Nora is already planning to make a special meal for when her mother comes to visit. Her mother hasn’t been to her daughter’s new house in Maine and they seem to have trouble visiting each other lately. Nora feels guilty, because she thinks about her mother a lot and knows they should spend more time together. She’s just so busy with her job. Her new job, working in an art gallery with a view of Casco Bay.
Maybe she hasn't been busy, she's been selfish. She knew she wanted to make her mother proud of her. That hadn't always been easy.
She puts that out of her mind now, because the two of them, mother and daughter, are going to have the time of their lives. They hadn't always gotten along well, which can happen between mothers and daughters, and that made Nora’s anticipation of her mother’s arrival even greater.
She wanted things to go smoothly. She wanted to make her mother proud. No matter all the other things: she adored her mother, who had always tried to do the right thing.
The doorbell rings. Nora runs to the front door, feeling like a little girl again, a little girl who has grown up and lives in her own house, has her own job, and the Atlantic Ocean for a view.
"Hello Honey. I'm so glad to be here. I missed you, you know."
"Me too. I missed you, too."
Neither woman, mother or daughter, was good at saying that. It was as if they felt guilty about not living in the same house any more, each one having abandoned the other.
Nora's mother, whose name is Ruth, leaves her small suitcase by the door and hugs her daughter again. Nora sees tears in both their eyes, so she feels less childish. It's been awhile since she's cried, and then only out of anger or frustration at something related to her work.
Ruth and Nora then walk around to the back yard, as if they were starting there, in a remoter area, and would then work their way to the front. To the present. Neither kneows how that wis going to work out. Neither knows how long it wis going to take, but there are no timers set, no deadlines, no limits, so they are not concerned.
Even though most everything was visible, Nora goes around, her arm linked in her mother's, pointing out the items in the garden. As always, her gaze turns to the strong blue clouds of the hydrangeas.
"Ours were white, weren't they? Weren't they Grandma's favorite?"
"I think we had one that wasn't white and might have been blue, like yours. But these are stunning. The clusters of flowers are huge!"
Nora feels pleased, although she knows she can't take a lot of credit. She's planted them all, true, and there are at least half a dozen hydrangea bushes in the yard, but she'd dug the holes and crossed her fingers. No, wait, there wareat least seven bushes, including the one near the split-rail fence.
"Mom, here's a really old spireia, which made me fall in love with this house, I think. It reminded me so much of home. But there are more, you'll see."
The rhododendron is huge but is past its blossom stage. Still, it is impressive. Nora points to a large comfrey plant and then another, both very healthy and especially hardy in Maine. Ruth has only seen comfrey as tea, not as a plant, so she is genuinely to interested see the plant. They can get quite big over the years and the flowers can be different colors - white, yellow, pink. Nora explains that it is good for compost and points to the medium-sized composting area in the far back corner of the property.
"Oh, you have myrtle. I know you always loved it because it reminded you of the library where you went all the time. It grew so thickly beneath the pine trees."
"Yes, it's one of the first things I planted here and there used to be a big old pine right nearby that had to be taken down.Hollyhocks, geraniums, hostas."
Ruth is quick to notice things on her own:
"Rudbeckia, echinacea, herbs. Oh, what herbs have you planted? I never got around to doing a little herb garden like I wanted to."
"I've got thyme, oregano, catnip, chamomile, germander, chervil, winter savory..." but Nora thought better of giving a complete list. People who mostly use herbs from little paper or tin containers when they cook aren't usually enthusiastic about the plants themselves. She was now wondering if using fresh basil or sorrel in parts of the meal would be to her mother's disliking.
She continues the informal garden tour.
"Look, Mom. These taller, crowded plants are sundrops, which I never had seen until I got to Maine. My neighbor gave me these. And here's some lady’s mantle. It came with the house, and has been moved around. It always comes back strong in the spring."
"It looks a little like a tough geranium. Remember how we used to fill the urns on Memorial Day? You used to help me pick out a lot of the geraniums."
"Oh yes," said Nora. "That's why I always have geraniums growing all year round inside, then bring them outside in warm weather. It used to make me sad when we planted them so prettily in the cemetery, then had to say good-bye to them. Never see them again. In Europe they often grow outside, like bushes, and they're so lucky."
The golden, needle-leaved coreopsis, its relative the glowy tickseed, the shade-craving heucheras are also enjoying the conversation, one expects. The two woman know what they have before them. It might sound simplistic, but what they have is a world full of life. The crook of one arm tightens against the crook of the other, in total solidarity.
The conversation has by now sought higher levels, and includes the treetops:
"Remember our maple and oak trees, as tall as yours here? How many fall leaves were ironed between waxed paper sheets by a certain daughter of mine?"
"Pressed between pages of books, too, Mom. I still do that with wild plants when I'm in France or Italy... Oh look, here are some hens and chicks."
Ruth knows what her daughter is thinking: that as a little girl she had loved her grandmother's rock garden, and had giggled at the name hens-and-chicks for a familiar succulent plant. Nora had been the type who would count all the new little chicks that had appeared in the spring. Nora is asking now:
"I was petrified of bats. Do you remember how I'd scream and huddle under the covers?"
Ruth certainly can't forget those occasions. Nora screaming to beat the band, terrified of the dark, utterly not in danger... Nora reads her mother's thoughts, and immediately both burst out laughing.
Both Nora and her mother Ruth, one more aware of the connection than the other although both are sensitive to the process, and they know they are telling the structure of their own Memory Palace. Giordano Bruno had his own Palace where his brain stored things, and the two women have theirs, if they can just locate where that Palace is. Where Home is and who lives there. Both Nora and Ruth, in other words, know the Art of Memory involves recreating a house. One that can be inhabited.
"Let's go sit on the deck," Nora suggests.
The two women talk forever. Maybe their conversation lasts years, decades. The supply of iced tea that they somehow have acquired is endless. Neither of them uses sugar, but both like lemon. They like sharing this taste for tea.
"Let's go in, Mom. We can keep talking while I get our meal ready."
Once in the kitchen, Nora prepares the meal. She is making it special, as already observed, and has included both her mother’s dishes (examples: meat loaf, barbecued chicken, spaghetti, stuffed peppers) and ones she’d tried on her travels (examples: ceviche, Spanish omelettte, baked cod). She wants to show how much she's learned from her mother, but also offer her some new things. Maybe she wants to teach her mother things.
She has to remember how different their tastes are now, ever though it was her mother who made food and fed her for at least the first sixteen years of her life. Nora likes spicy food, seafood, Asian food. Ruth prefers canned food, no seafood is acceptable except maybe fish sticks or tunafish sandwiches, and German food is the only foreign cuisine she likes. She thinks.
Nora hopes her mother wants to hear about her daughter's travels over the years. Wants to hear how her daughter was always thinking of her when she traveled. Wants her mother to know she always felt gguilty about being so far away and learning so much when Ruth was so limited in what she could do.
She has everything ready for assembly and is proud of this time she and her mother are spending together. She hopes it will never end.
"I don't like shrimp or lobster."
"I know, Mom."
"I don’t drink any alcoholic beverage."
"Right. Also you never ever drink coffee after twelve noon."
"You remembered!" It's not clear if Ruth is trying to be funny.
The conversation is unceasing, like a big river of everything from Nora's babyhood to the present. It takes at least two hours, or perhaps more like twenty. Maybe longer. This isn't an overnight thing, after all.
Mother and daughter go out to water the garden while the food is in the oven and on the stove. Somehow Nora has made it all fit. She knows her mother doesn't know half of what she's doing or why, but Ruth doesn't ask because the conversation has a strong current and is running through their years.
They stand with arms around each other's shoulders, perhaps in the very center of the wedge-shaped property. It is perfect everywhere they look. Having been looking mostly at the vegetation, they now notice the moving population of chipmunks in profusion, house finches, raccoons, ...
"... and even deer in winter," notes Nora, still thinking of the four of them standing off to the right, under the moon, reflected onto the pale snow.
Suddenly she realizes that she is building something in this house where she lives as an adult but never lived as a girl like she did where her mother still lives.
The two women come back inside and somebody needs to set the table. Ruth is happy to do that, and Nora thinks she has never seen her mother so pleased, talkative. Her mother has always been the shy sort. Like Nora.
Nora, who is so happy her mother has come to visit and will be staying for awhile, finally sits down at the nicely-set table. She quickly explains:
"The tablecloth is from Portugal, specifically Viana do Castelo, in the north. The dishes are new, even though they're a sort of rustic Italian design. The glasses are from the antique shop in Fort Andross. Oh, and the piece here in the center of thhe table is a very delicate vase from Murano, near Venice."
She said these things, wanting her mother to be happy for her daughter and to love her, be proud of her. She explains the stories, because she knows her mother enjoys them. She is hoping to be entertaining, certainly not showing off. After all, she has traveled in part for her work in the art field. She loves Europe, which is a world and oceans and mountains away from her hometown. She likes her mother to hear about that love for another world, to understand it, from her mouth directly. Not in ten lines on a postcard, or a three-minute phone call.
Nora knows, or hopes that Ruth understands. They should always have been talking like they have been talking today. They will make a promise to always do this: talk.
Now Nora sits down. She is a bit flushed from working by the hot stove, but is pleased with the dishes she has prepared. She spent either one hour or ten doing this and is thinking there is still the rest of the front garden to see, discuss, remember, and build. Art. Memory. Palace.
The daughter forces herself to stop thinking about what might happen later in the day. She looks across the perfect table and the lavish repast sitting on it, and considers the possibility that she has overdone it slightly with eight main dishes, and that doesn't count salads, dips, other garnishings. She shakes her head a little, recalling the gigantic roast turkey, the two jello with whipped cream bowls, the yams AND mashed potatoes that she has filed in her memory palace, one image for each Thanksgiving AND Christmas.
No, she hasn't overdone it. She has simply done it like Mom.
Then Nora notices the empty chair across from her. The place has been set, of course. She falls silent for a few moments, as if seeking a route, a hallway, a familiar room. Nora then continues the conversation. Europe, the art gallery, the VFW back home, the new grocery store, the potato industry of Maine...
She knows how important it is to keep enjoying her mother’s visit, to keep talking.