I read an article recently about harp seals. How their mothers abandon them just twelve days after they’re born, left to the elements, floating on ice in the frigid ocean. Biologists say it teaches the seal pups survival, lessons of life or death, how to fend for themselves and make it on their own. But perhaps the species would have a lower mortality rate if they tried something different.
It was my first Thanksgiving at home in a decade, after years of nothing but sporadic and tense phone calls, no visits. I was only there because my brother had pleaded me to come, served as a mediator between myself and our parents.
But for some reason, at dinner, I couldn’t stop thinking of those poor abandoned harp seals, while conversation of other matters carried on around me.
“Adeline scored her first goal at last week’s game,” my sister Christina said, proudly, as though announcing her four-year-old daughter had contributed to winning the World Cup. Praises for Adeline rippled about the room, and Christina, the perfect, favored daughter, beamed.
I topped off my red wine, took another long drink.
My brother and sister had both brought their children — seven grandchildren now, my parents’ pride and joy — and the kids’ table was fuller, noisier than I’d ever seen it.
I sat between my mother and sister at the formal dining table, the in-laws across from us, my father and brother at each end. Once, I’d asked my mother why she never sat there. She’d responded simply that those spots were reserved for men — head of the table for the head of household.
I’d rolled my eyes and said nothing more at the time, though looking back, there was plenty I could have. Not that my mother would have listened anyway.
“Lydia,” my brother Sean said. Startled at the sudden mention of my name, I looked up. “How’s the film going?”
“Oh. Really well. We wrapped up filming last week actually. I’m proud of the performance our lead actress gave.”
Sean smiled. “I’m proud of you. An actual Hollywood director!”
My sweet brother. Always had been my biggest supporter.
“We’re all proud,” my mother said, a tight smile pulling at her lips. “Very exciting work. And how are the cats?”
“They’re both good. I miss them already.”
“Pets sure are something special,” my mother said, stabbing a green bean with her fork.
There was something in the way she said it that made my skin crawl. I know you’re thinking something else. Perhaps how shameful it is that I, a twenty-eight-year-old woman, unmarried and childless, is evidently destined to die alone in a house full of cats.
I wasn’t alone, that’s the thing, but she pretended otherwise.
Her own method of survival.
I was eighteen when my parents told me to leave. Still a child. But old enough, in their eyes, to survive on my own. I was making the choice, they’d remind me for years after. I was choosing to leave. But what choice had I truly been given?
“Break up with her, or move out,” my mother had said.
I’d moved out three days later.
After dinner, my mother and sister cleared the tables, put away leftovers, brought out dessert. My mother brewed a pot of coffee and served a mug to everyone who wanted some. By the time she sat down with her own coffee and dessert, my father had finished his, was leaning back in his chair, hands folded across his protruding stomach, full and satisfied.
“We’re going to church tomorrow morning,” my mother said, looking down at her slice of pie. “Pastor Jared is putting on a special service. Are you coming with the family, Lydia?”
“Sorry, I want to make sure I have everything together before my flight.”
My mother forced another tight smile, one which didn’t even reach her eyes. “Just figured I’d ask.”
A burning rose in my throat suddenly, as though an entire decade of hurt and anger might spew forth as vomit. I know there’s more you want to say. There’s always more.
The next day after church service, Sean volunteered to drive me back to the airport.
Heavy flakes of Michigan snow came swirling down around us as we walked to his car, sticking to our coats, our hair. The drive was mostly silent, except for the Christmas music playing softly on the radio.
As he merged onto the airport entrance, Sean said, “I’m glad you came this year. It’s been hard not having you around for holidays. Maybe things — you know, with Mom and Dad — will start to get better now. Maybe you’ll be able to bring her next time.” His hands tightened on the steering wheel, then loosened. His jaw muscles clenched and unclenched. Did he even believe his own words?
“I’m glad I came, too. I’ve missed you a lot,” was all I said, though there could have been more.
When the plane lands in Los Angeles, I see clear skies and a setting sun through the oval window. The sky is stacked in layers of pink and orange and yellow, then blue, the way California sunsets are. An abounding peace washes over me, and the words, Honey, I’m home, run through my mind.
She’s waiting for me in her navy Subaru at the curb of airport arrivals. She grins, waves excitedly, and I can’t help but laugh. My heart swells with deep adoration, an all-consuming gratitude. She helps me lift my heavy bag into the trunk, teasing me gently for always packing too much. “I’m so happy to see you,” she says, once we’re in the car. She takes my hand and squeezes tightly, knowing better than to ask how my visit was. “Now, let’s go home,” she says. “Our cats have missed you.”
E.V. Zukowski is a fiction writer from southeast Michigan, where she currently resides with her two cats. In addition to writing, her passions include books, history, art, and travel.