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The Mother Who Stayed


About The Book

In nine strikingly perceptive stories set miles and decades apart, Laura Furman mines the intricate, elusive lives of mothers and daughters—and of women who long for someone to nurture. Meet Rachel, a young girl desperate for her mother’s unbridled attention, knowing that soon she’ll have to face the world alone; Marian, a celebrated novelist who betrays the one person willing to take care of her as she is dying—her unclaimed “daughter”; and Dinah, a childless widow uplifted by the abandoned, century-old diaries of Mary Ann, a mother of eleven.

The Mother Who Stayed is an homage to the timeless, primal bond between mother and child and a testament that the relationships we can’t define can be just as poignant, memorable, and inspiring as those determined by blood. Tender and insightful, Furman’s stories also bravely confront darker realities of separation and regret, death and infidelity—even murder. Her vividly imagined characters and chiseled prose close the gap between generations of women as they share their wisdom almost in chorus: Although our lives will end, we must cherish the sanctity of each day and say, as did Mary Ann ages ago, “I done what I could.”


The Eye

The grape arbor was a square open to the sky with tangled vines for walls. There was no breeze, no sound but the sun crackling in midday fullness and the hum of bees at work. An hour had to pass before the girls were allowed to swim, so they lay in the grape arbor, waiting. When it was very hot, Rachel Cantor’s mother had told her, the best thing was to lie still and let the heat leave your body, but Rachel had the beginning of a summer cold and to her ears the bees in the viney walls sounded dangerous. She asked, “Where’s Mom?”

“Don’t bother her,” Betsey Ziegelman said. “She’s with my mom.”

“They’re talking,” Katie Ziegelman said.

“They’re always talking,” said Leah, Rachel’s older sister.

Much later, when they were in their twenties, the Ziegelman sisters became famous for their politics. Betsey went underground and never emerged, and Katie wrote a book about her missing sister. Leah Cantor became a criminal defense attorney, though she had nothing to do with her childhood friend.

The vines moved the tiniest bit from side to side.

Rachel stood up; the sky shifted in a sickening way, and she touched her head.

“What’s wrong now?” To Leah, any complaint of her sister’s was a trick to get attention.

Rachel told her feet to move; through the prickly blades of grass, she felt the earth. With each step she listened for Leah or the Ziegelman girls to call her back.

In between the arbor and the white house with dark shutters Rachel passed the garage with bays for six cars. Harris Ziegelman, Betsey and Katie’s father, kept his 1936 cream-colored Buick convertible polished and in perfect shape. Once in a while he’d invite all the children for a ride, allowing them to fill the rumble seat. When they started down the long driveway, the children were free to stick their heads and arms outside the car.

Eva Cantor was on the patio with Helen Ziegelman, saying, “Everything turns out okay in the end. It’s awful now, but to tell the truth—”

She spotted Rachel standing with one foot on the slate patio and one on the lawn.

“Sweetie,” she said. “I thought you girls were resting after lunch.”

“My head hurts.”

Eva opened her arms and said, “Poor you. Poor Rachel’s getting a summer cold.”

“They’re the worst,” Mrs. Ziegelman said.

Rachel lay down next to her mother on the chaise longue, closed her eyes, and moved her leg so that her foot dangled over her baby sister Emma, who slept in a basket nearby.

“Don’t squirm.” Eva pulled Rachel’s leg in and held Rachel against her, cupping her forehead.

“Poor you,” she said, not to Rachel.

“You mean poor Scotty,” Helen said. “At least I can afford . . . But—what a mess.”

“I feel terrible for your girls,” Eva said. “But they’re strong.”

“There’s not a thing I can do about it except—nothing.”

“This too shall pass,” Eva said. “You don’t know what the future will bring.”

When her mother spoke that way, which she did often, Rachel was reassured in her belief that the future was a place—like the general store where they went for the Sunday paper and five pennies’ worth of candy—only no one knew how to get there.

“You’d think he’d think,” Eva said. “With so much at stake. Your life together. The children . . .”

Mrs. Ziegelman laughed.

“Eva, you’re a naïf.”

Rachel fell asleep to the sound of their voices, and Helen picked up her camera. Eva’s lipsticked mouth was a dark shape against her tanned skin. Her hair fell in waves, one point of her white shirt collar hidden by the sweater resting over her shoulders. Her sunglasses reflected Helen as she held the camera. When Eva was long dead and she herself very old, Helen told Rachel she’d never known a woman so happy in her life as Eva Cantor.

Every year, when summer came, the Cantors moved to the country; so did the Scotts and the Ziegelmans. During the week, Sam Cantor and Ellison Scott worked in the city, and they arrived on Friday nights at twilight, their seersucker suits rumpled, their breath perfumed by the gin-and-tonics they’d consumed on the train.

Harris Ziegelman didn’t work in the city in the summer; he had business in the country, the business of being rich, Sam Cantor said. When Rachel asked her father about the Ziegelman money, Sam said that they wouldn’t talk about it anymore.

Summers, the Cantors lived in a brown-shingle farmhouse with a blueberry field on one side and a brook on the other. Their land extended into the woods to a crooked old fencepost; it was a patch compared to their neighbor’s dairy farm or the Ziegelman land that went on for miles.

The Scotts had a cabin by a lake, with a bedroom for the parents and a loft where the children slept. The one time they came to the country for Thanksgiving, the Scotts stayed with the Cantors because their place had no insulation. “It’s like camping,” Mr. Scott said, “like pioneering,” and it did remind Rachel of a diorama she’d made in a shoebox, of a house in Colonial America.

The Ziegelman house with its many rooms was the center of social life; the dining room was big enough for all of them at Thanksgiving, and there was a living room no one went into all summer. Once night came, the grown-ups gravitated to the den with its stuffed bookshelves and knotty pine paneling, and the chintz-covered furniture with its familiar sags and lumps. On warm nights the grown-ups spilled onto the patio, filling the world with their drinks and cigarettes, their eternal talking and laughing.

The Ziegelmans’ cook came with them to the country, a stout, white-haired woman named Jocelyn who always seemed to be on duty, preparing the next meal, providing cookies and glasses of juice when the children trudged up the hill from the pond, wrapped in towels, their lips blue. She warned them not to drip on the kitchen floor. “Back outside! Strip off your suits,” she’d tell them, pointing to the clothesline by the door.

This particular summer, each family had a new baby. The Cantor baby was Emma; Lily was the new Ziegelman. The Scott baby was redheaded like his mother’s mother, like his two brothers. Baby Lily had a young nurse, and often when the children came into the Ziegelman kitchen after swimming, the baby was on her nurse’s lap, and the nurse would say, “We’re having our delicious cup of tea.”

A few times each summer, all the children had a sleepover. In someone else’s house everything was different, even the night sounds. That’s how possessive the children felt in the country. Their birds. Their frogs.

On the winding road to the train station, Leah held the baby in her arms in the front seat while Eva drove. Rachel stretched out on the backseat of the Studebaker; the clouds passed in a blur between the lacy crowns of the trees. Eva was worried about being late, so they arrived before other cars with mothers and children took the best places in the parking lot. It was their custom at the station for Leah and Rachel to parade up and down the platform waiting for the train to make its monstrous entrance. This time Leah went alone, and Eva held the baby in her arms and watched Leah while Rachel stayed in the car. Eventually, the parking lot was filled, the train came roaring and clattering, and the men crossed the gravel between the tracks to the children and women on the platform.

Her father’s voice was like velvet as he leaned his head into the car, saying, “Where’s Rachel?” Before she could sit up, he was taking the baby from Eva and saying, “Here she is. Here she is, sweet baby Emma.” He swung the baby up to the sky and she called out in her bird voice.

“Oh, Sam,” Eva said.

When Rachel sat up to make room for Leah in the backseat, her parents were in each other’s arms, the baby squashed between them. Rachel noticed that her parents were handsome only when they were together; apart, they were collections of familiar flesh, a wave of dark hair, brown eyes looking her way.

“Mom, sit with me,” Rachel said.

“I’m up front with Emma and your father,” Eva said. “Leah’s with you.”

“She’d better not make me sick,” Leah said. She moved to the window, as far from Rachel as she could. “Tomorrow’s the Ziegelman party.”

“Fancy soirée for fancy people,” Sam said.

“The Ziegelmans aren’t fancy and neither are we,” Eva said. “Don’t start.”

“Sorry,” Sam said, and when they were clear of the station he began whistling “Buttercup” from his favorite Gilbert and Sullivan.

They passed horse farms with white fences and the Black Angus farm, drove up the mountain through the darkening woods until they emerged at the broad cornfields and the last two dairy farms before home. The Holsteins, Sam remarked, were as well dressed as ever.

“You can never go wrong with black and white,” Eva said. “Long weekend, Sam. We have you for three whole days.”

“I’ll do the garage tomorrow morning.”

“It’s up to you. It’s your holiday.”

In the garage, once a small barn, a horse stall housed wooden skis from Sam’s medical school days in Vienna before the war. Leather harnesses rotted on the dirt floor. The workbench was covered with cans of screws and nails, rusty saws, frozen pliers, and files as long as their arms that the girls weren’t supposed to touch. Clamped to the bench was a grindstone Rachel cranked until the handle spun out of her hand. Rachel dreaded the day, never to come, when all the old things would be gone, their car resting on one side, and on the other a neat workshop, the goal Sam and Eva often spoke of on the way home from the train.

For dinner there was fried chicken Eva had prepared that morning, cucumbers from the garden, and corn from a farm stand on the way to the train. It was Rachel’s job to accompany her father out to the front porch to shuck the corn; they spread newspaper to catch the silk and husks. This evening Leah went with Sam, and Rachel stayed on the couch in the parlor next to the wooden radio, eyes closed, listening to her mother filling the corn pot with water and opening the cabinet for the salt, striking a wooden match. The gas burner popped awake. Eva filled the smallest pot to heat Emma’s bottle; Rachel heard her telling the baby so. Next thing, her own name was being called. They waited for her at the kitchen table. The yellow ears of corn were steaming, the fried chicken was piled high, and the cucumbers and dill shone like ice in the sun.

“Summer’s the fast one,” Sam was saying. “Remember Memorial Day? You girls thought school would never end.”

“The twenty-ninth of May,” Leah said. “We moved to the country the same day Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest. It was a Friday.”

Eva said, “The way you keep track of things. Please pass the corn, Rachel.”

“It’s already July third,” Sam said. “Tomorrow’s the Fourth and we go to the Ziegelmans’. Before we know it, it’ll be Mom’s birthday and then Leah’s, then Labor Day, back to school, then Thanksgiving at the Ziegelmans’, then—”

“Sam!” Eva said. “We just got here.”

“That’s what it’s like when you live in a routine,” Sam said. “One thing follows another as night the day. May I have some of that corn, Rachel?”

She pushed the heavy platter toward him.

“None for you?”

“She’s still under the weather, aren’t you, sweetie?” Eva said. “Can you eat a bite? No? Maybe you’d like to be excused.”

Rachel’s bed was right above the kitchen; the open grate in the floor allowed her to hear everything that went on below. In the winter, heat rose to the girls’ bedroom from the kitchen, and Leah complained that Rachel’s side was warmer than hers. Clothes off, pajamas on, Rachel shivered between the cold sheets, listening to silverware tapping the dishes, glasses thumping as they were set back on the table.

Leah asked to be excused. She got a jar from under the sink for catching fireflies, and Eva said what a shame it was that Rachel couldn’t go too.

“What’s wrong with her exactly?” Sam asked.

“A summer cold.”

“Shall I—”

“If she’s still feeling low tomorrow,” Eva said, “you can take over. Let’s see how she does with a good night’s sleep.”

The screen door slammed behind Leah.

Sam said, “Scotty asked me to lunch yesterday. At that fish joint near his office. He’s pretty down. He figures he doesn’t stand a chance.”

“Three boys don’t give him a greater chance than—”

“It’s no use judging,” Sam said.

“Hard not to—”

“When it’s your friends. But they’re all our friends. We shouldn’t forget.”

In the morning—the Fourth of July, the day of the town parade and the Ziegelman party—Eva’s hand rested on Rachel’s forehead.

“I’m getting the thermometer,” she said. “You’re still warm.”

Rachel knew that she had a fever; her skin prickled where the sheet touched.

“Move downstairs to my room, baby. Then I don’t have to keep going up and down. Everyone’s getting ready for the parade.”

In her bedroom, Eva rearranged the sheets, blankets, and pillows for Rachel, then went looking for the thermometer, which Rachel dreaded and Eva must have too, for if she found the thermometer, she’d be unable to find the Vaseline, and without that thick unguent, the thermometer was useless.

Her parents’ bed smelled of something sweet, and something sharp and grown-up. Through one window, the hedge of bee balm was just visible. Hummingbirds were ravishing the spiky red flowers. The opposite window gave out to the porch where Sam and Eva and the baby sat in the evenings while Leah and Rachel caught fireflies on the front lawn.

Straight ahead, the open window revealed the maple, taller than the house and much older; its leaves were making complicated music in the air. Sam said that the tree had been a baby when General Washington stayed in his winter headquarters not very far away in Morristown. Perhaps he’d ridden his horse down their road and saw the tree on the rise, a sapling then. Not every little thing a man did, even a man as famous as George Washington, was recorded. And even if General Washington never rode past or noticed the maple, the fact that he was alive at the same time as the tree, and in Morristown, made the tree a part of history, which meant the past, everyone’s past.

One day, Rachel intended to climb the maple. When she finally stood at the top, she’d see the farm next door, the Ziegelmans’ house, the Scotts’ cabin, all the way back to the city. From the branches at the very top, she’d be able to see what was waiting for everyone she knew.

Eva reappeared, her face set in its worried look.

“Do you know where that thermometer went? It isn’t next to your bed or in the bathroom. I looked on top of the radio, on the mantel, and it’s nowhere to be found.”

She reached across the bed to touch Rachel’s forehead and the girl rolled out of the way.

“Oh, honey, I know you don’t want to miss the parade but—”

Sam was standing at the door, his tweed cap on.

“Let her come. If she feels bad she can sleep in the car. Rachel hasn’t missed a Fourth of July parade in her life.”

“Feel her forehead, Sam.”

“Rachel wants to come,” he said. “How sick could she be?”

Eva looked from Sam to Rachel and shrugged.

“Well, it’s not deepest Africa.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Dress her fast so we get a good place.”

Two riders on horseback started the parade, each holding a flagpole and a flag, one of the state of New Jersey, the other the Stars and Stripes. One horse was a dappled gray like a cloudy sky. Memorial Day was a cemetery holiday; the Fourth of July was for cheering.

The Scotts were gathered across the street from the Cantors, and the boys were making faces, trying to get Rachel and Leah to laugh. The Scott boys, all three, became as prosperous as their father never was, and one August met in Colorado to climb a mountain. A snowstorm came up and it was two days before the Scott brothers were found. The boys saluted as the old soldiers marched by in Civil War and Revolutionary War uniforms and the tight collarless jackets of World War I. Then came the GIs and the marines. In the last war, Sam Cantor and Ellison Scott were soldiers together in Italy; Harris Ziegelman was in the navy in California.

Sometimes Mr. Ziegelman drove the girls and Mrs. Ziegelman to the parade in the Buick convertible, but not this year.

Across the street, the Scott parents stood side by side. Georgia Scott was from the South, and she was a beauty. The Scott boys called her Mother, and fetched her a drink, her pocketbook, her wrap on a cool summer night. Mrs. Scott was wearing a black straw hat with a wide brim that framed her face, and a sleeveless black dress with a tiny waist and big skirt. Circular white buttons climbed the dress from hem to bust. On her feet she wore little white shoes that laced around her ankles.

“When you’re clever and have taste,” Eva said, “you don’t need money.”

The Elks and the Masons came next, the hospital volunteers, the Red Cross, and at the end the kids joined the parade all the way down Main Street until it became the road out of town. Leah ran off with the Scott boys. The Scotts crossed the street to join the Cantors, Mr. Scott carrying their new baby in his arms.

Mrs. Scott kissed Sam and Eva. She inspected Baby Emma, laying her red-nailed finger on the tiny nose.

“What a darling girl,” she said. “I’m doomed to be surrounded by men. Boys.”

“Your boys are adorable,” Eva said. She was wearing her new brown sundress with white piping and flowers along the hem, white sandals and beads; she’d bought the dress on sale the previous summer before she’d become too big with Emma. “We women are fickle creatures, Georgia. We want what we haven’t got.”

“Never say die,” Mr. Scott said. “Four’s a charm.”

Mrs. Scott groaned.

“Rachel,” she said. “Why aren’t you with the other children?”

“Rachel’s under the weather today,” Sam said.

“It’s the biggest party of the summer!” Mrs. Scott said. “Pull yourself together, little girl.”

“We love the Ziegelman party,” Eva said.

“We love the Ziegelman everything,” said Mr. Scott. He buried his face in his son’s bare stomach and made a farting noise that tickled the baby no end.

The Ziegelmans invited everyone to their Fourth of July party: the family that lived at the end of the driveway and ran the Ziegelman farm, shopkeepers from town, the doctor and the vet, families from neighboring farms, the summer and weekend crowd and their guests, everyone was invited and mostly everyone came. That year, the Cantors were early enough to get a parking spot not far from the house. By the end of the day, cars and trucks would be strung up and down the driveway and along both sides of the road.

Helen Ziegelman was standing at the front door, greeting her guests. She wore a white blouse with a round collar and puffed sleeves, and black toreador pants. Her necklace was deep red and her earrings matched. The jewels twinkled in the sun.

“Dotted swiss!” Eva said. “Wonderful fabric.”

“You look pretty as a picture,” Sam said, kissing Helen, who smiled and told Sam that the bar was set up on the stone patio. Leah ran off to find the Ziegelman girls and the Scott boys. Rachel’s fever made her too slow to keep up so she stayed where she was.

“Things are a little different this year,” Mrs. Ziegelman said.

Usually on July Fourth, the tables were handy to the kitchen. On that Fourth only, the food was on picnic tables that edged the pond all the way down the hill. Swimmers could change in the bathhouse, and there were plenty of blankets and towels for the children to sit on and for the mothers and babies.

Sam said he was going to find a drink, and Mrs. Ziegelman and Eva walked up the path to the house. Rachel watched them, trying to decide where she wanted to be.

Mrs. Scott appeared in her black dress and hat; she stood holding her baby in her arms while Scotty and the boys scattered.

“There you are.”

Harris Ziegelman stood next to her.

“Darling Georgia,” he said.

She nodded down at Rachel.

“Little pitchers,” she said.

“Hey. Why aren’t you with the other kids?” he asked.

Rachel shrugged her shoulders.

“Go on,” he said. “Go to your mother.”

“Harris,” Mrs. Scott said, “that’s not—”

Without looking back, Rachel walked to the house and went in through the front door, pausing in the foyer at the photographs of the old people who’d first come to America and started the Ziegelman family. She could see Harris Ziegelman’s eyebrows on the men with their hats and shawls.

“I barely squeezed into these pants,” Mrs. Ziegelman was saying when Rachel went into the kitchen.

“It takes a little time,” Eva said. “You’ve always had a good figure.”

“Takes you a little time. Takes me—”

“When do you want the salads out?” Jocelyn asked.

The kitchen table was covered with platters of meat and bowls of all the salads—tuna, chicken, coleslaw, potato, beet, carrot. On top of the egg salad, Jocelyn had arranged slivered almonds. Sam was allergic to nuts. There were no nuts in the Cantor house, ever. Rachel looked at Eva, wanting her to notice their deadly enemy.

The kitchen windows were wide open, overlooking the lawn that reached down to the pond. Family groups were heading down the slope, fathers carrying babies, mothers rolling strollers and leaning their weight backward against the descent, children looping around their parents and other families, chasing one another to the edge of the water. Boys from neighboring farms and from town tossed a ball over the crowd, back and forth, until a father yelled at them to cut it out, they were going to hit someone.

“It’s past noon. Everyone’s hungry. We might as well serve it all,” Helen said. “There’s going to be a game later. Harris mowed a field and made a real baseball diamond. It’s his surprise for the Scott boys.”

“They’ll be so impressed,” Eva said.

“He wants the fireworks out there this year. After the game. In the outfield.”

One of the workers in Mr. Ziegelman’s factory in the city had been with the circus before the war, and he knew how to handle fireworks.

“How would you like to give Jocelyn a hand with the food?” Her mother was smiling down at Rachel.

“Is she well enough, Eva?” Mrs. Ziegelman asked.

“Let the girl help,” said Jocelyn. “These girls. Start with the Jell-O. Be sure to set it at the far end of the table in the shade. Near the ice and the drinks. In the shade, Rachel.”

Jocelyn went to the big refrigerator and slid out a metal tray.

Mrs. Ziegelman said, “Those bowls would look better on the blue tray.”

“The girl can carry it down the hill on a kitchen tray,” Jocelyn said. “She’ll come back for the other.”

The bright orange Jell-O cubes rested in glass bowls. One grape was suspended in each square.

Rachel picked up the cold metal tray, and her forearms and wrists stiffened under its weight. The glass bowls shifted uneasily.

Helen Ziegelman opened the kitchen door.

“Careful on the steps,” she said.

Rachel passed families standing, talking, surveying the crowd around the pond. The cubes of Jell-O shivered with every step she took. All her life Rachel had been swimming there, but the umbrellas, striped in red, white, and blue, and the many tables made the pond a stranger. One minute the surface of the cold water reflected the sky and clouds like mountains, the next it was rippled and the sky darkened over.

“Rain’s coming,” an old man’s crackling voice announced.

Rachel turned to see who had spoken, and her movement hoisted the tray forward and then up. Rachel stumbled as she tried to catch the tray, and the bowls of Jell-O launched into the air. She fell forward, too. The treacherous hill was strewn with upended bowls and cubes of Jell-O. Rachel’s fists, closed as if they still held the tray, were scraped and stained with grass.

“You were in an awful big hurry for such a little girl,” said the same voice that had predicted rain, and Rachel started to cry.

Leah appeared with the Ziegelman girls and the Scott boys. They circled Rachel, blocking her view of the adults around them. She heard a voice calling, “Stay back! Stay back! You’ll get cut!” Betsey and Katie poked the Jell-O with their bare toes, then Leah and the boys picked up the orange cubes, now covered with grass and dirt, and launched them at the kitchen tray, so engrossed in seeing how much they could pile up and who got to carry the tray that they forgot Rachel. They started up the hill and she trudged behind them, looking down at her feet and up at the house; by the time Rachel reached the top, the other children were in the kitchen. She listened through the screen door to them talking all at once. “Where’d Rachel go?” Jocelyn asked, and Rachel ran back down the hill.

The raucousness of midday was passing into the quiet of late afternoon. There were only a few swimmers in the water as Rachel wandered through the groups seated at the tables around the pond, recognizing some and others not, feeling like a cloud separated from its sky.

She heard the rumble of low voices and followed the sound around to the back of the bathhouse. Her father and Mr. Ziegelman were sitting in aluminum lounge chairs. Their damp hair was slicked back, and they were smoking cigarettes, their bathing suits on the ground near them and their plates of food, risking ants. Drink holders made of bright-colored rubber-coated metal, seen for the first time that summer, were staked in the lawn; each held a glass of pale liquid. Mr. Ziegelman stood up suddenly, knocking his drink holder. Rachel watched it sway back and forth, the cubes of ice in Mr. Ziegelman’s drink bobbing as the drink holder swayed, waiting for the drink to spill.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

For the second time that day, Harris Ziegelman looked down at Rachel, and that was the way she recalled him for the rest of her life; he died when Rachel was almost old herself.

Sam threw his cigarette into the grass, and he moved toward Rachel.

“No need, Harris,” he said.

“What’s that kid doing here?”

Instead of words, tears came. Sam knelt down and rested his hand on Rachel’s forehead.

“Let’s go home, honey,” he said.

In the time it took Sam and Rachel to climb the hill, the sky went from gray with fat clouds to black as night. A storm was coming. Anyone could see that. By the time the Cantors reached their car, a wind came up—“Oh, no,” Eva said—and whipped the trees from side to side. They’d traveled no farther than the end of the Ziegelmans’ driveway when the Studebaker lurched to a stop. Sam opened his door and sidestepped, hunched, to the side of the road. Cold needles of rain struck inside the car and the baby began to cry.

“Sam!” Eva called.

Leah opened the back door and jumped out, Eva calling, “Don’t!”

Leah was soon back inside, shivering with the cold.

“He’s being sick,” she reported.

“Is he all right?”

“How should I know?”

“Here, take the baby while I go to your father,” Eva said, but before that could be accomplished, Sam was leaning into the car.

“Eva,” he said, “you’d better take over.”

They set out again, Eva driving at half the speed Sam would have, not because of the wind vaulting twigs, leaves, even branches into the air, but by her nature.

“It must have been something you ate,” Eva said.

“There were almonds on the egg salad,” Rachel said.

“Walnuts on the potato salad,” said Leah.

“Why didn’t you girls say so?”

“I tried,” Rachel said. Now it seemed to her that she’d gone to the pond to warn her father.

Sam was twisted in the passenger seat, his forehead pressed to the cool glass. He rolled down his window a crack and raised his head to sniff the wet air.

At the crossroads, halfway home, the stop signs were swaying back and forth, dancing for the Cantors, who stared until the closest one started to fall toward the car. Sam shouted, “Gun it!” and the car lurched forward. Eva was maneuvering the car up the sodden driveway when the storm’s noise quietened.

“The eye of the storm,” Sam announced. “When it passes, the storm’ll start again. Wind from the opposite direction.”

The baby cried out, and Sam picked her up and started for the house. Leah and Rachel imitated Eva, who was taking off her white sandals, then they ran, shoes in their hands, to the house. When they were all in the kitchen, Sam said, “Too bad I didn’t get to the garage, Eva. We could have put the car inside.”

The storm took up again, just as Sam had predicted, fiercer now than before. The power was out. Later, they ate leftovers by candlelight, except for Sam, who didn’t eat anything but didn’t want to leave them. He shivered in his seat at the head of the table, though he was wrapped in a blanket. Eva sent the girls up to bed.

In the middle of the night the world tore itself apart, and the house shook mightily. Glass rattled in the windowpanes, doors shuddered in their casements. Lightning brightened the rooms and thunder boomed. There was no difference between sound and light. Then came the noise of a heart being ripped from its chest, of flesh from flesh, and one-two-three, the sky fell at last.

They all ended up in Sam and Eva’s bed, squished together in a deep sleep. Rachel woke first and inspected them one by one to be sure they were all there and because she could: Leah couldn’t boss her to mind her own business, her parents couldn’t ask what was wrong. Now she understood that she’d wasted a lot of time ignoring Emma, whose cheeks were as smooth as the petals on a rose. The baby looked like Leah and people said she looked like Rachel too, but Rachel had never seen it before.

A new light shone in the room. Rachel slithered from bed and tiptoed barefoot through the kitchen, where the dishes from the night before were piled in the sink; the storm had defeated her mother’s custom of making the kitchen spotless for the next day.

On the lawn there were leaves everywhere, not just the unmistakable maple leaves but the heart shapes of lilac leaves and the long fronds of ferns. Flowers, too: bee balm, roses, tiger lilies, pansies, pinks were scattered on the lawn in no pattern. The hem of Rachel’s nightgown was soon bordered in wet blossoms.

Around the corner of the house, along the driveway, lay the giant maple. Its fractured roots reached into the air higher than four Rachels. The earth that had once held the tree in place perfumed the air with sharp misery.

The tree was down. The air and light always would be empty of it. In its place there would be nothing forever.

Rachel pushed her way along the tree trunk into the complicated branches until she reached the top of the giant maple.

She climbed onto a branch, and it rose and fell beneath her weight. She looked beyond the outstretched arms of the tree. From where she stood, she could see past her sisters and herself, past Eva and Sam, the Ziegelmans and the Scotts, past the new baseball diamond where no one had played but where they would, past babies already born and one other, the last Scott baby, a girl, to a time when all this life of babies and children, summers and swimming, would be lost, all the people lost to each other. She could see her oldest happiness, the one that would disappear, and her greatest losses, the ones that would never be replaced.

Time was coming for them all. But not yet. It wasn’t there yet.

© 2011 Laura Furman

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for The Mother Who Stayed includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Laura Furman. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Written in concerto-inspired form, The Mother Who Stayed by Laura Furman moves its readers through three trios of short stories.  Each trio concerns a different set of characters whose lives are connected through family, location, or sheer coincidence. Furman’s characters run the gamut of motherhood: a substitute mother who discovers that there is no self without the love of another, a motherless daughter who must come to her own epiphanies about the transience of life, and a childless mother who tries to act on her maternal instincts. The Mother Who Stayed is both a meditation on and a celebration of domestic American life, spanning generations of women. 


1. In “The Eye,” the opening story of The Mother Who Stayed, several events take place at the Ziegelmans’ Fourth of July picnic which serve as a window into the secrets shared by the families in attendance. What are those secrets? Rachel Cantor is a witness to some of the events. How does her new knowledge affect her? What does Rachel’s encounter with the fallen maple tree in the aftermath of the storm suggest about the character?  

2. “And why didn’t the two families get together in the city? One family on the West Side, one on the East Side, both in the nineties. They could walk across the park but they didn’t.” (p. 31). How would you characterize the class differences between the Ziegelmans and the Cantors? In what way are these distinctions less important in the country, as depicted in “The Eye,” than in the city, as in “The Hospital Room”? How do the characters change in the course of the trio?

3. In “The Thief,” Rachel Cantor is accused of stealing a pearl necklace from her friend’s apartment. “I could see my hand setting the pearls back on Caitlin’s mother’s vanity….But at that moment I wondered, and sometimes I still do, if I did take the pearls.” (55) What motivation might Rachel have had for stealing?  Who else might have stolen the pearls?

4. In “A Thousand Words,” Sandra, the narrator, revisits the history of her relationship with Marian Foster Todd, an eccentric and beautiful writer. Sandra considers Marian’s possible affair with her husband, Per, without ever concluding that it actually occurred. Does Sandra believe that there was an affair? How does Sandra’s preparation of her thousand-word prose piece contribute to the dissolution of her friendship with Marian? 

5. The narrator of “Here It Was, November,” says of her illness: “I might have pressed down to feel the tumor….Still, I felt no desire to know its shape or to probe its private life.” (85) How does the narrator’s lack of curiosity about her own physical decline compare to her absorbing interest in completing her biography of Marian Foster Todd? What does the narrator’s literary detective work suggest about the true nature of Marian’s relationship with Dorothea Browne? How does this knowledge change the narrator’s ambitions about her own scholarly work?

6. How would you describe Marian Foster Todd based on her characterization in the three stories in the second trio of The Mother Who Stayed—“A Thousand Words,” “Here It Was, November,” and “The Blue Wall”? How does her character evolve over the course of the trio? What does Marian’s late-in-life relationship with Dorothea reveal about her seductiveness and her capacity for duplicity? Why does Dorothea take care of Marian?

7.  What do the details of everyday domestic life in “The Blue Birds Come Today” reveal about Mary Ann Rathbun, a 19th century American mother living in upstate New York? Does “The Blue Birds Come Today” differ from the other stories in this collection in terms of its narrative, time frame, and plot? If “The Blue Birds Come Today” is based on actual events, what makes it fiction?

8. In “Plum Creek,” how does Dinah’s early loss of her mother—first through abandonment, and later through death—affect her as a child? What do the storm scenes in “Plum Creek” and “The Mother Who Stayed” reveal about Dinah’s fortitude and her self-reliance? What does Dinah have in common with Amber? 

9. Dinah pursues her friendship with Amber even after Keith warns her to stay away. What is compelling and attractive to Dinah about the friendship? Given that she suspects Keith of physically abusing Amber, why doesn’t Dinah do more to protect the younger woman? Do you think she should hold herself responsible for the tragic consequences? Dinah comes to the following conclusion: “What she’d disliked in herself at a younger age now had to be accepted. She had never loved anyone enough” (p. 238). Do you think this is true?

10. How did the unique structure of this story collection impact your experience as a reader? How did the links between stories in each trio deepen your understanding of the characters?


1. In The Mother Who Stayed, mothers and daughters take center stage. Think of the many mothers and daughters you have known. Who has mothered you in your life, and who have you mothered? How has your mother felt about the people who have treated you as a surrogate daughter? Who are mothers and daughters you especially admire? 

2. Mary Ann Rathbun’s diary chronicles her domestic duties and the vagaries of the weather, but it also omits key facts, such as her daughter’s death. Try keeping your own diary for a week. What materials would you choose to include, and what would you omit? If your book club is so inclined, you could create an online diary on Facebook in order to share entries with each other. At the end of the week, you might have a different understanding of members of your book club. Whose diary is most revealing about her interior life, and why?  

3. In “A Thousand Words,” Sandra prepares a brief history of her time in New Mexico that causes her to revisit the friendships she had during that time in her marriage. If you had to write a thousand words about any period in your life, what time would you choose and why? What people from your life would become real to you again as you revisited that time? You might ask each member of your club to prepare a thousand-word reminiscence (roughly four, double-spaced, typewritten pages) and have them read aloud, anonymously, at your group’s next meeting. Members can take turns guessing who composed each memory.


How did you arrive at the concerto form for this collection?

I was intrigued by the idea of a story having a separate existence and also another life when it’s read along with others. In music, a theme appears and changes. The variations replicate and complicate. They introduce their own concerns. The resolution doesn’t negate the emotions raised by what’s gone before; rather, it provides a place for the emotions to rest.  The movements seem independent—sometimes, movements are played on the radio as individual pieces—but they also exist as part of a whole.

For me at least, reading any type of fiction involves the same recognition, connection, and memory as when I listen to music. The reader of the trios in The Mother Who Stayed can move through time, accompanied by the past, anticipating what might come, and understanding each story’s singular world while making crucial connections to the other stories. 

What are some of the pleasures and challenges of writing stories that are in dialogue with one another?

Short stories are sometimes called slices of life, which has always seemed contradictory for works that are complete in themselves. Even so, when I read short stories, I often wonder about the characters, major and minor, beyond the story’s borders. A novel satisfies this itch because the chapters reach into one another, and we understand the world of the novel piece by piece over time and through memory. The self-sufficiency of short stories is their challenge and their beauty, but I wanted something else for this book of stories. The challenge of the trios in The Mother Who Stayed was keeping the individual stories whole and at the same time allowing them to reach past themselves.

Have you always seen each trio of stories as discrete from the others? At any point were you tempted to “connect” the trios by having characters from the different trios encounter each other?

That’s an interesting idea, but I never considered a larger grouping. The characters are from different worlds. Instead, I sought to make connections among the stories in each trio without compromising the integrity of each individual work.

Art and literature play a predominant role in The Mother Who Stayed. What purpose does that serve in this collection? What shared characteristics do artists and writers have that make them compelling subjects? 

The ways in which artists and writers differ from others and are the same intrigues me. What is the difference, for example, between Marian and Mary Ann Rathbun? Both characters write. But for Marian, the work comes first. For Mary Ann Rathbun, her work within the family was primary. She stayed faithful to those moments when she was writing the diary but it wasn’t her most pressing concern. It’s a question of self-definition, and also of what we value. The stories gave me the chance to explore such shadings of difference and similarity.

Is the larger-than-life character, Marian Foster Todd, inspired by  a real-life literary figure or group of figures?

At a certain point, I began to read biographies more often than novels. My reading was uncritical; I wanted to be educated in the world of the biographical subject, whoever it was, and I wanted to follow the twists and turns the life took. Fidelity to facts isn’t important in writing fiction but it’s crucial to biography. Yet facts are chosen, isolated, played up or down to make the case for the biographer’s point of view about the subject. It all seemed very familiar; I create biographies about the people in my own life, deciding which details of background or history are telling, which episodes important and which minor, and how the facts add up to a person.

Beyond what I’ve learned from biographies about the lives of others, I’ve learned from life that there are people who have an idea about themselves and their importance. The rest of us are figures in the background. The fictional Marion Foster Todd is such a person. The middle trio in The Mother Who Stayed revolves around the lives of Marion’s minor characters—minor to Marian, that is. 

Your collection focuses on mothers and daughters. What draws you as a fiction writer to these relationships?

You might say that the relationship has been my life’s study. My mother died when I was young, and the relationship between mother and daughter always drew me because it was one I didn’t have as an adolescent and an adult. Once I was a mother myself, my world grew larger, as did my understanding of my own mother and the demands of being a mother. For a writer, there’s always a balance to be maintained between what is known and what is imagined. The stories in The Mother Who Stayed were written with that balance in mind. I try not to confine my characters to my life.

You found the diaries of Mary Ann Rathbun’s included in The Mother Who Stayed in a house in New York State where you once lived. Can you talk a bit about that discovery? 

In 1972, when I was beginning to write, I moved from New York City to upstate New York. Eventually, I bought a mid-nineteenth-century house, nine acres of land, and a few outbuildings. The place was a mess, full of broken furniture and junk. In the course of cleaning, I found twenty-three little books, some with paper covers, others leather or canvas. They were almanac diaries from 1874 to 1902, and all the entries were written in the same hand, mostly in pencil, a few lines per day. I was too impatient to give them more than a cursory reading. The phrase “I done what I could” was repeated on almost every page.

In the five years I lived in the house, I came to appreciate “I done what I could.” Occasionally I returned to the diaries. When I tried to match the terse mentions of fields, barns, and orchard to my own place, they didn’t fit. Mary Ann Rathbun was written on the flyleaf of each diary. Some place names and family names mentioned were familiar, though Rathbun was not.

Ten years later I sold the house and carried the diaries with me to Texas. Nearly ten years after that I began to transcribe them. By this time I too was a wife and mother. Most domestic lives are filled with repetitious activities similar to Mary Ann Rathbun’s; certainly mine is. As I read the diaries I remembered the double nature of rural stasis—beauty and boredom. My original impatience was replaced by curiosity and a sense that in removing the diaries from their original place, by asserting my accidental ownership of them, I had taken them on as an obligation.

My persistent question about the diaries was, Why did she write them at all? There was a late nineteenth-century fad for diary-keeping but fads are usually dropped long before a year has passed. Yet she kept writing. The diaries seemed in no way written to be read.  If Mary Ann Rathbun had intended them for a reader, she would have identified the people she named and in relation to herself, as daughters, sons, and neighbors; she would have identified herself. As a storyteller, she would have told her reader how she came to be where she was, and why and how she stayed. But she wasn’t a storyteller, and her diaries are a private document.

The products of Mary Ann Rathbun’s long, hard domestic work wouldn’t last—food is eaten, a clean house becomes dirty, in time clothes and quilts decay or are discarded—but by recording the dailiness Mary Ann created something permanent. Her writing was an act of concentration that today we might see as meditative.  

What Mary Ann Rathbun accomplished in writing her diaries, perhaps for no one and with nothing more in mind than noting each day as it passed, is an embodiment of her time and place.

In “The Blue Birds Come Today,” you depict 19th-century American domestic life. How challenging was it to inhabit that era fictionally? To what extent did Mary Ann Rathbun’s diaries enable you to do so?

The diaries gave me lots of mysterious clues and information I had to interpret. My time living in upstate New York gave me feelings and some knowledge of the countryside and the life there, but it took a long time, many years, for me to find a way, as I did in “The Blue Birds Come Today” and in “The Mother Who Stayed,” both to break away from Mary Ann’s literal life and to honor it in fiction. Through much experimentation and rewriting, I was finally able to transform all that material—the diaries, landscape, memories, and emotions—into art. When I finished “The Blue Birds Come Today,” it seemed both ridiculous and delightful that it had taken me so many years, so much research, so much thinking to write that story.

You are the series editor of the annual PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. How many short stories do you read in a given year, do you think? How do you narrow down your selection?

The exact number is unknown. I and my graduate assistant read about 200 journals a year, most of them quarterlies containing sometimes as many as six stories. Throughout the year, I make two piles, “No” and “Maybe,” and from time to time reread the Maybes, then reread them again at the end of the reading period to see what’s stuck with me, and what I think of the story at the moment. The pile of Maybes grows smaller until I’m usually at 25 or 26, and then the process of picking twenty winning stories and up to five or so Recommended Stories begins. Especially at that point, I take my time and think about the strengths and failings of the stories as individual work. I don’t choose to make a balanced collection, though it works out that way each time. It’s not my mission to give a survey of the year’s themes or types of stories being published. The stories I choose for each PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories are those that I believe will last.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about short stories by people who don’t read them?

Some readers have told me that they find short stories frightening because they fear not being able to understand them. Perhaps the brevity of the form relative to the novel seems to demand a quick response, as if you were going to be given an exam on the story. I don’t think we read novels so much for meaning as we do short stories, and this is a misconception. Why worry about meaning? That’s a question that can best be answered over time.

Often, I read stories I like several times. The first time I read to see what the world of the story is and what’s going on in it. The second is a reading without the distraction of not knowing what comes next, of plot. The first two readings are often close together. But the third reading is to keep the story with me.  By then it’s become a kind of memory.


About The Author

Ave Bonar

Laura Furman was born in New York, and educated in New York City public schools and at Bennington College. Her first story appeared in The New Yorker in 1976, and since then her work has been published in many magazines, including Yale Review, Southwest Review, Ploughshares, American Scholar, Preservation, House & Garden, and other magazines. Her books include three collections of short stories, two novels, and a memoir. She is the recipient of fellowships from the New York State Council on the Arts, the Dobie Paisano Project, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has received grants in residency at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and in 2009 she was a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome. She taught for many years in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin. Series editor of The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories since 2002, Furman selects the twenty winning stories each year. She lives in Central Texas.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (February 1, 2011)
  • Length: 224 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439194652

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Raves and Reviews

“These are dazzling stories, deeply felt and elegantly written. As I read them, I kept thinking I was reading Alice Munro but, no, I was reading Laura Furman.”—Lily Tuck, author of the National Book Award-winning The News from Paraguay

"Furman, as any good artist must, shows us not just how to read but how we might live." —San Francisco Chronicle

“There are no false notes anywhere in this collection….suffused with a deep sense of what abides.”—Booklist

“Furman's prose ambles sinuously, in unexpected directions, and has a quiet, sure effect.” —Publishers Weekly

“...Furman presents angles and aspects of a story. Like a carefully cut and polished diamond, the sides and viewpoints we are presented with leave us with a dazzling object….the multiple entries we are allowed into each story expand the dimensionality. We are no longer only within a page, a sentence, a word—but a world.” Electric Literature

"Furman’s collection rings a resounding note: that the ordinary events of a life hold extraordinary power, reverberating for years hereafter, shaping inner worlds and the next generation."—The Rumpus

"Stories of incredible grace and heft from materials as humble as they come: the dips and turns of family life. The real revelation of stories like these is that humble material rarely is. Narratives that pivot on failed mother-daughter relationships are conveyed in a concerto form that permits motifs to twist and mimic each other. Each trio—the book might be better described as a series of novellas—turns a parade of divorces and picnics into an echo chamber, sounding the depths of the ordinary and asserting that what happens to us, however small, matters big time....The delivery is all Alice Munro, a clear-eyed account of the regrets that swell up under the superficial....This collection is lifelike in the most ruthless and wonderful sense—it defies tidy homilies but delivers the visceral goods."—The Austin Chronicle

“No book could be more beautifully formed or more deeply satisfying than The Mother Who Stayed, with its stories in sets, expanding and correcting each other, offering surprises. With unflinching accuracy, Laura Furman has traced versions of mothering—simulated, lacking, and real—in rich, precise fiction.”—Joan Silber, author of The Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven

“In these powerful and exquisite stories, Laura Furman pieces words together like shapes in a gorgeous crazy quilt. Each character and setting is so vividly realized that by the last page I knew these women and could imagine finding their homes without a map. I loved this book and, like the best fiction, it has changed me.”—Julie Metz, author of The New York Times bestselling memoir Perfection

“I love these stories. They read like a cycle of songs—gorgeous, moving, and making sense, somehow, of the mad complexity of life. I don’t ask for anything more in a book.”—Lynn Freed, author of The Servants’ Quarters

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