It was a dark blue dawn the moon lingered when the horse’s loud neighing and stomping woke me up. Squinting, I saw what seemed to be a man’s shadow flickering inside the stable. There was no fire blazing but rather the quavering of a silhouette against the barn slats. I slid my fingers under the lip of the wood framed window and lifted trying not to wake my stepbrother Jackson who was asleep in the bed beside me. I managed to pry a two-inch crack letting in the smell of wet grass and dirt. Echoes of the horses rearing the cold ground grew louder. I could hear a humming mumble coming from the shadow that resonated like that of a man’s voice. A thief of some sort must be trying to steal the horses, I thought to myself.
When my stepfather had gone off to war he left behind an unloaded rifle. He showed me where the bullets were and said, “Only use these in a dire emergency son.” He told me, “I was now the man of the house.” Like the horses, I was part scared and part galled, as I pictured a masked man galloping away with Chief and Pony. Living in the countryside outside of Philadelphia in the 1940’s, I’d only my imagination to entertain me. My skin tingled with the notion of becoming a hero, saving our house and horses from disaster.
I threw on some dungarees and a shirt; Jackson was still snoring as I crept out of the room and tiptoed downstairs. The wooden steps groaned like an old dog lying down for a nap. I feared I‘d be discovered and my chances for saving our house ruined. At the base of the stairs I turned the mahogany handle of the closet and rummaged through the dark. There it was lying peaceful behind a pile of worn blankets. I lit the lantern sitting by the front door my hands trembling over the wick. It occurred to me, at that very moment. I couldn’t really shoot a man—I’d simply carry the rifle and forget about finding the bullets. Reaching for the door, I blew out the lantern and slipped into the pale darkness. I shuddered from nerves as the early morning air that funneled down my neck. Taking short squatty steps, I weaved a path towards the horses with my gun. The crickets chirped and a mockingbird whistled the morning was still asleep. In the silence I became aware that the horses had settled down. Had the thief fled, I wondered? Inching my way closer the eerie silhouette returned looming over the barn walls and the rafters. My heart pounded I considered a retreat but held tight to my mettle my breath heaving.
“Jimmy? Jimmy is that you?” I didn’t recognize the voice and continued squeezing the butt of the rifle, lifting it as if ready to shoot. A gigantic man with a flash light walked towards me. I swallowed and tried to stretch myself taller.
“Jimmy…” The voice moved closer as I stood firm.
“Jimmy, it’s me.”
“Dad?” How did my step father get in the barn, he was supposed to be fighting the Japanese. I lowered the gun in disbelief.
“Jimmy! Come here son.” His voice sounded raspy as he took my rifle and leaned it against the barn door.
“What are you doing here?” I remember feeling as if I was in one of those dreams where dead people are walking around. My mother had mentioned “the war was ending and your father will be home soon.” She never said when.
“Does my mother know?” I asked. At that time, I never referred to my mother as a relative. But at least I had stopped calling her Kate.
“No. You and I are gonna surprise her.” His bright blue eyes had grown small lines around them and he was much thinner than I remembered. But his smile was the same. The smile that made you feel as if you were surrounded by a circle of strong men. The kind of men that would stick up for you if you were in trouble. “Come on give me a hand.” We walked into the barn where two duffle bags with gray patches rested on a stack of hay. We snatched them up and blew out the lantern. My father bid the horses goodnight and assured them he would be back for a ride later.
“Now when we get inside keep as quiet as you can son, okay? You tell mom, you captured yourself a wayward soldier. I’ll hide out in the kitchen. Got it?” He spoke with a gentle magnanimity.
“Yes sir.” I felt privileged; I was the first one my father saw after coming home from the war.
Jackson, his real son, was missing the whole darn thing. I felt a twinge of guilt. Crouching towards the house our exhales hovered like ghostly escorts.
“Set it down over here.” My dad whispered pointing to the living room. We placed his bags beside the tired green velvet couch. “I’ll wait in there.” He winked and headed for the kitchen.
When I reached the top of the stairs, I trembled with an inner chill the kind you feel facing an unexpected snow storm unprepared. I’d never had to rouse my mother from sleep before and it made me nervous. I tapped on her bedroom door for a few seconds then it occurred to me, she wouldn’t hear me. When she was thirteen she endured a boating accident that left her slightly hard of hearing. She wasn’t deaf; she just couldn’t decipher muffled sounds or whispering. At various time this was convenient, like when Jackson and I would sneak home after curfew. Unfortunately, this was not one of those moments. I opened the bedroom door and tiptoed in. She was asleep with her black hair draped over the pillows. I thought how beautiful and it seemed longer than normal but she always wore her hair tied in a scarf or tucked in a bun. I stared for a few seconds before nudging her arm.
“Psst. mother. Mother, you need to wake up.” I hoped she wouldn’t be startled by the sight of me hovering.
“Mother there’s a soldier down stairs, you…”
“Jimmy, what is it? Her green eyes sprung open and she blinked as if trying to tune her brain, Her eyebrows knitted together. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a soldier, I let him in, he says he’s lost.” I faked being afraid trying not to smirk.
“A soldier! Wait outside my room--hurry!” She flung out of bed as I left the room. Within minutes she reappeared fiddling with her hair.
“Come on.” She grabbed my hand.
“A soldier? A soldier.” She repeated down the stairs as if I’d told her for the first time. “Did he tell you his name?” Panic had wedged into her voice.
“No mother, no.“ I bite the insides of my cheeks trying not to smile. “What if he’s dangerous?” I whispered.
“God!” On the last step she whispered, “Grab the rifle, the bullets are in the chest under the blankets.” She let go of my shoulders, and lifted her chin. I waited while she walked into the kitchen.
“Sir, my son tells me--oh my god-- Warren!”
I remember hearing sniffling, and my stepfather saying “I didn’t know when I’d get here.” I stood huddled in the hallway imagining my mother dissolving into a pile of tears. I heard kissing and stifled sobs--I knew this moment would be forever etched in my memory.
“Jimmy, you’re rotten!” My mother laughed as she flew around the corner. “I can‘t believe this. Honey go get Jackson will you?” She started to cry again as I left.
“You’re home.” I heard her say.
Fourteen Years Later
“This is my stop Jimmy. Have a good Christmas, stay outta trouble.” Samuel, my army buddy, said shaking my hand. His dark ebony frame hovered as he lowered his bag from the overhead. We were on our way home from goofing off in Japan where we had been commissioned for two years. The army wasn’t a fit for either of us.
“Yeah, you too. Stay in touch.” I said knowing the likelihood was slim. Samuel had wanted to bring his Japanese girl back and marry her. It was regrettable that neither of their worlds would accept a bi-racial marriage and so she stayed behind. I pondered how different Japanese women were from woman I knew in Philadelphia. They were submissive demur, which a part of me enjoyed, made me feel tougher than I was. Yet I missed the American girls with their cherry red lips and strapless dresses. They had no qualms about teasing a fellow and making him feel as if he’d made a fool of himself.
As the train rolled forward I noticed it had started to snow. Tiny feather like flakes swirled suspended in air and my thoughts wandered into the past. I was coming home. I reminisced about that night my father walked fifteen miles from the train station after fighting the war. It bothered me to think of him walking alone on those desolate country roads that led to our house. And here I was being picked up at the very same station; Paoli, a small town west of Philly. I hadn’t fought a thing, except my desire for Japanese women and an occasional hang over. My father had fought a war, been in battles, watched his buddies blow up or become legless or blind. I recalled asking about details of the war but he’d make a curt comment and change the subject. I supposed he’d seen enough of death and didn’t care to revise the memories.
It took six months before my father grew into his old self again. It occurred to me I had little to recover from. During those six months he was sullen and often sat under our big maple tree that boasted enormous red leaves in the autumn and housed a tree fort Jackson and I had made from scraps of wood. My stepfather was a muscular man sturdy and ancient like a tree. He had married mom after she graduated nursing school. “She was seated across from me on the train. She was beautiful with a wide smile, green eyes, and black hair.” He told me. “I’m from the dark Irish,“ My mother would say. In a picture of them as a young couple she wore a green derby hat with a netted veil that hung above the bridge of her nose; I thought she looked like a movie star
I glanced at my watch and realized I had over an hour before the train would be at my stop. I was restless from sitting and decided to go to the bar for a beer.
“A can of malt please?” I said to the attendant. The train was packed but I wasn’t in the mood to talk to strangers or to pick up women. I was thrilled to be back in the states and to be out of the Army. I grinned thinking how much I despised superiors barking orders at me. Stupid orders that made no sense to me.
My stepbrother, Jackson, was a quirk of a guy and I had missed his lackadaisical nature. His mom died hours after giving birth to him yet despite this tragedy, Jackson was funnier than hell, always made me laugh. He should’ve been on the radio in an Abbot and Costello routine. His biggest problem was his fear of girls, which according to his letters, he‘d overcome. Jackson had reddish brown hair that jutted in all directions. As kids he refused to comb it. He had an irrational aversion to bathing. This was one of our brotherly differences.
I surmised my affinity for cleanliness and structure stemmed from spending the first seven years in an orphanage; where a strict daily scrubbing occurred. The women in that place who cooked and cleaned for fifty some odd kids, were as mean as bulls with their scrotums tied up. They’d whack you around whenever their hormones flared or if you happened to get under their skin, which I did with a constant frequency. Their commitment to God confused me—I thought perhaps that’s what made them mean.
I finished the beer, tucked my thoughts away and went back to my seat. Finally we arrived at the Paoli station. The steel doors screeched opened and a few flakes of snow fluttered past my shoulders. I stepped onto the platform and looked around for my brother.
“Jimmy.” Jackson shouted, waving his huge palm through the air. He looked as disheveled as usual. Shirt shooting out from under his jacket his boots half unlaced.
“Looking pretty sharp there soldier This it?” He asked grabbing one of my bags.
“Yeah. Good to see you.” We shook hands nodding at one another. Wading through the throngs I felt anticipation in the air.
“Glad you got home in time for Christmas. You can help with the tree, I know that’s your favorite thing.” Jackson laughed and patted me on the back.
“Right.” I smiled. We both knew I hated the holidays. “How‘s mom?”
“Good. Everybody‘s good. Dad wanted to come with me but he needed to finish chopping wood before more snow hits. Besides you know dad, he‘s not much for reunions.” Jackson grinned. “Hey you remember Sophie Zamaroni?”
“Yeah, we wrote to each other while I was in Japan. In her last letter it sounded like she’d met someone.” When I had read that I was disheartened despite my harem of Japanese females.
“Oh yeah, that guy was me.” Jackson said in a serious voice. I thought well, good for him after all he was here and I was thousands of miles away drowning my sorrows in sake. “Just kidding.” He laughed hearty and slapped my arm. “She’s through with that creep and has been asking about you, Jimmy.”
“Yeah, she came by the house a few times.”
“I’ll be damned.”
On the ride home Jackson filled me in on family and friends; then dived into a dissertation about his wife. He had married while I was away—shocked the hell out of me. As we rolled over the gravel driveway to the house, I laughed, it looked the same, desperate for paint and repairs, a dilapidated shed hunkered under the carport. The trees had grown taller and stood barren nesting the snow that had accumulated. I opened the front door and gazed at the worn red paisley rug and the green couch, neither had budged, they had remained in the same spot for the past twenty some years. The mirror with the thick wood frame hung where it had been since I was ten; next to the century old lamp. A pile of wood leaned against the brick fireplace. In the kitchen, dirty dishes were piled in the sink, probably from dinner the night before.
“Jimmy?” My mother said, coming down the stairs. She looked tired. Pieces of her hair drifted down her cheek bones.
“Hello mother.” I mustered a causal hug.
My mother and I were somehow strangers. There were piles of unspoken memories crammed in a closet, neither of us dared open. After she married my stepfather and they brought me home from the orphanage there was a steady stream of kids; as one got out of diapers another baby would be on its way. Mary was the first, then Paul, Patrick, and finally Gretchen. There were six of us by the time I’d reached the seventh grade. Jackson and I were surrounded by sisters and brothers who’d had the good fortune of having both parents from the get go. I envied that privilege but never resented my siblings. I coveted the ease in which they lived among my mother.
“Are you hungry?” She asked.
“I’ll make you a sandwich.” She walked to the kitchen. Our conversation stilted.
“Hey son.” My stepfather said rounding the kitchen corner.
“Dad.” He clasped his hand over mine. “I told you the army wasn’t your calling.” We laughed.
“You were right.”
I thought back to our conversation the night I told him I was signing up.
“Dad, I’m going to join the army.”
“Why Jimmy? Stay here--work with me. The army won’t suit you son, you’d have to get up too early.” He smiled. “Besides there’s always a war brewing and that’s ugly business.” .
“I need to get away. I need to see things.”
“Seeing the world from inside a soldier’s uniform is no way to see anything.”
Like most young men, I didn’t listen to parental advice. My mother had been furious with me, which felt good. It was my turn to abandon her. I fantasized about falling in love with a girl and never returning. I was eighteen then, what did I know? The night before I was shipped off to boot camp I got drunk on whiskey and had my first official argument with my mother.
“Jimmy I want to talk to you.”
“I want you to have something.” Her face was red as if she’d been crying. Her black hair disheveled--she had a white handkerchief in her hands, twisting it around her fingers.
“Jimmy I realize you don’t understand certain choices I made…and when you come home we’ll talk. You can go to school, you should be going to school rather…”
“What I do is my business. You don’t have to bother yourself.”
“Bother myself? Is that what you think, that I’m bothered by you?”
“I am too. I’m tired of the silence between us. Here.” She handed me a tiny black and white photo.
“Who’s this.” I asked, but her eyes had already told me.
“Your father, James Muldoon. Warren has been a good father to you--I figured you were afraid it would hurt him if you asked questions.” She wiped her tears with a white hanky.
“Look mother, I…I don’t have any questions.” I fondled the worn picture, studied the oddly recognizable face. “I look like him.”
“He was very handsome. You have his bronze complexion and brown eyes.”
By this time, the alcohol was wearing off and I didn’t want to feel.
“Here.” I handed her back the photo.
“I’ll keep it for you son.” She said as I walked away.
“Drop your bags upstairs after you eat. We’ve got a tree to cut.”
“Thanks for the sandwich.” I took the plate to the sink and snapped back to the present. Walking up the old wooden stairs remnants of the past loomed, I dropped off my gear in the bedroom where I had imagined my stepfather to be a horse thief. There were blankets stacked in a corner and the aged beds Jackson and I slept on as kids. The dingy lights cast a hue to the room as if preserving the old way of life. I shut them off and closed the door.
“Let‘s go!” I shouted scurrying down the steps.
It was time to forage the forest behind our house to claim a Christmas Tree. This was tradition, a revered ritual my stepfather started. He would be the master of ceremonies hacking at the base of some huge pine. The rest of us would help drag it back to the house.
Swaddled in scarves and woolen caps, the eight of us crunched over the frozen ground, our footsteps reverberating through conversations. The black sky dazzled with stars that flickered like thousands of tiny candles. I pointed out constellations as we walked through the sinuous trails of trees; breathing the crisp air, a harbinger of winter’s presence.
“How about this guy?” My mother said, shining her flashlight on a ten foot pine standing amid a cluster. She had a habit of assigning gender to nonhuman things; cars, plants, trees.
“That’s big but what about this one?” I asked, of a tree standing alone on a small null. Something in me always felt bad for anything that lived alone at Christmas, including trees. Paul and Gretchen agreed with me. Gretchen was the youngest and my ardent fan. She wrote to me daily while I was away.
“Yeah mom, this one is great.” Mary agreed.
“Not full enough,” my mother shouted back.
“Sorry Jimmy, looks like you two are out voted.” Jackson yelled.
“Yeah okay. Come on Gretchen.”
As my stepfather hacked at the chosen tree, I weaved a story in my head.
“You know that tree over there on the null is really disappointed.” I said. Our breath glided over the cold air and lingered for a second or two before disappearing. Funny how particular traits drip down from one generation to the next, I had inherited my mother’s penchant for storytelling. She would linger down a tale with such detail each character sprung to life.
“Tell the tree, next year.” Jackson laughed.
“Jimmy you, Jackson, and Patrick get the base with me, the rest of you help mom with the front. “This guy is gorgeous.” My mother said as we all waited for the final snap.
My mother adored the forest, said it was cathartic to smell the dirt and the moss that contravened the worlds harshness. I shared her love for the woods. There was a sense of belonging being surrounded by stoic trees that had endured through the ages.
We carried our fallen evergreen back to the house and hoisted it into the corner away from the fireplace. The sticky sap on my hands reminded me that having a tree inside the house, was the best part of Christmas. The radio played Christmas carols as we decorated the tree. I should have relished this time but the truth was--I hated Christmas.
“Dad, you still keep beer in the garage?” I asked.
“Sure do. Grab one for me too,”
“Me too,” Jackson hollered.
Walking out to the decrepit garage, I wondered if my mother still had that photo. The one we never really talked about. She never explained her reasons for leaving me in that crummy children’s home. She just reiterated that she had no choice but left out the details.
“I needed to make a living Jimmy, when the nursing school accepted me, I had to go. I couldn‘t be a maid for the rest of my life. I wanted to give you a decent life. I didn‘t know I‘d meet Warren.”
She told me this version several times. My real father died before I was born from tuberculosis; she was seventeen at the time and seven months pregnant, all I have of him is his name, James, and that old photo she showed me.
The only person I recall with fondness from the orphanage was Miss Shore. She must have been a social worker or counselor of some kind. Her voice could melt my worries into a puddle and as a kid, I thought she was the most beautiful woman alive.
“Jimmy don’t worry your mother has a long way to travel on the bus—she’ll be here. Would you like some Christmas cookies?”
“No thanks. How far is a long way Miss Shore?”
“Well it depends…”
The problem was my mother never did show up and I never did learn to like cookies. The first Christmas I had with my mother was when I came to live here in this very house, with my stepfather and Jackson--I was seven years old.
I walked back to the house with three beers in hand. My mother and I never did get around to discussing the photo. I figured we had time. After all it was my first night back.
Two Years Later
After that particular Christmas, I re-connected with Sophie. Her short dark hair and dark doe-like eyes proved too much to resist. In June the following year, we were married and in eight and a half months, we had our first child. I’ll never forget seeing my daughter for the first time. “Jimmy, you can come in now” the nurse said, She ushered me into a large room with a chorus of babies wrapped in flannel blankets.
“Where is she?”
“There.” The nurse guided me to a basinet with a little beauty nestled.
From the moment I held my daughter another barrier between my mother and I began like the slow closing of an unused tunnel. It was insidious and solely of my own doing.
Sophie and I had two more babies within four years. Life reeled by and I had no time to ponder harbored emotions about my mother. She called often and we’d banter over politics or a book or whatever we could find. And she’d end each conversation with an “I love you,” and I would respond, “me too.”
My oldest daughter was graduating junior high and my marriage was dissolving when my mother called to talk---she sound strange and insistent.
“Jimmy let’s have lunch. I’ve a fascinating book I want to give you.”
“Okay mom.” I felt a wave of nausea swarm over me. Jackson had called two weeks earlier to let me know mom had to have another biopsy—they suspected breast cancer. “The only day I have is Saturday, because…”
“Saturday is good son.”
It had been a few months since I’d seen my mother; I was immediately shocked by her gaunt appearance but tried hard to hide my reaction. Her skin cast a grayish hue and it was obvious she was wearing a wig. Getting together for “lunch” was apparently a ploy for a more serious discussion. According to my stepfather her appetite vanished when the chemo started. His eyes a dark lake filled with the sorrow of watching someone you love slowly slip away. We alone sat in the kitchen.
“Jimmy eat for god’s sake. I know you‘re famished. Here.” She pushed a brown leather book across the table. “I’ve eaten.” She lied.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s a story our story, complete with some photos I’d held on to.” Her smile was genuine and I felt a panic for staying away so long.
I finished up half of my sandwich and asked if they had any beer, fearing I might need it.
“Of course. You know where it is. I’ll be on the couch.” She picked up the book and half walked half shuffled into the living room.
When I came back in, she patted the cushion next to her. The green velvet couch a refuge for worn memories.
I sat beside her and took a swig of beer as she opened the book.
“These two,” she tapped her finger on the plastic covering pointing to a photo of two people I’d never seen before. “They were my parents and the little chubby girl in front is me. The white boat beside us is the boat they died in; worst day of my life.”
“What actually happened mom?” I had always been petrified to ask.
“We were out near Cape May and a storm came out of nowhere. We couldn’t get in to dock and the boat capsized. By the time help came my parents had drowned right before my eyes.”
“That’s horrible.” I didn’t know what to say. She continued. “Being immigrants from Ireland the family was too far and too poor to care for me. I became a ward of the state and had to live in the orphanage.” She paused for a moment. “When I met James, your birth father, he took me away from that place and I never ever wanted to go back.” She looked at me.
“It’s okay mom. I’ll finish this later.” I went to close the book, but she shook her head.
“Jimmy, I want to explain this to you. After James died, I was alone. My deepest hope was to give you a place to feel secure. Nursing school was the only chance I had to do that. There were no daycares back then--I had to leave you behind for a while.” She cried and I put my arm around her shoulder. It was the first time missing links of my life connected and I felt a deep empathy for my mother in that moment
We talked the rest of the afternoon as she filled in the details of our silent history. There was a profound sadness both of us shared but had been afraid to face. So much of my life was based around running from the past and the bad feelings that I never seemed to shake. I had conjured a myth about my mother that simply was not true. I left that day feeling more confused and angry that life had stolen moments from my mother and I. Moments that I wanted back.
A month had passed since that afternoon. I had read and re-read papers my mother had given me from the orphanage that chronicled those years. Driving now to the hospital, I yearned for things to be different. I yearned for time.
The pungent smell of urine lingering in the hospital hallway nauseated me. As I came into my mother’s room I saw that the blinds were drawn shutting out the mid-morning sun. My dad sat in a chair holding mom’s hand. Jackson, Mary, Paul, Patrick, and Gretchen had said their good-byes and were in a room designed for grieving families.
I approached the bed; she was propped on three pillows and her eyes were closed. The sound of her breath was coarse and labored. I took her hand in mine and whispered…”I love you mom.” Her eyes opened for a moment and she moved her fingers gently around mine. I told her again,” I love you.”
They say the last sense to leave is hearing. I prayed that was true.
Causes Karen Devaney Supports
Eve Ensler and any organization that deals with issues supporting women and children and the advancement of their education.