My father died when I was ten. The events surrounding his death, as close as anyone could say afterward, went something like this: One morning in early September, just before daybreak, Ray Goren, our milkman, pulled over to the side of the dark road, planning to knock on Joe Sanders’ door. Smoke was coming out of the front of Ray’s truck. Ray was a milkman, not a mechanic. He had no idea what the smoke meant except trouble and no idea what to do except ask to borrow Joe’s phone to call the Winder Dairy office to get someone out to help.
My father was driving to work—he was an early riser by nature—and he must have seen Ray stopped by the side of the road, must have stopped with the intention to help. Why my father stopped is no one’s mystery. My father had a reputation for being a Good Samaritan. After he died, people told shining stories about him. How he had shoveled their snow-packed driveways in the dark of winter mornings before they rose. How he had picked too-high apricots on their summer trees, leaving them on porches in inconspicuous brown paper bags. How he had paid off the fall merchandise waiting in layaway at Kmart for those in the ward who were struggling financially. My mother used to say that he was the only person she knew who seemed at first to be too good to be true and who turned out, over time, to be better than that. My father also knew his way around cars and all things mechanical—he was an electrical engineer—so he must have thought on that early morning in fall, with good reason, that he could help out.
But why he walked behind Ray’s truck that morning instead of in front of it, no one knows. He knew not to do that; it was one of many things he had already instilled in me: to walk in front of cars, never behind them because who knew when a car might back up? So why did he do what he knew he shouldn’t do? No one knows that part of the story. All we know is that in the same split second that my father walked behind Ray’s truck, Ray thought better of knocking on the Sanders’ door—it was only 5:30 in the morning; nobody’s lights were on; the newspaper hadn’t even been delivered yet—and as Ray put his truck into reverse to back up, his truck knocked my father to the asphalt.
Mr. Sanders called for an ambulance, but Ray Goren got so agitated, he couldn’t wait. So, with Mr. Sanders’ help, he lugged my father into the cab of his milk truck and drove my father to the university hospital, smoke rising from the engine. They arrived in record time—sooner than anyone believes an ambulance would have. But seven days later, on September 12th, just a month before he would have turned forty-six—three years younger than I am now—my father died of what my mother told my sisters and I were “internal injuries,” a phrase that, as a girl, I found as mysterious as the year to follow.
“Your father was run over by the milkman?” This—or some version of this—is what I encountered for years to come whenever I told the story as an adult, which is why I stopped telling it a long time ago and just said, when asked, “He was forty-six. A heart attack.” The truth must have sounded like a cross between a joke and a grim fairy tale. Which is what it seemed at the time.
My classmates from Mrs. Cottom’s sixth grade classroom composed condolence notes and mailed them to me. Jimmy D, a quiet boy with large ears, wrote: “I’m sorry youre dad died i’m glad it werent mine.” Mrs. Cottom, whom we had nicknamed Mrs. Cottom-Bottom, believing ourselves to be original in that way all children believe themselves original, had crossed out “weren’t” and written in neat letters above Jimmy’s block letters “wasn’t.”
Ray Goren moved with his family to Hyrum, Utah, a year after the accident. A few years later we heard through the ward grapevine that Ray fell from a ladder while putting new shingles on his roof. He died immediately. His wife, Clara, moved back to our neighborhood. I used to see her sitting in the back row of church during Sacrament meeting, watching me. She wore a fur coat that looked out of place among all the other women’s understated tweeds. My sisters were grown by then and out of the house and my mother never went to church again after my father died. So I sat alone.
What Sister Goren felt, whether rage or pity or some of both, I don’t know. But I still remember that fur coat and her eyes on me, as if an aggrieved animal were stalking or fleeing something that could be enemy or prey.
After our father’s funeral, the Relief Society president, Sister Anderson, came to our house with a hamburger casserole and told our mother she would arrange to have food brought in for the next few weeks.
"These weeks," she said in a whisper, as if sound itself might cause pain, "may be the hardest."
But my mother, full voiced, said we would not be here, that she was taking me and my sisters to Oregon to be near our father’s extended family for the next few months and one of my father’s nephews, Brock Grant, would be staying in our house with his new wife, so not to worry if they saw the lights on here. Brock’s wife, Sarah, she said, was originally from Salt Lake. They would attend Sarah’s family’s ward over in Olympus Hills, not the Garden Park 12th. Everything would be fine, she said, opening the door to usher Sister Anderson out. She would be in touch when we got back.
“Who is Brock Grant?” I asked Shelly when the Relief Society president left. We were sitting at the kitchen table, eating Hostess Sno Balls, the kind of food our mother had, before our father died, only rarely, if ever, allowed.
Shelly unpeeled the aluminum foil covering Sister Anderson’s casserole and stuck a finger in. “Not bad,” she said. “It’s still warm.”
I went back to my bright pink Sno Ball, bits of coconut sticking to the sides of my mouth. My aim was to eat around the whip cream center till I could not stand it anymore. I couldn’t think of anyone named Brock in our family or anyone else’s for that matter. And our father’s nephews were all my age or younger.
Carrie shook her head. “There is no Brock Grant. She made him up."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because she’s losing it, that’s why.”
Is that why in the weeks—then months—that followed, we did not hear from anyone? Because no one knew we were there?
Two days after our father’s funeral, the phone rang and our mother shouted at us not to answer it. She yanked the phone out of the wall and ordered Carrie to bury the noise in the trash.
That afternoon she announced she was taking us out of school. When I asked for how long, she stared at me and said, "Time is the blood of mother’s sour milk."
Maybe she wanted to keep us close for fear something would happen to us. Or maybe she just wanted the company—other bodies in the house—while she slept, which is all I can remember her doing during daylight hours for months following my father’s death: sleeping and occasionally rising, wild-haired and dark-eyed and exhausted, roaming the house for a few minutes at a time in a nylon summer nightgown and green flannel robe, talking in a voice that sounded distant and strange.
Her requests included a mix of the familiar and the new: to clean the dog’s cage; to pay the piano teacher; to defrost the pork chops; to clear rats out of the glove box of the car.
"Make sure it stays hot," she’d say sometimes, passing me in the hallway as if I were running the bath water or serving a meal. "Thirty-two furnaces but nothing keeps her warm!"
I had no idea what she might be talking about.
We did what we could, pulling chicken breasts (no pork chops) from the freezer; or feeding Tulip (our guinea pig—we had no dog); or carrying our mother’s black handbag to her in the bedroom, fishing out her checkbook, pointing gently to the line where we believed a grown-up was to sign to pay the electricity and water bills. (Only Carrie had taken piano lessons and she’d quit a year before.)
A routine developed those early weeks. Carrie had gotten her license the month before our father died—he had been the one who taught her to drive, reminding her not to even start the car until everyone had their seatbelts on—so she was the one who ran all errands, including trips to the grocery store, which she did at 10 o’clock at night and in a neighborhood adjacent to ours to avoid running into anyone from the ward. Shelly, who loved to eat, took on the cooking, making salmon patties that tasted like our mother’s had but were irregularly shaped. Taking care of Tulip, something I’d done with my father’s help before he died, was assigned to me.
We reveled in creating a new routine. If our father was gone and everything was going haywire in our lives, why not start over? The old routines had disappeared with him. Our mother was not our mother anymore. When she emerged from her bedroom, which wasn’t often, she often had a blank look on her face. We began taking her meals twice a day on a small wicker tray—oatmeal in the morning or juice and buttered toast; tater tots and hamburger patties on toasted sesame seed buns at night. She ate erratically—the juice but not the oatmeal or toast, the bun but not the hamburger or tater tots. Worried she was going to starve to death, I sometimes brought her yogurt at midday, having heard someone in the ward say once that the very old and the very sick could subsist on things like yogurt and applesauce alone.
When she didn’t have a blank look on her face, our mother was enraged. Even something as small as the tenor of our voices could set her off. She claimed she could hear us no matter where we were in the house—even downstairs—and no matter how quietly we talked.
So we took to whispering, then not talking much at all.
This is how two months passed.
By late November, restlessness kicked in. We missed our previous lives. We whispered in the daylight hours, should we tell someone? But who? Maybe this is when we remembered our father, how he rose before we rose in the morning, how he used to arrive home promptly at six o’clock every night, how he wore white starched shirts, how he pulled from his briefcase mechanical drawings, eager to show us pictures that never looked to me to be anything recognizable at all. When he walked in the door, our father brought light.
Carrie was the first who said we had to do something.
One Sunday night, as we sat in the basement with the television turned low, she announced, enough was enough, that she would drive us to school the next day. Her age carried with it the authority to decide such things.
I ran the bath water that night, worrying whether our mother would be okay. Who would bring her food while we were away? Shelly had said she would make us bagged lunches and she would make two meals for our mother as well: cereal over which all our mother would have to do is pour milk, and a pork sandwich that she would cover with tin foil on a plate. She was afraid of making anything that needed to be heated up for fear my mother would turn on the oven and burn herself and the house down, but cereal? A sandwich?
"Those are safe," she’d said, and Carrie agreed they seemed safe enough.
When Carrie came to my bedroom to wake me at 6 a.m., I was already awake, putting on a plaid pantsuit, an outfit my mother had bought for me at Castleton’s in early August, weeks before my father had died. My mother had told me then not to wear all three pieces at the same time—vest, jacket and bell-bottom pants—but now, I could not choose between them and not wearing all three seemed a mistake. I was sure when my mother saw them together she would agree.
Shelly made us sit down at the kitchen table to eat our cereal and drink our juice just like we did back when our father was alive and our mother was well. Then Carrie said we needed to go to see Mother to say goodbye. I thought that our mother would be proud of us for organizing ourselves so well on our own, that she would be pleased by our initiative to return to school. In the back of my mind, I suppose, I also considered that she might fly into a rage since she had been so erratic since my father died.
But neither of those things happened.
Instead, we three stood at the bottom of her bed, which now seemed cavernous without our father and with our mother, who ate so little, shrinking day by day, and Carrie rattled the car keys in her hand, and Shelly gently roused our mother by shaking her foot, saying, “We’re going to school today, Mother, but we will be back late this afternoon,” and our mother surprised us.
She opened her eyes. She sat up straight. She looked at us one by one, and very calmly, very quietly, said, “If you leave, I will hang myself in the garage.”