Passing Silent Messages

by Susan Dashiell

Miss Dinuzzio and I sat catty-corner in snug armchairs with three stacked nesting tables between us. She removed the glass bowl from the tabletop tattooed with faded cup rings.

“Do you have any questions?”

“Nope. I think I’m okay.” The job was straightforward. I would step in as Mother’s companion, so Miss Dinuzzio could teach her Saturday morning piano lessons in peace. Living in the apartment two floors above her, the agreement brokered between us guaranteed me free lessons in return for my services.

A vessel filled with jewel-toned sucking candy floated in front of me.

“Help yourself. Take a couple for later.”

“Thank you.” After selecting an orange sour ball, my attention shifted to the bell-shaped cage dangling from a shepherd’s hook pole in the corner.

“Pino’s a Roller Canary. They’re breed to sing.” Miss Dinuzzio rose from the armchair, smoothing her skirt. “He has a wide range of notes and will sing a melody if he hears it often enough.”

“Does he sing when students…”

“Mother.” Miss Dinuzzio expelled a quick breath and dashed forward.

A frail apparition in a long linen nightgown garnished with lace shook unsteadily in the foyer. The bumpy fingers of her outstretched arms brushed the walls, and a silky shawl slid off of one curved shoulder, settling in the bend of her arm. Unlike Miss Dinuzzio’s dark eyes, Mother’s were a weakened slate blue caught in a web of creases. Wavy strands of pewter hair cascaded down her back, and her thin pink lips formed a jack-o-lantern smile. I remember responding with a knee-jerk grin, because Mother looked like she held an absurd secret tucked between her quaking lips.

Madre cosa sia pensante?” Miss Dinuzzio asked, as she veered Mother in the opposite direction. “You know not to walk alone. You’re a stubborn one.”

She huffed guiding Mother down the hallway. To the degree Mother was able, she glanced over her shoulder tendering a gummy smile.

During my first year with Mother, my youthful diligence recast itself into devotion. The following year, my duties and hours increased, and we grew our own kinship. Back then Mother was shaky, but mobile, and still spoke more than a stray word here or there. My senior year of high school, Mother’s health plunged downhill in a landslide. Attending a New York City college, I stayed on as Mother’s trusted companion, with pay. Managing the essentials of bathing, dressing and feeding, I had become an extension of her.

“We’re leaving,” I pitched my voice to the rear of the house. “I’m taking Mother for her walk early today, while the sun’s still out.” It was odd that not a single family member, including grandnieces and nephews, ever used her given name, Donia.

Beneath zigzagged layers of a maroon and blue afghan, Mother’s richly worn face poked through the floppy kerchief. A flannel belt knotted behind the backrest of the wheelchair secured her upper body in place as an extra precaution on the uneven sidewalk.

Miss Dinuzzio rushed into the foyer. “Oh there it is.”

She grabbed her handbag from the side table, unsnapped the clasp and tucked in a pair of glasses. Attractive at age fifty-four, I once asked my mother why Miss Dinuzzio never married.

Tako-tsubo,” my mother had said.

I nodded grasping her expression, broken heart syndrome.

“If it’s okay, I want to stop at Parisi’s Bakery after church. Mother likes their pignoli cookies.”

Miss Dinuzzio took a quick glance in the full-length mirror before closing the closet.

“Go,” I said. “We’ll be fine.”

“When you come back, feel free to use the baby grand. Mother enjoys when you play.”

I glanced at the black-winged Steinway occupying a third of the living room. “Okay.” Tucking the tails of the afghan under Mother’s legs, I released the brakes on the chair.

“Luce.” Miss Dinuzzio paused catching my eye. “I appreciate you coming over so early on a Sunday morning.”

She blew Mother an air-kiss, but I don’t think it reached her. I flashed Miss Dinuzzio a reassuring smile and steered Mother out the door.

The cool temperature of the common hallway made the corners of Mother’s mouth tip up. Her wavering face looked at me with inquiring eyes. Clear thought no longer paved the way in her mind. Squatting in front of Mother’s wheelchair, I waded through the milky entrance to her eyes to find the blue sparks underneath. An intuition existed between us.

Mia madre poco. It’s just us gals,” I said. “We’re hitting the streets.” I leaned my forehead against Mother’s, her skin so thin and soft it was barely there.

The elevator arrived and we descended one story to the lobby. The weathered rails of Mother’s body wobbled in response to the bounce of the elevator settling. However, she was fresher this time of day, equipped with a better grasp of the outside world. Sundays shaved down the chaotic edges of the streets of Long Island City bringing Mother the best of the neighborhood, the outline of trees, calls of sparrows, and more light than shadows.

Exiting the apartment building, Mother parted and closed her lips, catching mouthfuls of breeze. I followed her lead, glad to experience the world as she saw it. A few days earlier, light fall flurries had dusted the ground, and Mother tipped her head back to catch snowflakes on her tongue.

Sticking to the sidewalk, we crossed the street and strolled past the handball courts in Raven Park. Passing benches scarred with carved names, we turned the corner and headed to the baseball field. Behind the sagging fence along the first base line, several sprawling trees formed a canopy of low hanging branches. I wove Mother around the lumpy root-knuckles pushing through the cobblestone.

Mother’s shrewd life-worn eyes widened when I positioned her under a tree with shades of golden yellow seeping into the leaves. Her lips quaked, producing an airy whisper, her hushed voice like a shell to be held close to my ear. Squatting in front of her, I clasped the tubing of her armrest and leaned in.

Conca D’Oro,” she said.

“Shells of gold.” I grinned holding her gaze. “Beautiful lemons in the tree.”

Her eyes brightened, then the moment faded, and she stared into the distance at nothing in particular. Familiar with her stories, a vivid picture fashioned itself in my mind.

Harvest time had arrived at her father’s lemon orchard in Palermo. Mother stood balancing on the rung of a ladder pressed into the wooden eaves of a lemon tree. Her dark hair fluttered like shiny banners as her outstretched arm twisted a ripe lemon from a leafy sprig. Her trained eye knew that unlike other fruits, lemons do not ripen off of the tree.

Early into our partnership Mother had pointed to Pino, and if I understood her Italian she said, “The little lemon bird likes its own cage. Lemon trees are social plants. They have to be surrounded by family if they are to thrive.” Then she winked. “Lemons give zest to kisses.”

Her folklore became a part of me.

Sitting cross-legged on the buckling cobblestone, I watched Mother’s lips form a tight circle that pulsed like a fish.

“Okay. You want a smoke.” I stood pulling a Magliano and book of matches from my jacket pocket. “Coming right up.” During family gatherings, Uncle Frank smoked Italian cigarettes, so I scouted for the flat snap case engraved with curlicue initials.

The Cupid’s bow of Mother’s lips formed a smile and she released a squeak of laughter. Sitting on the arm of her chair, my ribs ran alongside her body and I slipped my arm behind her.

Holding the cigarette to her mouth, Mother puffed leaving a damp ring on the filter. Wiping the wet tip on my pant’s leg, I took a puff and passed it back to her. She lifted her frail hand, vein tunnels poking through tissue-paper skin, and placed it on my thigh. I kissed her on the head and she patted my leg.

After her standard three puffs, I snuffed out the cigarette, and on cue Mother made a clicking sound with her tongue. Standing up, I reached in my back pocket, and removed a roll of cherry Life Savers and placed one in her mouth. She smacked and swallowed, nodding with satisfaction. As Mother whittled down the sweet lump, cloud covers wiped away the spotlight on the sidewalk, and Mother looked up watching the wooly tuffs feeding on the Sunday blue sky. A wiry man walking a chunky beagle caught her attention as he stepped onto the curb. The owner tugged on the leash, but the burly dog preferred the gutter. Bits of creaky laughter erupted from Mother’s crimped mouth. She tapped the arm of her chair, and I balanced sidesaddle again, so she could rest against me. I held her close as a breeze took a lap around us. Leaves skidded by scraping the sidewalk, and when the clouds refused to return the sun, we headed back home.

Entering the apartment, Mother’s gaze fixed on the black lacquer piano. Unwrapping her blanket, I studied her expression. We passed silent notes between us. After guiding Mother to the deep armchair, I removed a side panel from her wheelchair.

“For you, best seat in the house.” Lifting Mother’s withering frame, her ribs floated in my arms. After lowering her onto the bulky chair facing the piano, I elevated her feet on the hassock. I shook out a throw blanket and covered her. The chenille fabric fell limp in the nooks of her body. Making eye contact, ripened affection passed between us.

I opened the keyboard and pulled out the pincushion stool. “Mia madre poco, where shall we travel today?”

Some days I charged across the keys, but today required pastel colors and the chandelier dollops of rainbows that occasionally wiggled around the room. Mother’s manner suggested a sound that lured loose memories and blew back those already set free, stray visions and ideas she may have thought she just dreamed. I glanced at Mother nestled in the wide easy chair, hoping her most precious memories were hidden so deep inside that time couldn’t touch them.

My right hand rose, grazing the keyboard. Deliberate slow weight depressed the first key. My wrist swayed up to the right, a slight pause, then shifted down to the left, the inflection slight like a distant wave unfurling to spread itself over the water. Two measures of a simple melodic line consisting of four notes, a deliberate slow inhalation and exhalation of breath had the power to fill the room with a misty atmosphere. Mother ’s eyes radiated approval and her thin blue lids unfolded, ready to set sail on the first motif.

The notes continued layering, a ring of ripples spiraling out from a stone tossed in the water, the fluidity of chords unfolding, rolling back and forth, lantern bright, lantern dim, the whole world at twilight in slow motion. Mother released an elongated breath and her shoulders softened.

Today’s adaptation of Debussy’s Reverie followed Mother’s chest rising and falling, the metronome of her breath crystalizing and dimming shades of light and color. I moved with the conductor’s baton, breathing her breath, drawing out silver-toned voices in notes and phrases, taking the music along with her. Sweeping musical arches around us, I blended and overlapped chords, allowing some of the residue from the previous tones to blend into the next. We dreamed so deeply. We saw windswept fields and found the lazy moon asleep in the morning sky.

Mother’s whole being set the course for our travels. The strumming of a hummingbird, snap of a twig under a long-legged deer and sputter of the stream, the music passed us along soothing slopes.

In my stomach, a twinge of sadness fell with a soft thud, and for a moment I wonder if Mother was leading me through the places of an eternal goodbye. Intuition consoled me, reasoning that Mother’s nature had eased its way inside of me, finding a permanent home.

Tension fallen away, she dozed peacefully. Nearing the closing of the open-ended melody that drifts away at the double bar line, we breathed in the deep peace of shining stars.

About the Author

Susan Dashiell

Susan Dashiell is an emerging writer and middle school teacher living in Bloomfield, NJ.