By Allegra Wong

       My mother is dying, in isolation, on the top floor of Saint Anne's Hospital in Fall River. Through her windows, she sees the gray iridescent spires of Saint Anne's Church and the silver-green Taunton River where she swam, after sauna with Finnish friends, when she was a youth. This bone-colored December morning she is concerned she is late for high school, and she cannot find her brown notebook. I tell her I shall find it for her. Later, I do.

       I find her notebook again one afternoon six weeks after she has died. It is in her Hixville dressing table, beneath the broken House of the Seven Gables plate which she had wrapped in an old Adams Bookstore bag. I lift her notebook out of the drawer, take it to the shuttered bedroom window, and open not to a draft of one of my mother's junior year themes, but to a letter written by my grandmother to my dead sister, Shelley.

       Grandmother writes of the robins who visit the Fall River garden path each day outside her downstairs bedroom window, the stone path just past the larkspur and bee balm, alongside the bells of Ireland. My grandmother tells my sister she thinks the visiting robins have something to do with a visit from her. From her bedroom window, my grandmother tells my sister, she watches every morning as my mother fills the bird bath with warm water, listens to the frog she calls Ichabod Crane plash in the pond ringed around with white and green quartz stones, and rakes the soil around the double red peonies growing along the Downing Street picket fence.

       As I read my grandmother's lines, I smell the Downing Street soil. Just as I smell the soil of Oak Grove Cemetery. The rotting oak and maple leaves mix with dead geraniums and sweeten the cemetery turf. Jonquils and pansies shoot up around my sister's pink gravestone, then die. The breeze makes the branch tips of the willow on our family plot brush across the face of a stone angel on someone else's.

       I am a little girl, and I sit with my mother on our white wrought-iron bench during our afternoon visits. My mother leaves bell jars of dried statice on Shelley's grave and on those of her father and grandparents. The robins visit. Their vermilion breasts flash among the gravestones. I smell these memories.

       I turn to another notebook page and remember robins visit my mother every summer in Hixville, too, although she calls juncos the true mourners, the true bearers of her grief as they sit among the dry grasses and milkweed outside the kitchen window seal-colored November afternoons.

       Beyond the kitchen yard, and beyond the shuttered bedroom window, the pine woods are moist and deep, and my mother writes on the last page of the brown notebook: Dearest Shelley, I should like to begin a kind of spiritual diary so that I can talk with you.

       But my grandmother in Fall River sees the robins through the window from her black iron bed, and she calls their daily visit a visit from her granddaughter. She writes in the notebook she hopes she will be lucky enough to see Shelley in heaven. Until then, she tries to be quiet, she says, just as Shelley asks her to be.

       I turn to other pages and find my mother's notebook has been shared not only with my grandmother, but also with Shelley. I can draw, I can read, I can write ... I can draw, read, write. Draw, read, write. I can.

       Shelley prints the words again and again. She is in the first grade at the Davol School. It is 1955, the year she dies. She prints her stepfather's name on a page by itself. So he will love her, as she loves him. She prints her name, alongside his, and above hers, she prints mine.

       Dear Shelley, I'm very lonesome today. I keep looking for you. My grandmother writes my sister another letter in the notebook with the brown covers.

       Shelley has printed 'Thank you' on several of the pages. Thank you, Mr. Green, Miss Sullivan, Mrs. Burke. My mother has written on the lines in between. What would you like for Christmas, Shelley? A book?

       Originally my mother used the notebook for attendance-taking at her Saint Mark's Episcopal Sunday school class. The names of her pupils -- Marita, Agnes, Jon, Linwood, Constance -- are listed for 1942-43. On other pages are her pupils' grades received for the tests they took. Her note to herself for the upcoming Sunday school Christmas exchange that year mentions she will give each of her pupils a copy of Dickens's A CHRISTMAS CAROL. The minister, Mr. Atwood, plans to read the entire story at the Christmas service, and my mother's pupils will follow along in their own books.

       My grandmother writes to my sister. Dear, There are two little robins come to see me every day. I feel as if it was you coming to see me, for I'm awful lonesome without you. I hope I will meet you, if God thinks I may, I will be so happy then. We will talk together, not of worldly things, but nice happy things.

       I look up from the pages. Like the solitary mourner in Munch's "The Scream", I open my mouth and find I am voiceless. I have no new language, no mourning vocabulary to ask how I shall bear a lifetime of not being able to tell my mother I have found her notebook.

       So we will be quiet and peaceful, my grandmother writes in both of her letters. I am trying to be quiet as you would like me to be. Goodbye for now, dear Shelley. Nana.

       My grandmother's closing lines seem to be a message for me as I stand by the shuttered window in Hixville. I shall try to be quiet and peaceful, as all of the notebook writers would want me to be. I take my pencil, and on the inside of the back cover I write, I'm lonesome without you, but I shall keep looking for you. Good-bye for now, Mama dear.

Previously published in New Works Review, Summer 1998


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