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My mother never cried. She didn’t see the point of it. Not at her brother’s funeral, nor at the movies, and when her back was bad she just gritted her teeth. But there was this one time, this bright day in the fall of 1970, when for a moment she was someone else.
I found the tool on the kitchen table, a sort of spout, a tapering alloy tube that struggled to gleam even though the light from the window had dust dancing all around it. To this day I don’t know where it came from and come to think of it, I still don’t know what it was. Its actual name, that is to say; I know its purpose well enough, and if I ever saw it again the memories would pour through it, rich and raw despite the passing of time.
My mother was in the dining room that morning, a Saturday I think, or I would have been at school, and not a Sunday, when absence from the Winbury Episcopal Church would have brought half of Connecticut enquiring after our health. There was a dressmaker’s dummy in the middle of the floor, perched on an unstable tripod, and my mother was stooped to her work, concentration creasing her forehead and holding her lumbar pain at bay for a while at least. She glanced at the tool in my hand, pursing a safety pin between her lips and nodding her acknowledgment. I settled on the piano stool to wait, compliance my default position. In all things but one, that year.
As a child I was good at waiting, something few would believe now, when I flirt with lateness on a daily basis. Back then I was patient. At an age when other boys had a baseball glove glued to one hand and a bullfrog in the other, I was watching, thinking, waiting like a sponge for fragments of meaning to drift past in the current. I waited to know who I was, to learn what life intended for me. To understand whether I was coming, or going.
Actually, I was more like a spider. I asked questions; I was known for it, laying them out like filaments of silk that seemed to catch people off guard, caused them to stick and struggle. They would tuck in their chins, chew their lips, eyes sliding away as if seeking some means of escape. Sometimes I asked several questions at once, and sometimes the same question over again, if I wasn’t satisfied with the answer. And usually I wasn’t, not after I had thought about it. Now, as I waited for my mother to pin her seam, my brain worked on things to ask about the spout tool, and my fingers passed the time with its contours, the smooth curve at one end, the piranha teeth at the other. By the time my mother had finished though, I was on to something else, my eyes straining at the wallpaper behind her. ‘Why are there eagles and crests on the wall?’ I said. Who would want that all over their dining room? Are you going to change it?’ Then a faint rustling sound came from somewhere across the room, tugging my attention in a different direction.
My mother stood up and regarded her work, the edge of her nail clamped between her teeth. She slipped her dress from the dummy and held it to the light. I was about to ask why she was making it inside out, and two other questions I had yet to formulate. But I stopped myself. I was more interested in the rustling sound and the eagle wallpaper than dressmaking, and more interested in the metal object than anything else.
My mother put down her dress, pressed her fingers to the bridge of her nose, and exhaled very slowly. Eventually she turned to look at me. Her expression was one I knew well. It wrapped a golden opportunity to instruct, with the weariness of a housewife. Usually my mother would answer my least important question first, to hold my attention for the duration of the lesson. Sometimes, she started with a question I hadn’t even asked, a question she thought more important, but would never have made it onto my list. ‘This is a dress I am making for Thanksgiving dinner at the Hamilton’s,’ she said. ‘There will be turkey, like at Christmas, and we’ll be eating pumpkin, and squash and blueberry pie. Like the Pilgrim Fathers.’ I took my eyes away from her, to discourage the digression, fearing it would lead to a lecture on table manners.
‘You know that’s just a mouse behind the cupboard,’ she said. ‘There must be a gap in the skirting. We’ll have to fix it, but we’ll leave the mouse alone. I expect he’s too clever to be caught.’
‘They say “smart” here, not “clever”. And they call a cupboard a “dresser”.’
‘Well, we’ll say “intelligent” shall we? I marked your practice test, by the way. From the green book. You did well – very well indeed. It really is good of Mrs. Butler to be sending those tests all the way from England, don’t you think? Air mail is very expensive, you know. I’ll write and tell her how well you are doing. I am sure she will be pleased, and when the time comes that we go back, you will be ready. You’ll pass the Eleven Plus, I am quite sure of that.’ She paused, and her mouth twitched as a thought occurred to her. ‘You won’t be eleven though. You’ll be older, probably. Never mind, we’ll see about that.’
She reached over and put her hand on my knee, her nails, sore and down to the quick. ‘Now, the wallpaper,’ she said. ‘It tells us that Americans are very patriotic, and not the slightest bit embarrassed to show it, even in their dining rooms. We won’t be changing it because we are only renting, and because we can’t afford to spend money on such things. Not at the moment. But that isn’t something you should mention. Do you understand?’
I nodded. ‘How do you know the mouse is a ‘he’?’ I said. ‘Are you sure it isn’t a rat?’
‘And finally, that tool in your hand is for putting into a maple tree. With a hammer. Out will come maple syrup, drip by drip by drip.’ My mother tilted her head on one side as she looked at me. She expected me to be thrilled at the prospect. Part of me was. And part of me reserved judgment, waiting for conditions to be attached.
‘Now, let’s not get our hopes up too much,’ she said. ‘But I imagine there’ll be enough syrup for my nature table at the nursery, and perhaps some left over for pancakes. If you’re good.’ The safety pin went back between her lips.
So that was it. Maple pancakes in return for peace and quiet. Quietness and goodness were not quite the same thing in our house, but they had more than a passing association. And the spout tool was a project for other people’s children, a further opportunity to fulfil the expectations of the community, to demonstrate that as they had anticipated, a teacher from England was a rare blessing for a small New England town. And thank the Lord for it.
The church elders didn’t know what they had done, coming to my mother with their nursery school proposition. Perhaps they imagined it would help us to integrate, or that she had floated down on her umbrella to tame their rowdy offspring. A favourable response received, there followed a parade of Sunday dinners at whitewashed houses, praying before we ate as if we considered it quite natural, and delighting them with the Queen’s English. My mother didn’t wear gloves, but carrying them with her was bad enough.
I don’t know where the idea came from, but maple syrup production would be the school’s first educational project. And for my mother, the school itself was part of a wider endeavour, to adjust to a new way of life where everything was strange and unexpected, in a free-wheeling community whose welcome gushed with neighbourly charity. My mother’s approach was as much about resistance though, as integration. Or at least it was about proceeding with caution, much as she did when driving to the mall, dabbing constantly at the brakes, permitting the car to gather speed only in painful increments. It wasn’t that she didn’t appreciate what America had to offer, but it came at her without restraint, without invitation, like a dog straight from the water. Rarely can a town have been more self-confident, as proud of its modern affluence as its colonial origins, and playing its part in an American dream that wasn’t just firing on all cylinders, but shrugging away the bonds of gravity to hurl its heroes at the moon. She saw America’s wonders, and she smiled at them. Politely, without showing her teeth.
My father had come across the Atlantic fired with fearless optimism. He brought with him a peerless expertise in marine gearbox design, and a slide rule that never left his inside pocket. There was no reticence about him, no question in his mind that we would thrive in this land of opportunity, play our part in the building of one shining empire, while back across the ocean another faded to an afterglow. My mother came with him, hesitantly supportive and treating the whole adventure as a temporary educational exercise. We would learn American customs, she would say, respect our hosts’ traditions, but standards would have to be maintained. I would not go barefoot around the neighbourhood, or chew gum in public, and my fork would never be turned in submission to sweetcorn. And when we accepted invitations it went without saying that we would behave impeccably (although we never did go anywhere without her saying it). Tentative engagement, that was her plan. She would dip her toe into the water, paddle perhaps, but there would be no splashing about. America had other ideas though. It saw her standing in the shallows, sensed her reserve, but decided it wanted her company all the same. It didn’t hint or hedge, but shouted from the middle of its sun-dappled pool. ‘Come on in!’ it said. ‘The water’s fine!’
The nursery school began that September, three mornings a week. My mother was enthused. She threw herself at the enterprise, working feverishly in the evenings, her pen scratching out cards and wall charts of improbable perfection. Multiplication tables, words beginning with ‘th’, weather and seasons, parts of the body, the foundations of all knowledge were conjured on our dining table. Her fingers, pressed to marker pens for hours on end, were granted a respite from her incisors, while her eyes roamed over her paperwork with scarcely a blink.
But then when she stopped, the clouds would return. She would stand at the dining room window, eyes fixed on the street, fingers playing across the small of her back. I sometimes wondered what she was seeing when she was at her post there, whether she noticed the passing cars, the grey squirrels chasing through the branches, the dry leaves skittering across the sidewalks. Once, as she turned back to her work, she caught me watching her. She held my gaze for a moment, her expression blank, eyes dark and unfamiliar. Then, as if a switch had been thrown, a smile came to her face, such a fragile thing that it began to fade the moment it came into bloom. With that gift, she sent me back to Mrs. Butler’s tests.
Up at the church hall, my mother’s industry delivered a local phenomenon, a school of colour and imagination, anchored by her experience and bound with virtue and discipline. The children became early readers, the parents delighted advocates, and in no time at all my mother became a local celebrity. It became impossible to go out in her company without being introduced to someone in her new constituency, a follower or volunteer lieutenant, keen to press compliments upon her. I was never sure whether she valued the attention. She would tip her head in polite acknowledgement, but there was never any concession to vanity. She would never speak of it, never mistake flattery for anything authentic. Praise slid off her as if she considered it a fickle friend. No, what she wanted I am sure, what she sought, was a place of safety and comfort. She needed to nest in a classroom that doubled as a small piece of home, engaging with America on her own familiar terms.
Late that afternoon we went out onto Main Street, with the sun striking low between the line of maples. We walked up the hill, looking for the right tree to recruit to my mother’s cause. She selected one of many that stood in line along the verges, approving of its prime position at the top of the hill. It guarded the entrance to the church in all its autumn glory, America the Beautiful in burnished robes, the continent at its most benign and generous. I had my father’s hammer and had been testing it on every tree along the way, until my mother told me to stop. I was embarrassing her. She in turn carried a little plastic bucket we had bought the previous year in Torquay, and brought with us in case such things were scarce in the New World. We were embarrassing each other. I knew that dainty bucket wouldn’t survive one day of passing children. I thought of school on Monday, and my stomach tried to climb into my throat. ‘You mustn’t call it a bucket,’ I said. ‘It’s called a pail here. If you call it a bucket…’
In her other hand, my mother had a roll of Sellotape which had emigrated with us too. She had marked a pristine card in her perfect italic lettering, explaining the project in a discreet advertisement for the nursery school. I never asked my mother why she wrote so neatly, there was no need. It was an obsession for teachers on both sides of the Atlantic, sharing the certainty that you could shape the character of the adult through the handwriting of the child. That, and the state of their shoes.
My sneakers started out clean enough that afternoon. They were probably still acceptable after I had hammered the spout into the tree, worrying as I recall that it might be screaming silently. My mother hung the little bucket over the spout by its handle and on it she taped the lettered sign, making sure it was perfectly smooth. She stood back, hands on her hips and admired it, neat and straight and ready. ‘There!’ she said. ‘Now all we have to do is wait.’
‘How long?’ I asked, checking my watch, a modest Timex I kept in my pocket at school. ‘Will it be today? Can I stay up here and watch?’
‘You can stay for a while, but no more than an hour.’ My mother looked into the spout, inserted her little finger then examined it. ‘Nothing yet,’ she said, then laid her hand on my head for a moment. She turned away, and I watched her march back down the hill, straight and proud and good.
I didn’t stay for long. The first drips started from the tree almost as soon as my mother was out of sight, not syrup but a clear sap, slightly tacky to the touch, and vaguely sweet on the tongue. The surge of delight I felt stays with me even now, that heady pleasure small things gave to children before abundance stole their wonder. I watched each drip forming on the end of the tap, filling to fat roundness then falling into the bucket with a satisfyingly hollow note. I watched for a minute or two, long enough to notice that the rate of dripping was beginning to increase. A further minute and they were coming fast enough to turn to a trickle. The bottom of the bucket was covered and the level was beginning to creep up the sides. It didn’t occur to me until the bucket was nearly half full that I had a problem on my hands. If the bucket overflowed, the sign would be ruined and it would look bad to anyone passing. If I took the bucket away, the offence would be the wasting of nature’s bounty at the gates of the church. So I sprinted for home, the broken paving doing its best to trip me and the gradient pulling me ahead of myself.
It took some persuasion to get my mother to leave her dressmaking for a second time. She muttered incredulously as we went up the street again, raised as she was on the gentleness of English hedgerows. The bucket was brimming when we reached it, and my mother couldn’t contain her alarm. She danced from one foot to another as she looked for a solution, finally noticing a plastic bag that was caught in the cemetery fence. I was left holding it under the trickling sap while my mother trotted away with the bucket slopping its sticky contents over her sandals.
It was a long afternoon. The tree was more than equal to our efforts, its sap pouring relentlessly, and at a pace that had us racing up and down the hill as the shadows lengthened. At first we laughed, my mother giving me encouragement each time we passed, explaining how she thought we would need to reduce the sap to syrup on the stove. Soon though, we ran out of buckets, and then pans and jugs. We were tiring of the amusement. The kitchen table had no more space, so we lined up containers of sap on the draining board and then the floor. The tree maintained its thin stream, a feeble harvest at first glance but more than enough to fill a container in the time it took to walk the length of Main St.
Dusk crept upon us, and my mother’s mood had darkened too. She didn’t complain, but her jaw had locked solid, and she passed me now without a word, resolute, thinking her own thoughts. The adventure had soured for me, as well. I was the unwitting partner in some rookie error, exposed to ridicule, reduced to a loyal foot-soldier in my mother’s battle. I began to study the windows along the street, watching the curtains, wondering if they might conceal someone entertained by our ordeal. Each new tour of duty became a more arduous passage, slabs passing beneath my feet in a babble of recitations. ‘Four score and seven years ago. O, say can you see,’ and then ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag…’
I didn’t notice my mother coming past. She looked at me as I was in mid flow, and I was suddenly embarrassed, caught in my petty treason. Her eyebrow arched slightly, but she said nothing. She didn’t know that I had seen her up at my school, coming out of the Principal’s office, head down and handbag grasped firmly under her arm. She didn’t know how the school counsellor had sat down with me at recess, asked me all sorts of things, school and home, mother and father. School again. And finally America. I talked. I kept talking, but I didn’t answer her question. I didn’t know the answer. Why I stood still and silent. Why I wouldn’t say the pledge.
My father came into my room that evening. He sat on the bed while I did one of Mrs Butler’s intelligence tests. I saw him studying the maps on my walls, his lips moving as he tested himself on rivers and capital cities. After a while, he got up and took the egg timer from beside my desk, stopping it with a twist and a ping.
‘Is there anything bothering you, son?’
‘No.’ I said, somehow sensing that was the wrong answer. Not really knowing whether something was bothering me or not, but a bit concerned that something should be bothering me, or might be bothering me without me realising it.
‘Because if there is something you would like to ask…’
That was a different matter. I hadn’t prepared questions, but they came anyway. ‘Why were you arguing the other day?’ I said. ‘Why are we called ‘aliens’? What’s a “Green Card”?’
My father rubbed his face with his hands, as if he was washing himself. ‘We weren’t arguing,’ he said, his voice calm and measured. ‘We were discussing. Did that bother you?’ He picked up my plastic model of an F4 Phantom.
‘No.’ I said, again. My father turned the model over in his hands. I hadn’t put the decals on straight, and I had managed somehow to get glue on the cockpit canopy. He would notice, and that bothered me. Then I looked at the test in front of me, and I said, ‘Is it better to be British, or American?’
He turned to my map of the whole world and stared at it for a few seconds. His gaze seemed to settle on the blue stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. ‘Both,’ he said. But it could never be that. Sides had to be taken. For or against, win or lose, better or worse. That was the way it had to be. Choices. “Give me liberty, or give me death”.
The Main St. paving was taking me past a particular house now, one that had taken a hold of my imagination. It seems a curious thing now, though I was young, and the house was old enough to be what I supposed. Its roofline, black shutters, white boards, the sheen of its imposing black door, decked with brass fittings. However much it resembled the house in the film at school though, it wasn’t Paul Revere’s. He didn’t cast silver in the garage, or saddle his horse in the yard. It should not have threatened me, come to me in my sleep, it’s letterbox snapping for all the class to hear ‘The British are coming!’
But it wasn’t the coming that mattered, it was the staying. That was the question, its mere existence a ditch of resistance around my desk, something to be endured but not spoken, a matter forever deferred. I was causing trouble, albeit in a passive way, failing to negotiate the grey area of national identity. The trick I suppose, was to show willing, to understand that their patriotism did not require an equal and opposite reaction. One day I might be one of them, and in the meantime going through the motions would be no dishonour. Ambiguity is for some though, and not others. For some the questions are just passing traffic and the answers, whether this or that, are insubstantial things, furniture to be arranged, clothes in favour one day, left in the wardrobe on another. That was not my way, it never has been.
Nor my mother’s. A question must have an answer, an issue attends its resolution, whether by doing something, or by doing nothing. This time it was a something, the dogged pursuit of the last drip in a bucket. Not all the others, just that final one.
Squanto knew how it was. He stood further up the hill, in a great glass case set back from the path, carved in weathered oak, and unbending to life’s troubles. He understood the burden of pride and watched me from the corner of his eye as I passed, an offering of tobacco in his hand and peace in his noble heart. I wanted to make peace too. I wanted my mother to stop her battle. I needed her to laugh again, to say it was just something we could put down to experience. She could not admit defeat though. She wouldn’t bend to this challenge, this tree, this untamed country. She kept going up and down, her dress spotted and stained with sap and bark, staring straight ahead, her free hand pressing at her back. I had no words, though I wanted desperately to speak to her as my father would, to say something to make things right and proper again.
With the street lamps coming on she changed the rules of engagement, deciding it would concede nothing to ask a neighbour for a bucket. So she sent me to door-knock, armed with my English accent and a suitably vague explanation. I am not sure why I chose Mr. Barnes, a man who had forgotten how to smile during the war, and whose face was always melancholy. He pushed open his mesh door and sauntered out into the yard, tugging at his belt as he went. I remember him looking at my hands and clothes. He could tell what it was all about, but he had seen many things in his life, and didn’t raise an eyebrow. He stooped to pick up an old pail he kept by a stand pipe, handed it to me before making the effort to stand straight again, one hand braced on his knee, the other waving me away. He spoke to me I think, though perhaps not. If he did, it was more of a growl than an intelligible comment. Mr Barnes wasn’t like other people. He wasn’t kind or outgoing, and didn’t pass the time of day with anyone, but afterwards, when I looked back at his house, I saw him leaving another pail on his front step.
My father came home after nightfall, his Chevy Impala bouncing onto the driveway, all chrome teeth and fins, its headlights catching my mother on her return run. He left the engine running and went to her, taking the pot from her hands and setting it down on the tarmac. Then he held her in his arms. She struggled for a moment, determined to continue, but then her shoulders sagged, and I could hear her sobbing.
I went past them in the darkness, treading softly, denying it more for my benefit than hers. I headed up the hill once more, past the Academy, with its immaculate lawns, the row of old colonial houses, lights warm in their windows. Past Paul Revere’s, then on beside the dark shapes of the cemetery, without a whistle on my lips, limbs leaden and resentful, and my senses no longer attuned to unnatural things. The tree had won. It held its branches high in its hour of triumph, and there was not a breath of wind to move it. I picked up the full saucepan my mother had left beneath the spout, replaced it with Mr Barnes’s pail. I stood back and watched as it began to fill. Then I noticed my mother’s sandal, wedged between the roots, its heel broken and the leather scuffed from its toe. It was as if the tree had wrenched it from her, taken it as a trophy.
I told myself later, that I said something to that tree. That I liberated my mother’s sandal, pressed my hand to the bark, and ordered it to stop. At my voice it relented, the trickle reduced to a slow patter, the mischief halting with one last ringing drop. But of course it wasn’t me. The tree had already decided its point had been made, its opponent vanquished. And then my eyes fell on the hammer, lying at my feet, and I bent to lift it from the leaves. I weighed it in my hand then set about the tree with it, lashing at the trunk until the bark flew. I couldn’t stop myself, my arm rose and fell as if governed by Thor himself, and for once my head had lost its questions. It held nothing but the blind instruction to pound that maple until my fury had gone.
A hand on my shoulder brought it to an end. Mr Barnes, looked down at me with that hangdog expression, his face grey and jowly. The streetlamps caught in his watery eyes as he bent close, taking the hammer from my hand with a gentle firmness. Then he guided me away from the tree. All the way down the hill he didn’t speak, though he never took his hand from my shoulder. We went down past the academy buildings and up our driveway, past the Chevy and right to our porch door. And there he left me, flexing his grip on my shoulder as a parting gesture. I only spoke to him once again before he died. I knocked on his door at Halloween, and he sent me away empty-handed.
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