Some Unknowable Center
Amanda Kelley Corbin
What do you say to the dying? What’s the best conversation to have when we can no longer talk of what the doctors plan to do next? How do we ignore the wait in front of us?
When silence sprawls between us, my grandmother picks her novel back up, the tattered cover displaying a heaving bosom and half-naked muscles, secondhand passion.
What can she and I say about love? Nothing. So we don’t speak of it. We talk about roses, red centerpieces at round tables, and a string of pearls she says probably came from a yard sale. Pearls that I don’t know how to ask her for, how to thank her for.
What can we say about children? That we’re proud of the pictures they colored, the songs they learned, the sweetness in them? Things on the surface only. We don’t try to put into words how so much joy can exist with so many demands upon our lives.
When I tell her we may have another baby soon, hoping she might want to hold on for that (but knowing better), she says, “It’s best to wait,” and for the first time I think of her as a woman instead of a mother and grandmother. A woman who had a child by herself for a while, who had to give up two others she couldn’t afford to raise, then had three more. A woman with the itch to travel, who wanted to see the ocean, and made the journey all by herself after the children were grown. A woman it’s too late for me to get to know now.
Having left for our honeymoon, my husband and I stop for gas in a little town where the interstate lies perched on the hillside and buildings are wedged between rocky inclines. Something about the name sounds familiar. I text my mother to ask where her parents were married and she tells me it was this place. Somehow I had known without knowing. I stand beside the car while wind whips my blue dress against my bare legs and lifts my hair. I try to envision her in that Tennessee town, try to imagine what her love story was like, and wonder why I never heard her tell it.
From her emptying house I bring home a white suitcase and an old trunk whose leather handles have rotted away. Inside it I place a dress of my mother’s; it’s lime green and several sizes too small for me. The suitcase I leave empty for when I need it. It snaps open like a clam shell.
After the funeral, I snagged the string of pearls on the dishwasher rack and it pulled apart. I bent the metal back, but you can still see the damage. I wear them anyway sometimes.
Helping my mother get more things out of the house, I bring along my four-year-old. We come through the back door like always and he runs to her room but stops short when he finds it empty, a circle of bare floor where the hospital bed used to be. I bend down and press the top of his head against my tears. I just tell him, “She’s not here.”
III. When It’s My Turn
I hope the last book I don’t finish tells my grandchildren something about my passions, and on the other end of a sprawling silence I hope I have the strength to bring forth a conversation about the people I loved.
I hope someone will come by to remind me of the way the ocean smells, of how at one time the sight of it made me think it would swallow me up, but I had people at either side to take my hands so that I didn’t face the cold alone.
I hope my children know that the joy always outweighed the demands.
I hope someone wants my pearls, the white ones and the black ones, and I hope that time softens me enough that my love story doesn’t go untold, that one day I’m able to reach down into what now feels like some unknowable center and bring it all out.