“She was meek,” Rose says, “except when she’d been drinking.”
All I can think is the meek shall inherit the earth . I stay silent and wait for the next thing Rose will say. We’ve just met, but it’s clear Rose is not afraid of pauses, or of silence. She’s telling me about my mother, and she’s taking her time in a way that makes me think she is replaying the past in her mind, scene by scene, and straining for accuracy.
I learn my mother moved away from this dirt-road neighborhood years before her death. Her husband Rudolph had trouble staying in any one place for very long, like water that has no choice but to run downhill. The trailer they lived in is next door to Rose’s, and it’s vacant, as it’s been since they left.
“Rudolph didn’t like her to drink. When she lived next door, she kept her wine under my sink.” Rose picks up a Mason jar full of tea. “Those were the best times. We all lived right here. Your momma was mine, like our brother Charles belonged to Tina.”
Rose, like Tina, is my aunt. My mother’s sister, or half-sister. Rose’s trailer is only two lots away from Tina’s, and Tina still lives here; I spent the evening with her last night to hear her stories, sucking them into my body like a blood transfusion, even when I suspected her stories were wishful thinking.
Rose and Tina may be close, but Rose’s trailer is a world apart from Tina’s. There are no towers of soft drink cartons here like at Tina’s, no overflowing bags of clothes like at Tina’s, to show me how sturdy Rose’s trailer really is. Knowing that I’m walking on a sheet of plywood balanced on cinder blocks, I get the sense that the floor is buckling over the dark air beneath it; that it’s just strong enough to support the worn furniture, the meticulously clear countertops, and an alcove with photographs of Rose’s three children and their sports trophies.
I’ve heard hints that Rose’s husband, Wayne, who will later become a grower of vegetables and a church-going man, is trouble . A d rink er, cheat er, and bad tempered, he is the kind of man I think should be dumped on the side of the road next to a rotting deer carcass. But Rose is loyal. She married him when she was sixteen; they’ve been together almost twenty years.
Her daughter Amanda is sitting next to me on the couch. She’s twelve, a tomboy, with smooth, dark blond hair falling down the back of her red Georgia Bulldogs T-shirt. Her curiosity about me and her quick familiarity make me want to cry for my own youth, which was spent among strangers. I reach out my hand and pass it from the top of her head down to her shoulders.
“You’re petting me like a dog!” she yells, grinning. I do it again, and she laughs.
I start laughing too, and then I cough on the break between giggling and bawling.
Amanda’s little brother Bryan is sitting on the arm of the couch. He is eight years old. “Are you going to fall down and die now?” he asks. He’s told me he was my mother’s favorite, or that she was his favorite ; I can’t remember. He calls her “Aunt Theresa,” saying the “aunt” like “ant.”
My mother died in an ambulance while she was having an asthma attack, not quite a year before I found out who she was and where my family lived. She was forty-eight years old. She was meek, except when she’d been drinking. Now, she has inherited the dark earth of a nearby, unmarked grave.
“No, I’m fine. I’m here for the duration,” I say, and I laugh again.
“You sound like Aunt Theresa when you laugh,” he says. “You look like her.”
“Um-hum,” says Rose, drawing it out.
“It’s like Aunt Theresa’s come back from the dead,” he continues. “Like a zombie!”
“Bryan!” Rose yells.
But he is undeterred in his efforts to shock me. “Aunt Theresa used to sway like this when she got drunk.” He swivels his hips and drops to his knees. “Do you get drunk and sway around?”
“It’s okay,” I say to Rose. I look at Bryan. “I used to get drunk and do all kinds of things, but the past few years I gave it up because it makes my asthma worse.”
“So you’re gonna fall on the floor and die?”
“Bryan! Go outside so me and Michele can talk!”
He slides over to my lap and grins. Something is wrong with one of his eyes; it’s clouded over like a cataract. When the light catches it, it shines like a polished coin. Amanda is still next to me. I can feel the sweaty warmth coming from her. But Amanda grabs Bryan’s wrist and yanks him up. They are out the screen door before I know it.
“He sure misses your momma,” Rose says. “She spoiled him. He could go over there and set on her lap and let her pinch his cheeks, and she’d give him whatever he wanted.”
I’ve not yet pinched Bryan’s cheeks, but I can feel their warm chubbiness between my fingers. This image of my mother doting on a child in her lap overwhelms me with longing to be that child. I let the longing pass, but there’s so much I need to know.
“So how much did she drink?” I ask.
“Not every day. Not enough money for that.”
“What kind of wine?”
“White. White something.”
For a minute I think maybe chardonnay, maybe pinot grigio. I think maybe she was like me: She just liked partying, but she could put it down whenever a situation called for sobriety.
I hear a vehicle pull up to the trailer. Amanda yells, “Daddy, why didn’t you take me fishing with y’all!” The sound of metal slamming on metal.
Rose starts up again. “White something. I never took even a sip of alcohol in my life, so I can’t never recall the names.” Rose, who remembers everything, trying to tell me what I want to know. “But sometimes she’d ask me to buy it for her. White . . . white . . .”
“White port,” I say, even though I don’t want to say it.
My memory casts its line backwards until it hooks the image of two women drinking from bottles wrapped in paper bags. They are on the landing of the flophouse I stayed in as a teenage runaway. The Red Queen and the White Queen, I called them. One drank red port, and the other drank white. The fortified wine. The wino wine.
I let out a sigh, which is also a line cast into darkness. Under the sink. Buy it for me. White port. Three things that add up to one thing. Poor Aunt Theresa. Poor Momma.
Like me, Rose was born in 1957. She is my mother’s sister, but only three months younger than I am, so she has no memory of my mother becoming pregnant with me. She’s never heard any stories about boyfriends my mother had before marrying Rudolph. She’s never heard the story Tina told me about a boyfriend named “Kent Smith” and his Corvette, and the diamond as big as a butter bean he gave to my mother before they were separated. For Rose, my mother had always been the wife of Rudolph, and the mother of my sister and five brothers, and her closest friend. She has no idea who my father might have been.
“Sometimes when she came here to drink her wine, she’d start crying and talking something about a baby girl born in 1957, but I never could get anything else out of her.” Rose looks at me. “A girl. Born in 1957. I thought I was that baby. Born in 1957.”
I wait in the silence that follows. In my own childhood with adoptive parents in the north, I’d never questioned who I was. It was only after I’d turned twenty-one, when a well-meaning cousin lifted the veil and told me I was adopted, that a world of explicit unknowing opened up for me. Rose lived her childhood with the questions that should have been mine, while I lived with more subtle uncertainties: Where did my green eyes come from? Why didn’t I care about dressing up? Who would ever understand me when I talked about my books?
“My momma gave me up to Aunt Grace when I was real little. I always thought there was a reason she didn’t want me, and when Theresa talked about that baby, I thought that was it. I wasn’t Momma’s daughter. I was Theresa’s daughter.”
She reaches up behind her and takes a shoebox down off of the shelf where her kids’ photos are arrayed. “Me and Theresa were so close,” she says. “I thought that was why.”
I wonder what she means by “close.” My relationship with my adoptive mother tracked a history of me pulling away. I remembered a fierce love for her when I was a preschool child, and then a smothering sensation, and a gradually intensifying need to distance myself.
Rose strokes the top of the shoebox. She turns back to me. “I guess all that time I thought I was you,” she says. “Or you’re the girl I thought I was.”
Outside, mockingbirds chewk and churr. I hear Bryan and Amanda laughing at something their daddy says to them.
“Now I know who I am. I’m the girl you thought you were,” I say.
“Guess we can’t both be her.”
Rose opens the shoebox. It’s full of old Polaroids and Instamatic prints, and my eyes are greedy for them. I have an insatiable appetite for photographs of people who look like me. No one in my life has ever looked like me. Rose passes them to me one by one and explains each photograph: who is in it, when it was taken, why it was taken. Here’s three of my brothers when they were young, before they got into trouble and drugs. Here’s my grandmother sleeping in a chair with her mouth open. Here’s my great-grandmother walking down Broughton Street in Savannah.
Soon, they are more than I can hold. I’m afraid if I pile them next to me on the couch, they will spill onto the floor, so I press my knees together and hold them on my lap.
A man slams through the screen door like he owns the place. He’s deeply tanned, dark-haired, handsome in an archetypal bad-boy way. Rose’s type is my type. The couch shivers beneath us, but Rose and I both appear to be still once we’ve looked up at the man. Without saying a word, our bodies have fallen into place, into the same place: a quiet alertness.
“Hi there,” I say, unwilling to get up because of the photos on my lap and because my muscles want to mimic Rose’s stillness. “You must be Wayne.”
“You got them same cow eyes,” he says to me. Rose and I turn to face each other. Our eyes stare back at each other, big and wide, a little sad. We give each other small smiles; it doesn’t matter that Wayne’s remark is not meant as a compliment.
What’s important is that he’s noticed we are alike. For the rest of the day, I notice how my body matches hers. We are the same height; our limbs are the same length. We move at the same measured pace. I watch her making sandwiches, washing dishes, putting them away. Her motions are smooth, and she appears unhurried. Her tasks seem to complete themselves, while her grace makes her all but invisible. I’ve worked in bars and restaurants, and I know her type. It’s my type. Plates and drinks appear and then disappear. Nothing is rushed, but an economy of movement creates a swift completion.
In some ways, we are so different. Rose has never held a job outside of her home; I have held many. Rose is a mother; I am not. I am a reader; Rose is not. Rose is a Christian; I am not. I’ve been to college; Rose has not. I’ve traveled far and wide; Rose has never gone more than fifty miles from home. Still, I have the sense that my pulse matches hers, and that her breath matches mine. We are two cows in a field, our eyes wide and vulnerable, our knees bending, our haunches lowering in unison, lying down before it rains. We are a single particle, split in two and separated by hundreds of miles, but still mirroring each other’s actions.
We are two soft women, sinking into a soft couch, our knees pointed in the same direction, our wrists draped over those knees, our breath held in anticipation. I love her beyond anything—the woman who grew up thinking she was me, when all along I didn’t know who I was. The woman who, without words, now shows me who I am.