by Lauren Hohle
BWR 49.2 Fiction Contest Runner-Up
Before she was my mother, my mother performed in a hallelujah band on an Alaskan cruise ship. She sang “Shine, Jesus Shine” and shook a tambourine and strummed a pock-marked Sears catalog guitar for three summers, when she was twenty-one and twenty-two and twenty-three. The details she gave me were vague but enchanting, and I pictured her as a plucky Julie Andrews character with a long floral dress and perm. She lived alone, wasn’t beholden to anyone, not even the helicopter pilot who she drank Rob Roys with in Anchorage. My mother lived untethered, stowed in a ship at sea. “I could have popcorn for supper if I wanted to,” she always said to me, as if that had been her dream.
Before the fourth summer could begin, my mother slipped on late-spring ice and broke her leg. So she spent the summer in Missouri, landlocked on her parents’ blue vinyl couch, her leg propped on a kitchen chair. That was where she met my father, who played church-league softball with my uncles, when he came over for a post-game beer. They dated two years before they married. Two years while my mother studied at community college, earning her associate’s degree. My brother was born shortly after. Then came another attempt at a bachelors. Then came me.
Since I’d been enrolled in kindergarten, my mother taught music lessons and volunteered as the director of music at our church. She was hoping to be hired permanently. But when I turned seven, my father volunteered my mother to be his mother’s full-time caretaker instead. Once again, she put her plans on hold for my father, for our family. I think she also felt she was doing the right thing.
As a first grader, I had only met my grandmother once. I held a vague memory of her short visit—just a powdery perfume and the sound of her black support hose rubbing together. She had been on the way to something else but stopped by our house to read a book to me on the loveseat. For reasons I didn’t understand, she hadn’t been an active part of our lives.
My brother, who was older, remembered that early visit more vividly. “She asked for coffee and didn’t drink it,” Eric told me in his literal way, sitting in his new room in the basement, “and when she left, Dad gave her money.”
“Money,” I’d repeated. Our parents were strict with money— we weren’t allowed to ask for it. “Money for what?” I said. Eric only shrugged.
Later, my father took my brother and me to the farmhouse where Nana raised him, or rather, the site where the farmhouse once stood. It was only three miles away, but the span of cattle track had been turned into a suburb with identical brick ranch homes. Through the open window of the car, my father pointed to a plastic play set in one of the yards and explained that their hen house once stood there and a little farther down a large vegetable garden with tomato vines and sunflowers and a laundry line where they hung their wet clothing.
I closed my eyes and tried to picture it: The large oak tree by the sidewalk shading a yellow wooden house with a front porch. The living room with the black-and-white television and the upright piano, which his mother would play late at night, holding down the dampening pedal. I tried to imagine my father as a little boy waking up to the music and crawling down the hall to watch her play, sometimes falling back asleep stretched across the whitewashed floor.
It was strange, almost eerie, participating in my father’s nostalgia. To visit the ghost of a house, the ghost of the boy he once was. My grandparents on my mother’s side still lived in the house where she grew up, still had the blue vinyl couch. I found this continuity comforting.
When Nana moved into my brother’s old room on the first floor, she brought a lot with her: an upright piano, a chiming clock, a jewelry box, and a set of china that my mother told me would be mine someday, when I got married. She’d shown me the plates before storing them in the bottom drawer of the buffet, underneath her own set. The china was white with a gold rim and a hand painted swirl of rose petals. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to this gift. Like many children, my aesthetic centered around neon colors. When I didn’t show my mother the enthusiasm she expected, she told me, “You’ll appreciate it when you’re older.”
It seemed like a horrible thing to grow older. My grandmother had a smell, a stale, decaying aroma. She wore diapers and my parents changed them, lifting her gently onto her side. My grandmother’s sister, who she had been living with previously, was too weak to do this. I realized, not at first but with horror, that this meant they had seen her naked.
Once, when I was sent into Nana’s room to grab the hamper so that my mother could do a load of laundry, Nana asked me, “Where am I?”
Her eyes were wide and accusing. I had stopped to browse through her jewelry box and try on a pair of pearl screw-back earrings. They pinched my earlobes, which I felt grow red along with my cheeks, for she was rarely lucid and had caught me. “Your son’s house.”
She stared at me, hardly blinking.
“Remember Ted, your son?”
She pressed the button on her hospital bed that would raise her high enough to look out the window. I took a step back. “It’s hardly sooty at all,” she said. She lifted her gnarled hand in front of her face.
I didn’t know how to respond to this and left still wearing the earrings, which I immediately removed and snuck back in when she was sleeping.
My grandmother hadn’t intended to live in St. Louis. I learned, much later, that she’d had my dad when she was in her forties. She had been married once already before marrying my grandfather, who died before I was born. Her first husband had died in Normandy. When the war ended, she packed up her things and left Springfield to move back in with her family in Kansas. In St. Louis, she met my grandpa working at the desk of a Route 66 motel. She decided to stay put.
This story, when told by my father, was one of love at first sight. My mother thought of it as evidence of his mother’s dependency issues and lack of sound judgment. “She had to have a man. It didn’t matter that she hardly knew him. She couldn’t bear to spend an hour by herself,” she’d said to me once after school. Then she looked up from whatever chore she was doing and told me, “That won’t be you.”
I had no idea who I would be, but my mother seemed to have a clear idea. I would appreciate my set of china. I would learn to read music. I would go to college. I would one day have a job and family.
She never mentioned popcorn in these visions of my future. She never mentioned Alaska or Rob Roys or even falling in love. But she always told me to finish my milk. She told me, as all mothers do, that it would make me strong, that it would keep my bones from breaking.
“Now that she’s sick, your father is making her out to be a saint,” my mother said another time while cutting an apple into slices for my snack. “But she wasn’t honest with him.” I stuck my finger directly into the peanut butter jar while she was talking. She didn’t notice. Apparently, my grandfather had run off with a hotel maid, and she’d told my father he was training with the National Guard. “She was a silly woman,” I remember my mother saying later, when Nana was in the room with us, as if she were already dead. “If their house was on fire she’d have told him the dog was smoking a cigarette.”
My mother wasn’t exactly honest with my father either, but for a while, she was honest with me.
How my grandmother met my grandfather, how my mother met my father—I don’t see these as stories of love at first sight, as evidence of anyone’s lack of sound judgment. Instead, as I’ve gotten older, they have become emblematic of the cruel magnetism of St. Louis, how gravity seems to be stronger there, how it holds and hardens people, insects entombed in amber. Our musical namesake features this pull—the Smiths can’t imagine living in New York, marrying New Yorkers, abandoning St. Louis before the World’s Fair. Even now, it is difficult to leave this city, and few in my own generation attempted it, though there are other places, other ways to live, especially for women.
I should say that as much as my mother resented my grandmother, she never neglected her in the six months she was with us and would play her hymns and show tunes on the piano, held her hand during the fever that finally took her.
Nana’s was the first funeral I’d been to, and I wouldn’t have cried if my father hadn’t, but my tears were mostly of relief. Her breathing had been so heavy, so strangled those last few weeks that I could hear it through the wall separating our rooms. I’d even had nightmares of drowning, where muskgrass and waterweed tugged me under as I struggled to breathe. I’d wake up with the covers on the floor and that choking sound so loud that I always checked my closet to make sure she hadn’t crept in there somehow. Her death meant peace for the rest of us.
They’d kept the casket open, a tradition that still feels vulgar to me. Her face looked blue and dusty, and her gnarled hands appeared coiled, ready to spring and snatch my collar.
When the service was over, we drove to a cemetery where a machine lowered her coffin into the ground. Each member of my family and my grandmother’s sister’s family threw a handful of earth in after it. I squatted down to the grass afterward to rub the dirt off my hands and recognized the word Mother carved onto the flat headstone. I remember thinking this was strange. She hadn’t just been a mother; she’d been a sister and a daughter and a grandmother.
After her death, my parents donated her bed and clothes, Eric moved back into his room, and the piano was moved to the basement. For a while my mother tried to teach me how to play.
Piano lessons started out like we’d envisioned them. I learned to read the notes and took pleasure in this literacy. We made a deal that when I completed the third lesson book I could get my ears pierced. It was easy to practice those first scales, and I enjoyed the encouragement, enjoyed performing from The Beginner’s Christmas Songbook to our neighbor and her new boyfriend when they stopped by Christmas Eve.
Eventually, we hit a wall. My mother was patient, would tell me how I messed up, but I didn’t share her talent and responded to criticism with “I know,” which she found defensive, not in the spirit of learning. I thought it was easy to identify mistakes, and what I didn’t know was how to prevent them. We fought, I practiced less, and the church hired my mother full time as the interim director of music. We lost our routine. In sixth grade, she would enroll me in band, and I wouldn’t get my ears pierced until my nineteenth birthday, where within a year I would let the holes close.
With my mother working full time, we no longer had afternoons together. She stopped sharing her inner thoughts with me. Instead, I attended an after-school program at my elementary school. The after-school program was held in the cafeteria/gym, a long echoing room where they’d pulled one table to the center. I distinctly remember the placement of the clocks on the wall—one hung under each basketball hoop and another above the doorway to the kitchen. There was a culture of clock watching in the after school program, and it was hard to feel settled there, waiting as we were, staking perler beads onto pegboards in such a large expanse.
It wasn’t uncommon for me to be the last child there, the last child picked up. All the games and hula hoops and basketballs put away, my coat on, my backpack zipped. My mother sweeping through the gymnasium doors, purse on shoulder, frazzled, embarrassed, angry with herself.
Though it was the ’90s, and she was certainly not the only working mom I knew, her pride in her job never ceased to be complicated. I noticed a sadness in her eyes when she was late like this, and tried to tiptoe carefully around it, but was unsure of its source. I was proud of my mother and her new job. I traced her title in each Sunday’s bulletin and corrected people who said “music director” or “director of music,” not realizing that interim was a fancy word for temporary and that the church would keep her in that position for five years to justify a lower wage. Her predecessor, and every predecessor before her, had been a man.
After she’d sign me out, I’d give her a big hug. I’d tell her I’d had fun. She’d drive me home. We’d check the mail. I’d do homework; she’d fix dinner. This was our new routine. Me, hunched over my desk, pencil pressed between my fingertips. My mother in the kitchen poised before the microwave, staring at the steaming freezer vegetables turning inside, her feet on the floor, her hand gripped around a spoon or pairing knife, her mind elsewhere.
Two years after my grandmother’s death, we found the contents of her safety deposit box in a package on our doorstep. My family hadn’t known about the box and had neither continued to pay for it nor emptied it. In those two years, as I had finished first and second grade and started on third, the bank had shipped the box, as they did all unclaimed boxes, to a warehouse in Florida, where the contents would have gone up for auction if they hadn’t found our address in the church directory. All this the bank explained in their letter, which my mother read standing over the dining room table, once to herself and once out loud to me.
When she finished, I reached my hand into the package and pulled out a smaller cardboard box, which was sealed with clear brown tape. “Can we open it?” I asked. I held my breath.
My mother studied the letter, and I studied her. She was wearing a black blazer with a silk scarf wound around the lapels and an abstract ceramic pin I had made for her in preschool over her heart. She frowned slightly, and the skin between her eyebrows wrinkled. I was desperate to know what she was thinking.
I tested the weight of the box on my palm. What could Nana have possibly been keeping from us? I wondered. The Nana who lived with us had been spoon fed; she was so dependent on my family it was hard to imagine her outside the walls of her bedroom, hard to imagine her having any kind of life at all. The box was surprisingly light in my hands. I expected it to be heavier, a match for the burden she seemed to place on my mother’s shoulders.
“Can we?” I asked again, my fingernails scraping at the tape’s edges.
My mother returned the letter to the mouth of the package. “May we,” she said, looking up finally, noticing me peeling back an uneven strip. “We should wait for your father to get home,” she told me, and, before I could protest, she took the box out of my hands and retreated to her bedroom to change out of her work clothes so she could start dinner.
I took one last peek at the box, then reluctantly shouldered my backpack to take it to my bedroom. I had finished my homework at the after-school program. My father wouldn’t be home for thirty or forty minutes, and the prospect of the box made me impatient.
In the hallway, I stopped at my brother’s room and cracked the door open. Eric had insisted on painting his room before moving back in, and he’d chosen a navy-blue glossy paint. The light from the hallway illuminated the irregular strokes he’d made with the roller. I was disappointed by his unmade bed, his littered desk, and his pile of dirty clothes, as if a part of me was expecting to open the door on Nana sleeping.
In own my room, I lay on my bed, feet propped against the wall, and grabbed a book off my nightstand. I read a few pages, then realized the words had flown past me before I could attach any meaning.
I tiptoed into the hallway and cracked open my parents’ bedroom door. My mother’s blazer lay on their bed on its hanger. I found my mother in the kitchen, barefoot in shorts and an oversized T-shirt, hand-mixing breadcrumbs and onions into raw hamburger.
“What are we having for dinner?” I asked, wishing I knew how to ask about Nana instead.
“Meatloaf, potatoes, green beans. Want to season this for me?” My mother smiled at me, but it hurt as though she were frowning. The sadness was there, slick in her eyes like tears.
I followed her instructions, sprinkling salt and pepper onto the pink lump, then pouring in the eggs, which she had already cracked. “Mom?” I tried again.
I watched as she formed the loaf shape, nestled it into a bread pan. We always had a meat, a starch, and a vegetable. She looked up, and in the flare of her gaze I lost my courage. “Would you help me with a math problem?”
“Of course,” she said. She turned to the sink to wash her hands. “I’d give you the shirt off my back.” She often said this, and it always embarrassed me. I chose to ignore it. I chose not to think about her naked flesh. I sprinted down the hall to my room and erased the answers on my math worksheet. I crossed my fingers that she wouldn’t notice the faint marks left by my pencil.
We would still have five years where she could help me with my homework. By ninth grade, after staying up late as she reread my notes and a chapter in my Algebra II textbook, I would scream, “I thought you said you knew how to do this!” and my mother would scream back, “I’m not smart enough!” before storming out of the room. The next day, tired, drinking coffee for the first time though I’d diluted it with plenty of milk and sugar, I’d ask for help from my teacher, who would show me in ten minutes how to solve the problem which my mother and I had agonized over for hours, and I knew not to ask her for help anymore.
I sat down and spread my paper in front of the package, and my mother stood behind me so she could read over my shoulder, as she had when teaching me piano.
My mother looked down at my math worksheet, and I did too. “I’m having trouble getting started,” I told her. That week, we had learned to add and subtract fractions by finding a common denominator.
“Well,” she said in the voice she’d used to teach music lessons, moving her lips silently as she read the word problem, “let’s see.” She walked me through the problem and had me explain why I was making each move. Her teacher voice was brighter and clearer than her normal voice, and I felt its power even though I knew it was put-on. “You got it,” she said when we were finished. “My smart girl.” She turned to the kitchen. “What do you think Nana kept in there?” I tapped the box with my pencil. She touched her hand to the table, and her eyes flicked toward Nana’s old room.
“Usually it’s important papers or valuables. Never anything big.” She frowned thoughtfully as she said this.
“Do you think it could be jewelry?”
It comforted me to know that whatever jewel she owned would be attached to a ring or pendant, that I wouldn’t potentially inherit something as useless as a piano or china plates.
“But why would she keep it where she wouldn’t be able to wear it?” I asked.
“Perhaps it was something she didn’t want us to sell to pay for a nursing home.”
I felt a thrill with how frank my mother let herself be when it came to this topic and a pang with the realization that I’d missed her. “Was she mad that you sold her car?”
My mother smiled. She sat down, picked at the sticker the post office had thrust on the package’s side. “I don’t think she really understood what was happening. Plus, the car wasn’t sentimental.”
I fidgeted with the fringe on the placemats stacked underneath the box, kicked my toe against the leg of the table. “Do you think she’s trying to tell us something?”
My mother’s smile crumpled, and she stood and pivoted back to the kitchen. The moment was gone; I had hit the wrong note. When it was time for me to set the table, I lifted the box in my hands and shook it violently. The items inside tumbled against the cardboard, making a dull hollow sound. I returned the box to the package and set it on the ledge of the buffet next to the rest of the day’s mail. I stared at it all through dinner.
My father waited until after they had cleaned up and packed lunches to open it. He poured himself a brandy and took the box over to his living room chair. He set the box on the ottoman, unfolded the flaps, and pulled out the letter, which he set to the side, and the sealed smaller box, which he cut open with the Swiss Army knife attached to his keys.
Eric stood behind him and sipped from a too-full glass of milk. I knelt beside my father as if it were Christmas and he was opening a gift that I’d picked for him. He pulled out two tiny porcelain guitars.
“Salt and pepper shakers.” He looked amused, not upset, holding them up to the lamplight.
Eric leaned over. “They say ‘Nashville, Tennessee.’”
“Why would she keep that?” I asked my father, as if it were his fault. “That can’t be worth anything!”
My mother raced in from the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel. “Nashville? Did she ever go there? Did she ever mention Nashville?”
My dad thought for a second, laughing, making us wait to hear the joke. “Not that I know of,” he said. He set the shakers down and reached his hand into the box a second time. He pulled out a yellowed postcard. The top of it read “Greetings from the Mother Road” in large block letters. A purple strip of highway crossed over a river with steamboats. A silhouette of buildings squatted on the opposite bank. “St. Louis, MO” was scrawled in the bottom corner.
“You know, she probably set the deposit box up after she was a little out of it.” He set the items aside.
“Maybe they were special to her,” I said, thinking she might have bought the postcard from my grandfather as an excuse to talk to him or that in Nashville lay another life, a job at a diner, perhaps, with a jukebox and a collared dress with her name stitched on the gingham. Maybe she’d auditioned to sing country music on the radio. Maybe she’d had that dream.
“It’s just junk,” my dad said. “It’s not cheap to rent a deposit box. She could have kept these at home.”
“She probably wanted them where she knew she wouldn’t trip over them,” my mother said, another glimpse at her wit, but she looked sad that the items in the box—what was valuable to Nana—were frivolous kitsch.
My father reopened his pocketknife to break down the box so he could recycle the cardboard. He sliced the tape carefully and wrenched the bottom to flatten it, then took it out to the carport.
I wanted to stick my tongue out at him for a reason I couldn’t identify. He had done nothing wrong, yet he was all we had, was our link to Nana’s life. He’d told us nothing, had known nothing. Defined her only in ways that intersected with him: the star shaped cakes she’d baked for his birthdays, the sachets of lavender she’d tucked under his pillow when he woke from bad dreams, the cows she’d sold to send him to college. The rest had been lost.
“Who was she without you?” I want to ask now, as an adult, thinking of this moment. “Who was she without men?” Eric stepped around the back of the chair and picked up the postcard. “Look, Hannah, no Arch.” He held the card in front of me but continued to examine it side-eyed as he took a large gulp from his glass. The skyline looked neutered, insignificant, almost unrecognizable. It was not, I thought, the city I lived in. Eric flipped the postcard over, and I was surprised to recall that my father hadn’t done that, hadn’t thought to check. On the back, there was no postage, no address, just a single cursive word: “Howdy.”
How meaningless it all felt in that moment. That hokey word, the started but incomplete message. Later, I would find it funny that she paused after writing such an exuberant greeting, that she had convinced herself she could embody its falsity, then immediately lost steam. My brother and I would mock it through my teens, saying “Howdy” to unsuspecting people and forcing the other, in increasingly inappropriate situations, to contain their giggling. We would eventually outgrow this, long after we stopped attaching the joke to where it came from, and I would come to read that unfinished postcard as the road’s unfilled promise. Route 66 did not deliver its kicks. The optimism of the song was missing.
That night, after I had gone to bed, my mother came into the dark of my room and kissed my forehead. She laid her cool hand on my cheek, then in a low voice told me, “I’m sorry I work instead of staying home with you.”
I pretended to be asleep, unable to express how much I admired her for this and too young to understand what it was she was telling me.
I lay awake for a long time afterward, the image of the postcard floating through my mind. The purple road seemed to be the path that had been laid out for my grandmother, from the motel to the farmhouse, the first husband to the second, to each of their deaths, and finally her own. I imagined my own mother’s journey as a dotted line that marked the route of the train she had taken to Seattle each summer, the ship leaving the dock, up the mountains she climbed in Alaska, then looping back again, a shape long and narrow like a flower petal. I wondered if she had saved anything from that time and if someday she would show it to me. I thought, not for the first time, and certainly not the last, what shape my own journey would take. Drifting off to sleep, I could hear my mother play the piano through the floorboards, which she often did when she needed to think. I caught the refrain of the song from Carousel, the one that starts, “What’s the use of wondering?” then continues to ask a series of questions. She hit a sour note and paused briefly, then retraced the measure that led her there, then sped the line up, slowed it down, and sped it up again, continuing the song correctly as if convincing herself of its final conclusion, “He’s your feller and you love him, that’s all there is to that.”
Lauren Hohle earned her MFA from Eastern Washington University. She has served on the editorial staffs of Big Fiction Magazine, Lynx House Press, Willow Springs Books, and the Gettysburg Review, where she is currently the managing editor. She is an alum of the Community of Writers at Olympic Valley and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her fiction and essays appear in or are forthcoming from Crab Creek Review, Santa Monica Review, Western Humanities Review, and Allium, A Journal of Poetry and Prose. She is at work on a novel-in-stories.