The day after graduation she packs up her nursing degree and single suitcase, a reluctant gift from Fritz and Rose, watching their first leave the farm. A middle child of 10, she is nonetheless the first to leave this way of life. The others, who would be farmers or wives of farmers, had seen her fidget, devoted but restless, most all of her life, and now she had her one-way ticket out of town. Twenty and alone, she arrives at Union Station. The echoing train terminal swallows her like a black shadow in an Eisenstadt photograph, but outside she stands taller, lent stature by the steel air of Sandburgs 1932 Chicago.
Thirty years later when she dies a widow, relatives fight over her clothes, jewelry and real estate, and what little is left of the money. You, the only daughter and 13, claim only her worn wedding band, a musty photo album, her old Smith-Corona, and a souvenir ashtray from Paris, France. The others, leery and faceless and compelled by greed, regard you in their peripheral vision—as if the scrapbook hid war bonds, the workings of the old typewriter gold bullion.
The album is bound in leather and laced with black satin cording. Photographs in sepia are held in place by paper corners glued to pages of heavy black paper. She refers to herself in the third person, Lou, in captions written in white ink with the flow and precision of her parochial school penmanship. There are pictures of her and girlfriends in oblique berets, boatnecks and bell-bottoms. Her straight hair is bobbed, and with light eyes and an insolent dark mouth, she’s looking very Heddy Lamar. In other photos she is shouldered between handsome young men, they in cheek-bones and tans, posing in convertibles, monopolizing dance floors. Wearing high-waisted trousers and bow ties, these boys belong to another age as do their names: Biff and Rusty, Red and Cracker. There she sits on the lap of a lucky guy in the hindseat of an open-air bi-plane, wearing goggles and a leather flight cap. Your very own Amelia Earhart. Nickel-size something swirls around them and a caption clarifies: Hey, ‘Lindbergh!’ Watch Where You’re Going! (Rose Petals Over Buckingham Fountain, July 4th, 1934). All of these photos share a common motif: the perpetually young, laughing and lovely, squinting into the sun. On another page tiny wax paper envelopes hold locks of their hair and celluloid records of a manic barbering (is that a bottle of gin? ). This flax of men now old or dead is blonde and black and auburn still, scentless, weightless in your fingers. Yet here it’s held fast by satin ribbons. Those were the days, you think. Those must have been her days.
You turn each page timidly, something about this photo album making you feel humble and privileged, like the first time she asked you to set the table in the Waterford. You were 4.
You see her again with a group of friends, posing for posterity in front of a billboard: Century of Progress Exposition, Chicago, 1933. Then picnicking in Hyde Park and sunning on Indiana Dunes. Another envelope, larger and yellowed, is stuck mid-album in the black cleavage. In it and post-marked Casper, Wyoming, May, 1928, is a newspaper clipping. It names her the first-place winner in a local poetry contest. She is awarded $5 and publication of the poem.
Dogs tied up in barren yards
watching, pacing, waiting.
Sheets drying on the line
too many times likened to sails
but just the same,
to people of the prairie,
so like sails.
Dusty pickups hidden in the
camouflage of sycamores,
marking the territory of
Except for that poem, you never find any of her writing—the stories she’d pecked out on the simple typewriter, the stories she’d stayed up nights for, fought your father for, cigarettes half-smoked and overflowing her Eiffel Tower ashtray. Every puff a phrase. But you have the photos catching, like cut crystal, a Gatsbyish glow.
A hotel rate sheet dated 1953 is one of the many keepsakes stuffed into this picture album. It describes all rooms as suites facing the Gulf of Mexico. The price includes breakfast on the verandah from 8 a. m. until noon. The charge is $2. 50 a night for a single, $3. 50 for a double. The latter has been circled in pen. This is long ago. This is once upon a time. Yet even without this paper, an unsolicited memory washes over you now and then. Of your puckered, periwinkle, terry cloth swimsuit. The first wave you remember is warm foam tickling your thighs, the taste of salt a surprise.
It’s evening. In the suite of rooms, ceiling fans slice the air with the sure and steady rhythm of a dealer cutting cards. Wall sconces under miniature lampshades illuminate brocade wallpaper the color of caramel. And it may sound like a romance novel but actually, French doors do open to a small balcony and walls of wisteria, overlooking the purpling water. There’s no other way to say it. Your rooms are situated on a corner of the four-story stucco building, pale pink and laced in black iron like ladies’ lingerie. And as the low buzz of saxophone slides up from the street below, mockingbirds in magnolia trees sing backup.
In the claw-foot tub of a white-tiled bathroom, your mother bathes you in suntan lotion and sand. Girl-talk echoes off spare clean walls, and she fluffs you dry with towels warm and bright as a hotel laundry. Later, as she dresses for a night out, your father reads to you on the davenport in the parlor. You pat the newness of baby-doll pajamas and listen halfway to Curious George’s latest faux pas. You’re finding it hard to concentrate what with your pretty tan against yellow seersucker and, like boy meets girl, a trombone slinking into harmony with the sax. Suddenly a stranger (you know no one in this place) knocks at the door.
Foregoing a handshake, your father greets a large Negro woman and introduces her as your sitter. Her hair is hidden under a scarlet, embroidered kerchief, and golden earrings loop through her ears so that you call her The Pancake Lady (though she smells of cumin and coriander: more of dinner than breakfast). And she being sure of herself laughs full-throttle through gold-capped teeth, rattling like bees’ wings the parchment lampshades. At the same time, your mother, rouged by a day in the sun and perfumed by a gardenia in her hair (your father had surprised her with this and a bottle of champagne, procured, he said, from a shop in the hotel lobby) appears slender as a silk thread in the bedroom doorway. Her own laugh (because she, too, is sure of herself) comes like bells on a Christmas bridle. No better than a schoolboy, your father can only shift his feet, clearing his throat at the sights and sounds and smells of these women.
After hugs and kisses, your parents leave for smoky romantic places you can only imagine, to dine and dance. And though her name is Delilah, she asks that you call her Dilly. Duly comes every night that week, her apron pockets fat with homemade sweets. Each time, you sidle up close to her on the davenport. She weaves strange, shadowy stories, her Creole voice a cello. And to your life she adds the music of myth.
It helps if your mother looks like a movie star and makes a perfect martini. Even better if before going out, she showers and shampoos, and then invites your 6-year-old self into her cluttered dressing room. Judy Garland croons from a turntable on top of your mother’s mahogany bureau as she begins the transformation from housewife to vision. A Cinni fan hums on the desk next to the typewriter and an overflowing ashtray, cigarette butts marking the chapters of stories. The mechanical wind moves her hair like waves of ruddy butterflies among her shoulders. Great if she slips out of her paling and pilling chenille robe, a favorite reminder of cool nights in Chapel Hill when she first met him, and into silk panties and one of his starched white shirts. She rolls the sleeves up past her elbows and ties the tails over her small waist. It is to your advantage if she slides into a long, fluid skirt cut on the bias, and Turkish slippers that whisper and skinny silver bracelets that chink like coins when she dances. But before that she turns up her collar, lathers Certainly Red on her lips and, with a spritz, mists the cusps of her breasts with Tabu. What a coup if she descends the stairs like Loretta Young. And what if your father sees her as a Gaugin painting come to life and for a moment can only let out a sigh, jingling the change in his pocket. Imagine that.
A one-tank gas station, where customers buy bait and ice and Milwaukee beer, sits opposite the entrance to the meandering driveway cut through woods thick with birch and elm and white-tailed deer. You and your brothers jump from the car before it comes to a full stop in the gravel parking lot. The old lodge, dark timber puttied in light mortar, overlooks a wide section of the Fox River from a high bluff.
Pitchers of lemonade and iced tea sweat on the front porch, and your stomach cramps for drinking too fast. Then you draw grass spears for turns on the tire swing. It hangs from a 30-foot rope tied to an oak tree and when you swing from it, even though you know better about pendular motion, sometimes you feel you will keep on sailing out over the river and never come back. So it takes your soul for a ride, too.
In the main hall of the lodge opposite the bar, a stone fireplace stands with an opening higher and wider than a man is tall. Overhead hangs a great stag’s head, its glassy eyes looking beyond and remembering a greener place. The flanking walls are lined with two-story-high screened windows, their sills deep enough to accommodate the owners’ lounging German shepherd, Max, their shutters thrown wide open letting in slits of twilight and river breeze. Ceiling fans mix smoky light and barroom smells of draft beer and cigars. The adults sip Manhattans and martinis, the long mirror behind the bar doubling their numbers and joviality. And when the children pump the Wurlitzer with handfuls of their parents’ quarters, the adults dance to Johnny Mercer, to Kay Starr’s “Wheel of Fortune,” although your favorite is Joni James’s “How Important Can It Be?”
Dinner is chilled slaw with caraway, hot biscuits and pan-fried perch caught and cleaned on the pier below by golden Mexicans smoking brown cigarettes. They wear worn fedoras and damp undershirts moving around each other in silent synchronization. So they smoke and fish and angle in their catch with an intrinsic rhythm, a Latin ballet.
Afterwards, your parents’ bodies whisper across the dance floor to Lee Bailey. You desert a flat ginger ale pinkened by a maraschino cherry and rest your head on Max’s warm haunches, a rhythmic canine pillow, as you fall asleep to Betty Hutton’s “Hit the Road to Dreamland.”
All the Rest
Ceiling fans stir the humid air like a pudding. In the breezeway, inert flies circle their demise hanging in sticky strips from the lattice ceiling. Cicadas saw at the summer silence with an unbreakable resolve, and you know that this is the music of hell.
There had been a large house and stables, and miles of flaxen pasture, and your mother struck an Ava Gardner profile astride her bay. But since your father’s death, she lies immobilized by whiskey and melancholy: like a baby’s cord she’d been tied to a husband’s vigor, severed too soon. Semi-conscious, she seems momentarily aware of your drifting in and out of the empty cupboards and dingy bedding of neglected children. Yet you remember a time when the dinner table steamed with hearty Scandinavian cooking, and sheets washed in bluing and smelling of bleach snapped in the wind. The colored housekeeper Estelle would press them under her heavy iron so that even today, the odor of ironing taunts you with a fleeting sense of well-being, a fragrant reminder of a sanguine time.
But this is all passed. Past. So as you lay a cool washcloth across her bewildered brow you wonder, when the damp of her eyes overflows onto the pillow, God, what useless irrigation. The horses, after all, have been sold and the pastures have died.
The broken blood vessels wash her cheeks in the purplish-pink color of borscht. You will tend to notice the trait in other people. Forget their Visine’d eyes and Winterfresh breaths: These are a masquerade. Instead their complexions give away what they become when they are alone with a bottle.
Just last Saturday, she being long gone, you were collecting your Christmas goose at the butcher. Another customer, an elderly man of no humor, holiday or otherwise, stood in line ahead of you waiting on his parcel. He braced his hand-heels on the edge of the counter to steady them as he shifted his weight, wordlessly defending his space, posturing isolation. You noticed that same crimson complexion spreading across his cheeks and around his neck, raising the question of what he had put his family through over the discordant Christ-mases preceding and whether or not theirs would be a gay holiday or one sabotaged by too much J&B. As he turned to leave he avoided your gaze, determined to conclude the limited number of simple errands his wife could entrust to him, earning the refreshment of a nice tall drink when he would return home around noon.
When she was younger, her hair gleamed for months with the blonde strands bleached by the summer sun, but now it is the housebound color of dank sand, sparse and as fine as down. You can see her scalp easily, and the freckles of too much sun and not enough summers spent with half a dozen children in Great Lakes surf, and riding horses full-speed through thigh-high grasses of yellow pastures. Though born blue, her eyes are now looking more leaden like drowning Roosevelt dimes. She stares at the ceiling of the bedroom, her only sky, inhaling her Chesterfields. And with the thumb and ring finger of her nicotine-stained hand, she picks remnant tobacco bits from the tip of her tongue with existential nonchalance, humming a tune.
There are few things uglier than a ‘52 Chrysler Imperial, particularly a black one. Yours sits in the driveway like a comatose Junebug, waiting to run nasty errands. She had traded in the brand-new-’58-two-tone-baby-blue-Pontiac-station-wagon your father had given her for Christmas a few months before he died for some cash and this other less cheery vehicle. You don’t ride in it often (the liquor store and pharmacy deliver) but when you do, it’s very nearly funereal.
You’re still a kid so every few weeks your 15-year-old brother drives her to a county hospital. For siphoning. Liver damage causes fluid to accumulate until her swollen belly requires drainage. You wrap up her tall, thin frame in an old robe and sweatpants, and her hair in a cotton kerchief, and sit with her in the back seat for 20-some miles, your brother’s rock ‘n’ roll adding to the glamour.
The place reeks of pharmaceuticals, and fluorescent light reflects off of anemic walls making her look dead already. You wait in a reception area as two hassled aides hoist her through flapping doors to another room where they insert needles and hoses bruising her body, draining her of this bile. There is vomiting and damp pants and she is shaken by the procedure, but much relaxed after washing down codeine with the flask of Wild Turkey she always keeps in her pock-etbook. My father had used this sterling silver phial on his hunting trips. It’s tarnished. It looks like an old man. On the way home in the two-ton insect of a car, she lies fetal-like. And you crank open your window to air the car of the smoke from her cigarette and the lingering odor of all the rest.
The week before Thanksgiving you are riding again in a large, mean car, only your mother is nowhere around. She has finally gotten out of her skin and its residue rides in the cargo space of the car ahead. Again you crank down the window. As the cold air stings your eyes, tears wet your face. And when you taste your own salt, something starts inside of you. Bye-bye baby. Time to hit the road to dreamland. It’s the same tune, without the sway of a silk skirt.