I could walk over, just a few steps, tear the page away from the calendar, and make it today, April 4. But that would cause a ripping sound, and I'd have to let go of her hand. So, leave it. In this room it's yesterday. We won't reach today until this is over, the time warp we entered three days ago. She'd appreciate that, irony being her last grasp on reality.
"This time," the doctor said in the hallway last night-it might have been two nights ago-"you understand this time, this is it?"
Five years ago I had faced him wild-eyed in the ER after her first stroke. "What do you want us to do?" be had asked then.
What do I want you to do? I have a graduate degree in lyric poetry, what do I know? But I heard myself say, "Treat her like a sixteen-year-old who's just crashed on her boyfriend's motorcycle."
And he did. They did. The whole high-tech array of surgical, medical, therapeutic systems revved into high gear.
But this time I don't try to save her. I look at the doctor, by now my accomplice, and I say Oh yes when he says You understand ... this is it, eager to prove myself no trouble, a maker of no fuss. Not something sire could be accused of. "I get the feeling your mother doesn't ... like me," he confided a year ago, this mild man of goodwill and even better bedside manner. "I walk in the room and she scowls. As if she hates me."
You got that right. I experience a surge of perverse pride at her capacity to alienate those with power over her, the self-immolating integrity of her fury. Her essential infairness, throwing guilt like a girl, underhand. For her, no such thing as all innocent bystander. Cross her path and the poisoned dart springs from the quiver of her heart. The look. Narrowed eyes, pinched disdainful mouth, brilliant mime of venomous dislike. I know it well, doctor. "You Goody Two-shoes," she spit out once when I was cleaning her apartment, mopping up cigarette ash around her chair. She didn't bother to disguise her contempt for me as a nonsmoker-obviously, I didn't know how to enjoy life.
But that sour face of her elderly fury keeps disappearing just as she is disappearing. Even this latest face, the one propped on the hospital pillow, the hieratic visage that seems polished and will soon be an object, even this one is hard to keep in focus. I'm sitting here, holding her hand, but it's the ardent face from 1936 that keeps appearing, the face in the photograph placed on the shelf above the piano all the years of my girlhood and beyond. Heart-shaped with high cheekbones and eyes set wonderfully wide, it is the face of a romantic lead.
Not because she was beautiful-she wasn't beautiful. She was seriously pretty, the way Scott Fitzgerald described the real heartbreakers. The slightly dazzled eyes (she refused to wear her glasses) looked out with a shyness clearly feigned. That was the entrancing part-you could tell she wasn't really shy. She was happy. And a little startled by it. She couldn't keep the happiness of her body-and-soul off her face. Neither could my father-because of course he's standing next to her. Though not yet my father, not vet her husband.
Both of them gaze directly at the camera, standing by a cottonwood tree on a sandy bank of the Mississippi. Springtime from the look of the tree, site of a picnic, no doubt. She slouches her trim self stylishly, just touching his lean body. A claim being made. She's happy and he looks ... proud. They both have a slightly abashed shyness stamped on their faces. Good-lookers. They're stepping into their future, he in an open-neck shirt, she in jodhpurs and a little leather jacket. It's their first picture together.
I stared at it all my girlhood as if at a problem to be solved-who are these people?-while I tooled my way through a Chopin mazurka, a Bach prelude, under the erotic glory of two kids crazy in love who looked down from another planet, not the one we inhabited together-Mother, Dad, Peter, me-in our bungalow on Linwood Avenue.
"The nurses can set up a cot for you," the doctor said last night. The low cot is wedged next to her now. I'm perched on the edge, barely hoisted above the floor, a supplicant crouched below the elevated royal bed. I gaze up at the tiny body, the porcelain face. There's a yellow legal pad on my lap. I'm a notetaker from long habit.
It's her habit, in fact, one I borrowed or inherited or stole from her. Note-taking, newspaper clipping, file making, all the librarian traits of wordiness and archival passion she displayed. Her favorite books were biographies (how smoothly the past tense inserts itself already), big thumpers of Dolley Madison and Abigail Adams on the American history side, Parnell and Wolfe Tone for the Irish obsession. And now on the yellow legal pad, the beginning of hers:
HAMPL, Mary Marum Age 85
Mary Catherine Ann Teresa Eleanor Marum Hampl born July 26, 1917, in St. Peter, MN, to Martha Smith and Joseph Marum. The family moved to St. Paul when she was five, and she lived the rest of her life in this city she loved, in "God's country," as she always called Minnesota. A 1935 graduate of Mechanic Arts High School, she married her classmate Stanislaus Hampl in 1940 in the St. Paul Cathedral. They were together 58 years until Stan's death in 1998 ...
That's as far as I've gotten, having made the first artistic decision-loading on all the pretty names. They make her sound like a crowned head. I always wondered if she conferred most of them on herself.
I should probably put in her astrological sign. She was always glad to give it, raising her flyaway mane imperiously above her petite frame to say, "I'm Leo-the Lion." She liked to read my horoscope aloud (placid Pisces) in the morning after she read hers, and my father's and brother's (both the Bull, as men should be), to see how we were all doing, cosmically speaking. "Too bad," she would say sympathetically after giving me the wan future Jeane Dixon so often predicted for my watery self.
Not until the night nurse stops in and glances down does it occur to me that composing my mother's obit with my left hand as I hold her unconscious hand with my right might strike an outsider as offensive. Not to her, I want to protest. She would have expected nothing less, the dutiful writer-daughter scribbling in the half-light, holding the dying hand while hitting the high points of her subject's life that is finally going to see print. For a great reader, this is a great death.
She's glad I'm her daughter ("I'm proud of you," she says with some frequency), but for this I'm required to play my role, to be the Writer. "Are you working?" she asks, ever aware of any slacking off. Writing is my vocation-her word, the word of my upwardly mobile Catholic childhood. For years after she retired from her job at the library, she devoted herself to cataloging all my work, any scrap I had written. I spent the day working on the Archive. Yet she really thought being a librarian would have been the better choice: nicer to spend a lifetime reading than tied to a desk forever doing homework-because what else is writing?
Tonight I keep writing, the old habit. There's a lot to say about Mary Catherine Ann Teresa Eleanor. The roller ball moves smoothly across the blue lines, over the conveyer belt of the yellow legal pad. The night nurse pads in, and I look up briefly and smile.
But for once the nurse doesn't smile back, doesn't ask gently if she can get me something, coffee, a cookie. She touches the porcelain forehead, straightens the already smooth cotton blanket, walks out without a word, the frown hardened, the lips pursed.
A lifelong people-pleaser, I find I'm glad to be disapproved of. And who does this remind me of? I don't give a damn, she's often said these last, lost years. I'm going down the drain, kid. Let's have a cig.
I mention how she wrote to-the-barricades letters to the St. Paul Pioneer Press "Mailbag" (the dual erosions of progressive politics and correct English usage were her chief concerns for Minnesota civilization-and not unrelated in her view). I'm pleased, on rereading, with the reference to "God's country," her little riff about Minnesota. I note that she was devoted to the Rosary. But I won't mention that she was fiercely antiabortion. A little censorship to keep the liberal politics undiluted by her priest-pleasing orthodoxy. I'm praying for you, she would say, eyes narrowed witchily. A hex, a jinx. If I'd been for abortion, where would you be? Ha-ha!
Her hand gives back no pressure but it's pleasantly cool. My hand is bigger than hers now, but it-my hand, not myself-remembers her hand, how it felt to be enclosed in hers, walking down Wabasha, as she strode along, not looking down at me, head held high, Leo the Lion negotiating the crowded summer sidewalk downtown. There's even a photograph of this moment, taken by one of the roving photographers of the 1950s who snapped candid shots on the street and then ran after you to sell them for a dollar. Strange to think she bought such a thing, she who watched every penny.
We're in front of Birdie's where my Czech grandmother "marketed," though my mother wouldn't be caught dead shopping there. "Birdie's is filthy," she said. Maybe she's just said that as the photographer snapped the picture because her face has a severe, disapproving look. Or maybe I mistake her determined expression for disapproval as she rushes through the downtown crowd, me trailing behind her, clearly straining to keep up. But it's a remark I heard more than once-Birdie's is filthy. An oblique Irish swipe at the Czech side of the family. A mixed marriage, one of the Irish great-aunts said. She was meant for an Irish boy, a college boy. Your father had quite the movie-star looks. She went for the looks, don'cha know.
At Birdie's, shiny tumescent fish lay on crushed ice next to mounds of bruised pears. Heavy green flies lofted above the stand. A man in a soiled white apron waved a northern pike in the air to clear the flies before he slapped the fish on butcher paper and wrapped it, marking the price with the grease pencil he kept tucked behind his ear. I wanted to stop, poke the fish with an index finger as my Czech grandmother did. But the cool, utilitarian hand of my young mother was pulling me away. I was an appendage, dragging at the side of her swishing skirt. She was keeping me from all this dirt, this filth.
I was magnetized by the word filth, or maybe by her disgust, which was charged with relish when she uttered it. The smell of fish, jeweled flies fussing over warm offal, the crush of people, and the casual rot that real life can't rid itself of-that was the future I aspired to. This dirt was more than a covert emblem of sex. It was the insignia of escape, the promise of liberation from the enclosure of the cool, purposeful hand of my mother. Don't call it dirt, one of the old Austrian growers said when I was playing near the mound of potting soil at the greenhouse where my father worked. This here is soil, it's earth, this here.
Maybe from that greenhouse reverence I sensed that filth was the essence of the Great World I longed for. I was meant for New York. And places like New York-Paris, of course, and Prague where the other side of family had come from, Africa and Asia in general, and San Francisco because it had a Chinatown.
I knew instinctively a real city had to be a mess if it counted at all. St. Paul was out of the running. Yours from this hell-hole of life & time, Scott Fitzgerald, my first literary hero, signed a letter, when he was stranded at home in St. Paul, to Edmund Wilson who existed on high in blessed Greenwich Village. My true destination, too. Just give me my ticket out.
So how is it I never got away? Strange, that I, family hippie, one-time pot smoker, and strident feminist who refused for years to marry, living in laid-back communes or in sin (my mother's voice) with the draft resister (dodger, my brother, scowling) that my family never liked but was faultlessly polite to-that this person, me myself in middle age and for years now happily married (thank God, my mother crowing) to a good guy (my father laconically okaying my true love)-that I ended up being the caretaker of my frail, failing parents. I who for so long made every effort to be selfish, to be unfettered (no marriage, no children), to organize my energies around poetry and travel, who spoke with august certitude about "my work" before there even was any, I who meant to get out of here.
Maybe it was my mother's fey clairvoyance and oracular readings from the newspaper horoscope that conscripted me to eternal daughterdom: A son is a son until he takes a wife. A daughter is a daughter all her life. Remember the note of triumph when she recited that rhyme?
And my father had his own lasso of love, his soft brown eyes apologetically radiating decency like vast wealth he wished to settle on me though, like all wealth, it came freighted with responsibility: A guy has to do the right thing, no matter what the other guy is doing.
So here I am, still dragging at her side, still living in the same old St. Paul neighborhood. Never have had anything but a Minnesota driver's license, never have lived more than a long walk from my girlhood home. Still a daughter. But soon, in hours apparently, I'll be nobody's daughter.
For years now I've sat in doctors' offices, waiting for my father or my mother, as they are dealt with by their medical handlers. I read magazines I never would read otherwise, Ladies' Home Journal, Family Circle. I seem to zero in on the articles on "parenting" (a word my own parents never used). Relentlessly bland narratives, replete with common sense or its obverse, tedious reassurance. I read them with rapt attention, especially those on the rebellious adolescent child, I who have no children.
It is "natural," also "inevitable," I read again and again, that the child must grow away from ("reject" is the preferred word) the parent. It's the backdrop of the deeply held postmodern faith, the religion of self-realization I've tried to practice all my adult life-you must abandon ship in order to ... what? To exist, to be a "self."
Becoming a person is the point. Being a child-a daughter-that's an interim position, a stunted condition. I've sat in the cardiologist's waiting room, in the neurologist's waiting room, attentively reading therapeutic bromides, as if I might finally get the message. Somewhere along the line, it seems, I neglected to break away. I remained the Daughter. Boy, I don't envy you, my oral-surgeon brother says from his safe perch on the West Coast where he's lived for decades.
Still holding her hand now, I glance away from the figurine my mother has become. I turn to the big window that is black and gives me nothing but my own face. Then I turn to the walls, the cartoon clock, the square calendar-the full compass of these days in this shadowy room. I'm waiting for light to break. It'll be another long night. The last one, probably.
In the dark, if I stare hard enough, the city reconfigures out the window, a ghostly replica of itself, shapes cast against the darkness. I can make out the form of the History Center. Beyond the History Center, the Cathedral that, from a different angle, I see from my own house. I'm close to home here, always.
* * *
From the top window of the narrow brownstone where I live in this town I've never managed to escape, the illuminated dome of the St. Paul Cathedral rests top-heavy on the city's dominant hill, an improbable Jules Verne spaceship poised to observe the earthlings. The theatrical lighting also comes to us courtesy of the St. Paul Archdiocese that has decided, either out of civic generosity or from sheer self-regard, to indulge in the expense of the display.
Either way, thank you, thank you very much.
That's where they started it all. It was an August wedding because my florist father preferred summer, the growing season. Mother, the darker soul, favored late September, falling leaves, the first killing frost.
Did she ever get her way? Not then, not during her sweetheart period, not till later when she mastered the fine art of being impossible.
Excerpted from The Florist's Daughter by Patricia Hampl Copyright © 2007 by Patricia Hampl. Excerpted by permission.
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