The Middle Drawer

Mike Disfarmer, [Two unidentified women], circa 1940.

The drawer was always kept locked. In a household where the tangled rubbish of existence had collected on surfaces like a scurf, which was forever being cleared away by her mother and the maid, then by her mother, and, finally, hardly at all, it had been a permanent cell — rather like, Hester thought wryly, the gene that is carried over from one generation to the other. Now, holding the small, square, indelibly known key in her hand, she shrank before it, reluctant to perform the blasphemy that the living must inevitably perpetrate on the possessions of the dead. There were no revelations to be expected when she opened the drawer, only the painful reiteration of her mother’s personality and the power it had held over her own, which would rise — an emanation, a mist, that she herself had long since shredded away, parted, and escaped.

She repeated to herself, like an incantation, ‘I am married. I have a child of my own, a home of my own five hundred miles away. I have not even lived in this house – my parents’ house – for over seven years.’ Stepping back, she sat on the bed where her mother had died the week before, slowly, from cancer, where Hester had held the large, long-fingered, competent hand for a whole night, watching the asphyxiating action of the fluid mounting in the lungs until it had extinguished the breath. She sat facing the drawer.

It had taken her all her own lifetime to get to know its full contents, starting from the first glimpses, when she was just able to lean her chin on the side and have her hand pushed away from the packets and japanned boxes, to the last weeks, when she had made a careful show of not noticing while she got out the necessary bankbooks and safe-deposit keys. Many times during her childhood, when she had lain blandly ill herself, elevated to the honour of the parental bed while she suffered from the ‘auto-intoxication’ that must have been 1918’s euphemism for plain piggishness, the drawer had been opened. Then she had been allowed to play with the two pairs of pearled opera glasses or the long string of graduated white china beads, each with its oval sides flushed like cheeks. Over these she had sometimes spent the whole afternoon, pencilling two eyes and a pursed mouth on each bead, until she had achieved an incredible string of minute, doll-like heads that made even her mother laugh.

Once while Hester was in college, the drawer had been opened for the replacement of her grandmother’s great sunburst pin, which she had never before seen and which had been in pawn, and doggedly reclaimed over a long period by her mother. And for Hester’s wedding her mother had taken out the delicate diamond chain – the ‘lavaliere’ of the Gibson-girl era – that had been her father’s wedding gift to her mother, and the ugly, expensive bar pin that had been his gift to his wife on the birth of her son. Hester had never before seen either of them, for the fashion of wearing diamonds indiscriminately had never been her mother’s, who was contemptuous of other women’s display, although she might spend minutes in front of the mirror debating a choice between two relatively gimcrack pieces of costume jewellery. Hester had never known why this was until recently, when the separation of the last few years had relaxed the tension between her mother and herself – not enough to prevent explosions when they met but enough for her to see, obscurely, the long motivations of her mother’s life. In the European sense, family jewellery was Property, and with all her faultless English and New World poise, her mother had never exorcised her European core.

In the back of the middle drawer, there was a small square of brown-toned photograph that had never escaped into the large, ramshackle portfolio of family pictures kept in the drawer of the old break-front bookcase, open to any hand. Seated on a bench, Hedwig Licht, aged two, brows knitted under ragged hair, stared mournfully into the camera with the huge, heavy-lidded eyes that had continued to brood in her face as a woman, the eyes that she had transmitted to Hester, along with the high cheekbones that she had deplored. Fat, wrinkled stockings were bowed into arcs that almost met at the high-stretched boots, which did not touch the floor; to hold up the stockings, strips of calico matching the dumpy little dress were bound around the knees.

Long ago, Hester, in her teens, staring tenaciously into the drawer under her mother’s impatient glance, had found the little square and exclaimed over it, and her mother, snatching it away from her, had muttered, ‘If that isn’t Dutchy!’ But she had looked at it long and ruefully before she had pushed it back into a corner. Hester had added the picture to the legend of her mother’s childhood built up from the bitter little anecdotes that her mother had let drop casually over the years.

She saw the small Hedwig, as clearly as if it had been herself, haunting the stiff rooms of the house in the townlet of Oberelsbach, motherless since birth and almost immediately stepmothered by a woman who had been unloving, if not unkind, and had soon borne the stern, Haustyrann father a son. The small figure she saw had no connection with the all-powerful figure of her mother but, rather, seemed akin to the legion of lonely children who were a constant motif in the literature that had been her own drug – the Sara Crewes and Little Dorrits, all those children who inhabited the familiar terror-struck dark that crouched under the lash of the adult. She saw Hedwig receiving from her dead mother’s mother – the Grandmother Rosenberg, warm and loving but, alas, too far away to be of help – the beautiful, satin-incrusted bisque doll, and she saw the bad stepmother taking it away from Hedwig and putting it in the drawing room, because ‘it is too beautiful for a child to play with.’ She saw all this as if it had happened to her and she had never forgotten.

Years later, when this woman, Hester’s step-grandmother, had come to the United States in the long train of refugees from Hitler, her mother had urged the grown Hester to visit her, and she had refused, knowing her own childishness but feeling the resentment rise in her as if she were six, saying, ‘I won’t go. She wouldn’t let you have your doll.’ Her mother had smiled at her sadly and had shrugged her shoulders resignedly. ‘You wouldn’t say that if you could see her. She’s an old woman. She has no teeth.’ Looking at her mother, Hester had wondered what her feelings were after forty years, but her mother, private as always in her emotions, had given no sign.

There had been no sign for Hester – never an open demonstration of love or an appeal – until the telephone call of a few months before, when she had heard her mother say quietly, over the distance, ‘I think you’d better come’, and she had turned away from the phone saying bitterly, almost in awe, ‘If she asks me to come, she must be dying!’

Turning the key over in her hand, Hester looked back at the composite figure of her mother – that far-off figure of the legendary child, the nearer object of her own dependence, love, and hate – looked at it from behind the safe, dry wall of her own ‘American’ education. We are told, she thought, that people who do not experience love in their earliest years cannot open up; they cannot give it to others; but by the time we have learned this from books or dredged it out of reminiscence, they have long since left upon us their chill, irremediable stain.

If Hester searched in her memory for moments of animal maternal warmth, like those she self-consciously gave her own child (as if her own childhood prodded her from behind), she thought always of the blue-shot twilight of one New York evening, the winter she was eight, when she and her mother were returning from a shopping expedition, gay and united in the shared guilt of being late for supper. In her mind, now, their arrested figures stood like two silhouettes caught in the spotlight of time. They had paused under the brightly agitated bulbs of a movie-theatre marquee, behind them the broad, rose-red sign of a Happiness candy store. Her mother, suddenly leaning down to her, had encircled her with her arm and nuzzled her, saying almost anxiously, ‘We do have fun together, don’t we?’ Hester had stared back stolidly, almost suspiciously, into the looming, pleading eyes, but she had rested against the encircling arm, and warmth had trickled through her as from a closed wound reopening.

After this, her mother’s part in the years that followed seemed blurred with the recriminations from which Hester had retreated ever farther, always seeking the remote corners of the household – the sofa-fortressed alcoves, the store closet, the servants’ bathroom – always bearing her amulet, a book. It seemed to her now, wincing, that the barrier of her mother’s dissatisfaction with her had risen imperceptibly, like a coral cliff built inexorably from the slow accretion of carelessly ejaculated criticisms that had grown into solid being in the heavy fullness of time. Meanwhile, her father’s uncritical affection, his open caresses, had been steadiness under her feet after the shifting waters of her mother’s personality, but he had been away from home on business for long periods, and when at home he, too, was increasingly a target for her mother’s deep-burning rage against life. Adored member of a large family that was almost tribal in its affections and unity, he could not cope with this smouldering force and never tried to understand it, but the shield of his adulthood gave him a protection that Hester did not have. He stood on equal ground.

Hester’s parents had met at Saratoga, at the races. So dissimilar were their backgrounds that it was improbable that they would ever have met elsewhere than in the somewhat easy social flux of a spa, although their brownstone homes in New York were not many blocks apart, his in the gentility of upper Madison Avenue, hers in the solid, Germanic comfort of Yorkville. By this time, Hedwig had been in America ten years.

All Hester knew of her mother’s coming to America was that she had arrived when she was sixteen. Now that she knew how old her mother had been at death, knew the birth date so zealously guarded during a lifetime of evasion and so quickly exposed by the noncommittal nakedness of funeral routine, she realised that her mother must have arrived in 1900. She had come to the home of an aunt, a sister of her own dead mother. What family drama had preceded her coming, whose decision it had been, Hester did not know. Her mother’s one reply to a direct question had been a shrugging ‘There was nothing for me there.’ Hester had a vivid picture of her mother’s arrival and first years in New York, although this was drawn from only two clues. Her great-aunt, remarking once on Hester’s looks in the dispassionate way of near relations, had nodded over Hester’s head to her mother. ‘She is dark, like the father, no? Not like you were.’ And Hester, with a naïve glance of surprise at her mother’s sedate pompadour, had eagerly interposed, ‘What was she like, Tante?’

‘Ach, when she came off the boat, war sie hübsch!’ Tante had said, lapsing into German with unusual warmth, ‘Such a colour! Pink and cream!’

‘Yes, a real Bavarian Mädchen’, said her mother with a trace of contempt. ‘Too pink for the fashion here. I guess they thought it wasn’t real.’

Another time, her mother had said, in one of her rare bursts of anecdote, ‘When I came, I brought enough linen and underclothing to supply two brides. At the convent school where I was sent, the nuns didn’t teach you much besides embroidery, so I had plenty to bring, plenty. They were nice, though. Good, simple women. Kind. I remember I brought four dozen handkerchiefs, beautiful heavy linen that you don’t get in America. But they were large, bigger than the size of a man’s handkerchief over here, and the first time I unfolded one, everybody laughed, so I threw them away.’ She had sighed, perhaps for the linen. ‘And underdrawers! Long red flannel, and I had spent months embroidering them with yards of white eyelet work on the ruffles. I remember Tante’s maid came in from the back yard quite angry and refused to hang them on the line any more. She said the other maids, from the houses around, teased her for belonging to a family who would wear things like that.’

Until Hester was in her teens, her mother had always employed young German or Czech girls fresh from ‘the other side’ – Teenies and Josies of long braided hair, broad cotton ankles and queer, blunt shoes, who had clacked deferentially to her mother in German and had gone off to marry their waiter’s and baker’s apprentices at just about the time they learned to wear silk stockings and ‘just as soon as you’ve taught them how to serve a dinner,’ returning regularly to show off their square, acrid babies. ‘Greenhorns!’ her mother had always called them, a veil of something indefinable about her lips. But in the middle drawer there was a long rope of blond hair, sacrificed, like the handkerchiefs, but not wholly discarded.

There was no passport in the drawer. Perhaps it had been destroyed during the years of the first World War, when her mother, long since a citizen by virtue of her marriage, had felt the contemporary pressure to excise everything Teutonic. ‘If that nosy Mrs. Cahn asks you when I came over, just say I came over as a child,’ she had said to Hester. And how easy it had been to nettle her by pretending that one could discern a trace of accent in her speech! Once, when the family had teased her by affecting to hear an echo of ‘puplic’ in her pronunciation of ‘public,’ Hester had come upon her, hours after, standing before a mirror, colour and nose high, watching herself say, over and over again, ‘Public! Public!’

Was it this, thought Hester, her straining toward perfection, that made her so intolerant of me, almost as if she were castigating in her child the imperfections that were her own? ‘Big feet, big hands, like mine,’ her mother had grumbled. ‘Why? Why? When every woman in your father’s family wears size one! But their nice, large ears – you must have those!’ And dressing Hester for Sunday school she would withdraw a few feet to look at the finished product, saying slowly, with dreamy cruelty, ‘I don’t know why I let you wear those white gloves. They make your hands look clumsy, just like a policeman’s.’

It was over books that the rift between Hester and her mother had become complete. To her mother, marrying into a family whose bookish traditions she had never ceased trying to undermine with the sneer of the practical, it was as if the stigmata of that tradition, appearing upon the girl, had forever made them alien to one another.

‘Your eyes don’t look like a girl’s, they look like an old woman’s! Reading! Forever reading!’ she had stormed, chasing Hester from room to room, flushing her out of doors, and on one remote, terrible afternoon, whipping the book out of Hester’s hand, she had leaned over her, glaring, and had torn the book in two.

Hester shivered now, remembering the cold sense of triumph that had welled up in her as she had faced her mother, rejoicing in the enormity of what her mother had done.

Her mother had faltered before her. ‘Do you want to be a dreamer all your life?’ she had muttered.

Hester had been unable to think of anything to say for a moment. Then she had stuttered, ‘All you think of in life is money!,’ and had made her grand exit. But huddling miserably in her room afterward she had known even then that it was not as simple as that, that her mother, too, was whipped and driven by some ungovernable dream she could not express, which had left her, like the book, torn in two.

Was it this, perhaps, that had sent her across an ocean, that had impelled her to perfect her dress and manner, and to reject the humdrum suitors of her aunt’s circle for a Virginia bachelor twenty-two years older than herself? Had she, perhaps, married him not only for his money and his seasoned male charm but also for his standards and traditions, against which her railings had been a confession of envy and defeat?

So Hester and her mother had continued to pit their implacable difference against each other in a struggle that was complicated out of all reason by their undeniable likeness – each pursuing in her own orbit the warmth that had been denied. Gauche and surly as Hester was in her mother’s presence, away from it she had striven successfully for the very falsities of standard that she despised in her mother, and it was her misery that she was forever impelled to earn her mother’s approval at the expense of her own. Always, she knew now, there had been the lurking, buried wish that someday she would find the final barb, the homing shaft, that would maim her mother once and for all, as she felt herself to have been maimed.

A few months before, the barb had been placed in her hand. In answer to the telephone call, she had come to visit the family a short time after her mother’s sudden operation for cancer of the breast. She had found her father and brother in an anguish of helplessness, fear, and male distaste at the thought of the illness, and her mother a prima donna of fortitude, moving unbowed toward the unspoken idea of her death but with the signs on her face of a pitiful tension that went beyond the disease. She had taken to using separate utensils and to sleeping alone, although the medical opinion that cancer was not transferable by contact was well known to her. It was clear that she was suffering from a horror of what had been done to her and from a fear of the revulsion of others. It was clear to Hester, also, that her father and brother had such a revulsion and had not been wholly successful in concealing it.

One night she and her mother had been together in her mother’s bedroom. Hester, in a shabby house-gown, stretched out on the bed luxuriously, thinking of how there was always a certain equivocal case, a letting down of pretense, an illusory return to the irresponsibility of childhood, in the house of one’s birth. Her mother, back turned, had been standing unnecessarily long at the bureau, fumbling with the articles upon it. She turned slowly.

‘They’ve been giving me X-ray twice a week,’ she said, not looking at Hester, ‘to stop any involvement of the glands.’

‘Oh,’ said Hester, carefully smoothing down a wrinkle on the bedspread, ‘It’s very wise to have that done.’

Suddenly, her mother had put out her hand in a gesture almost of appeal. Half in a whisper, she asked, ‘Would you like to see it? No one has seen it since I left the hospital.’

‘Yes,’ Hester said, keeping her tone cool, even, full only of polite interest. ‘I’d like very much to see it.’ Frozen there on the bed, she had reverted to childhood in reality, remembering, as if they had all been crammed into one slot in time, the thousands of incidents when she had been the one to stand before her mother, vulnerable and bare, helplessly awaiting the cruel exactitude of her displeasure. ‘I know how she feels as if I were standing there myself,’ thought Hester. ‘How well she taught me to know!’

Slowly her mother undid her house-gown and bared her breast. She stood there for a long moment, on her face the looming, pleading look of twenty years before, the look it had once shown under the theatre marquee.

Hester half rose from the bed. There was a hurt in her own breast that she did not recognise. She spoke with difficulty.

‘Why … it’s a beautiful job, Mother,’ she said, distilling the carefully natural tone of her voice. ‘Neat as can be. I had no idea … I thought it would be ugly.’ With a step toward her mother, she looked, as if casually, at the dreadful neatness of the cicatrix, at the twisted, foreshortened tendon of the upper arm.

‘I can’t raise my arm yet,’ whispered her mother. ‘They had to cut deep … Your father won’t look at it.’

In an eternity of slowness, Hester stretched out her hand. Trembling, she touched a tentative finger to her mother’s chest, where the breast had been. Then, with rising sureness, with infinite delicacy, she drew her fingertips along the length of scar in a light, affirmative caress, and they stood eye to eye for an immeasurable second, on equal ground at last.

In the cold, darkening room, Hester unclenched herself from remembrance. She was always vulnerable, Hester thought. As we all are. What she bequeathed me unwittingly, ironically, was fortitude – the fortitude of those who have had to live under the blow. But pity – that I found for myself.

She knew now that the tangents of her mother and herself would never have fully met, even if her mother had lived. Holding her mother’s hand through the long night as she retreated over the border line of narcosis and coma into death, she had felt the giddy sense of conquering, the heady euphoria of being still alive, which comes to the watcher in the night. Nevertheless, she had known with sureness, even then, that she would go on all her life trying to ‘show’ her mother, in an unsatisfied effort to earn her approval – and unconditional love.

As a child, she had slapped at her mother once in a frenzy of rebellion, and her mother, in reproof, had told her the tale of the peasant girl who had struck her mother and had later fallen ill and died and been buried in the village cemetery. When the mourners came to tend the mound, they found that the corpse’s offending hand had grown out of the grave. They cut it off and reburied it, but when they came again in the morning, the hand had grown again. So, too, thought Hester, even though I might learn – have learned in some ways – to escape my mother’s hand, all my life I will have to push it down; all my life my mother’s hand will grow again out of the unquiet grave of the past.

It was her own life that was in the middle drawer. She was the person she was not only because of her mother but because, fifty-eight years before, in the little town of Oberelsbach, another woman, whose qualities she would never know, had died too soon. Death, she thought, absolves equally the bungler, the evildoer, the unloving, and the unloved – but never the living. In the end, the cicatrix that she had, in the smallest of ways, helped her mother to bear had eaten its way in and killed. The living carry, she thought, perhaps not one tangible wound but the burden of the innumerable small cicatrices imposed on us by our beginnings; we carry them with us always, and from these, from this agony, we are not absolved.

She turned the key and opened the drawer.


Hortense Calisher was born in New York City in 1911, and died there ninety-seven years later. Her prose has been considered neo-realist, and her work often focuses on failure and isolation within the family structure. The Middle Drawer was first published in 1948, and has been republished in Vestoj with the kind permission of her descendants: her son Peter Heffelfinger and grand-daughter Mimosa Spencer.