Natalie’s voice comes through my cell phone, loud and insistent. “Let me come and get you.”
I fish a tissue out of my purse sitting in the passenger seat. “Don’t be silly.”
“Where are you?”
I squint at the lights around me. “A gas station. I can’t remember which exit. But I’m fi—fi…”
I can almost hear the tapping of Natalie’s shoes as she paces. I picture her circling the kitchen where she grew up, while her parents look on in concern. At the thought of her mother, the woman who has come to love me like her own child, I snap back to reality.
“Can you ask someone where you are?”
“No,” I answer, blowing my nose. “I shouldn’t have bothered you. I’ll be fine.”
“Mom and Dad picked us up at the airport, we got you to the rental car, you’ve been driving for an hour…did you go straight through? Or did you make any stops?”
I want her to come, more than anything. I want her to park, open my door, and tell me to switch to the other side. I want her to take over, but I can’t.
I clear my throat, this time giving a greater semblance of sincerity to my words. “I want you to take your parents out for dinner, the way we agreed.”
The phone whines with her frustration. “Tell me where you are.”
She would do it, too. She would drive an hour to pick me up, drive me to my brother’s home where I grew up, and drive the three hours back to her parents’ house. I could tell her no, and she would still come. This is my Natty, the woman who refuses to tell me of her own hurts but would take mine away in an instant. Instead of shouting at her to leave me alone, the way I used to do, I soften my voice. “I’m okay. I just needed to hear your voice. I can do this.”
At the rich, deep voice, I lose my resolve to stop sniffling. Natalie’s mom must have taken the phone.
“Mama Jane, I’m so sorry. I’ve ruined your Mother’s Day weekend.”
“Lot of foolishness. Dad and Lee will pick you up and bring you home. You can get some sleep before driving to your brother’s tomorrow.”
How I wish I really were Mama Jane’s daughter, safe in their house getting ready for an evening together. I have to grip the steering wheel before I can get the right words out. She answers my unspoken protest.
“It’s not safe.”
“I have to go see my mom,” I whisper, and I glance at the flowers on the floor mat on the passenger side. I’d bought a sensible cactus from the florist near the airport, but Mama Jane had insisted on sending a bouquet of pink carnations with baby’s breath. She said even if they didn’t last long, it was the thought that mattered and they would return to the earth. I took out one of the pink carnations and asked her to save it for Rachel, the daughter who never saw her first birthday. Mama Jane kissed my cheek.
“All right,” she says after a pause. I wonder if she is thinking of her lost baby. “Let Dad and Lee take you tonight.”
“I can’t,” I explain, embarrassed. “She doesn’t know them.”
Mama Jane remains on the phone, quiet except for a few soft breaths in and out. She doesn’t ask how a dead woman could know anyone, or why it matters who goes with me to visit a grave. “Are you in any condition to drive? Don’t lie to me,” she warns, and I smile. Sometimes she forgets that she didn’t raise me.
“Yes,” I answer. I’m not lying. We all do things while not in the optimum condition. “I’ll call you when I arrive.” Natalie bought me a hands-free headset to use while driving, but I need the solitude tonight.
“Kat,” she says, and I feel her mother heart enveloping mine. “You are still your mother’s daughter. You are loved.”
Natalie takes the phone back to give me dozens of instructions, but I hear none of them.
* * *
It takes me three tries using my navigational system to find the church cemetery. I turn off the engine and clutch my plant-offerings. After most of a day traveling, I have arrived. Yet I sit in my car, breathing hard.
“Go,” I order myself, but I remain. “Hurry up.” I un-crinkle the plastic wrap around the flowers and push the stems further into the rubber-topped plastic tips of water. I want to call Natalie, but I can’t deal with her worry on top of everything else.
The last time I visited the cemetery, my oldest brother Josh stood next to me with his hand on my shoulder. Gazing through my windshield, I am greeted by tombstones dotting the shadowy landscape. I can almost smell the bitter cold of that day, can almost see the fresh-turned dirt of my father’s new grave. His casket lay next to Mom’s.
Natalie asked me, before we made arrangements for this trip, what I would do once I arrive to my parents’ burial ground. It’s been so many years since Dad’s death that I can’t remember much more than my frozen shock as I stood in the biting December wind. Everyone else had rushed to the nursing home, everyone else had attended the funeral, and everyone else had seen his body lowered into the ground. When I arrived at the end of the semester, after taking the final exams as Josh insisted, everything had changed. Everyone else had returned to life as usual, and I stared at the snow-encrusted ground wondering how my life would continue.
Maybe I should have brought flowers for Dad, too. I forgot the man who never remembered me.
I open my car door and slid out of the driver’s seat. I clutch the bouquet and cactus as I cross the field. I remember how to find Mom’s grave, even if it lacks the expensive, massive tombstones of its neighbors. Someone came earlier, judging from the neatly swept plaque and the tidy potted geranium. Probably my sister-in-law.
I arrange the carnations and baby’s breath below the plaque and set my cactus next to the geranium. I feel like I should pray or kneel, or perhaps talk to my mom as if she were still here. The truth is, I’ve lived more years without my mother than with her. It’s hard to remember what she looked like. Sometimes, if I concentrate, I can remember her voice.
I don’t remember Mom’s funeral, maybe because I don’t want to remember. I sit on the grass next to her grave and pat the ground. I imagine that I can feel her heartbeat. I convince myself to such a degree that I put my ear to the ground, listening. Instead, I get a leaf in my hair.
I remember Mom screaming more than not, but I also remember standing in front of her while she measured fabric. I wore my brothers’ hand-me-downs for everything else, but every year I had a brand-new Easter dress. Sometimes I had to wear sneakers because I’d outgrown the last year’s shoes, but the dress was perfection.
I thought I’d visit Mom and tell her about my new life, but instead I pat the ground once more. Wherever she is now, she knows already.
* * *
Maureen’s close-cut hair has grown nearly white since I last saw her. Life has not been easy for farmers and their wives.
“Katie Beth,” my sister-in-law says, taking my overnight bag and setting it on the floor. I startle at her use of Mom’s nickname for me. “You’re late; I was worried.” She hugs me, this woman who took in her orphaned teenage sister-in-law despite having twins to raise.
“I missed you,” I say, not realizing the truth of my own words until they have left my mouth. I’d tried to forget everything about this sad place, but this is still my origin.
“Josh won’t be back until later. Wash up, and I’ll get you something to eat. I kept a plate warming in the oven.”
I’m not hungry, but I gratefully slip into the bathroom as directed. I trace the vintage cars on the wallpaper, the same Maureen has always had. I used to entertain my nephews during bathtime by pretending the cars were racing across the walls. The Model T always won. Before I return to Maureen, I tiptoe to the room I used to share with the twins. The same nightlights illuminate each end of the room, even though the boys have left the house. It’s strange not to hear kids fighting over their toys or stomping through the house.
“Thank you,” I say as I enter the kitchen. Maureen’s plain shirt is dotted with flour on the left elbow. She must have made her baking powder biscuits. It should be awkward, seeing her after nearly a decade, but the values of my old life still run in my blood. When I lived with her, I cringed every time I saw her tired or stressed. Now, I think back to the hours she spent teaching me everything she knew. Not many sisters-in-law would have been so generous to an awkward teenage ward.
“So, you’re adopting a baby,” she says, and I hesitate. I’d told her to fill in an awkward silence on the phone, after we progressed from, “I haven’t seen you in so long” to “What are you doing now?”
“Yes,” I answer, wondering whether she’ll say the baby needs a father.
“Girl or boy?”
I smile, thinking of my terror when I first heard. A girl? I knew nothing about girls! I’d helped to raise two boys, no girls. Girls were too difficult. I burst into tears, and it took Natalie two days to find out why.
“A girl,” I answer.
Maureen passes me another biscuit as soon as I finish eating the first one. “Josh got your box down from the attic,” she says. “You can go through it after supper and decide what to take with you.”
Supper. On the farm, “dinner” meant the noontime meal while “lunch” meant a midday snack. It’s been so many years in the city that “supper” sounds strange to my ears. “Supper” reminds me of scraping dirty boots and collecting clothes the men took off in the mud room after a hard day of work.
“Thank you,” I say, to the other woman who helped to raise me. I collect my dishes, and I wash while Maureen puts on a pot of coffee to go along with her snickerdoodles.
“Go on,” she says, pointing to the dusty cardboard box in the corner.
“Katie Beth” is written across the side, and I gasp when I see the Sharpie letters. I’d recognize Mom’s handwriting anywhere, even nearly twenty years later.
I approach the box and open the lid. On the top is a sailor dress in navy blue with white trimming. My hands shake as I lift the fabric. Each stitch was sewn on Mom’s vintage Singer sewing machine, and I can hear her crossly telling me to stop fidgeting as she fastened the buttons.
Maureen brings out steaming cups of coffee and a plateful of her famous cookies. She nods toward me. “Beautiful work your mom did.”
I hug the dress to me, and I nod.
“They’ll smell of mothballs pretty fierce, but you can air them out when you get home. Good thing your mom used dark colors, or else the fabric might have turned yellow.” Maureen pulls out a chair for me to join her.
I’m not ready to leave my new treasure yet, but this woman opened her home to me after almost ten years of silence. I lay my childhood dress back in the box and close the lid. “The cookies look wonderful,” I say, and Maureen smiles at me.