The supper dishes are done, the counters wiped clean, and the yellow Formica table in the kitchen is transformed into my mother's night school.
My mother is not one to share her thoughts or feelings. Not with me, not with anyone. But I know things. I listen, I look. I spy on her. I make myself smaller than I already am to watch her when she isn't looking. Go read a book. You're making me nervous. That's when I know I've been careless.
At night I tip-toe down the stairs in my bare feet. I sit on the bottom step and peer around the corner. I can see into the kitchen without being seen. I am Joanie the Spy. My mother takes the black typewriter out of the closet along with her stenographer's notebook and shorthand practice books. Leftovers from my mother's business school days. A small business school for girls just out of high school. With their unlined faces and cheap shoes, they are determined to become secretaries at least until marriage.
Click-clack-click-clack. The only sound in the kitchen. I watch as she times herself by the clock on the wall. Scowling, she writes down a number. She opens her shorthand book and makes squiggly lines I can't figure out. She writes row after row of tiny squiggles. She looks up in my direction and I quickly scoot up a step. I watch my mother teach herself the skills of a first rate secretary.
A few years go by. The yellow Formica table is gone. My mother sets up a new batch of materials on the round oak table in the kitchen. Her new kitchen night school consists of a slate and stylus, and she makes small holes with them on a piece of paper. She lets me feel the raised dots with my finger. She is teaching herself Braille. She says you can never know too many things.
I close my eyes and imagine I am Mary Ingalls from the "Little House" book I am reading. I picture my long blonde hair and my blue eyes that don't see anymore as I pretend to read with my finger.
The square walnut table with the Tiffany lamp hanging over it is my mother's last kitchen table. She sips her half cup of coffee, and eats a small slice of the home made chocolate cake she has baked this morning. She reads the local paper with a large magnifying glass. She turns to the obituaries first. I am only home for a short visit from college. My mother and I cannot spend more than a day or two together without anger bubbling to the surface. I don't unpack my suitcase.
It is midnight when I walk out of the spare room for a glass of water. My mother is sitting at the kitchen table waiting for the kettle to whistle. I stop just before she sees me. I am twenty, but I am still Joanie the spy. I still want to know her. I still want to know what she planned to do with all the things she taught herself in night school.
I look at the steam evaporating into the air, and think of the hopes and dreams around my mother's kitchen table.