Biographies & Memoirs

Chapter 29

The next day is gorgeous. Bright but not hot. Outside on a chair, a thin blanket across my thighs, I crack open my book, thinking about my mother and the many moments of my childhood when she tucked herself away somewhere, enjoying what she called a party for one.

In the early spring and later fall, when the air was chilly but the sun was warm, she’d settle into a chaise longue she’d set up in a patch of sunlight just inside the garage to read one of her giant library books with the crinkly plastic covers. She loved having a little color in her cheeks and she could not hear the phone out there—or, better yet, us kids.

In the humidity of summer, she could be found sitting in the driveway in her station wagon, enjoying the air-conditioning, opening the mail or making a store list while listening to MacNeil/Lehrer.

In the winter, when the sun went down early, she’d slip up to her room, unhook her bra, and lie down on top of her well-made bed. Curled up on her side, hands tucked between her knees, she’d keep her eyes open toward the door, like a doll with a dead battery, until one of us barged in with a grievance of some sort. “Mom! Didn’t you hear me calling you? Booker broke my hairband!”

This is the first time, here in Australia, that my life has looked and sounded and moved like hers, from bed to kitchen to car and back, and consequently she is everywhere, like a movie playing across the walls and furniture from hidden projectors.

In my book, Ántonia and Jim have lost touch. He’s gone East to “be educated,” and she’s started a family with a man named Cuzak, also an immigrant. They have a large orchard and many children to work it. The last time Jim saw her, twenty years back, he told Ántonia that there was a time when he would have liked to have had her for “a sweetheart, or a wife, or my mother or my sister, anything that a woman can be to a man.”

I put down the book and close my eyes, thinking about Jim’s affection for Ántonia, how he wanted to be someone important to her and how much bigger and more lovely that is than simple infatuation.

“Kelly?” I hold my hand up to block the sun. Evan is standing in front of me.

“Oh hi,” I say, blinking, not knowing how long I’ve been asleep.

“Sorry to wake you, but you’re getting pretty red.” My blanket’s on the ground, and I can feel the heat of the sun in my legs. “Maybe you should move your chair back into the shade?” He doesn’t want me to get too much sun. He wants me to be careful.

“Oh, right, thanks.”

“I’m going to head downtown … You need anything?”

“Um, no, I don’t think so. Thanks. Tracy and I are going in on Friday.”

“Right, then. G’day.”

I watch him walk down the driveway, rubbing my eyes, realizing the true nature of my interest in Evan. Like Jim’s broad hopes for Ántonia, I want to be someone to Evan, someone useful and good, someone important.

I remember a lecture from one of my lit classes about a theory called “Reader Response,” which basically says: More often than not, it’s the readers—not the writers—who determine what a book means. The idea is that readers don’t come blank to books. Consciously and not, we bring all the biases that come with our nationality, gender, race, class, age. Then you layer onto that the status of our health, employment, relationships, not to mention our particular relationship to each book—who gave it to us, where we read it, what books we’ve already read—and, as my professor put it, “That massive array of spices has as much to do with the flavor of the soup as whatever the cook intended.”

One thing’s for sure. There’s no telling how My Ántonia would taste to me if I had tried it years ago, in class or one summer by the pool, instead of here, a foreigner in a motherless home, spending most of my time with a local boy about my age. And then there’s the matter of my mother, who loved it so, and how I seem to be looking for her in every passage.

After Evan is out of sight, I lean back in my chair and survey the yard. Pop has hung a small load of laundry. Through the rows of clothes, I can see the door to Evan’s empty room.

I want to go in.

I think I’m going in.

I’m in.

A long, wide shelf bracketed to the wall is covered with gear catalogs, carabiners, rope, an ID card with the lamination peeling off, and about a dozen university textbooks. (Maybe he is going back.) The shorts he wears every day are on the floor, along with boxers, socks, hiking boots, and a bandanna. Tossed diagonally across his bare mattress is a down sleeping bag, as if there’s no use making up the bed with sheets and pillowcases, since he’s just passing through. Pushed against the wall are two twin mattresses, I guess for his brother and sister when they come to visit. On the wall is a sign with the Rovers’ line about each individual being the principal agent in his own development. I wonder if part of his enthusiasm for Rovers is a reaction to his mother’s death—maybe he’s learned it’s wise to be prepared, to isolate, and to count only on yourself. Then I wonder if there’s anything about the Evan I know—his interests, his pace, his disappearances and appearances, his silences and underreactions, his long hair, his fitness, the attention he gives the kids, how he tinkers with but never fixes his car—that is entirely unrelated to his mother.

Of course, maybe there’s nothing about any of us that doesn’t in some small way touch back to our mothers. God knows, every day I spend with the Tanners, I feel like I’m opening a tiny flap on one of those advent calendars we used to hang in the kitchen every December 1, except instead of revealing Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus, it’s my mother. I can’t see all of her yet, but window by window, she is emerging.

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