Vigil

As a parent, I revel in my farsightedness. I step far back to capture all the dimensions that my last born lives in.  He is seven, almost eight, and has his father’s commune with mathematics. Momma, when I close my eyes, the numbers are purple and orange and they dance. He recites phrases or whole dialogues from books and movies, giggling privately while massaging them into some rarified neural network. And he is a creature of process, intoxicated by the laborious shredding, soaking, spreading, and tamping of papermaking, the heavy screw-like turn of a trowel through loam and the mid drift of an occasional worm to prepare the ground for planting vegetables, anything requiring more than four steps. Momma, when we get home from Sunday school, can we illustrate the Hanukkah process? he asks, replaying in his head his teacher’s recitation of prayers, the ordered lighting of Menorah candles, dreidels and the last drip-drip-drip of wax as the light sputtered out. He putters. Having always been closer to the ground than the rest of the family and possessing an acute sense of the precious, he detects and collects small treasures on the street, in the yard, or the corner of the basement – a garden rock with pink flecks of quartz, a fingertip’s length of coiled copper wire from an old VCR, the ferned leaf of a weed tree. Our preparatory phrase before any physical activity is Alexander, do you want me to hold what’s in your hand? Else we wait to discover his treasures in the lint trap of the clothes dryer. Other things that I miss, he insistently brings to show and tell me.

When I step back, I see that he must be taller than I was at seven. Then, I had English under my belt but not yet used it in any public, spontaneous way. I had a plan – that when school started again, I would first focus on just answering questions first, not starting conversations. That could come later, after more data gathering.

In mid-summer, I stood in front of the Ross’ gate late in the morning with my mother. Though no one had said it, I knew not to wander far away, but there were at least cars to watch going by, and roses on the arbor to smell and caress. A girl my size came walking down Lincoln Drive, crossing over to our corner. She was with her mother, both carrying identical bobbed helmets of straight, light brown hair. She looked familiar.

Hi! She waved and smiled, showing a neat, narrow gap between her front teeth.

I recognized her from school, but didn’t tell my mother. I thought I smiled, but no sound came out. I felt my mother jab me in the back, and saw her raise her hand to wave back. I counted fifteen seconds until they passed. She said hello and you can’t even wave back or say anything. Such a simple thing. That was rude and stupid. She repeated this to my father and my brothers, but not to the Rosses.

She likewise monitored and calibrated my possessions. My backpack was too full and heavy; I didn’t need all those books at the same time. She counted new scuffs on my shoes the day they appeared. One day I tore across the school playground in wild zig-zags and did not notice until recess ended that my bracelet was gone; my birthday bracelet in delicate gold tone with Gemini inscribed in cursive. My heart sank with disappointment, but palpitated in anticipation of her rebuke; she noticed the minute she came in the house. She did not seem to see as sharply around my brothers, or their possessions were less visible.

In our new house, she was a night crawler, patrolling the second floor as if for enemies along a dangerous perimeter. For many years, my parents slept in separate rooms. His snoring is too loud, she said, so she took up residence in the room next to mine. In the small hours, her socked feet creaked first to land on her wooden floor, then on hall floorboards beneath the carpeting, then into my room. She creaked around the bed, the ironing table, the desk, and the dresser counter, efficiently repositioning a folded shirt, an open notebook, a jewelry box. I mapped her movements by radar. She pat-pat-patted my comforter, smoothing out dents from my feet in the far corner and straightening the undersheet into a crisp border over my neck. I lay stiller than still, eyes closed, breathing deeply in a sleep rhythm, looking for Rich’s house. If I sank into the mattress I could barely feel her hands through the comforter and the added buffer of my inert body.

In Rich’s house, it was possible to slip into another dimension where the ordinary furniture melted away and all colors swirled to a dark, deep scarlet. On this other plane, the house had only one room. Its floor was covered from wall to wall with a giant, round bed, tufted in soft velvet and scattered with body sized pillows and throws. The whole family slept on this bed in a spoke pattern, each burrowing into his or her pocket of mattress around the perimeter. The center was reserved for gatherings, when they would share food or read out loud.

When we were awake, my mother patrolled the rest of the house, after the dishes were washed, Jeopardy! was over and the TV turned over to my brothers. She handled the family finances, poring over savings, checking accounts, and receipts neatly packed in an accordion folder at night. She picked up wisps of lint and straightened sofa pillows. Wherever a book was left open, she closed it and moved it to an acceptable spot on a table. Because she wiped the kitchen floor by hand with a rag every day, and checked on knick-knacks on the mantel and shelves regularly, she could document changes in our habits, and let us know it. From week to week, she mentally logged who ate which foodstuffs and how quickly, so that she could tell me how to adjust our grocery list. On weekends, she had me dust and vacuum, but trailed behind to pounce on the details I missed.

She patrolled me, where there was much more work to be done. Like the insistent blink of a hazard light, she marked with a scowl and complaint whenever a new pimple appeared or if I scratched at an old one, if I wore the same outfit two days in a row, if my hair was not combed or covering my eyes. Why couldn’t I be more like my girl cousins? She put a bottle of astringent on my bureau for the oily patches on my face, and moisturizer for the snake skin on my hands and knees. She did not ever have these problems as a girl. She was disturbed that reading so much would make me anti-social, that I did not smile, that I was too rude or too soft when I did speak. But mostly she was wounded and coldly angry that I did not help her in running the house unless ordered to.

My mother’s face was nearly always furrowed, except when guests were in the house. Even her slumber was disturbed by all the worries induced by her watchfulness. There was little reserve left for her to see or worry about the things that worried me.

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