A Mother’s Modulated Reckoning
A half-feral cat came with the house. It lived under the front porch. “We can get animal control out here for you,” the real estate agent had said.
“No,” Margot had said. “It’s fine.”
A half-feral cat would keep mice from meeting inside the house. It was like the poker pot’s ante, she thought, a good-faith participation in, aka gambling on, the give-and-take of the natural order of things. Though of course children were part of the natural order, too, and the only reason her widow’s income had allowed her to walk across the threshold of this house, a sweet and solid structure in Lexington’s Chevy Chase neighborhood, was because another mother’s heart had been broken when their child had gone out of order, hanging himself in the attic.
That suicide, a junior at the University of Kentucky, had been a stoner, which perhaps anyone could have guessed from his opaque obituary, but early in her marriage to Frederick, Margot had stopped assuming outside appearances corresponded with inner reality.
When packing for the move after his death, she’d cautioned her daughter that she didn’t plan to spend her time sorting through family memorabilia. But she’d yielded to her daughter’s request for storage and now her would-be family archivist, ambitious around the holidays although hampered by toddlers husband dogs, had asked Margot to find a box of school photos. Margot was glad the cat, domesticated by the coldest December in a decade, followed her for this errand of retrieval.
She’d avoided viewing the attic before she’d bought the house, claiming arthritic knees (a lie) and directing the hearty young movers up there with the boxes, telling them to make a pile next to the steps.
The home’s modest two-bedroom, one-bath layout combined with the suicide had made it a steal and when she entered the attic’s cool, she realized how substantial the steal was: the east-and west-facing windows flooded the space with light. During another stage of mothering, an earlier incarnation, she would have renovated it into an extra bedroom, a play-space, a craft room. It was this dormant instinct that had her kneel down to get a hand-width measure of the uncovered joists beneath the eaves, and that led in turn to her discovering the stash of pot.
It was nested beside the center beam, in an opaque white marmalade jar with a black lid—she liked the same brand, the chew and tang of it. The milky glass was cool and smooth between her palms. It held spitwad-sized stubs of blunts, a roach clip, and a Ziploc baggie of unused weed and papers. Rubber-banded to the jar was a two-by-three inch notebook, top-spiral-bound, with entries in an exact and tiny hand, too small for her to decipher without her reading glasses. The fates and furies open the door and mete out complications for the Grandmother, she murmured.
She returned the jar to its hiding spot but took the notebook with her to the kitchen and boiled water for tea before donning her readers, a ridiculous bright pink pair her children had given her, a misguided and unwittingly hurtful Valentine’s Day gift.
Birthing and raising children had been the equivalent of napalm over Vietnam, rendering swaths and swatches of Margot’s life unrecognizable. Despite her original intentions and Frederick’s original understanding, she’d been unwilling to leave her babies in daycare. Their tiny toes! Their cornsilk hair! As mother love transmuted her to maternal mammal animal, Frederick had politely distanced himself, graciously pretending he accepted the situation. In return she had politely looked past his discreet indiscretions, graciously pretending she accepted the situation.
The entries were in iambic pentameter, if she wasn’t mistaken. A miserable young poet. Each line another stone in his personal jacket-for-the-river à la Woolf. She propped the grim evidence of the young man’s depression on the kitchen table. His handwriting was mostly meticulous, tidy, but occasionally loosened and became harder to read. Then the words were softer, rounder, as if he had crossed into the trance state her son spoke of when describing his time in animal blinds, waiting for the perfect photograph. Or maybe that was when the dope had kicked in. No one could think straight when they were high. Though back in her forties, when she and Frederick couldn’t relax into each other unless they’d shared a bottle of wine, she’d thought: better a potted souse than no spouse at all.
The cat jumped up on the table, purring as loudly as a dust-buster and she was so pleased with his over-the-top joy that she didn’t push him off. He curled next to the teapot’s warmth.
She called her daughter to tell her she’d gotten the pictures down and would her daughter please help her find the suicide’s family with the magic of the Internet. The other mother would want this notebook back. She tilted the phone away from her ear after she asked, so as to catch only the highlights of her daughter’s opinion of this request.
Fisher Funeral Home couldn’t release contact information for the deceased’s family, but Margot could share a brief message to be conveyed to them. She did so and hung up the phone and went to the front door as if the other mother would instantaneously appear.
During the short infinity of her daughter and son’s childhoods, she’d kept the bogeyman at bay by banging her pots and pans on the front porch every New Years Eve. Then, she’d made an effort to keep the front porch beautiful: twinkling lights in the cold dark months and ferns cascading out of their containers in the summer. Now, she’d neglected the impatiens and begonias she’d bought last spring and summer, the mums she’d gotten in the fall. They’d all lived and died in their original pots, stacked willy-nilly, five feet high on the edge of the porch. Ceramic, clay, plastic, some weird dense polymer with swirly designs.
The bogeyman hadn’t come for her children, nobody had drowned in the bathtub, or found a gun at a friend’s house, died in a car accident, fallen off a balcony, gone home with the wrong person. Nobody had committed unspeakable unbearable unimaginable suicide.
She returned to the kitchen and opened the notebook. The cat settled on her lap, his front paws pricking the edge of her knees. Margot read, mesmerized.
A flat, skipped class, I’m hungry, angry-sad.
They laughed, they laughed. I die. Why cry? Why laugh?
My sneaker’s hole-y, my shirt’s yellow stained.
I won’t. I won’t. I won’t. I won’t. Will I?
My pain threshold too low to try.
Would she please bring the notebook she’s found to Fisher’s, the message on her voice mail said. The cat looked on, unblinking, as she nestled the notebook into the zippered side pocket of her purse. She pulled on her coat, her gloves; she found her car keys; she scraped the dirt off the soles of her shoes at the doorsill and she left.
When she walked toward the entrance, someone called “Halloo” from the only other car in the parking lot, a dark green vintage Mercedes sedan. Not hello but halloo, as Frederick used to pronounce it. A tall woman with silver hair and a fox fur coat emerged. She repeated the “halloo” and walked toward Margot. “Are you here with the notebook?” she asked, and Margot said yes.
“I am so glad you came today. I will be away visiting my daughter for the next several months.” The woman’s accent was—Austrian? Swiss? Not German like Frederick, but similar, civilized into rigidity. Margot’s heart tightened.
This mother was from another world, Frederick’s world, of teacups and black tea and sugar cubes with silver tongs and thick white cream and dainty spoons tinkling in a whirlpool against the bone china, to be laid with a quiet click against the saucer, then the cup lifted to the lips with the pinky curled just so, no companionable cats on the table or the sofa or the foot of the bed, Frederick’s world, living as if it were still the age of the Robber Barons, before the Titanic, before WWI, before the Depression, closer to monarchies than decency.
The woman wore glossy brown leather pumps. Her ankles were slender. Her slim hand was encased in a suede glove with feather stitching. She introduced herself as Barbara. The glove was cool in Margot’s bare palm.
“Your son was a poet,” Margot blurted out.
“His father was a poet,” Barbara said. “His father.”
“So it runs in the family.”
An elegant lift of one shoulder, an arched eyebrow. “His father was dead by the time our son was born. My son’s attempts,” Barbara inclined her head slightly, “were better off unseen by his father. They would have been a disappointment. But then, this generation. Well. You are a mother?” A quick assessing glance. “Yes. Then you know. This generation of children a disappointment. But. You have his poems?”
“I have a notebook I found in the attic. I think it’s his. It was with a jar of—marijuana.”
Barbara clicked open her leather purse, extended her hand.
Margot unzipped the pocket protecting the suicide’s notebook. Barbara’s handbag glowed prosperous in the late afternoon sun, its wide predator’s mouth open.
Margot looked up and affected a frown. “Oh, dear,” she said. “I’ve brought the wrong notebook. It was one of those generic ones, the kind to keep lists on. I grabbed the wrong one. I’m so sorry.”
Barbara looked into Margot’s eyes and blinked once, a glint of a tear glimmering-gone before Margot recognized it and then Barbara turned her attention to her purse, closing it with a twist of its heavy metal clasp. She snugged her fitted jacket so its frilled placket was perfectly aligned. “When you drop it off, I’m sure the home will let me know.”
Margot repeated her apology and counted to one hundred after Barbara steered her humming green Mercedes out of the parking lot. The notebook rode home with her, safe.
In the topmost pot on the teetering pile of containers, she found a bird nest, an orderly arrangement of twigs and grass and a lone strand of bright pink confetti. No evidence of eggs, or parents, or whether the fledglings entered the air and flew or faltered.
It was weightless in the palm of her hand and she carried it inside and placed it on her kitchen table beside the silent poet. If she were another type of mother, she might have ceded to her children’s voices, rising in her ears: that has diseases on it, you should throw it out, animals return to their nests.
The cat jumped up, his purr a domesticated riot in her gathering arms.
Before earning an MFA in fiction from the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, Lesley Howard delivered newspapers, waited tables, worked retail, canvassed for a consumer group, got a MUA and was a regional planner, founded a land trust and served in local government. Betwixt and between, she raised two sons and helped establish the co-housing community where she still lives. In addition to her own writing, she currently works as a freelance editor and a writing coach, and blogs occasionally at https://artofpractice.com and http://afiercelykindword.com