Saul said to his armor-bearer, “Draw your sword and run me through, or these uncircumcised fellows will come and run me through and abuse me.” But his armor-bearer was terrified and would not do it; so Saul took his own sword and fell on it. When the armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he too fell on his sword and died with him.
— First Samuel 31:4-5
So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners.
— Matthew 27:5-7
A Short Story … Chapter Two
The cry from the attic woke Auntie-Ma from her nap. It was Davy’s voice crying out, “Oh my God, no! Oh my God, no!”
Auntie-Ma climbed the ladder to the attic and lifted the hatchway. “What is it, child?” She saw Davy crouched in the corner with the Memory Box on her lap and the bone necklace clutched in her hand.
“Davy, you were never meant to find that box.”
Auntie-Ma was an old woman and it was a feat of no small effort to climb into the attic. She scooted across the floor to the trembling girl and took the necklace. “Davy, you were never meant to find this.” She returned the necklace to the box and it fell loosely onto the faded picture of the young woman, Davy’s mother.
Davy was frozen but she was able to ask the question that Auntie-Ma knew was coming, “Was they her bones, Auntie-Ma?”
“Heaven’s no, Davy. They’s chicken bones.” There was a comforted silence as the two of them huddled in the corner of the attic.
“Davy, it is not a mystery or hidden thing to you that your Ma took her own life. This town is as small as the minds that inhabit it. I never kept that a secret from you. And I could never tell you the why of it, cuz there t’wern’t no “why,” other than an overwhelming sadness that wouldn’t stop. And I don’t want you to think it were you. Cuz God knows that if your Ma had even a moment’s happiness, it was looking at you or holding you. But it was a powerful sadness, one that could be felt when she entered a room.”
Davy rested her small head on Auntie-Ma’s bosom. She was sad now, and worried. “But why the bone necklace, Auntie-Ma?”
“A few days after we put your Ma to her final rest. After the preacher failed miserably to explain things or to comfort me with his ten-cent sermon, I sought a way to comfort myself. I went to chicken yard and kilt me a chicken by wringing its neck. Not for meanness, mind you. It were for dinner. But I knew I was gonna keep some of the bones.”
“And make a necklace?” Davy asked.
“Yes, girly-girl. I boiled the bones and made the necklace you found in the Memory Box. It do sound odd, I know … maybe even unchristian. But child, your ma left a hole in me the size of Montana. And I was angry and sad most the time. T’wern’t fair the way she left. And I took silly comfort in that bone necklace. I wore it under my blouses every day. I even wore it to church. When your Ma took her own life, she nearly took mine.”
“When did you stop wearing it, Auntie-Ma?”
“There was a time, child, when I actually forgot it was there. I was getting ready for bed and Paw-Paw saw it. I had been careful up to that point, but I truly did forget. Well, Paw-Paw went sputtering on and on about how he had married a cannibal woman and even went so far as to sleep in the barn that night. I never told him why. I just took it off and came up here and put it the attic, in the Memory Box.” Auntie-Ma patted the lid as if to close it forever.
“Auntie-Ma, will I turn out to be like my Ma?” The question hung like the cobwebs that infested the far corner of the attic.
“No, child. There’s no need for a second bone necklace.”
The Voices In My Head
I cannot recreate my father’s voice in my head.
The last time I remember talking at length with him was before his diagnosis of leukemia, near Christmas. I was living in a small apartment in West Linn. My father had a habit that irritated all of his children. He treated his visits with us like free lodging for his work as a traveling salesman. None of us begrudged seeing him, least of all me. But it was generally unannounced and inconvenient.
When he came that Christmas, I was home. I had bought a tree for Christmas the day before and was in the living room stringing popcorn and cranberries for garlands. He was traveling alone. Mom was not with him. If my mother had been there, there would have been no silence.
At this point, you are probably expecting a profound conversation between a father and a son as they stitch homemade garland for a Christmas tree. Instead, I only recall that we talked about the most mundane things, my job, the weather, his trip.
I do recall the feel of the room that night. It was as if we both had very important things to say. But that neither of us could afford to say them. So I strung cranberries and popcorn. And my father strung words together by reading a book on Abraham Lincoln at the dining room table.
On the other hand, I have no problem recalling the voice of my mother in my head. The way she would say my name in two firm syllables when she was upset with me. My father also had a two-syllable name. Day-Vid. Hoe-Mer.
My mother had three prerecorded messages that she would play over and over from my infancy through my adulthood.
One: “Homer, you never talk to me.”I was young enough and distanced from my siblings enough that I was almost an “only child.” We had a wood stove that heated the house and often the dining room at the far end of the house was not warm enough to eat meals there, so we would eat at a folding table near the wood stove.
Meals were not pleasant for the three of us. My father would come home from a day of barbering. I would come home from a day at school. And mother would server dinner and demand conversation.
The truly ironic thing was that my father was a brilliant conversationalist. He was a barber and he carried on conversation after conversation all day long. His clientele included the Governor of Oregon and several town drunks. My father was well read and had ideas ahead of his time.
But by the time he had gotten home and was seated at the table, all the words had drained from him like sand from a punctured toy.
And if there were any silence at all, my mother would rail, “Homer! You never talk to me. You can talk all to everyone until you’re blue in the face. Why can’t you talk to me?”
Eventually, this led to The List. My father would make notes on a small scrap of paper so that he could review for my mother the events of the day. Since he was a barber, this list had limited appeal to me. And I could see that it was killing my father to stoop to having to make a list for my mother.
Two: “At least I’m not one of those women down at the bar with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.”
To this day I am not sure whether my mother was mentally ill. Most likely not. Fragile, but not crazy. But whenever she had done something totally off the wall, or immensely hurtful, or if she were seeking attention, she would inform us, “At least I’m not one of those women down at the bar with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.” And indeed she was not. She did not smoke. She did not drink. She worked very hard at things like laundry, ironing, and cleaning.
But there were days when I wished that my mother would to a bar, pull up a stool, light up a Kool Menthol, and ask for a beer. Her family would have cheered!
Three: “If you really loved me …”
The third litany in my mother’s repertoire was not an uncommon one. We have all pulled it out of hat and if we haven’t said it, we think it: “If you really loved me …” But the frequency and the passion with which my mother used this phrase elevated it to new heights.
My brother once asked me, “David. You’ve seen pictures of mom when she was younger. She was gorgeous. And you’ve seen what she’s become. How did that happen?”
To the best of my knowledge, never allowing yourself to be loved damages you.
I had played my mother’s psychologist long enough that I had probed the roots of her inability to be loved; the childhood slight of a girlfriend over a doll, the boy who promised to take her to the opera but never showed, the iron-willed mother, the daughter born out-of-wedlock, the poverty. As tragic as some of those were, I could never tell why they would add up to this woman who could never be assured that she was loved as deeply as she felt she needed to be loved.
A few months before her death, I had taken her for a drive in the country. I had talked to her for two hours straight. She wanted to come to my house and I told her that I didn’t have time today. And then in a rage she turned to me and said, “You’re just waiting for me to die, aren’t you!”
Fortunately, I didn’t say the first word that came into my mind.
And sometimes in dreams, sometimes in barren moments I will hear her voice. It is then I want to go to a bar. Light up. Order a beer. And insist on telling the bartender who came into the barbershop today!
Do Not Worry, I Am a Writer
Bruce called from California recently, “just to chat.” In the course of the conversation he told me that he reads my Haircuts and Homilies religiously. And in the course of the conversation he mentioned that when I began writing them a couple of my friends had phoned him worried that I might be suicidal.
I will admit that some of my writing can be a bit dark. Okay, sometimes downright bleak. And I am prone to relishing my sadness like a chipped tooth that I can’t resist running my tongue over again and again.
I recently went through a very difficult period relationally. And while I did not feel suicidal, I felt like I had disconnected from life. I sought the help of a counselor and have reconnected.
I shared with my counselor that if there ever came a true point where I despaired of life and did not think I could continue, I was fortunate to have three people whom I could call and that I felt I would always have the strength to call them. They would take my call seriously and do whatever needed to be done to restore my belief that I am loved and cared for. Knowing that I could call Norm, Chuck, or Scott is enough. And beyond those three are many, many others.
My therapist then told me that I am not suicidal, but have an extreme propensity toward self-pity. Ouch!
“Doctor, if you really loved me … “
A Short Story: Chapter Three
Davy knew that Auntie-Ma would be very upset to discover that she was returning to attic to retrieve the bone necklace. Her heart pounded within her chest as she raised the hatchway leading to the small upper room. In the dark she crawled to where the Memory Box was. She opened the lid and felt the hard bones and the twine that made up the necklace. She lifted it from the box and placed it around her neck.
She backed down the ladder and the hatchway closed more noisily than she wanted. Once outside, she followed the backyard path to the river. It was not any river; it was “the” river. Davy scrambled down the viny bank and stood at the edge.
“Ma,” her voiced choked. “Ma, if you are listening, you need to know that I am sad. You need to know that you left a hole the size of Montana in me.” Davy tore the bone necklace from her neck. She dangled it above the river. “I am sad, Ma. I am very sad much of the time. But Ma.” Her voice stopped, “But … Ma …” She clutched the shibboleth in her small hand, “But Ma, I am not like you. I am me, Davy.” And with that she hurled the bone necklace into the river.
Auntie-Ma stood silently on he upper bank. Her weathered parchment cheeks were stained with tears. Part joy and part sadness. Part past and part future. She wiped the sadness part of the tears away and returned to the house, as smoke curled from the chimney from the fire that Paw-Paw had built.