Coming Clean

     Sitting at my mom’s well-worn oak dining table, I drink ice-cold sweet tea, and listen for the buzz of the clothes dryer. Yup. Thirty and still doing laundry at my mother’s house. Now, before you get the idea I’m a total loser, let me explain a few things. First off, I’m an administrative assistant for The Salvation Army. Not a bad job, really, in fact, it’s a pretty respectable job. Nice people, easy work, but salary? I’m far from walking around in high cotton, but who am I to start complaining? The economy’s tough – according to Dan Rather we’re in some kind of recession. Reagan’s been in office more than two years, but the tax cuts haven’t trickled down to where I’m living. I was out of work for months. So a job is a job, and I’m just happy I can afford to pay my own rent.
     I call home a small shotgun duplex off NW 23rd Street in Oklahoma City, and I don’t own a washer and dryer. Lately it’s been as hot as blue blazes with temperatures hovering in the high 90’s. Seth and April, my two kids, are still little and it’s next to impossible to get anything done at the Laundromat. So I hightail it back to Moore and my parents’ house. It’s a pretty sweet deal. Mom fixes my favorites, she watches the kids, and I talk on the phone in the comfort of air conditioning.
     April and Seth like visiting their grandma, anyway. Why wouldn’t they? She dotes on them – they’re precious angels from heaven. And at least once a week, they stay overnight. Mom tucks them into bed, helps them say their prayers. I’m only a little more than a year out from my divorce, but at thirty, I’m in the prime of life, so a night off gives me the chance to kick up my heels and tie one on with some good ole boys.
    The dryer starts buzzing. Then my mom’s voice travels down the short hallway from her bedroom to the living room and takes a sharp left turn into the kitchen. “Ruby, have you seen my bottle of perfume?”
     I sigh.
     Again, I hear the voice coming from the bedroom.
     “Ruby, didn’t you hear me? I’m sure I had it right here in the medicine chest.”
     Should I fess up? You see, the last time I was here, Seth’s boo-boo needed more than just a kiss to make it better, so I scrounged around my parents’ bathroom looking for a band-aid. Pulling open the overflowing medicine cabinet, I spied a small black and gold jewel surrounded by bottles of Calamine lotion, Milk of Magnesia, and baby aspirin. Without thinking, I slipped a tiny, mostly-empty bottle of Chanel No. 5 into the front pocket of my Gloria Vanderbilt jeans.
     Here’s my chance; I could say I borrowed it. “Oh, yeah, Ma, remember? You loaned it to me the night I had my big date with Frank. He was taking me to Sizzler’s.”
      The bottle is here, right in my purse. I could slip it back into the medicine cabinet next to Doan’s superior treatment for back pain or Carter’s Little Liver pills or one of my mother’s myriad heart medications.
     Feign a headache; go off in search of Excedrin. “Look, Ma, here’s that perfume you were looking for. If it’d been a snake, it woulda bit you.”
     But I don’t say I borrowed it. I don’t put it back.
     “No, ma. I haven’t seen it.”
     And she never asks after it again.
     Now you must be thinking my mother must be pretty awful to have me treat her so shamefully. But her generosity knows no bounds. I always leave with more than just clean laundry; she puts together weekly care packages – a Strawberry Shortcake shorts set for April, a Scooby Do t-shirt for Seth. Packages of pinto beans, boxes of macaroni and cheese, cans of Spam. Sometimes there’s hamburger or a chuck roast from her meat freezer; or home canned beans, beets and apple butter from her pantry. And she always slips me a five-dollar bill when my father isn’t looking. My mother deserves better than this. She loves me, supports me, cares for me, refuses to judge me, worries about me, sacrifices for me.
     Then how do I justify the theft and the lie? Well, you tell me. What’s my mother doing with a bottle of Chanel No. 5, anyway?
      Chanel No. 5 is one of the most recognizable and expensive perfumes in the world. It’s a timeless classic, Marilyn Monroe’s signature scent. Wearing it is like wearing expensive lingerie or slipping between silk sheets with a lover. And this isn’t a bottle of Eau de Toilette hiding in the medicine cabinet. No, this is the real stuff – parfum, as the French say – thicker than water, oily like chrism used at baptism, its flowery scent lingers on the skin for hours. Standing in my mother’s cramped half-bath, the pink sink clearly showing the twenty plus years of wear and tear, I take one sniff, breath in luxurious aromas of roses and jasmine, sandalwood, cedar and musk, and I covet that perfume.
     No. 5 is mysterious, sensual, sophisticated, sexy. No. 5 is not my mother.
     Overweight by more than sixty pounds, my mother lives a life of extreme exertion, but no exercise.
     Chores like cooking and cleaning every day. Ironing on Wednesdays, Tuesdays for sewing. On weekends, baking, gardening, canning.  And there’s always mending and scrubbing to be done.
      She fixes plenty of typical Oklahoma fare. At breakfast, our plates are piled high with biscuits and gravy thickened with sausage drippings, eggs fried over easy. At dinner, the table groans with overcooked greens seasoned liberally with bacon grease, peach cobbler or pecan pie, chicken fried steak or country fried chicken, slow cooked pinto beans with left-over ham hock from Sunday dinner. Everything cooked with lots of butter, lots of sugar, lots of salt.
     With a military husband away on overseas assignments at least six months of every year, my mom raised five children almost single-handedly. When it came to spending money, she kept her needs at the bottom of the list behind band uniforms and school supplies and church camp. Her everyday clothes of polyester and cotton were threadbare and ill fitting, and although she always made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, her face remains creased with permanent worry lines. Mom wears her heart on her sleeve, crying at the drop of a hat, and always, always when the situation warrants, laughing like a loon.
     You understand now, don’t you? It’s easy to justify keeping the Chanel in my purse. I’m the one going on dates. I’ve the one with the chance to be mysterious, sophisticated, sexy. If anyone wears No. 5, it should be me, and not my mother.
      Two days after the theft of the perfume, I’ve got a date with Frank. I leave Seth and April with my mother in case there’s an opportunity to get frisky. Just dinner and a movie, no need to change out of jeans and a t-shirt, but I rummage in my purse for the small bottle of perfume. I open the glass stopper, hoping to inhale the promise of sex.
It doesn’t happen. Instead I am five, sitting at the foot of my parent’s bed. My sisters, Karen and Carol, play in their bedroom down the hall; the new baby, Jean, sleeps in the nursery next door.
      We’re living in England, in the small village of Abbotsley not far from Cambridge. An English Lord owns the house and surrounding property, and he rents it cheap to American GI’s, a bit of “thank the Yank” for America’s participation in WWII. This is his simple country home, but to us it ‘s a mansion. We have Maria, an Irish housekeeper and nanny, five bedrooms, three fireplaces, Mr. Boddington, the gardener, who gives us rides in the wheelbarrow, an abandoned tennis court where we roller skate, a plum orchard, a ten-pound calico cat that likes to steal fish and chips, a white picket fence covered in pink tea roses. My mom and dad entertain other service families at our home, and they meander to the local pub with friends. Since we aren’t far from London, sometimes they drive there in my dad’s red 59 Austin Healey Sprite, and come back to regale us with tales of handsome Rex Harrison and the nightingale voice of Julie Andrews, stars in the west end production of My Fair Lady.
     From my vantage point at the foot of my parent’s bed, I watch my mother in a state of reverie. She is more beautiful than any movie star. In fact, I’m sure she is the most beautiful woman in the world. I love her going-to-the theater dress, and it’s beautiful, just like her, deeper than midnight and splattered with large, crimson roses. The wide red belt has a big gold buckle, and the scoop neck with red piping shows just the tiniest bit of cleavage when she bends over to pick us up.
      To the left of the bed, my mother sits on a low stool in front of the large oval mirror of an antique vanity table. I can see us both in its reflection. From a small red satin bag, she removes a golden tube of ruby red cream, which she applies to open lips. Across her eyes she brushes green fairy dust and her hazel eyes dance all the brighter. She dips a soft round puff that looks like the end of a poodle’s tail into a blue box filled with pale powder, and sprinkles it across her perfect nose. I’m glad it doesn’t hide her freckles. Dark, auburn hair falls in natural curls just above soft shoulders. I hear my dad’s voice in the hallway outside the bedroom. “You about ready, hon?” Soon he peaks his head around the corner. He’s dressed up, too. Not in Air Force blues, but in a civilian’s dark suit and tie. When his eyes light on my mother, a huge smile crosses his face. “Babe, you look like a million bucks.” She smiles back at him in the mirror.
     Now my mom slides around the stool to face me. “Ruby, mind Maria tonight. No fussing at bedtime. And will you help take care of your sisters?”
     I nod.
     “That’s a good girl. Come give me a kiss.”
     I wrap my arms around her neck, nestle my face next to hers. She turns to kiss my cheek and I smell – now I remember – her smell, that smell – roses and jasmine, sandalwood, cedar, musk. The smell of No. 5.
     I hate this damn perfume. Who am I kidding? I can’t wear it.
     I march through my small duplex, past Seth’s crib, April’s tricycle, past my empty, unmade bed, the small bottle clutched in a damp fist. The screen door of the utility porch complains when I push it open.
     What do I care about a silly bottle of perfume?
     I hurl the bottle into the alleyway behind my house, and go back inside to wait for Frank.
     A few hours later, after mediocre pizza, the seven o’clock showing of Flashdance, some insincere kisses, Frank and I return to my empty apartment. But I’m not interested in sex without love tonight, so I feign a headache and send him on his way. I sit alone at the kitchen table, sick to my stomach at the thought of the discarded and squandered bottle.
     I grab a flashlight and head out to the alley to hunt for it. Crawling on hands and knees, I search under an abandoned car; with bent back I ransack boxes of stuff left over from a neighbor’s yard sale; then I scour relentlessly in the dirt behind the hydrangea bush. But the bottle is nowhere to be found.
     Back in the house, the wooden kitchen chair is cold and hard against my backside. I’m ashamed, tired of lying to myself. I’ll never have what my mom and dad have. I’m not in love; I’ll probably never fall in love. I’ll grow old, alone and lonely. I want to replace the bottle, but I can’t. I want to fess up, but I’m too much of a coward.
     Time passes, and the overwhelming sense of guilt subsides. But a tiny, nagging tug of my conscience hangs on a nail in the back of my mind. 
     Twenty years later, my dad turns seventy-five, and to celebrate this milestone, I make the trip back to Oklahoma from my home in Portland, Oregon.
     At the party, my father opens one of the family photo albums. He tell with zest the story of how he and my mom met.
     “See, here’s your mom in high school. Her folks had a farm not too far from ours, and I knew your mother in passing.”
     My parents grew up in similar circumstances, both families trying to scratch out a living from hard red dirt.
     “So, when I got sent on my first tour of duty, Margaret asked if she could write me. By this time she was working as a secretary in Oklahoma City. Anyway, your mom wrote a real nice letter about once a week. We’d been corresponding about six months when I found out I was coming home on furlough.”
      My dad turns the pages of the photo album. I’m thinking I should go pay her a call – you know, as a courtesy for all the letters. I hadn’t seen her in a few years, and I guess I still thought of her as a kid. But, believe me, when I saw her, she was no kid. I took one look at her and positive and negative ions started flying all over the place.” 
     Yes, electricity knows no bounds, and when it strikes like lightning, it can knock you off your feet. They married in less than a month, and on the following pages my mother is stunning, absolutely glowing, in a borrowed wedding dress. Within six months they were stationed in Hawaii, an island paradise.
     My dad points to another black-and-white photo. In it he’s wearing a white jacket and bow tie. My mom is in a fancy mu-mu. They’re both wearing leis. They seem oblivious to the photographer. They’re not looking at the camera, they only have eyes for each other. My mom couldn’t have been more than twenty-four.
     “This is on the campus of the Kamehameha School where your mom worked,” my dad continues. “She musta been about five months pregnant. That little belly pooch is you.”
     The following day, I ask two of my sisters to join me on a mission.
     It’s late April and the beginning of tornado season. The wind isn’t too bad, but it looks like rain. We stop at Crossroads Mall on the southeast side of Oklahoma City, and head to Dillard’s Department Store.
     In the cosmetics section, I spot the Chanel display case. Lots of perfume offerings – Coco, No. 19, Allure. I ask the sales clerk for No. 5. One hundred dollars and a smile will get you the small ¼ ounce bottle of parfum, but at this point, I’ll pay anything to clear my conscience.
     Carol, Karen and I take I-35 to Moore. At the 4th Street exit, we drive past the grocery store where mom used to work. The town seems emptier than I remember. Lots of small, local businesses closed after Wal-Mart built the superstore south of town. We pass KOMA, the local country and western radio station, and turn up the gravel road leading into Moore cemetery – my mother’s final resting place.
     She’s buried next to family – parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. We’ve got four or five generations planted in that hard red dirt. My dad’s name is already on the tombstone above her grave. On my mom’s side it says, “Loving wife and mother.” There are two interlocking wedding bands in the center of the stone with 36 years carved beneath them.
     I kneel in front of the tombstone, not sure how to start an apology. I open my purse and pull out the small white box with black and gold accents.
   "Ma, years ago I stole your perfume and lied about it. I threw away the bottle. But that wasn’t the worse part. You know, I’m almost the same age you were when you died. I look down at my hands and see your hands. I look in the mirror and see your face. When you were alive, you were just mother to me. I never looked beyond that. I never saw how beautiful and sexy and young you really were. And for that I’m eternally sorry.”
     I open the brand-new box of Chanel No. 5 and pour a little bit of the perfume on her grave.
     “Mom, I’m going to keep the rest and whenever I wear it, I’ll think of you. I love you, ma.”
     With shaky knees, I climb from wet, cold ground. Karen, Carol and I daub No. 5 on our wrists; wipe away tears with musky fingers. Two days later back in Portland, I place the bottle of No. 5 on a shelf in my medicine cabinet, surrounded by myriad heart medications.
      Over the years it dawned on me my mother might have kept her bottle of No. 5 to remind her of those times when life was easier, when love flowed in and through our home like a river of light. A gift from my father, the bottle was a simple sign she was and always would be his special lady. Despite years passing, worry lines increasing, extra pounds gaining, when he gazed into her hazel eyes, she looked like a million bucks.
     I still can’t bear to wear the perfume. But from time to time I open the bottle. As I inhale roses and jasmine, cedar, sandalwood, musk, I am five, I am thirty, I am fifty. I see my mother in a going-to-theater dress, in threadbare polyester. I see her auburn hair, her grey-streaked tresses. And she is the epitome of No. 5 – lovely and loved.