500-Word Essay Contest Third-Place: “Mother and the Whale”

Photo of sailboat on lake.

“Mother and the Whale” by Maureen Sauvain O’Connor

Daddy’s sailboat capsized in a giant seiche off a northern Lake Michigan shore and his body was never found. Mother believed he was swallowed by a whale and would one day be coughed up, alive and whole.  

I remember being ten years old, Daddy gone three years, and Mother deciding that we could finally go to our local pool. I had been begging her all summer but she feared any body of water seeing as they had taken my Daddy, and fearing it might take me, which to me made no sense at all. Our pool had no waves.

The turquoise blue sky, dotted with white puffy clouds, was reflected in the water of the community pool. My mother sat on a striped towel on the concrete decking watching me, while I laid on my back in the water and watched the clouds become dogs, then angels, then a host of birds. On my back I could imagine looking up at the same blue sky that I sailed under with my father and hearing him call me “mate”. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a blow-up whale in the shallow water.

She must have seen the whale at the same time because I heard a scream as sharp and loud as a lightning strike, and then a loud splash and the sound of body hitting concrete in the shallow end of the pool. My mother’s body floated there and teeth like kernels of corn floated around her in streams of red ribbons. She must have dove into the water to save me from the whale.

I went to live with Aunt Margie. Mother was hospitalized for a long time, and she returned to live with us on my twelfth birthday. When she walked up the long brick sidewalk to our door, I watched from behind the ivy rimmed picture window, while my aunt in her floral mumu, ran to hug her. Mother held a small plaid suitcase in one hand and a large flat package wrapped in brown paper under her other arm.

My hands were trembling as I opened my present and Mother explained that she had spent every spare moment painting it for me. I had never known her to paint a picture before or after that, but as I pulled the brown paper off my gift a beautiful image of a whale emerged. It was both lifelike and ephemeral. The opalesque colors of the whale against the dark blue waves were mesmerizing.  My painting hung over Aunt Margie’s mantel and when they found the skeletal remains of my father, tangled in seaweed, the urn holding his ashes sat under the painting like an offering.

The whale floats above my fireplace now. Aunt Margie and Mother are gone. For me, there is still something magical about this painting, this whale. My whale. But Daddy’s ashes— I gave him back to the lake that he so loved.

Maureen Sauvain O’Connor is a poet, flash fiction writer and psychotherapist practicing in Oak Park, Illinois.  Her clients have brought meaning and depth to her life and the work has helped to create a space for her own  self-exploration and writing. She is grateful, too, for the inspiration provided by the magical gardens, outside her writing window, tended by her husband and daughter.