We were three stair-steps growing up, cousins each a year apart, Gina-Carol-Carla. There were a lot of cousins — thirty-two on my mom’s side — but we were special somehow. Close enough in age and without major personality conflicts, I think. Our mothers mostly indulged us; cousins were safe friends. Sometimes we were all together, and sometimes it was two of us. Gina and I hid behind her twin maple headboard with a cassette recorder, trying to capture a recording of her older sister Gwen and another cousin playing horses. They were in middle school; being caught playing anything would have been mortifying. Our plans went down in ignominious defeat when Gwen wrestled the recorder from us and played a tape of me calling her a thief at supper. Carla and I lay in her sweltering bedroom one summer night, desperate for a whisper of a breeze from the open window above, and I showed her how to billow up the thin sheet covering us just enough to create our own breeze below.
Late one spring, one of us picked up head lice from someone at school. The phone lines hummed for ten minutes, and it was confirmed. We all had it. We’d all been on spring break the week before, in and out of each others’ houses, staying over in each others’ beds, long hair from multiple heads mingling on sweaty pillows as we whispered secrets until we fell asleep. My mother was sure I was the culprit, but I’ve never known if that was logic or she just felt guilty for anything that happened in her orbit. I must have learned that somewhere, after all.
Shared histories — and head lice — grow strong bonds. I still get a handmade, handwritten birthday card from Carla every year, despite my shameful lack of reciprocation. One of Gina’s twin girls married my husband’s nephew, and my proprietary pride nearly burst my buttons the day of the wedding, as if I’d had anything to do with the raising of her.
I stood in line at the funeral home for a long time before I came up to the corner where Carla was seated among the extended family. She got up to hug me. I managed a small smile at her husband and kids over her shoulder. When we let go, her cold hands stayed in mind. Her hands had always been colder than mine, even digging in the garden behind her house when we were young. I squeezed a little.
“Can you believe,” she said, “all our moms? In a year?”
I could, but I didn’t want to. I nodded. “A week from today is one year ago that Mom died,” I said.
I didn’t have to think about it. It wasn’t the first time I’d said it that afternoon. People kept asking. Even now, I could see an uncle taking in the sight of me and Carla, trying not to wince. We’d been the three musketeers for so long. Seeing the two of us together at the calling hours for Gina’s mother was a stark reminder of the two previous funerals and the one planned for the next day.
My mom died in June, the day I was supposed to be walking down an aisle just ahead of my best friend from college. My father-in-law died in September, less than three months later. In November, it was Aunt Joyce — Carla’s mom. I was well and truly tired of funerals. Surely, I thought, surely that was the legendary group of three and we could all relax. Six months later, there we were, talking about the death of Gina’s mom. It wasn’t even over then. My Aunt Jeannette died six months after that, and I started to twitch when the phone rang.
But there we were, standing with Carla’s cold hands tucked into my warm ones, grappling with our new reality. I was eighteen when my dad died, and I’d been an orphan for a year. Carla and Gina still both had their fathers, but there’s something about your mother dying that sets you back hard on your heels. Mothering without your mother is a different experience, even if you don’t agree with any of her opinions and roll your eyes when she hands out the junk food like some woman you never met thirty years ago.
We need our mothers. They are the keepers of the childhood recipes, the repositories of family secrets you aren’t allowed to know until you’ve reached legal drinking age and hear them all in one horrifying, illuminating night. They are the family phone books, the ones we ask when we can’t remember which one of the Stoller cousins married the Bauman boy from up the road. They are our living histories. When our mothers are gone, who will simultaneously scold and feed us? Who will offer unasked-for advice and ignore our irritated huffing? Who remains who will always, forever be there when we go home?
“I’m sorry,” I said, hugging Gina when I got to the front of the line. “I’m sorry.”
She said, “I know.”
Gina called me months later to ask me a question about baking a ham; she knew I’d done one not long ago. I described the way I scored the skin and the sauce I liked, chatted for a bit, and hung up the phone. My sister was there and had heard my half of the conversation. “Gina?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, “she wondered about ham.” I moved to the sink to start loading the dishwasher, and my sister tickled my youngest’s belly again. “I don’t mind,” I said. “Of course I don’t, but it seems odd that she called me.”
My sister nodded. “Well,” she said, “before this she would have called her mother.”
It is lonely work, facing the horizon, no one walking out in front to test the ground. It is hard work, and it is baffling, and it is lonely.