To the kirk, down singing we went, proceeding the path that others had rutted. Years of us, with hymns gripping our throats, a squeak of allegiance, arms linked, arms across shoulders, hands clasped, the old to the young, passing it along. All you must do, the elders whispered, is believe fires are burning in the hinterlands. It could be war or rain or faith rumbling and preparing to take our heads off. The unseen was the one main thing. Little wonder we stumbled along, mouthing the Kyrie, clapping our fists to our breasts, pealing like goats.
Why I can’t resist mulling over them I don’t know. Mommy and Daddy are most present in the moments before sleep, in the quiet that hunts me. When we were lively and young they were there once my eyes opened. Now, it’s the opposite. Call it a wave but wave doesn’t do it justice, unless it’s the kind they try portraying in disaster movies, dream-walls of water, water in its stories-high curl. I know it’s going to hit, I can’t swim and can’t even hold my breath all that long. They didn’t teach me. There was so much they left out, but they were busy making the bread, sewing up the split in the seam, getting in the butter and eggs, butter and eggs our church.
Taboo, Ambush, My Sin, and Tigress were perfumes she wore. I played at her dresser with the bottles, opening and closing the jewelry box, slipping the cameo and the onyx rings up and down my fingers, the crystal twist bracelet that shot the rainbow on the wall, my reflection in the mirror. A closet full of shoe boxes were stuffed among the hems of her long coats and dresses, the box fan poised in the window against the stifle of summer, and out those windows trees taller than two stories. Full leafed and way taller, they supported the sky. The peonies that bloomed all down the side of the yard demarcated the property from the neighbors’. None of it ours. Me and my sisters and Daddy and Mother of Aforementioned Fragrance, we were renters, and all this bliss only lent to us.
Sometimes I rode along when she met the landlord in his kitchen and handed him money. Our parents hadn’t checking nor savings. They never had enough dollars for essentials. Gas and electric, water, and monthly rent got shuffled like a shell game. Everyone got paid eventually, payments soaked in late charges.
Shopping in the bargain basement of Pogue’s, I used the Ladies’ and when I washed my hands I removed the ruby ring my grandpa made. I came out ring-less and she went crazy. I forgot. A girl forgets. The two of us tore through the clothes racks to the toilet, the door slammed its echo over our heads. I crawled on my hands and bare knees, swept that checked tile with open hands, even behind the plumbing where the grout had chipped away and groped through what she normally would have never let me touch. We checked with the sales lady in the Brassiere Department three times.
You’d like to think it was a diamond; you’d like to think it’d been hers. We returned several times to check the bathroom, but probably the very next little girl to wash her hands at that sink spied her lucky break, a finders keepers prize. She let me forget it to the degree it was a story sometimes told in reminiscence, a “remember when…” It stayed in me, nagged at me more than stealing Brach’s’ candies from Thriftway, more than writing I hate Mary Ann Powell in my notebook and the reprimand by Miss Mary Lee. Such wonder that without a second thought I managed to leave something so valuable behind.
In the spotlighted attention of the spelling bee, a boy whose opinion overly mattered to me — a boy who is dead now, after suffering a difficult life — with one smart aleck aside he poisoned my pleasure in spelling contests. I can hardly sense the despair of those weeks, but am seared by the memory of my mother, trying to lessen my twelve-year-old grief. She stood with her back to me, rinsing raw chicken under water streaming from the faucet, her voice a flat iron: “What that boy says doesn’t matter.” Her tone gored me: She doesn’t understand, can never understand, the torture of me, of being twelve. I was rooted to the kitchen floor, I was a sieve of emotions, set adrift by her nonchalance, all up to me to figure how to show up at school those next days. And why did I care? Who knows? Well, my mom knew, and she kept her knowledge back from me, penurious in how she made herself available, unwilling to fix or ease my pain. Other things mattered much more, like food, like clean chicken for frying.
Mommy, who never played, but mowed the swathes of grass and painted on scaffolds, washing down the venetians one blind at a time with the ammonia-soaked rag. She served us hot tea and we drank it. Daddy, never on a ladder, most times in the driver’s seat, so many arrivals and leavings, the driveway practically his home. His accessories were cigarettes and coffee, the white t-shirt, black socks.
There was much church, and always school. Running in the woods saved us, the poison berries we played with but never tasted, the princess and prince games, the cuddling of baby kittens. When we slept outside on summer nights under stars in our own backyards and parents did the same in the house bedrooms, no one fretted. Pleasant dreams, like a common wish, sustained us.
One whole summer between fourth and fifth grades my dad dropped me off at church on his way to work, seven o’clock, rain or shine, for my devout pledge: Thursday morning Mass, our fourth grade “special intention Mass day.” I was carrying the madness into fifth grade on my standard-bearing shoulders. What had hold of me then? Some siphoning of individuality? Disappearance into the divine? I craved a pillow I could muffle my breath in, suffocation, a distraction to render me, tender me, to spend me, spend me out, pockets emptied, shoes broke, a whiplash jacket. God’s softness lay not in the church, but on the mile walk home, when none seemed awake but the sun, the grass gleaming with shards of green glass from Seven-Up bottles on the berm where I had to step when a car drove me off. Bob-whites calling and lawnmowers droning and the draw in my legs from walking the hills. Walking walking, knowing His presence as distance, His attention as a ploy, and me in the mood for sacrifice.
Remember when I fell on the ice practicing skating and sprained my ankle? Rumors had me falling from a tree, but that was never. I was a monkey in the branches; I was a two-toed sloth swinging. I sat in the crook of two limbs happily munching reachable green apples and reading a book, or just looking out through the leaves into my predictable orderly world. The trees never hurt me. It was the lake, the lake in its fabulous frozen state.
There were winters when lakes froze over for weeks, when we stood and sat and lay on the ice and never for a minute worried. Wobblies might make us fail, lack of strength and spindly girl-legs, but our skate blades never cut deep enough and our weights were bird weights.
They say a sprain is worse than a break. To the lake located far from our house Daddy trudged through snow, alerted by my little sister, herself trudging to and fro, thighs against drifts, ice in her breathing. I lay on the far end of the lake, with my face water-level, my knit hat a buffer to keep me about a quarter inch from the freeze of it. I waited there, cold and tingly, flexing my fingers inside my mittens, my ankle a heavy dead thing to drag behind me.
Daddy first pulled me on a sled up the long long hill, as if we were emerging from a mine pit or a volcano but of course minus heat. Every bump the sled took shocked my ankle. Maybe I was a crybaby, or maybe it really was too painful to accept without squealing. He took me on his back. He hoisted my 12 year-old girl-body and piggy backed me the half mile or more home, up and down steep snow hills, down more treacherous than up to his own legs, his own muscles, his own heart. At this time at his age (could he have been only in his forties?), he had a bit of a spare tire. He was no athlete. Our parents then appeared both old and ageless. We couldn’t imagine a world where they weren’t going to be. Mommy fretted about heart attacks since her own father had died young of a bad heart. She’d been nagging Daddy about his belly.
Expect no medical emergency about him. His constitution kept him at it for almost another forty-five years. I was the one who went to the hospital, got the sprained ankle diagnosis, rolled about on crutches for seven weeks. My daddy carried me on his back, no question he would come and take care of me, get me out of this somehow, he the laboring engine, his heart knocking its piston into my coat as if it sat in my own ribs, he my dependable rescue, swearing at me all the way home, his face what the moon tries to mimic with its constancy.
Despair maybe puffed out on my daddy’s cigarette smoke. If he worried he never showed it, but you can bet the cigs he smoked were in direct proportion to the needs and wants of four little girls, and a wife who accepted her martyrdom with small fuss. You never really knew where our money stood, though yes, she dragged us through bargain basements and sale racks. Yes, she always said, we’ll check when it goes on sale, which we learned meant no, never, forget it. She was generous and he was a man of largesse and they extended themselves far beyond their means and hardly saved a dime. But we were so happy, and by that I mean we were ignorant. We ate and we slept and we played and we went to school. We did not know, and they never let on.
In April Mommy painted the concrete planter a thick brilliant white. She covered over every inch of scratch, fade and chip the year had taken out of it. Winters were hard when we were little. Or my memory of the winters is they were hard. From the kitchen window in our top floor half-of-house we had a perfect view of her painting down the hill there on the ledge beside the wild cherry tree where every summer web worms would converge and decimate.
April meant Easter, meant new red geraniums as gifts from our Grandma to each of her daughter-in-laws. Our yard didn’t grow many flowers, and we couldn’t call them ours because we were only renters. We rented the view of their unfolding and fragrance and fade. Daffodils by the tree stump next to the driveway we used as an “ender” for the Chinese jump rope we wove out of dozens of interlaced rubber bands. A divider between the yard next door bloomed into peonies come May and a wonderful flowering bush of tiny white buds I have yet to see anywhere else.
Grass grew up and down the backyard’s hills. It was our responsibility as renters to cut it. And by “our” I mean Mommy. Mommy threw her weight behind the lawn mower and pushed up the inclines; her arms were like ropes in holding the thing back from running amok downhill. She pushed it through the valley part where the sewage leaked in summer to foster grass there a lush and brilliant green. It lay down like hair under the mower, making it twice as hard to cut.
She cut high up the next hill by the tree struck by lightning before we were born. Left to topple in on itself, what grew in the scruff area around the trunk was tall grass, stickers, webs and ticks. Mommy did not tend a birdbath like Mrs. Taylor downstairs, who had a front door while we entered via the side porch. She didn’t cultivate side walk petunias like Mary Clements, a later first-floor tenant who “owned” the front yard. Mommy had her concrete planter she refreshed with white paint each April, in which she set her red geraniums she watered and pinched off all summer. She wore penny loafers and kept her hair cut short. She had a gap-toothed smile. She had strength and endurance to cut up and down an acre with a walking mower week after week in the Ohio River Valley humidity until dry August hit and gave her a break.
In 1974 Mom and Dad bought their first and one house. The new yard was a postage stamp compared to what she’d cut before. Only when we packed and left that beloved two-story of my childhood did I –did any of us–acknowledge that even the white painted planter had not been hers.
I sat at her feet the way a lover props his beloved, or a student siphoning the smarts right from the breath her teacher puffed. Her shins braced my back. Summertime, and so my cheek on her leg felt the long black hairs that didn’t lie down nor spike out. They lazily lifted off her skin, a few curled, sparse, random almost. You would expect that every pore had a hair and so why was her leg not dense with hair? I don’t know, she said. When you get older it’s not thick anymore. That’s weird, I said. I looked at my own legs, which I’d begged her could I please shave by seventh grade, all the girls were. She told me I’d regret it. Once you start, it never ends. But look here, it was ending for her.
Today the hair on my legs is sparse and I bother to shave it maybe once every two months. How can I be the age my mother was as I hugged around her legs, and put my face to her uncovered freckled shins, dry and coarse and scattered with black hair sprouts? Her legs are my legs, her unfinished business in me, my back braced by her colossal shins, heavier when we buried her than she’d ever been.
No girl will again know that brace she lent, the shared uneasy quiet, the what do I say, don’t speak of heart things, the hardest things, the admittance it will fall away, it’s fading right now. We don’t want to bring in the end, but the end will find us. The end is persistent. All our conversation and our meager leave-takings, the mundane we spoke of, all of it vanished but for the indent on the pillow made by her soft hair and her feverish head. The pillowcase soaked in her smells, in her doctoring, in the pharmacy of her skin.
Teenage-me withdrew my hand roughly from my mother’s grasp as we shopped in Northgate Mall. I cringed over my dad’s ultra-respectful tone and address of “Yes, Sister,” “No, Sister,” to the nuns when he and Mom delivered me to college.
The darkest cast fell on that week when a 38-year-old man, a new friend, took me, barely twenty, with him to New York City. Mom called the house upstate where I had been staying and studying and writing, only to learn I was trailing wicked through the heart of the dirtiest, most crime-ridden city during its “Summer of Sam.”
She had no way to track me and dress me down. She didn’t have resources to come after me, to search for me, to pay others to do the search. I was scot-free and breathed exuberantly over my wide horizon. I was having experiences! Me, from the Midwest, in the biggest, most famous city. How her heart must have thudded upon losing her connection to me. She was mad, betrayed, marooned, iced, and alone with her fear. She’d always been a worrier; I increased her anxiety.
She caught up with me when I got back to that house where her phone call first found me AWOL. My friend who’d taken the message said, “While you were gone to the city your mother called.” Our eyes met, our eyes widened.
I dialed home, cradled the receiver between my head and my neck in hunch-back mode, ready for her berating, preparing to eat crow, to hear her demand I get on a bus home this instant. Once she knew I was safe she said, “What did it cost you?”
Breezy me, twenty-year-old me, woman of the world I thought I was, I said, “Nothing. He paid for it all.” I allowed myself joy. I allowed the joy in my voice.
Then she pointed into me a tone I’d never heard before or since. My mother emitted a primeval-type growl shaggy with the dirt she fully believed I’d dragged myself through. She said again, “What did it cost you?”
I could have swallowed spoiled milk; or I could have been drinking sewage. What she thought of me, what she thought I’d done, my own mother, with her mother’s insight, her mother’s power to lay bruise across the miles and strip me of my gladness. Plowing through five hundred miles of wire and landscape and all our piled up love, she stripped me to the very back of my glib and facile tongue.
“Hello, all you good people,” Daddy’d say as he entered a gathering of family. He wore a baseball style cap advertising Bill’s Battery or another car part related industry—Valvoline, sometimes. When we were young he went hatless, but as his hairline receded he donned the ball caps. He wore sweatshirts we bought him endorsing sports teams like the Celtics, the Bearcats, the Bengals. He carried with him a bag, a small paper bag with handles, the gift bag size of his own infamous Christmas grab-bags. In this bag he toted his reading glasses, his sunglasses, his cigs, his lighter, his wallet, a pen, his keys, a camera and sometimes an extra roll of film. It was his flexible, disposable purse. He snapped pictures with a camera you still loaded film into, film you still dropped off for developing. He wasn’t going to change.
You took him as he was, him and his mis-naming, his mis-quoting, his exaggeration of the story; his unexpected booming anger when I didn’t run his vacuum right or when I hit a pot hole driving him to the doctor; his meekness as he accepted kindnesses from nurses, church folk, his brother, his daughters. “Thanks for taking care of me,” he said to every stranger along his hospital way, never acting deserving, always appreciating whatever good met him.
When I was in college and away from home, family was often my furthest idea. The night my sister called me on the pay phone outside my dorm room to say they’d taken him to the hospital with a heart attack, I was immediately corralled into the familiar. Not heart attack, only indigestion, severe indigestion, but that put us all on watch ever after over Daddy’s smoking and his high blood pressure and his belly weight, pondering when the real heart attack would hit. It was brewing in him, we predicted, even threatened, as we tried making him amend his bad habits.
The doctor told him every checkup to quit smoking. And when I’d stop by he’d be sitting at the dining room table with one going in his ash tray among piled up newspapers he was reading and his prescriptions and a box full of ink pens.
“I thought the doctor said you should quit.”
He’d look at me over his cheap magnifiers bought off a carousel at Walgreens. “I am, I’m cutting back to one or two a day now. Hardly smoking at all.” He had a jolly smile that was as much on his lips as in his eyes, a smile you couldn’t hold grudge against, but there’s no changing parents, and he never had a heart attack. The heart’s what did Mom in.
He saved paper towels tubes, never mind what for. He’d been small in a time when they lined the insides of their shoes with cardboard, when new shoes were nowhere. He saw cardboard as a commodity, saving the backs of legal pads, too.
He liked to give things. He would take lunch to his customers when he called on them, packed extra hard boiled eggs and oranges and Hostess treats in his lunch to share. Some guys announced when he pulled into their lot, “Here comes Tricky Dick,” but they drove an hour clear across town to attend his funeral. He tithed, a dollar a week when we were children, in the envelopes the church provided. When he was still working and still driving he loved scanning the Sunday paper’s Walgreens ad and then strolling the aisles there for bargains, or for cheap stuff no one really needed. He parceled it out to us weekly; he had “a bag going” for each of us three married daughters, had them stacked right there by the living room-dining room divider.
These bags may have contained, in my case, coupons, recipes, ads for power tool rentals, articles about healthy eating, ads for life insurance and retirement investing, plastic containers from the soups I’d cooked for him, nail clippers, tweezers, pens, garden gloves. My bag contained garden gloves every spring. When we cleaned out his house and his garage we found at least a dozen more pairs of brand new gloves. I never saw him garden. He’d call me up and say, “When you coming over? My garden needs cleaning out.”
I confess I would feel my heart sink and make up excuses (bad back, sore hands), delay, hem and haw and finally tend his front garden once in spring to clean it out and once in fall to put it to bed. I had my own gardens; maybe that’s why he called on me. And I’d done it for Mom when her heart was slowing her down, when arthritis in her hands took away the joy she had in tending roses. That front garden, all its roses and mums and lilies of the valley, belongs to some new family. I have many pairs of garden gloves courtesy of my Daddy, and I can’t help but think he’s watching my fingernails getting muddy and my hands hurting like my mom’s hurt, digging and pulling and putting things into the earth.
Would that I could today hear his aluminum door creaking, him poking out his head to say, “Why don‘t you take a break? You want a Coke or an orange juice?”
What we think we want: a mother who never leaves, no hurt no fear, supper on the table. A dizzy swim’s what came over her in the parking lot, having just dropped my sister at the drugstore in the strip mall. She planned to swing around the car and idle in a park spot nearest the handicap. On this winter night, early but dark the way skies do close to the end of the year, the lines where she was pointed turned to water, they waved. Which was the same running its course through her, the waters rising, her breath short but no pain, she said. Imagine pink lungs swimming for shore, and what wasn’t underwater took serious the task of gasping. Not even a bum in this parking lot, none to help. Her arms she asked to lift but they wouldn’t so she lay forward, her pivoted shoulder pressing on that car horn, really leaned into it, hung on the steering wheel like a scarecrow blown and caught to a fence post.
Whenever you think no one’s around, when you think what business you’re doing will escape notice, a body comes forward because the body’s truly always there, some body. In the early times of cell phones this somebody called for help with his. He opened the driver’s side and cold air pummeled her, frosted her face, but she couldn’t taste it. Her mouth was glued. He told her: Shhh shhh, they’re coming. Shhh. Lifted her careful off the horn and eased her back against the car seat. He looked directly at her (liked to look into my soul, she said), he patted her gloved hands, pushed sweaty hair off her temple. He sang her a verse of a long forgotten song. Later she told us he had a lion’s golden eyes. In his nondescript coat he receded from emergency’s way, got swallowed in the red revolving night, just how he wanted, the mite of understanding in his rolling ankles, in his shrug, moved on away from her as if he were sailing or skating atop some greater river and cutting the wind in half.
If we sang in the wood? But we ever always sang in the wood. The wood encouraged us, coaxed song from us, our voices on the air there still. Screams and laughter and no one wiser or older. No wonder we expect the trees to house spirits. The souls inside bark are ours. Trying to get out? Of course, no, rather hoping to stay. We are quite torn apart and have in fact gone on long after the heart has been halved, a leg chewed off, a breast removed. The lawnmower ate my grandpa’s three fingers; at least that’s how I thought of the accident as a young girl. It didn’t change him or mark him or deter him. But his heart caved in 1967. They could have rescued him years later with angioplasty or stents or open-heart surgery, which saved his three sons but not my mother. Her voice haunts the woods now; she calls my name, whistling me home for supper.
Me and my sisters, my friends, we lived in the woods, we trammeled the creeks, we monkeyed the trees and hopscotched our hearts. The jubilant jump rope, swinging statues, freeze tag. We didn’t even need a ball.
Dad again burned the grill-out dinner and Mom again berated him the way only she could. Without malice but with plenty of disdain, and looking to us children to side with her. As the only boy in a house of women, he toggled a tough path, between granting wishes to his girls and then criticizing us for our long hair our dirty hair, our short skirts for threads hanging from short skirts, for picking at our face for biting the insides of our cheek. He was the Lord of Salt. He was the King of Winston. He googled his eyes for us like some old-timer he called Barney. The inside of his Ford smelled of sun burnt upholstery and cigarettes. One of us always got to ride the hump in back. He wore red and black and white plaid shorts with a white v-neck undershirt, never owned a pair of tennis shoes, preferred moccasins. Mom slipped her feet in penny loafers when we were little. She did all the house painting, window washing, grass cutting, floor scrubbing, cooking, baking. He listened to the Reds on radio, and on Friday nights in winter he bowled. When they got all dolled up for the Bowling Party at season’s end, oh Lord, they looked a good sight. They were Cinderella and Prince Charming. We waited up for them, watched for their car lights on the road, heard the clock strike midnight and wondered what were they doing without us.
Donna Vitucci is Development Director of Covington Ladies Home, the only free-standing personal care home exclusively for older adult women in Northern Kentucky. Her stories have appeared in dozens of print and online journals, including PANK, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Monkey Bicycle, Juked, Watershed Review, Gargoyle, Hinchas de Poesia, Contrary, Corium Magazine, GERM, and Southern Women’s Review. Her unpublished novel Feed Materials was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize and is currently under agent representation. Three other finished novels wait in a trunk.