Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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Throughout the month of August, I watched as Matthew gathered important belongings into piles around the house wherever there was a little space. The pile of sox, the pile of tee-shirts; compact disks and audio tapes; sweaters, jeans; the minimal toiletries dropped into a shoe box. He was not yet selecting or counting, just amassing things in their categories. Heretofore, Matthew's belongings had been transported everywhere comfortably in the car, and the idea of an excess to ship ahead to college as freight was untried and hard for him to get. He spoke little. I watched and waited for opportunities to address the issue of quantity and bulk -- and anything else, for that matter. He toiled on, bangs drooping over the distant hazel eyes, not dropping his guard.
August was humid, with many days in the nineties. Weather like that strangles my will even in easy circumstances. Now, I was burdened by all I wanted to say to Matthew and couldn't -- all the truth and wisdom I knew better than to try to send along with him; and Aunt Leah was suffering, suffering, in what had to be a last illness. At eighty-seven, this doting maiden aunt of my childhood at once required and resisted my attention, paddling me away from her like a ping-pong ball, lobbing me into Matthew's territory. Then Matthew's slam would return me to her side of the table to begin another volley.

As I had been doing for the past dozen years, I would drive to Leah's apartment and plead with her for a shopping list. "How about some Jello? You like strawberry, don't you? Couldn't I buy you a blender and make a fruit drink? Do you need more yogurt?"

"I can't. It's no use trying anything new."

I almost understood that she was at the point where, truly, she couldn't and didn't want to eat. But Leah's habit of refusal went back to days when accepting some of life's offers could have been pleasurable, and I myself hadn't outgrown the habit of trying. Defeated at each visit, I would at last kiss Leah on the cheek as I left. I succeeded only in working her up and starting on a headache myself. Back home to Matthew.

Now in the front hall towered a pile of shoes--rubber sandals and joggers, snow boots with felt liners crushing the black dress shoes at bottom. The tee-shirts, at one end of the living room, were separated into Mt. Decorated and Mt. Plain. Only the few referring to high school by name or to pizza-supported sports teams were cast out. He still had, I noted, the one with the gorilla from the junior high years. The sock pile in front of the sofa remained integrated--neatly aligned white ones, still in their wrappers, swirled among a tangle of old friends with dark gray bottoms. Carefully pitching my tone far from any taint of irony or condescension, I asked, "Did you read the part of the freshman packet about clothing? I think I remember a paragraph about how little storage space you'll have."

Before he could take my statement of fact and slam it back to me, I anticipated the blow and proceeded to the kitchen. I left yet another message for Dr. Chin. Nice as Dr. Chin was, I was annoyed that she didn't have a beeper. And why could I never get a clear statement out of her? As I sat by the telephone, sensing the throb moving ominously toward my right temple, a distinct orange-striped cat hair showed itself against the pad of note paper at my elbow. I picked it up and stroked my cheek with it, sensing fully the calming, soft wisp on my skin.

Cointreau had been gone for well over ten years, yet these emanations still appeared to catch me unaware. How many more, I wondered. When would the secret, scattered cache run out? Even Leah had enjoyed the cat. I could see her dangling the string over 'Treau's quick paws, offering her tentative, maiden brand of play. "Pretty kitten," she would coo, even though Cointreau was already in sedate middle age. We were all heartbroken when the cat disappeared, even though Matthew was showing signs of being allergic. An enlarged snapshot of Cointreau was the gift Leah actually exclaimed over. It hung in her kitchen.

By the end of this difficult month three large cartons were in the hands of parcel delivery. It would have been cheaper to order new bedding by mail and have it shipped directly to the dorm. "Look," I had said. "You can get a set of extra-long sheets with a matching comforter. And Student Employment gets a cut from the sale." But Matthew was in austere, anti-materialism mode: "Don't buy me anything. I don't need it."

He was now addressing the most personal items, to travel with him in the car. For sure, the iron pencil sharpener in the shape of Godzilla. The old Rubick's cube. His journal, personal. A poster for animal rights. An Escher calendar. The toiletries and one change of clothing. The guitar. The tennis racket. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; a pristine copy of Ulysses. Einstein's Century--to satisfy his father's recommendation to honor the sciences. Dan gave such good advice that, even as a teenager, Matthew paid it token respect.

Matthew's ambitions were still in formation. He teetered between physics and humanities, affection for his parents and rage. The war in him between desire and conscience was painful and acute, and much of it took place in the realm of objects.

"What about your tallis bag? Will you take it with you?" I asked uncertainly. Soft burgundy velvet, the zippered bag that held his pristine white prayer shawl and velvet head covering lived out of sight and unvisited in the downstairs hall closet, the Repository for the unwanted and the undecided. Matthew's ritual objects occupied an uneasy zone between us. They were his, he had earned them on his thirteenth birthday, by study and performance. And even had he not, they were his, tradition says, by birthright and coming of age. I had picked out the tallis myself. I thought he'd prefer the white-on-white, so dramatically plain, over one with black or blue stripes such as elderly men tend to use, or one woven with the new coat-of-many-colors effect. There had never been a tallis in the home of my childhood.

"I don't plan on going to services," he answered with careful neutrality.

Coming late to communal religion myself, I didn't feel on firm ground to command or even recommend. The best I could do was offer a light speculation: "You might have occasion to use it that you can't anticipate."

"They always have ones you can borrow."

I had no rejoinder. Already, I imagined him enrolled in Asian Thought 101. The tallis was left for me. Along with Matthew's never-favorites among the stuffed animals. Secretly, I was pleased that Big Roar would be left behind, and Toothy, the chipmunk. The lion I liked for its soft mane. It reminded me of Cointreau. I watched as Matthew crammed a tattered monkey and a dirty, flop-eared dog into the suitcase. What would Jared Cartwell, the designated roommate from Los Angeles, make of these? Matthew would have to find that out. He pushed on grimly through his decision-making. This was judgment day for the floor of his room; he understood I was serious about its getting picked up clean. Others would be using the room in his absence. Me, for instance. I was planning to work at his desk on special temporary projects.

"I'll miss you," I blurted out.

He looked up. "I'll miss you, too." That must have felt too revealing. "But you shouldn't miss me. I can take care of myself."

"Of course you can." I smiled. Now he was in control again. I went further. "But you can also lean a little."

Blank. He pushed ahead in his own groove, offering a lecture on my behalf. "I want you and Dad to do a lot. And take care of yourselves. You both need to get more exercise."

Right and right. Dan and I had a tendency to let ourselves go. Beneath Matthew's often bewildered, helpless exterior lay wisdom in various stages of development.

"When will you go with me to see Aunt Leah? You do have to visit at least once before you leave." It pained me to ask this, and it pained him to answer.

"Mom, I really don't have the time. And it's so hard to be there. There's nothing to talk about." That was the real issue. Yet, in the swings of position I'd learned to expect in the teenage years, he often came through in a crunch. "But I guess I better do it, Mom. Let's go when I finish this pile of papers. Maybe tomorrow too. And then we can stop Saturday morning on the way to school. A few minutes each visit."


We drove without talking. Shirley, the daytime aide, opened the door. Leah was resting, Shirley said. Shirley was a woman who put a shine on life. Was she asleep, I asked. No, just lying in bed. We went in.

I had been near to death like this before. Father. Mother. Great-aunt Ida. Leah's eyelids were closed. She breathed very slowly. My helplessness swelled to answer hers. The back of my head seemed to fill with fluid that made it pulse heavily. Leah started and saw us. "Matthew!" she beamed. Matthew went over and kissed her gently, making the least possible contact with her cheek. The room bore odors of age, a particular vitamin smell along with the decaying body. Leah memorized him with her eyes, the tall, lean boy she once could pick up and carry. "So, you're going to college. Will you take your guitar? Do you remember when you used to come and sing nursery rhymes with me?"

Matthew pressed her hand and looked toward me, his eyes boring into mine. I did my part. "Of course he remembers, Leah. Matthew loved to come and eat the cream cheese and raisin sandwiches you made for him. And learn the alphabet, and sing. And stare at the pictures on the fruit dish. You did manage for all those years to keep it out of his reach." It seemed like yesterday.

"Sure, I remember singing with you, Aunt Leah. And the sandwiches. You put much more cream cheese on than my mom. They were wonderful. And you let me play with your rubber bands and paper clips. And the collection of all the coins you found."

"Yes, the coins. I want you to have them." She tried to sit up to direct him but could not. "Go get the can out of the drawer and take it. Take it now." Wiser than I would have been, Matthew got out the old cookie tin and carried it to the bed.

"Thank you," he said. "I'll leave them home so they'll be safe." He looked toward me for guidance. He would never spend any of that money. And I knew where he would store it. I didn't have anything to add except to smile brightly.

"I wish we could stay longer, Aunt Leah, but I have to get back to packing. And Mom says I have to clean up my room before I leave. But we'll come tomorrow." He was doing well in a difficult art, I noted in my own misery.

"Is there anything I can get you?" I asked by rote. "Do you want me to try Dr. Chin again?"

"No. How many times do I have to tell you?"

She looked so uncomfortable, lying there with a heavy, brown afghan weighing on her legs. A labor of determination if not of love, now much raveled and ready to throw out, it had been crocheted by her mother, Ida. "How about a lighter blanket? I've been meaning to ask."

"I don't want anything. I have all the blankets I need," she said crossly. She was getting upset, and speaking was an effort. "Just don't think about me. As long as I can sleep. . . Shirley is here. Go do your packing." She lay back exhausted. I kissed her again.

We turned to go. I knew Matthew had absorbed all he could. The spindly factory furniture, probably from the thirties. The way nothing got replaced--just waited out its time. Matthew's first finger paintings in the kitchen. The gilt fruit dish, relic from the home of my childhood that I had Leah keep for me, the lone showpiece in her apartment. I realized how much I liked to see it there when I visited. Set in its gold surface were exotic scenes from Mythology. A shepherd in a burgundy robe lounging against a pillar, and ladies draped in sheer, flesh-colored gauze--goddesses maybe. The subject matter was out of character in my parents' house, and as a child I would avert my gaze. The dish must have been a gift. I doubt that Leah could have described it had it been lost or stolen. In truth, Matthew had probably never paid attention to it either.

On the way out I thanked Shirley, profusely, from the bottom of my heart, for being so wonderful to my aunt. "Call if I can do anything," I reminded her numbly.

Outside, Matthew bent down so we could hug each other. We had nothing to say, but neither were we hiding anything.


We went back on Friday. Leah was up in the rocking chair. She had taken some sips of tea. She felt better. I allowed myself to postpone what was not yet definitively, finally, happening. I wrote down the number at our motel for Shirley.


Saturday morning, we loaded up the car and made a last visit. Leah was still in bed but brightened up for Matthew. I truly didn't mind that now he was her beloved, as I had been forty years earlier. Shirley reported that Leah drank a little tea and said she'd had a pretty good night.

"Goodbye, Aunt Leah," Matthew said with feeling. "I hope you'll be up and around. And I'll send you a postcard soon." He kissed her, intently.

"Dan and I will be back in town tomorrow afternoon," I reminded her. "I'll call." I kissed her too. I kept looking back as I moved toward the door. I waved, blew another kiss. She smiled at me, a gift.


Four hours and a universe later, we delighted in Matthew's new home at youth heaven, a graceful old brick building with footworn marble stairs and gentlemanly fireplaces. The minimally furnished room assigned to him bore no trace of prior occupancy by any particular human being. We were one in a swarm of eager families. Even those most agitated by detail ("You forgot the raincoat I just bought you?") radiated well-being. We met Jared Cartwell and his long purple pony-tail; he had flown east on his own. A few centuries of youth had arrived as these children were arriving, to pass through these houses, leaving nothing tangible of themselves, and move on.

Sunday morning before breakfast, the call came at the motel. Dan handed me the phone. "Mrs. Erbst? Leah Levinsky's niece? This is Dr. Johnson covering for Dr. Chin." I knew, and disliked, Rupert Johnson. "Your aunt has been admitted to the hospital with severe abdominal pain, and we believe there's an obstruction. The only thing we can do is operate."

Here was the pitch: The pain couldn't be lessened with things as they were; with the obstruction gone, her overall condition might improve. In retrospect, I'd say they were offering me the Brooklyn Bridge. Why hadn't I insisted on sitting down with Dr. Chin to discuss the situation weeks before? Did I even think to ask if Leah wanted this, if she gave her consent? Had Leah said I was the one to decide? I was too rattled to do other than say yes. I was caught, unprepared, with one foot dancing in the May Day of youth; here was the harsh command: deportation to the real world. "You would do well to come back," Dr. Johnson advised.

"We certainly were planning to." What did he think?


By the time Dan and I reached her room, my headache was up to crippling full power, and Leah was being wheeled out for surgery. The residents were in a hurry: I had only a second to squeeze her hand.


The next week was an aching vigil over a body invaded by tubes, an unconscious form whose self was inaccessible, already far away. It was a relief to have Dr. Chin back on the case, even though "We'll just have to wait and see" was the best that medical opinion had to contribute. Sometimes I held Leah's stiff, swollen hand. Most of the time I sat by the bed half-reading a magazine, straining all the while to communicate my presence, as if it would be helpful for her to know I was there. And who was I, anyhow, to imagine I made a difference? Occasionally Leah's eyes fluttered open, and I spoke to her, loudly, clearly: "It's me, Daphne." She was hard of hearing.

On Thursday I was home for some supper when the final call came. Dr. Chin had a soothing way of putting it. "It was very easy; her heart just stopped beating."

The hospital urged an autopsy. Agreed. "Renal failure" was the report--a pretentious euphemism for "old age" so far as I could tell. Dan held me as I grieved for her suffering, for those black nights alone to which I had allowed her to be abandoned.


Leah had been a life member of a burial society. All I had to do was call the number she kept displayed by her telephone in large, childlike numerals, the number she had also pressed into my hand when she first began slowing down. "Here's the information on the B'nai Sholom if you need it. Everything is taken care of." Sparing me, as usual. Her regard for what I would have to do--the mild way she phrased and skirted the inevitable.

The funeral would be on Sunday. On Friday I called Matthew and Shirley and the few old people remaining in Leah's life. I hesitated to disturb Matthew's first days at school, but it had to be done.

The burial society and cemetery were a hand-me-down package from Leah's parents' generation. She was to be buried next to her father and mother. The B'nai Sholom pamphlet looked so foreign, so old-fashioned, with each facing page printed in Yiddish. Many of the bland blue characters looked familiar now that I had taken an Adult Education class in beginning Hebrew. I wondered if Leah had been able to read it. Surely people my age didn't join B'nai Sholom anymore. Who would take care of the last few? I didn't want to think about it. Following after Dr. Chin in the parade of upbeat young women tending to Leah's needs, Rabbi Whitman prepared for the funeral. Adept in congregational skills, she engaged Dan and me in producing cheerful memories and tributes for her to present with clerical poise at the ceremony. We had affectionate stories to tell, of Leah as the most considerate and generous of souls. We indulged in our tenderness.

But at the funeral director's I was on my own. Leah had chosen to believe that B'nai Sholom assumed a lot more responsibility than in fact it had signed on for.

"Of course, when there's an autopsy, we generally do an embalming," explained Mr. Lear of Rosenfeld & Lear. He wasn't suggesting a choice. One thing led to another. "And people will want to see a nice coffin. Let me show you this oak model, very solid." He rapped on it to demonstrate. "Simple lines, very good taste. A very popular item and excellent value."

Mr. Lear helped me to bypass the fine print about availability of a plain pine box. At the time I didn't know that the pine box was ritually preferred. Or that embalming is ritually forbidden, like the autopsy. Picture me: wanting fiercely to protect her, do the right thing; failing miserably. As a token of general recompense, to make up somehow for all Leah chronically denied herself in life, I ordered a large mass of red flowers. Mr. Lear paused to mention that flowers weren't necessary, but he was happy to write them in. Flowers, too, I later learned, are ritually frowned on. The tradition wants no coy flirtation with death. You wash the body, place it in a plain white garment inside a plain pine box, you lower the box into the ground, shovel the dirt on it, and you know that death is death. You don't need an extravagant mass of crimson blooms to sweeten the finality. But I needed it: red was Leah's favorite color. I ordered them emphatically, defiantly.

Matthew came by train the morning of the funeral. He was very quiet--almost an observer. He returned to school later in the day--two tests, a paper due. He did what was reasonable.


Then came the weeks of emptying Leah's apartment. Letting go. Making good decisions. I'd go there with empty bags and cartons, a marking pen. The ruined mattress on the bed--ask the janitor to dispose of it. The rocking chair--for Shirley, who had taken to it over the months. There was the fruit dish. Something between a bowl and a plate--I was never sure how to think of it. I picked it up, rotated it. The goddesses appeared, to my adult eye, suspect and simpering. Nonetheless, the rich gold and burgundy and blue welded me to this object. The fruit dish would go home with me, no question. Sofa and chairs, desk, side table--all to the thrift store. Or should I put them in our basement for the time when Matthew or his friends would be furnishing a first apartment? A drawer filled with tucked-together pairs of lisle stockings, some of them darned, cotton you can't buy today. A closet modestly stocked with clothing. Did I know anyone who could use it? Leah and I were the same size. There were three never-worn blouses in pallid colors I hated, hanging there for as long as I could remember. Leah had often asked me to wear them, they were brand new. "You take them," she said--dull green, limp yellow, a grayish white. She'd also wanted me to take the forbidding black, ribbed cardigan, one size fits all, good for another forty years. I pulled out a brand new spare pair of shoes, custom-made to fit her bunions; she was sure the company would go out of business. Her few threadbare sheets and towels. A few old specimens of The Reader's Digest. When I was about seven, I would pass the time on my visit by straining to get the point of the end-of-story fillers.

Handling each piece of fabric, each spare button and safety pin, was a sorrow. The pity of it. From this long life, what had she left me? I heard my same few words for her circling: gentle, affectionate, self-effacing. I went through the desk drawers collecting scraps of paper on which, in deteriorating scrawls, she had kept faithful logs of her physical decline, magazine articles on arthritis and new drugs on the market suddenly gone sour, warnings, cautions. A frayed document from Hadassah assuring perpetual Yahrzeit observance for her mother, Ida, inclusion in a prayer each anniversary of her death. Did Leah too want to be remembered in this way? I had no idea. She never seemed interested in my enlarging participation in Judaism, which I had come to uncertainly, warily, on my own. She attended Matthew's bar mitzvah service with love, but blankly, without comment. As with the other pieces of her life, Leah did what came up. That was what I could make of it. To herself, too, she was probably a stranger, someone not very interesting to know.

I saved her papers in a carton, along with the snapshots and Matthew's drawings. I wrapped the fruit dish in newspaper to take back home, along with the rough black sweater, immortal, in early acrylic, that I couldn't bring myself to throw out. I would keep the fruit dish on the sideboard in the dining room. The sweater would enter the limbo of the Repository.

To dismantle Leah's effects, meager as they were, took a solid month. Dan was sympathetic through the ordeal, but there wasn't much practical help he could offer. A lonely job. One afternoon, I called Matthew. "I'm still taking care of Leah's things," I said. Silence. I made my guilty confession. "Now I know we shouldn't have had flowers at the funeral."

"What? Those flowers were amazing. Like an amazing good-bye present." He'd understood.

"I didn't know this at the time, Matthew, but a Jewish funeral isn't supposed to have flowers."

"Why?" Disbelief was palpable in his voice. "Hindus have tons of flowers at funerals."

Hindus. "Hindus see it a different way. For them, the soul goes on to another life -- I'm sure you know more about that than I do."

"What has that got to do with flowers?"

As I feared. I could almost see him twirling his bangs in consternation. The Hindus, he was saying, have useful traditions.

"Matthew, it was my responsibility to find out how things should have been done."

"Lighten up, Mom. How could you be an expert on funerals? It was fine. Really. See you at Thanksgiving."

At last I turned in Leah's apartment key and paid the final trickle of medical and utility bills. I ordered the gravestone. Then I plugged away at filing the legal papers, the tax returns. Small and neat as her affairs were, it was a slow process, during which I'd think of Leah at times, fondly. I wondered what Matthew was busy doing and wished I weren't banished from his new life. I would wander through the house pausing at certain pleasure points. The photograph of the farm we used to visit in October when the leaves turned. Leah's picture of Cointreau, now in our den. Matthew's exuberant early art work, his high-school yearbook brimming with teenaged energy. I could lose myself in that volume, standing much too long with it as it got heavier in my arms. Prowling for a box of crackers, I came upon the yellow plate high in our kitchen cupboard, Matthew's first. Dan had picked it out--with its bright rabbits and ducks--and Matthew rejected it ferociously, inexplicably. We kept saving it for company; now, for grandchildren. There was still the box of Leah's papers to sort through, a project easy to put off. Easier by far to sit by the shelves of Matthew's old children's books and reread the many favorites before packing them away. This was one of the chores that Matthew--with much grumbling--had failed to do before leaving.


And then it was summer again. Matthew was home; a veteran, a sophomore-to-be. Braving new challenges in his temp job as a programmer, he wore his college learning with an edge. Our conversations could be smooth as butter or brambled and prickly.

Leah's memorial stone was ready, and Dan and I were to schedule the unveiling ceremony. Mid-August made sense--almost the customary year after the funeral and well before Matthew, already restless after a confining two months under the parental roof, would go back to school.

The afternoon was dank, unseasonably cool and dispiriting, when I raised the question of the unveiling date. Matthew was at his computer. "Huh? What was that?" he mumbled absently. Matthew's receptivity tended to vary with such conditions as frequency of error messages on his screen and barometric pressure. I knew right away that I should postpone my announcement. "The unveiling for Aunt Leah," I said.


Indeed, I detected suspicion in his voice. "It's a tradition. A year after the funeral," I explained, "you unveil the gravestone. In a little ceremony." I tried to sound nonchalant; I was working my dust cloth lightly down the bookcase.

"That would mean going all the way out to the cemetery, wouldn't it? Long prayers, too, I bet," he muttered, still clacking at his keyboard.

"Actually, the ceremony is very simple. The cemetery people wrap a piece of gauze around the stone, and at the unveiling it gets taken off. See? My idea was to collect some readings we like and go have our own little observance. Dad agrees."

He frowned. "It sounds like this would take a whole afternoon. I hardly have any vacation before school starts."

"Don't you care about Aunt Leah?" I asked, trying to keep accusation out of my voice.

He considered, while pushing the Delete key intently. "Sure. I think about Aunt Leah. But we had the funeral. She's already buried. Why does there have to be another ceremony?"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing, bad mood or no. "It's a custom. It's about remembering, and respect. Which you seem to have lost out there in the Ivy League. I'm sorry you can't spare three hours for an aunt who loved you," I said, "and that you don't find anything useful here. I hope that some day you will."

"I don't get it, Mom," he said as I started to leave. "I can sort of see going to honor the grave and check the carving and all that, but not because it's some tradition. Do this, recite that. This Jewish stuff is pointless." He swiveled on his computer stool, warming to his argument. "Who in his right mind would put a piece of gauze over a gravestone just to take it off?" Now he was on his feet, following me and my dust cloth into the dining room. "Besides, Aunt Leah never believed in it. She didn't have any interest in any tradition. Why are you starting it up again?"

Is this what six years of driving him to Hebrew school had accomplished?

I was aghast at the depth of his antagonism.

"Aunt Leah didn't know anything about Jewish holidays," he said loftily. "She ate shrimp and Chinese food and had no idea what was going on at my bar mitzvah."

"Matthew, what has gotten into you?" I wanted to flick the dust rag in his face. But he'd barely begun.

"Mom, there's a lot we just never say out loud. I think we should be honest, not cover over our feelings with some phony, boring ceremony. Aunt Leah was very sweet, but it was really hard to be with her for very long. She had nothing to say. She thought she was teaching me the alphabet. She never even saw Sesame Street. And you" --he stretched an arm out like a saber and pointed fiercely-- "you would go bananas when she'd keep refusing to try anything you suggested. Remember that afghan on her legs? You'd get headaches from trying to talk to her." He was pacing the small space in the dining room like a zoo animal.

"What did she leave behind, anyway? Little jars of bent paper clips? Do you think anyone will have the nerve to use the money she put in that cookie can?"

I felt caught in some kind of slippery net. He spoke the truth. But it wasn't right. I had to defend something, somebody. A rush of pain surged through my left temple.

"Oh, and I forgot this fruit bowl thing," he continued, picking up the delicate object and swinging it as if it were a frying pan. "She had this ugly thing sitting on her table, like a Grecian urn or something. Not that she ever looked at it."

"That belonged to my parents," I said, my anger now focused. "It has sentimental value to me, and Aunt Leah kept it for us while you were young and could have bro--"

Before I finished the sentence, the dish slipped out of his wrought-up hands. Fragments--chunks of porcelain and splinters by the hundreds skated across the floor. Now he'd done it.

"Oh, no! Mom, I didn't mean to!" he moaned. "Really. I'm sorry!" The pain in my temple ballooned like a mushroom cloud. This was going to be a bad one.

He was on his knees scraping together the pieces. "Can we get it fixed? I'll pay out of my summer money," he wailed.

"Don't be ridiculous! There's no way you can fix it! Or pay for it or make up for it! Zero, zilch! This wouldn't have happened if you weren't so thoughtless and self-absorbed, Mr. Know-it-all!" I heard myself scream at him. I needed to take care of myself--to grab an ice pack for my head and get into bed fast.

Matthew jumped up in an alacrity of guilt and woe. "Mom, I'm really sorry. Please. I'll clean it up right away. You look sick. Can I get you anything?"

I almost reached down to hug him, but I did not. "Bring me something warm from the hall closet," I croaked as I dragged myself toward the kitchen.

I was swallowing the headache pills when he came in, smiling hopefully and holding out Leah's old black sweater. It hung dark and ugly from his hand--huge, smothering. "Is that the only thing you could find?" I shrieked. Then, seeing him freeze in place, I wanted to bite my tongue. This was my problem. "It's fine, I'll take it."

As he handed it to me, I flinched. Yet, even with my eyes half-shut, I could see a delicate orange and white strand, relaxed and free, shining against the coarse black ribbing. "Oh, Matthew," I said, "look at that."

"Wow." He grinned. "Cointreau." We stood together a long time, watching the tiny filament undulate, alive again in the mild embrace of a little static electricity.

I let him help me put the sweater on. "Okay," I said. "But remember. The unveiling is a week from Sunday. We'll leave at two, and I expect you to contribute something we can all find meaningful."

Naomi Myrvaagnes, fiction writer and poet, is a resident scholar at the Brandeis University Women’s Studies Research Center. She is the mother of a young adult. “Effects” is one of twelve stories in a collection about Daphne Erbst and her family, One Eighty Laurel. Another story from the collection was published in the Harvard Review and awarded special mention by the Pushcart Prize 2001. Visit Naomi Myrvaagnes at

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