Top | First Person

Separation anxiety

(article, Chelsea Cain)


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My parents split up when I was five. We all moved into town from the country, and for a while we lived in different apartments in the same house. Then my mom and I moved to another house. It was brown and there was a big garden. We lived on the second floor, but all that summer we ate on the front porch. My mother would make basil-pesto pasta and carry it down the outside steps that ran down the side of the house, and I would carry the white bowls and the red cloth placemats and the forks and we would sit at the little table on the porch and eat.  

This was in the Midwest and it was oven-hot in the summer, so my mother was probably just trying to get us out of that second-story, un-air-conditioned apartment. But to me, it was a picnic every night. I loved the green pesto (made from basil out of the garden) and the fresh tomatoes (also out of the garden). But my fondest memory of those dinners that summer is how my mother would yell at the motorcycles that went past our house. She thought they were too loud. So she would shake her fist and yell.

But they never heard her.   

That was also the summer I asked my mother why she had left my dad.

"He broke my favorite bread bowl," she explained.

This was in the late 1970s, and my mother still made bread, nutty and thick. It would stick in my teeth for hours after I'd eaten it.

She had a new bread bowl by then, the only one I'd known. It was ceramic, speckled brown like a bird's egg, huge and smooth under my fingers. She loved that bowl. I could only imagine how much she had loved its predecessor.  

From then on, I was always anxious around that bowl. As I got older, we would do the dishes together, my mother washing, me drying. She would wash the bread bowl last in the soapy sink, and then hand it to me to dry with a dishtowel. I didn't trust myself to hold it, so I would set it on the counter and dry it carefully, rubbing it with the dishcloth as I held it steady with my other hand.  

"Did you really leave him because of a bread bowl?" I asked.

"Yes," she said.

It was our refrain.  

At some point, I stopped believing her. I guess I recognized the bread-bowl story for what it was: a metaphor, an allegory, a story to tell to keep from telling the real story. I thought about how ridiculous I'd been all those years, tiptoeing around that bowl, my nemesis.

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I was a teenager, floating on a boat with my dad in the Gulf of Mexico. It was hot, hot like it had been those summers in the Midwest. "You know," I told him, "my mom used to tell me that she left you because you'd broken her favorite bread bowl. Isn't that funny?"

He didn't miss a beat. "It's true," he said.

A few years later, I was in my mother's kitchen in Portland. "Whatever happened to that old bread bowl?" I asked her, casually.  

"Oh, it broke," she said. My cousin had dropped it. 
 
"No way!" I said. "What did you do to her?"

"It was no big deal," my mother said. 

I thought of all the times I had carried that bowl from the drying rack to the cabinet, each step carefully planted, my heart pounding in my chest.

"You said you left my dad because he broke your first bowl," I said.  

"I guess that wasn't exactly true," she said.  

I leaned forward. Finally, I would get the story, the real reason my parents had broken up. 

"I didn't leave your dad because he broke my bread bowl," she continued. She looked at me and smiled. My mom had a great smile. "It was because he didn't say he was sorry."

p(bio).Chelsea Cain is the author of Confessions of a Teenage Sleuth, Dharma Girl, and other books. She writes "Let's Go," a weekly column for the Oregonian. This story originally appeared in that column.


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