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					                                   A Special Occasion

                                     by Denise Marois



       On an unseasonably warm, late September day, the aroma of starched cuffs and

exotic flowers drifting on the air, I lean in the doorway of the hat shop on the Rue St.

Honore and marvel at the spectacle of women in heavy fur coats as they move up the

sidewalk, exotic cats on display at the zoo that is Paris. They navigate the thoroughfare in

teeter tottery heels so thin I catch my breath, expecting them to snap at the merest touch

of weight upon pavement. Although the temperature is in the high 70s, the season of

straw and light coats is behind these women. Global warming has no weight with the

haute couture-dictated, French canon of season-appropriate fashion. The hats are felt,

with feathers or baubles, or simple bands of ribbon. Some women already wear leather

gloves with fur-fluttery wrists. Their cold-season fragrance, patchouli, amber, musk,

assails the open doorway where, behind me, a theft has just taken place.

       I watch them, dazed, as they move in and out of focus. I watch them in a

suspended state of disbelief, mothers hauling their wooly wrapped children, who




                                             1
suffocate under the weight of parental protection, nannies with drawn faces and impatient

animal hands. The hat box in my hand weighs heavy with pent-up frustration.

       I turn back to my ruined afternoon. The little shop is a study in miniature royal

elegance. A small but elaborate crystal chandelier hangs from a gilt ceiling. The walls

are of pale blue with ornate gilt trim that reminds me of photos I‟ve seen of the Palace of

Versailles.

       We did not get to Versailles. The French are in the midst of their traditional

tourist season strike, or greve. No Louvre or St. Chapelle, no Musee D‟Orsay or Rodin

Museum, either. So instead we have been shopping. We shop for whatever will remind us

of this special occasion, when we brought my mother to Paris just to make her happy, and

to assuage my suspicion that I‟m not as good a daughter as I think I am.

       In the corner, a fan blows warm air, lifting the feathers and tulle of custom made

hats that sit upon the shelves like a chorus line of empty heads. Only moments before one

caught my eye, a rosy beige straw hat with organza leaves across the brim. With

reverence, I lifted it from its puffy velour throne and stood before the mirror in its golden

frame, placed the hat upon my head, tilted it this way and that as I posed and smiled at

my reflection. I ran my fingertips across the brim amazed how it fit my small head to

perfection. It reflected back at me with a smile. It held out hope of a life transformed, the

same hope I hold out for every purchase, though instinct told me this time was different. I

needed this hat badly. I ached for transformation.

       I held the organza frills between my thumb and forefinger, felt their soft promise

roll over my fingertips. The rose colored straw cast glow of health on my pale skin. The

straw smelled clean, untouched.




                                              2
       A yellow tag dangled from the brim, its price written in francs with black ink. I

took the hat off, lay the yellow tag across my palm, closed my eyes and prayed.

       When I opened my eyes I saw it was a lot. But not more than a lot. I double

checked the numbers to make certain the one was not really a European seven, something

I‟d nearly missed a few times. A mistake like that would have closed out my savings

account. With only a few days left in Paris I had just enough money, however, the

flotsam of a week of frugal spending, to buy this hat. I‟d turned away from the artists

hawking overwrought prints along the Rue de Rivoli, mostly of the Notre Dame or Eiffel

Tower that looked like they‟d been done with a child‟s colored pencil. I‟d walked out of

the shop on the Champs Elysee that sold lingerie so beautiful it nearly made my heart

stop, mauve silk with black hand-made lace in a fleur de lis pattern, but where the price

of every item seemed to start with that odd, deceptive European seven. I spent not a

single franc in the museum shops, since they were all closed. I regretted the Mona Lisa,

the Winged Victory. I regretted the L‟Orangerie with its display of Monet‟s watercolor

lilies floating in azure ponds. I‟d missed out on the stained glass windows of La Chapelle

with their ancient brilliance still intact. The French museum workers conspired to wreck

the tourist trade and make a point that the city and the tourist trade cannot survive without

them. But they‟d saved me money, so I was not complaining.

       I vowed this would be my hat, my trophy, my souvenir, which I‟d wear to God

knows where. I write fiction. So with the hat in upturned palms like an offering, I penned

a mental novella. I wore it to the dinner honoring my Pen Faulkner nomination; lunch

with my agent at the Ritz, although I haven‟t made enough from my writing to afford a

box of Ritz. Tea with the French Prime Minister; we sat in his palatial garden sipping a




                                             3
musky Lapsang Souchong from Mariage Freres and he said, “why Mrs. Beaufort-Worth,

I‟m so glad you wore that hat. It‟s what made me notice your picture on the back of your

novel.”

          With a hat like this, I might achieve wondrous things.

          “Let me try that,” my mother‟s voice crept up behind me. It still rings in my ears

there in the doorway as the women walk by on their spindle shoes and I, patient, wait for

a heel to snap, for one of them to fall and break a leg, painfully twist an ankle, cry out for

help. A woman comes by pushing a McMansion of a stroller with a black silky looking

hood. The hood has cats and dogs stenciled in gold paint all over it. The rails look like

titanium. She stops to peer into the window. She wears a camel hair coat and a black felt

chapeau with a red rose on the side. The child inside is sleeping, two fingers stuck in her

mouth and spittle pooling around her pink lower lip. She looks so small and lost in that

vast expanse of stroller. The white blanket that covers her lies in soft folds over her lap

and I guess it‟s cashmere. Her bonnet with its pink lace ruffles has slipped to the side of

her head and the sun is full on her cheek. I guess that this is the nanny who leaves the

child exposed. The nanny‟s face as she looks in the window is drawn, her expression

grim, but there is curiosity in her eyes when she notices me standing there. She nods as

though in sympathy, as though to say, “mothers, what can you do? Hide your hats.” Then

she is off, pushing the oversized stroller with the sleeping lost child, and I wonder as they

prance down the sidewalk whether the nanny borrowed the hat or if it‟s hers, and why she

doesn‟t adjust the child‟s bonnet to keep the sun off her fair head. The nanny stops to

adjust her own hat, and I relive that moment when I see my mother‟s demanding little




                                               4
arthritic hands in their rosy crocheted gloves reach for my hat. Instinctively, I draw away,

put the hat behind me knowing it‟s too late.

        Her fingers have a depressingly claw-like jaggedness and her knuckles are

swollen and look like the knotty bumps on a tree. At night she wears black spandex

gloves that are supposed to relieve the pain of the arthritis that is gnawing away at her

ability to open a jar or comb her own hair. It‟s in her other joints as well. She can no

longer raise her arms higher than her shoulders to reach for a cup. She cannot wash or

scratch her own back. She found at a tag sale an old fashioned, wooden handle grip, with

red leather claws at the end that she uses to grab a can of soup or a juice glass off the

shelf. She cannot hold change in her fingers.

        This morning when I went to wake her up, she was snoring softly, her black

gloved hands lying like baby bear paws outside the covers, and as I leaned over to kiss

her good-morning, the sight of them broke my heart.

        “Let me try that.” She reaches up at me, fixated on my hat, demanding.

        I want to be a better daughter. I think of the cub paws, of her struggle to extricate

a dollar bill from her wallet, her tears falling onto brown winter gloves because it hurt to

pull them on.

        Reluctantly I hand it over.

        My mother is sitting in a wheelchair. My husband, Richard, pushes her to a mirror

where she puts it on and admires herself. “It looks good on me,” she smiles. “It‟s a little

big.”

        “We can take care of that Madame,” a sales clerk with a blonde beehive straight

out of an early Deneuve movie, skin like damp marble and gold loop earrings large




                                               5
enough to perch parakeets, suddenly appears from behind heavy purple drapes. She

moves with a film star chic, definably perfect as only the French can manage. I, grumpy

with the shock of losing the hat on which I‟ve begun writing the novella of my life,

decide she is a fake. As she makes her entrance, I look up to see if there‟s a glittering

marquis over her head, half expecting someone to yell “lights, camera, action,” or the

French equivalent. She sashays over to my mother and takes the hat, my hat, runs a

finger along the inside. Richard, shrugs an apology as I stare at my mother and the

salesclerk, two traitors trampling my fantasies into dust.

       “We can put something in the brim to make it smaller,” the salesclerk says. She

smiles and I see that her teeth are stained and not quite straight. I‟m certain her French

accent is phony. Her vowels are over-done, like British actors badly playing French in so

many of the BBC mysteries I‟ve watched at home. I make up her life story, a failed

drama student who has run away from a forced engagement to the idiot of some obscure,

shabby English village. It lessens the pain of her complicity in the great hat theft taking

place right in front of me.

       She takes a needle and thread from behind the counter, makes a few quick tucks

in the brim into which she then stuffs some thin spongy material that shrinks it just

enough to fit my mother‟s head. My mother is grinning like a Notre Dame gargoyle. She

admires herself in the mirror where my hat is reflected back to me framing her smoky

blue eyes and ivory parchment-creased skin.

        My husband stands back, arms folded over his chest, in his “I‟ve got nothing to

do with this” posture. “I mouth the words “traitorous dog.” He smiles, winks.




                                              6
        “I‟ll buy you another hat,” my mother says, but nothing catches my eye and all I

really want is to escape this stuffy shop with its heavy drapes, its tacky chandelier and

grimy blue Versailles-walled, headless atmosphere. I remember from a French history

class in college that people used to piss in the corners at Versailles and the great Hall of

Mirrors was a vast wasteland of smelly armpits, lice riddled wigs and shit slippery floors.

        At last, the salesgirl takes out a wide brimmed red hat with black lace over the

crown. It fits in its second best, disappointed way. It is also a third again more expensive

than the original. I smile and say, “I‟ll take it.”

        To her credit, my mother doesn‟t complain about the price. At 83, she‟s retired

and living on a fixed income, but since Richard and I have paid for this trip she hasn‟t

had to put out a single franc. She buys the hat for me and now I stand looking out onto

the Rue St. Honore with its furry female cats and overpowering perfume, it‟s treacherous

nannies and overwrought mothers with their sweltering children, waiting while the

salesclerk puts my hat into a box and hands it to my mother.

        Up until this, my mother has never flown over the Atlantic, never set foot on

European soil although she‟s talked about it often enough, wanting to see every blade of

grass trod upon by her Beaufort ancestors. To her mind, she has had a wonderful five

days. We‟ve taken her to the Galleries Lafayette where she scoffed at the prices and made

us wheel her throughout the store until we sweated with exhaustion in search of a

restroom. She had lunch at Printemps, where, beneath a stained glass dome radiant with

overhead light that showered rainbows onto our table, she complained about the saltiness

of her soup. She‟s stood under the Eiffel Tower and seen Montmarte but we might as

well have taken her to a K Mart on Rue Number 1 in Hicksville, USA for all it seemed to




                                                7
impress her. She‟s taken unforgettable taxi rides, including a drive past the spot where

Princess Diana was killed, which she claims is the highlight of her trip so far. This

worries me.

       She‟s been on a hair-raising race through the Place d‟Etoile, where she had to shut

her eyes to keep from screaming, and after which we all laughed till our sides hurt. Even

if she‟s missed some of the world‟s most famous art, she‟s been to Mass and Communion

at Notre Dame, something she will brag about back home, walking the halls of her senior

apartment complex clad in a mantle of holier than thou mantel, sniffing in a superior way

at her Jewish and Protestant neighbors. Richard has pushed her up and down the narrow,

dank and moldy smelling alleyways of Pere-Lachaise Cemetery where I bored her with

the history of the Communards, even pointing out the bullet holes that still exist in the

upper wall.

       “On May 28, 1871 during what‟s called la semaine sangelante, or the bloody

week,” I explained sounding like the scholar I wished I were, “government troops lined

147 Communards against this very wall and shot them.” We were standing at the Mur des

Federes where a plaque and clearly visible bullet holes marked the spot where the

Communards were killed.

       “Were any of our relatives among them,” she asked, and when I could not say

they were for certain, she gave me a dismissive wave.

       “Let‟s go and see Balzac‟s tomb,” I suggested, and mom slumped liked I‟d asked

her if she wanted to have a root canal. “I want to go shopping,” she said. We went by a

large green slime-coated granite tomb with a sunken doorway and weeds creeping along

the base. It had the name “Beaufort” carved at the top. Mom pointed this out and said




                                             8
“there, you see? Our ancestors. I wonder which one of them is buried there.” As she went

on with her speculations, I held back from pointing out that Beaufort is about as common

a name in France as Smith is in the U.S. We had as much chance being related to a

Beaufort that rated space in Pere-Lachais as of being related to the Vanderbilts. We

wheeled her past Edith Piaf‟s tomb, who she remembered from The Ed Sullivan Show,

and left.

        She‟s dined at a four star restaurant near the Place de la Concord, eaten the

world‟s best pizza in the Eight Arrondisement, and had a grand time rummaging through

the displays of cosmetics at Sephora, a purple-walled emporium of beauty excess on the

Champs Elysees. After two hours during which Richard sat on a bench outside and I

wheeled her up and down the aisles filled with a headache inducing display of glitter and

exorbitantly priced, exotic, guaranteed-to-beautify cosmetics , she bought an eyebrow

pencil, face cream and mascara, any of which was for sale at her local drugstore. After a

day of pushing her up and down every quais between the Left and Right Bank, we went

back to our hotel with its view of the Arc de Triumph and ordered dinner from room

service. My mother lifted the silver lid off the platter, stared down at the thick, fatty, very

expensive slices of ham, held a slice up by the edge of her fork, and with a look that

would have shriveled Robespierre‟s testicles said, “The French have a lot of nerve calling

this meat.” Then she threw it down on the plate and said she “couldn‟t eat this,” even

though her hands were shaking with hunger. Richard went into the bedroom and tore the

buttons off his shirt with his teeth.




                                               9
        So when a flush of guilt washes over me at the price of this hat, I push it down,

reminding myself that mom has made my husband break a tooth and just stolen the best

hat I‟ve ever almost owned.

        Later, we spend the afternoon at a small café on a back street off the Right Bank.

The sky is startlingly blue and cloudless. It is warm and humid so near the river, but there

is a slight breeze and the umbrella at our table shades us from the sun. The air is rich with

the scent of coffee and baking bread. My mother sits across from me in her JC Penny

blue checkered shirt and baseball cap with the name of some small-town baseball team

I‟ve never heard of. I wonder why she isn‟t wearing her hat, then remember she left it at

the hotel.

        “Why aren‟t you wearing your new hat, mom?” I sip coffee that is making my

hands shake. I do not drink caffeine, but I no longer wish to suffer the scornful looks

from French waiters when I ask for “café decaffine.” My caffeine-loaded coffee is a

bullet of energy and right now I could swim the entire length of the Seine, against the

flow.

        “I‟m saving it for a special occasion,” she says. She breaks a croissant apart into

crumbs and chews the pieces carefully. She swallows each with a mouthful of tea, which

is hot and served in a pale blue flowered pot with hairline cracks that flow around the

base to the spout like lace on a veil.

        I am happy in my caffeine high watching the locals and the cacophony of fashion,

the French bodies that I imagine sweating and farting into their Zegna cashmere. Some

plod by in thick rubbery soled shoes, others, young women office workers by their attire,

float by in shoes that make them appear to defy gravity, shoes from which they could




                                             10
throw themselves off and commit suicide. There are scarves everywhere, watercolor

patterned or abstract in blazing reds and browns that look like chocolate cake, thrown

casually over a shoulder or tied in knots that a sailor couldn‟t decipher. They walk by

flicking their cigarette ashes on the sidewalk. They let their little white dogs shit in the

grass alongside the café and do not clean it up. We see tall, stem-thin women racing

along, most likely they are late for a fashion shoot. We see thick set, beautifully dressed

women pushing along the sidewalk with black leather briefcases as thick as saddles under

their arms, men with silk ties and shoes so polished they give off light. There are people

on bicycles wearing business suits and women peddling by in skirts puffing on cigarettes,

who give off a glossy sweat and smoke smell. There is not a bicycle short, or even so

much as a lycra fiber, in sight. The French think Americans are insane. We worry too

much about falling off our bikes. We pasteurize our cheese. We eat corn.

       They all ignore us.

       Almost everyone, I notice, is wearing a hat.

       Across from us a woman dressed entirely in black lays her baguette, unprotected

by wrapper, on the park bench while she sits and takes a cigarette from a dark blue

leather bag so large it‟s almost a suitcase. There is, without a doubt, pigeon crap

somewhere on that bench. Pigeon crap is practically de rigueur to the Paris park bench as

obligatory as cigarette butts or dog shit along the street. My mother is aghast at the

unsanitary nature of the French. “Les monds salope,” she says, “dirty people.” The

woman breaks off a chunk of baguette, eats it slowly, the sleeves of her black sweater

draping to her thighs. I can feel her watching us through her glasses, which glint dusty

black and have gold rims that flash when she turns her head. Her shoes are of the suicide




                                              11
type. She wears tight pants with tiny slits at the ankles. She sits with her legs crossed,

chewing, smoking. She brings the cigarette up, the sharp angle of her elbow, the turn of

her head sending out a deprecatory judgment on us in our scrubby American clothes, my

mother in her American department store checkered shirt, in her wheelchair. Her posture

infers superiority, her ability to move and walk, to smoke and eat from a park bench

littered with bird shit.

        In a week I have not seen anyone in Paris in a wheelchair and I wonder where

these people are kept. Perhaps there are laws prohibiting them from public view. I am

suddenly overwhelmed with sadness for my mother in her innocent aging, waiting still

for a special occasion to start her life, the real life she knows is just there, moments away.

I think, she can have the hat. I turn to stare back at the woman. The caffeine racing

through my veins makes me light-headed and belligerent. After a while, the woman

shrugs, smiles, looks away and stares into the trees, her cigarette limp in her fingers. My

mother sees this but says nothing. My husband chuckles as he finishes his coffee. I am

quit of Paris. As the woman on the bench gets up to leave, slings her bag over her

shoulder, she moves closer and I notice the wrinkles on her neck, the way her ankles

crease, the mummy flesh beneath the tight pants. Her stride, which I had not noticed

when she first came to the bench, is stiff and unbalanced in her heels. I wonder if there is

something special going on today, whether she has dressed for a public viewing or some

event that now calls her attention, if she has a wheelchair parked around the corner out of

sight. As she moves by our table she lifts a hand roped in spotted flesh, lowers her

sunglasses, flits her gaze from my mother to me, and winks.




                                              12
       Back at the hotel, we pack our bags and listen to the news on the television.

There‟s going to be another strike in two days, this time the railway, taxi and Metro

workers. One of the Metro workers died on the late shift. The union claims he was

attacked, that someone jumped the queue and when he tried to stop them, they hit him

with a brick. But there is no sign of violence, no wound on his head, no blood. The

doctor‟s official report is a stroke. He was at least several dangerous kilos overweight and

had a filter-free cigarette still smoldering between his fingers and a greasy McDonald‟s

cheeseburger in his grip when he died.

       No matter. Facts have never interfered with a French union strike. So I‟m doubly

relieved we‟re leaving tomorrow.

       That night I sit at the edge of the bed. Our suite has two bedrooms, a large bath

and a sitting area painted in light gray, with chairs covered in an orange check pattern and

a green faux-leather sofa where my mother is watching the only English-speaking

program she can find, a game show that I do not recognize. I hear her muttering about no

Geraldo, no Oprah, and it‟s a good thing her ancestors left this place. I don‟t want to

remind her they left because the ancient laws of primogeniture gave all the land to the

eldest son and left the rest with nothing. So really, we are the descendants of losers. This

bit of cruelty makes me giggle. My husband comes out of the bathroom with his shaving

kit.

       “What are you laughing at?” He smiles like he‟s already in on the joke.

       “Nothing,” I whisper grinning into my shirt. I pull my hair back from my face

enjoying the sensation of my fingers over my scalp. The tension eases out of me. “I was




                                             13
just thinking that only one Beaufort inherited land in France and the rest ran off to

Canada.”

         “I thought you had a Beaufort relative who was a bishop during the French

Revolution.”

         “That‟s the story, but who knows if it‟s true? Besides, if there was, he lost his

head.”

         I giggle stupidly thinking of heads and hats, excuse myself because I‟m obviously

overtired.

         In reality, I think that must have been a very cruel way to die. All those people

jeering, throwing rotten apples as you trundled down the rough cobbled street smelling of

human piss, on your way to the spot where the guillotine and a gruesome end awaited, the

ritual of binding your hands, sticking you on a platform and sliding your head through

that little slot where the stench of blood and excrement clotted your nostrils as you waited

for the axe to fall.

         Still, I wanted to visit the museum dedicated to the Revolution, secreted away in a

corner of Paris. I have a macabre fascination with the Revolution and all those senseless

executions, the French reluctance to place a shameful part of history on a more prominent

display. I wonder if there‟s a tablet somewhere with the names of those who died, or

scrolls of parchment tucked away in some cubbyhole inscribed with the identities of

those killed. To have lived and died with no remembrance, without the dignity of even a

name left to posterity, nothing to say you once existed, seems the ultimate cruelty.

         But of course, the museum with its answers is closed. The greve.




                                              14
       Richard sits by me and squeezes my hand. My mother is grumbling at the

television. She is hard of hearing so her grumbles carry a long way. We have spent five

days talking in outside voices. My throat hurts and all I want is sleep.

       Next morning we make it to Charles DeGaulle in plenty of time to buy my mother

a hamburger in one of the airport restaurants. At the table next to us, a couple is feeding a

hamburger to their little dog. My mother smiles, but I see a tear run down her cheek. She

wipes it away before she thinks anyone can notice.

       “I‟m going to miss it here,” she says, watching the little dog eat.

       We get her settled in a comfortable seat with more legroom than she had coming

out. It‟s near the bathrooms and they smell of disinfectant, but she wiggles deep into her

seat and smiles. The flight attendant gives her several extra bags of peanuts and she

chews them noisily over the nine hours it takes to get back to Washington. This is the

slowest plane ride I‟ve ever been on, and I am restless over the Atlantic. Our aircraft is

like a huge bumble bee struggling to make its way against a belligerent headwind. I

watch a movie but cannot concentrate on what the actors are saying. Their words drift off

in the thrum of the jet engines. I take a pill to quell my motion sickness and it makes me

groggy, numb, contemplative as a child floating down the Rue St. Honore in an

oversized, gaudy perambulator with the sun on her cheek.

       At 30,000 feet over water, I wonder if this trip has erased some of my misdeeds in

the Heavenly ledger, the ones I‟ve carried around like a sack of ashes most of my life.

There were the times after I moved to Boston for college, that I promised my mother I‟d

be home for Sunday dinner and never showed up and never called. I remember once,

after my father died, making a list of things I would do for her when I became a famous




                                             15
writer and made pots of money. I would buy her new glasses. Hers were held together

with tape. I would pay to have the sofa re-stuffed, the one she blames me for ruining

because when I was a child, I pretended it was a trampoline. I would make sure she got

new dentures so her mouth would stop hurting and she could eat properly. I would give

her special days, occasions, things to be happy about so her real life would start each day.

        I would not leave her. Because I knew what alone felt like.

        In the months after my father died, I came home from school and went into the

silent living room where his chair rested in the corner, the Brillcream stain from his hair

still evident on the headrest, the scent of his skin still clinging to the faded yellow-

specked upholstery. I carried my books upstairs into the bedroom I had shared with my

now-married sister, looked at myself in the mirror and saw a thin-faced shade with

startled, frightened eyes staring back. I wandered into my parents‟ bedroom where dust

shrouded the furniture and the closet had no door, exposing the secret clutter of my

father‟s work shirts, boots and khaki pants. In the corner was a bullet shell he‟d brought

home from World War II. I sat at the edge of their bed and stared into the closet, at the

moth-eaten Army blankets heaped on the floor. In the stillness I could hear the creak of

wood growing older, the flap of a blue jay‟s wings on a tree branch outside. I felt the

electricity of invisible feet moving across a carpet.

        When the plane lands at Washington Dulles, I breath a sigh of relief.

        A few days later my mother is back in New England where she lives most of the

year with my sister and her husband. The phone rings and when I pick up, my sister‟s

voice comes breathless at the other end.




                                              16
        “Ma,” she gushes, and I can tell she‟s in one of her „high‟ places, that the

medication is working on overtime, “Ma can‟t stop talking about her trip.” There is an

edge in my sister‟s voice, a note of happy hysteria she gets when the house is at rest.

        “All she did was bitch and complain,” I say.

        My sister is a balloon, floating, floating out of reach where the truth of things, her

own complicity, my aloneness, is mist over our history. I want to be cruel. I want to stick

a pin in my sister, bring her back to earth, force her to help me deal with what I know;

that we are still waiting for our real lives to begin, that occasion that will make all the

hurt evaporate.

        “She said she had a wonderful time shopping, that she ate some delicious soup in

a big department store with a gorgeous glass dome. She said she saw the tomb of our

Beaufort ancestors and you told her about how the French got shot in a cemetery.”

        I pull the receiver away from my ear and stare at it. From a muffled distance I

hear my sister‟s voice, “She said she ate the most delicious ham she‟s ever tasted.”

        I stare down at the numbers on the phone. It is an old fashioned dial type phone,

brown with age, discolored from the sun, that I rescued when my mother moved out of

her house where she and my father once lived, with the dust in the closets and the bullet

shell. I think of Richard at the dentist, getting his tooth repaired.

        “Well, I‟m glad she had a good time,” I say into the receiver. I move the earpiece

away but my sister‟s voice is loud in her happy place.

        “I love the hat,” she says just before she hangs up. “It looks so cute on her.”




                                               17
        “Yes, I was so glad she found something she really liked,” The words have a

tough time getting past the knot in my throat. I hold the earpiece close and listen to my

sister chuckling, chew back the words that threaten to spew forth “she stole my hat.”

        But my sister is ahead of me. “She confessed that you found it first and she took it

from you. But she says you can have it when she dies.”

        The lump is there again, stuck halfway up my esophagus. “It‟s too small for me

now, anyway,” I sigh. “It‟s been tucked and stuffed like Dolly Parton‟s tits.”

        “Oh, you can un-stuff like Dolly did. It‟s not irreversible damage.”

        I hang up and stare at the phone for a long time. Then I get up and try on my hat.

It‟s too big and the color doesn‟t go with anything in my closet. I put it back into the box

and forget about it until a few weeks later when I wear it to tea with friends in D.C. Delia,

a petite and perky columnist for a small suburban weekly, squeals when I walk in to the

Ritz Carleton. “It looks so, elegant,” she gushes. Cordelia, our resident fashion expert

who works for a wedding consulting firm in Old Town Alexandria and makes about a

billion dollars a day telling ugly brides they look gorgeous in their dresses made out of

the same fabric as shower curtains, calls the color “not quite flattering. Cordelia is dark

and developing crow‟s feet. “But, darling,” she says as she pours extra cream into her tea

and takes her third scone, the skinny bitch, “it is from Paris so we will say no more.”

        When I get home, I put it back in its a box, place it on an upper shelf in the back

of the closet. I go into the attic to dig out my wedding dress. I just want to feel the fabric,

silk cloud satin they called it, a Priscilla of Boston gown that cost a small fortune back in

1982. It is soft as a cloud of butter, almost melts under my hand. The lace on the hem is

delicate as the netting of a straw hat from a Paris boutique. I smile remembering that day,




                                              18
the only occasion I‟ve ever had to wear this dress. I put it back in its acid-free wrapping

with the sting of amber in my eyes.

         When I call my mother each week I ask her, “did you wear your hat?” her answer

is always the same.

         “I‟m saving it for a special occasion.”

         I know that will never happen. Her life hasn‟t begun yet. Still, I keep asking.

         My mother comes to us the day after Christmas. We ring in the New Year

watching the ball drop in Times Square. We don‟t go anywhere to wear our hats, which

are now out of season anyway. We‟ve been infected with the French canon of season-

appropriate fashion. It‟s felt, velvet, wool or nothing.

         After the ball comes down, we go to bed. I can hear my mother snoring from the

guest room. Richard is restless. He turns to hold me. My heart pounds against the heat of

his chest, but there is no sex. We‟re both too tired. And I am afraid. It‟s of something I

can‟t explain. Since my mother‟s arrival there‟s been a sense of dread running through

every step I take. The clock on the dresser clicks over to 2 a.m. The light from the

hallways slips under the door, casts pale illumination on the floorboards. Still I cannot

sleep.

         I go quietly into my mother‟s room. She lies with her mouth partly open like she‟s

in the middle of a sentence. She snores in fits and starts, her black-gloved hands rest on

the covers. I touch her forehead, find it damp. I watch her for a few moments, watch the

rise and fall of her chest, how her head rests against the pillow at an angle, a bird catching

a sound. With my defenses down, I see the thinness of her hair, the way her face, relaxed

in sleep, looks like a young child‟s. There is a picture on the wall, my mother posing in a




                                              19
bathing suit, her legs long and slim as a dancer‟s. Dark eyes look out of a smooth pale

face and her hair tumbles around her cheeks in dark curls. The photo was taken just

before she met my father.

       I sit on the edge of the bed, place my hand over hers. Her chest rises and falls,

rises and falls with the turning of the hour, the whoosh, whoosh of the night air against

the frozen window.

       Earlier that evening as we sat together watching a move about a poor girl who

falls in love with a spoiled, rich man, something made us both laugh at the same time. For

an instant my mother as I knew her vanished, and there in her place sat the young woman

she was before I came and her life almost began, the one in the photograph on the wall,

when friends and movies and what to wear to go out at night were the only cares that

cluttered her mind. I glimpsed, with the briefest flash, the girl who saw life with all its

ironies and still managed to laugh, the friend who would do anything to make the day

better, the pretty dark-eyed girl with an almost insane sense of humor that my father with

his equally absurd sense of humor fell in love with, the person she hides from me behind

a wall of mother. In that single moment I felt more love for her than I ever had. Looking

down at her sleeping now, I feel that love again and I am glad I did not talk her out of the

hat, those coveted bits of straw and organza, did not try to keep it for myself.

       I have watched her over time and in disbelief become translucent with age,

watched bits and pieces of her slowly fall away, and now as her chest rises and falls with

each breath, as the wind piles snow drifts along the frozen window, I am stung by the

cold reality that the unavoidable someday is coming and nothing I do will stop it.

       She mutters in her sleep, something about stringy ham.




                                              20
        I go back to bed feeling helpless.

        A week later, I put her on a plane back to my sister in Connecticut, making her

promise to wear her hat in the spring, wear it every day if only to go to the mailbox. She

is in a wheelchair at the front of the pre-boarding line, in front of the frazzled young

mother with a baby in a stroller and twin toddlers who are weeping and wiping their

runny noses on the back of their hands, in front of an old woman pushing a wheelchair-

bound boy with cerebral palsy who cannot keep his head upright. Just before she boards I

lean over and she hugs me, kisses me on the cheek, then a flight attendant pushes her up

the ramp, ahead of the woman with her stroller and weeping children and the boy, and I

hear her asking if she can have extra peanuts because last time they only gave her one

bag. As the plane rises I think of my mother in the front row eating her peanuts and

watching the land float away. I cry all the way home. Richard asks what is wrong, but I

cannot tell him. I am bowed under a sense that I will never see my mother again, but to

say it aloud is to make it real.

        It is May when the call comes, the weekend of Mother‟s Day. The illness is

mercifully brief. There are people I do not know at the funeral. I lose track of time. The

aisle of the church is too long to walk. There are flowers everywhere, an emporium of

excess flowers. Somewhere in a corner of the church a Notre Dame gargoyle looks down

on me, grinning. I wonder how he got there. Richard says I am dreaming. I blink hard and

see it is only a small carving that‟s been there forever, but which I have never noticed.

After the funeral, there are people milling about in linen coats, women smelling of

patchouli and incense, children in strollers, mothers that look like nannies smothering

their infants in loving wooly blankets, although it is May and the temperature is already




                                             21
in the 70s. The air throbs with the sound of heels clacking on the sidewalk, the whir of

bicycle tires rolling down the street. It sparks with the wink of a woman in black with

rope hands and creased ankles.

        I try to write a poem. I call it “On Mother‟s Day Ten Years From Now.” It is

about the permanence of grief, how distance and time have no power over sorrow, the

futility of waiting for real life to begin. But it goes into a drawer, unfinished.

        My sister, momentarily suspended by a string tied to the back of a chair, helps me

sort through my mother‟s belongings. Most of it goes into boxes for a woman‟s shelter,

women who are waiting for their old life to end. From the depths of a closet, my sister

hands me a box, square with a dusty gold cover. The hat is inside, the yellow price tag

still attached to the brim.

        I bring it home, put it on the top shelf of my closet to save for a special occasion. I
never wear it.




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