His ashes must be halfway to Japan by now. Or at least to Hawaii. He went to Japan once, on business. I remember the funny little paper lantern he brought me.
He loved this red golf shirt, with its little reptilian logo. Never played golf in his life. In his life. It was a finite thing now, Daddy’s life.
“Discoverer’s cry…?” The thinness of my mother’s voice irritates me, the way she murmurs just loud enough to get my attention but not loud enough to be understood. I ignore her. She’s doing it on purpose.
“Six letters. Something-something-something-something-K-A.”
Here’s a Hawaiian shirt with a blue macaw on the back. Worn to my fifteenth birthday party. He took videos and I was so fat.
“Carol, what are you doing?” Finally she makes an effort to be heard.
“Just trying to get these shirts boxed up. Those people are coming to pick up this stuff tomorrow.”
White turtleneck; brown stain on the right cuff. He’d fallen the week before Thanksgiving, cut his arm on some loose corner molding. I think he tripped over his oxygen hose. He’d meant to fix that damned molding.
Pressing the shirt to my nose, I still can breathe in his aura, even though it’s been washed and bleached. I am afraid to open my eyes because they might spill onto the shirt.
A deep breath later I open them anyway and she comes into focus. Tiny, almost frail, she is hunched over the Sunday crossword puzzle, peering down her nose and rocking her head for the clearest angle through her trifocals. I love her but I am cranky. I’ve been cranky for several weeks now, I think.
“Do you know it?”
“Know what, Mom?” Now the shirt just smells like Tide. I toss it into the box to join the parrot and the alligator.
“Discoverer’s cry. 31 down. Isn’t it usually ‘AHA!’ or something? But that doesn’t fit…” She is mumbling again.
Her shoulders feel uncomfortably bony under my hands as I peer over them. She stiffens up and I pull back.
“Yereka?” Her pen pretends to trace letters.
“No, E-U-R-E-K-A. It’s Greek or something. It means, ‘I have found it…’”
She turns and looks at me; I am either nuts or she is afraid she’s forgotten something she should know.
“Remember, it’s the name of that town up north, near Humboldt?”
“I thought that was WHY-REKA.”
“Well, there is another city up by the Oregon border called Yreka. But this is Eureka. See, here, 31 across is ‘eloquent;’ it fits.”
She studies the puzzle intently. I am silently dismissed and so return to the closet. A blue T-shirt with my sons’ baby faces peering back at me, their giggly grins are supposed to be saying ‘WE LOVE YOU, GRANDPA!’ As young teens they mask their grief now when I want them to cry and carry on. This shirt cannot go to the Vets.
* * * * *
I stare at the receipt in my hand. Keep it, the driver said, for your tax write-off.
He used to drive to the post office late every April fifteenth. It infuriated Mama that he would wait so long. “I never pay taxes early. Why give them the money when it isn’t even due? Thieves, the lot of them,” he’d say, with a wink in my direction.
No, my father’s meager collection of shirts would not become a write-off. The receipt gets me 2 points in the corner waste basket.
Mom has a new puzzle today but she is in the bedroom. I can hear drawers squealing open and alternately slamming shut. Murmuring, as usual. Audible sighs. She is waiting so I finally ask.
“What are you looking for?” My fingers are sliding lightly over Daddy’s collection of old records.
“Never mind,” she calls from the bedroom. “Just… something.”
I have to wonder if she is purposely baiting me or if she is just confused. She emerges from the hall carrying a shoe box with no lid and plops it onto the kitchen table. This, to invite me to browse.
The instant decaf is bitter but I drown it with milk and join her. We spend an hour or so reliving our lives, countless moments captured in snapshots; many are yellowed and dog-eared. They should be in an album.
“Remember when we almost moved to Arizona?” She hands me an early color shot of Daddy standing beside a monster saguaro. It’s a painful catharsis; I want to look but I don’t want to feel. If I feel I will probably cry and I have done too much of that already.
I pick out a handful of pictures I think the boys would enjoy. Me and Dad at Lake Tahoe; he guiding me on my new bike - without training wheels!; their white-haired grandfather dressed as Santa Claus. I keep looking, though, hoping to find one that says more. Means more. To me.
We put the photo box away. It’s enough for today. My mother returns to the bedroom and the cacophony of drawers resumes.
I am back to perusing the music. Gosh, he must have had hundreds of LP’s. Several shelves of old 78’s. I can’t think about what to do with them. I know I shouldn’t, but I can’t stop myself from peeking at the 45 still on the record player; the last one he must have played, it would have been months ago. A year, maybe? It is Blue Bayou by Linda Ronstandt. He loved her, complete with scratches and hiss. I give the turntable a little spin and wonder: if I listen, will I feel better or worse? I opt on the safe side.
She has moved from the dresser to the bureau. I can tell by the pitch of the screeches. All the while, a steady stream of commentary wafts just barely out of earshot.
Today I am wishing I’d kept the parrot shirt. Maybe, just maybe one of the boys would have worn it someday. Ha! Who am I kidding? Well, maybe I would have worn it.
I wish I could stop biting my lip. There should be a service that takes care of all this. There probably is, but I guess I wouldn’t use one anyway. What if they got rid of something you wanted to keep? I can do that all by myself. For free.
It’s too quiet in the back. I pad down the hall and Mama is sitting at the foot of the bed, weeping silently. In her hand is her marriage license.
“Jesus,” I whisper, and take the fifty year old document from her trembling fingers.
“I’m okay.” She straightens up, clears her throat and slips the paper back into the current drawer. “You go; make some more coffee.”
Inside I feel like a jigsaw with missing pieces.
“Maybe if you tell me what you’re looking for I can help.”
“No, no, it’s nothing, really…”
She’s intent on her search for nothing. I retreat to the kitchen.
There is a ceramic mug on the shelf bearing the name “Bill.” In my hands, I see it as new again, without the chip in the handle and the dull brown coffee rings. It is emerging from crisp, crinkled white tissue in my father’s hands on Christmas morning, his adoring young daughter anxious and expectant at his side.
“Do you like it, Daddy? They didn’t have ‘Will’ or ‘William’…”
“I love it, Sweetie. It’s perfect. Why, I’ll bet coffee will taste great in this cup. And, I’ll think of you with every sip. How ‘bout that?”
It had seemed so big and heavy in my ten year old hands; it is almost undersized in his. Grasping the dime store cup in his right hand, he brings it to his lips and takes an imaginary gulp of coffee. The picture is frozen for just a moment while I examine every detail: thinning silver-black hair and eternally merry blue eyes; the trim, Gablesque mustache and the slightly uneven and smallish teeth; he is wearing the parrot shirt, and there’s something else. The glint, through memory’s natural haze, of a brilliant diamond, a striking contrast to the summer brown of Daddy’s hand.
He’d accepted the 2 carats in lieu of payment from a near bankrupt customer. Despite the reminder of his failed business, my father treasured the ring over nearly all of his other possessions. It was the only jewelry I’d ever seen him wear besides his simple Timex.
My sister is on the phone. How’s Mama today? I want to say, “come and see her yourself,” but I know Jan’s life is at least as complicated as mine. Maybe more. We do the best we can. We promise to get together on the weekend. We probably won’t.
I don’t remember her coming in but Mama is now frying eggs on the stove.
“You want cheese?” She has already toasted the bread and is spreading on great globs of margarine.
“Sure.” I watch her as she busies herself at the sink counter. It seems like I can only look at her when she is not looking at me. I am afraid to see the hurt, the anger, the blame. We never talk about it, not since that horrible day in the hospital waiting room.
An involuntary shudder runs across my back. As hard as I try to shut it out, the day plays over and over like a rerun you are sick of seeing. My sister, my brother, Mom and the social worker are all there before me. I enter the room on legs I cannot feel - I have never done this before, never met with my family to grasp and to grieve and to sob and to regret; never looked into faces so puffy and gray, faces of those I love and cannot comfort. She looks up at me with darkened, unforgiving eyes. It was the last time she had looked into mine.
“You’re not eating,” Mama says as she wipes the table off for the tenth time today.
The memories have numbed my senses, my mouth, but I take a bite of egg sandwich anyway. Even though she is looking out the window, she is watching me.
“How’s the search coming?” My question pauses her a moment; she pretends to be concerned over a spot on the table.
“I wasn’t really looking for anything, I told you. There’s just so much stuff to go through, I need to get rid of. Your dad was such a pack rat.”
“That, he was.”
* * * * *
In the backyard the apricots are overripe and dropping to rot with old limes. The scent of perpetually blooming oranges fills the air, white blossoms pepper the sparse grass. Our old swing sways gently, and even though I am really too wide, it invites me to squeeze in and sway along with it. The back windows are open and I can see Mama pulling boxes off the closet shelf.
It’s hot out here. I am reminded of summers past, when our doughboy pool sat where the apricot tree is today. “Marco!” “Polo!” My sister and I are screaming, creating what must be the world’s best whirlpool as we swish and splash and toss water back and forth. I could use a good splash right now. I miss my sister. I wonder if she knows that Mama blames me for Daddy’s death?
A hundred and forty one days. I noticed that Mama has been crossing them off on the kitchen calendar. Why? Is it the number of days she has survived him? Is she waiting for something to occur? Perhaps she is waiting for an apology, an explanation?
Oh, I explained it all to her, but she couldn’t hear me, not in the hours that followed Daddy’s last breath, not in the days leading to and after his funeral. Not in the weeks that dragged on. So I was left to explain it to my sister, my husband, my aunt, my sons. I explained to everyone, and yes, even God, although He already knew why I had done what had to be done.
The rotting apricots and the July sun are getting to me. I rise unevenly, letting the swing fall away with a clatter of rusty chain.
“WHYREKA!! WHYREKA!!” My mother’s shouts pour out the back windows. “Oh, I found it, I found it!”
I am rushing to the back door. What could be so wonderful?
She has calmed somewhat and is sitting on the bed.
“I thought I had lost this. You can imagine how I was feeling about it. It was so important to him.”
Mama holds out her fist, beckoning to me to take whatever it holds. I outstretch my palm, into which she presses a ring. Daddy’s ring.
“I was so upset at the time. They gave it to me at the hospital. I hid it and then forgot where it was.”
I can’t hold back a small smile. The ring slides itself onto my finger. The gold is hazy from years of wear, the diamond has an accrual of darkness under the setting. I can feel my own smile fading.
“It doesn’t look the same off his finger.”
“No, but it was as much a part of him as his finger,” she says, with a catch in her throat. “He wanted you to have it, you know.”
“No. You don’t mean that.”
“Of course I do. I wouldn’t say it if he hadn’t insisted I promise that you would get it. If - if anything ever happened to him…”
Whyreka, indeed. Now she is going to cry. And I will cry, and we’ll both end up feeling lousy. I quickly sit on the bed and thrust my arm around her shoulders. Like it or not, she is going to get comfort from me. I have to try.
“Mama, it’s okay. Maybe you should keep the ring.”
“No. Please, take it. I promised him, and you are going to let me keep that promise.” Her voice is cracking and weak, but she is not crying.
I am at a loss for words. Maybe we should talk about it later, when we are both feeling more sane. It is clear that Mama won’t take “no” for an answer right now.
Through the window I can see the swing is still swaying. My mind is awash with conflict. What will Jan say? What about our brother? Why me?
She is reading my mind.
“Jake is getting the record collection, you know. He’s always talked about how valuable it is. And Jan already got his watch. It’s all she wanted.”
I nod. My eyes cannot seem to leave the swing. Mama seems far away, at the end of a tunnel.
“Carol,” she begins again, a change of subject in her voice. “I know you’re still angry at me, but please, I’m just human, you know.”
“I’ve never been that strong, not like you, not like your dad. I can’t make decisions quickly, I’m not smart about some things.”
I blink and turn to face her. What is she talking about? Me angry with her?
“It all happened so fast. I wasn’t ready. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been there…”
The catch is back in her throat. Now I am really speechless.
“I just want you to know I’m… grateful to you for… handling things, when…”
My face is wet. When did I start crying?
“You mean you’re not upset with me anymore?” Now it is my voice that is thin and quivering. It doesn’t sound like me. Carol, the Strong. Carol, the Decision-Maker. Carol, who gave the go-ahead to pull the plug on her own father.
“Upset with you? Chrimeny Christmas! I’m the one who couldn’t do anything, I was the one who went to pieces when you all needed me the most! I was the one who just sat there like an idiot, carrying on, blaming everyone but myself…” Her eyes are wide and openly seeking forgiveness from mine.
I can’t seem to stop crying, or to even utter a word.
“But you…” She pauses to wipe her own cheeks, to sniff a few times. “You were there, you were clear-headed and you knew it was time… he wanted us to let him go. You saw that. Please forgive me, you did the right… the right thing.”
I am five years old and falling into my mother’s loving arms. I think I will cry until I am ready to be 35 again.
I thought I had lost my mother’s love. But like Daddy’s ring, it had only been set aside, in a time of confusion and loss.