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Family, Guest Posts

Unstuck

September 24, 2020
tub

By Sherry Shahan

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

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

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

 

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Family, Guest Posts

Tossed To Order

September 20, 2020
cassandra

By Catherine Bourassa

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

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

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

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

“Name goes at the top”

“Check off all the items you would like”

“Dressing tossed or on the side”

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

I yell

“Cassandra!”

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

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

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

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

She is not cute.

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

I said “Hold On”

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

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

“Did you order a salad or a sandwich?”

A sandwich. Why?

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

“Oh, sorry. No problem.” she said

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

She says to me with tight pursed lips

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

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

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

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

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

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Family, Guest Posts

My Disapproving Mother Unwittingly Fuels My Creative Expression

September 8, 2020
expression

 By Lisa Mae DeMasi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words penetrate the thickness.

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

Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yeah. “Girl reactivated.”

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

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

Needless to say, my mother is my outer critic.

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

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

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

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

Why should I expect anything different this Christmas Day?

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

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

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

My expression sours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing more is said on the matter.

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

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Family, Guest Posts

Only in My Imagination?

June 22, 2020
jimmy

By Jackie Bivins

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

 This is one of mine.

~~~

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

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

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

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

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

My mother was a typical housewife of the 1950s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Friday night was different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was the longest trip in the world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Upcoming events with Jen

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Family, Grief, Guest Posts

Grief, Unfolding

December 5, 2019
gift

By Julia Dennis Car

“Jo, you can’t kill Daddy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Compassion, Family, Grief, Guest Posts

I Didn’t Love Her Until The Day She Died

November 24, 2019

By Marie Prichard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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cancer, Family, Guest Posts

A Walk in the Park

November 20, 2019
bother

By K.C. Pedersen

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

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

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

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

So Luke threatened to blow my head off instead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a good cancer?” I asked.

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Divorce, Family, Guest Posts, motherhood

Coda

October 20, 2019
affair

By Erin Branning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our other children were ten, seven and three.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

“You look stupid. Take it off.”

“I’m wearing it. I like it.”

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

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

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

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

“Give it back!” he shouted at me.

“Not until you apologize.”

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

Nothing is worse than what you did.

You’re a cheater.  

A liar.

I hate you.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

 

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Guest Posts

Family Table

October 13, 2019
table

By Kat Read

This was my family table: I’d open the glove compartment and peel a small stack of paper napkins off the pile wedged inside. I’d layer them over one another on the open door and then reach into the paper bag, extract the packets of ketchup, usually three or four. I’d squeeze the foil packets onto the napkins, scraping down from the outside with my fingers pressed together. I’d jostle the fries loose onto the tray. Then I’d take the salt shaker that we kept in the glove compartment and sprinkle more salt onto the fries – we really like salt, my mom and I – and I’d hand her a fry, crisp and kissed with ketchup.

My dad did most of the cooking in our house when I was little, but he died suddenly when I was fourteen. My mom has never liked to cook. “Cooking was never an interest of mine,” she’ll say to me now, but I know that’s not the whole story. After he died, it felt ridiculous to sit and eat an elaborate dinner at our big empty dining room table, like we were performing in a play that no one was watching. Here we are, sitting down to dinner, bravely carrying on. My mom was exhausted. She worked full time, took care of me, took care of our house, all while trying to figure out how to live the rest of her life without her husband. Cooking dinner was just not a priority. I covered the table with my schoolwork and we mostly ate prepared foods and fast food.

We drove an hour and a half together in the car each day, and we’d spend the time talking about my classes, her work, our friendships. We made jokes and we listened to music and sometimes we’d stop for fries. We had our dose of family togetherness in the car, so most nights when we got home, we’d retreat to separate corners of the house. My mom would eat a frozen dinner in the kitchen and I’d sit alone in front of the tiny TV in the living room. Sometimes, I’d make myself a paper plate of nachos: a pile of Tostitos chips and pre-grated cheese melted in the microwave, the whole thing sprinkled liberally with Kosher salt that we kept in a little Pyrex bowl next to the stove. I’d peel the chips off one by one and sink into a crunchy fatty salty bliss. When I was done, I’d head into the kitchen, say hi to my mom, and wipe the plate down with a paper towel before sliding it back into its spot above the microwave. Even now, I love to make a huge plate of nachos and devour them all by myself, luxuriating in solitude.

Is that sad? I don’t know. Sometimes I think it must be, especially when I hear other people talk about their food memories from growing up. We didn’t have shelves of sauce-spattered cookbooks. I didn’t learn to cook from my mom. We didn’t sit down together at seven o’clock sharp every night for a family meal.

And yet: sometimes, we would stop at Whole Foods on the way home from school. She’d helm the cart while I skittered around the store looking at the cheeses and the fruits and the sushi. We always ended up buying the same stuff: a baguette, a slab of good butter, a jug of grapefruit juice, and two cannoli with little chocolate chips studding the ends. We’d eat the cannoli before we left the parking lot.

When we got home, we’d pour two huge glasses of juice and sit on the couch. We’d tear off chunks of bread with our hands and punch the cold butter into the crevices with the tip of a knife. We’d sit beside each other and giggle and chat and watch other people cook on America’s Test Kitchen.

I still crave the pairing sometimes, the fattiness of the butter and the acidity of the juice. It is strange and unexpected, like the life we had to make together after my dad died. But we made it work, sitting side by side, facing forward.

Kat Read is a writer in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator program, an intensive writing course based in Boston, MA. She recently published an essay on the intersection of therapy and writing on the Brevity Blog and an essay in Coastin’, a weekly arts magazine. Kat works as a fundraiser at GrubStreet and lives with her husband and their dog in Cambridge, MA.

Upcoming events with Jen

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

Family, Guest Posts, Making Shit Happen

Clearing A Landing Pad

July 29, 2019
landing

By Sarah Clayville

The clutter had won, and it wasn’t the first time.

My children and I live in a small ranch house in the sweet center of Pennsylvania. Our bedrooms are within inches of each other, and it’s an easy to race from the kitchen to the bathroom in one breath. Fewer rooms should mean less cleaning, right? Modest living and all? Yet I found myself smack dab in the middle of our family room wondering how I had managed to get there without breaking an ankle tripping over my son’s tennis sneakers or my daughter’s dolls laying askew. The scene recreated a World War II photo. In fact, we were in a war – with our things.

“Ten-minute cleanup. Let’s go,” I chirped, singing the chorus of our nightly family theme song.

The three of us scattered and tossed everything we could reach into bins and baskets. The floor was temporarily clear, but no one felt satisfied or relaxed. We all silently acknowledged the looming truth. The next day those nefarious piles of junk would be lurking, and we’d inevitably need something from the bottom of the stacks, forcing us to dislodge the mess and face our enemy anew.

I realized that this game of tug of war, both with my children and with the mess, offered no resolution other than momentary band-aids and alternating cajoling and crisis. The clutter had learned to pull the ultimate gremlin trick of multiplying. And the disorder was never resolved. I’d love to say that I’m going to teach you to become a de-cluttering wizard who finds the strength to discard half of your possessions and sequester the other half to their proper spots. But I’m not that wizard. Instead I’m a lowly apprentice who collects odds and ends because some day I firmly believe I will use them. And my children follow suit, preserving the confetti that springs from small toys or tickets stubs that could later populate a collage or school project.

And so, we found ourselves at an impasse one night when the clutter had won, everyone was grumpy, and I realized that I had to approach things differently. For myself. And for them. As a parent, nothing is quite so soul-crushing as the realization that your faults may have subtly attached themselves to your children. I retired to my bedroom, determined to beat the weight of things while avoiding sacrificing nostalgic pieces we cherished. I settled into my desk where the pens were neatly arranged by height and extra pushpins aligned to form stars and faces on my bulletin board. Sitting in this uncluttered and orderly space allowed me to tune out dirty dishes in the sink or the toilet paper roll the dog had chewed into modern art behind one of the sofas. These several feet by several feet saved me. They made a landing pad where I could touch down and breathe. And while I knew that there was no way the three of us could attain this ultimate zen space in every room, every day, I had a revelation.

We could create several landing pads in several rooms that helped us forgive the mess elsewhere.

Let’s be honest. Life is messy more often than not. Mess can even be joyful, yet emotionally draining. But landing pads would be sacred and clear. This revelation felt obvious and intuitive, but I’d never considered the strategy before. Studying my desk, I ran my hands across the wood and felt a tactile rush. I knew this game plan would be a hard sell to a teenager and a tween, especially for the eight-year-old who took pride in amassing the world’s largest collection of Barbies that all looked identical, but the analogy made sense to me. A landing pad was all anyone needed to touch down and breathe.

I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I’d also be lying if I said the process and the results didn’t change our lives.

First, we collectively decided on a few places in a few rooms. The family room sofa which tended to be everyone’s go-to nest and the space between the sofa and the television became our first landing pad. It didn’t worry us if the journey there was a little messy, but sitting down and looking ahead felt easy. Unburdened. The dining table was next, a notorious magnet for afterschool drops or weekend stacks of laundry, papers, and art projects. I translated the bigger goals into simpler statements. Modest motions. Gone were the diatribes of the importance of organization. Instead, I would run my hand from one side of the table to the other.

“We should always be able to just do this,” I said.

I even caught my children mimicking my gesture from time to time, a physical meditation as if it was clearing from our brains the cobwebs that had gathered during the day. It didn’t matter as much that the kitchen sink wasn’t empty. We had our landing pads. And soon they spread, to corners of bedrooms that became safe spots. Once, my daughter moved her things away from the dog’s bed, concerned that she wasn’t letting him enjoy his own landing pad, too.

Parenting all too often teeters on unrealistic expectations promoted by social media and our own pressure on ourselves. Add to it thousands of planners and gurus telling us that we can manage it all, balance it all, attend to it all, when not all of us can divide ourselves that way. Nor do we want to. I find myself ending each day in one of those landing zones. My favorite is still in my bedroom at my desk. There is room for tea and a magazine, pens and a notebook. Often I run my hand across the empty surface and recognize that, with the comfort of my own personal landing pad, taking off the next morning is oh so much easier.

Sarah Clayville’s work has appeared both online and in print in several dozen journals including The Threepenny Review, Mothers Always Write, and Central PA Magazine. She is a teacher and freelance editor as well as a literary editor for several journals. Sarah’s writing focuses on surviving both big and small bumps that life often throws at us.

 

Family, Guest Posts, Yoga

Yoga

May 16, 2019
father

By Rob Norman

I drove up to my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan after a very long hiatus.  I cruised along once-familiar roads and arrived at the brick-paved Wealthy Street, which back in my early days, at least in that part of town, was anything but wealthy. I stopped and looked for my father Larry’s warehouse that I had worked at for many years of my youth.  I found it, now quite clean and professional in appearance, in the center of a fully gentrified neighborhood.

The building was now occupied with a yoga studio called “From the Heart.” I walked in and checked it out.  I made plans to take a class the next morning.

I was in town to try and find one of my brothers, Steven.  Not only had we grown up in the same house, but we had slept in the same bedroom.  He had written me via text (he would not speak over the phone to me or any other family member) that his girlfriend of over three decades, Cathy, was now sick with cancer and off and on in the hospital.  I came up to Michigan to see what was happening.

Steven spent much of his days driving his bike around town, frequented the library, and God knows what else.  He had always lived at the fringe of society, never able to gain purchase on any semblance of a normal life.  As with our father, as far as I know, he never sought much-needed medical or psychiatric help and was in constant denial as to the severity of his problem.  When my mother was alive, she never seemed to know what to do to help him.  She would provide him food from the Temple Emanuel food bank where she volunteered and gave him cash whenever others gave her money. Time moved on and now he was in his late 60’s, still just as trapped as ever. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts, The Body

Her Skin, My Skin

March 29, 2019
skin

By Niyati Evers

My mother discovered she was ill a few months after I was born. The way the story was told to me many years later, my mother had sat down in her favorite lounge chair in our living room and by the time she got up, the entire chair was covered in blood and poop. She’d been too ill to look after me, too sick to breastfeed me, too weak to hold me in her arms. A few months after my birth, while my mother was in and out of the hospital and my father was working full time to provide for our family, it was my Nana who mostly took care of me.

My older brother and sister were teenagers by the time my mother died. I was the toddler who’d been left behind. A toddler with the same dark hair and the same light blue eyes as the daughter Nana had lost. Because Nana had been my surrogate mum so soon after I’d been born, when Nana lost her husband and her only child, I was all Nana had left in the world. Nana lived to be with me and I lived to be with Nana.

There was a short gravel road that led from our backyard to Nana’s back garden, so short it only took a minute to walk from our house to Nana’s. I spent time with Nana almost every day of the week but each time I went to see her I was so overcome with excitement I did not walk but ran as fast as I could. Even if I stumbled and fell and my knees were covered in little gravel stones I just got right back up and I didn’t cry because I knew that in just a few seconds I’d be back with Nana. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

Spinning: A Love Letter About Genetics, Written to My Son While He Played in the Swimming Pool

January 30, 2019
pool

By Amie Reilly

“Watch me, watch me” you yelled and in my head I started singing that pop song that came out a few years ago, the one you learned at summer camp and then taught yourself to play on the saxophone. The song wormed its way into my ears, sloshing around the same way water does after I swim.

You were spinning somersaults in the pool. Holding your nose while you did it, trying to do two in a row. I watched you (watched you, watched you), and counted your flips on one hand, the seconds you were underwater on the other. I still fear for your life the way I did when you were inside me, a fear that loomed larger after you were born and your skin stretched translucent over your skull.

There is a part of me that wishes you would stay above the water, where boy lungs belong. “I’m gonna try for three now,” you said. Your thumb and the knuckle of your pointer finger were still pinching your nose closed, the rest of your curled fingers blocked your smile. I used my hand to shield that old fool sun from my eyes. When you came up for air I clapped. Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

The Colors of Her Life

December 10, 2018
musicals

By Mackenzie Kiera

Lights.

You share two things with your dead grandmother: death and musicals. That’s all you have in common. Had. Since becoming pregnant, you’ve been thinking about her more and more. The weight of her disease falls on you, coils around your heart, tightens and reminds you of your own mortality.

You remember her easiest when you sit with Papa’s cologne bottle in the corner of your bathroom and inhale the dark pine scent—him, you miss. He was the grandparent you visited and called and loved. You were the granddaughter he doted on, bought ice cream for, took to UCLA to see Shakespeare, picked you up from school if you were sick and Mom couldn’t get you.

Her? She was in the background with rules. Things you couldn’t play with. Cabinets you weren’t allowed to open, soft drinks that were hers and hers alone. She always had dark chocolate ice-cream bars, salted potatoes chips, baby carrots and ripe, cherry tomatoes. String cheese. Tiny sandwiches. You’d watch as she spread the mayo on her sourdough bread thinly, gave it some lettuce, turkey and a slice of white precut cheese. Things she could just grab and never binge on, but sometimes she would just need something. Continue Reading…