Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter 21

On the second morning of John’s trip, Evan and I are deep into Santa Barbara when he says they should sell this season on video. “Just the best scenes, like the top ten.”

“We could make serious money doing that,” I say, accidentally putting a we out there. “How long have you been watching this, anyway?”

“Oh—well—” He freezes up like I’ve caught him in a trap. “A couple years.”

Then it hits me. He watched this with his mother. I bet this was her show. I bet she used to sit in this chair. That’s what people do when they’re sick. They watch TV. I would. If I had a bad disease, I’d stay home in my softest pajamas, flip on some daytime drama, and crawl into another life until I fell asleep with someone else’s problems filling up my head.

How much longer will Evan watch? A year? Forever?

After the show, Evan says he has stuff to do, but he’ll be around at dinnertime if that’s cool.

“Sure,” I say, meaning totally. “I was going to make carbonara.”

“The kids may not go for it, but it sounds great to me.”

Before dinner, I tighten the straps on my bra to make my boobs look better, and rub lotion into my dusty arms. By the time Evan comes in, I’ve already fed the kids—plain spaghetti, bacon on the side—and they’re back in their room, working on a puzzle.

“I’m trying to get this sauce to thicken,” I say.

“I’ll do the table,” he says, opening a side cabinet. He digs out two dinner plates, different from the ones we usually use. Pop passes by and runs his fingers across a plate without saying anything, and my guess is that I will never know any more about these obviously special plates than I do now, which is to say they carry some current that begs touching.

While the sauce thickens, I wander into the living room and pick through the rack of albums, which is dominated by musical soundtracks. I see an old Jackson Browne album that I memorized in high school. I tip the vinyl out of its sleeve, lay it on the record bed, and set the needle on the glossy edge. The first song is about lying in the tall grass with someone, filling otherwise empty hours, trading small comforts and, where necessary, mercy—like Ántonia and Jim and maybe like Evan and me. Next to the stereo, tucked to the side, is a photo of Ellen I missed when I first combed through the room. Her hair is short and soot-black, and she’s surprisingly heavy, maybe two hundred pounds. All five of her children surround her.

“You want some wine?” Evan calls out from the kitchen. “There’s a bottle open in the fridge.”

“Sure.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

“I turned down the stove. I think it’s good,” Evan says as he comes into the living room, holding out a juice glass filled with Chardonnay.


He smiles, but when he sees what I’m looking at he shakes his head. “That wasn’t her,” he says defensively. “Her hair was growing back after surgery—she didn’t like it dark like that. And she was never a big person. As part of her treatment, they put her on steroids, which made her swell up.”

“She doesn’t look bad.” She looks awful. Who would take this photo? Who would keep this photo?

Evan digs in the drawer next to the sofa. He knows where to find the photo he likes. “Here,” he says, holding out the picture of Ellen and Pop, the one I knew already. “This was her. I mean, her eyes are closed, but you can see she was pretty.”

“Really pretty.”

“Really pretty,” he echoes, then sticks the unseemly image between two albums, not to be seen again until someone plays the soundtrack from Oklahoma! or Mame. “I don’t know why John keeps that.” I don’t know, either, of course I don’t, but maybe her mangy hair and bloated, distended body remind him of the awful side effects of her treatment, and that helps him think of his wife less as dead and more as free.

Over dinner, I babble about all the plans Tracy and I have for the rest of our travels. Evan says that by the time Tracy and I leave Australia for New Zealand, we will have seen more of his country than he has.

“I’ve been meaning to get out to the reef and up to Cape Trib,” he says. “The timing just hasn’t been right.” He had lists, too. Exciting things he was going to do and see and learn. But then he got stuck here, doing and seeing and learning other things.

After dinner and dishes, before Evan’s shift, we run aground on conversation, so we take the last of the wine over to the TV area and watch a sketch comedy show called Fast Forward, sort of like an Australian Saturday Night Live. A comedian named Chenille plays a tarty, self-assured entrepreneur selling a no-frills funeral service for the “budget-conscious bereaved.” She explains that vertical stacking allows them to keep prices “low low low.” I shrink back, so uncomfortable sitting next to Evan. When Chenille says they employ a “bevy of necro-cosmeticians” because “a lassie wants to look her best when she gets to the pearly gates,” he laughs so hard that he practically chokes, loud enough to wake the neighbors. It’s the most noise I’ve ever heard him make.

After my mother’s brother, Uncle Tommy, died of cancer, I heard her laugh at the strangest things, like the apparently hilarious disgrace of puking into a bedpan. That made her laugh hard enough to cry. I wasn’t even thirteen, I didn’t know anything about anything, but I did understand that she was allowed to laugh because she had been there. She had seen it and this black humor was part of how she dealt with it.

I don’t remember one day of Tommy being sick, and that’s just fine with her. My mother has zero interest in exploring mortality—that’s what noon Mass and rosary beads are for—and considers anything beyond the headline “My brother has a health issue” to be hanging out private family business.

The day of Uncle Tommy’s funeral, I was a month away from starting high school. I remember coming down to the kitchen that morning.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked GT.

“Packing for Baltimore,” he answered flatly, holding everything in. He loved Tommy. We all did. Tommy was Princeton-smart and athletic. My brothers used to play pond hockey with him, and my dad always said Tommy moved on the ice like Fred Astaire in kneepads.

My mom’s door was closed for most of the morning, so instead of being upbeat-cheerleader guy, my dad said all the stuff she usually said.

“Brush your teeth.”

“No sneakers.”

“Make sure you go to the bathroom before we get in the car.”

When my mom came out of her room, the only thing on her that stood out was a gold pin. Everything else was black. She had on her usual makeup, except lipstick. I couldn’t decide whether she was waiting to put it on until we got closer to Baltimore, or she forgot, or she got too tired to keep going. For all I knew, it was inappropriate to wear lipstick to your brother’s funeral.

Before I could say anything, she looked down at me and said, “You used my hairbrush. I took out my hot rollers and picked up my brush and ran it through my hair, and it was all wet, and now my hair …” She petered out. The rest didn’t matter. I looked at the carpet. She had told me three hundred times to stop touching her things, especially her hairbrush.

Downstairs, she took a new pack of cigarettes out of the carton in the kitchen drawer, even though once we got to my grandmother’s there would be Benson & Hedges in silver boxes on every side table. My mom was going to smoke on the way down, and no one was going to complain.

I sat in the back of the station wagon with my mom’s pillow, which I was not to touch. GT and Booker were in the middle. We went from one road to the next, our back-alley route to 95 South. At one point my dad said, “Not much traffic today,” but no one responded. I didn’t know where my brothers’ electronic football games were, but they weren’t making those click-click-clicks and we weren’t checking sports scores on the radio. The only sound was the car lighter popping. My mom pinched her lips around a cigarette and pressed the red-hot coil into the tip and sucked while I watched from the backseat.

When she turned to look out the window, I could see her profile in a column of twisting smoke. She shivered, and a long tear slid down her cheek, which she caught as it drove toward the corner of her mouth. She slipped her finger under her large plastic sunglasses to stop the next one. For a minute, she made no noise at all, not even a breathing sound, and then her body took over and made her exhale. I had never seen her cry. I wanted to pat her back, but I couldn’t reach.

After the service, on the church steps, I watched Tommy’s widow and my cousins get into a black car. My mother stood nearby, letting people say things to her while she kept one eye on my dad, who was standing in a cluster of his brothers. One of them said something amusing, and they all chuckled. The moment my dad’s laughter reached my mother, she was done.

“Wait here,” she said to me, and headed for him with her open hand leading. “Gimme the keys. I have to get out of here. I can’t stand this another minute.”

My dad’s brothers stepped back, and my dad looked down, same as I did that morning when I got in trouble for using her hairbrush.

The reception was at my aunt Regina’s. I heard my father ask my mom if there was anything he could do, and she said, “All I care about is Mother. Make sure people don’t wear her out. And when it’s time to wind it down, let’s wind it down. The last thing Mother needs is a houseful of people who won’t leave.” I told myself to remember that instead of watching TV upstairs with my cousins.

There was so much food at Tommy’s house. More than I’d ever seen there. My mom didn’t touch it. She stood near the foyer on a red Oriental carpet, greeting mourners. She kept her heels and earrings on the whole time and did the thing that is always the hardest for her: She made small talk.

Everyone asked about Regina and Libby, and my mom said, “They’re tired. It’s been a long, hard road.”

“Cancer is so awful. I can’t imagine my child …” they said.

“God help us,” she replied, looking over at me.

We hung around all evening, until the last person left. After the table was cleared and wiped clean, we went to Libby’s house. My mom trudged up the stairs, and I followed behind her. I tried to say something kind, but all I could think of was “Do you want a glass of water?”

She shook her head and sat down at the top of the stairs on a strange antique chair that looked like a royal commode. “Say a prayer for your cousins.”

“I will.”

The next morning, my brothers and I were up and out without any squabbling. We rode home to Philly without saying much, all in our own thoughts. Eventually, I fell asleep in the way-back, hugging my mother’s pillow that smelled just like her, a heady mix of face powder, Final Net, and hand cream, understanding that my mom had lost someone she loved so much, someone important, and that made her different in an essential way from my father, who could still circle up outside a church, all his brothers in a line, and have a good long gab about nothing much.

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