Dialing Home or The Old Red Sweater

Out of the darkness of dreams rises my sensation of dialing. I’m trying to form my parents’ last phone number in Charleston. Area Code: 843, then 766… That’s as far as I get. During my mother’s last fifteen years, living alone after my father died, I visited frequently, especially after she had shingles and her health declined. Then it was every three months or so. Rising in winter darkness for a 7 a.m. Delta or Northwest flight to Atlanta, I’d rush to be ready for the taxi, steaming in the darkness. Inevitably there’d be a wait in the MSP airplane, hugging my layers, while the wings were de-iced.

Once in Charleston, stepping outside, I smelled that aroma of damp earth and flowing trees, and was flooded by momentary relief, then the blur of rental car, driving the freeway into town, crossing the Ashley River bridge, and turning into Wappoo Heights. Then something clicked: I was there. The car crunched over the gravel drive, I parked beside the dining room windows high above the ground, and turned the lock in the back door. Even if I arrived during her long afternoon nap, my mother would be standing at the back of the kitchen wearing her old red sweater, hand raised in her perennial gesture–warding off but welcoming at once.

I rarely thought of her as beautiful; in fact, she preferred comfort and energy above the demands and expense of beauty. But in those last years, with her hair gone white and longer than before, her blue eyes sparkled like winter sky framed by snow. And her furious energy was subdued to a thorough welcome. She was so glad to see me–a balm after all our years of divorce and difficulties. She put her cheek to mine, and murmured my name. At our feet, Cindy whined and batted our legs.

My memories are as fragmented as her old telephone number. Discovering that she could crack a joke as we walked toward the eye glass store. Realizing that she had a decided routine: eating her half cheese sandwich smeared with mayo, as she sat on the edge of the bed before tipping over for her nap. It took me a while to accept that after my father died, she had stopped undressing at night. She wanted to be fully clothed if something happened, like a hurricane or a rapping in the night. It was measure of her fear and determination: she would not be moved. She would stay in her own home, even as her years advanced beyond 80, toward 90.

Unlike most Carolina families, we had no cousins, aunts or uncles in Charleston. The closest was my father’s youngest brother, the rascally Frankie, who moved down to Summerville with his son. But he died even before my father, and in her years alone, my mother lost track of the son. Thus, her neighbors and her yardman, Mr. Cody, became her extended family. With her persnickety aloofness, she had a louvered blind put up to block one set of neighbors, but down the block lived Diane, whose kindness extended to driving my mother to concerts until her own woes intruded. After that, Dorcas and her daughter, true New England transplants, gladly accepted my mother’s offer of concert tickets if they provided the rides. Sometimes when even this connection failed, my little mother drove herself to the Sotille concerts, learning by heart the look of every corner into town and back. When I took her place behind the wheel, she called out each crossing with furious determination, and if I deviated a jot, there was hell to pay.

Every day of my visit except Sunday was filled to bursting with activity–shopping, doctor’s appointments, cleaning, cooking, going over her checkbook (she rarely, almost never made a mistake), de-budding her towering camellias under her supervision. And in the evenings, serving dinner before the TV, never varying her routine of listening to the news as she ate in the living room. Sunday was blessedly different. We ate a leisurely breakfast, with something fancier than cereal–perhaps baking-powder biscuits, Egg Beaters, jam, milk, and coffee for me. Tidbits for Cindy who sat on the floor between our chairs, never barking but begging. “Throw Cindy a corner,” my mother would suggest as she tore off a bit of toast and Cindy licked it off the floor.

She slept longer naps on Sunday which gave me hours of upstairs quiet. Doing my stretches in the high-ceilinged hall above the curving staircase, I fell into a reverie of sunlight flickering on the stuccoed walls. Outside stood the two cedar sentinels off-kilter in the front yard. Mourning doves teetered on the wires. A jay might swoop down, grab a bug and chatter a departure. Red birds flashed from tree to tree. And across the hall hung a scene from my mother’s North Dakota, from Papa Max’s house. Framed with a deep gilt border, a small lake overhung by a willow reminded me so deeply of Lake Elsie where she, her mother and sisters used to picnic, and which I’d known in my childhood, that I could almost smell the warm weedy water, and slide across slimy stones to dip down to my shoulders in the water.

I was fully immersed, those lazy Sunday afternoons, when the sun always shone through the tall front windows and quivered on the walls. When the distances between her early and later life dissolved and the essence of her story penetrated mine. Then in the casual distance between upper and lower floors, between her sleeping and my silent alertness there was fashioned an agreement of love and continuity which I’d never anticipated in our younger, more troubled years. Now, chance and deeper affection than I’d even anticipated drew us together. What she gave me I still can’t exactly name, but what I was giving her–simple support and companionship–was unprecedented. We could finally be easy together. In this, we were lucky: the last segment of her life bestowed upon us an unforeseen charm.

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