Put your Monkey where your Mother Is

by nicolecallihan

In all my life, I have only known two people who owned monkeys. One lived in Battery Park City in the shadow of the World Trade Center and named his monkey Marilyn after the starlet. He said the monkey was dirty and crazy, that he’d come home from work, and the monkey would have drank all the strawberry milk and smeared her feces all over the walls.

The other was my mother. I sometimes wonder how my mother, in the foothills of North Carolina, was able to get her hands on a monkey. I can only guess it got left behind by a carnival or a traveling preacher’s show. She also claims to have had “a pet chicken that died” but I think she’s just being funny, just making excuses for why she wants to order a burger instead.

Besides the monkey, I know little of her early life: fried bologna, a broken wrist that she hid under covers, a big doll that she left in the bathroom in the mountains (Ricky, she called him), her love of watermelon, her marriage–at 16–to my father, the same doll–Ricky–left by my father–jealousy?–in an apartment they moved out of in a late night flash. And this: at six-months old she was left by a redheaded woman to be raised by my grandmother.

I don’t think she was left on the porch. But that’s what I always imagine. Or under the pecan tree. Or, bleary mornings, I half-dream stories of her and Moses, and somehow that little dusty town where we were both born turns into a fertile place with a big wide stream. My mother is tiny, violet-eyed, floating in a basket, her little fists opening and closing.

Yesterday, a thousand miles upstream and fifty-some years later, I went to see a family therapist to help me to prepare Eva for the new baby. I sat in a windowless office staring at a poster about saving a choking child. I took off my boots and sucked on a huge cup of honeyed Lemon Zinger, listening as the therapist, who I liked, went into these long scripts of roll play, so long, in fact, that I sometimes got confused as to whether she was talking to me or “talking to Eva” as if she were me. The baby will be fragile, she said. Like glass.

Like your pretty tea set, I added. Very, very fragile.

Good, she said. Very good. 

I stared at the choking child in the picture. She wore a red plaid jumper. There were lots of yellow squares, and someone pointing to a phone, and I was wondering how I would ever remember any of this, thinking about how, if I happened to ever be near a choking child, I would need to get back to this tiny room so I would know just what to do. And what about your mother? the therapist said. I pointed at myself because I am Eva’s mother. I thought we were still pretending. The therapist laughed. No, she said, your mother.

My mother? I repeated. Because I am–presumably–not my mother, I joked. She didn’t laugh again.

Well, I said, let’s see. She had a monkey.

A monkey? the therapist asked. I nodded; she made a note in her book.

I thought about how years from now–sitting on a train or in a very different office from this one–she will find that note (MOTHER HAD MONKEY) and that she will have probably drawn a little tail–after all, how can you write the word monkey without drawing a little tail?–and she will highlight those three words even though she will have likely forgotten all about me, and I will likely have forgotten all about her. 

How easily we forget, how much there is to not remember.