In Pieces

In Pieces

A Story by Natalie
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A daughter remembers the mother she lost. Fiction.

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I was eleven years old when my mother died.

          Although at the time everything seemed crystal clear to me, the years have wrapped those heart-wrenching memories into a yarn ball of teary eyed relatives in starched black dresses, an empty kitchen, and prayers. My younger brother, Jeff, and I attended the funeral in the finest our father could afford at the time, which wasn’t much. Having rehearsed my “thank you” and perfected a weepy nod of the head, I accepted the hollow condolences of people I did not know and would never see again, while Jeff quietly picked all the leaves off the flower arrangements.

          My father used the life insurance money to buy a brand new start for the three of us. He traded in our decaying farmhouse, which had been in my mother’s family for three generations, for a luxury condo in the city where he’d always dreamt of living. We drove up to see it in the Blue Whale; a long bodied Lincoln from the 1970’s with velvet seats and huge round gages on the dash. Mom had nicknamed it the Blue Whale for its size; the monster was twice as long as her little Jeep. Although my Dad had kept that car in perfect condition since the date of its purchase, I couldn’t help but wonder if we would soon be saying goodbye to the family car as well.

          The new place was gorgeous with marbled floors and plush white carpet that spanned the empty rooms like fresh snow. The windows were donned with sleek vertical blinds and the electronic closet doors slid into the wall with the push of a button.

          “Whoa! This place is awesome!” Jeff exclaimed, flipping the switches for the silver rows of track lighting on and off.

          Dad gently put his hand over Jeff’s and stretched a smile across his face, “Stop, please.”

          Undaunted, Jeff ran into the living room, which was only a few feet away. As fancy as the place was, the quarters were condensed to half the size of our country home.

          Dad followed him with a worried look on his face, and I slinked along as well. Jeff was a grubby red and blue spot on the clean white floor tinkering with a small remote.

          “Where’s the TV? Is it, like, in the wall or something?”

          “That,” my father took it from his hand, “Is for the fireplace.”

          “Whoa!” Jeff said again. We stared at the small sliver square in the lower east wall as my father bent to his knees and expertly turned the flames on and off.

          “What do you think, Punkin?” Dad winked at me.

          I folded my arms across my chest and said plainly, “I think that Mom would hate it here.”

          Looking stricken, my father stood and straightened the creases in his pants. He didn’t look at me right away, and I wondered if he would be angry at my outburst, although I tried not to show fear. Finally he found a thoughtful tone for his response, “You’re probably right about that.”

          Indignant, I glared at him, ready for the stare-down. I was without an opponent, though. My father was a classy guy, even back then when he was only a small town lawyer in a big city office. His suits were not the most expensive on the rack, but they were always neatly pressed and his sandy hair was always combed. I could not imagine him any other way, not even as a little boy. Even at that age he had probably gotten up at the crack of dawn to polish his shoes and trim his nose hairs. His dismissal of my childish staring game was the final insult. I took the elevator down to the parking garage alone and waited in the Blue Whale.

          It wasn’t until the drive home, after we’d stopped for some greasy burgers, that my father chose to address my “negative attitude” about the changes in our lives. He had taken on a very official tone, like the ones in those instructional videos they played in school for tornado drills and First Aid, going on about the “excellent schools” and “opportunities that awaited us”. I figured he was trying to play the part of the understanding father, because he didn’t even say anything about the fact that I had my ratty sneakers up on the dashboard and Jeff was asleep in the back seat with a slushy moustache and the imprint of a toy motorcycle on his face. Somehow this fake father goaded me even more than my regular one. I stared out the window and pretended not to hear him.

          Dad cleared his throat and said, “Look, Laura. I know that you wanted to stay back in Elery, but I want you to understand why I made the decision that I did.”

          “I already know why,” I interrupted, “It’s because you never really loved Mom at all, and now that she’s gone you just want to forget about her. Well I don’t want to forget, and you can’t make me!”

          Now he was angry.

          My lunch lurched forward as he pulled Blue Whale to the side of the road and it dawned on me that he was finally about to meet my challenge. I wanted to look away, but his hand on my chin kept our eyes locked.

          “Don’t ever say that to me again. I loved your mother. We were together from the time we were kids, for Christ’s sake! You are too young to understand that every choice I made in my life was because of her, but now she’s gone. And it’s killing me. It’s breaking my heart, Laura, but I’m not going to stop living. And neither are you.”

          I had never seen my father cry before. It made my stomach hurt, but I hated him a little bit less after that.

          Maybe he couldn’t stand the pain of all those old memories. Maybe he was just a hardnosed fool with an eye for the finer things in life. I prefer not to think it was the latter but when we moved to Chicago, he didn’t pack any of my mother’s things.

          I guess it didn’t matter much to me at the time. I just wanted her back, and that wasn’t going to happen. I tossed and turned those nights until my quilt wrapped around me like a cocoon and searched my dreams for some trace of her, the wink of her eye as she stood at the basin sink with soapsuds up to her elbows. To hear her gentle voice calling out to me as I slipped through the back screen door.

          “Love my you!”

          It was her love that I missed, not her weird crocheted clothing or her odd collection of useless stuff. Maybe I was as much a fool as he, that I never saw beauty in the world the way she did.

          I can’t remember half of the items in my mother’s house, but I do remember her old cedar chest, or as she called it, the “Treasure Trunk”. It was a clumsy, lopsided thing with one foot missing so that she had to keep a book underneath to steady it. Jeff and I had never been allowed to look in the chest, but we just knew it was full of incredible wonders, those most dear to her heart. It had been painted black and edged with gold before she had decided to lacquer all of her greeting cards on it. She had even added some three dimensional objects, like google eyes on the faces of fairies and feathers on bird pictures (which didn’t agree with the gooey varnish at all).

          How my father hated that tacky thing!

          It opened with a creak, and the front board nearly fell off. I peered inside, trying to imagine the spectacular wonders that she’d been hoarding at the foot of her bed. Gold? Probably not. Jewelry, maybe? My mother didn’t wear much jewelry other than what she made. Photos?

          No.

          Nothing like that.

          Jeff poked around in it with the tip of his turbo-laser gun and said, “What’s that stuff?”

          I stirred it around like soup, looking for something of value in that heap. Surely there had to be something. There was a partially crocheted dishcloth, a set of rusty keys, an album cover by a band I’d never heard of, and a cheap plastic bracelet that looked like it had gone through the washing machine. I stared at the pile of junk, feeling as empty as the well out back that had gone dry long before I was born, before my mother had even inherited the property. 

          “Dad,” I called into the hall where my father was neatly folding linens and placing them in a box bound for Goodwill, “Where are all of Mom’s treasures?”

          “What’s that, Punkin?” he asked, stepping into the doorway of the bedroom he’d not slept in for weeks.

          “You know, the stuff from her treasure trunk. All that’s in here is junk.”

          “The Trunk O’Junk!” He laughed, “That’s all that was ever in it.”

          “Really?” I asked sadly.

          Dad shook his head, “She kept everything! And I would tell her that the house was filling up like a balloon with more and more stuff, and that someday…”

          His words trailed off then, and it took him a moment to realize that Jeff and I were still staring at him. Resting against the door jam, he said, “Tell you what, why don’t you each choose one thing from the Treasure Trunk to keep. You know, to remember her.”

          I was hard pressed to find anything I wanted out of that stupid trunk. There was a dirty braid of blond hair; my mother was a brunette. A doll with a missing arm. A newspaper still bound with a now rotten rubber band. Movie ticket stubs.

          “None of this stuff means anything to me,” I shrugged, “It’s not her. It’s just her crummy stuff.”

          “Hey!” Jeff exclaimed, diving into the trunk. He returned with a small clear object with tiny gold flecks frozen into it. I recognized it right away; it was the charm from Mom’s fishbowl necklace.

          “I broke this, and she was so mad!” Jeff said gleefully, “Cause she used to wear it when she taught preschool on the first day, so the little kids would be thinking about her necklace and not about being scared.”

          “That’s what you’re keeping?” I rolled my eyes, “It’s broken.”

          “I don’t care. It’s cool.”

          “Whatever,” I replied as he scurried past Dad.

          Jeff clattered down the stairs with his newfound treasure and a fading chant,  “One fish, two fish. Three fish, four! Now I’m gonna catch some more!”

          “I need to get back to work,” Dad said, on his way out of the room, “Don’t take too long. The auctioneer is coming by to do appraisals this afternoon and we’ll be leaving shortly thereafter.”

          Sifting through the rubble, I pulled out a notebook with a floral design on the cover. Inside were lots of poems in Mom’s scrawly, barely legible handwriting. What I could read, I couldn’t really understand, but I took the book anyway and stuffed it in my sock drawer at the new house.

          And there it stayed.

         

************************************************************************

 

          These days my father doesn’t own any Blue Whales or Trunks O’Junk �" nothing  with an affectionate nickname.

          He still lives in the condo with his new wife, Bette, who holds about as much sentimental value as the rest of the expensive crap he acquired to show off his status as partner in that hotsy totsy law firm. Bette was his secretary before he promoted her to wife.

          For my part, I have remained the dutiful, thankful daughter. He did, after all, provide some “excellent opportunities” for Jeff and me during our growing years. The finest schools, the fanciest clothing, the snottiest friends. He paid for my college tuition, which is how I was able to earn my full teaching credentials before the age of twenty-five. I still drive into the city to have dinner with him once a month, which is more than I can say for Jeff.

          I don’t like to think that I love Jeff more than he loves me, but I guess that’s the nature of things. He’s out in California somewhere, living in a motel with a girl who wants to be an actress. I’ve never met her. The last time I saw him was three years ago, at my wedding.

          My husband Ryan and I both attended school in Chicago, but we were ready for a semi-suburban, slower paced life style. The town we live in is close enough for him to commute and small enough for me to know the families of the children in my first grade class. Our time is mostly devoted to the beautiful century home that we’ve been attempting to restore. The house is a little run down, but it’s full of gorgeous ornate woodwork, and there is even an old treasure trunk in the attic like the one my mother had at the foot of her bed.

          When Mom died, I swore that I would never forget her, but the years have played tricks with my mind. More recent memories have filled those places in my heart. I recall my days at the university with almost complete clarity, and the few friends I made there. I remember the tart smell of floor wax in the halls of the expensive private school my father insisted I attend, and the music I listened to at that age. Maybe because I still play those same cd’s. Some of them skip now.

          As far as my early childhood goes the memories are vague but, thankfully, beautiful. The creaky wooden floors of our old kitchen back in Elery and the tire swing in the tree out back. Snippets of conversations and the emotions tied to them. Toys that Jeff and I played with. Maybe there isn’t enough room in the human brain for a lifetime of memories, because the newer ones seem to replace the older ones, day by day, until you are left with just pieces. 

          It wasn’t until two days ago, when I found out that I am pregnant, that really started thinking about my own mother.

          She’s been gone for nearly twenty years, but I have never missed her quite as much as I did that day, sitting on my bedroom floor and flipping through the tattered pages of that floral notebook. Her writing is so clear to me now that I wonder why I never understood it before, and I can’t believe it’s the only piece of her that I have left.

 

          I lie awake when I know

          That I should be sleeping

          But it’s here in these dark hours

          That my fears will all come creeping

          And they do

          Of something happening to you

          I love my you

         

          There were more verses, rhyming and silly just like she was. I could hear her, literally hear her voice singing them to me although I had no recollection of it really happening. I had to move the pages away so my tears wouldn’t fall on them and ruin her beautiful words.

          I was still sitting there, poring over the crazy poems and nonsensical ramblings of a woman that I had never really known at all (though she had known every freckle on my body and every hair on my head) when Ryan came home from work. He hung loosely in the doorway and grinned at me.

          “What’s my little Mommy doing? I thought we were having lasagna tonight…” Then, seeing my tears, he instantly changed his tone, “What’s wrong?”

          Looking up, I wiped my eyes with the backs of my hands like a little girl and smiled, “Oh, nothing. I found this old notebook full of my mother’s poems. I guess I have a different take on them now.”

          “Ok,” he said, looking relieved, “Want me to order take out?”

          “Yeah, that would be great.”

          I had never gotten all the way through the book before, but right at that moment I couldn’t get enough of it. Her poems were stories, I discovered. Some ridiculous, some sad. She really missed her grandmother who passed away when she was just a little girl.

 

          Grandma saved everything, just like me.

          She kept the newspaper from the day I was born.

          I still have it.

 

          She wrote it all; about how her grandmother cut off her long braid of white hair before she started taking chemo and gave it to my mom. It had yellowed over the years, she explained. She even wrote a poem about the first dish cloth she crocheted that came out wrong, and the time she accidentally walked into the men’s room at the movies and all of her girlfriends laughed when she came out. 

          There was a narrative written in her childhood voice about that old tire swing. She had begged her father to hang it, only to fall off and break her arm the first time she used the thing.

          Dolly’s arm is broken, too. She can’t use the tire swing for six whole weeks.

          She wrote about having chicken pox when she was seven and staying with her grandmother, who wore the fishbowl necklace every day to cheer her up. It was the one thing she asked for when her grandmother died.

          She wrote about the first boy that she kissed, who was in a band and gave her a copy of his first album. She broke it when he broke her heart, but she kept the cover.

          I never knew that.

          I combed through her description of her first car, and her first date to the fair with my dad. He tried to win her a teddy bear, but all he got was a plastic bracelet, which she wore for almost a year. I skimmed over the details of how they would meet at the library and sneak off to the lake, not sure I wanted to know that much about my parent intimate lives.

          Part of me thought I should put the book down. These were her private thoughts, and who was I to invade them now when she wasn’t here to guard them? But try as I might, I couldn’t break the only connection I had left. I followed her through the story of how she had fallen while she was pregnant with me, and her own mother’s death.

          But the last page…it didn’t say so, but I knew it was for me.

          It was all for me.

 

          This old Treasure Trunk

          Holds pieces of my life

          Memories of one person

          Not just a mother or a wife

          One day you’ll find

          That you’ve got treasures of your own

          They don’t mean a thing to anyone

          But they’re part of how you’ve grown

          Part of you

          So here’s to you

          I love my you

          These are pieces of my life

          A life you scarcely knew I led

          And you will throw them all away

          Never knowing what they meant

          But if you do

          I wouldn’t hold it against you

          I love my you

         

          Oh, God. She was right. I threw it away. I thought it was just a bunch of “crummy stuff”, but it was all in there. It was her, in pieces. And I threw it away.

          And I grabbed for my phone on the night stand and dialed Jeff’s number without realizing that my hand was shaking. He answered on the fifth ring, just when I thought my heart was going to explode.

          “Hello?” He sounded like he just woke up.

          “Jeff,” I said, trying to keep my voice level, “You know that fish bowl thing, that broken necklace that was Mom’s?”

          “Uh …yeah?”

          I closed my eyes and breathed as deeply as I could. Please God, I thought. Just this one thing. Please.

          “Do you still have it?”

          “Someplace, probably.”

          “Can I have it?”

          He sighed, “What do you want it for?”

          “Just because it was Mom’s,” I said, “I mean, if you want to keep it, I understand.”

          “Nah, whatever. I don’t need it.”

          “Thanks.”

          “Yeah.”

          “Jeff?”

          “Yeah?”

          “Love my you.”

          There was a long pause.

          I was almost sorry I said it.

          Maybe he wouldn’t remember. Maybe he would think I was being a sentimental idiot. I prefer not to think it was the latter, but all he said before he hung up was, “Yeah.”

          This morning a package came for me in the mail with Jeff’s return address and big red sticker that said “Overnight Express: $8.11”

          I held the envelope in my hands for a long time, but I didn’t open it until I was up in my bedroom, sitting on the floor once again, in front of the trunk I had asked Ryan to bring down from the attic. Beside me were a paintbrush, three bottles of clear varnish, and a stack of greeting cards that I had inexplicably saved in a shoe box. Then I carefully smoothed the edges of envelope with my brother’s handwriting. I had almost tossed it in the wastebasket at the door, but thought better of it. Instead, I placed his inky chicken scratch on top of the chest with the fish bowl charm on top of it.

          And I opened the first bottle of varnish.

© 2010 Natalie


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Added on May 4, 2010
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Natalie
Natalie

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Writing is very much a hobby for me, but it's something I truly enjoy doing. I hope to get feedback that will help me improve my skills and produce better quality work. more..

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