Published in The Metaworker, March 26, 2021
“Who’s Rick?” Alicia holds up a fist-sized pewter whale breaching gracefully from a block of varnished wood.
Jerry looks up from where he is awkwardly packing a teapot into a box of their mother’s china. “Beats me, Cissy. I don’t know any Ricks. Why?”
“He seems to have signed Mum’s whale.” She holds the whale up so her brother can see the “Souvenir of Cape Cod’ on the front of the block, then turns it over. “On the bottom,” she says, “it reads ‘For Helen. Love, Rick.’”
“I’ll be damned. She had a lover?”
“Easy, bro. We don’t know that. It could be just someone at the church. She helped a lot of people.”
“Sure. Or maybe that’s why she’d wanted to clear those shelves herself.”
They hadn’t expected to be emptying her house today. A week ago, Alicia remembers, Mum seemed hale and hearty. Her zaftig Scandinavian frame had changed little in the four decades since the divorce. At 70, she was still a pretty woman; thanks to her hairdresser, still a redhead. At the funeral, their father – God knows why he came — looked ten years older, and Judith, the younger, hourglass-shapely woman for whom he left Mum, had become an overweight train wreck.
Mum said at their Christmas gathering that she ought to pack up some of the bric-a-brac that lined shelves throughout the little house. “I don’t want to leave you all with such a potpourri, such a burden,” she said. “I’m going to downsize, sell the house and move into that new retirement community the church is building.”
The heart attack came before she’d even started.
Today it almost seems she is still here: the house is faintly redolent of her famous beef bourguignon, which she made in big batches and froze into meal-size containers to thaw and reheat in the microwave. Earlier, packing her down comforter, the feel of the satin cover reminded Alicia of tucking Mum in for an afternoon nap in her later years, giving her a kiss on the forehead and tiptoeing away.
From the day their father moved out, Alicia made herself Mum’s bulwark against loneliness. By resentful, inchoate logic she’d concluded that sex was the root cause of infidelity, and decided on a celibate life. In an earlier, operatic time she might have entered a convent. Instead, she went with Mum to church as well as to countless church suppers and projects, and Mum came to all her high school plays and musical performances. From the time she went off to college, she phoned at least weekly, long conversations of the sort she supposed empty-nester couples must have, sharing their days’ activities, staving off the solitary.
She is fifty now, never married, never even seriously dated. “Are you gay? Or lesbian, do they call it?” Mum asked once, long ago.
No, she’d reassured Mum, no such inclination, just a determined spinster. “Sorry I won’t be producing grandchildren for you,” she said. “Jerry’s taking care of that.” She spent several years teaching at colleges around the country before finding the one that would give her tenure, but no matter where she was she never failed to phone Friday nights — after supper by Mum’s time.
Starting even before the divorce, she recalls now, Mum weekended alone several times a year on Cape Cod or the resort islands and harbors of the New England coast. “My centering-down retreat,” she called it, and they all accepted that. She never failed to come back with a souvenir tchotchke, a lighthouse or cottage or fishing boat or something like this breaching whale. No theme, no rhyme or reason, each like the others only in point of origin.
After the divorce, Alicia occasionally wondered why Mum never invited her to come along. Not that she was lonely herself – she was absorbed in her work, liked her students and faculty colleagues – but wondered if Mum didn’t sometimes want company.
Maybe, it now occurs to her, Mum had company all those times.
Her brother is four years her junior, too young at the time to care about blame for the break-up. Although Mum raised Jerry, he stayed close to their father, too, not only the alternate weekends stipulated in the divorce settlement but also there for birthdays, even splitting holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter.
She, by contrast, visited their father on the stipulated weekends through high school, but crossed that obligation off her list when she started college. Somehow, sitting at dinner with Judith made her feel she was dining with Bathsheba or Delilah. Not that Mum ever put the idea of temptresses into her head; Mum was a saintly model of forgiveness.
Or so it seemed.
Alicia puts the whale back on the shelf. They’ve agreed to give anything that might be useful to the church’s new retirement complex, the one Mum had hoped to join. Nonetheless, she can hardly send the whale there with that engraved dedication; imagine how tongues would wag! She reaches toward the next trinket on that shelf, a tiny replica of the Gay Head lighthouse on Martha’s Vineyard – reaches, but draws her hand back, knowing she will feel compelled to turn it over.
Perhaps it will be unsigned, making the pewter whale an anomaly, an innocent expression of chaste Christian love after some project undertaken with some stalwart of the church. She extends her hand again.
Or it may again be signed by Rick, whoever he is. If he went with her to Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, he probably joined her for most –or all? — of her getaway vacations on the New England coast, weekend outings whose bric-a-brac mementoes line all these shelves, an unanticipated unifying theme.
Or suppose this next one is signed by some other man? Suppose most of them are signed by different men? It is an unbearable thought. She draws her hand back again.
“C’mon, let’s see.” Jerry must have been watching, seen her hesitate. “We’ll keep it just between you and me, Cissy. No need to start a gossip mill. But I’d like to know, even if you don’t.”
Alicia takes down the lighthouse, turns it over and reads aloud. “Love, Rick. Great weekend!”
“Who would have thought?” Jerry grins. He seems detached, as though this were someone else’s mother. “Try another.”
Next on the shelf is a terra cotta replica of the Plymouth Rock, no marking except the big 1620 engraved on its face. Alicia turns it over and reads aloud. “You rock! Love, Rick.”
“Whoever it was, he had a sense of humor,” Jerry says. “Suppose he put a date on any of them? You have any idea how old these are?”
“The shelf over the sofa is oldest. Those are from trips before the divorce.” Alicia helped Mum put up most of the shelves for her trove of souvenirs, one at a time as the collection grew. She remembers securing that first shelf to the wall just after the divorce. It was immediately populated with a dozen knick-knacks that Mum had probably let her husband and children glance at, but must then have had hidden somewhere until she was living alone.
“Try the lighthouse on Shelf Number One,” Jerry says. He is obviously enjoying this, which Alicia finds tasteless and disloyal. She hesitates again.
“What’s the matter, Cissy? Want me to look?”
“No, I’ll get it.” She walks over and takes down the Race Point Lighthouse, turns it over, reads aloud again. “My joy that we met. Rick.”
“So that was before . . .” Jerry begins.
Alicia cuts him off. “Didn’t Mum keep a hammer in one of the kitchen drawers?”
“Second down to the right of the sink, if I remember. What are you up to?”
Alicia ignores her brother and fetches the hammer. She puts an empty packing box on the sofa, takes down Race Point again, cups it in her left hand, hammers. It stings, but the lighthouse shatters nicely into satisfactorily small, illegible shards. She empties her hand into a pasteboard box.
The Block Island Southeast Light is next; it too yields to the hammer. She winces.
“My God, Cissy. You going to bust them all? Hold on. I know where to get you a glove.”
She takes down a Cape Cod log cabin, but waits until her brother comes back with ancient leather work glove of their father’s. It is too big, but will keep her from bloodying her hand. Smash!
“And then what will you do with your box of rubble?”
Not having thought that far ahead, she improvises. “If I can get a little help, we’ll dig a deep hole in the back yard, and bury it.”
“I suppose that will work. What will you do with the whale?”
“Keep it, maybe. Melt it down? I don’t know. Watch out now.” Alicia hammers at the miniature replica of the Portland Head Light. Next comes a fish, a model of the cod that gave the cape its name. Then a fishing boat. A model Mayflower. None of them bigger than fist-size, all signed by Rick, all reduced to bits with a single sharp blow.
It takes twenty minutes to clear the living room shelves. Her hand aches. Jerry goes to the kitchen for a wooden cutting board on which to help hammer; she accepts. They move to the tiny dining room, then to Mum’s bedroom and the guest bedroom. There are a lot of shelves.
Finally done. “You game to help me dig the hole?” Alicia asks.
“You’re serious. Now?”
They work together, carefully removing the green sod, then digging a hole three feet in diameter. Jerry wants to stop at three feet deep down; it’s getting difficult to manipulate the long-handled shovels in the narrow hole. Alicia insists. “Deeper!”
She relents at four feet. They bring the packing box full of shards, heavier than they’d expected, from the house into the yard, and together tip it over. The broken bits cascade down, their unique identities united in obliteration.
“The grave of broken dreams,” Jerry says, starting to shovel the dirt back in.
“You probably don’t remember Yeats. ‘Vague memories, nothing but memories,’ he wrote.”
“You and your Irish poets, Cissy. No, I don’t remember it, but it fits.” He looks down at their chore. “Crown it a bit. It will settle.”
They stomp it down, add more dirt, finally piece the sod back together over a slight dome that anticipates the settling. “Done,” she says.
“Done. You’re really going to keep the whale?”
“For now, at least. Do you have Dad’s phone number?”
“Of course.” Jerry holds up his smartphone for his sister to see. “Here.”
“Got it.” Alicia dials the number, waits. “Dad? Cissy here. I’m in town for a few days. Thought I might come over to say hello. Been a long time.”