Canister Cousins was never one to spend idle time reading novels or knitting afghans. Rather, she was one who enjoyed a brisk jog in the park, a swing at a softball or a half-hour in the gym pumping iron.
It’s not that Canister lacked a feminine side. Her impish smile and chiseled proportions spoke volumes of the woman’s girlish pride, as would Bon, her husband of twenty-seven years. And there were the kids: all twelve of them.
The oldest was Jack. His cherished photo held a prominent place on the Cousins’ mantle. He was a handsome boy, Canister thought as she wiped the dust from the photo’s frame. The tassel dangling from the square hat seemed fitting for the lad’s square jaw and firm smile. And there were other graduation pictures, each taking its place in line. Only the twins were missing, and their photo would be added come June.
Canister brushed a strand of hair from her brow and turned toward the kitchen. There was tofu and yogurt waiting in the fridge. A cup of soy milk — exactly one cup — would round out the noonday fare.
The mirror on the wall captured her image but for the briefest of moments. She paid it no mind, but hurried past the sofa and down the hall. Canister did everything in a hurry. It was just her way.
But this time she stopped. The moment of reflection in the mirror had conjured a memory from her mind. Again in the living room, she pondered the figure of the woman standing there: sweat shirt, blue jeans; long flowing hair that had always been her husband’s pride. And it was gray. Almost. There was still a hint of the silk raven strands that first attracted Bon back in high school.
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” she whispered every so quietly. “But I do believe in memories.”
Soft wrinkles lined her face. She welcomed them: a part of life, she said. Canister never cared for makeup. She wore it, but only on special occasions; more as a courtesy to others than for herself. Not that she was untidy. She just loved the natural state of things.
“Good to see you again.” To the whisper was added a smile. And she wondered why she had never greeted the memory before.
Sundown came and Bon was in the den watching football. The twins were in their room — at least she thought they were in their room — catching up on the night’s homework. Canister twisted the key that caused the coal oil to burn even brighter. A spring’s breeze sent the lacy curtains dancing, but only for a moment.
“I saw Mom today,” she wrote, then sat back to revisit the moment in her mind. The eyes, the hair; the hurried expression. They belong to me, she thought. That was me I saw.
“I saw her in the mirror, but not really. For briefest of moments when I saw my reflection I could have sworn I saw Mom. She looked nothing like she does now. Rather, she looked as I knew her thirty years ago, when she was my age. People often said there was a family resemblance.” She continued to write. “And so I thought, Where else do I see Mom? I see her in the way I talk, in the things I do; in the way I raised my children. What a strange thing to suddenly realize, after so many years, the impact one’s parents have on their lives. If it hadn’t been for Mom and Dad, I wonder…”
Canister took a deep breath and considered the lines of ink. I’ll write no more, she considered, then lay the pen on the desk. Gently, she closed the diary and placed it in the drawer.
Pasadena was a long way from Kentucky’s hills. It would be months before she would greet her mother at the airport, chat with her over a cup of hot green tea; snap more photos at the twin’s graduation. It would be months.
Canister lifted the handset and touched the numbers on the pad. It was only ten in California, she reasoned. Mom always stays up to read. She smiled. I guess there are some things she didn’t pass along.
The phone rang in a little house; its walls graced with photos; many were the same photos that held their place on the Cousins’ mantle.
And there was a voice, more frail that it had been in Canister’s memory.
Never in my 53 years of living on this planet have I ever met a person named “Canister.” As far as I know, the name doesn’t exist. And that’s why I chose to use it.
The challenge with this essay was to present the key character as both unique and ordinary. Her uniqueness was illustrated by combining an unusual name — both for the character and her husband — a love for healthy living, and an abandon of the norm (long gray hair, no make-up and unusually large family). The strategy was to make a bold statement: This is an individual, a single unit of living humanity; a one-of-a-kind person — just like you!
Her uniqueness would encourage the reader to wonder about her personality. Certainly one would wonder why a mother would chose such a peculiar moniker. To offer an explanation would deprive the reader of wondering. What's more, an explanation would be a cumbersome distraction.
Why was she writing with the light of a coal oil lamp while electricity, suggested by her husband’s TV football game, was clearly available? What past influences created this woman’s personality? In the end, the reader learned the impact of her parents.
But to deliver that impact, the reader needed to identify with her. And so they discover that, in many ways, she is not so different. She has a family, cares for them and ponders the important things in life. Just like you.
Canister Cousins is a personification of the reader.
And as always, I applied a generous dose of implication, never actually saying Canister lived in Kentucky or that Mom lived in Pasadena. Nor was there any direct mention of a burning lamp or a telephone. All were implied, encouraging the reader to indulge their imaginations.
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