The sharp sting of winter air greeted me when I ventured to the porch for today's newspapers. I scurried back, clutching my robe against my chest. Our dog snuffled behind me, feeling the air, the pull of the outside smells. I shushed her back and moved toward the kitchen where bacon sizzled in the pan for my husband's breakfast.
The smell of breakfast takes me back, to mornings in my mother's kitchen.
It's a morning like so many others. The stench of over-boiled coffee and the lingering pungence of eggs sizzling in butter surrounds me. I stand in the small space between the door to the basement and the solidness of the oak cabinet which stands next to the refrigerator. I run my fingers along its worn edges, feeling the slick of grime trapped in the crevice between the top of the vinyl surface and the rounded trim piece.
My mother comes into the room, her hair tightly rolled in curlers with plastic pins holding them in place and a kerchief tied round her head. The warmth of her smile spreads to her eyes, liquid brown and dancing. She greets me, then goes to the pot to pour herself a cup of coffee and moves beyond me to the breakfast room table.
A slight shiver courses through me. I huddle in a sweat shirt and jeans, thick socks on my feet. I run my hand through the hair that I'm wearing short for only the second time in my twenty-two years. I hold my hands in front of me and gaze at the ragged fingernails, the scars, the dark veins prominent against my Irish fairness. My incoherent thoughts immobilize me, briefly; then I get a mug for myself and join my mother.
"What are you going to do today," she asks, and we both know the full import of her question. This is a turning point for me: I've slunk back to town, my tail between my legs, a stray mongrel shivering on her doorstep seeking a place at the edge of the hearth. She minds less than I do. But she is not privy to the wildness of the dreams I had; the impracticality of my plan; the ridiculousness of the story that I had spun for myself.
Even so, she's not asking if I plan to do laundry, or my nails, or the vacuuming.
I gaze out the window before me. There's a tray suspended from the outer sill and the birds of November skitter on its metal surface, pecking for the sunflower seeds and thistle spread beneath them. It's nearing Thanksgiving and I've been working for a month as a secretary, a job we both know will not challenge me for long. I can start graduate school in January and I've signed the paperwork; but I remain listless. I'm still lost in the fog of failure, the morass of misery that led me to the moment when I called my mother, sobbing, begging her to send someone to bring me home from Boston.
A sudden flurry catches my attention. The birds rise, chattering. Something has startled them, something on the cold ground beneath where they feed. I rise from my chair, just a bit, and strain to see what stalks them. It's a cat, I think; I see a flash of tail, a ruffle of fur, and listen to the rising talk of the blue jays, the wrens, the robins; those which are left, which have not migrated or never will; the ones who cling as long as possible to their Missouri home or never leave it.
I watch a clutch of birds rise from the evergreen and lift themselves into the sky. As I gaze at them, flying effortlessly against the winter wind, joy floods my heart. When I cannot see them anymore, I sit back down and turn again to my mother, whose eyes have never left my face. We sit without speaking. We have no need for words.
Here on Earth, in Brookside, in 2014, my coffee has grown cold and my dog has settled back to sleep on her old worn bed. The newspapers lie idle beside me and my husband has gone off to tennis. I gaze down at the oak table, seeing not it but the Formica on which I let so many cups of coffee cool, back then, in 1977. I feel again the clutch of gladness that came to me at the sight of those birds; and then, for no apparent reason, I start to smile.