I have had some rather crazy health troubles of late, along with my usual MS saga, but with what energy and drive I have, I am gearing up for the release of my next novel, Under the Weeping Willow. Release day is set for Thursday, October 21st.
Today, I thought I’d give you a larger taste of the novel. This is chapter five, where Enid, along with her son’s help, works on packing up her mother’s belongings in the family home where Enid grew up. It’s a bittersweet task and one laden with a good helping of guilt…
Late August 1983
“What are we going to do with all this?” Kelly gestures to the stockpile of dishes we’ve taken out of the china hutch and the kitchen cabinets in the farmhouse.
Mom liked pretty dishes. She called them “usable art.” I’d often hear her say, “A painting just hangs on a wall, but a dish…a dish is practical too.” Mom liked practical. She was practical. Is. I have to stop talking about her in the past tense, as if she’s gone.
My gaze roves over the Homer Laughlin dinnerware set in the American Heritage pattern Mom received as a wedding gift from Dad’s parents. Eating off those dishes served up a history lesson along with each meal. In the 40s and 50s, Mom started collecting Redwing pottery. She has several Redwing dinnerware sets. My eyes rest on a painted rose. I have good memories of eating off the Lexington Rose plates. The pattern boasts bold, thick-brushed roses in shades of rose and mauve. A distant memory rests in my mind of eating my favorite breakfast of cantaloupe, cottage cheese, and wheat toast with orange marmalade off those plates. And then there’s the Fenton glassware. She’s got tons of hobnailed glass in white and green. I run my hands over the bumpy texture of a compote dish.
I look up. Kelly holds out his arms; his greenish-hazel eyes widen behind his metal-framed, aviator-style glasses, waiting for me to respond. His mustache twitches above his thin lips.
Every time I’m here I get stuck in memories.
“Ah. I’m not quite sure yet.” My fingers scratch an itch on my head that isn’t there. “I thought I’d let you and Doris pick what you like. Maybe the girls would like to have something.” I shrug my shoulders. “Whatever you don’t take, I’ll probably give to the St. Vincent De Paul thrift store in Eau Claire. I’ve already set a few items aside that I know Cassie or her daughters might like.”
“Gosh, I’m not sure what Doris would want. The girls aren’t much interested in dishes. Boys, on the other hand…”
Kelly leaves his statement hanging with a sigh. There’s no need for him to explain. Pam and Phoebe are teenage girls and thinking about teenage boys.
He continues, “But I suppose we could pack something away for them to keep. Why don’t you pick a set for each of them, Mom?”
He smiles at me. His top teeth sit in a straight row. Years ago, Clive and I paid good money for those chompers to look so even.
“Okay.” I smile back. “Well, Pammie likes flowers. How about the rose pattern for her?” I point to the cluster of dishes at the far end of the dining table. “Hmm, maybe the bobolink set for Phoebe, seeing as it’s named for a bird and so is she.”
Kelly looks around at the menagerie of goods, slight exasperation in his tone. “Where’s that one?”
It really does look like an antique store in here. We should have tapered down Mom’s collections years ago, but I didn’t have the heart to do it.
“The kitchen, I think. Over by the stove.” I point in that direction.
“I’ll get cracking and wrap those up.” Kelly catches up a couple of empty boxes off the floor. He picks up a stack of newspapers from a dining chair and tucks them under his arm. “Doris might like that white stuff.”
He tilts his head toward the middle of the table where the white hobnail glassware clusters together. He’s dressed casually today in a green-and-white-striped polo shirt and jeans, with tennis shoes. Kelly’s insurance job usually has him wearing a suit on a daily basis—the opposite of his father.
“Classic. Yes, I think you’re right. Seems like her taste.”
I respect my daughter-in-law. She’s hard-working but manages to pull off a classy look. Every time I see Doris, she’s put together perfectly. Not that I go about in rags, but my clothes and accessories don’t always paint as cohesive a picture as her outfits. Plus, she’s a good mom. Doris gives the girls freedom, but not too much.
Kelly nods and walks away to start wrapping in the kitchen.
I grip some newspaper. Yuck. I hate the feel of newsprint and the way it clings to my fingers. I pick up a pedestal piece of hobnail and wonder at its true purpose. It could be a candy dish or compode. I roll it in a sheet of paper and try not to dwell on the fact that I’m getting rid of Mom’s things. She’d be furious. Or would she? She did like collecting stuff, but I never felt like she placed the importance of those things over me.
That thought pours guilt out on me again. It feels like salt on a wound. Maybe she should have moved in with Clive and me. No. I can’t watch her 24-7. She’s where she needs to be.
A loud sigh escapes my mouth, sounding like leaking air from a car tire. Kelly notices it over the crinkling of newspaper.
He peeks around the corner. “You all right in there?”
I tell him a partial truth. “Ya. Just thinking. Remembering.”
“It’s got to be hard for you to pack up Gram’s stuff.” Kelly turns back and keeps talking while he works. I do the same. We can’t quite see each other, but I can hear his efforts.
“Ya.” I roll another white piece of hobnail in paper. This one is a fluted bowl with a ruffled edge. I don’t know how to tell him about my guilty conscience.
“It’s not your fault, you know.” His crinkling pauses. “This is what’s best for Gram.”
“That’s what I tell myself,” I admit and keep rolling.
But it’s not what you feel.”
I hear more wrapping. Why is it easier to talk to my son when he’s in another room?
“You got that right.”
The crinkling stops again. He walks toward me and wraps his arms around me. My head fits under his chin.
“I’m sorry, Mom.”
He holds me tight for a few seconds. I try not to cry.
Changing the subject helps. “Did you know Gram kept diaries?”
We release each other. I pick out a white vase and tuck it snuggly in a nest of newsprint.
He fingers another pedestal dish. “Really? About what?”
“Oh, about life. Little everyday things. Her thoughts. I just started reading them.”
“Could I take a look when you’re done?” He collects another box and heads back to the kitchen.
“Sure,” I tell him, but I’m not so sure I want him to read them, at least not yet.
We work for the next hour and talk about the classes the girls will have this fall in their freshman year of high school and Doris’s new job as a checkout lady in the Ben Franklin store. All of the dishes I had laid out are now packed up.
“You leave these boxes,” Kelly says. “I’ll take what we wrapped for Doris and the girls. Tomorrow I’ll haul the rest to where they need to be. You don’t need to do any more.”
He eyes me with a “no-nonsense” expression. He’s gotten my one-eyed stare down pretty good over the years. I must look as tired as I feel.
“Whatever you say,” I concede.
I walk to the door and hold it open for him as he carries three boxes to his gray Oldsmobile sedan.
“You going back home? You should quit for the day and get some rest.” He looks at his wristwatch. “If I didn’t have to pick up the girls from piano lessons, I’d stay and help you finish the kitchen off. I assume you want to give it a good scrub before the realtor sees it.”
“Yes. Gram wasn’t as tidy these last few years.” I swipe a chunk of my bobbed hair behind my ear. “You go. I’ll sit for a while before I head home. Your dad won’t be home yet anyway.”
“Okay then. We’ll see you Sunday for dinner.”
He gets in his car, starts it up, and heads out with a wave.
I wave back and go back into the house. The space looks neater. I can’t believe we got so much done in a couple of hours. My legs feel heavy; I need to sit down for a while. I head to the sitting room. Almost as if by reflex, I pluck the diary I’ve been reading off the desk and open to the page I’ve marked with a ribbon. Seating myself in Mom’s gold rocker again, I begin to read.
May 12th, 1977
Today a general fog clings to my thinking. I feel sluggish. I tried to read for a while, but the words kept floating away. The volume was a book of my favorite poems by Shakespeare. A few of the old English words gave me trouble. I should have known what they meant, but for some reason—I didn’t. No point of reference appeared in my mind when my eyes roved over them. I ended up looking them up in the dictionary but couldn’t remember how to spell the darn things, so I had to keep checking in the poem book. Whilst and hitherto were two of the culprits.
After reading their meanings, they made sense again. But what worries me is why I forgot in the first place. This forgetting seems more than mere old age. Things that I’ve known for years sometimes disappear and leave a gaping hole where a memory should be.
Do I talk to Enie about this, or do I wait until she notices and talks to me? I’m afraid, by that time, I may forget something truly important. What if I forget who I am? Will I even be me then? Maybe I won’t care.
I remember that dark time after Enid’s birth. I forgot who I was, or I became someone else. Either way the end result was the same: I was not myself. Thank God I have never been that person again. I think His presence in my life has something to do with not retreating down such a rabbit hole. I wager some aspect of my physiology wasn’t balanced, but whatever initiated it, He helped me through it.
As I tended my assigned section of the flower garden at the asylum, so he tended to my damaged mind.
Will he tend me again?
God, I am holding to the promise that You never leave or forsake us. Whatever unknown path is ahead, I pray that You will walk it with me.
I lower the diary to my lap. What did my mother go through all those years ago? I finger the corner of the diary, wanting to know more, but at the same time, I don’t. Her thoughts are fairly clear here. This is ’77. Six years ago. What has she written this year? I wonder if her dementia affected her ability to write down her thoughts. I get up and sort through the diaries in her desk—’78, ’79…’83. I choose ’83 and go sit in the recliner again.
The first pages are filled with phrases. They’re not well- written. Her handwriting is sloppy, her words simple, and her sentences fragments. I leaf to the middle. I spy one page of the alphabet. Mom copied it out like a school lesson. I read over the letters. She forgot “m” and “f.”
I turn more pages. Eventually I get to a spot which only has scribbles. Once in a while a legible letter peeks out of the messy penned lines. To me it appears a physical picture of her decline into Alzheimer’s. A tear drops onto the page.
Mom was always so articulate and such a lovely writer. She had a number of pen pals around the world with whom she corresponded. There are boxes of postcards she collected underneath the TV stand. Maybe I should take a couple of them to her. One of them may jog her memory.
But is it my goal to get her to remember? If so, I’m fooling myself. That’s a losing battle, at least from what Mom’s doctor told me. On our last visit, Doctor Chang told me Mom’s memory would slowly decline until practically nothing remained, if she lived that long.
Why does she have to slowly lose herself until there’s nothing left? What cruel twist of fate handed Mom this? I imagine a large emery file in her brain, slowly grating away at her memories.
The words of Mom’s written prayer in ’77 come back to me,
“Whatever unknown path is ahead, I pray that you will walk it with me.” I wouldn’t call Mom an overly religious person, but she brought me up to revere God. She grew up Catholic, but changed when she married Dad, who grew up Methodist. Seeing as there wasn’t a Methodist church nearby the farm, we attended services where Hal and Marge went—St. Katherine’s Lutheran, the local country church down the road. I recall plenty of the Sunday school lessons taught by Mom, who made the Old Testament stories of such characters as Moses, Daniel, and Elijah come alive. These last few years, she quit going to church. I think she got too confused and felt bad when she couldn’t remember people’s names.
The house is so quiet; I hear the electric clock next to Mom’s chair flip over to 4:00PM. I need to get home.
After I raise myself from the chair and put the diaries back, I shut all the lights off, grab my purse, and lock the door. I stand on the cement stoop for a while and look over the yard. Dried blooms, which were once white, dot the large lilac by the clothesline. The aqua-machine shed sits off to the left, skirted in tall grass. The neighbor boy—whom I’ve hired to mow— must not be trimming close to the buildings. The barn looks mournful to me. The wooden doors show more space between the boards, and the red paint barely shows. It’s been years since it had a fresh coat. The fieldstone foundation appears to crumble more than I remember. The whole farm has gotten old, not just Mom.
A melancholy mood leaves with me, as I hop in the Dodge and head for home.
What am I going to do with the old place? It needs some TLC, but Clive and I don’t have the money to spend on renovating the buildings. I know we should put the farm up for sale and I’ve a scheduled meeting with a realtor next week, but if we sell, I’ll feel like I’m losing my mother and my home at the same time. It’s too much.
“Not yet,” I tell myself.
I grip the Dodge’s steering wheel tighter and press harder on the gas. I have a sudden need to see Clive. I need one of his larger-than-life hugs to help me squeeze this sadness back into submission.
THANKS FOR READING!
Thank you for taking the time to read chapter five! Are you wondering what happens next? You can find out soon.