creative nonfiction

Lisa Shannon

My grandmother often said people can be judged by the way they cover their windows. Curtains pulled securely at night and opened tastefully in the morning adorned the windows of well-mannered, well-bred families. Those with curtains or blinds left dangling or slightly askew were recognized for their effort, but ridiculed for their sloppiness. The worst offenders were those with no coverings at all; windows left bare and exposed; indecent invitations to peer inside.

Our windows were always covered with something, placing us slightly above the poverty line when it came to window class systems. Mauve venetian blinds were my mother’s favorite. She preferred as little light to peek through as possible, so our blinds were usually closed, leaning us more toward the neglectful middle rung in the window hierarchy.

On especially sunny days, the diffused light made everything rosy. Our faces looked blushed and feverish. Our blue furniture looked purple and bruised. Sometimes, I’d sneak a finger between one of the slits to feel the heat from the sun. It was usually too bright to see anything but a relentless glow.

Keeping our blinds closed taught me all I needed to know about secrets. I understood there were certain things I shouldn’t talk about. Like my windows, I should leave nothing bare. I knew I should have wanted to cover things up to protect myself and my mother by hiding what she didn’t want anyone else to see. But from an early age, I felt no innate desire to protect my mother from harm. She was angry and gloomy, and she spent too much time in bed. I wanted everyone to know how terrible she really was.

As I got older, I found explanations. Addiction and depression were the adult words I used to rationalize my mother’s mood swings, but there was still part of me left peeking out through the curtains, trying to get a glimpse of something better outside.

By the time I was eighteen, my mother’s depression shifted from sad and sluggish to furious and hostile. Her threats to kill herself became common and expected. She was the boy, and suicide, the wolf; I knew better than to come running when she called. When my grandmother was sick and dying, I thought surely that would be enough to keep Mom from grasping for another disaster. I was a freshman in college and a safe distance away from constantly being pulled into her chaos, but there was always the possibility of a phone call, of her telling me to sit down and listen, something serious had happened, or would happen if things didn’t go her way.

I remember reading Jane Eyre and being so caught up in the fire and madness at the time, that I couldn’t help but jump when I heard the phone ring in my dorm room. When I answered, Mom didn’t offer any of her usual warnings to take a seat and pay attention. She mumbled my name, and I imagined it falling out of her mouth the way drool often did when she was high, how it would ease its way onto her bottom lip and settle, unable to make its way down her chin. The next thing she said came out fast and deep and angry, as if she’d suddenly managed to compose herself, wipe her face, and say what needed to be said, “Grandma died, Lisa.” She hung up without another word.

I felt something like a rock in the bottom of my stomach, as if all my frustration manifested into a solid, palpable mass that I longed to grab hold of and toss through a window. If I could shatter glass and leave a visible hole, people would finally be able to see the real damage my mother did. Without that rock, I was left pressing my hand against the cold dorm wall, tracing the lines between each cinder-block, and wondering why, when my grandmother was dead, I was crying because my mother was still alive.

Preparing to go home for my grandmother’s funeral left me tired and anxious. I thought about my grandmother and the way she’d call and do her best Stevie Wonder, just calling to say, “I love you.” It was hard not to think about all the times I’d cut her off, demanding she stop singing and tell me what she wanted. The thought of having those same regrets with my mother pushed me to a promise I wasn’t sure I could keep. I told myself I would comfort my mother no matter what state she was in when I got home because she was my mother and her mother was dead, and a good daughter acknowledges the depth of that loss.

My mother made most things a challenge, and while I knew this, I was always surprised by it. Even helping her mourn was difficult and unnatural. I experienced a familiar disappointment when I put my arms around her shoulders and felt the dampness in her skin and the limp and heavy hang of her arms, loose and weak from having spent so many days in bed.

When I found Mom stumbling down the hall the morning of the funeral, I realized how impossible it seemed for her to be standing. Her nightgown hung down off one shoulder as she stopped midway down the hall to lean against the wall. She looked down at the floor, at my feet, at nothing at all, as if she’d forgotten what she’d been doing the moment she’d started doing it. I thought for the first time in a long time that she might actually be feeling something. Whether it was sadness, anger, maybe even frustration, I couldn’t tell, but I imagined she might have had that familiar weight in her stomach. How good it would have been for both of us if I’d somehow been able to put it in her hand, ease her arm back, and let it fly.

Instead, I held her shoulders and guided her into the bathroom. She sat on the toilet and looked up at me. She asked me what I was doing to her, what did I want, why was I there. I explained it was time to get ready for the funeral. She needed lipstick and a dress. Where were her stockings and high heels? She should wear the perfume Grandma liked.

Mom decided to wear her wedding dress to the funeral because she had the same one in both black and white. They were occasional dresses and this was an occasion. After I zipped the dress and helped Mom step into her heels, I stood back and looked at her. The dark color of the dress’s thick fabric matched the roots of her hair. The mauve lipstick I rubbed across her lips lay in a dull flat line. The look on her face was blank and empty like a portrait. At the funeral home, Mom stumbled to the casket and stood near my grandmother. I’d never seen a resemblance between them, but in that moment, the likeness was unmistakable. The similarity was startling – how inappropriate makeup seemed on both faces, obvious and out of place, the pretending that things weren’t as they seemed. Mom rubbed the corner of her mouth and smeared lipstick on her chin. It was almost easy to forget she was there until she spoke and put everything in motion. She introduced me as Christine and the name placed her in the room, made it obvious she was beside me. Again and again she said it, calling me Christine, as if, like her dress, the name was something meant to be used on occasion.

I was uncomfortable but relieved, thinking, finally, there they were. All of our secrets laid out like my grandmother’s body. This was it, the moment the glass would break and light would finally flood the room. I looked around and braced myself for the revelation.

But the line in front of the casket kept moving. People shook our hands, tapped our shoulders, and smiled those funeral smiles that say, “I’m happy to see you despite the circumstances.”

As the line moved, I eased my way out toward the flowered sofa reserved for immediate family. I felt a small sense of order by sitting where I was meant to be seated. And then, I saw my mother in front of me. She wobbled and leaned in toward the casket. I thought she might whisper in Grandma’s ear, but she pushed herself back up and bumped into the flowers behind her. A few carnations dropped to the floor. I looked at the broken stems, my mother’s feet, my grandmother’s body. What I would have given for some sort of covering, for a way to pull a shade in front of it all and walk away, knowing nothing about things I couldn’t see.

Lisa Shannon is a poet and nonfiction writer living in New York City. She holds an MA in Humanities and Social Thought from New York University and an MA in Writing from Rowan University. Most recently she was a fellowship recipient for the 2012 Summer Literary Seminars Contest. Her work has previously appeared in Glassworks and Flashquake.

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