Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Attic - A Short Story

In a brief, lucid moment, my mother reveals the whereabouts of her journals. “When I die,” she says, pausing to sift through what's left of the words filed away in her brain. Her eyes stray to a painting of a sunflower-filled meadow.
Seconds pass. A minute approaches. “Yes, Mother? You were saying?” I scan her once-brilliant eyes for a continuation of the thought. “When you die . . .”

“When I die, you must go into the attic,” she concludes, fiddling with the seashells on the straw purse at her side. It’s the purse she bought on her last cruise to the islands, when she still traveled with friends. She hooks it on her good arm, the one unaffected by the stroke, and hobbles with it to the dining room table at meal time. A roomy straw bag, it’s the perfect receptacle for the sugar packets she insists on taking, the little tubs of orange marmalade and berry jam, or the cloth napkins she adores. (“Such beautiful handkerchiefs,” she declares with a satisfied fold and a pat. “Don’t you just love these?”)

“Tell me Mother. Why do I need to go into the attic?” Patience is tantamount to gasoline these days: in short supply and very expensive.

“For my journals. They're up there. In boxes, you know. When I die, get them down, or you might just forget them." Her tone of voice is reminiscent of how she used to order my sister and I to pick up our rooms or clear the table after eating dinner.

“How about if I bring them the next time I visit?" I offer. "That way, you can enjoy them.”
“Oh.  I hadn’t thought of that,” she says, abandoning the seashells to tug at a loose thread on her embroidered blouse. "Yes.  Bring them to me."

Her journals are boxed in the attic?

Once I'd grown older and moved out of the house, I'd long forgotten about my mother and her journals.  Every night, after the dinner dishes were washed and put away, my mother would snap on the light at her desk.  She preferred a brown fountain pen to any other writing tool and leather bound pages to cloth. When she wrote in her journal we didn’t dare interrupt her, and sometimes, when preoccupied with a particularly long entry, she’d forget to come in and kiss us goodnight or bid us sweet dreams before bed. 

As a kid I’d climbed up into the attic once, at my sister’s insistence, to free a bird trapped in the rafters. She heard the beat of its delicate wings on the attic's plywood floor.  "Can you hear it?" she'd asked.  "Can you?"  Spooked by her own stories of ghosts lurking up there, she'd refused to ascend the steps of the ladder, urging me to climb up instead. 

“What do you see?” she asked.  My flashlight dissected the darkness, illuminating the dust which swirled like a miniature cosmos in the beam of yellowy light.

“It’s a dove,” I called down to her.  It swooped into the rafters, startling me, until it tucked itself into a crevice beneath the eave and that’s where it stayed. I’m sure it feared me more than I feared it, yet I couldn’t bear to approach it - a wild creature trapped in the shadows.

“It’ll die up there if you don’t do something,” she called to me.

“Then, get me a broom,” I replied, my voice swallowed up in the vacuum of darkness.   My eyes adjusted to the light which spilled through the spidery glass of a twenty-inch window. She disappeared, then returned with a broom so I could shoo it out the gap where I presumed it had entered.  I shook the broom, rattling the beam over my head, but the poor thing wouldn't budge.

“It’s no use,” I told her with resignation. “It's going to die up here.”

“They mate for life, you know,” she said, as if I cared about its mate lying in wait on the other side of the wall.

I tug at the cord of that drop down ladder, now a fifty-four year old woman with bones that creak like the steps unfolding before me. I sweep the flashlight beam around the rafters, half expecting to see that dove, waiting for me in the muffled silence. “Why’d you leave me?” I imagine it asking. “You know, I never made it out.” Instead, I am greeted by the boxes that my mother described, the ones containing her journals. My heart pitter-patters like the wings of that dove, once hopelessly lost in the attic.  “They are here!” I whisper in amazement.  There are days when she has no idea who I am, but this, she can remember.

I open the first one with reverence, as if opening a Bible, as if the words of my mother are the words of God transcending space and time. They adhere to the pages like smudges of dark chocolate, the paper fragrant with the passage of time. The phrases describe her deepest fears and detail her opulent joys. Love, friendship, frustration and triumph - the entire spectrum is choreographed on telltale pages, the roadmaps of my mother’s life. Cross-legged, I sit on the floor and read until the light from the window grows pale.

“Bring them to me,” I hear her say.

I select two, tucking them into my purse, then head to Parkview Manor Assisted Living to share them with her.

“Honey, how’s your mother?” she asks as I approach and sink into a plush pink chair by her side. Her hair is freshly washed. Bangs swoop to one side like the feathered wing of a bird.

“Oh, she’s wonderful!” I answer, and I reach for her hand. “Look what I’ve brought you!” I’m hoping she’ll recognize her handwriting and momentarily stir from the fog. I place one of the journals in her lap atop purple velour pants.

“Oh, that’s nice,” she says, rubbing a hand over the cover as if petting a small dog.

“Shall I read to you?” I volunteer.

“Oh yes, certainly. But honey?” she asks again with growing concern. “Why hasn’t your mother come to visit? I haven’t see her in a while.”

I ignore the comment. She’ll ask me twenty times how my mother is.

I read aloud. Her words scatter off the pages like leaves in autumn, twirling and spinning, until they settle, sweet-spiced and insightful, upon the vast fields of my imagination. The passage is about spring: the Lily of the Valley in bloom, a burst of sunlight, raspberries in the yard. May 21, 1956. A day like any other. My sister and I are toddlers, gasping in delight as we dodge back and forth in sprinklers that spray the lawn.

My mother, sitting like a queen with the ever-present straw bag, closes her eyes and listens. Within minutes, her chin rests on her chest and her shoulders slump. I pause in expectation. “Mother?” I say. She doesn’t reply.  In spite of having lost my audience, I continue to read. May 24, 1956. Jack and I celebrated our sixth anniversary today. Six years!  Didn't we just say our vows? My father, gone eighteen years this November, left my mother a widow. God bless her, she never even saw it coming.

“Sweet dreams, Mother,” I say, kissing her forehead. Then I close the journal, and tuck it into the  bag hooked over her arm.

On Writing

"Writing is a lonely job. Having someone who believes in you makes a lot of difference. They don't have to make speeches. Just believing is usually enough." ~Stephen King, On Writing