It was one of the few times I saw how Mom must've looked before the four of us slipped from her body, robbing her youth like thieves in the night. How she must have looked to those who knew her before she knew us.
Moms have a way of settling their features into Mom Face when their children are around. But have you ever glimpsed your mom when she didn't know you were watching? The mask of motherhood slips away revealing eyes like oceans, the raw expression of the woman she was before you came along, forcing her to rearrange her features into your expectations.
But my mom was Elaine long before I came around. She is Elaine. A girl/woman with hopes and dreams and fears and a whole constellation of thoughts and feelings I'll probably never know about because that's just how it goes with moms; they're mom first and themselves second.
At 7, I wasn't capable of seeing the person behind the mom. Not only that, but the person behind the mom was currently being body-slammed by a life that, at 28, had brought single motherhood of four kids under the age of 8. From your parents home to you husband's home and then BAM! Single mom with four young kids including a newborn, full-time work, full-time school, full-time anxiety.
The Thrill Hill. That's what she called it, anyway. I was a teenager before it dawned on me that Thrill Hill wasn't its official name. The great swoop of roadway stretched across a deep gully in a neighborhood a few miles from our house. An upside-down asphalt rainbow. If you picked up enough speed on the straightaway before the road dropped down into the gulch, your stomach danced a little jig of delight. If mom went whole hog (she usually did) and managed to keep her foot off the brake as our little car climbed the other side, butterflies knocked around your innards again as we crested the top. I swear we even caught air a few times, the five of us crammed into that rusty old Volkswagen Rabbit.
The car was sky blue and we called him Roger. When he was feeling sick or cranky, choking on his own exhaust like an old man battling Emphysema, one or the other of us kids would gently stroke his dashboard and give him a pep talk. "You can do it, Roger. I know you can do it. Come on, Roger!"
It would usually be a Sunday. We always took drives on Sundays. Inevitably, our route would meander toward The Thrill Hill, all of us shifting around excitedly because we knew what was coming. Or we hoped for what was coming, anyway. Sometimes, she wouldn't be in the mood. We'd near the road leading to The Thrill Hill and each of us would hold our breath but then she'd motor past the turn-off as if it didn't even exist and our spirits would plummet. But other times, just when we'd think she was going to pass it by, she'd crank the steering wheel onto the road and stop the car, the motor coughing quietly while she turned to look at each of us.
And that's when I saw her. Not Mom, ELAINE. Her features would transform from sagging, heavy-lidded exhaustion after long shifts at the State Mental Hospital into an expression not unlike the one that would cross my features years later while cruising with my girlfriend after stealing her dad's car: mischievous delight.
"Should we do it?" Elaine would ask, already knowing the answer. There was no question we'd do it. The only question was how fast would we go? How fast would she take us?
My big brother, occupying the front passenger seat as was his right as the oldest and able to pound any who dared trespass on his territory, would brace himself against the dashboard in excitement. My two younger brothers and I, sardined into the backseat, would quit our neverending game of "Got Ya Last!" which involved smacking each other repeatedly and lapse into a deliciously terrified silence.
Sometimes, she'd rev Roger's engine for effect, sometimes, she'd just slam the pedal to the metal and off we'd go in the yellow afternoon light, a sky blue streak of delight.