A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl
It was the end of lilac season, that brief, heady time. The long midwestern winter retreated, the sky was a blue vault unrolling forever, and the lilacs came on. The best were the old-fashioned lilacs that could reach seven feet tall or more, leggy, ambitious growers. There were newer varieties now, compact and smaller-scaled, advertised as better suited to yards with limited space. But they disappointed, because their fragrance was so much less. They didn’t make you want to bury your face in them or bring home staggering armloads of branches.
By mid-May, the lilacs would fade and dry into brown pods. Then would come spirea, pink-sprigged or with branches like white fountains. Then iris, all colors, rust and purple and pale blue and white, and gold with orange tongues. Then peonies and early roses. But the lilacs were both humble and extravagant, the true wild heart of spring.
The old lady who was dying had always loved lilacs, and her daughter clipped some of the woody stems from the backyard bushes and set them in a vase near her bed. She thought that the
scent might still reach her. The old lady no longer spoke or opened her eyes, nor did she stir or call out. She had been like this for some days. The end could not be very far off, but it seemed to be taking a long time.
A hospital bed had been set up in the first-floor sunroom. The hospice nurse visited, and there were home care assistants who worked rotating shifts. The daughter spent time sitting with her mother, sometimes speaking or reading aloud, sometimes silent. She fielded calls from friends and other family members, she went through her list of things that had to be done. She had moved back into her mother’s house during this final illness, and so there was also her own house to run, a twenty-minute drive across town.
She made trips back and forth, bringing stacks of mail and bills with her. She left Post-it note reminders for her husband. At her mother’s house she slept upstairs, in the same room she’d had as a child, although she had been forced to buy new sheets for the bed. The old ones were sour with age and no amount of laundering and bleaching could get rid of the smell.
The house had been declining along with its owner for some time now. It would need shoring up and attention before it could be put on the market. Once the old lady died, there would be no need in the family for a big, expensive-to-maintain house. It would be sold, although this had not been discussed with the old lady beforehand, in order to spare her feelings and avoid the impression that the family was making coldhearted plans. Which they were, in fact, but these were necessary.
If you lived in a place long enough, as the old lady had, you grew used to it and saw nothing wrong. But the basement seeped water when it rained and the foundation bricks showed cracks. The daughter had called in a service to evict the raccoons from the attic, then someone else to seal up the place under the eaves where they got in. The plumbing was balky, the wiring needed an
upgrade. The air in every room was stale with disuse and regret. The furniture had sat so long in one place that it had worn the carpeting thin. The heavy curtains held dust in their folds. Small black beetles lived in the kitchen shelves.
When her husband had died almost ten years ago, the old lady’s son and daughter had tried to get their mother to move to the excellent senior living facility in town. But this was the house where she had been a bride, a wife, and now a widow, and she had no wish to leave it. It had been a grand house and it was still solid and imposing, a dark brick built in the Foursquare style with a hipped roof and a front porch supported by stone pillars. The neighborhood had many such big old houses and was still considered desirable, with its shade trees and quiet brick side streets and its nearness to the campus. The town had grown outward over the years, like the rings in a tree trunk, from postwar bungalows to ranch houses to the daughter’s newer district with its mishmash of architectures: citified farmhouses, Colonials, contemporaries. Nowadays the most prosperous people built out on the edges of town, the farthest ring, where they could have attached three-car garages, media rooms, open-plan living spaces, and his-and-her bathrooms.
Once the lilacs by her mother’s bed had wilted, the daughter removed them, threw them out, washed and dried the vase, and set it in the pantry cupboard that held any number of other vases. She and her brother had made some effort at clearing things out when their father died, but there was a limit as to what their mother would allow, and now there would be that project to contend with as well. The closets, basement, and attic were full of old and worn-out items. Most things would be discarded or donated but first you had to sort through it all and depress yourself with the thought of how much of a life came down to useless possessions, how much there was of vanishing.
Although it was true that there was also the archive.
Both of her parents, her father in particular, had been prominent people at the university. Her father had been on the faculty of the law school for more than forty years. Much of her parents’ lives had centered around the familiar routines of a college town, its circumscribed news, its issues, its ceremonies. The parents had been boosters, donors, and later, benefactors. They had been a reliable presence at fund-raising campaigns, fixtures at alumni luncheons and receptions. They attended sports events, choral concerts, theatricals, lectures, welcome sessions for foreign students, homecomings, convocations. Her father had served on all the notable campus committees and in the faculty senate. He had received many awards and honors, all duly noted in his obituary.
After his death, a scholarship at the School of Law was named for him. And the university library archived his publications, his personal papers, and the plaques and framed proclamations, the distinctions that had charted and crowned his career. Archivists had sorted through it all, arranging and cataloging. Her father would have liked the idea of having his own well-ordered and climate-controlled space, preserved for all time.
There might be other items that could go to the archives; the daughter would keep an eye out for them and set them aside. Her mother had held on to a share of memorabilia, scrapbooks, and such. Her father was older than her mother and his memories of the university went back to the Great Depression when he was a student here. The monthly room and board at his fraternity house was eight dollars, and there were times he and the others struggled to come up with even that much. A loaf of bread cost ten cents, a bus ride a nickel. To hear her father tell it, it was a time of hardship cheerfully borne, when he and other students still managed to have their share of thrifty fun with dances, serenades, and hayrides. There were ice cream socials and organ concerts at the music
building. They gathered to listen to the radio, they made fudge and popped popcorn. There were no cars on campus, no smoking allowed. (After some passage of time, this was again the case, although the language used now was “smoke-free campus.”) Certainly no alcohol, although this last was always announced with what seemed like an audible apostrophe: except for those times when . . . Women students had to be home by ten thirty at night, eleven on weekends, a view that carried over to the raising of his own daughter, and which had caused a certain amount of friction.
But that too had been such a long time ago.
His wife might not have her own archive, but she did have her own story. She was dreaming bits and pieces of it even now, lying in the hospital bed. Her story was not yet over because there were these final pieces to finish.
She had grown up and gone to college back east. She came from educated people who expected daughters as well as sons to better themselves and to make their way in the world.
She had met her husband when she arrived at the university to take an instructor position in the history department, her first teaching job. These were the war years, and as men were in short supply, the department was obliged to make do with whoever was available. She settled into her rented room and the routine of classes and grading papers and loneliness.
The war hung over everything, the excitement and dread of what happened in those unimaginable places half a world away, where bombs fell and armies marched and there were so many dead that they too were a kind of army. The war was a constant, solemn reminder of the many things larger and more important than any one person, certainly more important than yourself and your own silly problems.
The history department had her teaching a patchwork of courses: Medieval, and Intro to American, and one called the
Golden Age of Exploration. She was on shaky ground with everything but the American, and kept waiting for her students to find her out and denounce her as a fraud. She was only a couple of years older than they were, and conscious of her lack of authority and credentials. But the students (mostly women, a few men either unable to enlist or waiting to be conscripted) were too distracted by the hysteria and romance of wartime to pay her much mind. They sat politely enough in class and turned in their blue exam booklets filled with haphazardly written answers.
It was her job to hold them accountable and to insist on standards of knowledge and scholarship, but it was difficult to be very severe with them. History was something that had already happened, and life, their lives, were in the anxious now. Most of the girls had boyfriends in the service, or at least wrote letters to someone away at war. The boyfriends wrote letters back from the places they were not allowed to identify. The girls followed the war in newsreels and radio broadcasts and looked at names on maps and pieced together a good notion of where the boyfriends were. There was an urgency to it all. Some of these romances ended badly, tragically. It was inevitable.
The whole country was at war. The war effort involved not just the obvious, the weapons and implements of war, the planes and bombs and tanks and trucks, but the manufacture of canvas for tents and for the webbing that was used for holding canteens, wood pulp for paper, fine optometry lenses for binoculars and scopes, leather for shoes, feed for animals, copper for electrical switches, great quantities of wire, of cable, of cement. All manner of commodities and substances were needed, scrap metal, rubber, aluminum, tin foil, cooking grease, all of it elevated and consecrated by the solemn necessity of war. Everyone was to do their part. People trained themselves to recognize the shapes of enemy aircraft overhead. They saved up to buy war bonds. The boyfriends
came home on leave wearing their uniforms. The girls left school to marry them and wait out the war at one or another army or naval base. Who would care, at such a time, about the Golden Age of Exploration?
And yet history shifted underneath your feet, she knew that. The present was a dizzy perch that every so often began to spin and slide. If you built a plane you were also bringing into being the sheets of flame that sprang up in the bomber’s path, the ruined town, the ghosts that blew through it like rags of smoke, and then the town rebuilt and its memories put into museums. You held on to your life with both hands, you told yourself to pay attention to this moment, the here and now. But one minute passed into the next, and then the next, and at some point you looked back and everything was over and people called it history.
Anyway, at that moment in the here and now (which had in fact long since passed), she needed to slip into the shared bathroom and wash out her underwear in the sink with the bar of yellow soap that was provided. Then carry the bundle, wrapped in a dripping towel, back to her room, where she would hang it over the radiator to stiffen and dry. There were times you wished that history would just go ahead and swallow you down.
* * *
Her daughter too was thinking about history, in the sense of things lost, as she stood at the back door of her parents’ house looking out at the garden.
Her mother’s death would be hard, but it was almost harder going on about the business of normal living, more or less normal, until it happened. When her father died it had not been unexpected, exactly—he was by then a very old man—and it had gone quickly. A collapse at home, a trip to the hospital, his death the following day. Everyone should be so fortunate.
In her mother’s case there had been a series of setbacks, declines, crises, decisions to be made about interventions and treatments. The choices presented to you only gave you the illusion that anything made much of a difference. Was it a terrible thing to wish that it could all be over?
Like everything else here, the garden had been neglected. Once her parents had reached a certain age, the daughter had made a project of coming over to help with it. But just as she had uselessly nagged and prodded them about keeping the house up, her efforts with the garden had never been enough. Now she was going to have to hire someone, a landscaper or a maintenance company, to come and weed and cut things back and restore order.
The original beds and borders were choked with honeysuckle bushes and all manner of stalky and creeping weeds. In the daughter’s growing-up years there had been a grape arbor, long collapsed, its timbers now leaning against the fence, a few vines still bound to them.
You could lie on the grass beneath the arbor and look up at the grape clusters and the blue sky between the sifting leaves and feel as if summer would never end. She and her brother had been greedy and impatient for the grapes to ripen and had always picked some of them too soon, when they were thin and sour. When the fruit turned heavy and purple-red, they had raced the birds and wasps to get to it. The grapes were sun-warmed and slightly bruised and she had stained her chin with the sticky juice. She had never tasted any grapes that were as good since.
She had her own garden at her own house, of course, and she tended it and took pride in what she’d brought into being. But it never seemed as wild and splendid as the garden she’d grown up with.
She supposed she could get someone to prop the arbor back up and build new supports, if she decided it was worth it. The wild
roses still bloomed. The lilies and the columbine had disappeared. A hydrangea had found a place it liked and had overgrown the ferns. Two huge weeping cedars stood at the far end of the lot, their shade black and dense. They would have to come down or at least be trimmed. Any grass that remained had turned thin and untidy.
Where to begin? The lilacs needed pruning and this was the time to do it, right after they had finished blooming. She didn’t stop to change into better clothes for yard work so as not to lose the impulse, but fetched the big clippers from the garden shed and went at it. It felt good to be outside, doing something vigorous and physical. She couldn’t reach the highest branches so she trimmed carefully lower down and was satisfied with the neatness of the job. Encouraged, she kept going, cutting back the nuisance growth, the trees of heaven and honeysuckle bushes that had taken root everywhere. They would have to be entirely dug up, but it was a start.
The day was warm but it wasn’t yet humid the way it got later in summer, when the air was so thick and gray it was a misery to even look outside. She found a square-bladed spade and turned over the dirt in the place where she remembered her mother planting annuals.
More than an hour later, she’d cleared enough of the garden to feel she’d reclaimed some part of it. She might get some flats of marigolds or verbena to make the yard look less forlorn. Less like the neighborhood haunted house.
The daughter was no longer young herself. A year or two past fifty. Her own children now grown. When your parents died, you lost your childhood, or at least the best witnesses to it. More and more she had difficulty not just remembering herself as a child—that girl with the dark bangs cut straight across her forehead, standing crookedly in all the pictures—but believing that she had
been such a child, had not always been a fully formed adult, with opinions and a credit rating and a hundred distracted thoughts.
Along with the loss of the parents was the loss of the parents’ history, as it was told to you, as you understood it through their living memories, until nothing was left except the curious odds and ends in the house, like the songbook in the piano bench. “Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” “Song of India,” “Annie Laurie,” “Old Black Joe,” “Danny Boy,” and her father’s favorite, “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” which he used to play with lush arpeggios, swaying a little as he sat before the keys.
She swept the walkways and put the garden tools away and went back inside. It was time for the home care aide to leave and there was a space of time before the next one arrived. Assuming that she in fact arrived. Sometimes there were lapses. Once this new aide was here, she could make a trip back to her own house. Her husband, Gabe, had not been entirely understanding about her extended absence, the disruption of essentials such as meals and clean laundry.
The aide who was leaving went through the checklist of what had been done and would need to be done and wished her a good evening. The daughter settled into a chair with a magazine. There was nothing else to do but wait and then wait some more. She kept expecting grief to seize her and make her weep, or some other normal reaction, but so far there was only exhaustion. The hospice service had a grief counselor who was available to family members after a death. Maybe by then she’d be more suitably bereaved.
A small fan blew across the foot of the bed, ruffling the sheets. It was the only noise in the quiet, quiet room. The sheets were tented with a kind of frame so that the nurse and the home care assistants could easily check her mother’s feet and toenails for discoloration. Discoloration was one of the signs that might mean the end was at hand.
It was strange to witness her mother’s silence. Her mother had always been one to keep a conversation going. She had a quick mind and a gift for easy speech. Her father had always joked that his wife was the one who should have been the lawyer, she could wear anyone’s arguments down with sheer persistence. Her mother had been silent only when she was unhappy or angry. So that now the silence made her daughter anxious, as if something must be set right. But what?
She said aloud, “You were a good mother. I hope we made you happy.” And then, because that seemed self-centered, self-important, she said, “I hope you were happy.”
Her words dropped into the small mechanical purr of the fan. She was embarrassed to have spoken. Usually she talked about normal, everyday things, like what her children were doing, or she read the less depressing newspaper headlines aloud.
The home care aide was half an hour late, but at least she came. The daughter spent some time going over what was needed. She said she would be back later this evening, after she had fixed dinner for her husband. The aide appeared to simultaneously listen and ignore her. This was the daughter’s least favorite aide, a slow-moving woman with a belligerent air, as if anything you said to her was an occasion for offense. There was always a logical, unimpeachable reason the aide gave as to why her chores were not completed, and the daughter suspected she prowled the house snooping into things when left alone. And, although she had to be imagining it, there was something smug and knowing in the woman’s attitude, as if to say, Afraid of a little death? I see it all the time. You don’t know the first thing.
Yes, she was imagining, or projecting, all that. The woman was simply disagreeable. But she was better than nothing, and if you called the agency to complain, that was probably what you would get instead: nothing. Anyway, there would be an end to everything soon enough.
The daughter, in a hurry as always these days, drove to her own house. It was a beautiful mild evening, with the trees just now coming into full leaf and the new grass looking cool and shadowy. She took a deep breath to steady herself and fill herself with calm and make way for the tasks that would come next.
She was tired of managing, coping, arranging, bearing up well. Maybe that was what real grief did, prostrated you, rendered you incapable of being so idiotically useful.
Just as she reached the intersection of one of the downtown streets, she happened to look to one side and see a man locking the front door of an auto parts shop, closing up for the day. A tall man, thin, with iron-gray hair. She only saw him from behind for a moment, she had not seen him for more than twenty-five years, but she had no doubt who it was.
She drove on without stopping. It was the damndest thing. That someone might turn up after all this time, perhaps had been in the same place all along without you ever running into them, ever looking up at the exact right moment. And with that one glance she had the extraordinary sense that she knew all about the life he had lived in those years, how he had changed and how he had not. The damndest thing, she kept saying to herself, turning it round and round in her thoughts. There was no one else she would tell about it.
Because she had a past too, much as it might be hard for people to believe.