I don’t understand the purpose of a wake, so I allow for us to be guided into it. Food is pressed into my hands and I think I eat it.
Before I leave for my mother’s house he grips my shoulders and presses a kiss to the place behind my ear. He asks if he should go. I tell him it’s his choice.
He chooses not to.
My mother would smile and her eyes would say I told you so.
I am not sure if words should be spoken, if we should thank everyone for their support during this difficult time. So I say nothing. My uncle hangs back as we stand around my mother’s house after the noise of the mourners has left us. He hangs around for awhile, but sensing our exhaustion, excuses himself. He says he will return tomorrow to help us go through her things. I have no intention of going through anything. I say nothing.
I nod, granting him a reassuring smile. He, like everyone else, will want to report on the authenticity of our grief, so I opt for a small, tight smile. That way he can do with it what he wants.
After he exits I stand in the hall facing the kitchen, my back to the door. This is not my house. It isn’t home. It is my mother’s house. It was her house.
My siblings and I separate, leaving for different parts of the edifice, each to be alone in our grief. My brother heads swiftly to the room that used to be his room, slamming the door. The ring is gone again.
As his room flanks it the air from the door causes the window in the kitchen to rattle. My sister retreats to the guest room down the stairs. When she opens the door to the basement a blast of cool air rushes to greet us; I am momentarily frightened at the idea of visitations from my mothers ghost. But she hasn’t been dead long enough.
I move down the hall, pausing to look at family photos. All of us, separately. The last family photo taken when my sister was still in pull-ups. My mother and I similar with our hair pulled tightly from our faces. My step-father’s grimace that he sincerely believed passed for a smile. My sister looks at something off camera—in the general direction, but the photographer not quite catching her in time. My oldest brother’s teeth are bared, his lips drawn up like the cheshire cat. It is a creepy not-smile. What a smile looks like on the inside. I gaze next at a photo of my mother, thirty years younger. She is squinting in the sunlight her smile large enough to reveal her imperfections; one of her eye teeth overlapping the other ever so slightly. The wrinkle of her nose, the severe arch of her then-dangerously thin brows.
I study the photo, and wonder what she may have been thinking. Before any of us existed, I wonder who she might have been. I wonder, as she wondered, what she might have become without us. Perhaps she would have been great for Broadway. I take the photo from its place on the wall, marvel at the film of dust coating the glass, swiping at the lingering dust on the pale empty space it has made on the ivory wall. It makes no difference; this photo has remained in this space for decades—its absence will not go unnoticed.
The photo travels with me into the kitchen, and I place it gingerly on the counter. Grief, heavy and fierce, strikes me and I place the photo face down. This is not my house.
This house, through husbands, children, graduations, death, has always been my mother’s. Purchased by her father at 17 (her age, not his), she created her life in this house. The things she collected, the important memories—they are all tied to this house. This kitchen is hers. She renovated it a few years ago, and I wonder now why. The wall between the kitchen and dining room was torn down, replaced by a marble topped island. The Dining-Room-That-No-One-Eats-In features a large distressed oak table surrounded by pillowy white chairs. They have never been touched. The kitchen itself is bright, with three hanging lights over the island, and recessed lighting reflecting off of the stone backsplash and tiles.
Unceremoniously I pull the pale tablecloth from the wood, frantically searching. My heart speeds up as my eyes scan the table, searching for it.
In the far corner, hidden from the untrained eye, a chunk of burnt wood. Tiny scrapes from the hot teeth of the comb are all that remain.
Save for the memory. The memory remains.
Rain drips through the weak spot in the ceiling; it can’t be seen from the kitchen, but we can hear the pangs from the cool metal pan as it collects the water. My mother is angry and I wonder if she can hear the water.
The grip on my hair tightens enough to hurt, but I know enough to not cry out.
“Be still,” she commands angrily, and my body tenses. I can smell the heat, feel it before it touches my hair.
I hear my grandmother’s voice before I see her, and I shift to peer down the hall. The scrape of the comb touches my scalp and I cry out in pain.
My mother grips my scalp, the pain of her grip canceling the pain of the burn. She blows firmly on the scrape and tears escape, spilling over my cheeks. My cousin eyes me curiously, and my grandmother hovers with her lips pursed.
Her eyes are stern and she holds my cousin’s hand loosely.
Their hands blur beneath the familiar warmth of tears.
It is my cousins idea to eat the cake. I am aware of Grandmothers demand—after dinner, but my cousin says we should.
And so I do.
Grandmother in her way said nothing and everything.
“You cannot go to dinner with us. You aren’t mature enough.”
My head aches where the comb scratched it, but Grandmother’s words are worse.
When Grandmother drops me off—engine running, I struggle to open the door myself—Mom meets me at the porch. She pulls the barrettes from my hair gingerly.
Presses a kiss to my scalp.
It is an apology of sorts.
We have our own cake for dinner. In my memory it was chocolate. It was stuck under my nails the next morning.
“Happy Birthday,” Mom whispers.
I slept and held that in my memory, the feel of the comb, the weight of the disappointment—and the warmth of her words.