Whenever I close my eyes and think of my mother, I see her red toenails. Her perfectly manicured toes flaunting her signature nail-polish color, Oh My, Cherry Pie.
I saw her toes in my mind’s eye when I stopped at 19th and Harbor on my way home on an ordinary Thursday. The January sun was hitting the traffic light just right, intensifying the red, scorching my thoughts with visions of cherry red toenails.
In an instant, everything went from feeling normal to a sensation that my heart was being squeezed. Strangled might be a better word, as if all the breath, joy, and hope of my life were being choked out by an angry, invisible hand.
I suddenly felt so alone.
The impression surprised me because I was not alone. Rarely am I by myself long enough to even take a decent shower. In the back seat of the car my four-year-old daughter, Eden, was singing one of her sweet and silly songs. In the rearview mirror I could see that her thirteen-month-old brother was enthralled, as always. Alex was rewarding Eden for her performance by kicking his feet and bobbing his head from side to side.
I love my children. I love my husband. I love the house where we live. It’s a dream to be so close to the gorgeous Southern California coast. We have wonderful friends and generous in-laws who are both kind and doting. I love our life. Anyone looking in from the outside would say I have it all.
But I don’t.
I don’t have my mother. And no one can bring her back to me.
The traffic light changed to green, and the great chasm between what was and what is seemed to be closing. I drove into our neighborhood telling myself to breathe and be grateful for all the good things in my life. Choosing gratitude always helped to shrink the raw, gaping ache.
“Are we going to my dance class now?”
“No, honey. We’ll go after nap time this afternoon.”
“I don’t need a nap.”
“I know.” I pulled into our driveway, turned off the engine, and looked at her in the mirror. My daughter’s dark eyes were so much like mine. “But Alex needs a nap. And so does Mommy.”
Eden giggled and put her hand over her mouth. The gesture was new, and I wasn’t sure where she picked it up. “That’s silly. Mommies don’t take naps.”
“Don’t I know it,” I muttered.
That evening as Joel and I were driving to our friends’ house for dinner, we stopped at a red light, and I wanted to tell my husband about the way grief had snuck up on me earlier that day. I wanted to hear all the comforting words he had given me over the past six years whenever I talked about how much I missed my mom. I wanted him to know what I was feeling, and most of all, I wanted him to somehow enter the hazy place of loss with me.
But my handsome, always efficient husband was on the speakerphone. He was setting up the training schedule for the new assistant chef who was starting on Saturday. Joel was part owner at the Blue Ginger restaurant in Corona del Mar, and he was also the head chef. The dual roles were ambitious, but then, so was Joel. The only reason he had this rare Thursday night off was because a new stove had been installed that afternoon, followed by a series of spot safety checks.
The light turned green. Joel glanced at me and seemed to notice for the first time that I’d been facing him, waiting for my turn to get his attention. I reached over and smoothed back his dark hair that was growing too long in the front. His clean-shaven face, with his straight nose and intense, amber-flecked eyes, reflected all the best of his Italian heritage. He looked as handsome to me tonight as when I’d first met him nine years ago. I could wait for his attention. Joel was always worth the wait.
Turning away, I looked out the window and quietly watched the familiar sights as we rolled into our old neighborhood. The rows of beach houses lined up like mismatched vintage toys on a shelf.
Coming up on the right was the cottage we rented when we first moved to Newport Beach. Joel and I had packed a lot of good memories into that 950-square-foot, two-bed, one-bath bungalow with the sapphire-blue door. I noticed that the garden boxes Joel had set up still lined the narrow space at the front of the house. They were now filled with what looked like lemongrass.
I smiled, remembering how happy we were when we brought Eden home to her lovingly prepared nursery. I wondered if the hand-painted morning glories still curved up her bedroom wall, or if the new tenant had painted over my handiwork.
Joel had tried out dozens of recipes in that tiny, inefficient kitchen. I sat for hours, watching from the oval table where I painted and practiced calligraphy on dozens—maybe hundreds—of cards and plaques. We hosted many small get-togethers with new friends as well as lively, crowded dinners with Joel’s extended family.
Life was simpler then. Joel and I were just becoming “us.” We had only been married for a couple of years when we moved to Newport Beach. Our love was new, and we were intent on crafting our careers and starting a family.
I look back now and realize that our happiness and fresh, young love probably had cocooned me from feeling the full impact of the sudden loss of my mom right before we moved. Joel and I had each other, and in that season, I guess I thought that was enough. We were shoulder to shoulder in our quest for courageous endeavors and new beginnings.
Now, in a little more than half a decade, we had accomplished and acquired everything we had only dreamed of back then. Joel owned his restaurant; we had a daughter and a son. We lived in a two-story, newly renovated house with an exceptional kitchen, and I had the space and freedom to pursue my love of watercolor painting and entertaining to my heart’s content.
The only problem was, I couldn’t think of anything my husband and I were shoulder to shoulder on anymore.
Joel wedged our Lexus into a rare open space by the curb just down the street from our memory-soaked cottage. I got out and softly closed my door. He was still on his call and, from the sound of it, might be for a while longer. Using both hands, I carried the large, heavy wicker basket to Christy and Todd’s front door and pressed the doorbell with my elbow.
The door opened, and my lovely friend Christy greeted me with a hug. “Jennalyn, hi! Come in.” Christy’s blue-green eyes looked down the street. “Is Joel with you?”
“He’s finishing a call in the car. He’ll be here in a minute.”
I made myself at home in the open downstairs of the beach home that had become so familiar over the past few years. Meeting Christy was one of the biggest blessings that came with the early years in our cottage by the sea. While placing the basket on the large kitchen counter, I noticed that Christy had set out only four of her white dinner plates.
“Is it just the four of us?” My hair had been bugging me all day. I stepped into the small bathroom off the kitchen, pulled the long dark strands to the right side, and made a swiftly folded braid. “Is it okay if I use this hair tie on the counter?”
“Yes and yes,” Christy called back from the kitchen. “Yes, it’s just us for dinner, and what’s mine is yours. Or I should say, what’s Hana’s is yours.”
I turned on the faucet and ran my hands under the water, then smoothed back the sides of my thick straight hair. Rolling my shoulders back, I took one last look in the mirror and wished I had put on some jewelry or at least something other than the plain heather-gray V-neck sweater I had worn all day.
Returning to the kitchen, I took note of how fresh Christy looked in her jeans and long-sleeved white top with the sleeves rolled up. She was also wearing one of the darling aprons she sews and sells online and in local shops. This one was made from a mix of pink, green, and blue fabric remnants, with a playful yellow ruffle across the top.
“Sierra and Jordan said they might stop by after eight,” Christy said. “I kind of doubt they’ll make it, though. Emily called and said she and Trevor are coming down with colds.”
“That’s too bad. What about Tess?” I reached for the two fresh baguettes in my basket, pulled a long knife from the block by the stove, and began slicing.
“She said she was meeting someone. I asked if it was a client, and she said no, it was a guy.”
Christy nodded and arranged the chunky baguette ovals on a cookie sheet.
“What else did she say?” I asked.
“That was it. She probably didn’t want to say much because, you know, she assumed I would tell you guys, and our group is always so…”
“Caring?” I piped in.
“I was going to say nosy.”