Kathleen Zamboni McCormick is Professor of Literature at Purchase College, SUNY. She’s recently finished Riding Down Hill With No Hands, her first full-length memoir. Her essay, “I Always Thought I Was on Good Terms with the Virgin Mary Even Though I Hadn’t Gotten Pregnant in High School,” won the Tiny Lights First Prize and was performed in Petaluma, CA. She’s negotiating with a NYC theater to do readings of other pieces. Work has appeared in Witness, South Carolina Review, and Zone 3, among others. Academic books include The Culture of Reading and the Teaching of English (MLA Mina Shaughnessy Award).
Memorial Days used to be marred by my compulsion to shop endlessly for Father’s-Day-and-My-Mother’s-Birthday, made worse because I’d just recovered from buying presents for Mother’s-Day-and-My-Father’s-Birthday. But now, the first Memorial Day since both their deaths, I find myself missing them terribly. Despite my resentment at the shopping. And at all those years of wrapping. Despite the gifts obviously being a sign of lack. In fact, it just feels like a lot more lack.
I can hear the wonderfully noisy neighborhood kids coming outside during a respite from the bad weather we’re having and know I should go out and trim the deadheads from the clematis. The hard rain has just about knocked the vines off the trellises. My father always commented how strange it was that I inherited a love of gardening from my mother. As a child, I never showed any interest in it. I was too busy excelling in all things school-related. Compensating for the fact that I wasn’t the son he’d wished for. The kids always cheer me up. They’re just old enough to want to talk to, help and be with a grown-up who isn’t one of their parents. I’m happy to fill that role. At least for a while outside. Their stories are insistent and filled with magic realism. I love to listen to them. They might even come over and work in the garden with me. They get rid of a lot of deadheads.
So no shopping today. No birthdays. No wrapping. No presents. And with heavy storm clouds threatening, just a gray feeling of emptiness. But we’re going out to dinner. Not really to commemorate Memorial Day, though it sounds reassuring to say we are. Because everyone seems to be celebrating the holiday. All those “Enjoy your Memorial Day weekends” at work, in stores, even on Facebook. It is, after all, the official start of summer. So going out to dinner makes me feel a bit like we’re part of Middle America, which some days I long to be. Just normal. And unthinking. Especially on a holiday.
This new kind of Memorial Day, we’re driving to dinner with another couple in their new red Mustang convertible. The dinner is meant to be festive and liberating. My husband knows the wife from work. He doesn’t know the husband. But the wife told him that her husband lost his daughter last summer. She was only forty years old. My father was well over twice that age; my son is just over half that age now. With so much in front of him.
Why can’t I just get over my father’s death? I dealt much better with my mother’s three years ago. Why all this remembering now? He died in October. At 93. And a half. I’m starting to feel like Hamlet when I tell strangers that my father died recently. “Two months dead—nay, not so much, not two… A little month,” when it’s been over half a year since he died alone in a locked-down geriatric psych ward of an unfamiliar hospital three days before he was to be moved close to us. Like Lear, mad on the heath because of a urinary tract infection.
My grad assistant had the courage to ask me—when I was incredulous that a urinary tract infection could simulate or cause dementia—in what is the only joke I recall throughout my father’s six-week dying process. “Is it really so surprising that that particular area in a man is connected to his brain?” About four or five of us were standing around outside after my class, and we laughed at his black humor and his courage to use it with me. It was a moment of such respite.
So after a day of waiting around, we’re finally in the Mustang (with the top up because of the rain). They insist that my husband sit in front because there’s slightly more legroom. She’s driving. The other husband’s in the backseat with me. From first impressions, he seems to be handling his daughter’s death well. But perhaps he “knows not seems.” I must look recovered as I talk animatedly about how devastated I’ve been by my father’s death, about clearing out the house and finding too much of everything. “I think the most peculiar thing was finding infinite amounts of my hair.” I pause to let the weirdness sink in, taking solace in the fact that I’ve at least turned some of my grief into story. I’ve told this one a few times. “The first was a small candy box filled with hair labeled, ‘trimmed when Kathy was two months old.’”
“Eww,” he cringes. I’m keeping it light.
My husband and I must have found a dozen boxes of my hair. Each carefully dated with the hair increasingly longer. We attempted to deflate the absolute creepiness of the situation by debating whether it was more like a Faulkner or an Edgar Allen Poe story. Poe won.
I shift the subject and ramble through details of the infinite number of rusted tools, maybe thirty-five screwdrivers, some of which must have been my grandfather’s—and that was just the Phillips heads—that my father had moved in boxes to the garage, getting ready to throw out years ago, which of course he never did. The mayonnaise-size jars of screws, nails, washers. The small boxes of unfathomable metal parts of varying shapes and sizes. What did Mamet say in American Buffalo? “If I had kept everything my old man threw out, I’d be a wealthy man today.” The husband laughs.
I’ve always wanted a Mustang convertible. This year, I’ve been telling myself that if I get a good book deal, I’m going to buy one, ideally in neon green or mustard. I want my Mustang convertible to be irritatingly brash. Showing that at my age, I’m aware of the disconnect, but that I can still proudly get in and put that pedal to the floor. Mustang convertibles are for the young. I dated a guy in college for way longer than I should have because of the thrill of riding in his baby blue Mustang convertible.
Though what I’m experiencing today doesn’t feel remotely like what I remember. Probably sitting in the backseat is what makes it so different. Or that we’re in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. And because, at the speed we’re going, I’m half-convinced we’re about to skid to our death. “Hydroplaning” flashes into my head from driving school when I was sixteen. Maybe cars can’t hydroplane today. I don’t know. It’s not a topic anyone seems to discuss, especially right now as we ride through the lakes and rivers that appear out of nowhere on the roads. I’m especially frightened when we go over bridges. And when we pass SUVs.
Admittedly, I loved wrapping presents as a child. My mother taught me how to measure just the right amount of paper so there was no waste, to make perfect corners, to design bows fuller than any store-bought premade ones.
The wife really does drive very fast. Like me. No wonder my husband grips anything he can get his hands on when I’m hell-bent on getting someplace in record time. The husband is telling me about a book he’s working on when, for a fleeting nanosecond, I wonder if I should be making out with him. Well, it was the only thing I ever did in the backseat of a Mustang convertible. I’ve never been in the back with the car moving. I pull on the seat belt over my shoulder, just to be sure it will lock upon impact. It does. The husband notices. We each look out our windows at the lack of visibility.
I don’t want to even acknowledge the disappointment I’m feeling about the car. Well, at least it’s a sadness not associated with death, unless we link it to my fear of all our imminent deaths because we’re about to skid off the Tappan Zee Bridge into the Hudson. Where, if we don’t die upon impact or drowned because we can’t open the doors or get the roof up in time, we’ll all be eaten by some three-headed fish that’s been nourished on atomic waste from the leaky nuclear power plant just upstream that’s continually reassuring us of its safety and that the warning sirens are just testing the equipment. And we’ll end up being served in some New York City restaurant as part of a local sourcing dinner special.
I couldn’t have been ten when my mother let me wrap every one of our presents but my own. The relatives’, hers to my father, my father’s to her—which she’d bought months in advance whenever a sale was on without even bothering to consult him. Knowing that he wouldn’t ever really think much about Christmas or remember to buy her anything, unless she explicitly asked him to. And then there might be a fight. Every year I was so proud as I looked at those presents under the tree, knowing that I’d made them beautiful. And that I’d given my mother time to do other things.
I expected to love riding out to our Memorial Day dinner in this car. I’m sure it’s different in the front seat, though later my husband tells me he was petrified. Well, he’s not a fan of Mustangs. Or convertibles. He doesn’t even really like the sunroof in our Toyota Camry. I’m distracting myself from my fear by telling the other husband about the Realtor we have selling my parents’ house. I’ve discovered that while grief isn’t a topic you can go on about for very long with strangers, real estate seems to be close to a universal conversation stimulator. Everyone has a story. And they all seem genuinely interested in mine. Perhaps the fact that my husband and I don’t own or want to own property has, for years without our knowing it, put us at a social disadvantage.
My Realtor’s been in rehab for her back for ten weeks, and my parents’ house that I need to sell, two hundred miles away, still isn’t on the market. I’ve learned from others, who long to discuss the matter in depth, that since it’s now almost June, we’ve “missed a season” or “missed the season” if my conversation partner believes the situation to be really dire. I make the husband laugh when I ask which position he’d take. He responds by telling me a story about a landscaper he’s had. This is really going well.
The landscaper our Realtor has hired is going to rip up all my parents’ overgrown rhododendrons. The roses of Sharon. Azaleas. Mountain laurels. Hydrangeas. Holly. And other bushes my mother lovingly planted and tended until a few years before her death. He’ll level all the weed-ridden flower beds of American Beauty roses, irises, and lilies that she grew in abundance from what she and I had dug up and brought from their former house in Cambridge. I’d driven up from graduate school to help them with the final packing and found her outside, crying to leave her roses. And all her other flowers. I told her to take them with her. Her eyes brightened. We found an old pitchfork in the garage and just dug them up. In that clay soil around the old house that looked like it couldn’t sustain a weed, my mother created gardens, particularly a rose garden, using as much fertilizer and loam as my father would buy and fighting off aphids and Japanese beetles with what was probably DDT.
When they moved over thirty years ago into the single house, my mother dug and dug to create little gardens for all the flowers we’d brought. Every year she made my father help her transplant saplings from the pine forest in the backyard. She was afraid they’d be smothered by the larger trees. My mother was so proud of all those beds of color, each with a small tree or two. Perhaps she rescued and tended so many saplings partly in mourning for her own entrapment in her dream single house that she’d assumed would be on a bus route. But it wasn’t. She never took another bus or a train. Never went to Boston again. Never really had a respite from my father.
The saplings grew amazingly well, most over 25 feet high now. But they all have to be cut down, my Realtor says because they’re so big that they block the view of the house. Stop the light from getting in. Contribute to mold growth on the roof.
Suddenly, the husband reaches forward to put a hand on his wife’s shoulder and asks her if she thinks we should pull over. The rain, if it is possible, has been getting worse. We can’t really see the car in front of us.
“Pull over? Where?” she says in a tone that makes it clear that she isn’t the kind of driver who pulls over.
I can feel my hair beginning to curl in the dampness, despite the expensive straightening treatment I’ve had that’s supposed to make it impervious to humidity. The husband even touches the fabric roof here and there for potential leaks. I decide to ask him what he thinks about our estate agent’s idea for window treatments.
“Despite the darkness of the house, my Realtor still insists that it’s essential to have blinds. Honestly,” I try to laugh, “who will notice blinds if they’re squeezed shut at the top of the windows? Surely they can’t be put down, even at half-mast.”
I shouldn’t have used that term. It isn’t funny to him. And he turns, as much as one can in the backseat of a Mustang convertible, and makes eye contact. He looks like I just slapped him. I can’t imagine what he’s suffered. A dead child. There is instantly so much pain in his eyes. Death is like that. It’s in your pocket, nice and neat and folded away one minute and the next it’s got you smothering in a thick plastic bag.
I talk rather shrilly in the small space of the Mustang, trying to bring him back. “Others tell me that getting blinds for a dark house is as nutty an idea as I think it. But who am I to say? I’m a dyed-in-the-wool renter. Happy never to own. Always knowing that someone else is responsible for the heating, the taxes, and if I’m lucky, the cable. Just so long as I can have a garden.”
He turns to me suddenly and now with clear interest. I hope he’s not having the nanosecond make-out fantasy. “You really mean,” he looks astonished, “that you don’t like or want to own property?”
When I nod, his pupils dilate. “How did you explain this to your husband? You know… before you got married.” He takes a deep breath and shudders. I’ve made him nervous. More than the rainstorm. “It’s not many people…” He looks out the clouded window. I can sense his disenchantment with having dinner with a person who lacks a desire for homeownership.
I want to say, but don’t, that it’s not like I didn’t want to have children. Not like I’d wanted a husband to shower me with perfectly wrapped presents at Christmas and birthdays and, should the time come, Mother’s Days. Not that, despite our discussing whatever Lacan we were reading back then, I’d ever told my future husband about the depths of my lack.
I’ve paused in thinking of all the problems—imaginary and real—I didn’t mention to him. The other husband interprets the pause as a sign that my attitude about real estate actually was a difficult barrier. So I don’t think he believes me when I say, “Oh, he didn’t want to own property either. So it wasn’t an issue.”
He smiles and runs his hand through his hair. “Would have been a real deal breaker for me.” He looks slightly hurt, as if I’ve somehow led him on with this real estate chatter. As if I’ve committed a small act of betrayal. My husband had to discover the depth of my lack gradually, on his own. For most people, that would have been the deal breaker.
We never finish the discussion because it stops raining and we’re finally there. We shop a bit, and when we walk into my favorite boutique, the wife spots the pants that she’s currently wearing. That’s a good sign, I think. She even tries on some jeans.
We have a pleasant Memorial Day dinner. She doesn’t drink because she’s driving, but the rest of us enjoy a great New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. We take a walk near the water after. The bugs aren’t too bad. The husband tells me more about his book and then talks about his daughter. I mumble some fairly conventional-sounding sympathies, avoiding saying anything about how horrible it must be to lose a child. How afraid it makes me to even think about. How I don’t know how he manages to go on. Or how my parents waited twelve long years in a difficult marriage to finally have me, their only child. How they found ways to survive when I left home. How that, at least partially, explains my father’s hostility. My mother’s silences. The presents.
The husband and wife are a nice couple. The only thing I say that is remotely personal in my sympathy for his daughter is that, like her, our son is also in the arts. And the wife seems like a lot of fun. I mean, she bought the Mustang. Since the weather’s cleared, we drive back with the top down. But I’m still kind of scared and stay tightly belted in that backseat. And I’m still haunted by Memorial Day lack. And excess. And my need to cut off every deadhead in the garden tomorrow. As if I can make death disappear.
The husband mentions that cookout season has begun and asks if we like cookouts. “Not really,” I say softly. Another funny look. No homeownership and no cookouts. “But we eat outside all summer,” I add quickly. “My husband’s such a good cook that we just bring the food from the kitchen right out to our picnic table that I set every night with a tablecloth and our best wine glasses. The lightening bugs usually appear when we’re in the middle of dinner, so we’re guaranteed to see all the children in the neighborhood out catching them.” He nods and smiles. They have a deck.
As we kiss good night, he wishes me luck with the real estate agent. I want to say “good luck with the grief,” but of course I don’t. “Good luck with your book!” I manage.
“We’ll have to get together soon,” someone says.
It would be nice. Perhaps we could do it before Father’s Day or my mother’s…no. There seemed to always be more presents to wrap. A porcelain thimble I’d bought for my mother at a highway stop on my way to a conference. A baseball cap for my father from my grad school. Which he would never wear. Matching sweaters from New Zealand. And then there was the cake. The flowers. The balloons. Really, anyone would have assumed we were a happy family.
I think I’ll do some shopping online when we get in. I need to buy annuals to brighten up the garden that, with the first bloom of clematis gone before its time, could be just green for a few weeks. My mother’s gardens always had color. She must have known when everything would bloom and planted with a flowering schedule in mind. No one gave her credit for that kind of planning.
Before my father was put in the locked-down facility, he’d been moved to a rehab center that was just minutes from their house. He kept trying to walk out of the center in his bare feet and pajamas. He’d tell the nurses he was going to catch the bus home to Cambridge. You knew something was wrong because he never took the bus. He drove everywhere. Plus, Cambridge was over thirty miles and thirty years away. And, as my mother discovered only after they’d moved, there were no buses. In his last month, my father was becoming closer and closer to being bedridden, but he would get up every night without his walker, the nurses told me, and roam the halls calling for my mother. “Edie. Edie. Edie!” It would be nice to think that he heard her calling back to him. That she forgave him his trespasses. That he saw her in a garden, fragrant with American Beauty roses and irises and lilies of the valley, standing in the shadow of a sapling grown tall enough to shade her. A tree that her urgent love would never allow any real estate agent to cut down.