Tissane isn’t afraid of her mother yet she feels as if she still could be. Melinda has always had power, cutting a swath through life with the incisive edge of her words, her intelligence an army of rebuttals. The fury of her routine inquisitions could pierce three layers of winter clothing and locate the tender spot where the mighty heart shuddered. Her amber eyes were like lasers set to short circuit Tissane’s own ideas. She was formidable. Until the last couple years.
She’s getting carried away. It was perhaps not so traumatic as all that. Those sentences arise from memories of being thirteen until maybe seventeen, when the sound of her mother’s voice at six a.m or p.m. often landed like a smack. Dangerous days then, her great need of adventure bypassing curfew and other rules. Beyond her mother’s grasp and her father’s burden of sighs. Her father was so absent that they were all they had, and Jonny, of course, for awhile. Then only Pill, the scrappy little mutt Tissane got her mother after she graduated college. A gift for putting up with her until she managed to grow up and succeed. That name was reasonable. Her mother had ingested tranquilizers like they were jelly beans. Instead of taking another pill she had that fussy, bouncy dog to focus on. Melinda’s true nature was revealed day by day. It was some better. And some worse. Nothing was the same in every way, though. Not after Jonny, then dad.
They fought out of the need to not love each other too much, she has thought since then. There was so much that could be lost.
Now it’s just the two of them. Not even that. Most of the time Melinda is alone. Tissane lives three hours away by plane. But it’s Thanksgiving week and Melinda had heart valve surgery three weeks ago. Tissane couldn’t come then; she was in Bali. Melinda’s recovery seems to inch along. She called to ask her to come to spend the whole week, help her out.
“Yes, mom, I likely can. I’ll check.”
But should she? They hadn’t talked much in the last few years. Tissane had a high pressure job in aquisitions in a big hotel conglomerate. Two new ones opening up in the next three months. There were meetings wedged between others, plans to execute, sites to visit. Travel afforded her independence she had craved her whole life.
And distance. She thought she had more in common with her father, long gone and now a retired pilot, than she liked to admit.
“Four days. Mom, I can’t spare more unless you don’t have decent help. If it’s critical.”
“Of course I have help; I’m in a swanky place that guarantees it. But is it even par? Is it worth the money I pay out? Not likely. And how can it remotely be critical? It was only a heart valve, Tissane. They replace them like rubber tubing, in, out, a couple neat stitches and done!”
Tissane bit her lip to squelch a retort. At least she sounded more like herself. She made arrangements and got there fast.
Now she has been listing things she needs at the store. No lukewarm Thanksgiving dinner to be delivered to the door. Tissane will make something good.
“I don’t want you to go to a lot of bother, dear. I’m not the ravenous type, you know. We can have canned pears well-chilled, a dash of cinnamon, and one of those handy pre-roasted chickens.”
“Is that what you prefer? Or my Rock Cornish hens? You used to like those.”
“There’s so little meat on those delicate bones. Is that what you eat? No wonder you’re so thin, dear.” She sniffs several messy sniffs. “Hand me a tissue will you? And a mint. The chocolate mints in that ghastly pumpkin dish. Saralee–I know, what a name– gave it to me. She has good taste but it took a hiatus. She shops at flea markets with her son now once a month. Dreadful.”
Tissane watches as she chooses three mints, then dabs her nose. She is propped up with two pillows and frequently requires readjusting. Her hair, though, looks as if it has been freshly washed and set. It hasn’t been done since Tissane arrived yesterday morning. She sleeps on satin pillow cases.
She’s beautiful at seventy-four. Maybe more than before, with a relaxing of tension that used to make her look severe at times. Her silvery white hair waves around her sallow face, etched with lines around mouth and eyes. Her golden brown eyes are at odds with the swoop of her hair. Their liveliness draws people but her powers of observation too quickly deducts who they really are. Tissane would not be surprised if her mother is both loved and resented, perhaps even hated, now as in the past.
“I will buy the birds, red potatoes or rice pilaf, fresh green beans, salad fixings–add stuffing if you like.”
“Leave the stuffing. Pilaf preferred. I’ll benefit from Saralee’s stuffing artistry later.”
Her mother painfully raises her shoulders a quarter-inch. Tissane rearranges the pillows until she is more comfortable.
“Are you good, mom? I’ll head to the store unless you need something.”
“Another pain pill. Please.”
Tissane raises her eyebrows, hesitates with list in hand. It has barely been four hours. “I’m not sure that’s a good idea, mom.”
“Now would be good! My dear, I don’t have patience or time to be polite. Let’s get on with it. This was not a fun surgery.”
“I think they broke every single chest bone getting in, getting out. I am not convinced even breathing is recommended. Much less talking. But. Being mute is no option. The thought of leaving this bed is less enticing than expected, I can tell you. Yet I don’t feel like reading much. What can I do but lie here? Perhaps chat with you.”
She seems exhusted–all those words. She smiles at Tissane. Her eyes warm enough that her daughter thinks of tiger eye stones and honey. Of caramel, yes. Perhaps that oddly bitter and sweet marmalade of her youth. It makes her feel like she’s ten and that triggers shakiness, to her alarm.
“I’ll take your word on the pain. Yes, we’ll definitely chat more.”
She studies Melinda; Melinda gazes back but with flagging interest. Then Tissane gets the bottle of narcotics, shakes out a pill, hands her mother the water glass. Watches her swallow, and then her eyes lower to half-mast.
As she leaves the bedroom, Tissane waves but her mother doesn’t see her. She is already moving toward a place where pain will recede like waves at the seashore.
The rain started yesterday and has not let up an instant. Tissane is on her way back with two bags. She has turned the wipers on full force. Treetops bend this way and that like muscular dancers. The temperature has dropped greatly and she wonders if her mother is warm enough under two blankets.
The light seems to have been red a long time as her mind wanders. It’s so much nicer in San Francisco. She cannot imagine why her mother chose to remain in Oregon. But, then, she has never liked to move about. Even leaving the couch or a chair by a table after she completed her chores seemed a bother. She read alot or wrote poetry (Tissane saw a few but doesn’t know much for sure) for hours. People came to her. None of that traditional greeting-the-family-at-the-door. Children and husband searched for her when they came home. And then she opened her arms.
They played croquet or badminton or bean nag toss with dad ten times to every one with her. She sat on a white wrought iron bench in the shade, bare feet tucked under her. Looked up from the magazine to emit a sound that might be mistaken for a faint bleat of acknowledgement if you listened hard enough. Then came the critiques of their form or foul play, as she did seem to know about games even as a spectator.
A driver behind her lays on the horn several times. The light is now green. On a quick take off her rental car slips, slides sideways and for a minute she thinks she’ll cross the lane and smash into the oncoming truck. She recovers at the last minute, heart in her throat. Sleet is now assaulting everything. It takes her fifteen extra minutes to get back to her mother’s, shoulders knotted with tension.
“Tissane? You back, dear?” Melinda’s voice is a taffeta curl of sound, words drawled out.
“Yes, just now. It’s mad weather out there!”
Tissane sloughs off her wet coat, rubs her hair with a teatowel. She puts away the vegetables and Cornish hens. She is skittish, anxious after the slippery road, and chilled. Her mother sounds drugged. Tissane needs a hot shower and a steaming latte. She needs to be on her own balcony watching the city lights wink on and off. With her cat, Domino.
“Do you want some tea, mom? I’m putting the kettle on.”
There is no answer. She enters the bedroom and watches Melinda’s chest rise and fall rhythmically but shallowly. She wonders what it feels like after something has broken into your chest and meddled with the organ that keeps the body humming. That feels everything first and last. It terrifies her, takes her breath so she sits on the end of the bed, gently so her mother can’t sense her there. She wants to lie down beside her.
She whispers to herself as much as to Melinda. “Remember when Jonny used to draw houses inside houses inside houses? Like those old Russian dolls… And she said it was for protection from the world but also like a maze? We thought she’d be an artist, a first in the family. She always had an idea that was better than mine. Even yours sometimes. She was so…curious.”
Tissane’s voice hurts even in a whisper. Something grabs her larnyx. Melinda rests, eyelids delicate as shells that cover her soul.
“Remember when she told us she saw fairies by the rock behind the oak tree? I thought of that the other day when I saw a pewter one, only pewter but still…she reclined on a shelf at a bookstore. I wondered if Jonny’s fairies were fair or olive-skinned, if they looked like dad or you or no one. I never asked. Did you? Maybe fairies have skin you can see through. I bet she knew.” She swallows the angry crush of tears. “Who would she be now? With us?”
It is true she cannot control herself and she is crying but she doesn’t want to think about it. Nor let it damage things. She is here to help her mother, not herself. Tissane wants to be a strong woman, the grown up daughter she truly is. To take care of everything she needs to take care of even a few days. But her mother looks very small in the aqua-blanketed bed. An exotic fish the size of two hands in a big ocean. She looks very pale beneath the olive tones, as if foreign forces are leaching the vibrance. Like thieves of pain and loss and illness and time have won out.
“But she got hit, that car…ice storm, ’86…” Tears snake down one cheek then the other only to join the green-blue bed, water lost within cottony water. “It was so icy cold, mom. I was scared, she was smarter, older, I couldn’t make her come back…”
She is afraid if she closes her eyes she will see Jonny tossed onto the side of the road. She will yell Jonny’s name. Make a mess of things when she came to aid healing, to be courageous this time. For them both. Tissane keeps them open, stands up, enters the spare kitchen to retrieve the tea kettle. Outside the window she sees the night is blue-black. Quieter. She gets out mugs, tea bags. Dips them a few times. Watches them float, then sink. Blows her nose and splashes kitchen faucet water on her face–she’s startled by its deep chill. She carries the tea drinks, then sits on a bedside chair.
“Tissane. Dear.” He mother’s eyes blink at her a few times so their fading sheen eyes goes off and on, off, on. “Is it snowing? I thought…the wind, how it sounds when it gets snowy. Not likely, I know. Anything can happen in Novemember, right?”
Her daughter places each mug on the lamp table, then turns up the lamp one notch so the room pulses with a faint shimmer.
“Well, it was nasty out when I went to the store. I skidded…it was, I was…”
Melinda turns her head to better see her, surmise the intention of her words, discern her mood. Tissane makes herself glance back. Those eyes the color of hard amber agates they hunted once, up and down Oregon beaches. Her skin, imbued with richer hue after her nap. Since the snag of pain has been unravelled by a pill.
Arched eyebrows rise a little in anticipation of what will next be said. “Yes, Tiss? Then what?”
Tissane reaches for a mug. “It was so windy! A bit slippery. And the snow swirled about so prettily and all I could do was sit and stare at it as I waited at the light. Enchanted. So lovely, how it drifts and dives through the air. It makes me think of little winged things, I don’t know, like the snowflakes have angel wings, or maybe it’s all fairy dust, know what I mean? There is something about the snow that visits here. It’s softer, finer, brighter than any I’ve seen. It won’t last, though. But yes, you do have your snow.”
Tissane hopes so much her mother cannot, will not, read her face or thoughts tonight.
Melinda lifts her mug and breathes in sweetness of orange and spice. “Ah, I can imagine it entirely. Don’t you so appreciate a mystical snow before Thanksgiving? I have to tell you. I do like you being here. In early winter. Fancy Cornish hens. And your kind stories. I-” she sits up a bit, winces, then the pain falls away a moment–“do! Love you! Now I have a story as well. If my will holds out.”
She huffs a bit as she tries to blow across the surface of tea, then sets it down. Her daughter is blinking away memories, eyes lowered. A sure sign of shielding the heart. A shadow of sadness seeks the room. Melinda will need to make it rise over them, transitory as breath. Release them.
“Don’t worry. I’ve only the best tonight, too. Help me get comfortable, Tiss. It may take some work to tell it…you might need to add a few words here and there…”