By Lyralen Kaye
My mother’s sermons smelled like oranges. Lying in my single bed on Sunday mornings, I woke to the smell that seemed to waft up from the clean white pages in the manila folder she used to carry them to church. A folder she never changed, even then interested in recycling.
I’d go downstairs to where my father leaned his weight onto an actual orange, squeezing juice for me into a glass measuring cup, but it seemed as if the smell lifted us all —my mother in her car, driving alone to the church, my father and I following in his, a half hour later.
The smell placed me next to my father in the second row pew where we always sat, my fingers sliding over the shining wood as I tucked my skirt around my bare legs. Each week I refused the joke books and tic-tac-toe my father offered and instead watched my mother on the raised platform of the chancel, her dark curly hair falling over the Episcopal vestments patterned in gold.
And when she ascended to the pulpit, and began to speak, her words opened around me like tiny packages filled with that bright, sweet scent. Standing in the light of the stained glass, my mother explained the world. She lit up with grace—because she possessed it, the real thing, that dignity, that power—and she’d look down once in a while and meet my eyes, letting me know the biblical quotes and poetry, the small jokes and lessons, were just for me.
And then it was over. A quick hug from her before she went to the line of waiting parishioners if I was lucky. If not, I watched them gather around her. The Sermon on the Mount all over again.
I went back home with my father where he’d watch football or grade papers and I’d go up to my room to read and wait, curled on my single bed, hoping there were no baptisms, no deaths, no marriages, no Bible study classes to keep her from me.
My mother, the love of my life, who I waited for, and received like a blessing, late at night after her visits to prisons, to the dying, to the homeless, and then early in the morning before I left for school and she went to her office at the church.
Not like other mothers.
So determined to do right by everyone.
And I can’t even say she forgot me, ever. She squeezed me in after school and before Eucharist, on evenings when she could leave her responsibilities alone. I don’t think she ever forgot to try.
But still, I waited, hours and hours, maybe that whole first part of my life.
Not for my father, who made me dinners, who tucked me in. But for the parent who always had a list of people for whom she needed to be that shining figure of grace.
When I head home from Stanford to visit my mother, the vibration in my body turns up, until my cells sing like notes from a 12 string guitar. Too many notes, really. Longing, hope, the prayer that peace will come, that I will be like her, that I won’t, that she’ll tell me what to do, that she’ll listen, for once, without comments or questions.
I could be the subject of my own psych dissertation. Really. Mommy issues. Give me a break.
But I can’t help tracking the way she looks, from that first moment in the airport terminal. Tonight will be no different: I’ll search for her face, try to catch her before she sees me. Will her bones hold the suffering she sees every day, will the skin and muscles pull her face into heaviness? Or will she have been able to set it aside? It’s not whether she’ll light up—she always does—it’s the effort it will cost her. It’s the dimming of her on holidays, or any time the people she serves falter, need, cry. Where do I go, wanting home, if she hasn’t found a way to arrive?
I thought about skipping Easter. I’d already skipped Christmas—not a popular decision—and it seemed easier to miss again. The wish and the hope—I wanted to skip them. Because no one with compassion could bring her one more problem to solve, right? And I had nothing to bring her but the mess I was making of my life.
I bought the plane ticket the week before, my finger hovering over the mouse for a long moment before I clicked. My father demanded to pay and I let him. As I always did. Because then he could do his Dad thing, puffing up a little, getting protective, getting into the my little girl, I’ll do anything for you.
Annoying and sweet.
I twist my too thick hair into a braid before I walk off the plane, down the long tunnel of hallway, over the thin carpet and linoleum, under the fluorescent lights, down to baggage claim, where he waits, hands in his pockets, the familiar blue-button down.
He’s alone. She didn’t even come.