Lady of the Flies

I called my mother the other night. She told me to hold on while she grabbed her list. She does this sometimes because, at 80, she has a tendency to forget the important things she wants to tell me. The first item on her list was that she was planning to purchase a feather mattress topper. The second item was that a hairdresser from the salon she goes to had read my second novel.

“He said the mother was just like his own. I told him the character wasn’t based on me. Heavens, I was never mean like that.”

The third and final item was that she’d had another encounter with flies in the mall food court that week.

“Three of them this time,” she said ominously. “Two of them were fighting with one another and the third wouldn’t leave me alone. I figured that one was your father.”

My mother believes in flies. More specifically, she believes that flies are messengers from the other side. The spirit world. Heaven.

Her fixation on the afterlife began a year or so after my dad died. It’s only natural to seek out signs from loved ones after they’ve passed. I remember watching a white butterfly flutter through the backyard after my dad’s death, convinced it was his spirit. Twelve years later, I’m less convinced, but I still remember that memory.

White butterflies wooed my mother at the start, too, but it wasn’t long before other supernatural signs began presenting themselves. The television started making funny sounds. Tabletop trinkets went missing. Static on the phone line signaled a spiritual presence listening in.

“It’s your father,” she’d whisper. We’d have to wait for the crackling to pass before we could resume our conversation.

Then, the messages took the form of pennies. She’d find them in the strangest places and was convinced they, too, were signs.

“That’s what they do, you know,” she’d say. “Leave change around. I read that in one of my books.”

“My books” referred to the canon she’d accumulated over the years by the psychic Sylvia Browne, many of which were purchased by yours truly, including After Lives of the Rich and Famous. (In case you were wondering, Elvis is doing just fine.) Personally, I had a hard time buying these books. It felt like throwing money at a snake oil salesman, but, I reminded myself, they weren’t for me.

“If dad’s leaving pennies,” I’d say, “Doesn’t he think a twenty every now and then would be appreciated?”

Lately, her fixation has been on bugs. Or more specifically, flies. She’ll be out at a restaurant and a fly will land on her.

“It was the strangest thing,” she’ll say.

I’ll stop myself from pointing out that flies in food establishments aren’t exactly the kind of prophecy she might assume they are, but I try to be good natured. No one likes a bubble burster. Or, in this case, flypaper.

But it does get draining at times, listening to these stories. Who was that fly that visited her the other day in the laundry room? My father? Her mother? And, more important, what was the fly trying to tell her?

“Maybe it was making sure you remembered to add the fabric softener,” I offered.

“I know you think I’m crazy,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people think I’m a little loopy. Oh, what the heck? Maybe I am.” Then she laughed.

And this is why I tolerate her fly talk. Because, deep down, she knows how ridiculous she sounds. And you can forgive almost anyone so long as they’re aware of how utterly foolish it is to assume that a fly has been sent by the spirit world to watch you put your panties into the dryer.

I don’t think the flies are my father. Or any other spirits. I think they’re flies. But I won’t tell my mother this because she wants me to believe in the flies. She wants the company. The validation. She needs the flies to be something that I don’t need them to be – at least, not at this stage in my life.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize I’d rather live in my mother’s world, a place where a common housefly, a misplaced penny, a few bursts of static over the phone, actually mean things. In my world, flies are nothing but a nuisance. In her world, they mean love. Protection. Hope. So which of us really has the short end of the stick?

Besides, there are lots of people in agreement with my mother. Encounter a black crow on your left side? Some consider that bad luck. Ladybugs are often symbols of good omens. Watch a spider spinning its web and you’ll have people plotting against you. The world, it seems, is full of signs. All that’s required is an interpretation, based not on fact, but on belief.

My mother’s flies will become part of the stories my sisters and I will share in the years to come. I’ll remind them about the time I caught her one morning, having a (one-sided) conversation with a fly on her kitchen counter. We’ll talk about the bug that attached itself to her patio screen for two whole days, leaving her in a state of terror.

“I’m sure it was my old boyfriend. The one I sent the engagement ring back to. That bug didn’t look happy.”

I can hear our laughter now with its undertone of sadness; the kind of sadness you feel when the characters in your life, the ridiculous people you love, are no longer there to be ridiculous.

I already know I’ll be watching the air, waiting for the fly to land, hoping it will linger just long enough to give me pause.

“Let me get my list,” I’ll say.