Distinguished Voices in Literature Fiction Contest Winner
Death in Four Parts
Part I: Last Meal
The last time I saw my Mamaw alive was eight Thanksgivings ago, I was only seventeen then. She was in her claustrophobic kitchen, stirring a rusted metal boiler full of sauerkraut and ham hock. She stirred in a trance, her gaze digging into the wall as if her eyes wished to burrow there for the winter. Ghosts must often frighten themselves, when they attempt speaking to the living. I imagine there is a feeling of isolate horror as their words bounce unacknowledged by the haunted.
“Hey Mamaw, Happy Thanksgiving.” Bounce, bounce, bounce. My voice ricochets right back into my chest like a shot, leaving my lungs burning. Quivering. Mamaw keeps stirring, her eyes begin to build a nest among the wilted yellow wallpaper.
The word shun isn’t something you hear often, no colloquial relevance. It recalls narratives such as The Crucible, materializing images of pious zeal. Nevertheless, it was in my Mamaw’s dingy kitchen, that I realized I’d been thoroughly and certainly shunned. The pungent sour smell of German cooking wafted with a slight hint of mildewed honeysuckle. It must have been her perfume I smelled. For someone who loved gardening, it’s a wonder she tolerated the fragrance which held not even a hint of green.
Mamaw wasn’t the only one who treated my sisters and I like the Invisible Man that icy November day. My aunts and uncles were at our grandparent’s house, all the cousins too. The rooms were full to busting with familial blood. Maybe that’s why the silence still echoes in my mind, I’d always thought blood thicker than water.
Perhaps I had died on the car ride over, my soul traversing to one final warm meal. Maybe this was why my words were lost on the living. I could have believed the fiction, when presented with such a surrealist reality. But I wasn’t alone in this strange curse: the shunning. My sisters were with me, Emily was almost fifteen and little Gretchen only eight. I remember the feeling of warmth that spread through my bones as my sisters and I plotted hurriedly in a cramped hallway: “We need to leave.”
It was only as we drove away in my clunky black car, premature and with empty bellies, that the horror of this new social status began to sink in. We stopped by a McDonalds on the way home, sipping chalky consolation milkshakes as we tearfully greeted our mother; there was knowing in her eyes.
Part II: Mother Dear
My mother parceled out information like a geyser spewing hot lava form the earth: seldom and explosively. I learned the truth about my grandmother the same week that Mom finally agreed to help me buy birth control pills. It was my freshman year at university, I sat in the dimly lit stairwell of Teter Hall’s dormitory to take her phone call. I remember lowering my voice as various passerbys made their way up and down the concrete paths.
“Her therapist diagnosed her with borderline personality disorder, though that was years ago when she still took her prescriptions.” My Mom was oddly calm, usually the topic brought out the hysterics; rivers of hot tears staining both our faces. I wonder when Mamaw died in my Mother’s mind, how many years before the actual passing?
“I need you to know it’s not your fault, you understand that don’t you?” The guilt was overwhelming for my Mom. After years of accepting the vitriol of her toxic mother, we were ironically set free by the shunning.
“She wasn’t always like this, but it just got worse as she got older. There were a lot of times growing up where it was hard to be home.” It’s odd to learn that your parent was abused, somehow your roles are reversed in the moment. Should I comfort my Mother?
To realize your childhood drastically altered from that of your parent, creates a kind of descended guilt. Sometimes I think about this at night, when I can’t sleep. There are so many things passed down from parent to child, not just eye color and dimpled noses – attached or unattached earlobes.
Part III: Reunited
My mom hadn’t seen her father in five years, it was unsettling to watch the way they stood next to each other at the funeral. Dressed in black, two sentinels framed by a canopy of the drabbest flower arrangements money could buy. My grandmother would have loathed this affair, her last words are rumored to have been “don’t hold a funeral, I don’t want them there.” Her shunning was meant to last from beyond the grave. People tend to fast forget their scruples when they’re standing around your burnt-up ashes sipping tepid punch. All my aunts and uncles joined my mom at the funeral parlor, four in total; even the hotshot engineer who ran away to California. He drove his jet blue Camaro all the way to Indiana in winter. His youngest son Trevor never even met Mamaw; the closest he got was crawling on all fours near the “in memorium” placard with her photo – nearly fifty years dated. Turns out we were all shunned in the end, some just got the boot sooner than others.
The only time I cried that day was when my grandfather hugged my mother, the first step towards a labyrinth of atonement. Mostly, I just remember the cold. I drove in from New York, a ten-hour pilgrimage through the worst snowstorm November’s seen in years. My sisters and I dressed for the funeral by candlelight, ice had knocked out the city’s power. Something ancient and dark lurked in the corners as I zipped my black dress. The skirt fell in a way which made me jump, like someone had caressed my leg.
“It’s a fitting farewell,” I told my sisters as we trudged out to the car, a united front. When we entered the funeral parlor, everyone looked up and began to move our way. A crescendo of voices and cooing sentimentality. This was to be a very different kind of Thanksgiving.
Part IV: The Wake
Last weekend I baked dumplings from scratch, my husband asked where I got the recipe.
“I just winged it.” It wasn’t until the words were leaving my tongue that I realized it wasn’t my own creation. Long term memory has a funny way of hewing bits and pieces of a life together, these dumplings were from Mamaw’s recipe. I inked it down as “Old Fashioned Dumplings” in my cookbook – origin unknown. That’s not really a lie. A person’s life isn’t as simply understood as oil to water, or measures of morality. Half a cup care, half a cup venom, and a pinch of despair.
When I dream of Mamaw, we’re always in that dark and greasy kitchen. Sometimes it actually smells like home. She’s always stirring that big metal boiler, slick black like a cauldron in my mind. Some spells are stronger than those who cast them, they live on like a ripple in dark water.
“Death in Four Parts” is an evocative meditation on inheritance and family. In rich, surprising language, the narrator traces the ways a family member can be lost before they die, and can persist in unexpected ways long after death. Unforgettable details–like the smell of mildewed honeysuckle, or the feeling of dressing in the candlelit dark–gradually coalesce to reveal the haunting at this story’s heart.
-contest judge, Emily Fridlund.
Regan Ralston is currently pursuing her Master of Arts in Teaching at SUNY Cortland with a focus on English Language Arts. Prior to graduate studies, she received a Bachelor of Arts in English from Indiana University, Bloomington. Outside of class, Regan works as a graduate assistant for the English Department and the Writing Center.