Will my hands look like hers when I am old? The nails dry and ridged, the joints heavy with arthritis, the veins sitting slightly atop the bones, the fingers slender and delicate, the skin thin and pearly and freckled with age spots, but the grip of a woman who worked with her hands all her life still strong and engaging and defiant.
When I was a kid I would scour the landscape for mothers with children and watch them as though through a microscope. Mothers with packs of children followed us everywhere – to our dentist’s and doctor’s offices, to the gas station, the grocery store, the laundromat and the bank. They drove up behind us at the window at McIlhaney’s Dairy to exchange their glass milk bottles just like we did, the back seats of their Pontiacs and Chevys and Plymouths stuffed with bored and grim-faced kids who had been dragged along on these usually Saturday morning excursions just like my brother and sister and I had been. They would pull up next to us at an intersection, check us out, then speed off down the road leaving our car covered in silky New Mexico desert dust.
For reasons I have never quite understood, children tend to flinch, blanch and wince at any suggestion that their parents might have had sex for the pure pleasure of it, rather than solely for the purpose of having children. It has never made sense to me that a child might prefer to think they were conceived by an emotionally disconnected physical act, rather than one drenched in pleasure and absorbed in carnal indulgence and abandon. It seems to be almost universally against the nature of children to think of their parents as having had a sexual appetite, let alone a possibly ravenous one. Taking pleasure is often perceived as selfish, and parents are supposed to be decidedly self-less.
I never set out to write about being a stepparent, but then I never set out to be a stepmother. To be honest, I never set out to get married or to have children, so long before not intending to be a stepmother, I hadn’t intended to be a biological, adoptive or surrogate mother either. No, I never set out to embrace the neatly ordered schedule traditionally required by a husband, children, assorted pets, multiple cars and a house-and-yard-with-white-picket-fence.
My mother was a collector of letters and photographs. She filled old shoeboxes with meticulously hand-written communications from my father’s Italian relatives, their fragile parchment leaves folded within envelopes bearing intriguing foreign stamps and exotic return addresses. Bunches of letters bound together with thin rubber bands, their cohesive elasticity pushed to the limit, filled the corners of her closet, were tucked under her bed, and occupied the shelves in the green-painted hutch originally intended for crockery, while oversized and heartier legal documents were crammed into manila envelopes marked Soragna Farm, Liguria Affair, or, simply, Italy. The years passed, she ran out of room, and even more letters eventually took the place of the spirits bottles in her elegant old liquor cabinet.