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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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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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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Pay Attention

December 30, 2020

By Tuni Deignan

pay attenton
be astonished.
tell about it.
-mary oliver

I have a delicate, black on black on black, layered, lace and lace-y, tulle and silk and satin cocktail dress. There is an overlay of trimmed triangular lacing. It flares just a bit, from my lower rib cage to the middle of my thigh where it rests. The torso is a blocked bodice, feminine, sensual, quiet. Above the bodice is sheer black fabric hinting at a strapless effect and its exquisitely frayed neckline is demure, sweet and scooping at the nape, a proper width from shoulder to shoulder ends just at the outsides of either end of my collar bone; seductive silent shoulders.

Usually, I wear this dress with a four-inch dark brown stiletto slip into, with a satin pine green and burgundy tapestry slipper, open-toed, it ties up ultimately with a phat fat burgundy bow at its arch. Gorgeous. Fun. Unexpected.

(pay attention, be astonished, tell about it)

Items of nostalgia stay hung in my closet and folded away in my drawers. The shelf life of my belongings has much more to do with my soul than fashion. In the bottom of my dresser’s fourth drawer, hides a full-length silk night gown, skinny shoulder straps, cut on the bias (like my third wedding dress) an ivory colored nightie with water-colored pink pansies large and splashed also on the bias at random; it’s stained. I wore this night slip to the hospital before delivering my last-born son, Lucky. I’d had plenty of opportunities laboring and delivering in a paper and cotton snap-up-the-back sack and shrugged off the nurse’s suggestion to change into one as wouldn’t I be blood staining my beautiful nightie? That’s my baby’s blood, that’s my blood, we’re doing a miraculous thing here, I thought, I’m good. The nightgown stayed.

Sometimes, I’ll give someone the shirt off my back. I love your shirt, she’ll say, my friend. And before she has taken her next breath I’ve taken it off and handed it to her (I’m wearing a leotard or something underneath), and she looks at me like I’m silly, and sweet and but of course you’re joking but no I’m really not joking because if you can feel the soul I attach to my t-shirt, and that feels special for you, then please, I am, sweet friend, all in. I send attention. She smiles astonished. Let’s.

The last time I wore the delicate, bodice hugging, demure yet inviting black dress was four years ago, almost to the day: August 29, 2016; the day my brother eulogized his youngest daughter, in his backyard. We all stood around his small pool, in South Florida, numb, cracked, broken. We listened to my sister play a movement of Bach on her flute, drifting and breathy and hollow and full, on breezes, the palm fronds receiving her; nodding alongside the notes and sorrows. The sun was hot. My cousins flew in. I bought floral arrangements: tropical jewels potted and dotted the ledges surrounding the circle of mourners. Tropicals, like my brother’s daughter, Gabrielle Esther:  wild, intense, whimsical, dream catching. Grandparents had been assisted to their chairs in the front. Sisters of the deceased, cousins, uncles, aunts, friends bowed their heads, struggled for words, wept.

I wore my black dress. I wore it to feel loved.

My brother spoke and invited our embrace. We paid attention. The day before, the tattooist carved Gabi’s tattoos into my arm and torso, into my brother’s, and his daughters and my daughters, all of us together, at the parlor she favored. We stung, our arms and torsos. By the pool, as the winds curled and held my brother’s grief, it began to lightly rain. In the back I stood eyes wet, watching slow drops plop onto my black-fairy dress. The timing was good, the service was closing, the family began to stand up from their chairs. The rain kept coming, just slowly, and sweetly, no one paid attention. The family started moving inside toward the food.

In that moment, my dress billows upward gaily next to my hips. In that moment, because I have kicked off the burgundy London heels, my arms are wings bent at my elbows, my elbows pitch northward toward the sky, my chin lifts and I am suspended, airborne, cartoon-like, briefly hovering over my brother’s saltwater pool. The raindrops slot my nostrils as I inhale, mixing with the salty tears releasing from my eyelashes. I search for the sun and greet the rain hoping.

Silent.

Quiet.

Peace.

My dress weighted by water, it suctioned up like a jelly and pressed me up to the surface, a mikvah cleanse, a soak.

It’s raining, Rainbow.

What else but this, Angel?

You will always take my breath away, please, please, tell me more.

My nieces and nephews, wide eyed and joyful, one by one cannonball and fly, dressed in funeral nines, plunge swiftly and willfully, joining me in my perfect black dress, the salty wet.

Antonia Deignan is a lifelong storyteller. She danced professionally in Chicago and New York, owned her own dance studio, and was artistic director of a pre-professional youth dance company – T Move. She is writing a memoir about surviving childhood trauma and rising above. She hopes her experience will help and inspire others. Her work has been published in Manifest-Station and Storied Stuff. She is a mother of five grown children and two great danes.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Guest Posts, Holidays

The Hanukkah Owl

December 13, 2020
hanukkah

By Sharon G. Forman

I’ve inherited more than a few traits from my mom: dark brown hair and eyes; a love of orange sherbet mixed with vanilla ice cream; and a dangerous driving habit of hesitating before merging into highway traffic. One December evening decades back when I was eight-years-old, my mom faltered for a second too long before flooring the gas in our blue Buick station wagon to enter an acceleration lane on an expressway from Norfolk to Virginia Beach. It was back in the early 1970’s, and I doubt that any of us kids in the back seat had strapped ourselves into seat belts. An approaching car bumped into us, as we made our way to the Hebrew Academy for the school’s Hanukkah celebration. Just a fender bender, the main worry from the minor accident was that it delayed us from my 3rd grade Hanukkah performance in which I was set to debut in a prominent role as one of Judah Maccabee’s brave brothers. Truth be told, I don’t exactly remember which of those five Maccabee sons I was portraying. The name Eleazer seems to ring a bell in the hazy crevices of my memory, but I can’t really be sure. I definitely was not the starring brother, Judah, the boldest military hero. In his famous Hasmonean family, there was also a  “John” and a “Jonathan,” which struck me as curious even as a young child. What parents give their kids practically the same name (other than the boxer George Foreman who is famous for his indoor grilling devices as well as gracing all of his five sons with the name George)?

Back to Hanukkah, though, which concerns itself more with frying than grilling. I clasped the cardboard handle on my aluminum-covered shield emblazoned with a magic marker-inscribed Star of David and my flimsy tin foil sword, as a policeman with a sheriff’s hat guided us out of traffic and helped us on our way. I had no fear of the friendly Virginia sheriff, although my mom, a transplanted midwesterner and ardent civil rights supporter, seemed suspicious of Southern law enforcement. She wondered out loud about how these same people who were so kind to us might have treated members of the black community in Virginia just a few years back when they were trying to vote or attend public schools in neighborhoods as lily white as the Commonwealth’s dogwood blossoms. My mom did not possess the most trusting view of human impulses, but was grateful for the roadside assistance under a darkening sky.

Our bumper may have been dented, but all of my armor was intact, as we arrived at the campus of my Jewish day school, and I rushed into the cafeteria which was doubling as an auditorium. I remember dashing on stage to tangle with some Greek-Syrian enemies, singing Hanukkah songs, and at one point donning a construction paper candle around my head like a crown, as a handful of my peers and I became the embodiment of a living Hanukkah menorah. The teachers handed out gifts of rainbow-colored Hanukkah candles, with a preponderance of murky colored green ones that I tried to trade with my siblings, as well as plastic yellow and pink dreidels, spinning tops, that had been hollowed out to contain candy. I’m sure my older sister used her sharp fingernails to burrow through the clear tape placed around the dreidel. Now a scientist, back then she was our fixer of broken toys and errant math homework, as well as the most competent person to help us outmaneuver plastic barriers to candy.

Like my mom’s attitude toward the Virginia police, Hanukkah was a bit confusing with its competing tales of valorous guerilla warfare mashed up with songs touting prophetic messages of spiritual peace. These were hefty contradictions for a small child to sort out, and even my all-wise sister, Julie, did not attempt to unravel this puzzle. Hanukkah could be about the fried potatoes, the music, the games with spinning tops and all of the mathematical probability equations their twists engendered.

People always seem to assume that Jewish children love Hanukkah because of the profusion of presents. Some kids receive a gift each night for a week plus a day. In our family, Hanukkah gifts tended toward the practical- socks, a few silver dollars of gelt, chocolate coins, paperback books, and vinyl records or eight-track tapes of Israeli nightclub music or Irish Rover folk songs. The gifts were less than dazzling. At least for me and my siblings, Hanukkah was all about the fire. You picked your candles, your color scheme (avoiding the ugly green ones, of course), and then loaded up your personalized menorah. Then, you stared in wonder as the tapers burned down just inches from your eyes, mesmerized by the variations in melting times. After the candles transformed into nuggets of wax, you picked at the colorful coating that clung to the base of the menorah or pooled on the foil below. We may not have learned much Hebrew grammar in religious school, but the four children in our family could have filled a Jewish museum’s gallery with handmade menorahs. My favorite candelabra was created from a slab of wood I spray painted shiny silver and then attached candle holders to by gluing on upside-down soda bottle caps. In retrospect, I may have been influenced by 1970’s Minimalism design with an emphasis on sleek materials and sparse ornamentation. The menorah also embodied classic 1970’s culture since the aerosol paint probably accelerated emphysema and punched holes in the ozone layer; the bottle caps were so sharp they could have transmitted tetanus with a single slice; and the chemically coated wood could have been used as toxic kindling. No matter. This was my handmade and beloved religious object, and it adorned our Hanukkah table for years.

Just a week after I portrayed a 2,000-year-old Israeli special forces Maccabee fighter onstage at the Hebrew Academy, I made my debut at the Old Dominion University Technology Theater in another martial role in their ballet school’s version of The Nutcracker. For a slightly built, non-muscular child, I was having a peculiar run of combat-girl typecasting. In this 19th century ballet, I played the Nutcracker’s head soldier who orders the attack on the nefarious mouse forces. I stood in the wings of the stage listening for my musical cue, then raised up my right arm, lowering it to signal to my battalion that we were on the offense. My cheeks were painted with giant red circles, and my hair was pinned up in a tight bun. I wore a soldier’s uniform. With sharp movements of bent knees known in ballet lingo as “passes,” I marched over to my sleepy sentries and initiated a theatrical bloodbath with my musket prop. By the time the final measures of the battle scene had concluded, the bodies of tiny soldiers and pudgy gray mice littered the stage. I was chased away by a larger rodent (possibly a fifth grader) who was now pointing a musket at my back, and my prospects must have appeared bleak, as I exited the stage fleeing in surrender. It was up to Clara to win the war with a mortal clunk of her ballet slipper applied to the head of the Mouse King. Following her victory, she would travel in a magical walnut to the land of sweets with her enchanted prince.

My brief third grade acting career encompassed these two roles- valiant Jewish soldier and ill-fated military captain. Back then, I did not spend too much time contemplating the morality of armed conflict between religious zealots and Hellenized Jews who flocked to gymnasiums and ceased to circumcise their sons or the territorially inspired battles between soldiers and mice taking place under the shadow of a giant Christmas tree. I was too busy wishing that I portrayed one of Clara’s little friends in the first act. Those girls were at least a year older than I was, and they wore beautiful jewel toned velvet dresses. They danced and frolicked onstage at a shimmering Victorian Christmas party, and pretended to eat, argue with annoying brothers, and play with their beloved dolls. Their dance movements involved twirling. My soldier steps were jerky and crisp. Instead of playing a charming, happy child, I was a red cheeked toy soldier about to be gnawed on by a rodent.

My acting career slowed substantially after that peak year. I did have one final starring role as “Suzy Snowflake” in my public elementary school’s holiday program. Another student (“Jingle Bells”) and I narrated the concert, offering pithy introductions to the chorus, band, orchestra, and song flute performances of Christmas carols and even a few Hanukkah songs in a gracious nod to Judeo-Christian ecumenicalism. Well into January, glitter from my snow crown shook out of my hair onto my pillowcase. In my homeroom, a real girl named Suzy started to scowl at me and flipped her hair back in an exaggerated act of contempt whenever she saw me in the hallway. Maybe she had more of a right than I did to portray Suzy Snowflake. By the end of junior high school, though, Suzy wrote a conciliatory message to me on the back page of my yearbook, and I no longer took ballet classes or participated in scripted performances. My theatrical career, complete with critics and unpredictable roles, was over.

Four-and-a-half decades later, my own children play instruments in winter concerts at their public schools. Where we live in New York, the only nod to winter religious festivals appears in the last band piece of the evening, a religiously neutral rendition of “Sleigh Bells.”  On Hanukkah, my children light their own menorahs, just as I did, although we strive for ones consisting of environmentally sustainable materials. My sons select orange and blue candles to honor their downtrodden and beloved Mets, a team that could use a miracle almost every single year.  After all this time, the green candles are the ones that remain in the boxes, still rejected and undesirable. My children clamor for my husband to fry up his mother’s latkes, potato pancakes. The recipe calls for limited onions and a generous helping of milk, a strange deviation from my family’s traditions. To this day, we don’t make a big deal out of the gift-giving aspect of Hanukkah. The holiday is about the light and the fire.

In rabbinical school, my mouth fell open when I learned that Hanukkah was probably a belated celebration of the more important Biblical harvest festival of Succot. I had always appreciated Hanukkah as a winter festival that insists that light should increase dark world. I wished Hanukkah could be a simple holiday honoring the miraculous victory of the scrappy Maccabees and the fairy tale story of the little oil jug that could push us toward optimism and hope just when the earth seems so very far away from the warm sun. And Hanukkah, of course, is that. But also, it’s late Succot. Nothing is ever quite as romantic as you might like.

For me, Hanukkah will forever be entwined with the miracle of arriving on time to my performance as a Maccabee brother. Every night around our table, my mom (younger than I am now in this memory) sings the obscure fifth verse of the 13th century Hebrew anthem,“Rock of Ages,” much to my father’s dismay and my brother’s devilish expression when she blurts out the Hebrew words describing the Greeks bursting through tower walls – “Ooh-fartsoo...” Hanukkah is greasy, Jewish hash browns served with applesauce and brisket. It is my busy high schoolers rushing downstairs to light candles and devour traditional foods. Hanukkah is being Jewish and being American and dancing to different melodies during the same season. Hanukkah is the tug of wanting to be Clara in her blue velvet dress with the white ribbon in her hair, but understanding that for centuries the world viewed Jews more as the character of Drosselmeyer, the old, slightly dangerous clockmaker who infused life into inanimate objects using magic and engineering.

The dreidel spins and lands on one of four sides, one of four Hebrew letters, each an initial of a word in the statement, “A great miracle happened there.” Sometimes your dreidel lands on the Nun, and you get nothing. Other times, your luck is strong, and you win it all. The years spin round, and the wicks consume the flames. My mother-in-law wears her apron to cut the potatoes and fry them in her mother’s cast iron pan, and my children line up to ingest the greasy treats. They snicker at the fifth stanza of “Rock of Ages,” when I remember to sing it.

One Hanukkah many years ago, my Uncle Judah’s family presented me with a necklace with a dangling owl charm. Its bright orange eyes seemed to light up from within. Its head could move around, and its feet could fold under its belly. When we studied Greek mythology in junior high school, I learned that the little owl was Athena’s favorite bird because it appeared to carry its own light. The goddess of wisdom loved the owl, and so did I. My Greek, Hanukkah owl reminds me that religion is not simple, but the love from Uncle Judah and Aunt Joy that went into selecting that gift and wrapping it up for me is straightforward. The owl is flexible in an ever-spinning world. Each Hanukkah, I remind myself to keep lighting candles and searching in the flames for what is good and worthy. Maybe this will be the Hanukkah when I no longer stop myself short and accelerate with confidence and some joyful singing.

Sharon Forman is a reform rabbi and the author of The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings and numerous essays about Judaism and parenting. She resides with her family in Westchester, New York where she teaches bar and bat mitzvah students. Sharon’s work can be found online at www.sharongforman.com.

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Family, Guest Posts, pandemic

I Could Have Run a Railroad

November 25, 2020

By Alisa Schindler

I have always loved the rain. The quiet of the sky. The soothing drone of a million hearts beating overhead. The deep grey seeps into my bones like a drug, slowly calming, and telling my brain to shhhh. There is nowhere to go; no bright and tempting sun guilting me with its happy warmth, pressing me forward to run, skip and laugh. No open, welcoming day beckoning me with possibilities. Now it is alright just to breathe and embrace that feeling where pressure simply evaporates. There is only a moody somberness, a gentle drum lulling me into peace.

When I was younger, my father used to chasten me about the bubble I surrounded myself in and accuse me of complacency. “Don’t be another boring housewife,” he’d say and gift me books by Ayn Rand hoping to inspire. “You’re a Dagny.”

I’d roll my eyes, but take the books, devouring them in private. Deep down I heard him, his message taking root in the brain I was busy ignoring, although I refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledgment. It wasn’t like he had the right to judge, I thought. He had done nothing of substance. He was a man with huge romantic notions of the world and no follow through, all about the ‘big ideas’ and being one of the ‘beautiful people’.

To be fair, he was beautiful. Strong and masculine, with crystal green eyes that mirrored my own and thick wavy hair that had prematurely grayed. He was a legend on the ball field and the racquetball courts. With his charismatic smile, easy laugh, and love of a good party, both men and women gravitated towards him.

Even with erratic work habits, his charm, good looks and intelligence helped him survive and, at times, even thrive, in his vocation as a salesman. But that was in the 70’s and 80’s when no one looked too deeply. If they had they would have seen an addict who moved from one sad, dirty, cluttered place to another, often sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Someone who lived from paycheck to paycheck and visited his kids on the weekends at their new home with their new family out in the suburbs. Still, he always came bearing gifts and smile.

For a time.

By my twenties, his alcohol and recreational drug years were behind him, but his struggles were just beginning. I made the mistake of moving in with him after college after a failed back operation led to dependencies on pharmaceutical opiates. It didn’t take long to realize I was trapped. He needed me to shadow him as he staggered around on pain medications. He needed me as he seesawed between the lows of depression and manic bursts of energy and enthusiasm. Some days he couldn’t leave his bed, other days we played tennis. Some days I wrestled car keys from his hand; his glazed unconscious eyes in complete opposition to the strength of his anger and grasp. Other days, we sat side by side watching episodes of X-Files or Star Trek eating Tupperware bowls filled with cereal, finding moments of ridiculousness and laughing till milk came out our noses.

It was the inconsistencies of health, mental and physical, that kept me tied. The highs that reminded me of his sparkle and my childhood adoration and the lows that overwhelmed and obligated me. He had no one else. I was his sun, his moon, and his savior. But when he talked to me about stepping outside my bubble, I could see nothing but his need and my potential floating away.

Like a good first-born child, I took to my martyrdom like worker bee to queen. I dove in and let it define me; using it to separate myself, to hide, to solidify the bubble into armor, until there was only me and my struggle with his struggle.

As the years passed, I finally found a way to move out and leave him – I got married. Had babies, boy one, two and three. Created a life filled with privileges and pleasures. But through it all he was there, an umbilical rope of need and devotion connecting us.

As he aged and weakened, he softened his view of me and the world. Dagny Taggart wasn’t all that anymore. He excused my complacency and decided to extol my virtues instead. “You’re a great mom,” he’d say. “I understand why you like your bubble. The world is crazy. Your bubble is good.”    

My bubble was better than good – a wonderful husband, beautiful children, the house in the suburbs, endless books to read, writing to keep me satisfied and sane and good friends to laugh and cry – but with him attached I remained, as always, harnessed. Stuck to the ground, rooted, never taking flight. No longer sure I even wanted to.

And then, he died.

Something that was ‘a long time coming’ and should have happened decades before, took me by complete surprise. I was suddenly free from his tortuous, desperate need. I could float in the sunshine of my family, meander in and out of marshmallow clouds, drift through the lazy rainbow days of baseball, baking and boys. I could write. Or run a railroad.

Yet, the relief everyone talked about didn’t come. I missed the burden. The insanity. The ridiculousness. I missed him. The man who dreamed I could be Dagny Taggart but whose everyday life careened off the rails. The man who laughed without limits but also cried without restraint. The man who opened my eyes to the joys and horrors of the world, but also made me turn inward and away. The man who was one of the ‘beautiful ones’ who became disabled and deformed.

Maybe it was always my nature. Maybe I gravitated toward a life heavy with a responsibility that allowed me to stay shielded, my purpose small but mighty. My world limited but loved. My heart soaring in words but my feet on the ground.

I’m okay with the bubble. The smallness. The calm. The nothing.

I always loved the rain.

Alisa Schindler is a freelance writer whose essays have been featured online in the NYT, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and The Well at Northwell Health, among others. In her spare time, she writes sexy, suburban fiction. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.

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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Why Don’t You Talk To Your Sister?

November 4, 2020
brother
By Irene Cooper
Some months after my brother dies, my mother tells me to call my sister. “She needs you,” my mother says. And, “Do it for me.” And then, “You know, you have no sense of family.”

I see a picture of my estranged sister, perhaps three, in sleeveless undershirt and panties, Debbie Harry blonde mop, doorknob knees stacked one behind the other, leaning against our brother, Bobby, who looks like a man, but can’t be more than fourteen. She’s not looking at him, in the way that a baby opossum looks out from and not at the adult she clings to. I am not in the picture, nor is our brother Bill, though it is perhaps he that attracts her attention. Bill was a clown, though at that point, not a professional.

Nearly a decade after Bobby’s death from bone cancer Bill lay in a hospital bed in our living room, framed by Gothic carved mahogany panels and a defunct red brick fireplace. My sister sat by his side, recreating a composition of our older brother’s death bed.

My brother Bill did not have either Ewing sarcoma or osteosarcoma, and he was not then dying. He’d herniated a disc, and then another, ending a tennis career that might have at least paid for college, if not taken him pro. He’d been playing for a small college in one of the Carolinas. And, as it turned out, drinking a lot. A small college in one of the Carolinas had not been the dream. At home recovering from surgery, he entertained the crowds from his bed. Friends smuggled vodka in two-liter 7-Up bottles to supplement the Percocet.

My brother, Bill, did not die of bone cancer at fifteen. He died of liver disease and kidney failure at 53 after his body rejected a liver transplant made imperative by alcoholism. In his early twenties, after his back operations, he maintained his athletic shape but walked with the stiffness of an old man, and then, at some unbearable moment, let go the tenuous hold he’d had on his own body. As if someone pulled the emergency cord, his body blew up like a life raft, like a parade float, no edges, hard to steer.

He remained hilarious, the life of the party, particularly to the older crowd, keeping the seasoned corporate execs laughing at expense account meetings in Manhattan over steaks and martinis—hold the steaks. If my parents worried about his drinking, which was alarming by any measuring stick, they didn’t express their concern while they were in the glow of his charm, so devoted as it was to their entertainment and happiness.

Growing up, Bill loved to eat. Our family meals had something of a performance quality— somewhere between Scheherazade’s 1,001 Nights and America’s Got Talent—but the food itself was no prop. We ate widely and well. As adults, Bill and I almost never saw one another, and rarely shared a meal. When I did see him eat, he chose party foods that induced pain—six-alarm chicken wings—the kind of food where you could witness the lips of the eater bead and blister halfway through the pile, food of unambiguous sensation. Otherwise, he followed the influencers’ diet typical of his colleagues, could be taken for one of the Four Fat Bastards referenced in Anthony Bourdain’s recipe for choucroute garnie (a steaming heap of pork)—an old-school player with a constitution too arrogant for anything but protein and liquor.

My brother visited San Francisco on a business trip while I was living there, shortly after I graduated from culinary school. He invited me to dinner.

“You pick the place. Anywhere you want,” he said with the philanthropic air of a railroad baron who’s brought a box of fancy chocolates and mittens to an orphanage. He was a man of means who would treat his little sister to a splendid meal he was sure she could not by other means afford.

I told him to make a reservation at STARS, an iconic hot spot owned by one of the more flamboyant founders of California cuisine, a late century vanguard of exploding food culture, and, true to its name, a rocket for upcoming talent in the industry. I didn’t tell him I worked there.

Upon arrival, and despite a line at the host stand, I, my brother, and a couple of his cronies were whisked to a large table in an elevated seating area, coveted for its panoramic view of the glittering clientele and open kitchen, a universe away from the dark paneled caves of my brother’s East coast haunts, where the kitchen might actually be in the basement. Before we could order a round of cocktails, a kick line of waiters straight out of Hello, Dolly! swooped onto the table with platters of iced oysters on the half shell and chilled flutes of Absolut. In between the Caesar salads and grilled meats my brother & co. ordered off the menu, we were served unsolicited little plates of shaved apple dotted with foie gras, fire-roasted scallops on a bed of preserved lemon, strewn with a spray of fresh borage, fragrant as a French meadow. Wine glasses were topped up, cocktails replenished. Dessert was offered and refused and brought anyway, a miracle of layered pastry and persimmon crowned by a shard of stained-glass sugar, accompanied  by slipper glasses of Port.

My brother was accustomed to obsequious service, but the red-carpet treatment from the gate confused him. He hadn’t yet had an opportunity to slip the maître-d’ a tip or authoritatively select an obnoxiously expensive California Cab from the wine list. Shortly after the oysters, of course, the truth came out.

“So, you work here! That’s…impressive.” He understood that his position at the helm of the evening had been usurped, and his response was complex, a mix of pride and consternation. On the one hand, he could take the staff’s attention as a gesture of family taking care of its own—and so, respect.

On the other hand, my sensitive brother labored to enjoy himself at this unexpected extravaganza. I don’t believe his inability to take pleasure from the meal was because he’d lost control of it, or because he wasn’t the center of attention. He was not a narcissist; he was, in fact, the complement to the narcissist—a serial provider, now deprived of his super power, his generosity cut off at the knees.

I believe, too, that my brother sensed a second agenda of the staff, and by extension, of me—a message about something other than stellar customer service.

Unbeknownst to Bill, I worked as a prep cook (out of sight, often in the basement, as it happened), a half rung up from dish pit in a strict hierarchy that spiraled up to Executive Chef through a dizzying gauntlet of positions. I’d worked there less than two months. That night, nearly every front house staff member visited the table and greeted me by name. I hadn’t even met most of them, and could not have returned the kindness. What I think my brother intuited beneath the show was resistance. Expense account diners were the bread and butter of high-end restaurants,  and roundly despised for it. Bourdain’s Fat Bastards didn’t know borage from Borax, in the opinion of the foot soldiers in the business, and threw money around like chimpanzees flinging feces. My brother, I think, picked up on the hostility inherent in the hospitality: We take care of ours, and she’s one of ours.

Somehow, between the aperitif and the after-dinner menthe, his and my family ties came undone. In cooking, when we speak of a sauce falling out of solution, we say it breaks. If he wasn’t exactly the enemy, it was also true I wasn’t exactly an ally, and we weren’t on the same side, after all. If this place and these people were my new family, then I had abandoned the old, and him. To say no to the narcissist is to throw their love back in their face like a frosty glass of ice water—shocking, but ultimately inconsequential. To say no to the giver is to pull him out of solution, to break him.

When there was nothing left on the table but the dregs of our espresso, my brother stood up, exhausted.

“Let’s find a good bar, get a drink. I guess you know a place, yeah?”

I told him I had to get home, had to get up early for work the next day, thanked him for dinner.

The next time we talked one-on-one was nearly twenty years later, after our father died, and he came to sleep on my mother’s couch, to organize her affairs. He’d had his first liver transplant.

When my husband got sober, my mother felt the need to tell me she thought he’d been a lot funnier when he was drinking. Her model was Bill, whom no one would have accused of dulling the blade of his schtick after he was forced to forsake the booze. What’s more, after the transplant, as his cells drained themselves of decades of poison, his body returned to its late adolescent form. For some months, despite the grey at the temples, Bill was nineteen again, tall as an oak, graceful as a willow, sharp as a switch. Sobriety, unchosen and unwelcome as it was, provided a rich cache of new material, and his patter took no prisoners. As at our childhood dinner table, Bill made whatever my other brother was drinking shoot out his nose as he comically admired the innovations of vodka tampons, butt chugging, eyeballing, and other collegiate practices designed to intoxicate while bypassing the liver. Now why didn’t I think of that? he mused as he spit tobacco juice into a Solo cup, sipped at his Diet Coke.

His humor at this stage was a relief, a kindness, but he wasn’t all punchline post-transplant. He didn’t joke when he spoke about the difficulties of parenting his elementary school-aged son and two high school-aged daughters, due to his debilitating ignorance of the protocols put in place while his alcoholism and workaholism kept him AWOL. He wasn’t cutting up when he tried to talk, whispered, really, about the challenges of his complicated drug regimen, of the pain he suffered constantly, of his loss of strength, of appetite, of his concerns about being able to do his job, his fear of being replaced by a new generation who had limited appreciation for his expertise, nearly none for his sense of humor. He struggled with the post-transplant revelation that his attempt at the world’s slowest suicide had failed, that he, in fact, wanted to live, if only to imperfectly parent a little longer.

Sober, my brother dragged the empty folds of his slackened skin with him everywhere, like Marley’s ghostly chains, a mortal rattle echoing from his plastic pill box, big as a carry-on.

The body contains its deep and secret pools of shame, until the body breaks and the murky reservoirs drain, to nowhere. My mother says, “You should talk to your sister.” But I can’t be heard over the spill.

Irene Cooper’s poems, reviews, and essays appear in print and online at The Feminist Wire, Phoebe, Utterance: A Journal, VoiceCatcher, The Rumpus, What Rough Beast by Indolent Books, and elsewhere. She is a freelance copywriter and editor, facilitates creative writing workshops in Central Oregon, and co-edits The Stay Project. Committal, a spyfy thriller and her first novel, is forthcoming from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press in 2020.

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Family, Guest Posts

Unstuck

September 24, 2020
tub

By Sherry Shahan

I am ten. Sitting on the edge of the porcelain tub while my mother paints on cat-eyes.

It is not enough to watch her in the refection of the tri-fold mirror. I want her to turn around.

Sherry Shahan is known for her adventure-based novels for teen girls. Her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Oxford University Press, Exposition Review, Backpacker and others. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA Extension for 10 years.

 

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Tossed To Order

September 20, 2020
cassandra

By Catherine Bourassa

Monday is the busiest day of the week at our sandwich/salad cafe. Part of me thinks we are so busy because we make amazing tossed to order salads, the other part thinks people are just doing the “I’ll start on Monday” thing of getting back on a healthy track after a binge filled weekend.

My husband manages the kitchen and the office, and as they say in the restaurant business, I manage “the front of the house”. I think of our relationship at work as “good cop” “bad cop. I have difficulty with confrontation. I am a pleaser and my spine has yet to fully develop. When situations arise (a customer complaint, or an employee reprimand) I call on him to handle it. When a staff member is crying in the bathroom because her boyfriend just broke up with her, he counts on my caring touch to deal with it. I am the greeter, the schmoozer, the cashier, the meditative, mindful, face of the business. I care.

The cafe has a clean minimalist look. Its rectangular shape is lined with fourteen chrome stools for counter seating. Amber colored glass pendulum lighting fixtures contribute to the contemporary vibe. When customers come in for the first time they look at the rainbow garden through the glass shield as if they were in a museum. I feel a sense of pride as I watch them take a slow investigative walk observing the freshness. I tell our staff, when you are making a customers salad they are watching your every move. This is theater. Never let them catch you out of character.

This is a typical Monday and where you place your order, a line is starting to form into the shape of a horseshoe at about 11:30 am. The regular customers know the drill and quickly fill out their salad forms, the new ones wait for one of us to give them the spiel.

“Name goes at the top”

“Check off all the items you would like”

“Dressing tossed or on the side”

“We will call your name, and you pay at the other end.

***

The austere decor of the cafe is not synonymous with the clientele. 

Linda is a loud talker and a vegan. She has a different story daily about her disdain for meat eaters.

Curt wears navy blue dickies and a work shirt and always orders roast turkey on a roll with cranberry mayo. He shows us pictures of his grandchildren in Florida. He gets pissed if you forget to give him a receipt

Bill thinks avocados are “bullshit” and doesn’t get the point of putting them on or near anything.

Jake entertains us with stories from his weekends. We tease him that he is too old to be participating in things like Santacon!

***

It is now about 12:30 and there is a sea of customers all looking down at their cell phones waiting for their names to be called. I am running the register and calling their names. 

I yell

“Cassandra!”

A cute twenty something year old wearing nursing scrubs and full sleeve tattoos steps up and I ring up her salad.

“That will be $10.05 thanks have a wonderful afternoon”

Next order up is a sandwich and the ticket has the name Cassandra written on the top. I feel a quick flutter of panic. and three thoughts dart through my brain 1) Oh shit she had two things 2) there couldn’t possibly be two people named Cassandra in one place 3) she is already out the door.

At that moment the other Cassandra steps up to the register.

She is not cute.

She is stiff and pressed in high end clothing with a Louis Vuitton bag that could house a small family. She is annoyed at the lunch time crowd and just realized that the other Cassandra has left with her lunch. 

I said “Hold On”

I run from behind the counter into the parking lot like a Marvel Superhero screaming “CASSANDRA, CASSANDRA, WAIT” as I flag her car down.

She stops, rolls down her window and casually says “whats up” not sensing my sense of urgency.

“Did you order a salad or a sandwich?”

A sandwich. Why?

“Because you took a salad ( now I think cute Cassandra possibly smokes a little weed on her lunch break) Can you please come back inside for a second.

“Oh, sorry. No problem.” she said

I’m now again standing behind the register looking all cattywompus after my heroics, with the two Casandras in front of me. Cute Cassandra is patient and understanding while I try to figure out how to do a return on our recently updated registers. Not cute Cassandra is pissed.

She says to me with tight pursed lips

“You would think the person that they let run the register would know how to use it” 

I felt embarrassed and verbally assaulted and dumb. I wanted to say “Fuck You!” Not Cute Casandra. Can’t You See We Are Slammed In Here And We Don’t Want To Serve Mean People!” Of course I didn’t say those things because there is Yelp and Google and Trip Advisor and I practice mindfulness. All was resolved in a matter of minutes with both Casandras getting their correct lunches. I had a lump in my throat and was on the verge of tears. 

I joke about meditating and practicing mindfulness but I really do both. It is not easy. It is a constant practice and working with the public gives me plenty of opportunity to practice. The Metta meditation which is the cultivation of benevolence or  “loving-kindness meditation” has given me strength. You recite phrases such as ‘may you be happy” may you be healthy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from inner and outer harm. You extend these thoughts first to yourself and then to others. It is a little gift that I give to our customers that they are not even aware of as I ring up their order. A free parting gift of positivity.

Two weeks later “not cute Casandra” came in for lunch and it wasn’t busy. I didn’t think she would ever come back, but here she was. As I rang up her salad at the register I asked her how her day was going. She seemed less stiff, less hurried, less mean. I wished I had taken the time to practice loving kindness  with her the last time she was in the cafe. I felt a softening toward her. I think I may be more than just the face of the business I might be the heart as well. I care.

Catherine Bourassa lives in Connecticut where she owns a catering business and small tossed to order salad cafe with her husband. Catherine reads and writes in her spare time. Though they had to close their cafe initially, it is now open, check out the delicious menu. This is Catherine’s first published piece and we are thrilled it is with The ManifestStation!

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Family, Guest Posts

My Disapproving Mother Unwittingly Fuels My Creative Expression

September 8, 2020
expression

 By Lisa Mae DeMasi

The room began to close in. The air got thick…dense. Tension seeped into my pores. I grew smaller in stature—shrunk right there in my chair before her, as if I was Alice and had just choked down a little red pill.

The topic is forthcoming, typical of family gatherings, a line of discussion of an inquisitive nature. It is terribly humiliating this line, disintegrating the little validation I feel about myself, and certainly paving the way to pulverizing any validation I someday hope to feel.

She is triumphantly sitting across from me in my brother’s parlor, her hands folded over her swollen belly on this Christmas Day.

My hands are not folded over my own swollen belly, but my ever-shrinking Alice fingers are fumbling about, trying to maintain a grip on my ever-growing glass of sherry. I wallow in thought.

It’s a terrible thing to be shrinking, I muse.

I try to convey to her, with an expression of pity, that I’d like her to cut this sort of thing out: Hand me the blue pill! Return my body back to its normal inadequacy!

She picks up on my expression, but it doesn’t stop her. Her eyes, piercingly blue, bore into my forehead, mining my mind for the reasoning that prolongs the ongoing predicament. It is the matter that seemingly sears her brain daily, upon waking.

Words penetrate the thickness.

They loom before me, big and fat and dripping with turkey gravy. She says, “Are you ready to get back into the circle of life yet?”

Here we go.

I resist rolling my eyes, suck in my breath, and feel the pressure against my insides. Time slows to a crawl.

My lungs deflate, a slow leak like a bum tire. I maintain my front, an uneasy smile, thinking I have never departed from the circle of life!

I am here, albeit dwindling to mere molecules in my chair—she, mother; me, daughter—amid a festive family holiday. In my book, that constitutes part of the arc in said circle.

A voice in my mind, sounding as if it’s just taken a hit from a helium-filled balloon, squeals at me: That’s not what she means.

I laugh to myself, entertained: “Girl interrupted.” Say something else…

She’s not referring to procreating or dying or even “eat or be eaten.” She means circulation as in, “Are you ready to get back into circulation yet?”

Oh yeah. “Girl reactivated.”

The topic is the one that translates to me getting a paying job, rather than continuing to “run away from reality,” with my so-called “writing interests.”

I suppose, from her perspective, four years is a long time for her daughter “to run away from reality.” It is a novel pursuit, which thus far has yielded fruit the size of a water meal. However, in these four years she has failed to realize that I’ve poured my heart, soul and angst into this self-proposed commitment. Accordingly, I’ve also sought out Reiki to induce some self-love, since I am—especially when engaged in writing—constantly and colorfully harassed and torn to shreds by my inner critic.

Needless to say, my mother is my outer critic.

In the peace of the lovely colonial room, Dennis sits in a chair to my left, and my father sits beside my mother. My brother is off in the kitchen, cutting cheese.

The question, relating to the humiliating, fruitless topic that my mother could not resist in asking one moment longer, (particularly in light of the New Year—making resolutions, picking up the pieces and starting anew, and so forth) remains there, unaddressed. It lingers, splattering the coffee table with fowl juice, tainting the sherry and the nibbles, while extinguishing the flickering light of the assorted votive candles. This “circle of life” subject deflates the holiday mood; all falls flat.

I gaze back at her, with a hint of incredulousness in my expression saying: Why can’t you support my endeavor? Why can’t you just be a nice mother?

She, of course, does not pick up on this. She has never picked up on it, despite the countless amounts of times I’ve attempted to impress my feelings upon her.

Why should I expect anything different this Christmas Day?

Although he’s sitting beside me, I don’t defer to Dennis for his unwavering sympathy, support or opinion. I keep this subject between my mother and I, leaving open the possibility and space for us to “hash it out,” so-to-speak.

The “hashing it out” (a confrontation of sorts) does not happen. As usual, any real invitation to speak candidly, openly… ends up shunned upon.

There’s no avoiding her intention. She moves the subject right along and puts the question in a more specific form, saying: “What kind of job will you look for?”

My expression sours.

The refrain in which Elton John sings “in the cir-cle, the cir-cle of life” begins to repeat in my head.

The core of me within begs to rise up and show itself—my insides, out. The scorched and glistening spongy tissue springs from my throat and slops to the floor next to the coffee table. I stare at the battered evidence, my guts, and choose to defend myself (something I haven’t dared to do since I was a teenager).

My face is deadpan, void of the four-year compounded emotion relating to my writing efforts (best described as trying to squeeze blood from a stone intermittently). I assert into the space, some distance over my scorched and glistening core—my guts—and say, “I’d like to become a successful writer.”

My mother’s expression remains unmoved, quite serious and probing.

I refrain from glancing at Dennis and keep the perimeter open and clear for fire. I hope for confrontation—for a once-in-a-lifetime candid discussion.

Dad shakes himself out of dozing at the subject matter and pushes his glasses further up on his nose. He interjects, “There are lots of teaching jobs out there. You could be a teacher. All my retired engineer friends teach—you could teach middle school or high school.”

But Dad, I don’t want to be a teacher.

Not quite to my advantage, my mother’s ears fall deaf on the suggestion, and the conversation flatlines.

I focus on the flame of a burning candle, situated in the middle of a marble-topped mahogany end table, between my father and mother. I cross my eyes silly—my forehead cramps. The funky play of light brings me into a world of my own, prompting ironic clarity.

The helium inner voice comes on the wind again—she is from a different time and a different playing field. She knows not what it means, what drives and feeds one’s magnetism for risk, leaving the known for the unknown…

The voice becomes stronger and sloughs off the high pitch. She is the catalyst to our creative expression, you see, the thing that sates us—our subversive writing.

Anew: I am rebel with a cause, confident, triumphant even, in my own right.

My scorched and glistening guts slither up the couch and climb back down my throat to their rightful place. In a trance-like state I say, “Wait till my manuscript hits the big screen.”

My parents are stunned and wide-eyed. I can just make out their expressions in my periphery.

Nothing more is said on the matter.

*This essay was published in Elephant Journal with the title She, Mother. Me, Daughter.

Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents, a story about proving herself capable of taking care of horses on a Wyoming dude ranch, and is at work on two sequels. You can contact her at lisa.demasi@gmail.com and follow her @lisamaedemasiLinkedIn or via her website nurtureismynature.com.

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Family, Guest Posts

Only in My Imagination?

June 22, 2020
jimmy

By Jackie Bivins

When COVID-19 hit, life as we knew it came to an abrupt end.  We shifted from a “go-go-go” lifestyle to a complete stand-still. With so much time at home while quarantined, worries and fears can be overwhelming. Will this ever end?  If so, what will the world then look like? There is so much speculation about the “new normal.” But the reality is that it’s unknown; no one can define or predict what havoc or healing exists in our future.  As a result, so many of us are seeking comfort in the past. We are looking to our memories for a sense of stability, joy, and reassurance.  We are looking to the time when the future felt beautiful, unlimited, and full of possibilities.  Remembering what it was like when we were safe in the cocoon of those halcyon days can allay that middle-of-the-night panic.  It is, at the same time, a wonderful opportunity to share our stories, the very things that connect us with others.

 This is one of mine.

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As a child I had an imaginary friend named Jimmy Raspberry. I would picture him sitting next to me on the forest green sofa when I watched tv, or helping me arrange the brightly-colored food packages from my prized cardboard grocery store, or watching me as I played board games like Candyland, Checkers, or Parcheesi –all made for two, or at least more than one.

Jimmy was tall with curly, raven-colored hair. He smiled often and his hazel eyes always held a twinkle. He was never cross, nor was he ever too tired to play. He seldom argued. With Jimmy, I was less alone. I was bolder.

The fantasy I most enjoyed enacting with Jimmy started with us tiptoeing into my parents’ room. Jimmy would stand sentinel as I took my mother’s pale blue suitcase from the bottom of her closet then started to carefully pack a lemon-yellow chiffon cocktail dress, a long tan full skirt made of stiff and quite wrinkled cotton, and a lime green silky blouse. I loved my dress-up box full of Mama’s discarded clothes, and these were my most cherished items. Sometimes Jimmy would suggest I pack the camel-brown clutch bag or remind me to include the red wool jacket.

Once done I would drag that suitcase through our ranch-style home. Jimmy would offer to help but I always refused. I knew I was strong enough to do it myself. The game was to pretend Jimmy and I were embarking on a grand expedition. That meant going somewhere, anywhere.

The reality is that during my childhood our small family of three — Mama, Daddy and me — rarely ventured far from home. When we did it was to see the same old places. Vacation time meant driving from our home in Rockville, MD to visit relatives in and around Richmond and to spend time by what native Virginians always called “the rivah”, no matter which of the state’s five rivers it was. I never brought Jimmy along on these trips because they were too boring. Instead, I would spend those car rides day-dreaming that we were finally on our way to a destination that involved neither swimsuits and fishing rods nor relatives.

My mother was a typical housewife of the 1950s.

Monday was wash day; white fluffy sheets and pink and green striped towels came first, followed by a cavalcade of shirts, pants, pjs, and underwear.

Tuesday was ironing day; Mama would never miss a wrinkle as she skillfully maneuvered that shiny metal contraption around all the buttons on Daddy’s dress shirts.

Wednesday was dedicated to the kitchen; Mama routinely scoured every surface, washed down all of the appliances, and mopped the checkered linoleum floor, although most of the time none of these were in any need of cleaning. Wednesdays were also when Mama would reward herself with a whiskey and soda before starting to cook dinner.

Thursdays and Fridays were for the rest of the house, beginning with the den and the seldom-used dining and living rooms. Mama would drag the mint green Hoover canister vacuum from room to room, intent upon sucking up non-existent dirt. She dusted any surface she could find, arranged magazines on the coffee table exactly one inch apart, and scrubbed the bathrooms so hard the smell of Ajax lingered for hours.

Periodically Mama gave herself permission to deviate from that routine. On those days we would drive to Congressional Plaza, an L-shaped outdoor shopping center on the other side of town.  Mama loved to visit J.C. Penney’s, or “the Penney’s” as she liked to call it. She didn’t care much about buying clothes, but enjoyed browsing, occasionally picking up towels, sheets, and other knickknacks for our house.

Woolworth’s was another frequent stop. Once there, sewing notions; hair products; personal care items; housewares; and, various “as seen on tv” gadgets vied for her attention. We would take a break at the luncheon counter for an ice-cold frothy Coke, or “Coca Cola” as my southern relatives called it.

The shopping trips ended with a visit to Cartwright’s stationery. Mama was always on the lookout for greeting cards. To her, maintaining good manners meant sending the proper card, whatever the occasion. Family members and friends came to expect them from her on holidays others would fail to acknowledge. St. Patrick’s Day? Mama was ready. Fourth of July as well. She loved Halloween, so that was when she excelled with cards funny or “scary”.

For Christmas, Mama would begin selecting cards in October. Shortly after Thanksgiving she would spend several hours a week at the kitchen table with the cards splayed out in front of her. She couldn’t just address a card and send it out, no!  She had to write a lengthy, detailed note for each one. Mama wouldn’t have liked the current trend of standardized, Christmas letters.  She would have found them rather cold and distant. She personalized the messages for each intended recipient.

Mama set high standards for herself, and she found security in maintaining her routines.

Most days Mama would start cooking dinner at about 4:30 in the afternoon. Daddy’s day at Washington Technological Associates, where he managed a large group of machinists, officially started at 8:30 a.m. and ended at 5:00 p.m., so Mama planned for a 5:30 dinner. I would help set the table and place the hot dishes down. Just as we were finishing, Daddy would drive his white and black two-tone Oldsmobile down the driveway.

Except on Fridays. That was a special day. Fridays we alternated between dinner at Howard Johnson’s or McDonald’s. To me the food at Howard Johnson’s seemed bland and mediocre, but Mama loved their clam rolls and Daddy always appreciated their ice cream cones. McDonald’s, newly opened and thus a novelty, was my preference, with its juicy cheeseburgers and salty fries. That was until the Italian spot, Luigi’s, opened downtown. On summer evenings as we drove by with the car windows rolled down, we could smell the appetizing aroma of garlic wafting out. My parents eventually expanded our Friday night rotation to include Luigi’s, with its red-checkered table cloths and wine bottles with colorful wax drippings.  They also added Shanghai’s Chinese, where a tall golden dragon beckoned us to enter.

Just past my seventh birthday my parents decided that on Fridays, and Saturdays too, I could stay up until they went to bed, which was usually around 11 p.m.  Determined not to miss a single thing, I would curl into the scratchy plaid La-Z-Boy lounger where the aroma of my Daddy’s Old Spice aftershave always lingered. It was comfy, too comfy. I would struggle to keep my eyes open, lulled by the sounds of the tv and my parents’ muted voices.

One Friday night was different.

I had changed into my purple flannel pjs and taken my usual spot. Mama was wearing her blue and white striped robe, and she’d settled into her favorite chair next to the tv. Daddy, in crisply pressed pjs, was in the midst of one of his nightly series of solitaire games.

Just as my eyelids started to droop, I heard Mama say, “I think it’s time we took Jackie to New York City.” What?

This startled me given our usual travel plans. Mama was also prone to having a shot or two, well maybe more, of Seagram’s 7 on Friday nights so I wasn’t sure if it was the whiskey talking or not. I had barely absorbed her comment when Daddy then looked up to say, “Okay, we can go next weekend.” What!

Once Daddy started playing solitaire, he glanced frequently at the tv but rarely talked. This made his acquiescence even more surprising. Whaaat???

My mother’s suggestion promised new horizons far beyond what my imagination had ever conjured up.  Jimmy would definitely be joining me for this adventure.

Today Rockville, Maryland is a sprawling suburb. Back then Rockville was a sleepy southern town. The county courthouse, more than 150 years old, dominated the downtown landscape.  The Villa movie theatre, our only nearby cinema, showed films that had long since disappeared from screens in more metropolitan locales. Pumphrey’s Funeral Home was the area’s fanciest house. It adjoined Chestnut Lodge, the mental hospital for the rich and famous. Both of Henry Fonda’s wives were treated there; so was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. Whenever one of the patients escaped a siren blared so loudly it could be heard throughout the town. That was the biggest excitement Rockville proper had to offer.

Where we lived, about eight miles beyond the city limits, was even sleepier. Dairy farms dotted the rural landscape; horses and their riders would trot down the roughly paved roads; houses were set far apart; and, it was at least a thirty-minute drive to the nearest grocery store.

Before settling in Glen Hills, the name of our suburb of a suburb, we had looked at numerous homes, including several located in lovely neighborhoods that were at least within the “city” limits. While my parents found fault with the size of rooms, the workmanship, or some other aspect of these houses, I felt an immediate sense of belonging within their walls. I wanted so badly for my parents to say “yes” to any of them.

They had other ideas. When they discovered Glen Hills, they were seduced by the opportunity to build a home customized just for them and quickly purchased a plot of land there. When they told me of their decision, that we would be moving to the country, I wanted to throw a tantrum, but I silently cried instead. Even all these years later I can envision one of those houses I loved, nestled on one of Rockville’s prettiest tree-lined streets.

From as early I can remember, before I was a flower girl in my Aunt Joyce’s wedding, still so shy that the experience is almost obliterated from memory, I knew I wanted more.

Before I envisioned being a member of the Mickey Mouse Club and memorized all the names of the Mouseketeers, I knew I wanted more.

Even before I understood how letters formed words that told stories, I knew I wanted more than country life offered.

I wanted street lights, nonexistent anywhere around us, that could help me navigate unexplored pathways. I wanted sidewalks, squares or rectangles uniform in their symmetry, instead of having to make my way to the school bus stop through tall, itchy grasses. I wanted to visit my friends without having to ask my mother to drive me then waiting and waiting and waiting while she insisted on changing her clothes, combing her hair, spraying on perfume, and applying a coat of lipstick before we left.

I wanted city noises like the ones I heard on tv, the constant hum of traffic, the cacophony of accented voices, the squeal of horns, an occasional wailing siren that signaled mysterious dangers.

Most of all I wanted and knew intuitively but could not articulate in my youth was to feel the confidence that surges through my body whenever I encounter a vibrant metropolis. It’s where I can be the true me, the more intriguing me, the better me. It’s where I can don a cloak of invincibility.

A week after I overheard my parents’ unexpected agreement to venture to New York we packed our red leather suitcases, checked windows and door locks, and were on our way.

We left around noon with Daddy having taken a half-day off. He had shed his tie and rolled up the sleeves of the starched white Oxford shirt he had worn to work that morning. His thick black hair, which was freshly cut and tamed, was sleek and sat close to his scalp.

Mama’s shirtwaist dress reminded me of candy, with a plaid pattern of butter yellow and milky chocolate. She had slept in her pink foam curlers all night but you couldn’t  tell now. That morning she’d sat at her antique vanity applying her makeup.  She started with foundation, added a bit of rouge to her cheeks, and drew in completely new brows with an eyebrow pencil.  She looked transformed in her signature Revlon “cherries and cream” lipstick.

I had carefully put together my outfit, trying to look more like the teen girls I had glimpsed in magazines than a chubby second grader. I wore a blue cardigan, which I had unsuccessfully tried to drape around my shoulders, a blouse of a similar hue, and a poodle skirt Mama bought me just for the trip. I thought I looked sophisticated, not like a girl from the country.

We stopped at the Maryland House, (a landmark I would later visit countless times) for a quick lunch. The Maryland House was known for its crab cakes. The secret was lots of Old Bay seasoning mixed in with the meat of the Chesapeake Bay’s succulent blue crabs.

When lunch was over, we returned to the Oldsmobile. We took off our winter coats as the heater hummed along. Daddy never liked to listen to the car radio so it was very quiet inside. Having grown up as one of six children, he enjoyed being able to hear his thoughts. Mama leafed through the stack of magazines she had brought with her, including recent issues of Life and the Saturday Evening Post. I sat in the backseat, no seatbelt, alternating between laying half-way down reading my book and sitting up straight to peer out the windows. Jimmy sat quietly beside me with nothing to do.

It was the longest trip in the world.

Maryland and Delaware were just miles of rolling countryside that looked too similar to home. Then it was on to the New Jersey Turnpike. My parents talked excitedly about its four lanes, the lack of traffic lights, and how the newly installed mile markers made it easy to track our progress north. As I halfway listened to their conversation, I realized that one of the reasons for the trip was to see this new marvel. It replaced the previous route, Highway 1, where travelers would have to frequently slow down as they drove through town after town. I wasn’t impressed by what I viewed as just another dull road. I was tired of being cooped up. I would have loved to get out and stretch my legs but I didn’t want to take the time. I was thirsty but stopping for a drink would have also taken more time. I wanted to get there already.

We rounded what’s known as the helix, so named because the road spirals down, round and round, from the cliffs of New Jersey to the Lincoln Tunnel that crawls under the Hudson River.

That’s when I saw it, the New York City skyline.

Night was falling. I stared, spellbound, as the tall buildings began to sparkle.  I watched the tiny red lights of cars going up and down the just barely visible highway across the river.

Jimmy Raspberry and I had finally arrived. I let out a huge sigh. It was as if I had been holding my breath until this very moment. Deep within me I somehow knew that this was IT, a place where routines could be shattered and every street would lead to fresh adventures.

For over a decade, Jackie Bivins was a journalist who reported on the retail industry and interviewed many of its pioneers. She lives in the Coachella Valley, and is currently working on a memoir.

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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Grief, Unfolding

December 5, 2019
gift

By Julia Dennis Car

“Jo, you can’t kill Daddy.”

My mom and her sister stood, broken, at the bedside of their father, my Granddaddy.  The cancer that started in his bladder had taken over his other systems; he “lived” mostly unconscious, thanks to morphine.

Mom couldn’t stand to see Granddaddy in such a way, and I know in her guts she would have done anything to separate him from his pain.  My aunt isn’t fiery like Mom, and she knew Mom had what it took to hold the pillow over Granddaddy’s face. She didn’t kill him; the cancer did, days later.

Now it’s my turn. I’m standing in her corner as she nears the end of her own battle with cancer. In the end, will I will have the same impulse to smother her?

Mom’s diagnosis of Stage IV ovarian carcinosarcoma delivered a sucker punch no one saw coming.  It’s incurable, and only about 25% of women live as long as five years. I imagine her little round body up against the ropes, her healthy tissue pummeled by disease and its treatment. If left untreated, her body’s systems will gradually succumb. They’ve already started.

They took the womb, ovaries, cervix, parts of her intestines, and the surface of her liver. Sewed her up tight.  My first home is gone.

With unbridled optimism, Mom trusted her doctor’s plan of care and faced off against her next enemy.  Chemotherapy. Can you imagine a more difficult choice? Don’t take chemo, and slowly die, or take chemo, and die slowly.

With fingers crossed, I watched Mom take the beating of her life and was lifted up by her light and positivity. After the months-long regimen, a scan found the stuff was no longer “active.” She got some time off for good behavior and slowly regained some strength and vitality.  Our family vowed to embrace each day, focus on the positive.

Mom is a feisty woman, a flaming introvert, but without a demure bone in her body. She’s crass, enjoys dark and twisted humor. Once, while visiting San Francisco, she high-fived a costumed Grim Reaper in a public park then insisted the image be framed on her gravestone.

Days after her diagnosis, Mom hung a set of pink boxing gloves on her front door to prove to the world that she intended to pummel her disease as Ali did Frasier.  In the oncologist’s office, two years into the bout, she laid some wit on the nurses. When they left the room, she told me “When I stop being funny, I’m done.”

She’s still funny, but her cheerfulness is waning.  The insidious fuck is still inside her, having its way with her, never really having gone.  It’s in her liver and her guts, probably other places too. She’s at the end of her second phase of chemotherapy.  The gnarly effects of the disease and the treatment are taking their toll, and she’s so, so tired.

Albert Einstein said, “human beings, vegetables, or cosmic dust —we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible piper.”  As for my own part in this, I see myself dancing with grief and gratitude.  The maestro taps his baton, and I’m an accordion: bending, twisting, squeezing, breathing.  Some days the notes I play are fear, worry, sadness, regret.

I watch her struggle. And tire. Though outwardly I remain upright—strong in the face of this disease and her pain—the truth is at times there’s no air left in me, and I bend or lean into whatever will hold me up. I cry; wail the sharp notes away.

But soon enough, invisible hands unfold me, pulling and stretching me out as I fill with air.  Soon enough, I can breathe again. It’s not my cancer, but it’s changed me. It has wrung me out and left me raw. And I’m realizing that the painful stuff is a gift.

I’ve had this woman’s hand to hold for more than forty years. With unconditional love. Her illness and mortality have bitch-slapped me into understanding and appreciation.  My mother’s killer screams Wake up!  Don’t you realize the gift you’ve been given?  I do.

You see, in the midst of this pain and uncertainty and fear, beautiful things have happened.  These last two years have been the hardest, and best, of my life. I’ve been helpless, unable to affect change; therefore, I’ve had to let go.  I’ve unfolded. Aware and accepting of mortality—hers, mine—I’ve felt her love more deeply, tried to love her more deeply. I hope she’s felt it.

I’ve made two trips around the sun, and the days were full of love and light, opportunities and misfortunes, laughing and heartbreak. While holding the hand of impermanence, I’ve uncurled my fingers, loosened my grip on fear and insecurity. Wrapped myself in vulnerability.

I hiked for three days on the Appalachian Trail, confident and proud and strong. Crippled with despair, I limped into a therapist’s office, debilitated by depression. Swaddled with love of family and friends, I shaved my head and tattooed my arm and laughed till I cried and sobbed until I was at peace. I’ve said yes to more time by myself and prioritized more time with my family.  I’ve learned to say “no” to things that don’t nourish me. Except ice cream. I always say “yes” to ice cream.

I’ve asked hard questions and confessed hard truths.  Entering their adolescence, my kids broach topics Mom wasn’t comfortable delving into when I was their age:  illness and responsibility and death and sex. I answer with raw honesty. They’ve seen me in tears and I hug them to me and share my pain with them.  I think it’s wrong to pretend it’s not there.   I’m crying because I’m sad.  Yes, she’s slowly going to become sicker and sicker.  We aren’t going to the beach this year so we can spend time with her.  Yes, she’s going to be cremated. I want to be cremated, too. Regarding matters unrelated to Mom’s illness, but highly relevant to their curiosity and social understanding (and a disheartening example of the hyper-sexualized culture kids are growing up in) Yes, orgasm is “a really good feeling when you have sex,” but you can feel it by yourself too.  No, you don’t need to be watching porn.

For many years, I struggled to understand Mom.  She wasn’t blessed with physical gifts like Laila Ali and has never had a green thumb.  On the contrary; her favorite quote is “Sweating is gross and fresh air makes me sick.” She stays inside, reading; I’ve run marathons. She’s quiet; I’m loud. I deep-dive into conversations; she’s more comfortable on the surface.  I lift up furniture and tend to plants and pour my heart out on the page. She’s there, watching all of it. Though she kills all things that conduct photosynthesis, Mom grew a beautiful family; planted roots that spread deep and wide.

Before Mom’s illness jabbed me in the heart, I didn’t value her quiet; rather, I doubted its power.  Mom has shown me that there are more ways to demonstrate strength than with vigor and brawn. She’s shown me that I don’t always have to do something; hers is a quiet persistence of being.

My connection to Mom is primal, deep.  In so many ways my opposite, I feel her pull as the force that keeps me balanced.  Her spiritual tether is met only by the one I share with my own children. She’s been there, ready, even when I didn’t even know I needed her—I hope to be for my kids all she’s been for me.   And these days, when I’m rolling around on the mat in a struggle to make sense of all this, I try to use her own words of wisdom to self-soothe: “When you give birth to a baby, you grow a new heart.”

See, in a macabre way, my grief is a baby.  Mom’s disease birthed this dark pit inside me.  I like to imagine that as I trudge through the progression of her illness (and, ultimately, her death) I’m cultivating space in my heart for my grief and gratitude to live harmoniously.  Like Yin and Yang, there is literally darkness and light in my little heart, all snuggled up tightly together and swirling around.

Maybe that’s what this is all about: vulnerability and strength, terror and comfort, distortion and balance, heartbreak and growth, dying and living. The cyclical, recursive nature of it all.

Allow me my suffering, so that hers may end.  Allow the pain to break me, so that I may put myself back together.  I’ll be stronger where the cracks mend, and softer in the more stubborn places.  Allow me the lessons to be learned in her absence. Allow me to experience her in new ways—ideas, smells, sounds, gestures.  Allow me to grow bigger; big enough to hold my grief and build a life that’s richer and more beautiful. I think I can hold it all.

About a year and a half into this journey, at a concert with my brothers and some dear friends, I passed out cold. Imagine a beach ball that’s been forcefully submerged under water. The pain and worry I’d managed to shove down demanded to surface. An anxiety attack hit like a ton of bricks. As I awoke, my two brothers literally holding me up, I remember my body heaving as I sobbed: “I’m afraid of how much it’s going to hurt.”

The ancient poet Hafiz wrote that “It helps to see the Creator’s kind face / before he rolls up his sleeves, / and starts pumping the bellows / and cleans off his wire brush / and works with his other tools / he eyes you up / knowing how much this is going to hurt / to make you perfect.”

Why are we here? To be made perfect? I don’t know much, but that I was given the gift of consciousness. I believe it’s my job to do the work: to pay attention to the Universe and embrace my place within it. To learn the lessons. That means with open arms I must greet the anguish and the pleasure. I’m willing.

Mom is in the final round of this slugfest. She’s losing stamina in her bob and weave. Soon enough, she’ll receive the final blow, or choose to throw in the towel. I’ll be rocked from my foundation. But I will be ok down here; I am rooted in her. I will remember her.  I will celebrate her. I will talk about her and laugh, curse and cry. Her influence is indelible.

For now, I will sit with her and hold her hand and just be. For the rest of forever, my dust and Mom’s dust will dance; her warm, loving hands guiding me and loving me and leading me as the piper plays on.

Julie Dennis-Carroll is a family-centered West Virginia native who’s called Western North Carolina “home” since 2007. She is a writer by passion, and uses writing as therapy, though she is a speech-language pathologist by training. Julie fills her heart by reading, traveling, and playing in the dirt.

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Compassion, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

I Didn’t Love Her Until The Day She Died

November 24, 2019

By Marie Prichard

Maura Anton, age 90, died September 6, 2009. Survivors include six children, 18 grandchildren, and 24 great-grandchildren. Maura Anton was my grandma for over thirty years, but I wasn’t her granddaughter until the day she died.

I was eight years old when my father took my sister and me to meet his newest girlfriend, Rita. There had been so many girlfriends since my parents had divorced. But this one was different. She didn’t have any children; she was younger than him––fifteen years younger––and she was still in college.

I remember spending weekends with my dad and Rita in her tiny, college apartment. It felt like a dollhouse to me, and I pretended like everyone was playing house. Looking back, it was just like a teenager’s room, complete with stuffed animals, pink frilly things, and posters of her favorite bands.

I assumed Rita wouldn’t be around for very long, so I didn’t think much about their relationship, or about the fact that we hadn’t yet met her family. Girlfriends coming and going were a common theme with my dad. However, things changed, and I can still picture the specific visit when they sat my sister and me down and told us they were going to get married right after she graduated from college.

Our first introduction to the Anton family was at Rita’s college graduation. My sister and I stood there shyly in our––too small––Christmas dresses, and our tennis shoes because my dad hadn’t thought ahead about what we were going to wear. He never bothered to think about those kinds of things, and I believe that Rita was too young and self-absorbed to take our clothing into consideration. My mom didn’t have the money to buy us new dresses, nor was it her responsibility, so we wore those same outfits when they got married.

I can only imagine what they thought. My father, a Mexican man almost fifteen years older than their daughter, was standing there with his two young children, introduced as her fiancé and her soon-to-be daughters. Let’s just say; it wasn’t the warmest of welcomes to the family.

Rita came from a strict Catholic family. She was the youngest of 6 siblings who were all raised in the church. They had all graduated from Catholic schools, gone on to marry their high school sweethearts, and were doing what good Catholic families do: get married and quickly start a family. No one in Rita’s family had ever married a person outside their race or religion, and divorce? Well, that was a sin and was unacceptable. Rita had broken the unwritten rules, and they weren’t happy, especially her mother.

I remember many tears and angry voices before the actual wedding. Rita was not allowed to have a white wedding dress or a large church wedding. Her wedding was a quick, hushed affair in the retirement park in which her parents lived. I didn’t understand that marrying someone who had been divorced and had children from a previous marriage would be the cause of so much upset. I was just excited that I got to be a flower girl. It wasn’t until later that I realized Rita’s mother did not approve of her marrying my dad, nor did she want to add two little dark-skinned Mexican girls to their family. We were an embarrassment to her.

After my dad married Rita, we didn’t spend much time with his family because we were always at her parents’ house. When we were with them, we were expected to go to church and have Sunday dinner with her parents, siblings, and their children. In my eight-year-old mind, I thought once my dad and Rita were married, that meant I had a new grandma, grandpa, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I was wrong. During family dinners, my sister and I were always seated away from the rest of the family with our backs to the dinner table. Our newly acquired grandma would always make “tskking” noises when we referred to her as grandma, and she never––not once––said, “I love you.”

She didn’t want to introduce us to her friends, and when pressed, she would say, “Oh, these are my step-grandchildren. You know Rita married that man who was divorced. These are his children.”

Christmas was the worst. All the “real” grandchildren would be there, and there were so many presents for them. As we sat and watched them unwrapping all the gifts, my sister and I would each receive just one neatly wrapped gift. When we were younger, it was usually a knock-off Barbie doll. When we got older, the Barbie doll was replaced with a card signed, “Merry Christmas, the Antons” and enclosed would be a ten dollar bill.

As I got older, it became apparent that Maura Anton was incapable of loving us. I still called her grandma, and she still referred to me as her step-granddaughter, but I had stopped trying to love her. When I was made to go to their house, I would stay in the bedroom and read. I was tired of always feeling unloved by someone I desperately wanted to be loved by, so when I was old enough to have a say, I stopped going altogether.

The marriage between my dad and Rita ended when I was an adult. By this time, divorce wasn’t quite as taboo in Rita’s family. The Antons had already experienced other family members’ divorces, remarriages, and blended families. My sister and I still kept in contact with Rita and her family, but I always felt like I was still that little girl who was sat with her back to the family dinner table and introduced as “the step-granddaughter.”

Rita’s father passed away, and her mom moved in with her. She had suffered several small strokes and became mostly bed-ridden. I would stop by periodically to see how she was doing. She loved to have her fingernails painted, so I would always paint them her favorite color––light pink.

She had softened with age, but she still never referred to me as her granddaughter or said I love you. It was so hard to love this woman I called grandma, and I often wondered why I even bothered to try.

One day I received a call from Rita. She said, “Please come; my mom had another stroke and isn’t expected to make it.” So I went.

Most of the family was there: aunts, uncles, spouses, and grandchildren. She was lying in a hospital bed in the living room surrounded by her “real” family, yet no one was sitting next to her, holding her hand. They were all seated or standing along the walls or in the kitchen. She looked so alone in that bed in a roomful of people, so I sat next to her and picked up her hand.

Her breathing was labored, and she looked like she was in pain. I’m not sure if she was cognizant, but the moment I took her hand into mine, she appeared to relax. So I just sat there, holding her hand, speaking quietly to her. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but my voice kept her calm.

I sat there for hours; I kept asking if anyone wanted to sit next to her, but everyone said no. They knew she was dying, and they didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t sit there because I loved her. I sat there because I didn’t want to watch her die alone in a room full of people who should have been there holding her hand.

I thought back on all those years of feeling unloved by this woman. I was just a little girl who wanted to be loved. How hard would it have been for her to have given me the same love she had given her grandchildren? All the pain I felt over the years came rushing through me: the hurt, confusion, sadness, and anger. I sat there with this woman, who was dying and felt nothing but an overwhelming sadness.

Her breathing began to become shallow and slow. The hospice nurse listened to her heart and said it wouldn’t be much longer. The sun had gone down, and almost everyone had gone home, and yet, I stayed. I couldn’t leave without someone else sitting next to her to help guide her from this life to the next.

I looked into the face of this woman who did not love me, and I realized it was the face of a woman who only knew how to live one kind of life; A life that did not include two little, Mexican girls calling her grandma. It was beyond her ability to move past the vision she held for herself and her family.

In…out…in…out. Her breath came slower and slower. With each exhalation, my anger dissipated. With each inhalation, the pain receded. I gained comfort knowing when she died so, too would my pain.

As she took her last breath in the wee hours of the morning, I felt an intense surge of vertigo and a vibrating upward pull; I had to close my eyes to keep from falling over. It was as though a part of me had joined with her spirit as she passed, and just as quickly as it happened, it ended. I opened my eyes, and a quiet calm came over me.

I sat there for a moment looking at her light pink polished fingernails trying to digest what had happened. I sensed that I had traveled a short distance with her spirit as she departed from this world. It was a surreal experience, and a rush of love coursed through my body. I had received a gift.

I gazed down at Maura Anton, this woman I had called grandma for over thirty years and whispered the words, “She’s gone,” but no one heard me. So I repeated it louder as I slowly stood up to walk away. But before I did, I leaned in and whispered in her ear, “Grandma, I love you.”

I like to think that maybe––this time––she would have said, “I love you too.”

 

Marie Prichard is a longtime writer and educator. She lives on an island in the Pacific Northwest with her wife, their two wiener dogs, and a Munchkin cat. She loves reading, writing, walking the beach, and filling her wife’s pockets with heart rocks.

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cancer, Family, Guest Posts

A Walk in the Park

November 20, 2019
bother

By K.C. Pedersen

Six months after my ex-husband died, his brother left a message on my voicemail. He was going to blow my fucking head off, Luke said. While Tim was alive, Luke often showed up unannounced at our remote rural property. He was also apt to appear at the local café/bar and seat himself at my table as I visited with friends. Yet despite Luke’s history of violence, felony convictions, and easy access to guns, I was not particularly panicked. As a counselor, educator, and deputy sheriff, I considered myself skilled at soothing agitated men. I choreographed elaborate scenarios for how I’d rescue my students should a gunman appear in my classroom.

Besides, I’d known Luke since his birth; it was difficult to fear someone you’d first seen in diapers.

“Tim’s bothering me,” Luke’s message said. “If he doesn’t stop, I’m going to blow his fucking head off.”

I called Luke back. “I know about Tim bothering you. He bothers me too. But I thought I should point out that Tim is dead.”

So Luke threatened to blow my head off instead.

“Does he have a gun?” the 911 operator asked. After Tim and I separated, and he took to showing up outside my window in the middle of the night, they asked the same question.

“I have no idea,” I said then. “Should I go out and ask?”

Tim often told me, “There are things about me you’ll never know,” and despite our fourteen years together, I had no idea whether he had guns. Prior to our marriage, he’d been a Buddhist monk, so firearms seemed unlikely, at least to someone as much in denial as I was.

I found out the guns were real the day before Tim’s death. His young daughter told me he visited the shooting range daily to perfect his aim. When he tried to force her to hold one of the guns, she called me, sobbing

“I don’t know if Luke’s armed,” I told the dispatcher. She took my name, and an officer called me back.

“Did you record the message?” he said. “If so, we have a crime.”

“I did,” I said. But when I tried to retrieve Luke’s message, it had disappeared. “I must have messed up somehow,” I said. The officer started the recitation: “no crime has been committed, no witnesses, no blood, get a restraining order.”

“I am a deputy sheriff,” I said. “At your office. Look it up.” For eighteen months, I’d coordinated a drug and alcohol program. “I’m quite familiar with the danger of having one’s head blown off, whether I recorded the call or not. I’d like you to do something now.”

Within the hour, Luke was arrested. The following day, someone called from the prosecutor’s office. Would I be willing to drop the charges? “It’s a lot of paperwork for us,” she said. I requested they proceed. From working in law enforcement over the years, I knew that if charges aren’t brought, the crime never happened. You need a paper trail.

I was glad I insisted, because a few days before Luke threatened me, he’d stopped taking his antipsychotics. When his case went to court, he was let off for thirty days served, with instructions to take his meds. I’m presuming Tim stopped bothering him, although my own nightmares continued for years.

Tim was one of the first American males ordained as a Chinese Buddhist Monk. When I met him, though, he was in an alcohol rehab center. As was I. We were married almost a decade before I knew he’d written a book. He probably realized that if I read it, I would have horrified at how he treated his assistant, because it was the same way he treated me.

Though many Buddhist teachings are about preparing for death, when Tim was diagnosed with cancer early in our marriage, he refused to acknowledge he was going to die. Although his oncologist explained that there was no known cure, he insisted he was going to beat this thing. However, she added, it was a “good cancer.”

“What’s a good cancer?” I asked.

“The average life expectancy is seven years,” she explained.

About six years in, Tim’s symptoms flared, and he volunteered for an experimental protocol, “the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“A walk in the park.” He handed me the document that authorized the treatment. I was chilled to the bone.

“Nobody’s survived this,” I said. “Not even the beagles they tested it on. The longest even a dog lasted was eleven months. If you do nothing, who knows how long you might live?”

One seeks to understand unhappiness or grief in various ways. Tim’s parents found sanctuary in the Mother Church, as Tim called the Catholic faith in which he was raised. For ten years, monk’s robes provided sanctuary for Tim. But his alcoholism lurked just outside the monastery gates. One afternoon, he stopped into a tavern and ended up roaring drunk. Ashamed, he left the monastery and found work as an orderly at a managed care facility. On what was intended to be a one-night stand with the night nurse, he conceived a child.

That’s what he told me, anyway. When I met him, he was still in inpatient rehab and still married to that nurse. After he died, I found passionate love poems he and the child’s mother exchanged early on. Whatever flame they had, though, did not last. As co-dependent partners do, I devoted myself to analyzing my husband. Through the Enneagram, for example: Tim was a One. Per the Enneagram, he could be a great leader. Or he could be a despot. My delusion was such that when his oncologist told us his cancer was incurable, I wrote in my journal that I would find a way to save him.

Tim’s parents lived an hour’s drive down Hood Canal from us, and in the early years, his young daughter and I accompanied him to holiday gatherings there. Each time, halfway there, Tim would go into a rage. “You don’t really want to go,” he might accuse us. Or he might scold his daughter because she didn’t finish her homework. Eventually, in the death throes of our marriage, I refused to go. Tim went alone, and on the way back, just as when he fled the monastery, he stopped in at one tavern, and then the next. When he finally arrived home, he apologized for his relapse and vowed it wouldn’t happen again. But of course it did, and eventually I asked him to leave.

Tim’s ex-wife told me that the teaching brother Tim most trusted had molested him, but he never shared that with me. Instead, he repeatedly hinted that the teaching nuns and monks in the Catholic schools he attended from kindergarten until he was kicked out, had “done things.” He described inappropriate contact, but said it happened to a friend. He recounted physical abuse and beatings, but these anecdotes always implied he deserved it. The only part he did say, telling the same story again and again, was that he managed to get himself kicked out by hiding a bomb in the nuns’ car. And then he always laughed hysterically.

I listened to his stories until I stopped listening, and that is my loss. As reports of priestly abuse proliferated in the press, including at the schools he attended, I felt guilty. Surely, if I had pried forth Tim’s secrets, I could have healed him. Placing smoke bombs in the nuns’ car was his only cry for help, and in its way, it worked.

But to me, Tim’s descriptions of his father throwing shoes as his young son as he stood against a wall or dressing in a bear costume to scare him for leaving his bedroom at night seemed worse. I had little doubt that if young Tim had tried to say anything, his parents would have suggested he burn in hell. Even as he lay dying, helpless at last, they had him, a Buddhist, anointed with last rites.

During Tim’s final weeks of life, his daughter seized my hand. “No more blonde,” she said. I glanced at her. That week, her hair was the color of eggplant.

“What are you talking about, no more blonde? This is my natural color.”

“Not anymore it’s not.” She narrowed her eyes. The child I’d met at four, scared and mousy, had transformed into a striking beauty. “Brown, I think. Dark brown.”

After Tim and I separated, I dated a younger man, although we too soon split up. “Our love-making makes me insane,” he texted me. “I can’t do this without a traditional committed relationship. I feel empty and lost.” When I called to tell him Tim was dead, he wept. “Why are you crying?” I asked. “Not for him,” the young man said. “For you. For how much he destroyed you.”

“You don’t ever have to be afraid again,” my friend Carla said. Still, I sobbed and screamed.

“You abandoned a dying man,” my father said.

Eleven months after the McDonalds of bone marrow transplants, Tim died. Two weeks later, I landed flat in the New Year, widowed yet not widowed, with dark brown hair. I inhaled the scent of seaweed and salt from the bay outside what had been our dream home. I exhaled in cries like the call of the loons that gathered just offshore. The first day one pair arrived. The next day five pairs paddled in a loose cluster. By the end of the week, dozens of the arched spotted backs trolled up and down, up and down, on their quest for the Pacific herring that spawn here.

And startlingly, Tim’s walk in the park had killed him, and I was free. I walked with my dog in Northwest fog and rain, and to keep from shaking to pieces, I filled the bathtub with as much hot water as I could bear—a lot—and sat for hours. Water embraced me. Water was my solace. I descended into the tunnel of winter, days that rarely saw light, only changed from one kind of darkness to another. What about death, I wondered. What about suicide? Maybe I should just commit suicide slowly, one breath at a time. From the time of Tim’s diagnosis, I felt he wanted me to throw myself upon his funeral pyre. “When people grow ill,” his ex-wife said, “They become more of what they are. Nice people become nicer. Mean people get meaner.” M.F.K. Fisher says as we age, we revert to whatever we were like at birth and as toddlers. The final day of his life, in the ICU, Tim’s body bloated, and his skin stretched as far as skin can stretch, and it seemed he were drowning in his own fluids. Blood oozed from every pore.

My hands and arms went numb. Pens, notebooks, cups and forks dropped from my hands and crashed to the floor. “Definitely MS,” his ex-wife told me. “No doubt about it. You’ll be immobilized by the end of the year.” She seemed pretty excited by the idea. The symptoms worsened. I’d hold a cup of coffee to my lips, and then the cup would fall and shatter, the coffee scalding my chest. At other times, my hands balled up into tight fists, and I had to manually unlock them.

Just as I lacked a handbook for navigating Tim’s cancer, when I became a stepparent at thirty, I was equally clueless. Before Tim’s cancer was diagnosed and he was pronounced infertile, I pored through books on every stage of pregnancy, birth, and the developmental phases of a child’s life. When I became a stepparent, the pickings were sparse. Several books asserted never to allow the child to call me “Mom.” This would confuse everyone. My stepdaughter concocted elaborate stories about how I was actually her real mom. “Are you sure you were never pregnant?” she once asked. “Maybe when you were in rehab?” When I said I was sure, she said, “Maybe your mother had another baby she forgot about?”

As for cancer, the patient fought the courageous battle. And he never died. He passed.

After Tim died, his daughter asked repeatedly, “What are we to each other now?” She told me that everyone asked why she bothered to speak with me at all. As when she was little and asked to call me Mom, I remained obtuse.

“I am here for you no matter what,” I said. But I wasn’t. We were both on our own, stumbling through the forest without light or path, gauging where we were by the space between the trees.

K.C. Pedersen holds an M.A. in fiction writing and literature, studying with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. Stories and essays appear in numerous journals and have been nominated for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected as notable by Hilton Als and Robert Atwan for Best American Essays 2018. Pedersen lives above a saltwater fjord in Washington State.

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Divorce, Family, Guest Posts, motherhood

Coda

October 20, 2019
affair

By Erin Branning

It was the day after Mother’s Day that Myles, my then twelve-year-old son, started questioning me. The night before, he’d gone to dinner with my husband alone – I forget now why I agreed to this on Mother’s Day – and the next afternoon on the drive home from school the questions began. “Mom, tell me what really happened, tell me the real reason you and Dad are getting divorced.”

“We told you,” I answered, praying to god the questions would stop, reciting the lines that the therapist had given us.

“The adjustment of your dad being back in Chicago after working in New York has been difficult.”

“We’ve tried very hard to work things out, but we can’t.”

“We love you and we promise to make this as painless for you as possible.”

My husband and I had agreed there was no reason for our children to know the specific conditions of the dissolution of our marriage. They’d simply know that things had been bad and now they were going to be better. This was the only truth they needed to know. This was what I told myself, what the therapist had said and what I thought my husband felt as well.

But all the things that sounded so good in the therapist’s office now sounded ridiculous and hollow. They weren’t answers and Myles knew it. He wouldn’t stop probing, wanted specifics. I stayed to the script. This went on for a few days until my husband called me a few minutes after I’d dropped the children off at school.

“I told Myles the truth at dinner the other night,” he said.

“The truth?” An emptiness, a pit, opened up below my heart.

“I told him you’ve been having an affair and I was willing to forgive you, but you had decided to choose him over our family.”

“You told him what?” I felt lightheaded, like the ground had given way. I gripped the steering wheel and pulled over.

“That you’re having an affair and that’s why we’re getting divorced. And I’m going to tell the other kids too. There’s been enough lying.”

Our other children were ten, seven and three.

“The therapist said not to tell them. You promised me you wouldn’t.”

“A marriage is a promise to stay faithful. I wouldn’t bring up promises if I were you.”

***

The truth was this: A few weeks earlier, while I was out at breakfast with our four children, he went through my computer and found texts and emails with a man who had become the love of my life, the person I could not imagine living without.  Matt was my chiropractor but his methods encompassed everything – the full range of body, mind and soul. We connected on music initially – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Jeff Tweedy—and then books. At some point I realized every book I had read over the past year that wasn’t required as part of my MFA program, was recommended by him.

During the winter, Matt and I, who had always confined our communication to his office, slipped into texting. A lot. First daily, then a few times a day, then hundreds. It was a numinous relationship, one therapist said. Numinous – spiritual, divine. Of course, it was meant to be. Never mind the fact that at the time my husband discovered our correspondence, we had not done so much as kissed.

The texting made it all too easy – the distance and time to be witty and use innuendo, to share thoughts, photos, articles, music. An entire consciousness can be sent through a phone. Of course, I couldn’t just delete the messages as they came, I had to save them by sending them to myself. I needed proof of what was happening. My inability to let things go into the ether was ultimately how my husband found out about our emotional affair. Since my divorce, I’ve had friends tell me about phone flirtations because they know I won’t judge. I have a hard time telling them to walk away. For me, my virtual relationship with Matt was a lifeline – what ultimately what got me out of something I’d been very unhappy in for a very long time.

In the weeks leading up to Chris’s and my separation, when I was in the throes of my texting with Matt, Myles played “Layla” on repeat in the car. I wondered if he was reading my mind, if he knew what was going on with me and if that was why he constantly played a song about an affair, about longing, about forbidden love, about betrayal.

When I used to hear stories of people cheating on their spouses I would think: how awful; if you can’t stay faithful, don’t stay married, and certainly don’t have kids. What I used to think about Eric Clapton and “Layla” was that he was a terrible person for falling in love with his friend’s wife. But when Myles played that song I thought, what incredible art. Clapton knew.

***

So why didn’t I leave earlier if it was so bad?  We had four kids, a full life, lots of friends. I adored his family. He had a high-profile job that “needed” a wife. How could I abandon him? Marriage was supposed to be hard and I wasn’t trying hard enough. I always thought I should be able to do better and my husband constantly told me so. For years, I thought the despair I was feeling was because of my own failing at love.

I never told anyone how suffocated I felt. My husband told everyone how much he loved me, all the time. But behind closed doors he loved me so much I couldn’t see friends if he was in town, couldn’t speak on the phone if he was home, couldn’t have male friends. When we moved to Beijing for his job, he asked me why I was making friends – wasn’t he enough? I read old journals. Five years before, as the movers were packing up our apartment in Beijing for a move to Tokyo, I had written – I don’t know if I can move to Tokyo with him.

I told my children and friends that I wasn’t leaving my marriage for Matt. I said falling in love with someone else was just the final thing beating me over the head telling me to leave – something I’d felt I had to do for a long time but been too scared to. And I wonder whether I let the marriage end as it did so that he wouldn’t be blamed, so that he could look like the “better person” and whether I was performing a service I had done for most of our marriage -protecting him at the expense of myself.

***

So, the narrative of our divorce became this: I was solely responsible for the end of our marriage because I had an affair. Chris told the children and anyone else who would listen that he was the victim and I was the victimizer. I imagined my children thinking of me kissing this man, wasn’t sure if they imagined sex too. At twelve, Myles certainly might have been, but I didn’t know about the others. I told them nothing physical had happened when their dad found our texts, but what did this mean to them? To them, their mother had fallen in love with another man while married to their father and wasn’t able to stop it, couldn’t walk away, was reckless with their lives and her own. In committing infidelity, emotional or otherwise, I’d lost all standing, not just as a wife, but as a person – especially as a mother.

And, while I felt shame standing in front of my children, I also felt relief. The worst thing I could have imagined had happened – my husband telling my children I’d had an affair – and yet, I was oddly okay. It clarified everything; I knew couldn’t go back. Every day I steeled myself for the children’s questions: What did Dad do to you that’s worse than cheating? Why do you want a divorce if he wants to forgive you? Why don’t you love Dad anymore? In my best moments I would say: I’m not going to talk badly about your dad.  And in my worst moments: God help you if you think this is the worst thing that could ever happen to you.

***

One afternoon in July, two months after Chris and I had separated, Myles and I were driving to a Jay-Z/Beyonce concert.

Shortly into the drive he looked up from his phone and said, “You’re not wearing that to the concert, are you?”

I was wearing a black motorcycle jacket that I’d recently bought, edgy, unlike anything I’d worn before I left Chris.

“You look stupid. Take it off.”

“I’m wearing it. I like it.”

“I’m not going into the concert with you then.”

“Look at me and apologize right now,” I said.

“Apologize for what? I’m allowed to have an opinion.” He said this, looking down at his phone.

And I suddenly felt overwhelming rage – rage that this night with my son already felt ruined, rage at my own impotence in the face of my son’s anger, and rage at the fact that I knew this argument wasn’t about my jacket. We were sitting at a stoplight and I ripped his phone out of his hands.

“Give it back!” he shouted at me.

“Not until you apologize.”

“You know the family is ashamed of you, right? You know that Dad’s family hates you and that even your own mom sent Dad an email saying how you made her sick.” He screamed at me, his face red now and contorted in pain. His words came at me:

Nothing is worse than what you did.

You’re a cheater.  

A liar.

I hate you.

And without even thinking, in my own blind rage, I slapped him. His hand went immediately to his face and he looked at me, shocked. “And now you hit me? Good job. Wait until I tell Dad.”

And I started to cry and knew I couldn’t take it back, couldn’t take anything back I’d done to hurt him. The agony on his face in that moment – my heart breaks every time I think of it.

***

Recently, Myles, now seventeen, and I were walking down Michigan Avenue and passed by Lowry’s Prime Rib.

“That’s where your dad and I met,” I said. I remembered what I’d been like that day – so young and hopeful, filled with the excitement of new love.

“What would you say to yourself now if you saw your younger self standing there with him?” he asked. I understood what he was really asking. He wanted to know if my marriage to his father had been a mistake, if I’d take it back if I could. The relationship with Matt had been short-lived, did I think that I’d broken up my family for nothing?

“I would say that you’re going to have a full life together for many years and many adventures. And have four amazing children.”

I wanted to add, “and it won’t be forever and that’s okay.” I wanted to tell him what I’d come to feel – that what I’d done was extremely painful and difficult, but that that didn’t mean it was wrong. I wanted to say I’d struggled and was still struggling to know who I was and what I wanted and how to love, but that didn’t make me bad. I wanted to say what is rarely acknowledged, that as humans – even as adults, even as mothers – we are all just figuring it out.

But that moment in front of Lowry’s I couldn’t say it was okay. I felt his pain and that of his siblings and knew that for them our divorce might never be okay. I felt overwhelmed and heartbroken by what we all had lost. So I said, “and it won’t be forever and I’m so sorry for that.”

He nodded and said, “I know Mom, its okay.”

I turned to look at him, tears threatening to spill down my face, and hugged him.

***

Layla has a coda – a piano solo that contains a shift, a calmness and peace in contrast to the rest of the song that precedes it. Not long ago, I asked Myles how that coda made him feel. He said it was like rebirth. New life.

Erin Branning holds an MFA from Northwestern and lives in Chicago with her four children. She is working on her first novel.

 

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