Between journaling and attending writing workshops, the theme of loss kept pushing up through the field of words. Loss of smooth-skinned legs blemished by aging—corded arteries and starburst veins. Loss of a devoted mom—feeling orphaned at fifty, childhood home sold and gone forever except in memory. Loss of Mary—my backyard neighbor and confidante to cancer, the disease eating through my generation of friends. My journal pages reeled from jottings of losses. Was this what the second half of life was all about? Would I need a thicker philosophy to blanch the sorrow? I could keep my old legs covered, pretend to be a photojournalist, and send prayers asking for sustenance from Mom and Mary.
Mom and Mary were irreplaceable and both had enlivened and brightened the first half of my life. Both had taught me that gifts often come disguised. Maybe it took a half a lifetime to recognize a perfect gift for what it really was. Or, maybe I was just a slow learner. For instance, there was always the table story standing before me as a reminder.
On my eleventh birthday, my mother papered my bedroom with roses climbing on a white trellis into an endless sky. A pink and blue, pinwheel quilt emerged from her Singer sewing machine. White eyelet curtains drifted around the windows making soft shadow notes. But where there should have been a writing desk, a painted dressing table skirted in white eyelet with blue satin ribbons hugged a mirrored wall niche. It was a bedroom my mother would have swooned over as a young girl. It was a room my girlfriends pronounced as “Perfect.” It was a room that was no longer me.
“Quite a showpiece, Mom.” What I really wanted to say was, “What happened to the mother who often excused me from chores when I was scribbling into a notebook?” This mother defended me to grandmother, saying, “Carole’s going to write a book someday.” Wouldn’t this mother put a proper desk, and not a dressing table, in this daughter’s room?
Since there wasn’t a desk, I pushed the falderal aside and stacked paper and pens on the dressing table’s glass surface. This put a crack in my mother’s support of my writing career. “Stop. You’ll scratch the glass.”
But I persisted hiding my pens and papers under the dressing table’s skirt. “You’ll catch pens in the eyelet and tear it.”
“I need a place to write, Mom. I can’t write on my bed. An ink cartridge might explode on the new quilt. The floor’s too hard. That leaves the dressing table.”
My mother muttered that I didn’t appreciate her talent and she went off for a smoke. I continued to use my dressing table as a desk and my mother continued to smoke.
That Christmas my mother squeezed a wall desk in the only space left in my storybook bedroom. This fold-up desk was hung with twelve-inch screws into a sliver of wall space between the entry and closet doors. As it had no legs, a chair was tucked flushed against it. Mom presented me with a box covered in leftover wallpaper to keep my writing stuff in.
“It’s perfect, Mom.” And it was because we both were happy with the room. Now I could disappear into my rose trellis world of make-believe, writing masterpieces without disturbing hers.
Years later, the contents of my childhood bedroom arrived at my doorstep as my parents were downsizing. I debated about hanging the wall desk in my bedroom but in the end I hung it in the basement. I put my rose trellis box on a closet shelf as a keepsake while shaking my head over the dressing table that had certainly seen better days.
De-skirted, it was now a chipped, white skeleton of itself. I relegated the table to the neighborhood garage sale. There Mary began examining its undersides while I ranted about its honored place in the bedroom of my youth. Mary purchased the table.
At last, I thought, the table would be appreciated, because Mary’s daughter loved frilly things. “With a new skirt, it will look lovely in Kathleen’s room.” Giving me her Mona Lisa smile, Mary carted the table home.
Mary invited me over for tea and the table’s grand debut. Kathleen did not get a dressing table with a swirling skirt. Instead under Mary’s skillful hands, a black walnut table had emerged with boxy legs and two workable drawers that had once been nailed shut and bound tight with blue ribbons.
“Oh, Mary. Please, please give it back. How much do you want for refinishing it?”
“You can’t have it. I’ve put a lot of me into this table and it’s just perfect for Patrick. He’s been wanting a desk.”
“A desk,” I sighed. My dressing table was a real writing place at last. I wanted to keep begging but kept my lips still for I cherished my friendship with Mary more.
“Besides,” added Mary, “You already have three desks. How many do you need?”
I kicked myself all the way home. Mary was right. A desk was not the problem for I did have three desks scattered throughout the house. All were stacked with empty paper and pens waiting for the muse to arrive squeezed in-between work, chores, and family. Still I yearned for what I couldn’t have—a perfect, black walnut writing table with tons of time to write. Where was the mother who excused me from chores because her daughter was going to write a book someday? It was then that I knew who had to be this mother.
I began getting up two hours before the household awakened letting my hand fill up the ruled pages. When I nailed a book contract, I flew over to Mary’s house.
“Guess you didn’t need that old dressing table after all.” “No. I needed a kick in the behind from a friend.”
Mary stood in line at a bookstore signing. Phoning me the next day, she said, “Your book is perfect.”
Years passed and the children grew up. Life was crammed full when Mary was diagnosed with cancer. As a true warrior, she fought her disease but in the end it captured her. I knew she was at the finish line when I received a call from Mary telling me to come and reclaim the black walnut table. It seemed Patrick had outgrown it. Mary had to phone a second time before I reluctantly went. Oh, how I didn’t want to lose Mary.
“How can I ever thank you for such a perfect gift?” Mary hugged me and then I made us our last cup of tea together. I didn’t want to say goodbye to Mary but I did, and then carted the table home with tears streaming down my cheeks. I still wanted the table, but I didn’t want it. It would take awhile to look at it with clear eyes.
Well, Mom and Mary were both gone now, but the table remained. The black walnut swirls and whorls resonated in my bedroom so placed reminding me of where I came from and where I still yearned to go. On bad days, when my inner critic told me, Give it up. This is useless, I thought about turning my perfect desk back into a dressing table. But I wouldn’t, because I now knew what a perfect gift was. This gift was family and friends who deeply cared and believed in me. Everyone, but especially the stubborn me, needed confidants and encouragement no matter what happened.
So I’d believe in myself even when I was stuck and stammered on paper. It was then that I needed the black walnut table the most, my talisman standing by a window that fluttered with white eyelet curtains. Standing in my room, I felt close to Mom and Mary, closer than visiting them in a cemetery. Hugging my journal, they were now captured in words for me to visit and revisit. As long as I lived, they were with me. Oh, how I missed them.