Bonnie Seeman, Teapot. Design: Online Auction.
Written by Elizabeth McCracken
My father was a college student when he met his first wife, and a college professor when he met his second, my mother. His first marriage produced the three distant grownups who visited my childhood home from time to time, a board of trustees who might one day decide my fate. They thought I was the lucky one. Then I grew up, too. My parents, when they were old, seemed like the sort of childless husband and wife who’d been married forever, fond and childish and devoted to fragile things: delft tiles, Italian coffee sets, blown glass, stained glass, teapots.
“The Great Man,” my siblings called my father. He was small for a great man, with a head like a thumbprint, and an insufficient beard worn as a prosthetic chin. My mother was bigheaded and wide mouthed, like a beautiful hand puppet, by which I mean not particularly beautiful. Photographs of the two of them looked like a trick of perspective. He seemed miles away. She loomed.
By college professor I mean, her college professor. “To be honest, I barely noticed her when she was my student,” he always said, as though that made it a better love story, beginning, as it did, in innocent education. In those days she had a white forelock in her dark hair. These days, too, though now she dyes the rest of her hair to maintain it.
They loved each other; they traveled. My father, an artist, was pained by art museums, already full up, no place for him (though sometimes he dreamt of coming across one of his own paintings in a vast museum, attributed to somebody famous, an early bright abstract he’d forgotten painting but recognized at once). He preferred maritime museums. He loved figureheads particularly, with their round breasts and bright painted nipples and eyes turned to God. Look up, he sometimes thought at his wife, my mother. She only ever looked back.
She herself liked the stately houses of Europe and England, where you walked from Tudor portraits to Van Dykes to Gainsboroughs until you reached a living room with contemporary photographs arranged on credenza and realized the family still lived there: that was a modern baby chewing on a plastic toy, a rich baby whose parents had to raise funds by allowing people to come through the house six days a week. It costs money to live in the past.
My mother was still young when my father died of old age. It had been he who assembled the slide shows, who hosted the dinner parties and drank until he was legless as a mermaid, legless as a figurehead. It had been he who wrote the end-of-year newsletter and e-mailed it to everyone in his address book, with a jovial apology to uninterested recipients.
She couldn’t travel without him. All she could do was stay home, and turn the family photographs towards the visitors. String up ropes between brass stanchions. Let the house do the talking. Cupboards flung open in the kitchen, as was his wont. The bathroom with its reglazed tub, now white, though if you craned your neck you could see minty 1940s green at the bottom, where his antic buttocks rubbed. She preferred showers. Of all the people alive on earth only she knew what he had looked like naked. The same was true of him, for her, when he was alive.
She’d thought people would come for my father’s paintings, or for their vast and fragile holdings. But it was only ever the one teapot, tall and rubescent.
Not every place was roped off. You could walk all around the bed, see the pinecones she’d laid out on his side of the bed so nobody could alight.
She sat on the porch dandling a black tin box with a hinged trefoil handle, and charged admission. The local paper wrote an article and people paid and walked through the house. She’d thought people would come for my father’s paintings, or for their vast and fragile holdings.
But it was only ever the one teapot, tall and rubescent. In some lights it looked entirely vegetal—rhubarb, radicchio, radish—and in other lights like a colony of sea hedgehogs, or anatomy: sinew, pennate muscle, aponeurosis. Something alive and private. He’d brought it back for her from a rare trip he’d taken alone.
I’d read an article about charismatic megafauna—your polar bears, your lions, your puffins all over Icelandic rocks. Things people travel for. The teapot was like that. It moved around the house. By itself? With help from a ghost? It was in the middle of the round dining room table, dappled by chandelier light; in the center of the mantelpiece; at the front of the china cabinet with its body pressed against the glass.
People wanted to touch it. There was no white card with a description or provenance or a warning. This was not a museum. It was somebody’s house.
There was nothing supernatural about it. Nothing morbid. It did not move, it was not haunted. My mother, who was haunted, moved it. It was merely, always, a beautiful thing, brutal, ugly, upsetting, a comfort, a work of art, meant for use, by which I mean love.
When my half siblings came, my mother tallied them on her handheld counter and took their two dollars apiece. They wanted the teapot.
“Everything was left to me,” she said.
“We grew up with it,” said my older half-brother, who was about my mother’s age.
“You couldn’t have,” said my mother. “It’s always been mine.”
They left. They were used to my mother explaining that they were entitled to nothing. This despite the truth: their mother had made the teapot. She’d become a professor, too, but far away at a small college, and she, too, had died, but before old age. A ceramicist, interested in breakable things, everyone’s interest sculpted by her. Her children didn’t want to say. The position it would put my mother in. She might smash it. She might fill it with my father’s ashes and throw it in the sea. If they waited long enough they could inherit it, or I would. All things you deserve will come to you, my father always said. We never knew whether it was a promise or a threat. We could only wait.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of seven books: Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, The Giant’s House, Niagara Falls All Over Again, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Thunderstruck & Other Stories, Bowlaway, and the collection of short stories The Souvenir Museum. You can find her rather often, entirely too often, really, on Twitter.