The Queen’s Face
My mother came home after touring for three years as a vocalist and dancer with Ralph Ray and the Ramblers, but I don’t remember being reunited. I was four and my sister was two. I’d like to tell you about throwing myself in her outstretched arms, how she lavished me with her kisses, lipstick proof on my face, how she said, “Darling, I’ve missed you like crazy and I’ll never leave again,” but that would be a reunion I saw in a movie. Three months later she was again taken away from me when she contracted tuberculosis. She had to be quarantined in our small blue house in Minisink Hills. My sister and I were returned to our grandmother’s in Bound Brook.
The phone would ring during dinner, and my grandmother would talk to my mother, and tell her we were eating well and doing fine. My grandmother would hang up and explain that our mother was still weak and couldn’t stay too long on the phone. My Aunt Carmel had moved into the blue house to help with meals and laundry. She slept in my sister’s and my room on a twin bed and my grandmother called her in the mornings to plan menus. My father got to live with them and I didn’t understand how the disease didn’t get into his chest.
During the four months that she recuperated, my mother made crafts from kits my father would buy her at the hobby store downtown. One of these pieces still hangs in her living room; a tree with thick branches patchworked out of fabric from our little dresses and edged in thick black yarn. She painted a white plaster casting of a queen’s face in bright colors, gave her long eyelashes and bright red lips like her own. For years it sat on the sideboard in the dining room and goggled us while we ate. She knitted my sister and me scarves and matching hats popcorn-stitched out of soft wool so they wouldn’t scratch.
My aunt told me years later that Ralph Ray came often to see my mother and he brought her baskets of fruit and cookies. She caught them kissing in the kitchen, and my mother sloughed it off and called it just a friendly peck. At night my father played piano in the cocktail lounge at Vacation Valley, but during the day he wrote chamber music and art songs. He had a small office he’d rented downtown because he couldn’t work when there were people around.
Ralph also brought over a contraption he’d made: a steel bucket with fan blades in the bottom. My mother hooked a clean sheet of paper onto the blades, and while they rotated she squeezed paint out of tubes to make pictures that looked like explosions. No two could be the same. These works were framed and hung in the bathroom. By the time my sister and I got home from our grandmother’s house the bucket had been put in a box in the basement.
There was a stuffed llama waiting on my sister’s bed, a stuffed monkey with white plastic boots waiting on mine. A list of foods that upset our mother’s stomach had been left under a magnet on the fridge. In her bedroom, my mother sat up against fluffed pillows and put her arms out for hugs. I stayed on the edge of the bed, so relieved I couldn’t bear to touch her. She wore pink silk nightgowns with delicately embroidered linen bed jackets. She saved these jackets and when my sister and I got sick she’d let us borrow them. We’d put them over our flannel pajamas and feel like little versions of her.
My x-rays show I was exposed to TB, and I explain to my doctor how my glamorous mother had this illness, like some Louisa May Alcott-showgirl hybrid, and about how she was taken away from us so cruelly. To my own eye my x-rays look clean, still, I picture the two of us linked by this brown shadow on our lung.
Pia Z. Ehrhardt is the author of Famous Fathers & Other Stories. Her fiction and essays have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Oxford American, Rumpus.net, Guernica, The Morning News, The Nervous Breakdown, and Narrative Magazine. She lives in New Orleans, where she’s a visiting artist at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA).