Numbers and Socks

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My mother was a mathematician. When I was five years old, I could add and subtract. When I was seven, I had all the multiplication tables memorized up to twenty, which my teacher said was impractical. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Landbum, was in her mid-thirties, and she reminded me of my mother in one way: they had a similar brown bob haircut. Mrs. Landbum loved books and poetry and shapes, but I took after my mother; I loved numbers and straight lines and organization. At least, I did when my mother was alive.
When I was in seventh grade, my mother told me she was sick. She had breast cancer. I remembered going to the hospital every day after school, since my father had to work and he didn’t trust me to be in the house. I didn’t know why, but I think I’ve figured it out now. But in seventh grade, I didn’t know why. So I would talk to my mother about how my father was weird because he wouldn’t let me stay home. And talking about my father led a gateway to a teacher who reminded me of my father, and then that led to all of my teachers which led to school which led to nearly any adult, both in my life and a passerby. My mother would drink up the words while she lay on that hospital bed, the television playing in the background as white noise. My mother had always liked senseless noise; it was odd, considering how pristine and organized she was with her numbers. She helped me with my algebra homework – I was in Algebra I in seventh grade, which set me ahead of my elementary school friends by two full years – and could mostly do the work. Sometimes my numbers were a bit sloppy, and mother lectured me for it. “You’ll never get anywhere with sloppy numbers, Clara,” she told me. It was the only memory of a stern voice I had ever heard, and that slightly sharp voice struck me to the core.
It wasn’t the fact that my mother was being sharp; it was the fact that it was my mother. I was used to my father yelling at me. He didn’t like how messy my backpack was. He didn’t like that I was wearing makeup. He didn’t like that I brought worms and slugs and ‘God knows what else’ into the house. He didn’t like that I wasn’t on the academic team on school, even though it’s for people who lacked lives. He didn’t like that I would make cupcakes and eat them all, not leaving a single one for him. There was a ton of things that my father didn’t like, the list endless, but I didn’t really care. My mother was my best friend, since I had very little at school. I could talk to my mother about everything, and my father about nothing.
I had bit my fingernails to the quick, clean off, the last week of my mother’s death. I was a sophomore in high school, only fifteen years old. She had taken an interest in knitting, since the basket and yarn and knitting needles were something that could be easily transferred from the house to the hospital and back. I also supposed it had to do with the neat, orderly fashion. She was out of a job and had no use for the numbers she so loved, so my mother picked up an activity that had to do with organization and straight lines. She had made me tons of things: hats, scarves, mittens, sweaters, cup holders, something called a ‘tea cozy’ that would keep the kettle warm, since I loved green tea, and more sweaters, since I used to be into baggy sweaters. My mother had just finished something new, something basic. She said she had been working on them from the start, and that she had wanted these to be special. I asked her why they were special, and she never said a word, but just smiled with her thin, wrinkled mouth as she pulled out a small wrapped package with frail hands. I ripped off the newspaper – she had always wrapped presents in the daily comics and the rest of the entertainment section, saying I was all the entertainment she needed – and pulled out a pair of wooly socks. They were argyle, since I said in sixth grade I had kind of grown to like argyle. My mother must’ve known that I didn’t like argyle anymore, because she was worried when I first took the socks out of the small chocolate box that I had once given her, but she shouldn’t have worried. They were beautiful. They were dark blue with bright pink and yellow and orange diamonds, and I had loved them from the moment I saw them and I ripped off my boring white socks and vowed to never, ever wear boring socks again. My mother’s eyes were shining with tears of happiness and pain.
I think it was mostly pain.
She died the next week.
So there I was, a year ago today, dressed in all black at my mother’s funeral, my hair loose and falling around my face like the tears I simply couldn’t seem to cry. (“Your hair is too long, Clara. And it should be up for serious occasions such as these. It’s not proper.”) I had already let all of my tears ago when she stopped talking. I still remembered the last words she had said to me, but that wasn’t a surprise. I was most haunted by the last words I said to her.
“Bye, Mom. I love you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Maybe, maybe not. I love you to the moon, darling.”
“I know you do. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I hadn’t slept in a week, and I had told my father I wasn’t wearing makeup to the funeral. (“I don’t care what you think, Clara, you’re going to cover up those awful bags under your eyes and respect your mother.”) My father had lost his man card somewhere in his life, if he had ever had one, and he was full of advice from a fellow co-worker who was, for some reason, at my mother’s cremation ceremony. My mother had told me a long time ago – maybe it was eighth grade, I wasn’t really sure of anything at the time – that she had wanted to be cremated. “When I die, I don’t want to spend eternity buried in some box,” she had said while checking over my homework with her blue reading glasses that brought out the sapphire flecks in her otherwise ordinary green eyes. “I want my body to be nothing but ashes. Hear me out, Clara: I want my body to be smaller and smaller, so it doesn’t take up any room that others may feel they need. And then I want to be carried off into the beyond by a strong gust of wind, one that will take me far away from here, away from this, this new land, back to where I belong.” My mother wasn’t American like my father, and was born in the heart of Ireland in a town called Athlone. She had once promised me that we’d go there together someday. I believed her, but I no longer do. But as my mother’s body, with a stern expression I had never seen and her closed, lifeless eyes, burned into ashes, I could picture the town. Far across from the ocean, far away from the pain that I felt here… I could practically see the quaint little houses on the seaside, and could smell the salt in the air… And then the priest said “Amen” and I was jerked back into the funeral. I picked up a handful of ashes – a hand of my mother, a hand of my very best friend, the only one who had ever bothered to try to understand me in my short fifteen years of life – and, as a great gust of wind came, I threw them into the blue sky, seeing the gray ash strike against the royal blue. And then all of my life was devoid of real color. I had thrown away all of my clothes that night. (“What on earth are you doing? Clara. Clara, listen to me. Clara, it’ll be alright.”) And when my father brought them back, I burned them in the morning, sitting amongst the flames. (“Clara, what is the meaning of this?!”) The only article of clothing I owned, then, was the black dress I had worn to the funeral, and the last present my mother had ever given me: a pair of wooly, argyle socks. I wore them again on the first anniversary of my mother’s death, on October 17th, on today. I wore all black, although that wasn’t a change. I usually wore some form of black nowadays; I was a scene girl now. I had dyed my blond hair black, saying that it would’ve turned black or fallen out anyways. (“How dare you say such things! Are you referring to my hair? I can’t control that, Clara! Don’t you give me that look! Go to your room!”) I pulled on ripped black skinny jeans and a black and neon green zigzag shirt. I put on black fingerless gloves and put in my mother’s old diamond earrings. I then grabbed my favorite book and my backpack, throwing my backpack in the backseat of my mother’s old car, a beat up, burnt orange ’98 Chevrolet that I had inherited, and drove off without the slightest intention of going to school. I spent all day in a small coffee shop that doubled as a bookstore that had the best green tea I had found since my mother died, reading and occasionally just sitting and thinking while staring into the gray day, the day the color of my deceased mother’s ashes. I was completely absorbed at first when Sterling Clay walked in, which was when my life began to change.





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