Fall 2009, Volume 7

Memoir by Judith Turner-Yamamoto

Cherries in the Snow

Grandmother Parks’ sharp voice leaches past the receiver my mother clutches to her ear, reaching me where I lie on the couch in the den reading an Archie comic book. “He’s sitting up there at the service station telling all the men how he loves being on top, how he could go for hours. He’s got a boat and a trailer they keep out at Badin Lake. That’s where he goes with her. See for yourself, he leaves his truck in the hospital parking lot. They’ve been carrying on for years.”

 My mother is stupid, her tone says, gossip fodder, a naïve little fool that has to be set straight. And Grandmother has taken it on herself to do so as quickly and efficiently as possible, calling Mother first thing so as to clear out the rest of her day so she and Aunt Ruby can go shopping. “The woman works at the water plant. Ruby went to pay her bill in person to get a look at her. Plain as homemade soap, mannish even. Legs like mill posts, Ruby says.”

My mother sinks into the couch as if all the strength has suddenly been sucked out of her legs, as if she’s forgotten I’m here. I scramble out from behind her and sit at her side, my comic book closed, dreading and anticipating the moment she will hang up and turn to me. I watch things build up, her chest and neck going red, her voice turning keen the way it does anytime she is upset or excited, which is a good deal of the time. “That’s a lie,” she says, the tremble in her voice telling me she’s not so sure. “He doesn’t like that position, he likes being on the bottom. Besides, he could never last that long, he can’t keep a hard on.”

Grandmother sounds a dismissive snort. “Maybe,” she says, “that’s just you.”

At twelve, I have no idea what a hard on is, but it sounds dark and personal and not like anything she should be telling her mother. I wince, ashamed for her, for the weak excuses, useless roadblocks that in her panic she pitches in the path of grandmother’s steely assuredness. I sneak a sidelong glance at the stack of comic books I’ve amassed for a lazy morning of summer reading. I am yet to begin the business of sunbathing, the first in a chain of obsessive behaviors I will wind my way through in the coming decades. I still prefer to stay inside with a book, moving from couch to chair and room to room until finally, when the heat of the afternoon becomes unbearable, into my parent’s bedroom where a thrumming dinosaur of an air conditioner laces the air with tiny fingers of ice.

How good are my chances, I wonder, of escaping unnoticed to the haven of my room at the other end of the den. Not that it is just my room. It’s my mother’s too. It’s been years since she’s slept in the room that her clothes still share with my father, just like it’s been years since we went to church together or visited relatives on Sundays.

What does she say to me when she hangs up? How Ruby and Grandmother must be good and happy now, as much as they like to see her miserable. That my father is carrying on with some woman?

My mind pulls up the only picture of adultery aftermath I know in a firsthand way. Sue Ann, my best friend since first grade, her father, Cicero, is a lay down drunk. He was named for a famous Roman orator, but I’ve never heard him say anything beyond the moans and mumbles he makes in his uneasy drunkard’s sleep. I see him on their living room couch, the embossed velvet worn smooth and shiny from its constant burden. The room is shut down tight behind Venetian blinds drawn to keep out light and prying eyes, but somehow the wallpaper covered with pink sprigs of flowers has still managed to fade to a muddied brown. He’s curled in to the wall, his back to the world, his dress clothes wrinkled—Cicero still dresses like he’s got some place to go—his pomaded hair sticking out every which way, a bottle of whiskey at the ready.

 David, Sue’s severely retarded teen-aged brother rocks in his chair and stares at the TV whether it’s on or off. He’s clapping his bony hands together, scratching the angry pimples on his face and hollering Damnit—the only word he knows. In the bedroom where the four of them sleep—there’s the double bed for Sue and her mother, a cot for David, and one for Cicero when he makes it off the couch—is her mother, humming a cheery tune and putting together her Watchtowers for this week’s witnessing.

This is, I determine, the true picture of the wages of sin. My mother says Cicero had a whole other kind of life long ago somewhere else with a wife and grown sons, a business and plenty of money, but one day his wife walked in his office to find his secretary perched on his lap. That wife left him, taking everything. He married the secretary and moved her into one of the three-room duplex rental properties left over from the first marriage. Too old to have had any business fathering children, he produced a retarded son and my friend who looked old because he was.

Sue’s looking old, I realize, has nothing to do with her father being in his sixties, and everything to do with what she is living in. Sitting here beside my mother, I feel it happening to me, my face pinching down tight to hold on to the pieces of me set to fly away.

The undiluted fear on my mother’s face drowns out her words. The trembling lips and choked up voice tell me the tears are coming. Whatever he has done to her, he has done to me. This is an upset so big that if I’m not careful I will lose her too. I better throw my fate in with this woman going through the biggest attack of nerves I have seen yet, figure out a way to prop her up, because she is all I have. There’ll be no help coming from my spiteful grandmother, or my meddling Aunt Ruby, or Mother’s baby sister, Betty, who lives, on purpose, in Greensboro, a universe away. Not from my father’s family, who doesn’t seem to notice they haven’t heard from Mother and me in years. What I’ve sensed for so long is finally true. It’s her and me against everybody else.


Why this booth, the one by the jukebox, by the corner windows that everyone coming in has to pass? Maybe she wants to be seen. Dog and Suds is new in town, the first restaurant chain to find our small North Carolina mill town. “Dogs” refers to hot dogs cooked in beer, a novel concept in a dry county; “Suds,” given that fact, means root beer on tap served in frosted mugs. The place is, no two ways about it, a big deal.

Mother may be upset, but she’s taken the time to look good. She wears a white windbreaker, white pants. She keeps her sunglasses on to hide her swollen, puffy eyes. She’s been crying all day. We have no business here, out where the world can see through us to this bad thing that is so big it takes up our whole lives. We are branded, my mother and me, marked with rejection that is as clear to me as the red lipstick on her pale face. Mama should be holed up at home, hugging a box of Kleenex. But she has to feed me, which just became one more thing she can’t handle.

I slump in my seat. The aqua vinyl, cool from the air conditioning, sets off chills. These shakes are really me being more upset than I’d had occasion to be before. This is just the beginning of me twisting things too big to feel into something ordinary I can understand, like thinking the air conditioning must be turned up too high.

Bored with life in general, the waitress doesn’t even bother looking up from her little green pad when Mother orders in a voice filled with tears and snot. I start doing a lot of wishing and praying for things big and small—for the food to come quick so she won’t have time to get all torn up again, for her to eat it when it does so she’ll calm down, for nobody to play any sad songs on the jukebox.

I win on the music and service, but the food doesn’t help things much. Between itty little bites of her hamburger, she asks me over and over, her voice a whispered scream, “What am I going to do? I’m so sick I’m about to gag.”

This seemed right, at least. I was used to the women in my mother’s family being sick. Disappointment and emotional upset expressed itself through their bodies. The summer Aunt Betty, my mother’s youngest sister, found out her husband, Junior Wingler, was carrying on with some woman at the cigarette factory where they all worked, she started in on a course of heavy nerve medicine. Grandmother Parks took to staying in bed, refusing to eat a thing but Gerber Baby Food, saying solid food choked her. Those little jars set right out on the table in the middle of the kitchen where Grandmother had stopped mixing the batter for cornbread and making dough for biscuits, a sea of blue baby faces staring back that seemed to ask, “How could he?”

What with Ruby busy struggling with her three boys, an alcoholic husband, and trying to stay out of Camp Butner where she’d already been three times for shock treatments, it fell to my mother to cook each day for Grandfather and Great-Uncle Bob. The strain of shopping for baby food and driving to Ramseur each morning to put on a pot of beans or peas and stewing meat or baking a ham and cooking pans of bread led Mother to the sick headaches that kept her flat on her back in her darkened bedroom nursing a glass of tomato juice and eating Campbell’s Tomato Soup.

When I started school, I found my own way. The painful separation from my mother imposed by the school day begot a longing that found me home sick an average of 30 days each year. The pattern only stopped once she began teaching full time and was no longer at home to feed me orange slices and toast and make my favorite cream of potato soup.

So the gagging I understand, but this other thing about what she should do feels like a real question, one I am supposed to have answers for. I can’t trust her to make decisions, and it’s plain I can’t trust my father. Right here I feel the burden for us shift to me. I have to find a way through this thing that has suddenly changed everything. “I hate him,” I say, hoping this declaration of solidarity will diminish her need for answers I don’t have. I am supposed to hate him for what he did to her. But I hate him for leaving me to deal with her and his mess. This feeling must be further proof of the selfish and hateful nature my mother constantly accuses me of. “All you think about is yourself,” I hear her say in my mind. Has she asked me if I’m afraid, if I’m upset? Like everything else, this is about her, I remind myself, her and her feelings. Hating my father for me and not her will have to be my guilty secret.


We park down the street from the water plant, waiting for her to come out. We wait until all the cars but one are gone from the lot. In what feels like forever, but is only five minutes by the clock on the dash, she comes out. I’m afraid, afraid Grandmother is telling a lie and that she is beautiful. At the same time I want her to be beautiful to justify everything that has happened because of her. Nobody has ever been looked at harder than she is looked at now. I want her to turn around to see me hating her. I catch her shape, the color of her hair, not enough to be able to know how big a threat she is.

“She’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen,” Mother says, an edge of triumph in her voice. She shifts the car into drive. We speed by, Mother laying hard into the horn. The Water Woman—this is the name my mother has given her—doesn’t even look in our direction. How, I wonder, can we know so much about her when she knows nothing about us? 


The Water Woman plants her wide feet on the cement stairs that lead to our front door, one leg up on the next step, like she wants to be ready in case I decide to let her in. I start at her feet and work up—the sturdy sandals, the thick ankles, the unpainted toenails, the pale solid legs flecked with faint freckles, the fine fretwork of purple veins, the plain cotton sun dress, the unmade up face—but it’s the untended feet that hold my attention, saying how unlike my mother she is.

My mother is tall with long shapely legs, delicate narrow high arched feet. She wears linen A-line dresses in electric colors, lime, bright yellow, hot pink, her dark hair teased into a perfect flip. She keeps her cupid bow mouth and nails painted a frosted blue-red called Cherries in the Snow. The name conjures sweet and improbable combinations like the almond scented cream of a chocolate-covered cherry. Such a beautiful romantic name, and she is beautiful, even boys my age think she is beautiful. That my father could want to be with this woman so unlike her, strikes me as a double betrayal, he is cheating not only on my mother but on my feminine ideal.

Last night I sat in the car outside the Water Woman’s house along with Grandmother and my cousin Danny, my heart beating in counter time to the rapping of my mother’s determined fist on the front door. “Come out, whore,” my mother’s voice struggles to rise above the pounding of her fist, the words shaped thick from days of crying. “Trashy sorry bitch,” my grandmother mumbles under her breath, shifting restlessly in the passenger seat.

Now here the Water Woman is, returning our visit and wanting to see my mother, but I am the best she’s going to get, and I decide it’s going to be pretty good. Right then, I slip into being the tough girl, the girl that doesn’t care what anybody says or does because she’s too hard to feel a thing. The girl who doesn’t think much of adults, because just look at the mess they make of things. She can’t touch me, nobody can touch me. I’ve never been to this place, but it feels bold and safe and beyond what anybody can do, least of all this ugly woman standing before me.

 I keep the screen door latched, my hand on the lock button, like I can keep her out, but a part of me knows she is already inside and all the sweeping and mopping and wiping in the world won’t ever get rid of her. She starts to talk, but my heart is pumping inside my head so I can’t hear a thing she says. Her voice is quiet, her words even. She could be ordering an ice cream cone at the drug store or talking about how hot it’s been.

“Your father loves you very much,” I hear her tell me.

 “If he loves me so much,” I spit back, “then what’s he doing with you?”

This stops her.

“He can go straight to hell and he can take you with him. I hate him and I hate you too.”

I slam the door in her face. Trembling with the power of what I have managed to wreak all by myself. I don’t need her advice, I don’t need the father or the childhood she’s taken from me, and this feels a lot easier than needing.

I hide behind the drapes and watch her walk back to her car, taking in every detail of her to tell my mother when she comes home, so together we can make her less than what she is.


BIO:  My stories have appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including The Mississippi Review, The American Literary Review and Potomac Review. Anthologies include Double Lives (2009), Best New Poets 2005, Farm Wives and Other Iowa Stories and Grow Old Along With Me. My awards include a 2007 Moving Words Poetry Award from Arlington County, Virginia, the 2000 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, the 1999 Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Award and the 1989 Washington Prize for Fiction. I have taught fiction at the Writers’ Center at the Chautauqua Institution, the Danville Writer’s Conference, and at the Writers’ Center in Bethesda, Maryland. An art historian, I am a critic and features writer covering the arts, design, and travel for Elle, Travel & Leisure, USAir, Virginia Living, Southern Accents, and The Boston Globe Magazine, among others.