Before moving my mother to the nursing home, I sorted the personal stuff with her. I did it without my brothers because I knew they wouldn’t want anything. When we were nearly finished, Ma pointed to the wooden jewelry box with the cameo carved on the lid. I swallowed, thinking she wanted to pick out the jewelry to wear in her coffin. (Only daughter always brought these duties to me.) She lifted the tray to reveal not pearls and gold but a packet of cards, tied with common string. For a moment I thought they were my letters, sent over the years from a thousand miles away. Then I saw they bore no stamp.
Her speaking fractured and faded, Ma wiggled her fingers, catching light on nails I’d polished. The paper was dry, like her skin if I forgot to grease her up. I worried the knot, old and tight, until Ma’s clipping fingers showed me to cut the string. Not bothering with scissors, I bit through the knot and caught the cards as they cascaded into my lap.
Ma poked me to hurry. Anniversary cards, the kind you buy at the drugstore, but not the big ones, not the ones with ribbons or embossed flowers she might like. I opened the first, started to read the verse, then went straight to the signature.
No “love,” no “Ron,” which she usually called him, or “Appy,” which she’d say in a tender moment or from the kitchen floor so he wouldn’t kick her again.
“Ronald?” I said. “Appleton?”
She allowed tears to come down. I’d put her teeth in, so her mouth looked full.
On the envelope’s upper right, in faded pencil, she’d written 10th. I read the 20th, 25th, 30th, 40th, 50th, all signed Ronald Appleton. When I finished, she’d stopped crying.
He’d died after the 50th, seventeen years ago.
Ma’s hand on my wrist, still strong, her voice harsh, mean, “Don’t show boys.”
I, the girl, was to keep her hurt.
Mean myself, I showed the cards to my brothers as soon as they arrived, but in the kitchen where Ma couldn’t hear.