Commencement Speech

by a contributor

Elizabeth Word Gutting

The men go to the grill with the meat. Felicity goes to the living room.

The living room gives off a warm golden glow: one lamp on, the bookshelves full. All across the city there are voices on patios. All across the city people speak of earlier in the day, they speak of later in the week, they speak of earlier in their lives.

In this house they don’t speak of their childhoods: hers one of abuse, his one of neglect. Neither of them speak to their parents, and now her mother is dead. Three weeks ago, a Saturday in July, she collapsed on the Mexican tile floor of her kitchen.

Your mother’s had a heart attack, a strange man from the hospital told her on the phone.

Felicity could not stop thinking: That’s so weird that your heart can attack you. But she said, OK. Thank you. OK.

She said it several times, over and over.

Silverware clangs as Felicity’s husband removes metal tongs from a drawer. He whistles. She waits by the bookcase because the kitchen is a galley. She waits by the bookcase because she wants to be in the galley kitchen alone.

Her mother died alone. A neighbor found her. The Arizona Republic had gathered at her door for several days; the neighbor was concerned – that wasn’t like her. She didn’t go anywhere. He knocked, and knocked, and knocked. Finally he called the police and they broke the door down.

Though she’d told her not to, her mother had come to her college to see her walk across the stage and clasp the diploma she’d earned with no help from her mother. Her mother commented later that the commencement speech got under her skin. You get under my skin. She had said that. To her mother.

As a child though she loved her mother and when her mother’s brother came to live with them she loved her mother all the more. The house was full of Fleetwood Mac and banana-nut waffles for dinner. Then one sunny afternoon in her mother’s study Felicity’s love snapped shut like a book. It happened in a movement. Her mother put her hands over her ears as Felicity cried and tried to explain what had happened when her mother’s brother came to her room the night before. Silenced.

From the living room, Felicity can hear one of the other wives on the patio speaking of her sister’s new child, her husband’s new job, the song she’s fallen in love with that plays on the radio thirty-six goddamned times a day.

She had thought having friends for dinner would lift her spirits. No. It’s not so. She longs for the soft weight of the summer quilt pulled up to her shoulders, the hum of the AC, the darkness of the bedroom. Or she wishes the voices would silence and she could meditate against the Thai cushion her husband brought from Bangkok. If she could do that, sit quietly with her breath, then she would speak to her mother.

You are the saddest woman to have lived that I can think of –

She would not say that.

She wishes the voice of her mother would silence her now, because she is starting to cry and she would very much like to hear her mother’s voice, though it’s been over ten years since they spoke even a word. She would tell her that she was sorry, but it is her mother that she wants to be sorry. Still. She would tell her that she was sorry.


Elizabeth Word Gutting lives in Washington, D.C. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Washington Post, The Quotable, Connotation Press, and an anthology of D.C. women writers published by Paycock Press. She teaches creative writing workshops for kids and teens at Writopia Lab.