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The Good Daughter

Mary Vaccaro is fifty-three and has lived her entire life in the small town of Mercy on the far north coast of California. She has three beautiful daughters by three different men, no sons, and no husband for the last thirty years. Her oldest daughter Esther is thirty-six, Sophie the middle child is thirty-three, and Lisa the baby is thirty-one.

Esther and Lisa both went off to college at eighteen, both dropped out after two years, both have been married twice, no children, and both are currently single. Esther is a hairdresser in Miami, Lisa a cocktail waitress in Nashville. They haven’t been back to Mercy in many years and have little to do with each other or with their mother or their sister Sophie.

Sophie got a job as a clerk at Walker’s Groceries when she was a freshman at Mercy High, and she worked at Walker’s for nineteen years. When she was twenty, she took Beginning Pottery at the community college and fell in love with making things out of clay. She bought a potter’s wheel and a kiln, turned the garage into a pottery studio, and for the last thirteen years has spent most of her evenings and weekends in her studio exploring the art of pottery.

Mary calls Sophie her good daughter because Sophie never left her, keeps her company, does the shopping, cooks their meals, does the housework, and pays the bills because Mary has rheumatoid arthritis and is hypersensitive to many things and does not work.

*

“I can’t believe you’re doing this,” says Grace, gaping at Sophie. “And I’m driving you to the airport.”

“Does feel rather dreamlike,” says Sophie, smiling at Grace, her best friend since First Grade. “You’re an angel to take me, Gracie.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell your mother,” says Grace, shaking her head. “She will be so freaked out.”

“That’s why I didn’t tell her,” says Sophie, gazing out the car window at Mercy Bay sparkling in the summer sunlight. “She would freak out and never stop freaking out until I changed my mind. And I’m not changing my mind because if I don’t go now I’ll never go, and if I never go I’ll kill myself.”

“But she’ll go insane,” says Grace, who graduated from Yale and then lived in New York City for a year before returning to Mercy, marrying her childhood sweetheart, and getting a job teaching History at the high school.

“She’s already insane,” says Sophie, matter-of-factly. “I’ve taken care of her my whole life. No more.”

“But how will she survive without you?” asks Grace, who doesn’t relish the idea of life without Sophie nearby.

“I left thirty thousand dollars in our checking account,” says Sophie, as the car slows on a hairpin turn. “And I arranged with Maria Gomez to shop for her and make her a big supper three days a week so she’ll have leftovers in between. Leila Townsend says she’ll come check on Mama every couple days and help get her more disability money, and Bob Morton will drive her to her doctors appointments. If things get really bad she can sell the house and go into Sherwood Convalescent. I talked to Conchita at Ontiveros Realty and she said the house is worth at least a million. I put all that in the letter you’ll give Mama tomorrow.” Sophie shrugs. “There’s nothing more I can do.”

*

To avoid the terrible San Francisco traffic, Grace drops Sophie off in Santa Rosa where she catches an air-porter to the San Francisco International Airport.

Sophie sits in a window seat and hopes the bus doesn’t fill up, but it does, and the middle-aged woman who sits beside her wants to talk.

“Where you going, Hon?” asks the woman, her accent Midwestern. “Don’t tell me. Hollywood.”

“Why would you think that?” asks Sophie, surprised by the woman’s guess.

“You’re gorgeous and young and you’ve got poise,” says the woman, nodding knowingly. “Star quality. I should know. I worked in a modeling agency for seventeen years, and you’ve got It, honey. No doubt about it.”

“Actually,” says Sophie, taking a deep breath, “I’m going to Japan to apprentice with Arata Inaba, a master potter. He only accepts one new apprentice every three years, and he chose me. I almost couldn’t believe it.”

“A potter?” The woman wrinkles her nose. “You make pots?”

“Bowls, vases, mugs, plates, teapots,” says Sophie, smiling brightly. “I’ve been throwing – making things on a potter’s wheel – for thirteen years now.”

“Darn,” says the woman, sounding disappointed. “I thought for sure you were an actress. I even tried to remember what I saw you in.”

“I was in a play at the Mercy Players Theatre five years ago,” says Sophie, recalling those glorious evenings of wearing makeup and costumes and performing for an audience hanging on her every word and gesture. “I would have been in more plays, they wanted me to, but I was working full-time and taking care of my mother and throwing vases and flower pots to sell at the Farmers Market, so I couldn’t spare the time, though I really loved it.”

“That’s the thing,” says the woman, sighing, “you make a choice and next thing you know you’re sixty-five.” She laughs. “Or I am. How old are you, Hon? Don’t tell me. Twenty-three?”

“Add a decade,” says Sophie, wistfully. “I turned thirty-three a week ago.”

*

After an eternity of waiting in line to get through airport security, Sophie hurries to her boarding gate and finds the waiting area so crowded there is not an empty seat to be found – nearly everyone Japanese.

Sophie looks at her watch and sees it is seven minutes to three – her flight to leave in forty-seven minutes. Her shift at Walker’s ends at four. Then she shops for food for supper and rides her bike across town to the old two-story house where she’s lived every day of her life, save for a dozen weeks of camping trips and a handful of magical weekends in San Francisco visiting museums and art galleries.

She knows her mother is counting these last minutes until three when she can take another dose of painkiller so she won’t be in agony when Sophie comes home from work.

And then she’ll count the minutes until I come through the door because I’m all she has.

“I can’t do this,” says Sophie, gazing longingly at the double doors through which the passengers will walk to the waiting jet. “I can’t leave her.”

And just as she says this, an elderly Japanese man wearing a suit and tie gets up from his seat and says to her in broken English, “Please you sit my chair. You are tired and I sit too long.” He bows to her. “Please you sit my chair.”

Startled by his invitation, Sophie replies in Japanese, “Thank you, but I am happy to stand.”

The man is thrilled to hear her speak Japanese, and he says something to her in Japanese she only partially understands.

“Forgive me,” she says, bowing politely. “I’m not sure what you said.”

“Please you sit down,” says the man, reverting to English as he gestures to the empty seat beside an elderly woman wearing a lovely purple blouse. “This my wife Miyoshi. I am Yukio Tanaka.”

“I am Sophie Vacarro,” says Sophie, sitting beside Miyoshi.

“Your first time going to Japan?” asks Miyoshi, speaking slowly in Japanese.

“Yes,” says Sophie, the effort of speaking Japanese obliterating her impulse to return to her mother. “My first time flying, too. I’m apprenticed to Arata Inaba in Maizuru. He is a master potter.”

“We can take you to Maizuru so you won’t get lost,” says Miyoshi, nodding assuredly. “Our daughter and her husband live in Fukuchiyama not far from Maizuru. We go there often to see our grandson.”

*

On the jet high above the Pacific, Sophie has two beers with supper and falls asleep for the first time in three days.

She dreams she is in her house in Mercy, sitting with her mother Mary on the living room sofa watching Mary’s favorite television show, a sit-com in which the main characters are forever telling lies and half-truths – they can’t help themselves – so there is no end to conflict and hurt feelings.

Sophie gets up to leave.

“Don’t go,” Mary complains. “You know I don’t like watching without you.”

“I’m going to Japan to study with Arata Inaba,” says Sophie, gazing steadfastly at her mother. “I have been learning to speak Japanese for the last three years using a Japanese app on my phone. I sent Inaba san pictures of my bowls and vases, and he accepted me.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Mary, glowering at Sophie. “Now sit down and watch my show with me.”

“I’m done watching with you, Mama,” says Sophie, placing her hand on her heart. “I’m going to Japan.”

“No!” screams Mary, waving her arms and turning red in the face. “You can’t go. I’ll die without you!”

“Only if you want to,” says Sophie, walking out the door and rising into the air.

*

Sophie wakes on the jet still high above the Pacific, a new day dawning. She stretches her arms and rolls her shoulders and feels marvelous having slept so well after so many years of sleeping poorly. She looks at her watch and sees she slept for ten hours – the flight to Japan nearly over.

Mama knows now. Grace gave her my letter.

The man sitting next to Sophie, middle-aged and bespectacled, looks up from the book he’s reading and says to Sophie in Japanese, “I’m amazed. You slept through all the terrible turbulence. Everyone thought we were going to crash. People were wailing and crying. Yet you never woke. Oh I wish I could sleep as well as you. What is your secret?”

“I have no secrets anymore,” says Sophie, very much enjoying speaking Japanese. “Maybe that is why I slept so well.”

fin

Ahora Entras Tu the title song from Todd and Marcia’s new album.

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