When I was ten years old, I came across a note written in some kind of secret code. It contained a series of lines: some short, others long and wavy. Some were just dashes and dots.
My mom was big on notes. I found them all over the house scribbled on napkins, scrap paper, the back of torn cereal boxes, and bits of paper so small they were often mistaken for trash and thrown away. The notes were a sort of roadmap of our daily life: Take out trash. Pay phone bill. Dr. Breiter 2:00 pm. Edith stopped by. Marie called.
The climate of my childhood home was changing. Storms were brewing along with the morning coffee. My mom, usually upbeat, was now mercurial. If she misplaced her reading glasses or the car keys, she’d get teary-eyed. She was becoming secretive. I’d overheard whispered telephone conversations to my aunt or her friend, Marie. She and my father fought almost every time he was home – which wasn’t much to begin with. Before, an occasional tempest would blow through, whereas now, the sense of discord was always present in the background, like white noise.
So, this note, scribbled in secret code, took on great importance. Was the note a silent confrontation to my dad, asking him who he was with, accusing him of something she couldn’t bear to say out loud? Were my parents splitting up?
“What’s this?” I asked Mom, holding the secret note in my small hand.
“Oh, that’s just shorthand.”
“So, you wrote that? What does it mean?”
“Well, that’s my business, not yours, Chicken Little.”
Mom learned shorthand at a vocational high school for secretarial training. After graduating, she landed a job as the secretary to a bank president. It was hard to fathom her having a job and a life before our family. I imagined her boss summoning her to his office, yelling, “Take a letter!” She’d jump up with her steno notebook and pen in hand, looking professional in her pencil skirt and crisp white blouse.
Now, her work clothes consisted of an apron tied over her sleeveless cotton shirt and pedal pushers. She wore this uniform when she cooked or cleaned or paid the bills. I looked into her eyes, which seemed so sad, wishing that I could find some glimmer of understanding or hope, something that would let me know that everything was going to be okay.
I never did discover the meaning of the note, or the many others I later found, left in plain sight on an end table or on my mother’s dresser.
That year, several months before my eleventh birthday, my father left to start a new family with another woman.
Mom is 95 years old now, and she’s still writing. Her notes are written in a shaky, arthritic hand and always in plain language that I can read and understand. Now her notes declare, Today is Saturday, August 3rd or Took morning pills at 9:32 a.m. She logs lists of people who have come to visit or called on the phone. It’s never that long.
On a recent visit, I found an old stenographer’s notebook in a drawer but Mom couldn’t read anything. I could tell she was frustrated as her mind tried to work out what those old friends of hers, the lines and dots and dashes, were trying to say. Finally, she gave up. “I used to be so good at this,” she said wistfully. She looked down at her hands, the skin wrinkled and thin, revealing every vein, and her fingers, crooked and crippled with arthritis. I glanced at her many notes on the coffee table. One stood out. It was written on a blue post-it in her shaky hand and read, Most all of my friends are gone; only me and Marie are left.
I wish so much she had written it in shorthand.
Donna M. Magnotta is a writer whose essays have appeared in Westchester Magazine, Sasee and Harrison and Mamaroneck Life. She belongs to a multi-cultural, multi-generational group of memoirists, called The Literary Godmothers. When she’s not writing, she works at her day job assisting a teacher with a room full of precocious five- and six-year-olds or can be found in her kitchen covered in flour and confectioners’ sugar. She lives and writes in New York.