A Short Story by Lydia Thomas
In memory of Elizabeth Kearns Meany.
To all those who have more to their stories than we’ll ever know, and those who are gone, even when they’re still with us.
“This is not who you are.”
It’s a whimper from my mother, rocking back and forth on the edge of her bed, hugging a spiral-bound notebook to her chest.
Aunt June buries her head in her hands.
“Dolores,” she says, voice muffled. “You have to take your medicine.”
“This is not who you are,” Momma hisses.
I want to cry. Of all the things Momma has forgotten on account of her disease, she remembers this mantra.
This is not who you are.
“Dolores, please,” Aunt June begs.
“This is not who you are!” Momma snarls, jabbing a finger at her precious notebook.
This, too, she has carried around for years, a list of names: family, friends, mere acquaintances, even; and beside each name, that person’s characteristics. Well, that person’s characteristics according to Momma, at least.
Of the dozens, maybe even hundreds, of names on that list, Aunt June and I are the only ones here. None of her friends from younger, healthier years are visiting and caring for her in the nursing home; not Daddy; and not my brother, Teagan. It’s all because of that damned notebook: they all got tired of hearing it wasn’t who they were when things weren’t going Momma’s way. One by one they left, declaring, “This is who I am.”
I guess Aunt June agrees with Momma that she is not a drug pusher, because she comes and sits next to me on the sofa, sighing heavily.
“We’ll try again later,” I assure her, but she shakes her head.
Meanwhile, Momma continues rocking, eyes fixed blankly on the wall in front of her.
That was the first thing Momma told me I was.
“It’s what your name means, Sarah,” she murmured in my ear one lazy afternoon, scratching away in her notebook. “It means you’re royalty. You don’t take nothing from no one.”
After that I was a helper, and sweet.
I glowed in Momma’s praises.
I didn’t always behave like a princess or a helper or sweetly at all.
And Momma would look at me with solemn eyes and perhaps she would steal a glance at her notebook or stroke it or hold it out to me, but her words were always the same.
“This is not who you are, Sarah.”
Those words always brought a feeling of ice to my gut, like I’d failed Momma, and I was failing myself, so I would do my very best to get back to who I was, to vanquish the alien that had taken over.
“I’m so sorry, Sarah,” Aunt June’s voice breaks the silence. “I can’t do this anymore.
“Aunt June, no,” I protest.
Aunt June plucks up her bag and kisses my forehead.
“I have lived my whole life with my sister telling me who I am,” Aunt June says, pulling away and holding my chin in her hand so I can’t look away as if I’m a little girl again. “I don’t know how much time I have left, but it can’t be spent here”- she waves a hand at Momma –“trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. I can’t stay.”
Tears burn in my eyes.
“And you shouldn’t either,” she adds.
“I can’t leave her,” I say desperately. “I’m her sweet helper. What would she do without me?”
Aunt June purses her lips.
“She’ll learn to help herself,” she states.
“We all hate him,” Momma informed me, slamming a casserole dish into the cupboard.
My chin trembled.
“You don’t even care how we feel,” she continued and jabbed her head in the direction of her notebook, which was sitting behind the cookie jar. “This is not who you are, Sarah.”
I was going to cry. I didn’t want to, but I knew where all of this was going, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
“And you’ve been a nightmare throughout the entire wedding-planning process,” Momma complained. “So obsessed and controlling.”
“This is not who you are,” Momma reiterated.
“What do you want me to do, Momma?” I asked, spreading my arms, now fully bawling.
Momma came over to me and laid an arm around my shoulders.
“You’re not yourself when you’re with him,” she said. “You need to let him go.”
My trembling hand lifts my phone out of my purse and dials Teagan’s number. I haven’t spoken to him in years.
“Farber residence,” a female voice announces cheerily.
I clear my throat.
“Hi, Stephanie?” I inquire.
“Yes,” the woman replies, voice more sober. “Who’s calling?”
“It’s Sarah,” I answer. “May I speak with Teagan please?”
“Sure, Sarah,” Stephanie says. “Hang on just a sec, okay?”
“Thanks,” I say, trying to ignore the hollering going on in the background.
“This is Teagan,” my brother’s voice comes across the line.
“Teagan, it’s Sarah,” I say.
“What’s up, Sarah?” Teagan asks curtly.
“It’s Momma,” I say. “I really need you to come.”
“What’s wrong?” Teagan replies. “Is she sick? Dying?”
“No, no,” I say hastily. “It’s just that Aunt June left”-
“Good for her,” Teagan remarks.
“I’m by myself here, Teagan,” I say. “I can’t do this by myself.”
“You don’t have to do it at all,” Teagan points out. “Frankly, I don’t understand why you would after everything she put you through with Daniel.”
“It’s who I am,” I say, hoping he’ll understand.
“Whatever you say, Sarah,” Teagan retorts, “but it’s not who I am.”
“But Teagan”- I protest.
“No, Sarah,” Teagan says firmly. “You remember what she did to my little girls.”
They are in Momma’s notebook, too.
“Daddy, please don’t go,” I wailed.
Daddy shook his head, while throwing white undershirts into a duffel bag.
“I have to, Baby,” he said.
“This isn’t who you are,” I whined, stomping around a little bit.
Daddy grabbed my arm and yanked me toward him, giving me a stern look.
“You listen to me, Sarah,” he said. “Nobody gets to tell you who you are except for you, and who you are doesn’t change, no matter what you do. You got that?”
I choked on some snot.
Daddy waved me off.
“Eh, you’ll understand someday,” he said dismissively, jerking his duffel bag off the bed and storming out.
I rise from the sofa and take a tentative step towards Momma. She stops rocking and looks at me, as if she can sense what’s coming.
Our blue eyes mirror each other, filling with tears.
“I’m sorry, Momma,” I whisper.
My heart breaks as her eyes glimmer with recognition. In this moment, she knows I am her sweet, helping princess.
“This isn’t who you are, Sarah,” Momma replies, holding the notebook out to me.
I shake my head.
“It is now, Momma,” I say.
I don’t look back.
Perhaps the lazy summer afternoon wasn’t as lazy as I remembered it to be all these years.
There was a black eye, a bleeding lip, tears, and trembling arms.
Perhaps she was sheltering me, strengthening me when she told me I was a princess, royalty, one who didn’t take anything from anyone.
Perhaps I really wasn’t living up to my full potential with Daniel. Perhaps leaving him saved me the same kind of grief Momma had endured with Daddy.
Perhaps Daddy was both right and wrong. Perhaps I determine who I am, but perhaps Momma always saw the best in me, even if she did use it for her own ends.
Perhaps those things Momma wrote in that notebook she desperately needed to be true about the people she wrote them about. Perhaps they were true after all.
One thing I know: abandoning my mother is not who I am, no matter who she is or what she’s done.
“Who are you?”
She’s no longer lucid.
“I’m your daughter, Sarah.”
“Oh,” she says.
There is a pause.
“I have a daughter?” she inquires.
“Yes,” I reply. “And a son.”
“Good grief,” Momma states.
I pick up the notebook from off of her bedside table.
“Do you know what this is, Momma?” I ask.
“It’s important, isn’t it?” she says eventually.
“It is, and it isn’t,” I reply.
This is lost on her.
“It’s a little book of records that you kept on people you met throughout your life,” I explain.
“Oh,” Momma says. “I don’t remember that.”
“I know, Momma,” I say. “I want to get rid of it.”
“Why?” she asks, frowning again.
“It’s a collection of observations,” I say. “Observations that ruled your life, no matter how right or wrong they might have been. I want you to be free.”
“I’d like to be free,” she says.
A frown creases her forehead.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“Will I miss it?” Momma wants to know.
“No,” I tell her.
“How do you know?”
“Because, Momma, this is not who you are.”
After she dozes off, I slip the old notebook off of the bedside table into my purse and replace it with a new, blank one.
I cast a glance back at Momma, sleeping peacefully, before tip-toeing out of the room. I dump the notebook into a trashcan on my way out, finally free from Momma’s expectations, and knowing she is free now, too.
And as long as Momma’s here, I know I’ll be back.
It is who I am, after all.