By Ellen Wade Beals
Barb thinks she’ll call out, “Hello,” but when the front door key sticks in the lock, she has a moment to realize that Bernadette, her mother, is gone. To call out seems kind of maudlin, but Barb does it anyway. That’s how she’s feeling. What better place than an empty house to show those feelings? Her “hello” sounds feeble.
The house smells fusty, which would have driven Bernadette crazy. She’d be opening windows. “Let’s get some fresh air in here.”
It’s been three days since the funeral. Barb had needed a break. Now she plans to start the first rash of cleaning out her mother’s home. She’s been dreading the task. Sifting through all her mother’s possessions—it’s like paring down a life. And so final.
Today’s goal: tackle the top layer, the trash that can be safely tossed without regrets. The hard stuff—whatever was too good to toss but of no use to her; her mother’s personal items; the things Barb would look at for fifteen minutes and still not know what to do with—is for another day. This is the preliminary trash day, she told herself and Alec and Aunt Rosemarie who had offered to help, and she can handle it. She’ll get as many trash bags done as she could and that will be that.
Barb drops the box of giant plastic bags in the hallway and looks around. She slips off her shoes. Though the lady herself is gone this is still her mother’s house. Neat and tidy. But chilly. She goes to the thermostat to turn up the heat and then to the closet to hang up her jacket.
First order of business: her mother’s winter coat, the green one she’d bought new for Barb’s graduation and that was over 25 years ago. She checks the pockets (nothing but lint) and notices the sleeves, so worn the coat couldn’t go to charity. On the front collar of the coat is the Christmas wreath brooch Bernadette had bought at Woolworth’s and wore every holiday season for as long as Barb could remember. She unpins it and tucks it in her jeans pocket.
Barb puts her nose to the wool blend and recalls the afternoon they met on the Evanston corner before going to the movies. The cold air was so clear that Barb could smell the coffee on Bernadette’s breath when she spoke: “Lead the way.” They were going to see Philomena, about an Irish woman who was forced to give up her baby. That they chose the movie without first reading the reviews was a mistake, it turned out, because it brought up issues. Barb had to bite her tongue lest she sputter that the Catholic church could be evil. Bernadette’s reaction was “At least the child wasn’t denied life.” Barb sensed Bernadette held back too. Though she was adamant about the mortal sin of abortion, the son in the movies had been gay, and Bernadette did not exactly denounce homosexuality. Instead she shook her head and summed it up as something she could not understand. At least they both liked Judi Dench
She slides the coat off the hanger, notices the label and laughs. In marker are written the initials “B. S.” Bernadette always said one reason she named her daughter Barbara was so they’d share a monogram. That way if she ever had a mink with her initials embroidered on the silk lining, she could leave it to Barb and the monogram would still be right. The uneven block letters on the tag make Barb a little sadder–one of Bernadette’s ideas that never came to pass. When she billows the garbage bag to open it, the noise is so harsh it makes her grimace. In it goes.
She moves into the bedroom and opens the big dresser drawer. Beige and white, the bras and panties have that funky rubbery smell of old elastic. All sorts of cotton and rayon, no lace, no silk. Lots of Platex. Or ordered from an ad in Parade Magazine. She grabs handfuls to add to the trash bag. Secondhand underwear. Nobody wants that.
Beneath the underwear are cards and letters, but she dares not start with them lest she get waylaid. Her mother saved all the cards she ever received. She can see the corner of a pink envelope, knows it was from her father, and doesn’t have to pull it out to picture her Father’s perfect Palmer method handwriting. Ephemera, that’s what it’s called, but just seeing the envelope evokes her father. What if he were still alive? How might their lives have been different? Maybe he would have softened Bernadette because sometimes she was hard. Especially on herself. On the dresser top is their wedding photo, black and white, Buddy was in a dark suit and Bernadette wore a lace mantilla veil.
Since his death in 1982, Buddy has gone on to sainthood. Bernadette idolized him. Countless times throughout her childhood and even more-so when her mother had grown infirm. Bernadette would proclaim, “My one and only” or “the love of my life,” and hold the framed photo to her heart. A rare moment of weakness and heartfelt emotion that Bernadette let show.
As she pushes the drawer shut with her hip, Barb tries to think whether she’d describe Alec as the love of her life. Maybe. But not in the same way Bernadette meant it. They were partners.
Especially as she got older and dated and moved out, Barbara wondered whether companionship wasn’t something Bernadette lacked. There was no one. No other. But it was not a subject her mother cared to discuss. Bernadette worked as a receptionist for a dentist, Dr. Ken, since 1986. For a while when Barb was in her teens, she entertained the idea that maybe he was her mother’s love interest. But that was not the case. Bernadette was loyal to the dentist and even protective of him, but it was just old-fashioned respect. He was a doctor and he was her boss. That was that.
“My one and only,” Barb says to herself. Her voice sounds tinny. Suppose her father had not died –what then? No matter how she thinks about the question, there is really no answer.
Barb drops the bag by the bedroom door and heads to the kitchen. The only male who sparked anything in Bernadette was Bill O’Reilly. She watched him every day. If Barb called while The O’Reilly Factor was on, Bernadette asked her to call back, she wanted to watch. When Barb asked what was so special about him, Bernadette would say, “He’s just so no-nonsense,” and “He’s easy on the eyes.”
“Anderson Cooper is handsome,” Barb had countered once but Bernadette wasn’t hearing it
“Barbie, it’s not the same thing.”
Later when Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges and lost his show, Barbara didn’t want to bring it up. By then Bernadette was sick again.
Barb flicks on the kitchen light switch and the fluorescent fixture buzzes awake. If Barbara’s purging of the house goes okay, she’ll have to chalk that up to Bernadette. Her mother had a file folder “My Demise,” and it had all the necessary papers – the DNR and Living Will, the last Will and Testament, the contact info for the attorney, the numbers (and even PIN numbers) to Bernadette’s banking and credit accounts.
Barb hadn’t known how to go about selling the house but, on the refrigerator, there was a magnet from a Realtor, Mike Toomey, who specialized in estate cases like this. Bernadette’s house will be listed in two weeks. It will sell pretty fast, he’s assured her. As is.
In the kitchen, the Formica is the same: boomerangs in grays and pink on an open field. The refrigerator’s been replaced over the years. It’s a bare bones side-by-side Kenmore, meticulously maintained by Bernadette. Just the other week Barb came across the wire brush contraption her mother used to dust the condensers.
A couple of weeks ago, when her mother was still in hospice, Barb gave the refrigerator a once-over, so today it does not contain much: a carton of creamer she doesn’t dare open, the green carboard can of Parmesan cheese, some other condiments, all of which she dumps. The freezer is more packed.
Barb pulls up a kitchen chair, slides the garbage can over to her side and sits in front of the open freezer compartment. There are two standard blue plastic ice cube trays. But typical Bernadette, there are also two of the old-fashioned aluminum kind that are louvered like window blinds. Bernadette never threw out anything that was still useful.
As Barb puts the trays in the sink for the ice to melt, she notices something stuck to the bottom of one of the aluminum trays. It’s a white envelope, labeled clearly: Emergency Cigarette. Barb stares at it. She touches the letters.
When Barbara was in fifth grade, she had her first health class and came home with handouts on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. It was obvious to both of them that her mother should quit smoking. Bernadette made a promise to Barbara. She remembers it clearly. They were at the kitchen table. Barbara rested her head on her crossed arms. The Formica felt cool. No more, Bernadette told her, only maybe this one exception. Barbara watched side eyed as her mother took the last Kent from its pack and wrapped it in waxed paper, which she carefully creased into a rectangle that she then tucked into a small envelope. With a black felt-tip marker, she wrote on a white business-sized envelope: Emergency Cigarette. She put the smaller envelope into this, sealed it.
“I’ll feel better knowing it’s there if I ever need it,” Bernadette told Barb. “What if there were an emergency and I needed something to calm my nerves? The last thing I’d want to do is run out to buy a pack.” Then Bernadette walked to the fridge and stashed the envelope.
“Of course, I’m hoping we’ve had all the emergencies we’re going to.” Bernadette raised her eyes to heaven.
Her father Buddy had been a big man in every way. He was an ex-Marine who worked as a building engineer at the Standard Oil Building. He took the earliest train there every morning. He had a clunker car, Old Bess, a Ford Maverick, banana yellow, that he drove to their station and back.
Bernadette and Barbara were stumped when it was still in the lot, even after the later train. He wasn’t in the tavern across from the station. He wasn’t anywhere they looked that Friday night. They came home exasperated and could hear the phone ringing as Bernadette put the key in the lock, but it stuck when she turned it until finally the bolt released and Bernadette shoved open the door, “It’s bad news Barbie I just know it.”
She ran to the phone, but it had stopped ringing. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.” The phone rang again. Buddy’d had a fatal heart attack on the 4:04. Her mother crumpled and then let out a cry that pierced Barb..
She feels the envelope; the cigarette’s still there but it seems different, shorter maybe. After that day so many years ago, Barb never saw her mother smoke again. She puts the envelope on the counter to deal with later and tries to resume her work, marveling at the thought Bernadette had kept that cigarette all these years.
Her mother’s ability to hang onto things seems impressive now. When she was a kid, Bernadette’s frugality only embarrassed her. She can still feel how the color rose in her cheeks. It was recess, sixth grade, always a fraught time, but she felt good, wearing the new sweater her mother had given her the night before–a Fair Isle pullover, off-white with forest green and purple accents; the label had a name she didn’t recognize.
AmberLee Donovan practically announced, “Oh my god, my sister had that sweater and my mother just donated it to rummage sale at church. Where did you get it?” Barbara knew then where Bernadette had gotten it, but she had no answer for AmberLee. That night Bernadette had not understood why there was a problem. If AmberLee wanted to make fun of Barbara because she wore a perfectly good sweater, well, that was AmberLee’s problem. Bernadette, always big on the Catholic notion of redemptive suffering, had admonished Barb, “Offer it up.”
Barb stands, shuts the freezer, walks to the counter, and picks up the white envelope to inspect it again. She presses it gently between her fingers. Had Bernadette smoked it, or had it shrunk from the cold?
Barb opens it carefully not wanting to rip her mother’s printing. A cigarette is there, but this one is wrapped in Saran.
She looks again at the envelope. This is a different Emergency Cigarette.
Sure enough, it’s a Marlboro Light, not a Kent. And the tip is gone. Bernadette must have had a drag or two and then put it out and snipped it with a scissors. But it’s been smoked because the filter is yellowed and there’s Bernadette’s lipstick, Tangerine Dream. Barb always urged her mother to change her lipstick color because it was far too orange for her rosy complexion. She even bought her a pink shade from Clinique but always Bernadette came back to Tangerine Dream.
She feels herself deflate. What? Did she expect her mother to never have smoked the Emergency Cigarette? Is she disappointed? Really? Get over yourself.
She’s not really mad at her mother for smoking. What hurts is that she didn’t know this about Bernadette. Maybe she would have seen her mother differently if she had known this vulnerability. Bernadette came across always so matter of fact, so certain.
When had her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette?
Maybe when she got sick. After all, she kept it to herself. At first, she waited to see if the lump would go away. Then she kept the diagnosis quiet for at least a week. It was only after she made her first appointment to determine the course of her treatment that she called Barbara, asked if she would accompany her. Bernadette explained it was good to have another set of ears to hear everything the doctor said. Always practical.
At the appointment, when the nurse called her name, Bernadette started on her way to the examining room and Barb followed, but Bernadette halted in her steps, said, “I’ll have the nurse call you in when it’s time for the consultation.” For some reason that nearly brought Barb to tears right there in the waiting room. How stupid. Here she was crying when her mother was so strong.
Had Bernadette bought a pack of cigarettes during that time? Maybe she’d wanted one last smoke to steady her nerves. What had she been thinking? Why hadn’t Barbara been at her side?
Barb always envied those close mothers and daughters who joked and teased. She and her mother had a strong connection, a reliance on one another– not a friendship. Now she had a sincere appreciation for Bernadette’s grit as a single mother. Growing up she hadn’t seen things so positively. She’d be the first to admit she’d been a haughty teenager who looked down on the life her mother wrought. Barb was going to accomplish something, not merely eke by. But after all those months of her mother’s being sick, of Barb coming up so often and sharing hours with her mother, they had come to a kind of ease with one another.
There was the circuit they did on Saturdays to the Greek diner and the grocery store and Dollar Tree, Bernadette’s favorite store. Some evenings they brought out the TV trays for dinner; Bernadette would say grace and they’d eat and watch the local news. Barb washed up and usually left when Wheel of Fortune was on. During the commercials Bernadette would switch to Special Report with Bret Bair.
How many times had her mother replaced the Emergency Cigarette? Barb shakes her head and takes her seat back at the open freezer.
Aside from a penchant for Fannie Mae candy, Bernadette didn’t have many bad habits. Butter was something she indulged in, stocked up on. And there it is: a one-pound brick, which hits the garbage bag solidly. Bernadette would kill her for throwing out good food, but there’s no going back.
Next in the trash is a bag of frozen peas, strictly used as an ice pack. Bernadette would drape a bag over her knee and settle into watch reruns of Law & Order, or NCIS, her favorite show, what with that Mark Harmon so handsome and so nice in real life—did Barb know he’d rescued someone from a burning car?
There are plastic containers (filled with what Barb doesn’t know, but suspects is cabbage soup). All of which she tosses without opening. She considers how she should really recycle them, but it’s garbage day tomorrow and everything must go. Clunk, clunk, clunk. A pint of Walgreen’s ice cream. Butter pecan. Clunk.
Between an olive green Tupperware and a butcher-wrapped chop, Barb finds another white envelope. This one is labeled “Emergency Cig, 2011,” so it has been in the freezer for seven years, for as long as Barb’s been married to Alec. Is that why her mother needed it? Bernadette and Alec never seemed to warm up to each other. “Your Alec is as smart as Alec Trebek,” Bernadette told Barb like it was a compliment, but Barb could decode it, knew it meant Bernadette felt intimidated. She didn’t correct her mother on the Jeopardy host’s first name.
Alec was raised a Catholic, so he had that going for him. His parents were from Cuba and he grew up in Miami. But like Barbara he was a lapsed Catholic. So, both of them disappointed their parents. They managed to peeve everyone even more when they got married at the clerk’s office. Alec’s parents wanted to host a luncheon at their club to celebrate the nuptials. But Bernadette wouldn’t get on an airplane. So, to compensate Barb and Alec had a Chicago celebration; a brunch party at a nice restaurant. They invited their close friends along with Aunt Rosemarie, Bernadette’s priest friend Father Malec, and Dr. Ken and his wife. It hadn’t seemed stressful but maybe Bernadette had needed to light one up to get through it.
Barb puts this envelope on the counter next to the first one. She shuts the freezer, leans back in the chair, and closes her eyes.
How many cigarettes have there been? When had the first Kent been lit and when and how many Marlboros had she needed?
If her memory is correct and the first cigarette had been put away when she was in fifth grade, it was only a few years later that Barbara had changed, insisted on being called Barb or Barbara –she hated Barbie. The tweens. That was the start of when she could see only her mother’s shortcomings. Conformist. Boring. Barb had been such a handful, so strident, it was no wonder her mother hadn’t smoked carton after carton.
The heat comes on, and it makes a regular tick, once, twice, three times. Barb listens to the house; wonders if it will belong to someone loud after all these years of quiet.
She thought she might get teary when she cleaned out Bernadette’s dresser or smelled the White Shoulders perfume. Instead, it’s here at the freezer where her feelings thaw.
Then it flashes to her, how egotistical she is to presume the reason her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette had anything to do with her. Didn’t her mother have a life of her own? Barb did not share with Bernadette, but maybe Bernadette didn’t share either. There could have been things she never mentioned. Worse even, it could be that something had upset her mother and she didn’t even know. And now would never know.
Or perhaps her mother, with her TV companions, poured herself a 7-Up and lit one up. She could picture it, maybe. Bernadette would take the time to arrange cheese and crackers on a plate and use cocktail napkins. She’d probably even used an ashtray, though it seemed the Emergency Cigarette was only smoked for a puff or two.
Barb would have known if her mother smoked then because she was around a lot; she came home to take care of her mother on those treatment days when the radiation and nausea sapped Bernadette’s strength. And most weekends. Barb had been a dutiful daughter, hadn’t she?
Come to think of it, with the world as crazy as it is, it could have been a news event that drove her mother to the white envelope in the freezer — 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? Surely the Emergency Cigarette was not from that long ago. Maybe it was when the classrooms of kindergartners were shot up? Or something else. There were plenty of atrocities–there were many to choose from.
The freezer stands empty and the garbage bag sags like a heavy heart. Barb is ready to tie it up when she notices some items on the shelves of the door. Behind a sticky can of frozen orange juice concentrate, she finds another white envelope, this one with a plain face, no writing. How many emergency cigarettes had her mother needed? And why did she save them? Had she lost count or forgotten them? Was she further gone than Barb suspected? Barb tosses the envelope on the counter.
Taking the full garbage bag to the can outside the kitchen door, Barb wonders how much she doesn’t know about her mother.
Back at the counter, the three cigarettes are lined up: a Marlboro Light, an Eve, and a Benson & Hedges, all partially smoked, each white filter ringed in faint tangerine. She gathers them all, brings them with her when she sits at the kitchen table.
Lately who hasn’t wanted to smoke and drink and tear their hair and jump off buildings? Even Barb, Ms Health Consciousness, had been tempted to bum a smoke those weeks at the end of 2016, the situation so bleak with the election turning out as it did. And that was another thing that drove them apart. Really drove them apart.
“Even the Trib won’t endorse that woman,” Bernadette had told her when Barb brought up the election.
“But you’re going to vote for that man?”
“I’m voting for the Republican Party,” Bernadette said firmly. She never mentioned it again, but Barb thought about it a lot.
Such a disappointment. Barb could not come to terms with how Bernadette voted. It flabbergasted her. Of all the things she did not understand about her mother, this seemed the hardest for her to fathom. How could someone who valued decency vote for him? And now the cigarettes.
Her mother is dead and the man she voted for is the President and they are all left to deal with it. It’s a mess. The only mess Bernadette left behind.
They were getting to a good place with one another, she and her mother, where they understood and appreciated one another. But he ruined things between them just like he is ruining the nation. Everything tainted.
Here she is 46, the same age as Bernadette when she had her. She used to want a baby. But now she is glad she never conceived because the world is so screwed-up. When menopause started and the possibility of pregnancy diminished, Barb was relieved as well as disappointed, if that made any sense.
Her eyes are watery as she touches the cigarettes. She’ll smoke them all, one by one, just to imagine she is taking in some breath of her mother. But she can’t get up from the chair and she doesn’t have a match. All that’s in her pocket is that stupid Christmas brooch. Somewhere far down the street a car alarm starts up and then seems to fade away.
When Barb looks down at her hands, she finds that without thinking, she has broken the three half-cigarettes, crumbled them until the filters and paper and tobacco are in a pile on the table. Tears come. When she is done crying, she picks up the three tangerine-tinged filters, lines them up in the smoothed-out Saran, and carefully wraps them. This she puts in the smallest envelope, which she then tucks into next envelope, and then the last. She looks once again at the indelible printing: Emergency Cigarette. She brings the packet to her lips. Then she shifts in the chair to put it in her back pocket.
Only tobacco and paper shreds are left on the table. She brushes all the mess into her palm. Because the garbage can is empty, she doesn’t want to use it. Instead she opens the kitchen door and blows her hand clean, all the little bits flying this way and that.
Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web here and in Ireland and the UK. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words. Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com.
If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:
A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.
Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.
Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option