“There Used to Be Rules” by Elizabeth S. Wolf

Elizabeth S. Wolf


My mother told me once, when I was in my 30s,
she couldn’t imagine how hard it must be to
have choices. In her day good girls were virgins at their
weddings, and that was that. And then the ’60s
happened, and free love, and then in the ’70s,
abortion was legal. Without the pregnancy card,
the whole game was changed.

My mother had rules for everything. Always
side with your husband. Be courteous
to the help. Tip the mailman and the paperboy
at Christmas. Towels are folded in thirds.
She knew what to wear and when; what to
serve for lunch or brunch or dinner; what to
wash in hot or cold. Her sheets were ironed.

I was visiting my mother in the mid-’80s when
she stopped outside the bedroom door.

“What do you think?” she asked.
“About what?” I wondered.
“Did you see?” she asked.
I looked around the room.
“Look at the bed,” she said.
So I did.
“Look harder,” she said.
So I did.
“I used the top sheet from one set
with a different fitted sheet,” she declared.
“I thought you’d get a kick out of that.”

I stared at the bed.

I stared at my mother.

She was positively delighted with her act of rebellion.

My mind reeled. How sheltered was she? What did she see
when she looked at me? Does she know how I lived as an
outcast, a foster child? Nights with no place to sleep, I crashed in
shelters, wards, hallways, under bushes, in
borrowed sleeping bags. I fucked friends
for a place to sleep.

But here I was, over 21, and she was wearing an ankle brace,
swaying on crutches to stay upright. The whole game
was changed.

I accepted her gift.

“Wow!” I answered. “I thought I woke up
extra spunky. Now I know why!”

She turned and crutched down the hall, giggling.

I stood staring at the space where my mother had been.

from Did You Know?
2018 Rattle Chapbook Prize Winner


Elizabeth S. Wolf: “I write because telling stories is how we make sense of our world, how we connect with our world, how we heal, and how we celebrate. I write to find the sliver of truth within the plethora of information; mining my monkey mind for a trace of grace.”

Rattle Logo