Welcome to the first, free-to-read, Sunday Morning Transport story for September: A powerful story about family from Elizabeth Bear about what you keep, what you mend, and what you throw away . ~ Fran Wilde, Sept 4, 2022.
The Part You Throw Away
By Elizabeth Bear
My mother raised three daughters on a pink-collar wage. She never let a thing go to waste. Not a grain of rice, not a scallion end, not a sprouted potato. She spent hours unpicking a threadbare lavender alpaca cardigan, too outworn and too outgrown for even my littlest sister, Agnes. Mom made matching mittens and hats for all three of us girls. Her own hat was a spiral of rainbow scraps.
She hadn’t known how to knit.
* * *
Mom died too young, unexpectedly. The obituary said Anna is survived by her mother and her three daughters, and I saw on my grandmother’s face how it hurt to be left behind once more.
As the eldest, it fell to me to care for Mormor and to clean out their house. Because Mom could never waste anything, neither could I.
Their kitchen was the kitchen of people who had lived through financial crises, political instability, pandemic, war, and grinding poverty. The cabinets were stuffed with jars of beans, rice, pasta, and less familiar dry goods.
I couldn’t give most of them away. Food pantries won’t take salvaged marinara jars filled from bulk bins. And a big funeral with lots of food wasn’t in the cards because Mom died in a pandemic wave.
I fetched the broom from between the fridge and stove. While Mormor napped, I went outside to sweep the stoop. Mom might have been poor, but she was house-proud, and Bradford pear petals littered the walk. Cleaning always helps me think.
The chill, the sunlight, and the motion unlocked my brain. I could cook—for Mormor, for my sisters, Agnes and Amalia, and for Amalia’s partner and kid. I could trust my family to behave safely.
So. Call them home. Tell them to bring their work and their pets. We would stay as long as was necessary.
We would cook and eat what we cooked until it all was gone.
* * *
Mormor and I got to work while we waited. Mormor wasn’t spry, but she sat at the table while I pulled out food. I scrubbed the fridge. She sorted food into piles: throw out, use immediately, and good indefinitely.
There wasn’t much in the throw out pile except wizened grapes, dairy products, and an avocado that had seen the passing of its youth. The use immediately pile held more variety, including some stale rice from Indian takeout and an open can of coconut milk. I whisked those with some golden raisins and sugar and cardamom and a box of shelf-stable Swedish milk, then popped the mixture into the oven in one of Mormor’s mother’s casserole dishes.
I’d just brought Mormor coffee and some of the coconut cardamom rice pudding when the kitchen door opened and Amalia and Carol and their daughter, Abby, came in juggling suitcases and dog leashes and a cooler full of road snacks.
Daisy and Barkley clattered on untrimmed nails. Barkley leaned his massive chocolate-doodle head on Mormor’s lap. Daisy sat down—she didn’t have far to go—and looked up at me with beseeching basset hound eyes.
In that pose she bore an uncanny resemblance to the foam ramp she required to get up onto the sofa.
“Wow,” said Carol. “Something smells good.”
“Hi, Auntie Astrid!” Abby, eight, threw herself into my arms. This was a cue to the dogs to join the party. By the time I extricated myself from the yapping and squirming and wagging and wiggling, Amalia’d emptied the coffee into a mug for Carol, filled the machine, and started a fresh pot.
“Are we selling the house?” Amalia asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I might sell mine and move in here with Mormor, if that’s what she wants. If everybody is okay with it.”
Amalia’s mouth tightened. None of us liked coming back here: Mormor’s house was haunted with memories. Mormor and Morfar bought this house after the war. After Morfar died, Mom moved back in to take care of her mother.
Me and my father came with her; Agnes and Amalia were born here. My childhood, until I was fourteen and Amalia was about four, was replete with memories of violence.
Screaming. Thrown dishes. Being dragged around by my hair. He threw me down the stairs when I got in between him and Agnes. That was when Mormor and Mom finally got him out and made it stick.
Maybe the memories were on my face, because Mormor said, “I don’t want to inconvenience you, dear—”
“What’s for lunch?” Abby interrupted.
I patted Mormor’s arm. It was her house, hers and Mom’s. “Rice pudding.”
“Don’t ‘ew’ your aunt,” Amalia said.
Carol said, “Have you even ever had rice pudding? It’s sweet! Like dessert!”
Magic words. Abby plopped down at the table, big-eyed, clutching a spoon. She dug in enthusiastically. Amalia made her a cup of Bigelow peppermint tea—my mom never kept soft drinks in the house, except for seltzer and sometimes orange or grapefruit juice—and Mormor started cutting the bad spots out of an apple from the use immediately pile.
“Wait until she finds out about gjetost,” Carol stage-whispered. I laughed, remembering Carol’s expression when shefound out about gjetost.
I scooped more pudding. It did smell wonderful.
The door creaked, the worn old boards in front of it complaining. A cool breeze lifted my hair.
I said, “Hi, Agnes,” without turning.
I poured coffee for her with the empty hand, a task complex enough that I didn’t notice the falling silence. When I turned, I had just enough presence of mind to set the crockery down before it crashed.
It wasn’t Agnes standing inside the door while we all stared and Daisy and Barkley peered through Mormor’s legs like the ferocious guard dogs they were. It was a strange woman, her strawberry-blond hair wrapped into plaits bound with ribbons and pinned into a medieval veil. She wore an embroidered coverall dress over a blouse. Instead of buckles, the straps were fastened with large oval brooches.
She was as translucent as the window sheers.
* * *
She looked somewhat like photos of Mormor as a young woman—the high cheekbones, the center part, the pale skin and hair and eyes—but I’d never seen Mormor dressed like a Viking princess.
“Fylgja,” my grandmother whispered.
The ghostly woman smiled. Mormor stared, then tentatively held out the plate of pared apple.
The apparition ghosted a hand through the plate like a magician passing a hoop around a floating lady. Apple slices shimmered like stones underwater; Mormor shivered and said, “Oh!”
Nothing vanished behind the woman’s gesture, but when she drew her hand back, what lay on the plate was as withered, fermented, and spongy as if cut from a fruit that had hung on the tree all winter.
The Viking princess met my gaze and smiled. I slid the rice pudding and the black coffee across the counter.
Her hands passed over those, too, leaving the coffee cold and evaporated below a ring, the pudding gummy and feathered with mold.
The woman touched her glass beads in thanks. She turned and left again, opening and shutting the door very gently. That cool breeze followed her out. She left behind the smell of fog and the ocean.
Carol’s mouth hung open so wide, I half-expected my grandmother to make a comment about attracting flies, but Mormor just set the rotten fruit on the table and pushed it away to the length of her fingertips.
“Oh em gee, that was a ghost!” Abby squealed. A coil of mist evaporated off the floorboards into the morning light.
“We all saw that?” Carol asked.
Amalia put her hand on Carol’s shoulder and giggled with nerves. “Oh no, nobody saw anything at all.”
I said, “What did you call her, Mormor?”
“Was that her name?” asked Abby.
“It’s a kind of guardian spirit,” said Mormor, who knew about family history and Nordic folklore. She still made lefse every winter. “A family protector. Like a banshee in Ireland. Always women.”
“Like an ancestor,” Amalia said faintly.
Mormor said, “They can turn into animals.”
Under the table, Daisy whined. The door opened again. I screamed a little, but it was just Agnes, blinking with concern, a carry-on in her left hand. “Did I startle you?”
“Abby, would you mind taking this rotten food out to the compost heap?” I asked. “Agnes, you are not going to believe what you missed.”
* * *
The fylgja wasn’t the only visitor. Every meal brought us another ghost, sometimes several. I set additional places at the counter for them, plates of whatever we were having. They seemed as happy with beans and rice as they were with my mom’s famous stroganoff, of which the freezer was full. It tasted of tears when we ate it, if tears tasted good.
The first ghosts were dressed in a medieval style. Some wore rags, their feet wrapped in scraps tied into place with laces and stuffed with hay. Some wore gowns of velvet or shimmering silk. After them came men in doublets and hose and women in stiff skirts and bodices. Ghosts devoured Mom’s homemade egg noodles and mushroom gravy. They composted her finest sourdough. I baked pies with fruit from the freezer and pudding mix from the cabinet. Mormor made the pastry. While she had the flour and the rolling pin out, she also got the leftover potatoes and made lefse.
The ghosts were hungry and so were we.
They never threatened us. We treated them as guests, so I suppose they honored that. I don’t know our family history, but I do know hospitality was a sacred duty once.
By the time women in plain homespun or sprigged calico and men in breeches and coats appeared, we had worked through nearly everything in the upstairs fridge. We moved on to the big freezer in the basement, replete with ice cream and frozen Chinese buns and rising-crust, four-cheese pizza.
Mom had been saving leftovers. I’d given her those soup-cube things and the freezer bulged with bricks of applesauce, tomato sauce, risotto, eggplant parmigiana, curry. We found six pounds of Swedish meatballs, the gravy frozen separately—including the dill but lacking the sour cream.
More food, reheated and consumed as my sisters and niece and sister-in-law and grandmother and I went through the things in the house that could be sold or donated. It was a blessing having Amalia, the ruthless one, there to shake her head and say, “Pitch it.”
We took turns choosing things to keep.
I tried not to wonder if Mom would come. I tried not to plan what I would feed her. I tried not to hope for the chance to say goodbye. I didn’t mention the ache to my family. They had aches of their own.
Mormor didn’t mention that she had lost her only daughter.
We ate and drank and told stories and sorted through things Mom had saved because if you threw it away, you were sure to need it—old newspapers stacked carefully in boxes, worn-out blankets and socks organized in bins. Mormor decided that since she had help, all of her threadbare sheets and ratty cardigans could also go for recycling.
Nobody mentioned our father, but we talked and laughed about Mom and Morfar. Mormor told stories even I had never heard before, like the time she and Morfar got stranded in the Grand Canyon overnight on a mule ride gone horribly and humorously wrong.
(All the mules and humans made it back, and Mormor never went camping again.)
* * *
We worked through the grains and beans and spices in the cabinets. The visitors kept coming. Beards lengthened and smoothed away; hemlines crept up and down. We made oatmeal with dried fruit and nuts, kasha with eggs, knäcke with sardines and a layer of butter so thick, it held the marks of our teeth.
We worked together and held one another close and watched movies. We ran out of stories and had to talk about our feelings, which—for a family of Swedes—meant we’d been at it long enough to get a little punch-drunk by then. We served the ghosts. They were as polite as they were hungry.
* * *
We didn’t talk about it, but we all hoped to see Mom.
Morfar came, standing in the doorway in his old brown pants and busted-up boat shoes. His smile was even kinder than I’d remembered. I told my sisters and Abby who he was, while Mormor gave him her own cup of coffee and her own piece of tea ring.
He stroked her hair and she didn’t shiver.
We were almost out of Mom’s food. The cabinets were cleaned; the fridge had been scrubbed spotless and we’d bought new milk and eggs and salad things to supplement the dry goods. Amalia and Carol took bedding, small appliances, and fifty-year-old Revere Ware to the dump by the carload. While they were on their latest run, I opened cans of fruit salad for lunch. Humming to myself, I thought how good the kitchen looked with the junk cleared out of it.
The door opened, and I turned around, breathing lightness. “Mom?” I looked into a face I had been happy never to see again.
Agnes must have glanced up in the hallway, because she made a noise like an angry cat. Mormor, sitting at the table, turned around. “Oh dear.”
I had never before viscerally understood the expression “to be floored,” but in that moment I felt as if the whole world fell away under my feet and then came back up and hit them, hard.
Just inside the door stood the ghost of my father.
* * *
Abusers are like bad fairies. If you don’t invite them to the party, they’ll cause a scene, ruin a few friendships, and try to destroy your life. Do invite them, and they’ll still make your life hell, but at least they’ll do it in private. Nothing makes an abuser so determined to punish as their target attempting to sliver out space and freedom.
My father held out his hand, as all the others had.
I looked down at the canned fruit salad. Be nice to the bad fairy if you don’t want to prick your finger on a spindle and sleep for a hundred years.
“Henry, you know you’re not welcome here.” Mormor’s voice was tremulous but fierce. Her fingers clutched the kitchen chair.
The rim of the bowl was cool under my fingertips. I thought of Mom buying that same damn fruit salad when we were little, at the warehouse grocery store. Cheap, and right at—or a little past—the sell-by date. It was fruit and we ate it. Our father got steak. I looked down at the pile of cubes of peach and pear, cut green grapes, one single half of a maraschino cherry in each can. The syrup. So sweet.
“Are you going to give it to him?” Agnes moved up to stand behind me.
“Oh, I’m gonna give it to him.” I grabbed the broom from between the fridge and stove. “Watch out, Mormor.”
She stopped struggling to rise as I came around the counter, my fingers painful on the broomstick.
“Get out!” I yelled. “You’re not welcome here, and we’re sure as hell not feeding you.”
His transparent fingers curved, beseeching.
I took a deep breath. “I’m not letting you back in. It’s not your house, and it’s not your family. Mom never threw out anything the least bit useful, and she got rid of you.”
“Just give him the fruit,” Mormor said.
“I’m not giving him anything.”
I heard the front door open. Steps came down the hall behind Agnes. That would be Amalia and her family.
Abby. I could hear Abby singing to herself, tuneless and eight. The clatter of dog nails in the hallway.
My father turned toward the hall. Could he hurt Abby? Could he somehow hurt Agnes or Amalia or Carol? The pets? I remembered him throwing my cat against the wall. . . .
“Mom,” said Abby, coming to a halt in the doorway, “who is that?”
Mormor said, “You have to give him something so he can go. To honor and release him.”
“I don’t honor him.”
“I’ll do it.” Mormor grasped the table in one hand and the chairback in the other. Rocking back and forth, she levered herself up. Gnarled leg veins showed blue above the tops of her slippers.
“I don’t think giving that one anything will make him leave,” Agnes said. “He was always more of the ‘take a mile’ type.”
“I barely remember him,” said Amalia from the door.
Agnes’s fingers whitened on the handle of a box cutter. “You’re lucky.”
I hadn’t known he was dead. But I was glad he wouldn’t be hurting more people.
“Mormor,” I said, “protect Abby. Please let me handle this.”
“All right, dear.” She put her hobbled body between my father and her great-grandchild.
* * *
I chased him out of the house with the broom, sweeping him through the door, then sweeping him down the walk to the street. He whirled like a dust devil, clawing and slapping. I felt the cold of those blows, and the rank smell of rot that followed.
I didn’t let any of them land.
At the bottom of the walk, with a twirl of bristles, I slashed through the vortex and scattered my father’s ghost to the wind. It flew like dust.
I wondered what the neighbors were thinking.
I stood, panting. Leaning on my broom, bending the bristles. A sentry. The wind was just a ripple in the grass that needed mowing.
When I turned back, I saw someone framed in the doorway, looking out, holding the screen door open. She was silhouetted, but I knew her—I knew the angles of her arms, and the squareness of her shoulders. I knew the way the light caught that particular golden-brown color off her long wavy hair.
“Mom?” I stepped up the walk, broom almost forgotten. A great peace embraced me like the hush before dawn.
I was still five steps away when Agnes said, “No, Astrid, it’s me.”
I took hold of the door. She released. I stepped inside and leaned the broom against the wall. She stroked my hair.
“Come on,” my sister told me. “Lunch is ready.”
At the counter, Amalia set a place for Mom.
Thank you for joining The Sunday Morning Transport’s Journey this week!
Elizabeth Bear was born on the same day as Frodo and Bilbo Baggins, but in a different year. She is the Hugo, Sturgeon, Locus, and Astounding Award–winning author of around thirty novels and over a hundred short stories.
“The Part You Throw Away,” © Elizabeth Bear, 2022.
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Thank you for this story, so many times over.
Read this and burst into tears.