When the refrigerator broke, that was the end. We didn’t want to talk about it but then again we didn’t have to; the intertwined smells of rancid meat and rotting vegetables said it for us. We didn’t want to talk about it because the conversation led to a host of other topics we also didn’t want to discuss. The lack of running water in the upstairs bathroom. The condemnable amount of mold in our basement. The fleas who were adapting to our anti-parasite spray. The vacuum that went unused for a year. The seventeen thousand dollars we owed the mortgage company. The ten thousand we owed in unpaid maintenance fees. Those things we could comfortably (or moderately, comfortably) ignore a little bit longer. But the refrigerator we could not. That’s why it was the end.
I decided to call my grandmother for help. To make a plan of some sort. To try to dig us out of the hole we were sinking further into. My mother had told me a week earlier, Don’t call Grandma for help Fran. She won’t understand. But I called anyway.
A week later we sat in a restaurant booth. The upholstery was silver and disco inspired—a stereotypical New Jersey diner theme. I sat next to my grandmother; my mother sat opposite of us next to her stepfather, Joe. I watched him shuffle positive ideas into her left ear over pancakes and home fries. Each one was a little catchphrase to salvation. We’ll have to power clean the rugs! We’ll have to clean out the refrigerator! We’ll have to get a contractor for the basement! I watched each optimistic plan hit my mother and bounce straight off. She stared down at her scrambled eggs. She tapped her four-prong fork against the side of a glass Heinz bottle. I know a guy who specializes in mold! I’ll have him out here next week if you want! He worked on Ms. Carther’s house on Summit Avenue! My mother sighed deeply, cutting off her step-father. She hunched her shoulders over the table, rubbing her palms over her eyelids and asked:
“How did I let this happen?”
My grandparents took this question to mean: How did I let myself become a hoarder on the verge of foreclosure? To which there are many responses. Social explanations. Psychological reasoning. All of which they began spewing at her: Being a single mother is hard! Things just get away from you! It happened to us in our basement! But what she actually meant was: How did I become a person who doesn’t care? This my grandparents didn’t consider.
Every plan of salvation they threw at her were ones my mother already knew. Every task they suggested was one she already considered. Everything they advised she knew would have to be done. The problem was she didn’t care. She knew and she didn’t care. If my mother had simply been unable to devise a plan to save her house than at least that’s a solvable problem. Just clean the rugs! Clean out the refrigerator! Get a contractor! But when you know what must be done and don’t have the will to do it, well, that’s a not-so-easy problem to solve. That’s when something has fundamentally changed; something has irreversibly snapped. It’s frightening. It’s horrid. My mother was right: they wouldn’t understand.
After that question my mother reserved herself to silence and an occasional head nod. I watched her hunching over the diner table, creating a little pocket of oxygen with her elbows, which was hers for just a second. I saw her crouch further into her own seat, sink deeper into her own space, move back to that state of living moderately comfortable.
I tried to swallow toast over the knot in my stomach while fumbling with my mason jar full of orange juice. The diner was trying to be new-age. After a final round of stale coffee, my grandmother paid the bill. An abundance of advice and silence circulated between us. From it, my mother and grandparents had reached a joint conclusion to let the house fold. The fleas, the mold, the rotting refrigerator would all become the bank’s problem. Joe’s catchphrases of salvation to my mother switched in nature but kept their chipper tone. You’ll move in with your boyfriend! We’ll help you move out whatever stuff you want! We’ll leave the rest to the foreclosure people! I was stuck, though, focusing on the question my mother asked and never received an answer to.
“How did I let this happen?”
In that one phrase I could see my mother on a timeline. I did not see her as the woman sitting in front of me: fifty and battered, aching for someone to either understand or shut the hell up. I saw her in her twenties or thirties with anticipations and an endless amount of time in front of her. I saw her as a young woman with opportunities and desires and hopes. I saw my mother as someone who would never expect to ask herself, “How did I let this happen?” in a New Jersey diner, surrounded by family yet completely alone. I saw her as myself, or anyone really, who would never expect to end up where they are. I saw her as me, so sure that I would be safe from the brick wall our lives have the potential to crash in to. I saw her as a child, unaware the brick wall even existed. Somehow though the realization that this is where she ended up seeped through, and it surfaced in one sentence.
How did I let this happen?
Frances Donington-Ayad is an Egyptian woman living in Dorchester, Massachusetts. She currently wrestles her schedule between trying to finish her first book, doing 80's work out tapes in her apartment and begrudgingly bartending for the people of Boston. Frances is a senior at Emerson College where she studies Writing, Literature and Publishing. Her work has appeared in Snapdragon: Journal of Art and Healing, East Coast Ink Magazine, Sun and Sandstone Magazine and others.