Archaeology of the Objects We
it’s like growing a garden / or building a house
love takes your body and / spreads it out
The Weather Outside of East Liverpool
My grandmother used to sit at her worn wooden table and talk to my mother for hours after dinner, a mug full of black tea with milk and sugar in her warm hands. Their two voices would mingle into one sort of song, and I, from the corner, would watch their mouths move. The corner near the fridge had a vent in the floor that shot up little puffs of warm air, and I’d sit with my feet on the grate, watching them talk. Curtains hung over the kitchen window, and a wire basket under the sink held plastic shopping bags. Sometimes they’d play dice with a cup. The rattling cup soothed me and my mother and grandmother would count to 10,000.
We met in the mornings and ate breakfast out at some local place, and sometimes we shopped before afternoon kindergarten. She pushed the cart and talked to my mother about this metal picture frame or that speckled glass vase on clearance, and I thought of the way they sounded so similar with my eyes closed. If I walked next to them, I’d hold one of each of their hands – one fist, one wrinkled and soft.
When she was young, she took care of her step siblings in the morning before school. Once, she was so tired she filled the baby’s bottle with coffee instead of milk, and when he found out, her stepfather beat her with a belt, sending her out with deep blue bruises hiding under her sweater. She ran away, I believe, when she was in her early teens, and married my grandfather shortly after.
She curled her hair every evening in pink foam rollers. The first time I saw her with them still in I was scared, but she just laughed, talked about how embarrassed she was to be caught unpresentable and how some days are just slower than others. She wore a little makeup, some mascara and blush, even when she was in hospice.
The last good day before she died there was a brunch in this little café inside the hospice center. She’d gone to the salon there and had her hair curled like she used to do it, had her nails painted a light pink. My whole family was there, and I gave her a chocolate bar, though I can’t remember where it came from or why I gave it to her.
A recurring image: my mother and I in her bed after her mother passed away. I am nine, and cold. We sit under blankets and I watch her weep, and she tells me it is alright to be sad, because she is very sad. I do not understand much more than this sadness, because it has creeped into everything around me. On a chair near her desk a stiff black dress is thrown over the top rung. My nose is raw and my legs are itchy from being in tights for three days straight. There is a glow that emanates from the glass curio in the corner of the room, one small golden bulb sends pink light down over dried wedding bouquets and crystal figurines of children reading little clear books.
My mother keeps an old voicemail message from her mother saved on her phone so she doesn’t forget the sound of her voice. She says: hello Tricia, Trish, listen, daddy wants to drive. He says he don’t know that he can sit a really long time so he wants to be able to have the car available and he’s just telling me now, so if you’re on your way over, I feel, I’m sorry, I can go with you then. Talk to you later.
Also on the phone, a message I left at age eight, when she and my father went to visit my aunt in North Carolina for a week. I snuck the portable house phone into the pocket of my satin owl pajamas and ran to my room to call her after my brothers had gone to bed. I didn’t want to bother her but it was the longest I had ever gone without seeing her and the message I left is weepy, my little voice cracks in the way that sounds like holding back tears – I say: mom, it’s Sarah, okay, just wanted to know when you were going to be home, okay, love you.
There is a photobooth strip of my mother and father from when they were dating, taken in an arcade somewhere in the early 80’s. They laugh, make a face, kiss, stick out their tongues. They are young and smiling; my mother is 18, in white button down shirt. There is a joy inside the film – I feel it in my fingers when I hold it along the edges so I don’t smudge their faces.
I wish I could have known her then, all shiny bangs and open hands. She tells me about her life when she was my age, and it is hard for me to separate her stories from my own. She was always sickly, the small one, the thin-armed shy one. She was pale olive skin and powdered blue milk, defining her shape by sharp cheek and jaw, she was striking and lovely. A delicate being in a small home.
I imagine when she didn’t want to study, she would take out the iron and smooth all her blouses, refold the clothes in her drawers, and then, probably, lie on a white wicker bed in a room shared with two sisters, take a nap in the afternoon sun that filtered through the lace curtain.
I wonder what it is like to be married at nineteen, to find black garbage bags of neatly folded clothes on the porch after the honeymoon, you made your bed, now lie in it, you’re a woman with a husband now.
By 25, she had seen one house in flames, another with mice, another with ants. What kind of fear comes from being a mother and still a child? She holds the babies without their shoes, helpless in the car, while hot orange slinks up the sides and nobody calls the fire department. When the only thing to do is wrap the babies in dirty blankets in the backseat, when everything small and important melts in the snowy heat, you think of all there is left behind.
Another image: wedding dress with a dry cleaning tag still pinned to the breast. The insurance paid to get it cleaned, she says, to get the smoke out of the lace and silk. I try it on in her bedroom, slip the lace sleeves over my elbows, button the back over my small curves and chest, think how hard it must have been for her to sit, how hard it is to sit.