by Melissa Face
***Previously published in September Sasee. ***
I’ve been thinking about my childhood, longing for the simpler days, and wishing I could clean up my life’s messes the way you would mop your kitchen linoleum. One section, then another.
“Good as new,” you’d say.
I liked when you picked me up from school in your gray Chevelle. That whale of a car floated down Highway 460 and you didn’t mind giving it a little gas, especially right when the light turned green. You backed off once you reached the speed limit, though. You weren’t one to break a lot of rules.
I remember sitting at your kitchen table, eating carrots dipped in ranch and working on my “lessons” as you called them. You let me eat as many after-school snacks as I wanted: dunkin’ sticks, hot chocolate, or something homemade you planned to save for Sunday lunch. You let me have it anyway.
You chatted some while I did my homework, but you mostly kept busy with chores. You washed and peeled vegetables, shelled peas, and snapped beans. I nudged your Lazy Susan and watched your African Violets spin a kaleidoscope of green and purple.
“You need to finish up your lessons, now,” you reminded me.
Once I completed my work, I daydreamed by the kitchen window. I flipped through stacks of seed catalogs and gawked at pictures of unusual vegetables: purple potatoes, red carrots, and bumpy gourds.
Sometimes we walked to the back lot and ate apples from the tree or tasted tomatoes from the garden. We surveyed the farm, checked on the azaleas, and flattened down some of the raised spots the groundhogs made.
“Ornery critters,” you’d mutter.
I liked snooping around your bedroom when you were busy with other things. I peeked at your house dresses, arranged neatly in your closet and stiff on wire hangers, your shoes in rows on the hardwood floor. I found your closet was exactly like the rest of your life: clean and organized, with no hidden surprises. What you see is what you get.
I opened the makeup on your vanity, tubes of rounded, red lipstick and several black pencils. I wondered for the longest time what you did with those pencils. What were you drawing?
I remember you cleaning your house with ammonia.
“It stinks,” I complained. “Why do you clean with pneumonia?”
“It’s ammonia,” you corrected. “Doesn’t your momma clean with this?”
I’m pretty sure she didn’t. I remember the smell only from your house. Your house, sterile as an operating room. Windows up on nice days, floral breezes in the kitchen. You scrubbed and cleaned and polished and scrubbed some more.
In later years, you had to be careful cleaning around the house, pruning azaleas, and working in the flower bed. The slightest brush against something left your arms sleeved in shades of purply blue. You blamed the bruises on aspirin.
“I don’t even remember it happening,” you told me. “So I guess it didn’t hurt much.”
You changed your bandage and revealed a slice of skin shaved back like parmesan. I held my own arm and winced. But you tended to your wound without even an “ouch,” doused it with rubbing alcohol, covered it, and got back to work.
I remember you as tall, strong, and fearless. I can picture you in your green church dress that you knotted at the waist. I remember your hair, styled and colored, dark with violet hues. Sometimes Lady Clairol gave you more shades than she advertised.
You always had good advice, too. Finish chores you like least, then do something you enjoy. And let yourself air out at night; parts need to breathe.
The years have passed quickly. Twenty-three of them. I wish I could remember more. More than the azaleas, the smell of ammonia, and the pencils on your vanity. Something more than the shades of purple on your arms, your hair, and your African Violets by the window.
I wish I could forget some things, too. Like the way the corner of your mouth hung after the stroke, how you struggled to find words, and the way your walk became a shuffle.
I wish I could forget my parents’ car parked in front of the funeral home, the knowing, denying, refusing. It’s all part of my memories of you; there’s no separating good from bad.
It’s like the bowl of succotash on your Sunday table. I can’t spoon out a butter bean that hasn’t touched a tomato.
But what would you say about the wanting to remember and the trying to forget? What would you tell me about my incessant daydreaming and worrying?
“Worry is a waste. Do something practical.”
What would you say about the messes in my life?
Start with what I like least and fix that first, maybe. Clean up the mess. One spot at a time. Then, air it out. Things need to breathe.
Good as new.