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Breath & Shadow

Fall 2009 - Vol. 6, Issue 3

"Embers to Ashes"

written by

Jennifer Gifford

I was reading the obituary page the day I met my husband. It’s a little odd, I’ll admit. Morbid curiosity I guess. My future husband, a tax specialist with eye-lashes most women would die for, joked that the obits were a great way to find a new job. Glancing over my shoulder, sipping from his medium hazelnut, he said, “Hey, I hear there’s a new opening in the shipping department at Sears…”


Sometimes I see names of people I know, or at least think I know. Mostly, though, they are complete strangers. Ever since that first meeting, we’ve read them together.


Equipped with the paper, I sat with one leg draped over the arm of my recliner, a cup of home-brewed coffee in hand. While reading, I thought I recognized a name. Agnes Miller. Did I know her from somewhere? Sounded familiar, but no face came to mind.


Then the phone rang.


In-laws. Leave it to a father-in-law, mother-in-law, or something in-law to take a good day and force it into a complete one eighty. I don’t believe Norman Rockwell’s utopian dream. It doesn’t exist. Not for me, not for any of the married people I know, either.


The phone call. Idle conversation laced with well versed loathing designed to make me feel inferior and worthless. In the span of a few minutes myself worth and self esteem would be in shreds. It was a dysfunctional cycle that I had become a part of when I said,


“I do.”


My mother-in-law’s number flashed on the caller ID. I let the machine get it.


“Christine, are you there? If you’re there pick up, don’t screen your calls. Please call me--I’d like to have a word with you.”


I looked over to my husband, Mitch, who didn’t say anything. He just sat there with that frozen smirk I’ve grown accustomed to plastered across his face.


It was never just a word.


She couldn’t insinuate failure in words that measured in single digits. It took hundreds of carefully composed phrases to create the amount of negativity that could linger for days at a time. It was her gift, and I was usually the unlucky recipient.


Less than two minutes later, she called back. I picked up this time.


Childish as it was to answer on the second call, especially when I’d ignored the first one, I was making a point about who was in control. I’d answer when and if I wanted to. Sometimes winning the little battles is all a girl has to hang onto.


On the phone, I managed a neutral, “Yes, I understand,” mingled with the occasional non verbal grunt of agreement. I just wanted to get off the phone, read the paper, and cut into my leftover birthday cake.


But milestones and holidays were not exempt from the phone calls. Sometimes, like tonight, they were the motivation behind it.


I was staring at my leftover birthday cake when her voice interjected.


“You aren’t paying attention to me.”


She was right. I wasn’t paying attention. I had double chocolate cake with butter cream icing on the brain.


“Sorry. I was just planning on having a piece of birthday cake, so I should probably let you go.”


I prayed she would be gracious and take the hint.


“Before dinner? You’ll ruin your appetite--not to mention your diet.”


I closed my eyes, inhaling deeply through my nose as I often did when irritated.


“Karen, I’m not on a diet, I’ve already told you that. I like my body as is,” I said.


I wasn’t supermodel skinny, but I still looked good in a bikini.


“Oh. I thought you were. At Christmas you looked like you’d put on a few pounds. Maybe it was just that unflattering sweater you were wearing.”


“You bought me that sweater, Karen, remember? You always say I look good in red.” I had her.


“It looked different at the store. I probably needed to get an extra large.”


“I don’t wear an extra large, Karen. The sweater’s fine, it’s the right size, and I don’t need to watch what I eat.”


Slowly, I felt my backbone stiffen. I looked at my husband, who gave me his best ‘I’m sorry’ face.


“Karen, as always it’s been pleasant. But I really have to go. I’m going to skip dinner, have a huge piece of birthday cake, and then I’m going to go have sex with my husband. Call you tomorrow?”




“You know, Christine, I don’t find that amusing. I think that was rude. I certainly hope you don’t act like this at work or you’ll get fired, not that it’s much of a job anyway. You may not believe it, but I love you and I worry about you. Call me in a few days,” she said, and hung up.


I looked at my husband, who was attempting to hide behind the sports page.


“I think you’re adopted,” I said.


He just smiled at me.


“I think your mother hates me.”


He said nothing--noncommittal.


“I think one of these days, I’m going to end up stabbing that woman in the eye with a pencil,” I joked.


Mitch pretended to go back to reading the paper.


Less than a week later, we went through the inquisition again. The phone rang. The caller ID was the bearer of bad news as it flashed an all too familiar number. I swear if ring tones had voices, ours would replicate the clipped and clear tone of Karen McMartin, my mother-in-law.


It was late by her standards, nearly nine a.m. But it was summer, and as a teacher, I relished being able to sleep in a little later.


“Hello.” I didn’t care if I sounded sleepy or not.


“Christine, you weren’t still sleeping, were you?”


“Would it matter if I was, Karen?”


“Christine, I just want to talk to you. It’s about Mitchell.”


“What about Mitch?”


I loved using his shortened name--a point which I knew irritated her.


“Look. I don’t want to fight with you.”


“Come on Karen, you do, too. You’ve turned your favorite past time into an art form.”


She paused. I could picture her in Ann Taylor sweater set, smoothing out invisible lines in an attempt to hold her composure.


“As I already stated, I don’t want to fight with you.”


“I don’t either because it will ruin a perfectly good Saturday. So I think I’ll just let you go. Bye, Karen.”


I hung up, making sure I turned off the ringer. Rolling over, I curled up like a spoon, inhaling the faint scent of Mitch’s cologne on the pillow.


“Your mother,” I murmured. I closed my eyes and drifted back to sleep.


A few weeks passed, and nothing from Karen. There was still a slight possibility that the remaining part of my summer vacation would be chaos free, assuming I could dodge any Labor Day outing she had planned.


I often joked with Mitch that our relationship mirrored the weather: sporadic storms mixed with sunshine. It’s not that I liked fighting with Karen, I didn’t. She never knew it because I was too proud to tell her, but I missed having that mother figure in my life. Things haven’t been easy on me in the last couple of years, and it would have been great to have someone there to understand that. Instead of pouring all my energy into keeping up that invisible wall between us, I could use it building and strengthening our relationship.


Mitch had always hoped that Karen and I would have a good relationship, as both my parents died when I was in high school.


“She’s already my warden,” I told him. “So no thanks.”


Mitch thought it was because we were too much alike, two alpha dogs vying for his attention. I didn’t know what was worse--being compared to a dog, or his mother.


One week into the start of the new school year, Karen appeared at my door, interrupting my hasty attempt to get dinner ready.


“Hello. May I talk to you for a moment?”


I was speechless. She had driven in traffic from her pretty brick English Tudor in Swan Hills to talk to me.


“It’s really not a good time. I’m sorry you drove all the way out here, but I’m in the middle of getting dinner ready.”


“This will only take a moment, and then I promise to go.”


“Karen, I—“


“It’s about this business with Mitchell. This nonsense has to stop. It just isn’t normal. Now, I’m willing…“


“How dare you!”


“Stop it. You know very well it isn’t normal. This charade of yours--It’s sick and it’s cruel, not only to Mitchell, but to his father and I.”


Karen’s lips pursed, but she kept her hands clutched very proper like around her Coach purse. So polished. So calm. Emily Post would be proud.


“Karen, I don’t have time for this. I’m not discussing this with you because it has nothing to do with you. I’ve had a hectic week, and I’m trying to get dinner ready before Mitch gets home. I’ll have him call you.”


“Mitchell isn’t coming home! Now stop it. You stop it this very instant.”


Tears welled and she lifted her chin in defiance.


“Get a hold of yourself” I snapped. “Just hop back on your broomstick and leave us alone.”


I slammed the door in her face.


“God, that felt good,” I said aloud.


Back in the kitchen I quickly realize that the vegetables for my stir fry are burned beyond recognition. She had successfully ruined another dinner, and my night as well.


Later, Mitch sat on the edge of the tub and stared at me. I had lit the vanilla lavender candles, and poured myself a glass of Merlot. I was soaking up to my neck in the bubble bath that Mitch had given me for my last birthday. I only used it on occasions like this.


“I love your mom, I do. But she just pushes and pushes until I snap.”


Mitch just sat quietly. He knew I’d had a sparring with his mom. On and on I rambled until I’d gotten it out of my system.


“Mitch, I love you.”


It pained me at times to say that aloud to him, especially now.


“You’re great. You know that.”


I smiled, staring at his smooth features illuminated by the soft candlelight. In moments like this, he almost looked alive.


RealTouch Latex Dolls felt and looked nearly human. But they lacked three major things that made them imperfect. Those things reminded me of Mitch, and made me miss him even more since he died.


Smell. Warmth. Voice.


The skin, though realistic and smooth, didn’t smell like Mitch, more like the vinyl plastic odor of a new shower curtain. And, it wasn’t warm to the touch, like Mitch’s skin had been. His touch had made my own skin burn with longing, and I couldn’t accept I’d never feel it again.


What I wouldn’t have paid for the technology to have his voice around me--the melody of his tenor, the boom of his laugh. The silence reminded me of the little things I’d taken for granted. Yet that was easily forgotten in the dim candlelight of the bathroom. For one moment, I almost felt whole again.


When I purchased the model baring Mitch’s likeness, I knew that the old part of my life with him was over. Deep down, from that point on, I knew everything would change. But the doll gave me hope. It helped me through the darkest of times, and made things better. He was still mine, in a way. It meant I never had to grieve and move on, not knowing what I was moving on to. It meant that I never had to fully let go of Mitch or his memory, even if that meant losing a part of me.

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