Laura Stout

 
 

GRACE UNTETHERED

 

The resemblance startled me, and the deck of cards fell from my hand, every spade, heart, club and diamond fanning out across the floor. I’d retrieved the cards from the hall closet for a game of solitaire when I spotted a photo album on a low shelf. When I picked it up, dozens of pictures slipped out, unglued from the years. And there it was. In the photograph, a woman holds me; her cheek rests against my tiny baby face and unruly waves of her inky black hair halo our heads. I stared at the woman and although I was only twelve, she looked so much like me I flinched.

I took the photograph to my mother and asked who was holding me. She hesitated a moment too long, then looked at me as if ghosts stood by my side. She said we’d discuss it when my father came home from work.

That evening we gathered in the living room. My parents sat on the paisley couch across from me. My father cleared his throat and stared across the room. “The woman who gave birth to you disappeared when you were two.”

“Margaret,” my mother began, then closed her eyes and paused. “Her name was Margaret Parks. We believe there were some mental issues. She wasn’t prepared for a child.”

I felt breathless, as if I’d swum too far out and looked back to see no land. I blinked several times and waited, but they would say nothing else.

“Well, that’s that,” said my father, and he kissed my head. My mother gently pulled away from me, stood and smoothed her skirt. They left the room.

I’d spent hours here: binging on cartoons from the couch until dizzy with fatigue, counting cars on the road out front with my forehead pressed against the picture window, singing to my dolls, begging my mother to join me until I fell asleep in a small heap in the corner. Everything and nothing had changed.

I’d discovered a secret that my parents would bury all over again. I tried to imagine another mother in this room, curled against the pillows on the couch, watching a game show on television, holding my father’s hand. But the room couldn’t hold her.

Over the next few days, the woman in the photograph floated up from behind my teachers as they wrote across blackboards, flashed between the lines of a book as I read. She seemed to grow out from the photograph until I imagined her walking up our front sidewalk, peering into our windows, beckoning me.

One night at dinner, I asked, “Where is she now?”

We’d been twirling spaghetti around our forks. Outside, a blizzard was bottling the world away from sight, promising snowdrifts and icicles. At my words, silence descended like the snow outside the window. Dad placed his fork down and slowly sipped from his glass.

“We don’t know,” he said. “The police tried to find her but got nowhere. I always pray she’s okay wherever she is.”

That was the last time we discussed Margaret Parks. It was a story that swirled around the edges of my life. In my teenage years, I sometimes treasured the mystery: who was this crazy woman who gave birth to me and then disappeared? Would I someday find her? Did I want to?

My life sailed along. I grew up, graduated from college, married the love of my life.

And then I got a phone call.

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I dropped my keys on the kitchen counter and thumbed through the mail before tossing it all in the garbage. The refrigerator held a half-empty milk carton and wrinkled fruit. I should have stopped at the market, but a day in my cubicle processing claims had left me numb and fatigued. It was my turn to cook tonight and Cameron would be home from his shift at the clinic any minute. When I presented him with canned soup and a day-old baguette again, he’d raise his brows, just like when I’d burned the eggs and the smoke alarm fired off.

I started thinking about how later that night I would make up for it under the sheets, run my fingers along his hip and more. And then the phone rang. I tapped the button for the speakerphone. “Hello.”

“Hello, Elizabeth?” The voice was crisp and resolute.

“Yes, this is Elizabeth.”

“It’s Margaret Parks.”

My heart raced. I don’t know how long I stared at the phone.

“Hello?” she said. “Do you know who I am?” A British accent graced her words. She could have been calling from a neat little flat in central London. That image threw me almost as much as the call itself.

“Yes.” Suspicion loomed almost immediately. She needed something from me. Money? I restrained my cynicism and listened.

“Then you got the documents. I’d hoped you’d get them before I called.”

“What documents?”

A pause, then, “You’re sure you know who I am?”

“Yes I do,” I said, irritation creeping into in my voice.

“So they told you about me.”

“Yes, of course.”

“But no letter. Bloody post. It should have arrived by now.”

Resentment, unattended for years, flared. How dare she disturb my life now, needle her way into my home with that voice and those words that didn’t make any sense.

“Listen, I’m sorry for contacting you quite out of the blue. Couldn’t think of any other way, really.” Silence brooded on the line between us. I grabbed the handset and held it to my ear as if trying to constrain her presence in the room.

There was something remote about the way she spoke. As if she were calling to confirm an appointment and found it had never been made. I had imagined if she ever called me or came to my door; she would appear with tears coursing down her cheeks, asking for forgiveness, voice trembling, “Elizabeth, please.”

“I need to see you,” she said firmly.

I shook my head no but could not say the word.

“Are you sure you didn’t receive my package? Probably best if you just wait and call me when it arrives. Here’s my telephone number.”

We hung up, and I stared at the number she’d given me. The area code was for Coyote Lake. Ninety minutes north.

 

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Later that night Cameron found the envelope. It had arrived three days earlier and gotten buried on his desk. Not the first thing to have gone missing in that snarl of papers and empty coffee mugs. Mortified, Cameron handed the envelope to me. I kissed his cheek so he would know he’d been forgiven.

We sat in the kitchen, and I tore it open. Cameron and I examined each page, touched them as though they’d arrived from a different dimension. I laid the papers side-by-side on the table. There were paragraphs filled with diagnoses and medications and words I didn’t understand. There was also a handwritten note from Margaret saying she was my birth mother, and she hoped I’d somehow find it in my heart to visit her.

The documents told a story unlike the one I’d grown up believing. A wave of heat washed through me as I read that my father had Margaret Parks committed to an institution just around the time I turned two. His jagged signature glared up from the page. She was released a few years later, but continued to suffer from major depressive disorder and was occasionally delusional. She had continued under the care of a Dr. Manning. The last page was printed on his letterhead. I held it up and began silently reading, my finger tracing the words.

“Cameron, you need to read this.”

I handed him the page. It had been dated just a few weeks before and confirmed that Margaret was considered neither harmful to herself or to others and that her condition was being managed with continued therapies and medications.

“She put this in here for me to see, so I’d know,” I said.

“Know she’s not dangerous?” Cameron asked.

“She’s not dangerous,” I said quietly.

Cameron rolled his eyes. “You don’t know this woman or why she’s called you.”

I stood, hugged my arms tight around my chest, and paced the kitchen. “She never disappeared. My parents shut her out of my life.”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, Liz.”

I opened a cabinet, pulled out two glasses, and splashed in sufficient amounts of vodka from a bottle on the counter. As I handed Cameron a glass, he brushed his fingers across my hand, looked at me as if begging me to rein in my emotions. I turned and stared out the window. It had been showering on and off, and I watched a couple huddle together as they walked under the yellow, piercing light of a streetlamp. I was riveted by the way they precisely matched each other’s footsteps, and through the open window, heard the soft clicks of their heels echoing into the darkness. My mind slipped back to my childhood: my mother handing me unwrapped school supplies for my seventh birthday instead of the Wedding Dress Barbie I had pleaded for, her absence in the audience when I played Peter Pan’s Wendy in my Junior year high school play, all the times I came home to an empty house, and always the accompanying hollow plunge in my stomach.

I breathed in the damp scent of rain then turned away from the window and its whisper of clean cold air. Everything was folding in on me: my parent’s deception, Margaret asking to see me.

“I need to go. I need to talk to her.” I swirled the drink around in my glass, kept my gaze away from Cameron.

“Hey, honey, I understand. It’s just…I don’t want you going alone.”

“I might want you to stay in the car.”

Cameron stood, kissed my cheek, smoothed my hair and held me until the racing of my heart subsided.

 

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The road to Coyote Lake was all trees and curves with the sun breaking through the branches. I remembered summer mornings as a kid, tooling around in an old blue speedboat on the lake and hiking on dusty rock-laden trails. Was it possible she’d been there every time, just miles away, tucked into a separate life?

Cameron sprawled in the passenger seat, sipping from a Coke can, focused on his laptop. In my head, caustic questions surfaced one by one, like fugitives, and it hurt to acknowledge their honesty. What kept you from me all these years? Was a husband and baby girl not enough for you? Was it easy to forget you had a daughter?

A semi barreled around the corner, drifting over the centerline, and yanked my attention back to the road. I glanced over at Cameron. Ear buds trailed from his ears, and he was laughing at something on his screen. I rolled my shoulders around and stretched my neck. I’d had a fine childhood. I felt no loss. But didn’t I somehow deserve the pleading, lost mother begging for forgiveness, and not someone asking for an afternoon visit.

Up ahead was a turnout, and the road was wide and clear. I could pull in, turn around, and we’d be home in an hour. But I didn’t. Instead, I thought about simple, polite questions I could ask. Do you play tennis? Read books? Maybe you’re a teacher? A secretary? Maybe you haven’t been able to hold down a job. Maybe your mental illness has trapped your sweet life in a hellish hole of despair. I reached for the radio and cranked the sound. Cameron looked over about to say something, but I belted out the lyrics of a Katy Perry song and he knew to leave me alone.

The address she’d given me led past the tiny village of antique shops and quaint restaurants and into the hills above the lake. We parked in front of a dark brown one-story cabin that could have used a paint job. Lucent green fir trees filled the yard, and in a corner the remnants of a garden lay brown and tangled. Guarded by the surrounding forest, it all stood alone, as if pulled away from the world.

“You okay, honey?” Cameron laid a hand on mine. “Are you sure you don’t want me to come inside with you?”

I looked at this man who knew how to love me and how to let me be and then kissed him long and hard. When I pulled away he nodded and stepped out of the car. He looked a little lost at first and then began walking up and down the road, holding his cell phone above his head, checking for reception. I lingered behind the wheel as heart-plundering minutes slipped by. I watched a chipmunk skitter across the road and listened to the wind sift through the tree branches, soft as the rustle of silk, and my fingers relaxed their hard grip on the steering wheel.

I left the car and stood at her front door. Suddenly, all the sensible words I’d scrabbled together and rehearsed as we’d passed through the village were gone, like ghosts mocking me, and in their place, a sadness of things lost. I brought up my fist and knocked.

She opened the door immediately, as if she’d been standing on the other side breathing in the fear I’d turn around and walk away. She held out both hands, and I put mine into them as if I’d done it a thousand times before.

“Elizabeth. You know I named you after a character in a book I loved as a child. She was brave, always brave.”

I studied her face. It was a weathered version of the one in the photograph; a gathering of wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and folds at the sides of her mouth when she smiled. She looked more than her forty-five years, as if a fierce burden had rained itself down on her life. Her hair was caught up in a bun with tendrils trying to escape. She wore a tailored silk blouse the color of desert sand and black wool slacks. Her skin was pale, but I could tell she had made it up a bit; spots of rouge colored her cheeks and her lashes were brushed black and long.

“Margaret?” I felt rattled. A delirious fear rose up in me I would sit silent the entire afternoon.

She looked out at the road and saw Cameron pacing. “Your husband’s not coming in then?”

“Maybe later,” I said.

“Come, let’s sit. I’ve made tea.” I followed her inside and we sat together on a velvety silver gray couch.

At the back of the room, a sliding glass door opened out onto a redwood deck, and beyond that was Coyote Lake nestled down in the valley.

“I can’t believe I’ve been here twenty years now.” She lifted a pale green teapot and poured us both tea.

“Your accent?” I asked.

“Ah, yes. Born and raised outside of London.”

I looked around a room crowded with ottomans, tables stacked with books, and flowered porcelain lamps with silk shades. Glass cabinets filled with delicate china and crystal lined one wall. It was a mosaic of keepsakes; a life cataloged; a life absent of myself.

I reached for the sugar bowl. It slipped from my clammy hand, and sugar dusted the glass top of the coffee table like snowfall.

“I’m sorry,” I breathed. Margaret began saying something, the words diminishing beneath the pounding of my heart, and a sudden turn of nausea rolled through my stomach. Panic attack. I’d had them before. The first time was three weeks before my wedding in the dark of a movie theater. The paramedics kept asking me if I’d seen something scary or disturbing. Since then I’d learned to control them. I closed my eyes and practiced my deep breathing. Moments later I heard Margaret say my name.

I looked over and she was smiling gently and rubbing my back. “It’s probably the altitude. Happens to everyone.”

“Yes, probably.” I rubbed my hands along the legs of my jeans. “I can clean that up.”

“Don’t bother. It’s just sugar.” She lifted her teacup and breathed in the steam. Spiced apple rose into the air. “We can begin with some harmless chitchat if that would help.”

I liked this woman. I liked it even more that she did not coddle me or expect any less of me than an honest discussion.

“No chitchat is necessary,” I replied

“So, what do you know about my leaving you?”

I thought about that day years ago when my mother subtly pushed the blame away from Margaret.

“When I was twelve, I found a photograph of us together. I was a baby and you were holding me. My father told me you disappeared, that they tried to find you.”

“I see. Did they tell you I was crazy?”

I winced and cleared my throat. I couldn’t look her in the eye. “It was implied. But I never knew about the institution, about my father committing you.”

“Of course not. They were trying to protect you from me. When I left the institution, your father made me promise to stay away. We promised each other we would never communicate. Let you have a decent, normal life.”

She wouldn’t look at me. Instead, she studied the silver spoon she held in one hand and then placed it on the saucer.

“I brought you something.” I pulled a photograph from my purse and gave it to her. She touched the image with one finger and seemed to fall into a reverie, absorbed in the round, smiling face of the baby that was me so long ago. I was afraid to speak. I didn’t know her well enough to understand our boundaries, but at the same time, I was conscious of something shared, something below the surface that would forgive me for a plethora of missteps.

“I wish you hadn’t stayed away,” I said.

She looked startled and opened her mouth to speak. But something stopped her. We studied one another. She was so familiar to me; the arch of her eyebrows, the curve of her cheek, the flicker of a shared secret behind those emerald eyes. She placed the photograph on the table.

“There are some things you should know so you won’t be too hard on your father.” She paused and ran her tongue along her lips. They were painted a soft rose and had stained the rim of her teacup.

“When I was sixteen, I ran away from home. You see, my mother was about to have me committed to a god-awful institution in London.”

“Sixteen.” The word came out harsh. At sixteen I’d slept every night of my life on a suburban tree lined cul-de-sac and sat every Sunday morning with my parents two pews from the choir, trying not to fall asleep during Father Myers’ sermon.

“She had her reasons.” Margaret looked pointedly at me, reminding me I didn’t really know anything about her life.

“Where did you go?”

“I survived.”

I had never considered Margaret’s life before me. But now, I imagined a gaunt teenage girl slumming with eyelinered drug addicts in London alleyways. Surviving. I didn’t want to think about what that meant.

“I met your father at a bar in London. He’d been traveling about as if on holiday, looking for something, some order in his life. Poor man had no idea what he was getting into with me. He brought me to the States, and I let him marry me.” She clasped her hands together, one thumb stroking the other as if it was a comforting habit.

“How could you know staying away would guarantee me a decent and normal life?” I asked.

“Elizabeth, you must understand. I had no business trying to be a mother.” She spoke as one would to a child who doesn’t understand why their favorite toy has been taken away. “I was leaving you crying in your crib, forgetting to change you and feed you.” She waited a moment then continued. “There were times the voices in my head drowned out your wailing.”

But it didn’t matter what she said, because right then no collection of words, no matter how true, could resolve the years between that time and now. The feeling that I could still not blame any particular person for her absence was gnawing away inside of me.

She leaned in, looked at me closely, and as she did, several strands of her hair fell loose and dangled by her cheek. I moved reflexively and tucked them behind her ear because the idea of forgiveness was all that remained. And as I did, she took my hand and held it tight.

“And look at you now, beautiful, with a husband of your own. That might not have happened with me as your mum.”

“Why now? Why call me now?” I asked.

“Did you know I called your father seven times after I left the institution and begged him to let me see you. He said no each and every time.”

She let go of my hand, let it slip back to my lap. Silence settled around us. We drank the last of our tea. I replaced my cup on the saucer, but she held onto hers, held it so tight I thought it would crack.

“I’m sorry, love.” She placed a hand on my cheek. “I don’t expect anything from you. You must know that. I just wanted us to meet, for you to know I didn’t just abandon you.” She dropped her hand as if embarrassed.

“But why now?” I asked again.

Margaret gazed out at the lake. “I’m dying. Very soon though. I’m dying very soon.” Her voice had become stern, as if she were blaming the lake for her circumstances.

Last night, Cameron had suggested this. But I’d argued against it because who stays away their entire life and only calls when it’s almost over. Most everyone, he pointed out. And then I had called her a coward.

But now, the fact of her dying sent a startling sorrow shooting through me. I was at a loss for words. If I spoke, I’d have to move on to what was next, and I had no idea what that should be. To apologize seemed ridiculous, even though that’s what people usually did at this point: “I’m so very sorry.” My apology would never lessen her despair.

“It’s that damn cancer. Stage four. Sometimes I feel like it’s already stage five. Never believed in those awful mammo things.”

“Mammograms,” I offered.

“Yes, those. Dreadful really.

”And then I asked for something I suddenly felt compelled to insist upon.

“You have a spare room I can move into for a while?”

She simply nodded and brushed her knuckles against the corners of her eyes.

 

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I returned to Margaret’s a few days later with a small suitcase and a fragile leave of absence taken from Southern Insurance. Above me, a crystalline blue sky stretched in every direction above the treetops. It imbued a sweet sense of freedom. Given the dizzying pace of the last few day’s events, I hoped my indifference at losing a job I’d grown weary of was not propelling me to move in with a woman I hardly knew.

I watched her closely at first, as though I wanted to memorize the way she crossed a room, chin up, mumbling about misplaced glasses. Or the way she read a book, trailing a fingertip down the length of a page. I strained to overhear phone conversations, moving closer to her, pretending to look for a missing pen or fetch an empty glass. I listened to her discuss people I didn’t know. The fact that she had friends surprised me. I was glad for it but almost covetous of their time with her.

During the following week, small clusters of those friends arrived daily for short bursts of time. Friends from bridge clubs and writing groups, friends she’d accumulated over the years, all of them aware of her condition. She always introduced me as her daughter and it felt strange, even a bit wicked.

They drank tea and bantered back and forth. “I brought you a gift, Margaret,” said Jack, a tall, handsome gray-haired fellow, as he handed her a bar of chocolate. “A lifetime supply,” she said as she took it from his hand. “Then you must eat it slowly,” he commanded. “Hear hear,” from a plump shorthaired woman handing out raisin scones. And they gossiped constantly, in great detail, with raucous laughter and heated debate, and it sustained them, buoyed them up from the truth in their midst.

The first few days our conversations were mostly about where she kept a roasting pan, or whether she minded if I polished a curio cabinet. She never asked me questions about my life and didn’t offer details about her own. I felt relieved we could coexist without the necessity of encroaching on the uncertain terrain of past lives, that wide, mysterious landscape we hadn’t yet explored.

 

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At the end of that first week I stood outside on the deck sipping coffee as the sun began its descent. Scrub jays screeched like street hawkers and the sprinkler looped and sputtered as it drenched the tree roots behind the cabin. Although it was November, there had been no snow, no rain since a downpour in early August, and the ground was cold and dry.

I’d never asked how much time her doctors had given her. I couldn’t contemplate the subject. If I asked, it would disrupt the delicate construct of ignorance we’d built, put the truth of her dying out in plain sight, right where neither of us wanted it to be. But the longer I waited, the more difficult it became.

I went inside. At the kitchen table, Margaret stirred a cup of broth and stared at a saucer of pills. Her shoulders sagged beneath the thick, cream-colored weaves of her favorite sweater.

“A witch’s brew. I feel them bubbling in my blood after I choke them all down,” she said.

“How long, Margaret?” I stood behind her, afraid to see her reaction to my question.

“You notice books because you’re a writer,“ She said, ignoring my question.

“Well yes, sort of. I’ve been trying my hand at it. How did you know?”

“Some of my favorite journals have published your stories.” She slipped one pill between her lips and chased it with a sip of water. “You’ve probably noticed the paperbacks shelved in the hallway?”

I had; an entire bookcase of romance novels, all written by a Claire Winslet. On the covers, overly handsome men held buxom women in tantalizing grips.

“I wrote them all.”

I smiled at the thought of Margaret writing steamy love scenes and hurried around the table to face her. But when I did, she looked as though she’d given up on something, let go of a precious weight, and a foolishness rose up in me sending a chill through my body.

“There was a time I could knock one of those out in less than a month.” She fingered the remaining pills in the saucer, rolling them back and forth. “Let’s assume I won’t be writing another.”

I sat across from her and wrapped my hand around her fingers. “I’m writing this story but I’m stuck. A man takes the wrong subway and sees the woman of his dreams, except she’s engaged. He sees the ring on her finger. But he starts a conversation and something about him lights a spark in her. They go for coffee. There’s hope.”

Margaret’s eyes brightened just enough, like an ember coming to life. So I continued, me questioning motives, her advising on plot points, until the moment became bearable.

Later, I skimmed through the pages of “Lust in Luxembourg.” My mother scoffed at romance novels, said they were predictable fluff not worth any serious readers’ time. But I loved their simplicity, their ability always to deliver what their readers desired; a happy ending. I turned the pages, touching the words, knowing she’d written them. Millions sold, according to the back cover. So many words spoken to the world, but only a handful, in comparison, would ever be spoken to me. I set the book down and the magnitude of what I didn’t know about this woman overwhelmed me.

That evening, as she watched Rick Stein travel through Mumbai and cook up sali murgh, I sat next to her and muted the TV. She must have seen the desperation in my eyes.

“Why what is it, Elizabeth?”

My heart beat erratically with all the questions I wanted to ask her. Their multitudes caused a throttling in my head. What did she care about deeply? Did she prefer sunrises or sunsets? Did she believe in God? But they all sounded overwrought and bizarre. It would sound like I was trying to tidy up all the unrecorded loose ends of her life.

“Do you write your novels out by hand?” It sounded pathetic, a confession of all I hadn’t asked.

She placed a finger against my lips. “Don’t worry about the details. None of it’s important. You’re here with me, and that’s all that matters.”

She unmuted the television. I arranged a crimson blanket around her shoulders and watched Rick Stein toss onion and ginger into a sizzling pan.

 

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The next day we folded hand-stitched tea towels at the kitchen table. The air outside held a lingering, poised silence after the night before when heavy winds had lashed at the trees, keeping me awake, and now the branches looked nearly bare.

Margaret told me that until recently, she swam at dawn several times a week in the lake, sticking close to shore. The early morning fishermen knew her well. I bragged to her I’d been a high school swimming champion and still held the school record for the 200 IM and the 100 freestyle. But once the words were out, I wondered if I’d been looking for approval. Had she become in so short a time someone I longed to impress?

“I was there.” She said it as though everyone in the world knew this simple fact, except, of course, for me.

“You were there?” I asked, astonished, dumbfounded.

“Yes, I sort of stalked you. Rarely missed one of your meets.” She grinned as though relieved, after all these years, to reveal a secret.

I smoothed down a towel and remembered cutting through the water of my high school swimming pool, focused entirely on my stroke and my breathing, never knowing there had been someone watching me: not the other swimmers or who finished first, just me. My mother never attended any of my meets. She was always busy with a tennis match or a P.T.A. meeting. It never seemed odd that she hadn’t been there. But the fact that Margaret had been watching me, urging me on, silently cheering when I touched the wall, felt like a lost dream emerging from the dark, sharp and colorful and authentic, and I held it close like a talisman.

We stacked hand towels and linen napkins in silence until I stopped and placed my hand on hers. “Thank you,” I said, my voice cracking into a whisper, my throat closing up as I tried to swallow.

She stopped as well. “You’re welcome,” she said. She stood and carried the folded napkins to a side dresser and placed them in a drawer, smoothing them once more into place.

“Were there other times?” I asked.

“Several.”

“Tell me one.”

“Your tenth birthday party in a park. There were balloons and a magician. I sat at a picnic table in dark sunglasses and a scarf like a 1930s movie star.”

 

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Twelve days into my stay, the cold November sun split through clouds that had finally been shedding snowflakes all morning. I stared at Scrabble tiles, rearranging them into possible words.

Across from me, Margaret laid down the word “deglaze.”

“What do you like to cook?” She asked.

“I’m very good at opening soup cans and burning casseroles.”

She chose more tiles from the game box.

“My mother loved takeout and frozen entrees from the supermarket. She’d throw a chicken in the oven only when necessary. Not really the greatest example of culinary artistry,” I explained.

She pointed out a long deep shelf above the stove where cookbooks of all sizes leaned against one another. I’d noticed them before, covers torn and stained from buttery fingers; French Cuisine, Recipes from a Tuscan Kitchen, Tastes of Mexico.

“Please take them,” she said. Her eyes peeked over the rims of her reading glasses, lifted just enough to insist I do as she asked. Her words, a cryptic message of departure, caused my temples to ache, my concentration to splinter.

“Tell me something from your childhood,” I said, changing the subject.

“Are you going to play your tiles today or tomorrow?”

“Your childhood,” I repeated, tapping the tops of the letters in front of me.

“Alright. I used to hide from my mum in different rooms of our very large house, for hours, just to see how terribly I could rattle her. It was so cruel of me. But I remember it as a game. One I would always win. So I kept playing. Until one day she stopped looking for me. I think that’s when she began to realize there was something wrong with me.” Margaret shook her head and half laughed, half sighed.

I studied my tiles and finally laid down the word “endure.”

 

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The following evening, she instructed me from a kitchen stool on how to prepare one of her favorite meals. She’d been especially tired that day, dozing on the couch and declining a short walk.

“Grate the rind of that orange and then chop it with some olive oil and lemon juice. You know where all that is now. Oh, and there are some capers in the pantry. Add some of those in as well. But just a spoonful, mind you.”

I watched her as she spoke, the soft slope of her shoulders, how she held her hands loosely clasped on the countertop. Her voice was warm, her words measured, like a smooth current of musical notes.

“Any true loves?” I asked. “After my Father, I mean.”

“There was a chef from Boston, about ten years ago. Met him at the farmers market in the village. We were both sifting through the tomatoes, I believe. He taught me how to choose properly, and then we went on to the plums. We became very close. But in the end I was no good for him. No good for anyone, really. When he finally found someone, I was relieved. I attended his wedding. Lakeside. I remember paper lanterns hung like stars above the lawn where everyone danced. It was the event of the summer.”

I chopped scallions and marinated salmon, and she told me about her friends, all the ones that had been visiting, and more. The stories unraveled like yarn, all the strands loosely connected. Later as we ate, she grew quiet, and the hum of the refrigerator and the crack of the wood in the fireplace enclosed around us.

“I suppose Evelyn has always been the dearest of them.” She sat with one elbow propped on the table, her fingers resting lightly on her neck, her gaze focused on her plate.

“When I fell into that black pit – and I fell often and fell hard – she’d gather the others like a pack of old grandmothers, clucking and coddling. And guarding. Until I was able to pull myself out.” As she spoke, she pushed the salmon around her plate like she was sweeping a floor.

She looked up at me. “You must have many friends, Elizabeth.”

“I have many acquaintances, to be honest. But only two very close friends.”

“Keep them close. They may be your saviors someday.”

We gave up on dinner. Outside, the lake and treetops were washed in a blue darkness. I cleared the table and gently placed her stories and advice into the corners of my heart.

 

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I went home to Cameron the week of Thanksgiving: to the guilt of having been away, to unanswered phone calls from my parents, and to a house left untended with dust swirling in the corners and plates and cups scattered across the kitchen counters.

That night in bed, Cameron wrapped a burly arm around my waist and listened to my stories about Margaret, how she’d gotten under my skin, and even at this distance how her presence lingered along bones and arteries, like a life within my own. I marvel even now at the depth of how I missed Margaret during those days, and how I was willing to return, knowing our days would end abruptly, and grief would be a dagger, sharp and deep into my heart.

 

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When I returned in early December, a sturdy middle-aged nurse met me at the door. Beyond her in the living room, Margaret rested on her bed, now pushed against the doors facing the lake. She wore a velvet robe pulled loosely over silk pajamas. Up until now, I had only seen her dressed in thick cardigans and skirts that swirled around her ankles, black hair pulled to the back of her neck, diamond earrings glittering from her ears. But now all that was gone. She lifted her arm to beckon me to her side and I saw the charm bracelet was missing. It had always hung heavy around her frail wrist, rattling against the table as she placed an eight of hearts down during a card game, or slipped up her arm as she drew a plate down from the cupboard. I had been fascinated by the variety of the charms; a mermaid and a miniature globe, an infinity symbol and the Eiffel Tower. Her arm seemed naked without it.

“I leave you for a week and look what happens,” I teased. I crossed the room and hugged her. Her bones felt frail and her skin dry and thin like tissue paper.

“And what exactly happened?” Her voice came out raspy and uneven, like stones scattering.

“You moved the furniture without me. I would have put the bed over there, against the east wall. It’s much more Feng Shui.”

“Bugger Feng Shui. I’ll bloody well put the furniture where I like.” I ignored the painful spaces between each word.

“Good to see you haven’t changed.” I smiled and held my hand to her cheek.

I unpacked and prepared tea. While the kettle heated, I sifted through the bottles of pills on the kitchen counter. Their numbers had grown. I watched Anna, the nurse, with her blood pressure cuff and Margaret with her attempts to banter about the weather and the latest Hollywood scandal. But she struggled with each breath and every sentence trailed off unfinished.

“It feels life is taking my breath away these days,” she managed finally. A scant smile appeared as if in apology.

Outside, dozens of scrub jays darted from tree to tree, like shooting arrows. They were probably angry because nobody had left trails of peanuts on the deck railing yet that day. I grabbed my coat and a handful of peanuts and left the house. I found a hollow quiet place beyond the deck outside where scraggly oak trees surrounded a tall Joshua Pine. I leaned against the pine and breathed in the vanilla scent floating out from its bark. The snow had melted and the temperature had risen. I lifted my face to the warm December sun.

I had wandered around out here before, found the scrub jays’ nest concealed in foliage behind some pinion pines. Margaret had told me the jays stayed through the winter because she fed them peanuts and seeds. I thought about the reasons why I had stayed. At first, she’d fed my curiosity. But why wasn’t I angry that she’d asked me here, let me stay, and woven herself into my life and my heart, only to disappear as quickly as she’d first made herself known? I was only just beginning to understand what that decision would cost me, and the devastation it would leave behind.

When I returned inside, Margaret was dozing, a book slipping from her hands. I placed it on a table. The nurse busied herself in the kitchen organizing pills into a plastic container that would be emptied at designated times throughout the day. The house seemed to hum along in an ordered peace, albeit temporary, and I let it hold me for the remainder of the day.

 

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That evening Margaret pretended to take bites of the Sea bass and scalloped potatoes I’d painstakingly prepared, and I pretended not to notice. Afterward, I settled her back into bed. As I stuffed pillows behind her back, she asked me to bring her something.

“There is a box under my bed.” She paused, catching her breath. “It’s blue. Please bring it.”

I did, and at her request, emptied it. There were notebooks-dozens of them-in different colors and sizes. I spread them out before her.

“My journals,” she explained. “You must read them sometime. I don’t want you to only remember me this way. Don’t be sad, Elizabeth. My life’s been………difficult. But you saved me,” heavy breathing, “over and over.” She picked one up and flipped through the pages. “Please fetch my glasses.” I brought them, and she took them from my hands without looking up. “You may go,” she said.

An amber light from the table lamp spilled around the angles of her body and the journals as they lay across rumpled sheets and blankets. As she read, I slipped away to my room. I felt an undertow of despair and tried to shake it off, but it clung to me like a spider web. I lay on my bed and wept.

Just after midnight I went to check on Margaret-something I’d gotten in the habit of doing-and found her softly weeping. I took her hand and lay next to her on the bed until her body stilled and she drifted off to sleep. I watched her chest rise and fall and her eyelids flutter with dreams. I watched her last moments of well-earned peace.

 

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The details of her sickness are in themselves a disease I cannot approach without tremors and nausea. It is enough to say that the hospice women were angels, hovering when needed, administering the drugs when I finally could no longer be the judge of quantities or the depth of her pain. When the cadence of her moans and labored breathing became razors against my skin, the Angels gently pushed me aside, made me leave the room.

On a late December morning the sun gleamed off drifts of white snow and the air outside hung still and dry and cold. Inside the cabin, the heater rattled out the kind of languid heat that breathes for you, so heavy your lungs nearly forget to contract and release. I perched on the edge of a kitchen chair next to Margaret’s bed, our fingers loosely tangled. Her hair fell like ribbons, long and thick around her on the pillow. I’d been telling stories all morning, inserting my history into the body-breathing stillness of the room.

I suspected then that memories live inside us from the moment they are born, white hot and glowing, and though her eyes had fluttered shut and remained so, I still saw them, green fire against gray skin, still heard her voice from that morning, breaking like glass as she asked for something more for the pain. I began another story, this one about the summer I was fourteen watching my mother garden from a paint-chipped chaise lounge in our backyard. My dog Sam appeared from around the side of the house, limping and stretching to reach me before she collapsed, having been hit by a car just moments before, and I wondered why I hadn’t heard the impact or her unanswered cries. As I spoke, Margaret slipped into a coma she would never leave, and I stared out the window at the slick, shiny ice of the lake.

Looking back many years later, with a daughter of my own, I know the pain she must have suffered leaving me behind. The photograph is framed in silver and sits upon our mantle. My daughter, Margaret, knows that it’s her grandmother. She knows the stories her grandmother told me over those few short weeks and knows she loved me and was brave. Always brave.
 
 

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