Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

In the Space Where Memories Lie

 

You can put your hand out to where things were…and feel the tense,
shining dullness of the space where memories are
. —Helen Macdonald

 

      

 

She died fourteen years ago, and today, February 19th, we said good-bye to her, Lucia Bradley Heffelfinger. A name before she married. Why are we still talking about my mother? Why do "Chia" -- my sister Lucia -- and I try to reconstruct what happened, what went wrong? Why the unhappiness, the tears? Why does it matter today? I have no picture of the dark hole, melted silver spoons, and curled-up shadow of her body burnt. Instead pictures on the table show her dancing in 1973, full of smiles at her wedding in an orange chiffon dress—happy, stylish, and ready for a new life.

 

I know the list; it fills the page that we have reconstructed.

 

·         Rape 1939 at 13 aboard the SS Cunard

·         Marriage 1948, before she never finished nursing school

·         John 1949, Lucia (“Chia”) 1951, abortion 1953…and no sex afterward, so someone says

·         Purchase our home 82 Library Place, 1955. Parties, fun, and family

·         Our father retires from Baldwill Hill (asbestos insulation firm) 1960, writes book in attic

·         Daddy begins teaching at Stevens 1962, says hello to Rose in 1963. Kisses her 1964

·         Separation in 1967. Jack remarried to Rose 1970. Lucia remarries Sebastian 1973

·         Breast cancer 1970, hysterectomy 1972, back operations 1973, 1974, 1975; then the real bad health starts

·         Methadone, Percocet, vodka 1974 to death in February 2002, alone in cold February fire

 

The list fills many pages with more events. We check the dates—where were you, what were you doing? What is this puzzle about? Why does it matter? Our mother is dead, so is our father, the whole generation above is almost gone. They were happy, sad, and now we reconstruct, what, a list? Does it help us, to reach all the way back, does it let us see what happened?

 

I stop listening; I know there is a list not written down anywhere. The telling over and over does not get us there. We laugh at the horror; oh, here’s another one. Do you want me to go all the way back and show you what happened, visualize the detour to hell, not just the purgatory of vodka and Percocet? Shall we shake the brain a bit, cross the wires, and then break the semblance of happy smiles, protective laughs? The manic sounds of our family dance. Do you want to go with me?

 

The devil knows you don’t. Better to talk over tea, or maybe a drink or two. What do you think it is like—to wander the night, hold your father close as your son turns a cold shoulder—and the piano player with sinister smile, head bent over, says this will be fun. The chords, thumping hard, say it is all downhill from here at 2 a.m. when the dark cannot shine. One more chance, do you really want me to show you what it is like? The last twenty-five years, the ending that would not come. I can go all the way there, but there is no guaranteed way out.

 

Chia, the tea is cold. Let us not talk through the broken capillaries, the hell that you just slipped into, like Mummy. The hubris of imagination saying one more is okay—“Just one more vodka before I sleep where dreams soar and plunge. The angels wearing black with smiling red eyes tempt you, just one more, honey, a little nightcap will help you sleep.”

 

Let me tell you, it is bad. I can give you all the 1s, 2s, 3s. The list gets a lot longer. Better sit down, rest, and start the story all over again. It is raw, do we need to go all the way down?

 

But we do, in private rooms, away from the din of living. The telling is no good; it does not dispel all the demons. Each of us, brother and sister, father and mother, must walk across the plain—barren with cold north winds—to see our fate. We must look back, not just to the birth canal, but to all the faded faces of ancestors—happy, sad, struggling, and flush with cash. We must unsort the story, the tale, and be quiet with what we see, peeling back the onion, hoping that it is not rotten to core.

 

Why not just tell me how it felt, tell me the story of the first laugh, the cry you remember, and the tears to come. Tell me what brought you here.

 

Chia and I drink the cold tea and walk into the mist, telling a different story. One, two, three images hold true: the small girl in pigtails, dress torn, and the stateroom door closed. The ocean liner sways to the side as Hitler walks across the Belgian plain and takes the port. Some English prime minister says that’s okay, they weren’t really friends.

 

Did my grandparents know that another victim fell in the Autumn of 1939? Their daughter, our mother, was cut to pieces by the hands of a man who ate dinner with them. Did they not see the screams in her face or understand the treachery of friendship that stripped innocence away? 

 

Walking some seventy-seven years later, we cannot unravel that scene. Where shall we start? Maybe with that twisted joke when my mother said, “Don’t be pretty, don’t wear dresses made by you.” Let us dress you in the terrible turquoise Howard Johnson uniform that fetches measly tips and gets no second looks. Maybe now, some fifty years later, we see why she said, “Don’t be pretty, don’t trust the leering men who tip, small or large.”

 

But my mother did not just say don’t be pretty because. She laughed at the Howard Johnson uniform with high white collar, given each Christmas to Chia, every year until she stopped coming to holiday humiliations. Mum did not say the starched collar was protection against all the stares of strangers. We did not see it that way as tears fell down the pink cheeks of my sister.

 

Shall I take you back to that scene; paint it in the twenty-four colors of the ice creams? Or to the other mean rituals that only now reveal the hint of the rape, the scars that say don’t be pretty. Or just the opposite: be pretty and dance.

 

Let me try again; let me tell you what I did not see. Now close your eyes, drink deep, and walk across the foggy plains to when we were fourteen, fifteen, and younger still. Do you trust my sight? What do you see, what does it mean? Tell me again, let me paint the picture. We walk, pee our tea, hoping secrets are revealed in the talk. Do you remember when? What about the tears, the laughter, the sadness? What about that?

 

 

 

 

 

A professor at Brandeis International Business School, John Ballantine took his Bachelor’s degree in English at Harvard, with an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a Ph.D. in Economics from NYU Stern. He has published economic commentary in Salon and the Boston Globe. His literary work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Penmen Review, Ragazine, Rubbertop Review, Saint Ann’s Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, and SNReview.