She had a dream about Mrs. Butterworth again. Lisa and Gavin were in the kitchen and Lisa’s mother asked if they’d like scrambled eggs and when Lisa said yes, her mother walked to the refrigerator and suddenly she wasn’t Lisa’s mother, she was Mrs. Butterworth – a large amber-colored woman made of glass, wearing a yellow metal cap on her head and a sensible apron. “More orange juice?” Lisa’s mother asked Gavin and he nodded, not at all concerned that Lisa’s mother had turned into a human-sized glass bottle filled with fake maple syrup.
“Mom?” Lisa tried to make her voice sound normal. “Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be okay?” her mother said as she took out the eggs and put them on the counter. Mrs. Butterworth’s arms lacked joints and moved like circles. Lisa didn’t know if that was more disturbing than the fact her mother no longer had distinct facial features – only dots for eyes, a nose bump, and a severe mouth. In addition to an unflattering bun hairstyle.
“You look a little... ” Lisa tried to think of the right thing to say. Like a syrup bottle. Like you’re made out of glass. She squeezed Gavin’s hand – don’t you see what’s happening? But he kept his eyes on the sports page.
And where were her mother’s legs? Mrs. Butterworth’s dress was so long you couldn’t see her feet. Did she have feet? She glided across the floor, like a Roomba.
“Mom, where are your feet?” Lisa asked.
“My feet? Who woke up on the crazy side of the bed this morning.” Her mother laughed as she swirled the eggs around in the mixing bowl with her joint-less arm. “You know what would taste great with these eggs? How about some pancakes?”
When she was a little girl, they scared her, the dozens of Mrs. Butterworth glass bottles lined up on shelves at the foot of the basement stairs. What had prompted her mother to save the first one? At breakfast, did she pour out the last of the syrup and say to her husband, “Let me rinse this out and put it in the basement.” Why didn’t Lisa’s father nip that in the bud with, “Why the hell would you save a Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle? Throw it in the trash.”
But her mother didn’t throw the bottle in the trash. She washed it and left it in the drainer to dry. She put on the yellow cap and took the first Mrs. Butterworth to the basement to share space with preserves and pickles made by Lisa’s grandmother.
After saving one Mrs. Butterworth’s bottle, Lisa’s mother must have thought Mrs. B. needed a companion. And then another companion and then a quartet and eventually an orchestra – no, an army of Mrs. Butterworths, guarding the basement stairs like sentinels.
“Will you run downstairs and bring me up a paper bag?” Lisa’s mother would say to her and Lisa would agree, but feel her heart begin to race at the thought of going down into the basement, knowing they were there. Waiting. When she turned on the light, the bottles would sparkle at her. We know you’re coming, Lisa, they seemed to whisper. We’re watching you. Every step. The paper bags were kept on an old table just to the right of the Mrs. Butterworth shelves and Lisa would keep her eyes on the bottles as she reached for a bag. Was that a sound, were they talking to each other? There she is again. That little girl. We’ll get her. We’ll wait until she’s not paying attention. She’ll never know what hit her... until it’s too late.
At the top of the stairs she handed her mother the bag. Her mother frowned and touched Lisa’s forehead. “Why are you so sweaty?” her mother asked.
Lisa’s mother was dead. She’d died six months ago after complications from heart surgery. She was almost eighty and after Lisa’s father passed away five years ago, she began to say things like, “I don’t want to be the lonely old lady living in the house on the corner. I’d rather be with your father in heaven.” Lisa would tell her mother that was selfish and what about her children and grandchildren and her mother said she’d had a lovely life with no regrets. And she’d said the same thing the day before she died, to Lisa and Gavin who had flown in from Colorado to sit by her hospital bed.
And now Lisa and Gavin were going through the house to see what they should save, what they should sell, what they should give away. Gavin had noticed the Mrs. Butterworth bottles back when he and Lisa started dating. They had gone to the basement together to do laundry and he’d laughed – “Your mother expecting a run on maple syrup?”
“It’s not real maple syrup and the bottles are empty,” Lisa said.
Now Gavin was looking at the bottles in a new way – “Do you think they’re valuable? Maybe we could sell them on eBay.”
“They’re not worth much.” Lisa didn’t want to admit she’d looked online to see if they were considered antiques. They weren’t. But she was surprised to learn there was a Mrs. Butterworth culture of women (she supposed they were women) who were happy to do craft projects with used Mrs. Butterworth bottles – painting them, creating clever calico costumes with bonnets. There was even a creepy calendar with Mrs. Butterworth as Betsy Ross for the month of July and Santa in December.
“So I guess we toss them,” Gavin said. “Or recycle them, since they’re glass.”
Lisa took one of the bottles in her hand. They’d cleared out most of the things from the basement - old magazines and newspapers, winter coats and boots. Gavin was sorting through Lisa’s father’s tools. Lisa liked the smooth, cool Mrs. Butterworth surface. Who had designed the bottle? Did someone say, “Make sure she has a small waist because that’ll make it more comfortable to hold when you pour the syrup.” And “Don’t make her breasts too big because that would be pervy.”
“Is Mrs. Butterworth black or white?” Lisa asked Gavin.
“I don’t know. I guess I thought she was black. Like Aunt Jemima.” Gavin grew up in Maine where they had real maple syrup, sometimes given to them by a neighbor who tapped his own trees. “Is there a Mr. Butterworth?”
“She divorced him. So she could marry Mr. Peanut.” Lisa laughed. “I suppose my mother could have collected weirder things.”
Gavin looked dubious. “Really? Do you get much weirder than this?” He picked up a bottle and made her dance in the air.
“She could have collected grenades. Or swizzle sticks from around the world. Who’s to say Mrs. Butterworth bottles are weirder than something else?”
“They’re pretty freaky,” Gavin said. “You have to admit, there’s something bizarre about your mother keeping all these bottles.”
“Don’t call my mother bizarre.”
“I didn’t say she was bizarre. I’m just saying… ” Gavin nodded at the bottles. “They’re bizarre.”
He was smirking and Lisa hated it when Gavin smirked. She didn’t want to talk about her mother or Mrs. Butterworth any more and she went upstairs.
She was sleeping in her old room. It didn’t feel right to sleep in her mother’s bedroom, but her room only had a twin, so Gavin was in her mother’s bed. Lisa’s mattress was old and soft and made her back hurt when she woke up in the morning. It was confusing to wake up and find yourself back in your childhood bedroom and the bed where she had imagined her future years ago – where will I go to college, what will I do, who will I marry? And now, here she was - she’d graduated from college, found a job, married, and had children. But her mother was gone and everything was different.
Her mother wasn’t supposed to die. She was supposed to always be there. Like... Lisa tried to think of something permanent. The stars in the sky, the tides, bad television. Having a mother.
In the latest dream Lisa was alone in the house packing up her mother’s clothes when she heard a sound on the stairs. A soft thump, thump. And even though it was a dream and she told herself she knew she was dreaming, she was still afraid to look outside her bedroom door. Because she knew what she would see. Did I forget to lock the basement door? Or did they figure out how to unlock it? They’re clever, they’ve been in the basement for years. Waiting to make their move.
When she opened the door, she saw small dark shadows against the wall. And the sound of tapping glass against wooden steps. She closed the door – what to do? Push something against it? Would that keep them out? Her cell phone was in her purse downstairs, no way of calling 9-1-1. Not that she was exactly sure what she’d say to 9-1-1 – “Help, send someone right away. I’m being attacked by dozens of Mrs. Butterworth bottles.”
They were outside her door. She could hear them whispering in low voices. She didn’t have a chance, she realized. And the last thing she thought before she woke up was – how are they going to kill me?
“We’re almost done,” Gavin announced at breakfast. “I can take a load over to Goodwill this morning. Maybe you could finish up in the basement.”
He meant the Mrs. Butterworth bottles.
“I could go by the recycling place, too, if you want.” At least Gavin wasn’t smirking this morning.
“I don’t know if I’m ready to get rid of the bottles yet.”
Gavin laughed. “Oh no. I knew it. You’ve turned into your mother. You’re going to want to ship them to Denver where we’ll have to find a place to keep them.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I’ve got an idea,” Gavin said. “We could turn the guest room into a Mrs. Butterworth shrine. Invite people to visit, charge a fee. I bet we’d get on the news.”
“I’m not hungry.” Lisa pushed away her egg white omelette and started to leave.
“Come on, I didn’t make you mad, did I?”
“I don’t like it when you make fun of my mother.”
“I’m sorry, that’s not what I’m doing.”
“That’s what it sounds like. I don’t know why she kept those damn bottles. But they meant something to her. And for you to keep making jokes about it – like there was something wrong with her. It’s cruel.”
Gavin reached for Lisa’s hand, but she shook it off. “Go to Goodwill,” she told him. “I’ll try to finish up with the boxes.”
Gavin had been gone for an hour. Lisa sat on the bottom step of the basement stairs, a Mrs. Butterworth bottle in her lap. “Why did my mother like you so much?” she asked the bottle. After her children moved away and her husband died, did her mother come down into the basement to look at her bottles – did they give her comfort? Lisa should have asked her - “Why did you collect all these bottles, Mom?” But she never did. There were a million questions she wished she’d asked her mother.
“I would never dress you in silly costumes,” she said to the bottle. “I appreciate you for what you are – even though I like real maple syrup better. No offense.”
She touched the face, a face that gave nothing away. No laughter, but no judgment either. If Mrs. Butterworth had a bad day, who would know about it? Lisa’s mother could have collected buttons. Or Precious Moments figurines. But instead she chose syrup bottles.
Lisa could hear the sound of Gavin’s car pulling into the driveway. She patted the bottle on the head and put it back on the shelf. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”
Ann Lewis Hamilton is a writer living in California.
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