Mother called that afternoon to say she had something to show me but wouldn’t tell me what. I pumped her for clues but received only a deep-throated laugh. “You’re an abusive parent, Mommy dearest,” I said and promised to see her soon.
Mama lived in the small frame house she and Daddy bought in the late 50’s. Oak trees formed a dense canopy over the street, and neither weed nor pest dared invade Mama’s prize rose gardens. She met me at the door. “Ta-da,” she said and gestured to the middle of the small living room where a carved antique rocking chair commanded center-stage.
I hugged her hello. “It’s beautiful. What’s the story?”
She nudged the chair with her fingertips. “It’s been in our family for generations. A great-great-great-grandfather dismantled the original chair and brought it with him when he emigrated from Russia as a wedding gift for his picture bride. It’s passed from mother to daughter since then, plus who knows how many generations in Russia. Someday it’ll be yours–hope you’ll fit.” Mom was one of those “slip of a girl” women, as was her mother. I took after my father’s people, topping off at six feet.
“Very funny. Why don’t you sit, try it out?” I said.
Mom’s hand hovered over the carvings, not touching them. “It’s silly. I know they’re innocent flowers, and I love flowers, but these look—I don’t know, creepy.” She shuddered.
“Creepy?” I pulled the chair to the window and studied it in the bright light. “These aren’t flowers, Mama, they’re women’s faces. Look—here’s a nose, mouth, chin.”
Mom joined me at the window. “And here’s another one. This one’s wearing a scarf of some kind.”
“You said the original carving was done in Russia, right? Wanna’ bet that scarf’s a babushka?”
“Well, isn’t that something?” Mom sat in the chair and wriggled to get comfortable. “Nobody knows the history of the carvings or what they mean. When the chair passed down to my mother, she sat in it day and night, ignored her house work, forgot to eat, didn’t know me or my brothers. She died in a nursing home sitting in this chair, staring out the window.”
“Sure you want to keep the damned thing?”
“It’s an heirloom!” She laughed and stroked the chair arms. “Besides, now I have these lovely women for company.”
Two months passed before I saw Mom again. We talked on the phone every other day, but she was busy with her quilting club or church or volunteer work–or so she said. One Friday, I took a chance on an impromptu visit and was alarmed to see leaves smothering the yard and weeds strangling Mom’s treasured rose bushes.
“Mom? Are you home?” No answer. When I pushed the door open, a wave of fetid air gagged me. Shrunken, face sagging, Mom sat slumped in the rocking chair, her head rising and falling with the chair’s movement. A filthy dress hung on her body.
“Mother!” I rushed across the room, stumbling over dirty dishes, photograph albums and boxes of old letters. I knelt and grabbed her shoulders, fragile as a sparrow’s wings. “Mom?”
“Oh, hello, Baby.” She pushed a greasy strand of hair off her face. “Mama and the others have been telling me stories about our ancestors. We identified people in these old photos and read their letters.” Tears traced the map of her wrinkles as she stared at the cluttered floor. After several minutes, she wiped her eyes with the hem of her dress and turned to the window. “Life betrayed us all, stole our dreams,” she said. “There’s nothing left to live for anymore; maybe there never was.”
I tugged her hands. “Come on, Mama, let’s have a nice shower, find you some clean clothes, something to eat. Maybe you could lie down for a bit.”
She yanked free. “No, leave me alone. I need to stay here with Mama.”
Bathing her was like washing a rag doll. She nibbled at the food I brought her but refused to leave the chair except to shuffle to the bathroom. When my emergency and vacation leaves ran out, I hired a procession of nurses and caregivers who persuaded me to move her to a care home. Sitting in the rocking chair by the window, my mother died six months later.
After Mom’s funeral, I drove to her house, poured a glass of wine and sat on the sofa to spend time with my memories. The chair began rocking and crooning in my mother’s voice. “Come for a ride, Pretty Baby. Let Mommy hold you and kiss it better.” Hot tears pressed against my eyes as I swayed with the rhythm of the chair, the tiny child in me longing to crawl back into my mother’s comforting lap.
When the wineglass slipped and shattered the spell, I jumped up and flung an afghan over the chair. “Never!” I grabbed a box of matches from the kitchen and shook it like a conjurer’s rattle. “By noon tomorrow there’ll be nothing left of you but a pile of stinking cinders.” I slammed into bedroom and bolted the lock.
The next morning the front door stood open. Scrape marks on the porch and furrows through the grass marked the chair’s path to the curb. I searched both sides of the street on foot then drove through the neighborhood questioning anyone I found at home. The chair had vanished.
That was a year ago. This morning’s television news featured the story of an elderly woman’s fall from the fourth floor of a downtown apartment building. Video footage showed the interior of the apartment littered with dishes, photograph albums and boxes of letters. The camera panned to a black rocking chair pulled up to a large window, then zoomed in for a close-up of its carved back. Dead center, illuminated by the bright outside light, was my mother’s face, frozen in eternal lament.