(from At Home With the Pumpkin King)
Our farmhouse had a number of staircases, between three and five, and twelve rooms, or three times as many, depending on whether you were scouting beds for relatives, renting out, dusting, hunting for Easter eggs or searching for your car keys at the last possible moment.
The critic in the corner -- see him there, he holds his hand over his mouth because his breath is bad -- he says, “Here we are indulging in magical realism.”
Magical realism my ass*. Anyone who has ever tried to clean such a house will know that I am only telling the truth in the simplest way. And, if I am over-sensitive, it is only because this is how my excellent mother met her end -- at least I think she did -- cleaning this impossible house.
It it conceivable there may have been, in my mother’s vast and comprehensive sanity, a small gap marked ‘housekeeping’. She believed even lunch ought to be accompanied by appetizer and dessert; she regarded the accumulation of dust as a personal failure. She never once allowed herself beans from a can, a jar of sauerkraut.
‘She makes everything herself.’ we say, to praise our mother. But this is a sentence which ought to be reserved for goddesses. Instead we shackle mortal women with it. Little wonder they get tired.
Our mother moved endlessly through the house, sweeping, dusting, washing up, trying to reach every corner, trying to finish before it was time to begin again. A reasonable woman, she expected a reasonable house. But the house, please remember, was from my father’s side of the family and thus prone to fits and manias and, most of all, to frequent self-inflation. Just when she was catching up, the house would sprout another corner, another closet, or even an entire bathroom with a claw-foot tub and a toilet with a unique perspective on the Civil War.
When we got up, when we went to bed, Mother was cleaning, on her hands and knees, or up on a ladder, straining to reach into the corner and vanquish the last bit of dust. But, like a flock of pigeons, the dust only left one place to land on another, surrounding her always, an inch from the tip of her feather duster. I believe the dust loved her, in keeping with the habit it had learned when it was skin of ours.
Meanwhile the roof leaked, a little here and a little there; the horsehair beneath the carpets got wet and stank like a stable. Lustful knick-knacks fucked and gave birth. The pineapples she’d stenciled fell off the vine and rotted sweetly in corners. The daisies in her wallpaper all died.
To every setback she responded with more energy, more bleach, more lemon-scented polish. My father’s helpfulness can be predicted. One day he insisted the drawer went: forks, knives and spoons. The next day, as any idiot knows, it’s knives, forks and spoons. Most of the time he was the kind of guy who’d leave around coffee cans full of his urine but suddenly he’d want to know--why aren’t the spices alphabetized?
My mother remained proud throughout her battles with our mad implacable house, but perhaps the family madness touched her then, through the gap marked ‘housekeeping’. Who makes their own sauerkraut? What’s wrong with store-bought bread?
One night we arrived home to find a note on the table: Dinner in freezer. Scrubbing North Wing guest bath. Back later.
In the freezer our meals were neatly labeled. In the pantry were three pies: a pumpkin, a pecan, a cherry with a lattice crust.
I am ashamed to say we ate for nearly a week before Duncan asked, “What part is the North Wing anyway?”
Karl slammed his glass on the table. “Don’t you get it? She’s gone.”
Father said, “Your mother has never had a sense of direction. She doesn’t mean ‘North’, she means ‘South‘.”
First in teams, then one by one, we searched the house but none of us were able to find her. Really it is astonishing, it is astronomical, how many rooms a house has when your mother is gone.
At the base of the attic stairs we found her silver owl necklace, her wedding ring, a rag and a can of extra-strength Comet. We assumed she’d chosen to end her life and deposit her body in one of the trunks in the attic. A number of our ancestors have done this**.
We lived as best we could, our mad father and his four sons. We grieved and persevered and sometimes, without warning, one of us would stumble upon a room that was absolutely perfectly clean.
Duncan said, “It’s a big old house. Maybe we’re just missing her.” He was already drinking then or else he never would have said something so ludicrous.
Still, there were questions none of us were willing to ask as we sat together at the kitchen table, waiting for Father to scrape another omelet out of the pan. Not one of us, for example, ever asked, “If all of us are sitting here, who is moving furniture and slamming doors upstairs?” We did not question. We sat silently and we ate in tears.
* We ought to mount an anti-discrimination campaign, don’t you think, to call to task those for whom the world is flat and mute, who must therefore look enviously upon our world and call it “magical”. Imagine what we could accomplish, if every levitating aunt just once spoke up?
** This also explains why, despite many stated intentions, no one ever gets around to cleaning the attic.