anatomy of a tart

Even in death, mother’s presence was commanding.

A presence I tried desperately hard to ignore but failed. She was radiant in all that stillness and I couldn’t stop staring. She was tall of frame, large of bone, and skin that didn’t quite seem to fit the stature of her body. The mortician did a good job, I thought, as I continued to stare at mother’s body in the coffin. It was remarkable. Even in death, he was able to capture mother’s youthful dewiness, the kind that leaves most women by the time they are 30. Mother just turned 60. From her strawberry lips, cinnamon colored hair, and peaches for cheeks, she looked not just youthful but alive.

When asked about her skin care, which was quite often, she would gaily respond, “Soap and water. That’s MY beauty secret. Soap and water.”

I startled myself from the past. I heard her voice. No, just the noise of the funeral crowd as they shuffle out of their pews.

When she was alive, mother reminded me of ripe fruit and exotic mystery. She looked like no one I knew. Her lips were always strawberry red. Her cheeks, when she smiled, had the color and the warmth of fresh picked peaches. Her hair often varied between numerous shades or red: cinnamon, henna, chestnut and currant. Mother also smelled of the earth: of amber, clove, sandalwood, and vanilla.

Hunger often ruled my thoughts when I was with her. When I was older, I often found it difficult to not pull her closer and munch on her cheeks or snack on her neck. Mother laughed if I hugged her too hard, for she thought it was an act of love.

There was no waddle, line, or jowl to seen on her face, thanks to a stringent beauty regime and curiously aligned genes that unhappily skipped a generation. Mother may not have been a traditional beauty, but she knew how to work with what she had, but unfortunately she passed neither the genes nor the beauty advice on to me.

Mother, mother, mother. With a face and body hinting of fruit and smells recalling the earth and exotica, and hair color not found in nature; she was never short a dance partner, travel companion, or a lover. From my early years, after father died, mother played the merry widow. “I’m just an old tart having a few laughs,” she’d say with a wink as she swiped lipstick across her lips.

Mother was always going out. Most of my childhood memories are peppered with images of her as she dashed to and fro to get ready before her night out with Steve, Dan or George. Names were as interchangeable as the men. While her dates changed frequently, her routines did not. She kept track of the outfits she wore in a little notebook so she never repeated the same outfit twice. Her lists included jewelry, shoes, and even lingerie. Mother was meticulous about everything.

As a young girl I became obsessed with mother’s to-ing and fro-ing. Perched on an old ottoman that somehow found its way into mother’s room, I observed every move of her actions. As I got older, I often moved away from my ottoman perch to assist mother as she dressed. I was desperate to get noticed by her as her daughter, not just as her dresser or occasional confidant. “Mother,” I would say quietly as I handed her things while she got dressed, “Do you think I can be as pretty as you someday?” “Don’t be silly,” she’d laugh. “You’ve brains and charm, you don’t need to be pretty.”

Kids at school had mothers who took them shopping, made them dinner, helped them with their homework. They did not have mothers who slept until 1 or 2 pm, who only drank champagne or almost never wore the same thing twice. There was something about mother that didn’t quite fit with the label of “mother.”

Mother was clever. She was witty. She was entertaining. Yet mother had few, if any, real women friends. This never bothered her as much as it did me, but if it did, she ignored it. I eventually understood years later what mother actually was, and that information came via slight of hand gossip from neighbors and relatives. In public I always pretended she was the picture of perfection, just as she taught me.

The doctors were baffled by mother’s sudden death. There was no warning, no indication of any illness other than liver damage from a mysterious agent which led to her near painless and quick death. They ruled out murder and suicide. They blamed it on the act of God (mother, who was an atheist, would have loved to hear that explanation).

“Merciful that it was quick,” they said. “She didn’t die in agony, blessed woman,” replied their consorts. She was determined a medical oddity, one for the history books they all agreed.

People I had never seen pulled me to their breasts and sobbed heavily on my shoulder about how wonderful mother had been and oh! what a pity to lose her so young. Mostly men, I noticed, even her hair dresser and tailor were men. The few women who were at the funeral looked at me sideways, a quick nod to indicate they had seen me before they melted back into the crowd.

Nutmeg is an interesting spice. It’s a wonderful flavor enhancer to most drinks and dishes and smells intoxicating. But did you know it can be lethal in large doses? Fifteen milligrams to be precise. No? Neither did mother when I started to pick up her ritual afternoon mochas. No one, in fact, thought anything.

I gently closed the casket lid and left the funeral home, hungry to eat peaches.