Sunday, July 3, 2011

Something Like Forgiveness

What I will miss most of all, she said, setting down the tea, is his voice.  He used to read while I cooked. Every day. She looked off into a corner of the room where she remembered his voice to be. 

I turned, too, imagined him reading in his affected way: one hand holding the book out before him, pages rising with his voice; the other hand with fingers upturned, to urge the language higher.

Wait here, she said, slipped down off her stool, and disappeared down the hall into the guest room.  

The kitchen clock ticked away the hour, the silence. Steam rose  to the same height above both our cups.  I used my thumb to pat up the crumbs that had slipped from the plate of cookies. 

She reemerged holding a medium sized box.  The top was folded closed, the corners of each section bent upward.

She set the box on the counter and pulled it open. Dust rose with the steam. 

I want you to have this. It isn't a part of my life with him. I looked down into the box.  It was filled with photos. 

I peered down at the yellowed images.  Unfamiliar faces looked back. I reached in and shuffled the top photos aside to reveal more unfamiliar faces. I started to tell Carol that she had brought the wrong box, that these must be hers when I uncovered a photo I recognized.  It was a memory I had mistaken for my own, a moment from my dad's childhood not mine that I had remembered vaguely, sparingly. It was my dad sitting sidesaddle on a man's shoulder, feet dangling down across his man's chest.  The man's hand held my father around the ribs on his right side.  They both were smiling.

I pulled the photo from the box then looked at the box itself. I had no memory of the box. It was none of the many boxes filled with photos in my parents' closet that I had browsed through over and over to fill rainy afternoons when I was young. I flipped the photo over and only the year was written faintly across the top of the back. My father was not yet two.

That's your great uncle, she said, guessing at my voiceless response. The one you're named after. I peered closer at the photo, at the face of the man holding my father.  It  could have been my father when my father was young and newly married. Same build.  Same dark hair. Same smile. I gave a quick snort, realizing then why I had accidentally made the photo a memory of mine.

She leaned down to see my face.  I forced a smile. We stood this way a while: her leaning over, me smiling awkwardly. She nodded and rightened. Rested a hand on my arm. 

She looked at the box and reached in to pull a photo out, too.  She turned it to me for me to see.  This is your grandmother, she said, hopefully.  I took the photo from her, squinting into the image. She looked at me looking back and forth from photo to photo. She placed her hands on her hips.

Here, let me give you this, too, she said, snapping her fingers, and walked back down the hall, back to the guest room, her slippers shuffling over the hardwood. My gaze never left the photos.   

I doubt this will fit you she said, startling me as she entered the room.  She held my father's gown and hood draped over her arms. She looked at the photo in my hand, then at me.  She lowered the robe.

You know, she said, brushing a hand over the hood, this is new, actually. She draped both gown and hood over the back of the chair beside me.  She waited a second or two before she continued. The school asked your father if he would speak at commencement and introduce the English masters candidates the year he retired. He turned them down.  She looked at the photos in my hands. When I asked him why he tried to brush it off like he didn't care, but I could tell he was upset. She straightened one of the sleeves, though it already lay perfectly flat.  He later told me that he didn't have a hood, that he had been unable to afford one when he finished his PhD. It was very difficult for him to share this with me, to be vulnerable this way. She nodded her headI turned my gaze to the hood.

I called the the school, U of I, and ordered your father the hood.  I didn't tell him and let him be surprised when it arrived.  I raised my head in a knowing nod. She smiled at me, my gaze once again on the photos. We stood this way a while, she staring at me, me gazing down at the photos in my hands. 

Of course, I've no need for it now, she said, with the wave of her hand. In fact, I'm busy getting rid of all his things.  Goodwill's coming by tomorrow to pick his suits. You can have some of those too if you like . . .

I could tell this wasn't true. About the hood. Her voice gave her away. But I also knew not to turn down the gesture. Not for her sake.  Nor mine. 

This is the only recording I have of him, she said, breaking the silence.  She slipped the CD in to the portable stereo by the tea service. My father's voice filled the air.

Duncan Phyfe Table.  One extra leaf …

It's the valuation we did for the insurance when we first moved in.  I haven't listened to it since then. 

Silver service.  Set of eight …

Carol took her seat, and raised her tea to her lips. We listened to my father's voice rising from the kitchen, echoing from room to room, our gazes focused forward.

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