by Donna Vittucci
You can run on Catechism like it’s gasoline. Wipe your grime on the gauze that covers your intimate places. So then, a life tinted yellow, malaised, maized, amazed. A vision of my daddy’s last breaths, how his eyes googled under their lids, threatening to snap open, but his heart not in it and his hands in an odd position the nurses thought placid. He never set his hands like that, ever, even when he was true sleeping, as he did on the grey couch with the swirls in a bas relief, him laid out like a mummy after church on Sunday. We’d rub the swirls to tickle the insides of our palms, then climb over Daddy, bellies full of pancakes and bacon, envelopes dropped in the basket, our small tithing. Really, we had no idea what would be expected of us.
Spread cabbage on our wounds, mother, breathe down our backs. Teach us garden ways we can’t fathom. Let us stay in your good graces and your critical eyes forever. Tell the landlord we’re done with his rent and his rules. Run over the mown hill with us, the inclines you conquered, the prime view of real estate that will never be ours. The garden still grows there, green onions most delicate in the shadow of weeds we cannot bother to name, and some golden rod. It’s all gone to pot without you, mother, without you and your wrists and wrenching grip, grabbing us up by our roots. How we miss your tender threats, and the surprises you left us on the ironing board, the tea ring in the middle of the Saturday morning table.
We miss them like night misses the moon. Like underwater misses breath. Grief doesn’t end, and why-ever should it? If love endures, then pain endures. Love is in the hitch of the knife, where the blade kisses ribs, to eviscerate and split bone from bone, wife from man, man from child, mother from daughter. Hello catbird, Hello fern—twins at the grave of my mother, crooning her name out of my mouth again and again.
Janie this and Janie that. My psyche early on accepted Mommy was two women. Her parents and three brothers called her Janie. At Grandma and Grandpa’s house she fit herself to their familiar. A grown girl at ease on the softball field, a terror at shortstop, a high school game winner. On countless occasions she concocted German potato salad, fried chicken, hot slaw, the roast chicken and bread dressing that prevailed in her mind’s catalogue and her taste buds, all around the meal calling out for less or more sugar to match their own tongues’ memories and family-table-lore. Janie and her cup of hot tea in the morning, a pot of it on the stove in the Corning Ware tea pot, that first blue cornflower pattern. Janie, who shoved the lawnmower up and down hills and painted the stairwell on a scaffold and hung sheets to dry on the backyard lines. She held clothespins between her lips outside with the laundry and straight pins between her lips when she was hemming our uniform skirts.
Dottie was our showy, rest-of-the-world mother. Catch sight of her in old family movies from Christmas or Easter gatherings in Grandma and Grandpa’s basement and she was the standout among the Catholic clan. No clues about being Protestant—she was simply the most beautiful woman, in the smartest dresses and outfits, the way she dolled up glamorous. Earrings and pearls, rouge and lipstick, curls softly framing her face from hours of setting lotion and bobby pins that made her head look like a robot’s.
There was the church sanctuary she could never step inside, had to tie the knot in the nave of St. Monica’s. She swore she’d raise any children in the Roman faith, and by God she did, insistent her girls get up for Sunday Mass and take Saturday afternoon confession and prepare for sacraments. She kissed the foot of the crucifix on Good Friday. She packed us cheese sandwiches for Friday school lunches. She bought us chapel veils, holy cards, rosaries, and missals.
She made it look deceptively simple being two women, answering to different names, sliding from one skin to another, matching color to her surroundings. Janie was our more intimate mother. I sometimes thought of her as Dorothy. Dottie didn’t sound right for her, didn’t sound right for Mommy, who passed the cold wash rag over our cuts and scrapes, spanked our bottoms, baked us spritz cookies, left the hallway light on to dispel the dark, who signed our report cards Dorothy, when we all knew she was Janie.
Sheet-scrubbed laundry hung out back fast and long and high as a ship’s billow sails. We ran through slapping, wounded birds flying in and out the windows, plastering our grimy child hands on wet sheets trying their best to shine and dry. We screamed laughing, we shimmied up the laundry pole. When she found us she slapped us. We wanted to climb trees but she forbid. Swinging Statues. Kick the Can. In these games she wasn’t there, but we were confident in her presence slightly above us, second floor watching, her ears dialed in to our screaming. She never interfered, except for the boy who tied me to a tree branch, and only then because she noticed the rope burns on my arms. She let us fight our stupid battles. She let us play into the dark, while never orchestrating it.
Maybe if we’d had a front porch she might have sat and watched a bit, the way I did with my boys but she was probably busy ironing. She ironed a lot. Or maybe she sat with a glass of iced tea on that second floor kitchen, with only the soft wall light on, resting and happy to be lonely, dishes drying in the rack, the stove turned off.
Their deaths make me sit still. Sit up, sit back erect, no slump-shoulder girls in this house. Positive action, clean thoughts, perfect posture, fix that droopy hem. Daddy, lit cigarette in his waving hand, he who wore only pants and had no idea how to make friends with his little girls growing. We were disdainful of him and his nagging and belittling, but he didn’t know what else to say to us without braying over our suddenly longer legs. “Where are my colts?” he must have thought. “Who left open the corral?
You don’t expect a routine blood test to tell you something shocking. Maybe elevated cholesterol level, maybe a small decline in kidney function, which was the reason for the blood draw in the first place. Every six months a test so the doc could discuss potassium levels and kidney function. You don’t expect to have your blood taken at ten in the morning, and then the hospital calls you by late afternoon and says get back over here.
Ruined stairs, they were, my growing daughters, nimble where they trod. You had to be nimble in the air shaft, in the tower. They didn’t look where they were going, up up up. There had to be some kind of top to their running, the get-up-and-go all crossing their veins.
They raged, “Daddy-o, you don’t know what’s what. You’re out of it, man, sucking on your cig when they all tell you it’s bad for you. We want you to live.”
“Well, I want you to live, too,” I said, but we were rarely eye to eye. Been lighting up since I was twelve, wasn’t quitting. In their high heels they tottered, them and their pink lungs.
“We can’t climb to the top if you don’t let us. Let us go.”
Dear daughters, out of earshot, heels a-clackety, don’t you know you were the stairs and the syncopation?
We didn’t think it would be so fast, but it was so fast. A lucid day while he joshed with the health aide, while he watched the televised baseball game, as he talked to my sisters and his grandsons on the phone, took a shave. After the aide washed his hair, he made Daddy look comical by combing it to the side. I made sure the funeral director knew to comb it back like a wise guy.
With children to school, the house turned a bug’s empty shell, the bug gone off to find new skin that fits the knobby wrist bones and poking ankles. Mother, darn us new socks from old, knit us fringe on a cold hat, sew up the patches at our knees. The quilt with those ripped squares, cast them on our exposed parts, tuck us in, make us decent again.
Thin as a sheet my mother comes to me. She’d been a tomboy, shapely young woman, and heavy older woman. My nephew, when she died, and he met me at the funeral home, came running on his four year-old legs: “Big Grandma died.” Is that what they called her, my sister’s children—did they call her Big Grandma? I took offense for her, cried then and cried now, for the sheet that slips in and out of the room and lays lightly on me when she grows tired of wafting, the film of memory, the netting that disappears in the garden ground once the plants get hearty enough to stand alone.
There are men in the morgue who want to tell you their stories before their mouths get sewn closed for good. Don’t call that undertaker yet, I have words backed up all to shit here. You’ll have to take care of yourselves from now on. I fought in the Pacific, but that’s not my tale. I taught four girls to drive, goddammit, and my own dear wife. I bit my tongue when they stayed out until all hours like trash, swore like longshoremen, wore their hair straight and long in their eyes. “Cut that string,” I said, when they modeled their new skirts. “Dear old Dad,” they said; “Daddy-o, this is how short they’re wearing them now.” They mostly kept me in the dark, buying things on sale or put in layaway or on the charge. Dear wife saying, “Don’t tell your father.” I tried not knowing but you have four girls your own flesh and blood, rumors scale the house. I caught on plenty, but never let on to those I loved, happy to be the buffoon. Lit my cig and puffed in silence, squinting a smile through the smoke, said, “Get a scissors and cut that string.”
Donna D. Vitucci is Development Director of Covington Ladies Home, the only free-standing personal care home exclusively for older women in Northern Kentucky. Her stories have been appeared in print and online since 1990. SALT OF PATRIOTS, her novel concerning families & uranium processing in 1950s Fernald, OH, arrived April 2017 from Rebel ePublishers. Her first novel, AT BOBBY TRIVETTE’S GRAVE, takes place in Paris, KY, ninety miles south of Donna’s home in Covington.