Helping Barbara to navigate her grief and her memories are her therapist, the Psalms, and most of all, the words of Paul Celan. Paul Celan: 1920-1970, Poet. An eastern European holocaust survivor who wrote haunting poems about the darker spiritual trials of life and relationships that exhibit a compact style that fuses broken words and chopped syntax to produce a stark musicality.
This is a novel about a woman who goes to hell and back. It’s a story which affirms the resilience of the human spirit and the healing power of love and faith.
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The Memory Room
By Mary Rakow
Shoemaker & HoardCopyright © 2004 Mary Rakow
All right reserved.
I wonder, on this first day of October, why I can't solve the simplest things.
It was the new student, the one from Cambodia who found me crouched in the corner, when the doors finally opened and the light came back on.
So slowly, he put his books down next to me. Carefully, lifting me out.
His expression saying, He would never tell.
"Anyone would panic stuck in an elevator," the Department Chair said, tenderly, but I thought, Not like I did, they don't. Seven times I stood before my students, white as a sail, unable to remember my thoughts, my hands gripping the podium's edge.
Seven times in one year.
"I need an immediate leave of absence," I said. He was not surprised. His large office with its pictures of Loisy, Newman, a framed photo of himself with four other seminarians, when they were young, in cassocks, leaning onto each other.
The brilliant grillwork of a gate.
"Can you stay for the reception, at least?" he asked. "You're the one he'll want to talk to." And I thought, It can't be worse than my students today, their wide and vacant eyes, their faces like empty plates.
Past the curtain, St. Ignatius stood in marble on the empty lawn.
through the plate glass windows formed droplets on the eucalyptus leaves high above above the faculty, alumni, the Bishop,
while the scholar from Boston stood near me pouring sherry--
but I could not recall
the title of his book, his name, or the journal that published my favorable review because
he wore a charcoal sport coat with small raspberry flecks and with it a shirt of minute houndstooth, red
and all I could think was, Red next to raspberry. Red. Reduced. Mute. You, who have eyes to see this chasm between hues, you,
you could see me.
The red dress came into our house on a child-sized elephant hanger in a plastic bag. The woman at the door did not know it was a crime to interrupt my mother's piano practice. My stomach hurt with the silencing of the keys.
Her quick steps down the hall. "You might as well have this." She dropped the red dress on my bed. "It'll be too small for Cheryl anyway." Rolling the bag between her palms. Unable to get the plastic tight enough.
Everything about the dress was different from clothes at our house. Puff sleeves ironed with a crease at the top. Pleats pressed into the sash. The fabric soft and old, balled threads like a cotton sheet. Inside one arm, a mending line stitched in red, not black. Red, to match the dress. From a different world, I thought, a different kind of mother. A voice that never came back to our door.
I wore the red dress everyday. Retrieved it from the dirty clothes. Wet my hands to iron it against my chest. The first dress that belonged to me without being Cheryl's first. That summer before kindergarten. That summer I was four.
My mother made up a song for it.
"Barbara's got a red dress, red dress, red dress. Barbara's got a red dress all day long."
Boxes from my office still piled high in the car.
we hung our harps among the willows
What if no one came?
Dolores Mary's birthday gift here on the night table by my bed.
"I thought this might have a better home with you," she handed me a book covered with brown paper and overlapping strips of tape. "I can't make heads or tails of these poems," her voice dropped, as if a failing. "Gerald was the smart one in the family, not me." Her fingernails trimmed to tight ovals, calcium moons sailing to the edge. Next to the stiffness of her veil, a fringe of gray curls, soft as sheepswool.
How did she know Celan's words would come at me like this?
threadsun starhard icesorrowpen
bearing the marks of destruction.
I rake my fingers through his soil.
cleftrose black milk word-moon
Grain left on the ground. Gleanings.
He is Boaz. I am Ruth.
Bedroom to bathroom to the bed to the bath. I haven't always been like this, stuck in my bed!
These walls should bear me witness. But they refuse.
At twenty I was strong.
Those four weeks in Italy after college, hopping from region to region like a sparrow.
So easily I left behind the hard wood of Protestantism--bird flight! free!
Catholicism was everywhere.
"Here!" they said. "Touch this!"
God's body in the eggplant's aubergine skin.
I ate their salads--garlic, vinocotto, mint--I ate their legends too.
William the Hermit who was served macaroni stuffed with dirt. When he blessed and ate it, the dirt became ricotta cheese and meat, inventing the miracle of cannelloni in the year 1253. They said it was in Parma that basil leaves were first crushed with pine nuts, olive oil and the sweet milk of ewes. Creating pesto. Fifteen centuries before the birth of Luther.
I had an appetite. I ate cabbage and pork soup for St. Anthony in Savoy. Lemon fritters on St. Joseph's Day, the sweet custard on my tongue.
I'll drive to Sorrento's Market.
I'll buy Lambrusco wine from the birthplace of Verdi, Toscanini, its delicate violet scent. I'll fill my cart with squash, tomatoes, peppers--the good foods from the ground. I'll walk beneath that other light, pale cheese glow. Dark olives in a barrel, oregano floating on the top. That certain smell of brine.
My thoughts will clarify. I'll coalesce.
God will be right there, on the shelf with truffles from the town of Gubbio where St. Francis tamed the wolf.
The cashier smiles but points that I've misbuttoned my blouse. Things aren't the same. Newspapers stacked unevenly by the door are sliding to the left. Long scuff marks on the floor. Milky smell of almonds in a bin. But what about that scholar from Boston? Or that student from Cambodia--what did he see? Nougat candies in small boxes. But what about the veal? Why didn't that bother me? That slaughter of the young? Or those Sicilian fishermen harpooning swordfish while they spawned? What of that? Fresh ricotta in a mound, its sickening white silky moat. Holding my sherry, what should I have said? My stomach, nauseous. My head. Tapenade samples on a cart. Rows of salami hanging above the cheese. Their mahogany skins, tight nets of string. I am too permeable.
And what about those turkeys with red pomegranates on a spit? The woman ahead won't make up her mind. The butcher swings down a salami. Marble slapped to meat. She hesitates. Blood on his apron. The salami rolled under his palm. My bones are too exposed. He presses with his knife. "Hold still!" He cuts the string. But the slant of her shoulders! The whir of the fan! "Hey lady ..." There is no air. Cans fall off the shelf. My purse. Silver all around my feet. I can't get out. "Lady, I can help you now." On every surface --cans, glass, shelves--the image repeats. Held down, released, cut from string. Where is my car? There's not enough skin. The sun hurts. Why's that man honking? I'm in the crosswalk. I'm doing it perfectly. My shoes are right between the lines. "I can't find my car!" The woman sweeping looks up. Scowls, points her broom. Down the street. The only parked car. Mine Right in front of Sorrento's. I run.
It comes. I lock the doors. Hold my waist. It comes just the same. Rising from the bottom of a sea. Great ship cutting the surface of the water. Sheets fall fast away.
I'm sitting on my bedroom floor, tearing white paper into snow. "Why aren't you dressed?" My mother's words, crisp as sugar cubes. She doesn't tie my sash this time. She doesn't button the back of my red dress. A picnic table in the living room. "Up there," she points. "Lie down. No. At this end. Hold still!" She pulls clumps of my hair. Snap! The scissor sound. Snap! Snap! Above my head her wrists, the pale blue of her veins.
It is over.
Wet palm marks on the steering wheel. My hair. Still on my head.
The dashboard, radio, speedometer, clock. All the same.
Just the way I left them.
I make it to the bed.
You I could hold while everything slipped from me
I count what I know:
--the letters of Gregory the Great --castle gardens at Leeds, Russell Page, flowers around a moat --the first line of the Periodic Table --my new lipstick color --Bach's Cello Suite no. 2 --the island of Burano, its lace-making school --Josephine Bremen, age 70, who lives next door
The clock on the night table moves its three hands. Enough motion for the two of us.
Five days. Bedroom to bath.
I catch my reflection in the mirror by mistake. My lips could be on my forehead. Both eyes on one side of my nose. Jumbled blocks of wood.
Maybe Cubism started this way. Memory re-arranging a face.
During the night, a down feather worked its way through both pillowcases, the satin liner and the outer cotton case. A single feather leaving the others behind, pressing through both layers of tightly woven thread. I cry.
"Of course you can play a cello!" Daniel said. "Your father was a nut!" So we bought a student model. My father said, when I was young, "Girls shouldn't sit like that in public," by which he meant, Don't spread your legs.
I climb the stairs. Unzip the leather case. Wooden torso, full of breath. I tune.
Excerpted from The Memory Room by Mary Rakow Copyright © 2004 by Mary Rakow. Excerpted by permission.
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