Martha King


Reasons for Being
Am Southern
Am Female
Florence Greene
All the Greene's
After Greene

Reasons for Being

My sister gave me directions: Open the top drawer of the secretary in our mother's room. To do it, first push in the skinny fake-drawers on each side on which the desktop rests. Tilt the top carefully or her papers will slide together and she'll know someone was there. The underside of the desktop has a keyhole with a key which will lock the top firmly up so the big drawer beneath can be safely opened. In the back, past handkerchiefs she never uses and tissue-wrapped evening bags, at the very back, you'll find a box of frayed brown leather. Carefully press the button catch. Quietly. A jewel case like a pirates' chest but much smaller. My mother's smell. Look at these. No, silly, lift the tray out. Underneath on a bunch of old envelopes, I found a tiny cardboard box in which, on top of a sliver of cotton, lay a desiccated rose bud. It was perfect except dry and brown instead of soft and pink, like something in an Egyptian tomb, dead so it can last forever.
      Then I put everything back, exactly.
      My sister was furious. Not the rosebud, you dummy. That's just something from her wedding bouquet. You didn't look at the letters? She turned red, then white. You're such a baby.
      I went back many times after that and went through the box down to the hard brown rosebud. My mother found me one day and wasn't mad. She just said put everything back carefully. I'd been trying on her rings. That was all, just "Don't lose anything." She wasn't mad. I played other games in her room. I always loved the black secretary. With the desktop down and all the pigeon holes full of papers and envelopes, the scattering of correspondence, the sheets of stamps (they seemed like so much money, sanctified like savings bonds) the desk space was a magnificent stage. A black leather floor, edged with velvet and a gold bevel. Tiers of boxes. Grand opera. The radio announcer would explain the story, lurid and bloody as fairytales, filled with deceptions, disguises, lies. He'd describe their costumes and how they felt about what was happening: the fateful dagger at her lips, his midnight blue cloak sweeping the stairs, noble in heartbreak, true to his pledge, lace, velvet, applause, and the singers filled their lungs, the opera house, our whole apartment with vibration and I hopped paper dolls across the desktop. Don't tell anyone, they crescendoed together.
      That was in New York City, in an overheated apartment building on East 86th Street. The year I was 13 my family had moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where we were squeezed into a university owned cottage, vintage mid 1920s, and I shared a room with my sister. One night when we weren't fighting she told me that the letters in the bottom of the box were from my father to my mother. He had been visiting his parents when our mother wrote to tell him she was pregnant. The top letter is the sweetest, the first one of a small bunch. Charlotte told me it read: "I want you to know always that I could have asked you to marry me if this had never happened. You must never forget this. You are making me very happy."

"I was the cause of it," Charlotte said.
     I was such a baby. That year I stole all the letters her Yankee boyfriend wrote to her and read them feverishly, hoping to find discussions of how they kissed and if they did anything (eluding my ability to picture) else. Charlotte was furious when she found out, but then she told him about it and he was flattered, even addressing some later letters Dear Charlotte and Dear Martha. Hoping to shame me, he told Charlotte.
      Damn it, this is starting to pick up stray threads like a glue ball. I don't know how to hold onto it, structure it, make it behave. If a memoir is the stories you know, writing one memoir is impossible. There are too many. And as a series of selected versions, it runs so neatly, with no life outside this life. Joan Didion said that life is the story we are telling in order to stay alive. I hate that "we." Such a perfect expression of the hyper-selfconscious Didion personnna. I am meaning "me" here, whatever that might be.
      What story do I tell about what sent me running, disguising my chubby face with dangling earrings, running to where "real life" was, looking for risky men to save, developing not life but a memoir like any other piece of fiction. ...