‘Mrs. Daedalus’, Marianne Xenos

Illustration © 2022 Joyce Chng

 [ Drone © 2022 Joyce Chng ] My mother had a knack for appliances. She liked machinery, the way some women like cats or houseplants, and machinery liked her. When I was a kid, she would embarrass me at the department store, talking to the toasters, purring over an avocado green Osterizer, clucking her tongue as though they were puppies whining in a store window, crying to come home. When she did take one home, she would tinker, and the transformation would begin. In my mother’s kitchen, machinery began a second life.

My mother was born Athena Pallasakis, and when she was a teenager, her father beat her for hanging around the neighborhood boys. The boys were working on a 1952 Buick Roadmaster, changing the spark plugs, and my mother pressed between them to ogle the engine. My aunt watched from the porch, and told me about it later. She said that Athena’s cheeks were flushed and that her laugh was loud enough to reach my grandparents’ kitchen. My grandfather was from the old country, where good girls didn’t ogle engines, and didn’t have flushed cheeks until they were married. And even then it was frowned upon. I asked my mother about it once, and she laughed, waving her cigarette as though shooing a ghost with the smoke. “Of course I liked the boys,” she said, fluffing her hair, “but it was the car I wanted. I wanted a wrench, a carburetor. I wanted the smooth viscosity of motor oil. The old coot could never understand.”

After the beating she was grounded and confined to the kitchen, where the only oil was culinary. Out of four girls in the family, my mother—all the sisters agreed—was the worst cook, so Yiayia, my grandmother, put her to work chopping and scrubbing. Feeding a family of eleven was an enterprise. But sometimes—my mother later said with a wink—suffering led to salvation. She discovered the High-Top Automatic Toaster and the Kenmore 12-Speed Mixer, less powerful than a Buick, but each charming in its own way. Then came the Zenith long-distance radio. One day Yiayia yelled when she found her favorite radio disassembled on the tin-top kitchen table and my mother humming over the debris with flushed cheeks. But within an hour she had the radio reassembled, with improved reception, including a broadcast from Athens, and another from the National Committee on Aeronautics.

“How did you do this?” Yiayia wanted to know.

“It has to do with energy, pressure points, and a very small screwdriver. And then I said please.

Yiayia clucked her tongue and said, “Let’s not tell your father about this.”

In retrospect, my mother might have qualified for either MIT or a secret wizarding school, but her only real option was marriage. This was 1955, and if she loved art, she might have married a painter. She loved machines, and so my mother married a mechanic, just to get away from her father, the old coot, and have a fully stocked toolbox. Her groom’s name was Johnny Daedalus, and he was my father. They named me Minerva, an homage to Athena, and their marriage lasted about ten years.

By the time I was a teenager—introverted and bookish with wire-framed glasses—my father had left for good, taking his toolbox with him. My mother replaced it with her own, which included less conventional items like watchmaking instruments, a Geiger counter, dice, assorted crystals, and her old engagement ring. Late at night I could hear her in the kitchen singing, coaxing, and praising her creations, which glowed under her care like well-nourished animals.

Since the appliance menagerie didn’t pay the bills, my mother had a day job. She worked in a factory operating a machine that printed logos on plastic cups. She sang to the machine while she worked, raising productivity by 10%, and also met a group of women who became my second set of aunts. They were all immigrants and the daughters of immigrants, and called themselves the Valkyries. Each had a nickname. My mother was The Goddess, and then there was Brunhilda, Joan of Arc, Mistress Schmitt, and Ellen of Troy. They liked to drink at the local VFW bar, often coming back to my mother’s kitchen at closing time.

Without Athena’s customized appliances, I doubt the Valkyries could have made it to work in the mornings. My mother’s Highly Intuitive Osterizer read a person’s aura to concoct a customized hang-over cure. The toaster, nicknamed Cassandra, gave fairly accurate predictions, burned lightly into the bread; each slice offered an individual forecast. The refurbished Waring Futura II blender, which I wasn’t allowed to touch until I was eighteen, had settings for fertility, contraception, and Plan B.

You might think that growing up with a Goddess, her enchanted kitchen, and a gang of hard-drinking Valkyries was like a storybook, but it had challenges. Like most kids, I wanted a boring mom, and a boring fruit smoothie from a blender that didn’t read my mind. Also, Greek mothers nag. Nagging is how Greeks say, “I love you.” And Greek daughters are as bad as the moms. My mother and I argued, nagging about smoking (hers), weight (mine), and bad dating decisions (we shared that one). But by the time I was in my twenties, my mother and I made an agreement: you don’t nag me, and I won’t nag you. By the time I was in my thirties, our no-nagging policy flourished, along with my mother’s experiments with microwave ovens, VCRs, and remote-controlled devices. Her greatest success involved a winged toaster that delivered morning prophesies, and she developed a bedside dream recorder that could, in theory, create dreams by request, but time ran out before she could test it.

My mother never told me she had cancer. The doctor told me, but only after she was in the hospital. Something had been bothering her for months, but I thought it had to do with the Valkyries. Mistress Schmitt died during the winter, and then Brunhilda died in the spring. Brunhilda’s memorial was held at the VFW Lodge where two dozen mourners chanted, “Brunhilda! Brunhilda!” before receiving a pinch of her ashes to scatter outside. My mother had been brooding ever since, but I sensed that something else was bothering her. Still, keeping with our no-nagging agreement, I waited.

One day I found my mother at the dining room table building a new appliance that repurposed old parts into something I’d never seen before. It had wings, four propellers, and a sleek body. A compartment was set in the middle, and my mother tested a remote that opened and closed a flap on the bottom. She usually chatted about her creations, but that day she smoked silently and wouldn’t meet my eye.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Nothing. Just a drone.”

“What goes in the compartment?”

“Nothing,” she said.

I rolled my eyes at her but didn’t push.

The next day the completed machine, a silvery drone, sat on the table looking remarkably like my mother. It had painted brown eyes, lush false eyelashes, and dangling rhinestone earrings.

Later that week, when I rushed to see her at the hospital, I finally knew what my mother had been holding back.

“Well, Mom, this sucks,” I said, sitting on the bed and taking her hand. I wished there was time to change our nagging agreement.

My mother smiled weakly at me. “There’s a remote in my pocketbook.”

“Okay. And?”

“Just get the remote, please.”

I got the remote, and returned to the side of the bed. My mother said, “The ashes go in the compartment.” She showed me the rest of the controls to the drone and held out the remote. I didn’t want to take it.

“Minnie,” she said, using my childhood nickname, “I just don’t belong in a box. At least, not unless it has an escape hatch.” And I couldn’t argue with that.

Two weeks later, Athena Daedalus’s ashes were scattered from the sky over the VFW Lodge. Some landed nearby, but most blew north towards the Atlantic Ocean. The drone came home with me. My mother’s insurance money paid off the house, and under the stipulations of her will, we (the drone and I) opened a small museum of magical appliances, where the brown-eyed drone buzzed among the visitors, taking orders for cocktails and Cassandra toast.

© 2022 Marianne Xenos

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