My mother died recently after twenty-seven years of living in retirement in Miami, Florida. She’d lived in Miami so long, we could just barely remember her house in North Dakota with its ragged, weatherworn shingles and shaggy, puce carpets. Mom didn’t miss the carpets, which had to be both vacuumed and raked to remove the detritus of childhood we left entangled in them, but she mourned the loss of her brand new, artichoke green refrigerator and electric stove.
Mom said it was Sonny that saved her life that night, barking like mad and digging under her bed sheets at 3:00 a.m. because he smelled smoke. No one ever laid a hand to that little rat-dog after that night. He lived like a prince while my mom carried him under her arm like a bloated sausage with legs and fed him dinners of chicken breast and vanilla ice cream from the table. Anyway, that was also the night that my mom quit smoking cigarettes, the night the house burned down from a cigarette left burning on the davenport.
Mom stood out in the snow, watching the house burn with nothing but her housecoat and Sonny tucked under her arm, until the volunteer fire department rolled up to douse the flames and keep them from spreading to the barn. She called Jack the next day and said that she may not have anything left but she was not going to stay another night with the bum at the gospel mission so he’d better come pick her up, she’d be waiting out front. The whole town heard the gossip (“Rose lost everything and had to sleep at the mission because her no-good sons didn’t have the decency to come get their poor mother,”) before I even heard about the fire.
After the fire, Mom said that everything she owned had returned to the earth and she was going to make the earth give it all back by growing anything she could, from arugula to zinnias. The bounty of her garden in Miami is what attracted John, and with eligible men in her age range so scarce, this was quite a coup. He loved her for her crisp bacon, her black coffee, but most of all for her bountiful vegetables. He was an apple-shaped man who wore black suspenders and a red tie when he wanted to look sharp, had a fondness for pork pie hats, ate everything on his plate with sweeping overhand scoops, and never went anywhere without a giant, white handkerchief stuffed in his pocket.
Not counting the morning Mom awoke to find Sonny stiff and gone on his little pillow-bed, the day John Hoby died was the worst day of my mother’s life. None of us were prepared for the wave of grief that bowled her over, this strong woman who’d withstood so much. I’d been living out in Oregon and they finally came up to visit, to see the autumn leaves and join the kids on a trip to the beach. Tina had gotten up early and taken the kids outside, where they pretended to be clamdigging with their toy shovels and plastic pails, and I was lying in bed half awake. “Clyde, CLYDE,” my mother howled, panicked, from the other room, “Something’s wrong!”
I bolted out of bed and into the guest room, just in time to see grey-pale John Hoby fall to the floor with a big bang. I could tell from the fleshy slap of body meeting tile that he went down hard. As I knelt over him his dark, vacant eyes told me he was gone, but I worked to bring him back anyway while my mother’s whimpers turned to sobs turned to cries that turned to screams of pain and fear and anguish. The alarm clock in the bedroom went off, it was 7:15.
Tina, bless her heart, took the kids out to buy a Gameboy that day to keep them out of the heart of the chaos. My mother cried all that day and all night, too, and then she was done with it. After John’s funeral, as she went into her room to undress, she paused with her hand on my arm and said, “Clyde, when it’s my time, just burn me up; I don’t need all this.”
People walk over the names on the bricks in Pioneer Square every day and don’t even think twice when they see the one we bought for her, stamped Rose Gunderson Timm, but I stop to think of all these things and more.