THE WESTBURY ARMS, APARTMENT 15A
My mother is dead and I can't seem to feel the least bit sad about it.
I didn't go to the memorial service. Aunt Clara sighed heavily when I told her I couldn't go, but she didn't protest. "Don't worry yourself," she said, plucking at the veil over her smooth white hair as she preened in the mirror. "It's not like you didn't give your mother respect while she lived."
Now an assortment of strangers and dimly remembered faces are milling about in the apartment. I don't like having all these people in my home, but what can I do? Mother would expect me to be gracious.
Murmuring in solicitous tones, our guests wander through the living room, graze at the groaning table in the dining room, then zoom in on the bar manned by Clara's latest boyfriend. I lean against the wall and frown, trying to remember the man's name. Arthur Somebody-or-Other, a banker from the Wall Street district. The latest in a string of dignified elderly escorts Clara keeps on hand for fund-raisers and funerals.
I shake my head, grateful that Clara-who is bound to me by circumstance, not blood-has remained a constant in my life.
She has taken care of all the terrifying details. From the time I pounded on her door Monday afternoon until now, she has been completely in charge. She came and examined my mother's body; she called the funeral home; she spoke with a minister to arrange the memorial service. She even managed to find the envelope containing my mother's final wishes among the crowded drawers in the antique desk.
"Your mother left nothing to our imaginations," she said, holding up the envelope and the letter. "She is to be cremated and interred in her niche at the columbarium . . . and everything's been prepaid, of course. Reverend Jennings of St. John's is to lead the ser-vice, which should be short and sweet, with no eulogies. She wants Giorgio's to cater the wake because they always do a wonderful job, and later I'm to go through her papers and get rid of anything you don't want to keep. Everything she owned is now yours, a copy of her will is on file with her lawyer . . . so you see, dear, she thought of everything."
In that moment, I felt the burden of responsibility shift from my shoulders to my mother's. Everything I've done for the last ten years has been focused on making her life easier; I had no idea what to do for her in death. The hospice nurse had tried to explain certain procedures, but I'd been so convinced Mother would live many more years that I didn't listen.
Mother must have known I wouldn't want to let her go.
Clara stopped by this morning to check on preparations for the wake. "You understand why I can't go to the funeral, don't you?" I'd asked.
"Of course I do, darling." She took my hand and led me out of the kitchen, where the caterers were unpacking their coolers. "Mary Elizabeth would understand, too. And trust me-once she realized she was sick, she decided she wanted people to remember her as she was before the illness destroyed her mind. I've spoken to the minister, and he's agreed that the service will be simple, only a brief gesture, really."
I nodded in relief. Mary Elizabeth Wentworth Norquest would want her burial handled with the same no-nonsense approach with which she managed her business affairs . . . and at that moment I'd been too numb to fully appreciate how much work she'd spared me.
A weakened heart had taken my mother's life two weeks after her seventieth birthday, but dementia had begun to erode her personality years before. The detailed funeral instructions Clara found had to have been written in '94 or '95 . . . back when Mother could still remember who and where she was.
In those days, she could even remember who I was-her daughter, not her enemy.
I close my eyes, momentarily reliving the pain of those final years, then turn from Arthur the banker/bartender and wander to the windows on the south side of the dining room. Through the sunny arch of glass, I see Manhattan rising around me, the black tarpaper rooftops of neighboring buildings mingling with patches of green from terrace gardens and the metallic reflection of a majestic copper dome. Far below, near the street I can't see beyond the stony ridge of my window sill, a pair of twin spires rises from a church that once hoped to impress city dwellers with its architecture.
But time changes things. That church, which once lorded over nearly everything in this block of Manhattan, now squats amid more imposing structures like a poor relation awaiting a handout.
A woman touches my arm and whispers. Her voice can't compete with Arthur's gregarious chatter, but I smile as if I've understood every word.
"Mary Elizabeth was a strong woman." The stranger raises her voice and taps
my arm as if to anchor me until she's delivered her cargo of sympathy. "We will
I resist the urge to bark in laughter. My mother hasn't left this apartment in years; Clara and I are the only ones who will miss her.
I am already aware of her absence. My mind keeps rushing to fill the void, and I find myself catching glimpses of Mother from the corner of my eye-I see her hunched at the kitchen counter, her long braids unraveled, her gaze vacant, her hands aimlessly searching for some object she can't identify. Last night I thought I saw her swaying in her bedroom doorway, but when I turned, the only movement was the subtle stir of curtains at her window.
I smile at the departing stranger, then turn back toward the view, grudgingly making room for the guilt that has attached itself to me like a shadow. As heartless as it seems, I don't think I'll miss my mother once the funeral has passed and I've adjusted to living alone. Does a woman with a migraine miss the pain when it ends? The last decade of my life has been filled with countless trays of oatmeal and soup, piles of filthy laundry, boxes of adult diapers. Apart from Clara and my invalid mother, my only companions have been small shames, frequent reproaches, and constant weariness.
Despair lived with us in this apartment, and I hope-desperately-that it died with my mother.
As another woman accepts a drink from Arthur and turns in my direction, I move away from the window. If I appear to be on a mission of some sort, perhaps people will think twice before speaking to me. The solitude of the last few years has left me feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable with strangers. I've never been a brilliant conversationalist, but today I don't think I could manage a coherent conversation about the weather.
My mother, however, could talk to anyone about anything. If she were here and healthy, she would be standing by the bar, making quiet tsking sounds as she studied me. "Chin up, Aurora," she would say, a hair of irritation in her voice. "You are the equal or better of anyone in this room."
I wander to the bar and lean on it, seeking Arthur's attention. "White wine." I lower my gaze from the banker's broad smile. "Please."
Arthur What's-His-Name is kind enough to remain silent, probably mistaking my discomfort for heartfelt grief. He slides a glass toward me and I take it, thanking him with a nod before I cross the room on a diagonal, pretending to be on an urgent errand.
When I reach the opening to the living room, I lean against the doorframe and sip my wine, keeping my gaze low lest it snag someone else's and invite conversation.
Before she became ill, my mother never tolerated my conversational weakness. Mary Elizabeth-M.E. to her friends-wore strength like a tiara. She could stride into a room of strangers, greet everyone from the butler to the host with the proper bon mot, and command the respect of every observer.
When I was old enough to stay up and be introduced at Mother's parties, I used to sit on a settee in the living room and watch as she reigned over a gathering of New York's finest families. The mayor and his wife would often sit at her left elbow, while the chairman of the Greater Manhattan Committee for the Arts would stand at her right, nodding like a puppet as Mother waved an elegant hand over her assembled guests. She would introduce me, bask for a moment in comments about what a dear child I was, insist I say a few polite words, then send me off to bed.
I almost always crept back down the long gallery to watch from the shadows.
Even as a woman with no husband, Mary Elizabeth ruled with grace and dignity. Hindsight and intuition have led me to believe she held sway because she exuded old money and prestige, but in my younger days I thought her power sprang solely from her beauty, poise, and charm. Handsome men circled her at every opportunity, and the nouveau riche yearned for the stamp of respectability an invitation from Mary Elizabeth Wentworth Norquest could bestow.
I suspect that stamp had begun to lose its luster by the time I became a brief fixture at Mother's illustrious parties because she could no longer deny she had a child . . . the offspring of a brilliant novelist and a horrible man.
I never knew my father, but numerous eavesdropping occasions assured me that he had been lured away by the light of some European beauty. He could have kept the Englishwoman as his mistress, but when my mother announced she was expecting, he chose to abandon her in the fragility of pregnancy. The divorce lawyers had finished their battles by the time I was born. While hiding beneath a Louis XIV chair one night, I learned that my father had returned to America to finalize his divorce the same month I was christened. Theodore Norquest scandalized my mother's friends when he appeared in Manhattan only long enough to sign the necessary paperwork and catch a jet back to London.
"You must be Mary Elizabeth's daughter." A hoarse voice jars me from my memories. I turn and see a gaunt man with a shiny head. His flesh, dotted with age spots, hangs from his jaw like skin from a soup bone.
"So sorry for your loss. Your mother was an exceptionally lovely woman." The man squeezes my hand with surprising strength, then moves away without bothering to introduce himself.
His flesh felt dry and creepy against my skin, reminding me of dead flesh. My
thoughts flash back to a book I read on the ancient Romans-one of their torture
techniques involved strapping a criminal to a freshly deceased body. As the
forces of decay began to break down the corpse, they began to attack the living
I wipe my hand on my skirt, shivering at the thoughts of malevolent bacteria and viruses. The apartment stirs with strange smells and unfamiliar noises and whispered conversations like the buzz of angry bees.
I want these people out. I need to be alone.
I swipe hair from my damp brow, then set my half-empty glass on a table and move through the foyer, heading toward the bathroom off the gallery. When I find it empty, I slip inside, close the door, and lock it with trembling fingers. I lower the toilet lid and sit down to stare at the monogrammed towels on the rack.
M.E.N.: Mary Elizabeth Norquest.
I breathe deeply, trying to calm the rise of frustration in my breast. This ritual must be endured; the wake is the final farewell. When it is over and these people are gone, surely the last dregs of despair will go with them.
This apartment has known so much private unhappiness. In my early years, my mother must have abhorred the thought of being a divorcée. Divorce was common enough in the early seventies, but not among women of Mother's status. Clara has told me that for the first year or two of my life Mother completely withdrew from her social circle, only reappearing when Charley, Clara's husband, offered to shelter her under his cloak of respectability.
Clara doesn't like to talk about those years, but faded photographs from my mother's albums speak volumes. In these collections I've seen Mother, Clara, and Charley in frozen moments at dinners, at the beach, at balls and museum openings. Charles Bellingham apparently acted as an escort to both women until a heart attack felled him in 1982.
I knew Charley as a doting uncle. When he died the winter I turned thirteen, I remember being shocked when the Times obituary didn't list me and Mother among his survivors. Blood might be thicker than water, but in my mother's circle, shared champagne bound people more closely than blood. I will always appreciate Clara and Charley because they took pity on a husbandless friend and allowed Mother to resume her life.
I have searched those photo albums many times, but never found a picture of my father.
I lift my head as someone raps on the bathroom door. "Aurora?"
"Are you all right, dear?"
Releasing a deep sigh, I tunnel my fingers through my hair. "I'm fine."
"Will you open the door, please? Several people would like to pay their respects to you."
Somehow I rise and unlock the door, then open it. Clara stands in the hall, one hand absently stroking her sable collar, the other firmly on the doorknob. "Thank you, dear. I know this is hard for you, but it'll be over soon enough."
"It's just . . . so many people. I don't know any of them."
Clara's bejeweled hand pats my arm. "They're your mother's friends."
"But we haven't seen them in years."
"How could they visit your mother in her condition? Be grateful they came today. M.E., God rest her, deserved such a send-off."
She's right-and I know this can't be easy for her, either. Smiling in acquiescence, I cross my arms and study my mother's dearest friend. A succession of face-lifts has tightened the skin around Clara's forehead and mouth, but an unusual worry line has worked its way into the flesh between her brows.
"Mother would be happy to know so many of her old friends came."
"Indeed she would-so come out and mingle a bit more, would you?" She turns slightly to survey the crowd in the living room at the end of the gallery, then rises on tiptoe as a stranger enters the foyer. "Excuse me, dear, that must be the writer for the Times. I promised to give him details-but goodness, I wish he had chosen a more appropriate coat. To wear tweed to a funeral . . ."
Shaking her head, she glides away to intercept a young man in glasses and a rumpled sports jacket. I draw a deep breath, then spy an empty seat on the bench in the foyer. If I can traverse the gallery without being noticed . . .
Pressing my lips together, I stride down the long hallway, then slide into my favorite seat. When no one approaches, I turn to watch the mingling guests in the living room. Some of the faces are familiar-the director of the New York Symphony is here, with a new wife dangling from his arm. (I've never met the woman, but I read the account of their wedding in last month's Sunday Times.) Dr. Montrose Helgrin, my mother's physician, has come, and with him are two men who seem more determined to empty their buffet plates than make conversation.
When Dr. Helgrin glances my way, I stand and hurry back through the gallery. The kitchen is filled with caterers; I've been expelled from the bathroom; the storage room is a mess-I dart into the next open doorway, which leads to the library. A trio of older women stands in this room, heads together as they sip from their teacups. A fourth woman stands aloof from the others and idly runs her fingertips over an Incan fertility statue, one of Mother's favorite treasures.
I turn toward the bookshelves as if I'm desperately searching for something. I run my finger over the leather-bound spines as a spasm of irritation tenses my nerves.
"You can see M.E.'s sense of style everywhere," one of the trio says. "She was really something."
"Wasn't she? Such passion and grace."
"And her wit-no one could ever get the better of her. Trust me, you didn't want to get on M.E.'s blacklist. The woman had a memory like an elephant."
"I'll say. Remember her ex-husband? I always said that if ever a man deserved forgiving, Theodore Norquest must be that man. Not only was he handsome, I hear he's worth millions."
From the corner of my eye, I see the tallest woman stroke her throat and laugh. "Billions, my dear. He's richer than the queen of England. Almost as wealthy as that British woman who invented Harry Potter."
"Yet he didn't provide a penny for Mary Elizabeth or the girl?"
The tall woman glances around the room and meets my curious gaze. I am certain she will blush and stammer out an apology, but she only looks at her friends and lowers her voice. "Mary Elizabeth said she would never take money from a louse. She didn't need it-the Wentworth fortune provided more than enough for her and her daughter."
After a startled instant I realize these women don't know who I am. I am a stranger in a black dress, a face they didn't see at the funeral-why, they probably think I'm a maid!
"I'm surprised she kept his name," another woman adds. "Hating him the way she did."
"She did despise him, but she had to think of the child. And I think she rather enjoyed the association with his fame."
"She possessed a remarkable sense of pride," says the third woman, her eyes skimming over me as if I'm no more than furniture. "So few women do these days."
An inadvertent smile crosses my face as I linger beside the bookshelves. Though my mother's Manhattan has faded from the pages of the Times' Fashion and Style section, these older women remember who and what she was. They have come not only to mourn my mother, but also to pay homage to a lost way of life. They have come to step on Mother's plush woolen carpets, inhale the scents of her leather-bound books, and handle the delicate Wentworth china. Later, around their dinner tables, they will eat carry-out from cardboard takeout boxes and strain to make themselves heard above the rumble of the television. They will tell their husbands or significant others that today they attended a matriarch's funeral. They will say an era passed with Mary Elizabeth Wentworth Norquest.
Reaching the end of the bookshelf, I turn to negotiate another pass through the apartment. No one, I notice upon reentering the gallery, has ventured back to Mother's sickroom. Though the door stands ajar, our guests avoid it as carefully as they avoided her in her last years.
A small woman with silver hair and bright blue eyes stops me, her face lighting with recognition. "Lenora? Can it be you?"
"Aurora." I force a smile. "Yes, it is me."
"My goodness, child, how you've changed. Where have you been keeping yourself? I remember hearing you were engaged, so I'm sure you've gone off somewhere to raise a family by now."
I shake my head. "The engagement didn't work out. So I've been here, taking care of Mother."
"Oh! What a dear girl you must be." Her eyes crinkle at the corners as she touches my cheek. "You must have brought great joy to your mother. I know she loved you dearly."
Then she is off, moving past me into the storage room where the women have hung fur coats and deposited neat little handbags. I watch her go, then thread my way through the crowded kitchen and dining room, smiling at Aunt Clara, Arthur the banker, and a pair of pleat-thin older women I have never seen before.
Clara said people wanted to pay their respects, but no one else stops me. When I have made one complete pass through the public rooms, I return to the gallery and walk at a quick pace until I have reached the corner bedroom my mother used-the one room no one has entered to exclaim over Mary Elizabeth's impeccable taste.
I close the door and stand behind it, my palms pressed to the painted wood. This door has not been closed in years, because closing it meant I might miss some signal that something had gone terribly wrong. Yet even with the open door and a baby monitor beside Mother's bed, I heard nothing the afternoon a heart attack took her without warning.
I lower my forehead to the door. I ought to be weeping, I ought to feel some loss, but I feel . . . nothing. Are my emotions frozen because dementia robbed me of my mother long before the heart attack, or am I too exhausted to feel anything? Maybe I'm experiencing the mental equivalent of the physical shock that occurs after a traumatic injury.
I back away from the door and turn, catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror over the antique dresser. The brown eyes looking back at me must be my father's, because they have nothing in common with my mother's eyes of icy blue. A mass of dark hair creeps below my shoulders in raveled hanks; my mother's natural color was honey blond. In her latter years she let it go silver gray and wore it in a sleek chignon. Even in the sickroom, I took pains to keep her hair braided and neat. I could not risk having her wander into a public hallway looking like anyone less than Mary Elizabeth Wentworth Norquest.
A wry smile tugs at my lips. My mother and I were about as alike as mustard and custard, so I'm not surprised few of the guests recognized me. If I had worn a white apron over this simple black dress, no one would have looked at me twice.
I lift my head as someone coughs outside the door.
"Aurora? Darling, are you all right?"
I glance back at the mirror. The woman in the looking glass certainly seems all right. Her eyes are clear, her cheeks dry, and her mouth is still tinged with a faint tint of pink lipstick.
From a deep reserve of willpower, I find my voice. "I'm fine, Clara. Do you need me?"
She opens the door and peers at me, then the ghost of a smile touches her mouth with ruefulness. "I can't keep chasing you out of hiding places, dear heart. Is this really too much for you?"
"I'm sorry. It's just . . . uncomfortable for me out there."
Her cloudy blue eyes sink into nets of fine wrinkles as she smiles. "Then don't worry about a thing. If you need time to yourself, you should take it. I'm only wondering if-well, this feels a little awkward."
I sink to the edge of the hospital bed. "What is it?"
Her brow furrows as she steps into the room. "I hate to bother you like this, but you and I both know your mother was a complete pack rat. Since so many of her dearest friends are here, I was wondering-would you mind terribly if I gave a few small things away? I think Esther would adore the little Limoges box on the dining room mantel, and Gloria would love to have the cut-glass paperweight from the desk. They were your mother's friends, and I know they'd love to have some little token to remind them of her."
Something stirs in my soul-a dim memory of Mother's hand curled around that paperweight as she worked through a stack of personal correspondence. For an instant I want to cling to it, then I remember I never write letters.
"If Gloria wants the paperweight"-I meet Clara's eyes-"Gloria should have it."
"That's very sweet of you, dear." Clara's birdlike hand squeezes my wrist. "Has this completely exhausted you?"
"I only need a few minutes to gather my thoughts."
"You take as long as you need. I'll stay until the last guest leaves if you want to rest."
I nod and close my eyes, but a sudden thought makes me look up. "How long will the caterers be?"
Clara glances down the hallway, then shrugs. "I don't know, dear. Maybe an hour after the guests have gone. These are good people; they'll put everything back to rights-"
"Ask them to leave with the guests, will you? I'll clean up."
She narrows her eyes until they almost disappear in her taut cheeks. "That's not necessary, dear. Cleaning is part of their job."
"I want to be alone, Clara."
Clara stares at me as if I've suddenly taken leave of my senses, then she nods and closes the door. I am overcome with weariness, but I would never nap on this hospital bed. I slip from the mattress and curl into the recliner by the window. This chair knows me; over the years it has shifted to accommodate the curves of my hips and the jut of my bones.
In the compliant embrace of the recliner, my pulse slows, my nerves relax. I pull back the heavy curtains and study the familiar skyline. In the rooftop garden across the street, the bearded man's Japanese maple has nearly lost all its leaves. Autumn has advanced, announcing her inexorable arrival with shorter days, threadbare trees, and steel gray clouds that obscure the taller Manhattan rooftops.
I lift my gaze to the ceiling, where a water stain has formed on the plaster. I will have to call George, the building superintendent, to check for a leak . . . when I find the energy.
A wave of self-pity threatens to engulf me, but I push it back. I am fine. My mother is dead, but for years the essence of Mary Elizabeth Wentworth Norquest has been fading like a spent flower. I have given ten years of my life to nurse her, but she sacrificed far more than that to care for the child of a successful novelist and despicable man.
We are even. All debts are paid. Tomorrow, my life can begin.
I lean back and push the chair into a reclining position. I grimace when the soles of my black pumps touch the upholstered footrest-even in the fog of dementia, Mother railed against the sight of shoes on the furniture.
But she is no longer lying in the bed next to me, and this chair is destined for the nearest thrift store.
And I am ten years tired.