NuernbergerThe woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is in her eighties, and she underestimates the value of everything, for which I am grateful.

Lightly used snow suits, size 2T, are $6 and snow boots are $3.

There is a little girl, maybe seven, fiddling with a tea set. Her mother inspects drapes for stains.

Sometimes the very old and lonely are looking for an opening.

The woman glances up from her pricing and says something about the tea set and a baby doll long ago.

I am careful not to make eye contact, but the mother with drapes has such softness in her shoulders and her face, and she knows how to say the perfect kind thing—“What a wonderful mother you had.”

“Yes, she was.”

Why do children sometimes notice us and sometimes not?

From the bin of dolls: “What happened to your mother?”

“She died.”

The woman at the Salvation Army who sorts and prices is crying a little. She seems surprised to be crying. “It’s been eighty years and I still miss her.”

When my daughter was born I couldn’t stop thinking about how we were going to die. If we were drowning, would it be better to hold her to me even as she fought away, or should I let her float off to wonder why her mother didn’t help her? What if it’s fire and I have one bullet left? I made sure my husband knew if there were death squads and he had to choose, I’d never love him again if he didn’t choose her. If I’m lucky, her crying face is the last thing I’ll see.

The mother with drapes is squeezing her daughter’s shoulder, trying to send a silent message, but children are children. “Why did she die?”

“She was going to have a baby and—And she died.”

“But she was a wonderful mother.”

I’m holding a stack of four wooden jigsaw puzzles of farm animals, dinosaurs, jungle animals, and pets. Each for a quarter.

“It’s silly how much I still miss her.” She takes out a tissue and wipes her eyes and then her nose.

When my grandmother threw her sister, Susie, a 90th birthday party, one hundred people came, including five of the six brothers and sisters. At dusk only a few of us were left, nursing beers, our feet kicked up on the bottom rungs of various walkers.

Susie said then to my grandmother, “Can you think of all the people watching us in heaven now? And our mother must be in the front row.”

Grandma took her sister’s hand. “Our mother—Estelle.”

“Yes—her name was Estelle. I forgot that.”

They looked so happy then, saying her name back and forth to each other. Estelle. Estelle.

Kathryn Nuernberger  is the author of a poetry collection, Rag & Bone. Her essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from Indiana Review, Defunct, and Redivider. She teaches at University of Central Missouri, where she also edits poetry for Pleiades. 

Photography by Jordan Wrigley