A talisman

By Hillary Carr | Jul 07, 2010

She looked so much smaller in her bed, her skin translucent and drawn taut over her prominent cheekbones and nose. The wrinkles of past worries, gone. It had been six months since my last visit. I was glad that she'd lived through my adventure and that I was back to tell her my tales. She waved me to her bedside.

"Come sit by me," she beckoned, patting the bed. "I want to hear everything."

The 93-year-old voice was gravelly and deep. My sister Anne and I both heard the difference.

Mother's room was the same. It carried the unmistakable smell of California, a mix of eucalyptus and Monterey cypress. The larkspur sheets made into curtains, hastily hung by Anne and me, were still pinned for hemming. Tied back by thick blue grosgrain, they opened to the sky and clouds she wanted to see from her bed.

Three weeks into rehab she called to be rescued. Take me home, she had begged. Now it was two years since the massive stroke, legs that would not obey. What a sentence! She had borne it well, finding the only road to her own survival in the details of the lives of her caretakers. Someone so impatient and so private, she'd had to struggle to accept the ministrations of rotating strangers. Their intimate secrets became her own, giving her a life beyond her four walls.

Anne and I propped up her pillows and brushed her hair, still so white and wavy. We smoothed old sores, massaging her hands with cream. Those hands, the Ward hands, were small and square, Arnold's brick oven white, we called them. So capable and strong, hands that loved to soothe and wash babies, hands that shaped the perfect hamburger patty, hands that shaped clay busts, that mended hems and feather stitched layettes, chopped olives for sandwiches, wrote countless letters, and dusted around the edges of life with a Kleenex. They balanced a bike or the wheel of a car. They were fearless. They fingered her daily rosary. They lay quiet now, adorned by her silver chain-link bracelet and her wedding band.

I told her tales of the trek, the early mornings walking for days up the dry Kaligandaki riverbed past boulders left after the monsoons, the natural warm springs at Tadapani, the sunrise climb to see the entire Annapurna range, the island in the lake at Pokara, our horrible yak cheese dinner, the monkey temple of Kathmandu, the night in the inn over the stable with the ponies sleeping downstairs, the stupa, the Tibetan jewelry in local bazaars, the Molotov cocktails outside the hotel in Delhi. She smiled and stroked my hand. I noticed that she was watching my new turquoise ring.

"What is the story here?" she asked.

"Do you like it? The first time I saw it, I was setting out on my trip. But I didn't buy it then. I thought it looked too big for my hand. But I loved it. I thought about it from time to time along the way. When I returned I found the Tibetan vendor who had first shown it to me. I bought it right away. It feels lucky, a talisman."

"I like it," she said.

I slipped it on to her middle finger, a perfect fit. She quickly closed her fingers around it, smiled and went to sleep.

Where did her dreams take her? Anne and I had come across old journal entries: 1923, thinking of going to China to become a missionary; 1944, wanting to do nursing on the front lines of the North Africa campaign. Dreams, longings for lives far from suburbia, dreams of her heroines and heroes; Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, Mother Teresa, Francis of Assisi and his friend, Claire, Ignatius Loyola, Junipero Serra, wrestling with her own calling. Dreams of unlived other lives, other stories, pushing and pulling, contradictions, all the questions of a life review. Am I enough? Have I loved well? Is that the question?

The magic turquoise stayed on her finger until she died, five months later. Once she had left it inadvertently at the manicurist and had sent someone back to get it. She loved that ring. Turquoise, weathered and large, set in a bed of tarnished silver. It softened the hard edge of judgment, mine and hers, our long dark silences about what mattered most. I had walked angrily away from the church she loved, the bond of beliefs once shared so deeply. I was a traitor whom she did not abandon but did not understand either. Two women struggling, longing for common ground. She curled her fingers around my adventure, first steps into a new life. Could we begin from here?

Hillary Carr lives in Camden.


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