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Marsha Staiger and Sarah Krouse

Staiger R

Marsha Staiger
Gap Series Bridge

Acrylic mixed media on paper, 22″ x 30″
Created using Sarah Krouse’s story (below) as inspiration

Mizpah
By Sarah Krouse

This morning, I made a cup of tea with my boyfriend’s dead mother.  I filled the small orange saucepan at the sink and she turned off the water. Her funeral flowers sat on the kitchen table as I turned on the burner.  She had made an orange potholder that fit around the saucepan’s handle.  Once, years ago, she told me the fabric would singe around the edges if I left it on the handle as the pan heated up.  She had been the last person to pour hot water from the pan.  As the electric burner turned from black to red, I took off the holder and held it, my forefinger, middle finger, ring finger landing in the indent left by her own.

I had written her a thank you note for a box of tea she sent for Christmas.  The note was two months late. It was in an addressed envelope. I just hadn’t found time to buy stamps, to walk to the mailbox.

Her husband said it snowed the night she died.  I can feel the chill of the Maine wind that blew outside their house and hear the tolling of her wind chime outside, its chain fleeing from one cold metal wall to the next. Her sons sat at a bar together that night.  They were five states away, thinking of work, their girlfriends, their next beer, as she coughed up and drowned in her own blood.  She had been beating lung cancer.  The doctors, the scans said so, but she went anyway.  A complication, they say.

There had been no morphine, nothing to quell the pain, her widower said.  There were just towels, blood-stained towels like when she first met her sons, each of them naked.  A mother is the only person you meet naked.  Her sons had been cradled, their mother’s fluids wiped off.  She, the mother, was left with sagged skin, an empty womb.

The doctor cut the cord connecting the naked family and between was an invisible heap of stones: Mizpah.  Eden ends as the mother closes her legs, pulls a blanket over her exposed bottom half; the child is swaddled.  And then, the warning, the blessing between them begins. Mizpah.  The pact between Jacob and Laban, may God be between you and me while we are apart.

The night she died, she laid her head on her husband, their father, and closed her eyes.
When she was diagnosed, Ben’s mother made him promise that he would finish school and travel the world; she would be there when he got back. She sent him letters and wrote “mizpah”, before her signature.

I am impatient and lift the lid of the Pyrex saucepan.  There are small bubbles lining the bottom of the pan.  I look out the window and see her wind chime.

My father is lost too, though he is not dead, I think, looking at the chime’s now still chain. My father and I only ever talk on the phone. He asks how my days are, but I usually watching television at the same time.

In the living room, I can hear her mother, Ben, his father, and his older brother, Simon arguing about what to do with her body.  To bury, or to burn?  I, with no rights in this matter, listen.

I held Ben as he cried the night she died.  We sat on the floor, my legs wrapped around him, my arms, my torso, steadying him as he rocked back and forth, his wails bouncing and echoing off the walls of his apartment.

I held my mother the night my father broke her favorite porcelain flour container.  She knelt on the kitchen floor with a dust pan. “Be careful, sweetheart, there are shards mixed in with the flour,” she said as I padded over to her in bare feet and a nightgown.

My father had been drinking, but said my mother was making him the bad guy. He said he should be the one crying.

*****
Ben walks into the kitchen.  I lean against the kitchen sink, my back on the rim she used to lean on. Her son comes to me and I hold him.  “I miss her,” he whispers.  I run my hand up the back of his neck and through his hair.  Ben and his mother have –is it have or had? – the same hair: coarse, thick.

He walks to the calendar on the wall and looks at her handwriting. Her words, her reminders fill each day.  A blessing, a warning; time moves forward.

I lift the orange lid; bubbles have broken the clear surface.  I pour it into my cup and hear the water sigh as it hits the cool mug and drenches the small, bagged leaves.  I leave the bag to steep.

Walking into the living room I see Ben and Simon running their fingers over the quilt she made that was usually slung over the back of the futon. They didn’t know whether to bury or burn the blanket with her. How do you bury or burn a mother?

I walk back to the kitchen and stir my cup before wrapping the bag around the spoon and pushing out the last bit of tea with my thumb.  The kitchen walls are bright, like dyed Easter eggs, tie-dyed shirts.

I hear her wind chime; the snow will come again soon.

I walk into the living room and sit next to Ben. He lies down, putting his head on my lap.

I still sit on my father’s lap when I’m sad. He sits in his leather chair and I sit on him and curl into his chest.

Ben, his mother and I rode a train to Maine from Boston after a check up at Mass General.  The doctor said the tumors were shrinking, or at least staying the same.  She was pale and slept by the window while Ben and I walked to a table in a different car to talk and not disturb her.  We watched the fires on the tracks, set to keep the metal from freezing.

The chemo pills made Ben’s mother sick to her stomach and dulled her taste buds until it was unpleasant for her to eat chocolate.  Knowing that she wasn’t allowed to take Pepto Bismol – cancer reasons – Ben bought York Peppermint Patties.  His hands shook as he unwrapped them.  He took a knife from the kitchen drawer and cut off their chocolate shells.  She kissed him when he brought her the plate covered with small clumps of white peppermint cream.

There are casseroles and brownies in the kitchen, but her boys, her men, are not hungry for condolences.  Ben and Simon drive to find something for lunch that will fill them.

My boyfriend’s father lies down on his side of their bed.  I bring him a cup of water and pull the blankets over him.  He closes his eyes facing her side of the bed, his leg draped over a body-length pillow.  “Is this our ‘old’ bed, now that she’s gone?” he asks sleepily.

She would know how to answer him, a mother would know how to answer. I do not.

When I graduated from college, my father wanted to stay in my apartment – me, my mother, him – as though we were still a family, in a house, together.

I could sleep on an Aerobed on the hard wood floor, they would sleep in my bed, my father said. He sees pigtails and ribbons in my hair where they are not.

*****
“They figured out what to do with her rings,” Ben says the next morning.

“The rings?” I ask.

“I guess she had a plan for each one.  The wedding ring goes to Simon; my grandmother took back the one she gave mom.  I get her cocktail ring.  My dad keeps the engagement ring.”

Ben’s mother and I sat on their deck the summer after she was diagnosed watching birds peck at the feeder.  A finch landed silently.

“I’m proud of Ben, you know,” she said reaching her thumb under her pointer finger to adjust her diamond cocktail ring.

“I know I spend a lot of time worrying about Simon,” she said, the finch pecked at a sunflower seed.

“Simon’s always been the needy one, but I’m proud of Ben; he’s so strong.  Just make sure he doesn’t try to be too strong.” The finch pushed off the feeder and flew over the house.

“How do you feel about splitting them up?” I ask.

“I guess I wanted to decide what to do with her body before we divvy up her rings. It’s fine.  I’m tired,” he says. His mother lies in the morgue, her family unable to bury or burn.

We leave Maine and return to our separate apartments in Washington, DC — we don’t live together, because I am not ready.

Once Ben’s mother is burned and placed in a box on her husband’s nightstand. I try to make chocolate chip cookies using her recipe, but they do not taste right.

I don’t have real cookie sheets, just metal trays – two for five dollars at the grocery store.  I don’t have her measuring cups, her bowls, the spoon she used to drop the dough onto the pan, her finger to push it off with. Did she take off her rings when she baked, or did she leave them on? Is the wedding ring what makes the difference?

My father doesn’t wear his wedding ring.

“Your mother knows I love her,” he says.

It’s the same reason he doesn’t thank her – or us for passing the salt, making him a sandwich, opening his beer for him. We should just “know” he loves us.

I try to put the ingredients together.
Did Ben’s mother let the vanilla drip over the side of the teaspoon?  How firmly did she pack the brown sugar? Did she level off the flower in the cup, or eyeball it? What if only a mother’s eyes can eyeball the measurements for perfect chocolate chip cookies?  I am not a mother.  There is no mother in this kitchen.

The next morning we stand in the bathtub shower in my Washington, D.C. apartment, away from the Maine wind, the wind chime.

He is quiet and rubs shampoo onto his buzzed scalp. He took a shaver to his head after his mother did the same to hers. He rinses his hair and then faces me, water running down his back – he likes the water warm, not hot – the temperature a mother would use for her child’s bath.

Again he says he’s tired.  He looks at me.

“I guess I don’t mean tired,” he says. I rinse the soap out of my hair and turn to face the water.

“I mean sad,” he says. He wrings my hair out, only for it to fill with water again as I turn to face him.

The diamond cocktail ring sits on his dresser.  He picks it up and looks at it and then me each night before setting it back down and getting into bed.

My father looked away the first time he saw Ben hold my hand.

“There are things I wanted to ask her – When did she first kiss my dad?  How do I ask a girl to marry me?” Ben says in the shower.

This catches me off guard. Girls without fathers should not be mothers, I think to myself.

I get out first and dry off.  Ben stands there in the shower, the water off, beads dripping off his fingertips and nose. I dry him, face, then shoulders and chest.  I wrap the towel around his shoulders like a cocoon, Batman’s cape, “snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug,” a mother would say.  Mizpah; the blessing, the sturdy pile of stones.

——————————————————-

Staiger I

Marsha Staiger
Inspiration piece provided to Sarah Krouse

Passage
By Sarah Krouse

All of the apartments in my building are efficiencies built for one person. I’m told the new word for this type of apartment is “studio,” but I like efficiency, as in, it’s more efficient to live in one room, by yourself.

A girl having her own apartment is a right of passage, my mother said. She had never had a home of her own. She married my father – her high school sweetheart right after college and, without saying she regrets her choices, tells me she wants me to know how to make dinner for myself, pay my own bills and come and go as I please.

She never had the chance to eat cereal for dinner, put off laundry for another week or dance naked in the living room for no reason.

Adam wanted to live together, but I said no. I signed a yearlong lease the day after he asked me to find a place, a home with him.

My father was the first, and will be the last person my mother sleeps with. Adam was my first, though I was not his.

My parents don’t like to think of me sleeping next to a man. They pretend not to notice the small pile of shirts and boxers he leaves at my house — my efficiency — and say things like, “Isn’t this studio so perfect for you! This is the sort of place you will live for years!”

You. Singular.

*****

The walls of an unearthed villa in Pompeii show a version of an ancient female right of passage.

Mixed into one fresco that wraps around the walls of the Villa of the Mysteries, is the image of the goddess of shame and humility. The winged goddess is whipping a woman, a girl leaning over the lap of a nurse. Beside her are servants of Bacchus, Dionysus, if you like – god of wine, madness, ecstasy. The servant is dancing, arms overhead, cymbals on her fingertips.

Behind the naked dancer, just beyond the woman awaiting the sting of the whip is another servant ready to hand her a staff topped with a pinecone – a sign of fertility, her reward for enduring.

When Adam entered me for the first time, there was pain, I winced, he shook.

*****

My father drinks red wine when he makes tomato sauce. He pours a splash over the onions, garlic and tomato paste that make up the base and pours a glass for himself. He drinks beer, sherry, and rum, but nothing hits him like red wine.

I remember sitting in the back seat driving home from a dinner party at a friend’s house. The yellow lines on the road wove back and forth under our van and the needle on the speedometer slowly rose and leaned to the right. He yelled and gestured with his hands as drove.

My mother would reach back and squeeze my knee, her knuckles white, though she never said anything to him.

When I was older I asked her why she had stayed quiet. When you’re married, there are just some things you don’t question, she would say.

*****

It rained the day Adam called to tell me he had slept with a new girl. We were studying abroad— him in Athens, me in Rome — and his sexual indiscretion came a week before our planned vacation to Pompeii.

In Rome, dust blows from Africa, leaving a layer of grit over everything. I sat on my balcony and drank a bottle of red wine after Adam’s phone call. The rain made streaks in the dust on the balcony’s floor.

I went to a bar, danced with a stranger and then went home with him. When I told Adam, he called me a whore. What he had done was different, because he cared about his new girl. I, on the other hand, was just being spiteful, he said.

We didn’t speak until he came for our trip.

*****

We had walked slowly, quietly through Pompeii; its buildings cracked, with grass growing in small patches on the floors of once-buried stores, homes and courtyards.
Adam didn’t look at the painting when we walked through the villa.

The colors in the fresco match a large piece of rusty tin I recently hung on the wall of my efficiency. I bought it from a building salvager for eighty dollars. He had pulled it from the ceiling of a building before it was demolished.

Someone had crafted the shape of vines into it, making a star form on each of its two square panels.

My father offered to drive six hours to help me hang it. He didn’t want me to hurt myself trying to measure, balance, hammer and hang.

He had hung the pictures in his and my mother’s first apartment and worried about me doing it by myself.

Adam was quietly, but noticeably unavailable the day I moved into and decorated my apartment alone.

*****

After walking through Pompeii, we drank wine and fought about our mutual betrayals. I tried to change the subject and said I wanted to dance, but he wouldn’t.

I used to dance with my father on our kitchen floor.

When Adam and I returned from our time abroad, he wanted to fix things. We dated, danced, had sex, but at a distance. He said living together would bring us closer.

*****

Growing up, my mother and I went to church each Sunday; she held the prayer book with one hand and put her other arm around my shoulders.

My father tended the altar at the early service, my mother and I stood alone at the late one. If we took too long getting home from the service, he would yell.

I would ask why she put up with it and she said that in marriage, there are just some things you have to forgive — it brings you closer in the long run, she’d say.

*****

When I rant about marriage being damning and the end of freedom my mother tells me that Adam is not like most men.

“Just keep in mind that your relationship doesn’t have to be like other people’s,” she says.

*****

Adam often offers to cook me dinner at his house. I go, but rarely spend the night. I wait until he’s asleep, put on my clothes, and take the bus back to my apartment.

I make him dinner one night to show that I am “invested in our relationship.”

He takes his shoes off and makes a joke about the tin.

“Who wants someone else’s wall hanging in their living room?” he asks.
He doesn’t notice that I am quiet as he eats dinner and then turns on the TV.

I yell at him for not helping me with the dishes.

He says I should have asked for help if I wanted it and I say a respectful guest would offer to help. He stiffens at the word guest.

I ask him how I am ever supposed to want to live with someone who doesn’t respect me enough to help with dishes. He says I should find a better man and I say that shouldn’t be hard.

He leaves and then, it is quiet. The rusting tin hangs on my wall and I swirl a glass of wine. I let it sit in my mouth sour and sweet before swallowing. It is the time when servants of Bacchus dance, arms overhead, cymbals on their fingertips.

——————————————————-
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