The Infidelity of Nostalgia
It began when she discovered that all the coffee cups were clean.
It was her daughter-in-law’s doing. Before the funeral, she had wiped down the countertops, loaded the dishwasher, and set it to run while they were away. She had done it somewhat out of dutiful kindness, but mostly for the want to find routine again, in the aftermath of Hospice visits and empty pill bottles and reeking bed sheets. To replace the proximity of death with the possibility of life getting on.
It wasn’t until well after the funeral that her mother-in-law discovered the loaded dishwasher. The top rack heaved under the weight of ceramic coffee cups, clean and ready for usefulness.
She searched the counters, the end tables, his nightstand. Even the space beneath the metal hospital bed, the only thing that was still waiting to be removed. Each spot was empty. Not a single cup left behind, not a single coffee stain to mourn. Just a rack of clean cups waiting to return to the cupboard.
That was the first time she passed out. She woke up frozen to the kitchen floor the following morning. The coffee cups gleamed down at her from their perch in the open dishwasher. She had only gotten as far as opening the cupboard door before her bones had lost interest in supporting her.
A few days later, her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter arrived for another of what was becoming many obligatory check-ins. They expected to find her watching television again, with two cups of coffee in front of her. Instead she was in the basement, where the scrape of boxes across the floor gave the impression that she was raking up dust.
“Mom, what are you doing?” called her son. The scraping was the ongoing reply.
The small family made a procession down the stairs and found her surrounded by boxes in various stages of unpacking. Photo albums and videotapes stood in piles in every direction. A silk tie was draped over one of her shoulders.
“All these things that should have been out in the open,” she announced. Her granddaughter wasn’t sure if she meant she was proud or sad. “Our wedding pictures are in here somewhere. He was so young back then. Did I ever tell you that he was once mistaken for Rock Hudson? At a hotel in New York City? It was the only time he took me with him on a business trip. Imagine me—with Rock Hudson!”
“Mom, let’s go upstairs. You don’t have to do this right now.”
“I want to. I want to!” She waved her son off and stood to search for another box. “No one remembers how beautiful I was on my wedding day. I know the album is here somewhere.”
Her son had been squeezing his daughter’s shoulder with increasing pressure. The girl looked up to see him raise his eyebrows to her mother. She shrugged and slid her eyes into the “Not in front of our daughter” position. The girl wriggled free of her father’s grip and went to join her grandmother in the search for wedding photos.
“She never talks about the wedding, and now that he’s gone?” the son whispered to his wife.
“Grief isn’t supposed to make sense,” his wife said, as if she was deciding it in that very moment. Her mother-in-law had been determined in her unhappiness as long as they had known each other. Maybe some exposure to real pain had pruned her for a more sentimental season. The daughter-in-law smirked at the possibility of the old woman becoming nostalgic, when it was too late to put the feeling to use.
Along the back wall of the basement, away from the muttering adults, the girl took inventory of her grandmother’s possessions. The number of boxes suggested a young couple that had just moved in, not a widow and the home she and her husband had built forty years earlier.
Some boxes were simply marked “Dan” in hurried handwriting. The girl touched the name on one, as if her grandfather might reach back.
Other boxes were marked more diligently. “Wool Sweaters – Bedroom – FRAGILE” one shouted. “Mother’s China – Dining Room – DO NOT BREAK.” warned another.
She was about to open one of the “Dan” boxes when her grandmother shrieked. “I found it! I found it!”
The son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter circled the woman. A navy blue album rested in her lap. Dust wrapped the cover like a sheet of tissue paper. A hush fell between the girl’s parents, as often happens when things that were thought dead resurface. But just as soon as the quiet stretched across the basement, the woman snapped the album open with a victorious “Ha!” and began to riffle through the pages.
The girl spied the flash of her grandfather’s face as though he was trapped in a flipbook—the smile animated, the mouth moving as if he had something he wanted to say.
Suddenly, the pages stopped. “There!” her grandmother squealed. It was her bridal portrait. A ring of large curls rounded her face like a lion’s mane. Her eyes seemed ready to leap rather than sparkle, and the apples of her cheeks were tight and flushed as if she had just won an argument. She looked like ambition stuffed in a silk gown.
Her grandmother touched the corner of her jaw line in the photo with one hand. The girl watched to see if her other hand might fly up to press against her face, to test whether the bone still existed.
“Go to the one of you and dad,” said her son. His mother traced her index finger across the jaw line in the photo once more and then flipped a few pages back. The young couple in the photo was laughing, as if to say, “Oh, you found us!”
“He was very handsome,” her daughter-in-law said. “I can see the Rock Hudson resemblance.”
“We were a good-looking couple. My mother said I married him just to make other girls jealous. And to have beautiful children.” The woman looked up and smiled at her son, then tossed a look over her other shoulder to her granddaughter. “You should be grateful for all I went through so you could have such good genes.”
The girl grinned, at least until her grandmother looked back to the album. She wasn’t sure if her grandmother meant she had had a hard pregnancy or a hard life.
The woman sighed, looked around the basement in its state of undoing, and closed the album. “Let’s go upstairs. Enough reminiscing for one day.” Her son helped her up from the floor and guided her to the steps.
A couple days later, the family arrived for their usual visit. This time, the deconstruction of the basement crawled upstairs. Empty boxes lined the hallway. Old coats had been slung across the back of the couch.
“It’s like an estate sale exploded in here,” murmured the son.
“They say it gets worse before it gets better,” replied his wife. She had been reading about grief lately and using phrases like “coping skills” and “they say” in regular conversation.
The girl skipped forward to observe the situation herself. Immediately she recognized the lion-fierce face taunting her from the refrigerator door. The bridal portrait had been ripped out of its album and stuck there with a swath of tape.
“Oh God…” her father groaned from the dining room. He picked up the shell of the wedding album from the floor, the dust of its cover now streaked and attracting carpet lint.
Each of the album’s photos had been ripped out and distributed around the house. The bridal portrait on the fridge. The bride and groom smiled above the towel rack in the bathroom. The photo of the cake-cutting sat on the dining room table like an advertisement for that day’s dessert special.
From the bedroom at the end of the hall, they heard the now-familiar sounds of boxes being opened and drawers being searched, mixed in turns with anxious breathing. The family marched that way and found the woman rummaging through her dresser. Her hair was not done, and her mouth was stained with yesterday’s lipstick. She wore the silk tie from the earlier visit in a bunched-up knot around her neck and muttered at her son when he entered the room. The girl imagined that this was how an anxious, gobbling turkey would look if it wore a tie.
“Mom, what are you looking for now?” Her son was trying to be patient. His wife had been telling him about empathetic listening the night before.
“I couldn’t sleep. It’s just making me sick. I’m just sick to think what could have happened to it.” She swatted at the nearest lampshade in frustration and ran a shaking hand across her face.
“Mom, you’ve got to calm down. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” His wife nudged him, and he put a hand on his mother’s shoulder.
“The ring,” she whimpered. “It’s gone—I can’t find his wedding ring anywhere, and I told them not to bury him with it!” The woman slumped against the bed and dragged both of her hands through her hair. The girl waited for her to weep. She had never heard her grandmother cry and wondered what her sadness sounded like.
“I don’t remember you saying that—that you didn’t want it buried with him,” her son replied. His mother shot him an accusatory look. “But we’ll find it,” he corrected. “If they gave it to you, I’m sure it’s here somewhere.”
“I’ve looked everywhere. Someone took it. I’m sure of it,” she moaned.
“No one took the ring, Mom. No one would take a ring off a dead man.”
“Yes, they would.” His mother straightened up, re-energized by the challenge. She rumbled forward, nearly on tiptoes to look into her son’s eyes. “To get back at me! To take something of mine one last time.” There was a lion in her grandmother’s throat, the girl was sure of it now.
“That ring was all I had that said he belonged to me. Do you know he would drink his coffee with his left hand, just so I had to look at it? I saw when he put it back on in the driveway when he got home from work. Every time. Every time. And only God knows who has it now, or if it’s six feet under.” The woman’s hands gripped each other, until she unhooked them and wrapped them around her son’s shoulders. “I don’t remember seeing it in the coffin. You have to remember if it was there or not. Do you remember?”
The son stepped back and ran a hand through his hair. The same thing he did when he was tired of fighting with his wife but didn’t want to admit he’d lost, so she stepped forward to close the silence. “I’m sure if it’s not with you, it was buried with him,” the daughter-in-law offered. “I think they might have put his right hand over his left hand. Maybe we just didn’t notice it.”
The woman was dissatisfied and looked to her granddaughter, who unknowingly had put her hand in her mother’s, despite being old enough to cross the street by herself and have many opinions of her own. “Did you see the ring in the coffin, honey?” her grandmother asked. The girl took a step back.
“Mom!” The son was ready to argue again. “Leave her out of this. This has been hard for all of us, but it was her first funeral.”
“So? I lost my father when I was four years old.” The grandmother pointed at the girl. “And this one spent half the visitation on her knees in front of the coffin, so if anybody knows what was on his hands, it’s her.”
“I think we should go,” the wife whispered to her husband. “Do you want to stay with your mother?”
He nodded, one hand still caught in his hair. His wife and daughter turned quickly, just short of running out of the bedroom. The girl thought of looking back at her grandmother one last time, sure that the woman might finally break into a thunderbolt of weeping, but she couldn’t bring herself to find those eyes again, for fear they really would lunge at her.
Later that evening, after a dinner where no one talked about empathetic listening or the positioning of hands in a coffin or the likeness of Rock Hudson, the daughter-in-law tucked her daughter into bed.
Just before her grandfather died, the girl had started to outgrow nightly tuck-ins. But on the night the family got home from the funeral home and released a collective sigh while taking off their coats, her mother had turned to her and said, “Why don’t you go put your pajamas on and I’ll be up to tuck you in?” And the girl had nodded vigorously, grateful that she didn’t have to ask.
This night, the girl’s mother sat on the edge of the bed and smoothed the hair away from her daughter’s face. Ever since the illness, the funeral, and the aftermath with her mother-in-law, she felt hungry for the smallest rhythms. The hum of the vacuum cleaner, the chug of the dishwasher, the persistence of the bathroom vent while she showered. Whatever could hold its own. When the rhythm of smoothing her daughter’s hair had been set, she asked softly, “Today was kind of a tough day, wasn’t it? Do you want to talk about anything?”
Her daughter shook her head. Her eyes were being lulled shut with each pass of her mother’s palm.
She sucked in a deep breath and took stock of her daughter’s room. As she accounted for a pile of dirty laundry, a few books overdue to the library, and a stuffed animal here and there, her eyes lurched on a flash of gold on her daughter’s dresser. She lunged toward it, her hand crashing away from her daughter’s face.
“Where did you get this?” Her voice sparked as she held up her father-in-law’s wedding ring. Her daughter hopped forward in her bed like a nervous cricket. “Why do you have this?” Her mother stared at her.
“I’m sorry!” The girl’s eyes filled with tears.
“Where did you get this?” The woman’s stomach rolled with the thought of her daughter taking the ring off her dead grandfather’s hand.
“I didn’t take it!” The girl’s voice broke into a low sob. “Grandpa gave it to me before he died.”
Her mother’s stomach released, and she knelt by the bed with the ring tucked into her palm. “But why didn’t you say anything? Earlier today—why didn’t you tell us?”
“I didn’t know what to say.” The girl turned away and tried to press down a fresh sob. “Grandpa said he wanted someone who had always loved him to have it.”
Her mother opened her palm to examine the ring, surprised to notice for the first time that such a big man had such narrow fingers. She wondered how big Rock Hudson’s hands were.
Footsteps began to plod up the stairs. She squeezed her palm back around the ring. “From now on,” she said, “let’s not have this sitting around. It should be in a safe place.”
The girl didn’t know if she meant a hidden place or a protected place. The footsteps came closer. Her mother opened her daughter’s nightstand, shoved the ring under a nest of notes and her journal, and shut the drawer.
About the Author: Emily Stoddard's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Rust+Moth, New Poetry from the Midwest, An Alphabet of Embers, Menacing Hedge, Hermeneutic Chaos, The Manifest-Station, and elsewhere. She is an affiliate of Amherst Writers & Artists and leads writing workshops at Voice & Vessel, her writing studio. Visit her website here.