Daniel, Elizabeth's Son

The road was slick with the quick rain and the inside of the car was close and humid. When he had passed through the shower, he opened the window and thrust his face into the rush of fresh air. At the top of the hill the cars were backed up far enough that he had to stop right in front of the cluster of town houses where his mother lived. He had not planned to go there this time, but her house shone in the sudden sunlight, watching him with window eyes that were green with the reflection of the maple tree, and he sat at the light for so long, glancing at the house and it at him, that finally he pulled out of the line of cars and into the driveway.

He gathered her mail from the mailbox and went to the front door and rang the bell, listening, for nothing at first, knowing he would hear nothing for a while, and then, if she hadn’t heard him drive up, “Who is it?” in his mother’s high, thin voice, not afraid, but fearful.

“Daniel, is that you?”

He stepped to one side of the porch so he could see the shadow of her through the opaque sidelight as she struggled to fit the key into the lock. His fingers worked in sympathy with the sound of the key scratching at the lock and then turning it, not quite all the way at first. The door groaned as she leaned into it to release the pressure on the deadbolt.

“I thought I heard your car,” she said, a slice of her face just visible in the cracked opening. She unlatched the night chain slowly, waiting, as she always did, to hear his voice so she could be certain it was him.

“Hi, Mom.”

He eased open the heavy wooden door as she stood there staring at the night chain dangling on the doorframe, as if his entrance had interrupted her in the middle of an important ritual and she was trying to remember what she had left undone. He leaned over and hugged her shoulders and kissed the top of her head. Her hair was stiff and smelled stale.

“I can always tell it’s your car,” she said.

Her slippers, old ballet shoes, brushed the floor like a gently sweeping broom as she trailed him toward the back of the house where she spent most of her waking time, sitting in the big kitchen-den on the yellow couch they had picked out together, watching the television he had bought her on sale, a big, bright twenty-seven-incher that she could still see, even with her relentless glaucoma. As if by habit, like some health inspector, he glanced at the floor near the refrigerator and saw the familiar cream-colored sticky pool on the linoleum. He pulled a few squares of paper towels off the roll and wet them at the sink and set them on the sticky spot and waited, as he had learned to do, for the water to soften the spot so he could wipe it up. He heard her lower herself onto the couch with an short high-pitched sigh, almost a yelp.

“Did I spill something? I’m not seeing too well today.”

“Just a little ice cream, Mom.”

He dug at the hardened edges of the spot with his fingernails, then used the paper towel to clean up the rest of the gooey mess and, while he was at it, the cracker crumbs that were bunched along the adjacent baseboard.

“You must think I’m a slob,” she said.

“You can’t see it, Mom. It’s no trouble.” He tossed the paper towel in the trash and picked up the old green teakettle off the stove and shook it to see if there was any water in it and stuck it under the faucet. “Let’s have some tea.”

“I have butter cookies.”

The electric eye heated and popped, sending a thin plume of grayish smoke up around the teakettle as some dried-on food burned off. The stock market report was on the television, the only channel that was ever on when he came over in the afternoons. She said she watched some of the sitcoms at night, but he thought she meant she listened to them on her radio that tuned in the television channels. She took it to bed with her when the daylight began to fade. He had learned not to drop by after six, as she might very well be in bed. More and more often now he came by at five or so and made sure she had dinner, usually something Sharina, the woman who came in the mornings, had fixed for her. He would cut up her food into small bites and set the plate out on the table and stay while she ate so she wouldn’t have to eat alone; she had been eating alone for thirty years now, but he hadn’t lived in the same town with her for most of them, hadn’t felt her lonely nights, and so, for him, they hadn’t existed.

“Grandma and Papa had tea every afternoon,” she said.

She patted his hand where it rested on her shoulder. The back of hers was bluish from something that looked like a bruise, like Papa’s hands, only her father’s bruises had been darker, more brutal, as if the purple of his withering muscle was what you were seeing, cracked and clotted under skin so fragile you were afraid to stroke his arm for fear of tearing away the papery flesh. Papa had said he was going to make it to a hundred, but one night about a year ago, at ninety-eight, he had slipped away peacefully in the bed he had been confined to for the last years of his life, where he had lain looking at the ceiling and occasionally at the birds that came to the feeder outside his window, refusing to listen to music on the stereo Daniel had bought him, or to watch the movies Daniel had offered, saying he would rather be alone with his thoughts.

The inside of the old English teapot was caked with dregs; he washed it and scalded it with a splash of hot water before filling it and dipping in a fresh teabag. He set out cookies on a desert plate, the same china pattern as the teapot, with a fine crack across the salmon-colored picnic scene: Grandma’s Spode, his mother called it, although it didn’t say Spode anywhere on it, and he wondered, not for the first time, why we call some of our parents what our children call them and others what we have always called them ourselves.

“Sit by me in the rocker,” his mother said.

The little green-painted chair was a hundred years old or more, as small as the people of an earlier time, comforting in its snugness. It had been made by his great grandfather, Papa’s father, the Mississippi Delta preacher who made furniture with the same careful hand with which he guided his flock and who taught his children racial tolerance at a time when tolerance was a foreign language in that part of the country. Daniel had been afraid his mother would trip over the long rockers as she groped around the kitchen and he had put the chair in the garage. His mother hadn't noticed, or had forgotten; he wasn't sure which, and he wasn't sure which he would prefer.

The chair was on a pedestal of boxes of Papa's family scrapbooks, letters, and photographs, the life collection of a historian. It was up to Daniel now to preserve that history, a task in which he found no joy, although he couldn’t say why. Perhaps it was because Papa had been so good at it, saving and cataloguing everything going back to the roots of the family in America in the seventeenth century, a collection that might have gone to a national museum if Papa had been president of the United States instead of president of a small Southern university.

He carried a box of photographs in with the chair. “We should go through these,” he said.

She looked at him sympathetically, the way she did when she could hear weariness or irritation in his voice. Sometimes that look of hers was the only way he knew himself what he was feeling.

“You’re going to work yourself to death, Daniel.”

He jiggled the box of sepia ancestors, dark-suited, plain-faced folk. “You have to tell me who these people are.”

The first picture was a stiff, matte-finish print of a sturdy, white-haired woman standing in a garden in front of a clapboard house. You couldn’t see much of the surrounding countryside, but somehow you knew from looking at the picture that there weren’t other houses nearby. The garden was growing ripe with corn and melons and a lush vine growing wild over a fence near where the woman stood, weighing down the split rails to the point that they looked to be on the verge of collapse. Wild kudzu, most likely. You had the feeling that if the woman stayed in that spot for long, the kudzu would wrap around her ankles and pull her to the ground.

“That’s Candace Walker, Papa’s great-grandmother, at her home in Hattiesburg,” his mother said.

Daniel studied the picture, as if by doing so he might remember it, then decided he’d better write the woman’s name on the back. As his pen pressed into the thick cardboard backing, he wondered about Candace Walker’s life in that isolated house, tending that overgrown garden to feed her family. How many hours a day did it take to keep the kudzu at bay? Did she ever think of just letting it go? Or moving away and leaving it behind?

The next picture was “The Walker Boys,” Papa’s father and four uncles lounging in front of the family newspaper in Hattiesburg. One of them, Papa’s father, Isaac, went on to the seminary. The oldest, Hayward, ran the paper in his time. Two of the others died in the War—that’s all anyone in the family ever called the Civil War, just “the War,” as if no one could misunderstand what it meant to them. The last brother, Dawson, became a lawyer. In the picture he looked like a lawyer already, with his straw hat cocked at a jaunty angle, one hand on his hip, swaggering even in still-life.

“What about Dawson?” Daniel asked. “What did he do?”

His mother looked a little embarrassed by the question, as though she knew some secret about Dawson that she thought not quite proper to share. “He practiced in Canton,” she said. She looked away, smiling to herself, and then in that innocent way of children and old folks, told what she knew. “He was quite the dandy. Swept great-aunt Polly off her feet. They eloped when her parents refused to consent to the marriage. Caused a bit of a stir.” She said this last part with an approving gleam in her eye.

They spent thirty minutes or so going over the pictures, his mother leaning close as Daniel held them under the strong light of the gooseneck lamp, occasionally holding the magnifying glass for her. She knew them all and summarized their lives succinctly: Eliza Hartnack, a teacher in Decatur; great-aunt Agatha, who moved to Colorado with a tinker and didn’t have much to do with the family after that. The way she spoke of them made the lives of the people sound whole, complete. Maybe it was just that they were dead, with no further opportunity for change, that made it feel that way, but it seemed to Daniel to be more than that, as though these men and women had fulfilled some destiny before moving on to whatever there was after death, to their sweet reward in heaven, Papa would have said. Daniel wasn’t so sure about the sweet-reward part anymore, and lately he had begun to think it didn’t matter much one way or the other.

“Is it five-thirty, yet?” his mother asked. “I have to put in my eye drops at five-thirty.”

Her life had devolved into an urgency of daily routine---what she would eat, who would prepare it, a relentless schedule of pills and drops and ointments---from which her principal distraction was anxiety. Did she feel up to going to the physical therapy class in which Daniel had enrolled her? Was that tingling in her gut the beginning of another bladder infection? Would the women in her garden club still want her if she came to a meeting after missing so many?

When he was a young man, nothing in Daniel’s life had been about routine. Meals were taken merely to keep him going. Sleep was a begrudged necessity. He paid attention to his appearance only when, as an ambitious new lawyer, he had wanted to impress clients. He had gone through every day planning for the future, working for it, looking forward to it. He might have missed out on living some of life in the moment, but he was full of hope. When had that hope begun to bleed away, oozing from so many small wounds? By now he had produced enough corporate legal documents for some future grandmother to be able to take his picture from a box and point to it and say, “That’s your great-grandfather Daniel, Elizabeth’s son, the lawyer.”

“Don’t you want another cookie, Daniel?”

The cookies on the plate she held out to him slid to the edge and jiggled there as her hand trembled. She was looking at him as though she wondered what he was thinking but was too respectful of his privacy to ask. She could see the sadness in him, he knew that, and he knew she accepted it as she accepted her own.

He took the plate from her. “You must be hungry,” he said.

“I wouldn’t take anything for our time together,” she said.

Sharina had left a plate in the refrigerator, covered in aluminum foil: pork chops, potatoes, and green beans. He heated the food in the microwave and set the steaming plate on the counter. The only sharp knife in the house was the one he had given his mother a few years ago—how long had it been, how long had he been back in town, three years, four? The knife was in the drawer where it always was, just as he had left it the last time, as if no one else felt worthy of using such a fine knife when there were plenty of dull, faded-handled ones in the other drawer. 

He sliced the pork chop into tiny bites, small enough for a baby, and pushed the other food around on the plate to even out the hot spots. His mother had already taken her place at the table. She sat quietly as he leaned over her shoulder and set the plate before her. He had left the long-bladed knife on the plate, and when he withdrew it with the sharp side of the blade carefully facing away from his mother, he did so consciously that it forced grisly images into his mind of the knife slicing open her throat and her looking up at him with a startled, disbelieving expression. He turned away quickly and dropped the knife on the counter and washed his hands in the sink.

He noticed that before each bite his mother touched her food furtively to determine what was on her fork. Perhaps it was time to move her into the retirement home, where there would always be someone to cook for her and cut up her food, help her in and out of the bath, where summer-swollen doors would never get stuck and the trash would not have to be taken out, where all her needs would be met and all her costs, even her utilities, would be covered in the rent. She said It would be like going there to die, but he told her it wouldn’t be like that at all, it would be going there to live. She would make friends and not have to be alone all the time. He had offered up that pleasant image so often now that he could almost picture it himself.

His own children were grown, or grown enough not to need him. If he knew she was safe, he could go up to Maine or New Hampshire and rent a cabin on the edge of the woods with a pot-bellied stove. He’d get up in the mornings shivering from the chill of the frosty nights and split firewood on a stump and write by the warmth of the fire and take the dog—he’d get another golden retriever—out for romps in the snow and watch the milky sun fade and the cold clear night come again. In a year or two, he would have written a great novel, and he would emerge, reticent and hermit-like, blinking into the glare of immortality.
His mother tapped her fork around her plate, testing for bits of food she might have missed. “I think there’s a little ice cream in the freezer,” she said. The way the pitch of her voice rose at the end, the statement came out like a question, as if she were asking permission. He scooped some ice cream into a bowl and sat across from her so she could see his face, even though she had told him many times that by that time of day, when her eyes were tired and the light was dim, if she didn’t know it was him sitting there, she would have no idea who was with her.

“You remember my eye-doctor’s appointment next week, don’t you?” she said.

He took her free hand in his and rubbed the back of her wrist with his thumb. She squeezed his fingers gently. Beside the box of photographs on the table, Candace Walker looked up at him from her overgrown garden, where the kudzu seemed to have crept closer.


  1. Depressing...but well written, "Daniel".

  2. You're right about it being close to home, Dave, but I don't think it's depressing. It's just life. I could have written it in first person, memoirishly, but a little fiction goes a long way toward letting me explore things I might not not like to admit (or even fully understand) about myself and others.

  3. That is one of the pleasures of writing, isn't it; its innate catharsis.