She was a halting old lady in a black silk dress and a rather preposterously high-crowned hat that some milliner had foisted upon her declining sight. She was downtown with a purpose; she only shopped once a week now and always tried to do a lot in one morning. The doctor had told her she could have the cataracts removed from her eyes but she was over eighty and the thought of the operation frightened her.
Her chief purpose this morning was to buy one of her sons a birthday present. She had intended to get him a bathrobe but passing through the book department of the store and stopping “to see if there was anything new,” she saw a big volume on Niaco where she knew he intended to spend the winter—and she turned its pages wondering if he wouldn’t like that instead, or if perhaps he already had it.
Her son was a successful author. She had by no means abetted him in the choice of that profession but had wanted him to be an army officer or else go into business like his brother. An author was something distinctly peculiar—there had been only one in the middle western city where she was born and he had been regarded as a freak. Of course if her son could have been an author like Longfellow, or Alice and Phoebe Cary, that would have been different, but she did not even remember the names of who wrote the three hundred novels and memoirs that she skimmed through every year. Of course she remembered Mrs. Humphrey Ward and now she liked Edna Ferber, but as she lingered in the bookstore this morning her mind kept reverting persistently to the poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary. How lovely the poems had been! Especially the one about the girl instructing the artist how to paint a picture of her mother. Her own mother used to read her that poem.
But the books by her son were not vivid to her, and while she was proud of him in a way, and was always glad when a librarian mentioned him or when someone asked her if she was his mother, her secret opinion was that such a profession was risky and eccentric.
It was a hot morning and feeling suddenly a little faint after her shopping, she told the clerk she would like to sit down for a moment.
He got her a chair politely and, as if to reward him by giving him business, she heard herself asking: “Have you got the poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary?”
He repeated the names.
“Let me see. No—I don’t believe we have. I was just looking over the poetry shelves yesterday. We try to keep a few volumes of all the modern poets in stock.”
She smiled to herself at his ignorance.
“These poets have been dead many years,” she said.
“I don’t believe I know of them—but I might be able to order them for you.”
He seemed an obliging young man and she tried to focus her eyes upon him, for she liked polite young men, but the stacks of books were blurring up a little and she thought she had better go back to her apartment and perhaps order a bathrobe for her son over the telephone.
It was just at the entrance of the store that she fell. There were a few minutes when she was just barely conscious of an annoying confusion centering around her, and then she became gradually aware that she was lying on a sort of bed in what seemed to be an automobile.
The man in white who rode with her spoke to her gently:
“How do you feel now?”
“Oh, I’m all right. Are you taking me home?”
“No, we’re taking you to the hospital, Mrs. Johnston—we want to put a little dressing on your forehead. I took the liberty of looking in your shopping bag and finding out your name. Will you tell me the name and address of your nearest relatives?”
Once again consciousness began to slip away and she spoke vaguely of her son who was a business man in the West and of a granddaughter who had just opened a millinery shop in Chicago. But before he could get anything definite she dismissed the subject as if it were irrelevant and made an effort to rise from the stretcher.
“I want to go home. I don’t know why you’re taking me to a hospital—I’ve never been in a hospital.”
“You see, Mrs. Johnston, you came out of the store and tripped and fell down some stairs, and unfortunately you have a cut.”
“My son will write about it.”
“What!” asked the interne rather surprised.
The old woman repeated vaguely: “My son will write about it.”
“Is your son in the journalistic business?”
“Yes—but you mustn’t let him know. You mustn’t disturb—”
“Don’t talk for just a moment, Mrs. Johnston—I want to keep this little cut together till we can make a suture.”
Nonetheless she moved her head and said in a determined voice:
“I didn’t say my son was a suture—I said he was an author.”
“You misunderstood me, Mrs. Johnston. I meant about your forehead. A “suture” is where someone cuts themselves a little—”
Her pulse fluttered and he gave her spirits of ammonia to hold her till she got to the hospital door.
“No, my son is not a suture,” she said. “Why did you say that? He’s an author.” She spoke very slowly as if she was unfamiliar with the words coming from her tired mouth. “An author is someone who writes books.”
They had reached the hospital and the interne was busy trying to disembark her from the ambulance. “—Yes, I understand, Mrs. Johnston. Now try and keep your head quite still.”
“My apartment is three-o-five,” she said.
“We just want you to come into the hospital a few hours. What sort of books does your son write, Mrs. Johnston?”
“Oh he writes all sorts of books.”
“Just try to hold your head still, Mrs. Johnston. What name does your son write under?”
“Hamilton T. Johnston. But he’s an author, not a suture. Are you a suture?”
“No, Mrs. Johnston, I’m a doctor.”
“Well, this doesn’t look like my apartment.” In one gesture she pulled what was left of her together and said: “Well, don’t disturb my son John or my son-in-law or my daughter that died or my son Hamilton who—” She raised herself to a supreme effort and remembering the only book she knew really in her heart announced astonishingly, “—my son, Hamilton, who wrote “The Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary—”” Her voice was getting weaker and as they carried the stretcher into the elevator her pulse grew feebler and feebler and the interne knew there would not be any suture, that nature had put in last stitch in that old forehead. But he could not know what she was thinking at the last, and would never have guessed it was that Alice and Phoebe Cary had come to call upon her, and taken her hands, and led her back gently into the country she understood.
Molly McQuillan Fitzgerald died September 1936, but this obituary story was written while she was still living. It was the third element in a series of autobiographical sketches for Esquire: “Author’s House” (July), “Afternoon of an Author” (August), and “An Author’s Mother” (September).
Fitzgerald’s relationship with his mother had been ambivalent; he blamed his character flaws on her permissiveness, though appreciating the strength of her unquestioning love for him. She died at a time when he was deeply in debt, leaving him approximately $25,000, and he wrote a friend that “it would have been quite within her character to have died that I might live.”
Molly Fitzgerald’s grandmother was an illiterate Irish immigrant who arrived penniless in America in about 1842 with her six children—what Fitzgerald called the “peasant” side of his family, in contrast to the educated “Old Maryland” side represented by the Scotts and the Keys on his father’s side. Though his mother was a voracious reader, it was, as this sketch indicates, of sentimental literature of the romantic era. She was proud of her only son, but it is doubtful whether she understood a word of what must have seemed to her his shockingly modern writing.
Published in Esquire magazine (September 1936).