The Mothers A Novel - By Jennifer Gilmore

Part 1




November 2009

We were headed for the Verrazano Bridge, caught in traffic. It was several weeks before Thanksgiving, which I remember because there was a massive billboard hanging from a crumbling brick building off the highway in Sunset Park. It depicted an enormous cartoon turkey standing, feathers unfurled, on a dining room table, a family of six seated around it.

Though we were well into fall, the heat and gas from the cars rose up in waves; looking out it could have been a summer day, except for the trees lining the blocks off the highway, their branches reaching up, sky slipping through brittle claws. Ramon’s hands were tight on the steering wheel. And Harriet, sweet Harriet, sat behind me, panting in my ear.

“Honey.” I reached back to calm her. “Settle down, darling.”

We were dropping her off at her favorite place on earth: my parents’ house in Northern Virginia where she ate scraps of grass-fed venison and beef tenderloin, fetched tennis balls on the lawn, and where at night my father carried her, curled in his arms, up and down the stairs.

We were leaving Harriet and heading down south, to North Carolina, for a training session at a national adoption agency.

Ramon’s hands went white, then relaxed, the color returning to them, as if pigment were being poured into the casing of his


“We’re not in a hurry.” I craned my neck to see ahead.

“No,” he said.

“We can just get there whenever.”

“That’s not really true. I mean, we need to be in Raleigh by six.”

“We’ve got plenty of time,” I said.

Ramon looked at me and laughed. “We don’t actually. And since when did you become so easygoing?”

“I am willing it so,” I told him, but inside? I did the math like I always did the math, though I am not a math person: It’s 7:30 A.M. If we get to Virginia by noon, and stay fifteen minutes, we’ll be fine. Other math: If I have a baby right this minute, I will be seventy-six when the child is my age now. But I am not pregnant, so I have to add on nine months and change the equation: if I get pregnant right this minute. But of course, I’m not getting pregnant. Which is why we’re taking this trip in the first place.


Four hours and fifteen minutes after leaving Brooklyn, we pulled up in front of my parents’ house, once my home, but now my home is a fourth-floor walk-up in Brooklyn. Not for the first time, I realized that the sweep of their corner yard and the way the hill at the front led around back to a rose stone patio with wrought iron tables and cushioned chairs, a barbecue flanking the house ringed by azaleas and hydrangea bushes and, marking the end of the property, a large woodpile to feed the fireplace in winter, were all too enviable. I saw myself as a child running in the sprinkler out back, a rainbow arcing in the mist. I saw Lucy trying to catch hold of me and I shielded my eyes from the memory.

When had I stopped disparaging my parents’ way of life and had instead begun to covet it?

Ramon parked on the street, leaving enough room for my mother to zoom out of the garage, as she often did, without hitting our car. Madame Harriet took the quickest of pisses before she bounded up the lawn to the front door and sat, tail wagging, waiting for my mother to let her in. In and out of this door, summer nights thick with lightning bugs. Winter, trailing in snow from the treads of our Moon Boots. The soft white light of the kitchen.

“Hello!” The door swung open. Harriet reared up on her back legs, squealing and snorting. And there she was:

The Mother.

“Hey, Mom.” I entered the hallway.

“Hi, honey.”

“Joanne!” Ramon embraced her.

“You two want some lunch before you get back on the road?” my mother asked.

“Quickly,” I said.

“Thank you so much for taking Harriet.” Ramon handed over the leash.

“Are you kidding? We love watching her. She’s our granddog!”

I breathed in sharply at this, as we didn’t have a grandkid to offer up, but a dog. Lucy, three years younger, was off teaching in South America. Or she was surfing there and building huts? Or scuba diving? Whatever she was doing, there didn’t seem to be a deep commitment to family on her part. She’d lived away for over five years now, and I hadn’t seen her in nearly three.

Lucy and I had had