Somehow, when I was growing up, I neglected to get the full story of how my mother met my father. You could ask why it wasn’t the other way around: how he met and pursued her. But it didn’t happen that way at all, and if you had known him, you would understand why. He was not a man who was capable of pursuit. He was a man who only knew how to love. And my mother, a profoundly private person – while still giving and generous to all who knew her — I think wished to protect that part of him from all scrutiny, including from her own children.
I knew it had something to do with an animal, but I didn’t know exactly which one. Because there had always been so many of them around our home and family. Pensive, conversational Rhode Island Red hens who, generation after generation, had the wisdom to get the roosters to perch on the outside, so the raccoons would take them first. A drop calf now and then, that grew into an 800-pound friend that always had to have her ears scratched. Goats that stood on the chicken house roof when it was time to milk them. And a pig or two that loved holes with water in them, so they could romp and splash and squeal and carry on in the heat of summer.
It was none of these. I know, because I asked her about them – albeit at twenty-five year intervals. But she was always cagey. She brought such inquiries to a swift conclusion. I’ll tell you when it’s the right time, she would say. Not now. Not while your father’s alive. But when he died, and she went on living, I forgot to ask again, and another twenty-five years went by. And then it was too late.
Not too long ago, an ancient aunt of mine died, at the age of 96, and her daughter found a book: “David Copperfield,” by Charles Dickens. With my father’s name written on the first leaf. In my mother’s hand, with the words: “To the man who loves me so well.” And then the date: 1962, when my father was also 62. And then my mother’s name: “Elizabeth.”
Yellowed and pressed between the pages of that novel – this much I do know, it was always my father’s favorite book – was a short manuscript written by my uncle Ed, my father’s devoted younger brother, who died many years before my father. At the top of the first page was a note: “For their children, when the time is right – and when I have Elizabeth’s permission.” And then the text, in the measured, if no longer steady, hand of a man who had already had more than one stroke.
This is the text of that manuscript, the one in our Uncle Ed’s trembling hand, otherwise impossibly neat, for us – our parents’ children – explaining how they met, our mother and our father, and told without our mother’s permission. The friend referred to, the “travel writer,” is none other than my own father.
“He was a man who looked good with a cat under his arm.
The trouble was his propensity for wearing them on his head. Some say this was because he lacked so much hair. He didn’t really do it that often. More on festive occasions. Once it was other things. A goose, white with an orange knob where the beak met the skull. Once an otter that had come up the stream, climbed the small plank dam, and entered the pond. It was a young one, ill with an infection, from a bite to the head by our domesticated Canada goose, who did not tolerate innocence. Mr friend, the travel writer, nursed the young otter, befriended it, coaxed it out of its wildness, and eventually – and this is the truth that I’m telling you, whereas before I took some leeway – so eventually this otter and my friend’s delights coincided, and the otter rode – his favorite place – with his hind feet splayed out, one on each shoulder, his forepaws across my friend’s bushy blond eye brows, and its warm belly draped over my friend’s bald and otherwise usually chilly head.
This is how my friend came to meet his wife Elizabeth, the great beauty of our town, whom men in suits and with education and shining cars and clever language traveled miles to visit and impress and court, to the extent she would let them.
It so happened that one day my friend went on a trip – to the neighboring large city, took the ferry, he rode the tram and, dressed in his best clothes – a shapeless tweed jacket, dark slacks, and the blue shirt with the least fraying around the edges of the collar – entered a well-known theater. Holding a lump of something in a raincoat he had brought along, he seated himself and watched “The Importance of Being Earnest,” by Oscar Wilde.
The play brought much laughter from the finely dressed, elegantly poised audience: the men with broad, confident, indulgent grins; the women with their long necks, strings of pearls, and hair piled stylishly but not too primly on their heads. If you had sat behind my friend, who was enjoying himself immensely and laughing along with the rest of the audience, you would not have been able to tell him from all the other women, because he too would seemed to have been simply another woman with her hair piled fashionably on top of her head.
It so happened that Elizabeth had gone to the same play in the same city, escorted by a man of stature, income, wit, and breeding, and was sitting two rows and directly behind my friend. The laughter had affected everyone, and people turned to each other, shaking their heads and remonstrating that the situations in the drama were just too funny. Perfect strangers exchanged warm, even defenseless smiles and appreciation – when a small cry appeared between the moments of laughter, punctuated the space between two spoken lines. A woman cried out, a muffled shriek I suppose it was, commotion and pointing, heads bending toward each other to confirm what had been seen – a strange animal climbing down from a man’s head and then reappearing, peeking backward over the man’s shoulders, first this side then the other and once, it seemed, looking straight at Elizabeth, who, it turned out, loved animals and especially otters.
Her escort snorted and said, Did you see that? That man is very strange. The things people do to get attention. Parrots on their shoulders, and so forth, but this is really obnoxious. At the intermission, Elizabeth and her escort – his name was George and I am told he is not a bad fellow – moved toward a table and bought wine – red wine for Elizabeth and white wine for George, and watched people and talked. But the whole time Elizabeth watched for the man with the otter. She did not see him, nor did she see him after the play. At the posh delicatessen where the after-theater crowd went, she didn’t see him either. On the ride home she didn’t mention him. She listened to George. She tried to pay attention to what he was saying but she found it difficult. She declined to go to his home in the country not too far from our town. She did not return his call the following day and put him off for several days with various excuses that would seem plausible and in a manner that she could barely explain to herself.
George fell silent, punishing her, she was sure. She was relieved. Again she did not know why. The following weekend, declining all invitations, she spent time by herself. She took walks, visited an old schoolmate, a woman who was an artist and a very good one, and they enjoyed themselves, drinking a whole bottle of Merlot, sat in mottled sunlight, listened to the rustling poplars, walked together in the growing shadows, and finally parted.
Elizabeth strolled through the town and past the local theater group, who were performing Shaw’s “Man and Superman,” and on an impulse she went in. The play was nearly over. She asked if she could just watch the last bit of it and was given permission. The actors were not professionals, and yet, as is often the case, they seemed fresher and more alive. They delivered their lines with great skill, and she regretted not having come earlier. She was glad to be alone, enjoying the play, the humble building and stage, the phenomenon of small town drama, and being with the kind of people who could relish Shaw and not have to wear suits and pearls and drive shining cars and make glittering conversation.
In the middle of this appreciation, this moment of thankfulness, she felt a tug on her jeans. She was sitting in the back row on the right, on the center isle. She looked left, then down. An otter stood on its hind legs with its front paws on her knee, and the friendly bright curious face was looking up at her and seemed, she thought, to be smiling at her.
She sensed the person coming toward her. I’m sorry, he whispered, reaching over and lifting the otter and cradling it in under his arm. I’m really very sorry, he whispered again. You really don’t have to be, Elizabeth whispered back. I saw you in San Francisco, I think.
The Importance of Being Earnest? he said. It was not only a question, it was the beginning of a conversation, a fact not lost upon a large woman in the row in front of them, who turned part way around and said, Please!
Elizabeth stood up and walked out through the door to the lobby, with my friend and the otter, under his arm, following. He, my friend, and the otter, too, Elizabeth told me later, seemed to be smiling the same smile as they approached her.
And Elizabeth said something very simple and truthful. She said, You look good with an otter under your arm, and from that moment on they were together and have, I can attest, carried many kinds of animals under their arms and, when the occasions warranted, on their heads as well – and only with less frequency when they began to carry their children in those places, who – I have always been convinced – learned that position through the imitation of animals they had seen riding there before them.”
That was my uncle’s text. But story is not quite over. Years after the first stroke, that took my mother’s speech, and after many succeeding smaller ones, that paralyzed her right arm and shoulder. And long after she appeared to no longer recognize her children — including me, it seemed, I was summoned by the nursing home staff to my mother’s side. It was about 3 AM on a Monday morning in April, in the midst of our apple blossom period. It had been no more than a month since my Uncle Ed’s manuscript had come into my hands. My mother lay on her back, shriveled and small and, as far as I could see, uncomprehending.
I sat with her, holding her good hand, which she held in a fist, I supposed, because of another small stroke. I cupped it with both my hands, and we sat that way, watching each other – her eyes clouded from cataracts, mine from lack of sleep. I must have dozed off at one point. I felt a tugging, and I brought my head up with a jerk. She was trying to move her lips, and then whatever effort she was about became – unmistakable – a smile. And her good hand, her left one, opened slowly, as slow as dawn, as slow as apple blossoms in the hills around us. Her hand opened and my cupping hands opened with it.
And on her palm – that leathery center – lay a small, smooth, carved stone animal – an otter – no bigger than half a thumb. I picked it up and held it and turned it, and then did as I had been trained over so many years to do – through imitation, I agree – placed it on the top of my own balding head and kept it there to her quite clear delight and toothless old smile – until, after some minutes and tugs at my hand to show her pleasure, her hand began to relax in mine and her old smile – I mean the one I’ve always known –changed, and she grew serene. And I returned the otter to her palm, pressed it into its rightful place, and watched as the old good hand slowly closed back over it, until her eyes – still watching mine – were calm, and finally still.
4 thoughts on “An Otter for a Hat”
Sterling, what an exquisite wonderful story! Truly special. You capture the love between your parents so well–and in such a respectful way. And the otter-story is just incredible! What a character your father must have been! Hilarious and just wonderful that he loved animals that much. Had such a big heart. Thank you for sharing this personal story of revelation!
Thanks, Michaela! The Press Democrat printed this story, some years ago. On an Easter. Your comment brings up an old dilemma: the close connection of fiction writing to lying! And how in the world the Reader is to distinguish the one from the other. How she is to know what is autobiographical and what is made up. There is no reason she should know one from the other, if the yarn is tall enough to suspend disbelief! So please forgive me when I tell you that the story was fiction. The elements that are true, apart from that, are: my father loved my mother, she lived to be very old, I love animals, I believe a woman (or man) can choose a good man, one member of a couple may be the stronger chooser but not necessarily anymore loving than the other, and my mother protected the privacy of their love. So, one could argue – in defense of lying – if these things are true, then the story is true. Although it’s fiction! The Press Democrat subtitled it: “A Sonoma County resident remembers his mother.”
That’s a good read
Thanks, Jenny. Couldn’t have a better critic!