My wound itched; it chose inconvenient times for this, though what might be convenient I couldn't imagine. I had two papers to referee, a lecture to prepare, a dissertation to review, and a consulting job with a looming deadline. The illness, and then the surgery, had slowed me. My work lay untouched on my desk.
I watched Ansel through the sliding door, opened for the sun and air. My sweet husband. This one will stay the course. The first time we went to dinner he didn't assess the waitress as she walked away; though she was spectacular, he turned to me instead, without a second look at her. He was from a religious family with no divorces. He was sexually inexperienced. He made enough money that I wouldn't feel I was supporting him, but not as much as I made. He was dismayed at Samuel's cheating, when I told him the story of my marriage. In sum, Ansel passed the tests. There was no passion, but I was looking for a partner. Passion had been my mistake with Samuel. I was going with my strong suit this time: calculation.
He struggled with the scrub behind our house. He frets about anything that can go wrong, like fires; one had burned much of our neighborhood a few years before I bought the house. He did his best with the bushes, hacking at them, but he labored at this as at everything else. Life is effort for him. The muscles in his back, his sweat, even the dishevelment of his thinning hair showed his trademark look of masculine desperation, but that was unimportant to me. His true nature is, simply, kindness. This is what I hadn't expected of him, and what I appreciate most about him now.
I thought he would come inside and kiss me, and go to the cooler (not the sink, because the cooler is pure) and pour his water. He does everything he should, including drinking however many glasses are recommended daily, and brushing his teeth immediately after every meal. He keeps a toothbrush at work, and dental floss, too.
He'd sit with me while he took a break. He'd want to gauge my mood. "I let the back get out of hand," he'd say.
If I answered, "Yes," or changed the subject, if I didn't meet his opening, he'd sit in silence until he finished his water, and then go resume his work.
But if I said, "It's not so bad. Didn't you clear it out last fall?" or, "No problem. It looks like you can finish today," then he'd stay to talk.
Next he might say, "Why can't I go to Lawrence?"
And again I'd say, "I'd rather go alone." Instead of continuing with, "You'd distract me," I'd edit myself and say it this way: "I need to talk to my mother." Neither of these is the reason.
But I didn't want to play this chess game. I should have been past that long ago.
He was in the yard longer than I expected; he usually works for an hour before he takes a break, but this time he worked for two. I had some papers on the table by then, though I spent more time watching him than working. He was covered in sweat when he came in to get his glass of water at the cooler and sit by me and comment on how much work the yard was.
I said, "Ansel, I can't take you. I know you want to come, but I can't have you along. I'm too tired."
"I understand," he said, "but you shouldn't go. It's too soon to travel."
He took my hand in his, and we watched the grass wave in the wind, and the light shimmer on the grass. We love Berkeley: the sun, the sky, the hills that are green in spring and brown in summer, the Mediterranean climate. We're fortunate to live in a place, and a house, we love.
"Are you driving straight to Pasadena after you take me to the airport?" I asked.
"Yes. Are you sure you don't want me to come with you?"
"I'd rather visit your mother than my parents," he said.
In the morning he drove me to the airport, and carried my bag, and kissed me goodbye. After that I put up with the waiting, and the crowds, and my neighbors' elbows hogging the armrests, and the smell of jet fuel, and the recycled air and inane conversations. But these were trivial compared to the absence of my husband.
I got my rental car and followed fifty miles of four-lane to Lawrence, took the east exit and drove Massachusetts, but didn't turn on Fifteenth. I meandered the town, looking at the campus, the houses where my high school friends had lived, the grocery store where I'd had a part-time job. Memories on every street and corner.
The trees were lifeless and leafless, the sky a faded blue-gray. Traffic was heavy, but tomorrow, Thanksgiving day, cars would be almost nonexistent, everyone indoors with family. Just now people were running out to the grocery store, or hurrying home. Students in old cars were driving north to the turnpike, or south to K-10.
Grass had grown in the gravel of our driveway, and the house needed paint. My father (I mean Wyatt) would never have let those things happen. I noticed that the first-floor storm windows, the old-fashioned wooden ones that had to be hung in the fall and removed in the spring, hadn't been put up. I parked, and looked at the house. It seemed different, because I no longer lived there and it had lost its everyday familiarity. It looked very old, though only the ground floor was. I looked at its homeliness, once appalling to me, now like a face with unattractive features that somehow, taken together, are comely, even lovely.
I popped the trunk lid and got out. My mother came running from the door, started to embrace me, and brought herself up short. She settled for grasping my hands instead.
"You can hug me," I said. "I won't break."
"I didn't want to hurt you." She took me gently in her arms, and kissed my cheek. "Do you need to rest?"
"That would be nice. The doctor was right." So was Ansel. I would learn to listen to him, not to override and ignore him, as I am inclined to do, as I had always done with everyone. I wondered when I'd got the idea of my own infallibility, when I'd become so stubborn. Very young, I think. Undoing this will take time, and for a change, I will be annoyed with myself, instead of everyone around me -- an adventure I'm not looking forward to.
"I'll carry your suitcase," my mother said.
"I'm not an invalid."
She struggled to lift the case out of the trunk, while brushing me off. "You can have your old room," she said. She hurried in front of me, a small woman struggling with a large piece of luggage.
At the top of the stairs I looked in on Zack instead of going to my room. He was playing on his computer, and scarcely nodded when I said hello. Mother's ancient teddy bear sat on top of the monitor, seams coming apart, stuffing leaking out, piebald. First mother's, then Melody's, and finally Zack's. It couldn't last through any more children. Zack would be the last to own that bear. This cheerful, sturdy boy had loved his bear to death.
"Can I lie on your bed?" I asked. "I'm very tired."
"Okay." He continued doing whatever he'd been doing.
The ceiling of his room had been painted blue, with cumulous clouds in a white procession from one end to the other, each one in the shape of a cookie from a box of animal crackers: elephant, rhino, turtle, rabbit, penguin. Zack loved animal crackers. The walls had been painted with what could have been a jungle scene, but the plants were the sort you see in artists' renderings of ancient geologic periods: ferns and palms. The animals among the fronds were all dinosaurs. Mother had told me about Zack's fondness for them. She called them "his new obsession".
I must have dozed because Zack woke me when he jumped onto the bed. The sudden bounce sent a pang through my midsection.
"New book," he announced, and handed it to me.
While I was arranging pillows so I could lean against the headboard he started flipping the pages, pointing to the drawings.
"Look. T. Rex. My favorite." He pointed to the next page. "Triceratops." He flipped to the next pair of drawings. "Apatosaur. Iguanodon." He flipped forward again. "Pterodactyl. Pteranodon... Stegosaur. They used to say he had two brains... "
He knew them all. "Very good," I said. "Did you memorize them, or can you read the names?"
"Read. Grandma taught me."
"I like your room. The dinosaurs are wonderful. The clouds, too."
"Want to wrestle?"
"The doctor told me not to do anything strenuous."
"Things like wrestling. Hard work things."
"Grandma said you were sick."
"I'm okay now. The doctors fixed me."
"Are you going to die?"
"Good," he said. "You're my favorite aunt." He leaned down and kissed me, gravely, lightly, on the lips, then lay next to me.
I put an arm around his shoulders. "You're a lot like your mom." Resilient, energetic, happy. Qualities I lacked.
"She died," he said. "They put her in the ground."
"When someone's dead, they're gone and we can't talk to them any more. They aren't in their body."
"Where do they go?"
I didn't tell him that they don't go anywhere; I couldn't comprehend the notion myself. How can someone who is part of us simply cease to be, like a flame extinguished? "I think your mom went to heaven. She's watching you. She still loves you. Do you miss her?" It had been three years; he was five now, and only two then. He couldn't remember much.
"I guess. I want a brother. I have to have a mom to get a brother, don't I?"
"That's how it usually works. Do you remember anything about her?"
"Yes. She loved people. She was always kissing someone."
"Sometimes we go to the cemetery and give her flowers. I drew her a picture." He went to his desk and brought me a piece of paper, a watercolor that showed a yellow-haired woman sitting in a field of green, with a rainbow at the top, and a cloud between her head and the rainbow. "She's in heaven. See the grass? She likes grass. She likes rainbows and clouds, too. The weather's always nice in heaven."
"Zack, this is beautiful. I love it."
"You can have it."
"Don't you want to give it to her?"
"I'll make another one." He kissed me again. "I love you, Aunt Clover."
"I love you, too. You're my favorite boy in the world."
He tried to give me a hug, but he leaned on my stomach and I shouted with pain. It took some time to reassure him, and then he settled in next to me, and I put my arm around him again, and we lay there and discussed dinosaurs until mother called us to dinner.
She'd set the table with the old dishes, not the china. "Still Quaker plain," I remarked.
"The good pieces belong to you," she said. "I wish you'd take them."
"No. I don't need them. I have my own." Better, actually. The Wedgwood design I'd always lusted after, though once I got it, it seemed I'd had more joy of the unfulfilled desire.
"We'll use yours tomorrow."
"Is Nina coming?"
"She's in New York, visiting your father."
I didn't say anything. I'd broken with Owen two years before, when Nina had told me what he'd done to my mother, the reason she'd divorced him.
"You should give up that grudge," mother said. "It was a long time ago."
"What's a grudge?" Zack asked. He stopped stirring his mashed potatoes and gravy into a brown soup.
"It's when you get mad at somebody and can't forgive them," I said.
"Why are you mad?"
"Sometimes it's a bad idea to explain these things, okay, Zack sweetie? I can't talk about it."
"Okay," he said, and went back to stirring his food.
The phone rang.
"It's your husband." Mother gave me the phone.
"How are you?" Ansel asked. The sound of his voice brought tears to my eyes.
"Tired," I said. "You?" Mom had finally bought a cordless phone, so I took the handset to the living room.
"Oh, you know. World's most boring drive. I'm tired, too."
"I'm glad you called. I've been missing you all day."
Silence. He wasn't accustomed to hearing this sort of thing.
"I've been thinking about you ever since you dropped me off. I love you, Ansel." I sat on the sofa. "I adore you."
"I've waited a long time to hear that."
"I do. I love you. I didn't know until now." Or was too foolish to admit it to myself, much less him.
"I love you, too. Do you want me to get a flight tomorrow?"
"You're right. Too much trouble without a reservation." He sighed. "I'll see you in a few days, anyway."
"How's your mother?"
"Very frail. The oncologist told dad she should have been dead months ago. She's a tough old girl."
"She had to be, to live with your father."
"You got that right."
"Are they getting along any better, now that she's -- now that her time is so short?"
"No. Same old bicker bicker. It drives me insane."
"I wish my father was still alive."
"I thought he was."
"I mean Wyatt, not the one in New York."
"Are you feeling any better?"
"I shouldn't have come. I should have stayed home and let you wait on me."
"I wish you had." I heard a voice in the background, across the ether. "Dad needs my help. I have to go."
I heard a click and the phone went dead. I pressed the button and the light went off. My abdomen felt sore.
"Go to sleep," my mother told me, and took the phone from my hand. "I'll clean up."
She'd set my suitcase on the desk, so I didn't have to bend and lift, for which I was thankful. I took out a nightgown, threw my clothes on the floor, and went to sleep without brushing my teeth or hair.
I lay abed in the morning, tired, I suppose from the surgery, and turned over my childhood memories. It was clear to me now, finally, fully clear, that my mother had always been the center of the family, that warm, noisy, chaotic family in which emotions popped up and disappeared with lightning speed. I had been the only one unable to join in, standing behind my pane of glass, and watching, and resenting them all, most of all my mother. She was the star around whom our separate planets revolved, and hard as I tried, I was never able to leave her orbit. Her dark eyes, and pale skin, and bright red hair, and littleness. She'd never grown up. She'd always remained a girl, hopeful and trusting. I used to think that when I was born, she passed on to me all her adult characteristics and took my childlike ones for herself, so that I was born old and she grew younger, and remained so. But she doted on me as no one else did, telling me when I got good grades how proud she was. Telling me how "elegant" I was. I think she admired my clothes sense: that ability to dress well, and achieve a certain consistent style, and do my hair so it fell in a perfect flow, and adorn myself in every way. But she never would have thought to try those things. I loved her (and the others) without knowing that I did, always at two removes from the warm uproar of the family, in which I was the only one too frozen to share the feelings that flowed back and forth among them with startling speed and ease. I watched from behind my transparent wall, the sound of their voices muted, my hands pressed against the cold thing I could feel but not see, longing to join them. To join my mother in particular, though I cringed at her inexplicable lapses of taste. Her hair was unevenly cut; she did it herself, with scissors, and never quite got the knack. She owned and wore no makeup, ever. She didn't care. Some of her habits were actually endearing: she owned no jewelry except her wedding ring, a plain gold band she wore only in public (and continued to, even after my father died).
She noticed only what was outside herself. She never focused on her appearance, or even on her own feelings. Sometimes she would forget to eat, until I reminded her (or my father did, more likely), and then she would agree that yes, she was hungry, her stomach hurt. I think that outer-directedness made it difficult sometimes for her to know how she felt, and therefore difficult for her to decide what she wanted to do.
I remembered her walking home from school, standing at a corner, listening to a student. I remembered the slightly too long cotton dresses, and the brown shoes. Her students didn't seem to notice. She listened to them, and they loved her, smiling on them. My mother smiled more than anyone I've ever known. I never understood how she could be so happy. That happiness had annoyed me, because I envied it. She annoyed me still, often, with some naive innocent thing or other that she'd do, but now it didn't matter. My irritation was habitual, a background noise I could tune out, especially since I'd finally come to see that it mostly came from wanting to be more like her, and less like me.
Finally, still tired, but wanting to be with her, I managed to dress and get myself downstairs.
Thanksgiving has always seemed slow to me. There's little traffic on the street, and little noise. No one works. We sit indoors and wait for the meal. I only understood the day recently. Finally I knew why my mother loved it so: it was the one day a year set aside for expressing gratitude. Countless times I'd heard her say how lovely the weather was, how happy she felt at someone's good fortune, how blessed we were as a family. I had seen her bowed in her morning prayer of thanks. Of course this special Thursday in November was her favorite. That was her nature.
This year was no different. She hurried about the kitchen. I sat at the table and listened to her stories of past Thanksgivings. I daydreamed. I'd got all these tales by heart, as a child. Of we three children, Melody had loved mother's stories most. I wished she were there to listen to them again.
I heard an announcer's voice in the living room, and turned. Zack was watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
"When did you buy a television?" I asked. How odd, that I hadn't noticed it earlier. It was very small. Perhaps mother kept it in a cabinet most of the time.
"After Melody died. I can't tend that boy every minute of the day. I make sure he doesn't watch any of the nasty things. There are so many of them. I limit his time. I don't mind him watching that parade. It keeps him busy while I cook."
Late in the morning it started to rain. I noticed the drizzle through the glass of the back door, drops beading on the cars and plashing on the gravel drive. When I stood for a better look, my vision grayed, my head emptied, and I nearly collapsed. I clutched the table, steadied myself, and sat.
About two in the afternoon, when I hadn't moved, my mother looked at me and asked, "What's wrong?"
"I'm fine." I didn't want to ruin her Thanksgiving.
"Go to bed."
When she insisted, I stood, and (they told me later) fell over unconscious.
The EMTs wouldn't let my mother and Zack ride in the ambulance with me, and the doctor wouldn't let anyone into my room until he'd taken a history and examined me. He was younger than me, a fact I found annoying. I told him about the hysterectomy.
"Where did you have it?"
"The usual place."
He laughed. "At least you have a sense of humor. Didn't your physician tell you to rest?"
The rest of the conversation was too tedious to remember, so I promptly forgot it. I'd forget the entire incident if I could. They gave me drugs, of course. They always do. That helped the pain, but I was distressed at ruining my mother's special day, and our family reunion. I worried that my husband would worry if he called and no one answered the phone. I worried that Gabriel and Julia would show up at the house and no one would be there. I worried about further delay in getting my work done.
Zack stayed by the door when the doctors let him and mother in the room. I held out a hand to him.
"Don't be afraid," I said. "It's not catching."
He crossed the room to my bed, but he wouldn't look at me. He hung his head.
"Thank you for coming," I told him.
"He thinks he put you in the hospital," mother said, "because he leaned on you and you screamed."
He glanced at me, brows knit, and went back to studying the floor.
"No," I said. "Zack. It wasn't you." I took his hand. "Honest. My doctor told me not to travel. It's my own fault."
Mother pulled up two chairs.
"Can I sit on the bed?" Zack asked.
"No," mother said.
"Yes," I said. "Be careful. Don't bump me."
He climbed up, and turned, and parked himself against my leg, a hand resting on the sheet covering my thigh.
"What about Gabe and Julia?" I asked mother.
"I left a note on the door."
"Did you turn everything off? Stove? Oven?"
She looked at me.
"Sorry," I said.
"That's perfectly all right. Yes, I did, but I'm more concerned about you. Are you suffering?"
"Groggy, that's all. They gave me something for the pain."
"Daughter, I am so sorry."
"I should have made you stay in California, instead of letting you come."
How typical of her. I would have laughed, except I was afraid of rupturing something. "How did you plan to keep me away?"
"I'm not sure."
"Mother, I'm the one who should be apologizing -- "
"Please don't -- "
"Let me finish. I'm sorry I was such a difficult child. Daughter. Woman."
"All the cruel things I said. Shutting you out."
"Children do those things. I knew that."
"But -- "
"There's nothing to apologize for," she said. "You were a fine daughter."
"That's nice of you. I wish it were true."
"It is true. You made me proud."
"No. I don't think so, but thank you." She always surprised me, though she was the most consistent person I'd ever known. "Thank you."
"You're welcome, I'm sure, though I'm the one who should be thankful."
I shivered. Zack went running out of the room. Mom went after him.
Gabriel and Julia arrived just then. "There you are," I said. "We're having a little party."
He leaned down and kissed my cheek. "You seem pretty cheerful for a woman in the hospital. Is this a new you?"
Julia was wearing a black velvet maternity dress trimmed with gold braid. Her belly was bulbous as the prow of a ship. I said, "That's a gorgeous dress."
"Yes, it is. Gabe found it. It's my favorite. I wish I could wear it after the pregnancy."
"How's that going?"
"Perfect. The doctors say they wish all of them were like this." The next moment her face looked as if she'd run over a small animal. She glanced at my midsection and away.
"Good," I said. "I'm glad. Take that seat. Relax. Gabe, go get a chair for yourself." He headed out to the hall and I said to Julia, "Tell me all about it. Do you have a name picked out for the boy yet?"
"No. The girl was easy -- Melody, to honor her. We haven't figured out the boy's name."
"I'll still be the godmother, won't I? Please?"
"Yes. You're the godmother."
Zack came running in with a blanket and handed it to me. Mom was right behind him.
"What's this?" I asked.
"You looked cold," he said. "I found this on a bed."
"Thank you. I was cold." I unfolded the blanket and covered myself. "Zack," I said. "Your Aunt Julia's going to have twins. You'll have two cousins nearby. Isn't that almost as good as a brother?"
"Can't I have a brother, too?" he asked. Then he pointed at the window. "Look."
Outside, snow poured down, blurring the buildings and cars and telephone poles, making everything look far away, and settling on the window ledges and horizontal surfaces. Already the roofs had a coating of white, the cars a layer on their windshields. It was even sticking to some of the vertical surfaces: tree trunks, stop signs.
My mother's eyes went dreamy, and I knew she was remembering her first Thanksgiving in Lawrence, a new student unaccustomed to the place, an inexperienced girl who had never seen snow.
"Tell us the story again, Mom," I said. "How Dad found you in the snow. We never get tired of it."
Zack climbed up next to me and held my hand and waited for her to begin.