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On Aging: Lessons From Mother and Grandmother

May 8, 2022
mother

By Chantal Laurie Below

 

I never knew Gaga without a cane. A drunk driver hit my paternal grandmother in her 50’s while she grabbed clothes from the trunk. Immediate surgery ensued where doctors attempted (successfully) to save her leg by fastidiously cleaning gravel from her flesh and performing skin graft after skin graft. The accident left her with a limp, chronic pain, and a concave thigh. Her wooden cane, hand painted with a chain of flowers by her daughter’s best friend, Millie, then accompanied her everywhere, along with a set of pillows and a floor stool she arranged and rearranged to find mild comfort while sitting. Those accouterments, along with my grandmother’s stooped posture and ever-shrinking 5-foot frame meant she seemed ‘old’ for as long as I could remember. She had skin spots, jiggly jowls, brittle nails, tissues tucked up her sleeve, and declining hearing that made her lean in and ask, ‘Say?’ when she needed something repeated. She had boobs so responsive to gravity’s pull over her 85+ years that she had to bend at 90 degrees and scoop them up in her bra. Her standard attire: cashmere cardigans with a pair of ironed slacks and orthopedic shoes. Her favorite show: CSPAN. These markers reinforced to my childhood self that Gaga must have been born old. She fit the part so well, perfectly cast as a loving, elderly matriarch.

Since Gaga contentedly rested in her recliner by day and exuded delight with a, ‘Hello darling girl,’ whenever I called, my child, teen and younger-adult selves didn’t consider all she’d had and lost over the decades: mobility, health, freedom, friends. But as I hover in middle age, I can’t help but wonder about the complexity of her aging experience.

My aunt and grandmother lived together in Little Silver, New Jersey in a split-level condo with bedrooms on the upper level. As a kid, I coveted the electric chair that took Gaga up the dozen plus stairs morning and night. Getting to ride it was infinitely more exciting than an airport escalator and a thrill just beneath a Six Flags roller coaster ride. ‘Why can’t weeeeeee get one?’ I begged my parents. I never considered that Gaga used to walk up those stairs, and then one day, she couldn’t. The risk of her falling backwards made the activity too unsafe. 44-year-old me now wonders what that chair represented to Gaga. Did she feel defeat on installation day? Or did she gracefully surrender to the reality of dwindling balance and fatigue?

Gaga drank a cup of joe every morning with a prune settled at the bottom. She hated prunes but they ‘kept her regular,’ offsetting the side effects of her bevy of meds. Once saturated in coffee, the taste of them became tolerable.  Did Gaga used to drink prune-free coffee on the go as she raced to drop kids at Red Bank Catholic, I consider now? Did she miss when coffee wasn’t an undercover laxative?

At the end of her life, she brushed her teeth with a Dora the Explorer mini toothbrush, the perfect size for her tiny mouth with bristles so gentle they wouldn’t harm her vulnerable gums. Could her body, years before, withstand a standard Oral B toothbrush? Did she buy a Nickelodeon branded one with humor or a twinge of pain, confronting the humbling interconnection of cradle and grave?

Peeking behind the curtain of Gaga’s more intimate transition into old age discredits my, ‘I’ll juke the curse of arthritis and osteoporosis because I wasn’t born old’ delusion. Being with her memory reveals a shocking and obvious truth: none of us are born old, but we’re bound for it, and all it entails, if we last long enough. 

My mother’s further proof of it. 

Mom used to dog-ear pages of Bon Appetit magazine and experiment with extravagant meals for dinner parties: gazpacho to start, coq au vin for the main, poached pears for dessert. We lived abroad as Americans which meant access to British and Parisian dinner guests for mom to impress over the fine meal and a full-bodied red. Among new friends she practiced foreign terminology with delight, letting ‘rubbish’ and ‘tres bien’ roll off her tongue. Once, at a Thanksgiving dinner she cooked, our rowdy family friends and fellow ex-pats, the Lynch family, helped us move the dining room table aside for a dance party and mom willingly rocked out to Tone Loc’s Funky Cold Medina.

While humble and South Bend, Indiana to her core, mom also seemed to be born glamorous. When The Big Chill came out, people stopped her in grocery aisles for her autograph, convinced they’d confronted Mary Kay Place. She insisted on ‘putting her face on’ every morning, religiously purchased Lancôme anti-wrinkle creams, and got her hair done every week with Aida at Scissors Palace. She wore a fur coat, gold bracelets, diamond earrings and patent leather heels to the Royal Ballet or a performance of Les Mis in the West End with visiting family.

Mom never sought adventure, but she married a curious, restless man in search of a wider view of the world and somewhat willingly served as the Lewis to his Clark. When my dad initiated a purchase of a Stratton, Vermont vacation home in the ‘80’s, she learned to ski as an adult in freezing temperatures where her anxiety tears turned to icicles at the top of the North American run. She boarded my dad’s first sailboat in her 40’s, wearing foul weather gear as they navigated the English Channel in fall; mom’s face expressed terror with every, ‘Jibe ho!’ She never loved skiing or boating, but got on the chair lift and boarded Merocha with an able body and can-do spirit that mirrored her Midwestern roots. 

For her entire adult life, mom never stopped moving.  She stood at attention for anything astray in the home. She noticed a lone mug that belonged in the dishwasher, a tilted painting on the wall requiring straightening, a water glass in need of a coaster.  She kept countertops organized, always found laundry to fold or iron, and ran errands to the dry cleaner or post office with the fervor of an Amazing Race contestant. When she walked multiple city blocks from Cullen’s market to our house on Redcliffe Road – carting grocery bags filled with orange juice, a baguette, and popcorn kernels – she’d grit her teeth, feel her fingers numb, and pick up her pace.

Mom wasn’t born old, but ‘old’ has been circling her for decades, like a mosquito buzzing in and out of her personal space being successfully swatted away.

In 1992, at 47 years old, mom had her first brain aneurysm. It ruptured, a stroke accompanied it, and thanks to quick, excellent care, she survived. She had a shaved scalp, couldn’t drive for months, got labeled ‘tremendously lucky’ and life went on. About a decade later, doctors discovered another aneurysm before it burst. They clipped it and reminded her, ‘You’re tremendously lucky.’ Mosquito swatted.

Then, she started falling. She’d fall on walks with a friend and come home with a black eye. She once fell down a flight of carpeted stairs and, while shocked, brushed it off like the Terminator. She tripped on steps that resulted in bloody knees and bruised shins but insisted, ‘I’m fine’ and hobbled around the house.

As the falls increased over the years, along with mood changes and confusion, mom received a diagnosis of Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus (NPH), essentially fluid on the brain caused by head trauma. Six years ago, when mom turned 70, a neurosurgeon implanted a shunt in one of the ventricles of her brain and her symptoms largely reversed within a week. The doctors reinforced, ‘You’re tremendously lucky.’ Mosquito shooed away.

In March, 2021, I think the mosquito bit her.

Mom took a walk with her sister and barely made it a hundred yards before she fell. She somehow ricocheted off a truck’s bumper and then fell backwards on the concrete. She bled from cheek and scalp. A few weeks later, her eyesight began rapidly declining. ‘Optical nerve damage caused by the fall,’ the neuro-ophthalmologist reported, ‘It’s permanent but won’t get worse.’

Then, on Mother’s Day, she lost the ability to walk or speak; my father rushed her to the emergency room. They adjusted her shunt, her mobility and use of language returned, and she checked into a rehab facility for physical and occupational therapy. Dissatisfying incremental improvements led doctors to consider the possibility of a faulty shunt. In July, she had more brain surgery to replace it. Slow and steady progress post-surgery built hope. Then, in August, mom lost her balance in her dressing room, fell, and broke her arm.

Since last March mom’s been so unsteady on stairs she needs a railing and my dad’s assistance to maneuver up and down them. She can’t drive, cook, apply makeup, or read anymore since her sight is so compromised. Activities like emptying the dishwasher or loading laundry are risky now, able to throw her off balance, so she prioritizes wiping down countertops and reminding my dad to pick up her prescriptions. Her processing ability is impaired so conversations with more than one person prove hard for her to follow, determining when or how to interject alludes her. The most banal elements of life that normally live in the shadows as boring or unmentionable are suddenly center stage for her; going to the bathroom, bathing, getting in and out of a chair, and dressing are now time-consuming liabilities. She teeters when she walks, a bit like an overly confident toddler just finding their sea legs and seemingly tipsy off the grog. Those of us watching her are like overprotective parents wanting to honor her freedom while desperate to catch her if she falls. This growing instability means she sits a lot, listening to Gone with the Wind or watching the news and movies on TMC where she can only vaguely make out the blurry figures.

At 76, mom suddenly seems very old, and she’s gone from shooing a single mosquito to navigating a Louisiana swampland infestation of them. Now it’s her sight, balance, cognition, broken arm, and long-time arthritic knee. It’s a multi-front assault that accompanies questions without clear answers: When’s the right time for in-home care? How do we encourage hope? Can she really withstand that knee replacement surgery? Will a wheelchair keep her safe or erode her will? Is it safe to leave her alone?

I know seniors everywhere are grappling with similarly significant and emotionally fraught decisions – with consequences that are often crushing. 

It oddly reminds me of giving birth. After I had my first child, I took sitz baths to promote vaginal healing and walked around our house topless for weeks to give my raw nipples a fighting chance to heal. While nursing my daughter in the middle of the night I wondered with genuine alarm, ‘How is this something most women on the planet do? Why wasn’t I warned?’ While I can see the beauty of the postpartum experience, I struggle to see the beauty of the battle in which my mother’s an involuntary warrior. I do, however, wonder now, just as I did then, ‘How is this is something so many of us will do? Why wasn’t I warned?’

I feel warned now. And, I’m heeding the warning with vigor because ‘lasts’ are coming on a timeline I can’t foresee.

I’ve done ‘lasts’: last high school graduation, last day teaching 4th grade, last time living at 1010 Elsinore Ave. There was an unceremonious last time I carried my now 5’5 12 year old on my hip after years of lovingly, and often indignantly, responding to her ‘uppie’ requests. To date, ‘lasts’ have brought change, unearthing loss and possibility. But witnessing my mother’s decline alerts me to lasts on the horizon that seem devoid of possibility: the last time I leave my house or the last time I recognize my child. Mom and Gaga last walked up the stairs without assistance on a date no one can remember. 

I want to both stave off those unforgiving ‘lasts’ and savor my abilities now. I’m holding Warrior Three just a few extra breaths to strengthen my balance in yoga class. I’m planning a family whitewater rafting trip in Jackson to scratch my ever-present itch for outdoor adventure. I’m scheduling that platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection for my Achilles tendonitis so I can continue running with my neighbor. I’m working over-time to carpe diem while trying to quell the anticipatory distress: my life will one day become a series of unwanted ‘lasts.’

And yet, when I call to check in on mom and ask how she is, she offers an honest and uplifting, ‘Pretty good!’ followed by, ‘Didn’t do too much, really.’ Miraculously, grief doesn’t show up like a layer of suffocating wildfire smoke in our conversations. Instead, there’s gratitude for her physical therapist, (‘He is terrific, Chantal,’ she assures me), and glee over a Notre Dame football victory. Maybe it’s her declined executive functioning or her decades-lived-by-adage of, ‘It is what it is,’ that keep regret and depression at bay. Maybe it’s 76 years of a life well-lived that facilitates the acceptance of slower, simpler, less autonomous living.

Maybe it’s our human condition and commitment to survival. Dr. Diane Meier, geriatrician and founder of Mount Sinai’s Center to Advance Palliative Care, shared in the 70 Over 70 podcast, “It is remarkable how people adjust when finitude becomes visible. Things that our younger selves would have said would not have been a life worth living, we change our minds…We cannot know how we’re going to feel in the future when we might need a wheelchair or cane or dialysis. What seems completely unacceptable to our younger, healthier selves becomes acceptable when the alternative is death.”

I don’t know for sure why my mother’s so seemingly ‘fine’ when her aging process fills me with sadness and dread. I’m mourning the traveler, chef, and host she can no longer be and the identities I’ll lose as frailty becomes me. 

But witnessing her, and my grandmother before her, also offers me intellectual solace.

I passed by a young mother last week on her way from house to car whose journey down a dozen stairs with an infant and two toddlers looked harrowing. As she yelled, ‘Hold on to the railing!’ to a son who seemed more interested in face planting into concrete than heeding caution advice, I consciously noted, ‘I’m so happy not to be her anymore.’ Of course I miss the sensation of a sweaty baby nestled in an Ergo on my chest, but having lived through those days, the freedom of initiating an impromptu date night without scrambling for a sitter and the delight in reading The 57 Bus, not Good Night Moon, with my daughter is intoxicating. Maybe if I live to 76, I won’t miss Little League sideline chatter or our family’s annual hike of Yosemite’s Mist Trail. Maybe I’ll be grateful for the memories and content to recollect, not relive them. That’s implausible to me now but I believe that mom, even with her ailing mind and body, wouldn’t wish to be 44 again with all the chaos it entails. Maybe I’ll accept, even settle into, the stillness and narrowness of an elderly life that my current social and able-bodied-self rejects. Maybe.

Trusting that even slightly brings a modicum of peace.

I wasn’t born old. Neither was Gaga. She grew up playing Jacks with friends in Brooklyn, went to Hunter College at night, taught classes of 1st graders how to read, and loved Rusty, the family’s pet Doberman, as her first born. Mom wasn’t born old either. She was a cheerleader at St. Joe’s, accepted my father’s wedding proposal after the third date, snuggled with me as a 3rd grader while reading Bridge to Terabithia aloud, and massaged the weary hands of hospice patients as a volunteer. They both lived vibrant, long lives and then became old. And as old age descended, they befriended surrender and redefined what constituted a ‘good day’ and a ‘life worth living’ – an unexpected call from a grandkid, a walk on the beach, a pedicure, a brandy at cocktail hour – and found contentment.

It makes me desperate to live a long life, complete with suffering and loss that I can withstand, because I trust that life, even whittled down to its studs, is stunning. But I wonder, can I really become old – likely enduring heart disease, cancer, dementia, strokes – with joy and grace given the magnitude of loss that seems to be aging’s most reliable companion? Can I avoid the torment of regret if I never saw the Pyramids, reunited with a forgotten friend, or wrote that book when my faculties allowed it? Can I really shed the fear of what inhabiting an old person’s life and body means? I begin to imagine I can given the women who came before me. And maybe, just maybe, that will offer illusive serenity as old age draws near.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts, Marriage, moving on

In the Airport

April 15, 2022
lisa

When Lisa saw Dan her heart throbbed so fiercely she almost toppled over and out of her chair. She hadn’t seen her former husband for nearly forty years and certainly wouldn’t expect him to be waiting here, like her, for a plane’s arrival. He was standing before the large screen with its information about departures and arrivals. He shouldn’t have been in Portland. On the last envelope she had received—enclosed with a child support check—it had been postmarked in Houston. But that was back in 1983.

He’d be seventy-two in three months, May 9. She remembered the date: after all she made him a party nearly every year of their marriage—seven years altogether. No doubt he forgot the next day was her birthday. He probably forgot about her. He was tall and lanky, not quite as well built as in the past, and stooped slightly. His hair had been brown but was now white peppered with gray and swept back away from his forehead. He was clean-shaven but that didn’t surprise her. He had shaved off his mustache and beard soon after their marriage. He was nicely dressed in a corduroy jacket over jeans. She wished he wasn’t still handsome.

He turned away from the screen and she feared he’d choose a seat near her and maybe recognize her. She ran her fingers through her silver hair, which she hadn’t dyed in nearly a decade. It had been a natural auburn until she was forty, when her first gray strands appeared. She also gained twenty pounds since he last saw her. He remained standing at a distance, and fortunately a large family, including a man in a wheelchair, blocked him from seeing her.

Over the years, she was committed to hating him but when she’d look at the one photo she kept of him she’d be stirred with longing—even at her age. At UC Santa Barbara, girls had always turned their heads to look at him. Even the child she tutored back then had said, “He’s what we call guapo.” No doubt he remarried.

***

Lisa met Dan Hennessey while they both volunteered in the Children’s Project, sponsored by the university’s graduate school of education. She had first seen a notice about it on a kiosk near the student union. The project called for volunteers to tutor children in the near-by town of Carpinteria. They had come with their families from Mexico a few years earlier. She was an English major and hoped someday to teach on the college level but she believed she could effectively tutor a young child in reading and writing. She was idealistic and wanted to do something valuable in the community. She removed a pad from her handbag and wrote down the phone number.

From the apartment she shared with three roommates, she called the number. A girl with a perky voice gave her instructions about attending an important meeting. She would join other prospective tutors in Parking Lot Ten on Friday at three p.m. where there would be a van to transport them. Sure enough on that day Lisa saw a VW bus, with a sign Children’s Project in one of its windows.

As they traveled south on Highway 101 she saw the glimmering Pacific Ocean on one side and on the other, dusty brown hills dotted with sagebrush and chapparal. When they turned off the highway, they drove passed an orchard of avocado trees and a scattering of plain stucco houses in various colors and into the little downtown, the street lined with palm trees and Torrey pines. The van parked in front of a stucco building with a sign by the door, Carpinteria Community Center.

Parents crowded the room, all sitting on metal folding chairs that faced a podium. The front row of chairs was left vacant for the student volunteers. When everyone was seated the mayor, wearing a suit and tie, spoke about how much the community appreciated working with the university to help their children succeed in school. He then introduced Dr. Ed Franklin, a professor at the graduate school of education. He was a short, round man, wearing a too-tight striped jersey top over bell-bottom jeans. He looked like he should be swabbing a ship deck rather than discussing academics. He gave a quick speech about how happy he was that the university and the graduate school of education in particular could contribute to the community. Then he introduced the student coordinator for the volunteers.

That was the first time she saw Dan, who stepped up to the podium. He towered over the professor and the mayor and she noted he was stunningly handsome. The features of his face were perfectly proportioned and his neatly trimmed beard and mustache suited him. His brown hair was long, flipping slightly above the collar of his flannel shirt. His big dark eyes showed a seriousness of purpose. Lisa was riveted to his eyes.

The volunteer who sat next to her elbowed her and whispered by her ear, “He’s cute. I’ll do my best to bump into him.”

“He probably already has a girlfriend or maybe a wife,” Lisa said. “He seems so serious he might not even be interested in dating.” This possibility came to mind because she was reading Euripides’s Hippolytus at the time in her Seminar in Classical Literature. And Lisa felt like Phaedra—struck with instant love.

At the podium Dan explained that each volunteer would be assigned a child and would work with that child for the length of the college quarter. “This way you’ll get a chance to bond, which is essential for success.”

The following Friday afternoon the volunteers returned to the community center to get their assigned child. A graduate student, in a peasant blouse over a long sweeping skirt, was in charge and introduced Lisa to a small girl with long coffee-brown hair pulled back with barrettes and wearing a white blouse tucked into a skirt with ruffles, white ankle socks, and patten leather shoes. “Lisa, this is Clara Gutierrez, who’s eight and in the third grade,” the graduate student informed her.

Lisa showed Clara a wide grin and said, “I’ll remember your name because my sister’s name is Claire.”

Clara brought Lisa to her home, which was in walking distance from the community center. It was a simple stucco house, with bougainvillea creeping along a wall on one side. Rosebushes with withered roses lined a picket fence, and a drooping sunflower stood on the parched front lawn. When they stepped inside they entered a room with a massive oak dining room table surrounded by several oak chairs, which occupied most of the space. Many people probably lived in this small house.

Clara’s mother greeted them and offered Lisa iced tea. She accepted not just to be polite. It was a hot day and she was thirsty.

They then entered a living room with a sofa and several stuffed arm chairs. Lisa also saw a bookcase packed with books in Spanish. This gave her an idea. “Why don’t you read a favorite story in Spanish before we start a book in English?” she said.

Clara giggled. “You won’t understand it.”

“I might. I took five years of Spanish in school—mi escuela. I even read Don Quixote. And if there’s something I don’t know I’ll ask you.”

They sat together on the huge velvet sofa. Clara opened CenicientaCinderella. The illustrations were familiar: pretty stone houses, the relevant castle in the distance, and the usual depiction of Cinderella—or Cenicienta—with long blond hair.

Afterwards, Clara asked if she could show Lisa the beach just a few blocks away from her house. It was such a warm day Lisa agreed. After all, they would have many opportunities to read books in English and this would help them to bond.

Another way to bond was to allow Clara to be Lisa’s tutor as well. As they walked on a road without sidewalks Lisa said, “Please help me improve my Spanish. We’re going to la playa, right?”

Si, la playa.” Clara giggled.

She pointed to her blouse. “This is a camisa, right?”

Clara shook her head. “No, that means shirt. Blusa is the word for blouse.”

Lisa noticed Dan entering the road with a small boy. They were only a block behind her and Clara. She forced herself not to be distracted by seeing him. “Okay, let me try again.” She tugged at her pants. “These are pantalones.

This time Clara nodded. Then she pointed to Lisa’s big leather handbag. “Tell me what this is called.”

Lisa noted that Dan and the boy were catching up to them but she smiled at Clara and said, “I don’t know. Please tell me.”

Bolsa. It’s your bolsa.” She lifted her small pink vinyl handbag and said, “This is my bolsa.”

Suddenly Clara’s face brightened and she waved at the boy. The two were walking on the other side of the street, now parallel with them. “Luis, we read Cenicienta today,” Clara shouted to the boy.

He merely shrugged.

Dan and the boy approached them while Lisa did her best to subdue the fluttering of her heart.

He extended his hand to shake Lisa’s. “Hi, I’m Dan Hennessey, as you probably already know.”

When their hands touched his was pleasantly warm. “Lisa Turner.”

“Thanks for becoming a tutor, Lisa,” he said.

That same Friday just as she was about to step into the VW bus to return to the campus Dan rushed over to her and said, “Let me give you a ride back. I have my car.”

They dated every weekend since then and occasionally she slept with him at the apartment he shared with another roommate. She wondered why he chose her. Dan was often encircled with attractive grad students at UCSB who doted on him. Not only was he good-looking and charismatic he was the creator of the successful Children’s Project. Perhaps he was attracted to her—her roommates assured her she was pretty. She needed assurance.

One night while she lay in his arms after sex he said, “I’m excited about my chosen field, Lisa. I’ll make a difference to kids. I’ll help them achieve their goals in life.”

It was dark but she imagined that serious glow in his eyes as he spoke of his vision. She was in awe of him and said, “You’re amazing.”

Yet she wished he’d be more serious about her interests.

“Don’t expect me to read some boring as hell guy from the nineteenth century!” he had said to her when she suggested he read her favorite author, George Eliot. She didn’t bother to tell him George Eliot wasn’t a guy. Once she dared to read to him a poem she had written but afterwards he kissed her forehead and said, “No offense, but I’m not into metaphors. I only understand straight facts.” She never shared her poems with him again. Besides, her pursuits were frivolous compared to his.

On the Thursday morning of Thanksgiving, he called her at home in Glendale to invite her to dinner at his parents’ house in West Covina. “They want to meet you,” he said, “So they told me to ask you to come Saturday night around six. Please come, Lisa.”

“Sure, I’d love to,” she said but she dreaded going. They’d be accessing her, deciding if she was a fit girlfriend for their special son. She feared they’d be disappointed.

For the rest of that day, she was so jittery in anticipation of meeting his parents that she could hardly enjoy being with her relatives, including her cousin Judy, who arrived from Cornell, and meeting her sister’s new boyfriend, Brian. After she and Claire set the dining room table for the big meal, she grabbed her sister and brought her into her bedroom so they could speak alone. “Dan invited me to dinner at his parents’ house on Saturday,” she said. “I’m dreading it. They’ll expect me to be perfect—like Dan. They’ll be disappointed.”

“Don’t put yourself down, Lisa,” Claire said. “Dan’s lucky he met you: you’re adorable, you’re intelligent, you have a great sense of humor, and most of all you’re sweet and kind. What more can he want? Besides, I doubt he’s perfect. No one is perfect.”

“You mean not even you?” Lisa asked to be funny.

“Especially me. But I’m right about this. Stop putting him on a pedestal. You’re the one who should be on the pedestal.”

Nevertheless, Lisa had grandiose expectations about Dan’s family as she drove east on I-210 from her home in Glendale toward his in West Covina. She imagined a mansion on a slope with a view and a large backyard swimming pool. They’d be elegant and erudite people with an enormous library, packed with classics. Yet as soon as she drove through his parents’ neighborhood her notions altered: these were all modest tract homes. She pulled up in front of a plain ranch house, stucco with red brick trim. The lawn was mowed and in front of it were two squat palm trees.

As soon as she entered the house, his family didn’t dazzle her, which surprised her. His father was rod-thin, tall, and slightly bent. Like Dan, his sister had inherited his height and was a head taller than her rotund boyfriend. Dan resembled his mother yet her appearance was bland. Perhaps it was the clothes she wore: a beige jersey top over brown polyester pants and no jewelry. She showed only a slight grateful smile when she took Lisa’s gift, a box of See’s candy. His father gave Lisa a broader smile and said, “Nice to meet you.”

For her benefit, the main dish was vegetarian lasagna. She appreciated that Dan had told his parents she didn’t eat meat. She had feared she’s be forced to eat turkey leftover from Thanksgiving or maybe roast beef or pork chops.

His sister, named Amy, giggled with her boyfriend at one end of the table and they seemed preoccupied with each other. Amy had blond hair with brown roots and wore makeup too thick on her eyes, which were an icy blue. Her boyfriend had thin blond hair and lambchop sideburns that looked silly across his full cheeks.

Lisa braced herself for their many questions but none were forthcoming. Dan’s father stared at her but said nothing. Then his mother began, “We’re so proud of Dan and his accomplishments. Aren’t you, Lisa?”

“Oh, yes,” she said and smiled at Dan.

“He’s going to be called doctor by this summer. His grandparents and aunts and uncles are all so happy. Isn’t that an enormous achievement?”

“Oh, yes, it is. And his project in Carpinteria has done so much for the kids who live there.”

His mother brought a forkful of lasagna to her mouth then dabbed away sauce with her napkin. “Really?” She turned to her son. “What kind of project, Dan? I haven’t heard anything about it.”

Lisa was surprised that he hadn’t told his parents before about the important project. When they were back at school she said to him, “Why didn’t you tell your parents about the Children’s Project?”

He shrugged. “I didn’t see the point. They only care that I’m a success—that I’ll be called doctor.”

That June a new world was open to them. They both graduated, Lisa with a B.A. degree in English, Dan with a Ph.D. in Education, specifically in Counseling, Clinical and School Psychology. While they celebrated dinner at their favorite restaurant, Arnoldi’s Café, in Santa Barbara, Dan proposed to her and she accepted. Dan wanted the wedding to be small and Lisa agreed: they were poor, still without jobs, and couldn’t expect their families to splurge on their behalf—though Lisa’s mother wanted a big celebration and was willing to pay for it. They invited only immediate family and were wed in a small chapel in Pasadena. Dan’s community involvement strengthened his resumé so Lisa wasn’t surprised that he quickly acquired a position at Portland State University to teach at their education college, starting in the fall. She immediately applied to the university’s graduate program in English and was thrilled to be accepted.

They packed up their belongings and headed for the Northwest. Nearly two years later when she was finishing her Master’s degree, she discovered she was pregnant and they both were excited about having a baby. But in her third month she had a miscarriage. She was depressed for weeks but Dan was depressed for much longer. She had failed him.

***

Claire had to convince Lisa that she did take good care of herself while pregnant and she didn’t fail Dan. Claire had made the emphatic point that the opposite was true: he failed her. This thought renewed Lisa’s anger. She should pop up now and stomp over to him, shout for everyone around them to hear: he failed her—and their daughter. Yet at this late date she’d gain nothing by humiliating him—and herself.

A group of travelers were coming through the terminal doors. Claire’s plane wasn’t due for another twenty minutes. Lisa had checked about forty minutes earlier and discovered then that the flight would be delayed for an hour. But maybe it arrived sooner than expected. She dared not check the screen and have Dan see her. Yet now that she looked at the passengers, she noted that they were tan, several men wore bright shirts with blazing prints of palm trees and hibiscus flowers, and both men and women wore leis around their necks. These people obviously arrived from Hawaii. She hoped that whomever Dan was waiting for had been a passenger on that plane and then they’d be gone and he’d once again be out of her life.

But that wasn’t about to happen yet. As the group dispersed, she saw him sitting in a chair on the other side of the big screen. She could hardly breathe.

***

A year after her miscarriage Lisa was happy to discover she was once again pregnant. Dan was cautiously happy and kissed her. Then he said, “This time you might consider eating more protein. At least fish.”

He could never reconcile himself to her being a vegetarian. She had been a vegetarian since she was a high school senior. Her friend, Karen Ridley, became one first and had given Lisa a book about the horrors of the slaughterhouse. After only reading a few pages, she announced to her parents she’d no longer be eating anything that walked, flew, or swam. Her mother, a great cook who prepared a meat dish for dinner almost every night, wasn’t happy about this but said, “Then you’ll be cooking your own meals.”

Which Lisa readily did and learned from vegetarian cookbooks how to make tasteful dishes with tofu, various other bean sources, and nuts. Family members predicted this was a mere phase that would end, but they were wrong. During her first pregnancy Dan had made her ask her gynecologist if being a vegetarian was harmful to the fetus and the doctor had assured her it was fine as long as she ate nutritiously, balancing protein with vegetables and not eating too many fats and carbs. After the miscarriage she had called the doctor and asked, “Did it have anything to do with my vegetarian diet?”

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I believe it had to do with your cervix. It’s what we call an incompetent cervix, which means it opens too early in the pregnancy. We’ll have to watch over it during a future pregnancy.”

Something about her had been incompetent but it hadn’t been her diet.

Lisa was nervous throughout her second pregnancy and times when she spotted blood sent her and Dan into a frenzy of worry. She was glad she had stopped teaching at Portland Community College. She spent much of the time off her feet either reading or watching television. Dan had even bought a stereo unit so she could listen to her favorite records.

Just as she began her seventh month of pregnancy she went into labor. She gave birth to a tiny baby girl, pruned faced and jaundiced but still beautiful. She was immediately placed in an incubator. Lisa hated leaving the hospital without her baby, whom she and Dan had named Jennifer Marie. That same night they returned and watched tiny Jennifer in the incubator and Dan moved close to Lisa and folded his hand over hers. She smiled at him gratefully.

When Jennifer was eighteen months old the pediatrician told them she had cerebral palsy. This didn’t surprise Lisa. The child couldn’t stand yet, dragged one foot when she crawled, toppled over when she sat, and thrust her arms out for no reason. She drooled and had trouble saying mama. She could not say dada.

Yet when the doctor had put the diagnosis into words this stunned Dan and he paled.

With tears in her eyes, Lisa said after the appointment, “I know how painful this is to hear, Dan, but Jenny is lucky to have you as her father. In your field, you know all about kids like her and how to help them.”

His dark brown eyes showed despair that troubled her and so did his silence.

When Lisa found placement for Jennifer, at aged three, in a special program for young handicapped children at Portland Child Growth and Development Center she called Dan at his office on campus. “The director is really enthusiastic and very supportive. She gave me a tour of the center. It’s an amazing place. They’re all special kids under the age of six. They’re being potty trained and learning to eat by themselves and how to do say words and do simple puzzles. They also have a staff physical therapist and speech therapist who will work with Jenny. You’ve got to see for yourself. Anyway, the exciting news is Jenny can start this Monday morning.”

His reply surprised her. “Don’t make me dinner. I’m working late tonight.”

After she had fed and bathed her daughter and put her to bed she sat on the living room sofa and sobbed. Her relationship with her husband was strained by this child coming into their lives. Maybe it was her fault—an incompetent cervix or her no meat diet. Yet she loved pretty little Jenny, who looked like her father, except that she had Lisa’s red hair. They could still be happy.

He gave her no eye contact when he arrived home that night. A somber look was on his face and he went straight to their bedroom. She remained on the sofa, a novel unread on the coffee table. She couldn’t follow him into the bedroom, as if a heavy weight pressed down on her. A sense of doom overwhelmed her and she felt chilled. She finally forced herself up and left for the kitchen to boil water for tea. She was pouring the water into her mug when she heard him say, “Lisa, please come in here.”

She returned to the living room and was shocked to see that he held a bulging suitcase. She trembled so badly she grasped hold of a side table to steady herself. “You’re leaving us?” she managed to say.

“I can’t stay here any longer. I’ll send papers for you to sign. And money. Please don’t contact me.” In a softer voice he added, “This is just too much for me.”

Through blurry eyes she looked up at him. “Don’t you love us at all?”

“I … I can’t deal with it.” He turned and left.

Stunned, mortified, and scared Lisa knew she needed to call her sister. Through sobs she managed to tell Claire what had happened.

That weekend Claire left her home in Canoga Park and her husband, Brian, and toddler son, Justin, to be with Lisa at her time of despair. “I’ll hunt him down and kill him!” she said that evening after Lisa put Jennifer in her bedroom to sleep. In a slightly calmer voice she added, “You’ll get the best divorce lawyer and make him pay up—the bastard!”

Lisa sank onto the sofa and sobbed in her hands. “He’s left us—me. And it’s my fault!”

Claire plopped down next to her and grabbed her chin. She lifted Lisa’s face and their eyes met. “This is not your fault. Never ever say that again!”

Claire was her savior over the years, even though they remained living at a distance. She visited when she could, especially during summers while they both weren’t teaching. Sometimes Brian and Justin came too. Brian would walk through the house looking to see what he could repair, rewire, or repaint and Justin would make some effort to entertain Jennifer.

Fortunately, Lisa received help with Jennifer from school and community programs so she was able to work fulltime, teaching at the Sylvania Campus of Portland Community College, not far from her home. The money was needed: Dan had stopped sending money after three years. As far as he was concerned, she and Jennifer no longer existed. Then Jennifer died of pneumonia when she was fifteen. Lisa’s parents and Claire and Brian came to her funeral. Lisa was crushed and only her sister and brother-in-law had saved her from driving her car off a cliff.

***

Claire was coming to help Lisa celebrate her sixty-eighth birthday. Regrettably, Brian wasn’t joining her. He had suffered a mild heart attack a few months earlier and explained apologetically on the phone that his fear of flying might trigger another.

It occurred to Lisa that if Claire spotted Dan she might rush up to him and slap his face—but she’d prefer to strangle him. Lisa would get some satisfaction.

Yet, so much time had passed since that day he left her and their daughter that there was no point in trying to punish him now. It had been a long time since she felt exhausted from caring for Jennifer and also teaching. Then for years she mourned the loss of her daughter and struggled with loneliness. She dated but never lasted in a relationship. She enjoyed her friendships and participated in a writing group and went to poetry readings. She continued to write poems and had managed to get a few published in literary journals. That was her life.

Her hands were sweaty and she felt so agitated she couldn’t remain in her seat. Besides, she no longer cared if she came face to face with Dan. She stood and headed toward the Starbucks next to the terminal doors. She could easily see passengers arriving.

She was standing on line to order when she heard, “Lisa?”

She recognized the voice. This triggered the heavy beating of her heart. She was about to turn to face him but then the barista said, “Ma’am, what can I get for you?”

“A twelve-ounce coffee, please,” she managed to say. Then she faced him. That serious glow in his eyes was gone and he managed a smile. Perhaps he mellowed over the years.

“How are you?” he had the nerve to ask.

With a trembling hand she gave the barista a five-dollar bill for a $1.85 coffee and told him to keep the rest. She forced her hand to hold her hot cup steadily. “Fine,” she answered, deciding this exchange was absurd.

He stepped out of line and followed her to the counter where she poured half and half into her cup then stirred it and stirred it again and again.

“I didn’t recognize you at first,” he said.

“It’s been a long time,” she said, not looking at him. “What are you doing in Portland?”

He let out a nervous chuckle. “I missed the wet weather so I came back. Actually, I live in Lake Oswego.”

That was an affluent suburb. He was doing well. “Which plane are you waiting for?”

“The United flight from LAX. My wife went to visit her mom in a nursing home in Long Beach. We’re going to have her move up here so we can keep a better eye on her.”

This information about his wife made Lisa’s stomach twist even though years had passed. No doubt he had a family, with healthy kids and grandkids, too. She didn’t want to know about them. “She’s on the same plane as my sister.”

“That must be Claire. How is she?”

“Fine—just like me.”

He didn’t mention the unmentionable.

These moments were unbearably toxic and she had to flee. She glanced toward the exit doors and saw some passengers coming through them. The plane had arrived. Claire would be here momentarily to save her— once again. She tossed the cup full of coffee into a trash bin. She glanced at him for the last time and said, “Your daughter died a number of years ago.” She rushed by him and toward the doors.

When she spotted Claire, pulling a carry-on suitcase, she ran to her and hugged her. “Dan’s here,” she said by her sister’s ear.

Claire hugged her tighter then released her and said, “It’s too late for murder so I have a better idea: let’s go to dinner and order an expensive bottle of wine. It’s your birthday so it’s my treat.”

“Yes, I’d like that.”

Hillary Tiefer has a PhD in English and has taught at various colleges. Her short stories have been published in Descant, Red Rock Review, Mission at Tenth, Blue Moon Literary Review, Gray Sparrow Journal, Poetica Magazine, Poydras Review, Crack the Spine Literary Magazine, JuxtaProse, The Literary Nest, Smoky Blue Literature and Art Magazine, Five on the Fifth, and The Opiate. Her stories were finalists in contests for Folio, Hidden Rivers Press, Homebound Publications, and Glimmer Train. Her novel, Lily’s Home Front, was published in October 2018 (Moonshine Cove Publishing). Her essays on the author Thomas Hardy have been published in scholarly journals.

Alcoholism, Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Asylum

April 8, 2022
moira

The lanky ten-year-old runs full tilt toward Moira’s car as she turns sharply into her sister Bridget’s driveway, barely missing Conor’s BMW. Her son is beside the door before she can open it. “I got a triple, and a double too.” He’s breathless, a huge brown growth of a catcher’s mitt at the end of his skinny arm.

“That’s terrific, Michael.” She slides out of the car, hoping he won’t require too large a dose of admiration, because she’s late. Even her sister Kate, who prides herself on defying start times, is here already, her minivan parked across the street, next to Liam’s pick-up truck. Moira dreads going inside. She and her sisters and brothers are meeting here today to talk about their father, who’s about to be kicked out of his brother’s house in Boston.

She bends to kiss her son, smells the sweet sweat of his play. Perspiration darkens his auburn hair, and his jeans bear the fresh tracks of a slide. He’s big for his age, like Sean, her older boy, and it’s clear they’ll both be as tall as all the Donnegans. She prays that’s where the resemblance will end.

Michael shouts the news of her arrival to Sean, who approaches the low picket fence surrounding Bridget’s huge back yard, looking unimpressed. Moira’s brother Liam, close behind him, waves a greeting and Moira nods. Sean wears a smirk. The sullenness that set in when Moira and Ken broke up has hardened. He’s chosen sides. “I let him hit it,” Sean says, but he brings himself to full height, can’t fully conceal how important it is to show his mother that Michael is no threat.

“Now, don’t be like that,” says Liam, and Sean’s face flushes, reminding Moira how readily he responds when a man points something out. Even Bridget, who’s been watching the boys after school since Ken moved out, has trouble getting him to listen.

“You did not,” Michael insists, and steps up to his brother, who’s leaning over the fence, and tries to grab his baseball cap, but Sean swats him away.

From the yard, Bridget’s daughter Cathy calls them back to the game. “I’ll see you guys later,” Liam tells them, and Moira follows him into Bridget’s kitchen. He’s thin as ever, wearing the leather jacket he dons for occasions when he wants to be especially belligerent. Once inside, he heads for the living room without stopping to chat.

Bridget has water on for tea and she takes her time getting it ready. She seems to be in no hurry for what comes next. She’s wearing another long, loose skirt, but Moira notices she’s replaced her usual T-shirt with a pale blue sweater and her hair is brushed back. She pours the water with exaggerated care, adjusts the spoons on the saucers as if they must conform to code, and brings the cup to Moira, a peace offering. “They’re here. Inside,” she whispers, and motions toward the living room.

“All of them?”

“Peter doesn’t want to start without you.”

It was Peter who asked for the meeting, and Moira is still amazed that he managed to get all seven of them together and on such short notice. No doubt it was Maggie, their linchpin, who got it done. The words talk about Dad must have drawn them in like gawkers to a freak show. They haven’t exchanged more than ten words about their father in almost twenty-five years, not since their mother left him—a decision even Fr. Cashman, who’d baptized all of them and had known their father since he arrived from Derry, couldn’t find fault with.

Moira has seen her father only a handful of times in the past ten years—family occasions she couldn’t dodge. The last time, two years ago, she was attending her cousin’s wedding, in Boston, and her father was seated at the next table. They’d barely exchanged a greeting, but later in the evening he turned to her. The tables in the hall were close and her chair backed up to his. “If you can navigate us to the dance floor, I’d love to have this waltz.”

“It’s not a waltz,” she said, because she had no intention of getting up. What she wanted to say was How dare you? How dare you think we can dance together? But they did. She let him hold her and she put her arm across his shoulder. When he remarked at how tall she was, she had trouble catching her breath. When he asked if her hair was still red, she lost her footing, so she pretended it was because she rarely wore heels.

Later, out in the parking lot, she gave Aunt Mary her number. “In case he ever wants to reach me,” she said. But he never did.

Moira follows Bridget into the living room, where the others have settled in. Someone coughs, and Maggie, a heavy woman with vigilant eyes and the all-knowing look of a matriarch, says Moira’s name, but otherwise the room is stiff with silence. Moira feels as if she’s been called back to reprise a role in a play that closed years ago. The room smells of ugly memories and sweaty tension, like the waiting room of some therapist who can’t leave well enough alone.

Peter, the only one on his feet, leans against the covered keys of the piano Bridget never plays, cigarette in hand, his expensive tie undone. He reminds Moira of a crooner trying to warm up the crowd with one-liners that are falling flat. He’s the unspoken head of this disjointed band of siblings, a title he stepped into at first simply because he’s the oldest male but later his accomplishments gave him status. A decorated veteran of the Viet Nam War, a successful business owner, and the father of five boys, he acts as if he survived unscathed. Moira isn’t the only one who doesn’t buy that. The best you can hope for after a childhood like theirs is to get properly diagnosed.

Moira and Bridget place their tea on the coffee table and join Maggie and Liam on the couch, not far from the piano. Pressed shoulder to shoulder, they dutifully wait to hear what Peter has to say. He clears his throat to begin but doesn’t. The others seem to be taking care not to look at each other as he gives another false start. Then silence.

“For fuck’s sake,” Liam says, “what’s going on? Does the old bastard have cancer or something?” Moira sighs. Even sober, Liam can belittle any occasion. He is Peter’s Irish twin, born less than twelve months after him. Unhappy with second billing, he’s played the foil ever since, the one beyond redemption.

“Why don’t you just say what you have to say, Peter?” Maggie coaxes, focusing, as usual, on the here and now. Her stability has been one of the family’s few anchors. She refuses to dramatize, forces them to accept their options, such as they are. She’s approaching fifty now and has put on weight, but it suits her image: the truth-teller, the one who won’t pretend you can lament your way out of trouble.

“All right, then,” Peter begins. “Like I told Maggie, Dad needs a place to live.” He joins his hands in front of him, like an airline ticket agent looking for someone willing to give up his seat. “So I’m going to need some help with this.” He stops, reaches into his jacket for his cigarettes.

Help? Moira glances at the others. They all seem bewildered.

“What are you talking about?” Liam asks.

They don’t get an answer because Cathy slides open the door to the back yard, sparing no fingerprints on the glass. “Catheee,” Bridget whines, “I just cleaned that glass.” The girl begins wiping the spots with her baseball glove. “Catheee, you’re letting out the air-conditioning.”

The girl leaps into the room, ready to defend herself. “Sean says I can’t have four strikes,” she complains, seeking some greater justice than the rules of the game allow—anything that will get her on base.

Bridget chases her back outside and grabs the Windex she keeps at the ready. The others clearly aren’t ready to consider Peter’s request, because they begin chatting about their houses and their kids, swapping stories about home improvement projects and the cost of dance recital costumes. Moira watches the urgency with which Bridget attacks the glass, and remembers something she thought was gone. The spots were on the wall, and Bridget had gotten up early to try to wash them away. She didn’t want their mother to see them again and get upset. Most of the spots were tiny; from across the room you wouldn’t even know it was blood, because they were brown by then. They reminded Moira of dark freckles and how her father would make constellations from the ones on her arms, point out a baseball diamond, a wagon, a bear’s face. On the wall, she thought she could make out an angel’s wings, but she couldn’t be sure because Bridget was working too fast, and anyway, she knew already that angels had to be make-believe. People liked to pretend there were guardians, but nothing could really protect them.

Bridget puts away her Windex and returns to the couch, adjusting the pillow before taking her seat.

“So what are you saying, Peter?” says Maggie.

“I’m talking about Dad.”

“That much we got,” Liam says.

“Have you actually talked to him? Is that what you’re saying?” Kate prompts. She’s soft spoken, almost whimpering now, and Moira wishes she would stop acting as if she owes the world an apology for breathing. Still, she’s grateful for the question, eager for Peter to get this over with.

Peter flicks an ash into a nearby philodendron, and Moira hears Bridget exhale in annoyance. “Dad’s been in touch with me for more than a year,” he says. “I’ve been up to see him at Uncle Pearce’s.”

“Uncle Pearce is dead two months now,” says Moira, looking at the others, confused. Only Maggie returns her look.

“I guess we should have sent a Mass card,” says Liam, and Conor laughs, always ready to help keep the temperature from rising. He’s wearing a dark gray, conservative suit that makes him look incapable of deceit, his tie perfectly knotted. She can’t remember the last time she saw him in anything not designed to impress a jury.

“So how is he?” says Kate.

“Who gives a shit how he is?” says Maggie.

“Christ,” Liam mutters. “I never should have come here sober.” He lights a cigarette, and Moira clenches her teeth.

“He’s good. Yeah, he’s fine. I took John and Doug up with me last time. They got a kick out of him. And they’d never been to Boston, so it was good. But like I said, it looks like he’s going to have to move out.”

Moira has no trouble picturing that scene—her father joking and teasing, her nephews taken by his odd ways. Pete Donnegan is a larger-than-life transplant whose quirks and speech patterns are throwbacks now, mimicked and sentimentalized in movies. Still, this news bothers her, though she can’t understand why. She feels robbed, as if Peter has claimed for himself something that belongs to her too. She wants to tell him that, ask why he didn’t invite her to go, but she knows how absurd it would sound. Maybe keeping him at a distance was fine as long as he wasn’t close to any of the others.

Peter’s tone softens. “He’s getting old,” he says. “I think he’s a little scared.”

“Scared?” Kate says.

“He’s all alone; he’s got no one.”

“And whose fault is that?” Maggie says.

“I’m not defending him,” Peter insists, putting up his hands, as if to ward off an attack. “This isn’t anything like that. There’s just no one to look after him up there.”

“Like there was no one to look after us when Mom took that job as a receptionist,” Bridget says.

“The rest of us had to do his job for him,” says Maggie.

Liam checks his watch. “Are we gonna go through his venial sins too? I’ve only got four hours,” he says, and Conor lets out a sigh, bracing for the inevitable ruckus to come.

“I’m not here to talk about any of that.” Peter directs this to Maggie, stabbing a finger into his palm to mark the subject off limits. He clearly doesn’t want this to get out of control, which everyone knows is the only place it can go if she lets loose. “I’m just saying that one of us needs to take him in.”

Liam spits something out, a cross between a snort and a chuckle, but no one says anything.

“He’s an old man,” Peter prompts, clearly expecting a volunteer. “And he’s gone completely blind. He’s got barely any sight left at all now.” He’s practically pleading, hardly his usual ploy. He clears his throat as if to signal what’s coming. “He’s got to find a place by next week.”

Liam whistles softly, and Maggie shakes her head, eyes wide in amazement. “Are you serious?”

“Is he still drinking?” says Kate.

“Talk about stupid questions,” says Liam.

“What’s so stupid about it?” Conor says. “How do you know he’s still drinking?”

“Because Aunt Mary called me a year ago, wanting to know if I could come get him out of there.”

“I know all about that,” says Peter, raising both hands, palms out. He reminds Moira of the Pope, calming the crowd from his Vatican balcony. “Aunt Mary told me everything. But that’s not what this is about. She’d let him stay, but she needs to sell the house. She may have an offer.”

“Yeah, right,” says Liam. “That’ll all happen by next week.”

“Shut the fuck up,” Peter tells him.

“You really expect one of us to do this?” says Bridget, providing her own answer with a dismissive wave.

“I’m not going to see him in the street,” says Peter. “He’s my father.”

“So you’re volunteering to take him?” Conor says. Moira hears this as a challenge, inviting Peter to put up or shut up. She wonders if Conor senses it too, that Peter has claimed a kind of sole ownership of their father, the right to decide for him.

“I can’t,” Peter says. “Helen won’t do it.”

Maggie laughs hard. “But you expect us to?”

“For heaven’s sake, he’s old. He’s nothing like he used to be.”

“Oh, please,” she says, “spare us the violins.”

“Right,” says Liam, “we need bagpipes for this one.”

“Like you ever gave a rat’s ass about anybody,” Peter snaps.

“Ah, his lordship has spoken,” says Liam.

Moira squirms. It’s hard for her to be with them when they argue like this. Closing her eyes, she lets their voices merge, tries to disengage. She can’t help imagining how lost her father must feel to have nowhere to go. She remembers what that felt like, wedged on someone’s lap in a crowded car. How did they fit so many people into it? Bridget was crying. Conor was on Aunt Nora’s lap, wearing only one shoe. He’d thrown up, and the satin lapels of his tuxedo were stained. Peter and Helen’s wedding had ended in chaos, their father ringed by men to hold him back. Somebody had to stop him. That’s what everyone in the car was saying. They couldn’t let him go on like that. He would have hurt someone. Moira’s mother was already hurt by then, but that didn’t seem to count.

Aunt Nora was scolding her mother, insisting she couldn’t go home to him, not that night, not ever. They’d have to stay at Aunt Nora’s, and Moira’s stomach ached from it, remembering the last time they wound up there. She didn’t want to sleep in a strange place, didn’t want to be without her books and her dolls. And what would her father do when he realized they hadn’t come home? He’d come after them like the last time, wouldn’t he? He could hurt them.

She prayed her mother would tell them to turn the car around, head back to their apartment. But she didn’t. A panicky tingling down the back of her legs made Moira desperate to get out of the car, to run, find her way home. Her dad wasn’t always drunk, not really. Sometimes he told them stories. Just that morning he’d talked about being best man at his brother’s wedding, tying tin cans onto the back of his car. And sometimes he sang. He’d show them what to do with the song to make their voices blend, harmonizing he called it. Maybe if they talked to him, made him understand, he wouldn’t hurt anybody anymore. She looked at her mother, who’d turned away from the window. The other eye was visible now, badly swollen, making the lid close, and Moira saw why they had no choice.

By the time they returned to the apartment a week later, their father had stocked the fridge with ice cream and soda and found them a skinny terrier from somewhere, with one bad leg. Moira knew he was sorry. He didn’t have to say so.

Kate is listing the reasons she can’t ask Charlie to let him stay, as if this needs explaining. Charlie—her new husband, the fourth—is a wormy little tyrant she met on a discount cruise ship, who’s never done talking about gun rights and keeping America safe from immigrants. He’s never even met their father.

“Is he collecting Social Security? Does he have Medicare?” Kate asks, as if these are the issues that might be holding the others back.

“He’s got all that,” Peter says, “and I’ll take care of the rest.”

Moira’s not surprised at this, given Peter’s income, and doubts anyone else is.

“I could talk to Terry,” Conor says, but Maggie snaps at him.

“You will not talk to Terry. The last thing you need is a viper like that in your home.”

“If you’re ready to put money out, why don’t you just set up an apartment for him?” says Liam.

“He can’t see, for fuck’s sake,” Peter says.

“Then get him a live-in.”

“You can’t trust those people,” says Kate.

“I’m going to spend time with him,” says Peter. “He wants to go to ballgames, visit my office.”

Moira lets herself picture her father wearing a Yankees cap, sitting with her at one of Sean’s games as she describes his wind-up, the speed of the pitch. Her throat tightens. It’s too hard to think about, the years of wondering what it would feel like to have a father, a grandfather for the boys. Ken’s dad has never been much good at it. He spends half his time in meetings and the other half on planes. “I’ll just be a minute,” she tells the others, getting up from the couch. Liam whistles what sounds like “Eve of Destruction” as she leaves the room.

Bridget’s bathroom is immaculate, no hairs in the sink, no spots of toothpaste spit on the mirror, none of the little touches that would help Moira feel at home. She leans forward, both hands braced on the pink porcelain, staring into the mirror at her chin, afraid to look into her own eyes. She inspects the tiny mole below the corner of her mouth; her father’s is in the same exact spot. She wonders why Peter’s so convinced he wants to be back in their lives.

When her father still lived in their old neighborhood, in his sister Deirdre’s basement, Moira walked thirty blocks to see him, telling herself the whole way that it was the stationery store she really wanted to go to, the one that sold the carbon paper she liked. But when she reached the store, she crossed the street and rang the doorbell, her fists deep in her pockets, fighting the urge to turn around. She was graduating high school that Friday and she wasn’t sure he knew. She doubted her mother would have told him and the idea that he might want to be there plagued her, made her feel wrong not to tell him.

Her aunt didn’t recognize her at first. She put her hands to her mouth as if to keep herself quiet. Their embrace was awkward and over quickly, as if the woman found no purpose in it. “He’s downstairs,” she said. “I’ll tell him you’re here.”

“No, it’s okay. I’ll go down.”

The staircase descended into a narrow space that smelled of cigarette smoke and mildew. He’d just gotten a new seeing-eye dog, a shepherd, and almost immediately it began to bark. “Quiet down, McCool,” her father scolded, but the dog, determined to do his job, settled into a soft growl. “Who’s there?”

“It’s me. Moira.” She reached the foot of the stairs and he rose from the couch. The room was lit only by the light from the small, high window that carved a view of shoes stepping by.

“Moira. How are ya?” He began to say more but stopped and she wondered if he was upset, because he was rubbing his eyes and color had risen in his neck.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just—”

“Sorry? Don’t be silly.” His voice sounded as if someone were squeezing him. He rubbed his hands on the sides of his pants, at a loss, maybe, for what to do. He didn’t ask her to sit down. He just stood there. So she told him what she’d come to tell him, that her graduation would be at the school, in the auditorium.

He sat down, called the dog closer, lit a cigarette. She waited in the silence, saw the look the dog gave her, as if still not convinced she was allowed here. Finally, she said good-bye and her father said he’d be there. He wasn’t.

Moira runs cold water from the tap, wets her face a bit, steps out into the living room. They’re on their feet. She can see they’ve been waiting for her, want to tell her something.

“Listen,” Peter says, his voice low, almost melancholy, “we’re going to talk to Aunt Mary, see if we can figure out a way for him to stay there a bit longer.”

Moira tucks her hair behind her ears, senses the uncertainty in the room. They have no answers, and the sadness of it empties her like hunger. It’s not the way things should be. “No, don’t do that,” she says, as if she’s made up her mind, as if she’s certain. “He can come with me.”

Someone gasps, and there’s mumbling, sounds of disbelief.

“Moira, what are you saying?” says Maggie. Her grip on her pocketbook tightens and she looks ready to whack someone with it.

“Will you please leave her be?” says Peter.

Moira walks over to the glass doors to see the kids outside but no one joins her. Bridget and Maggie are whispering and Peter goes into the kitchen. She wonders if they’re afraid to break the spell, afraid she’ll change her mind. The kids must be playing hide-and-seek, because she sees Michael sneak into the shed and close the door, which surprises her because he’s afraid of the dark. So was she, for a long time. On summer nights her father sometimes sat alone in the living room without a light on. She would slip into the darkness with him, settle in a far corner of the room, watch the smoke from his Camels lift in the warm air. His straight-backed chair would be pulled up close to the window, as if he was expecting to see something. Always he sat the same way, one leg crossed over the other, one arm resting limply across his lap. The streetlight deepened the lines of his face, and every so often, ever so slowly, he brought the cigarette to his lips and sucked the smoke deep into himself. She never approached him, certain he wouldn’t want that. Instead she kept watch with him, listened to his calloused hand scratch against his whiskers. When he went to bed finally, she’d pretend he’d kissed her good night.

Someone puts a hand on her shoulder. It’s Conor, the reasonable one, the one who believes he can stay out of harm’s way. He’s told Moira he won’t have children, won’t let the cycle continue. “You don’t have to do this,” he says.

But she does.

Mary Ann McGuigan’s fiction has appeared in The Sun, Image, North American Review, Prime Number, and other journals. Her collection Pieces includes stories named for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net. Mary Ann’s young-adult novels, about teens trying to make sense of the chaos grown-ups leave in their wake, are ranked among the best books for teens by the Junior Library Guild and the New York Public Library. Her novel Where You Belong was a finalist for the National Book Award. For more about her fiction, visit www.maryannmcguigan.com, you can also follow her on Instagram.

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Family, Guest Posts, Trauma

Duality: A Generational Story of Discourse

April 7, 2022
one

“I don’t know what he talks about in there. He won’t let me go in with him,” my mom said to me once while I was visiting my parents as an adult, “but I’ve seen he has tears in his eyes sometimes when he comes out.” While catching up, dad’s newfound and uncharacteristic attendance of counseling was a pressing topic. “I know he doesn’t want to go back. I know the therapist told him it was one of the most horrific cases of child abuse they had ever heard; and that they had heard a lot.”

“What would make her so mad?” dad told me once they asked him in his therapy sessions at the Veteran’s hospital. “Didn’t seem like it took much of anything to make her mad,” was his answer.

“She used to keep a butcher knife under the couch,” he once said with a catch in his throat. “She would take it out and show it to me. I was only six years old.”

That was all he said on the subject.

***

She had red hair we would casually mention sometimes when talking about grandma. “No,” someone would inevitably say, “It was piss-orange!” and we’d all laugh because that’s what she used to call it herself, the bright brassy color she so despised.

***

When the boxes would arrive, I would be elated. Often five, or six, maybe more within a single shipment. These boxes only ever contained one thing, and they were always for me. We would tear them open and marvel at each Beanie Baby to add to my growing collection. My dad built a wooden display shelf that wrapped around my entire room, one foot from the ceiling. Carefully my mom and I would put the little plastic tag protectors on each one and set them in just the right places on the shelf. Over time I amassed nearly one hundred of them. As a tween in the mid-nineties this collection was the epitome of cool.

“You must be spoiled rotten!” the UPS woman quipped once as she mock sniffed near the inner part of my shoulder and neck. She was so nice, it tickled and was funny, but she smelled like cigarettes.

Once, in the bottom of one of the boxes there was a black t-shirt with a racecar and some outlandishly bright logo I didn’t recognize, haphazardly included. It was too big for me, and obviously a boy’s style. There were never any letters included with the packages, no well wishes or explanations of their contents, and this being no exception had no note to offer any information on the oddly outplaced addition of the t-shirt.

“Must be for Jeremy,” my mom reasoned, confounded.

“Looks like a freebie,” my dad grumbled.

“I’m just surprised she sent me anything at all,” my older brother, Jeremy said.

***

“Oh shit!” I said, apropos of the milk I had just spilled across the dinner table at the tender age of two. My mom was furious. My grandma doubled over at the table and lost her breath, unable to contain her laughter. I’d apparently learned it from her, and it wasn’t just that I had blurted it out, but that I had done so, in such expert context.

It was her favorite word, everyone remembers.

***

“Grandma wasn’t always nice like she is today,” my dad would sometimes mention both casually and cautiously when talk of her arose, like summoning an omen to what I didn’t know.

“Well, she’s nice now” I blithely sing-songed in all the knowing of my nine years on earth, and all the unknowing of the information I had purposely been sheltered from.

***

She was a nurse. “When she worked at that children’s home, she’d tell stories of taking those kids and mopping the floor with them,” my mom explained in remembered horror. “I think she liked doing it, too,” she added, shuttering with a brow furrowed in consternation.

***

Once at the Edgewater hotel in Seattle she sat up all night watching the ferries slowly gliding back and forth across Elliott Bay. All night, staring out the window across the sound. She just sat there mesmerized by the crisscrossing of the boats against the water. Dad was elated. He knew he had made her happy.

The Edgewater, as the name suggests is built literally onto the edge of the shore and out into the Puget Sound atop numerous wood pilings. My mom and I giddy with joy, handed pieces of white bread out the window to the seagulls who flew by taking it from our hands. My dad and brother baited hooks and dropped their fishing lines into the water right out of the hotel window. I waved at one of the passing ferries. “We’ve got a little girl waving at us,” I heard the captain say over the loud-speaker and the entire ferry full of people waved back at me. I beamed.

***

“Grandma doesn’t like boys,” was the common refrain, but no one ever knew why.

***

“One day I came home and made a mayonnaise sandwich,” my dad said. “There wasn’t any meat. Just mayonnaise folded over itself on a piece of Wonderbread. I wanted another one so bad, but I knew I would be taking away from the family,” he continued sadly reminiscent, weaving his way through a fog of memories, each as clear as the day they
happened. Each still stinging forty years later.

“When there were cornflakes for breakfast, if you crushed yours up it would look like less in your bowl and you would get more,” he explained when I snickered and asked why he dug his hands into his cereal to crush it into dust before he poured on his milk. It was one of those old habits that died so hard. It was an act of survival.

“Here we were. Couldn’t even afford enough food to live on, and my uncles, every one of them, were millionaires,” he helplessly laughed to himself. “I promised myself that when I had a family, they would never go hungry,” he continued.

A promise made ostensibly from love and determination, but conceived in mental anguish, and one that would eventually play itself out in an obsession with stockpiling food and lead to morbid obesity.

***&

“I don’t know what happened, but they came and took those two boys away. She hurt one of them,” he offered, but it was all the information he knew. “When they took in those boys, I thought they were going to be my brothers, but then they took them away.”

I could tell how desperately he had wanted a companion. Someone to commiserate with, someone to conspire with, but not someone to endure what he was enduring. He felt sorry for them, maybe even more so than for himself.

***

“She bought out the entire dress store,” my mom recalled. “It was a little store in town that was going out of business and she bought every single dress they had,” she told me.

“Well, one thing’s for sure, Janet,” my grandmother told my mom, “she’s going to be the best dressed girl around.”

“I had so many dresses they didn’t even fit in your closet, my mom exclaimed! I had them all lined up, organized by size. I didn’t buy you any clothes at all for the first year!”

***

“I was riding a tractor at eight years old, all by myself” my dad would say. “By twelve I started working at the veterinary clinic. From then on I could buy my own food.”

***

“One time my grandparents came and took me away when I was young,” he explained. I went to live with them for a while.” He didn’t know why. It was never discussed. “They just drove up and said, ‘Clarence is coming with us’. No one put up a fight about it.”

***

His father died at the age of forty-two, when my dad was only seventeen. It was emphysema. Two packs of Camel Studs a day. Dad’s ear drums ruptured when he was only five years old. It was the fifties. Everyone smoked around their kids.

“Face me when you talk,” he always says. I’m hard of hearing, but I can read lips. “

***

“Once she put a hot iron on my leg one time he said as he launched himself down the rabbit hole of pain and remembrance. A spiral that often lasted an hour or more. I had a scar from that for a long time, my dad remembered hesitantly. “Another time she locked me in a scalding hot shower.

“Get in and wash up, she commanded. You’re filthy.”

I was only five or six. I tried to scoot as far as I could into the corner so the hot water wouldn’t touch me. Then it turned ice cold. I was in there over an hour. I was twelve when I told her she couldn’t hurt me anymore. Right in the middle of her bloodying my nose. I told her it didn’t matter what she did to me, she couldn’t hurt me anymore, ever again.”

***

“I think my whole life could have turned out differently,” he said recently. “I could have been a better father, a better Christian, even more successful in school and life if things had been different when I was young.”

It was a sad recognition of unresolved trauma, decades too late. What he still fails to realize is that we, his children were lucky to always have, enough food to eat, a roof over our heads, and the unconditional love of not one, but two parents. That in his breaking of the cycle of trauma, abuse, and neglect, his life was the ultimate success.

duality

Becky A. Benson’s work has appeared on Salon, Modern Loss, Modern Mom, The Manifest Station, Brain, Child, Scary Mommy, Grief Narratives, Months to Years Lit Mag and beyond. She has written and spoken for the Center for Jewish Genetics in Chicago, and Soulumination in Seattle. She holds a degree in psychology and works for the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association serving families of terminally ill children as the organization’s Conference and Family Services Coordinator.

She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her family and beloved dachshund. Her passion is for helping families endure the loss of a child, spreading awareness for genetic conditions, advocating for adoption, and providing a voice to the marginalized in society. These things, above all else continue to intimately shape her writing.

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

Circe is offering: Crucible – A Year-Long Writing Cohort 

Let by Gina Frangello and Emily Black, this cohort is designed for writers seeking to spend a year deeply immersed in writing or revising a book length work.

Cohort Includes:

  • Once monthly class meeting over Zoom
    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
  • Every other month individual/private meeting with Emily or Gina over Zoom (participants will have a chance to work with both)
  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
  •  100 manuscript pages read and reviewed by Emily and Gina

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Love, Respect and Squirrels

April 1, 2022

Her name was Mary and we met in the summer of’66.  Our afternoons and evenings often consisted of sitting in my Pontiac GTO and admiring the Pacific Ocean.  We would listen to The Beach Boys on the radio and watch the waves roll in.  It felt like we did this at virtually every beach and lookout from Santa Barbara to San Francisco.   

I would pick her up from her parents’ house and try to avoid any confrontation with her strict, war veteran Father.  I got the feeling he had seen some things during his time in Okinawa.

Mary would usually bounce to the door in happy contrast to her solemn Father.  Her collection of summer dresses was impressive for a girl who just worked the odd shift at the local diner.

Open the door for her, get inside, awkwardly wave goodbye to her Father, turn the radio on and drive away.  We never really knew what spectacular coastal scenery awaited us each time.  Nor did we know how long we would be gone.  This may have explained the stern look her Father would give me each time.

We were too scared to show any signs of affection in the vicinity of her house.  Inevitably, she would place her hand on my thigh as we drove.  This was the sign to pullover, so we could finally share that much anticipated kiss.  Intensity and affection seemed to grow with each meeting of our lips and each chapter we added to our summer adventures.  We were in love and the salt air just magnified our lust for each other.

Despite our love for the Pacific, our most memorable date came when we visited the Giant Redwoods of Sequoia National Park.  We felt so small and insignificant holding hands as we stood beneath those giants.  It was like the outside world ceased to exist.  Mary’s love for squirrel-watching was infectious, and she soon converted me to this hobby of hers.  She fell in love with my cheesy, over-the-top commentary, as our squirrel friends chased each other around trees.  They seemed ever-present during our day, as if along for the adventure.  Curious observers to our love and laughter.

We made love for the first time that day.  It was not planned, though our escapades rarely were.  I’m not one to kiss-and-tell, but it was perfect.  Our happiness and closeness seemed to reach whole new levels.

Not everyone shared our new heights of happiness though.  My best friend, Sam, had got drafted just before summer.  My friends held a broad range of opinions about the war, from wanting to flee to Canada, to immediately volunteering upon enlistment age.  With Sam’s departure, Mary and I found ourselves increasingly adrift on our own island.  A place seemingly separated from the outside world and all the chaos it contained.

Our island was not exempt from invasion.  I was drafted too.  This news created a heightened level of intensity and urgency with our time together.  I proposed at our favorite spot overlooking Monterey Bay.  I was rather nervous.  My legs were so jelly-like, I briefly lost balance when down on my knee.  Mary laughed before giving me an enthusiastic “Yes!”

We would get married once I returned.  It gave us both something to look forward to in turbulent times.  Saying goodbye to her was more difficult than I had imagined.  Still, ever the optimists, we focused on the good things, like our future wedding, the summer we just had and the letters we would write.  Mary also gave me a gift.  She said it would be my good luck charm.  It was a small, handmade wooden squirrel.

***

The boys had been teasing me about the squirrel Mary gave me.  They had nicknamed him Gilroy, after my birth place.  A glance Gilroy’s way and I was immediately transported from the battlefields and into the embrace of Mary.

Gilroy went missing at some point during my platoon’s transfer to Khe Sanh.

I have felt particularly uneasy ever since. He had previously brought us the luck Mary promised.  He is not the only one ‘Missing in Action’ from my platoon in recent weeks.   

I got news that Sam had been sent home for shrapnel wounds to his leg.  I’m now starting to hope for something similar.  Nothing too serious, just something to get me that ticket home.  I miss Mary.  I miss that summer we shared.   I miss Gilroy.  I now understand the pain behind her Father’s eyes.

***

“I baked a cake last week for your birthday.  Cheesecake.  Even had some raspberries on top.  Remember that time you jumped over that man’s fence to steal some raspberries for me? And how you tore your sweater jumping back over? Oh, Robbie, you’re such a clutz.   My clutz.  Why did you have to go fight that stupid war?”

A light sea breeze blew Mary’s hair over her face as she stood clutching a small bunch of flowers.

“Why couldn’t we just make that summer last forever?”

A tear slid down her face, as she caught glimpse of a squirrel scampering over a headstone in the distance.

“How am I meant to look at a darn redwood again?” she laughed, momentarily composing herself.

Mary knelt down, placing the flowers on the ground.  She gently kissed her fingers and rested them atop Robbie’s grave.

“I love you”

She walked back to her accompanying Father and placed her arms around him.

He kissed her forehead, before gesturing to their car.

“I’ll be with you in a minute, love”

Mary’s Father stood in silence, before standing at attention, raising his right hand sharply, and saluting.

Ellen McDarby in England with her pug, Rupert. She has previously written love letters, shopping lists and notes to said dog Rupert. When not writing, she can be found perusing old bookstores, sipping cups of tea and going for walks in nature. 

***

Time to (re)invigorate your writing?

Check out the Circe Promptapalooza!

Promptapalooza is the most fun you’ll have in a writing class. Instead of beat drops, we’ll have prompt drops.

Capped at 30 participants and happening only 4 times a year, these three-hour generative workshops, with opportunities to share, will get you motivated, inspired, connected, and curious.

Promptapalooza is great if you’re struggling with writer’s block, feeling adrift without a writing community in these strange days, or just want to laugh, learn, and dig deep.

When: Sunday April 3, 10am-1pm PST
Where: The Zoom Room
How Much: $250/person
Who: Gina Frangello and Emily Rapp Black.

**Anyone who enrolls in the class and later chooses to work with Circe privately will receive $100 off any of coaching/editing packages.**

Email info@circeconsulting.net to enroll now!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Overdrawn

March 25, 2022

The phone rings. Ying-ying takes a quick glance at the wall clock that reads 8pm, tosses the apple core she has been nibbling on into the trash can, and hurries from the kitchen to the living room. She unplugs the phone from the socket but sees only a string of zeros, the kind of call that one makes through the Internet. She wonders for a second what to do, but then decides to answer it.

“Hello?” she greets.

No one answers for a moment, but then an accented male voice starts to bray. “Am I talking to Tan Ying-ying,” the voice asks, “born on June 4th, 1994, current address 355 Yangshupu Road 5-14-1, Hongkou District, Shanghai?”

Yes, yes, and yes. Ying-ying gasps in recognition of her personal details bared by the voice, but his unrushed tempo brings about a tinkling echo: somebody else has announced the same information to her before, and that was not too long ago.

“Yes, this is she,” so she says, with affected calmness, “and are you—”

But he is speaking already. “—Good. And, as of today, Sept 28th, 2017, you’re still working at Primavera Organic Food Import Co., located at 75 Dinghai Road, Yangpu District?”

“Correct. But are you—”

“—Great. And our record shows your mom is … well, I’m sure your mom is still who she is. So, Miss Tan, I am calling from Miles Finance, to remind you that your loan is due tomorrow, at 12 pm sharp.”

She is right, then; she is experienced dealing with his kind. “Yes, I knew the call must be from you guys,” her default self is coming back, “I’ll have the money ready.”

“Wonderful, wonderful. And let me remind you, Miss Tan, that we won’t accept money wired from you directly, coz we use separate accounts to track outgoing and incoming funds. A colleague of mine will meet you at the McDonald’s at 1500 Pingliang Road—near the intersection with Lilin Road, at 11:45am, and he will take you to an ATM nearby, where you can then make the deposit.”

The voice pauses there, as if to wait for her jotting down the details. “Since my colleague has to confirm you adhere to all our terms,” it then resumes with slight relaxation, “please bring your copy of the loan contract. Jus’ to go over the numbers again, your principal is ¥24,050 and your annual rate is 36%, so adding a ¥500 signage fee, the total due for your four-month loan is 27,436 yuan. OK, so my colleague will see you tomorrow, and please remember: there’ll be consequences should you fail to honor our conditions in any manner.”

“Sure, I—”

But he hangs up already. They always have the upper hand, dictating the loans’ terms and nipping off phone calls, but all that power would cease after 12pm tomorrow, when the last cent of her debt is cleared. Ying-ying feels a hope rising inside her, one that heightens and churns out a restlessness, urging her to swipe open her bank app to double-check the money. She does that and ensconces on the assurance that the digits bring about, but the sight of a sidenote stings her eyes and bursts her transient calmness. She finds herself rereading the sidenote, the one line announcing that all the money is transferred in from the account ending in 4591; and as she scrolls down and counts the many more transfers from there, the growing sum pulls her deeper into a flashpoint, where her cheeks burn in shame and embarrassment.

So yes, how shameful and embarrassing this is, because the 4591 account belongs not to her but her mother, a widowed schoolteacher five years away from retirement, withering alone on the outlying Chongming Island. In the silence befalls her apartment, 14 stories above the street noise, Ying-ying pictures her mother making the transfer, not on her old Nokia but over the small village bank’s actual counter, filling yet another form under the teller’s suspicious gaze.

That picture pains her: how much trouble she has caused. She is 23 now and makes about ¥6,000 a month, why does she still rely on monetary help from her mother? She shuts her eyes and retrieves her first day in college, when she and her mother took a crowded bus to the downtown campus, only to find that her three dormmates had all come in by private cars. They were city girls, beautiful with fashionable clothes and exquisite makeup; their fathers looked powerful, their mothers had their hair piled up in towering buns—a banker, an owner of factories, a high-ranked bureau chief. Ying-ying had never been so close to such people; her classmates back home all had peasant, shopkeeper, government functionary parents. And when she introduced her mother and explained her father had passed, she suddenly felt a hesitance, her cheeks unexpectedly blushed.

Her mother sensed it; she became unusually reticent. They sat in the corner of the campus canteen and had their lunch, her mother only said how happy Ying-ying’s father would be to see her attending college, how much she hoped Ying-ying would excel in her chosen major of Spanish (all majors were declared at the time of college application). Ying-ying listened but did not engage. She looked at her mother’s worn blouse draping loosely off her thin shoulders, streaks of white hair sticking out in the thin black layer that hardly covered the skull, and her heart hardened with a new recognition of her mother: an unceremonious, unenviable woman, leading her staid life in a sleepy backwater. She had the sudden feeling that her own life up to that point had not been her destined one; she should have lived like her roommates, butterflies soaring high, or koi floating elegantly about.

She yearned for changes and change she would. Her roommates were willing to lend a helping hand, so before she learned to pronounce y as igriega, she’d already bought her first lipstick on their advice. Later, when she karaoked in her finest outfit, when she sipped coffee with exquisite makeup on her face, she could sense others’ widened eyes fixing on her. She realized she had always longed for this feeling, actually, to be looked up to by widened eyes; she recalled how her second-grade classmates talked about her after her father had died (“she has only a mother but no father”), or how they laughed at their teacher—Ying-ying’s mother—who had patches on her clothes and thus must be poor. She wished they could see her now, all the envy and shame and regret on their faces.

To support herself she economized her mother’s allowance and tutored high schoolers, but still the demand outpaced income faster than she had expected. Unable to bear the mortification of asking her roommates to help but fidgeting on the brink of finance, she reached out to an Internet lender for the first time in her sophomore winter. She thought she had found the solution until she realized how frequently new bills from them continued to arrive, with interest compounded too much and too soon.

She rolled back her splurges and skipped meals, but still borrow new loans to cover the old ones. With nowhere else to turn, she finally sought help from her mother. She would never forget that day, September of her junior year, when she called her mother first thing one Saturday morning (she stopped coming home to save bus fares), choking on hesitation so revisiting again the topic of weather.

“Ying-ying, what’s wrong?” her mother finally cut the chase.

“Mama, I—borrowed more money from the Internet than I could repay—” She let her story all out; she expressed remorse.

The requested amount came in two days later. But as her old debts and new purchases prompted the second, and then the third rescue request, her mother’s initial readiness ebbed and worries flowed. She rode one after another those two-hour-long bus rides to meet and talk; she reached out to Ying-ying’s professors for intervention. Even though in the end, she still gave in to the requests every time, she referred to Ying-ying’s father increasingly often as if she was in this more for his sake than Ying-ying’s (“right before your father passed, I promised him to look after you to my capacity”). And every time Ying-ying heard her talking like this, she couldn’t help but recall that when she brought home a report card with bad grades back in primary school, her father would only pat her head and encouraged her to do better next time, while her mother would go as far as to scold her, deducting a week’s pocket money as her punishment.

She lived through the junior and senior years like that, on the brink of finance and having a tense relationship with her mother, but as she graduated, as she settled into her clerk position at an importer of Latin American fruits, things did get better. With rent and commute added to the equation, with her roommates swanking in graduate schools abroad, she found the life she had once so desired losing its charm, she rolled out longer durations of self-constraint. She paid off more debt with her own salary, but even though she had only one meal every day, even if she bought no new clothes in months, there remained compounded interests, and there was now an empty apartment to be filled. She had been asking much less from her mother, but she could not let go of the credit line of Momma Bank.

That credit line had dwindled. For the most recent, 27,436 due, she had to ride a two-hour bus home, kneeled, and kowtowed—the traditional pose of a subordinate appealing to her superior—before her mother for the first time. “Mama, this will be the last time I ask you for help,” she promised as pain shot up her knees, “consider it a loan, and I swear I’ll pay you back!”

“I really hope so, Ying-ying,” her mother murmured, but it was still loud enough for her to hear, “this would really be the last time I help you as your mother.”

What could she possibly mean by that? Ying-ying looked up to the tears trickling down along her mother’s cheeks. The words seemed meaning she would really say no after this, cut her off from her life even, but the lack of finality in her tone led to the suspicion of bluffing, and the further tiny signs of reconciliation—like she offered the bus fare when Ying-ying took her leave—elevated the suspicion to a make-belief. No need to worry because this is really the last time, Ying-ying thought as she wobbled with the bus heading back to Shanghai, I will save and pay her back.

That was last Saturday. For the past five days, this has been Ying-ying’s working assumption, the foundation of a general hopefulness she had been feeling. She reorients herself to here and now, paces to the window, and props her elbows on the sill and looks at the city lights. Tomorrow: the life of her past three years is coming to its end. The guttering lights expand to the horizon; the superimposed reflection of her lithe silhouette has hundreds of eyes flicking inside. And to that reflection Ying-ying flashes a smile, on the foreknowledge that in about 15 hours, her life will be back in her control.

The money is ready. She has to go to the bank counter, as the amount to be withdrawn is too large for an ATM. She lingers in the bank’s waiting area, picks up a free newspaper, and camouflages the wads before feeding them to her handbag. It is still early. She stands in the sun, checks the time, and determines she can afford to walk to the appointed McDonald’s. This is actually preferred, since she is unwilling to go through the subway security check with the money.

So she walks. The skyscrapers of Pudong District glisten at the horizon, high above and beyond the drab low-rises of her current street. Before her father died, in 2003, her parents had taken her downtown every year, celebrating her birthday with an afternoon in the parks and a good dinner. Her father would also buy her a new toy; even her mother allowed her an extra cone of ice cream. Back then, so many parts of Shanghai looked like this, locked in a past that had never changed. But now, see how glamorous and posh the city has become.

Both she and the city have tried, then, to transform toward some vision of a better self. But while the city has successfully progressed, she finds herself entrapped in her borrowed buying power. Were you even happy back then, the voice that is her mind asks, back in college when you bought so much stuff? She realizes that her sybaritic self is already on the way to phasing out, as her mind is now focused on her freedom, what to do with it once she regains it after 12 o’clock. Treat yourself better, she thinks, treat Mama better also.

The erhu music played by a panhandler brings her thoughts back, so she pauses and gives him a five. Ahead, the appointed McDonald’s is already in sight, so she walks up to it and plants herself underneath a sidewalk sycamore. In no time, a skinny man emerges out of nowhere, his eyes locking with hers for long seconds. Yet before the thought “you are early” materializes on her vocal cords, his figure passes by her and heads to the restaurant, the sight of his back soon disappears behind the doors.

Not him, then. She scans the other passersby, but no one returns her attention, and fifteen minutes later she begins to wonder whether she has misheard the instruction, that she is expected inside rather than outside. So she walks into the McDonald’s and surveys the space, but again finds not the debt collector she has been looking for. Without a better plan, she seats herself down by the window. There is no way to dial back the all-zero Internet number, and Miles Finance’s website lists only an email address. She fumbles her handbag for the signed contract that she was asked to bring along, sifting to no avail for another piece of contact information.

There seems nothing else she could do, then, other than head back. She takes the subway and skips lunch. Back in the office, she tries to refocus on her work but finds concentration has left her. Staring at client orders of Peruvian avocados and Ecuadorian pitayas on the monitor, her mind keeps drifting to the nebulous loan shark that never showed up, all the unknown consequences that might or might not occur.

It is not until past one that her phone rings again, the same flashing string of zeros. She presses the green button to accept it, her questions ready to vault out once it connects.

But the other side is a split second faster. “Miss Tan,” the same accented voice brays, “where are you?”

“At work,” she says, rising and walking into an empty meeting room for privacy.

“You didn’t show up for your appointment.” Closing the glass door of the meeting room behind her back, she cannot believe her ears.

“How can you say that? I waited for an hour, and it was your guy who didn’t show up.”

“No, my colleague says he didn’t see you. He got there at 11, and waited till one o’clock.”

“What does he look like?” she thought of the man she locked eyes with again. “Is he a thin, short man probably in his forties, wearing a white jacket?”

“No, my colleague is a tall guy in his twenties.”

“Are you sure he went to the McDonald’s at 1500 Pingliang Road, near the intersection with Lilin Road?” She still is so confused, her voice starts to tremble.

“Exactly, that’s the one, with a row of sidewalk sycamore trees before its entrance.”

All dead-ends, then. But is it? Suddenly, she sees a way to add up all these contradictions. “You’re lying!” she yells, truculent now. “I waited for over an hour, and nobody showed up!”

“Well, Miss Tan,” the voice slows down a little but soon regains composure, “what matters is that my colleague didn’t see you, and so we’ve not received your funds by the deadline of noon.”

“No, if you didn’t have this stupid rule to meet in person, I—”

“The point is, Miss Tan,” he again cuts her off, “you didn’t repay your debt by noon, so you’ve breached our contract. The consequence is that you owe us 37,436 now, your original due of 27,436 plus a 10,000 penalty.”

Everything dawns on her. “No, I owe you nothing!” She shouts with a sudden burst of energy, “I’ll not pay even a cent of this so-called—”

“Well, too bad, Miss Tan,” the voice sneers, “we can go to court, and you’ll lose, coz we have bank statements showing us we’ve funded your account, while you’re not able to prove—”

But she cuts him off this time. “How many victims have fallen for your scam?”

“Whoa, missy, hold on,” the voice feigns surprise, “you’re the party at fault here. We can go and settle this in court, and we’ll win because our banking statement can prove our funds have indeed gone to your bank account. But if the judge asks you, ‘Tan Ying-ying, do you have evidence showing you’ve paid them back?’ you’ll have none simply because you haven’t.” He pauses there a little, as if to let his logic settle on her mind. “So, think about it, Miss Tan, your best chance is to stick with the contract, and pay back the total by the end of next week.”

“You black-hearted son of a b!” she resorts to invectives, “your guy didn’t show up!”

“Calm down, Miss Tan,” the voice sneers. “The old saying goes: the books must be balanced, and the debt must be repaid. This is the dao of the universe. We know where you live and work, as we know your mother’s name and address. We wish you both well, and we expect you to pay us back by the end of next week.”

And with that, he hangs up.

She deflates in a chair; she is suddenly exhausted. Her mind is all blank, yet still an instinct tells her to call mother. There was no answer, so she tried again. Her arms quiver uncontrollably when she makes the attempt; she inhales and exhales for minutes to stabilize herself.

“Ying-ying?” Five rings after, a lukewarm voice vibrates in her ear, “what’s up?”

“Mama, —I, I got scammed,” it is so hard to bring these words, “I need to borrow from you another 10,000 yuan.”

A sleek bus leaves behind the glistening towers of downtown, crosses the Yangtze through a serpentine tunnel, and ascends a colossal bridge over a distributary. Curling in it and on a window seat, Ying-ying sees Chongming Island’s green fields open up before her, the roofs of farmhouses glistening in the afternoon sun. Merely a week ago, she had promised mother the last bailout, yet here she is again, requesting an even more exorbitant sum. How would her mother take it?

She walks in the direction of home from the bus depot, and the familiar fields and houses somehow relaxes her a little. It was on these same streets that her father and mother took her for after-dinner strolls, she recalls, a time when everything seemed simpler: relationship with her mother, relationship with herself.

She longs for that simplicity, but finds the longing interrupted by anxiety as she gets closer to her childhood home. At the door, she has to pinch her own thighs—her habitual way of dealing with anxiety—to calm her jitters. She counts to ten and lets out a deep exhale, and then starts to knock on the door. Hearing no response, she turns the doorknob and finds it unlocked, so she lets herself in, adjusting her eyes for the dark.

“Mama?” she calls in small volume, “are you here?” Finding no mother in the kitchen, she passes the living room and retreats into even deeper darkness, until she reaches her childhood bedroom at the other end of a corridor. Goosebumps rise over her arms, because of the unexpected sight of a motionless statue sitting on the bed she used to sleep on.

“Mama!” she gasps and strides to the bedside. It is only until this moment, in this point-blank range, that she sees her mother’s tearful eyes, the half-dried watery traces on her cheeks. Backlit by the small window, the pilings outlining her mother’s jacket are all visible, so many of them standing along her silhouette, a miniature army guarding all the latent emotions.

Words vault out of her mouths: “Mama, I am sorry—” But a force of unknown origin breaks them midsentence, and the momentum of it pulls her knees onto the ground. “My last time, truly. You know, I was tricked,” she kneels there and starts a new line, but her confidence is drained, her story sounds unbelievable even to her own ears.

She places her hand on her mother’s knees instead to plead for her last chance, but her mother withdraws from her touch. From under the mattress on which she sits, her mother then draws out a red-covered booklet, and hands it toward her. Even amidst the deepening gloom, the golden-colored characters shine on the cover: Adoption Certificate.

She had no expectation of this, not an inkling at all. She takes the certificate and flips open the cover; spasms are firing all over her arms. Her first glance takes in the names of her own father and mother, their birthdays address and ID numbers; then, beneath a family photo, there is this italicized line at the bottom: This is to certify the adoption mentioned above is appropriately done according to the People’s Republic of China Adoption Law, and is valid henceforth.

Date: July 4th, 1994.

Just one month after she was born.

“Mama, am I adopted?” she asks, a bolt of lightning lances across her entire autobiography, “why are you telling me only now?”

Her mother remains silent. But her body shakes, her tears drip onto the floor. She struggles to stand up and then bends down by the bedside in a prostration position. Her hands then stretch into the narrow space under the bed, yanking out a parcel of cash after some impatient fumbling.

“Mama, I won’t need it now—”

“Ying-ying, take it …”

“Mama, please!”

“… Take it, Ying-ying … I just went to the bank earlier, and this is all the money I have left. You know, from the beginning, it was really your father’s idea to adopt you … He always wanted children but couldn’t, and although I was OK without one, he persuaded me to adopt you when he first saw you … He liked you instantly, you know, at the orphanage. He said, let’s adopt her and treating her like our own …. We didn’t tell you so that you’ll feel no different growing up, and when he passed, I had promised to take care of you to the limit of my capacity … And now, Ying-ying, all that I have left are in this package, so I really cannot help you any longer as your mother…”

Ying-ying inches forward on her knees until she reaches her adoptive mother, then holds her legs as if they were life’s most precious treasure. Her body spasms uncontrollably, her lung bellows out loud sobs. And at that moment, a deluge of myriad emotions breaks the walls and gushes in, overwhelming both the mother and the daughter.

Hantian Zhang is a writer living in San Francisco. He is a data scientist by day.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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Family, Guest Posts, memories

Whatever Will Be

March 19, 2022
flowers on table time

Which scene should I begin with?

The time I threw coffee in her face to shut her up? Fortunately, it was a cold cup of coffee and we laughed about it. I haven’t the foggiest idea what we were arguing about.

Or the time she sat across from me and told me about a man who was dying of cancer who forgave and embraced his lesbian daughter after disowning her. I asked her what that had to do with me. (I, too, had cancer.) She said, well, you could forgive your daughters for not shaving their arm pits. (I think she thought she was being funny.) I gave her my most evil stare and said, “Never.” I was serious and she knew it.

How about when I sat all my girls down in the kitchen nook that looked like a diner with its red vinyl booth seating and told them what they needed to hear: that their father was a terrible man, a drunk, an alcoholic, who probably didn’t love them. She was 10 years old. She smiled, sort of a confused smile, and looked out the window and then asked to be excused.

I called her to ask her to come take care of me after my upcoming surgery to have my varicose veins removed. I told her that she should be the one to take care of me because she didn’t have anything important going on in her life. She refused.

She did come at a different time, when I really did need her. She stayed for a week while my husband, her stepfather, was away. I was very sick, bedridden. She asked me if I was afraid of dying. I said no, giving her my famous dirty look. I told her I was afraid of suffering. I made her read to me. I mean she was happy to read to me until we came to this pornographic section of the novel and she said she wouldn’t read it aloud to me and I made her.

When she was in college and needed money, I would sigh deeply, expressing deep disappointment, and tell her to ask her father.

Or how about the time she announced she was dropping out of college, in her last year. I was so angry. I told her I had always wanted to drop out of college but no one let me. Then I screamed at her, what about all that wasted money?

When a son-in-law I couldn’t stand and who I refused to talk to died, she was visiting me. My response to his accidental death: Well, that ends that argument. My response to his large funeral: Well, if you die young, you get a big turnout. I was with her when her father died, my first husband. My response: It is for the better.

She gave me a book that she said changed her life and she thought I would like. It was called, Women Who Run with the Wolves, all about women and creativity and psychology. I could not stand the book. I told her it was a bunch of baloney. I hate goddamn character-building experiences.

I took their father back to court for more child support. The judge laughed at me. My daughters were grown women. He still owed me money, I said. I don’t care. I was right.

I refused to see any of my children at the end. I didn’t want them to see me in my weakness. I refused to accept the fact that I was going to die. If I let them come visit me, I would be admitting defeat. I didn’t want their pity or their new-age, hippy ideas to comfort me.

Someone sent me a guardian angel pin. I opened it and it was broken. I showed it to her. See? I said. See the damage of this guardian angel shit.

***

When I called my stepfather to tell him we were coming, he said we were too late. She died 20 minutes ago. When I heard the news, the first thing that popped into my head was the song: Ding, Dong the witch is dead. I would like to wipe that from my memory.

We sat with a minister my stepfather had brought to their house. The man began by saying, “I never knew your mother.” Of course he didn’t. They weren’t churchgoers. Why was he here? To talk about the funeral service and to be of help in this sad time. I piped up: “That’s it. That’s all there is? That’s her life? It’s over?” There was some awkward silence and I looked around at my siblings and her husband, a bit apologetic. I’m certain the minister thought it was grief speaking but it wasn’t. What I meant was: No goodbyes. No final I love you. No final shared memories or laughter or forgiveness. No nothing. That’s it. It’s over.

This is what I will do. This is what I will try to do. I will go back to the time before.

“There is a time in our lives, usually in mid-life, when a woman has to make a decision – possibly the most important psychic decision of her future life – and that is, whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this in their late thirties or early forties. They are at the point where they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” Their dreams of their twenties may be lying in a crumple. There may be broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises.”   – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves

I will remember a houseful of women, giggling daughters and a divorced suburban mom. She was in her early 30s. Our dancing together to ‘Shall We Dance’ and ‘I feel Pretty’.  I will remember her as the actress she was and that the roles she played, from Rumpelstiltskin to Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I will remember her joy at seeing me on stage and calling me a ham. (Was she jealous of me? Wait, don’t go there.)  I will remember her loyalty to us and her involvement in our school lives. And how we laughed as we imagined the men in our neighborhood as possible boyfriends for her.

When the memories of my bitter, angry mother overwhelm me, I will go back to the time before, the time before she succumbed to a resented life with no regrets. The time when we would sing together, off-key, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the futures not ours to see, que sera, sera’.

time

J. Courtney Reid is a playwright, with two produced plays, Don’t Leave Me Just Yet for the Unchained Theatre Festival in Long Island City and Still in Prison, performed in venues in the Capital District of New York, under a New York State Artist Grant. She is an essayist. Published pieces include Learning Through the Ages in the Oxford Journal of Public Policy, and Sarah Orne Jewett in Maine Life Magazine. She has been a Features Editor for a small newspaper in NH and a bookstore owner in Saratoga Springs, NY. An emeritus Professor of English from SUNY Adirondack Community College, she was awarded the President’s and Chancellor’s Award in Teaching. She has, astonishingly, discovered a new love of painting. (Proof is above.)  Follow J. Courtney online at her blog, Opening Up the Valves and on Twitter: @JCourtneyReid1

***

Time to (re)invigorate your writing?

Check out the Circe Promptapalooza!

Promptapalooza is the most fun you’ll have in a writing class. Instead of beat drops, we’ll have prompt drops.

Capped at 30 participants and happening only 4 times a year, these three-hour generative workshops, with opportunities to share, will get you motivated, inspired, connected, and curious.

Promptapalooza is great if you’re struggling with writer’s block, feeling adrift without a writing community in these strange days, or just want to laugh, learn, and dig deep.

When: Sunday April 3, 10am-1pm PST
Where: The Zoom Room
How Much: $250/person
Who: Gina Frangello and Emily Rapp Black.

**Anyone who enrolls in the class and later chooses to work with Circe privately will receive $100 off any of coaching/editing packages.**

Email info@circeconsulting.net to enroll now!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Future Past

December 18, 2021
portland maine lighthouse

by Casey Walsh

I’ve been craving just one good beach day all summer, nothing to do but lie in the sun and gaze at the peaceful horizon. There’s something hopeful about looking out at the sea, as though you can see the past and the future, all there in the shimmering expanse of blue. Beyond the children on the sand and in the shallow water, past the more capable swimmers and surfers and the small vessels, ocean kayaks and canoes and catamarans, farther even than the cargo and cruise ships miles out, there is, at some point, nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination. No end in sight.

I’ve finally had the day I dreamed of—two of them in fact—at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA. My husband, Kevin, and I spent a couple of days there and two more in Newburyport, just what we’ve needed as fall closes in.  Now we settle in for a meandering drive home, including a planned detour north along the coast.

Leaving Newburyport’s historic downtown, I assume my role as navigator to Kevin’s as driver. When we first began this alliance, my task typically involved paper maps. Now, though, it’s a dance of devices. As we drive over the Merrimack River on Route 1, I plug the address into the dashboard GPS, and while it calculates, I alternate between checking the Maps app and the radar on my iPhone. Glancing up to admire the boats in the inland harbor, I plan our route and hope the weather will hold while we explore Portsmouth, NH.

For the past few days, I’ve been focused on local treks, how to get from our hotel into town or from one hotel to the next. But as we turn off onto 1a—the scenic road along the coast—I take a broader look at our surroundings. It surprises me we’re so close to Hampton Beach, the crowded honky-tonk seaside scene my first husband and I had thought was fun back in the dark ages, before kids, when we still believed we’d be together forever. It won’t take Kevin and me long to reach Portsmouth. We’ll get a feel for the city, browse the shops, and grab a bite to eat before heading home to Albany.

Scrolling up on my phone as we drive, I see the places where my high school friends spent yearly summer vacations with their families: Kittery, York, Ogunquit, Wells, Old Orchard Beach, places I only dreamed of. I scroll still more, farther up than I remember, and there it is: South Portland.

Suddenly, it’s fall 1997 again, and I’m driving east across Massachusetts, then up into New Hampshire with my oldest son, Eric. We reached the outskirts of Portsmouth, then ventured on into Maine, past exits for beach towns, and finally arrived in South Portland. I was instantly enchanted by this small city, with its cobblestone streets and cyclists and parks, as we drove along the mouth of the Fore River. I pictured Eric here in the fall, riding his bike to a job in town, making a little cash to keep him afloat.

Eric and I drove out of downtown and out toward the water, where the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse marks a dangerous obstruction on the west side of the main shipping channel into Portland Harbor. Like most lighthouses, its distinctive beam patterns, varied sequences of light and dark, not only warn sailors of hazards but help them find their position as well.

Beautiful as it is, the lighthouse was not our destination. We were here to see the campus of South Portland Technical College, where the lighthouse is located on a breakwater at the tip.

Earlier in the year, I’d ventured into Eric’s high school guidance office asking for information about colleges for him. While the counselors offered personalized support to top-tier students, they paid little attention to kids like my son—those who had caused more headaches than pride for faculty in recent semesters. Screw ups…I believe that was the technical term. I was fairly certain the only way we’d figure out the right direction was for me to show up in person, put my best intelligent, efficient foot forward, and ask all the right questions. Essentially, I would stand in for Eric: patiently navigate the information, lay out his options, and apply just the right spin to help him see all the world could offer outside of Cambridge, our small upstate New York village.

Predictably, the counselors were busy, busy, busy, but they could steer me to a computer with a program that allowed a filtered search. Carefully, as though his life depended on it, I entered my criteria, channeling Eric as best I could: Industrial Drafting and Design. Dorms. Intercollegiate soccer program. Bingo. South Portland Technical College it is, I thought, within driving distance yet far enough to allow him to see what’s out there.

I gathered materials and made my pitch. Eric was surprisingly enthusiastic, devouring the catalogs, and soon we were planning a visit. I remember the tour, Eric realizing he’d had such good preparation at Cambridge, having already taken many courses in high school not available to some of the other students on the tour. And the coach was bursting with enthusiasm for what Eric would add to the team. All spring phone calls and letters arrived from the college, encouraging Eric to keep up his grades and updating him on who had been recruited, what promise lay ahead.

“By the time I graduate, I will have made so many new friends, snowboarded on the toughest mountains, and played college soccer,” he’d said with his trademark grin, slipping into the future past tense that swelled with optimism.

“Ah, but first you have to do well on that chemistry exam,” I’d teased.

From Eric, in characteristic form: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

After years of guiding him through life closer to home, it seemed he, too, was ready to broaden his view to a world that just might include South Portland.

None of this would ever be. In the end, Eric settled on a local community college rather than leave his on-again off-again girlfriend, who had somehow completely drowned his ability to imagine a future on his own. That semester was a bust; partying and killing time killed all of his focus and enthusiasm for life. Afterward, he floundered for a while, searching for a path until he chose the Navy. He scored so well on the ASVAB that he was selected for aircraft technician school in Pensacola, FL, following completion of naval basic training in Illinois. If only he would stay the course.

Yet each of these options was somehow part of the tornado of trouble, the huge disturbance that had already begun its wreckage and was simply too big to fail. Though they offered brief glimmers of possibility, it was obvious even then that they were never to be. There would be stressors of a divorce that no amount of my own intelligence or efficiency could allay, adults who let him down, bad decisions and bad luck. There would be factors even I, the better part of two decades later, couldn’t begin to understand. Ultimately, a tragic crash would end his life.

Still, I remember so well how South Portland, where it all began, had a different vibe entirely. It seemed its lighthouse—which had protected seafaring travelers on Casco Bay from all sorts of dangers for more than a century—had the power to keep my son safe as well. But first he would have had to get there. Once Eric had turned away from that beam of hope, he lost his way. With nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination, there was no end in sight.

I squirm in my seat next to Kevin, who is oblivious to the places I’ve gone in my mind. Staring out the window at the sand and the waves, I feel the lump form in my throat, feel the tears form, hot and insistent. I let them wash over me. I’ve learned there’s no use in the fight, anyway. It’s a mystery to me, how I can feel so resolved at times, accepting of Eric’s life and of his passing as what was. What is. Then come days like this one, when everything is so present, invading my thoughts, refusing to share space with my current life, teasing me with visions of the life he never had.

I think of something I heard years ago—how sadness is missing what has been lost, but sorrow is missing what will never be—and I’m overcome with a rare wave of anxiety, something I haven’t felt in quite this way since the day Eric dashed out the front door that one last time. If only I could reach back and change one little thing, it all so easily could have happened for him. He’d been so damn close. I picture Kevin and me driving to Maine to visit Eric and his wife and outdoor-loving, risk-taking kids living out their happy lives in an idyllic seaside town. It tortures me.

I sit silently for a while as we drive along the coast, wallowing really, and fantasize about the student Eric could have been—living in the dorms, playing on the soccer team, making new friends on campus and in town, enjoying the ocean views that might have inspired him as they do me. Caught in the past, I’ve been exercising my best Google-fu, frantically searching for the online home of the place that had once drawn us in, frustrated that SPTC seems to have vanished along with the life I imagined for my son, and for me. Using the lighthouse as the beacon it was meant to be, I finally locate Southern Maine Community College on the web, the same campus anointed with a new name, another entity entirely. How like my own life, it strikes me, completely rewritten, though some of the old remains in different form. Still, the college will never again be what it was on that day, at that time.

And neither will I.

I notice we’re about to reach Portsmouth.  Kevin and I are on vacation, after all, and I owe it to him to at least attempt to come up for air. “Hey, listen to this,” I offer, feigning enthusiasm, hoping the feelings will follow.  “They even have a comic book on their website describing the lighthouse and its origins.”

Step Into History!  the title commands.

If only it were history, I think, not a future imagined but never fulfilled.

I close the app, drop the phone into my bag, and turn my eyes to the road ahead.

Casey Walsh is a writer and former speech-language pathologist living with her husband in West Sand Lake, New York. She writes about life at the intersection of grief and joy and embracing the in-between. Her work has appeared in The Good Men Project; Fresh.Ink, The Under Review; Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine; Barren Magazine; Brevity Blog; and ModernLoss, among others. Casey’s essays also appear at TheFHFoundation.org, an organization dedicated to the genetic cardiac disorder that affects her family. Learn more at www.caseymulliganwalsh.com.  Casey is currently seeking representation for her memoir, The Full Catastrophe.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

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Family, Guest Posts, memories

Four Shots: Looking for Signs of a Life

August 14, 2021
white

by Suzanne Orrell

The black and white photograph you scanned that day shows your mother ­–– my would-be-mother-in-law. She is holding you on her jutted-out hip in waist high water at Lake Pontchartrain Beach. Her dark curls gather under a sun bright straw hat. Upturned crinkles smile at the corner of her eyes. The crook of your left arm is firmly clasped around her neck. Sunshine catches water droplets that linger before sloping from the fingertips of your right hand. Fred, your older brother, easily splashes beside you. The shot captures the roller coaster tracks of the Zephyr in the background as they arc skyward before sinking into troughs. You look certain that she, is

Your mother, guiding you down a playground slide. Your brother sits behind you, hands taut against your tummy. Both of you, dressed in plaid, short sleeved shirts patiently smile, not one hair out of place on either of your heads. This shot shows how the skinny white belt encircling the dark material of her dress accentuates your mother’s waist. Her hair looks freshly done. She has recently applied lipstick. She looks stylish, seems cheerful. The gleam in her eye is genuine given the low sky, broken by distant storm clouds. When you first discovered this photograph a couple of years ago, you called me in from the kitchen. Somehow, in all this time, it is one you’d not seen. “Does this look like her?” you ask. I couldn’t believe you weren’t certain that, she is

Your mother, tacking friction rubbed balloons to the wall for your birthday party. The black and white photograph proves it is your fifth because the number five is visible on the party-hat you are wearing. Neighborhood hat-wearing children gather with you around a large, unopened present. Even Jingles, the German Shepherd, wears a hat. Your mother wears one too. If there is a gleam in her eye in this shot, it is obscured from behind her cat-eyed glasses. Her hair looks flat, faded. She does not smile. She is staring down the barrel of the camera. If a look could kill. Her floral apron makes her look frumpy. “Has she put on weight? Or maybe, is it conceivable she’s pregnant with my sister?” you ask.

The final shot you scanned that day shows a tall glass lamp with a dark lampshade crowned by a belt of white ribbon. The lamp offers zero illumination. The black and white photograph shows off the lamp’s proportions visible in the long-necked taper toward the flared curve of the base. It is graceful, transparent, window-pane wavy yet impossible to tell whether the lamp is wired for a three-way or single wattage bulb. After the photograph was taken, your mother, custom fit tiny red pieces of tile to this lamp, little mosaic pulse points positioned in cement. Then, in one final action she extinguished her own life. Your mother is absent, missing, from all further photographs.

Today, the lamp sits in its final resting place, a monument on a waist high table in your stepmother’s house, surrounded by accumulated clutter, a melee of mail–some not even opened–magazines, mess. Despite its height, despite its grace, despite the red tiles, despite her handiwork, the lamp tends to go unnoticed amidst the chaos. It’s plugged in, but rarely, if ever, switched on.

You, forever her son, scan the documentation, search the long shadows in black and white, looking for clues that she, is your mother.

Suzanne Orrell lives and writes in Idaho. A former chef and caterer, she finds that writing, like cooking, requires patience, craft and honesty. When she’s not writing or dreaming up the next meal she enjoys taking long walks, playing tennis and travel.

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Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Expression of It

July 9, 2021
Blake

by André Narbonne

Blake stood on the wooden steps leading to our house, in plain view but away just the same. His clenched fist was covered in blood, my blood, although the fact hadn’t occurred to us yet. I was still stunned by the lunacy of his anger, astonished by the blow that must have come out of a desire to knock down not just his younger brother but something bigger.

The air was strangely comical. It chirped. Clouds fled the veranda exposing Blake and me to the naked glare of the sun.

I pulled myself up. I spat, “I hate you,” brushed the dirt and broken fingers of leaves off my jacket, became aware of the red stain on my shoulder and chest. Rubbing a hand against my face, I held out a thick streak of blood.

“There,” I said.

That opened him. He stared at me and he bit his lower lip, and I knew that he was aware of having hurt me.

It had never happened before.

Blake was four years older and he understood what that meant, recognized that being older was more a duty than an inconvenience. It wasn’t that we didn’t fight. We fought like brothers, which is to say almost daily. Whenever we ran out of words, we came out swinging, but Blake’s hardest cuts had a knack for missing. They were chivalrously errant. He fought like a friend, allowing me to lose by exhaustion.

So we were both astonished by what had happened, by the blow that was meant to injure.

We weren’t alone in our surprise. There was a third to our party. Mr. Bryant, who lived in the trailer across the street, stood on the edge of the lawn shifting his balance between clown-sized feet as though he were himself sparring with something unseen. Beneath a feral tangle of red hair his beet-red nose and blood-shot cheeks mapped with broken capillaries marked him as a heavy drinker. He was our father’s best friend (a fact that had never caused him to treat Blake and me with anything but contempt).

He bellowed, “You’re awful.”

Awful, what did he mean by that? Did he imagine himself watching theatre? “Both of you:  stop it now.” As if we hadn’t, as if the punch that threw me three feet hadn’t been conclusive.

I gather Blake still held some of his rage because he uttered a word I had never heard him speak before. He said, “Go fuck yourself,” and Mr. Bryant spun on his heel and headed across the street to his house, moving with the heavy, purposeful stride of a clown bent on retaliation.

When he was gone, Blake turned to me and asked in a trembling voice, “Is it broken? Let me see.”

“It hurts.”

He walked to me and touched my face, gauged its symmetry. “Nope, it’s okay,” he concluded. “I’m sorry, Matt. I don’t know what happened.  I lost it.”

I was crying, but not from pain. “You don’t detest me?”

“I don’t detest you. Let’s not talk about him anymore. You don’t understand.  Even if I told you, you couldn’t.”

He smiled a nervous smile. I returned the same. And then Blake went back to the house. The veranda creaked under his weight; the screen door pitched and then rattled back into place. And he was gone for real.

I heard the phone ringing. Someone was waking up Dad.

They were both my protectors, Blake and my father, although Dad was an uncertain presence in the house.

My father worked the graveyard shift and had a graveyard cast of mind. He seldom spoke except to command. During the week he allowed himself to be shirtless and unkempt until an hour before work when he shaved and made himself up. He was fit for forty but that was largely an accident of genetics, I supposed.  He lived for no other purpose than to make money it seemed. With that money the three of us carried on our indifferent lives in an isolated mining town that was on its last vein. I wondered sometimes whether it was the impact of my mother, Marlene’s, defection that had knocked him into silence, but the truth was I could not remember him living any other way. He was a silent man.

The year my mother left Blake was just fourteen. He was handsome, the most handsome boy in school, but he didn’t date. All his energy went into raising me. He was the family cook. He ordered the cleaning, demanded my room be neat and my laundry kept in its basket. He helped me with homework and bullies, even though he wasn’t big.  But something was wrong with him.

Blake had changed a lot even before my mother left, had gone into intolerable lapses of…what?—just lapses. He thought deeply about things I hadn’t considered. He told me once that he detested every person he knew at some time—but not all of the time. Even people he loved, he detested. The trick for him was not to act on his feelings. Even if he loathed someone he had to wait until he could find value in the person again or he knew he’d be friendless. He said that was why he didn’t have a girlfriend. He was too afraid of how he’d behave if he found himself in love with someone and discovered he detested her.  He thought it would make him hate himself.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I told him, confidently adding, “You don’t detest me.”

“No,” he shot back. “Never mind. I hope you never understand.”

The window was open. I heard my father’s terse, “Yeah.” There was a pause. I saw Blake at the living room window. He was closed again. He had that look. “Oh yeah, hi, Bill.” It was Mr. Bryant. He’d called to exact his clown revenge. I knew Blake could hear the conversation, too. He picked up the camping picture on the bookshelf, eyed it carefully as though for clues. It was the only picture of the whole family that was kept out, taken shortly before my mother left.

It framed our parents on either side of us, as far away from each other as possible while still remaining in focus. Blake and I had fish—were the glowing champions of something inconsequential. My mother’s smile encouraged interpretation.

Her departure, sudden and mysterious, was treated at first with supreme calm. Joined in purpose, my father and Blake cleaned the house. They scrubbed in silence for an entire weekend. I gathered they wanted to wipe away all trace of my mother’s presence.

It wasn’t just that she was gone. She would never return. They seemed to know that right away.

A tense silence held court in every room. I knew that something terrible was in the offing. I was frightened of the looks Blake and Dad manufactured for each other.  They were constructing hatred. That was the expression of it. They were both trying to be the adult in the house: my father by working himself to exhaustion and bringing back money to a home he was too tired to inhabit, Blake by working as an adult at home and by pretending that his lack of responsibility elsewhere had no bearing on his maturity.

It wasn’t long after Mom left that Dad warned me in a hushed conversation, “I want you to watch out for Blake. He’s not right. You can’t trust him.”

“Why not?”

“He’s a born liar. He says things. Don’t believe them.”

At first I didn’t understand. But then, one night, Blake lied to me in a way that proved Father right.

It was the beginning of a northern autumn and a wolf had gotten onto our island. Probably it had crossed the single bridge that connected our scrap of Precambrian Shield to the rest. However it arrived, two dogs were dead on their leashes in the morning.

In the evening, I couldn’t sleep. Animal noises in the dark, a single unrestrained bark in our narrow hall: it occurred to me that the wolf was inside.

I called for Blake but he didn’t answer so I clutched the blankets around my face.  Still those noises. Wolf anger. Animal contempt. It sounded muffled like the wolf didn’t want to be heard. Finally it ended.  Silence held the dark and the dark was an animal, too.

I was almost asleep when a soft squeak told me someone was opening the bedroom door.

“Blake?”

“Why are you awake?”

“I think the wolf was in the house. I heard him.”

More silence.

“Blake?”

“It’s not a wolf. I heard it, too. I checked.”

“What was it?”

“The pipes. Someone left the toilet running.”

I felt relieved. And then I remembered what my father had said. I couldn’t trust him. Trust him with what?

And even though there was no wolf in the house I wondered about the dogs on their leashes, facing an impossible beast.

And then I saw it, the anger Blake and my father held for each other and my role in their war. It came upon me stupidly, but I grasped it.

I hurt myself playing. I frustrated myself with a cap gun that had no pop. Despite the triviality of my trouble, I walked into the house with real tears streaming down my face. Blake and my father sat in opposition at the kitchen table. My father jumped up first. He said, “What’s wrong? Are you all right?” His concern had a dangerous quality about it; I detected fear.

“My gun doesn’t work.”

“Show me. Give it to me.” I handed him the gun. He checked the barrel and fired a dud round. I could see him considering my toy sternly when Blake reached over and tore the gun from his grip.

“I know about these. I’ll fix it.”

“Give it back.”

“I know about these. When was the last time you fired one?”

And then, as though in a comic ballet, they wrestled with the gun. I watched them in stunned silence, fighting over a plastic weapon that had become real in some way. Blake was agile. With a sudden motion, he slipped the gun out of my father’s hands and escaped the house into the woods where he remained until after supper. When he returned, he had no gun. I don’t know what he did with it, but I never saw it again.

I didn’t cry over its loss. It had occurred to me in a flash exactly what they were up to. They were protecting me from each other. That’s how they managed. They were both able to continue through this horrible disaster of which I was only dimly aware, the devastating consequences for Blake of losing his mother, for Dad of losing his dignity, because they had thrown their identities into the task of guarding me and of making sure I didn’t grow up to be like the other man or boy who pretended to authority.

“What!” My father’s voice thundered through the window. “He said what?”

I watched Blake slide the picture from its frame. Where was he? His fingers fumbled with the glass, which fell and broke on the floor. I thought I knew what he would do next.  I thought he would tear the picture into fragments.

He didn’t. He put it carefully into his pocket to save it from what was approaching.

Watching him in his quiet actions I was overcome with guilt. I had goaded him into our fight.  I was the one who told him to stop fighting with Dad. I told him that he was unfair, that if he just did what Dad told him to do instead of always fighting the house would be fine. It was his fault, I said, that we were in a perpetual state of turmoil.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know everything that goes on. I know how you two fight. I hear you in the morning when Dad gets off work.”

“Shut up.  You don’t hear anything.”

“I do.  I know everything.”

“Shut up.”

“It’s your fault. It’s always been your fault. You’re why Mom left. You’re always complaining and fighting with everyone.  Why can’t you just…”

Something happened then. He’d been bringing his hands to his ears, but they never made it.  Instead, he lunged at me. I heard the crack of contact, felt myself lifted into a sky that tasted like blood. Blake retreated to the steps, perhaps to protect me from himself. For a good two minutes, no-one moved.

“He did what!”

The hallway pounded back against my father’s steps. I saw how Blake waited, saw that he was afraid, and I understood.

I would be afraid, too. My father had a reason at last to lay a beating on his deviant son. I felt the horror of the situation. I discovered in an instant how pitiable we were: all three of us.

Even as I reached the veranda I could hear the first blow landing, that hideous consonance of fist on flesh. I tore at the door. It slammed open. Then I was between them, breathless. Blake was on the floor, his face already bloodied. My father stood with fists of steel.  His face was mottled red in his rage. “Out of my way,” he cried.

“No!”

“Get out of my way, Matt. He needs to know he can’t hurt you.”

“No!”

Blake struggled to his feet. He whispered, “It’s okay, Matt. Let him come.” He raised his fists weakly.

There were tears in my eyes. I turned on my father. “This was our fight. Not yours. I started it. You don’t have the right to do this when I’m as much to blame. If you’re going to hit Blake, you have to hit me, too.”

He seemed staggered by my words.

I lowered my hands to my sides deliberately. “Hit me,” I said. “I won’t let you do anything to Blake that you wouldn’t do to me.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying,” Blake cried. “For God’s sake, don’t say that. You don’t understand.”

But my father did. His lower lip trembled. He began to shake.

“Do to me what you did to Blake.”

My father turned from me. A sound came from his mouth that I couldn’t understand, a wordless breath of horror. He fled the house.

My father came home late that night and held Blake in a hushed conference. After that day, they did not fight. My father seemed to guard himself against me as though I held the power to hurt him. Blake became more withdrawn. Shortly after his eighteenth birthday he left the house. A year later he left town. He wrote to me for a few years. He was a waiter in a Toronto hotel, but he lost the job to his drinking. I didn’t know he was a drug addict until his drugs almost killed him at twenty-four. He overdosed at a house party. He wasn’t dead but he looked dead, so his best friend dragged him out into the snow to hide the body. He died of exposure.

I had already left my father’s house for university two years before Blake’s death.  I would come back to visit on a monthly basis, then on weekends after the funeral, because he seemed to need me more. Even so, my relationship with my father was subdued and mysterious. I could not fathom his aloofness.

And I often wondered about my mother’s disappearance. I had not seen her since I was nine; she didn’t attend Blake’s funeral. Could I believe that she hated her life with us so much that she left forever, leaving everything behind? Or did she wonder about the fights between my father and Blake that made no real sense? Did she ever hear one of their secret fights, as I did, while playing spies as a child? They were at odds in the bathroom with the door locked. I never heard words, just noises, like their complaint wasn’t with each other but with themselves and their own natures. I can’t imagine what happened next if she did.

André Narbonne is a Windsor, Ontario writer. Since 2011 his writing has seen publication in Prairie Fire, The Dalhousie Review, The Nashwaak Review, FreeFall, Wascana Review, CV2, Antigonish Review, Rampike, Windsor Review, Numéro Cinq, and carte blanche.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Lizard Brain

July 2, 2021
jeffrey

by Samantha Ley

Thud.

Feeling a dull throb where his forehead had hit the wall, Jeffrey wished he had cut out wider eyeholes. Then again, a lizard’s eyes are not that large, so bigger holes would ruin the authenticity of the costume. No, not costume; “costume” was what his mom called it. His suit. He had started making it with his dad. Jeffrey couldn’t wait to show off the finished version when Dad got home from his business trip.

He thought of it as his green self. His new self.

Two felt feet with long, clawed toes approached the stairs. Jeffrey could tell that his plan to scurry down headfirst was going to be noisy and probably not that safe. He decided, after swaying and testing his weight over the first step, that some lizards must crawl backwards. It would certainly confuse their predators. Holding on to his tail to avoid squishing or breaking it—and having to grow a new one, which would be tedious—Jeffrey slowly turned around and started to slide down the stairs, lizard belly to carpet.

The steady murmur of his mom’s dinner party. An underlying hum of voices. A shrill laugh. The deeper boom of a voice. Agreement. Fork against plate. Glasses clinking. Grown-up things.

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

More padding, thought Jeffrey, as he slid onto the landing. The next iteration of his being would come with way more padding. He couldn’t wait to show Dad the lizard suit once he got back from his business trip.

Jeffrey’s class was studying reptiles: where they lived, what they ate, what types of them existed, and how they acted. Jeffrey had concluded that you could figure out how anyone lived once you knew those details. So, this seemed like the next logical step.

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

His two front feet gripped the new carpet on each stair as he drew closer to the sounds downstairs. And suction cups, he thought. Suction cups could make or break his life as a lizard.

He peeked around the corner of the wall dividing the foyer from the dining room. A quick scan: four grown-ups, two empty chairs. Crumpled napkins, empty plates, lots of empty wine bottles. There was a large man with a long white beard who looked a lot like the picture of Charles Darwin in Jeffrey’s science textbook. He was telling a very loud story to the other guests and using his wine glass, nearly empty, for emphasis. Did one of the seated women see Jeffrey?

Jeffrey darted backwards, thinking of the lizards he had seen out by the town pond with his dad. When they felt threatened, they ran and hid, bodies twisting wildly from side to side.

Scurry, scurry, with a light, accidental brush of his tail against an ornate vase in the corner. Then into the adjoining living room, dark. But Jeffrey knew the layout in here, and his senses turned on with a sort of click. The eye holes were too small, yes, but he could sense he was not alone. He imagined a hawk hunting for his little green self. Circling silently, gauging his prey, waiting for just the right nanosecond for a swift attack. If Jeffrey was lucky, he would be able to scuttle under the glass top coffee table for protection. If he were less than lucky, the hawk would snatch his tail, which would take two to three weeks to regrow. And if he were truly unlucky…

He heard his mother’s voice, right near him but as though it were far away.

“Did you hear something?” she whispered.

A man’s voice, and not Jeffrey’s father’s: “Stop worrying so much.”

Jeffrey froze, feeling his heart in his head. He could see from the corner of his eyehole his mother’s leg, her discarded stiletto heel on its side by the couch. A man’s hand gripped her calf and then ran smoothly up her leg, to where he could no longer see it without turning his head. He didn’t want to. His heart choked him, filling his throat. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Rather than acknowledging the cacophony of his heartbeat, they simply resumed whatever they were doing, with noises that Jeffrey did not wish to acknowledge. Sounds that must have been part of a huge misunderstanding.

Maybe, thought Jeffrey, his dad was not really in San Francisco on business. Maybe this was him, just different. Maybe this was what people were like when they came back from California. Or maybe his dad had died, and his mother didn’t want to tell him just yet. But even if he was dead, it made little sense for her to be kissing another man, a stranger, on the newly upholstered couch in the living room. Jeffrey wasn’t even allowed to eat on there.

This had to be a mistake.

His mother’s foot arched out towards him, nearly grazing the tip of his lizard nose. He burst out from under the glass top table and kept going, through the half-lit kitchen and back into the dining room. He faintly heard a crash and an exclamation from the living room, but the guests in the dining room heard nothing. They were all laughing, all drinking. The man with the puffy beard was red-faced and hideous. All Jeffrey could see through tears and his eye holes was gaping mouths with red lipstick, razor sharp nails. He heard shrieks and a yelp as he half-ran and half-crawled through the dining room, into the mudroom, and through the doggie door out into the night’s world.

Gasping, heaving, he ran into the neighbor’s yard. It had elaborate manicured gardens and an ornamental pond. Jeffrey was never, ever to go over there without an invitation.

He tripped over his tail, fell to the ground, and crawled, soaking his costume with the beginnings of the evening’s dew. Swallowing a wave of nausea, he imagined the hawk, swooping over him with night vision and an empty stomach. He quickly scuttled under the neighbor’s giant prize rhododendron bush.

Shoving himself through sharp branches, Jeffrey burrowed into the mulch. He pulled his tail around himself and clutched at it, fingernails clawing the fabric as he curled into a ball. Inhaling the scent of leaves and wet earth, he steadied his breathing. He pictured the lizard videos he had watched over and over. Lizards hiding from prey made themselves completely still, but the ones who were truly asleep had a tell-tale tic in their throats. In, out. In, out.

Jeffrey closed his mouth and breathed through his nose. He concentrated on not moving a muscle, on becoming a stone that a hawk wouldn’t look twice at. In just a few minutes, his breathing slowed. A light rain began to patter on the bushes as Jeffrey’s fingers loosened on his tail. His chest slowly rose and fell under the cover of glossy green leaves and delicate pink flowers.

Samantha Ley holds degrees from Kenyon College and the University of Virginia. Her fiction has been published in a number of online journals and has been nominated for Best of the Net. Most recently, her work has appeared in Fairfield Scribes and Albany Poets. She is a freelance writer and editor who lives outside of Albany, NY. 

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Guest Posts, Mental Health

I Come From Wicked Women

May 24, 2021
mother

by Ramona Mead

Like many eighth-grade girls, I spent a lot of time at my best friend’s house. A woman lived down the road who was a menace to their neighborhood, would start a feud with a neighbor over an errant garden hose. Her trailer home set at the end of a long gravel drive was the kind of place kids avoided on Halloween. She sped around on a bicycle, stiff and severe, never acknowledging her surroundings.

Whenever the woman passed by, my friend’s family burst into a mocking rendition of The Wicked Witch of the West’s signature tune, “Duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh!” My friend and her family had no way to know it was my grandmother on that bicycle, and I never spoke up.

It was my mother’s mother, I called her Mom-Mom. Though I was around her as a kid, I can’t say I knew her. By the time I was in eighth grade, she and my mother had been estranged for more than five years. Ever since then, when I see that witch from The Wizard of Oz, I’m struck by the resemblance to the women in my family, including myself—it’s mostly the sharp profile (and the meanness.)

Mom-Mom’s husband, my Pop-Pop, died when I was six. At the time, I only knew he was “very sick.”  I spent countless hours in squat pleather chairs of a mauve ICU waiting room, supervised by friendly nurses in pastel scrubs. My mother stayed at her father’s bedside until it became clear there was no hope he’d recover, and his life support machines were turned off.

I don’t recall the first time my mother told me the story how Pop-Pop died, it’s always been our family narrative and it goes like this: Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop were drunk and had an argument, she hit him in the head with a frying pan and he never woke up. It’s such a nonchalant description, I didn’t question this narrative until I was an adult in therapy.

“You mean she murdered him?” my therapist’s eyes widened after I casually recounted the version I’ve known my whole life. It always came across as it was his fault for not waking up. That’s a classic move in our family, blame the victim to avoid responsibility. After all, it’s not like that was the first time she’d hit him.

Our family lore says alcohol fueled altercations between my grandparents were common. Pop-Pop occasionally sported a black eye as a result. He never retaliated or talked about it. As an adult, I’ve asked my mother and aunt why Mom-Mom was never arrested after Pop-Pop’s death, and they give the same explanation, which is surprising. They say their dad “loved his wife so much,” they knew he wouldn’t want them to pursue legal action.

I was twenty-one when I had my first fight with a boyfriend. I didn’t want him to take a trip without me because I was jealous of another girl who’d be there. We were yelling at each other as I gathered up everything to do some laundry. I walked out mid conversation, to our building’s laundry room two doors down. I fumed while stuffing everything into a washer and cramming quarters into their slots.

I marched barefoot back down the sidewalk, my retorts finely tuned and ready to launch at him. Then suddenly, there he was getting in his car without offering me so much as a glance.

The blocky jug of laundry detergent soared across the parking lot before I even registered that it had left my hand. It landed on the wide hood of the Mustang with a solid thud as the car inched out of its parking space.

I rushed to our door without looking back and slammed it behind me, my lips trembling. What had I done?! My chest tightened and my tongue tingled. My anxiety had never escalated to this level in front of J before.

In the two years we’d lived together, he saw me kick over a kitchen chair or cry during episodes of panic when I was overwhelmed balancing my checkbook or studying for a test. Those were incidents where I’d struggled against myself, and he’d left me alone to work through them. This was the first time I’d lost control in J’s direction.

Through a slit in the blinds, I watched his car ease back into its space. J retrieved the jug of Tide with little effort and came through our front door as if he were returning with groceries.

I braced for the slap and barrage of insults I imagined I’d earned, as had always been the case growing up. Like the time in my junior year of high school when, in a fit of agitation over finishing a report on time, I’d slammed my palms against the keys of our electric typewriter until they stung then tossed it across our kitchen table. My mother pulled me out of my seat by my hair, slapped my face and called me an ungrateful bitch.

J set the jug on the coffee table without comment. Time seemed to slow down as I fought to get my breathing to a normal pace. He came to where I still stood by the window, pulled me close and held me for a moment. Then he gently separated us to arm’s length and spoke slowly and softly, “If you ever do anything like that again, we are done. I will never be with you anymore.”

When I realized he was comforting me, not punishing me, my confusion morphed into relief then embarrassment. I couldn’t lift my head to meet his gaze. I stared down, watching my hot tears drip onto my t-shirt.

J said he knew I needed help. What did I need? he asked, he’d help me get it. I didn’t know. Neither of us understood at the time that this behavior was how I had been taught to react to conflict. Despite the fact that we were later married, J never knew the details of my abusive childhood or the extent of my mother’s dysfunction because I didn’t fully understand it myself yet nor admitted it to anyone.

We decided I would start by scheduling a doctor’s appointment the next day. Later that night, our argument settled, I lay in the dark picturing that jug of Tide thunking onto the car’s hood, over and over and over again. Sour shame rose in my throat every time. And then in my mind, the jug was a rock spidering the windshield of my step-dad’s truck. My mother stood panting beside our front porch after hurling the softball sized rock, screaming insults as he drove away.

I was transported right back to that morning, holding my breath until I exhaled as the rock rolled down the windshield, off the hood of the truck and continued down the hill. While my step-dad had never raised a hand to my mother, I thought surely today was the day. I kept watch as his truck continued around the curved driveway, veered onto rutted dirt lane, then to the paved road, and out of sight.

This wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed my mother’s rage and wondered Why doesn’t someone stop her? It never occurred to me that someone might have tried.

My mother creates her own version of reality to get her through without ever taking accountability for her behaviors. When people call her out, she bails on the relationship. Whether it’s a spouse needing a break, or a hairdresser wanting to change her standing appointment time. When my mother tripped over a throw rug in the house, it went into the trash. If she choked while eating spaghetti, that brand of pasta was forever boycotted. So the question I’ve pondered for more than a decade is not why didn’t my mother want to change but why did I?

J was the first person to tell me, “You need help and I love you, so I want to help you get it.” All my life, my mother told me “there’s something wrong with you,” and “you’re sick in the head like your father.” She never once told me how I could make an effort to be different. She took me to medical doctors for my physical symptoms: chronic stomach pain in sixth grade, migraines at age fourteen, and I took treatments but there was never a search for a root cause. A doctor’s suggestion that these things could be stress related was dismissed by my mother. I was being dramatic, exaggerating, seeking attention.

Sometimes it feels like the strongest drive in my life, even stronger than my will to live, is my desire to not be like my mother. For many years, it felt like turning into her was inevitable.

The day I threw the laundry soap was the first turning point away from that course. It was the start of other people teaching me how to be a person in the world. My mother didn’t teach me or allow herself to be taught. I’ve determined the difference comes down to who we are at our cores. I have always had love and light at my center, my mother and grandmother had meanness at theirs. I didn’t always let my light shine because I was mocked and punished for being different from my mother, for being sensitive and silly. I was taught by example to behave in a way that went against my nature. That caused me a great amount of distress and anxiety. J was the first person to give me another option.

I have the possibility of wickedness in me. It was passed down from the surly old woman on her bicycle, to her daughter who then abused her daughter. Acknowledging that wickedness in me was the first step in not acting on it and taking a different path. I do not want to be a woman who terrorizes people. I don’t want to be a joke in my neighborhood or feared by my family.  I am my mother’s daughter but I am not my mother. I come from wicked women and I choose not to be one.

Ramona Mead is a writer, reader, and book blogger, among many other things! Her personal essays have appeared in various online publications. She’s working on a memoir about her relationship with her mother in regard to trauma, family estrangement, and Huntington’s Disease. She lives outside Bozeman, Montana with her husband and a houseful of pets. You can find her on Instagram @RamonaMeadBlogger and her website www.RamonaMead.com.

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Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon and let us know what you think!

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

The Sussman Service

March 26, 2021

by Roz Weisberg

At Rachel’s first funeral for her father’s Uncle Milton, her mother leaned over and whispered, “Promise me when I die you won’t put your father on top of me. I’ll come back to haunt you.” Rachel nodded yes. She was ten. Ten years later, Rachel arranged the open casket, lavish spray of roses and lilies, and the details to make her mother look like a version of her alive self for the open casket. A hundred and fifty people moved from the chapel to the graveside where her mother’s coffin was lowered into the ground. Standing at attention, Rachel waited for her mother to scream from below reminding her of the consequences of breaking her promise.

Ten years and three months later, a closed casket, a modest spray of roses, a condensed twenty-minute graveside service where Rachel’s friends who never met her parents attended the burial of her father. Two groundskeepers wore blue jumpsuits and stood at the head and foot of the casket guiding it into another box as if it were a part of a Russian nesting doll set. The park insisted on the extra concrete box to protect the earth and preserve the casket, but Rachel thought it made it easier to mow the lawn. A third groundskeeper plunged the shovel into the mound of dirt. The rabbi recited the Kaddish, but Rachel could only hear the ringing of her mother’s shrill voice, “I told you not to put your father on top of me, I get claustrophobic.”

The rabbi’s words morphed together as he stepped up to Rachel in his black fedora and tore the pinned black ribbon over her heart. He stepped aside. When Rachel didn’t react, he cleared his throat and spoke her name. She didn’t quite hear him, her ears had been plugged for days, but followed his gesture. Stepping toward the graveside, the crisp air and bright bleached sunlight reminded her that it would soon be daylight savings though she wasn’t sure when the clocks were supposed to be turned back. She peered into the grave at the white concrete slab before taking the shovel and scooping up a blade’s worth of dirt. Steadying the wooden handle, she guided it over the hole, and with a last inhale gave her mother one last beat to air her discontent. Nothing. She flipped the shovel over; the rocks of dirt exploded and scattered against the cement. She plunged the shovel back into the dirt and returned to the white plastic folding chair.

The rabbi squinted, transfixed by something moving through the thin gathering. A hunched over old man in gray slacks shuffled up to the grave. His blazer too big, the arms to long. His small bald head sat on his shoulders as if he had no neck. Without turning around, he grabbed the shovel and scooped up some dirt, but the weight made him unsteady. One of the groundskeepers stepped out from behind the mound as the man coughed up and swallowed phlegm in the back of his throat and hoisted the shovel. It slipped from his grip, toppling into the grave. Before the old man fell forward, the groundskeeper pulled him back. The old man fell backwards on the groundskeeper.

Everyone gasped, their bodies jolted, the flimsy chairs legs gave out, and the first row collapsed like a row of dominos. The rabbi watched, frozen at the lectern. Rachel landed on her side. The other groundskeeper spoke into a walkie-talkie while another moved to help people stand up, dust themselves off and reset their chairs. The rabbi found his voice. “Is everyone alright?”

Rachel looked at the old man as she stood up. “Excuse me? Who are you?”

“Excuse you. Who the hell are you?” The groundskeeper had helped the old man stand.

It sounded as if the old man were speaking underwater. Rachel closed her eyes and took an audible breath, “This is Bernie Sussman’s funeral. My mother was Shirley.” Her own voice sound muted.

At the base of the hill a golf cart pulled up between the mourner’s cars. The driver in his blue suit got out and trekked up the hill.

“This is Stanley Leven’s funeral. Stanley was my wife’s second cousin. She couldn’t come, this hill woulda killed her.”

The man from the golf cart stepped up and introduced himself as the director.

“I’m here for Stanley’s funeral. Where the hell is Stanley?” The old man noticed the groundskeeper for the first time.

“I’m not sure sir. Why don’t I give you a ride and we can let these people continue their service?” The groundskeeper passed the old man’s arm to the director.

“Now, wait a minute. Let me think.” He tilted his head downward “Sussman you say?” He shook his head back and forth as if reading through an imaginary rolodex. “No, I don’t think I knew any Sussmans.” He tried pulling his arm away. “Must be the wrong funeral.” The old man took a last look in the hole, “That doesn’t look good.” He grabbed the director’s arm as if it were the bar on a walker and they waddled down the hill.

Rachel stepped to where the old man had stood and looked down. A groundskeeper grabbed a rake and maneuvered its teeth to pull up the shovel. Somehow, the metal edge of the shovel had chipped and cracked the concrete slab. A groundskeeper mumbled into his radio. Another golf cart arrived, another director climbed the hill.

The rabbi suggested he finish the service and offered final condolences, thanking the attendees. The mourners lingered as the director and groundskeepers conferred in a huddle. Rachel joined, glancing into to pit. The director explained, he’d never seen concrete crack like that, but he’d called for a replacement. Rachel was free to wait, but they weren’t sure how long it might take.

Rachel crossed her arms, the ringing in her ears echoed, “You promised me!”

The director tried to usher Rachel along, but she stood her ground. “I’ll go on my way as if nothing ever happened if you could reverse them. Put him in first and her on top.” She couldn’t gage the volume of her own voice though there some heads turned her way.

Her request was met with blank stares. The director mumbled into his radio and conferred with the groundskeepers before agreeing to the accommodation. Rachel turned to leave. Taking in the view of the paved LA River bed, her ears popped, the shrill ringing in her ear stopped as the groundskeepers lowered the crane and raised her mother’s concrete box.

Roz Weisberg is a recovering movie producer who went back to school and received her MFA at Antioch University, Los Angeles. She currently teaches screenwriting at UCLA Extension, is a private writing coach/development editor and a writing specialist at Antioch.

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This past year has been remarkable, in the best and worst of ways. (Her)oics Anthology is a collection of essays by women about the lived pandemic experience. Documenting the experiences of women both on the front lines and in their private lives, this book is an important record of the power, strength and ingenuity of women. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Binding the Generations

March 7, 2021
papa

By Daniel Osborn

On Sundays, my parents drove my sister and me to Hingham for dinner with Nana and Papa Al at my father’s childhood home. Growing up, this house was the thing of legend. Unassuming in a town notable for its critical mass of colonial mansions, conspicuously displaying plaques from the local historical society that advertised the 18th and 19th century dates of their construction, generations of Osborns had lived in this modest home with acres of lawn and woods beyond. It did not have a plaque but it possessed an iconic place in family lure.

The story goes that my Papa was born upstairs, in the room at the end of the hall, past the bathroom. Hearing this story as a child, it seemed otherworldly. I could not fathom a birth outside of a hospital, let alone a lifetime spent living in the same house. Yet, my stoic Papa was one with the home, devotedly tending to the land, the custodian of the property. His love was quiet and understated, more diligent than overtly affectionate.

The Hingham house was always a source of pride for me. It echoed with unmet relatives who seemed so distant as to have lived in a time unimaginable to me and the trappings of my late 20th century childhood. I was raised on Ninja Turtles and Nickelodeon and the few glimpses I had of previous generations from yellowed photographs made me question whether they were at all acquainted with the automobile and telephone, let alone cable television and the action figures spawned by cartoon programming.  Black-and-white people once inhabited the home that I came to associate with endless rounds of card games with my Nana and evenings spent trying to up the sarcastic ante one pithy remark at a time in between bites of pizza from Denly Garden.

My Nana usually had enough cutting remarks in reserve to protect her honorary title of wittiest Osborn. Dorothy Parker may have woken up every day to brush her teeth and sharpen her tongue but my Nana could have held her own at the Algonquin Round Table, if only circumstances had favored her in youth. The premature death of a mother, an alcoholic father, the Great Depression, and a childhood spent bouncing around between relatives does a lot to develop a biting sense of humor but is not, exactly, the formula to getting an adoring audience of sophisticates to guffaw at one’s quips.

Arriving at the Hingham house, I would often see my Papa sitting outside in the shade by the barn in the backyard. Beyond the barn was the field. On days when I would walk straight into the house without checking by the barn, we would be greeted by my Nana at the kitchen table. “Where’s Papa” somebody would ask, inevitably eliciting the response, “He’s down in the field.” The low muffle of a ride-on lawn mower indicated the distance between Papa and the house.

Whenever I strain to conjure a mental image of my Papa, I imagine him riding his lawn mower in the field or sitting on a white plastic lawn chair down by the garden wearing an almost neutral expression that all but conceals his urge to be younger and physically fit enough to tend to his crops without the reluctance of a body in its ninth decade. In the days immediately following his death, I sat in rapture in the same kitchen where my Nana and I often ate lunch and exchanged verbal jabs. In these emotionally exhausting days, this space was transformed into a sanctuary from grief. Eddie Carnes and Tom Studley, my Papa’s lifelong friends, regaled my family with stories from their youth and filled in the details of a life I only knew in broad strokes. Only a teenager when my Papa passed, I had hardly considered his life before my time. My adolescent mind was still too enveloped in the immediacy of youthful egocentrism to entertain the notion that Papa was more than who he was in relation to me in this particular stage of his life. His mannerisms were given a backstory with each colorful accounting of his time as a young man.

Tom’s loose and wrinkled skin hid in its valleys his World War II era Army tattoos, the ones gotten when deployed with my Papa in the Pacific. Tom spoke without the reservation that marked my Papa’s interpersonal style. For every moment of silence we spent together in that kitchen during his life, Tom volunteered to fill this space with war stories. Now, my Papa’s limp had an origin. It was not the toll taken by time, the signifier of age I assumed but, instead, the emblem of personal sacrifice worn long after parades ended and uniforms were relegated to collect dust and musty odors in closets. Eddie and Tom laughed as they recounted my Papa’s impressive physical strength as he lifted bombs and other munitions with apparent ease. By the time I started planting the garden with him, his broad shoulders and thick hands were a reminder of a gradually eroding powerfulness. My presence in the field was, in part, because I now enjoyed my own ease with physical tasks that were increasingly becoming out of my Papa’s reach, too demanding for him yet not even registering with me as taxing.

It was in the garden that I felt most like I was participating in my family’s heritage. As a child, I watched with awe and embarrassment as my Papa and father used tools and unveiled their adeptness at maintaining the property. Over the creek bed separating the grassy field from the tree-lined woods beyond, my Papa and father built two foot bridges by hand. I observed as they measured and cut, ordered and arranged, and, all the while, worked in concert in a nearly unbroken silence. From a pile of lumber emerged newly engineered connective tissue to the untamed portion of the property. While I am sure some trivial duties were delegated to me, I felt utterly inept in contrast to their aptitude for executing the undertaking. Then and now, tools are alien to me. My dandy-like tendencies precluded any understanding of their process. I simply knew that my Papa possessed a work ethic and an acuity for such tasks that mystified me.

My father worked alongside his father on these types of projects throughout my childhood. Together, they ascended ladders and repainted the house. They cut down trees and chopped the wood. I played cards with my Nana and looked on from a distance much of the time. The two of them completed tasks together, both intuitively understanding the nature of the work and the processes at hand. Neither looked dumbfounded enough to ask at each step along the way, “What do I do next,” a question I swallowed more than I posed, lest I appear totally lost in these chores. But, there was always a tension between the two men.

Papa Al spoke infrequently, using his hands and a sunrise-to-sunset work ethic, instead, to communicate to the world. Yet, he always managed to connect with my sister and me. Without fail, he would greet me with the question, “How’s old Chester,” inquiring about my childhood dog. I would give an update, keeping silence at bay for a moment. It seemed to my father that from the time his father became Papa Al to his grandchildren, his emotional distance and unpolished paternal style were replaced with a more affectionate state. My Papa would always remain a quiet man but, to my father, his dad had undergone a transformation into a more gentle person. My father watched on as Papa unfurled a spirit unknown to him as a child living under the yoke of a more stern paternal figure.

The time in the garden during my youth that defines my memories of Papa Al are markedly different than the associations my father has with his childhood. As Papa introduced me to the process of tilling the soil and supervising the ground until it bore fruit, I adopted an enthusiasm for the work. On occasion, my father would recount the laboriousness of being a child on these acres with the grass-to-be-mowed and the garden-to-be-weeded. A favorite didactic tale my father would recount was when he would be caught or accused of being bored. His father would then tell him to go to the garden and weed a row of string beans. In my father’s account, this could occupy the rest of his evening, replacing boredom with hours on his hands and knees plucking unwanted vegetation in between the fledgling plants. The lesson being conveyed was simple. Papa had changed over time and being his grandson was a different experience than being his son. While I got to sit in the back of the trailer that was hitched onto the lawn mower, enjoying a leisurely, albeit bumpy, ride around the property with my Papa as the chauffeur, my father was subjected to a different person in his youth. The quiet yet doting Papa was not the man my father was acquainted with at the age when he was called on to tend to the garden.

Whereas my father recounted the parts of his youth with decades-old frustration, during my teenage years, I enjoyed the work and was surprised to find an outlet to contribute to the property as more than a Sunday tourist, hoping Nana prepared my favorite dessert or stocked my preferred snacks in the back hall pantry. But, before I was invited to plant the garden, the field was where I ambled. When sports were the centerpiece of my youthful pursuits, my father and I would play catch there. Somewhat uncoordinated but determined to improve, I would chase down the baseballs that ricocheted off my glove and hurl them at my father with varying degrees of accuracy. What I lacked in innate athletic prowess, I compensated for in effort. For well over a decade, I dutifully attended practices and obediently followed coaches’ directives. For this, I was frequently rewarded with third string status and a spectator’s view of fields from the sidelines. Yet, on this hallowed ground, my father and I would throw the ball in near silence. These hours held the promise of enough improvement in my skills to ascend the ranks of little league athletics.

One day, my father presented me with a green and red bow with a quiver of arrows. In the otherwise unbroken expanse of the grassy field was a lone tree which became my target. The bow was a vestige from my father’s childhood, before the term “free range” was used to describe a parenting style which typified the autonomy afforded to his generation. With the other neighborhood kids born during the Eisenhower Administration, they would take turns shooting an arrow into the air, scattering around the property, each following the arc of the projectile and vying to be nearest when it plunged back down to earth. Raised before the concept of “helicopter” parents had taken root in the American zeitgeist, my generation straddled this laissez faire approach that granted tacit permission to young Baby Boomers’ bow-and-arrow pastimes and the more zealous hovering that I would observe later in life in affluent suburbia where parents chose to live vicariously through their Gen Z children. Listening to my father tell these stories as he taught me to aim the arrow and release it towards the tree, I was fascinated and horrified by the audacity of his childhood self to scramble across the field evading medieval weaponry. I was also envious, knowing this would not be replicated by me and my friends even with the bow in my possession.

But my ambling lasted only until I was recruited to till and plant. On the first day of what would become an annual tradition, my Papa sat just beyond the freshly plowed soil and gave instructions for how to convert the churned dirt into a series of neat and orderly rows across an expanse that approached the size of a football field. It was at this moment that my Papa handed my father a wooden spool around which was wrapped twine. The wood was dry and on the cusp of splintering. The thin rope looked aged and brittle. While my Papa sat and explained the process in short punchy sentences, my father interjected with a little back story. This spool and rope were ancient, even to him. It was a rudimentary way to ensure the rows of plants were straight and uniformly spaced. This mattered because, soon, my father and I would strike the ground with our hoes and insert hundreds of saplings to the ground.

Even though my Papa and Nana were the only two people living at the house, he filled the garden with dozens of plants that far exceeded the demand of the household. Row upon row of tomatoes, bell peppers, hot peppers, zucchini, summer squash, butternut squash, and other varieties filled a plot that was larger than my childhood backyard. The space where I would play soccer or lacrosse with my father or search for crickets when I was younger was but a parcel of the land my Papa plowed each year and filled with vegetable plants. The overabundance of the annual harvest enabled my Nana to produce batches of her hot pepper relish, a beloved condiment to sandwiches and hot dogs. When the relish was being made, the kitchen felt dangerous and toxic. An enormous pot sat atop the stove, heat radiating off the burners. The pungent odor of white vinegar, onions, and peppers enveloped the house and penetrated one’s senses to the point where breathing felt nearly impossible and eyes strained to remain open. In the end, the relish was jarred, the tangy and spicy sauce lasting only as long as the collective self-restraint of the family could muster.

The excess of tomatoes would serve as the fodder for tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches served on scali bread with sesame seeds. Throughout my childhood, my Papa would cultivate this yield and I would arrive at the family house and be greeted by juicy tomatoes that I would savor as Nana and I played round after round of War, the only card game I ever seemed to master and, unbeknownst to me, her least favorite. The only skill required by the game was enough hand dexterity to flip one card at a time until one player possessed the entire deck. Often, I would win and benevolently split the deck again with my Nana, taking pity on her and keeping the game alive. Later, after her death, relatives would lovingly recount how little she enjoyed the game. She humored me, nonetheless.

With the remaining yield, Papa would fill the cart that he hitched to his lawn mower and drive up and down the neighborhood, delivering bags of produce to the community. Always understated, Papa would, nevertheless, find ways to demonstrate his generosity. Bestowing fresh vegetables to the neighbors was one of the acts of selflessness that came naturally to him. It was a small gesture that seemed kind but trivial to me at the time yet is so rare as to almost seem obsolete today.

With the rope unspooled, my father and I used our hoes to commence digging small holes. I had seen the hoes hanging in the barn for years with all the other farm implements that looked menacing. When my Papa was a child, the property was actually a small working farm. The family kept cows and in the grassy field were a few mounds that I was told were their final resting places. With the rampant sarcasm in the family, I never knew definitively if this was true or yet another sly remark. Many of the tools from the days of cows and more robust farming remained suspended from the rafters or mounted to the barn’s walls. We only had use for the spooled rope and hoes.

The dimensions of the garden invited my Papa’s generosity. Parceling the space between friends and neighbors, we only had to fill a quadrant on this inaugural day. Rows of corn stalks would soon grow tall in an adjacent plot, put there by John Barry. Mr. Barry was, to me, a specter during this time, a frail figure dutifully walking the grounds parallel to the work underway by the Osborns. Politely, I would wave and greet him on the occasions when our visits to the garden overlapped. Slow-moving and hunched, Mr. Barry would walk the few hundred yards from the driveway to the garden where he would plant and tend to his hundreds of heads of corn.

Years after my grandfather passed away, Mr. Barry exceeded the brevity that typified our exchange of pleasantries and informed me through a crooked smile that this garden saved his life. Recovering from surgery, he lacked the motivation to undertake physical therapy yet the long walks from his car to the garden offered the exercise he needed to recover. My Papa’s subtle generosity, the mere act of lending him a fraction of an acre, galvanized Mr. Barry to step out of bed and into the world again when he just as easily could have succumbed to resignation.

If playing catch in the field and missing the tree when I released the arrows from my inherited bow taught me anything, it’s that my physical coordination was underwhelming. While my Papa impatiently observed his son and grandson completing the annual ritual that had been his prerogative decade after decade, I struck the soil and carved out space for our plants. Lacking the muscle memory that comes from a lifetime spent caring for this property and mastering each facet of the chores, I lifted and dropped the hoe to the ground. After only a few minutes participating as an equal to my father and inheritor to my Papa’s role in the process, I missed yet another target, striking the rope and relieving the tension.

Inexperience amplifies emotion. Without reference points, it becomes nearly impossible to calibrate a response; nor is experience necessarily an antidote against novelty. Even after all these years, I can still recall the bursting sensation of my cheeks turning flush as I stood over the  limp rope in disbelief of the almost-immediate severing of this ancient tool that, in the moment, felt like a vessel holding the legacy of a family tradition that had withstood over a half century of wear and tear but less than a half hour with me. In my mind is an image of my Papa, mouth open in shock. To this day, I am unsure of this memory, doubting whether Papa’s  reaction is a figment of my imagination or if my action was actually met by his astonishment.

Just as quickly as the hoe came down on the rope, my father would bend down and tie it together, reestablishing the tension that had always been there when he and his father went out each year to plant the garden. Quickly, order was returned and I resumed the task. The disturbance lasted a few moments at most and barely a word was exchanged among us.

Without fail, on our first day of planting each summer, my father reminds me of the garden rope. He squints his eyes as his face turns crimson with the release of his wheezy laughter. He shakes his head and smiles, remembering his father and my embarrassment. Our annual tradition now consists of his mirthful reminder of my first day working in the garden.

Shortly thereafter, the laughter ends and we unspool the garden rope and dig our hoes into the ground. Soon, we are both on our hands and knees, filling in the holes and feeling the soil between our fingers. Weeks will pass before we harvest peppers to make a batch of relish. In between, we will alternate between lovingly and grudgingly tilling and weeding the garden. We will curse the deer that eat the plants. Patches of the garden now remain untilled and untended. There is no more corn that grows in the adjacent plot. But, now my dad is his grandchildren’s Papa. When my sister visits and her children enter the house, the sound of the mower in the field is being operated by my dad. He will place his granddaughter on his lap and take her for rides. My mother will walk her down to the garden to name the plants my father and I have planted. I am experimenting with kale and broccoli. We have expanded the eggplant since the deer ignore these plants. Now, it is my father who will look at what we have planted and suggest another dozen peppers or tomatoes, assuming the mantle of caretaker. The house still stands and stories are told to a new generation. They hear about Nana and Papa, real life people who they only know through flat pictures and the curated memories recalled at family gatherings. The day my hoe cut through the rope like a guillotine now lives on in the canon of family lure. No longer a rupture with the past, it is rooted in the sly and sarcastic stories told around tables by a papa to his children and grandchildren.

Daniel Osborn, Ed.D. is a program director at Primary Source, an education nonprofit. Daniel’s academic background is interdisciplinary with advanced degrees in Near East and Judaic Studies and History and Social Science Education. He is the author of Representing the Middle East and Africa in Social Studies Education: Teacher Discourse and Otherness, published by Routledge. He also is the creator and host of the Joy and Conversation podcast on Jewish history and culture. 

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Click here for all things Jen