Chapter 1: Sour Cherries
The patterned linoleum of Father’s tiny bathroom is curled back under the cabinet, the glue dried up long ago. Everything dries up: glue, skin, love. The cabinet’s bottom is sticky and stained with age, crowded with half-empty bottles of aftershave, shampoo, and other toiletries. Mom and Sonia didn’t have the courage to clean out the bathroom, so I volunteered. I’ve decided to stay for a few weeks, now that the funeral is over, to help Mom with whatever needs doing. I’m okay with the worst tasks, perhaps to relieve my guilt for not living nearby and for letting Sonia, the dutiful daughter, carry the weight.
All garbage, I decide. I pour as many liquids down the avocado-green sink as I can; they swirl around the rusty drain stopper and soon I am floating in a stink of Resdan hair tonic and Listerine.
The sharp fumes burn my nostrils. I hold my breath as I wash away a life; it all comes down to some pill bottles, checkered work shirts in the closet, and a few boxes. My arms are heavy as I work, and my hands shaky from lack of sleep. Strange dreams and chest pains now punctuate my ongoing insomnia. Stress, Sonia says. I wonder what a heart attack feels like, and whether Father shouted as he tumbled off that ladder. My dreams are a slide show of the past few days, images I hope to soon erase: Max, heavy with sleep on the pew, thankfully unaware of the terrifying open-casket, incense-filled Mass that no toddler should witness; the line of tombstones near Father’s, because our parents and their friends, a group of displaced immigrants, prepurchased a row of plots together when they all turned fifty; Mom’s tombstone, waiting, her name, and below it 1924–, as they lower Father’s oak coffin into the adjacent plot.
I was transfixed by the blank space, waiting for its inevitable date, on the dusty tombstone. My parents did us a favor by preplanning, but more importantly, they wanted to be together at the end. A symbolic gesture that recognized that they understood each other in ways their children never would. They were right.
We didn’t talk about anything much after the funeral except for the one demand Mom made from the hearse’s back seat.
“If I’m sick, no machines, no feeding tubes. That’s an order. If I can’t live on my own, you girls must let me go.”
“What if you can still hear us?” I asked. I never did tell her that Father heard me from the depths of his coma. Too much had been said, and not said, and then it didn’t matter.
“If I can’t live without machines, it’s not real life,” Mom answered.
I promised, ignoring the sickening dread in my stomach. Sonia escaped into the hazy view through the dust-covered window. I understand Mom’s point ?— ?she, Sonia, and I watched the doctors remove Father’s machines when his organs gave out. Still, my heart’s conflicted, and my head’s too heavy to think about what I would want if it were me.
Since the funeral, Mom has been in the garden. August is a busy time. She prepares vegetables and fruit for winter during the day, and spends the evenings with Max in front of the television. Mom doesn’t understand SpongeBob SquarePants, and Max doesn’t understand The Price is Right, but The Nature of Things seems to bridge their seventy-year divide.
I’ve been cleaning out house cupboards, and I’m surprised by the things I’ve long forgotten and the sentimental memories they arouse. My first rock collection fascinates Max, especially the smelly yellow sulfur chunks that I picked up from the rocky railroad beds of the tracks that ran directly behind our first house. I twirl a sharp granite rock between my fingers, and I’m suddenly playing on the tracks, creosote in my nostrils, as the trumpet of an oncoming train’s horn shoos me away from my rock search. I was never afraid.
I snap back into the present. Mom’s canned goods from twenty years ago, in neat dust-covered rows, however, terrify me. I ruthlessly trash them ?— ?someone has to save her from botulism.
“What about the garage?” I walk past Mom to the old-fashioned metal garbage cans at the driveway’s end.
“Not now.” She shakes the dirt from an onion. “Your sister and I can sort through it during the winter. I’ll have to sell the car, though.”
My chest tightens. I’ve always hated that car.
“Okay, I’ll keep to the closets for now,” I say. She doesn’t hear me because she’s already moved to the shrubs along the south-facing stucco wall: red currants, gooseberries, and chokecherries. Jellies to be made.
Sonia arrives when I’m sorting through the basement closet.
“Look at all this camera stuff. Do you want it?” I ask.
“My basement’s full. Why don’t you take it?”
“No, I’m flying.” Father had amassed a sophisticated camera and lens collection, all in their original boxes. “Did he ever use this stuff? It looks brand new.”
“Perhaps Max will want it someday? He’s already showing his technical side,” she says.
She’s right. Max is crouched on the floor, his expression intense as he joins plastic LEGO action figure pieces. He’s working on For Ages 8+, beyond his years, Sonia observes proudly.
We find a shoebox filled with old crinkled-edged photos.
“These are mostly their friends at parties in the basement,” I tell her, flipping through the box. “Want them?” Father didn’t have to talk to people if he was behind the camera.
“No thanks,” Sonia answers. “You?”
What’s the point? They’re photos of local Ukrainian friends we know as little about as we do our parents. None of them are family, or maybe they are, because we don’t even know if we have aunts and uncles somewhere in the Ukraine. It’s not that we don’t care; we’ve become used to not knowing what we’re missing. When our curiosity occasionally surfaced, we were too afraid to break the silence, and then it slowly, simply ceased to matter.
“Nope. Although Cam likes to save stuff like this for Max. I’ll take it for him.”
We fill Sonia’s car with “things Max might want in the future.” She doesn’t have her own children, and I’m moved by her thoughtfulness. She’s also a pack rat.
“Where’s Mom?” she asks.
“Have you discussed the wedding yet? How’s Megan?”
“Megan still thinks we should cancel. It’s up to Mom.” I can’t believe I’m going to indirectly prevent my best friend’s wedding.
We walk up the stairs to the kitchen. Mom, in her dirt-covered T-shirt, is stirring instant coffee. Her fingernails are filthy, but she doesn’t seem to notice or care. A bowl of lime-green berries, hairy and translucent with thin white stripes, sits on the table.