The Inheritance, Part I

by Karen Gsteiger

(apologies to H.D.)

I have only the faintest memory of my mother, as my Aunt Rosie raised me from the age of four on. The day she took me away, she says she walked into my mother's house and found me standing precariously on a rickety old chair in the middle of a filthy kitchen. There was garbage on the floor, and bugs scurried away to hide underneath the fridge and the stove the second she stepped in the room. The sink was piled high with dishes; the garbage can was overflowing. She said the smell was indescribable, but I didn't seem too troubled about it. I was trying to make myself a peanut butter sandwich by scraping the heel of a loaf of bread against the sides of an almost empty jar of Jif. She said my hair was all wild, and I was in my pajamas, and I looked like I hadn't bathed in three weeks. I don't remember any of this, of course, but she said she scooped me right up and took me out of that house without even bothering to see my mother, and she never went back. She never bothered to legally adopt me, but she didn't have to. My mother never fought for me. My mother hardly knew I was there to begin with.

And thus I began my very normal life, which I don't think anyone would argue wasn't a good thing for me. Soon after I was taken in, I started calling Aunt Rosie "Mama," which any child would if she found someone who was willing to feed and clothe her and chase away the monsters in the closet. Aunt Rosie didn't correct me for many years, and in fact, I didn't even realize that I wasn't her daughter until I was twelve years old and started asking her questions about why she and I looked so different. Then she explained everything to me, which was hard for me to understand, and I started calling her "Aunt Rosie" then and still do today, and she didn't seem to mind the demotion of sorts. She generally prefers accuracy to sentimentality.

I wanted to see my mother, of course, but Aunt Rosie said that it wouldn't be a good idea, that I wouldn't like what I saw. Anytime I got mad at Aunt Rosie, I threatened to move back in with my mother, but she merely laughed at the suggestion. Told me that I was more than welcome to and described the state she had found me in. Well, that kind of deflated me, I guess. But I did keep asking to see her. And one day, with a sigh, my Aunt Rosie agreed. She told me that she wasn't even sure that my mother lived at the old house anymore. She hadn't seen her in eight years at that point.

So it was a Saturday afternoon, and we drove to my mother's house, and I remember feeling very excited and definitely nervous and fearful. I wondered if she would be beautiful (although I couldn't imagine a beautiful woman living in a very dirty house), if she would remember me, if she would be happy to see me, if she would be angry, if she would start screaming, if she would smell funny, if I'd see a lot of bugs in her house, if she would have died all alone and we would have found her rotting corpse lying in a bed. Strange thoughts for a twelve year old to have, but I had taken to reading Edgar Allen Poe at that age.

The way Aunt Rosie always described the house, I imagined it being some enormous, dark, haunted looking place, with dark, peeling paint on the outside and shingles falling off the roof, and cobwebs woven throughout every room. I expected to smell decaying meat and perhaps fall through a rotting wooden floor into an even more horrible basement, where I would be covered in a thick layer of dust and hungry insects. Turns out, it was a small, two-bedroom home on the poorer side of town. It had dingy white siding with black shutters and rusty gutters. I was shocked to see plant life in the small front yard--a large oak tree, bushes running wild against the front of the house, a flower bed that was overrun with weeds. We pulled into the driveway and walked up the porch stairs and rang the doorbell. We couldn't hear anything and guessed that maybe the doorbell didn't work. So we banged against the screen door a little bit. Then my mother answered.

Although I was only 12 at the time, she and I were almost the same height. She wasn't much taller than five feet. She had dull brown hair that was tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing, as I recall, a white blouse with a knee-length black skirt. The clothes didn't look new, and her black shoes were scuffed, but she looked neat. She had a plain, gentle face and wore no makeup. She assumed an expression of pleasant confusion when she saw us.

"Rosie, is that you?" she asked. She glanced at me but didn't seem to recognize me.

"It is," Aunt Rosie said with her clipped disapproving tone. "Your daughter wanted to pay you a visit."

My mother's brow furrowed for a moment. "But I don't...oh." She looked at me and smiled nervously. "Well, hello, sweetheart. Why don't you two come in for a minute?"

And so we stepped inside the house and looked around, and I wondered if perhaps Aunt Rosie had played up the squalor because it really didn't look all that bad. There were papers and magazines strewn all about the living room, and there was a pile of clothes sitting on the floor. We walked into the dining room, and my mother pulled out a couple of chairs for us to sit on. She moved some things--bills and books and empty soda cans--off of the dining room table to the ironing board that was standing next to it. She balanced these things on top of a pile of clothes. From where I was sitting, I could peek inside the kitchen, and I could see dishes in the sink that had probably been sitting there a while. It certainly wasn't as tightly run a household as Aunt Rosie's, but it probably wasn't all that messier than my own bedroom. Since hearing about the state my aunt had found me in, I had imagined my mother as some frizzy-haired lunatic, speaking in tongues, wetting her bed, and living among rats and spiders. Instead, my mother seemed quiet, polite and distracted, and it seemed as though she never put anything away. There was a faint odor of what might have been stale urine in the air, but it was hardly the retch-inducing stench I had imagined.

"Well," Aunt Rosie began. I could tell from her voice that she was trying not to inhale through her nose. Maybe the odor was stronger for her. "it's been quite a long time."

"Yes," my mother agreed.

"I finally explained to your daughter why she's been living with me, and she wanted to come take a look at you."

I didn't like Aunt Rosie's choice of words; it made my mother sound like some animal in a zoo.

"I wanted to visit," I said to amend her statement.

"Uh huh," my mother replied.

"So what have you been doing with yourself all these years?" Aunt Rosie half-asked/half-demanded.

"Well, you know, just getting by. I've got a job," she explained.

"Doing what?"

"I'm working as a secretary at the church down the street. I don't worship there. I just mostly type up things."

"I see."

"I live alone, and I'm not terribly social. I'm sorry," she apologized inexplicably.

"That's okay...Mama," I tentatively replied, but she looked alarmed, and Aunt Rosie rolled her eyes, probably because she thought "Mama" should only be used by toddlers.

"Do you want something to drink? I don't really have anything good to eat right now," my mother offered.

"No, thank you," Aunt Rosie answered, shooting me a look that indicated that I was to decline as well.

"No, thanks," I whispered.

There was a pause. Finally my mother asked, "Have you two been doing okay?"

"Yes, we're doing just fine. Your daughter's 12 now. She's in the sixth grade, and she gets pretty good grades. Some A's, a few B's, and one C in math, but I think she could do better than that. She behaves herself, and I'm...I'm very proud of her," Aunt Rosie said quickly at the end.

"That's good to hear," my mother replied. She didn't seem to know what to say. "Do you like school?" she asked me.

"Yes. It's okay."

"Do you have a lot of friends?"

"A few."

"She's picked good friends to play with," Aunt Rosie explained. "They hardly ever get in trouble."

"Ah," my mother said, as though the concept of friendship was rather foreign to her.

There was another pause. The sun was starting to go down, but my mother didn't move to turn on the lights. I wondered whether they worked or if she often sat in complete darkness. We didn't say anything for a time, and I wished that we had accepted a drink because then it wouldn't feel so awkward. My mother kept glancing nervously at a closed door just off to her right. Aunt Rosie checked her watch, and I could tell that she had had enough.

"Well, I think we had better get going now."

"Okay," my mother said, sounding much relieved.

We stepped to the front door, and I pondered giving her a hug but decided against it, as I didn't think that my mother would have enjoyed it or that Aunt Rosie would have approved.

"Come again soon," she said faintly.

"Bye," I said as I walked out the door, feeling numb.

I was quiet on the ride home...maybe a little too quiet for Aunt Rosie's tastes. "Well, I hope you can see now why it wouldn't really be an appropriate place for children," she stated.

"Uh huh," I replied.

"You're not upset, are you?" she asked with some dismay.

"No. No, not really," I said, and there was a pause before I asked, "Aunt Rosie, is my mother crazy?"

"Do I think she's in her right mind? Well, she's not like other folks, but she seems to get along fine by herself. She's got a job, after all. And she seems to have cleaned up the place a little. She's made some mistakes in her life, but she seems to be doing the best she can. If you want to keep visiting her, you can, although I don't find her to be much of a conversationalist."

"Yeah, maybe," I replied.

I never saw my mother again.

My Aunt Rosie called me at school about eight years later to tell me that my mother had passed away. "It looks like she got pneumonia and didn't go to the doctor until it was too late. Only 48 years old. Such a shame." With the last three words, her voice betrayed some emotion, and she quickly cleared her throat to recover.

Time seemed to stop for a minute, and I had no idea what to say.

Aunt Rosie was much more comfortable discussing business, and she launched into it rather forcefully. "Now, she has left everything to you, since you're her only daughter, and if it's all right with you, I'm just going to have my lawyer handle just about everything, settling her debts and selling her house--you wouldn't want that old crummy place, would you? And then hopefully when it's all said and done, you'll have some money, but I'd really like for you to save it for when you get out of college."

"Uh huh," I replied.

"But I think you should come home for a visit very soon so that we can go to her house, and you can take any possessions you might want to keep for yourself. I would imagine she probably has some family photos in there. Little knick-knacks. Whatever you want. I don't think that furniture is worth much though. It all seemed to be falling apart when we last saw it, and I'm sure it only got worse over the years."

Three weeks later, Aunt Rosie and I unlocked my mother's front door and stepped inside. It was evening because we had put off this task all day long. Aunt Rosie immediately started sneezing from all the dust, and I looked for some sort of light switch. I nearly knocked over a lamp in my fumbling but was able to turn it on. My heart was hammering, as I truly expected a ghost to come flying out of the hallway closet. Aunt Rosie recovered herself. "Whew, what a mess," she declared, and I felt more grounded in her reality.

The floor of the living room was, as before, covered in newspapers and magazines and clothes and unopened mail. Aunt Rosie sighed, "Oh dear, I expect she hadn't been paying these bills. What a mess," she repeated. I was afraid to explore the rooms of the house that I couldn't remember, but Aunt Rosie wanted to get back home as quickly as possible.

Aunt Rosie was making all sorts of decisions for me, which normally annoyed me to no end, but this time I was relieved because I could barely think. We opened the kitchen cabinets, and she began a monologue that ran almost the entire time we were in my mother's house, "These dishes aren't much to speak of...I can't imagine you'd want those. This toaster's probably about 10 years old; that's garbage as far as I'm concerned. This blender looks a little bit newer. Maybe we'll take the blender if we don't have too many other things to take with us. Now that's my mother's old roast pan, and we're definitely taking that with us, and I'll keep that if you don't mind, since it doesn't really mean anything to you, but I do miss my mother's roasts. Let's maybe do one of the bedrooms now because to be honest with you, I'm afraid to open that refrigerator."

So we passed through the dining room, the contents of which she had already declared valueless, towards the closed bedroom door. The door stuck at first, which caused us to fear that it was locked and that we would either have to find a key (a veritable needle in the haystack of my mother's clutter) or call a locksmith, and Aunt Rosie fretted about "paying good money just to have someone open a door to a room full of junk." But I pushed a bit harder and found that it was just blocked by a stack of papers.

"I think I got it," I said with a groan as I pushed the door open wide enough for us to step inside. Then we looked up.

There was a bed inside this room and a small end table and a small dresser. There was a door to a closet, and another door leading to a small bathroom. But what was remarkable was that every inch of the room was covered in papers and leather-bound volumes. There were too many to count, and we could barely walk inside the room. Aunt Rosie gasped when we opened the closet and bathroom doors to find them filled with even more papers and books.

I opened one of the books lying at my feet. "I think...I think...she wrote all of this."

Aunt Rosie just stood there, her jaw agape. "What...on earth?" she finally asked.

"Aunt Rosie," I exclaimed, picking up one book after another and peering inside. "She filled all these books with writing. All these books..."

"But what on earth could she possibly have to write about? She barely spoke!"

And we looked at each other then and just started laughing, in wonder and awe and also some sadness, because whatever all of this was, it was clearly all she ever had.

"What do we do with all this?" I asked her.

Aunt Rosie went back into business-mode. "Well, we're going to have to throw it all away, of course. Maybe save a couple to remember her by..."

"But Aunt Rosie, what if...what if it's all one story? Maybe we should look through them first..."

"May, don't be ridiculous. Do you see how many books are in here? It would take us years to go through them all. Let's face it...we're not looking at copies of the Gutenberg Bible in here. Who knows what your mother was rambling about..."

"Aunt Rosie, please. Please give me some time with this. Don't do anything with the house for a bit. It can wait, right? I just want to see...maybe I can get to know her now. Please?"

Aunt Rosie didn't dwell much on guilt and regrets, but I had clearly struck a nerve. "All right. We'll take a look at some of these books, but I guarantee you'll agree with me by the end of the weekend that 90 percent of it should be trashed."

She left me there, as I pushed some papers and books aside to sit down on the floor and look through the volume that was sitting in my hand. I skimmed through...the book seemed to be filled entirely with hand-written dialogue, and my heart sank a little as I realized that she might be right about the work's literary merits. A brief sample:

"You have no idea how much I missed you at work today.Margaret was complaining about me today talking about how I made mistakes in the bulletin, and I dont really care all I was thinking about was you, but it still makes me mad because she doesn't have to do any of the typing or work on the computer.She just sits at her desk and drinks her coffee and complains about me."

"You shouldn't pay any attention to her. And now your with me so you don't have to think about any of that."

"Your right. Were together now."

My reading was interrupted when I heard Aunt Rosie gasp loudly. The second bedroom, it seemed, was filled with even more books.