My mother is moving by jerky fits and starts toward that country where old women walk down day-lit avenues in nightgowns in search of fire stations and trolley cars. Our conversations on the telephone are 66 percent reiterations of every talk we’ve ever had and 34 percent brightly illustrated catalogs of inspiration: she’s thinking of buying a horse, getting remarried (“if I ever meet the right man”), calling the Salvation Army for the name of a poor family (“with nothing, I mean nothing”) for whom she will cook Christmas dinner — this interspersed with thrice-repeated updates on the health and carryings-on of relatives who have done nothing interesting since the Korean War. Her mood is cheery. She, who was not once caught complaintless in her ninety years, responds to “How are you?” with a lilting “Pretty good.” I am entirely baffled. She offers me kind words and good advice and fellow feeling: things I could have made some use of as a child, when I was left largely — or perhaps smally — to my own devices, then, as now, such meager and insubstantial things.
I cross three state lines and a dozen other unmarked borders to go home for a token visit. I take my mother out for dinner, and in the car she opens her purse and fingers a stack of bills slipped into the middle of her checkbook. She doesn’t count them so much as look at them briefly, as one might leaf through a pile of photographs with only passing interest. She does this a number of times on the way there. Except for her greens, my mother eats heartily — “like an actor out of work,” as my father used to say. My father, gone now twenty years. I leave the waitress a 30 percent tip for her gracious kindness when my mother asks to take her iceberg-lettuce salad home.
Our mother-daughter duo is beginning to add up to a lot of time. I had the poor judgment to be born when my mother was just twenty, which means we practically grew up together. I knew her when she was a kid, and now that I am slated to be seventy on my next birthday, we are being old together too. It’s a bit much really: to know a person from the age of twenty until ninety and beyond.
Sitting by the television on the last night of my visit, I ask my mother what was the happiest time of her life.
“When I was seventeen or eighteen,” she says, without pausing to consider. She was a singer then, popular and well paid.
How did you get concerts to play? “Oh, they called and asked us.” How did they know of you? “From the radio.” How did you get on the radio to sing at the age of seventeen? “Oh, it was easy.”
And I, as ever, am left to wonder and invent the answers on my own.
My mother was a stage performer till the first child — me — came along. I gave her a different name: Mother, one of those storied women wearing aprons and perfume, their minds adrift in dreams and tedium, old longing smashing headlong into daily life for seven thousand mornings in a row.
The Saturday night before Easter I call my mother at nine o’clock. She is the only person in the world guaranteed to show real happiness that I have called. She tells me she is worried she will oversleep tomorrow and miss the Resurrection. So I call and wake her Easter morning and, hanging up, feel not so alone.
Still, it breaks my heart to talk to her. I want to pile up all my mother’s sins, to bury this long sadness that our phone calls swamp me with, as though misery might cease to be if only enough bodies hurled themselves into the fray. But later, sitting in a sandwich shop, I start to tear up at the sight of the burly man behind the counter grating cabbage, the green head some descendant of the thousand cabbages my mother grated to make coleslaw flecked with bits of onion and bright carrot. During our recent phone calls her talk of ground-beef patties, mashed potatoes, and applesauce — our nightly fare when I was a girl — can make me cry so hard that I can barely keep up my end of the conversation.
“How’s Aunt Ellen?” I say. The aunt in question, ninety-six years of age, is pretty much the same as she has been since 1943. “How’s the weather? Have you heard from Bob?”(My phantom brother Bob so seldom calls her; he never comes to visit. There are sins, and there are sins.)
I know the questions I am supposed to ask — my sister has made me a list — but I want to scream into the telephone; to bypass her hearing aids, ignore the boundaries of time and space and taste, and cry out, Tell me! Tell me! Tell me about life back then.
“We think of the past every day,” I once commented at a dinner party, and a famous writer at the table said, “What do you mean? We don’t think about the past, not even every week.” And she calls herself a writer. Other people call her a writer.
Tell me, I want to yell into the phone, where did Daddy sleep when he was growing up? There was no bed for him that I ever saw in that old house full up with aunts and armoires. You will die, and sooner lose all memory and go to live out on a barren plain where memory has never been and so will not be missed. You’ll go to this new country well before you take off for that other land, where God will do with memory what he will. (Oh, let’s not pretend we, any of us, have stopped believing in that place.)
Where did Daddy sleep? I need to know, and you’re the last one who might tell me, though I know full well you’ve never cared for details, or life stories. You left history to the past.
Where did Daddy sleep? Why did you dislike me? Why did you like my sister better? Why do you dislike her now?
“You see,” my mother says to me, “they won’t let me drive anymore. Those two took my keys away. I am a better driver than either one of them.” The drivers in question are my brother Ned and our sister, Ruth, who have taken charge of her care.
Why did you always hate my friends? Did you despise the preacher’s wife because I thought she was lovely?
“I heard on the TV,” my mother says, “that Oprah Winfrey is a Baptist.” Our family business is being Baptist.
“You told me Warren Beatty was.”
“Oh, well, that’s who it was then. I knew it was one of them.
“I have this Prevention magazine here,” my mother continues. “It says celery brought this fellow’s blood pressure down fifty points. Aunt Ellen eats celery by the pound.”
I scribble the word celery on a napkin on the kitchen counter.
“It says here cinnamon brought this lady’s cholesterol down.”
I write cinnamon.
My mother spews out clinical findings for the next five minutes — she, who has always eschewed information. I grew up in a house bereft of facts or books that might have offered any perspective, story, or opinion originating beyond the borders of our property.
I hang up, teary, and get down on my knees to pray.
Now that our mother’s living alone has started to give everyone pause, my siblings and I are gearing up for the battle over what to do next. She will not be asked for her opinion. No matter that she would buy stallions, feed the really poor, and marry a “good Christian man with piles of money.” She is now to be acted upon, Ned and Ruth the deciders; I, the hapless generator of ideas created for their shredding pleasure.
“What if we were to consider . . . ?” I say brightly — well, brightly for me.
No, they reply. No.
The story of every aging mother is the story of the children she raised during the years when no one in the house knew old age existed. When you are giving birth, you never stop to think that the child being born will one day, sooner than you can account for, be deciding where you will live, and with whom, and maybe even for how long. Your children, the ones in the next room playing computer games right now, will be deciding when you will no longer drive and who will tidy up your kitchen and then sit with you and talk — nonstop in all likelihood, driving you beyond distraction.
Perpetual-care facilities — the End of Life Villa, Hotel Oblivion, places no one wants to go — are so full they won’t take you anyway. The old and unhappy, the unhappy old, take up residence on waiting lists for tiny rooms, bad food, and brand-new, blacker versions of despair.
My brother Ned’s most recent contribution is an offer to torch the church my mother has attended for the past seventy-seven years, because there isn’t a born-often Christian in the place for whom it’s not inconvenient to give our mother a ride to the service. Oh, and he wants to hire teenage boys to clean her house. Such a no-brainer, he tells me. I get the no-brain part.
My sister’s idea is that we repaint my mother’s ancient eleven-room house and then “see where we are,” as though the peeling paint were the greatest peril in our mother’s life. We exchange worried e-mails late at night. It is always e-mail. Phone wires are far too likely to trip us up, entangle us in our diverse intentions.
I, who am not even asked to make suggestions, on a sudden inspiration call the newspaper in my mother’s town and place an ad. Only after I hang up do I take time to wonder at the wording: Free apartment to companion for elderly woman. Every syllable is paid to tell a different lie. If there’s no free lunch, there is for certain no free lodging. The problem is the nouns, an “apartment” being different from a second floor of bedrooms and a makeshift kitchen in a closet. At best it is a railroad flat. And “companionship” is not routinely understood to include the cleaning of bathrooms — or, at least, not every day. And though my mother is a woman — a word she herself has never said out loud, “girls” and “ladies” being what you call those who are not men — even at her fourscore and ten, it’s hard for me to conceive of her as “elderly.” I think, on certain days, we could pass for sisters.
Truth be told, I expected no replies to my newspaper ad —or certainly not nine, from people willing and in fact insistent upon telling me their life stories. “They have no boundaries,” a friend says, when I share the intimate details. But really what they have is no home and little life to speak of.
The first two callers are both thirty years old and both named Kristen. (What are the chances? Apparently quite good.) The first Kristen is a substitute teacher who says she never knows if or where she’s working till 7 AM on any given day. Her own mother lives in the same town as mine. “But you know how that goes.” I imagine that I do. She tells me that she’d like to get her life back on the rails (I don’t inquire) and that she doesn’t believe in public education. I say I will let her know once my brother and sister have decided what we will do.
“What about you?” she says. “Don’t you have a say in this?”
I don’t, I say, a fact I should perhaps have reckoned on before I shelled out $87.50 for a newspaper ad. (I forbear, but only just, telling her my life story.)
The second Kristen sits “in a booth at the mall” twenty-five hours a week and talks to people about replacement shower stalls. I ask if they can be installed over existing tiles — specifically, ugly pink and gray 1950s tiles. There is nothing, she assures me, they cannot be installed over. I ask how much might something like that cost. She tells me she has been instructed to reply, “How much would you consider spending?” even though the cost is always $3,249.
“Always?” I ask.
“Always,” she says. “Now, about the apartment . . .”
I tell this Kristen that while the ad employs the word companion for the sake of brevity, what we — the pronoun clearly overreaching — are really looking for is someone who might drive our mother to church and the grocery store and clean her house. When I ask if that might be a problem, Kristen Number Two says, “Hello? Lady, I am OCD. I live to clean. Did I say I have two dogs?”
“My mother loves dogs,” I say, then wonder if it was not in fact my father who stocked the house with a succession of unlikely mongrels when I was growing up.
“I don’t have a car myself,” Kristen Two says, “but I can drive like the wind.” So can my mother, which is why we’re in the market for a chauffeur.
The third responder is a man.
“I’m sorry, but we’re looking for a woman,” I say.
“I could sue your ass,” he says. “Haul you into court for sex discrimination.”
“OK,” I say. “Well, thanks for calling.”
“No, no, wait a minute. I’m trying to help you here.” (Who knew?) “The next time a man calls, you should tell him the job’s been taken already, or he very well could sue your ass. I’m not going to sue your ass myself.”
“OK, well, if you change your mind . . . ”
After every phone call I e-mail Ned and Ruth and give them all the candidate’s particulars. My sister doesn’t reply. My brother writes, “Whatever happened to giving this a rest? Let us let the evil of the day be sufficient to the day itself,” which I might very well be inclined to do . . . if I were dead.
The next caller is Annie Lawn, “like the grass.” Annie is a licensed nurse who has been caring for elderly people since she was fourteen. “My mother was incontinent, if you know what that means.” I say I do, though truthfully I know only the dictionary definition and have no comprehension whatsoever of what it means to be a teenager who must daily wash her mother’s skivvies and her bottom.
“I love caring for old people,” Annie says. “And, by the way, this might be the time for you to think about what happens if she gets worse and can’t care for herself at all.”
“Well, we would put her in a nursing home.” (Is this call being recorded for training purposes, to train you how to ship your mother off?) “But we would give you ample notice so you could find another place.”
“Or,” Annie Lawn, licensed nurse, says, “I could care for her faithfully until she dies, and you could sell me her house for a greatly reduced price.”
We could. But then there’s the whole prerequisite of hell freezing over, though I am hardly in any position to start ruling things out. (I read in the Times the other day that no one believes in hell anymore — as if its existence were contingent on consensus. Now, won’t the devil be surprised.)
“Do you think that might work?” Annie says.
I think if I can get my brother and sister to hire this woman in the first place, she might very well buy the house for a song, much as I — if I could meet a sixty-nine-year-old, bright, funny, ironic, iconic, essentially perfect man — might well remarry. It’s those first little hurdles that are the killers.
I e-mail my brother and my sister that I’ve found a licensed nurse with thirty years’ experience. Ruth doesn’t answer, and Ned says if I send him any more e-mails, he’s going to change his address.
It’s interesting — at least after sufficient merlot — the ways a family can make a person feel. I send a well-phrased, spell-checked e-mail making yet another compelling case for a free, live-in driver-housekeeper for our mother, and my sister sends me two directives in reply: “Don’t e-mail us anymore. Please. And cancel that newspaper ad this minute.”
She erases me from the family when she clicks SEND — I, who have lived in a small pup tent on the outskirts of the clan from the beginning. I never fit. I never figured out the program. True, I did duck out for thirty-seven years there in the middle, but for the last couple of decades I’ve been attempting to wiggle my way back in. I say, “back in,” but “in” would be closer to the truth.
Going back to the callers: How is it that I find each one more charming than the last? How is it that the same behavior perpetrated by a sibling would drive me shrieking from the room?
All the respondents to my newspaper ad live in the same town as their own parents, and some live in the same town as their own grown children. Yet they are each looking for a bed to sleep in in some other house, some other neighborhood, with some other family. I do not think that it was ever thus. There was a time when a grandmother came attached to every home. Even feckless uncles were routinely taken in. Who invented this new way? What did his mother do to him?
None of us can see the sudden curves, deep ruts and gullies, black ditches, sandy shoulders, and coming fog on the road ahead. We buy insurance, sign affidavits to be thrust in the face of frailty and the disaster we do not believe will ever come, no matter that we tell each other we are afraid. My mother’s generation will be the last to wake up in dementia lacking papers — those carefully scripted scenarios families will be forced to act out upon instruction. The only directives my mother and her peers have written down are the hymns for their funerals and the final disposition of their mortal frames: fire or decay. My friends and I, we’ve saved money, made plans, put in writing so many things. What will our children do? What prescription will they write for their old age? What will their children do?
I like to think that ice floes and nursing homes are not the last word in perpetual care. Life so wants a fitting end. I interview strangers on the telephone long-distance but give up too easily. My brother still wants to hire teenage saviors. My sister buys our mother a sweater, spends forty-seven dollars on some anti-aging cream.
I think we should give the upstairs apartment to all the respondents together — there are four bedrooms, seven beds — and make a brand-new family out of unfortunate timing, missed chances, and spare parts. My mother might be driven like the wind, made happy by two frisky dogs, be medicated, tended, fed, and entertained by a licensed nurse, and have a man willing and entirely able to sue the asses of any number of deserving people on her gratified behalf.
Days and days — long, largely vacant days — after the ad has stopped running, I get a call. The caller sounds older than the others, her Ohio accent more pronounced, more unhappily familiar, as if hers were a voice from my distant past.
“Might I ask what is your current situation now?” I say. That would be current now, as opposed to current at some other time. I’m buying a few minutes here, like the kid who answers the phone and knows the call isn’t for him. I’m not inclined to own up right off the bat to my disenfranchised status, my now marginal affiliation with my blood relatives.
“I’m looking for a job,” the caller says, her voice an echo of my childhood, “and maybe for a home.”
What year are you calling from? I want to ask.
“I would like to be with people now,” she says.
Something about her measured words makes the regular back and forth of conversation seem a bit reckless, a tad ill-considered. This impression I’ve gleaned from two terse sentences, as ever inventing other people out of flimsy intimations.
“I’m afraid I have to say that the family” — not to be confused with me — “aren’t sure just what arrangements they will be making. Things have changed since I placed the ad.” Things like the annual renewal of my excommunication. “I’m not sure what to tell you.”
“Margaret?” The caller speaks my name. “Margaret Mackenzie? Is that you?”
“Yes,” I say, hesitant but really not much more surprised than I am whenever anybody recognizes me.
“It’s Nancy,” the caller says. “Nancy Lowe.”
My best friend in elementary school, my “blood brother” — the male gender made to serve so many purposes back then. We cut our fingers, mixed our blood, swore fealty for all our days. We played cutthroat Monopoly games that began Friday nights and ended Sunday afternoons, sustained by penny candy carried home from Cottage Hill Market in brown paper sacks and still-warm cupcakes baked by Nancy’s mother. My mother hated Nancy when I was a child. Nancy’s father was a banker, cause enough for Mother to despise the girl, hatred needing little more than some thin affiliation with another person or institution already hated: banks, the Catholic Church, my world. I mentioned Nancy to my mother last summer as we were driving by my friend’s old house. My mother said that she’d never known where Nancy Lowe lived — that is, where I’d spent every weekend in elementary school.
“Nancy,” I say now, “I thought I recognized your voice.” I lie reflexively. First I prevaricate, then I say hello. Now, whom might I blame for that? For me? “What a pleasant surprise.” I will leave it till later to decide if this is true.
“I recognized your voice for sure,” Nancy says. My voice, long schooled in alteration, camouflage. “So, you’re looking for someone to help with your mum then?”
“Sort of. Yes. I mean, we’re not sure.”
“Is it too much for you all by yourself?” Nancy says.
Ah, so she is from some other universe — or another time, as I so presciently suspected. “You see,” I say, “I don’t live in Ohio anymore.” Not for a lifetime, in point of fact. “I live in Massachusetts.” That old excuse. For everything.
No reply. Nancy always could make silence an answer.
“My brother Ned and my sister, Ruth — I don’t know if you remember them — they want to be the ones to decide things about my mother. Not me.” I’m whining. “Tell me about your life.” It comes out sounding frantic.
“You mean after the sixth grade?” Nancy says.
She’s got me there. Once we entered junior high school, Nancy and I drifted apart. I joined a Girl Scout troop with all the cool kids and got placed in the smart classes. “Nancy Low Blow,” my new friends would call her. We must have gone all the way through school together, Nancy and I, but I don’t remember her after the fall of seventh grade. We lost touch. I made new friends. My mother hated them too.
“I remember so little from back then,” I say. Lies, though confining and unwieldy, are more ready than truth.
“About the job . . . ,” Nancy says.
“I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you call my sister, Ruth. I’ll give you her number. I know this sounds funny, but I think it might be good if you were to tell her you heard from a neighbor that our mother might need a home-health aide. I wouldn’t mention that you talked to me.”
Thanks no doubt to the national unemployment rate, Nancy accepts my odd suggestion without comment. Two days later my sister calls to tell me she’s found the perfect helper for my mother. “I think you might have known her growing up.”
For more than three years now Nancy has spent eight hours a day caring for my mother. For this she gets twelve dollars an hour and an eternal crown of glory, if I have any say in the matter. “Did you know a Nancy Lowe when you were a girl?” my mother asks me on the phone every time I call. “She’s my friend who comes to visit all the time. She doesn’t have much to say for herself, but she takes me to church, and she makes wonderful casseroles.” Nancy’s seventh-grade home-economics class is proving more useful in the long run than my schoolbook French.
Nancy calls me once a week, on Sunday evening. There’s no one else who calls me now as often. I tell myself it is annoying, but still I don’t go out on Sunday nights, and on Sunday afternoons I check to see that my phone is fully charged. Nancy asks how I am. I never quite know what to say. She tells me tiny details of my mother’s days — not her current days, life whittled down to numb routine, but days that stretch back through another century.
“Remember how we played Monopoly, you and me?” Nancy says. “Well, your mum, she never played a game like that. She never had a toy, except this doll she made that had a rubber-ball head and a body made of wood and dresses made of cheesecloth and, in the summer, decorated with flowers. Phlox, I think, from the way that she describes them. The doll’s name was Ella Mae.”
I make notes after our phone calls, as if what Nancy tells me were some code I’m meant to decipher.
“Your mother says that she and Ella Mae were terrified of toads of any size or color. Her brothers called her ‘Toady,’ but every Saturday, when they came home from work — they were much older, I guess — they brought her a sack of candy, and every summer they would take her to the fair.”
Why do I think that writing things down will make them comprehensible?
Nancy says my mother gets mixed up sometimes.
“Mixed up how?” My throat catches, something it has started doing lately.
“Not all the time, but just now and then she might think that I am you. She calls me ‘Margaret’ and asks if I remember things she did with you when you were small. She’ll tell me I was beautiful and say how dear I was. Her ‘sweetheart,’ she’ll call me.”
I take Nancy for a liar, but I copy down her words all the same. I read them over, as if reading stories of other people’s lives.
“And sometimes, not all the time of course,” Nancy says, “but sometimes she gets years a little mixed up in her head. She’ll say she was up all night with the baby. She’ll say there’s no food in the house, and she doesn’t know what she’ll give the children for their supper. She gets tears in her eyes then, but it might be those drops the doctor gave her. I will say this: The rest of the time, she’s happy, bless her heart. She loves to sing. We sing a lot.”
When Nancy and I used to stage Monopoly marathons, often, after I had pulled my last, hidden five-hundred-dollar bill from underneath the board and mortgaged everything, my tiny metal cannon had a certain tendency to land smack-dab beside Nancy’s red hotel on Boardwalk or Park Place. And routinely Nancy would fake a sneeze with some feeling, jump up to get a tissue, then plop back down and take her turn as though she’d never seen a thing.
When you’re in sixth grade, you don’t know what your best friend might go on to do or be in her lifetime, how she might turn out, what things she might accomplish, not even if you walk with her to school and back every day, not even if you sleep over at her house every single Friday night.
I go to visit my mother toward the end of the summer. I sit in the car out front for a minute or two before walking up the path, opening the front door, and entering the same hallway I entered coming home from Nancy Lowe’s house on a hundred different days more than half a century ago. I close the door as softly as I did then, and I hear two voices singing together in the bedroom, sweet and soft. A dirge. A lullaby. Then quiet laughter, followed by another song. I walk in quietly. They don’t stop singing but wave to me, signaling I should join in.
When the song has ended, Nancy tells me my mother might like to nap for a while, and she says goodbye. She, who is so chatty when she calls me, seems now almost shy. We each have our ways. My mother waves and smiles at me, then closes her eyes. I wander out and lie down on the sofa in the den. The house itself feels sleepy.
The phone rings. I jerk awake.
What, could you not watch with me one hour? Jesus asks the narcoleptic Apostles and me.
“Hello,” I say.
“Audrey, this is Elmer.” Elmer is my first cousin, a man I’ve met maybe five times in my life.
“This isn’t Audrey,” I say, my own voice sounding unfamiliar. “It’s Margaret.”
“Margaret, I was just calling your mum. She likes me to call.”
“She’s sleeping,” I say. “But I’m glad you called. You’re the family historian, and I know so little of my mother’s childhood. Your dad was a lot older than her. Did he ever say much about their parents? What they were like?”
“Well,” Elmer says, “their dad — that’s our grandpa Leonard — seems to have had a problem with what they call now this ‘bipolar’ business. He had this friend Bruiser, and they used to go off on sprees together, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. They ended up in a jail cell more than a few times.”
Our grandmother, Elmer tells me, was what they called a “country doctor, like a kind of nurse,” and she’d sometimes be gone from home for two or three months at a time, “doctoring” a patient.
“An old neighbor told my dad Grandma used to say, ‘No child will die while I have breath left in my body to give him.’ ”
And so do we go through our days saying all manner of sentences, never once considering that our words will be remembered and recounted ninety years from now in telephone conversations on summer afternoons between relatives who are not sure they’d recognize one another, passing on the street.
“I have to go feed the horses,” Elmer says. But he talks on. “Where do you live?” he says. “I drive from Ohio to Maine a couple of times every year.”
“You practically pass my house in Massachusetts,” I say. “I’m on the way.”
“Is that right?” he says. “We might stop one day, say howdy, and have a beer. Our uncles made white lightning. The whole family did. They sold it, and they did partake.”
“I remember when I was very small,” I say, “when Grandma left Grandpa. She walked out and moved away. Not many women did that then.” I offer this hoping to keep him on the phone, remembering and telling. I know that once this conversation ends, I will in all likelihood never talk with him again. He’ll go to Maine a hundred times, if God should spare him, pass my door, and never slow the car.
But it seems the moment has passed.
“So, my mother and your dad,” I say, “what do you think their childhoods were like?”
“Oh, pretty wild, I’d say. A roller-coaster ride.”
We hang up, and the haunted echoes of this house force me to imagine my mother, a young girl alone at night in a farmhouse I have never visited. (Elmer told me Mervin lives there today. I did not ask who Mervin is. He’s probably another cousin.) I see my mother all alone, her mother away “doctoring,” her father off on a “spree.” And what was he like when he was home?
My grandpa Leonard was the last of thirteen children. But no one will call up this afternoon with stories of what his childhood might have been. Are we to imagine it was bliss? Sins of the father — tremors and reverberations traveling not just forward to the children’s children but reaching back generations, back through forebears, back through time, until they crash into the gates of Paradise: Eden, barred and shuttered, closed for business. Does God walk there in the evening now all by himself? Tell me. When Eve took it in her head to trade in Paradise for spitting in the wind, did she set in motion the mothering and fathering we know? If so, she surely set in motion my demise, or what feels like demise most days, as I marvel at this thing my life’s become. I want to say, I had such plans, but I know that for a lie. Some days I felt the whiskers of intention touch my cheek, but I would only swat the tickle, brush away the notion of volition, and rub the spot of any feeling, leaving just a red mark on the skin.
So do I want to layer special blame on certain of Eve’s sons and daughters, who have traipsed their hapless way directly through the middle of my life, never stopping to consider — self-absorbed and singular as they were caused to be — that their passage might spawn a consequence or two? Even if I do want to blame them, I know full well that we are all unconscious, reckless even when we are awakened, never reckoning the steel-strand grid that we comprise. That’s about the sum of the conclusions I will let my lifetime draw. The rest will be the story of what happened: My grandfather was a machinist. He married my grandmother, who left him long before the end. They had five sons and, years later, a daughter. He died when he was ninety. This is the evidence the jury will examine when the time comes. “The facts,” they’ll call them.
Facts. My cousin Elmer could write them down, but the rest is never written. No, the rest is lived, and many lifetimes later come the questions: Is my mother lying here this afternoon dreaming of her father? And is she getting ready any day now to tell Nancy all the stories of her life?
I wonder: What did she remember through the years but never say? Did she have perhaps a pet she cared for in the barn? Did she ever sleep out there? Was the water in the well then cold and pure? Did her mother “doctor” her when she was ill? But even if I shouted, shook her shoulder, cried out, Tell me, tell me! she would not have the words to convey the story. Even if she tried — even if she could remember — there would be only torn fragments, and I, and perhaps she, would be uncertain which were true and which were tales she’d told herself so many times that she believed them.
These people, these mothers and fathers, hers and mine and yours, they cannot be at fault for the things that they have done to us, not when we hear the stories their lives tell, and they are not at fault for passing on to us a blood so tainted, genes so gone awry. (If this is true, if life is no one’s fault, then I wish someone had sent a clearly worded memo to that effect to my mother on the morning of the day I was born. I was blamed for everything. It was, I guess, the only thing she could think to do.)
My mother has lived — perplexed, perplexing — and has never told me what her life has been. She never reminisced with me the way she does with Nancy now. And I, her child, have lived a life of less violence than hers, perhaps, and, who knows, maybe also fewer days of common splendor. We are the same and not the same. My mother kept it all inside, and I have told my story to anyone who would listen. But I wonder if the spilling out is just another way to keep yourself from knowing the truer story, the one that breaks your heart.
Sometime later I get up and tiptoe to my mother’s room. She is still sound asleep. I cross to the window and pull back the draperies to look out on the day, now nearly gone. What remains is fainter light, long shadows of an afternoon, a certain silver-purple in the sky. I walk around to the other side of my mother’s bed, pull back the covers, and quietly crawl in beside her. My mother opens up her eyes.
“Oh, honey,” she says and reaches out her arms to me, “did you have another bad dream?”
And she draws me to her, as she surely must have done before, so very long ago.