Response to a Mother’s Letter
I walked through the front door and called out, “Hey, Aunt Trin. I’m home.” Silence.
I stopped in the dining room, sure I’d find my aunt, but she wasn’t there. Weird, I thought, where is she? For the last few months she’d met me after school at the dining room table with the mail, and we’d go through it together, looking for college acceptance letters and scholarship notices – Man, I needed a scholarship bad. I had no idea how expensive college was, and I had no freakin’ help from my mom, that was for sure. Mom “forgot” to start a college fund, and Aunt Trin did the best she could, but there’s barely enough left over each month for anything.
Where was Aunt Trin? Where’s the mail? I just gotta get a scholarship and get out of this run-down hell hole of a small Oklahoma town.
“Aunt Trin,” I yelled out again. “Where you at?”
“Mail’s on the table. Be down in a min, hun.” Her voice echoed from upstairs.
I dropped my bag in its corner of the dining room and went to the table. My heart pounded just like every afternoon as I walked to that table. I wanted to go to college so bad, and I worked so hard on getting good grades and a high ACT and writing great purpose essays. I just had to receive scholarships. Had to. I had to get an education, so I could be better than my mom, better than I was right now. I mean, Aunt Trin’s great, really. She feeds me, buys me stuff, and lets me stay with her. But I don’t want to live paycheck-to-paycheck in Noble, Oklahoma. There’s nothin’ noble about this place. Well, except Aunt Trin.
Her name is actually Trinity, a virtue name she called it. She hated it; I loved it. Her name suited her, and it’s unique and pretty unlike Ashlee. Every girl my age is called Ashlee. I hated it. Every time I heard it, my teeth grinded. And I don’t even have a middle name to start going by. Guess my mom forgot that too. And I won’t be just Ash. Only Aunt Trin can call me that. So I’m stuck with boring ol’ Ashlee. Blech.
I gotta get outta here. My thoughts followed me as I took the last step before the round table, picked up the stack of letters, and looked down. What was there was not what I’d expected. In the return address corner was not the admissions offices from any of my choice universities. No, on it was:
Angel White, #35988272
Mabel Bassett Correctional Center
McLoud, OK 74851
I dropped the stack.
“Mom.” The word slipped out of my mouth before I even realized I’d spoken. I stood frozen. For five years – five long years – I waited to hear from her, waited for my Angel; really, that’s her name. Guess Grandma had a thing for virtue names. I’d written her every day the first year she was in, then I slipped to every week, every month, and now I’d not written in a year. She hadn’t responded to even one letter. Not one. I’d even tried to go see her in prison. She denied me again. But here, right in front of me, she sent me my long-awaited letter.
I picked it up and weighed it in my hands. Heavy. Lots of paper. I turned it over and looked at the seal on the back. My fingers ran over it. The words “This letter has been read by the prison” were stamped across it.
“I didn’t mean to look. But it was the first one in the box, and when I saw her name, I thought you might want to see it by yourself.” I jumped and dropped the letter like a little girl caught in the cookie jar. Aunt Trin put her hand on my shoulder. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to make ya jump.”
I couldn’t take my eyes from that seal. I couldn’t look at my aunt as she stepped closer. That seal hypnotized me. I’d wanted one of these letters for so long, but now, after all my time and effort, I couldn’t move to open it. I felt Aunt Trin’s hand squeeze my shoulder. Tears welled up. I couldn’t handle any of that. I turned and ran up to my room. The echo from my slamming door throbbed through the house.
I hadn’t meant to slam the door, but too many emotions, too much adrenaline, flowed through me. I couldn’t control my arms and legs. All my focus, all my energy, I put toward controlling my tears.
I started pacing, counting my steps. I knew it took eight steps from one wall to the other. I’d worn a pretty definite path in those five years. So I paced.
I was not going to cry. I promised myself that never again would I cry because of my mother. Mother. Huh? What kind of mother ignores and denies her daughter? I knew she was in prison. I knew she’d made bad choices, but I’d loved her anyway. I was almost twelve when it happened. It’s not like I was stupid. And I sat in on the trial and judgment. But she wouldn’t even write me back, wouldn’t see me. My love didn’t matter. That selfish bitch!
I took longer steps. Then I began the count. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Only six to get from wall to wall. I clenched my hands at my sides and took deep breaths.
Five long years without any contact. Five. Five. Five. Deep breath. Now, it was only taking me five steps to get from wall to wall. With each memory of the trial, I focused more on my feet and hands. One. Two. Clench. Three. Four. Unclench. Five. Start over. I repeated the mantra in my head as my body repeated the actions.
I. Was. Not. Going. To. Cry.
“Ash. You wanna talk?” The door muffled Aunt Trin’s voice.
“No, Aunt Trin. I’m fine.” I couldn’t open my mouth, so the words barely slipped through my grinding teeth. I had to control my body in order to control my emotions.
That’s what Dr. Davis taught me, “Focus on what you can control to help you with what you can’t. Find the patterns.” So that’s what I did.
One. Two. Clench. Three. Four. Unclench. Five. Deep breath. I turned and started over. I focused on the pattern. I knew Aunt Trin was still at my door. But I had to focus on the pattern.
“Honey. I hear you pacing. Can I please come in?”
I should let her. Knew she’d help me calm. But then I’d cry, and I just couldn’t do that. I was not going to let my bitch mother make me cry again.
“Can you just give me a bit? Please?” Again, the words scraped through my clenched teeth.
“All right.” Her footsteps away from my bedroom distracted my pattern, so I stopped and waited until she was downstairs before starting over.
I didn’t want to be mean to my aunt, the aunt who loved and cared for me. She took me in after my mother’s trial. She didn’t hold my mother’s actions against me. She just loved me. And when I started having problems, getting into trouble and stuff, she found me a counselor, one who worked specifically with teens. Dr. Davis had saved me, helped me learn how to cope. And Aunt Trin had found him. If it hadn’t been for Aunt Trin, I’d never made it.
“Sure as shit wouldn’t have happened had my mom been around.” As I said the words out loud, my pace quickened. Now I was making it across the room in only four steps, my gait opened wide and commanding. “How dare she write to me now? How dare it arrive today!” These spoken words kept pace with me, whipped around me, and intensified my anger.
Mom knew I was waiting for more college letters. Aunt Trin told me she’d written to tell Angel of my acceptances. I knew right then that Mom’d done it specifically so that I’d get it now. It was all a part of some scheme, I’m sure. More secrets, more manipulation from her. How dare she! My hands each clamped tight, and I could feel my nails slice into my palms. Trickles of blood came to the gashes I’d torn. But I couldn’t stop. Angry didn’t even begin to touch on my feelings. My nails dug deeper. My blood pumped harder.
One. Two. Three. Turn. One. Two. Three. Turn. I repeated this over and over, squeezing my nails – hell might as well’ve been claws – into my palms harder. Little droplets of blood fell behind me like breadcrumbs.
I was so pissed she did this again. As if she hadn’t been selfish enough, she couldn’t just leave me alone. When she was in my life, she spent more time with my “Uncles” than with me. When she was in my life, her roller coaster of high and sober and high and sober kept me at a distance. When she was in my life, she exposed me to more danger than I ever could by myself. When she was in my life, she was a constant secret, a lie. Then when she wasn’t in my life, she was silent completely.
Until now. Until. . .now.
I stopped pacing directly in front of my door. My hands unclenched, and I brought them to my face stopping only inches from touching my skin. I stared at the blood, the gashes, the proof of my anger. The blood didn’t gush, didn’t trickle. It just bubbled and then streaked down my arms. I looked past my hands to the door and thought of my mother, Angel. I wiped my palms on my jeans, opened the door, and took my first step toward the letter.
One. Two. Three. I counted each step as I made way to the staircase. Then I continued as I took each stair down. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Ground. My feet met at the bottom of the staircase, and I looked to the right, to the mirror. Staring back at me was the same face I’d always known: the same green eyes, same dishwater blonde hair, same round cheeks, same thin lips. Her face could’ve been in that mirror. My face was her face. I turned my head toward the dining room table. I could see the letter, see my mother’s handwriting. I also saw my aunt. She’d clearly been crying, but now was holding it back for me. She looked at my face, then my arms, my hands, my jeans.
“Ash?” So much followed that question. I knew she wanted to know how I was, wanted to know why I was bleeding. I knew I owed her something. But all I could think of was that damn letter. I started toward the letter and didn’t stop until it was in my hands. Blood smeared all over the envelope. I turned it over and ripped that seal, ripped the entire envelope. It fluttered to the ground as I held my mother’s letter in my hand. I held it only in my fingertips while my blood dripped; small pools gathered beneath me on the floor. The letter was long. Several pages, handwritten on yellow legal pad paper with blue pen.
Aunt Trin got up and pulled out a chair for me. She pushed me to it then sat across from me, watching my eyes. I looked to her, through her. Then I sighed and started reading my mother’s words.
“My Dearest Ashlee,” I began aloud.
“No, hun. You read it first. Then decide if you want me to read it.” I flicked my eyes back to her. She had tears welling up. I managed a quick half-smile and went back to the words calling out to me. I read the letter, then again, and once more before setting it down.
“You want to talk?” I shook my head. “You want to write back?” I shrugged my shoulders.
Aunt Trin got up and went into the kitchen. I heard the telltale screech of the supplies drawer and then the rustle of Aunt Trin’s hands as she moved pens and paper around looking for just the right ones. She came back and placed a notebook, black pen, and pink post-it notes in front of me. Then she bent down and kissed the top of my head. I think she went upstairs, but all I could do was stare at my mother’s words.
She sure had apologized a lot, but none of them genuine. Alternated with “I’m sorry” and “I was selfish” were phrases like “I know” and thoughts of her continued selfishness. She still blamed everyone else. She even had the guts to ask me to bring her some chocolate and lipstick. These words slapped my soul.
Finally I looked away from the letter toward Aunt Trin’s gifts of pen and paper. I picked up the notebook and opened to a blank page. I grasped the pen in my hand forcing it to rub against my bleeding palms. I winced at the pain. Then I put pen to paper.
Closing my eyes, I pictured my mother in prison, or at least I pictured what I thought she’d look like in prison. I pictured her writing to me. I could see each word as she penned it to paper, so proud of herself. My pen started to shake, so I crushed my eyes harder trying to find the words to write back.
I thought of all the letters I had sent her over the years, thought of going to see her only to be rejected again and again. I thought of the hours of tears I wasted on those experiences. Opening my eyes, the pen and paper and post-its stared back at me. Aunt Trin had known precisely what to bring me. She’d known to leave me to write back. She’d known. My mother knew nothing.
I grabbed the post-its and wrote eight simple words:
You don’t know anything.
Don’t contact me again.
Then I wrote Aunt Trin a note. She had been a true mother to me; she deserved the letter. I left it, my mother’s letter, and my pink post-it and went to wash my palms. I knew she’d send my mother’s letter back with my post-it and that’s all. I’d asked her to do so in my letter to her. As I washed the blood from my palms and arms, I felt the water against my skin and watched the clear liquid turn pink with my blood. It whirlpooled in the sink until it disappeared down the drain. With it my anger ebbed. My wounds started to clot. I looked into the mirror and saw me – my face, my eyes, hair, lips, and cheeks. Nothing different. Nothing damaged. Just me.
Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at Seminole State College in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest Pop and American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, The Muse, and Oklahoma English Journal. She is also the co-editor of Dragon Poet Review. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.