by Catherine Stratton
The telegram arrived at five at night, which felt like six because it was the Sunday we set our clocks back. I was eight, my brother Tom seven, and we knew what it said and so did she, for Dad had been gone two years; drafted in 1972, three days before his 26th birthday—the worst of luck. We would never watch Walter Cronkite announce the Vietnam body count on the CBS Evening News again.
There was nothing left to fear.
Tom and I cried, but Mom didn’t… cry. She sat at the kitchen table, clutching the telegram — old news to discard — and lit a cigarette, inhaling and exhaling with blinking eyes while picking at the burn holes in the pink plastic tablecloth with her fingernail.
“Why can’t you use an ashtray, Jimmy?” she used to scold my father.
“Ah, it’s just a little burn mark is all. Small stuff, Barb,” he said with a smile.
And once a smile started, she had to smile back. That was the way with them.
Mom sat silent with her cigarettes for two days. We tiptoed in. We tiptoed out.
“You okay, Mom? Mom?”
Neighbors brought food. “What can we do?” they asked and Tom and I couldn’t think of anything so they’d pat our little boy heads and soft step away, closing the door behind them with careful clicks.
On the third day, we woke to the consoling scent of bacon. We found Mom in the kitchen cracking eggs into a frying pan. She turned and smiled weakly at our round, wary eyes.
“Over easy?” she said.
Mom was back, but not back. She hugged us with more vigor but otherwise moved through the days in a trance. She did what she had always done — shopped and cooked and cared for us. She left for her waitress shift at Bert’s Diner at six in the morning and return at three with aching feet. My father used to rub them for her before he left for his night shift at the GM factory. He’d cradle her feet in his large, steady hands and knead them, slowly and deliberately, until she breathed out tiny ahhhhs.
“We miss him, don’t we?” she said at times. Otherwise, she didn’t talk about him, so neither did we, and over time Dad faded into a waning mirage.
Two months after the telegram arrived, Mom dragged in a broken antique floor lamp.
“Look what I found,” she said, fussing over it like it was a newfound treasure.
The lamp’s cord was frayed, its white shade stained, the brass base bent. It wobbled.
She grinned and I remember wondering how a smile could be triumphant and sad at the same time. I’ve since learned there are many kinds of smiles.
“Let’s see if it works,” she said.
We screwed in a lightbulb and plugged it in. It didn’t.
“Just needs a little fixin’,” she said.
I said it looked too broken to fix.
“Everything is fixable!” she snapped, then just as quickly scooped me up and said sorry with a hug.
It was the start of what mom called her new hobby: bringing home throwaways left on the street that she said “needed a little TLC.” A red Radio Flyer scooter missing a wheel, a chipped chartreuse vase, unfurled 8-track cassettes, a filthy yellow car seat with the harness yanked off. Junk Days became holidays when we’d follow her flashlight beam as we roamed the streets at night, sifting through discarded items piled at the curb. She called it pearl diving and, because we were still young, we wondered when she would find one.
Afternoons, she waited for us to arrive home from school. “Come,” she’d say, and we’d follow her excitement into the next room to check out her finds: a CB radio sprouting wires, cracked brown crockery, banged-up pots, seatless chairs… “All fixable,” she assured us and, though Tom and I had our doubts, we went along, for when she was happy we were happy and that’s how it is when you want to stay loved.
Mom’s hobby resisted limitation and over the next five years, stuff spread through the house like a contagion unhinged, infecting empty spaces, invading corners, creeping up walls. The house seemed to wheeze and heave under the weight of stuff Mom said we might need someday or to save for a rainy day or, as Tom and I figured out by then, for the junkyard where it all belonged.
At times we asked, “Why are you bringing home all this stuff, Mom?“
She responded the same, “Everything deserves a second chance, don’t you think?”
We didn’t know then that finding is easier than fixing for once she brought the items home, she never looked at them again.
Time passed and I, then Tom, graduated high school and decided to move three states away. We thought Mom’s stuff would be enough for her without us though our hearts whispered loudly it would never be enough. And during the coming years, we met our mates and worked our trades, and made a life without Mom except for the occasional visits and weekly Sunday phone calls.
Until six years out in early spring, we received Mom’s letters—one sent to me and one to Tom. Nearly identical, she wrote that she loved us, “more than you know” but it was time for her to put things behind her. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have to leave … before I become unfixable too.”
Alarmed by her words, we hurried into our cars and drove back through three states, but by the time we arrived, Mom’s car was gone, the house empty, its contents dumped outside. Heaps of it blanketing the yard, crowding out the front porch, crouching under the bushes, and cascading over the curbs. A diaspora of useless, devalued, unfixable stuff.
A handmade sign planted atop the tallest mound announced, “Everything Must Go.”
Photo by Klaus Nielsen via Pexels