She Lives
In a Big
White House

Part One
Carlos Amantea
She lives in a big white house,
The room's alive and she's devoted to life;
Keeping this house just right, keeping it perfectly nice,
She doesn't talk when he comes home at night.
Twenty-five years, she's just the same

She's a lonely woman, quiet in her way;
He comes home at night, she kills him with her knife
She's the one who's a-living in paradise.
Sister of mercy, 0 sister of mercy,
0 don't cry for me
Sister of mercy, 0 sister of mercy,
It's all right for me.
Now she sits in a big white chair

--- The Thompson Twins

Everyone pretends not to notice as my ninety-two year-old mother shuffles across the street, holding her head down, using her aluminum walker, her hands bent about the aluminum bars, hurrying as best she is able, feet scraping the curb and the pavement, hurrying to be with the neighbor lady. Her silver hair bobs about as she moves along. This will be her last lover, and she doesn't want to waste a moment away from her and her love.

Sometimes I wonder what makes her tick, this mother of mine --- mama mía! Did I make her up wholecloth? What planet did she come from? Did I, as the Buddhists say, pick her out specifically in order to rework the wrongs of my other lives?

She lives in the house on the river, the house that has not changed in any way since she bought it in 1940. "It never was your father's house," she says shortly; "I bought it with my money, in my own name..." We, grew up, orphans, in the house of this woman. Our father --- too --- was orphan.

The house is cold, eternally cold, something not to be expected in southeast Georgia. The furnace is tiny, built a half a century ago. The water heater, installed during WWII, and never replaced, pumps two or three cups of tepid water every hour or so. I remember the coldest of winters, when a shallow layer of lukewarm water would be spread over the bottom of the tub for my bath. The old red-coil wire electric heater in the corner would sputter and smell of hot rust, and I would be all goose bumps drying off in front of it. One sister said that all she could remember of those winters was blue hands and blue feet. "But it was south Georgia," our friends say: "How could you be cold?" They don't know the house was built to invite the airs of the Arctic, and Mum didn't cotton to the wasting of any energy to dissipate it.

She was born in 1898, my mother was, so that now, when she moves about, she and her walker move quite slowly. She lives in two rooms in the old Tudor house: the dining room, and the downstairs bedroom --- the same one where my two sisters died. The other fifteen rooms, plus the attic, the basement, the maid's room --- are dark and unpeopled, except for the spooks of the children that grew up and away from her and her world there in the south.

Each day she moves from bedroom to dining room, and back to bedroom again, trailing my sisters behind her, muttering to them, telling them to mind their manners, wipe their noses, stop being so noisy. They hop along in front or behind her, jumping up and down with impatience at her impossible slowness. She can hear them telling her to hurry, and she tells them to be quiet. "You girls hush now," she says.

She always encouraged independence, and discouraged the word "Mother" or "Mom" or --- so common in our area --- "Mammy." They call her Rachel. "Rachel, will you tie my shoe laces?" one of them asks. She mulls on the difficulty of bending down, trying to find the laces in the fog, taking laces in twisted fingers, twisting the laces together, make everything right again. She won't do it unless they persist.

The dining room has been converted to a war room: business reports are stacked tall on the table, and the morning sun stretches in through the windows, marking the papers with the shadows of the bars. The light is not good. To favor her one good eye she has a spotlight mounted in the ceiling so she can pore over the reports with their small print: profit-and-loss, debt-to-asset ratio, cash flow, annual business expenses: a new set of babes --- ones who cry less, wet their diapers less often, never leave home, don't come down with the measles.

"I didn't know anything about the stock market when your father died," she tells us. "I knew nothing about investments, or money. I had to teach myself. Your father never taught me what he knew, but that's all right --- I'm strong. He was one of the kindest men in the world," she says. During a seance she once asked him why he left her, and he said, loudly and clearly (enough for her to hear without her hearing aid), "Rachel, I didn't want to." A decade after his death, I dream of him. He has been forced by her to come back from the grave for some unfinished business. He is very reluctant to do so, but she insists, so he drives around the city with her in the old grey Cadillac. She does the driving. He wants to go back, but she won't let him --- it took a lot of work to get him here, and he's going to finish what she has in mind, even though he's tired, even though he'd much rather be dead again.

She trades a million dollars worth of stock a year, my ninety-two year old mother does. Carefully, slowly, she takes in the checks, folds them to her, and then carefully, slowly, with her bent fingers, disburses them. Not to herself, not to her children --- certainly not to charity. But to The Children's Trust. The Trust is her new spouse, a friend who constantly speaks to her during the long nights. She lies alone in the single bed with the scarred oaken posts, there in the seventeen room house, there on the Savannah River --- and the Trust speaks to her, of capitalization, long term debt, price-to-earnings ratios.

Once there were other sounds in her house. The river would speak to her out of the night, she'll hear the wind in the camphor trees, the soughing of the long-leaf pine. Now that she's deaf, she no longer hears the windsong of the river. Instead, she listens to the threnody of assets-to-liabilities ratio, earnings for the past three, and five and ten years, net worth, fixed charge coverage, growth in real and apparent income. The music comes to her in cantata form, sung by her favorite choirs: Boeing, General Motors, General Mills, Lucky Stores, Winn-Dixie, American Home Products, Columbia Gas, Northwest Airlines. The choir sings to her of security and stability and sanctity. The lyrics of open-high-low-last through the ages, rocking in time, the eternal up and down, a rhythmical flow: the flood of "open," the waves of "high," the depths of "low," the sweet flattened notes of "last" --- my dear old deaf and near-blind mother rocked in the bosom of Abraham, the evensong of the marketplace.

My mother is locked to her table during the day and to her bed at night and all the time to the house and its ghosts. She's a prisoner to the house, the one she's lived in this half-century now --- for there are bars on the windows and bars on the doors, and an eight-foot electrified fence outside. I once counted eleven doors and fifteen windows on the ground floor, and when we were young we never turned a lock, never secured a window, never passed a gate, never had keys. Our lives were free, at such ease in that southern city. The light came rippled in through oak and camphor and orange and fig trees --- a light through the leaves, making this a great wide open green emerald garden of a palace. When we left for the summers, we never locked doors or windows because in our neighborhood there came no wrong.

But several years ago, one of my sisters appropriated the rapine and murder and manglings from television and newspapers and decided it was dangerous for the house to be open. At great effort and expense she put in bars and locks on windows and doors, inside and out: call-boxes and alarms throughout; a tall fence encompassing the large yard. And now this house we once called home is a prison for this woman of nine decades, my mother --- renting, still, a body that now curves down on itself with the weight of ages. They have hidden her behind bars and locks and alarms, chained her to charts and graphs and figures, the prisoner-counter of monies, ten thousand memories barred inside her, scuttling movements under the piano --- the great instrument unused for twenty-eight years, since the last wedding in the hallway, the day now gone, the people all gone, the children all gone, the marriage itself now gone.

There are bars to darken her world as she sits at the table, the great-leafed table where once, evening after evening, people dined so graciously, with green-and-gold edge plates, silverware --- the heavy Lockheart pattern --- and candles, always candles with dinner: great meals, the tall room with its wallpaper (images of Provençal wallpaper), the room filled with laughter, candles --- a dozen or more candles, in the curved Regis candle-holders, with the fluted edges and the scalloped base. It would take Belorah the maid all morning and most of the afternoon to polish the silverware, the candle-holders, the napkin rings.

Now there's a tuna sandwich and part of a baked potato spread out on yesterday's Wall Street Journal. To drink, not Poilly-Fuisse, but a glass of water (my sister doesn't favor drinking anymore). And no candles --- her milk-white eyes could sense no candle: the spot-light in the ceiling will have to do.

As she eats, she bends to the figures from The Standard Revised Edition of Standard & Poors. She is hungry for numbers, as she never was for food. "If they could just line up pills for me," she says, has said a thousand times, "...one-two-three" --- she counts the imaginary pills on bent fingers --- "so I would never have to eat again, just line up the pills, that would be fine with me."

She is silent, now. She stopped talking to the girls an hour ago because they were being naughty and noisy. When the girls are bad she applies a cure-all silence. When they scraped themselves on the pavement outside, she applied Epsom Salts. When they were naughty, she applied a dose of silence --- no words at all. The children have done wrong, and with the silence we'll break them of their badness: no words, no looks, nothing --- mother turned to a ghost because of what the children have done --- and she bashes them with the club of silence. When the children have been bad, one doesn't speak to them until they are good, until they have learned their lesson. And the house is filled with silence.

--- From The Blob That Ate Oaxaca

 

Go Home    Go to Part II     Go Up