The Black Desk | An Everyday History Article
My mom grew up by the Mississippi River in the Deep South. Her childhood photos show a thin girl in the midst of a tragedy. Dark circles under eyes full of questions, more thoughts than she knew what to do with. Valedictorian. College. School teacher. Librarian. All my childhood Mom took classes, all kinds of classes, to learn more.
She began teaching elementary school before I was born. In the evenings, she and Dad would sit in the living room together. Probably the windows were open. A box fan whirred its white noise and the insects outside made a racket, back before all the technology.
One evening, grading homework, Mom came across a spelling test that made her say, “I don’t know what to do about this girl. She doesn’t even try. Just writes nonsense.”
“Hmm,” Dad said. “Let me see.”
Mom had lived a very sheltered life. Even with all her smarts, she believed in Santa Claus until she was fifteen. Dad had lived a little more. I hope he broke the news gently. “These aren’t nonsense, honey. They’re curse words.”
Mom hadn’t recognized any of them.
I heard that story for the first time when Mom was in her mid-seventies, late one winter when we spent a lot of time together getting used to the idea of her dying. I’d taken to asking her about the things in her apartment, aware of the stories that would die with her if she didn’t tell them.
When I asked her about the sturdy desk with the black finish that had always been in our house, she said, “It’s a genuine Stickley.” It had cubbies on top. The iron drawer pulls flopped and rattled. “I got that desk when I started teaching school.” Long silences between her sentences. I waited with a notepad on my lap. “Bought it for five dollars,” she said. “At a grocery store in Pencil, Arkansas.”
It’s a real place. Pencil Bluff. I looked it up online.
I didn’t know how to handle my Mom dying, so I did what she’d trained me to do and went to the library. She was dying in western North Carolina, a long way from the island in British Columbia where I lived, and the public library felt like a familiar home. I stood at the end of an aisle and stared at the small collection of books about dying, until one called Final Gifts asked me for a ride.
The next day, before I went to visit Mom at the care home, I cracked the book for the first time and read a paragraph at random, about how dying people may want to talk about the end but not know how to bring it up.
“Let’s talk about it, Mom,” I said when I saw her.
She looked away, not a fan of the direct approach. I was more like my Dad, the deep-dive master, so I asked again, hoping to puncture her fear. She indulged me, but only for a few minutes. Over the next days, we talked in short spurts about what to do with her body after she’d left it, about people she wouldn’t see again, about belongings and beliefs.
We would talk until she held up her hand. Then I’d dim the lights, close the curtains, and lie down beside her on the hospital bed. We’d watch a romantic comedy as our entwined hands warmed between us and I grappled with my uncertainty about the hard conversations I kept initiating. Was I helping? I feared pulling her into the undertow without the proper gear.
One afternoon, not many days before Mom passed away, I arrived to find her morose and moody.
“I thought your friend came to see you this morning,” I said. “Did she cancel?”
“Oh, she was here.” Mom’s voice snapped with uncharacteristic attitude. She looked like a tiny bird by then, or a cage of bare bones holding a final spark of feathers.
“Well, what happened?” I asked.
Mom caught my eye and said, “She didn’t want to talk about death.”
When I look up from my laptop now, years later, here in my living room many miles from North Carolina, I see Mom’s black desk from Pencil Bluff, Arkansas. Little lamp on top. Framed art print above. I see the desk, but I feel her stories.
She talked with me about writing and words and art and death and love and poetry and memories and libraries and beauty. She lives.