Look at that robin! If you were here, watching him with me, we would say how funny birds are when they walk. We’d remember our old house, and the lawn, and the robins hopping on it, and the gold finches darting by. Nothing has mattered to me much since those days, yet I take pleasure in watching this robin.
You might not understand this—well, you might, but there’s some who wouldn’t—even if I tell the whole story. And there’s the problem: the whole story. I don’t know where to begin.
In the end I left your father.
It was spring. The kind of spring that’s cold, with sharp winds and ice still packed along the edge of the woods. Your father, you will remember, always felt that if it was springtime, we should forego fires in the fireplace and not light the kerosene heater. He had his theories, and nothing was going to come between him and them.
I wasn’t a young woman then. I was tired, my bones ached, I was stiff as a board getting out of bed in the morning, I didn’t look forward to the day in the way I used to. Everything seemed just a little too hard. What I liked was some comfort somewhere: a warm bath, a cup of tea, a fire going in the living room at the end of the day, maybe even a new fleece sweater, the kind they sell at Reny’s for $20 but which cost $60 in the catalogs. Going to Reny’s, that’s what I liked. Doing something a little different.
You remember the house. Those small, pretty rooms. The way the thresholds were worn down in the middle from two centuries of feet stepping on them. It’s easy enough to heat rooms like that, that’s how come they are so small. People didn’t need big rooms long ago.
I grew up not needing much. You, on the other hand, needed more. You weren’t raised to want, you were not a fussy girl, but there was more in the world, and you saw it.
We used to argue, your father and I, about whether to let you do something. He didn’t see why you needed to get more education. I wanted you to be happy; you cannot imagine how much I wanted that, although you may not believe me after what happened. I would sit watching you at the kitchen table doing your math homework, your head bent low over your notebook, your hair the color of lion’s fur, falling on either side of your face—and I’d wonder if there was enough in the world I could give you to let you know the weight of my love.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At the end, when I left your father, it had been a long time since you sat at the kitchen table doing your math. A long time since you lived in that house. The spring was cold: I could have lit the fire myself in the living room, but then I’d have had to listen to his anger: Why’d you go and do that, Hildred. How many times have I told you. The kind of anger that made my heart beat too fast and a wave of darkness come up in my mind. It was easier just to take the cold than argue about it.
And then I was able to do something about it. You would have been amazed. One day, when your father was out in the barn in his workroom, I put some things in an old duffle bag: my slippers, a few books, my nightgown and robe, a few pairs of pants, my new fleece sweater, shoes, and the photo albums. I hauled the duffle bag out to the car, pushed it in the front seat and got in behind the wheel, holding my breath, waiting a moment before I turned on the ignition. I knew the sound would bring your father out of the barn in a hurry to see where I was going. I looked over my shoulder at the house I’d lived in since before you were born and loved all these years. Then I started the car and left. I didn’t look to see if your father came out of the barn. I drove very fast down the driveway and turned left, away from town, and drove until I got here, on the far side of Searsport, where I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t cry, but I imagined a different life and that sustained me.
That was the end, but every story has a middle. Where you feel the tide turning.
In those years the fishermen used to shoot seals for bait. There weren’t any laws yet that protected them. The seals got tangled in the seine nets, and the fishermen argued that was a good reason for killing them. It used to make you cry, the way those kinds of things make young girls cry.
How can they shoot them?
To tell you the truth, I had accepted things like that for so long I didn’t question it. People drowning kittens in burlap bags with stones in the bottom. Men shooting seals. Some man hauling off and striking a woman for talking back to him or cheating on him or expressing her wishes over and against his. A man hitting a child; a woman hitting a child, spanking they called it.
Honey, they just do. The seals break the nets, and they’re a nuisance.
I would be sitting in the kitchen knitting when you came home from school, and you would bang the door behind you, coming in to tell me something you had learned in social studies class, an injustice as real to you as seal killing. I listened, astonished, because there was so much I didn’t know.
My mother was a great knitter and passed it on to me. You must remember that I knit all your father’s socks, and my own, and yours, as well as hats, scarves, and blankets. My mother, as you know, died when I was 18. I wanted to teach you how to knit, but you were busy with homework. Or didn’t want to learn. Mother-to-daughter had bound whole communities for generations, and father-to-son. But I could see you would unravel that legacy.
Nothing I had taken for granted, or your father had taken for granted, made sense to you. You wouldn’t go duck hunting with him. Or deer hunting either. Or fishing with hand lines for flounder. And because of you, I stopped going with him. I said I would stay home with you, although you were old enough to stay by yourself.
My refusal had a different coinage to it than yours. Yours he could accept, for the time being. But mine was treason. You know, all these years later I understand his hurt. I wasn’t willing to accompany him anymore, and it must have felt as though I didn’t want him. And honestly, although I thought I stopped going fishing and hunting with him because you had awakened in me a distaste for killing wild things, I was glad of the excuse not to be in his company. Without your meaning to, you also awakened in me a distaste for unkindness in any form—killing, hitting, hard words, even the silences he inflicted on you, on me, as punishment. And so the rift began, like the crack across thawing ice.
That’s when you began to want things we never thought to give you. Not things that most girls want but books and trips to Belfast and Rockland to museums and libraries. Once we even drove all the way to Portland, and I could see you were happy there. I could never be happy in a place like that, all those buildings shoved up against each other and everything so busy. I like a small town, the way my mother lived and I’ve lived. But you were filled with happiness like a balloon with air. I see you still in my mind’s eye. How pretty and fresh you looked in a striped shirt dress with a wide belt, and your old plaid jacket over it, and your first pair of pumps we had bought in Rockland, and your hair in a knot at the back of your head, the hair coming loose. I thought: my God she’s beautiful. She’s beautiful, and she’s meant for something. She’s going to do something with her life.
Just finishing high school was not enough for you. I was thinking you would be a nurse or a teacher because you were kind to people and didn’t like to see them suffer. And maybe your father could have been satisfied with that. There was the hospital in Rockland; you could have worked there; or taught in the local school. You must know by now that even when he went on and on about women getting an education, and what did they need to go and do that for, he really just wanted to keep you nearby.
But you didn’t want to be a nurse or a teacher. You wanted to go to college and study political science, you said. You had a defiant look by then, telling us. You and your father fought about this, about your going away to college, or going to college at all. I stayed out of it, to my sorrow.
You volunteered with the Red Cross in Brunswick after high school and went out on calls to help people after a fire or during a storm. You told me, sitting in the kitchen, looking peaked from lack of sleep, that you liked—loved, you said—to hand someone a cup of coffee and wrap the children in a blanket, to sit with them in the long night. You were asking me did I understand. Your face that morning was tender, soft as a baby’s, looking toward me as though to get your bearings.
You might like to know I’m volunteering with the Red Cross now. I go once a week, on Tuesdays, and help with logistics; I took the training, and now I keep the trucks stocked and everything ready to go in case of an emergency. On September 11, 2001, we got the word shortly before 9:00 a.m. After that, hundreds of people called, wanting to give blood or go to New York, or donate something. I thought about you continually, imagined you might even be among the workers who began to toil over the site to find people. I pictured you, with your hair tied back and your small, serious face.
I know you are farther away now than New York. You are in some country, but which one? You work in a refugee center or an orphanage. I read the papers the way my mother did during the war, and I see all the places where you might be. Africa. Afghanistan.
We never talk, your father and me. My only fear is that if you decide to get back in touch with us, he won’t tell you where I am. He’ll punish me that way, act like he doesn’t know my whereabouts.
You can’t forgive him, and he can’t forgive you. And you thought I sided with him, because I didn’t say anything when you told us you were going away to college—that you had applied and been accepted without telling us. I wasn’t home when he hauled off and struck you. I like to think I would have protected you and left with you. But that is what we’re not sure about, isn’t it?
There are days now when I wake up, forgetting that you’re gone. Even that my mother is dead and that I’m living in a rented room with a kitchenette. That I’m not in my own house with the bedroom windows overlooking the orchard, with the wide board floors and the door with a latch that makes a little click when you open or close it. I wake up and for a moment everything is in place. You are with me and safe, and my mother, who never met you, is here too. And then I remember where I am now, in this small room with its one window and a maple bureau from the Salvation Army, and that I’m lying on a narrow iron frame bed, and that I don’t know where you are, and that the yearning I feel is a thirst that cannot be slaked.
Now let me tell you about the beginning. It is a summer evening, with the light still in the sky. I am a girl, four or five, in my mother’s house. No shadows have ever fallen over me, to my knowledge. Later I will see that my father’s anger and absences did cast shadows, long ones, and that my mother’s meekness did not help fit me for the world. But at that time: I am a girl and I am sitting in the kitchen with my mother. Her hand rests on the table’s edge, and her head is inclined toward the window. She is watching the last of the swallows as they dip over the field, catching mosquitos before they retire for the night to the barn. The light of the setting sun pours across the field.
Hard to imagine, she says, still looking out. Hard to imagine there’s a war on.
I know of course that we are at war. We listen to the news on the radio in the evenings, and she reads the newspaper and tells my father and me what she’s read. My father was a fisherman like your father and other men who get up before dawn and are dozing in their chairs right after supper. But he did listen to her. We hang the black shades over our windows at night, and my job is to squeeze the coloring into the margarine to make it look like butter. My mother knits blankets for the soldiers and rolls bandages with the Red Cross. I know there’s a war.
But on this warm summer evening when she says this, I feel a great heaviness in my chest as though my ribs have been compressed. The light that is emptying itself across the field is pink now, and the tops of grasses shimmer in a purple haze, and the swallows swoop, turning their pale undersides towards us. I look at my mother; she is wearing khaki pants and a man’s shirt with the sleeves rolled up, and her hair is tucked behind her ears, and she is absorbed in her thoughts, her narrow face tilted toward the window. I recognize, little as I am, that she is beautiful—oh, as I saw that you were!—and thoughtful, with a look of consternation as she holds up her image of war against our summer evening.
Something enters me then—a detonation in my chest that signals the awakening of care for the world. Then she turns to me and reaches across the table to touch my cheek.