Mama was going for a drive. They found her outside, gripping the wheel of the family Buick with her red gloves. The car mostly sat in the garage these days. Ever since Daddy lost his bookkeeping job in the Great Crash, they didn’t have money for gas. First, they went without eggs or milk or butter. Then, they couldn’t pay the electric bill so the lights were shut off. The car was the least of their troubles, or so they thought until Mama took the keys and ran from the house.
The children watched their mother from the front porch. An autumn chill crept up the bottom of Frances’s dress. Her older brother, Nate, blew on his hands and dug them in his jacket pockets. The little ones, Ruby and Leo, peered between the railings.
Mama rolled down the window of the boxy black sedan.
“Get in, Frances,” she said.
When her mother used that tone, there was no arguing. Frances flew down the steps, crossed the yard. Red and yellow leaves crunched beneath the soles of her Oxfords. She hopped onto the running board and climbed in.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you when we get there.”
Mama let out the clutch and backed out of the driveway. Uncle Ernie said Mama was one of the first people in Detroit to own a car. She drove well before any of the men in the neighborhood. She got herself a Tin Lizzie and Uncle Ernie had to crank the engine to help her get it started. Every Sunday afternoon, she’d take it for a spin. She even made the papers once. The headline in The Free Press read: “Young Milliner Drives Automobile on Belle Isle; Scares Horses.” Grandpa Max called her a nafka, Yiddish for “tramp.” It was bad enough his daughter was a working girl who ran a hat shop.
“Every woman in town had a hat from Celia’s,” Uncle Ernie told Frances. “And every one of her hats was gorgeous. She’s got an eye, my sister!”
Frances loved Uncle Ernie’s stories about Mama’s life before she married Daddy. Still, she had a hard time picturing her mother—the woman she knew her mother to be—flitting around a store with a measuring tape and a spool of ribbon. Mama had put on 20 pounds with each baby and now, she no longer walked. She waddled.
As they headed down Edison Street, Frances thought Mama’s new bob made her face look even rounder. In fact, the way her blouse and skirt fit now, it seemed as if her whole body had gotten rounder.
“What are you looking at?” Mama snapped.
“Nothing, I was just—”
“You were just what?”
Frances fell silent, straightened the floppy white bow in her hair.
“This girl,” Mama went on, shaking her head. “She’s got a brain, but she doesn’t know how to talk. How will she get along in the world if she can’t even answer a simple question?”
Frances couldn’t stand it when her mother spoke about her as if she weren’t there, but she knew it wouldn’t do any good to ask her to stop. She turned and saw the two jump seats folded against the front bench. That was where she sat when the whole family piled into the car. It was her first time riding next to the driver, which was usually Daddy, even though Mama always told him what to do: “OK, Sam, nice and easy” or “Hit the gas, Sam! At this rate, we’ll get there next Tuesday.” Mama taught Daddy to drive when they got engaged, and she was still teaching him 16 years later.
“Mama, is Nate gonna start driving soon?” Frances asked.
Her mother nodded. “Yes and then it’ll be your turn. I want you to learn while you’re young. You can’t depend on your husband to teach you.”
Frances felt her cheeks warming. She was only 11. The word “husband” tasted strange on her tongue. She didn’t like the idea of dressing up in white, when she preferred to be outside playing ball. She had an arm like Hank Greenberg, Nate said. Soon, he promised to teach her how to fight.
Mama steered down 12th Street. Frances knew the shops on these blocks and she craved the treats inside: The chocolate malts at Shatler Drugstore on the corner of Atkinson; the banana bunches next to the register at the Taylor Street Market; the salami hanging from the ceiling of Boesky’s Deli; the fresh challah at the Jewish bakery on Hazelwood. She tried to ignore her empty belly as the sun began to set, and Mama drove on without a word. The streetcar rolled up alongside them, hissing and clanking. Frances waved at the men and women hanging onto the straps.
Her mother made a sharp right onto one of the side streets. Brick flats and two-story homes blurred together. Kids rode their bicycles on the sidewalk, while others played catch in their yards.
When they reached Woodward Avenue, Frances realized Mama was taking her downtown. She sat up straight. “Mama, let’s go see Uncle Ernie. Oh please! We’re right nearby.”
“Are you crazy?” Mama said. “Why would I want to see my no-good brother, especially when I’m in a hurry?”
Frances sank into the cushioned bench. She loved Uncle Ernie, even though he was a “no-good gambler.” He rented a room in the Hotel La Salle and lived off his earnings from Lightning Orphan, his lucky thoroughbred. But he always looked so dapper in his pressed suit and navy fedora. Whenever he came over, he’d sit her on his knee so she could see her reflection in his patent leather shoes.
“Tell me the story about Aunt Ethel!” Frances would say, even though she’d heard it a hundred times.
“Well, you know, our sister Ethel was the prettiest girl in town,” Uncle Ernie always began, pinching the end of his black mustache. “A natural blonde with legs that stretched from here to Grand Boulevard. One spring, a fella she liked asked her to the Moonlight to Boblo dance. So, your mother made her a special hat. Imagine: it was all white with real, live Birds of Paradise flowers. Let me tell you, people still go on about how Ethel looked that night.”
Frances imagined her aunt with a plumage of bright orange and blue feathers like an exotic bird. She missed Uncle Ernie and his stories.
“Don’t pout, Frances,” her mother said. “Besides, your uncle can’t afford the La Salle anymore. Last I heard he was staying at some seedy motel out in Hamtramck.”
Frances craned her neck to see the stately hotel on her right. She still believed Uncle Ernie was smoking a cigarette and sipping his cognac on the 11th or 12th floor. There were other grand hotels, too: the Book-Cadillac, the Statler, and the Tuller. Nate said the Tuller had a ballroom where the big bands played and patrons danced till sunrise. Then there were the department stores. Not like the little “mom and pop” shops in Frances’s neighborhood, but big, elegant establishments with salespeople who wore pearls and white gloves. Frances stared at the signs: Siegel’s, Tuttle and Clark, Kern’s, Crowley’s, and of course, J.L. Hudson’s.
“That’s the center of the world right there,” Mama whispered. “Anything you want, you can get at Hudson’s.”
Frances prayed her mother would keep driving. Every time Daddy scraped together a few dollars, Mama would head to Hudson’s to buy new aprons, a new silk scarf, a new set of dishes—anything but food.
“I needed these things!” she’d say after yet another frivolous purchase, and Daddy would put his head in his hands. Frances knew her mother was hooked on spending, just like Uncle Ernie was hooked on placing bets at the racetracks. She felt the car slowing in front of the majestic store and held her breath.
“No, no, not today,” Mama said, more to herself than to Frances, and put her foot on the gas. They pressed onward, continuing farther and farther from the city center. Frances could still see the streetcar tracks, so she knew they weren’t at the end of the line, but they must have been close to the river. For a moment, she wondered if she was being kidnapped, if it were even possible to be kidnapped by your own mother. Her heart pounded in her chest.
Finally, they came to a row of tall gray buildings. Frances didn’t recognize them. Mama stopped the car and cut the motor. They sat in silence beneath a canopy of orange sky.
“I’ll be back soon,” Mama said. She kept both hands on the wheel. The color had drained from her face.
“You… You don’t want me to come with you?”
“No.” Mama’s voice was softer than Frances had ever heard it. “You stay here. Don’t leave the car and don’t talk to anyone, you hear me?”
Frances nodded, but there was a rumbling inside her. She didn’t want to stay in this empty lot alone. As her mother stepped out of the car and walked away, Frances thought of calling after her. She was no longer a little girl, and she had learned not to depend on anyone when she felt scared. Still, as Mama disappeared into a darkened alleyway, Frances was terrified she’d never see her again.
Darkness fell fast. Frances had no idea whether it had been minutes or hours. She tried to count the trees. She tried to practice the punch Nate had shown her, balling her hands into fists and thrusting them into the air. One, two. One, two. Cold crept through a crack in the window, and she shivered. Would she freeze to death? She wondered if she should run to the road, signal a passing car, scream for help.
At last, Mama appeared in the waning light. Frances had never been so relieved to see her mother waddling toward the car. But then, she saw this wasn’t Mama’s usual waddle. Her mother walked as though she were dragging something heavy. It was more of a hobble, a limp.
When Mama opened the door, she was out of breath. It had grown so cold you could see puffs of air curling out of her mouth like smoke. She reached down the front of her blouse, pulled out a silk handkerchief, dabbed her brow.
“Are you alright?” Frances asked.
“Fine,” she said, still gasping. “I’ll be fine.”
Mama started the engine and they drove off. The car choked, as if it, too, were clinging to life.
It was dark by the time they got home. The house glowed. Frances could see the candles flickering through the window. Mama grabbed Frances’s hand as they made their way up the front steps. It almost made her jump. She couldn’t remember the last time her mother had touched her. The hand was damp. She wanted to pull away, but she felt her mother tottering. They would both topple over if Mama fell.
Leo and Ruby rushed at them, tugged at Mama’s coat.
“Come on, let’s see what you’ve learned on the piano,” Frances said. She picked up Leo and stroked Ruby’s hair. As she led them into the living room, she glanced over her shoulder. Mama was heading upstairs, her wool coat still wrapped around her body. She stopped for a moment at each step, clutching the banister. Her fur collar came up high, covering everything above her shoulders. The headless horseman, Frances thought.
Daddy was sitting in his usual spot on the blue velvet sofa. He smiled a thin smile and went back to his crosswords. Frances drew the silk curtains and sat down at the center of their huge, Oriental rug. Leo climbed on top of the piano bench and began to play “Bye, Baby Bunting.” The Steinway sparkled. It seemed so silly to waste it on a nursery rhyme. Before the Great Crash, Frances believed she lived in the loveliest home in the neighborhood. Now, the piano, the rug, the sofa, the curtains all seemed like extravagances left by fleeing aristocrats—and her family were just the poor squatters who’d moved in.
“Hey, Franny!” It was Nate’s voice now, calling to her from the top of the stairs. “Mama needs you.”
“What is it now?” she called back.
“I dunno. She’s in the bathroom with the door locked.”
She met him in the upstairs hallway, and he made a move like he was about to sock her in the stomach. “Gotcha!” he said. “We need to work on that punch.”
Nate could always make her laugh, but now, she wasn’t in the mood for games. He shrugged, leaving her there alone.
Frances knocked on the bathroom door and whispered, “It’s me.”
When Mama lifted the latch, her face was wet, her short hair matted against her cheeks. She was still in her coat, but her legs were bare. Thick, blue veins crisscrossed her calves. It took a moment before Frances saw it: the dark red pool at Mama’s feet.
“I need you to get me some rags,” she said. “And don’t say—”
But Mama didn’t need to finish. Frances didn’t know what the secret was, but she knew this was a secret and it was theirs. She ran to the chestnut armoire at the end of the hall, and jumped up to reach the bundle on the top shelf.
When she got back to the bathroom, Mama was sitting on the floor, her legs spread.
“Come in and shut the door,” she said. Mama reached up and grabbed the rags, stuffed them up her skirt.
The floor was splattered with blood. There was lots of blood in the toilet, too. Frances realized her mother was dying—and she would have to watch it happen. Mama had called her in so she wouldn’t be alone. Frances’s legs wobbled. She sank to the floor and leaned against the cool porcelain bathtub. Mama was next to her, holding the rags between her legs as if she were trying to keep her insides from spilling out. Frances hugged her knees to her chest and began to cry. She hated her mother, hated her for letting them go hungry, for her put-downs, for leaving her by herself in the car that day. And yet, she didn’t want her to die.
“Nobody likes a crybaby, Frances,” Mama said.
Frances looked up. Her mother’s eyes were a bottomless blue. But now, Frances saw something in those eyes she’d never seen before: Fear.
Mama took a deep breath. “Why don’t you tell me a story?”
“A story? You mean like the ones Uncle Ernie tells?”
“Sure,” Mama said.
Frances thought for a moment. “Once, there was a girl named Celia,” she began, “and she made hats for all the women in the neighborhood: hats with lace for their weddings, hats with satin red ribbons for parties, hats with big, wide brims, and hats with smaller ones. Well, Celia had a sister named Ethel. And Ethel was so pretty, the prettiest girl in the world. Celia made Ethel a special hat for the Moonlight to Boblo dance. It was all white and decorated with real Birds of Paradise flowers. It was so beautiful that to this day, people still talk about it. No one had ever seen a hat like that.”
Mama’s eyes were closed, and Frances thought maybe she was gone. But then she sat up straight, sighed. “Alright, that’s enough. Now, help me get up.”
Frances grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled. Finally, Mama rose and sat on the edge of the bathtub. She swiped her undergarments off the floor—girdle, garters, and stockings—and began putting herself back together.
“I had a procedure,” Mama said without lifting her chin, “so I wouldn’t have another baby. We can’t have another one, Frances. You understand?”
“Oh.” Frances wasn’t sure she understood what Mama meant by “a procedure,” but she knew the baby part was true. They couldn’t have another, not when there were already too many mouths to feed in the house. Not when Daddy looked so old and Mama looked so tired. Was she even the same person who’d made Aunt Ethel’s hat? Maybe Uncle Ernie had made it all up. You couldn’t trust a no-good gambler, after all.
“So what will you do now?” Frances asked.
Mama stood, smoothed her skirt. “I’ll go downstairs and make dinner.”
After cleaning up the mess in the bathroom, Frances returned to the living room. Nate was reading The Boxcar Children to Ruby and Leo. He looked up, grinned. At least she and her siblings had each other, Frances thought, like those orphans in the book.
She heard laughter coming from the kitchen. Mama was standing at the sink, holding up a tomato by the stem. The other day, she’d sent Frances to the Taylor Street Market.
“Just tell Mr. Steinberg to give me a credit,” Mama had said. “I’ll pay him back soon.” Frances didn’t think anybody else in town had a “credit,” but Mr. Steinberg didn’t bat an eye. “Anything for Mrs. Perlman,” he’d said with a wink.
Now, Mama placed the tomato in her palm and squeezed.
“I just don’t understand it, Sam,” she said to Daddy. “This girl—” She gestured toward Frances. “She gets all A’s in school, but she doesn’t even know how to pick out a good tomato!”
Frances stared down at her shoes, pulled up her socks, which had slid down below her knees. She wished she could disappear through a hole in the floor. She felt her cheeks growing red as that tomato, the mark of her failure. Even after today, Mama didn’t think much of her.
She barely made a sound at dinner, except when she sliced through her shriveled hot dog. Sometimes, if she cut it into tiny pieces and ate slow enough, she could trick herself into thinking she was full.
Ruby was too little to know the trick. “I’m still hungry!” she wailed.
Normally, Frances would have soothed her, but instead she threw down her napkin.
“Nobody likes a crybaby, Ruby,” she said in a voice that was not her own.
Later that night, after she’d gotten the little ones to sleep, Frances sat at the kitchen table. She had an essay due at school the next day about a famous person she admired. She had chosen Amelia Earhart. One morning in June, Mama had snatched the newspaper out of Daddy’s hands when she saw the headline: “Earhart Flies Atlantic, First Woman to Do It.” It was the first time in ages Frances had seen her mother smile.
“There was so much fog and rain, she had to fly blind over the sea,” Mama had said after reading the story. “Think of that the next time you’re afraid.”
Now Frances moved the candle closer to her paper, straining to see, straining to stay awake. Her eyelids fluttered. As she dipped her fountain pen in the inkwell, she imagined the aviatrix hovering overhead in her plane.
Suddenly, she heard footsteps on the stairs. Her mother emerged from the shadows in her white nightgown, holding another candle. She set it down on the table.
“It’s not good for your eyes,” she said. “You need more light.”
“Yes, Mama,” Frances said through gritted teeth.
Mama was holding something behind her back. Now, she moved it in front of her belly. It was an old hat, yellow with age, with pink plastic flowers coiled around the crown.
“You got part of the story wrong,” Mama said. “I didn’t use Birds of Paradise. I used hibiscus. And they weren’t real.”
Frances took it, ran her fingers over the straw brim, inhaled the musty smell. She wondered if Mama had kept it in the wooden chest in the attic.
“It’s yours now,” Mama told her. “Something to remember me by.”
And then Frances felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder. This time she didn’t jump. Mama’s fingers were warm, her touch soft. She wished they could stay like that forever, but it only lasted an instant. Mama drew back her hand, tucked a section of hair behind her ear.
“Goodnight, Frances,” she said.
Mama had one foot on the bottom step when she stopped and turned.
They stared at each other in the near dark, her mother’s eyes vast, holding her gaze.
“Don’t forget to blow out the candles when you’re done.”
Frances waited till she heard Mama’s bedroom door squeak shut.
“Yes, Celia,” she whispered into the flames.
She finished her homework with Aunt Ethel’s hat on her head.