Get ’er out of here.” Moon-shaped faces stared at Mary across the round, oaken table, then guzzled tea. Stared. Guzzled. Cup after cup of the steaming stuff.
“Ye can’t mean it,” Mam screamed. “Not now. She’s all o’ a bloody five.”
“The little eejit. Get ’er out.”
A fist crashed to the table. Cups and saucers and cigarettes flew. Tea splattered onto the wall, onto the front of Killian’s shirt.
“Ye swine.” Mam was in Killian’s face. “For the sake of St. Pat-rick, she’s my flesh and blood.”
“She’s got to go.”
Mam’s screaming curse sent a chill up Mary’s spine. “Ye lured me here, promised to take us in.”
“She’s got to go. Now.”
“All right, she’ll go.” Mam’s words slapped Mary in the face. “And you’ll be cursed, all of ye.”
Mam? No. Not you, Mam? Mary flung herself on the floor, legs and arms flailing. Mam on their side? Her heart broke in two, not by the others, but by her own mother.
Mam jerked her to a standing position, letting those horrid, hor-rid faces burn holes into her. Still, Mary stared at them, refusing to be the first to look away.
They glared back at her and sloshed watery tea all over them-selves and the tabletop. Words floated overhead. Harris, Chicago, America. What did they all mean? She heard a slap and cowered, but the blow did not fall on her.
One of the sisters half-carried, half-dragged her to bed.
“Why, Mam, why?” Over and over Mary sobbed the same thing into her pillow. She knew the foul-smelling faces that loomed over the table didn’t want her, but Mam? The black reality en-gulfed her, and her body convulsed with waves of despair.
Run the straight race through God’s good grace;
Lift up thine eyes and seek His face.
—John S. B. Monsell, “Fight the Good Fight with All Thy Might”
Terre Haute, Indiana, 1995
Mary Freeman had done all she could to make it special. The skillet was hot. Creamy yogurt waited to be dolloped onto nutty granola. Raspberry scones cooled on a wire rack. Steel-cut oats from County Kildare simmered on a back burner. She whirled about, trading a spoon for a spatula, determined to suit the pal-ates of her husband, Paul, and her two teenage daughters, Claire and Chloe. Every morning, the four of them ate breakfast together in this big kitchen, with its copper pot rack and granite countertops. Then Paul would leave, heaving this tool or that box into the old farm truck, a quick hug to suffice for a day without him. The girls would leave too, armed with backpacks and rac-quets and changes of clothes. The house would be empty—except for her and Mother.
For now, Mary’s world became Paul and the girls. She checked her watch, then stepped out to the garden and clipped purple asters off spindly stems. It pricked her to think of the approaching void, when she and Mother would coexist within the walls of this cavern-ous Victorian Painted Lady. Bustling back inside, she arranged the flowers and twigs of hypericum in a crystal vase, hoping to add the final touches to a memory she could cling to when the walls closed in.
She stepped back and surveyed her handiwork, plucking off a rogue leaf, then headed to the laundry room. Three more loads, which she could easily wedge in between mother’s feeding, the upstairs cleaning—
“Get ’er out of here.”
The voice bounced off the laundry room walls. Mary tried to ignore it, as she always did. Yet the thick Irish brogue assailed her, conjuring lifelike images.
Moon-shaped faces stared at Mary across the round oaken table, then guzzled tea. Stared. Guzzled.
“The little eejit. Get ’er out.”
Mam screaming. Crashing. Cups and saucers flying. Tea splattering.
“Ye swine.” Mam spat into Killian’s face.
“She’s got to go. Now.”
“All right, she’ll go. And ye be cursed, all of ye.”
As quickly as the voices had come, they faded. And left Mary trembling, damp laundry chilling her hands.
Overhead, steps pounded across the planked floor. It was Claire, banging her fist against the balustrade as she had for the past ten years, then thundering downstairs.
Mary dropped the laundry and bustled back to the kitchen. “Breakfast’s ready, honey.” She cracked some eggs, beat them until they foamed, and poured them in the skillet. If only the voices could be handled so efficiently.
Claire whooshed into the kitchen, bringing life and light and the smell of green apples and hair mousse. “Morning, Mom.” At five foot ten, Claire towered over everyone in the family but her daddy. Her younger sister, Chloe, dubbed her a red tornado, not just for her mane of hair but for her temper.
Cabinets banged and the refrigerator door creaked. “Where’s the jelly?”
“Over there, dear.” Mary slid her arm around Claire and managed to hug her.
Claire offered a cheek, then grabbed a bowl of granola, plucked a scone off the rack, and slid onto a bench seat. “Don’t forget, I’ve got Key Club tonight. I’ll just grab something after prac-tice.”
Mary nodded, then turned back to Paul’s eggs, which were seconds away from being just the consistency he liked them. “Paul?” she called to the figure clattering about in the front room. “Your breakfast is—ooh! Quit it!”
A scratchy beard chafed the nape of Mary’s neck, yet she didn’t really want him to stop. If only she could hop with him into that rickety truck, patter about the barn with their goats and wooly-backed sheep, then meet for lunch under their sycamore tree . . .
“Mom? Where’s my blue jacket?” Unnoticed, Chloe had crept down the stairs, gotten her cereal, and squeezed onto the bench.
“In the utility room. Pressed and ready.”
Mary smiled, both at the love in Claire’s voice and at the way sunlight chose this moment to filter through the window and blush her daughters’ cheeks. This was the way she’d planned it. She backed out of Paul’s grasp, dished eggs onto a plate, and bee-lined back toward the laundry room to finish what she’d started.
“Whoa, girls. Let’s bless the food.” Paul grabbed the sash of Mary’s apron, pinched her tantalizingly close to her back pocket, then led her toward the table. “That means you too,” he said, kiss-ing her on her ear this time.
“Oh, Daddy.” The girls’ giggles and rolling eyes suggested they’d witnessed their father’s middle-aged shenanigans. But there was pride in their tone—and love.
“I’ll just get another load—”
“This comes first.” Paul had always been lean, but years of farming had hardened spare muscles into steel. He pulled Mary onto the bench across from their girls, and they all joined hands. “Heavenly Father,” he began, “thank You for this food. Watch over my girls today. Thank You for—”
“Where are ye?”
Mary blinked, then cut a glance at the girls and again bowed her head. Couldn’t Mother give them five minutes of peace? Five minutes for the four of them? As Paul kept praying, she clenched her jaw, willing her mother back to sleep.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I swear—” Mother’s screech shook the room.
“Why can’t she just shut up?” Claire jumped to her feet, tossed her napkin down, and shook bangs out of her eyes. “She ruins everything.”
Mary felt heat rising to her face. She wished she could blurt out exactly what she felt, like her daughters did. But what kind of exam-ple would that be? She struggled to get her thoughts together, to make the best of the time they had left. “Claire, she’s your grand-mother. And I’ll not have you saying that about her.”
“Why not?” Chloe dabbed at her lips, which managed to stay Hot Hot Pink or whatever the name of her latest lip gloss was. “It’s true.” As usual, Chloe never shouted. Yet the words cut into Mary as if she’d yelled louder than the woman in the next room. “Be-sides, she’s not really our grandmother,” Chloe added, the napkin now a wad by her plate.
Mary looked long and hard at her daughters, seeing her nose in Chloe, her eyes in Claire, and her resentment of Mother in both of them. Claire and Chloe felt free to spill their feelings all over this well-set table. She, with the Lord’s help, had been able to keep hers bottled up. But pressure was building.
Paul smoothed out his napkin and laid it by now-cold eggs. “Of course she is. And we’re gonna honor her like we did Gran. It’s our way.”
“Why?” Some of the sting had left Claire’s voice.
“Because it’s His way.”
“I’ll have yer head for this, I will!” Mother’s tirade had risen to a fe-verish pitch.
A glint entered Chloe’s eyes. “I’ll have yours first.”
Claire’s spoon clattered to the table. “Just shut up, Chloe!”
The sisters glared at each other, faces red.
“Not another word, either of you!” With a jerk, Mary untied her apron and tossed it onto the island cluttered with the remains of what she’d so hoped would be a special breakfast. Soon they would leave, and she’d be alone with Anne Harris, the eighty-three-year-old who was and wasn’t her mother.
“Get in here, girl.”
A breeze tickled slatted blinds and carried the scent of Irish roses into the room, but the heady fragrance didn’t still Mary’s trembling hands or calm her thumping heart. She was still girl, not daughter or dear, words she’d waited a lifetime to hear. All the sacrifices they’d made for Mother—even moving into town when she couldn’t manage out on the farm—didn’t seem to matter. Mary flipped on the light switch in a vain attempt to brighten her thoughts. But no matter what she calls me, Anne Harris is the only mother I’ve got now. “I’m here, Mother.” Somehow Mary managed to put a lilt in her voice.
“Girl?” The voice came from a huddle of quilts, only a stubborn jaw jutting above cotton and satin bedding.
“I’m Mary. Your daughter.” Mary said it to herself as much as to the woman on the bed.
Mother’s mouth twisted into a bitter smile. “You’re not my daughter. Not really.”
For just an instant, Mary longed to hurl some of Mother’s bile back in her face, then stomp to the phone and reserve one of the “spacious suites” that the new assisted-living center was touting as the latest in “modern adult community.” Let them clean her lin-ens and change her diapers and puree her food and bathe her and listen to her. Most of all, let them listen to her.
“I’m off, honey!”
Mary whirled about. Paul stood at the threshold of Mother’s room. She flew into his arms.
“What’s this about?” He somehow managed to run one hand through her hair and pull her close with the other.
“It’ll be okay,” he assured her, nuzzling about her neck.
Mary breathed deeply of wood smoke and damp wool until her heart resumed its normal beat. It would be okay . . . wouldn’t it? She willed Paul to forget about the calf with the gimpy leg, the trees that needed grafting, and stay home today. But she knew he couldn’t. The farm was his lifeblood, and hers too. If not for Mother, she’d be out there by his side.
Too soon, Paul pulled away. After good-byes and air kisses, the girls pattered down the hall, right behind their daddy. The front door slammed, then clicked. She and Mother were locked in. Safe, but not necessarily sound.
Her heart heavy, Mary sunk to the plush carpet on her mother’s floor. “Forgive me,” she prayed. “I do love her, or at least I try to. And give me a friend, Lord. Someone to help me get through this loneliness.”
She rose to see something akin to a smile softening her mother’s withered face, the set jaw. That hint of a smile carried Mary through the diaper-changing, dressing, and resettling back into the old iron bed. She would be a daughter, regardless of what she was or wasn’t called. “I’ll be back with your breakfast, Mother,” she announced as she hurried down the hall. The second break-fast shift was about to begin.
“I’m the last of the Irish Rovers, bathed in a bed o’ clo-ver,” she sang as she stirred the oatmeal, which was mushy, just like Mother liked it. Or used to, when Mother still expressed likes and dislikes. Still singing, Mary buttered toast, poured tea, squeezed juice, sliced fruit, and set it, along with the vase of as-ters, on a tray. “A good diet,” the doctor had told Mary over a dec-ade ago. “Plenty of love.” Her hands gripped the tray a bit tighter, certain she’d succeeded at the first of his orders. But the second gave her cause to shake her head. Lord, I’ve done my best. You know I’ve done my best.
“Good morning.” Mary smoothed back a shock of her mother’s white hair. “Here’s your breakfast.”
Mother’s mouth opened and closed like a baby sparrow’s, yet there was no recognition in the filmy blue eyes.
Mary propped up her mother with pillows and pulled a stool near the side of the bed. She fed her a spoonful of oats, a smid-gen of toast, prattling about anything she could think of, as empti-ness edged in until she felt its cold fingers about her throat.
When the pale lips clamped shut and the papery thin eyelids closed, Mary dabbed crumbs off her mother’s mouth, then care-fully folded the napkin and set it down.
A blessed quiet filled the room. Mary stepped to the case-ment window and let the wind soothe away the tightness about her throat, her shoulders. A few brave rose blossoms remained amongst a tangle of stems and leaves in a futile gesture to stave off the approaching fall. Their scent permeated every corner of the room, from the mahogany wardrobe to the antique chest, transporting Mary to another place, another time . . . ’Tis the last rose of summer, lass, left bloomin’ all alone., All her lovely companions, faded now and gone.
For a moment, she was back on the cliffs, breathing deeply of salty spray, the smoke from a turf fire in her hair . . .
Mary jumped, then sighed. It was Mother, thrashing about in her sheets. She hurried to her side. “Tura, lura, lura,” she sang, stroking the wrinkled cheek.
Perhaps the eyes brightened for an instant. Then the bony limbs resumed their thrashing. “There, there,” she kept saying, in between the gasps and grunts and heaves it took to get Mother into the rocker and in front of the television.
“You’re the next contestant . . .”
The raucous laughter grated at Mary. They’d never wanted a television, never needed a television. Out on the farm, they’d sur-vived just fine without it. She sighed as blue-haired grannies shrieked their way down the aisle. Yet the boob tube settled Mother as nothing else did, and for that, Mary was grateful.
“Come on down!”
Mary surged about the bedroom-bathroom suite, determined to let busyness still the nerves set on edge by the TV. She plumped cushions, straightened orthopedic shoes and slippers, and was washing out her mother’s hosiery when the phone rang.
She let the answering machine get it. “Pick up, Mary.” It was the voice of Sue, a family friend and the doctor who’d delivered her girls. “I need you.”
Mary wrung out the stockings and hung them over a towel rack, hurried into the study, and picked up the phone. “Sue. What’s going on?”
“Hey, Mary. Listen, could you sub today?”
Mary hesitated. Mother’d be okay by herself for as long as it took to play a couple of sets, or she could call Dora, who always wanted more hours. “Who’s playing?”
“Mona and JoAnn and some new lady. She’s pretty good, I hear.”
Mary frowned. Two hours with Mona and JoAnn could last a lifetime, not to mention some stranger. “What’s her name?”
“All I know is she’s from the South. Listen, Mary, I don’t have time for twenty questions. A patient’s in the ER, and you’re the only one I’ve gotten through to. It’s just for a couple of hours. How about it?”
“Well, there’s Mother . . .”
“Take my word for it, Mary. She’s fine. Besides, she isn’t going anywhere.”
Mary bit her lip. It was true; Mother hadn’t taken a step unas-sisted in five years. She’d call Dora. Besides, what else was there to do? The house had been scrubbed and oiled and waxed until it glistened. The garden had been winterized. Her summer clothes had been pressed and hung in garment bags. “No problem, Sue,” Mary said. “I’ll do it.”
“You won’t regret it, Mary. I promise.”
For a moment, Mary stared at the phone. What did Sue mean by that? She’d been subbing for Sue on a regular basis since Sue opened her own clinic. And it helped Mary get in more practice, which she definitely could use to compete in the A League. But Sue’s tone had hinted at something mysterious. Something hope-ful. She picked up the phone and called Dora, the strange com-ment still ringing in her ears.