One mother opens a door. She pretends to open her mouth. There are curtains waving in the background. A mother is a mother is a mother. A mother is a flower. A mother is a lover. A mother is a house. Even as a daughter says the word mother, she knows that to mother would mean to die many times, to bleed without cutting, to leave without saying goodbye.

Draw a mother, the social worker said. There was no mother, so the daughter drew a house with all the windows missing. Why can’t we see inside, the social worker asked. The child drew a window on the grass, pointed down. Here. Here is a mother. Mother dressed in white or in jewels or with hairspray keeping her photo-ready. Mother is down there, the child says. The social worker nods and looks at the father and the step-mother. They are asked to leave the room. The child draws another house and another and another. The child draws a sun so big it burns the house. The social worker leaves with ashes.

At recess, a daughter swings. A daughter sits on a merry-go-round. The playground is silent except to all the other children. This laughing playground. This playground of lies. This playground where mothers come to watch children fall down. Pick rocks out of knees. A daughter sits and sits. She cries openly. The children laugh at her and point like children do when one of their own has been cast out and cast out, cast so far out they don’t even know who they laugh at, cannot see her face.

A mother. Flash. Many mothers. Perhaps a child is a mother before becoming a mother. The daughter has sisters and they need a mother. The daughter fixes them sandwiches. The daughter teaches them how to read. Mother. Father comes and goes, works long shifts, sometimes overnight, forgets to call them by name.

As a young girl, the daughter vows to never become a mother. How can she with her own womb scrubbed with vinegar with pain with scars with confusion with

Mother plays a violin. Or it’s probably a saxophone. Another mother smokes while pregnant. The daughter has ear infections to prove it, the stumbling and crying to prove it. Another mother loves her children. Another mother is a slut, sleeps with anyone at all. Another mother forgets to take her asthma medication or takes too much of it. Another mother kills herself. Another mother simply overdoses, dies accidentally. Another mother laughs so loud people only remember that sound, not her face. Another mother has a favorite child but never says. Another mother loves a man so much she leaves him. Another mother makes chili and fried bologna sandwiches for dinner. Another mother has no money to go shopping so the children eat peanut butter from the jar. Another mother. Another mother. There are so many mothers. And not even one.

When the daughter first planted a tree, she knew that it would either grow or not. It would either find its way out of the ground, or it would stay deep in the earth, never pushing its way out, never fighting through the soil or learning how to expand its roots and turn and twist and build itself into the sky. She knew. But she still watched from the window half-expecting the tree to just suddenly appear one day or maybe the next day disappear or maybe grow into something not a tree at all, but a rose bush, or a pumpkin patch, something surprising yet all too familiar.

When she says the word mother she rolls it around inside her mouth and allows herself to taste it. There is no shame in practicing. What if someone wanted to call her mother one day? What if she found a mother on the side of the road waiting for a lonely daughter to read books to to sing songs to to teach how to wish on stars? Mother tastes like baby oil, like crayons. Mother tastes like sour milk and cigarettes and Dr. Pepper and a man’s beard. Mother tastes like salty fingers. Mother tastes like whatever the daughter can remember and nothing at all.

The social worker asks the daughter to draw her family. She draws each of them, all in a row. She draws a sun and green green grass. She draws a rainbow passing over them. She draws their shadows and makes them real. She wants her family to look like this. The social worker asks her to draw herself. The daughter cannot start. Where to begin. What does she look like. She looks like mother, talks like mother. They say she is mother, just doesn’t know it yet. She snaps the crayons in half.

Mother had migraines. The daughter has migraines, even at only four years old. The daughter has nausea with migraines and vomits before school. The daughter is always too ill to go to school. The mother places a wash cloth on the daughter’s forehead. Another mother leaves in the middle of the night while the daughter sleeps on the couch. Another mother never even knows of the daughter’s migraines. These things happen. Migraines are genetic. The daughter and the mother are connected.

When the daughter is older, she watches children run and laugh and hug their mothers. She doesn’t mind. She doesn’t feel a bit resentful. She isn’t angry. She remembers hugging a mother, once, too, long ago. At least, she thinks it was a mother. She’s certain she’s hugged at least someone’s mother and knew it immediately. Felt the mother in her bones.

The girl writes letters to mother. Each letter is addressed to a mother she has heard about. In one letter, she writes to the mother who played pranks. That mother dyed the father green from the waist down. He didn’t even see it coming. In another letter, the daughter writes to the mother who remarried. She remembered the day. The small church. The hairspray cans. The skirt and jacket that was so obviously not a wedding dress. In another letter, she writes to a mother who paints. She is very talented and paints wood carved objects, ceramics, anything she can get her hands on. Where have these trinkets gone? Who has kept them all these years? Would the daughter be able to see the mother there in those smiling clowns and bears and welcome signs?

A mother is a mother is a mother. Mother’s come in many shapes and sizes. Mothers are lamps. Mothers are water, fluid, giving life or drowning it. Mothers eat all the pain and say it’s worth it. It’s always worth it. In the end.

When the step-father gave the daughter the mother’s purse, the daughter felt nothing. She opened it. Smelled it. Old purse smell. Inside, she found a grocery list. This was a mother’s handwriting. Inside, she found lipstick. This was the color of a mother’s lips. He’d kept the purse, hadn’t taken anything out of it. These artifacts only showed how time had stopped at a mother’s wish. The step-father did not speak of the mother. Only called her by name. Only said that he had loved her. The daughter felt she knew better. There was always more to say.

A poet is a mother. Or a mother becomes a poet. When the daughter gets pregnant she cannot imagine how to become a mother. She does not realize her body is a mother. She has never felt like she belonged in the body anyway, and as it grows, changes, she stops looking in the mirror. She looks at old photos of a mother they say once existed. What is this mother with these dimples with this ever-changing hair color with the daughter’s same eye crinkles? The daughter learns nothing from the mother’s eyes. She refuses to mother.

A mother is a bookshelf. A mother is a scarf. A mother is a chair, reupholstered and put on display in the main room. A mother is a coffin. A mother is a sweater soaked in blood.

When the daughter gets pregnant, she signs papers to promise someone else can mother. She does not talk like a mother, walk like a mother, dream like a mother. She is like a woman but not. She keeps smoking, just changes her brand. A social worker speaks to her about her plans. The daughter wants to draw her house, wants to change the windows, move them around, show them just what it looks like on the inside. See, she would say. There is no mother in there. Never has been. There is no mother in a kitchen with a broken garbage disposal. No mother among the empty whiskey bottles. The social worker sees the daughter’s smile and writes down some notes. They are happy with the choice. The social worker is a mother. The daughter can see it in her eyes.

One mother carries a daughter to the doctor. Holds her down while they put in the stitches, sewing up her lip. The mother is in the room but somewhere else. The daughter sees the needles, the needles, the needles. The mother makes mashed potatoes and buys the daughter milkshakes. The daughter fondles the black stitches on her lip. Later, when the stitches are removed, the mother is already long gone, on some other road, her overnight bags left behind, her voice walking with the wind.

A daughter becomes a lover. Many lovers leave her. The daughter goes through many lovers. The daughter lies naked on many beds and dreams of loving even just one of them. She refuses to call them lovers. A lover is a window. She can no longer count the windows she’s looked through and what she never found.

  • This piece originally appeared in Midwestern Gothic.