Good Bones

Recently, Ricotta, named after the cheese but in a kind and loving way, and her mother moved into an old and friendly looking house along the highway. The house was the shape of the houses children draw when they are learning to draw houses:  a roof like a triangle sitting on a box, two windows and a door, and some flowers with loopy petals and pointed leaves. A pale yellow sun with lines for rays beaming down on everything.

The house had a small kitchen with a window that faced the floor of the valley (and not shown in the drawing).  Ricotta’s mother, whose name was Iris, would cook for hours on Saturdays and Sundays, the days she was not working. In two days she would cook meals for seven days: breakfasts, lunches, and suppers. Iris told Ricotta that she did this so they could save money to buy things they needed.  But another reason was that Iris liked to make things, especially things that Ricotta and she could eat.

Ricotta had heard others describe her mother as creative. She could tell by the sound of their voices and the looks on their faces that being creative was not always a quality to be admired.

When given the choice for her bedroom Ricotta had taken the one with just a small window near the ceiling. Her mother told her it probably had been a storage room with a high window to let out warm air and keep out too much light.  During the day Ricotta’s room was cool and quiet. The nights when the moon was large and in the right position, its light made a milky cover on her bed. With such a small high window, Ricotta knew that the creepers who peered into windows to watch children sleep would not bother with this room.

In the living room, a picture of Ricotta’s father was lined up with other family pictures on a narrow table. In a cap and uniform, he stared out from the frame. She could see the small wrinkles at the corner of his mouth, much like her own when she smiled. She imagined that he had been smiling either before the picture was taken or the smile was just starting when the photographer snapped the picture.

The other pictures were an assortment of babies and very old people, in color and in black, white, and gray, and men, boys, girls, women, dogs and cats, even a large bright tomato with drops of water caught clinging to its tight skin. She knew all the relatives’ names and what she didn’t know about them, she made up. Auntie Evie liked to dance (true) and as a child, had run away to join the circus to dance on the back of a galloping white horse (not true). Grandpa Orson was a ham radio operator and a collector of postage stamps (true) and during the Great Depression had been a hobo on the road, jumping into boxcars to make his way across the country, stopping at hobo camps to roast pieces of bread on sticks over open fires at night (not true).

Her mother’s bedroom was a perfect square, a corner of the house whose one window faced into the valley and the other toward the dirt road that connected their house to the highway. Because the room was bright and took in the morning sun, her mother said that they needed to cool it down. Her mother bought bamboo blinds that looked like the small matchstick mats used to tightly roll sushi. “It needs to be lavender,” she told Ricotta.

Their house perched at the mouth of a valley where cattle grazed and tourists visited to ride horses and bikes or to be taken up the steep hillside roads to stand against the strong trade winds as they looked down the coast and out to sea. Ricotta’s mother had told her that her father was on the other side of the ocean. When asked to draw her family, Ricotta drew an island with a palm tree and a woman and a girl. On the right side of the picture was a long strip of brown earth and a man waving in their direction.

The first weekend of summer after Ricotta’s second grade year, she and her mother painted Ricotta’s bedroom the color of butternut squash. The bedroom closet was remarkably deep, almost deep enough to be a room of its own. Way in the back, where hardly any light entered, Ricotta saw a hole about the size of a saucer. “Look at this, Ma,” she called. Iris walked in then told her to wait until she got the flashlight.  It was a hole all right, one that opened up to the space that is behind the inside wall and the one outside.

Ricotta had not expected to find a hole in her closet and she had never thought about what might be behind a wall. “What’s there?” she asked her mother. Iris moved the beam of light across the boards that were the frame of the house. If you’ve ever seen the frame of a new house before the walls go up, you are looking at the house’s skeleton. And that is what Ricotta’s mother said, “These are like the house’s bones.”  From then, Ricotta saw the house in another way.

Talk story

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