PERHAPS she doesn't know what waiting is, but still she's waiting for what's coming to us all sooner or later. And how long can it be, people ask, without any quality left to the life? -- just look at her sitting there, folding and unfolding an old hanky.
And if she knows that the afternoon has all the charm of early summer in it -- grass warmed and fragrant, sun on the lily pond, geraniums overflowing their pots -- they think it's because she has fallen back to afternoons like this, waiting for the girls to come home from the beach, and Harold from golf, baby chickens with rice and gravy, and quinces and cream to follow.
But she has fallen much further than that, right back to the words themselves, the lovely, lovely words, and her mother in the front row in a hat, wild with pride. And Sister Annunciation calling her in to say, "You have been given two talents, Annie Moshal. Mind you use them well."
She has, Sister, she has. There are people who can turn a whole hall around with their happiness, and she was one of them. She stood in the wings, the words drumming along her breathing. She moved out with them into the light, into the noise and the clapping, waiting for the silence. Oh, she was greedy for that silence.
Everyone here is old; everyone knows who she is and who she was. "She gave such pleasure in her day," they say. "That it should come to this."
"Hey ho!" she sings. What do they know of pleasure? Sooner or later they'll be stealing her words for themselves, showing off with them, wearing them around their shoulders. They'll pull out all her feathers, knock the bottom out of her jug.
Some words still come smoothly to her -- the ordinary ones she used to walk about with. Now, tell me again, who are you? Are you a person who's a long time here? It's really not wise, she says, and Don't let them get the better of you.
When there's a knock at the door, the nurse puts down her knitting and says, "Here come your daughters, Anne."
"Who the devil are my daughters?"
Sometimes the daughters bring flowers and put them in a vase and put the vase where she can see it.
"Hey!" she says. "Hey ho!"
Sometimes the daughters put on music, the lovely, lovely, lovely -- and she turns her head and lifts her chin, waiting.
"I -- I -- I -- "
"You sang that, Ma," they say. They take the old hanky away and hold her hands. "Do you know who I am?" one asks.
But the lucky ring is gone, green on the little finger where it always was. "Hey!" she says. "Hey!"
Her father gave her the money for that ring when she turned twenty-one. He gave her the money to go to London, too, although words meant nothing to him. Every week she wrote a letter to her mother, struggling with the Yiddish. Every day she took the tube, and climbed the stairs, listening to the lovely, lovely -- round and round, right up to her teacher's door.
And then, one day, she walked out into the gray, gray, and there it was -- her name on the banner at last.
"I have babies," she says, "and it isn't easy, I can tell you."
Sometimes the nurse takes her out into the garden on her arm. They walk with the others along the path, and stop at the lily pond. And even if she knows it won't go on forever, afternoons like this, geraniums and lily ponds, still she's ready to go home.
"We're lucky," the nurse says. "I have you and you have me."
But when she asks, "Where's my mother?" the nurse says, "Dead."
How could that be? They were just on the tram together, she and her mother, and the priests sitting in front of them. "That Moshal girl sings like an angel," one said to the other.And her mother couldn't help it -- she leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder, "Mein kind," she said. "Mein kind."
"How many babies do you have, Ma?"
"I don't have a husband," she says. "I'm quite ready to go home."
But night after night she sees him there in the front row, just waiting to snatch her words for himself. A thief.
"Who am I, Ma?"
"Hello, Mrs. Pumshtock. Hello, Mrs. Marvelous."
"Hello," she says. "Would you like to bring your mother round for tea?"
"But these are your daughters, Anne," the nurse says.
"Yes, and the one shows off a lot."
They all laugh then, especially the show-off, always making a noise at the bottom of the table. He'd tried to steal her, too, but she'd hung on tight, writing letters every day, page after page.
It was the other who was like a bride to him, all beauty and manners as he led her down the aisle. Still, he was hers, night after night, with nothing, nothing between the giving and the taking, only the lovely, lovely, lovely --
"Don't cry, Ma."
"Don't cry, Anne. Your daughters will come again tomorrow."
"But I want to tell her something."
"Who, Ma?" "What, Ma?"
"I -- I -- I want to say that she was marvelous."
"Bye, Mrs. Marvelous."
Illustration by Glenna Lang
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; The Lovely, Lovely; Volume 282, No. 5; pages 38 - 39.
Lynn Freed is on the faculty of the Bennington College M.F.A. program. She is the author of