ONCE HEAVEN IS DONE WITH GRANDMA, WE'D LIKE HER BACK,
My daughter had written that in the guest book at my mother's funeral, the kind of assumptive yet incongruent thing a teenager comes up with. But seeing my mother again, hearing her explain how this "dead" world worked, how she was called back to people by their memories of her-well, maybe Maria was onto something.
The glass storm of Miss Thelma's house had passed; I'd had to squeeze my eyes shut to make it stop. Shards of glass poked in my skin and I tried to brush them free, but even that seemed to require great effort.
I was weakening, withering. This day with my mother was losing its light.
"Am I going to die? " I asked.
"I don't know, Charley. Only God knows that."
"Is this heaven?"
"This is Pepperville Beach. Don't you remember?"
"If I'm dead ... If I die ... do I get to be with you?"
She grinned. "Oh, so now you want to be with me."
Maybe that sounds cold to you. But my mother was just being my mother, a little funny, a little teasing the way she'd be had we spent this day together before she'd died. She was also justified. So many times, I had chosen not to be with her. Too busy. Too tired. Don't feel like dealing with it. Church? No thanks. Dinner? Sorry. Come down to visit? Can't do it, maybe next week.
You count the hours you could have spent with your mother. It's a lifetime in itself.
She took my hand now. After Miss Thelma's, we simply walked forward and the scenery changed and we eased through a series of brief appearances in people's lives. Some I recognized as my mother's old friends. Some were men I barely knew, men who had once admired her: a butcher named Armando, a tax attorney named Howard, a flat-nosed watch repairman named Gerhard. My mother spent only a moment with each, smiling or sitting in front of them.
" So they're thinking about you now? " I said. "Mmm, " she said, nodding.
"You go everywhere you're thought of?"
"No," she said. "Not everywhere."
We appeared near a man gazing out a window. Then another man in a hospital bed.
"So many," I said.
"They were just men, Charley. Decent men. Some were widowers."
"Did you go out with them?"
"Did they ask?"
"Why are you seeing them now?"
"Oh, a woman's prerogative, I guess."
She placed her hands together and touched her nose, hiding a small smile.
"It's still nice to be thought about, you know."
I studied her face. There was no doubting her beauty, even in her late seventies, when she had taken on a more wrinkled elegance, her eyes behind glasses, her hair-once the blue-black of midnight-now the silver of a cloudy afternoon sky. These men had seen her as a woman.
But I had never seen her that way. I had never known her as Pauline, the name her parents had given her, or as Posey, the name her friends had given her; only as Mom, the name I had given her. I could only see her carrying dinner to the table with kitchen mitts, or carpooling us to the bowling alley.
"Why didn't you marry again?" I asked.
"Charley." She narrowed her eyes.
"No. I'm serious. After we grew up-weren't you lonely?"
She looked away.
"Sometimes. But then you and Roberta had kids, and that gave me grandkids, and I had the ladies here and-oh, you know, Charley. The years pass."
I watched her turn her palms up and smile. I had forgotten the small joy of listening to my mother talk about herself.
"Life goes quickly, doesn't it, Charley?"
"Yeah," I mumbled.
"It's such a shame to waste time. We always think we have so much of it."
I thought about the days I had handed over to a bottle. The nights I couldn't remember. The mornings I slept through. All that time spent running from myself.
"Do you remember-" She started laughing. "When I dressed you as a mummy for Halloween? And it rained?"
I looked down. "You ruined my life." Even then, I thought, blaming someone else.
"You should eat some supper," she said.
And with that, we were back in her kitchen, at the round table, one last time. There was fried chicken and yellow rice and roasted eggplant, all hot, all familiar, dishes she'd cooked for my sister and me a hundred times. But unlike the stunned sensation I'd felt earlier in this room, now I was agitated, unnerved, as if I knew something bad was coming. She glanced at me, concerned, and I tried to deflect her attention.
"Tell me about your family," I said.
"Charley," she said. "I've told you that stuff."
My head was pounding.
"Tell me again."
And so she did. She told me about her parents, both immigrants, who died before I was born. She told me about her two uncles and her crazy aunt who refused to learn English and still believed in family curses. She told me about her cousins, Joe and Eddie, who lived on the other coast. There was usually one small anecdote that identified each person. ("She was deathly afraid of dogs." "He tried to join the Navy when he was fifteen.") And it seemed critical now that I match the name with the detail. Roberta and I used to roll our eyes when she launched into these stories. But years later, after the funeral, Maria had asked me questions about the family who was related to whom-and I struggled. I couldn't remember. A big chunk of our history had been buried with my mother. You should never let your past disappear that way.
So this time, I listened intently as my mother went through each branch of the tree, bending back a finger for every person she recounted. Finally, when she finished, she pushed her hands together, and the fingers-like the characters intertwined.
"Annnyhow," she half sang.
"That was-" "I missed you, Mom."
The words just spilled out of me. She smiled, but she didn't answer. She seemed to consider the sentence, gathering my intent, as if pulling in a fisherman's net.
Then, with the sun setting into whatever horizon of whatever world we were in, she ticked her tongue and said, "We have one more stop to make, Charley."
For One More Day Mitch Albom, 2006