By CL Bledsoe
My father sits on the love seat in the corner of the living room staring at us over the top of his crossword puzzle. It has taken the death of his wife to make him lower his newspaper. But the paper is dropping, and soon he will set it aside completely.
He’s peeking at my sister, Boo, and me; we’re rummaging through our mother’s old hope chest. All of the family members we haven’t spoken to in years but must forgive this day have made their awkward exits from the reception after the funeral, and we’re tired of staring at each other, talking about our jobs, thinking.
Mostly, the chest is full of old curtains, but there’s treasure too: we’ve found photo albums of her third grade students, we’ve found a letter from President Truman to Dad when he was discharged from the army after World War II, we’ve found love letters, Christmas cards, notes we left as children.
Whenever we find something, we hold it up and Dad identifies it. And he tells a story. Some things he’s silent about — whether because he doesn’t know or is lost in thought, we can’t tell, but we look for clues. We’re piecing together the life of a woman we hardly knew, a woman who had been sick with Huntington’s disease most of my life, half of my sister’s. She had forgotten her own life, and so have we. We’ve spent most of the last two decades in a kind of shock. But we’re trying.
Boo has a scrapbook she’s been collecting of photos, things she’s tried to rescue from the house. We have it beside us as a guide. It describes a sort of arc, wedding photos, a handful of baby photos, Mom’s driver’s license. We tell a story when we find something that prompts one, any story no matter how random; any information could help us so we share it all. This is not the time for greed. I relate what I’ve learned putting together Mom’s obituary: her work history, the schools where she taught, the two times she’d taken leave from teaching, once when our brother was born in 1958, once when she whisked him away to St. Louis, trying to leave our father in 1965. Then she’d retired in 1974, two years before I was born. Boo was born in 1971, in July, but Mom hadn’t taken a leave. Our brother interjects to tell the story of his time in St. Louis.
“She put me in school there, and they came around one day to all the second graders and had us write our names down. They were finishing the arch, and they told us all of our names would go on the last stone. I just happened to be there at the right time, I guess.”
My brother’s sitting on the couch, watching. His wife, beside him, is silent. Boo’s children are seated in the dining room, watching us over the shelves that divide the two rooms. They also are silent. All eyes are on Boo and me as we lift crumbling pages from fifty-year old scrapbooks, tell as much of their story as we can, and then place them in one of the stacks which are consuming the floor around us.
There are photos of foster children our parents took in, all of them before I was born. We uncover a wedding book with more photos. In most of them, Mom is smiling hugely, and Dad just looks uncomfortable.
“The rascal realizing what he’s done,” my brother says, grinning.
My fiancée, who has been babysitting in the dining room, asks about Mom’s dress.
“I remember seeing it when I was a little girl,” Boo says.
“Do you know where Wilma’s dress is, Billy?” my fiancée asks.
“No,” Dad says. “No idea.”
She comes over and we look through the wedding photos. We start removing curtains, getting excited each time we find anything lacy. Anything interesting, we hold up for Dad.
“Take that,” he says, when I show him an apron. “Find a use for it. Better to use it then let it sit there going to waste.” I set it aside.
“Here’s something,” my fiancée says. She holds up what looks like part of the dress. We examine the photos again and see that the top is missing, so we dig some more, revealing a jacket that went with it. Some of the lace is coming apart at the seams, but otherwise, it is in good shape.
“It’s tiny,” Boo says. Her eldest step-daughter comes over and Boo holds it up to the girl, who is small herself.
“It wouldn’t fit me,” the girl says.
“I wonder if she did the beading herself?” my fiancée asks.
“I don’t know, as I remember, she was pretty inept when it came to needlework,” Boo says, “Isn’t that a trip? She was a Home Ec. major. Of course,” she adds, examining the beading on the collar. “This looks pretty rough.”
We hold the dress up for Dad. He stares at it for a long time and says nothing.
The next morning, my fiancée and I arrive at the house while my sister-in-law is in church. My brother is gone also and my father sits on the loveseat with his crossword puzzle again. My plan is to rummage through the chest again; the night before, Boo had to return home so we packed everything away in storage boxes, transferring what we could from the old albums to new ones. The dress we put in a bag and hung in a closet from the softest hanger we could buy. I plan to finish the job, but I want to take my time.
But as soon as we walk in, Dad sets down his paper. We promised the night before to take him riding in our rental car, a PT Cruiser which was much admired among the family for its alien-ness. We had intended to wait for my brother, but Dad’s strangely impatient, so we go.
I follow the edge of our farmland and head out towards the state park to the south of town. It’s been so long, I’m afraid I’ll get lost if I go too far. My father talks the whole way.
“I’ve hunted this whole area,” he says. He talks about the people who used to own this patch or that.
“That was a school house,” he says, pointing at a ruin of a building, “for the country kids.
“Uncle Grover used to live in that house,” he says, pointing at an empty-looking building, further down the road. I remember it being the home of a friend, and before that a store. I remember when this road was gravel. My father remembers when it was dirt, when it wasn’t a road at all.
We ask questions but mostly we listen. My father is rarely this talkative and I wonder if it is a sign of melancholy, but it is a gift, nonetheless.
We go into the park and he talks about the ridge formations.
“I would like to have the time to study geology. I wonder how these ridges came
to be. Look at how they are narrow on the top, but they extend a long ways. I wonder how something like that happens.
“I used to hunt rabbits out here, before it was a park,” he says. “And sell them for a nickel to go to the picture show. When I was coming up, the only way you had any money was if you went out and earned it.”
My fiancée asks him the story of how he and Mom met. “Billy Rose was going up to see his girl and asked me to come along. He gave me fifty cents to take her roommate out.”
“Mom was her roommate?” I ask.
He nods. “She wanted a milkshake, but when we got to the place, they cost sixty cents. I told him that was all I had and the guy let me have it for fifty. Ever since then I’ve been worried I wouldn’t have enough money, you know. I’d go to meet somebody for coffee or something and they’d bring along a bunch of friends, and I wouldn’t have enough to cover everybody’s bill.”
I ask him what he thought of the service. We’d given the preacher a list of interesting information about Mom, to show that she was vibrant. He’d read it like a laundry list.
“She went to church,” Dad says, “But of course her pastor is dead, now.”
Dad had selected “Autumn Leaves” and “I’m in Heaven” to be played, and the unfortunate pun had made me cringe. “We both liked those old songs,” he says, and I drop it.
Later, we go out again with my brother who has convinced Dad to show us
the locations of the houses where he and Mom lived. Before today, none of us kids had even known these places existed.
“This was a garage apartment,” my father says, pointing to what is now a driveway leading to grass. “It was nice enough,” he says, and I struggle to find weight in those words.
“There used to be an old house here,” he says, pointing at a building which is now the home of the Star Progress newspaper.
“Did you design your house?” my fiancée asks. “The one you live in now?”
“I found it in a magazine,” Dad says, “And had the plans drawn up.” He talks about the building of it, some of which he did himself while working the farm.
“Must’ve been hard work,” my fiancée says.
“I didn’t mind that back then,” Dad says.
“I bet Wilma was thrilled with it,” she says. We are prodding him in ways we never would have, before.
“Yeah, she liked it well enough,” Dad says, reticent once again.
For my fiancée’s sake, my brother takes us on a tour of the farm, which consists of plots of land scattered in a couple places across the county. Recently, a company leased the mineral rights to much of the land, and my father points out the boundary lines.
“We’ll put an oil well in, there,” he jokes, pointing to a field. “That one’s going to make WD 40, and over there will be a butane well for the heater.”
“Can’t have one there,” my brother adds, nodding to a plot of land to the side.
“No, that’s my fishing hole,” Dad says.
The bulk of the land rings a stock pond, which is itself immediately surrounded by a pasture. Cattle graze on this land, which my father has rented out.
“I haven’t been back here in years,” I say.
“You can always find this, just look for the pecan tree,” my brother says. An ancient, gnarled tree towers over the pasture, grey and thick. You’d think it was dead, except for the rain of pecans it produces each year.
“I’ve always thought this would be a good place to build a house,” I say.
“A.G. Taylor always used to say he’d build a house back over there,” Dad says, pointing. None of us mention that this man is now dead.
We move down the road to another patch of land, and this becomes a tour of places my father has shot snakes. We cross a narrow, splintering bridge and he talks of water moccasins.
“Shot a rattlesnake back there,” he says at another field. “Biggest snake I ever saw. Said they were going to put a picture in the paper, but they didn’t.”
My brother tells the story of once nearly stepping on a cottonmouth when he was a boy.
“Dad was just staring, wide-eyed and that was what did it: I knew it was bad if it had him scared, but I figured I wouldn’t have time to run.”
I tell my fiancée the story of a field fire I remembered.
“The wind changed,” I say. “And it came back on the diesel tank.”
“I remember that,” my brother says.
“It was me and you and Dad,” I say. “Maybe I was fourteen. It was just us and our shovels, throwing dirt on it. I thought we weren’t going to beat it.”
We’re all silent for a moment, and then my father tells another story.
* * *
The most interesting thing we find in the Hope Chest is Mom’s diary from when she was twelve. Boo claimed it, but forgot it, so I take it. That night, after the field tour, I sit in our hotel room, trying to decipher the faded scrawl. It is pretty tame and predictable stuff: boys she liked, parental issues, but it is, nonetheless, a window into someone I never really knew. My fiancée and I stay up late, reading it, and we discover that it stops, and about halfway through is picked up again six years later, on a summer break after Mom’s first year of college. It is a small thing, but I rush to call my sister and share it.
“I was just fine, repressing all this,” my sister says. She has been crying. “I got along. I was doing it for a long time. I was doing just fine.”
We talk for over an hour, finally putting together everything we’ve learned into a timeline, a life. Before she died, we knew very little of our mother except what the sickness had made her over the two decades she’d battled it. Our father, also, had become a half-entity, consumed by this disease as much as we all were. The mythology of their lives has been changed, broken, and finally, now, upheld. In some small ways we are getting to know them better than we might have if Mom hadn’t been sick. Aspects of her life we might have taken for granted are relevant now. And we have a more honest picture than we might have had of who she was, how she lived.
The next morning, we fly home. I’ve borrowed my sister’s photo album, and taken the diary. When I came there, my past and my mother’s life had been an unmapped world, of which I’d only heard half-remembered rumors. There is still a great deal I don’t know, but I can see the shape of the land, now, the boundaries. I can see the hints of water. It is something, and I am thankful for it.