I’m at my mother’s funeral, as I have often been before in dreams and waking musings, though this time she is really dead, and here I sit, an addled orphan at an age where she and I might well have just decided we would continue along together till the end. We could have used the time, though I know that time alone would not have saved us, would not even have brought us to some reluctant truce, not when all these years it seems have only driven us apart.
My mother had always figured on a crowd for this occasion, but then, she never planned to outlive everyone she knew. In fact, her plan, as far as I could figure, was to die when I was still in junior high school. The summer before I started seventh grade, she made me climb the drop-down ladder to the attic space. “I want to show you where to find the Christmas decorations,” she said, “in case I am not here at Christmas.”
You have to understand: she was not ill, nor diagnosed to be ill soon. No matter, death was always on her mind and figured largely in her plans for holidays and family celebrations. But death comes when it will — unless expressly bidden — and it waited fifty years from that August attic afternoon.
The crowd today is thin: Two antique aunts of mine, each the ex-wife of an uncle famous more for romance than for constancy. A phalanx of blue-haired and crinkled miniature ladies, birdlike and more restive than a person might expect. A young man with BOB stitched in red across his shirt front. The preacher’s shriven wife. And, in the back row, as bashful and out of place as they have been for all their lives, the Johnson girls, Marilyn and Janice. We went to the same church growing up, Marilyn and Janice and their pretty sister, Paula, and I. Marilyn was in my grade in school, but I only ever saw her at church on Sundays and on Wednesday nights and when we had not-infrequent special meetings five weeknights in a row. We were also in Sunday school and youth fellowship together. If some of us have wandered far astray, at least we have a pretty clear idea what we have strayed from. We were taken bowling (the only organized activity outside of church that was not considered a blatant sin), or we met in the youth pastor’s small apartment and made molasses taffy. Then we stood around the piano and sang “How Great Thou Art,” a hymn so new they had to paste it inside the back cover of the hymnal.
I remember walking home from fellowship one Saturday, saying to my then idol, Carol Taylor, “I don’t think the Johnson girls had much fun tonight.” You’d have to hear the tone I used: pious, sanctimonious, and condescending, with the mean intention of both separating myself from them and casting myself as someone who cared if human beings below me in the pecking order of my mind had a good time or not. “I don’t think the Johnson girls had much fun tonight,” I said. And, etched clearly in my memory, came Carol’s reply: “I think you make your own fun.” Carol, I would learn years later on the eve of her marriage to a preacher with perfect skin and teeth and hair, spent every spare moment (when her parents thought she was at the library) necking, and probably petting, in the back seat of Bud Randall’s red-and-white 1956 Chevy.
You make your own fun, indeed.
Everyone is standing now. One more hymn and we are free — or, if not free, exactly, expected to go and be not free somewhere else. It’s not a hymn I know. I thought I knew them all. I read the copyright date on the bottom of the page: 1975. The year I got my first divorce, my first apartment on my own, my first therapist. I challenge anybody in this place to a pathetic-life contest.
The hymn is ended. No one looks likely to complain. “Go in peace,” the preacher says.
I shake several withered, bony hands. Whatever happened to the plump, softly padded, corseted old ladies of my childhood? This saggy skin must once have covered more. Now I barely recognize these women. They may not recognize themselves, their wrinkled faces, their odd lives. They would pass themselves on Main Street without a second look.
“Hello there. We’re sorry about your mum.” It’s Marilyn Johnson. “She was a real nice lady.”
Janice, the silent sister, looks as though she might be poised to nod. I try to think if I’ve ever heard her speak. What a distinction: to have inhabited the planet without comment, to have lived (or, at the very least, to have witnessed others living) without needing to say a single thing.
A little girl walks up to Janice and takes her hand.
I frown in Marilyn’s direction, as if to ask: Who’s this child, and what on earth is she doing at a funeral?
“This is Ruthie,” Marilyn says. “Ruthie is our sister’s granddaughter. You remember Paula? Ruthie is Paula’s daughter’s girl. Ruthie loved your mom. Your mom was really good to her.”
So you bring her to the funeral? I want to squawk, but the service is over, the damage done. Kids used to go to funerals all the time. They also used to stand with their feet in X-ray machines in shoe stores and hang out the windows of speeding cars to feel the breeze.
“Would you like some refreshments?” I reach back to the fifties for the word we used for unassuming sugar cookies and fruit punch spiked with ginger ale. The refreshments today are brie, smoked salmon, and Perrier.
I don’t know what to talk about with the Johnson girls. They don’t know what to talk about with me. Ten thousand hours spent in each other’s company has left only some residue of fellow feeling, some loss we all share.
As it is, I end up playing hopscotch with Ruthie on the sidewalk out front. At least the church has colored chalk. At least Ruthie laughs and wins. “That’s just like her!” I hear one of my aged aunts stage-whisper about me as she passes on her way to the car.
The next few days are surreal. I make camp in a time warp, set up my pup tent in a clearing littered with memories of people now gone. The time is one long evening in the present, which is 1954, 1989, then 1962. It keeps changing. I see my mother and me here in this house a lifetime ago. I see my mom and Ruthie here last fall, having tea parties in the parlor or watching cartoons.
I mean to clean off shelves and upend stuffed drawers, to drag the demons of my childhood from the closet corners. These demons have grown fuzzy and indistinct. There I am lying on the davenport with my nose stuck in a book — The Bobbsey Twins, Honey Bunch, Jane Eyre — or at a picnic in the park, lying on a wooden bench, You Can’t Go Home Again covering my face.
I would read now, but whenever I pick up a book, my mother walks into the room and sighs and says, Good grief. Can’t you think of anything better to do? When she was alive, I could give some smartass answer and get slapped across the face, then go on reading in peace. As it is, she just stands there while I read the same page over again.
I walk into the TV room that was once the back parlor and before that the bedroom where I had the German measles. I was five, maybe six, about the age of Ruthie now. My mother called the doctor, and he came. They did that then. I pulled the covers over my head before he was even in the room and yelled, “You get the hell out of here, you goddamn son of a bitch!”
“Oh, Dr. Grill, I have no idea where she could have learned words like that.”
The house is collapsing around our heads. Her first response: image control. The little girl is terrified enough to scream words that may pave her passageway to hell, and the mother says, She’s never heard those words before, which of course is bullshit. Four uncles and their farm-boy sons stop by once or twice a month to blue the air with swears and track manure in the front hall and pinch the small girl’s skinny cheeks so hard it leaves a mark.
That child never swore or yelled again. She just picked up a book and never put it down, not even when she was asleep. My bed’s still full of books. The book-jacket cellophane will crinkle when my hand hits it in the night, or a book might thud to the floor when I roll over. Safe sounds.
So, what then? If I hadn’t turned to books, I would have taken on my mother with more vigor, said bullshit to undeserving members of the medical profession, and quickly left my husband when he said, “Your father beat you, and your mother never loved you. How could you possibly be any kind of mother to a child?”
Did books save me? How could I know? I’m not here to answer questions; I am here to pack a lifetime into plastic bags that I will beg Goodwill to take away, then sell the house for two bits on the dollar. I would burn it to the ground if I thought fire might reduce our history to ashes; I would come live here forever if I thought human sacrifice would be the answer. Truth be told, in this market, I doubt the house will even sell. Maybe I’ll turn it into a museum.
I wander the rooms and listen to the voices. I don’t want to understand this; I only want to tally all the sins committed here. I want to judge and condemn and dig my mother up and bury her again. I want to cry and never stop.
I find solace in the memory of my father’s mother, who went on to mother me. I come upon her in the kitchen, boiling eggs and counting from one to sixty, three times in a row. What can I say to her? I’m growing old, Grandma. My hair is turning gray. Did you imagine this for me? She only shakes her head. She has been dead for fifty years, ever the inhabitant of someplace far out ahead of me.
It’s Saturday night. I know the rules: if you don’t have a date, stay home. But tonight this house is scaring me. I drive down the steepest hill in town, past my elementary school, which has by sleight of hand become three yellow houses old enough to have grown shabby-looking. And if I knock on the front door, they’ll have no Weekly Readers, no rock-hard basketballs that bruise small bones in dodgeball. They’ll have no clanking shadows in the dungeon basement boiler room. They’ll have no boiler room. No basement.
I drive past my uncle Ging’s rooming house, where ten men at a time slept for twenty years. It is now a doughnut shop with a big sign where the front porch used to be. The machine shop is a parking lot; the old garage now sells Subway sandwiches. I drive out South Main Street toward Brandy Township and think I see the house where the Johnson family lives, but through the window I glimpse a young man carrying a small boy upside down. I see another house that might be theirs, but I’m not sure. I turn around and drive back to the Subway shop and go in and ask if they’ve got a phone book.
The Johnson girls’ listing is in their father’s name. He died in 1967, And he being dead yet speaketh, or at least pointeth to the right house: 978 South Main Street.
I find the house and pull around the corner and park at a little distance. It’s where I’ve lived my life: at a little distance. Not in a yurt in a desert in a country God’s forgotten but only a few steps away, around the corner, just out of sight of everybody else.
The front porch of the Johnson house is no more than a concrete continuation of the sidewalk, or the sidewalk is a continuation of their front porch that goes for two miles until it joins up with the road to Reynoldsville and in a few more miles becomes the turnpike that takes you to New Jersey and on through endless scrub and bracken to the sea.
How to explain that, with a front porch practically connected to the continent of Africa — where every one of us in youth fellowship intended to go as missionaries — how to explain that the Johnson girls, at the age of sixty-something and sixty-something-else, sit here on a summer Saturday night for all the world to see, in front of the TV they have watched faithfully since 1957? If your front porch is a slab of poured concrete that continues to the sea, then I guess a person must be careful not to step outside to get the mail, but only to stretch an arm out while standing on the sill and pull the letters from the box. I am almost certain that what separates the ones who go to Africa to preach the gospel or photograph the wildebeest from the ones who stay home and keep a close eye on the TV is that first step across the threshold, onto the front porch.
“Margaret. Hello there.” Marilyn Johnson has opened the front door. Did I ring the bell? “How are you?”
“Oh, good. Fine. I was just driving around and saw your house. Your backyard is really nice. Who does all the work back there?”
“We both do.”
“Well, it’s amazing. Really nice. I don’t mean to make you stand here with the door open.”
“Oh, would you like to come in?”
“Sure. So this is where you girls grew up. I’ve never been here.”
I’m standing in the front room, which is filled to brimming, though I couldn’t say with what.
“We’re glad to see you,” Marilyn says. “Aren’t we, Janice?”
I’m rifling through the questions in my mind: What did you have for supper tonight? Who decided? Was it good? Did either of you ever have sex even one time in your life? (I’m thinking no.) Does it matter? Have you ever been to West Virginia? You could make it there in an hour and a half if you drove ninety miles an hour. Did you ever swear? Have you ever been inside a jail or an art gallery?
“That Ruthie was so sweet,” I say. “At the funeral.”
“She is sweet,” Marilyn says. “She used to go to visit your mom all by herself. Your mom would come to the doughnut shop where Ruthie’s mother works. They played games, and your mom always gave her raisins.”
“I love raisins,” I say.
“Everybody loves raisins,” silent Janice says, as if she spoke every day.
“We’re sad for them,” Marilyn says. “Ruthie’s family needs a place to live. Six of them. I wish we could have them here.” She looks around as though her eyes might spot some new space in the small living room. “We’ve just two rooms upstairs.”
“I’m really sorry to bother you,” I say, “but could I trouble you for a glass of water?”
“Oh, sure. Wait right here.”
No, I want to say, I only asked so I could see the kitchen. And what would get me up the stairs to where the humble parents slept for all their married years?
Janice sits here studying her lap. There are all different kinds of power people have.
I drink the water Marilyn brings me in one long, slow swallow. I must have been thirsty. Who knew? Ruthie’s family’s needs are so clear. Mine are so confusing.
“It’s hard to know what you need,” I say out loud.
“You need Jesus,” Janice says, speaking twice in the same day. I want to write her words down on a piece of paper and study them when I get home.
“Tell me what that means,” I say.
“You need Jesus.” She adds no new inflection, but the words feel different than before: more weighty and less clear.
“I need to think about that,” I say.
“No you don’t,” she says.
She’s nailed me there. I think things to death.
Marilyn and I talk some more: about my mother, about their parents, about their pretty sister, Paula, Ruthie’s grandma, who it turns out died three years ago. I finally say good night and thanks for the water and the gospel and the human contact. Marilyn tells me to come back anytime. I want to ask, Must I leave then and come back? Might I not just stay?
I walk around the side of the house to the back garden, so well tended and small: like their lives. I take a deep breath. There is so little air tonight. And then I’m back in the car. I sit, not turning the key. I’ve nowhere in the whole world left to go.
Janice tells me I need Jesus, but she didn’t happen to mention how to find him, where to look for him while it’s still light enough to see.
I’m so tired I decide to put the seat back and close my eyes, just for a few minutes. When I awaken, it’s pitch-black. I was dreaming I was riding horseback, English saddle, jumping fences, unafraid. Janice and Marilyn were riding too. They were magnificent.
I can still feel the wind, still see the Johnson girls so clearly jumping the stone walls. I close my eyes, and sleep comes back to me. Later, at some point between black night and early morning, I cough and wince and blink, then get out of the car and crawl into the back seat. The bags I stuffed for Goodwill make a soft if crinkly bed. No dreams now. Just sleep. Like the dead.
And, like them, after an eternity I rise, surprised at morning; sleep had seemed so like the end. Sometimes I wake up at home and don’t know where I am. No such problem here. I know exactly where I am: Plainville, Ohio, U.S.A., North America, Earth, the Solar System, the Universe — just the way I wrote my address as a young girl.
Driving back down Main Street, no other life in sight, I see a light burning in the front window of my uncle Ging’s old house, just beneath the DONUTS sign. I pull into the cramped parking lot, the one-time garden where my uncle grew nine different kinds of lettuces and squash.
No one lives here anymore. Inside, the first floor of the Victorian house is now the doughnut shop where Ruthie’s mother works: one large, plain room with three tables and some chairs. Long gone is my uncle’s bedroom — once a dining room — where Uncle Ging and his father (my grandfather) and Molly Miller slept, each on a noisy, metal-spring bed. How Ging came by Molly Miller I cannot remember, if I ever knew, but for the last dozen years of her life she shared a bedroom with the two aging men. “She doesn’t use up much air,” Ging would say if asked. “Molly, she’s not one that’s comfortable to sleep in a room alone, not even with the light on, so we just hauled her bed down here. She’s no bother. She doesn’t cuss or snore.” I always thought Molly was too small to snore. She was tiny and had the bluest eyes, cornflower blue, her eyelids closing in to make their shape a thing to notice. Molly had at first lived upstairs in my uncle’s rooming house, where each individual room was the situation of one life.
“May I help you?” A tall young woman materializes through a doorway behind the counter, which is right where Uncle Ging’s beat-up player piano stood. I look down and notice small fingers on the counter’s edge. I lean over and see their owner, Ruthie, her own blue eyes impassive.
“Did you know there are pianos that play themselves?” I say to her.
She shakes her head.
“You take this metal roll covered with paper that has a million holes in it, and you put it into the front of the piano, and it plays all by itself,” I say. “Do you like music?”
“She likes books.” The woman must surely be her mother.
“Ah! Me too. More than anything. When I was little, my mother asked the doctor what to do because I was having vivid dreams at night and making up such stories in the daytime, and the doctor told her to take away my books, to hide them from me. So one night after I went to bed, my mother gathered up all my books and hid them in the washing machine. It was the kind with the big tub and a wringer at the top.” I address this detail to the mother. “Well, when I woke up in the morning, they said I was like a drunk who needed his first drink. ‘Where are my books?’ I cried.”
“What can I get you?” The mother may not have taken to the drunk part. “What would you like?”
Graham crackers. Or gingersnaps with canned Carnation milk. That was the finest snack I ever had inside this house. Stooped, skinny, red-faced men rented bedrooms on the second floor and in the attic, and I would visit them in the upstairs kitchen they all shared and dunk the cookies in the thick, warm, creamy milk, and we would listen to the Pirates games on the Philco radio.
“Can I get you some doughnuts?” the woman says. Ruthie hasn’t moved. I would give anything to have a couple of those wiry men wheel in the player piano now and make it play for her: “Roll Out the Barrel.” “Clementine.” Something jazzy. She would love it.
“Our doughnuts were made fresh this morning. We came in at four o’clock.”
I try to think when I last had a doughnut. Late seventies. Maybe early eighties. “Oh, I just came in to look around. My uncle used to live here with a lot of other people who needed a place to live.”
“We need a place to live.” Ruthie speaks for the first time.
I turn to the mother. She winces.
“We have to leave where we live,” Ruthie says, “and we don’t have money for a new place.” I hear the small girl’s words as echoes of grown-ups’ late-night conversations.
The mother bites her lip and turns to look out the large bay window, where there once hung brocade draperies so heavy my father called them the “iron curtains.” The front door opens, and two laughing men walk in and make a big production of ordering coffee with extra sugar and cream and four different doughnuts each. Their arteries will be fully clogged by nightfall. Then a short, stooped man comes in almost soundlessly and buys a frosted doughnut he pays for with dimes he counts out on the counter. He sits down at one of the tables. I want to tell him there’s a ballgame on the radio upstairs and men to talk to or be silent with, a room where he can stretch out after breakfast, read the paper, take a nap. I want to ask him is he old enough, does he remember Uncle Ging, and did he once know a man named Charlie who lived upstairs, a man with bad teeth and bloodshot eyes and a cigar box full of odd bits and pieces, interesting to rummage through on a rainy afternoon? But I’m afraid he’ll tell me he just moved here twenty years ago. I hate people who just moved here, who don’t belong, who can’t remember. They have no business being here.
The door opens to a young man wearing a T-shirt and tattered jeans, his bare arms covered in red and green and blue inscriptions. I try to read what’s printed there, never sure if this is impolite or if it is the main reason people get tattoos: for strangers to read in doughnut shops on mornings when they stop in to reminisce and try to figure out the what-comes-next part of their lives. He buys a twenty-ounce cup of coffee and asks if they sell cigarettes.
“Why do you smoke?” Ruthie pipes up.
“Because it’s so cold outside,” he says.
I love it when people answer children’s questions. Once he’s gone, I glance at the mother, who is giving her full attention to opening a roll of quarters.
I walk into my mother’s house and go directly to the bedroom, where I fall across the bed and am asleep in minutes. I awaken to the sound of children’s voices. It’s late afternoon. The dappled sunlight flickers on the floor. I go over to the window, but I can’t see any children. They were so nearby. They sounded like children used to sound, running around outside, on sticky summer afternoons with popsicles and squirt guns.
I make coffee, then head out to Goodwill with the bags of clothing. Once back, I call the doughnut shop and offer Ruthie’s mom a twelve-part, convoluted introduction: how I was just there this morning but didn’t buy a doughnut, how I’m longtime friends with the Johnson girls, who my mother was. Then: Oh, and, by the way, might Ruthie come up to the house tomorrow, to see if there’s something of my mother’s she might like to have: a knickknack, a doodad? I sound insane. The mother says OK.
Ruthie and I spend most of her visit sitting, cozy, in the closet underneath the stairs, a hiding place I haven’t been in since I was a child. We pretend that it’s a cave, and we are hibernating bears, and winter’s long, and we are patient, telling stories, singing songs that we make up. I don’t remember till I’m driving Ruthie home that she has taken nothing of my mother’s as a keepsake.
“What might you like to have to keep?” I say.
“The closet,” Ruthie says, “underneath the stairs.”
Three days pass — three helter-skelter days of deeds and lawyers, wills and paperwork — before I find myself standing once more in the doughnut shop.
Can it be that this has been a journey stretched out over half a century, the time it’s taken me to travel from the rainy afternoons in the drafty kitchen the men shared, down the stairs — split two ways at the landing, always, every time, forcing you to choose — down to the front room to find another girl and her mother and to offer them a house with an oak tree out back that reaches fifty feet toward the sky, a tree that was a skinny, no-account thing the day I planted it, surrounding the spindly trunk with worn red bricks? I traveled down the stairs and through the years to come today to offer them a house that has a closet underneath the stairs where bears and little girls can stay all winter long.
And in another fifty years’ time, how far will this girl have traveled from behind the counter in a doughnut shop?
“Hi,” I say as Ruthie and her mother come out of the kitchen. “It happens that I’ve got a place where you can live. I think it’s just the thing.”
“Thanks, but we can only pay four hundred dollars,” the mother says. “There aren’t any places for that.”
“Trust me. Money will not be a problem.”
I am just about happier than I have ever been in my whole life. I wasn’t especially happy as a kid, and if you don’t get the hang of it when you are young, you’re never really good at it. But I am very good at it right now.
If you just show up at church on Sunday mornings, you hear the part about the love of God and maybe even how he died for your sins, and you should give him good deeds and pure thoughts and perhaps your life in return. But if you come back on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights, and sometimes five nights in a row for special meetings, they let you read the fine print.
That’s where Jesus says, “You must leave your father and mother if you are to follow me.” That doesn’t mean you’re supposed to move out, buy a car, and get your own apartment. Most everyone does that. No, Jesus means you have to leave the misery, give up all the pain, quit hoarding it and treasuring it. Leave the sorrow of your life. Walk away.
This house I’m giving them seems made of burdens stitched together, but to this young family who need a place to live it will be a right, fine thing.
I’m on the highway bound for Massachusetts just after dawn. I spent a hundred hours shoveling out the house and throwing things away. Then I shelled out equal amounts of money on a lawyer for a transfer of deed and at the florist for bouquets of flowers that I parked on every level surface of every blessed room in the whole place. It looked fantastic. Ruthie chose my old room. Her mother and her father will sleep where my mother and father slept and fought for forty years. The two brothers took the bedroom with the clanking radiator and the creaky floor. The baby will no doubt sleep in every single room there is.
I had to practically threaten them to make them take the house. The only stipulation is that they must never sell it. When they are finished with it, when it has had its way with them, they are to give it to another family, one that might have lost its way. But they can wait another eighty years for that. No hurry. Waiting is the one thing life won’t mind.
“Will you come to visit us?” Ruthie asked me at the door.
“I might,” I said. I just might come back to visit them, traveling through the fifty years of long and narrow sorrows, loves and loss, and foreign states. Maybe I’ll go back and see the Johnson sisters too, behold the slow-drip splendor of their lives lived in studied, bold contentment. Perhaps I will surprise them one dark morning when they come down for breakfast and just be sitting at the kitchen table, holding a big box of doughnuts made at four o’clock that morning, in a shop which I alone in all the world remember was once my uncle’s living room.