Today was a special occasion however, one that made her anxious and prone to fits of nausea, a byproduct of a lonely childhood of which she never completely rid herself. Janet was on her way to a family reunion about a half hour outside of the city. When she had initially read the invitation, she was inclined to toss it in the trash, as she had not seen most of her family since high school graduation. Her only contact was with her younger brother and younger sister. Their father died when she was only five years old, so the only history of him was given by her mother. A history that turned out to be just exaggerated stories designed to paint him in the most abominable light so as to conceal her mother’s own shortcomings.
It had been ten years since she last spoke to her mother and their last exchange was an unpleasant one. Her mother’s religious convictions, which were tied to a cultish Christian organization, were the main sticking points between the two. Janet had long ago shed the dead skin of religion in favor of her own, personal philosophy.
From an early age her mother instilled a sense of guilt into all three children, casting herself as some kind of long-suffering Madonna. She saw herself as a victim afflicted by a depressive mood and by a world that she hated and wanted destroyed by the hand of a vengeful God. This was the common sentiment of her mother’s church, too. Thinking of these things caused a shudder in Janet’s body as she sat in the backseat of the taxi.
Seeing this in the rearview mirror, the driver spoke. “Everything OK back there?” Janet lifted her intense face toward the driver. Her pale blue eyes blinked several times as she snapped out of her stupor. “Yes, yes, sorry… just a little nervous,” she explained as she brushed away the short, blonde bangs that hung down her forehead. The rest of her hair was styled in a short bob.
“Important meeting, huh?” asked the driver, trying to stir conversation as many cabbies will. “No. I mean yes—something like that I guess,” she responded absently, not really wanting to indulge his inquiries. “Out in the country is it?” pressed the driver, undeterred by his passenger’s lack of interest in pursuing the conversation. He was a thin, older man, between fifty and fifty-five, and of vaguely middle eastern descent though with no discernible accent. A notch of salt and pepper hair rounded out his head and a bushy, black mustache leveled off his face with gray, wiry whiskers poking out sporadically.
“That’s right,” Janet responded, recrossing her thin, white legs and adjusting her wintergreen skirt. “It’s a nice day for the country, that’s for sure,” the driver said as Janet rolled her eyes and placed her forehead to her hand in defeat. She realized that he was not going to take the hint that she wanted to be left alone. He was gabber, even for a taxi driver. When he drops me off, she thought, he’ll probably still be talking to an empty cab.
“It’s sort of a family reunion, actually,” she said while brushing away some lint on her skirt. As soon as the words left her mouth, a twinkle flashed in the driver’s eyes and a smile lifted his puffer fish lips.
“Ahhh,” he began loudly, eyeing her again in the rearview mirror with a little more interest. “So you’re going to see family, are you? That’s good. Family is good. Personally, I could do without mine but what are you gonna do? Any brothers or sisters?”
Janet looked back out the window at the rolling countryside passing her by and then spoke. “A younger brother and a younger sister.” The driver cut her off with, “I have eight brothers and sisters—eight! Try being the first to use the only bathroom in the morning. You know the joke. Anyway, we all get together every year. Imagine eight siblings who all have husbands and wives with children and some of those have children themselves. Add mom and dad on top of that and you have a small school!” He chuckled and snorted with such rapidity that he seemed almost cartoonish.
Her eyes grew wide with amazement. “Wow, that’s a lot of mouths to feed. Who gets the wishbone at Thanksgiving?” “The dog,” he said, “do you think we eat bones?” He chuckled to himself again. He continued, “Yes, it’s a lot of mouths to feed, some big mouths too. I have four sisters and they love to talk… never shut up those girls. Do you know the kind?”
“Yes, I think I do,” she responded, restraining the urge to inform him that she was sitting in a car with a big mouth. She shook her head as she imagined his family reunion, a bunch of people with clucking tongues sitting around a table and no one getting a word in. And then she thought, is it actually possible to be suffocated with words?
“We had it rough growing up,” the driver continued. “I mean, a four bedroom house with ten people …. Well, you do the math. We always had fun with the neighbor kids though. I remember this great dog they had too. Boy, he sure could run. Dusty was his name. He would fetch a stick for hours on end. But they had to put him down one day and I cried like he was my dog. I never had one of my own, so it was like a pet by proxy or something. Ever have a pet?”
She didn’t answer right away as the cabbie’s story of his canine friend brought back a memory which had receded into the background of her mind long ago.
She was five. Her dad was still alive and they lived in a small, dilapidated house in the suburbs. Not an ideal place for children with fiery imaginations to grow up in, as was the case with Janet. They had a golden retriever puppy named Andy. Janet smiled warmly as her thoughts stretched back in time to a place that seemed like a forgotten chapter in a history book. She remembered the hours of joy spent playing with her little friend. Of all her recollections from childhood, Andy was the one bright spot that she could turn to, especially considering that throughout her withdrawn and self-obsessed youth relief came only through imagination. But what caused her to cringe was a memory of what happened to Andy.
He got sick and died. Of course Janet threw a fit, weeping profusely and punching walls. It was her first encounter with death, and she did not take it well. But it was not Andy’s death she now recalled with anger and resentment. Janet’s mother refused to allow the dog to be buried in their backyard, claiming it would be distasteful. Her mother was acutely aware that her family and the house they lived in were far below the standards of the rest of the neighborhood’s. Always concerned with how she would be perceived by others was not just a concern of hers, but an obsession. Burying the dead dog would be what normal families do, but there was nothing normal about this family, especially the mother. Andy was taken to an animal shelter and incinerated. No plaque letting people know this little family friend would be missed. How could I forget Andy, Janet thought as she pressed her hand to the window, glancing up at the sign on the road. There were eight miles to go before the last exit. She grimaced, the knot of anxiety tightening in the pit of her stomach the closer she approached her destination.
“Miss!” the driver shouted, shocking Janet out of her daydream. “Yes?” she replied, slightly dazed. “I asked if you had any pets growing up. You just zoned out. You must be tired, huh?”
“Yes, I must be.” Dread and fear were setting in, and as she was naturally a nervous person, albeit less so than when she was younger, the thought of reuniting with her estranged mother from whom she had a ten year hiatus just inflamed her anxiety.
What am I doing, she thought. Why am I putting myself in this situation? What will I really get out of this? Has anything really changed about mom that would justify my speaking to her again after so long? Another memory sprang to her mind.
At eighteen, just before moving away to college, Janet got pregnant. Now this would have been enough for members of her church to shun her, as pre-marital sex was forbidden and considered a terrible sin. Add a baby in the mix with no marriage and the situation went from a stick of dynamite to a nuclear explosion. In search of guidance and support, she turned to her mother. One would imagine that this mother would be furious at first, maybe even hurt because she felt that she should have raised her to know better. But then again, any loving, nurturing mother would realize mistakes happen, and with a clearer head, sit her daughter down and talk the situation out. What ensued however is what drove Janet away from her mother for ten years.
Hysterical, as she would often become over even the smallest distresses, her mother went on a religious tirade. She quoted scriptures and wept dramatically. Her mother used this incident as an opportunity to gain pity from anyone who would listen. She liked to project the image of a “saintly” mother trying to raise a troubled youth. Thoughts of her daughter’s feelings and character did not worry her, nor did she stop to think of how this kind of gossiping would harm her family. What mattered was that she should be given sympathy.
Years of tormenting her children with her “victim’s” attitude and her venomous, guilt spitting tongue could be justified. But once the church her mother belonged to caught wind of the situation, Janet was easy fodder for ridicule and shame. Unwilling to deal with the situation any longer, Janet got an abortion, moved away, and didn’t speak to her mother since.
Her eyes began to twitch nervously as a feeling of nausea bubbled violently inside her. “Pull over!” she shouted to the driver, furiously grabbing at the door handle. “Something wrong, miss?” asked the now worried driver. Waves of deep wrinkles showed in his furrowed brow. “Just pull over damn it!” He slowed the car onto the shoulder as Janet leapt out of the cab. “I’ll be right back.”
She stood by the side of the road unable to move. She went over a list of memories, one by one, and could not find a time when her mother did not manipulate her children.
Janet felt heavy standing there by the dusty highway. The early evening sun began to dip, casting a warm, soft glow all around. A slight breeze gently caressed her soft white skin, tickling the fine hairs on her arms. It seemed the perfect atmosphere for self-reflection. The cliché of the highway and the exit and of decisions that would be defining were not lost on Janet. Still, her head swam from the whole ordeal.
Ten years, she thought, ten years of rebuilding my self esteem. Ten years clawing step by bloody step out of the brain-washed mold of that religious cult. Ten years chopping my way out of the terribly lonely cocoon that was my childhood. She’s my mother, but is that enough? Is it enough to simply say “I am your mom?” No. I don’t think so. Janet cast her directionless gaze up at a sign twenty yards away. It was her exit. Slowly, and with an air of decisiveness, she climbed back into the cab and sat a few moments before the cabbie spoke. “Do we go on, miss?”
Janet turned to look out the window. Her slender face, which always seemed to display a pretty but deeply pensive and perhaps troubled expression, was now somewhat relaxed. She closed her eyes, bit her lip, then exhaled slowly.?