I trudged up the stairs of my mother’s house as the sky turned a sickening summer green, that peculiar, often catastrophic color: nature’s warning of a storm’s approach. The stately old brownstone had grown hollow as the weeks went by and I steadily progressed in the task that had befallen me. The hollowness was emphasized by the echo of my footfalls on the high-polished runners of the stairs.
Halfway up, I paused to look at the scene below, at the cardboard boxes stacked like scattered building blocks, their matte brown faces fixed in blank stares at empty walls. These were the building blocks of a life, and I was standing in the deconstruction zone, entrusted with the duty of packing up my mother’s things now that she was gone. Encircling this stage, set for its closing act, was a backdrop of tall windows trimmed in American Chestnut, a common wood used in early twentieth-century trim work before the devastating chestnut blight went through. Above the deep-set sills hung simple white squares, the blinds left exposed when I had stripped away the heavy tapestry-like drapes Mom had put up years before. The windows glistened, silent sentinels, while beyond in the garden the dark green leaves of Mother’s favored bush, a Rose of Sharon, turned upside-down to catch the coming rain.
Somehow the upper reaches of the house had seemed forbidding and I saved the room at the top of the stairs for last, the room that had been my mother’s. The blinds there were also white, but cut with scalloped edges trimmed in fringe. They were drawn so far that, even in the dim light, I could differentiate the fresh white part near the rollers from the smoke-stained portion that had been exposed for years. Although I raised them, each blind snapping obediently beneath my touch, the dull day admitted little light, and I wearily sat on the long set of window seats to survey the threatening sky.
My focus drifted back inside to the window frame. I’d been raised in that house; I must have had gazed on those windows a thousand times through the years, yet I was struck by their color as if the palate of my perception had suddenly broadened. It was the same color Mom had used to paint most of the house, a color my father had hated. As a child, I had wondered at it, watching the odd tone spread like a rampant bacterium creeping down walls and running up stairwells. I even asked her once, when I was nine, why she always used that color. She had merely said that she liked it. I accepted her explanation, but later — as a teen — I decided another truth was more likely, that she had chosen a bargain-rate closeout color at the hardware store downtown.
Sitting that day in my mother’s room, I noticed something new about that dismal color. I noticed that the frames of those windows matched the sky. My mother didn’t leave the house much, hadn’t worked outside the home, and suddenly I realized she had framed her view of the world in the same sickening green that portends a summer storm.
There’s a twisted excitement in that hue, of coming danger and an urge to huddle with loved ones, but the funnels never swept across our town. The most we ever got was hail, big hungry chunks denting my father’s car out front while he cursed from the kitchen, slamming windows. And although I imagine she hadn’t done it on purpose — choosing that color, I mean — for me the realization lent to her life a sadness, one that hollowed a place in my heart as I sat there, remembering her.
On the narrow sliver of green wall between the green-framed windows hung a barometric gauge that had been my father’s. Sturdily set in a darkly polished walnut, its face behind a circle of thick convex glass gone yellow with age, the meter reminded me of him — of my father — his sunken eyes looming large behind darkly framed reading glasses grown thicker with each new prescription. The delicate hand on the barometer’s face drooped beneath the press of the storm front, making me think of how my own arms were feeling, tired from carrying cartons, burdened by the weight of taking on a task I resented.
Across the room, I was drawn to a door that hung ajar. Mom’s closet. How many times had I played there as a child, crawling through to where it came out on my father’s side? The narrow space was a dark, mysterious tunnel smelling of cedar cakes and shoes. Sighing, I rose as the first rumble of thunder rattled the window behind me. Moving to the closet, I opened the door with disinterest, sure that I knew what awaited: a polyester wardrobe of single-colored slacks in a pastel assortment, each mounted on a hanger with a matching paisley top. With collars wide and colors wild, the seventies had taken permanent residence in my mother’s closet, a dowager’s timeworn trousseau.
I could see nothing, the space made pitch by the darkening day, so I kneeled and reached beyond a constellation of shoes. My hand landed on a large Rubbermaid bin and I yanked it clear, not surprised to see that the tub was green. I smiled, even. What did surprise me was its weight. Tipping the loose-fitted lid, I discovered the bin was filled with sheets of paper. Curious, I tugged the load to the window and sat on the lemon-oiled floorboards where I drew the bin between my outstretched legs. The lid had been labeled with a fat-edged marker, the sort my theatrical 12-year-old used on the front-porch posters he regularly placed at our house across town, ones that read, “Clown Show Today,” or “See Civil War Encampment To The Rear.”
Emblazoned on the lid of the bin in Mother’s neat handwriting were the words: Could Have. It was a scrolling penmanship, reminiscent of those learned beneath stern looks of single-minded school marms long ago. As the storm applauded, I opened the lid and set it aside, extracting the first piece of paper. Thinking how I had always liked the tumultuous sound of thundersong, I listened fondly to the familiar way those old windows hummed their syncopated rhythms to the sky-bred staccato of the storm.
The paper immediately reminded me of those incomprehensible pages of certain (usually government-generated) documents that are stamped with a single sentence stating the inane: “This Space Intentionally Left Blank.” I gazed at that paper, my mind gone only slightly less blank than the page. A lone phrase was neatly typed at its eight-and-a-half inch waistline: Read Gone With the Wind.
I flipped the paper, finding its backside blank, and flipped it back, still staring. Foolishly I flipped it yet again as though new words might magically appear. What the heck? Was this some strange instruction from the grave? I had never had an interest in Margaret Mitchell’s work. Had my mom left this for me to find, telling me to read it? I placed the paper on the window seat and pulled out a second one. Looking back, I know now I must have looked like that old RCA Victor dog, Nipper, continually cocking my head this way and that as I went on pulling out papers. I just didn’t get it. Not at first.
The pages were all the same. I don’t mean to say they all instructed me to read a novel, but each bore a single typed phrase. And the further I moved through the stack, I began to notice that the typing changed. I realized that the first papers I came across, those on top, were more recent. I could see they had been typed on Mom’s computer — my old one, actually: a cast-off from an up-grade a few years back. Then came pages I could tell had been typed on that borrowed electric, the one the courthouse had loaned my mother when she had typed at home for a local court reporter. I recognized the type because I had helped from time to time when the workloads weren’t light, the deadlines too near, or her aches were getting the best of her. I thought of how we alternately snickered and groaned at the language in those transcripts, at the nit-picking needling of lawyers and the winding testimony of witnesses who would never know their ridiculous self-incriminations found life at the tips of our fingers.
Back in time went the typeset of those pages, from Times New Roman to pica to elite, til the pages that passed through my palms were ones pounded out beneath the clackity-clack of that lumbering machine I had only heard tell of: a black antique with ivory button keys perched on spindled necks, its unbelievable weight like a Studebaker pressed into a breadbox. It was a typewriter so old its origins were akin to my mother’s ancient Singer, a sewing machine run by the power of a pedal and whose black body, trimmed in fine lines of swirling gold leaf overlay, could neatly duck beneath its decorative cabinet to double in disuse as a lamp stand.
Kept contact with Millie. Redecorated the balcony room. Finished King’s Corner Lost. As I studied the array of phrases strewn around me, the storm broke loose; pelting the windows with fat slaps of rain. Refinished the dining room furniture. Painted the bathtub red. Painted the bathtub red?
“Mom,” I laughed aloud, “What in the world?”
The pages that I held ran dry with reflected streaks of rain, a rain driven across the glass behind me by a punishing gale that whistled and moaned a melody to the percussive thunder. While branch tips of the massive Main Street maple tapped the rolled-glass windows and the brownstone shoulders of the house, I glanced again at the big rubber lid I’d set aside.
“Could have,” I pronounced.
I said it again and all at once I realized what I’d found. This tub had been filled with all the things my mother ‘could have’ done; could have accomplished; the places she could have gone; the words she could have said. This was her final analysis of the life she’d led. This, a confetti of shredded intentions and of personal plans unmet, a litany of losses tossed en masse in a loose-lidded Rubbermaid crypt. A Could Have bin. That’s how my mother saw her life: so much confetti in a Could Have bin.
The tears that came were quick and unexpected, loaned to me perhaps from someone else. They streaked across my face as fast as the slithering snakes of rain scouring the brownstone walls of my mother’s empty house. I remembered how she had spoken of a Millie once, her best friend from the two years she’d spent at a college in Kentucky. Spoken of her once. And I knew that in the tired years Mother’s list of household plans had dwindled as her energy escaped her.
Sitting there, wiping my face with my sleeve, I began recalling other things, like how many times she talked about turning that small battered balcony-side room — a sort of storage bin in its own right — into a reading room or an office where she would finish her would-be blockbuster novel: King’s Corner Lost. And I laughed as I cried about that care-worn claw-footed bathtub, having forgotten till now how she had once set her heart on painting it red, a proposition entirely too preposterous for my conservative father to bear. Through my tears I laughed as I heard his bellowing voice in the thunder outside.
“PAINT THE BATHTUB RED?!” he had hollered. “What the Sam H. Hill made’ja thinka such a stupit thing, Cath’ern?!”
Cath’ern. That’s what he had always called her. The same way he had always called me Marj’ry. My dad, a two-syllable man.
With a shuddering sigh I stopped, cleared my eyes, and went to the bathroom for tissue. When I returned, more collected, I carefully read every page she had written. Part way through, I had to go again for tissue, so I brought back the entire roll and plunked it down, knowing I would need it. I did, especially as her leavings drew me back in time, opening the scabbed-over wounds of childhood, my own list of could-haves come alive: Attended Marjorie’s First Communion (I had gone alone); Gone to Open House at school (I was the kid whose parents never came); Let Marjorie stay when I ironed.
I remembered anew how I loved loitering underfoot whenever she ironed, a five-year-old endlessly yakking, weaving tales of a cotton-candy nothingness to entertain my mother. Only she never let me linger long, always chasing me away with admonitions that I talked too much and never said a thing. But even if I didn’t know it then, I realize now how she was already spent by the time I was born: me, the ninth child; she, the reluctant mother indentured by a heartless Catholicism to bear all that she could bear. Weary when her children fought, weary when they sought advice or begged a day’s advance on a week’s allowance, Mom would raise her hand and utter her usual blessing: Leave me in peace.
Hours passed, as did the storm. Evening closed in, forcing me to use the bare bulb overhead to go on reading. There must have been ten reams of paper. Ten reams of dreams left behind to sort through. For a time I thought about re-labeling the tub The Two Thousand Dreams of Catherine O’Collins, but then I thought of something else. Something better. I say I thought of it, but I got that funny sense it was a borrowed thought, borrowed like the unexpected tears that had been dolloping my tee shirt since the moment I’d opened Mother’s box.
Groaning because my muscles were tight and my joints reluctant, I rose and went downstairs. Beneath the low-wattage of more bare bulbs, I retrieved two things: the broad black permanent pen I’d been using to mark cardboard boxes, and a typewriter, my old Smith Corona that had been sitting in the back attic room since my college days near Pittsburgh. I’d only brought it down the afternoon before, trying to recall the name of that charity I’d heard about which refurbished old manuals for shipment to under-developed countries that could use them.
I toted the aging electric upstairs and plugged it in after closing the scalloped-edged blinds. With my back to the window and a pillow for support, I took up the marker and carefully blacked-out the words on the lid of the bin. I did so by drawing a big black heart. Above the heart I designed a magic-marker banner in which I wrote the following words: Always Had.
Picking up a page and crossing out her words, I scrolled it into the typewriter that was buzzing with age and impatience, hoping the machine was up to the task. I took a deep breath and began. On the opposite side of the page from where my mother had once typed, Smiled more often, I typed the phrase, An encouraging smile for each of us whenever we needed it most. And with those words I began a task that took me the rest of the night, a task that had befallen me and one that I didn’t resent. It was the task of turning Mother’s Could Have bin into a thing more apropos, into her Always Had bin.
It was easy to do because my mother always had been so many wonderful things to us all. But I knew now that the things Mom always had been, to us and to others, weren’t the things she saw. Instead, she saw all the things that could have been, and because of that, left behind a legacy of losses. Or so she thought.
My mother was mistaken.
As the hours wore on and the coffee ring soured in my cup, the Always Had bin’s appetite grew full: (always had) One book or another in hand which, by example, encouraged us all to read (always had) A meal ready which was not only delicious, but nutritionally sound; (always had) A way of lessening sorrows; (always had) A gift for putting the disappointments of life into a workable perspective; (always had) Enough energy to care for a big family. In type I testified that she always had: Admirable restraint; A visible integrity; A talent for the written word; Personal ambition despite overwhelming responsibilities; A rich sense of humor; A knack for beautifying surroundings, even on a budget; Faith.
Hours later, bleary-eyed at the break of a blustery day, I pulled away from the graveyard with a glance in the Mercury’s mirror. While the groundskeepers at St. Joseph’s had surely found a variety of things throughout the years, I knew they were far more familiar with flowers and candles and cards. Still, I’d seen my share of teddy bears there, propped against marble and granite. And once I even saw a flask of whiskey sporting a white rosary like a miniature necklace of pearls. How much more odd than that could be a paper-laden Rubbermaid tub in a sickening summer-storm green?
The Could Have Bin first appeared in the May and June 2002 issues of GRIT Magazine.