Congratulations to Gary Presley, the winner of our writing contest!
Disconnecting the Dots
She pointed at the sepia photograph and asked, “Who’s that?”
“You know who that is,” I said. “Look a little closer.”
She tried pulling the thick photo album closer to her face, but its weight made her lean down toward it instead. She seemed perched on the edge of the wingback chair’s cushion, so much smaller than she used to be. I wondered if the album was too heavy for her lap. “Can’t tell. Can’t see,” she said into the album. I knew her eyesight was fine, probably the best of the senses she had left.
“Look at his eyes,” I said. “Who do you know with eyes not quite level on their face? You knew him for a long, long time.” Her nose drew a small circle in the air as she scanned the photograph for clues, tilting her head up a bit so she could see through the reading lens of her bifocals. I wasn’t sure if she was playing for time, hoping I’d just tell her, or pulling my leg by pretending she didn’t recognize him. She’d done both to me before. I was in no hurry; it was the first time I’d been to see her in more than a week. Sometimes she gave me the cold shoulder if I didn’t visit what she considered often enough, but I could thaw her out with an old photo album or box of cinnamon graham crackers.
“Are you gonna tell me who it is or are we just gonna sit here all day guessing?” she said. I was never sure whether it was better to tell her things straight up or let her try to figure it out; I’d read it somewhere but couldn’t remember. I was never sure how many cylinders she’d be hitting on when I saw her. Except for the past year and a half, she’d had so many good, productive years. I was taking a breath to simply tell her who it was when the gold monogram ring on her gnarled left hand caught her attention.
“This has something written on the inside,” she said. “I found it in the dresser. I remember that I gave it to your father, but I don’t remember when.”
“What does it say?” I asked.
She pulled the ring off, over an arthritic knuckle, and tried to read the inscription, then held it out to me. “I can’t read it. Can you?” I opened the drawer on the end table and dug through nail files, connect-the-dot books and lipsticks. I remembered the table just a few years ago sitting in her living room, polished and perfect. Now it had scratches, places where the finish had been rubbed off, and a coffee cup ring. Things had changed so quickly.
“I thought you had a magnifying glass in here,” I said.
“Who knows,” she said waving her arms at the room. “I don’t know what you brought here and what you left behind in my house. And some things just disappear here. People are in and out of here all day.”
I found the magnifying glass, ignored the veiled accusations and reached for the ring.
“I miss my house,” she said, looking around the room at the bed, dresser, television, lamps, and photographs and artwork hung on the walls, a lifetime distilled into a single room. It was kind of like her house, but not. Her look settled on me. “I think I could still take care of myself. Penny could stay with me. I know you don’t think so, but I could,” she said. “I could.”
I reached over and took the ring from her hand. “You know I don’t agree. You were so far away. You weren’t eating well. I could never visit. Now you get to see me more.”
“Not enough more,” she said. “But the food here isn’t too bad. What does that ring say?”
I squinted through the magnifying glass – I wondered sometimes if her vision wasn’t better than mine – and read the inscription. “Dora to DPD. 4-15-45.” I handed the ring back to her.
“I remember giving that to your dad, but I don’t remember when,” she said. She squinted into the ring again, then slid it back on her finger. “He had the cutest eyes. The way they were on his face made him look like a puppy tilting his head when he looked at me straight on.”
“Not quite level?” I said.
“His eyes – not quite level?”
“No, not really,” she said. “Why did I give him this ring?”
“Well, 4-15-45 was six months before you got married. Maybe you wanted him to have some kind of engagement ring, too.”
“We got married in 1945?” she said. “Can you write that down for me?”
“Sure,” I said, rooting through the drawer for something to write with. I wrote “Dora and Daniel wedding, 10-15-45,” and taped the note to the mirror on her dresser.
When I sat back down she was looking at my face. “You have his eyes,” she said. “Well, his were brown, but yours are crooked just like his were.” She paused. “I guess he really was your father,” she said, and we laughed.
There was a knock at the door, and the evening nurse came in with a small paper cup filled with pills that Mom tossed down with a sip of coffee. It was getting late, at least by nursing home standards, and I straightened up a few things before saying goodnight, leaving the photo album in her lap for last. It had been open to the same page all evening.
She pointed to a man in a sepia photograph and asked, “Who’s that?”
I took a deep, quiet breath. If dad was blinking out of her mind, could I be far behind? “It’s dad,” I said, “Who did you think it was?”
“Well, of course it’s your dad. Look at those eyes!” she said, looking me in the eye as she closed the album.