We were at Radio Shack, Mommy and I.
The clerk was handing her credit card back. “Sorry ma’am, it’s been declined.”
“Oh!” Mommy exclaimed. She looked genuinely surprised.
Not wanting to embarrass us, quite considerately the clerk kept her voice down as we discussed what to do next. I didn’t know much about credit cards, but was about to get a good lesson. I was 16.
Mommy took back the card and handed over a different one from her wallet, where she had plenty others to choose from. “That one should be fine”. I noticed the colour in her cheeks rise to a pretty shade of rose. Things weren’t fine and that was my clue.
Just that afternoon, Mommy declared that we would be getting a computer and would I come with her to the Pen Centre to pick it up? She was taking a business course and a home computer was a must. Us girls could use it for school and, also, she planned to write a book about her life.
The year was 1992 and computers were pretty much cutting edge technology. I thought they were for rich people only, which we were not. Money, or, rather, lack of it, didn’t stand in the way of my mother being an early adopter. She had a life to live, goals to accomplish!
It seemed as if the whole store had paused, listening and waiting, as Mommy’s second card was processed. She did her best to look casual and nonchalant with her square shoulders and proud back, but I could still see that tell-tale pink in her cheeks. Back then there was a lot to do in processing a credit card. In the early Nineties you had to stand and wait at the counter in painful agony as the clerk relayed your number on a landline, as if waiting for permission from the authorities in some far-off official boardroom. The unseen committee would then debate amongst themselves in sombre tones as to whether or not they would grant the money. Meanwhile, back at the store, your small life hung delicately in the balance.
The clerk hung up the phone for the second time and reported the news we’d all been waiting for. I felt the entire store turned their ears in our direction.
Mommy had a new silk scarf tied in her hair that day. Bright pink water colours in a hand-painted design. She’d picked it out at the Lincoln Mall one afternoon after getting her hair cut. I remember seeing her walk out of the store, immediately tying it in a big bow over her hair, declaring “I’m going to wear silk scarfs from now on! You should wear one, too, Jennifer. Which one do you want? Let’s pick one out.”
I chose a blue-washed scarf, even though I knew I didn’t need one. Mommy remarked at how it suited me so well. It matched my eyes and complimented my blond hair just right. We were a pair that day, walking out of the mall, each with a scarf in our hair.
She was wearing one of her silk scarfs when she made the declaration “I’ve decided to write poetry! You can illustrate. We’ll make a book together, Mother and Daughter.” I probably didn’t roll my eyes, even though I wanted to. She was so excited and sincere. And honestly, she hadn’t been that happy in well … ever. Truthfully, she had never been happier in my whole life. All her pain had been lifted and she was experiencing the summer of all her summers. I didn’t quite know what to do, except that I knew I wanted to see her stay that way. I agreed to illustrate her poetry.
And so, it was the summer of brightly coloured silk scarfs, poetry and spending money. It was the summer of being young again. It was the summer of sweet happiness.
Along with composing poetry, Mommy had recently written an enthusiastic letter to her oncology doctor thanking him profusely for the most recent concoction of drugs. 22 years later, I found the letter in a stack of memories. It explains so much that I didn’t understand at the time.
The second card was declined and the store fell into a hush. All ears were tuned in to hear what the clerk had to say next. I picture the Radio Shack store looking like that game where someone calls out “FREEZE!” and everyone stands as still as possible. The loser is the one who moves first.
Mommy handed over a third card.
As this point, most people would give up. They would let go of their dream and resign to continuing life they way it was before. The clerk suggested that we consider not getting the computer. To Mommy, stubborn to a fault and an excellent problem solver, this suggestion was ludicrous. Instead of backing down, she thrust all three cards back to the clerk. “Split it into three. That’ll work.”
And so it did.
Cheeks now fully crimson, we left the store with our arms full of boxes, the not-so-proud owners of a brand new computer.
That evening, while Mommy busied herself with setting up the computer, boxes all over the bedroom, M-M and I had a quick meeting by the picnic table in the back yard. Our voices quiet, we reported our latest observations. “Something’s not right” she said. “Yeah”, I said. “She’s been writing poetry and wearing silk scarves. Plus there’s the computer and the credit cards and also, she bought that humongous desk.”
Yeah, something wasn’t right.
Also, why was she so happy? It was all quite suspicious.
The credit cards were full and we had an inkling that the bank account was dry. Mommy was happy and pain free. The madness had to be stopped. After our conversation by the picnic table there were a few phone calls followed by a quick change in drugs.
As the leaves turned from summer green to various shades of orange and red, M-M and I went back to school and our household returned it’s unique state of normal. Bills arrived in the mail. Mommy’s white sweater with the brightly embroidered flowers grew a patch of brown on the front from the constant rub, rub, rub to relieve the pain in her chest.
Yes, everything was back to normal.
She stopped writing poetry.
I sometimes wonder if Mommy knew she was higher than a kite that summer. I’ll never know, but one thing I’m sure about is that, no matter the cost, it was probably worth it.
For her, it was a great summer. Probably the best.