he memorial ceremony will be held in the family apartment in New York City that for years served as a beloved refuge from the small city to the south where she lived. She fit the apartment tastefully, as was her way. Her discretion included a loving penchant for miniatures, for Edith Wharton, for flowers.
The rose garden at home was an oblong extract of an acre with petals and herbs flourishing in the shadow of the big wooden house. In the many summers before disease she toiled in a sunhat and produced lovely green ingredients that I stubbornly refused to eat. Politeness undermined any disapproval of my childlike resistance.
For my visits she reserved Chicken à la Vi, breasts with breadcrumbs and lemon, a slice of culinary affection that made me smile just to hear it spoken aloud. Her husband, my brother, picked and poured the wines. Our informality contained elegance, which mattered to her.
She liked proper things. She’d studied literature and later worked on the papers of Henry Adams. Early on, I tagged along to hear her teach at a woman’s university in Virginia. Instead, I was soon entranced by one of her students, a very pretty poet. I exchanged letters with the pretty poet but I was too shy to do much more. We were both in our 20s. I also lived in Europe.
If she knew that I liked her student, she said nothing. Her son, my nephew, was still young. Life promised future installments. Interruption was constant and sentences could still end in ellipses.
Sometimes she’d startle me in the garden, usually while wearing her sun hat, clipping roses. The strongest conversation was a shrewd byproduct of indolence. My father, she told me, could be a very mean man. I knew this, I replied, but he was never mean to me. But did my mother ever love him? she asked. And what was my mother’s mother like? My answers were forever incomplete. My separated parents — my father died in 1974, my mother 14 years later — made little sense to me as a human whole. I imagined them as parents only when I thought of long-ago Christmases and wood fires started by my father at my mother’s behest. I scrunched the kindling paper.
After my mother’s death she saw me through the funeral in Washington. She admired the prettiness of the cemetery. She was soothingly practical, her affection at once tender and patient, again reflecting the limberness of discretion.
I craved the occasions when I could speak to her about my girlfriends. My closest ones I brought to visit. She always made it a point to speak more to the women, as if they mattered more. Dispossessed, suddenly among new people, they did.
My mother gone, she’d listen harder to me. We’d often eat dessert together. She thought more than she said. We’d read each other’s brows. It was often enough.
Before illness stopped the future in its tracks, I thought of American and looked forward to Chicken à la Vi. I longed for a family dinner table. In conversation, New York made her smile openly, as did exhibits she longed to see. She also loved small and large gossip. It turned her sly. She’d roll her eyes before restoring their proper tuck.
I’m bad at ceremonies. In that way I’m like my brother. Large ones unsettle me. The Rome memorial for my mother swelled the church with wailing strangers who approached and hugged me as if by doing so they confirmed a communication with my mother’s lost lineage. It was a loud and bruising day.
The ceremony in the family apartment won’t be that. Her son has organized a more intimate gathering to bring together loving and polite people who want remember her, silently or aloud. If she were still alive, she’d greet these guests, tend to them well, and finally escort them out. She’d then sit back plan her next foray into the big city, the one she couldn’t do without.