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Staying Out Of The Doghouse

May 9, 2024
doghouse

As a baby, I didn’t like men. I would squirm and cry to the point you would have thought I was having an exorcism, even around my father from time to time. My grandfather was no exception until the day he saved me from a relentless, paint encrusted clown in Gunther Toody’s. I sat, pinned inside my plastic tower, without the use of my legs and hardly any control over my own voice. My grandpa offered me one of his fries, and after that, my mother said he became one of my best friends.

Rick wasn’t my real grandfather; I didn’t look a thing like him and neither did my mother. But even from a young age, I never disregarded his love. My maternal grandfather Clarence was long disowned and dead, having left my grandma with four young kids in the 60’s. My mother was only four, the same age I was when my own father left.

“I saw Rick at Margie Stewart’s house at a party, I don’t remember what for, and I told myself ‘I’m going to marry that man one day.’ And I did, didn’t I?” My grandma used to chuckle, deep and rich from her belly.

My grandpa Rick had big steel blue eyes, larger than any harvest moon you’ve seen. I always knew him as tanned from the sun and leathery with age, but in a solitary photo of his adolescence, he was a cherub in sepia. During the Depression, he hitchhiked on train cars with his brother from Arizona to California, working odd jobs and sending money back home until he was old enough to enlist. Rick had all kinds of professions – banking, janitorial, landscaping, automotive. He never retired until he had to, cleaning an elementary school for a decade until he broke his hip. After, he volunteered the last decades of his life to maintain the grounds and facilities of the Synagogue across from their house. No one in our family was Jewish; they held his memorial service.

With a floppy, checkered bucket hat tied around my chin, I used to sit in the cool grass watching grandpa pull weeds until the soft, green blades had formed divots in my chubby toddler legs. When I was old enough, he let me help, though that mostly consisted of me sitting on a roller cart and scooting myself around by thrashing my small body back and forth, running over corpses of weeds discarded on the sidewalk. On one occasion, I remember helping wheelbarrow rocks, most of them as large as my head. I thought I was Wonder Woman doing the heavy lifting, but photos show him carrying the ends of the handles behind me.

He used to drive me to McDonalds in his old Ford Ranger and we’d share a large fry. Travel-sized tissues, loose change, tire pressure gauges, and old sweat-stained hats were smashed into the crevices of his windshield. There was always a bottle of water on the faded bench seat, sliding and sloshing through every turn.

At fifteen he took me for a joyride before Christmas Eve, when I’d turn sixteen.

“Stop being so goddamn chicken or Mom will put me in the doghouse for taking you out in the snow. She’s not supposed to know we’re out here and the longer we sit here the sooner she’ll come looking.” He put a large hand on my shoulder. “Now, that’s the clutch, that’s the gas, that’s the brake. I’ll help you shift.”

His ever-present doghouse was a metaphor he had used since before I could understand English. Instead of threatening me with a time-out or no supper, he’d tell me I’d have to sleep in a doghouse if I continued to act out. Or worse – he’d get thrown in the doghouse if he took the fall. If ever he was in trouble, or trying to get himself out, he’d pout out his bottom lip and widen his blue eyes in protest like some cartoon character.

“Don’t put me in the doghouse, Mom!”

He got out of almost everything. They didn’t even have a doghouse, let alone a dog.

That afternoon, I eventually stopped stalling the truck and got the foot dance down. We traded seats on the way home so he could drift oblong circles in an empty parking lot full of fresh powder. He hardly ever smiled; taking pictures, we’d unanimously groan at his lack of enthusiasm. But he smiled that day, and I’m almost glad I don’t have a picture of it. Almost.

Not even a month after I graduated high school, we moved to Colorado. My mother had lost her business and the house had fallen into foreclosure. All we had left my senior year was an SUV, a pawn with which we played an unaffectionate game of hide-and-seek with the repo man as we bounced between rental houses in California; he eventually won.

With no one to turn to, no hands to lift our tired bodies, we came home to the peppered foothills of the Rockies. Moving in with my grandparents was a last resort. They were the mirage in the desert, an island chain through chasmic ocean. We were stragglers tumbling in for a drop of water, never asking if it was drinkable.

My grandfather had continuously rising medical issues that sent him to the hospital every few months, a result of his covert drug use and lack of dietary fiber. However, they refused to pay for an ambulance. So instead, one of my aunts or uncles would get woken up, drive thirty minutes out to their little turquoise house with the little chain link fence, and race him to a fluorescent facility only to find he was constipated and not, in fact, having a medical emergency.

They lived in a cracker-box tri-level house with a yard my grandfather meticulously manicured. The lot was disproportionately sized, like a one-room cabin in the middle of a national park. While we found our footing, my mother and I moved in. We helped with everything from cleaning, to cooking, to ordering oxygen bottles. I started working full-time so we could eventually afford a place of our own.

I slept in the same twin bed in which my mother experienced growing pains, draped in the same dark green and gold paisley quilt she always loathed. The same collection of Little Golden Books, the thin ones with ornate metallic spines, sat in a cardboard sleeve on the tall dresser; my grandma used to read them to me on long forgotten afternoons. The same jackrabbit hung on a wall the color of robin eggs, stuffed and glued together in such a terrifying way that I could not bear to open my eyes lying down, even as an adult. It always stared down into me, its lifeless eyes calling attention to its deformity and making me feel small.

Every night, my grandfather would play his country music. 98.5 KYGO lulling him to sleep and keeping all of us awake until my grandmother decided to hit the hay around midnight. Except, he never really was asleep, because you would always hear “Love you, Mom” and “I love you too, Dad” through the white striped wallpapered walls. They always called each other ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’, their names long overgrown with the curling tendrils of parenthood.

On a February morning, I brought waffles up from the basement freezer because grandpa had mentioned they needed to be eaten. Frozen in a basement and completely encrusted with crystalline flakes of freezer burnt delicacy. Probably expired — but who cares? — right next to the pork loin.

We usually sat together before the sun took its first yawn, when I left for work and he went outside to inspect his yard. He would have his liquid breakfast, black and steaming in a once-white coffee mug. I made myself a slice of Wonder Bread with salted butter, sometimes jelly. As people of few words, we hardly ever said anything to one another other than morning greetings, but just having company was conversation in its own right.

My mother would later tell me that after I left for work, he would have a side of Percocet with another cup of watered-down coffee, the grounds stretched out with water from the hot pot rather than a fresh pour.

I was oblivious to such things until after he died. I helped my grandma go through the house to find his hiding places. Little white pills, some of them half and some of them whole, tucked under a dusty doily, peeking around a ceramic platter in the cupboard, or hidden inside an antique Ritz Cracker tin can. Many still tucked away in his jacket pockets, folded inside used napkins, or powdered into ashlike embers.

On this particular February morning, I wanted to do something nice for everyone. After I had thawed the ice-block waffles, I scrambled some eggs. I offered a plate to my grandfather even though he never had breakfast. But then he did something that surprised me — he ate it. I left a sticky note sealed with a smiley face for the matriarchs, the waffles sitting on a red plastic plate next to the sink while the eggs steamed up a glass lid.

When I came home that evening, the entire house was dry heaving with tension. The walls stretched, the roof groaned, the shades pulled themselves into a knot. Crossing the threshold, everything was quiet. Where Steve Harvey’s voice usually rang out, threatening to pop the speakers with “Name something” this or “Name something” that, a silence violently spoke. I left my shoes by the door and my mother whisked me up the ever-tired stairs. Her eyes were red, puffy, and distant as she told me my grandparents were beyond upset that I had cooked the waffles without asking for permission. She had packed our suitcases in anticipation, having been kicked out in her twenties over some nonsensical argument.

Blood filled my chest and cheeks, the heat blistering to my ears at the thought of causing an argument over breakfast. I marched down the narrow, creaking staircase and into the purple and green kitchen where my grandma was stirring brown gravy on the stove. The forty-year-old original cabinets shone with remnants of steam and oil residue, yet the wood refused to peel. School photos of all my cousins stared at me from above the kitchen table.

“Why are you upset about the waffles? I didn’t mean to make you upset, I just wanted to make breakfast for everyone.”

“You’re eating us out of house and home,” she had said, faceless and unmoving.

I stared at my grandmother’s back. Her words rang out the way one might turn a cheek to a stray dog, unwilling to acknowledge the animal’s needs yet holding all the power to change its circumstance. The words ‘What a poor dog’ become piteous comment instead of action.

I remember letting my voice expand into the space between us, thick enough to lean on. “We’re grateful for everything, but we don’t ask to be fed. We buy our own food, so you don’t have to. I just wanted to do something nice for everyone.”

My grandfather came in from the garage, a stream of smoke trailing behind him that coagulated with the scent of gelatinous packaged gravy. He started using language I had never heard the man use in my nineteen years of life before vanishing back into his cave.

“Don’t you raise your voice at your grandma. The both of you get the fuck out of here, or I’ll call the cops and they can remove you! Get out of my goddamn house.”

I should have known then that he was high, but I didn’t. My grandfather’s soft-spoken nature succumbed to the euphoric-induced rage of his addiction, unleashing a violent and abusive man that no one would have predicted. My grandmother played along, enabling his outrage and the absurdity of it all. In fact, until the day she passed, she denied the event ever happened. Everything after that — scrambling out of the house, vocal chords growing hoarse — is a blur, as it should be.

With a life and dogs in the back of our SUV, we drove to Walmart. After every call to an aunt, uncle, cousin, or friend in the state, we were told that they just could not take us in, especially with pets. For months we cleaned ourselves in public restrooms, heated microwave meals from Dollar Tree in Seven Elevens, and slept in our car though we didn’t really sleep. While I worked, my mother would sit in parks with the dogs or pet-friendly cafes to look for work, commandeering the Wi-Fi.

If you ever want to feel the heat of an eye narrowing in on you through a magnifying glass, brush your teeth in a public restroom. Better yet, wash your face and comb your hair, and you can almost feel your flesh start to smolder with smoke under the concentrated light. People will gawk and side-eye you like you’re naked, standing for all to see with a big sign that says ‘Look at me’ hanging off your neck.

“Haven’t they ever seen someone brush their teeth before? What are they looking at?” My mom would complain. She ended up standing in stalls so no one would look at her.

The car was spacious enough with third row seating for all of us to fit — my mom, myself, and two dogs — but only if we kept our bodies in specific positions. I hated the way the windows mirrored my body lying in the seat and I avoided looking at myself whenever I could. Only, the windows also let the outside peek in. The world never settled the way a house does, constantly yelling and moving, just like the voice in my head.

Two Februaries later and a week after my grandmother’s birthday, my grandfather passed. I stood in a churning sea of impatient people on a median at LAX trying to get home, clutching a suitcase to steady my knees against the swells of disbelief. My face was ugly and my voice no less as I cried into the phone where he silently listened. I imagined my mother holding the phone to his ear as he laid in a hospital bed, buried beneath a gown too large for his bony, tired body.

“You be a good girl and stay out of the doghouse, okay? I love you baby.”

My grandmother called me one afternoon asking for help changing a bulb; she was family and frail, so I didn’t turn my cheek. One way or another, we became inseparable. She didn’t know how to pump gas, so I showed her one stuffy June afternoon; she never did it again and had me fill her old Buick up once a month. We used to go thrift shopping on Saturdays when Goodwill was half-off, buying Christmas presents throughout the summer so we’d be ready come December. My mom ended up getting rehired by a company she left twenty years prior with her tenure. She’d travel a few weeks out of the month, so grandma would have me over for dinner. We’d watch her favorite shows and I’d sit in grandpa’s matching periwinkle recliner, the old tufted armrests weathered from years of rocking.

On her deathbed, grandma gifted me her wedding ring. My grandfather worked so hard for the small, jeweled thing that replaced her simple band on their twenty-fifth anniversary. It’s reminiscent of the Red Sea Moses parted in Exodus, with ten small diamonds holding up two waves of smooth gold. One of the only times I ever saw him cry was when he gave it to her, complete with a big old kiss right on the lips — something they seldom did in public. One aunt told me to melt it down and distribute the diamonds. Another told me it was weird that I’d wear a dead woman’s ring. One uncle told me I needed to sell it to refill the estate coffers. I wear it every day.

My grandma died on my birthday in the living room, which became mine and my mom’s four years after the waffle eviction. We closed on the house — by pure chance — on my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, July 6th. I almost wish I made this up. Our procurement of a home prompted my aunt and uncle to sue us for cheating them out of inheritance; a judge ruled in our favor. My mother and I spent months touching every single thing my grandparents ever owned, cleaning up the remnants of their life like diligent hostesses after a party, deciding what was trash and what was suitable to be kept.

Natalie Gramer is a pilot and ground instructor holding a Bachelor of Arts in English Writing with a minor in Anthropology and a Bachelor of Science in Aviation & Aerospace Science from MSU Denver. Natalie has been published in the Shot Glass Journal and enjoys mythology and history.

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Family, Guest Posts

Two Dads and a Lump of Clay

February 25, 2024
clay

In the beginning, I couldn’t make anything. I sat at the wheel watching the spinning lump of clay, unsure of my next move. The creation of a thing requires two essential inputs: the raw material and the shaping of that material. When I first started to pot, both perplexed me. I know more now. Today, I want to challenge myself and make something special, something that will evoke the goodness of life.

I open the bag of clay and an odor redolent of summer rain on black soil envelops and comforts me. This ancient mixture of earth and water has been around since (at least) the third day of the world. The smell disperses into the air as I cut off a clammy chunk and knead it into a soft, three-pound ball with the objective of “throwing off the hump,” a technique of making two or more pots from a single lump of clay. This method of throwing reminds me of cell division and the miracle of creation. Of course, I am just a potter; I’m not creating life, but it gets me thinking: how do I—how am I formed?

#

I’ve had two fathers. I was three months old when I lost Eliahu, the father whose DNA I carry. My parents were separated by the time I was born, but I know Eliahu saw me a few times before deciding to open a bottle of Orange Crush, swallow several-hundred pills and break free from the turbulent orbit that had become his world.

My older sister Ruth and I could not ask our mother about Eliahu—neither his life nor his death. I told myself that I didn’t care to know, but Ruth did, and it was me that she turned to for solace when her questions went unanswered. Our mother’s reluctance to talk drove her to snooping. One day, when Ruth was fourteen, she found his suicide letter.

I was nine when my sister showed me that letter suffused with emotions I didn’t understand. Emptiness, despair, and self-loathing—his cup overflowed with pain, and he wanted only to empty it, to finish his suffering. It was titillating to be privy to such a secret, but the feeling dissipated, and I filed the information into deep storage, believing I had no right to pine after someone I couldn’t remember. Wanting to be an agreeable daughter, I accepted my mother’s silence and looked toward the future. When I was seventeen, I visited Israel for the first time and met Eliahu’s family. They poured their love and acceptance onto me, and I was stunned. As I was taken from house to house, each new relative stared at my dark thick hair, deep-set eyes, and shy smile, their hands covering gaping mouths. Hee kol kach doma lo! She looks so much like him, they all said.

#

I drop the ball of clay onto the pottery wheel, aiming for the middle. Getting and keeping the clay centered—still, smooth, free of tremors—is still my biggest challenge. The wheel turns at 250 revolutions per minute, humming and grinding. I brace my knees against the splash pan and anchor my arms, pressing at the base of the clay mound and pushing the bumpy surface inward until it submits to the resistance of my hands. Then, I cone the clay up into a torpedo and compress it down again. When I finish, the lump has transformed into a low dome. It looks centered, but I know from experience that this might be an illusion. Who knows what’s buried below the surface.

#

Around the time she became pregnant with me, my mother met the six-foot tall, outgoing poetry student who would become my stepfather. David was a fellow grad student at the university, and he and my mother hung out between classes, trying to out-wit each other with their literary puns and authorial affectations. Everyone, including Eliahu, assumed their friendship was platonic, but my mother and David were developing a stronger connection than anyone could have guessed. Two and a half years after Eliahu’s death, they married.

Whenever I think about David in those early years—a twenty-six-year-old Catholic choosing to leave behind his carefree artist’s life to marry a three-years-older traumatized Jewish widow with two children—I am astounded. No wonder my mother sometimes called him, “David the Saint.” But she was equally irresistible to him. Dazzling with her intelligence, humor, and sultry Elizabeth Taylor-like beauty, she drew him in. After their marriage, he adopted my sister and me, legally erasing our birth names and with them, Eliahu. My history-the story of my origins-was supplanted with a new narrative. The gregarious, partying poet with the stylish beard and classic Greek nose became my new father. My tall, elegant, and (mostly) stable stepfather.

My first memory of David is of a bedtime routine. I had a red frog made of Naugahyde. “Kiss Nauga!” I’d demand each night as he tucked me in. My perfect, handsome Daddy was my hero. But when I grew older and understood that we weren’t related, I pushed him aside, seeking instead the approval and love of my mother. If he made me mad, I comforted myself with the reminder that he wasn’t my real Daddy anyway.

#

I rest my palm on top of the spinning dome, thinking about the stories I’ve always had and the stories I’ve uncovered more recently. They are all I have to work with in the reconstruction of my beginning. I need to figure out how everything fits together.

The smooth, silky movement beneath my hand transports an image to my mind of a grand vessel constructed of two pieces, and I know what I will make: a chalice or kiddush cup. The dual-purpose goblet will consist of a bowl-like cup supported by a decorative stem.

I construct the cup first, pressing my fingers laterally into the dome just below the halfway point. Forming an hourglass shape, I begin throwing the top half. I push the thumb of one hand and middle finger of the other down through the center, opening the clay into a hollow form, then pull the walls toward me to enlarge the base. The promise of future sustenance compels me to pull wider; I want this part of the goblet big to contain all manner of goodness.

#

For decades, I knew little about Eliahu. My mother dispensed occasional morsels of information when I was growing up, hoping they would suffice: he was thirteen years older and a talented, though depressed opera singer; her modern attitudes on gender equality in marriage clashed with his traditional upbringing; and his family criticized him for moving from Israel to Canada. From his relatives I learned my hearing impairment was hereditary, which did not endear me to him. They might have told me more, but I wasn’t interested; I saw no point. I had no memory of him, and he didn’t fit into my life.

All this changed when, at age fifty-three, I heard his voice for the first time on a tape recording given to me by his niece. Hearing my father speak made him feel more real to me than he ever had before. It was then that I awoke, as if from a long sleep, to the realization that I did want to know more about him. But when I went to ask my mother, I was too late. Wandering bewildered in her barren desert of Alzheimer’s, my mother couldn’t conjure up Eliahu at all.

And so, I stole my parents’ letters from the cardboard box in my mother’s seniors’ residence. There were hundreds of them. Eliahu’s letters revealed a romantic man who was rational and pragmatic, and I realized these were also traits of mine. I looked up the names on those letters, hoping to find friends still living.

I found Miriam. She told me that Eliahu was full of surprises, and she described an evening following his return from a summer music school in Italy. “He asked me to go with him to our special singing spot in the mountain. I was leading the way up the path and as we sat down, I looked up. Hanging in the tree was a bottle of Chianti he had brought me from Siena!” Her face shone with the memory of his playfulness and generosity, still fresh after sixty years. Then, she turned and pointed to a wine bottle holding flowers in her hallway. She’d kept it as a vessel for her love.

Eliahu appeared fun-loving and untroubled to Miriam and his other friends, but inside he struggled with despair. The letters revealed that after moving to Canada, one catastrophe after another rained down on him—disappointment, death, betrayal—each blow adding to the last until he could no longer hide the damage.

#

As I open and shape the cup, I feel a disturbance within that is causing the walls to wobble. It’s an air bubble—an empty space trapped in the clay body. I wonder if it had always been there or if I’d done something wrong. This pocket of air has a big impact on the whole, knocking it completely off center. I stop the wheel, poke the bubble with a needle, then smooth and fill in the indentation. When I start the wheel back up, I pray the clay molecules will realign and repair the damage.

Two more pulls of the cup’s wall and the piece is back on center. I am relieved, as if I had recentered Eliahu, giving him the strength to persevere. Maybe I’m chasing a fantasy, trying to create something lasting from loss, but I believe in the restorative power of stories and art.

I press against the inside with a kidney-shaped tool to bowl out the cup and ease off as I near the top. I sit back to look. It is good. The delicate taper of the cup’s wall beckons the eye to the gentle curve of the inside. I smooth the lip before slicing off the cup from the hump of clay below.

#

It turned out David wasn’t such a saint. My mother knew he had a drinking problem, but in their early days together it only added to his appeal as a tortured poet. She probably hoped her love and a family routine would turn him sober. But it didn’t, not for a long time.

One day when I was twelve, he picked me up late from aikido class. During the silent drive home, he suddenly turned off our route, saying he had to make a quick stop.

“Wait here, I’ll be right back,” he said, parking behind some brick buildings. After a long time, I started to worry. I left the car to look for him. Just beyond the alleyway between the buildings was a pub and I looked inside the window. He was sitting at the bar, a big glass of beer in front of him, talking and laughing with another patron as if he had nothing else in the world to do. I returned to the car to sulk and cry. My daddy was flawed. The sudden realization rattled my sense of security.

When he returned, he slid into the driver’s seat and looked at me in the rear-view mirror. Seeing my scowl and crossed arms, he turned around. “What’s the matter, sweetie?” he said in the syrupy, slurred voice I hated.

“I know where you were.”

“Oh, dear,” he said.

I glared at him.

“Don’t tell your mother.”

“Of course, I won’t,” I said. I did not want to be the cause of an argument between them.

Sometime after, David quit drinking. But his alcoholism had already shaped me, and from then on, I viewed the drinking habits of the people I loved with an anxious wariness.

#

A bit less than half of the original ball of clay is left on the wheel. As I shape it into the goblet’s stem, I reflect on stories of my adoptive dad, hoping the details of these memories never fade. My musings guide my hands as they work to define the stem. It should be as graceful as the cup and its base should be wide enough to keep the cup steady, especially if I want a tall stem—tall like David was.

While the dome spins, I press in on the sides, giving the clay nowhere to go but up. It becomes a pillar with a clay skirt at the bottom, which serves as the stem’s base. I form a shallow cavity at the top that looks like a miniature rice bowl. This cavity will enclose the bottom of the cup when I’m ready to join the two pieces together. I pinch the stem at different heights to create three knops, mimicking the classic profiles of goblets I’ve seen online. When I’m finished, I assess the outcome. The stem will be stable, mostly. The knops, while handsome, are potential weak points and will require vigilance. I stand up and crouch down to look at the stem straight on. Overall, I’m satisfied. It too is good.

#

Reading the letters between and to my mother and Eliahu allowed me to learn more about him than I ever thought possible, each small detail darkening the hazy outline I’d carried all my life. Amongst those letters was an obscure document from 1963.

In the fall of that year, Eliahu was attending a community college to complete the high school coursework he needed to get into university. He was unemployed during the winter break and finances were tight, so he applied for unemployment insurance benefits. He was denied on the grounds that his unemployment would last for only one month. The 1963 letter was an appeal that he wrote, arguing that he shouldn’t be disqualified because he was both available and willing to work as required by the law, from which he quoted.

I recognized in his arguments my own dogged trust in reason and logic. I possess the same zeal for justice and directed this passion into a career as a worker advocate. My father used the government’s rules as his evidence and rationale, a strategy I also employed in my work. I always assumed the attributes that made me good at my job came from my mother, who was a professional writer and editor—but maybe they came from Eliahu?

Two years later, my father gave up fighting for himself and the things he cherished—a choice I vowed never to follow.

#

Despite being Catholic, David participated fully in our Jewish upbringing and even attended synagogue with us. “It’s the same God,” he always said. Once, as a teenager, I set out to challenge his religion, just for the fun of it. My mother always hoped he would convert and I, still focused on pleasing her, decided to be helpful by undermining one of the central tenets of Catholicism.

“Don’t you think that story about Jesus dying and coming back to life is pretty dumb? You know, the whole resurrection thing?” I waited for defensiveness and was startled by his comeback.

“No dumber than some guy talking to a burning bush,” he said, breaking into a big smile that opened the space between his mustache and beard, revealing all his not-so-white, but perfectly formed teeth.

“Ha, you got me!” I said, laughing. It took years for me to appreciate how his wisdom and respect for my intelligence nurtured my own open-minded, critical thinking. Once a parent myself, I stopped brushing him aside in favor of my mother. I could depend on him for non-judgmental advice and comfort. On visits and calls home, my former monosyllabic answers to his questions turned into genuine engagement. I came to love his kind, molten voice, which still had that slurred, dreamy quality.

I was forty-three when he received the lung cancer diagnosis. From that point on, each time I called, he reported the latest symptoms of the disease attacking his body, such as night sweats and falling out of bed. I begged him to let me come take care of him, knowing my mother wasn’t coping.

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do.”

“I can sleep on the floor next to the bed and break your falls.”

“Oh, sweetie—thank you, but no.”

When he went into palliative care, I did go to him, and we were both glad. He asked me to read his favorite Psalm—#23. Then, he left me too.

#

The two pieces are leather-hard dry, and it is time to join them together. I return the cup upside down to the wheel for the final shaping of the surface. The protrusion of clay where the cup was cut from the host mound is facing up, ready to receive the stem. I add some goopy slip to its rough surface, then turn the stem upside down and fit the rice bowl-shaped cavity on to the protrusion, pressing until wet clay oozes out and the curve of the cavity hugs the cup. I check to make sure the stem is centered and plumb, then turn on the wheel, blending the wet into the harder clay to bind and smooth the area of attachment, creating a single structure.

It is me; it is them. The creators and the created.

When it is dry enough to handle, I wrap my hands around the cup and lift it to my lips, the taste and smell of the clay a reminder of its elemental origins. I breathe into the hollow of the cup, sanctifying the space with my gratitude. Setting it down, I marvel at the stability and beauty of the tall, elegant stem. From one lump to two forms, and back to one again. I’ve never made anything this good.

Michèle Dawson Haber is a Canadian writer, potter, and union advocate. She lives in Toronto and is working on a memoir about family secrets, identity, and step-adoption. Her essays have been published in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, Salon.com, Oldster Magazine, and The Brevity Blog. She also interviews memoirists for Hippocampus Magazine. Find her at @micheledhaber on most social media platforms.

 

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Guest Posts, Family

A Fridge Photo and a Texas Tradition

October 24, 2023
blueberry

As blueberry season ends, here’s what I’ve learned about legacy, tradition, and fake-family. 

I took a video of my daughter yesterday. In it, she’s crouched under the branches of a blueberry bush. July marks the end of blueberry season in Texas, and my daughter is taking full advantage. Her plump face hovers over a bushel basket and she’s popping fresh berries into her mouth, one after the other, with the fervor of a ravenous woodland creature. But that’s what two-year-old’s do; they find something they love and indulge with abandon. Plus, they like snacks.

The record-breaking East Texas heat seeps through the lens and I’m sweating again just watching her. Behind my daughter, her fake-cousins each swing their own basket and root through the bushes in the shadow of their mom, Courtney. Out of frame, their baby sister rides on dad’s shoulders. She bounces, her head bobbing up and down as the two walk the well-worn rows of Blueberry Hill Farm.

I’m hot and miserable, but Courtney’s kids keep picking blueberries (and my kid keeps eating them). It’s tradition. I’m not a kid anymore, so after capturing the memory on camera, I retreat to the corrugated tin shop at the edge of the farm where they sell blueberry lemonade, blueberry donuts, blueberry ice cream, and queso fresco (sans blueberries). This is Texas, after all. The proprietor tells me the just-baked blueberry-zucchini bread is her favorite. I buy a loaf for the drive back to Dallas. Like my daughter, I like a good snack.

Back at the house, Country’s parents have a photo on their fridge—one that’s been there for 25 years. I’ve never paid it much attention, but like the quirks of a roommate or spouse, I’ve grown to know it without even trying. It’s a photo of us—me and my siblings, Courtney and hers—on a hot summer day under the East Texas sun.

My brother stands on one side of the photo in an oversized, early 90’s t-shirt. I’m next to him, holding onto my little sister. She’s in a blue checkered bucket hat and overalls. Courtney’s oldest brother carries the littlest. His grip is slipping; the pink, plump baby threatens to slide from his brother’s grasp, but the boys are smiling in the oblivious way little boys do. Courtney is last in line and wears a shy smile. She was always the quiet one. We squint in the blazing sunlight, our backs against the unruly bushes of Blueberry Hill Farm. Off-camera, our bushel baskets present a paltry offering of fresh-picked berries.

Courtney’s not the quiet one anymore. As an adult, she can befriend a tree. And more miraculous, she seems to always have the emotional energy for fresh befriending. After my daughter was born, it felt like I only had just enough heart to hold me and mine inside it. Courtney doesn’t feel that way. Three kids later and her heart is still open to all. She’ll overshare with the cashier at the gas station and chat up the vendor at the farmer’s market. She’ll spill her life story to fellow berry-pickers at Blueberry Hill Farm, and she’ll get theirs in return.

Courtney is self-assured. She has a presumptive confidence that says, “Of course you want to hear my story. Why wouldn’t you?” Like my daughter when she shows me the berries she’s picked. “You want to see this, don’t you? Of course, you do.” It’s the faith of a child, an earnest faith in vulnerability, in friendship. She always extends the invitation.

Courtney and her family, they’re our fake-cousins. We don’t share a family tree, but Courtney and her brothers can be found in every one of my birthday party pictures. Their little voices can be heard in the background of home videos from my childhood. Her parents are in my parents’ wedding album, and their faces grace our Christmas tree every year in the form of homemade photo ornaments. They’re our adverse possession family.

When Courtney was in labor with her first child, I gave my boss 10 minutes’ notice, then left the office and drove to Houston. Courtney and I hadn’t been spending much time together then. But that’s how it is with fake-cousins sometimes. You grow up, you grow apart. But you show up—graduations, bachelorette parties, weddings, funerals. You don’t talk in months, but you leave work with 10 minutes’ notice and drive through the night for the birth of their kids.

I hadn’t been to a hospital in years. I remember seeing Courtney reclined on an oversized hospital bed, swollen from preeclampsia. Even then, when she was told of her son’s complications, his rare syndrome, surrounded by wires and screens and strangers, she opened herself up to the nurses as casually as if reclining at her favorite coffee shop with an old friend. At the time, I was concerned she was disassociating from the trauma, but now I see how she—with all her flaws and gifts—was so perfectly meant for this little boy. When I gave birth to my daughter years later at the height of the COVID pandemic, I remembered Courtney’s self-assuredness, her confidence. And I realized just how miraculous it was.

Before leaving yesterday, I stopped by the fridge for a glimpse of that photo—the one of us when we were kids at Blueberry Hill Farm. It was stuck to the fridge in the same acrylic frame, in the same spot, for 25 years. After a quick look, I grabbed yet another bottle of sunscreen, then helped load our crew in the car—the third generation of blueberry pickers.

We got the blueberries, the blueberry-zucchini bread, some videos, and a fresh sunburn. But we also got a new fridge photo. Maybe the picture we took yesterday will be the one my daughter grows up with, the one that’ll stick to the fridge for the next 25 years, the one she glimpses just before she loads her crew in the car to go blueberry picking with their fake-cousins.

Having kids is like that. You can’t help but see the world through the lens of legacy. When that first photo was taken, my parents stood where I stand now. And the way I feel when I look at my daughter—it’s a well-worn row that my own parents walked. And still walk. It’s strange to realize that we may only understand how loved we are through the lens of loving someone else. Miraculous, even.

Courtney’s three kids took up most of the photo frame this year. We still only have one, though not for lack of trying. (And the one, the ravenous woodland creature, keeps us plenty busy). Conversations with fertility specialists, the endless stream of suggestions, the overwhelming weight of uncertainty. It’s miserable. I wish I were self-assured, presumptively confident. I wish for the faith of a child.

As I write this, I’m enjoying the last of the blueberry-zucchini bread. It’s fluffy but decadent. There’s a gooey zing from the blueberries, all sunk to the bottom. Baked and caramelized, they add a jammy-ness to the otherwise light bread. But I prefer my blueberries like my daughter does—fresh from the bushel basket.

I scroll through yesterday’s videos and photos, and I see the legacy grow. I see bushel baskets heaped high with blueberries and more empty bottles of sunscreen. And maybe next year or the year after, there will be more kids in the photo—more pink, plump babies. We’ll dress them in bucket hats and overalls and line them up in front of the unruly bushes. We’ll buy more acrylic frames and make room on the fridge.

I don’t know who will be in those photos, or whose faces will show up on our Christmas tree in the years to come, but I know that we’ll be back. We’ll be back to walk the well-worn rows of Blueberry Hill Farm in the record-breaking Texas heat. We’ll be back because Courtney will extend the invitation, as she always does. And her family—they’re our family. Our fake-cousins.

I’m confident we’ll be back, presumptively so. It’s a Texas tradition, after all.

A marketing professional for over a decade, Sarah has experience in media, the creative arts, and writing for brands. Whatever she works on—from talking points to television commercials—she works through the lens of narrative. She is constantly urging her clients and peers to consider: What’s the story? Who’s the protagonist? How does it end? 

Sarah has an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business. She lives in Dallas with her husband and two young daughters — a toddler, and a (new) baby.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

We are huge fans of messy stories. Uncomfortable stories. Stories of imperfection.

Life isn’t easy and in this gem of a book, Amy Ferris takes us on a tender and fierce journey with this collection of stories that gives us real answers to tough questions. This is a fantastic follow-up to Ferris’ Marrying George Clooney: Confessions of a Midlife Crisis and we are all in!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Family

The Building of Something

October 4, 2023
Jax, apartment, building

I turned 21 on June 3rd and on June 8th we got married under a Southern live oak. We walked hand in hand at the end of our wedding night in between everyone that molded us, moved us, reared us to this. A few months after, we left north. When we left Texas for Pennsylvania, I never felt more sure home wasn’t in the South. Home, I thought, would only exist when we found a place we wanted to return.

We were friends, until one night at a bookstore we layed bare our similar dreams, revealing somewhere underneath our desire to escape. Eventually, we grew dependent on the stability we garnered together, falling in love while creating some sort of base. To what? We didn’t know.

A friend in college once threw up from heartache. Her partner of two years broke up with her over the phone while we were in the girl’s communal bathroom. She hung up, grabbed her stomach, and ran into a stall crying. She hurled liquid and loud wails in an attempt to extract the pain. Withdraws from something her body knew and craved. I always imagined that’s how I’d miss you.

In Pennsylvania, we found our apartment while driving through Pittsburgh’s Shadyside. We drove down Elmer, a street over from Walnut, the one with all the shops and restaurants, when I spotted a third-floor apartment with a sunroom that stuck out like a balcony. I dreamt of that sunroom quietly while we explored the neighborhood.

Down Walnut, we took a right on Negley, and a left on Elsworth where we drove alongside mansions. I imagined the ease of old money. I imagined us in the large grey victorian home with the blue swing hanging on a red maple. I imagined, for the first time in a long time, with a twinge of confidence; a belief in us.

When you called later, and they told us the sunroom apartment would come available during the month we needed it, it did something to my psyche, promoted an exaggerated optimism that simply leaving was the end of it, the solution to our past. I never considered leaving as temporary, as only an element of healing.

When we moved in, we gave most of our money to the restaurants on Walnut: margarita pizza at Mercurios Gelato & Pizza, the crab rangoons at Asian Fusion, the frozaccino at Coffee Tree Roasters, or the chocolate chip cookies at Rite Aid, just before midnight. On the weekends we ventured a few streets down to the underground French cafe with our favorite French toast for breakfast at noon; yours covered in syrup and walnuts, mine with strawberries and whipped cream. We witnessed our first real snowfall, the kind that insulated the city. Middle-of-the-night snowfall in Pittsburgh, void of any footprints, conceals a city once deindustrialized and makes it new.

We lived together for three years in Texas. First, in my childhood home after my parent’s divorce. My mom moved to Virginia and let us stay there for cheap, and, in exchange, we prepared the house to sell. I hated living in my childhood home; I felt stuck inside something I both loved and wanted to forget. The power of that contrast consumed me and so you worked hard to finish.

Later we moved into one of your mom’s rental houses. We didn’t pay any rent and we were roommates with your Aunt Nancy. Aunt Nancy and her pet bird, aside from the time she hit on my dad or the time she told us she liked listening to us laugh in the middle of the night, was a pleasant roommate.

When she moved out, your brother moved in and brought his three-month-old son, Jax.

Unable to afford daycare, he sat Jax on our bed that first morning and nearly every morning after until we left. I kept my eyes shut working to resist the weight next to me until his little hand brushed my face. I opened my eyes to his double chin hanging over me. I took note of the few hairs on his gigantic head, admired the eyelashes on his big brown eyes as he studied me, and in unison, we smirked at each other.

I closed my eyes and sank deeper into the blanket as he tugged.

When you got the call about the job in Pittsburgh and I got my college acceptance, we never hesitated. Getting out was the plan. We talked about adopting Jax only once, after the first time CPS got involved, but I recoiled at the thought of motherhood and secretly resented the way I loved him. We left north the day after Christmas, couldn’t even wait for the year to end.

There’s a picture your mom took on that Christmas Eve of me, Jax, and Jax’s mom. I had just changed Jax’s diaper, the last diaper of his I’d change for a long time. We were sitting on your mom’s red couch, his mom to my right and Jax on my lap. Jax and I are looking at a book together and his mom is looking at the camera. This image only stood out to me after her overdose. I imagined the picture in my head, I saw her body fading and only Jax and I were left.

The time between Christmas and New Year’s always feels unresolved. I sat on the passenger side of the U-Haul observing the town slowly creep behind us. The parks and restaurants that once faded to the backdrop of our life now stood out. My brain took a mental picture of a place I knew so well, a place I ached to leave, but a place now embedded with Jax’s short life; a foggy sense of obligation.

We walked like kids into our new sunroom apartment, entering a space we earned. I held the paper with the list of things to check off, and we scanned each room for imperfections, and though there were many, we found none. I dropped the paper and, with proper third-floor etiquette, forced you to pretend-jump with me.

Holding both your hands,

“We have our own apartment!”

and synchronizing to my repetitive sumo squat, you repeated the words from my mouth, “we have our own apartment!”

It took a couple of days for us to feel the relief of being miles from Texas. Settling into our new calm illuminated the reality of our previous chaos, the space Jax remained.

In this safe place we stayed, hearing news from home, your mom is now fostering Jax; parent’s rights legally terminated.

At what point, if at all, does our shield, the place we created for rest (rest existing as both essential and temporary), become hiding?

We watched families with fear and admiration, as though we were expecting. We did the math in our heads; your mom will turn 72 the year Jax turns 16.

We sat at the summit of Schenley Park hill, looking out above everything and silent together. Our limbs fixed to the bench, staring ahead.

“He’s already attached to my mom,” you said, not looking at me.

I veered my head further away,

“you’re right, he’s already attached to your mom,”

I said, repeating the words from your mouth.

Our words floated but never impeded my imagination. From then on whatever we did: eating pho in Squirrel Hill, grabbing a seat on the city bus, drinking taro bubble tea, reading in the sunroom, sitting still in Shenley Park; I imagined it all as existing in double, now and with a child.

We flew to Dallas one weekend to see a close friend, piling with other friends in her tiny sedan, staying out at rooftop bars, and eating 2:00 am ice cream. We slept on an air mattress in the living room she and her roommates shared. The next day in her car she asked us about Jax, “so are you guys going to end up adopting him?” she looked at me and I looked away. “Well, I don’t know, he’s really attached to his grandma.” I recognized the lie because of the rehearsed switfness of my answer. I looked down at my hands, opening them to release what I was holding on to. She watched me in silence, then put the car in drive.

I never anticipated the labor of the coming year. But in the car I knew; I never told you, this is when I opened my hands to a possibility; that home lay synonymous to a feeling I harbored for a person.

I fell ill to some sort of virus on the eve of my December graduation, exactly two years after we set off northeast. This was pre-pandemic, and I walked the stage with body aches. I see this now as a sort of birth, a morphing, the physical equivalent of a hammer to a nail, the building of something.

Aubrey Cofield is a daydreamer, over-thinker, emotional, human. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction but dabbles in a little bit of everything. Aubrey has been published in LatinX Literary Audio Magazine, NPRs Worth Repeating, Southern Review of Books, and The Motley Few, among others. She teaches creative writing to a wide age range; from 10 years old to 70 years old. Aubrey is currently working on a fiction manuscript that pushes through structural boundaries and is heavily based on personal life stories. She is a proud BIPOC writer and lives just north of Austin, TX.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Family

Her Body, At Rest

September 6, 2023
letter, envelope

Mom: I think we were quite young when it really started to kick in heavily. And then she was going every day to see a psychiatrist and we were told she was getting French lessons. We were never told what was so. We were never even told she committed suicide.

Julia: How did you learn that she did?

Mom: I guessed

~

When I go through the mail today, I see I have received an envelope from my mother. I’d know her cursive anywhere, her signature ‘S’– for Sally–a series of loops that used to leave me awestruck as a child.

It will either be a New Yorker article or her mother’s suicide notes. She’s been promising both for months.

I bury the envelope within that day’s small pile of mail where it sits, nestled between a ValuPak and a Company Store catalogue. I pass the pile every time I enter or leave my apartment, adding new mail to it daily.

We are standing in the vestibule a week later, when my husband Scott knocks the catalogues and envelopes to the ground for the third time. The small pile has become an unwieldy stack.

“Sweetie,” he says, with a raise of the eyebrow, “would you like me to go through the mail?”

“Oh,” I say, as casually as I can, “no. It’s on my list for today. I think my Grandma Marjorie’s suicide notes may be in there.”

“Jesus,” he says, with a shudder, and wanders into the kitchen ending the conversation.

As I lean down to pick up the scattered envelopes and catalogues, my daughter Esme looks at me with curiosity and says, “Maymay help?” At nearly twenty months, for her the commonplace is exciting and the trivial consequential. On another day, we might make collecting the mail a game. Today, I panic. She cannot touch that letter. She cannot hold that part of the past in her hands. She will be infected. Her brightness eclipsed.

“No,” I reply, all my usual gentleness disposed of. She looks confused for a moment and then her eyes fill with tears. She says simply, sternly to herself, “Maymay help. No.” I reach for her to apologize, but she is already walking away, managing her disappointment in me without me.

Left alone in the vestibule, my body floods with adrenaline. I have an urge the throw myself between my peaceful life and the envelope; to fling the papers out the window and watch them float to the ground like feathers. Or ashes.

Instead, I follow Scott and Esme into the kitchen to make plans for dinner. I do not touch the mail. The scattered envelopes remain until I restack them later, careful to hide the letter somewhere in the center, where it will not be seen.

The next day, while he is out and she is napping, I take the giant stack into the living room and sort it. Stripped of its pile, the envelope lies alone in the middle of the coffee table. White paper sitting on a black surface, it almost glows. I am suddenly tired. I lie down on the couch to rest my eyes for a moment. I wake up an hour later to Esme calling me.

“Mamaaaa? Maaaama?”

I head toward her room. I’ll open the envelope tomorrow.

~

Mom: What I remember happening in the house is just, I didn’t want to be there. And I translated it as a shame that the house was so big and we were so rich and the lights were always on. It was like showing off when I wanted to crawl in a hole. I remember someone who didn’t usually bring me home from a ballet lesson dropping me off at the house and me telling them I didn’t really live there. I was just visiting.

Julia: How old were you at this point?

Mom: I must have been nine, ten. Before our mother went to the hospital, but things were already really bad.

~

That night I dream I am marched into an arena filled with silent spectators and shot point blank in the back of the head. I feel my body hit warm hard dirt and sand. I feel my heart slow to a dull thudding stop.

I wake, sweaty and flooded by memory. I pad into the living room in the semi-darkness and stand in the doorway looking down at the table where the envelope lies, waiting.

It is eighteen years ago. I am twenty and sitting on the kitchen counter top of my childhood home, legs dangling, fists clenched sweaty on my thighs. Even though I’ve been gone for nearly three years, every homecoming still turns me into an angry child with sweaty palms and feet that don’t quite touch the floor. I hate this place. I hate the unopened moving boxes that have been gathering dust since we moved here ten years ago in 1990, peppered throughout the house like landmines marked ‘KITCH G’ and ‘BATH A’ in my mother’s long capital script. I hate the dust, the endless drafts that seem to pour through the walls, the way that— despite its many windows— the house always feels dark. I hate this kitchen, which was ripped out one weekend in a gleeful torrent of artistic ebullience when my mother’s college roommate was visiting with her daughters in 1992 and marked the beginning of a renovation that just never happened. We painted murals on some walls, others we ripped down to the studding. Eight years later, it’s all still there: the angels my mom’s friend Jamie drew, the multicolored phrase ‘WE CAN LIVE IN HARMONY’ I wrote over the door frame which was of course accented, in perfect twelve year old fashion, with a lopsided rainbow. I am just a visitor now, exiled by choice and obligation from my new life in New York City for this weekend visit, but whenever I come home I always leave gasping, as though I might be boxed up and left in the corner. Marked ‘J’ for Julia and never opened again.

I repeatedly bang my heels into the cabinet behind them— percussive and rhythmic: a pounding, a heartbeat. As if by making noise I will not disappear into the past. As if it will make her see me. The twenty-year-old version of the baby she pushed out of her body and the girl who—at seventeen— pushed her way out of this home. We spiral down anyway, chasing and fleeing. My heels, it turns out, are a drumbeat that drives us farther away from this moment and into the twistable memory of my childhood, of what was and was not.

We are not fighting about the fact that I was barred from wearing a bra or shaving my legs until I was well into high school. Nor are we screaming about the fact that once I reached thirteen and therefore passed the age my mother was when her mother died, she systematically started trying to remove all traces of me from the house by putting any belonging I had left outside of my room in our moldy mouse haven of a basement. KITCH G would last through the turn of the millennium but my Doc Martins couldn’t make it through the afternoon. No. We are screaming about my freshman year high school track meets, to which she made one frowning appearance with my brother and was never after seen again.

“You only came to see me run once! And you never said congratulations! You never said you were proud of me!” I scream, sounding like a rejected script page from Saved By The Bell. Tears are streaming down my face and I have failed us both in this. In addition to never discussing our shared past, my mother and I do not—as a rule— cry in front of each other. Crying is weakness. Survival dictates fury.

“You never said you needed me to! You never needed me that way!” she responds, shock and confusion on her face.

“Of course I did!” I don’t say.

“I still do!” I don’t say.

“After enough disappointment, I learned not to need you at all!” I scream.

I can see this remark land on her like a tidal wave, its weight crushing any idea that still exists that our relationship can be saved, that I understand her at all. She is crying now, in a ragged way that embarrasses me.

“You’re lucky I was even alive,” she says, quietly.

Alive. It is the one thing I cannot contest. The thing she gave that was not given to her; the offering that should forgive all other transgressions.

She looks at me. I look away. She breathes as if to speak but says nothing. I look at her to end the silence, to let her know it’s ok not to say anything, but she has looked down. This is the story of our relationship; we seek but never connect, we reach but never touch.

Then, quietly, she says, “Would you like to see my mom’s suicide notes?”

I stare at her, shocked. At her freckled cheeks and auburn hair. The ‘slipper’ nose she hates. The face I love but cannot tolerate. I do not know how to respond to this new offering. I didn’t know these notes existed, let alone existed in our house. I was seven when I learned my grandmother killed herself and nearly eleven before I saw a picture of her, discovered I had her eyes. I’ve spent my life since then wondering where behind our shared eyes her sadness might reside in me, and how I might scoop it out, a surgical procedure of total removal, always fearful of being eaten from the inside out, a nice snack for the darkness that swallowed her whole. If I read these notes, will I be welcoming something? Opening a door? But my mother has reached. I will reach back.

“Ok,” I say.

We pad upstairs. She goes first. I follow. We pass the boxes and the dusty furniture and wend our way to her room. I sit on the floor next to her bed while she rummages through her dresser and takes out several pieces of folded blue stationery. She shuffles them. She doesn’t look at me.

“These aren’t the originals,” she says, “these are copies Aunt Ellen wrote out for me. The cross outs are my mom’s, though. Apparently at the bottom of the one to us there were water marks that Ellen thinks means she was crying. Anyway, here you go.” I take the pages and perch in a patch of sunlight on the edge of her bed to read. She hovers nearby.

~

Back in the present, three days later, I orbit the envelope, still on the coffee table. When it comes to Grandma Marjorie, I’m a satellite circling a planet I will never catch but cannot release.

In the early hours while the house was quiet, I dreamt I was dying of some unnamed illness and leaving my daughter behind. There was nothing I could do to stop it. I felt myself reach for my life, my child. I felt them both slipping away. I woke in the darkness sure that I was ill, disappearing and spent the morning checking my body for the tender swollen places death might live.

I am angry with a dead woman for bringing her despair into my home. I am angry with myself for inviting it.

I have spent years building walls of safety, relegating the chaos of my childhood to tiny piles. My daughter’s life is peaceful and her joy, infectious. In our home, there is evidence of her everywhere. I want her to grow up never questioning her place in the fabric of our family, never doubting my presence or my love for her. She doesn’t know that darkness is her birthright and I have no intention of teaching her.

I imagine my mother sending me her past, trusting me to hold it so she no longer has to. My mother who has gentled, who has turned her grief and rage into a soft forgetfulness, a longing to connect, to be close; who keeps urging me to take ‘all this pain and make something beautiful’.

I pick up the envelope and turn it over in my hands. There are four sheets of paper inside— copies of the handwritten copy I read eighteen years ago— folded neatly into the pocket of a navy note card from my mother; a golden eclipsed sun and many stars that says simply, in her long, loopy script:

As promised.

Love you

sweetheart.

~

Mom: I mean, there are people who have known me for a long time that don’t know my mom committed suicide. People know Ellen about an hour and a half and they know.

Julia: Why do you think that is?

Mom: I think I would say that I’m ashamed somehow. That’s not what mothers do. That you can’t even…you know…not even for you.

~

After reading, I fold the pages and sit, holding them in my lap. I think of my daughter’s tiny body, asleep in the next room, safe in her knowledge of me. I imagine my mother as a child, suddenly motherless. I remember myself at twenty, sitting with these same pages, my mother just across a patch of sunlight. Through time and space I feel my mother look at me. I look back. We reach.

Julia Motyka

Julia Motyka is a writer, performer, and yoga teacher. She lives in NYC with her husband, two kids, and an ever-growing menagerie of animals. She’s working on a memoir and an essay collection. Occasionally she posts things @juliamotyka_me. Maybe she will tweet someday. That day is not today.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Family, healing

Neverland

June 29, 2022
art

I am wandering around inside The Quadracci Pavilion building of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the building that’s shaped like a giant cruise ship run aground. Or maybe it’s supposed to be shaped like a bird with its wings outstretched or, possibly, a beached whale, its bones bleached by the sun. I am far from home in a lakeside city loved by tourists but I am not on vacation. Instead, I have driven from southern Minnesota to Milwaukee, a drive that normally takes 5 hours but yesterday took me eleven in sleet and snow, so that I can visit my daughter. So I can bring her home.

Yesterday, as I drove the ice-covered roads, I saw car after car after semi after truck in the ditch, and was witness to an accident. I called my daughter along the way with updates, letting her know I was still coming. Letting her know I’d be there soon. But travel was slow. Too slow, it turned out. The last time I called, telling my daughter that I’d be just a little longer, she sobbed that they wouldn’t let me in late. They didn’t have adequate staffing. I missed visiting hours by 15 minutes. They would not let me see her, they would not let me in.

Had she looked out the window of her hospital-like room, she would have seen me looking up for her as I drove my Jeep to my hotel just one block away. So close yet so far. I parked my Jeep in a nearby ramp, wiped away my tears, pasted on a smile so I could present myself at the front desk. Checked in to my hotel. Found my way to the elevator. Made my way up to my room. After eleven hours on the road, bumping and sliding along, with my daughter just out of my reach every mile of the way, my body was sick from motion and emotion. Quaking in my legs. Queasy in my gut. Grieving in my heart. I set down my suitcase and the bag of things I’d packed to bring for my daughter – the soft purple quilt I made for her high school graduation, a book, her favorite lipsticks, some art supplies, a warm sweater – and then, too exhausted to get to a chair or the bed, I laid my body down on the floor.

The next morning, the treatment center staff made an exception to the “no guests at mealtime” rule because I had traveled so far, and they allowed me to join my daughter for breakfast. Arms full with my coffee and to-go breakfast and my daughter’s quilt and things, I was buzzed in and rode the elevator to reception. I signed in, was met by a staff member and told they would not let me bring in my daughter’s quilt because it’s not store bought – regulations of some sort – so I leave it in the locker with my coat, my purse, my phone. Another elevator ride. And there she was. My daughter not looking like herself. Hair buzzed short. Eyes with dark circles. Her olive skin sallow. More like a lost little girl than a woman of nearly 20 years who two months previous was traveling the world, who one week ago was attending college and living on her own.

I pulled her into my arms and kissed the top of her head. She smiled some, but cried, too. She was hesitant. Quiet when she talked. Unsure of her responses. She is not doing well. Sick. Mentally ill. Eating disorder. All sorts of words are used to describe what is going on with her but I don’t see diagnoses, I see my daughter and I can see that she is not herself. Unless this shell of herself is a new normal for her. I don’t know. I will love her no matter what state she is in – physical or mental – but now she is in a mental state that is not a good one and a physical state that is hours away and all I want to do is bring her home.

We had breakfast together. Me food from Starbucks. She a dietician-planned meal on a compartmentalized tray. She was eating fine until I brought something up that made her sad, caused her to stop. Somehow I said something else, trying my best to make it all better, and she started eating again. She finished almost all of her meal. I did, too. Then I was allowed to sit in on a meeting with her dietician and therapist. They are kind and I can tell that my daughter likes them. I wanted to talk about a plan to get her treatment closer to home so my husband and I can see her, support her, help her. But as we talked, it was made clear that this is where my daughter needs to be, that I would not be taking her home.

Meeting done, it was time for my daughter to go to programming. And time for me to leave but I did not know where to go. I took the elevator down to the mail floor. Walked out the glass doors then down the block, into the hotel. I took the elevator up to my room, dropped off Rose’s quilt, rode the elevator back down, stepped out into the cold, cold, air and started walking because I did not know what else to do. I did not know where to go.

I tried to open the door of a historic church so I could sit inside, rest and get warm –  visiting churches during our travels is something my daughter and I like to do – but the door was locked. So I started walking again. I did not know what else to do. Soon I could see the lake not far away. How far had I gone? A mile? More? I saw the art museum, its great ship or bird or whale body beached there. I decided to go there.

I walk into the labyrinthian galleries of art hoping for respite but immediately I want leave. To get out of there and go see my daughter and take her home. But visiting hours aren’t until 4:30. Hours from now. And I can’t take her home. I am wandering in the neverland of parenting a young adult who makes choices of her own. Why can’t I still be the mom who can make the decisions for my daughter who is struggling?

But I’m not. So I am here, here in the belly of the whale or the bowels of the ship or stuck in the gullet of a giant bird. There is beauty all around me but I cannot enjoy it. There are sculptures by Degas, Russell, Rodin. There are paintings by O’Keeffe, Renoir, Monet. Photographs. Pottery. Furniture. Art from long, long ago and art from recent years. My daughter would love this place. If things were different and she was here, she would wander the galleries with me, comment on the pieces of art that she adores.

I wander amongst the sculptures and paintings, wending my way through another of the art-filled rooms when I hear a low thrumming. The noise fills my ears, ebbs and flows like water lapping on a shore. Puzzled, I look around, wondering about the source. Is it the heating system thrumming in the background? That doesn’t seem right. Museums are always so quiet.

I think about what a great semester my daughter was having; she had just switched her major from Chemistry to Studio Art. She has always been an artist at heart. Just yesterday she was a little girl smiling, laughing, pointing at artwork alongside her little brother as we walked through the galleries of the museum near our home.

I continue to wander around the museum, that low and constant sound buzzing in my ears all the while I am thinking thinking of how my daughter has withdrawn from college so she can get better. Thinking of her bravery in knowing she needed help and finding it. Thinking of the struggles she’s had these past three years. Thinking of how I do not get to drive her home.

I stop in a room, the art swirling around me. The humming continues and it is only now that I have stopped that I feel the vibrations in my throat, radiating down to my heart. I am the source of the noise. I, who so often sing and hum to bring myself joy and comfort, have been moaning deep and low, a keening hum.

I begin to walk again, still humming deep and low, and notice paintings of children with their innocent smiles and portraits of mothers and daughters together. These strong young women with bright eyes and steady gazes seem to look out of their gilded frames, right at me, as though to say, “She will get through this. You will get through this.” What do they know of my daughter and her struggles? What do they know of the ache in my heart?

I’m not sure I believe them, these women captured in paint on canvas, but, as I head back outside into the cold and start the walk back to see my daughter, I decide that I must believe them, that I must cling to the hope that, yes, some day my daughter will get better. That some day she will make it back home.

Myrna CG Mibus is a writer and bookseller living in Northfield, Minnesota. She writes articles on topics ranging from aviation to afternoon tea and essays on family, motherhood, and life. Her work has been published in a variety of publications including Feminine Collective, Grown & Flown, Minneapolis StarTribune and Wanderlust Journal. When she’s not writing, Myrna enjoys baking, bicycling, gardening, reading and being mom to her two young adult children.

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Guest Posts, aging, Family

On Aging: Lessons From Mother and Grandmother

May 8, 2022
mother

By Chantal Laurie Below

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother’s further proof of it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trusting that even slightly brings a modicum of peace.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts, Marriage, moving on

In the Airport

April 15, 2022
lisa

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Si, la playa.” Clara giggled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He merely shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That must be Claire. How is she?”

“Fine—just like me.”

He didn’t mention the unmentionable.

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

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

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

“Yes, I’d like that.”

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

Guest Posts, Alcoholism, Family, Fiction

Asylum

April 8, 2022
moira

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?” Liam asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m talking about Dad.”

“That much we got,” Liam says.

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

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

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

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

“So how is he?” says Kate.

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

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

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

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

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

“Scared?” Kate says.

“He’s all alone; he’s got no one.”

“And whose fault is that?” Maggie says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he still drinking?” says Kate.

“Talk about stupid questions,” says Liam.

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

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

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

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

“Shut the fuck up,” Peter tells him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then get him a live-in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, it’s okay. I’ll go down.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she does.

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

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Guest Posts, Family, Trauma

Duality: A Generational Story of Discourse

April 7, 2022
one

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

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

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

That was all he said on the subject.

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

“Looks like a freebie,” my dad grumbled.

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

***

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

It was her favorite word, everyone remembers.

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

***&

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

duality

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

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

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change