What We Do With What Remains

“I am a strong woman, and I know how to scramble eggs,” said Nell. Mattie gazed at her mother, who held an iron pot in one hand and a quart of milk in the other, and she sighed, something she seemed to be doing often this winter. Her mother’s hands, wrinkled and white like cotton sheets left on a clothesline to dry in the noontime sun, trembled. She swayed, and shifted her feet apart to regain her center of balance. A cold wind blew outside the kitchen. Mattie’s mind drifted, wondering how many days were left before she could no longer delay the inevitable.

Mattie removed the milk and pot from her mother’s hand, put them on the kitchen counter, and said “Mom, let me scramble the eggs for you today. You sit down here in your chair.” Mattie leaned forward to guide her mother toward the heirloom rocking chair tucked into the corner of her mother’s kitchen.

Nell, Mattie’s mother, snatched her arm away and said, “Who are you?”

Mattie shut her eyes and dropped her head. She knew the exact words that would follow, like the Latin liturgy recited daily in cathedrals and chapels around the world, immutable words, unchanging throughout millennia. “Mom, it’s me, Mattie. I’m your daughter.”

Nell drew her head back as if she had been slapped. Her cheeks burned red, and a confused look powdered her face. “Do I have a daughter?”

“Yes, Mom, you have a daughter. I’m your daughter. It’s me, Mattie.”

“I thought you were dead.” Nell collapsed into her rocking chair, the same oak rocking chair Nell’s mother had soothed her in eighty years ago through croup-barking nights, colicky cries, and hoots of great horned owls, their calls signaling a coming death, talons unsheathed, their large orbed eyes seeking a vulnerable animal. Nell still feared the night calls of birds of prey.

Mattie dropped to the floor in front of her mother, enveloping her mother’s gnarled hands between her own and said, “No, I’m here with you. I won’t leave you. You never left me. Remember when I cried after I skinned my knees the first day I learned to ride my bike? You sat me down in this chair and washed my scrapes with a towel and cool water and you put a Band-Aid on each of my knees. You brought me outside and made me get on my bike even though I cried, and you ran beside me down the street holding onto the back of my blue banana bike. Remember my bike? You let go, and I kept pedaling. It felt like flying. You cheered for me in the middle of the street.”

Her mother had been wearing red petal pushers Mattie remembered. Bobbie pins had burst out of her mother’s head, strands of her blond hair escaping its beehive as she jumped up and down in the middle of the street, yelling, “Mattie, you did it!” Next door, Old Man Wilson stared at her mom through his living room window until Mrs. Wilson pulled him away.

Nell sat, crumpled and small, her rocking chair still. Mattie rose from the floor, her back twinging with a sharp pain. She methodically rubbed her back as she leaned forward sitting on the kitchen chair beside her, and she tapped the bottom strut of the rocker with her right foot to begin the back and forth rhythm of the chair.

“Did that really happen?” Nell said. “I don’t remember.”

“Yes, it really happened,” said Mattie, peering into her mother’s eyes, eyes that remained unchanged throughout the years, the blue-green eyes of house finch eggs laid in the midst of wispy, white hair. Her hair: a translucent nest, fading into the kitchen air.

Mattie rose from the oaken kitchen chair. “I’m going to sort some clothes and put your sheets in the wash before I scramble our eggs. Then we’ll go visit your doctor after breakfast.”

“I am a strong woman,” Nell said.

Mattie left the room, already exhausted at eight in the morning, considering the endless chores of her mother’s household. Mattie wondered again why she left her job, taking an early retirement, leaving her partnership to care for her mother. Like her mom, she never married, although she once loved a man whose kisses tasted of espresso, but she left him to move to Boston for her career. In truth, he refused to come with her and she refused to stay, for her ambition overpowered every other desire. Torn between personal success and power versus responsibility and love, she came home when her Mom needed her. She missed the battles in the courtroom, her colleagues, and she grew weary watching her mother shrink and fade.

Unlike her mom, Mattie had no children. It had always been just the two of them. Mattie pushed her thoughts aside as she carried her mom’s sheets to the laundry room adjacent to the kitchen. The rocking chair sat motionless, empty. “Oh, My God,” said Mattie as she dropped the sheets to the floor. She rushed outside, barefoot, wearing her old lover’s faded, flannel pajama pants worn thin from years of late-night briefs brought home. Her eyes darted right and left. She saw her mother at the end of the empty street touching each slat of a whitewashed picket fence like a child playing Duck, Duck, Goose. Adrenaline flowed through Mattie’s body as she held her mother’s elbow and walked her home without a warning. She knew Nell wouldn’t remember.


* * *


“Mattie, you can’t keep this up. Your mother wanders away from home. You can’t keep her tied to you on a string. You look exhausted. How much sleep do you get each night?” asked Dr. Dimas.

Mattie didn’t answer. She remained silent, her eyes examining the cold floor, counting each tile, inspecting a crack in the mortar.

“She doesn’t know who I am, Mattie, much less you. She’s dangerous in the kitchen. She could burn the house down while you go get the mail. She’s dropped five more pounds in the last month.”

Nell sprang up tall at the foot of the examination table and said, “I am a strong woman!” Her hazel eyes blazed, her lips tightened.

“Yes Nell, you have been a very strong woman for a very long time,” said Dr. Dimas.

He turned back to Mattie and said, “Mattie, you need to start getting some help, either by professional sitters or placing Nell in an assisted living facility. There are some excellent ones in the Crossover Bay area.”

Mattie’s head whipped upward and she looked up at him, her eyes angry, “But… but… she’s my Mom!”

“I know Mattie, I know this is hard, but it is only a matter of time before you can’t care for her alone. My staff and I are here to assist you in any possible way. I’d like to see her again in one month. Call me if you have any questions before then.” He looked at her without speaking for a long moment.

Dr. Dimas turned and said, “Nell, it was nice seeing you today. Do you have any questions for me?”

Nell squinted her eyes, “Do I know you?”


* * *


Mattie helped to ease her mother into the car and stooped to buckle the seat belt. As she started the car, she noticed anew her mom’s missing flesh, her wing-like shoulder blades that pressed into the leather seat back of the car, her legs like sand hill cranes, and suddenly Mattie remembered the summer they swam at the community pool almost everyday. Her mother’s curves curled in graceful waves. She wore a white bikini with a stylish silver-buckled belt circling her hips; she was the only woman at the pool who refused to encase her hair into a plastic daisy-flowered swim cap. Her dark blonde hair flowed down her back, glinting golden in the light, blessed by summer sun. She carried two red candy-striped towels in a beach bag nestled in the curve of her elbow. She held Mattie’s hand in a tight clench as if she were afraid that if she let her go, Mattie might slip away from her, gone forever.

Each afternoon, a man with a flattop haircut, high and tight, walked past them. He looked at her mother’s eyes reflecting the beryl sky and bobbed his head with a slight nod. Mattie’s mother looked straight-forward, cheeks flushed, not acknowledging him, a fact that Mattie found unusual—her mother’s usual courteous habits slipped into the swimming pool’s cool water leaving no wake or ripple.

Mattie might have forgotten that summer, it may have retreated into the other unremarkable childhood summers lumped into one conglomerate memory of sun, the smell of chlorine, flat cherry lollipops sucked until only a wet paper stick remained, the suppleness of bright beach towels wrapped around her shriveled skin covered with goose bumps, all the summers the same—except that summer, a man nodded to her mother each afternoon and the air crackled between them—an invisible arc of electricity that Mattie felt tingle and spark in her mother’s hand.

“Mom, do you remember the summer you took me to the pool, and a man walked past us everyday? Do you remember…?”

Nell blushed, placed a downy hand on Mattie’s arm, and for a moment she was silent.       She spoke. “I remember, but Mattie, you need to know some memories are private.”

The car screeched as Mattie jerked it to the right side of the road and threw the stick shift into park. A car horn blared behind them. Mattie gaped at her mother. “Mom!”

Nell, lucid, looked at Mattie and said, “Baby, I am a strong woman.”

Like a rushing wind, Mattie realized that every woman, including her mother, carries private memories like fragile bird eggs, trusting that somehow all the unspoken moments will never be forgotten. They take a new form—mysterious, quiet—like a bird’s nest constructed of tiny twigs, knitted, woven into a nutty-sweet bed, prepared to hold a bird when it grows too tired to fly. Afterwards, after the sleep and dreams of flying, leftover feathers are caught in treetop nests, nestled into crooks of branches, secure and attached, even when no one looks up to see what remains.


* * *


Exhausted, Mattie laid down on the cotton candy pink quilt her mother stitched long ago. As she rested beside her sleeping mom, she stared upward and watched the off-white blades of the ceiling fan circle around and around. Her brain emptied of emotion.

Her eyes popped open. She stretched her hand out to touch her mom, but her palm slid across the quilt feeling the fading warmth in the imprint of her mother’s form. “Oh, God! Where is she?” said Mattie to the empty bed.

She leapt to her feet and ran through every room in the house calling, ”Mom! Mom!” Her voice grew more frantic with each step. When Mattie realized Nell was not in the house, she darted out the front door, and her eyes flew back and forth. She spotted Nell down the street again, except now, Nell was stepping off the curb of the asphalt road into the street, as if she had tired of playing Duck, Duck, Goose and had begun a new game of Hide and Seek.


A Cadillac backed out of a driveway. Mattie thought later that the boxwood hedges must have obscured the elderly driver’s view. He couldn’t have seen her mom as he backed his car onto the road in an arc, the slight bump rousing him from late afternoon sleepiness. What had he thought of her, as he sat in his driver’s seat as if paralyzed, watching her running toward him in the middle of the road, wailing “Mommy!” over and over again.


* * *


Nell’s slippers lay on the carpet beside her bed, her housecoats hung on wire hangers in the closet, her rocking chair rested beside the new window with a new view. All was in place. Mattie sat in her mother’s rocking chair, her gut clenched, guilt suspended in the air like steam from a teakettle. Mattie looked at her mom in the wheelchair beside the bed. She said nothing; she felt as if she dared to speak, her fragile apology might shatter her mother’s bones again.

Nell spoke first with whispery words, like a radio with its volume turned low, so low one didn’t know whether it was on or off. “May I sit in your lap?”

Mattie gingerly lifted her mother from the wheelchair, and sat down in the rocking chair, gathering her into her lap. She began to rock in the twilight, the magic hour when light burnishes the air, limning the blurred boundary between mother and daughter.  Nell laid her head on her daughter’s shoulder and curled her legs upward towards her chin. Mattie’s arms drew her mother to herself, nestling her in her arms.

“Do I know you?” Nell said.

Mattie paused, took a deep breath and said, “I am me and you are you.”

“I am a strong woman,” Nell whispered into the indigo horizon.


Donna Walker

Donna Walker is a senior at the University of South Florida majoring in Creative Writing. She is Managing Editor of thread Literary Inquiry, USF’s undergraduate literary journal. She has previously been published in Prick of the Spindle and Glass Mountain. She won the Thomas E. Sander’s Scholarship for Creative Writing in 2015. In her spare time, she loves reading and collecting seashells from beaches along the Western coast of Florida.