It’s hard to tell if mother was a cynic or an optimist. When she ran up against some danger, like, say, an excess of chemicals from the run-off of fertilizers and herbicides in the well water we drank all those years, she would shrug and say: “You’ve got to die of something.”
Two days after we buried you, we threw away the artifacts of your life: a cache of scarves; rollers bristling with pink pins and gray hair; craft patterns for any occasion; used wrapping paper; poems, jokes and quotes clipped from The Des Moines Register and Wallace’s Farmer, ready-to-be-pieced quilt blocks. As I sorted through seven decades’ worth of cards and photographs, I realized I didn’t know you. Who were Bob and Marlys? Who were the Ladies of Lydia Circle? I wanted to keep everything, so I could pour through your past, examine its miniscule moments. I wanted the objects to channel you. I wanted more time. But my aunt, sister-in-law, and brothers filled 24 garbage bags, which slumped in the garage until the relatives drove away. After a few days, I hauled the bags out to the curb, my footprints violating the veneer of snow.
Age has violated the veneer of your vanity—no longer lipsticked and defined by a contour of sepia eyebrows. No one has plucked the hairs from your chin. No one has styled your hair in the waves you still favor from the Forties. An excess of sun has furrowed your face. Still, I glimpse the girl in the scrapbooks. She lurks. Somewhere, she’s still carousing with her two sisters. Perhaps she’s flung ice skates over her left shoulder, a scarf on her head, vamping like a Vogue girl. Perhaps she’s in Mexico, visiting Great Aunt Alice Register, climbing into a burro-drawn cart, mugging with a Mexican man. (How I would have gotten in trouble for that.) Perhaps she has stepped into the surf, the foam lapping her legs, hair blown six ways for Sunday. The girl lives perpetually in 1939 or 1940. There’s no young soldier. No farm with only an outhouse and electricity downstairs. No damn chickens to chase, nor cows to milk at some ungodly hour. Not three boys and a borrowed girl. There’s only the ocean and the company of her sisters. Her hands beckon the photographer, her mouth full of fresh words.
Your hands beckon the spoon to your lips, but they fly off mid-gesture. They flap. A broken bird. They shake. They wobble wildly. You have no control. Should I take the spoon and feed you, like you once fed me? These hands have sewn clothes and cleaved the joints of dead animals. They’ve hefted bales of hay. In this version of the present, they’ve lost their homing instinct. Your mouth might as well be the moon, or Myanmar, or that elusive broad side of a barn. They’ve misread their map of self.
I’ve misread the map. I’ve managed to miss Highway 59 heading north through Schleswig and Holstein. Although I am in Iowa, these towns rise like apparitions from the old country. Germans who settled here brought their place names with them. Maybe magic lingered in the hard syllables. Maybe those settlers felt homesick, but being Teutonic and not particularly given to expressing emotions, they could only approximate home, dotting a map with a jumbled Dadaesque landscape in which Hanover jostles with ancient fiefdoms near the North and Baltic seas. My son and I continue our journey, the farm lights that prick the dark landscape really ships at sea. I don’t know how I’ve managed to get us lost. In these parts, roads generally snug squarely against each other, at proper right angles. If you head in one direction—north, for example—you can be reasonably certain that the road will not circle, curve or snake out from under you, that you can drive practically all the way to Minnesota, if that’s a trip you want to take. I wonder if returning to this grid has become, for me, at 40, an impossible task.
Lifting a loved one feels like an impossible task, bones and memory weighing heavy, the skin a slippery sack. The first time I tried to swing my mother from the wheelchair to her bed, I nearly dropped her. The second and third times, I watched a nursing assistant arrange her on the bed, my mother a marionette. By the time I mastered the move, it was time to go home.
I often sense it is time to go home, but I don’t know how to travel there, or what it is I seek. What remains? My parents moved out of the farmhouse while I was away on an internship. Years later, they tore it down without telling me. The walls have been pushed into the basement, the roof flush with the ground, the foundation grows grass and tomatoes. Perhaps a few crystal doorknobs survive. My mom never liked living there, anyway. It smelled like pigs and the flies were forever getting into the house because nobody closed the damn door. Boy, your mother was picky. She didn’t realize that she had it better than her two sisters. She got to travel to Florida and New York and Hawaii. Nothing’s better than the almighty dollar and, since her dad died when she was eight, during the Depression, your mother was always afraid of being poor. At least that’s Dad’s version.
To tell this story is to peer into the dark, waiting for your eyes to adjust, for your pupils to widen and become enlightened. I don’t even know if this is a dark that comes with night or a dark that comes from being enclosed in a small space without windows. This isn’t my story, mind you, because I don’t know exactly how our stories interrelate. I’d like it to be her story, but my mother kept her narrative to herself. I know practically nothing about her motivation, her back story, her structure, her sense of place. I would like, someday, to hear her story told. I’m still listening for it, in that space at the edge of the night.
Lori DeBoer (www.lorideboer.net) is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach who has been published in The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times and Arizona Highways. She’s also contributed essays to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts and Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. She lives in Boulder, Colorado, with her husband and son and directs the Boulder Writers’ Workshop.