Continuing our introductions of the 2015 Council for Wisconsin Writers’ contests winners who received their awards at this year’s CWW Awards Banquet, this blog post features the the Kay W. Levin Award for Short Non-fiction winner Ronnie Hess.
The judge, in selecting Hess’s essay, wrote:
“Hess does in this essay what essays are most meant to do: she captures the simultaneous mundanity and awe of being human. Through a lens set on her complicated mother’s life and death, she shows how every life is both glorious and nothing at all, that we all have access to this wonder of being alive, and yet when we go it’s like we were never there. I was astounded, moved, and deeply impressed. The prose is beautiful, to boot.”
Here are Hess’s thoughts about winning this award, followed by her winning essay.
“What a joy it was to learn that my short non-fiction essay, “The Red Shoes,” had been awarded the Kay W. Levin Award by the Council for Wisconsin Writers. Although writing is a private pursuit, words are meant to be shared. I couldn’t have had better readers. I am grateful to authors Michael Perry (the Hal Prize judge), and Kerry Cohen (CWW judge) for choosing this story about the death of my mother. A word of thanks, too, to mentors and friends, for no one writes in a vacuum. And now let me also praise the CWW, an organization that acknowledges and champions good-writing. We need these kinds of associations to remind us of the power of literature and more broadly the arts, the messages they transmit about the human experience, how we are all bound together, I would hope, less in hate than in love.”
The Red Shoes
The heat hit Ron and me right away, the way it usually did in Fort Lauderdale, like a steam room or a conservatory filled with tropical plants, the smell of wood and moist earth. We slid into the rental car and drove north to my mother’s apartment in Boca Raton. I tuned the radio to a Spanish language station and pumped up the volume.
My sister Sally had arrived a few days earlier, giving Léone, my mother’s aide, time off. We would do the usual things – go to our favorite Cuban restaurant for dinner. We would swim in the pool, drink cool drinks, go to the nature preserve overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Or to Loxahatchee, the wildlife refuge that is part of the Everglades, across the highway from the cemetery and my father’s grave.
My mother hugged us when we rang the doorbell. Everything seemed as before. The dark brown velveteen convertible sofa from New York that didn’t really work in a Florida condominium where the color palette is pastels; the heavy brown maple furniture; my father’s old mahogany desk next to the windows. In the middle of the living room, my mother’s prized grand piano, and a small television set. On the dining room table, covered with a blue floral cloth, piles of junk mail for me to look through and to help my mother throw out. She would rip each piece of unwanted correspondence in half, as if for added emphasis, as if it hadn’t fallen into the trash by accident. Perhaps it was a system for the elderly afraid of forgetfulness, of losing their wits. Like turning medicine bottles upside down after each dose. She did that, too.
There was the usual list of things for Ron to fix – a light over the piano, the living room fan. He loved being useful and relished the tasks. We headed out for what would be the first of daily visits to the grocery store and shopping mall.
Our days took on their old familiarity, rushing by. Ron and I slept on the living room sofa, Sally having moved to a hotel a few minutes away. I envied her the distance. I would wake early in the morning to the sound of newspapers being delivered to the apartment complex. “Flop, flop, flop.” I could hear the sound of the highway’s traffic a mile away, before other noises intruded, the sprinkler system turning on; the next door neighbor wheeling his squeaky cart to the laundry room; someone starting a car. I would make myself a cup of Cuban coffee, no cream, no sugar, turn on a small lamp, and try to solve the crossword puzzle. Then, my mother would wake, slide the hall door open, the signal that it was time for everyone to get up. Ron would pick Sally up and buy bagels at the deli around the corner, then toast them under the broiler. I would supervise my mother’s medications – for high cholesterol and high blood pressure – and make her standard breakfast of two slices of brown bread with butter and her own, homemade orange or grapefruit marmalade. We would run the errands and my mother would practice the piano. After lunch, and my mother’s daily shot of vodka and water, she would nap and we would have some time to ourselves.
Did I leave for the airport early, while my mother was still in bed, still waking up? Or was that another trip? “So soon,” she cried. “Now?” I kissed her goodbye. “I’ll call you when we get home.” Her cheek was warm, ample, soft. A mother’s touch, the smell of her scalp. I tiptoed out of the room.
As a child I wanted so much to be touched. To climb into bed with my mother and wrap my right index finger around her hair, curling it. I sang to myself and to her. “Ninga-ninga-ninga.” She called my child’s habit “ninging,” and she hated it.
Those climbing-into-bed-with-her moments – perhaps other children have them, too, but I can only guess that mine sprang from my feeling my mother’s physical but also emotional absence keenly. As a teenager, it took me a long time to forgive her for not being around enough, for not being like other mothers – staying at home, there when you walked in the door after school. I knew she needed to have a life of her own, not just that of wife and mother. For her, that meant not only teaching, but also getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology and eventually a master’s in teaching English as a second language. It meant playing the piano for an hour daily and reading books, especially in French, even if she had to carve out an hour for herself in the morning before the rest of us were up.
Touch – it seemed so problematic in our family: my mother who touched too little, my father who touched too much. It was not in a sexual way, but with so much affection that I pulled away. I knew him as a loving parent but he was given to extreme mood swings – how he shook chairs, turned red in the face, was easily wounded. Or he would be ebullient, extroverted, and in his happiness not afraid to wrap my sister and me in powerful hugs. He taught us German games he had played as a child. In one, you would put your index and third fingers out and he would hit them with his; then you would respond, until someone, hands red and throbbing, would give in. Or it was about the mäuschen, wie gehts ins häuschen, a mouse looking for ham in tickly places. He would run his fingers, slowly at first, up our arms, getting faster as he closed in on our underarms, until we screamed.
Four months after my visit to Florida, my mother died. Over the weekend, her legs had begun to swell and Léone had propped her feet up on pillows. On Monday, Léone called the doctor’s office trying to set up an appointment. After leaving messages with the receptionist several times, even after being put on hold for 40 minutes, she phoned me at my office and asked me if I could intercede, as if I could throw my weight around and come up with better results because I was family, or didn’t speak English with an accent.
I called, too, but got similar treatment.
“Do you want to talk to your mother,” Léone asked me somewhere during the afternoon. “No,” I said, feeling put upon and drained.
“Yes,” I said, reconsidering. Perhaps a thought flashed across my brain, “And what if this were the last time?”
“How are you Mum?” I asked. “Rotten,” she replied tersely. She rarely complained, even about her glaucoma, which made her eyes itchy and blurry, difficult to play the piano. “Music is my salvation,” she often said, and not being able to practice could just as well have been a physical blow. “Do you have a headache,” I asked, trying to figure out what was happening, whether I could rule out a stroke. “Do you have any chest pain?” She answered no to both questions. “Are you in any kind of pain?” No again. I could only suggest that she might have to go to the emergency room, but not to worry. The doctor’s office had scheduled an appointment for the next afternoon but in the evening my mother passed out twice. “Call 911,” I told Léone.
I should have realized that she was failing, the day she asked me to come to a party she was organizing for her Spanish conversation group. I told her it was difficult for me to get away so soon, that I had to put in time at the office, and that Sally, Ron, and I would be coming down to Florida later in the month. If my mother thought that her days were numbered, she never admitted as much. She was above revealing that she was sick and beyond pleading. Only once, in the last several months, did she suggest we begin to have a conversation about her life coming to a close. But she had been so vibrant, so full of life, so energetic in her insistence that we all, in her words, “keep going, keep going.” The phrase was her mantra, and I was so far away and afraid, so eager to sustain her and to ignore the inevitable. “You’re not there yet, Mum,” I had said.
Sometime during the year she had giggled during one of our talks by phone, “I do so love you,” and I had chuckled back, “I love you, too.” I was grateful for the words because ours had been a hard-fought mother-daughter friendship. She had been remote in my childhood and I had always been convinced she loved my sister more than me. When my father had died and my mother had begun spending several weeks each summer in Wisconsin with Ron and me, she confided that, with my father gone, she hadn’t been sure there was anything to live for, but then had changed her mind. We would go for walks together and she would stop suddenly, as she had when I was young, to identify an insect or a wildflower. “Isn’t that the most beautiful tree,” she would say or, “Have you seen such a marvelous cloud?” Teaching how to live in the moment, how to see.
The Friday she became ill, she had rehearsed with a flutist friend, playing one of the three B’s – Beethoven, Bach or Brahms, she couldn’t remember which. When I called to review the day with her she was scarcely able to complete a phrase, let alone a sentence. “Wonderful,” was all she could muster, “wonderful.” That I didn’t see her inexpressiveness as a sign she was sick was not surprising. There were days when she was particularly articulate and other times when she stuttered clumsily, almost unable to speak. It was excruciating, even maddening when her intelligence was so cruelly thwarted, and we were both left to playing a guessing game about what she meant. I had discussed her condition the year before with her doctor, nurses, and a social worker, wondering variously if it was a lack of intellectual stimulation or, during the summer, the sultry Florida weather, her medications, her nightly shot of Vodka, or dementia. Finally, my sister and I decided to drop it, to just let her be.
I tracked my mother down in the emergency room and spoke to the nurse on duty. My mother was talking a blue streak, apparently charming the medical staff. I knew things were serious, but I felt reassured; she was being looked after and would be all right. I booked a flight to Fort Lauderdale for the next morning and packed stories to read to her in the hospital. At midnight, her doctor called me to tell me there had been a catastrophic incident. I didn’t know what he meant but, when he didn’t explain, I assumed it was her fainting and I proceeded to fault his office for their lack of follow-through rather than to ask him for details. “Your office never returned our phone calls,” I yelled, furious, into the phone. It never crossed my mind to ask him what he was doing in the emergency room so late at night. I figured she was his patient and doctors did that. Thoughts ran through my mind about how she had always put her trust in him although I had never liked him. They had talked about music when she visited him in his office. She told me he was good for her.
I went to bed not knowing that somewhere between having a CAT scan and being wheeled back to the ER my mother had suffered a heart attack and her heart had stopped beating. The ER staff had succeeded in resuscitating her but it had taken too long and she was unresponsive. I was able to put some of this together the next morning during a call to the hospital as I changed planes in Memphis and spoke to the attending physician. I was only vaguely aware of travelers milling about the gate area and whether they noticed a life and death drama being played out over a phone.
It took hours to get permission to disconnect my mother from life-support and then almost a day for her heart to stop again. During the vigil, Sally, Léone, and I stood around her hospital bed singing songs to her, caressing her hands and feet, stroking her hair, kissing her cheek. She smiled when we touched her, but we had no illusions about her condition or that she might miraculously recover. We watched as hospital staff took out the breathing tubes and she gagged, watched the machines register her pulse and heart rate, nodded as the nurses told us they had never seen someone in her condition hold on so long. And then everything stopped. Léone pulled the sheet over her body, making sure it was perfectly smooth.
We scattered the ashes between Boca Raton and Delray Beach, across from Loxahatchee, at my father’s grave. We made sure nobody else was looking, since scattering “remains” was not allowed. We carried the ashes to Fire Island, where we had spent summers growing up, throwing the thin, gray powder into the air, the sea breeze carrying it away. We made sure nobody else was looking when we were at the ocean, since scattering ashes along the beach, too, was not allowed.
In the months after my mother’s death, our trips to Florida were a vague series of days spent scrubbing and cleaning out her apartment, making trips to local charities to give away her things. Her piano was taken apart, sold to a dealer in Fort Lauderdale who promised as much as he could that it would not go to a dive or a honky-tonk where the keys might be pounded upon, broken like a wild horse or a dog.
At the very last, there remained her red piano shoes, the ones with a slight heel good for pedaling. No singing Judy Garland on the Yellow Brick Road. No dancing ballerina Moira Shearer throwing herself on the train tracks.
My mother had left the shoes at the piano. Above the keyboard, there were folders of classical sheet music yellowed, brittle; her reading glasses; and a container of talcum powder for her perspiring feet. I see her sitting there on the piano bench, light filtering through the blue curtains, the neighbor walking by the front door trailing his laundry cart filled with sheets, old pants and stained shirts, my mother playing a Scarlatti sonata or perhaps a Chopin étude.
I took the red shoes to the dumpster. The brutality of it, the naturalness of it, staggers me.
Ronnie Hess’s writing has appeared in national and regional newspapers and magazines. Her poetry has been featured in Alimentum, Poetica, The Wisconsin Academy’s People and Ideas Magazine and Verse Wisconsin among other journals. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks and a culinary travel guide, Eat Smart in France (Ginkgo Press, 2010). Eat Smart in Portugal is forthcoming in 2016. She lives in Madison.