A Thing There Was That Mattered
“Shh, shh. Please, baby. Please, hush. I just need a minute. Please be quiet for just a minute so I can think.” The tiny bundle in her arms seemed to recognize the desperation in Lucy’s pleas. Her hoarse wails diminished to intermittent heaves and whimpering. Continuing her aimless pace around the narrow confines of the room, Lucy moved from dresser, bed, fireplace, window, again, and again, and back. Soon, the repetitive movement combined with a slight jostling lulled the infant to a restless sleep. Absentmindedly, yet instinctively, Lucy placed her child in the cocoon of the tick blanket on the bed.
“One dollar and fifty-seven cents. One dollar and fifty-seven cents.” As if repeating the amount would cause some sort of alchemic multiplication to occur. “Oh, God. What am I going to do?” Raising a shaking hand to cover her eyes, Lucy began to feel the anxiety that always seemed to hover below the surface of her skin. The bile rose in her throat. Racing to the window, she threw up the sash. March had come in like a lion. The cold wind raced into the room, whipping the lace panels around Lucy like a shroud attempting to embrace her in its grasp. She gulped deep breaths in until the panic began to subside.
Lucy’s attention was ripped away from the open window back to the confines of the bedroom where three pairs of eyes were trained on her. She hadn’t forgotten them, but for a fraction of time, Lucy had set aside the existence of her three other children. She looked at them now where they sat, huddled together beside a fireplace that put out little in the way of warmth. The two girls, seven and five, the boy, three, and the baby – was she four months yet? No, the 24th was still a few weeks away. But, she was certain this youngest child would share the same blue eyes as her brother and sisters. Their father’s eyes. Lucy’s glance began to drift toward the dresser, and a picture of a young man. “No.” But, it didn’t matter whether or not she looked at the sepia-toned image. She knew his face better than her own.
“Not now. I can’t do this now.” Steeling herself against the pain, Lucy opened her eyes.
Aunt Dolly had once cautioned Lucy about the man in the picture, “You best watch out. Any man with bedroom eyes like that can’t be trusted. I guarantee you he’s got Gypsy blood somewhere in his past. He won’t ever stay in one place.”
In the end, Aunt Dolly was right, she supposed. And, oh, how the women in her family loved being right. He was gone. Good and buried, as the saying goes. But, he’s left me with these Gypsy-children. “And, one dollar and fifty-seven cents.”
“Mama, we’re hungry,” the oldest girl, always the responsible one, spoke up.
“Yes, I know you are. Take your sister and brother downstairs and see if your grandmother has fixed anything for supper. I’ll be down with the baby soon.”
Lucy watched the children descend the twisting walnut staircase. Hand-in-hand they went, with bodies so slight, so ephemeral, their treads were scarcely perceptible. They had learned to be ghost children over the last year. Silent observers of the adult business of dying.
Lucy closed the bedroom door, and barely resisted the temptation to turn the key in the lock. Whether that impulse was born of the need to keep the world at bay, or to imprison herself made no material difference.
Her attention returned to the infant on the bed. Rebecca. Named after Lucy’s own grandmother, a woman about whom she’d heard more than enough tall tales and legends. Rebecca Crockett had kept the farm going when all her boys had gone off to die in what would forever be remembered as the Great War of Northern Aggression. Like Lucy, she had buried a husband, and sons. She would have known how to survive. The thought didn’t console Lucy at all. “What am I going to do?” Lucy’s mind raced. Four children, no husband, no money, no skills. Looking at the picture, a tortured whisper escaped, “Damn you to hell and beyond for leaving me like this.”
And, briefly, she knew that if she could have joined him in the grave, she would.
She never set out to abandon her children. If anyone had been observing, (in order to make a case study, perhaps), nothing in her upbringing would have indicated that she would one day be the type of woman who could walk out on her own offspring. At the age of five, she’d fed and changed the Baby Alive that had been gifted to her for Christmas. At six, she played Mommy while her cousin, Samantha, was Daddy to a brood of stuffed animals. Motherhood had never not been in the cards. And, then, one day she was thirty with a living, breathing, shitting infant of her own making. For almost twenty years, she was a very good mother. She performed all the motherly duties. Playgroups and preschool. Oshkosh B’gosh overalls and little league. Goodnight Moon and Disney World. She made it all happen. Until she couldn’t do the one thing, the most important thing, a mother is supposed to do.
I am an unnatural mother. She’d read that phrase once in a story or article. The writer had left her daughter with an ex-husband and stepmother–a woman far more motherly than the writer, or so it seemed. There were other examples she could recall—but all were from books or movies. Anna Karenina, the mom in Kramer v. Kramer, Sophie’s Choice. “What emotional well did Meryl Streep tap into to play those roles?” she had sometimes wondered.
That first year she went back to work after her eleven-year excursion into stay-at-home mothering, she’d met real, honest-to-goodness abandoned children. They were so matter of fact about being left behind. The class had been in the middle of reading Walk Two Moons — before the climax, before the falling action, before the emptiness of its conclusion — and during a pause, Essence piped up, “That’s how my mom left me. She put me to bed. Kissed me good night. And walked out of the room. She was gone when I woke up.”
One story opened the floodgates of abandonment. And, from behind the safety of her podium, she listened. She tried to suppress the sanctimonious judgment — “What kind of woman would do that? I would never leave my children.”
But, she did. Not for another man, or a career, or from being lost to addiction. But, because of death. It was impossible to explain not only to other people, but herself. I would have died if I’d stayed. The thought often flits across her mind. Perhaps not a literal death, although the temptation had seemed, at times, to offer the only release from a lifetime of pain. The one job a mother has – to keep her child alive – Eliza had failed. What right did she have to mother the children who remained?
Ochre. That was the color she had intended for the walls. They were meant to be a warm yellow that would draw out the warm reds of the brick fireplace and the mahogany paneled walls. It was close. No one other than her would probably notice a slight leaning toward buttermilk. Her eyes continued to circumnavigate the narrow room. It wasn’t really much of a family room, although that’s what it had been. She tried to remember a time when all five of her children had been able to sit there together. A portrait of the four girls and one boy sat on the mantle above the fireplace. The youngest was what? Five? Six, maybe in the picture. A grown woman with children of her own. At that thought, her gut lurched, and her gaze was drawn to another picture. This one of a young boy, slight, blonde hair, his laughing face turned up toward the sun. His eyes were closed, but she knew their color the same as she knew her own. Blue.
Enough of that, she thought. Then, looking back at the bag in her lap, Rebecca pulled out another artifact from the recesses of her own mother’s life. Holding up the treasure, she showed her youngest daughter, Eliza.
“A match? I mean, I guess that would make sense considering the Camels.”
Of course, she wouldn’t know what it was, Rebecca thought. “It’s a snuff brush. They used it to get the snuff out of the can “pointing to the tin of tobacco she had just pulled from the bag. Although still pungent, the snuff fails to elicit any core memories of its former owner.
A carton of Camel cigarettes (missing three packs), two shriveled chestnuts, four spent pistol shells, one pair of lady’s black leather gloves. These are some of the items contained in Lucy’s purse. Or, Mama Lucy as Rebecca’s children had called their grandmother. Each artifact is carefully extracted, then placed beside her. She is as deliberate as any archaeologist in her movements.
“Mom, do you remember when Mama Lucy fed me the possum?” Lucy looks at the woman perched on her knees before me. Who is this person, she finds herself asking once again.
Although she does recall the story, the exact circumstances are unclear, “Where would we have been? Your father? Me? The others?”
Eliza is somewhat exasperated, “I don’t know where you were. I had to have been maybe four or five–we hadn’t been in this house for too long. Everything was new and clean. I do remember that. Why do you think she did that to me?”
“I’m sure she thought it was funny. You ate it all up. She thought that was hilarious. I don’t know any of these people,” Rebecca mutters while leafing through the address book pulled from that cavernous bag. Why is she always asking these questions?
“Prepare for what?” Rebecca’s attention turns briefly from the task at hand to the TV screen. An actress who began her career in soap operas in the 70s appears. She plays the mother in the made-for-television drama. She tells the young boy in the hospital bed, “Ryan, you have AIDS.” Another child dying. Another quick dart of eyes to the boy in the portrait.
A diversion is required. “Eliza, do you know what this is?” she asks while holding up a piece of wood about an inch in length. Dust emanates from the frayed top as my fingers brush back and forth.
It’s too late. “Why are you watching this? Why are you watching this now?” Eliza pleads. Too close to home. Too raw. Too soon. Always too soon.
“It’s just on. We can turn it off. Do you want to look through any of this?” Rebecca gestures to the address book.
“No. I don’t want to look through any of this now. I have to get out of here.”
She would lie there for just a little while. It was early when she headed out. She never looked at the clock, but moonshine had lit the path from the screened-in porch to the garden. The shape of that full moon was still visible through the mist from where she was now. And she was tired. A weak “ha” escaped from her lined lips. She could no longer recall a time when she wasn’t tired or worn down. Her arms still shook from the confrontation.
“Oh, god,” she thought,” Why did I do that?” An old habit, the impulse to clamp a hand over her eyes and shut out the world, rose up, but was immediately shuttered by the tremors that reverberated throughout her body. Clenching her eyes closed didn’t prevent the scene from replaying in her mind.
“God damnit. God damnit. God damnit.” A useless litany escaped in a hoarse whisper. Why she maintained that whisper was a mystery. No one was there to hear her. She could scream for help or sing all the verses to Yankee Doodle Dandy. It would make no difference. She was alone with no company but her memories and the possum lying dead beside her. As her eyes fluttered open, and her vision righted itself, she slowly turned her head. Just a few feet away from her lay the corpse of her former foe. Between them, the instrument of death. She had never meant to kill the animal. Its death was the mistake of a moment, or the result of her own impatience. She had known it was the Louisville Slugger in her hand and not Aunt Dolly’s walnut cane when she left the house. But, once she was set on a path, she did not stray.
The creature was about the size of a healthy infant. And, she thought without irony, almost as attractive as some infants. Of course, she never was the motherly type. Even when her own offspring were small, she couldn’t recall finding them particularly engaging. If she were completely honest (and shouldn’t she be now?), handing them off to Aunt Dolly or her own mother was always a relief. They all had been better off without her as a mother, anyway.
“A cat would make a better mother than you.” Her mother’s words came back across the decades. How unfair to cats, she thought.
“Yes, mama, I’m sure they would.” She had never uttered those words. But they lived with her. “And you, as well.” Another phrase that never crossed her lips. No, no one spoke back to the Grand Dame. They just left.
Best not to pick at that wound right now.
Mothers. Her eyes darted to the possum again. A male. At least she didn’t have to bear that responsibility. Relief coursed through her but was quickly followed by another fear. Do possums mate for life, she wondered? Has he left behind a Mrs. Possum and a passel of little possums?
She turned her head away from the carcass and closed her eyes again. From the nearby woods came the call of a mourning dove. Its” coo OOO ooo” sent out to bring his mate home. The other sounds were lost to her as she listened for the bird’s song to repeat.
“Please, please, please. Come back to me” she begged.
Oh, how she longed to see him again! The strength of that desire shocked even her. For over half a century, thoughts of the man with snow-white hair — hair the same shade as her youngest child—had been firmly tucked away. She ached to trace the curve of his spine with her index finger. Not for carnal knowledge, but simply to affirm he had once existed.
Once more, my now bewildered Dove
Bestirs her puzzled wings
Once more her mistress, on the deep
Her troubled question flings—
“Why did you do that to me? Why did you leave?” A low moan, a soft sigh. She returns to her rapidly failing body. The dew has begun to seep through the worn cotton of her house dress. Time to move on before she catches a chill.
“Riddled with cancer but killed by a cold. Wouldn’t that be funny,” she thought, laconically. She pauses for a moment and cautiously extends her body. Arms, legs, vertebrae, neck. If only she were barefoot. But, her toes can still wiggle in the two-sizes too big rubber work boots. Her fingers dig into the soil, still rich and fertile.
“This is the last time I will be here. The garden will end with me.”
But, before she finally died, she had one task left. Struggling to her knees, she began to make her way back to the house.
“I don’t know any of these people,” the words spilled out of her mouth before the thought had fully formed. Well, no. That’s not exactly right. Her sisters’ names are there. The crossed-out entries detail decades of movement from Germany to Biloxi, to Selma. Wherever the military or work took them. They had multiple entries. Then, there were the addresses for her brother’s wives. All three of them. She often wondered how many more wives he might have had if he’d lived beyond 24. She herself had only one entry. But all the rest … while some of the names seemed familiar, could she really claim to know them?
She sits in her chair in the garage–a space that one of her daughters archly refers to as The Veranda. She comes here to smoke and think. What was it her daughter asked?
“Why do you think she did that to me?”
But, she knows this is not the question her youngest really wants to ask. Taking a long draw of the cigarette, her eye travels around the garage surveying the detritus.
“Mom? Are you out here?”
“Over here. Careful, I spilled coffee on that bottom step.”
Following the direction of her voice, Rebecca watches as Eliza crosses the threshold of the garage. A quick glance to where her mother sits in a dilapidated Adirondack chair—no longer considered adequate for the screen porch or backyard, but still useful. A slight haze of smoke floats above my head; Rebecca has been out here longer than she realized.
“It’s getting cold out here,” Eliza shivers slightly while settling down on the concrete step.
“It is. Last night’s rain brought the temperature down.” Rebecca takes another long drag of her cigarette. Not Camels.
Eliza looks down at her polished toenails, “Mom, I’m sorry to bring up Mama Lucy. I know you don’t like to talk about her.”
“I just don’t remember her. I don’t know what to say.”
“I know. But, it’s just that I was so young when she died. I don’t feel as though I really know anything about her.”
A second passes, maybe two, or more. Her daughter in bare feet, and her eighty-two-year-old self wearing a thin gown, with a housecoat held together by a safety pin. Rebecca has always been frugal. She learned that early in life as a child of the Depression, the War, and abandonment.
“I remember one time she came back home,” She begins, carefully. “She must have been working in Lexington, maybe Tennessee. I don’t know. But, she was taking me and your Uncle Clayton somewhere on a bus. I might have been five or six. I put my feet up on the seat in front of us. My shoes had holes in the soles. Oh, she was so embarrassed by that. ‘Why are you walking around with holes in your shoes? ‘I remember that. She had to buy me shoes then. And then she left again. “Rebecca pauses for a moment and thinks about the woman who left her with little more than a bag and the framed photo of a man with ash-blonde hair.
“I don’t know why she fed you that possum. She probably had a little nip of whiskey. She liked her whiskey.” Maybe that would suffice.
“What? She drank? I don’t even care about the possum. I just want to know … “
“She was never there. How can I tell you anything about her when she was never there? How can I tell you anything about her? I didn’t know her.”
We are silent for ten seconds, twenty, a lifetime. The old dog who has silently slept at her feet stretches, gets up, and slowly lays back down.
“I just … I just feel like if I knew more about her… If I could understand her better… Somehow, maybe, if I knew how she lived through it, how she went on… then, maybe I could too.”
“Oh, how I wish,” escapes me in a defeated whisper, “I could help. I don’t know how she did it, and I don’t know how you will either. If the living could ask the dead how to go on, what would they tell us?”
There was no recipe. There never had been, nor would one ever be found. This was something that had been passed from generation to generation. The women simply knew from sight, or smell, taste, or touch what was necessary and right. She looked down at the carcass in the cast iron pot. She had killed the animal with her own hands, which was the only requisite element. It had nearly done her in though. She was old and weakening more every day as the cancer ravaged her body. She would not be alive to share the secret with the child.
With a sigh she returned to her task. Closing her eyes, she tried to recall her mother, then her grandmother. She needed to see each woman standing before this same pot. Her hand began to move at the moment her eyes opened. Gone was the enamel stove on which she had placed the pot. The distinct smell of burning peat reached her before the heat of the fire. And, extending from a chain above the fire, hung the pot. As the report of gunfire reached her ears, she slowly became aware of the screams of men. Culloden. Not here, then. Further back. She closed her eyes again and tried to think of the other women, some who had names, most who did not.
Her eyes snapped open. Gone was the crofter’s hut and the dying Scotsmen. She was now in a small clearing surrounded by evergreen trees that reached to pierce the sky far above. Before her, the pot rested upon the ashes of a small fire, which did little to ward off the damp chill of the forest. Again, the screams of men came from nearby. But, this time, the screams were intermingled with those of women and children, all crying – harjis – Varus. And, someone chanting over all the screams meina teile. Teutoburg. Not here either.
She closed her eyes once more. A camp beside a mountain covered in snow. And, again. This time, Steppe lands. At each point, she heard the words: crone, witch, Danu, Vølve. All the names for all the mothers. Her mothers. Only their secret would save the child when her time of loss came.
Two years seemed to be her limit. Granted, she’d only lasted four months in Palm Beach, but chalk that up to nasty South Florida heat and humidity. Now, when that feeling came over her – that her skin was too tight, or that there was a current running between her skin and her blood vessels – it was time to go. She had been able to push it down for a while. Sometimes, just planning the escape helped. So, she submerged herself with work or by searching for the right hotel or flight. Anything to keep the thoughts from intruding.
“7A. 7A. Four, five, … six.” There it is. A window seat. She had treated herself this time. A window seat in Business Class. “Two checked bags included in the fare,” she mutters to the powers-that-be.
Eliza quickly hoists the olive-green Osprey backpack into the overhead compartment. She hates to cause a bother to those behind her. Luckily, no one is seated next to her – yet. Fingers crossed, she thinks. Small talk has never been her skill. Most people would be surprised to learn that about her. She once overheard colleagues talking about her, “Yeah, Eliza has her shit together.” She’d chuckled about that. A real laugh. “I just put on a good show,” she whispers.
Settling into the seat that will be her home for the next nine hours, Eliza begins to remove items from her purse (crossbody Coach, not easy for those European thieves to pickpocket – she’s done her homework). Excedrin migraine, ear pods, a pack of Dentyne– all are temporarily placed in the stowaway net of the seatback in front of her. Eliza digs into the side compartment and fishes out a tiny plastic object. She keeps it encased in her fist; unable to look at it. She knows what it is. A totem. A symbol. A relic of all that she once had, and who she has lost. All that significance tied to a tiny Lego figurine. But, it goes with her everywhere.
“Og 7B – Det skal være mig.”
Her companion for the red-eye flight is another woman, old enough to be Eliza’s own mother. Out of the corner of her eye, Eliza noted the Burberry scarf, a gold key bracelet that could only be from Tiffany’s, and the Louis Vuitton bag gently slid underneath the seat. The real deal, Eliza knew automatically. She glanced down at her own very utilitarian outfit: underneath the fleece joggers, a pair of fleece-lined leggings, and the faux-fur lined Sorrels that had already been kicked off to the side. Denmark would be cold this time of year; Eliza was dressed for comfort. Yet, she still felt a sense of dissatisfaction with herself. She often talked a good game “down with capitalism,” but truly ridding herself of those old habits was still a struggle at times.
With a sigh, Eliza turned her attention to the view outside the window. Luggage was still being loaded into the plane’s cavity while a steady rain continued to fall. In the past, she would have been terrified to fly in the rain, but that fear had disappeared when she had learned there are worse things to fear than death. She gripped the Lego figure tightly in her hand, repeating over and over to herself, I take you with me wherever I go.
“You are American?”
Eliza turns her head to her seatmate, “Yes, I am. And you are … Dutch?
“Ja, yes. I am returning to Copenhagen. I have been visiting my son here in New York for the holidays. Is that a Lego?”
Eliza pauses briefly. This woman was more observant than she’d realized. “Yes, yet it is. It was my son’s.”
“Ah, you have a son too?
Another pause, then Eliza begins the story that is always the hardest to tell, “Yes, I once had three sons.”