Pieces of Her [Nonfiction]

By Monica F. Jacobe

At 34, my mother was too young to think of a will when she died.  Somewhere there was a paper that left my siblings and me in the care of my father’s father if both our parents died together.  But they didn’t; she left our father behind with us, half-grown and unfinished like everything else.

Everyone dies and leaves pieces of themselves behind —clothes in the laundry basket waiting to be washed, hairbrush and toothbrush used for the last time.  My mother left these things, but I don’t remember how they looked.  My father cleaned the house a week after the funeral.

He had the lamp on the dresser lit at 3 p.m., making yellow shadows near the gray ones cast by windows running with rain.  The shade was ridged and coated in dust, yellowed by nicotine.  He held a big, black trash bag in his left hand and dropped things into the bag in handfuls.  All her dresser drawers were open—socks, underwear, bras, t-shirts, jeans.  He lifted them out in piles.

“Do you have any use for these?” He offered a stack of multi-colored t-shirts to my sister, Stephanie.

She shook her head, and he dropped them in the bag.

“I suppose not these either?”  This time he was holding a stack of faded jeans.

“Daddy, do we have to get rid of everything?” she asked instead of answering his question.

“You can have whatever you want, Stephanie.  What do you want?” He probably didn’t mean for his voice to sound so angry and short, but it did.  Stephanie and I both stood stiffer when he finished that sentence, me leaning in the doorway and her just inside the room. She looked around the room anxiously, but neither she nor Dad looked at me.

“I don’t know,” was her ultimate answer to his question. A voice sad and lost.

“Well, her clothes are useless since they don’t fit any of you, but anything else we can find a place to keep.”  His words were still hard but his voice had gotten softer.

“Her rocking chair,” he went on, “you should keep her rocking chair.”

Steph pulled the old wooden rocker from its corner next to the window.  The rounded feet made a “whoosh” as they slid across the carpet to her room.  I had to move to let her out, and I turned and stepped into the room.  Now, I was next to her side of the bed, her nightstand still untouched.

“And you should keep this!” Dad called, lifting a carved wooden box from the bottom, left dresser drawer.  He opened it as Steph came back.

“It’s her jewelry and stuff.  You all will want this when you get older.  I’ll keep it in here for you.  It’s not in the way.”  He knelt on the floor, lifting rings, clip earrings, campaign buttons, and velvet bags out of the box.  Steph, sitting on the bed, touched everything he handed her with reverence before putting it back in.  Soon, the box went back into the drawer, and Dad was at the closet pulling out her dresses and coats.

“You two come hold this for me.” He nodded at Steph and me.  I walked a few steps to the closet, and she walked around the bed.  We held the already heavy trash bag while he folded up clothes still on hangers and dropped them in.  I had to stretch my arms up over my head to match Stephanie, but I was glad I couldn’t see in the bag then, or smell her perfume on the dresses she only wore with perfume.  When he got to the back and revealed the gunmetal water softener the dust made me sneeze. I turned my head and instead saw the dresser with half its drawers pulled out and empty.  When he was done, he told us to set the bag down.  Steph tied it closed while he opened the nightstand.

“Do you want to keep these?”  He held out two green albums and a white one, her scrapbooks and their wedding album.

“Of course!” My sister gasped so the words come out like a squeal.  She clutched them to her chest, turning away from him.

“Okay,” Dad stood up and walked across the room, satisfied that the nightstand was empty.  From somewhere behind the TV, he pulled out a tall, clear plastic bag with Mom’s purse inside.  It was the same beige fabric it had always been.  It looked normal except for the dull plastic around it.  I think I expected it to look different, show some sign of having been in the car with her during the accident.

“What about her purse?  Do you want to keep her purse?  The police got it out of the car and gave it to me.”

I don’t remember if Steph took it.

 

My mother recorded her early life in scrapbooks, and these were saved along with my parent’s wedding album, the boxed wedding gifts in the china cabinet, and the things we used every day like dishes, pots, silverware, and glasses.

I page through her scrapbooks sometimes; my favorite things are old pictures of her from before I was born.  I can see her, almost know her by the way she looks at the camera.  Among the things she kept is an old driver’s license.  It’s hers, from the time when the picture was pasted on a paper card and an organ donor card was inserted behind in the plastic sleeve.  In that picture, my mother has shoulder-length hair, ruddy-brown and parted down the middle.  She is wearing round, smoky glasses and a cream-colored turtleneck.  I think those are the same slightly tinted sunglasses and two-toned frames I remember her wearing when I was small.  Her hair was different by the time I remember her—short, choppy, and blond—but this is the same mother who holds me in baptism photos in my baby book, looking down at a bundle in white cloth while wearing a striped blouse beside my father in a tie.

On another page, I find a picture of her standing in a driveway holding a suitcase next to a car.  The caption says she was visiting her sister Charlotte, who was already married by the 1970 date.  The sun is bright and her hand shades her eyes as she looks up from the picture.  She is young – younger than I am sitting with the scrapbook looking at her.

I see my own curves in the shape of her body, the way I plant my feet when I stand.  She stands squarely facing the camera with one foot turned out to swing her hip to the side.  One hand rests on that jutting hip, and next to her fingers I can see a bit of her stomach, the indent of her belly bottom and the curve of a tiny belly.  I cannot see her face clearly, not even her smile, just its shadow.  Her hair hangs long and straight behind her, hidden by squared shoulders.  I think she is laughing and happy.  She could be me in striped, bellbottom hip-huggers.

The other pictures offer me less insight: my mother in a white cap and gown clutching her high school diploma, standing under the arm of dad grinning with the thick moustache he had at 20.  Tiny, rectangle, school photos of people I don’t know.  They have no captions, no names.  A picture of my mother with a tiny, white-haired woman who must be the grandmother she cared for in the first years my parents were married, Grandma Adeline, whose name is my sister’s middle name.  But in this picture, my mother is smiling plastically and wearing a dressy suit.  I don’t know if it’s one of the suits she would have worn to her one job after high school—a secretary filing and typing in a big office.  I don’t know where that job was or why she left; all I know is that she took care of her sick grandmother for the last years of her life because she didn’t yet have us to worry about.

But there are so many things I don’t know, things I can’t remember:  the sound of her voice doing anything but laughing or yelling, the way she smelled, what it felt like when she kissed me goodnight, the last time I saw her, what she made us for breakfast the day she died, what we used to talk about at dinner, if we talked at dinner, Mother’s Day that year, Mother’s Day any year, what she liked to eat (except rare steak), how she made cinnamon toast, why she made us Sloe Gin Fizz with real gin, what it tasted like to drink the head off her beer, how she started drinking every day, how I started to notice.

There are things I remember vividly: the night my mother brought our new kitten to my room in the pocket of her sweater, her story about lightening being angels bowling with God, the taste of Sloe Gin Fizz on Saturday nights and chocolate Hostess donuts on Sunday mornings, her hands on the steering wheel of her car, the shape of her finger nails, walking in her tall brown boots to play dress-up, crawling through a maze of Girl Scout cookie boxes in our living room the year she was assistant troop leader, the sapphire earrings she picked out for me when she got my ears pierced as my First Communion gift two weeks before she died.

I have fragments with holes, and what I want more than anything is to remember what it felt like to touch her.  I look at my own skin, touch it and wonder if that is what she felt like.  One night, I lay in bed staring up into the dark and tried to bring the memory of her touch, tried to feel her skin on mine.  Somewhere in the bottom of my mind, a single frozen image of my tiny hand on her cheek, smaller than her nose.  I could feel her skin under my own, now grown-up hand, and I wanted to hold it.  Afraid to lose the feeling, I held my hand up to the cold air and felt downy hairs on very soft skin, soft and a little loose, worn over time like velvet curtains.  I couldn’t see her mouth or nose or eyes; I could only feel her cheek.  She wasn’t smiling, but I felt safe.  I moved my hand hoping to touch more, feel more, but it was gone.

 

My mother also left behind objects – things that she touched, owned, or loved.  I keep a fan of hers—thin, black fabric with a silver border, spokes of the same flimsy wood as Popsicle sticks, and a bent tin handle on the bottom.  Its red tassel is a bright, orangey shade that clashes with the pink, yellow, blue, and green butterflies painted on the cloth.  I don’t know where she got it or why she kept it.  I picture her at a school dance at St. Mary’s Academy twirling this dime-store fan to feel older, giggling with her friends over her grown-up accessory and shaking her platinum-died hair.  But I have never heard a story attached to this object.  I just wanted it.  Today, it sits on my desk as the backdrop to my favorite picture of us, which is propped up by two candles.  It looks like a shrine, though I never intended it to be that.  In the photo, I am too young for school. I don’t remember sitting in the studio in her lap.

I have a handful of things that are hers, and I say “are” not “were” with purpose.  I keep them because they are still hers in my mind, and can’t truly belong to me.  I keep them—display them or use them or store them—because they are pieces of her.

I keep a prayer book she was given was she was young.  She gave it to me just before she died, just before my First Communion.  I almost remember her telling me she got it for her First Communion, but it’s been so long I may have made up that half-remembered moment.  What I recall for certain is her bending low to me and putting the tiny white leather book in my hands.  She helped me part its gold-edged pages and look at the pictures and the prayers written in Latin and English.  I thought silently that the words were different than the prayers Mrs. Kenney had been making us recite in school, but I don’t think I told her that.  I wanted her to know how much I liked the gift.  Now, it’s in a box of old things from Catholic school and high school—trophies, athletic letters, academic awards, event programs, and yearbooks.

My kitchen holds the most pieces of her today.  Her spice rack is my spice rack, and I have only one trivet, one of hers, woven and tri-colored but meant to match the avocado green kitchen she had when she was first married in 1971.  I keep these things and use them everyday, but they are still hers in my mind.  Even when I lift the seasoned salt from the top shelf of the spice rack, I wonder where the bottle of St. Joseph’s baby aspirin went.  It is supposed to be on the top shelf, on the far right, two bottles in fact—one pink and one blue.  I never knew the difference, but they haven’t been there in a very long time.  I have thought about getting a bottle of NutraSweet pills to keep there as well, but I don’t think they sell them anymore.  She used to lift it off the shelf and shake a few into each cup of coffee in the morning.  That spice rack should just have them there.  As for the trivet, I never remember seeing it until after she died, but it matches the old bread box we had with a cat stretching on the front and a spinning latch that used to fall open unless it was set just right.

Two of the dearest things I have that were hers are books of poems.  The spines are loose from many reads—one an anthology of American poetry and the other a book of Longfellow.  Many years ago, when I first took them from the shelves in the living room where my mother herself had placed them when we moved in, I paged through slowly and reverently.  I was too young to expect margin notes and thoughts—and found none.  Somewhere in the middle of Longfellow, a white half-sheet of paper fell out.  It was a typed note to my father from my mother when they were still dating.  It began, “Oh, Johnny!” and went on to talk about her hope that his haircut would look nice and her fear that her father would find out they were still together.

I have heard the story behind this from my father, and so I know that his best friend was pretending to date her, picking her up and making nice with her parents, only to drive around the corner so she could get into my dad’s car instead.  They had been dating, but her parents didn’t approve of him or like him, so they had “broken up.”

I showed this note to my father when I found it, walked down the hall to his bedroom, what used to be their bedroom, and held it out to him on my open palms, reverent.

“Look what I found.”  My voice was full of hushed excitement.  I was even afraid that my breath would somehow harm this little page.

“I’ve never seen that before,” he said, holding it up with one hand.  “Where did you find it?”

“In one of Mom’s poetry books.”

“Well, put it back or get rid of it.  I don’t want it.”

I was surprised that he wasn’t excited about it, was, in fact, cold in response.  I was too young to realize his grief was resistance, mine discovery.

Instead, I just carried the note away, back to the living room bookshelves.  I sat and read it over again and again, trying to hear my grown-up mother’s voice saying “Oh, Johnny!” in the way the teenage girl must have said it.  In the short, stilted lines that may even have been practice for typing class, I heard my mother’s young voice, a different voice than the one I can’t completely recall.  The voice of the girl in hip-huggers standing in the driveway with a suitcase.

 

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An alumna of Emory & Henry College, Monica F. Jacobe also holds an MFA from The American University and a Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America.  Her creative work has appeared in a variety of publications including Redux, Under the Sun, Del Sol Review, and R-KV-RY.  She has a textbook forthcoming from Cambridge University Press and is at work on a scholarly book that wrestles with questions of geography and contemporary Southern identity.  A native Virginian, Monica is now the director of English language learning programs at The College of New Jersey.