The Way it Is

January 6, 2008
Sylvia scowls at the inside cover of the book she has just picked up. A single mother struggling to raise two boys… God, why are single mothers always described as “struggling?” Sylvia is not struggling. At least, that is what she thinks.

Bob Dylan music blares from speakers. The bookstore is a little too hippie for her taste, but it is open on a Sunday, which she likes. It is called “Mozambique”, which is one of her daughter’s favorite songs. It occurs to Sylvia that it is she who ought to be a Bob Dylan fan, not Anna.

Sylvia moves on to the Classics section of the store. She really needs a new book. She has always been the type to reread books over and over again, but if she reads Gone With The Wind one more time, she will scream. She first read it when she was thirteen, and has read it at least once a year ever since. She used to like to think she was a little like Scarlett O’Hara. She had the hair, and the skin, from her Finnish grandmother. Her eyes are hazel and not green, though, and she doesn’t have Scarlett’s famous waist. She has the accent, at least a bit of it, though she is from Virginia and not Georgia. Both she and Scarlett have the same horrific love lives, but besides that and their complexions, Sylvia knows they are not really that alike. She thinks that she is probably much more like Emma Bovary.

Well, not exactly. Sylvia is not really depressed. She has friends, she has her dog, Millie, and she has a job she likes, and she has Anna. Occasionally Sylvia’s mother calls to ask how she is and remind her she is going nowhere in the world, but Sylvia’s mother is a neurotic housewife, so she doesn’t get to talk. Sylvia is happy that she is not a housewife, neurotic or otherwise. To be honest, she plans a lot of parties, but they are other people’s parties, and she gets paid to do it. It is one of the great ironies in her life that Sylvia, who hates parties, has made a living off of throwing them.

She looks at her watch. She has never been good at reading analog clocks, but the digital watch a friend bought her last Christmas is too ugly. It is quarter to five, and Anna will be home at six. For the past few months, Sylvia has been thinking abut today, the day when Anna comes home from college for a while. Her life has, to a point, revolved around it.
Somewhat sheepishly, Sylvia chooses Catcher in the Rye. She hasn’t read it since she was fifteen. It wasn’t her favorite book, but she remembers being comforted by Holden Caulfield being a complete screw-up. She feels like reading it today, of all days, when Sylvia feels like such a screw-up herself.

“You’re reading Catcher in the Rye?” Anna gives a short giggle. It sounds somewhat forced.

“Oh, right. I was in a Salinger mood.”
“I loved that book. I read it in, like, eighth grade.”
Sylvia has ordered dinner and is now sitting on her couch, calmly waiting for her daughter to arrive. The calmness is pretend, but Sylvia is a good actress. She wants to impress Anna, she always had, though she doesn’t know exactly why she is so worried about what her eighteen year old daughter thinks of her. “Anna is a such a sweetheart,” Sylvia’s friends are always telling her. “She’s going places.” So far the places have been the local high school and Georgetown. To Sylvia all colleges are basically the same, but Anna has wanted to go there since she was eleven. Anna’s grandfather went there, too, and he is paying her tuition. This bothers Sylvia a bit, but it is better than Anna not going to college at all.

“How’s college?” Sylvia gives Anna a hug. Her daughter is much taller than she is.

“Excellent! My roommate is really sweet. She’s from England. ”

“You’ve lost your accent,” Sylvia observes, more accusingly then she means to.

“It’s only been five months.” Anna seems a little taken aback.

“Your grandmother will be disappointed,’ Sylvia says, trying to joke.

“It was so sweet of her to drive up to see me,” Anna smiles.

“She did?” Sylvia asks. “I didn’t know that.” It has always seemed to her that her mother has a closer bond with Anna than she does with Sylvia.


Anna is pretty, much prettier than Sylvia was when she was eighteen. She reminds Sylvia of a butterfly, one of the little white ones that flutters around but never lands.

“Sit down,” Sylvia commands. Anna is never still. Even when she sits down, her legs crossed neatly at the ankle, she still is playing with her hair, twirling her ponytail through her fingers. Sylvia wonders how she is not constantly exhausting herself. Sylvia thinks of herself at eighteen- scared, confused, pregnant. Anna is so poised that it amazes her.

“You look tired,” Anna says.

“I’ve been busy lately.”

“Me, too. College is hard.”

“Of course it is.”

Anna sighs.

“It’s like, you spend so much time thinking about getting into college, that once you get there, it’s kind of disappointing. It’s like, what do I do know?”

“Hopefully, keep your grades up and stay out of trouble.”

Anna laughs at her mother’s attempt at sternness.

“You sound like Granny. So serious! My grades are pretty good so far, anyway.”

“And you’re behaving yourself? No smoking, drinking, anything?” Sylvia is aware of how ridiculous she sounds, she of all people, lecturing about behavior.

“I’ve been very good, Mom.”

“You smell so nice,” Sylvia says, aware of the randomness of her comment.

“Really?” Anna smiles happily. “It’s perfume. Mark gave it to me.”

To Sylvia, it seems quaintly romantic that Anna’s boyfriend would buy her perfume. No one has ever bought Sylvia perfume, and as a consequence, she has never worn any.

“I like it. How is Mark?” Sylvia hasn’t met Mark, but Anna has told her about him. He is from Los Angeles, he plays the saxophone, he’s studying French Literature.

“He’s good.”

Sylvia taps her foot. Anna is always so vague.

“And you?”

Anna looks puzzled.

“I’m fine.”

“So you’re happy?” Sylvia asks, abruptly.

“Of course.” Anna seems surprised. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Sylvia shrugs. She doesn’t know what to say. Because of course Anna is happy. She has followed the path, worked hard achieved her goal. She has done everything she ahs supposed to. Sylvia is overwhelmed with pride but also sadness. Anna’s happiness shouldn’t make her sad, she knows, but she finds herself brushing away tears, anyway.

For Anna’s sake, while they eat dinner, Sylvia puts on a Bob Dylan record. The mournful harmonica of “Sara” fills the room. Anna sighs.

“God, I love this song more every time I hear it. I have a friend named Sara Reynolds in my Women’s Studies class. I’m so envious. I wish I were named Sara.”

Sylvia smiles wistfully. Anna is named Anna Jane after Sylvia’s mother. Sylvia named her that because she figured her mother would hate her a little less for having a baby when she was eighteen if it was named after her.

“I’ve always wanted to be called Matilda,” Sylvia admits.

“Why?” Anna rests her chin on her hands as she looks up at mother with her pale eyes.

“I think it’s a pretty name.”

“So do I. I think I’ll call you Matilda from now on.”

“OK. And maybe I’ll call you Sara,” Sylvia feels a little giddy.

“Fantastic!” Anna laughs. Her cell phone rings.

“Oh, Mom? It’s Mark. I’ll be right back.”

“No problem.”

As Anna leaves, Sylvia stands up to get dessert. Anna will only be here for two days, and she is already frightened by the concept of trying to make conversation for 48 hours. Since when were they so awkward? Sylvia knows parents who saw their grown children as little kids. But to Sylvia, Anna is an adult, she always had been, maybe more of an adult than Sylvia herself. It occurs to Sylvia that she is jealous of Anna. Well, why shouldn’t she be? Eighteen years ago, Sylvia was buying diapers, not textbooks. People are always complementing Anna- saying she is responsible, talented, clever, determined. She is so enthusiastic, she loves life. Sylvia doesn’t hate life, but she has spent a lot of time trying to figure out why it has to be so hard for her. To be fair, Anna hasn’t had it that easy, either, but she has still triumphed, hasn’t she? Sylvia may have screwed up her own life, but Anna’s would be alright, wouldn’t it? Don’t be like me, Sylvia wanted to tell her. Be better than this.

“Oh my God, Mom!” Anna rushes into the room. “Guess what? Mark’s in town! He came to surprise me! He’s taking me out for dinner.”

Sylvia feels a pang of envy and hates herself for it.

“That’s great, sweetie!” She hopes her excitement does not seem too forced. Sylvia imagines how boring Richmond must seem to someone from Los Angeles.

Anna stops short.

“Since when do you call me sweetie?”

Sylvia kicks herself for forgetting how observant her daughter is.

“Oh, I don’t know. But that’s great.”

“I need to get changed.”

A few minutes later, Anna reappears in a pretty navy dress and a pink sweater.

“I’m going to be so cold!” She laughs. “But I love this dress.”

“You look so nice,” Sylvia says.

“I’ll be home by eleven,” Anna assures her. “I have a key.”


As Anna gathers her things to go, “Sara” plays again. Anna looks so fragile, so brave, and so beautiful as she walked out the door it breaks Sylvia’s heart. So easy to look at, so hard to define. Anna cannot be encompassed in Sylvia’s small world. She is like water, slipping though her mother’s fingers, leaving only droplets behind. Anna is Sylvia’s whole world, but Sylvia is only one part of hers. Maybe that is not the way it is supposed to be, but it’s the way it is.

When Sylvia looks out her window she can see Anna on the street below, her pink sweater fluttering in the wind, her hair glowing in the half-light. She looks like a fairy, a ghost, something not quite real. Sylvia aches with pride and longing. She watches her daughter as she walks down the street until she is out of sight, until she is gone, leaving nothing behind but a soft laugh, a wisp of blonde hair on the sidewalk, blowing away gently in the wind.

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