The telephone rings at 2AM on a cold January night, a few days into the new century. Andrea’s mother has died: suddenly in her sleep, on another continent, 6,000 miles away. She drops everything to arrive on her parents’ doorstep thirty-six hours later.
The undertaker has allowed for the body to remain in the bed, the window open to the cold English air. It’s a small room at the top of the house, a narrow bed; her parents have maintained separate bedrooms for years. The room appears untouched since the death, the sheets a crumpled mess. The faded paisley curtain, adrift from three of its hooks, flutters in the forlorn breeze. On the bedside table lies the novel Andrea’s mother was reading, her glasses tossed on top.
Andrea sits alone with her mother’s body. She straightens the bedsheets. She folds the spectacles and picks up the novel, an author she’s never heard of, the cover featuring a young woman in a field of daisies. She slips the book into her backpack.
She goes in search of her father. He’s in the living room, slumped on the couch, legs out-stretched, dazed. He looks sad but does not weep. Nor does Andrea. Outward expressions of emotion are frowned upon in this family, and no one is inclined to break with tradition now.
“I don’t understand what happened to her wedding ring,” he says. “She always said she would be buried with it on her finger.”
Andrea returns upstairs and looks at her mother’s hand: no ring. She knows it to be a slim gold band. She searches the bedclothes, the bedside table, the jewelry box: no sign of it.
They make funeral arrangements for the Friday, five days hence. Andrea doesn’t mention the ring again to her father; she doesn’t want to add to his distress. But she surreptitiously rummages through her mother’s dresser, her desk and her closet. She finds expired passports and birthday cards and postcards from Andrea and her brother over the years, and two small labeled boxes containing their baby teeth: tiny, yellowed with age. But no wedding ring.
Andrea’s father prepares an obituary for the local newspaper. Died peacefully at home after a long illness, he writes.
“What do you mean long illness?” she asks. “Was there some terrible diagnosis you didn’t tell me about?”
No, no, nothing like that, he assures her. Just those repeated bouts of weakness. “And that terrible bronchitis last winter.”
“I remember,” Andrea says. “But I thought she made a complete recovery.”
“It really took it out of her,” he says. “And her mind…” He points his finger at his temple and twirls it in a circle. “She was quite batty for a while. Dr. Clark said it was due to the fever.”
“You never told me that.”
“I didn’t want to worry you.”
Andrea frowns. “She seemed okay when we came over in the summer.” But, she remembers now, her mother refused to join them on the day excursion to Beachy Head, or to visit the cousins in Kent. “I’ll stay home,” she’d said. Andrea tried gentle persuasion, but didn’t probe.
Her father shakes his head and shuffles into his study to make more telephone calls.
Andrea opens the large mahogany box where her mother stored the family photographs. It’s a jumble of pictures from both sides of the family, spanning a period of over a hundred years, completely unsorted, so when you reach in and grab a handful, you never know what you might find, and that’s always the marvel of it. Now, she examines photographs of her mother over the years: fresh-faced and agile pushing a pram through Hyde Park; building sandcastles on the beach at Port Isaac; hiking on a windswept hillside in the Lake District. Delving deeper, Andrea unearths a bundle of small, square, grainy black and white photographs, portraits of family members Andrea has never known, and a baby in a long white dress, with her mother’s name, Ida, 1929 inscribed on the back. All those years compressed into a life now archived, bookended with a sudden unexpected last chapter.
In an envelope near the top of the box, Andrea finds photographs from the previous summer: her parents, their two children and three grandchildren, seated in formal arrangement in the backyard. It was Andrea’s camera, but her sister-in-law, Elke, had acted as photographer. They didn’t typically pose for portraits in this manner, but it was indeed the last time they would all be together, and perhaps they’d sensed it.
Andrea is struck by the contrast between her parents in these photographs. Her father appears tanned, smiling broadly, his jacket askew; her mother pale, with a faraway look in her eyes and a thin Mona Lisa smile. Andrea didn’t notice at the time but she sees it now. It’s as if her mother were hiding something.
Later, Andrea and her brother, Simon, will change the wording of the obituary: died peacefully at home after a short illness.
Andrea looks through more photographs from that summer, casual shots which Andrea took herself. In one, her mother is seated outside the village pub; for once, she’d agreed to join them for lunch. She’s caught in animated conversation, her arms out-stretched in a gesture to illustrate some point. Most likely, Andrea thinks now, it was a story she’d heard many times before, and she took refuge behind the camera.
Andrea is stunned to see that her mother’s left hand is bare. She is not wearing her wedding ring.
Andrea slumps back in her seat, letting the photograph drop to the floor. This was taken six months ago. Somehow she hadn’t noticed the ring’s absence. She’d sat next to her mother at the dinner table, helped with the dishes, taken photographs of her telling those familiar stories—and did not see. She missed the chance to ask why she’d removed the ring, and what she’d done with it. Even when she selected prints to send to her parents after her return home, she didn’t see that bare left hand. Now, her eyes can focus on nothing else.
Elke telephones; she will be over within the hour. Andrea decides she will ask Elke about the ring. She doesn’t expect Simon to know anything but Elke might. She feels a pang of dread that Elke will say: of course, didn’t you know? That her mother may have confided in Elke in a way that she hadn’t with her. That this will be what Andrea deserves for moving so far away. The guilt has gnawed at her, especially as her parents aged.
Elke draws her into a fierce hug. Her eyes are red. “What a shock,” she says.
Andrea swallows a lump in her throat. She has not yet cried.
“How’s he holding up?” Elke asks, meaning Andrea’s father.
Andrea shrugs. “So, so.”
Maybe she should forget about the ring, not stir up muck that has been lurking for years. But she can’t let it go. After a respectable interval, she asks.
Elke knows nothing. This is the first she’s heard that the ring is missing.
The following day is consumed with errands: to the Town Hall to register the death, to the cemetery to select a plot, Andrea shepherding her father from one place to the next. Back at the house, he stands at the living room door, looking lost. She pats the worn, sagging seat next to her. “Sit down.”
“We have to notify Lenka,” he says. “In Prague.” Her mother’s cousin, a second cousin; the only remaining survivor on that side of the family. Her mother’s sister, Aunt Marta, died three years ago.
“Lenka doesn’t speak English, does she?” Andrea says. Neither she nor her brother speaks Czech. Her father never learned.
“No.” He slumps on the couch and closes his eyes.
“We could call Herbert in Melbourne. Ask him to tell Lenka.” Herbert fled the same time as Marta, and settled in Australia after the war. Marta spoke of him often, and he feels like family—although Andrea has met him only once, many years ago.
“Tomorrow,” her father says. “I can’t face any more today.”
The bronze clock on the sideboard shows 5pm. Damn: 9am in California. Too late to catch Chloe, her daughter; she will have already left for school. Andrea knows she can’t stay awake long enough to call tonight. Her body aches, still heavy with jet lag. Tomorrow, she promises to herself.
Her father is dozing now, his lower lip quivering with each exhalation, his jowls slack, the vibrancy of the previous summer dissipated. Andrea cannot understand how he’s only now noticed the ring is missing. Her mother was always irritated by how unobservant he could be, but still. She complained that he didn’t notice when she bought a new print for the kitchen, couldn’t remember where they kept the best silverware, or what day the gardener came. For decades she criticized and nit-picked and rolled her eyes at everything he said. Andrea in her teen years was recruited as her ally, to mock her father behind his back, ridiculing his absentmindedness. But later, once she’d left home, Andrea eschewed that role; she found it mean-spirited. Not that she contradicted her mother; she merely changed the subject.
She didn’t understand her parents’ marriage. They’d taken separate vacations for years. And slept in separate bedrooms; he snored was the excuse. Yet her mother remained fiercely loyal, supporting his research, keeping his papers in order, proudly boasting of his continued success. “We’re working on the proofs,” she would announce. “We had a good review in The Times.” She organized a surprise 80th birthday party for him while refusing any such celebrations for herself.
But now, Andrea cannot suppress a sickening thought: her mother might have thrown away her wedding ring. Chucked it down the toilet or hurled it into the trash in a fit of pique, a silent act of vengeance.
Andrea recalls a disturbing conversation she had with her father two years earlier when he visited California. She has banished the memory, but it springs up now like a jack-in-the-box. One night, she and her father stayed up late in the bar at the Wawona Hotel. The piano player performed Gershwin classics in the background while her father revealed a side of his marriage he’d never divulged before and would never mention again. Her mother had recently become insanely jealous, he said, convinced he was having an affair. She had outbursts of rage, screaming accusations which her father maintained were completely unfounded.
Andrea was deeply troubled by these revelations. She didn’t know how to respond, or what to believe. Maybe he was guilty of philandering when younger. Andrea expects that of men. But surely not at his age. Yes, he could be sweet and charming and had plenty of opportunity to socialize with beautiful young women in the publishing world. But he was eighty and stiff with back pain, for goodness sake, his clothes disheveled, his pants stained with dribbles of urine. It couldn’t be true.
Andrea never asked her mother about her suspicions. She was afraid her mother would be furious at her father for telling her, and take it out on him in some way, or be angry if Andrea implied she was taking her father’s side. So she pushed it to the back of her mind. She was good at that. She kept to the usual superficial topics and family gossip, skirting around anything of substance.
Nor did she share the painful stuff from her own life. She didn’t discuss why she’d come over on her own with Chloe, didn’t talk about her struggles with Lexi: Lexi’s inexplicable mood swings and her resentment of Andrea’s success going freelance. She told her parents Lexi couldn’t get the vacation time.
Back home, she and Lexi didn’t confront their issues either. They settled on an unspoken truce and limped along, dealing with the dry rot in the bathroom and Chloe’s transition to a new school for fourth grade.
Andrea was already living in California when Simon announced his engagement. She was astounded. Surprised that he was finally settling down, amazed that Elke could find her scrawny brother attractive, but even more, stunned to see her mother accept this with equanimity. Elke is German.
When Andrea was twelve, they’d planned a family vacation to Venice. No one flew in those days; they were to take the boat and the train. The most obvious route would take them through Germany. Andrea’s mother refused to go.
“I’ll look at every middle-aged man and wonder if he pushed my parents into the gas chamber,” she said, walking out of the room in protest. They went to Switzerland instead, traveling through France.
Andrea’s mother was reserved with Elke at first. But by the time Elke produced the first grandchild, she appeared to have softened.
It’s been three days. With the time difference, Andrea’s jet lag, and Lexi’s work schedule, they haven’t talked since her arrival. Andrea feels disconnected from her life back home. She wishes Lexi had come with her. But she wasn’t eligible for bereavement leave. “My hands are tied,” her boss at the Public Works department said. “You’re not considered family.” Never mind that they’ve been a couple for fifteen years, and have a daughter together. Andrea thinks Lexi could have pushed harder, or taken unpaid leave. But Lexi said it would cost way too much for the three of them to fly. And they would never find a dog-sitter at such short notice.
Andrea was raised on war stories. Her father manned the Ack-Ack guns, sweeping the sky for German bombers over the south coast, narrowly escaping a direct hit that killed two of his bunker-mates. Her grandmother and her aunts hunkered down in London; they talked endlessly about the Blitz, the Doodlebugs, the all-clear siren and the build-up to D-Day, the size of the cheese ration and the delight of seeing an orange for the first time in years. The streets of Andrea’s childhood in the 1950’s were still sprinkled with bombed-out buildings. She almost believed she had lived through the war herself.
Aunt Marta spoke occasionally of the Kindertransport that brought her to London on one of the last trains out. Her sister, Ida—Andrea’s mother—had been considered too young to leave, and she refused to talk about the war. It was only from Aunt Marta that Andrea gleaned a few details, meted out in sporadic leaks: Ida, a terrified child, clutching her mother’s skirt while the Gestapo searched the apartment for contraband; two years later, concealed in the neighbor’s closet as her parents were carted off, never to be seen again. These spurts of memories she shared with Marta—perhaps when they were first reunited at the war’s end—but with no one else.
Andrea never asked what Elke’s father did during the war.
Simon suggests a photo display for the reception. Andrea volunteers for the assignment; he and Elke will organize the food. So she’s back in the mahogany box, ostensibly searching for the best shots of her mother, but also trying to nail down when the ring disappeared. She finds a photograph from seven years ago, when the grandchildren were toddlers; she’s reading to them on the couch, holding a copy of Green Eggs and Ham, her ring plainly in view. After that, her hands are always hidden. Perhaps she removed the ring the previous winter when she was so sick—batty, as Andrea’s father described it. Or maybe years earlier.
On the day of the funeral, Andrea wakes very early, her sleep still disrupted; it’s 4AM . Instead of fighting it, she rises and calls home. She’s happy to hear their voices. Chloe is bubbly, Lexi relaxed, the dog has that hotspot on his skin again, but otherwise, everything is fine.
“This is hard,” Andrea tells Lexi.
“I want us to do better,” she says. There’s a pause on the other end of the line, and Andrea worries they’ve been cut off. But then she hears the hum of the TV in the background.
“We have to work on this,” Andrea says.
Andrea has stayed in busy mode all week, arranging a ride to the cemetery for the elderly couple across the street, resolving a last-minute snafu with drinks for the reception, and selecting the music—strictly secular—for the ceremony. Now, she stands outside the small chapel, Simon and Elke at her side, nodding to the guests as they file in. Her throat tightens when the hearse approaches, its wheels crunching on the gravel. The pallbearers ease her mother’s coffin onto their shoulders. It’s a beautiful, gleaming, polished box covered with white lilies and magnolias. Sealed inside: her mother’s body with all her secrets—but without her wedding ring. Andrea clutches Elke’s elbow as the tears stream down her cheeks. She has brought no tissues with her.
Andrea flies home two days after the funeral. Her seat, purchased at short notice, is right at the back of the plane, a window seat that will not recline. The food is dreadful. The movie does not interest her. She takes out the book her mother had been reading on her deathbed. The day before, Andrea had skimmed the first chapter but was unable to focus. Now, she props her feet on her backpack, inserts her earplugs, and plows into the novel. It’s nothing too profound, a coming-of-age tale set in the fifties, but it’s mildly entertaining and Andrea finds herself pulled into the story. Three hours later, thirty-seven thousand feet above the ice fields of Greenland, she reaches the point in the middle of chapter five, where her mother had left her bookmark. She pauses, takes a deep breath—and reads on.
© Barbara Ridley
[This piece was selected by Sarah Broderick. Read Barbara’s interview]