Time to Write
She got the first letter when she was eight.
Too young to realize the importance, when Mother searched through the mail that morning, tossing aside folded papers with the muttered words “bills” and “jury duty”. Then, her flashing fuchsia nails pause mid-toss, the ornate gold plated mirror in the hall reflecting her look of confusion back on her.
“What is this?” The offending envelope is old. Worn yellowed paper with creases and slight tears on one side. But the writing on it is clear and crisp. Even her young eyes can tell that it was written with care. “Have you been talking again?” Mother’s nails now wrap around her neck. She squirms a little, but won’t meet her eyes.
“Mama…I don’t know. I didn’t do anything!” The nails loosen, and she takes in a gulp of air. The letter is thrown at her feet, and with a pivot and a sharp, bitter smell that she could not name, Mother is gone.
It takes her four weeks to read the letter. Sitting on the ornamental rugs in the entryway deep into the night hours (for that’s the only light that can stay on without Mother knowing) she traces the letters with the tip of her small fingers until she knows the entire thing by heart. She doesn’t know what all the words mean, but she knows their shape and their sound, and she takes comfort in that.
In her world, anything that brings comfort is a good thing.
She learned early on that she couldn’t be dependent on anything. Mother didn’t do what the mothers in storybooks did. She didn’t hold her hand when she was scared or hug her when she was sad. No. Mother instead wove tapestries and sang guttural, throaty songs. She drank a strange drink that wasn’t quite alcohol, nor quite potion.
Mother told her that they were descendants of the Romani–the free hearted people who traveled the world, and never stayed for long. Because of this, she was not allowed to make friends. Friends, said Mother, are reasons to stay. And we are not staying anywhere.
Still, when you are eight years old, and everyone knows each other but you, you tend to not accept this. All she, this young one wanted, was the need to feel like she stayed.
Thus, young Iridia Gambolini learned, if you have enough love, you can call anywhere your home.
It was the letter that Iridia got when she was younger that taught her to open her heart. The letter told her,
…you must be kind. I know it’s hard. But no matter what, you must keep a smile on your face.
It was hard. Mother only ever shot her down, if she was paying attention at all. Most of the time Mother wasn’t in the house at all. And if she was, she was locked up in her room or in the attic, stringed melodies flowing underneath the closed doorways. Iridia was never allowed in when this happened.
So she learned to smile on her own.
Balanced on the stack of books in the corner of her room, she looked at her reflection in the window. Her hair was too long and curly, a red-brown chestnutty mess that got everywhere and stuck to everything, static giving it a life of its own. Mother’s hair wasn’t like that, it was straight as a stick and short and black like a raven’s wing. She supposed that her hair was from her father, but she never knew him. Mother didn’t talk about him.
Looking back at her reflection, she frowned, the corners of her mouth pulling on her cheeks. She wasn’t quite sure how to go about smiling.
“How do you smile?” she whispered to her reflection.
No response, only the same mimicked pantomime. After a few moments, she felt the edges of her lips pulling up, curving into a small smile.
A start, she realized, looking back at herself.
A good start.
The next letter came when she was twelve.
Mother’s drunken voice slurred through the air.
She must be too drunk to function. Iridia threw the notebook she was scribbling in on the floor of her room, tripping over yet another carpet. Stupid carpets were all over the place nowadays. Mother had started buying more and more recently, but when she ran out of conventional spaces and places to put them, she just started piling them up everywhere.
“Mom!” Iridia slips down the spiral staircase, jumping over the step just before the end. It’s a loose step, and she knows she’ll fall if she steps on it. Down the hallway to the kitchen. Paintings of midnight scenes and starlit skies surround her.
A large rolled up carpet has fallen in front of the doorway, but no one has wanted to move it. Iridia gingerly steps over it, and moves into the kitchen.
Mother is lying on the floor, her face pressed up against the puke-green tiles. She tried to take off her dress too, but she only got one arm free before collapsing. Iridia manages a half-smile. Mother looks innocent when she’s like this.
“Mom…” she kneels down, shaking the woman’s shoulder. “Oh, c’mon Mom….” Her eyes travel down her mother’s figure. She can’t really help but admire her.
Her mom is everything she wants to be secretly. She’s strong, independent. She doesn’t need anyone.
I wish I could be like that.
She tries to hook her arms underneath Mother’s armpits, try and drag her to the master bedroom, tuck her under the patchwork covers and gently brush her forehead with her lips.
Then, something slips from Mother’s hands onto the floor.
Iridia stares at the object for a moment, tilting her head to one side.
That looks familiar….
She crouches down to pick up the offending object.
Its an old, worn envelope. The corners of the paper are worn to circular edges, and on the front is her name: Iridia Gambolini, For when you need some confidence.
What’s that supposed to mean? Iradia frowns at the front.
What did the first letter say…?
She closes her eyes and visualizes the envelope.
Iridia Gambolini, For when you need to smile.
She gently folds the envelope into quarters and tucks it into her back pocket.
Lets go, Mom.
Mother has been tucked into bed without incident, and Iridia finally has her notebooks and this newfound letter back.
“Let’s see here…” She curls up on the worn tasseled couch, with a fake candle lighting the room with a warm yellow glow. The sitting room is filled with wooden sculptures of mythical beasts and wild animals. They cast strange shadows around the room.
She slides her thumb underneath the envelope flap and slides out the paper. Iridia remembers from the last letter that this paper is really fragile.
I know that you still remember the last letter. I definitely remember writing it.
Now, you keep comparing yourself to your Mother, don’t you?
At this point, Iridia gasped and dropped the letter. She doesn’t tell anyone about her Mother’s…strangeness. Or the weird things that sometimes happen in the house.
And she most definitely does not talk about how she wishes she was her mother.
You don’t need to do that. You, yes, you, are much more than what you think you are, my dear. And I know that you have great things coming for you. Wonderful things, believe me.
I wish I could tell you everything that is coming your way, but you just have to believe me, my dear.
Iridia slowly set down the piece of paper. She curled up on the couch, hugging a pillow to her chest. The letter’s writing almost seemed to glow in the candle light.
When her eyelids began to feel heavy, she leaned over and blew out the candle, slipping into a dreamless sleep.
She held the two letters in her hand, standing in the center of her room. The light from the small chandelier above her head swayed.
She couldn’t figure out how someone could have known. Two letters, both coming at a time when she needed them the most, and the advice they gave…?
Iridia resolved to discover where exactly they had come from. She knew there had to be more than what she knew now.
She got the first clue when she was twenty-three.
Iridia was young, college educated, and finally free. Mother had given her up after a long battle, and when her eighteenth birthday had rolled around, Iridia left her house, never to return.
Or so she thought.
At her new home, an apartment that always smelled like whatever was cooking in the corner deli downstairs, another worn envelope was waiting for her.
Iridia Gambolini, For when you almost make a terrible decision
What decision? she mused, kneeling down before the door. She picked up the envelope and started to slide her thumb underneath.
The telephone interrupts her, and in her haste to get to her phone, she nearly sets the letter down. Nearly.
There is awkward silence on Iridia’s end. She does not want to talk with her, nor does she feel obligated to.
She nearly hangs up. She nearly lets go.
However, as she listens to her mother’s panicky voice, her eyes travel across the letter, and she juggles the phone in one hand, cuddling it to her shoulder, so she can open the letter with her other hand.
What she reads, freezes her to the receiver of the phone.