I was in the backseat and my father was driving. The car was a blue station wagon, the same car that half of the families in my hometown drove. The vinyl seat stuck to my 7-year-old legs even though the air conditioning was on in the car. The air conditioning was always on in the summer, as my mom would get upset if it got too warm in the car. I was sweaty from running around with my friends in the warmth of the early evening, so even with the cool air, my legs were plastered to the seat. I lifted them up over and over again, trying to find a way to dry the sweat.
Oregon never got really warm, at least not like Texas did. I would’ve known—I spent a big part of the summer there with my dad every year. But at that moment, we were back in Oregon, driving home after eating in a friend’s backyard. I didn’t fully appreciate it, but August in Oregon was stunning, and my parents’ moods matched the weather. My mom’s eyes were shining, and I watched her smile over at my dad, who grinned broadly.
I felt that everything was right in the world.
We turned a corner, and the last bits of sunshine jolted my vision. “Oh, it’s beautiful,” my mom said, pointing at the clouds that were shades of purple and pink. “Pull over, Tom,” she said touching his arm, “we need to take a picture.”
My dad complied, as he always did when she made that request, slowing down the car on the side of the gravel road. He opened my door, and pulled me and my groggy sister out of the car.
“Look, girls!” my mother said excitedly, and pointed at the sunset. The color was growing more intense every moment, and she snapped a photo with the camera she always had at her side.
Later, when she developed the film, I saw an image of my profile, looking out into the sunset with my hair in my face. I looked younger than seven as my cheeks were still filled out with baby fat. I had a bowl haircut and I was wearing a sleeveless dress that was obviously dirty on one shoulder. My mother was not in the picture, but I remember her standing behind the lens, her flowing skirt whipping in the wind. Her hair was cut short, but the curls blew into her face as well, and the sunset lit up every part of her.
To me, she glowed from within.
My father took my hand and picked up Lindsay, leaving my mom to look at the sunset for a moment. I fell asleep in the car, and he carried me to bed, though I was too big for him to continue to do such a thing for much longer.
The next morning, he took both me and my sister to the grocery store. Lindsay rode in the cart, and I skipped alongside him. Everyone knew my dad, because the town was small and he was seemingly everyone’s doctor. “Dr. Clark!” I heard a woman say in the bakery, and she came over to say hello.
“Aren’t you girls adorable!” the woman said. “And how is your wife?”
“She’s good,” my father answered. That’s what he always said, and so it must have been true. I did not think about the fact that he was always the one to take us to the grocery store on the weekend mornings. I did not think about why my mother hadn’t run this errand during the week, when she was at home while my father was working. I did not think about how my mom was still in bed, like she always was in the morning, even on weekdays. I just didn’t think about it, because it was how things were in our family.
By the time we got home, we could hear her stirring upstairs, though we were not allowed to go up there until she was propped up in bed, with the drapes in the partially open position that she liked. Once the time came, we crawled in with her, talked about our morning and were silly in the way that young kids can be. Her coffee would be half finished by that point. My dad brought it to her every morning with a little milk, just how she liked it. Sometimes I helped him.
By the time she was about eight, bringing Mom her coffee had mostly become my sister’s job, including on school days. I was older, so I had more activities and I was outward-facing, trying to see what else was beyond my doorstep. But Lindsay was a caretaker, and in many ways she was like my father. I do not know exactly how she began to take over the coffee routine, but I was glad when it happened, because it eased the stress in the morning for my dad. My mom was never ready to emerge from her bedroom unless she first had at least an hour, and sometimes much longer, alone with her coffee. As a family, we made sure that her needs were met.
I only began to notice that my family operated differently from others when I was older, and I spent the night at friends’ houses. I noticed that their mothers were up at dawn, making pancakes, with perfectly done hairstyles. When I brought it up with my father, he said simply, “Your mother is not a morning person.”
By lunch, she was up and doing things around the house, meal-planning and folding clothes and talking on the phone with friends. At that time of day, she was like all of the other mothers I knew. I was happy in her presence. She was warm to the other kids in the neighborhood and she laughed easily at our antics. Her creativity seemed to ooze from her pores in the afternoon, and we delighted in the art projects and treasure hunts she’d assemble for us. “Isn’t your mother brilliant?” my dad would say, after watching her teach us to identify flowers or make wild collages or take apart a camera.
Yes, there were moments when something would seem to go wrong—she’d seem too worried, or she’d start to cry—but she was just my mother, and I accepted that she was more fragile than most other people I knew. We could not slam doors, as it rattled her. We weren’t in as many activities as our friends, because it would have been too much for her to handle. When my sister and I argued, we knew when it had gone too far because she started to cry. “Enough!” I would hear my dad say, sharply, if we upset her.
But we tried not to upset her. We loved her.
When I was three-and-a-half and my mother came to get me in Texas, I did not remember running into her arms, though my relatives tell me I did. I could only recall the smell of her skin, and the way her hair was soft, unadorned with the hairspray I’d become used to from the Texan women who surrounded me. Unlike my Aunt Nancy, she didn’t paint her nails, because she was always in the garden.
That afternoon I was watching my mother tend the lilies that she planted every year. They were Peruvian lilies, impossible to grow, and yet we had an entire yard full of them. They were tiny compared to the large, more common Easter lilies, and they had just a slight scent. My mother tried to help the neighbors grow them, but no one else was successful.
“We are lucky that your mother can grow Peruvian lilies,” my dad said to me. I was proud of her.
On the first of May every year, she cut more than half of them down and sent us to the neighbors’ houses to leave them anonymously on their doorsteps. I later learned it was an old pagan tradition celebrated in many places, but to me it was a holiday made up by my mother, one where something so curated and precious was shared with others.
When I think about things like this, I don’t just see my mom, standing in the yard in an old work shirt with her curls blowing everywhere. I also see my dad, gazing at her, from the back porch. He didn’t need to tell us that my mother was his greatest love, though he often did. In those moments, I could see the connection they have.
I could feel the magic of that kind of big love.