Saturday, when other kids played Little League or rode hardscrabble on two-wheelers, wasa day of unrest in my family. My father worked half the weekend, and my mother was loath to relax without him. During the week, she taught history; Saturdays, while he saw patients, she cleaned the house with the speed and intensity of an EMT. Hampers were heaved into the laundry room, counters scoured, chairs pulled back for the whorl and tempest of her vacuum.
Cleaning revealed my mother’s ambivalence toward the material world. On the one hand, she could be its deepest advocate. She loved organizing. The slightest stain intrigued the problem solver in her. On the other hand, objects could break or disappoint. “It’s just a thing,” she’d say dismissively when we wept over a broken toy or a frayed sweater.
Things didn’t last. Focus on what does, she told us.
My sisters and I knew things could be fragile, but so could people. We had the evidence in the hallway upstairs: rows of family pictures, ghosts from generations past. My mother’s mother, Sylvia, with her flaxen hair and steady gaze. Sylvia’s younger sister, Pody, darker, slightly somber. Both dead in their early forties from ovarian cancer, the disease my parents talked about when Sara, Julie and I pretended to be asleep. Their hushed voices rising and falling. Would my mother get it too? What could they do to prevent it? To protect us? They talked about surgery, about “medical options.” We didn’t understand, but we sensed something sad in my mother—a strand of melancholy woven through her ebullience. A certain tentativeness, as if—like someone stepping onto a rope bridge—she feared the world wouldn’t hold her weight.
Maybe all that cleaning was her way of keeping disorder at bay. The pleasure of things gleaming and put back into place, nothing “out.” But if my mother’s goal was to combat disorder, ours was to embrace it. She’d leave the rumpled bedsheets in piles upstairs and, by unspoken agreement, allotted us that time—before she came back up to make the beds—to do what we wanted. Stretch the sheets across chairs to build forts. Trail them behind us in makeshift three-personed weddings. Sometimes we’d strip down to our underwear and use the sheets for dress-
up. We’d wind and knot them into ball gowns, drape our heads in -pillowcase-veils. For that furtive hour, while the vacuum whined below and the world stilled outside, my sisters and I became something other than ourselves. We were Nefertiti and her slaves; we were Amy and Meg and Jo from Little Women, alternating scenes of penury with our own elaborate nuptials; we were Ahab and his angry crew, sheets flapping like sails. We were ghosts, desolate and unmoored.
When my mother came up to gather the sheets for washing, she’d let herself collapse for a few minutes, breathless, laughing, her mood lightened. We’d put on shows for her, traipsing up and down the hallway, and it felt as if Sylvia and Pody were watching us too, their expressions frozen between meditation and mirth.
Our witnesses, our benefactors. Protecting us from what came next.
Once in a while, before my mother made the bed again in the master bedroom, she’d take out her jewelry box and show us what she was saving for us. We knew better than to ask. But when the box came out, we’d leap to her side.
Those were the times I loved best.
Her jewelry—there wasn’t much—had all been Sylvia’s. We knew each piece by heart, like talismans, smooth from years of wearing, etched with history and love. The strand of pearls Sylvia got from her father, Meyer, when she turned 16. The dimpled gold seal on a thin chain from Meyer’s brief stint in a local guild. A small ruby surrounded with seed-size diamonds that had once dangled from Aunt Pody’s charm bracelet. These pieces were like relics, and we pored over them together, rubbing them as if somehow their presence might wipe the wistfulness from my mother’s eyes.
We knew better than to ask to try anything on.
There were three necklaces, each laid neatly in its own velvet drawer, and my mother made no secret of her plans. There would be one for each of us, a present on our 16th birthdays.