A Clean Stone
Holy Cross Cemetery looks so much smaller and shabbier than it did in 1959, when we buried my father. Then the carefully tended lawns rolled on forever, trees shaded the stones, and statues of the saints watched over bodies whose souls were already with God. I don't remember how it looked in 1990, when we buried my mother. Now even the statues seem shrunken.
My husband and I walk the section where my parents' gravestone should be. It's the right place because the St. Francis of Assisi statue is there, small birds perched on its outstretched arms. We picked this section because of the statue; it was a good choice for my father, who never spent a moment indoors that he could spend in his garden.
The stones here are flat, flush with the grass. I can't find my parents' stone. My chest tight, I pace up and down, losing track of where I've been. My husband stops and calls to me, “Here it is.”
The stone is a speckled grey. The grass isn't trimmed around its edges, and dried leaves cover the names. My gardener father wouldn't approve. I kneel in front of his side, brush the leaves away, and place my hands flat on his name, Karl. It has been more than fifty years since he died, but I am sobbing; the grief is as sharp as it was the night he left us and I huddled in his scratchy red armchair, breathing in Lucky Strikes and Old Spice and the tang of his sweat.
I can't bring myself to touch my mother's name, Katherine. Finally, I lift my hands and brush the leaves from her side. She was my mother. I owe her a clean stone.
An email from an old friend. Her mother is dying. My friend and her siblings were able to grant her wish and bring her home from the hospital. My friend is caring for her mother, who has told her that she is at peace with dying, but wouldn't mind living a bit longer. I can imagine my friend's smile as she writes those words, the slight upturn of her lips. I see her sponging her mother's body, remembering when her mother bathed her, the circle of care come round. I see her changing the sheets while her mother sits in a chair by the window looking out at the garden she will never tend again. I see her chopping carrots, celery, and onion on a scarred wooden board, making soup to tempt her mother's flagging appetite in an old stainless steel pot.
My friend and her mother didn't have it easy. I don't know any mothers and daughters who do, no matter how close they are. But I am jealous of her.
My mother stands in front of our garage, her arms crossed on her chest. She's wearing a flower-print house dress with short, puckered sleeves. Her arms are tan and strong. It always makes me anxious that she has no hair on her arms. She points at the line of laundry I have just hung. “Take those towels down, Helen. They have to be hung in matching sets. Bath towel, hand towel, washcloth. You know that.” Her lips thin until they're not pretty anymore. I take the line down and start again. I am maybe ten or eleven and getting the heavy bath towels onto the clothesline above my head is a struggle. Muttering to myself, I hide between the lines of laundry, the thick wetness around me making my skin clammy. I won't risk making her yell. I'm too afraid.
I never wanted to be like my mother in any way, but along with her dark brown eyes, the Cupid's bow of her upper lip, and her figure, small-waisted and full in breast, hip, and thigh, I inherited her need for order. When I'm upset, I tidy. The more upset I am, the more I tidy, right down to the exact angles of the objects on our tables and bookshelves. Putting things right is as soothing as working the geometry proofs I solved in high school the year after my father died, an alternate world that made perfect sense, where fathers didn't abandon their children. For years I was sure my need for order came from my father's death, an attempt at balance in a world off-kilter. It is much simpler, this need: it says I am my mother's daughter.
My mother and I kneel on the dusty floor of the attic, the box of family photographs between us. The box is shiny department-store white and has banged up corners. The photographs, many different sizes, have no order. I have never understood why my mother didn't put them in albums.
She lifts out a photograph and hands it to me. It's a studio portrait of her family. They are posed in front of a dark backdrop of blurry trees and a hill. Two adults and five children stare at me. No one is smiling. “This was taken when I was twelve,” she says. The tallest child, she stands next to my grandmother. Her hair is scraped back so tightly from her forehead that it looks like her head is shaved. The edge of a bow rests on her shoulder. She is wearing wire-rim glasses. My mother says, “There were three girls born before me. They were all named Elizabeth and they all died. When I was born, Grandma and Grandpa named me Katherine.” Her voice makes my arms prickle.
I never saw my mother read anything other than the Reader's Digest or the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but she was the family storyteller, almost all of the stories sad. I inherited her need to tell stories and a preference for the sad ones. They are the ones that make sense.
My grandmother isn't old, but she looks tired and her breasts fill her V-necked white blouse and droop to meet the high-waisted band of her dark skirt. Perhaps she is pregnant again. A brooch is fastened in the vee and she wears a crucifix. My grandfather wears a suit and tie; there is a small pin on his lapel. His hands rest on his thighs, his legs wide apart to make room for his belly. He looks satisfied with his life.
A dark-haired boy stands next to my mother. A tow-headed boy rests his hand on the arm of my grandmother's chair. My mother points to them in turn. “Your Uncle Joe and Uncle Jake came next.” A small girl, maybe four, stands next to my grandfather, her hand resting on the arm of his chair. A bow that is wider than her head sits on top of it and her blond bangs are uneven. “Your Aunt Rose,” my mother says, and there is something in her voice that tells me Rose was the favorite. I remember her as sharp-faced and vinegary. A small boy with a bowl haircut, my Uncle John, sits between my grandparents. Three more children—Fred, Helen, and Tommy—aren't born yet.
Uncle John was my favorite because he had sad eyes and was gentle, unlike my other uncles, who were brusque and distant. I felt guilty for liking him best because he was the family black sheep, the first one my grandfather removed from his will. He drank and fell in love with someone else while married and got divorced. My mother and my aunts gathered like a flock of crows to gossip about them. They called my new aunt a floozy and a brazen hussy, but I was happy watching him smile when she sat on the arm of his chair and leaned her head against his. Even though she tried nursing him back to health, his liver never recovered. He died when I was a freshman in college. I rode the Greyhound bus to my mother's hometown, angry at her for all the mean things she had said about him, wishing I could pay my respects without seeing her crocodile tears.
I stare at the photograph of my mother with her family, trying to get behind my mother's sad, resentful eyes, the sulky set of her mouth. No matter which of her stories I tell myself, I am never satisfied that I understand.
My mother loved to repeat stories, almost word for word. My grandmother was sick each time she was pregnant. My mother would say, “I had to wash the diapers, stirring them with a wooden spoon in a big pot of boiling water on the stove. I never had time to play.” As a child, I'd imagine her my size, standing on a stool, face dripping with sweat, stirring until her arms were tired. Each time she told the story, I felt the steam, hot and wet on my face.
One of her favorite stories was the one about how she got her shock of white hair. She grew up in a town of steep hills. “In the winter,” she said, “when school was over, we'd slide down the hills on our books. I used my geography book. One day when I was seventeen, I slid into a tree and hit my head. I almost died. They shaved my hair where I hurt myself.” She smoothed back the hair at her right temple. “When it grew back, it was pure white.”
The first sign that my hair was greying, sometime in my thirties, was a patch of white near my right temple. Alone in front of the mirror, I lifted my hair with the brush. There it was, taunting me. I made sure it was hidden.
My mother shared stories with strangers. She would pick a seat near someone on the bus or streetcar and start talking as if she knew the person. She bragged about my sister, who was taking ballet and might become a ballerina, but, if not, would go to nursing school. She talked about my father's two jobs, how hard he worked to take care of us. She said my first words were a sentence, “rock the doll,” and that I was independent from the age of four. Her face was a mixture of pride and frustration. In the box, there were almost no photos of me with her. The one I remember is black and white, small and blurry. She kneels on the grass in our back yard, my father's rose trellis behind her. I am standing well away from her, my chin lifted, my feet planted wide apart. Neither of us is smiling.
Now I get on a bus and smile at a mother and her child. I ask how old the child is, say I have a grandson who is four and lives in Portland and a two-year-old granddaughter in Palo Alto. It doesn't matter where the conversation goes. We will share stories until one of us reaches our stop.
My mother didn't tell me all the family stories. After my father emigrated, he never saw his family again. To my mother they were names and faces. She often told me about his getting on a boat, coming to this country, and meeting her, but if my father shared stories about his family with her, she didn't pass them on. Sifting through the box, I found a photo of a young man, proud in his SS uniform. He looked like a younger version of my father. “That's Klaus, your father's youngest brother. Handsome, isn't he,” my mother said. She took the photo and laid it back in the box. One of my father's brothers had grown up to become a Nazi.
One day when I was in my twenties, my sister and I were looking through the box. I picked up a photo of a woman in an old-fashioned blouse with a rounded collar. She had my dark eyes and hair, my high cheekbones and square jaw. My sister said, “That's Dad's sister.” I said, “Dad didn't have a sister.” My sister sat back on her haunches on the attic floor. “She got pregnant and killed herself. Didn't Mom tell you?” I shook my head no and she smiled her older sister smile. I never thought to ask if there was a baby.
I stole that photo, bought an old-fashioned oval frame for it, and set it on my bedside table. I imagined my aunt standing on a bridge over a river in the old country, believing herself a fallen woman, a disgrace to her family; my father, grief-stricken over his sister's death, packing his clothes and getting on a boat for the New World.
After my mother died, my sister asked if there was anything I wanted when she cleaned out the apartment. I told her, “That old white box with the family photos.” My sister said she didn't remember the box. She said she'd look. I asked about it several times when we talked on the phone. She said she never found it.
About the Author: Helen Sinoradzki has published fiction and nonfiction in various journals, including Alligator Juniper, Bellingham Review, and Pithead Chapel. She has written a memoir about her experiences in a Catholic cult. An English teacher turned technical writer turned indie bookseller, she now writes full-time. She was prose co-editor for three issues of VoiceCatcher, a journal of women's writing and art. A native Ohioan, who has lived in nine states, she moved to Portland, Oregon, almost twenty years ago and plans to stay for the rest of her life. Find her here.