Nantucket Essays

My Mother Carried Napkins

• by Robert P. Barsanti •

I have just been invited to a fiftieth anniversary party for the Jordans.  The invitation arrived in a huge cream envelope with my name and address in script across the front.  It also arrived with a bachelorette party of bills from the car company, the power company, and one with a red border that I will need three cups of coffee and firm sense of myself to open.

The invitation itself was shaped like a champagne bottle with a paper stand so that it would stand out among the other clutter on the counter.  In a week, of course, it would join the old newspapers, half-finished crosswords, and expired coupons on the counter.  Like newspaper in a birdcage, the invite, even with its perky stand, will disappear under the daily droppings of weekday life.

But we will go.  Since my father died, I don’t have any reason to go back to the old neighborhood.  The house has been sold two times since, the downtown has been revitalized, and Dory’s Restaurant has been re-imagined as House of Siam.  The lawns, the hills, and some of the last names are the same, but my old home town has gone the way of my old bike, my school, and my parents.  They exist complete on islands of my memory; islands, regrettably, that I don’t visit very much.  A party is a better reason than most to return.

The envelope that contained the champagne bottle invitation was heavier than it appeared.  Tucked down in the bottom were three Polaroids from those islands of the past.  In one, my parents sat on a small porch outside of a hotel room with wine and cheese.  In another, the two couples stood together on the bottom floor of a condominium in ski sweaters; all four of them younger than I am right now.  The last photo included just my mother, a red winged blackbird on a bush, and Miacomet Pond.

I had taken the photo.  The Jordans and my parents had come to the island to visit me that spring.  They were in a celebratory moment; my mother had just finished her first round of chemotherapy and the reports from the doctors were positive.  She was talking about finishing the school year back in her classroom (she would).  So, flush with hope, she invited the Jordans to come down to Nantucket and stay in my cramped apartment on Center Street for a few days.  More likely than not, knowing my mother, Friday involved onion rings and zucchini sticks at the Atlantic Cafe, washed down with a Manhattan.  Then they all jammed into two sofas, two single beds and a mattress on the floor.

My cramped apartment was nothing next to my cramped car.  At the time, I was driving my mother’s old car, a white, standard Chevette.  The Vette was on the back 9 of its life and had been equipped with a manual choke since the automatic one had also been stricken with cancer and had been removed by a far greasier doctor.

So, on the afternoon of this one photo, five well-fed adults had crammed themselves into this tiny, barely functioning clown car to drive to Miacomet and go for a walk by the pond.

From the photo, we were walking on a beautiful, overcast, raw day in late spring.  The clouds hung low and the white caps peeped out of the pond.  The bird clung to his branch in the background.

We had started walking at the old Miacomet parking lot.  My mother had held back and let the other three walk ahead.  I stayed with her and talked.  By the time we made the turn and were walking along the pond, she turned to me and asked “Do you have any paper with you?”  (I remember that I did.)

Cancer takes many things from you, and one of the most precious is continence.  So, we found an appropriately private bush for my mother to use.  Out of sight of her husband, the Jordans, and everyone else save a red wing blackbird or two, she took care of business.  When she emerged from the bushes, I checked her for leaves and twigs.  Then we took a picture to record the black humor of the moment.

She died three years later.  I got the call at three in the morning in another apartment and felt my past tear away.

I have lived the last twenty years without a mother.  She didn’t see a wedding nor did she see grandchildren.  She didn’t see the houses fall into the surf, the closing of the Atlantic Cafe, or the miracle that is the Morning Bun.

I have missed her.

My mother lived in a world where you spit in one hand and you wish in another.  My father was in charge of wishes and my mother was in charge of the other stuff.  When we won a Science Fair trophy or a medal in the 100 yard individual medley or had our picture in the paper, my father was there.  He was there with a smile, a handshake, and that infrequent paternal applause that meant so much back then.

But my mother worked in the Irish world of blood, sweat, toil, and tears.  She planned for the worst, accepted it, and moved on.  Mothers are the messy realists of the world.  They see us when the dream falls apart and the checks bounce.  Mothers hear the lie and find a way, somehow to save the day and with pride and clean underwear.   It is a life of needs and catches and grabs from the edge of disaster.  My mother’s victories were small; everybody healthy, everybody fed, everybody asleep.  She celebrated with a devil dog and a glass of Grand Marnier in the silent evening.  I have had a few celebrations that I would like to have shined upon my father, but far more catastrophic messes that could use the paper napkins of my mother.

After twenty years, I don’t begrudge the Jordans their fiftieth anniversary.  They knew, as did everyone else on that walk, that my parents would never make it that far.  As an adult, I have learned that sometimes courage is measured in the things you know, but won’t speak and can’t believe.

Only my mother would take a moment of vulnerability and shame, a moment so painful that she sent her husband up ahead, and commemorate it.  Only my mother would find a way to laugh at the poisons that were killing and humiliating her, and then send that photo forward beyond her death.

Only a son of hers would find the strength in it.

Articles by Date from 2012