<%@ Language=VBScript %> Keepgoing.org - Winter 2001 - Boxes
The Farm

Boxes

By Rhiannon Brown

I remember the house where I was born,
The little window where the sun
Came peeping in at morn;
He never came a wink too soon,
Nor brought too long a day:
But now, I often wish the night
Had borne my breath away.
     -Francis T. Palgrave


Vivienne told Louis she'd take care of the matter of the house. Her older brother Louie had taken off right after the funeral to go back to Raleigh. He had left his two kids with a sitter – no paid bereavement leave at the plant – and he couldn't afford to miss another day of work since Maria left him.

Viv, on the other hand, didn't have any children or a job of her own to miss, not even in the nostalgic sense. Only a far-off deadline on a freelance article on St. Kitts and Nevis for a travel magazine bobbed lazily on the horizon. She wrote to keep herself busy, but mainly she wrote to convince herself that the money her parents spent for four-and-a-half years as she struggled to attain her degree in English lit from Sara Lawrence hadn't been for nothing.

Her fiancé Gavin, a financial analyst, more than adequately provided for the both of them. And, in turn, she provided for him – all the charm, sociability, and charisma he lacked. At his innumerable functions and benefit parties she hung off his arm like a cut jewel, capturing all the light and movement in a crowded room and throwing it back at a million different angles, all of which had her as their vertex. She was gorgeous, and adept enough at this sleight of hand to fool the people that the light shined from both of them.

Lately they had been on the outs, minor incidents escalating into tumultuous fights that lasted for days. Still fuming since the last row, Gavin had refused to attend the services with her (she would not forgive him for that), and she hadn't had an opportunity to tell him that on top of everything, her period was now three weeks late.

So it was she who was driving to Deer Forest, alone, to sort out everything mom and dad had left behind. Viv had been unfazed by the whole unexpectedness of it all, a pillar of strength at the wake, marveled at by countless blue-haired great-aunts who misconstrued her serenity as callousness. She inwardly congratulated herself on her pragmatism. Life, death, yadda, yadda, there's a time to reap, a time to sow, and that's about it.

She pushed her blond hair behind her ear with a certain self-satisfaction as she made the right turn into her parents' decidedly middle-class subdivision. Her memories of this place had faded with time; her mental images of the old neighborhood blurred and softened like an art-fair watercolor. Now everything snapped back into harsh focus. The streets were deserted, the barren trees with their spindly fingers pointing haphazardly toward roofs and lawns and shrubbery mounded over with generous dollops of meringue snow. Thin tendrils of smoke rising from the chimneys were the residents' only giveaway.

As she turned the corner into their cul-de-sac, she almost expected to see her parents' SUV in its usual spot on the left of the driveway. No, why would it be there, it was hauled away, a twisted heap of wreckage on Interstate 94.

She shook her head, as if trying to physically dislodge the grim thought from her mind, and parked her Lexus alongside the two-story colonial. The shades in the windows were drawn, and the long covered porch, usually full of potted ferns and geraniums in the summer, looked empty and forlorn.

Viv glanced at her watch as she hurried up the unshoveled walk. It was eerily quiet as the snow muffled the far-distant hum of cars and semis rushing along the highway. A lone crow caw-cawed in the distance. It was 4:30 and already getting dark; the white snow turning purple-blue as the weak winter sun squeezed out the last of its sunshine for the day.

In all the years she'd been gone, her parents had never changed the locks. Suburban isolationism at its finest, Viv laughed to herself. She stepped into the foyer, stamping the snow from her shoes, bracing herself for the smell of the house to flood her with memories of bygone Christmases, Sunday breakfasts, something – but instead it merely had a clean, closed-up smell, like a hotel room that hadn't been let in some time.

It was cold inside. She peeled off her shearling coat, tossing it over the banister, and adjusted the thermostat on the wall. From the bowels of the house there was a groan, and the furnace kicked fitfully as it awoke from its slumber.

Instinctively she wandered upstairs to where her and her brother's bedrooms used to be, passing the indefatigable grandfather clock that stood sentry at the top of the landing, its constant ticking reminding her of her own mortality. With a shudder she turned to look at the framed photos that lined the wall. The picture-perfect family, she thought, all towheads with blue eyes and orthodontically engineered smiles. Dad was conspicuously absent in most photos, except a few taken on vacations when they were little. She peered at an overexposed print of he and Louie squinting into the camera, holding plastic shovels and a pail of sand at Myrtle Beach. Later Dad was always working, and although he wasn't around much, his phantom-like presence hovered over family events – Louie's hockey games, mealtimes, Sunday Mass – like the conjurings of a medium.

So, they finally remodeled Louie's room. It was repainted and carpeted, and they had bought new furniture. Viv remembered how her mother, for months, had insisted on leaving his room exactly as it had been the day Louie ran away to N.C. with that no-good druggie girlfriend, in hope that he'd change his mind and come back.

Now the door stood ajar, and the room had the sterile, unused look of a "guest bedroom" – too-stiff comforter covering the bed, chintz curtains in an anemic flower print hanging dully on the windows. The rest of the house was meticulously in order, hand towels in the bathrooms folded, plump and expectant, dishes washed and put away in their cupboards. She knew her mother had cleaned before they had left on the road trip, "because no one likes to come home to a dirty house," she could hear her saying. Vivienne took a big breath and sighing slightly exasperatedly, filled herself a glass of water from the sink.

She supposed she'd start cleaning out the basement first. Descending the wooden steps hesitantly in the dark, she felt around for the string attached to the bare bulb that hung over the Ping-Pong table cluttered with boxes of old dishes and silverware and stacks of folded laundry, her father's white tee-shirts and underwear still smelling faintly of dryer sheets.

Viv pushed up her sleeves and, hands on hips, surveyed the unfinished basement piled high with junk. Momentarily she felt overwhelmed by the immensity of the project. This was going to be too much of an undertaking on her own. Damn Gavin. A strange feeling gnawed at her stomach, the feeling that something wasn't right and never would be the same again.

She picked a corner and dove in. There were innumerable boxes of clothes piled on top of the old Zenith, the antiquated microwave oven giant enough to roast a toddler, Aunt Edie's steamer trunks with their faint stench of naphthalene, craft supplies, the fake Christmas tree nobody really liked, camping stuff, tools, skis. The people at Goodwill were going to have a field day, she chuckled. Viv stalwartly rummaged through Christmas decorations, thumbed mildewed issues of National Geographic, and rifled through Grandpa's Navy duffel bag without much idea of exactly what she was accomplishing. Then she noticed out of the corner of her eye, a misshapen lump covered by a dry cleaning bag. Stepping around a few gallon tins of exterior paint, she lifted the plastic.

She sucked in a quick breath and her eyes widened. It was the half-furnished dollhouse she had begged for and never finished decorating. Her dad had put in the electricity. A lonely miniature Tiffany style lamp hung in the middle of an empty room where a dining room table was once supposed to go. Casting her eyes down, she remembered how she had capriciously abandoned fixing up the dollhouse not long after she received it, deeming the two-story Victorian – to which her dad had painstakingly affixed each wooden-roof tile – too babyish. It had been her father's one attempt at trying to "bond" with his younger daughter.

Behind the dollhouse were the boxes of their toys. Oh my, Viv thought, her lips twisting into a melancholic half-smile. The Yahtzee game. Part of the plot to convince Louie that math could be fun. She laughed aloud remembering the idiotic way her mom would yell "Yaaaaaaaahttttzeeeee" as she'd shake up the dice all those rainy afternoons they'd be forced to play.

Viv knew she should stop opening the boxes, but she couldn't. With Pandora's curiosity she kept on, daring herself to remember. The Viewmaster, Care Bears, Lite-Brite, the stoned-eyed Glow Worm that guarded her sleep, Louie's Star Wars figures. How she'd beg Louie to "play Ewoks" with her, to paint her nose with brown mascara like Wicket and climb around the dining room set she imagined was their forest.

In the next box were baby clothes, hers and Louie's – blue and pink tiny outfits and frilly socks she couldn't fit over two of her fingers if she tried. Her mother had always tried to dress them well, buying expensive smocked dresses Viv would grow out of months later, specialized shoes for Louie's flat feet, hair ribbons to match every outfit she had. Why did her mother save these clothes, why didn't she give them all away? After all, Louie had two boys.

Like an archaeological dig, the clothes got smaller and smaller as she delved deeper into the container. At the very bottom were a pink rattle and a baby footprint on a piece of paper from St. Mary's Hospital. The paper read "Vivienne Clarice Reed. Six pounds Eight ounces." It was hers. She swallowed hard, her eyes brimming with tears. A drop of snot fell from all-of-a-sudden runny nose. How happy her mother must have been that day ... did she ever imagine the pain her children would later cause? Memories flew back at her, swirling in her mind – all the temper tantrums she'd pulled, all the name-calling and the fights with her brother. What a selfish, spoiled daughter she was. Viv was always somewhat ashamed of how poorly she had treated her mother as a child, everything she had taken for granted during her adolescence, unappreciative of the sacrifices she'd made. However she had never really let it get to her, suppressing the feeling with the vague notion that one day she and mom would sit down, chat, become life-long friends and skip along the beach together arm-in-arm like some commercial for douche or international flavored coffees.

She rubbed her nose on the back of her hand and exhaled. Maybe she'd call Gavin. Maybe not. He had no soul, never lamented the loss of his childhood, never experienced the burden of guilt attached to an Irish Catholic upbringing. It was as if he had sprung fully grown from the head of some capitalist god, fully clothed in his two piece Armani suit and brandishing a Wall St. Journal.

Viv kept going through the last boxes, almost frantic now, ripping through cardboard lettered "my things" in her mother's careful hand. In them were her yearbooks, scrawled on by friends she'd never hear mother talk about. She flipped through the pages scribbled with in-jokes Viv would never understand. There were letters tied into packets with twine, a "my favorite Beatle is Paul" pin, a dried-up and crumbling corsage, a picture of her with a boy who wasn't Dad, an empty bottle of wine. What did these things mean to her? Who was she?

Viv began to cry in earnest, wrenching sobs that doubled her over. She knew nothing about mother. She did not know her and never would. Never asked questions, never found out. She was always Mom, later "Mother," spoken with a sneer, the detestable embodiment of authority and oppression of her rebellious teen years ... her mother was never a woman to her, never a person, a girl, a beautiful girl with a dreamy gaze in photos taken long before even Louie was born.

The words "irretrievably lost" echoed in her head. Her breath was coming in hysterical gasps as she cried harder and harder. Get a grip, get a grip, Viv inwardly pleaded. "Stop it, stop it! Would you want someone to see you like this?" she reprimanded herself in vain. Sitting back on her heels, she bawled like a baby, rocking back and forth, wishing there was someone to hold her and tell her it was going to be okay. A moment passed and she rubbed her eyes with her fist, trying to breathe steadily. "What's gone and what's past help should be past grief," she recited, remembering a line from some play by Shakespeare, assuring herself with each repetition. "What's gone and what's past help should be past grief."

And with a stiff upper lip, she marched upstairs and unrolled two plastic garbage bags from underneath the sink. In them she threw all the Viewmaster reels, the broken tie-fighter, Strawberry Shortcake and her fruit-scented friends, the Legos, the pinafores and pants and tiny Mary Janes, Mom's scrapbooks and record sleeves, and unceremoniously hauled them out to the curb. The rest of the evening she spent upstairs. But before Viv left that night to go back to the city, she stopped at the edge of the driveway, and rummaging through one of the bags, found the plastic baby rattle and stuck it in her purse. Just in case things with Gavin wound up working out.




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Copyright©2001 by Rhiannon Brown.

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