Norah’s mother died in childbirth, and so, even after spending nine months in the womb, Norah never met her mother. Upon delivery, baby Norah was handed over to her father’s sister. The reason for this died along with him, but it probably had to do with the fact that she was born during a time when it was presumed only women could properly raise children.
At some point when she was older, all of this was communicated to Norah, and so, as she grew into adulthood Norah resented her father while harboring a simple, sad and lingering curiosity about what her mother looked like. Not who her mother was. Not what she believed in or what kind of person she was. Simply, what she looked like.
“There was a portrait taken of your father and mother,” Norah’s cousin, Cathy, once told her when both were still young. “Your step mother brought it to a photo studio in Glasgow and had a picture of you as a toddler inserted into it. It was quite good. It looked like your mom was actually holding you on her lap. Very realistic.”
Norah remembered this throughout her life, but had never seen the picture with her own eyes. It was only after she had turned 84 – after her husband had died from Alzheimer’s and while she was on a visit to relatives in the US – that a hopeful yearning to find this picture, and thus finally to see her own mother, with her own eyes, surfaced in her.
While in the US, Norah went to see her cousin Cathy, who had immigrated decades earlier. After a long career working in a bank, Cathy now lived in an adult care facility near San Francisco, stricken by the same disease that had taken Norah’s husband. At 94, Cathy was physically strong, but incapable of communicating coherently. When she spoke, the words came as if they had popped randomly into her skull only instantly to fall from her mouth in a stream of logic known to no one but herself. Perhaps not even that.
“Well the thingmie with I can almost of course they do this. Don’t you harbor on the tops. Oh my, wonderful.”
“Oh, Aye,” Norah replied, smiling. “Do you like it here in your home?” she asked, trying as hard as she could to forge some sort of meaningful verbal connection between the two of them.
Cathy replied: “It’s the pickle people who throng.”
“Aye,” said Norah, “Of course.”
This was Norah’s first visit to the US alone. On previous visits, she had been accompanied by her husband and kids, but now, with her husband dead and her kids grown, she travelled on her own. Being on her own was both liberating and lonesome, on the one hand allowing her the freedom to go where she desired without worry, while on the other hand generating reminders of increasing isolation. She had traveled 5,000 miles to be in a place where many of those she loved no longer existed. And while she had a desire to remember the past, her real desire was to remember it alongside others who had been there with her. But this desire was increasingly frustrated as time wore on and people continued to die.
“Do you remember Martha? My mother?” Norah asked Cathy.
“Oh yes,” Cathy replied. “It’s a fine time of stuff.”
“My mother, Cathy. I never saw what she looked like. Do you remember what she looked like?”
“Oh yes. Very well.”
“What did she look like?” Norah persisted.
“Oh, many a time. Many a time. It’s a fine time of stuff.”
Did she remember? Was there a real thought that Cathy was trying to give a voice? Or was she just making sounds in response to the sounds that Norah was making? Norah imagined that Cathy’s brain was a tissue thin web, hanging like a curtain inside her skull, swaying back and forth whenever Cathy shifted position in the wheel chair. She imagined sparks igniting along the sheer pathways running from her ear to her mouth, ignited by the friction of each bodily movement. Maybe that was all these sounds were that Cathy made. Mechanical responses to internal irritation.
Norah sighed. “I’ll be going now, Cathy. I’ll be back to see you tomorrow,” she said, leaning over to embrace her cousin, planting a kiss on her forehead.
As Norah started to pull away, Cathy held on, pulling Norah closer. Norah caught a whiff of hairspray and the odor of urine.
“Don’t let them get you too,” Cathy whispered, and then released her grip.
During her visit, Norah stayed with John, her nephew, and Juneko, John’s wife, at their house in Marin County. The place was undergoing renovation, and finishing touches had just been completed on the downstairs bedrooms the day before Norah’s arrival. For months prior, there had been no interior walls or carpeting in these two rooms due to a winter battle with leaking windows that left the entire downstairs damaged with moisture and rot. Soft, waterlogged drywall had been torn out and rugs stained brown with the damp outlines of bookcases and other furniture were removed leaving cold, uninviting slab concrete floors and the interior skeleton of the house’s support beams. The rush to put together a suitable place for Norah’s stay culminated in a week-long construction and painting binge that successfully restored order to what had become a distressing state of upheaval lasting too long. A home should be a refuge from outside threats, but this home had become a mere structure in need of repair. Now with walls in place, curtains hung and pictures on the wall, it once again kept the outside out. At least for the time being.
“Your home is ready for you!” said Juneko, opening the door to a room smelling of new paint and carpets. This was to be Norah’s space for the next few weeks.
“Up until yesterday there were no walls in here,” John added, sounding like he expected a pat on the back.
“Oh, aye. This is wonderful. I’ll no be uncomfortable here,” Norah responded.
It was then that the cat, Hypatia, appeared. Hypatia was a small adult tabby, shy around strangers but also curious about whoever was in the house. She cautiously approached Norah, looking up at her with clear, wide yellow eyes. She emitted a soft, low mewing sound.
Upon hearing the cat’s meow, Norah recoiled, her hands reaching up to her face, and she emitted her own low, trembling sound.
“Ohhhhhhh, John!” she shuddered.
“What’s wrong, Norah?” John asked.
“I don’t like cats,” she replied, her hands still covering her mouth. Norah’s shoulder pointed defensively in the direction where Hypatia had been before scurrying off in a panic.
As John and Juneko looked at Norah, not knowing what to say, Norah let out a laugh. “It’ll be awright. I’ve just had a thing about cats ever since I was a kid. In the tenement in Glasgow there was a cat that would sit on the second-floor landing and when I came home from school it would always hiss at me and its back would go up. It was just horrible! I couldn’t get past it. I would yell for my auntie Jeanie and she had to come down to chase the cat away. That was the only way I could get up the stairs and into the flat.”
“I didn’t know you were scared of cats,” John said. “What about Leslie? How do you handle visiting her? Doesn’t she have a bunch of cats?”
Leslie was Norah’s daughter who lived in Canada with her son, Grant.
“Aye, she does. That’s why I don’t visit her or Grant. I can’t face the thought of being in the same apartment as all of those cats.”
“So you don’t visit Leslie?”
“No. I’ve paid to have her and Grant come to visit me, but I just can’t face those cats. I was considering stopping to see her on this visit, but when I mentioned it to her on email, she sent me a photo of her three cats with the message ‘They’re waiting for you.’ The thought of it put me into a pure panic.”
A feeling of annoyance passed through John. Scared of a cat? Scared to the point that you won’t visit your own daughter and grandson? But then again, her own daughter apparently used this fear to terrify her into staying away. Interesting relationship.
Although the fear seemed absurd and contemptible to him, John tried to imagine what it was that Norah was feeling. What could possibly be so horrifying about a cat? The story about her childhood was a clue. The cat blocked her path home. But it was, still, just a cat. Why didn’t she just shoo it away? Why the horror? Was it the thought of the cat’s hidden claws? But she only mentioned its hissing sound and its arched back. These were the things that, by her own account, filled her with terror and disgust.
John imagined these characteristics transposed onto a snake, and to feel fear about a snake seemed more reasonable to him than fearing a cat. A snake hisses and coils its long, sinewy body in anticipation of striking an enemy. The smooth, flowing motion of its form has a threatening elegance that John himself found somewhat horrifying. The sharpness of the snake’s teeth might be like the sharpness of a cat’s teeth, and so the perceived threat might not be so unreasonable after all. A cat protecting its home might not be so far removed from the thought of a snake protecting its nest.
“Don’t worry, Norah. Hypatia won’t hurt you,” John said. “She’s just curious about you.”
“She’ll no come into my room at night, will she?”
“Well, she does have her own key,” John joked, immediately adding, “No, of course not.”
Norah’s visit was to last three weeks. Over the course of that time, John and Juneko took her to many of the places she had visited decades ago, but which had changed over the time since she had last been here with her husband. Like California, Norah had also changed. But it wasn’t the differences in herself or in the landscape that interested her. What mesmerized Norah were stable continuities; those things that remained the same. She had traveled 5000 miles not for novelty, but for familiarity.
“I don’t want to go anywhere all that special,” she said. “I’m only here to see you, so don’t go out of the way making big plans. I’m happy just to stay around the house and relax.”
Along with Linda, John’s sister, and Bill, Linda’s husband, they embarked upon a number of day trips to popular local spots over the course of Norah’s stay. She sipped wine in the Napa Valley, ate brunch next to the water in Tiburon, toured the backroads of Western Marin, and wandered among the tourist shops of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf. But mostly she sat with John and Juneko, talking.
The pace of her visit was relaxed and unrushed, but an undercurrent of tension remained in Norah’s reminiscences about her husband and the blood mother she had never seen.
“I had the best husband in the world,” Norah asserted repeatedly. “You see that ring?” she asked rhetorically, pointing at her wedding band. “I’ve never taken it off since I married Eddie. He was a good man.”
“He was,” John concurred. “He was a great guy.”
“Aye,” Norah agreed. She sipped a mouthful of Bailey’s Irish Crème Whiskey, pursing her lips and smiling. “Oh that’s lovely.”
“Back when we met things were different than they are today. Now you get to try before you buy, if you know what I mean. With Eddie it was love at first sight. We met, he proposed, we got married, and we were together for the rest of our lives.”
Norah’s intimation was clear. She never been with anyone but her husband. The bond between them was a special sort that younger people now could never understand or properly appreciate. They had been devoted to one another in a way so Old-World, so of-another-time that it ran the cliché risk of sounding like something out of a fairy tale. And we all know that fairy tales aren’t real.
“Our life together was a fairy tale. A real-life fairy tale,” Norah sighed. She fell silent, looking off into space, her eyes going blank and yet seeming to focus on an image unseen to anyone but herself. Eddie’s face was in her mind, invisible to the rest of them, but as real, vivid and as concrete as a photograph to Norah. 60 years of marriage, of living with Eddie, day-by-day, loving him, arguing with him, dancing with him, watching television; all of this had coalesced into an indelible mental imprint that was incapable of erasure, conjured into conscious existence whenever she spoke about him or when she found herself in places where they had shared experiences with one another. He was gone, but not really gone.
“And to think that he almost died even before we met,” Norah mused.
“I remember him telling that story when I was kid,” John said, encouraging Norah to reiterate the details.
“Aye,” she sighed. “Hit by a bus at age 15. It sent him through a department store window in Glasgow. No safety glass then. His legs were nearly cut off and he almost bled to death right there on the street. And funnily enough, his own father was walking down that very street right after the accident. He saw Eddie being carted away to the infirmary. What are the chances of that?”
Norah took another sip of Bailey’s, again savoring the taste and once again calling it “lovely.”
“It is amazing that he survived,” said Juneko.
“Aye. They thought he would die. One hundred and fifty stitches to reattach his legs, and years later it would still give him problems. But it didn’t stop him from serving in the war or raising his family.”
Norah fell silent for a moment, but she seemed to be turning a thought over in her head. She sipped her drink before speaking again.
“Cathy once told me that there was a portrait taken of my father and my blood mother, with me as a baby sitting in her lap. My mom actually died in childbirth, but my stepmother had my picture inserted into the photo later on. It’s the only photograph of my blood mother that there is. Funny that I can picture Eddie no problem, but I have no idea of what my own mother looks like. If I could only find that picture! You have no idea where there might be a copy, do you? Cathy must have had one.”
“When Aunt Cathy went into the home, we sorted through her belongings, but I’m sure if there were any photo albums they must have been saved. Linda would be the one who would have them. We’ll have to ask her,” John responded.
“Just once seeing what she looked like would be so lovely.”
The last night of Norah’s visit, they all went to Linda and Bill’s house for dinner. Roast ham and potatoes accompanied talk around the table, where conversation flowed from superficialities toward deeper concerns about family and the passage of time.
“It’s been so lovely being here,” Norah sighed. “There’s so many memories that I have from the last time when I came with Eddie. I just wish he could have made one more trip with me.”
“He was a great guy,” John nodded. “I wish we could have seen him one more time too.”
“But it’ll no happen. You can’t turn back the hands of the clock.” Norah’s eyes began to well with moisture, but she quickly looked down and stamped back the emotion with a mouthful of potatoes. “Lovely,” she said as she swallowed, using it as an excuse to raise her napkin to her face, dabbing at her mouth and then wiping her eyes.
Linda had left the table, but returned just as Norah was setting her napkin back in her lap. In Linda’s hands was a photo album.
“Norah,” she said, “I thought you might like to have these.” And she gingerly handed over the album as if she was offering Norah a new-born baby to cradle. Delicately, Norah accepted it, her face wearing an expression of cautious expectation. She turned her gaze from the book back toward Linda, who smiled gently, instantly conveying the significance of the gift.
Before even opening the cover, tears came to Norah’s eyes. “I’m greetin’ like a bairn,” she said as her hands shook and the album almost fell to the floor.
There, on the first page, was the old, doctored, black-and-white photo that Cathy had told her about. Norah’s mother was seated in a chair with her husband’s arm draped around her shoulders. The couple appeared in front of a blank screen; the type you find in a photographer’s studio. The occasion for the photo was not really clear. Was it the memento of a budding romance? An engagement photo? Whatever the original intent, it clearly had been manipulated. Now it was a simple collage, with a cut-out picture of a baby – perhaps a few months old – pasted into the lap of Norah’s mother. Done before computer trickery would have made the same images look seamlessly integrated, the edges around the form of the baby were clipped too precisely, while the image of the child was too bright in comparison to the lap in which it had been placed. The flaws only accentuated how deliberate this alteration had been.
“That’s my mother,” Norah sighed. And the tears came freely; not just from Norah, but from everyone.
After dinner, Norah went with John and Juneko back to their home. Once inside, Hypatia cautiously approached Norah, and Norah bent down to pet the cat.