Mother in a Yellow Room

by Anne Hosansky

No Trespassing in purple magic marker is still on the door. Opening it, I stand there looking at the chaos she left strewn across the floor. Postcards from places we went to when we were still a family, cup with a soggy tea bag in it, pictures of her favorite movie stars on glossy papers so wrinkled their faces look ancient. A gray sock lies next to a muddy sneaker – is she wearing only one sneaker?

The photo album’s facedown on the rug. I pick up the album, dust on it already. She’s torn out most of the pictures, left one of herself, doll-sized in the carriage. First outing, I’d written in the narrow white border.

She was 2 the first time we stood together in this doorway, her small hand in mine. “This will be your room. What color would you like?” I asked. “Lello,” she said, her favorite color. “My room,” she chanted.

“Can’t stand this place,” she shouted, weeks – months? – ago.

Her jewelry box is open on the bureau. The tiny ballerina on top doesn’t dance anymore. I see the charm bracelet we gave her for her 8th birthday. That was when her father and I reunited long enough to take her to a restaurant. The waiter and two waitresses brought the cake, identical smiles as they formed a semicircle around her chair singing Happy Birthday. There were nine candles. “The extra one’s to wish on,” I told her. The bracelet has one small charm, a cake, painted candles forever lit.

Last night I was in a restaurant with a friend and it was someone’s birthday, a white-haired man surrounded by his family. The waiter carried in a cake with a single candle burning on top. Everyone in the restaurant joined in the singing. I sat silent. My friend looked at me and said, “You’ll cry about anything.”

I pick up the sock, hold the cup, staring into it as though I can read the future. But there’s only a disintegrating tea bag.

I must do something with all of this. Tomorrow. The next day.

It’s weeks before I go back into the room. I collect the papers from the floor, jam them into a bureau drawer. I pick up the purple bedspread that’s thrown in the corner, fold it neatly. She was 11 when she campaigned for her “biggest, biggest wish,” the canopy bed.

My mother said, “Those things are dust collectors. Don’t waste your money on unnecessary purchases.”

What’s ‘unnecessary?’ I thought, looking into my child’s hopeful eyes.

She didn’t want a bed like those in magazine ads, canopy arching gracefully. “It has to be a straight canopy, none of that frilly stuff,” she insisted.

They all came curved. We made the rounds of every department store in a futile quest. Then one day, walking down a side street, we saw the very bed she wanted in the window of a small store. Yellow frame – “It matches my room!” – plain white canopy stretched across the top.

Inside the store the salesman led us to the bed. There was a matching bureau beside it, like a stage set for a teenager’s dream room. My daughter grabbed my hand. “Please,” she begged, “that would make my room perfect!”

I can’t afford it, I wanted to tell her, shocked at the resentment I felt toward my child. But she was swinging my hand, smiling up at me.

The elaborate scroll designs on the bureau drawers are faded now.

To make up for my resentment I suggested lunch in an elegant tea shop. “A real canopy bed!” Her sigh blew whipped cream from the top of her hot chocolate clear across the table. “Oh, I love you!”

A week later the set was delivered. She invited her best friend to see it. Sherry, a whole year older, looked at the bed covered in the white eyelet spread we’d bought to match the canopy, and her newly-lipsticked mouth shaped a disdainful smile. “I wanted one of those when I was a child.”

The next day my daughter asked me to return the bed. I said, “You wanted it, you keep it.”   Sullen, she stared at the floor.

The Mother/Daughter Wars began, the “don’t-tell-me-what-to-do-I’m-not-a-child” refrain, door closed against me. When was it I came home to find the bed’s frame painted black, the canopy and bedspread in the bathtub, being dyed a funereal purple?

I’m trying to write stories in a corner of my bedroom, computer on an inadequate table squeezed into too small a space. Down the hallway there’s the empty room. What am I saving it for?

Clutching a giant-size roll of paper towel and two large green plastic garbage bags, I open the door again. The miniature dolls from foreign lands look back at me from the shelf. Picking up the Norwegian doll, I dust Kirsten’s perfect braids with my finger. I wasn’t adept at braiding my child’s hair, couldn’t get the braids tight enough. “Betsy’s mother does it better,” she complained.  That was before she took scissors and chopped off her beautiful long hair. Was she 12, 13?  There’s a framed photograph of her on the bureau, shorn hair giving her the look of a waif. I put the doll back on the shelf with the others, leave them all there, waiting.

The small bookcase still has books I read to her – The Little Princess, Alice in Wonderland, Charlotte’s Web (tearfullybecause I knew the fate that awaited the little creature). “Don’t cry, read!” she’d say, punching me with her small fist. Until the time when she couldn’t stand being read to and wouldn’t have heard anyway, barricaded behind earphones.

I go back into my own room, bang my knee against the table in this impossible space. “Space!” she’d demanded, erupting out to live with her father.

How long before I open that door again? I’m armed with a vacuum cleaner. I take down the No Trespassing sign and fold it neatly. Pull down the canopy, dust choking in my throat. Empty the bookcase of Alice and Charlotte and all of them, tie the books with heavy twine, pay my neighbor’s teenaged son to carry them up to the attic. “Anything else?” he asks. I point to the dolls waiting on the shelf, put them in a carton, close the top firmly over their faces, watch as he carries the exiles to the attic.

A woman who cleans my neighbor’s house has a little girl who yearns for a canopy bed. I tell the woman she can have mine. The child comes with her to see it.

“Why is it black?” she asks. “Can I have the bureau, too?”

“That’s mine!”

The mother stares at me. How can I explain why I need to hold on to a chipped bureau, one knob missing?

I need a place to store my files. The room’s only 9X9, too small for storage cabinets and the bureau. Why not use those drawers? “Waste not, want not,”mygrandmother used to say. Does not wasting stop the wanting?

I open the top drawer, look at the relics – a high school composition with a large “A” on top, the black feathery fan she inherited from her father’s mother. Beside it the designer watch I gave her for her 14th birthday, a peace offering. The crystal’s broken, one hand missing, time stopped at half past something or other. I pack them carefully in another carton, label it SAVE.

I take down the faded flowery curtains. The window overlooks the playground across the street. Swings I used to push her in, careful to make sure the bar was down so she wouldn’t fall out. One time she ran across the playground before I could stop her. A boy in a swing, kicking energetic legs, hit the side of her head. She fell, screaming for me. “I’m sorry, sorry,” I kept saying, holding her against me.

How often did she stand where I’m standing, staring at her childhood?

Someone’s laughing outside the other window, a teenage boy and girl walking past, arms around each other’s waists. Did she stand here nights watching, waiting?

I’ll repaint the room. Stark white. I go to the store, buy a gallon of paint, come home with “Canary.”

The space where the bed had been looks so bare. I put an improvised desk there, just a plain oak board across two file cabinets. Not until I set them up do I realize I bought yellow ones.

I’m writing stories in this room. One has been published. I sent her a copy.

“Well done, Ma,” she wrote in her familiar scrawl. “Good transitions.” She wants to be a writer.

I feel as if I’m a different person in this room than in my bedroom where I sleep restlessly, arm stretched across the half of the mattress where my husband used to lie. Or the living room where I watch TV, gorging on other people’s lives until the anchorman says, “It’s 10 p.m., do you know where your children are?” Or the bathroom where I search my body for indications of mortality (more lines? thinning hair?). I peer into the mirror over the sink, into the eyes of this woman I’m not sure I know – or am sure I don’t know – and tell myself I must throw out the dying carnations she sent for Mother’s Day.

Must throw out the bureau. I look at the picture that’s still on top of it, her face turned slightly away, eyes inscrutable. Sometimes I’m so buried in the world I’m creating at the computer I hardly notice the photograph anymore. Last night when I came home from that birthday scene in the restaurant, I kissed the face that’s under glass.

Beside it there’s a small wooden seagull that I bought for my summer-child the last time we went to the beach together, its wings spread for flight.

I call an organization that takes furniture for “needy” people. I watch the two men carry the empty bureau down the stairs. I close the door behind them, walk back into the room, measure out the space. I buy two file cabinets. White.  Sterile looking.

We meet for lunch in the city. We do not talk easily now. I’m the one who taught her, never talk to strangers.  I dive into the depths for clues, grasping weeds from the past, come up with something she once hurled at me: “Your neediness makes me crazy.” Me, too.

She asks if I’ll treat her to karate classes. She’s learning to break strangleholds.

It’s her birthday. She phones, asking like the child she used to be, “Take me to the beach?”

I look at the wooden seagull, remembering that last time we went to the beach. We sat together on the sand, close to the water despite the chill in the air, watching the gulls soar over the waves.

“I’m going to be a bird in my next life,” she said

“Me, too,” I dared to answer, opening the picnic box.

Suddenly a gull swooped down and grabbed the sandwich right out of my hand. I sat there in shock. She rolled on the sand, screeching with laughter. Sitting up, she reached over to touch the red mark on my finger. “Does it hurt?”she asked.

She comes to the house. On her way to the bathroom she passes by the open door of the yellow room. She looks inside, silent.

“Is it OK with you?” I ask. “The changes in your room?”

She shrugs. “It’s not my room.”

Anne Hosansky is the author of Widow’s Walk and Turning Toward Tomorrow. Her stories and articles have been published in the U.S., Canada and England. For the past 20 years Anne has led a professional writers’ workshop in Manhattan. In her “other life” she was an actress, which helps when Anne gives readings.


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