I am a first time unpublished writer, who after almost eight years, has just completed my memoir and am getting ready to start submitting to literary agents. In the meantime, I have decided to submit some of my work and excerpts to writing contests.
I am sixty years old and live in Lunenburg, Massachusetts with my husband and three rescue dogs. I love pasta, baking, and anything chocolate. And, when I’m not working on my book, I love spending time with my family, especially my new granddaughter, and my mother, who has not been well. I also enjoy gardening, reading, volunteering at the homeless shelter and talking politics.
The Little Copper Key
Male crickets are making their last mating call of the season. Their harmonious trill rises out of nowhere, and their mournful serenade fills the air. The goldenrod is slowly dying in its soon-to-be last appearance of the season, and the nights offer a chill—all indications that autumn is closing in.
The year is 2000, but it could as well be 1930, 1940, or any one of those decades from the 1900s, in a rather nondescript New England town that resides next to a long running track of railroad. Nondescript to some, but for those of us from here, with all its small-town trappings and local characters of no importance, this place has served as a beacon of comfort and opportunity for me and my family for well over one-hundred years—a place like no other.
It has the feel of an old sleepy town that seems to only wake as the train hobbles through—a sound heard from nearly every spot one stands in this small hamlet we call Shirley, Massachusetts.
Just a few months ago, my mother decided to put the house up for sale. Our house. The brown ranch with the dark-yellow colored shutters, the color of a Werther’s Original Candy. The house we had all grown up in.
She couldn’t stay. The memories were too painful. It is said that losing a child is a loss like no other. My mother lost two. Stevie, my older brother in 1991. And with Timmy, my younger brother, dying just six months prior to the sale of the house, the loss has been profound.
On the day Timmy died, I’d been trying to call him all morning. He was supposed to come over to my house for dinner that night. It was a typical cold March day. The sun was out, promising spring, and I had just seen my first robin perched on a branch, puffing its feathers, when the police showed up at my door to break the news nobody could possibly process in that quick space of time: Timmy had been found dead on the floor in his apartment. It was a blow from which my family could not recover.
Timmy wasjust thirty-six when he died. I never even got to say good-bye. None of us did. The scene of him reaching for the phone—maybe in trying to call one of us for help—is an image that never leaves me.
His death was the final straw for my mother.
Over the summer, with temperatures soaring, flanked by the kind of humidity that can drench your clothes if you stand outside for a few minutes too long, my mother, and my sister Christine and I packed twenty-eight years of memories and an entire household into cardboard boxes. We organized things into piles to get rid of, and things to keep; physical reminders from our childhood that were too difficult to part with. Even though it was hard, we threw out report cards, yearbooks, oldsand box toys, Timmy’s shell collections from Hampton Beach, and Stevie’s graduation cap.
Mementos like old photographs, baby albums with tiny hand prints and locks of hair, and old newspaper clippings we kept. There was a picture hardly more than two inches square of my mother and father sitting on the back steps of my grandparents’ house. It must have been taken in late summer because I can see morning glories climbing the side of the garage in the background—a portrait depicting a past that began before I was born.
We discovered handmade cards for my mother—one in particular Timmy made for her on Mother’s Day when he was maybe in fourth-grade, made us sit back in our chairs and read it. On light blue construction paper, his class picture portraying a gap-toothed little boy with a winsome smile, is glued under a drawing of the sun. On the outside in double-lined block letters with alternating blue and red magic markers, he wrote: To the nicest mother in the world!!!!!
And on the inside:
She is nice to have around. Because she doesn’t forget to bring me stuff home from the store when I want it. I still love her just the way she is!!!! And I love her because she cares about me. and does what she thinks is right.
Happy mothers Day!!!!! I love you!!!!
We also found a card Stevie had given my mother when he was nineteen and working as a janitor at Shanklin Corporation, a manufacturer of shrink packaging equipment. He had saved up his first few paychecks so he could buy her a new bedroom set. I thought, Typical Stevie, wanting to take care of those around him.
He ended the card with a reassurance he so often gave to her: Mom, you’ll never have to worry, I’ll always take care of you. Love, Stevie
In addition to the many cards Stevie wrote to my mother over the years, we also found the letter in which he told her that he had been diagnosed with ARC (Aids-related complex) back in 1985, when he was only twenty-five years old. In opening it again, I slumped back in my chair, and my heart started beating almost as fast as it did that night fifteen years ago when I read it for the first time:
This letter is without a doubt the most difficult I have ever written and certainly the most difficult I will ever write. If you are not alone, I ask that you go in your room, I think you should read this alone.
This deals with two major issues, both interrelated. What I say may seem somewhat abrupt, but I am expressing this, the best I can. I feel that because of your intuition, you know most of what I have to say, it may not make it easier, I hope it does.
Three and a half months ago, I was diagnosed with ARC. This stands for AIDS Related Complex. It does not mean that I have AIDS, it simply means that I have the virus which causes AIDS. It does not mean that I will develop AIDS, it does not mean that I won’t. Most recent statistics show that between 5 & 15% of people with ARC go on to develop AIDS within two years.
I am uncertain what you may know about AIDS and I will explain it to the best of my ability. First of all, AIDS is a fatal disease. The AIDS virus (HTLVIII) breaks down the immune system leaving your body open to serious infections and cancers which eventually become fatal. There is not a cure and very little treatment. My prognosis is very good and things appear to be going very well. To relieve your anxiety about my doctor, he is one of the best, if not the best in Boston. I am very pleased with him.
You almost begin to imagine the burden I have been carrying. I need my family more than anything right now. I know it is very upsetting – I need your support and everyone else’s.
Stevie was only thirty-one when he died. I was thirty. The last time I saw him was in the hospital that night nine years ago, when I held his warm body against mine, not wanting to let go.
Our childhood home was ready to go on the market by early September. It sold within days.
The day before the closing, I needed to run into the house to grab a few boxes of dishes—family heirlooms and odds-and-ends that I put in the cellar, along with Timmy’s Tonka trucks I’d placed in the corner, thinking,in some capacity, I could use them someday.
My mother’s house sits back about200 feetfrom the road. It has a picture window overlooking a landscape of tall oaks and other hardwoods, and a stone wall that was cobbled together by my brother Stevie when he was thirteen.
Walking up the front steps, I turn the knob and am greeted with an unwanted silence.
I close my eyes and hear whispers in my head reminiscent of sweet voices from my youth. I have a fleeting vision of Christmas morning: we’re gathered around the tinsel-covered tree opening gifts, and I can smell the warmed butter and cinnamon coming from my mother’s apple pies in the oven.
I open the door off my mother’s kitchen that leads into the cellar. The only noise is the sound of my footsteps on the tired wooden stairs as they echo loudly in my ears. Beyond the stairs is a large walk-out basement. I undo the deadbolts and slowly open the door. Looking out into the backyard, the outline of my mother’s vegetable garden is still visible. I see our old tree-house. It has sunken down into the limbs from over twenty-five years of Nor’easters and hard winters.
I can see Timmy’s boyish face and hear his quirky laugh as we play catch with our baseball gloves under a canvas of colors from the setting sun. And I can see us—all of us—sitting at the picnic table, innocence abound. Gram and Pal, my grandparents, and my aunt Madge are there too. Madge is removing the foil off the macaroni and potato salad and Gram is filling our cups with lemonade. I can hear the loud talking and the laughter. My mother is healthy, so slim and pretty. She is wearing her olive-green sweater and her cuffed blue jean shorts. She’s shaking her head back-and-forth. Not wanting any fighting during dinner, she tells us to “Stop-it! Stop arguing,” as she fills our plates.
In a flash, I remember the time my mother sent me into the house to open a can of cranberry sauce and run it back out. I opened the can and emptied its contents into a pan and yelled out the kitchen window, “Mom, how long do I cook it for?”
“You don’t cook it!” She yelled up.
When I look to the right, I see past the trees to where we used to ice-skate, the pond, now depleted of any water, and the small hill on the side of the house, where Stevie and I learned how to use our first set of skis—Christmas gifts from my mother. I can see us sitting on top of the snowbank in our parkas and snow pants, leaning over adjusting the buckles on our ski boots. The stripes on my snow pants are soft pink, like a kitten’s nose, and Stevie’s are deep ocean blue.
I loved everything about those ski pants, the cool looking bib with the adjustable straps, the leg zippers, and how they kept me warm—but I especially loved the way they made me feel, like a downhill skier ready to make a run from the mountaintop.
I close the back door and secure the deadbolts.
One by one, I lift the boxes off the cold cement floor of the cellar, running back and forth filling my car. Lastly, I reach for Timmy’s Mighty Tonka Trucks and press them tightly against my chest, feeling their sharp edges giving me pain.
Almost instinctively, I call out his name.
I make my way back up the stairs, and for the last time, I turn out the cellar lights, hearing my mother’s voice faintly call out, “Did you shut the lights off?”
I walk down the hall and look into each bedroom. They are absent of any family noise, any life. I look through the windowpanes to a patch of sparkling September sky. But for a few hangers, the closets are empty and the walls are bare.
I place the key on the kitchen counter for the new owners, and do a final sweep with my eyes one last time before I close the door.
Driving past a field of shimmering grass and oak trees that have become ashen from the hot summer’s never-ending light, I head up Little Turnpike with my usual hurry, a road that I have walked, biked, and driven a thousand times before, and continue the few miles downtown to get my mother’s mail.
Pulling into the Shirley Post Office, I reach for the old tarnished copper key and hold it in my hand: a key that once belonged to my grandfather. I glance at it quickly before getting out of my car.
An autumn wind suddenly shifts and I pull my collar closer as I walk the short distance down the sidewalk, searching for familiar faces of long ago – I see my bus driver from grade school—and a worker from the Town Garage; I come to recognize them, with their gray hair and slower gait, but they don’t recognize me. They are old now.
I insert the key into PO Box 235, and open the 3-1/2” x 4” door and pull out my mother’s mail from a box that’s about the size of a gold bar. I take it to the counter and begin to sort through—a ritual I’ve been doing for years.
Walking out of the post office, I hear in the distance the powerful air horn from the approaching commuter train coming in from the Old North Station in Boston. Looking out at the train, my pace slows, and a sense of loneliness comes over me.
Along with the warning bells, the rumbling and vibrating sounds of the train bring me back to my childhood, some of the happiest years of my life. A time in which we were sheltered, nurtured, and loved.