In the days after Dad's funeral, I stayed at Mom's house, in the room that Dad had slept in by himself for quite a few years. He'd snored like a sawmill with a bent blade and for not wanting to share the noise, I could not blame my mother. I used to wonder how she got any sleep at all.
She wasn't sleeping much now; the snoring from the other room must have been a comforting background noise even if not pleasant close up. I would hear her get up and go to the kitchen, and hear the chair skreeek a little on the linoleum. I listened for weeping, a sob, a tissue being taken from the box on the counter, but nothing. Maybe a sigh.
After some breakfast, each day Mom made a tour of the house, room to room, taking account of everything that was there, rattling on in a small, weak voice that had developed a quaver, remembering aloud the history of every item. I followed her, hating how shrunken she had become in just those few days, listening to her, hoping to catch some clue from her words about what I could do for her. "He made all my easels for me, after we moved here. I painted them different colors, like a color wheel, so I could remember which one I had worked on last. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple. Purple paint was hard to find, so I mixed some from my own paints and just did a light wash over the wood. I didn't use any white, white takes so long to dry." Assigning every piece an origin, my idea, his idea, my idea. His books. My garden. His chair. My desk. She told me about how Jesse scraped her shin on the edge of the end table as though I were a stranger, not considering that Jesse had done that climbing across the end table to spy on the letter I was writing in my notebook as I curled on the chair. After one such repetitive tour, we sat in the living room, and she told me once again as though I had never heard it, her well-known and often repeated story of how she and Dad met and married.
I was working in Dr. Castle's office in Pittsburgh, and I kept all the records and did all his typing. We didn't have your computers to make it easy on us, we had to remember the patients' names ourselves. There was me, his nurse Frannie, and the doctor and that was it. And it was a busy office, too, just down the street from the steel mill by the river. All the industrial accidents! Oh, it was terrible.
One day we were getting ready to close up the office, and a man came in supporting another man who had his hand wrapped in a towel. Ugh! It was turning red, and I called for Frannie to come right away. She took one look and waved them back to one of the examining rooms. I heard the doctor's shoes in the hallway, and the door shut. They were going to have to put stitches in right away; that man, I can't remember his name, had cut himself on a piece of sheet metal, it's a wonder he kept the use of it! I found that out because the man who had carried him in told me. That was your father. The doctor sent him out when they started to work.
We started to fill out the paperwork and I asked him his name. "Mark Ambris, what's your name?" I was a pretty good-looking girl in those days, you can hardly believe it when you look at me now. I wasn't beautiful, but I was slim and my hair was the color of yours, and I didn't have to dye it, either. I didn't tell him my name, I wanted to keep him guessing until I knew a bit more about him. He was handsome, though, all nice and tan and clean shaven. I never liked men with beards, or hairy men, no way. He leaned on the counter and pestered me while I put the files and prescription things away. He wanted me to tell him my name so that he could ask me out, and I said NO, I don't date strangers. By the time the doctor was done with his friend, oh! his name was Louis Something-or- other, I was ready to spray Mr. Mark Ambris with the fire extinguisher and put him OUT.
But the next day, the florist's sent a white rose in a little vase with a card that said "For my Mystery", and it was from your father. And the next day, Friday, the florist sent two white roses, and the card said, "For Mystery: how many roses will it take to convince you?" On Monday, there were three! By the next Friday, it was up to seven white roses! The florist's boy was looking at me like I was nuts by then. Mark, your Dad, came into the office and leaned on the counter and called me Mystery and asked me out. I told him to go take a cold shower! I wanted to see just how far he'd go. I wasn't easy, not like nowadays when girls jump into bed with everyone they meet.
Ha, ha! It took two dozen white roses to convince me to go to dinner with him! Oh, they were beautiful. I asked him what the significance of the white rose was, and he told me that I was like a white rose, delicate and pure and pale.
You know, he sent me a white rose every day for my office desk. I would take them home at night and my room had white roses in glasses and vases everywhere. The were like stars glowing from the street lamps in my room at night.
Three dates was all it took before he asked me to marry him. We talked about having babies, and thought it would be a good idea to live in a smaller town than Pittsburgh. I said yes to him, and he started looking for work in smaller towns. That's how we ended up in Penn's Vale. But he didn't tell me how small it was before we got married! There was nothing there but the county courthouse and a couple stores! They didn't even have a library yet and talk about hicks from the sticks!
You know, when I lived in Pittsburgh and went out on a date, I had champagne or wine or mixed drinks, but in Penn's Vale, they had a bar that smelled like a sick room and served beer or whiskey, forget anything else. But it was for you girls that we made the choice to live in a hick town.
We rented a little house, our house, you remember it, don't you? and arranged an option to buy. And there we settled. We went to an auction and bought a table with four chairs, a bed, and an old Frigidaire. There was a stove in the house already -- I think it was too big for anyone to move and that's why it was left in the house.
That was our start, and before we'd been married three months, you were on the way. I think we'd have done better for ourselves if we could have waited a while before having a baby, but we loved you. I just had to stay home to take care of you instead of working so that we could have afforded a better place and a nicer environment.
Your father worked overtime a lot, so he didn't have a lot of energy left over to do things around the house, that's why that house was such a dump. He had enough energy to read, though; I think that's all he did when he came home. I did what I could with my painting, but there weren't many people who wanted to buy paintings in those days, and there was precious little I could do about it. When you were off to school, Jesse was on the way.
If we had just been in a larger town, I could have been pretty successful with my paintings. I was good, even though I taught myself. But your father chose that stupid little town, not me.
At that point that I would grow uncomfortable with the narrative I had heard all my life. Mark never listened to her advice, always had to have his job as central to everything they did, was inconsiderate of her talent, didn't do anything but read, thought she was stupid, let people walk all over him, cluttered up the house with ugly antiques, had no ambition, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Over and over again, I heard the same complaints, all my life. I never wanted to hear them, not even the first time, why so many times, why could the woman never let anything go?
Funny, I had seen a man constantly ducking (so to speak) to avoid the arrows of her words, who worked hard and never called off work for play, who was thought-filled, kind, and faithful. He never measured up to what she wanted him to be; what that really was is known only to her. But then, none of us measured up to what she wanted us to be: Dad was too content, I was too silly, Jesse too remote. Come to think of it, no one was acceptable just as they were. Adam was "just a truck driver, how could you lower yourself to that? You can do better than that, Solange!" and poor Charles couldn't get off the hook even with all his money and prestige. "He's BALD, and he's too OLD! What kind of pervert is he, marrying such a young girl? You'll regret it!"
I thought that after Dad died, she would relent and repent and say "Oh, how I pushed at that poor man!" But she didn't, and I don't, at this point, actually think she had any idea what a tyrant she was, with her soured memory and relentless will. If disagreed with, she would turn silent and cold, her lips pressed into a thin line through which no forgiveness could squeeze, unbendingly waiting for Dad, or Jesse, or me to give in. Which we always did, in her household. Defy her? Well, let me say, I learned, and Jesse did too, that defiance was not worth the price; ah, but freedom from her totalitarian rule? That was worth any cost. Neither Jesse nor I ever considered going back 'home' to live once we escaped to college and work.
In spite of being her prisoner of war, Dad loved her, and called her "Miss" when she would allow it, though he most often referred to her as "Mother", just as she called him "Dad". Only when I was a teen did I realize that "Miss" was really short for "Mystery."