Letters. When I dared open the wooden box, I found letters from my mother. Lots of them. Some handwritten on heavy paper, some typed on tissue-paper onion skin. Letters she had sent to her parents. My grandparents. Her salutation was always the same, ‘Dearest Mother and Dale.’
In them, my mother referred to me as ‘S.’
She wrote to her mother about me sitting on her lap in church and trying to keep me quiet with books. But I had wanted her to read to me that instant, so that, ‘put an end to that.’
She told my grandmother Marg, how she had finally gotten around to hemming my slip so it wouldn’t show under the dress with the white collar and sleeves that my cousin Margo had handed down to me.
How I had worn the red velvet cape and looked darling.
That the blazer she was sewing my brother was coming along. A friend had helped her match up the plaids and, ‘thank goodness, because the pattern was in 15 pieces.’ (If I put her words in quotation marks, that brings her a little closer to me. They are her exact words. Punctuation makes her real.)
She told them that, if the little blazer looked good when she was finished, she would make a big one, for my father. There was a small piece of the blue corduroy left. ‘Is corduroy vulgar for Easter?’ she wanted to know.
On a Sunday to keep her sanity during all the ball games, with needle and thread, she hemmed the curtains so the heat would blow properly through the vents.
She reported that she and her best friend, Betty Sue, each drank a Singapore Sling on New Year’s Eve. My dad ordered a ‘Naked Lady,’ because he thought it was a funny name. She wrote that it tasted disgusting but the steak and lobster were divine.
I am glad they went out. I am glad she had the steak and lobster. I am glad they could afford it. I am glad they both had a cocktail. (I thought my dad never drank.) I am glad they stayed up and saw the new year in. I am glad we – my brother and I – liked the new babysitter.
She wrote to her mother that, ‘S loves tangelos and enjoys peeling them all by herself which she is doing at the sink right now.’ She said that S (that’s me, she was talking about ME) did not like the ‘nuts’ inside the fruit.
The tenses are confusing: Past, present. The memories are frustrating. Real, imagined? That I can’t touch her hand. That I can’t ask anyone. There is no one left to ask. There hasn’t been for years.
I found the newspaper clipping of their obituaries among the letters. Someone, who knows who, had taped the pieces together. Time marked the place where the adhesive, now yellowed and brittle like a chronic smokers’ teeth, met the paper. Her summary appeared first, my brother’s brief facts followed. One beside the other, just like their gravestones under the magnolia tree.
She died on a Saturday. He died the following day, the lord’s day. My father and I appeared, respectively, in both their obituaries as survivors: ‘Husband, daughter; father, sister.’ Their funerals were on Tuesday at 2 pm with ‘cremations to follow.’ I was in the hospital still and unable to attend. Probably best for us all. She was 39. He was 11.
I was six.
On the outside of the box, on the lid, there’s a ship. Burnt there, like scrimshaw on wood. On the inside, there’s a small, paper Santa nailed to the lid. It looks like it was cut from wrapping paper. Her name is there – Janet Lamb – written in blue ink in the space between Santa’s black boots.