She did it for my little sisters, six and eight years younger. But I still lived at home during college, so on Valentine’s Day next to my dinner plate too were hearts, with messages on them, wrapped in a napkin and tied at the top with red ribbon. Or in a paper cupcake wrapper. Some red hots sprinkled in. Maybe something chocolate. It breaks my heart to think of it now—her preparing these Valentine packages for children who couldn’t wait to get out of the house, who would move hundreds of miles away. How strange is the growing-up process, how we go from wanting our mommy every minute to not wanting her much at all. How cruel. How nature uses people and casts them aside.
Yet I was a good son. After my father died, I called once a week and went home, across country, every Christmas and for a visit every summer. But what must it feel like to live alone in a house where you once lived with your five children and husband?
She bought a Toyota Tercel and six months later, over the cross-country wire, told me she needed gas and all of the stations were self-service. “What’d you do last time it needed gas?” I asked. “It hasn’t needed gas until now.”
She remarried, but he died after two years. She had boyfriends—“sleep-with” boyfriends. “Whose comb is in the bathroom?” I asked on one visit, meaning nothing, not thinking. She laughed and told me an Indian name—India-Indian—and said he had a ponytail.
Ah, how things had changed since the turbulent ’60s. Mother’s boyfriend had a ponytail. One of mother’s boyfriends.
The day after Valentine’s Day 1996 I got a call in my office at the library. She wasn’t dead but incapacitated. I flew out the next day, took the shuttle from LAX and drove the Tercel to the hospital. On my way home I stopped at the market, so I’d have something to eat in the house. Opening the trunk to put my groceries in, I found a red heart-shaped box of Valentine chocolates. From someone? For someone? She never regained speech, so I could never ask.
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