- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Incoronata must have spent hours working herself up to it because I'd barely lifted the receiver when she dropped her bombshell. She said she was quitting. She said she'd had all she could take. She said there was nothing more to say. And then she said a good deal more.
She told me my mother said such terrible things to her that I wouldn't believe it if she repeated them. She said she had to work like a slave and never got a word of thanks for it, let alone any time off. She said her live-in boyfriend threatened to walk out on her if she stayed on the job a day longer because in her present state she was giving him ulcers. She was getting ulcers herself, she said. And no wonder. She said she had left the key to the apartment with one of the doormen because she would not be needing it again to let herself in. And that was that. She said she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
I could feel my scalp run cold at the thought of my mother's reaction and said everything I could think of to make Incoronata change her mind. I told her my mother was devoted to her no matter what terrible things she said. I told her the whole family was devoted to her. I told her that when people got old and deaf and started falling to pieces, they said things they didn't mean and then felt awful about it afterward. I said I didn't know how my mother could possibly manage without her, how any of us could. I said we would give her a raise and see to it that she got more time off. But by then she was so close to hysterics I don't think she even heard me.
So I changed my tactics and begged her at least to stay on till we could find somebody to replace her, at least to be there when we got back from Vermont to help my mother unpack and get resettled. But if she did that, Incoronata said, she knew my mother would find some way to make her stay, and with her nerves the way they were she simply couldn't face it. So there was nothing more to say, and we finally hung up.
The question then became how to break the news to Kaki, which was what her grandchildren called my mother as eventually all of us did. To have told her then and there would have been to ruin the rest of her visit for all of us, so we decided to wait till I had managed to find somebody else to replace her and then not breathe a word till we had gotten her back to her apartment where there would be another Incoronata waiting to welcome her and she would simply have to accept the new state of things as a fait accompli.
My brother Jamie, who lived in New York too, came up by bus to help with the historic drive back. There was the usual mound of luggage piled out on the lawn-the suitcases with bits of brightly colored yarn tied around their handles to identify them, the plastic and canvas carry-alls, the paper shopping bags from Saks and Bonwits stuffed with things like her hair dryer, her magnifying mirror, extra slippers, and so on. There was the square Mark Cross case she kept her jewelry in and the flowered duffel bag with her enormous collection of pills and assorted medicines together with a second like it which was full of all the things she needed for making up her face in the morning. She said it was all of it breakable so for God's sake not to put anything heavy on it and to be sure to put her long black garment bag in at the very end so it could lie flat on top of everything else and her best clothes wouldn't end up a mass of wrinkles.
We put her white plastic toilet seat extender behind her on the back seat like a wedding cake in case she needed it on the way. She kept her straw purse on her lap with things she might want during the journey like her smelling salts and Excedrin and the little flask of water in case she started to choke. She also had me put a can of root beer in the cup holder because she said root beer was the only thing that helped her dry throat. The final thing was to get Jamie to stuff her little velvet, heart-shaped pillow in behind the small of her back because she said he was the only one who knew how to do it properly.
She had one of her many chiffon scarves around her neck to keep off drafts and another one, just for looks, tied around her melon-shaped straw hat with her crescent-shaped diamond pin to hold it in place. For shoes she wore her usual suede Hush Puppies with crepe soles to prevent her from slipping and kept her cane within reach at her side. Before we started off I told her not to forget to fasten her seat belt, but she refused. She said she sat so low in her seat that the strap went across her face and almost knocked her dentures out, and that got all three of us laughing so hard I was able to click it into place without her even noticing.
Driving with Kaki was one of the best ways there was of visiting with her because with no other noises to distract her I could speak in my normal voice, and that meant that not only could we speak the kinds of things that can't be shouted but could do it like the old friends we were instead of the caricatures we became when almost nothing I said got through to her. Heading west through the rolling green farmland, I began to think of her again as the hero she had been all through my childhood when it seemed there was nothing she couldn't do, no company she couldn't charm, no disaster she couldn't pull us all through like my father's death in a garage filled with bitter blue fumes when I was ten and Jamie going on eight. I remembered how proud I was of how much younger and prettier and funnier she was than the mothers of any of my friends and how I loved being with her. I remembered the new life she had made for us in Bermuda in a pink house called the Moorings on the harbor across from Hamilton where Jamie and I could catch fish much too beautiful to keep and where we lived until 1939 when the war broke out and we had to go home.
At sixty miles an hour she seemed as mobile as I was, and I couldn't imagine her ever again having to hand herself across a room from chair back to chair back groaning that her knees bent the wrong way like a stork's and she had no balance and couldn't imagine what in God's name was wrong with her. What was wrong with her, of course, was that she would be ninety on her next birthday, but if ever I tried telling her that, she would put her hands over her ears and close her eyes tight shut. Sometimes she would scream.
Jamie was dozing in the back seat next to the toilet seat extender, and all was peaceful until she complained that the sun was getting in her eyes and giving her a terrible headache. She had her dark glasses on, but she said they were no damn good so I pulled her sun visor down, and she said any fool could see she was too low in her seat for that to be any damn good either. She told me to stop at the next service station we came to and get her a piece of cardboard or something to cover her half of the windshield. I explained if I did that I wouldn't be able to see the road properly, and she said she couldn't believe a man would treat his own mother the way I did.
Her next step was to take off the chiffon scarf she had around her neck and get Jamie to tie it on from behind like a blindfold. That seemed to work at first, but then she said she needed something heavier so he took off his jacket and draped it over the melon-shaped hat and the chiffon scarf. We said it made her look as if she was being kidnapped by terrorists, and she said we could laugh all we wanted, but as for her she failed to see the joke.
Not long afterward she said in a muffled voice that she was having trouble breathing. If it led to a heart attack, she supposed that would give us another good chuckle. But by this time we weren't driving into the sun anymore, so Jamie took off her various wrappings, and for a while she didn't say anything until we hit a stretch of rough pavement. Each time the car gave the smallest jounce, she sucked her breath in through her teeth like a hissing radiator. It was like me, she said, to pick out the worst road I could find when I knew what it did to her back.
It was toward the end of the journey as we were barreling down the Hudson River Parkway toward the Seventy-ninth Street exit that she told me she had to get to a bathroom in a hurry. I told her there was no way in the world we could find her a bathroom where we were, but if she could just hold out about twenty minutes longer, we would have her home. She told me she never dreamed that the child she'd almost died giving birth to would treat her like a dog the way I did, and it was at that point that I found myself having fantasies. I could pull the car over to the side of the road and just leave her there with all her belongings including the seat extender. I could move to another country. I could grow a beard and change my name.
She did hold out, as it happened, but by the time the doorman had helped her out of the car and into the elevator, she was in such a rush she didn't even notice that it wasn't Incoronata who opened the door to let us in. When she eventually came out of the bathroom, she still had her hat on her head with one end of the chiffon scarf trailing out behind her, and it was only then that she noticed that the person who was offering to take it off for her was a total stranger.
As briefly and calmly as I could, I explained what had happened to Incoronata, and to my surprise she didn't explode the way I'd been dreading but just stood there in the hallway looking old and dazed with her skirt pulled crooked. Incoronata's replacement, whose name turned out to be Sheila, was under five feet tall, and it wasn't until she had helped her lie down on the her bed and taken her shoes off that Kaki spoke to her for the first time.
"Get me a root beer out of the icebox," she barked and then, before Sheila left the bedroom, "That dyed hair doesn't fool me for a minute. She's seventy if she's a day. And if you think I'm going to have a dwarf taking care of me, you're out of your minds."
Kaki's bedroom was where she spent the last few years of her life, rarely leaving it except when Jamie and his wife came for supper. She had pasted gold stars on almost everything-the headboard of her bed, the picture frames, the lamp shades, the covers of books. Her chaise longue was heaped with pillows, and there was a pile of magazines on the carpet beside it and a fake leopard-skin throw at the foot. There was her bow-fronted antique desk that she loved telling she'd bought out from under the nose of a childhood friend who would have killed for it, and the dressing table where she used to do her face the first thing every morning until she took to having the powder and lipstick and eyebrow pencil and what have you brought to her on a tray while she was still in bed.
The glass-topped green bureau was loaded with colognes, hairsprays, eyedrops, cough syrup. There was a jar of almonds that she had read kept you from getting cancer and a bowl of M&M's that she said gave her energy. A number of pictures hung on the peach-colored walls including a watercolor of the Moorings with its whitewashed roof and the blue harbor beyond it. She said she'd never been so happy anywhere else. There was a framed piece of needlepoint she'd done with the word "JOY" on it and several ladybugs for luck. She kept her bedside telephone under a quilted tea cozy and beside it a little covered china dish for her teeth at night.
It was in this room that early one morning she died in her sleep. Little pint-sized Sheila was the one who phoned Jamie the news. He said that when he got to the apartment shortly afterward, she told him she had put one of Kaki's best nighties on her and the ribboned pink bedjacket that was her favorite. She had washed her face and hands and brushed her hair. When he turned to go in and see her, Sheila went and busied herself with something in the kitchen.
Kaki was lying on her bed with a fresh sheet pulled up all the way over her. He said that for a few moments he thought he would pull it back to have one last look at her face and then didn't. He just stood at the window for a while staring down at Seventy-ninth Street three stories below. The windowsill felt gritty to his touch. He noticed that one of the muslin curtains needed mending.
When the long black vehicle with side curtains pulled up at the awninged front entrance, he found himself remembering an exchange he and I had had with her once. She had told us for God's sake not to let them carry her out in a bag when the time came, and we had told her we wouldn't. Instead, I said, I would take her under one arm and Jamie would take her under the other and together we would walk her out between us, which had gotten all three of us laughing the way we did in the car when she said the seat belt strap almost knocked her dentures out.
Down below he could see the undertakers talking to the doorman. He went back and stood by the bed for a few moments, then reached down under the bottom of the sheet and pinched one of her toes.
"They're coming," he said.
Born in London in 1874 to a middle-class family, Gilbert Keith Chesterton was a journalist, poet, and biographer, but was most famous for his beloved "Father Brown" mystery stories, which he wrote between 1911 and 1936. An influential Christian writer and thinker, he was the author of, among other important works, The Everlasting Man, Heretics, and Orthodoxy.
While a student at University College and the Slade School of Art from 1893 to 1896, Chesterton experienced a crisis of uncertainty and depression, and left the university without a degree. He then worked for London publishers, and later renewed his Christian faith, due in no small part to Frances Blogg, the woman he courted and then married in 1901.
In 1909 Chesterton and his wife moved twenty-five miles west of London to the village of Beaconsfield, where he continued his writing life, and from which he traveled widely. In 1922 he converted from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism.
During his lifetime he published sixty-nine books and received honorary degrees from Edinburgh, Dublin, and Notre Dame universities. Chesterton died on June 14, 1936, at his home in Beaconsfield.
For he never travelled without a case of swords, with which he had fought many brilliant duels, or without a corresponding case for his mandolin, with which he had actually serenaded Miss Ethel Harrogate, the highly conventional daughter of a Yorkshire banker on a holiday. Yet he was neither a charlatan nor a child; but a hot, logical Latin who liked a certain thing and was it. His poetry was as straightforward as anyone else's prose. He desired fame or wine or the beauty of women with a torrid directness inconceivable among the cloudy ideals or cloudy compromises of the north; to vaguer races his intensity smelt of danger or even crime. Like fire or the sea, he was too simple to be trusted.
Excerpted from EYES to SEE Copyright © 2008 by Bret Lott. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.