Updated: May 29, 2021
Knock on Wood
“I think I have a couple more years left,” my mother-in-law calculated, thinking in practical terms about the rest of her life. “So I’m glad I made this trip.” Ann’s ill-fitting plastic teeth clattered in her mouth and she prodded them back in place with her tongue.
Ann stood just over five feet tall with smooth, luminous skin, large plastic glasses that made her eyes swim out from her face like jarred specimens in a science lab, and a curly blonde wig that she wouldn’t take off even when she slept. She'd made the first plane trip of her life for a two-week vacation to Vermont to visit my husband and me. She smoothed her pink sweatshirt, emblazoned with “Niagara Falls” in bright yellow script, over her stomach and patted it into place. “Maybe I have three years,” she revised, struggling forward from where she had sunk deep into our down-filled couch to rap on the coffee table. “Knock on wood!” A symbolic knocking motion in the air wasn’t enough. Ann's devotion to her many superstitions was storied in her family. We all knew she never dared to test the dreadful possibilities by defying any of them.
I squirmed at her actuarial computation. Still, at eighty-nine years old, she was probably right. I wondered what she looked forward to given she had such little time left.
One afternoon during her first week the weather turned cold and rainy so we holed up for the day. “Would you like a book to read?” I asked.
“A book!” she said. “I’d like to try. I’ve never read a book.”
Never read a book? How was that possible? I rifled through my shelves, horrified by the grim similarity of all my reading: The Virgin Suicides, Shoot the Kids, Clockwork Orange. These would obviously not do. Frantic, I skimmed the book jackets of my unread books to find something promising as a first dive into reading. Something entertaining, uplifting, not too gloomy. A romance even. Something I was unlikely to own. At last I stumbled on Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood.
Ann settled into the easy chair, her feet propped on a footstool, a hot cup of coffee on the side table. I let her alone, apprehensive. Ten minutes passed before she called to me. “Susan! Look!” She sat, stiff and wide-eyed, sliding the book in my direction, a yellowing, ridged fingernail pressed hard under the word “bitch.” Her buggy, magnified eyes met mine in complicit silence. “How did this get past the censors?” she whispered, her eyes holding my gaze, her face questioning and immobile, betraying only a fraction of her alarm.
I paused, weighing my options for explaining. “I have no idea,” I decided to say, taking the book, which she relinquished with relief. “I’ll find something else.” I considered my remaining slim choices and chose Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt, a story so bleak I hadn’t yet had the heart to read it.
She sat with that book all day. I brought her a sandwich and a cup of tea for lunch. I removed the plate when she was done. I watched from a distance. She whispered “oh, terrible,” and pulled a wadded tissue from the sleeve of her sweatshirt to wipe her nose. She mumbled “dear me” and tugged at her wig. In mid-afternoon I brought her a sliced orange on a plate. I wanted to apologize for my unsuitable book collection, to rescue her from the imposed sadness of this story, but she didn’t seem in need of it.
I called her for dinner. She held up her finger to signal she needed a bit more time, then slipped the book jacket in to mark her place. “I like this book,” she said. “It’s like my life.”
“It’s like your life?” I sputtered.
Then Ann began to talk. “My mother, she died in 1918, during that terrible swine flu. I was six.” Without faltering or groping for details, her own bitter story gave way, harbored for decades beyond our hearing. Her father, strapped with seven children to raise when his wife died, farmed the kids out to various relatives until he could find someone else to marry. Two years later they were reunited, the children thrust into the cold, bony bosom of his new wife, their stepmother, a woman Ann called Bubba. Ann stumbled in her storytelling, reaching for the damp, useless tissue tucked in her sleeve. “All these years I’ve tried to think only about good things,” she said, dabbing her eyes.
“She didn’t love you like your mother loved you,” I guessed.
“She made me kneel on beans,” Ann choked out, a rasp of outrage in her voice. “If I ever did anything to make her mad, she poured dried beans on the hard kitchen floor and made me kneel there for half an hour.” She fingered the beads of her necklace like a rosary. “That’s where I learned to pray. On beans.”
She put down her fork, twisting her wedding ring around her finger, then spilled her real heartbreak. “And my father, he didn’t stop her. He just said to me—every night!—‘Don’t be a bad girl, daughter.’” Her voice rose, the resentment unalloyed by the distance of eighty years. “But I wasn’t bad! She was bad!”
Ann’s father worked twelve-hour shifts six days a week in the steel mills of Pittsburgh. I imagined that the bargain he made with Bubba was complex and to him necessary. Still, Ann couldn’t fathom her father’s betrayal. And McCourt's story had given her the courage to vent her outrage. In a day's worth of reading Ann discovered she was not alone.
“I had to get up before school and do chores. She made me clean all the floors on my knees with a rag—every morning!” Looking from me to her son, her chin crumpled against her tears, as if waiting for us to dismiss it all as the past. When we didn't, she rushed on. “Then I ran to school without breakfast and without a coat. But I was too tired and hungry to learn anything.”
By the eighth grade Ann had dropped out of school to clean the home of a wealthy family in exchange for the sweetness of a scanty wage and the relief of a room to herself in their cellar. For hours we listened, our hands wrapped around the warmth of our cups, as Ann unraveled her razor wire of memories, memories sprung loose by Angela's Ashes.
The next morning, when we came downstairs for breakfast, she was already up. Reading. She finished the book by dinner that night. “I’d like to read another book,” she said. “I like the ones that are true.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell us these stories before?” I asked.
“Who would believe me? I didn’t know these things happened to anyone else.” She fitted her china cup into its saucer. “But they happened in this book!” Her voice rose, amazed, thrilled, like a child watching a naked hatchling break free from its shell.
McCourt's story, told without apology or gloss, was her story with its jarring mix of cruelty and love and mercy. The context for her life was now bigger than her neighbors on Dawson Street, who didn’t know or didn’t remember that as a girl she'd lost her beloved mother. Now, the people who understood her experience went far beyond her family, who didn’t hold in their memories that she'd had to kneel on beans. With Angela's Ashes, she now had credible witnesses to her life. Finally, after nearly nine decades, she found herself visible, understood, and it left her exhilarated. She wanted to read more books.
We went to the bookstore the next day and bought The Grapes of Wrath, Coal Miner’s Daughter and Giants of the Earth. She didn’t mind reading fiction, she said, as long as it was true.
She was girlish when she packed for her flight home, her suitcase heavy with books. “I’m looking forward to this,” she said, placing a book in her bag, taking care that no pages would get bent. “There’s lots of books I’d like to read.” At eighty-nine Ann was chock full of plans.
“It could take me another four, maybe five years,” she said, calculating again, a miser with her poverty of years. She ran her fingers across the smooth cover of the book in her hand. “I might have that much time left.” Instinctively she balled her hand into a fist, reaching for the bedside table. “Knock on wood!”
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >