~This essay was previously published in in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Non-Fiction (1999).
Today I will throw out the two-inch toy Coke glass. The two halves of it fit perfectly together and could have been glued, but I’m done with gluing. It is late spring and the glass has been here since November. I remember how my mother gasped, Oh what have I done now, with unusual vulnerability as she heard the clamorous crack. I heard it too and saw her lifting her foot, afraid of further destruction. I was afraid of her falling. It’s nothing, I said. Just that little Coke glass.
That’s from Detroit, she answered, meaning from the green-lawn days I set up my toy trademark Coke dispenser on Hawthorne Avenue and waited for business. The four miniature glasses, narrow at the bottom and wide at the top, had Coca-Cola in script on the sides. With careful fingers I filled the glasses, lined them up in a row, then lifted and drank each one. Perhaps I sat on my striped canvas director’s chair, my hair pulled into the popular Alice in Wonderland look. I don’t know, but my mother would have a clear memory of watching me do this through the window of our house, as she clutched my baby brother in her thin arms.
What a shame, she said. I lifted the broken toy off the kitchen floor and told her not to worry. I would glue it. At the time I intended to. Not for the sake of my own daughter. She didn't prize the little glass, had probably not noticed the authentic logo of the world’s most popular drink. I would put it back together for the memory, my debt of preserving the past and keeping track. And to assure my mother that all damage done under her foot could be undone. I showed her how easily the two halves fit, then placed them in the corner of the kitchen window.
The next time I saw my mother she was sitting up in her bed. It was three in the afternoon on a Saturday in November and she had died before dawn. Died before there was light enough to open the shades. Before morning coffee. Before this now empty body had gotten something decent to wear to Lucille's for Thanksgiving. Gone in an instant, the coroner said. Shouldn’t there be a warning? At least a minute to prepare, to memorize the way the world looked the last time we looked at it together?
Weeks later I found the two halves of the toy glass in the window and stuffed them out of sight in the cupboard. Other signs of my mother’s last visit surfaced. There was a small spoon on the deck railing where she and two-year-old Nadine made pies out of snow they wanted to save. Nadine had on a hat and mittens, and my mother stood in the doorway calling, “Look at this girl dressed for winter, and I’m only in this sweater! We need more pans!” she laughed, holding her cigarette high so smoke didn't drift into the kitchen. I had not recognized this jovial, energetic woman.
After the funeral, I found the pie tins in the play kitchen and held them for a while. My mother had tried to help me save snow, too. This was after Detroit. This was in the hills of East Tennessee where it snowed only twice in ten years. A thin layer on the roads and the city shut down, schools closed and we got to stay home listening to tales of my mother's childhood on a Wisconsin farm where snow drifted so high her father had to climb out the upstairs window to shovel a path to the door and free the family, eight tow-headed children watching in their cotton nightshirts. I would go outside and try to save a small patch of snow on the hill of our lawn, shielding it with my body from the southern sun and the other children who wanted to ruin it with a snow angel. My mother did not make me come in, did not make me share the snow with the others. She understood more than I did at the time, that I was trying to connect to her story, and preserve magical evidence of her girlhood.
The pie tins, the spoon, the Coke glass, everything my mother had touched her last night in our home held her memory for a while, then got put away. Only the broken Coke glass had no place to go back to. For a while it lay with the dishes in the cupboard. At some point I dropped it into a canister and piled sugar packets on top. One day I noticed it there and fished it out. The two sides fit nicely. The scar would look like just another scratch on the thick translucent plastic. I put the pieces next to the stove where I would see them and remember to do something.
I don't know when I decided not to glue the little glass back together. Maybe it was just today, when with sudden clarity I knew I would throw it out. Not with malice or regret. Not in grief or frustration. I will throw the little Coke glass out because its purpose is completed. On that last night, under my mother’s foot, it was conducting a final ritual, breaking its body open to take us back, mother and daughter, to glimpse the world we had together: she at the age I am now, watching her daughter conduct business on a sunny sidewalk, as if there was nothing I could not master.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY: