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26 The Fifty Mothers

For several days I kept coming back to this: we had no body. I wanted to have a funeral for Hallie, but I was at a loss. I knew the remains should not have been important, but in a funeral the body gives the grieving a place to focus their eyes. We sit facing it, bear it on our shoulders, follow it down the road in procession and finally long to follow it into the ground. The body would have provided an agenda and told me what to do, in lieu of Hallie, who was gone.

I went to look for something else that in my mind stood for her: the semilla besada, one of the supernaturally blessed trees that in the old days were festooned like Christmas trees with the symbols of peoples hopes. We could hold a funeral there, outside, under the leaves. I wanted to find the exact plum tree where wed hidden a lock of our intertwined hair. I knew the orchard but couldnt find the tree. Either it was gone, or it was no longer exceptional. Maybe the trees all around it had stretched their taproots and found the same nurturing vein.

It was June, a week before Hallies thirtieth birthday. The canopies were in full green, each one as brilliant as a halo. The blossoms had dropped and left behind incipient fruits swelling three and four to a cluster, not yet pruned by nature or by hand. Every tree in every orchard looked blessed. So we had the funeral there, in the old Domingos plum orchard.

Id asked people to bring something that reminded them of Hallie. I spread the black-and-red afghan on the ground and we stood around that. Instead of decorating a tree with our hopes for the future, we decorated a blanket with icons from the past. All the women from Stitch and Bitch were there. And J.T. and Emelina, of course, and Loyd. All of my students, as well. Doc Homer didnt make it. He didnt go very far out of his house these days, or very far out of his head.

It was awkward getting started. I remembered the last time Id hugged her, thinking I could hold on and stop our lives right there. I took some breaths. Hallie asked to be buried in Nicaragua, I said. She wanted that. To enrich the soil of a jungle. But I wanted something here too. I stopped, because it sounded to me like small talk. Words only cover the experience of living. I looked around at the unpretentious faces like slices of bread, all the black dresses, the dark shoes, and I looked up at the bright leaves lit from above. It was a brilliant, hot day and I didnt feel at all like crying. The black dresses made me think of Greece. Nothing seemed quite real.

Several peacocks had gathered in the trees behind our heads, keeping their distance, but curious, probably hoping for food. A peacock wouldnt know the difference between a picnic and a funeral. The outward signs were similar.

Do you think we should sing? I asked.

Yes, said Emelina. We ought to sing.

What? I couldnt think of any particular song that Hallie liked, except some silly things from our teenage years. Mother and Child Reunion and Maggie May. I thought of Hallie moonwalking to Thriller, and then I thought abstractly about never seeing her again, what that really meant. In the back of my mind I was still wondering when she would come home. I couldnt concentrate. Someone suggested Let the Circle Be Unbroken, so we sang that, and then we sang De Colores because everybody knew it. Norma Galvezs husband Cassandro played the guitar.

Then it was quiet again. People shifted slightly on their feet, the same motion repeated many times throughout the crowd, like the dancers at Santa Rosalia. Except unconscious, and unrehearsed. I pulled some letters out of my pocket and read parts of them that Emelina had helped me pick out. I read what Hallie said about not wanting to save the world, that you didnt choose your road for the reward at the end, but for the way it felt as you went along. And I read some things shed said about nations forgetting. Refusing to sell tractor parts, then wondering why people would turn to Yugoslavia for tractors. I was aware that my reading might seem a little rambling, but I felt there was some logic to it, and people were tolerant. Truly, I think they would have listened to me all day. It occurred to me that such patience might be the better part of love.

I read a quote shed written me that seemed important, a thing said by Father Fernando Cardenal, who was in charge of the literacy crusade: You learn to read so you can identify the reality in which you live, so that you can become a protagonist of history rather than a spectator. I waited a minute, while a peacock screamed. Then I read some words of Hallies: The very least you can do in your life is to figure out what you hope for. And the most

Another peacock suddenly howled nearby. I saw Emelinas twins craning their necks, trying to spot it. I went on:

And the most you can do is live inside that hope. What I want is so simple I almost cant say it: elementary kindness. Enough to eat, enough to go around. The possibility that kids might one day grow up to be neither the destroyers nor the destroyed.

I finished by reading the letter from Sister Sabina Martin. She said thousands of people joined us in mourning Hallie. I know that doesnt make your grief any smaller, she wrote. But I believe it makes Hallies presence larger. Certainly, she wont be forgotten.

Several peafowl had hopped to the ground and were making insistent, guttural noises, impatient for food. I saw Glen and Curtis sneak off into the trees in pursuit of a peacock theyd never catch.

This is what I brought. I knelt by the afghan and set down a pair of Hallies small black shoes, about second-grade size. They could have been mine, it was impossible to tell, but I said they were Hallies. I put them in the center of the red-and-black crocheted blanket. I brought these because they just reminded me of growing up with Hallie. We had to wear these ugly shoes. It was just one of the important things we did together. I dont know. We felt kind of alone sometimes. I stood up and looked at the trees through the curtain of water in my eyes.

Viola laid down some marigolds. She had on her polyester, the funeral dress for all seasons, and she was perspiring; broad damp spots underlined her bosom. Whenever I think of you kids I think of the cempazuchiles and being up at the graveyard for All Souls. You were always a very big help.

I looked at Viola. She stared back, rubbing the bridge of her nose. There was the faintest light of a smile.

Several women had things they claimed wed left in their houses when we played there as children: a doll with unpleasant glass eyes and a gruesomely pockmarked head where its hair had come out; a largish plastic horse; a metal hen that, when you pushed her down on her feet, made a metallic cluck and laid a small marble egg. Also a pink sweater, size 6X. Mrs. Nu~nez swore it was Hallies. It was behind the refrigerator. I didnt find it till last year when the refrigerator give out and we had to call the man to move it out and get us a new one in there. The dust, I hate to tell you! And there was this little sweater of Halimeda Nolines. She used to set up there on top of the refrigerator, because I told her she couldnt drink beer till she was as tall as her daddy.

This was the truth, dead center. I remembered her up there huddled among the Mason jars and bright cracker boxes. I stared at the freshly laundered pink sweater lying with outstretched arms and thought about how small Hallie had been at one time. Miss Colder and Miss Dann were just then displaying an ancient-looking picture book, but there was a roaring in my ears and I lost track of what they were saying. I believe it was the physical manifestation of unbearable grief. But you learn in these situations that all griefs are bearable. Loyd was standing on one side of me, and Emelina on the other, and whenever I thought I might fall or just cease to exist, the pressure of their shoulders held me there.

I could hear peoples words, but my vision was jarred by showers of blue sparks. Or the world went out of focus. And at other times I could see but couldnt hear. Do~na Althea clumped forward with her cane and set down a miniature, perfectly made peacock pi~nata. It perched there on the pile of childhood things, its small eyes glittering and its tail feathers perfectly trimmed. It was an exquisite piece of art that could have made it into Mr. Ridehearts gallery, but it was for Hallie. I tried to listen to what she was saying. She said, I made one like this for both of you girls, for your cumplea~nos when you were ten.

To my surprise, this was also true. I remembered every toy, every birthday party, each one of these fifty mothers whod been standing at the edges of my childhood, ready to make whatever contribution was needed at the time.

Gracias, Abuelita, I said softly to Do~na Althea as she clumped away.

She didnt look at me, but she heard me say it and she didnt deny that she was my relative. Her small head crowned with its great white braid nodded a little. No hugs or confessions of love. We were all a little stiff, I understood that. Family constellations are fixed things. They dont change just because youve learned the names of the stars.

Uda Dell went last. I brought this bouquet of zinnias because every spring Hallie helped me dig my zinnia bed. She laid down the homely, particolored bouquet, and added, I crocheted that afghan, too.

You did?

She looked at me, surprised. Right after your mommy died. Well, I dont guess youd remember.

This blanket got us through a lot of tough times, I said. I was feeling a little more steady on my feet. I folded in the corners and drew it all up into a bundle against my chest. About everything Hallie and I had ever done was with us there in the Domingos orchard. Everything wed been I was now.

Thank you, I said, to everybody.

I turned my back and headed alone with my bundle up the Old Pony Road to Doc Homers house.

25 Flight | Animal Dreams | 27 Human Remains