I love writing ‘stories of love’. And the primary love in the story is usually that between a man and a woman, or a woman and herself. But a theme I revisit, time and again is motherhood. The most complex portrait of this bond that I’ve ever attempted was the relationship between Riley and Lorna in my latest book, ‘The Fall’.
The main character, Lorna is nothing if not imperfect as a mother. But despite all that, her daughter loves and even understands her. Their relationship for me embodies the mystery of motherhood. That we love them, sometimes despite who they are, rather than because of it. That the way we love, ever after, is marked by that very first bond–or lack thereof–we form with another human being.
From ‘THE FALL’:
“What the heck is that on your fingers?”
Lorna extended a hand and laughed. “Oh. Chipped nail polish.”
Riley leaned in as though she’d heard incorrectly. “Nail polish?”
They were in Lorna’s backyard, sitting on the ground while Cassidy picked up and studied the crimson and yellow leaves that had fallen and blanketed the grass beneath the large red maple. Before long, it would be way too cold to do this, but it had been an unseasonably warm November, and since Riley was up for the night, it seemed only right to take advantage of it by spending some time outside.
Nearby, Cullen was making piles of leaves, all in a row, and then kicking at and dispersing them once again. He had done so three or four times so far by Lorna’s count, and had yet to lose interest in the activity. He looked remarkably like Shawn, but had Riley’s disposition. A natural charmer, without even trying.
“Malcolm’s girls did it a couple weeks ago. And I don’t have the stuff that takes it off, so it’s been slowly chipping away. Unsightly, isn’t it?” Lorna looked at her nails and smiled.
Riley rolled her eyes. “The ‘stuff that takes if off’ is called nail polish remover, by the way. We can get some at CVS. I don’t think I can stand to look at that all day.”
Lorna laughed again. “They had fun putting it on, that’s the important thing.”
Riley looked down, and idly smoothed Cassidy’s hair, a strange look playing about the corners of her mouth.
“Well … I’m glad you’re enjoying them.”
Lorna leaned in a little. “Why’d you say it like that?”
“How’d I say it?” Riley shrugged. “I am. I’m glad you’re enjoying them. If you didn’t I’m sure you’d use it as an excuse to bump Malcolm to the curb or something.”
“Riley,” Lorna said tiredly. “I think we’re well past that, Malcolm and I.”
Shaking her head, Riley sighed. “I know you are. Sorry. I … I just …”
Sighing again, Riley looked at her. “It’s just … strange, that’s all.”
“What’s strange? Talk to me.”
Cullen wandered over, dropping a few leaves on his sister’s head, to her delight. She laughed and he dropped more leaves, crouching next to her and beginning to cover her legs with them as well.
“You talk about his kids a lot. Especially Piper. I can tell you’re bonding with them.”
“You never had that much time for me, that’s all,” Riley said, speaking so quickly that her words tumbled one into the other.
“Riley, that’s …” Lorna stopped herself. Was that true?
“We never did nails, for instance,” Riley said almost accusingly.
“Because I’m not the doing nails type.”
“Well evidently you are, because …” Riley indicated her hands. “I mean, all I remember is times like you reading me something from Willa Cather and telling me how important her work was to ‘the development of notions about how women could undermine gender conventions.’ Jesus … I think that’s even a quote, word for word of what you said. That’s the kind of thing we did together. We never did nails.”
Lorna looked at her daughter and felt a surge of love, and of compassion. She was so used to feeling proud of their relationship, and of how close they were—and they were—but there were enormous fissures there as well. Things she hadn’t permitted herself to see because she was too busy being proud, in her heart of hearts taking credit for all her own accomplishments and for Riley’s as well—as though she’d ‘made’ Riley, crafted her with her own hands. When the truth of it was, much of what Riley had become was not at all because of her.
“Did you want to do nails?” Lorna asked softly, only half joking.
Riley looked at her. She was smiling but there were tears in her eyes as well. “I wanted to please you. That’s what I wanted.”
“Oh, darling …” Lorna leaned in and hugged her tight. “You did. You do.”
Riley was grasping her about the waist, holding on so tight, Lorna could barely take a breath.
“Riley, you are the most amazing unexpected gift of my life. The happiest happenstance … My first and deepest love. You know that.”
“It hasn’t felt like that lately,” Riley said against her shoulder.
Lorna pulled back and looked at her daughter’s face. It was tear-stained, crumpled and poised to produce more tears.
“What do you mean?”
“You have all this other stuff going on. None of which has anything to do with me. And I don’t even know what you’re up to these days. Are you writing a book? Planning a trip to China? I have no idea anymore. And it’s … just … strange. We never used to be like this.”
“I’ve felt a little bit the same way. You did Thanksgiving with Ryan and his family, and …”
“Mom, you hate Thanksgiving.”
“And so did you at one time.”
“I went because they invited us and I knew you wouldn’t care about Thanksgiving, so …”
“I don’t.” Lorna shook her head. “And I’m glad you went to Ryan’s, but I … Anyway, let’s not make this about me. The point I’m making is that both our lives are different and changing. But they’re good changes. And we’re still connected Riley, in ways that no one and nothing could ever compromise. What we’re doing is enlarging our circle, that’s all. And it’s bound to be uncomfortable at first, because we’ve been so used to it just being us. And then we let in Shawn … and these babies came along …”
Lorna looked at Cullen, who by now had all but covered his sister with leaves, like he wanted to disappear her altogether.
“Then it’s not that you like Malcolm’s daughters more than you liked me at that age?” Riley asked. And Lorna knew she was only pretending to be joking.
“I don’t like anyone more than I like you. At any age.”
Riley sighed, and looking over, finally realized what Cullen was up to. Laughing, she brushed leaves away from Cassidy and pointed Cullen back in the direction of his original piles-of-leaves project.
“Looks like I’m not the only one struggling with enlarging their circle,” she said dryly.