Photo by Nick Fewings~Unsplash
I missed my first high school interview—the one at the Stephens School for Boys—because on her way to pick me up, Mom’s car collided with a semi hauling 300 gallons of petroleum.
Though my dad and I shied away from news reports, fragments of information found their way to us and soon we knew it had been a spectacular death. For one thing, there was no body. An officer came to the house with what remained: a zip-lock bag containing her blackened wristwatch and two scorched rings, engagement and wedding, fused by intense heat.
We took the officer’s advice and avoided that stretch of the highway for a few days, but from our back porch, I could see the cloud of sooty air that held Mom, now devoid of bone and muscle, heart and loin, hovering, then dispersing into a thin gray mantle before dissipating into the sky’s familiar pale blue. I wondered if, like the phoenix, she would arise from the ashes in rebirth. The myth of that Grecian bird of paradise was one she’d read to me. Because those shared encounters, on the rare day she felt well enough to accommodate me on her lap and read to me were so few and far between, I can recall each of them. I can conjure her scent, the texture of her hair, the way her voice resonated in her chest where my head lay against warm cotton or soft silk, rising and falling with the quiet pattern of her breath.
We didn’t have a service. Mom had few acquaintances and never spoke of her family. Once, I borrowed Edith Hamilton’s Gods and Heroes from her office and a photo fell from the pages: seven people, all tall, all with dark blue eyes and pale skin, no smiles. I would not have been surprised to learn that they were being held at gunpoint as the camera flashed.
When I asked Mom why I’d never met her family, she said, “I’m sure they all have enough on their plates,” her eyes fixed on an illustration of Agamemnon, dead and bloodied in his own bathtub, the victim of mariticide.
My parents met in the Classics Department at Columbia, where Mom was fast approaching the zenith of her career as a professor of Ancient Greek literature and my father was a freshly minted historian.
While Dad spoke to mesmerized undergraduates of the heroic Greeks battling a Persian army three times larger and better equipped at the Battle of Marathon, Mom gave moving lectures on the Greek tragedian, Aeschylus, who, having lost his brother in that same battle, displayed his empathic depths in penning his account of the Greco-Persian conflicts from both the triumph of the Greeks and the suffering of the defeated Persians.
“Your father glorified the Greeks in battle. I lamented the tragedy of warfare. We argued for hours as to the meaning of The Persians: he, choosing to read the play as a celebration of Greek victory; I, reading the play as a lament of the human suffering endured in war. It only made sense that we would end up in bed together after such a passionate discussion,” she’d told me when I was twelve.
Mrs. Reedy, my high school Classics teacher, chose a middle path when we read The Persians.
“The meaning of the play is in the eye of the beholder,” she insisted, “every audience member finds the message most compelling to her. This is what makes the play so satisfying.”
Mom was prematurely white-haired, with luminous ivory skin and dark sapphire eyes, tall and lithe, when she met and married my dad. Ten years later, at forty-three she was tenured, world-renowned as an expert on the tragedies of Aeschylus, entrusted with the study of newly discovered fragments of Achilles, and surprised by pregnancy.
With my birth, came her decline. No one had to tell me this: I had only to see the volumes, translations, awards that came before me, and the distracted figure with her pills, therapies, and preoccupations that came after. When I was a newborn, Mom found she could no longer concentrate on the fragments of Achilles, much less get herself out of bed and into her classroom. Dad took the only action he could think of: he accepted a post at a small, suburban university near his Pennsylvania hometown. Mom would be able to rest there, he reasoned, and concentrate on her health. She could also continue to work with the psychiatrists in New York and visit colleagues as it was not an insurmountable trip by train.
Within days of her death, my dad and I resumed the schedule of high school visits, open houses, and interviews. My anxiety soared as I watched that uncertain initial flicker in the eyes of my interviewers while they decided on the most tasteful manner of offering condolences. Once past that, I had only my usual anxiety, one born of the knowledge that I was responsible for my mother’s decline and that I needed to make it up to her with an acceptance to a school she would have approved of.
“Tell me why you think Crownwell is the right school for Joe, Dr. Healy,” the admissions lady asked.
“Well, Ms. Erickson,” Dad began, leaning toward her like an eager child, placing his laced fingers on her desk. When he leaned in, the cuffs of his trousers pulled up, revealing his fine-boned ankles. I didn’t hear what he said next because that’s when I recognized my mom’s pantyhose, the electric blue ones, the ultra-sheer ones she’d described as “gorgeous but fragile—they run so easily.”
On the way home from the Crownwell interview, I stared at Dad’s ankles most of the way, groping for a way of mentioning the stockings. In the driveway, he pulled up the parking brake, clicked off the motor, and turned to me with an air-tight grin. (Dad doesn’t often bare his teeth; he’s always been a little self-conscious about the wide gap that splits his smile in two.) I smiled back, but all I could think about were those blue ankles.
“Hungry? I thought I’d pull together a little mock cassoulet for dinner. Picked up some very nice pork tenderloin at the market.”
He tilted his head, maintaining the smile.
“Sure, Dad,” I sighed, grabbing my backpack, climbing out of the car, “that sounds great.”
My friend Annie called to hear about the interview. I told her about the pantyhose. She said nothing.
“I think it’s okay as long as they didn’t clash with his pants.”
“Cut it out, Annie.”
“So, your dad misses your mom. So maybe wearing her pantyhose makes him feel close to her. Come on, Joe, relax. It’s probably just a passing thing. I mean, he’s not into her makeup or anything is he?”
It was just like Annie to make it seem perfectly normal that a conventional middle-aged professor would want to wear his dead wife’s stockings from time to time. What made her think it was a passing thing? I would ask her about this in the morning.
The night after the Crownwell interview, I dreamed Dad and I were downtown walking under some scaffolding. He was wearing Mom’s black spandex cocktail dress, the one she shook the dust from and wore to his faculty Christmas party each year. Some guys were catcalling Dad from above..
“Those guys only wish they had these legs,” he scoffed, tossing a cigarette to the ground, crushing it with a high heel.
“Joe, breakfast is ready!”
The day after the accident, he’d started making my breakfast each morning. What was funny about that is Mom had stopped making my breakfast when I turned six and could finally reach the cereal box myself. Waking up to the smell of bacon was confusing: for the first couple of seconds, I thought I was at Grandma’s, where my dad’s mom was always tiptoeing around, always whispering, “What can I getcha, hon?”
Downstairs, Dad was leaping, trying to grab the handle on the tall cabinet that held the coffee mugs. I take after Mom, who was close to six feet. Whenever the three of us went out somewhere, it felt like my dad was the kid. He made jokes about it, but you could tell he liked being the guy in the middle, felt protected, safe there, where he alternately bumped into Mom’s arm and mine, all the way to wherever we were going, both of us hop-skipping to keep up with her.
“Why don’t we move those mugs?” I asked once again, just as I had asked practically every morning since the beginning of the breakfast thing.
“Not a chance,” he said, “you know I want to keep things as normal as possible around here.”
When he took the last leap for the handle, the trousers went up and I saw his regular socks.
“So, when’s the next one?” He sliced a link sausage into six evenly-sized pieces.
He surveyed the sausage, nodded to his plate, and began brushing whipped butter across a slice of toast.
“The next interview. I was tense there, with Ms. Erickson; she seemed a bit serious. Looking forward to the next one; I’m sure I’ll get better at this, with practice.”
He bit a tiny triangle from his toast. I almost asked him about the pantyhose then but changed my mind—a decision I came to regret the following Monday morning when I could have sworn he was wearing my mother’s favorite yellow blouse beneath his tweed jacket.
We were going to Smithfield Preparatory that morning. I ate the blueberry blintzes and bacon as quickly as possible and dashed into the den. I punched in Annie’s number.
“You worry too much. Is he wearing a tie?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“If he’s wearing a tie, nobody will notice that the blouse buttons on the wrong side—the chick’s side. If his cuffs aren’t showing, and he keeps his jacket on, he probably looks okay. How’s the collar?”
“It’s pointy, like a dude’s.”
“No problem then.”
It was a mild November morning. If they didn’t overheat their school, Dad would probably leave his jacket on. He doesn’t have a lot of body fat and tends to be chilly most of the time. Still, I felt spring-loaded at Smithfield that day; I kept watching Ms. Ryan’s eyes, but they never seemed to focus on Dad’s shirt. The problem was, we had another interview to go at Top Ridge, a school I knew my mother had held in high regard. The pantyhose was one thing, but a blouse? What if he wore her pearls? Or those emerald cut diamond earrings we gave her last Mother’s Day?
He called me from the doorway of my room, Mom’s favorite paisley scarf limp in his hand.
Was he going to ask me for fashion advice?
I closed my calculus book.
“What are you doing with Mom’s scarf?”
He looked even smaller than usual there, in his flannel boxers and white T-shirt. His hair was messed up, like a little kid’s: a pile of straw, only with random silver threads shooting out here and there. Only his eyes looked old, worn out.
“Oh,” he looked down at the clutch of silk, like he’d forgotten it was there. “I thought I’d send it to your Aunt June. I thought it would go nicely with her dark hair.”
My shoulders fell into place.
He came in and jumped up on the edge of my bed. I shoved the book out of the way.
“What’s up, Dad?”
He traced and retraced an invisible circle into my bedspread.
“Just wanted to tell you…” He sat up, looking around the room, as if searching for a misplaced cue card, stopped searching, shrugged his shoulders, “if you want to talk about your mom…”
I opened my book and slid it over in front of me, pretending to study differential equations.
“Okay, Dad. Thanks.”
He jumped off the bed.
What I really wanted to talk about was his recent choice of attire, but I could not begin to figure out how to bring it up.
Watching the back of him disappear through the doorway, I remembered the first time I knew things weren’t right with Mom. We were walking to the birthday party of a little girl in my nursery school class.
Mom was wearing a long skirt covered in wildflowers. As we walked, I scrambled to keep up so my cheek could brush her hip with every other step. When we arrived at the front gate of the birthday girl’s house, Mom checked the address against an invitation plucked from her pocket and said, “I’ll be back when the party’s over. That’s at eleven o’clock.”
She dropped my hand and walked away. I remember how all the other mothers and the kids, who were on the patio on the other side of the gate, stopped talking and stared. I remember finally one of the mothers came to the gate and opened it for me.
“I’m sorry I didn’t get to talk with your mommy, Joe,” she said. “Come with me. We’re going to play some games.” She took my hand and helped me climb some tall steps.
I worried that I wouldn’t know when it was eleven o’clock, that Mom might come back and not see me and then she would leave again. I worried that I wouldn’t know how to find my house. It must have worked out, but I only remember the worrying part that got into my skin that morning because the truth was, even when she was with me, she was never really there at all.
Once in a while, a new mother at my school would try to strike up a conversation with Mom as other moms and babysitters greeted us outside the school doors. The others looked on with a kind of knowing amusement as Mom nodded and turned me toward the parking lot, leaving the poor newcomer mid-sentence.
She wasn’t good at small talk, my mother, and the smaller the talk the less patience she had for it. I can only imagine her head was filled with the vivid imagery of her life’s work: of the decimated Persian troops wading through the waters off the bay of Marathon, escaping to their ships after being soundly beaten by the Greeks, or of Antigone, her soft young throat noosed in silk, stepping off the seat of a chair, as she chose to die with honor rather than succumb at the hands of Creon. Every day suburban life must hold few pleasures for a wayward scholar.
At Top Ridge, Dad seemed more relaxed than he had at the other schools. In Ms. Perkin’s office, he sat back in his chair and crossed one leg over the other, letting the top leg swing back and forth a little. He smiled widely, baring his split teeth. Ms. Perkins had a split toothed grin too. I felt like I was sitting between two Jack-O-Lanterns. Those two really hit it off. It wasn’t until the end of the interview that the two of them realized they were distant cousins—relations who had misplaced one another.
I don’t know how I’d missed it earlier, but there he was, wearing what looked like Mom’s coat—the long, camel one. I guess I’d overlooked the coat because something funny about Ms. Perkins’ shoes distracted me; when she led us into her office, I’d noticed that they were exactly like the shoes my grandfather wore: laced oxfords with little pinpricks in the leather to make a design. Funny, though, that I could overlook something like Mom’s coat. In the end, it didn’t seem to matter. Clearly, Ms. Perkins was going to take me in. We all knew it. Top Ridge was my new home.
“Herman and I will have you two over to dinner soon!” Ms. Perkins sang out as she waved from behind the closing door of the Admissions Office.
“Joe and I will have you two over for my porcini pot roast, Delia! Give Herman my best in the meantime!”
Dad beamed all the way to the car.
“I’m in,” I told Annie on the phone that night.
“Of course, you are, silly,” she replied.
I have never found the right moment to ask Dad why he wore Mom’s clothes to those schools. Sometimes I am certain it was an elaborate and risky measure taken to divert my anxious, self-absorption, to dissolve my fear of not being accepted, of not being valued by these strangers with their stacks of applications and assessments. I mean, if I was obsessed with Dad’s impression, how could I worry about my own?
At other times, I believed it was a way of offering me a tenuous connection to Mom in those trembling moments of asking for a stranger’s acceptance, when like all people orphaned at birth, I would never entirely accept myself.
Now I believe I may have only imagined I saw her clothes because they were all that was left of her. I can count the number of times we touched, the feeling of fabric radiating her warmth and scent, the only barrier between her skin and mine.
Once when I was three, Mom recovered me from Macy’s Lost and Found; she’d scooped me up and my nose grazed her lamb’s wool collar holding a hint of powder in its plush pile, the powder with the Spanish Dancer on its lid that lived on her dressing table. I’d held on, with closed eyes, wondering how I could get lost again.
There I was, so many years later, lost again in those cold unfamiliar offices with those strangers and their probing questions, needing something familiar, something soothing. I believe I needed to see her clothes, whether they were there or not.
Nancy Smith Harris earned her MA in English Literature at San Francisco State University. Her work has most recently appeared in Bright Flash, funny pearls, and Passager Journal.