"You were in my dream last night," I said to Jesse where she sat on the long couch in the big study with Marca, Owen, and Michel. Michel was tucked under her left arm, and Marca had her back against her mother, and her feet braced on Owen's thigh to keep him at a distance. He was looking as though his irritation was going to turn to outrage shortly, so I began with the strangest dream fragment I could remember as a distraction. Jesse raised her eyebrows at me. "In fact, we were back in Penn's Vale, in the woods across the street from our house, hunting cats."
"To shoot them?" Kelsa cried in shock from her place against my legs.
"No, the owner of the woods said that there were no cats to be found on his property, but your mom and I knew that there had to be cats there, and we were set to find them. We knew that they would be very wary and hard to find, so we decided to climb a sort of hill there in the woods where you could see all around, and where on the sides, the honeysuckle vines make little caves where they twine across the currant bushes."
A bark of laughter from Jesse. "I remember that place! One side was gray shale and brambles, that was the steep side. I found a pair of your gloves there once, all green and moldy." The children looked at their mother as though she had been transformed. Magically she had turned a dreamscape into a real place.
"That's the one, you're right. We were walking along the path that leads to the Lookout from the west, where the locust tree canopy breaks up a little and grass can grow in patches, a likely place for finding cats in the dream. Sure enough, we spotted one, a poor mangy-looking creature whose skin showed blue at the roots when the wind ruffled his fur. He crouched there, glaring at us, wild and afraid."
"Why was his skin blue? Was he cold?" Michel asked.
"Didn't you ever see blue skin on a cat or dog? Jesse, what kind of an education are you not giving these Reich-Ambrises? Come here, Gabe, and lie down." He slowly padded over, and lay down in front of me with all the enthusiasm of a patient about to undergo surgery. When the children came towards him, he rolled onto his side with a low groan, and went limp. "Look, see how his skin is pink on his belly where he has light hair. Now look where his hair is black, see the color of the skin?"
"As blue as the sky," Oesha said in wonder, ruffling the shiny fur. Gabe put a big yellow foot against my legs and then hitched himself onto his back, reaching his front legs toward the ceiling in a stretch.
"Did you find more than one cat?" Asked Marca, scrambling back to her choice spot beside her mother.
"Yes, in the honeysuckle huts, we found cats' nests, a couple with cats sitting on them like hens on eggs, only the cats'-eggs were like those plastic eggs you see in Easter baskets, but with little furry tails about this big." I showed them a size between thumb and forefinger.
"What did you do next? Did you catch some cats?"
"No, we spotted a big orange-and-white cat with long hair getting ready to attack something, so we watched to see what it was hunting. One big pounce and it came up with what was supposed to be a mouse, but had legs like a spider skittering around. Jesse and I decided that the cats seemed like a valuable asset, so we didn't tell anyone about them and just left them alone."
Kelsa and Michel bounded off for the big drawing pad and crayons, while Owen considered the dream. "I only ever dream about Gabe when I dream about animals. Last night I dreamt about school, and in the dream I had my tie on backwards so that it was hanging down my back. I kept trying to pull it around to the front, and kept pulling too hard so that it was down my back again. So I put on my coat and zipped it up so no one would notice, but then I was so hot I couldn't stand it. When I woke up, I was all tangled up in my blankets and sweating." He grinned. "It's funny now, but I was really upset in the dream."
"How were you upset? Mad? Scared? Frustrated?" I asked him.
"Embarrassed, like I was too stupid to dress myself." Poor Owen, his face turned red with a blush even now.
"Part of growing up, sad to say, old bean. Once we reach a certain age, where we know that we can make things better if we just do the right thing, then deep down we start to worry -- am I doing enough? Did I study enough? Did I eat enough? Did I remember every single word I have been told in my entire life?"
"I have those, too," Jesse said, smiling. "I dream I'm about to take final exams, except I can't remember the name of any of the classes so I don't know where to go for the tests. "
"Worse, I get nightmares where I've taken the test and it comes back showing I flunked completely!" We were all chuckling now.
"What do you do when you have those dreams, Aunt Sully?" Oesha asked from the arm of my chair.
"I try to wake up from them as soon as I can, and I say out loud, 'What a Stupid Dream.' And then I get a good book, read a couple paragraphs, and tell myself that if I can read that, I can't be as stupid as I was in the dream."
Michel and Kelsa bounced over to show us their picture of a blue cat and a nest with tailed multi-colored eggs. "Can we tear this out and show it to Papa?"
"No, take the whole pad. You use my paper, I get to keep the drawing." Off they bounded to seek out Charles in his office lair, Owen and Oesha following next, and then Marca, too, lest she miss something.
"What Owen didn't say is that he's been having those 'stupid' dreams every time he falls asleep since Mom died. Charles told me. He and Owen are both sleeping poorly. I think Owen is reacting to his father being so depressed about Mom's dying."
"That's likely, though why is Charles that upset? He knew she was squirrelly," I wondered.
"He says he felt that he gave you bad advice about how to handle her," Jesse told me. "I've told him that there was no dealing with her, she was her own law and kingdom. But he still feels terrible."
"Everyone feels terrible, no, felt terrible trying to oppose her. We'll keep reminding him that she didn't want to stay, and no one could stop her from leaving. Tomorrow we'll just say goodbye to her, and what else could we have done?"
"We couldn't do anything, but she could have taken any kind of interest in us or what we were doing or the kids," Jesse minced the words out in a quick flash of annoyance. "She was always trying to make every aspect of life a 'take sides' issue. You were wasting your life as an accountant. I was neglecting my family as a field researcher. You got a dirty old dog instead of a doctor. I married into a family too scary to visit, and she wouldn't have anything to do with them because she was sure it would never work out. But what about the kids? She gave them the obligatory kiss and then treated them like they were weird-looking insects or something. Just because I wasn't here to have her nag me about what a bad mother I am? Well, she's gone. I need to remember that line you said, 'What a stupid dream" and just say that to myself when I start to freak out about this."
"I have no clue about the kids and why she was so distant from them. She wasn't that bad of a mother when we were growing up. Strict, yeah, and driven, yeah, but there are worse in the world. We got lots of hugs and cuddles. Did you ever feel neglected? Wouldn't you have liked to have been a little more neglected? But she just didn't do grandchildren well at all."
Jesse still looked sullen, but stood and announced it was time for her to save Charles from the children. I waved her on, to think for a while about Mom, and children, and to let my mind drift for a while, just thinking, remembering, comparing, wondering.
Many times I heard my mother complain about how poor we were during my childhood, and how we had to make do, and what a struggle they had to get out of the squalor of that fixed-up house and make a new life in California. Such bitterness! Such anger!
I had and still have a hard time understanding.
I remember the gleaning, the scavenging, the gathering of windfalls and bargains and wild foods, but those things seemed to me a part of the seasons, the turning of the earth. When the trout lilies with their speckled leaves had done blooming, the time was right to spot wild cherry blossoms for trees that would bear tasty, tiny fruit. The sudden chill of cold fronts in August were a spur to encourage increased surveillance of apple trees along country lanes. Beautiful pictures unfolding to show more beautiful pictures and gifts of living things.
When carollers brought us baskets of fruit at Christmastime, fragrant and full of color, I found it as wonderful as crayons gift-wrapped under the tree, not a kind of shame that someone thought we needed the fruit. Oh, and old Mrs. Kinzer, sending us jars of canned venison after deer season, oh, blessed Mrs. Kinzer! Sometimes I would take her little bouquets of coreopsis or sweetpea or daisies in the spring and summer, in gratitude for the exquisite canned venison and for her smiles when she saw the flowers.
Penn's Vale was a bitty little burg, unsophisticated, uncultured, and tiny-minded. But it wasn't a hell for me as a child; snow angels and snow forts and snow scuptures (Mom taught us to make more than snowmen) and rivers and woods and mountains; hardware stores and drugstores and the county courthouse; every bit of it accessible and friendly to a kid, well, except for the bullying by some of the other kids, of course, but a great place to play and laugh and pretend. Mom had been with us for those things; now tell me, why did she stop? And if she was so happy to leave Penn's Vale for California, why didn't she go back to showing us how to make our lives interesting and fun?
I was determined not to become so jaded as to stop playing with my nephews and nieces before they were ready to move on from Auntie.
What a shame that what I would remember most about my mother's life would be how not to live. But then a lot of her teaching was negative, then, wasn't it? Don't waste time! Don't get fat and sloppy! Don't fail, don't whine, don't cry, it won't do any good!
I knew that I could be "doing more" with my time than playing with Jesse's kids, or my dog, or sitting on my porch reading. I could be pushing, fighting, using all that time to found my own accounting firm instead of playing nursemaid to a bunch of unorganized lawyers. But frankly, that picture of a cat with eggs was worth far more than any stack of dollars sitting in a cold tomb of a bank.