I’M BACK IN MY HOMETOWN, and as the chill November wind blows steady on this gray morning, I’m wandering the cemetery, looking for dead relatives. I haven’t found a single one. Perhaps they have lost interest and moved on. It is the sort of thing people in my family might well do.
There are just ten or twenty headstones of any note. The rest of the place looks like some new tract housing, with small, businesslike squares of granite standing in dull rows — hardly an auspicious launchpad for anybody’s brand of resurrection.
I’m staying with my eighty-six-year-old mother, who sits now waiting for me in the car. We just spent the last hour fighting with a pharmacist for drugs she does not want to take, and, driving home, I pulled into the cemetery for no reason I can name. Last month my mother was diagnosed with a breast malignancy. Cancer, in the breasts that suckled me. It wasn’t my first thought when she called me with the news, but in fairly short order I was accosted by a whole posse of musings intent on making this disease about me.
“How does this affect my family medical history,” I asked my gynecologist the next week, “my mother being so old when she got it?”
I being so old when she got it. I’m sixty-one. Divorced and childless in the bargain. An age and stage of life where a person might suppose her history was pretty much fixed.
I start to head back to the car, then turn around for one last look. I don’t expect I will be coming here again. Not ever. My mother will be buried out by the Alliance church. The burial plot comes with church membership. You come one Sunday, and they own you.
And where will I be buried?
Over in a far corner, near the only serious tree in the whole graveyard, I spy a pile of something smooth and black. Then it moves. It rises to standing, and I see it is a tall, black-coated woman with a book in one hand and a garden trowel in the other. Her head is bowed. I amble over, making a point not to look in her direction, until finally I am very close but hidden on the other side of the big tree. I hear her speak, her voice clear, appropriate, and officious, but the accent one that’s never been to school: “ . . . resurrection and the life. He that cometh unto me, I will in no wise cast out. And though he were dead, yet shall he live, and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never, [cough, cough] never [cough] die.”
I drop to sit on a large square headstone.
“Tony, I now baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,” she continues. “You deserve to be baptized and buried just like anybody else, damn it.”
For some reason I imagine this woman is burying a squirrel. Or a raccoon perhaps, one she might have just run over with her car, or one who died of natural causes conveniently near this burial ground. (Do wild animals die of natural causes? You never hear about it if they do. They always seem to meet some violent, very public end.)
I lean forward to peek around the tree. She holds an urn. This Tony, then, is a man. There is another Tony who should be buried here, who should be buried somewhere: my brother. He walked into the sea. They never found his body. An old man passing on that cold November morning, so many lifetimes ago now, saw my brother sit down on the sand, take off his shoes and socks, remove his watch, stand up, and then walk into the water, never stopping, never looking back. The old man said he called out to Tony. I don’t know if he did. I don’t know if Tony took his watch off that day, but I do always keep an eye out for it whenever I am at the beach and walking at the water’s edge.
This woman burying her Tony now beside this tree seems to have moved from liturgy to prayers.
“Our Father,” she continues, “who art in heaven,” and carries right on — past “trespasses” (not “sins”) to “the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever and ever.” So this is a Protestant affair. Catholics truncate the Lord’s Prayer. They beg deliverance from evil and say a quick amen. It’s only Protestants who finish with a Reformation flourish. “Amen,” she says.
“Amen,” I say. A knee-jerk reaction.
The praying woman peeks around the tree.
“Do you know ‘O God, Our Help in Ages Past’?” she says.
In fact, I do. I know all six verses. I was not given any choice in the matter during those years when stalwart, warhorse hymns, along with significant portions of the King James Bible, were grafted onto my brain.
“Come sing it with me,” she says.
“Unless you think some other hymn is better.”
“No, no,” I say. “I think it’s a good choice.”
“OK, you start. I’ll harmonize.”
I scowl again.
“Unless you want to harmonize,” she says.
I do. I’ve wanted my whole life to harmonize. To sing alto. To add the counterpoint that turns some ordinary melody into the sort of song that God might have some interest in being praised with. But my mother always sang the harmony. It’s actually a mystery to me that anybody can. How do they know which notes to sing? It’s like being left-handed: you’re born knowing alto, or you aren’t.
“You start,” she says again.
“Oh, no, really. I don’t want to intrude,” I say.
She shakes her head as though amazed that anyone could tell a lie that big, outside, on a weekday morning. “All right,” she says as though to end an argument that’s left her more than weary. “You harmonize.”
She starts in:
O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come,
And my voice joins in, as though of its own volition, sounding a perfectly respectable alto:
Our shelter from the stormy blast, And our eternal home.
I am amazed. To think I might have left it till the end of time to find out that all a person had to do was open her mouth, and the harmony would be there.
“And now may we have a time of silence,” the baptizing, burying, hymn-singing woman says.
A time of silence. Most of my life is silent time, but somehow marking it out this way, christening it in advance, makes it seem like something that only certain people get to do on special days, and then only if they’re lucky.
So. Good. Silence. A slight breeze raises the hairs on my bare arms, then changes direction, as though the weather might join in. I heard a forecast on the radio this morning, and I could swear the woman said, “Cloudy early, with frozen fog later in the morning.” Frozen fog. I’m sure I heard her say it. Not icy rain or even snow, but fog, frozen — in a wall, I imagined. A steel veil, not so unlike the e-mail my sister sent me when I told her I was coming to visit our mother, driving the seven hours that are all that separate me from 1968. “Dear Margaret,” my frozen, foggy sister wrote,
It is fine that you are coming to see Mother, but I must ask you not to have cold or flu or one of your famous sore throats when you come, and do not, do not touch the thermostat. Mother says you always turn it down. And please take her out to eat — do not attempt to cook. And talk only of pleasant things. I know you think that morbid things are funny, but they’re not. You might want to rake a few leaves, and Mother has some things to be taken to the Salvation Army. Please remember, Margaret, this is no longer your home; we used to live there, but we don’t anymore, and it is rude to go through other people’s closets and drawers. I would never speak to you again if you had done that at my house. Enjoy your visit.
Don’t go through other people’s closets and drawers.
Drawers: our grandmother’s word for underwear. Don’t get your drawers in an uproar.
So. My mother, who speaks to my sister approximately four times a year, devoted precious minutes of one trimonthly conversation to telling Eileen about the night, several years ago now, when I came down from the storage room carrying a box containing two silver water pitchers, two silver chafing dishes, two ornate silver bread trays, two saltshakers — two of so very many things, like Noah with his pairs of camels, house cats, buffaloes, and swamp rats, marching two by two into the ark, duos slated to be the ancestors of endless generations to follow.
That snooping night I dumped the box of silver pieces onto the coffee table, not fretting about noise or dents.
“Where did these come from?” I said.
“Where did you find them?” my mother said.
“Where did you leave them?” was my reply. “Did these belong to Grandma? I remember this bread tray. I used to use these saltshakers as soldiers underneath the table in the dining room. What are they doing in that box?”
“I forgot about them,” my mother said. “I thought that I might sell them. I was trying to put things in order.”
I guess I was to choose among her answers the one I preferred.
“If you’re selling them,” I said, “sell them to me.”
“Margaret, I wouldn’t sell things to my children. I’ll take them to a dealer.”
“Mother, I love these things. They are my childhood. They’re tied to memories.”
I continued, knowing full well the land mines planted decades ago in that particular battlefield: My mother, when she’d first met my father, had been poor and unpolished, hardly a welcome bride for the nineteen-year-old scion of a well-placed, moneyed family. And my mother, the sole survivor of those wars, was still standing sentinel far into the night, still ready to counter old attacks, still trembling, poised to fall at remembered slights, table manners disapproved of, a rayon dress not liked, grammar corrected (yes, in front of other people), eyebrows raised at each announcement of yet another baby on the way.
I thought that I might sell them, my mother said of the silver heirlooms that night. Sell the treasures of the enemy, the spoils of ancient, imperfectly remembered wars. As though the enemy might care.
Don’t go through other people’s closets and drawers, my sister e-mailed me, as if she has a drawer herself, a bureau drawer containing a stockpile of my long-ago-committed, well-remembered sins. She picked out this one long-saved trespass, appropriate to the occasion of my visit home, like some mothballed, scotch-plaid woolen jumper she knew she’d find a use for one day.
It is no longer your home, my sister e-mailed. As though it ever had been. But I will go through storage rooms and dresser drawers in that old, weary house as long as it will stand, and probably for long after it is sold and lived in by some brand-new family. In my sweet imagination I will burrow on, not looking for my past: the dented and time-tarnished silver, my report card from second grade, a desiccated corsage of once-pink carnations, the diary key. Oh, no. I will search the old house not for what we’ve lost but for what we never had. I will be looking for the tiny, rusted, timeworn vial of antivenom for the snakebites that we all might die from any day. This isn’t snooping; it is an act of heroism I perform, a last-ditch effort in the face of decades-long defeat to save the lot of us — or to save them and me, two separate salvations.
“We’ll sing the fourth verse now.” The graveyard lady speaks sharply, as though perhaps she has been reading my thoughts and didn’t think too much of them.
“How long have we been standing here?” I say.
“What does it matter?” she says, not patiently.
A thousand ages in Thy sight Are like an evening gone;
A noise like a shotgun sounds. My car door is broken on the passenger side, and when you close it, metal scrapes metal to wake the dead. My mother has gotten out and is walking toward us as fast as she can manage, as though late for a funeral she’d meant to be on time for. By the time she reaches my side, we’ve gotten to:
Short as the watch that ends the night, Before the rising sun.
My mother joins in with her still-deep harmony, and I revert automatically to melody, her voice adding more than you’d think a single singer’s could. It always has.
“I’m Audrey,” my mother says as we finish the verse, sticking out her spot-speckled hand to the person in charge of this burial/singalong. I hadn’t been sure of the protocol for mid-hymn introductions, myself.
“Elaine,” the undertaker says, almost singing it so that the next verse seems to include her first name:
Before the hills in order stood, Or earth received her frame,
My mother lends a choir-like sound to the proceedings.
From everlasting Thou art God, To endless years the same.
“Don’t ever put me in one of those jars,” my mother whispers to me as Elaine embarks on the next verse solo.
“I won’t,” I say — my oath at her every brusque request these days.
“And don’t burn me up. I’ve always hated anything being burned. Even as a child.”
“I won’t,” I say.
I already know more about her burial than I do about any other ceremony in the history of the planet, down to what shoes she wants the mortician to slip onto her lifeless feet and hide beneath the satin spread.
I start to sing again, more softly now, and I realize this woman Elaine, no doubt emboldened by my mother’s deep contralto, has taken up some tenor strain and left the melody to me. I, with a voice so low I could mop the floor with it, must now sing soprano. But it’s that sort of an affair, the kind where everyone pinch-hits. At the end of the verse Elaine hands a prayer book to my mother and a brightly colored pamphlet titled “Book of Psalms” to me.
“Read something,” she instructs us both.
I’m surprised at her lack of planning: no preselected readings. But then, she didn’t plan on my being here, or my mother either. Unless she did. You never know what other people might have planned on.
What if we hadn’t happened by? But we did, at the right moment, knowing all the verses of whatever hymn this woman took it in her mind to sing.
“I hope I don’t offend you,” my mother says, in her small-talk way, “but if I knew something about the . . . the deceased, I might better choose a prayer.”
“His name was Tony,” Elaine says, as though that might nail the selection.
My mother flips through the book as if this name were one like any other. She never talks about my brother. He left a note addressed to her. In all the years, she’s never told us what it said.
“This Tony here, his ashes sat on the shelf in the storeroom where I work for two years,” the woman says.
“He’s not your family?” my mother says.
“He had no family.”
My mother’s quick intake of breath sounds jagged. She shakes her head and waves her hand as though swatting the air. “Well,” she says, her voice small but precise, “here’s something about the Resurrection and the life: ‘He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.’ That’s pretty definitive.”
“Are you a Christian?” Elaine says.
“I am,” my mother says. “She’s not.” She points a thumb at me.
“Why do you say that?” I say.
“Well, are you?” my mother says.
“Depends on what you mean,” I say.
“That’s no kind of answer.” My mother turns to Elaine and whispers, “She’s not.”
Elaine reaches out and grabs the Psalms pamphlet from my hand and rifles through it. “Here. Read this one,” she says.
“WHO WILL BURY YOU?” my mother asks as I put the car in gear and we start to make our bumpy way down the dirt road that leads back to Tyler Avenue, a street where I was not allowed to ride my bike as a child; a street that I will drive on this gray November morning going a hundred miles an hour if I want to.
Who will bury you?
“Well, certainly no Christians,” I say. “For sure no Christian folks.”
“No,” she says, as though with some relief that I hadn’t gotten my hopes up.
“Mother,” I say. My voice sounds old, the voice of someone closer to being buried than to being born. “Mother,” I say, husky and mean, “a mother doesn’t ask her child that question.”
Someone needs to ask it, though. I am as lone as lone can be. I read last week that in Puritan New England it was against the law to live alone. If you were cast away by life, perhaps by a spouse’s death or mysterious desertion, you were required to go live with someone. An idea abhorrent and appealing.
“Are you afraid?” I ask my mother as we turn onto her street.
“I am,” my mother says. She leans back and closes her eyes against the gray light. “That’s the name of God, you know. I Am. He introduces himself that way when Moses says, ‘Whom shall I say is calling?’ when the golden-calf people want to know who sent him. God says, ‘My name is I Am.’ ”
“I know,” I say. I know all God’s names. I just don’t have his number or his home address.
“Did you hear the words I read today?” my mother says.
“They’re etched into my brain.”
“But do you believe them?”
“The question is, do you?”
“You mean because I’m dying first.”
I shrug, happy I have not offered her some pablum that’s the opposite of truth. It occurs to me that I might tell only the truth from now on. There’s just one problem: it never makes a single person happy.
We pull into the driveway of the house where I grew up, or where I gave it my best shot. It’s cold outside, but it’s the kind of cold you do not recognize until you are back inside. So much of life is understood by comparison.
The furnace is roaring. How did we heat this house when I was small? I want to ask. And who lived in the garage apartment? Tell me about the A&P, I want to say. Do I have it right? Did the cans of Maxwell House coffee really sit beside the pears? Who was the manager? What kind of car did he drive? Who cut his hair? I was always terrified of store clerks — why was that?
SOMETIME LATER, in the gully of the afternoon, my mother sleeps, and I sit sentry by the window, shotgun on my lap, binoculars around my neck, finger on the PANIC button. Defenseless.
A soft rap on the door makes me jump a foot. I shudder as I walk to the foyer, steadying myself with a hand on the TV, then on the bookcase.
On the front steps stands the cutest boy I have ever seen. I want to grab his hand and drag him to the car and take him home with me to Massachusetts and be his mother. But I don’t, just as I have neglected to do every other sensible thing I’ve thought of in this, my hapless life.
“Can I rake your leaves, then?” he says finally, as though we have been discussing this idea for long enough to make it time now for me to say yes or no.
“Oh, yes,” I say. When what I mean is Are your parents good to you? And are you happy? Are you OK? But he is out raking leaves this afternoon, so he will be OK, whether he is or not. He is nine or ten or eleven and has already learned that raking is just the thing for sadness. Had I found him sitting on a bench outside, I would have needed to worry, but he’s not lost. He’s raking leaves.
“How much will you charge me to rake the leaves?” I say, if only to keep him here longer.
“A lot,” he says, “and it will be worth it. I have an awesome rake.” He turns away with purpose.
I sit back down and watch him through the window. It is a good rake he’s got. I could sit and watch him for a hundred years.
I must have dozed off. I sit up as my mother wanders into the room, sleep addled, clearly confused to find me here. She walks, unsteady, over to the window.
“Is that Tony again?”
“Yes,” I say. Tony has been dead for forty years.
“He works too hard,” she says. She walks to the kitchen and puts the kettle on. I figure this may be the chemo talking. She gets drowsy, druggy, at random moments. After she first took her antinausea pill today, she said she might really like to go outside and lie down in the grass for just a minute and look up at the sky. Why, oh, why, do we want to do the truly pleasant things in life only when we are deeply medicated?
“You can’t always be sure where you are,” my mother says.
The last word in wisdom if I ever heard it.
“Tony took his life because I couldn’t save him,” she says. The words come slow, as if unwilling to be spoken. “Because I never could figure out the way.”
IT’S SUNDAY MORNING. We’re at my mother’s church. The minister looks about fourteen. The congregation looks as if it came with the church, original equipment.
We stand to sing, and lyrics appear as if by magic, or by PowerPoint, on a large white screen. It seems like overkill to me. The words are memorizable the first time through, and the twenty subsequent repetitions cast their memory in stone.
Now prayer. Extemporaneous. I look out the clear glass windows. (A church should have stained glass.) A little girl is on the lawn. She’s wearing white patent-leather shoes and ruffled socks and a dress that’s pink and fluffy. My mother often says she used to dress me up when I was little and polish my white shoes and take me downtown to the drugstore and sit me on the stool and buy me a Coca-Cola. She says I was so cute. This story makes me furious. It feels like child abuse. I was an object to her, a doll to dress up, not a person. You didn’t know me! I want to scream. But that is not the sorrow. The sorrow is that my mother hit me, hard and often, when I was a very little girl, and I am pretty sure she did it before I was even old enough to remember. What kind of person hits a baby? I want to lean over to my mother now and whisper, You can’t have it both ways.
Lying in bed a few weeks ago, not long after I found out about my mother’s cancer, the thought occurred to me: What if everything was not her fault? What if it was my fault? What if, from the first day, I was impossible? What if, from my first glance, I demeaned her? What if she was really trying to make amends, with all that shoe polish and Coca-Cola? And what if, even as a little girl, I had already ruled forgiveness out? What if my life — even then — was my fault?
But not when I was a baby. Not before I learned to speak. I’ve hit that wall a thousand times. You don’t smack babies. I’m sorry, but you don’t. Full stop.
See, that’s why prayer is as unpopular as it is. It makes a person think of things.
The preacher’s preaching. I’m not sure when he started. “It’s very simple,” he says. “God commands. We act. That’s the ballgame.”
Good grief! What if he’s right? What if every time you find somebody’s ashes sitting in a storeroom where you work, you are meant to take them out to the nearest cemetery, with no by-your-leave, and have a pickup funeral? What if, when your family’s spats go back generations, they are to be erased by packing up the silver and selling it to another family who just thinks it’s pretty? What if one day you stop trying to decide whose fault your life was, put a padlock on the courtroom door, send the court reporter home, and just forgive people, forgive yourself — or, if you know full well you’re not up to the job, get down on your knees and let Jesus do it for you? That is the arrangement that’s on offer, if I’ve got the story right.
All of a sudden church is over. These people! They grab you by the throat and wave God in your face, they preach damnation and everlasting glory, then they dismiss you just like that. That’s it. We’re done here. Go have lunch.
At the door the preacher shakes our hands like we’ve made a deal, like we’ve each gotten rid of something we were glad to see the back of.
Outside, the sky has gone one of those fierce, important shades of blue. The air’s so still it feels like time has been arrested.
“Tony’s dying was my fault.” My mother speaks the words like she is reading them. “His dying was my sin.”
I give no answer. We do not do well, I think, to tramp on someone’s owning of a thing. We have no right to steal another’s penitence.
“So,” she says, now matter-of-fact. “Either there’s God’s forgiveness, or there is no hope for any of us.”
My mother waves at Mildred Johnson across the parking lot, then she takes my arm. “Do you remember that little red table you had?” my mother says as we walk slowly toward the car.
“It had the alphabet printed all around the edges. It was red. You used to sit there with your legs crossed. You always did that, crossed your legs and stuck a pencil behind your ear, and you’d call Ellen Martino.”
“Maraschino.” A name I haven’t said in fifty years.
“Oh, yes. Like the cherries. You’d sit there at that table with your legs crossed and call Ellen Maraschino on your play telephone. ‘Hello, Ellen,’ you’d say. The last few days I can’t get that little red table out of my mind. You got it from Santa. Oh, my, you loved Christmas. Boy, did you love Christmas. Your dad and I did too, because of you. A person couldn’t help but love Christmas if they were around you.”
Then this woman, this woman I have known since the moment I was born, reaches over and takes my hand. Is this the first time she has ever done that? It is the first time I remember. She brings my fingers to her lips and breathes on them, a warm, tiny breath. “I always thought you would have been a good mother,” she says and kisses my cold fingers. “I always thought that.”
You’d think a thing like that, this late in the proceedings, an old woman not asking my forgiveness (never that) but talking about Christmas and little red tables and crossed legs and toy telephones and imaginary friends, remembering a little girl with a pencil stuck behind her ear and saying how she always thought that little girl would have made a good mother — you would think that it wouldn’t make a difference, or any kind of difference that might matter. You might think that. A person certainly might think that.
“Will you sing at my funeral?” my mother says as I open the car door for her. “That song we sang with that peculiar woman at the cemetery yesterday. The song we might have sung for Tony had we buried him.”
I close my mother’s door with the loud, groaning, shotgun sound it makes, and I walk around to get in on my side.
Before I even know it, I am humming that old hymn she’d have me sing. The words to the sixth verse come back to me unbidden, the words now and forever slated to be there:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream, Bears all our years away; They fly, forgotten, as a dream Dies at the opening day.