“The Mothers”

Karen Shepard

September 13, 2017 
The following is from Karen Shepard’s collection, Kiss Me Someone. Karen Shepard is a the author of four novels: An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, Don’t I Know You?, and The Celestials. Kiss Me Someone is inhabited by women who walk the line between various states: adolescence and adulthood, stability and uncertainty, selfishness and compassion.

We are the mothers. Our names are Kim, or Linda, or Janice, or Sue. Sometimes Kristine, or Emilie, who grew up in Canada, but not Brittney or Ashlee with two e’s. We live in small New England towns known for their picturesque beauty, named after Native American tribes or founding fathers, ending in ville or field. Our houses are raised ranches or Capes or converted barns or former farmhouses. They’re in neighborhoods with bike-friendly roads, walking distance to the elementary school and playground. Or at the end of modest dirt driveways in an open meadow with partial views. We drive minivans or SUVs with bike racks on the back and Thules on the roof. Sometimes a pickup, if we’re Republican and borrowed our husbands’ cars. (We’re mostly Democrats, but avoid talking politics if we can. And religion, which most of us never had or have left behind, though some of us are still, shall we say, in the front pews.) Almost all of us are white.

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We have camp chairs with drink holders and shade canopies in the trunks of our cars, along with cases of Gatorade, first aid kits filled with smack packs, Rubbermaid cupcake holders, and lasagna pans. If our husbands coach, also orange sports cones and milk crates filled with water bottles. Picnic blankets and golf umbrellas. Some of us are former athletes, and some still compete in half triathlons. Some of us take Pilates. Some walk vigorously twice a week with friends or the dog. Some of us work, some don’t. We are all mothers. Some of us are naturally thin, some are not. All of us are competitive, and, in this way, like our sons. We’re the mothers of girls as well. But when we think: mother, we do not think: daughter. We’re not sure why this is. We love our daughters like she-wolves, but we think of ourselves as the mothers of boys.

These are our boys at four and then six and then twelve and fourteen. They’ve spent their lives together, in school, at home, and on the playing fields. They sleep over in basement playrooms (“man caves,” we call them, semi-ironically) like a puppy pile of overfed giraffes, with candy wrappers and soda cans littered around them. One of them is on the laptop, several on their phones, two more on the Xbox. Some look twenty, some eleven. Some tower over their fathers, some are half the size. Some are shaving, some insist that they need to. Some still kiss us good‑bye at the bus stop. Some tell us nothing. Some tell us everything. Some are angry. Some are sad. Some are happy, genuinely happy, and this makes our hearts fill to spilling. When they’re sad, we think: How can we fix this?

They’re a hall of mirrors in which we see ourselves, past, present, and future: secret hopes, genetic legacies, future possibilities. We love their limbs draped over furniture, their elephant tread above us upstairs, their inadequate fibs, their sudden and inexplicable questions at dinner, their attempts at humor.

They crawled together, ate the same lint off the same floors, learned their math facts, and watched the puberty video in a pack. They share clothes, eat each other’s food, see the same movies, mock the same teachers. They use the same skin products (though some need them more than others), preen for the same amount of time in front of bathroom mirrors. They’ve played on the same teams: soccer, football, lacrosse, hockey, basketball. Their fathers tell them comic anecdotes about their own rebellious younger days. (One lit his bed on fire. One on a dare ate sand. One broke his arm jumping out of a neighbor’s window.) Fathers.

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Years were taken off our lives by their sports. Baseball almost killed us all. A metaphor for life: you do what you can to give them the rules and then send them out on the field, and a high fly ball heads right toward him, your boy, and you can do nothing but watch. And don’t even talk to us about pitching.

Our hearts broke watching our boys. Our hearts lifted watching our boys. We sat on our hands as coaches or husbands yelled at our boys. (And they wonder what it is about mothers and boys. Someone has to balance the seesaw.) We’ve driven hours in silent, unhappy postgame cars. We’ve paid for hundreds of dollars’ worth of celebratory soft‑serve. Thousands for cleats. And equipment. And team sweatshirts, T-shirts, hats, and warm-ups. And concession-stand food. And 50/50 tickets. And those socks that all the guys are wearing. We’ve watched their small proud smiles as they jog in after coming up with the line drive for the third out. We’ve learned about hot corners, and two guards, and nickelbacks. We’ve had fourth graders sink the halftime buzzer-beaters, and their grins seek us out in the stands. We’ve come home after dropped flies in the bottom of the ninth and taken our husbands into the other room, held a finger up to their faces, and vehemently whispered, Do something. This is your moment. Be a dad.

We’ve dealt with sons told they won’t be in the starting lineup and talked to coaches about it. And then told our boys: Just do better. Without always having kept the impatience out of our voices. We’re the ones suffering the most, we’ve often thought. Why can’t our boys help out? Quit backing away from the plate? Swing through? Why can’t they just try harder? Be better?

And then there are the injuries. Concussions from slick gym floors. New sneakers. One boy slips, the sound of his head on the wood enough to penetrate the cacophony of gym acoustics. The ref gestures the other kids away (they all know to take a knee) and crouches near. The assistant coach, the boy’s father, joins him. The boy’s head to the side, as if he’s listening to the floor. Mothers in the stands, trained not to run out onto the floor like hysterics. We don’t talk to our boys on the bench or between innings. The father searches the stands with his eyes. The mothers lean forward. Come, he gestures, and the rest of us sink back, watching her make her careful way down the bleachers, thinking: He’s not moving and Thank God it’s not my boy.

Because this is what it means to be the mothers. You’re a team of your own, ready to pull your weight, ready to play with pain, ready to leave it all on the field, but you’re still on the sidelines waiting for someone else’s end-to-end rush, or gunning from three, or taking on four defenders himself. It may be a team, but there are always standouts. One mother says she wants her son to look back and think: I had the best mother ever. The rest of us roll our eyes, exclaiming at her lunacy when she’s not around. But let’s not fool ourselves. If anyone’s walking away with the lifetime achievement award, we know who it will be.

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When the boys are fourteen and done with youth sports, they’re ninth graders. It’s the Monday after Thanksgiving, first day of basketball tryouts. There’s a new coach. There will be cuts. These are not boys who want Division I scholarships, though they’ll all tell you they’re going to Carolina. One, maybe two, might be recruited by Division III programs. One says he’ll play in the NBA and then be a famous writer. He asks his mother how many NBA players have gone on to be famous writers. Fewer than you’d think, she tells him, handing him his lunch.

These are boys who love high school sports. Even if they play in college, they tell us, they will never again play with a group of guys they’ve known since they were four. And this is basketball. They love the speed of it, the hyperbolic myths about which of them almost dunked. The sound of the ball going through the hoop, one boy tells his mother, is such a perfect sound the only thing that can describe it is the sound itself.

And so, now, every day after the three days of tryouts, we modulate our tones and avoid eye contact as we ask what our boys want for dinner and then, as an afterthought, How’d it go?

We worry. We engage in hushed conversations with our husbands late at night in bed. Our boys think of themselves as athletes and may be turning out to be less popular than they thought they’d be, less book smart, afflicted with worse skin, not as tall. What will happen if this, too, is taken from them? How can we fix this? we think even later at night, after our husbands fall into sleep, exhausted with us.

We carpool after tryouts and try not to let the boys know that we’re mentally stacking them up against each other. This one plays the same position as that one. That one’s slower but more aggressive. There are too many guards. If only he were big enough for small forward. We curse whatever’s been in our town’s water that has produced an abundance of boys. The girls’ team is out beating the bushes to get one set of varsity starters together, let alone a varsity and a JV, eleven on each. But even hearing that, we’re thankful to have boys.

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Our boys reassure us. Settle down, they say. I’m working hard. I’ll be fine. (We don’t find this reassuring. We’ve seen their version of working hard.)

Our boys worry us. What if I don’t make it, they say in darkened bedrooms, their childhood night-lights glowing. I love basketball, they say. What if I don’t make it? They’re near tears. And our hearts batter against their cages while we keep our voices steady. You will, you will, we say, over and over, like a lullaby. And we rub their foreheads like we used to when they were tiny, and tuck the blankets under their chins, and kiss them good‑night, and tell them not to worry, that we love them for who they are, not what they do. We do what we can. And then we fall into our own beds for another sleepless night.

In the morning, while the boys move around upstairs, dressing for school after being called four times, we talk about it over coffee with husbands weary of the conversation, weary of us, weary of our excessive love for these boys. We trample the same ground. We hold our cups with two hands and forget to pour one for our husbands. We lay out waffles with Nutella for our boys and call them a fifth time. We collapse our heads onto our husbands’ chests. Why can’t we just give them this? we ask. It’s a rhetorical question. Our husbands stroke our hair and rub circles on our backs. You can’t protect them from everything, they say. I know, we answer. Why not? we think. If they’re not good enough for the team, they’re not good enough, our husbands add. And whose fault is that? we think.

When we’ve been enraged with our boys, we’ve sometimes cursed at them and they’ve turned to us, eyes wide with mock disbelief. What kind of mother, they ask, talks to their kid that way? And sometimes, if we’re really enraged, we go on: The kind who got up early to make your lunch and breakfast and to help you get your hair right and find your shirt. The kind who’s done two loads of sweaty boy laundry before you’re out the door. The kind who’s argued with your teachers over grades, and helped you study for quizzes, and endlessly replaced lost sweatshirts and water bottles. And paid for tutoring and extra training and coaching sessions. The kind who’s pushed and pulled and yanked you into the boy you are. And what have you contributed? What kind of boy won’t meet a mother like that halfway? What kind won’t see what we’re going through? What kind has as his favorite thing to say to his mother: What’s wrong with you? Or, even worse: Get a life? What kind of boy says that in the face of all we’ve given and all we’ve suffered?

And one of us—me—explains for the millionth time to my husband that I know our boy is not going to be playing in college, except in intramural pickup games, and I know he’s not going to be playing after college, except in driveways with his own sons. I just want to give him this. High school basketball, for Chrissakes. JV. JV would be fine. The bench on JV would be fine. I know he’s not that good.

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But my boy is in the doorway, and the expression I’ve put on his face is something I’m not getting rid of.

Oh honey, I say. And I reach for him, but he ducks and makes his way past me to the table.

My husband fills his own cup of coffee and leaves us to each other. Because these are our boys, and we are the mothers, here to do what mothers do best.



From Kiss Me Someone: Stories. Used with permission of Tin House. Copyright © 2017 by Karen Shepard.

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