Pia Z. Ehrhardt

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 ConcernOxford AmericanRumpus.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).