close up of a black cat’s face with glow in the dark yellow eyes
Photo by Mateusz Klein on Unsplash

Mama’s Eyes Were Green

Dawn Downey
4 min readJan 13


Mama’s eyes were green. That’s what everybody says.

Green eyes that speckled gold in a certain light. Her hair fell in black waves below her shoulders. At home, she wore a short-sleeved housedress — a shapeless drift of faded stripes — and pink slippers with a band of fluff across each instep.

Saturdays when I was ten, she cooked up chili for supper. She slipped a bib apron over her head. The waist strings looped into a bow behind her, and a strap fastened across her shoulder blades with two white buttons.

On chili nights, I perched on a red Formica step stool near the kitchen table. Did she feel my eyes on her, sense a warm spot on her back just beneath those buttons?

We lived in Des Moines when Mama cooked chili, but I was born in Ottumwa. According to family legend, she was playing gin rummy with friends when labor pains began.

Dad chuckled whenever he repeated the story. “Catherine was beating the pants off us. She hated to leave for the hospital.”

Either Mama enjoyed a good time, or she considered the baby in her belly an inconvenience. You can spin it either way.

In my earliest Ottumwa memory, my brother Bill and I — both of us toddlers — are jumping on a couch, trampoline-style. Stuffing erupts from the seams with every impact. I’m wearing underpants; Bill’s in a diaper.

Mama’s a ghost in the background. Not rushing toward us, arms outstretched. Not warning us to stop tearing up the furniture. Not worrying we’d fall and crack our heads.

We lived in a shotgun house. A living room in the front, where eight-year-old twins Michael and Michelle slept. Behind that, a bedroom with a king bed for Dad and Mama and bunk beds shoved against a wall for Bill and me. Behind that, the kitchen, which led into a shed Dad had added on to the rear of the house. You had to walk through the shed, crammed with tools and fishing tackle, to get to the back yard.

Someone took a picture of Mama and me, posed side-by-side in the outside doorway of the shed. The black interior pressed against us from behind, filled in the space between our rigid bodies.

Mama’s arms were folded across her chest. Her expression was opaque, her attention drawn to something that excluded me. Maybe the sheets hanging limp on the clothesline that stretched between the shed and the outhouse. Maybe a sudden movement in the pen where Dad’s coon hounds dozed.

We moved from Ottumwa to Des Moines, into a two-story house. A staircase ascended from the living room. Midway to the second floor, it took a hard left turn at a landing, then climbed to a hallway that connected three bedrooms and a bath.

The landing made a cozy reading nook — a beam of light streamed in through a little window.

Sometimes my siblings and I crouched on the top step, straining toward the muffled angry voices behind our parents’ door. We huddled together, but independent, no gestures of comfort offered to one another. With my fingertip, I drew circles in the dust that covered the wood floor.

On the nights Mama cooked up chili, she scuffed around the kitchen, icebox to cabinet to stove. Pink slippers stark against linoleum grayed from ground-in footprints. She leaned over a skillet, hand on hip, stirring, while hamburger hissed and crackled. Steam moistened the air. She stopped to lift the hair away from the nape of her neck.

Did she feel my eyes on her, where baby hairs lay fine and straight against her skin?

My parents divorced when I was twelve.

Dad married Kim Carol, who became my new mother. They decided to move the family out to California. On the day we left in our caravan of three cars and a U-Haul, I wonder … did Mama wave goodbye from our front porch? Did she pat away a tear with the hem of her apron?

Mama’s eyes were green. That’s what everybody says.

On Saturday nights, before she started on the chili, she tossed a dishtowel over one shoulder and then tied an apron behind her. Did she feel my gaze on her hand, just where the wedding band glinted as her fingers worked the strings into a bow? Maybe she didn’t know I was perched on a step stool an arm’s length away. Every Saturday night.

If only I’d tugged her apron strings, she might have turned her face toward mine … and possibly, I’d know today that Mama’s eyes were green.



Dawn Downey

Dawn Downey writes essays about her everyday life—introspective stories to lift your spirits and challenge your assumptions.