Norma had the broad Slavic face and thick nose of our father and our mother’s sour disposition.
They wore the plain broadcloth suits of working men and carried themselves like rats who weren’t accustomed to being spotted in the daylight.
Even Mother — with her dread of change and her attachment to tradition and the heavy dark rituals of grief — would surely not object to me dismantling this shrine to her final years and making something useful of it. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it yet.
For years I just wanted to be free of her, and now I found myself clinging to the only traces of her that remained.
My mother married my father, Frank Kopp, at the age of twenty. He was what my grandparents called Bohemian, which meant that he was Czech, but in some convoluted way having to do with the outcomes of wars still being fought in those distant countries, they had decided that he was practically Austrian. They were relieved he wasn’t a Jew, and even though my mother had met him in New York, he wasn’t an American. On the grounds of what he was not, my grandparents allowed him to marry their daughter.
I didn’t even think of Henry Kaufman as a man who went out and did things every day — who combed his hair and ate his lunch and drank in saloons with his friends and quarreled with his sister. In my mind, Henry Kaufman existed only in those moments when I had seen him, and the rest of the time he was still and quiet, like a marionette hung backstage by his strings, motionless until someone took him up and sent him skittering back to life.
Whatever bank of fog had been clouding my mind for the last few months cleared at the mention of other salesmen giving sewing lessons to other girls. The room came into very sharp and cold focus when he said it, and my situation was suddenly apparent to me in a way that it hadn’t been before. The words describing my predicament dropped into place like type in a newspaper column.
Adding his name to hers seemed at that moment like putting a period at the end of a sentence. It was where he ended and she began.
Mr. Hopper was breathing in that way that large men breathed, as if fueled by a boiler room instead of a pair of lungs.
We heard footsteps again and the door opened, this time revealing a short, squat woman with hair the color of a cast-iron pan and a disposition to match. She wore a high-necked dress the likes of which I hadn’t seen since my grandmother was alive, and spectacles as thick and dusty as the windows in her old home.
Where the years ahead had once seemed vague and unknowable, amorphous in shape and indeterminate in size, after my mother died I began to see a set of decades stacked neatly in front of me like bricks. First came my thirties, already half gone, and beyond that my forties and my fifties, solid and certain. But after that, the bricks started to crumble. My grandmother died at the age of sixty-two, and my grandfather at seventy-one. Then my mother was gone, having succumbed to pneumonia after only just turning sixty herself.
It’s a terrible thing to see your own child grown into someone you don’t recognize.