Settling the estate, the lawyer said.
It seemed too grand a way of putting it”
bills to be paid, a bank account to close,
and finally her mother’s house to sell
while her own, half-a-continent away,
sat waiting for her with its lights on timers
and neighbors dropping in to feed the fish.
Bare rooms show better, the agent said.
So she proceeded with the emptying out,
giving away most of her mother’s things
to cousins for their already jammed parlors
and china, cupboards, and arranged to have
one rug shipped that was too big for her car.
She even dusted, as she rarely did
at home, all the time hearing in her head
her mother’s brusque, exasperated murmur
after the hired help was out the door:
“Nobody knows what clean is anymore.”
Maybe, she thought, this last clean sweep would please her.
Working her way from room to thinning room,
sorting, discarding, labeling, she found
herself at last up in the attic broaching
some cartons not her mother’s but her own,
packed away since she had gone to college
and her room had become the sewing room.
Sweaters gaudy with school insignia
and one, half-knitted, that she’d never finished
lay folded softly on some weightier things:
Bio and Chem notes, watercolor attempts,
the high school yearbook proving at a glance
that bliss lies in oblivion. Had she really
had names for all those eager faces inked
with urgings time had made inscrutable?
(“Remember Halloween in junior year”;
“Don’t forget the fun we had in Art Club.”)
She hurried past her own sweet, solemn picture,
then set the book aside to shuffle through
the last stack of papers when something smaller
slithered out of them in an even more
embarrassing bid for recognition. Had she
buried it there on purpose? Or just briskly
bundled it in with everything she wouldn’t
want or miss when leaving home at last?
She could hardly believe that it had surfaced,
looking, unlike the rest of the sad items,
almost new”a vampire’s charmed intactness”
bound in red leatherette with a gilt border,
snugged shut by a strap that snapped into
a tiny lock whose even tinier keyhole
pursed its faux-brass lips to whisper, “Psst!
I’ve got a secret!” It was unignorable.
The key was lost. She snipped the strap neatly
with scissors she’d been using to cut twine,
and slid herself down grimly to the floor,
her back against a blanket chest, to survey
this relic of herself at seventeen.
But there was little here, she soon found out,
about herself in isolation: Mother
vied with her for the spotlight in most scenes
and almost always took the villain’s part.
The fumes of acrimony almost choked her.
To read this, you’d have thought that adolescence
was a seven years’ war. And wasn’t it?
She could remember, as she hadn’t wished to,
how often doors were slammed and voices raised,
or meals sat through in disapproving silence
as glacial as the silence now established
in rooms with sheet-draped furniture downstairs.
What had they fought about? What hadn’t they?
Clothes, curfews, company, career,
all boiled down to combat. Would it have been
better or worse if Father hadn’t died
just before the hostilities ensued?
Above the fray, he never had to take sides.
There was nothing about him written down
since”obviously”he couldn’t be complained of,
or complained to. Happy times (there were some)
had slipped by unrecorded. And it ended
in anger, as it hadn’t done in life.
In recent years they’d got along beautifully
by phone, by mail, by semi-annual visits
both of them valued. Distance was the key.
You’d never guess how well we made it up,
she thought, plodding through to the last page
where a last sentence stammered still with rage:
“Why can’t she ever let me lead my own life?”

The wish was granted. Doubly granted now.
Her foot had gone to sleep. She stood and felt
its numbness augered through with pins and needles
like a sewn gash split open. All she needed
now to do was lug these boxes down
to swell the discard pile (praise the Lord,
trash pickup was tomorrow.) On the landing
she glanced out at a barren autumn sky
an hour before sunset. In her own house
a time zone away, less empty, equally silent,
goldfish swiveled and lunged and nipped at sprinkled
tidbits (lucky to have obliging neighbors),
casting a flash as lights turned themselves on.

Articles by Robert B. Shaw

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