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Essay

AMMA IS COMING to live in Richmond,” Mom announced one night at the dinner table. Elizabeth and I looked at each other quickly. Which of us would have to give up her bedroom? Immediately I began constructing an argument in my mind, listing the reasons why Elizabeth’s room would be more suitable for Amma—it was farther away; it had an adjoining bathroom; it was larger. And then I realized that were Amma to move into Elizabeth’s room, Elizabeth would move into mine, a smaller room with a double bed.

But Elizabeth wouldn’t be asked to move. Because I was the older, I’d be the one chosen to sacrifice. With a forkful of corn pudding half way to my mouth, I mentally emptied out my closet and moved my desk from my room into my sister’s.

Then Mom added, “She won’t live here, of course.”

I tried not to show my relief. Elizabeth made good use of the opportunity provided by Mom’s self-absorption to whisk a piece of bread from her plate and hide it in her lap. Mom murmured piteously, “As if there wasn’t enough to do!”

But she had already found the boarding house on Maple Avenue, near Saint Catherine’s, where Amma could have a nice room, near enough so that Mom might drop in to see her on her way home from school. Too near! Too near! I cried out silently, immediately resentful. I didn’t want my friends in the ninth grade to know that my grandmother, like a poor relation in a novel, had moved into a boarding house. The house, I imagined, would be dark and shabby, nearly hidden from view by two tall black spruce trees.

Mom said she would do Amma’s grocery shopping and laundry, bring her over for dinner now and then, take her to the doctor. Amma was “doing poorly,” she said, and no one seemed to know why as yet.

“Why do you have to take care of her?” I asked, edgy because Mom seemed flustered. There were other grown children. Uncle Billy, Uncle Theo, and Aunt Too-Too right in town; Uncle Ashton in Norfolk. Only Uncle Dennis lived two states away.

“I’m the older daughter,” Mom replied. “It falls to me.”

Dad’s face closed in on itself and looked dark, but he said nothing.

§

“Amma’s yellow.” Elizabeth sounded shocked. After a half year on Maple Avenue and exploratory surgery, Amma had been diagnosed with cancer. “The cancer’s eating her, and she’s turning yellow,” my sister emphasized. She had come into my bedroom and was standing right beside me, hands on her hips. Looking up from the homework on my desk, I considered the possibility that she was trying to frighten me, but Elizabeth’s concern for Amma showed in her eyes. Amma’s cancer, we’d been told, had spread everywhere, but it had begun in her liver. Mom had told me that Amma was jaundiced, and I had looked up the word. Now I turned it over in my mind again. Jaundiced was a word whose connotations included cynical, detached, unconcerned.

Thinking of Amma’s body, wasted from within by cancer, I saw a bowl with worms breeding in it—and then I thought of the science experiment I’d done in fifth grade. I’d put a chunk of raw beef in a glass jar, left it open for a day to the air, then shut it away in the dark of the basement. When I remembered to open the lid and look in, the air filled with a buzz of green bottle flies. Amma hated flies.

I wondered what shade of yellow Amma’s skin had turned. I imagined my mother at her bedside in the hospital. I could see her hands push hair back from her forehead, her gray eyes darting here and there. I saw her forehead furrow, her mouth open, nearly speechless, calling “Mother?” softly.

But Amma lay there still as a statue. Buttercup. Mustard. Jonquil. Margarine. Amelia County mud. There she was.

There she was, the source of eight children, all but two still living. There she was, whose favorite tree, the sycamore, raised a rare light of appreciation into her eyes. I marveled at how little I knew about Amma.

Buttercup. Mustard. Mud.

I knew Elizabeth wanted me to talk to her about the distress and fear I preferred to keep to myself. I had not hardened my heart, as Pharaoh had, but my feelings did not reveal themselves, even to me, quickly. I needed to think it over first. I needed to see it for myself—to imagine. I had to make it vivid. I needed time to find the right words.

With Amma’s illness now diagnosed as cancer, I felt ashamed of my resentment that she’d been moved so near Saint Catherine’s. But it was hard to call up love for Amma, who had always brought with her a sense of displacement and loss. Now, however, the family seemed to love Amma because she was dying. Mom said the ties of the blood were the strongest, stronger than marriage. She usually said this when Elizabeth and I were at odds, using words to try to shame us back into a harmony we resisted and which felt false, because it was forced.

Did people love because they felt they should?

Did they love in spite of—or because of—their own unloving feelings?

Did people love because they were afraid not to?

Why did no one else in the family ask questions like this? It was all cloudburst, then sunshine and never you mind, or worse, a verse from the Bible. Were I to ask them, I’d get nowhere, I wrote on my grammar assignment on the subjunctive.

Next afternoon, I heard voices in the kitchen when I got home from school, and I put down my books and headed for the kitchen.

“No, no, I’ll just run along,” a familiar voice was saying to Mom as I approached the kitchen door. I saw Too-Too first, leaning against the icebox. Although her voice was high-pitched and cheery, Too-Too had backed away so close to the icebox that she could have melted into the door and joined the milk in the cool interior. Mom sawed away with a knife at a cold joint of lamb left from Sunday dinner. As the solidified white borders of fat crumpled away, Mom hacked the meat from the bone. Dark brown au jus had congealed on the plate and was speckled with bits of fat. Her thin hair falling out of the side-combs, her face clenched, almost savage, Mom looked up and commanded, “Come on in here. I want you to know how to do this when I’m gone.”

I came to a halt at the threshold, speechless.

Mom put down the carving knife, took a slice of cold, fatty lamb, and folded it roughly inside a slice of Nolde’s bread. She held it out in Too-Too’s direction.

“Take it,” she insisted. “You must be starved.”

“No, no,” Too-Too demurred. “We missed lunch so long ago, my appetite’s completely gone.”

They must have been to see Amma, I thought. Too-Too must have come to give Mom a ride to the nursing home to see their mother. I didn’t know exactly where Amma was now, and Elizabeth didn’t know either. “Mom thinks she’s protecting us,” I told Elizabeth.

“I think we should be allowed to visit her,” she had objected.

Mother was hungry, and if Too-Too would not eat, if neither of her daughters would eat as much as she wanted them to at the dinner table, if her own mother was dying: well then, she was hungry, she would eat. She took a large mouthful of the sandwich and gestured to me, her free hand picking up the carving knife.

I shook my head. I should join her, I should do what she wants, I should make her feel less alone, I thought. But I couldn’t eat that cold, fatty lamb. Mom forced a snort of air from her nose in disapproval, then shrugged. What could she do?

“Well, I’d better be running along,” Too-Too said. She paused and studied Mom. “I’ll call you in the morning. You go on now and take a load off your feet. Get some rest.”

Too-Too slipped past me.

“I’ll go with her to the door,” I murmured to Mom.

Every day Mom looked wearier. No one would say we were waiting for Amma to die, but it felt that way.

“Remember her the way she was,” Mom had demanded yesterday, pushing into my hands an old photograph, brownish in its tints and tones. As if someone had died, the lady in the photograph wore a dark silk dress with a high collar, her abundant dark hair parted in the middle and brushed away from her face, fastened so that her hair swelled on each side of the part like the plump breast of a bird. Next to her stood a child of perhaps two years, the lady’s hands hidden by the child’s white clothing. The child wore a close-fitting white linen bonnet—more chaplet than bonnet—tied beneath her chin with a large bow. Her buttoned linen coat was starched, and from the shoulders there stood out points of lace, like wings. She held her little hands together as she and her mother gazed off in the same direction, the child a study of pensive contentment. Although she smiled, the dark-haired lady’s eyes were softly sad. Whatever the source of her grief, she wouldn’t be the one to speak about it. Mother and daughter, the pair looked like English history. They looked Victorian.

“Who is it?” I blurted out, meaning the child, recognizing my mother’s eyes in the child’s face only as I spoke the question. Before Mom could answer, I added quickly, “Is that Amma?” and I pointed to the dark lady. Glancing quickly at her face, moving my eyes across it without pausing, I could detect my sister’s features in Amma’s face, and that surprised me. Mom always professed not to know whom Elizabeth resembled, but there she was, a shadow in Amma’s face.

“It was a long time ago,” Mom answered. “Look at her regal bearing.”

Elizabeth looks like Amma. How could Mom not know that?

“I only remember Amma with long white hair,” I began, breaking off when Mom abandoned the photograph and rushed into her bedroom. I could hear her blowing her nose. Then she cleared her throat with that choked noise that fell between a skid and high C on the piano. The bed creaked, and she called out. “Get me up in time to put on the potatoes.”

I stood where I stood, outside her door, holding the photograph in my hand. Two figures against a blank background. Two figures tucked inside an oval meant to protect them from the unknown, meant to yoke them into an intimacy that would never fail.

At the door, Too-Too had said, shaking her head, “I could tell you stories.” Then she brightened. “That’s for another time!” And she dashed off. Now, outside my mother’s door, the stories I did not know pressed around me, their secrets intact. I heard my mother’s breath growing deeper and more even.

I remembered her saying, “I want you to know how to do this when I’m gone.” I saw again the white kitchen table, the hungry look to her hands, her thin silver hair with its faint blue tint. She looked pale, unsatisfied. But when I tried to imagine her death—the room; the position of her feet; other people dressed in white, in black; the timbre of her breathing, I couldn’t. I tried to hear her voice come closer to being able to say, Ease my death. But I couldn’t see her death. I could only tell myself that were she to look down to the foot of her bed, in that finally unimaginable room, I would be there. “I will be there,” I whispered, standing by myself, standing nowhere, unprotected, outside her room, my heart blind and stupefied.

§

In the open casket, Amma’s face was smooth and composed. Her cheeks were rouged. Was it Amma? She wore one of her dark suits, a white frill at the neck. She wore a hat, as if she had just arrived in Richmond from the country. I looked around for her large black pocketbook, trying to keep my balance in my new high-heeled shoes. Red, they were wrong for wake or funeral, but my dress was navy blue. The seams in my stockings, supposed to rise straight up the backs of my legs, were already turning crooked.

Mother appeared at my side, materializing out of a room made unreal by background organ music and dim lights. The funeral parlor was crowded with family I had rarely or never seen, the room so hot I felt queasy. Mother took my arm cozily and said, “Doesn’t she look beautiful?”

I will never know what I might have felt or how I might have responded had she, saying nothing at all, simply stood with me as I looked at the first person I’d ever seen dead. Beautiful? No, she wasn’t beautiful, but there was room in my mother’s question for one answer only.

The hand can be quicker than the eye—is it quicker than the heart, too? Instinctively I shook free of my mother’s grip on my arm. I didn’t want a dishonest bond, even if it meant I had to see her immediate woundedness, before which I was defenseless, then angry. The feelings just came, and I knew them for what they were. That surprised me. But to show even a fraction of these feelings was not permissible in the etiquette of the funeral parlor.

As I paused, understanding intervened. My mother had seen Amma yellow, and I had not. Perhaps now, by contrast, Amma did look beautiful. By the time I felt contrition and sympathy, Mom had moved away from me and been met by an older lady I didn’t know, who hugged her. I was beginning to sink into my own thoughts, when Elizabeth came over and whispered that Amma’s suit had been stuffed with tissue paper to make her clothes fit. We winced.

All the next day, during the long ride to Concord Presbyterian Church, located somewhere in the country, I was careful to be polite and solicitous around Mom. Then I realized it was too late; she didn’t need me. As the chief caregiver to Amma, she was the focus of attention and gratitude. She had sacrificed to take care of her mother and now took a central place in the ceremony of mourning. I felt bad that, as a daughter, mother wouldn’t be allowed the family Bible—it would go to one of Amma’s sons. Wouldn’t Mom want it?

“The estate,” I heard Uncle Ashton say, would be “small, if anything,” and nothing would be said about it in the obituary.

Representing Dad’s family, Mimi and Uncle Allan followed our car to Concord Presbyterian Church, and they left after the service. They had not gone inside the church for the “viewing” Mom had said that people in the country would expect. I didn’t know where in the country we were, but we couldn’t, I thought, be that far from Richmond, if you counted miles. I was surprised we weren’t in Amelia. Wasn’t it Amelia Mom called home? We were somewhere south of Petersburg. If one were to use a school compass, putting down the fixed leg with the point, that was Richmond. Turning the mobile leg with the pencil, drawing a circle—that would delineate the edge of the known world. Beyond it—yonder—was outer darkness and anonymity, and over that boundary we had carried Amma’s strange remains.

It was dark when, finally, we were back on the road, feeling our way home.

§

A week or so later, we attended a Methodist Church on the north side, sang Methodist hymns, and listened to a Methodist sermon. We sang “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The church service didn’t seem very different to me from our Presbyterian one.

“You can’t beat the Episcopal hymnbook,” I teased my mother afterwards, and she looked at me as if I’d said tomayto, not tomahto. Such disloyalty! Such heresy! It wouldn’t have done to have pointed out that the Episcopal hymn book—the one we used at our Episcopal school, Saint Catherine’s—was closer to England and to the queen than the Presbyterian hymnbook my mother defended hotly, if mutely.

I asked why Ashton Doyle’s family was Methodist and not Presbyterian, like us. Mom laughed. “In our family,” she said, “we stick to our guns.” When Amma married my grandfather, she was Presbyterian, and Leigh Richmond Doyle was Methodist. As a compromise, when there were children, my grandfather agreed to drive the boys to the Methodist Church, among them Ashton. Amma had gathered up the girls and had taken them in the buggy wagon to Concord Presbyterian Church. Hers was a sure hand on the reins—that was the explanation. But until we’d gone to the Methodist Church with Cousin Sandra, Ashton’s younger daughter, now married and living in Richmond, I hadn’t known about the religious divide. That was the power of asking questions. At least sometimes a question worked like a spade in the garden and churned old dirt up to the surface.

“They’re Irish,” my father said, as if that explained everything about the Doyles, and Mom glared at him. “English,” she said firmly. Castleton, Edmunds—English.

On the way to Sandra’s after church, Mom assured us that Ashton and Gerry would arrive from Norfolk, just up for a visit. Sandra had said she was making creamed chicken, rice, and tomahto aspic. It was all perfectly normal, she said.

If it was so perfectly normal, I thought, why say so? Even the menu sounded too perfectly normal.

As we were taking off our coats, I smelled a freshly baking turkey. So much for Mom’s assurances. To cook a turkey meant a big occasion. “It won’t be ready for another hour,” Sandra wailed. I smiled. So we were having a perfectly normal big occasion, the sort that put grown-ups in a swivet.

Just then Ashton and Gerry came to the door. When Ashton saw Mom, he exclaimed, “Well, I might have known it!”

“Now Ashton,” Gerry soothed. She was much taller than he was and wore high heels anyway. Most Doyles were little bantam roosters, Sandra had said once. She’d inherited her mother’s length of bone. Tall also, I’d laughed with her, as if our height excused us from being hens in the Doyle chicken yard.

I didn’t laugh now, however. Ashton turned on his heel and demanded, “Where’s my hat? I’m leaving. You should have told me, Sandra. Where’s my hat!?

After Dick and Sandra intervened, Ashton calmed down and removed his hat. It had never left his head.

Elizabeth and I sat on the sofa and looked out the picture window that offered us a view of the blank back yard. One skeleton tree, a bare picnic table. I could hear a series of puffs of air from Elizabeth’s nose, prelude to a snigger or a snuffle. Neither of us knew whether to laugh or cry. I didn’t dare risk looking at her. The grown-ups considered us briefly and motioned each other toward the kitchen. It wouldn’t do for the family to argue in front of the children.

From the kitchen then came raised voices, interjections, and interruptions. Then Dad left the kitchen.

“I’m not helping the situation,” he muttered.

I looked at his eyes. He was okay. He was calm.

“Doyles,” he said to Dick, who had followed him out. There was a football game on the television, and Dick settled Dad down in the chair before it with a sherry.

Should we pretend to watch TV, too? We watched the screen and listened to the kitchen.

“Ashton, you of all people should know I would never….” and Mom began to cry.

I wondered why she said you of all people. Now Dad pushed up from his seat, then sank back down.

Dick came over to Elizabeth and me. “It’s okay,” he said. “Let them have it out. This is how the Doyles mourn their loved ones. They have a fight. Once the air is cleared, everything will be fine. You’ll see.”

Listening, we learned that days after Amma’s funeral, Ashton had confronted Mom over the estate. Where was the insurance policy that named Too-Too as the beneficiary? Ashton had helped Amma take it out when Louise was still a young child with no father to support her. Now Too-Too was owed that money by the insurance policy.

“It’s simple,” he said. “Either you stole your sister’s money, or you didn’t.”

Mom’s voice grew louder and more mournful. There had been so many bills.

More quietly Ashton said, “You had no right.” He paused and cleared his throat. “Leastwise without talking to me or to Lou.”

“But Ashton….” Mom’s voice trailed off. All the voices became too soft to hear.

Let the past be the past, finally I heard Mom say.

And, right on schedule, Sandra sang out, “Turkey’s done!”

It was over.

On the drive home, Mom pouted. “As if I could have called on them!”

Dad nodded, his eyes on the road. “That’s right,” he said.

“No one but…. Well, they didn’t offer to lift a finger, not a blessed one of them.”

The rift between Mom and Ashton, which I’d thought bridged, apparently wasn’t. Or was this just the acrid smell of smoke after the house had burned down? I wondered if in Ashton’s car there was also a lingering smoke of resentment and blame. The gulf between the living and the dead seemed small compared to that between the living and the living.

Elizabeth started to say something, and I poked her in the ribs. She nodded. We shouldn’t say pea turkey.

“Well, I can forgive,” Dad was saying. “But I don’t think I can forget.”

Mom looked over at him, pleased. “You’re so loyal,” she murmured.

From the look on Dad’s face, she might as well have said, “Rise, Sir John.”

§

Every night after supper, the family settled into the separate rituals that defined each of us. My mother washed dishes; my father dozed and watched the news. My sister listened to records. I sat at my desk trying to think through the assignment Miss Gwathmey had given us in Bible studies. To do this assignment right, she’d warned—but with her warm, crooked, red-lipstick smile—you’ll have to think and think hard.

Recently hired, Miss Gwathmey was young. She sparkled with intelligence, wore makeup, and drove a red thunderbird. Engaged to a young man at Washington and Lee, she taught…Bible studies? Did she have a Bible in her glove compartment, we giggled? Did she and her beloved read the Song of Solomon to each other? Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats, moving down the slopes of Gilead.

At first, Miss Gwathmey had set us to learning the lists of the kings of Israel and Judah. We poured over the prophets, memorized psalms. After some weeks of this, Miss Gwathmey complained that her assignments were too academic. “You have to live the questions these stories raise.” To help us do just that, she gave us each a story to study. We were to investigate, imagine, inquire. We were to pick a character and become so intimate with him that we could be that person. See with his eyes, hear with his ears, know his heart, live his faith. Once we were clear about his strengths and weaknesses and our own, we were to apply the problem that the biblical hero faced to our own experience—if we could. The essay was due in a week.

And God tempted Abraham, and said unto him, Take Isaac, thine only son, whom thou lovest, and get thee to the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon the mountain I will show thee…. The story gave me the opportunity of slipping inside Abraham or Isaac, and I reread it in Genesis in both the Revised Standard Version and in the King James, sifting detail, listening for nuance, weighing changes in tone. It was a troubling story. Even when I tried to take raw notes, I was unable to put words down on the expectant and demanding straight blue lines of my composition paper. At school, I talked with other girls about their stories and their progress, but I kept my difficulties to myself. When I thought about Abraham binding Isaac and drawing the knife, I fled the scene on Mount Moriah, watching as the heights turned into our basement, the long knife into my father’s leather belt.

Nancy Spreen was working with a story in Judges about Jeptha, the son of a harlot, a brigand chosen to be a general, who before battle against the Ammonites promised God that, should he be given the victory, he would offer as burnt offering whoever first came out of his own house to greet him on his return. I could understand praying like that, bargaining in desperation, promising the moon. After his victory in battle, met upon his homecoming by his daughter, Jeptha had to keep his promise and sacrifice what he loved. Jeptha’s daughter, obedient to the sacrifice, had asked only for two months’ time to mourn her coming death as a virgin, for she had not “known” a man. I could imagine composing songs, relishing the sympathy and horror of my friends, and Nancy was going to write as Jeptha’s daughter, sorrowful and angry. She would wear purple and sing a lament in the style of the psalms.

If I could imagine having the courage to be that obedient, I could also imagine running away. Jeptha’s daughter, however, didn’t run; she obeyed and died. Was obedience at times self-slaughter? That was a question I couldn’t yet consider—and didn’t until years later. Jeptha kept his promise to God—however he might have felt personally—although I wondered if the weight of his daughter’s value to him was as great as a son’s might be. Would he have killed his son? He might have. Jeptha, it seemed to me, valued his reputation as a keeper of his word more than he valued a daughter or a son.

Abraham, however, confounded me. I remembered how he had been praised in Sunday school as the model of faith in God, and how easily I had agreed. When God made demands, one obeyed. But how could Abraham have been willing to kill his own son? That he’d talked to no one about God’s orders showed that he was ashamed and fearful. He kept what he would do a secret. If he struggled with his decision to obey, he didn’t let on to his wife or to Isaac. He had, at the summit of the mountain, bound his son, and he had raised his own hand—no one made him do it.

What kind of God, I asked myself, would ask you to kill your son? How could Abraham say to his son, or to anyone, “God told me to do this?”

Who would believe him?

And how did he know the voice he heard was God’s? Even if he proved to God by obedience that he had faith, how did having faith make a planned murder holy?

I knew I wasn’t fully able to enter the dark of Abraham’s heart. Could I express Isaac’s distress and outrage? What could I find in my own life to liken to the experience of being Abraham or Isaac? God had not asked me to do anything against my conscience or human law. Except for hiding food, I was mostly obedient. Was Isaac afraid of his father? I could write about that fear…but no. To mention my fear of Dad’s anger would bring shame on him, on me. That was too risky.

I couldn’t talk to Dad, but perhaps I could talk to my mother about her having taken Amma’s insurance money without telling anyone. She had broken a code, if not a law, in the name of love, just as Abraham had nearly broken a law—Thou shalt not kill—while in the grip of faith. It wasn’t an exact match, but if I knew how she felt, perhaps I could understand Abraham. I imagined Abraham’s face with my mother’s features when she was brooding or sad, and I burst into tears. Why was that?

I didn’t want to know and swiftly returned to thinking other things through.

I remembered Ashton’s words—either she had stolen her sister’s money or she hadn’t. Clearly it wasn’t that simple—or was it? “Either you killed our son or you didn’t,” I could hear Sarah saying to Abraham. “It wasn’t God’s hand that held the knife; it was your own.”

Mom was in bed rereading The Rosary. It was a book about a love so noble the heroine could deceive the beloved for his own good. It was a book about self-sacrifice I’d read at my mother’s urging. “Mom,” I asked at her door. “Do you remember when Amma was sick, you decided to….”

“I’ve wanted to talk to you about that time,” Mom said quietly. She shut her book and looked at me steadily. “You know there’s nothing greater than a mother’s love. That’s how it is for you and for most children.”

I wondered where this was going. I hated it when she did my thinking for me. I hadn’t even finished my question. About to protest, I heard in another part of my mind an admonition. Be quiet, said my mind. Just listen.

“But it wasn’t that way for me.” Mom’s eyes brimmed. “You may as well know.” And she told me that Amma, for whom she had sacrificed so much at the end, had, when Mom was only a girl, disowned her.

“Disowned you?”

“Cast me out of her heart,” Mom said softly and dramatically. I didn’t then read melodrama as a red flag, and I drew nearer. “My two oldest brothers, they went to my mother and said that Ashton was trying to steal the farm from her.”

“When was this, Mom?”

“After they came back from the First World War. Those years were so hard, and we had so little.” She cleared her throat. “I said to Mother, ‘Ashton wouldn’t do something like that’—and she looked at me hard. I’ll never forget that look. Never. She said, ‘Well then, miss, if you hold with Ashton, you break with me.’ She may as well have killed me then and there,” Mom said.

“What happened?” I asked, nearly speechless.

She said she had gone off to college—thanks to Uncle Percy—but that Amma wouldn’t let her have anything to take from her room. “She said it wasn’t my house or Ashton’s anymore.” At Christmas Mom had gone to Ashton’s in Norfolk—he’d moved to Norfolk to better himself. “After I got my diploma and my job in Amelia, after I moved in with Aunt T, I never looked back.”

She lifted her chin, then paused. “I’ve tried to love you better than that. With all my love and with all the love I didn’t get.”

“Oh, Mom,” I said, and I hugged her. She needs a mother, I realized suddenly as she clung to me. She needs a mother, and she has only me. The thought made me back gently away. How could I be her mother?

“That should help you to understand,” she said, after a few minutes, both of us near tears.

But of course I didn’t understand. Mom had answered a question I hadn’t asked, and although I now understood why the house had felt so pinched and strained whenever Amma visited, I understood even less why Mom would have cashed in the insurance policy.

“Why did you do so much for Amma when she was dying?” I asked. I wanted to add, Why did you risk family censure and perhaps even break the law for a woman who had pitched you out of her heart?

“It was my duty,” Mom said simply. “I only did for her what you’d do for me.”

“Well, Ashton didn’t understand what you did or why.”

“But God did. It was God told me what to do. And if you don’t obey God, you’re nothing.”

How can you know it was God? I wanted to ask. His ghostly voice inside her mind was as troubling to me as God’s voice in Abraham’s.

“With faith, you can do anything,” my mother added, but I said none of what I was thinking.

She brightened. “Here I am keeping you from your homework, and it’s nearly ten o’clock. You go on back to your room now, my precious.” And she opened her book.

Back at my desk, I found that I could make an outline. I began to write—but Abraham, I decided, I’d avoid Abraham. He would kill Isaac because not to be obedient to God was self-murder. He loved himself more than he loved his son. I’d leave him alone with his faith, with his self-love, and with his terrible, or convenient, God. No, I would be Isaac. I would express his sense of betrayal and bewilderment, feelings that may have moved him years later to tell the story, when it was safe to tell it, when he could understand how his father had said “God” and “faith”—as an excuse for doing what you do without knowing why you do it.

As for my own experience, I couldn’t talk about my mother’s having been disowned by her mother, nor would I understand for many years the false connections between love and ownership or the injury they combined to construe. If I could not compare my experience with Isaac’s, I could, however, inhabit the realm of contrast. I could write about how I had once stolen Hershey bars from the drugstore. I’d been tempted and succumbed. God neither ordered nor sanctioned my theft, my hunger, my greed. My act, unlike Abraham’s, wasn’t the transgression of a human law for a supposed higher law or higher love. What I did was wrong, but comprehensible.

Who can understand Abraham? That would be my final sentence. I’d have to hope Miss Gwathmey would consider the question earned and not judge Isaac’s bewilderment, and mine, as failures of the imagination.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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