WE MUST ALWAYS BE VIGILANT
There is the house in the wilderness. The house, Echo Cottage, with the lake spread before it, a quivering lattice of light in the late afternoon. Beneath the mossy portico, a placard displays Echo’s flaking name.
An overcast-pale porch rings Echo Cottage, and at its far corner is an aging chaise lounge, rusted aluminum supporting an avocado vinyl cushion. Sticking to the vinyl, my grandmother dozes beneath the brown-gray nest of her hair.
The air along the shoreline is dense with an insectival mist, the gnats hovering. From time to time, my cousins pierce the droning quiet with their yelps, as they tackle one another in the water. Thirty years before, my great-grandmother rested on Echo’s chaise; years later, my mother will ascend to the recumbent throne. But it is 1989, and the chair belongs to my grandmother.
My grandmother’s calves unsuction from the cushion as she wakes. Her stalwart New England face tightens, the fine wrinkles drawn taut. The translucent shells of her eyelids part to reveal her eyes, which can hold light in a nearly impossible way, as if her irises were twin concavities, blue geodes. My grandmother’s eyes look out to the lake; her gaze is as inscrutable as ever.
There is my grandmother, Katharine Mead Merrill. What do I know of her? That she was so often in that chair. That in the afternoons, she often slept. That, one afternoon, in the summer of 1989, she woke from a nap to make the vexing decision that she made.
Katharine has been dreaming. Of what? Of her husband, of Frederick. Though the specifics of the dream recede into the static of wakefulness, a feeling of certainty remains. Not one of anger or sadness, but perhaps born of both. A simple knowledge of what must be done.
Katharine knows, suddenly, the rightness of what she must do.
Still, she takes her time. She rises slowly, pauses to receive the diffracting late afternoon light as she enters the house. Katharine passes through the musty, tenebrous living room, which always seems resentful of sunlight, seems to be the place nighttime gathers to hide out from the summer’s unblinking sun stare. As she enters the kitchen, the smell of stale coffee prompts her to empty the filter into the trash. She pulls a box of Lorna Doones from the cabinet, slips one whole into her mouth, as she used to as a child, letting it dissolve on her tongue. Increasingly, in these last months, she performs such behaviors that, if not exactly childlike, are not quite as prim, quite as austere in her familiar matronly ways. On this summer day of 1989, Katharine is sixty-nine; the early traces of Alzheimer’s have begun to fray the edges of her attention and intention. For a moment, pausing at the kitchen sink to observe my cousins diving off the dock, she remembers her certainty but forgets its object; for a moment, she thinks she woke, simply, resolved to swim. But, no, no. It was something else; the idea of a swim does not fill the space opened by her resolve.
Katharine reminds herself that forgotten notions can sometimes be found where they were first conjured, and crosses halfway back to the porch. Just before the screen door, Katharine remembers her determination, and its actual object. The actual object is lodged like a repressed memory, like a Freudian scene of childhood trauma, behind and within all the clutter of the years, somewhere deep inside the attic. The actual object she has not held for a decade or more, but she often still finds it holding her. The actual object, or the idea of it, sometimes rises in her thoughts against her will, threatening to ruin all the progress she has made in converting her memories of Frederick to the stories she tells. When she speaks with her daughters and her relatives about her husband, all accept her characterization, without a flinch of doubt. Frederick was an alcoholic, a philanderer, a madman who once exposed himself on the road leading into town. He was insane, and she was sane. He was selfish, and she sacrificed.
Frederick was a man of manic passions. He wrote a great many letters to her, just as he also wrote stories, ideas for inventions, patents, politics, and philosophy. He also wrote poetry, some good, most dreadful romantic boilerplate that leaned heavily into Elizabethan English in a sentimentalizing, embarrassing way. She can keep all of these pages in boxes in her closet, as she usually can keep the memory of him near her in her orderly way. But the actual object, that bundle of papers, is a telltale heart. She buried it long ago, and still it thumps its maddening beat. Katharine finds an ancient, paint-splattered stepladder in the laundry room, and carries it upstairs.
At the top of the cottage’s staircase, the entrance to the attic is a heavy door, carved from the ceiling. The heft of the door, along with the dexterous, near-acrobatic maneuver one must perform to pass through it, makes entering the attic an act as burdensome as the mental act that it accompanies. At sixty-nine, Katharine is lightly stooped, her gait stunted with osteoporosis, but her arms are strong from the water, from canoeing and swimming. She hoists herself, tries not to look down.
Inside, the shock of attic, the recognition of this alternate parallel space, always suspended here, above us: a silent, cobwebbed clutter of immutability, a dark antipode to the house below, forever blustery with motion and light, with cocktail parties and children chasing one another in swimsuits. Katharine eyes the piles nearest the door: the old records, the broken gramophone, a box of withered gloves. Up here, without our choosing, things simply persist. Katharine wonders at the mystery of what does and does not survive. There are a great many things she would have wanted to keep that are not here now; a great number of unwanted objects remain. Nearly all photographs from her two youthful, single years in Boston are gone, and yet here are the legs of a mildly pleasing doll she had as a girl. Katharine suspects that the truth of memory is that it works this way too: that if we do not decide to discard and rearrange, if we do not deliberately inventory and organize, unwanted things will simply persist. Memory can be a willful power, but we must always be vigilant. Always, we must choose.
She walks carefully along the beams, knowing that the space between, which appears to be a floor, is in fact the thin cardboard paneling of the ceiling below. Once, while she was sleeping in her bedroom, Frederick, who would spend long afternoons excavating the attic’s recesses, fell from the beams and came plunging down, ricocheting off the side of her bed, landing on the floor. He then stood, holding a milk crate of antique Christmas ornaments from above. Ho, ho, ho, he said. Merry Christmas! That was Frederick.
She knows precisely where to find it, back five yards or so, in the bottom of the crate that contains the things of Frederick she cannot quite bear to throw away, yet also cannot quite bear to live with: his naval uniform, a collection of pressed and dried flowers from their early courtship, the box that once held her engagement ring. It is strange to put her fingers on these things; at first they are only common objects in her hands. Yet, if she lingers too long on any of them, they become sentient and electric. Through her fingertips, they begin to transmit something; they begin to transfer their history, nearly bucking Katharine’s determination. And so she digs. She digs and hefts and shifts until, simply, there it is. For a brief moment, it too is diminished in its objectness. It is, after all, just ink and yellowed paper, just paper holding commonplace words, like the words in which she thinks, writes, speaks. It is strange that this particular arrangement of mere words, of letters of ink, could haunt her dreams.
For a moment she thinks this whole enterprise, her resolve, is foolish, or worse. A disrespect, a betrayal. These are only the words of a man she has not seen for more than twenty years. A man she loved once in a life she no longer lives. She nearly puts the papers back, nearly leaves the attic to change into a swimsuit and enjoy the water at its best hour, as the sun starts to settle. And then, just for a moment, she lets herself read.
And suddenly here, in her hands, is another place. She knows that she does not believe—not really—the stories she tells of Frederick. She knows she does not believe—not really—the opinions of Frederick’s psychiatrists, her relatives, her own family. She knows that she still does not believe it is as simple as others tell her it ought to be, as she tells herself it ought to be: that she was sane, while Frederick was mad; that she performed the heroic necessary work of saving her family, while, in his mental hospital, Frederick indulged in the escapist writing behavior (his psychiatrist’s words) that is now in Katharine’s hands. Sane, mad, heroic, dissolute, earnest, deluded: she knows she does not believe—not really—in those simple divisions into which she has spent the last twenty years organizing the past.
Katharine’s determination returns to her.
And still, as she carefully descends from the attic, papers in hand, Katharine wonders: why now? Why all these years later, when everything has turned out, more or less, well? When the fate of her family no longer hinges on the outcome of her marriage’s drama? Why now, this certainty?
Frederick so often devised moments of dramatic catharsis, would drag himself bleeding from the night, into the living room, and demand reckoning. In those moments, with all his impassioned urgency, he was always more powerful than she, and she hated him for it. But here, now, is her reckoning, solitary and silent, the way she has always felt that such resolution actually comes. A private feeling; a quiet moment.
Does guilt at all taint her certainty? Katharine tries to encourage herself. Likely, she thinks, these pages would be of no use to anyone. Likely, their power comes only from what they signify to her alone. To others, these pages would likely seem only the madness that perhaps they are. And, besides, hasn’t she earned this? After all she has suffered and survived, hasn’t she earned this final power?
Katharine is in the downstairs living room now, stuffing newspaper into the Franklin stove, arranging the kindling.
Twelve miles to the east along the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee, I’m sitting at the counter of the Mast Landing diner, chatting with a flanneled man in a ski cap. I pretend that my mother and my brother, seated at a table behind me, are not there. I try not to notice the man’s gaze meeting my mother’s. I’m seven years old.
David and I started a rock shop, I tell the man. We sell mica. And granite. And quartz. And fool’s gold. But mica is the best.
Mica? the man asks.
Yeah, it looks like glass. What do you do?
Mostly, the man says with a laugh, I drive a truck and eat junk food.
That’s your job?
Ha! I guess.
Speaking of which, the man says, consulting his watch, I need to get going. Anyway, I think your mom and your brother are getting bored.
I turn back to them. My brother happily swings his legs as he manipulates his Game Boy. He seems grateful for the air-conditioned diner, for the waffles now reduced to a sparse syrupy slop on his plate. My mother watches the scene, my imitation of adulthood, with unswerving adoration. I can see how adorable she thinks I am, and for a second I’m furious about it. I have started to put on these displays of my self-sufficiency every chance I get.
Yeah, I agree with the man. I should get back to the rock shop.
On the ride home, my mother maneuvering our minivan along the twists and hills of Route 109, I think about the trucker, the roads, freedom.
I’ve decided what I want to do when I grow up, I say.
I want to drive a truck and eat junk food.
Haha! my mother says. Stefan, that’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard.
That’s retarded, my brother says, not glancing up from the Legend of Zelda. You can’t make any money doing that. And you’ll get fat.
We turn off the paved highway onto the rutted dirt path, marked with the hand-painted sign for Providence Road. Sixty-five years earlier, my great-grandparents concluded their long horseback journey from Concord down the same path.
The jostle of the car catches the attention of my brother, who immediately joins me in our ritualistic competition, to be the first to spot the glimmer of the lake through the dense forest.
I see it! David claims.
No you don’t! I yell. Liar!
Why is there smoke? my mother says. A delicate line of white smoke ascends from the chimney of Echo Cottage, just coming into view. I watch the smoke’s strange configuration, like a calligraphic word nearly written into the immaculate early evening sky. Nearly written, then vanishing.
Huh, my mother says. Isn’t it warm for a fire?
From the dirt and pine needle parking lot, we descend the path to Echo’s back door. I carry a superhuman number of bags from our stop at the grocery. I want, very much, to impress my mother with my strength.
Mum? my mother calls, once in the house.
In here, she says from her spot near the stove. My brother rifles through the paper sacks for a bag of potato chips as I follow my mother to the living room. (My grandmother must have been there for some time, considering. Or could it possibly have been as coincidental as that? That the moment we arrive is the moment she finally holds the papers to the flames?)
What’s with the fire? my mother asks. What are you doing?
Oh, I thought I would get rid of some things, my grandmother says, as if performing any household chore.
All three of us now turn our attention to the bundle in my grandmother’s hands. There, on the top page, are the precise slopes and flourishes of my grandfather’s handwriting.
Are those Daddy’s? my mother asks.
My grandmother shrugs.
Daddy’s, I think. My name for my mother is Mommy, but my mother’s name for my grandmother is Mum. A minor difference, but one that helps me forget that my grandmother is indeed my mother’s mother, that my mother was once, like me, a child with parents. But, Daddy. Daddy is my name for my father. Daddy, like mine, but gone.
Awestruck and grim in their recollections, my mother and her sisters have outlined my absent grandfather darkly: adventurous, tragic, brilliant, a case study in the dangers of living too extraordinarily. During our de facto family reunions at Echo Cottage every summer, my mother and her sisters recite the Frederick mythology, stories that seem our family’s equivalent of the Trojan epic, the original story from which all our modern stories rise:
Once, when the family was at a beach town on the Gulf Coast as Hurricane Betsy neared, Katharine and the girls fled inland, but Frederick did not join them. Instead, he lashed himself to a tree to confront the storm, face-to-face.
Once, while Frederick was sailing with my mother in the South China Sea, their boat caught on a reef as a storm unfurled before them. The reef was jagged and mottled with poisonous blowfish, my mother was barefoot, and monsoon clouds fell swiftly. My grandfather abandoned his boat, lifted my mother, and carried her a quarter mile along the reef, back to open water, where they could swim to shore.
Once, after a long, boozy summer evening with friends, Frederick ascended Providence Road to Route 109, where, like a cartoon wino, he opened a raincoat to expose himself to passing traffic.
My grandfather, I know, spent time in a famous mental hospital, populated by great poets and thinkers. But a mental hospital nonetheless. I don’t know whether to admire or to fear Frederick and his legacy.
My mother often tells me, in her determined way, that I will be nothing like Frederick, but she says this so often it seems more a worried wish than a statement of fact. When her sisters and her cousins comment upon my remarkable physical similarities to Frederick, my mother winces. At seven, I have already developed an interest in my lost grandfather that is something more than curiosity.
Please don’t, my mother says. Please.
My grandmother pauses, looking at the pages. The inscrutableness of my grandmother’s countenance never vanishes entirely. Always, she meets your eyes to reassure you, to be gracious, but still you sense unreckonable distance, still you wonder her true thoughts, her depths. For a long while she is silent and staring; what does she think?
Katharine thinks that her daughter sees this as an uncharacteristically dramatic act. But even her daughter cannot know the importance of the moment, or what the incineration of these pages seems to promise.
C’mon, Mum. What are those anyway? Love letters?
Katharine thinks for a moment now about how to answer. A line she does not know she has memorized, a line from one of the pages in her hands, suddenly exposes itself in some internal, nearly forgotten place, some attic door thrown open. It comes to her, word after word. I tried, she thinks. I tried to make sense.
Please don’t do that, her daughter says. What if someone wants to read them later?
Katharine wishes she could explain it. She wishes she could explain all the ways she has let herself be deceived, and the resolution she has finally come to. But, then, maybe what has proved true for her is not true for everyone. Maybe if she had loved differently, or if she had been able to think differently, or if she had been more faithful to her own visions, or if she hadn’t allowed herself to get so damned down, so damned angry, her life might have been something else entirely.
All right, you’re right, she says evenly, stands from the fire, and slips the bundle of her husband’s papers onto the bookshelf. Instead of Frederick’s words, she places two logs on the fire, and then helps unpack the groceries. Later, while her daughter and her grandsons go for a swim, Katharine reclaims her spot on the chaise.
And then. When the embers have nearly burned through the logs, she rises again; again, she enters the living room, holds her husband’s letters, sits down to the fire. This time, she burns them all.
For minutes, she watches the fire articulating Frederick’s words into something else, a plume of white, sucking upward. The transformation is both simple and impossible. A moment ago they were words, considered and set; now they are a rising whiteness. Now they could have been anything.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.