When Mama Was a Moth
We never really lived there. We were just occupants. Not much more than squatters, but I detest that word, as it implies destitution, squalor, and illegality. No, there was nothing sinister or nefarious behind our status. We were in transition; our stay was temporary.
We were struggling through another winter in early 2009, this one particularly cold, even by north-Midwestern standards. Dad was working the oil fields again in Williston, North Dakota, living in a trailer in a Wal-Mart parking lot. He could have lived in the communal housing, the rectangular monoliths hastily constructed of corrugated aluminum for the workers near the fields, but he couldn’t bring himself to live, eat, shower with strangers. He said he valued his independence, but the truth was he enjoyed the solitude. He called each Sunday night, said his “I love yous” and “I miss yous” and asked how mom was doing, trying not to betray the masked concern underneath his questions. He asked about mom casually, the way you might ask someone about the weather or how their day was, but there was a careful deliberation buried behind the premeditated inquiries. We said she was good, holding up alright, better than she was last Christmas. We didn’t want to get into it, to burden his already exhausting life with details that might worry him, keep him up at night. If he didn’t need to know, we didn’t tell him. We’re doing fine, we said. Stay safe, dad, come home soon.
We were staying the winter in my uncle’s vacation home in the Upper Peninsula. Negaunee to be exact, a small town on the shore of a large lake. It wasn’t so much a home as a cabin; a compact and claustrophobic layout. Two bedrooms, a shared bathroom, kitchen and living room. After dad was laid off from the Chrysler plant in Belvidere, Illinois and after mom’s accident, they couldn’t make the mortgage payments on the house. We lived in the house throughout the foreclosure process, which was mercifully yet painfully protracted and took nearly 18 months. My siblings and I didn’t want to leave. We’d lived in that house my entire life, a nondescript suburban split-level, but it was the only home me and my siblings ever knew. I was the oldest, at 13, when we were forced out. My sister Natalie was 9, and Bobby was 6.
We gathered items from the moving truck, a TV, a computer, lamps. We carried boxes with pots and pans, clothing, books and papers, makeup and various other toiletries. The items we carried seemed heavier than they should have been, and perhaps this was because we were weary and exhausted and perhaps they were heavy and leaden with the dead weight of lost hope and discordant, estuarial memories of our old home, of better times, that could no longer be placed properly in the mind’s eye.
There was a settled mustiness to the cabin, a staleness in place of any recognizable scent. The radiator hissed to life, creating a dissonant hum that filled the rooms. The cabin was sparsely decorated; it contained no wall furnishings of any kind, few trinkets or comforts that might make a place seem familiar, seem like a home. It seemed the type of place you might see on a movie set to imply an old-fashioned puritanical streak. The rooms, although small, seemed larger than they should have due to the lack of furniture. The living room held a large moribund couch with faded and frayed olive-green upholstery and metal legs that had left rust stains on the rug beneath it. In one corner was a wooden rocking chair. In the other, a small TV, years past obsolescence, on a severely chipped and scratched dark wood stand. There was a wood burning fireplace full of soot that looked like it had been dormant for years. The beds were springy and hard, more like cots. There were no curtains on the windows. The air was dry, as if the moisture had been intentionally sucked out of house. It was an austere and spartan environment compared to our previous standards, which admittedly were not all that high to begin with. The cabin seemed decades beyond its best years; a tender history in rust and worn fabric.
There was a broken mirror in the living room. I don’t remember it as ever being anything other than broken. Jagged cracks spidering out across the glass, carving odd angles in the images, distorting how we saw ourselves, each other. The mirror hung on the wall farthest from the kitchen, reflecting fragmentary images of mom fluttering around, her cracked face as she washed dishes, fractured limbs as she cooked dinner. I stared into the mirror often, wondering about our future, what might come next for our family, but it was never anything more than a devastating maze of inscrutable future ruins.
At night sometimes there was a moth on the window, clinging to the glass, dead still. I used to stare back it, wondering where it came from. It was almost winter and most other insects had long since died or gone dormant. The cricket chirp and cicada buzz had faded months ago. The plants on which the moth would have fed had wilted and died. But the moth would be there on the window, night after night. I felt as if it were watching me, peering in on me while I read a book or struggled to sleep. One night I tapped on the glass to get a reaction from the moth. It startled and flew away. I waited up for it to return the next night, but it didn’t show up and I fell asleep. When I woke up it was back on the window, watching over me; gray, translucent guardian angel.
Mom and Bobby built a snowman in the backyard during the first snow in December, just a week before Christmas. The snow was heavy and wet and good for compacting, making the construction of the snowman easier. Mom ran inside and grabbed two pieces of charcoal for his eyes, a carrot from the fridge as his nose, a bent twig as his mouth, an asymmetrical grin. His arms were sticks, his hat was missing. The snowman melted partially after a few days and his head shrunk to a narrow misshapen block of snow, the charcoal and carrot still lodged in it, the stick gone. As the sun beat down over the next couple days the head disappeared completely, leaving a collapsed, headless snowman. The charcoal and carrot rested on the ground until some unknown animal ate the carrot. The decomposing snowman stood watch outside the window as the days grew colder and darker. Bobby became scared of it, and we teased him mercilessly about his irrational fear, Natalie and I dragging him by the arms towards the skeletal remains of the snowman. Mom grew tired of our shenanigans and eventually trudged somberly out into the backyard with a shovel, looking sullen and morose, as if she was about to put the family pet out of its misery. She demolished the snowman methodically with the shovel, carefully dismembering it and scattering the hard packed chunks of snow around the backyard as if scattering the ashes of a loved one.
My uncle had a snowblower in the shed, but mom refused to use it, never clearly explaining her reasons. Perhaps some inchoate tendency to work herself to exhaustion, to punish her body, some Calvinistic pedigree. Or perhaps it was to prove to herself that she was still physically capable, even after her accident, of the grueling labor of shoveling a foot of heavy wet snow off a large sloping driveway.
Mom didn’t cook dinner very often anymore. She heated frozen dinners. She muttered about the time; it was always too late, getting dark, almost time for bed. Sometimes, she would boil three pounds of spaghetti noodles in a large pot, so it would feed us for a few days. She didn’t make sauce. She heated Ragu from a jar. It was watery and too sugary but my younger siblings liked it that way. Other nights it was boxed Kraft Mac & Cheese. When she did try to cook, it was haphazard. Her tacos bore only a slight resemblance to the real thing, some crude amalgamation of saucy ground beef and cheese wrapped in a tortilla or pita. The meatloaf was flavorless and dry, so we had to drown it in ketchup to make it edible. Bobby still didn’t like it, and he would try to surreptitiously shovel it into the mouth of his stuffed dog, who he always seated on the empty chair next to him, but the dog just ended up with dried, crusty ketchup on his mouth, while chunks of meatloaf accumulated on the floor. Mom would scoop them up after dinner and Bobby wouldn’t be allowed to eat desert, which was most likely boxed cookies of some sort, possibly Oreos. His loss.
When mom was younger she was beautiful and sprightly. She twirled around the house energetically, bright and enthusiastic and smiling. Her hair was a rich amber and her eyes were deep green. Skin pale like milk, but healthy and smooth as glass. Hair flowing like honey. She wore colorful outfits, elaborate dresses, and even when she was casual she was glowing. She had a restless energy, even despite the exhausting responsibility of looking after three children largely by herself while dad worked. She was a butterfly fluttering about, room to room, child to child, flower to flower, never landing anywhere for very long. Mom as a butterfly. I had these images of her in my mind. A white dress in a yellow room. A yellow dress in a blue room. A blue sun dress in the garden in the afternoon. The memories faded and lost context over time but I still held on to the vague snippets of images – mom’s life in radiant decay.
In mom’s younger days, she was a professional activist, according to dad, perpetually righteous or offended. She was militantly anti-war, even travelling to DC to protest the first Iraq war, Desert Storm. She shouted slogans and insults with genuine passion, fueled by something burning inside her. It showed in her eyes, in the photos from that time period in her life, in old home movies. Before we were born, and when I was very small, she worked for a non-profit organization providing assistance to homeless veterans. But mom had a playful side too. She sang karaoke wonderfully full throated and only slightly off key, the kind of barroom renditions of classic singalongs you might hear from modestly talented amateurs plied by one too many vodka tonics. Mom danced spontaneously, with abandon, a butterfly fluttering through the air changing direction midflight without warning.
There was a metamorphosis. She wasn’t yet old, but was aged tremendously. Her body was skinnier than it had ever been. Mom had always been thin, but now she was dangerously so, her skin stretched taut like plastic cling wrap over her bones. Her body looked frail, as if she could crack in half at any moment. She was a fragile, shrinking thing. She shuffled through the rooms in rheumatoid movement. Skin jaundiced yellow, fingernails uneven and broken.
Her dull grey eyes appeared to lack almost any tint whatsoever, as if someone had washed and scrubbed the color out of them, or perhaps a lifetime of intense stress had caused the color to bleed out. Her honeyed hair was, like her eyes, quite faded, and pulled up in a tight and seemingly impenetrable bun on top of her head. She dressed in nondescript, grayscale clothing, like someone going out of their way to blend into a crowd, to go unnoticed, to be left alone.
It seemed to us that she barely ate anymore. Yogurt and water for lunch, salad and water for dinner. Breakfast was burnt toast and Nescafe. An occasional apple. Food was an afterthought for her. I think she could have gone days without eating.
Mom had been in a car accident. She was driving the wrong way onto an interstate off ramp at a high rate of speed. Dad never gave us many details, just fragments that made the whole situation even more disturbing because it left things to imagination. We had to fill the voids with whatever worst case scenarios we could conjure. I heard rumors from classmates at school that she was drunk, that she did it on purpose, that it was a suicide attempt, but I dismissed this notion quickly, both because I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, believe that mom would do such a thing. Dad woke us up when he got the phone call, dropping us off at a neighbor’s house while he left for the hospital. He came back the next day, looking shaken and sleep-deprived. He either couldn’t or wouldn’t explain how the accident happened, what caused it. “The important thing is, your mom’s gonna be alright,” he would say at even the slightest hint of questioning. “You need to be there for her, she’s gonna need you. She needs your support and help, not your questions and doubt.” She was in the hospital for a couple weeks, but dad wouldn’t allow us to see her. We were able to talk with her on the phone each night, and she sounded fine, loving and gentle, but something was off. She came home in a wheelchair, both legs broken. Her neck was in a brace, she had a broken collarbone, cracked ribs, missing teeth, and a black eye. Her face was bruised and pockmarked with small puncture wounds from shattered glass. When she saw us, she waved and smiled wanly, a ghost of a smile really, distant and haunted. The accident occurred about six months before the move.
By the time we were exiled to Negaunee, mom was physically healed, walking again, albeit stiffly, no traces of the accident aside from a couple missing teeth and a few small scars. She had a scar on the back of her neck, an angry bright red SCAR, wrinkled and dry. It looked almost deliberately “S” shaped, as if someone carved it in with a knife. A serpentine scarlet letter on her neck. The scar pulsated and turned bright red when she became angry or stressed. I ignored it as best I could, in a superficial and futile attempt to be polite and unassuming, but I still fingered it furtively when we hugged. The scar intrigued me and it bothered me. She didn’t speak of the scar and we were too timid to question its origins. It was stretched taut over her spine, as if it could break open at any moment. What if it broke open? What then?
I opened the closet one morning to look for my favorite Bucky Badger hoodie. The cabin had only one closet, a large coat and storage closet near the front door. All of the family’s clothes were stuffed in there in varying states of disarray. As I cleared aside some coats, I saw mom’s brightly colored dresses, hanging in the back corner of the dark closet. They looked just as I had remembered. I hadn’t seen her wear anything like them for years and had even begun to wonder if my recollection of these dresses were simply fantasy – perhaps I had juxtaposed mom with some Disney princess from my youth. But they were real and reaffirmed my disappearing memories. As I reached out and touched them, a moth suddenly sprang forth from the clothes, fluttering past me erratically and brushing against my face. It startled me and I jumped backwards. I peered back into the closet and pulled on the dresses. The fabric was full of holes, presumably eaten by the moths. The dresses were ruined; displaced and decomposing like the images in my mind. Before I closed the closet door, the moth returned, flying back into the fabric, nesting in the dresses.
We talked with dad on the phone late at night. We spoke in hushed voices, that strange night language we engage in after we’ve been up too long without sleep; that time of night when the words begin to slip. We provided dad with scant details, answering his questions truthfully and directly, but never elaborating, never volunteering more information than was absolutely necessary. Yes, mom was smoking again. No mention that she was doing it inside the house, in our presence. Yes, she’s feeding us well and cooking occasionally. No details on the quality of the food. Yes, she’s driving carefully, both hands on the wheel. Was she happy, enjoying the fresh air, laid back UP life? Sure dad. No comment, no elaboration. We spoke in loud whispers so mom wouldn’t hear, stealthy and subversive.
Mom seemed to withdraw from the world around her more each day, communicating less and focusing on an increasingly narrow set of chores: cooking, cleaning, doing laundry. She seemed to find solace in rote repetition, limiting her actions to the same monotonous everyday minutiae. She spoke in veiled whispers, coded and opaque. But most of the time she didn’t talk at all; she communicated through furtive glances, subtle gestures. She created pure silence; stillness distilled. She moved in circular patterns; cryptic and elliptical. Mom made pie in the oven and the house smelled like burning things. There was often wine on her breath, though we seldom saw her drink anything other than water and coffee. I could hear her humming wordless, melancholy songs in the shower through the bathroom door. The songs were unrecognizable, but the plangent, plaintive melodies were obvious to me even at my young age. There was an elegiac quality to the singing that was unsettling; a sound of resignation and retreat.
Mom occasionally thumbed through photo albums from happier times. One time, we sat on the couch leafing through a photo album of family pictures. She was holding a photo from a couple years ago, all of us standing on the driveway together in front of our house on a summer evening, mom and dad’s hands on my and Natalie’s shoulders, Bobby not standing with us but depicted as a blur zooming by on his tricycle because he refused to stand still to pose for pictures. As she held the photo in her hand, blood suddenly started dripping from her nose onto a photograph. She tried to wipe away the blood but it smeared across the photo, obscuring our faces. She couldn’t stop laughing. She hadn’t laughed for weeks.
Light bulbs went out at an alarming rate that winter. I would flip on the light switch and the light bulb would flash and go out. Light bulbs burning out all around me. Dirty dishes were in the sink all the time, even dishes I didn’t remember anyone using. The light bulb above the kitchen sink went out on a Saturday night. A light bulb went out in the closet and I had to search for my clothes in darkness for two days because I was too lazy to change it. A power surge caused a light bulb above my bed to actually explode, sending tiny shards of glass to the floor. Pieces of glass were strewn about the floor like some nightmarish scene from a movie; like broken teeth in a bad dream.
It was the winter of dead light bulbs. We all sat in the living room watching TV at night when the light bulb in the light fixture above us went out. We were sitting on the couch and suddenly an angry hiss and the brilliant flash of dying filaments filled the room. The sharp sparkle, incandescent and furious, like a millisecond magnesium-fire glow. The ceiling fan continued to spin, causing the light fixture with the dead light bulb to sway back and forth like some timid, fragile wrecking ball. We were sitting in the dark in the soft glow of the TV, mute and dumb, unsure of what could happen next, feeling anxious.
A forgotten pot of boiling water on the stove. Neighborhood dogs barking impotently into the chilled morning air. Boxes of bottled water in the kitchen, canned goods stacked in the pantry. The stack of magazines next to the couch that went unread. We didn’t have subscriptions to them, they just showed up. The yard outside was flooding as rain poured down, melting the snow. Another light bulb burned out. The power flickered on and off. We pretended it was normal, it was ok. Mom still insisted that Natalie and Bobby read Bible passages each night. Once Natalie asked, “Do you believe in reincarnation, mom?”
“I believe in metamorphosis,” mom replied.
Mom always slept with the light on. Candles were lit in every room those days, burning endlessly into the late night. Mom always had a burning candle within 10 feet of her. When the light bulbs burned out in the light fixtures around the cabin, mom replaced the bulbs with higher wattage bulbs, 60W replaced with 120W, 40W with 75W. Every room was blindingly bright and washed out with the harsh incandescent light. The house seemed homogenized and bleached. But mom would not allow even the faintest hint of darkness to encroach upon the house. Shafts of light graced every corner of every room until not even a shadow remained. Mom was drawn to the light, one room to the next, frantically flipping light switches and lighting candles, some atavistic fear of darkness. Mom was no longer a butterfly. She more closely resembled a moth. Circling around the flickering, lambent candlelight as night choked the day. The glow of the embers of a lit cigarette in her mouth as she inhaled the tar and nicotene. Cigarette butts accumulated on the newspaper on the coffee table because there was no ash tray in the house; ash obscuring the faces of dead soldiers that mom used to so passionately advocate for in her protesting days.
The image of mom that still sticks in my mind was when I saw her late one night in the front yard. It was well past midnight, I had gotten out of bed to get a drink of water. I walked past mom’s room. The light was on, as usual, but it was empty. As I walked through the living room into the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of mom standing in the snow in the front yard, coat and boots on. I watched through the window as she laid down in the snow and began waving her arms, making a snow angel. When she finished, she laid there laughing, the impressions in the snow from her arms looked like pale white moths’ wings around mom. She laid there for a couple minutes, laughing hysterically. Her tiny, emaciated body surrounded by the large set of wings she had carved in the snow, she didn’t so much look like a snow angel as she did angel larva; not yet fully developed, not grown into her wings, not ready to leave this world. She came back inside and went back to bed without a word.
By March, the two feet of snow that had accumulated on the ground began to retreat, leaving bare patches of dry brownish green grass. Dad had come to visit the first weekend of March during a rare few days off. We hadn’t seen him since Christmas, when he came bearing North Dakota State University hockey jerseys for each of us, which he must have purchased used or discounted because he couldn’t have paid for them otherwise. In March, he didn’t bring anything, but was lively and energetic and genuinely happy to see everyone. This was enough for us at that point. He didn’t come just to see us though. He had gone to a job interview at an auto parts manufacturer in Wausau, Wisconsin, which was just a few hours’ drive away. He was cautiously optimistic that he might get the job, that we might finally be reunited in some new location, start over again. His vitality even seemed to rub off on mom. She had some color in her cheeks again and her eyes seemed brighter. When Natalie showed dad her rudimentary ballet skills, dad tried to imitate her twirls, only to lose his balance and stumble through an exaggerated pratfall into the broken mirror, which further cracked it and knocked some fragments of glass loose. Mom jumped from her seat with her hand over mouth, but upon realizing that dad was unharmed, she laughed in a manner that she hadn’t in months, jovial and red-faced, until there were tears in her eyes. That may have been the first time I thought that everything might be alright after all. Mom emerging from her cocoon again, just in time for the spring thaw. Mom and dad even went on a “date” that Saturday night, really just to a small coffeeshop downtown for a couple hours, just to get out of the house and have some time to themselves. This seemed significant to us, this meant something. When they came home later that night, dad even turned the light off before they went to bed and mom slept in darkness for the first time in months.
We found out a week later that dad got the job in Wausau. We were relieved that we would no longer be relegated to the isolation of the UP. Not that Wausau was a major improvement; located in the north woods of Wisconsin, we’d still be far from any major metropolitan area, but at least Wausau was a large enough city to feel like a real community. Dad was spending a couple days there trudging through the snow looking at modestly priced rental houses and apartments. The oil drilling business in North Dakota paid quite well, and dad had managed to save up a decent amount of money in a few months’ time, but the work was exhausting. Plenty of time and a half, but no time for leisure or sleep, and no family.
The last morning at the cabin, before dad came back for good to start his new job, I walked by mom’s bedroom and heard her singing from inside. It was around 6am, still dark outside, but candles were burning everywhere inside. Everyone else was still asleep, but I had to get ready for school. The house was freezing but I could feel the warmth radiating out of her room. The singing was sweet and confident. I didn’t recognize the song. It was a wordless, lighthearted melody, optimistic and hopeful. I liked it and wasn’t looking forward to the idea of walking out the door into the freezing cold morning to go to school.
“That song is lovely, what are you singing?” I called into the bedroom through the door.
The singing stopped. No response from mom. I cracked the door open. To my surprise the room was relatively dark, with a lone candle burning on the nightstand near the window, which was open a crack. I opened the door a bit further and noticed the room was empty; no sign of mom anywhere. A large white moth circled the candle, fluttering closer to the flame. It circumnavigated the flame as if being pulled downward and inward by some invisible force, like water circling a drain. It moved with an elliptical, inevitable sameness, spiraling around closer and closer to the flickering flame until it suddenly caught fire. The moth began flapping wildly, zig-zagging around in short, sharp bursts, lighting up the room. The moth was now alive and agitated, flying violently with force I’d never seen before. It shot toward the window, slipping through the small opening, and disappeared into the dark sky.
I paused for a moment trying to register what I just saw, and after a couple seconds realized I was staring dumbly into an empty room. I closed the door gently and pulled at my scarf again, tightening it around my neck. I couldn’t shake the image, now moving in repeat in slow-motion in my mind, of the moth flying wildly, completely engulfed in flames. As I walked away from the bedroom door, the singing began again, louder than before, still full of promise, still full of hope.
Nick Caccamo is a lifelong resident of Illinois who lives in the Chicago area. He has a degree in Rhetoric/Creative Writing from University of Illinois. In his spare time Nick enjoys watching (bad) movies, drinking (good) beer, taking (long) road trips, listening to (loud, ear-bleeding) music, and writing (hopefully interesting and engaging) short stories. Nick is not particularly talented at writing short biographical statements about himself in the third person. His fiction has previously appeared in Midwestern Gothic and Random Sample.