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Chapter 18: Le Petit Prince

They called my mother’s hair brown, but that’s the most glaring understatement anyone has ever claimed. Her hair was not just brown; it was the color of maple syrup and just as thick. She always wore it down, and it covered her back in a warm, rich blanket that didn’t smell like syrup at all. It smelled like roses and black licorice.

She called the color maple syrup because she was born in Canada and proud of it. She would speak French to me as a little kid, and every night before bed we would journey through far-off worlds, visiting asteroids and boa constrictors that could swallow whole elephants. She only referred to me as her Prince, and for the longest time, I thought my father’s name was MyLove, until I called him that at school and my first-grade teacher laughed at me. Adults have an extraordinary ability to ruin innocent magic.

My mother was right to call her hair the color of maple syrup; it was rich and deep. She would take me to a small beach along the Gulf, and when the sun would hit her hair, it shone like copper. I relished our walks along the beach. We’d amble up the frothy high-tide line, and she’d run ahead to collect shells and bits of sea glass.  

She’d leave behind all the whole shells – the knobby oysters and unmarred white scallops – because my eight-year-old self loved to collect them. I loved to own a little piece of each creature’s ocean home, and was obsessive about them being perfect – no cracks or missing pieces would suffice. They had to look just like the drawing in the books from the library. My mother, on the other hand, only collected broken shells and pebbles, but her collection was truly remarkable.

Her eyes would sweep the sand, and her lips would curl into a cheeky grin whenever she spotted a glint of blue, or a shard of iridescent green. We’d gather our favorites and kneel in the soft wet sand to pore over our treasures like pirates. She loved these little gifts from the sea, and she would name each one – little blue, greenie meanie, summer sparkle. She’d tell me stories about the animals that left them behind for us to find, and when we’d had our fill of tall tales and salty winds, we’d gather up those piles of treasure so she could scatter them in the flower beds in front of our home. It was a ritual I realize now that I never fully appreciated as a kid.

When I was ten my father was offered a job on Lake Erie, and my mother was ecstatic. My old man was a skeptic – suspicious of everything – but when he was around my mother, he never stopped smiling. When he saw her face light up at the prospect of moving so close to her childhood home, he agreed to take the job on the spot. He was terrified to move, but after dinner each night, she’d soften him up by gushing over all the wonderful things we’d do up north – boating on a lake that felt like the sea, long walks through forests thick with conifers – and I’d finally get to meet my grandparents who lived a stone’s throw away, just outside Toronto.

In the days leading up to the move, I’d peel apart stacks of newspaper after school and lay them on the kitchen table – nice and flat. My mother would then wrap each dish, plate, teacup and saucer, singing Parlez-Moi D'Amour at the top of her lungs while I rolled up her tiny collection of antique teaspoons in cloths to be packed up in our old Chevy.

We talked about getting a dog when we got to Erie. I wanted a puppy – a Chihuahua puppy – and I wanted to name him Poncho, just like the Beaver. She promised me Poncho, and we’d only been at the lake for a week – still unpacking boxes – when a lady dropped him off at our new little house by the dock. Poncho wasn’t a puppy though. He wasn’t a Chihuahua either. He was a six-year-old beagle named Darwin, and we were inseparable.

Darwin came with us to Mémé and Grandpa’s house when we eventually made the two-hour drive to their small farm. I had never seen my mother so excited in my life. She made us all dress up in our nicest clothes, and she parted my wavy brown hair with my father’s pomade, which made me smell like a waxy broom closet.

We stopped to eat at a restaurant on the way, which was like visiting a terrifying amusement park for me. I had only ever been to The River Room in Mississippi when I was seven, and I had only gone then because my neighbor couldn’t watch me. My mother was meeting an old lady who was supposed to help our congregation buy replacement pipes for the church’s organ. She was incredibly wealthy, and apparently hated kids, but my mom refused to believe that she could dislike me, of all people. My mom had hastily made me a bologna sandwich before we left, and I was told to sit quietly at the table when we got there. The lady we were meeting, however, demanded that I be served lunch, too. When my mom agreed, I did exactly as she instructed: I stayed silent, ate every crumb on my plate, and drank two huge glasses of lemonade. I’ve never been so stuffed in my life. The lady remarked that I was such a sweet little gentleman that she insisted I be rewarded with a dessert. When I covered my mouth and woefully stared down the towering slice of chocolate cake set in from of me, my mother almost split down the middle with laughter. I forced a smile, and ate the whole piece anyway. I was sick when we got home, but the lady had agreed to fund the restoration, so it was worth it to bring music back to my church.

In Canada though, the little restaurant we stopped at was much fancier and looked over the north bank of Lake Erie. We sat at a small wooden table, and when I was handed a gold-trimmed menu, I must have looked like a deer in headlights. My father spent the whole time scoffing at prices while my mother asked me a hundred questions, trying to narrow down exactly what I was hungry for. This was a treat, a celebration of my dad’s new job and our new life in the north, but I had no idea what to eat; I was terrified of picking something wrong, so I focused on my mom’s smiling face instead of the menu. I remember how natural she looked in the dining room full of brass nautical fixtures and dark cherry floors. My father and I stuck out like blue-collar sore thumbs, but she shone like a star. She spoke in sweet sing-songy French to the waiter, who spent most of his time refilling my nervous father’s whiskey glass.

I tended to take after my father, and when I wouldn’t stop babbling about how worried I was for Darwin – all alone and stuck in the car – my father excused himself to go check on him. In the end though, Darwin was fine, and my dad got some much needed fresh air. Once he came back a little more relaxed, he and I spent the rest of the dinner picking out the nicest boats drifting across the lake.

My grandparents were vastly different from the people we’d left in Louisiana. Both had been born in the exotically foreign realm of Europe. My Mémé was French and she never seemed to speak to my father, but my Grandpa was an Englishman who went on at great lengths about the American Civil War. He was fascinated by it, and thought my father, having been born in the American south, should be fascinated with the war too. My father couldn’t have cared less. I’ll give him credit, though – he listened to as much as he could stand before he got fed up and walked around the horse pasture for a while with my mom. I can’t blame him for walking away; his family hadn’t come out of that battle as winners – an unfortunate fact that many of them still resented.

The farm was my mother’s childhood home, so she knew where all the best hiding spots were, and where we could find blueberry bushes and buried treasure. She also knew all the animals by heart. As soon as we got there, she and I took off with Darwin toward the back forty acres so she could show me these enormous shaggy, red cows. She let me name one of the new calves that had been born about a month or so earlier. I named her Copper, and she was the sweetest cow in the world.

My mother was the spitting image of Mémé. They both had maple syrup hair, and cooked the same meals – rich in cream and root vegetables – and they spoke only French when they were alone. While they chatted and cooked, I stayed under the kitchen table with Darwin, both of us waiting patiently for table scraps in the form of strawberry candies my grandfather would slip us while he read the paper.

I remember everyone getting into a fight our first night there because I didn’t know as much French as I should have by ten. Mémé had called it a disgrace. When I finally built up the nerve to chime in, I said I wanted to learn everything there was to know about France. My grandmother squealed with glee and kept tapping her nose, saying she knew I was a smart boy.

My mom was never one to push formal education. She had never gone to college herself, of course, and claimed to loved experiences more than academics. But when I majored in English and minored in French at the University of Maryland, she had never been prouder. I hadn’t moved that far away, mind you – just three hundred or so miles – so I’d visit home once a month to catch my mom up on all the goings-on back home in the “south”.

I was twenty years old when I visited home for Thanksgiving. I headed north before sunrise, unable to sleep because I’d just met an amazing girl at school, and I had to tell my mom about her.

My mother was outside, looking over the lake when I pulled into the driveway around lunchtime. Every day at twelve, my mom would sit out on the dock and gaze across the water. She said when it was noon here, the sun was just setting in France, so she’d go sit by the lake and imagine the sunset in her mind.

I never told my mom about the redhead I met in my writing class, because I couldn’t. There was no one to tell. There was no beach glass, no beagle named Darwin, no strawberry candy – and you should know that by now. My mother’s brilliant light and her endless love for life was the glowing warmth my family could’ve had, but never did. That beauty and happiness she brought to the world was exactly what I ripped from my father’s life the day I was born. This was what he lost when he looked into my newborn eyes. This was the life neither of us would ever get to live. My very existence was her death sentence.

My mother had wrapped up her joy, her beauty, her whole life inside a tiny bundle and gave it to me as a birthday present. It would be the only present she’d ever hand me, and I selfishly stole that precious gift and wasted it. I didn’t flourish with it like she would have. I didn’t relish in its beauty. I did nothing but squander it for thirty-seven pathetic years, until the day finally came when my father, desperate to escape the pain his son had caused him, shot himself, alone in the empty shed behind our shack in Baton Rouge.

Notes:

My chapter 18 notes.