Pictures in the Mud

By Kay Sloan

One afternoon in late June, my three year old daughter skipped out of her playhouse with her toy telephone in hand and announced, “Mamaw has a new brother! And we have a new uncle!”

“Oh?” I was sitting on the living room sofa, hoping to have a few more undisturbed minutes with the novel I was reading. But I was surprised and pleased she knew that my mother’s brother would be our uncle. “What is our new uncle’s name?”

“Burton!” She was exuberant. “And he wants to talk to you! He’s sick.” She happily thrust her plastic yellow receiver at me.

“Call my mother,” my father told me.  She had died almost ten years before.

I put down my book and stared at her. When my eighty-one-year-old mother had been two, in 1918, her older brother, Willie Burton, died from scarlet fever. He had been four years old. I hadn’t learned about him until I was a teenager, and his name was rarely brought up. I certainly couldn’t remember anyone ever mentioning him in front of my daughter. In fact, my husband didn’t even know of his existence.

But there was the yellow receiver, waving in front of me. “He’s very very sick, Mommy! Talk to him!” Her happiness had turned into urgency.

A knot was growing in my stomach. I took her little telephone, and tried to make conversation with “Burton.” “Hi. How are you?” I forced out the words.

My daughter looked as if she were about to stamp her foot in exasperation. “Why are you talking like a stone?” Then she waved her hand. “It’s okay. You can put it down. He’s here.”

“Where is he?”

“Right there!” She was impatient, annoyed that I apparently refused to see what was right before my eyes. She pointed to the love seat by the fireplace.

“What does he look like, sweetie?” I asked.

“Yellow hair and blue eyes.” Her tone had changed again, calmer.

The only photograph I’d ever seen of my mother’s brother showed a smiling, tow-headed boy. I’d been told he’d had my mother’s eyes — so blue they were almost aqua. A good guess, I told myself, though a chill deepened.

“And how old is he?” I asked.

“I don’t know. A big boy. Maybe this many.” She flashed a few fingers, too quickly to count.

There was a knock at the door; it was the sitter arriving at her usual hour. Together, they turned to my daughter’s lego castle, which had been partly knocked down the night before. My daughter half-heartedly began to repair the tower, then came to me and curled up in my lap, saying, “I’m sad.”

“Is it your castle? Let’s rebuild it.” I hoped for something I could fix, or, at least, explain.

“No, ” she said, as if annoyed that I would think of something so trivial. “Not that.”

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she answered, fingering the yellow receiver that still lay beside me on the couch.

Fifteen years before, when my father lay dying from cancer in a hospital bed in Mississippi, where I grew up, he had pointed to the telephone on the night stand and asked me to make a call for him. “Call my mother,” he told me. She had died almost ten years before.

“How do I do that, Daddy?” I asked.

“Dial one,” he said, and I continued stroking his cool forehead, wishing that bridging life and death were as easy as that.

A few days before he entered the hospital, when the doctors were still giving him months more to live, he rose from his recliner in the den to peer out the window at the road. He called my mother and me over. “Look at all those people out there,” he said, gesturing at the empty street. And then he pointed some of them out to my mother, name by name.

My father described windows and stairs, lights circling my mother’s head…

“Honey, there’s not a soul out there,” my mother said, and gently guided him back to his chair. But later, after my father had fallen asleep, she told me that the people he’d mentioned, some whose names I vaguely knew, were old friends or distant relatives who had died. When he woke, he told us a dream about fishing with old childhood friends, now dead, and of “catching a great big one.” It was as if the past were surfacing in tangible forms around him, sparkling from the depths of the dark tunnels his eyes had become. He would tell us stories, funny tales of old childhood friends that would leave him chuckling until he groaned. The pain, he said, felt like hornets buzzing inside his chest.

He was still strong enough to sit through a Sunday dinner, repeating the same blessing he’d quickly mumbled for as long as I could remember. When I was a child, some of the words sounded like “make a song bloom.” It was only during the last Sunday dinner blessing, when his voice was slowed, that I realized the words were “make us humble.” Seeing him ease away from life, with dignity and humor, was, indeed, making me feel humble.

When he slept, I sometimes took long walks. The air was sweet with the fragrance of May, and I would stroll over to the elementary school I’d attended many years before, or to the park where I’d played. Listening to the happy cries of children on the playground, I felt like a visitor from another time, escaping into my own “dreams remembered.” I’d returned home to attend to my father, and it felt as if I’d gone to another time as well as place. Time itself seemed out of focus, even the leaves on the trees stirring in slow motion.

Finally, when my father could no longer swallow his pain medication, we made the difficult decision of sending him to the hospital. His body was so thin it seemed barely able to contain his spirit. As I saw him curled in his bed, the memory of locust shells that would cling to the tree after the living creature had left came to my mind, and I remembered how my sister and I would pluck them from the pine tree bark in the back yard when we were children. He seemed that delicate then, his flesh almost transparent, the way my daughter’s eyelids were when she was just born.

In the hospital, sometimes his eyes would light up with energy and urgency. Once, he gestured at my mother, using his favorite nickname for her. “Miss Bune, what have you done for the human race?” Later, with an astonished look, he pointed to the ceiling, then to his chest. “It’s coming to me.” He shook his head and said, “That takes special privileges.” Suddenly, he seemed to recognize someone, and a great smile poured over his gaunt face. “Well! I didn’t see you! Don’t you look handsome!” All this was addressed to the green walls of his room. At times, he described windows and stairs, lights circling my mother’s head. He saw chairs arranged in the shape of a cross, and hoped there would be enough seats for everyone.

Perhaps these were hallucinations brought on by medication, but when he was still at home, describing the congregation in the street — when my mother saw “not a soul there” — he was unable to swallow even a mild tablet for pain.

Once, as I held his hand, he shook his head. “This is something. I’m your father, and you’re taking care of me.”

Two years ago, we lived in Greece while I taught film studies at a university in Salonica. During our stay, our daughter developed a circle of imaginary playmates, all somehow related to Ernie, the Sesame Street character. Kokamadoodie, Dayon — these were friends of hers and Ernie’s. One afternoon, as my husband and I walked down a busy street with our daughter between us, she stopped abruptly and said, “A.G. loves Ernie. A.G. would never hurt Ernie.”

My father — dead then for fourteen years — had been called throughout his life by his initials, “A.G,” though I couldn’t remember a time when I’d referred to him as such in front of my then two-year-old daughter. I rarely spoke of him at all, since I wanted to avoid questions about death. If I did speak of him, it would be as “my daddy,” or “your grandfather.” I was thankful she’d never asked questions about him.

When we returned to our apartment, she was eager to point out on a map where “A.G.” lived. “A.G. wants to be here,” she told us.

My husband looked startled. “What does A.G. look like?” he asked.

“Brown hair and big eyes and glasses.” A generic description, but a true one.

From time to time, “A.G.” still enters my daughter’s world, either as a friend who loves Ernie or as someone whose home she wants to show us on the globe. Antarctica, I believe, was where he was last residing.

On Father’s Day last year, my husband’s most-appreciated gift was a ticket to a movie of his choice, time alone to savor the cinema that is his obsession. While he was gone, my daughter and I played on her swing set in the backyard. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon, sun dappling the ground with shadows, a breeze through the oak leaves. My daughter was “show-telling,” as she calls it when she goes into deep play, when imaginary characters fill her world and create stories. Someone had a great-great uncle who lived in the time of dinosaurs.

“Who lived with the dinosaurs?” I asked.

“A.G.,” she said. “And Uncle George.” My Uncle George, whom I’d seen only on rare occasions at weddings and funerals, had died the year before she was born. A few minutes later, she casually looked beyond my shoulder, up into the oak tree, and said, “Go away, ghost!” as if an annoying, but mundane, presence were there.

“Ghost?” I asked, lightly, but she returned to her deep play, ignoring me, just as she ignored other questions about “Burton” or “A.G.”. I tried not to ask her much, since she would withdraw, seeming to see my interest as an intrusion.

“It looked like a telegram, but it was the lines of a puddle,” my daughter said.

That night, she tucked her arm around me as we lay in her bed together, after turning out the lights. She fell into a thoughtful silence. “I picked you out as a surprise gift for Daddy.”

We’d been making cards and gifts for him, so it was natural that she should be thinking about presents. When I asked her why she’d picked me out, she sounded surprised. “He needed a wife.”

“I’m glad you chose me,” I told her.

After she fell asleep, I looked up Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” and read it for the first time in many years.

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
The soul that rises with us, our life’s Star
Hath elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar. . .

One afternoon, my daughter sat on the kitchen floor and began telling me a story, inventing it as she went along. “They couldn’t see the pictures in the mud,” she began, sliding her hands across the tile floor.

It was a wonderful image, so I reached for a piece of paper and a pencil lying on the table to scribble down her words. “It looked like a telegram, but it was the lines of a puddle,” she said. “The rings of the ocean. The scientists put on the booklets. This is the good part. Because they see the mud puddle when it’s a triangle.”

It was a surreal story, told in pure stream-of-consciousness, with other characters who had “a little bitty bitty peace on earth.” But what struck me were the pictures in something as ordinary as mud that the measuring scientists could see as “a triangle.” I thought again of Wordsworth’s poetry, and the child he describes as an “Eye among the blind.”

I have tried to made some kind of sense of my daughter’s experiences, at times looking for the safety of the rational, the dismissive: she must have heard of my mother’s young brother, at some time? And, even by age two, she’d heard my father referred to as “A.G”? Or, her stories are the product of an active imagination.

In other moments, I’ve wondered if the soul pre-exists birth, as Wordsworth’s poem suggests. I’ve thought of the conundrum Steven Hawkings posed: if we can remember the past, why can we not remember the future? Are there “loops” in time? Might the physicists who theorize about the existence of parallel universes be correct? Might spiritual presences exist in such universes? I thought of Borges and his labyrinthine sense of time, running in spirals or circles, and his narrator in “The Garden of Forking Paths,” who tells another man that his ancestor believed “in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent, and parallel times. . . a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars.”

Are we lost in such a labyrinth, under the misguided idea that we are following a linear path into the future?

A few days after my daughter’s “conversation with Burton,” she came to me holding her baby doll, whom she’d named Larry, despite the pink bonnet and flowered dress he wore. “Larry’s so sick, he’s dead,” she told me.

Weeks later, the summer almost gone, we were snuggled in her bed reading Dr. Seuss when she stopped me mid-sentence.

“What happens when the days end?” she asked.

“The sun goes down and it’s night,” I answered, relieved she’d asked such an easy question. “Time to go to sleep.”

“No, I mean when all the days end.”

I cannot remember what I answered, something about time lasting forever, something I knew to be untrue. Mostly I remember how closely I embraced my daughter, as if somehow I could keep all our transitory moments from inevitably slipping from us — and how the words I spoke felt like stones falling from my mouth.

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About Kay Sloan

Kay Sloan teaches creative writing at Miami University of Ohio. She's the author of two novels, a poetry chapbook, and several books on American cultural history. More about Kay can be found on her website.

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