by Paula Gail Benson
Throughout this week leading up to Mother’s Day we have been publishing several mother related mystery short stories and here we have our one Mother’s Day short story that is not a mystery. The Mama Factor has never before been published. Be sure to check out the rest of the stories that went up this week! You can also find all of them after they are posted, and many others, in our Terrific Tales section!
For four months, in February of my sophomore year in high school– now almost thirteen years ago– I decided that for all practical purposes my life had ended at age fifteen. I wasn’t being overly dramatic, just realistic. What hurt the most was the fact that the end was my own fault.
On that Saturday morning, Mom and Nonie, my grandmother, dropped me off early at the school’s tennis court. They didn’t want to leave me alone and offered to stay until my friend Ashley arrived, but I didn’t want anyone watching while I warmed up for our match. I was anxious to show Ashley how much I had improved and needed a little privacy to prepare mentally.
Last year, Ashley had been the senior star of the school tennis team while I, Marian Cate Farlow, “misguidedly misnamed” as my grandmother Ethel Cates Durning often told my mother Leslie, to which my Mom always replied “offered her own independent identity while recognizing her roots.”
I was a lowly freshman starter, but Ashley chose me as her practice partner, and suddenly I became an important member of the team too. Now Ashley was living out my dream of attending college on a tennis scholarship, and on this trip back home to visit her parents, she had asked me to spend some court time with her.
I wanted to prove I was worthy of her attention and find out how I could follow in her path. It didn’t occur to me to mop up the little rain puddle at the net before I began hitting the ball against the backboard, because I never expected to be close enough to the puddle to be in any danger. I was too busy imagining mopping up the court with Ashley. Then, the ball hit a crack in the backboard and returned at an odd angle. I dove to reach it and slipped at the puddle’s edge.
I hit the court’s surface hard and it took me a minute to take stock of what had happened. I noticed that my right ankle seemed to look weirdly out of line with the rest of my leg, but it wasn’t until I tried to stand that I realized the pain made it impossible.
There was nothing I could do but sit helplessly beside that damned puddle until Ashley glided effortlessly into the parking lot in her spiffy white Honda Accord. She wore a classy white shorts outfit which made my navy blue shorts and navy and white stripped pullover look like a kindergarten gym uniform. My one consolation was they had to cut it off me when we got to the hospital.
I tried not to whine as Ashley pulled me to my feet and almost dragged me to her car. Not until she went to contact Mom and Nonie, leaving me alone with the attendants in the emergency room, did I let out a massive sob for the life I was certain I had lost.
Everyone tried to be encouraging. Ashley and my tennis coach found a good sports doctor and briefed him about my potential as a player. Mom and Nonie took me to all the appointments and scrupulously helped me to follow the medical advice, but I could tell I had been bumped off the chosen road and left lying in a gutter–probably a damp ditch where garbage flowed down to a putrid sewer.
The doctor prescribed complete rest for four months. Keep the leg elevated and place no weight on the ankle. After that time, I would return for his evaluation and we would see. In other words, the doctor figured in four months I could reconcile myself to a sedentary lifestyle. I wondered how he would have felt if someone had given him four months to prepare himself to no longer be a doctor?
All my friends were either delighted or envious. My teammates were glad to have me out of the competition; my classmates considered I had been handed the perfect excuse for getting out of homework. Everyone discounted the limitation on my movement. After all, if someone brings you your food and the remote control operates the TV and sound system, why would you need to rise? I don’t watch a lot of TV. My idea of a series is the playoffs for Wimbledon or the US Open. I was too embarrassed to mention the bathroom. Besides, nobody really wanted to hear that detail.
The wheelchair gave me some ability to maneuver and build strength in my upper arms, but I hated navigating in our small home with my right leg stretched out like a useless cannon poised to shoot blanks. My worthless feelings accelerated when Nonie brought home a Jimmy Stewart video to cheer me up. You can’t truly appreciate how frightening Rear Window is until you’ve watched it immobilized in a wheelchair. Nonie called me a wimp and told me to “buck up.”
“The challenges we face only make us stronger,” she told me, unconsciously stating the premise of almost any other Jimmy Stewart movie she might have chosen.
I told her real life didn’t imitate art. My limitations imposed by a broken leg did not match Jimmy Stewart’s.
She gave me a scrutinizing look. “It’s a matter of confidence, I see. We’ll have to turn to the soaps.”
Nonie was an acknowledged expert on the daytime soap operas. She could give you entire histories of innumerable characters peopling diverse cities with names like Salem, Harmony and Port Charles.
She tried to get me interested in Passions by telling me about a character who was a tennis player prodigy. But, once the prodigy got a boy friend and started having steamy love scenes, Nonie decided I was better off not getting hooked on the storyline. But, now with Jimmy Stewart’s failure to inspire me, she was forced to rely on soap role models. “Those characters deal with real life,” she informed me.
“You call soap operas examples of real life?” I asked.
“Of course! In a movie, you face a single time of crisis and challenge. In the soaps, you confront life multiple life crises, day-by-day, moment-by-moment.”
She decided that I needed to make a shift in attitude and to realize that strategy wasn’t just what you used to win a game, but what helped you devise the means by which you won at life. She had the perfect example for me to study: Marissa Bain, who had grown from scrapping young misfit to heiress of a thriving thoroughbred horse farm near a major Southern city in a suburb known as Rhine Alley on a soap called Call Us Heartless. This was based upon the soap’s original premise of whether or not an injured racehorse should be put down.
As played by a plucky middle aged actress, Laura Sturgis, a girl who actually grew up in our town. She interned for our PBS affiliate before heading to New York where she’d played Marissa Bain since the soap’s inception. She reigned as diva supreme, running rough-shod over her fellow more conservative characters and collecting more former husbands and lovers than several Liz Taylor clones combined. When Marissa made an entrance, Scarlet O’Hara’s image paled in comparison. If Marissa understood anything, it was how to give and receive a truly nasty comeuppance.
Nonie thought that type of skill should not be dismissed, but I couldn’t see it. To me, Marissa was a narcissistic moron totally immersed in her own tiny self-reflective world.
One evening, when Nonie insisted I watch a tape of a particularly poignant past episode –“a storyline for which Laura Sturgis should have won a Daytime Emmy,” Nonie told me–I found my mind wandering and realized that Nonie and Mom were having a quiet conversation at the dining room table. I decided to eavesdrop.
Mom worked as the executive director’s administrative assistant at the PBS affiliate and I knew she had been involved in planning a special thirtieth anniversary program for over a year. She had been contacting celebrities, including Laura Sturgis, from New York and California, who had started with the station or spent some of their career there. Mom had convinced many of them to return and participate in the celebration. After the taping the event, the station was throwing a huge party for its staff and the visiting celebs. Nonie had been after Mom for weeks to find a really stunning outfit to wear to the party.
“I don’t see how I can with all the medical expenses we’ve had lately,” Mom was telling Nonie. “Besides, my basic black and pearls are always reliable.”
“The operative word being ‘always,’” Nonie pointed out. “What person at the party won’t recognize that dress?”
“Maybe some of the out-of-town guests.”
“And, none of them will take a second look at you in that tired outfit. How will you ever get ahead if you won’t draw some attention to yourself?”
Mom sighed. “It’s the best I can do for now. There will be other chances.”
“Are you sure of that, Leslie? Are you certain you can let this one pass you by?” Nonie asked.
“There isn’t a choice to make,” Mom answered firmly, signaling the end of the conversation.
Now, my feelings of worthlessness were compounded by guilt. Not only had I ruined my own hopes for a future, but also I had jeopardized my mother’s chances for happiness. She worked hard without expecting rewards, and she and Nonie had given up a lot to see that I had opportunities. Any self-respecting soap opera diva would have dismissed the dilemma with a wave of her hand, as she turned to new and more disruptive pursuits. I completely flunked the soap diva test because I was miserable for myself and everyone around me.
Then, just when I thought we’d reached the depths of bad, things got worse. My homebound teacher got mononucleosis, and Nonie took over the complete supervision of my studies.
“I’ve been previously employed by the district as a substitute teacher,” I heard her arguing over the phone to someone at the school district office. “Why can’t you pay me the salary you would have paid the homebound teacher?” she demanded of the unseen district official.
Actually, the district decided she had a good enough argument to direct my studies, but not to be paid. I had to admire her initiative. It had diva-like qualities. I was disappointed when she turned the same type of analysis to my course work. “What do you mean they don’t teach home economics anymore? That is a perfectly acceptable and practical course for men and women,” she insisted.
“I think they tore down the building that had the classroom with the stoves and sewing machines,” Mom suggested.
“Well, that’s absurd. Don’t tell me they no longer offer auto repair?”
I didn’t speak. Mom was braver. “People take that at the Tech schools now.”
Nonie was astonished. “Education has gone to hell in a hand basket. Marian, be glad you have come under my influence. You’re about to take an independent study.”
“Isn’t one enough?” I asked, wondering how I could master “soapdom” with another subject added to the mix.
Nonie smirked at me. “You can consider it like one of those ‘athon’ combination sports you’re so fond of.”
So, now, not only did I have to watch the soaps for plot, but also for set and costume design.
“What do you think about that arrangement on the mantelpiece?” Nonie would ask. Or, “Look at how they’ve grouped that series of pictures on the wall.” Or, “Draw a floor plan of that kitchen organization.”
Most of Nonie’s assignments were mildly diverting or easily shrugged off. But, my detailed observations began to linger over the outfits, particularly as time neared for the annual horsemen’s ball on Call Us Heartless.
Each day offered a glimpse of the gowns to be revealed, as characters made their choices in the local boutique while gossiping about the activities of their neighbors or nemeses. Of course, Marissa Bain’s dress was the most stunning. It featured an off-the-shoulder neckline in a Jane Austen style bodice, with a slit up to the mid-left thigh. All in Marissa’s signature color: “Ice-in-the-veins” blue.
“That dress would look great on Mom,” I said, sighing.
“Did you know she and Laura Sturgis are the same exact size and height?” Nonie asked.
“How do you know that?”
Nonie shrugged. “How do you know personal information about the sports figures you follow?”
“That information is important in sports for analyzing a player’s style or technique. With actors, it’s like voyeurism.”
Nonie got up in a huff. “You use the information you acquire in your way and I’ll use what I acquire in mine.”
She tossed down a magazine she had been holding before stomping off into the kitchen. I noticed it was one of those fan magazines giving previews of the soap plots and featuring interviews with the actors. Nonie had been reading an article about Laura Sturgis with an address for fan mail listed at the end.
I wish I could say I immediately got the idea that I ultimately crafted into a fan letter. The thought didn’t arrive at that moment in a flash, but after a few days of germination and maybe spurred by Nonie’s comments about checking out library books with sewing patterns so I could write book reports, the stubborn, ridiculous notion tumbled into my brain and refused to leave. While watching Marissa’s latest activities, I began to doodle on a note pad, making up a story I would tell her, or write to the actress who played her, Laura Sturgis.
The gown she wore to the horsemen’s ball was obviously her signature color, but its distinctive design precluded her from wearing it again–no self-respecting diva would be caught dead in the same outfit twice! However, thanks to an independent study course I was taking, I might be able to help her out and fulfill one of my assignments. I had been asked to redesign an existing gown for maximum utility. Since her dress had fascinated me, I began sketching it with possible variations. (Please see enclosed drawings. Rudimentary stick figures, but I was certain with her eye for style she would get the ideas.) If she would be so kind as to get the studio to lend me the outfit when she came for the celebration, I could baste–a sewing word I had read somewhere–together something for her consideration. My Mom could even model it at the station party. I promised to be extremely respectful and return the dress in the same condition it had been received.
Reviewing what I had written made me shake my head in disbelief. “This is ridiculous,” I said aloud to myself.
“You’ve got to add some pathos to it if you want to get the dress.” Nonie’s voice came from behind my shoulder where she had been reading my doodling. “Use your injury,” she suggested.
“I don’t want to use my injury. I don’t even want to be writing this letter.”
“Then, why are you doing it?”
Why? Because I was overwhelmed by feeling useless and had no physical outlet to work out my frustration; I was overcome by remorse and futility and wished I could somehow redeem myself from the sewer ditch. “What else am I supposed to do?” I asked.
“If you’re going to do it, you might as well do it right. Tell her about your injury and your mother’s situation. You can do so simply, with dignity. It makes your plight more compelling.”
“A diva wouldn’t use her injury or respond to someone who did,” I objected.
Nonie snorted. “I never saw a diva ignore a natural asset, even if it was a communicable disease and particularly not then. You can never underestimate a properly portrayed sympathy factor. And, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being both utterly realistic and devious at the same time in life.”
So I followed Nonie’s advice. I stated my problem briefly and succinctly. I told Ms. Sturgis that my family had watched her career with interest for some time, from the days when she worked as an intern for the local PBS to her current role on Call Us Heartless. In particular, how my grandmother and I had admired her gown for this year’s horsemen’s ball, which we had watched together since I was homebound from a sports injury. I added that my accident had cost the family additional expenses, so my mother couldn’t afford a new dress to wear to the station’s thirtieth anniversary celebration she had so meticulously planned. That, if indeed, Laura Sturgis, like her character, wished to be called heartless, she would ignore the plight of our little family and not bring the ball gown with her for my mother to wear to the station’s party. But, if she was truly the generous actress the fan magazines had led us to believe, she would get her studio to lend my mother the gown for a Cinderella evening. “With sincere respect, diva-in-training, Marian Cate Farlow.”
Nonie thought it was a decent letter. After we sent it, we told Mom who was appalled. “What kind of reputation are you two trying to create for me in this business?”
Mom struggled for two days to write an apology for her daughter’s deplorable social lapse. When Nonie suggested she let me write the letter for her, she gave up the effort.
Of course, Laura Sturgis came to town for the anniversary program and was inundated by interviews and other requests, but she took time to visit our house, arriving with her pudgy, middle-school-aged daughter in tow instead of the ice blue dress.
“The studio never lends out its costumes,” she explained in the clear, distinctive voice that had told so many fellow characters on the television screen where they could go. “But, I really liked your letter and wanted my daughter to meet a real, down-to-earth, natural young woman and her scheming grandmother.”
“It’s a pleasure,” I responded bleakly, realizing the wrist corsage of ice blue flowers Nonie and I had ordered for Mom would stand out all the more starkly against a basic black background.
“Also, I was wondering if you could help me out with something, Leslie?” Her tone had taken on that coquettish quiver it had when she was about to spring an unpleasant surprise upon an adversary.
Mom responded hesitantly, “Of course.”
“You know my husband’s a jeweler?” Laura asked. “He made me the most charming blue topaz necklace that I wore to the first Daytime Emmy awards when I was nominated for best actress.”
Nonie remembered. “You lost the award.”
“True,” Laura Sturgis admitted. “But, that piece has always been something of a good luck charm for me. The first night I wore it, a producer asked me to audition for a TV movie and I got the part. It was my first role outside the soaps. I thought it might bring you some luck, too, tonight, Leslie. Would you wear it for me?”
Mom smiled. “I’d be honored.”
They left together to go to the taping and party, but Mom came home early to spend some of the night with Nonie and me in front of the TV so we could appropriately admire her finery before it had to be returned.
When Nonie went to the kitchen to get us drinks, Mom whispered that Laura told her Nonie had written a fan letter, too. “Laura agrees with Nonie you can never be too realistically devious and that most people are suckers for a properly voiced sympathy ploy, but you know what Laura says the clincher is?”
“What?” I asked.
“Appealing to the mama factor.”
“It goes like this,” Mom explained. “I’m a mama and I would do anything to help my child. I know you understand since you’re a mama, too.’ Laura says Nonie can lay the best “mama factor” on a person that she’s ever seen.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
Mom looked at me for a moment before asking, “Tomorrow we go back to see the doctor. Are you worried?”
I was surprised by my own answer. “I haven’t thought about it for a week.”
“That’s good. We’ll think about it tomorrow. Besides, I bet the doctor had a mama we can shame him with if he tries to give us bad news.”
I smiled. Maybe I hadn’t fallen into a damp drainage ditch after all. Being foreclosed from one game didn’t mean you couldn’t play in another. That’s something every good diva knows. That and proper use of the mama factor.