Excerpt

Motherly

Caitlin Hamilton Summie

August 10, 2017 
The following is from Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s collection of stories, To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts. In these ten short stories, Caitlin Hamilton Summie takes readers from WWII Kansas City to a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in New York, all the while examining the importance of family and the defining nature of place. Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA from Colorado State University. Her stories have appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, and the Wisconsin Review.

Outside, children skate on a homemade ice rink. Their multi-colored coats weave an odd kind of tapestry in the yellow winter light. They skate on what is left of a field, a place where in the summer I can still spot the prairie grass and mustard flowers. The houses butting up against the rink are gray, and tan, then gray again; they repeat, like a melody, the three designs that the Oldsheiger Construction Company uses.

I sit in what was once my mother’s home, looking out the window at the skaters and their houses. This house is no repeat. My father and my uncles built it over the course of two years, rushing to finish before I was born in winter 1949. They drank whiskey the night they finished, drank whiskey and tore up and down the fields in my Dad’s tractor, waving their arms and cracking jokes and trying to make the tractor go fast. I know because my mother told me once when reminiscing.

The house is warm, and I have the radio on to keep me company. A trumpet concerto plays softly, sounding triumphant and robust, and yet the house feels full of quiet, unnaturally quiet, as if the phone ought to be ringing, or the doorbell, or an alarm.

Yesterday Jenny turned to walk into her college orientation without saying good-bye; then, as though I was an afterthought, she waved. She was in a crowd of girls from her dormitory, all new to that out-of-state school, and I watched them walk into the red brick building clumped together. Before the crowd slipped through the door, a hand shot up and waved.

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I am sure that hand was hers.

***

1972. The cold came early in the season, before the burnt orange colors of October reached their prime, before the leaves turned and dropped and we could rake them into piles for Jenny to jump into. The fields had yellowed in the first days of the month, like the pages of an old newspaper, and wiped away what green the summer had left us; and we prepared for fall, pulling windbreakers out of the cedar chest and hanging Indian corn on the front doors. Jenny was in Kindergarten then.

When the first blast of chill air blew down in a great arc from the north, we were caught off guard. The cold killed the pumpkin crop, and up and down the road the crooked smiles on each doorstep began to look sunken and toothless, like old people. And then the snow came, falling in a whisper so that at first, no one noticed.

The snow started falling when the kids lined up on the corner for the school bus, and the snow fell long after the bus brought them back home. In mid-afternoon the bus appeared out of the white haze in flashes of yellow, the rumble of its engine muted by the steady, heavy snow. I walked toward the blurs of color which I knew were children, searching.  I took children by the shoulders, by the elbows, and turned them round until I could see their faces. When Jenny looked up at me, lashes already laced with snowflakes, I could not speak.  I reached for her hand and leaned in close. Older children quickly peeled away in packs, and we stood in the soundless snow and watched them disappear.

***

I have lived in this Minnesota town most of my life, and I have never known a day as bitter as that day in October with Jenny. Even the storm which raged through town when I was ten was less threatening than the quiet, constant, thick accumulation of snow that October of 1972.

The blizzard which tore through town when I was ten was full of wind and whirling snow and made of a cold raw enough to kill a man. I dressed to go outside, and my little brother, Ray, followed. We didn’t think anything of sneaking out the back door for a minute or two. We tried to see Carter’s bulky red barn across the long fields or the lights in the windows of his house, but coming at us, right in our face, was what seemed like currents of snow, and at first, we laughed.

The wind pushed us forward, and we gripped each other’s hands. We walked slowly, aiming for our barn or Carter’s or the fence between the two, for anything, but the cold got to us. The wind bit at us through our coats and wool sweaters and jeans, and the snow wet our faces, and then the wetness froze. When we tried to talk, the wind stole our voices and threw them up into the storm. The cold bore into my bones, and my bones turned brittle, like icicles. When Raymond saw lights, I was too tired to walk to them, and he herded me home.

Mom was too angry at us to yell. She handed us each a warm towel and a cup of hot chocolate and made us sit in front of the fire. When she finally spoke, she said, “That was stupid, Carol.” I should have tape recorded that, to save my mother from having to repeat herself down through the years.

My mother had looked to my father, eyebrows raised, but he said nothing. But the next morning before we went to school, he took us out into the backyard. He showed us little indentations in the snow, what was left of our footprints.

We had been walking in circles.

“You could have been out here ’til you froze, just trying to find the back door,” Dad had said. He was smoking a cigarette. He smoked so much then that he seemed to have six fingers on one hand. “Why’d you go outside anyway?”

Neither of us could answer. Ray hit me in the arm, but I stared at the footprints and shook my head.

“Winter’s no thing to play around with,” Dad said. “You think winter is all snowmen and hot chocolate and ice skating and Christmas at the end. Well,” he said. “Well.”

The seasons started to change after that, colder in the winter despite central heating, and sticky in the summer, despite the air conditioning. We sweated and fanned ourselves into adolescence, and worse: in 1970, boys I knew joined the cars driving north, and fathers woke to notes taped onto the refrigerator and one fewer pair of hands for the farming; or boys signed their names and went away and came home in caskets, or came home missing voices or limbs or minds. My mother held on to Ray, who was just young enough. Everything started to change.  Years later, when I walked Jenny around the neighborhood in her stroller, whole fields were gone, including ours.

***

The snow was gentle, thin, when it first started falling that morning in 1972. The forecast was for three inches, and I believed them.

I worked at the college library. I still do, though now I am a librarian. Back then, though, I sat behind the reserve desk, facing the dirty orange and red couches of the student lounge, and I sat for hours as the ’72 storm began, hours before I realized how quiet the building was: no doors whining as another sweat-shirted student came inside; no dull thwacks as students threw open the reserve reading binders; no coughs or half-heard conversations or sneezes.

The overhead lights seemed dimmer suddenly, and in the cramped space behind the reserve desk, the air was stuffy. I took off my sweater. I put my book down and glanced at the clock. 1:00. For a moment I stood and listened. Then I knew why the library was hot. Nobody was opening the main doors and letting in the cool.

Even Myrna, my boss, had disappeared. She wasn’t perched on her chair behind the counter at Circulation, nor did I hear the soft muttering to herself that usually gave her away. I walked to the main doors and looked out. I couldn’t see across the lawn to the science building, a large, boxy modern monster out of sync with the staid brown stone buildings that made up most of the campus.

“Myrna?” My voice sounded loud to me.

Myrna was a Biology professor’s wife. She seemed as ancient as the library itself. She was round and soft looking and known for her strawberry tarts. Several times a year, Professor Milligan walked into class carrying tin foil covered paper plates. He announced in a voice that sounded beleaguered and fatigued that yet again Mrs. Milligan had made too many tarts and soooo, before they discussed the topic at hand, would anyone like one? And he himself sat down in his tweed jacket and leaned his cane against the lectern and munched on a tart, or two.  Or so I heard students say in their whispered conversations at the reserve reading desk.

It was Myrna who gave me my job. She had taken one look at my then slightly round belly and said: “I have someone who’ll be leaving soon.  A sit down job. That’s what you want, right, a sit down job?” I’d nodded. Over the next several months, she patted me on the shoulder as my belly swelled, guided me to the bathroom when I was ill, poured over names in the baby naming books with me. Helen was too formal, Beatrice too British, Alice too soft sounding and weak. We chatted as we stamped books, lingered in the stacks behind Circulation to finish telling each other stories, or to start them. I told her, only her, how nervous I was, and she listened without interrupting me, without heaving big sighs and shaking her head, like my mother. Myrna said over and over again that the pain would be worth it. How lucky I was.

And once, just once, Myrna asked who he was, and I told her. He wore glasses with thick lenses and read late into the night, sitting by the window, reading by streetlight, so that I could sleep. He couldn’t sleep. He paced like an alley cat and muttered to himself as he memorized. The pencils in his apartment were scarred with his tooth marks. He wanted to be a lawyer. He was studying for exams. He could not (didn’t I see?) be a father. What was I thinking? he said, speaking to me with a pencil in his mouth, with his hands stuck between the pages of a book, marking his place.

Myrna came to visit the very day Jenny was born, and she often babysat so I could go out without bothering my mother, so that October morning, with a feeling of disquiet sweeping over me, I went looking for Myrna, whispering her name.

“Somebody has ripped off the sexual horoscope book again,” she said. She stepped into the Circulation area with a sheaf of papers in her hands. “Did you call me?”

“Look.”

We walked over to the main doors and stood side by side and stared at the storm. We could see nothing but snow.

“They haven’t cancelled classes, have they?” she asked. “Is the elementary school out?”

“Not that I know of…” my voice trailed off. We had not had the radio on all morning. “Maybe I should call.”

The superintendent then was the superintendent I had had when I was in school, and I knew he rarely canceled school, unless the depot door was frozen shut and the buses couldn’t get out, or the weather threatened to stick him with schools full of kids overnight.

The school office took a long time to answer the phone, and I sat and listened to the static on the line cackle and hiss. Someone finally picked up. Her voice was broken, coming to me in bits.

“Are you letting the elementary kids out?” I asked, but she couldn’t hear, and I tried again, yelling this time, suddenly struck by the vision of my small five year old daughter standing on the sidewalk, unable to see for the snow.

“…out,” the answer came.

I grabbed my sweater and purse and headed for the door, Myrna right behind me.

“How was I supposed to know this?”

But Myrna had no answers, never having had any children. The irony of the situation, a biology professor’s sterile wife and me, fertile too early and too young, asking her for help.

But Myrna was motherly, and I had never had motherly in my life.

***

I had had a chance to go to college. Not here, but in the city. I didn’t go. I couldn’t make up my mind. Was a university for me? My parents said yes, even Ray said yes, but I twisted my hair around one finger and smoked cigarettes and considered my options. I thought I had options, though I’m not sure why. I had one chance, one scholarship.  Too bad if I wanted bells to wake me in the morning and a college green and a Philosophy professor who still got lost on campus after teaching for twenty years (his excuse: they keep adding new buildings).

Take the scholarship, my mother said, thin-lipped. Take it. What are you waiting for? But I couldn’t make myself call and say yes. The deadline to accept the scholarship passed, and my mother said, “Carol, that was stupid.” I couldn’t stay here with them all staring at me, shaking their heads, even Ray, in his jeans and sneakers and with a football under his arm like an appendage. I bought a ticket on Greyhound. In Chicago, too scared to think clearly, I switched buses and aimed for California. And then, well, life always takes funny turns. I came back in late July with one suitcase and a suntan and a blossoming belly.

In the fall, when the college kids came back from trips to Europe and summer jobs on the Cape and internships in Washington, DC., I sat at attention at my new job, eager to do one thing correctly. The library, quiet in the stifling days of August, was revived by the rush of energy.  I woke up then, as if from my own hibernation, and handed out books on Martin Luther and the philosophy of science and the economics of the Civil War. And when the desk was slow, I grabbed a syllabus from an interesting course and followed along. Once a girl came to the desk, desperate for copy of a book which I could find nowhere, until I realized I had it. I handed the book to her and laughed a small laugh.  She laughed, too, and then said: Are you in this class? I’ve never seen you there.

Every once in awhile, I reached into the reserve test file and took an essay exam. Which is more threatening to the Greek Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union, Communism or apathy? Defend.

I always gave myself an A.

***

The cars in the library parking lot looked similar, with their thick coating of snow. I found my car by memory. I scraped off the necessary, put the windshield wipers on high, and drove at five miles an hour with my brights on, muttering to myself. I strained to see the road and occasionally I rolled my window down and swept the snow from the windshield myself. My car sputtered. I turned off my brights. I drove to the bus stop and sat in my car, lights aimed toward the road.

The bus appeared slowly, coming through the white haze in pieces, headlights first, then the bulky frame. The bus stopped, and the door swung open, and I watched numb with relief as the children filed off and the bus inched away. The larger kids slipped off into the storm, undaunted. I didn’t think of calling Jenny’s name. I grabbed children by the arms and pressed their faces near mine to see. Most squirmed away, but one didn’t, and I looked and looked and knew she was Jenny.

“I was so worried about you,” I said.

“Why?” she said.

“Because of all the snow. I worried you might get lost.”

“I know how to get home,” she said.

I held her hand as clumps of children headed off and got swallowed by the storm. A few cars came and picked up others. I got Jenny in the car and then I noticed a cluster of small children. I counted them. Six.  I thought I could squeeze six little people into my car, but then my car sputtered again and wouldn’t start. I paused and waited, but the car was dead and the snow came down and no other cars appeared and the road was a ghostly, crackling white expanse.

When we began to walk toward home, I waved to the others to join us, little ones whose hats slipped down to their noses and whose mittens had clips. I was furious. I wanted to know whose brilliant idea it was to send little kids home in a storm like this without anyone to meet them, and I wanted, more than anything, to know where the hell I was going. The street lights weren’t coming on yet in the few sections of road that had them, and behind me came this passel of kids, silent and trusting and breaking in the cold. I looked for road signs, for fences, for anything that was familiar, but the selling of the land and the tearing down of the fences and the readjustment of property lines made it hard for me to tell where I was.

Circles, I thought.

I made the kids hold hands, and I felt like we were playing a giant game of crack the whip, with one small child on the far end swinging in the storm as we walked across what I was sure had once been farmland.

***

When I came home from California, my mother opened the front door.  I’d hoped Ray would be there and that I could squeeze past him before my mother really got a good look at me. But Mom threw the door open, as if she knew I was standing on the porch, and she saw my roundness and the way I stood with my hands on my hips, and we looked each other straight in the eye.

“Don’t say a word,” I said, brushing past her.

I heard the front door shut behind me, heard her footsteps behind mine. I picked up my pace, and she picked up hers, then I picked up mine, and she matched me. I stopped, hesitated, and she ran into me.  My belly moved before any other part of my body, like my stomach was a balloon. I felt like I was floating outward and then down, until Mom grabbed me to keep me from falling. She wrapped her arms tightly around my shoulders, and her words came out hard and short and fast, like her breaths:

“Do you want this baby?”

“Yes.”

“Do you?”

“Yes,” and my voice sounded strangled to me.

She held on, and I tugged at her arms, repeating over and over, yes, yes, yes.

“Okay,” she said, letting go. “All right.”

I lifted my head and saw Ray standing at the top of the stairs.  What was left of my father leaned against the door jamb and gripped a breathing machine.

“Carol?  What’s going on?” My father wheezed out each word.

I stayed hunched over with my hands on my knees, and then slowly I stood. I didn’t want to look at him, to see the loose skin and his gray scruff of a beard and the way he shuffled when he walked, at 45, but I stood, out of respect, out of some kind of odd recognition on my part that the worst thing, the most insulting thing I could do, would be to exclude him from his own family concerns; and so I raised myself up, and I let my hands fall to my sides, and before I could open my mouth, Ray opened his. He said: “Holy shit.”

***

During that October storm, I finally found an old battered fence, and we walked along the railings in single file, like a mother duck and her chicks. Suddenly Jenny stepped out of line and veered to the right.

“This is shorter.”

“Jenny…–”

But already one or two little kids were trailing after her, lifting their feet high and sinking down into the soft snow, each one treading in the others’ footsteps.

I watched her cutting across the field. I thought, how could she know when I don’t?

***

When I first moved back from California, I refused to live with my parents. Later, after Dad died, I moved back home. But in the beginning I took the hourly job at the library and moved into a dank attic apartment not far from Mom and Dad’s house and collected food stamps.  Every day I picked a word from the dictionary and learned its meanings.  Demivolt,  fusillade, Rosicrucian. Several times a week Mom sent Ray over to get me in his muscle car, which rose high off the ground in the back. She had made a pot roast, and she had extra.  Or stuffed green peppers. Or meat loaf, and each time I dropped by, Dad found an excuse to hand me a check.

Dad was as thin as the cigarettes he once smoked, and as he shrank, Ray expanded. Ray joined the football team and grew thick. He ate what my father could not eat, and later, when he stopped playing ball, he continued to eat like he was a linebacker, and he softened and rounded out and looked puffy-eyed and sallow.

After one breathless meal together, my father waved me over, and I pulled him to his feet and handed him the thin, cool metal tube attached to his Liberator. Mom stacked the dishes and brought them into the kitchen, and the faucet turned on with a groan. Ray disappeared; for all his bulk, he was stealthy.

Each word drained a reserve of effort and energy which my father needed, and so as he began to speak, I leaned close to him and listened to the wispy sounding words, half-whistled, half-spoken, that were his new language.

“Who’s going to help you?”

He must have seen the confusion in my face.

“In labor,” he added, and then he sat back.

I knew what he wanted me to do. I looked at him, then looked away and listened to the clank and din of Mom washing the dishes. I thought of being in labor and having Mom there and wished the person would be Myrna, who talked to me about baby shoes and little hats, not where to find second hand clothing and how to mash up food into pulp. But my father’s hand was rested on mine, like a feather, and I couldn’t ignore the weightlessness of his hand, nor the weight of his request. The months I had yet to go were months in which he would linger like smoke, and he wanted my mother there with me to make sure, to make sure.

The next day I asked my mother to coach me, and when I gave birth to Jenny, my mother’s hands were clenched in mine, and as I screamed, she screamed.

The doctor asked my mother to be quiet, but my mother shook her head no.

She said: “She needs me to scream, too.”

And she was right. The force of my mother seemed to seep into me, and we roared Jenny into existence together.

***

Jenny stopped in the middle of the field, looking from one side to the other, and that propelled me into action. The snow coming down and down and down had me panicked, and I loped after her, kicking snow into the air, onto myself, and calling her name. The children huddled together like frightened animals and waited for me, their eyes large and their little bodies quaking.

“Jenny!” I said, grabbing her hand. “Jenny.”

“I know the way.”

“Back to the fence!”

One child near Jenny took a tentative step forward, and I grabbed his hand with my free one and we marched. I felt like a drill sergeant.

“It’s that way,” Jenny said, pointing back.

“No, we’re going to stick near the fence. If I’m right, it’s old Carter’s and we’ll follow it home.”

Jenny tugged free of my hand, and I felt the release, the sudden lightness. I reached out, but she moved around my hand, making her own way toward the fence.

We lined up, and my fingers felt like talons, frozen into curls ready to grip their hands in mine. One child was crying, and I ordered him not to cry. I yelled at them above a gust of wind, and the children stepped forward. I yelled for every parent whose child was with me, and for every parent who would call that damn superintendent in the morning, and for every parent whose child had, for the first time, pulled away.

My mother put two tea kettles on when we arrived. She unwrapped the children from their wet jackets and scarves and wrapped them back up in comforters and blankets. She learned their names, and she poured hot chocolate for them, and tried to crack jokes. She searched for their families in the phone book.

I sat at the kitchen table with my head in my hands.

“Now,” my mother said, stopping briefly to touch my shoulder,” are you all right?”

“What did I miss?”

“Nothing. It picked up speed, and I think they made a quick decision.” My mother shrugged. “I got a call and tried to reach you, but Myrna said you had just left.”

When I looked at her, she was busy again, searching for Kleenex for one of the kids.

“She pulled away from me,” I said.

My mother rummaged in a drawer.

“She…–”

“I heard,” Mom said.

She handed the child a Kleenex and then she would not look at me. She rested her hands on the sides of the drawer.

“She will pull away,” my mother said. “And what you do is you hold on.” She paused. “It’s hard.”

Maybe this was one reason my mother was strong. She never let go. She seemed to be made of iron and steel and tree bark and stones. But suddenly I wondered, why did I remember only her toughest moments? I never doubted she loved me.

I got up and stood next to her, then placed my hand on her shoulder. Put your hand on mine, I thought. Please.

My mother didn’t, but she leaned against me.

“You have to let go,” my mother said, “but you always hold on.”

As darkness came, headlights like moons slipped across our windows. Parents knocked on our door, blinking, and took their children away one by one, with a hand shake and a thank you and a word or two about the system for letting kids out during storms. Jenny clung to my mother, and I watched them stand in the doorway and wave good-bye together.

“Is this your daughter?” one woman asked.

My mother smiled, I imagine. At least, I have always imagined that she smiled when she said, “No.  This is my granddaughter.”

*****

Now the lights in the houses switch on slowly. It’s dusk, and the few remaining skaters on the homemade ice rink turn into shadows. The radio turns to news. I hardly listen. I watch the shadows inch around the rink. I stare at what was once Carter’s barn, Carter’s house, Carter’s field. I stare at what were once our fields.

I know some things. I know that I have ten toes and ten fingers and two hands. I know that I am not my mother, whose loneliness has a grit to it and helps her hold on. I know that I am made of paper and indices, bedtime stories and fairy houses, dark soil and silos–things that are passing away. I know that on Sundays the newspaper will have cartoons, and that I’ll be able to call Jenny because the rates will go down. I know that when I call, she might be out, studying in the library or having coffee with a friend, all the things I hope she’ll do. But I know how I will feel if she is not there, how a blackness will suddenly fill me, how I will feel full of holes, so many holes that the darkness leaves me as quickly as it comes. And then I will feel like air.

 

 

From  To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts.  Used with permission of Fomite. Copyright © 2017 by Caitlin Hamilton Summie.




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