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Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

The Expression of It

July 9, 2021
Blake

by André Narbonne

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

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

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

“There,” I said.

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

It had never happened before.

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

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

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

He bellowed, “You’re awful.”

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

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

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

“It hurts.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blake?”

“Why are you awake?”

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

More silence.

“Blake?”

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

“What was it?”

“The pipes. Someone left the toilet running.”

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

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

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

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

“My gun doesn’t work.”

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

“I know about these. I’ll fix it.”

“Give it back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shut up.  You don’t hear anything.”

“I do.  I know everything.”

“Shut up.”

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

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

“He did what!”

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

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

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

“No!”

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

“No!”

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

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

He seemed staggered by my words.

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

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

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

“Do to me what you did to Blake.”

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

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

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

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

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

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emma

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

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Lizard Brain

July 2, 2021
jeffrey

by Samantha Ley

Thud.

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

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

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

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

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

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

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

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you hear something?” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

This had to be a mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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emma

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

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Guest Posts, Mental Health

I Come From Wicked Women

May 24, 2021
mother

by Ramona Mead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Fiction Fridays, Grief, Guest Posts

The Sussman Service

March 26, 2021

by Roz Weisberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Binding the Generations

March 7, 2021
papa

By Daniel Osborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

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.

Recommended Reading:

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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Family, Guest Posts

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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