Alice Eve Cohen reads four excerpts from her memoir, The Year My Mother Came Back, forthcoming in March from Algonquin Books.
The Year My Mother Came Back
One day, my brilliant, beautiful, complicated mother appeared at my kitchen table, thirty-one years after her death.
This is a story about mothers and daughters. My mother, my daughters. My mother’s daughters, my daughters’ mothers. This is the story of a year.
The wind picked up, whipping my long hair around my face. Mom led us across the seaweed-strewn wet sand at low tide. Madeline was twelve, Jennifer was five, and I was eight. My sisters and I were dressed in matching blue one-piece bathing suits. Mom was wearing her yellow-striped sundress. The foamy waves rolled over our feet, tangling our ankles in long strands of seaweed, and sculpting ephemeral footprints, which disappeared with each new wave.
“‘PRIVATE BEACH. KEEP OUT. TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED,’” Madeline read aloud.
“Ignore the sign!” said Mom.
“Won’t we get arrested?” I asked, with equal parts trepidation and excitement.
“No. We’re below the high tide mark, so we’re not breaking the law. The point is, girls, that all beachfront should be public access. That’s what we’re fighting for. It’s unforgivable that rich people are the only ones who get to enjoy this glorious coastline. That’s why we’re protesting. Do you understand?”
I nodded. Madeline shrugged her shoulders. Jennifer chased a fiddler crab.
“This is where we stop, girls. Right here.” The four of us sat side-by-side on the sloping shore.
After a while, a tall, thin policeman walked down the beach towards us. He looked out of place in his uniform.
“Oh, no,” groaned Madeline. She and Jennifer watched from a safe distance, while I inched closer to Mom on the wet sand. I was a little scared of the policeman, in case he arrested us.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am,” said the policeman.
“Good afternoon, Officer. Isn’t it a gorgeous day?”
“Ya see that sign?”
“Yes, Officer, we read the sign.”
“Do you know what trespassing means?”
“Of course. But we’re not trespassing.”
The policeman was confused. “This is a private beach. Belongs to that man up there.” He pointed to that man up there.
“No, it doesn’t. We’re below the high tide line, so this isn’t private property, his or anybody else’s.”
“Lady! The high-tide ordinance is for boat-owners. You’re allowed to bring your boat up close to a private beach, for fishing or whatever, as long as you’re below the high tide line.”
“Alas, we forgot to bring our boat with us today. But whatever the intent of the law, my daughters and I are within our legal rights, and we intend to stay here until the tide is high, which is hours from now.” She smiled at him, friendly as can be, and a little bit flirty.
I close my eyes. I hear a familiar percussive sound. I open my eyes.
My mother is at the kitchen table next to me, typing on her old-fashioned, black, manual typewriter, fingers flying over the keys.
What is she doing here? My mother has been dead for thirty-one years.
I think about her every June, but this is the middle of July. I don’t think about her in July. Yet here she is, typing furiously. Here, in my head, in my apartment, sitting beside me at the kitchen table. My brilliant, beautiful, complicated mother.
“What are you doing here?”
“Typing,” she says, barely looking up from her work
“But you’re dead.” She stops now, looks up at me.
A salty breeze blows through my kitchen and wraps itself around me. It is my mother’s hug from fifty years ago, when I was a very little girl. It makes me cry.
“Mommy, I’m sick.”
“That’s why I’m here.”
I see her more vividly than I have in the three decades since she died. Her fingers race over the clacking keys of the Smith Corona, the same typewriter she’s had since she was a Barnard student in the 1940s. She stares intently at the keyboard, warm brown eyes magnified by thick glasses; her face, once chiseled and gorgeous, now softly wrinkled, framed by cropped gray curls. Mom is sitting right next to me, extracted from the cosmic periphery to which I’ve relegated her for thirty-one years.
“I have breast cancer.”
“I know. So did I. I know all about breast cancer.”
I was twelve. Tomorrow, I would start eighth grade. I looked at myself in the mirror, previewed my back-to-school outfit—red miniskirt, black turtleneck, black fishnet tights. I stuck my skinny chest out, trying to look like an eighth grader, but I still looked like a little girl.
On the last day of 7th grade, Dad took Mom to the hospital. He didn’t tell us why. When she was away for three days, I was sure she had died.
Mom’s best friend Shirley called.
“Hello, Alice, dear. I’m so sorry about your mom. Tell me, darling, did she have one breast removed or two?
I didn’t understand Shirley’s question.
“… Alice? Are you there? One or both?”
“Um. Um. One. I think just one.”
“Well, that’s a relief, isn’t it? At least it was only one.”
I was wrong. Once Mom came back from the hospital she was changed. No longer the mother I knew. No longer the mother who smiled and laughed and grew flowers and napped on the hammock so the birds would land on her. No longer the mother who once loved me so much, the mother who hugged me, called me Sweetheart and Honeylamb and Sweetiepie, who said she loved me to pieces, who praised my drawings, who did X Marks the Spot on my back, over and over, as many times as I asked. This other mother barely noticed us. She was an imposter. Like the Mean Mother from my bad dream I used to have. My mom didn’t actually die, but she was gone.
I looked in the mirror again. I was the youngest in my grade and I was completely flat. This was going to be so embarrassing. I’d be the last girl still wearing an undershirt. Maybe, maybe, maybe Mom would take me shopping for a training bra, like all the other mothers of every girl I knew. I hoped she would.
No. This wasn’t the time to ask my mother to take me bra shopping.
Excerpted from The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen with permission of Algonquin Books. Copyright © 2015 by Alice Eve Cohen.