Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood

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A warm September breeze blew through the dirt-caked windows and rustled the threadbare curtains, sending them dancing like calico ghosts against the bare walls. Elise took a breath and sucked in the smell of hydrangeas.

It was a hand-me-down house.

In another century, it had been the work of a great-great uncle twice removed or some long forgotten grandfather that had never known she existed. In the days before war and hunger and dilapidating neglect, it had been a castle. Time had a way of chiseling away beauty. The structure had become nothing more than a dying member of the family, passed down from one unfortunate caretaker to the next. It was a relic of a gone time, usually falling into the hands of the person who happened to be most rooted in desperation at the moment.

Elise’s mother had a finely tuned hatred of the word desperate. It was derogatory, so she said, and crude. In its place, she had spent twenty years simply stating that one should be willing to make allowances until greater blessings were bestowed upon them. Living in the crumbling pile of wood and bricks, Elise considered, went far beyond the idea of making a few allowances.

Elise’s fingertips grazed the cracks and crevices in the paneled wood wall as she traced the path down the hall to her bedroom. She stopped here and there, taking moments to inspect one spot or another. Reaching the end of the hallway, she paused in the hollow space of the tall, age-warped doorway and stared into the familiar cavern that she again could call her own.

It was, to give it some credit, the largest bedroom she had ever seen. The ceiling hovered high above her head, creating something of a regal look that did little to light the shadow of its otherwise lackluster countenance. The floor was bare wood and stained in at least eight places and the walls were plastered with the same faded canary yellow roses that had been holding steady there since her eighth birthday. Despite the eighteen years of growth passing since the last night her head rested under that roof, nothing appeared to have changed. She had never expected to revisit the place to confirm this steadfastness, but nevertheless there she stood, leaned against the door frame with the same lack of interest of her childhood.

The shell of a dresser rested against the south wall, marked with gaping holes that drawers once plugged. It resembled, she thought, a mouth with missing teeth. Against the other wall was a bed, or what once was. Its two ends were squashed together near the rest of the frame that was tossed about in pieces. Nearby, occupying only a fraction of the floor space in the spacious room, lay a bare mattress. With its stains and sickly signs of wear, it fit in well with the rest of the homely place. Strangely, though, it served as a comforting sign that gave the room an almost welcome appeal.

As a child, Elise had crawled across that floor on hands and knees, scrutinizing every inch of the knotted wood with her palms. She could still recall the sound of the boards groaning as she scooted her small body forward, like ghosts prattling in a language she couldn’t understand. At times, she would press her small ear to the wood, straining to make out the voices and imagining the faces of the previous occupants they might have belonged to. Perhaps, she had pondered, they were discussing the new tenants in their humble abode.

Elise sighed. Childhood seemed to be a million years in the past. Glancing at the wall beside her, she peeled away a small piece of wallpaper that was tearing itself away from its glued binding. Other small notches were missing, leaving bare patches in the sea of antiqued floral. She turned her eyes to the ceiling and noticed the remaining dark shadows from a plumbing emergency that had long ago gone unmanaged. She worried that the whole place might tumble down upon her some night in her dreams. In some ways, she might welcome the event.

Heavy, echoing thuds pounded in her ear drums and she switched her attention to the hallway behind her.

“Mom, what are you doing?” Her twelve year old daughter positioned a handful of pink chipped fingers on each hip and cocked her head to the side in the best pre-teen fashion.

Elise stared at her and wondered what the child might think of the whispering ghosts in the floor. Mostly likely she would be unimpressed. Unlike her, the child had never been one to appreciate fantastical things. She shrugged and pushed her body away from the door frame.

“Just sizing up the place. Have you finished unpacking, Jessie?”

Her daughter’s overconfident grey eyes rolled skyward and she shook her head with a sigh. “Not yet. I’m hungry and need a break. Can we order a pizza?”

Elise wasted no time nodding and tossed her the cell phone that had been taking up space in her back pocket. “Give them a call if you can get a good signal in this place.”

Jessie caught the phone with one hand. As she made her way down the stairs, Elise could hear her speaking in adult tones about the importance of extra pepperoni and delivery times.

As she turned back to the bedroom, Elise could see in her mind’s eye the image of herself as if it were only yesterday. She had eaten pizza on her first night there as well. She closed her eyes and leaned her head against the door, letting her mind drift.

“This is the first night of our new beginning, girls,” her mother had commented through a mouthful of three cheese and pepperoni. Elise had stared at her slice and peeled the circles of meat off, dropping them one by one into a perfect mountain on her paper plate.

“Will we start school tomorrow, Mom?” her sister had inquired with eager eyes. Elise could still recall that the warning look she had shot across the table had gone unnoticed. Among her other imperfections, her sister had always been a hopeless slave to education.

Her mother’s eyes had risen across the table to gaze at them with soft sympathy. As Elise remembered, they were as blue as the periwinkle gingham sheet that had been thrown on the floor as a makeshift table.

“Not tomorrow, honey,” her smooth voice had replied. “After we settle, you can register on Monday.”

Her sister’s shoulders had slumped in disappointment, though Elise had been elated. After shoving another slice of pizza into her hungry mouth, she yawned through flecks of tomato sauce. Her mother had caught the yawn from the corner of her ever watchful eye and swiftly closed the pizza box.

“I think it’s time you two found your beds. Especially you,” she had stated, aiming the last bit at Elise. “I know you only have bare mattresses on the floor tonight, but once you throw your sheets over them they will sleep just fine. Go find the boxes we packed them in and I will be there in a few minutes to help.”

Without waiting for her sister to follow, Elise had run for the entryway and begun an unsteady crawl over scattered boxes, searching for one messily labeled ‘bed linens’. It was when she pushed aside a box with her sister’s name on it that she came face to face with a mysterious one labeled ‘trash’ in thick, black marker. Despite its misgiving label, it was taped carefully and completely around the lid and was almost light to the lift. Forgetting the sheets, Elise had pushed the box away from the rest, carried it down the hall to her room and slammed the door behind her. With short, stubby fingernails, she had picked away the tape holding the two flaps of cardboard down. After a few moments, she released enough of the adhesive to grasp the tape with her fingertips and rip it from the box lid in three short tugs. It stuck to her fingers and then to the floor where she left it. Vague memories of Christmas pleasure had floated through her mind as with trembling fingers, she had pulled back the flaps and peeked inside.

A noise behind her sent her eyes flying open and she was brought back into the present as her daughter tramped towards her with a smile.

“The pizza is on its way. The man said delivery would take longer than usual since, as he put it, we live in the middle of nowhere and are just lucky they even deliver this far. Jerk.” Jessie seemed to be talking more to herself than her mother and headed back down the hall towards her own bedroom.

Elise let her disappear again and again turned back to the room. She moved quickly across the floor, flung open the closet door and dropped to her knees. Before her mind could make sense of her actions, her fingers were prying two boards from the back of the closet and tossing them aside. There, waiting behind them, sat the same brown cardboard box with the choppy black letters spelling out ‘trash’ on one side.

She retrieved it from its hiding place slowly, noticing how the years had turned the box into a crumbled, mildewed mess. She allowed herself the privilege of once again folding back the four flaps on top and peering down into the darkness. A spider danced across her finger and she flicked it away with a quick shake of her wrist. Beneath where her hand lay was a tiny series of spider webs. With the same flick of the wrist, she brushed them away and reached down to pull out the tattered contents.

A stack of photos, mostly black and white mingling with a few of color, sat piled in her hands. Some of the faces were more faded than she remembered and some of the edges were torn. She spread them on the floor and displayed them like a fanned deck of cards. Most of the images were a collection from her grandmother’s leather albums that had been tossed in the box to be saved as ammunition for a good fire that had never been lit. The family contained in them had long since passed away. There were aunts and uncles she had never known, that had retreated to far ends of the country long before Elise had ever graced the world with her presence. There were a few antique shots of her grandmother in her youth and, as she once heard the old woman put it, before her pages had become creased and dog eared. In most of them, the man she had been told was her grandfather was keeping watch, stoic and strong faced and staring down the camera in each portrait he took.

Elise had heard only stories about him from her grandmother, usually spoken in a far away tone and with a hint of sadness in her voice that was unmistakable. He was long since gone, leaving her grandmother widowed by liquor with five children to rear on her own.

She pushed aside the black and white photos and ran her fingers over the colored images, yellowed and faded here and there from the effects of time. These she knew. Most had come from shoe boxes in her mother’s closet and had been tossed into the box with the same intent to roast one day. At one time, she knew her mother had cherished the old Polaroids and kept them tucked away in her hand-me-down leather album. Somewhere along the way, it seemed something had changed and they lost their worth. Elise had caught her with them a few weeks before her first move into the house. They were scattered on the floor of their small apartment where her mother sat shaking with tears.

Elise examined them one by one, like an archaeologist studying a rare artifact. Most of them contained her father, a man that had become lost to her over the years. His face was the same in her mind as it was in the photos and at one time she had known him well. Then the day came when he was gone, vaporized like her old life and the pair of shoes she had left in the dining room of the apartment on the day her mother drove them away in the brown station wagon. Elise had never known why he left, or what qualities the other woman possessed that her mother didn’t, but the short of it was he had never looked back and her mother had done her best to do the same.

She dropped the photos back into the box and glanced across the room at the pile of bags and boxes that were stacked and dumped in the corner. Pushing herself to her feet, she made her way back across the room, sorting through the mess until she found the thing she was searching for. Near the bottom of the pile was a small box left sitting wide open with a few loose items floating inside. She knelt beside it and pushed away a few legal documents and letters before wrapping her fingers around the small leather album near the bottom. Shoving the box back into the corner, she took the album in her hands and walked back over to the closet with shuffling steps.

The album dropped from her hands and fell into the box, sending a cloud of dust rising from the discarded memories. A few photos flew out of the album on impact and she left them as they fell. Quickly, she folded the flaps of the box back into place, shoved the box into the crawl space and placed the loose boards back into position. With a few hard smacks of her palm, the space was closed again and hidden from anyone who didn’t wish to find it. Her daughter’s footsteps came again up the hallway and she crawled out of the closet to meet her.

Amber Cook is the author of numerous published works, including appearances in Adanna, Luna Luna Magazine and Literary Mama. Her short story “Little Mother” was chosen for inclusion in Dzanc Books’ 2009 edition of Best of the Web. She balances writing and motherhood in Tennessee

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