Posts Tagged ‘Penance’

Among Other Things

This story appeared in the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review.

Portia tiptoed to the bedside of the elderly woman. Was she was approaching a corpse? No, the ancient chest swelled ever so slightly, then fell. “Mrs. Lindsey? I’m Portia McNeer.” A leg moved beneath the cover, an arm stretched, and one eye half-opened, revealing a dark iris.

“Portia.” The aged voice somehow made the name sound like a birdsong. “What a lovely name. I knew a Portia once. Long, long ago.”

Portia felt a phantom cross the room and creep up her spine. She shrugged her shoulders and thought no more of it. Mrs. Lindsey drifted again to sleep. She smelled of baby oil. Portia’s gaze wandered. The rose pattern on the curtains and throw rug made the nursing home room look cozy. Family snapshots on the dresser and crayon sketches tacked to the walls suggested someone cared.

Portia’s retirement and the death of her second husband had left her adrift, and her seventy-fifth birthday brought issues of age and death uncomfortably close. Her daughter urged her to take a class or do some volunteer work. Portia had led a selfish life. Was it too late to learn to be giving? She sat in the bedside chair, waiting. She’d come here to learn patience, among other things, so patient she was determined to be.

She didn’t have long to wait. Mrs. Lindsey stirred again and opened her eyes, wider this time, more focused. “You are…?”

“I’m a new volunteer. I’ll come every Wednesday afternoon. If you like, I’ll read to you, or take you for a walk.”

Mrs. Lindsey gave no response. Portia had been warned she showed signs of dementia. Portia sighed. After lacking the time and patience for her own mother when she’d languished in a nursing home, Portia had come here to do penance, among other things.

Suddenly, the old lady’s eyes brightened and gazed deeply into Portia’s. She sat up in bed and spread her arms. “You are Portia! After all these years.”

Portia hesitated. She’d never met Mrs. Lindsey before. But why not humor an old woman? When Portia leaned over to embrace her, Mrs. Lindsey’s voice rose an octave. “After all these years, you’ve finally come back to me!”

Arms like crepe paper draped over balsa wood enveloped Portia with unexpected strength. Portia suppressed a shudder. She lacked the heart to tell Mrs. Lindsey she was mistaken. Gently, she extricated herself and held the old woman’s hands. Her initial revulsion softened to a feeling approaching compassion.

Mrs. Lindsey squeezed her hands. “You are still beautiful. The last time I saw you, you were three years old. You were wearing the blue dress your mother made for your birthday. Your golden curls were tied back with blue ribbons. Your eyes are still as blue as they were then.”

Portia said nothing. Could this woman have guessed her hair had once been blonde? But her mother never made dresses for her. Hand-me-downs from cousins were the best she’d ever had.

“And how is your mother?”

“My mother is dead.”

Mrs. Lindsey’s face fell. “I’m so sorry. She was such a dear woman. And your father?”

Portia shook her head. “Do you feel up to a walk?” The lesson in patience would not be easy.

The brightness faded from the old woman. Almost mechanically, she shifted her legs over the side of the bed and slid her feet into the waiting slippers, then held her arms out for the sleeves of the robe Portia slipped around her. When Mrs. Lindsay fumbled with the buttons, Portia took a deep breath, then said, “Here, let me help you.”

Mrs. Lindsey said little the rest of the afternoon. She struggled with her walker and Portia struggled with impatience. She escorted Mrs. Lindsay outdoors, read her some articles from a magazine, and sat with her through her favorite soap opera. On the way home she prayed for patience. Only determination, of which Portia had plenty, got her back to the nursing home the following Wednesday.

Mrs. Lindsey was dressed, sitting up, and waiting. “I knew you’d come back,” she said. They walked out into the afternoon. The sun warmed the jasmine, releasing its perfume. “It was on a day like today that I last saw you.”

All week Portia had fretted about this. Should she remain silent and let an old woman enjoy a fantasy in her last days? But being deceptive was not Portia’s style. They sat together on a patio bench. “Mrs. Lindsey, I am not the Portia you think I am. I never saw you before last week. I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but I can’t lie to you.”

The old woman appeared undaunted. “You’d have been too young to remember. I’m surprised your mother never talked about me.”

“My mother only talked about where our next meal was coming from and why my father couldn’t keep a job.” She looked down at her hands. “You see, he got injured when I was small. He was pretty much laid up for the rest of his days. When he could work, he’d buy liquor to ease the pain.” Portia set her mouth into a tight line. “My mother was a hard and bitter woman, but she managed to raise five children in tough times.”

“Only five? She never had another daughter? After four sons, she was so delighted to have a little girl. She was expecting when I last saw her. She thought that one would be another girl.”

“You see? I’m not your Portia. My mother never had another child.” Coincidentally, she did have four older brothers, but she didn’t want to feed Mrs. Lindsey’s delusion. “Tell me about the Portia you once knew.”

The old woman settled back in her chair and stretched her limbs to the warm sun. As she went back in time, her voice regained a youthful timbre.

“I was seventeen years old. I’d just graduated from high school. Your mother was expecting a baby. She already had four little boys and the oldest wasn’t yet ten, so she needed some help around the house. Your father hired me and I stayed on until you were five months old.” Mrs. Lindsey smiled. “It was a big white house, full of noise and laughter. I stayed in an upstairs bedroom. After you were born, I helped your mother paint it and make curtains so it would be your room. Such a lovely room. The window looked out onto the rose garden. Your mother grew such lovely roses.”

Mrs. Lindsey drifted into sleep. Portia sat beside her in silence. Her oldest brother was ten years older, but her mother didn’t care about flowers. Such a lovely childhood the scene portended. If only she’d been Mrs. Lindsey’s Portia.

Portia’s childhood had been spent in a two bedroom flat in a dingy apartment house in a coal town. Her parents shared one bedroom and her brothers the other. Her bed was a cot in the living room. Once, as a hard-headed teenager, she threw a fit because she couldn’t have her own room. She didn’t get a room, only a slap in the face. The next day, while her mother was at work, her father dragged himself out of bed and hung two old sheets, curtaining off her corner of the living room. She had never thanked him.

The sun settled behind the trees and Portia shivered. She woke Mrs. Lindsey, who remained in a daze on the way back to her room.

The following week, a staff member waylaid Portia on her way to Mrs. Lindsey’s room. “Whatever have you done to our Mrs. Lindsey? She’s looking so chipper. She even knows what day it is and that you’re coming.”

This time Mrs. Lindsey was not only up and dressed but already leaning on her walker. “I knew you’d come,” she said.

On their way out to the patio, they passed a visiting family party which included a young woman with a very new baby. Mrs. Lindsey stopped to admire the infant, who was dressed in blue.

“Is that a little girl?” she asked.

“No, it’s a boy.”

“She’s so beautiful. She reminds me of this one…,” pointing at Portia, “when she was a baby. She may be bald now, but her hair will come in blonde and curly, just like Portia’s did.”

Portia’s face burned. She steered the old woman away.

As they walked down the hall, Mrs. Lindsey prattled on, “You were so beautiful, from the moment you were born. I was there, you know. I was staying with your mother to help out. The doctor came to the house in the middle of the night. I’d never seen a birthing before, but he asked me to help him.” Her voice rose as she worked herself into an ecstasy. “When you came out, he put you into my hands, all warm and wet and wailing. What a miracle! And your mother said, ‘Is it another boy?’ And I said, ‘No, it’s a little girl’. And she began to cry. She was so happy.” Tears streaked down Mrs. Lindsey’s face.

Portia found her some tissues and dabbed moisture from her own eyes. She wished her mother had felt such joy at her birth, but she’d never spoken of it, except to complain of the pain and the burden of yet another child.

“Your mother always wanted a little girl. She told me every time she had a baby, she picked out a girl’s name, and every time it was a boy. She was so sure you’d be another boy, she didn’t even have a name for you. We called you ‘Little Princess’ until she could think of a good name.

“You see, nothing ordinary would do. We thought of all the names of queens and princesses, like Elizabeth and Mary and Anne, but they were too common. You were so special, you needed a special name. Portia was the name of a noble woman in a story I read in school.”

“Yes, Julius Caesar. Portia was the wife of Brutus.”

“So we named you Portia. Such a lovely name.”

Portia didn’t mention the grief she’d suffered because of her name. Cruel children found so many ways to tease her, “Portly” being the least unkind corruption. She once asked her mother why she had been so named.

“I don’t know,” her mother snapped. “I should have called you Jane.”

Jane. Plain Jane. Threadbare dresses and stringy yellow hair that an overburdened, unhappy woman never had time to brush or braid.

Portia returned to the present to find the older woman gazing at her.

“You look like a queen even now. After all those years, you’re still beautiful.”

Portia nodded. The ugly duckling had grown into an attractive woman who took care of her health, went to the hairdresser, wore only enough makeup to enhance her natural beauty, and dressed with care.

Mrs. Lindsey went on. “You were such a pretty child. Your mother and I talked about what your future would be. We knew you’d grow up to catch a fine husband.”

A cynical laugh escaped. “Well, I caught a dandy, all right.”

“Did he give you children?”

“Yes. A son and a daughter.”

“How wonderful.”

Portia didn’t add that, before she turned twenty, he also gave her an infection which rendered her incapable of having more children. “Mrs. Lindsey, I am not the Portia you knew. I got married at sixteen to get away from my mother.” But Mrs. Lindsey had nodded off to sleep.

What would it have been like to grow up in the family the old woman described? Staying at her mother’s bedside would have been easier if their shared memories had been other than bitterness and disappointment. Perhaps her motivation for coming here was to change all that in some way.

When she looked at Mrs. Lindsey, Portia saw herself in twenty years. After lacking patience and compassion for her own mother’s infirmity, perhaps, among other things, she was here to pay a debt.

When Portia returned the following Wednesday, Mrs. Lindsey sat in her room with an old black photo album on her lap. “I have something to show you.” She opened it to a picture of a small girl in an old fashioned dress with puffy sleeves and a lace collar. Bright ringlets were tied up with large ribbons.

Portia studied the features of the face. The girl looked almost like her own daughter at that age. But small children all look alike. “Where did you get this?”

“My husband was a photographer. He took it before we got married and moved away. This was your third birthday. Your mother made the dress for you. It was blue and matched your eyes.”

“Mrs. Lindsey, what was my mother’s name?”


Portia caught her breath. “Martha what?”

The old lady sighed. “My mind isn’t as clear as it used to be.”

“Do you remember my father’s name?”

Mrs. Lindsey hesitated. “I think it was David?”

“No. John. What about my brothers’?”

Mrs. Lindsey lowered her eyes. “That was a long, long time ago. You, I could never forget.”

“Where did we live then?”

“Montrose, Pennsylvania.”

Close, but not enough. Portia almost felt disappointed. “I lived in Scranton. Why don’t you show me your other pictures.”

With the passing weeks, Mrs. Lindsey seemed to grow stronger and more alert without losing the conviction she knew Portia in infancy. Portia grew tired of telling her otherwise. Their conversations began to run as though they were indeed old friends bringing each other up to date.

Mrs. Lindsey related her travels with her husband, talked about her sole surviving son, and told of grief for children who died. “Years later, a doctor told me what was wrong. It was something in my blood. Minus something.”

“You must be RH negative.”

“Yes, that’s it. I never had a daughter who lived. I wanted one so much. That’s why I’d think about you. I’m so glad I found you again.”

Portia related the sorrows and disappointments of her own childhood. Mrs. Lindsey, maintaining the fiction that she knew Portia’s mother, made excuses for her. “It must have been so hard, a husband who was an invalid and five children to provide for, after losing her house and her baby.”

“My mother seemed to resent me. She never told me she loved me.”

“Poor thing. She wasn’t able to give you the nice things you deserved. She didn’t resent you. She was disappointed in herself.”

Portia’s memory of her mother began to soften. She saw her as a work-worn woman struggling to keep body and soul together for a family of seven, never able to rise above poverty. Portia also began to see her adult life differently. She realized what attracted her to her first husband. He was older. He made good money and bought her nice things. He liked pretty women. When she was almost thirty, with two half grown children and a tired body, he left her for a girl of nineteen.

This was the low point, and the turning point, of her life. Somehow, she survived her thirtieth year without succumbing to suicide or starvation. She managed to get a job in a clothing store. She learned to feed herself and the children on her humble income. She lost weight. She learned to dress well and groom herself to advantage. Occasionally, she modeled for the store. Native intelligence, as well as good looks, served to advance her career. She earned the respect of her employers. Eventually she became a purchaser. On one buying trip, she met her second husband, Lee.

By then her children were grown. For the first time in her life, Portia was not obligated to sacrifice for others. While her first husband had been indulgent and manipulative, Lee was gentle and giving. He gave her the encouragement and financial backing to start her own clothing boutique. She became a hard-nosed business woman.

Looking back on those years, she knew she hadn’t been the wife Lee deserved. After a lifetime of having to be tough, she struggled to yield to his kindness. But Lee had remained patient and uncomplaining. His death had devastated her.

Shortly afterward, her mother became ill and required constant care. Her sisters-in-law did what they could, but the men of their generation were not caregivers, so the heaviest burden fell on Portia. The loss of the one person who made her feel truly loved left her incapable of nurturing. Wrestling with responsibility and guilt, she put her mother in a nursing home. Although she visited often, those meetings were devoid of the warmth she now found with Mrs. Lindsey. Portia regretted that most of all.

Her mother’s passing was both a relief and a further burden of guilt. Her brothers, aware of the lifelong antagonism between their mother and sister, expressed surprise at the depth of her grief. In her visits with Mrs. Lindsey, Portia’s heart began to heal.


One weekend, Portia’s eldest brother, John, came to visit. “I’ve been sorting through some of Mother’s things,” he said. “I found a box of old photographs, but I don’t remember who all the people are.” They went through them together, trying to identify who, what occasion, and when, and wrote this information on the backs.

To her surprise, Portia found a snapshot of her parents when they were very young, standing before a white house with a rose trellis. “Where was this taken?”

“That must be our house in Montrose. Where you were born.”

The bottom dropped out of Portia’s world.

“I—I thought I was born in Scranton.”

“No, we moved to Scranton when you were little. After Dad got hurt. Mother had relatives there and they helped her find work.”

Growing up, Montrose had been only a nebulous location where their father’s relatives resided. Their family never talked about having lived there and never visited. Portia’s birth certificate showed the state, but not the city of her birth. “John, did Mother lose a baby about then?”

“Why, yes. You didn’t know? It was a girl. Born premature, I guess. Mother was never the same after that.”

Portia struggled not to cry. She told him about Mrs. Lindsey.

“Yes, I seem to remember we had a hired girl for a while in Montrose.”

Portia studied the picture. These were not the faces Portia remembered, drawn tight in bitterness and pain. This couple looked happy. From the depths of time, her mother smiled at Portia. Behind her, above the roses, was an upstairs window. “Was this my room?”

“I think so.”

She kept the photograph.

On Wednesday, Portia couldn’t wait to get back to the nursing home, but at arrival a staff member halted her.

“I guess we should have called you.”

Portia froze.

“They took Mrs. Lindsey to the hospital yesterday. We think she had a stroke. She isn’t expected to make it.”

Portia could have hit the woman. “What hospital?” Once she had the answer, she spun on her heel and left.

At the hospital, when Portia inquired as to Mrs. Lindsey’s room, the receptionist asked if she were a relative.

Portia straightened her back and replied, “Mrs. Lindsey is my godmother.”

In the waiting room she met Mrs. Lindsey’s granddaughter, Amy.

“So you’re Portia! Grandmother has told me so much about you.”

“How is she?”

Amy fished in her purse for a hanky. “It’s only a matter of time. I feel so bad. I didn’t want to put her in the nursing home. She lived with us so long, you know. But I have to work and it got so I didn’t dare leave her alone. I went to see her every weekend, and took the kids, but I know she was lonely.” She smiled despite her tears. “She was so much happier after you started visiting her. You can’t imagine how grateful I am to you.”

As Portia comforted the younger woman, she wished in her heart her own mother had had someone like herself in those final days.

Finally, she was allowed to go in. Mrs. Lindsey could barely speak. Mindful of the tubes and wires, Portia put her arms around her old friend and said, “I talked with my brother yesterday and he told me. I am your Portia. I was born in a big white house with a rose garden. Thank you for telling me about myself.”

Mrs. Lindsey tried to say something but all Portia could understand was, “Your mother.”

Portia couldn’t hold back tears. “When you see my mother, please tell her…that I love her.”

Portia stayed with the family until late that night. The following day, she assisted with funeral arrangements. A week later, she received a thank you card from Amy. Enclosed was a picture of a small girl in an old fashioned dress and bright ringlets tied back with ribbons.

Portia decided not to volunteer at the nursing home anymore. She thought she’d try working with children. She never had much patience with kids, including, unfortunately, her own. Perhaps it was time to learn.

First, though, it would be nice to take a trip, to a little town in the mountains of Pennsylvania, to see if a certain house still stood, and, among other things, whether anyone still tended the roses.

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