Paula Younger's writing has appeared in many literary journals, including Harper Collins’ 52 Stories, The Rattling Wall, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, and The Nervous Breakdown. She earned her MFA from the University of Virginia, and received the Henry Hoyns and Bronx Writers Center fellowships. She teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where she received the Beacon Award for teaching excellence.
The first time my mother rose from the dead my son was a month old and I had a fever of 103. My husband had left for a business trip to sell a company that specialized in landscaped rock and gravel. The sale was necessary to pay for our hefty mortgage. I had strep throat, a bottle of amoxicillin and a newborn.
Neil sent me a text with a link to a babysitting website. “She’ll be there in 30 minutes. Hang in there. Don’t pick up the baby.”
It would be okay to hand over my non-talking newborn to a stranger. No need to worry that his neck could snap if not supported properly, that he was too young for solids and didn’t use formula. Our pediatrician dubbed breast milk ‘liquid gold’ and I constantly worried I wouldn’t produce enough. In my feverish haze, the Just Like Mom babysitting website was manna. Golden women with hair blowing in the breeze, happy young children playing in a field, a baby swaddled in a soft white blanket.
My baby’s cry turned into a wail: his hungry sound. My tight, full breasts pressed against the nursing bra. I shook, either from Jake’s cries or the fever. I pushed my hands against the walls of the narrow hallway for support and walked into Jake’s darkened room.
He paused mid-cry and jostled against his sleepsack, trying to free his swaddled arms. He gave me his wooing look—big eyes and an eager smile. His jaundiced skin made him look tan. I longed for the orange to subside and his body to rid itself of the excess bilirubin, something I didn’t even know existed until Jake didn’t have the right amount. I picked him up, but dropped him back onto his crib. His wail escalated into a new register. I cried out, “Mom!” Jake startled, and then wailed harder.
I had called for Mom plenty of times before, an old habit whenever I felt overwhelmed, but this time someone moved just beyond the door to the hallway.
“Who’s there?” I stood in front of Jake’s crib with my arms outstretched, the most protective posture I could manage.
Mom wore her burgundy business jacket and skirt. Her left black high heel was missing, and so was her eye. Her skull was dented and oozed red. I stared at the gaping hole. I had assumed if there was an afterlife, it cleaned people up.
“Sorry for the mess,” Mom said. She limped over in her one shoe. “Why don’t I take him so you can get some rest?”
Mom scooped up Jake. I put my hand out to stop her, but worried about touching her.
Miraculously, Jake stopped crying. He nestled against Mom. Was there some essential element that was the same between us, whether or not she had a heartbeat?
“Goo,” Jake cooed, a new sound.
“Smells like someone messed his pants,” she said. I couldn’t breathe properly, much less smell. She pressed my forehead against her cheek. I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to see her. “You’re burning up, baby girl,” she said.
The doorbell rang.
“Who’s that?” Mom asked.
“The babysitter. Neil found a service.”
Mom frowned. Her disapproval was more intense with the missing eye. How could a lack of an eye convey so much?
“You’re going to let a stranger take care of my newborn grandson?” she asked.
“I don’t like it either, but Neil’s in Texas and you’re dead. Or you were.”
“I’m still dead.”
“How are you here then?”
“I’m not quite sure,” Mom said, and she didn’t look thrilled about it.
I opened the door to Kari, a flight attendant. She said the airlines already vetted their employees so she was doubly bona fide, and then her eyes widened. She lowered her voice and asked, “Do you want me to call the police?”
“Don’t worry. She’s my mother.” I tried to breathe deeply. My lungs ached.
“Thank you for coming, but you can go now,” Mom said and gestured toward the door. Jake cooed in agreement.
“It’s already paid for,” Kari said.
Mom winked with her good eye. “We won’t tell. Go see a movie.”
Kari turned to me. “You look like you need the help.”
I had no idea what I looked like. Kari was young, athletic, healthy, and alive. She worked flights, knew CPR. She would be capable, keep my baby safe. Mom had been dead for ten years and then suddenly materialized. Jake smiled in her arms. She smiled back and there she was. Mom. I would do anything to have her back, even if it only lasted for an hour.
“Do you have children?” I asked Kari.
“I’ve been babysitting since I was 15. I practically raised my younger siblings. I’m a professional.”
Just Like Mom’s tagline was “Love Certified,” as if love could be purchased. Jake was mine. Mom loved him instantly because of that. She would come back from the dead to help me. Kari was just there to pick up some cash between flights.
“Thanks, but I have my mom.” What a magical thing to say, a safety net after ten years of being unmoored.
Kari gave me her phone number. “In case you change your mind. Your husband paid for the week.”
Of course Kari wouldn’t understand. Her mother was probably still alive. They would get ice cream together and laugh how they love the same flavor—strawberry sherbet! She didn’t understand taking whatever you could get.
Mom gave me medicine and tucked me into bed. Three hours later I woke with leaking breasts and sour milk embedded in my skin. It was the longest I had been apart from my son. I searched through my sheets, as if I had misplaced Jake, and then hurried downstairs. Had I left the door unlocked and handed my baby over to a stranger in a fevered dream?
Mom stood in the kitchen wearing Jake in the sling I was too afraid to use. The week before his birth I’d read a story about a baby who suffocated in a sling at Costco.
She bounced Jake in her arms and sang about a pony ride. He reached toward her missing left eye and grinned. Mom said, “Where did Grandma’s eye go?”
She ordered me back to bed. She set up Jake in his baby papasan within my line of sight. She spooned me tomato soup, cheering me with every painful swallow. She aligned Jake next to my body when he needed to nurse and then took him back when he was done. I rested but I still reached for Jake. I heard Mom talking to him in a baby voice and then his reassuring goo, and sometimes a squeal.
She trained Jake for naps in his crib. She made meals. She baked banana bread. She organized my kitchen shelves. Death made her immune to my strep. No reason to feel guilty for exposing her, but we did have a few arguments. She insisted on a laundry line instead of our clothes dryer, and she wanted to make baby food instead of using the jarred Earth’s Best.
“Don’t you own a food processor?” she asked. When in fact I did not. On our farm we had grown our vegetables and Dad killed our meat. I grew up picking vegetables, canning vegetables, chopping vegetables. I loved my pre-made, ready to go life.
“How can you live without canning vegetables and fruit?” Mom asked.
“I barely have a yard. I live in in the middle of the city.” Then I added, hoping for some credit, “I lived off of your jarred beets and hard-boiled eggs when I was pregnant. I got the recipe from your sisters.”
Mom did approve of the cloth diapers, but not that we used a service. “Why don’t you just wash them yourself?” The Catholic farmer soul. In my family the 11th commandment was: Thou Shall Not Be Wasteful. My parents burned our trash and if something wasn’t deemed throw-awayable, it reappeared in the can. As an adult, I dutifully recycled and composted, but I loved the thrill of throwing something away and never seeing it again.
Neil called. He asked how I liked the babysitter.
“She’s the best,” I said.
“That’s great.” I could hear his relief through the phone. His hair had begun to turn gray from the extra pressure of financially supporting a family. How had we become so traditional? Our honeymoon was in an Amazonian tree house. Monkeys raided our backpacks and threw my deodorant into the Rio Negro.
Once I could hold Jake again, I pressed his cheek against mine. It pulsed. It radiated heat. He smelled like breast milk and something else, hard to name. Mom adjusted the sling and showed me how to use it. She patted my back and said, “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Neil came home a day early. My large battered suitcase had traveled to Europe, South America and Africa. His Tumi luggage was sleek, trim, accessorized and ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Unlike me, Neil didn’t carry too much.
He spread his arms. “Hooray! You’re both still alive!” Then he noticed Mom and paled. “What happened to the babysitter?” he asked.
“She wasn’t needed.”
Mom held a lion toy over Jake’s baby papasan. She pulled its tail and it let out a roar. Jake pumped his hand in appreciation and then grabbed it.
“It looks like married life is agreeing with you, Neil,” Mom said.
“Why are you home?” I asked.
“My deal closed early.” Neil was promoted to Managing Director. He convinced the buyers that the selling company’s CEO was competent, despite his jumping off a balcony in Cozumel and breaking his leg. Neil positioned the CEO as adventurous, not stupid. He thought he was jumping onto sand, after all, and hadn’t noticed the concrete in the dark.
The dent in the side of Mom’s head gaped larger. “I always knew you’d be successful,” she said.
Neil glanced at me. “No wonder you sounded so happy.”
That night, Mom left. I begged her to stay, but she said, “You’re healthy and Neil’s home.”
“He’ll be gone again soon.” Then I paused, “Where are you going?”
“That’s not for you to worry about.”
Mom kissed my cheek. She smelled moldy. I closed my eyes and imagined her head was whole. When I opened my eyes, Jake was in my arms. Mom was gone.
When my son was born, the nurse said he knew me by smell, heartbeat, and voice. Jake recognized me right after I pushed him out of my body. He fumbled against my skin, digging and searching until we reconnected. I hoped that even if I died, some part of him would remember me. When my mom returned from the dead, the voice was right, but she smelled of socks and rotting food. When she was alive, she had smelled like baking bread.
Whenever I made a mistake and Neil was out of town, Mom appeared. Like when Jake chipped a tooth on the glass coffee table. When he had a stomach virus and I contracted it too; I vomited while cleaning up his vomit. When he had the flu and I held him nonstop for three days and then I had the flu, too.
The second time Mom appeared, I sprayed her back with lavender water. The third time, I bought her comfortable slacks and a top, in burgundy, her favorite color that used to bring out the rosy undertones of her skin. The fourth time, I bought her Naturalizer flats, comfortable but attractive. “These look expensive,” she said suspiciously. Dad had donated her clothes to Goodwill. My sisters and I had taken our favorites—her goofy Christmas sweaters with large reindeer heads and Santas and wreaths. Her University of Dayton sweatshirt. Proud Parent of CU Student sweatshirt. I didn’t give her those; I worried her head would stain them.
I also bought her an eye patch. Jake gazed at it and she said, “What’s under Grandma’s flap? Whoop! What’s under Grandma’s flap?” I looked away from her empty socket. Jake grinned and laughed, his first one. A milestone.
After three months of Mom’s sporadic visits, Neil said, “I’m glad you have your mom back, but do you think it’s right for our son to be raised around someone who’s dead?”
“She’s back. Does it matter?”
“She’s one of the nicest people I know, but she’s painful to look at. That can’t be good for Jake.”
“You get used to it.”
“You didn’t even look at her in the morgue.” Neil gave me his I-know-you-better-than-you-know-yourself look.
After Mom had died, the coroner advised my family not to see the body, we wouldn’t want that to be our last memory of her. But now I was constantly around her oozing head and missing eye. I tried to focus on spots just past her ear. I began to forget what she used to look like. At night, I dreamed of a mangled mother.
Neil began calling during the day. He would hesitate and then ask, “Is she there?”
Maybe Mom sensed this. While loading the washing machine she said, “He works an awful lot, doesn’t he? Do you think it’s necessary? Some men don’t like to come home once there’s a baby, and you’re not back to your pre-baby weight.”
“I’m not worried about a mistress.”
Mom set her mouth. “I don’t think he likes me.”
“He loves you, he’s just concerned.”
Another time, she said, “It must be nice to marry rich.”
“We’re not rich, you know that. We met in college. We ate ramen.”
“He was a business major. You knew he’d be successful. Neil’s smart.”
“Dad was a math major.”
“He was a teacher. They don’t make money.”
“He was a professor.”
“An instructor at a community college.”
Mom had two Masters’ degrees and had managed male engineers at a power plant. She earned more than Dad, but he controlled the money. Any time we came home from clothes shopping, she brought in one bag and left the rest hidden in the trunk.
“He might resent that you’re not doing your share,” she said.
“I’m taking care of our child. A nanny costs more than what I earn as an adjunct, and you stayed home until I was three.” When I was sick on school days, I hung out beneath Dad’s desk with my blanket and pillow; an effective office hours’ deterrent. I wanted better for Jake. I wanted to be the one to take care of him and witness every milestone.
When I went to the grocery store, Mom stayed home with Jake. I said I didn’t want to drag Jake around, but really, I didn’t want to see people’s reactions to Mom. When I returned, Mom frowned at the receipt. “I had three children and didn’t spend as much as you.”
“Quality food costs more,” I said.
“And why does everything say gluten-free? What is gluten?” she asked.
“You’re a scientist, you should know.”
“Gluten is an elastic protein substance that holds food together, typically in wheat products. What a relief it isn’t in this coffee.” She held up the bag and looked at the label. “Good thing this is also dairy and GMO free too. When did dairy become a bad thing? We lived off of milk. It’s why you and your sisters are so smart. Baby girl, you’re too smart to follow dumb fads.” She held up a pouch of Bumble Bee Premium Albacore. “Tuna isn’t supposed to be fancy.”
Mom used to clip grocery store coupons and send my sisters and me through individual lines with the item and exact amount. I was five years old, holding a stack of tuna cans, the $1.25 and four for a dollar coupon sweaty in my hand. I panicked that the store clerk would yell at me for breaking the rules.
“You left me at grocery stores,” I said.
“I had three kids and you were never where you were supposed to be. Eventually, I always remembered you.” Mom paused, “If you thought I was such a terrible mother, then why did you call for me?”
“Because you’re mine.”
I hid Jake’s seaweed snacks, applesauce and fruit packets from Mom. I didn’t want her to see my disposable life. I showed off how I washed sheets and towels on Sundays like her. I kept the closets closed so she wouldn’t see that I inherited her chaotic organizing, but Mom opened the hall closet and four towels fell onto her oozing head. “You’re supposed to be better than me, baby girl,” she said.
I wanted to know about my childhood. As the youngest of three, I didn’t have a baby book. I asked Mom what I was like as a baby, when I hit my first milestones. When I had my first tooth. I wanted to see myself in Jake. Finally Mom said, “I’m missing parts of my brain. Why don’t you ask your father?”
“He said he doesn’t remember his childhood, much less mine.”
I showed her how I had saved the stuffed animals she made for me, her rosary case with Mary encircled in engraved Latin words, along with her prayer book from high school, with a ticket for the First Annual Our Lady of Mercy Teen Club Communion Breakfast for March 8th, 1959 tucked inside. The small things we are left with but cling to.
When Jake was eight months old, I returned to teaching composition, two nights a week, so that either my husband or I could take care of him. I wanted to stay employable and help my family, but Neil often had to travel, usually on the same nights. Whenever I actually made it to the gym, I chatted up the kids’ club employees to see if they were for hire.
I felt ill when my meager salary went to a babysitter. I wished it wouldn’t be so expensive and difficult to be away from Jake for a couple hours. Everything I did had to have value. Neil suggested we hire a nanny, but that would be even more financial stress, and friends told me their stories. One nanny didn’t have the car seat installed and another kept the baby in a high chair for hours while she drank beer and watched TV, all recorded on a Nest camera.
During classes I would notice spit up on a black shirt. My clothing had random little tears and holes and stains. Jake slimed me on a daily basis. Once he became a toddler and could walk, my jewelry started going missing. Necklaces. Earrings. Bracelets. I struggled to present an assembled version of myself.
Jake turned two. He walked and talked and wanted everything. He started attending preschool for two hours, two days a week. It took more time to get him ready, reassure him and get him to school than he spent in class. I read him comforting books about mothers that always come back, promised him I would always return, but his intense fear of my leaving left me shaky. I wondered if he knew something I didn’t. At pick-up, two hours after frantically working at a nearby coffee shop, Jake would give me an extravagant hug and kiss and say, “Mommy and son! Together again!”
Even though I promised myself I would let her rest, I would call for Mom. When Neil was traveling. Just sometimes.
And Neil would figure it out, especially because Jake was verbally precocious. I called him the Reporter. Jake gave details about our day—zoos, playgrounds, museums, and every time Grandma visited. Jake would say, “Don’t be ridiculous, Daddy. Grandma’s coming.”
Once I had a child, all I could see were the multitudes of women who had their mothers. They cluttered parks, playgrounds, and birthday parties. At preschools they even had their own day: Grandparents’ Day.
These women complained about their moms wanting too much time with their kids, the numerous toys and bad food that they gave their children, but even they had to know that the grandma was the only person, aside from your spouse, who enjoyed the minutiae of milestones, funny statements, photographs and videos, who actually took pictures of you with your child. Who could blame me for calling for Mom, even if she was dead?
Each return seemed tenuous. When Mom visited, I pretended she was just a little dead. I envisioned her downtime in a cave, quiet and no pain. Each time she appeared she was paler, smelled worse. Her head wound expanded. Her walk became slower.
Jake wanted Grandma to go to Grandparents’ Day at his preschool. “You’re supposed to take someone that’s alive, baby,” I said.
He asked questions like:
“How did she die?”
“Will you die?”
“Will I die?”
In the car, he started saying: “Don’t kill me.” “Put both hands on steering wheel.” “Stop at stop sign!” “Stop at red light!” “Wear your seatbelt” (even though I always wore my seatbelt.) “Too fast. Too fast. Slow down. I like it slow.”
Our neighborhood had narrow sidewalks so Jake rode his bike with training wheels in the street. Any time a car was within sight, Jake stood up, carried his bike to the side of the road and then waited for the car to pass. I approved of this, but Neil said, “He has too much fear.”
But then Jake didn’t. He stopped listening about climbing on furniture, about jumping off of tables and couches. He stopped worrying about crossing the street and walked on red. He ran away from me. Each time I scolded him he said, “Don’t worry, Mama. I can come back from the dead, too.” When I complained to Neil, he said, “You’re the one who keeps having your mother come back.”
“At least she helps. Your parents are alive and we barely see them,” I said.
“At least they don’t give our son nightmares.”
“He loves her.” That part was true.
One day, I was searching for Mom and Jake in the laundry room when the neighborhood dogs started barking, howling like a giant car alarm. Mom and Jake hustled back in. They had snuck outside for Jake to ride his bike. “Why don’t dogs like Grandma?” Jake asked.
He insisted on wearing an eye patch like Grandma. I gave in and bought him one, hoping he would lose interest. He grabbed Mom’s hand and said, “Now we match.” I told people he was going through a pirate phase. Jake only took the patch off in the bath and when he slept at night. I started to worry that somehow his eye had rubbed away. At night, I pointed a flashlight above his head and watched his eyeball reassuringly flutter beneath his closed lid.
When I was five months pregnant with my daughter, I accidentally drugged Jake. Neil was in California selling a cabinet company. Jake was three and healing from tonsil surgery. I slept little between the baby jostling in my belly and my toddler son who couldn’t tolerate pain medicine. Jake kept vomiting and crying whenever I tried to make him drink Pedialyte. Every swallow and vomit hurt. “If you don’t drink, I’ll have to take you back to the hospital. They’ll put a needle in you,” I threatened. He hadn’t peed in a day.
At night I huddled next to Jake in his bed. His flushed body burned against mine. I debated taking him to the ER for fluids and to break his fever, but he kept saying the hospital made him sick. My daughter jabbed my ribs and I cursed Neil for having to be gone. I swore I wouldn’t panic and accidentally summon Mom; she deserved rest and I wanted to keep her as intact as possible to meet her newest grandchild.
Our prescription medicines were on the kitchen shelf, out of Jake’s reach. His anti-nausea medicine was in the same size bottle as Neil’s high blood pressure one. As soon as Jake started chewing the pill, I realized it had looked a little too large in my hand. I tried to grab the pill out of his mouth.
I hustled him over to the bathroom and put my finger down his throat. He swung his arms. “You’re going to make me throw up.”
“I’m trying to make you throw up.” I explained that I gave him the wrong medicine.
“Dad’s medicine is hot. You shouldn’t give me Dad’s medicine,” he said.
I started to cry. Jake stared, stunned, then he tried to reassure me, “It’s okay. Sometimes you give me the wrong medicine.”
I called Poison Control. The nurse on the other line assured me that Labetalol in that dose, based on Jake’s weight, wasn’t toxic. I had to keep him awake and watch for unusual behavior for three hours. She would call to check in. Jake and I sat side by side watching The Wizard of Oz, the mellowest I had ever seen my three year old. His sister thumped around in my belly. Jake sat like he was high and kept pointing at the wicked witch and saying in a slow voice, “Is she nice?”
My head bobbed, trying to stay awake to keep Jake awake. I told myself I could parent on my own. I didn’t have to keep dragging Mom back, but then she appeared. Her head oozed a goopy green. Her eye patch sagged.
Jake smiled and said in an eerily slow voice, “Grandma.”
She sat next to us. “I don’t know why you made such a fuss,” she said.
“I drugged my child.”
“On accident. It’s better than Benadryl. Look how mellow he is. I rubbed whiskey on your gums when you were teething.”
“So you do remember my childhood.”
“A little. Most of my memory is fuzzy.”
After three hours, Jake’s energy eased back into his toddler body. He and Mom took turns pretending the wicked witch was in the closet. They used the office trashcan as a bucket to pour pretend water on her.
I waddled up to my room to nap, nervous and unsteady. A few days later, at Jake’s three-year checkup, I blurted that I accidentally drugged my child. The doctor had the physician's assistant take Jake away to color while we talked. The doctor talked about changes in hormonal balances, the stresses of children, and then prescribed me Escitalopram. Just a mild anti-depressant. So smooth and light. A little added boost. Women love it. Helps steady them. Should be fine with the baby in my belly. All limbs and organs were formed. We had to take care of Mama now.
I twisted the amber prescription bottle in my hand. It was too easy to mess up, to endanger my child, and soon there would be two of them. I would have even less sleep and more stress. How could I manage? The only person I could trust with my child aside from Neil was Mom; odd to have someone who was missing part of her brain as the reliable, knowledgeable one. I vowed I would be more careful with her visits, only call for her when I really needed her, terrified of facing motherhood without her.
Mom wanted to see Dad. She had been married to him for thirty-five years, after all. I was seven months pregnant.
We began the hour drive north. Mom sat in the passenger seat, hands in her lap.
“Put on your seatbelt,” I said.
“I’m already dead.”
“Buckle up, Grandma!”
She listened to her grandson.
Maybe it was the close quarters of the SUV, maybe it was because I was pregnant and my senses were heightened, but Mom reeked, like a body beyond decay. Jake didn’t seem to notice. Was being around his dead grandmother destroying his sense of smell?
Dad avoided anything that made him uncomfortable, so Mom and I parked outside his suburban house, a fifteen-minute drive from our old farm, and spied. We followed his mint-green Camry to the local WalMart.
“Is that a new car?” Mom asked.
“Yeah, can you believe it?” I grew up with used, boat-like Impalas.