I wouldn’t have even found it if I hadn’t needed something for a costume party. We were supposed to dress as if we were from an earlier time. My mother certainly was, so I thought the things stored in her closet might have something I could use, like a weird hat or a feathery scarf.
I waited until she was out doing errands. Then I stood on a chair to get a closer look at the shelf. There was a large box that I knew held her wedding dress. She showed it to me once. It was one of those high-necked gowns with a million buttons going down the back, which seemed fitting since she was so buttoned-up herself. She couldn’t even talk about sex without looking as if her face was freezing.
I poked around but couldn’t find anything exciting. Then I noticed a small box hiding at the back of the shelf. I couldn’t imagine what was in something small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. The box had the enamel finish we used in my art classes, with some kind of design painted on the top. It was hard to open, as if it had been closed for years. When I did get it open, I almost fell off the chair. Lying on a bed of tissue paper was a strand of yellow hair!
I couldn’t believe my mother saved something like that. She was always telling me to get rid of things that weren’t useful. I was putting it back when I heard, “What do you think you’re doing?” Mother was standing in the doorway, staring at the box.
I blurted out, “Whose hair is that?”
“Get out of my room!” As if I were going to steal that stupid hair. She didn’t even mention it after that. Her silence made a distance between us. I should say more of a distance, because there had never been much closeness. She didn’t go in for hugging. The same for my father, who was mostly away on business trips. Even when he was home, he was lost somewhere behind a newspaper in the big armchair.
Mother never told me not to tell him about that hair, but I kind of knew. I sensed a mystery, so a week later when she was out I dared myself to look again. I climbed on the chair and looked all around the shelf, but the box was gone!
So then I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It was the absence that kept it in my head. Lying awake at night I made up stories about that hair. My favorite was that it was from a baby who died before I was born. She was the little girl my mother really loved, not me with my stringy black hair. I pictured her having sapphire eyes and curly hair. Mother must have been disappointed when I arrived, scraggly little thing. And Dad was so devastated I wasn’t a boy he turned into a robot. At that point I felt so sorry for myself, I’d start crying. But quietly, so Mother wouldn’t open the door to ask what in the world I had to cry about, one of her favorite questions.
After a while I forgot about my stories because life was too full of real drama. Mother found out that Dad had a girlfriend, and gave him the choice of giving up ”that woman” or leaving. So he left. He patted me on the shoulder and said he’d see me soon, but I was mad at him for deserting me. I was also surprised he’d had enough love in him to love anyone else.
Mother didn’t cry when he left. Just walked around with her lips pressed together, like she was locking up a lot of things inside her. So we sort of co-existed in a space where nothing ever got said. Nothing real, I mean. She never said Dad’s name, and the times when I visited him he didn’t mention her. I figured they were both good at erasing the past.
A year later it was time for me to escape to college. I did wonder how my mother would feel rattling around in an empty house, but if it bothered her she didn’t say so. Didn’t say she’d miss me, either. Is there something about leaving home that makes you want to be closer? Make sure you don’t leave much unsaid?
The last night I knocked on Mother’s bedroom door. “Come in,” she called out. She was sitting at her dressing table putting cold cream on her face. I stood there watching her, wondering what to say. I wasn’t going to get into, “Are you sorry I’m leaving?” or “Will you miss me?” Questions only good in a movie. Then I realized she was watching me through the mirror. Maybe it was the way it was reflecting us together, but suddenly I wanted to know her better. Words flew from my lips I hadn’t planned, “Whose hair is that?”
You’d think she’d have said, “What hair?” But what she said was, “I’m surprised it’s taken you so long to ask.”
“Did I have a baby sister?”
“Not that I know of;” her laugh hit against me.
“Then who?” I asked.
She went on creaming her face. It looked like a mask, “A friend,” she finally said; “When I was your age.”
Friend! Why hadn’t I thought of that? “What’s her name?”
Mother hesitated, “Celia.” Her voice had a kind of Do Not Trespass. She got up and walked past me, slippers slapping against the carpet; “We’ll say our goodbyes in the morning. Close the door on your way out.”
I went off to college and other things took over my mind. Like feeling I didn’t fit in. All that the girls in my dorm could talk about were boys from our “sister college.” They would arrive on Saturday evenings for the weekly dance. You were considered weird if you didn’t go and, of course, catch a boyfriend.
The first time I decided to try out my clumsy skill, I let my roommate put make-up on me. “Don’t let him go too far,” she advised. I wasn’t sure where the boundary of “far” was.
The boy who asked me to dance acted as if he were doing me a favor. He kept pressing his body against me and I kept edging away, but I didn’t know how to tell him to stop. “We can have some private time in my car,” he whispered in my ear. When I told him I wasn’t interested he said, “I guess you’re the frigid type.”
Like my mother?
At the end of the term I got a summer job as a waitress in that college town. It seemed like a good excuse not to go home. When I called to ask Mother’s permission, she said it was good I was earning money to help with my tuition. She sounded more distant than ever, but maybe it was the poor connection.
The next phone call came to the restaurant. The manager said to make it snappy. He was mad when he saw how I stood there clutching the receiver afterward. It was Dad who called. My mother had fallen down the stairs. Probably a stroke. They called him because he was still listed as “next of kin” on her old medical records. He sounded annoyed about that. “I can’t get there,” he said. “You better come. And tell your mother to update information about herself.”
It was so different seeing her in that antiseptic white room, helpless in a bed, surrounded by machines recording whatever was going on inside her. I leaned over the bars to kiss the cold cheek. Her eyes flickered on me, then away. “She may not know you,” the nurse said.
No one had taught me what to say to a woman who couldn’t remember I was her daughter. “Glad to see me?” I asked. She looked past me, where the curtain was blowing from the air conditioner. “I know it’s been too long,” I said; “But I’m back.”
Her lips were struggling to form a word. “Celia,” she said.
The house felt too empty. I wandered from room to room, tangled in memories. I sat at her dressing table, staring at my face in the mirror. How much did I resemble her? The closet door was partly open, showing a row of skirts and suits in neutral colors. I had no interest in the shelf anymore. I opened the drawer in the table. A journal? I never knew she kept one. As I flipped through the pages some words caught my eye. I miss my daughter. The house is so silent without her laughter. I wish she weren’t staying away all summer. If only….But here she stopped. I looked in the mirror again. “Why couldn’t you tell me?” I asked; “What else haven’t you said?”
I bought flowers on my way to the hospital. Irises, her favorite, though they don’t last long. She used to plant them in the small garden beside our house. Once I heard my father tell her she should plant something more practical. Tomatoes, I think. “It isn’t the length of time that’s important,” she said; “It’s the beauty they give while they’re here.” I remembered that because it was so unlike her.
She looked better, propped up on pillows, “Hi Mom,” I said, kissing her cheek. Her skin felt warmer. I pulled up a chair and sat beside the bed. Too close for her to evade my words, “Yesterday you thought I was Celia.” I heard her breath catch in her throat; “Tell me about her.” Merciless of me, she was so frail. But I wanted to know – needed to know – the girl who became my mother.
A long moment. Then she began, her voice husky, “We were in the same class in high school. I couldn’t stop looking at her, she was so beautiful. Frail, deep hazel eyes, long golden hair.” She paused, trying to get breath; “We began walking home from school together. She’d invite me into her house and make hot chocolate for us. Her parents never seemed to be home. They had some kind of jobs with the church. They were very religious.” Her voice had a bitter edge, “Celia said she’d been named for Saint Cecilia.”
I waited while she looked at the light coming through the window. “It looks like a nice day,” she said.
“You were telling me about Celia.”
“Was I?” She closed her eyes, cutting me off.
Update your information, I was supposed to tell her. I laughed. That must have surprised her because she opened her eyes and looked at me. “Celia,” I said.
“Yes.” She took a breath; “We shared things about ourselves, how we couldn’t wait to be older and free. She never said what ‘free’ meant but I knew, because I felt the same way. I could share things with her I couldn’t tell anyone else, because I felt so safe with her.”
She was coughing. I waited, “Does that satisfy your curiosity?” Her voice had a tinge of her usual sarcasm. Not really, I thought. But her eyes were closed again. The nurse came in to say visiting hours were over.
I went back to her bedroom. It struck me how impersonal the room was. Plain navy bedspread, dark walnut bureau, bare on top. Even her dressing table looked spare, no clutter of makeup, like in my dorm. No photographs, as if she’d banished herself from her own room. I opened the top drawer in her bureau. Wrong to pry when she was unable to defend herself, but I was searching for a clue. It was the third drawer before I found it. Under a neat pile of white cotton panties. The enamel box. Taking it out I realized what was painted on it: a miniature iris. I hesitated. Then I lifted up the fragile top. The box was empty.
When I walked into the hospital room next morning she was half sitting up against the pillows but looked awfully pale. This time I didn’t have to prod. “You really want to know about Celia?” she asked; “No one ever has.” Before I could answer she plunged in, as if it had all been pent up inside her, “We began meeting in her bedroom, where it was warmer. She had a canopy bed. I was so jealous. I wanted that kind of bed but my mother said they were ‘dust collectors.’”
“So then?” I asked.
She looked at me, no fogginess in her eyes now; “She let me lie down on that lovely bed. The first time, I just stared up that white canopy. I told her it was like being enclosed in a peaceful space. She climbed on the bed, beside me, ‘Don’t let me fall off,’ she said with that musical laugh of hers. I put my arms around her. She was so thin my arms went all the way around her waist.”
She stopped – seeing herself and Celia lying there? I was seeing them, too. Embracing. Innocently? Or was there something my mother wasn’t saying?
“One afternoon it got later than we realized. Suddenly her father was there, shouting that I was to get out and never come near his daughter again. Celia was so afraid of him she curled up, whimpering like a hurt puppy.”
Her voice was choking. She gestured to the pitcher of water. I gave her some, holding her head up so she could drink. It felt strange to touch her.
“There were only a few weeks left of our school term, but she avoided me, wouldn’t even look my way. We had planned to go to college together. But her parents arranged to transfer her to a different school, run by nuns. The last day she got brave enough to send a note across the room to meet her in the bathroom. It had to be quick because her father had told the teachers to watch us, that I was an ‘evil influence’ on his daughter.
“I told her how sorry I was to have gotten her in trouble with her parents. She said I shouldn’t feel like that, she was the ‘wicked’ one. Then she slipped something into my hand, whispered two words and ran out. I saw I was holding a lock of her hair.”
“What were the two words?”
She closed her eyes. “Remember me.” She gestured for more water. I poured a glass for her, surprised to see how my hand was shaking.
“And afterward?” I asked.
“There was no afterward. She wrote one letter, but it didn’t sound like her, just about her classes and books and how strict the nuns were. All that she couldn’t say was invisible, between the lines. Her parents had made her – both of us – feel as if we were bad. She was only seventeen – your age – when she…she… .” Tears were running down her face. It was the first time I had ever seen my mother cry. She brushed the tears away, as if they shouldn’t be seen.
“She what?” I asked, though I knew what she was going to say.
The word tolled between us. I was silent, trying to imagine that young girl and the one who had lived to tell her story.
“She killed herself. Her parents told everyone it had been an ‘accidental overdose’ of medications. That was a lie, I know it. They couldn’t admit suicide because it was sinful. They were the sinners!” Her voice was a hoarse shout, drawing the nurse into the room. I waved her away. But my mother wouldn’t be stopped. .”Why…why…,” she struggled to get the words out, ”why was it wrong for us to love each other?”
I had a crazy moment of jealousy. Jealous of a dead girl my mother had loved.
“I couldn’t make myself go to the funeral. That would have meant believing she wasn’t here.”
“Where is her hair now?”
She stared at me. I realized I’d revealed my prying. But I didn’t care. I needed every scrap that would open the door between us.
“After you found her hair, I felt as if it wasn’t my secret anymore. And I realized I’d never given Celia the proper respect … love … not going to her funeral, never going to her grave. So I made a private funeral. I buried her hair beneath the flowers in the garden.” She stopped, as if she’d exhausted all words.
I was looking at a stranger. The passion in her voice, this woman who happened to be my mother. How much love was frozen beneath that ice?
I heard her voice again, fainter. “There’s something I need to say.”
“It’s all right, Mom. I shouldn’t have….”
“Let me speak! I’ve never said…I haven’t been an affectionate mother. I think ever since Celia I’ve kept my feelings locked up inside me. That’s what drove your father away. It’s late now, but I want you to know how much I love you – and have from the first moment when you were put into my arms. But ….” She was choking on the words she tried to get out; “…. afraid if I loved you that much, I’d lose you, too.”
There you are, I told myself. Isn’t this what you were so hungry for? She was looking at me, waiting. But I couldn’t speak. Sorrow and anger were warring inside me for all I had lost. For all we both had lost.
Reaching between the metal bars I held her hand. In our silence there was only the machine recording the fading beat of my mother’s heart.
Anne Hosansky is the author of five books and a dozen short stories published in the US, Canada, England and Israel. Recently a story was featured in “The Carolina Quarterly;” another in “The Tulane Review.” Currently a memoir piece is scheduled for the British magazine, “Moxy.”