by Sam Savage
I remember (much later) my mother’s collection of lavender dresses.
I have (an imaginary) painting of my imagined mother sitting in a white chair, a wooden white-painted kitchen chair this time, not one of the wicker porch chairs, in the yard at Spring Hope, wearing a lavender dress, in front of a wall of blossoming wisteria that reaches all the way to the top of the frame.
She is sitting up very straight, feet together, hands folded in her lap, the way she did in fact sit often.
I want to say that my mother sat primly, often.
Putting my eyes close to the canvas, so to call it, I see that she is smiling faintly, the way she smiled when downcast, or “in the dumps,” as we liked to put it, wanting to minimize or even belittle, when one of us—where by “us” I mean one of her children, not Lila or Papa—would say something we thought cheering or comical or, I suppose, even endearing, not exactly to comfort her so much as to entice her back from whatever place she had wandered off into.
I want to say that in this picture her mind is elsewhere and that she is smiling distantly.
The painting is called Portrait of the Artist’s Mother with Wisteria, I think.
And then I think of hysteria, of course.
She dressed in lavender every day and for every occasion except funerals.
People must have thought this predilection for lavender was wildly eccentric, I imagine now, though I don’t recall anyone ever mentioning it.
By the time I was old enough to understand what was being said she had become just one more odd thing that people had grown used to, I suppose.
The white chair, the one my mother is sitting on in the picture, was in the kitchen until it broke, and then it was leaning on three legs against the back wall of the chicken house, where the paint curled off it and termites chewed up the feet.
I remember (later) dragging the chair over to the wire incinerator so Verdell could throw it in.
Baudelaire and Mallarmé were crazy about Poe.
Baudelaire and Mallarmé were great writers, supposedly, but they were not very good readers, it seems to me.
Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Rimbaud all sit together in a little drawer in a corner of my mind, as “French poets I have read a little of.”
James McNeill Whistler is also in that drawer, as a friend of Mallarmé’s, even though he was not a French poet.
James McNeill Whistler sits with Claude Monet and Michelangelo in another little drawer as well, this one labeled “Painters my mother had books about.”
In talking of these people I am of course referring to the memory images of them that I have carried with me from childhood—images and figments that include not just pictures, but words, smells, and so forth—and not to the actual historical persons about whom I could, were I so inclined, find accurate information in an encyclopedia.
The figments and images are not information about anything except the furniture of my memory, and were I to learn tomorrow that Whistler and Mallarmé were not friends, had never encountered each other even once, they would continue to sit together in the same little drawer.
Though I am in fact quite certain that they—meaning now the actual historical persons—really were fond of each other.
I remember thinking Whistler was a funny name for a painter.
None of us thought it funny that Lila’s last name was White.
Why is human the name of a race?
I am a member of the human race. I am a member of the National Audubon Society.
If you pronounce Audubon’s name in the correct way it sounds funny.
Audubon changed his first name from Jean-Jacques to John James so as not to sound funny, presumably.
I became a member of the human race in 1940.
I became a member of the National Audubon Society in 1951 or 1952, on my birthday.
It was the birthday after the one on which I became a member of the National Geographic Society.
My parents thought of it as nourishing the mind.
The National Audubon Society was not founded by John James Audubon, I found out later, sadly.
Lila’s husband was named Alvin Junior.
I don’t pay dues to remain a member of the human race.
Standing at the living room window, I watch Maria walk away down the street, a sturdy diminutive woman rendered dwarfish by my height above her, going off with quick, determined steps, a large black handbag cradled in the crook of an arm, a broken strap dangling. A beetle-like shadow creeps at her feet.
Maria is good natured, kind, resilient. She is well equipped for life, I can’t help thinking, able to withstand the blows of fate and inclement circumstance, and so forth. She probably can’t even imagine herself in the situation of someone like me, who is thoroughly ill equipped, can’t imagine wandering in a dark forest as I am, I want to say, constantly, even though it is not like a forest actually, where I would be stumbling into trees, bushes, and so forth, thorny thickets and such, probably. More like a place without boundaries, enveloped in a thick fog, an almost impenetrable vapor, populated by vague shapes that don’t become clearer as I approach, a desert, if there can be fog in a desert, rather than a forest.
Sometimes I think of it as the inner reaches.
After grocery shopping with Lester, stopping at the drugstore for more paper. Writing a few pages and then filing them away.
The file drawer rolls on little metal wheels and makes a smooth, oily, sinister sound when I pull it out, followed by a rustling of dry leaves as I thumb through the folders. It reminds me of the drawers they keep bodies in at the morgue, on television.
It is half full of my pages.
There are other, empty drawers below that one.
The sentence, “More even than death itself she feared running out of paper.”
I remember arriving home long after bedtime and being carried from the car half asleep.
I remember climbing the stairs to my room, dragging my feet as if too tired to take another step, and knowing I was pretending.
I remember pretending to be sick.
The time I thought I was pretending to be sick and then actually became sick.
The discovery, later, that I could actually make myself ill by pretending with sufficient intensity.
The times, much later, when I pretended to be crazy, so people wouldn’t know how dull and thoughtless I actually was.
Even today, lying in bed with my eyes closed I can summon the memory of the swaying motion of being carried, a memory so definite, so physically vivid, that if I didn’t know better I would assume my bed was gently rocking.
Though perhaps what my body is remembering in this way is not the specific sensation of being carried when I was very small but a much later experience—of the swaying motion of a rope hammock that hung on the lower side porch and that I spent hours reading in, and playing in, and fought for the possession of with my brothers.
And that periodically broke and was repaired with mismatched scrap rope and twine until there was finally more repair than hammock and the whole thing resembled something constructed by a shipwrecked sailor.
A tall magnolia rising and falling on the other side of the banister.
I remember my father carrying me out to the car so the dogs wouldn’t muddy my school dress.
I remember fallen leaves under the magnolia, big brittle glossy leaves with fuzzy undersides that we would carefully select for just the right curvature and find worms and beetles to put aboard as passengers and launch on the goldfish pond where the wind would blow them from one side to the other, and that rattled when you walked on them. I remember bright red seeds dangling on tiny filaments from the cones, and stringing them on thread to make a necklace.
I remember once a copperhead crawling into the magnolia leaves and Papa clawing at them with a rake while I held the dogs back.
The knowledge, in the back of my neck, that Maria is standing quietly in the doorway behind me. I don’t turn around and she goes back to th
More and more images. Isolated. Fragmentary.
Deciding to repair a shattered vase, and discovering that half the pieces have gone missing.
It is unclear to me now what I was hoping for, or what I am doing exactly.
The sentence, “Overcome with emotion, she could only point.”
I remember my brothers using the wisteria vine to climb to the upper porch where I lay in my bassinet. I have a clear image of the two of them, bare-chested and in shorts, pushing aside the wisteria to scramble over the railing.
They had red war paint on their faces and chests.
I asked Thornton, “Do you remember climbing the wisteria at Spring Hope?”
If that were a true memory I would not be in the picture, wearing a pink bonnet, in the bassinet.
I don’t remember a bassinet otherwise.
I remember a car with the passenger door open and a single red tomato sitting on the dark brown fabric of the front seat. I have often told people that this is my earliest memory, though I actually have no idea why I think that.
Looking in the closet this morning and noticing again how many lavender and violet garments I own.
I am surprised mysteria is not a word.
I can stop at any point, I remind myself.
Stop writing, I mean.
Though I probably won’t stop until I am too tired to go on.
Ending in that case without concluding.
Sparrows congregate on my feeder, hopping and pecking. Some fly off, others fly in, or maybe the same ones return, one sparrow resembling another exactly, unlike chickens, which except for the completely white ones are easy to tell apart.
I have a black-and-white cat that sits on the window ledge of the building across the way. It can sit there for hours. It is crazy about my sparrows.
I get other birds besides sparrows on the feeder, just ordinary town birds for the most part, cardinals, jays, chickadees, titmice, and the like, but sparrows are the most common by far.
It isn’t a feeder, properly speaking, just seed spread out on a broad plank that Lester has nailed to the window ledge.
One summer we were given chickens of our own that no one was supposed to eat.
Edward told Lila he wanted to eat his chicken and he did.
Then Thornton ate his, just to show Edward.
I told them they had better not eat my chicken, but it died anyway.
Edward and Thornton tried to fly by holding an umbrella and jumping off the roof of the chicken house.
Nothing happened except they broke the umbrella.
I remember Edward throwing our cat in the goldfish pond.
The time I put my hair up in Mama’s hairnet and played dress-up with Thornton, clumping around in enormous shoes and bickering like married people, and Edward said we looked stupid.
The time I hid in the dark pantry eating dog biscuits with Thornton.
The time Edward squeezed my head so hard it hurt.
The time Mama gave me a Sears and Roebuck catalog to cut up for paper dolls.
The times I was happy playing paper dolls with Thornton.
I don’t remember when we stopped keeping chickens.
I remember Papa going outside to shout for Verdell and the two of them walking over to the chicken house and tearing it down.
I remember “It’s cheaper to buy eggs.”
Maria has moved my suitcase again. I can’t imagine who she thinks is going to trip over it.
I tell her I am not going to keep Thornton waiting while I rummage in the closet trying to find my suitcase.
When Maria leaves I’ll go to the closet and once again carry it back to its place by the front door.
A green nylon suitcase with wheels and a handle that pulls out for towing.
Though we never talk about the suitcase, never even say the word suitcase, we are engaged in a silent struggle over it.
As over my shoes, which Maria puts away the instant I take them off, unless I say to her, “Maria, please leave my shoes there,” by the sofa, for example, if I have taken them off to watch television.
She doesn’t like it that I write on the walls.
I remember a green station wagon with wooden sides and clusters of pale mushrooms sprouting from the wood. I remember Papa digging them out with a screwdriver and filling the cavity with putty from a little can.
I remember rolling the leftover putty into little balls and setting them on a porch railing to harden, and the smell of my hands afterwards, and how the balls crumbled to bits when I tried to play with them.
Though it might actually have been Thornton who got the leftover putty and rolled it into little balls.
I suspect a number of my early memories might actually belong to Thornton or even to Edward, and I just took them over, ingested them, so to speak, after hearing one or the other talking about them.
Though “That memory belongs to me, not you” does seem a funny thing to say.
I remember dung beetles rolling balls of dung bigger than themselves, and my mother saying they were really scarab beetles.
I remember learning what metempsychosis means.
When I recall the mushrooms sprouting from the car, the unpainted weathered wood of the house, and how rarely we received new clothes, I am amazed that as a child I was able to go for so long thinking we were wealthy.
The cat, its tail twitching, watches my sparrows, but it won’t try to jump across. It knows the distance is too great and that it will fall to its death if it tries, and the sparrows know this as well and are not disturbed by the cat.
They are dumb creatures, as people say, but they know more than Edward and Thornton did when they jumped off the chicken house clutching an umbrella.
I remember the coal bin, a man-high box built right up against the side of the house back of the kitchen, with a trapdoor in the tin roof for adding coal, which is where I learned what trapdoor means.
I remember a big dirty coal truck, the coal men in filthy clothes standing straddle-legged on the bed, bending to the hummock of coal with wide, flat shovels, their skin a lusterless black, except on warmer days when the driver of the truck displayed rivulets of pink skin where the trickling sweat had washed it.
I remember Verdell carrying scuttles of coal in from the bin, one in each hand, Mama saying, “Hold the door for Verdell,” and a scuttle standing by the fireplace in every room. I don’t remember all the rooms, not from that period, when the scuttles would have stood there, though I do remember them all from later, when I wandered aimlessly in and out of them followed by dogs.
Maria has never heard the word scuttle.
I remember how coal tastes.
Nat King Cole came on the car radio and Mama made us all hush.
We drank water from a spigot to get the coal taste out. Thornton had black around his lips.
At some point we stopped heating with coal, and at some other point after that Papa and Verdell ripped the bin down and tossed the shattered planks, crumbling and riddled with little tunnels, into a heap in the yard. Hundreds of termites spilled out and Thornton stamped on them.
I asked Lester if he had seen my hairbrush, though he never goes in my bedroom, which is where I lost it, on the off chance. He went down and looked in the bushes in case it really did fall off the window ledge.
In portions of Africa, and other places also, I imagine, people take for granted that the spirits of the dead—their ghosts, I suppose, or their souls—linger among the living, an uncanny invisible presence that is nonetheless obvious to everyone.
It would be ridiculous of me to say that there are no ghosts just because I personally don’t see them, when a great many other people do.
Maria and Lester both claim to have seen ghosts.
Failure to see them might just mean that something is wrong with me personally, that I lack the proper mental apparatus, or that my apparatus was damaged by my education.
Perhaps the sam
e kind of apparatus Maria’s mother had used to see the Virgin on a church roof.
I can’t for the life of me make out what Baudelaire and Mallarmé saw in Poe, which does not mean there isn’t something there.
Though that would be a different kind of apparatus, I imagine.
Or the problem might be that having become thoroughly estranged from my parents by the time they died I am estranged from their ghosts as well, who actually have lingered but are now refusing to show themselves to me out of spite.
On the other hand, if they lingered at all it would have been at Spring Hope, since it is places and especially houses that are said to be haunted, people more rarely, though I never saw them there either.
Unless Mama is in fact showing herself as best she can.
Which would be why I can’t stop thinking about her.
She won’t let me stop thinking about her.
I want to stop thinking about her.
Yesterday, Sunday, I was alone all day. I spent a long time making two deviled eggs for lunch. I ate one and then wasn’t hungry anymore.
If I had a dog, I would have given it the other one.