Personal effect, p.1
By Matthew Farrington
In the summer, during the week when my father wasn’t there, my mother sometimes came into our room at night to offer affection. It was rare, occasioned I know now by her slowly sipping drink after drink in the sun while we swam or played on the beach all day so that by late evening she was either quite drunk or weary from the mix of alcohol and heat. Either way she became melancholy and affectionate. The drink, whatever it was, never seemed to disappear so in the logic of childhood I could believe that she only ever had one drink. None of us ever saw her refilling her glass. Sometimes we saw her adding ice to it but we never saw the liquor itself.
On those nights when she came to us she would stand near the end of one of the beds, sometimes she would sit down there, near our feet, and talk to us about her childhood. She would tell stories about our grandparents, whom I barely knew. I asked for my favorite story every time, the one about her parent’s crossing from Ireland years before. Sometimes she told it, other times she couldn’t do any more than sit and look somewhat sad, like she was grieving a lost memory or some unattained happiness. In those moments she was a different kind of mother, one that I couldn’t imagine would do the things she did to me and I almost loved her again.
The look was sad, wistful and pointedly not directed at any one of us but away, through the window and out into the night. I don’t know what, in her drunken state, she was thinking but coming into the room with its lace curtains hung on all the windows seemed to make her more wistful. In those days since my mother and father were consistent in the delusion that we were properly- bred Irish we had lace curtains on the windows. The hand-made patterns were delicately webbed, finely crafted and very old. Each set was different as each had been made by a different relative from either side of the family and given over at one point or another to someone else, either as a gift or, more often as an inheritance. None of the curtains started out in life as that. Each piece was woven into a larger work, reincarnated for serviceability. If I stared at them long enough I could see stout, elderly Irish matrons in shabby but comfortable armchairs in the front rooms of shabby but comfortable homes on non-descript roads in a myriad of interchangeable Irish villages, painstakingly tatting bone-lace on cold, rainy evenings to be used for someone’s wedding or christening dress. These women worked diligently at a task that often brought them no real pleasure, just a brief sense of accomplishment destined to last only until the next task came along. An ocean separated our family’s present from its past more than time so it was not difficult to invent a place and people I’d never even seen and only rarely heard mentioned.
The lace was still there in this same house by the lake where I spent so many summers. My mother’s death seems almost unreal because I can still see her here, sitting in the chair by the fireplace or standing at the kitchen table chopping vegetables or at the sink washing dishes. It’s beautiful here in the winter. This is not the first time I’ve seen the place like this, looking almost abandoned to the snow and ice, but it is different this time. I’ve been staying here alone, looking out at the frozen lake and the snow blown up into small hills at its edge, looking churned up from the wind, as if it were trying to reveal something vital underneath. Every time I open a drawer or cupboard I get a brief but powerful hint of her perfume. She is still here in this house. It is haunted by her memory, her essence sunk into the floorboards and plaster, her voice echoing in the long hallway upstairs.
In the absence of the groups of extended family that came and went every summer the house was an entirely different place. The constant distribution of sun screen which lent the house the faint smell of lingering aloe and coconut and something faintly floral mixed with the unmistakable scent of mildew and seaweed lent the place a certain presence that chaos creates. Without the constant chatter of children and the quiet tones of adults keeping secrets and without the endless washing of dishes and sweeping of sand out the door the house seemed vast and was palpably silent. It took on a dreary singularity. There was nothing particularly distinctive about it now. In the shadow of this bleak sense of absence, it was simply a small white house set against an almost entirely white landscape and it looked, from the road, entirely alone. The biting cold was everywhere, following me from room to room when I first arrived, assailing my nostrils with its peculiar scent. I rejected the idea of building a fire at first. There was plenty of wood on the mud porch, covered with the old tarp we used when we painted the trim around the windows every summer. I wanted the cold to buffer me somehow, to keep the house from surrounding me.
I was there to work, to clear the place out, or get it ready to clear out, to organize it. My mother was dead and my brother and sister decided, without asking my opinion of course, to sell the place. I was the only one who lived close enough to organize this task. My sister brought her family up from southern Ohio for two weeks ever summer, around the fourth of July, but that was it. My brother came here rarely, preferring instead to bring his family to visit my sister once every couple of years at Christmas at her home rather than during the summer at the lake. I lived only two hours away by car so I got elected to put things in order, even though the house was not mine.
Over the years my mother’s rage toward me had deepened to such a point that she and I could no longer even speak without undisguised contempt coloring the conversation. She settled into a quiet disdain for me. My brother and sister were simply her minions, keeping me informed of her deteriorating condition over the years. I called her every August, at the lake, for a short chat. We could be cordial, even familiar for a very short time if we were not in the same room. Slowly though, as the conversation progressed she would become more and more agitated with me, more withdrawn. When the first lull in the conversation happened, usually about ten or twelve minutes in, I made an excuse and we cordially said goodbye. And that was it. I never saw her and had no other contact with her save for a birthday card (though she eventually stopped sending any acknowledgement that I had been born to her). I always received a Christmas card with a family newsletter in it that always included the same line about me: “Sarah insists on staying in Hillbrook, ‘writing’ she says. We hope for the best, that she’ll someday publish. She is still working at The Loft to pay her bills, happy to manage the staff there rather than go on to find something that might be more lucrative. At least we know she’s happy.”
My mother never acknowledged my writing other than to criticize me for pursuing it. She did not acknowledge any of the short stories or articles that I sent her over the years that actually had been published. It was true that I was not making a living as a writer as I’d hoped to, but I was writing every day and this did, in fact, make me happy. And yes, I manage a small restaurant to pay the bills. I started working there as a waitress in college and stayed on after I graduated because I like Hillbrook, I like the people there and I wanted to try and make a go of it as a writer surrounded by people I knew would encourage the craft. It was the right decision for me. My mother never understood or honored it.
Toward the end of her life my mother took the dramatic, if not entirely unexpected step of formally disinheriting me. I didn’t really care but now that I had come to the lake house to get it ready for sale I started to resent the detachment my mother felt it necessary to legalize. I was feeling more and more angry over the fact that I was cleaning and readying a house that did not belong to me so that other people could profit from its sale. This house, the condominium in Myrtle Beach and the contents of both, as well as my mother’s money and stock portfolio, had passed quietly into the hands of my brother and sister. I was left, as I was used to being left, on the outside, not forgotten but simply and deliberately excluded. It was not unusual and it barely even stung.
I was invited to the reading of the will by my brother. In fairness neither he, nor my sister knew what it contained. I did. My mother told me she was writing me out of her will years before. I expected nothing. My brother told me afterward that he didn’t even know that she had met with her attorney when she did. I believed him. He had no reason to lie to me. We were not close, not ‘friends’ as some siblings are. My being disinherited would not have bothered him that much and he would have been honest about it had he known. I can credit him with that much.
Personal Effect by Matthew Farrington / History & Fiction have rating 4.3 out of 5 / Based on39 votes