From time to time, we take stock of our parents. It must be because I’m going through such a phase that the chapter below, which I wrote long ago, has been on my mind. It appears halfway through my unpublished second novel, Hunger to Be Serious.
Here, the main character, Mark, returns to the Wisconsin of his childhood to try to come to terms with his deceased mother, in his case an alcoholic single parent. Mark is a 29-year-old who has dropped out of graduate school and now works for a Manhattan travel agent named Harvey in the days when travel agencies had storefronts.
In the chapter’s opening section, Mark visits the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin to reacquaint himself with his favorite aunt from childhood, now a professor. The time is the early nineties.
The novel’s title is taken from the poem, “Church Going,” where the religiously-ambivalent Philip Larkin asserts there will always be churches
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious.
Aunt Kate greeted him with a hug, and they sat across from each other at the desk in her tiny office. After a few minutes of awkward conversation, she offered to show him around. He said he’d like to see her classrooms. Inside the first, eerie as only an empty lecture hall could be, he asked how she liked teaching psychology.
“Better than practicing it. Therapy has serious limits, but I hated turning people away.” Mark was ruminating over her reply when she went on, her voice echoing in the auditorium. “So, you’re twenty-nine now, right?”
“Last I heard, you were at Chicago.”
“Right, on the academic track to nowhere, so I derailed into the travel business. It suits me for now.”
“I admit I do like academic life, in spite of all the self-righteousness and pomposity.”
They took a table outside the student union. His shoes thudded on the timber deck as he wove through the tables and tried not to spill Aunt Kate’s Miller Lite and his Pabst on the people crowded around them. He set the drinks down. Ranging west was Lake Mendota, the sunset after which it was named spreading above and rippling through its waters.
“Cheers,” she said, hoisting her beer.
“Cheers, Aunt Kate.” They bumped huge paper cups.
“Nephew, let’s make a pact. I may be a hundred and six years old, but if you drop the ‘Aunt’, I won’t call you ‘nephew’.”
A quick calculation told him she must be in her fifties. He’d never have guessed from her appearance. Her face shone in the mild light, her shoulder-length brown hair was still soft, and she wore a stylish turquoise blouse and jeans. “Okay, Kate.”
“I can’t believe I’m sitting across from you,” she said.
He tried conversation again, feeling awkward about the past but knowing he couldn’t reach the present without it. He looked deep into his beer for tea leaves and said, “What was she like? I mean, what was she like to someone who didn’t grow up with her?”
Kate sighed. “She had some kind of wasting disease, didn’t she, but I heard she died of cirrhosis?”
He nodded. “That may have got her first. I’m not sure.”
“I think she was depressed long before the other symptoms came on.”
He nodded again. “I’ve wondered.”
“Of course, I mustn’t forget her husband—your father, my cousin. He died when you were, what, two? That didn’t help her any.” Kate paused before adding, “They were loners, and I guess they wanted to lone it together. It’s hard when your fellow loner gets up and dies.”
He wondered if she were talking folksy to downplay the sadness behind her reminiscences. He couldn’t remember how she’d spoken in his childhood.
She drank some beer. “You’d have liked your father. You remind me of him. He wasn’t as tall, but he had the same kind smile and serious eyes. You were lucky you didn’t get his hair, though. Thin and scraggly. By dying when he did, he spared himself from going bald. It was your mother who had the pretty hair you inherited. Matter of fact, she was quite pretty. I was jealous.”
“Come now, Aunt Kate.”
“I’ll get the hang of it.”
“She looked the way she was—fragile in spirit, if not exactly in personality. For the wedding, they had to find a dress that didn’t overwhelm her. Have you seen pictures of the wedding?”
He couldn’t remember.
Kate said, “People didn’t feel welcome at your place. Your mother stared at them with such disdain, they just wanted to get out of her line of sight. Everyone who went over to that house felt bad for you. Most people don’t handle that real well.”
“You were the only relative who didn’t look at me like I was a leper.”
“I was taken with you, I guess. I also wasn’t intimidated by your mother. She struck me as more sad than hostile. Maybe I knew even then that hostility comes from depression. How many years ago was it that she died?”
“While you were an undergrad. I heard bits and pieces about you both, but your mother insisted we all stay out of your lives. I intended to get in touch when you left home, but I figured you’d forgotten me after all that time.”
“I never forgot. But I didn’t think to look for you until telling my girlfriend about you.”
“I hope you aren’t one of those men who’s always telling his girlfriend about the women in his past.”
“Only the ones who won’t make her jealous.”
“Oh, Mark, that hurts.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t take me seriously. Who is she? How long? All that good stuff.”
“Her name is Felicia—Felicia Felix—and she works for an ad agency. Two months. Any other questions?”
“Am I butting in where I don’t belong?”
He wondered why he’d spoken in such a challenging tone. Just mentioning Felicia’s name to Kate felt good.
“It’s the way you ask,” he said. “You get right to the point. It’s funny.”
“Mind if I smoke? Booze gives me the craving.” She got a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from her purse.
He said, “Are you married?”
“No.” Cigarette lit, she exhaled slowly. “Oh, I’ve had a number of things go on, one that lasted many years. I’m one of those disenchanted types. On the other hand, Mark, we come from a fucked-up family. There’s more than one reason why your mother wanted nothing to do with us. Think of them. Your Uncle Ernie—a charlatan and gambler who left his wife and kids in poverty, and everyone else with their heads in the sand of religion.”
“The only relative I remember on Dad’s side of the family is you. Mom cut you all out when I was really young.”
“Your mother’s side was no choir of angels, either, though they thought they were. Take Sylvia, your mother’s sister, the most officious bitch I’ve ever known—always eager to help so she could find fault.”
“I remember Mom hanging up on her.”
“I admired her for that. Sylvia had a moral superiority about her that intimidates a certain kind of Midwesterner. No one else stood up to her.”
“I remember her husband as cold.”
“Thackery. Always brooding on the failings of humanity. Anyone named Thackery in this part of the world has to have something wrong with him. So not his fault, I guess—except he could have changed it. Sylvia died, which you probably know.”
“I didn’t. I’m totally out of touch.”
“Those two were a match made in purgatory. I’m sure she’s waiting there so she can go back to scolding him.”
Kate waved her arm at the sunset sparkling on the lake. “Mark, you must have a shitload of childhood baggage. Much as I loved you, I could do nothing to help.”
He was taken aback by the non sequitur. They fell into a long silence. Eventually, he said, “You made all the difference, Aunt Kate.”
“Kate. Let’s go for a walk.”
They walked through the lively, if homey, town to her apartment. The living room might have been large, but it was cluttered with tumbling stacks of books, thousands of loose pages of notepaper, unmatched chairs and chests, photographs and prints.
“You can see I’m not the domestic kind. Sit where you like. If you have to move something, throw it on the floor. What can I get you?”
After removing a pile of books, he settled on an old armchair, possibly a family heirloom, from which he could look at her, whether she chose the couch or the rocking chair.
Handing him a bottle of Pabst and a glass, she sat on the rocking chair. “This used to be on Cousin Bess’s porch in Oshkosh. I was afraid it would be rotten through from the weather, but it hasn’t collapsed under anyone yet.”
“You seem to be in touch with just about the whole family.”
“Everyone thinks I’m harmless, so they pay me no mind.”
She went on with another non sequitur. “Your mother was like a man. Men crawl away. Most women seek out help. Only problem was she had you, and she had a conscience. Look over at the mantelpiece, if you can make out anything among all the junk.”
There was a molded horse, some sort of Oriental box, a cigarette pack, a tall plant and several photographs. The middle photograph was of his mother and him.
“Yep. You must have been around five or six. I told your mom I wanted a picture of the two of you together, and she actually went along with it. You were a grump about it, I must tell you.”
It showed in the photograph. He looked as miserable as his mother looked happy. She didn’t seem to be faking it.
“Any time I catch myself thinking your mother was only ever depressed, I look at that picture.” Kate took a sip of her wine. “I’ll have a copy made for you.”
He asked about his father, but learned nothing he didn’t already know. They talked past midnight as he got used to the idea of being with someone who’d known his mother.
They were both drunk by the time Kate, laughing as raucously as he, pushed him inside his bed-and-breakfast, which he’d found through an organization listed in Harvey’s brochures. The owners had entrusted him with a key, but it was all he could do to stumble upstairs without crashing into walls and waking the household.
He lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Aunt Kate’s – Kate’s – non sequiturs spun around in his mind as the room was doing in his vision.
His mother looked as insignificant as a fold of her blanket. Her hand, a claw that fiercely articulated her pain, was motionless. Desperate to ease her suffering, Mark resorted to praying for her wrist and finger joints to uncurl so that peace could return to the hand. He wished she could be dying in her own home.
From under the bedclothes and the intravenous tubes, he detected a stir. The claw moved toward him, and he closed his hand around it. It applied pressure, though he hadn’t thought it capable. Perhaps, after all, the stress of life would ebb away before the life itself.
Her voice, feeble but feminine, said from the flat pillow, “Think good things about me, Mark.” She fell back into her coma, and he never knew if she heard his anguished reassurance.
He was at her side three days later when a nurse eased the sheet over her head, an act that until then had been for Mark a melodramatic touch in movies. He wondered if it would have been easier had his mother left him without love.
His mother’s last doctor, tanned and young but already wearing arrogance like armor plate, came to repeat what the nurse had determined. He motioned Mark outside, as if his mother still had ears to hear. “She died from drink, you know.”
Believing the words subjected his mother’s memory to moral condemnation masquerading as scientific exactness, Mark turned his back on the doctor and headed for the elevators. Over his shoulder, he called, “No post mortem.”
Lovelace, Wisconsin: A collection of wooden and brick houses, the single-story school, the general store where he’d first worked, a stone municipal building cum library that managed to look more important than its neighbors. There were the plane trees that provided shade in the summer and darkness in winter.
He sauntered down the main street from the bus stop. The sight of the old house filled him with emotion. The present owners had painted the blue door red and the white shutters and borders olive green, making him think of Christmas. Such a confining idea for a house. But the present owners cared about their home. The cedar siding and roof had been fixed up and the yard recently mown around a new flower garden. In his day the property had looked dilapidated, which made him sad for his mother. She’d hated sordidness.
He stared so long that an onlooker might have thought he was casing the joint, a New York concept that confirmed him a stranger in his home town.
He’d run into no one he recognized or who recognized him, not even Mr. Augustin, the lawyer who had been so considerate in handling the probate of his mother’s estate, the funeral arrangements and the sale of the house. Mark had intended to look him up. Then again, he hadn’t called in advance.
He walked on in the bright September sun. The town, even smaller than he remembered, gave way to fields. He passed apple orchards and trailer homes. This was the softer, western side of Wisconsin that hadn’t been scraped raw by the ice flows of the Glacier Age. The land rolled in a seamless fabric of fields and hills, dotted with farmhouses, red barns, towering tractors and grazing herds. To the east was a clump of disused shacks, theoretically off-limits to children, that were the remains of the mine the original Cornish settlers had dug and depleted.
He’d biked miles and miles out of town, but now he’d hardly begun to retrace the route to his boyhood friend’s dairy farm. Only one or two cars and a pick-up truck passed by, and no cyclists or walkers. He rested under a tree and inhaled moisture-scented leaves. He thought they should have been dry. Soon they’d be vivid red and yellow. A solitary Holstein cow crowned a small rise, her crisp black and white standing out against the rampant blue sky. He wondered how she’d managed to separate herself from the herd.
In adolescence, loneliness had been his companion. As lovers did later, it had screened him from the world. Here it was again, sharing his reminiscences. He was glad he hadn’t run into anyone he knew.
Taking care to avoid poison ivy, he ferreted around for blackberries. He’d been better at it as a boy, but he found enough to call them a meal. He sat on a rock and ate them one by one. They had more a scent than taste of sweetness. The scent was sweeter still against the odors of the road’s sunbaked macadam and his own body’s ragged exertions. He dozed.
The blue sky arched high, and yellow hibiscuses strayed among neat hedgerows. He’d trekked for hours.
When he paused near a hut at the side of the lane, an old man came out and said, “Going far?”
Mark leaned on a shepherd’s crook he was carrying. “I think so.”
Though the old man offered no food, his presence was comforting. Revived, Mark journeyed on.
He passed children skipping rope under the eye of a young woman teacher. They squealed and yelled out phony protests. There were clouds now, but picturesque, not ominous. It was colder, though.
His mother spoke. “Mark, if I could do it over again, I’d do it differently.”
He thought about it. “I wouldn’t want you to. I can’t imagine being anyone else, and that’s good enough for me.”
He stood still, listening for the source of her voice. “Ma, I wish you’d stay.”
The lane dipped and the hedges grew taller. He kept going.
When he awoke from his dream, he had to hurry back into town for the only evening bus. He made the barely signposted stop as darkness was falling and with one minute to spare, only for the bus to be a quarter-hour late. He looked around his hometown for what he guessed would be the last time. On his camping trip in the Upper Peninsula during high school, the stars had shone so brightly that, back in Lovelace, they gleamed dully by comparison. Now, after big city living, he was moved by the relative clarity of the night. But he knew that if he stayed another day, the stars would churn within him.
Two buses took him on a circuitous route back to Madison, which, even after such a short foray into the country, felt like a city. Though past midnight when he arrived, people were out strolling and, in the distance, student rabble rousers howled ghoulishly. In Lovelace, everyone would have long since fallen into one kind of stupor or another.
Next day he met Kate for lunch at an off-campus restaurant. He ordered a hoagie, French fries and a stein of beer. She followed his lead, and he wondered how she kept her figure. But he’d heard weight could be genetically determined. There they went, those genes again.
She talked about teaching in Madison, where, back in the seventies, a street had been named Ho Chi Min Trail and a math professor killed in a bomb explosion. Kate, he realized, had been an adult then, while he was still struggling through the single digits. An image of her in bell bottoms and beads came to mind, but he remembered her wearing neither.
“It’ll come around again—the social idealism of that time,” she said. “You aren’t the only aimless wanderer in this world. There are always people like you—like us—but we all knew each other back then. There was a loose community—loose in every way. Not that it was perfect then. We went around accusing everyone of hypocrisy, but looking back I think we were just as much hypocrites. At least we were concerned about people and how to make up for disadvantages. Today there’s nothing to knit people together except money, and money divides more than it unites.”
“I wouldn’t mind having some money.”
“In those days, money was evil. Who’s to say which era history will deem correct?”
Outside the bed-and-breakfast she pecked his cheek. As he watched her stride away, he hoped she’d remember to send him a copy of the mantelpiece photograph.