When I was growing up, we had a ginger cat who deposited dead mice and birds on the back porch each morning and preened beside his kills. My mother would pull on her green rubber gardening gloves and discard the little corpses without squeamishness or sentiment. When the cat was fourteen and my mother was forty-five, my father left her. The day she learned about his infidelity, my mother got out her address book and in a dignified fugue state phoned every contact to tell them what had happened. She calmly narrated the story of her imploding marriage and shattered heart. Home from college, I listened, horrified, from the next room. I could imagine the stunned faces on the other end of the line. Not stunned by adultery and divorce, but by the speaking of it. In my hometown, a bastion of old-school WASP-dom, there were two things you didn’t do: unravel or talk about how you were coming apart.
My mother unraveled: stopped eating, stopped cleaning, stopped tending her garden. Sensing trouble, the cat began bringing larger and larger animals home. He brought rabbits, baby raccoons, and once a full-grown duck, its head dangling from its limp neck.
When she recovered enough to return to her work as a textile artist, my mother made pieces that exploded, firework-like, with oranges and reds and golds. She stitched feminist text into the fabrics—quotations from Zelda Fitzgerald, Zora Neale Hurston, and Emily Dickinson. To call them quilts is technically accurate but also misses the mark: they were paintings in cloth, as bold as any work you might see in oil, on canvas, in museums.
She created a body of work large enough for a show and fine-tuned her collection for months. Several days beforehand, the gallery venue fell through. My mother gamely decided to hold the show in her garden. She built a bar out of two-by-fours and draped it with layers of cloth in gradient blues and violets. She commandeered my mortified teenage brother to play his cello at the event and in turn he wrangled a friend to pass appetizers. She printed clever, high-design notices for what she termed an open studio.
But the boat shoe and tennis skirt people we lived among had never heard of an open studio and the evening was thick with clouds, mosquitoes, and humid heat. For an hour, no one showed up other than a few of her artist friends. My brother amused himself playing Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” instead of the Bach he’d promised. Only I got the joke. Eventually a woman about ten years older than me wandered in with a leashed black lab. “Excuse me, is this a yard sale?” she asked. When she saw my mother’s work, she got excited. “I’ll be back,” she said.
She returned with friends, who phoned friends. A small crowd developed, including three girls I’d gone to high school with. They didn’t acknowledge or recognize me. “An evening estate sale with a cellist and wine?” asked one. “What a wonderful idea.” I wanted to disappear, or at very least hide glowering in a corner somewhere, like the sort of sulky, maladroit teen I hadn’t actually ever been. People still didn’t understand the open studio concept or that the quilts, now flapping dangerously in the kind of directionless gusts that precede a tornado, were the focus of the event. Because my mother had wanted a bohemian, Bloomsbury-type garden party mood, all the doors were open. Shoppers flowed into the house and started trying to buy her belongings. “How much for the vintage midcentury modern chair?” one asked me. A former classmate cradled a silver teapot to her chest. “It’s not an estate sale,” I said again, and again, my voice rising with emotion. I knew that if my father was there, strangers wouldn’t be trying to buy our furniture at what was meant to be an art show. But I also knew that if he was, she wouldn’t have made that art.
As the quilts threatened to take flight, our ancient ginger cat stalked through the fence with a bloodied, yowling fox cub larger than himself. He dragged the flailing cub by the throat past the blossoming peach tree, through beds of roses and clusters of staring ladies, up the porch steps where my mother was garnishing a tray of flatbread with dill. The cat released the fox at her feet. Crazed with fear, it ran into the house trailing blood and screaming. My mother followed, grabbed a broom, chased the fox out of the house. It escaped into the night. My brother never stopped playing Bach. A few people laughed awkwardly. Most hurried off. After everyone was gone, my brother and I folded the quilts while my mother scrubbed fox blood from the floors on her hands and knees.
Rosemary Harp holds an impractical BA from the University of Michigan and an impractical MA from the University of Virginia. Her fiction and essays have appeared in a number of journals, including Electric Lit, Creative Nonfiction, and the current issue of Fiction. Links to her work can be found at rosemaryharp.com.