In the mid 1920s, the Pruett women were a curiosity in my mother’s town of Shenandoah, Iowa. They rarely left their house; the curtains remained drawn in all seasons. In all the years since Mr. Pruett died, the only change they made from a year of wearing long black dresses was to wearing long, gray dresses with starched white collars buttoned to the throat. They wore their hair in tight buns, concealed by unadorned bonnets. When they left the house, they did so with the mother in the lead and her daughters clamped to her elbows, their heads held high, eyes straight ahead, lips drawn down into fine lines of secret disapproval.
When my mother was a girl in Shenandoah, people walked after Sunday supper, talked to their neighbors, and exchanged niceties. But when they passed the Pruetts’ house, they fell silent, and their eyes were drawn to the curtained windows and empty swing as if they might glimpse an unguarded moment: see the mother take a pie from the oven, spy a daughter at a dresser brushing her hair.
On one such Sunday, my grandparents and my mother came out for their walk to find a crowd had gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Pruetts’.
The mother and her two daughters were in their front yard. The older daughter was at the bottom of their porch steps next to a freshly dug mound of dirt. Her hair, long and full and blond, had come loose from its bun and hung over her shoulders and down the front of her dress, which was stained at the knees with dirt. She held a spade at her side. The other arm was thrown across her eyes.
The mother and the younger daughter were on their knees by the mound. The daughter’s hands covered her eyes and she wept loudly. Her mother had crumpled into a gray heap, as if she’d been crushed and cast beside the pile of dirt. Her wispy gray hair hung in long thin strands.
My mother and her parents joined the gape-mouthed neighbors at the edge of the Pruetts’ yard. Mrs. Pruett saw them first, straightened and composed herself enough to pull her youngest daughter close and smooth her hair, then turned. “It’s our cat.” She lifted her hands, palms up to the gathered congregation. “It’s our cat.”
The neighbors nodded, bowed their heads, and went away. After that day, Momma said the people of Shenandoah spoke when they passed the Pruetts on the street. And the Pruetts began to respond.
My mother told me this story long before my boyfriend died in a plane crash at 22, before I’d had any experience with grief. She explained that Mrs. Pruett asked her neighbors to understand, and they did. Their loss was personal; grief is universal.
I was in my forties, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She still managed to laugh occasionally, get her hair done, and play bridge with her friends, but I could see in her eyes, she thought only of the cancer.
“Try not to think about it, Momma,” I said one day when she forgot what she was saying and stared off into space. “Think of other things.”
She looked at me, tears welling in her eyes, and took my hand. “Try to understand, honey, this is my cat.”