Mementos for Living

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Photos by Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The crowd wasn’t holiday-large, not jam-packed in corridors, just impossibly thick with kinetic energy, bodies propelled from the mall storefronts like party favors tossed into the electric air, mouths chattering about nothing, eyes alight with the thrill of the hunt.

Nell didn’t much like crowds. She observed from her perch in Madrigal’s Mementos, her workplace. Her store, in a way, since her mother, Rona, was semi-retired and hightailed it to Santorini with a new companion. She wasn’t surprised Rona left her to deal with problems actual and imagined, as well as their thriving trade in “fancy this and that”, as her mother called the wares. She was more like a good older friend and seasoned business partner than a mother in most ways, she admitted. That was how it had always been.

The store was tastefully arrayed with small stone animals, elegant glass paper weights, fine pens and papers, hand crafted jewelry, silk screened scarves, hand bound books of poems and wisdom to live by, bright woven baskets and so on. In other words, an expensive gift shop for those who are used to the best or those who want to indulge once a year.

She felt less like a snappy sales person than a rag doll who had been propped up on her stool and directed to come alive. This was not what Nell had planned on doing right after college, yet here she was grinning at three customers who likely had little extra cash to spend and another two who did, each of them absorbed in examining the interesting pieces, wondering aloud if one person or another would enjoy an item. Nell could care less even though she was proud of Rona’s business acumen–she had two more stores–and glad of a decent paycheck. But she would rather be studying for her Masters in Ethnomusicology, doing musical and cultural field work in the Ozarks, say, or on Prince Edward island, in India or Mongolia. Yes, Mongolia would suit her better than all this.

The two women she thought would purchase something left the store arm in arm. But two of the other three lined up, items in hand. Stone elephants, a stone eagle, a bracelet of silver and good turquoise. As each was carefully wrapped, she thought how this business was partly responsible for Nell’s interest in other cultures since much of their inventory came from worldwide markets and crafts people.

“Such a great shop,” one woman breathed, hands gesturing toward displays and making coppery bangles clink. “Is Rona not here anymore?”

“Ah, yes, and no. She’s considering retirement, meanwhile just travels.”

“To locate more neat stuff, no doubt.” She dug in an enormous shoulder bag for her wallet, bangles jangling more. She looked at her friend. “Rona has such an eye, is so interesting, I could go out for coffee with that woman once a day and never be bored, she’s quite a talker.” She found her debit card and handed it to Nell. “You’re new here, right? You know her well?”

“For quite a few years. She’s my mother–I’m Nell Madrigal.”

“Oh! I should have known since you have her thick black hair, so pretty, I guess we’ve never met.”

“Likely not, I come and go. I’m not here for good; she’ll be back in time for holiday shoppers.”

“Lovely, I’ll be back then!”

They finished their transactions and left. Stillness billowed in the room, a relief. Nell watched more people stream by, a monotonous blur, a mass of colors and shapes, a telegraphic signal from another world that she didn’t understand. That she wished fervently was not her domain. She’d rather be on a mountain, in a holler, by the sea. But last year at her East coast university had brought a defining moment that left its mark. She turned on a CD of benign spa music and settled into the exorbitant but beloved “clam chair” covered in sheep’s wool near the counter’s end. It was for Nell the safe place in the store where she would watch and not be seen, could rest and the ache in her back and shoulders would ease.

If she dared close her eyes while still awake, she would still recall it and anymore it seemed better to let it come, rather than fight it. She had no desire to go into battle with old demons. She was tired, as always. Nell let her eyelids lower.

Back at Hartford School of Music he’d fast become her first love. Quinn: excellent oboe player, a composer of abstracted woodwind quartets and trios. They made her think of watercolors, layers of morphing shapes–yet these belied a greater intensity of feelings she didn’t recognize on first listens. The music could have been a clue but for her it was then all surge and flow; seeking, giving and taking and waiting for more; following less trod trails into a wilderness of surprise. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been in love before, just that she hadn’t ever known a man like Quinn before. Hadn’t found the proverbial rabbit hole so enticing as to willingly tumble into it and risk being lost. Which soon, she was, then she sailed right into his arms, out of her life, into his.

Was it his amped up adoration of her, even as her own ardor had begun to settle? Was it the way he had of subtly and frequently chiding and correcting her when he insisted she was wrong about something, no matter how small? Was it how he needed to know all her friends’ names, where she was going–then that he preferred she spend her free time with only him? Even then she saw it as signage of his enveloping and rock-steady love for her–the way he attended to her every need, how he graced her apartment with armloads of flowers when they’d had a spat, how he’d serenaded her at her window one night.

His mellow oboe sweetly filled the night air, calling other women to their windows, as well. But it was only her for whom he made music, no one else.

Nell flicked open her eyes, checked to see if anyone had slunk into the shop and was trying to nab anything but no, it had been a mostly quiet afternoon so far. She glanced at the shoppers then shuttered her vision once more.

Quinn was not handsome, not even quirkily so. That is, his features were not noteworthy and his torso was long and gave off a hint of natural athleticism but not one blazing with prowess. Still, his presence sooner or later filled the space of any place he went. It was his eyes, for Nell. Not the shape or color–though they were a warm brown, caramel-tinged in the right light–but the force they exerted, and his honeyed voice. Yes, a delectable force, that was the word Nell came to identify with him. His eyes on others exuded the demand that one pay attention and if one did, a rapid and intense response was forthcoming. Nell succumbed the first time they met. She saw him; he saw her. They talked of music and how it enabled people to become more attuned to nature’s complex notations and each other. There was nothing to be done but give in to such lively energy.

“Hello there…?” A male voice rang out.

Nell startled in her chair, stood up as if commanded.

“Yes, sir?”

“I was hoping you could show me some possibilities for my fiancée’s birthday.”

“Of course, tell me a little about her if you don’t mind.” Tell me you want her to be delighted not indebted, that you want to grace her with a token of your caring not your ownership, Nell thought as she listened, then led him to a display of pens–since she had beautiful handwriting.

They spent a few minutes perusing his options and then he wandered, returned to choose the flowing ink pen with a green and gold barrel, then silken paper with a tasteful ivy design along its left edge. He added delicate earrings with tiny sapphires. As she gift-wrapped them, they spoke of the weather–bright and warm, still–then he was gone, loping beside the others  into the outer realms.

Easy and at ease: Quinn was not these, never could be. He was smart and talented, given to flights of fancy that ended in wakeful nights of composing, revising each measure as he found more gaping chasms of error in the music and himself. It was the one vulnerable spot inside him, this part that privately did not feel good enough, and it seeped into other parts of his life though especially composing.

“I’m not meant to do this, have no gift for it!” he’d cry out and she would wrap her arms around him and he would shake her off. “Father was right, I didn’t catch the right genes, I can only conjure the right things in my mind but not execute, never fulfill my desires!”

His father, it was true, was a renowned composer of choral works, Terrence Carlton, he said proudly. Then he complained of it, how he lived in Spain, out of reach, unable to help and had little interest in woodwinds. He was far out of Quinn’s league. Only Nell could soothe him after the anger had been lit, then it subsided a bit. That is what he told her, only she seemed to understand him, no one else. It was not hard for her to be there for him. All he asked was devotion and she loved him, didn’t she, this is how it felt, to belong entirely to one person and be there for them always?

Nell sat back down and stayed put even though a couple came in, picked up a few stone animals and then left. A wave of panic had welled up in her, then slowly receded as she dusted the glass counter tops, rearranged elegant necklaces that lay on colored sand. She paused at the animal totems. She had given a stone creature to Quinn last Christmas, before he left for Spain and she, for Arizona. A coyote. She had liked to watch them in and around Tucson and he found it enchanting, said, “Thank you, that’s an animal I do admire.” And even that might have informed her better but it did not, not soon enough, not until they had returned to Hartford and studies resumed.

One snowy week-end in February they ate at Tango in Bridgeton Village, a funky shopping district.

“I don’t want to see him again soon, but he wants me to spend a couple weeks at spring break. He and his new wife at their new house. A villa, really.” He eyed her ruefully over his burrito, eyes suddenly a deeper brown as if a shadow had fallen over them. Then he smiled shyly. “He asked to meet you, said he’d even buy your ticket. I agreed I’d go if you come along. How about it, Nell?”

She put down her fork. Studied him. “I think that might be a little…too soon?”

He was chewing so didn’t speak a moment but his face changed nonetheless, from hopeful to irritated to a precarious cliff of anger that she saw in his narrowed eyes. “Why?”

“I mean, it’s been seven months, hardly as if we’re, well, betrothed!” She said it lightly, as if the whole idea was absurd, truly.

“What if I was thinking of the future? Our future?”

“I am, too. Getting our Masters degrees, finding good jobs. I’m not anywhere ready to have parents reintroduced into my world–our world. Certainly not marriage…surely you aren’t, either?”

He got very quiet, leaned over the center of the worn table top. Put fingers on her fork, then a knife, then drummed both sets of fingers beside her.

“I must be thinking of it, to agree with my father’s wishes. He has the right to meet you if I am imagining you in my future life.”

Appetite gone, Nell leaned into her chair, saw his index finger fiddle with the knife, saw him look her over as if he wasn’t clear–or happy–about who sat opposite him. Hr fixed his gaze upon her and did not blink.

His throat was cleared and when he spoke his words were hard and loud. “Don’t you agree, Nell? That meeting my father soon is best?”  He grabbed her wrists in both hands, and applied pressure until her fingers started to feel odd, then numb. His face was a mask of someone else, a man she’d glimpsed lately yet not known face to-face.

Until now.

“I don’t think so. We haven’t even talked about things past graduation much. I can’t go to Spain this spring, Quinn, I have the store and Rona.” She dabbed at her lips with a napkin, hands shaking, unsure of what to  do. She needed to leave, give him a day or two to rethink things and calm down but knew in her gut she could not leave without arousing a worse response.

He reached up, slapped her across the cheek, then grabbed her burning wrist again.

“Are you entirely sure, my love?”

She looked down, shocked, heard whispering, felt the humiliation of it. She could not get out of this! Or could she? Why not just go?

Nell stood up and doing so her hands were yanked so hard Quinn was pulled forward into the table so she she spun around, her wrists freed and pushed her way through tables, pressed the entrance door open, and ran. She wanted to be to just walk away, hail a cab and not look back but heart and legs would not do as she told them and she was moving fast. She ran one block, crossed a street, her booted feet striking slushy pavement and uneven sidewalks, hair whipping in the wind, wrists aching, arms freezing–she had left her coat behind.

“Nell, come back! Stop!”

Nell glanced over her shoulder, just streaked past a moving car with its horn blaring, then she crossed again, ran between quaint shops, barreled into startled pedestrians, pushed her way through a more languorous group that stood smoking outside a bar. They shouted at her, then turned at Quinn’s yelling.

“Nell, stop right now. STOP or you’ll be sorry!”

She stumbled and fell, got up again and ran into an alley. A door to the bar opened as if by magic and she rushed in past the shaken kitchen help.

“Shut that door tight, he’s chasing me!”

The door closed with a bang. She could hear raised voices, Quinn pounding on the door but she kept on, raced through the cafe with apologies flung out, into the street again and running the other direction. Her chest hurt, throat stung, eyes watered–was she crying?– and face and hands were chilled as fat snowflakes fell.

Nell did not stop until she was crouched behind a dumpster in the alley four blocks down and her breathless voice came roaring back as a piercing scream, hands over ears to dampen the sound of her own fear.

Someone came, called the police. People talked to her, reached for her. An APB was put out on Quinn. She was taken to the police station to give a written report. Her mother was called. She went home for a week until Quinn was in jail. Only when she was sure he had left, was back in Spain–Rona had called his father to make things even clearer–did she return to finish the year. She could not believe she had still graduated, if barely. She had made it, was safe again at home in Arizona. If only her mother was here more. But Rona felt Nell had to find her own way, regain confidence. And she was right, of course.

At Madrigal’s Mementos, a familiar place, even like home.

An elderly, soft-bodied woman hobbled in.

“Hello,” Nell said, hand at forehead, smoothing away the memories. “Can I help you with something special?”

The woman readjusted a hand knitted orange beret,  white hair spilling out of it and curving about her lined face. “I so hope you can–Nell, is it?” She pointed to Nell’s name tag. “My granddaughter is graduating from nursing school. I want a gift that’s different, something she can take wherever she goes but useful, too. Something to represent a milestone. She’s a wonderful girl, let me tell you. She waited so long to get to where she wanted to go and it was tough, school can seem tougher as time goes by. But she did it. Now she’s to be an RN.”

The woman smiled warmly at the thought and began to consider possibilities, picking up objects and looking them over with care. Nell suggested a few items.

“Is this your store? It’s quite good. I see a few things I’d like for myself, drat!”

Nell laughed. “Oh, no, my mother owns three stores. I’m just the sales person.”

“I doubt that,” she said, holding a hand-blown paperweight’s bright colors up to the light.

“Well, I want to be an ethnomusicologist but life is unpredictable.”

“So it is, but that’s a great field. I’m an historian myself, taught forever at City College, now I get to relax.” A ready smile sparked blue droopy eyes as she chose another paperweight. “Mandy would love this one. She has a nice study at home to manage her bills and to read and such. The turquoise with green are her colors, so soothing. Just look at that.” The paperweight glowed in a stream of recessed lighting.

She wandered as Nell worked on inventory online. In a few moments a purchase was made. They chatted a bit more about the granddaughter’s plans. The older woman waved good bye, then turned back, came back to the counter.

“Don’t let life derail you for long. Take hold of your dream and pursue it doggedly, it’s the only way to go. You will not regret it, believe me.”

She patted her hand and left. Nell watched her disappear into the crowd. As she returned to the computer, she noticed something white on the counter.

“Harriet Millsand, PhD., Retired Educator and Historian,” it noted, then further stated, “History is our own story: the past intersects present while the present anticipates future.”

She turned it over and read aloud: “A memento has been defined as a warning or a reminder of what has come before. But one can create new mementos of a life, Nell. Best wishes, Harriet.”

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