Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay, Denise Frame Harlan explores memories of her mother and her mother’s body.
I’ve been searching for signs of my mother, all these years, not for myself but for those people in the world who will never meet her nor anyone like Patricia Louise Thornburg. I can’t find her in movies, or in books. Could we cross Lucille Ball with Paul Bunyan, perhaps? I find a hint in a Texas-swing song by K.D. Lang, as she describes The Big-Boned Gal swinging down the street: “You just couldn’t call her small.”
One or two nights a month, my mother and my father hired a babysitter and gussied themselves up to go dancing at the American Legion Hall outside the city limits of Farmland, Indiana. My young brothers and I hovered underfoot while they dressed, dragging out the long preparations. My mother favored a dry cake of mascara, which she moistened and scrubbed with a tiny stiff brush. Her lipstick choices ran from hot-pink to fire engine red to match her flashy jewelry and dancing shoes. My dad wore a jacket and a dark skinny tie with his skinny good looks, and both swept out the door with spirits high and full of playful winks. Hours later they would stumble home, tipsy and smelling of smoke, bourbon and stale perfume. If they weren’t careful, their laughter roared through the house, alternating with hushings as they attempted to quiet themselves. Sometimes other couples stumbled in, too, to mix a round of sloe gin fizzes. They would play cards, shouting and laughing into the night. My brothers and I rubbed the sleep from our eyes and huddled in the shadow of the staircase, spying but understanding nothing. We wanted to be near their happiness, but not so near we’d be shooed back to bed.
They didn’t want any good night to end, but the good nights fueled their work-a-day lives. On Monday my father would meet his carpool dressed in his dark blue work shirt, his safety glasses in the pocket for another day at the auto factory.
A normal weekday for my mother could include any of three different jobs, juggled between school hours. Two days a week she staffed the local library, recommending racy paperback novels and mysteries. Other days she waited tables at the diner on the highway, where she could sling coffee and insults with the truckers. And during the in-between hours at home, my mom strode through the house with upholstery tacks in her mouth and a magnetic tack-hammer in her hand, a pencil behind one ear, reconstructing chairs and couches propped on sawhorses in the garage. If the money ran short enough, she’d sell the couch right out of our living room, knowing she’d find another to upholster soon enough. I didn’t notice the contrast of these roles, as a child. She was simply my mother, whether she was concentrating in the sewing machine’s thunderous rhythm or sitting behind a desk waiting to talk about books.
A big-boned gal, she was capable of anything. She was a verb. She was a force. She did not consider: she hauled ass. She hauled ass as a librarian, as a waitress, as the owner of her own business. She would pay those bills and she would be home for the children, because she could do it. And she could enjoy most of the hours of her life this way. I’m not saying her company was easy, this fierce and passionate woman. She lacked all traces of delicacy and gentleness, which is a challenge for a quiet child. But I was proud of her, envying her as she layered the bright lipstick for her occasional nights out. She was not like any other mom I ever met.
As I am looking for sketches of my mother in the world, another hint of how she looms in my memory is the tender song by Cat Stevens who is looking for a hard-headed woman. I, too, am looking for a hard-headed woman. Perhaps I’m looking to myself, wishing I could be the hard-headed, passionate woman my mother was.
When I moved away from home, my mother’s physical stature surprised me. Each time I returned to her door, the 5-foot, 7-inch big-boned gal before me seemed too small for the mythological mother I knew. Have you lost weight, I would ask? “Heavens no, if anything I’ve gained.” I’d puzzle: weren’t you taller the last time I looked? I’d place my hand on top of hers to make sure I had the right mother: her hand was as huge as ever, and mine so small. Except for the hands and the lipstick, people remark that I look just like her.
She upholstered furniture until her doctors ordered her to stop at age 62. She sold her tools so she wouldn’t be tempted to ruin her hands any further. And she found other ways to work like a workhorse.
For months after she died, my husband and I joked about Pat-sightings. We thought we saw her at concerts, sitting in the back row, or in the stranger we asked to take our photo. We’d see her in any dark-haired older woman with a headlong sense of flair, especially when the photos turned out to be focused on a nearby parking meter.
Lately I’ve been lamenting my weight, just as my big-boned mother did, and I note that I weigh just about the same as she did. For years I was in better shape than my mom. Now I’m not so sure. She was fond of hauling concrete blocks around the yard even at age 62, and I’ve never successfully carried one. I sit at a laptop for hours a day, wishing I had my mother’s wherewithal: to work my ass off, to pay down our debt. Librarian jobs don’t go to those without degrees today. Waitressing in New England is a kind of hell. I don’t swing a hammer.
Writing is a different sort of work: it takes time, and it doesn’t add up to money. Some days I wish I could measure up to her problem-solving practicality. Mostly I wish she were here as questions bubble up about raising teenagers, about relationships, about her amazing ability to repair things, and to let things go. The final year of her life was an incredible gift, as we spoke on the phone every day, her asking me questions, lending me courage, and living vicariously through my stories, instead of me living vicariously through hers.
Now my own friends repeatedly ask if I’ve lost weight. It’s a mystery to me: I’m physically bigger all the time, as I lose any sense of fitness. Perhaps I too seem bigger from a distance, smaller in person. There’s nothing small about me but my hands. I think of my mom’s hard-headed passion, my hand curled in hers.
Heavens no, I answer all inquiries. I’ve not lost. If anything I’ve gained.