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In the fall almost a year after my father died, my brother John and I met in Durham to clean out my parents’ house. I arrived first, relieved to be able to pull the U-Haul truck, without an audience, head-on into the turn-around area, and John showed up a few minutes later in his small pickup. “Hey, sis,” he said, coming towards me in his khaki shorts and the yellow T-shirt from Death of a Salesman, the play he’d recently produced at his local community theater. We hugged with the slight awkwardness of siblings who hadn’t grown up hugging.
“Hey, good to see you,” I said. Separating, I scuffed my foot along the driveway, sending a few acorns flying. “I see Dad hasn’t swept the driveway,” his self-appointed chore to prepare for company, which in recent years had included us.
John handed me a couple boxes of trash bags from the bed of his truck and himself grabbed some nested empty boxes. “How’s she doing?” he asked.
“Well, they have her on the assisted living floor now, you know. The one with the nurses’ station. They wanted to evaluate her for a while. She’s doing better, I think. She was pretty fragile there for a while.”
“A liter of sherry a day will do that.” He had been the one to push seriously for an intervention, but I’d resisted, settling into my own cowardice, afraid of the conflict and the possibility of my mother’s alienation from the family, unwilling to remove her final comfort.
A few weeks earlier, holding her power of attorney, John and I had signed the sales agreement for the house, and by this time my mother had been moved two hours south to an elderly housing complex near me. Although not unplanned, the move itself was sudden, after a week of five calls from the neighbor next door, telling me that my mother had yet again called an ambulance in the middle of the night, unable to breathe, demanding to be brought into the emergency room where, morning after morning, she was checked out and released to return home, the ambulance her own stately and expensive taxi. “You need to do something,” this neighbor had said, “now,” this same neighbor who had walked for hours with my father up and down in the driveway, who had brought them blueberry muffins and checked up on them, who had a few weeks earlier bought from my mother the half-lot that had been my father’s upper garden, for the agreed-upon sum of $4000. After a few phone calls I arranged for Margaret the cleaning lady to meet the ambulance one morning for a scoop and run operation, picking up my mother and packing up a suitcase of clothes to drive her south. A photograph from that morning, taken by the neighbor perhaps, shows my mother still in pale green hospital Johnny, hair tousled and eyes not quite meeting the camera, Margaret’s smile bright as she held my mother up with an arm around her shoulders. When we rendezvoused a couple hours later at the Dunkin Donuts near my house, my mother asked for a coffee cup and ice, holding it out for Margaret to pour a slug of sherry from the flask in the front seat.
Each summer evening the dog pulled me up our driveway and out into the world. It took a minute for the clot of anger in my chest to break up, washed over by the pure relief of escape, escape from the everyday frustrations of motherhood, those endless demands for food and drinks, the scratching and name-calling matches to mediate, the search parties to organize for some precious possession or other, the tattered blanket I’d finally find balled up in the corner of a closet. But now we had a dog, an adopted yellow Lab named Sherlock, and I had an escape. We, the dog and I, left behind the dirty dishes in the sink, the floors littered with building blocks and hair ties, piles of pink and purple clothes discarded after a half-hour’s wearing, three squabbling daughters prancing half-naked to some Raffi tune (“Knees Up, Mother Brown” the current favorite) in the rush of energy that always came just before bedtime.
We walked up our driveway, out of our pocket of woods, mature trees and ten years of our amateur landscaping efforts, out to the road, fields and open sky, dying farmland. I had forgotten how exposed it felt. It had been five years since I’d regularly walked these streets. The afternoon roads had been too dangerous for my headstrong toddlers who refused the stroller, and the evenings were always a rush of dinnerbathstorybedtime routine. Those had been the golden days that the mother of three sees when she looks back on herself as the mother of one, especially the preverbal immobile one who holds no particular food preferences, no firmly held conviction that a fit was required unless your socks fit just right, no knowledge that it was possible to clamber out of your crib at naptime.
After her nap I bundled my oldest, Acacia, into her stroller and pushed her the two miles around the block. I would fill her fists with roadside wildflowers, trying to find as many colors and shapes as I could, craning my neck around the canopy of the stroller every few minutes to make sure she wasn’t trying to eat any poisonous petals or bitter foliage. At home I’d stash her in the baby seat with her favorite chewy-eared elephant rattle while I pulled out our guidebooks and tried to identify the already-wilting flowers: blue toadflax, jewelweed, bittersweet nightshade, so many fairytale names. We didn’t know our neighbors’ names, but we learned where to find the wild onions and skunkweed sprouted up in the spring, the vigorous bulb discards (iris and grape hyacinth), the places where someone’s vinca jumped the fence, where we could find mulberries and wild grapes in the summer, bittersweet in the fall.
It seemed that we were the only ones to appreciate these roadside weeds, blurs of color out of the corner of people’s eyes as their cars sped to some law office in Providence or the country club down the street. We live in a town of commuters, ten miles from downtown Providence, only traces of the farmland it had been in the days of horse and wagon. The silver milk truck still pulls into the long driveway across the street; if the wind is right, we can still hear moos and smell manure. On the two-mile walk around our block, you pass cornfields, in some years fields of winter squash or peppers, gorwn by part-time farmers on leased land. This spring, in the twilight, the part-time farmers drove their tractors down the road, getting their corn in by the tractor’s headlights, trying to snare the top dollar an early crop would bring. But now many of the fields are for sale, dotted with the white PVC of perc tests, waiting for the market conditions to bring out the wily developers like worms rising after a rain. Rich young couples will build angular contemporaries with complicated rooflines. They themselves are seldom seen, vanishing behind their electrically opened garage doors, their grounds tended by hired help. In patches where the older houses are clustered together, modest ranches and boxy Capes, retired couples are closeted inside, moaning how their tax rates are creeping up to educate the children of all these newcomers, the ones who debate open spaces policy in their LL Bean corduroys and pressed flannel shirts, who speed along curvy roads n their sparkling Volvos and stylish minivans, not the neighborly sort of neighborhood I’d imagined.
As I walked the dog each evening, I seldom saw any people. I learned a few neighbors’ names from their mailboxes, examining each homeowner’s individual solution to the rash of mailbox-bashing vandalism. And most deliciously, indulging in a regrettably nasty streak of mine, I critique my neighbors’ landscaping efforts, particularly the minimalist or shoddily executed ones. (A different sort of sneer I reserve for the Italianate mansion down the street, its manicured and vacuumed lawns, trees girdled with lighting devices, that stony nude spewing water into the reflecting pool.) Here I pass a lawn savagely sheared by the riding lawnmower, those ceaseless efforts to keep back the wilderness, houses bordered by the second growth woods of leggy adolescents, cut and come again cherry tree. Those hopeful little patches of annuals (pansies, marigolds, ageratum) bought at the grocery store and plugged into neat rows or careful circles. That long dusty driveway edged with a skinny strip of perennials, a valiant attempt but its blips of color stretched much too thinly. The cement deer and plastic raccoons—odd touches when there are still real bunnies, chipmunks, snakes aplenty, toads and salamanders for the sharp-eyed. A revelation silences my critique: the image of dusted baseboards, freshly laundered curtains. How sparkling these people’s toilet bowls must be, how gloriously bare their coffee tables.
These summer evenings when I walk the dog, the kids clamor to come along, give up for a few minutes their baseball batting practice, their father’s patient instruction, their wild swings of the swollen-headed pink plastic bat. I shepherd them along, the dog pulling my leashed arm straight ahead, my free arm straight out in back, trying to keep my daughters in the narrow margin between the dangers of traffic and the rampant poison ivy in the brush. When all three of them come along with me, we walk the relatively straight stretch to the water, the river passing under the road then pooling up, dammed into the reservoir named Shad Factory for the storied success of its fish ladders. We’re looking for birds, often see Canada geese, mallards, grebes. This summer we’re keeping our eyes open to see the pair of mute swans and their eight babies. How ugly the babies are, the oldest exclaims, and I remind her of the story of the ugly duckling, thinking ahead to her adolescence. I tell them that we must be quiet, not scare them, that swans can be vicious defenders of their offspring. Their startled looks, disbelief make me sorry for the disillusionment, and I quickly mention the ballet Swan Lake, a stageful of white feathers, all those graceful necks.
My youngest daughter at three, despite a terror of ants or anything resembling them, is fascinated by dead animals. On my walks with her she looks forward to seeing squashed birds, lifeless cats, flattened frogs, a skunk that took two weeks’ traffic to crape off the pavement. Early June, we notice, is a dangerous time for turtles, the mothers crossing the road from wetlands in search of nice warm sand to lay their eggs. This year we see two mothers crouched in the sand beside our driveway, turtle-panting in effort as the leathery eggs drop into the holes they’ve dug. (In July we found curls of turtle shells the length of the driveway, dropped like dogwood petals; I looked for baby turtles inching their way down to our pond until my husband explained it had probably been a raccoon stumbling on a lucky feast.)
On the road my daughter squats barelegged over a specimen camouflaged by a few day’s decomposition. I keep a greater distance, saying Don’t touch, don’t touch, working on my attempts not to flinch, not to wrinkle my nose in distaste, thinking of Acacia at that age with her pet worm Strawberry that we were obliged to admire and stroke. Instead I analyze the sociology of this plethora of roadkill, a ready supply of squashable wildlife combined with plenty of fast-moving cars to accomplish the deed. I can’t tell exactly what Emily understands about death, if she understands that the dead animals will never move or eat or rustle through the brush to surprise her, if she’s made the jump from dead birds and frogs and cats to the possibility of dead people. I refrain from any talk of heaven, as if talk of frogs in halos and mice in gauzy wings would be too implausible even for a three-year-old.
Often, at the beginning of the semester, I ask my college writing students what they remember about kindergarten. They start slowly. Recess usually comes first, followed by naptime, or riding the bus. I list their memories on the blackboard without saying too much. After a few minutes I start to nudge them towards specificity. With some prodding they manage to summon up the sand table and the dancing letter people, the Baernstein Bears and Dr. Seuss, pressing Play dough into witchy fingernail and dripping apples onto poster-paint trees, the wall of blocks big enough to hide behind, the class guinea pig, dodge ball and Red Rover, Red Rover, let Sammie come over. I turn around when the board is full. One of those front-row types rubs her chin purposefully to let me know I’ve got chalk on my face again. I nod, but don’t rub it off. There are things more important than grooming.
I’m about to launch into my sermon (to be repeated throughout the semester) on the sanctity of the Specific Detail. I take a minute to ratchet up the proper fervor. I gesture around our bare classroom, sweep my arm up at the buzzy fluorescent lights, swing it sidearm at the textured concrete walls that make me nearly wince in anticipation of scraped knuckles. The room conjures visions of Eastern Europe in the 1960s, but cleaner; words like politburo and proletariat come to mind. I suppose it’s no worse than most college classrooms. “Well, what in the…WORLD happened? This is where the educational system has brought us all?” A few students laugh uneasily. They think I’m kidding.
I’m interested in the point where learning stops, or at least stops being fun, when (to borrow the marathoner’s term) you hit the wall. I have some personal experience with hitting the wall, academically speaking, in one of its most banal forms: I flunked out of college.
Mathematics had always come easily to me, from the New Math served up to us in elementary school (those yellow SMSG texts hurried into typescript so the Russians wouldn’t beat us to the moon) on through factoring polynomials, calculating the surface area of rectangular prisms, sketching those gorgeous curves of polar equations. In fact, as captain of the math team my senior year in high school, I even raked in the (coveted-by-few) math prize at graduation, a tiny bronze-colored charm depicting the Pythagorean theorem. Naturally enough, I started college as a math major, with advanced placement credit for two years worth of college math (in the shorthand of the department, Calculus, Diff E.Q., and Multi-D).
But the fall term of my freshman year I hit the wall, hard, with the delta-epsilon arguments in my real analysis class. Now this was no trivial matter, for if a subject so fleshless can be said to have organs, this would be the guts of analysis (or so it seemed). I could read it, I could understand proofs already written, I could appreciate its hieroglyphic beauty, drawing it as if I were doodling treble clefs: (translation: for all epsilon greater than zero, there exists a delta greater than zero such that something-or-other). But I just didn’t get it. I couldn’t do it myself. In some fundamental way it slid past my understanding.
So I stopped going to classes. I gave up doodling the beginnings of proofs I could never seem to finish, assumptions I could never connect to their assigned conclusions. Instead I took up needlepoint. I slept in each morning. In the afternoons I sat cross-legged on the floor in between the stacks in the art library, oversized books heavy across my lap, paging through the paintings of Matisse and Mondrian, Seurat and Chagall, Klee and Van Gogh. I copied a few paintings into my sketchbook with light pencil strokes, favoring simple shapes and patches of clear color. At the craft store I bought canvas, tapestry needles, Persian wool. Late at night, after my roommate had turned off the light, I sat in the dorm lobby working on my needlepoint version of Picasso’s fractured faces. I pulled the stitches taut, interlocking stitches up and down the diagonal like plump kernels of corn. I waited for the end of the semester, serene in the certainty of failure.