When she got home the ashtrays were filled with cigarette butts, but only half of them were her mother’s brand.
“Did someone come by?”
“Your Aunt Peggy.” Her mother sounded just a little angry. Caroline judged her to be at the almost fighting stage of drunk. Not bad for three in the afternoon. “She gave me this.”
The necklace floated through the air, landing on the table with a metallic clink. Caroline picked it up, looking closer. “I’ve never seen a watch necklace before.”
“Peggy says it was your grandmother’s.” Her mother’s hands groped around the table for a drink. “Doesn’t work though. Needs a battery.”
Caroline inspected the pendent watch, smaller than a quarter and with a tiny knob on one side. She wound it, noticing an inscription on the back then put it up to her ear. “It’s working now. I guess you just have to wind it.”
“Well, la-te-da, aren’t you smart? Why don’t you make us some dinner then, Miss Smartypants?”
Caroline looked around at the dingy apartment. The curtains hadn’t been opened since she went to school. She would’ve shook at her head at the mess but she knew that would start a fight. The back of the watch said ‘There’s always time for a Mother’s love.’ The message almost made her weep. She set the time, then put the necklace back down. “You should wear this, it’s pretty.”
Her mother fingered the watch during dinner. Caroline had grocery shopped with the food stamps over the weekend, so the food was good. Not like the end of the month when she went to the food bank, coming home with stale donuts, squished bread, and half-spoiled fruit. Her mother didn’t comment on the meal just on the watch, saying it might be worth something and that maybe she would wear it, in her most combative tone. Caroline knew that voice, and escaped to her room after she filled the dishwasher. Not much later a man’s voice came from the living room walls, followed by the inevitable sounds of angry shouting, then sex. She pushed a dresser against her door, just in case, and tried to get some sleep.
Walking home from school she knew something was wrong, but she couldn’t tell what. The apartment just looked wrong. Worried, she didn’t figure it out until her hand was on the door knob. The blinds were open. “Mom?”
“In the bathroom.”
And sober, Caroline guessed, surprised. Mom got worse when she was sober, angry that she had to face the world. Her mother sat on her knees in front of the toilet, the smell of bleach filling the air. “Are you sick? What’s going on?”
“What does it look like, Caroline? I’m cleaning the bathroom.” Her mother laughed, and for a second, Caroline thought her heart would break at the noise. Her mother didn’t laugh without bitterness, didn’t clean the bathroom, and certainly wasn’t sober in the afternoon. The woman in front of her was a stranger. “I’ll be done soon, why don’t you do your home work?”
The table had been cleared, the ashtrays empty. With the blinds and windows open the constant blue-gray haze of smoke had cleared out of the living room. Caroline opened a history book, only half reading the words on the page. When Mom left the bathroom she cleaned the living room, vacuuming then dusting. Yesterday Caroline would’ve guessed the woman didn’t know where the vacuum was, today she wielded it with expertise.
At dinner, another unexpected surprise, “you’ve never made pot roast before.”
“I haven’t? I should’ve. It’s my grandmother’s recipe. But it’s all thanks to you for having the ingredients in the house.”
Caroline almost choked on her food. She stared at the woman in front of her. Her mother’s hair was washed and put up in a bun. She wore a buttoned up yellow blouse, in the front, under the thin fabric the necklace looked like a bump.
“You’re wearing Great-grandma’s necklace.”
“Thanks for reminding me, I’d hate to forget to wind it and run out of time.”
The next morning Caroline woke up to the smell of eggs and bacon. Her mother smiled from the stove. “I have a crazy feeling about today.”
“Like what?” Crazy like not drinking? How could today get any crazier?
“I think I might apply for a job.”
“Well, we’re certainly not making ends meet like this, and there’s bound to be someone who’s hiring.” Mom looked around the now-clean house, almost worried.
Caroline drank her orange juice, too confused to speak.
“Finished?” At her nod, Mom took the dishes and began washing them in the sink.
“Why not use the dishwasher?”
“Oh that. I wasn’t sure how to work it.”
Caroline bit her lip. Her mother knew how to work the dishwasher, then again, her mother drank away the morning. Somehow this stranger that looked like her mother, the one wearing a pressed blouse with her hair up, was hand washing dishes didn’t know how to use the machine.
“Time for you to get to school!” The stranger-mother held out a brown paper lunch bag. Caroline didn’t have the heart to remind her that they received free school lunch. She took the bag, bewildered by it all.
Caroline came home to another dinner in the oven, meatloaf this time. Her stranger-mother was humming an old song in the kitchen, a very old song, from the 50s at least. The thought stopped her, and even though she’d puzzled over her mother all day, she suddenly thought about someone else.
“When was grandma born?”
The stranger-mother looked up from the stove, with a slightly confused smile. “What a strange question, I’m not sure. Probably 1935.”
Caroline did the math. Her grandmother would’ve known that song. Not that it proved anything.
“Is this for school?”
“For history class,” Carolyn lied.
“That’s nice, dear.”
“Are you still wearing Grandma’s necklace?”
Stranger-mother grinned, and pulled it out to show her. “Haven’t taken it off since I put it on. It just makes me feel…” Caroline watched while she searched for the word. “Connected to her I guess.”
Caroline pressed her lips together mentally correcting, not connected, possessed. Possessed by someone who wasn’t an alcoholic, who thought taking care of her family was the most important thing in the world.
“You’ll never guess what’s in the icebox.”
“Chocolate cake to celebrate my new job!”
Caroline felt her lip tremble.
“Now don’t cry, sweetheart, it’s just during the day at the grocery store. I’ll be home when you get back from school. You won’t miss me.”
“Just promise me something,” Caroline decided.
“That you never take that necklace off.”
“What a silly thing to promise, but if it’s what you want, I promise I’ll wear it forever.” Her new mother smiled at her.