Writing Exercise: Character

In the writing workshop I am in, one of our assignments was to write a short 300-word piece on character:

“Write about a parent or relative performing a simple task.  Concentrate on helping us to understand their personality through how they go about that simple task.”

Here’s what I came up with in an hour (I was very late):

I watch my mother scrub the dishes.
It’s night and a dim light is on over the double sink. The cheap energy saving bulb casts an almost-green filter across her deeply lined face. Her lips form a grim line as she takes her red, veiny hands in and out of the soapy water. She’s in her mid-fifties but has aged a lot over the last five years. Scaly, raw-boned hands and arms, firm beneath the loosening skin, still with the kind of power I’d always recognized and relied on. She grabs the sponge and begins to rub and scrape at one of the pots left over from the meal she had cooked earlier for my grandpa who comes to dinner faithfully every evening.
She sets the crusted pot into the water to soak, and wipes a freckled arm across her sweaty face and up, spiking her short, dyed hair straight from her lined forehead. She doesn’t take her eyes from the task. She reaches to the left for more dishes on the counter without looking, and continues washing and scrubbing and rinsing in her factory line. A fast pace, no time for thinking. But I wonder if in the moments where she’s always the neurotic cleaner, if she’s not doing what I do—chasing away anxiety with a burning body—leaving the space for thoughts up to procedure. Consistency. Order. Cleanliness. In an accentuated move she steps aside, managing to show me without saying that I am in the way. I quickly dip a hand in to wash the nicotine off my fingers, apologizing in a whisper, and then snatch them right back out. The water must be close to a boil, I think. I step back to give her her space back over the centered rug, and from over her round shoulder I see her reflection in the window. I look away so she doesn’t see that I’m searching her face. For what? For the comfort of knowing she is serious and strong, still? That she’s here, in case I need her, in case she needs me? That she’s not changing on me, at least, not in this moment?
I can still hear her kidding voice from when Gramps had been here, her taunting him with an admiration of his attitude. And him—with the snide, friendly comments and eyebrow raises at me and the children. Teasing grandpa is the common ground at supper time. Her eyes always lit up like a child when he walks in, and then takes on an air of authority when she reads to him, in a loud voice, the Obituaries.
An excited sigh came from her and her hand flew up to her solid chest and hit it where the American flag on the Walmart shirt was. “George, Dad—oh my God—George Gaderion died,” she says sadly and regretfully. And so the conversation changed in the house for an hour—her voice full of life, laughter, and inflection. And, most comfortably so, was the change of topic.
“Amy, what are you doing in here? I feel like you’re watching me,” she said to the suds. I wanted to sneak away, to disappear into the wood grain.
“Just wandering around, Emma’s asleep.” I near her again, tirelessly fascinated by this woman who changed selves like aprons. I try to sound nonchalant–“You sure you don’t mind if she spends the night? I’ll get here early if you want.”
I can’t hear her say ‘no’ but I can tell by the slightest change in the rhythm in the water and her shift that she is saying ‘no, no, don’t bother with that question. Don’t bother me, my life is to serve everyone, isn’t it? But I’ll keep her because I love her.’
I smile inside, imagining that’s the kind of shit she’d say. I want to take her down from her crucifix and rub salve in the wounds.
“Thanks.  Love ya, Mom.”

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