A Personal Essay Originally Published for the Yale Daily New's Magazine, February 2015
I would soon identify that time of year as “around Ralph’s birthday” or “about to open the pool,” but at the time I considered it “almost done with sixth grade,” and my oldest brother Pete had gotten mad the previous summer and threw an ax at our above-ground pool, so the water was really low and green and icky and the pool wouldn’t be opened that summer.
“Emma, James, Gigi. Ralph and I have been talking and we want to ask you guys how you feel about Ralph moving in with us.” Ralph sat in a rusted iron patio chair across from me.
Gigi started to cry. My mom apologized to Ralph. I decided to use this distraction to pull my mom to the side. I figured Mom would take me more seriously if I used my sixth-grade words.
“I really really really really really don’t want Ralph to live with us, Mommy.”
Already I felt guilty. Sixth-grade words were failing me. Present-day me would have said, “Because his motto is ‘children should be seen and not heard,’” or “Because he wears a gold cross but goes to church twice a year and listens to Rush Limbaugh every Sunday morning,” or “He eats yogurt for breakfast so he doesn’t have to put his teeth in until lunch time,” or “He beats your dog when you’re not home!” or “He doesn’t believe in organic foods or global warming and he says mean things to my black friends,” or “He looks like a peanut with a mustache!” All I could say at the time was, “I don’t know. I guess because he’s old.”
She misses me in three ways. The first way Ma is missing me is like how her tomato sauce is missing something when she tries to follow Grandma’s recipe. No matter how exactly Ma followed instructions, sitting down at her table and eating her pasta is not the same as it was sitting down at Grandma’s table. The pasta is missing something, some mystery something. More salt? Less oregano? Paprika? We don’t know the spice and so we can’t know where it is. And we can’t ask Ma if she forgot an ingredient because then she’d start to miss Grandma and we’ll all lose our appetite. Ralph usually cooks dinner.
When I’m home, Ralph always asks me to make a salad for the dinner table. Then I always ask him if he will eat any, and he always says, Yes, this is why he is asking me. If my Ma wants salad too, I make sure there are no raw onions. Ma hates raw onions.
I am not there anymore to make the salad. Dinner without me goes more or less like the following: Gigi and James return from basketball practice at 5:30 and Ralph does not let them have a snack “because dinner would be ready soon.” Four hours later they sit down to eat. Ma tells Ralph the NRA called and he thanks her between bites of barbequed ribs. His gray chest hair and gold cross peek out from behind the unbuttoned top two buttons of his business shirt. Gigi and James shepherd their potatoes around their plates. They were hungry at 5:30. They are no longer hungry thanks to Gigi’s secret stash of Reese’s.
My Ma is missing me like a flashlight can be missing batteries, or a house that suffered from a hurricane can be missing a roof. The flashlight is not quite functioning. The house is not quite complete. My Ma is not quite functioning and not quite complete. The seat I filled at the table is full of an echoing emptiness. The silences I normally fill are themselves broken, and my mom does not know how to break them properly. My Ma needs me to function properly, but alas, she is missing me. This second type of missing is a need missing.
Ma breaks the silence to share a story she read about a new dinosaur they discovered that is bigger than the T. rex, but she stops the story short because it’s not true. Ralph said so.
Gigi and James speak for the first time and ask to be excused. James looks at Ma and says he needs $20 for school. Ma looks at Ralph. Ralph looks at up at the wall in front of him as he slowly puts down his ribs, his hands shaking from his medication, and gets out his wallet from his back pocket.
The third way she misses me is a want missing. This is the type of missing that rides in on the back of late night silence. This is the missing that then pries its way into her heart while she lies lonely next to Ralph. This missing pops her heart open like a champagne bottle. This is the kind of missing that transforms liquid emotion into one solid thought: My ma misses me.
(I am the only one who remembers that she hates raw onions.)
A bowl of salad — untouched — rests on the table. Ma asks Ralph if he wants any, since, in my absence, he had made it. He holds out the shaking hand that isn’t holding a rib in a stop gesture. He shakes his head. He continues to stare up at the wall across from him. Ma tries to eat around the onions in the salad, but it takes too long. Ralph puts his dish in the sink and goes upstairs to his office to make business calls. Ma is left alone at the table, wondering why onions make one cry.
My mom is 56 and Ralph is 72. Ralph grew up in the Bronx with two siblings and his Italian immigrant parents. Ralph attended an all-boy college on track scholarship. Ralph eventually became a businessman and started a company selling computer parts. This supported his wife and two children until he went bankrupt. Thereafter he became a salesman for a pharmaceutical drug company. A few years after this and prior to meeting my mom, Ralph had divorced from his wife of forty years. She requested it.
Ralph lived alone in an apartment when he and Ma met. His grandchildren had not yet been born. His kids were busy with their own jobs, so Ralph could and did travel a lot for work. He brought back all the complimentary mini lotions and shampoos from the hotels he stayed in. He brought my mom home her favorite candy from San Francisco whenever he went. Before he moved in, he used his travel miles to fly them to Puerto Rico on vacation.
There is a picture of them dancing in Puerto Rico. Ralph holds himself as still as a tree in the winter while my mom is mid-movement, lithe, alive, like a flame frozen in time. Her hair is still long and golden. She is tan, and she glows.
I have never seen Ralph smile like he does in the picture. He smiles as if he has never seen how crowded his bottom row of teeth is. He smiles as if he does not know that this deepens and multiplies the wrinkles on his face. He smiles like he is unaware of how old my mom’s youth makes him look (“Is that your father?”), or — if he does — like he doesn’t care.
He locks the front door when he mows the lawn. Gigi, James, and I used to play out in front of the house but he would lock the door if he saw we didn’t have our keys. To “teach us responsibility.” Two Thanksgivings ago, Ralph locked us out of the house, and so James tried to unlock the door with a toothpick. It broke off in the lock, making it impossible to open the door. We eventually got inside once Ralph pulled up in the driveway after visiting his daughter (his son was still not speaking to Ralph at this time.)
My mom agreed with Ralph’s idea to make James stay home while we went to Thanksgiving dinner at my uncle’s house. (James ended up ordering Chinese food and watching TV instead.)
I wish my mom had said something. I wish she had remembered that that was her house. I wish she had comforted Gigi and me while we cried and begged her to let James come. I wish she had remembered how she made Ralph shut up that time she beat him with our house phone until it fell off the wall. I wish she had remembered that Ralph needed to ask her to open jars of mayonnaise for him. But I guess she had forgotten all that, or she remembered only that Ralph bought that mayonnaise. And that we had to leave soon because Ralph had also bought the turkey.
Ma didn’t ask me what we thought about kicking Ralph out of the house. However, she did ask Sunshine, the local psychic. For $50, Sunshine articulated my ten-year-old intuition, without tears. She read Ma’s face and advised her to get Ralph out of the house within two months. After that, Ma would come into great wealth and would find true romance on an internet dating site. My Ma asked me for help writing her match.com profile, but by the time I got around to it she had already started. Her favorite things? Yellow. A good white burgundy. Salad. Latest reads? Rolling Stone interview with Bono. Siddhartha. Treasure Island. Velveteen Rabbit (to her kids). Her introduction? “Dancing with abandon on the quais of Paris one Bastille Eve night, my feet were blistered for days, but my heart was free. This is the real me.”