A Better Place

Photograph by Sarah Commerford All Rights Reserved 2016

My kids were always after me to paint our house the color of the sky. And because I could never say no, I did. It took me weeks to save up for the paint, and another month to get the job done. Painting isn’t rocket science though, just labor, and I have always liked working hard.

My father built our little camp in 1959, the year I was born. Every summer we’d pack up the car and drive from Boston to Milford for our family vacation. To me, it was going to the other side of the world. We held on to the property, even after my parents were gone, and in the late 70’s I moved there with my babies, shortly after my husband and I split up. I planted a perennial garden out in front, with stones I hauled in from the back field, along with daffodils. If you look carefully, you can see them along the edge of the garden. Shrubs and window boxes gave everything a settled feel, and in the back yard, there was plenty of room for my kids to run. We had everything we needed, and as small communities often do, our neighbors watched out for my family, welcoming us with offers to babysit, shovel our driveway, or help with odd jobs that might be too much for a single woman raising two young children.

I did the best I could with my daughter, Ella, but honestly, nothing I said or tried ever helped her for long. As mothers do, I begged, pleaded and even bribed her to follow rules and acquiesce, even just a little. I sought advice from family, friends, counselors, clergy and the police, but none of it changed a thing for good. By the time she was 15, she’d stopped going to school and one by one, her friends fell away. She slept more, and except for little moments of light, depression took a dull and permanent hold of her. Yet, every afternoon when I’d get home from work, she’d be waiting for me, right there on the front steps, cigarette in hand, her long dark hair cascading over pale shoulders, still in her pajamas. She was the kind of deep sad that makes a mother’s hopeful heart weary.

Ella died in our sky-blue house when she was 17. That was 20 years ago. There’s a lot of good that happened between the time we moved and my daughter’s death, but none of those things matter much as I look back, because from the day she was born, Ella chose her own hard path — some children just do. I tried to give her everything I had, and teach her about the world in a way that meant something lasting, but sometimes, people are taken from you as fast as a lightning strike, even though you almost always see it coming from miles away.

Lying on the floor of her bedroom in the back of the house, was the last time I saw her, a syringe still in her arm, paraphernalia scattered around her, along with the things girls treasure: glitter nail polish and pink slippers, her yellow flowered quilt, barrettes and her diary that remains packed away, locked and unread. People said that drugs took Ella — and I guess they did, even though it always seemed to me that she opened her arms to them like an eager hostess. Nothing could compete with the promises of relief they made her, even while clawing her body and soul to shreds from the inside out.

Right after we buried her, my son and I packed up and moved. I haven’t been able to sell the house, because I need to come back now and then to be near Ella. I no longer remember her voice, or how she smelled, but I will always know the places she was. More than anything though, it’s her dark and irreverent humor I hold onto; the way she made me laugh, even though I knew her cynical outlook never helped her happiness. She was smart, I can tell you that, and rarely accepted what others thought was perfectly fine. I always said she would have a made a fierce defense attorney, because she could argue and twist me around until I couldn’t remember what the problem was in the first place. That’s how she usually got her way. I simply gave in because I got too worn down not to.

In Ella’s eulogy, the minister said she was in a better place. I know my girl, and she would have challenged that statement as pure conjecture, and for once, I would have agreed with her. The only place she ever should have been, was right here on earth with me.

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