By Karen Rosenbaum
Karen Rosenbaum lives in Kensington, California. This story, which was awarded Sunstone’s 2012 Starstone Prize, appears in her collection, Mothers, Daughters, Sisters, Wives (Zarahemla, 2016).
Else Pedersen Mikelsen
12 January 1850–28 May 1920
The doctor told Anna there was nothing wrong with her mother, but all that meant was that there wasn’t anything wrong that he could see or hear or feel. Her heart was strong, he said, and her lungs sounded clear. When Anna asked her how she felt, she said she didn’t hurt particularly, but she was very tired. She was 70. That was enough. She went to bed in the little bedroom they had made hers. She only got up to use the toilet once or twice a day as she ate and drank almost nothing. One Friday morning, Anna, her heart pounding, found her mother twisted like a bent lightning rod on the bedcovers, and she knew at once that it was over.
She straightened her mother’s legs and folded the arms across her chest and lay down on the bed next to the body. Alfred was at the farm till tomorrow night, the girls would be up at 6:30, in about half an hour—this was the last day of school before summer, and they would be squabbling and fidgety. Maybe she shouldn’t tell them now—but Dinah always came in to kiss her grandmother good-bye before she ran down the street to collect her friends. Carrie and Ruthie, they wouldn’t have to know till later. But that was no good—once they saw Anna’s face, they’d all know.
She turned on her side and stroked her mother’s wrinkly cheek. Yes, tired, Anna thought. Mother worked so hard, and work had hardened her. In Viborg she did factory work, farm work, housework—someone else’s house, someone else’s farm. Before she was 20, she had a child, a girl, to raise alone. And then for weeks, on the boat to America, she and little Inger lurched about the steerage. In New York, she finally found someone who spoke Danish and who helped them find the train to Utah, and the Mormons who knew her parents back in Denmark. She did farm work in Cache Valley, too, tying the cut grain into bundles, Inger following along beside her; and she worked in the Andreasens’ house in the winter, sewing, cleaning, cooking, Inger playing by herself under the kitchen table. When at last Mother got her own house, she still didn’t get her own husband—she had to share him with Aunt Stena, who lived next door. And when the U.S. marshals began arresting polygamists, she had to move her growing brood to the ranch, away from Aunt Stena and the town. Pumping and lugging water, washing clothes and bedding in two big tubs, milking cows, churning butter, carding and weaving wool, sewing clothes and curtains, scrubbing floors with lye, braiding rugs out of rags, making soap, making ludefisk, making five children besides Inger, burying two of those children. No wonder her lips were tight.
Anna sat up and lifted her mother’s hand, pressed it to her own lips. She remembered the time, after Father died, when her mother couldn’t get out of bed. Sick and exhausted, Mother was trying to run the ranch with Mose and Frank, just boys, and trying to save enough money so Inger could go to college and get a teaching certificate. Aunt Stena came and packed Mother with cloths wrung out in hot turpentine water, trying to break the fever. Later, Mother told Anna she had wanted more than anything to sink back and pass away, but she had looked around and counted her children—Frank, the youngest only nine—all weeping around her bed. She knew then she had to fight to live. This spring, Mother had chosen to stop living.
Anna stood up and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief from her apron pocket. Her mother had made that apron, had crocheted that handkerchief. Anna closed her mother’s door. In the kitchen she poured oatmeal and water into a pot and called the girls.
Anna’s brothers, Frank and Mose, came as soon as she sent for them, and they lifted Mother out of the bed and carried her to the big dining table. The brothers sat with Anna for a while, then took Mose’s car to the cemetery to get things ready there. Mose said he’d get word out to the farm, to Alfred. Not wanting the girls underfoot, Anna shooed them off to school. Only Dinah, her sweet middle child, was teary and hesitant. Carrie and Ruthie had lowered their eyes and quietly left.
It was Anna’s job, preparing bodies for burial. Nobody in Logan did it better. She had laid out how many bodies—dozens and dozens—on their own dining room tables, tenderly washing and drying and dressing them. If it was an unexpected death, no burial clothing, she would measure the body and go home and sew the clothes. Now, from the chest at the foot of Mother’s bed, she took the burial clothes, all ready. Mother had seen to that.
She looked so small on the table. Inger would be along soon, but Anna had Mother to herself right now, to herself for the last time. She brought water and vinegar and clean rags from the kitchen. She brushed out her mother’s long gray hair—long enough to sit on—and braided and coiled it again, a little looser than Mother would have wanted. She put a touch of rouge on the cheeks. Mother would have thought that foolishness, but she looked a little less severe that way.
But no lipstick. Maybe because English wasn’t her native tongue, Mother hadn’t talked very much. Sometimes she had seemed about to speak, but then she would press her lips tighter together. Anna wondered about Inger’s father back in Viborg and why her mother hadn’t married him. And their own father, here—why did she marry him when he already had a wife? And what had been going on in her mind these past months as she lay all those hours in bed? Anna kissed her mother’s forehead. Her mother loved them all. Her children, grandchildren. She adored Dinah especially and even in these last numb months kept white peppermints under her pillow for her favorite grandchild. But as much as Mother had cared for them, she wanted even more to leave them. Anna wiped her eyes. Was it really better where Mother was now?
Father had been gone 28 years—blood poisoning, at 62, from the splinter of a fence post embedded in his arm. He was a distant, decent man, who provided well for both his families, but any passion he had he must have spent on his first wife, the young one who died in childbirth two years after he brought her here from Alborg. Anna figured he took his next two wives, the polygamous ones, as a duty. Neither Mother nor Aunt Stena seemed to mourn his death. After he died, Anna had heard Aunt Stena whisper to Mother, “I’m so glad it wasn’t you, my dear. I can live without him easier than I could without you.” There, beyond the dining room table, on the wall above the china cabinet, was the photograph—Father seated between Mother and Aunt Stena, the children arranged like flowers around them. No one was smiling. Sometimes Mother and Aunt Stena would talk in Danish, sometimes in English. Mother had mourned when Aunt Stena died, of spotted fever, at 59. Anna calculated the years. That was close to two decades ago.
Anna held her mother’s cold, small, bare hand. Mother never wore a wedding ring. On Anna’s hand was the fat gold band that Alfred got from Needham’s up on North Main. That ring was nineteen years old, but shiny still. She heard Inger coming up the front steps. She leaned over and kissed Mother’s cheek. There was such a lot still to do.
Anna Maren Mikelsen Jensen
14 June 1878–9 September 1950
Dinah was grateful that no one had chosen to slide in next to her on the Greyhound bus. She had put her big bag with the bottled apricots and wax-paper-wrapped cookies—oatmeal, her mother’s favorite—on the empty seat. Her magazines were in there too, but she didn’t pull them out to read. Instead she stared out the window, sometimes leaning her forehead against the glass, sometimes wiping her eyes and cheeks with Kleenexes from her jacket pockets.
Will had dropped her off at the bus station, then had planned to take Maren over to his sister’s house for the weekend. That meant no one had been home when Ruthie tried to reach them there, so she had called at the bus station and had them page her. Dinah had shuddered when she heard her name called over the loudspeaker.
“Mama’s gone,” Ruthie had said over the station’s office telephone. “I thought you should know before you got here. Maybe you want Will to drive you instead of taking the bus.”
Dinah had clutched the receiver and swallowed hard. “Dinah?” Ruthie cleared her throat. “Are you still there?”
“Did she pass easy?” Dinah asked.
“Pretty easy. Daddy called me at seven, and I got there about seven-thirty. She wasn’t really asleep, but not really awake either. She was breathing funny. Daddy was holding her hand. Then I could tell she wasn’t breathing any longer, and I told him she’d left us. We both sat there and then I remembered I should try to get hold of you before you left Salt Lake. Daddy’s out in his shop. I think he wants to be alone.”
“I’ll come ahead on the bus,” Dinah said. “Pick me up at the usual time.” She gave Ruthie the phone number for Will’s sister, so Will could call Logan as soon as he heard. Then she hung up.
“I’m sorry,” the lady in the station office said in a trembly voice. “I know how hard it is to lose your mother.”
Everyone in the station seemed to know. The driver smiled sadly at her when he put her suitcase in the cargo bin. The other passengers looked concerned when she climbed on the bus. As soon as she was seated, the door closed, and the engine moved from neutral into gear. They must have been waiting for her.
The route from Salt Lake to Ogden was never pretty, but she let her mind move along the power lines and railroad tracks and truck stops and factories. After Brigham City, she melted into the canyons, the green hills and valleys, a few trees already yellow. Farm houses, barns, small fenced pastures. Horses. You snapped your thumb into the palm of your other hand if you saw a white horse, and if you saw three white horses in a single day, you’d have good luck.
Mama had taught her that.
Mama. Dinah felt like an orphan.
She’d been coming on the bus one weekend every month for a year now, ever since Mama got the cancer. She and Will and their Maren drove the Pontiac up for holidays and birthdays. Of course Ruthie had had most of the responsibility since she was the one who lived close by, right in Logan. Daddy could do the basic stuff, even learned how to use the washer, but Mama cussed him when he tried to do anything in the kitchen. Dinah had started seeing them as old, helpless. And Salt Lake seemed so far away.
Before she got sick, Mama had taken care of everybody. It was always that way. Mama had told her that before she and Daddy got married, she was the one who stayed with her big sister Inger when she had her babies, and when Inger’s daughter had her children—even Dinah could remember—it was Mama, not Inger, that she called. Mama, not Inger, took care of Grandma before and after she decided to die. And when Dinah’s own big sister Carrie cut off her finger in the mower up at the farm, Mama knew to scorch a cloth with the iron and put in little sticks for splints and push the finger back on and pour table salt around it and bind it tight with a string. When they got into town, the doctor saw that the tip of the finger was pink and said he couldn’t have done a better job himself. And afterwards, Carrie could play the piano with all her fingers.
They’d have to plan the funeral, she and Ruthie. Carrie didn’t play the piano anymore, but her son Darrell played the violin, and maybe Ruthie’s Annie could sing between a couple of the talks. Mama would approve of that. Their cousin Oscar was a bishop in Idaho. He could be the final speaker. What were Mama’s favorite hymns? Daddy would know. “God Be with You Till We Meet Again.” That was Dinah’s own favorite. Someone should tell about Mama and her sewing machine. How she made all the costumes for the Pioneer Day parade float and how she sewed all those pretty dresses for her and Carrie and Ruthie and their cousins too. And the granddaughters. That last dress she made for Maren though, the colors were funny. Her eyesight had started to go. Maybe they should sing one of those work hymns at the funeral, maybe “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel.” Will always made fun of that one.
Will didn’t believe all the stuff she believed. He didn’t ever go to church, except for funerals and once when Maren was giving a two-and-a-half-minute talk. But he was a good man. Mama said so. Of course, Will was a saint compared to Carrie’s first husband. And both Mama and Daddy had preferred him to Ruthie’s Gus too. Not one of their sons-in-law turned out to be what Carrie called a temple-trottin’ Mormon. But Will at least didn’t smoke. And he helped Daddy build things like that wall in front of the creek and the banister and new steps on the porch.
The countryside outside the bus window was blurred now. It was her glasses. She’d steamed up her glasses with her tears. “Where are you right now, Mama?” Dinah thought. “Are you looking down on me like an angel? Or maybe you’re in the workshop with Daddy. Is it breaking your heart to see us weep?”
She snapped her thumb into her palm for the second white horse.
Dinah Else Jensen Daynes
22 March 1912–1 October 2005
Every single morning, Maren woke at four and just lay there, staring at the dark ceiling and thinking about Mom over there in the nursing home. Beside her, Cleve would be rumbling softly—he snored when he slept on his back. How she envied him that gift of sleep. Maybe Mom would be staring at the ceiling now, too. There were lights on in the hall outside her room, so her ceiling wouldn’t be dark.
When Maren got there early, before the aides had Mom washed and dressed, sometimes her watery eyes would be open and focused far away. Maren wondered what her mother was thinking, what she remembered. Usually, though, Mom was up, in her wheelchair. Sometimes she’d be peering at her arthritic hands, pulling on her fingers as if trying to straighten them. Sometimes she’d be gazing at the television—nature shows or puppet programs—her breakfast tray beside her. Sometimes she’d already be in one of the activities—gardening meant putting plants in pots, baking meant stirring dough or watching April, the activities lady, whip up some cupcakes. Maren would sit beside Mom and help. Those days Mom would brighten when Maren came into the room and put her face up to be kissed. “Hello, doll,” she would say. Or she’d chatter, “Uncle Mose and Aunt Ada came to see me yesterday. Wish you’da been here.” Maren had been there. And Uncle Mose and Aunt Ada had been dead for more than 50 years.
And then there were the awful days when Mom was livid and would call the aides words Maren didn’t know Mom even knew or the even worse days when she was sulky and wouldn’t talk at all except maybe to hiss, “I wouldn’t treat a dog the way you treat me.” Once, years after Aunt Carrie died, her son Darrell came to visit Mom. Mom was in one of her nasty moods and she snapped at Darrell, and he just laughed and said, “The old girl has some fight in her still.”
Maren spent a lot of time forgiving herself. She didn’t have a choice, she said, and her friends and cousins agreed. She’d managed to keep Mom in her own home in Salt Lake for two years after the stroke. She found three good women who stayed with her, alternating days and nights so she was never alone. But there were the phone calls in the middle of the night, and what could Maren do—Evanston was almost two hours away and that was if she drove fast and the roads were clear. As it was, she was driving to Salt Lake three or four times a month. She wasn’t working anymore, except sometimes to do books for Cleve at the store, but she was trying to help Maddy out, getting the twins to their lessons a couple of days a week, and Cleve’s parents were starting to fail. And the orthopedist said it was only a matter of time before Maren needed to have that knee replaced. So they’d lied and told Mom it would just be for a little while that she’d be staying in the nursing home in Evanston. It had been close to two years now.
And then this morning, the phone started that awful song, the one Cleve had put on it, and Maren sat up, grabbed the receiver, and took it out in the hall.
“Mrs. Gledhill,” said the night nurse’s voice, “Mrs. Dinah’s just had a seizure. We don’t know if she’ll make it.”
“I’ll be right there,” Maren said. She bolted back into the bedroom and grabbed the clothes she’d left on the cedar chest. “Mom,” she explained to Cleve, who was propped up on one elbow. “A seizure.”
“You okay to drive?”
“Yeah, sure.” Something was pounding in her ears. “I’ve got to rush. I’ll call you.”
The phone rang again as she scooped her keys off the buffet. “Mrs. Gledhill,” the night nurse said, “I’m sorry. She’s gone.”
Cleve was standing next to her. “Should I go with you?”
“No,” she sighed. “Come later.”
The sun was just starting to lighten the eastern sky. She drove fast. There was no one else on the road. Why couldn’t they have had some warning? Mom had been alone. Was she conscious? Maren hadn’t thought to ask. They’d had a dnr on file. There were to be no ambulances taking Mom to the hospital. Maren had watched one of the other residents, Dorothy, her eyes full of terror, be gurneyed away, and she died then in the hospital instead of her own familiar room, cared for by people who knew her.
One of the aides unfastened the front door lock to let Maren in. She passed the night nurse in the hall. “Was she awake?” Maren asked. “Was she aware?”
“I don’t think so,” the night nurse said.
Was the nurse just trying to be kind? Maren didn’t know the night nurse well the way she did the day nurses. She pressed close to Mom’s bed. Mom was lying on her back, her eyes closed. Would the nurse have closed them? Mom was so still. Maren sank into the chair beside the bed and rested her head on the side bars.
That was one of the problems when Mom was living in her own home. No side bars on the bed. She’d somehow slide out of the bed onto the floor, and the care woman, usually Leticia, would have to get her up, which was hard because Mom had got heavy and she didn’t cooperate. “Carrie pushed me out of bed,” she would tell Maren when she got there. “I don’t know why they don’t believe me.”
Even in the nursing home, when she’d get bruises on the thin skin on her arms, she would show them off to Maren. “Carrie pinched me,” she would say, and Maren finally learned to say, “I wish Aunt Carrie wouldn’t do that.”
A sheet covered Mom’s legs. They kept the nursing home warm enough so sheets were enough for most of the ladies, but Mom, who was extra cold, usually had a quilt or a soft afghan at night too. Not the special quilts or afghans that Grandma had made—those were back in Maren’s own house, and she planned on giving them to her kids in a few years. These were machine-made quilts and afghans that the nursing home stocked in their cupboards. Maren lifted the sheet, then laid it back over her mother’s legs. She had nice legs even though her body was thick. This is the woman that my father adored, Maren thought. She remembered his singing to the bathroom mirror when he was shaving, “Dinah, is there anyone fine—ah?”
Mom, Mom, Maren repeated her in her mind. Are you where they say you are? With Dad and your folks and your sisters? “What great rejoicing there must be in heaven,” her cousin Jill said, when Aunt Ruth Ann died. Maren wasn’t so sure. Dad hadn’t believed that, and Cleve didn’t. But it was a comfort if you could believe it. Unless Carrie was up there still pinching people.
The nurse came in to tell her that the funeral home would send their van about eight o’clock. They’d prepare the body, drive it all the way to Logan to the mortuary there. They’d have a graveside service, and Dad’s ashes, stored all these years in a terra cotta box next to the fireplace tools, would go into the vault with Mom’s coffin. “Together again,” the obits like to say. The three sisters together too—at least in the same cemetery. And their parents.
And maybe someday her, too. She and Cleve needed to talk about that stuff. And do wills, make plans. Make life easier for each other and the kids. It was their turn next, after all. She shivered a little. It wasn’t anything she liked to think about.
Cleve’s hands were on her shoulders. Nobody else’s hands felt like that. I’m a motherless child, she thought, but somehow the weight of his hands lifted her up.
“I called the kids,” he said.
She touched her mother’s fingers. “Maybe I should take her ring,” she told him. “Maddy lost hers, remember. Maybe she’d like her grandma’s.”
“You have your grandma’s,” Cleve said.
Maren looked down at the fat gold band on her own left hand. When she and Cleve had told Mom and Dad that they wanted to get married, Mom hadn’t said anything at first. Then she had gone into her bedroom and come out with the ring. “I saved it for you,” she had said. “Do you want it?”
Maren put her arm around Cleve’s waist, the way she had done then, forty-one years ago. She looked up at him and held on. “I do,” she had said then. And now again she said, “I do.”