Aside from a few patches of white where the color has scratched off, the brooch is in good condition—a tiny painting on ivory, set in a gold mount. No jewels. It has been well cared for. The image is of a young man in black clothes leaning against a pedestal topped with an urn. Hair-thin lines make up his cravat, his face, the blades of grass at his feet, and the serifs of the pedestal’s inscription: Sacred be thy memory. He leans on his right elbow, his head resting on his hand; his left arm hangs by his side, holding an open book. Over the tomb, there’s a hint of tree branches, behind them blue sky. Around the edge of the pin, there are gold letters: Rebecca Wilkinson * nat * 7 May 1771 * OB: 23 JAN * 1793.
January 23—that’s my mother’s birthday, and the pin belonged to her. What was a sad day for young Rebecca’s family in 1793 was presumably a happy one for my grandparents in 1942. My mother, named Margaret Ridley after her mother and called “Ridley,” was their first child, born premature and apparently not pretty, both facts my grandmother would mention in a letter she wrote to her in-laws shortly after the birth. In this letter, she instructs them not to make excuses to people about why she’s had a baby in January when she was only just married in June. They are not to tell anybody she fell off a ladder or slipped in the tub. My grandmother knows the truth—her baby was born early—and, anyway, it’s nobody’s business. I doubt anybody said a word. She was only twenty-four, but people already knew better than to mess with her.
My grandmother left the pin to my mother, and my mother bequeathed it to me. My guess is that Rebecca Wilkinson was connected to our Ridley ancestors in Southampton County, Virginia, but I don’t know for sure. Born a subject of King George III, Rebecca died a citizen of the United States, not quite two months before the second inauguration of George Washington. Her short life bookended the American Revolution, and this pin commemorating her is a thing very much of its time. As we rumbled toward nationhood, colonial nobs and their ladies were gaga for small portraits mounted in silver or gold and worn as brooches, bracelets, or pendants. They commissioned these miniatures, also known as limnings, from professional painters who are now largely forgotten. Those artists whose names we do know—Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, the Peales—are recognizable to us today only because they also rendered the larger-scale history scenes and portraits we know from our history books, like West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770) or Copley’s portraits of Paul Revere, John Hancock, and Samuel Adams.
But making a fine miniature was no more “practice” for making a large oil painting than writing a short story is practice for writing a novel. They are different forms, each requiring particular skills. The limner had to cut the ivory, prepare its surface, and paint a tiny image with the aid of a small brush and magnifying glass. Anyone who tries watercolor, remembering it from childhood as a beginner’s paint, will quickly discover how difficult it is to mix the pigment and water to achieve a consistency that gives the desired effect. Imagine the frustration of attempting to control such runny paint on a slick bit of ivory only a few inches in diameter, hoping to create a detailed likeness good enough to please someone who knows the sitter well, perhaps intimately. The result, done well, is irresistible—a portrait that is pretty, luminous if the ivory is thin, and eminently portable. A miniature fits in the palm of your hand; it may even be so small that you can conceal it within a fist. It can be worn secretly—tucked behind ruffles, into a pocket, or next to the breast—or it can be displayed, a sign to all the world that the wearer truly has it all: money and love.
But no. Not quite all. You or your beloved might not have health. Hence, the mourning miniature, which might not be a picture of the deceased but, instead, an allegorical scene of a mourner at a tomb. The iconography of these scenes is instantly recognizable; the details vary but slightly. Often there’s a woman in white neoclassical robes, offering flowers or laurels or simply her tears at a tomb inscribed with a name and date. The monument might be an obelisk or an urn on a pedestal, the lachrymose figure a man or child rather than a woman. Sometimes there’s a dog, symbol of fidelity. Always there’s a tree, an evergreen or a weeping willow, both symbolic of the resurrection, of the life everlasting.
Something in me responds to a weeping tree, the weeping cherry most of all. I love the contrast between the sweet, cheerful pink and white flowers and the graceful downward droop of the branches—in full display the tree appears both riotously joyous and deeply sad. To stand underneath, or inside, the branches of a weeping cherry in bloom is to stand in a magic world. It isn’t cool and hidden like the dark world inside a magnolia; rather, it is a world at once shaded and bright, with a view to the outside that’s always changing as the branches sway and wave and tremble with every breath of the air.
Let’s pretend for a moment that my mother died in August 1811 rather than August 2011. Let’s say that instead of being five hours away at the beach, I was with her at the end, as I’d always intended to be. In 1811 there’s no air conditioning and no television to take our minds off things. No assisted living facility and no paid health aides. But we are wealthy enough to own slaves, and one of them, a woman, has been helping in the sick room. This “servant,” as enslaved people were euphemistically known in the South in those days, has carried away pots of effluvia, and brought water and food for me to eat. Mama is past eating. She has spent the night hot and restless, moving from chair to bed and back, unable to get comfortable. I have not offered to pray with her. Even in 1811, religion is not where she seeks solace. Instead, I’ve been reading aloud the poem she has requested to be read at her graveside, Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” It’s the one that begins, “Had we but world enough and time . . .”
Toward dawn, I fall asleep, and when I wake, I see my mother slumped in her chair in a new, awkward way. The enslaved woman and I lift my mother’s body and lay it on the bed. Later, I’ll remove her rings and put them away for safekeeping, but for now, while the servant cleans urine from the chair, I hold my mother’s still-soft hand and marvel at how the light has gone out of her face. I have no idea where she has gone.
On August 19, 1811, I help wash my mother’s body and dress her for the grave. I cut locks of her hair to give to family and friends. I put on a black dress. For at least six months, maybe longer, I will wear only black. Then I may change to lilac or gray. The mirrors in the house will be covered with black cloth; her portrait will be draped with it. I will write my letters on paper with a black border. For months, I will attend no parties; neither will I throw them. Tomorrow, a black wreath or banner of black crape will be hung on the front door to tell anybody who comes by that ours is a house in mourning.
From ancient times forward, in every corner of the world, funeral and mourning practices have involved the preparation of the corpse, the selection of food and objects to be buried or burned with the dead, the donning of black or white or purple or red garments, the shearing of hair (either the corpse’s or the mourners’), and the creation and giving out of memorial jewelry or keepsakes. All over the world, death demands ceremony—a wake, a funeral, a secular service—followed by a reception or feast, burial or cremation, and last, but never least, the division of the deceased’s property. All of these customs remain with us in America in the twenty-first century except for the signaling of our bereavement by adorning or altering our bodies.
I find this omission curious. After all, it’s not as though we have abandoned the idea of ceremonial clothing. We still dress up our babies for baptisms, our children for first communions and bar mitzvahs, our teens for proms and graduations and debutante balls, our young (and not so young) for weddings. Give us a special occasion, and we are more than willing to invest in costly, elaborate clothes that custom dictates we wear only once. Often these are exaggerated, hyperbolic garments, made longer, bigger, shinier than our everyday clothes in order to show how important we are at a particular transitional moment in our lives. They are clothes for a special day, and we love choosing and wearing them.
But here in America, the corpse, which we may or may not see, is usually dressed in sedate Sunday best, as are those who attend the funeral. We may or may not wear black, on the funeral day or any other. And even if we have been robbed of our husband, our mother, our best friend, our child, we are expected, in the baffling days that follow, to put on our regular clothes and go around in the world wearing no outward sign that we have recently borne a terrible loss.
When my mother was preparing to follow my father to assisted living in 2009, I helped her decide which clothes and accessories to take to the room that would be her home until she died two years later. As she sorted through her brightly colored silk and chiffon scarves, she hit on a large square of net, edged with black ribbon—a widow’s veil.
“I’ll never get to wear it,” she said, purposely making her voice sound wistful, as though widowhood had been something she’d hoped to experience. A joke, like most jokes, with a nut of truth at its center. She’d already decided that my father would outlive her, and as usual, she was right.
Queen Victoria lost her mother in March 1861 and her husband, Prince Albert, in December that same year. Afterward, she secluded herself in her various palaces as much as she could, wearing mourning for the next forty years until her own death in 1901. She is often pictured wearing a veil of black or white with a Mary Stuart cap, peaked at the front, a style that had been popular for widows since the sixteenth century. Though Victoria observed mourning far longer than required—about two and a half years would have been recommended for a widow at that time, three months for a widower—hers was but an extreme expression of what her era thought appropriate. While the elaborate rules of Victorian mourning rituals could produce a lot of anxiety and expense, I suspect most people found that wearing mourning helped. Clad in a black dress and unpolished jet jewelry, you didn’t have to continually explain yourself. Everybody knew as soon as they saw you that you were in a state of sorrow, longing for the one who’d been taken away, and they didn’t try to buck you up. Maybe they even treated you more gently because they respected that you were in mourning.
In the university library on a May day, the year after my mother’s death, I’m looking for a book on mourning dress when my roving eye catches sight of a worn spine: The Fashion System by Roland Barthes. Barthes, the philosopher and literary theorist, writing about fashion?
I skim the introduction and learn that in this book Barthes examines the linguistic signals we assign to objects (clothes) that are already signaling to us visually; that is, he studies the words fashion magazines use to describe clothes. Now I begin to see. He was a semiotician, after all, an interpreter of signs, and clothes are among the most common signs we use to project who we are to other people. We make assumptions about people based on how they dress, and they, in turn, make assumptions about us. I find his endeavor fascinating, and yet a quick glance through the book shows me that there’s no way I’m going to read it. A PhD dropout and a long-time copyeditor of academic books, I can read literary theory, but it’s not the lens through which I prefer to study literature, much less the world. I prefer—I want and need—stories.
But I have a fondness for Barthes because of his book about photography, Camera Lucida, and the posthumously published collection Mourning Diary, a compilation of notes he made in the months after his mother’s death. In the early days of my own mourning, I read Meghan O’Rourke’s The Long Goodbye and Robin Romm’s The Mercy Papers and Cheryl Strayed’s bestseller Wild. Each tells a compelling story; each expresses realities of mother loss that I, too, was experiencing. But it was Barthes’s book, each brief note just a few lines on an otherwise empty page, that I kept returning to. He says so much that is true about being bereft that it’s difficult now for me to choose only a few representative quotes. I’d rather put the whole book into your hands and say, This is what losing her was like for me.
On November 2, only a week after her death, he writes: “What’s remarkable about these notes is a devastated subject being the victim of presence of mind.”
Here is a thinker being chopped down, day after day, by his overwhelming feelings and yet, at the same time, watching himself, recording, analyzing. He is at once observer and observed. He asks not simply, “What am I feeling?” but “What am I thinking about what I’m feeling?” And then, “What should I think about the thoughts I’m having about my feelings?”
The problem of not knowing where feeling ought to stop and thought to begin is familiar to me, as is the problem of being the sort of person who searches desperately to find the line over which you can step out of the uncomfortable territory of feeling and into the more solid-seeming realm of thought. I have often wondered: When does the habit of analysis become a liability rather than a gift?
On November 10, Barthes wrote: “Embarrassed and almost guilty because sometimes I feel that my mourning is merely a susceptibility to emotion.
“But all my life haven’t I been just that: moved?”
It’s been little more than two weeks and already he’s embarrassed about his feelings. But I get it. After my mother died, I also felt humiliated by my emotions, seeing my extreme grief as just another way in which I, a flawed, weak person, was indulging my penchant for the hyperbolic. After all, her death had been long expected. I saw myself as helpless, overly dramatic, excessive, and was so sure that others would see me that way that I often avoided people altogether.
And then there’s this entry from October 31: “Sometimes, very briefly, a blank moment—a kind of numbness—which is not a moment of forgetfulness. This terrifies me.”
Oh, yes. Numbness. That, too.
As any child who has recently been taught this fact will smugly tell you, black is not a color but the absence of it. That absence of color in the mourner’s life is precisely the idea that mourning dress conveys. The color, and the light that enables us to see it—both have washed out to sea with the beloved, and the mourner is left on the shifting sands, watching the water swell and dip, waiting for them to return.
When we lose somebody we love, we want to put on the proverbial sackcloth and ashes because colors seem too gaudy. We the grieving look at the cheerful people, wandering around in their yellow shirts, laughing and eating things, and think: How can you? How can you enjoy anything, when my beloved is gone?
After my mother died, everything that once had given me pleasure no longer did. Food, books, movies, art, clothes, travel: I had lost my capacity for savoring any of it. Having always been a person with strong appetites, this worried me, but what worried me even more was that I took so little pleasure in my friends, my husband, my child. I became panicky if they weren’t around, but I took almost no satisfaction in their actual company. That wasn’t their fault. It was just that they weren’t my mother, and she was what—who—I wanted. I didn’t confess this feeling to anyone because it seemed so selfish, so embarrassingly infantile.
My mother was the sort of person other people describe as “a character.” When I was growing up, she liked to agitate people by doing things they didn’t expect a middle-aged white lady to do. Once when I brought a friend home from boarding school, Mama opened the door, cigarette dangling from her lips, and said, “Welcome to hell.” For many years, I watched her raise her fist alongside her head in greeting before I understood she was throwing the Black Power salute. When she and I went to meet with our Episcopal priest a few months before I was to be married, she expressed her disappointment that we couldn’t use the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. When the priest asked what was wrong with the revised version, she said, “They’ve de-balled the language, Jim.”
About social interactions, she used to say, “Give them no quarter, and they will play.” By this, she meant that you shouldn’t dumb yourself down or curb your language just to fit in with people. If your conversation partners were unnerved by you or couldn’t keep up, that was their problem. If they were game, though, everybody would have a wonderful time. My mother was fun to talk with but she could wear you out. Her talk could be exhausting, both for the sheer amount of information, such as when she discussed Chinese porcelain or eighteenth-century cabinetmakers, and the vehemence of her invective, as when she excoriated Republicans or her sister’s ex-husbands.
The flip side of that intensity was her wonderful enthusiasm, not only for what she’d seen or read but for you, what you were doing or interested in. When I was in a performance, she’d bring a dozen friends and relatives to watch and applaud. Always she brought a gift—flowers or, more often, a pertinent book, inscribed for the occasion. I still have a Christmas tree ornament she gave me one of the years I danced in the Nutcracker, as well as a print of Shakespeare’s Viola that she had framed when I was a freshman in college and played that character in Twelfth Night. She did the same for my brother, our cousins, the children of her friends. Always she showed up—and brought a present. She sought out gifts that were in accord with your interests. She loved to see a young person get excited about something, whether it was art or Russia or woodworking, the trumpet or killer bees. She hated people to be “blasé.” Better to risk embarrassment by being too eager, too interested, than to bore yourself and everyone around you. Better to overdo than to underdo.
When she died, I didn’t collapse. I was able, along with my brother, to take care of the funeral, the memorial service, the estate paperwork, and, of course, our father, who would die not quite six months later, ostensibly of pneumonia but mostly of a broken heart.
I returned to working and socializing, but I didn’t feel like myself. Anything that didn’t relate to my parents, especially my mother, seemed difficult and pointless, and it was hard for me to concentrate even on reading. The world was full of flavors I couldn’t taste, colors I couldn’t see, music I couldn’t hear. I wondered, with a mounting sense of panic as the months wore on and the first-year mark passed and then the second, if it would always be this way: me outside the gate, peering through the bars at the beautiful, fragrant garden everyone else knew how to enjoy.
Nowadays, the term grief as mostly replaced mourning. When your loved one dies, you can attend grief counseling or go to a grief support group or read a self-help book or blog. Grief is regarded as a normal condition that, with the right tools and attitude, can be, if not totally overcome, then at least managed and lived with, like diabetes or hypertension. Everybody agrees that grieving is an ordinary thing we all do—like eating or drinking alcohol or procrastinating—but it’s possible to take it too far, do it too much. If your grief doesn’t ease after six months, if it debilitates you and takes over your life, then it can be diagnosed as “complicated grief,” and insurance may cover your therapy, which may or may not include prescription medication.
To grieve has two meanings: (1) to express hurt feelings, and (2) to bring a complaint. A grievance is angry; it demands to be addressed and requires a lot of paperwork. It can be about anything. But mourning is particular; it is the act of sorrowing over a death. It is feeling sad about the loss of someone who will never be restored to you, no matter how much paperwork you do or how many pills you take.
Roland Barthes, on November 30, 1977: “Don’t say Mourning. It’s too psychoanalytic. I’m not mourning. I’m suffering.”
Oh, the sadness will come and go, friends would tell me. Over time, the waves of grief will occur less often and will become less intense. They’ll stop knocking you down. I had to believe they knew what they were talking about. After all, they had lost parents, children. Finally, nearly two years after my mother’s death, alarmed by what my suffering was doing to me and my family, I began seeing a psychiatrist for the first time in my life. She had lots of questions for me, but I really only had one for her: When would I beat this thing called grief?
When Mama was sick, she sometimes would look the oncologist dead in the eye (in her tellings of her own stories, she always looked people “dead in the eye” or “right in the face”) and demand to know how long she had to live. Months? Years? How many?
What could he say? He didn’t know, and it would have been irresponsible of him to pretend that he did. Yet I understood her need to know. Any plan is better than no plan, she used to advise us. You can always change the plan, but you need to have one.
I wanted a timeline. I wanted a plan. I wanted a form on which to pin and drape my mourning. Gradually, I came to understand that I would have to make it myself.
Had my mother fallen ill in 1806 instead of 2006, everybody doubtless would have counseled me to pray. In those days, I’d have witnessed many more deaths by the time I was in my thirties, including those of siblings, friends, and my own children. I might already have been wearing mourning for someone else when my mother died. Of course, had it been 1806, there would have been no x-rays to show the spot on her lung, no surgeries to remove masses, no chemotherapy to give her a few more years of life. She would have felt good until, one day, she didn’t. She would have lived until, one day, she died.
After she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2006, every cough, rash, or stomach pain of my own had me convinced I was dying. I joked that I could go from zero to cancer in thirty seconds. A doctor prescribed Xanax, but I was too anxious to take it. I feared ingesting anything I wasn’t used to. Besides, my problem was sadness, not illness, and that seemed to require a spiritual rather than a medical intervention. I decided to talk to a priest. This approach had two apparent advantages over pills: it was free and, for me, unlikely to be habit forming.
A cradle Episcopalian, I was not regularly attending church, but I knew a nice, gray-haired woman priest, an acquaintance of my mother. I’d heard a few of this woman’s sermons, and she seemed smart and reasonable. When we met, I told her I tended to rely on books to help me through my problems, and she found one I could borrow. But the book wasn’t the real takeaway that day. Instead, it was something she said: “You’re not going to die when your mother dies.”
At first, it sounded foolish—her suggestion that this was what I was worried about. After thinking about it, though, I realized she was right. I was so close to my mother that some part of me found it inconceivable that I wouldn’t die alongside her. Not only inconceivable but disloyal. How could I let her go off without me? And for the first time, she was being disloyal, too: How could she leave me behind?
Roland Barthes, writing November 28, 1977: “To whom could I put this question (with any hope of an answer)? Does being able to live without someone you loved mean you loved her less than you thought . . . ?”
In February 2010, the forty-year-old clothing designer Alexander McQueen committed suicide on the day before his mother’s funeral. Despite that I habitually dress in yoga pants, I’m a devoted Vogue reader, and for some years, I’d been intrigued by McQueen’s controversial designs, by turns romantic and menacing, full of historical references—bustles, cowls, veils, chain mail. Among his infamous couture collections was “Highland Rape,” which featured lace and “tartans cut deep or torn to expose the breasts”; he also invented the Bumster, a pant that shows butt cleavage, on purpose. McQueen was famous for his meticulous cutting and tailoring, as well as for his inventive powers, and his shows were nothing short of theater, complete with elaborate storylines and special effects. Though he was acknowledged as a genius, it was said after his death that he had become disenchanted with the fashion world. He’d been depressed following the suicide of his friend and mentor Isabella Blow a few years before, then depressed again after a break-up, and, finally, distraught after the death of his mother, to whom he was very close.
His death frightened me, as all such deaths do. Here was an artist at the top of his form who had decided that art wasn’t enough to sustain him.
For my fortieth birthday, my oldest friend, my high school BFF, gave me a locket. When I opened it, I had to laugh.
“Only you would give me a locket with a picture of my dead dog in it.”
Whenever I wear that locket, I open it before putting it on and look at Rudy’s dear gray face, his soulful eyes uplifted, alert for the treat the photographer was promising. Adopted when I was twenty-four and newly married, he was my first dog, a rescued Weimaraner–pit bull mix with beautiful blue-gray fur and a distinguished white blaze down his chest. At home, he would try to climb into my lap. Out on the street, he lunged to attack anybody he considered a threat to me.
Looking at Rudy’s picture, I remember how his warm body curled against me on the sofa, how he cut his eyes at me (as though he disapproved) when I made a dumb joke, how he licked my tears when I cried or put his ear against my belly when I was pregnant. I forget all the times he shat in the house or ate tampons out of the trash. I don’t care that he destroyed a loveseat and shredded library books and chewed the shoe molding off the walls. Looking at his face, I don’t think about how, given the chance, he’d run off down the road and not come back until his tongue was lolling out and he smelled like something fecal or dead.
I had this dream a few weeks after my mother died: We’re in eastern North Carolina at the old homeplace, where she was just buried. My grandparents (long dead) are helping us decide what to do with the furniture and pictures and other objects in the house. William Faulkner comes in with a CD. There’s tension between us—we’ve had a fling in the past but are now just friends. As my dad, whose memory is going, tries to identify the jazz songs on the CD, I say, “I gotta get out of here, Bill. Let’s just take a walk.”
Then I wake up.
Here’s how I imagine things would have gone had the dream continued.
I ride off with Bill to a motel where we go on a three-day bender, during which we engage in enjoyable sex, a lot of high-flying love talk, and then, once the alcohol situation has become dire and confusing, a blow-out fight. After that, there’s more sex, but it’s the literary kind, not much fun and all dirtied up with madness and regret. Afterward, we part ways again.
But before that, before we even get in the car to go to the motel, we stroll around the yard of my family home, wandering among the oaks and the dogwoods, azaleas and myrtle. He says he’s mighty sorry about my mother, and I let him take my hand, even though I’m still mad at him about our affair, the way he acted, the way it ended. We walk without talking to the far corner of the yard, almost to one of the red brick gateposts by the road. We stop and look across the furrowed field to where my people lie out there in our graveyard, and Bill says that thing he said: “Between grief and nothing, I’ll take grief.”
In 2011, there are no limners around to paint my mother’s face on ivory. I have no memorial of her that I can affix to myself and carry, other than the Rebecca Wilkinson miniature, which is too old and fragile to wear, and besides, the stick pin on the back is so thick it would leave permanent holes in any garment I pierced with it. Instead of one compact item like this, my parents have left behind thousands of objects, books, and papers, and it will take us more than two years to sort through it all. As we sort, I’ll begin to make my own memento mori, using the only medium at all comfortable for me. “Use your words,” we tell the little children nowadays, and I feel like one of them, learning to use my words again, not yet convinced that it will do more good than hitting and kicking and crying in frustration.
When I try to conjure my mother this way, through writing, it’s similar to how she occasionally comes to me in dreams. She’s dead and alive at the same time, and real things from the past mix with imagined things that can never be. Together it all makes a scene that seems for a moment more real than anything that happens when I’m awake.
What is this essay but a feeble, belated, lapidary attempt to contain my wild, wild grief? It’s like trying to stuff a wolf into a tiny golden cage. But writing is the only art I have for creating my own kind of miniature.
Compact, neat, a miniature can go with you everywhere. You can use it, like a key, to open the vault of memory whenever you wish. It’s appealing to believe that you could be satisfied with a miniature as your only memento of your lost beloved. It would be nice if it could be the only badge of your sorrow that you had to carry.
So here’s one for the road: It’s spring, and I’m standing next to the weeping cherry tree that I love, out front of the house where I live now, a house Mama drove by hundreds of times without knowing it would be mine one day. I imagine she is coming to visit me. The ground around my feet is littered with pink blossoms, and when she drives up, she thinks of the Japanese woodblock prints she loves, in which cherry blossoms are always falling, reminding us how fleet is our time. She stops her van—the big blue Ford—no, the one before that, the ugly one she had when I was a kid, the one I was so ashamed of, the army green van with the rounded engine cover that thrust between the two front seats like a table, where we put our Cokes and road maps and napkins and the plaid beanbag ashtray spilling butts.
I climb in. Her left arm is bent at the elbow, hanging out the rolled-down window. She’s smoking a Salem Ultra Light 100—everything about her is superlative, ultra—but that’s not why the window’s open. It’s open because there’s no air conditioning in this van, or else it’s broken. She tells me to find some money in her purse so we can hit a drive-through for a sausage biscuit or a hamburger. I rifle through the crumpled Kleenexes, her glasses case, her tape measure, her red lipstick, her black vinyl daybook jammed with flyers advertising antiques shows, fast food coupons, business cards, and torn envelopes with to-do lists scribbled on them. Finally, I find the wallet, the leather worn through in spots, the change spilling out, receipts and paper money stuffed in haphazardly, and the cracked photo sleeve, dirty with tobacco flecks and filled to breaking with me and my brother at every awkward age, and my father glowering at a thing in the distance. I hold the money and sit back, listening to Mama talk, ready to go with her anywhere.