Snow Skins – Part 1
It was an awful thing to give birth. To feel the blood escape while your body stretches around a thing that had been growing, living off of you, for months. Deirdre gripped the headboard of the bed. Three years ago, she’d never imagined this, would have laughed if you suggested it. But now, all she wanted was to get it over with. The Midwife had told her not to hold in the screams. She didn’t intend to.
No one was in the room with her, not her mother, not her child’s future godparents. Not even the father was there to see her writhe on the mattress. They waited outside the room, where they’d been for hours already. Deirdre didn’t have it in her to care about their comfort right now. She screamed like she hadn’t since she was a child on her first roller coaster ride. Part of her wanted someone besides the midwife in the room. Another part needed to prove to herself that it was possible to bear the pain alone.
Three years and one lifetime ago, she’d been sitting in her grandmother’s room at the nursing home, watching the sunlight catch on the white hairs growing out of the woman’s wrinkled chin. Her grandmother’s pearly-white curls, just trimmed, wobbled as she held her head upright.
She held still as Deirdre cupped her chin and, one by one, plucked out the bristle-stiff hairs with tweezers. She counted twelve, each of them either short or long, straight or curled. They drifted into the trash can like snow; tiny flurries evicted from her grandmother’s chin.
Her grandmother stayed in her chair throughout the visit. Two strokes and dementia meant that she could barely talk, much less remember who Deirdre was. Still, Deirdre needed to fill the silence.
“I finally bought my first car,” she said to empty air, pretending that her grandmother could understand what she was saying. “The window in the back doesn’t close all the way, and the radio is static no matter how I tune it…” On and on it went. Words fell from her mouth, floating listlessly until they landed on something. As she talked, she looked at her grandmother, the matriarch of their family.
The woman who was now stooped and slumping in her wheelchair, jaw lax and face blank, had once been broad-shouldered. She’d once stood tall beside her husband and children. During WWII, she’d been a welder in the shipyards. Deirdre remembered how those hands that had worked with metal ships designed for destruction, had delicately shown her how to pipe icing into tiny shapes and designs.
Her grandmother only had the bare minimum when it came to things like television, so she’d taught Deirdre how to design cakes, having her help with cake orders she took on for locals. Deirdre loved it. By the time she’d entered middle school, she had already decided to have her own cafe and bakery.
Finding out what Culinary School cost was a sucker punch. Deirdre could dream big, but reality dictated that she’d never be able to pay back the amount she’d have to take out in student loans. Her mother had been stuck in a government job for years, slowly earning forgiveness for student loans taken out before Deirdre was born. With nothing else she desperately wanted to do, Deirdre wound up apprenticing at a bakery run by one of her mom’s friends, taking business classes at night.
Deirdre told her grandmother all of this, rambling on into the evening when the muted nature documentaries on tv started to illuminate the room with blue light. The old woman’s blank gaze traveled over Deirdre, taking in the way she slumped sideways in a chair, legs casually tossed over the arm, her boots unzipped and dangling from her ankles.
“That’s nice, Liz,” her voice warbled. Deirdre stopped talking. “I’m glad you’re having fun.” Her grandmother smiled and tilted her head, not noticing that she’d called her granddaughter by her dead sister’s name.
“How are Johnny and Robert? They haven’t come by in…” Her grandmother trailed off, the words getting lost between her tongue and teeth and catching on her lips until they came out garbled. Deirdre hesitated. Johnny and Robert were Liz’s kids. Johnny had passed away from a heart attack two months ago, and Robert was somewhere in Alaska.
“Grandma,” she tried. “Hey, you okay?” She left her perch and kneeled by the wheelchair. Her grandmother shuddered and peered down at her through her glasses. One of the lenses was tilted higher than the other one, the frame bent across the nose from a fall.
“What is it, Lizzie?” She asked with a smile. Deirdre searched for one to match.
“Nothing, Peggy,” she said sadly. “Just thinking it was time we go to bed.” Her grandmother nodded as best she could and let Deirdre lead her to the hospital bed.
“‘Night, Lizzie,” the thin voice whispered in the darkening room. Deirdre swallowed the lump in her throat.
Her grandmother died a month later. Deirdre was in the bakery when the call came through.
“I’m so sorry, sweetie,” her boss said, wrapping Deirdre in a hug that smelled of powdered sugar and hair spray. “I’ll pray for you.”
‘What good will that do?’ Deirdre wanted to scream. Flaccid wishes to God wouldn’t bring her grandmother back! She gulped in deep breaths and stood, tears caking the film of sugar that had transferred from Miss Christine’s apron to her face.
The funeral was held at the church Deirdre was dragged to growing up. The wooden pews smelled of old resin and musty cushions. She sat with her mother, somber and silent in the first pew with the rest of the children and grandkids.
They didn’t speak. Deirdre didn’t know how to comfort a grieving daughter; she’d never been one. So, hesitantly, she did the only thing she knew how. Deirdre snuck her fingers beneath her mother’s palm, curling them around until their hands merged. ‘I’m here,’ it said. Her mother squeezed back.
When it finally came time for the oldest child to speak, Deirdre’s mother gently shook off her hand and took the podium.
“My mother,” she began. “Wasn’t an easy person to know. It took me too many years to learn that.” Deirdre listened to her mom’s speech, lost in thought. In the five days since quitting her job, she’d come to a kind of conclusion. She couldn’t stay. Everything, from the rickety old church to Miss Christine’s bakery, had begun to wear on her. Deirdre was suffocating, the town wrapping around her chest like an iron band.
It was the same town her grandmother had been born in, had died in, the same town Deirdre and her mother had been born in. She’d lived her whole life in this small, dying, Southern town, too scared to leave. There was nothing for her here, not anymore.
The family dissipated after the funeral, fluttering away in twos and threes. The children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews of Margaret were at once lost and driven by the absence of their matriarch. Like lemmings, they followed each other to the old family house, still filled with her cake pans and the smell of her perfume. Not knowing who led the way, they only knew it was where they were supposed to go. Where they went after, once the spell of the funeral was lifted, was entirely up to them. Deirdre knew without being told, they’d never gather as a clan again in her grandmother’s house.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” she confessed later that night to her mom. “I just can’t keep doing this.” She waved her hands at the house around her. Her sternly loving mother watched her with a blank expression.
“Do you have a plan?”
Deirdre nodded. “I have a friend that moved to California a year ago. He and his girlfriend mentioned their third roommate moved out.”
“There’s a couple of bakeries hiring, I’ve already mailed in my portfolio,” Deirdre finished and waited for a reaction. Her mother sighed, age falling over her body as she sagged forward.
“I’ve made too many mistakes in my life to tell you ‘no,'” she finally whispered, her blonde hair, streaked with gray that refused to be hidden, falling around her face. Deirdre knew what she was referring to.
Her mother had made the safe decisions when she was younger. She’d gotten engaged and married before finishing college, walking across the graduation stage four months pregnant to accept her bachelor’s. A few years later, she’d divorced him for reasons she still wouldn’t tell Deirdre. She’d thrown away a safe bet, a military wife lifestyle with a steady paycheck that would have covered her daughter’s college fund. She’d taken her toddler and left, returning to her mother’s and refusing to budge on the divorce.
Though Deirdre had loved her father, for the brief time she’d known him, he’d been more of a stranger, passing in and out of her life on whatever holidays he was available for. His voice on the phone, crackled and muffled, was more familiar than how he sounded in person. Nowadays, he was remarried with two stepsons, and they only spoke to wish each other ‘Merry Christmas.’
“I don’t think it was a mistake, mom,” Deirdre defended.
“You did your best,” Deirdre pressed, thinking of all those ways they’d cut corners and stretched dollars until arriving at a fairly comfortable lifestyle. “And I turned out okay in the end.”
“I think so.”
By the next midnight, she was parked in a desert in Nevada, stretched out in the backseat, a few bags of her things filling up the trunk. In the cloudless black sky, the stars were massive, and Deirdre finally felt like she could breathe again.
Photo by Andriyko Podilnyk on Unsplash.