My mom and I were searching her house in Penn's Vale to look for Jesse's slippers. Jesse had snuck (Yes, I know, 'sneaked' is more grammatical, but just doesn't describe how it's done as well as 'snuck') outside to dig in the Egyptian ruins scattered about the back yard, and when she had come in, she hadn't put her slippers in the box in her closet. Mom couldn't bear disorder, and Jesse was going to catch it for losing her slippers.
I was wearing my beige work outfit: beige slacks, white blouse, professional cut, and a lighter beige sweater. I was concerned about missing work for the sake of a pair of slippers, but felt I owed some duty to Jesse to try to mitigate the punishment she was sure to receive.
The house in Penn's Vale was clean and sound, but empty of furniture. I went along the downstairs hallway to my room at the back of the house to see if she had left them there, but the room was empty. Sunlight was streaming through the window to my right, warm and bright, heating the hardwood floor. I thought to myself that I would just as soon live there, because the play of the sunlight on the grain of the wood was interesting, and empty spaces peaceful. I opened the closet door to see if Jesse might have left her slippers in there, but there was nothing but an old clock I had made and forgotten years ago, very delicate, with just dabs of plaster of paris to accent the hands and the hours, mounted on fragile strands of copper wire. I hung the clock on the ochre wall on a nail, to save it from forgetfulness and anonymity.
My mother found me and I told her I hadn't found the slippers. She asked angrily about where the clock came from, as though she disapproved of anything in her house that she hadn't brought. I replied to her with sudden rising anger that I had made it, I had hung it, and so what, I liked it, and liked the way it looked on the wall. She turned her back on me and hurried away to say hello to Dad, who was lying on a bed in the next room. I realized I was wasting time just standing by, bickering with Mom, and should be saying hello to him. My mother had already gone over to his bed and was flexing her arms, showing how strong she had become.
I tried to go through the doorway, but bumped into some invisible barrier that hummed discordantly. I put my right hand to it, and pushed, willing it to get out of my way. A river of intent flowed from my womb through my heart and then the back of my head, cradling me, forming, shadowing, cloaking me with might. I stepped forward again, and the barrier pulled from the doorway, but then wrapped itself around my face, and I scrabbled at it with my fingers, panicking, shaking my head to get free.
In the dark, sweating and casting around for bearings, I thought to myself that someday, I would really have to stop trying to go back in time and defeat my mother's will, for the past is done and inaccessible; the only power the past has over us is to mire us in its web and keep us from seeing the wonder of the present. I got a glass of ice water and went out on the patio with Gabe to look at the stars and be thankful to God for their presence and that they are not moved by our little daily crises.
The Minglesford Steel Works shut down. The idyllic dream of raising children in a small town evaporated into an increasingly painful reality. My father was forced to travel for an hour to get to his new job in a paper mill, but he was lucky to find one. He woke at four-thirty in the morning, ate breakfast to a view of darkness out the kitchen window, and dragged home each night around five-thirty or six, or later if there was any overtime to be had. Paper mills don't pay as much as steelwork, you see, and then there is the gasoline for the long drive, and then there is the time while one has been looking for another job that eats up all the savings; and a certain amount of money has to be put aside for repairs to the family car, the old horse that has to be fed because you ride to where all the money comes from. There just isn't enough left over after expenses to save. Mom and Dad tried putting the house on the market to sell, thinking perhaps they could recoup enough to move us to a town closer to the paper mill, but there were few people interested in moving to Penn's Vale, and even if there were, so many, many houses had "For Sale" signs in front of them since the steelworks closed.
Now that Dad was working daylight shifts, and far from home, Mom had no access to a car, and was confined within the town's limits. We walked all over town, and Mom said hello and inquired after people's families like a politician. She stopped dressing up; her clothes were becoming dated and worn and she had no money or means to make the two-hour trip to the state capital for shopping. Second-hand sales sponsored by our tiny church were an important source for clothing for us, with the "new" money saved for shoes and underwear, and fabric for making school clothes for me, and later, Jesse. She would not hear of sending us to off for other town kids to recognize their castoff dresses or sweaters. "Learn to walk with your head high and with grace, and no one will notice you don't have many outfits," she told us over and over, making us practice with books balanced on our heads.
On our walks through town, along every street and alley, Mom and I noted every fruit tree that overhung a fence, every berry bramble on the edges of town, every wild cherry or butternut. And in the season for each fruit, we scavenged windfalls. Mom made friends with old Mrs. Shaeffer, who had a fine big MacIntosh apple tree, but who was too old to climb and pick, or bend and clean up the fallen apples. Mom made her a deal: we would clean up the fallen apples in trade for the tree's harvest, less what all of it Mrs. Shaeffer wanted. What a deal, said Mrs. Shaeffer, I do hate all them wasps the windfalls attract! Mom took five bushels of apples, and traded all but one for potatoes, turnips, and canning jars. "Just because you're poor doesn't mean you have to be stupid," she lectured. "There's always a way to get what you need, honorably, you just have to get off your chair and find it."
Maybe 'friends' is not what Mom was making, though, because every 'friend' had a purpose: Mrs. Shaeffer the apples, Mr. Farber the sweet corn, Cora Casner the babysitting trade. Her big breakthrough, however, was her patience in listening to Mathilde Reynolds, an ancient widow who lived with her son's family in a big stone house on the north outskirts of town. Mathilde was a foreigner, too, a French woman who had met Mr. Reynolds while he was in the military abroad. Jesse and I would stand after Mass and die of monotony while Mom and Mathilde compared notes about the outside world. Dad would take us for walks up and down the street until Mom was done; I think he was relieved that Mom actually seemed to enjoy her conversations with the widow.
Mathilde had been left quite well off by her husband's death. But while the money might have qualified her for a berth on the Important Women's Boat, her extravagant accent and earthy attitude made her suspect, and her age made her unimportant -- not a major player. Mathilde, for her part, thought them all boring cows and could never remember their names. Mom's name stood out to her: Ambris. This is French, is it not? No one seems to know, nearly a whole generation of Mark's family died in that terrible flu epidemic so long ago. They lost their family's history. Oh, how sad! But you have named your daughter Solange, and that is a French name, too. We must stick together, we French!
She was interested in my mother's painting, and one Saturday, we drove to the Reynolds house with a few of Mom's canvases to show Mathilde, whose joints were creaky with age and who only left her home for church anymore. Mathilde was impressed, and so was her son. He bought one of them, and inquired curiously about another. This looks familiar, he said. Oh, that's just a practice piece, a reproduction of a Van Gogh. I wanted to see if I could match the colors. Pretty darned good, do you think you could reproduce a Monet?
Her forgeries -- well, reproductions of other paintings became her business, and since the wealthy Reynoldses would buy them, so would the Important Women. My mother would tell them, you bring me a photo or a picture in a magazine, and I will paint it. She took their money, gave them their faux art, and hated them for their ignorance. "Some of those women are so stupid they don't even know they're stupid. Remember that you don't have to put on airs to have some class, Solange. Your father may be content to wallow in this town, but we don't have to become like these people, at least I won't, and I'm not going to let you girls ruin your lives here, either. Do you want to become like one of your friends' mothers? Then, by God, you had better make an effort, because I can't make it for you."
Dad, in the meantime, had found a buddy to drive with to the paper mill from Penn's Vale by that time, and he was content, or so it seemed to Jesse and me. He was always interested in what we were doing, and quietly cheerful (if he got too enthusiastic, Mom would find something for Jesse and I to clean or tidy), and his easygoing way was like a vacation. If he sometimes seemed puzzled or beleaguered by Mom's ambition and drive, why, that was just the way things were; we were children after all, and left such things to the adults.
Mom made two accounts that every extra penny went into: the Escape Fund and the Fix the House for Sale Fund. And they did fix up the house into a place of reasonable comfort (I thought) and we did escape Penn's Vale, the minute we could, goaded and shepherded by Mom. When I studied history in school, Napoleon, Lenin, and Mao Tse Tung all had her face.