Most things with my mom were either broken or about to break. That stood true for the water pump and the boiler on the oil burner, so life always carried an element of pioneering spirit or sad poverty, depending on how you looked at it. My mom had been a “city girl” when she first moved to Washington Island. “I didn’t know how water worked,” she said. “I thought it came from a faucet.” She was chronically worried about her well getting contaminated or drying up. “You might want to go in the crawl space and learn how to turn off the water so you don’t have to call a plumber,” she told me. “Even if you can get one to come over, most plumbers are so fat they can’t fit in there.”
I grew up in the country—a place with more churches and bars than people. This phenomenon is true whether you are in the north or south. I was in the north—the cheese belt.
My mom said the reason my parents bought the house when I was five was to get away from my dad’s parents, who lived too close to our regular house in a Milwaukee suburb. So a three-hour drive plus a ferry ride to Washington Island gave my mother geographical peace of mind.
My family used the small cottage on a hill above a deep harbor of Lake Michigan on the weekends and in the summer. Chicago people also went to Washington Island in the summer, and everybody—including islanders—waved at each other as we passed on the roads. It was cool to have an “island” car, usually an old truck. There were three bars, two churches, and one grocery store. Just your name, and then “Washington Island, WI” and zip would get you your mail. A phone number could be dialed using only the last digit of the exchange and the last four digits of the numbers starting with two, so all you had to remember were three digits.
My mom was pretty when she met my dad at a party in Palm Beach right after college. She had long brown hair—almost to her butt—blue eyes, and she knit her own bikinis. She said they’d been in a swimming pool, and water droplets stuck to my dad’s eyelashes. But what she loved about my father is that he made her laugh. My grandmother said my mom was beautiful, but I think she didn’t mind so much when my parents split up.
“Women love your father, but your father never really loved me,” my mother said when they got divorced and she moved us to Washington Island. I was ten.
She had so much art that it obscured the walls, one painting hanging right above the other; she had to see all of it at all times.
After the divorce she was defeated in a way because she wasn’t the kind of person who gave up: my dad divorced her. There’d been a custody battle, and my dad had sole custody of my brother and joint custody of me. I’d fought to live with my mom. Admittedly, I’d been coached. I honestly believed I couldn’t live without her. Her indoctrination: “Action is louder than words, so don’t just tell me you want to live with me. Do it! Go on a hunger strike if you have to.”
Electricity on the island was expensive, so we used oil lamps like Little House on the Prairie, and we turned the hot water heater on and off depending on when we were going to take a bath.
“This is good practice,” she’d say. “City people,” and she’d say it like it was an insult, “can’t see at night.” It was true; cities were never as dark as the country at night. I wasn’t sure if I was a city person, but I got along with the summer people, who were city folks.
In summer I rode in the back of the Rusings’ Volkswagen bug with its top down. We sang all the way back from Scandinavian Dance practice. The Rusing girls were three sisters from Chicago, a year apart, and I got along with each of them better than they got along with each other. They ridiculed islanders, and I looked at the Rusings differently after I lived on the island year-round. The school had a total of eighty-four kids, grades one through twelve. There were three grades in a classroom below seventh grade. Seventh and eighth graders were placed together. My first job was as a dishwasher in a restaurant, but in winter I was a pinsetter in a bowling alley in the basement of a bar. I was twelve.
One day when my mother was replacing the shingles on the roof that leaked, she noticed that the view was even better up high. The house had been one storey, but eventually she constructed a bedroom suite for herself on the second floor with very little help from professionals—well, they framed it in, she said, but they even did a shitty job at that.
“Look how this overhang isn’t where it’s supposed to be,” she said.
Understandably, my mother had a preoccupation with maintenance. She said she didn’t mean to become such a do-it-yourselfer; it was out of necessity. In her forties she had a strong back and muscular arms—she said she did so much manual labor that she didn’t need to work out.
“See, it’s easy,” she said. “The way to paint the house yourself is just buy one can of paint every year and pick up where you left off.” And that’s what she did.
“Next thing you know, the whole house is painted.”
It seemed to me that nothing was ever finished. The porch railings were peeling, and the narrow iron beds she’d restored hung from the beamed ceiling on chains, like swings. They were cool, but the sun shone bright in the afternoon, and the narrow overhang provided no shade.
Most of our conversations took place at the garage. There were all kinds of stuff in there—the old Chris-Craft that my dad’s friend owed her thirty years of storage on, the old doll carriage to use with her grandchildren, the old letters I wrote that once contained extra money out of my petty cash fund from eighth grade boarding school that my dad paid for. It was stack upon stack of stuff so that there was no room for a car, a bike, or the normal things that belong in a garage. An old green Ford truck lived in the driveway. She said it took a quart of oil just to get to the store, and so it was used only on the special occasion of going to get hay or making a dump run.
Before my brother got married, the two of us went to visit our mom on the island. My brother took the time to measure the boards that needed replacing on the stairway to the garage and then took her to the hardware store to get the wood. It was a temporary fix to their relationship.
I didn’t get involved in that project—or any others. I had taken a bike ride instead of moving rocks at the beach to make walkways. When she trimmed the branches to improve the view, I read a book on the hammock. I didn’t mind these things getting done. I wouldn’t even have minded calling someone to do them. I pointed out that I helped hold some siding in place when she was building a shed for the horse.
“Oh, the one time you lifted a finger,” she said. “I’ve got two kids who don’t give a shit about me, a husband who cheated, a father-in-law who sold my Mustang convertible with the wooden steering wheel, and who, by the way, told me to go to Israel with my husband when my own mother was dying. Your place is with your husband, he told me. Do you believe that?”
“I do,” I say.
“You’ve got a real mean streak, you know that.”
Mom heated her home with a wood stove, which she said was a luxury since wood was expensive. She was fond of quoting a kitchen tile that said, “He who chops his own wood is twice warmed,” but when pressed said she didn’t do any of this because she wanted to; she did it because she had to, and everybody—which included herself, her friends Bonnie and Leila, and the rest of the islanders who would back her up on this—knew she would never get any help from me or my brother.
My mother had started carrying her own firewood with one arm because the other one was, for some unknown reason, not working. She was certain doctors would be unable to determine what was wrong with it since they were all incompetent, and besides, all they did was prescribe medication.
She hadn’t had a phone for months, because she got a dog, and to be able to afford to feed him, she quit the phone. I usually initiated the calls, but now I couldn’t. They say no man is an island, but my mother had become one. She had become local to herself.
It was years later that I missed the starry nights on Washington Island, and I wondered if I could still see at night. It had become impossible to get my brother to go up there with me now that he had a family, and I got tired of going by myself. Living in California made the trip even harder.
My mother hadn’t been there either. She had gotten stuck down in Florida, where she had another home in a sad state of disrepair. She had hip surgery for which she was told she wasn’t a good candidate. She found a more “experimental” doctor who was willing to do it, but she had complications and required more surgeries. She later called her doctor a quack.
She never walked again, but she spent two years trying. It was her dream to get back to the island, but she was in a lot of pain from rheumatoid arthritis. None of the medications worked. The arthritis had spread to her neck, and she could no longer swallow. The nurse said it would be a few days, not a few weeks, and I felt urgency to get to the nursing home when the plane landed.
“Mom,” I said, “I love you.” I put my hand on her forehead and my nose close to her ear. “You smell like a baby.” She couldn’t talk, but I knew she could hear me because a tear fell from her eye. I wanted to put her at ease.
“I’ve got all your papers, and I’m going to go up to the island and get a new water pump and furnace. You don’t have to worry about a thing. Every time I ride the ferry over to the island, I’m going to say, ‘Mom was really right about this place.’”
My brother and I took a break from our bedside vigil to visit the house in Palm Beach where my parents had met—it had been owned by a bootlegger in the day, and had had a big advertisement in the paper when it went up for sale.
I looked at the clock at quarter to six. I’d never been around a dying person before, but I could tell she looked different after we got back from having drinks at the Colony Hotel. I was really glad we hadn’t stayed there. When I left Florida, there was permanence to my departure, even though it was my mom who had died.
My brother and I flew to Milwaukee, and I drove up to the island without him. The ferry ride was different because my mom wouldn’t be on the other side of the trip. Crossing Death’s Door—Lake Michigan’s treacherous open waters—took on new meaning after my mom did it for real. The island became a safety net for me. I liked being around the people who knew me when I lived up there with my mom. People understood my mom, and that was of great comfort to me. Somewhere along the line I had become that Tamara, but now I was just her daughter.
The weeds were up so high they filled in the horse corral, and the clash of the aquamarine paint of the house against the high-grown grass gave everything a green tinge like it was underwater. The garage had moss on it like the ocean floor, and there were bulges in all sorts of places where there shouldn’t be. On top, the roof had lifted off the house, like dry rot on a sinking ship—a ship I initially thought I could right.
“If you want to feel close to Mom, go to the island,” I told my brother.
When he got there I said, “All we’ve got left of our mom is this house.”
When he saw the condition of things, I said, “All we’ve got left of our mom is this property.”
Eventually I said, “This was Mom’s dream and it died with her.”
After we agreed to sell the house, I felt all that was left of Mom was her stuff, and she had a lot of it, which I personally sorted and hauled. I think she stopped throwing things away around 1980. Mom’s homemade upstairs quarters were completely disturbing. There was a painting of my mom on her wedding day above her bed, and next to that was a painting of her mother. My mom’s baby pictures lined the wall across from the bed below the window. I cleaned out ancient litter boxes. Mice droppings and cat hair covered everything. I found a drawer full of phones. Some of them I remembered from my youth, but I thought they were broken. Maybe just having something that was broken was better than not having it at all.
About the author
Tamara Adelman is a former massage therapist, ironman triathlete, and now freelance writer living in Santa Monica, California. She has a certificate in Creative Nonfiction from UCLA, and can be found most days looking out at the Santa Monica Bay, writing the next story or train for the next race – in passionate pursuit of perfection: the finish line.
She has been published in numerous literary journals including Forge, North Dakota Quarterly, The Storyteller, and Willow Review. Her essay “Rustic Canyon” made the Notable Essays list on Best American Essays of 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen.