“She didn’t want to take anything with her,” Cecilia, the youngest of the three said. “Not our pictures, not pictures of the grandkids, not even a photo of Dad.”
“She’s beyond knowing much about anything,” Eric, the middle child, said, shifting a notebook from one hand to the other.
“Mom once told me that putting a parent in a nursing home is like storing stuff in the attic,” Margaret, the oldest said. “You can’t be bothered with it so you stash it out of sight. Then one day it’s gone.”
Cecilia recalled that when her mother’s memory began to slip she fought it, faked things, offered a cubist version of events, referred to incidents that never happened. But in time the wall between her and her past grew impenetrable and she drifted into hopelessness. She agreed to go to Sunrise Manor, a hollow quiet in her eyes. The poor woman knew she had lost something precious but could no longer remember what it was. The last time Cecilia saw her she appeared shriveled, face like a dried leaf, as if she were Cecilia’s grandmother and not her mother.
“Let’s get on with the job,” Eric said.
The three siblings, the youngest on the far side of her forties, four years younger than her brother and six years the junior of her sister, looked around the living room of the home where they had grown up. They had agreed to meet in the house to decide what each might keep, what to sell, and what to give away. Their photographs rested on the mantelpiece above the fireplace, as did the photographs of their children; in another picture, their father—solid, authoritative—sat in a pater familias pose, their mother and the three children around him, taken when Cecilia was three.
Cecilia found the house airless and dusty, the museum of her parents life. And the room did indeed resemble a museum, one fallen on bad times and rarely visited, about it an air of fatigue and dejection. She had not wanted to come, suffered a free-floating anxiety at the thought, had invented one excuse then another, but after three months of procrastination and at Margaret and Eric’s insistence, she had finally agreed. She had flown in from Chicago the previous night, Eric from San Francisco and Margaret from Denver. Throughout the flight Cecilia had the feeling the airplane was kept aloft by the force of her will and if she stopped thinking about it the plane would drop from the sky. And everyone in the aircraft aroused in her a vague antipathy. Now Cecilia felt the house close around her like a mausoleum, in her a foreboding of destruction and ruin. It must be jet lag, she told herself, for she had slept badly, awakened too early.
The morning marine layer had burned off and hazy sunlight filtered through the Los Angeles smog and through a streaked window to fall on a dead dracaena plant in a corner. Cecilia gazed out the window at the yard, now overgrown with weeds. The jungle gym her father had assembled and on which she had played as a child, and from which she had fallen and broken a rib, still stood there, rusted and abandoned. The brass sundial on its stone pedestal her father had placed in the center, now tarnished to a dusky gold, still marked the sunny hours. In those years she thought it impossible that her father would ever die. She heard Margaret say, “Where do you want to start?”
“Why not right here in the living room?” Eric said.
All three looked about at the worn furniture, the stuffed chair near the window faded by sunlight, the threadbare oriental rug, the scratched coffee table. Margaret stood—hands on her wide hips, sturdy thighs, heavy breasts, in an Earth Mother pose—and surveyed the room. “I sure don’t want any of this,” she said, then scanned the walls. “But the paintings are a possibility.” Their parents over the years had visited Europe several times and each time brought back a painting or two: the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, a Venetian gondola passing under the Bridge of Sighs, Sacre Coeur seen from the Place du Tertre, fishermen on a quay along the Seine, a canal in Amsterdam. “I doubt if they’re worth anything,” Eric said. “I never heard of the painters.”
“That’s not the point,” Cecilia said. “Do you want to hang them in your house? For whatever reason.” She thought that she herself would like the fishermen painting. Through the gauze of childhood memory she recalled holding her father’s hand as they walked along the Seine, her father pausing now and then to examine a volume at a book stall, across the river the awesome bulk of Notre Dame. Those were the years when being near him quieted all her fears, when he entered a room like a source of light. Then, percolating through the layers of years, came another Paris memory: the Luxembourg garden, her father helping her launch a toy boat on the octagonal pool. She could still see the boat floating like an innocent thought on the sunlit water. It occurred to her that that there are certain times and certain places that one never leaves behind.
“I remember when they bought the Ponte Vecchio,” Margaret said. “I was maybe eight or nine. They argued over it a long time and I had to pee something awful. Mom won the argument.”
“Jesus, they argued a lot,” Eric said. “That’s how I remember this place. Lots of yelling, in the kitchen and in the bedroom, whenever Dad was home.”
“They didn’t argued much after Dad’s stroke,” Margaret said. “Mom took care of him, cleaned him, fed him.… What courage! He just sat in his wheelchair and stared out the window.”
Cecilia recalled the stroke: it had happened so suddenly, but then disease doesn’t knock before it enters. And she did indeed remember the eternal quarrels, but had difficulty reconstructing what they were about. It seemed they argued with great heat over trivia. Much later she decided the subject matter of the quarrel was not important. The arguments were simply struggles between two first borns, neither of whom could stand being subject to the will of another. And even when they were not quarrelling the long silences between them seemed a tug of war. After her father’s stroke, Cecilia in her few visits had difficulty recognizing him; once a man of remarkable physical presence, he had become someone else, shrunken in size, face pulled close to the bone, nose grotesquely large, eyes unblinking as if painted on his head. He took on an odd odor, the smell of an old man’s clothing, the musty smell of a lived life. He sat all day at the window watching the garden he had so carefully tended overgrow with weeds, sat motionless, as if he had been there for ages, some ancient totem, a long-forgotten god prayed to for special favors. Her mother arranged his hair, his clothes, as if he were already dead. The scene of her father at the window in his wheelchair often returned to her. After his death that’s how she remembered him. She wondered why that image took up so much space in her head rather than memories of a happier time.
“After Dad was gone,” Margaret said, “despite all their arguments, Mom always spoke of him lovingly, as if he’d just stepped out on an errand and would be right back.”
“Why don’t we get rid of all the furniture?” Eric said. “Give it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army and decide on the paintings.” He opened his notebook. “If you both agree, I’ll mark that down and we can keep going.”
Cecilia gazed at the fireplace; cement logs on a grate were cast to resemble wood, a gas jet under the logs. “Dad and I once toasted marshmallows in that fireplace,” she said.
Eric waved a hand as if erasing a blackboard. “There’s a big temptation to do a memory lane number here,” he said. “Can we avoid that? Let’s not leaf through our past as if it were a mail order catalog. Can we just get on with the job?”
“God, Eric, you’re insensitive,” Cecelia said, a surprising anger taking hold of her.
Eric shrugged. “I see things the way they are,” he said. “If that’s what you call insensitive then that’s what I am.”
They came to their father’s study, untouched since his death five years earlier. They stared at the chipped desk, the orthopedic chair, the obsolete computer; a layer of dust lay like a shroud over everything. On the wall opposite the desk hung a reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Mill. Cecilia recalled her mother telling her it was in front of that painting, in the National Gallery, that she had met her future husband. He was in Washington on business and she on holiday with a friend. “What do you like about it?” he asked, gesturing toward the painting. “The light mostly,” she answered, “but there’s a whole world reflected in that canvas.... How about you?” “I was trying to estimate how much power that mill could generate.” When she told Cecilia the story, her mother bitterly commented that his answer was a signal: she should have recognized right then that they were incompatible.
“What about the books?” Margaret asked, pointing at the rows of bookshelves. Cecilia’s gaze panned across the books, mostly technical works on electronics since their father had been an electrical engineer, but also tomes on philosophy that he had started to read late in life, and books on architecture and construction because he admired the great builders. Cecilia recalled he once told her that the Romans after they built a bridge had the engineer who designed it and the construction boss who built it stand under the thing when the scaffolding was pulled away. “That kept their mind nicely focused on their work,” he had observed.
“All the technical books are obsolete,” Eric said, an electrical engineer like his father. “They’re of no use to me. Any of these books interest you guys?” Both women shook their heads, then Margaret reached down and pulled a large volume from the bottom shelf, one of a half dozen such volumes. “Look,” she said, “here are Dad’s photo albums.” She laid the object on the desk, opened to the first page. Cecilia thought of the unfolding wings of a bird. “My God!” Margaret exclaimed. “Look how beautiful Mom was.… It just breaks your heart.” “Look at Dad,” Cecilia said, a lump rising in her throat. She wanted to say, What a handsome man he was, but was afraid of breaking down and so said nothing. Her mind jumped to his funeral: the casket seemed carved from an ingot of solid steel; she had cried at the thought of her father encased in it forever.
Margaret turned the page. Cecilia gave her marriage ring a half turn then pointed at a photograph where she sat on her father’s shoulders, pine woods behind them. “That was at Lake Arrowhead,” Cecilia said, “when I twisted my ankle.”
“You didn’t have to twist your ankle for Dad to carry you,” Eric said.
“What do you mean?”
Eric’s eyes were now stony; a bitter line appeared in the corner of his mouth and in a voice precise as a blade he said, “He always carried you, bailed you out whenever you got into trouble. Paid for your abortion, made the down payment on your house, paid for your husband’s detox, sunk money into his screwed up business—”
“Give it a rest, Eric,” Margaret interrupted. “That’s all ancient history. Besides, it’s none of your business.”
Cecilia had never put these personal revelations together and now, aware of their truth, she detested Eric for revealing them. She had learned the acronym HALT from her husband as he fought alcoholism, never to become too Hungry, too Angry, Too Lonely, or too Tired, and adopted it as her own. And so she did not answer her brother, though it crossed her mind that if she had a weapon she would be tempted to use it.
She had never liked Eric—a man who only believed what he could see, touch, taste, or smell—in fact thought he would grow up to be some awful and shameful failure, like a street person. She was still surprised that he was a successful engineer. She doubted whether he had ever really felt anything, either pain or pleasure. And though Margaret only touched her life at its outer edges, she had long ago concluded that she didn’t much care for her sister either, a woman who lacked an awareness of the irrational in life, suffered from a kind of spiritual myopia. As the years passed, all living far from each other, their lives diverging, Cecilia began to deal with both of them as strangers.
In the dining room, a high cabinet with a glass front displayed the Baccarat crystal their mother had purchased in Paris. On the bottom shelf sat a large mahogany box that Cecilia recognized as containing her mother’s precious Christofle silver. “How do we handle this?” Eric asked. “It’s all valuable stuff.”
“Why don’t we decide that later,” Margaret said.
They inspected the children’s bedrooms, the furniture not touched in years. Cecilia paused before her own. How small it was, how austere! The room looked as if it had been furnished by a nun. She noticed the night light was still plugged into the socket: as a child she had feared darkness and even now thought of it as hiding evil. In this room, shades drawn against the light, she had suffered through measles, here she was frightened by her first period, and here she had labored on her masters thesis. She had always excelled in mathematics and her father had urged her to go on for a Ph.D., but she had fallen in love, married, moved to Chicago, had her two children, and mathematics faded then disappeared. But above her old desk still hung a framed montage of portraits, the mathematicians she had most admired: Euler, Gauss, Cauchy, Dirichlet, Chebyshev, Riemann, Hadamard. A plastic Möbius strip on which sat a toy car still lay in a corner of the desk; her father had bought her the object to demonstrate that a surface with only one side exists. All of these things related to another life, a private Eden irretrievably gone.
“We’ll sell all this furniture,” Eric said. “I can’t imagine shipping it.”
They wandered into the master bedroom. “Even addled the way she is, Mom still made the bed before she left,” Margaret said.
“She insisted on doing that,” Eric said. “That shows you what fifty years of conditioning will do.”
Cecilia noticed a photograph on the nightstand: her father in military uniform, an Air Force captain in the Korean war, an animal vitality about him, arm around his new bride. The ghosts of her parents inhabited the room. Her gaze shifted to the bed. “That’s where we were conceived,” she said. “It’s hard to believe.”
“What’s hard to believe?” Eric asked.
“It’s hard to imagine your parents having sex,” Cecilia said.
Eric shrugged, opened the closet door. “Dad’s clothes are still here,” he said.
“Mom once told me she liked their smell,” Margaret said. “She’d put her face into the clothes and think of Dad still protecting her. She kept everything of his except the wheelchair. She dumped that the day after the funeral.”
“Look at those shoes,” Eric said to the closet, narrowing his eyes as if he were measuring something. He picked up a shoe, held it like some poorly understood icon. “Why in the world would you want to wear heels like that? Screw up your feet, your back.…”
“It made Mom taller, sexier,” Margaret said. “A woman is never totally sure of her husband, you know. It pays to keep him interested… You remember how she would sometimes smile at Dad, geisha-like, and make little fluttery noises? And Mom had a couple of dresses so slinky she practically needed the Jaws of Life to get out of them. Women do that, Eric. And Mom was a woman.”
Eric returned the shoe to the closet, to the same spot from where he had taken it. “Let’s stop talking about Mom as if she were dead,” he said. “Do you guys want any of this stuff?” Margaret was opening the chest of draws. “I can’t use any of it,” she said.
“She sure didn’t take much with her to Sunrise Manor,” Margaret went on, staring down at the sweaters, blouses, panties, hose, and other apparel in the draw.
“She was beyond caring what she took with her,” said Eric, who had supervised her transfer to the assisted living facility.
Margaret poked around in the bottom draw and found something solid, a box in green leather. She pulled out the box, placed it on the dresser top. “It’s probably jewelry,” Eric said. Margaret opened the box. “Why it’s a box of letters,” she said. “It would be funny if they were love letters from Dad.”
“I don’t think Dad was the love letter writing type,” Eric said.
The three stood over the box, then Cecilia picked up the top letter. “That’s not Dad’s handwriting on the envelope,” she said, then took out the letter. The paper was yellowed and showed signs of having been opened and refolded many times. Cecilia stared at the page then read, “My darling Emma. I miss you terribly. Though it was only last week that we were together it seems like a century.”
“Who signed it?” Eric asked.
Cecilia turned to the second page. “Somebody named Leonard,” she said in a perplexed voice.
“Who the hell is Leonard?” Eric said, two vertical creases appearing between his eyes.
“For Christ’s sake, Eric, don’t be obtuse,” Margaret said. “Mom had a lover.”
“I don’t believe it,” Eric said. “What’s the date on that thing?”
Cecilia gave the date then added, “About two years before I was born.”
“Open another one,” Eric said. He was staring at the box as if it were some alien object fallen from space.
“I’m not comfortable doing this,” Margaret said. “I mean it’s like snooping into Mom’s purse or her personal diary.”
“I doubt if Mom can remember these letters even exist,” Eric said. Then, his brow pulled together like an archeologist unsure of his find, he opened the next letter in the stack. “Well, what does it say?” Cecilia asked.
Eric seemed befuddled. “More mushy shit,” he said, and tossed the letter onto the top of the dresser.
“Love letters are supposed to be mushy,” Margaret said.
Eric riffled the letters in the box. “There must be a hundred of these things,” he said. “Check the dates,” Margaret said. He scanned the envelopes. “They’re arranged in chronological order. They start when I was two and span about a year and a half. There’s no return address but the postmark is San Diego.”
“I’d have thought Mom would be too busy with me and you to have an affair,” Margaret said to Eric. The three stared at the box, at this revelation about someone of whom they thought all surprises had been exhausted years ago. “Read the last one,” Margaret said.
Eric took the last letter, opened the envelope then closed it. “I can’t read this garbage,” he said with disgust and handed the letter to Margaret.
“My dearest Emma,” Margaret read. “I know this is the right decision. I cannot leave my family nor can you leave yours. I also know that you will raise our child as a complete sibling of your others. And as we agreed, the child will never know his or her parentage nor will I ever ask to see him/her. I must confess I hope that it is a she though I cannot say why.” Margaret hesitated, glanced at her sister with an odd look, as if she had inadvertently opened a forbidden cupboard, then read on. “And if it is a girl name her Cecilia, the name has a beautiful ring to it. This is the last letter I shall ever write you my darling. I wish you a wonderful life. It is so great a pity that we cannot spend our lives together. I shall always remember you with deepest affection. Your Leonard.”
Cecilia was staring at Margaret as if her sister’s face was melting. She felt herself crossing some emotional DMZ into hostile territory. The room itself seemed changed, suddenly smaller, too bright. Then in a bitter explosion she cried, “How the fuck would he know that I’m his child and not Dad’s? No DNA testing in those days. Anyway, I look like Dad.”
“Well maybe Leonard looked like Dad,” Eric said. “Anyway what difference does it make who your father is? Ceci, stop looking as if you’re ready to hang yourself. Here you are and that’s it.”
“It makes a big difference to me who my father is,” Cecilia said indignantly. “I’ll ask Mom. That’s what I’ll do. Put it to her directly.”
“Oh, leave Mom alone,” Eric said. “She can barely remember her name. Why do you want to bug her?”
Cecilia stared at her brother with distaste. He now struck her as someone who would happily watch saints burned at the stake.
Margaret had been gazing pensively at the green leather box. “You know,” she said, “good for Mom. I mean Dad was a busy guy, working overtime, traveling. Maybe he was always exhausted, didn’t have the time or energy for sex. And Mom, well… her biggest need was to be needed and I’m not sure Dad needed her.”
“That’s all idle chatter,” Eric said. “Let’s decide what to do with this stuff and leave.”
“I wonder if there’s another set of letters,” Margaret said, “Mom’s replies, in another green box, hidden in Leonard’s house.”
Cecilia was not listening to either of them. Instead, she was staring at the box as if it were a moon rock, as if by some magic act of will she could make it and all of its contents disappear.
“What should we do with the letters?” Margaret asked.
“I would say that’s Ceci’s decision.”
Eric and Margaret went into the guest room. Cecilia took the green box into the living room, set it on the coffee table, and studied the letters. The handwriting was neat, careful, with no crossouts. She guessed that Leonard had gone through several drafts before writing a letter in final. She imagined him an orderly, precise man, possibly with a narrow mustache, with a self-dramatizing way of speaking. Maybe in some artistic endeavor, an art dealer or theater person. Her eye was caught by a line at the close of one of the letters: “I tenderly kiss your most intimate part as you have kissed mine,” and was overtaken by a sense of revulsion at horny Leonard. Her father, a practical man with large hands who made things work, would never write that. He called his wife Em, never Emma, a man who simplified things, who in the interest of efficiency reduced his wife’s name to a single syllable, and called her his own Ceci.
Eric and Margaret returned from the guest room and found Cecilia in the living room. She had lit the gas jet in the fireplace and was seated in front of the flames, taking the letters out of the green box and out of their envelopes one by one, then tossing them onto the cement logs. The desiccated paper caught fire in a bright yellow flame. Eric and Margaret watched her toss one letter then another, said nothing, seemed mesmerized by the process. Papery ashes floated up the chimney like huge black snowflakes. The two older children continued to watch.
After a while Eric said, “Let’s give it all away. Even the paintings. I’ll see if I can sell the silverware and the crystal. You guys decide about the photographs. Later we’ll worry about selling the house.”
Margaret gave a faint nod. Cecilia continued to toss letters into the fire.
William Eisner’s first novel, The Sévigné Letters, received excellent reviews and was adapted for the stage and played at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara. His short stories have been published in Witness, Circle Magazine, The Armchair Aesthete, Enigma, The Beggar's Press, Palo Alto Review, The Iconoclast, The Potomac Review, Thought Magazine, Words of Wisdom, Reflections, Lynx Eye, The Dan River Anthology, the Dana Literary Society, and Byline, and accepted for publication by Horizons, Pacific Review, The Kennesaw Review, and Oasis.
Copyright 2005, William Eisner. This work is protected under the U.S. copyright laws. It may not be reproduced, reprinted, reused, or altered without the expressed written permission of the author.