Garfield Street, Washington, D.C.
My mother is standing in the doorway of her bedroom. Then she turns to the bureau to fold socks. She has them divided by color, so all she needs to do is match them up, pair them. It’s clear she likes this task, something to accomplish and check off the list she stores in her head. But this is not actually happening right now. Not in the real world. It’s just that I want it to be. I want to be able to tell her about Emma and Garland, my children, her grandchildren she never met.
Many of the things my mother loved I also love. It works that way, like osmosis. She took stock of what I saw and felt. She curated it. In her sitting room, where all important decisions were made, she taught me that in England cattails are called bullrushes. That a pangram is a sentence containing every letter in the language: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
I don’t remember what my father looked like except from photographs. But I can provide details about our dogs. When I was born they still had Egore, the dachshund they got in Germany on their honeymoon. We had a Scottie named Fergus and another named Dunstin, perfect names. Then a pug called Smudge which fit his smashed in face perfectly. We had a stray named Waif and a longhaired German shepherd named Agatha. That’s when my mother got in the groove of naming all the dogs “A” names: Agatha the shepherd, Asia the overweight Doberman pinscher and Annie the sweet yellow lab.
Next to my writing desk is a photograph of Christmas morning. I look to be 4, which makes my brother 9. We are standing in front of the fireplace, three empty, red stockings hanging glumly over the fire screen. My mother is stooping so as to be low, down at my level. Her left hand cradles a doll that is half my size. She is teaching me how to properly cradle a baby’s head. If only she knew how distinctly I remember that lesson. And that to swaddle an infant properly you must first place it in the center of the blanket, then tuck in the blanket’s left side, followed by the bottom, and finally the right. You make it compact — a tight, snug bundle.
Reading the local paper, I come upon a listing for a dollhouse. The ad states that it comes with furniture and people. Take a moment to think that one through: comes with furniture and people. My grandfather made my mother a dollhouse. Its roof is green and the fake logs in the living room light up a wondrous garnet red. I love the thing, but could never get anyone to play with it — except my brother. At 7 I did not understand he was gay or that his husband would end up collecting Barbie dolls, so I felt indebted to him that he would choose to spend his time padding the little people up the stairs and making them talk in distinctive voices. He even went “up we go” as he moved their legs to escort them over the hall landing. The dollhouse was exquisitely furnished: oriental rugs, a Hoosier cabinet in the kitchen, four-poster twin beds in the children’s room.
St. George Avenue, Crozet, Virginia
Living catty-corner to a funeral home has its advantages. The same day The Daily Progress newspaper runs an obituary on Myrtle Shifflett, the Batesville Casket company drives into the back of Anderson’s Funeral Home and stays parked there the exact amount of time it would take to unload a big delivery. That night, the lights in the upstairs front room are on later than usual, and Johnny Anderson’s Ford Explorer is parked in the cul-de-sac long past when it usually is. The next day the parking lot fills up with cars that seem to fit the person who died. For Myrtle’s there were quite a few Cadillac Sevilles, spanking clean. For the younger generation there are often jacked-up Mustangs and glistening motorcycles.
Here in the south they call these pre-funeral gatherings “family nights.” Being from our nation’s capital, that was a new one to me. Sounds like we might be playing games and eating popcorn. Not the case. You are there to view the body of the deceased and to pay your respects to next of kin. Here’s a poem I wrote that tells the story of my first family night:
Now that I’ve signed the guestbook
there’s no way out.
I’m ninth in line waiting
to view my neighbor’s
body arranged dutifully
in a satin casket.
How strange that I’ve gotten
this far in life without once
seeing anybody dead.
When my father died,
they burned him up.
The same with my mother
except I did open her urn
to put in a letter I’d written
in case she had any doubts
about what kind of job
she did raising us.
The woman in front of me
worked with Betsy
at the census bureau.
She’s crying real hard but
the irony of their shared occupation
is what keeps me from feeling sad.
Betsy hung her laundry on the line
with such care most days I wished
she’d just leave it there —
a prayer flag, unspoiled poultice
for all I heard going on
in that rented, brown trailer.
Garfield Street, Washington, D.C.
Broken bones stitch back together on their own. While my mother mended, while she sewed on a button or fixed a rip in my jeans, I would stitch up imaginary cuts on my stuffed animals. Sometimes I would sew them together, an arm to an arm, a hoof to a paw, so they would not lose each other, so they would be together in a permanent kind of way.
The first time anyone lied to me I was 8, at a day camp on the grounds of the National Cathedral. Afraid to jump off the diving board like the other kids, I launched from the board’s side, my chin striking the pool’s edge before my body sloshed into the chlorinated water. When I asked the lifeguard if I was bleeding, he said no. He must have been afraid I’d come unmoored right then and there under his charge. Metallic taste of blood gathering in my mouth, I recognized how a lie rearranges everything — not in a good way, not like in the movies when a love scene takes up disproportionate time. A lie distorts the world. Think funhouse mirror at the county fair.
When my mother was 8 and had scarlet fever, the doctor who made the house call instructed her to cut her rocking horse’s mane and promised her it would grow back. I wish I could reverse time and have an undo on that one.
What did you learn too early? What do you wish you didn’t know?
St. George Avenue, Crozet, Virginia
I watch my daughter hold fast to a hunk of bread, her mind cataloging all she knows but cannot see: God, of course, but also time and magnetism, sound and oxygen, longing, kindness, distance and fear.
Sometimes growing up means leaving things behind. It would be a mistake to forget them, but to set them aside opens up an expansiveness, some space, some tenderness. My mother was a staunch – a strident – agnostic. I suspect she could not reconcile all the literature she read, all the operas she listened to and all the isolation she imposed upon herself with the existence of God. It’s not that she would not. She simply could not.
As a safeguard against this, as a kind of antidote, I keep a mental list of God’s existence. It is my “God exists list” and I add to it whenever another instance presents itself. A few weeks back the addition was an Allen wrench. Significance? On the steepest hill of my run, as I’m huffing and puffing and hating it all, lo and behold there on the road is the Allen wrench, a durable tool exuding stamina. Plus, providentially, I’d just acquired a bike and needed that exact wrench to lower the seat.
A list is something you can add to, gradually. It is something to look back on. You can check things off and feel good about it. But with my “God exists list” I never check things off. I only add. Yesterday it was a heart-shaped puddle on a city road where I found myself lost. That heart was a kind of cairn, an indication of a path, a way through, a beguiling glimmer of sun in a puddle, a sign that I might not be lost after all.
Yesterday I made the brazen decision to expand my requirements for being on the list, to make the parameters a bit larger. Have it be less stringent. People talk about thin places where one feels closer to God. But what if we looked actively for the thin moments in the places we already are? See, to your right, that shadow. Maybe that’s God’s way of reaching down to keep you company this very day.
CHARLOTTE MATTHEWS is associate professor in the Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies Program at the University of Virginia. She lives in Charlottesville with her husband Albert Connette (who is the pastor of Olivet Presbyterian Church), her two teenage children and a big galumphy black Labrador.