My brother-in-law’s father just died. He’d been feeling ill, and doctors discovered an abdominal mass. But they couldn’t perform an MRI because he was too obese. His demise seems sudden and peculiar. My mother, my fiancé, and I drive to the graveside service, a little unsure. “I don’t know what to expect,” my mother says of the traditional Jewish ceremony. “I hope we’re not intruding.” But in our tight-knit family, skipping the service or the Shiva is out of the question. We made potato salad and we know how to grieve. “I’m so glad you’re driving, Justin. Look at this rain,” says my mother, pulling the sides of her jacket closed as if she feels cold. “I’m so glad it’s not me.” I’m not sure what she means.
My mother speaks most clearly when she has her standard prompt: “Happiness is….” The sentence starter, written in her formal cursive on a notepad hanging above her kitchen sink, reveals that for my mother, happiness is a collection of people she’s produced. I remember when the note read, “Happiness is four daughters.” Right after Beth’s wedding: “Happiness is four daughters and a son-in-law.” Deb was married, Beth had a daughter, then twins. The latest note hangs fresh and smooth: “Happiness is four daughters, two sons-in-law, two granddaughters, and a grandson.” Somewhere in storage is a crisp yellowed paper that reads, “Happiness is my husband.”
“Are we getting close?” she asks. We’re crawling, just like we were warned, through Boston’s Big Dig, and we’re barely going to make it in this rain. My mother wants Justin to pump the gas a little harder. We shouldn’t have lingered so long at Beth’s house, which was somewhat on the way, but she had gifts to drop off for her grandchildren. We shouldn’t have stopped for gas, either, but she had a coupon for ten cents off a gallon.
“Not too bad,” I say as we pull up to the cemetery only a few minutes late. We perch on the outskirts of the crowd, a mosaic of black raincoats and dark suit jackets and grey slacks. Hovering just outside the small canopy, we get wet. My mother’s lips disappear into a crease and she leans heavily on her cane. I don’t know what’s upsetting her most—the surroundings, the way the man died, or the pain in her knees. I spot my brother-in-law and sister. Josh wears dark sunglasses despite the rainy day. Deb rests one hand on his back, the other on her pregnant belly. There’s always room for more grandchildren on the note above the sink.
Four wobbly folding chairs sit graveside, empty. My mother will not approach them for fear of doing something improper. The dead man’s parents, ex-wife, girlfriend, two sons, two daughters-in-law, two step-grandsons, and granddaughter stand close, sharing umbrellas. Several minutes pass, but the ceremony does not start. Instead, the rabbi and others grab shovels and begin digging out the grave.
I have no idea if digging is an official part of the service. I look at my mother, guessing the harsh sound of metal striking rock is disturbing her, and glance, beneath the hemline of her green paisley cotton skirt, at her swollen feet. Even in the cold rain, my mother wears sandals, because her feet no longer fit into closed shoes. The skin is stretched tight and dotted with sores. I believe she has diabetes, which caused the deaths of my grandmother and aunt. Cancer runs in her family and I suspect a malignant mass is already growing somewhere. Lyme disease from a decades-old infection can also be blamed, but its effects on her body lurk so deep that treatment is out of reach, or perhaps just not worth the effort. She doesn’t see doctors or take medication. Despite her daughters’ accusations of self-neglect, she follows her body’s failure. To my mother, the man’s sudden death may not be as upsetting as it is appealing.
Knuckles white on the cane’s lacquered handle, my mother struggles to keep her footing on the soft, uneven ground. “Can you get her a chair?” I ask Justin. The digging continues as he returns with a wooden chair from the gravestone sales office. It’ll get wet, but who cares. My mother smiles at him and accepts the seat.
Several years ago, while teaching fourth grade, I won my school’s annual faculty travel grant with a proposal to follow my mother’s footsteps. I wanted to visit the American school in Germany where she taught before she folded into the mother I know. By visiting the school, I believed I could create a connection that had long eluded us both: mutual understanding. I wanted her to know how much I loved and admired her, and I trekked four thousand miles away to prove it.
With the money she earned as a grocery-store bagger, my mother put herself through a Catholic college for women, where the top two majors were teaching and nursing. She chose teaching and used it as an escape route from her blue-collar, Polish-immigrant neighborhood: she signed up to teach Army kids abroad. Based in Landshut, Germany, in the 1960s, my mother was even considered a sort of noncombat soldier. At Checkpoint Charlie she tried to take pictures but was quickly stopped by German guards. I like to tell people my mother served in the Army, that she bravely faced the enemy.
On my trip, I found the base in Landshut. Its squat, pastel buildings looked shoddy in the overcast daylight. A partially removed chain-link fence barely protected the perimeter. The school building had been torn down. A German official, one of the base’s only remaining staff members, said dryly, “Things have changed.” In town, I asked Justin to take a picture of me in front of the medieval St. Martin’s Church. I framed it for my mother.
After moving back to the United States to teach middle school, my mother met my father, a Navy officer and conservative Catholic. She loved him within three minutes and expected an engagement within three months, using her forefinger to squash each chocolate in a Valentine’s Day gift box he gave her as she looked hopefully for a ring. They were married in 1971, not in a big Army-Navy wedding, but in a traditional ceremony at St. Stanislaus, Bishop & Martyr. Next on the itinerary: a family-sized home, a classic New England saltbox with three bedrooms and a considerable front yard. While eight months pregnant with Beth, my mother leaned far over the living room railing to finish painting. Now she holds her breath when one of us climbs a ladder to fill her birdfeeders or change a bulb. But back then, worries about accidents didn’t materialize in my mother. She hung on that wall a framed Landshut scene—St. Martin’s—although she would never return to Germany, or to a classroom.
One of my earliest memories is of our last big family trip: an Alaskan cruise. My mother always said if she hadn’t taught in Germany she would have taught in Alaska. To her, the trip fulfilled a long-time dream. At nearly twelve years old, I loved the glaciers, but struggled with the rest. My family—teenaged girls with permed hair and bright dinner dresses—confounded me. Having just hit puberty, growing quickly to my sisters’ heights and weights but without the accompanying breasts or pear-shaped physique, I stood out in our gaggle of girls as the androgynous square. Plus, the ship rolled through the ocean just enough to cause me, and me alone, seasickness for three wretched days.
My mother, on the other hand, from what I can see in the vacation photos, looked radiant. In one picture, her hair spreads out long and loose and curly, each strand lit up as if by a spotlight. She smiles widely at the ship’s rails, her skin bright as the ice of Alaska’s eerie blue and white glaciers, her flowered skirt caught on one side by the breeze. This surprises me. Perhaps I didn’t notice her radiance before, or I’m misreading the pictures now. Perhaps the photos are just overexposed. Or, like a dying supernova, my mother was emitting one final burst of light.
Shortly after we returned from Alaska, my mother was bitten by a tick. She developed Lyme disease that went undiagnosed, and therefore untreated, for several years. The infection wrecked her joints. Then my mother’s best friend died of a brain tumor. And then her world shrank.
“It caved in,” my mother says after the service. Her shoulders are tensed up toward her ears. “I asked Deb,” she says. “The plot next to it was still such soft earth, it caved in. That’s why the rabbi was digging.” I’m afraid to ask the next question, but I do. “Who was buried in that plot?” I hadn’t seen the stone. “Jeremy,” my mother says. Jeremy, Josh’s younger brother, died not long ago when a faulty heater ignited a gas explosion in his home. The father and his youngest son now share a gravesite—it’s chilling. But I wonder if, to my mother, it’s a silver lining. Her second daughter, Karen, was stillborn just ten months after Beth’s healthy birth. My mother was not allowed to see Karen in the hospital. My Catholic parents wanted a proper interment for their daughter, but my mother couldn’t stomach knowing where it was, so my father buried her alone. When my father died at forty, leaving my mother with four girls aged ten and under, she dug out the paperwork from deep in his oak file drawers. She had the baby’s body exhumed and placed at rest next to my father; they fill a quarter of the family plot my mother purchased in our intimate village cemetery. Karen’s name is engraved on the headstone. My mother’s is already etched there too.
Some time passes before we settle into the car for the drive to the post-interment reception. Family members must be kissed, deviled eggs must be secured, and my mother must be buckled in. Back on the highway, I try to distract her from the rain hammering the windshield, and from Justin’s hands on the wheel, by chatting about our wedding and honeymoon plans. Like my mother years ago, I’m a traveler. “We’ve decided on our trip. We’ll drive through Sicily, then fly to Greece, to the island of Santorini, and rent mopeds. It’s all mapped out, down to the snails we’re going to taste in Palermo.” Happiness is in all of it. In the mopeds, the snails.
I hear her teeth; we share TMJ syndrome, and our jaws click when we grind our molars. “Just be careful on the beaches,” she says. “When I visited the Mediterranean, there was so much tar in the sand from the ships that the bottoms of my feet got all black.”
“When did you visit the Mediterranean?” I want to open her up a bit, but I script my questions carefully, only asking her things I know she’ll want to answer.
“Oh, while I was in Germany, I toured all over. Italy, Greece, Egypt, Israel. In those days, I’d just take the next train and see where it went.”
“You were quite the adventurer.”
“I wanted to see it all.”
“Sounds like you had some serious wanderlust, Mom. Despite the tar.”
She pauses, and I wonder if I’ve overstepped.
“The mom you know now is a totally different person than who I was then.”
She once told me that after my father died, she grew protective of her property. On one side, she had arborvitae trees planted in a straight line, creating a pine wall between her and the neighbor’s exposed back deck. On the other, she asked the neighbors if she could redraw the property line from jagged to straight, which she then lined with a stone wall. “I just wanted everything to be neat and orderly. I wanted my property to be within a perfect rectangle.”
I am curious about my mother before: before disease, before my father’s death, before my father. But how does a daughter ask a mother when she stopped living and started plotting her burial? When she stopped being happy? For now, I let the rain talk. One day, I foolishly convince myself, I will sit with her over coffee and photos and meet the woman with wanderlust. Surely, her Lyme, diabetes, and cancer will hold out long enough.
From my seat behind her, I study my mother as she studies the slick road before us. The self-sufficient college student, the black-footed woman on a Mediterranean beach, the middle school math teacher, the mother of five, and too soon, the grieving widow. Catholics believe in heaven, in eternal happiness. But I can’t picture her happiness as an eternal life. Not anymore. Rather, my mother, on a long return journey from a faraway former self, will step straight from train to cemetery mound. Her body will mingle with the bodies of her husband and daughter. Happiness is just a gravitational force that attracts bodies to one another. Happiness is lying down at last. Happiness is the possession of people, collected within straight property lines, on the square of a sticky note, in the rectangle of a freshly dug grave.
Suzanne Farrell Smith’s work explores memory, trauma, education, and parenthood and has been published in numerous literary and academic journals. Recent work appears in Copper Nickel and River Teeth’s Beautiful Things. Essays have been listed as Special Mention by Pushcart and Notable in Best American. With an MA from The New School and an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts, Suzanne teaches at Manhattanville College. She lives with her husband and sons in Connecticut.