The Bucket Did It
I dropped my briefcase inside the front door and kicked off my sneakers, toeing them next to two haphazardly thrown pairs of Velcro-fastened kid shoes. The welcome bite of minced ginger hung in the air. For my school- age sons and me, Mom’s annual visit meant fresh cooked Chinese dinners every night, something I could never manage as a single mom. Tonight’s menu: ho yow beef and broccoli. As the overhead fan labored to keep up with the steam billowing around it, Mom grabbed the Lee Kum Kee premium oyster sauce – the good kind – and poured a generous amount, scraping the wok with a metal spoon to keep the meat from overcooking. The orange-flowered smock she’d given me last Christmas clashed with her turquoise polyester pants, but otherwise, all was calm.
I moved close to kiss her. Still watching the food, she leaned her cheek toward me.
“How was your day?” I asked. “Thanks for picking the guys up from school.” I called out toward the family room where Alex and Bryce sat watching TV. “Hi guys! Homework done?”
“Pretty good,” she said as I registered affirmative grunts from the family room. I started riffling through the mail on the way to my bedroom to change out of my work clothes when I heard her add, “Oh, but there’s something wrong with your garage door.” Mom poured the wok contents into a shallow serving dish and nodded at it. “Put that on the table. And the rice. Dinner’s ready.”
I stopped in the doorway and glanced at the bare dining table. Voice raised, “Can you turn off the TV and set the table please? Chopsticks, not forks and knives.” Toward Mom, “The garage door?” My single-car basement garage with its automatic door opener was one of my home’s best features. No running out in the rain to manually yank the garage door open. This morning I’d rolled my garbage can and recycle bins up the steep driveway to the curb without incident. The garage light, though, was an- other matter. It had the nasty habit of shocking you at random times when you flipped it on. I needed to find an electrician but hadn’t found the time. Guiltily, “Was it the garage light? Did it shock you?”
“No, the door, the door. The door won’t close,” she repeated as if I were deaf. “Sit down and eat first while it’s hot.”
Dinner over, I went downstairs to investigate, wincing as I flipped on the light. My gray Mazda sedan was parked head-in, the garage door still open. I usually backed my car into the garage because the driveway was so steep I wanted to approach the street facing forward. But, I rea- soned, car forward or backward, the garage door opener should still work.
Looking up, I saw that the drive chain to the garage door hung loose over the car trunk. Simple – it must have just slipped off its track. I grabbed a step stool and forced the greasy chain back onto the sprockets, making sure that every link of the chain was engaged. But the fix was tem- porary. When I got down and pressed the garage door button, the chain immediately jumped off the sprockets again. Two more tries – same result.
That’s when I saw the roof of my car. White paint scrapes – the color of the inside of my garage door – trailed a foot-wide dent across the back half of the roof. I swore under my breath. How could she have forgot- ten to mention this to me? Clearly, she’d driven up the steep driveway and pressed the garage door button a little too soon. Why not just admit it?
Because, I reminded myself, this was nothing new. From childhood on, as I’d grown to understand cause and effect, action and reaction, the physics of social relationships, I’d also come to recognize Mom’s capacity for distortion, for deflecting blame, for bending facts to support her case; in essence, for exploiting those loopholes that require courts to demand the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, because that phrase is not at all redundant. “It’s one of my best traits,” Mom claimed without apology. “I can rationalize my way out of anything. I should have been a lawyer.”
A memory: Alex, age two, sits in the bathtub, his plastic bucket and bath toys floating around him. The water’s turning cool. The towel bars are empty, so I run to the linen closet. When I return moments later, a widening pool of water is soaking the carpet outside the tub. “Oh shit!” I cry, tossing down a towel to blot the rug. Alex leaps up, tiny toes gripping the tub’s slick surface. Tears threaten. He points accusingly at the bucket rolling slowly on the carpet. “The bucket did it! The bucket did it!” he shouts.
I quickly snug him up in a clean dry towel so he can’t see me laugh. His trembling surprises me; now I’m ashamed I overreacted. I stroke his hair and draw him into my warmth. When he calms, we replay the bucket scene. Did he fill the bucket and balance it on the edge of the tub? He nods slowly. Did it tip over? He nods, faster this time. “It’s okay,” I say softly, “it was just an accident.” I bend to whisper in his ear. “And I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
He curves into the contour of my arms. He gets it.
As I arrived back up in the kitchen, the Cuisinart was whirring, the makings of siu mai, Chinese cook-and-sell dumplings, just begun. After I dealt with the garage door, Mom expected me to fold the dumplings while she worked the steamer. Before I’d left for work this morning she’d told me, “We’ll make siu mai tonight. For your freezer.”
“All done?” she asked cheerily as she rammed another slab of pork butt into the Cuisinart. Bits of ground pork clung to her fingers, muting the diamonds in her wedding band. Next to her, a large metal mixing bowl held a mound of chopped pork, minced prawns and green scallions, a dash of corn starch. The Cuisinart started with a low growl, then settled into the flop flop flop of a consolidated meat glob hitting the sides. A pile of peeled water chestnuts sat on the chopping board.
Seeing her in the midst of doing something nice stopped me short. I couldn’t blast up the stairs, mouth ablaze, when she was busy doing some- thing special for me. Instead, I purposefully diverted myself to the sink to wash the black grease off my hands, giving me time to toss a barely gra- cious, “Thanks for doing this, Mom, the kids really love your siu mai,” over my shoulder.
“It’s good to stock your freezer. Saves you time.”
As I dried my hands, I turned to face her. Time for the real ques- tion. On my way upstairs I’d debated with myself – Why even bother? – but in some small corner of my heart I wanted Mom to admit what she’d done, to take personal responsibility and say she was sorry. For breaking the garage door opener. For scratching the roof of my car. For handing me two major problems to fix in my busy single-mom life.
But it was delicate. A direct question would inflame her, and all the goodwill we’d brokered over this visit would be for naught. I’d beencareful to graciously accept what she offered and to ask for nothing extra, to accommodate her every whim. You want to pick up my kids today but not tomorrow? Sure, I can cover that. You want to take over my kitchen and then tell me I don’t know how to cook? Sure, I can handle that. You want to tell me to watch Fox News because they’re fair and balanced? Okay, we’ll turn to Channel 13 while you’re here. Never would I be her favorite – my older brother indisputably held that honor. But at least I should be somewhere in her orbit, a daughter who was respectful, who absorbed her lessons of independence and self-reliance, and who parlayed that independence into being a competent adult.
I shifted my face into neutral and channeled the persona of a trou- bleshooting mechanic. “So Mom, what happened with the garage door? Did you hear any funny noises when it stopped working?” My question ended on a scratchy note, the “ing” harsh in my ears.
Mom’s lips pulled into a thin line as she patted the next batch of ground pork into the mixing bowl. She didn’t look up. “No, nothing. Nothing happened!”
“Nothing? You didn’t hear a bump?”
“No!” she scowled. She squeezed the meat through clawed fingers and I imagined her metaphorically wringing my neck. I crossed my arms and leaned against the counter. How could she totally deny this? I could easily mention the scratches on my car – actual proof that she’d driven out of the garage as the door was closing – but somehow that seemed cruel. There’d be no wiggle room, no way to save face. Why that mattered, I didn’t know.
I stood silent, waiting. Was this conversation over? Was I supposed to step beside her and fold siu mai for two hours in total silence? Was she just going to change the subject and move on? After a pause that would have allowed radio waves to bounce to the moon and back, she finally muttered, “But your garage door is bad. It’s a bad door! It’s so heavy, it could hurt someone.”
The garage door? It’s the door’s fault?
Suddenly she looked up, bold certainty in her eyes, a tone to match. She waved her hand dismissively. “That door’s too old! Old kind, too heavy. New kind, comes in panels, they’re so much lighter. With sensors on the bottom so when they come down and are going to hit something, they go right back up. Why don’t you have one of those? You have little kids! Their fingers could get pinched in those heavy springs! They could get crushed under that heavy door.”
My head was spinning. We’d gone from outright denial, to blaming the door, to blaming me for being a bad parent. How fast the tide turns in my house.
Mom walked to the refrigerator and started rifling around for the siu mai skins. She raised her voice above the hum of the dishwasher. “Get one of those garage doors, the safe kind. Do it next week! I’ll pay for it.”