Read an Excerpt
April 9, 1995
The Oregon Coast
If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s
young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking
about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We
understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention.
Lately, though, I find myself thinking about the war and my past, about
the people I lost.
It makes it sound as if I misplaced my loved ones; perhaps I left them
where they don’t belong and then turned away, too confused to retrace
They are not lost. Nor are they in a better place. They are gone. As I
approach the end of my years, I know that grief, like regret, settles into
our DNA and remains forever a part of us.
I have aged in the months since my husband’s death and my diagnosis.
My skin has the crinkled appearance of wax paper that someone has tried
to flatten and reuse. My eyes fail me often— in the darkness, when headlights
flash, when rain falls. It is unnerving, this new unreliability in my
vision. Perhaps that’s why I find myself looking backward. The past has a
clarity I can no longer see in the present.
I want to imagine there will be peace when I am gone, that I will see all
of the people I have loved and lost. At least that I will be forgiven.
I know better, though, don’t I?
My house, named The Peaks by the lumber baron who built it over a hundred
years ago, is for sale, and I am preparing to move because my son
thinks I should.
He is trying to take care of me, to show how much he loves me in this
most difficult of times, and so I put up with his controlling ways. What do
I care where I die? That is the point, really. It no longer matters where I
live. I am boxing up the Oregon beachside life I settled into nearly fifty
years ago. There is not much I want to take with me. But there is one
I reach for the hanging handle that controls the attic steps. The stairs
unfold from the ceiling like a gentleman extending his hand.
The flimsy stairs wobble beneath my feet as I climb into the attic, which
smells of must and mold. A single, hanging lightbulb swings overhead. I pull
It is like being in the hold of an old steamship. Wide wooden planks
panel the walls; cobwebs turn the creases silver and hang in skeins from
the indentation between the planks. The ceiling is so steeply pitched that
I can stand upright only in the center of the room.
I see the rocking chair I used when my grandchildren were young, then
an old crib and a ratty- looking rocking horse set on rusty springs, and the
chair my daughter was refinishing when she got sick. Boxes are tucked
along the wall, marked “Xmas,” “Thanksgiving,” “Easter,” “Halloween,”
“Serveware,” “Sports.” In those boxes are the things I don’t use much anymore
but can’t bear to part with. For me, admitting that I won’t decorate a
tree for Christmas is giving up, and I’ve never been good at letting go.
Tucked in the corner is what I am looking for: an ancient steamer trunk
covered in travel stickers.
With effort, I drag the heavy trunk to the center of the attic, directly
beneath the hanging light. I kneel beside it, but the pain in my knees is
piercing, so I slide onto my backside.
For the first time in thirty years, I lift the trunk’s lid. The top tray is full
of baby memorabilia. Tiny shoes, ceramic hand molds, crayon drawings
populated by stick figures and smiling suns, report cards, dance recital
I lift the tray from the trunk and set it aside.
The mementos in the bottom of the trunk are in a messy pile: several
faded leather- bound journals; a packet of aged postcards, tied together
with a blue satin ribbon; a cardboard box, bent in one corner; a set of slim
books of poetry by Julien Rossignol; and a shoebox that holds hundreds of
black- and- white photographs.
On top is a yellowed, faded piece of paper.
My hands are shaking as I pick it up. It is a carte d’identité, an identity
card, from the war. I see the small, passport- sized photo of a young
woman. Juliette Gervaise.
I hear my son on the creaking wooden steps, footsteps that match my
heartbeats. Has he called out to me before?
“Mom? You shouldn’t be up here. Shit. The steps are unsteady.” He
comes to stand beside me. “One fall and—”
I touch his pant leg, shake my head softly. I can’t look up. “Don’t” is all
I can say.
He kneels, then sits. I can smell his aftershave, something subtle and
spicy, and also a hint of smoke. He has sneaked a cigarette outside, a habit
he gave up de cades ago and took up again at my recent diagnosis. There
is no reason to voice my disapproval: He is a doctor. He knows better.
My instinct is to toss the card into the trunk and slam the lid down,
hiding it again. It’s what I have done all my life.
Now I am dying. Not quickly, perhaps, but not slowly, either, and I feel
compelled to look back on my life.
“Mom, you’re crying.”
I want to tell him the truth, but I can’t. It embarrasses and shames me,
this failure. At my age, I should not be afraid of anything— certainly not
my own past.
I say only, “I want to take this trunk.”
“It’s too big. I’ll repack the things you want into a smaller box.”
I smile at his attempt to control me. “I love you and I am sick again. For
these reasons, I have let you push me around, but I am not dead yet. I want
this trunk with me.”
“What can you possibly need in it? It’s just our artwork and other junk.”
If I had told him the truth long ago, or had danced and drunk and sung
more, maybe he would have seen me instead of a dependable, ordinary
mother. He loves a version of me that is incomplete. I always thought it was
what I wanted: to be loved and admired. Now I think perhaps I’d like to be
“Think of this as my last request.”
I can see that he wants to tell me not to talk that way, but he’s afraid his
voice will catch. He clears his throat. “You’ve beaten it twice before. You’ll
beat it again.”
We both know this isn’t true. I am unsteady and weak. I can neither
sleep nor eat without the help of medical science. “Of course I will.”
“I just want to keep you safe.”
I smile. Americans can be so naïve.
Once I shared his optimism. I thought the world was safe. But that was
a long time ago.
“Who is Juliette Gervaise?” Julien says and it shocks me a little to hear
that name from him.
I close my eyes and in the darkness that smells of mildew and bygone
lives, my mind casts back, a line thrown across years and continents.
Against my will— or maybe in tandem with it, who knows anymore?— I