I sat all morning in the college sick bay Counting bells knelling classes to a close. At two o' clock our neighbors drove me home. In the porch I met my father crying--He had always taken funerals in his stride- And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow. The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram When I came in, and I was embarrassed By old men standing up to shake my band And tell me they were "sorry for my trouble," Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest, Away at school, as my mother held my hand In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs. At ten o'clock the ambulance arrived With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses. Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him For the first time in six weeks. Paler now, Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple, He lay in the four foot box as in his cot. No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear. A four foot box, a foot for every year.
Even though I was a girl and had many of the trappings generally associated - a girl's name, for example, and dresses, my telephone, an autograph book - I spent the early years of my absolutely certain that I might at any point gum it up. I didn't feel at all like a girl. I was boyish. I was athletic, ambitious, competitive, noisy, rambunctious. I had scabs on my knees my socks slid into my loafers and I could throw a football. I wanted not to be that way, not to be a mixture of both things but just one, a girl, a definite indisputable girl. As soft and as pink a nursery. And nothing would do that for me, I felt, but breasts.
I was about six months younger than everyone in my class, and so after it began, for six months after my friends had developed that was the word we used, develop - I was not worried. I would sit in the bathtub and look down at my " now, any second now, they would start else's. They didn't. "I want to buy a bra," I said my mother one night. "What for?" she said. My mother was really hateful about bras, and by the time my third sister had gotten to that point where she was ready to want one, my mother had worked the whole business into a comedy routine, "Why not use a Band-Aid instead?" she would say. It was a source of great pride to my mother that she had never even had to wear a brassiere until she had her fourth child, and then only because her gynecologist made her. It was incomprehensible to me that anyone would ever be proud of something like that. It was the 1950s, for God's sake. Jane Russell. Cashmere sweaters. Couldn't my mother see that? "I am too old to wear an undershirt." Screaming. Weeping. Shouting. "Then don't wear an undershirt," said my mother. "But I want to buy a bra." "What for?" I suppose that for most girls, breasts, brassieres, that entire thing, has 3 more trauma, more to do with the coming of adolescence, of becoming a woman, than anything else. Certainly more than getting your period, although that too was traumatic, symbolic. But you could see breasts; they were there; they were visible. Whereas a girl could claim to have her period for months before she actually got it and nobody would ever know the difference. Which is exactly what I did. All you had to do was make a great fuss over having enough nickels for the Kotex machine and walk around clutching your stomach and moaning for three to five days a month about The Curse and, you could convince anybody.
This was the last time I ever saw my mother alive, just the same, this picture gets all mixed up in my mind with pictures I had of her when she was younger. The way I always see her is the way she used to be on a Sunday afternoon, say, when the old folks were talking after the big Sunday dinner. I always see her wearing pale blue. She'd be sitting on the sofa. And my father would be sitting in the easy chair, not far from her. And the living room would be full of church folks and relatives. There they sit, in chairs all around the living room, and the night is creeping up outside, but nobody knows it yet. You can see the darkness growing against the windowpanes and you hear the street noises every now and again, or maybe the jangling beat of a tambourine from one of the churches close by, but it's real quiet in the room. For a moment nobody's talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside. And my mother rocks a little from the waist, and my father's eyes are closed. Everyone is looking at something a child can't see. For a minute they've forgotten the children. Maybe a kid is lying on the rug, half asleep. Maybe somebody's got a kid in his lap and is absent-mindedly stroking the kid's head. Maybe there's a kid, quiet and big-eyed, curled up in a big chair in the corner. The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frighten the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop--will never die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won't be sitting around the living room, talking about where they've come from, and what they've seen, and what's happened to them and their kinfolk.
But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light. Then the old folks will remember the children and they won't talk any more that day. And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows this happens he's moved just a little closer to that darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It's what they've come from. It's what they endure. The child knows that they won't talk if he knows too much about what's happened to them, he'll know too much too soon, about what's going to happen to him.
The weird containing stillness of the neighborhood just before the school bus brings all the neighborhood kids waiting, anticipation, before the outbreak of anything, when everything seems just, seems hanging in the wings, about to happen, and in your mind you see the flashing lights flare amber to scarlet and your daughter in her blue jacket and white-fringed sapphire hat stepping gingerly down and out into our world again, to hurry through silence and snow-grass as the bus door sighs shut and her own front door flies open and she finds you behind it, father-in-waiting, the stillness in bits and the common world restored as you bend to touch her, to take her hat and coat up from the floor where she's dropped them, hear the live voice, of her filling every crack. In the pause before all this happens, you know something about the shape of the life you've chosen to live between the silence of almost infinite possibility and that explosion of things as they are-those vast unanswerable intrusions of love and disaster, or just the casual scatter of your child's winter clothes on the hall floor.
It was late and every one had left the cafe except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference. The two waiters inside the cafe knew that the old man was a little drunk, and while he was a good client they knew that if he became too drunk he would leave without paying, so they kept watch on him. .
"Last week he tried to commit suicide,' one waiter said.
'He was in despair.'
'How do you know it was nothing?"
"He has plenty of money.'
They sat together at a table that was close against the wall near the door of the cafe and looked at the terrace where,the tables were all empty except where the old man sat in the shadow of the leaves of the tree that moved slightly in the wind. A girl and a soldier went by in the street. The street light shone on the brass number on his collar. The girl wore no head covering and hurried beside him.
But here in this Benedictine monastery, even though the day is silent (conversation has been abducted somewhere), the hours murmur. The first morning bell rings at 5:30. 1 walk up to the chapel in the dead-night dark for Vigils, the first round of daily prayers. The chapel is stark, perhaps to some eyes severe. Not to me: the calm of the place is an invitation. I bow, as each of the monks does, when he enters, toward the dark sanctuary. A candle burns there. The honey-colored wood chairs and benches, ranked on two sides, face each other. They form two barely curved lines, two choirs deftly passing the ball of chant back and forth across the arched room as, somewhere beyond us, the sun rises and the world begins to exist again.
It is important that this not sound ecstatic. I must leach the exaltation out of the description. Here is what happens in the chapel: old news is revisited, peeves and praise ritualized (the' Psalms don't just exult; they grunt and groan). The call to the elusive One, polished with plainchant, is handed back and forth across the ranks of the honey-colored chairs like an imaginary globe of blown glass passed by men wearing cream-colored habits over their jeans and work shirts, scuffed Reeboks visible below their chapel-robe hems. It sometimes seems improbable, ridiculous.
And my mind wanders. There are the monks, looking very much alike in their cream-colored robes, and yet I manage to wonder - is that one gay? The one with the clipped accent - from Boston maybe? The one on the left looks like a banker, could have been a CEO, why not? The guy over here looks like a truck driver. On and on it goes, my skitter mind. Meanwhile, the Psalms keep rolling. A line snags - More than the watchman for daybreak, my whole being hopes in the Lord - and I am pulled along.