|Old Romance Cover - public domain|
I am tired of going into Walgreens and seeing my mother’s name on the shelf of bestsellers. She has no shame, and she freely admits it. As a romance novelist, her job is to write stories with just enough tension in them that you can’t see the happy ending coming. Mother is good at it; she is also good at plagiarism – most of her plots come from my life.
When I graduated from high school, Mother took a writing class, seeking to bond with me since I was enrolled at the same junior college. I hated the idea of going to school and running into her – college days are supposed to be filled with independence and freedom. She respected my wishes and stayed far away from me, but I was unprepared for the group of friends she made. Most of them were my age and they met for study group at local coffee houses, like they were all best friends or something.
Mother’s first novel was an accident – it was actually a short story for one of her classes. Her professor asked her to stay behind from class, just to encourage her to extend the story a bit and submit it to an agent. He added that romance novels are the biggest sellers in the publishing market and that Harlequin has never had a dip in sales. Mother marvelled, then got to work.
“What’s the story about?” I asked her, a little jealous that her professor singled her out. I was the writer, not Mother! Why hadn’t any of my professors had private encouragement sessions with me?
“It’s about a woman who goes back to college after raising her children,” Mother told me as she unloaded the dishwasher. “She has a hard time adjusting to life because she’s built her world around her youngest daughter. Anyway, the mother goes back to school and makes a whole new group of friends, including a young man who develops a crush on her.”
“What?” I couldn’t help smiling. It sounded so familiar, up until that last bit. “Is this based on a true story? Does one of your study partners have a crush on you?” I couldn’t imagine my frumpy old mother attracting a guy my age. Mother stood up straight and looked at me like I was insane.
“Of course not! Who would that be?”
“I don’t know, maybe that guy Tomas?”
“Tomas is gay, I think,” Mother returned to unpacking the dishwasher, sorting silverware and placing it carefully in our ancient plastic trays. “Ned is married. Carl told me once that you were quite beautiful...” With this last bit of information, she looked up at me and smiled.
“I’m not going out with Carl, Mother.”
“Well, for starters, he hasn’t even talked with me, let alone asked me out on a date.”
Mother shut the dishwasher and hung a dish towel carefully on the oven handle. “He’s a shy young man, honey,” she looked up at me, tenderly. “He loves his mother and takes care of her. Oh, honey, can’t you at least come to study group with me and meet him?”
I shook my head, incredulously. Mother had just been encouraged to extend her first short story into a novel and get an agent – and all she could think about was setting me up on a blind date.
* * * *
After Mothers first book was published, (entitled “The Freshman Ten”) we celebrated. Her study group met at our house for meatloaf and champagne and I finally met everyone – including the shy Carl who had a crush on me. At the party, I marveled at how much the description of Ivan (the student who has a crush on the elder-student, Samantha) matched Carl - physically and socially. I also started to wonder if she modeled Samantha after me – the things she said sounded like the things I would say....
Mother eventually let college be my territory and didn't enroll for a second year. She turned her sewing room into an office and bought a used computer, writing constantly. I actually took her advice and went on a date with Carl and we ended up really liking one another. Because of this, Mother made “family nights” for us often, cooking our favorite things and hanging out with us as we talked by the fireplace.
“My agent wants me to write a sequel,” she told Carl and I one night after steak and potato salad. “I am thinking of having the two kids get married and start a family.” Mother was referring to the characters in her book – the “two kids” were Ivan and Samantha.
“You mean Samantha and Ivan will get married?” I laughed. “Samantha is forty and Ivan is twenty! Isn’t that a bit impractical?”
Mother blushed and I realized I had embarrassed her. I regretted it, but Carl spoke up before I could apologize.
“Why not have Ivan meet someone more his age?” he suggested. Mother’s face contorted.
“No, he would never leave Samantha!” She was thinking, and when the fire crackled, she looked up as if an idea exploded in her brain. “Unless Samantha dies!”
Carl and I looked at each other and laughed.
“Are you going to kill off Samantha?” I asked. “Is that such a good idea?”
Mother hardly noticed we were there. Instead, she rose and walked to her office like a woman on a mission, never even saying goodnight. It was fine with us; Carl and I commenced to cuddling in front of the fireplace.
* * * *
“Last Chance for Love” was a bigger hit than Mom’s first novel. The unstoppable Samantha died after valiantly fighting off stage four ovarian cancer for four months. With her dying breath, Samantha encouraged a grief-stricken Ivan to marry the beautiful nurse that had been her faithful companion, never leaving her side – the thick-eye-lashed Suzie. At the end of the book Ivan and Suzie decide that Samantha will be the name for their first child if it is a girl, and they ride off in the sunset together. They had just buried Samantha, but they were already planning their wedding and future children.
I couldn’t make it through the book without rolling my eyes, but apparently the throngs of people that bought it did not agree with me. Mother started getting invited to read portions of her book at Romance conferences. She encouraged young writers to believe in themselves and believe in true love – Mom’s latest cause. The book became a featured item in the Harlequin catalog; Mother was elated.
“What about you and Carl?” she asked me one evening. I was nearly finished with University and was ready to graduate with a BA, but Mother was more interested in my love-life.
“We need to wait until he finishes school, Mother,” I said. I hated it when she butted her nose into my life. “Carl has two jobs and can’t afford to quit them, so night school is his only option.”
Mother shook her head and tried to hug me. I took a step back, refusing to be pitied. She tried to give me a pep talk, Mother’s version of how things should be done.
“Your father worked two jobs when we got married,” she said. “We got married on such a shoe-string budget…”
“I’m not you, Mother!” I shouted. As soon as I did, I regretted it. She shrunk away from me and her eyes clouded with tears. I wanted to apologize, but instead I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.
“Carl and I will get married, but we don’t want a shoestring budget. We don’t want a rush wedding, we want to plan and not incur debt…”
Mother brightened. “Mother of the Bride will pay!” she said. I almost laughed, but then I could tell she wasn’t joking. She was bright with hope and promise, and I sunk inside of myself, knowing I should have thought of another excuse.
* * * *
“Honeymoon Ecstasy” was another best-seller, breaking the bank and making Mother a cash cow for her publisher. Her agent invited her to New York for the launch, but Mother refused, saying that wedding planning was a full-time job.
She literally took over all of the preparations. I told her what Carl and I wanted for the wedding day and Mother went to any lengths to get it. She made our rustic wedding look so rustic, despite the huge price tag I knew everything came with. When it came time for the bride’s dance with her father, I surprised Mother and had a dance for just the two of us. As “In My Daughter’s Eyes” played, we cried and danced and hung on to each other.
“Thanks for everything, Mother,” I said.
“My girl,” Mother was sobbing, but managed to say something above the music: “True Love conquers all…”
As she wept on my shoulder, I rolled my eyes. Why was she crying? Was she happy for Carl and I? Was she happy about true love? Was she sad that Daddy had died? I was left with the feeling of not knowing my own mother, the feeling that pervaded my life. I hated that feeling – it was surprising how much I felt it.
The honeymoon was in Niagara Falls, just like Ivan and Suzie had. In the book, the young couple overlooked the falls and declared their love as they watched the rainbow lights shining on “the drifts and billows of crashing waves” – I knew even before Mother gave me the envelope that we were headed there.
“Does it overlook the falls?” I asked Mother, wryly.
She only looked wounded as she answered me, “Who told you?”
* * * *
Last week I waddled into the store and saw it there, her latest book. Mom stopped celebrating the release of her novels; she was as prolific as Carl and I were. As I gave birth to children, Mother gave birth to books. While I paced the floors at night with sick children, Mother paced the floors at night with her characters, always wrestling with the same drama that most people wrestle with, but with beauty and makeup and lots of kissing. All of her characters seemed to be caught up in the same misery that was familiar to me; Suzie definitely saw more romantic action than I did. Writing about the monotony of motherhood, Mother realized, is not what creates bestsellers.
I had placed a quarreling Zeke and Olivia in the back of the cart to duke it out once and for all. Joshua, in his car seat, was nestled carefully in the basket directly in front of me. I was so pregnant that I felt ready to burst at any moment. Carl had started a new job and couldn’t take any more time off. I found myself, disheveled and going to the store to replenish our ever dwindling supply of children’s cough syrup, with my troop of noisy kids.
There it was on the shelf, “Making Time for Love” – the cover art mocking me as I looked at it. As the kids bickered in the back of the cart, I couldn't help but reach for it. A beautiful woman, carrying a baby in each arm, looked over her shoulder at a man, dressed in a three-piece suit, necktie blowing behind him as he sped out the front door, briefcase in hand.
The synopsis on the back read: “Before the children, Ivan and Suzie enjoyed a life of mutual seduction. Is their romance now in jeopardy with a new job and new children? Can the lovers make time for one another and cherish each other as they did in the early days?”
Give me a break, Mother.