Not every casualty of war dies on the battlefield. When the fight comes home, how can a mother move on?
In the late October dusk, the woman raking leaves moves heavily along the edge of the yard, her head bowed to the task. The house is dark except for the soft orange glow of the porch light, and she herself is nearly hidden in shadow. Driving past, Marian Collier lifts her foot from the gas pedal. If she were to wave, she doubts the woman would see her. The picture of sorrow, Marian thinks, going on.
The woman is Ida Lampore, mother of Sean Travers. Age 22, Sean lies in the plot reserved for his grandparents in the cemetery beside the West Auburn Congregational Church. Just that morning, Ida had been up there, dragging the wilted wreaths from his grave, tossing them into the bushes. When Arthur Hill, the old caretaker, had hobbled over, waving his hands and shouting, “That’s not the way we do it, missus,” she had cursed at him.
Marian Collier will hear about it at the store tomorrow, how Ida had told Arthur to go to hell, bum hip and all. And he’d only been trying to help. For now, though, Ida is the picture of sorrow that Marian carries home with her.
Two pumpkins sit on the passenger seat. Marian will scoop them out for pies, then she and Roger will carve jack o’ lanterns and place them in the front windows. Roger. He showed up like a miracle the previous summer, knocking on her door and asking if she remembered him from school. Come in, she said, I’ll make coffee. Four months later, they were married, Roger a widower of one year, Marian a bride for the first time at sixty-three.
“Sean Travers had something extra,” she tells Roger at dinner. “Smart. He could have done anything.”
Roger smiles at her across the table. She said the same thing as they were leaving the funeral. She hasn’t told Roger how disappointed she was when she learned Sean had enlisted the day after high school graduation, married his girlfriend on his first leave. Like so many. Like Roger. Two tours in Vietnam, two children by the time he was Sean’s age.
“He kept the most beautiful notebook,” she says, crossing her knife and fork on her plate. “His field journal for my science class. Sean always did these precise little drawings: cedar waxwings, wild turkeys, white tails. He cared about the details, getting the colors exactly right. The other kids—mostly, theirs looked like the dog’s lunch. You couldn’t tell a woodpecker from a woodchuck.”
“Don’t you like that?” Roger asks, nodding at her plate.
“Of course I do. Silly.” Marian picks up her fork again and spears a piece of chicken, a pea. She loves it that Roger cooks, and tonight he has surprised her with a roast chicken so perfectly golden brown she got teary when he took it out of the oven. If she could reach that far, she would clasp his head in her two hands and kiss him on the mouth. Another thing she loves is the crisp feel of Roger’s hair now that it’s gone gray. She had recognized him right away, the boy she’d known in Harrison, Maine.
Sean Travers, though, in his Army uniform, the photograph that ran with his obituary. So lean and serious. And his mother, raking her yard in the dark.
Ida Lampore is in the house now, arms wrapped tightly around herself, rocking back and forth on the sofa. She has left a bowl of tomato soup untouched on the kitchen table. In the refrigerator, where her sisters put them, the funeral casseroles and salads have spoiled. The two sisters call every day. Hold on to the good memories, they tell her, be thankful for your grandson.
Earlier, Ida had seen Marian Collier driving past, though she hadn’t acknowledged her. Years ago, she’d felt sorry for Marian, raising her boy all alone. Now Ida knows that sometimes luck comes late in life. Marian’s son turned out fine, and she has a new husband who thinks she hung the stars in the sky. So they say. Ida’s had no luck, that’s her problem. The husbands left: one, two, three. And she stood up to it, like a tree in a storm. That’s how she would think of it, a tree in a storm. Ida could take anything. But not this, not Sean.
On the mantle, the one picture left standing is Sean in his dress uniform. When he’d sent it to her, Ida couldn’t get over the shock of seeing him so buttoned-up under the shiny brim of his hat, as if the uniform itself had stolen him away from her. The other pictures, the ones of Sean and Leila and even the newer ones with baby Patrick, she has turned face down. In the past few days she has considered how things might have been different if she had sent Sean to live with his father. There would have been girlfriends—the girls liked Sean—but none of them would have been Leila.
You don’t know, Ida’s sisters have told her. You can’t blame Leila. And Sean loved her, don’t forget that.
Ida does know. She gets up and lifts one of the pictures at random, Sean and Leila on their graduation day. In the bathroom, she finds her nail scissors and brings them into the living room, where she takes the picture carefully out of the frame. The little curved scissors are perfect for cutting Leila in her white gown away from Sean in his dark blue one. Next she cuts Leila out of the wedding portrait, and as she does, the iron band that grips Ida’s heart eases a fraction. In the picture where Leila’s lips are pressed against the side of Sean’s face, Ida must cut a small dent in his cheek to free him.
Leaving Whitcomb’s Store with two cans of evaporated milk and a jar of nutmeg, Marian sinks into the seat of her car and sits there, pondering Arthur Hill’s stricken face as he told of his encounter with Ida Lampore at the cemetery. Marian had stopped at the sound of Arthur’s voice in the middle of the group gathered by the meat counter.
“She was breaking them little flags in two,” he said. “Snapping the sticks, I mean. I wouldn’t of minded if it was just the flowers. But the flags, throwing them around like that.”
“I heard Sean had that syndrome when he got back,” Earl Whitcomb put in. “Toxic stress syndrome.”
“It’s PTSD, Earl,” someone said. “The initials don’t fit.”
“You know what I mean.” Earl’s face turned as red as the hamburger in his display case. “Maybe Ida’s blaming the Army.”
“Well, she was blaming me yesterday.” Arthur was tugging at his suspenders, enjoying the attention. “Cussed me up one side and down the other.”
“You do look kind of roughed up,” Earl said with a laugh, turning away to wash his hands in the sink beside the butcher block.
Marian remembers Ida Lampore from the parent-teacher conferences as a quiet, dignified woman. By the time Sean was in her eighth-grade science class, his father had been gone for some time and Ida had recently remarried. The stepfather never came to the school, but that wasn’t so unusual.
At the end of one meeting, when Marian had praised Sean’s good manners, Ida had looked down at her lap and said, “I worry about that. Mr. Lampore thinks he’s soft for a boy his age, all those years living with just his mother. Sometimes I wonder if Sean tries too hard to make other people happy.” Ida raised her head suddenly. “You must know what I mean.”
Marian doesn’t recall what she said in reply, only the knot in her stomach as she imagined how it would be for Sean, sharing the house with Mr. Lampore and his greasy mustache. Sean got into some trouble for a couple of years—underage drinking, mostly—along with his cousin Eric. Then Felix Lampore took off with the ice cream carton full of cash Ida kept in her freezer, and Sean settled down again.
At first Marian had found it odd when Sean and Leila became a couple. A natural-born actress, Leila got the female lead in every school play from the time she was a freshman. It didn’t hurt that Kip Schiller, the English teacher who directed the plays, had eyes for Leila. He wasn’t the only one, either. Her name came up frequently in the teacher’s lounge.
Another male teacher, casting a knowing look at Kip, had once observed, “That Leila of yours is just about ripe for the picking.”
“And you’re treading on dangerous ground, my friend,” Marian had said, shutting them up for the time being. She had in mind the time she’d seen Kip take hold of Leila’s bare arm as he paused to speak to her in the cafeteria. Marian might have passed it off as a friendly gesture, except that Kip had leaned close and whispered in Leila’s ear. When he finally let go, the pale skin of Leila’s arm glowed pink.
Though Leila darted, flitted like a small bird, there was a fierceness about her that made people pay attention. And her voice. At fifteen, Leila could belt out a version of “Summertime” that left the grownups in the audience wondering how a child might know so much.
When Leila attached herself to Sean Travers, Marian wondered if it was a form of protection. After a while, it was rare to see one of them without the other. “How are you, Mrs. Collier?” Sean would say when their paths crossed. Leila would squint nearsightedly and give her a regretful smile, as if she wasn’t sure they’d met before. You could never tell when Leila was acting.
As Marian pulls away from the store, she decides to take Ida Lampore one of the pies she will bake that afternoon. Such a foolish equation, she thinks. You have lost your only child. And here is your pie.
Ida freezes at the sound of a car approaching. She’s caught, standing right there in the big window in the upstairs hallway, clutching the damp newspaper she’s using to clean the glass. Marian Collier, carrying a grocery bag in one hand, waves up at her, and Ida has no choice but to go down and let her in. Reluctantly, she leaves her bucket of warm water and vinegar, aware of her own sour smell. It has been two days—or maybe three, she isn’t sure—since she bathed. Well, Marian isn’t the worst person who might come calling.
“You’ve caught me at a bad time,” Ida says, peeling off her rubber gloves, pushing her hair away from her face.
“I’m sure there’s no good time,” Marian replies. “I won’t stay long.” She goes directly to the kitchen, where she sets the bag on the table and removes a pumpkin pie and a container of whipped cream.
“That’s a pretty one,” Ida says, embarrassed by the toast crusts on the counter, the half-empty coffee mugs in the sink. Though she has been scrubbing every other corner of the house, she’s avoided the kitchen. The thought of eating turns her stomach.
“I’ll cut you a piece right now,” Marian says, “while it’s still warm.” She opens the cupboard and finds two small plates. “I’ll have a sliver myself.”
“Come on in the living room, where it’s nicer.” Ida leads the way, surprised that the scent of molasses and cinnamon has made her mouth water. Every reaction of her body has been something of a surprise in recent days, the way it carries on, independent of her thoughts.
Ida has forgotten about her snipping of the previous night. There is Leila, all over the coffee table. Little Leila heads. Leila in her wedding dress. Leila standing sideways, with two hands on her pregnant belly. Ida sweeps them onto the floor with a wave of her hand.
“This is my grandmother’s recipe,” Marian says, as if she hasn’t seen. “She was quite the pie maker. Thought nothing of baking six at a time.”
“I suppose they had bigger ovens, back then.” Or maybe they were smaller. Ida can’t think straight. Taking a deep breath, she sits on the couch and, out of politeness, tries a bite of Marian’s pie. That bite makes her hungry for another, so hungry she eats it all, quickly and quietly. “Thank you,” she says.
“My parents were killed in a car accident, years ago, just after my son turned eleven,” Marian says after a minute. “They’d gone out to celebrate their anniversary and hit black ice as they were driving home.”
“That’s a shame.” Ida shakes her head. “Sean’s wasn’t an accident, though. You know that, don’t you?”
“I heard something along those lines,” Marian says.
“Turner wouldn’t let me see him, over at the funeral home. ‘You don’t want to do that, Mrs. Lampore,’ he told me. ‘You’re going to want a closed casket.’”
“A terrible thing, losing Sean.”
“He told me about the letter you sent him, over in Kandahar, when his friend got killed. He said it was a good letter.”
Ida retrieves the pictures of Leila and spreads them on the coffee table. In each one, her dark eyes sparkle as if she is having the best time in the world. “I never did trust this girl,” Ida says. “But Sean was crazy for her, and what could I do?”
“I didn’t really know her,” Marian says. “I had her in class, but she was hard to know.”
“Easy enough for some.” Ida moves the images around, as if they are the pieces of a puzzle she is putting together. “Maybe you noticed who was holding baby Patrick at the funeral.”
“Eric seemed very helpful.”
“Sean’s own cousin.”
“What are you thinking?” Marian sets her empty plate down beside Ida’s.
“I want to show you something.” Ida gets up and crosses the room to a chest of drawers and comes back with a folded piece of paper that she smoothes out on top of the table. “‘I hope your happy now’” is written in blue ink across the center.
“This is Sean’s handwriting,” Ida says. “But we both know Sean could spell.”
“Where did this come from?”
“It’s the note he left. Leila says it was on her dresser.” Ida runs her finger over the creases. “If she had any sense, she would have kept it to herself.”
“I wonder why he put it in quotation marks,” Marian says.
“My idea is it’s something Eric wrote to Leila, after Sean got back. Maybe in a letter from Eric that Sean found.”
Ida waits for Marian to say it isn’t much to go on, as her sisters have, and when she doesn’t, Ida continues. “I saw them together a couple of months back, riding in Eric’s truck. Leila had Patrick on her lap, the three of them like a family. Never mind that Sean had nearly gotten himself blown up the week before.”
Marian moves the note aside and looks over the pictures of Leila. “I suspect she’s the sort of person who found it hard to be alone.”
“The sort who needs someone around to admire her is how I’d put it,” Ida replies.
“What about you?” Marian asks. “Do you have anyone to help you get through this?”
“My sisters try. Pat, the religious one, told me I should read Jeremiah. She called it the book of consolation. I think she got the wrong book, though. Jeremiah’s all smiting and suffering. I gave up on it before I got halfway through.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Marian says. “I never got beyond Genesis myself. And a Psalm or two.”
Instead of going directly home, Marian takes the Brook Road out beyond West Auburn village, past Cal’s Auto Body. She glances over, going by. Leila’s little blue car is still there, around by the side, smashed like an accordion, the glass of the shattered windshield winking in the sun.
Roger had stopped there the day after Sean died to look at the car. “He must have hit ninety or more,” Roger told her later. “I hope he had a good belt of whiskey in him.”
Marian’s legs had turned rubbery, and she’d had to sit down. “He walks away from a roadside bomb in Afghanistan and dies in a car crash ten days after he gets home. How is that possible?”
“I’d say he made up his mind to do it.” Roger had leaned over and put his hands on her shoulders, rested his chin on top of her head. “That’s why he took his wife’s car instead of his own pickup.”
Even from a distance, Marian can see the streaks of blue paint on the concrete bridge abutment. It is the perfect spot. A long straightaway leads up to the curve where the road turns sharply under the railroad bridge. Drivers approaching from either side have to stop to make sure there isn’t another car coming through. But if you had made up your mind, you could build up speed, come straight at it.
Marian pulls off the roadway and gets out. It is one of those mild days at the end of October when the sky is a pure azure, when the sun feels gentle on her face. Crickets are singing in the empty hayfield that runs beside the road. She thinks it may be the last warm day of the year.
Walking up to the gray façade where the impact of the car has left a gash, Marian places her hand on it. The cement feels hot. Turning to look back down the road, she tries to imagine how it would have appeared to Sean in those last seconds. The report in the newspaper said there had been no evidence of alcohol or drugs. Just Sean flying toward death, Marian thinks, as if he couldn’t get there fast enough.
The last time she had spoken with him, Sean had startled her, moving soundlessly into the clearing where she and her two small granddaughters were gathering pinecones. Eric came along behind him, both of them dressed in camouflage. They had black paint smeared under their eyes and carried shotguns. It took a minute for Marian to recognize them.
“Mrs. Collier,” Sean said. “You shouldn’t be out here.”
“Why not?” Marian put her arms around the little girls, who had come up close to her.
“Turkey season,” Eric said. “Haven’t you heard shots this morning?”
“No,” Marian said. “I always forget about turkey hunting.”
“You ought to get one of those orange vests,” Sean said, smiling at her and then at the girls.
“Why are you dressed up like a soldier?” Grace, the older one, released her hold on Marian’s leg and took a step toward Sean.
“He is a soldier,” Eric said. “This boy’s going to Afghanistan day after tomorrow.”
“Are you, too?” Grace asked him.
“Hell no.” Eric smacked Sean in the chest with the back of his hand. “I’ve got more sense than that.”
“I’m just here for a few days,” Sean told Marian. “I brought Leila and Patrick home. They’re going to stay at my aunt’s cottage until I get back.”
Marian would have hugged him goodbye, but she didn’t want to embarrass him in front of Eric. “I wish you all the luck,” she said.
“I don’t like them,” Robin, the younger granddaughter, declared after the two men had faded back into the trees.
“I like the soldier,” Grace said.
“So do I,” Marian had replied.
Driving home from the railroad bridge, Marian considers the absence of plastic flowers and wooden crosses, the spontaneous roadside memorials that spring up at the places where young people have died. Perhaps Sean’s friends, who cried so openly at his funeral, are at a loss. There has been talk of suicide from the start, and the once-familiar place now feels haunted, as if all the sadness in the world has gathered there.
The next afternoon, Marian returns to Ida Lampore’s house, this time carrying a composition book, the kind with the heavy, black and white cardboard covers. Marian has called ahead, so Ida is expecting her. It is a simple thing, to prepare for a visitor, but it has given Ida a degree of pleasure just to bathe and dress in clean clothes again. To tidy up the kitchen. To gather up the Leila snippings and drop them into the wastebasket. Ida has finished the pie Marian brought. She has eaten nothing but the pie, along with a few cups of coffee, and she is feeling a little buzzy from sugar and caffeine.
Ida leads Marian to the living room and tells her to have a seat while she goes to make tea. Left alone, Marian studies the photographs that have been returned to the mantle. There are six of them, including the one of Sean in his uniform. In each of the others, a ghostly white space where Leila used to be. The newest picture—taken shortly before Sean left for Afghanistan—shows Patrick, about a year old, sitting in the curve of his father’s arm, looking up at him. A small piece of Sean’s other arm is missing, the place where Leila must have rested her hand.
About dawn that morning, Marian had wakened with a start, emerging from a dream she couldn’t quite remember. Reassured by Roger’s steady breathing, she had lain in bed listening to the call of a barred owl. Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you? That was how she used to describe the sound to her students, but it hardly captured the truth. To Marian, the call had always sounded profoundly lonely—an echo of her own former loneliness.
Marian is not a person who keeps company with regret. Today, though, looking at the photograph of Sean Travers and his son, she is sorry she waited until he died to visit his house. More than once, after Sean had gone on to high school, she had thought of stopping by, a casual visit to show an interest in his future. Fear of offending Ida, of being meddlesome, had always held her back. She almost didn’t call to get Sean’s address after reading the newspaper account of his injury in a roadside bomb blast near Kandahar. She has saved the letter he sent back, knows it by heart.
“Dear Marian,” he’d written. “It feels weird to call you that. Your letter came while I was in the hospital, and I thank you for it. As you know, I got thrown out of the vehicle in the explosion—nothing worse than a concussion and a few scrapes. Plus the ringing in my ears, which isn’t so bad now. The sad part is that my friend Andy Hutchins got killed. He was about the best guy I ever knew—you would have liked him. When I say he was a cowboy, I don’t mean a showoff, but an honest to God cowboy who grew up on a ranch in Montana. He was married too, with a baby boy he never had the chance to see, except in the pictures his wife sent. We talked about our families a lot, a couple of “the old guys” in our unit. He invited me and Leila and Patrick to come out to the ranch after we got back to the world. Maybe we’ll still get out there to see his wife and baby, I don’t know. I miss him. In the hospital I had a pet fly that lived on the windowsill near my bed. I named him Little Mujah. At mealtimes he waited until I finished eating, and then he walked around on my tray, picking up the juicy bits. Sometimes I’d hold my palm open, and he would sit in it, washing his face like a cat. I still think about him and hope he’s OK, even though I know flies don’t live very long. You’re the only person I could write this to. Leila would tell me I’m losing it. My mother too. I’ve got to go now—they’ve put me on office duty for a few weeks. Kind of boring, but at least the desks don’t blow up. I’ll see you sometime and tell you about this place. You wouldn’t believe half of it. Yours truly, Sean Travers.”
In the kitchen, waiting for the water to boil, Ida paces the worn green linoleum squares between the window and the stove. Leila had called that morning, asking if Ida would like to keep Patrick over the upcoming weekend so that she could get away for a couple of days “to clear my head.” Without a word, Ida had hung up the phone. Patrick will be the next casualty, she supposes, shunted off here and there so Leila can be with Eric. If not Eric, someone else.
After Marian leaves, Ida will probably call Leila back. Although she has entertained the notion that Patrick is not Sean’s son, Ida doesn’t really believe that. Patrick wouldn’t be the first child raised by his grandmother.
Ida arrives in the living room with two cups of tea and a plate of stale cookies, apologizing for the orange plastic tray on which she carries them. Sean had stolen it from the cafeteria when he was in fourth grade. Eric had taken one, too, and they had used them to slide down the hill behind the school after an early snowfall. Ida had been stern with them, insisting they return the trays the next day. Somehow, the boys had never gotten around to it, and the trays had come in handy over the years.
“This is what I brought you,” Marian says once they are seated side by side on the couch. “I mentioned it to Roger the other night, and then I remembered that I had it. Sean gave it to me on the last day, when they were cleaning out their desks.”
“Winter wren,” Ida reads as Marian opens the first page.
“He’s got it just right, the stubby tail and barred belly, the white under the throat. Look how beautifully he’s drawn in the feathers.”
“Hermit thrush,” Ida reads next.
“’Song: clear, liquid, flutelike. Habitat: conifer or mixed hardwoods. Stocky, shorter-winged than other thrushes, with a distinct white eye ring.’”
“I’ve never seen a hermit thrush,” Ida says.
“Most people haven’t.”
“Sean noticed everything. You might think he wasn’t paying attention half the time, but you’d be wrong.”
“Look at this porcupine,” Marian says, turning a page. “See how he’s shaded in the quills, made the face darker than the body.”
“Read about the porcupine.” Ida lets her head rest on the back of the couch, closes her eyes.
‘”Habitat: mixed or coniferous forests. Dens in rock ledges, trees, abandoned buildings. Craves salt, will gnaw shed antlers, axe handles, etc. found in the woods. In winter, hemlock is a major food. In summer, eats many types of leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds.’”
“Read another,” Ida says.
“’Red fox (vulpes vulpes).’ Now he’s getting fancy on us.” Marian laughs lightly. “’Prefers a mixed habitat of forest, cropland, and pasturage. Omnivorous feeder, likes fruits and berries, also birds and small mammals, will eat eggs of turtles and snakes. Home range exclusive to a male-female breeding pair and their pups. Red fox dens may have an underground tunnel system for the purpose of escaping predators.’”
You could make a poem of this, Marian thinks as she reads on in the falling light. Glancing over at Ida, she sees that the other woman, exhausted, now hovers at the edge of sleep. In a while she will get up and turn on a lamp, but for now Marian reads Sean’s mother the book he has left behind.
Art by Hayley Thornton-Kennedy.