There were seven books on the nightstand.
We had packed up the rest of the bedroom. In the other room, I could hear my sister taping up the last of the cardboard boxes that would contain what we wanted to keep from our mother’s house. The house that we grew up in. The previous morning had featured a yard sale. We parted with the things that held no sentiment for us. This was more difficult than we thought it would be, because we were not raised to be emotional. Our mother grew up in a rural part of Pennsylvania. We never saw her cry or become upset. She had a steel persona that many saw as cold and unfeeling. That was not our experience of her. When our father died suddenly in a car accident in our early teenage years, her sturdiness was a godsend. She would come into our room every night and sit between our two beds. We would each get one of her hands to hold. I remember thinking it was a good thing there were only two of us, because otherwise, somebody would be left without a hand to hold.
We’d both fall asleep like that. I don’t remember when she stopped coming into our room to soothe us to sleep. Childhood traditions are there until they’re not. Somehow a mother knows when her children can fall asleep on their own, walk on their own, make their own decisions, and move on with their lives. My sister moved out first to go to school in Denver. I graduated the following year and began my path towards becoming a vet tech a few towns away. I didn’t want to travel too far from my mother in the event that having an empty nest would harm her in some way. In fact, she seemed to thrive. Her demeanor didn’t change, but the energy she had been using to raise us was now put towards charity--soup kitchens and church functions. One year at Thanksgiving, she invited a few people who didn’t have anywhere else to go. My sister and I were relieved that she was doing so well. Some of our friends had parents who were falling apart now that they were left to their own devices. Our mother was different.
But then again, she had always been different.
“What are you looking at?”
While I was perusing the books on our mother’s nightstand, my sister had come up behind me holding the box of Mom’s silverware. She was going to take it with her along with some sweaters and a few photos. I would take a bigger scrapbook that held the rest of the photographs along with her chess set and her wedding ring. Everything else we could part with, but we had yet to consider the books.
“Did you know Mom was a reader,” I asked, “I never saw her reading anything.”
My sister picked a book up off the pile. It was a hardcover copy of Cannery Row. She shook her head and then placed it back on top.
“These books have been here for years,” she said, “I remember seeing that book the last time I came over. Mom asked me to get her blanket from the bedroom closet, and that cover caught my eye. We read that book at the university. Introduction to American Literature at 8am with a professor who cleared his throat after every sentence. I asked Mom if she liked it and she said she’d never read it and wasn’t intending to. I asked her why it was next to bed and she said those were the seven books Dad was going to read before he passed away. She never got rid of them. Just kept them right next to her when she slept.”
These days I see my father more in dreams than in memories. A few weeks earlier, I was in the supermarket when a man walked by me wearing my father’s cologne. I had the kind of sensory experience psychologists talk about where things suddenly come rushing in after just a hint of a smell. There was a flash of his laugh. A jolt wherein I could see myself sitting up on his shoulders watching a 4th of July parade. The sound of a knock and flashing red lights outside. My mother holding my hand as I fell asleep. Dreams of grief intermingled with thoughts of comfort. Now there was new grief to sit next to the old. Where would the new comfort come from, I wondered. My sister put her hand on my back.
“Are you all right,” she asked, and I tried to release my breath from the back of my throat.
We decided to donate the books to the local library. I offered to take them since I had nothing else to do before heading home and my sister had a plane to catch. We exchanged hugs in the driveway. She promised to host Thanksgiving if I would do Christmas. It would be just the two of us. I said we could make it special rather than dour. Get drunk on bad wine and binge watch a reality show about cupcake baking.
The house would go on sale the following week. The realtor would keep us both apprised of any offers, but she had high hopes that we could get a great price for it. That would help pay down student loans and cover my rent for a few months. Both of us felt odd about taking money for it. It was rightfully ours to sell, but it still felt strange. This is where our mother lived. It felt as though we should enshrine it somehow. Leave it just as it was. Seven books on the nightstand. A wedding ring on the kitchen counter, because that’s where she left it while she was doing the dishes. A scrapbook with all our report cards in it alongside photos of us in Halloween costumes and our Sunday best.
“I’ll call you when I land,” my sister said as her ride pulled up, “When you drive away, don’t look back. Remember Orpheus. Nothing good comes from looking back.”
When I was finished loading up my car, I placed the seven books on the front seat. I contemplated buckling them in and then laughed at myself. When I had gotten so precious? They were just books. Books my father never read. Books my mother kept around because they were somehow connected to him.
Other than Cannery Row, they were nothing substantial. Two murder mysteries, a non-fiction book on the environment that was surely outdated by now, an essay collection, one of those airport tradebacks about a deadly pathogen culling the population, and a self-help book about how setting up your furniture the right way could lead you to fame and fortune.
My father either had eclectic taste or no taste at all. It was hard to tell.
When I pulled up to the library, there was a donation bin right next to the bookdrop. I put the car in neutral and looked over at the pile. I had taken what I needed from my mother’s things. It occurred to me, though, that neither my sister nor I had ever been anything to have anything that belonged to our father. When he died, my mother cleansed the house of him. I don’t believe it was because she was trying to be cruel, but rather, pragmatic. A person who is no longer living does not need to take up space that is already severely limited in a house with three living people--including two young girls.
My father touched these books, I thought, as the car idled, he looked at these books and decided he wanted something from them.
Needless to say, there was nothing donated that day.
If you come to my house, you’ll see my mother’s chess set on my living room table. The scrapbook is placed on my mantle next to a photo of my mother, my sister, and I from when I graduated high school. We don’t have many photos together, because my mother hated having her picture taken, but she’s smiling that day. She had a beautiful smile.
The wedding ring I wear on a chain around my neck and I don’t take it off even while showering. I like feeling it against my skin. I like having it close by. Precious things are mischievous by nature. They enjoy disappearing. You have to keep a close eye on them.
If you go into my bedroom, you’ll see the seven books on my nightstand placed exactly as they were next to my mother’s bed. I have no intention of reading them. In fact, I almost think it would be sacrilegious to do so. The night I brought them, I woke up and found that one of my hands had wandered over to them and was placed lightly on top of the pile.