I have no photos of that bleak holiday when I was eight years old. My mother had died, along with my unborn sister who was to be named Jackie, just two weeks before President Kennedy’s assassination. There’s only a collage of mental images more vivid than Kodachrome that I sometimes still shuffle through when awake in the middle of the night. Always, I am drawn to the specter of me kneeling at the tarnished grate in the floor of Aunt Louise’s guest room, peering down at the cavernous wood stove, straining to decipher a hushed conversation between my aunt and father at the kitchen table beside the iced-up window just beyond my visual field.
“What are you doing, Cate?” my younger brother Joseph—materializing wraith-like in the doorway—asked. I slid my fingers across the zipper of my lips. He had not been himself these last few weeks either, our mother’s sudden vacancy having sapped the usual fight out of him. He joined me on the floor, caped by the ratty blanket he had carried his first five years on the planet, recently resurrected from the back of his closet and tied by its tatters to his neck: a pathetic Superman wannabe.
I returned my ear to the grate while Joseph stretched out and pressed his forehead to its brass plaid. Our father was talking about our mother. His voice rose and cracked the way it had during their arguments. Soon he grew louder, a sign that the bottle of rye had come off the high shelf in the pantry some time ago, been stirred into a cloudy milk glass with a splash of tap water by my aunt, his elder by thirteen years.
“It was never like that, Louise,” I heard him say, voice rising. Followed by more tip-toeing words of my aunt’s that I couldn’t make out.
Uncle Maury had retired for the evening to rise at six a.m. and work overtime on Christmas Eve at the paper mill down by the benignly referred to “rainbow river.” So named for its spectrum of colors produced by the mill’s dyes that prevented it from ever completely icing over, despite frigid north-country temperatures.
From deep within the house came the cries of the heater clanging off. Our teeth began to chatter, Joseph’s loudly enough that I had to silence him again, this time with the palm of my hand. Still, I refused to give up trying to translate the sounds below that I imagined contained some clue to what had happened to us. A case Nancy Drew and her pals could have easily cracked and I still might. Finally, I heard my father clearly proclaim: “She didn’t want it!” along with the thud of what I knew to be his fist on the table, which caused Joseph and me to pop up and suck in our breath. Only to hear our father utter more softly moments later: “She never did.” Aunt Louise’s shushing noises came next, chairs scraping back from the table, the soothing sound of water running in the sink, washing clean.
Joseph leaned into me as I walked him down the tunneled hall lined with black-and-white photographs wrinkled in ill-fitting frames, to the room with the twin beds where our grandfather with the Irish brogue had once fallen through the ceiling while crashing around in the attic searching for a box of photos from his marriage to our grandmother, Maeve, who died before we were born. Legs and gigantic black, laced shoes dangled for almost an hour as we helplessly watched from below with Aunt Louise until the volunteer firemen finally came screaming around the corner to save him.
Now Joseph, as always, fell instantly asleep. Awake again, the warped wooden floor too cold and splintered to kneel on for prayers I’d stopped believing counted anyway, I stared at the re-plastered hole in the ceiling, faded turquoise chenille bedspread laundered to a soft sheen pulled tight to my chin. I thought about our grandfather deftly plucking multiple coins from our ears in rapid, magical succession—exactly enough to purchase an ice cream cone with sprinkles at the pharmacy on River Road.
As I listened to my father’s slow-motion footfall ascending the stairs and the rustle next door as he undressed and climbed into bed, his words to my aunt sang out in my head: “She didn’t want it! She never did.” I fell asleep at last still wondering what “it” could be. My strangled-by-the-noose-of-her-umbilical cord sister? Death, life, war with the God-damn Russians—me?
In the middle of the night, my grandfather’s ghost came back. This was also our first Christmas without him. I could hear him pacing in the attic, make out in the starlight spilling through the sheer white curtains the bulge of his weight on the re-plastered ceiling hole. He had grown up in County Cork where ghosts roamed the scalped, emerald hillsides in droves. Men slain by the British, resisting with glittering eyes even in death, women and children starved to sinew and bone amid fields of rotting potatoes. If you believed in ghosts, you could see them, my grandfather often observed. If you believed in ghosts, you could become one when you died. We both believed.
Once when I was little and we were visiting Grandpa, I was sitting on his lap drawing funny faces on my drawing pad. I watched Grandpa sketch his own gigantic ears with veins like worms—“the better for hearing the whispers of ghosts on the foggy moors, my dear!” I laughed so hard I got the hiccups and my mother made me go upstairs and take a nap again because she just couldn’t hear herself think, even though I wasn’t tired and everybody knows I can’t sleep during the day.
I threw myself on the bed and started thinking about the Commies. About the button they could push—presto!—and wipe us right off the face of the earth. About the mushroom cloud that came in my dreams and our dog Woowoo, who ran away and got squashed by a car on Route 9W right next to the metal sign that said: “George Washington Slept Here”!
Grandpa came squeaking up the stairs, lay down beside me, and started crying, too. I mean, real, live tears—not just faking! When I asked him how he could do that he took out his hankie, let me blow my nose, and said: “Life can be a sad business, Cate, for an Irish heart. Crying’s not the worst thing.”
The sad business of life finally got to Grandpa the spring before Mom died. It was almost too much for Aunt Louise’s heart. At the wake it took two grown men to pry her away from the coffin and the sobbing . . . if Grandpa’s ghost heard it, I know he would have started sobbing, too.
One time he told me our hearts were a light in this cold, dark world, but a curse, too. “You have the heart of an angel, Cate,” he said. “But even angel hearts can break.” I don’t know why I couldn’t cry when he died.
A part of me wanted to actually see him fully now. But what if he came dragging chains like Jacob Marley or, worse, burst, cursing, through the ceiling, my fault again, just like everything else? I lay awake a long, long time in the coldest, darkest, deepest hole of the night wondering why my grandfather still roamed. How he seemed so close and so far away at the same time, just like the living. And whether he’d seen our mother around anywhere. Even though she had made it perfectly clear she did not believe in ghosts.
My heart pounded so over that last thought that I feared I might explode, which my cousin John-o insisted happened to children far more often than anyone ever mentioned. This left me wondering whether the clot that moved from my mother’s leg to her lungs had caused her heart to explode. Above me, the floorboards continued to groan. Once upon a time, I would have mustered all my courage to dash down the hall to my father. My eyes stung. Because that fairy tale was over.
I woke freezing, covered Joseph, and draped myself in the itchy, crocheted throw on my bed before descending the stairs toward the rising scent of frying bacon. Buried in the weekly paper, my father didn’t seem to notice me slip into the seat beside him as Aunt Louise set a glass of orange juice in front of me.
“Happy Christmas Eve, Cate,” she said, tucking a corkscrew of pewter-colored hair behind her ear and stubbing out her Salem.
I had almost forgotten we had come here for Christmas. I had scoured the closets at home for presents (as I had since confirming there was no Santa a couple years ago by spying on my parents) to no avail. I had not caught my father whistling “Jingle Bells” and retelling tall tales about renegade reindeer roaming the North Pole theme park he once worked at as he packed up the car with the big cardboard box that usually contained our wrapped gifts. Nor had he offered to take us to the Five and Dime once we drove into town to knock ourselves out spending the allowance we’d saved up for presents, followed by egg creams with him at the soda fountain counter. I knew it was selfish to even think about gifts so soon after our mother’s death, to think about anything but my mother from that day forward. Accruing with each self-centered notion yet another sin to add to the newly minted, ever expanding fortune I would never dare cash in Confession.
Aunt Louise’s mention of my name seemed to rouse Dad. He put down the paper and, with a smile that appeared to pain him, reached out and tousled my hair.
From the counter, Aunt Louise turned and smiled. “Cate, can you take care of that toast?” she asked, when Dad picked up the paper again.
I hopped out of my cocoon, joined her at the counter, and carefully buttered the four slices. My aunt was the best cook in the world and I had played her enthusiastic assistant as long as I could remember, accumulating valuable skills that enabled me to eventually take over the task of cooking from our mother, sparing us further culinary misery at her unwilling hands. My father drove to the city week nights to attend graduate school, and mom would rise scowling from the couch and her magazines at the last possible moment, slamming drawers and cupboards as if ambushed by drop-in guests. Finally grabbing the giant bottle of mayonnaise and slapping together the same Velveeta sandwiches we’d had for lunch and odd salads involving canned pineapple, cottage cheese, and a dressing of mayonnaise and sweet relish, the thought of which can gag me to this day.
Mom’s disdain for cooking apparently sprang from an indifference to nourishment in general. She would pick at her plate with her fork, raking peas, turning up her long nose even at Aunt Louise’s tempting table and the Waynesburg Inn we went to back home for the seafood special on Friday nights when Dad got paid—forcing the rest of us to wait a punishing amount of time before at last proclaiming she’d finished. Thereby allowing waiters whose livings depended on turning tables to clear and bring on complimentary blocks of spumoni with the check.
Today I would spend much of the morning helping my aunt with the roast beef dinner we would eat tonight after five o’clock mass and preparing the turkey and stuffing for tomorrow’s afternoon feast, featuring the scalloped oysters Grandpa used to make, a task that now fell to me and Aunt Louise, four kinds of homemade pies, and, of course, our father’s special eggnog. The adults would start drinking before dinner and, by meal’s end, allow us to sip. Aunt Louise and Uncle Maury’s two grown children would attend—our cousin Cheryl with her husband Bernie and new baby and bachelor John-o—along with Father Dubois and Uncle Maury’s spinster sister Olive.
Now I carried the toast to the table and thought about how the Spanish rice and macaroni and cheese, mastered from the Betty Crocker Cookbook for Boys and Girls Aunt Louise gave me, had earned my mother’s highest praise. “You’re so self-reliant, Cate. I never have to worry about you.”
Aunt Louise set a sunny-side egg and bacon in front of me and poured my father another cup of coffee from the metal percolator that had finally ceased to hiccup.
“I thought I would take Joseph to the Five and Dime this morning to buy our Christmas presents,” I said.
Dad pressed a hand to his forehead, as if taking his own temperature.
“Good idea,” Aunt Louise said.
My father shot to his feet and disappeared out the side door.
I watched Aunt Louise for clues as to what I might have done but she kept to her poker face.
“Go first thing this morning,” she said, in her high-school-teacher voice. “I have wrapping paper in the closet you can use when you come back.”
Grandpa’s ghost in the attic had gotten me thinking more about that time he fell through the ceiling. After he got out of the hospital they made a bed for him on the living room couch so he wouldn’t have to climb the stairs. My aunt had not yet retired from the local school so my mother pulled me out of half-day kindergarten and made the six-hour drive with Joseph and me to take care of him, although it was clear from the beginning who was really caring for whom.
During that visit Grandpa, despite his affliction, decided to surprise my mother (while she napped one afternoon with Joseph) with the signature rice pudding his mother in Ireland taught him to make. That simple recipe was capable of comforting the child in everyone; even my mother, renowned for her sparrow-like appetite, could easily polish off three bowls at one sitting.
Deeply opposed to napping from birth, I snuck downstairs to assist him as he hobbled about the kitchen. I was grabbing ingredients from the refrigerator and carrying them to the counter while he stood introducing the verb “to scald” into my fledgling culinary vocabulary and instructing me to run a teaspoon down the side of the vanilla bean pod to free its fragrant, seedy treasure. We ceremoniously presented chilled bowls to Mother and Joseph a couple hours later when they descended the stairs, and Mother settled into the kitchen chair with her regal smile, as if awaiting coronation.
And so on that Christmas Eve afternoon after Joseph went upstairs to play with his Army men and Aunt Louise left to drop off pies for the neighbors and finish last-minute shopping, I waited for the rumble of her station wagon to recede before creeping to the refrigerator for the ingredients I had checked for earlier, and then set to work beating the eggs with milk and sugar, whispering little prayers to Grandpa’s ghost for help. But as my hands whisked the familiar concoction, I watched them inexplicably transform into my mother’s! . . . forcing me to gasp and jump back, my senses so heightened I could hear the halting snap of the wall clock’s fingers.
I nonetheless resumed following the recipe I found in Aunt Louise’s tin box of index cards, written in Grandpa’s scrawl. Then I was slipping the same yellow, heat-proof bowl into the preheated oven, washing and drying the dishes, and sitting on the floor to wrap the rest of my gifts and Joseph’s while the custard baked, steaming the windows and filling the house with a vanilla haze. I allowed it to cool before hiding it deep in the already full refrigerator, a challenging, time-consuming task that required removing almost every item and fitting them together again like pieces of a giant, complicated puzzle. (“You’re so self-reliant, Cate. I never have to worry about you.”)
I went upstairs to lay out my clothes for church, imagining myself marching my gift to the candlelit table with pawed feet later that night amid reverent oohs and aahs, stepping and pausing, as I had moving down the aisle to make my First Communion last year. And watching my father’s astonished face as I presented my gift and collapsed into his outstretched arms, redeemed.
All these years later I can’t remember my mother’s voice, scent, or touch, a single moment of her arms around me. But I can vividly recall her phantom hands suddenly replacing mine that day as I stirred a pot in her honor. The gullies between the ridges of her smooth knuckles, and the long, squared-off nails, slivered moons setting gently on the curved horizon of her cuticles. The simultaneous terror and yearning erupting within me as adult hands from beyond the grave emerged momentarily complicit in my redemptive plan as they had never seemed in life.
What happened after I baked that pudding, after I told Aunt Louise and she swore to keep my secret and help with the surprise, I find more difficult to piece together, like a pane of shattered stained glass blown out of a church window, the story it once told rendered no longer coherent. A tale I nonetheless feel recently compelled to reconstruct as best I can from its jagged pieces.
Just as in my fantasy, I hugged the heavy bowl of perfectly set custard to my chest and carried it to the table. I set it down before my father in the spot Aunt Louise had cleared and slipped into my seat beside him.
“Rice pudding!” Joseph blurted, eyes bright as ornaments, candlelight pooling in the whorl of his cowlick.
“You made this?” our father asked.
“Imagine that,” said Father Dubois, cheeks glazed pink as sugar cookies from all that guzzled sherry.
I could see Dad’s brain working just like it did when I’d catch him bent over his books, after I’d awakened again from the dream about the Commies dropping the bomb, the giant mushroom cloud, my parents gone missing. Trying to wake Joseph even though I knew it was too late, the nuclear fallout already eating us alive from the inside out.
“Where did you get the ingredients?” Dad asked.
“From the refrigerator,” Aunt Louise answered, smiling. “Cate dug out Dad’s recipe from my box to surprise us. Can you believe she made it all by herself!”
I watched the quotation mark between his brows deepen.
“So she used the eggs I bought yesterday for the eggnog,” he said, as if I had vanished from the scene entirely, as I often felt I had.
“Just like Grandpa showed me that time when we made it for Mommy,” I said.
“We can get more eggs,” Uncle Maury ventured, in a rare verbal moment.
“On Christmas Day?”
“Mercy,” Aunt Olive muttered.
Everyone else had stopped talking.
John-o leaned back and lit a cigarette, massaging his flat top and watching intently, as if settling into his seat at a movie theatre.
Cheryl continued to chew off her lipstick while Bernie excused himself to check on the crying baby.
Staring at his plate, Joseph’s lips trembled, fighting an urge to join the baby’s wretched aria.
“Oh, for Christ sake, Bill,” Aunt Louise said, fork clattering against Grandma’s China. “The child worked all afternoon to make us a Christmas pudding because Dad taught her how to make it for her mother.”
I had never heard Aunt Louise’s voice at that decibel.
My father stared at his plate. “I didn’t mean,” he whispered, into his steepled fingers.
Only it was too late. The fallout had already started eating me alive from the inside out and I was burning up with it! I bolted up the stairs and almost made it to our room before the full force of the sorrow I’d been dodging since the day our neighbor Martha came to tell us our mother was gone collided with my chest. I wanted to howl, to break something. Instead I flung myself on the bed, cursing and slobbering into the pillow, beating my fists against the poorly sprung mattress until they ached. As if it were my father’s face, I suppose. Or, well—my God-damn mother’s.
When the doctor discovered my mother’s clot in her sixth month of pregnancy and ordered her to stay off her feet, I simultaneously developed a mysterious malady involving a sore throat, swollen glands, and low-grade fever. At first I faked sickness to stay home to feed her and keep her on the couch where she belonged and would, I hoped, eventually succumb to my care through the stupendous power of my singular will. But on the day my mother died, my devotion to my covert operation wavered. I convinced my parents that my affliction had somehow temporarily lifted, enabling me to attend the Thanksgiving assembly in which my best friend Alice got to play Pocahontas, a part I surely could have nailed had I not chosen to perform the academy-award-worthy role of ailing child.
On the day my mother died the school nurse showed up at the door of Mrs. Waverly’s classroom before the assembly even got started. Everything after that—following her down the long, echoing corridor as if walking the plank, our neighbor Martha waiting for me in the principal’s office holding Joseph’s hand, bending down to inject the news directly into our faces before whisking us back to her house, our zombie-like father picking us up late that night and putting us to bed in the house from which our mother had forever vanished—remains in slow motion, blurry and disjointed as a home movie, replaying every couple of years spontaneously as I lay awake in the middle of the night the way I do.
But what I mean to say is that long after I fled the dinner table on that worst Christmas Eve ever, my father crept into the room and sat on the edge of the bed where I lay, back to the door, nibbling at the thumb I had secretly sucked for the first six years of my life. He set a bowl of rice pudding down on the nightstand and whispered my name. When I failed to respond, he cleared his throat.
“Thank you for the rice pudding,” he said. “It was very sweet of you to make us mommy’s favorite, Grandpa’s. I’m sorry, I don’t know why I . . .”
I rolled toward him and that tasty word “sorry.”
My father’s voice cracked. I had never before heard the sound he made then. It took me a minute to realize he was crying. Joseph must have somehow heard it, too, because he raced up the stairs as if summoned—“A bird? A plane?”—soared into the room, blanket flapping, and flung himself at us, actually causing Dad to laugh momentarily before resuming the lament with which Joseph and I instinctively harmonized, time slowing again to the agonizing pace of a life-threatening accident. Perhaps this was the way my mother’s perception ground to a halt in those final moments in which she dialed Martha before crumpling to the floor beside the end table, knocking over the small, framed, black-and-white wedding photo, its glass cracking in a jagged line down the middle between her and Dad, severing their vows.
When we finally wore ourselves out, Dad went down the hall and came back with balled up toilet paper to blow our noses. He propped the pillows against the headboard and climbed up on the bed, Joseph and I nestling in on either side. He picked up the bowl of rice pudding and fed me, moving the spoon around in the air like a tiny airplane and making zooming noises the way Grandpa used to with Joseph. I looked up at the re-plastered ceiling and saw it move again beneath my grandfather’s weight.
“We’re not supposed to have food up here,” Joseph said, in the world’s loudest whisper.
Our father gave him a “yikes!” look, another expression stolen from his father, temporarily possessed by Grandpa’s ghost. If only he could haunt us forever!
“OK if I share a little with this knucklehead here?” Dad asked.
The spoon plane made another perfect landing, this time on the runway of Joseph’s tongue.
We slept with our father in his room that night. I wanted with all my heart to tell him what I had done. But having made my First Confession, I realized what I had already begun to suspect. There were sins you revealed in this life and sins no God would dirty his holy hands with. Placebo sins you offered the ghostly silhouette of a priest on a Confessional screen, and the real ones you buried alive forever.