“Memories and Where to Keep Them” is the honourable mention for Room’s Creative Non-Fiction Contest 2020.
Before my mother left, when my mind was still small and pink like two fists held together, we saw a miracle in the sky.
I was still allowed outside then. Whenever I wanted. The day was clear and the sky stretched for miles like blue canvas. Outside on our white porch hammock I splayed my stubby limbs for balance. I had to be careful on its webbing; the netting hung slack and my Bambi legs and arms poked too easily through. One moment I’d be perfectly suspended, the next on the ground. I was very deliberate about this whole exercise; white knuckled and gripping each braided end, I balanced like a finch on a powerline.
My mother used to tell me she would come out here on the deck, lay across this hammock, close her eyes beneath the orange sun, and drift asleep. I had never seen her do this, but because she told me I believed her. She said she loved the sound of the wind stirring, birds trilling, and the perfect quiet that strung these things together.
So this is what I did now. I held my eyes shut, listened to the birds, felt the sun spread through me like the heel of a hand softening a mound of dough. I negotiated the tension of the ropes with my outstretched arms and legs and thought, relax, relax, relax. My father grilled salmon on the far edge of the deck. The afternoon flowered with scents of smoke, cherry wood, and sesame oil. Upstairs my mother tossed rosemary potatoes on a skillet and trimmed bushels of asparagus. Dinner was the only time my parents spoke in front of me. Food loosened people’s jaws that way. I drew the scent of burning wood deep into my lungs and rolled my tongue over my teeth, loosening tiny gorges of saliva. We’d eat soon.
While my parents finished fixing dinner, I closed my eyes and listened. Birds chattered. The fish popped and hissed. The braided hammock ropes sighed and stretched. I couldn’t keep focus for long. Time passed and I drifted, moving hazily between spells of sleep and foggy consciousness.
Soon, something crossed overhead. It eclipsed the sun, pitching the deck’s temperature several degrees lower in an instant. Shadow traveled up my shins until it blackened my eyelids. As cold prickled my arms I snapped from my daze, glancing skyward with impatient curiosity.
There, in the sky, was a cloud cast perfectly in the shape of a hand.
The fingers, the knuckles, the palm. It was exact. Too precise, I thought, to be a coincidence. I didn’t care about the cold any longer.
“What is it, kid?” he said. He walked over slowly, clinking his metal tongs together a couple of times before setting them reluctantly beside the grill.
I pointed up at the sky.
“It’s a hand,” I said.
A pause. He tilted his head back, revealing the port wine birthmark covering the stubbled white of his neck. The mark traveled up to his left cheek before tapering off, cupping his jaw like a fiery hand. It scared some of the kids at school. But it did not scare me back then.
“Well I’ll be damned,” he breathed, “you’re right.”
Electricity arced in the air between us. We smiled at one another in wonder. My father was not concerned with the salmon any longer. He opened the door to the house, hollering to my mother for the disposable camera stashed in our junk drawer. All the while he remained fixed on the hand overhead, grey eyes drawn to slits against the dappled sunshine. “I’ll be damned,” he said again. “The Lord is watching over us.”
I did not know much about religion or the Lord. But my father appeared awed. Where I saw a cloud, my father peered deeper, brow knitted into a wrinkled question mark as though decrypting a tacit message in the clouds. Could I see it? No. But what I saw was good enough.
My mother barreled down the stairs with the camera. She peered up at the sky, her hair spilling over her shoulders like liquid gold in the sunshine. Her thin lips pursed as she examined the cloud in the viewfinder. The camera clicked thrice. She handed it to my father who, doubting my mother’s accuracy, also took several photos for assurance. This whole exchange was wordless.
Finally, after my mother had disappeared behind the grey door leading to the basement stairs, my father let his eyes wander to mine. “You will remember this for the rest of your life,” he said to me, “the Lord’s given you your first sign. There will be more, but this is the first.”
I nodded. I was swollen with pride for noticing the cloud. I patted my pockets and smiled. They were filled with little stones I’d found earlier in the day; now they clattered together against my thighs like dull bells. I had spotted my first sign. A miracle.
Years later the days on the deck waned. My mother and her golden hair disappeared, fading like film exposed to daylight. While she rooted herself a town over and negotiated custody with my father, cavities of empty space opened in the house where her belongings once resided.
Previously, my father had curated our living spaces like a botanist trimming a bonsai tree; tables were clear, the floors uncluttered, every shelf and empty surface deliberately cultivated (a Monet coffee table book on the cherry entryway table; a delicately lacquered wooden boat on the shelf; three National Geographic issues aesthetically arranged atop one another on our granite side table). Even though we had nothing, everything we did own was arranged just so. Clean. Left with little else in her domain, my mother burst from crevices and drawers, folded herself into closets and cupboards. She’d occupied territory in the guest bathroom out by the garage – the room itself no larger than our linens closet and scarcely able to host its toilet and a person at the same time – and coerced her entire life into the two drawers beneath the sink basin. Powders, perfumes, brushes, lipsticks, concealer, foundation, hairdryer, paper scraps, folded tissues, nail files, lotions, clippers, pocket change, tall bottles of hairstyling gels and foams. Now, her essence totally evacuated, this bathroom felt hollow. The way a coffin might feel.
The household was colder now, the way my father liked it. To keep the AC bills low, he stapled black curtains outside our windowsills so that the daylight couldn’t heat the tiles or carpeting. During the day, he worked downstairs in the basement while I sat upstairs, pressed against my favorite corner of our living room. We spoke less and less, and then hardly at all. When we did, he often shouted. He’d pound his fists on the cupboards in a way that made the glass inside clatter and shudder and say to me: What is wrong with you. What is wrong. The louder he grew, the smaller I realized I was.
In the long spaces between morning and evening I often thought of the afternoons in the sunlight, of collecting rocks in my pockets, and of exploring the woods behind our house littered with green fronds of staghorn sumacs and their frizzy red berries. But whenever I asked my father to go outside, he said no. First, sometimes. Then always. His reasons varied, but the hard look in his eye never softened.
Months passed, then years. Since my father worked from home, we adopted rules to keep things quiet during the day. To mute the sound of footsteps from overhead, I scarcely walked during his working hours. I didn’t play music, or let the television volume stray above a few notches. I even limited my bathroom visits to times my father was upstairs or in his workshop. This smoothed the tumult between us, but subdued something deeper inside me. Parts of me emptied. My appetite faded, in my sleep I fought shapeless figures. In the mirror my eyes sunk like graves. I grew as hollow as my mother’s cupboards and cabinets, as the two drawers beneath the guest bathroom sink.
Now we were knee-deep into June; the crab apple blossoms had already dropped in our neighborhood, the new leaves uncurled and opened flat against the sunlight. All that remained was for Minnesota to slowly bake. Throughout the evening our AC ran like a steady, mechanical exhalation. When I woke my hands were stiff with cold. I warmed them in the sink and brushed my teeth.
The night prior, my father had found a maroon book in the trunk end table beside his recliner. The trunk itself was usually locked; it had been this way for years. Perhaps it was something about that evening – our mutual silence through dinner, the unruly bouts of wind outside, or outright boredom – that convinced him to root around for the key and finally unlock it.
Outside of the book, there was little else inside. He pulled it out and weighed it in his hand like a cut of meat. Then, recognition mounting, he grunted. The album was a rare relic of my mother’s. With the nail of his thumb he flicked the desiccated chitin of a moth wing that had become tangled in spiderwebbing on the book’s spine and, somewhat successfully, wiped the cover clean of dust. In one hand he propped it open against his knee, in the other he cradled his gin and tonic. Three ice cubes. A lime slice. The only sound in the room, other than our breathing, came from the ice jangling like windchimes against the glass.
Unlike my father, I had recognized the photo album immediately. My mother had spent years filling each page with photographs from sundry disposable cameras stashed throughout the house. I said nothing as my father paged idly through the volume, pursing his lips into white lines of displeasure as if perusing a vexing legal document.
Finally he stopped midway through the pages, tension rippling through his face and shoulders, and closed the book over his hand. His grey eyes vaguely searched the room until they landed on me.
“Time for bed,” he said.
So I went.
Normally it was bad manners for me to touch things that weren’t mine. But my father had left the book out on his way to bed, and this morning it remained on the floor where he’d left it. As he readied himself for the day I averted my eyes, pretending I had not noticed. But the book throbbed like a sunspot on my field of vision. Everywhere I looked, it pulsed in the periphery. I fixated on a drawing in my lap and sucked my teeth as my father lapped his coffee, feeling, somehow, that I was doing something gravely illicit. Finally my father stretched, ate, and tumbled down the stairs to his office.
I waited until I could hear the groan my father’s desk chair and the skitter of its wheels rolling into place as it received him. Once he fixed himself for the day, he typically did not rise again until lunch. I crawled to the book as quietly as my hands and knees allowed and grabbed it. Shame washed through me as I pulled it to my chest. Then, more powerfully, a thrill of pleasure.
In my corner I sat the book in my lap and began to leaf through its contents. It was just a book of film, but my heart raced. For the first time in years I felt my mother’s tangible imprint on our lives together. Not only had she captured these images, but she’d documented proof of how things once were between us.
Each page was translucent plastic and gently puckered in my hands. Beneath each plastic insert was an accompanying paper caption wherein my mother had penned brief explanations for each photograph she’d taken. Many of the pictures were before my time – my mother and her brothers on a boat (“on the boat with Kurt and Son”); my father releasing a haphazard smile beneath the shadow of a blue baseball cap (“Bemidji visit, ’92”); my mother with a frothing yellow perm beside Shing, a Chow Chow mutt who died when I was younger, as a puppy (“move-in day”). I marveled at this one. I drew my index finger over the laminate. He was so little then! His height would not have exceeded my knee. And my mother, young and vibrant, her smile blooming like a poppy for the lens. Every girl thinks her mother looks like a model, but mine really did.
I smiled as I examined her hair. Gorgeous, but. She looked so eighties. I would tease her for this later.
Soon came my baby photos. Though I’d been mostly bald for the first year of my life, my mother routinely clipped whatever fuzz accumulated on the top of my head into a barrette with a fabric rose planted securely at its center. My hair, as a result, stuck straight up like a bundle of willow thread at the crown of my skull. I looked like a clown.
On the very next page was a photo of me, just as young, fisting my chubby hands at my sides. Wet eyelashes, ruddy cheeks. My expression was warped into a frozen wail.
The caption: “Charlotte hates her rose barrette.”
From there the pictures became more infrequent. Years passed on a single page. A picture of my first day of school and the summer thereafter, blowing out candles at a birthday. A day on the beach. My mother did not appear in the photos, nor did my father. There was me and then there was dead space – pictures of the empty stairs, pictures of an unoccupied hallway that led to our bedrooms. As the remainder of the book thinned these pictures particularly became more frequent. White walls, white carpeting, the chestnut table my father had built, the new cabinets with doors swung wide open, freshly emptied. Less and less of us. More and more of walls, floors, spaces that ached like open jaws. Something drew me to these photos – I felt allied to their stark openness, jolting with recognition that I couldn’t put to words. She had left each of these photos ones unannotated, accusatory. Fill-in-the-blank.
Finally, towards the final pages, I saw it.
The picture was of four white streaks against a piercing blue sky. I did not recognize it at first.
The caption read “Charlotte saw a hand in the clouds.”
I balked at the photograph. It was nothing like a hand. Simply four streaks of white, each parallel with the next. Like a wrinkle on linen before being pulled taut against a mattress. Something ordinary. But my memory had been remained sharp over the years; I had seen a perfect hand overhead. I remembered the mesh of the hammock, the sound of birds perched in the cherry tree, the grill that sputtered and hissed nearby. In my chest I could feel the swell instigated by my father’s pride and recognition; the way it felt to finally share something with him. I was certain: the hand had been there, down the fingernail.
Still, there was the photograph. My mother would not have lied. That was not her way. My certainty grew grainy, collapsing in on itself like a sugar cube disintegrating into water. Little pins of cold traveled up my spine. I wondered if my father had seen this the night prior – had he paged this far? Did he know?
I fingered the image, the plastic laminate slipping gently beneath my thumb, and waited for something more. Something explanatory. But nothing came. My memory was my memory, it was simply false. Faltering, I wondered which was more likely the case: had I simply seen what I wanted to see that day, or had I somehow, along the way, decided to trade one version of events for the other? The more I thought of this, the tighter my chest grew. For years my father and I had told this story back to one another, passed it across the dinner table like a memento of a time when we were all together, happy.
And there it was on the page.
I used the nail of my index finger to prop open the plastic casing and gently shimmied the photograph out of its purse. I did the same with the caption. I replaced these items with one of the photographs from the back page, closed the book, and returned it to the spot beside the table.
I didn’t know why I took the photo out. It didn’t seem right to leave it, as though I’d be abandoning something if I had. Before bed I cleared out my dresser drawer and laid my photograph face-down against the woodgrain, carefully re-stacking all of my folded clothes atop it so that nothing appeared amiss. When I pulled the drawer closed it felt, albeit slightly, fuller.