Not the ghost of my mother; she is still alive, sitting in her chair in the hall. Having her good days and bad days. Sometimes, when Ruby bends down and says, All right my pet? she hears it as a distant shushing, waves on a dark shore. Mrs Caspers is having a bad day, Ruby says to the others, and they make a note. But who really knows? Maybe Ruby’s bad day is not my mother’s, maybe it’s the best day of all when her scrambled brain takes her far away from here.

She was a wild one, my mother; that’s what everyone said. The neighbours, the teachers, all her friends. Flying down the hill on her old black bicycle with her red hair streaming behind, waving her hands above her head. Once the patched tire blew and she tumbled through the air, a glorious long moment before the smack of the rough pavement. Her arm hurt and she had to leave the bike, the back wheel still spinning, slower and slower. It was a Saturday and my grandmother screamed when she opened the kitchen door, red trails on the linoleum. But nothing worse, under all that blood, than a broken collarbone and some deep scrapes. The new skin was pink and tight and made her think of church, of being reborn, shiny and clean.

    My mother grew up in the house she was born in, the house her father bought before the war. On a quiet street at the base of the steep hill that at that time was the edge of the city. A hospital squatted directly above them, all dull red brick and blank windows. They were too far away to see, but the windows all had thick bars. Her father told her that, nights when she woke with a scream. He told her no-one could ever get out but once there was a warning on the radio, men searching through the trees and bushes on the hillside.

    My mother’s father didn’t come back from the war; his ship went down in a flaming sea. When she was five he had taught her to swim, his hands cupping her stomach, not letting go until she said she was ready. Everything went down with the ship, all his clothes and his sweet- smelling pipe, the slippery pouch. The letters she’d written and the picture of herself, the one he said was his favourite. She watched him tuck it into his wallet on the day he left.

Ruby told my mother that she didn’t know what to expect, the night she stood at the top of the plane’s steps, wondering how air so cold could burn when she breathed it. She thought maybe a room with blue walls and a balcony overlooking a garden, a job at a desk with a nameplate and a telephone. Her cousin’s car clunked and rattled but Ruby barely noticed, looking out at the snowy streets, the tall buildings, the bright windows full of everything you could ever imagine wanting.

My mother had a brother, my Uncle John, who always did what he was told. When she was older she wondered sometimes about the long gap between them, but she never asked. Uncle John was only four when their father died and he was always asking for stories about him. My mother usually said she couldn’t remember; she was afraid of using them up, of thinning them out. He went to my grandmother instead, and my mother sat very quietly on the stairs, just out of sight.

On her good days my mother reads the newspaper, or has Ruby read it to her. There’s a rule about glasses where she is; they are labelled and locked in a desk drawer so they don’t get broken. When people ask they are told that they’re lost, that they’ll turn up, like my mother once said about a dog that had to be put down. If Ruby is too busy to sit with the paper she brings my mother her glasses, but she always puts them back in the drawer as soon as she can. She’s used to this job, it suits her fine, but the head nurse is always looking for reasons to call her in to the tiny office.

    My mother reads the whole paper, front to back, but she’s not always sure what she thinks about it until she has a chance to talk it over with Ruby. No-one bothers her when she reads the paper, no-one pats her shoulder or talks too loudly in her ear. That’s the good part, but when she has the glasses she sees too much. The loose skin on her hands and the stains on her skirt, the big sign that says Today is Tuesday, with the month and the number. Once when she looked, it was my birthday. Without her glasses, all she sees clearly is Ruby’s face, the line between her eyebrows that gets deeper as she reads, gets deeper as the days and years go by.

My mother loved to dance and after school she went up to her room with her friends, played the music loud while they tried the latest steps. Downstairs my grandmother gritted her teeth and sometimes put cotton in her ears; she didn’t say anything until she absolutely couldn’t stand it, or until the neighbours’ car pulled up in their driveway. My grandmother was a secretary in an office and she didn’t know what went on when she wasn’t home. Once my Uncle John told about the bottle of sherry, but he didn’t mean to.

Ruby laughed and laughed when she told my mother about the job her cousin had found her, the mop and the heavy-wheeled bucket, but she said she got used to it. Someone told her about courses she could take and riding on the bus to one place or the other she often fell asleep and dreamed, half-dreamed, about the airport. Her sons there waiting for her, blinking in the swirl of colour and noise. They were always the age they were when she left them, through all those years when she knew that they’d have a better life with the money she sent than they would sharing a bed in her tiny apartment. Nowhere to run, and the hours she worked and studied, water cooling around her feet in a yellow plastic basin. The second time she opened the examination booklet everything she knew flew out of her head, so she took a different course and found a job in a hospital. She said the nursery was the best and the hardest, sending clean- smelling babies home with some of those parents.

My mother and my grandmother began to fight about every little thing. The clothes my mother wore, the chores she forgot to do, the friends she liked to spend time with. My Uncle John kept his head down over his dinner plate and when he was finished went out to play football. Sometimes, coming home scraped and bruised through the dusk, he would hear their voices still going on through an open window, the sound of a slamming door. I imagine that my grandmother sometimes sat in her husband’s armchair late at night and wept, but not for long. Upstairs, the light from the hall fell on my mother’s hair, tangled on the pillow, on her parted lips. Standing in the doorway, my grandmother thought her heart would break.

When she was sixteen, my mother met a boy who played Chopin on the piano. His name was Neil and he was someone she’d never thought of; she sat across from him in the cafeteria on a dare. For something to say, my mother mentioned algebra and how she’d never understand it, never in a million years. And Neil began to explain, moving his hands through the air, writing things down on a napkin she tucked into her notebook. It was like a light going on; she wondered why it had ever seemed difficult, and she noticed his long thin fingers and the way his eyes seemed to smile, even when his mouth didn’t.

    Neil took her to concerts in his parents’ new DeSoto, and my grandmother let out her breath and fed him chocolate cake. He found my mother’s friends too wild and he didn’t have many of his own, so mostly it was just the two of them. After a time they said they were going to concerts, to movies, and drove to the top of the hill, with the lights of the city spread out below. In the back of his parents’ car he told her he loved her, said he always would. But one day my Uncle John came inside with his head full of the hissing rain he’d been running through, and stopped in the doorway like he’d hit a wall. Saw the high red spots on my grandmother’s cheeks, the man with his vest tightly buttoned, the woman with the handkerchief to her eyes. The cooling cups of tea. He stayed with his friend Will when my grandmother put a suitcase in the trunk of the car and drove my mother away.

On her good days my mother knows her children, but my brothers don’t come often, and it’s rare that the good days coincide. They show her pictures of her grandchildren, say their names and tell what they are doing, and my mother says, Fancy that; they grow so fast, don’t they. In the parking lot my brothers tell each other that they really must visit more, that it cheers her up, anyone can see. My mother lifts her arms while Ruby pulls on her nightgown. They’re handsome men, Ruby says, and my mother says, Who?

It’s hard to know what Ruby is thinking; she’s good at keeping her mind on the task at hand, good at staying away from places she doesn’t want to go. Ruby has a way of flattening her face, her expression, that makes people like the head nurse think she’s surly, or not very bright, but my mother knows that neither of those things is true. She used to know. My mother and Ruby have learned things about each other over the years, things that anyone could have, if they’d wanted to. The conversations they’ve always had let Ruby keep on talking and it doesn’t matter if her words don’t snag on anything, if they slip right through.

When my mother came back home she was even wilder and my grandmother lay awake in the dark. She couldn’t ask anyone but she read books, she read magazines, she tried to come up with a plan. There were things she tried, she tried everything she could think of, but it always ended with a slamming door, the ornaments rattling on the shelf. Neil was going to a different school; my mother saw him downtown, holding hands with a short blonde girl, and she walked right past as if she didn’t care at all.

    Things got worse and worse and teachers called my grandmother in, told her about failed tests, about assignments not completed, and my mother slouched in her chair as much as she dared, stared down at her bitten fingernails. Sometimes, without saying anything, she closed the door and sat at her desk with a pile of textbooks, a pen, but she couldn’t make her mind stay still, she couldn’t make herself care about any of it. On her way to school some days she walked right past while the bell rang, found a place to drink a cup of coffee, sat in a darkened theatre watching anything at all. The theatre was near my grandmother’s office and she thought she might get caught, but she never was. Then one day in the change room a teacher saw the cuts and scars. My grandmother took her to Dr. Orton, who had knotted the sling for her broken collarbone. He looked at them over his glasses, and the next thing my mother knew she was behind a barred window, looking down the hill at the place where her own house was, too far away to see.

My grandmother placed notices on bulletin boards at the university and started typing essays and reports and even books, at night and on the weekends. My Uncle John said the tapping kept him awake, so she set up a table in the basement and worried about what was going on in the rest of the house, things she couldn’t hear over the roar of the furnace. She saved enough money for her plan to send my mother to secretarial college, and then she thought that a little extra would be nice to have and she kept on typing, even after she retired, until arthritis twisted her hands. The pages my grandmother typed were sometimes neatly written, but more often terrible scrawls, covered with brackets and arrows and lines scribbled out. For an extra charge she said she would correct spelling and grammar, but she often went ahead and did it anyway. To the end of her life she remembered things she’d learned from some of those papers. The life cycle of drosophilia and Kepler’s laws of planetary motion. The dates of the Peloponnesian war, the names of Milton’s fallen angels.

    When my mother came back down the hill she was soft and white and none of her clothes would button, but she refused to go shopping because she thought everyone was looking at her. On her lunch hour my grandmother went to stores and tried to find things that would fit, things she would like. All that summer my mother sat on a chair on the back lawn, sometimes reading, and her hair grew and her skin took on colour and the weight slowly fell away. Sometimes my Uncle John sat on the grass beside her and told her jokes that he’d heard, and they were so silly that sometimes she laughed out loud. In September she took a bus to the college and the first day was hard but then it got better; the other girls liked a laugh and a cigarette and sometimes she went out with them on Saturday night. She seemed like her old self, only not so angry, and some nights my grandmother came up from the basement to help her with her work. They started writing shopping lists and notes to each other in shorthand, so my mother could practise.

    One day on her way to the bus stop my mother ran into Charlie, the brother of her old friend Marian. He was wearing a smart suit; he took her for a cup of coffee and asked how she’d been, what she’d been doing. She didn’t tell him about the hospital; she never told anyone about the hospital. The leather straps and the foul smelling grease on her temples. The injections and the blackness, and how she came out of it stupid and slow, her hand fumbling as it tried to brush the hair from her eyes. She didn’t tell him about her only friend there, about the noose made from a pale blue smock.

    It didn’t matter that my mother didn’t have much to say, because Charlie did most of the talking. A visit with Marian in California, the job he had selling insurance all over the county, the car he’d just bought. In those other days Charlie always had cigarettes and rum, and sometimes he drove them to parties or just around, squealing the tires at the corners. Looking at him she remembered all that, and the thrill of racing down a gravel road with the night rushing through the open windows, shrieking when Charlie took his hands off the wheel and ran a black comb through his hair. They went dancing that Saturday, and then on every Saturday, and he still had a flat bottle in his pocket.

By the time Ruby had a pull-out couch, a place with an extra room, she heard that her sons’ father had come back with a wife, with a job, looking to make things right. Her aunt wrote that the boys were doing well in school, had friends they would miss, and Ruby told my mother that she didn’t think it fair to make them choose. They came for a visit one cold July, already too old for the things she’d been planning for so long. Watching them slouch away through the departure gate, Ruby knew that she had no right, knew that however things went, they were already the people she’d made them by leaving.

Charlie remembered my mother as the party girl she had been, and when she’d had a few drinks she felt like that too. She’d never much liked rum so she went through the box at the back of my grandmother’s closet and found her father’s silver flask, engraved with his initials, filled it with gin on the weekends. My grandmother never approved of Charlie, even though he sometimes brought her flowers and put up the storm windows, threw a baseball for my Uncle John to hit and took him to games. She was angry when they went to Niagara Falls and came back married, but she bought them a glass punch bowl and ladle and helped my mother box up her things.

    When my brothers were born Charlie asked for a bigger territory and was on the road for days; he said they needed the money. Weekends he was home they took the boys to my grandmother and went out to a party or a dance or a bar. Once my mother said she was so tired, couldn’t they just stay in, and Charlie went out without her and didn’t come back until the next afternoon. She started taking the flask with her all the time but it didn’t always help and she felt like she was watching herself, sitting in a smoky room with Charlie’s friends, glasses tipping over and everyone laughing too loudly. One day she fell, carrying Johnny down the concrete steps. Nothing was broken but he had a big bump on his head and she emptied all the bottles and put the flask away at the back of a drawer. Charlie said she was no fun anymore; they lasted through another year of fighting and making up, but then he took a job in another city and she didn’t go with him.

There are always terrible things in the newspaper, even without the stories about bombings and earthquakes that are too long to read right through. So many angry people spraying bullets, doing damage, blaming everyone but themselves. Once my mother and Ruby read about a man who battered his eighty year old brother to death with a steam iron, during an argument about string beans. They wondered about the steam iron, agreed that it didn’t sound like the kind of household where one would be readily to hand. Ruby sometimes tells my mother about a man from her church, a man with a childhood as horrible as any in the paper. His entire body marked and scarred. He told her once that he got through it by inventing another family, a mother and a father and a dog named Chief. A bedroom full of light with model airplanes hanging from the ceiling, moving lazily at the end of their strings when he opened the window for the summer breeze. Some of the people in the newspaper have passed through a string of foster homes but others come from stable, loving families and Ruby must think, sometimes, about all those babies she watched leave the nursery. Wonder if it’s just luck, after all, the way a life turns out.

After Charlie left my grandmother tried, but she couldn’t help saying, I told you so. My mother didn’t move back to the house at the base of the hill but they talked on the phone every evening, talked about whether my mother should look for a new job, what colour to paint the kitchen. Sometimes my mother had dialled the last number before she remembered that my grandmother had flown to the coast to visit my Uncle John. Even when she needed special arrangements on the plane my grandmother went once a year, and Uncle John took her to restaurants where everyone knew him, showed her his office on the fortieth floor with the big desk and the black leather chair and introduced her to some of the people who worked for him. My grandmother talked about my mother, told him how she didn’t seem happy, how she couldn’t seem to settle. Moving from job to job for this reason or that, sometimes because men kept touching her. Even the minister at the church, my grandmother said, and you know that couldn’t be.

    When my Uncle John came back for my grandmother’s funeral it was the first time he’d seen my mother in years. She surprised him, with her hair short and mostly gray, a thin gold bracelet on her wrist. She was much smaller than he remembered, her voice so soft. His nephews seemed to have turned out well, and introduced him to their wives and children. He sat at a table with my mother when it was all over, holding a glass of white wine, but they didn’t have much to say to each other.

On sunny days, if she has time, Ruby wheels my mother to the elevator and out the side door to the little walled garden. She gives her a leaf to hold, to run her fingers over, gives her a flower to smell, as if she was a blind person. Ruby knows my mother is sailing farther and farther into the dark, and she thinks there should be someone waving from the shore. She has a picture in her mind of the woman my mother used to be, still sees glimpses in the way she smooths her hair, in the way she throws her head back when something makes her laugh. That’s always been Ruby’s way; she makes a picture in her mind and remembers it while she runs a washcloth over a wrinkled arm, spoons soup into a trembling mouth.

    There is talk of cutbacks again, and Ruby worries that it might be her turn. She knows the head nurse won’t fight to keep her, knows that she costs more than the tight-jean girls, just out of high school or never finished. The last time they talked about it my mother said maybe she should become a grief counsellor, whatever that was. Said they seemed to have plenty of work. That was one of my mother’s good days; she patted Ruby’s hand and told her a joke someone’s grandson had written in a letter.

The thing my Uncle John liked best about his friend Will’s house was the way doors stayed open and not shuddering in their frames. He slept there the night my grandmother put a suitcase in the trunk and slammed it shut, my mother in the front seat with her lips moving behind the closed window. Lying in the bottom bunk with the cowboy sheets pulled up to his chin he said, My sister’s gone away, and I hope she never comes back. When she didn’t come back he was frightened at first, thought that maybe you really could make things happen by wishing. But then he forgot about it and got used to the way things were, the treats my grandmother planned, just for the two of them.

    After a few weeks, my mother began to write him letters; they came with a postmark from a place he’d never heard of. The letters asked if he was being good and helping my grandmother, and there were always two or three jokes she knew; sometimes they were quite funny and he told them to his friends. Sometimes there were cartoon-like pictures of fat women drawn in the margins but she didn’t say a thing about where she was, what she was doing. Inside each letter was an envelope with Neil’s name on it, his address written with the same loopy letters. My Uncle John was ten years old; he’d never given a thought to mailing letters, although he did know that was what he was supposed to do. In his dark room in the quiet house he made a plan and the next afternoon, when my grandmother had gone to lie down, he went through her writing desk, looking for stamps, feeling like a spy in a movie she’d taken him to. When the next letter came, he put it in a box under his bed, and the ones after that. When there were five or six he went to the vacant lot with a stolen box of matches and watched the paper blacken and shrivel, kicked the ashes until there was only a black smudge on the ground.

The place my mother wrote from was an old stone house, on the edge of a town hours away. By the time they got there she was worn out with crying; when my grandmother left she tried to put her arms around her, but my mother turned away.

    The girls in the house ate their meals around a long table in the big kitchen, and they had to take turns reading from the Bible before each one. Every morning a thin woman with rows of tight curls came to give them lessons, so they wouldn’t get too far behind in school. The rest of the time they read books with limp covers that were brought by the boxful from the library in town, or knit squares for blankets that were given to the poor. They were allowed to write to their families and my mother tucked in her letters to Neil, and waited. She pictured his long fingers unfolding a map and finding the town, pictured him rolling his parents’ car out of the driveway so they wouldn’t hear it start. Driving through the night to find her. She didn’t know what they would do then, how they would live, but she was sure that when they were together they would figure something out. She thought he would probably arrive just before dawn and she woke early each morning, watched the faded wallpaper appear and listened for a car in the lane.

    They came from all over the place and sometimes the girls exchanged addresses, but nobody ever got in touch. When their time drew near they had to pack their suitcases, all their things, and when it came they were driven to the hospital in the old green Ford and didn’t come back. Usually there was nothing for the pain, so they would remember. When it was my mother’s turn, Mrs Beech rode with her in the back of the car and said, Squeeze my hand, go ahead, you won’t hurt me. In the hospital it was the middle of the night, all the lamps in the corridors turned down low. The room they took her to had a high table, was full of blinding light, and my mother closed her eyes but that made everything worse. The doctor had tired brown eyes over his mask, a mole on the bridge of his nose. He called her Young Lady and she thought that he would hold her up, but he didn’t look at her again.

My mother didn’t exactly tell Ruby about me, but there was something she said one day when they were sitting with the paper. It wasn’t one of her best days but Ruby knew the truth when she heard it, and she stroked my mother’s hand and thought about a hymn her choir sang, the one about laying your burden down. She thought about how laying it down just meant someone else had to pick it up, and for a moment something clenched inside her. Just for a moment and then she opened her mouth to ask but my mother had dropped into sleep, her breath as quiet and easy as a baby’s. They were sitting between the potted trees in the little walled garden and the breeze picked at the pages of the newspaper. Ruby folded it carefully, as flat as she could, and thought about how everyone walked around with their own nuggets of sorrow, how every life shaped itself around them. Through the open door behind her she could hear the sound of brisk voices, the clatter of dishes, and she knew it was time to push my mother’s chair to her place in the pale dining-room, time to make her own way down the hill to the bus stop, to the grocery store, to her meeting. But she closed her eyes and thought that it wouldn’t hurt anyone if the two of them stayed just as they were, for as long as they could.

It might have been at night, with the corridor lights turned low, or it might have been broad day, meal carts trundling through the halls and people brushing their hair for visitors. Maybe that part doesn’t matter. But they didn’t let my mother see me, and so she never knew. Maybe I had her own red hair, or maybe dark curls that were always my despair. Maybe I had blue eyes. Maybe there was a house with a piano on a thick blue carpet, or maybe a stale smell and windows that rattled with every train going by. Maybe I sometimes passed her on the street, or maybe I was never anywhere near. Maybe I had a happy life. And maybe I didn’t.

Mary Swan is the winner of the 2001 O. Henry Award for short fiction and is the author of The Deep and Other Stories and The Boys in the Trees, a novel. Her work has appeared in several Canadian literary magazines, including the Malahat Review and Best Canadian Stories, as well as American publications such as Harper's. She lives with her husband and daughter near Toronto.

Back to Freight Stories No. 1

Mary Swan

My Mother’s Ghost