My mother surrenders her jewels. She empties three purple velvet sacks on my bed. One contains the gold, another the silver—bracelets and pins that had been gifts from me. The final sack contains the glittery antique costume jewelry she bought as a young working girl in the 1940s.
My parents are up from Florida for the summer. Having sold their northern residence, they are finding the unloading of tchotchkes and bibelots liberating.
Until they can figure out what they want to do for the rest of their lives, they are renting a house five minutes from me. It is just the right size, with a brick patio out back surrounded by rhododendrons that bloom in every imaginable color—a detail probably more important to me than to them, as they were in flower when I previewed the property.
I’m thinking about selling all that jewelry to buy a farmhouse table I’d been coveting. That’s what happens when you come into a windfall—it makes you lust for more.
My parents appear happy in their summer rental. Tiny, the cat, has won their affection, and they are falling in love with the woman who owns the house, away for the summer. My parents knew right away that Alicia was a writer because she left them a five-page letter with instructions about the house, the cat, the mail.
She has asked them to go through her mail and weed out the junk and forward the important stuff to her. My father has seen that she supports various environmental causes, and he says he is falling in love with her because she reminds him of me.
My father compares it to the 1940s detective story, “Laura,” in which the detective falls in love with the eponymous murder victim, based on what he re-creates of her life.
My mother has been reading Alicia’s travel journals.
Perhaps I was attracted to the house because Alicia’s Persian rugs and vintage oak furniture were the same style as mine. From a few black-and-white photos of her in frames on various desk and tabletops, she looks to be about the same size as me, with the same coloring. Her tiny wire-rimmed glasses are like a pair I own, and even some of the clothes she has left behind in the closets are like the clothes I wear. A flute and music stand in the living room are not too dissimilar from what I have, and there, in the dining room, is the farmhouse table I have been coveting.
There are differences, of course. She has a huge hunk of cheddar cheese in her refrigerator—I would never have such a huge hunk of cheese. Maybe someone gave her the cheese and she left it for my parents—that’s the kind of thing I would do.
She has stenciled geese on the walls of her bathroom—there are owls on my bathroom walls. She has one son.
My father loves her eclectic CD collection.
My mother says her kitchen is stocked just the way mine is, with sea salt and different teas and teapots.
Alicia’s brother just happens to be my boss. It was pure coincidence that I found his sister’s place through the university housing office.
He told me her story, how she travelled to Greece, met a man she fell in love with. They married and she bought a house for them. They had a child, but then, apparently, the marriage did not work out because of his drinking. And so she left him and the house and came back with the boy.
She has worked at my job in the past—before her brother became the editor—and has written several novels she has not sold. My boss says they didn’t sell because they were written in a Victorian style. He says that if she wrote her own life story, she could sell a million copies.
For the summer, she has gone to visit her son who spent the academic year in Japan. He is 15.
I have told my mother that it isn’t right to read her travel journals. That is my biggest fear about leaving my parents alone in my house: that my mother will read my journals. “It isn’t right,” I emphasize.
I imagine myself as Alicia, playing my flute into the night, or sitting on the porch rocker in my nightgown, watching the fireflies as Tiny purrs on my lap. I wish I weren’t allergic to cats. I dream about going off to Greece, or Japan or other destinations, to leave a job and write novels of the heart.
Perhaps I should take the lesson from my mother and give it all away. Perhaps I should burn my unsold novels in the hearth. But I would still have another copy somewhere. It is like giving cuttings from your garden; the more you give away, the more that what you have proliferates.
On Tuesdays I pick up my veggies at the farm. I am inundated with greens—five kinds of lettuce, chicory, endive, Swiss chard, kale, collards, spinach.
After four days of seeing my mother every day since she has arrived, I skip a day. I call the next day to arrange a time I can bring her half the greens.
“What?” says my mother. “You weren’t worried about what we did yesterday?”
“No. Why would I worry?”
She tells me about all the shopping she did. She tells me how she went to my favorite stores, but they were not her cup of tea. Even still, my father grew angry because of all the time she spent in my favorite stores that were not her cup of tea. My mother can talk forever about the minutiae of her life. I try to get off the phone.
My mother tells me that Alicia has tennis rackets and other sporting equipment in her closets.
“She does all that exercise, but she doesn’t eat salad. She should be eating salad.”
“How do you know she’s not eating salad?”
“Because I have looked everywhere and I cannot find a salad spinner.”
“Maybe she uses another method to dry her lettuce.”
“I tried that last night. I used two towels, but the lettuce was still wet.”
“Well maybe Alicia’s standards for the dryness of her lettuce are not as strict as yours.”
“I’m going to buy her a present. I’m going to use my coupon for Bed Bath and Beyond and buy her a salad spinner that I’ll use while I’m here.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want a salad spinner. I’m sure she would have one if she wanted one.” I remind my mother that she has told me Alicia does not have a microwave oven. This is obviously the way she chooses to live.
“Well, I need to have a salad spinner this summer. I’ll buy a salad spinner and leave it at your house for the winter.”
I am wondering how I can manage to take a look at Alicia’s travel journals.
I invite my parents along to a seafood restaurant on the river that I am to review. While we’re eating, my mother takes a New York Times full-page ad from her bag, unfolds it and lays it out on the table.
“What do you think?”
It is an ad for a winter coat. It is the middle of summer.
“What do I think about what?”
She sighs. “I just told you the other night. I have fabric I want to make into a coat for you. You were supposed to pick out a pattern. You don’t even remember.”
“I do remember. You just told me the other night. Who has had time to pick out a pattern?”
“Well, so don’t you like the coat?”
“It’s a nice coat but how does it close?”
“It doesn’t close—you just wrap it.”
“I need a coat with buttons.”
“But this one looks so nice.”
“It looks nice, but it gets cold in the winter. I can’t wear a coat that doesn’t button.”
“You can wear a suit underneath.”
“I don’t wear suits.”
“You can wear layers, then.”
“It’s totally impractical to have a winter coat with no buttons.”
“You have other coats that have buttons.”
My father pulls out the floor plans for their new house. At least they are a diversion to the waiter who might suspect I’m writing a review. My father starts telling me where their furniture will go. My mother disagrees on every choice. They are arguing over the furniture placement, and I zone out, taking in the ambience and decor and making notes on my pad.
“She’s not even listening to you,” my mother tells my father.
“I’m working,” I say.
My mother picks up a little tin of salt on the table. “I don’t like the way they do the salt.”
I’m thinking about a word to describe the fake fireplace.
“You should put that in your review.”
“I’m not going to focus on the salt presentation.”
“I read reviews,” she says. “They say, ‘my dining companion said…’”
I tell my parents we have to order everything—three appetizers, three entrees, three desserts. My mother says it’s too much food. “We’ll have to ask for doggie bags.”
In the end, all the plates get licked clean.
“The food was awful,” I say. “And the portions, so small.”
The joke is a family ritual; still my mother laughs.
She invites me for dinner the next night. I cannot think of a single excuse, and so I wind up going.
I go through everything in the kitchen. The dishes, I note, are not what I’d pick out. The salad bowl is nothing like mine. Only six of Alicia’s cookbooks are also in my collection. Okay, so we’re not doppelgangers.
Then I walk into the living room and see the book of flute music, the flutes under the electronic piano, the flute music on CD.
It is eerie.
My mother tells me the journals were on a table next to the chair. She says that Alicia must have put them there because she wanted my mother to read them.
I go upstairs to the bedroom. The journals are not on a table, but stacked in the bookshelf next to the chair. I slip them out of their places. The bindings are sturdy, with a picture of a celestial body on the cover—just like mine.
I carefully open the page.
The writing is tiny. She is in a cafe in Holland, feeling uncomfortable by herself, writing in her book. Nah, not like me. I’ve never been to Holland.
I bring the journals down to my mother. “So have you read both?”
“Yes,” she admits. “But there’s nothing personal in them. It’s just about her travels.”
“Can I take them home to read?”
The next day my mother calls to tell me every store she went to, everything she bought, how much everything cost.
“Now that we’re so close, you’re going to get a lot of these nuisance calls,” she tells me.
“You’re supposed to say, ‘you’re not a nuisance.’”
The next day, my parents need to drive to Newton to my father’s old doctor to get his pacemaker checked. My mother is so excited, because they will be passing Costco.
“Do you want anything at Costco?”
“Are you sure?”
When they return, she invites me over to see what they’ve bought me. “It’s much nicer than Alicia’s,” my mother says.
It’s the farmhouse table, I’m thinking. My mother presents me with a set of blank journals.
At the end of the summer, my parents pack the car for their return to Florida. My mother has the extra salad spinner on her lap. As they back out of the driveway, the wheels slide down the apron and thump onto the asphalt. I see their heads bob and already I miss them so much.
About the author:
Ilene Dube’s personal essays, fiction, and poetry have been published in Atticus Review, Huffington Post, Kelsey Review, The Grief Diaries, and U.S. 1 Summer Fiction. She writes a weekly arts feature for Philadelphia Public Media and is a contributing editor to Urban Agenda, Princeton Magazine, and U.S. 1 Newspaper. For 20 years she was arts and features editor for the Princeton Packet newspaper group, during which time she won first-place awards from the New Jersey Press Association and Suburban Newspapers of America.