I got the fear of death from my mother. Her driving. In most other things, she wasn’t fearful. I remember her driving the four of us into Washington, D.C., to get our school clothes, on a hot Saturday in August. Amid our noisy contests, the grabbing and scrambling going on in the backseat, she drove the 40-mile route my father took daily from Clark’s Gap, Virginia, to the city.
On the rural part of the trip we ignored her pleading. No seat belts, in those days. My baby brother had a rickety canvas sling with two leg-holes, hooked over the back of the front seat so he could sit higher. Even my mother with her fear of death never really saw that bag he sat in, raising him high enough to shoot him straight at the windshield.
Shopping for clothes was more of an occasion then, undertaken once a year, at the back-to-school sales. It was an expedition that required a good deal of foresight and preparation: piling in thermoses and crackers and baby bottles; stopping in the dew of the morning to get the tank filled and the oil and tires checked, as my father said to; and then, lulled by the sleeping countryside along Route 7, holding our breath and scouting for the turn, which was easy to miss. Would we make it across the fast bridge and, avoiding the need for a left turn, find the part of downtown where the department stores were, the street, the block, the forbidding little border station allowing entrance to a stone funnel. We would toil up the circling ramps and find a parking place in the dim garages those stores had, with the August heat already collected in them no matter how early you arrived. Then there were piles of shoeboxes; and stiff leather shoes to be levered onto our damp feet with a shoehorn and firmly tied, so we could step up into a wooden cabinet to be X-rayed; and plaid dresses that fooled us with a scented rustle as they dropped over our heads and then stood askew, loose at the neck and poked out at the shoulders like sawhorses, with sweaty stringy us in them in the mirror, instantly betraying our hope for new selves. And new undershirts and underpants, with a sugar smell in the cotton.
I remember crossing the bridge and looking down first at the Potomac River and then at the brown water of the old canal with the towpath beside it, and hearing in my mother’s voice as she gripped the wheel and asked us to be quiet — the city was upon us, the deadly traffic — a note that spoke of the possibility of annihilation. I didn’t know the word. But I could feel we were high up on the edge of something. If we were not careful we could be snatched from there and disappear, children in the car with our mother. The tone of voice went with a look in her eyes in the rearview mirror, a suggestion she seemed to be sending to me in particular. You see what I’m going through, the look said, what torments me.
If I see that look on somebody worrying her way through traffic today, with children in the car, a stretched, innocent, unseeing look, I think of my young mother and of death.
Mary Deare Maxwell was my best friend. In kindergarten, when the teacher said “Mary and Mary Deare, you may pass out the crayons,” I could have fainted from the pleasure of breathing in the deep school smell of the crayon bin at the side of Mary Deare. We had the same name, but hers flew that pennant that multiplied it beyond all names. I wonder if I will ever duplicate the heights of joy we reached after school, playing with our trading cards.
But I had to leave her; we moved away. The house we moved to was in the country, outside a little town. No one could comfort me. There was a school bus, no walking to school with your best friend. For a long time, because it was summer when we moved, and houses past the town limits were scattered, friends did not materialize. I had sisters to play with, but when we spread out my trading cards they had lost some of their splendor. For certain horses I had given two, even three, cards in return. It was the horses I loved, each with its own proud nature made explicit in the picture, and having no name until I bestowed it. Not the floating, blue-toned, fantasy animals little girls collect today, but horses more real than the ones we now saw grazing with their foals and standing at the fences as we drove the green countryside into the city.
One day my mother told me she had learned that Mary Deare was sick. She took from her special drawer in the kitchen a get-well card for me to send her. I could not think that the girl to whom I was sending a card in the mail, with my careful printing on the envelope, was the Mary Deare I had walked and sung with in the long ago of kindergarten.
In November, the day of her birthday arrived, clothed in fog. Half a year had passed and we were going to her party. I was going to be seeing Mary Deare and she would be a girl, rather than the name I still chanted to myself.
I know what I was wearing: a stiff dress with pink and gray stripes and a thin silver-painted belt into which I had punched an extra hole with the tooth of the buckle to make it fit, only to discover that the belt would bend there, and then screw up into a few threads, showing itself to have been cardboard under the silver. I did this on the way to the party, during one of those tense drives to Washington. The belt was spoiled. The absolute that the dress had been, with its full skirt and silver belt, fell away.
I had started in my new school, a country school with two grades to a room, and after a few weeks they had put me in the next grade’s reading group, made me leave my desk and cross the room every day, with the result that none of the girls in either grade would speak to me. I had a fear that at the party they would know about this new school and my place, or non-place, in it.
Mary Deare was on a couch in the recreation room, where there were balloons and bags of favors. She was in a cast. It came to the top of her legs (no one said “thighs” at that time), with a bar holding them apart. She was propped in pillows. I approached with my heart beating against the stiff stripes of my dress. I thought friendship belonged to only two, like the glass slippers: The prince had one, Cinderella had the other one.
I came so close I could see her long eyelashes. I said no one in my new school had trading cards. Where were her trading cards? She said, “I don’t have to show you.”
After the cake, things grew friendlier among the rest of us. Mary Deare had shut her eyes, and lay among her presents. Someone wondered in a whisper how she went to the bathroom, how she sat on the toilet. What would you do if you couldn’t sit? We knew she didn’t — couldn’t — wear underpants, because we had seen. Somebody — why do I say somebody, when to this day I know it was a thin, fast-running, tiny-toothed girl from our kindergarten class — said the word “hiney.” “Her hiney.” That was the word, a word quite gone now. I know I didn’t say it but of course I laughed, excited and half afraid to be laughing in a way that implied the rest of us did not have such a place.
A voice behind us, ominous and deep. “Who said that?” Her white-shirted father, Mr. Maxwell, stepped into our circle. Fathers had never been home in the daytime when we played at each other’s houses.
I had been the one, the others agreed, who said it.
“Is that right?” he said, with eyes that separated me out and measured me. “I’ll have to speak to your mother about this.” My mother was in the kitchen with Mary Deare’s mother. This was not the ordinary adult glance. His eyes were fixed on me as if they saw the same shadowy inside that the foot X-ray saw, only in the foot it wasn’t soiled like the thing his eyes were reporting now.
“Mary Deare is a very unlucky little girl, to be in perdition.” I remember his words that way. I’m sure he actually said “to be in her condition,” and my later self, feverish with reading, remade the memory in this literary way. “It would discourage her,” he went on, “to think a friend at her birthday party said bad words about her. It would discourage her and it would discourage me.”
Somehow in the way he said the thing about her being unlucky made Death come near. Mary Deare had moved into its path, discouraged. He had produced by happenstance a word that had always plagued me in stories being read aloud; I never heard the word “courage” in it, but rather saw or felt something like scurry and sewage: discouraged, a word for hurrying, slipping in something with suction. So it seemed, too, from the ugly look on his big face. He had a mustache, and a scrap of tobacco that he spat off his lip. Like my father, he smoked Camels.
We must have been 6, Mary Deare having her 7th birthday. Now I know that she had polio, but then I thought that I had sentenced her, brought her to the attention of Death by laughing at her bareness under the party dress. Her hiney. And if Death could be called out for her, then for my parents, my sisters and brother, for me. We all had these bodies, these parts under our clothes: We could be found, discouraged, made sick, laid bare.
One Saturday when my mother drove into Washington with just two of us, the oldest girls, we were more lighthearted than usual in the car, and on the straight stretch of Route 7 the speedometer read 52. It was late summer and I was not fighting with my sister but measuring the way the trees fell away on my side. They shrank down as they were yanked out of view. The near landscape went by at one rate and the farther landscape at a different, slower rate. I was trying to think what this meant, whether there was something it was supposed to show, that my mother already knew, some lesson. But I didn’t ask. The thought of an explanation discouraged me. The hills, the far trees kept parading in their stately way while the near ones flew by.
The sign said “Speed Limit 50.” “Don’t tell Daddy,” my mother said gaily as she drove along at 52, still nowhere near the swallowing throat of the city.
At dinner we were all exhausted and triumphant when my father asked about our day in Washington, and I told. I said, “She went 52!” I remember my mother looking at me. It seemed to me that she might cry. Here we had avoided, this one time, the awful death-feeling crossing the bridge, avoided any doomed attempts to turn left in the city of Washington, D.C., when you couldn’t, anywhere, so that you kept going around and around in some sort of eternal one-block turnstile, but fast, with people behind you angry, enclosed in machines so they couldn’t hear you or know you were a nice family, and blowing their horns; we had found Woody’s, found our oxfords and a skirt each, charged them with my mother’s new charge plate, and returned in triumph, and I had called down the notice of Death, that lurking, awaited Death-by-Speeding, on my mother.
Next time it would be on the watch for her.
As the guardian of the family, my father had established that my mother must drive the car carefully and that he must protect her by reminding her of the speed limit and receiving an account of her observance of the rules of the road. When she was not at the wheel, she was not a nervous woman. She was the mother of four children, she was competent in the world … but not quite. In the car she was like a person who is treading water and beginning to feel her muscles go.
You need only one place where dread is laid bare, only one instance where you see it in the adult eye. In the little herd we had acquired when we moved to the country, six Angus mothers and their shy calves, we knew a certain look in a cow’s eye when we startled her, a way the eyeball rolled in complete forgetfulness that she, the cow, was 10 times our size, and a wildness appeared, of dread of us and determination to save her calf.
It was the era of trading cards. There was no way to tally their worth: bought by the pack and opened, the little flap pried up, the glossy cards drawn out and slipped past each other with their lovely slipping sound, seen, smelled, honored. Cats, dogs. Flowers, birds, ladies with red lipstick and mantillas. Horses. Horses, the finest, always. I hid my need for them, exclaiming over other cards.
I held hands with Mary Deare as we walked, and took my cards out of the pocket in my skirt, a secret pocket my mother had showed me while she ironed, hidden in the seam. Mary Deare bent her dark braids close to me, giving off soft waves of the perfume she was allowed to wear. “It’s very light, it’s for little girls,” her mother said helplessly. Mary Deare was an only child and as my parents said later, “they gave her everything.” Being given everything went with the name.
We passed my trading cards back and forth, held them before us as we walked. Hers were in a shoebox at her house, but I could feel them approaching. I was going to give her the white cat for a chestnut horse, to go with my black, my palomino, my gray with the arched neck and red halter. The purest happiness sang in my scalp and hands as we walked together.
But she came down with polio. And after that our town grew enough to have a clothing store, and although my father still drove into Washington every day, we hardly ever went there any more. After the birthday party, I never saw Mary Deare again.
She did not die, as I expected her to. My parents heard from hers, heard she recovered, gradually, until she could walk with a leg brace. “At least she was never in an iron lung.” That was what my mother said, so often that I complained, “Why do you have to say that every single time?” It made the death-feeling come over me. Parents did that, and it seemed to me they did it on purpose.
In the months before I had friends in my new school, I thought back on how we had broken into skipping when we walked, and stepped brimming with gladness into her kitchen after the tiring hours in kindergarten, to arrange our collections on the table while her mother looked on. We held our breath, deliberated, chose what we could part with. I wanted all the horses and her mother knew that. “Don’t feel like you have to give that one away, Mary Deare,” her mother would say, every so often. But in the five-and-ten the glossy packs lay there in rows. They had their own sign, Trading Cards, which we could read before we could read. There would always be more of them. We would always find more and buy them with our allowance, always long for the new ones with their promise we could not explain, their perfection. Was it a mistake to let such happiness fill us? Was there some connection between it and what was going to happen? But as with the trees flying by, I didn’t want the explanation. I didn’t want to know.