The Last to Know

“Your dad’s tennis partner introduced us. He told George there’s someone you have to meet. That someone was me.” Mom’s face was wide and open, lit by the after lunch sun.
            I felt my nose scrunch up. “Why did no one tell me Dad played tennis? I played tennis.”
            “After our first date, I told my mother, ‘I’m going to marry that man.’ Mother said, ‘What? You can’t know . . . ”
            Mom laid her head back against the recliner’s grayed lavender upholstery and stroked the cat in her lap, the one that hated me. I tried to imagine the pretty that Mom once possessed. It was my pretty now.
            “The first time I met Granny and Grandad, your uncles Bill and Wirt too, was atHolly River State Park. As soon as we were inside the lodge, Granny grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me to the ladies’ room where she proceeded to take off all her clothes.”
            I gasped. Granny stripped? The first time she met Mom? I didn’t believe it. She was way too proper for that.
            “She had a rash all over and was wiping cream everywhere. She told me, ‘You have to use arnica.’ She was a real health nut.”
            “Arnica?” I said. “That’s like, the most well-known homeopathic remedy ever. Granny knew about homeopathy?”
            “Every day she’d crack open all the windows in that big old house, didn't matter how awful the weather was. And in the winter, she’d make those five boys march around in the snow barefoot. Who knows why.”
            “To toughen ’em up, I bet.”
            “She was a big fish in a little pond when they lived in Mill Creek, but once they moved to Charleston . . .  She didn’t like Charleston much.”
            After that, Mom’s memories seemed to peter out so we sat in silence for awhile. I considered getting up to turn on her fake fire but I was heavy with too many Fig Newtons.
            I patted the sofa next to me, clucked my tongue at the gray tabby cat. “Here, kitty, kitty.” She showed me her fangs.
            “She likes you,” Mom said. “If she didn’t, she wouldn’t have come out of the bedroom at all.”
            I glanced at my hands. Man, did I need a manicure. I used my pinky nail to nudge back my cuticles, remembered how Granny taught me that when I stayed weekends with her.
            “Push till you see little half-moons at the base of your nail bed,” she always told me after my bath, after she towel-dried me and turbaned my hair. “Do that after every bath or shower while the skin is soft and pliable.”
            “Can we have strawberries dipped in cream then sugar for breakfast?” More often than not I’d ask her that.
            “Is that the lady-like way to ask that question?”
            “May we please have strawberries dipped in cream then sugar for breakfast?”
            “Much better, and yes, we shall have your favorite breakfast. I’ll set your tiny table with linen and silver, with tea in your little China tea set, and plenty of cream and sugar.”
            I braced myself when Mom lifted the television remote, cringed at the roar of The Weather Channel’s Local on the 8s. Mom stabbed at the volume down button until I uncovered my ears.
            “Snow on Friday,” she said. She clicked the TV off.
            I checked my phone, no messages, glanced at the clock on the wall—one thirty. The kids would be getting home from school in an hour. Darn it, I forgot to leave a key out. I did the math in my head. I can stay nineteen more minutes, maybe.
            Mom’s eyes were closed and her hands weren’t massaging the cat’s neck anymore. Is she asleep? Should I tell her my news? What if she thinks me foolish, selfish, a spendthrift?
            I cleared my throat. Her eyes stayed shut but her fingers dug into the cat’s ruff once more.
            “I’m going back to school,” I said, “for a master’s degree, in creative writing.”
            Her eyes emerged from their pillowy surroundings, blinked.
            “Really? How? Where?”
            I explained the program I’d applied to. “It’ll take two years then I’ll have an MFA—Masters of Fine Arts.”
            She straightened in the chair, scrambled to find pen and paper in the drawer of the side table.
            “M, then what?” she said, the Bic pen poised.
            Write it down, Mom, so you can tell your girlfriends.
            “F. . . A,” I said. “It’s like a master’s degree in writing. And that’s not all, I’m pretty sure that once I get it, not only will I be able to write better, I’ll also be able to teach, maybe.”
            Mom’s hand looped and lined.
            “The kids think it’s a bit strange, me doing this when I’m almost—”
            Mom’s hand stilled. She peered at me over her smudged reading glasses.
            “Well, they’re wrong. I think it’s wonderful. Why, think how proud your father’d be!”
             I felt suddenly soft and hungry once more for air. “Yeah, you’re right. He really valued education.”
            She ran her hand, over and over, from the cat’s head to the tip of its tail.
            “I think this is great. Good for you. I mean it.”
            I leaned forward, nibbled my lower lip. “Actually, it’s not a done deal yet. They have to accept me first.”
            When Mom snorted, the gray cat hissed and geronimoed off her lap. 
            “What do you mean, if they take you? Of course they’ll take you! Why wouldn’t they?”
            I rubbed my thighs. “Well, it’s been two weeks. I haven’t heard a peep yet. Maybe . . .”
            Mom gripped the recliner arms and hoisted herself to standing, shuffled across the carpet to flip the switch for fake fire.
            “How I wish your father was alive to hear this. He’d be so proud.”
            I reached behind me for my coat. What about you, Mom? Are you . . .
 

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