Cha Cha Cha

On this drab December day, heavy patches of snow shrink to reveal brown grass and gray pavement. I look away from the window and contemplate a photo of my oldest brother Issi’s wedding in Iceland in 1969. The bride’s parents stand in dark clothes with serious faces angled slightly down and away from the camera. My new sister in law, Arndis, wears a Cheshire grin and a lacy white dress hemmed well above her knees. My brother’s face is eager and thoughtful, hair cut short around his broad forehead. The buttons of his dark suit nearly burst with contained energy. My mother alone wears color—an emerald green dress and matching satin shoes. Her brunette hair is swirled into a luxurious bouffant, and a half smile plays on her lips. Tense beauty and unpredictable fire shine from this photo.

What was she thinking that day? At 43, she was mother to seven children and lived far from her island home. She traveled from Washington D.C. with only her youngest children–me and my four-year old sister—to attend two weddings. Just a few weeks after Issi’s small ceremony, my brother Finn had a big wedding. My sister and I gazed at this other bride, all elegance and grace in her satin gown. Her name, Alla, was easy to say and confirmed what we suspected, that she was everything. She hugged us and spoke to us with a clipped accent. During the reception, my sister and I drank our very own bottles of coca cola and ran shrieking down long hallways. These brides and my grown-up brothers were almost mythical beings to us, wild creatures living in the distant land that was my mother’s first home.

As clouds hang in the winter sky, I contemplate the stillness in Issi’s wedding photo, the retrained movement. Arndis wears a white veil, a soft fold of lace over her dark hair. Mamma’s green dress has a faint checkerboard sheen and long sleeves that widen, kimono-like, around her arms. Shining earrings dangle half way to her shoulders. A hint of tension in my mother’s fingertips suggests a delayed impulse to reach up and smooth her hair.

Was it on that trip, and in that green dress, that she taught me to cha cha? Did she kick off her shoes to dance in full, fluid motion?  Her hips swayed as she counted for me, one-two, cha cha cha. I glued my eyes to her until my ears and feet started to work together in imitation. She swiveled toward me, then away again. Leaning over, she tugged my fingertips to the music until my feet began to listen. Then she dropped my hands and danced by herself in a cloud of perfumed happiness.

Forty-five years later, under the fairy lights at Denver’s Mercury Café dance floor, a partner asked me, do you cha cha?  I don’t know, I replied.  I do know that I was taught once. He led me in the cha cha, and I followed without thought or effort, my mother’s lesson still alive in the bottom of my feet. And though her ashes were scattered in the Gulf of Mexico years earlier, there was Mamma, sitting alone and resting her elbows on a small round table. Her lips were tinted mauve, and her eyebrows penciled into supple surprise. She looked at her bubbling diet coke, then back at me. In the music, I heard her tinkling laugh, the erupting happiness that sometimes made her cover her mouth with the back of her hand to hide her imperfect teeth. Soon, I was laughing, too, as I danced and danced.

Stealing

Shoplifting is danger. Shoplifting is defiance. Shoplifting is compulsion, and it is satisfaction. You steal without thinking or feeling, but you wonder later if you might have been angry, if there was some sign you missed, something you shouldn’t have been feeling that made you do what you did. You hate yourself after, not for the peppermint flavor of theft on your tongue, but for the privileged certainty that you won’t be caught.

A therapist might think that you steal to manage anxiety or as a quirk of disordered neurology. But you think you are clever, putting one over on the system. You get a bad flu along with half of the city and suffer because your opiate cough suppressant is out of stock. You spend three days sleeping in half-hour dozes, propped on pillows as a humidifier puffs steam into the cold living room. Your upper lungs ache with every inhale then erupt like miniature fireworks.

You go back to the pharmacy and give your name to a woman in a white smock over tangerine leggings. Blank-faced behind her name tag, she tells you that your prescription is ready, but their network is down. She announces with a shrug, You can wait if you want to.  You don’t want to. You crave solitude and rest, not this ugly florescent display of knee braces and chew-able calcium.  Keys in hand, you pace outside under the leafless trees as cars skim down Broadway, then step back in, under the shining corporate logo. You wander the aisles and pick up a small tube of Red Dahlia lip balm, its weight like a talisman in your palm. A hazelnut chocolate bar makes it way to your jacket pocket. Sitting on a plastic chair, you listen to other sick people complain. After a wheezing cough, you tint your lips and feed yourself soothing squares of dark chocolate. You press hazelnut crumbs slowly between your teeth until the system comes online again, and you can go home and sleep.

Another year goes by. At the hardware store, you eye wilted yellow pansies so leggy and forlorn that they are on sale for fifty cents each.You pay for three sets, and see yourself taking more. You are not thinking about the sadness on your son’s pale face as he looks out at the world. You are not feeling tired for him, for everyone. In the sunshine, you lift flower packs into the back seat of your station wagon, counting one, two, three, four. At five, you smile your mother’s smile and drive away.

Her stealing smile is mine. Her flowers and her hands are mine.

In her late sixties, my mother’s thieving was done with remorselessness and with grandmotherly confidence. 5 foot 2 and a hundred pounds with her coat on, she embodied a sweet charm and a don’t-mess-with me toughness.  She flew from Florida to Denver to help when each of my three babies was born. Sober and happy, she cooked dinner every night and caught us up on laundry. Once when I thanked her for all of her help, I added, And thanks to Dad for letting you come!

Her face clouded over, eyes dark as night. Then she snapped: Nobody lets me do anything. Truer words were never spoken.

Mom was never questioned when we left the checkout line at King Soopers and picked up sun-loving petunias on tall racks outside the door. As we placed flower after flower after flower in the warm dirt, she said, Aren’t they pretty? And I only paid for two of them!  She laughed the shiny laugh of a girl. Her eyes sparkled.

Mom! You stole! I was terrified that she could have been arrested. I was barely thirty and still getting used to being people’s mother.

Mom and me at stove

They can afford it, don’t worry, she replied, her smile impish and satisfied. There has to be a “they,” who can be outwitted. The thief in us knows this and feels satisfied.

Nobody lets me do anything.

The pansies I stole this year would have been thrown away by now, tossed in a dumpster with that first early snow. Instead, I’ll plant them in my fall garden over daffodil bulbs. They will survive the winter, content under a blanket of mulch. Their yellow and purple blooms will glow in the spring sun. Again and again, they will fill me with surprise.

Pow

I sit on the sturdy kitchen chair, waiting for my breakfast while Mamma stands at the stove. My big sister Kristin walks in quietly and doesn’t look at me at all. I must have heard her get into trouble the day before, but calm has lingered overnight, and I’ve forgotten this morning to be scared. I don’t even tense as she strides into the room. As I daydream, Kristin walks up behind me, inches from our mother’s back, perfectly between the two of us. She pauses. At fourteen, she is twice my height and more than twice my age. Her fist flies up, high and fast, then smashes down on top of my head. Somehow, her hit doesn’t make a sound except in my skull, which echoes with a metallic clang.

Mamma keeps cooking. It was a silent POW, like in the batman show with the volume knob turned all the way to the left. White lights sparkle in front of my filling eyes. I am back to my senses and back to watching out for the unpredictable.  If I make a sound or if I cry, it will only be worse for me later. Shame settles into my empty belly. I look at the white table, at the circle of clock on the wall. The red second hand moves fast enough that I can sit very still and watch it go all the way around, across the small black lines that mean minutes, past each of the big numbers that tell hours. Kristin sits down and takes a sip of orange juice.

I earned my head bash by being a tattle. Like the chimp spy Mata Hairi, sidekick to Lancelot Link on Saturday morning TV, I was recruited to watch my sister. Kristin had wanted to go for a walk, but mom knew she wanted to smoke, to escape rules and control, so she ushered me along. I was excited to walk all the way around the block with this tall, powerful sister. I loved the after-dinner walks I’d sometimes take with my dad. He would smoke a cigar and point out interesting things about the bark on trees or the short summer lives of insects. So, a walk around the block was an adventure.

As soon as Kristin and I turned the second corner, though, just out of sight of our house, she retrieved her cigarette and matches from their hiding place in her sock. She lit up and looked hard at me. You can’t tell, she announced. I took her statement at face value–not just that I shouldn’t tell, but that in fact, I couldn’t. I was unable to tell on her. Her blond hair hung in straight lines next to her face, her expression a blend of defiance and determination.  I walked under the umbrella of her authority and in the plume of her cigarette smoke all the way around the block.

Later that day, mom sat me down and looked at me hard.  Did your sister Kristin smoke with you today?  Telling me as she stared into my eyes, Don’t lie.  I can tell by your eyes if you are lying.  Of course, I lied the first time she asked, and probably the second time, too.  I was aware of the treachery of telling on my sister.  But Mamma could read my eyes and my mind. I can see you are lying. Did she smoke?

I looked at my mother’s face and realized I was caught.  I crumbled and started to cry hard. I did see Kristin smoke! I’m sorry I lied. I wasn’t supposed to tell.

And then a quiet day. I had forgotten all about it before Kristin walked into the kitchen the next morning.  Pow.

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Kristin’s hands on my shoulders on a holiday morning.

 

 

Porch Light

In 1982, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George lived about a mile away from us in the small town of Dunedin, Florida. At Sunday pool parties, my mother would step away from the barbecue to watch Mardi and George pose on the diving board. Mardi was tall and curvy, her hair a frizzy halo over her oval face. George was round in the middle, his hair as straight as his stick legs. He gazed at his wife with exaggerated rapture while sunlight glinted off the still water. They clasped each other as if to waltz, looked up at the sky, then tilted head-first into the deep end. We all cheered. They called this splash-up “the lovers leap,” and they surfaced laughing, dark hair dripping into their eyes.

Aunt Mardi smoked Virginia Slims, holding the long cigarette between her fingers while telling me she really should quit. She drank wine or Manhattans with compulsion-free pleasure, and she was on everyone’s side, somehow, never arguing with my parents, never making anyone wrong. In those years of Mom’s relapses and undiagnosed manic-depression, I soaked up her generous mother-love. At fifteen, I began to unravel like a ball of yarn rolling downhill, but Aunt Mardi’s kindness and sanity buffered my fragile psyche.  Her help was practical and steady, a simple hand on my shoulder, a warm and encouraging smile.

For a few weeks of my sophomore year, I hardly slept at all. A panic attack slid me to the floor in math class.  Images of death overwhelmed me if I tried to rest. One night, I used an alligator magnet to post a drawing of a coffin on our beige refrigerator.  My alarmed parents called my Aunt Maralyn, a doctor, who sat on my unmade bed with me, her voice low and soothing. She told me, I work with a young woman I think you would like. She’s a psychiatrist, a doctor who helps people with their feelings, too.

Like a counselor? I asked.

Yes, like a counselor, but also a doctor, like me. I think it might help you to talk to her.

Aunt Mardi drove me to one of my first appointments. She waited for me while I sat on a leather therapy chair and revealed carefully chosen bits of myself to a competent stranger. It was Aunt Mardi who confirmed to the psychiatrist that, yes, my parents sometimes drank too much, that the stories I told about them were probably true. After a few sessions, I was prescribed little pink sleeping pills, each tucked into a clear bubble of plastic. For a little while, my parents gave me one at bedtime, but kept them hidden from me during the day. I soon finished with therapy, but soaked up sanity at Ala-Teen meetings. I learned to meditate. I got a job and counted down the months to high school graduation and freedom.

Meanwhile, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George left a key hidden on the metal shelf above the porch light of their little house on Douglas Avenue. If my mother was having an especially bad night, I got dressed and walked out into the humid Florida night. I turned right onto St. Anne Drive and walked past the rectory, a low, flat building set back from the street. I pulled the night air into my lungs and stomped outrage into the asphalt of the huge church parking lot. How dare she?

On the shortcut past the elementary school, the darkness was near-total. I felt small under the looming branches of live oak. I slowed my pace until I saw the tall palm that marked my turn onto San Mateo Drive. The songs of tree frogs and the pungent scent of swamp water drifted to me from nearby Hammock Park. By the time I turned left onto Douglas Avenue, my anger was spent. Aunt Mardi’s porch light glowed softly above her front door. As I reached up and felt the grooves of the house key under my fingertips, I was steadied. Secured. I set the key on the wooden table inside the door and felt the hush of the house gather around me. I tiptoed through the kitchen into the guest room, then pulled out the sofa bed. Drifting to sleep, I knew that the next sound I heard would be my aunt and uncle sharing quiet coffee talk while the sun warmed their back yard.

Becoming a Westerner

A few years ago, when I first realized I had become a Westerner, I was driving east on the dirt section of Park County Road 5, with Colorado’s Weston Pass in my rear view and Pikes Peak a distant wedge of white in the blue sky. Spring grass outlined an oval pond, and an empty paddock leaned into a small hill. Lucinda Williams crooned through the car speaker: “Come out West and see, the best that it could be.” I joined my voice with her drawl, vowels lengthening like snakes uncurling in the sun: “I know you won’t stay permanently, but come out West and see.” I didn’t know anything about permanence when I was eighteen, but I came to Denver from Florida on a one-way airline ticket.

Born in the nation’s capital, I spent my first fourteen years in a near-suburb of DC. I listened to my mother speak her native Icelandic, a language I never learned, while navigating the mystifying terrain of race in 1970’s America. I was sometimes the white girl on the outside of the circle in a mostly black neighborhood, and I was also the child of an immigrant who saw Americans as others. She might say, conspiratorially, American girls are so skinny or Americans don’t care about fashion or Americans don’t even know where Iceland is. She probably didn’t say, You belong here or You will find your place one day. But my confusion about my identity is my own, a byproduct less of my background, perhaps, than of my anxious tendency to hold myself apart from people and from communities I love, then grieve my sense of wounded exclusion.

I’ve never been one thing all the way, not the white girl I look like, not the American I sound like, and not the sane woman I impersonate. Where are you from? people ask when I meet them. My answer depends on who’s asking.  I grew up in  DC but my mother was from Iceland, I tell someone with a foreign accent. I grew up in DC but went to high school in Florida, I tell black folks, in part to explain how my voice automatically slows in their presence, dropping from a northern white cadence to the softer, warmer tone I associate with America’s south. In grammar school, I was immersed in African American English. My mother’s immigration from Iceland–and our family’s move to the DC suburbs–coincided with a wave of the Great Migration north from Jim Crow south. As a child I spoke, as my Uncle George pointed out, with a “black accent.” It is a way of speaking that feels both more natural and less foreign than my mother’s native language.

Claiming a definite geographic home, though, has never felt natural. But thirty years after moving to Denver, on a strip of road as familiar to me as the back of my hand, I suddenly stopped feeling like a visitor to the American west. My life in Denver expanded from loneliness in my late teens to college and love, then to a joint mortgage and co-parenting. Twenty-one years ago, when I was pregnant with our third son, we watched in awe with my parents as the logs of our Fairplay cabin were lifted into place over a concrete foundation that had washed out the summer before. Home is in the memories I have here, and home is the peacefulness of the mountains that has slowly smoothed out the rough edges of my chronic unbelonging.

As Lucinda and I sang, It’s over, I know it, but I can’t let go, I turned right at Fairplay’s only stoplight, then parked under the rodeo logo of Prather’s Market. The building’s brown cinder block walls soaked up meager spring warmth as I squinted into the sunlight beaming down from Mount Democrat. It took a long time for me to learn the names of some of these  peaks: Sheep Mountain, Mount Sherman, alpine crests in the shape of praying hands.

When my shopping  was done, I set plastic grocery bags into the back of my red Subaru wagon, its doors scratched by mountain bikes and ski poles. My hair hung loose around my face, and the wind lifted my cotton scarf while I loaded the last of my provisions.

As I plunked a jug of drinking water behind my passenger’s seat, a blue convertible BMW purred up alongside me, the top thrown open to the warming day. A white guy in a baseball cap, wearing an expensive-looking casual shirt. Speaking with the authority of the Pope saying mass, he told me, I saw a sign about a barbecue as I drove into town. The man’s confident bearing belied his confusion about what to do, where to go next. Was he asking me for directions?

I don’t know anything about that barbecue, I told him. You might ask in Prather’s. I bet they know where it is. I nodded with my chin toward the door behind him. He glanced briefly at the entrance, then turned back to me, hesitant. Nah, I’ll just drive around some more. As he zoomed off in his shiny toy, I found myself grinning from ear to ear. I was amused by the almost endearing arrogance of the Beemer guy, but my glee had a different source. As I got back in my car, I said aloud, I do believe I was mistaken for a local. Smiling in the sun-warmed driver’s seat, I turned on Marvin Gaye and headed back home, not north to Denver, but south, home to our cabin.

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Dad’s last visit to the cabin, circa 2008, next to the husband and the windows they framed out together.

Doing Errands

Daddy’s strong hands lifted me gently in the air and landed me on a bar stool. Bright morning light gleamed off the polished floor boards of his favorite pub near our home in Oxen Hill, Maryland. Bubbles rose through the pink-tinged soda of my Shirley Temple, served to me in a tall, thick-bottomed glass. The smiling bartender pierced three red cherries and a thin slice of orange onto a wooden pick. He balanced them over the rim of my glass, then plunked down a small bowl of peanuts between my fancy drink and my father’s tall beer.

On those pre-school pub mornings–also called “doing errands”–my father taught me about water tension. He asked the bartender for two small glasses of water, then slowly over-filled one with the other.  See, he told me, the container can hold more liquid than the space inside it. It pulls on itself to keep from spilling over!  I watched, transfixed, as water rose above the rim, holding onto itself in a rounded puff. But one more drop broke the surface tension, sending the liquid down the side of glass and onto the shiny wooden bar.

Another day, Daddy showed me how to create air pressure inside a plastic straw by holding my finger at the top and pushing the straw down into my drink. When I let go, the pink concoction lifted high into the straw, above the horizon of the glass. I watched bubbles sit inside the clear tube, then lifted my finger and let them fall. I soon became adept at lifting Shirley temple sips to my mouth in straw lines while my father savored his glass of beer.

On our morning outings, he piloted the off-white station wagon with its back seat littered with paper grocery bags and magazines. I sat at next to him, alert to our next adventure. He tuned his radio to a country station and laughed as he sang along, Work your fingers to the bone, and what do you get? Bony fingers, bony fingers!  Once, we stopped to save a box turtle trying to cross Suitland Parkway, that fast-moving pavement between stands of deep Maryland woods. We often pulled over to pick up trash that had been left along Oxen Run, stashing aluminum cans in the way back to take home and mash flat with a brick. After we stuffed the compacted circles into a bag for recycling, we swept reddish clay dust off of the driveway.

I watched my father tap small white chunks of old mortar off scavenged bricks, and I helped him pile the best ones in the back yard. In a wheelbarrow, we combined water with gray cement mix, then used a hoe and a trowel to chop it into a smooth goo that smelled like summer happiness.  As Daddy slopped wet concrete into a smooth layer on top of one brick, I waited with the next one in my hand. Restlessness sent me running along the connected back yards of our neighborhood, but when I returned, the base of a barbecue grill had taken shape under his hands.

When the kitchen sink sprang a leak, I shone a flashlight beam on the suspect pipe and handed Daddy a rag, then a wrench. He pulled his head out from under the sink and sat back on the checkered tile floor to consider his next step, sending me to fetch him a can of Stroh’s from the basement fridge. If a bathroom door hinge or a broken dresser handle had lost a screw, we drove to the hardware store in the Hillcrest Heights Shopping Center, a few doors down from the store-front library. We scrutinized various replacements, pulling out small plastic drawers until we found a screw with just the right size and shape and pointiness to hold together what had come apart. The man behind the counter put our treasures into a small envelope that he traded for a rumpled bill from Daddy’s wallet. As we stepped out of the door hand in hand, the chime of a bell silvered the air above our heads.

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Dad in a later era, doing work at the Indiana Dunes

Mother Africa

In the warm heart of Africa, I crossed a concrete bridge linking tarmac to terminal as tropical sunshine blazed away an end of rainy season drizzle. Fronds of palm leaves and trumpets of yellow blooms curled in the warm breeze, and a tiny bird bedecked in scarlet plumes flitted through a patch of lush green.

yellow bloomsThis continent that birthed the human race so long ago is now home to my niece, Rachel, who works as a researcher for one of the many non-governmental organizations in Lilongwe, Malawi. When she arrived to pick me up at the airport, I greeted her in Chichewa: Moni. Muli Bwanji? I have practiced the simple Hello, how are you? many times on the plane, but these short phrases don’t stay in my travel-soaked brain for long.

Rachel’s long brown hair was twisted up into a ponytail bun, and she moved gracefully as a gazelle as she loaded my bags into a borrowed car. In her, I see my sister’s keen intelligence shine out from a darker version of my own mother’s eyes. But most obvious to me in my niece are her dignified beauty and her distinct laugh, a ha ha reminiscent of all her female relatives. In Africa, Rachel introduces me as her “little mother,” sister of her own mother. For twelve days, the topic of motherhood weaved through our conversations like a golden thread.

The day after I arrived, Rachel and I took a three-hour bus-ride across the border to the town of Chipata, in Zambia, where she worked for several months before going to Malawi. Rachel spoke four languages in one short taxi ride, chatting in Hebrew on her cell phone, speaking English to me, then switching from Malawian Chichewa to the Zambia borderclosely related Nyanja dialect. My polyglot niece doesn’t get to practice her French, Spanish, or Russian very often while living and working in Africa. I, however, thanked a Zambian immigration officer by saying Gracias, and I greeted Rachel in the morning as I do my sons at home, in my mother’s Icelandic: Godan daginn allan daginn. It means “good morning, all day,” but Rachel gave me a quizzical look in response.

We hired a shared car to drive us to our two-day safari in Zambia’s South Luangwa Park. Shared cars work like this: you agree to a price before departure to get to your destination. Then along the way, the driver picks up other passengers or cargo as he is able, and makes short detours for drop-offs. Driver profit and efficiency maximized, traveler hurry and seat belt expectations minimized.

Outside one village, a young teen girl and a toddler approached our car. The older girl held a small clacking chicken by its wings and tucked it into the trunk between my suitcase and a bag of rice.  After tucking the little one next to me, the older girl perched next to the window, face-forward and intent on the road. She wore a brightly patterned traditional wrap over a pink t-shirt. The toddler looked up at my foreign face in wide-eyed fright over and over, her dark eyes filling with tears. After a several miles, I stopped resisting my maternal instinct and briefly cupped her small head in my palm. She slowly let her head fall to the side in sleep. I wished the petite teen to be her sister, but I knew she was her very young mother, unlikely to be educated, and quite likely to suffer during Zambia’s “hunger season,” a hard time that lands almost every year here before the harvest. Little mother, indeed.

***

At the Marula Lodge, hippos pop their heads out of the Luangwa river, open their eyes to inhale, then flap their ears before plunking under again. I spend my writing time wishing I could slumber all day like they do under the cool river water, coming up for a hippo riverquick breath to peek at the world and then swim-doze the day away. Mesmerized by the adorable ear-flapping, I can’t look away. My laptop goes into sleep mode. At this point in the trip, I am the dependent one, following my niece around like a baby duck to mooch off of her WiFi hot spot and translation skills. Rachel makes me coffee and cooks me oatmeal before she opens her computer and starts running data sets for her project–actually working–as I gaze at the fast-flowing river.

Rachel and I join an evening safari drive. We bounce along a track in the lush game reserve, sighting grazing zebras and an enormous pond ornamented from end to end with snow-white water lilies. A small herd of elephants enjoying dinner become annoyed by the stink of our guide’s Land Rover. Matriarch and child use their ears as protest Elephantsflags, first the mother, then the imitating baby waving their ears in synchronized tempo before ambling away to snack a different set of shrubs. I surprise myself by wanting to cry. The elephants are so wild and intelligent, so distinctly and fiercely familial.

As the sun skimmed the horizon, our small group stood by the river bank in red-gold light as yet more hippos snorted laughter and growled yawns in picture-postcard poses. For two years, during one of her father’s diplomatic postings, Rachel and her family lived in Zimbabwe. On a camping trip in Africa, when she was four, the young adventurer resisted her parents’ rule not to explore outside their family’s tent, where hyenas roamed.

My parents visited Rachel’s family in Harare during the grace-filled years of my mother’s sobriety, when both of my parents were healthy and eager for adventure. Rachel tells me, I remember Amma playing the pumpkin pie game with me every night. I had pajamas with a pumpkin pattern printed on them, and Amma had those long sparkly fingernails. She would pretend to scoop out pumpkin from my pj’s, then mash it into a pie and bake it. Rachel was enthralled by this game. My mother tapped the “pie” into a pretend oven to bake, then they giggled together about their pumpkin pie feast. As a young version of my mother’s laugh echoed around us, I tasted the sweetness of their time together.