The Memory Keeper of Kyiv
Cassie’s facial muscles twitched in rebellion, but she forced her mouth into a big, fake smile as her daughter entered the kitchen. She hoped if she smiled long enough, hard enough, Birdie would respond, but the little girl stared back, expressionless.
Cassie fought the urge to bang her head into the wall.
Birdie’s wide blue eyes contrasted sharply with her dark, tangled hair. The pink princess pajamas she’d wanted so badly for her fourth birthday now rode halfway up her calves and forearms. They’d shrunk. Or she’d grown. Maybe both. Cassie didn’t seem to be good at noticing these things lately.
Harvey plopped down at Birdie’s feet, his tail thumping the floor as his shaggy brown fur warmed her bare ankles.
“The dog keeps a better eye on Birdie than I do.” Cassie rubbed her hands over her face and resumed her typical routine of forcing out meaningless banter. She couldn’t bear the quiet. It gave her too much time to remember.
“Good morning! Did you sleep well? What would you like for breakfast? I have overnight oats, eggs, or I can make some quinoa, fruit, and honey if you want.”
Cassie was failing on many levels of parenting, but no one could say she didn’t feed Birdie well. The pantry overflowed with organic snacks bought in bulk, and the fruit bowl on the counter always contained several different options. Cassie didn’t care if she skipped dinner or ate saltines for breakfast, but she was determined to make sure Birdie received all of the nutrition she needed, even if her clothes didn’t fit or she never spoke again.
Birdie pointed to the carton of eggs Cassie had taken out of the fridge and the frying pan on the drying rack in the sink. Cassie picked them both up and brought them to the stove while Birdie got out a spatula and the butter dish.
“One egg or two today?” Cassie asked. She did this all the time, trying to trick Birdie into answering without thinking. It never worked. Birdie hadn’t talked in fourteen months, one week, and three days. No reason why today should be any different.
Birdie opened the carton, took an egg in each hand, and held them out to Cassie.
“All right. Two eggs it is. Why don’t you make the toast?”
Birdie padded toward the toaster and popped a piece of sprouted grain bread into it.
Cassie glanced around the messy house as the two eggs spattered and snapped in the pan. Mail stacked in a pile so high it threatened to topple over, dog hair balls growing at an alarming rate in the corners on the floor, and a garbage can that seriously needed to be emptied didn’t exactly paint a picture of a happy home. A year and a half ago, she would rather have been caught dead than live in a house this messy.
Her laptop peeked out from beneath a stack of newspapers. Cassie winced to see it so forlorn, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to write anything since that night. She threw a dishtowel over it so she wouldn’t have to keep staring at another example of her failure, then slipped the eggs onto a pink plastic plate and placed them in front of Birdie at the table. As her little girl dug in, Cassie watched the dark yellow yolks run into the toast Birdie had made and sighed. Another day, just like yesterday and the day before. Never moving forward, never healing, never getting on with life. She had to fix it, for Birdie’s sake, but she had no idea where to start.
The doorbell rang and Cassie froze. Even now, after all this time, the sound of the doorbell still terrified her. She pulled her ratty robe closed and tied it tight as she walked to the door. Her psychiatrist would say she was using the robe as a defense mechanism, attempting to block out whatever was at her door trying to get in. Cassie would say she didn’t want company to see her tattered old pajamas. Maybe that’s why she’d quit making appointments with that shrink.
She pulled open the door, and her mom, disheveled and wan, managed a half-smile before she hiccupped a sob back and barreled her way in to wrap her arms around Cassie.
“Oh, Cass. I had to come tell you in person; I didn’t want you driving yourself after you heard.”
Cassie stiffened and pulled away from her mother’s arms. “Tell me what?”
“Nobody has died,” she said. “It’s nothing that bad.”
“Mom, what are you talking about?”
“It’s about Bobby.”
“Bobby?” Cassie pictured her wrinkled ninety-two-year-old grandmother, long ago christened Bobby when a young Cassie had butchered the Ukrainian word for grandma, babusya, and refused to use the traditional nickname, baba.
“There’s been an accident.”
Cassie’s heart skipped a beat. Maybe two. She drew in a ragged breath and tried not to let panic overtake her, but the words were the same ones she’d heard last year, right before her world fell apart.
Cassie let her mother guide her into a chair at the table. Anna leaned over and kissed Birdie on the top of the head. “Hello, my darling.”
Birdie smiled silently up at her grandmother while sopping the yolk off her plate with her toast.
“It happened Friday, but I didn’t want to worry you until I knew more.” Anna sat next to Birdie.
Cassie counted the days back in her head. “Mom, that was two days ago! Bobby’s been hurt for two days and you couldn’t call?”
“Like I said, I needed to speak to you in person. When I found out she wasn’t in danger of dying, I decided it would be best for me to drive here and tell you. I couldn’t leave her side until today.”
“Tell me everything now,” Cassie ordered, her voice quaking.
Anna glanced at Birdie and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Birdie, Grammy and Mommy are going to talk. Do you want to go watch TV?”
Birdie picked up her plate and put it in the sink, then walked past the piles of mail and newspapers toward the living room. When the sound of cartoon music filled the air, Cassie turned back toward her mom expectantly.
“Last week, she went for one of her walks.” Anna said. “She went further than she normally does, and I don’t know if she got turned around or what, but a car struck her as she crossed a busy street.”
Cassie jolted upright. “She got hit by a car? Are you kidding me?”
Anna held up her hand. “She’s fine. She had a mild concussion and a few stitches. No broken bones. It’s amazing she walked away so unscathed.”
“Where is she now? Is she home yet?”
“No, and that’s why I’m here. She should be able to go home this afternoon, but she needs company. Just someone to be there and to help her with things.”
Cassie nodded. “Do you want her to come here? Stay with me?”
Anna looked around the kitchen with a skeptical expression. “I don’t think this would be the best place for her. Her doctors aren’t nearby; she’s not familiar with anything here. Look, what I’m thinking is that this is an opportunity for you to make a change. Leave this town, this house, these memories behind, and come back home.”
Cassie laughed, and the bitterness that echoed through the room surprised even her. “You think I can just leave my memories behind? You think I can close the doors here and it will be like Henry never existed?”
“No, honey, of course that’s not what I meant.” Anna cradled Cassie’s cheek. “You’ll never forget him. I thought maybe it was time for a fresh start, in a new place, where the memories aren’t so overwhelming. And since Bobby shouldn’t be on her own, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for you to go stay with her for a while. Just lock this place up and walk away.”
“Just walk away? From my life? My home?’ Cassie shrugged off her mother’s touch as the dull ache that always preceded a crying jag throbbed in her throat.
“Cassie, let’s be real.” Anna gripped Cassie’s hand and stared her down. Apparently, the niceties were over. “I want you to tell me truthfully that you’re happy here, right now. Tell me that you are making this a welcoming, safe home for Birdie. Tell me that you even have a life outside this mess!”
Cassie’s mouth dropped open in surprise. Her mom usually kept this beast-mode side of her personality wrapped under a layer of not-so-subtle suggestions and passive-aggressive jabs. This attack was definitely not her typical mode of action.
“I’m at my wits’ end with both of you, if you want to know the truth,” she continued. “Bobby is stubborn. She’s refusing to consider even looking at any type of assisted living homes. And you? Well, I spend so many sleepless hours worrying myself to death over how you are coping with everything down here. When a woman loses her husband, no matter what the circumstances, she needs to be around family to heal. I want to help you, but you never let me. Now, here is the perfect opportunity to get you and Bobby together to help each other, and I want to make it work.”
“Basically, you want both of your problems tucked away together so you don’t have to worry about them as much. That’s why you really came here, isn’t it?” Cassie stood up so fast her chair clattered to the floor behind her. She was being unfair to her mother, but she couldn’t help it. Her emotions these days vacillated between apathy and anger and left no room for anything else. “I need to get some air, and Harvey needs a walk. I’m sure Birdie would love to spend some time with you while I’m gone.”
She stomped over to the back door and, even though the spring weather was balmy, she put on the long winter coat that covered up the fact that she was still wearing her robe. She shoved her feet into boots, grabbed Harvey’s leash, and slammed the back door behind her.
Harvey, oblivious to Cassie’s anger, jumped and barked excitedly as she clipped his leash onto his collar and left the yard. She tried to clear her thoughts as he sniffed around the trees in front of the house.
Her mom wasn’t wrong. Memories surrounded her here. Initially, after the accident, the house enveloped her—safe and comforting. But lately, a stifling, trapped feeling had overshadowed that comfort. After all, this wasn’t her real home; they’d only lived here six months before the accident. Henry’s company had transferred him to Madison, Wisconsin temporarily, and it was only supposed to be for a year, so they’d rented the first place they could find with a fenced yard for Harvey. The transfer came with a huge bonus, and after the year was up, they’d planned on moving back to Illinois and buying their own place.
They’d spent hours dreaming about that home. She wanted an old farmhouse on acreage with a barn and fruit trees. Henry wanted a cabin with a pole barn and woods. But the accident changed all that. Luckily, the sympathetic landlord had let her extend the lease month–to–month after the original year–long contract expired.
She rounded the corner in front of her home and stared at the brick bungalow. Unimpressive, it sat too close to the street and lacked the charm of the other houses on the block. She didn’t stay because she liked this house or felt closer to Henry here. She stayed because it was easier to maintain the status quo and keep going through the motions of a bare–bones existence. Wake up, eat, take care of Birdie, sleep, repeat.
Harvey pulled on the leash, excited to go back inside. Cassie saw Birdie peeking out through her bedroom window. She waved excitedly, then spun away; it was the most expression Cassie had seen out of her in months.
How much had she thought of Birdie as she struggled from day to day? How many of her decisions were based on what Birdie needed to thrive versus what she, Cassie, needed to survive? Cassie didn’t like the answers to those questions, so she usually avoided asking them. Her mom had ruined that for her.
She trudged into the house; her mom still sat in the same place at the kitchen table. She turned to Cassie as she entered and raised her hands in the air. “I swear, honey, I didn’t say a word to Birdie, but as soon as you walked out the door, she ran to her room.”
Cassie unclipped Harvey and hung up her coat. “That’s fine. She likes to play in there.”
“She’s not playing, Cass. She’s packing. She must have overheard us talking.”
“Did she…” Cassie trailed off, not wanting to ask the question.
Anna gave her a pitying look. “No, she didn’t talk to me.”
Of course she didn’t. Birdie’s silence was just one more shining example of Cassie’s failure as a parent to help her cope with the accident and loss of her father. She sank into the chair across from Anna, defeated. “What’s your plan?”
Anna grabbed both of Cassie’s hands in hers. “I want to help you pack up and leave. Make a clean break of it, no time to think or change your mind. I’ll help you with everything. I promise I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t think it was best for you. You know I’ve been on you to move back for months.”
“Now you have the perfect excuse,” Cassie finished for her.
“Now your Bobby needs you,” Anna said. “And I think you need her, too. Why don’t we pack up the basics? Your clothes, toiletries, and any food that would spoil. I’ll come back with you when you’re ready to get Henry’s things.”
“I’ve already done that,” Cassie said. “Last month, Henry’s mom came down and helped me go through his clothes.”
“Oh, well, that’s one thing done then.” Anna’s voice rose an octave.
The all too familiar guilt crept up on Cassie. “I’m sorry, Mom. I know you’d offered to help before. I wasn’t ready then. But it got to a point where I couldn’t breathe with all of that hanging over me. I had to get it out, and Dottie happened to be visiting when that moment came.”
Anna’s lips pressed together, and she wrapped Cassie in a hug. “Oh, my sweet girl.”
Cassie hugged her mom back and melted into her, just like she had when she was a kid. Unexpected pinpricks of relief tickled her scalp, and she sighed. “Okay, Mom. I’ll come home.”
Anna pulled back and gave a tremulous smile. “This will be best for everyone. You’ll see.” She hesitated, then went on. “Honestly, I’m worried about Bobby. Even before the accident, she’s been… different. You know how she is. Always moving, always working. But now, I’ll catch her sitting at the table, staring off in a daze like she’s in another place, talking to herself in Ukrainian.”
“What’s she saying?”
“I don’t know,” Anna replied. “Usually she won’t talk to me when she’s like that. It’s like she’s so deep in her memories that she’s not aware of what’s going on around her. The other day, I asked what she was thinking about, and when she finally responded, all she said was ‘sunflowers’.”
“Maybe she’s thinking about what she wants to plant in her flowerbeds.”
“No.” Anna drummed her fingers on the table. “She’s never planted sunflowers. She always told me they made her too sad.”
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|Epub, PDF||June 7, 2022|