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Someday, if we live long enough, we will tell our love stories to a stranger from down the hall, inventing what we must to explain the rush of time and the uncertainty of our place in the world. By then we will have forgotten what we once simply chose not to remember-the slamming door, an angry glance from across the room, the cutting blade of a sentence-and in the telling of our stories we will see again, or for the first time, how blessed our hearts were to have loved at all.
But who will tell our love story when it outlives us?
Or when it drifts beyond the reach of memory?
Who will see you under starlight laying your head upon his shoulder? Who will watch you leading a child through the snow or dipping a new baby's feet into the sea?
And what if we outlive our love story?
Who will hold our old dreams up into the light at dawn again or remind you of the afternoon when you took a daughter into the city to buy her first ballet shoes?
And who will rescue us from the deep, perplexing loneliness of life?
If I see her leaning on her cane, I will remind her how she used to take the front stairs two at a time to reach their bedroom, to take her place beside him.
Find the blond-haired boy whose father taught him to throw a football.
Summon the friend she drove through the night to sit with and persuade of his worthiness.
And if the tree that held the tire swing is gone, even if they've erected a bank teller machine where it stood, stay there a moment anyway, and remember her showing you how to pump your legs and fly above her head.
Let someone dream us all back to life someday. Back to the blue kitchen where you rolled our your pie crust. Back to the fireplace you lit at dusk against the autumn chill. Back to the roof you hammered down in a thunderstorm when lightning raced along the heads of the nails.
I have been dreaming my mother back this way, going back across the years that lay between us to run my hands over her love story. It is a story that was buried with her in the August heat of Pennsylvania in 1950, sixteen days after she gave birth to me and my twin brother. She was nineteen years old, and until last year I never knew anything about her, where she was buried, who her friends were, how she had died, what it was she stood for.
I began searching for her because my father, her husband of less than ten months, is an old man facing his own end. Let me say that for fifty years of his life the pain of missing her prevented him from remembering. And now that he would like to recall her, would like to tell me about her, the tumor in his brain precludes this.
It seems preposterous to me now that I would live almost fifty years after my mother died and still know nothing about her. But this story I am telling here, her love story with my father, could never be told by anyone but me because it was never remembered. Because it was too exquisite in its beginning, too terrible in its end, and the time between the beginning and the end was too brief, it had to be forgotten then. Or, let me say it more precisely, it had to be unremembered. That is it then-an unremembered love story, true in every aspect, preserved behind the heavy door that was closed against the sadness of its end.
I am telling her story now for my father, an old man who was the boy who loved her. And for her, the girl who was my mother. And for you if you are in love, or out of it, or trying to stay in love with the person you have pledged yourself to.
Let us hope that we are all preceded in this world by a love story, that it lies behind us like a shadow, waiting only for us to turn and face it. And in facing it, face ourselves, perhaps.
It was a slow turn on my part. And it began on a winter night in Maine. I was up late with a sick child who, in her fever, kept asking me for a doll that I had not seen in years. Our children's desires so often oppose our own; because she had awakened me from a deep sleep and because I had to be up early the next morning, I wanted to make this middle-of-the-night dance a quick fox-trot, but in my daughter's clear, wide eyes I could see that she that what she wanted was a slow waltz.
For a while I tried to placate her-a glass of juice, a Pop-sicle she could take back to bed with her. Nothing worked. Finally, I wrapped her in a comforter and carried her up the attic stairs. As we searched beneath the eaves I felt the heat of her fever through the blanket, and when the only dolls we found were no better than distant relatives of the one she missed so hopelessly, she began to cry. A soft cry of plain disappointment.
"Please don't wake your brother and sisters," I whispered to her.
On the attic floor next to the Christmas-tree stand, which still had a few green needles in its cup, there was a pair of black leather boots worn by her oldest sister, then the middle one, and now waiting for this daughter to step into them. Boxes everywhere. When we opened the one closest to us a photograph fell to the floor. I shined the flashlight on it, an old black-and-white picture of a wedding couple sitting in the back seat of their honeymoon car. My father had sent it to me at Christmas in a box of presents for the children. This year the gifts astonished us, so mismatched were they to the growing children in our midst: a golf club a foot too short for Jack, a dress that would have fit Erin two years earlier when my father last beheld her. My father's purchases spoke of the great distance and the long spaces between visits that separated me from him.
There was that troubling distance and the thievery of time. On the back of the wedding picture my father had written in the child's cursive that had marked his letters since a brain tumor began to steal his faculties-November 1949, Peggy and me.
I watched my daughter take the photograph in her hand. It stopped her crying as she held it to the light.
Then she pressed it against my cheek. "It's Granddad," I said. "That's your grandfather when he was a boy."
A gust of wind raced along the roof above our heads.
There is always one child who drives a harder bargain than the others, whose mouth is forever filled with questions and who charges through the world past flustered grown-ups.
She wanted to know who the pretty girl in the wedding car was.
"My mommy," I said.
She looked back at the picture as I described for her how this girl used to visit me when I was a little boy. I would awaken from my sleep to the sound of someone calling my name. It was always only the faint whisper of a voice calling me, and always calling me by my first and middle names, the way no one else ever addressed me, and when I opened my eyes there was always the same bright, smiling face with the shining gold ringlets of hair, gliding across my bedroom on top of a column of white light.
It was just an old picture in the attic, a lowly assertion of my daughter's history, and we might have gone downstairs then, leaving it behind, but Cara kept it in her hand. I forgot about it until later that week when it turned up on the table in the kitchen where we keep the unpaid bills, the schools' lunch menus, and the telephone directory. I was looking down at the photograph when my brother called me from his home in southern New Hampshire. He had just returned with my father and found him to be confused and going blind. "I wouldn't expect him to live more than another year," he said.
My brother is not given to exaggeration and so I took what he said to heart. I'd hung up the telephone, when I caught myself turning over the photograph to my father's written words on the back:
November 1949, Peggy and me.
I felt the vulnerability we feel when our parents fall to deathly illness, taking our immunity from harm along with them. I sat at the table a long time. When my son Jack, came into the room I drew him into my arms and waited for the feeling to pass.
That was a year ago, before I knew anything about my mother, Peggy Lorraine Schwartz. Before I knew that she spent the war years learning to drive a car and walk a straight line in high heels. She wore her hair like Ginger Rogers and spent whole weekends with her Sunday school class sewing bandages for the Red Cross. She rode the Liberty Bell trolley to Lansdale to stand outside the recruitment center with her girlfriends and wish good luck to all the boys before they went inside. Sometimes the boys would take off their hats, lean down, and innocently kiss the girls on their foreheads. She went to Saturday-night dances to raise money for Civil Defense. A dime a dance. She was the prettiest girl in town and never sat out a single number. Men twirled her across the floor and she became aware of her beauty for the first time. One hot summer night in 1944, she went with her friends to sleep out in the country in the backyard of a girl named Lorraine Pugles. They laid their sleeping bags under the stars. At four in the morning Lorraine's father woke them up to ride with him to pick up fruit and vegetables, which he sold at a stand in Souderton. The girls all sat in the back of his truck, their bare legs hanging out, their feet on the bumper. Mr. Pugles beeped the horn each time before he came to a bump in the road. They were singing that silly song about the bugle boy in company B. Laughing. Laughing so hard. Peggy with her deep, rolling laugh that the rest of them still remember about her. They told me that Peggy was a quiet girl, always drifting off on her own, lost within her thoughts, but she could laugh when she felt like it. It was a big, strong, unladylike laugh and they remembered her laughing that night in the back of Mr. Pugles's truck as she stood up and danced the jitterbug with an imaginary soldier. She danced right over the bumps in the road, until they were all rolling on the floor of the truck, laughing along with her. That night of the sleepover, before they took the ride, when the night was still around them, Lorraine told Peggy about a boy who had gone off to war. He was the only boy she ever went out with who wrote her letters the day after each date, thanking her and telling her how special everything was to him. Lorraine spoke his name, Dick Snyder. Peggy was fourteen years old that summer. Until that night she would remember the war years as a song, as people gathered around radios, and women wearing pants to work. And her father in the backyard searching the night sky for enemy planes. Now she added to these memories the name of a soldier who wrote letters to his girl after each date.
This is the boy she would one day decide that no one else should have but her. The boy she would marry and then leave behind. He would never really know who she was or how she loved him. Until I found her for him. Peggy Lorraine, the girl he missed so desperately after she died. He spent the days after her funeral lying in bed, trying to make a bargain with God. Thinking of the countless people who had come near her in the nineteen years of her life. People he would never know. Someone who spoke four words to her in the line at the grocery store. And someone who stood on the corner next to her waiting for the light to change. All of these people, strangers to him-he wanted the time they had spent with her. He wanted to gather all of these people together and have for himself the sum of all their moments in her presence. If he added up all these moments they might amount to an afternoon that he could have to share with her. To hold her close. He promised God that if He granted him this little bit of time with her, he would never ask for anything else again.
There is another photograph. A picture my grandfather took of my father in front of the Christmas tree in December 1950, four months after Peggy's death. Someone has just told him to smile. Smile, Dick, we have to try to be happy for the babies. Smile. That would have been my grandmother, my Nana, telling him to smile. I am guessing at this part. But Pop would have been holding the camera, concentrating too hard on holding it still and centering the picture in the viewfinder to say anything to my father. My twin brother and I are in my father's arms. He has a stunned look on his face, as if he has just been hit by something from behind. Or felt a trapdoor open beneath his feet. I am on his right knee. Dave, on his left. We are by now four months old, just old enough to sit up. We are the babies Peggy Lorraine gave him in the tenth month of their marriage and then left him to care for on his own.
I was seven or eight years old when I began to sense some connection between my father and the woman who visited my bedroom at night on the column of white light. We had gone on a family vacation to Cooperstown, New York, that summer to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. We stayed in a little roadside place called the Wagon Wheel Motel. The first night we were there, my brother and I were enchanted to discover that from the front porch we could see the screen of a drive-in miles away across a valley and up a broad hillside.
It wasn't the first night, maybe the second or third, when I was watching with my father as a luscious black-haired woman in the movie stepped into the tender embrace of a man, then wrapped her slender arms around him in an act of such physical hunger that my father rushed me off the porch. (The actress might have been Natalie Wood.) I can still feel his hand on the back of my head, gently steering me inside the room and into bed. I lay there a long time pretending to be asleep but watching to see if he went back outside. My stepmother was making us a bedtime snack, I remember. My father was walking back and forth, passing the foot of my bed. When at last he announced that he was going outside to smoke, I felt my heart begin to race. After he had passed through the open doorway and I could see his back was to the room, I sat up in bed and watched. For what, I didn't know. There was his slender, hipless outline, his shadow from the porch light falling behind him across the carpeted floor. Out across the grass and the tiny swimming pool and the cracked cement shuffleboard lanes, across the highway, beyond a stand of trees, and the wide sea of the hillside, the woman on the drive-in screen, a giant looming over my skinny father, was saying something to the actor in her arms while my father and I secretly tried to read her lips. I sensed at that moment that we were in this together. The woman on the drive-in screen was one we both longed for, the one without whose touch our own worthiness would forever be in doubt. In that moment I felt supremely close to my father in the way I would only feel as a boy whenever he stood off from the rest of us, dreaming-as I imagined he was-about my mother, who was lost to him; dreaming-as I imagined he always did-of some ransom he could pay to God so he could have his pretty bride back. In those days we were conspirators. He dreamed of her, and I waited in my sleep for her to return and call to me by my first and middle names.
From the Trade Paperback edition.