• Things of My Mother's

    Jacky Grey

    Spring 2024

    For the few weeks leading up to my ninth birthday, I had scraped enough good behavior together to ask for an ice cream cake. The closest Dairy Queen was twenty miles away.

    Going to town just to get cake was a big deal. Birthday cakes were usually a box mix with a tub of frosting. Ice cream cakes were special. My brother got one on his last birthday and I had asked ten months ago, if I was good, could I have one on my birthday too? Good behavior was hard. First, it was important to have visibly good behavior. Second, it was important to not be too obvious or it would turn on you. In our house, vanity, a subvariant of pride, was a terrible sin. I spent the day trying to be a half-invisible, half-doting daughter. I dusted rooms that were not on my chore list and quietly refilled my stepmother’s water glass while she was reading on the couch. I didn’t want to mess up somehow and spend my birthday in my room again.

    The previous year the highlight of my birthday was apologizing to the Manager at Shop-N-Kart and returning a ChapStick. (I swear on my mother’s life I found it on the aisle floor.) My stepmother, disbelieving me, considered it stealing. I spent the rest of the day in my room. My punishment for stealing was isolation and boredom. When Father got home, he creaked up the stairs and sagged on the edge of my bed. I hoped he wouldn’t notice the lump made from the book I had stashed between the bed slats and the mattress. I kept a copy of C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy in my room for just such occasions, and while this was an allowed book, I was not supposed to be daydreaming and enjoying myself during my bedroom banishment. I did not mind that I had read it many times through. After a short, halfhearted speech about stealing being a sin, Father said he couldn’t let me grow up to be sinful, even on my birthday, so he laid me over his knee.

    Before my double breathing subsided, Father said he had a present for me. The shock of this slowed my spasms. He stood and stuffed his hand into his pocket. Often after a punishment, Father was gentler, he would hold me in a hug and tell me he loved me. My stomach flipped in hope. Maybe it was a pocketknife like his I had not so secretly coveted. He pulled out a fist and uncurled to reveal a classic, cherry flavored ChapStick. Feigning gratitude at that gift hurt worse than the spanking. I hated pink then and now. I hate the flavor of artificial cherry and distrust those who don’t. He thought it was hilarious and spent the rest of the year telling any poor soul he held captive in an audience how clever he was. 

    I sat as still as I could muster on the ride to Dairy Queen. It felt like anything could topple this dream. My stepmother appreciated manners, and I pleased and thank-you’d enough for a month. The cakes were kept in a refrigerated glass case, the bottom shelf full of Dilly Bars and ice cream sandwiches. The cakes were on the middle shelf, about chest high, and at the front was a white cake with pink frosting piped along its the edges, with Minnie Mouse printed on top. Its clear plastic container reminded me of the coffin in Snow White. Behind Minnie Mouse was another white cake with white frosting and blue piping depicting Thomas, a stupid blue train for little kids, but I would rather have that than the pink one with Minnie on it. I finally asked my stepmother for it, I said I chose it because it was the only chocolate cake. If I could have picked any Disney character, it would have been Aladdin or the Beast.

    After our trip to town, I couldn’t wait for Father to get home. When he was proud of me, I felt like I was in the spotlight, and tonight I knew I would be.

    Birthdays were prized to me beyond the treats and non-ironic gifts, they marked the rare times my father talked about my birth. “Did you know your hospital band was only as big around as my thumb? I could wear it like a ring,” Father said. He told me what I already knew about myself: I was the lucky one, the one who got to live. I wanted to know my mother, and my birthday was the only time I was allowed to ask about her. Growing up Reformed Baptist, Jesus’s sacrifice for our sinful lives featured big. I felt doubly indebted to both Jesus and my mother.

    I distractedly set the table, my ears straining to hear the rumble of Father’s Dodge Ram truck. (The sound of it was distinct from our neighbors’ Ford diesel). If Father pulled into the driveway and didn’t shut the engine off right away, I knew he was letting a song play out on the radio. His door clanged shut. I was electric with anticipation. I couldn’t wait to show him the cake.

    Father didn’t come in right away. The back stoop’s light flashed on, and I could hear the scrape of the snow shovel as he cleared the walk. He stomped in, knocked his boots together. Even after a long day of working in freezing weather, Father was chipper, the only person who could be loud in the house and get away with it. Father theatrically slammed the back door, shouting, “Honey I’m home!” The star of his own sitcom. My stepmother rolled her eyes and snapped, “Don’t track that snow in the house. I just mopped.”

    Jacky Grey is a writer and architect. Grey earned their MFA in creative nonfiction from Pacific University. They were a participant of the Anaphora Arts Emerging Critics Program in 2023. They live in Western Oregon with their partner, daughter, and dog.

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