nthposition online magazine

A sympathetic reaction


[ fiction - november 08 ]

"Cremation is not a decision to be taken lightly, Olive," Mr Sisk said. He briefly met my mother's gaze before focusing anew on his worn, leather-edged blotting pad.

"My husband and I agreed on it years ago," she said. "It's not in our file? Perhaps we didn't update the plans."

"Are you sure?" I stared at Mummy, wondering when they decided this. It was the kind of thing I would check with Daddy - but now couldn't. "Isn't it a mortal sin?"

I looked for help from my sister, Josephine, who echoed, "I thought so. Like suicide." She quoted a fragment from the Baltimore Catechism: "Something about, 'The body is a temple of the Holy Spirit'."

"Not anymore," Mummy airily corrected us. "The Pope changed all that. Isn't that right, Mr Sisk?"

Josephine and I were drowsy from the sprung twin beds in the guest-room and the midnight call from Connecticut Hospice. We wanted to surrender arrangements to Mr Sisk, who was as subdued and muted as the tilted charcoal landscape hanging behind his desk. The funeral director seemed adept at steering the bereaved into thinking his plans were theirs. Our Mother, however, was as sharp on her first day of widowhood as someone half her 77 years.

She had stepped briskly into Sisk Brothers funeral home, flouting its reverent hush and inquiring, "Why are the blinds drawn? It's not even noon."

Mr Sisk said nothing - or pretended he didn't hear - while easing us to his office. As I tried not to think of Daddy, my mind ran with the spiritual 'Massa's in de Cold Ground', which Josephine and I sang in school.

"Olive, it's not too late to change your mind," Mr Sisk said. "On cremation."

She drew back. "I hoped you'd have it done by this afternoon."

"He only got here an hour ago," Mr Sisk looked pained. "There are procedures."

"Well, just as soon as you can. Shall we carry on?" She was uncharacteristically decisive, as if following a plan worked out long ago. Death reversed the normal course, endowing her with authority and transforming us into followers.

A week ago, just as the doctor predicted, Daddy went back into hospital and then hospice. I took the train from New York and Josephine flew in from California. He was in a coma but must have sensed us numbly around him, sheathed by shock that this moment had arrived. Mummy gently brushed his hair back from his forehead and whispered, "The girls are here, darling. I'll be fine," and that night he let go.

Our parents considered it bad form to express grief in public. The only time Daddy wept was when our Newfoundland died. Today I was relieved by our mother's dry-eyed vigor. At dinner - something delicious Josephine put together - I stared at the empty place at the head of the table. Tears surging and ears shrilling, I darted into the bathroom in the condominium where they moved when Daddy's Parkinson's got worse. As I mopped myself up, I remembered when Josephine called from the airport, reaching me at the hospice.

"I picked up the car and I'm on my way," she said. "What's going on?"

"The same." The visitors' lounge had pink chairs and smelled of rubber bands. "You should hurry. I don't think..."

"...That it's long?"

"They say not, but you know Daddy. He'll do things in his own time." There was silence. "Josephine?" I realized she was crying. No, I wanted to say. If you break down, I will, too. At her wedding, she started to faint and I, her maid of honor, also had to be carted off the altar and revived. Daddy explained that fainting, like yawning, could provoke a sympathetic reaction. 


For the funeral, our mother wore the suit we call her Jackie O because of its three-quarter-length sleeves and fur collar.

"Why not let Alice give you a touch of make-up?" Josephine suggested.

"But I only wear lipstick." Her features and thick white hair have held up so she doesn't need much. On this overcast January morning her eyes were focused far away and her cheeks were grey instead of faint pink. She relented, lashes fluttering as I smudged in liner.


The funeral gave me a new appreciation for cremation. With no coffin in the church, I could stare at the altar and almost forget why we were there. Daddy would have liked the austere ceremony. There was no cemetery or burial, just a reception where our mother sparkled. Daddy never shed his shyness and would have been proud of his beautiful wife, graceful and nimble as a ballerina in conversation. Rather than receiving condolences, she comforted neighbors and friends, smiling and clasping hands. Standing in the center of the room, she consoled Mohammed, the assistant who had helped Daddy for more than a year, today ashen and lost.

I noticed Edmund Worth hovering by the buffet, flummoxing the waiter with his order. He pivoted away, plate and wineglass teetering, and nearly bumped into me. "Alice, my dear. I'm so sorry. What a start to the year. I suspect there are more changes ahead."

Moving closer, I saw dandruff on his shoulders and a raised stain - perhaps a clump of cream of chicken soup - on his tie. He was handsome, with a patrician jauntiness unblunted by his stoop. Edmund was a bachelor on the periphery of our parents' circle. Daddy had pegged him as a dilettante, someone so insulated by money he seldom felt life's spikes and pricks.

"How is New York?" He lowered himself into a chair, his gaze hazy with cataracts. "Olive said you work for the Times. I read it cover to cover, every day."

"I'm still on the copy desk. Josephine's a lawyer in San Francisco." I widened my eyes to indicate my older sister's career was a high-powered contrast to mine. Some people stayed copy editors for life. I had been one for five years - and it had taken five years of work before that just to get an interview at the Times.

He turned his head and wiped his nose with a handkerchief pocked by holes. Like his hair, it was white at the center but tinged yellow around the edges. He stuffed it in his pocket and dove back into the food. "I must tell you about my new investment. I've become something of a gold bug."

His expression made me think of sixth-grade history lessons about the '49ers - and tiny drawstring pouches of Gold Rush chewing gum.

Edmund beamed. "So I bought a mine."

"Are you serious?" Now I pictured felt satchels of bullion changing hands in Zurich.

"In Colorado. It's an old claim, so there may be nothing left but filings." He put down his fork. "I'll tell you what. If any gold turns up, I'll have something made for Olive."

"Would you?" I laid a hand gingerly on his forearm. "That's very kind." His was an odd offer, but people often made rash promises at the ceremonies of life's turning points. I remembered the giddiness that enveloped Josephine's wedding. Her half-dozen attendants pledged to get together again and instead parted and never reunited after waving off the bride and groom. Frivolous or not, Edmund's offer - and spirit - buoyed me through the afternoon.

As I watched guests leave, Josephine said, "Mum's doing so well. But I'm worried about when there's nothing to plan and she's all alone."

"There are worse things," I said. "How's Roger managing as a single parent?" Her husband stayed behind in San Francisco with their four-year-old daughter.

"They're all right. I just hope he didn't take her to Hooters."


The next morning, things changed. Breakfast usually was a sluggish affair in pajamas around the dim kitchen. Today Josephine was dressed and armed with a clipboard, as if she had been up all night assessing our mother's life like a court case.

"We have to make arrangements," she said.

Mummy was holding down an English muffin in the toaster, which had lost its spring years ago. "I want to get Mohammed squared away. He has children."

Mohammed is here illegally, and his patience with Daddy trumped Mummy's reservations about paying someone under the table. "I could ask at the hospital if they need anyone." She looked at the clock. "Where does the morning go? The nuns at the monastery have a mass for Daddy at ten. I'd better get into the bath."

As she scurried off, Josephine clacked her clipboard. "We have to deal with this sometime."

As Daddy got sicker, she took over our parents' finances. I was grateful, happily ceding their affairs and end-of-life tidying. "The will's straightforward," she said. "Mummy gets everything. But selling this place will be a drag."

"Who said anything about selling?"

"She shouldn't stay," Josephine lowered her voice. "I can't believe she'd want to now. Also, it's dangerous. She's almost 80."

Our mother began driving when Daddy no longer could. She never got the hang of it and on an unseasonably warm morning last fall, wrapped the car around a tree - again. We knew about her first three accidents. Josephine learned of collisions four and five when the insurer, his voice hollow with bafflement, called to cancel the policy.

"It's time for the Pacific House," she said.

The Pacific House is a condominium in San Francisco for the old and well-heeled, staffed with concierges, doctors and nurses. It also is a few blocks from Josephine and Roger. "They even have an opening - a perfect one-bedroom. We have to let them know by April or someone else will snap it up."

That explained the urgency. Josephine saw God's hand in this vacancy, easing our mother to her next stage of life. For some time, she had pushed our parents to move nearer to one of us. Daddy, who considered assisted living a half-step from the grave, finally agreed to tour the Pacific House. I was reassured by his verdict: He would never leave Connecticut.

"Come on. Most of the inmates there are ancient. Of course there's turnover." The opening - and the three-month window to put down a deposit - smacked of the fire sale, putting the screws on bewildered widows and widowers. "She should wait a year before deciding anything big."

"Alice, we have to talk her into it. Now we better get over to the Cloisters or whatever."

January in Connecticut is unforgiving. While Josephine gouged a scraper across the windshield, Mummy and I dawdled through the snow.

"It's bitter today," she said. "I'm worried about the garden." She pointed out the butterfly bush and a lilac as if they were as different as roses from dandelions. All I saw were brown stalks and a flourishing corner of holly, spilling over with red berries.

Josephine drove us in the rental car - a champagne-colored behemoth, each heated seat like a bassinet.

"Fancy chairs with hibachis inside," Mummy said. She guided Josephine with flutters of her worn crimson glove, giving suggestions rather than directions. She discovered the monastery - basically a Spartan version of the Pacific House, for nuns - a few years ago, when she needed a closer alternative to the parish church. Like the convent where Josephine and I went to school, the monastery is immaculate, scented of incense and polish, and strangely uplifting. Its diminutive chapel is radiant on cloudy days and blinding on sunny ones from light ratcheted up by lemon-colored stained glass. For years I have worked nights at the paper, so full-on morning still staggers me. That combination of drowsiness and sorrow cushioned the waiting in the hospital and hospice.

"Olive, dear, how are you?" A frail nun met us and was followed by others as mass began. When the priest mentioned Daddy, I glanced down the pew. Our mother was smiling, head up, while Josephine's face was set and her eyes closed. Through the window above the altar light cut through the outline of a dove. I imagined Daddy now free from illness and also taking wing.

After mass, the nuns swooped down again, like corngrackles in brown habits. Some faces were familiar but their names ran together - Sister Therese of the Child Jesus, Sister John of the Cross. A nun with an impressively starched headdress and a regal air glided out of the sacristy.

"Mother Abbess," Josephine whispered. "Right out of the Sound of Music."

Then she was upon us: A woman not much older than Josephine. She was tall and rangy, not stubby like Friar Tuck, as I pictured high-ranking nuns and priests.

"Olive, we've been praying for you."

"Mother, have you met my daughters? Alice, Josephine, this is Mother Margaret."

The nun held an arm around Mummy as we shook hands. "I'm sorry about your father. Olive is very special."

"We think so, too." I was spooked to hear our mother call anyone Mother. Her own parents died in Ireland before Josephine and I were born and existed only in a cloudy portrait from a Dublin photography studio.

"Olive, all the masses this week are for him," Mother Margaret said.

I realized the nuns would be praying for someone they didn't know. Daddy stopped going to church a while back, venturing only to doctors and physical therapists with Mohammed.

Josephine and I edged out of the chapel.

"She'll miss this place when she moves," Josephine said. "But Daddy would want her to. She shouldn't spend winter here alone."

"Like I will," I said, smiling. After much effort, Josephine gave up on playing matchmaker for me, hinting that anyone who worked all the time - and kept hours at odds with the world - didn't want to marry. That isn't true, though I have never been more than lukewarm about it. I have had boyfriends but I crave time alone as much as company. I didn't point out to Josephine that a number of my New York friends made it to the funeral while her husband and daughter stayed in California.

"You should come, too. We'd love it."

"Great. I can share Charlotte's room."

Josephine looked startled. "Maybe in the beginning, while you're looking for a place."

For a moment, I wanted to dissolve our grown-up lives and remain in Connecticut. It was an arrangement - the widow and two daughters - that would have been commonplace in Ireland not all that long ago. Roosting in the condominium, we would venture out for mass and mournful strolls along Long Island Sound. We would live on gossip, lifting the kitchen curtain to monitor the neighbors. If only things would return to how they were when Daddy was alive - or rearrange immediately, sparing us this painful, scabbing-over interim. It seemed unwise for our mother to live alone and yet we hadn't come up with a new arrangement we could bear.

I was the first to depart, guiltily mincing out of our little triangle to resume life in New York. Mummy confused our names as I left and I could see Josephine notching each mistake, as if it were proof she was overdue at the Pacific House. She is too independent and healthy to live with either of us. Our parents left their families behind in Ireland and encouraged us to build our own lives.

As Josephine drove me to the station I said, "You know who came to the funeral? Edmund Worth."

"I thought I saw him. He should really use a cane."
"What if she were - I don't know." I became queasy, as if reading in the car, at the thought of our mother having dinner with him. "We talked a lot."

"Maybe he's interested in you."

"Could do worse. Smart, never married, no pesky stepchildren."

"Step-grandchildren are more likely. Guy must be ninety." She turned into the station.

"He is not. He just bought a gold mine."

"I knew he was senile. Remember, we have to encourage her about the Pacific House."

"She's happy here. It's hard to start over in a new place." I took my bag from the back seat and we said goodbye.

The sky over the rail yard was a fleeting shot of turquoise that turned pitch so fast, it felt as if I was setting off from New Haven not at five o'clock but midnight. I burrowed into the seat, pulled up my hood and emerged soggy and slit-eyed at Grand Central. I was amazed at how loss could be so powerful. Before, I always returned eagerly to New York. Now I was floundering. I hadn't been to work in almost two weeks and felt loss had fractured my world.

Walking home from the subway, every glint of streetlight on car windows or moonglow against office buildings reminded me of gold and Edmund Worth. I couldn't imagine having a stepfather but liked the idea of someone squiring Mummy to the New Haven Symphony, keeping her from moving to California and stirring up her Connecticut circuit of the monastery, the post office and the grocery store.

Last year we flew to California and toured the Pacific House, escorted by an effusive staffer. As I pushed Daddy's wheelchair, I imagined we were aboard a cruise, with meals and lectures and classes in stained glass. Clinical touches - railings and emergency buzzers - were hidden by dust ruffles and flower arrangements. Back then I was confident our parents never would be among the residents we saw in the dining room.

Now I cast a jaundiced eye over the memory. I had always lived just a train ride from home. Checking into the Pacific House would mean our mother was old, that she was forgoing independence for peace of mind.

Over the next few weeks, the three of us spoke often. From California, Josephine tidied up and made sure bills were paid. When a business trip brought her to Boston in February, she dropped down to Connecticut for a day.

"You don't have to," I said. "I'll be up this weekend."

"Has she said anything about San Francisco?"

"She needs to be around her friends now. And she's at the monastery every day."

"That's what I'm afraid of."


On Friday Mummy met my train. She looked rested, her cornflower eyes and pink cheeks glowing above one of Daddy's scarves. It wasn't the grey workhorse she knit him but the fancy black silk one with green and white stripes.

"That looks wonderful on you." I stared as she got out so I could drive.

"I came across it when we were going through things."

Josephine had transformed the place. The wheelchair and bedrails were gone. There were fresh flowers and the furniture was no longer hidden under newspapers and piles of mail.

"Wow," I said.

"That's Josephine. She comes in and throws everything out. I haven't been able to find a thing."

"I went out to lunch yesterday," she said. "With the garden club. Mr Worth was there. You know he sent that orchid in the drawing room."

"We talked at the reception - for Daddy."

"He told me. I called to thank him for the funeral flowers and he sent more. So I invited him over."

Evidently things were working without my meddling or playing matchmaker.

"I was hoping he could give Mohammed a job."

"Mr Worth? Why would he need help?"

"I didn't mean working for him," Mummy laughed. "I would hope Edmund still can dress himself. I thought he might know someone. But the nuns came through. There's a woman in Westport who's very far gone with cancer, so Mohammed's all set. That gave me the idea of introducing Edmund to the monastery. The nuns could use a big donation."


"He never made it. He got completely lost." She was laughing too hard to speak. "You know how I am with directions. I must have given him the wrong exit and he ended up in New London. Isn't that a scream?"

"Did you know he owns a gold mine? I'm so glad you're spending time with him."

"Alice, really. I just want Mohammed squared away."

That night I called Josephine. As we talked, I sorted kitchen cupboards, throwing away stale cookies and crackers.

"I don't know how you did all this in one day," I said. "The place is actually starting to look nice. It's weird not to see Daddy's things but it's probably better."

"She doesn't need reminders. That's another benefit of moving. How is she?"

"In bed. We went out to dinner and got back a little while ago. Did you see the flowers from Mr Worth? I'm so excited. At first, it sounded like an O Henry story, the way they couldn't quite get together. But there's hope."

"You bet, Alice."

"I'm serious. It could be great. He's clearly interested and with him around, she wouldn't have to move."

"Except she isn't interested in him or anyone else. It's barely been six weeks."

"It's not as crazy as giving up friends of forty years to move across the country. He'd be a perfect..." I fished for the word. "You know, a perfect companion for her."

"How can you think about that?" Josephine asked. "It's not as if Daddy's been gone for years."

"Daddy wasn't into assisted living, I'll tell you that. He'd want her to stay. Besides, have you thought what it'd be like to have her out there? You already are too busy."

"I'd worry less than I do with her there."

"There's nothing we can do. It's up to her."

"Actually," Josephine began, "there is something."

I sat down, holding a dusty box of crackers, soft and scented of sandpaper, thinking, this is it. Josephine must have talked Mummy into moving.

"You can't tell her, though," she added.

No, someone had to have cancer. But our mother never was sick. We could not lose two parents in one year. Josephine? She was only forty-two. I pictured Roger weeping - and Charlotte coming to stay and destroying my apartment - and squeezed the box, crumbling crackers inside.

"The Mother Abbess called me."


"You know. Mother Margaret. Mum wants to sign up. Become a nun."

I gasped. "She can't, right? Aren't there rules?"

"Mother Margaret said they'd like to have her but it's too soon after Daddy. She told Mum to pray about it for a year and ask again."

"Come on."

"But she doesn't want to wait. She told Mother Margaret if they accepted her at the monastery, she'd give them everything."

"You mean money? Good Lord." I shivered. It was as if we were discussing a stranger.

"The nun said a year's a year. She also insisted on telling us. When I heard the message I thought you were playing a joke."

"It must be." I caromed from aghast to indignant. "I can't believe they'd turn away someone they know who's offering to pay her own way. By the way, if this happens, you and I don't get a cent."

"The money's not the main thing."

"It's part of it." Without Mother Margaret, we wouldn't even know. I imagined arriving at an abandoned condo to discover that Mummy - now Sister Something or other - was cloistered in the monastery. Did she prefer the company of nuns to that of her friends and family? She had confided only in Daddy. I didn't know what she was thinking and if she saw this phase as just for now or forever.


At breakfast Mummy said, "Josephine's been at me about California."

"It's just a bee in her bonnet."

"What do you think, Alice? Should I move?"

I wondered what happened to the authoritative woman in the funeral home. "I'd hate it. I don't want you across the country. I couldn't even call when I wanted because the time would be different." I felt near tears, more for turning on Josephine than because I would miss my mother. The well-meaning plan for the Pacific House was doomed. Our mother would never move while waiting for the monastery. I felt triumphant and deflated as I looked around the kitchen. I now saw California as a fresh contrast with the gloom of Connecticut.

"There are lots of people here you'd miss," I said, adding. "Why don't you pray about it?"

I returned to New York feeling as if I were orphaned. Daddy was gone and Mummy was here but not here, confiding in nuns but not us.

On the first day of spring, Josephine called. "How did you convince her? I can't believe it."

"If it's about moving, I said she should decide herself."

"She's ready." Josephine was exultant. "You know what's holding her back? You. She didn't want you to be alone on the East coast, so I had an idea."

"What happened to the monastery?"

"That was just a weird kick because of Daddy dying. Now that she's had a little time, she's over it."

"I'm not moving."

"Look," Josephine began slowly, in the patient tone I assumed she used to reason with her husband and daughter. "It's just a thought. If you do, Mummy will."
"I'm really going to walk out on my job and my friends." She must see my life - the rented apartment, uninspiring job, no boyfriend or children - as easy to collapse and move as a lawn chair.

"Roger's cousin runs a magazine here. She knows everyone in publishing. She can help."

I had to interrupt her steamrolling rhythm. She could stage-manage Mummy's life but not mine. "I'll be fine if she moves. I'm not going."

"This way we'll be together."

"Why don't you move back east so we can join the monastery?"

"I have to let the Pacific House know in two weeks. It's up to you."

I remembered Edmund Worth forecasting change. But change had hurt so much already. Why inflict more on ourselves? Before when I pictured Mummy in California, I felt a twinge. When I imagined myself there, I panicked.

I dodged Josephine's calls and when I went to Connecticut the next weekend, Mummy said, "No one can reach you, Alice. What's going on?"

"Nothing." I waited until we were out of the car and at the kitchen table. "Josephine said you'd move if I did."

She tilted her head. "I don't remember putting it quite that way. Maybe I said I'd like to be together, that's all."

I felt a weight slipping away. "The Pacific House might be very nice. But I can't leave New York. Not right now."

"You shouldn't. What an idea. Did Josephine suggest it?"

I looked out the window. Would we ever know what she really was thinking? "Why don't you come in next weekend? We'll go shopping."

She smiled. The kitchen was warm so I couldn't tell if she was blushing. "I'd like to but Edmund's asked me to Long Wharf. They're doing Major Barbara."

"George Bernard Shaw?" I kept my voice casual. "Just think, if you went to California, you wouldn't see him anymore."

She got up from table. "I'm not going anywhere. The butterfly bush won't be out for weeks. I want to see if it blooms again."