Carol Luther

What She Didn't Do

The two little orange trees died. And so did the other plants. The orange trees weren’t bonsai—that would be too fancy a name for them. But they were almost fifty years old and had lived in the ten-inch pots for most of that time. Her husband just snipped them back every year. Their glossy, leathery, dark green leaves held the sharp smell of orange untouched by the sweetness of the fruit. When she smelled them, it brought back memories of that trip to Florida in the fifties, when they all drank fresh juice from oranges after cutting a little hole in the top of the oranges while they sat on the beach after supper and watched the tide roll in. Her older daughter had just turned ten, and her younger daughter was starting first grade that fall. That was where they’d gotten the seeds for the trees, from those real Florida oranges. But then she didn’t water them, and they died after all that time.

            The clocks stopped. There were three antique clocks that had to be wound, and the little Baby Ben by their bedside. It was always a Baby Ben, for years they just kept replacing it. But winding the clocks was her job, and she just forgot she was supposed to. So there was no more striking on the hour and the half hour and one of them on the quarter hour, and hadn’t that been something to get used to, but they had. And now there was the silence.

            She turned on the stove but not when she should. She couldn’t think of anything to cook, and he had to tell her, and then she didn’t remember how to cook and made strange concoctions of spaghetti, carrots, lettuce, and sauce. And so he had to turn off the breaker for the stove so that she couldn’t turn it on accidentally and burn the house down.

            She stopped penciling in her eyebrows every morning. They were so faint that she’d said that she had to draw them in to have any, and that had always mattered to her, but it didn’t any more. She stopped fixing her hair, combing her hair, washing her hair. She didn’t remember that she should, and when he mentioned it to her, she said she’d do it in a little while, later, but it never happened. Her younger daughter, who lived nearby, started taking her to the beauty shop every week, so that was all right for a while.

            . . . their wedding picture they’d called it, made about a week after their wedding. They’d gone to the Photography Studio of Miller’s Department Store in Knoxville, and the photograph had been hand colored,
but no, it wasn’t her, it wasn’t him, it wasn’t them,
no, no, no.

            But then she didn’t recognize her home where she’d lived for almost fifty years. It wasn’t her furniture, it wasn’t her room or her bed, she couldn’t go to sleep there, she had to get home to her parents, or sometimes it was that she had to get home to get supper for her husband, but he was standing right there, telling her it was her house and he was her husband, but no, it wasn’t, no, he wasn’t, no, no, no. There was the picture on the wall, the two of them, their wedding picture they’d called it, made about a week after their wedding. They’d gone to the Photography Studio of Miller’s Department Store in Knoxville, and the photograph had been hand colored, but no, it wasn’t her, it wasn’t him, it wasn’t them, no, no, no. She had to leave to get supper for her husband, would he please take her to the bus station so she could go home.

            She quit taking a bath, her younger daughter had to come help her, with her saying she didn’t want to take a bath, she’d do it later, in a little while, tomorrow, but she wouldn’t. The older daughter, who lived away, sent advice.

            She told the doctor she had three daughters, she never had, only the two, but she said she’d had these two and another, the other daughter. One day she asked her husband who was that woman who had supper with us? And it was her younger daughter, who had been there for Sunday supper ever since when. No, it wasn’t, it was a different woman, who was it?

            Then she had to go to the bathroom, and five minutes later it was the same thing, and again and again, as though she didn’t realize that she’d gone. And then she couldn’t find the bathroom, and that was the worst, how embarrassed she would be if she knew, her husband was so upset, he couldn’t believe she didn’t realize, she didn’t know.

            She wasn’t eating, she wasn’t hungry, she didn’t want to go to the table, she didn’t want to get up from the table, if she started dipping some mashed potatoes from the bowl, she would heap them until she put the whole amount on her plate, but she would only eat a bite or two, she wasn’t hungry, she’d eat later, in a little while, tomorrow.

            She’d always been pleasant, cheerful, but now there was a strain in her face, a puzzlement. Something was going on, but what? She couldn’t say, couldn’t explain it, said to her younger daughter that nobody would help her, why couldn’t anybody help her, and it wasn’t just dressing herself or eating, it was something else. What could her daughter tell her, what to say, how to explain? Her daughter said that she was there now to help, would come back later to help, would come whenever to help.

            And walking became difficult, he couldn’t hold her, couldn’t lift her, he had a heart condition himself, she wouldn’t do anything he said, he couldn’t get her to eat, couldn’t get her to get out of bed, or into bed, or to change her clothes. She’d do it in a little while, later, tomorrow, but she didn’t. 

            She had some falls, he couldn’t watch her every minute, she needed so much help now, her daughter had to work, so it had to be the nursing home, but that was all right, she hadn’t been home for some time anyway. At the facility there were lots of people, they spoke to her, they weren’t strangers, they must know her because they were pleasant to her, she’d always been friendly, it was very entertaining. The older daughter sent advice—and money—every month.

            But she wasn’t interested in eating, no, she wasn’t, she couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t. Her younger daughter tried to coax her. But even when she took food into her mouth, she seemed not to know what to do with it, wouldn’t chew or swallow, often took it out and set it back on her plate like it was a mistake. 

            So she grew weaker, refused a walker, accepted a wheelchair. 

            She recognized her younger daughter—mostly. Her husband—sometimes yes, sometimes no. She could slowly sign her name to a birthday card, had to be told her name to sign, then couldn’t sign. 

            Her husband couldn’t stand her not being at home, couldn’t stand to see her like this, visiting was hard. Where was she, the wife who’d quit her job to join him when he was in basic training in the war, who’d left her job to be with him for just three weeks because who knew when or if he’d be back, the wife who’d helped him with the garden all those years, planting, harvesting, canning, who’d stayed with him every night in the hospital when he’d had his bypass operation, the girl who’d immediately caught his attention the first time he’d seen her at college, the best thing about the time he’d spent there?

            She didn’t want to eat, she really, really didn’t, she wasn’t hungry for anything, maybe some ice cream, but she’d have some in a little while, later, not now.

            And then she couldn’t sit in the wheelchair, she had to stay in bed, she quit talking to and talked of, she was far away in a different where and when, not focusing on now, not really looking at this and these. 

            Her younger daughter told her every time she visited that she loved her—because who knew what she knew or what she heard or what she saw? Where was she? Somewhere, there her mother was, and every time she would tell her that she loved her, every time, every time, every time.

            Because that was what you had to do for a little while, a long while, until later, until


Carol Luther recently had a short story published in The Notebook: A Progressive Journal about Women & Girls with Rural & Small Town Roots (No. 3). Her novel excerpt, “Our Little Domestic Heroine,” was a prize winner in the 2015 Knoxville Writers’ Guild Contest. A short story was a winner in the James Still Prize for Short Story Contest, sponsored by the Mountain Heritage Literary Festival. She teaches English at Pellissippi State Community College


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