Janice E. Rodríguez
I blame the International Astronomical Union for my mother’s departure from rational thought. Their announcement of Pluto’s demotion from planet to planet-like object left schoolteachers racking their brains for a my-very-excellent-mother-just-served-us-nine-pizzas replacement, museum curators wondering whether to snap the last orb from their orreries, and my mother, always sensitive to minor shifts that no one else felt, floating away from reality, converted into a mother-like object.
“I’ve sold the house,” she said on an October morning.
Our waitress circled the diner with coffee pot in hand, lingering a second too long by our table, sniffing the air for resentment and gossip. I waved her off.
“Mother, it’s too soon after Dad. You should wait a while before you make a big decision like that. Give it until Christmas.”
Mother wiped her mouth on a paper napkin and counted out her half of the bill plus a tip, stacking the coins into neat piles.
“The papers are signed. ’Tis done,” she said, affecting a vaguely Scottish accent. “You two should come over and see if you want anything. It won’t all fit in my apartment at the retirement community. I can’t keep the telescope, and I’d like someone to have it. Of course, that supposes that David will deign to set foot in my place.”
I kept my face bland and soft, refusing to rise to the bait. She stood and headed for the door.
Irrational. On a whim and probably at a marked-down price, she’d signed away the house whose threshold she had crossed as a bride, my childhood home, the single fragment of our family existence my father was able to recognize when his other memories had fled.
“She hates retirement communities,” I said. “So did Dad.”
The waitress looked at the bill and money and then at me, and I scrabbled in my wallet for my half.
“That your mom?” she asked. “You’re like two peas in a pod.”
Since I escaped to college, Mother had maintained an untidy orbit on the far reaches of my existence. Six visits a year were plenty—three melodramatic and disastrous holidays, her birthday, and two random days marked in black on my calendar. David always stayed away, which gave Mother an opening line: “Is he at home, or did you finally kick the pompous ass out of your house?” This she alternated with, “Did you wise up and move out yet?”
We scheduled all six visits for neutral ground, like two wary souls on a blind date or two weary spouses navigating a divorce. She had never been abusive; she wasn’t evil; we were just too unalike to get along.
And now, three years after the IAU sent those unexpected vibrations rippling across the solar system and through Mother’s body and soul, she’s gone, a clot shaken loose from a leg or an arm to lodge in her brain. Her pastor and a hospital social worker assure me that she went in an instant.
I stand at the door to her apartment, empty boxes next to me on the floor, her purse tucked under my arm, her key in my hand. The keychain, a battered souvenir of the 1964 World’s Fair, swings heavily, and I hope for a second that its weight will pull me away from the door. I look at the fob, a heavy disk depicting the Unisphere, one of my only memories of that vacation. Mother and Dad hated traveling. The mother-like object that entered my life three years ago visited Cape Cod and the Jersey shore four seasons out of the year and sent tacky postcards with enigmatic messages.
I insert the key in the lock and am pushing open the door when my cell rings.
“Hey,” my husband says.
I juggle the two purses and the phone. “Hi.”
“Your Aunt Betty called. She said nice funeral and she wants your father’s burial flag and his Army medals.”
I stare in horror at Mother’s apartment, decorated in Dad’s least favorite color, blue.
“Are you there?”
“Yeah, David,” I say. Navy wall-to-wall carpeting. “I’m here.”
“She says that the widow has first priority but then after that, that stuff should pass to the nearest living male relative.”
“To cousin Rob.” Blue willow china in the corner cupboard. Toile cobalt children and farm animals scampering across the sofa.
“I gave her your cell number.”
“What? No, David. I have too much to do today.”
“So do I,” he says. “She can’t keep calling me here. I have a business to run.”
I yank the key from the lock and let the door fall closed behind me.
“Did you pick up my dry cleaning?” David asks. He sounds like a cliché.
“It’s on my list. I’ll see you tonight.”
The counselor would be proud of us. It’s the most civil conversation we’ve had without her supervision in six months.
I walk to the kitchen and dump the phone and purses on the table. As I dig for my to-do list, I notice that the kitchen is awash in a sea of blue, too, with some sunny Provençal yellows to keep it company. I pencil the word cleaners where it belongs, between the post office, where I need to find out how cancel Mother’s mail, and the liquor store, where I need to buy a bottle of anesthetic to get me through this week.
On the bookshelf, a gaudy ceramic rooster and chicken stand in front of a jagged skyline of cookbooks. Mother preferred her cookbooks in alphabetical order by author, blind to the untidy look that created.
The rooster and chicken were table decorations at Aunt Betty’s reception the second time she married, the first and last country hoe-down theme wedding I ever attended, and my twelve-year-old self never expected a bride in a patchwork prairie skirt or a groom with a bolo tie, especially when the bride was from Philadelphia and the groom from Secaucus.
Grandmom Parker and Great Aunt Irene sat at a gingham-covered picnic table with us that day. There were ribs and fried chicken, applesauce, potato salad, and a brownie wedding cake. Grandmom ate nothing but applesauce. Great Aunt Irene explained that their hotel was too close to the railroad tracks and Grandmom had ground her teeth—her gums, really, because her full upper and lower dentures had been in a jar on the nightstand—the whole of the sleepless night, and her mouth was too sore to put the dentures back in.
“Isn’t that a shame?” Aunt Irene asked. “Her own daughter’s wedding, and she can’t say or eat hardly anything.”
Grandmom glared at her.
“Of course, there could be a third wedding. With Betty you can’t tell,” Aunt Irene said.
“Harry’s a good man,” Dad said. “He and Betty have known each other for a long time.”
Aunt Irene helped herself to a second drumstick. “Know each other? Well, you know what I always say.”
Grandmom’s eyes narrowed at her in warning.
“I always say that you never really know a man until you’ve seen him naked.”
Our table and the two beside us went quiet in response. Another round of scratchy, bouncy fiddle music started up a few tense moments later.
“Isn’t that right?” Aunt Irene asked Grandmom.
“Let’s dance!” Mother said to Dad, smiling, eyes shining.
“When have you ever known me to dance?” Dad said.
I avoided the withering look he gave her by knocking my fork to the floor and spending more time than necessary recovering it. Under the table, Mother’s feet kept merry time with the music.
I move the ceramic rooster and chicken and begin to pull the books down, unsure of whether to box them up or to reshelve them by height. The doorbell rings and helps me avoid a decision for a little while.
Three elderly women stand in Mother’s doorway, sad smiles on their faces.
“We’re the Transitions Committee,” the first woman tells me.
The second hands me a business card. Happy Meadows—There’s No Place Like Home. Transitions Committee.
The third pats my arm and says, “We’re so sorry to hear of your loss.”
They have matching perms, tight curls blown dry into soft helmets, a blue rinse.
“You look just like your mother, dear,” the first woman says. She hands me a brochure.
They bustle into Mother’s apartment in unison, a single officious body with three heads and six legs.
I remember them now. They were at Mother’s funeral. David and I had been seated in the front pew, with Aunt Betty, Husband #3, and my cousins behind us, their kids behind them. I saw the three-headed, six-legged beast in the back pew on my way to the ladies’ room.
“TB, the family disease,” Mother would have said. “Tiny bladder. Give us Miller women an important occasion, and we just have to go and go.”
I paused on my return from the ladies’ room and listened to the three women.
“The son-in-law is an architect,” said the first.
“I understand they don’t have children,” the arm-patter said.
“That’s a shame,” said the card-carrier. “Is that the son in the second row with all those kids behind?”
“No,” said the first. “It must be some other relative. She only had the daughter and no grandchildren at all, poor thing.”
The card-carrier pointed to the left and said, “Is that the organist’s husband?”
“He’s gotten awfully heavy,” said the first.
The arm-patter shook her head sadly, “I never would have recognized him.”
The first woman opens the brochure, which is in my hand, and begins to speak while her two companions eye Mother’s blue living room. “Some families, when they have finished dividing a loved one’s possessions, find that there are usable goods left over. It can be difficult at times like these to find worthy charities to accept the goods. The Transitions Committee has assembled a list of places in the community where your loved one’s memory will live on in the form of donations.”
The arm-patter points to an address. “This food bank will accept perishable foods, within their expiration date, of course, and will even come here to make a pickup. We suggest that you tackle the refrigerator first, even if you don’t want to call the food bank. Otherwise, it becomes an unpleasant job.”
The other two concur with delicate shudders, and their shudders turn to startled jumps as my cell rings. It’s Aunt Betty’s area code.
“Thank you so much, ladies,” I say, closing the door on their surprised faces. “I’ve got to take this call. You’ve been so much help, really. Thanks. Thanks again.”
I put the chain across the door and toss the phone onto Mother’s blue recliner on my way back to the kitchen.
There are only two cookbooks that I remember, a Betty Crocker and a Fannie Farmer, and I put them in a box with a yellow sticky note—yellow for you is how I’ll remember—before loading the rest into a second box. I slap a green sticky note on the box; green for Goodwill. The bottom shelf holds Mother’s collection of astronomy books. I box them and affix a green sticky note.
The kitchen cabinets are next, the cans and jars alphabetized, for heaven’s sake, with no thought to the fact that lentil soup is tall enough to obscure the sliced button mushrooms. There are three boxes with blue sticky notes marked Food Bank when I finish. I search in vain for Mother’s good china. The everyday dishes—more blue and yellow Provençal—go into a box with a green sticky note.
Mother was a gifted and adventurous cook. In the back of the large bottom cabinet are the tagine, the fondue set, the madeleine pan, the springerle board, the wok, the bamboo steamer, and the little metal cornets on which she rolled delicate cookies into cornucopias. Dish after dish of exotica she would set before us when I was growing up, relentlessly innovative even with my favorite, macaroni and cheese, and Dad would patiently eat most of it, only occasionally delivering words that set her lips into a tight, thin line: “Well, we don’t have to have that again.”
I keep the madeleine pan. The rest goes in a box that I carry to the living room before tagging it a green sticky note.
The Transitions Committee be damned; I’m not going to save perishables. I put aside some bread, peanut butter, and juice for breakfast and send the remaining contents of the refrigerator sluicing down the garbage disposal, sad vegetables, fruit that’s seen better days, sour milk and memories. The frozen food goes in the trash.
It’s nearly five, and there’s not enough time to make it home and get dinner on the table before seven. I pick up the phone and dial into David’s voice mail; the counselor would tell me I’m avoiding authentic communication, but she’s never seen how he gets when his routine is disrupted.
“It’s me. There’s a lot more here than I thought, so I’ll stay the night. I left dinner in the fridge. Just reheat it. The dry cleaners will give you your suit if you give them your phone number, well, my cell phone number.”
Mother used to say that husbands have to be treated like colicky newborns—kept on a strict schedule. I remind myself that even the most distant planets align from time to time.
I pull Mother’s phone book out of the recycling bin and dial a pizza parlor, smiling and thinking that when the cat’s away, the mice order out.
Awaiting dinner, I put pink sticky notes on the living room and kitchen furniture—pink for the poor—all of it destined for pickup by the Fourth Street Shelter, all of it new, the furniture from my childhood home apparently jettisoned with the rest of our family memories.
There’s a bottle of wine in the corner cupboard in the living room, a little too sweet and effervescent for my taste and far too pedestrian for David’s, but it goes great with the pizza.
The combined effects of wine, packing, and memories leave me feeling sleepy. I choose Mother’s guest bedroom—her own room would be far too strange—which is mauve. I search the closet for a guest bathrobe.
No bathrobe, but a box marked china. I slide a thin blue photo album from on top and toss it onto the bed for later inspection. I peer inside the box; Mother and Dad’s wedding china is there. I smile and put a yellow sticky note on it. In a box below it, I find her wedding dress, draped over a busty form beneath a plastic window, preserved in its acid-free box, awaiting the day when her daughter or granddaughter might wear it. I disappointed her twice on that one.
There’s no guest robe in the bathroom either, so I go into her bedroom. Everything inside her closet smells like flowers and summer hay, and I shut the scent of her away, unexpected tears burning my eyes.
I open the bottom drawer of her dresser. It’s a new dresser destined to be marked with a pink sticky tomorrow, but I know Mother. Her bottom dresser drawer always contained clothing she never wore but felt guilty giving or throwing away. Front and center is the tee shirt David and I bought her on our trip to Hawaii ten years ago. Beneath that is the fifteen-year-old one from Paris.
I pour myself another glass of dreadful wine and crawl into the guest bed, wearing the Paris shirt and steeling myself to look through the photo album. Before I open it, I make a trip to Mother’s room to retrieve a box of tissues.
Mother and Dad in their twenties, at a picnic with friends, everyone’s arms linked, everyone’s face contorted against the sunshine. Mother and Dad at a meeting of the church group for young couples, The Twosomes, Dad out of focus. Dad bowling, Mother looking off camera. Mother and Dad at Niagara Falls, Mother’s eyes closed and Dad’s popped open in surprise.
Me on Dad’s lap, Mother standing behind us, one hand on Dad’s shoulder and the other on mine, smiling through clenched teeth. Mother and Dad at one of Aunt Betty’s weddings, sitting apart, the air tense between them.
Anniversary pictures, posed and stiff. Me graduating college, arms thrown around both my parents’ waists, leaning into Dad, away from Mother. Candid photos, with one or the other smiling, but never both.
I swallow wine. Leave it to Mother to compile a record of the unhappiest moments of her forty-six years of married life. There is another, thicker photo album on the nightstand, and I fortify myself with another glass of wine before opening it.
The first pages are blank, and I turn the album upside down. But then the photographs are upside down. I right the album and begin at the back. Mother and Dad in their twenties, seated on a picnic table, their knees, heads, and shoulders together. Mother and Dad as secretary and president of The Twosomes.
Mother has arranged this album in reverse chronological order, and every photo shines with happiness and family pride. Then, as I page backward through the album and forward in time, Mother with new friends, people I don’t know.
Mother at Mount Rushmore. Mother with another woman and two men by Lake Louise. Mother and her friends in front of the Eiffel Tower. Mother in London. Mother in a store in Scotland, holding a kilt in front of her waist. Mother dressed as an elderly Christmas elf serving dinner at a homeless shelter. Mother and a white-haired man at a Western-themed Halloween party. Blank pages, and I sleep.
Thin-crusted, cardboard-boxed pizza undergoes a magical maturation process overnight in the refrigerator, and it makes a delightful breakfast, one I usually enjoy only when David’s out of town, so I give it the full treatment—serving the slices on a paper towel instead of a plate, crooking one knee and resting my foot on my chair, watching the television and reading a magazine while I eat.
The pizza keeps my morale high as I strip Mother’s bed and put pink sticky notes on the furniture. I’m prepared this time—windows open to draw her perfume away, the television keeping me company, and it works until I open her closet door. Headless, handless, empty clothes sag on hangers, looking like her and not like her. Front and center is an outfit that crowds the others, one I recognize from the fatter of the two photo albums, a pink top with a ruffle under the scoop neck, ruffles under the puffed short sleeves, a pink and green plaid skirt that flares out, and underneath that, about a mile of stiff petticoat. I shake my head.
Except for the green and pink costume, the clothes are organized by color, and I pull them out, sort them into piles by season, bag them, and put green stickers on them. Shoes go into a box. Underwear I throw out, mechanically, purposely avoiding thought. The detritus and whimsies of life grow when they’re released from the confines of their storage spaces and pose impossible questions: Why did you buy me? What do I say about you? Why wear that to a Halloween party?
Cooking magazines and romance novels form an irregular tower by the bed. I throw them into a heavy-duty garbage bag, sweep a parade of tiny perfume bottles from the nightstand after them, and pull the plastic drawstrings closed.
Curled around the base of the lamp is one of Dad’s watches. He bought and lost a half-dozen a year, cheap ones, even before the Alzheimer’s, the kind you used to be able to buy in a corner drugstore. My eyes sting. I can’t believe Mother saved one of them. I find the box with the good china, wrap the watch in tissues, and tuck it inside,
The bedroom takes up the rest of the morning, with a brief interruption for the pickup by the food bank. Only the bathroom remains, where I suspect that I’ll throw out everything, and the closet by the front door. My cell rings. Aunt Betty. I ignore her.
I haven’t found Dad’s service flag or the medals. Aunt Betty will declare this a perfect opportunity for a melodramatic scene. To the closet, then, to find a way to shut Aunt Betty up.
I hear a knock as I go, and I’ve got the front door open before the man outside has withdrawn his lightly closed fist. He stands there, hand raised, one knuckle extended beyond the rest, face frozen like a mask, eyes shifting away so I can’t read them.
“I, uh … hadn’t heard. She never … The ladies told me when I got back this morning.” He jerks his head to the right, and I see three blue-haired heads disappear around the corner of the hall in unison.
I pull him inside and close the door.
He smiles and pats my hand. “So you take in strays, too, just like her. I’m John Bailey.”
I can’t figure out whether to pull back my hand to shake his or to put the other one on top, so I settle for stepping back and offering him a glass of water.
His throat catches. “You sound just like her, too.”
When I return, he’s blinking back tears as he surveys the stacks of boxes and piles of bags.
“Would you like a few minutes alone, Mr. Bailey?” I ask, and I retreat to the bathroom before he can answer. I wonder out loud if the Fourth Street Shelter can use opened toiletries.
I hear sniffling and shuffling, and he appears at the bathroom door.
“The tissues aren’t in the bedroom,” he says.
“Guest bedroom, Mr. Bailey.”
“John,” he says.
He returns with the box, blowing his nose loudly. “I was visiting my kids in Michigan. No one called me.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
“I brought her this.” He extends a blue folder.
I usher him back to the living room, and we sit so I can read the certificate inside.
Belles and Bucks Modern Western Square Dance
Mrs. Doris Parker & Mr. John Bailey
Division 3—Senior Beginners
“May I buy you lunch?” he asks.
I’m not sure why I accept. Perhaps it’s the way he holds his grief back, under the surface, wrapped in a thin and fragile skin. Perhaps I think the skin will be less likely to burst if we’re in public. Soon I find myself in the retirement home’s café, fiddling with a menu, ordering a cheeseburger.
John leans forward confidentially. “So have you thrown that no-good husband of yours out of the house yet?”
I cough iced tea up my nose.
“Sorry. It’s what your mother would have asked you.”
“And it’s just about exactly the way she’d ask, too.” I let several minutes pass in silence to show my disapproval before asking about the square dancing.
John talks between bites of sandwich. “Your mother was a terrific dancer, God rest her. If she had started sooner in life, she could have been a professional.”
“There are professional square dancers?” I ask.
He stares out the window. “I can’t believe she’s gone.”
I repeat the comforting words of the pastor and social worker—no pain, gone in an instant—hoping they’re true.
Being in public is no proof against John’s grief, and he begins to cry in the way of those who rarely permit themselves to do so, a few fat tears smeared away with the balls of the hands, then wracking, painful sobs.
I walk him back to Mother’s apartment, people giving me angry and suspicious glances as we go. I cannot carry or assuage the grief of this man I do not know, so I settle him in Mother’s blue toile armchair, fetch him tissues, and begin sorting through the last closet.
A cardboard box with Mother’s bank statements and bills, yellow sticky note. Coats and jackets for all seasons, green sticky note. Boots, green sticky note. Umbrellas … trash?
“You’re very efficient, very contained,” John says. “I can see why Doris would have thought that seemed cold sometimes.”
I’m glad my back is turned. I find a box the on the top shelf of the closet. Dad’s flag and medals.
John is standing behind me now, looking at Dad’s things.
“She was proud of you,” he says. “Proud of your work. You know, there was no such thing as art therapy when I was your age. I wonder if it would have helped the boys who came back from Korea.”
“I work with children, not adults.”
The doorbell rings, and the workers from the Fourth Street Shelter are here for the boxes and bags with pink sticky notes. The Goodwill people are next. I hand them the estate donation forms, and they carry out everything marked with a green sticky note.
“I should go,” John says. “You keep this for her.”
He presses the certificate into my hand. I have no way of explaining to him that the thought of Mother square dancing is completely alien to me.
He’s halfway out the door when he asks, “Did you find a watch? It’s nothing fancy. Brown leather band. I left it here last time.”
“No.” So long as that watch is in the box with the good china and a yellow sticky note, it’s mine. It’s Dad’s.
“I’ll give you my address in case you find it.” John writes it down, draws a little map. “I guess you’re going soon.”
His eyebrows quirk, his lips twitch, words forming and unforming and failing to emerge from his mouth. He gulps and nods and pats me on the shoulder.
“Wonderful woman, your mother.”
When he leaves, I consolidate my boxes and bags and begin to haul them to the car. I open the fatter of the photo albums and flip through to the picture of what I supposed to be a Halloween party. I scan the background—azaleas in bloom, green grass, the women dressed in ruffled tops and flared, tiered skirts with petticoats, the men wearing matching fabric on the yokes of their Western shirts or on their ties. Next to Mother, arm behind her back, is John Bailey. There are tiny indentations at her side where his fingers must surely be clasping her to him. His tie matches the green and pink get-up she wears; his broad smile mirrors hers.
I slip the certificate that John has brought into a blank page in the album and close Dad’s—John’s—watch between the cover and first page. On my way out of town, I stop at his place and put the album on his doorstep. I ring the doorbell and walk away, but he hails me before I get to the car and does an old man’s half-jog over to me.
He points down the street. “Half a mile from here is the turnpike. Past the grocery store. Two more lights. You’ll see the sign on your right when you get to the gas station. There’s a whole universe out there. You’d be happier without him, you know.”
I thank him and nod and head the way he pointed, toward infinite possibilities and alternate worlds. When I’m out of sight of his place, I double back and drive home.
Janice E. Rodríguez inhabits two realities—the rolling hills and broad valleys of her native eastern Pennsylvania, and the high, arid plains of her adopted land of Castilla-León in Spain. She currently teaches Spanish at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. When she’s not teaching, writing, or gardening, she’s in the kitchen working her way through a stack of cookbooks. She can be found online at janiceerodriguez.com.