I begged Andersol to go with me when I went to see to Mom's possessions. Jesse met us at the house, having put off flying back to her current assignment for a while longer than she had the weeks before when Dad died. She said she felt a sense of responsibility to help me go through the contents of the house. Our reactions were quite different: while I was despondent, Jesse was angry.
"Look at this shit," she grated, as we dumped the contents of a closet into the middle of the room. Boxes were taped together, empty, waiting to be filled: for St. Vincent de Paul Society for the Poor; garbage bags, empty, ready to take things to the landfill. A small box for Things to Keep.
There were dresses in there that I never remember my mother wearing. As soon as women could decently wear slacks and not be considered unfeminine, she shed skirts completely. In fact the only times I can remember her wearing dresses were when I was a little child, when I married, and when Jesse was married. We had to beg her not to wear the same dress. Yet here some were, dusty and faded.
A disintegrating black garbage bag held pair after pair of curtains, still in original packages, never used. All the curtains in the house were either white sheers or simple curtains she herself had made from bargain fabric.
Unopened packages of socks and underwear for Dad, probably bought on sale. More garbage bags, full of summer clothes she never got a chance to unpack this year. A bag with stationery, with sale stickers still attached, from -- 1990, six years before?
Buried under all that stuff, a box filled with our letters to her, from 1972 when I left for college, to perhaps 1985 -- that was the date of the one on top, sent from Jesse talking about plans for her marriage to Charles.
Jesse burst into tears, the first she'd shed. "How could she?" she sobbed. "How could she?" She got up from the floor and headed for the bathroom for some tissues. I could hear her crying, and blowing her nose. She'd left the door open, so I went and stood in the doorway, leaning on the jamb, and crossed my arms and looked at the floor. When Jesse cleared her throat, and turned to look at me, I raised my eyebrows at her: Do you want to elaborate?
Her eyes narrowed and her lips thinned, pressed together. A couple tiny wrinkles quivered on each side of her nose. "Do you know what those letters say?" she demanded. I shrugged my shoulders up around my neck. "Those letters say what she allowed us to say! We were never allowed to complain, never allowed to state our opinions if they weren't the same as hers, never allowed to write to Dad -- oh, yeah, it was always, 'Dear Mom and Dad', but they all had to be directed at her! I didn't dare tell her who I voted for, or what movies I saw if they were ones she didn't like! Or if I did, I'd sure as hell hear about it later!"
Another tissue, and Jesse continued, her voice thick. "Dad wrote to me once, did you know that?"
Actually, no, I didn't! I thought he never wrote letters. I shook my head.
"The next time I visited them, I got a minute alone with him and he told me that when my next letter arrived, and acknowledged his letter, she threw such a fit that he just shouldn't do that again. She said he was talking behind her back!" Sobs racked her again. "That goddamn box is full of tribute, taxes, ransom. It's filth! Why would anyone keep letters that only say what you force someone to say? Did she take them out and read them and smack her lips over the control she had over us?"
I could have answered her, and said, no, of course not, in her way, she really thought that she was shaping the world to be a better place and wouldn't have seen it as control at all. Instead I rubbed my hand over my eyes. I couldn't understand it any better than Jesse could. Not really. I went back to Andersol, who was sitting on the floor, looking worried. "We're all right," I told her. "Just a lot of grief, a lot of years of grief coming out."
We went through the house room by room, giving away, throwing out. Dad's collection of antique pitchers that Mom had stored in a cupboard in the garage, Jesse took. I took five of the best of Mom's paintings, and her art supplies, and her excellent cookbook. Jesse retrieved Dad's flannel shirts, and his books about owls. There was a dicer for which I had lusted for thirty years, with a wooden handle stained by sweaty kitchen hands and its two blued steel blades still sharp as any sword. God knows who Mom had inherited it from. It was ancient, and wonderful. Another box of letters from us, bringing them up to the present. Don't even look. And in the bookcase, on the shelf with her big Bible (which she never read) was a family picture album. We opened it and plucked pictures from the pages: me holding Jesse when she was two years old and resenting being held; Mom and Dad standing on a windy bridge in Pittsburgh before they were married; Jesse and her first trout; and a picture of Adam on our wedding day, smiling at me as I stood beside his chair at the little reception. And another, when I had put my arms around him from behind, my hands on his chest, his hands touching mine, the wedding bands prominent, both our faces in profile, sharing some sight.
After the blows of this spring, this one knocked me speechless.
"That's gotta be Adam, your ex," said Andersol. "Damn, he was pretty. I can see why you took so long to throw his ass out."
"She didn't." Jesse stood up to stretch her legs, wiping at her nose, eyes as hard as her daughter Marca's. "She didn't throw him out."
Andersol looked at me. I shrugged. "I didn't throw him out. I came home from work one day and the couch was gone and the entertainment center, and all his clothes and doo-dads, and he was sitting in the kitchen waiting for me, to give me his key to our house and tell me that he needed space and had got himself an apartment of his own." I couldn't stop looking at his picture, at when he and I were 'Us'.
"Just like that?"
"Yeah, just like that. He always dealt in cash, so I didn't even see any signs in the checkbook, let alone in the stars, or in anything he did. We'd had really great sex the night before."
"Jee-sus, you told us about what a two-timer he was, I just assumed that you showed him the door when it got to be too bad. Then why did he leave?"
"Over the years, I've come to believe that it was my age. Adam was born in the same year I was, but mentally and emotionally he was about ten years younger, if not more. About the time that he was ready to grow up, I was already past the ol' prime. And you know what? It took him another two years after he left before he found somebody else, and only after he was sure he wouldn't need me as a safety net that he filed for divorce."
"I never met this guy and I hate him. Why have you been moping about him so long? "
"Everybody hates Adam," Jesse said through her stuffy nose. "Sully's the only one who ever loved that bastard, and even she doesn't know why. Sully could go to a psychotherapist and the psychotherapist would be stumped as to what she saw in him. Any marriage tribunal in the world would pay for the chance to annul their marriage because of what a shitty, low-down, cheating --"
"ENOUGH!" I exploded, as though I was roaring at Gabe for barking at the door. As my sister and friend looked at me in surprise, I quieted and finished the conversation, "You didn't know him, you weren't there in my head, and you're not there now. He's gone. What's left in me, I'll deal with."
Jesse's a fighter, make no mistake. "Sure you will," she said, looking pointedly at my left hand, still wearing Adam's ring. "Like you have for the past eight years." She turned and went back down the hallway to the bathroom for more tissues, viciously kicking a box that was stupid enough to be within reach.