Melancholy. This is a word most people have an inherent knowledge of, but do they really know what it means? A quick look in the dictionary will give you a clinical definition, cold, and without feeling—which more than anything else has come to represent my life—a life lived apart from the most important relationship that will never be, a life I have yearned for in vain.
Mary stared at her journal as the words seeped into the page. A thousand emotions reigned frenetic in her mind, ones that had been with her a lifetime. They had done their work over the years, like little tempests so effective in their result, ideas like “fair” or “should have been” had all but lost their meaning.
She drew in a quick breath and once again set her pen to paper.
My husband, Jim, is the most compassionate man I’ve ever known. Though try as he might, he still has little understanding of my desperate need for connection. Perhaps that is why we don’t have children. I’ve thought about this a great deal over the years, but I keep coming to the same inescapable conclusion—I don’t have it within me to connect with a child as a mother should. Had things been different in my life—
“Hello, anyone home?” a familiar voice echoed from the hallway. The front door slammed shut.
Mary set her pencil down, annoyed by the interruption. “In the den.”
He came around the corner with a frilly blue blouse clasped in his hand, a small white price tag dangled from the cuff. “What do you think? Do you like it?” A look of expectancy etched into his half-turned smile.
He lifted the present a little higher, like a kind of peace offering for a long ago act of betrayal she could never forgive. Though the offense hadn’t been committed by him, he still felt compelled to make it right. “It looks nice…I guess.”
His countenance visibly dimmed as the blouse fell to his side. “I thought you’d like it.”
Since she received word that her birth mother had died, nothing else mattered, which had worn a painful groove inside him. Perhaps later she’d make amends. For now, only one thing concerned her. She turned back to her journal.
I’d not be paralyzed by the fear that if I ever became a mother my children would say years from now that I never really knew them. The kind that—
“How long is this going to go on?”
His words cut deep. “How long is what going to go on?” She played it casual, as though his accusation hadn’t touched her.
“Don’t play games with me, Mary. You know I’m talking about, this thing with your mother.”
“Thing. This isn’t it a thing, it’s a—”
“A deep scar. So you’ve said. But it doesn’t have to destroy your life. You almost never leave the den anymore, writing in that ledger of yours.”
The nerve endings in her fingertips tingled and her breaths grew short. “You don’t understand.”
He threw the blouse onto the couch. “It’s been a month since the funeral and you haven’t once looked at her things stored in the basement. Don’t you think it’s time?”
“Those boxes don’t mean anything to me.” Her gaze sharpened. “If your mother had cast you off like an old pair of shoes, would you want anything from her?”
“Yes—yes I would,” he replied without hesitation. “But we’re not talking about me. I’m worried about you. Ever since you received that letter from her lawyer, it’s like the dam that had held back a lifetime of repressed feelings finally gave way, and everything is rushing downriver. I’m afraid of where this morbid introspection is taking you.”
She let out a cold laugh. The woman who had given life to her was gone, and the reasons she did what she did went with her the second she drew her last breath.
A heavy sigh slipped parted his lips. “I haven’t had anything to eat all day. You want something?”
Mary shook her head.
The sounds of his shoes squeaking against the hallway tile faded into the kitchen.
Her shoulders sagged under the weight of silence that pressed down on the room. Slowly, imperceptibly, her gaze slipped downward. Her journal sat in front of her, waiting. Was it possible power had somehow been imbued into it, and willed her to finish what she started? Would anything good result from it if she did?
Mary picked up her pencil and continued writing….the kind that felt the pain of isolation. It is a terrible thing to feel alone. All alone in the world. Never had sadder words been uttered.
Tightness clutched at her chest, and her breaths grew shallow. Her journal was supposed to be a sanctuary from her mother. Yet, she had allowed herself to indulge in feelings she swore she’d never dredge up again. A pained sigh passed through her lips, and she put her hand on her stomach. Not everyone was meant to have children.
A cold draft blew into the room, and she found herself drawn toward the crimson glow that emanated from the fireplace opposite her, the last remnants of a once roaring fire faintly licking at the flue above.
Mary eyed her pencil next to her journal, its sharpened black tip ready for the next word. Her hand took hold of it and returned to the top of the page. But…but. An unseen force seemed to take over, her thoughts stuck on what should follow. What if nothing ever came after “but”? Her thoughts wrestled against her heart. A way did exist, one she had vowed she would never take. But if it meant finally finding peace…
“Jim,” she called out to the kitchen. “Could you come in here?”
He didn’t need an explanation. The first mention of bringing the boxes into the den and he darted out of the room.
Gone no more than a minute, he set both of them down on the coffee table with the utmost care.
“It doesn’t look like much, does it?” she observed.
Whatever thoughts lay in his mind he kept to himself.
Mary placed her fingertips on the box closest to her, touching it gently, as though a full embrace of it might taint her in some way. “My mother’s life dwindled down to a few meager possessions. Just two boxes.”
He set his hand on her shoulder, letting it linger. His warm brown eyes glistening in the ambient light likewise pierced her hardened shell, and she placed her hand on his. “I’m sorry—I know I’ve been awful lately. It’s been a tough—”
“I understand,” he interrupted in his typical way, firm, but with empathy. “You haven’t heard one word from your mother after all these years, and then a lawyer calls out of the blue and tells you she’s died and left you these two boxes.”
“And here they sit.”
The muscles at the base of her husband’s jaw tightened and his face settled into itself like it had turned into stone. “I wasn’t expecting myself to say this, but this is something you should do alone.” When she started to object, he put up his hand. “I don’t know what’s in those boxes. There might be answers. There might be disappointment. Either way, it’s time you finally met your mother without anyone getting in the way.”
He gave her a gentle pat and disappeared again into the kitchen.
In the background, the faint sounds of embers crackled in her ears. Had a minute passed? Or had it been an hour?
Unable to put off the inevitable any longer, she drew in a deep breath and lifted the lid nearest her.
The first item that emerged from the shadows looked like a yearbook. Cloverdale High School it said on the cover in big red letters. She held it loose in her hands, uncertain if she should open it. A quiet voice inside reminded her she had come this far. How would it harm her if she went a little farther?
She brushed aside her fears and flipped through the first few pages. One by one she took in the smiling faces of her mother’s classmates lined up in perfect rows and columns, their names written underneath. Her hand froze at a picture that practically leapt off the page. Her mother. It never occurred to her how alike they looked. Did they have anything else in common, she wondered.
Mary set the yearbook aside and pulled out a handful of fashion magazines, followed by several cook books, some harlequin romances, a pair of watches and a small silver serving set with scratches on the cups. Nothing more.
To say she didn’t feel disappointed by the contents in the box would be a lie. Her mother had gone to all that trouble to get her prized possessions to her, and what did she send, just a few ordinary things from her everyday life. Nothing really about her, what she felt…what she regretted…what gave her joy.
Mary stared at the second box with a growing sense of trepidation. What if it was just like the first one. The momentary hope she’d allowed herself turned into what she feared from the start—what if her mother had left nothing for her? Nothing truly personal. Nothing that ever hinted at her sorrow over what she had done to her as a child. Was she just as meaningless to her mother as the contents of the box? Not worthy of her mother’s touch, or the warmth that might have come from a single word of praise from her lips.
She grabbed the lid and yanked it off without the same hesitancy as before. When she peered inside her heart caught in her chest. “Oh my,” she whispered, unsure what else to say. Stacked from top to bottom, the box was filled with journals. Dozens of them.
Scrawled on one cover, “1987″ had been written in bold black letters. On another, “2004.” Before she realized it, Mary pulled them out in quick succession like a woman possessed. This is her whole life, she thought.
Feeling a small tear well up in the corner of her eye, she wiped it away with the back of her hand, the quiet sobs of a life filled with questions about her mother that had gone unanswered for so long. Foremost of which was, how could she give her away?
The kitchen door swung open. “Are you alright?” Jim asked from the hallway.
“Yes.” Mary forced a smile. “I just got a little overwhelmed.”
The look of concern in his eyes drained away at her answer. He tossed the washcloth in his hand back into the kitchen and approached her with a reassuring smile. Only then did the pile of journals stacked on the coffee table snare his attention. “Are all these your mother’s?” He picked one up and stared at the cover. “They must go back years.”
“A lifetime.” Mary’s attention drifted back toward the desk and her own journal patiently waiting for the next entry.
“Have you read any of them yet?”
She shook her head.
“Well then, why don’t you start with this one.” He placed the journal in her trembling hands and then started for the kitchen.
She reached up and grabbed his arm. “No, wait. I really need you here right now.”
“I…” When their eyes met his face lost all of its fight. “Alright, if that’s what you want.”
Never had she felt closer to her husband than at that moment. She smiled at the thought. Never had she felt closer to anyone in her life.
Mary flipped the journal open and let the words tell their story.
All through the night she read the entries one after the other to her husband. He sat quietly with her, his arm around her shoulder. Powerful words rose from the pages, words that offered glimpses of a life that had been a mystery for so long, now given the task of filling in a lifetime of silence.
“We moved into our new house today,” Mary read with the same conviction as when she started. “New house. That’s a laugh. This one is much worse than the last.”
A few pages later: “Dad came home drunk again. It didn’t take long for Mom to start after him. She says he needs to get a job, but telling him that just makes him madder. I hid in the closet until they stopped.”
Mary picked up another journal.
“I met a cute guy at school today. Nick Myers. Even though I’ve only gone to Cloverdale High for a few weeks I feel like I’ve known him my whole life. I can’t remember the last time I was friends with someone who likes me for me.”
“Kind of puts things in a different perspective,” Jim observed.
Mary looked up and met his eyes through her tears. She wiped them away and continued reading. “Nick took me to a great party last night, at least he said it was. I had too much to drink and don’t remember very much.”
She turned the page. “I just got the news today. I’m pregnant. I still can’t believe it. Nick said it’s my fault, that I did it to trap him. When I told him it wasn’t true he called me all sorts of terrible names, and then said we’re through.”
A few pages later, another tear grew so large it collapsed under its own weight and streaked down her cheek. “God has given me the most wonderful gift in the world, a healthy baby girl. I’m not sure what to name her yet, but I’m thinking after my Grandma Mary. I wish my parents would visit us at the hospital, but they keep making excuses about why they can’t come. Just one look and they’ll see how beautiful she is.” Mary felt her husband’s hand squeeze her shoulder. She gave it a pat before continuing.
“Mom yells at me all the time about having to take care of Mary while I’m at school. I don’t know what to do. Nick keeps denying he’s the father, and Dad’s out late every night. I feel so alone.”
Her pulse quickened when she read the next entry. “The thought of Mary not being with me anymore is almost too much to bear. Giving her up for adoption has left a huge hole in my heart, but it’s for the best. She will have a much better life with a family that can raise and love her in a way I never could. I ask God every night that He watch over my little girl.”
Mary fell quiet as tears streamed down her face. My mother loved me, she thought. Loved me! That’s why she gave her away. Because of love. Not indifference or lack of caring.
She gained strength at the realization of what this meant, and flipped the page. “Mary is such a beautiful girl. I’m glad she has a lot of friends at school.” The two of them turned toward one another. Had she read it right? Drawing in a deep breath, she turned the page and continued: “Mary turned ten today. It looked like she had wonderful party with her friends at the park…Mary began high school today…she looked so beautiful at the dance…Saturday was Mary’s last day of work at Ernie’s Market…Mary left for Northwestern today. I already miss her…She came home from college with a new boyfriend, someone named Jim. I have a feeling he’ll treat my little girl the way she deserves…The wedding was wonderful. I never saw her look so beautiful…Mary and Jim moved into their new home today. It’s a wonderful little place on Elm Street…I’ve been feeling run down the past few weeks, and made an appointment to see the doctor…The news wasn’t good. He said I’m in the final stages of pancreatic cancer. I told him I’ll fight this to the end so I can keep watch over my little girl.”
Mary picked up the last journal and stared at the cover. She never knew her mother, and hated her for it. Now, everything had changed. Every word her mother had written opened up a little window into her soul, and for the first time in her life, missed her. If only…Mary opened it and read the last entry. “Everything has been arranged. I packed a few things I believe say something about my life, which will be given to Mary after my passing. Even though she never knew me, a mother could not love her daughter more. Maybe, in this small way, she’ll find it in her heart to forgive me for giving her up all those years ago. Seeing her today, a successful, beautiful woman, I know I made the right choice, and can say goodbye with a happy heart.”
She set the journal down. “That’s all there is.”
Jim wrapped his arms around his wife and held her tight.
* * *
The sun broke through the clouds when Mary and Jim stepped out of the car. In the distance, a bird sang its song before it flew off. Rows of weathered gravestones lined the road that went through the heart of the cemetery. She pulled out a map from her pocket and read the names etched in granite as they drifted by, until Katie Johnson’s fell into view.
She knelt down in front of her mother’s headstone, staring at it for several moments before she found the right words. “Mother, you don’t know how long I’ve waited for this.” She placed her hand on her stomach. “Your little girl has finally come home, and has some wonderful news.”