The Art of Preservation

By Karen Parkman

Tessie resented having to get up early to pick her daughter Margaret up from the airport because Margaret knew she worked the evening shift. Her sleep schedule was not what it used to be during the years she was a stay-at-home mother. They met in baggage claim where Margaret, her eyes glassy, threw her arms around her mother without saying a word. Margaret let out a rattling sigh, but Tessie made no noise. She felt like a spectator of their meeting rather than a participant. Behind them stood Margaret’s fiancé, Raymond, a polite born-again whom Tessie had met only once before at the large family Thanksgiving meal her sister hosted every year. Now he was holding their bags and smiling away.

“Oh, Mom,” said Margaret.

Tessie patted her back, nodded to Raymond. “I parked over here,” she said, and started walking.

She could not commit to such an emotional exchange this early in the day. Not when the reason for Margaret’s arrival was that her father, Tessie’s ex-husband, was dead and they would be getting his ashes the next day. Margaret felt the need to be there for the cremation, despite her vehement disapproval of the process. Tessie did not want to spend this day with her newly born-again daughter or the doughy Christian she was engaged to. She wanted to put the box of ashes in the cabinet under the sink, eat nothing, and watch television for half the night. But when Margaret called the week before she had already booked her ticket.

“You’ll get to see the house I grew up in. My hometown,” Margaret said to Raymond as they hurried behind Tessie.

“It’s an hour away from the airport,” Tessie called over her shoulder, to remind them how far she was required to drive. She punched the up button for the elevator.

“Does Sarah Albarn still live on our street?” asked Margaret brightly. “My best friend in grade school,” she explained to Raymond.

“She’s studying neuroscience at Penn State, last I heard,” Tessie said as they piled into the elevator. “And her parents don’t live in that house anymore.”

Sarah Albarn: success story. Why would Margaret ask about her?  She hadn’t kept any of her grade school friends. She had abandoned nearly everyone from her hometown.

“That’s too bad,” said Margaret. “I would have liked to see her again, and apologize for not keeping in touch.”

“You don’t need to spend this trip home searching for forgiveness. Don’t forget,” said Raymond, his glasses and the crisp gel of his hair gleaming. “You have already asked for and been given God’s forgiveness.”

They reached the car and Tessie collapsed into the driver’s seat while they put their bags in the trunk. Dialogue with Margaret was now full of these religious asides, statements that may or may not be Bible verses. Whenever Tessie called her daughter at work she would always end the conversation with, “Have a most blessed day.”

“Don’t they have rules about making religious comments at work?” she would ask. “Separation of church and state type of thing?”

“I can never stop spreading the word of God. Romans 10:13 says, ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’ ” Margaret would reply, with thick fire in her voice. She was often trying out new verses, making Tessie end their conversations in a hurry.

Margaret had found Jesus in an inpatient drug rehab center two years ago, when she was recovering from a methamphetamine addiction. When she called Tessie during her detox to tell her this, Tessie had said, “Oh, is that where he’s been this whole time?” at which Margaret had hung up. Tessie remembered reeling with confusion while holding the humming phone in her hand; she’d actually thought Margaret was making some kind of joke. But one year after that phone call Margaret had announced she was officially born again, had joined a congregation, and was engaged to one of its members. Tessie still hadn’t gotten over the feeling that this was an elaborate performance, or a spiritual fling.

She did not want the conversation in the car heading down this religious route, so she tried to change the subject.

“I spoke to your brother yesterday and he sends his love,” she said. Her older child, Jeremy, was stationed in Korea for the army and would be returning to the States in two weeks. The service for Tom would wait until then. “He’s sorry he’s not here.”

“He won’t talk to me,” said Margaret.

“He doesn’t do much talking,” Tessie said. Jeremy wanted nothing to do with Margaret, though he conducted himself with profound neutrality with regards to her. In fact Tessie had not heard an outburst from him since his adolescence—of anger or joy. “He wasn’t that close to your dad after the divorce anyway.”

“It makes me sad that they couldn’t make amends in time. That he couldn’t swallow his pride and accept his father back into his life.”

Tessie tightened her hands on the wheel—the condescension Margaret was capable of, the pity she took such joy in feeling was maddening. “He could have been a prodigal’s son, very romantic, very righteous,” she said.

Margaret said simply, “He was a good father.” Raymond reached up to rub her shoulder.

He had been an okay parent. Margaret’s father, wintry and critical as he was, had been on his daughter’s side. He just hadn’t liked people very much. They were always coming up short.

After a pause, Tessie said, “You know, in a parallel universe Tom could still be alive. Scientists have started considering it a very real possibility that there are other worlds within our own, that every possible combination of events has taken place in some universe or another. I saw a documentary on it.”

Neither of them answered, as if they could tell that Tessie was baiting them, trying to get them to say something fundamentalist so she could disagree with it.

Even so, Tessie was truly comforted by this parallel universe thought. M-theory wasn’t the sort of thing she could bring up to her coworkers, so she never had the chance to discuss it or figure out ways to articulate it. She did not have to go into work until the afternoon, so many nights she was up until 3 A.M. watching the science specials and documentaries on PBS. These programs calmly revealed the inner workings of space, and particles, and the human brain, so noble and mysterious. They filled Tessie with a sense that things had an invisible purpose; that the very atoms in her body had some kind of plan that she, by proxy, was participating in.

“Parallel universes are part of an indulgent theory,” said Margaret finally. “One that’s intended to make people believe that in some way, they will never experience death.”

Tessie didn’t look over at her, but in the mirror she could see Raymond smiling proudly.

The night before, there had been a special on animal mothers, the irony of which was not lost on Tessie. In fact it seemed almost obnoxious. She didn’t watch it for long, but she saw the section on antelopes. It seemed to her that they had the right idea. What humans should do, she thought, was evolve to gestate their babies longer. Humans should give birth like deer and cows, to fully formed little children that can stand up by the end of the day. No soft skulls, none of that crawling. When you had a baby, you had no idea what you were going to get once it became a child. Antelopes were well aware that the world is a dangerous place, full of predators, and the best a mother could do was make a child that was sturdy on its own legs right from the start.


Tessie had not spoken to Tom for close to a year when she got the news from the hospital. The doctor said he had most likely died in his sleep. Tessie didn’t see how they could know that for sure. She had to leave her shift at the call center to go identify the body. She’d spent years of their marriage trying to get him to eat better and quit smoking. The doctor, when Tom gave in and saw one, had warned him about his cholesterol.

Sometimes there was only one ending possible, and all a person could do was watch while the world hurtled towards it.

She did not know how she felt after they pulled the cloth back up over his face. But a terrible weight settled in her chest, the weight of all she was required to do for him now. She hadn’t loved him for years. Tom had no siblings and his parents were no longer alive. The closest thing to family he had was an old high school friend he was extremely close to, but the friend lived in Montana with a wife and a house full of kids and could not come to Pennsylvania all of a sudden. Tessie called the friend to confirm Tom’s cremation wishes.

“He’d told me that’s what he wanted only a year or so ago,” the friend agreed, his voice cracking as he choked up. His tears were unbearably depressing. Tessie had cried, but for reasons that were not as beautiful and simple. When she’d arrived at the hospital they’d asked her if she was the wife.

“Ex-wife,” she corrected.

What was she called now?

Tessie got the house out of the divorce, but the neighborhood had changed since Margaret’s childhood. It was full of stay-at-home mothers who pushed their babies around twice a day in enormous strollers, whose children did not seem to scream or throw up. This was some new species, so different from the hard, stiff-jawed sort of mother Tessie had been. These mommies cooed like pigeons to their babies; they wrote blogs about being mommies the silly, shrill things.

These same mothers complained to the neighborhood association about Tessie’s unruly lawn that she could not control, about the growing brown spots on the white siding. The house had turned against her in the last few years. She wished to go home and collapse at the end of the day in its cushiony, familiar comfort, but there was always something creaking or falling apart. The fridge would leak at random; the blinds were all either stuck open or closed; there was mildew sprouting insidiously in the corners of the bathroom. Objects were always hiding themselves in places she would never have put them. Sometimes they leapt out of her hands of their own accord and clattered on her aging linoleum floor. If things needed to be fixed and she could not fix them herself—for free—then they simply stayed broken, defying order and sanity and filling the house with a spirited rebelliousness. It was just very hard to keep things straight.

Margaret crossed the threshold of the house slowly, gripping her elbows as if she were cold. She hadn’t lived in this house since the night Tessie, upon realizing her daughter had been stealing from her, chased her out the door and told her not to come back. Her ratty boyfriend-of-the-moment came and picked her up, and she was gone. That had been four years ago, when Margaret was eighteen and Tessie and Tom’s divorce was nearly final. Eighteen-year-old Margaret would not recognize this girl reentering the house.

After Margaret and Raymond put their bags in Margaret’s old bedroom they came downstairs. The three of them sat at the table in the kitchen. Raymond told Tessie about his job and Margaret told her about the religious studies program she had gotten into and would begin in the fall. It was not long before a stiffness filled the room and their conversation, and it terrified Tessie. There were so many painful, irritating topics lurking in this family’s history. And she did not want to talk about Tom. She’d cried and raged enough over Tom. Finally she said, “Why don’t we all watch a movie?”

“That sounds just perfect,” said Raymond brightly.

Tessie could not tell if he was patronizing her; how do you read a born-again Christian’s tone of voice? But she was relieved that no one was insisting that they talk about Tom, or heaven, or other melancholy subjects that were more appropriate for the circumstances.

The only movie she owned was An American in Paris, which Margaret had loved as a child when she believed, as all little girls seem to believe at one point, that she would grow up to be a dancer.

“I used to fast forward to the dance scenes and skip most of the talking,” she said. “So it’ll be like I’m seeing it for the first time, really. Gosh, I loved this movie.” She crossed her legs, childlike, and held Raymond’s hand.

They sat quietly and watched happier people with beautiful skin dance to happy music. Tessie caught sight of their reflections in the window and saw that they all had calm, absent smiles.


After the movie Margaret and Raymond headed up to bed, though it was still quite early. Tessie knew she would not be able to sleep at this hour so she watched a special on time and the human brain. We’ve always known that time and space are relative to the observer’s position, said the British narrator, but we are only now beginning to discover the intricate process through which the brain measures time. The brain processes information at its own speed, and patches it all together to create what we perceive as the present moment. Many sensations that appear to be happening simultaneously actually happen at different moments and the brain combines them. That is why a person can completely forget their commute home on the highway, and why time seems to slow down in an unbearable way when one is waiting for important news.

Tessie snorted at the screen and said out loud, “Tell me about it. I was thirty just yesterday.” Some events in her life seemed far away, and others felt as though they had just happened. She thought about Margaret as a child, a rail-thin adolescent with eyes like terrifying, gaping caves. It seemed to happen so quickly.

The event Tessie remembered most clearly was one late morning when she’d heard Margaret throwing up in the upstairs bathroom. Tessie had seen her daughter sneaking back into the house at 4 A.M. but she waited to confront her about it. She had imagined this would be the time when she would approach Margaret so calmly and with such reason that Margaret would simply burst into tears, so ashamed that she couldn’t help but change. When Tessie heard the sick, pitiful sounds from the bathroom, her heart had startled her by breaking. What was her baby doing to herself?

Tessie knocked on the door lightly and said, “Honey?” in a terrified voice.

There was shuffling, then Margaret answered, “Go away.”

“Do you need some water?”

“No. Just please go away.”

Tessie went downstairs to make more coffee. Jeremy had already started boot camp at that point, so the house was quiet. Tom was no longer living there, but she thought about calling him to ask advice about how to talk to Margaret. She wanted cry, but she was too anxious. At this point, Margaret had been suspended a second time for “acting erratically” in class. She never seemed to sleep in her own bed. When she spoke, Tessie could not follow her train of thought. And lately things in the house had begun to go missing—the old game consul, stacks of movies and CDs, appliances. When Tessie furiously brought this up, Margaret had told her to stop blaming everyone else just because she couldn’t keep track of her own things.

Tessie went over these things in her mind as her coffee grew cold. She rushed back to the bathroom, which was still locked.

After thinking for a moment, she grabbed a notepad and wrote, I want to help. Talk to me. She slipped it under the door. She could hear Margaret move and cough. After a few moments, Margaret’s bitten nails pushed the paper back under the door. Under Tessie’s message, it said, thank you No please go away.

Tessie stared at the note and the rejection it represented. Her help was not wanted here. The sharp and unbearable love that had spilled out of Tessie’s heart converted into hatred—there was no other word for it—and Tessie marched into Margaret’s bedroom. She ransacked it completely, ripping posters off the wall and pulling drawers out onto the floor, looking for evidence of drugs or alcohol, for anything that she could shake in Margaret’s face to show her she was in trouble.

Really, she’d just wanted to destroy Margaret’s room. Enough time had passed that it was stupid not to admit it.

When Margaret finally left the bathroom and saw her bedroom, she screamed at the top of her lungs and left the house for the rest of the day. All Tessie had been able to find was a pack of cigarettes. That had felt so terrible she couldn’t imagine it would have felt worse to find something really sinister in her daughter’s room.

Tessie didn’t often let herself contemplate those bad years, but sometimes she wondered what role she had really played. She tried to decide if it would be better if things would happen faster so she could get them over and done with, or if she wished she could have more time. Time to do what? she asked herself, but she was tired now and her thoughts were muddled.

The next documentary was about how the universe is both infinite and infinitely expanding, but she had seen this one before and already understood well enough how things could be both big and small at the same time.


In the morning Tessie made coffee and put some rolls in the oven for breakfast. She was impatient to get the day over with. She bustled around in the kitchen, trying to whip up some maternal energy. There must be leftovers somewhere, she thought, some leftover motherly love sitting on some shelf in the back of her mind. She was relieved when Margaret finally woke up.

“I thought we’d go get your father first thing,” Tessie said when Margaret came downstairs, already dressed. “No need to spend the whole day anticipating it.” She looked at her daughter, who she had seen so little of in person over the past year. The fullness of her was shocking; she’d gained weight and looked bright and pretty without makeup.

“Yes. I’ll go with you.”

“Is he coming?” asked Tessie, indicating upstairs.

“No,” said Margaret.  “I told him to rest up from the flight.  He doesn’t want to see a crematory anyway.”

Crematory.  A terrible, terrible word.

On the way there Margaret wrung her hands nervously. Tessie had searched “Christians and cremation” on the Internet and found that nearly all sects of Christianity were pretty tolerant of the cremation process. Of course Margaret would be in one that was not. As they drove, she began to fidget under the weight of the silence between them.

“It must feel nice to be home,” she said, in a burst of resentment. “Look, there’s your high school’s baseball field where you were arrested for vandalism.”

“Don’t,” Margaret said sharply. “I don’t want to fight about all that while I’m here. It was another life.”

Tessie frowned but decided to say nothing. It was all part of the same damn life. Once, one of her friends from work suggested that perhaps she took things a bit too personally. How could she not take the events of her own life personally? Was that the goal: to train herself to not be bothered by anything so that time would pass fluidly and with minimal conflict until…she was dead? She wished she had an alternative.

Maybe Margaret had the right idea. Maybe everyone should just take drugs.

“Mom,” Margaret piped up suddenly. “Do you know what I remembered at the airport today? How dad used to drive us out there so we could watch the planes pass right over our heads. Do you remember that? Whenever we all got uptight he’d pack a bunch of beers and sandwiches and we’d lay in the back of the pick-up truck and watch the planes take off. That was such a rush when I was a kid. Let’s go there tomorrow and remember dad.”

“I can’t,” said Tessie.

“Why not?”

“I can’t take another day off,” said Tessie. “I can’t afford it.”

“Oh.” Margaret nodded, but she sounded disappointed, as though her mother was making an excuse. Tessie could tell that it never occurred to her that Tessie did not have enough money, that she lived paycheck to paycheck, that she did not know if she would be able to retire or if she’d have to work until she died in her desk chair. Her job was not hard, but the hours were long, and sometimes she felt the walls closing in when she slept. Sometimes customers seemed to take some kind of sick joy in talking to her as though she were an insect, an inconvenient roadblock between them and the stupid thing they wanted. Those days she had a hard time keeping any perspective and remembering the world was a larger network than the one created by the phone lines linking her and her customers. Those days she wondered why people had the right to exist.

It would be nice, she had to admit, to believe they’d all pay for it in hell later. But she knew they would not and the world would turn, undistracted, whether the people on it were good or bad.

Margaret slouched back in her seat and sighed in a teenage way. Tessie’s heart jumped.

“He didn’t have to die,” she said. “He could have changed his habits. Doesn’t that make you crazy?”

“Lots of people eat and drink and smoke the way your dad did and make it to ninety,” said Tessie. “It’s a crapshoot.”

“He had no spiritual guidance,” said Margaret. “You have to choose health and cleanliness.  You have to want it. Satan had already filled his veins with sickness.”

“I think,” said Tessie, “it was the red meat and high fructose corn syrup that was clogging his veins. And besides, I never met a more staunch Presbyterian than your father.” Her defensiveness surprised her. Tom was the churchgoer, the sayer of grace, the one who read the kids Bible stories. Tessie rarely spoke to Tom after their separation, but she called him when she heard the news of Margaret’s conversion.

“What she’s talking about has nothing to do with my faith,” Tom had told her. “She traded in one addiction for another. But at least she’s gotten out of her own hell. She’s got a brand new hell, one that everyone else gets to go to.”

Tom could have a nice, clever way with words when he wasn’t using them to tear the people around him to pieces.

The only other time she called Tom was when Margaret announced her engagement, to which Tom said, “I hope she found someone who will take care of her.”

Margaret had sprung a leak in their household and let them fight, finally fight. Tessie became pushy. She couldn’t keep her hands from flying around her husband, pushing his shoulders, threatening slaps. Once she worked him up into such a state, she hid from him under the bed, though there wasn’t any real danger of him hitting her. Tom had self-control she didn’t have, and his rage was silent and terrifying. Mostly she just wanted to hide somewhere dark and quiet. It was after that fight that she decided to file for divorce, because hiding under beds was something children and insane people did.

Their destination was mercifully close, and they entered into a storefront full of urns. Tessie gave her information to the man behind the glass counter. A little card on the counter featured the caption: “Experts you can trust in the preservation of your loved one.” Tessie regarded it suspiciously.

“And you are the wife?” the man asked.

Here again was the trouble of her title. What was she to be called now? Divorcee, widow, ex-mother?

“Yes,” she said. Keep it simple.

“Have you chosen an urn?” he said.

His voice was the slick voice of a salesman. You couldn’t trust these sorts of people, no matter how sympathetic they appeared.

“Just the simple wooden box,” Tessie said firmly.

“You really don’t want to do anything nicer?” asked Margaret, running her hand along the shelf of marble urns.

Tessie glared at the shelf from under her eyebrows. “Does that look like something your father would want to be placed in for eternity?”

“No,” Margaret sighed. “No it doesn’t.”

“No,” said Tessie with finality, patting the wooden box while the salesman rang her up.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” he told her, and she thought of how many times he had to say this a day.

What the salesman and Margaret didn’t understand was that Tessie had already mourned this man a long time ago, before their divorce was even final. She’d mourned the loss of their love so severely, it felt like someone had died; she’d mourned for their vows, their children, their shared history. She wished he’d remarried, so she didn’t have to do this.

They left and climbed silently back into the car. Margaret looked at the box. “How can we even be sure it’s him?”

“We’ll just have to believe it’s him,” said Tessie, and she started the engine.

Back at the house, Tessie prepared a roast on a sort of autopilot. Raymond hovered around the kitchen. He was actually quite a good conversationalist, a trait Tessie would have assumed all overtly religious people lacked.

“Margaret’s handling everything so beautifully,” he said. “This is the strongest I’ve ever seen her.”

“Sure,” said Tessie. “She’s tough.”

He reached out and held her hand between his own. “If you ever want to consider what it means to be born again—to receive salvation—please never hesitate to contact Margaret or me. During times like these, the soul becomes open to rebirth. As it says in the Book, ‘So then if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away; behold, they have become new.’”

That’s why Margaret seemed to suffer memory loss. That’s why she thought she was so brand new.

“You’re barking up the wrong tree,” Tessie told him, turning to make the gravy. She heard Margaret coming down the stairs.

Raymond smiled patiently. “It’s an open invitation. For any time.”

She handed him the potatoes. “I almost like you, Ray. The both of you go sit down at the table.”

Raymond didn’t really upset her as a person. He was kind and though she found him grating, he was not pompous as she expected him to be. But there he was, sitting next to Margaret, belonging to her. He was in the chair her husband used to sit in every night. She stirred the gravy slowly, trying to keep calm. Sure, someone was dead. The man she’d spent what ended up being the significant portion of her life with was dead. But this was dinner, not a plane crash, and everyone here was all right enough. As long as the ceiling was above her and the floor was below her then things were close enough to as they should be, and she’d learned to be grateful for as little as that.

“Mom,” her daughter called, “we can’t start grace without you.”

She slopped gravy on the counter. She was tired.

When she entered the dining room Margaret and Raymond were waiting, their hands clasped under their chins. Raymond began to say grace, “God, thank you for this opportunity to be together, even under the tragic circumstances,” but Tessie stopped listening.

She stared at Margaret, thinking she couldn’t really mean it, all this grace and ‘Lord and Savior’ talk.

She realized, quite suddenly, that what she was—was offended.

Margaret hadn’t needed a mother for her second birth. The first, from a womb, brought her into a world she could not tolerate, the second into a bright and simple new world. Tessie had performed a faulty, ill-fated birth that later had to be redone.

She just hadn’t realized that children were as untrustworthy as adults. One minute they were playing with blocks, or your earrings, speaking with their adorable lisps through their missing teeth, then the next second they were screaming for something, making their fingers into L shapes and pointing them at you, yelling “Bang! Bang!” while you stare incredulously, wondering what you could have done to deserve this.

It wasn’t fair that Margaret had made this transformation. The girl Tessie had raised had no right to Jesus. No right to peace. Her mother had no peace; where was that supposed to come from?

Tessie mumbled an “amen” after Raymond finished, though she could not fathom what they were blessing. Life hadn’t exactly been kind to anyone at this table. It was just something you managed to get through somehow, something you hoped the universe would forgive you for. You hoped you got it right in a different world.


Tessie got up in the middle of the night. She was hungry and restless and needed the hum of the TV to quiet her mind. She swung open the kitchen door to see Margaret sitting at the table, head in her hands. Margaret jumped and put a hand on her heart.

“I’m sorry,” said Tessie, as if she’d interrupted something. Margaret’s eyes were dry but puffy with tiredness. The box of ashes was sitting in the other chair at the table.

“No, it’s okay,” said Margaret. “I just couldn’t sleep.”

“Me neither.” Tessie found herself babbling. “I’m not much of a deep sleeper. You never slept well either. You must have inherited that from me.” She watched Margaret start to chew on her nails. “Do you want to watch that Gene Kelly movie again?”

Margaret laughed a little. “No, I’d really just like something to do, to tell you the truth.”

Tessie rubbed her hands together, looking around. “Well, there are still things that need to be done. Last week I went to pick up a few boxes of your father’s things from his house that I didn’t want going in the trash. Want to take a look?”

Margaret agreed, visibly excited, and helped Tessie drag the boxes from the garage, through the breezeway, and into the kitchen. The boxes were already dusty after only a few days, giving them a prematurely antique look. Tessie remembered the documentary from the night before as she wiped the dirt from her hands. How difficult it was to measure time.

They started carefully unwrapping the items in the boxes, like delicate artifacts. Margaret uncovered handmade Christmas ornaments painted by Jeremy in grade school and the watercolors she did up until high school.

“These are good,” said Margaret, admiring them. “Why didn’t either of us turn out more artistic?”

“You both got distracted,” said Tessie. She didn’t mean it as an accusation, and she was grateful Margaret didn’t take it that way. She smiled wryly at her mother.

The first box was full of these childhood creations: school portraits enclosed in picture frames made of popsicle sticks and handprints painted to look like Thanksgiving turkeys. In another box, Tessie pulled out handmade lace valences that Tom had inherited from his mother, leather-bound books, and knitted baby clothes.

Tessie extracted the china from her and Tom’s wedding from their stiff newspaper covers. The set was an heirloom from Tom’s family, though he and Tessie had never used it. She held the serving platter up for Margaret. “This set survived World War II. Your grandparents brought it over from Poland. Do you like the pattern? I thought you and Raymond could have it for your wedding.”

Margaret put a hand to her mouth, and her eyes filled up with tears.

“Jeremy said he’d prefer it if you take the china, and he takes the silver,” Tessie explained, thinking it was a bit early for tears when there were still three more boxes to get through.

“I didn’t know Dad’s parents were from Poland,” Margaret said.

“He didn’t talk about it,” said Tessie. “Just because your grandparents were interesting and historical doesn’t mean they were very nice.”

Margaret threw up her hands. “Well I still would have liked to have known about it,” she said, exasperated, to the ceiling.

“I know, I know,” said Tessie hurriedly. “It’s hard that he’s not here to tell you this himself. There should be some old picture albums in one of these boxes. I can tell you what I remember about his family.”

She shuffled around in one of the smaller boxes, but Margaret had her hands over her eyes, and she was not listening. “Why don’t I make some tea?” said Tessie with a forced smile. She put the kettle on the stove and turned on the burner. She looked at the flame to avoid looking at Margaret.

Margaret took a deep breath and shook her head. “Why haven’t you cried yet?” she said.

Tessie said slowly, “Sometimes, when there are things to be done, you have to just ignore your heart until it’s finished and then cry later.”

“Ignore your heart,” Margaret repeated flatly.

Tessie opened the doors to the pantry and stared listlessly inside. What was she doing offering tea? She didn’t even own any tea.

“Don’t close your heart to this,” said Margaret. She gently turned the china platter over in her hands. “You don’t want a priest, you don’t want to pray, that’s fine. But you didn’t even say anything today.”

“Margaret, don’t tell me how to mourn your father,” said Tessie. She kept her voice calm, but Margaret flinched at the sharpness of it.

“Why won’t you listen to me?” said Margaret. “I’m not the same person I was two years ago. Dad didn’t brush aside the changes I’ve made. I think eventually he would have ended up agreeing with me and getting involved with the church again.” She nodded to herself, gaining momentum. “He would have. I really think so. Now it’s like what I do for the rest of my life is never going to matter as much as what I did when I was a kid.”

Tessie stared at her in disbelief. Who was this person Margaret invented? It certainly wasn’t the real Tom. Tom wasn’t there to watch Margaret hit rock bottom. Tom was in an apartment forty-five minutes away.

But Tessie’s anger sputtered at the despair in Margaret’s tone. In Margaret’s mind, both God and her mother were always going to hold her teenage years against her. Perhaps she had thought she could save Tom, and that would make up for her past transgressions. Tessie could not imagine feeling responsible for the fate of your loved ones. She cast around desperately for something to say.  “Oh, come on now,” she said with uncharacteristic buoyancy.  “At least you have your whole afterlife ahead of you.”

Margaret stiffened; it was a phrase often shouted at her in accusation: You have your whole life ahead of you.

“What is wrong with you?” Margaret’s voice rose.  “Why don’t you want me to be good? Do you want me living out of my car again, sleeping in my friends’ filthy basements?  I have been made whole.  Every step I took, every mistake I made, led me to God.”

Tessie struggled to reply. She recognized the outburst, with its venom, but the script was new now. She wanted to explain to her about how the world really worked, about the electrons that disappear from one atom and reappear inexplicably in another, about the particles that respond to each other across inconceivable distances, about the electricity in her nerves and what her brain did while she slept. How all these masses of tiny particles and energy held the world together—people could be difficult, but the universe truly was a hospitable place. She wanted her to understand these miracles, that she was too young, much too young, to have the world reduced to a pit stop on the way to heaven or hell.

Margaret interrupted her thoughts before she could figure out what she wanted to say. “Can’t I look at the ashes?”

“Good God, why?” said Tessie. “It’s morbid.”

“I just want to make sure it’s not cat litter in there.”

Tessie stood up, dumbfounded. “That doesn’t happen. Who put these ideas in your head?”

Margaret stood up to face her. They were the same height. “Don’t you want to know?”

“No,” said Tessie, but she went to the hallway closet to pull out her toolbox. She deposited it loudly on the counter. “If you want to investigate, go ahead. It seals on the top.”

Margaret stared at Tessie, then at the toolbox. Tessie wondered if she was hesitating because she was scared or because she wanted to ask Raymond if it was sacrilegious first. Finally she pulled out a screwdriver and went to work on the screws holding down the lid, and Tessie turned away. She didn’t want to watch any of this. An angry, frustrated pain was blossoming in her heart and diaphragm, and she did not know what to do with it.

She heard the noises of the screws dropping on the counter, then silence as Margaret lifted the lid.

“I don’t know,” whispered Margaret. “I guess it looks like ashes.” Her voice broke. “I don’t know.”

Tessie turned around as Margaret set the lid back in place. Margaret’s eyes were big and scared. “Do you want to look?” she asked.

“Quite frankly, I don’t care what’s inside,” Tessie said. “This death feels real enough to me.”

Margaret looked at her suspiciously. The kettle started hissing, and steam billowed from the stove as it boiled over. Tessie hurried to turn it off.

Margaret held the box out in front of her. “Well let’s just get rid of it all then.”

“Get rid—? Margaret, stop it!”

“Well you don’t care,” she spat, swinging the box out of Tessie’s reach. “Where should I put him? The garbage disposal? The trash heap behind the garage?” She jumped out of her mother’s grasp and started towards the door.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Tessie yelled, grabbing Margaret, her hands clawing at her T-shirt. “You do not leave this house, do you hear me?” She yanked Margaret’s upper arm to pull her around so she could yell right into her face.

Margaret pitched forward, and the two of them let out a high-pitched gasp in unison as—inevitably—the box tipped over Margaret’s elbow, the lid clattered to the floor, and the ashes poured onto the linoleum.

Margaret managed to grip the box in her fingers and pull it upright before much got out. She froze with it clutched to her chest. They both stood silently and stared at the grainy dust that coated their legs and spread elegantly around their feet on the white floor.

After an eternity of this, Tessie straightened up and gently told Margaret to step out of the ashes so she could clean them up. Tessie wiped off her legs—Margaret had gotten the worst of it—and rifled around under the sink until she found a brush and dustbin. Margaret watched silently as she swept up the dust, the little rocky bone fragments, the feathery ashes, into the bin and poured it all back in the pine box. Then Tessie brought it over to Margaret and had her lift her legs over the box so she could brush as much of it off her as she could manage. The ashes floated down into the box and landed with the tiny sound of a muted wind chime.

“You should rinse off in the tub,” said Tessie.

Margaret’s face screwed up into a sob, but no noise escaped her.

“It’s all right, okay?” said Tessie. “Just calm down. It’s all right.”

Margaret rubbed her eyes. With a strange little smile she said, “I’m scared to go back to sleep. I woke up in the first place because I keep having nightmares.”

“You always had nightmares. You’d wake up screaming that there were rats in your room.”

“I know,” said Margaret. “You and Dad would have to come in and make a big fuss pretending to look for them. When I was using I hardly slept at all. Now that I’m in recovery my nightmares are worse, way worse.”

Tessie remembered investigating Margaret’s room up and down to show her there was nothing there. She’d go through Margaret’s closet, shine a flashlight under her bed, and Margaret would follow her around in her nightgown, clutching her blankets and sniffling with fear. After a while she and Tom both stopped doing it. They couldn’t keep getting up and putting on the same performance as their child got too old to be scared of nightmares. They gave Margaret a flashlight to keep in bed and tried to ignore it when she cried out.

Margaret went on, “Now I keep dreaming that a man is trying to stick a needle into my arm. Isn’t that weird? I never shot up. It scared me. But in the dream a man is chasing me, or, if it’s really bad, he’s holding me down. And he won’t tell me what’s in the syringe. I can’t tell if he’s trying to help me or hurt me, if he’s trying to get me high or give me medicine. I keep screaming at him and asking him what he’s doing, and he won’t answer. I usually wake up right when the needle goes in my arm.”

Tessie had nightmares, too, that Margaret was still a teenager and the phone was ringing, but every time she answered it, no one was there. In the dream she knew somehow that it was someone trying to tell her that Margaret was dead.

“I know why I’m so scared in that dream,” said Margaret. “I grew up in a good home in a good neighborhood with everything I needed provided for me. Somehow that life brought me to addiction, to stupid, profound misery. But addiction brought me to God, Mom. It brought me to Raymond, to a community of people who care completely about my wellbeing. But sometimes I wonder, Mom,” she cupped her face in her hands and stared wide-eyed at the floor, “what’s God going to bring me to? How can I tell what’s good or bad for me?”

Now it was time to say the right thing, to chase the rats out of the bedroom.

Tessie took Margaret’s hands off her face and held them and said, “You’re doing good, Margaret. You’re doing just fine.” Margaret nodded slowly, still staring at the floor. “You are. You are.”

She told herself it was good she and Margaret had fought, even in their judgmental way. The fighting was how they came to understand each other, how they continually reestablished themselves. She fought Margaret as she fought Tom, because she could not figure out what either of them was really about.

What could she say?  She brought out the worst in people.

They stood like that for a few moments, until Tessie squeezed her hands and told her to go back to bed. Margaret nodded, but first asked, “Do you like Raymond?”

Tessie told the truth. “Raymond is very, very nice.”

Margaret chewed her lip, considering this, but she seemed satisfied and turned away. Tessie listened to Margaret ascend the staircase, and then she pulled a bucket and mop out of the closet. She filled the bucket with water and bleach and began to scrub the floor.

She let the rhythmic motion calm her as she remembered more about Margaret as a child. Losing her ballet slippers under the bed. Clomping around in Tom’s work boots. Tessie had made her wear a life vest in the pool until she was nine, which had mortified Margaret. Tessie had been sure that the pool, of all things, was the real danger to Margaret’s life. She’d focused on all the wrong things.

She remembered the first time Margaret ran away from home when she was eight. She hid in the flower garden of a neighbor a few houses over. The neighbor found her and brought her back to Tessie, laughing good-naturedly about it. Tessie had not thought it was funny. The neighbor was taken aback when she grabbed Margaret’s arm and yanked her back inside. Both he and Margaret stared at her, terrified. Afterwards, he did not nod to Tessie when he passed her on the street.

Tessie hadn’t asked Margaret why she ran away that first time. Why hadn’t she asked? Maybe she would have figured out something important, something that would have helped her understand Margaret later.

It meant nothing that so much time had passed since these days. She could go back to them now, see them in the soapy circles on the floor. Every one of them was preserved in her mind. Tessie could almost touch them.

She dumped the bucket of water into the sink. After so much running away, Margaret had come back home. What did she expect Tessie to do with that? Tessie had accepted that she and her children were on their own, that there would be no long phone conversations, no one to worry about her when she was ill, no one to sympathize when she became old and forgetful. Whose fault this was hardly mattered; Tessie had accepted it. And after all that readjustment and moving on, Margaret had come back.

Where did trust begin, this late in the game? And forgiveness—that perilous rebirth of the heart—where did that begin?

Here, Tessie thought, staring into the drain. She leaned against the counter, exhaustion finally settling in. It begins here. But soon enough Margaret would leave her hometown and her mother and head back to the life that she was building. A life for which Tessie could take no credit, but in which she would have to find a place.

Tessie pushed open the window above the sink to let out the smell of bleach. It stuck after opening only a few inches. She leaned her forehead against it and sucked in the fresh air.

Tessie would tell Margaret to take everything in the boxes from Tom’s house with her when she left. Wasn’t that what mothers did? They gave their children a home, and then the tools to build a home for themselves. She’d give her daughter the scraps leftover from Tom’s life so Margaret could do whatever she needed with them. And after the service, in two weeks, she’d tell Margaret to take the ashes, too.

One reply on “The Art of Preservation”

This is lovely. It is full of the old mystery we call “family,” but it is a fresh look — both intimate and sweeping — and it will stay with me.

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