A year ago today my mother died in my arms. I’ve posted about it before (see Still Here) so I won’t go on. But here are some excerpts from a short story that give you some sense of her. The tense is a mess, and it’s a bit of a hodgepodge without the rest of the story. I have other stories and other excerpts that show a different side of her–complicated, depressed, withholding, cruel–but today this is the part of her I want to share. To remember.
Every night, my mother dreams. Sometimes it is nothing more than an abbreviated version of her daily routine. Running to Agway for mulch. Picking up milk and butterscotch cookies at Munroe Dairy. Reading the newspaper while my father nods off watching Murder She Wrote. Sometimes, she dreams in shadows. In these dreams there are objects floating over her that she cannot actually see. They are distinguishable only by the black shapes they cast at her feet.
“I had another shadow dream last night,” she says at the breakfast table one Saturday morning. “It was an avocado‑colored Amana refrigerator. Double doors.”
“How the hell do you know all that from a shadow?” This is my father. He sounds like he is talking to a Jehovah’s Witness or a used car salesman.
“I just do,” she says.
My father claims he has never had a dream. I tell him this is impossible and explain the four stages of sleep to him. I say, you probably just don’t remember them. But he is adamant.
“I never dream,” he says, pulling a package of Marlboros out of the pocket of his shirt. “Your mother’s the dreamer in this house.”
During my first year of graduate school I spend Saturday mornings with my parents. My mother and I sleep late, but my father is up by five. He lets the dog out, makes a pot of coffee, reads the paper, makes a grocery list, goes to the bakery. I wander into the kitchen around ten, just as my father comes through the door with a bag of fried apple dumplings, or poppy-seed sweet bread, or sour cream blueberry crumb cake. He smells like stale smoke and fabric softener and sweet morning air. I make another pot of coffee and peek into the waxy bakery bag.
My mother joins us in the kitchen by ten thirty. Her body is round and soft, but her legs are wiry, like a bird. She puts a kettle of water on the stove for tea, then stands next to where my father sits, surveying this week’s bounty.
“Look at all these goodies,” she says. “Oy, Franky, what are you trying to do to my girlish figure?”
My mother thinks she was Jewish in a past life, so she says “oy” a lot. She pats her stomach fondly.
“This wasn’t here when I married you,” says my father, but he pats her stomach fondly too and turns to cut up bite sized pieces of his breakfast to feed to the dog.
My mother tells us stories about her students—this one asks too many questions, that one doesn’t apply herself, another is pregnant and abandoned by some no account boyfriend.
My father bangs at the window to frighten squirrels away from his bird feeders. The feeders sit high up on poles he threaded with battered garbage can tops meant to block intruders from the special sunflower seeds he buys at Agway. He is trying to attract cardinals. The squirrels look up at him for a minute and then continue. They climb the pole and pull themselves onto the circular metal barriers like Olympic gymnasts.
My father looks at me and shakes his head. Then he talks about my brothers—how they should or shouldn’t spend their money, what they should or shouldn’t do for work, why they never should have moved out of the house. He asks me what’s wrong with them. He thinks because I study psychology I can solve all the family problems. I shrug my shoulders and reach for more pastry.
And then, my mother tells us her dreams.
“Last night I had a dream about Jim Deitrick,” she begins. “You remember, he stood up for your father at our wedding. Everyone thought I had a crush on Jim because I kept looking at him in Sister Jeffrey Anne’s Chemistry class.”
She waves her butter knife at me.
“Jim was a big shot basketball player, so they assumed I liked him, but it was your father I had my eye on. They sat right next to each other.”
“How do you remember such crazy stuff. I don’t remember any of this.” My father’s thick black eyebrows arch in disbelief.
“Never mind. I remember. Your father wouldn’t ask me out because of the rumor that I had a crush on Jim Deitrick. After all, they were best friends. There were rules in those days.”
“Your mother’s getting soft in the head,” he says, staring at her over the top of his glasses which have slid half way down his nose.
“Nonsense. It took me three months to get your father to ask me out. On our first date we went to Hyde’s for hot dogs and I knew he was the one for me. So right after we graduated from St. Luke’s we were married. Seventeen years old. Imagine that.”
“You should have stuck with Jim Deitrick,” says my father. “He’s making six figures with Chemical Bank.”
“I’ve got plenty of figure, thank you very much.”
My mother gets up to put her tea bag in a bowl on the counter. She saves them for fertilizer. They pile up for months until my father threatens to throw them out.
“What about the dream?” I ask.
“Oh, the dream. Well, Jim Deitrick was driving down our street in one of those lawn mowers you can sit on, except it was really a Lazy Boy Chair. Blue, I think. And when he got to our house he waved and called out, ‘I’ve been to the Sistine Chapel. Say hello to Frank.’ Isn’t that strange?”
“I’ll say.” My father rolls his eyes at her.
“No, I mean I’ve always wanted to see the Sistine Chapel.”
“Well,” says my father, “It’s going to be awfully slow going in a Lazy Boy chair.”
My mother is talking about her old high school, St. Luke’s. It is being torn down by the city because they’re building a supermarket and they need a big parking lot. It is hard to hear her. The wind is against us and it rattles our clothing like sails.
“Your father brought me home two bricks from the walls of the building. Imagine that.”
And I do.
My father bends down in the rubble of the building, his glasses sliding down his nose, his knees stiff, his eyes tearing from the dust, a lit Marlboro cupped in one hand. He picks up a brick and remembers my mother, her smooth creamy skin, her splash of red lipstick, her perfect dimpled smile. He flicks away the half smoked Marlboro, picks up another brick with this now free hand, and in an instant, forgets.
I wrote this story years ago. It needs some attention, but unfortunately I’ve moved on to bigger more convoluted writing. A novel, that as my father might say, doesn’t know if it’s walking or riding a horse. On I go. But I miss her. More than I could ever have imagined.