by Marion Peters Denard
When Mom died Rachel started asking questions. What did Mom make for Christmas morning? Egg casserole. When did Mom go back to school? I was fourteen, you were eleven. The questions got smaller and bigger, as though by their specificity they were magnified. What did she smell like? She wore Chanel No. 5. I know that, Tabbie. But what did she smell like? She smelled like orange honey and coral lipstick and bright green breath mints. What did her hugs feel like? They were nice. Tabbie. Like she was bringing you in and keeping you out at the same time.
You see, I remember everything. Rachel says I’m the only person who truly loves her because I know everything she ever did. She is my sister, my friend, and still—I lied to her.
Mom had a set of matryoshka, Russian nesting dolls, that she kept lined up on her bookshelf. I can see inside people like the inside of those dolls, each self tucked inside the others. Much like a mother sees all the ages her child ever was: the baby in the toddler, the toddler in the teenager, the teenager in the thirty-year-old. Mom told me once that when I stood in the sunlight she could squint and see twelve-year-old Tab, five-year-old Tabbie, and Baby Tabitha deep inside. Matryoshka means “mother” in Russian. Maybe that’s why.
I realized I was different on Thursday, January 9, 1992. I was thirteen. I was riding the bus home from school, staring out the rainy window. Greg Saunders was sitting nearby and I was thinking about how he pushed me at recess back in sixth grade. It was March 7, a Wednesday. I’d had cottage cheese in my lunch and Sarah T. said that was weird. I told her she was weird. Then Stephanie started talking about her slumber party and we both shut up because we wanted to go. I remembered Stephanie’s slumber party. We watched The NeverEnding Story. I wore my pajamas with the dancing toothbrushes and my dad was twenty minutes early picking me up. I rushed to get my sleeping bag and I forgot one of my socks. It was Saturday, March 10, 1991.
This is weird, I thought. Does everyone remember like this? I started asking.
I’m fascinated by other people’s memories: What do they keep? What do they forget? How are those decisions made? My husband, Danny, tells me people don’t make decisions about what to remember. Just like I don’t choose to remember every detail, he doesn’t choose to remember only certain events.
But Danny is a person who forgets. After we’d been dating six months, I asked him what he thought after we had sex the first time. He stammered, searching. I could picture little men walking up and down his brain, looking for a file that had been misplaced, mislabeled, or recycled. They muttered to themselves: sex with Tabitha, first sex with Tabitha.
He said, “Oh, it was nice.”
He didn’t remember.
It makes me feel small, to remember these forgotten things. That’s why I lied. These memories are suffocating. They pile up on me and I cannot breathe.
The day Mom left us was a Tuesday. December 6, 1990. I was twelve and Rachel was nine. It was a school day, but a heavy snow came through in the night. Mom paced the kitchen listening to the DJ read the list of school closures. “Closing school?” she said. “Ridiculous—it’ll be melted by noon.”
She was showered and dressed when we came downstairs for breakfast. Most days she was still in her bathrobe, packing our lunches. Mom had a part-time job at a dentist’s office, doing the books. But she was home when we left and home again when we got off the bus in the afternoon so what she did during the day was invisible. She wore a cream turtleneck sweater, dangly gold earrings, and her camel church slacks. Her blonde hair was swept up in a twist. Dad had already left for work, leaving early to shovel out the car, and make his way through the snow to the office. She made pancakes, a rarity. She made too many at once and they sat in a cold pile on a plate by the sink.
“Eat up, girls. Then go play. We’ll go out in a little while, when they get the roads cleared.”
“No school!” We shouted, “Snow day, snow day!” We jumped up and down and held onto each other’s hands. At this age I was as likely to trip Rachel as I was to paint her nails. We were tight in the love-hate hug of sisterhood.
We went outside to play, but after a few snowballs the novelty wore off and the cold set in through my wet mittens. Rachel wanted to build a snow fort. I tried to tell her it was impossible, that the snow didn’t make ice blocks like it did in the cartoons.
“Fine, Tabbie,” she said. “Don’t help. I can do it.” She took a handful of snow, which crumbled in her hands. She shook the frozen clumps of snow from her mittens and set about pushing the snow into a mound. She’d find a way, maybe, but I was going inside.
The house was dark after the sunshine on the snow and quiet, like no one was home. I walked into the living room, my snow pants heavy and wet around my ankles. I stood at the bookshelf and looked at Mom’s matryoshka dolls. The biggest doll had a red coat with small blue flowers and pink painted cheeks and a mouth painted in a small red bow. Her black hair peeked out from her red kerchief. Her blue eyes glinted with a dot of white at the pupil. I pulled apart the belly with a satisfying pop. Inside, I found the next doll with a green coat and the same blue eyes, the same black hair, the same bow mouth. Underneath her, a doll with a dark blue coat, and then the orange coat, and then the light green coat, then the light blue coat, and, finally, a baby, wrapped in a painted pink blanket. Her eyes were closed, little painted half-moon lids, always asleep.
I heard my mother call. It was almost time to go. I put the baby in my pocket and went to change. I left the dolls open and scattered along the bookshelf like a series of unanswered questions.
Once in the car, I asked, “Where are we going?”
“The mall,” Mom said.
But when we got close to the mall, we turned left into the parking lot for Garcia’s, the Mexican restaurant. Mom took us each by the hand, walking in the middle, linking us together. I kept one hand in my pocket, rolling the small, egg-shaped baby doll between my fingers and palm. The restaurant was almost empty.
“Girls, I want you to sit right here. I’m going to go over there, at that table by the window. I’m going to have lunch with a friend. I’ll be able to see you. It will be your very own special lunch date. Just you two.”
She smiled. Her coral lipstick shined against her white teeth. She bent down and kissed each of us, hard. She stood up and straightened her sweater, smoothed her hands over her camel slacks, rubbed her lips together to redistribute the lipstick. She walked to a table by the window and she sat down across from a man.
The man wore a dark suit. I saw him only in profile, but I was sure I didn’t know him. He was losing his sandy-colored hair, but it puffed above his ears hopefully. He wore glasses. I had never seen him before.
Rachel kicked her shoes on the legs of her chair. “What are we doing? Are we gonna eat?”
I kicked her shin under the table. “Shut up. Stop it with your feet, ok?”
I was trying to listen to my mother and the man in the dark suit. They were too far away; I couldn’t hear what they were saying. The waitress stopped at their table, glanced over her shoulder at us, then took out her pad and pen. She brought chips and salsa to our table without stopping. I kept looking over at Mom and the man.
“Tab, what are we doing? Who’s that guy?” Rachel asked.
“Shut up. I’m trying to hear them.” Mom was talking using her hands. The man looked serious. He kept nodding. He’d say something—break into Mom’s talking—and her hands would flurry to a stop. They would fall, like birds shot out of the sky, into her lap, limp and still.
The waitress brought us two Sprites. She told us our mom had ordered lunch for us and it would be here in a few minutes. There was a TV in the bar somewhere over my shoulder and Rachel kept looking past me and zoning out. I bobbed the straw in and out of my Sprite, watching the bubbles push it up to the top. The tiny little bubbles shot the straw up into the air when my finger released the pressure. Rachel’s eyes looked glassy; her mouth was partway open.
Lunch came. Mom had ordered us each two chicken tacos, with a side of rice and beans.
“Plates are hot, ok, kids?” The waitress told us. The plates were white ovals and the rice and beans were gooey, melted together with orange and white cheese. Rachel asked the waitress for another Sprite. Mine was only half-gone. Mom and the man weren’t eating, but they drank coffee.
Mom was crying now. She had a Kleenex out of her purse and was dabbing her eyes with it. Her nose was red. The man in the suit reached out and covered Mom’s hand with his. Mom slipped her hand out from under his to steady her coffee cup to her lips. She sipped, nodded, then put her hand back on the table like an invitation. His big hand covered hers again.
The waitress came and got our plates. Rachel was still watching TV with that stupid look on her face.
Mom and the man stood up. They hugged. She turned toward us and smiled. The smile faltered like it wasn’t sure it could balance on its own.
“Who was that, Mom?” Rachel asked.
“A friend,” she said. “Get your coats, ok?”
She took our hands again as we left the restaurant. She walked briskly across the parking lot toward the movie theatre.
“Let’s see a movie, what do you think? Huh, girls? There’s that new one out. Alone at Home or something? Want to see that?”
“Home Alone,” I said. “It’s called Home Alone.” And yes, I wanted to see it. Jenny had seen it last weekend and said it was the funniest thing she’d ever seen in her life, she laughed so hard she almost peed her pants. But I was vaguely angry. What were we doing? Why was she acting like this was normal?
Rachel jumped up and down, still holding on to Mom’s hand. “Yes! Yes! Please?”
Rachel didn’t understand you didn’t have to beg when something had already been offered.
It was cold and the guy at the ticket booth wore red earmuffs. “Two for Home Alone,” my mother said. “One for… Dances with Wolves.”
“That one started about ten minutes ago.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” she said.
“You’re not coming with us?” I asked.
“I’ll just be next door. You two are getting so grown-up, my goodness, we can do things like this now.”
Rachel asked for popcorn and Mom nodded. Rachel squeezed my hand like she’d just gotten us something really good. What’s wrong with her, I thought. Why doesn’t Rachel see how weird this is?
We got our popcorn and Mom walked us to the door of our theater. “I’ll be right next door, ok? I’ll be here when you guys get out. I’ll be waiting right here.”
I remember everything about that movie: the bit parts, the jokes that didn’t quite work. I remember more than just his hands on his cheeks in that mock scream. I remember him being forgotten as his family rushed out the door. It didn’t seem funny at all, to be left at home by yourself. To be forgotten.
When the movie ended, I was sick to my stomach from the Sprite and the popcorn and the wondering. I rolled the baby matryoshka in my sweaty pocket. We walked out of the darkness of the theater into the lights of the lobby. Mom was standing right there, just where she said she would be. I could tell she’d been crying. The man in the suit was walking out the door.
What had they done?
Mom drove us home. Rachel bounded into the house in front of us.
“Who was that man, Mom?” I asked.
“I told you, Tab. A friend.”
“Does Dad know him?”
She turned her head so fast a piece of hair slipped from the pins and slapped her on the cheek. “No,” she said. “No, your father doesn’t know him.” She walked into the house and left me standing on the steps.
Later that afternoon, I stood at my bedroom window and watched Rachel make snow angels in the front yard. She stood on the bank of the driveway and fell back, a trust-fall to no one. She was chubby in her snow pants, awkward as she tried to get up without ruining her angel. She waved at me in the window, but I just crossed my arms.
Mom walked out to the driveway and pulled a blue suitcase from the trunk of the car. She carried it to one side with both hands and the weight of it bounced up and down on her thigh. Rachel paused and looked up at our mother, carrying the suitcase. Rachel must have seen her, but she didn’t speak. The late afternoon light was thin, the shadows dark and cold. Again, Rachel fell back into the white drift, so sure the soft snow would catch her.
I listened as the suitcase was hauled up the stairs and then dragged down the hallway carpet. It must have been heavy. I heard my mother close her bedroom door. I walked the short hallway to my parents’ room and knocked once. I opened the door before she could answer.
She stood over the bed pulling out her green sweater from the suitcase. She had changed out of her camel slacks, back into jeans and a sweatshirt. She held the sweater by the shoulders like she was trying to decide whether to try it on.
“Tabbie, you’re supposed to wait for come in.”
“Want to help me?”
She handed me sweaters and I put them back into her bureau. She didn’t explain. I didn’t ask. Maybe she thought I wasn’t old enough to understand or I was too young to remember. Maybe she was trying to show me that she had decided to stay. I helped her put away sweaters, jeans, her fancy black dress. She put her mother’s pearls back into her jewelry box.
When we were done, I walked downstairs to the abandoned matryoshka dolls. I took the baby from my pocket and carefully recreated the shells of the dolls that held her. When they were complete, I took the mother doll with the red coat and kissed her little bow mouth. I put her back, safely, at her place on the shelf.
Over pizza that night, Rachel told Dad about going to the movies. Dad asked Mom, “What did you see, honey?”
“Dances with Wolves. The one with the guy and the Indians.”
“Oh,” he said, disappointed. “I wanted to see that.”
“Well, you should. You should go. I’m sorry—I just couldn’t do a kid movie today.”
“No biggie,” he smiled.
Years pass that way: being polite and passing the breadsticks. I read once that there are years that ask questions and years that answer. But some questions are never answered, and the years pass anyway.
I never discussed that day with anyone. I grew up, left home, married Danny. Mom got sick, and sicker, and smaller, until she was so thin her passing was like fog burning off in the morning sun. Rachel grew up, too, in her way. I never outgrew being the big sister. She started asking her questions about Mom. I answered them, faithfully. Until I lied.
Rachel was over and Danny was making paella. It was a Friday night and we were already on our second bottle of wine. Rachel sat on the counter next to Danny as he chopped green beans. They were talking about Spain. Rachel told him about a little hotel in Ronda she visited in college that had a theater room that played old movies. She watched Casablanca there, her favorite.
Rachel turned to me. “What was Mom’s favorite movie, Tab?”
“Out of Africa.”
“No. No—it was that other one. Kevin Costner. The one where he’s out on the prairie and there’s that Indian woman. What’s it called?”
“Dances with Wolves.”
“Right. Dances with Wolves.”
“That wasn’t her favorite movie, Rach.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“She never even saw that movie.”
“What do you mean? Of course, she did. I remember her talking about it.”
“No. Dad loved that movie. That’s Dad’s favorite movie. He went to see it by himself. On Saturday, January 12, 1991.”
“Really? Are you sure?”
“Yes. Really. God, Rachel. You know I remember these things. Why would I be making this up? He went to go see it by himself after my basketball game. I scored eight points and Megan Parker twisted her ankle. And then Dad went to go see that stupid movie. By himself.”
My heart was racing. My cheeks were slapped red from the wine and I could hear my voice getting higher, like bubbles fighting their way to the top of a straw.
“Sorry. God, you’re touchy.”
“No. No, I’m really not, Rachel. It’s just you don’t remember these things and then you ask me and you expect me to remember everything but you don’t even believe me when I tell you. It’s annoying.”
“Sorry. I won’t ask you about anything. Ever.”
“Good. Because I could tell you things you couldn’t even believe.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“You have no idea, do you?”
I told her how about the snow day and going to Garcia’s and the man in the suit and Mom in her camel slacks and her with her stupid mouth open watching TV. I told her about seeing Home Alone just the two of us.
Then I lied. I told her we came out of the theater and Mom wasn’t there. She wasn’t there waiting for us like she said she would be. We waited and waited and she never came back. I told her we finally walked through the snow-drifted parking lot and into the mall where we held hands and walked the long mall, looking into each of the stores hoping for a glimpse of her twisted blonde hair, her cream sweater, but nothing. We found nothing. She wasn’t there. As it was getting dark, we walked back to the movie theater and sat huddled together on the floor next to the popcorn machine. The teenage clerk asked us if everything was ok and when we said yes he shrugged and walked back to rip tickets. How Mom finally walked into the theater, her blonde hair now down around her shoulders and covered with a fine blanket of new white snow. How she took us by the hands and told us to never, never, never tell our father that she was gone all day while we wandered around the mall.
I lied so she would know the truth.
I told her everything that mattered. I told her about the blue suitcase thumping up the stairs. I told her how I helped Mom unpack and put away Grandma’s pearls.
“Where did she go?” Rachel asked.
“She was gone, Rach. She was gone with him. And I would see him, all the time, growing up. He would come to my basketball games and wave to Mom. God, we had him and his wife over for dinner.” I heard my voice climbing higher.
“Dr. Tillman, her boss.”
“Tabbie,” Danny said, looking at Rachel who had started to cry.
“She has to grow up—she has to grow up sometime! I know this. Why should I be the only one who knows this? Why should I be the only one who has to carry all this around? All she and Dad do is talk about how perfect Mom was. All Dad can say is how much he loved her. Well, I remember. I remember the fighting, them screaming at each other. She never came back, Rachel. She never really came back. She left us. Just like she left us at that movie theater.”
I stood up and walked out the front door, into the cold night. It had started to snow while we were busy in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, sorting memories. I hadn’t stopped to grab a coat and it took just a moment for the chill to set in. I wrapped my arms around myself and watched the snowflakes fall in the circle of the streetlight. The snow settled on the street in a quiet blanket. Each unique snowflake landed silent and anonymous.
I heard the door open behind me, but I didn’t turn. I knew it was Rachel. She stood beside me with her hands stuffed into her coat pockets. She leaned into me, nudging her shoulder into mine.
“Tab, I know there’s a lot I don’t know. I know I don’t have your perfect, photographic memory—or whatever it is. But I know Mom loved us. I know she wasn’t perfect. I know I only talk about the good stuff. That’s what I choose to remember. Maybe she left us at that movie theater all day. But she came back. She was there for us after school. She was there at our graduations. She was there to watch you play basketball. She loved us. Your memories don’t change that.”
I nodded. My throat swelled with the pressure of words I couldn’t predict.
“You’ve got to be cold,” she said.
I turned to Rachel and my tears touched her cheek before anything else. I wrapped my arms around her. I felt her shoulder blades fold, like frail wings, under her coat. I saw her, a little girl again, making snow angels, falling back, trusting the soft snow to catch her. I held my little sister like a snowflake on my tongue.
Marion Peters Denard facilitates writing workshops at Writers’ Room, a creative writing studio located in Jacksonville, Oregon. She studied writing at the University of Puget Sound and Dartmouth College. Her poetry has appeared in Adanna, Peregrine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. She is currently at work on a novel for children.