The Play of Light and Color | Chapter 1
Author’s Note: The Play of Light and Color is an in-progress manuscript in very early stages. You’ll probably find typos. You’ll probably see names change. There will be looooong gaps between chapters being shared. But I love these characters and wanted to share them. It goes without saying that this is fully my own work and is owned entirely by me.
The first time I thought about my mother dying I was six years old, awoken from a dream where her feet fell apart in my hands.
My mother had a habit of going barefoot as often as she could, toes sinking into the soil of her gardens, carrying her up the dirt road to the pond where we would swim, or sliding over the hard clay underneath her clothesline as she moved from rope to rope. Over the years, her feet became hard, dark gray at the heel, and bore cracks in the layers of calloused skin that had built up.
In my dream, I was holding her feet in my hands, examining the cracks for any sign of pain or injury. While I looked, the cracks widened, exposing bone and openings of dry flesh that yawned wider and flaked away, the rest of her body to follow, leaving behind nothing but ash.
That was the first time I became aware she would die, and it set off a period where I was terrified to leave her. I would go to a friend’s house for a sleepover, only to call home that night because I couldn’t bear to sleep away from her. I would avoid classmates’ birthday parties in order to stay home with her because I didn’t want to let her out of my sight. I was the youngest, with three siblings each in the neighborhood of a decade older than me, so I think I got away with this much more than I would have if my mother had had other young ones at her feet. As it was, she was glad for the extra time with her youngest child, the extra love, the extra care that she didn’t get from her husband.
Even though he was my father, I mostly remember her second husband as an inconvenient presence — a drifting soul who would sweep in and ruin the equilibrium my mother and my siblings and I had achieved, and sweep out again to settle his restlessness somewhere beyond the choking confines of a family.
My brothers’ and sister’s father had swept out much earlier on his own retreat from whatever it is that some men perceive women and children to be. A prison? A weight? A smothering blanket? Whatever it was, he could not bear it. My siblings rarely talked about their father. Of all of them, Paul, the oldest, said the most, and most of what he said was scoffing.
“We’re better off without him,” he would say. My other siblings, Jack and Carine, would nod along as Paul continued. “You’re lucky you didn’t know him, Yvette. He was a drinker, and a mean one.”
Still, the quietness that would follow betrayed a paler sense of loss.
Maybe my mother had a taste for restless souls and drew them near to her. Maybe they sensed a calm in her and wanted to draw it close to them, draw it into them. She had that effect on all of us. Stray cats would find her and weave between her legs, somehow knowing there would later be a dish of cream left outside the door for them to lap up. She trained a chipmunk to eat from her hand by lying quietly in the grass with roasted peanuts in her palm until it thought she was part of the landscape and crawled over her arm to get a snack. She was even sprayed by a skunk once when, upon arriving home with groceries and seeing Erie, our shaggy cat, arching near the steps, she reached down to pet her only to startle when she saw the white stripes along her back and realized it was, in fact, a skunk. I like to think that, if only she hadn’t startled, the skunk might have followed her inside and taken his spot up next to Erie at the water dish.
My own father was fading into the background by the time I had my dream. First, he took a solo bus trip to Utah, said it was a “calling,” and spent weeks hitchhiking home to Maine from there. Next, he would get work up in Cherryfield, picking blueberries, but stay up there throughout the week because it was such a long drive from home. Finally, California was where the work was, and he left for good. It began with him sending money home through the mail, and letters to the kids and his wife, but slowly the letters turned to postcards, then Post-Its stuck to the checks he would mail, and then the money became less and less consistent until it, too, dried up.
I asked her once why she didn’t get divorced from him after he left us, and she waved her hand and said “Common law.” Whether that meant they were only common law married and needed no divorce, or she considered them common law divorced once he ceased contact, I don’t know. I never asked, and she never elaborated.
She kept us housed through luck. This second husband — my father — had moved in with her rather than the other way around because, after her first husband left, Maman began renting a cabin from her parents. It was small but warm, with a large, open downstairs — just a simple homemade table with benches to designate a dining area, a couch, two stuffed chairs, and a low table for our family space, and a narrow kitchen area separated from the rest by the butcher block counter that ran between it and the larger room and over which Maman would talk with us while she kneaded bread dough or rolled out a pie crust. Upstairs were two rooms — a long room running along one side of the wall and roofline, bisected by a curtain Maman had made out of a secondhand bedsheet to give my brothers one side of the room and myself and Carine the other side; and the camp’s only real bedroom, where my father and Maman would sleep. We had one simple bathroom — just a pink toilet, a matching wall mounted sink with exposed piping underneath, and a standup shower — that was situated in the far corner of the upstairs. The entirety of the cabin’s interior was wood, so the only color came from the furniture we used or what we hung on the walls. Maman gravitated toward bright, rich colors. A deep red crocheted blanket draped on the couch, a mustard yellow plush chair by the window, an abstract painting in blues and greys a friend of hers had painted in the 60s. There was a prism in almost every window. She loved them and the rainbows they would throw across our home, moving throughout the day as the sun arced overhead. We had no curtains downstairs, because Maman refused to block out the daylight. She only begrudgingly agreed to sew us curtains for the windows of our space upstairs to give us privacy while we dressed. “Dieu nous en préserve,” she said as she sewed. “That the trees should see you naked. The horror.”
Pépère would visit a few times each fall and hunt deer, or stop by in the summer for an overnight trip to fish on the nearby pond, and, my favorite, late night trips in the spring to catch the smelts running. For the courtesy of making up the couch, feeding him, and keeping the cabin well cared for, he and Mémère let their only child rent it for just a fraction over the cost of their property taxes. In truth, our Pépère glowed with the knowledge that his daughter and grandchildren were living in the cabin he built himself and that we were appreciating the land that had enchanted him, too, as a young man surveying wood lots for the paper company.
The land around our home was quiet and shady, set back on a long dirt driveway covered in pine needles that softened the crunch of tires on the drive. There was a brook in the woods nearby where we could fish or cool off with a soak in the summer, and we spent hours and hours each year exploring its every bend and slope.
Although the cabin was “rustic,” with only a handful of electric lights, a dearth of outlets, and a boxy wood stove as its only source of heat, Maman said my father “saw no reason to leave such a beautiful place” when they married. I suspect he also saw no reason to spend more money than was necessary.
Pépère kept visiting and hunting during my parents’ marriage, and although my father liked to play that he was a hunter, Pépère couldn’t stand to hunt with him and stopped allowing him to tag along into the woods after the first year or two, when I was just a baby.
“Non,” he would tell my mother, his accent creeping through. “He’s loud and he smells like cigarettes. He frightens the deer away.”
“Okay, Papa,” she would say, kindly and patiently, as she kissed his cheek.
This irked my father, more than we knew and more than he understood.
By the time I could remember much, my father and Pépère had mostly stopped speaking on his visits. They would exist at opposite sides of the cabin, my father quietly reading or cooing over my mother (much more than he did when Pépère was not there) and Pépère preparing his hunting goods, telling stories to my older brothers, or showing me and my sister how to whittle on one of the in-progress projects he liked to leave around so he always had something to work on when he visited.
“Jonah and the Whale, little ones,” he told me and Carine once as he worked to scrape out the shape of a peduncle.
“I don’t see Jonah,” I said, scowling and looking at the whale in my grandfather’s hands.
“Ah,” he winked as he tapped the whale’s belly with the tip of his knife, “But I know he’s in there. C’est ce qui importe.”
Although it meant meat for us, too, my father’s mood always soured when Pépère brought home a deer. We could tell when our grandfather had had a good hunt, because we’d hear him whistling before we saw him. His whistling, a haphazard improvised tune, would get louder as he got closer to the cabin, until he would emerge from the woods with a deer hauled behind him on a small folding cart he had made himself with parts of an old bicycle. By the time we could see him, my father would have retreated upstairs to the room he shared with Maman.
“Backache,” he would say as he waved us away. “I’m not helping haul that thing up into a tree.”
But my brothers were only too happy to help. On one such day, shortly after my dream, Paul and Jack met our grandfather, excited, at the tree line, while Maman, Carine, and I stood on the porch waiting to see what he brought home.
“A good day, Papa?” my mother said, nodding at the cart he pulled
“Yes, Helene, a good day,” he sighed, pushing his hat far back on his forehead, exposing his thinning hair. “She was a good kill. Quick. Calme,” he said, as he patted the deer’s neck. It was a small doe that day, no more than 90 lbs dressed out, but that was no surprise to us.
“I will take a small doe today rather than wait for a big buck that does not always come,” he had told us many times before.
Before he and my brothers would load the deer into the back of his truck, he would hand my mother a damp package wrapped in newsprint, which I knew to be the deer’s liver and heart. Field dressing would remove most of the internal organs and “leave them for the coy-dogs,” as Pépère said, but he always brought these two home for a hunt-night meal.
A successful hunt always meant that he would be with us for a few more days. There was the deer to tag, butcher paper and tape to buy, and much work to do. On that first night, he would leave us and drive to the tagging station to officially weigh and tag the deer, and while he was gone, Maman would sauté onions with butter, salt, and pepper in the cast iron pan she always kept on our stove, before tossing in thinly sliced strips of liver and heart meat to slowly cook with it. With that cooking, she would make a simple biscuit dough — just flour, baking soda, salt, and lard. Somehow she always timed it so that the biscuits were going into the oven just as Pépère arrived back at the cabin, when he and Paul and Jack would take the tagged deer from the truck and hoist it into a nearby tree to hang for a day or two until we would butcher it. As the cabin filled with the rich smell of onions, meat, and baking dough, we could hear Pépère directing my brothers, laughing with them, asking when they were going to hunt with him.
On weeks like that, I could feel my father pulling away from the family, whatever tether existed growing thinner and less forgiving. There was a palpable sense that my mother did not need him as she and her father laid newsprint on our kitchen table, a process so familiar to them both that they barely had to speak as they worked and prepared to butcher the deer themselves. It was clear at those times that my father was superfluous, in many ways, to my mother’s way of life. He knew, Maman knew, Pépère knew — hell, we all knew — that he grew up much differently, and that our life in the woods weighted her skills more heavily than his own. She was both teacher and caretaker, leader and heart of the family, and this knowledge drove him to distraction. He had no help to offer that she needed. Of course he could follow their direction on butchering the deer if need be, but at the heart of the matter was the issue that there never was a “need be” with Maman. Instead, she and Pépère rose early a day or two after he had hung the deer, dressed in Pépère’s old garage coveralls, and began the work of skinning, quartering, and butchering with my siblings and I tagging along to help and learn.
My father, more often than not after the first one or two times this happened, would retreat from the cabin entirely, spending the day at a pub in Lewiston with old high school friends or playing cards with friends at their trailer in Otisfield. I think he didn’t want to watch his child, especially a daughter, learning outdoorsman skills from his wife that he had never learned himself. This day, with him off and likely not to be seen until late that evening or even the next day, the house reached an easy rhythm, laughing and joking to pass the time while we worked.
We started outside, lowering the deer enough that we could stand next to it, and here we started skinning. At my young age, I mostly ran for supplies when needed and sat nearby, feeding our chickens and waiting to be called. My nimble-handed sister was an ace at skinning, able to separate the skin and hide from muscle without jabbing into meat or poking through the hide, and Pépère mostly left her to this work, knowing she had long ago stopped needing pointers from him. Instead, he would relax and watch proudly, nudging my mom to point it out once again.
“We mustn’t tell anyone how excellent she is at this, Helene, or we’d never see her until Thanksgiving. Everyone would have her skin their deer. The butcher shop would hire her,” he would say, and Carine would snicker as she worked, snorting “You’re the only hunter I can stand, Pépère.”
Next, Pépère and the boys would release the deer and rest it across some boards slung over two sawhorses. Slightly below where Carine had stopped skinning, they would position a two-man saw below the fur line and remove the head, and finally, they would quarter the deer and bring it in the cabin one quarter at a time to butcher it, laying a fore or hind quarter across the paper-covered kitchen table. This, I could help with, and I made myself useful by cutting butcher paper to package sizes. Maman and Pépère would remove cuts of meat and move them down the table, where Carine and I would package them, folding up and taping the paper, using the hand-crank meat grinder if we needed to. Paul and Jack, who had better handwriting than Carine and I, would label them and toss them in the deep freezer. Always, we would keep out the tenderloins, with one going home to Pépère and Mémère, and one staying with us to thank us for our help.
“The meat is so good, I hate to freeze it,” Pépère would say, so tenderloins were always eaten fresh.
With the deer done, Pépère would give Mémère a call.
“Cordelia, mon chou! Will you let me home now? I bring venison!” he would say, laughing, and my mother would roll her eyes at him.
“Ignore him, children. Mémère has been missing him for days. Papa! Don’t make your grandchildren think my Maman is mean.”
“Yes, yes, my love,” Pépère continued, winking to us as he did. “The doe is all butchered. I come home to you with boxes of meat. Yes, in time for dinner. Oh! Tourtiere? You know the way to my heart. Yes, I will see you soon. Je t’aime, mon chou.”
By the time he was off the phone, the boys would have his boxes of meat ready and sitting on the table. No one was anxious for him to leave, but by the time he had spent a few days away from Mémère, it was impossible not to feel how anxious he was to be back home.
“Boys, boys, these boxes are much too heavy for your old Pépère. Take some meat out for your freezer here, please,” he would say.
“Papa, you don’t…” our mother would start.
“Non! I didn’t raise you to argue with your papa, Helene.”
With several packages of meat back in our own freezer, Paul and Jack would take the boxes to Pépère’s truck while he said goodbye to my mother, my sister, and me.
“Until next time, little ones. Will I see you at Thanksgiving?”
“Of course, Pépère,” we said, and he pulled us into a hug together.
“And Helene,” he would say, straightening up. “My daughter. You’re raising such good boys and good girls. Thank you for sharing them with your Maman and me. You take good care, and say goodbye to Joe for me.”
“I will, Papa. Thank you for the venison.”
“Thank you for the butchering! I can’t think of a better production line than these children… Ahem,” he cleared his throat. “These young men and women.”
And he was off, his old pickup carrying him back to Biddeford and his plumbing business. That year, he had gotten his deer early, on his first October trip, so we would not see him and Mémère again until we traveled to see them for Thanksgiving the following month.
My father came home that night while we were all still up, jovial because the house was his own again. He clung desperately to my mother at times like this, and they would often bicker about it. He would try to act playful about it at first, but he was really searching, probing for reassurance, and looking back now, I can see my mother felt suffocated by it. By him.
That night, as Maman stood at the sink washing dishes following the meal that she butchered and cooked, he leaned in close behind her while she worked, sweeping her hair aside to kiss the back of her neck.
“What would you do without me, hmm?” he cooed.
“What, indeed?” Maman said, smiling and swatting a dish cloth at his leg. Her tone was just doting enough to placate him, but not so dishonest as to disrespect herself. I knew even then she was walking a tightrope. I envied her calm center. Her ability to respond to discomfort without wavering and making herself smaller for him. I still envy it.
“I think you’d miss me,” he pushed.
“Of course I’d miss you,” she laughed. “Why would a woman marry a man she wouldn’t miss?”
“Ha! And what would you miss most?” He was swaying now, trying to nudge her into dancing, resting his chin in the dip where her neck met her shoulder.
She sighed. “I would miss sleeping with you,” she said. She rubbed her eye with the back of her hand, careful not to get soap in it. “I’m so tired, mon coeur. It was a long day.”
“Sleeping?” he scoffed, suddenly stiffening and pulling away from her. “Sleeping. That’s what you’d miss?”
“I have four children, Joe. I always miss sleeping.” As she said this, she leaned her weight back into him, again just playful enough to pull him out of anger or annoyance. He leaned his body back with hers for a moment before stepping aside and letting her fall into his arm. His other arm swept under her knees as she hollered about falling, and he scooped her up.
“Yes, indeed,” he said. “You’ve earned a good night’s sleep,” he said and turned to carry her up the stairs.
“Joe, the dishes!”
Carine, laughing and rising from the sofa, called behind them “I’ll finish, Maman.”
How my mother could walk that line of tension, with a man teetering on the edge of anger, and know just the right thing to say or do to flick him back to the side of play, I will never know.
Even my father didn’t understand it. He certainly didn’t understand how it made him feel, or why. What drew him in — her unflappability, her self-sufficiency, the peace she carried with her at all times and in all situations — was ultimately what pushed him away, after all. He wasn’t a man who could stomach not being needed, and while he was not a bad man, he was a weak one.
He would have been perfectly suited to have a May/December marriage — he the older man catering to a younger, fawning woman. And my mother would never be that for him. They were six months apart in age, and my mother came into their marriage with three children, a station wagon, a cabin, and a way of life that was already established. She did not want pampering (in fact, did not know what to do when presented with it). She wanted a partner. Someone who could cheer for her and for whom she could do the same. Someone who had their own distinct identity outside of simply “husband,” and who would understand that her identity would never be defined by “wife.” Someone yoked to the same plow.
But whether or not he knew it at the outset, this could never satisfy my father. I think that’s why he took work further and further away by increments. It allowed him, for a time, to broadcast his own version of his identity as a family man, without my mother or our life influencing the picture he painted for himself and others. In Cherryfield, he was the hardworking father of four who had taken on raising another man’s three children, as well as his own, and left his sweet wife alone at home five days a week so he could bring home the bill money. In California, he was the displaced rustic come to the big city because he couldn’t provide for his family with the work opportunities back in rural Maine. I have no doubt that he leaned into these identities, right up until the time he realized he could craft a brand new one.