Every Sunday, I’m allowed to read a chapter from Jane Eyre.
That’s a special treat for me since every other day it’s another Jane that commandeers the hour. My mother has good days and bad days. She has days where she can’t recognize me and days where she can’t recognize herself. Her life exists in that spot at the tip of your tongue where words and phrases go missing. Her life is made up of sterile smells and muted colors. She’s placed everyday in a chair facing a window that looks out on a man-made lake surrounded by a walking path and native plants like Eastern Blue Star and Carolina Lupine.
I hear rumors when I check in at the front desk that the man-made lake is drying up and the corporation that owns the place refuses to do anything about it. The place is called Lakeside View. What will they call it if there’s no lake?
None of this should concern my mother. The lake may not last long, but it’ll certainly outlive her. Her bad days have begun multiplying. One Sunday she sees the copy of Jane Eyre under my arm and becomes agitated almost instantly. I ask the nurse to run to the makeshift library on the other side of the locked doors where residents who have nothing but good days are allowed to roam. I tell her to see if somebody’s donated a copy of Pride & Prejudice. I tell her my mother is looking for Mr. Darcy. She comes back with Persuasion. My mother is still agitated, but she quiets down as I begin.
Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who,
for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage
I never knew what a Baronetage is and I have no desire to find out. When I was younger, my mother would spend every night perched at the edge of my bed reading to me from Austen. Depending on the sort of day I’d had, she would make a thoughtful selection. Chaotic days needed Sense & Sensibility. Frivolous days required Emma. If the two of us had fought the way mothers and daughters often do, then I would get a chapter from Northanger Abbey.
When we had good days, and we had many good days, it was Pride & Prejudice.
Never a favorite of mine, to my mother, this book was the Bible. You could open it up to any page and find a lesson to be learned. Nearly every lesson she was searching for revolved around love and the courage to welcome it into your life when the opportunity presented itself. My mother saw a lot of herself in the novel’s heroine, Lizzie Bennet. She came from a family of nine--her parents, herself, and six sisters. (She would often remark that Lizzie got off easy.) There was no money, and when my mother met my father she was working at a gas station in a dodgy part of town. He had noticed her sitting behind him in AP Chemistry, and before he knew it, his beaker was overflowing. That afternoon, he drove his new car right up to Pump #4 and asked her if she’d like to go for a drive.
My father was not a man with a pleasant disposition, but underneath his chilly exterior was a great deal of kindness. He proposed to her on graduation night, and despite protestations from his family that the Gas Station Girl would empty his pockets and ruin his good name, they were married that September in Beck’s Orchard, which was purchased the following year and turned into a golf course.
Shortly after my arrival, my father developed a cough. The cough lingered for a year before he got it checked out, and by then, there was nothing to be done. My knowledge of his illness is spotted due to my mother’s insistence that talking about it would dredge up too many bad memories. Instead, she would read me Pride & Prejudice each night and then tell me one thing about my father that she loved. His inability to tie a proper tie, his eyebrows, the way he had to dissect a good joke to find out what made it so funny. She called him “Chicago” because that was where he wanted them to move once they had enough money in the bank and he called her “Swiss” because she wanted to travel overseas and live like the Von Trapps did before the Nazis showed up. When he passed away, his mother attended the funeral and offered to pay for everything provided she could have regular visits with me every week. My mother agreed to the visits, but not the money. She had her pride.
Luckily for her (and me), the law has no regard for pride. My father was an only child, just like me, and when both his parents passed away, a respectable amount of money was put in a trust that I never touched. It was meant to be for college, but I enrolled in a state school where I received a full scholarship to study Gothic literature. That meant the money was still there years later when my mother fell in her kitchen and it was suggested that she be put somewhere with more supervision. The savings account has been dented considerably by her time spent in Lakeside View, but there’s enough there so that I don’t have to worry about taking on a second job just yet. As it is, my manager at the Cloverleaf Pub is already giving me as many shifts as he can. He also pretends not to notice when I write short poems on the back of napkins in between taking drink orders. When I visit my mother, I’ll read her some of these poems, and she sits quietly, but doesn’t react. It isn’t until I open Pride & Prejudice that I get to see some of that personality I remember reignite.
The fourth or fifth time we finished the book, she grabbed my hand as I was approaching the final words. I thought she might be scared of what would happen this time. Would the ending of the novel bring about another kind of ending? Would I stop coming to visit her? Would I become like so many of the other children who show up only on holidays and sometimes skip those as well? Would she go even further back into her own mind where only the bad days live? Not the good days when my father would drive her around town in the car he was allowed to keep, her belly out to the dashboard, him calling her “Swiss” and Bon Jovi on the radio. My mother took my hand and when I saw that she was trying to speak, I leaned forward so she wouldn’t have to strain to be heard.
“…and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.”
She remembered how it all was supposed to end.