I’m not much of a letter writer. I never feel I have the time to sit and write when it’s quicker to pick up the phone and call someone. But, I can’t do that now. I uncap my fountain pen. I open the bottle of ink. I write Dear Joan. I glance around the kitchen; white walls, dishes stacked in the drainer, the clock with its sterile face staring back at me. Down at the edge of the yellow rug in front of the sink I see the yellow Volkswagen Beetle Joan was driving the day she died.
The accident. I have a million pictures in my head of Joan’s car. The drunken man’s car. Crumpled like metal origami. Shattered glass glinting in the sun. The stink of hot shredded rubber and personal effects strewn across the road; a black leather wallet, a charred romantic novel splayed open, pages turning slowly in the breeze. A single brown sandal. A mirrored makeup bag. They gave me these things. They say the man was badly injured, badly burned, but alive.
The pen intertwined with my fingers, I cover my face with my hands. I think of my family and their opinions. After the accident, their silence was unnerving but I know what they were thinking. How could I not tell her? What do they know about it?
Before the accident, Jack was incessant, “Peg, we need to talk about Joan”.
“Yes. We will.”
“Soon,” I would say, not really thinking of a time.
Jack is on his way to Melbourne now, for an important meeting with the Real Estate agent. He won’t be back until this evening.
We’ve been together a long time, Jack and I. Thirty years through the ups and downs of married life but he has been pulling away from me since Joan’s death, as if he’s shrinking like heated plastic.
Don’t think about any of that, I tell myself. Today is your deadline. You’ve put it off long enough. I think of Jack driving to Melbourne, strangling the steering wheel like he does when he’s tense, squinting into the sun because he’s forgotten his sunglasses. He hopes the agent won’t keep him waiting again. Last time he was thirty minutes late and this morning Jack muttered something about needing everything to go without a hitch.
Joan’s cottage has been sold. Today he’ll clear out the last of her things and hand over the keys. And it will be done.
I stare at this almost blank sheet of paper. At the envelope beside it. At the tile floor, remembering Joan skating across it in her socks.
I have been trying to write this letter for the past year. Do you remember the day we were meant to go dress shopping for my wedding anniversary dinner? I was going to tell you then. I had made the decision without telling anyone else.
I waited for you in the garden, watering the cabbages that your father loves to grow. You know the ones. Marabels King Hybrids I think they’re called.
I practiced the words I would say to you over and over, staring into the center of those huge cabbages, as if they would offer me some kind of guidance, realizing that it was like looking at two hearts. Then this other image, something unexpected.
A crowning head. I dropped the can and turned away. Walked quickly back into the house, closed the door and waited.
I look out the kitchen window. The forecasted rain has begun. I watch as water veins down the glass, and imagine I can smell the thick briny sea and clumps of seaweed thrown onto the nearby shore. I stare past the window, to the dim sky.
But you never arrived. The accident took care of everything.
I feel a jolt, like an exposed nerve in a tooth spiking through me as everything I’ve done badly or wrong as a parent comes to mind. My inability to listen. How self-absorbed I could be. The times I wasn’t there for her.
These feelings aren’t new, I’ve felt them before but always found a distracting household chore or phone call to numb them.
When Jack decides to say something to me now, he accuses me of doing too many things that don’t matter. He’s angry with me, I know that. I’m angry too, but not with him and when I need distraction I clean and he tells me it’s ridiculous.
“Lorna comes in to clean over your cleaning once a week. It just seems like a big waste of time.”
“A big waste?” I say now, looking at his empty chair. “Is your garden a big waste?”
The garden. His empire. After he sold the restaurant this is where he spends most of his time. He may as well take root.
I ask myself now, what has meaning to me and I remember holding you for the first time, afraid but hopeful, asking myself all the questions. Would I be a good mother? How would I manage? What if I failed?
As I stood twenty-four years ago looking down at you, those questions were drowned out by my fascination. As I cupped your head I was amazed at how heavy it felt and yet so fragile.
There was that newborn smell of powder and cloth diapers, your tiny doll hands. Pudgy legs. Skin like new silk.
We brought you home to your white crib, the mobile of colored plastic animals dancing above you. The soft blue glow of the nightlight. The moon, your first moon, high and fat behind yellow curtains.
In the basket in the center of the table is a postcard. I pick it up. On it is one of Joan’s paintings, vague figures enveloped in a fog of earth tones. A tangle of words, some decipherable, some not, float above them.
She used postcards as invitations to her shows. She always said she would be an artist. I think about her childhood bedroom and the distinct phases of artistic expression it had endured.
Black light and posters and sweet smoky incense. Murals with starfish, sharks and angelfish; nets hung, shells scattered. The time it was angry red and purple with jars of stones and bits of metal arranged on the glass shelving lining the walls. Never pink and pretty or girlish. Always a theme, a mood. Some kind of message.
Now the space is silent and neutral. Turned into a guest room. Expressionless.
I place the card where I can see it clearly. Outside, the rain continues, heavy drops snapping against the glass.
As you grew all I could think of was having this perfect family, this perfect life.
A happily-ever-after movie life. I didn’t want to ruin the chances of having that.
Jack and I rarely speak about the accident or losing Joan. After it happened we went through the terrible necessity of death’s technical requirements. The first shock-filled days. Notifying people. Funeral arrangements. Trying to clear out Joan’s little cottage but unable to, leaving it unfinished, leaving things behind. I found it unthinkable, at the time, to put the cottage on the market.
I look at the clock. Jack will be in Melbourne by now.
I picture him walking through the nearly empty cottage, picking up what remains of Joan, touching what she once touched, the years of her short life embedded in the fabric of the place.
Right now, I’m looking at a postcard of one of your paintings. I admit that I always had trouble understanding your work. Your father did too; even though he would never admit it.
All those shapes and subdued color, the blending and the words. Unrelated words, like War Pudding and Heart Rough Diamond, snatches of strange dialogue. What did it all mean? What were you trying to say?
When you were alive, I always seemed to miss the important details.
It’s like my mother’s rigid and reedy ghost is in the room, those intense blue yet vacant eyes glaring at me. Her insistence that there was no reason for me to study English Literature in College.
In my family, there was no room to do what you wanted. Study was thought of as frivolous. Earning money was what mattered. Your grandmother told me immediately after graduating from High School that it was time to find a job and I said that to you too. Maybe you should think about a real job Joan. Just to keep yourself going. But you were focused. Even when you were young. So focused and determined.
I re-fill the pen, a birthday gift from Joan two years ago, dipping and sucking the ink with the little gold lever on its side and remember the last time she was in this kitchen. Our Thirtieth wedding anniversary was coming up.
I remember your visit, three weeks before the accident. I see you sitting where I am now, wearing a flowing blue-green paisley dress, one long leg draped elegantly over the other. Kohl smudging your hazel eyes.
It was sunny that day and despite the air-conditioning the kitchen was warm. It seemed to accentuate the smells; your perfume, something lilac, and the faint whiff of paint thinner just underneath along with the oatmeal cookies baking in the oven.
We talked about who would be at the dinner and you rolled your eyes when I told you your father wanted to cook instead of going out.
You said he wasn’t the only great chef in the world and handed me a swatch of heavy, textured fabric telling me it was for your new curtains.
I took it from you, touching your fingers as I did. I can hear my typical response, nice pattern but awfully heavy don’t you think.
I asked you about your work and you seemed distracted, said you were trying something different. Something you hoped we’d see on your next visit. But it was more difficult than you thought and you’d already painted over the first try.
I told you not to worry and went to take the tray of cookies from the oven, scooped them onto a cooling rack.
When I turned around you were running a hand over the fabric swatch, slowly, back and forth, as if reading Braille.
I put down the pen. The rain has stopped and the remaining clouds crawl across the brightening sky. I go to the refrigerator, stand in front of it, door wide open, the chill falling to my sandaled feet.
Jack’s favorite chocolate rests on the second shelf. Bittersweet with almonds. Joan adored chocolate; I don’t think a day went by when she didn’t eat it.
I can’t think of the last time I had chocolate. I’m short and have to watch my weight.
Joan thought I was crazy. She said I was tiny as it was and one more day of dieting would cause me to disappear.
I can remember her telling me, “You’re acting like a fanatic, Mom. One piece won’t kill you”.
The fridge whirs and chugs and hums. Outside, the sun glows and Joan’s voice stays in my head, her warm sugary breath in my ear.
I take the bar of chocolate back to the table, break off a square and place it in my mouth. It melts against my tongue.
Your father and I tried to get pregnant. I followed all the advice, read all the books. I took care of myself but nothing happened. It all made sense when the doctor discovered I had been born without a womb.
Black on white, the words that have been rumbling around inside of me for so long are stark and shocking and horrible. I don’t want to look at them. My eyes burn, my throat tightens, but I force myself to read them again.
I am still, like a figure in one of Joan’s paintings. This is where I’ll stay, painted into this moment with these words as I keep looking down at the connected curve of letters. The loops and flourishes. The way I dotted my i’s. I see a pattern. Abstract yet somehow not.
Your father and I talked about it for a long time. I was afraid. I hated how my body had broken my heart. I was hung up on biology. Wanted my blood to be your blood. Wanted a flesh and blood duplication and yet you were our child. Will always be our child.
You made the house feel full and bright and we realized that it hadn’t felt like a home before you. But now there are just hollow spaces everywhere. Dark, hollow spaces that I don’t know how to fill.
I cap the pen and place the pages to one side. I slip off my sandals and step outside onto the front porch. The air is heavy and smells of wet soil.
I stand for a while not focusing on anything, then walk to where Jack has dug a long trough for hedging alongside the curb. He has filled the trough with specially blended compost ordered from the local nursery. The rain has turned it into a thick batter of mud. I step in up to my ankles, its soft silkiness squishing between my toes.
On the road is the large pool that always appears after heavy rain. I think of when Joan was a child and I told her not to go near it. One day she snuck out and came in soaked, her new t-shirt and shorts muddy and grass-stained. A tug of war broke out between us, me scolding, her responding, “but all the other kids play in the pool”.
“I don’t care what the other kids do.”
“That water is filthy. There could be germs.”
“I’ll wear sneakers and I won’t swallow any.”
“I won’t even stay in long. Only one minute.”
“I said no!”
“But Mom. It’s really, really good.”
Now those small wilful battles that usually ended with Joan stomping and pouting and predictably rushing off to her room seem nothing more than a script. A childhood expectation. They are weightless, mean nothing at all, and I step from the muddy trough into the knee-high murky pool of water. I kick. Listen to the rustle.
I crouch and cup water into my hands, bring it to my face. It feels bath-warm and smells like dirty coins and tar. Small bits of road flotsam float on the surface: gum wrappers, Styrofoam, things unrecognizable.
I walk through the trough on my way back to the house and inside leave a trail of muddy footprints. I shower and change into the blue cotton dress I haven’t worn in years. I see myself in the full-length mirror on the back of the bedroom closet door. I slip on a pair of old flip-flops.
In the kitchen, I drink tea. Something Joan left behind. It smells of licorice and tastes almost too sweet, but I think it’s a taste I can get used to. I look down; examine the mosaic of small brown footprints drying against the white tiles.
You were right about the pool in the street Joan.
As I’m about to fold the pages and tuck them into the unaddressed envelope I hear Jack coming through the door. He walks into the kitchen with a bag of groceries and a large, rectangular package wrapped in smooth white paper.
He places the bag on the table. Props the package against the sink. His hair is windblown, his eyes red.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“I found it.” His voice is tinny. “In her closet when I was taking the last of the clothes.”
I notice the small card attached which reads ‘Happy 30th Wedding Anniversary Mom and Dad’.
I press my hand to the card. I wonder if this is the work she was talking about. The new work that she wasn’t sure of. I don’t move but am aware of Jack beside me. He begins to unwrap the package. I take the paper from him, folding it as if it were a family heirloom. A keepsake.
Jack leaves it where it’s propped and we stand back, as if on cue.
I breathe in, hugging the cushion of wrapping paper to my chest.
The painting is a family portrait framed in gold and glass. Joan stands in the middle, Jack and I on either side of her.
I try to say something but can’t find the words again. I open my mouth but they are gone, spilled, grief and ink onto the pages I’ve written.
Jack takes my hand. I feel his heat, his hand a drought-worn landscape of cracked calluses and coarse skin from so much time spent in the garden. A second later, he lets go.
Diffused light, the smell of sweat and spiced aftershave, the remnants of licorice, fill the kitchen. I notice that there are no words in the painting.
I look away from it. I lower my eyes to the floor where the stamp of my small brown feet, like a map of where I had once been, stretches out in front of me.
‘Unspoken’ (c) 2022 Deborah McMenamy
All Rights Reserved