—For Helen Lorraine Reilly Brown, 1918–2008.
Mother’s Day—our last, ma petite mere, sugared battle-ax, thorny womb, my life’s obsession. Forgoing easier tributes, bath confections, a silk nightie, I challenge Mater Magnificat, nearly ninety—nonagenarian!—to the old backyard nine-wicket two-stake Double Diamond game, croquet, from the French, croquet, meaning crooked stick. Invite yonder MeeMaw, right-winged Francophile, to the garden sport invented by fourteenth-century French peasants using stout brooms and hoops of bent willow, later gentrified by courts of crushed cockleshell, wild flowers twined round wire hoops and torches of tallow set ablaze for erotic night play. Sport of sequence and no consequence, barbed with rules, pickled in etiquette, its wire wickets once described by a Victorian preacher from Boston as the gaping Jaws of Hades, yet a game put forth by Captain Mayne Reid, hero of the Mexican War and author of sentimental books for boys, as a wholesome substitute for war.
We have warred quietly, Mamma and I, for years.
Now it is an early evening in May, and at my desert home, a parched shank of grass beside the saltwater pool serves as our court de croquet; at either end, a Queen palm rises, each a gigantic, coarse-tufted candlestick, a fat-handled feather duster.
My Primal Bosom wears her hat of crushed raffia, a chaplet of blue bachelor’s buttons wound round the crown. On my head, tilted rakishly, my dead father’s black bowler, purchased from a London haberdashery. Drinking chilled Chardonnay, his widow, Mrs. Brown, and I, souse our way into détente.
I bid my Point of Origin strike first. Her yellow ball, smartly spanked, caroms straight into a sprinkler socket. “Remember Wonderland Alice and the Mad Queen,” I say, whacking my blue orb into a scorched shrub of oleander. My mother’s hat wilts, her checks are patched red from wine and exertion, her eyes glitter. “Rules!” worries old Wart. “What are they? It’s been too long.” “None,” I soothe. “Ours is an unruled sport, pointless, subject to whimsy. Thwack away, My Sweet, allow the ball to ricochet and roquet, for once in our long struggle, wherever it will.”
“More wine, my Cradle, my Lap, my Decaying Nest! Recall the Queen’s croquet ground where Alice swings a flamingo for a mallet, smacks a rolled-up hedgehog for her ball, and those sticky wickets, soldiers of the Queen, must bend over backwards so as not to lose their heads.” “Hah ha,” cries my Ovarian Anti-Kew, not at me, but at the sight of her golden orb speeding—bombs-away!— through the final set of double wickets. “Off with their heads,” she cries, and I think on the countless times she has offed my head by murdering the hope or dream or frail confidence dwelling therein.
In the violet dusk, I can scarcely make her out now, old Goody Fallopian, tipsy and tipsing about, hahahahing, her mallet thonking balls about the whole yard now, for I have thrown all seven down, and the crack of my own mallet’s head against one obdurate sphere after another is as satisfying a series of pop-pistol sounds as I have ever heard. Dame One and Dame Two, we spin and shepherd our dim, expiring eggs through all nine Hadean Jaws—substitute for war and those laws which govern us too hard.
Nine wickets glow supernally white, upside down letter Us in the heralding dark. Unwanted, unexpected, unbearable. Days before a soundless, inside whack to the ball of Mamma’s head will leave her aphasic, tout au revoir, in a fury of torched consciousness, we revel in desperate mischief. Here, on a darkening croquet ground, in party hats, we carouse, until my daughter steps from the bright-lit house and claps her hands to summon two balky, grass-stained children, one still trying to roll backwards, up into the arched womb and empty breast of the other, in for their celebratory supper, growing colder by the minute.