“Mother, I swear!” I looked around the pantry, though there could be no one to hear me. Who else would willingly clean up after my mother? She had so many grudges, and she kept everything related to them. In every room of her home, I saw the evidence of her inability to let go of circumstances, accidents, basically any incident where someone disagreed with her perception or somehow slighted her by not following her expectations. This book in my hand had to be the longest running grudge in the history of grudges, with more animosity on both sides than the Hatfields and McCoys.
That may be why I decided to return the library book that my mother had vengefully held onto for 52 years to the librarian who refused to let it go. If she was still alive, I would find her and hand her the god-damned book that had boomeranged around my childhood and beyond. Everyone else had let go of whatever trophy Mother chose to keep to emphasize her point, socks that actually did belong to my cousin and my mother had accidentally packed with my stuff, the lighter she said my father had given her, though he’d not recognized it and asked her to return it to his friend, so many other stupid, little things. Letters were written and phone calls were made, where arguments ensued, with no one as relentless as my mother.
I went directly to the address on the most recent letter in the box on which the book sat. Miss Habscomb apparently still lived in our town. Alas, this was not true. The new tenant informed me that she had moved three years prior, but gave me the name of her son, who lived in the neighboring state. The next weekend, I knocked on his door. When I explained my mission, he gave me the name of a cousin in Germany who’d taken her in, since he and his mother weren’t close. I took an indefinite sabbatical from work to fly to Germany. The cousin passed me on to his brother in Amsterdam, who sent me back to the US, Ohio specifically. Three weeks later, I had traveled most of the country.
Suffering signs of early dementia meant round the clock care, but her family passed her around like an unwanted pet. I was feeling sincerely sad for this woman. More than once, I had doors slammed in my face and thus returned to the previous kin to brainstorm her next possible move. Once I found out that she was in a nursing facility, I thought my journey was over. But they had sent her to a specialized hospital for an acute something I couldn’t pronounce. She then moved around from assisted care facilities and various nursing homes, depending on which relative was paying.
I found her in a California rest home, sitting in a bay window, scowling at the sunny beach. She waved me to sit down.
“I don’t like people hovering over me.”
“Sorry.” I set on the sofa next to her wheelchair.
“Do you need something?”
She still scared the little girl in me returning a book late. I swallowed and persevered. “Miss Habscomb?”
“Mrs. You’re not a child. Call me by my proper name, please.”
“I found this book in my mother’s pantry. There were several letters between the two of you.”
“I don’t know your mother, child. I don’t even remember you.”
“Oh.” I tapped the box on my lap. “Of course.”
“May I see the book?”
I opened the box and handed her the book. “Here you go. She kept all your letters, and even the ones of hers that you returned.”
Miss, er, Mrs. Habscomb’s eye widened and brightened. Lucidity shone like beacons.
“This book! This book! I do remember this book!”
“You do? That’s great. I’ve spent a long time and traveled a long way to return it to you. My mom died this last summer.”
She gripped the book tightly in her arthritic hands and held it up, looking at it with glee. “It’s too bad your mother died, dear.”
“Thank you.” I sniffled, holding back tears I hadn’t expected.
The book floated down to her lap and she pet it as though it were a cat. “But I have to tell you something.” She leaned forward, holding herself in the chair by placing her forearms along the wheelchair arms. The twinkle in her eye was alarming. “I win!”
I snatched that damn book from her lap and hissed at her, “No, you don’t!” and drove home.