Rosemary glanced at the clock on the wall above the bed and thought, inexplicably, of how she disliked her name. She’d grown used to it by now, but still it struck her as old-fashioned and silly. When she was a child, growing up among the countless Jennifers and Ashleys and Patricias and even a few leftover Susans from the generation before, she’d hated it; it felt awkward coming out of her mouth when she said it, like a wad of gum lodged half up against her molars when she went to spit it into the trash can. The name didn’t even have a good story behind it: There was no iconic, majestic grandmother named Rosemary, no tragically drowned great-great-aunt who perished in a backyard pond before anyone alive now was around to know who she was. No, instead Rosemary was named after a plant, a scrawny shrub her hippie parents had bought for their first home together. She had heard the story so often by the time she was a teenager, going through the cruel parts of adolescence, that she would sit just behind her mother while she told the tale, mimicking the older woman’s gestures and the tilt of her head while she spoke. Her mimicry was perfect, and her mother was either oblivious or too proud to admit that she knew what was going on behind her in those days.
“We bought that little plant the day we moved into our first place together,” she would say, smiling faintly at the memory. Beside her, Rosemary’s father would nod his head slightly, looking vaguely amused, as he often did anyway. Rosemary did not remember her mother ever telling the story without her father there, though she must have, at least once. “It looked a little bit sick, and we were flat broke at the time, but your father said that if we could keep that little shrub alive, it didn’t matter what else happened, we’d always have something around that tasted good. And of course you know, we did keep it alive, and so when you were born, we named you after our Rosemary plant, hoping you’d grow up beautiful and strong just like you did.”
Rosemary was grateful that her mother was always so positive at the end of the story. Certainly, she did not always see her daughter as beautiful, and perhaps wished she was a little bit less strong, as they suffered through the pain of her growing up. Rosemary had been a careful child, dressing her room in the closest thing to Laura Ashley she could find at the thrift stores she was forced to frequent, deliberately contrasting the Grateful Dead posters and ridiculous beaded curtains that made the rest of the house look like some ancient relic, a shrine to the 1960s. Later, she joined the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, although she was never an athlete and didn’t really identify as Christian, only pretended to be for a while. The people in the club grew tiresome, though, and her parents’ indifferent response to her small act of rebellion made it not worth the effort to suffer through the meetings. Rosemary sometimes looked at her own daughter, a skinny, angular girl of ten who still called Rosemary “Mommy” and slept with a worn pink stuffed gorilla, and wondered if they had just a few years left before they, too, began to battle over everything. Rosemary didn’t think so; perhaps she was smug about her perfection as a parent, but were she to admit the truth to herself—as she occasionally did, lying awake next to her husband in the dark, listening to him snore into the pillow—she would say that she had made herself into a deliberately bland parent, a bland person, really, and so there was likely little for her and her daughter to bicker over.
She looked in the mirror and tried to imagine herself as a Tiffany or a Lisa and could not. Her hair needed a trim, she noticed; Rosemary hated the way it began to curl over her ears when it grew too long. Hers was a sensible haircut, brisk and efficient, not like those other mothers who foolishly let their hair grow long and tangled, or wore fussy styles, chopped short in the back and long in the front, often with garish “highlights” capping the tips. These women seemed always to be heavy through the hips, with tattooed ankles and dark lipliner, and Rosemary wondered how they had time for such things when there were so many dinners to be made and sheets to be folded. Rosemary’s own mother had always worn her hair long, and even into her forties and fifties would wind it into two messy braids more days than not. Rosemary thought her mother looked like a cheap rag doll on these days, but could not tell her so.
Suddenly, Rosemary remembered passing by a hair salon with her mother while they were on some outing or another. Large posters hung in the windows: sullen models with edgy, modern haircuts, and her mother pointed to one and laughed. “Look at her hair, covering one eye. How do you think she sees like that?” Rosemary had agreed, and they had stood for a moment under the awning, watching the women inside snipping away at a row of heads, all lined up. They looked almost eerie, black-cloaked shoulders and all facing the same direction, eyes blank in the long mirror that covered one wall. Only the stylists seemed animated, and Rosemary wondered briefly whether the heads were real at all.
Sinking back down onto the bed, Rosemary let one memory slide into another. Her mother at her sewing machine, hair tucked up into a bun, fingers moving like manic spiders over a length of fabric as it gobbled up thread for a dress or a blouse or a purse. Her mother arriving home one day, lugging a large, flat wooden cat, and then a ghost, and then a pumpkin out of the back of her beat-up hatchback. “Look!” her mother cried, “We can paint these and put them in the yard for Halloween!” It was only September then, Rosemary remembered, but her mother had always gotten excited about holidays and started them too early. They sat side-by-side, painting long into the night, and when Rosemary felt she’d made the cat’s yellow eyes too large, her mother called them perfect, and then called Rosemary perfect. She had forgotten that part till just now.
Her mother chasing a bold chicken off the porch, swatting at it with a broom until it gave up its quest to join their family barbecue and hopped off, grumbling and indignant.
Her mother gently toweling off her hair after she was caught in an afternoon thunderstorm trying to get from the bus stop to home.
Her mother perched on the edge of Rosemary’s bed—this bed, where she sat now—and giving her a worn copy of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Her mother believed in used book stores, and most of Rosemary’s books were soft around the edges and bore the name of some other girl inside the front cover.
Her mother making stroganoff, jambalaya, the birthday cake with the nuts and the cherries and the tiny chocolate chips throughout, capped by a rich layer of milk chocolate frosting.
Her mother painting her toenails, always purple or blue or green, never a sensible pink, nestled into the oversized chair in the corner of the living room.
Her mother holding Rosemary’s own daughter, moments after her birth, whispering into the infant’s tiny ear. Rosemary had never asked what her mother said. It wasn’t her place to know.
Her mother in the kitchen during one of Rosemary’s rushed visits, standing over the tea kettle, looking weary. Rosemary noticed the circles under her mother’s eyes looked deeper than usual, as if she’d been fighting with someone, almost. Her hands rested on the counter and when Rosemary asked if she was okay, her mother said yes, of course, just a little tired. She hadn’t been sleeping well.
Rosemary lay back on the bed and looked around the room, imagining she’d never seen it before. Her posters were still there, sweaty-looking musicians and chiseled actors, and one out-of-place kitten sitting in a meadow. Her laptop sat on the desk where she used to sit and write in her journal, and next to the bench where she used to lie and talk on the phone for hours, her mother had placed her yarn basket and a small CD player with built-in speakers. Rosemary’s room, though mostly underground, had one large window that let in the best afternoon sunlight, and her mother had liked to sit in here, before she began to hate the stairs. Rosemary had thought of creeping out that window one night to meet some boy, but as she slid it open, her mother had called down the stairs, “Good night, Rosemary,” and she was afraid to try after that.
Rosemary glanced at the clock again and, sighing, stood and stretched. She ascended the stairs, feeling twice as old as she was, every step a chore. The house upstairs was silent, and Rosemary thought she should turn on some music for her mother. Her mother had always loved music. She crossed to the front door and stepped into the tiny herb garden her mother had planted. It was beginning to look a little scruffy now, but neither Rosemary nor her father could define why or knew how to make it look like it should. One step, two, and Rosemary stood over the rosemary plant, bent and twisted a stubborn twig away from the rest of the shrub. She held it for a moment, lost in something not quite like thought, but close, before stepping back into the house.
In the kitchen, Rosemary set the kettle to boil and turned the radio on, found the classic rock station. She cringed a little when Pearl Jam drifted from the speakers; was she really that old already? There were green tea bags in the pantry, chai, apple cinnamon for when the grandkids visited; her mother was not fond of that flavor herself. It didn’t much matter which she chose, Rosemary thought, but she let her hand drift past the apple to the lemon zinger behind it, chose a bag from that box, went through the motions of making tea as if on autopilot. This was the easy part, like remembering how to breathe. She could do this part.
A spoonful of honey for the tea, and Rosemary remembered feeling small and sickly, tucked under a quilt in the corner of their faded old couch, opening her mouth for the spoon her mother offered. “Open wide,” her mother said, opening her own mouth along with Rosemary, as if to show her how. The honey soothed her throat, tamed her cough for a moment, and Rosemary thought this must be magic. Her own kids came to her the same way on the rare occasions they felt sick, bird-mouthed and puny, waiting for Rosemary to dip the spoon into the fat jar of local honey on the counter, curing them for a moment, making them well.
She placed the jar of honey on the tray next to the mug, laid a clean spoon alongside.
Picked up the sprig of rosemary from the counter, crushed a few coarse needles between her fingers, lifted them to her face and inhaled deeply.
Laid them gently between the mug and the jar of honey, and then on second thought, lifted the mug, poured the beverage into a teacup, a dainty thing with gold around the rim and violets painted on. The empty cup hook looked lonely now, and she wished for another cup, just the same, to put back in its place.
Rosemary remembered then sitting next to her mother at the big round dining room table, sipping warm milk tea and eating snickerdoodles, watching the kitchen curtains blow the same way they were now. It was this same time of year, the tea party she was remembering, not quite fall, still hot outside, but with a more settled, resolute feel to the air. The breeze seemed determined to come in and stay, not to try and rush her outdoors to the sprinkler or the swingset or the little girls across the street. It was a breeze that said, “Don’t go,” and Rosemary wished she could place it on the tray as well, carry it in to her mother, make her listen to it speak.
It seemed all Rosemary had done the past few days was remember.
On the drive up, she had tortured herself with Warren Zevon, listening to his final album from beginning to end and then over again, the whole way up. How did it feel to know you were dying? Did her mother want to sing, to write? Was she trapped inside her skin, were her eyelids bars keeping her locked in? Was her voice inside her head the same one Rosemary heard at night, waking her from a fitful sleep, making her cry out like a small child, “Mommy?” She felt foolish when this happened, and grateful her husband was a sound sleeper.
In her mother’s room, a lanky young man in neat scrubs and comfort-soled clogs sat in a worn recliner next to the bed, reading a tabloid magazine. This irritated Rosemary; her mother disliked magazines such as those, and it felt like an affront to have one being read right in front of her, as if she wasn’t there. As if she didn’t know. She dismissed the young man with a nod toward the tray in her hands, stood just to the side of the door as he walked past, giving her the look of sympathy she’d grown to despise in just a few short days. She bet he still had his mother. She bet his mother sent him cookies at Christmas and scolded him for not bringing his girlfriends around to meet her. She bet he never had to change his mother’s soiled sheets, or to wonder why the skin on her hands looked as if it had been through the wash one too many times, like an old sheet ready to disintegrate but too pricey when it was new to throw away or make into rags just yet. She wondered if he called his mother after leaving here, grateful it was not her in this bed, about to leave.
Rosemary set the tray on the bedside table, and noticed a flash of blue under the bed. Her mother’s slippers, half-hidden there, waiting for her get up and put them on.
She could deal with the hospital smell in the room. She could deal with the nurse, with the pill bottles cluttering the dresser, with her mother’s unshaved legs peeking like pale stems from under the sheet. She could deal, even, with her father’s absence, understood the long walks he took down to the creek, staring vacantly out at the trees. She had followed him down there once, and turned away only when she realized he was crying, and needed to be left alone.
She could not deal with the slippers waiting there.
Her mother was not supposed to be like this. She should be in her slippers, making tea by herself. She should be walking out to fetch the newspaper or the mail, hanging laundry on the line below the porch. She should be sitting in her living room chair, legs crossed, one slipper just barely hanging on to the tips of her toes, while she worked a crossword puzzle. She should be in her slippers, moving, ready to go. She needed her slippers to be on.
With a kind of manic energy that almost frightened her, Rosemary grabbed the slippers and reached for her mother’s foot. The nails, she noticed, were bare, and she fought back tears. First the left foot, then the right, and now her mother’s slippers were on. She could move, now. She could get up. She could walk again, she had to.
“I gave you your slippers, Mom,” she said, settling at the edge of the bed at her mother’s elbow. Her mother smiled, made an effort to speak.
“Do you remember where you got these?” she asked her mother, and waited what seemed like hours for the sigh that told her to go on. “It was at that church rummage sale, the one you said you were afraid to go to because of all the fundamentalists there. But we went, and you found these. Two dollars, brand new, you said, you couldn’t resist. Do you remember?” she asked.
Rosemary lifted the cup of tea, took a sip, held it to her mother’s lips. Picked up the rosemary leaves from the tray and cradled them gently in her palm, lifted her mother’s hand, small like a child’s in her own. “Tell me again about my name, Mom. Tell me the story about the rosemary plant.” And then she lay down by her mother, closed her eyes, and listened.