When she left, Anita took Mom’s valise, the round one with the wooden handle from Eaton’s department store. Mom was furious. She’d had it on hold at the store for weeks while she earned enough to pay for it, scrubbing at the unloved space behind strangers’ toilets, teaching cello to wealthy children who would rather be at the movies. She liked to say that she ruined her hands to hold that valise, and now, for what? Why the sacrifice now?
The neighbors always said that Anita was that kind of girl, that’s why none of them stopped her when they saw her get in the car with that boy. Souped up thing, they said. Flashy. Anyone could have seen it coming. There was celebrating when she tore away, a cloud of smoke emanating from the tailpipe behind them, a magician’s disappearance.
Mom never forgave the neighbors. I think she stayed on Riverside Crescent to punish them with her misery, so they’d know how much their inactivity in that pivotal moment had betrayed her, how it was wounding her still. She was their responsibility, now.
Until she grew too old to care for the bungalow, she watched the neighborhood out the window the way some people watch the news. It was a show of judgment toward the neighbors, but that was only part of it. My mother was possessed of the stubborn idea that one day that gaudy, whorish car would come back up the drive with Anita, matured and demure at the wheel, an apology and the valise in tow: a humble return. A long-awaited vindication, perhaps even a return of some love, a reward for some sacrifice.
When Mother passed, I tried to track down Anita, but in her grand vanishing act, she’d left no trace. It was just as well, I didn’t know what I’d say to her after all these years, and her company would be no use to the dead. I suppose if I’d found her, I’d have told her how her leaving had exposed me to a deeper scrutiny, how I had spent those years at home trying to make myself small enough to become something our mother could hold. I’d have liked somebody to join me at the nursing home, mind: a husband, a cherished friend, even my mutineer sister. She could have been useful in that way.
When I got to the home, a peppy and ponytailed aide told me how Mother regularly compared the residence (unfavorably) to her home; that the nurses speculated what a palace it must have been based on her tenacious love for it. I was surprised. Mother despised that house. She bemoaned the negligible hot water tank, cursed the furniture, damned the paltry storage space, the mold-prone baseboards. I wondered if the aide was only saying this because she thought it might be comforting to hear. Grief makes kind liars out of honest people.
“She didn’t like our windows here. She said she couldn’t see out of them. We thought maybe her vision—but she wouldn’t let us take her to the optometrist—she could see the television, anyhow—”
“She had a bay window at the house,” I explained, gathering Mom’s remaining belongings into a small cardboard box. Loose, cotton clothes, appropriate for an old and aching body, and a small porcelain figure of a girl dressed for a day at the beach. She had an unbothered look on her face, as though she had come to expect a life rich with relaxation, down time. I tried to think if I’d ever seen this expression on an actual person’s face.
“I always wanted a bay window,” the nurse said, clapping her hands in delight. She continued describing other features she wanted in a house. I inspected the offending window. It looked onto the neighboring building, red brick, and a long way down to a narrow, slate grey alley. There was no street view, no way to see any possible comings or goings or the theatre of life. No place someone might walk slowly up the drive.
“And a fireplace! Wouldn’t that be the living end?” The aide stopped speaking abruptly, as though she had just remembered why I was there.
Out the window, my eyes followed the path of the mortar across the way. I traced the smooth porcelain of the figurine with my thumb feeling the jut of her unsmiling bowed lips. I tucked her into my purse, an unremarkable bag. A bag I put no thought into buying. I considered the phrase the living end, all of the things it could mean.