Fifty years ago my mother laughed with our neighbor George Evers on his porch while my little brother Will flew into a rose bush. Of all the memories of my childhood this is the one that keeps resurfacing.
My mother’s favorite perfume, crepe de chine – delicate, subtle, and only available in department stores – impregnated all of her coats, dresses, and sweaters. When I was a teenager we discovered it had been discontinued. But that summer afternoon while she sat with George Evers, crepe de chine hovered in the air.
My mother had instructed me to “keep an eye” on Will. He wore a pair of short white overalls and saddle shoes. He was two or three, making me four or five. I pointed to a robin’s nest in a maple tree above our heads and he touched my finger as if it had magical powers. Wills arms and legs were like sticks. A strong wind could have blown him across a backyard. Then I divided the world into things sturdy and flimsy, no doubt influenced by The Three Little Pigs. That I would remember a roost made of twigs and mud and marvel over the fact that it could withstand wind and storms makes perfect sense to me now.
Though his cheeks flushed pink from the heat, Will’s arms remained pale with their miniature indentations above the elbow that made them appear fragile.
The robins, all about us that day, hopped around on the grass grubbing for insects. How they supported those round orange bellies on such tiny legs I couldn’t fathom.
My mother wore orange lipstick the same shade as the robin’s breast. In a screened-in porch, she perched on a glider next to George Evers, holding a glass of iced tea that sweated and dripped onto her pale yellow dress. Clad in white sandals, her feet crossed at the ankles. The glider swayed back and forth, and their bodies touched: his leg against her dress, a strand of her auburn hair blowing against his cheek, his thumb against her pinkie.
Stretched taut between its frame, the wire screen hindered what passed through it. I had the sense that the coolness of the previous night’s air hadn’t dissipated, that some of it remained trapped in there with them. Though blazing, the full sun could not insinuate itself into that protected space. Pencil thin rays of light crisscrossed the porch, making patterns on my mother’s pale legs. My mother and George Evers were on display, but not completely.
The Tobacco Smell:
George Evers deposited a pouch of tobacco on the side table and periodically scooped leaves into his pipe’s opening. Using a silver lighter he ignited the tobacco and sucked in a series of breaths until it caught, and then exhaled puffs in controlled intervals. The pipe occupied him in the same way scavenging for worms occupied the robins. The day smoldered, made all the worse by billows of pipe smoke wafting through the porch screen into the outside air. The crepe de chine melted away.
My brother scurried around the perimeter of the house. A fly buzzing around my ear would have merited equal attention. While I understood my responsibility to “keep an eye” on him, George Evers and my mother demanded my full concentration.
Every time Will dashed by, the robins flapped their wings and took off, their tiny feet dangling beneath them. They perched on a branch until he vanished, then bounded back to the lawn and continued foraging.
My mother once brought me to a ballet inspired by a painting of Edgar Degas. The stage went black, then gradually light radiated through a scrim spotlighting the dancers’ bodies inhabiting a late afternoon. Though the scene advanced into minor focus, it didn’t achieve full clarity. It was as if I observed a hidden memory, not a real event.
A Recurring Dream:
My child strays into the ocean. Always the same age as Will the day my mother visited George Evers, he frolics into the surf all by himself. I can’t make myself stir. Even in my dream I wonder if I conjured him out of my imagination.
A great fatigue sets in. My son’s arms and legs thrash as a wave rams into him. Then the sea calms and he disappears. My heart pounds – my throat constricts. I can’t speak much less yell. Nobody notices anything amiss. It is as if the ocean swallows a tiny pink shell.
I stare at the place where he vanished so that when I am able to move again, I’ll know exactly where to go. Grayish blue and murky, the water won’t reveal a thing. It blurs like my memory of the porch that summer afternoon.
The Charm Bracelet:
That my mother had on her charm bracelet seems odd to me now. She only wore it when she dressed up, and the pale yellow dress she selected was casual fare that summer. My father gave my mother a gold charm for each of their two children. Will’s featured the profile of a little boy with one topaz eye, robin-egg blue. With no jewel to adorn it, mine sported a girl with a high ponytail and my date of birth. The sound of the charms clinking against one another produced in me a calm, as it meant my mother was nearby.
I heard Will’s hysterics before I spotted him racing toward me. One of his saddle shoes had come untied, and he soared into the rose bush just underneath the porch screen. The charm bracelet wouldn’t stop jingling.
The Rose Bush:
Several robins detecting a shudder in the air lifted in unison. The sun shone through their wings, exposing their veins. How easily their wings could break, I thought. Red splotches seeped into Will’s snow-white overalls. If you squinted, you wouldn’t know where rose ended and blood began. My mother’s pale yellow dress melted into the washed out lemony sky. Pipe smoke penetrated the air making it heavy and close. Now things get hazy. Was there anybody else on the porch with my mother and George Evers? Where was his wife Helen? Did anybody scold me? Exactly what happened after the ambulance arrived?
Will recovered. All he remembers of this incident are the thorns in his arms and legs, not the porch, not the tobacco smoke, not George Evers.
While the shock of the thorns, the ambulance, and the blood disturbed me, I am clear that it is not guilt that forces this memory upon me. I recognize that a five-year old cannot be made responsible for her three-year old brother. I travel back to this time to relive my past, to see my mother as a young woman, to observe her mannerisms, to smell her, to see if there is anything else I can extract about my life from this scene.
The Degas Dancers:
Edgar Degas painted “Ballet Rehearsal on Stage” in 1874. Reminiscent of an old memory, the colors display softness and restraint. Caught off guard behind the scenes one dancer yawns, her mouth wide open, both hands stretched behind her head. Another scratches her back. One can’t decipher the story of the performance just from viewing the painting. Though I search the piece for clues I find no satisfaction with the details available to me: the woven cream colored canvas, the oil paints with traces of watercolor and pastel over a pen and ink drawing.
The guaziness of a ballet studio is a complex atmosphere to recreate on stage. Turn up the light too much and everything looks the same. Turn the lights too low and bodies and objects lose their boundaries. The trick is to light a stage in such a way as to show the audience just enough.
The Perfume Revisited:
In the back of my dresser drawer lives an old cashmere sweater I borrowed from my mother and never returned. Once the milk white color of Will’s overalls, it has become dull and faded. Its fibers hold the faintest scent of crepe de chine. I won’t ever know if George Evers put his arm around my mother or if he kissed her. I won’t know if she welcomed his advances or was discomfited by them. I can’t make myself see what really happened.
A Concrete Slab:
Robins live an average of two years. They don’t have a lot of time to accumulate memories, if their brains even work that way. None of the robins who were present that summer afternoon are still alive. George and Helen Evers are dead too. Though their house still stands, it shows its age: aluminum siding curls at the edges; a concrete slab peeks out beneath a child’s plastic swimming pool where the porch, now demolished, once stood. I see no evidence of a rose bush.
So little remains of the world that existed that summer afternoon. Even if I wanted to question my mother about that day’s events I couldn’t. Now eighty-four, she hardly remembers anything. Not that it matters to me what she would say. I’m afraid if I ask her she’ll tell me something new that doesn’t fit into the portrait I have roughed out. Like wet cement this memory wants to set, but I resist. I yearn to keep searching for meaning in the half-seen places.