blackbirdonline journalSpring 2011  Vol. 10  No. 1
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Originally given to Gloria by her mother, it was just a small gift accompanying something larger. That larger thing is lost; that larger thing could have been a sweater, an ocean liner, or a promise. For more years than anyone remembers, Gloria kept the pillbox on her vanity, near her hand mirror. These were the days of long, cream-colored Oldsmobiles—cars approached as living rooms—and glass-bellied lamps with womanly curves. The rose water and the Chanel No. 5 mingled with the faint smell of yesterday’s gin martinis, and the wet smell of this evening’s in particular.

Ironically, the pillbox did not hold the actual pills she took, one after the other, three at a time washed down with that same gin, her stockings off but her blue chintz A-line dress still on, her pearls on, her Moroccan bracelet on, her earrings on. The pillbox, with its porcelain top and gold braided edge, with its haughty bouquet of never-ending odorless flowers, simply bore witness, vessel essence intact, emptiness untampered with, sightless eyes open.


One of Gloria’s daughters, her name was Tabitha, held a tag sale of all, or many, of her mother’s belongings. She kept some objects—a black wool bathrobe embroidered with the Saks Fifth Avenue version of Oriental floral, a set of sky blue china, a gilt tray with, again, some kind of Oriental phrase painted on the surface. The boxes had come to her one rainy Saturday that fall. It was a happy circumstance that you could hire others to go through your dead mother’s house, because to do it yourself would be almost too much to bear. By this time the death was solid as a tombstone, solid as the moon, had infiltrated the back half of the dining room with its insinuation, a loud, measured breathing. (And how could you breathe around here!) Then there was this new swirl of activity, welcome in its own way: renting the card tables, enlisting husband and daughter to lay things out in attractive patterns. The mink coats hung together by the fireplace, so many minks for Louisiana, as if it were always cold there.

Her daughter played around the coatrack and under the card tables and watched the women who came into the house, a parade of strangers, to shuffle through her grandmother’s belongings. Tabitha sat at the kitchen table for many minutes at a time, smoking, and she let a lot of things go for less than they were worth, materially speaking. Fact is, she would have paid the women to take away the blue sweater with pearl buttons, black stilettos, lizard stilettos, bright new Bible, earrings big as shot-put balls, stoles with heads intact, the animal eyes blasted but reminiscent.


A dead mother, a suicide, is a black hole, the existence of which was first discovered in 1972 by Tabitha. A dead mother, a suicide, never leaves you. Violent and abrupt emptiness; unread letters; a well with a lid on it; a sound you can’t decipher on the other side of the wall; an unopened bottle of wine in the cellar; a look from your husband on a dark night; a house still palpitating with its former residents, that ugly swarm of callous teenagers; the house of a former lover; a phone number for a friend no longer living; 1963 as a whole; the night you first met your husband; the night you gave birth; the day you discovered sexual pleasure, alone; the motive for throwing a plate across a room in a drunken fugue. A dead mother, a suicide—if she had just broken the little box, smashed it against the wall—that might have helped, but it might not have helped at all.

As a teenager, Tabitha’s daughter had a best friend named Sue. They cried together sometimes, and they laughed together, too. It was a passionate friendship, an allegiance strong as young wood. When she, Mary, turned fourteen, Sue gave her a little blue ceramic box with a note in it, a love note. For Sue’s birthday, just ten days later, Mary gave her a box, too—made of the skin of a seashell, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. In the bottom, she dropped a dozen or two dozen nascent conches. She had found a pod on the beach the year before. It was a candy necklace of translucent disks, now dry and rattling. Break one open and out would fall the baby white shells, perfectly formed miniatures, little repetitions of the same white shell again and again and again, an infinite number.  end

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