By Terah Van Dusen
I want to cry. No, I am crying. I want to scream, “Listen here, family—no more going crazy. Not now, not yet. No more cancer. No more tranquilizers for widows. No more meth for the good time guys.”
When I was a little girl, they brushed my hair until it was cotton soft. They bathed me and powdered my skin with white dust out of a yellow vintage disk. When I napped, I would wake and eat one of those orange crèmesicle pops from the freezer. I was pampered and lifted up as a child by my two great aunts who served as mothers—then released back into the wild where I lived with my father.
It was the ease of a single father home. Harmonious. There was plenty of solitude and we owned two pet rabbits named Snow White and Rhada. We hauled our water up in buckets from a spring at the end of our unpaved street. There were cassette tapes and I had the boom box all to myself. There were long days of lounging and reading and dancing alone, my father working outside. There were quiet father-daughter dinners lit by kerosene lamps. There was dreaming of my far-off long-lost mother and sometimes crying. There was the youthful yet wise knowledge that that was normal (crying). There was the thinking that everything was going to be OK—it was what I’d been told, time and time again. There was being told I could become anything I wanted to be. There was being lied to. There were underlying addictions. There were dreams…and as I grew older there were dreams that were dying hard and fast. It wasn’t pretty.
I am almost thirty now and I am angry. Everything is not OK. I am torn—to lie or not lie to children? Luckily, there are few around, so I need not be worried that one might ask me “Can I really be anything I want to be?” or “But it’s all going to be okay in the end, right?” Hopefully I won’t ever have to say: “No, chile, actually shit gets worse. Much worse. Much, much worse. The mind gets worn like an old shoe. One day you find that you’re just trying to hold it all together. You will never, ever be an astronaut. Or even a manager of anything. You might not even be chosen for marriage. You may become obese or addicted to internet porn, likely both.”
My great aunts husbands both died early on and do you know where that leaves a woman whose greatest strength and ability was to nurture? It leaves her wandering aimlessly with a tray of refreshments with nobody to offer them to. It leaves her facing her own self, which she is not accustomed to doing. It leaves her tripping over somebody else’s clean, folded laundry that’s been sitting there for years. It leaves her in a large, old home with old man drawers and neckties and an old man’s favorite snacks gone beyond stale in the cabinet, a recliner still situated in the corner, a used faux-leather neck massager, a stack of old man Time magazines, bi-focals, a framed photo of an ex-wife, who died of cancer. I am telling you a sad story about old people who used to be very, very beautiful. Beauty queens n’ shit. Car models. Upper management gone crazy or ill. The fate of all of us. My job: to write it down. My job: to not lie to children.
I am the great niece. I tip toe in the shadows. I notice all the shrines and the way my one aunt still talks as if my uncle is sitting right there with us. Take away the men and the children and you get an old woman who used to be a damn good woman and wife but is now so shamed by her belongings, tea cups and sweaters and what not, that she sanctions off entire parts of the house with big heavy curtains and clothes pins. She covers tables full of piles of mail and paperwork with plastic picnic table cloths and when the lightbulbs in the chandeliers go out, she doesn’t replace them. But I get it. All of it. All of these “things” made perfect sense for a family, for a mother, for an aunt. But not for a widow. To say my aunt has a hard time letting it go would be putting it lightly—the mansion is her shrine to her past. But I love her and respect her maybe more than I do the other women. Because she is kind. She is the kind one. She is the crazy one, but she is the kind one.
On my drive down the Oregon coast for a weekend Mother’s day visit with my great aunts, I get to thinking I hope she didn’t sanction off my room. Not that it has any of my personal things in it—although it does have a few: a piggy bank, a Barbie coloring book, a flower crown from when I was the flower girl in a wedding. My dad has a bedroom down the hall. My other aunt occupies the loft bedroom. My deceased great uncle Ray still has a room too, adorned with elk décor and plaid.
My room is all white lace curtains, teddy bears, rose patterned bedspreads, paper dolls and ballerina slippers. It reeks of that innocent girl that I maybe possibly once was—if I stretch way back into my memory. Someday I will inherit the wooden four-post bed and the vintage stationary desk. A small framed photo of me is displayed on the nightstand—I am in the third grade, wearing my favorite Disney sweatshirt, I am smiling and hopeful. I haven’t been beaten down yet. (Though I have been beaten down a little.)
I scour underneath the bed for a box. I’m looking for a slip of paper on which I wrote a long time ago in kid-scratch “I want to be a Writer or a Dancer when I grow up.” Alarmingly, I cannot find the paper—but instead of getting bent out of shape I calmly tell myself that paper or no paper, I still want to be a writer. And maybe someday I will be.
I pull the large, blank-page artist’s sketch pad I write from out of my suitcase, kick off my pink slippers, and crawl into one of my many childhood beds. I intend to write about pointing fingers—at each other and at ourselves. I intend to question: why did it get so hard after the men died? Shouldn’t it have gotten easier? Less housekeeping, dick sucking?
I thought it would be a good idea: a reunion with my women kin. But I’ve got my grandmother who is the eldest and though she has really got her head on straight, she’s quick to judge, she’s somewhat of a sloppy drunk, and she tells me the same stories from my childhood over and over and over again. And whenever someone else is talking she’ll whisper to herself “Oh get on with it,” while smiling a fake smile and bouncing her leg impatiently, waiting for her turn to talk. “Be nice!!” I finally snap back at her, “I am talking now.” Then I regret it—cause… surely nobody would talk to their grandmother this way.
We’ve got our younger aunt who has fought cancer twice now and might be facing a third diagnosis in an altogether new part of her body. She’s beautiful. She smokes. I thought she would’ve quit by now. A quiet confession: I smoke too. But surely I’ll quit. Surely I’ll quit before I get cancer.
We’ve got my great aunt, the one I’ve told you about, who is so isolated in this old house and so fucking eccentric that she might genuinely be going mad now—for the first time I witness her throwing objects at the wall in anger or, in the middle of a task, throwing a stack of papers up in the air and just walking away.
She can’t. They can’t. They can’t go crazy. They can’t get cancer. Everything will be OK in the end is the biggest crock of bull I think I’ve ever heard. I want to scream NOT FAIR. NOT YET. NOT AT ALL. PULL YOURSELVES TOGETHER!
These are the women who taught me how to floss my teeth, how to say “So very nice to meet your acquaintance.” These are the women who told me when I got boobs, “There are a lot of wolves out there,” with a head nod and a knowing eye and I knew they were talking about men. And boy were they right. This made it easier to meet a man, think “Wolf” and just walk away. These are the women. These are the women. You can’t. You can’t take them yet. I’m not yet thirty. I’m still quitting smoking.
As the ladies carry on in fragmented, tortured conversation, I sit on the floor and cry. I try to stop but I can’t. I try to be strong like I will have to when they’re not only crazy and drunk but bedridden too. I am the child. They are the mother. We don’t want to go crazy. We don’t want to lose each other. We don’t want to be unappreciated, and then died on. We don’t want to be cheated on, and then died on. But we don’t want to be victims, either. We don’t know what we want exactly, but we know what we don’t want. And yet with every year we face the inevitable—the house clutter, the mind fucks, the cancer. I feel it too. I get it.
The younger aunt hugs me before bedtime, she holds onto my shoulders and whispers with great conviction “I know, growing up sucks.” I feel a hard sob rising up from my core. Suppressing it sends a violent tremor from my feet to my head. “I don’t cry at home,” I tell my aunt reassuringly, “I must be PMSing or something.”
I wonder where my strength ran off to, where all of our strength is hiding. Maybe it just…ran out. Maybe it died. Or maybe it’s hiding behind all the life stuff—the tea cups, the sweaters hung over the backs of chairs, the lace curtains and vintage bureaus, the magazines, the pinstriped button downs of old, dead uncles, the bottle caps, bottled waters, dusty, the driftwood, vintage aprons, and “art supplies.” Maybe it’s in that one closet. Or in the other one. Maybe we put it “somewhere extra special.” It’s bound to show up somewhere. We ask ourselves, “When was the last time you saw it? And where?” We laugh and drink and poke fun at each other slash snap at each other. They won’t last forever…but at thirty I feel like I will. How can I be this far gone this early on? Do you just feel crazy when you’re around crazy people? Are we just artists? Is this what it is to be eccentric?
No more going crazy.
Not now, not yet.
Terah Van Dusen is a writer and aspiring memoirist. She is the author of two self-published books: Poems by a Horny Small-Town Gal and Love, Blues, Balance: A Collection of Poetry. She has been published in two anthologies by Cool Waters Media in Chico, California. Terah lives in Eugene, Oregon and writes the blog Bohemian Dreams at terahvandusen.wordpress.com.