Alexa Bocek is an emerging writer from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, whose work has appeared in “The Claremont Review,” “Literary Heist,” “Mystic Blue Review,” “Dime Show Review,” and “Running Wild Press.” She was an editor and staff member of “BatCat Press” from 2016-2020 and was managing editor for “Pulp Literary Magazine” 2018-2019. She lives in Pittsburgh where she writes, makes art, and attends college classes.
by Alexa Bocek
Today I let myself believe in ghosts.
I woke to the eerie softness of snowfall and a dull grey light pouring through the bedroom window. It reminded me of rain and of my mother. Rain always makes me think of my mother. She used to say it’s important to learn one new thing every day. Today I learned that winter is not an ideal time for growing flowers. The wilting lilies on my windowsill glanced tiredly at me. Their pink splattered petals shrink and die because I chose to plant them on a whim without doing research on the right time and place to successfully grow Stargazers. The lilies were only the first sign of death roaming the rooms of my mother’s house.
When I got out of bed my foot kicked a box full of sweaters, the ugly kind from the 1980s with awful patterns and colors that you only ever see in thrift stores or on cool teenagers at the mall. I pulled one out from the top of the box and slipped it over my head. It gave me a stale hug, like one you’d receive from a relative who pretends to remember your name. On my way to the bathroom I stumbled over a box of curling and straightening irons and another box of clothes; this time they were summer dresses, khakis, and mom’s vacation shorts I could practically hear ordering a mimosa. In the bathroom mirror my eyes were red and dry. They begged me to give them a break and let them go back to sleep. I told them I was sorry, but we had too much to do today. The house creaked in a way that sounded so ironic I rolled my eyes at it.
“Go ahead! Haunt me!” I shouted to the empty walls. The words echoed, but I imagined that the voice had come from the walls instead, and it was I that was there to haunt the house rather than my mom’s house haunting me. I leaned my head over the bathroom sink and washed my face for seven straight minutes without stopping and then I stood up again and wiped my face dry with a lavender-colored towel. My mom’s whole bathroom was lavender themed. In fact, almost every room of her house had a different flower theme. Her bedroom, where I’d been sleeping, was the land of the lilies that I was desperate to keep alive for the days after her death, and evidently failed to save as well. The basement housed the California poppies and the guest bedroom, peonies. The kitchen was yellow with sunflower oven mitts hanging on the wall above the stove. On the kitchen table, her Bible laid open to Psalms and 23:4 was underlined. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” That was the most I could get through. Every morning since I started staying here I’d tried to read it while eating breakfast and every morning my lungs would feel like collapsing by the third or fourth word and I’d have to occupy myself with opening every window in the house until I could breathe again.
I cleared boxes and bags full of clocks, floral candles, books on gardening and Bible study, and more personal belongings away from the table so I’d have just enough space to sit down with my cereal bowl. Today, though, instead of reading the Psalms verse I just crunched Frosted Flakes and stared out the window at the snow, afraid to look away. I was afraid that the second I did, there would be something there that I’d missed. The curtains waved to get my attention, but I ignored them. They would be staying; I had no use for ugly daisy patterned curtains.
Most of the other flower rooms of the house had been cleared out by my uncle before I got back. The poppy printed rug from downstairs was rolled up in the corner. I traced what part of the pattern I could see the way I used to as a kid when I would sit on the rug and make my dolls dance through the garden picture on it. I wondered for a moment if I should ask him to save the rug for me instead of donating it with everything else. It was too big for my dorm room, and more old fashioned than I was admitting to myself. But, I thought, I grew up with it in this house, and one day I’d have a house too, and maybe one day…I’ll wish I had saved that rug.
I immediately looked away from the rolled up rug, as if it had been the one whispering these words to me. I shook my head at it as if to say “you won’t convince me, ugly old thing.” This was how my mom’s place ended up so full of stuff. She looked at any pretty thing, usually with floral patterns, and saw its soul, its future, and its purpose. When I looked at her things now, without her here to use them, their purpose was gone, and their souls were lost.
I had an hour before my uncle would be there with his truck to take all of my mother’s things to Goodwill or to the dump, and then to take me back to college. He had gotten the bigger stuff out, but there were still plenty of boxes just full of little things she loved. A couple of Cat Stevens CDs, pictures of my grandparents and me as a kid, an awkward teenager, a high school graduate, etc. Her high school yearbooks, her college diploma, and her signed Tom Petty poster that I got her for Christmas one year, when she smiled so much I thought her face would remain that way. I’d only stayed in her house for four days, and all the things she owned measured up to a lifetime of being a person. Now almost none of it mattered. I had been expecting to hold onto a lot of things, taking as many keepsakes from her life as I could fit into a car and carry with me. But there was so much stuff. By the end of the long weekend I had boxed up almost every material thing that made my mother a real person, and in an hour it would no longer be hers. Nothing was hers anymore, because she wasn’t there to claim it. Only I was left to claim anything.
I had a box. Only the one box. Containing all the things that I felt couldn’t haunt me too badly if I took them back to my college dorm, and then carried them with me the rest of my life. A box of things, once hers and now mine. I prayed to the God my mother believed in that no one would have to go through it all after I died and decide what was worth something and what was not. Surely that must be the worst part of loss, the part where you’ve lost so much you have to look back and try to pick out what still matters. Do oven mitts and old copies of books matter? Does expensive jewelry I wouldn’t wear matter? The things that had ended up in my box weren’t the things that mattered most, not in terms of fiscal value or sentiment connection. They were useful, little touches of my mother that would blend into my own life.
From her desk, a glass paper weight, with flowers and some bumble bees inside encased inside. I remembered seeing it as a kid, thinking how very adult it is to need a paper weight on your desk, and how one day I’d be adult-enough to need one.
Folded up in the box was also a warm but worn knit blanket that lived on the couch since I was a child. I was small enough then that we could both curl up under it, on nights when she was home from work, making popcorn and watching one scary movie, followed by one Hallmark movie, my favorite and then hers. Since it was always the two of us she had a way of making everything ours. When I was off to college and our shared life had to split into two, she excitedly helped me pick out everything I would need for being on my own. My own mugs, my own coffee maker even and of course my own blanket. This being the case, I almost didn’t put the blanket in my box, as I didn’t really have a need for it. Then I swore could hear the old stitches in the fabric humming to me, saying “warmmmm warmmm,” reminding me that this old piece of cloth was my next closest thing to my mother’s massive bear hugs. And so, it would be coming with me.
Also from her desk was a scrapbook, where she kept bags of flower seeds and pictures of the flowers she’d grown. Next to a pack of seeds with some kind of bright yellow flowers was a picture from the previous spring, a large plant fully in bloom and my mother standing next to it, a smile of pride on her cheeks. She would have planted these again this year, and taken another, similar picture. I had plenty of pictures of her, and if I ever wanted more I could always ask my uncle for another old family scrapbook. This book was different though, these pictures were for her to see, to document. I considered carrying on the documentation, planting the same flowers my mother would plant, taking the same pictures, continuing the scrapbook in her name and legacy. The more I thought about it the more it sounded like the plot of one of her Hallmark movies, and less like something I, a person with no gardening skills or abilities, could accomplish. I almost didn’t keep the scrapbook for this reason, and because of my desperate fear of owning useless things that will only clutter my space and collect dust until someone has to clean them out after my death. A page of the scrapbook scratched me in argument, as if to say it wasn’t useless, and shouldn’t be left behind. I decided finally that it was of sentimental use, something to look back at if I miss my mom and need to remember something nice about her, like what she used to love. It joined my box with the blanket and the paper-weight, along with other personal bits and bobs from around her house. It was by no means a lot of stuff, a thought that both relieved and saddened me.
After I finished my cereal I washed out the mug and put it in my box and then I took the sunflower oven mitts off of their nail in the wall and tossed them into a garbage bag with other kitchen utensils that clinked and clattered and argued that they were important, that I would want them someday. I took one look at the pan my mother used to make awful spinach casseroles and I scoffed. It gave me an embarrassed look, aware of just how much I didn’t need it.
Every time I threw something away I felt a poke in my side. Today I imagined it was a ghost, but not the ghost of my mom. My mom didn’t have it in her to be a ghost. The ghost that would poke me didn’t even know me personally, but knew that I was throwing away all of the haunted objects in a haunted house, and he or she didn’t want that. The haunted objects were the objects that didn’t really matter, and they made up almost everything. I withheld the urge to carry home the flower pots that I had painted in second grade for a Mother's Day present, and instead closed the Bible from the kitchen table and slid it into my box.
When my uncle got there I put my box in the front seat and loaded everything else into the back. We made small talk on the way to the thrift store, but I stayed quiet after a while. He didn’t push me to talk the way that my mother used to. I enjoyed the silence of the car ride, watching out the window like a small child. I looked down at my box, and finally, for the first time in days, nothing seemed to talk back to me.