Mending Broken Hearts As We Mopped Up the Floor

My mother slowly shook her head from side to side, sighed, then picked up a string mop and began soaking up the water.

''Mom?'' I called from the top of the basement stairs. ''You down there?''

''Yes.'' Her voice was a monotone.

''Something wrong?''

''Yes.'' Her tone was unchanged. ''The washer's overflowed again.''

''Need help?''

''Could use it.''

I was hoping I'd get the usual response: ''No, I don't need help, but thanks,'' and I only asked because I expected a ''no.'' ''Be right there,'' I called back.

My mother was wringing fluid from the mop into a basement sink, where water was supposed to drain. She then let the mop absorb from the floor and repeated the hand-wringing. Soap suds spewed from around the front circular door of the Bendix machine.

''Want me to use towels? Or I can lay myself on the floor and saturate my clothing?'' I quipped.

''Maybe it was easier before gadgets. No, I don't really mean that. I'm just weary today.'' Dots of perspiration formed on my mother's temples.

''Daddy always bought things to improve our living. That washer was a new invention when we moved into this house.'' My mother stood erect. Mop strings spread out helplessly, and she pressed hard on the yellow-painted wooden handle.

I dropped rags, fascinated with the rapid absorption of fluid, and tried to pretend I didn't notice her emotional pain.

My mother looked wistful and started rocking her body by leaning on the mop handle. ''I miss him,'' she said almost in a whisper.

''Mom, let's you and I paint this room aqua. How about it? These concrete blocks are just too gray.''

''Concrete is porous,'' my mother began to instruct, but caught herself. ''It soaks up paint so you have to go over and over the same area.''

''So what? We'll have a project together and some private time. Like we used to have in the car where we had personal talks.'' So it would take forever and be more dirty work than creative. I began to notice the quiet signals of need my widowed mother tried so hard not to show.

''Maybe I can get after-school club credit like I used to get good-deed points when I was in the Brownies.'' I forced my voice to sound cheery.

''Do you remember those talks in the car?'' my mother said, her hazel eyes focused on my face. ''How special those moments were when we talked about the very private things you were feeling. Imagine,'' she shook her head gently, ''you and I simply went into the garage and sat in the car.''

''It was secluded, Mom.''

I liked that she always made time for me, away from the house, the phone, my sisters, even though ''away'' was only as far as the attached garage. ''You always kept my secrets, and you never made me feel silly talking about preteen anxieties or even my dreams about my future,'' I said.

''Why shouldn't I keep secrets!'' My mother began mopping again. ''And you never said anything silly. Young, maybe, but that's what being a young girl is all about. You can make mountains out of molehills and not get ridiculed.''

I suddenly needed to say ''thanks,'' but the words didn't come out. Why was it so hard to actually say it, as if I didn't want to give her the satisfaction of hearing it? ''You really gave me a great childhood,'' I blurted out, remembering the bales of hay I brought downstairs for a Western-theme party, and she never complained about either the mess or the smell.

I realized that I could now give her some time, so she might possibly talk about personal feelings with me doing the listening.

My mother reached out and stroked my cheek. She smiled, causing crinkles to form around her eyes, and I knew the smile was real. Just as she understood preteen silliness, I knew she was aware that I loved her, even though I didn't vocalize it.

''Lois, I'd like to paint the walls aqua with you. But,'' she said, sounding less weary, ''let's get this flood mopped up first.''

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