The Last Full Measure of Devotion

This summer, I have taken time to go through boxes of old writings and drafts of projects. I came across the story and "The Stolen Child of Ben Madigan" (posted 17 July 2020), and thought I would bring them to light. 'The Last Full Measure of Devotion" is, of course, a phrase from The Gettysburg Address and defines absolute commitment to ideals: a willingness to die for them. This story is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Connecticut. At the time, I was thinking about commitments to ideals and commitment to the ideal of family as evidenced by the love for its members. I was also thinking about the darker, other, texts in families.

“Your grandmother taught me how,” the mother pronounced from the char-encrusted cave in which she had roasted one every greasy, not very merry, Christmas turkey a month before. Never had it taken her this long to clean up after Christmas; her husband’s retirement had gotten in the way of her usual routine. Things waited. He was gone today, and this was her chance to get her work done--quite possibly the only time she would have for a long time. Only the back of her was visible to her daughter from the recess of the oven.
“Gram taught you how to shoot? What for?” The daughter lifts the green Connecticut State Firearms Permit application from the kitchen table and leans it against the basket full of fruit her father’s new fat-free diet requires. She sits back in the mother's chair and crosses her arms across her slight chest. The mother’s body wiggles with the vigorous post-holiday scrubbing of the oven, and the activity deafens her to the daughter. From the mother's chair the daughter asks again, “Why did Gram teach you to shoot, Mom?”
The dim sunlight on this gray winter day forces itself through the lace of the new nets the mother put up before she started on the stove--just before the husband had left for town, and just after, for pleasure, he had stood on the back porch and shot at squirrels with a pellet gun, which was after the breakfast she had made for him: two eggs over hard, crisp bacon, and a crisp, cold English muffin.
"(3) A person responsible for the maintenance of order...or a person acting under his direction, may use reasonable physical force when and to the extent that he reasonably believes it is necessary to maintain order, but he may use deadly physical force only when he reasonably believes it is necessary to prevent death or serious physical injury."
“Not your grandmother; my grandmother. Nan. When I was twelve.” The mother pulls her head out of the oven, throws down the rusted and diminished steel wool pad onto a bit of newspaper, and reaches for a new one. Grease is splattered on the blue-and-white bandanna protecting her clean hair from the reality of the day, her blue jeans, and her faded smiley-face sweatshirt that had belonged to her favorite uncle many years ago. She looks at her daughter for the first time today: “Are you going out?”
“No, Mom. Why?”

“Only time I ever see you in the sweater I gave you on your birthday is when you’re going out.” She sits back on her heels and wipes the sweat from her cheek before she leans back into the oven.
“No. Just thought I would put on something decent for a change.” The daughter reaches down and pulls her slack socks up from the aging loafers that had once belonged to the mother. “Maybe try to look like a person.” In truth, the daughter lost all interest in how she presented herself to others after surviving a random gun attack in the city a few months before. She had taken it well at the time--didn’t even scream--even as the woman sitting opposite her in the taxi bled all over her. Nobody, in fact, screamed. But the daughter came home, and there she was trying to look like a person.
“Looks nice on you.” The mother sticks her head back in the oven.

“Why’d Great Gram teach you to shoot?”

“Wait a minute. I can’t hear you in here. Would you fix me a cup of coffee, and I’ll be right out?” The mother scrubs stubbornly at the center of the oven.

The daughter rises and prepared the mother’s coffee with its excess of milk and sugar and places it with her cigarettes and matches beside the stove and beneath the fan that will suck the smoke well away from the daughter’s weak chest. The daughter pours herself a cup, too, and returns to the mother's place.

The mother rises from the cave of the oven and pulls the yellow rubber gloves from the veined, gnarled fingers they had protected. The gloves land with a slap beside the rusting steel wool pads on the floor. She takes her seat on the stool beside the stove. “I thought I told you that?”

“No, Mom. You never mentioned anything about being able to shoot.” The daughter takes an apple from the well-laden basket and rubs it on her clean new sweater.
“I was twelve, and it was just after I lost my eye.” The mother pauses to light her cigarette. The daughter knows about the eye. Her mother and her friend Marian had been playing in their neighborhood in Darien when a group of little boys came along and started to tease the mother’s friend. The boys took Marian’s baby carriage and dolls and called her names. The mother was the older of the two girls, so she told the boys they were nasty bullies and thieves, and they should run along, or she would fix them right. In response, the boys lifted stones and threw them at the girls. One lodged itself in the mother’s right eye and destroyed it.

“Nan wanted to teach me to shoot, but your grandmother said, ‘No. She can’t. She’s half blind.’ But Nan won that battle, and she taught me how to shoot at targets. I did pretty good, too. Nan was proud of me. She kept all the paper targets; I brought them all back to her.”

“You never told me that."

“I just want to see if I can do it again. That’s all. It was my idea. Not your father’s.”

Her father’s idea. The daughter remembers when she was young and the father would pick arguments with the mother; the noise of his voice would escalate until the crescendo: “That’s it, woman!”, and he would go upstairs and open his dresser drawers and then make a big, slow, loud deal about opening and closing the drawer that held the gun that had once belonged to one of the mother’s long-since-dead relatives. The daughters, each in her own little room, would wait for the shot, would imagine their mother’s blood everywhere, would anticipate their father’s announcing to them that their mother had lost her life.

That’s it, woman.

Once, this daughter climbed into her bedroom closet and called the police to come and save her mother before it was too late. They did. After, her father said to her mother, "That was your daughter called the cops on me." Silence. She remembers. She holds her breath.

The mother’s grandmother could shoot--was, in fact, prepared to kill to protect her three children after World War I. Rumor ran through Glenbrook one day that the Germans planned to invade, and they sent out scouts in hot-air balloons. The daughter’s great-grandmother and great-uncles ran to their mother, who hid them in a tiny attic room that housed the household help from time to time. Their mother loaded and cocked her rifle as she raised it through the attic window, in line with the oncoming hot-air balloon. The mother placed her delicate first finger--the one that more often than not poised her paint brush against a bit of velvet or canvas--against the trigger just as the wind turned the balloon slightly and revealed the stars and stripes of the United States of America. The mother lowered her gun; the children returned to their play.
“I won’t bring guns into the house. I just want to go try it. See if I can still do it.” The mother shrugs. “I used to be able to, too.”

“OK, Mom.”

The mother crushes the half-smoked cigarette against the ashtray, pulls her gloves back over her thick fingers, and kneels in front of the dirty cave before initiating another round of scrubbing. “I just want to see if I can,” she says with a smile for her daughter. “That’s all.”

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