by Mark Miscovich
In the evening when the last rays of sun lit up the stained-glass window was my favorite time to stare at my mother’s collection of multicolored medicinal bottles. Short in stature with beveled edges, the green, purple, red, blue and yellow vials had a magical quality, which was partly instilled by my mother’s reverence for the crystalline vessels.
Sunday’s ceremonial Pledge polishing of the many wooden surfaces, courtesy of my grandfather’s furniture store, posed too great a risk and thus our tiny fingers, my brother’s and mine, were banned from coming within even ten inches of the bottles’ place of honor on the dark cherry sideboard. If, or more accurately, when we dared disobey this injunction, we were subjected to a pedantic sermon on the incalculable value of these cloudy glass receptacles.
Looking back on it now, tears practically come to my eyes; tears of laughter at how silly my mother acted over a few worthless bottles; tears of shame for my hard-heartedness, denying my mother an illusion, an escape from her tedious and exhausting daily routine; tears of joy at how my mother laughed at the face of reality and held on to this “sacred spark of wonder,” as John Dewey called it, despite the ridicule and scorn it brought her, including my own. Her infuriating narrative genius, which elicited nothing but groans from my father, consisted of the dizzying, yet lulling art of citing numerous facts that she had never researched; of calling on authorities, mostly relatives or neighbors, who knew nothing about the subject; of drawing parallels to world events that she had never read about; and of swearing that it was the God’s truth even though she knew it was all a lie. I never realized the seductive power of belief until I caught myself employing my mother’s absurd logic to defend something I knew was implausible, and yet, at some deeper level, true.
For my mother, the value of the rainbow-hued collection of bottles lay not in their monetary equivalent, although she would never admit it, but in their promise of a life a little less ordinary, in their confirmation of belonging to a middle-class that never existed in the first place, and in their authority that she knew something about anything when in fact all she felt was overwhelmed and incapable of living up to the expectations placed upon her by her husband, her sons, her parents, her family, society, and, most dishearteningly, herself.
These laughable bottles, whenever I see them now, remind me of my sick mother and the strength of her convictions that gave her the fortitude to resist her fate and struggle when there was no hope of victory. Where others gave up, lost faith, or simply didn’t care anymore, she held strong, believing in the efficacy of a medicine that, for all its claims of progress, killed as many of the patients as it cured.
And it was only then that I realized that the secret of her inexplicable survival was connected to her not-so-blind devotion to a plain set of dime-store medicinal bottles as the life-preserving tales she so desperately wove around them.
Mark Miscovich is a freelance translator who lives in Austria with his wife and two daughters.
Pieces Inspired by this Image
'One green bottle'
'The Easel on the Beach'
'Fusty Relics and Memories'