A series of this and that found in some long-forgotten file folders in my basement. Specifically, this is a piece I wrote a while ago about my mom and hers; part 1 is here.
“She made us wear these long underwear, not like long johns, but like underwear with legs in them – not long legs, but longer than underwear. Do you know what I mean?”
“Yes, Mom, they were like boxer briefs.”
“No, not like that. They were more poofy. And they were made out of this scratchy, thick material, and they were pink.” I laugh and think that will make a good detail in the scene I will reconstruct from her memory. I start to relax as she talks about the playground and the boys, her fear of anyone seeing her old-fashioned, baggy underwear. We drive on, and she tells the story – another that I have heard but forgotten the details – of beating a rug next to her aunt’s clean laundry, of Aunt Marie chasing her with the broom and my uncle Don finding it all very entertaining.
I realize I’m no longer listening to what she is actually saying but to the rhythm of her voice. She has stopped talking about her aunt Marie and is now describing her childhood home – not the one I visited as a child to see my grandparents, but the house where her mom lived, the one they tore down when my grandpa remarried and they built the new house. “Uh-huh,” I say every couple of sentences, wanting her to continue with just this cadence and just this volume. While I’m not picturing the actual layout of the house she is describing, the effect is that I begin to build a house for her to live in as a ten-year-old. The picture I create, though, like my own memories, lacks any sort of peripheral vision or sense that there are rooms beyond the one I am looking at now as if it were on a television screen. Her house and everything in it, unlike the houses I reconstruct when I imagine my own childhood, is black and white. I try to augment my picture by creating sounds, but where my childhood is filled with the even beat of the washing machine, the train whistle so common I forget to hear it, a lawnmower too early on a Saturday morning, the game on the radio, my mom’s laughter, my dad’s deep, gentle voice, my mom’s childhood is silent.
I drift back in and realize that Mom is gesturing with her hands, wanting me to understand which side of the couch the phone table was on and which way it faced from the window. That was the phone they used to call her sister Virginia the morning Mom died, she says. She could hear them, she explains, because she and Lola, her other sister, were sleeping in the middle bedroom, although she doesn’t remember why they were in there or where her dad slept in those days. “Mom was in a hospital bed in the living room across from the phone, remember? And that morning . . .
“Maybe you should drive,” she whispers.
“No, you’re fine,” I murmur, knowing that if we stop, I’ll never hear what comes next. It’s painful now, more painful than I’ve realized, but I can’t make myself let her stop. I’ve heard the story before—nearly every time we drove to visit Grandpa and Grandma, I heard the story – but never like this, never with an idea, even an inaccurate one, of where the phone was and where two little girls, too little girls, were lying in bed hearing through thin walls that it was time for their mother to die.
Her words are controlled, but I know from their broken rhythm that she is still crying. “She said, the last thing she ever said, she said she loved us, that morning, I remember, that morning.”
“That’s okay, Mom. It’s enough.” After a few moments, I add, “I love you, Sweetie Mommy,” my silly term of affection left over from when I was a little girl. She reaches over to squeeze my hand, and I squeeze back, pleased by the softness and strength in her grip, knowing that I have inherited her hands.
More sure of herself, she explains, “I tried to comfort my dad, but that was just a childish thing. Of course, there was no comfort.” She tells me that she remembers just how his arm felt that morning and how tired her own arm got trying to understand how it could be that he, with such strong farmer’s arms, could need her little hand just above his elbow to help him grieve.
The last ten minutes we drive in silence.