By Alice Munro
I am convinced that my father looked at me, really saw me, only once. After that, he knew what was there.
In those days, they didn’t let fathers into the glare of the theatre where babies were born, or into the room where the women about to give birth were stifling their cries or suffering aloud. Fathers laid eyes on the mothers only once they were cleaned up and conscious and tucked under pastel blankets in the ward or in semi-private or private rooms. My mother had a private room, as became her status in town, and it was just as well, actually, seeing the way things turned out.
I don’t know whether my father saw my mother before or after he stood outside the window of the nursery for his first glimpse of me. I rather think that it was after, and that when she heard his steps outside her door she felt the anger in them but did not yet know what had caused it. After all, she had borne him a son, which was, presumably, what all men wanted.
I know what he said. Or what she told me he said.
“What a chunk of chopped liver.”
Then, “You don’t need to think you’re going to bring that into the house.”
One side of my face was—is—normal. And my entire body was normal from toes to shoulders. Twenty-one inches was my length, eight pounds five ounces my weight. A strapping male infant, fair-skinned, though probably still red from my unremarkable recent journey.
My birthmark not red but purple. Dark in my infancy and early childhood, fading somewhat as I got older, but never fading to a state of inconsequence, never ceasing to be the first thing people noticed about me, head on, never ceasing to shock those who had come at me from the left side. I look as if someone had dumped grape juice on me, a big, serious splash that turns into droplets only when it reaches my neck. Though it does skirt my nose pretty well, after dousing one eyelid.
“It makes the white of that eye look so lovely and clear” was one of the idiotic but pardonable things my mother would say, in the hope of helping me to admire myself. And an odd thing happened. Sheltered as I was, I almost believed her.
Of course, my father could not do anything to prevent my coming home. And, of course, my presence, my existence, caused a monstrous rift between my parents. Though it’s hard for me to believe that there had not always been some kind of rift—some incomprehension, at least, or chilly disappointment.
My father was the son of an uneducated man who owned a tannery and then a glove factory. Prosperity was ebbing as the twentieth century progressed, but the big house that my grandfather had built was still there, as were the cook and the gardener. My father had gone to college, joined a fraternity, had what was referred to as a high old time, then entered the insurance business when the glove factory went under. He was as popular around our town as he had been at college. A good golfer, an excellent sailor. (I have not mentioned that we lived on the cliffs above Lake Huron, in a Victorian house facing the sunset.)
At home, my father’s most vivid quality was a capacity for hating and despising. Those two verbs often went together. He hated and despised certain foods, makes of automobiles, music, manners of speech and modes of dress, radio comedians, and, later on, television personalities, along with the usual assortment of races and classes it was customary to hate and despise in his day (though perhaps not as thoroughly as he did). In fact, most of his opinions would have found little opposition in our town, among his sailing companions or his old fraternity brothers. It was his vehemence, I think, that brought out an uneasiness that could also amount to admiration.
Calls a spade a spade. That was what was said of him.
Of course, a production like myself was an insult that he had to face every time he opened his own door. He took breakfast alone and did not come home for lunch. My mother ate those meals with me and part of her dinner also, the rest with him. Eventually, I think, there was some sort of row about this, and then she sat through my meal with me but ate with him.
It is clear that I did not contribute to a comfortable marriage.
But how had they ever come together? She had not gone to college; she’d had to borrow money to attend the school where teachers were trained in her day. She was frightened of sailing, clumsy at golf, and if she was beautiful, as some people have told me (it is hard to make that judgment of your own mother), her looks were not really of the kind that my father admired. He spoke of certain women as “stunners,” or, later in his life, as “dolls.” My mother did not wear lipstick, her brassieres were unassertive, her hair was done up in a tight crown of braids that emphasized her wide white forehead. Her clothes lagged behind the fashion, being somewhat shapeless and regal; she was the sort of woman you could imagine wearing a rope of fine pearls, though I don’t think she ever did.
What I seem to be saying, I guess, is that I may have been a pretext, a blessing even, in that I furnished them with a ready-made quarrel, an insoluble problem that threw them back into their natural differences, where they may, in fact, have been more at ease. In all my years in our town, I encountered no one who was divorced, so it may be taken for granted that there were other couples living separate lives in one house, other men and women who had accepted the fact that there were words or acts that could never be forgiven, barriers between them never to be washed away.
It follows, unsurprisingly in such a story, that my father smoked and drank too much—though most of his friends did, too, whatever their situations. He had a stroke while still in his fifties, and died after several months in bed. And it was no surprise, either, that my mother nursed him through that time, kept him at home, where, instead of becoming tender and appreciative, he called her foul names, the syllables thickened by his misfortune but always decipherable to her, and to him, it seemed, quite gratifying.
At the funeral, a white-haired woman said to me, “Your mother is a saint.” I disliked her instantly. I was at that time in my second year of college. I had not joined, or been invited to join, my father’s fraternity. My friends were planning to be writers and actors, and were at present wits, dedicated time-wasters, savage social critics, and newborn atheists. I had no respect for people who behaved like saints. And, to be truthful, that was not what my mother aimed for, either. She was far enough from pious notions that she had never asked me, on any of my trips home, to go into my father’s room and try for a word of reconciliation with him. My mother was no fool.
She had been devoted to me—not a word that either of us would have used, but I think the right one—till I was nine years old. She had taught me herself. Then she had sent me away to school. This sounds like a recipe for disaster. The mother-coddled purple-faced lad, thrown suddenly amid the taunts, the ruthless assaults, of young savages. But I didn’t have a bad time, and to this day I’m not sure why. I was tall and strong for my age, and that may have helped. I think, though, that the atmosphere in our house, that climate of ill temper and ferocity and disgust coming from my often unseen father, must have made any other place seem reasonable, almost accepting. It was not a question of anybody’s making an effort, being nice to me. There was a name for me—it was Grape-Nuts. But almost everybody had a derogatory nickname; a boy with particularly smelly feet that did not seem to benefit from daily showers cheerfully put up with the name Stink. I got along. I wrote my mother comical letters, and she replied somewhat in kind, taking a mildly mocking tone about events in town and at church—I remember her describing a row over the right way to cut sandwiches for a ladies’ tea—and even managing to be humorous but not bitter about my father, whom she referred to as His Grace.
I have made my father the beast in my account so far, and my mother the rescuer and protector, and I believe this representation to be true. But, even before I left for school, they were not the only people in my story and the atmosphere in the house was not the only one I knew. What I have come to think of as the Great Drama of my life actually involved someone else.
Great Drama. It embarrasses me to have written that. I wonder if it sounds cheaply satirical or tiresomely self-aggrandizing. But then I think, Isn’t it normal for me to see my life that way, to talk about it that way, when you consider how I chose to make my living?
I became an actor. Surprising? Of course, in college I hung around with people who were active in the theatre, and in my final year I directed a play. There was a standing joke, which I had originated, about how I could manage a role by always keeping my unmarked profile to the audience and walking backward across the stage when necessary. But no such drastic maneuvers were needed.
In those days, there were regular plays on national radio, and a particularly ambitious program on Sunday evenings. Adaptations of novels. Shakespeare. Ibsen. My voice was naturally flexible, and with a bit of training it improved. I got small parts at first. But, by the time television put the whole business to rest, I was on almost every week and my name was known to a certain faithful, if never large, audience.
Once acting was over for me, my voice stood me in good stead, and I was able to get a job as an announcer, first in Winnipeg, then back in Toronto. For the last twenty years of my working life, I was the host of an eclectic musical show presented on weekday afternoons. I did not choose the selections, as people often assumed. I have a limited appreciation of music. But I crafted an agreeable, slightly quirky radio personality. The program received many letters. We heard from old people’s homes and homes for the blind, from people who regularly drove long or monotonous distances on business, from housewives alone in the middle of the day with the baking and the ironing, and from farmers in tractor cabs plowing or harrowing some sweeping acreage. All over the country.
There was a flattering outpouring when I at last retired. People said they felt as if they had lost a close friend or member of the family. What they meant was that a certain amount of time had been filled for them, reliably, five days a week. They had not been left adrift, and for this they were truly, embarrassingly grateful. And, surprisingly, I shared in their emotion. I had to be careful not to choke up as I read some of the letters on the air.
And yet memory of the program, and of myself, faded rapidly. New allegiances were formed. I made a complete break, refusing to chair charity auctions or give nostalgic speeches. My mother had died a few years earlier, after living to a great age, but I had not sold the family house, only rented it out. Now I prepared to sell it, and gave the tenants notice. I decided to live there myself for the time it took to get the place—particularly the garden—into shape.
I was not lonely as an adult. In addition to my audience, I had friends. I had women, too. Some women, of course, specialize in the kind of men they imagine are in need of bucking up—they are eager to sport those men around as a sign of their own munificence. I was on the watch for them. The woman I was closest to in those years was a receptionist at the station, a nice, sensible person, who had been left on her own with four children. There was some indication that we would move in together, once the youngest was off her hands. But the youngest was a daughter, who managed to have a child of her own without ever leaving home, and somehow our expectation, our affair, dwindled. We talked on the phone after I retired and moved back to my old home. I invited her to visit. Then there was a sudden announcement that she was getting married and going to live in Ireland. I was too knocked off my perch to ask whether the daughter and the baby were going, too.
The garden is a great mess. Old perennials still straggle up among the weeds; ragged leaves larger than umbrellas mark the place of a sixty- or seventy-year-old rhubarb bed, and a half-dozen apple trees remain, bearing wormy little apples of some variety whose name I don’t remember. The patches I clear look minute, yet the piles of weeds and brush I’ve collected are mountainous. They must, furthermore, be hauled away at my expense. The town no longer allows bonfires.
All this used to be looked after by a gardener named Pete. I have forgotten his last name. He dragged one leg after him and carried his head bent to one side. I don’t know if he had had an accident, or suffered a stroke. He worked slowly but diligently and was more or less always in a bad temper. My mother spoke to him with soft-voiced respect, but he did not think much of her proposals for the flower beds. And he disliked me because I was constantly riding my tricycle where I shouldn’t, and because he probably knew that I called him Sneaky Pete under my breath. I don’t know where I got that. Was it from a comic strip?
Another possible reason for his growling dislike has just occurred to me, and it’s odd that I didn’t think of it before. We were both flawed, the obvious victims of physical misfortune. You would think that such people would make common cause, but it just as often happens that they don’t. Each may be reminded by the other of something he’d sooner forget.
But I’m not sure that that was the case for me. My mother had arranged things so that most of the time I was seemingly quite unaware of my condition. She claimed that she was teaching me at home because of a bronchial ailment and the need to protect me from the onslaught of germs at school. Whether anybody other than me believed her I don’t know. And, as for my father’s hostility, that had so pervaded our house that I really don’t think I felt singled out by it.
And here, at the risk of repeating myself, I must say that I think my mother did the right thing. The emphasis on my one notable flaw, the goading and ganging up, would have caught me too young and with nowhere to hide. Things are different now, and the danger to a child afflicted as I was would be of receiving too much fuss and showy kindness, not taunts and isolation. But the life of those times took much of its liveliness, its wit and its folklore, as my mother likely knew, from pure viciousness.
Until a couple of decades ago—maybe more—there was another building on our property, a small cottage where Pete stored his tools and where various things that had once been of use to us were put out of the way until some decision was made about what to do with them. It was torn down shortly after Pete was replaced by an energetic young couple, Ginny and Franz, who brought their own up-to-date equipment in their truck. Later, they went into market gardening, but by that time they were able to supply their teen-age children to cut the grass, and my mother had lost interest in doing anything more.
But, to get back to the building—how I circle and dither around this subject—there was a time, before it became just a storage space, when people lived in it. First, there was a couple named the Bells, who were the cook-housekeeper and the gardener-chauffeur for my grandparents. My grandfather owned a Packard, which he never learned to drive. Both the Bells and the Packard were gone by my time, but the place was still referred to as Bells’ Cottage.
For a few years in my childhood, Bells’ Cottage was inhabited by a woman named Sharon Suttles, who lived there with her daughter, Nancy. She had come to town with her husband, a doctor who was setting up his first practice, and within a year or so he had died, of blood poisoning. She’d remained in town with her baby, having no money and, as was said, “no people.” This must have meant no people who could help her or who had offered to take her in. At some point, she got a job in my father’s insurance office, and came to live in Bells’ Cottage. I am not certain about when this happened. How old was Nancy when I first knew her? Could she have been only three? Four, most likely. She was half a year younger than me. But I have no memory of them moving in, or of the cottage when it was empty. It was painted, at that time, a dusty pink, and I always thought of that as Mrs. Suttles’s choice, as if she could not have lived in a house of any other color.
I called her Mrs. Suttles, of course. But I was aware of her first name, as I seldom was of any grownup woman’s. Sharon was an unusual name in those days. And it had a connection with a hymn I knew from Sunday school, which my mother allowed me to attend because there was close monitoring and no recess. We sang hymns whose words were projected onto a screen, and I think that most of us, even before we learned to read, got some idea of the verses from their shape in front of us.
By cool Siloam’s shady rill
How sweet the lily grows!
How sweet the breath, beneath the hill,
Of Sharon’s dewy rose!
I can’t believe that there was actually a rose in a corner of the screen, and yet I saw one—I see one—of a faded pink, whose aura was transferred to the name Sharon.
I don’t mean to say that I fell in love with Sharon Suttles. I had been in love, when barely out of my infancy, with a tomboyish young maid named Bessie, who took me out on jaunts in my stroller and pushed me so high on the park swings that I nearly went over the top. And, sometime later, with a friend of my mother’s, who had a velvet collar on her coat and a voice that seemed somehow related to it. Sharon Suttles was not the type one would fall in love with in that way. She was not velvet-voiced, and she had no interest in showing me a good time. She was tall and very thin for a mother—there were no slopes on her. Her hair was the color of toffee, brown with golden edges, and in the time of the Second World War she was still wearing it bobbed. Her lipstick was bright red and thick-looking, like that of the movie stars I had seen on posters, and around her house she usually wore a kimono, on which I believe there were some pale birds—storks?—whose legs reminded me of hers. She spent a lot of her time lying on the couch, smoking, and sometimes, to amuse us or herself, she would kick those legs straight up in the air, one after the other, and send a feathery slipper flying. When she was not mad at us, her voice was throaty and exasperated, not unfriendly but in no way tender or wise or reproving, with the full tones, the suggestion of sadness, that I expected in a mother.
“You dumb twerps,” she called us.
“Get out of here and let me have some peace, you dumb twerps.”
She would already be lying on the couch with an ashtray on her stomach, while we scooted Nancy’s toy cars across the floor. How much peace did she want?
She and Nancy ate peculiar foods at irregular hours, and when she went into the kitchen to fix herself a snack she never came back with cocoa or graham crackers for us. On the other hand, Nancy was not forbidden to spoon vegetable soup out of the can, thick as pudding, or to grab handfuls of Rice Krispies straight from the box.
Was Sharon Suttles my father’s mistress? With her job provided for her, and the pink cottage rent-free?
My mother spoke of her kindly, not infrequently mentioning the tragedy that had befallen her, with the death of her young husband. Whatever maid we had at the time was sent over with presents of raspberries or new potatoes or shelled peas, fresh from our garden. I remember the peas particularly. I can still see Sharon Suttles—lying on the couch—flipping them into the air with her forefinger, saying, “What am I supposed to do with these?”
“You cook them on the stove with water,” I said helpfully.
As for my father, I never saw him with her. He left for work rather late and knocked off early, to keep up with his various sporting activities.
There were certainly days when Nancy’s mother was not at home—not in her kimono on the couch—and it could be presumed that on those days she was not smoking or relaxing but doing regular work in my father’s office, that legendary place that I had never seen and where I would certainly not be welcome.
At such times, a grouchy person named Mrs. Codd sat in the cottage kitchen, listening to radio soap operas and eating anything on hand. It never occurred to me that, since Nancy and I usually spent all our time together, my mother could have offered to keep an eye on her as well as me, or ask our maid to do so, to save the hiring of Mrs. Codd.
It does seem to me now that we played together all our waking hours. This would be from the time I was about five years old until I was around eight and a half. We played mostly outdoors—the days we spent in Nancy’s cottage annoying her mother must have been rainy ones. We had to stay away from the vegetable garden and try not to knock down the flowers, but we were constantly in and out of the berry patches and under the apple trees and in the absolutely wild area beyond the cottage, which was where we constructed our air-raid shelters and hideouts from the Germans.
There was actually a training base to the north of our town, and real planes were constantly flying over us. And, because of all these reminders of the war, we chose to make of Pete not just a local enemy but a Nazi, and of his lawnmower a tank. Sometimes we lobbed apples at him from the crab-apple tree that sheltered our bivouac. One time, he complained to my mother, and it cost us a trip to the beach.
She often took Nancy with us to the beach. Not to the one with the waterslide, just down the cliff from our house, but to a smaller one that you had to drive to, where there were no rowdy swimmers or water-skiers. In fact, she taught us both to swim. Nancy was more fearless and reckless than I was, which annoyed me, so once I pulled her under an incoming wave and sat on her head. She kicked and held her breath and fought her way free.
“Nancy is a little girl,” my mother scolded. “She is a little girl, and you should treat her like a little sister.”
Which was exactly what I was doing. I did not think of her as weaker than me. Smaller, yes, but sometimes that was an advantage. When we climbed trees, she could hang like a monkey from branches that would not support me. And, in one fight, she bit me on my restraining arm and drew blood. That time, we were separated, supposedly for a week, but our glowering from windows soon turned into longing and pleading, and the ban was lifted.
In winter, we were allowed to roam the whole property, building snow forts stocked with sticks of firewood and arsenals of snowballs to fling at anyone who came along. Which few did, ours being a dead-end street. We had to make a snowman, just so that we could pummel him.
What about sex games, you may wonder. And, yes, we had those, too. I recall our hiding, one extremely hot day, in a tent that had been pitched—I have no idea why—behind the cottage. We had crawled in there on purpose to explore each other. The canvas had a certain erotic but infantile smell, like the underclothes that we removed. Various ticklings excited us, then made us cross, and we were soon drenched in sweat, itchy, and ashamed. When we got ourselves out of there, we felt more separate than usual and oddly wary of each other. I don’t remember if the same thing happened again, with the same result, but I would not be surprised if it did.
I cannot bring Nancy’s face to mind as clearly as I can her mother’s. I think her coloring was, or would in time be, much the same. Fair hair, bleached by so much time in the sun, that would eventually go brown. Very rosy, even reddish, skin. Yes. I see her cheeks red, almost as if colored in crayon. That, too, owing to the time we spent outdoors, and to her decisive energy.
In my house, it goes without saying, all rooms except those specified to us were forbidden. We would not have dreamed of going upstairs or into the front parlor or the dining room. But in the cottage everywhere was allowed, and the cellar was a good place to go when even we tired of the afternoon heat. There was no railing alongside the cellar steps, and we could take more and more daring jumps to land on the hard dirt floor. And when we got bored with that we could climb into the old buggy and bounce up and down without springs, whipping an imaginary horse. Once, we tried to smoke a cigarette filched from Nancy’s mother’s pack. (We would not have dared take more than one.) Nancy managed better with it than I did, having had more practice.
There was also, in the cellar, an old wooden dresser, on which sat several tins of mostly dried-up paint and varnish, an assortment of stiffened paintbrushes, stirring sticks, and boards on which colors had been tried or brushes wiped. A few tins had their lids still on tight, and these we pried open, with some difficulty, and discovered paint that could be stirred to an active thickness. Then we spent time trying to loosen up the brushes by pushing them down into the paint and hitting them against the boards of the dresser, making a mess but not getting much of a result. One of the tins, however, proved to contain turpentine, which worked much better. Now we began to paint with those bristles that had become usable. I was eight by then, and could read and write to some extent, thanks to my mother. Nancy could, too, because she had finished the second grade.
“Don’t look till I’m finished,” I said to her, and pushed her slightly out of the way. I had thought of something to paint. She was busy anyway, smashing her own brush around in a can of red paint.
I wrote, “NAZI WAS IN THIS SELLEAR.”
“Now look,” I said.
She had her back to me and was wielding the paintbrush on herself.
She said, “I’m busy.”
When she turned around, her face was generously smeared with red paint.
“Now do I look like you?” she cried, drawing the brush down her cheek. “Now do I look like you?”
She was overjoyed, as if she had managed something magical, a radiant transformation. You’d have thought that this was something she’d been hoping for all her life.
Now I must try to explain what happened in the next several minutes.
In the first place, I thought she looked horrible.
I did not believe that any part of my face was red. And, in fact, it wasn’t. The half of it that was colored was the usual mulberry birthmark color.
But this was not how I saw it in my mind. I believed my birthmark to be a soft brown color.
My mother had not done anything so foolish, so dramatic, as to ban mirrors from our house. But mirrors can be hung too high for a young child to see himself in them. That was certainly so in the bathroom. The only one in which I could readily see my reflection hung in the front hall, which was dim in the daytime and weakly lit at night. That must have been where I got the idea that half my face was a dull, mild sort of color, almost mousy, a furry shadow.
This was what I was used to, and what made Nancy’s paint such an insult, a leering joke. I pushed her against the dresser as hard as I could and ran away from her, up the stairs. I think I was running to find a mirror, or even a person who could tell me that she was wrong. And, once that was confirmed, I could sink my teeth into pure hatred of her. I would punish her. I had no time, just then, to think how.
I ran through the cottage—Nancy’s mother was nowhere to be seen, though it was Saturday—and out to the gravel, then the flagstone path between stalwart rows of gladioli. I saw my mother rise from the wicker chair where she sat reading on our back veranda.
“Not red,” I howled with gulps of angry tears. “I’m not red.” She came down the steps with a shocked face but, so far, no understanding. Then Nancy ran out of the cottage behind me, all garish and amazed.
My mother understood.
“You nasty little beast,” she cried at Nancy, in a voice that I had never heard. A loud, wild, shaking voice.
“Don’t you come near us. Don’t you dare. You are a bad, bad girl. You have no decent human kindness in you, do you? You never have been taught—”
Nancy’s mother came out of the cottage then, with streaming wet hair in her eyes. She was holding a towel.
“Jeez, can’t I even wash my hair around here—”
My mother screamed at her, too.
“Don’t you dare use that language in front of my son and me—”
“Oh, blah-blah,” Nancy’s mother said immediately. “Just listen to you yelling your head off—”
My mother took a deep breath.
“I am—not—yelling—my—head off. I just want to tell your cruel child she will never be welcome in our house again. She is a cruel, spiteful, cruel child to mock my little boy for an accident of nature that he cannot help. You have never taught her anything, any manners. She did not even know enough to thank me when I took her with us to the beach—doesn’t even know how to say please and thank you. No wonder, with a mother flaunting around in her wrapper—”
All this poured out of my mother as if there were a torrent of rage, of pain, of absurdity in her that would never stop. Even though by now I was pulling at her dress and saying, “Don’t. Don’t.”
Then things got even worse, as tears rose and swallowed her words and she choked and shook.
Nancy’s mother had pushed the wet hair out of her eyes and stood there observing.
“I’ll tell you one thing,” she said. “You carry on like this and they’re going to take you to the loony bin. Can I help it if your husband hates you and you got a kid with a messed-up face?”
My mother held her head in both hands. She cried, “Oh—oh,” as if pains were devouring her.
The woman who worked for us at that time—Velma—had come out on the veranda and was saying, “Missus. Come on, Missus.” Then she raised her voice and called to Nancy’s mother. “You go on. You go in your house. You scat.”
“Oh, I will. Don’t worry, I will. Who do you think you are, telling me what to do? And how do you like working for an ol’ witch with bats in the belfry?” Then she turned on Nancy. “How the livin’ Jesus am I ever going to get you cleaned up?” After that, she raised her voice again to make sure I could hear her. “He’s a suck. Look at him hangin’ on to his ol’ lady. You’re not ever going to play with him again. Ol’ lady’s suck.”
All this time, Nancy was stricken. Not a sound out of her.
Velma on one side and me on the other, we tried to ease my mother back into the house. She had stopped making the terrible noise. She straightened herself and spoke in an unnaturally cheerful voice that would carry as far as the cottage. “Fetch me my garden shears, would you, Velma? While I’m out here, I might as well trim the glads. Some of them are downright wilted.”
By the time she was finished, they were all over the path, not one standing, wilted or blooming.
All this must have happened on a Saturday, as I said, because Nancy’s mother was there and so was Velma, who did not come on Sundays. By Monday, or maybe sooner, the cottage was empty. Perhaps Velma got hold of my father in the clubhouse or on the greens or wherever he was, and he came home, impatient and rude but soon compliant. Compliant, that is, about Nancy and her mother getting out. I don’t think Nancy’s mother would have made any fuss about leaving.
The fact that I would never see Nancy again dawned on me slowly. At first, I was angry with her and didn’t care. Then, when I inquired about her, my mother must have put me off with some vague reply, not wanting to recall the anguished scene to me or herself. It was at that time that she became serious about sending me away to school and began looking around for a suitable place. She probably suspected that once I got used to being at a boys’ school my memory of having had a female playmate would grow dim and seem unworthy, even ridiculous.
On the day after my father’s funeral, my mother surprised me by asking if I would take her out to dinner (though, of course, she would really be the one taking me) at a restaurant some miles along the lakeshore.
“I just feel I’ve been penned up in this house forever,” she said. “I need some air.”
In the restaurant, she looked around discreetly and announced that there was nobody she knew.
“Will you join me in a glass of wine?” she said.
Had we driven all this way so that she could drink wine in public?
When the wine had come, and we had ordered, she said, “There’s something I think you ought to know.”
These may be among the most unpleasant words that a person ever has to hear. There is a pretty good chance that whatever you ought to know will be burdensome, and that in the telling of it there will be the suggestion that other people have had to bear that burden, while you have been let off lightly, all this while.
“My father isn’t my real father?” I said. “Goody.”
“Don’t be silly. You remember your little friend Nancy?”
I actually did not remember, for a moment. Then I said, “Vaguely.”
At this time, all my conversations with my mother seemed to call for strategy. I had to keep myself lighthearted, jokey, unmoved. In her voice and face was a lurking sorrow. She never complained about her own plight, but there were so many innocent and ill-used people in the stories she told me, so many outrages, that I was surely meant, at the very least, to go back to my friends and my lucky life with a heavier heart.
I would not coöperate. All she wanted, possibly, was some sign of sympathy, or maybe of physical tenderness. I would not grant that. She was a fastidious woman not yet contaminated by age, but I backed off from her as if she were harboring a contagious mold. I particularly backed off from any reference to my affliction, which, it seemed to me, she especially cherished—the shackle I could not loosen that had bound me to her from the womb.
“You would probably have known about it if you were at home,” she said. “But it happened shortly after we sent you off to school.”
Nancy and her mother had gone to live in an apartment that belonged to my father, on the Square. There, one bright fall morning, Nancy’s mother had come upon her daughter in the bathroom, using a razor blade to slice into her cheek. There was blood on the floor and in the sink and here and there on Nancy. But she had not given up on her purpose or made a sound of pain.
How did my mother know all this? I can only suppose it was a town drama, too gory, in the literal sense of the word, not to be related in detail.
Nancy’s mother wrapped a towel around her and somehow got her to the hospital. There was no ambulance in our town at that time. She probably flagged down a car on the Square. Why didn’t she phone my father? No matter—she didn’t. The cuts were not deep and the blood loss was not so great, despite the splatter—there was no injury to any major blood vessel. Nancy’s mother kept berating the child and asking if she was right in the head. “You’re just my luck,” she said. “A crazy kid like you.”
“If there had been social workers around at that time,” my mother said, “the poor little thing would have been made a ward of the Children’s Aid.”
“It was the same cheek,” she said. “Like yours.”
I had tried to keep silent, pretending not to know what she was talking about. But I had to speak.
“The paint was over her whole face,” I said.
“Yes. But she was more careful this time. She cut just that one cheek. Trying the best she could to make herself look like you.”
This time, I did manage to keep quiet.
“If she had been a boy, it would have been different,” my mother said. “But what an awful thing for a girl.”
“Plastic surgeons can do remarkable things nowadays.”
“Oh, maybe they can.”
After a moment, she added, “Such deep feelings children have.”
“They get over that.”
She said that she did not know what had become of them, the child or her mother. She was glad that I had never asked, because she would have hated to have to tell me anything so distressing, when I was still young.
I don’t know what bearing it has on anything, but I have to say that my mother changed completely in her old age, becoming ribald and fanciful. She claimed that my father had been a magnificent lover and that she herself had been “a pretty bad girl.” She announced that I should have married “that girl who sliced up her face,” because neither of us would have been able to crow over the other about having done a good deed. Each of us, she cackled, would be just as much a mess as the other.
I agreed. I liked her then quite a bit.
A few days ago, I was stung by a wasp while clearing out some rotten apples under one of the old trees. The sting was on my eyelid, which rapidly swelled closed. I drove myself to the hospital, using the other eye (the afflicted one was on the “good” side of my face) and was surprised to be told that I had to stay overnight. The reason was that, once I was given an injection, both eyes would be bandaged, in order to avoid strain on the one that could see.
I had what they call a restless night, waking often. Of course, it is never really quiet in a hospital, and in that short time without my sight it seemed as if my hearing had grown more acute. When certain footsteps came into my room, I knew that they were those of a woman, and I had the feeling that she was not a nurse.
“Are you by any chance awake?” she said. “I’m your reader.” I stretched out an arm, believing that she had come to read what are known as the vital signs.
“No, no,” she said, in a small persistent voice. “I’ve come to read to you, if you’d like. Sometimes people get bored lying there with their eyes closed.”
“Do they choose the reading matter, or do you?”
“They do. I carry a whole batch of things around with me.”
“I like poetry,” I said.
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic.”
I realized that this was true, and I knew why. I have some experience of reading poetry aloud, over the radio, and of listening to other trained voices, and there are some styles of reading I find pleasing, and some I abhor.
“Then we could have a game,” she said, as if I had just explained this. “I could read you a line or two, then stop and see if you can do the next line. O.K.?”
It struck me that she might be quite a young person, anxious to get some takers, to be a success at this job.
I said O.K. But nothing in Old English, I told her.
“The king sits in Dunfermline town,” she began, in a questioning voice.
“Drinking the blood-red wine,” I chimed in, and we proceeded in good humor. She read well enough, though at a rather childlike speed. I began to enjoy the sound of my own voice, now and then falling into a bit of an actorly flourish.
“That’s nice,” she said.
“I will show you how the lilies grow, / On the banks of Italie.”
“Is it grow or blow?” she said. “I don’t actually have a book with that in. I should remember, though. Never mind, it’s lovely. I always liked your voice on the radio.”
“Really? Did you listen?”
“Of course. Lots of people did.”
She stopped feeding me lines and just let me go ahead. You can imagine. “Dover Beach” and “Kubla Khan” and “West Wind” and “Wild Swans” and “Doomed Youth.” Well, maybe not all of them, and not all the way to the end.
“You’re getting short of breath,” she said. Suddenly, her quick little hand was laid on my mouth. And then her face, or the side of her face, on mine. “I have to go. Here’s just one more before I go. I’ll make it harder by not starting at the beginning: ‘None will long mourn for you, / Pray for you, miss you, / Your place left vacant—’ ”
“I’ve never heard that,” I said.
“Sure. You win.”
By now, I suspected something. She seemed distracted, slightly cross. I heard the geese calling as they flew over the hospital. They take practice runs at this time of year, then the runs get longer, and one day they’re gone. And then I was waking up, in that state of surprise, indignation, that follows a convincing dream. I wanted to go back and have her lay her face once more on mine. Her cheek on mine. But dreams are not so obliging.
When I could see again, and was at home, I looked for the lines she had left me with in my dream. I went through a couple of anthologies but did not find them there. I began to suspect that the lines did not belong to a real poem at all, but had just been devised in the dream, to confound me.
Devised by whom?
But later in the fall, when I was getting some old books ready to donate to a charity bazaar, a piece of brownish paper fell out of one of them, with lines on it written in pencil. It was not my mother’s handwriting, and I hardly think it would be my father’s. Whose, then? I don’t know. Whoever it was had written the author’s name at the end: Walter de la Mare. No title. And not a poet I have any particular knowledge of. But I must have seen the poem at some time, maybe not in this copy, maybe in a textbook. I must have buried the words in some deep cubbyhole of my mind. And why? Just so that I could be teased by them, or by a determined girl-child phantom, in a dream?
There is no sorrow
Time heals never;
No loss, betrayal,
Balm for the soul, then,
Though grave shall sever
Lover from loved
And all they share;
See, the sweet sun shines,
The shower is over,
Flowers preen their beauty,
The day how fair!
Brood not too closely
On love, on duty;
Friends long forgotten
May wait you where
Life with death
Brings all to an issue;
None will long mourn for you,
Pray for you, miss you,
Your place left vacant,
You not there.
The poem didn’t depress me. In some peculiar way, it seemed to back up the decision I had made by that time: not to sell the property but to stay.
Something had happened here. In your life there are a few places, or maybe only one place, where something has happened. And then there are the other places, which are just other places.
Of course, I know that if I had spotted Nancy years later—on the subway, for instance, in Toronto, both of us bearing our recognizable marks—we would in all probability have managed only one of those embarrassed and meaningless conversations, hurriedly listing useless autobiographical facts. I would have noted the mended, nearly normal cheek or the still obvious scar, but it would not have come into the conversation. Children might have been mentioned. Not unlikely, whether her face had been fixed or not. Grandchildren. Jobs. I might not have had to tell her about mine. We would have been shocked, hearty, dying to get away.
You think that would have changed things?
The answer is of course, and for a while, and never.