Authors: Kitty Burns Florey
Kitty Burns Florey
For my mother, and her mother
Amidst our house's ruins I remain
Single, unpropp'd, and nodding to my fall.
“Sonnet on a Family Picture,” 1748
Many six-year-olds, though they still do not
realize that they themselves will one day die,
are beginning to get the idea that death is
often connected with old age and that the older
people often die first. One girl thus remarked
to her mother, “You will be an old, old lady.
And then you will die. And I will have babies.”
Betsy Ruscoe was in bed when her mother's summons came. Judd, beside her, stirred in his sleep at the phone's first ring, and Betsyâinstantly rousedâran to answer it before it could ring again and wake him. He could be savage when his sleep was disturbed.
“Betsy? It's me, dear. I hope I didn't wake you up.”
“Well, you did, Mom, sort of, butâ” She squinted at the clock. “Mother, it's four in the morning!”
“Is it? That late? Somehow I thought you'd be up.” She gave her worn-out little laugh. “I suppose I thought my
would waken you. I was thinking about you, Betsy. There's something we need to talk about.”
“What is it, Mom?” Betsy sat down and supported her head with one hand. She was very tired. She had graded a stack of final exams and fallen into bed at midnight. Judd had been asleep already, and Betsy had lain awake: What did it mean, his going to bed and to sleep without her, without lovemaking? No sex in four days! Was it a good sign (we can be natural and comfortable with each other, as if we were married) or a bad one (he's losing interest in me)? The dilemma kept her awake, with all its peripheral anxieties: the analysis of his calm breathing, for example (is it faked? is he lying there wishing I were someone else?), and the cold panic that came rushing to engulf her whenever she thought of sleeping there alone, night after night, without Judd.
“Can it wait till morning?” She had to get up at seven, give an exam to her graduate students at eight, she could be at her mother's shortly after ten.â¦
“I don't think so, Betsy. I'm not at my best in the morning, honey. I don't know what it is, maybe it's having Terry here. That perfume she uses fogs up my brain.” The hollow laugh again. Terry was the new day nurse, her mother's special bane: her perfume, her nail polish, her elaborate hairdo. “She looks like a nurse in a
cartoon,” Betsy's grandfather, Frank, had commented when they hired her. He held his two hands well out from his chest to indicate bosom. “But she's a fine nurse. We have to appreciate that.” Frank also, Betsy could see, appreciated the perfume, the hair, the bosom. But Terry was a good nurseâefficient, smart, and kind. The night nurse, Mrs. Foster, was less reliable and not young. She often slept, though not soundly. It was understood she would awaken like magic if Violet needed her.
“Is Mrs. Foster there, Mom?”
Violet laughed. “Sound asleep. Right out. I told her to go take a snooze in the guest room, and she did.”
Damn, thought Betsy. She would have to replace Mrs. Foster. At present, there was no need for her services most of the time, but any day, any night, Violet would be needing intensive nursing. She was not in much pain yet, and she still looked on the nurses as jokesâthe sexy Terry, the bumbling Mrs. Foster. But the pain was to come, and for sure.
“So this is a good time to talk, honey. Confidentially, I mean.”
“Okay, Mom. Shoot. What's up?” Betsy heard her bright, upbeat tone with disgust. This was not the way to talk to a dying woman. But how else to respond to her mother's girlish chatter? Violet seemed at times to be using death as a mode of flirtation, the way a young girl might once have used a fan.
“You'll have to come over, Betsy.”
“Whyâyes. I can't tell you properly over the phone.”
“In the morningâ”
Violet's voice went petulantâsomething new for her. “I
you, Betsy. I'm not myself in the morning, and that Terry is here butting her nose into everything, and sometimes I feel so
, Betsy, you just don't know! The morning can be so dark, darker than night!”
She took a deep, shaky breathâeven over the phone it sounded tearyâand Betsy felt tears behind her own tightly shut eyelids. Don't be like this, Mother, don't be dying, don't be sick, don't cry.â¦ Betsy opened her eyes and looked around the darkened kitchen, washed here and there with dim light, the dinner dishes still piled in the sink. Damn. She closed her eyes again. Her mother continued to sniffle. “Mom!” She lowered her voice: keep it quiet for Judd, keep it cheerful for Violet. “Mom, is this really urgent? Really, now?”
Her mother caught the bantering tone and giggled. “It really is.” She gave one last sniff. Betsy imagined her wiping her eyes with a lace-bordered handkerchiefâone of the extravagances she had decided to allow herself in her last days. “I've always hated tissues,” she had announced, and Betsy had hunted up, in the attic, a box of the real article, which Terry now faithfully, flawlessly ironed. It was a small task: Violet, once a facile weeper, now didn't often cry. “But who could blame the poor woman if she did?” Terry would say, tenderly ironing lace.
“I know it's late, honey, butâ”
“It's all right, Mom. I'll come over.”
“Right now. Is Grandpa asleep?”
“I guess. Oh, Betsyâ” Violet hesitated, as she always did when the question of Betsy's roommate came upâsteeling herself. “Will
mind?”âhating his authority over her daughter but nevertheless recognizing it.
“Judd?” Betsy always referred to him with forced casualness. “He won't wake up. I'll sneak over there and back without his even knowing it.”
Violet giggled again, but uneasily. She liked the middle-of-the-night conspiracy, but she didn't like Judd.
“Do you need anything, Mom?”
“Not a thing, dear.” Neither of them reflected on the irony of the exchange. It was ritual.
Betsy hung up, and, resisting the impulse to lay down her head and groan, she tiptoed back to the bedroom and collected jeans, T-shirt, sandals. Judd lay in darkness; Betsy bent over him and kissed the air an inch above his forehead. “Good-bye, dearest love,” she said soundlessly. Even had he been awake, she would not have said those particular words; she uttered them only in her imaginary conversations with him, and he said them back.
She dressed in the living room and, on her way out the door, thought to leave a note. She propped it against the saltshaker on the kitchen table (their place for notes, as it had been her parents'): “Gone to my mother's. A whim of hers. Don't worry.” How I love you, how it kills me to leave the bed where you sleep.â¦ “Back soon. B.”
Barefoot, she let herself out the front door and put her sandals on downstairs, on the porch. They would have clattered dangerously on the steps. She stood a moment, breathing deeply, and looked up for stars. There were none in the pale, predawn sky, but there was a remnant of moon, and Betsy wished on it, childishly, without shameâanything! she would try anything!âbefore she got in her car and drove through the quiet streets to her grandfather's house.
Another of Violet's terminal luxuries, besides linen handkerchiefs, was candy. There was always candy by her bed, often glossy and expensive chocolates in their fluted nests, but sometimes six-packs of Mars Bars or Almond Joys brought by Terry. The doctors approved of the candy. Anything to keep up her strength and her spirts and her weight. And, of course, as no one said though everyone thought, “What does it matter now?” But it mattered to Betsy, who felt more lost and bereft at her mother's candy eating than at any other aspect of her illness. Her mother, who for years had been a vegetarian, a vitamin freak, a natural-foods fetishist, had taught Betsy that the body was a temple not to be defiled. But when her disease was diagnosed she began to eat candy and to drink coffee again and even bourbon. “My system let me down, Betsy,” she had said. The veil of the temple was rent in two.
She was just sinking her teeth into a Mars Bar when Betsy let herself softly into the house and went up to her mother's room. She kissed her, smelling the chocolate. Violet hugged with just her arms, spreading her hands wide. “Careful, I'm sticky.” The hug over, she finished the candy bar and reached for another. All the while she was beaming at Betsy.
“You look cheerful,” Betsy said, ignoring the candy.
“I love it when everybody's asleep in the house but me. I always have. I used to wake up in the night when I was little and roam around. I didn't care if it was dark, the dark never scared me. Everything looked differentâexciting. Once I went into my parents' room, right up to their bed. My dad opened his eyes and looked at me and winked and closed his eyes again.” She gave her tired chuckle.
She ate her second Mars Bar, looking at Betsy with twinkling eyes, and then wiped her smudged fingers and lips on a handkerchief.
“You wanted to talk, Mom.” Betsy felt more tired than ever now that she was here. Her mother's room made her tired. It was all dark except for the light right over the bed and the dim light out in the hall by which she'd found her way upstairs. And it was warm in there. They still had the heat on, in mid-Mayânot for her mother, but for Mrs. Foster, who had poor circulation.
“If you're not too tired, honey.”
Betsy woke up. “I came all the way over here at four in the morning and tired or not I'm prepared to hear what you have to say if you'll just get on with it.”
“Don't get testy. I know I impose on you, but I won't much longer, you know.”
Violet could speak matter-of-factly about her situation, but she looked at Betsy fixedly, as if testing her reaction; the grim prognosis was still new to them all.
Betsy took her hot hand. “I'm sorry, Mother. You don't impose on me. I'm glad to do anything I can for you.”
“Good.” Briskly, Violet withdrew her hand, reached for another Mars Bar, decided against it, and folded her hands in her lap, lacing her fingers together.
“Elizabeth Jane.” Her mother smiled. “What an English and literary name. Your father chose it. I made it Betsy.”
There was another pause. Betsy waited patiently, observing her mother's flushed cheeks, her brown and white hair cut short now and left straight for convenience, her wide-set brown eyes that gave her the look of a bird, and the slightly beaked nose to match. Violet looked wonderful, everyone said so. She had become plump in middle age, but in spite of the candy bars the disease had begun to whittle her down, and at the moment she was just right. There was always a low fever, and it kept her skin flushed and her eyes bright. She looked impossibly healthy.
“Elizabeth Jane, I want you to find my mama for me.”
Betsy went cold and felt the stomach-dropping sensation that means something significant has taken place. Her mother's words were insane, but they came like a pronuoncement from on high, a voice from out of the heavens.
“I want you to find my mama,” she said again.
Betsy collected herself and adopted a tone of extreme reasonableness. “Mom, Grandma's dead. She's been dead since nineteen fifty-fourâ”
Violet waved a hand impatiently. “You think I don't know that? I don't remember that? I'm not getting dotty, Betsy. You know what I mean.” She waited.
Enlightened, Betsy cried, “You mean your
mother?” She felt overpowering relief.
“I do.” Violet smiled and pulled a bookâa P.D. James murder mysteryâfrom under her pillow and took a clipping from it. “Your Grandpa would never look in here.” She held it up for Betsy to see. It was cut from the
ADOPTEE'S LONG SEARCH ENDS IN JOYFUL REUNION.
“Everybody's doing it,” Violet said. “Getting all those records opened up that no one used to be allowed to see. They're passing laws and everything about it.” She looked with satisfaction at the
article and tapped it. “This gives a lot of tipsâvoting lists, old phone books, birth records, newspapers. It would be a nice summer project for you, Betsy. Here, take this. It'll start you off.”
She didn't so much hand the clipping to Betsy as confer it on her, as if it were a valuable inheritance. It was fragile, having been unfolded and folded up again many times, and the newsprint was rubbed faint by Violet's eager fingers. Betsy folded it gingerly and held it in her hand.