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Just like your father.

It was late on a humid afternoon just after the funeral, and Barbara was limp with fatigue, but she was determined to empty the dresser before giving up. Then that would be one room finished.

Surely, she thought, there is no more dispiriting task than this sorting and ordering of another's existence. All day she had been filled with a sense of trespass, and at each heave and sigh of the floorboards she had expected to hear her mother's high-pitched indignation at the door.

In the end, the dresser wasn't such a bad job. The first three drawers were excessively tidy, like their owner, and she worked quickly and dispassionately, discarding into two cartons--a large one for the Salvation Army, and a smaller one for the garbage.

The bottom drawer, though, was jammed full: a final resting place for plastic bags from stores that had folded long ago. At the back she found a small cash box, its lid warped and corroded.

And inside, layered in wrinkled Christmas wrap, lay the sediment of her mother's life: a handwritten note with instructions for her burial, a bundle of letters with Irish postmarks, and an elegant and expensive engagement ring--no relative of the modest wedding band on the nightstand.

Barbara sat on the bed with the box on her knee, and between sneezes she sifted through the letters. All were addressed to her mother ("Dear Ellen") and signed, "Your loving sister, Kate."

The screen door banged. "Barb?"

"I'm in here," she called, her voice muffled by tissue.

Her brother Matt, overweight and out of breath, leaned against the door frame. "God, it's hot out there." He patted her arm. "Don't cry."

"I'm not crying." She sneezed again. "It's the dust--and the dog hair." She spread the box's contents across the bed. "I found these in the bottom drawer."

He grinned. "What do you think we'll get for this ring?"

She swatted at his hand. "Leave that. Sit here and look at these letters. I still can't take it in. It seems that Ma had a sister back in Ireland--that she had family there. So why did she tell us she was an only child? I don't understand."

He shrugged. "Why did she do anything? I just tried to keep out of her way."

"But aren't you curious?" Barbara picked up a letter she'd set aside. "Listen--this one's from 1950: 'Dear Ellen, I've been writing for so long, and still you don't answer. Will you never forgive me? Have you never taken a wrong step yourself?'

"She says, 'Mother told us you're expecting your second child this month.' And she sent money for a gift. Look, Matt--the old notes are still here in the envelope."

Matt reached for the letter and took off his driving glasses. For a moment the extraordinary eyes--one hazel and one a clear piercing blue--seemed defenseless as a baby's.

He read to the end. "It didn't take much for Ma to turn against you," he said. "I wonder what her sister's crime was. Lying? Talking back?" He got to his feet and stretched. "Well, enough of this. I'd better get started on the basement."

"Wait a minute--there's more." Barbara passed him her mother's hand-written note. "It's a good thing we haven't done anything with the ashes yet. She's to be buried over there--not here with Dad."

The prayers of the funeral service had echoed in the empty church. The mourners were Barbara and Matt--and Mrs. Garvey, who didn't really count. Matt called her "The Newspaper," because no matter what was going on in the church, you'd find Mrs. Garvey there. She preferred weddings, of course, but funerals had their attractions as well: whose slip was showing, whose color was a bit high as he stumbled his way into the pew, whose face was blotched with real tears. What a disappointment we must have been, Barbara thought, attending to the responses like a pair of well-dressed robots.

Mrs. Garvey had pushed her face close to Barbara's, her breath an assault of ancient dentures and a pensioner's diet. "Such a shame," she whispered, "to see no one here today. Did your mother have no family?"

"No, just us." Barbara bent to adjust the strap on her sandal, and inhaled deeply of white shoe polish.

As Father Smith lifted his hand for the final blessing, she bowed her head, but found herself tracing a hopscotch cross on the beige and black linoleum squares. Matt coughed, and she moved closer to take his arm.

"The Lord bless Ellen and keep her." A brief flash of sunlight through stained glass gave the priest a halo of ghostly blue. "The Lord make his face to shine upon her, and give her peace," he said.

We should have been saying that prayer while she was here, Barbara thought. It wasn't peace, but the acid of discontent that had marked their mother's life.

Matt was asleep. An evening thunderstorm had delayed the flight for two hours, and when they finally boarded, Barbara too expected to doze for the trip over the north Atlantic to Dublin. But she was conscious of the funeral urn down in the cargo section, packed among mailbags and bicycles and a drugged sheepdog in a cage. Some homecoming, her mother would say, with her well-honed cynicism.

It was odd, Barbara mused, how their mother's unhappiness appeared to have no real focus. There were random eruptions of rage at Matt, but otherwise Ellen had lived her life in neutral, with none of the highs and lows that define most people's existence. She seemed to believe that your time in this world was something to be gotten through--without drawing too much attention to yourself.

Her house was a case in point. It was bare of ornament, just an assemblage of conventional furniture, burnished to a Presbyterian sheen. Hugh, her husband, had messed it up a bit and left the occasional trace of occupation--a few threads of pipe tobacco, a section of the newspaper folded to the crossword puzzle. But since his death the place had lost any sign of ownership. The rooms suggested a well-maintained, not-too-comfortable B-class hotel.

Ellen saw her children as a constant challenge: unruly, lighthearted people, with none of her innate taste for order. There was so much to monitor: their nutrition, their manners, the state of both their clothing and their souls ("You're not wearing that to church"; "Now, that's a barefaced lie").

It was only with Boots, their black Lab, that she'd softened and relaxed her guard, as if no human could be trusted with the store of pure affection that flowed between them.

Barbara was jolted out of her reverie by the rattle of the drinks cart at her elbow. She ordered Scotch and a bottled water, and nodding toward Matt, she said, "I'll just let him--oh, you're awake."

Matt had the slightly dazed look of the deep sleeper. "Scotch for me, too," he mumbled. "I don't suppose Ma would approve, but a wake is for the survivors, isn't it?" He yawned and raked his hands through thick hair that had faded to a powdery white before he was 30. "I was dreaming of Ma just now, and it was all too real, except for one thing. Ever noticed that about dreams? There'll be that one thing that doesn't quite fit."

Barbara nodded.

"Well, I was 13 again, and she was in full lecture mode (I'd walked the dog, but not long enough), and she said, 'You think you can talk your way out of anything. You're just like your father.' It makes me laugh. Remember what he was like?"

"I have hardly any memories of Dad. He wasn't around much, and when he was he seemed to live in a different dimension from you and me--exempt from Ma's moods. He'd whistle those same tuneless eight bars and go his own way."

"You mean he drank a lot."

"Well, yes, there was that," Barbara said. But if you were 13, I'd have been 11--that was the summer I broke my leg at camp--and by then they pretty well ignored each other. When she started to rant at us, he'd just reach for the car keys."

"Yeah. Remember that time I left my bike in the driveway and he backed over the front wheel in his rush to get out of there?" Matt shook his head. "So, Barbara, how is it we're so well adjusted?"

She snorted. "We are?" She eased her shoes off and lowered the seat back. "I suppose I had an easier time of it. My relationship with Ma could be summed up in one word: appeasement. If I did something that annoyed her, I'd just clean the oven. Nothing cheered her up like the sight of my hands around that can of Easy-Off. Or me cracking open the ironing board, especially after she went back to teaching. It worked every time."

"Weren't we lucky we never ended up in one of Ma's classes?" Matt shuddered. "Funny though, the number of people who rave about her as a teacher, so she must have been good.

"You know, a bartender gets to hear everyone's life story, especially near closing time. 'Wasn't your mother the Mrs. Dolan at Carson Grove School?' they'd say, and I'd think, here it comes. But it was always some affectionate memory."

"I've heard those stories, too--that she was tough but fair."

"Yes, but this was something more. Jim Tracy, the lawyer, told me, 'I'd still be sitting with "the veterans of the last war"--that's what the principal called us--if it weren't for her. I'd failed twice before I got your mother in grade six. And I can still remember the way she sorted it all out for me.'

"He really believes Ma changed his life. 'A bright boy like you,' she said to him one day in the middle of a reprimand. 'I felt I'd been anointed,' Jim said. 'And I had a mission to become that boy she saw.'"

In Dublin Airport the line at the Hertz counter was a Babel of voices: German, French, Italian--the European Community at work. But the line moved swiftly, and within 20 minutes Barbara and Matt had the keys to their reserved Toyota and were making their way through rainy streets to the hotel.

Early the next day Matt picked up the four-lane M4 just outside the city and fell in behind a caravan of tour buses, making the pilgrimage to Ireland's beauty spots on the West Coast.

Much of the morning's drive was a pleasing blur of little towns and low stone fences enclosing open fields in the many shades of green. They crossed into County Leitrim just before lunch.

The travel agent had found them a year-old bungalow to rent just outside Tullymore, and as they approached the village, Barbara said, "I wonder where Ma's family lived. This would have been the way she'd have come home from teachers' college on the weekends."

"It was a long time ago. I'll be surprised if anyone remembers them." Matt pulled in beside the pumps at a gas station.

In the small attached grocery store Barbara bought instant coffee and breakfast staples, and the yawning cashier asked without much interest if she was enjoying her visit. When Barbara said this was her family's home--that her mother, Ellen Foley, had lived in the village in the 1940s, the girl brightened.

"Is that so, now? I never knew them, but there are masses of Foleys in the cemetery. Have you been up there?"

Barbara shook her head. "No, we've just arrived."

The cashier pointed up the hill. "Look--you can see Saint Colman's steeple from our door. And the cemetery is at the back."

"There is one person who might have known your mother," said a young man, shelving boxes of detergent. "Minnie Clarke. She's in her late 80s and blind, but she knows everyone around for 20 miles and 100 years, it seems. Most days you'll find her at the seniors' program in the community center."

The next morning, Barbara phoned the center to arrange a visit, but Minnie was away on a day trip to Galway. A niece had taken her to the matinee of the new Martin McDonagh play.

"But come and have tea with us tomorrow afternoon," the program director said. "Minnie would never forgive me if I let you slip away."

The Tullymore Community Center catered to the full breadth of the life spectrum. In a sunny room on one side of the entrance hall, three elderly men clutching soup cans were being led through a weight-training program. And at the piano on the other side a tiny, birdlike woman played "Robin in the Rain" for a nursery school class. Matt and Barbara had found Minnie Clarke.

"So you're Ellen Foley's children!" Minnie clapped her hands with pleasure and led them slowly down the hall to a lounge at the back of the building.

"Ellen was my best friend from the day we started school together. Your laugh--your inflections," she said, patting Matt on the arm. "There's a hint of your mother there. Do either of you look like her?"

Matt shrugged. Barbara said, "I do, a bit. And Ma used to say I have her thin, fine, hair--a curse, she called it."

"I hope you've inherited her wit." Minnie smiled. "When I think of Ellen," she said, "I mostly remember that lightheaded, nerve-jangled state I'd get into in her company--just weak from laughing, But I'm sure that's no surprise to you."

Barbara wondered if the old lady had their mother mixed up with someone else.

"And oh, but she was a gifted mimic She could do the old monsignor exactly. Her sister Kate and I got into more trouble for giggling in church."

"You knew Kate, too?" Barbara asked.

"More than I cared to, sometimes. She was the bratty, tag-along, younger sister.

"Kate died 10 years ago, but your Uncle Michael--her husband--still lives on the other side of Corry Mountain, and he keeps in touch. You'll meet him at your mother's service," she said. "I know he'll want to be there."

Minnie plucked nervously at the pleats in her skirt. "But it was awkward between us for a long time," she said. "Ellen was just heart-scalded by the business with Kate and Michael. It destroyed that buoyant spirit of hers--overnight, it seemed. So after that--"

"After what, Minnie?"

"Did she never ten you about Michael? I'm sorry then, I shouldn't have said anything." Minnie massaged the high bridge of her nose where her glasses used to rest. "Ah, I'm a terrible old gossip."

"But what happened with Michael and Kate?"

"Well, I don't suppose the story can harm anyone now." Minnie settled back in her chair. "You see, it was Ellen who was engaged to Michael Harte."

It was the summer of 1947, Minnie continued, and Ellen was in her early 30s. "She and Michael were to be married in mid-August, before the school year began, and she was busy with her lesson plans and helping her mother to prepare for the wedding. Unlike Kate, she hadn't had many boyfriends. 'Who'd have predicted if--me, the village wallflower--a bride,' she'd said, laughing. 'Isn't life a great prankster?'

"But in the space of a weekend, the engagement was off," Minnie added. "On Monday morning, Ellen took the bus to Dublin. And she never carne home again."

"Did she tell you what caused the breakup?" asked Barbara.

"Oh, there was no mistaking that. It was so many years ago, but I still remember how she said, 'My own sister,' stumbling over the words, stunned with anger. 'How could they?' Whatever the facts, she blamed Kate especially for the betrayal.

"Then, just a month later, she wrote from Dublin to say she'd married Hugh--your father--and that they were leaving for London." Minnie shook her head. "It was so impetuous, so entirely unlike Ellen. I thought then that she must have been very badly hurt to retaliate this way. Yes, retaliation was what it seemed to me."

Minnie tapped Matt's hand again. "Tell me," she said. "Were they happy together?"

"No," Michael said, "But then nothing pleased Ma, really. We never knew the Ellen you've described, Minnie."

"Poor Ma," said Barbara. "So Kate and Michael got married?"

"Yes, just after Christmas, and they moved to Carrowbeg, to live closer to his family. But they never had children, and I've heard that that was a great disappointment to them."

Matt and Barbara stood in the shade of an ancient willow, among the weathered markers for the generations of Foleys. While they waited, Father Wynne chatted easily with them about the history of the church and the families whose headstones were nearby.

At 10 o'clock the community center's red van pulled up at the cemetery gates and parked in the tall grass at the roadside. The driver helped his passengers from the car and took Minnie's arm. Michael (Barbara guessed it must be Michael) walked slowly behind, sunglasses glinting in the bright light, a tuft of thick white hair lifting in the breeze.

The little group reached the gravesite, and the priest opened his prayer book and began the committal service.

"Here at this church where her parents brought her to be baptized," he said, "we welcome home the remains of Ellen Foley, to rest with her family."

Matt gripped Barbara's hand. "Home," he whispered, and she nodded, eyes full.

The soothing, familiar ritual continued to the end. "May the Lord bless Ellen," the priest said, "and give her eternal peace." He passed the small shovel of earth to Barbara.

She glanced across at Minnie, anxious that the occasion was perhaps too much for her. But Minnie seemed entirely composed.

Michael, though, was another matter. The sunglasses had dropped to the ground, and his face was a taut mask of pain. One hand was stretched toward Matt, in a gesture that seemed at once a benediction and an attempt to stop time. The other hand mopped blindly with his handkerchief.

Barbara registered his eyes, then: one a deep hazel, and the other a pale, watery blue.

ANNE BURGESS is a writer living in Ottawa, Canada.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Claretian Publications
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Author:Burgess, Anne
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Short Story
Date:Oct 1, 2003
Words:3034
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