Submissions for the Creative Non-Fiction category are open to one work of creative nonfiction completed for coursework in the last calendar year. Submissions should not exceed 20 pages. Emily Lanagan wrote the 1st place submission in the Creative Nonfiction Category for the 2018 President’s Writing Awards.
In Memory of White Rain Soap
My mother never stopped smelling of it. By the time it was over, she smelled more of sadness than that perfect blue scent. I always thought it smelled beautiful; I still think it smells beautiful. It was nurturing. It was a belly rub, a tuck in bed, a kiss on the forehead. It was coffee in the morning, every morning regardless of anything that had happened the night before. Always with Sweet N Low and milk, even though she’s lactose intolerant. It was light purple nail polish, chipped on every nail except the pinky, on the fingers of her small knobby hands that held me, made me, and loved me. I dream about just the smell alone at times. I can’t tell if they’re good or bad dreams. They’re somewhere in the thin line between a sad daydream and a bittersweet nightmare.
I’m in the shower with my mother. I must be three or four. Her hair was a rich chestnut brown that went down to her mid back. Her skin was pale, the only color on her the faint freckles on her cheeks, the brown mole on her right shoulder by a heart tattoo and a stomach covered in deep purple stretch marks. I was old enough to talk, but not old enough to understand. I don’t remember why we were taking a shower together, probably to save money on the water bill. Our bathroom was walk in size, with a plain white sink and toilet. Clothes were littered around the room: pink butterfly underwear, camouflage boxers, socks in sizes ranging from toddler to adult and a random assortment of other clothes in a hush posh representing my family of six on the floor. My mother, Amanda, always used White Rain liquid body soap, in the scent of ocean mist. It was translucent blue in the bottle, the variant of blue changing depending on whether both lights above the sink had bulbs that worked. Most of the time, it was aquamarine; a small glimpse of what the ocean may have looked like before pollution. The aquamarine cleanser always came out of the bottle in a way that was thick, yet runny at the same time. It would slowly work its way from the bottom all the way to the lid. Once it got to the small opening in the white lid, it poured out quickly onto my mother’s worn purple loofah. It smelled of the ocean, or really someone’s interpretation of the ocean. Coconut, water and a hint of everything I loved. In every memory I have of her, the scent of blue soap wafts offs her.
That was my mother. Mum was the utmost perfect human I have ever known, even with all her baggage and impurities.
It was sometime in the hot summer of my fifth or sixth year when she first caught sight of his lean figure. My mom’s small nose stuck to the dusty dual kitchen window as she leaned over a wet empty sink. She watched him briskly climb the slight hill to the top of the littered cul-de-sac we lived in, towards his mother’s house. It was about ten yellow duplexes up from ours. Infatuation rippled through her body and her life pivoted in a moment, suddenly diverging her down a path starkly different than the one she was on. Gravity shifted and in an instant my mother was revolving around his every word and movement, enticed with every cigarette he smoked, beer he drank, and every insult that slurred out of his sour mouth. Within three years, he became my step-dad and my mother began to wilt.
To say that it was always bad, from that moment on, would be a lie. There were times when the hot, orange sun appeared from under the everlasting dense overcast of grey clouds, the warmth appearing for just a few moments of solitude. Sometimes, on warm summer Saturday mornings, my mom and I would spend all the money we didn’t have on items we didn’t need at the small farmer’s market downtown. Sometimes, we would scavenge yard sales around our run-down town late into the afternoon, exploring and sorting through dusty clothes, beat up dressers and piles upon piles of baby clothes (even though neither of us had a baby). There were times when we laughed until thick happy tears streamed down our faces, where we felt the overwhelming joy of making new memories and discoveries together, and ate until the food was coming up our throats. Those days, however, were few and far between, so few I can probably count them easily on my hands. Even when it seemed happy, there was no replacing the events that I was forced to keep hush hush. I enjoyed the small triumphs while they lasted, but in the back of my mind was a closet full of deceit, treachery and baskets upon baskets of dirty laundry.
I can’t recall a specific memory of when I knew she had passed, knowing she was truly gone: there was no disastrous midnight reaping that pulled her into the light of the unknown abyss. Recalling memories of her now, pinpointing the cause of her conversion is nearly impossible. The unknown powers that coerced the start of her transformation to becoming a selfish being weren’t visible to the naked eye. It all came in like a light winter breeze, seemingly unnoticeable, until I was completely frozen.
It was late December, only two months away from my fourteenth birthday. The daylight outside the square kitchen window of our trailer was dimming as the afternoon wore on. At the edge of the kitchen stood a version of my mother, in her signature black fleece jacket, coated in grey cat hair. Encasing her face were small streaks of grey hair, wrinkles webbing around her blue eyes, and a deep-set line cutting the middle of her stark forehead; she was only thirty-eight. Coffee was her sweet addiction, whether it be iced or hot, instant or made fresh from the pot. She loved coffee more than I could comprehend. That drafty end of the year day was an instant coffee afternoon. My mother pulled out the smallest black pot from the cupboard from below our stained white microwave. After filling up the pot, my mother placed it on the front right burner on our electric white stove, and turned the greasy knob to the black midway mark. I was there too, crying at the chipped green dining room table, as my step dad held me captive in an interrogation of tremendous circumstances. I can’t seem to recall what about. My mother was set in the kitchen, seemingly oblivious to what was unfolding right behind her. Occasionally, she glanced over at me, her eyes filling with annoyance and disgust as she lightly grazed over my manic figure. What an inconvenience.
My heart still believed that she was the same fragrant angel-mother from our moment in the shower. Shaking hands begin to materialize my fear and anxiety, knowing this routine too well. Her knobby fingers wrap around the handle of the pot. It’s funny that her nails weren’t painted purple anymore. They were yellow and broken. The water, boiling at this point, was poured over the grounds and stirred three or four times. Her fingers must have been instantly burned as she grabbed the mug, but she didn’t look in pain. She sat down in the wooden chair next to mine, and began to flip through the coupons that just came in the mail. “Ten for ten”, read the top of the thin grey paper. Indulged in it, she didn’t see that my eyes were calling out for help. We have the same eyes, I’ve been told.
My step dad, beer in hand, forces me to get up and stand in the middle of the kitchen. I felt like a prisoner about to be injected. My mother is still not fazed by the scene playing out in front of her. The drunk shoves me full force from my front and my forearm lands on the right front burner to save myself from tumbling to the floor. Skin is melting off my arm, like the way my faith in love was disappearing from my heart. I cry to my mother to help. My real mother would have saved me. She didn’t. The face of an angel is changing into the face of a Pagan. The burn is dripping yellow pus. My mother says nothing in my defense when I am blamed for this incident. Just like always, this was my fault. Everything’s my fault. I can’t talk, and I can’t understand. Yet, I continued to stand by her side, faithful. I truly believed that I couldn’t give up on her after one incident…but one incident became two, three and now so many I can’t remember a day passed that wasn’t an incident. Regardless, I stood by her, loved her, and devoted most of my childhood taking her place.
Deterioration came within the next few years. Her free will was gone completely. This woman acted as if there was no other choice but to abandon me, even when she held the key to get out. It was December again, a few months before I turned seventeen. As a hefty serving of Christmas dinner settled in my stomach, along with a dozen pieces of chocolate, I headed to bed. I lay on my twin size mattress, under my favorite light pink Hello Kitty comforter, for only a bit before I fell into a calm sleep. A good night’s sleep was unusual for my household. This was the calm.
The storm arrived early the next morning. Music filled my ears as I was awoken by the screams of my mother, the clunking of a beer bottle being thrown in a full trash can and the booming voice of my stepfather. Before long, I was summoned out of my room and back to the green seats of the kitchen table. Alcohol overflowed out of every pore of his body, the smell of the twenty pack he just finished reaching my nose in mere seconds. Of course, this was the usual. I wasn’t scared. Nothing about him scared me anymore. Usually, although it would sting a little, I took whatever punishment he threw at me with minimal to no fight. This morning, he was demanding more money, though he had already stolen hundreds of my dollars. Minimum wage didn’t make me financially stable by any means, but I worked hard making pizza to earn that money. I refused.
Stomping down the small hallway to my room, I frantically grabbed a small backpack, filling it with as many clothes and other essentials as I could. My stepdad came to my room, but I’m still not scared. Looking him right in the eyes, I scream at him “You’re a drunk bastard who’s ruined my life”.
I get up and try to run out the bedroom door, but he shoves me back with his hands. I do get through. I walk the short distance from my room to the living room, where the front door is located. My mother is just sitting on the couch. Just sitting on the couch, arms crossed as I sprint to the door. I told her I was sorry, but I wasn’t.
I ran out our broken green front door into the street, making sure to slam it as I left. The road was covered in a thick coat of white ice. It had snowed, and my feet were the first ones to touch the sheet of cold perfection. My hands were freezing, turning from pink to red in a matter of minutes. Nothing had changed about the cracked street I was walking, but I had. I knew where I was heading, up the hill, across the width of the muddy trail of a local park, and to the first house at the end of the street by the brown, water stained fence that runs along the perimeter of the park. My mother never asked for me to come home. She never called me to ask if I made it okay. She simply didn’t care. After begging her for my belongings, she secretly threw them in a black plastic trash bag and dumped it on the side of the street. I wasn’t allowed to see her, my siblings. My step-dad banned my name from being said in the house. My mother? She went right along with it, never defying his words. I was only sixteen.
The hope I once saw in my mother’s heart had long been spoiled. My mother was dead. She was simply now Amanda, the vessel who birthed me.
I moved in with my boyfriend and his family. I never wanted to go back to that house of hurt, but everything felt wrong. Why did she leave me? What had I done to deserve this? What could I have done differently?
Merely months later, I was diagnosed with general anxiety, PTSD, and manic-depressive disorder. At seventeen, internally I felt broken beyond repair. Falling into the shards of my inner self, I started to blame. I was suffocating on the reality of moving on. My mind convinced me I was supposed to be hurt, I shouldn’t have abandoned my mom, I should have saved her, I should have woken her, that I didn’t even deserve to be out. I deserved to go back to the constant torment and abuse, because she was still going through it. I was guilty. Guilty because I lived, and she didn’t. I was still Emily, but she was not Mum anymore.
It’s called Survivor’s Guilt, but that term doesn’t do the pain justice.
Even after surviving years of abuse, the biggest battle I’ve faced was trying to take back the reigns of my happiness and identity. Cracking out of the shell of isolation is nearly impossible. I realized- with gallons of tears, weeks of sadness, a little hope, hours of therapy, and a new-found positivity- that I couldn’t be held responsible for the actions of someone twenty-five years my senior; I could only be held responsible for my motives, my mistakes and my soul. Loss filled the first seventeen winters of my life. I was ready for it to be warm, so I promised myself that my eighteenth wouldn’t be winter, it would be my first spring. The only way for this to happen was to say goodbye to my past.
It was the spring after my eighteenth birthday: my coming of age and the end of my so-called childhood. She looked tired. Amanda now had permanent bags under her eyes, wrinkles covering her once smooth skin, like motes of misery, and a look of final defeat in her dull blue eyes. I can’t remember what we were doing, or what had been done, but there was so much left unsaid between us. Questions were burning in my chest, but it wasn’t the right time or place. Even if I had asked her why, I knew the words that came out of her cracked mouth would be lies and excuses. Void of feeling, I let the questions suffocate in my throat. There was no point. Amanda was just the empty frame of a woman who once was the strong mother I took a shower with. She didn’t smell of blue soap anymore. Her sweet smell turned sour: cigarette smoke replacing her beautiful marine perfume. I figure this is what death must smell like. Maybe she was sad, but by that point she was so foreign to me I couldn’t tell what was real and what was fake. I hugged her shell goodbye, unknowingly, one last time. She stood there in her black fleece sweatshirt and camo capris, clueless that this was the end of it all. My mother wore that outfit often, but it didn’t fit Amanda nicely the way it fit my mom. She was thinner than even I at this point, her clothes slipping off of her once strong frame. Her worn camo pants were sliding off of her small hips, the sleeves of the black jacket falling loosely over her arms, rolling over her hands completely. My honey brown hair was to my mid back, my skin pale except for the faint freckles on my cheeks and the mole on my right back. I must have looked like a ghost to her.
I let go before I ruined myself anymore. My chest heaves when I think of all the sunshiny days robbed from me. She never heard about my awful first kiss sophomore year. She never saw me walk out onto the field, tears ruining my makeup, my last night as a cheerleader. She never saw me walk across the stage with my white honors cape on, and grab the diploma I worked so hard for. She doesn’t see me going to college off of a scholarship I earned. She doesn’t see me being in love. She doesn’t see me being the mother she never was to her own children. Whoever she is is blind to reality, sucking the energy and humanity out of my soul every time I try to rationalize her.
I’m mourning the loss of my mother, even though her body is still on Earth. This life, it comes and goes, and away with the wind went my mom. Eighteen feels older than it looks, but I have days to live and love to give. I can’t live with regret or remorse. I’m being the best I can be because I know that’s what my mom would want from me.
I paint this in my head when I miss her:
It was my first day of preschool. A white shirt fit tightly across my little chest and my legs were hidden underneath tiny purple pants. My hair was to my shoulders, still the light blonde color it was for most of my early adolescence. My mom was writing my name on a sticker name tag. Under the “hello, my name is” she used her left hand to write out E-M-I-L-Y in beautiful loopy handwriting. Sticking it on the right of my chest, her big blue eyes looked down at me from underneath her bangs, the smell of the blue soap projecting off of her. Pride was radiating off of her: her Emmy was starting preschool. A smile spread snugly off her face as she told me she loved me. Breathing in the perfume of an angel, I smiled and responded, “I love you too, Mumma”.