Issue 207, Winter 2013
I know we’re supposed to be happy on this day. How odd that is. When you’re very young, you’re usually happy, at least you’re ready to be. You get older and see things more clearly and there’s less to be happy about. Also, you start losing people—your family. Ours weren’t necessarily easy, but they were ours, the hand we were dealt. There were five of us, actually, like a poker hand—I never thought of that before.
We’re beyond the river and into New Jersey now, we’ll be in Philadelphia in about an hour, we pulled out of the station on time.
I’m thinking especially about her—older than me and older than our brother, and so often responsible for us, always the most responsible, at least till we were all grown up. By the time I was grown up, she already had her first child. Actually, by the time I was twenty-one, she had both of them.
Most of the time I don’t think about her, because I don’t like to feel sad. Her broad cheeks, soft skin, lovely features, large eyes, her light complexion, blonde hair, colored but natural, with a little gray in it. She always looked a little tired, a little sad, when she paused in a conversation, when she rested for a moment, and especially in a photograph. I’ve searched and searched for a photo in which she doesn’t look tired or sad, but I can find only one.
They said she looked young, and peaceful, in her coma, day after day. It went on and on—no one knew exactly when it would end. My brother told me she had a glow over her face, a damp sheen—she was sweating lightly. The plan was to let her breathe on her own, with a little oxygen, until she stopped breathing. I never saw her in the coma, I never saw her at the end. I’m sorry about that now. I thought I should stay with our mother and wait it out here, holding her hand, till the phone call came. At least that’s what I told myself. The phone call came in the middle of the night. My mother and I both got out of bed, and then stood there together in the dark living room, the only light coming from outside, from the streetlamps.
I miss her so much. Maybe you miss someone even more when you can’t figure out what your relationship was. Or when it seemed unfinished. When I was little, I thought I loved her more than our mother. Then she left home.
I think she left right after she was done with college. She moved away to the city. I would have been about seven. I have some memories of her in that house, before she moved away. I remember her playing music in the living room, I remember her standing by the piano, bent a little forward, her lips pursed around the mouthpiece of her clarinet, her eyes on the sheet music. She played very well then. There were always little family dramas about the reeds she needed for the mouthpiece of her clarinet. Years later, miles away from there, when I was visiting her, she would bring out the clarinet again, not having played it in a long time, and we would try to play something together, we would work our way, hit or miss, through something. You could sometimes hear the full, round tones that she had learned how to make, and her perfect sense of the shape of a line of music, but the muscles of her lips had weakened and sometimes she lost control. The instrument would squeak or remain silent. Playing, she would force the air into the mouthpiece, pressing hard, and then, when there was a rest, she would lower the instrument for a moment, expel the air in a rush, and then take a quick breath before starting to play again.
I remember where the piano was in our house, just inside the archway into that long, low-ceilinged room shadowed by pine trees outside the front windows, with sun coming in the side windows, on the open side, from the sunny yard, where the rosebushes grew against the house and the beds of iris lay out in the middle of the lawn, but I don’t remember her there on this holiday. Maybe she didn’t come home for that. She was too far away to come back very often. We didn’t have a lot of money, so there probably wasn’t much for train fares. And maybe she didn’t want to come back very often. I wouldn’t have understood that then. I told our mother I would give up all the few dollars I had saved if it would bring her home again for a visit. I was very serious about this, I thought it would help, but our mother just smiled.
I missed her so much. When she still lived at home she often looked after us, my brother and me. On the day I was born, on that hot summer afternoon, she was the one who stayed with my brother. They were dropped off at the county fair. She led him around the rides and booths for hours and hours, both of them hot and thirsty and tired, in that flat basin of fairground, where years later we watched the fireworks. My father and mother were miles away, across town, at the hospital on top of the hill.
When I was ten, the rest of us moved, too, to the same city, so for a few years we all lived close by. She would come over to our apartment and stay for a while, but I don’t think she came very often, and I don’t really understand why not. I don’t remember family meals together with her, I don’t remember excursions in the city together. When she was at the apartment, she would listen carefully when I practiced the piano. She would tell me when I played a wrong note, but sometimes she was wrong about that. She taught me my first word in French: she made me say it over and over till I had the pronunciation right. Our mother is gone now, too, so I can’t ask her why we didn’t see her more often.
There won’t be any more animal-themed presents from her. There won’t be any more presents from her at all.
Why those animal-themed presents? Why did she want to remind me of animals? She once gave me a mobile made of china penguins—why? Another time, a seagull of balsa wood that hung on strings and bobbed its wings up and down in the breeze. Another time, a dish towel with badgers on it. I still have that. Why badgers?
TRENTON MAKES, THE WORLD TAKES—out the window. How many advertising slogans will I stare at out the window today? Now there are poles falling over into the water with all their wires still strung on them—what happened to them, and why were they left there?
It’s always the ones without families who get asked to work on this day. I could have claimed that I was spending it with my brother, but he’s in Mexico.
Four hours, a little more. I’ll be there around dinnertime. I’ll eat in the hotel restaurant, if there is one. That’s always the easiest. The food is never really very good, but the people are friendly. They have to be, it’s part of their job. Friendly sometimes meaning they’ll turn the music down for me. Or they’ll say they can’t, but smile.
Was a love of animals something we shared? She must have liked them or she wouldn’t have sent me those presents. I can’t remember how she was with animals. I try to remember her different moods: so often worried, sometimes more relaxed and smiling (at the table, after a drink of wine), sometimes laughing at a joke, sometimes playful (years ago, with her children), at those times filled with sudden physical energy, lunging at someone across the lawn, under the bay tree, in the walled garden that her husband cared for so patiently.
She worried about so many things. She would imagine a bad outcome and she would elaborate on it until it grew into a story and moved far away from where it started. It could start with a prediction of rain. To one of her grown daughters she might say something like, It’s going to rain. Don’t forget your raincoat. If you get wet you might catch cold, and then you might miss the performance tomorrow. That would be too bad. Bill would be so disappointed. He’s looking forward to hearing what you think of the play. You and he have talked about it so much...
I think about that a lot—how tense she was. It’s something that must have started very early, she had such a complicated childhood. Three fathers by the time she was six years old—or two, I suppose, if you don’t count her actual father. He knew her only when she was a baby. Our mother kept leaving her with other people—a nanny, a cousin. For a morning or a day, usually, but once, at least, for weeks and weeks. Our mother had to work—it was always for a good reason.
I didn’t see her often, a long time would go by, because she lived so far away. When we saw each other again, she would put her arms around me and give me a strong hug, pressing me against her soft chest, my cheek against her shoulder. She was half a head taller, and she was broader. I was not only younger, but smaller. She had been there as long as I could remember. I always felt she would protect me or look out for me, even when I was grown up. I still sometimes think, with a pang of longing, before I realize what I’m thinking, that some older woman I see somewhere, about fourteen years older, will take care of me. When she drew back from hugging me, she would be looking off to the side or over my head. She seemed to be thinking of something else. Then, when her eyes rested on me, I wasn’t sure she saw me. I didn’t know what her feelings for me really were.
What was my place in her life? I sometimes thought that to her daughters, and even to her, I didn’t matter. The sensation would come over me suddenly, an emptiness, as if I didn’t even exist. There were just the three of them, her two girls and her, after their father died, after her second husband left. I was peripheral, our brother was, too, though he and I had been such a large part of her life early on.
I was never sure how she felt about anyone except her daughters. I could tell how much she missed them, when they were away, because she would suddenly become so quiet. Or when they were about to go away—from the rented house at the beach, saying good-bye on the front doorstep, the shiny dune grass growing in the sand beyond the cars, the gray shingle of the roof in the sun, the smell of fish and creosote, the sun reflecting off the cars, then the slam of one car door, the slam of the other car door, and her silence as she watched. It was when she was quiet that I felt I had more access to the truth of her feelings, a way to see into them, and those times were mostly in relation to her daughters.
But I think her feelings about our mother were a heavy burden in her life, at least when they were together. When our mother was far away, maybe she could forget her. Our mother was always stepping on her to get up higher, always needing to be right, always needing to be better than her, and than all of us, most of the time. The terrible innocence of our mother, too, as she did that. She had no idea, most of the time.
Our last conversation—it was on the phone, long-distance. She said she was having trouble seeing things on the right side of her field of vision. On a form she was filling out, she saw the word date and wrote in the day’s date, not seeing that there were more words to the right of it, and that she was supposed to fill in date of birth. We talked for a while, and toward the end of the conversation I must have said something about talking again in a few days, or staying in touch about her condition, because then, in answer to that, she said she didn’t want to talk again, because she wanted to save all her strength for talking to her daughters. As she said it, her voice sounded to me distant, or exhausted, she did not soften what she was saying, or apologize. We never talked again after that. I felt pushed away, pushed out of her life. But her coolness was the sound of her own fear, her preoccupation with what was happening to her, not anything against me.
After she died, I kept going over and over it, trying to see what she felt about me, trying to measure it, find the affection or the love, measure that, make sure of it. She must have had mixed feelings about me, her much younger sister—my life at home was easier than hers had ever been. She probably felt some jealousy that went on and on, year after year, and yet she did want to be with me, she came to where I lived, she visited me, she slept in my living room, it was two nights, at least. She came more than once. Was it on one of those visits that I heard her little radio going half the night, close beside her next to the bed, muttering and singing, or was it in one of the rented beach places during the summer vacation, sand on the floor, someone else’s furniture, someone else’s art on the walls? She had trouble sleeping, she kept the radio on and read a detective novel late into the night.
And she did have me come and stay with her, and once I lived with her for a while, when I had to get away from my parents. Sometimes I thought she took me in from a sense of duty to me, her younger sister, since I was always having my own problems.
She always sent our package well ahead of time. Inside, each present was wrapped in soft tissue paper, or stiffer wrapping paper. All these presents—she picked them out, bought them, wrapped them in cheerful paper, labeled them in her large script with black or colored marker directly on the gift wrap, and sent them a couple of weeks in advance.
I know I always cared too much about my presents. This holiday was the high point of the year for me when I was a child, and that has never changed. The year culminates in this holiday and the turning of the old year to the new year, and then the circle of the year begins again, always leading up to this holiday.
The seagull ended up in a closet, the strings tangled. From time to time, I would try to untangle it, and at last I succeeded. Then I hung it from a rafter in the barn with a piece of duct tape. After a while, in the heat of the summer, the tape loosened and it fell down.
Then there was that little green stuffed elephant with sequins, from India, quite pretty. With two little cords on it, to hang it up somewhere. I hung it in a window and the green material on one side of it faded after a while in the sunlight. And a thing made of felt, with pockets, to hang on the back of a door and put things in—I’m not sure what. It had elephants on it, too, embroidered on the felt.
Now I remember—she would get these things at special handicraft fairs to benefit some organization of indigenous people. That was part of her kindness, and her conscientiousness, and part of the reason the things were a little odd and sometimes a strange match for us.
So there was always the excitement of her package arriving in the mail. The coarse brown paper a little battered from the trip overseas. The brown paper was even more exciting than the wrappings inside, because it was so drab, yet you knew that inside there would be that explosion of little packages, each wrapped in colored paper, each paper different.
She chose my presents with me in mind, I think, but twisting the facts a little, in an optimistic sort of way, thinking I would find this thing useful or decorative. I think a lot of people, when they pick out a gift, twist the facts optimistically. But I’m not saying I’m against people trying out a different kind of gift on someone, and I’m certainly not against those handicraft fairs. Now that a few years have gone by, and I’ve changed, too, I would buy my gifts at a handicraft fair. I would do it at least in her memory.
She wouldn’t spend a lot of money on a gift. That was her conscience. She wouldn’t spend a lot on herself, either. I also believe that, deep down, she probably didn’t think she deserved any better.
But she spent a lot on us at other times. Her gifts then would come out of the blue. Once, she wrote to me and asked if I wanted to go on a skiing trip in the mountains with her and the children. It was early spring and the snow was melting in muddy patches on the slopes. We skied on what snow there was. I sometimes went off on long walks. She thought I shouldn’t go by myself—if something happened to me, I would be alone and without help. But she could not forbid me to go, so I went. On the paths I took, in fact, there were many people hiking up and down, passing each other with a friendly greeting.
Years later, when I was long past the age when I should have needed any help from her, she bought me my first computer. I could have refused, but I still did not have much money. And there was something exciting about her sudden offer one afternoon, over the phone. It was late in the evening where she was. Her offer was an enveloping burst of generosity, I wanted to sink into it and stay inside it. Yes, she said, yes, she insisted, she would send me the money. The next day she called again, a little calmer—she wanted to help, she would send me some money, but not the whole amount, which was a lot in those days. I know how it must have been—late in the evening, she was thinking of me, and missing me, and the feeling grew in her and turned into a desire to do something for me, even something dramatic.
Starting at about that time, she would rent a house for us each summer, or at least pay for most of it, a house at the beach, for a week or two, a different one each year, and we would all go there and be there together. The last time we did this was the last year of my father’s life, though he didn’t come to the beach house—we left him behind in the nursing home. The next summer, he was gone, and she was gone, too.
Nearly to Philadelphia—rounding the bend, by the river, there are the boathouses on the other side, that big museum on the cliff across the water, like a building from ancient Greece. I won’t see the station this time—its high ceiling and long wooden benches and archways and preserved old signs. I could just stand there looking at it for a while, the deep space of it—I do, now and then, if I have time. Our own Penn Station was even grander. It’s gone now—that always hurts, to think about. And then when you’re walking around there in that underground concourse, killing time before your train, you keep passing the photos they put up on the columns, of the old Penn Station, the long shafts of sunlight falling through the tall windows down the flights of marble stairs. As if they want to remind us of what we’re missing—strange.
Then we’ll be passing through Amish country. I never remember to watch for it, it always takes me by surprise. In the spring, the teams of mules and horses plowing the sloping fields up to the horizon—none of that today. The wash on the lines—maybe. It’s cloudy, but dry and windy. What was that I read about salting your wash in winter? Anyway, it’s not freezing today. A warm winter.
Again and again, she tried to pay our brother’s way over, to go visit her. He never went. He never said why. He finally went when she was dying, when she didn’t know it, it was too late for her to have that satisfaction—that at last he had agreed to come. He stayed there until the end. When he was not with her, he walked around the city. He took care of some of the practical things that had to be done. Then he stayed on for the funeral. I did not go over for the funeral. I had good reasons, to me they seemed good, anyway, having to do with our old mother, and the shock of it, and how far away it was, across the ocean. Really, it had more to do with the strangers who would be at the funeral, and the tenderness of my own feelings, which I did not want to share with strangers.
I could share her when she was alive. When she was alive, her presence was endless, time with her was endless, time was endless. Our mother was very old already, and when we children stopped to think about how long we might live, we thought we would live to be just as old. Then, suddenly, there was that strange problem with her vision, which turned out to be a problem not with her vision but in her brain, and then, without warning, the bleeding and the coma, and the doctors announcing that she did not have long to live.
Once she was gone, every memory was suddenly precious, even the bad ones, even the times I was irritated with her, or she was irritated with me. Then it seemed a luxury to be irritated.
I did not want to share her, I did not want to hear a stranger say something about her, a minister in front of the congregation, or a friend of hers who would see her in a different way. To stay with her, in my mind, to remain with her, was not easy, since it was all in my mind, since she wasn’t really there, and for that, it had to be just the two of us, no one else. There would have been strangers at the funeral, people she knew but I didn’t know, or people I knew but didn’t like, people who had cared about her or had not cared about her but thought they should attend the funeral. But now I’m sorry, or rather, I’m sorry I couldn’t have done both—gone to the funeral and also stayed home to be with our mother and nurse my own grief and my own memories.
Suddenly, after she was gone, things of hers became more valuable to me than they had been before—her letters, of course, though there weren’t many of them, but also things she had left behind in my house after her last visit, like her jacket, a dark blue windbreaker with some logo on it. And a detective novel I tried to read and couldn’t. A tub of frozen clams in the freezer, and a jar of tartar sauce, marked down, in the door of the fridge.
We’re moving pretty fast now. When you slide by it all so quickly, you think you won’t ever have to get bogged down in it again—the traffic, the neighborhoods, the stores, waiting in lines. We’re really speeding. The ride is smooth. Just a little squeaking from some metal part in the car that’s jiggling. We’re all jiggling a little.
There aren’t many people in the car, and they’re pretty quiet today. I don’t mind telling someone if he talks too long on his cell phone. I did that once. I gave this man ten minutes, maybe even more, maybe twenty, and then I went and stood there next to him in the aisle. He was hunched over with his finger pressed against his free ear. He didn’t get angry. He looked up at me, smiled, waved his hand in the air, and ended the call before I was back in my seat. I don’t do business on my cell phone on the train. They should know better.
There were also gifts of a different kind that she gave—the effort she went to for other people, the work she put into preparing meals for friends. The wanderers she took into her house, to live for weeks or months—kids passing through, but also, one year, that thin old Indian who spent every day arranging her books in the bookcases, and who ate so little and meditated so long. And later her old father, her actual father, the one she first met when she was already grown up, not my father, not the father who raised her. She had had a dream about him, that he was very ill. She had set out to find him, she had found him, and it turned out that he was very ill.
She was so tired by the end of the day that whenever I was there visiting, when we all sat watching some program or movie on television in the evening, she would fall asleep. First she was awake for a while, curious about the actors—Who is that, didn’t we see him in . . . ?—and then she would grow quiet, she was quiet for so long that you would look over and see that her head was leaning to the side, the lamplight shining on her light hair, or her head was bowed over her chest, and she would sleep until we all stood up to go to bed.
What was the last present she gave me? Seven years ago. If I had known it was the last, I would have given it such careful attention.
If it wasn’t animal themed or made by some indigenous person, then it was probably some kind of a bag, not an expensive bag, but one that had a special feature, a trick to it, like it folded into itself when it was empty, and then zipped up and had a little clip on it so you could clip it onto another bag. I have a few of those stored away.
She carried them herself, and other kinds of bags, always open and full of things—an extra sweater, another bag, a couple of books, a box of crackers, a bottle of something to drink. There was a generosity in how much she packed and carried with her.
One time when she came to visit—I’m thinking of her bags leaning in a group against a chair of mine. I was nearly paralyzed, not knowing what to do. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to leave her alone, that wouldn’t have been right, but I also wasn’t used to having company. After a while, the panicky feeling passed, maybe just because time passed, but there was a moment when I thought I was going to collapse.
Now I can look at that same bed where she slept and wish she would come back at least for a little while. We wouldn’t have to talk, we wouldn’t even have to look at each other, but I just want to see her arms, her broad shoulders, her hair.
I want to say to her, Yes, there were problems, our relationship was difficult to understand, and complicated, but still, I would like just to have you sitting there on the daybed where you did sleep for a few nights once, it’s your part of the living room now, I’d like to just look at your cheeks, your shoulders, your arms, your wrist with the gold watchband on it, a little tight, pressing into the flesh, your strong hands, the gold wedding ring, your short fingernails, I don’t have to look you in the eyes or have any sort of communion, complete or incomplete, but to have you there in person, in the flesh, for a while, pressing down the mattress, making folds in the cover, the sun coming in behind you, would be very nice. Maybe you would stretch out on the daybed and read for a while in the afternoon, maybe fall asleep. I would be in the next room, nearby.
Sometimes, after dinner, if she was very relaxed and I was sitting next to her, she would put her hand on my shoulder and let it rest there for a while, so that I felt it warmer and warmer through the cotton of my shirt. I sensed then that she did love me in a way that wouldn’t change, whatever her mood might be.
That fall, after the summer when they both died, she and my father, there was a point when I wanted to say to them, All right, you have died, I know that, and you’ve been dead for a while, we have all absorbed this and we’ve explored the feelings we had at first, in reaction to it, surprising feelings, some of them, and the feelings we’re having now that a few months have gone by—but now it’s time for you to come back. You have been away long enough.
Because after the dramas of the deaths themselves, those complicated dramas that went on for days, for both of them, there was the quieter and simpler fact of missing them. He would not be there to come out of his room at home with a picture or a letter to show us, he would not be there to tell us the same stories over again, about when he was a young boy—pronouncing the names that meant so much to him and so little to us: Clinton Street where he was born, Winter Island where they went in the summers when he was little, him watching the back of the horse that trotted ahead of them pulling their carriage, his pneumonia when he was a child, weakened and lying in bed reading, day after day, in that cousin’s house in Salem, going to the Y on Saturdays to swim with the other boys, where it was the usual thing for all the boys to swim naked, and how that bothered him, the Perkins family next door. He would not be there having his first cup of coffee in the morning at eleven o’clock, or reading by the light from the window in an armchair. She would not be making pancakes for us in the mornings at the rented beach house, wide fat blueberry pancakes a little underdone in the middle, standing over the pan, quiet and concentrating, or talking as she worked, in her flowered blouse and straight pants, her comfortable flats or her moccasins, the familiar shape of her toes in them stretching the fabric or the leather. She would not go out swimming in the rough waves of the harbor, even in stormy weather, her eyes a lighter blue than the water. She would not stand with our mother waist-deep in the water near the shore talking with a little frown on her face either from the sunlight or from concentrating on what they were talking about. She would never again make oyster stew the way she did one Christmas Eve, on that visit to our mother and father’s house after her husband died, the crunch of sand in our mouths in the milky broth, sand in the bottoms of our spoons. She would not take a child on her lap, her own child, as on that same visit, when they were all so sad and confused, or someone else’s child, and rock that child quietly back and forth, her broad strong arms around the child’s chest, resting her cheek against the child’s hair, her face sad and thoughtful, her eyes distant. She would not be there on the sofa in the evenings, exclaiming in surprise when she saw an actor she knew in a movie or a show, she would not fall asleep there, suddenly quiet, later in the evening.
The first New Year after they died felt like another betrayal—we were leaving behind the last year in which they had lived, a year they had known, and starting on a year which they would never experience.
There was also some confusion in my mind, in the months afterward. It was not that I thought she was still alive. But at the same time I couldn’t believe that she was actually gone. Suddenly the choice wasn’t so simple: either alive or not alive. It was as though not being alive did not have to mean she was dead, as though there were some third possibility.
Her visit, that time—now I don’t know why it seemed so complicated. You just go out and do something together, or sit and talk if you stay inside. Talking would have been easy enough, since she liked to talk. Of course it’s too simple to say that she liked to talk. There was something frantic about the way she talked. As though she were afraid of something, underneath, fending something off. After she died, that was one thing we all said—we used to wish she would stop talking for a while, or talk a little less, but now we would have given anything to hear her voice.
I wanted to talk, too, I had things to say in answer to her, but it wasn’t possible, or it was difficult. She wouldn’t let me, or I would have to force my way into the conversation.
I wish I could try again—I wish she would come and visit again. I think I would be calmer. I’d be so glad to see her. But it doesn’t work that way. If she came back, she’d be back for more than just a little while, and maybe I wouldn’t know what to do, after all, any better than the last time I saw her. Still, I’d like to try. But it’s too late.
Another present was a board game involving endangered species. A board game—there was that optimism again. Or she was doing what our mother used to do—giving me something that required another person, so that I would have to bring another person into my life. I actually meet plenty of people. I even meet them traveling. Most people are basically pretty friendly. It’s true that I still live alone, I’m just more comfortable that way, I like having everything the way I want it. But having a board game wasn’t going to encourage me to bring someone home to play it with me.