Ovenbirds and Other Stories
  Stories by Dorene O'Brien
  1  Ovenbirds
2  Wrong Number
3  Emma Reflected
4  #12 Dagwood on Rye
5  Then I Snapped
6  The Good Daughter
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  Summer 2018 Fiction Issue

Emma Reflected

Emma stroked the padded arm of her chair as she stared silently at the woman before her, someone she recognized only vaguely. She felt badly for the woman whose name she could not recall but, even more, she worried that this slip would prove her children correct in their assumptions that she forgot things, that she could no longer take care of herself, that moving here, to Rolling Oaks, was the only choice.

“I’m sorry,” she finally said, but when the woman spoke at precisely the same moment, Emma apologized again before realizing that she was looking at and speaking to a reflection of herself in the vanity mirror. She had been brushing her hair—the knobby wooden handle of the soft bristle brush was still in her hand—when she’d suddenly noticed the strange woman before her and froze, worrying that if she misspoke to this person, they might never let her go home. She laughed aloud at her mistake but quickly cupped her hand over her mouth. What would the staff think if they heard her laughing alone in her room? What would they tell the children?

“That’s what it’s like,” she later told Dr. Matherson, the only staff member she trusted because he looked like her son Warren. “Like waking up from a dream.”

“Go on,” he said.

“Well, let’s say I’m brushing my hair, or reading a book, or eating a sandwich. It’s like I disappear and when I come back my hair’s still unbrushed, I’m still on the same page, or my bread’s as hard as a cue ball.”

“Where do you go?”

“I don’t know.”

“Think about it.”

“I don’t remember anything. It’s like I’ve lost an hour, sometimes more. Does that make me crazy?”

“No,” said Dr. Matherson kindly. “That makes you you.”

Six months before Emma had moved into Rolling Oaks, her daughter had found her watering her rock garden in a bra and panties, and when Tara cried, “My God!” Emma looked to the sky, amazed. Then she laughed heartily. “You got me,” she said, and continued to tip the watering can over a bed of quartz-cut boulders. When her daughter guided her into the house, one hand firmly on her mother’s elbow, Emma caught sight of herself in the vestibule mirror.

“Why didn’t you tell me you were bringing a guest,” she scolded Tara. “I’m so sorry,” she apologized to her reflection. “Would you like some tea?”

After the rock garden incident Emma’s children—Tara, Mandy and Warren—debated what to do. They had been taken by surprise and now argued amongst themselves, pointing fingers and assigning blame in a futile but earnest effort to displace the guilt they each felt. Maybe if you’d spent more time with her. How could you have missed the signs? You should have known something was wrong. The past Thanksgiving Emma had stuffed the turkey, placed it into the oven and then forgotten to turn the oven on, and on Christmas Eve she’d trudged around the parking lot at the mall for an hour looking for the ’96 Chrysler she’d owned twenty years before. Even when the telephone company discontinued service because Emma had forgotten to pay the bill, her children teased her about having “senior moments,” figuring these little mishaps were nothing serious, almost viewing them as cute when held up against the Emma they had always known, one so organized and polished they were often embarrassed by her in front of their friends, whose mothers allowed them to chalk their sidewalks and wear torn jeans.

Tara, the oldest, wanted to move Emma into her bungalow, but she was struggling after her recent divorce and as a single parent of two grown children still living with her. Surely Mandy and Warren, professionals with confidence borne from secure incomes and an uncanny intelligence that somehow bypassed her, would better know what to do about their mother.

But Mandy, who had just accepted a new position with Cale Webber as a senior stock analyst, made it clear that she could not afford to give up her career, that the taxes on the cottage upstate and the loan on the Escalade were not going to pay themselves.

Then there was Warren, a corporate tax attorney who looked good on paper but couldn’t cook an egg. Even so, it was Warren who offered, nearly demanded, to move his mother into his high-rise apartment.

“You’re never home,” said Mandy. “It won’t work.”

“I can hire someone to stay with her,” said Warren. “There are nurses who work independently, who work around your schedule.”

“I don’t trust them,” said Tara. “Those are the ones who can’t get a real job in a hospital.”

“What about a home?” said Mandy, and Warren became angry.

“Hell, no,” he said. “Hell, no. Don’t you watch 60 Minutes?”

“But in a home she’ll get treatment,” said Tara. “Maybe she’ll get better.”

“She should be around doctors who specialize in…I don’t know…elderly afflictions,” said Mandy.

After several hours of heated discussion with his sisters, who dismissed him as overcautious, even paranoid, Warren gave in only grudgingly because he, the youngest, Emma’s baby, knew something his sisters didn’t: that his mother was weak and that it was his fault. He had witnessed her vulnerability countless times, when she plucked him off the school bus after spotting the questionable tread on its tires, or when she intervened in benign playground scuffles, or when she held him back as his sisters skipped up the street toward the candy store to press an extra dollar into his palm. He was her weakness, and her reckless love for him had split her open, softened her, made her susceptible to any number of emotional calamities: her broken heart when he didn’t make first string, her hysterics after his dirt bike accident, her inconsolability when he moved into a frat house three hundred miles away. And now this. He was her emotional wrecking ball, without a doubt, demolishing the thick walls around her heart, pulverizing her stony defenses into dust.

“Only on a trial basis,” said Warren. “That we have to make clear up front.”

So the children called every nursing home within a fifty-mile radius and spent the next several months cruising up tree-lined driveways, debating opinions about the latest care for Alzheimer’s patients, and secretly hating each other for not performing a miracle, for not finding a way to seamlessly weave their mother into the lives they’d set into motion with her love and encouragement.

When a room became available at Rolling Oaks and the children packed their mother’s suitcases and deposited her into the back seat of Warren’s BMW, Emma stared through her reflection in the car window and said, “That looks like my house.”

Earlier that day the children sat with their mother in her garden, and Warren had tried to explain to her what was happening, saying that she would be moving into what he called a hospital for a while so that the doctors could help her. Her response was to run her hands up and down her body, squeezing the mottled skin on her arms and legs into thick bunches. “What have I broken?” she said.

“You haven’t broken anything, Mom,” said Mandy. “But we’re worried you might hurt yourself.”

Emma laughed. “A hospital for people who haven’t hurt themselves yet? What’ll they think of next.”

“It’s for people who have a hard time remembering things,” said Tara.

“Your birthday is June second,” said Emma. “And yours,” she pointed to Mandy, “August twelfth. Warren’s is December twenty-sixth. Your father…” she paused for several excruciating seconds, staring into the sky as if it held a screen on which was projected the highlights of her life with Harold. “He’s dead, isn’t he?” she asked cautiously.

Warren took Emma’s hand. “For almost ten years, Ma.”

Emma looked surprised and then relieved before bursting into tears.

During his first visit Warren had been apprehensive, ready to catch an orderly slapping Emma or a doctor performing experiments on her like a lab rat. But when he entered her room unannounced, stealing past the reception desk like a thief, he found Dr. Matherson in his mother’s room, both of them laughing uproariously.

“Well, hello Warren,” said Emma. “This is Dr. Matherson.”

Warren scrutinized the doctor while shaking his large, fleshy hand. He seemed innocuous: old, bald, happy.

“What do you notice?” Emma volleyed the question at the men, her arms outstretched, her eyes dancing expectantly as she looked from one to the other. “Well?”

Warren stared at Dr. Matherson blankly, then back at his mother. “Your hair,” he said. “Your hair’s been done.”

Emma frowned. “I don’t think so,” she said, cupping her scalp lightly as if to confirm her suspicion.

“I give up,” said Warren. “What is it?”

“What is what?” said Emma.

Warren took his mother for a walk that day, both to escape the tragic reminders of her illness—the barred window, the plastic utensils, the smell of ammonia—and to survey the home in its entirety. He was looking for a TV room where patients were tied to wheelchairs, snoring at Vanna White, or a corridor where senile women in oversized diapers and fuzzy slippers were being brutally overpowered by muscular orderlies. Instead he found the staff, all of whom knew Emma’s name, friendly and helpful, the TV room empty but for two elderly men playing Ping-Pong, and the grounds teeming with well-tended flower gardens and Grecian statuary.

“This isn’t bad,” Warren admitted. “Those are perennial gardens,” he pointed. “They’ll come back every year. And those benches are a lot more comfortable than they look. And look at that,” he added. “Shuffleboard.”

“All right, young man,” Emma said firmly. “I’ll take it.”

When Warren explained to her that he was not a real estate agent and that the hospital was not for sale, Emma looked at him incredulously.

“Well then why did you show it to me?”

“Because you live here now, Ma. I thought you should look around.”

Emma laughed, and Warren was relieved until she said, “So I’ve already bought it.”

Warren walked his mother back to her room and helped her into bed, propping the newspaper on the tray before her. He kissed her gently and then sought out Dr. Matherson, who was in his office folding colored paper into airplanes.

“Excuse me,” said Warren, peeking into the open doorway and then turning away to give the doctor a chance to hide his handiwork. But Dr. Matherson continued folding.

“Come in, Mr. Ellis.” He nodded toward a thickly padded leather chair opposite his desk, which was scattered with neon paper.

Warren stared, and Dr. Matherson smiled.

“It’s therapy,” he said.

“I understand.”

“For the patients,” Dr. Matherson laughed. “Tomorrow the staff will unfold and distribute them. You’d be surprised at how they’re able to concentrate on these little planes, how happy they are when they’ve made one. Gives them a sense of control they feel they’ve lost.”

“But the folds,” said Warren, trying not to sound insensitive. “They just follow the folds.”

“Close your eyes,” said Dr. Matherson.

“Excuse me?”

“Your eyes. Close them.”

Warren obeyed, and Dr. Matherson leaned across the desk and pressed a single sheet of paper into his hand.

“Make a plane,” he ordered. “But don’t open your eyes.”

Warren, slightly annoyed at this unforeseen digression, folded the paper in half quickly, but had difficulty after the initial step. He searched his memory for the next step since he couldn’t feel it in the paper, and the harder he tried, the more frustrated he became.

“Certainly you don’t ask them to do this blindfolded,” said Warren, less successfully hiding his frustration.

“Fine,” said Dr. Matherson. “Open your eyes. But you can only use one hand.”

“Okay, you’ve made your point,” said Warren, using both hands to quickly fold the paper into a bright green plane before placing it on his lap. “Can we talk about my mother?” Warren was surprised and embarrassed when his voice cracked.

“Of course,” said Dr. Matherson. “She’s doing fine.”

“What’s ‘fine’?”

“Well, she’s adjusting nicely. Eating well.”

“What about emotionally? How’s she handling this?”

“As well as she can, I think. She’s very open, very honest. That’s good.”

“How so?”

“She still remembers enough about her experiences to discuss them. She talks about you and Tara and Mandy, about Harold and her garden. She talks about how she sometimes fades out; she seems to know what’s happening to her.”

“That’s good, right? The awareness?”

“Mr. Ellis,” said Dr. Matherson as he creased a sheet of yellow paper. “I don’t want to mislead you. That is a good sign, yes. She can discuss her condition for now. But Alzheimer’s is a progressive illness. I can’t tell you how long she’ll be able to do that.”

“What about stem cell research? I read an article in Nature—”

“Stem cell research on Alzheimer’s is in its infancy.” He stopped folding and stared at Warren above the sea of colorful planes. “I understand how you feel—”

“No,” said Warren. “No you don’t. I don’t sleep at night. I don’t eat. I can hardly work.” Warren’s voice cracked again, and when Dr. Matherson came from around his desk to close the office door, Warren began to cry. “I need someone to tell me she’s going to be all right. I know she won’t be cured, and I know she’ll probably die not knowing who I am. But I need—” and here Warren sobbed openly—“I need you to tell me right now that no one, no one, will mistreat her, will hit her, will touch her.” Warren cradled his head in his hands and peered through his spread fingers, watching his tears fall onto the airplane in his lap, landing with muffled ticks. He thought briefly about his secretary and wondered what she’d think if she knew that the confident young man just nominated for partnership at the firm was crying uncontrollably over his mother, a child’s toy in his lap. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s all right,” said Dr. Matherson, who had knelt on the floor beside Warren, placing a freckled hand on Warren’s right knee. “It’s all right.”

Emma reflected on her life, on her children, how difficult it must be for them to see her as sick and helpless. She would tell them that she understood she was ill and that it was all right, that she had actually found comfort for the first time since Harold died in seeing him appear suddenly before her, in telling him how much she missed his cabbage soup and his bad jokes. As Emma contemplated how to stop her thoughts from colliding long enough to speak candidly with each of her children, her mind suddenly snagged on an image both lovely and tragic: her eldest daughter in an A-line wedding gown. She saw Tara marrying a handsome, capable, selfish man who’d later leave her without so much as a nickel, then insult her further by replacing her before the divorce was final. Emma had known from the start that Max was childish and self-involved, that her daughter needed and deserved a less flashy man, someone who could appreciate her desire to give. She’d tried to tell her daughter gently, but Tara was in love and Emma realized there was no gentle way to call the man she loved a fool. Now she was sorry she hadn’t risked alienating her daughter to try to save her from this pain and humiliation but, like Tara, Emma was always eager to please and so she’d kept quiet. She pulled a post-it note pad and a crayon from the bureau drawer to capture her thought before it drifted into oblivion: He was a fool. She would be sure to tell Tara that she thought Max was a damn fool.

Emma then considered Mandy, her rebel with flaming red hair, a fiery sun around her head. Mandy, she sighed. How have I failed you? For years Emma had pushed painful thoughts of Mandy out of her mind, burying them under grocery lists and garden clubs, car pools and bridge, and now the realizations she had suppressed for so long flooded in. Mandy, so mysterious, so sullen, had been spinning away from Emma long before she officially demanded freedom, announced she’d be staying at Oberlin until graduation and that they could visit if they warned her in advance. Emma had tried to share with Mandy the important things her own mother had taught her, the things that Tara had so enjoyed: embroidering a curtain, rolling homemade pasta, digging a garden. But Mandy, a self-sworn feminist by the time she’d turned 10, had refused her overtures, had actually laughed at the needlepoint birthday card Tara had made for her twelfth birthday. Emma stared into the mirror and a wild silhouette of red hair and the angry expression she knew so well stared back. “Mandy,” she asked, “where did you go? And why did you leave so soon?”

Emma had been pleased when Mandy landed her dream job and relieved that her youngest daughter was independent, would never find herself at the financial mercy of a man like her sister. Yet there was a sense of regret that Mandy might never experience the ecstatic pain of childbirth, the happy frustration of weeding, the humble pride in a well tended home and family. When Emma’s reflection finally returned to her, imposing itself over Mandy’s with startling precision, two questions reeled through her brain, and she wrote them on another post-it note: Why did you leave me? and How can I get you back? She then bracketed the How.

Warren, she thought, is the successful little boy, a child I held too close, the one I wouldn’t let go. Women can take care of themselves; they are accustomed to fighting for everything, and often getting hurt. Look at Tara and Mandy, she thought, one bravely overcoming a devastating divorce and the other outmaneuvering the most powerful men in her field. But men take for granted that women exist to make their lives easier, and that’s what she’d done for Warren. And now she was sorry. He would most likely marry, but he’d never know if the woman he chose didn’t really love him because love was an assumption to Warren, something that always came when needed, a never-ending balm. He’d never been hurt, and never expected to be, and Emma finally understood the precarious position into which she’d tossed her favored child. Naïve and vulnerable, she thought as she scribbled these words across a third post-it note in red crayon: I should have let you go. I’m sorry.

The following Sunday when the children pulled up the winding drive to Rolling Oaks, Emma was waiting for them in a rocker on the front porch, post-it notes clinging to her chest and arms.

“Mrs. Ellis,” said Cathy, a nurse Emma detested because she smelled like mustard, “let me help you with those.”

She began removing the notes and Emma tried to push her hands away. “Leave me alone!” she cried.

“Let’s pretty you up for your visitors,” she said, plucking notes from Emma’s body like feathers as the children ascended the stairs.

“What’s this?” asked Warren, and Cathy shot him a beleaguered smile.

“I think she’s trying to dress in paper,” she said.

Emma became angry—she found it rude when people discussed her in her presence, so she found the nurse’s behavior inexcusable.

“Give me a post-it note,” she demanded of Cathy. “I have something I need to say to you.”

Warren and Tara helped Emma back to her room as Mandy collected the notes that had fallen onto the porch, and as she was about to toss them into the lobby trash can, she noticed the colorful scribbles.

“Look at this,” she said as she entered her mother’s room. “She’s written something.”

The words were smeared and blotchy, written with dull crayons but still legible.

“He was a fool,” said Mandy, turning to Emma, now lost in the vanity mirror as Tara brushed her hair.

“Who’s that?” said Emma, squinting at her blurred reflection.

“I don’t know,” said Mandy. “Who was a fool, Ma?”

Emma smiled as Harold’s face materialized in the mirror before her. “Harold,” she whispered.

The children exchanged startled, concerned looks.

“Why did you leave me?” Mandy read from another note, and “[How] can I get you back? She must have been writing to Daddy. I didn’t know they had…problems.”

Tara looked stricken, Warren despondent.

“Look at this one,” said Mandy. “I should have let you go. I’m sorry.”

“Let’s show them to Dr. Matherson,” said Warren.

“No,” said Tara. “This is between her and Daddy. No one needs to know about this.” She tore the notes from Mandy’s hand, crumpling them into her vest pocket.

Warren, who could only surmise the obvious from the notes, silently blamed his overwhelming desire to cry on lack of sleep and improper diet. Mandy held briefly onto the insight that her father’s attempt to end the marriage was inevitable, for what man would be satisfied with a woman so utterly simple? But her cold and clinical analysis, one in which her ailing mother was insulted for simply being herself, alarmed her and she suppressed it almost immediately. Tara stared into the mirror above her mother’s head and saw the two of them, earnest, unappreciated women, a totem of domestic failure.

Emma waved weakly at the mirror, whispering “Goodbye” as Harold receded into its depths.

“We’re not leaving yet, Mom,” said Warren, angling her chair toward the sofa on which his sisters sat. “I think we should talk.”

Tara shot her brother a stern look and Mandy stared through the window, refusing to commit to either sibling, to any course of action.

“The notes you wrote,” he said. “Do you remember the notes?” Warren placed the red crayon into Emma’s right hand and searched his sister’s angry face for signs of surrender. “Give them to me, Tara,” he demanded. “Please.”

Emma struggled with the familiar feel of the crayon, its smell and shape, the nebulous anxiety it generated, but when Warren placed the wrinkled post-it notes into her other hand, her thoughts began to tumble into place.

“You got them,” she said, rubbing the notes between her fingers. “Do you understand—”

“We do,” said Tara, reaching over to stroke Emma’s knee. “Don’t worry about it, Mom. Really. We know this must be hard for you.”

“But I wanted to tell you. I should have talked to you sooner.” She looked at each child in turn. “All of you.”

“It’s all right,” said Tara. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It was all his fault.”

“Yes,” said Emma, who understood that Tara was referring to Max. “Yes it was.”

Emma then turned to Mandy. “What should I have done differently?”

“You did everything right, Ma,” said Mandy. “Some people just don’t realize how good they have it.”

Warren took Emma’s hand, and she turned to him. “Do you understand that I made mistakes?” she said. “That I should have done things differently? That I should have let go?”

“Are you kidding?” said Warren, wiping errant tears on the sleeve of his Brooks Brothers suit. “Holding on was the best thing you could have done, Ma. The best thing.”

Emma, confused by these unexpected responses, simply said, “Huh.”

“You did what you did for us,” said Warren. “We understand that.”

Emma was dumbfounded by her children’s insight, their effortless comprehension of the notes, and for a moment she wondered if they were placating her, hiding their disappointment in her to spare her feelings. But her thoughts took a sudden turn after colliding with the notion that she wasn’t giving herself enough credit. Maybe her simple, heartfelt words had carried the seeds of larger meaning within them. Maybe they had eased her children into a natural rhythm of understanding, had ushered them along a current of familial loyalty that spilled, unimpeded, into the river of forgiveness. Emma smiled at the thought, and her initial suspicions about the ease with which she’d accomplished a formidable task were scattered like the random blooms on her clematis, like the pinhole stars punched into the nighttime sky, like the post-it notes that floated, weightless, from her outstretched hand.


  © Dorene O'Brien, 2018

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