Nonfiction by Mary Zelinka
One ordinary day, unexpectedly, there in my mailbox—swathed in tissue paper and tape, tucked inside a bubble wrap mailer—was the Blue Marble. I was in my fifties then and had not seen it for many years. But I would have recognized the blueness of it anywhere. My fingers remembered each pinprick-sized chip scattered across its surface.
Mother had breast cancer that summer—just a miniscule nodule that, after a couple of zaps with radiation, she said was gone. But this gift seemed to suggest something more ominous. When I called, Mother assured me she was fine. The initial scare must have started her thinking about her mortality, though, because she said when she did die, something as insignificant as the Blue Marble could easily be forgotten and thrown out.
When I was a child I wanted the Blue Marble more than anything. When you first looked at it, it didn’t look all that special—similar to a Chinese checkers marble, except a bit larger. You couldn’t see through it, like the puries my friends coveted.
But its blueness is the color of the sky on your best day.
Mother had wanted it more than anything when she was a little girl too. It belonged to her cousin Ebbie. No matter how much she pleaded he never used it in any of their games because she was the neighborhood champion and he knew he’d lose it. In desperation, she finally offered up her baseball bat, the one thing Ebbie wanted more than anything, in a trade.
Ebbie chided Mother about her “stupid” trade well into their adulthood. Until the time he visited us when I was little. Mother said, “I still have the Blue Marble. Do you still have the baseball bat?” That was the first and last time I had ever seen Ebbie, but I’ve always liked him because I remember how he threw his head back in a loud guffaw that seemed to come all the way from the bottom of his feet.
Mother kept the Blue Marble in her jewelry box along with her jet button earrings, coral necklaces, old watches, and the rhinestone “I like Ike” campaign badge. She would let me hold it while I sat on her bed and she told me the story of cousin Ebbie and the baseball bat as she ironed Father’s shirts. I was never allowed to play with it.
She did, however, give me complete freedom with the dolls.
A couple of weeks before Christmas each year, Mother took my older sister, Gracie, and me to Burdines so we could each choose a Madam Alexander doll. Then, with Gracie pushing me aside and darting ahead, we’d ride the escalator to the ground floor to tell Santa.
Until I was in third grade and abandoned dolls in favor of horses, a new Madam Alexander doll waited for me under the Christmas tree every year. Within hours I would have switched her clothes with those from older dolls. By the end of the week her long black or brown or blonde curls would be whacked off into an uneven boyish cut similar to my own.
Even back in the early 1950s Madam Alexander dolls were collectable. My friend Barbara had the same dolls, but she wasn’t allowed to play with hers. Instead, they peered forlornly from behind the glass doors in the cabinet in her bedroom. My dolls dug in the sandbox, rode on my bicycle, and hunted for dinosaur bones in the vacant lots near our house. Gracie insisted Barbara’s mother was right and yelled that I ruined mine. But Mother said dolls should be played with, not stared at.
As an adult, once on a visit home, I found the box I crammed my dolls into after I discovered horses. Mother had saved it in case I ever wanted them again. They were naked, looking like rejects from a horror movie. Mildew caked their scarred bodies. One was missing an arm. Their glass eyes, stuck open, stared at nothing.
A few months after the Blue Marble turned up, the Africa Book arrived in a box full of bubble wrap. On the flyleaf, Mother had written: “To me, this blank book marks the beginning of our adult friendship. Sharing our private thoughts and quotes in this and other books has made me feel very close to you.”
During World War II, my father flew military supplies to South America and Africa. After one of these trips, he brought the book to my mother’s father as a gift. It remains a mystery how the book originally became known as the Africa Book.
The front and back covers, both a lightweight pale wood, are affixed to a leather binding. The back is plain, and the front is a map of South America. Each country is inlaid with a different wood. Inside, the pages were initially blank—a thin paper, best written on one side only, as ink bleeds faintly through. When Granddad died, Mother brought the book back home with her.
For years the Africa Book languished beneath mail, flyers, receipts, school notices, catalogs, newspapers, and green stamps waiting to be redeemed for valuable merchandise, on top of the antique desk in the dining room until one day Mother scooped it up with the old newspapers and nearly threw it away. As she retrieved it from the trash sack, she noticed for the first time how lovely it was.
In the front of the book, Mother wrote “Quotable Quotes—A Collection” and promoted it to a place of honor—on top of her personal desk—in the living room.
The summer of 1974, when I was twenty-six, my four-year-old son, Bobby, and I moved to Miami after my divorce and lived with my parents because I didn’t earn enough to support us. We had intended to stay for a year but after just four months decided to take our chances and returned to Colorado. I was the first person to have ever gotten a divorce in the family, including distant cousins. I felt like a failure.
My father didn’t speak to me other than telling me to pass the salt or pepper at dinner. He had never paid much attention to any of us children other than to criticize us, so I assumed he had given up on me. My younger brother, Charles, now graduated from college, spent the summer at home waiting for his life to start—a practice that would continue for the rest of his life.
It was during this summer that I realized the wood-inlayed Africa Book cover was actually a map of South America. When I pointed this out to Mother, who was always looking up places in her Encyclopædia Britannica atlas and could have been a geography teacher if she wanted, she stared at the book as though she had never seen it before. “Why did we ever call this Africa?” she asked, her voice wavering. But it remained the Africa Book. I supposed too many years had passed for it to be South America now.
By the time Bobby and I returned to Colorado, I read all the quotes Mother had written in the Africa Book and discussed them with her. She gave me a blank book of my own that Christmas, a black art book with thick paper intended for sketching. Each year I photocopied the quotes I had written in it and sent them to her. She sent me hers until a few years before she died and could no longer leave home to visit the copy machine. If we read the same book, which we often did as we mailed books back and forth, we would discover we had each written out the same lines and paragraphs.
I don’t know if Mother was also imparting treasures to Gracie and Charles during this time. When I told Gracie about the Blue Marble and the Africa Book, she didn’t remember them. She reminded me, however, that she wanted the antique desk and she imagined Charles would want the silver.
Now I wonder if Mother suspected, subconsciously anyway, that after her death I would be cut out of the family. The family she gave me. Gave all of us.
Mother appeared to be the glue who held our family together. But she was really like the hub of a wheel, keeping us apart. We were her spokes. We each had a relationship with her, but not with each other. When she died in 2003, there was no real point to our family anymore.
My spoke broke off before I even got on the plane to fly home after Mother’s funeral. That morning, for the first time in my life, I asked Gracie not to yell at me anymore. She looked at me with such loathing I knew our tenuous connection had finally snapped. Charles drove me to the airport and hugged me goodbye, but he had already retreated back into his mysterious secret world that had prevented him, now in his early fifties, from moving out of our childhood home.
One Saturday morning during my weekly phone call two years later, Father snarled a hateful condemnation of my son and grandson. Suddenly unable to endure his meanness a moment longer, I told him in a shaky whisper that I was done. I wished him well and hung up the phone with him for the last time.
So maybe it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that when Father died five years after Mother, neither Gracie nor Charles called me. I learned of his death by accident two weeks after his passing.
Yet it did come as a surprise.
A surprise like if the ground you are standing on suddenly disappears and you plummet into another dimension.
Both Gracie and Charles sounded annoyed when I talked to each of them. Charles said, “Oh, I thought you knew,” and told me I should call Gracie. Gracie said Father hadn’t wanted me to know. “He disinherited you. As his Personal Representative, as they call it in Florida, I felt it was my duty to uphold his wishes.”
During the ten years since my father’s death, I have tried to make sense out of this. I’ve done therapy, met with a spiritual advisor, lamented with friends, neighbors, and even a woman I met at a writing conference. I’ve journaled, performed rituals, prayed, gone on long silent retreats, cursed. I’ve meditated and gotten acupuncture and deep tissue massages. I’ve power walked and lifted weights and yelled. I’ve hiked, watched waterfalls tumbling over boulders, stared at and listened to the ocean. I’ve wept so many tears I don’t think my body is still 60 percent water.
And what I have learned is this: I will never make sense of it. For there is nothing anyone could do to me, absolutely nothing, not even [think of the worse possible atrocity you can imagine and insert it here], that would make me withhold knowledge of their parent’s death. I do not possess that capacity.
Before Gracie and Charles emptied out and sold the house we grew up in after Father died, I would have liked to have rummaged through Mother’s jewelry box one more time. And I wish I could have seen my poor abandoned Madam Alexander dolls once more, as creepy as they became. I imagine Gracie and Charles tossed them into the garbage.
After Mother’s funeral, before I left my childhood home for what turned out to be the last time, I gathered up the rest of the books she collected quotes in and brought them home with me. They lay stacked on the bookcase in my bedroom beneath the small bone china box that houses the Blue Marble. At the time of Mother’s death, she was in the middle of her eighth book. I’ve just started my fourteenth.
Mary Zelinka lives in Albany, Oregon. She has worked at the Center Against Rape and Domestic Violence for over thirty years. Every day she has the privilege of witnessing the remarkable strength and resilience of domestic and sexual violence survivors. Her writing has appeared in The Sun magazine, Brevity, Eclectica Magazine, and The Sock Drawer.