My mother thinks she will retire gracefully. She says she will pick up where she left off some 20 years ago and approach it as just another weekend. She says it is the simple matter of putting her business in a box, in many boxes. She will label them and fill them with Oster Golden clippers and dozens of blades; with slicker brushes, wire brushes, bristle brushes; thinning shears, ice-tempered shears and stainless steel shears. She says it is as simple as folding her aprons and tucking them into a drawer, of arranging her half-empty bottles of pet shampoo (medicated, hypoallergenic, snowy-coat, and tearless puppy) in a cabinet. She does not want to make it into a noisy issue, she says, into one that leaves her feeling sentimental and old. She tells me this as I am standing at her door holding my coat in one arm. I have not considered that my mother might want to retire, and I tell myself I should be happy for her. But I feel my body draw tight against her words, the tiniest shard of apprehension working its way into the weighty flesh of my heart. When I ask if she thinks it is really a good idea to retire so soon, she says, "Yes. Do you know how I know this?" I shake my head and she tells me about the struggle to get the large dogs into the tub, and about the hard work to shave the overheated huskies that have hair like sheep -- so thick and woolly it dulls even the sharpest blades in minutes. "I especially won't miss the hairs," she says. She tells me how they get in the air and aggravate her sinuses. They also embed themselves in her skin, driving her mad with the itching. Sometimes I help her find a renegade hair, its barb lodged in her elbow or in the soft skin of her neck. I remove it with a pair of tweezers and hold it up to the light, my eyes seeing only the faintest glint. "What will you do instead?" I say. "And what about the money?"
My mother sneezes into a tissue, two tiny explosions that make her eyes water. "Honey, I'll do fine. Ethan and I will do fine together." I unconsciously press my coat against the side of my face, expecting it to feel soft. But it is wool, harsh and scratchy; it occurs to me that my mother might be allergic to wool. "Your customers won't be happy," I say. "They're used to you. They like you." My mother is patient. She says, "It won't be for another year. Anyway, it's not so much me that they like; they like getting the dog hair out of their way." When I leave my mother's house, I am filled with an unease that does not make sense to me. I want to feel happy for her. But I find happiness an oddly uninhabitable sentiment; it is a feeling I cannot locate within myself, like a splash of blue against a blue wall.
I tell my mother it is a sad thing to fill a box. She says, "Why not a happy thing?" I try to explain. "If you fill a box with books, they're not books anymore. They become a box of books." My mother laughs and shakes her head. "Sylvia, why must it sound so final? You can always take the books back out of the box. You can do that." I nod. But I know this will not always be true. I know everything is final, ultimately; that everything leads to that last irretrievable, feeble breath.
I was 14 when my mother decided to start a dog-grooming business. She called us into the living room and stood before us, wringing her pale hands like a wash cloth. My brothers and I were sprawled on the living room floor, and my father sat on the couch, clearing his throat and wiping his glasses with the edge of his shirt. My mother explained that, although she was going to be a professional woman, she would still be our mother. I remember the strange words, like "venture" and "enterprise," that spilled from her as we stared in open-mouthed silence. It was my father who finally spoke. He said, "Wow." Then my younger brother Leroy said, "Wow," and the rest of us joined in, a chorus of wows. I remember feeling embarrassed by my mother's new idea, by the images that filled my mind, of poodles with pink bows and pompom hair cuts. These were not things I associated with my mother, who had short plain nails and wore her hair in a long braid. It is only now I suspect my embarrassment was really for myself, for my inability to see beyond myself, beyond the peanut butter and banana sandwiches that appeared in my lunch bag and the clean sheets I slid my feet into, feeling safe in the constancy of their cool grip.
From a catalog, my mother ordered the "All Breed Grooming Guide" book, a special grooming table, a pair of clippers, a few extra blades, and some combs and brushes. She called her business the Picture Perfect Pooch and turned the basement into a grooming room. She talked my father into constructing a drainage grate in the cement floor and two tiny windows along a section of wall above ground. She said she needed the light; she needed the room to feel like an office, not a basement. In the beginning, my mother bathed the dogs in the family bath tub. I remember being amazed at the amount of hair that came off them -- soggy tufts that clogged the drain. My mother always scoured the tub afterward, but we complained about it anyway. We said, "What if they have fleas or ear mites or something?" She said, "Sometimes it's a sacrifice." Of course she could have told us that people do not get ear mites, and that fleas prefer animals with lots of hair. But I believe my mother wanted us to feel we had a part in the sacrifice.
Only five months after my mother started her business, my father died from a heart attack. He had no chest pain, no mini-heart attack to warn us. Since my older brothers were away at college, and my younger brother Leroy had already lost himself to the brilliant synaptic world of computers, I felt as though my mother and I were the only ones left to survive my father's death. I remember the anguish that settled over the house like a heavy rain cloud. I remember the somber phone conversations my mother had with my brothers, and how she leaned her elbows on the counter, her fingers spread across her forehead. I remember watching her closely and noticing how she kept the house darker than usual, squinting in the weakest of lights. She kept herself busy, working long hours in the basement. It was the Picture Perfect Pooch I believed to be her godsend; it was her foresight, her wad of bills tucked under her mattress. Once, when I pushed open the door to the grooming room, I saw her sitting on the floor, weeping into the hair of a golden retriever. I froze, my feet planted over the drainage grate. If my mother heard me, she did not look up. I felt a sob form beneath my ribs, a sob that could not get past the invisible hand at my throat. I stood for what seemed forever, hardly breathing, and feeling as if I were the thinnest sliver of paper that, at any moment, would slip through the narrow grate.
All week my mother continues to come up with reasons why she will be glad to retire. "The jokes," she says, "I can do without the jokes -- the doggone, in-the-doghouse, dog-eared, hot diggety dog jokes." She says she will not miss the sly look on Harvey Sneld's face when he says, "Has your business gone to the dogs?" Harvey Sneld is a regular. My mother has been grooming his Shih Tzu for over 10 years. She says it is wasting away. I imagine this little dog, becoming thinner and thinner, until there is nothing left of him except a pair of huge and cloudy blinking eyes.
It has been two weeks since my mother made her decision to retire. I am triumphant when she finally admits she will perhaps miss the business a little. She says, in fact, she will miss a few of the little dogs, that she enjoys the trimming and puffing, the powdering of ears, and the apple fragrance spray for their coats. She enjoys matching the yellow, blue, and green polka-dot bows to the color of their hair, and the feeling of accomplishment she gets when she hands the dog back to its owner. "Most of the dogs are OK," she says, "but it's the people that can be the problem." She says they have such high standards, that they expect their dogs to look better than themselves. Though I agree this is probably true, I know that my mother's customers are pleased with her. They say she is very professional and does beautiful work. "You just can't please everyone," she says. She tells me about Walter Garrett, a man who -- when he picks up his poodle Rocky -- wants to know what she has done to his dog. My mother laughs. "I tell him Rocky is wearing the bows because I like them. That's what I say: they're for me, not you." My mother says that if she did not put bows on Rocky, Walter Garrett would complain about that. I tell her Walter Garrett is a good customer, that he is loyal, that he keeps coming back. I tell her this because I believe loyalty is an admirable trait.
My mother is slender and strong, with shoulders that tilt slightly forward. I do not know if this tilt is from stooping over a bath tub for 20 years or from the steady downward pressure of time. She tells me that when she has back and neck pain, Ethan runs an electric massager up and down her back. She says he is good at it, that he uses the right amount of pressure. But my mother's pain always returns. I tell her she needs to get professional help -- see a doctor, a chiropractor, something. She says, "I'm OK," and shoos me out the door.
Ethan has been with my mother for eight years. He is large and overly friendly, like a Saint Bernard. When I knock on the door and Ethan opens it, he sights down his thumb and says, "You're a sight for sore eyes." I have always liked Ethan. I remember their wedding, the white lace and silver bells that jangled like dog tags. They danced to Frank Sinatra and fed each other whipped poodle cake. Ethan adores my mother. He says that when he is near her he gets fluttery inside, as if he has doves in his stomach. My mother is happy about Ethan. She says he is a good lover.
I have been visiting my mother almost every evening; she is only an hour's drive away. When I enter her house, I am always amazed by how clean and neat it is. I do not know how she does it, how she finds the time to keep it that way. She says it helps with her allergies, keeping the dust down. I take off my shoes, but I fear my socks may be carrying allergens. I brush my feet at the door and sit at the dining room table. We drink raspberry coffee from large blue ceramic mugs. When I lift the mug I am surprised by its heaviness. "You will have so much time," I say. "What will you do?" My mother sets her mug on its saucer with hardly a sound. "Oh, I don't know, whatever comes along." I think about how I would like to see my mother in retirement, with lots of hobbies, watching reruns of the Rockford Files, picking blueberries, pruning her lilac bushes, promoting growth. But I am afraid this will not happen. I am afraid my mother will put her business in boxes and find she is an aimless stray dog, sulking in dark corners, squinting in the weakest of lights. "If you are going to retire," I say, "you'll need other pursuits -- a hobby, something to build you up." I suggest knitting or quilting, or even building model airplanes. When she laughs and says, "We'll see," I feel a sense of urgency knotting itself deep inside, reminding me that the unexpected is always near, like a shadow panting at the pale knob of my heel.
I wake up one morning to the sound of heavy rain. I look outside my window and see that the mountains are streaked with gray. They look old and tired, but they continue to rise up to meet the sky. I call my mother and she talks about the weather, says it is not in the forecast, this much rain. I tell her about the classes I looked into at the community college. "They have great stuff," I say, "like fly fishing and llama packing -- how about that?" When she does not speak, I struggle to find more to say. But my ability to look inward seems hampered, like I am trapped by the weather; it is difficult to see through the rain. I am pressing the phone so hard against my ear that it has begun to ache. I hear a harsh silence, followed by several sneezes; it is clear my mother's allergies have gotten worse. She says, "Really, honey, I'm looking forward to the leisure time -- long naps, eating, getting fat." I am surprised that she would consider doing this. I tell her it isn't healthy, it isn't reasonable, it isn't like her. It just isn't. When I'm done, I hear her breathing into the phone. The sound is light and elusive like dust. It is a sound that will rise up and meet her some day.
The weather has not cleared up by the evening, but I drive to my mother's house anyway. We sit at the table with our coffee and heavy mugs. Ethan is in the living room watching a John Wayne movie and a wrestling match, switching between the two channels. I know my mother has something on her mind. She takes a sip and I see the movement of her swallow, the soft apricot in her throat. I listen to the wind and rain through the walls; it is a lot of noise around my head. I have not touched my coffee, not since it burned my tongue. It is a harsh Colombian blend with a powerful acrid odor that has gone to my head. My mother finally says, "Honey, I went to a specialist. I had an allergy test." She says she is allergic to grasses, alder bushes, fireweed, house molds, and dust mites. She is also allergic to cats and dogs, especially dogs. She says, "I've suspected it for some time, but I wasn't really sure." I am not surprised by this, by the allergies, but it saddens me just the same. I find I am barely listening when she tells me what she can do to help with the allergies, like encasing her mattress and pillows in plastic to fight the dust mites. She says it isn't the mites but their fecal matter she is allergic to. "It's impossible to completely eliminate them from the house. I'll just have to accept them." I do not speak. Instead I listen to my own breath, a soft windiness past my lips that I am unable to turn into words. She continues, "Honey, I'm so glad I have you." She reaches for my hand and squeezes it. "You know, I can use your help, with the packing. I can't do it alone." Of course, this is not true; my mother can do her own packing. I begin to feel a tear budding beneath my lid. I know my mother is trying to involve me, to make me a part of her decision, and I appreciate this. As I look into her eyes, I notice something calming and peaceful about them, about the flecks of green -- in the way they glitter like star dust. They are my eyes, but not exactly. I have my father's eyes as well, and it comforts me in this moment to know I am a sliver of both, that I have continued where my parents left off. We sit, my mother and I, and listen to rain that sounds like pebbles on the roof, belonging to some greater venture, in our own small way -- like the smell of coffee, like a dog's life, like this passing rain.