Jill Talbot’s column, The Last Year, traces the moments before her daughter leaves for college. It ran every Friday in November and returns this winter month, then will return again in the spring and summer.
I grew up inside the smoke of my grandmother’s Pall Malls. The air between her and my mother was dangerous. On our visits to east Texas, the two women would sit in stiff silence for what seemed like hours to my six-year-old sense of time. My mother sat on the brocade couch, my grandmother in her gold velour chair. In every room, there was at least one painting of flowers—roses or daises—all of them done by my grandmother. I’d sit on the floor, counting the chimes from the grandfather clocks in the hallway, not one of which kept the same time as any other. After my grandmother had wandered off to the back room to clink the crystal decanter against her highball glass too many times, we’d go. My mother never left without leaning over that gold chair to kiss her mother goodbye. She never left without saying, “I love you,” like a sigh you let out when the night’s too long. Then that high-chinned stride for the screen door. Every time, just before my mother pushed it open, my grandmother would surrender: “Love you, Martha Jo.”
The day I found out I was having a girl, I sat in my car in the parking lot of the doctor’s office and sobbed. Deep, ragged sobs.
A few months after my mother died, I was in her kitchen with Mary and Jean, her two best friends, whom she had known since the first grade. While I pulled down pieces of china from the kitchen hutch and wrapped each one in newspaper, Mary and Jean helped my daughter, Indie, then sixteen, pack her own set of dishes, the ones my grandmother gave to my parents when they married in 1969. That china set was hand-painted with pink roses, had gilded handles and my grandmother’s initials on the bottom of each delicate piece. Mary and Jean’s mothers had taken the same painting classes as my grandmother. As Mary liked to say, “What else was there to do in that small town in the fifties?” Mary and Jean still live in that small town. I placed an empty box on the kitchen table and asked the question I had never been able to ask my own mother: “How bad was my grandmother’s drinking?” None of us stopped packing while they took turns telling stories—my grandmother’s long drives to the closest wet county, the afternoon she “took a nap” during one of their Girl Scout meetings, an ad she put in the newspaper for her lost red purse with two possible locations where it might have been left.
My mother-grief trembles. Regret, apology, a deep missing. When I sit inside it—as when I pull on one of her sweaters or use her measuring spoons or listen to her Patsy Cline CD—the ache feels like a cacophony of clock chimes. My mother and I never kept the same time.
After all the boxes were taped, Mary and Jean grabbed their purses. I walked them out to the driveway and said I didn’t feel like my mother ever really liked me. Mary hugged me close and whispered in my ear, “Jill, she loved you.” Jean sighed, “She just never learned how.”
Eighteen years ago, with my daughter growing inside me, I knew I contained a difficult history—my mother and her mother, my mother and me. I could feel it ticking, ticking, ticking.
After I left home for college, I often went to east Texas alone to visit my grandmother. As a child, I’d only known the lonely widow who kept cashews on the kitchen counter, the woman who pretended there wasn’t bourbon in the back room. I wanted to know more. During those solo visits, she’d tell me stories—about my mother, the man she sent a Dear John letter to during the war, the time she caught my mother and Mary smoking (Mary denies this)—but mostly she’d gossip about the neighbor across the way. Sometimes we’d laugh so hard she’d fall into a fit of Pall Mall coughing.
Indie has the same shoe size as my mother and kept some of her shoes. Her favorite is a pair of black suede bootees with a thick wedge heel. She wears them every time she has a band concert, an audition, something special. Last week, before leaving for a jazz festival, she came home from the store with superglue, said that one of Gramma’s heels had come loose.
Most nights, Indie and I like to sit on the couch and watch one of our shows. She puts her feet in my lap, and every few minutes, we hit pause to tell each other a story from our day or update an ongoing saga: “Okay, do you remember when I told you?” One-hour shows take us two hours to finish. We like to stretch the time.
I never knew how much Indie and my mother talked and texted until Indie opened a present, one of the last ones, it turned out, that my mother gave her. It was a floral duvet cover, black with gray and rose-pink colors. “We picked it out together,” Indie told me. Sometimes when I’m in Indie’s room, I smooth the flowers on the bed.
In the hospital, when I knew it was time to say what I needed to say to my mother, I held her hand and began, “Thank you,” and as I continued, the words that were pushing from the back of my throat—the ones I really wanted to say—wouldn’t come out. I’m sorry.
When Indie was an infant, I’d sit on the couch with my feet on the coffee table, my knees bent. I’d place Indie on my thighs and take her hands to sing “Do-Re-Mi.” I made up hand movements for each note—so that she’d trace sundrops as if they were falling rain for re, tap, tap, tap her own heart for mi, and pump her arms for the long run of fa, her favorite. She doesn’t remember it. But I do. I remember it as the first time I knew we would reverse the pendulum’s swing.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. Her writing has been recognized by the Best American Essays and appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Longreads, The Normal School, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine.