A trivet sits on my stove top, a place to set a hot pot or a taster’s spoon. It’s a cast iron frame with a ceramic tile inserted and painted on it is an 18th century New England Inn sign. The name of the establishment is “The Quiet Woman.” Its icon is a plump feminine figure with diminished feet, hands in pockets, and no head.
This utensil trained on my mother’s stove top my entire life. I don’t know of its origin but can guess that my father found it and thought it funny and bought it for her, such was his sense of humor (If you’re my sibling reading this, perhaps you know the story).
I never got the humor of it until sometime after my mother died I was cooking waiting for butter to melt and the words on the tile pulled focus for me, the quiet woman – decapitated – suggesting that whole women aren’t or are incapable of quiet. I must be slow that way. When I was thirteen I bought her a little white statue of a hippie flashing a peace sign with a caption on his pedestal reading “High There.” It was for Mothers’ Day. I think I was a high school senior when I realized its implication and I apologized to my mother for buying her such a thoughtless gift. She never said a word about it, though it kept a place just below the phone in the kitchen right next to a note pad and a wooden dispenser of paper clips. Everybody who came into our kitchen could see it.
She taught me how to cook. There was never a lesson, it was more by intrusion than anything else, her being a perpetual shusher of people in her kitchen. “Get out! Get out!” You’d hear this if you got in the way of her choreographed cooking triangle between counter, fridge and stove. I learned that dance and I learned her tastes by watching her move and eating her incredible food.
So, I’m melting butter and I see it for the first time, The Quiet Woman.
I had a funny little tumor grow just above my right knee when I was fourteen. It began to fetter out into the muscle of my thigh and my doctor decided it was time to remove it. My mother was taking me to the hospital to be admitted. It was midday, I was out from school and in the unusual place of passenger in her Buick Century. That’s odd to me now, because I realize that I rarely went places with her, just her. Dad was always along, always driving, always his Buick.
Murrieta Boulevard intersected Stanley Boulevard several car-lengths ahead of rail-road tracks. Signs warned not to stop on the crossing. Traffic queued up and the signal was red when she stopped that Century on the safe side of the tracks. Some teenagers in a car behind us crept up on her bumper. I was talking and she’s watching them get closer and closer in her rear-view mirror until they made contact and started to push her car onto the tracks. She didn’t say a word. She engaged those big power brakes with her high-heeled foot, turned and extended her right arm as far into the back seat as she could, perhaps to keep her emblem beyond my peripheral, and gave them the finger. I saw it. It was graceful with a carefully painted maroon fingernail punctuating her point. They disengaged. “You didn’t see that,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she meant the bumper rubbing or the bird.
I saw it all and was duly impressed. My mother flew the bird with seemingly superhuman power enough to stave errant fooling-around and preserve the sanctuary of her Century.
We’d moved to Livermore a couple years previous from Montreal and of course I was oblivious to the economic transition this was for my parents. I just knew that it’d be a real trick to get all that furniture from our house in Canada into that tiny little condo in California. I knew that only because my mother said it would be. The condo was two stories. Stairs went to a landing that turned them back and up to the second level where a little balcony looked down at the steps. It was from the lower level where I was yelling at mom about how dissatisfied I had become with our living conditions and expressed my desire to run away. She said nothing. I stood, looking up at the railing of the balcony waiting for her to answer my goading, when from over it came the contents of my underwear drawer, and then my sock drawer, and then my t-shirt drawer, my sweater drawer, and my jeans drawer. She must have been stacking them next to the railing during my tirade and waited for the right moment. I packed them up and headed out, making my way down Murietta Boulevard.
She didn’t come after me. I made it all the way down to Olivina Avenue and must have turned to look a hundred times. She wasn’t there.
Almost thirty years later, the day after my dad’s funeral, we sat across her little breakfast table from each other and talked about a million things, not the least of which was the day I ran away. “I sat on the floor of your room and worried and cried for you,” she said. “But I wasn’t going to come after you. That’s what you wanted me to do.” My genetic predispositions clarified.
It’s not that she never raised her voice. Yelling was a common approach at attempting to be understood, let alone heard in my house. Her voice would hit a certain timber that clearly indicated you’d better shut the hell up. But she never used it to her advantage, only to get her point across, especially to dad.
The most serious argument I witnessed with them confirmed my suspicions that dad’s Buick Apollo had Positraction. It was about religion and about me, and I don’t remember if the two were connected. Her voice reached that timber and dad ignored the warning. And she left him. In his Buick. I remember standing in the garage between two black ribbons galvanized onto the cement of the garage floor, the driveway, the asphalt of the street, and then ground anew when she put that Apollo into drive, I’m guessing around five thousand RPM’s. Holy smokes. She spent the night in a motel on First Street and dad spent the night in front of the TV in his “Pa” chair. I spent the night looking for her.
Chemo got the best of her in her fight against the monster, biliary cancer. I had the pleasure of her company for the last few weeks of her life. When she first joined us in St. George, she decided she wanted a margarita. We took her to Applebee’s and got margaritas all around. She had two in as many hours and in that time glowed the same way she did when those punks moved off her bumper or when I found her in my room amidst the empty drawers of my dresser.
I believe she left us shortly after. She became much less lucid and drifted in and out of her quiet. One morning I went in to tend her and she began telling me about her baby boy, and asked if I had seen him. When I suggested she was looking into his face she quickly came around and smiled at me. Eventually her quiet was displaced by the rattlings of infiltrated upper lobes and her labored body’s attempt to breathe against the pressure and fluid building up in her chest. I did percussions on her back and chest and tried to get get her to cough. I didn’t have the suction I’d been so accustomed to having cared for my son with similar symptoms. She got louder and struggled harder to breathe, desaturating with the effort. I slid my arms underneath her shoulders and hips and rolled her on her side. Fluid drained from her mouth and nose and her airway cleared. She rolled back in my arms and looked in my face and said, “Thanks, Buddy,” and peacefully died.
I found the trivet on her stove when we packed her up and moved her from Elk Grove to my home in Utah. And now it sits on mine and I think of her every day when I make coffee or breakfast or dinner. Every day I hear The Quiet Woman.