Pieter scrubbed before he visited Neeltje on the porch, but the oily smell of herring clung to his skin and hair, to his coat and boots. He left at ten every night. Later, she would press her hands, the ones he held as they sat turned toward each other in the small chairs, to her face and inhale. It had the effect of smelling salts or a burnt feather, reviving her from the dullness she felt when he was not around.
When he felt invisible cold vines wrap around his ankles and calves, he saw her more clearly than he had in twenty years. His son Karel whispered that he would be seeing Mother soon. Pieter first thought he meant the mother he had never known, but then realized it was Neeltje and smiled at the image of her standing before the light.
And so it goes.
On those evenings, her parents sat at the table inside the window, struggling to keep their eyes open over her mending and his reading. They didn’t seem to notice when she and Pieter disappeared from view for a half hour. Or in the early months when she first let out her skirt.
He thought of his family—his children, grandchildren, and their children. His oldest great-grandchild married young, but she didn’t have to. The man was older, a college graduate. Their first living room furniture was made from California orange crates, and Pieter doubted she realized her great-grandfather had ever been anything but a shrunken old man. Or that he had built chests and credenzas when Grand Rapids meant well-made furniture.
To get permission, they had to contact his mother’s father, the legal guardian that had signed Pieter and his brother into the city-run orphanage four years before. Old enough to be financially responsible for himself, but not old enough to sign his own marriage license. Laws written by old men who couldn’t remember their youths.
Every three months he moved to a different farmhouse. He was supposed to be with his eldest son Karel this season, but Karel’s wife Clara had cancer of the womb and lay dying in the upstairs bedroom. Now he had taken ill at Pete’s where the pies and fried chicken weren’t as good as Clara’s. But they treated him well, bringing him his pipe or a shawl when he asked for it.
She was a 16-year-old ex-schoolgirl when Karel was born. She swaddled the baby carefully, and against her mother’s instructions, carried him to the dock to wait for Pieter. When he said they should leave their families and move to Kloetinge where he could learn the trade of shoemaker, her cycles stopped again. Jan was born in Kloetinge without family nearly.
Nine children born to Neeltje. Two funerals. The one he remembered in color and detail was the first, young Jan, three months old after they had arrived in Michigan. Neeltje was only 19 when she buried her second born. After that, she went some place Pieter couldn’t follow. Gradually, over the next 44 years, he stopped searching.
When Pieter’s wealthy grandmother passed away, his own bequest bought Pieter, Neeltje, and their two babies a voyage on the S.S. Zaandam to New York and then a train ride to Grand Rapids where other Zeeuws had moved. Their young blond family was dutifully welcomed, but without warmth, into the neighborhood. A church elder hired Pieter on at his furniture factory.
For years Pieter wondered if the sawdust and paint chemicals would harm his lungs, exposed as he’d been to young Karel’s tuberculosis. But he retired without incident, although his legs sometimes gave him trouble, especially in damp weather.
Neeltje’s motions with the children were deliberate and patient. When she washed small faces, their eyes gazed up into hers. After Rosa died, she gave birth to yet another daughter and called her Rosa. The last child they called Nellie after her mother; she was born slow with a pinched face and poor eyesight.
His mind wandered further back in time. The orphanage teacher with a swaggering moustache beat him across the back of his thighs with a cane after daily prayers. Afterward, Pieter found adventure stories in the Bible and imagined himself far away on another continent.
Neeltje did things without fanfare or explanation, and that’s how she died. He wasn’t sure what happened, but after he saw she was gone, he realized that even though she’d been at his side since they were teens, he had the sense he didn’t know her. Perhaps he’d been mistaken not to try to pull her back after Jan’s death. He should have tried harder. Now he envisioned her as a teen with a broad plain face, a bashful half-smile, and colorless hair. He’d made her a mother many times over, but she had been only a girl.
Pieter didn’t have a photograph of his mother. As he grew up, he didn’t know her stories. When Pieter was fifteen, his father died and not one of the older siblings, the uncles, or his mother’s father came to save his younger brother and himself from the orphanage that resembled a dark brick church adorned with stone angels. City taxes, including those of his uncles’ import business, had helped support the institution for years. The family figured they might as well make use of it.
He wanted to do it all over again. He would look often at her, at Neeltje, smiling or frowning. And at the children laughing with their mother. The smells of the fish, the leather, the fresh cut wood would be with him, but he would notice her so that when she died—because it always came to that—he would be prepared. He would see the way she was. The way they were. And it would be enough.
Luanne Castle studied at the University of California, Riverside (PhD), Western Michigan University (MFA), and Stanford University. Her poetry and prose have appeared in Grist, River Teeth, Extract(s), Crack the Spine, The Review Review, and many other journals. Winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, Doll God, Luanne’s first collection of poetry, was published by Aldrich Press. She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina. Email: luanne.castle[at]gmail.com