You could always find the key under the rock, where Mom left it: rusty, in a soggy plastic bag, beneath the flat slate rock to the left of the back stairs. Only she carried her own key: everyone else used the key caked with dirt. It was constant, reliable, permanent. But now Mom is gone and the key is gone. We don’t know where it went, only that Dad went to Scituate this summer and it wasn’t there. We have to depend on ourselves now: our memories and our new keys.
It is July, a year and a half since we buried Mom, and I’ve taken eight-month-old Sebastian on his first trip to Scituate. As much as one can infuse an eight month old, I want to infuse him with Scituate and with Mom. I want to feel summer, sand, and especially, her. When I put in a load of laundry–written in permanent black marker on the washer machine cover is Yale Elec. 6/2002: the last time the machine was serviced. I look around the rest of the garage and see how many things she, with her rough hands and chipping nails, was likely the last to touch. Those hands used to hang towels on the line in the back yard; used to organize and reorganize the garage; used to leave notes on the kitchen table when she was out. Those hands are imprinted on so many parts of this house.
We didn’t call the house on Ocean Avenue a cottage, the way most people refer to a summer place. Though it wasn’t a house you could live in year round, it had two floors, five bedrooms, two bathrooms. That was the house aspect. The beach aspect was the sandy kitchen floor, the screened-in front porch, and the outside shower with a wood plank beneath our feet.
“It’s the beach.” That’s what Mom always said. She said it if we overslept, if we weren’t productive, if we felt like doing nothing. “It’s the beach.” That was the beauty of Scituate: we didn’t have to do anything here. Sitting or reading or napping made a day worthwhile. There were no bedtimes, no rules about food in the living room, no concerns about stains on carpets or couches. We used paper plates more often than at home and even the real dishes were old. The cars in the driveway were unlocked, the beach chairs and tennis racquets were left in the yard, and the key was under the rock. She told friends and relatives, “Come anytime. Leave your car in the driveway. Let yourself in: the key’s under the rock.”
Sebastian and I settle ourselves on the front porch: a blanket and toys for him; a newspaper and phone for me. I look at the empty yard. No one visits unannounced now. We each have our own key, but Dad still wants us to call him when we are headed here. Last night I called and told him we were coming. I hoped to get back what used to be. I can’t recreate our summers for Sebastian, but I want him to get a sense of the comfort and peace of Scituate, and a sense of the grandmother he will never know.
We have always called this house simply by the name of the town: Scituate. My parents bought it in 1976, when I was just four years old. The water heater took up the middle of the yellow kitchen, the stove was ancient, and everything needed painting: the blue gray exterior; the living room ceiling tiles where the rain leaked through; the white baseboards that I hated to dust. One summer Mom and her sister Margo took the white wicker furniture from Gram’s old summer house, painted it, and reupholstered it in a royal blue floral. No project was too much. In the mornings Mom was up early, long before us kids, to cut the hedges, call Gram and do laundry, plant some flowers. By 8 a.m. she had repainted all the baseboards or defrosted the freezer or had five piles of branches for us to bag for the dump. She was fearless in attacking lawns and ladders and hedges.
Now Dad has hired someone to clean the house, cut the lawn, and replace the windows. (Mom never would have spent the money on a cleaning person in Scituate when she could do things her way.) I’m glad not to have projects awaiting me when I go. But there’s something missing, too, in having everything, or most things, taken care of. The rugs are vacuumed and we don’t have to scrub the bathrooms, but the milk in the fridge is three weeks old, and the cereal in the Tupperware is sticky because it’s from last summer. If Mom could see the dates on these things, she would see how we feel her absence, in even the ordinary.
As Sebastian rolls over and bumps his head, I pick him up and hear her in my voice, “Oh, buster, you’ll be fine, just fine.” “Hey, toots,” she would have said. Or “C’mon, sweets, let’s go.” Unflappable with babies, she easily gave them affection, holding and cuddling them. More reserved with everyone else, however, she did not so much give, as happily accept, affection. Dad used to embarrass her with his hugs and kisses; we kids simply followed his lead, knowing that even if she didn’t run up to us, we were welcome to run up to her and hug and kiss her as much as we wanted. She’d turn her head so you kissed her on the cheek, pat your back, and then laugh.
Upstairs were the four kid bedrooms and then Mom and Dad’s, set apart beyond the bathroom. When the linoleum floor in their room creaked in the mornings, we knew that one of them was up. The beds were old, all hand me downs from our real house: when a new mattress at home was bought, the old mattress came to Scituate and became new again. The bed in my room is still the same single from childhood: soft, short, and low. Anyone who sits on it sinks into the ancient flowery spread, a reminder that his or her back will ache in the morning. Whenever I’ve gone to Scituate as an adult, with any kid bed to choose from, I still have taken the old bed in my room. There’s comfort there.
I wash the sand out of Sebastian’s shorts in the upstairs sink and tell him about my birthday many years ago: In the kitchen, Mom and Margo prepared dinner for our family and some friends. Mom yelled up from downstairs, “Maureen, is there water running up there? It’s coming through the ceiling!” I had left my bathing suit in this same sink, where Sebastian now sits, with the water running. I received no more admonition than that. It was summer, it was the beach, and it was my birthday.
The summer after Mom died, I didn’t go to Scituate much. I missed her most in this place, both in what was still here and in what wasn’t. The staples of peanut butter, apples, and large gumdrops were no longer waiting for us when we arrived. But the five curling irons that often made her return to the house, in case they had been left on, were here; the extra sweatshirts for family and guests were still in her dresser; the kitchen still had the green tile that she chose seven years ago. Upstairs, on the old green carpet outside my room, was the imprint of the iron: one Saturday night, in her rush to get ready for her and Dad’s weekly dinner out with the O’Neills, she ironed her dress right there on the rug. I love that rough patch.
Whether Mom was in Waltham or in Scituate, she had her lists. The difference was, in Scituate not everything got done on the list in a day, and that was okay. If someone stopped by unannounced in Waltham, she’d run upstairs to change out of her robe and put on some lipstick or furiously wash the kitchen counters again. In Scituate, bathing suits or shorts and t-shirts were enough. Dishes in the sink were acceptable. Drop-in visitors were a welcome distraction, rather than an inconvenience. In Scituate she was less private, needing less time and space to herself. At home in Waltham her book would sit by the couch for months, picked up occasionally before she’d doze off. But in Scituate the book was on the porch, in her beach chair, or on the table by the couch.
Long and chatty phone calls, like visitors, were more pleasure than duty in summer. In Waltham she might tell me, “I was trying to get out of here this morning, but so-and-so called and I just couldn’t get off the phone. I have so much to do, and she could talk forever.” In Scituate, the phone would ring and she’d say, “Oh, you can bring it out to me on the porch.” She might still do laundry while she talked, but she also might stay on the phone after she finished folding the basket of laundry. Her ease with time in the summers at Scituate gave us permission to be less productive, sit longer, and stay in bed later.
I told her once, her last year here, as we went into the bank to make a deposit, “I’m afraid that my kids won’t know you, that you won’t know them.” She, who would never talk about death, or what came next — for her or for us without her — smiled. “Oh, they will,” she said. “I will.”
So I take Sebastian to Scituate, and I try to become less scared of going, less scared of the emptiness: I want to feel her there in the pictures over the fireplace, in the cool air on the front porch, in the creaky floor by her bureau. On that bureau I find her comb, once her father’s comb. I can still see the initials PJM on it: M is for Murphy, her maiden name, now Sebastian’s middle name. I slip the comb into my pocket to take home for Sebastian.
Back on the front porch Sebastian and I eat lunch, just as we all used to do on a summer’s day. The dining room was for doing work or reading the paper. We ate there only when it was raining or too cold to eat out at the picnic table. At night, if there was no baseball game on, we kids might get to choose the show. In Scituate we had cable. We needed it for any reception at all, so my parents gave in to it long before we got it in Waltham. It was exciting to sneak watching a Michael Jackson video when Mom wasn’t home. When her car tires or feet crunched the rocky driveway, we’d lie down beneath the windows, click off the TV, and rush to other spots in the house. No doubt she always knew: from the driveway you can hear the buzz of the TV still.
The sun is not so high now, so Sebastian and I go for a walk to the beach, passing the post office, even though we no longer have a box. Still, I like walking by it, watching people go in and out, observing the kids, younger versions of my siblings and myself, as they hop on their bikes and pedal away. Across the street, Glavin’s is gone; in its place is just another condominium for sale. I can’t just walk in and buy a Globe or an ice cream anymore; I have to get in the car and drive to the supermarket one town over.
Two years ago my Mom was too tired to walk far, but knew that some walking would be good for her. We ended up passing a yard sale with my sister Cathy. “I’ve never been to a yard sale,” Mom said. She was sixty-two years old, and she’d never been to a yard sale. She was as frugal as they come: she’d go three towns over to buy chicken that was on sale and she faithfully cut her coupons on Sundays, but buying things second-hand never crossed her mind. Cathy and I bought a little wooden rocking horse for $5. Mom kept it at the beach for the grandkids: back then there was only one-year-old Sean; I wonder whether she had any idea that just a year after she was gone, there would be two more boys for that rocking horse, Sean’s brother Justin and our Sebastian.
Now it’s low tide. I push the stroller on the sand, nodding to the dog walkers and runners. I remember myself as a small girl at this time of day, hunting crabs, collecting them in pails, then letting them go before leaving the beach. Years later, I took this walk with Mom, down to Turtle Rock and all the way to the house on stilts. Now I tell Sebastian, “Your grandmother could walk this beach all day. She’d read her book by the water afterwards. You would have loved her. She would have adored you.” I tell him that she would have pushed this stroller heartily, would have brought him over to her friend Mrs. O’Neill’s for a visit, would have treated him to an ice cream at Wilbur’s.
At eight months Sebastian doesn’t understand me, but I need to tell him stories about his grandmother. I need to tell myself about her, make sure that I feel both her presence and her absence. I avoid the Waltham house now: it feels cold and empty. For a while I checked to make sure that nothing of hers was out of place there- pictures of her, the top of her bureau, her robe. I didn’t want Dad to change anything, to let her be gone. Now he is selling the Waltham house, and I feel grateful. It hasn’t been her house since she died.
Dad won’t ever sell Scituate. We all need this house. We are an Irish Catholic family: we don’t talk about feelings. We don’t verbalize how much we miss her and how hard it is without her. It is here – not in Waltham and not at the cemetery – that we feel her most; it’s where she still comes alive. I show Sebastian those pictures over the fireplace. “That’s your grandmother,” I say. “Doesn’t she look great?”
In the pictures her wiry gray hair is permed and wild and trying to be tamed; there is no wig. She is healthy. In her younger days she was thin, so thin that she could make fun of herself when she was older. “Everyone says I’m so thin now,” said after rounds of chemo and radiation. “But when I was younger I was thinner than this. Oh, I was too thin, but I thought I was gorgeous.”
If Mom were here, she would be taking this low tide walk with Sebastian and me. I could always recognize her by the way she swung her arms when she walked the beach, by the way her hips swayed when she stood by the water. I imagine her here now. My fears disappear, and I feel more certain that she had a happy life. When I think of her at the water’s edge, turning to wave up at me on the beach stairs, I remember her as a forty year old mother with five kids and endless energy. A woman who was not sick and never accepted a day in bed for any of us, including herself. Sixty-three years then seems longer, fuller, more complete. Her life seems less cut short.
When I pass the O’Neill’s house now, my heart sinks. Their driveway is full and chairs and people overflow on the lawn. They have five kids, six grandkids, lots of friends. Mom would have created a full driveway, full beds, full cribs. She would have called on a Sunday morning, last minute, and said, “Oh, I’m going to get some corn and some chicken for whoever’s around. Want to come to dinner?” I want what would have happened if she were here. I want what she imagined was going to happen, how she imagined she would be as a grandmother, as a grandmother in the summer in Scituate. She already had the portable crib and the umbrella stroller.
The portable crib and the stroller are still here. But she’s not. She didn’t tell us how hard it would be without her. I feel better when I feel her absence now: for a while I was afraid of forgetting. When I’m in Scituate, I see her everywhere. Where I don’t see her, I miss her. When I arrive now, I don’t pick up the flat rock to find the key to the back door. But then I go inside and I find her sneakers and a sweatshirt, and I smile. I see her young, healthy, and happy. She’s trimming a hedge from the top step of a ladder in the yard, waving from a chair on the porch, smiling up at me from the water’s edge. She’s here as I swoop up Sebastian and say, “Hey, toots. Shall we go to the beach?”