The fragrance of French Market coffee fills the first floor of the Holmes house. My morning has started with ten minutes of Music from the Heart of Space, my radio dial set to KU public radio where it has been all week. I've fed the cat, let the dog out and in again, and settled at the dining room table. Now the news drifts to me from a few feet away; I've positioned myself so my one good ear can tilt towards the radio.
As I passed through the breakfast nook to the dining room, I noticed that the workers had regrouped some of the precious items on the keeping shelf. I touch one of them, a little pottery cup, thinking about finding it in Arkansas. Standing next to it is my mother's dinner bell, and suddenly I find myself transported back in time to September of 1991, Jennings, Missouri, a few days after my father had died.
The eight Corleys stand or sit in the living room, on the old couch, my father's recliner, the straight-back chair by the front door. My brother Stephen lounges against the wall. A dumpster has been delivered and consumes the usable space at the end of the driveway. My father's body lies on a table at the funeral home waiting to be prepared for burial. I hold my infant son. We have gathered to talk about the stuff accumulated in our parents' home, now that the second of them has died.
We've settled on a method. Each of the eight Corleys will get to "reserve" three items that will be safe -- theirs no matter what anyone else wants or claims. Then, we will travel as a pack through each room of the house, picking by "up rounds and down rounds". Youngest to oldest; oldest to youngest -- in rotation, until everything has been divided.
We make our protected choices youngest to oldest. Stephen, Frank, me, Mark, Kevin, Joyce, Adrienne and last, though certainly not least, Ann. I know what I want: The china and the sterling silverware. I don't expect that I'll get either through any traditional means. I married in 1987 at a hippie church in Arkansas and our most elegant wedding present was the down pillows that one of the Corley aunts had had delivered from a department store in St. Louis. Everything else trended to the hand-made and the consumable. I divorced in 1989 and had my son without benefit of a second marriage, in 1991. I expected to live alone for the rest of my life but did intend to set a nostalgic holiday table.
But Frank claimed the sterling before me. So I went for the china, the silver-plate, and the dinner bell.
"Oh....." Frank sighed but not so softly as to be missed. I looked his way, quizzically. He had not laid claim to the brass bell brought home by my father from Burma, with which our mother had summoned us to dinner. A small silence descended.
"Teresa and I already have the dinner bell," he admitted. "We took it when Mom died." Six years before; and I, living in Arkansas for the last four years, hadn't been home enough to notice.
"Well then...." I began. "I'll think of something else." But Frank shook his head. "No, no," he told me. "I'll bring it back." I couldn't decide what to say next; he seemed earnest. I let it go with a simple thanks, and watched Adrienne, our secretary, note my choices on her pad. We moved to Mark and on up the chain. Within an hour, we had done two rooms in up round and down round, laughing when someone picked something that the person ahead of or behind them in birth order had been waching. Nobody bickered during those rounds, though in the cleaning-and-throwing-out phase of the week, later, enough alcohol got consumed to prompt some tense exchanges. On that first day, though, we showed nothing but love and kindness.
Later in the week, Frank approached me with a little wrapped parcel. "Here's the bell," he told me. I saw him eyeing it; I felt guilty. I imagined that it had been used to call his own children to the table for the half-dozen years it had dwelt in his home. I tried -- perhaps feebly -- to decline. But Frank had already moved away and I stood, in my parents' living room, holding the brass dinner bell, feeling a bit shabby.
The china that I got from my mother sat in boxes in my brother Stephen's apartment storage unit with her china cabinet -- which I had claimed in the breakfast room down round -- and a couple of pieces of furniture that I had claimed. I packed to take with me the silver plate, the "stove lot" -- a bunch of mismatched grease-coated items from the shelf above the stove in my mother's kitchen -- and the dinner bell, which flew home to Fayetteville in the diaper bag beside my sleeping son. A year later, I called my brother Stephen to arrange to get my inherited items, and learned that his storage unit had been burgled. The thief took everything but a box containing half of Mom's china. The plates, the bowls, and the gravy boat.
I tried, once, to give Frank back the dinner bell but he wouldn't take it. As my son grew, I made a half-hearted effort to deploy the bell at dinner time each night, but only managed to use it if his friends had come to visit. With just one child, standing at the doorway to his bedroom does the trick. But on the occasions when I summoned Patrick, Chris and Maher to the table with a shake of the brass bell from my mother's home, the ghost of the infinity Corleys followed them into the room, and jostled for their traditional places -- boys on one side, girls on the other -- at the table.
A singer croons on the radio. I haven't heard her name but her song floods the room, sweet and soulful. My muscles ache from the cold. Last evening, I brought my porch plants into the house. I will soon have to use the furnace. Winter draws near. I sigh, echoing my brother's voice. Then I go to the kitchen to pour another cup of coffee.