March 15, 2015 by The Citron Review
by Katie Holiday
My mother took me to her hometown in mid-July. As I was driving through the center of town, she pointed to the old Braintree Observer building where her mother had been a reporter and editor. She showed me the house on the corner where the first boy she wanted to marry had lived. She called out when we passed the pine tree she used to hide under when my grandmother called for her. My mother hadn’t been to the house since it had been torn down years before. I had never seen the house except in my imagination, but I knew enough of what had happened inside.
Listening to my mother’s stories when I was a child, I had populated her house in my mind like a dollhouse, fashioning little aunts in nightgowns and uncles in suspenders. She told me about the sisters, four to a bed, pretending to sleep with their drunken mother fuming and slamming doors downstairs. The house occupied a solid space in my memories, and so, pulling up to the address, she and I were both surprised by how completely the building had disappeared.
“This is it,” she said getting out of my car. She walked across the grassy lot between a Jewish temple and a high metal fence. We were going to Plymouth, where one of her sisters was living, and on the way my mother wanted to show me where she had grown up. She looked at the ground, shuffled, and circled in her pink sneakers, orienting her memory through a double layer of glasses and sunglasses. In the late morning heat, my mother excitedly marked out angles and walls over the grass with her hands – sculpted hallways and stairs from the air. I moved my sandaled feet out of the way and shaded my eyes, trying to build in my mind what she saw. The kitchen had looked out at the rock wall and the front door had faced the park across the street. She laughed, nodding her head wildly, and said, “Can you see how small it was – with ten people living here?”
My mother is the oldest of eight. She was the first one to marry; I knew she couldn’t wait to escape this now-vanished house.
Pointing to the temple next door, she said her father used to shovel the roof and clean the gutters for extra money. In the fall, a small hut was set up along the chain link fence separating the lots. The Jews hung fruit inside the hut – “for one of their festivals,” she said. My mother and her brothers and sisters stuck their fingers and hands through the fence and took all the fruit they could reach. They passed it hand to hand, finger to finger, up and over the fence, and ate it hiding in the hedge.
Imagining her way through the stairway and the upstairs hallway, my mother reconstructed all the old rooms without their inhabitants, without their history. But I knew the stories well enough to fill in what was missing for myself. She didn’t show me the room where her parents beat her sister to the floor, accusing her of stealing money they had lost and later found. The scene played out in front of me on the lot anyway. She didn’t point out the tree that her three-year-old brother John was tied up to every day after the police had found him wandering naked in the center of town. I quietly added it to the picture she was forming in my mind. When my mother made the garage rise up from the lawn, she didn’t remind me that her parents had harnessed John inside it during the winter; nevertheless he was sitting there for me, on the concrete floor, holding his knees to his chest. She didn’t have to place the kitchen table for me to see her father belt-strap his children to chairs so my grandmother could force-feed them. My mother left all this out. Maybe she trusted me to remember it. Perhaps the house, once destroyed, became a place empty enough for her to visit without being haunted.
Turning away from the nothingness that once held the entire world for my mother, the two of us looked into the woods at the back of the lot. High trees and arching pricker-bushes stained the air with shadows, and looking in was like seeing into a pond thick with peat moss. The wavering hum of insects spread through the coolness of the shade.
“There are tons of ant hills back there,” she said, “and a brook running through. I sat next to it every day after school and John sat up a tree all day, wouldn’t come down or let anyone else up.”
“Do you want to go, see if the stream is still there?” I asked.
“Oh no, I’m not about to go back there.”
Her balance is gone; so is her youth, the springiness and litheness I can see in her wedding pictures. Her back no longer bends the way it did when she threw her bouquet in the backyard where we were standing. She is afraid to go into the woods now, to fall in the bushes; afraid to find the water dried up. I wanted to lead her there, to show her I wouldn’t let her fall, to show her that the stream, at least its bed, was still there. Instead, I followed her as she turned away.
Walking back to the car, I picked up a fist-sized chunk of concrete from the edge of the rock wall. I thought it might have been a piece of the foundation or at least the walkway and I asked my mother if she wanted it.
“What do I want with that?”
“For memories, maybe?” But it had already become nothing again in my hand, and I felt silly for holding it. She shrugged, and I tossed it back into the empty lot.
Katie Holiday lives in Lowell, Massachusetts, perched in a restored mill that is anchored alongside the banks of the Merrimack River. She earned an English degree from Wellesley College in 2011 and an MFA from Bennington College in 2014. She is currently piecing together a memoir.
Hi Katie – You did a wonderful job telling this story. Your mother’s upbringing was so different from mine, it’s very sad.
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