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The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 7
Fall 1998


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Hand Me Down: In Memory of Lois Yates

Kathenne M Schmidt, Universty of Nevada

Sounds of feet crossing the linoleum floor. The "zap" of the previously silent television. Channels turning. The Venetian blinds clapping upward. Bella opened her eyes to a room filled with morning light and waking patients.

"Good morning, Bella. Got the TV on for you."

She turned her head to the attendant who adjusted the strings of the window shades. She said nothing.

"It's a beautiful day outside," he said as he reached to the window crank. Turning its metal handle, he leaned forward and inhaled one long breath of cool air. "Just smell that. It's gorma' be another perfect day."

Bella watched him suspiciously. She pulled her bedding up to cover her shoulders and chin as the man turned to find that his white uniform had been marked by the dusty sill.

"See? I told you itd be perfect," he said grinning.

"And how you doin'today?"

Bella pulled her sheets higher. She looked to the others in the room. One woman rested on the edge of her bed as two others made their way out into the hallway.

The attendant rubbed his soiled shirt as he moved to the foot of Bella.'s bed. "Ready for breakfast?" he asked as he picked a small quilt up from the floor.

Again, she gave no reply.

'Well, when you're ready, you come on down to the dining room and Ill fix you up with some oatmeal." He leaned forward and gently touched her blanket-wrapped foot. 'We've got blueberries today."

He set the tattered quilt upon her bed. As he walked out into the corridor, she began to survey the room as if she had never seen it before.

Two years of residency meant nothing to Bella. Every morning marked the beginning of reacquainting herself not only with her surroundings, but with her life. The collaged walls of the room held photographs, cards, and drawings, none of which were familiar.

Bella.'s hands began to shake. She could barely keep hold of the bedcover.

Through tearing eyes, she looked to the brained picture which stood upright atop her own night stand: the woman . . . the man ... the children ... the house ... they were all strangers to her. And fear suddenly gave way to panic. Pushing the covers aside, she inched her legs to the edge of the bed. Her joints throbbed as she reached forward for the chair before her so that she might stand up. However, it rested just beyond her grasp.

Bella dropped her head forward and watched as tears dropped from the tip of her nose to her gown. And slowly, the steady drone of the television crept upon her. It voices and sounds came racing, flooding her ears with loudness and chaos. She scrambled for balance as waves of fright and confusion consumed her.

Taking hold of the cup on her table, she threw it at the talking box. And just at that moment, as she lifted her head and looked to her target, the plastic tumbler smacked the face of familiarity.

The screen held within its confines a woman. She stood with a green can in hand with her face to the sky. Sunlight all around. Rain falling. Hair thick with wetness. She takes a drink from the clear bubbly.

Bella. lifted the flute to her mouth and watched as the champagne trembled in time with her hand which held the glass. The great hall was like another world. Shadows swirled. Strewn with stars and ribbons, roses and pearls, this room gave glorious life to all by way of mirrored walls-the same face captured a hundred times. Music filled faces, lifted mouths to laughter, brought drinks to lips. Plates grew high only to fill mouths with their delicate fixings: sliced salmon, red peppers, potatoes, and caviar. At each table a bottle served as fire for the feast, for the men in their coats gathered and roared while the women grew warmwarm in heart, warm in mind, warm in youth.

A yellow-laced dress topped with bonnet scampered past shifting pant legs, squeezing between chairs, and took refuge beneath the table's cloth. As a few moments passed, another child, cloaked in blue, ran by with eyes wide and passed taking no notice of the cloth's swinging flap.

"You remember?" Bella's sister nudged her pointing across the room to the patent - leather shoes which seeped from beneath the white cloth. "Belle? Can you remember being so little?"

Bella cupped her hands, her smile bent behind trembling fingers. "I try.'

She watched the blue hunter race back and forth, the child's lips mouthing in time with the music, "Anastaaaassia-" And as minutes passed, both players grew tired: one turned with angry eyes to her mother while the other sprawled out face down beneath the table of flowers and vodka. The younger stood tugging at her mother's skirt, and with brief explanation the woman stood from her scat, approached the table, and, lifting the cloth, ordered the older sibling out. Taking the girl by the hand, she began back to where she had come with the yellow dangling helplessly behind her.

'Yes, Nadia. I do remember."

"Good," her sister replied. "Good ... good

. good, it looks like you're ready for breakfast"

Bella. looked into the attendant's face. "Oh, William. You frightened me for a moment."

He took her arm as she leaned forward and stood upright. "It's good to see you're feeling better."

Bella held William's arm tightly. Moving her mouth close to his ear, she whispered, "What's happening to me? I'm frightened. I'm losing control of my sense-making."

William lifted Bena's robe to her shoulders as she clumsily directed her hands into the arm holes. "Belle, you're all right. You just get these ... spells ... or lapses where you don't remember things too good. But I'm here. I'm taldn' good care of you."

William placed his free hand on her back and led her toward the door.

"My sister's dead. Isn't she?"

"She died a little over a year ago." He squeezed her arm and smiled. "She came in to see you a lot. Even made me a cake for

my birthday. She was always saying, William's our friend.' She was a good woman. A good sister to you."

"She is dead then." Bella felt comforted to know that Nadia was gone.

As the two shuffled down the hall, Bella leaned into William. Her mind was overcome with relief because he could help her to see things more clearly.

The dining room was empty. Nearly all of the residents had already finished their meals and had scattered about the recreation room. some were watching television, others were playing chess, one man was writing a letter, and several women had moved their chairs out into the sun-lit patio.

"How 'bout right here, Bell?" William released her arm and rushed ahead to pull the chair out for her.

As she lowered herself onto the seat, William opened the sliding window so that she could feel the mornings summer coolness upon her face.

Be right back with that breakfast for you."

As he started to the kitchen, Bella called to him. "Juice would he fine. Just juice.~

He said nothing and continued on to the kitchen.

Bella looked to the women who sat outside. They talked, they smiled, they stood to clip pieces from the orange bougainvillea which strangled the trellis. They were having a good day. They didn't appear to be frightened or confused. They looked normal to Bella.

By the piano, however, a man in his wheelchair was crying.

"Lawrence," Bella called. "What's the matter? Don't cry."

The man turned the wheel on his chair to face her. "I ... where's my son? Have you seen him anywhere? He's supposed to come. We're going to the game. I'm afraid hell forget again." He rubbed his face as his tears turned to a shiny cover on his cheeks.

"Here we are." William arrived with apple juice in one hand and a bowl of blueberries in the other. "I thought that we could compromise with this morning meal. Deal?"

Bella looked past William as he set the glass and the bowl on the table. She pointed to Lawrence and asked, "Have you seen his son anywhere? He's very upset.,

'You mean ole' Larry? He doesn't even got a son. No kids as a matter of fact. Don't You worry 'bout him. Try these berries. You ever see anything bluer?"

Bella became terrified. "He has no children?" She looked about the room. remember everything. I know where I am. know these people. I know, you, William. I know MY sister's dead. I know that I'm seventy-four." Bella continued orally recollecting every fact which came to mind.

"I remember Papa. Mama. The apartment on 5th Street. Nadia's wedding." She turned to him with frightened eyes. "I'm having a good day, William."

"Yes, you are. Now cat and then we'll get you out in the sun for a bit."

William walked over to Lawrence and spoke softly as he wheeled the crying man out of the room.

Bella pushed the berries and juice aside. She put her fingers up to the screen. "I know who I am." Her light lappings on the dusty mesh evolved into small circles on the glass panel of the open window.

The train shook as it began to move forward. Bella woke from sleep to find her sister's gloved fingers drawing figures in the windows frost. Her mother and father were sleeping on the opposite side of the car. Passengers were huddled closely to stay warm. And outside there were hordes of people fighting against the wind and falling snow. They chased after the train as it started forward on its tracks.

"Look Bella. All those people wanting to come with us. We're lucky you know."

Three new faces entered the car. Each was covered in a coat of white which fell off in pieces to the floor as they moved. Both the first and second man unwrapped their scarves from their mouths. They looked like those from Petrograd-light skin, dark half-circles beneath the eyes, faces thick with hair, husky statures. The third, however, revealed the face of the devil himself. Papa had told stories of the Japanese, a people with smooth faces and slanted eyes.

Bella whispered to Nadia, "Look." Without waiting for her sister's reply, Bella turned to watch as her father's eyes lifted to behold the stranger.

"Look, look, Nadia. He gives a seat to the bad man."

Nadia lifted her brows, as she often did subsequent to her lecture-giving. "Belle, that man's a Siberiac. Not all Russians look like us, you know. Don't be afraid. When you go to school, you'll learns lots of things that you never knew before." She discreetly pointed to her father. "See. Papa and Mama talk with him. He's Soviet.'

Bella sat silently staring at the stranger. She folded her arms across her chest as her feet dangled from the edge of the seat.

"Take off your shapka," Nadia instructed as she pulled a piece of bread from her coat pocket.

As Bella lifted the fur cap from her head,

Nadia placed the bread on her younger sister's lap. "Here. Eat and I'll do your hair."

Nadia pulled the ribbon from Bella's hair and began to comb the thick strands with her fingers. Bella nibbled the hard rye as her head bounced back and forth with each subtle tug on her hair. Nadia touched her sister's head tenderly, and she wove the long brown mass into one fine braid. Securing its end with ribbon, Nadia pushed the braid aside and ran her fingers along the scar on Bella's neck.

'I can barely see it anymore, Bell."

"Emm." Bella whipped her hair back and turned in her chair. She didn't like to give attention to her scar. She was embarrassed when others noticed, especially her family.

'You ready to see the Indians? The cowboys?" Nadia poked her finger into Bella's side. "Bang! Bang! They'll be everywhere. We might even have to hide in the trees 'cause they use their guns and bows so much." She was quiet for a moment, smiling. "Oh, and the gold and the apples. Remember what Uncle Borris wrote? Gold in the water. John Appleseed planting trees for everyone. Can you imagine? We can start all over and we won't ever have to leave."

Falling back into the large seat, Nadia watched as the large snow flakes hit the train window and quickly disappeared.

"No more rurming away."

Antanya's voice filled Bella's head. Her mistress had read Borris's letter to the two girls again and again, and every reading was just as wonderful as the last. However, no matter what Borris had written-no underwear, no shoes, painted faces. triangle houses, prickly silver on the backs of pointy boots, pants that only covered the man's front side—Bella could not fathom anything that was not Russian. To Bella, Indians and cowboys consumed vodka and wore rounded black boots, pantaloons, and bright smocks-no matter what the letters had said.

"Antanya. Where's Antanya? We didn't say 'goodbye."' Bella panicked, for it was the first time she had given thought to the fact that she would never see her friend again.

"She has her own family. She couldn't come. We had to leave so fast."

Bella climbed onto Nadia's lap. 'I miss her." Leaning her head against the cold window, she raised her small hand to touch her scar.

Bena had begged to go that day. The gram store m Petrograd appealed to her senses—to her imagination. As always, the store owner began packing wheat for Antanya, while Bella wandered to the sacks of seed. Rolling her sleeves high, she thrust her arms deep into the grain, diving in as far as her ruffled clothing would allow. The cool, chalkiness of the granules embraced her elbows, forearms, and hands as the seeds made their ways beneath her nails.

Outside of the store, the rumblings of a pronounced 'peaceful" protest had begun. Within minutes, the Tsar's men arrived and the chanting quickly turned to fighting.

Hearing the commotion, Antanya pulled Bella from the seed and began out the door.

The crowd was thick. People were scrambling and screaming. Nadia gasped for air amongst the dark coats, and just as she was about to lose Antanya's hand, a dish was thrown from above-by an onlooker perhaps-and it hit Bella on the back of the neck.

Nadia saw the accident as a God-send. It made Papa open his eyes for the first time.

Their mother had worried about their possessions: the factory and the house, the furnishings and the clothes, the toys and the jewelry.

"What does all that matter if we are dead, Katya? We will be forced to give up everything. I had heard my workers, but thought not much of their words. But now, with the Tsar's imprisonment ... we must get out or we not only lose all this, but we also lose our lives."

The train came to a stop, and again, outside hundreds of men, women, and children surrounded the procession of cars. Two uniformed soldiers were allowed to board. Seeing that there were no vacant seats, they asked the two girls for their places.

'You girls could fit right here on the floor. How about this hat for your seats?"

Bella looked to her father and mother, both of whom were sleeping. Turning her attention to the red star which decorated the military cap, she excitedly nodded "yes." As the two men took their seats, the negotiator placed the cap on Bella's head. With hat wobbling from side to side, Bella stood to salute the two men.

They laughed. "What a good little soldier you are ... a miniature soldier on our train ride ... do you ... do you want to come inside? Your face is getting a bit pink, Bella."

"How do you know my name? Did my sister tell you?"

"No, I know your name," Wilham answered.

"Leave me alone. Where's Papa?" Bella turned to see the three women across from where she stood. "It's so warm ... where's the snow ... are we here ... have you seen an Indian ... where's Papa?"

"Belle, let's go back inside," William urged.

No, leave me." She reached for the knitting bag which was laying on the patio floor, and she took a scat at the empty patio table at the base of the window.

William reached for the satchel. "Belle, that bag belongs to Margaret

"Leave me I said!"

And William did leave her alone, but he first turned to Margaret asking, "Do you mind if Bella borrows your bag? I U keep an eye on iC

The woman nodded.

Bella straightened her gown and patted her hair only to find that the braid was no longer there. "My hair's come apart. Nadia will have to do it all over again."

She meticulously picked at the pieces. Placing the bag on the table, she turned her chair so that she could see her hair in the window's glass.

"Oh, I'm so glad you're here. I don't think we're in Vladivostok yet. Look what's happening to my hair, Nadia. Will you braid it for me again?"

Her reflection gave no answer.

"Are you mad with me, Nadia? I was careless. Im sorry. Here." She turned her head away from the glass. "I'll let you feel my scar if you only please, please comb my hair."

Bella waited for a moment, and feeling no hand upon her neck, she returned her gaze to the glass.

"That's all right. We've got all the time in the world. You can't stay silent forever, Nadia."

Bella reached down and brought the bag to her lap. She folded her hands and sat back in the patio chair.

"Are you ready to go in, Bella?"

"In? In where? Can't you see that we're waiting for the train?" She clutched the

William crouched down and spoke in a soothing voice. "Belle, the train won't be coming for a while. Why don't we go inside where you can rest until it gets here."

"But Nadia," she said to the glass. "Nadia, do you want to go inside to wait?"

"She does, Bella. Look at her. She looks tired."

'Yes. You do look tired, sister."

William helped her to her feet.

They walked together to her room where she inched into bed.

I'll be right back," William said as he rushed out, immediately returning with a large, oval mirror. He moved the framed picture from her night stand and replaced it with the mirror.

knitting bag close to her chest. "The train should he here soon. Very soon."

Bella's eyes grew heavy as she watched him work, and as she beheld her own face upon the glass, she said, "Ah, there she is." She closed her eyes. "I love you, Nadia."

William leaned in and assured her, "Well both be here when you wake up. I promise. You rest well." He gently pushed the white hair from her face, left the room, clocked out, and drove home.

Bella belonged to a family of survivors, and she was the last to remain standing. For the remainder of her days, her history would be told to one man in a white uniform and the woman in the mirror-not a single soul more.

Reference Citation: Schmidt, K. (1998). "Hand Me Down: In Memory of Lois Yates." WILLA, Vol VII, p. 31-35.


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