I didn’t understand how much a child needs you. I never remember needing my mother. It wasn’t so obvious. Babies came very fast in my family. Eight in eleven years. She needed me. It may be a simplistic explanation and counter-intuitive but I wasn’t a very good mother because of this. Years later my youngest grandson told me: “If you would move here I could see you every day.” I quit my job and went to live with him for two years. I wasn’t married so I could make this kind of grand gesture. To complete something. I wept for weeks when he was spirited away by his mother and father, who, after all, were the loving parents and had every right. I try not to dwell on it. I come up with plans: I’ll buy him a portable keyboard so that he can make music wherever he goes in Seattle. He’s fifteen now. I sometimes wonder what he’ll remember. Will he have a story he tells a girlfriend? My grandmother lived with us for two years. She had a big dog. Part Border Collie. At night the dog and I piled on her bed and she read her book and I read mine. Sometimes there was chewing gum, which felt forbidden. It was our secret vice. Classical music played on the radio. Once I recognized “Ode to Joy” — a eureka moment. I knew how to play it on the piano. She would sit knitting beside the piano as I practiced. We walked to the Bluebird Cafe for breakfast. And after that, we went to the park with the good climbing tree. She always said not to go too high and I always went too high. There was a stone wall outside an old church and she took photos of me jumping off the stone wall as if it were a precious act. Me in my striped shirt, my shoestrings untied. She laughed at my jokes. We had a plot in the community garden. It did not thrive. The carrots were tiny and crooked. She said it was a learning experience. As a special treat sometimes she would make a nest for me on the dog bed beside her bed. A quilt and a pillow with the planets on it. My cheek against Mars. Her reaching down to hold my hand if I was anxious. It was the year my mother had cancer. Later we moved away. Will he tell the girlfriend how he felt when we had to go our separate ways? I always want to know but whatever he says will strike a small perpetual fire that burns me at the oddest moments. Eating a waffle cone. Driving by a playground. Petting a dog asleep on the bed. Scooting past boy food in the grocery. Constellations like sparks. Ode to joy.
Patricia Henley is the author of three novels, four collections of stories, two chapbooks of poetry, and a stage play. Her first novel Hummingbird House was a finalist for the National Book Award and The New Yorker Fiction Prize. Her first collection of stories, Friday Night at Silver Star, won the Montana First Book Award. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, Circle of Women, The Last Best Place, and other anthologies. Engine Books published her most recent collection of stories, Other Heartbreaks. About the stories in Other Heartbreaks, Robert Olen Butler wrote: “All of us ardent Patricia Henley fans have cause for rejoicing. Her long-anticipated collection of new stories has arrived, and it is splendid. The characters in Other Heartbreaks are achingly familiar as they strive to connect, even as the obstacles they face in that striving reside within themselves. Patricia Henley is one of our culture’s finest chroniclers of the human heart.”