Home > My Name Is Lucy Barton(16)

My Name Is Lucy Barton(16)
Elizabeth Strout

After that, Sarah talked a lot to the class about judging people, and about coming to the page without judgment.

We were promised a private conference in this workshop situation, and I am sure Sarah must have been very tired with the private conferences. People tend to go to these workshops because they want to be discovered and get published. For the workshop I had brought parts of the novel I was writing, but when I had my conference with Sarah I took instead sketches of scenes of my mother coming to visit me in the hospital, things I had started to write after I had seen Sarah at the library; I had slipped a copy of the pages to her the day before, in her mailbox. I remember mostly that she spoke to me as though I had known her a long time, even though she never mentioned our having met at the clothing store. “I’m sorry I’m so tired,” she said. “Jesus, I’m almost dizzy.” She leaned forward, touching my knee lightly before she sat back. “Honestly,” she said softly, “with that last person I thought I was going to be sick. Like really throw-up sick, I’m just not cut out for this.” Then she said, “Listen to me, and listen to me carefully. What you are writing, what you want to write,” and she leaned forward again and tapped with her finger the piece I had given her, “this is very good and it will be published. Now listen. People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, ‘abuse,’ such a conventional and stupid word, but people will say there’s poverty without abuse, and you will never say anything. Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.” She sat back then, and wrote down titles of books I should read, most of them classics, and when she stood and I stood to leave, she suddenly said, “Wait,” and then she hugged me, and made a kissing sound to her fingers, which she held by her lips, and it made me think of the kind doctor.

I said, “I was sorry that woman in class asked about PTSD. I jumped too.”

Sarah said, “I know you did, I saw that. And anyone who uses their training to put someone down that way—well, that person is just a big old piece of crap.” She winked at me, her face exhausted, and turned to go.

I have never seen her since.

“Say,” my mother said. This was the fourth day my mother had been sitting at the foot of my bed. “You remember that Marilyn girl—what was her name, Marilyn Mathews, I don’t know what her name was. Marilyn Somebody. Do you remember her?”

“I remember her. Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”

“What was her name?” my mother asked.

“Marilyn Somebody,” I said.

“She married Charlie Macauley. Do you remember him? Sure you do. You don’t? He was from Carlisle, and—well, I guess he was more your brother’s age. They didn’t go out in high school, he and Marilyn. But they got married, they both went to college—in Wisconsin I think, at Madison—and—”

I said, “Charlie Macauley. Wait. He was tall. They were in high school when I was still in junior high. Marilyn went to our church and she helped her mother serve the food for Thanksgiving dinners.”

“Oh, of course. That’s right.” My mother nodded. “You’re right. Marilyn was a very nice person. And I told you that already—that she was more your brother’s age.”

I suddenly had a clear memory of Marilyn smiling at me one day when she passed me in the empty hall after school, and it was a nice smile, like she was sorry for me, but I felt she did not want her smile to seem condescending. That was why I always remembered her.

“Why would you remember her?” my mother said to me. “If she was older like that. Because of the Thanksgiving dinners?”

“Why would you remember her?” I said to my mother. “What happened to her? And why would you know?”

“Oh.” My mother let out a great sigh and shook her head. “A woman came into the library the other day—I go to the library in Hanston some days now—and this woman looked like her, like Marilyn. I said, ‘You look like someone I knew, who was about the age of my kids.’ And she didn’t answer, and that—that makes me very angry, you know.”

I did know. I had lived my life with that feeling. That people did not want to acknowledge us, be friends with us. “Oh, Mom,” I said tiredly. “Screw ’em.”

“Screw them?”

“You know what I mean.”

“I see you’ve learned lots living in the big city.”

I smiled at the ceiling. I didn’t know a person in the world who would have believed this conversation, yet it was as true as any can be. “Mom, I didn’t have to move to the big city to learn to say ‘screw.’ ”

There was a silence, as though my mother was considering this. Then she said, “No, you probably only had to walk to the Pedersons’ barn and hear their hired hands.”

“The hired hands said a lot more than the word ‘screw,’ ” I told her.

“I imagine they did,” my mother said.

And this is when—recording this—I think once more, Why did I not just ask her then? Why did I not just say, Mom, I learned all the words I needed to right in that fucking garage we called home? I suspect I said nothing because I was doing what I have done most of my life, which is to cover for the mistakes of others when they don’t know they have embarrassed themselves. I do this, I think, because it could be me a great deal of the time. I know faintly, even now, that I have embarrassed myself, and it always comes back to the feeling of childhood, that huge pieces of knowledge about the world were missing that can never be replaced. But still— I do it for others, even as I sense that others do it for me. And I can only think I did it for my mother that day. Who else would not have sat up and said, Mom, do you not remember?

I have asked experts. Kind ones, like the doctor who was kind; not unkind people, like the woman who spoke so meanly to Sarah Payne when she jumped at the cat. Their answers have been thoughtful, and almost always the same: I don’t know what your mother remembered. I like these experts because they seem decent, and because I feel I know a true sentence when I hear one now. They do not know what my mother remembered.

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