You stood beside me while I crouched on the floor with a pair of bright red pumps, an oddity remembered only because of what happened next. There was the musty smell of sweat and old soap, the mold’s cool talcum in the shoe bed, the clatter of the bright room when we heard your aunt say to your mother-in-law: “You hurt me.”
The gravedigger catches my eyes: his grizzled gray stubble and worn cap, the curly hank of yellow-gray hair riding his neck. Even in his mechanic’s fatigues, he looks like a monk I know— with the same hair and glasses, the same lean jaw. “I went from sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll to chastity, poverty, and obedience,” the monk likes to quip.
I read Gitanjali again in a Mount Desert Island cottage on a chilly June day, nursing a summer cold but keeping the window open to the sea air and the sound of the water. I am a mother to another woman’s orphans now, I am a wife to their father. I can hear the children on the lawn and discern their voices one-by-one, unseen but mapped on the green as they play.
“Start with a woman watching a man / catching his daughter.” But find you see with the eyes of the child: yourself, small as a gangly loaf of bread, gripped and flung and caught at the ribs by your father, whose boyish face pumps up and down in the summer yard where he, years ago, once played.
“You are not their mother,” my godmother Shatzi says, as she has from the very moment—a scant year ago—that I became engaged to their father, a widower with eight children: three grown, three at home, two back-and-forth in university. It is quarantine winter—gray Virginia here, icy Quebec at her home far away.
My dad’s new house: it’s not new anymore, but it is still strange to me; I have no memories here. My mom’s house is twenty miles north, and six miles north of her is our last family home, exited with the order of a death: an inventory, the quick snatching of keepsakes, a staging, a sale.
I was told to put clay in the bath, so I do: gray dirt, more like ash or silt, a dust-petticoated lump of it flung from the jar, soft and heavy as it spatters in the tub. I cough at the dust and leave the room to let the tap run and the air warm; I always leave the bath to fill the tub, like I always leave the kitchen to fry bacon—until one of the boys, always the same boy, calls me back just before the oil smokes.