In the Gloaming
Milly always dreaded the Arts in the Schools programs when regional visual artists or dancers or musicians would come in and either perform in the small, stuffy auditorium—the students bored to tears, furtively texting. Or the artists might visit a few classrooms, encouraging questions, which were usually inane, though mercifully few. Milly would feel sorry for the earnest visitors, trying to spark interest in disaffected students dumb as bricks. And then she would feel sorry for her own students, many of whom were not dumb as bricks. It’s just that most of the class was not college-bound and the smart kids were easily intimidated by them. In this rural, working class school district, it was athletics, not art, that scored points with the student body.
The only time Milly could remember an Arts in the School program that went well was when Chinese-American poet Da Chen did a presentation on writing and drawing ideographs. He was funny and bold, assuring them that for Chinese poets it was all about the drinking—about getting drunk and writing a better poem than your buddy had just written. He cursed in front of them. He played Chinese flute. The kids were rapt. And when he asked for questions at the end, one student—a student best known for picking fights and ditching classes—raised his hand immediately.
“Can I have that?” he asked, referring to the completed ideograph Da Chen had painted on newsprint. Wordlessly and dramatically, Da Chen peeled off the sheet of paper, rolled it up and handed it to the kid.
“Now you write a poem and send it back to me,” he said, “Your teacher’s got my email address.”
“I don’t write poems. I write rap,” the kid said.
“What? You don’t think rap’s poetry?” Da Chen asked, “Send me some.”
And the kid nodded. Milly wondered if he had ever followed through.
Today’s artist was the conductor of region’s professional orchestra. Turns out the Hudson Valley Orchestra was a well-regarded group and also well-funded, so they were able to hire a fairly high-profile conductor. But despite his strengths at the podium Anders Lanski was no match for high school students. He was known to do brilliant children’s concerts, getting the little kids to tap out rhythms or dance or sing along. But the high schoolers weren’t about to tap or whistle or anything remotely interactive. And though he played bits of very famous music—“Greensleeves,” the opening bars of “The Nutcracker” and Beethoven’s 5th, the majority of the students didn’t seem to recognize any of it. Then he played a UTube clip of one of the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s concerts, trying to get the students to join with the audience in the clapping parts of “The Radetzy March.” But the goofy-looking old white guy conducting a theater full of well-dressed Europeans just made them laugh. He hit Pause.
He explained that this was a traditional New Year’s concert performed annually in Vienna since before WWII. “The Radetzy March” was always played as an encore and people loved it. It wastradition. The students’ blank faces didn’t seem to register any importance in that.
“It’s like reading “Twas the Night Before Christmas” on the night before Christmas,” he said and Milly had a sense of dread over what was coming next.
Casey Wiley, home-schooled through eighth grade, raised her hand, “In our house we read from the Gospel of Luke on Christmas Eve.”
And yes, she said it with an attitude.
“Look, the point is,” Anders Lanski said, clearly exasperated, “Musicians and conductors don’t always like what they have to play or conduct. I don’t like “The Radetzy March,” he went on, “And yeah, maybe those people clapping look old and stupid to you. But sometimes you have to play things people want to hear so they’ll continue to support the orchestra.”
Milly smiled to herself. She admired his honesty. Music is art. But if you want to play, it also has to be a business.
Anders must have struck a nerve with the students because they were mildly more polite after that. And when it came time for Q & A, they actually had questions. Not terribly intelligent ones. But questions, nonetheless. One girl—a student in Milly’s sixth period English class--even asked what his early musical influences were.
“Like most of you, I listened to what was on the radio. I was in a band--.”
“What’d you play?” a boy called out.
“Oh, I played keyboards. My mom had made me take piano lessons from the time I was really young. She made me practice. I figured getting into a band in high school was a good way to get even. We rehearsed in our basement. She really hated it.”
The same boy called out, “I mean songs. What songs did you play?”
Anders laughed, “What do you think? Loud ones. You’re probably too young to know them,” he said, and burst into a pretty good Jim Morrison: “Come on, come on, come on, come on, touch me baby…Can’t you see that I am not afraid?”
The teachers all laughed, the students just seemed shocked. This guy was supposed to be a boring snob.
Then he channeled Joe Cocker, “Ain’t it high time we went, ain’t it high time we went?” flailing his arms and shaking his head. And he finished up his medley with a spot-on Robert Plant, “And she’s buy-uy-ing a stair-air-way to heh-von.”
The teachers began clapping and, confused, the students joined in.
Another girl raised her hand, “So why did you stop playing rock?”
“Hey, look at me. What do you see? I’m not rock star material.”
Zadie Shanley, the art teacher with a re-warmed Cyndi Lauper look, raised her hand and Anders nodded at her, “I think you held your own just fine just then--.”
“But how’d you go from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to classical music?”
Anders Lanski laughed, “See how she’s trying to flatter me? The Red Hot Chili Peppers were way after my time,” he shrugged, “About getting into classical music? I almost don’t remember. I guess it was on at home a lot. And I had some good music teachers in high school. I grew up down in Putnam county,” he gestured over his shoulder with this thumb, “I sang in a small choir in school and I used to like to watch my teacher conduct. I thought conducting was way cooler than singing. And, of course, I still do.”
He seemed to lose the kids once more, who didn’t seem to understand that conducting could be cooler than singing which was in itself not especially cool. After that there weren’t any more questions forthcoming but the period wasn’t over. So one teacher asked what were his favorite things to conduct (“Orchestral stuff. Really big stuff.”). Another asked him if he had any hobbies (“I run. I like to cook”). Then Milly raised her hand.
“Where did you go to high school? My mother was a music teacher in Putnam County.”
“Really? I grew up in Mahopac. Went to the public high school.”
Milly laughed, “That’s where she taught. Mrs. Whittier.”
Anders Lanski gave her a big smile, “No! Really? Mrs. Whittier! Mrs. W! I loved your mother. Tell her I said hi--.”
Just then the period buzzer sounded and, despite exhortations from the teachers not to rush, students spilled forth out of the auditorium like bomb-threat evacuees. Anders Lanski walked down the stage steps toward Milly just as a student came up to her. The student’s words were a garbled blur: Ms.Whittier-I’m-gonna-be-late-for-class-cause-I-have-a-thing-at-the-Resource-center-but-I’ll try-and-get-back-after-that. Milly nodded, but before she could say ‘okay’ or ‘what?’ or ‘what thing at the RC?’ the girl had left.
“You understood all that?” Anders said and Milly nodded.
“But it’s a foreign language,” he went on, “In a decibel range that hurts my ears.”
“It’s how they all talk,” Milly said, “The girls, mostly. And they only use one vowel. It’s a kind of slack-jawed ‘a.’”
He laughed, “Gag me with a spoon! Hey, I just wanted to tell you what a great teacher your mother was. I always meant to keep in touch with my favorite teachers, but I never did.”
Milly nodded, “She loved her students so much. I think I became a teacher because she seemed so happy doing it.”
“You teach music?”
“English. My mother and sister have the musical talent in the family.”
Anders nodded, “So how is your mother? She’s probably retired by now.”
Milly nodded, “Yes, she’s been retired for a while. She’s having some—well, there are health issues,” she stole a quick glance at the clock behind his shoulder.
“Hey, look, I don’t mean to keep you. Just say hi to your mother for me. Tell her I’ll get her comps for a concert.”
Milly nodded and said slowly, “She would love knowing that. She really would.”
“I’m serious. And I know you have to go, but it was good to meet you. Take care.”
“You, too,” she said, and shook his outstretched hand.
She walked slowly to her class. Let them wait. It was last period and by this time of day the kids were climbing the walls. Nobody gave a damn about Hamlet. In fact, Milly herself was pretty tired of him and all his angst. The trouble with Hamlet is that he never grows up.
She wondered what it would have been like if Shakespeare had written a play about aging, about dementia. But of course he had, she reminded herself. King Lear. King Lear had been delusional, lost in his own world of torment. Her mother’s world was less tormented, but no more real than his. And if she were troubled or paranoid—well, she was a little paranoid—shouldn’t Milly want to re-connect her to the real world, the one that was safer than her internal tableaux? Just because she was in love, however one-sidedly, was it fair of Milly to go along with her mother’s delusions? Maybe her sister, Johanna, was right; maybe they needed to confront her again and again with the facts: that she was living in a Special Care Unit in an assisted living facility, that she was having serious memory issues and delusions, that she was sick, not in love. That this was simply her lot in life.
At her classroom doorway she paused, thinking about what it would be like if her mother’s old student, Anders Lanski, conductor of the Hudson Valley Orchestra, knew that his former teacher was having an affair with Ludwig von Beethoven, dead nearly 200 years.
*** *** ***
For a week that had begun with all the harvest splendor of Indian summer, by Friday the temperature had plummeted, the clouds had gathered and Daylight Savings Time seemed a thing of the past, though two weeks of it remained. Milly drove the rural, winding roads northward from Poughkeepsie to her home in rural Claverack, pronounced “Klah-vrik” by the locals, an old Dutch name, but not patrician. There were old mill towns in this part of Columbia County—Stockport, for example, that no longer relied on the Kinderhook Creek to power its industry, which no longer existed. Stockport had become merely a hamlet, picturesque, but still too gritty for New Yorkers seeking weekend real estate. That was part of what Milly liked about it. Unlike Chatham, Kinderhook and Spencertown, which all could summon a kind of long-lost patroon grandeur (and hence, appeal to out-of-towner home-buyers), Stockport was simply what it was: a shadow of its past, but nonetheless a living one.
On impulse, Milly decided to drive into Hudson to the Price Chopper to do some grocery shopping. Maybe in response to the chill and the darkening sky, she had a sudden longing for ‘family’ food.
‘Family’ food. It had been the phrase her son, Jack, always used when he complained about her attempts to get them to eat more healthfully. Her tofu loafs and tempeh stir fries, her resurrected favorites from The Moosewood Cookbook and Laurel’s Kitchen never failed to elicit his demand that she pay more attention to his need for family food. Chili, with grated cheddar and tortilla chips. Home-made chicken pot-pie with pearl onions, carrots and mushroons with a thyme-studded crust. Meatloaf and potatoes mashed with butter and buttermilk. Lots of buttermilk.
Those weren’t her own definitions of comfort food; she leaned a little more toward the exotic, possibly even the erotic: a good lamb chop grilled with sage and butter; mussels steamed with herbs and white wine, an omelet filled with parsley and pungent chevre, a few spears of asparagus on the side. These were the kinds of comfort foods she had made for her and Oscar to eat—often in bed—when they were first in love and then even later, when Jack was still young enough to go to bed at 7:00, having had his dinner and his bath, leaving his parents free to feel both grounded as a family and unencumbered enough to drink wine, eat in bed and let eros follow.
Eros wasn’t following her around much these days, Milly thought, pulling into the Price Chopper parking lot. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t eat as if it might. She pulled up the parking brake and went into the supermarket. She bought a package of three lamb chops, knowing she’d freeze one of them. She bought a fennel bulb and some expensive Parmesan cheese. Then she went to the wine shop just next store and bought a bottle of a Sancerre she’d heard a colleague—a colleague from the French department—talk about. It cost her more than she thought it would. But then again, there was just the one of her these days. It would last longer. An hour or two longer.
She settled back into the car for the rest of the trip home, listening to the public radio station, wondering what her mother was thinking, how Jack was faring, what she would do in her classes tomorrow, paying not enough attention to any one thing to make any progress. On the other hand, the day was over. She didn’t really need to make any progress, she reminded herself. And then she thought about Johanna and the conversation they had had just two nights ago: Carl was back to skipping classes and meetings, Johanna sad, worried, angry all at once. It was Milly’s private, but firmly-held, opinion that what Carl needed as a good kick in the ass. She thought his depressions were more the result of complacency than anything else. He was a brilliant architect who had more or less stopped taking commissions after losing an important one a few years ago. He just needed more of a can-do spirit, Milly thought. You’re only as happy as you make up your mind you’re going to be, her mother used to say, immediately attributing the source of the quote: Abraham Lincoln. It was a matter of record that he was no bastion of mental health, but apparently he had a can-do spirit.
She’d always hated it when her mother said that.
Finally she was pulling into the driveway of her house which looked especially old and especially diminished in the late afternoon gloom. It wasn’t really gloom, though. It wasn’t as dreary as that. The thick hedges of hydrangeas with their spent purple blossoms, the bright maples losing leaves and the dark fronds of the cypress trees combined to make a scene that was bittersweet and a little spectral. In the gloaming is the phrase that came to mind. The house looked small, nestled amidst the trees. Small and in the gloaming. I bet that’s the name of a song, she thought. She’d Google it once she got inside.
She cut the motor, got out, gathered up her leather bag of books of schoolwork and her groceries and went to the front door.
The porch light was on a timer, but didn’t switch on until just as she slipped her keys into the lock—clearly it needed some graphite. She opened the door, dropped her bags and knelt as her dog, Zool, raced over the slippery hard wood to her, lapping at her face, wagging his tail, grateful to see her in a way her son, Jack, had never been. Well, that wasn’t quite right. Jack had been that way when he was a toddler. She’d pick him up from daycare and he would come racing over to her, nearly bowling her over as he threw himself at her.
But then he grew older and it was no longer cool to throw yourself at your mom. Plus, he really would have knocked her down. Now that he was all grown up, he was affectionate when he saw her and his emails were frequent and warm, keeping her posted every couple of days as he began his second year of Teach America in Denver. Denver. Far, far away from her.
“Oh, Zool, you’re such a good pup. Such a good one. Nobody wags a tail like you do!” she cooed, rustling his ears and rubbing his back, “I just want to tattoo your face on my face!”
“You wanna go out?” she said and Zool rushed toward the back door, which Milly opened. He bounded out and Milly, though she usually threw a stick and ran around the yard with him a little bit, closed the door behind him, took off her coat, poured herself a glass of skim milk—she was trying to get enough calcium—and sat down at the kitchen table.
The visit with her mother today had been difficult. This Friday she’d had a half day and decided to drive down and get back before they served dinner. It pained her to see just how little her mother ate.
It hadn’t been a difficult visit because Leah was distraught or depressed, which happened often enough. She was, instead, in good spirits. And full of stories about Louis.
Louis was telling me about his childhood again. It’s no secret, of course, that his father was a bastard—and by that I don’t mean illegitimate. I mean he was a real bastard to his children. The things he put his sons through. Louis especially, being the oldest.
Then later, she got talking about one of the late quartets. Milly didn’t know what she meant by ‘the late quartets.’ She knew as much of Beethoven’s music as the average person did: The Fifth, the Ninth. She could recognize The Emperor Concerto and Moonlight Sonata. But she didn’t know their opus numbers. Or what keys they were written in. Her mother knew all that.
And with the ‘Grosse Fugue,’ Louis actually responded to public pressure and changed the ending. He made it brighter, more friendly. He wasn’t like that, usually, responding to people’s requests. He is very opinionated, as I’m sure you must realize.
Milly had nodded as her mother spoke about Beethoven bowing to public pressure, an unaccustomed gesture. She had been thinking that if she could talk with her mother more about the music and less about the man, she might be able to tone down the delusion of their love affair. The problem was, she couldn’t really talk about the music. She’d need to have a crash course in it and she felt she was already overwhelmed by Beethoven’s presence already. She wasn’t sure she wanted to both hear him and hear about him, as well.
Nevertheless, she got up and searched through her CDs, pulling out the Leonard Bernstein recording of the Ninth. She set up her laptop on the table and cued the fourth movement. Oh, Freunde, nicht diese tone!
Klimt - This Kiss for all the World, from Beethoven's 9th
Oh, Friends, not these tones!
Rather, let us raise our voices in more
pleasing and more joyful sounds!
Milly listened, following along with the German and the facing English translation till the chorus ended and the quartet of soloists began. She could hear Zool scratching at the door, wanting to come in. She got up, wiped away the strange tears filming her eyes, opened the door. Zool came rushing in, as happy as before to see her, as if she had disappeared on a long journey and must be feverishly and fervently welcomed home once again. She hugged him back. Then shestood to fix his food and fill his water bowl.
She listened to the rest of the movement, remembering that Beethoven hadn’t been able to hear any of this. Not a single note. He had been stone deaf when he wrote this, his paean to joy, to human affection.Be embraced, you millions. This kiss for all the world.
Over and over the chorus repeats it. This kiss--Diesen Kuß der ganzen Welt!--is all about the need to connect, to embrace each other--in the absence of which the world is filled with filled with joyless noise: Oh, Friends, not these tones!
And as if the full onslaught of song couldn’t convince the random hearer, the quartet comes in—a soprano, an alto, a tenor, a bass. Their voices alternate between tactical approaches--first cajoling, then needling, then imploring. But at last their voices demand the listeners attention: All men become brothers, where the divine spark--the gotterfunken--dwells. Which is beyond the stars. Which is why the cry is so loud, so sure. Because the men on earth must hear what dwells beyond.
And eventually, even their words leave off. After their final ‘gotterfunken,’ the chorus falls silent. And in the final few seconds the orchestra takes over—in a breakneck, driving coda, percussion, strings, winds taking breath utterly away. Until there is nothing. Nothing but silence.
Milly sat unmoving, listening into the silence. She heard nothing other than the sound of Zool lapping at his water dish, his dog license clanging against the metal bowl like the triangle at the end of the symphony.
And suddenly she had an idea. She wasn’t sure what Johanna would think of it. In fact she didn’t even want to tell Johanna about it. Because it was quite possibly a truly cockamamie idea. But it wasn’t as if anybody else had come up with any better ideas about how to handle their mother. The medication wasn’t lessening her sense that she was deeply loved by a brilliant dead man. Johanna’s assertions that she was delusional, that she simply was not in a romantic relationship with anyone, living or dead, did nothing but cause Leah to become paranoid, protective of her paramour. And Milly, listening and nodding, wondering if at some level, her mother was more emotionally content than ever. In some ways she was tempted to encourage her, to ask her questions, to validate the joy she seemed to derive from loving Beethoven.
Talking about his music, she thought, was possibly the best therapy available to her mother. The question was finding someone competent enough—and willing—to do so. She thought about the conducter from the Arts in the Schools program, her mother’s former student. It was a stretch, but maybe worth the risk.
She Googled Hudson Valley Orchestra and wrote their number on a scrap of paper. It was almost five on a Friday afternoon. Most likely the office would be closed. That would be the best thing. That was the reason she had the nerve to call right now. Because she would be sure to get voice mail.
She refilled her milk glass, got her cell phone, brought both into the living room and punched in the number. After a few rings, expecting to get voicemail, she was surprised when she heard a gravelly-voiced woman mutter in a thick New York Accent, “Hudson Valley Orchestra.” And then, right as Milly began to speak, she heard the gravelly voice again, “Hang on a minute. I’m gonna have to put you on hold. Stay right there.”
“Okay,” she said, but immediately heard background music—classical music, probably one of the Orchestra’s recordings. She tried to identify the period. Her mother actually had taught her a lot about music. She just hadn’t retained much of it. Maybe this was Haydn, she thought. Definitely Classical. Not her favorite period at all. She, like her mother, was more of a Romantic.
“Hello. Sorry about that,” the voice was back, “I’m just a volunteer and tonight’s the fall gala so it’s been a little nutty here. But I’ll see if I can try and help you.”
“Thanks,” Milly said, “I’m calling--,” she paused. She couldn’t go into the whole story. “I’m calling for--,” she paused again. Should she call him ‘Maestro?’ Was that protocol or an affectation?
“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you. There’s people here. Speak up.”
She cleared her throat, “Yes. Well, I’m calling for Anders Lanski--.”
The voice laughed, “You just missed him. He just left. Which is a riot, because he’s never in the office. But because of the gala, you know, he had to stop by to pick up some things. That’s who I put you on hold for, Anders. He’s lost again. No GPS. But go on.”
“I, well, it’s a long story and not worth your time tonight of all nights. But he was a student of my mother’s a long time ago and she’s quite ill now. I just had a quick question for him. So I was hoping that, whenever he has the chance, he could call me or drop me an email. It’s not urgent. It’s just if he has the chance.”
The woman cleared her throat, which didn’t clear her voice, “It can’t hurt to leave him a message. I don’t know what he’s like when it comes to returning calls and such, being just a volunteer. But give me your name and your number and the email, too, if you think that’s better and I’ll leave it—oh, hell, I don’t know where to leave it. Maybe just on the secretary’s desk. That’s what I’ll do.”
“Great. Thanks, that’s wonderful,” Milly said, and she spelled out her name, email address, phone number. The woman read them back to her, using proper names to indicate the letters.
“So that’s Mike-Ingrid-Leslie-Leslie-Yolanda-241 at gmail.com, right?”
“Well, I’ll leave it on the desk and hope the secretary gets it to him.”
“No problem, it’s just my job,” the gravelly-voiced woman asked. Then she gave a loud guffaw that made Milly pull the phone from her ear, “though it’s not my job, of course. I’m an ADA for the county. The Orchestra’s just a passion. An obsession.”
Milly laughed awkwardly, torn between imagining this woman arguing a case and her own mother’s obsession.
“Well,” she said, “Music sure can be an addiction.”
“That it can,” the county ADA said, “and what the hell? Isn’t it a great one? Listen, I’ll pass along your message. And best wishes to your mother.”
“Thanks. Thanks, really,” Milly said and ended the call.
Zool was still at his dish, eating slowly, like a canine gourmand.
“Zool!” she called.
He looked up, looked back down at his dish, snagged another bite, then came to her.
“Oh, you’re too good a doggie, aren’t you?” she said, “Or just too stupid to realize you don’t have to be nice to me. That I’d love you anyway, Zoolie-boy.”
She ruffled the fur around his neck, already wondering about how to pass the evening. It wasn’t as if Jack had been especially good company; even when he’d come home from college he’d spend most evenings hanging out in his attic room, playing WOW or worse. But with Jack in the house, Milly always felt purposeful. Even if it was just watching “House” re-runs, she was doing something. Something so that Jack wouldn’t come into the living room and find her just sitting, doing nothing. And though it was true he’d only been away a little more than a year—but a year!—Milly felt as if she’d been living purposelessly for age. Ages.
There was, of course, her Netflix queue. There were books. And since school had started six weeks ago, there were student papers to grade. Though she wouldn’t do any tonight. She never did on Fridays and Saturdays. She saved any schoolwork for Sunday night. It made the night a grind, but wasn’t Sunday night a grind for everybody? That was the night to resign oneself to the quotidian, to slap together sandwiches for Monday’s lunch, something Milly didn’t do, but which her mother always had.
She remembered that the Monday lunches were always the dolorous ones: liverwurst, mayo and pickle relish, an apple—in or out of season—and two Chips Ahoy cookies. Milly always wanted Pepperidge Farm: there were so many different kinds. But her mother always insisted that Pepperidge Farm was too expensive. Maybe it had been because of her mother’s unwavering stance that she raised her son on Bordeaux and Milano cookies, price be damned.
It occurred to her that she should have bought a package of Bordeaux for herself when she was at the supermarket. On the other hand, she was better off without them. She decided to get dinner started, though she wasn’t especially hungry at the moment. The advantage of living with another person was that there were certain routines you didn’t have to think about. Dinner was what you started making as the sun was going down. But over the years since Oscar left and Jack had been off at college, the whole concept of dinner had changed. She didn’t want to cook for just herself. Sometimes she just made a bowl of popcorn and grated Parmesan. Or she’d make a salad, using dressing she’d shaken together at the beginning of the week. She’d eat out, too. The disadvantage there was that she had to drive a fair piece even to get someplace as mundane as Dot’s diner.
She got out her corkscrew, opened the Pinot Noir and poured a glass. Then she wandered out onto the front porch, Zool at her heels. The sun had sunk a little lower, but it was still warm. She peered out into the dense stand of trees surrounding the driveway, the house. The cypresses had gone black now as the darkness settled in. The maples still retained a spectral glow. Once more she thought of ‘in the gloaming.’
All of a sudden the song came back to her, the lyrics melancholy, the tune haunting, the song her mother used to sing to her:
In the gloaming, oh my darling,
think not bitterly of me.
Though I passed away in silence
left you lonely, set you free.
For my heart was tossed with longing,
what had been could never be.
It was best to leave you, thus, dear,
best for you and best for me.
She felt her throat thicken and she swallowed hard with the effort not to cry. It seemed all she did these days was try not to cry. It wasn’t so much that she missed Oscar—though, incredibly, she still did. Yes, she’d been so angry when he left that the anger had carried her over the first couple of years. After that, though, the anger burned off. A longing for what had been, for what they’d had as a family remained. That wasn’t the same thing as missing him, maybe. But he was a part of what she longed for and mourned for.
It wasn’t that she missed Jack, either. She did. But didn’t every mother have to steel herself against the encroaching adulthood of their children? Didn’t you just have to suck it up, that your child no longer needed you? The ugly fact that you were, in effect, fired? And without just cause.
And of course she missed her mother. Somehow she missed even her more because she could see her and be with her, but at the same time she knew full well that her mother wasn’t really there. It wasn’t as if there were nothing there; it was instead as if her mother had been erased.
She took a sip of wine and wandered to the edge of the porch, glass in hand, peering further into the falling darkness.
Her mother had known all the stories. She had always told them stories. About school and her students, of course. But sometimes she’d recount folk tales. Sometimes she’d tell them the plot of an opera or the story behind a song. Or the back story in a composer’s life—and there were plenty of them.
She carried the stories of her daughters’ lives around the way other mothers carried Kleenex—which Leah never seemed to have. Nothing was to mundane to escape the power of the narrative she spun of their lives: how she had to sing to Johanna—and always the same song, “Down in the Valley”—to keep her calm when it was time for the toddler to have her shampoo and subsequent, snarly comb-out; how nine-year-old Milly painted a dollhouse with oil-based paint in a room with no ventilation and later claimed to have had ‘an out-of-body experience;’ how both girls created an elaborate genealogy of all their baby dolls and stuffed animals, all of them related through blood or marriage and happily co-habiting.
In the end she had been the story-keeper, their mother. And they felt calmed by her unhurried narratives, calmed even when they were a little bored by them. Because, of course, they’d heard them over and over again.
This was more true in Leah’s later years, of course. She’d recount stories that both Milly and Johanna could have recited along with her. And how tiresome that became! They knew older people had memory loss. They tried to be patient, but they weren’t always patient.
The time Milly regretted the most was when her mother was telling her yet again how one Valentine’s Day Jack had brought her a giant, heart-shaped sugar cookie (with pink colored sugar!) that he’d baked himself. Milly knew this story: she’d orchestrated the baking and decorating of the cookie. And she was hearing it just one too many times. Beyond annoyed, she snapped, “Christ, Mom! Don’t you think I know about Jack and the god-damned sugar cookie? Whose idea do you think it was to give you one? Who do you think helped him bake it? I’m his mother. I know all about the god-damned cookie!”
She had been shouting without meaning to, accusing without intending to, defending herself without understanding why she felt attacked.
Her mother looked at her with confusion in her eyes for a moment. Then the confusion cleared and she said, quietly, sheepishly, it seemed, “Of course. You’re right. You’re his mother. You would know all about it.”
And just at that moment Milly understood that she remembered her grandson, her beloved Jack, but that she had simply forgotten that it had been Milly who had given birth to him, had raised him. In saying ‘you’re his mother,’ she was simply reminding herself just who Milly was. And by then it began to be less clear whether or not Leah understood whose mother she was.
All that was a while ago. Now she no longer remembered Jack, either.
She had lost their stories. It was as if they had all been gathered into a trunk attached to the roof of a car traveling at high speed on an interstate. And suddenly the ropes loosened and the trunk had fallen off the roof rack, hitting the pavement, then ricocheting, tumbling, bumping and breaking open from the force of its velocity, spilling the stories across the highway, over the guardrails, into the river and valley below. And after that, farther out—across fields and cities and wetlands and deserts till the stories were entirely irretrievable. No one had made a photocopy of the narratives, both mythic and mundane, that had been archived inside Leah’s brain. No one could have. It was expected that she was the story-keeper. It wasn’t anyone else’s responsibility to know the history and legend behind every little thing.
Except that the history and legend behind every little thing was, itself, legendary. Necessary. And gone. Their childhoods were gone. Erased by the brutal disease. Their mother was not to be blamed.
That only left the disease. Only the disease could be blamed. Neither she nor Johanna were allowed to—or should--feel any anger or disappointment toward Leah. Because that would be wrong. Leah hadn’t chosen to lose her mind. She would have loved her daughters wholly and unreservedly if she could remember that she’d had them. But the fact was, she didn’t.
The fact was, that was horrible. Their mother had no right, none at all, to die in this manner in the midst of their lives. Better she had had cancer and was dying with her wits intact. The fact was that in developing Alzheimer’s she had failed them.
Only neither she nor her sister were allowed to say that. Or even feel that. Because Leah would never have made this choice. And yet it hurt in such a strange and obtuse way that having forgotten her daughters, the only comfort Leah found was in the dead and gone composer.
Milly took another sip from her glass and realized it was almost empty. She’d been sipping and thinking and ruminating. She still wasn’t hungry.
She still didn’t know what to do with her evening.
She went back inside the house, re-filled her glass, put on a sweater and returned outside.
Zool was digging at tree roots, possibly imagining that he was on the scent of something marvelous—a boar, or a just a nice-sized squirrel. He was a dog, programmed to find dinner meat. She watched him flit from tree to tree, then back again, hopeful--or perhaps himself delusional in a special, doggy way—that he would find something worth discovering, something worth bringing home to her.
Gazing into the dark stand of trees, where Zool cavorted and intermittently dug at nothing, she remember the lyrics of “In the Gloaming” once more. And what a lie they told:
In the gloaming, oh my darling,
think not bitterly of me.
Though I passed away in silence
left you lonely, set you free.
There are a great many things to discover in being lonely, Milly thought. It’s just that a sense of freedom was truly not among them.