by Robert P. Barsanti
I think of my mother almost every day. She died on a snowy night in February, at the tail end of a long, painful, and humiliating retreat from cancer. My father called me in the middle of that night when I was living on Lyon Street, at a time in my life when there were no rings, no children, and a Jeep still parked in the driveway. Although Death had been waiting for her outside in a Thunderbird, it still stunned us to realize that she had left. Twenty three years later, I sleep on a different street, in a house, with a woman she hardly knew, with children she never met, on an island that has changed and, in many ways, hasn’t. She remains with me. Time has given me the gift of sight; I can see her shadow in the leaves and outside the door.
Mary lived a life of black humor and dark, graceful necessity. My father, like most men, walked through the day in improvised self-delusion with a Megabucks ticket in his pocket and hope in his heart. Every packet of mail held a check, every phone call came from a new client, every trip for coffee became a business meeting. My mother had had all capacity for self-delusion scrubbed out of her early in a lace curtain Irish girlhood. Periodically, Mary had to clean my father’s hopeful stains from her.
This complicated my mother’s time on this island, as if Nantucket was something that she dare not hope for. My father was the Club Car and an American Express card, my mother was the Atlantic Cafe and cash. Mary went camping, took buses, and hid clothes in Filene’s Basement until she got $35 off. A $20 hamburger riled her stomach and revolted her soul. At the same time, she loved the rolling of the ocean and the destruction of the waves. She cheered nothing on with the gusto of watching a beach house fall into the surf. When the No-Name storm took out a street in Codfish Park, I had to send her the VHS tape.
Eventually, she settled into a wary acceptance of the island. As long as she could get her onion rings and Downyflake donuts, things would be all right. She enjoyed the off-season in particular, since the cars were fewer and the line at the Brotherhood was short. Ironically, she also enjoyed Christmas Stroll when the line was long and the traffic was thick. My mother was an inveterate people-watcher and sales hound. All she needed was one stack of “Buy one, Get One Free” sweatshirts to make her heart go pitter-pat. One group of men in Dickensian hats and cloaks prowled the bricks and cheered her soul, especially when she found out they were from blue collar Shrewsbury. She would sit downtown on a bench, listen to the singers, and watch the fur coats go by in the rain. My father, with as sure a grasp on this situation as ever, bought my mother a fur coat one winter before Stroll. She left it back in Wakefield.
My mother taught middle school science in my old school. By a trick of the travel agents and the skiers, Nantucket’s winter vacation is a week after the rest of the state’s, so Mary came down to the island one February with an old friend of hers from college. They stayed in my apartment/converted garage/dentist’s office behind the Vallett’s on Centre Street. February was as it still is, cold, windy, and snowless. The two of them walked through the downtown, bought bargains, sang the old songs, and left me to my grading. Then, with a storm impending, my mother sent her friend back to her family and wintered-over in the weather on-island. As it always does, the snow fell north of the Canal and wind-whipped rain pelted the island. School was held, but she drove around the island and took pictures of the waves with her Instamatic.
Almost thirty years later, I see all that I missed that weekend. The hardest part of growing up is realizing how stupid you were and continue to be, no matter your best efforts. Stupid is the one constant in my life; age has only taught me to expect it. What Mary must have thought, even in that cold apartment, about her son with a job and a life that was opening up before him. What a marvel I must have been, from baby to little leaguer to caddy to college to Mr. Barsanti in coat and tie. “How did this happen?” she may have thought. The following years have moved me around the room to her spot on the sofa; I think the same thing when I see my sons. How did I get here?
I have no idea.
I shuffle along in baby steps, going from day to day, bill to bill, tragedy to tragedy with an indomitable creep. You focus on what you can control, hope for the best, and laugh at the worst then wake up and do it again. To Mary, hope was a muscle— not one that bulged in a sleeve, but that held your back firm. Hope didn’t flare like a torch, but burned like a pilot light. Hope walked.
In her last year, my parents came out to the island with the matching set of aunts and uncles. The cancer had come back, as had the chemotherapy, the wigs, and the bottle of Ensure. I piled the crowd into my little car and drove them to Miacomet so that they could walk to the ocean. My father, the aunts and uncles walked ahead while I stayed behind with Mary. October remained on-island, warm and breezy, with will ‘o the wisp clouds rolling overhead. The bushes were touched with red and the beach grass with winter’s brown. The crowd of relatives rounded a curve ahead of us and she held my arm. “Bobby?” she asked. “You don’t have any paper with you, do you?”
A few minutes later, she emerged from the edge of the brush around the pond. “Never mind.” She continued on. “I just left my underwear there.”