It’s November in Michigan. I’m traveling through the snow with my mother and my Aunt Elaine to a convent in Grand Rapids, where we will visit a nun who is somehow related to me.
I sit pressed between the two old women in the cab of a pickup. The roads are slippery and the windshield is fogging. Aunt Elaine, who insisted on driving, holds on to the steering wheel as if we are about to be launched into space.
We began our journey at Aunt Elaine’s house in Coopersville. Her home is not far from where she and my mother were born and raised on a farm. I’m not from there. I’m simply a son who has agreed to escort his mother from California to her hometown for what she considers her final visit to surviving family and friends. So far I’ve been introduced to cousins and aunts and uncles I’d never met before, and have walked into ancient barns and over fields once tilled by my grandparents. Finally, we’ve gotten around to seeing the only known relative who chose a religious vocation, Sister Mary Leo.
“So tell me again how she’s related?” I ask.
We are on the main highway now.
“You tell him, Bunny,” Aunt Elaine says. Bunny is the nickname Mom’s nine siblings gave her about 85 years ago.
“What’s wrong?” Mom says. “Don’t you remember?”
“Yes, but I’m driving. Do you want to end up in a ditch?”
There is a moment of silence. Mom sighs and then starts to gather the branches of the family tree.
“Sister Mary Leo is the daughter of Uncle Karl’s aunt,” Mom says.
“I thought she was Uncle Karl’s niece,” says Aunt Elaine.
“Well, that might be right,” says Mom. “I guess I don’t know anymore.”
It’s raining now.
“So how old is she?” I ask.
“Older than us,” Aunt Elaine says.
Then she squints and leans forward.
“You might want to turn up the speed on your wipers,” I say. “And maybe crank up the defroster.”
“Good idea,” Mom says.
Aunt Elaine studies the space around the steering wheel, seeming to have forgotten the location of the wiper switch. I start to reach across her to make the adjustments.
“I can do that, Eddie,” she says, and then she does it.
“Is this the right off-ramp?” Mom asks.
At my mother’s request, I’d printed out directions to the convent in Grand Rapids. Aunt Elaine said she knew the way. Mom was certain we’d get lost.
I study the map.
“Yeah,” I say. “This is it.”
“You mean this one?” says Aunt Elaine.
She jerks the pickup into the far lane and barely makes the exit. A horn chirps behind us. Aunt Elaine looks into the rear view mirror. “What’s his problem?” she says.
We get into Grand Rapids and follow a long boulevard deeper into the city.
“Are we going the right way, Eddie?” Mom asks.
“Yes,” Aunt Elaine answers for me. “We’re going the right way.”
She turns off her wipers.
“There’s the convent,” Aunt Elaine says. “I recognize that red brick.”
The brick forms a very simple structure. There are giant but leafless trees in front. Only the statue of the Virgin Mary near its entrance distinguishes it from some sort of government building.
“So where do we park?” Mom says.
“I think there’s a parking lot out front,” I say.
We turn into the parking lot and discover it’s full, except for one vacant handicap space.
“I forgot my blue placard,” Aunt Elaine says.
“You should keep that thing in your truck,” Mom says.
“I know, I know,” says Aunt Elaine. “But I loaned it to Doris Fleck.”
“Who’s Doris Fleck?” Mom says.
“You know who Doris is,” says Aunt Elaine. “She’s Tom Hanley’s granddaughter.”
“Oh yes,” Mom says. “Poor Tom.”
“What happened to Tom?” I ask.
I have no idea who this man is.
“He hanged himself in his barn during the Depression,” says Aunt Elaine.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Mom says.
“What, hang myself?” says Aunt Elaine.
“No. Give out your blue placard to other people. It’s not right.”
Aunt Elaine rolls through the parking lot. Each time we pass by the empty handicap space, a collective temptation to pull into it fills the cab.
“You know I can’t walk very far,” Mom says. “And neither can you.”
“So should I just take the darn thing then?” Aunt Elaine says. She has pulled the truck right next to the coveted parking space.
“I have a suggestion,” I say.
“What?” My mother and aunt speak the word at exactly the same time.
“How about I just drop you at the entrance and I’ll go park the truck? Then after we finish with our visit, I’ll go back and get it and pick you up.”
“Good idea,” says Mom.
A car has pulled behind us. A man is holding the blue handicap placard out the window and waving it as if he’s trying to flag down a rescue plane.
“What’s this joker behind me doing?” says Aunt Elaine.
“I think he wants to park in the handicap space,” I say.
Aunt Elaine hisses and drives forward. In a few moments we are at a place where she can pull over and let me take the wheel.
She leaves the truck running, slides out of the seat, and then goes around and sits next to Mom. It’s a much more fluid transition than I would’ve ever imagined.
I take the truck to the entrance and stop a few feet from the statue of the Virgin. Aunt Elaine and Mom scoot out. Their giant purses swing from side to side until they are standing next to each other and looking right at me.
“Okay, Eddie,” Mom says. “We’ll wait here for you.”
The man who’d been waving the handicap placard at us is now walking in front of our truck. He is about my age and holds a very large umbrella over his head, even though the rain has stopped.
I look at my mother. She is staring at him as if he’s an insect that has just stung her.
“He doesn’t look like he has anything wrong with him,” Mom says, loud enough for the man to hear.
“No, he doesn’t, does he?” says Aunt Elaine, also loud enough for the man to hear. He tilts his umbrella to shield his face. My mother and aunt watch him, but stay silent. I wait until the man is a safe distance away, and then I drive the truck out of the parking lot and into the neighborhood. I have to park about a half mile from the convent. It starts to rain again.
I trot back to the entrance. I am soaked when I find my mother and Aunt Elaine standing under the red brick archway.
“Where the heck did you go?” Mom yells when she sees me.
“Sorry,” I say. “I had trouble finding a spot.”
“You’re drenched,” Mom says.
“I’m all right.”
“So guess what we just saw?” Aunt Elaine says.
“I don’t know. Tell me,” I say.
I’m standing next to them now.
“One of those miniature horses,” says Aunt Elaine. “Some lady brought it right up these steps past us.”
“A miniature horse?” I ask. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Mom says. “A black one. No bigger than a German Shepard.”
Mom runs her eyes over the path the horse had taken up the steps, as if this is her way of convincing me of the animal’s existence. For a few moments all three of us don’t say anything. Then finally I open the doors for the two women and we enter the convent.
“I need to sit down,” Mom says. “My sciatica is on fire.”
“Me too,” says Aunt Elaine.
There is a sort of reception area. My mother and aunt rest on a sofa near a young nun who is sitting behind a desk. The nun is staring down at something and doesn’t look up until I speak.
She is prettier than I’d expected.
“Yes,” she says. “How can I help you?”
“I’m here with my aunt and my mother to see Sister Mary Leo.”
“Oh,” she says. “Well, I believe Sister Mary Leo is in therapy now. Did she know you were coming?”
I turn to Mom and Aunt Elaine. They are both slouched on the sofa. Mom rubs her hip and makes an ugly face.
“Did you tell Sister Mary Leo we were coming?” I ask.
We move down the hall and make it to the visiting room. There is a chandelier, antique furniture, an artificial fireplace, the famous Catholic picture of Jesus, a very large wooden crucifix, and a painting of Pope John Paul. Someone has just sprayed Apple Spice air freshener.
We are the only ones there.
Mom and Aunt Elaine sit on a couch. They leave a space for me in the middle, but I sit in a chair across from them.
“I’m befuddled about that horse,” Mom says. “Aren’t you, Elaine?”
“Yes, very befuddled. Why in the world would you bring a miniature horse into a convent?”
“Don’t know,” I say.
“So how long do we have to wait here?” Mom asks.
I look at my watch. “The sister at the desk said it’d just be a few minutes.”
Mom shakes her head. Once again her face contorts from the pain in her hip. It’s something I’m not used to seeing. For all of my life I’ve believed my mother could conquer most anything. When she was in her early 20s, she started a beauty shop in Coopersville. She’d had a thriving business until she fell sick with endocarditis. This was before the discovery of penicillin. Mom’s treatment was limited to numerous blood transfusions, including one from a Native American. “I’ve got a little Indian blood in me, you know,” she reminds everyone. She was not supposed to survive. She actually received her last rites from the parish priest. Mom has shared with me what she remembers of the experience while in her delirium, how the priest came to her parents’ farm and went through the ritual, and how afterwards she slipped into a dream in which she thought she saw the face of Jesus, and how He’d blessed her and told her He wasn’t ready to receive her in heaven, not yet.
After her illness, she had to sell her beauty shop. Her doctor told her the work would be too strenuous. “You need to get a sit-down job,” the doctor instructed. When she was finally well enough, Mom left Coopersville and moved to Chicago to work for the Elgin watch company, to sit down and clean watches.
In Chicago she still struggled with her health, fighting anemia and the palpitations of an injured heart, taking iron pills and digitalis. She was over 30 then. Her doctor told her she’d never be able to have children because of her weak condition, and advised her to move to a warmer climate. So Mom, and a travel companion she found after running an ad in the Chicago newspaper, drove across country to California. She arrived with no job, and no prospects for a job. She ended up working in a jewelry store in San Diego, again sitting down and cleaning watches. Then she met my father and they started a life together. Though her doctor told her she’d never be able to have kids, she gave it her best effort. After two late-term miscarriages, she had my brother, my sister, and then me. She was 41 when I was born.
My parents’ marriage was reasonably happy and lasted 26 years until my father’s death. Mom was alone then, and this is when she began her battle with alcoholism, culminating with driving her car into a telephone pole, an arrest, and court-ordered rehab. The drinking is our shared struggle. I haven’t slammed a car into a telephone pole, but I’ve gotten drunk to the point of blacking out, to the point of losing a job, to the point of my wife leaving me twice. Sometimes Mom and I go to AA meetings together. She often holds my hand during the reading aloud of the 12 steps and when all of the alcoholics stand in a circle and say the Lord’s Prayer. She has been sober for 20 years. I’ve been sober for 20 months.
“I need to lie down,” Mom says. “I should have brought my heating pad.”
“Well, go ahead and put your legs on my lap,” says Aunt Elaine. Both ladies groan as they prepare for the difficult maneuver. Then Sister Mary Leo is brought into the room. The same nun who was at the reception desk is pushing the wheelchair. The nun looks right at me, and smiles. “Just let me know when you’re finished visiting, and I’ll come get her,” she says.
“Sure,” I say.
“By the way,” she adds. “You’d asked me earlier about the miniature horse.”
“Well, it turns out one was brought in,” she says. “It’s for the show-and-tell today in the basement.”
“See,” Mom says, readjusting her legs in front of her. “We’re not crazy after all, are we, Elaine?”
“Nope,” Aunt Elaine says. “Not yet, anyway.”
Sister Mary Leo is in her habit. She tilts severely to one side in her wheelchair, like a listing ship. It’s the first time I’ve seen the venerable relative, and now I can see only her pale, puffy face, and her pale puffy hands. Her eyes seem unnaturally large, but her features are gentle and warm. There is drool at the corner of her mouth. Her fingers are loosely knitted together and rest on her lap.
The young nun uses some tissue to gently wipe the drool away from Sister Mary Leo’s lips, and then she leaves us.
Sister Mary Leo lifts and turns her head very slowly, like a radar dish, and looks at my mother.
“Is that you, Bunny?” she says.
“Hello, Sister Mary Leo,” Mom says.
Mom stands and shuffles toward the wheelchair. So does Aunt Elaine.
“And look,” the sister says, turning to my aunt. “Elaine is here too. Holy Mary Mother of God.”
Both Mom and Aunt Elaine stand next to Sister Mary Leo. The sister lifts her hands and my mother and aunt each take hold of one.
Then Sister Mary Leo turns to me.
“Who’s that?” she says.
“That’s my son, Eddie,” Mom says. “He’s my youngest. He took time off from his work to fly back with me to Coopersville. Might be the last time I get back here, you know.”
“Oh,” Sister Mary Leo says.
She is staring at me now. I feel as if I’m guilty of something, but I don’t what.
“Do you have a family?” she asks me.
“Yes,” I say. “Two teenage daughters.”
“How come you’re all wet?” she says.
“Well,” I say. “I had to…”
“That’s fine,” she interrupts. Then she looks at my mother. “How blessed you are, Bunny, to have such a loyal and loving son.”
“I know I am,” Mom says. “We’ve been making the rounds,” she adds. “We’ve seen just about everybody who hasn’t kicked the bucket.”
Mom has always had a crass way of talking about death.
“They went out to the old farmhouse yesterday,” says Aunt Elaine.
“It’s still standing,” says Mom. “It’s condemned now, though.”
“Yes, yes,” says Sister Mary Leo. “I can imagine.”
“Our brother William’s son, Randal, is living on the property now,” Aunt Elaine says. “He’s built a new house and is still farming the land.”
“Oh, good,” says Sister Mary Leo.
For the next few minutes I sit in silence in the corner of the room, while the three women talk about friends and family. Before long the conversation wears on all three of the old women, but especially Sister Mary Leo. Her chin begins to droop, her eyelids start to flutter, and more drool clings to the corner of her mouth, like candle wax.
“Are you tired, Sister?” Mom says.
“Yes,” Sister Mary Leo says. “Very tired.”
“All right,” Aunt Elaine says. “We should probably leave now.”
Just then the young nun returns to the room.
“Sister,” she says. “They’re starting the show-and-tell in the basement now.”
“The what?” Sister Mary Leo says.
“The woman who raises miniature horses,” the nun says. “She brought one in for show-and-tell in the basement.”
“I’m not interested in that,” says Sister Mary Leo, quite emphatically. “I just want to sleep.”
“Fine,” says the nun. “That’s certainly fine.”
Mom and Aunt Elaine get up off the sofa. They surround Sister Mary Leo and take hold of her hands again.
“We love you dear,” Mom says.
“I love you too,” says Sister Mary Leo.
The sister looks at me again.
“Are you troubled, son?” she says.
“What’s that?” I say.
“I said, are you troubled?”
“Eddie’s all right,” Mom says. Her assertiveness surprises me, overjoys me. “He’s all right now, Sister Mary Leo. He’s a good son.”
“Yes, he is,” says Aunt Elaine.
“Yes, well, God bless all of you,” says Sister Mary Leo.
“God bless you, too,” we all say, and she is wheeled out.
We make it back to the brick archway by the statue of the Virgin.
“Tonight I’m going to sleep for ten hours straight without having to take a pill,” my mother says.
“Me too,” says Aunt Elaine.
The rain has stopped. There is an inviting patch of sunlight just beyond us.
“Okay, so I’ll go get the truck and come back for you,” I say.
“Don’t take so long this time,” Mom says.
I run back to the pickup and return to the entrance. Both Aunt Elaine and my mother are leaning against the brick, but spring up when they see me.
I leave the truck running and open the passenger door for them.
“How about I just drive home, Aunt Elaine?” I say.
“Fine with me,” she says. “I’m so tired I can’t see straight.”
It is a rare admission from one of the bravest and most honorable people I have ever known: My Aunt Elaine was an Army nurse in World War II. She earned a Bronze Star. She was behind the lines at the Battle of the Bulge, and saw many young soldiers die in front of her. Later, she and her medical team entered Germany just after the fall of Berlin. She was one of the first Americans to witness the exposed horrors of the concentration camps. She treated some of the liberated prisoners, and again she saw human beings—what remained of them—die in front of her. A few years ago, a newspaper in Muskegon did a full spread on my aunt’s experiences, complete with color photographs of her in her Army nurse uniform, and one of her receiving her medal. When the war was over, Aunt Elaine returned home to Michigan, married, and like her own mother, had ten children. She is a widow now and lives alone. She talks about her war experiences only when she is asked about them.
We are back on the highway and on our way back to Coopersville.
The subject of the miniature horse comes up again.
“So what good are they?” Mom says. “I mean you can’t ride them, you can’t use them to pull a wagon—well maybe a tiny wagon.”
“Heck if I know,” says Aunt Elaine. “I guess they’re just something to feed and to look at. A pet.”
“Well,” Mom says. “I know Dad would’ve never had one on the farm.”
“No way,” says Aunt Elaine.
“Animals had to earn their keep,” Mom says.
“That’s right,” says Aunt Elaine.
“Dad was a good farmer,” Mom says. “He took good care of his soil. Lots of food came out of that good ground.”
“We never had to buy anything from the store,” says Aunt Elaine. “Well, some sugar and salt, once in a while.”
“That’s right,” says Mom. “Sugar and salt. That was it.”
We are about 15 miles from Aunt Elaine’s house in Coopersville. A week ago, I arrived there with my mother on what she considered her last journey to her place of birth and where she grew up, and where she had a near-death experience. During my time here I’ve taken Mom to the cemetery to visit my grandparents’ graves; we’ve gone to Mass at the church where my mother was baptized; we’ve seen the building on the Main Street of town where my mother used to have her beauty shop before she contracted her near-fatal illness. I’ve heard the same stories over and over again from Mom, and from relatives I never knew I had. And now we’ve visited with Sister Mary Leo.
To the west the sky is clearing. Sunlight reflects off the wet road.
In a few minutes, the two old women next to me are sound asleep. They lean against each other. Their heads touch.
I think now of my daughters, my wife. I think about what Sister Mary Leo said to me: Are you troubled? Are you troubled? Are you troubled? Her words drum inside my mind until the highway becomes straight and easy and I let my eyes drift to the fields we pass and the old nun’s voice spreads over the land and vanishes. Out of the corner of my eye I see barns and fences, tractors, cows, and full-sized horses galloping across pastures still blanketed in snow. Closer to our destination I see the road I’d taken with my mom when we visited the farm where she began and lived the first 20 years of her life, nearly 90 years ago. The old place is unseen over the rise, but I know it’s there. I will always know it’s there.
“I’m so glad we got to visit Sister Mary Leo,” she says. Her words are so sudden I wonder if she’s talking in her sleep. “Probably the last time we’ll see her.”
“Maybe not,” I say.
Aunt Elaine also awakens.
“Where the heck are we?” she says.
“I think we just passed the road to the old farm,” I say.
“Boy, I’m sure going to sleep good tonight,” Mom says.
“Me, too,” says Aunt Elaine.
We enter Coopersville. The town is quiet.
We pull in to Aunt Elaine’s driveway. I turn off the truck and hurry around to help the women out, but they wave me off. “We don’t need that!” they protest, together.
“We’re not helpless!” says Aunt Elaine.
I smile and stand back and watch Mom and Aunt Elaine make their way to the house. They hold hands and shuffle their feet until they reach the front door, where they will wait for me to catch up to them.
[toggler title=”Judge Daniel Orozco says…” ]“Out of Good Ground” is a beautifully understated story about the resilience and fragility of a hard-lived life. A middle-aged man accompanies his 80ish-year-old mother and her older sister on a kind of “death trip” across Michigan, as she takes stock of her past by visiting forgotten sites and long-lost relations. Far from being grim or sentimental, their journey is steeped in a gentle humor and packed with precisely observed details, resulting in an emotionally resonant drama.[/toggler]
John Thomson’s stories have appeared in Collateral, The Raven’s Perch, Spitball, and other literary magazines. His novel for young readers, A Small Boat at the Bottom of the Sea, was published by Milkweed Editions. He is a retired government wildlife biologist and land conservationist and lives with his wife in Northern California, not far from their two grown daughters.