He said I love you by calling her back from her circle, by competing with her banjo, by holding her hostage to starving ghosts. He said I love you one hundred and ten percent and therefore you owe me something in return. You owe me I love you back one hundred and eleven percent. Can you dig it? She laughed, then sobered. Oh, you’re serious then, she said. Those words cut. Those words did not say I love you one hundred and twelve percent. Okay then, she said. I will shave back my performances by ten percent, cross my heart and hope to die. What else, he averred, there must be more. Well, she replied, I will cut back visits with my sisters by twenty-five percent. All together, that’s thirty-five percent more for you. That’s pretty good, hey? I can say I love you thirty-five percent more than before. Harumph! He tooted. I still love you more. Is that the best you can do? I’ve given you one hundred and thirteen percent of my heart and I still don’t feel your love. What about my children, she asked. I’ve given them back to their father for you. I walked them back to their paternal home. When do I get credit for that? Children belong to their father, he said. A woman belongs to her lover. She practiced saying I love you, I love you, I love you, in the mirror. Finally, she thought: the truth.
My oldest living relative would by my aunt, my mother’s sister. She was one of four children, and she had nine babies with my uncle. As a reward for a life well lived, she is our matriarch. It is so strange to move inevitably closer to that category: the elder generation. The wise ones. The ones with institutional memory. Where do the stories go when the elders are gone? Does the narrative lose its bite? Do the family mythologies soften around the edges like a cherished photograph carried for years in a wallet? Perhaps family stories are like an image that over time fades until only the ghost of an persona remains.
She wore Chanel No. 5. On nights my parents went out, she drifted out the door on a cloud of deep musky-floral pheromones, an accommodation of the sophistication she yearned for. Periodically, when we were old enough for them to leave the brood with a reliable steel-belted sitter for the weekend, they journeyed north to the Banff Springs Resort in British Columbia. There are photographs of them from one trip, souvenirs from a night club they had attended. My mother appears to be in her thirties, young, pretty, wearing a classic kind of Jackie O sheath dress. The photographer caught her smile and a sparkle in her eyes. She seemed happy then, and glamorous. I imagine that in that dress, in that club, she was enveloped in a cloud of Chanel No. 5. She later switched to a fragrance called Interlude – with the same base notes, a similar mysterious, musky presence. Other scents of my mother that I recall: Breck hair spray, spray starch, despair.
There was an apartment in my grandmother’s house where an attic would have been. Up the staircase, there was a kitchenette, living room, bathroom with a clawfoot tub, closet, bedroom, and screened porch. It was only used as often as we visited, arriving in a station wagon loaded with kids, luggage, and the detritus of a small tribe. The apartment smelled of dust and mothballs. It seemed enchanted somehow, a miniature house. We had never seen an apartment and it held a special charm to me. The living room was by far the largest space, with an overstuffed sofa, braid rug, ancient radio cabinet that might have broadcast reports from a faraway war, a window that overlooked the backyard garden and Italian plum tree. When we descended after five hours on the road, children scattered like marbles on a linoleum floor. We touched every room at once: kitchen, pantry, back yard, cellar, upstairs apartment. We slept everywhere too, sofas made into bed with sheets and chenille spreads, screened porch and sleeping bags. Family legend maintains that my parents lived in the apartment their first year of marriage: playing house in an attic filled with relics of austerity.
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