There is a photo of my mother when she was pregnant with me.
All in black, her stomach swelling out from her svelte frame like watercolors swelling through an oil spill.
She looks so glamorous. She looks so young.
It is strange to imagine my mother that young.
I cannot clearly remember the first few years of my life.
But despite the foggy haze that clouds early childhood memories, I can recall days spent climbing all over her lap while she sat in her office chair, putting the finishing touches on her Masters coursework.
Tangling myself in her legs while she entertained endless phone conversations.
Fidgeting with the art deco rings on her fingers as she sits in a hair salon chair in the dwindling hours between nursery school pickup and the evening shift.
My mother once told me that she was cleaning in the basement early in the morning, and hadn’t anticipated that I’d be awake. When I woke up and she didn’t respond to my calling her name, I sat on the couch and cried, imagining that she had left forever until she reappeared, as if by magic.
I can’t imagine anyone doing as many things as my mother did.
My mother simmering lentils in the crock pot and lovingly patching holes in buoyant sheets of homemade pizza dough on snowy days, popping a chunk of mozzarella into her mouth for each one she lays on the baking pan.
My mother riding her red Motobecane bicycle into Newark because she is always chasing the story. She sees newsworthy moments in everything — the dignity of every single encounter.
My mother falls into a trance when she watches QVC in the mornings after the news becomes too much for her. The shimmering studio where blonde women with pretty eyes and slim figures hawk ponchos and kitchen apparel is her fairy-tale world. We lovingly tease her when package after package containing lotion or winter coats or a new pair of shoes arrive at our doorstep.
My mother stands in the kitchen in the early hours of the morning when the sky is black and no one else is awake. She layers her winter coat over her worn pajamas to stave off the chill, and removes the ancient Bialetti moka pot from the place where it has stood guard over the stove all night. She hastily dumps yesterday’s grounds into the compost bin and replaces them with a heaping spoonful of fresh Lavazza espresso. Not as good as the blend you can get in Italy, of course, but we’re not picky.
She fills up the bottom half up with tap water and gingerly screws the top back on before placing it back on the stove. She sets the flame so high that it hisses, clicks, sears the bottom of the pot.
I wonder what my mother thinks about in these quiet, bleary-eyed moments when the quotidian duties of her life have temporarily melted away, and nothing exists except she and her moka. I wonder if she thinks of her own mother standing diligently at the stove each morning, filling coffee mugs like Russian dolls. Perhaps she thinks of her husband, sleeping upstairs having retreated to bed in the wee hours of the morning after a long night of monster movie marathons and grading freshman papers. Maybe she thinks of her daughters, now in their twenties and both living far away. I’m sure she worries — my mom is a worrier.
Maybe she thinks of the world’s problems — which weigh on her so heavily that she finds herself unable to sleep for long stretches of time — or whether she needs to make a follow-up appointment with the dentist or which plants in the backyard are starting to wilt and need water. Maybe she finds herself drowning in mental to-do lists that swallow up the hours of the day like a fearsome biblical whale. Endless tasks that require endless attention. Student emails to answer. Family drama to diffuse.
Or maybe she relishes the silence, knowing that these quiet moments are fleeting, and will soon shatter into thousands of unsolvable puzzle pieces that demand her intellect and her inexhaustible ability to care for other people.
There is a black-and-white photograph of my mother when she was a teenager. Bending over at the waist, both hands cupped under her chin, she drinks water from a fountain on the streets of Rome. All that can be seen are her shoulders, her hands, and the watch on her left wrist. Her curly, chin-length bob obscures her face, but there is no doubt it is her. It couldn’t be anyone else.
The moka pot reaches its boiling point, breaking the stillness of the early morning with noisy bubbles and hisses. My mother turns off the stove, empties its contents into a mug, and drinks.
Olivia Broderick (she/her) is a performer, educator, and three garden gnomes stacked on top of one another masquerading as an adult woman. She has performed with Temple University Opera Theatre, Opera Nova, and Gemini Voices Co., and is currently pursuing an MA in Rhetoric and Writing Studies at Carnegie Mellon University. Her work can also be found in Hyacinth Review and The Lovers Literary Journal, and she can be found on Twitter @TeatroOlivia and Instagram @liv_broderick.