> WAITING FOR THE TINKER
by Linda Ty-Casper
Before visiting her at the hospital, I stop at Mother’s apartment, using the key she gave me when I moved out to college. Nothing out of place. No clutter of any sort. A woman of discipline, Mother made her bed as soon as she got up in the morning, left no dishes unwashed in the sink.
At sixteen Mother, the fifth of ten children, left the family inn on the Fox River in Wisconsin to work in Boston, a “continent” away. She saw the city’s picture in her father’s book, knew no one there, but went.
The Chauncy Street apartment has not changed. A small Persian rug rests under the coffee table; the glass étagère standing next to a chest of drawers with linens Mother told me are mine, anytime I want them. The tall screen with tropical birds, hand-embroidered by an aunt, still cuts off the corner view of the Cambridge Commons. Above the fireplace is that amateurish painting of a Maine seacoast. Unsigned, it must be Mother’s own work.
Looking about, I try to fit my life into that place where Mother has lived some fifty years, since she and Father, married only a year, moved from Rice Street in North Cambridge. Avoiding my reflection, I stand to the side of the étagère filled with crystals which belonged to Father’s mother. I can’t recall any piece ever being taken out except to wash once a year in the spring, until the top shelf slipped, breaking every last piece.
Grandmere lived with us while I was growing up. Her bedroom overlooked the Commons. Chirping French ditties, she scattered birdseed and sprinkled bread crumbs on the sill where birds nested. We watched fledglings growing feathers. When she still could, we walked to the Commons where she talked to the markers commemorating the generals who fought in the Revolution, staying longest by LaFayette to whose room at Wayside Inn she liked to take me. She left me a set of Alexander Dumas, pere: D’Artagnan, Regency, and Madame Antoinette. All 38, except for Volume 18. Then she began to wander, especially at night so Father had to put locks, above her reach, on the outside doors; growing smaller and smaller until I was taller than she.
After Grandmere was moved to Morningside, Mother and Father took over her room; their bedroom becoming the guest room. Mine remained the tiny one off the hall across from the coat closet. Over its single window a willow grew over a maple sapling; sealing the room. I hated being sick in bed for days there. After I left, those memories darkened my sleep with nightmares.
I wanted Grandmere’s room. I had expected to move there, where I used to sit, watching children on the swings and slides in the Commons. I was about eight then. I wished I had a different mother.
As if I were still that child, I place my pocketbook on the kitchen table where I did my homework. Pots of African violets are blooming over the sink. My husband Peter sends Mother slips from his plants that will definitely drive us out of the house, so healthily do they grow under his care.
I glance at the courtyard below the window facing Chauncy. A border of begonias, reminds me of the yellow mums from Woolworth I bought her from my first babysitting. She gave them to the woman on the floor directly below. The color was too bright, too strong for her—like direct sunlight. The scent bothered her, too.
I look for Mother’s picture in The Gazette when, courageously at 83, she surrendered her license at the Motor Vehicle Registry. Following Mother’s example, a couple more seniors turned in their licenses that year. The picture was her pride and joy.
The phone rings. One of Mother’s friends in the building must have seen me walk in. I stand still, holding my breath as though that would give away my presence, staring at the gold-rimmed Czech dessert plates on the coffee table, at the ceramic pot of pink hyacinths nudging the tea cozy. Who was she expecting when she fell? Was it a stroke? Did she catch her heel on the rug? One question follows another . . .
When the ringing stops, I lift the clay bird from Costa Rica from the scrapbook on the coffee table. The cover is embossed with a lily. Inside, newspaper clippings of letters to editors. Mother and the five friends, Thursday evenings, wrote jointly on such subjects as retirement benefits, city hall corruption, saving the elms and plane trees along the Charles River, historical markers in the Commons; and cats, cats, cats.
I loved listening to them reading aloud to each other. After Margaret moved to Florida to be near her daughter, and Marion to Sacramento where four sisters and a brother lived, their meetings became afternoon teas, during which Fay, Trissa, Callie, and Mother might work on a quilt or sew skirts for Christmas trees to be raffled off at the Morningside Terrace Fair. As their eyesight dimmed and their stitches began wandering, they strung paper clips into necklaces—also for the fair; all the while remembering, remembering . . . It was, I suppose, their way of sparking the impulse to write.
I close the scrapbook carefully, sit facing the bookcase beside the fireplace, running my eyes on Father’s books with leather bindings. Nowhere are the books Grandmere gave me.
Swings rasping in the Commons playground draw me back to the window. Just a week ago, Mother and I had walked across to the Black Forest where she ordered turkey sandwich, a slice of chocolate mousse, and coffee. Lunch was usually some place at the Square, Mother refusing new places where the menu listed chicken breast à la Raquel Welch.
Four days a week, I do research at Widener for Malcolm Holmes; among other things, tracking the origin of computers back into history, Greek included; whatever project Professor Holmes had in progress. Onto my carrel go disparate volumes on folk tales, architecture, deconstruction, side by side with ideas for store window displays.
Peter works in our garden, building ponds among ornamental grasses where once a blue heron feasted on the gold fish. Having invested in balanced and growth funds, Peter welcomed early retirement to work full time on his many hobbies. On Patriots’ Day in April, he runs the Boston Marathon, always finishing. Training all year round, he runs mainly to be with his sons, whom he also joins at cause-oriented demonstrations. He has given up expecting me to run, too.
Unlike Mother, I never had a child. It’s a critical issue between us. She keeps telling me which friends are expecting another grandchild . . . She does not like Peter’s sons calling me Mother. They are not her grandchildren.
What Mother and I have is not a close but a respectful relationship, with occasional cordiality. She was of the old school, did not spoil me with affection, extending me just the bare essentials of caring. Praise she reserved for other people’s children. Even as a child I knew that love demanded criticism, but gently; not withholding it altogether, but infusing it with some affection. Her idea of love was to demand perfection, telling me to get a haircut that would minimize my strong nose. “Don’t be afraid to tell the stylist.” No matter how I fixed my hair though, she found it wrong for my face.
Should I be here? Need I? Am I checking Mother’s apartment only to mollify her friends who, as if I were the hospital’s patient-information desk, have been calling to ask how she is. Might it have been better if I had gone to the hospital to hold her hand? Strangely, I can’t recall Mother ever holding my hand when I was small. In the pictures I remember, it was always Father holding my hand. I don’t know where those pictures are now. I do know, after Grandmere died, Mother picked out a few good photographs from Grandmere’s boxes and kept just those. Whether she gave the rest away, burned them, or just threw them . . . I don’t know.
I never expected Mother to ever get sick. She looked a young sixty, instead of eighty nine, though one Friday, something like fearfulness—a hesitation—framed her smile. When I suggested that she see her doctor, she replied, “He retired, don’t you know? I’ll wait for the tinker.”
It’s what she tells me about the pots with holes as big as jelly beans. Waiting for a tinker to solder them whole again! to repair lives, too! It was pointless to tell her tinker is now just a word in the dictionary. Over her fireplace hangs the sign in flowered letters—Tinker—that she found in the antique shop above the grocery store on Mass Ave where she shops. I avoid looking at it, the way I avoid arguments.
I feel guilty about not feeling something deep for her. Not that she had any use for feelings. She made herself an exciting life, had a child, just the things she wanted. A friend, with whom I exchange worries, thinks that mother-daughter relationships are rooted in deep anxieties; full of pitfalls. No relationship is perfect: aiming for that results in distress, even depression.
I never knew what to insist upon with Mother, whose closing argument to all our discussions was, “I do have friends in this building, you know. Friends of long standing.” And she did. Their ages add up to 273 or so. If you merely heard them speaking, you’d not think they are old at all. Trissa is a poet; has a small book published when she was 23. Writing around ailments, she’s writing an epic about a woman whose lifetime spans the Greek and Roman ages to the present. When it’s finally done, she will hire a typist, volunteer at the Alice James to qualify for publication with the cooperative. The few pages she allowed me to see—perhaps to prove she was really writing—show a brilliance and tenacity Ezra Pound would have admired; and secretly envied. Mother never showed me what she is writing.
Fay was born the same month and year as Mother. When they still celebrated birthdays, they held theirs jointly. Fay always brought Mother an elegant black box with something small but fancy inside; a lace-edged handkerchief, a scarf or a cloth belt hung with beads every so many inches; small things that improve greatly inside a black box, wrapped in fine tissue paper; things that might have delighted Cleopatra. Fay made the gifts herself. Mother gave her books, each inscribed with a new poem in her honor.
Calista has been Mother’s friend longest. I went to school with her children whom Mother still thinks the world of, tracking all the trips they take; the promotions they’ve had, their houses in the Caribbean and Yarmouth. Younger than Mother, Callie has more and deeper wrinkles from summers of sitting out on Revere Beach and in Cohasset. Mother never liked the sun. The glare off the waves and sand gave her headaches. In the spring and fall, when pollen covered window screens she lay in bed with headaches. I wonder if it also sealed her lungs, eventually causing the shock?
Her friends give me scant attention when I take them for a drive and hot fudge sundaes at Brigham’s; later, at Steve’s; talking incessantly about writing, veering to astronomy, to wrapping-as-art; history—through which streets, exactly, cattle used to be run past Harvard Square to the slaughterhouse in Watertown. They insisted on precise routes; comparing the spring and the fall blooms on the way to the witch hazels drooping over the lilac house near St. John’s, always returning by Spy Pond where they used to picnic.
From the moment I pick them up, they exchange stories they had just heard. One professor stays in his apartment because to move meant strangers would touch his books; another was confounded by the copying machine in the basement of Widener. They knew who used to live in the house where Ahmed’s Restaurant opened, used to see Jack Kennedy at Bickford’s, before he became President. Those days, they told me, young men did not wear caps to the table, or stir their coffee with the handle of teaspoons.
I turn to the sound of the swings rasping in the playground. Should I feel guilty? I took Mother to lunch every Friday. Seven was the most she and Father ever did in a year: one for each change of season, one for each of our birthdays.
To hide from the sound of the swings I sit in the front room where every chair is covered with Mother’s needlepoint. Almost immediately, I hear her calling: “Lemonade or cider? I’ll bring the glasses out myself. Sit. Don’t get up.”
Mother avoids my help by insisting the kitchen is big enough for just her. She is afraid I’d open cabinets and throw out the flour or something. The last time, even before I could peek inside canisters for weevils, she said, “I just got that flour. I used to bake cakes and cookies, don’t you know?” Trying to smooth things, I said I was looking for sugar for my coffee. “Try the one marked sugar,” she said, not missing a beat. She was precise to the point of hostility. Was that how she disguised her love?
I get up, sit down again. The fireplace reminds me of our last Christmas Eve together when we had eleven kinds of desserts—a ritual she insisted upon, buying them after she could no longer roll them as thin as were served at the family inn.
That last time, we took turns hanging ornaments, starting with our favorites: Mother’s the wooden creche, and Father’s the angel bearing a candle. After Father placed the fabric star on top of the tree, I hung Noah’s ark with a giraffe at the stern and, in Grandmere’s memory, a glass angel. The boxes emptied, we had hot chocolate, mine with miniature marshmallows, and sat watching the white lights blinking among the needles. That last time, Father had bought an angel of translucent capiz to place on the mantel. He said it was made in the very island in the Philippines where he had landed with MacArthur. He was barely twenty then. I wonder if the angel was one of the things—memories Mother called them—that were given away; thrown out, so as not to burden the present.
As usual, saving the main gifts for Christmas day itself, we each opened a box at midnight. Father’s gift to Mother was a set of napkins woven of pineapple fibers. “It takes a whole day to add an inch, that’s how fine it is,” he explained, holding one up to the light.
Mother took it from him, her hand itself transparent. She looked, as I remember it now, as if she might fall asleep against the several pillows plumped behind her. Then just as suddenly her eyes quickly brightened, and she was telling Father, “I thought of baking bananas in coconut cream for dessert but I couldn’t find coconuts and, even if I did, I wouldn’t know how to get the cream out. We used to have that everyday, working for United Fruit in Costa Rica. That’s how many years ago? Well, we wouldn’t want to know, would we?”
Eyes closed, Mother continued, “The other girls wouldn’t touch it but I loved it. Each day we left our cottage by seven, after coffee and toast. The bus brought us back by eleven. You couldn’t work longer than that, it was so hot. We took a shower and a nap. In pajamas, mind you. By three, after lunch, we were back typing or filing in the office. At seven we returned to the cottage. We swam, showered, napped. Dinner was at nine. If a ship came in, there would be a dance and dinner aboard. First course was always a bowl of snails. I hated snails. I’d rather dance anyway than eat. Once Lindberg came to visit the plantation, so we got a chance to be friendly with him.”
I knew Mother also worked at Schrafts in Boston because she was forever saying how funny people were, wanting fresh chocolate when chocolate has to ripen for months before they’re ready to sell, but only when she mentioned it that Christmas eve did I learn directly about Costa Rica.
I wish I had asked questions, not just listened to Mother and her friends exchanging stories about themselves. I wish our walls were covered with photographs of all the years we had together. Growing-up photographs.
I wish I had asked Father. I do not know if he was ever in Costa Rica.
I first heard him mentioned walking Mother home during the 1936 Nor’easter. Mother hadn’t realize how strong the wind had grown until she saw a man holding a little boy by the hand, and the boy’s feet were inches off the ground. Carrying two bottles of wine she had been given in the office, that afternoon she dropped off the trolley on Chapel Street, kitty corner from Longwood Towers. People were being blown away, so bellboys linked arms, forming a chain to which people could cling. Mother knew some of them because she used to dance at the Towers where, she said, rich widows lived as close to heaven as they could get.
Usually she took the trolley to Kent Street, in Brookline. Sunday afternoons, she listened to the concert in the Trinity Church where the statue of Phillip Brooks, who wrote “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” faces Copley Plaza. On the way home she walked to the Public Library across the way to sit in the courtyard, read, or just watch people.
Did Father walk alongside her, pulling her against a building, while peaches and apples and pears dropped out of the sky; and one by one the poplars along the school fence were pulled up by the roots to be deposited in a straight line across the street? Was Father the one who, when Lindberg visited Costa Rica, turned out to have gone to school with him? The one she went horseback riding with into the howler monkey country?
I’ll never know either how long she lay in that apartment waiting for help, until Trissa rang the bell and, alarmed at getting no answer, knocked at the building manager’s office.
Actually, I had thought of going to Mother that day, except that she would have thought it strange for me to come, out of schedule and without a reason. Beside, on a recent birthday Peter and I had given her a Life Line to summon the police and fire department if ever she fell and couldn’t reach the phone. She could not be talked into assisted living. “$150 a day! You can’t get every cent’s worth out of that! As long as you drink orange juice with the bacon, you don’t clog your arteries.”
Did she keep things from me out of love? Was it of herself that, in an unguarded moment, she once said, “Another two ribs turned to sand.” The matter-of-factness in her voice frightened me, kept me from asking, “Whose?” I can’t imagine piles of sand inside anyone’s body.
I stand up against the window but shut my eyes to the Commons, wondering if she had called for me when she fell. If we had ever told each other secrets, would Mother have reached out with her hands, “Help me up. Come.”
Will the hospital call me when she wakes up or do they summon only after; I turn to face the sitting room, eyes closed, imagining Mother and myself sitting across each other; she holding her head the way Father’s mother used to. Have I played with her life, like a child playing with dolls, making an excuse of feeling locked inside her in the subordinate position of a child in order to excuse myself from extending her open love? Was it myself or her, or both of us, who were past affection? I know I never saw her cry; but she never laughed outright either, only smiled. One day, in his teasing mood, Father told me, “You are just like your mother.” I did not take that as a compliment.
Why can’t I recall if she let me lick the spoon when she baked, the day after Thanksgiving, the Simnel fruitcake she served for Easter; if we picked autumn leaves to press between the pages of Father’s encyclopedias? I check my watch. Thirty minutes I have been running inside myself, wishing it were up to somebody else to break up Mother’s apartment; the sister or brother I never had?
I decide to leave but not whether to return to work, or home, to sort out the accumulations of years in the house where Peter’s parents used to live. Then as on a whim, coat in hand, pocketbook over a shoulder, I enter the room which overlooks the Commons and the markers of Revolutionary War generals; which Father and Mother took after Grandmere died. I am surprised to see my bed, my desk on which are arranged the books Grandmere gave me. Framed above the headboard are the badges I earned in Girl Scouts. My dolls and the soft Mother Goose with green apron and bonnet sit on the chair by the window, almost the way I imagined, when I was eight and wanted the room for myself.
Quite stunned, I close the door, walk past the coat closet on the way out, but passing my old room, the dark one, open it; and find Mother’s dresser, blanket chest and bed standing side by side in the tight space. I walk to her writing desk against the window darkened by the grown willow and maple. Centered on the desk is an album. I lift the cover and find pictures of myself growing up, in proper and orderly sequence, smiling. There are Father and Mother, beside me at the carousel in Nantasket, the three of us between the sand dunes at Truro, picnicking in Arcadia, Rhode Island, where Mother poured, on the foot I had cut on the rocks, the perfume she carried in a small vial in case she ever felt faint. There is the three of us in front of the UN building, riding a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, admiring the magnolias on Commonwealth Avenue, at the Gardens in the Swan boats with rows of tulips along the walk; at the lighting of the trees and the creche in the Boston Commons, by the Frog Pond with children skating, in the courtyard of the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum . . . I am wearing the dresses, the shoes, the hats she bought me at Calliope on Brattle Street.
Below each photograph is a poem, with sketches of tiny flowers separating paragraphs. At the top of each page, written in Mother’s neat but bold hand is the title, Sometimes, My Body Remembers Singing. It is the book that Mother is writing.
Coyright © Linda Ty-Casper 2011