Five months ago I raised Gary and Mary Andrews from the dead. I took a wrong turn trying to find a Pampered Chef party to benefit Will’s eighth grade trip to New York City, and there it stood as close to the road as ever, their old house. Superimposed over the improvements of the recent owners, a small bungalow with cracked siding, smeared windowpanes, and a rusted oil tank figured into my vision. The mat of green grass dissolved into an unkempt lot of dirt and weeds supporting a display of junk: an old couch, a defunct Chevy, and rusted entities the purpose of which I never could say.
What happened inside that house remains there. All I know for sure is that Gary and Mary Andrews climbed onto our school bus every morning and never waved good-bye to anybody. We’d pull forward in a throaty puff of diesel, away from that little frame house, its once-white paint as gray as the dirt that always outlined Gary’s hands and shaded behind his ears. As a sixth grader, I didn’t realize children weren’t responsible for their own cleanliness, that Mary’s hair never glinted in the sunshine or smelled like baby shampoo because nobody helped her wash it; nobody thrust their fingers into her curls and scrubbed away the dust of a tumble in the yard with the dog; nobody applied a nice dollop of cream rinse to untangle knots from windy hours outside. I never stopped to think nobody in that house cared about them.
God help me.
So I sit now in the anonymity of my car, praying somebody steps out. Perhaps they’ll look around, notice me sitting here, walk forward and ask if there’s a problem.
No. No problem. I just knew the people who used to live here.
Might you know where they live now?
No movement, no fluttering of the drapes, no shadows behind the blinds. Always quiet here. It always was.
I pull off the side of the road, the heavy tires eating the gravel. I turn for home. I’ll find myself back here again soon. It’s become the way of it.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
I fell asleep last night to the eerie strains of “Blackbird,” my last conscious thoughts of broken wings and sunken eyes. Waiting for moments to arrive when broken wings fly and sunken eyes see, waiting for that moment of freedom, flying into the light.
If I had to listen to one musical artist or band or composer for the rest of my life, I’d choose the Beatles. Their music encompasses all the emotions, all the moods, and all the tempos I’ll ever need, taking me back to my childhood when my father would slip an album on the stereo, set the speed to thirty-three, and push the lever up to automatic. The fact that my father was younger and definitely cooler than the other dads around only helped the Fab Four become the thing to an elementary school girl who should have been listening to Bobby Sherman or the Osmond Brothers. I never really did go for the teen sensations.
Lying on my stomach, I would watch from eye level, chin resting on the back of my hands, and stare, gaze stuttering in and out of focus as the record fell to the turntable on the floor by the couch, the arm lifted, swung backward then forward, diamond-tipped needle poised with promise over the smooth outer rim of the vinyl disc. As it dropped with slow precision, I held my breath wondering if it would really make contact with the disc this time. Those old hi-fi systems didn’t miss the mark often, but they did enough to glue your eyes to the entire process and make your heart skip a few beats until the needle found its groove.
And then, after the static and scratch, Paul sang about his mother, Mary, comforting him, telling him to “Let It Be.”
I was a daddy’s girl, my mother having left him when I was two and then died not long after in a motorcycle accident with one of her precursor-hippie boyfriends. Nevertheless, I closed my eyes for the duration of the song, wishing she still existed and could lift her hand and rest it on my shoulder. She must have done that long ago.
Or maybe not.
During the strains of “Blackbird,” I dreamt of my father for the first time in many months, his dark, winged hair breezing back from his wide forehead. Snuggled in the comforter freshly snapped down off the line yesterday afternoon, I wallowed in the numbness of slumber as he returned anew. Nobody told me how precious dreams of the dead become, how our own subconscious somehow gifts us with the time and space to once again be with those who have left us behind.
And so I lay basking in my father’s presence, wishing so much for more time. But isn’t that always the way? There he was, living in that little house in Towson, and I only saw him once a week. How differently I’d do things if I’d known he was slated for an autumn death. An accident at work. He was a plumber, a fact that used to embarrass me, an expert at redoing historical houses during his last decade. Nobody knew that wall was ready to fall down. They were just doing the initial walk-through. He was only fifty-five.
The cool morning air spirals the window curtains, and I inhale the breeze off Loch Raven to the bottom of my lungs. At the crest of the hill beside our home, earth—turned over and ready for planting by the farmer who lives next door—casts its loamy smell over the yard. As yet, the sun rests below a horizon unadorned but for the crabbed Dutch elm standing long past its expiration date. I hate that bleached thing. Why my neighbor, a sweet widower nicknamed Jolly, doesn’t pull it down is as much a mystery as his very name. As far as I know, nobody knows Jolly’s real name, and Jace and I wonder if Jolly even remembers. Maybe it actually is Jolly. Jolly Lester. I always figured it was John or Jacob or maybe James.
Jolly tries to live up to the name. Lord knows the man tries. But some days, especially when the rain falls in a light slick from a platinum sky, his sepia eyes tell me he misses his Helen with the longing of someone who loved one person all of his life and was content, even honored, to do so. And Helen loved him back.
The distant buildings of Towson peek over the trees, and farther yet, Baltimore lies hidden to me here. But life is beginning again in those places that formed me into this woman I’ve become, for good or for bad.
I should pray. My father taught me to pray.
Jace stirs. “You awake, Hezz?”
I sit up and grab for my robe. “I need to get that turkey in the oven so it’s ready for sandwiches for the party this afternoon.”
“We’re having the end-of-the-year party for Will’s class here, remember? I’ve got a ton of stuff to do. At least I decorated the cake already.”
“Forgot. Would you like the shower first?”
“Nope. You go on.”
“What kind of cake?”
“Triple chocolate with white chocolate buttercream icing.”
“Mind if I take a piece to the office?” His mouth stretches into a smiley ribbon. He closes his eyes and I stare at my husband. Most women imagine that plainer women who’ve stolen a handsome man as their own must feel smug and superior having scored an undeserved hottie. Obviously, we’ve got brains or money or an extraordinary sense of humor to have nabbed such a prize.
Let me say, it isn’t as easy as it looks. I know what people think when we walk into a restaurant. Tall, lean, good-looking Jace with his wavy brown hair and smoky eyes, his easy assurance, his ruddy skin warming up the room. They must wonder how on this green earth a little old roly-poly like me ended up with a movie star like him.
For the first ten minutes I’m conscious of myself in ways Jace has never made me feel. But he’s just Jace, even in posh restaurants, placing his hand on the rounded waist that expanded with the growth of his child, smiling into eyes wrinkled from many afternoons squinting in the sun at swim meets, and laughing at my jokes that are only funny because of context, not content.
And they don’t know that cucumbers give him terrible gas, that he can be a real jerk when he’s sick, that he shuts down when he’s mad, and that he still draws stick figures. They don’t know that he doesn’t call his parents nearly enough . . . that he gets upset about my spending habits, which I must admit are sometimes a little over the top. But it’s too beautiful a morning to think about that.
I give his head a quick scratch. “I’ll get you a cup of coffee, sweets.”
Eyes still closed, he smiles. “I don’t deserve you.”
“Well, looks notwithstanding, that’s probably true. Because I’m a good Christian woman, I seek an almost-perfection from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same. I volunteer at school; I once hosted a foreign exchange student; I color my hair, exercise at least three times a week to keep my temple from collapsing; I wear lipstick. Sometimes I wear two colors at once to manipulate the perfect coordinating shade with whatever Eddie Bauer or Talbots dreamed up for the season.”
He squints. Why not continue?
“I tote a Vera Bradley purse with matching change purse, cell phone case, and makeup bag—which, honestly, I’ve never liked, Jace, but the Vera rage burned a couple of years ago at church, and I convinced myself a quilted handbag with a Noah’s ark theme was not only a fine idea, but a potential witnessing tool, like a Jesus fish or a cross necklace.”
“It’s just a purse, hon.” Jace leans up on one elbow. “You sure you don’t want to shower first?”
“You know, I figured if I wore it steadily for three years, it would come to about ten cents a pop, and surely that’s not bad, is it?”
Jace shakes his head, throws back the covers. “No, Hezz, it isn’t.” Under his breath he mumbles, “That purse is the least of it.”
I wonder how long it’ll take before he sees the new deck furniture. I’m glad I remembered to hide those bags from T.J.Maxx.
The coffeemaker is burbling like the creek on the west side of our property, the one that soaked Will clear down to his skivvies after he played in it at least four afternoons a week once the warmth of spring overlaid the fields and the woods.
Every so often that stream floods, and I am frightened for my son. Good reasons for this abound. Will was a wandering, curious tot with a certain “Don’t you know I must be about my Father’s business?” air about him.
Six thirty in the morning, and the forty-five minutes before I must awaken my son stretch in front of me like a sun-warmed path to the beach. I’m never alone, it seems, even with just one living child (and I wanted ten, but those thoughts are definitely for another day, or maybe next year). I feel so confined, as if my skin has thickened, hardened like the dried-up skin of a past-due tangerine, and inside this shell I’m fighting to be free, to be young and full of hope that I’m made for something more.
More than motherhood?
Justifiably so, the women at my old church would never understand these thoughts. Any woman who wanted more than motherhood wanted too much. But something inside me claws with puckered lips and shiny-bright eyes, believing it will drag not just me but all those I love right along with it onto a new roller coaster with longer drops to go speeding down but greater vistas from which to view the world.
I don’t know how I know this, other than I’ve known it for years, known I was created to do something out of the norm; known that only one pregnancy out of five actually took because I wasn’t cut out to be the mother of many nations; I wasn’t destined to think that Elisabeth Elliott and her daughter have it all sewn up.
Gary and Mary Andrews fit into this somehow. See, right now I’m living in a puzzle, the box lid having just been taken off, and I stare down onto the pieces, some clear, some hidden, and they work together somehow, but I’m just looking at them, smelling the woody pulp, and wondering, all the while knowing it’s designed to do so, how in the world I’ll make it all fit together and look like something real. Even the box lid sports no picture to guide me.
But first, the turkey.
Sliding the small bird out of the refrigerator, I lay the chilled pan on my soapstone counter. Just had to install those soapstone tops after a particularly enlightening episode of Martha Stewart Living on HGTV. Oven, 375 degrees. Rack in the lower third. Good. Poor bird, forced to give up its life for us. We’ll eat every bit. After all, through no choice of its own, the creature sacrificed its life for our protein consumption, so how can I casually pitch it into the garbage without giving it some kind of meaning?
Thus the plethora of soups and casseroles that line the extra freezer in the basement; I long to give them away, but without a church home, who would I give them to?
Thus my weight problem.
But, honey, I can do more with a can of cream of mushroom soup than Paul McCartney ever could have hoped to do with two guitars, a bass, and drums. Although he did have Ringo to train. I have to allow for that.
I’d better vacuum a bit before we leave for school.
How do I live like this? The kitchen and family room alone spread out before me, larger than our first place down in Anneslie, a peasized second-floor apartment in an arts and crafts bungalow with a galley kitchen and a living room/dining room combo. But ah, the woodwork.
I insert the hose into the wall vacuum.
Less to vacuum there in Anneslie too.
Every year I think there must be more to life. And every year—despite a new car or a trip to a new land, new milestones and triumphs in my son’s life, or a redone deck, a pool, a spa, or an entertainment system—I take stock and think once again, I was made for more than this.
But I love my stuff.
The hose jumps to life and I scrape the head back and forth over the cream-colored carpet.
Of course there’s always church and God. And Jesus.
Something smells funny. Is the unit going up already?
Now Jesus, I get Him. I just wish I didn’t forget Him when I open my eyes each morning and the day descends.
But church? Well, we left ours a year ago and still haven’t found a place to settle. The praise songs had become so repetitive, the messages more of the same old “practical living advice” with a couple of Bible verses thrown in for good measure; and I was tired. Really, Jace and I were both just tired out. And there never seemed to be hope that a break was coming, that we wouldn’t spend the rest of our lives doing this “stuff.”
When Jesus said, “I will give you rest,” I tend to think He meant the whole gamut, not just spiritual.
I finish the family room and the area rugs in the entry hall.
Jace enters the kitchen and refills his coffee.
“Jace, do you ever wonder what it was like for Jesus when He woke up each morning? Did He dread opening His eyes? Did He think, Oh, Lord, all these people! People, people, people everywhere. How did it come to this? And why am I always the one who does the nice things? When was the last time anyone, especially one of these disciples, thought to do something nice for Me? I have a feeling He didn’t. He had no sin. He didn’t carry around this darklight in His chest.”
He pauses, coffeepot held midair. “Heather, are you okay?”
“Yeah. I just wonder about stuff like that sometimes.”
“I’m a little worried about you. You seem really stressed.”
“I’ll feel better once the school year’s done and this party is over.”
“That fund-raising gala really took it out of you.” He sets his mug down, walks over, and puts his arms around me. “I really love you, hon. You know that, right?”
I just burrow my face into his shoulder. I can’t look at him when he starts making loving proclamations. If his professions are an accurate indication of his emotions, Jace adores me. So if he backs them up with candles and flowers and that sweet smile, why can’t I believe him? With these sponge cake hips? This raggedy C-section scar? Come on, man! Where are your standards?
My hair is so greasy, and here I am snuggling into him. How can he stand it? “You know, Jace, with your looks, money, position, and exposure to the female kind in your practice, you could locate some remix of Martha Stewart with a little Gwyneth Paltrow thrown in for good measure. Some days I wonder why you don’t.”
“I don’t know what more I can do to prove to you how much I love you, Heather.”
He kissed me awake yesterday morning and whispered how much he loved me. When he got into the shower after I pretended to enjoy his lovemaking, I cried.
“What’s wrong with me, Jace? Why can’t I believe you? Why have I never believed you?”
“I don’t know, Hezzie.”
“It’s not you.”
“I know. I’ve always known that.”
“It’s got to be getting a little old.”
“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.” He pours me a cup of coffee, and we stand on the side porch as the sun rises on this final day of school, peering through a misty sky, lighting the world as though nobody has given it permission and it doesn’t want to overstep its bounds. I turn around and refold myself into his tallness, and his arms surround me. I do love him.
“We need to get away together, Hezz.”
“Yeah. Far away.”
See, we fritter away our lives making enough to provide ourselves with four-star accommodations when we crawl home each night, and when all that isn’t enough, when our bones are pitted and our muscles wasted, when our hearts are emptied out and imploded, we just want to get away from the reminders of our own foolishness. My foolishness. Deep in my heart, I know this life on the hill over the lake is mine.
Jace never wanted any of this.