now it was my turn. Maybe that was the loose thread she wanted to connect.
And sometimes I saw it as an attempt to give me what she could not give me—a sister. Raised on an isolated farm in Illinois, I was a shy, lonesome, only child. To survive, I planned from an early age to leave the farm behind, and I went away to college as soon as I could.
There is so much I don’t know about my mother. Whenever she talked about her life, it was as if it began when she lit up her first Lucky Strike. “I smoked it behind a barn,” would be the opening line of her life story. I have never seen the place where she was born because she did not know exactly where it was. I have never visited the town where she spent her early years, even though it is only a few miles from where I grew up.
When Mom was about to enter the eighth grade, Grandma left her marriage, taking her three daughters up the road to a different town where she got a job cooking in a diner. Mom’s sisters tried to maintain contact with their father, but Mom, the middle child, never spoke to him again. Whenever anyone mentioned his name, she said, “I’ve buried him.”
I first became aware of Mother’s earlier life during a family argument when I was six. Everyone had gathered for a special dinner to see my mother’s older sister, who rarely came home. We were at Grandma’s home, which she shared with Grandpa Bill, her second husband. My aunt had the same mass of dark thick hair, the same freckles, the same way of holding a cigarette, the same wisecracking humor, the same sexy way of sitting on a stool and holding a tumbler of whiskey, that my mother had. But she was much more nervous, and she talked a mile a minute. She started talking about their missing sister.
Joanna, the youngest sister, had run away to their father when she was twelve—and then, a few years later, she ran away from him with a man whose name no one knew. Mother never spoke of her. Neither did Grandma. My aunt, the anxious one, kept in touch with Joanna for a while and tried to repair the disconnection, but she had lost track of her. “What happened wasn’t her fault,” she said in defense of her. “Our father made her work in that bar. Our sad, missing sister.”
“You mean our runaway sister,” Mom hissed back. And then the quarrel between them began.
Grandma interrupted, nodding toward us kids lingering in the dining room. We were sent outside, away from the argument. Grandma said she’d be out in a while to show us the new peas in her garden, but before she got there, my cousin said, “Grandpa Bill isn’t your real grandfather.” I stared at him then ran off.
“Where is my real grandfather?” I demanded of my mother when I got inside.
“He’s in hell—no, Hull, another town,” Mom said, and then she briskly busied herself clearing the plates.
My aunt stooped down to my eye level, holding her cigarette high over my head with one hand, pulling me close with the other. She told me my real grandfather was a drunk and a gambler, and she spoke in a very clear and end-of-story tone. “We don’t talk about him,” she said.
I never asked any more questions after that until five decades later, when Mom started talking about getting me a daughter. One day I said I didn’t know what her father had done for a living. “He was a bootlegger,” she answered without a trace of bluff in her voice. She took a deep drag from her cigarette. “He was never around, there was never any money. And some of that stuff he sold killed people.” He hadn’t ever come to see her. Had not attended her high school graduation, which had been a triumph for her—she was a straight A student, a drum majorette, and a member of the prom court. She, alone of her sisters, had achieved a measure of social acceptability in that town. “I sent him a written invitation,” she said. “He didn’t reply. He didn’t come.” She buried him after that snub.
I muse about my bootleg grandfather. Perhaps he wore a fedora and a white shirt with suspenders, and he had a corn liquor still deep in the woods, like the photographs of the bootleggers and gangsters in the history books. But, no, he was a small-time operator located near the Mississippi River docks in rural Illinois, tied into the bootlegging pipeline extending from Chicago to St. Louis. He didn’t need a still. He ran a speakeasy, later a bar. My cousin claims he shot a man during an argument in the 1930s in that bar and fled across the river to safety until it blew over.
I saw my real grandfather once. I was around nine years old. We were attending a graveside service for his sister, Peggy. I was sitting with Mom in the front seat of the car with the windows rolled down when she said two things at odds with each other: “Look, that is your grandfather.” Then, “Don’t let him see you.” She shoved me down in the car, my cheek scraping the door handle.
This two-sidedness, this-look-and-don’t-look, this roll the dice and know the truth but deny the connection. This sadness is behind my mother’s upside down smile, the smile of a child of an alcoholic, a survivor.
When Mom was old, she liked a drink of wine, a couple every day, but she camouflaged the garbage. She hid the empties and even the cigarette ashes, putting them in tightly rolled up paper bags before they went out to the trash. She did this until she got emphysema. Then I did it.
My mother was a party girl wrapped in a tightly bound package of brown paper respectability. I know this because I have seen her when she was sixteen. In a photograph taken on her prom night, she is at the end of a row of prim and plump Midwestern girls wearing white lace dresses with full skirts, their hair pulled back into neat chignons. They smile demurely at the camera—except for my mother. She sits at the end of the row, and looks as if she has been summoned into the room at the last minute. She alone is dressed in a tight, scoop-necked black sheath dress. Masses of jet black hair curl down her shoulders.
My mother liked showing this picture around. Everyone who saw it asked her where she got the dress. “Oh, I have no idea,” she answered. “Borrowed it, probably. We were too poor to buy one.” I think that dress came from her father, the bootlegger. I imagine it was stolen from one of those illicit ladies he must have known. Picked off the floor or taken from some closet, and inserted inside Mother’s trunk when Grandma was busy packing to leave him. It stayed there, undetected, waiting for this middle daughter, the one whose eyes accused and judged him so quietly and so lethally, to find it when she needed it, a secret gift of pure black joy.
Whenever Mom asked me who was going to take care of me when I got old, I told her there are millions of women without daughters who get along quite nicely. They go to assisted living places. I told her I’d pick out a retirement home where my every wish would be granted by aides and activity organizers. I’d ride buses with toilets in them, go on junkets into the countryside, eat unsalted gourmet meals in the big windowed dining room, and attend dances where I’d be dragged around the dance floor by a handsome young male nurse. I was not thinking about the old people in there. I was not thinking about being old, either.
Mom threatened to sell the farm and take my inheritance away if I ever put her in a retirement home. A nursing home was okay but not assisted living, an oxymoron. “Even if you go to one of those places, there will be no one who cares enough about you to take care of you right,” she insisted. “No one who doesn’t have to be paid to do it. So I will get you a daughter.”
One time, exasperated, I asked, “How are you going to do that? Are you going to bootleg her?” She slowly nodded. “Yes, and you won’t know a thing about it, until it happens.”
“You need a daughter” was a code between us, a secret acknowledgement of our loss, our regret, our fear of abandonment, and our need for control. It was a reminder of the bargain she had made with fate, God, or me, one she almost accomplished. It was to die in her very own bed in her own apartment, snatched from assisted living by a bootlegged angel carrying a carton of cigarettes for her and a bundle of joy for me: a short daughter, pink, brown, black or Asian, about thirty-five, and smart enough to keep me happy.
Her last words to me were, “That daughter...”
Sally Nielsen is a professor of English at Florida State College at Jacksonville. She holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte. Her piece is from a collection she began writing (for sanity's sake) at the time of her mother's illness and death.