In the box of unsent cards my parents have kept to mark a family’s life, I find “Congratulations on Your New Addition!” Chosen no doubt for the next child who would arrive, the next name to stitch onto the quilt that hangs on the wall above my father’s chair, thirty-three names now, grandchildren and great-, names my parents no longer recall.

Nor faces, though family photos crowd the hallway. Even mine, staring out with the blue eyes that could be my father’s, a reminder that I belong to this couple and they to me. That we all belong, this gallery of strangers whose names are lost as soon as they are spoken, in the moment when the long distance calls end and the phone returns to its cradle. Return to the cradle, where above me my young mother leans, her mouth opening and closing and opening, releasing sounds, naming the world she creates for me: light, cat, flower, tree. And later the words that add, multiply, and divide that world: poplar, oak, birch, maple. As now I name the world she is losing, this woman pushing her walker beside me on the sidewalk, looking down, always down, so that I must lift her chin skyward, treeward.

“And what is that one?” she asks.

“Pear,” I say. “Blossoming.”

“And that one?”


“Funny name,” she says, “for something so pretty.” She means the blooms, raucously pink against the March sky.

To the end of the block, then back again, she learns and relearns crabapple, pansy, tulip, lily of the valley (from the valley of her childhood), and by the time we make it home to their door, the names are gone I know not where. Even mine for a moment until I say it aloud—how strange it feels to say your own name aloud—and we unlock the door we’ve locked for my father, still asleep in his chair, his mouth agape as if in death or surprise or both, the left side drooping where the last stroke struck. Or the one before that or the one before that. One took his gait, another his easy laugh, another his writing hand that once signed documents and checks, composed letters to grandchildren and great.

Now I sign for him, power of attorney but I don’t want it, I want the power back where it belongs—in him, in Mother, the powers that be, that were. Once, in an East Village studio, I watched a puppeteer’s dark-shadowed play: A white-masked figure at a table where a teapot and two glasses are set. He pours tea into a glass, sips. Soon a figure masked in an animal skull—Death, for certain—enters the room. They sit together, share tea and silent conversation. Each time the white-faced man shifts his gaze, Death steals something else—a glass, the other glass, a spoon, the teapot, the face of the man himself. In the end the two exchange faces, and the man’s face, now the face of Death, lifts off and out of the scene.

A great poet wrote, “There is no end, but addition: the trailing/consequence of further days and hours.” Truth is, I could sign a new card each day to my parents—“Sorry for Your Subtractions”—and never reach an end: the planes you flew, the students you taught, the horses you rode, the driver’s licenses and voter registrations, the golf clubs, the books, the quilts you stitched, all the beds where you bedded down together, the parents you buried and the baby daughter too, the wedding dresses you sewed for the daughters who survived, all four of us, whose names you cannot recall. The faces of your grandchildren, the neighbors you waved goodbye to. Your last car, your last house. The green lawn with its sharply perfect edge.


Rebecca McClanahan has published ten books, most recently The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change and a revised edition of Word Painting: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively. The recipient of the Wood Prize from Poetry, a Pushcart Prize, the Glasgow Award for nonfiction, and four fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts and the North Carolina Arts Council, McClanahan teaches in the MFA programs of Queens University (Charlotte) and Rainier Writing Workshop as well as the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop.

Photo by Heather Kresge