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,