Lorraine had always loved the crackling way the yellow leaves in the trees of her yard announced the fall’s arrival with a color so warm. She thought of herself, now, at sixty, like the leaves—a bit dry, but still warm, even as she faced the end of life.
She could never say this to her husband. Since her cancer, they couldn’t talk of death anymore. He used to say things like, “That man should be shot,” or “I’m gonna kill myself.” That was in jest, of course, but now it wasn’t funny.
So now it seemed the chemotherapy had worked and Lorraine had convinced Mitch he could return back to work in the chemistry department—“Better living through science,” she’d said, but he didn’t laugh— and the house was Lorraine’s again during the day. She could take her warm herbal tea out to her favorite place on the back porch and listen to the dying leaves all by herself and think of them, and herself, as similar things—dry, wrinkled, breastless, but still warm and beautiful.
This is what she was doing at ten in the morning on a November day when the phone rang.
“Mom?” It was her younger son, Steven. He had been married two years.
“I’ve got news about the baby.” Steven’s wife was pregnant.
“Nothing. Mom, listen, it’s just that we’ve learned that it’s gonna be a boy.”
“Oh, Steven,” she sighed.
“Yeah, I know.” Steven’s older brother’s wife, Dianne, had had a girl baby. It was no secret that Lorraine had wanted a boy. “So, I was thinking,” Steven continued. “I was thinking that maybe you want to give us those clothes you’ve been saving….”
“Yes, yes, of course!” Lorraine almost shouted. “You’re a good boy, Steven.”
Lorraine took her tepid herbal tea and poured it down the sink before changing into a t-shirt and jean overalls. So much for the contemplation of leaves and dying. There was life, new life, coming, and it was time to move from her place on the porch and get busy.
Once up in the attic, she started sneezing from the dust and had to come back down the stairs again to get an antihistamine. Then she started up the stairs again, armed with tissues and plastic bags and a knife.
She went to the first box labeled “Newborn” and opened it carefully with the knife, cutting the yellowed tape with the serrated edge. The clothes inside were first worn by her son Samuel, and then, three years later, by Steven, so the box had been unopened for thirty-three years.
And now the tiny clothes would be worn by her first grandson. The thought of it made Lorraine start to weep a little, so she grabbed a tissue to wipe her eyes.
When she opened them again, what she saw at the top of the box was a tiny yellow cardigan. It had been hand knit by Mitch’s mother for Samuel. It had an “S” sewn onto one of its tiny yellow pockets to make a place for the baby’s tiny hand. Mitch had joked that Lorraine named her next son Steven so that he, too, could wear this sweater. Perhaps he had been right. At the time, of course, Lorraine had snapped, in that way that mothers of two young children have been known to do, saying, “Don’t be such an ass.”
But Mitch had been right. Lorraine did love this sweater. It was knitted with angora, for softness, and virgin wool, for warmth. Lorraine herself could never knit—or sew or crochet or do much of anything that women of her generation were supposed to do– so this sweater, when her mother-in-law gave it to her, in the days before the first birth, was a kind of welcoming. A kind of acceptance. “You’ll never be me,” her mother-in-law was saying, “but you don’t have to be.”
When Lorraine learned that Samuel’s wife would be having a daughter, she was relieved. She hadn’t really wanted to give the sweater to her. At the time, Lorraine was not sure why.
But now as Lorraine rubbed the soft yellow knitting across her face, she suddenly remembered the last time Steven had worn the sweater. How could she have forgotten this? How could she have misplaced this memory?
Of course, people did forget things like this all the time. That’s how people continued going on, as she and Mitch did, over years and years of marriage.
It might have been the cancer that had cleaned out the cobwebs in the place of her memory, Lorraine thought. She had been sure, as Mitch sat by her side in the oncology ward, day after day, that she was going to die. All thoughts of regrets for the past—what had taken place or not taken place over the course of the marriage—were destroyed by the radiation.
It had been a beautiful fall, like this one. Mitch wanted to take her with him to a new place. He was giving a paper at the American Scientists Association Conference in New Orleans. “It’ll be romantic,” he had said, remembering the places they’d gone together before they had children.
Except now they had children. Two. Mitch’s mother offered to take care of three year-old Samuel, but since Steven was still breastfeeding, they would have to take him.
So, they went, the three of them, on a plane to New Orleans, for a romantic getaway. But Mitch was the one who could get away. He spent hours in the panel sessions, leaving Lorraine with a fussy Steven, saying, “Go see the sights. Take a tour.”
But it was hot. Hotter, in October, than their hometown was in the summer. Lorraine loved warm places, but this place was downright hot. And there were not enough leaves. Too many cypress and pine trees. Lorraine, already hot from the breastfeeding hormones, was not especially in the mood to take a city tour, particularly when she would have had to have one of her breasts partially exposed on the bus throughout the day.
So she spent her days in the air-conditioned hotel lobby. Every two hours and fifteen minutes, the scientists would come streaming out from the conference rooms, grab coffee and muffins like hungry refugees, and then rush back in to the next session. Not one of them spoke to her. Some would look, quickly, with a blank stare that showed they only saw “Wife” when they looked at her, or with a more embarrassed glance if they allowed themselves to register that her breast’s soft pale skin was revealed just above the yellow shoulder of the baby’s sweater.
On the third afternoon of the conference, an African American man came by and sat down next to her and Steven in the middle of a session.
“Nice and quiet here,” he said.
“Yes,” she offered.
“I just couldn’t take anymore of the pomposity,” he said.
“Oh?” Her eyebrows raised only slightly.
“Three days is quite enough, yes.”
“You’re a scientist?” she asked.
“Yes. Grant Ford,” he said, and for a split second she was not sure if he meant that this was his name or he was working on a grant sponsored by Ford. Many of these scientists, she knew, honestly cared more about the foundations that gave them grants than they cared for their own names.
He reached out his warm dark hand, and she met it with her own pale one, and gave him her name. “Lorraine Dixon.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Dixon.”
“Lorraine. Call me Grant.”
At the memory of his fingers wrapping around hers, Lorraine decided the attic was not the right place for this memory and took the yellow sweater downstairs to the kitchen and started heating water for another cup of tea.
“What’s your baby’s name?”
“Ah, I see the ‘S.’ It’s a lovely sweater.”
“My mother-in-law made it.” She knew she said it as a warning. It was meant to remind him that she was married.
But with the honest light of age upon her now, in her yellow kitchen, Lorraine could admit, as she poured the hot water over the bag of chamomile, that it was she herself who had needed warning.
“Lovely,” Grant said again, his eyes giving off hazel sparks. “My grandmother used to knit. Before she passed. I don’t know what happened to all those sweaters and blankets she made. I was in college then. Too young to know what was important to save.”
Lorraine nodded again, in the kitchen, just as she had then, at the wisdom of his statement.
“May I touch it?” he asked, extending his steady hand slightly.
“Sure,” she remembered herself whispering. The hot tea burned her tongue.
As his hand caressed her sleeping baby boy’s back, she found herself feeling wet, and before she knew it, her breasts had soaked the lavender blouse she was wearing, turning it a dark purple.
“Oh my,” he murmured.
She could not speak.
Lorraine walked slowly, moving from the kitchen to the living room and then up the stairs to the bedroom as, in her memory, they had walked together from the lobby to her hotel room on the second floor.
He took his place on the bed, freshly made by a stranger’s hands. He was waiting, as she put the still sleeping baby down on a soft recliner, pulled another chair next to it for a makeshift crib, and started to unbutton her blouse.
She undid the back of her bra, stretched and faded from months of breastfeeding, and her breasts came spilling out.
“Come here,” he said, in a low voice.
She walked to his place on the bed, as she was walking to the bed, now.
He took her breasts in his hands and held them to his face. Then he put his lips around the warm nipple of one, held his mouth in that place, gently, and then moved to the other. Milk streamed from both. He moved back and forth, sucking and swallowing, with his mouth, as his hands brought her hips up close to his body.
He moved back slowly and pulled her after him, tugging her skirt up as Lorraine was doing now, so that eventually she was sitting on his lap with her legs around him, and his fingers were between her legs as her fingers were now and he was continuing to suck and then she was, as she was now, moaning, and after her pleasure had moved in warm circles from the places he touched to the whole of her body, he lay her down gently upon the bed and covered her body with a warm blanket, as she was doing now, then he kissed her once more and left.
In the memory the baby slept and then woke, but there was no baby now, only the yellow sweater that, she realized with a slight start, she was still holding in her hands.
She would keep it, she decided. She had lost this memory for so many years and now she did not want to let it go. She folded the sweater carefully, patted its yellow softness, its warmth, its secret, and put it in the top drawer of her dresser, never to be boxed up or forgotten again.