“Underwear Drawer” by Nancy S. Koven

I keep my mom in the back of my underwear drawer, safely ensconced in long forgotten bras and misshapen pantyhose. I’m both chubby and practical, so there’s little in the way of flash and lace to invite prying eyes. It’s a quiet and secluded spot, this cushion of ivory nylon and white cotton, that no one would suspect she’s taken up residence. Neither of us asks much of the other. She pays no rent, and the utilities are already taken care of. She’s a respectful guest, neat and tidy, keeping mostly to herself and grateful for the occasional sunshine.

My mother’s skin is a double-layer membrane, 10 Mil thick and slightly cloudy, a rugged shell that cleanly separates her soft interior from the soft exterior. Her outline is a little blurry that it’s hard to make her out sometimes, but I suppose there’s an inevitable tradeoff between durability and clarity. She values her privacy, and I liken her opaqueness to the film that some people put on their bathroom windows to keep the peeping Toms out. I’ve found over the years that, to see my mom clearly, you need her permission, the right light, dumb luck, and good memory.

I let my mom out of the drawer today to meet the new cat. She sat still while he cautiously sniffed all around her, and she even let him nibble briefly at her edges. With nothing out of the ordinary to smell or taste, he soon lost interest in her but kept her company nonetheless while he groomed and settled down for a nap. I checked on them a little while later and was happy to find them both dozing side by side on top of the dresser, kindred spirits in their reticence and love for simple pleasures. It was the longest my mother has been out in quite some time, but I made sure to put her back before I went to bed. I don’t dare take my mom out into the real world because I’m afraid she’d get lost. The wind might carry her away, and then I’d never find her again. It’s not good for her to get wet either.

My fiancé has a hard time making eye contact with my mom. I think it’s because he’s not used to how she looks yet, or maybe it’s her silence that unnerves him. She doesn’t move much, so she can’t readily sneak up on people, but I suppose her periodic shifting of weight – a gentle but unannounced easing from one position into another – can be startling in its own right. When we’re sorting and folding laundry on Sundays, he solemnly deposits my panties in the very front of the drawer, neither pulling the drawer out wide nor leaving it open for very long. He’s very thoughtful not to disturb my mother.

When I was little, I used to daydream about one day building a giant, fancy mansion for my mom, a place where she could live by herself and exactly how she pleased. It’s not that my mother and father fought much, it’s just that I thought she deserved better than what she had. Riding my bike around the neighborhood, I was always on the lookout for stray coins in the gutter. A good haul would bring in six cents, on average, and, in my most productive summer when I rode every day, I racked up over a dollar in pennies. I asked my mom if I could open a bank account, and she showed me how to use those little coin wrappers made out of Kraft paper. I’ve long since swapped out my bike for a car, but I still have the habit of scouring the gutter for coins when I’m stopped at a red light.

Growing up, my mother used to tell me that, if there was ever a fire, I should first get all the pets out of the house and then, if there was time, go to her bedroom dresser to check the back of her underwear drawer for anything of value. People who don’t trust banks often keep stacks of money hidden in their mattress, but my mom preferred the anonymity of her underwear drawer. She also kept the odd piece of jewelry and sentimental memento back there. When I was tall enough to reach the top of her dresser, I once found a faded photograph of a man in uniform who wasn’t my father tucked behind one of her slips. I’m pretty sure it was her deceased older brother, but part of me hoped that she had, or had had, someone on the side.

My sister keeps my mom inside a miniature tree on top of the mantle above the fireplace in her living room. It’s really a squat, hollowed-out log with a fitted lid on top, with liberal coats of polyurethane giving the outside a shiny appearance. My sister thinks that, because I have more pennies than she does, I should be able to find a better home for my mother than an underwear drawer. I suppose living inside a tree sounds pretty quaint, but, between the off-gassing and the flames constantly underfoot, I’m not sure how hospitable a varnished log really is. Plus, there’s always a lot of dog barking and general commotion in my sister’s living room.

Perhaps my mom is quiet because she’s already said everything there is to say, or maybe it’s because she’s listening. Maybe I should do more talking. I often wonder what the proper ratio is between speaking and listening. If you look at other species – birds, for example – I think you’ll find they actually listen more than they vocalize. We’re so quick to marvel at birdsong, but what if their true talent is hearing the sounds around them? I’ve always felt that people should speak only when they have something noteworthy to say. I’m sure the right words will come when we’re both ready. In the meantime, I may start reading to my mother.  

Nancy S. Koven is a psychologist who teaches interdisciplinary neuroscience at Bates College, combining the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences to interrogate the gloriously elusive boundaries between brain and body and body and environment.