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My Mother’s Mouth

My mother’s mouth has always been full of words. They crowded in, under, and above her tongue until they pressed tight to the roof of her mouth. Sometimes her cheeks bulged with just a few, but sometimes there were so many that they would choke her until she was forced to let them escape with loud heaving coughs. When she read stories to me at night, I pieced together the letters that fell from her mouth and followed along rather than studying the symbols on the pages. After she turned off the lights and left me alone, I would fall asleep with the words still clutched in my hands. I would walk into a room and find her sitting with a word or two on her tongue, tossing them from the back of her teeth towards her tonsils like a dealer tossing the dice. Once, after we had had an argument about a boy that I thought I had been in love with, I spent hours being angry at her smug words lying on the kitchen table in bright hues. She left them there, declining to throw them out just to annoy me.

“I can’t even find my tongue; how can you expect me to hold it?”

“That’s not funny,” I had told her.

“No, it’s not, but it’s all I’ve got.”

She has always been the most transparent person in my life. Threats always come out hallow, sarcastic comments could hit as cold as ice, and loving jokes were warm and soft despite their harsh edges. She was never mysterious or complicated. I never had to guess at her intentions.  The confusion only came when she was too excited and the words would begin to gush out before she had a chance to arrange them or consider what she was trying to say.

My grandmother and father had always been the most patient with her. They could sit for as long as she needed to rearrange words, try to make sense of them, or stick them back into her mouth to save for later. I asked my grandmother how she could sit still and wait so easily; the gene for patience must have resided in her but skipped right past me. She told me about a screaming toddler who hurled the word No from her mouth on an hourly basis. She told me about a scared little girl choking on the word monster after her uncle let her stay up late to watch a horror movie. Then she told me about my mother as a heartbroken girl who lost her crush to her best friend in the seventh grade.

“She came home with tears streaming down her face and a bad case of the hiccups. And with every little hiccup, I got more words. I got the name of her best friend and then there was a boy’s name and hurt and hate. So we sat together and rearranged the words into a letter so she could tell her friend how she felt. But by the morning, they had all disappeared. She got over it and they just faded away.”

“Weren’t you annoyed?”

“All of our feelings fade in time. Hers are just a little more obvious about it.”

I can’t count the number of times that I stood by while my mother tried to take back hurtful words. It was hard to deny that they had been said when they were still scattered around on the floor or being frantically shoved into her purse. One particularly loud fight with my father had left brands of letters on her skin that healed and faded but never disappeared.

The day before my aunt married her first husband, she and my mother were fighting in the kitchen. Even as a child I knew that loud voices suddenly dropping to harsh whispers was a bad sign. I stood around the corner, listening but unable to hear their words. When one of my mother’s words tumbled my way, I picked it up and held it in my hand for a moment before I registered how hot it was. By the time I dropped it, her heated word had left my fingers blistered and I was too scared to risk asking for her help. I spent the entire day with my hands behind my back. My only memory of the ceremony is the feeling of the petals on my still sensitive skin as I walked down the aisle scattering them. After the divorce, I stayed clear of any room that contained both women.  I didn’t want to test the temperature of the I told you so that my mother had been chewing on for weeks.

My mother could not be trusted with secrets but she was great at Scrabble and helping with my homework. Anytime I was searching for a word, I could literally snatch it from the tip of her tongue. Most of the words that she aimed my way were soft colors and textures. She woke me up for school with good mornings that were soft as clouds and her sweet dreams and goodnights hummed and twinkled like stars. When I broke up with my first boyfriend, she fed me ice cream and told me that her last words to her first crush has been so cold that she, well aware of how ice can stick to hot skin, had used mittens to throw them out.

“I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing it stuck to my hand when I went to school the next day,” she told me.

“Did you melt them down before grandma and grandpa came home?”

“Yes. Well, I threw his name against the wall because I wanted to watch it shatter. Your grandmother came home while I was cleaning it up, and I was so embarrassed. I mumbled something about dropping the ice tray, but I don’t think she bought it.”

My mother went to a very good college, and she let her education go to her head. When she was being pretentious, which was often, the words that spilled from her lips seemed to have been manufactured by an antique printing press. Her lips were often stained blue by the ink. She came home from school every vacation ready to fight with her parents about the political issues that she had been studying in class. Every picture of my mother from her years in college makes her look like she had just finished enjoying a blue Popsicle. These pictures always make my grandparents laugh, they have them framed all over their home.

She had a fear of sleeping in front of people. In junior high, she had accidentally fallen asleep in class and was abruptly woken up by the sound of her teacher banging his hand down on her desk. She had blinked and looked around to see the last words of her dream floating to the ground like paper airplanes. She had been dreaming of flight. Her teacher had stopped class to stand and watch as she, her face bright red, scurried around to clean up the mess. Too afraid to ask to walk to the trashcan, she had clenched her fists around the words until they finally faded away. After that day, she avoided sleepovers with friends, and as an adult she pinched herself to stay awake on trains. No matter how long the commute, or how far away she travelled, she never slept in public.

My father always laughed when she expressed this insecurity. He had always loved sleeping next to my mother. He told us that her dreams comforted him at night when stress kept him awake.

“Reading her dreams is better than reading any book.” Of course, he loved to see his own name falling from her lips, but he smiled when he saw mine as well. On the night that I graduated from college, my father had been drinking enough to tell me his secret.

“Sometimes I keep them.”

“Keep what, Dad?”

“Your mom’s words. At night, sometimes she has these dreams, and they’re so beautiful. She’ll be lying there asleep, and these words like pillows just kind of tumble out of her mouth. I’ve been doing it for years.”

“What kind of words?”

“Words about how much she loves us. And I just can’t watch them fade away, or wait for her to throw them out in the morning. So I put them in this box under our bed. And I do it enough that the box stays pretty full, you know? They fade, but there are always more, always another night.”

There have been times in my mother’s life when she has enjoyed her quirk. On a warm summer night, our faces flushed with wine and our fingers stained with juice from the fruit salad that we had been picking at, my mother told me about the night that she and my father first used the word love.

“I don’t remember who said it first. It was probably him. But I know that, if it was, then I said it right back.” The words led to one kiss that led to another. Hours later, love still had not faded away.

“We pushed the words back and forth between our mouths all night. It was warm and kind of squishy. It tasted like cherry cobbler.”

When my acceptance letter to my top choice university arrived, I rolled my eyes at my mother’s enthusiasm. She responded by catching her words of pride that fell from her mouth to her hands and letting out loud laughs while throwing them at me. I rolled my eyes, but carried them around in my pockets for weeks. I walked through the halls of my high school, sitting in class and talking with friends, my fingers constantly reaching down to trace the curves of the letters.

My parents often joked that I was an only child because I had been such a handful as a toddler. The words bounded off me, empty and light. They said that they loved me so much, that there was no room in their hearts to love another child. The words were heavier and warm. They had not wanted another child. I was enough for them. They did not want to try for another.

I tried and tried. I was twenty-five when I married my husband. We knew we had time, so we weren’t too concerned when I did not get pregnant right away. When I was thirty, I found out that I would never be able to conceive. We invited my parents over a week later to let them know. My mother sat still for a moment. Her hands held mine and squeezed once before releasing them and moving up to her mouth. She caught the words that hung there and handed them, one by one, to my husband and me They carried the beating rhythm of her heart, as if they were still connected to it. The words kept coming, but several were repeated over and over. You, us, family, love.

The last time my mother was in the hospital, I couldn’t stop myself from constantly thinking about my parents’ favorite story. It happened when my mother was giving birth to me. While pushing, she let out an arsenal of words so colorful that my father had been shocked that she could be so creative. The words were expertly aimed at him as he tried to simultaneously guard his face with one hand and hold on to hers with the other. The words were hard and sharp but hollow. They were bright too, much brighter than the hospital lights that were aimed down at them.

Hours later, after I was successfully brought into the world and my exhausted and relieved mother found her mouth open but empty for the first time, my father’s job was not yet done. While my mother slept, he was in charge of bagging up all the words that had stubbornly stayed put scattered around the floor of my mother’s hospital room.

“I felt like I was committing some kind of crime, sneaking though the maternity ward with this bulging bag of profanity in search of a dumpster.”

“Did you get stopped?” I asked the first time I heard the story.

“No. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, if you just pick your head up and walk like you are exactly where you’re supposed to be, no one will question you.”

I told the story to my mother one afternoon while visiting her in the hospital. I held her hand and told her the story the exact same way that it had been told to me. She smiled and laughed at the right times, but I don’t think she realized that the story was really hers, instead of mine.

The words that we gather into bags now occasionally have some colorful language in them, but they are usually not words at all. Letters tumble out from shaky lips and we try to piece them together for her. Sometimes she reaches between her lips, searching for a specific word, but the letters that she studies make no sense. Some days she is coherent enough to have something to say, but the letters just refuse to cooperate and put themselves in the right order. The words are disappearing quicker too. Sometimes they end with a short pop moments after they make their debut. Other times they stick around long enough for us to solve the puzzle for her.

After her last stroke, the doctor let us take her home and we were all relieved that we could all stop walking down those gloomy halls and into the depressingly sterile room. I know that most nights, my father continued to hold her while keeping himself awake. At night, the floorboards creaked as he got up to retrieve her words and sift through the chaos looking for anything coherent. I listened to him from my old room, my husband asleep next to me, fighting for space in the tiny bed. My mother was asleep down the hall, oblivious to the tense atmosphere around her. Only my father and I would still be awake, both of us wondering if she was happy in her dreams, or if the confusion from her waking life chased her there.

The day that my mother died, I went into their room and searched for my father’s secret stash. I don’t think he remembers telling me about it: my family has a habit of loosing our drunken memories. I used to look through the box once a year, usually on a night that I was especially sad or lonely. I would dig my fingers in and pull out random samplings of words, reading the truth of my mother’s love for us. The box is emptier now than I’ve ever seen it, but it’s still heavier than it looks. The words that are there are still dense with emotion and they’ve heated the bottom of the box enough to make it too hot to touch.

I considered telling my father to seal the box forever so he won’t have to open it one day and find it empty. I know that the words will disappear one day and I don’t want him to have to face seeing the bottom of the box, or feel its lack of weight when the contents are all gone. I’m worried that he would call me and I would not know how to fix it for him. But I’m more worried that he won’t call at all. I decide that I would rather have him look under the bed and find that the box is gone than open it to that heavy realization.

When I get home, I open the box one last time. Her smell drifts up to my nose and I can’t resist bringing my face down to feel her warm words on my skin. Time passes, and eventually I force myself to close the box one last time and give it to my husband. I realize that the box has the power to break more than just my father. I shut the lid on my mother’s words and decide that I can pretend that they will remain sitting there forever. I save myself from having to lose my mother all over again on some day in the future. I want to remember the feel of her words warm on my skin, not the emptiness of a box where they used to sit.

– Marcy Braidman recently obtained her MFA in creative writing at Emerson College.  She spend her days working at a nonprofit serving system involved youth and her nights planning a move to the west coast.