There was a time, not so long ago, when it was possible to make a fair living by writing personal essays, and in those days I wrote my share of them. When Ladies’ Home Journal launched an essay column called “Heart of the Home,” I wrote a piece about the house I grew up in—the house in Homewood where Wibby still lived at the time, though even then it was tumbling into ruin around her. Dad was gone, and Mom couldn’t manage it by herself, but she refused to leave. She offered no explanation for her refusal, and I struggled to understand her attachment to a place that had been charmless in its best days, and its best days were long since faded.
In writing the essay, though, I began to fathom my mother’s deep, rooted reasons for staying, and why the logic of my arguments carried no weight against them. Without meaning to, I’d written my way into seeing that house as Mom saw it.
Almost immediately after I turned it in, however, my editors reconsidered their idea for a regular column about houses. With so many writers keeping blogs—the Internet equivalent of a column that requires no subscription to read—it was becoming clear that the magazine essay was going the way of the snail darter. Still, LHJ had already bought it, so they stuck it in a file for a few years before finally resurrecting it as a Mother’s Day piece one May.
By then enough time had passed that things in Homewood had reached a crisis point. When the rental house across the street from me became available unexpectedly, we convinced Mom to move to Nashville for a year, just to give it a try. She arrived with a moving van full of furniture, but no final decision had been made about the house in Homewood, which was still packed to the rafters (and to the furthest edges of the crawl space) with all manner of memorabilia that no one in the family had found the heart to address—and that Mom refused to consider parting with. It was still her home, and they were still her belongings, never mind that it was all nearly 200 miles away, across state lines. In true Wibby fashion, she had managed to move away and stay put, all at the same time.
My essay mentioned a number of family pictures that my father kept on his bedside table as he was dying, and when the art director at LHJ began to prepare the piece for publication, she asked me to send copies of the photos to use as illustrations. Mom was always thrilled whenever a story about her found its way into something I wrote, but she had never been photographed for one of them before, and I felt sure she’d go out and buy a hundred copies of any national magazine that featured a picture of her in the wedding dress she’d designed and made herself. Maybe, I thought, I’ll wrap up a copy and give it to her as a Mother’s Day present.
But my brother had his doubts. “I’m not sure you should let Mom read this,” he said when the magazine came out. “I think it might hurt her feelings to read about how bad the house looks.” So I buried my copy under a stack of papers and never mentioned it to Mom.
You see where this story is going.
One morning a few months later, Mom went to her weekly appointment at the beauty shop. I was working when she suddenly banged open the back door, stalked into my office, and slammed a copy of Ladies’ Home Journal down on the desk. “What is this?” she yelled. Her face was so thoroughly flushed that her scalp showed pink beneath her perfectly teased hair.
Instantly I could see how it happened. Grabbing a pile of old magazines, she had sat down under the dryer to flip through them for recipes. My byline was tiny and nearly hidden in the fold at the bottom of the page, but the secret was out the second Mom saw that four-by-six picture from her wedding album.
“Mom, listen,” I started.
“No, you listen,” she said. “What made you think it was alright for you to publish my picture in a magazine without even asking me?
“I wanted it to be a surprise,” I said. “I was planning to wrap it up for Mother’s Day, but Billy thought it might hurt your feelings, and by then the magazine had already gone to press, and it was too late to pull the pictures.”
“Oh,” she said. “Oh. Well, that’s OK, then.”
She never told me whether reading the essay had upset her, but I think it must not have. After her death, I found a folder full of photocopies of the article. She’d discovered it too late to buy extras on the newsstand, so she’d taken the magazine from Fantastic Sam’s to Office Depot and made copies. That’s the way storms always blew up—and then blew over—with Mom.
When Wibby visits my dreams, she’s still the mother who raised me. Everyone in a dream is supposed to be some manifestation of the dreamer’s own psyche, but when Wibby returns to my house in dreams she is heartbreakingly herself. My first reaction, whenever she appears, is always relief: Oh, thank God; I misunderstood—she’s here; she’s fine; she’s herself. And Mom is always puzzled by my reaction, always surprised at my urgency when I hug her and say, “You’re here. You’re back. Thank God.” And when I find her somewhere else, it’s always a place I’ve never actually been to, though it’s recognizably ordinary—not Paradise at all, but a plain cinder-block house with knotty pine paneling and worn chairs. Once I walked into an unfamiliar house and found Mom sitting with my father, and my grandparents, and my father’s godmother, all together, and they looked up when I opened the door, but they weren’t any gladder to see me than if I’d been there all along and had merely stepped outside to check the weather. My dead don’t seem to know they’re dead.
Not long ago I dreamed that Mom had come back to my house and was annoyed to discover her coat hangers in the closet next to our front door. “Why would you take all my nice wooden hangers without asking me?” she said.
“Because you died, Mom,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. “That’s OK, then.”
That was just like her: mad as a firecracker, and then over it again an instant later. But even in the dream it didn’t feel OK at all.
[If you're curious, it's possible to read the LHJ essay here.]