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A Disease of the Heart
The war took my mother at the same time it took my father. I am not speaking of death, no. My mother is alive, but she drifts through her days like a pale eyed ghost. Quietly.
“How are you, Mother?” I would ask, and she would answer, “Go to your room, Elizabeth, I have a bit of a headache.”
I would say, “I’m going to school,” and she would say nothing at all. She would just stare out of our grimy window, her eyes thousands of miles away. Looking for something she will never find again.
My father was a man of color and expression. The way that I remember him is smiling, all the time. He would grin and ruffle my hair and say, “Things are looking up.” My mother often smiled with him. Without him, she smiles no more. It makes me wonder what he looked like when he saw that German soldier aim a bullet at his heart. If he still smiled then, too, in his last breath.
The war is over, now. But the scars remain.
Mother is a switchboard operator at the hotel downtown. After the men filed on the trains by the hundreds, the workplaces that used to be full were vacant. I remember going to the baker on 3rd and there being no bread to buy, the woman behind the counter sick-looking and translucent in skin tone. Her voice was barely more than a waver as she told me, “There’s nothing here for you, child. The war took my husband and son, and with them, the bread.”
I thought to myself why she didn’t know how to make the recipes the shop used, if her husband and son knew them. But I just said a quiet thank you and left. It wasn’t my place to ask.
On my way to school, I told the old woman that sits on the steps of my apartment building in the mornings about Mother’s melancholy. I told her of the pinch around her foggy eyes, of meals missed, of dresses hanging drab around her thinning frame. The old woman answered in a heavy tone, “Why, she has caught something. Something bad. Her body is giving up because her spirit has been beaten down by the weight of her loss.”
“That sounds bad,” I tell her, my eyes burning. My mother, who looked at my father like he hung the moon in the sky, who used to listen to jazz radio in the mornings, who used to read to me before bedtime, was sick. I ask, “What can I do to help her?”
The old woman clasps a hand over her heart. “Why, she just needs some hope, child.”
“Yes, dear. Something to restore her love of life.”
I thank her and continue walking, worried that I would be late to school. My mind buzzes with questions and plans. What could I possibly do to help my mother? Perhaps there is no hope left for her now. Just transferring phone lines and staring out of the window into nothing.
There’s a ruckus up ahead. I see white signs hovering above the crowd, hear the angry shouting of women’s voices. Posters stating in bold ink, “VOTES FOR WOMEN” and “President Wilson, how long do you advise us to WAIT?”. People on the sidewalk carefully skirt around them. I, however, go up to a woman on the fringes of the pack, and get her attention.
The woman, auburn headed and young with massive cheaters over her eyes, like she spent a lot of time reading, looks down to me and asks, “What is it, dear?”
I ask her, “What is this about?”
The woman chuckles slightly, and it sounds like my mother used to sound, when she used to laugh as well. Like tinkling bells. “Why, it’s the fight for women’s right for ballot, of course. The vote in Congress is today. Where have you been?”
I blush and look down at my feet, suddenly finding my scuffed up Mary Jane’s exceedingly interesting. The woman laughs again, though not in a mean way. “You’re a bit of a cancelled stamp, aren’t you?” She smiles, and it looks so happy and shiny that I find it hard to look at. It’s the way I wish my mother would smile in the mornings.
“Why are you doing this?” I blurt out suddenly, and quite rudely. I blush again, but the woman just laughs again. “Now there’s a bit more of a bearcat. As for why we’re doing this, well.”
She looks out at the small crowd of women like her, standing up tall and proud for what they believe in. “It just makes me hopeful for the future. For little girls like you.”
Something clicks into place, and my world feels turned upside down. The woman wanders away and continues her impassioned shouting, holding up her poster again. And I continue to school.
I spend the afternoon daydreaming, remembering better times. Mother was always vocal and extreme in her political views, and I overheard neighbors gossiping about how unusual and unsightly it was for a woman. But my father loved my mother the way she was, and even when they disagreed on certain issues, he allowed her to have her opinions. I wonder briefly if Mother had heard of this movement through the hazy fog that seems to have accumulated around her like a thundercloud. I have a feeling that if Father hadn’t died, she would be awaiting the legislature vote with wringing hands.
After school, I walk back the same way. The women are still there, still shouting, still passionate and determined and hopeful. Their dresses are bright and colorful, and there faces lively. The old woman is no longer on the uneven apartment steps, but that’s normal. She’s only ever there in the mornings, and I don’t know where she goes after.
The building looks grey and washed out, like a world where there’s no special tint or hue to make the sky blue or the brick rust-red or the grass green. Walking through the doors feels like any grain of life I gained from those spirited, protesting women was sucked straight out again.
My mother is sitting at the kitchen table when I walk through our creaky front door. She looks tired, as she always does. Hair frizzy and pulled-at, eyes dull, fingernails ragged and stubby. I greet her, “Hello, Mother.”
“Hello, dear,” she says back, mechanic and distant.
I set my things down on the table. I focus in on a groove cut into the wood as I say, “Have you heard what’s been going on? Women might be getting a vote soon.”
I wait. Mother mutters, “That’s nice, Elizabeth.”
I wait again, then ask, “Aren’t you happy?”
She doesn’t answer. She barely twitches. I want to scream. I want to pound my fists on the table, right into that crack in the wood grain, and shout, I’m here! I’m right here in front of you, and you barely even care! I-- My eyes water dangerously.
I miss Father, too.
I go to my room, and don’t come out even for dinner. I hear Mother knock tentatively at my door at some point after eight, but when I don’t answer, her shadow moves away from the door and her footsteps echo back down the hallway. No one has to know about my tears but me.
The next day, I awaken early, partly because of my inability to get back to sleep, but mostly to avoid Mother. The old woman sits on the steps, humming quietly to herself. I sit next to her.
“I tried to help her,” I say, my voice dull. I sound a bit like Mother. The thought scares me. The old woman hums. “Well, what happened?”
I tell her. I tell her everything, because I have no one else to tell. My chest feels lighter afterwards, like taking off heavy baggage after hours of carrying it. The woman pats me on the shoulder and says, “She’s probably just afraid to hope because she fears it will be in vain.” The woman pauses for a moment, then winks at me from under a mass of wrinkles. “I’d go check the newspaper if I were you.”
She cackles loudly in a way that makes me want to laugh, too. It’s contagious, I think is the word. We learned it in school last week.
I wander away and go to the newspaper stand on the corner. The women are not there today, and I wonder what that means. The man behind the stand is busy with another customer, the two of them arguing loudly, so I get the chance to glance at the headlines and…
I blink and process for a moment. Then go to school. I’m vibrating all day, with anticipation and readiness. The moment school lets out, I grab the six coins from inside my desk, the ones I’ve found on the ground and saved up, and run back to the newspaper stand. People on the sidewalk jump out of my way and yell after me, but I don’t stop. I can’t stop. My heart feels ready to burst.
I give the man my precious coins and grab a newspaper. I sprint home, newspaper in hand. The old woman isn’t there, but I feel her presence all the same. I have to remember to thank her tomorrow.
The sun shines today, glints off of the apartment windows and makes the bricks glow and sparkle. My excitement doesn’t abate as I go through the door.
When I get to my apartment, I give myself a chance to catch my breath, then carefully open the door. Mother sits at the kitchen table, as always, head in her hands. I set the newspaper down in front of her silently, and go to my room.
Dinnertime comes and goes before I’m brave enough to venture into the living room.
Mother always tended to be quiet in the evenings, with the shadows playing tired lines across her visage. But tonight her face was glowing and porcelain-like under the dim glow of our ancient floor lamp, lips quirked and eyes bright and keen as they scanned over the small text under the loud headline: WOMAN SUFFRAGE AMENDMENT WINS IN LEGISLATURE.
My shoulders relax from where I didn’t know they were tense. Mother looks up at me, still smiling, close-lipped but with eyes crinkled in joy. It was like looking at an old picture of something you’d thought you’d lost. It felt like coming home.
She holds out a pale hand to me. I take it, her fingers cold between mine. She brings my knuckles to her cheek and says, “Things are looking up.”
The world suddenly seems brighter.