Faith

Jeremiah Webster

I dig the hole, claw soil, cut roots
with the knife until there is room
for the ring box we placed you in.
You are buried, the size of a pearl,
by the river where ten years ago
we decided marriage and children
were worth it. What is her name?
I ask above the current. Faith, your
Mother says, It was always a girl.

To the Reader

James Matthew Wilson

Others taunt me with fleeing reality;
I find in wells, most often, something more
Than white dumb stones numbed to eternity.

When I write verse on the heart’s or mind’s core,
I take it that there’s something there to find
Beyond the pulp on the material floor,

Though to speak of it seem sunlight to the blind.
Is Order just to caulk wood boats with pitch,
As if a sea-fit craft were false design?

To gloat in chaos, spite the native itch
To cut through mobbed obscurity and grasp
The rational sense waiting within; to stitch

An ugly patch-work shawl with broken clasps
Instead of learning skilled embroidery
That make a fine and useful coat to last

Beyond the hour: such cynical strategies
Seem opium for anxious but weak minds.
Baudelaire writes that Nature’s company

Has commerce with the intellect, which winds
Through that expansion des choses infinies.
For him, the senses were a means to find

Where things and their ideas meet ethically.
But to detail the truth in decadence
Is not the only task—or shouldn’t be.

He swooned in details, and died in consequence,
Unwilling to hear the lesson in his words.
One ought to note and weigh the relevance

Of those undying shades signaled in words,
Taking them both as beauties and as guides,
Rowing the ship of heart and mind with words.

Good fortune has not blown me to collide
With the toothed rocks of which some poets sing.
And though it costs, I refuse to elide

A reasonable world, whole and discrete,
Or let the only language I compose
Mumble the bitch that “things aren’t always neat.”

With humble hand, I’ve set here words in rows,
Printed such lines in the effort to entice
The reader see the world an ordered rose.

If this gets called in turn “genteel” or “nice,”
“It lacks the flavor of burnt toast and shoe strings,”
Know all I’d meant to do was be precise.

We cannot learn from drugged hues, violent spewings;
Or wrestle truth ensnared in proud confusion,
Where doggerels arrogant and obese go strewing

The talkative forest limbs in hysteric ruin.
I’ve said this world makes perfect sense to me.
And if my ghostly ancestors-in-allusion

May show their numbered knowledge, then we’ll see
If, having learned their pattern, you don’t agree.

Gypsy Moths

Katie Kalisz

Happily we practiced our aim with shiny bicycles,

an ambush on the driveway where they caravanned
from one side of the yard to the other, searching
the oak and aspen of our childhood sylvan for a transient home.

We tried to get our tires at a right angle to their lined bodies,
pedaled quickly to make a neat cross
or an addition sign and then, mastering that,

we lined our tires up to roll over their length
like the lowercase “l”s we practiced with our pencils
on the dot-lined penmanship paper during school.

How the green and yellow streaks of their guts trailed out
behind their furry spotted bodies.
Sometimes, they would become circular splats of intestines

that we tried to forget, even though we sped around the circle driveway
to see again the remnants of life,
paintings made with bodies that we couldn’t imagine

once alive. Maybe if they’d been moths earlier.
Caterpillars begot butterflies. Something crawling became
something beautiful that flew. Our childlike version of the resurrection’s

confounding and annual mystery, even then we knew the futility
of staying in one place long enough, a recurring
accumulation of death and flight and infestation

and no difference made.

Half Cadence

Beth Malone

Imagine a hundred ten-year-olds crammed into the back temp building, the one that felt like Vietnam in summer and Siberia when it snowed, the one stuffed in the far left corner of the elementary school campus, beyond earshot. There is only one teacher between these kids and chaos, a curly-haired guy who is not easily disturbed by copious spit on the floor or the obscene noises boys make in their armpits when they’re bored. He stands at the front of the room and raises this dainty white stick, which means that you’re supposed to get your fingers onto the right keys, or what you hope are the right keys. And then he waves the stick—hugely, as though lifting a whale with a fishing rod—and the building practically quakes in the ensuing noise. Kids squeak on clarinets or turn blue in the face behind a tuba. The boys in the back act out a scene from Star Wars with their drumsticks. There is a constant rustling sound that had nothing to do with page fifteen of “Essential Elements,” which has everyone attempting a sluggish version of Hot Cross Buns.

This was my elementary school band. I sat in the front row and played flute, which I chose because I was able to make a noise on it the first time I tried—which not many people could do—and because it weighed a lot less than my older brother’s trumpet. The fact that I chose the flute said a lot of other things about me. Flutists tend to be a certain type of person, the type that doesn’t mind sitting right under the director’s nose, right where the audience can see every movement you make. Flutists are the ones who can be counted on to sit quietly and count diligently during their measures of rest, although they don’t get a lot of those. Or if they do, they feel the piece has somehow cheated them, because they learn very quickly they’re supposed to have the melody. Flutists are melody-addicts; they’re used to the parts that shove you right up in the spotlight to show off.
I had a private teacher once who rightfully said that no one likes the sound of a flute up close—it’s too shrill, too loud, too audacious and pushy and fierce. At least when it’s played right. Beginner flute players will often get a breathy sound, the sound you might get when you blow over the top of a glass bottle. This isn’t the correct way to play. The air leaving your lips shouldn’t be a stream but a laser. You push each note to the point where it hits a fifth too high, and then you back down the tiniest amount, you let off the intensity like a millimeter, and that’s how you play the note right. You play each note like it’s just about to break.

I didn’t know these things when I began to play. Still, I was a studious musician, shy and eager and uncertain every time I placed my fingers on the keys. I tapped my toes the way the director taught me and bit my lip in between notes. He was always trying to get us to look up and listen around. We were supposed to see the dance of his baton through the air; we were supposed to hear the others around us in their parts, noticing that the French horns had the melody there, so our long notes didn’t matter as much, so maybe we should back off the volume a little.

I never, as they say, got my nose out of my music stand. I was terribly concerned with my own part, that I should play it right, that I shouldn’t make any mistakes. This was always one of my main concerns as a child—making mistakes. I felt like I was always making so many, and each one felt like a bruise to the ribs, and I wished for just one day when I didn’t make any—not a single, solitary mistake on one perfect day when I would be a perfect person.

Everything was out of tune, the melody barely discernible. We didn’t notice. We were just kids, and played everything as loudly as we could.
Glyph
A few years later, though, I really get into music. When you really get into music, it starts filtering over into all the other parts of your life. Like anywhere you go, you can’t stop humming Mozart. (Every serious flutist is obsessed with Mozart; The Magic Flute feeds right into our pretensions.) You wear t-shirts with musical jokes printed on them (“Baby Got Bach”). In high school, you sit in your physics class holding a pencil as you would your instrument, running over that hard lick at the end of the Shostakovich symphony again and again while you pretend to pay attention. The teacher—pasty, sweating, insect-voiced—clutches his coffee mug and drones on about something you don’t recognize at the time. If you had, maybe you would have cared. He’s talking about a different music.

Physicists call it the Symphony of the Universe. Think of the atom. No, think of the smallness of the atom. Think of how, if you stacked up a million atoms, you would have something about as thick as a sheet of paper. Now think of scraping a proton off that atom. Drop the proton into this machine that’s designed like a racetrack. You put it in there with a few other protons, and you get ready to play nuclear roller derby. You flip the machine on. The protons fly around at dazzling speeds and eventually collide, and when they do, they explode into pieces too small to believe in, almost. They have names like mythical creatures: fermions and bosons, leptons and quarks. And when you press your ear to those pieces, you find that they are singing to you.

So the singing pieces, they are singing on a string. Humming along on this vibrating string and at all these different tones. All the strings are the same; it’s only the frequency that changes. The frequency is what makes the thing what it is. Each piece sings its nature out to you. You change the frequency and you change its nature.

Every larger object also has a frequency, a tone. A tree or a stone or a door or a person. It’s not some mystical baloney; it’s measurable. It’s been videotaped. It’s why a string makes a certain pitch when it’s plucked. It’s why a bridge can start to wave like ribbon if the right tone hits it.

When you combine tones, you get harmonies. When you combine them right, I guess. If you combine them right you get harmonies. A song is made up of harmonies, chord progressions. Some progressions leave you satisfied; others don’t. Like in some songs, if you stay on the fifth chord at the end instead of relaxing back to the first chord, it will set your teeth on edge. That’s called a half cadence, a song that refuses to bring you home. The music builds up and builds up until you ache to hear that first chord again—the one from a distant memory—but then the whole thing just hangs there without any resolution.

Those are sad songs.
Glyph
I had a choice between two high schools, and I picked the one with the better band. The director there had a statewide reputation. People who liked him said he was a genius, that he could squeeze the best out of those kids, that he could put them in a press and close the lid and turn up the heat, and then they would play, and the music would come out as though from Mount Olympus.

People who didn’t like him called him a Nazi.

I both loved and hated that director. He was like the father who was too busy to notice his kid turning back flips to get his attention. He had his favorites—even now, I remember their names—his golden students who would always play first chair and get the solos during marching season. Then there were the rest of us, desperately doing our song and dance in the background, begging him to turn around and shoot a smile our way.

That was when I got lost in something different. Not music. Ambition. When you play in an ensemble, you compete for the best chair, for the best orchestra. Everybody wants to play the solo. I wanted to play the solo more than all the others, so after three years I played them, because I was the best.

Except I wasn’t, because there was always somebody better. In something as subjective as the arts, there’s a great deal of fluidity in the hustle for position. Chair try-outs take place multiple times a year. In between those for your regular orchestra, there are honor bands, and solo competitions, and recitals. All of these are judged and measured. If you were lucky, the judge would give you feedback.

One judge told me I was good at rhythm. (I liked rhythms, the mathematical precision of them, the way you were either definitely right or definitely wrong, no guesswork involved.) Another judge said I had a nice tone, which made me glad. I liked a dark tone; I wanted it to leave the taste of thick black coffee on your tongue.

I was worst at pitch and phrasing. Pitch because I never learned to listen to others, to adjust, to lose myself in someone else’s sound. I listened to myself and marked my errors and hit the run faster next time. I couldn’t tell you anyone else’s part. Phrasing was hard because when I was younger I was asthmatic and struggled to breathe. I struggled to breathe all the time, but especially when I was putting everything I had into the music, what I thought was the music. I never had enough. I was always gasping by the end.

This kind of fire lights fast and burns out. It’s spectacular, like a firework, and then it fizzles into darkness and there’s nothing. There’s always someone, somewhere, better than you. If you love the music, you don’t mind, you keep playing anyway. If you love ambition, you won’t.

One day after I graduated, I put my flute down and didn’t pick it up again for ten years.
GlyphThe thing is, the universe as we know it is too small to carry this theory of a symphonic universe around on its back. Like all those laws of nature—that when an apple drops from a tree it will fall to earth, that when electrons run in circles they gain magnetic power—they’re too big to fit inside a measly four dimensions. Four dimensions can only juggle so many forces. You need a lot more to make the math work; you need at least eleven.

To wrap your head around it, you can imagine a two-dimensional world, where paper people live. When you put your finger on the paper, the paper people experience it two-dimensionally, like a circle. But you, in your three-dimensional world, can pop your finger off the paper and place it down elsewhere. To the paper people, it seems you’ve magically transported—for a time, you were nowhere—because you were in the third dimension. Which explains things like how a person could be eating dinner in Emmaus one moment and scaring the crap out of everyone in Jerusalem the next. If he knew about all the other dimensions. If he had access to them all.

My daughter is the one who is bringing me back to music. This child who sang before she could talk, who danced before she could walk. When she was a baby, I needed only to put on the music and she’d stop crying. It was as though I’d found the frequency of her body, and the waves of music would come and reverberate inside of her, and then she would begin to resonate with peace. So I pulled out my flute for her, and it felt like visiting my childhood home, the way it felt so familiar, only I had changed.

After ten years, the music doesn’t sound the same. Not the same as before. I miss things like key signatures and hit flat notes. My fingers refuse to move like they used to; they have grown brittle, they feel like dried twigs, and no matter how hard I try I can’t hit that lick of Shostakovich. The muscles of my mouth have atrophied and tap out after 20 or 30 minutes. It makes me sad. I feel like I have fallen.

But I play, because my daughter loves it when I play. This time I want the tone to sound like bells. I want it to taste like honey. My daughter sings along, her voice climbing up the octaves to mimic me.

She’s so much like me, it’s scary. The tones of her. The way she will hesitate before putting her foot out the door. The way, in a crowd, she huddles inside of herself, silently watching. The way she doesn’t want to try anything—walking, talking, loving someone—unless she knows she will succeed. That last is scary for me.

The great fear of parents everywhere is that the music will one day go out of their children. The way one day it went out for you. The way it goes out, sort of, for everyone.

GlyphSo the tiniest bits of you—the bits that give you mass and energy and being—they are music. Just music.

This is the best way I have of understanding the Incarnation of Christ: When Jesus came, all the particles inside him resonated a different tone than ours—a holy tone, the one that made his nature that of God’s. He was holding the universe together—all eleven dimensions of it—with a song. He had a way of speaking into the deepest parts of a person and giving something a little tug, and then their tones would change, too. That’s how water became wine, how sickness became health, how death became life. The pieces started singing a different song.

When you come to Jesus, or rather, when he comes to you, he comes to live maybe not so much in the “heart” that people talk about, but in the spaces of fermions and bosons. In the things that sing out your nature. This is where he makes his home. This is where he begins to change things, bringing you back to the melody you were made to resonate.

Sometimes it feels like you are just fumbling around, trying different notes, the melody is just on the tip of your tongue, and How does it go again? Because those strings in you remember. They remember the first chords, the song they were made to sing.

But here is what you should know. When you finally come back—after such a very long time, after you have tried other things and found them wanting, after you have admitted to your fear and your pride and your penchant for discontentment, after you have swallowed your doubts and your hang-ups, after you realize you really have nothing left to lose—the music will not sound the same. Not the same as before, in some memory that is not your memory. It will not sound the way it sounded in the story of a garden and a tree, before the first broken chord.

This time around, you can hear creation groaning in its decay, and the horn-like lament of pain, and the sharp staccato of suffering, and the timpani rolling sound of your body as it nudges ever closer to death. Listen to the song of the universe; listen to the chords. We are on the fifth one, the half cadence waiting to resolve.

Be quiet, my darling, you must listen now.

Because beneath it all, you can still hear the melody, that first one, the one that never changed. It will balloon to mountains on every side of you. It will whirl so fast, so hot, so bright, you can’t catch hold and you won’t even try. It will shove you back in your chair and tell you to sit down! just sit down! It will swallow you up and leave you for dead on a different shore.

Then, after you spit the salt from your mouth and rub the sand from your cheek, you will peer out and see the swelling of the wave, which is coming to carry you home.

The Sacrament

Heather King

I say Mother. And my thoughts are of you, oh, House.
House of the lovely dark summers of my childhood.
—O.V. de Milosz (1877-1939)

Let’s put it like this: my mother goes her own way. She once went twenty-nine years without seeing a doctor. She braves New England winters in a beige rayon windbreaker and a pair of Rich’s Discount sneakers. She rinses out plastic garbage bags, hangs them out on the line, and “re-purposes” them.

Mom plods, I’m a hummingbird; Mom minimizes, I exaggerate; Mom keeps stoic silence, I emote. One year, along with her birthday check, I sent a poem by (the at this point admittedly way over-exposed) Rumi, which ran in part:

Bring a hundred sacks of gold and God will say, ‘Bring the heart.’

And if you bring a dead heart carried like a coffin on your shoulders, God will say, ‘Oh, cheat! is this a graveyard? Bring the live heart! Bring the live heart!’ . . .

“Did you like the poem?” I asked shyly next time I called. “No,” Mom replied.

Everything with Mom is played down, minimized, euphemized. A stroke is a “spell,” a gangrenous ulcer a “spot,” a person in the psych ward after a suicide attempt “feels low.” When my father was dying in 1999, we all came home and sat vigil for a week, hanging around his chair saying all the sappy things we’d always been too embarrassed to say when he was well: “You’re the best father in the world.” “I love you.” One day, as things looked truly dire, I realized Mom hadn’t had her turn. “Let’s clear out and give Mom some time to say goodbye,” I told the others, my voice trembling. “Go ahead, Mom,” we urged. “Take as long as you want.”

My little sister Meredith and I went out to the breezeway and huddled together, sobbing. “What could she be saying to him?” we wondered. “Forty-eight years together . . . oh my God, it’s so sad. . . .” Two minutes later Mom appeared, dry-eyed, at the door. “So,” she said, briskly tying an apron around her waist, “what does everyone want for supper?”

Mom’s way is to spend as little, use as little, and take up as little space as possible. Within weeks of my father’s death, she gave away all his belongings, sold the family homestead, and bought a condo the next town over, at the far end of a complex that backed right up to the woods. Since moving to L.A. in 1990, I’d fly home once a year, usually in summer, staying first at the old place, then for the last few years, here at the condo. A stand of old evergreens casts the living room in perpetual shadow (this was fine with Mom: she’s always hot; I’m always cold), and inside, the place is as still and spare as a mausoleum.

She’s always been so self-sufficient that even I, the alarmist, had been slow to acknowledge that Mom’s memory was failing. Her handwriting was increasingly wavery, her memory increasingly sketchy. “That place where people like to go” turned out to mean Las Vegas. “That business with Nita” transpired to be Nita’s funeral. I found myself talking loudly to her over the phone, the way you do to people who don’t speak English. “Taxes,” I’d almost yell, or “yogurt,” filling in the words she could no longer find herself.

One of the reasons I’d moved to the West Coast had been to put thousands of miles between me and the place where I was raised: not because there was anything wrong with the place I’d been raised, or the sainted people who’d raised me: I was simply too weak to flourish there. The wounds would have been forever fresh; my longing to see the rest of the world, if thwarted, would have crushed me. I’d always felt guilty, torn, as if I were shirking responsibility, never more so than now, as she began to fail in earnest. True to form, she was steadfastly refusing to admit anything and refusing all help, but clearly she wouldn’t be able to manage on her own much longer. As the executor of her estate, the caretaker of her money, and the oldest of her six biological kids—my older brother, Allen, and older sister, Jeanne, from my father’s first marriage, made us eight—I felt compelled to go home and see if there was anything I could do. Also, when and if she moved, there would no longer be a physical “home” to be sent out from or go back to. Especially living so far away, “home” was a vital, urgent image.

So in the early fall of 2007, spurred by an almost atavistic urge, I started out from L.A. on a cross-country road trip. In fact, to myself I styled the trip a pilgrimage of sorts, ordered by my attendance at daily Mass. Outwardly, nothing special: featureless freeways, Motel 6-es, unremarkable churches—but a church doesn’t need to be remarkable. As Flannery O’Connor once observed, “Mass could be said out of a suitcase in a furnace room, and the sacrifice would be the same.” The most ordinary Mass is a re-enactment of the most stupendous event the world has known. And my ordinary road trip signified a blind, almost frantic urge to transcend my puny limitations: to do something hard for my mother that she would not understand or even know about, for which I would not be recognized or thanked. For once in my life, I would try to be the competent, self-sacrificing daughter my mother had always deserved.

Finding a church that offered Mass each day was more difficult than I’d expected. Some days I drove 500, 600 miles at a stretch. The trip was difficult for other reasons. I was 57 years old, divorced, childless. A sense that my life was not bearing fruit had gouged deeper the abandonment wound I’d suffered since childhood. But why? I kept wondering. Why such an intense sense I’d been abandoned, when as the oldest of the kids my father had had with my mother I’d gotten, if anything, more than my share of attention, validation, love?

I stopped frequently along the way, to visit with friends, to stay at monasteries and retreat houses: San Antonio, Texas; Hot Springs, Arkansas; Spencer, West Virginia. I reached New Hampshire three weeks later, in the middle of an August heat wave. At Seabrook, the first town over the state line, I pulled into the Welcome Center, collapsed into a bathroom stall, and cried. I drove the remaining back-roads stretch in the fugue state of mingled excitement and dread with which I always approached home, intensified out of all proportion by the 3500-mile buildup.

Mom was upstairs when I arrived, which gave me time to case the joint. The shades were drawn to a precise six inches above the windowsill. The table was bare save for a salt-and-pepper set placed neatly on a plastic Old Man of the Mountain placemat. The fridge held a block of Velveeta cheese and a half-head of browning iceberg lettuce. Stashed among the “good” china was a lone can of Planters peanuts (three-quarters empty, so I’d feel too guilty to eat any myself) to ration out for good behavior, for having deprived herself, for a treat.

And then there She was, coming down the stairs. Mom. My mother. Patient, slow, steady, though not as steady as she used to be. Her hair snow white now, in a straight bob, parted on the side. Blue cotton pants, neatly pressed, her shrunken legs lost in the folds. A cotton blouse, also neatly ironed. A vest she liked, beige with red and blue flowers down the front. Now that I’d done my big ritual of driving thousands of miles and made it “home,” possibly for the last time—because surely she was going to have to move, soon, into “assisted living” or “senior retirement,” places which, up till now, had remained shadowy netherworlds in our collective unconscious—I considered doing something totally weird, like breaking down in hysterical sobs, falling to my knees, and wailing, “Mom, would you hold me for a minute?”

Instead, she greeted me as if I’d blown in from next door, rebuffed my proffered embrace—“Don’t, my hair’s wet”—and over lunch, gave me instructions for her funeral. No flowers (people might have to spend money). No cortège to the gravesite, just family (people might have to waste time). No eulogy, just a simple service (people might have to think of something nice to say about her). Cremation, naturally: why waste money on a casket?

All my life, I’d sensed a secret grief in my mother I’d wanted to ease but couldn’t; a gap between us that no amount of straining on my part could bridge. I couldn’t remember my mother ever touching me, or caressing me, or telling me I was pretty. I knew as surely as the sun rose in the east and set in the west that she loved me, but when it came to expressing feelings, she was like a blank wall that afforded no purchase.

Mom “did” for the other person in a way that made it almost impossible to do anything for her. She was no annoying faux martyr; she just habitually made things easier for you, and if it was at her expense, so be it. She insisted I have her room that night, for example, which I truly appreciated, but I kept thinking of her in the smaller guest bed; plus, not a breath of air stirred; trying to sleep, I felt as if I were choking. The blinds were drawn, the sliding glass doors wedged shut with a wooden dowel, the screens behind them patched with hundreds of pieces of browning scotch tape where Honey had clawed.

Honey was an indoor cat who desperately wished to be an outdoor cat. Every time I opened the front door she was there like a shot, trying to escape, and she spent the rest of her days gazing hungrily out at the birds and shredding the screens.

I knew just how she felt. I’d spent half my adolescence looking out at the sky through my bedroom window, and the other half sneaking down to the beach looking for booze, drugs, and sex.

Mass the next morning was at Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, where all my childhood lapsed-Catholic friends had attended school and, by their lights, been ruined for all time. For my own part, as a convert I related to the protagonist in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King: “I realized, on some level, that whatever a potentially ‘lost soul’ was, I was one—and it wasn’t cool or funny.”

The atmosphere in the sanctuary seemed slightly strange, a little subdued; after I minute I figured out why: everyone was white. I was used to attending Mass among squalling Hispanic babies, Filipino clans, three generations of Koreans, so to look across the sanctuary and see the guy who used to work at Aubuchon’s Hardware, or my high-school biology teacher, or the sister of a half-remembered grade-school friend was jarring, as if heaven had intersected with earth in a whole weird new way.

Afterward, I drove to the beach, parked at Rye on the Rocks, where the surfers hang out, and set out on foot for the fish houses in North Hampton. Beach plums, goldenrod, the horizon and marshes in mist. Yarrow and hydrangeas. The overheard New England accents—baath for bath, gahden for garden. A girl sitting with her back against a rock, looking out at the waves. Gulls wheeling overhead, their feathers the color of ash.

My older half-sister Jeanne lived in the adjacent town of Portsmouth, and she wasn’t doing well. The lung cancer with which she’d been diagnosed a few years ago and metastasized to her bones, and I’d offered to take her and Mom out to lunch—or to drive anyway: I loved using Mom’s credit card when I was home.

When I returned from my walk all seemed well–Mom was nicely dressed in a green and blue pleated skirt and pretty white sweater–except that she was wandering around looking for her comb. She had one comb, an ancient yellow plastic comb I swear we all remembered from high school, and she was constantly losing it. I finally found it sitting on the window ledge at the bottom of the stairs.

After that, she started walking around with one hand trying to hold back a hank of hair—she had long white hair that was no longer all that kempt and looked eerie and ghostlike—saying, “Where’s my . . . my . . . my . . .?”

“Bobby pin?” She has this one bobby pin with a little fake pale pink jewel at the crook of it.

“Yeah,” she replied, and started scrounging around in the drawer where she keeps her pens and Elmer’s glue and stamps.

“Mom, if it’s anywhere, it’s gonna be upstairs, not with your office supplies.” After I found the bobby pin, she “misplaced” her glasses, and after I found her glasses, we had to search for her wallet. She’d given up on a purse and taken to toting around a dingy turquoise nylon “wallet” in one hand and her keys in the other. Every once in a while she’d look up and ask, “What day is it now?”

The day was humid, the light gloomy, and by the time we set out for Jeanne’s, the sky had opened and begun pouring down warm rain. Jeanne and her brother Allen were my late father’s children from his first marriage, a subject that to this day, though we’d all grown up together in the same house, my entire family still studiously skirted. Until the previous year in fact, when Jeanne’s son, Rick, had thrown a “Celebration of Life” party for Jeanne, none of us six kids from my father’s marriage with my mother had ever laid eyes on Marjorie, Dad’s first wife.

I’d always felt deeply the failure of my father’s first marriage, Jeanne and Skip’s loss of their “real” mother, the fact that when my own mother was fourteen, her father had left one day for work and never returned. But feeling deeply doesn’t translate into action. Why couldn’t I have ever done something: consoled us, healed us, saved us? Then again, why did I think that was my job?

At this late stage of the game, I was still looking for a parent. Instead, glancing over at Mom, shrunk down like an aged doll in the passenger seat, I realized I was poised to become a parent myself.

Jeanne was staying at her son Rick’s place in Portsmouth along with her daughter-in-law Tracy and a houseful of fashionconscious teenage girls. “Hi dahlin,” Jeanne greeted me. She moved stiffly, and though she’d clearly not stinted on the pain meds that morning, insisted on driving us to the restaurant in her van. So we maneuvered Mom into the back and proceeded at breakneck speed down Lafayette Road, the fuzz-buster loudly bleating, to Lamie’s Tavern in Hampton. Jeanne’s response to the “scarcity mentality” of our childhood had been to over-spend, over-shop, and become basically one of the most generous people I knew. Year after year, she’d worked double shifts, then taken Rick, Tracy, and the grandkids to Disneyland. She was notorious for buying Christmas presents for all seven of her siblings; I, on the other hand, was usually either too broke, too strung out on booze and drugs, or too fearful to buy anything back: exchanging presents was too much intimacy, too much of an inroad upon relationships that experience had shown very well might not sustain. When I’d had cancer myself, she’d sent me a card, often accompanied by a stuffed animal or a scented candle or bath salts, every day for a month.

Everyone who knew Jeanne knew that the love of her life was a guy she’d dated decades ago, forever referred to as “Steve the Drummer.” To his everlasting credit, he’d shown up at her Celebration of Life party, and over chowder now at Lamie’s, I asked her about him now.

“Broke my haaht,” she said, taking a swill from her “vodker” tonic, then with a little secret smile added: “The bastid.”

Beside me, Mom sipped at her onion soup: her spoon hand trembling, the other clutching the threadbare turquoise wallet.

For comic relief, I made the rounds of family and friends. At the pier in Portsmouth, my commercial fisherman brother Geordie showed me his new boat, then said of a crewmate, “He’s a good guy but he can also be such a pain in the ass that you want to gouge out his eyes and behead him.”
My friends Marynia and Richie live in Exeter with their two teenage daughters and Richie’s brother Larry. Larry has Down Syndrome, is deeply religious, and, he informed me over ginger ales on the back deck, prayed constantly. “For what, Larry?” I asked, thinking World peace? Your benefactors Richie and Marynia? “Th— . . . th— . . . ,” he stammered, “that the girls will pick up the bathroom.”

Then there was dinner with my ex-husband Tim. “Do you even remember being married?” I asked him.

He rolled his eyes—we’d spent sixteen years together—and made a sawing motion over his wrists.

Every time I brought up the subject of Mom’s failing memory or health or living situation, she came out fighting, doddering about looking for her comb until I raised the possibility of, say, hiring someone to “look in” a few days a week, at which point her mind suddenly snapped into adamantine focus. “For heaven’s sake,” she’d say, “I’m not ready for that,” or if she was really pissed, “I do not wish anyone to look in on me,” in the exact same tone Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener might have said, “I would prefer not to.” During the course of my visit, three separate neighbors and several of her friends took me aside and asked, “What are you going to do about your mother?” Clearly, almost as soon as I returned to L.A. I was going to have to turn around, fly back again, and spend some real time trying to square things away. This was a symbolic trip—a bird flying north not for the winter but for summer, something hard but not practical. Hard but not practical was my specialty.

The whole visit, an indescribable stench that Mom obviously couldn’t smell hung over the condo. It wasn’t the cat box: Mom could stretch a buck-ninety-nine bag of kitty litter farther than anyone I know, but she was also fastidious to a fault. The kitchen was so clean you could have performed surgery in it, and before going to bed each night she’d lay a section of fresh newspaper over the top of the wastebasket to ward off ants.

My next-to-last day the source of the odor was revealed to be a bag of thoroughly rotted potatoes, which were in the shoe closet in a plastic bucket with about an inch of rancid brown water in the bottom. How long had they been sitting there? Why had no one closer by noticed? I’d been holding together pretty well but that was when I snapped. “Things can’t go on like this, Mom!” I told her. “You don’t know what day it is. You don’t remember your kids’ names. You shouldn’t be driving.”

Immediately I felt terrible and offered to make her a chicken sandwich. Ever mindful of waste, “Let’s split one,” she said.

“Sorry I got upset, Mom,” I said, as I laid her meager half on one of the green melamine plates off which we’d been eating for the last fifty years. Before we sat down, I even went so far as to put my arms around her. I could feel the bones in her back. “I’m just afraid.”

“I’ll be okay,” she replied, but I couldn’t see how.

Should I give up my life in L.A.? Should I move back to New Hampshire, with its frigid, suicide-evoking winters? Would I have to live in Mom’s condo, way back under the dark trees, and feed her, give her a bath, change her diapers? Maybe I’d get used to my new assignment, maybe I’d come to enjoy spending time with Mom, the afternoon sun slanting in through the windows, reliving the childhood in which I’d always felt something had gone wrong I couldn’t remember, in the presence of the very person whose unworked-through sorrows had trickled down to me. Maybe we could listen to Beethoven’s late quartets together. Maybe I could fill the refrigerator with decent food, strew things around, talk loudly to my friends—swearing and cracking jokes—on the phone.

Maybe I could thank her for what she gave me: something to fight against, to struggle with. A distaste for social lies and the wrong kind of small talk. A love for music and books and silence.

The next night, I watched her make her laborious way up the cellar stairs with a pile of freshly folded laundry: each step, stopping to drag up first her right foot, then the left. Knowing she’d wave me off if I offered to help, my brain began to run in its usual rut: Why does she do this to herself? Why not get help, why not move to a place with no stairs, why not live a different life? And suddenly, I thought, Who the hell are you to purport to know one single thing about another’s life? For all I knew, my mother dragging her foot up the stairs was saving some other sick person from dragging his or her foot; for all I knew my mother dragging her foot up the stairs was keeping me alive.

I went to bed knowing this could very well be the last night the two of us ever slept together under her roof. Honey clawed the screen; the trees soughed; every ion of the summer night—so familiar, so beloved: the summer nights of my childhood that smelled of pine and hay and the sea—was charged with the construct of “home.”

I’d spent a lifetime constructing a false way of relating to people: saying yes when I meant no; being what I thought the other wanted me to be, then resenting the person; tamping down the holy longing of my heart, all out of terror of being abandoned. I’d spent a lifetime trying not to blame—the fault was mine; no wonder my mother hadn’t shown more warmth, I’d been an alcoholic: a nuisance, a bother; I should have had more compassion for her childhood—but you can observe without blaming. You can see what happened and mourn for you and your mother.

And I could also see that my mother had set herself an impossible, noble task: to be selfless and self-renunciating when she’d never had a foundation of abundance or nurturing or sanity from her own childhood. She was like the widow who’d given her last two mites; she’d given more than any “rich” person because she’d given from her poverty. Someday things would be made right. I could hear Mom puttering to the bathroom, bumping into things, calling for Honey.

I’d become a writer because of my mother.

They were right this very second. They were right now.

The next morning I drank a last cup of weak Maxwell House, ate a last bowl of generic Wheaties, stripped the uncomfortable bed Mom had sacrificed for me.

She came to the door to see me off as—faithfully, steadfastly—she had all my life. As we hugged goodbye, I felt the same tension I had all my life.

I gripped my keys.

“Okay, Mom.”

The words didn’t come easily. She spoke as if a bone were lodged in her throat.

“Love you.”

When she died all the light would go out of the world.

I bit the inside of my mouth till I drew blood. So I wouldn’t cry.

I left it at this—for once, for her: “Thanks for everything, Mom. Love you, too.”

SS. Peter and Paul 2014

2014-PeterPaul-cover-flat

Feature

The Sacrament Heather King

Fiction

Time Will Not Dim Rafael Alvarez
Honorable Mention, J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction

Revival Tony Woodlief
Honorable Mention, J.F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction

Essays

Faith and Poetry: Three Stages of a Pilgrimage Fred Guyette
Half Cadence Beth Malone

Poetry

Lucy, the Light Has J.D. Mitchell-Lumsden
Twelve Joseph O’Brien
Physique de la Mort James Matthew Wilson
To the Reader James Matthew Wilson
The Luthier Joshua Jones
Block Houses Arthur Powers
Venerate Jeremiah Webster
Faith Jeremiah Webster
The Gypsy Moths Katie Kalisz
Maranatha Christopher Mulrooney
Pentecost Christopher Mulrooney
Almsgiving Jacob Riyeff
A Modified Sonnet for the Poet Jacob Riyeff

Visual Art

Work Gloves Benjamin Lowery
Brick and Paper Towel Benjamin Lowery
Showercap Benjamin Lowery
Clay and Colored Paper Benjamin Lowery
Blue Bowl Benjamin Lowery
Asian Pear Benjamin Lowery
Onion and Paper Towel Benjamin Lowery
Turnip and Table Leg Benjamin Lowery
Road in Civita Gorge Benjamin Lowery