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Guest Posts, memories, Trauma

Beyond The Haunting

August 17, 2021
trauma

by Micah Stover

My favorite auntie told me when I was little to be careful. She said it with a wink, but I knew it was a warning. She told me not to be scared of boys. That really the girls are the powerful ones because we know things. But knowing things can be dangerous.

*

Trauma spreads through my bloodlines like bamboo, strong and supple. Sometimes dressed as madness. Sometimes addiction. Sometimes violence. It wears many faces and has many names, but mostly it lies hidden with everything evocative of shame.

It took me years and much work to understand that inside everything labeled as trauma rests a jewel – a seeing, a knowing, a power. Intuition is the key that unlocks that house of divinity. Inside that house, there is no battle for control. There is only truth and clarity. Inside that house, I sleep like a baby and walk like a warrior in tune with the earth. Inside that house, my life is my own and I understood it to be a gift, not a curse.

*

This was the truth as it was revealed to me under the elixir of the great mycelium and her perfect, little flowering body. How little I understood about this vast, robust network under the soil, communicating, connecting, severing, mending, ending and beginning. Everything. All of life held clearly here in the womb of nature where she spreads and pulses her rhythms out into the world, like a woman in labor contracting with life and possibilities. My aunties were midwives. They knew all these things and whispered them in my ears.

When the psilocybin carried me down into the dirt, into the center of all that is living, she showed me the intricate weave of my ancestors. In a voice familiar, loving and firm, she insisted my self-concept deconstruct. She repeated this over and over again, until it was all I knew. Until my ego completely dissolved returning me to the earth from which I’d come. Then it became clear how subservience and humility rendered so little space for agency. How rage filled in the spaces where potential might otherwise have been.

I saw myself inside the construct of time and generations, chasing the truth like an elusive thread. I was the canary in the coal mine of my lineage, my karmic inheritance clear. I’d come to sing a song, to seek and speak the truth where all the other women before me had been silenced. I grabbed this thread woven into the essence of me, and I started to work.

Deep down in the belly of the earth it was apparent how much had been hidden and buried in the small cemetery with dilapidated fence and hand carved tombstones, sitting just behind Grandma’s old farmhouse.  The garden, fertile and ripe, with succulent tomatoes popping off the vine, tasting more like a fruit than a vegetable as they toppled like offerings onto the graves. Death and life juxtaposed, swirling together in the soil, side by side. The lush and loss represented in equal measure. My cousin commanded the four-wheeler like a master at age eleven while I clung to his waist, pink frock and blonde curls trailing in the wind. A small shiver on my spine as we whizzed past the stretch of cemetery where all the spirits moaned and grasped at my ankles.

Etched in the family code was reverence to a severe god who required we reject our desires and curiosities. Feeling sorry was inherent to being conscious. I was raised in this context to speak earnestly but in code, to tell half-truths and leave the rest behind. I was taught to live my life as an apology and required to subvert my power in attempt to find a place in a world that was not ever mine.

*

I never met Cecil, my paternal grandfather, though he visits sometimes in my sleep. He was dead before I came along, buried in that cemetery out back. My grandmother visited him daily, loyal beyond time to a man she loved almost as deeply as she despised. His stories linger large even after all this time. Charismatic and unhinged, he was prone to episodic drunken outbursts before the war. His body returned, but not his spirit. His spirit was a casualty into the wasteland of unresolved PTSD. He returned taunting death, begging for an escape that would stick. When he was almost fifty, the doctor came to unplug the machines keeping his barely breathing body alive. The black cancer had spread to his lungs from his heart leaving the entire chest cavity a shadow. He left behind lots of babies and a teenage wife who couldn’t drive or read.

He is the dark man I see sometimes in my dreams, appearing like a hunter, seeking me out. Initially his shadow evoked a shiver, but these days, he wanes and turns to walk before running away. My body in this dream is also black, more iridescent than dark or opaque. I move lithe, strong and equally foreboding, approaching him dead on. I am a large, sensual cat in the twilight. I am not here to hunt. I have come to protect and preserve myself, my cubs, the lineage that is now mine. I’ve come to retrieve something sacred and pure from a black hole of ancestral pain.

For a moment, Cecil and my eyes meet, and an inexplicable recalibration transpires with our gaze locked. We remain transfixed until his black shadow shrinks to the size of a small boy far more frightened of me than I of him. His spirit begins to pulse little specks of red blood from a heart that used to beat. Cecil had come all this way for salvation, not conquest. Salvation was not mine to give, but there was something universal I could offer him. I could tell him he’s forgiven. As a mother, learning to soothe a scared little boy, out of control, I said simply: “You’re safe now. The struggle is done.”

It turns out my canary song was more a lullaby than a cry for help. All I needed to do was let love loom larger than fear and replace caution with courage.

*

Cecil raised Richard, my father, third of eight kids born into poverty and chaos. In the back hills of Tennessee where my father was raised, his pedigree was well known. Because there were so many of them and because their charisma and epic feuds ricocheted through the corn fields, nothing was really secret. The shotgun rang out like a sheet of music to accompany the family score. Richard was raised by ghosts, damaged spirits above and below the earth.

He made his way out of the wreckage by identifying two goals – stay sober and make money. His money created a different life for me than he had known. Though his sobriety did not. He still lived from the haunted place that devoured love and left another kind of scarcity in its wake.

*

Richard’s goals were well set before he met my mother. My mother was equally smart in different ways – an intellectual, not a survivalist. No trauma swirled inside her. By contrast, her idyllic childhood left her with no sense of all that could possibly go wrong.

They bore me not from rage, but neither from clear intent. Love can also lend accidental objects. This was my predicament, nestled between a mother who wanted a baby and father who was terrified of passing on his pain. His rejection of me was also a matter of his love, a deep desire not to hurt me as he’d been hurt. I understand this knee jerk response better now as a mother myself. Though as a girl what I felt most was loneliness, stuck in the landmine between them, their squabbles and projections. Their unconsciousness, almost my inheritance.

The child me needed a bad guy and a good guy. Someone to be angry at and someone to save. The adult me understands what the child could not. A woman without voice and boundaries will always believe she needs someone other than herself.  And a little boy longing to be loved will raise a little girl in search of the same. The adult me now knows I was always enough, and they did the best they could. There are no binaries.

Trauma does many things. It cultivates your intuition, your ability to read people and the environment. It leaves you lonely, but never bored. It makes you resourceful and creative, albeit potentially and periodically manic. It gives you stories to tell, if you can find the courage to tell them. My sons gave me cause to bury the ghosts, to find a way to turn tragedy to triumph, to work with the pain rather than resist it.

I’m not the same kind of midwife my aunties were. But I’ve learned how to birth certain things. How to take hurt and transmute it into something different. How to take bitter and make it sweet. How to find the little overlap where shame and blame give way to empathy and forgiveness.

The tiniest voice buried deep inside me had much to say and was not so tiny after all. A tickle in the way back of my throat, followed by something that felt like choking. Ancestral hands constricting the airways, begging not to be shamed. Then something that was half cough, half growl, barreled forward from the depths and what came out was my life. A story about moving from pious to righteous. A story being rewritten in real time.

Raised by evangelicals on a farm in rural Tennessee, Micah Stover is now far from home in Mexico where she resides with her family and works as an integrative support therapist with trauma survivors. Micah is currently writing and revising a memoir, chronicling the path to heal intergenerational trauma and PTSD with MDMA, psilocybin and guided psychotherapy.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Guest Posts, memories

Four Shots: Looking for Signs of a Life

August 14, 2021
white

by Suzanne Orrell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, memories, Trauma

My Body Remembers What I Don’t

August 3, 2021
mother

by Meredith Resnick

I am six. I am standing on the cement pool deck behind our brick apartment building in Yonkers. A sticky day in August. My body is wet. The pool is blue. The sky is gray. It is a weekday. All the mothers are lined up on woven beach chairs in a row that spans the chain link fence. All the mothers except my mother. There is a break between her and the other mothers. No chairs, no towels, just gray cement.

I stand in front of her in a pink bathing suit. My ribs stick out like a xylophone. I cradle my fingers between my ribs. She tells me to stop. You look insecure, she says, and lights a cigarette. I don’t know what insecure means but I stop. I shiver. She has called me out of the pool to put on a t-shirt to wear in the water because you can get a sunburn on overcast days. This is before we know that t-shirts in the water can make a sunburn worse. This is before we know a lot of things. Before I know a lot of things.

My mother hides behind large sunglasses. She wears a black and white bathing suit. She smokes. She pulls a towel over her squishy thighs. She hates her cellulite. She hates her body. She flicks ashes into a Fresca can and slides the lipstick-marked butt after it. I hear it sizzle. She lights another. I slip the t-shirt over my wet hair, over my pink shoulders. Good, she says. I can’t tell if she is looking at me.

My feet slap the cement. I’m back at the pool. I squat on the steps in the shallow end then let my body glide through the water until my feet no longer stretch for the bottom. The water holds me. It wants to hold me. It teaches me to swim. This part is easy. I float. I touch the bottom. I buoy to the surface. I hold my breath.

One year ago I knew without knowing that I must teach myself to swim. I don’t know what that meant until years later and I am an adult. I don’t know what a lot of things mean until years later. There is a large gap in my knowledge of things that a daughter should understand.

I learn to swim by gulping air and holding my breath. I look like other children splashing in the water, trying to learn.

My mother does not look like other mothers sitting on the deck.

For a reason I don’t understand, I am afraid she will abandon me. This happens when I’m in the water, always when I’m skimming the bottom of the pool, furthest from the surface, from her. I force myself to count. To not panic. One to ten. Ten to twenty. The longer I wait the more my panic grows. I am frantic. I burst from shallow depths in my t-shirt and search for her. Scan the long line of mothers. But she is not like other mothers. She sits alone in the corner, with her cigarettes, after the gap and I forget, I always forget.

When I wave she waves back, a limp hand in my direction. She blows smoke into the summer air.

As if on cue the other mothers rise from their chaises and lower into the pool like some synchronized dance they all know. In the water, all around me, mothers with black hair and brown hair and blond hair or hair tucked beneath flower bathing caps pull their children in slow circles around their thighs, even the kids bigger than me. Through my chlorine-stung eyes, mother and child are one.

Except.

This time I look for the red hair and the orange tip of the lit cigarette. I push up the edge of the pool and run to her, then run back to the edge and scoop the water up with my hands and dumped it over my head.  I don’t know why or what I am doing. My mother blows more smoke. She laughs.  She laughs so hard I think she might cry.  She laughs so hard she tells me to stop.  I don’t stop. I wave to her. Silly excited waving.  Simmer-down excited.

“Enough already,” she says, cigarette between her teeth. I stop. I stand there. I want to hug her. I don’t hug her. She doesn’t like me to touch her. I turn and jump into the water and swim in this vast sea, warm water touching every part of me except what is beneath the t-shirt. That part feels cold. That I want to wrap my arms around her too tight, and sit too close, and touch her arm or leg is normal. This must mean there is something wrong with me or with my body where the t-shirt touches. She is the mother; there is nothing wrong with her. But I don’t know that yet. There is so much I don’t yet know.

I peel off my t-shirt. I will get another sunburn. I let the water hold all of me.

***

I am thirty-three. I am meticulous about birth control.  About preparing my diaphragm. When I use the foams, creams, and jellies, and the doughy sponges that never stay put.  I lay in bed and watch my husband don the prophylactics, the Trojans that stick like glue, wrapped in the knowledge that as two mature responsible adults who are learning to grow together, we will know when it is time, when it is right, to grow our family.

My interior universe already knows no sign, time, or alarm clock exists. I don’t long for a baby who melts into me, who captures my hair between her fingers. I long to be the type of woman who does. I don’t fantasize about a real baby I can love, or dream of pregnancy the way some women do.  I never stuck a pillow beneath my dress as a child and pretended I was pregnant.  But I do now, as an adult.

I act “as if.”

I act.

I try.

I am trying.

I wonder if there is something wrong with me.

I am seven.  My mother and I are in the den on the couch. Raindrops ping the air conditioner perched on the windowsill. It is morning. It is Christmas vacation. It is going to be a boring day.  On her side, face creased into the pillow, my mother lights a cigarette.  Her doughy legs fold into an L; the fetal position. Freckles, our miniature poodle, crawls into their right angle.

“Can we get a Christmas tree?”

“We are Jewish,” my mother says. Smoke streams into the air.

“Can we get a crèche?” It is a serious word. I understand serious words. I say I will take care of the baby Jesus all year, and that he can be a child for my Barbie doll. They will live in the crèche. My mother says Barbie doesn’t have a husband, is too young to have a baby, and that even if Joseph were the father, it wouldn’t be nice to leave Mary out and besides, the Baby Jesus doesn’t look like a Barbie would be his mother.

The girl who lives next door has a cross over the side of her bed at pillow height. In the middle of the night when she’s scared, Jesus makes her feel safe. It’s her secret with Jesus. This cross is made of wood and Jesus is nailed to it. The nails stick out of his palms, their flat tops painted red. His face is so sad. I wonder what Jesus was like as a boy. Did he like milk? Did he get scared? When I get scared I crawl into my parents’ bed. Fear and safety are how I feel close to them.

“I touch his feet every night. Want to touch them?”

“No,” I say.

“Because you’re Jewish?”

“Because he looks so sad.” Because he looks like my mother.

“He’s not sad,” she says, hands on hips.

I don’t answer. She leads me into the living room. Beneath the Christmas tree is a crèche. My friend hands me the baby. “That’s the same Jesus,” she says. “In case you didn’t know.”

“I know.” I cradle him in my palm.

I ask my mother to tell me the story of how I was born. We are on the high riser, in the den.

She lights a cigarette.

“I missed my period.”

I slide my foot across the cushion. I want to touch my mother in such a way so she doesn’t notice. It will be my secret. So slowly, like my foot is the medium from the Ouija board I got for my birthday. I move against my will but every bit my will, toward my mother’s leg.

“We brought you home and I put you in an infant seat, propped a bottle against a balled-up receiving blanket, and watched you drink it from across the room.”

I hate when she tells me about her period.  And when she says she never held me.  That she hated feeding me.  Was afraid she’d drop me.

I look down into my lap then I look at her, smile. “But are you glad you had me?”

I don’t know that this is not a question all children ask.

My parents are older than other parents. I am only in second grade but I’ve already vowed to never be that old when I become a mother. In real life, my parents are not so much old, they just seem old—she is 42 when I am born in 1961, and my father is about to turn 44.  I know my father always with gray hair, a bad back, and perpetual cancer that warrants lengthy hospital stays, and my mother with wrinkled skin, few teeth save for her silver bridges, and leg cramps that leave her toes curled like fists.  My sister is 21 years older than me, and my brother 18 years older, and look more like the parents of kids my age. “That lady,” friends say, pointing to my mother, “looks like a grandmother.”

My mother exhales smoke. “I would never have an abortion.”

I have looked up this word. This word is in the grown-up dictionary, not in my children’s illustrated dictionary. I have checked.

“But you were our change of life baby. A great big surprise.”

She moves. The dog scurries. I can’t get my foot to touch her leg fast enough before she sits up.

Secretly I worry that my lack of desire to have a baby, to be pregnant, to carry a child indicate something fundamentally wrong with me.  I’m afraid I’ve inherited my mother’s lack of baby desire and maternal instinct.  That in some odd twist my own mothering instinct was tweaked in her womb.  It seeps from my pores, a disease that takes generations to cure.  But mine is not the generation for such miracles.  Babies, with hands like rose petals and toes like creamy pebbles, are natural.  My lack of maternal instinct—or maybe it is my mother herself?— is not.

***

The year my husband I adopt our daughters—two sisters, Russian, who are ten and thirteen when they come to us—I find the mirror I’d given my mother on her birthday long ago. She is eighty now. I’m thirty-eight. I’m packing her things. She can no longer live alone. Dementia has changed her. Softened her. She gazes at me sometimes.

But now my mother sleeps and I hold the frame. The metal warms in my fingers. The green patina features a slender silhouette, a metal woman peering back at herself in the mirror. I’d chosen this mirror for reasons I did not understand until now. To hold my mother’s gaze was like trying to balancing a gyroscope on the tip of your finger at the bottom of the ocean. This embellishment, this expressionless woman, was the face I’d memorized. It was all I ever saw because it was all she showed me.

For some there is the urge to develop. To move beyond. But for me, developing means deepening. My body remembers. It has become a kind of appendix that has collected the bits and pieces of my girlhood. Its captured the outlying events that inform but don’t define the story arc of me. What has deepened me has also wounded me, and the person who wouldn’t touch me may well have also loved me in their very particular way. These footnotes and asterisks about someone else also comprise the main narrative of mine, and sometimes it can be difficult to explain and understand. How could your mother have been like that? You’re nothing like that. I didn’t inherited my mother’s lack of desire or her inability to love. I am still trying to understand why that feels like a transgression.

So what happened; what really happened? It all happened. I won’t say that I raised myself. But, rather, that something larger than myself, than my mother, than any of us whispered in my ear to keep going. I never feel alone and yet, in many ways, I always feel alone.

And that is okay.

I am okay.

When you become a mother you become acquainted with the rights others take in telling you what motherhood is or, rather, what it should be. This goes for daughterhood, too. These are binaries, though, eithers and ors that appoint shame and pity to the ones who cannot give, and the others who don’t have something to receive. This fault line demands not a choice of one or the other but, rather, falling backwards into the depths and darkness. That is where you become. From this you emerge. This is what I’ve learned. To find myself there, no longer unseen.

 

Meredith Gordon Resnick’s* work appears in the Washington Post, JAMA, Psychology Today, Lilith, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Motherwell, Literary Mama, and the Santa Monica Review. Meredith is creator of the Shame Recovery Project, work devoted to healing the unwarranted shame of sexual (and other) traumas, and founder of The Writer’s [Inner] Journey, an award-winning site about the intersection of writing, creativity and depth. She is co-author of All the Love: Healing Your Heart and Finding Meaning After Pregnancy Loss. 

*Her work also appears under Meredith Gordon and Meredith Resnick.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Marriage, memories

The Summer We All Got Married

July 31, 2021
wedding

by Larkin Warren

Eight of us were wed that summer of 1981. Each of the four engagements had come about during the previous bone-crackingly cold New Hampshire winter, although I’d like to believe that all the troth-pledging was more about love and joy than the need for warmth in icy weather.

We lived then in a university community, where marriage itself was subject to flinty-eyed skepticism—three of us eight to-be-marrieds were divorced, with kids in tow and wedding albums long lost in an attic or cellar. Nevertheless, as mud season passed and the lilacs appeared, we all prepared to take a plunge that seemed to grow ever more traditional as the days went by. Gathering on weekends, we ate pints of strawberries, pounds of brie, drank more Champagne than was customary on a teacher’s salary, agonized over venues and budgets, and complained, of course, about our parents—because what’s a march towards a wedding without that?

Coincidentally, another couple, first-timers both, planned a similar event. Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s wedding would be larger, certainly, than all four of ours combined; her engagement ring big as a Volkswagon headlight, the invitation list and seating chart more complicated than the annual gathering of the UN General Assembly. We guessed that Diana’s and Charles’ whole coping-with-the-parents thing resembled rolling a large power mower over a hornets’ nest. We tried to envision the monogrammed thank-you notes, the writer’s cramp. “Ha!” somebody grumped. “Not likely she’s writing them herself!”

Whether Royalists, Fenians, or flat-out cynics, we refused to begrudge them the royal circus and the related hoopla. We were all determined not to be cynical that summer. They were in love, we were in love—and when you’re sufficiently love-addled, Frank Sinatra is forever crooning in the background, every sunset is peach perfection, and it’s an easy if somewhat wacky leap to emotional kinship with the future King and Queen of England.

By the day of the royal wedding, our own four weddings had been achieved. All our kids were in embarrassment recovery and all the wedding-cake tops (two organic from a local farm store, one eight-layered from a fancy caterer, one Mom-made) were stashed in fridge freezers, to be thawed and eaten at the first anniversaries. And so it was that on July 29, each new married couple, bleary-eyed and feeling more than a little sheepish, rose at dawn, fired up the coffee and joined teams of gushing TV network anchors and the billion other guests at the Spencer/Windsor wedding.

Feminism, pragmatism, and reality checks notwithstanding, it was difficult at first not to think in fairy tale terms as the veiled girl, swathed in an acre of virginal silk, arrived in the golden coach, glanced shyly up at her prince, and Bach rang throughout the cathedral; we were, after all, the first generation of Disney-movie kids, brought up on princes, princesses, and happily ever after, even if Ms magazine and Our Bodies Ourselves sat on the bookshelf next to a Virginia Woolf novel and somebody’s dissertation on the various psychoses in Grimms’ fairy tales.

It did occur to me, however, that if we dropped a nickel into the piggy bank every time a commentator actually used the words “fairy tale,” we might make a sizable dent in my son’s tuition savings account. “Why doesn’t he just grab her and kiss her?” asked said son with a medium measure of disgust, having witnessed many other silly grownups do precisely that for weeks.

A month or so later, my husband’s parents returned from a vacation trip to the UK with gold-trimmed souvenir royal wedding cups, one for my sister-in-law, one for me. I kept mine on the kitchen counter for a while, ceremoniously using it whenever I drank tea, silently begging forgiveness of my paternal grandmother, who’d secretly funneled her pension money to the Irish Republican Army. My sister-in-law used hers briefly as well, then stowed it away for safety after her two kids were born.

By the time little princes Wills and Harry were making shiny appearances in People magazine, our Summer of ‘81 group numbered three babies, two divorces, a few rounds of infertility treatments and a couple of complicated midlife career adjustments. At that point—pre-internet, pre-social media, pre-cell-phone cams in every hand around the world—we didn’t know about the mistress, the affairs, the drama worthy of Bizet’s Carmen. We didn’t know that Diana had flung herself down a flight of stairs in a bid for Charles’ attention, although one or two of us might’ve understood. I surveyed my own castle—eggy dishes in the sink, two dogs who ate shoes as if they were kibble, the husband who worked all hours, and the moody adolescent who painted Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon album cover on his bedroom wall—the entire bedroom wall. “A lady in waiting would be nice,” I muttered.

Time kept passing. Parents aged and died. Kids grew up, friends moved away. Somebody’s son flunked out of college, another joined the Navy, a daughter eloped. Soon, we were all linked only by Christmas cards with ever-changing zip codes. Somewhere in there, the UK fairytale went all to hell.

On the last day of August 1997, the Princess of Wales and two others in her car died in an automobile crash whose grisliness was surpassed only by its agonizing stupidity: the drunk limo driver, the frenzied pack of paparazzi, the dying woman pinned like a butterfly in a shadow box.

A week later, I once again rose at dawn, heading for the television and feeling grim. For breakfast, I ate an entire box of Peek Frean lemon biscuits (with the “by Royal appointment” seal on the box), and drank Earl Grey in the gold-trimmed wedding cup. I don’t even like Earl Grey, and I had no doubt my IRA Granny spun in her grave. There again was the cathedral and the soaring music. Some of the faces were recognizable, all of them were older. “I thought I’d feel like an idiot watching this,” said my husband, who joined my vigil late and under protest. “But I don’t. I’m actually sad.” We both agreed that Sir Elton John could’ve used a couple of second thoughts.

That afternoon, my sister-in-law called, tired and teary. “I stumbled all over the place in the cellar this morning,” she said, “hunting for that damn teacup. Scraped my shins on every toy my kids have ever owned.”

I told her about her brother’s unexpected sadness, about my lemon-biscuit breakfast. We tried to figure out what it was that we were feeling, why someone and something that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with us seemed, suddenly, to have everything to do with us. For her, a mother of very young children, it was the unimaginable sorrow of two boys walking behind their mother’s coffin. For me, it seemed somehow about the sun-burnished wedding summer, the strawberries and champagne, the blind hope and optimism, and the friends whose lives and loves we had shared. We’d made promises. Mostly, we’d kept them “The odd thing is, I think I feel grateful,” I said.

“Me, too,” she said. “For the junk in the cellar. The dirty laundry. Even the old Barney videos.”

How often, in the frayed ribbon of a lifetime, do lovers and friends, husbands and wives, parents and kids, do wrong, disappoint, betray, yet somehow manage to start over? What’s the score now, as we pass another anniversary and roll however clumsily towards the next? My son, when he was little, had a term for the number of stars in the sky: “infinity many.”

“Most of all,” said my sister-in-law that long ago morning, in a very soft voice, “I’m just thankful for my completely ordinary life.”

Larkin Warren lives in northern NH. She has collaborated on six-and-a-half memoirs, is writing one of her own, and her poetry’s been published in Mississpipi Review, Ohio Review, Yankee magazine, Slow Motion Review (NYU), Quarterly West and others, She is currently owned by a mini Aussie shepherd rescued from a NYC kill shelter. Her poetry chapbook, Old Sheets, was published by Alice James books (Farmington, Maine) in the previous century. Her essays have appeared in New York Times magazine, NYTimes op-ed page, AARP magazine, Esquire, Good Housekeeping, Glamour, Salon,  and others.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the story is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, Home, memories

The House of Two Years

July 28, 2021
house

by AnnMarie Roselli

Vito and Carmella defied age in such a way that pretending they’d live forever was easy. My parents were entering year two in a house I’d badgered dad into buying. Sort of. It had taken years of imploring him to sell their big home in Pennsylvania—a lake house with a steep gravel driveway, too many decks, and tremendous upkeep. Though mom relished living on the water and her morning swims, she’d been ready to relocate for some time. In the end, it was more dad’s age that bullied him into buying the townhouse eight minutes from my home in Orange County, New York. And, as in every previous home, mom’s brilliant smile would burn away the dark spots created by dad and his unequivocally fierce temper—a temper that often let loose above his otherwise contemplative nature.

Before my parents moved into the house in Pennsylvania, they’d lived in many other houses. Our family home in northern New Jersey was a ranch-style house which harbored room to run, but never enough rooms to hide in. There were years that ranch turned silent at 6 p.m. when dad walked through the front door after a long day in New York City. Those same years I tried sneaking peeks at the FBI-issue weapon holstered at his hip before he stashed it away. During intolerable adolescent spans, table setting and dinner cleanups pervaded our lives. Years of sweating out report cards and awkward boyfriend introductions passed inside those busy kitchen walls. There were endless Saturdays of facing mom’s chore list written on yellow legal paper. And every second weekend of the month, dad’s big fist slammed the kitchen table because mom forgot to record a few checks into the checkbook log. There were weeks we learned how to ride bicycles and months we learned how to parallel park. Sunday services and bargaining with mom every Christmas Eve to avoid midnight mass were predictable occurrences. And for two decades, despite dad’s mad roaring, a parade of boisterous relatives and happy celebrations arrived.

Before settling in New Jersey, where our youngest brother was born, we’d been a family on the move. As a new agent, dad went where instructed and his young family followed. There was a different house in a different place for five of mom’s six pregnancies. After I was born—daughter no. three, we moved to Monterey, California for six months so dad could learn Sicilian at the Berlitz school. He mapped the way west to east with each move finding a suitable home for our arrival. Often pregnant during relocations, mom moved with bodacious purpose. Any complaints she may have had melted in the fire of her spectacular smile—a smile, I’d grow to unabashedly compare to the occasional comet.

My parents chose Pennsylvania after the New Jersey nest emptied. They pinpointed the area closest to where their first grandchildren would be born. In Lake Ariel, Pennsylvania, dad and mom blueprinted and built their new home and their new life. They embarked on intercontinental adventures, visited their Italian relatives, accessed highways to spend time with family, friends, and took in Manhattan—their birthplace. For eighteen years, they appreciated waking to a rippling sunrise over the boat dock in their backyard.

At eighty-four years of age, dad finally agreed to sell their home in Lake Ariel, and to relocate closer to me. Once settled in New York, mom, with the smile of sunshine and voice of song, filled the townhouse with life. She doted on her children and grandchildren. She filled most days of their social calendar with traveling and entertaining. She was a voracious reader and taught conversational Italian at the local library. She participated in morning exercise classes and walked with neighbors. I even picked her up several days a week to go swimming at the YWCA. Wherever she went—Carmella, now eighty, was affectionately called Millie.

Most mornings, my visits to mom and dad’s townhome required descending their basement stairs where I’d find dad madly pedaling on his exercise bike. He’d offer me a goofy grin and continue pedaling amidst an ocean of balled white. Since his nose had taken to excessive dripping, he often dispatched tissue artillery. He biked to Latin rhythms, Dean Martin, and Tony Bennett. A stalwart son of Italian immigrants, he didn’t care for Frank Sinatra because, according to him, Sinatra didn’t sing enough Neapolitan songs. Dad enjoyed recounting his many childhood tales—one favorite was working on papa’s ice truck at the tender age of seven. He danced to Glen Miller at weddings and nurtured a lifelong crush on Lena Horne. He traveled alongside mom and their social calendar. And like mom, he was a voracious reader. Several times a month he drove his convertible Mustang from New York to a Pennsylvania casino to best poker players sixty years his junior, all with the gumption and grit of a man named Vito.

One day, I entered the house of two years to find an oversized lawn bag sitting near the entrance. It was bulging with retired files, FBI magazines, Hemming’s Motor News, and used legal pads. I used my entire body to drag the bag out the door and heave it into the garbage can. Dad, who was planning to use his hand truck, reprimanded me for risking my back health. A week after a lawn bag, filled with items kept for decades, was discarded, I watched a paramedic team struggle  to revive an eighty-six-year-old man who’d died in his sleep. The medics didn’t know this man. If there was any way for that iron-willed figure to go upright, he’d have done so. As dad’s body bounced beneath resuscitation equipment for nearly an hour, I could hear him yelling that very morning because the water heater had broken.

Mom didn’t want to live in the townhouse without dad. Before she officially moved into my home, the woman who never blocked dying in on her brightly filled calendar pages suffered a major stroke. My eight-minute drive across town became a 50-minute drive to a New Jersey rehab. While mom was there, the contents of her townhome was emptied—furniture, dishes, clocks, and framed memories were passed down. The house of two years sold in one week’s time. After six months of rehab, mom was transported to my home to live in a room retro-fit with medical equipment. Much as we all tried, much as mom’s star-studded smile never waned, she never improved, and after a year, the gut-wrenching decision was made to move her into a long-term nursing facility.

It was nearing the year and a half anniversary of the nursing home I was always anxious to reach when the pandemic arrived. Covid restrictions placed me outside her window where I could still see the brilliant smile she offered every day until she was no longer able. Mom smiled through nearly a year of window visits, glass embraces, and drive-thru coffee hand-delivered by aides or security guards. She contracted Covid mid-December and died beneath her last roof several weeks later.

I find myself trying to remember the many homes I’ve lived in. Whenever I attempt to summon the print of a wallpaper or the fruit bowl on a kitchen table, the handsome faces of my parents sitting down to pasta Sundays appear. I feel mom’s smile and hear her singing Ave Maria. I sense dad’s piercing eyes and see his exercise bike grin. I remember a father and mother who cherished family and friends. I recall two people who embraced life and lived it well. Now that my own children are grown, my husband and I are selling our house of 18 years to find a smaller place to call home. I pray that our daughter and son remember with fondness each imperfect home that love built to keep them safe.

AnnMarie Roselli is a writer and artist living in Hudson Valley, New York. Her writing has appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Barren Magazine, Cagibi, 5×5 Literary Magazine, and others. Her collection of illustrated poetry, Love of the Monster, was published in 2016. Follow her online at www.anntogether.com.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the narrative is raw and beautiful. We are big fans of Rene Denfeld. Her advocacy and her creativity are inspiring. Check out our Rene Denfeld Archive.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Guest Posts, Home, memories

Memory and Loss Where a House Once Stood

July 20, 2021
house

By Gina Coplon-Newfield

My mother texted me a photo of an unfamiliar house. When I recognized the slope of the hill, I gasped with realization. My modest childhood home was gone, replaced by a McMansion.

I haven’t lived in that house for 27 years. I wish I could better trust the reliability of my memories from inside it, but I know which memories are from before and after grief moved in.

I can picture my father at our dining room table pouring over maps, trying to determine the perfect driving routes for our national park vacations. There too, he paid the bills and created my soccer team line-up. He grew up in rural Georgia in the 1950s where soccer was an unfamiliar sport, so coaching girls’ soccer in suburban Boston in the 1980s was something he studied like a new language.

I recall one dinner when my sister and I, at ages two and five, were laughing at the silly names we were brainstorming for our new puppy. My mother exclaimed with her pointer finger skyward, “That’s it, Feathers! Golden retrievers have hair like feathers.” But it’s possible I remember it that way because my mom often makes exuberant exclamations, or I’ve seen a photo of us in the kitchen that morphed into that memory.

I can summon a scene –like a movie- of Feathers sneaking into the living room, taking my dad’s wallet from the table, chewing it to bits, and looking sheepishly at my dad when he entered the room. My dad started yelling at her, but then he stopped, having realized she was just a puppy, and took her for a walk. Or at least, years later, that’s the way I told my children that story over and over when they were little. They loved hearing it. Had it really happened that way?

Memory is a curious thing.

I can picture myself at 14, struggling through a math assignment at the kitchen table. My dad urged me to approach it one section at a time rather than get overwhelmed by the entirety. I interpreted this as not just a logistical way to think, but also a calming way to feel about what I needed to accomplish. One step at a time, I tell myself regularly even now in my 40s when I’m facing a difficult work project or just staring down a mountain of dirty dishes. My dad was a psychiatrist. He likely often repeated this kind of guidance, but for some reason, I only remember him sharing it this one time.

My dad died of a sudden heart attack at age 47. My sister, age 12, and I at 15 were at sleep-away camp. Our mom shared the grim news with us in the camp owner’s living room. We screamed in horror.

When we returned home, the house felt completely different. On my dad’s bedside table, I saw Night, Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir. I wondered if he had read it on my recommendation and what he thought of it. I realized I’d never get to discuss the book -or anything- with him again.

I can picture my paternal grandmother lumbering up our steps that day. I thought this is what a broken person looks like.

After the funeral, I was sitting in my bedroom with an older cousin on my dad’s side who said, “Your dad was the glue that held our family together.” I remember thinking this was the new kind of grown-up conversation I’d need to get used to having.

That week when family and friends poured into our house with food, and our rabbi led nightly services in our living room, I learned that the Hebrew mourner’s kaddish prayer actually doesn’t mention death. Rather, it describes our belief in an awesome God that makes life possible. Learning this made me feel like life was more powerful than death. Reciting the prayer felt like a small act of resistance, like I wasn’t going to let death win.

In the years that followed, the absence of my father felt like a presence just as formidable as a living person. There my dad was not at our dinner table making corny jokes. There he was not sharing the gratification of me making the varsity soccer team after his years of coaching. There he was not sitting with my mom at the edge of my bed looking at college brochures. There he was at bedtime not saying “love ya” in his southern twang. This absence of him made our house feel heavy.

The walls of my childhood home did go on to contain some joyful memories during this after period. Close friends often slept over, and we talked into the night. On my 18th birthday, my mom made me a cake topped with icing in the shape of a ballot box. At 19, I brought home my college boyfriend –now husband of 21 years. My mom likes to recount how I was trying to leave, but he said, “No, let’s have a cup of tea with your mom.” Kiss-ass.

There are countless experiences that occurred inside that house –wonderful, terrible, and mundane– that I will never remember.

In my twenties, my mom sold the house and moved to Boston with Bob, the kind man who would become her new husband.

In my thirties, I became a mom. We named our first daughter Farah, choosing the “F” in honor of my dad Fredric. When Farah’s younger sister Dori was a toddler, I was once telling her a light-hearted story about my father –perhaps the one about Feathers eating his wallet– and Dori burst out crying. She sobbed it wasn’t fair that I got to know my dad, but she never did. I was amazed that my daughter felt so strongly the loss of a relationship she never had.

When I turned 40, my high school friend Abbie flew in from Michigan to surprise me. We drove the twenty-five minutes from Cambridge, where I live now, to Lexington where we knocked on the door of my childhood home. Farah, then nine, came along. No one answered the door when we knocked, but I felt comfort knowing the house was there, the vessel of my fortunate childhood and the painful intensity of my late adolescence.

Perhaps this is why I was so affected by the photo my mom texted me after she learned from friends of our demolished house. My memories felt more vulnerable because the house was gone.

Soon before Covid-19 prevented in-person gatherings, Dori stood next to me at a friend’s Bat Mitzvah. At the end of the service, we recited kaddish in honor of those who had passed. Dori looked up at me and said, “don’t die.” “OK,” I said, tearing up because we both knew this was an impossible agreement.

With some disbelief, I realize that my daughters are now the same ages my sister and I were when our home became a house of mourning.

My husband and I, too, are about the same age my parents were when my dad died and my mom became a widow. I am nearly the age my mom was when she successfully, quickly fought off uterine cancer, avoiding the early death my dad could not escape at so-called middle age.

I worry my kids might experience loss like I did, aware that life can be taken or not taken at any time –by the likes of a heart attack, cancer, or a pandemic. All we can do, of course, is treat life as a gift, though sometimes that’s hard to keep top of mind.

I wonder which memories of joy and pain my children will keep from our house as they get older. I am realizing each memory is not a solid thing, but rather something re-shaped, lost, or cherished over time.

house

Gina Coplon-Newfield is an environmental and social justice advocate. She has published a case study about environmental advocacy with Harvard Law School, written many recent blog articles about clean transportation issues, and is quoted regularly in the media in such outlets as the New York Times, Bloomberg News, and Politico. This is her first venture into writing a personal narrative for a public audience (since a few overly serious poems in college). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. She can be found on Twitter @GinaDrivingEV.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, memories, Relationships

Camping Under the Influence

July 14, 2021
camping

By Carrie Friedman

I squint as I read the fine print of the disclaimer that says the campsite is NOT responsible for any coyote, snake, or bear bites or maulings. As I sign our lives away, I say, “This was a mistake,” loud enough for my husband to hear. Our daughters are already running free, up and down the meadow, like they’ve never seen so much open space, possibly because they never have in our crowded Los Angeles suburb. We have arrived at this southern California campsite for a whole weekend of “unstructured fun!” as the parent-email boasted, with other families from our daughters’ school. Our daughters begged us to go this year, so here we all are. “It could just be that you’re not in the right mindset,” my husband, who is one important notch more outdoorsy than I am, says.

He’s not wrong. Only hours earlier, I boarded a plane back to California, from my native Wisconsin. I was visiting my dad, who is in the late stages of dementia and Parkinson’s. Every time I leave him, I know that this could be the last time I see him. This slow-motion loss feels unscalable.

“I’ll be fine,” I say. I want our girls to have this camp experience.

I go to the campsite store and buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of pre-made, pre-mixed margaritas. I start drinking as soon as I find a cup. I drink to blur the edges.

I’ve never been the type of person who drinks in the wilderness, gulping the air like it’s a delicious treat, then says (and means) things like, “I love nature,” or talks about a higher being “creating this masterpiece for us.” But when I inhale the air at the campsite today, I feel a familiar ache. I’m reminded of why I hate camping: it makes me homesick. If the smells of evergreen, mildew, loneliness, and campfire were blended in a bottle, they’d be called Eau de homesickness.

I down a margarita as if I’m a marathoner at a pitstop.

When I was a gawky and overly sensitive 10 year old at summer camp in Wisconsin, my escape was red Kool-Aid that the camp rebranded “Bug Juice.” It was so sweet and concentrated you could chew the sugar granules. I was addicted to the sugar high it gave me: it helped me forget how much I missed my family back home, 90 miles from camp. It helped me feel less awkward around kids I didn’t know. The inevitable crash left me lower than before, sobbing all night in bed while my cabinmates slept. It was a gutting cry, a cry that physically hurt – replaying every fight I’d ever had with my parents or siblings, wishing I were back with them.

My dad, sensing my homesickness, would send funny letters, mailed to arrive by every day’s rest time. I’d read them as I scratched mosquito bites into scabs. His words always made things better.

I drink my way through the first half of the weekend – buzzed, friendly, seemingly carefree – having a drink anytime the ache, or a thought or memory about my dad tries to creep in, like a sad version of a drinking game.

People call this “Glamping” because we are in cabins with indoor bathrooms, not tents and outhouses, but there is nothing “glam” about it. Directly above our bed is what appears to be a hastily made loft with about 20 inches of crawl space and some crib-sized mattresses for our six and seven year old. A rickety metal ladder is propped precariously against a wooden railing that feels like it is as sturdy and well-put together as a shelf I constructed in shop class in third grade. My kids and husband sleep well. I stare at the cedar walls and ceiling all night, trying not to think but thinking nonetheless. If that was the last time I’ll ever see my father, did I say everything I needed to say?

The next morning, I admit to my husband that perhaps the pivot from emotional wilderness into actual wilderness was too much for me. He offers to pack us up and leave early. But the kids are having so much fun, we decide. They have already strapped on their bike helmets and taken off on their scooters with their friends for the morning.

The days are packed and noisy. There’s a hike and a talent show. And smores and drinks with other parents, as our kids don glowstick necklaces and bracelets and chase each other through the woods – streaks of neon as they run past and between the trees.

I buy and drink more wine. In the middle of the final night, dizzy from alcohol, I leap out of bed and vomit in our cabin toilet. As I’m about to flush, I spot a giant brown spider on the handle. I nearly vomit again, but instead scream into a towel, so as not to wake my family.

“I just killed a brown recluse spider in our bathroom,” I tell my husband. He rolls over in bed. I’m not expecting a parade but at least a little gratitude for saving his and our daughters’ lives would be nice.

“Really, Carrie?” he asks, dubious. “A brown recluse, with the violin shape on its back and everything?”

“Yes,” I whisper, a chill running down my spine. “Except it was so big it was more like a cello. This guy could have carried our suitcases. I’m done with camping,” I say.

“Glamping,” my husband corrects.

“I’m going to sleep out in the van.”

I wake up on the third row of seats in the back of the minivan to a blinding sunrise. It’s a new day. My pounding hangover headache feels like a nuisance, a distraction, from the real pain I’ve been trying to avoid. How quickly in the two years since my father’s diagnosis and rapid decline, had my drinking gone from a glass of wine after the kids went to bed to “take the edge off” to “mommy juice at a late afternoon playdate,” to a nightly necessity to numb or push out sadness, which I defended as “self-care.” If this is self-care, it’s not working.

Again, the smells of homesickness fill the air, and I remember things I don’t want to remember.

The letters my dad sent me when I was at camp were a funny serialized mystery he had written, in installments. Each chapter ended on a cliffhanger, and he timed when he mailed them perfectly: I always had a new letter, a new chapter, waiting for me in my cubby every afternoon for resting time. But my camp experience began to improve. I enjoyed horseback riding and canoeing and making lanyard bracelets. When I returned home after camp, my dad discovered his last three envelopes unopened in my suitcase. I tried to explain that I was too tired to read each day. My dad pretended not to care, but I could tell he was hurt.

With this memory, my gulping sobs shake the van.

Suddenly, I am starving. The campsite seems deserted at 7am. I walk to the restaurant/general store. Campfire ashes from the night before float in the air like feathers. My eye makeup presumably everywhere, I imagine I look like a raccoon walking on its hind legs.

I wander through the empty store/restaurant, looking at foods and offerings but not really seeing them. For awhile, I stare without realizing it at a woman making eggs in the kitchen. She has long press-on nails that wrap around the spatula and flip fried eggs and scrape scrambled eggs on the griddle. She has velvety Disney princess eye lashes that must take forever to glue to her eyelids.

I can tell by the way she’s looking at me that my eyes are swollen and red.

“Rough night?” she asks.

“Rough week,” I say. “Rough year.”

“What can I get for you, Hon?” she asks.

Her term of endearment makes me cry again. “Could you make cheesy eggs? They’re just scrambled eggs with cheese on top.”

“Of course, Hon,” she says.

She unwraps and slaps an orange Kraft single on top of the scrambled eggs. It becomes shiny with sweat as it starts to melt.

Cheesy eggs taste like what he used to make on Sundays when we were kids and teens. His variations on the classics, like applesauce pancakes, fried matzo, spaghetti pie, never tasted very good, but now, just thinking of them makes me crave them. The gooey applesauce, somehow still cold, oozed out from the otherwise cooked pancake. The nutty, charred edges of the matzo.

The cook hands me a Styrofoam plate with the eggs covered in cheese, then says, “I’ll ring you up. They’re a dollar fifty.”

Maybe she feels sorry for me and is giving me a discount, I think as I swipe my debit card. Nothing costs so little anymore, let alone a protein.

I sit at a picnic table in the woods, with the yellow scramble. The eggs taste like cheese flavored plastic, just like when my dad made them, and go down easy. Comfort food indeed.

Before I left the last time, he said two things that made sense. I was shocked by the clarity with which he said each, considering he barely speaks anymore and when he does, it’s usually gibberish. He said, “You never give up,” more as a command than a fact, and “I love you so much.” When I was a teenager, I had felt overwhelmed by his belief in me. At that time, I think he loved me more than I loved myself. I felt that way again, but stronger in the thought of losing him.

I can’t swallow anymore because of the lump in my throat. I’m remembering all the things I wanted to say to him, but didn’t, two days ago while I sat with him and held his hand: I’m sorry I didn’t open those last chapters of your story, I’m sorry we made fun of your creative Sunday meals. Thank you for writing those letters, thank you for your food and time and love.

I sit in the pain and really let myself feel it. Sober. At first it feels like I might suffocate, so I take slow, deep breaths while I cry. I cry because I miss my father, and I cry for the moments I have missed with my own children this weekend, blurry from alcohol when they could be sharper, more vibrant in the light of reality: my older daughter singing in the talent show, my younger daughter blowing dandelion fuzz every chance she could, strands of roasted marshmallows sticky on their cheeks.

I decide it’s time to stop multiplying my depressants, so I vow to quit drinking and camping, at least for a while.

“Well,” my husband says as we pack the car, “at least we weren’t mauled by any bears.” I laugh. I breathe in the last of the evergreen, mildew, and campfire smells. I’m relieved to be leaving, but to my surprise the wilderness and the loneliness follow me home.

Carrie Friedman lives and writes in southern California. She has been published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places. Her website is: www.carriefriedman.com

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Current Events, Guest Posts, memories

Up A Tree

July 12, 2021
shot

By Katherine Flannery Dering

I spent days getting up early and clicking on various websites, eager to get my COVID shot appointment. And then, one morning, a friend sent me an email saying he and his wife had reserved a spot at a nearby CVS. I clicked on his link and got a spot two days later.  I’ve now had one shot, and the second one is coming up soon.

I wasn’t always so eager to get a shot.

One afternoon back in 1960, my brother Johnny and I shimmied up the two trees in our backyard to escape a shot. They were a pair of plane trees about twenty or thirty feet tall, with pale, splotchy bark and a full summer complement of big, fluttery leaves. We’d climbed them many times before, so we made short work of getting fifteen or so feet up. I found a secure crook and waited, my arms around the trunk. Maybe they’d give up and the doctor would leave. It was a warm, clear day; I could barely make out my brother, hidden in the leaves of his tree. But through a break in the branches, I could see off to the Davids’ house a half mile up the road. I held my breath, hoping to disappear into the canopy.

It was eerily quiet. Our house was on a new road that had been created from a farmer’s field several years before. Behind us was a big cornfield.  Across the main road that came up from the village were about twenty acres planted in wheat—my other secret hideout. I liked to sneak into the field and tromp down some wheat out in the middle and lie down there and look up into the sky. People raised dairy cattle and goats just beyond the David’s house, and there was usually some mooing and bleating from the herds. But a hoof and mouth disease epidemic had just rampaged through the area, and all the remaining livestock were put down, to make sure it didn’t spread. The quiet was ominous.

“Katherine, Johnny,” my mother’s voice suddenly called. And then I saw a man’s brown leather shoes below me. The shoes’ owner moved, and a bald head and dark coat appeared through the leaves and moved along above the shoes. “Zay ran zees way,” a man’s voice said in a thick French accent. “Zay must be here in some plaze.”

Three of the little kids—our younger siblings—were raking the area with their bare little feet. Did they think we were hidden in the grass? Like mice, they were always everywhere, opening my dresser drawers, drawing pictures with my Tinkerbell lipsticks and spilling the nail polish. It was Patrick who looked up. “They’re up there. They’re in the trees.”

A woman’s black flats and a seersucker, plaid dress appeared. Dark hair in a French twist. My mother’s voice had that “Don’t tempt me!” sound. “Come down this instant. You’re embarrassing me.”

We’d been living in Switzerland for a year now and the English-speaking doctor my mother had found had already given the little kids their shots. She’d probably negotiated a group discount. “Doctors are busy people. He can’t hang around all day. And I’m not paying for a second visit for you two.”

We gave up. Climbing down, I lost my grip for a moment and slid, gaining a big sliver in the palm of one had. I shook the hand and winced. Patrick smirked; he’d gotten one on us older ones. I felt like a condemned man in front of a firing squad. I knew that the inoculation would pinch, and that my arm would throb for days. A typhoid booster was a thing to be reckoned with. But what was worse was that I knew what was coming, and I couldn’t stop it.

***

In 1960, Europe and the World Health Organization were still battling the lingering health problems that followed in the poverty and rubble after WWII. Students at my school, the International School of Geneva, had to be tested each year for Tuberculosis—serum injected into   the delicate skin on the inside of your forearm, covered with a bandage, and then checked by a WHO nurse who came back to inspect the site a few days later. If the skin bubbled up to a certain size, you were sent for a chest x-ray. I passed.

Before we moved to Geneva from Detroit, which was our real home, most of us kids had all been vaccinated or revaccinated for smallpox, typhoid and tetanus. My little sister Monica, who was now almost three, hadn’t had the small pox vaccination yet, because she had problems with eczema, and her pediatrician didn’t think it wise. But now there had been a small pox scare somewhere and she had to be vaccinated in order for us to return to the U. S. that summer for home leave. The twins, who had been born in Switzerland and were now six months old, also had to be vaccinated before the trip home. The rest of us needed various boosters.

The small pox procedure looked pretty barbaric to me. The doctor sliced a little cut on the babies’ thighs and slathered on some sort of goop, then bandaged it. They screamed, of course. That’s when Johnny and I ran out of the house and up the trees.

***

And now, sixty years later, another terrible disease to try to prevent. The Typhoid vaccination back then involved three shots and a booster every so often after that. It was a Typhoid booster that Johnny and I needed that day. The COVID-19 vaccination in 2021 is only two shots, although it sounds like we may also need annual boosters for a while. Unlike in 1960, though, I’m not running away from this vaccination. Quite the opposite. Before I secured an appointment, I had spent days getting up early and clicking on various websites, eager to get my COVID shot, eager to be released from the jail of sheltering in place.

The first shot was easy-peezy. The drug store was set up for an assembly line. I arrived fifteen minutes before my assigned time and checked in at a desk just inside the door. I was then sent to a line that snaked down a long aisle toward the back of the store, where the pharmacy had been set up for a crowd. The other over-65ers and I waited our turn standing six feet apart, on big red circles arranged to keep us socially distanced along an aisle that displayed Depends and other “adult incontinence” supplies. The shot itself took a few seconds—a quick jab and I was sent to a chair nearby, where the CVS employee/ ringmaster set a timer to go off in fifteen minutes, by which time I would show signs of an allergic reaction, if I was going to get one. Timers were going off every minute or two. “You’re done. Next,” the ringmaster would say. I had no after-effects to speak of, then or the next day.

***

Now I am in suspense again, like when I was 12, sitting up in that tree, knowing I would eventually have to come down. I’d have to let the doctor give me that shot. And now I have to do something similar. I’ve heard that more than half the people who receive the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines have a very unpleasant reaction to the second dose—body aches, fever, chills, sometimes even vomiting and diarrhea. My baby sister Julia, who wasn’t even born yet in 1960, said she had no problem with hers. And my brother Johnny, who’s a doctor now and got his second shot weeks ago, also had no problem. But there’s still a big part of me that wants to hide up a tree somewhere.  I’m tempted to not take it. But then what? Hide from the world forever?

I came down from the tree that day. And in another week, I will go get my second shot. And this time, I know I am very lucky to have the opportunity.

Katherine Flannery Dering received an MFA in 2013 from Manhattanville College. Her memoir, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir a Brother’s Struggle, was published in 2014 by Bridgeross. A mixed-genre book of poetry, prose, photos, and emails, it deals with caring for her schizophrenic brother, and she is an advocate for better care for the mentally ill. Her poetry chapbook is titled Aftermath (2018, Finishing Line Press.) Her work has also appeared recently in Inkwell, RiverRiver, Tilde, Cordella, and Adanna, among other literary journals. She serves on the executive committee of the Katonah Poetry Series and lately divides her writing time between poetry, essays, and a book of short, feminist fables. She seldom climbs trees. Her author website is KatherineFlanneryDering.com.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, memories

Why a Kosher Butcher’s Daughter Made Ham Sandwiches

June 7, 2021
ham

by Barbara Krasner

An elderly man in a plaid shirt and dark-rimmed glasses walked up to me after the meeting of the Museum Committee. He said, “I knew your grandparents. I went to their store all the time for ham sandwiches.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He had to be wrong. Max and Eva Krasner would never touch ham, let alone serve it. Maybe a helper in the store did it for them, although the helpers would have been my father and his brothers.

The man broadened his smile, likely recalling the taste of the sandwich. “Your grandmother was Eva, right?”

“Yes, I never knew her though. She died years before I was born.”

Maybe it was the ham that did it. Eva Zuckerkandel Krasner was the daughter of a kosher butcher. This man’s memory was playing tricks. Maybe he got his sandwiches somewhere else in the neighborhood. But as our conversation continued, he said he crossed Ridge Road from Queen of Peace Roman Catholic Church to my grandparents’ general store in North Arlington. Publicly, I had to accept the compliment that my grandmother made a great piggy sandwich, but privately, I was plagued by the question: Why would a kosher butcher’s daughter comply with such a treyf (non-kosher) request?

To answer the question, I started with what I already knew. In 1920, my grandparents moved northeast across the Passaic River from their flat on Van Buren Street in bustling Newark to a lot at the intersection of Ridge Road and Sunset Avenue in North Arlington, where a sewerage system had not yet been introduced. Perhaps Max and Eva thought this dorf resembled a shtetl. For Max that meant a village near Minsk and for Eva that meant her hamlet in the southeast corner of Austria-Hungary known as Galicia. Max immigrated to Newark in 1899 and eventually set himself up as a grocer. It was as a grocer he chose to present his best self (while he still had hair) on a matchmaker’s post card. Eva immigrated to New York City in 1913 and somehow was introduced to Max. She had other suitors, but Max had a business, a store. This she found attractive, and why not? She was a kosher butcher’s daughter, the eldest child.

In 1920, Max and Eva, along with their one-year old (my father), settled into their corner lot. They had an apartment behind the store front. They numbered among the very few Jewish families here at the confluence of Bergen and Hudson counties and midway between Newark and Jersey City. My grandmother, who had a head for business, must have figured their general store could make a buck in this burgeoning burg, what with the store on the main street and rentable apartments above the store.

In 1920, the cornerstone to Queen of Peace was laid on Ridge Road at the intersection with Sunset Avenue. Max and Eva would have looked out their store front windows to see stacks of lumber and bricks piled up on mounds of dirt just waiting for cranes to put these materials and the spire in place. In 1925 the church’s grammar school opened. The high school saw its first graduates in 1934.

My grandmother laid out a pot of something to simmer on the stove for my father—and later my two uncles and aunt. Eva would only cook kosher food—hot dogs, stews, soups—on the private family residence side of the door that separated it from the store. But as the Krasner kids ate their kosher meats bought from Prince Street in Newark’s Third District, the Queen of Peace kids popped across the street to get sandwiches. Ham sandwiches.

A kosher butcher’s daughter making ham sandwiches. I imagine she washed her hands constantly to make sure she minimized contact with treyf. I also imagine she thought it was a necessary sacrifice she had to make for the business. Catholic customers want ham, and kids’ money came from the parents, and if the kids were satisfied, the parents might patronize the store more. Generally, my grandfather ran the grocery and my grandmother ran dry goods. Making ham sandwiches had to be a shrewd business decision. I am guessing the sandwiches were made with white bread, certainly not on Jewish rye. I’m also guessing my grandmother would have a “ham” knife and “ham” slicer. There would be milchadik (dairy) utensils, fleyshadik (meat) utensils, and treyf utensils. She would never intentionally violate the traditions. No, ham was business and it’s not like she herself was eating it. What one does at home was sacred. What one does in a public space was something else.

There could be no question that the proximity of this large church and the volume of parishioners had to be taken into consideration in my grandparents’ business. My father had always intimated that the church ran the town, especially when it turned down his request for a parking lot and he was forced out of a twenty-year supermarket business because he could no longer compete.

Ham sandwiches began to make sense, practical dollars and cents. By making ham sandwiches, Eva Krasner showed she could be counted on in the community. She was one of them—a North Arlingtonian, not a Jewish immigrant outcast. She spoke English as did Max with barely a trace of an accent, I’d been told.

A Jew who would make ham sandwiches protected herself against antisemitism and stuck to her vision of buying land throughout the area.

A Jew who would make ham sandwiches eased the way for her kids to make friends outside the tribe.

A kosher butcher’s daughter who made ham sandwiches knew how diplomacy worked. She knew the way of the world.

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Manifest-Station, Gravel, South 85, Jewish Literary Journal, Poor Yorick, and other journals.

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You know it’s an amazing year to be a reader when Emily Rapp Black has another book coming. Frida Kahlo and My Left Leg is remarkable. In this book, Emily gives us a look into how Frida Kahlo influenced her own understanding of what it means to be creative and to be disabled. Like much of her writing, this book also gives us a look into moving on (or passed or through) when it feels like everything is gone.

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

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Are you ready to take your writing to the next level?

Two of our favorite writing resources are launching new opportunities for working on your craft. Circe Consulting was formed when Emily Rapp Black and Gina Frangello decided to collaborate on a writing space. Corporeal Writing is under the direction of Lidia Yuknavitch. Both believe in the importance of listening to the stories your body tells. If you sign up for a course, tell them The ManifestStation sent you!

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Guest Posts, memories

The Song of the Cicada

March 31, 2021
horse

By Jennifer Shneiderman

The quarter horse’s coat is shining in the sun like a freshly peeled buckeye seed. It is only 8:30 and already the humidity is up. The riding instructor, Dottie, guides the horse about by the reins, her tan muscular arms and rough hands revealing the physicality of farm life. Dottie wipes her brow with a red bandana. The suffocating Northwest Ohio heat will hover until evening when the fireflies glimmer and the sweet smell of corn washes over land cut into quilt-like agricultural squares. The buzzing of cryptic annual cicadas pulses and heaves in the heavy air.

Dottie watches as I became more confident, going around the ring, relaxing slightly into the saddle and going a little faster with each revolution. The horse trots and my internal organs adjust to the jerking movement. Next, I learn how to navigate a bridge obstacle. Dottie places a wooden platform, made of worn gray boards, on the ground. I practice having the horse step up, cross and descend. The platform is only a few inches tall, so it feels simple enough.

Suddenly, the trainer excuses herself. “I have to make a quick call,” she says abruptly. “Is that okay?” I’m too surprised to object. Sometimes, my Midwestern politeness gets in my way, to the point of endangerment. I watch her retreating figure as she hops over the fence and makes a beeline for a little white house by the weathered barn.

I sit for a while, the horse shifting, the only sound the creak of the leather saddle. I am grateful for the bit of breeze that blows through my hair and cools my reddening cheeks. I consider taking a turn around the ring on my own. I want to make progress quickly. My sister, two years older, is an avid horsewoman who disappears during these short hometown visits to go riding with her high school friends. I desperately want to join them and develop the close relationship with my sister that passed us by in our youth.

My heels dig into the horse’s flanks and I make that clicking sound with my tongue. We reach the small platform and I guide the horse on top of it. The horse’s hoof stamps down on the planks, too close to the edge, and the platform flips high in the air. The horse rears and takes off at a gallop across the field. The world goes violently sideways, blurring and jerking as the horse bucks and convulses. I fly off, hit my head and elbow and land on my back. I become acutely aware that I’m not wearing a helmet.

I lay on the ground, my head and back throbbing, my elbow a mess of dirt, grass and blood. Dottie comes running, sprinting across the field and calling my name. She reaches me, sees that I am conscious and puts her hands on her hips.

She advises sternly, “You really should get back on the horse. Otherwise, you’re gonna be scared to ride again.”

I feel a stiffness come over me, and I tell her I think I should see a doctor first. She shrugs noncommittally and, with perhaps a hint of disdain, watches me get up and limp to my rental car.

I gingerly climb into the drivers seat, my lower back throbbing. I’m not sure where to go for an exam. My family doctor died years ago. I drive to my father’s office. He works for the local newspaper, so he would know of the local businesses and medical treatment facilities. I stumble past the front office staff and they stare at me from behind their computer screens. My father is sitting at his desk engaged in what sounds like a printing press lease negotiation. I point to my bloody, pebble- encrusted elbow and he gestures toward a chair with his chin. I slowly sit down, cupping my left elbow in my right palm. I wait as he continues, his voice low and his eyes averted. I touch my head and feel the blades of grass and dirt matted in my hair. I pull them out with my fingers and drop the debris in a metal waste can. After about 10 minutes, I knock on his desk with my knuckle to get his attention. He holds up his index finger sharply for me to wait.

I get up and go to an empty desk in the front office and take out a phone book. I find an urgent care center on the edge of town and drive the mile and a quarter. The terse receptionist is leery about treating anyone from out of town, even if an insurance card is produced. She wants payment up front. I give her my Visa card and sit uncomfortably in a plastic chair. There are a few other people in the waiting room and we watch the news on a TV mounted on the wall. Madonna is being rescued from her own violent equestrian encounter. She was thrown from a horse on her English country estate, cracking three ribs and breaking her collarbone and a hand. Comparisons are  drawn to Christopher Reeves’ catastrophic accident, disability and eventual death. It dawns on me that I am getting off easy.

Finally, the doctor examines me and sends me for an X-ray. My elbow is fine and I don’t have a concussion. But my pelvis has a hairline fracture, painful but not requiring surgery, that resembles the Ohio Interstate 70 undulating horizontal line.

I cut my trip short. Driving out of town the next afternoon, I pass my  high school, a one story brick building surrounded by green corn stalks and bordered by a creek that overflows in the spring. I pull over and listen to the siren song of the male cicadas. They will return next year, the females forever silent, the deafening vibration of their hollow drum insides washing over the fields.

Jennifer Shneiderman is a writer and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Indolent Book’s HIV Here and Now, The Rubbertop Review, Writers Resist, the Poetry in the Time of COVID-19, Vol 2, anthology, Variant Literature, Bright Flash Literary Review, Trouvaille Review, Montana Mouthful, the Daily Drunk, Sybil Journal, Unique Poetry, Anti-Heroin Chic, Terror House, Thirteen Myna Birds, Potato Soup Journal, Awakened Voices, GreenPrints, Prospectus, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, and The Perch. She was the recipient of an Honorable Mention in the 2020 Laura Riding Jackson poetry competition.

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Binding the Generations

March 7, 2021
papa

By Daniel Osborn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guest Posts, memories

How To Feel Iranian

February 7, 2021
iranian

By Maryam Keramaty

In 1978, I left 4 Padidar Street and boarded an airplane to the United States. When the wheels left the runway in Tehran, it seemed like the end of one chapter, and as an eight-year-old I didn’t look back. Now, at fifty, I do. I retrieve memories and feel longing for home. Longing to speak fluent Farsi, savor homemade rosewater ice cream, and eat plump, fresh-picked mulberries with my father. But there was a revolution and Iran vanished. I cannot seem to bring that richness, that life, back.

I want to be that eight-year-old again. The girl who has friends in a bilingual school, picnics on the river rocks with my parents, sister, and family friends, and day trips on winding roads through Alborz Mountain. I want to be the four-year-old who curiously watches tadpoles in the mucky backyard pool, plays with many cousins at large family gatherings, and sleeps under mosquito netting on the back porch. I want to be the young girl who is still Iranian.

Life in Medford, Massachusetts, is different now, but I still remember, remember enough to ache. The school bus driver who adored me, the majestic weeping willow tree in the front yard, and kesh, a schoolyard game I played with friends. The richness of the life I left is palpable. I want to see noon e sangak, stone bread, come out of the oven at the neighborhood bakery, smell sumac on my beef kebob and basmati rice, and taste the soft, sweet figs picked in our backyard. These memories come only in drips, as if to quench my thirst for only a moment. Can I ever quench this thirst? Can I retrieve Iran?

***

Seated at the kitchen table I share with a roommate, I open a gold wooden box, one that holds treasures from another time. I reach into the box and pick up my small perfume bottle from a “make your own perfume” kit. The bottle is no more than two inches high with a flowery round sticker: “Persian Spice.” I take a sniff, with hopes the scent will evoke memories, but there is nothing. It has been over four decades, after all.

I jingle the tarnished tribal Iranian necklace passed down to me from Grama, my American grandmother who visited Iran when my sister and I were born. Small spear-shaped trinkets dangle, and red and blue stones are embedded in silver shapes. I put the necklace on, half hoping I will be transported to a place, and the feeling of home. Nothing.

I stand to spread a small square cloth on the kitchen table and run my hands over the tan and beige paisley pattern and the hundreds of white tassels that hang from the edges. The texture is worn, with coarse, thick cotton threads. It doesn’t take me back. It feels like just a tablecloth to me. No memories, again nothing. My hopes for Iran to come to me are dashed.

These objects don’t bring my Iranian identity back to me, but now I remember spontaneous encounters with Iranians do. The interactions bring a feeling of surprise and generate warmth in my whole being. My heart opens; emotions swell up in me.

One sunny spring day on the community bike path, I notice a perplexed man who seems to be looking for something. It is Seezdebedar, the thirteenth day after Noruz, the Iranian New Year. The green clump of wheatgrass in his hand is the giveaway that he is Iranian. He is looking for a body of water to throw the wheatgrass in for good luck. Salam, Ayde shoma mobarak. Hello, and Happy New Year, I say. His name is Balash. I feel Iranian.

Babak owns the Iranian grocery in Watertown. I introduce myself, hesitate with my words, and tell him my dilemma with the language. When his customers come in, they choose from the tea, rice, dates, halvah, and chickpea cookies, and I hear Farsi here and there. I purchase lavooshak, dried fruit leather, dried mulberries, and dried squash seeds for my father. Ghodafez. Goodbye. I promise Babak that I will come back to practice my Farsi. I feel Iranian.

I crave to feel Iranian again for more than a few moments. I want to feel a grand reawakening, to feel fully alive, to feel Iran coursing through my blood. When I try to bring back this culture, my place of belonging, a culture that was mine, that was me, I’m not sure if it is retrievable. It may be futile; I may not be able to completely reclaim that part of myself.

***

The day my father returned from a trip to Iran, I sat in anticipation, kneeling in front of his suitcase on the rug in the living room. My father brought gifts, gave updates on family property there, how his siblings were, and when he could bring our Persian rugs back to the States. With relatives speaking in Farsi and my mother passing golden-colored tea around the room, I felt Iranian. But when I flipped open the top of the suitcase, the smell of my childhood home completely overwhelmed me. I was transported to Iran. I was there. I wept visceral tears that went unnoticed. Ache. Longing.

This experience stayed with me. The smells from the suitcase brought me closer to Iran. Now I decide a journey through my sense of smell in the kitchen might be a place to feel Iranian. I gather pomegranate sauce, walnuts, chicken, and rice. Tea, rosewater, and saffron. Sumac. Yogurt, seltzer, and mint. I have chosen a five-part menu: polo, rice; fesenjoon, a pomegranate and walnut dish; doogh, a beverage; sohan asali, saffron and honey candy; and chaee, tea.

I cook what I know and have seen family members cook. But, unlike my relatives, I rely on recipes. I regret not paying attention to my father and my grandmother, Maman, as a young adult when they cooked. Both have passed. My experience cooking Persian food is close to none. For these dishes I rely on an Iranian woman’s blog, a New York Times clipping from my mother, and things my father has told me.

1. Polo

I check on the basmati rice still soaking from yesterday. I empty it into a colander and rinse one more time. I measure eight cups of water in my big pot, turn the heat up to high, and set the basmati rice next to it on the countertop.

Basmati rice and tadik are staples of the Iranian diet, eaten at lunch and dinner. Tadik is the crust of cooked rice on the bottom of the pot, up to half an inch thick, made with vegetable oil and often with thinly sliced potatoes. When it’s cooked right, the bottom becomes crispy and golden orange. Perfect tadik has not come easily to me. I remember Maman’s secret was to use a lot of oil.

As children, the most sought after item at family dinners was tadik. My younger sister, cousins, and I scrambled to it, drawn to its color, crunch, and flavorful oils we would lick off our fingers. Going back for seconds was allowed, but then my mother insisted we get a plate and eat some of the main dishes. My father, my aunts, and Maman perfected tadik. I regret not paying more attention when they cooked.

The rice goes in the pot. Next, I add two tablespoons each of olive oil and butter. I pile the rice in a pyramid, away from the edges of the pot, and poke some holes in the rice with the handle of a wooden spoon. Then, I wrap a dishtowel on the lid and knot it on top to trap the condensation. I allow to steam for thirty-five minutes, then remove the lid, face down into the steam, and feel the droplets on my face. In the steam from basmati rice, I feel Iranian in whiffs, in wafts, in ephemeral swirls.

The warm house, the steamy kitchen, and the fragrance of basmati rice cooking on the stove transport me. The smell is breathtaking and brings me to Maman. Her great care and love in preparing meals for her family is memorable. For example, to make sheereen polo, or sweet rice, she carefully laid slivered orange peels on paper towels, and with short fingers, and much patience, rolled the ground beef into tiny meatballs. Little did I know the smells in her kitchen were planting memories for me.

2. Fesenjoon

This, a favorite dish in my family, is made with pomegranate molasses, walnuts, and chicken. My mother found the recipe in the New York Times, and I pasted it in my recipe binder. I realize the need for a good Iranian cookbook.

As I toast the walnuts in a pan over medium heat, I imagine my grandmother patiently chopping walnuts with a knife; I feel unauthentic but use a food processor anyway. Then I add two cups of water and a cup of pomegranate syrup, and simmer with the lid ajar for forty minutes. The pomegranate syrup is the sourest thing I’ve ever tasted and is strangely sweet as well.

Next, I saute an onion in a heavy pot, add a quarter teaspoon of turmeric and four chicken breasts until cooked on all sides. In go the pomegranate sauce and walnuts, and I cover the chicken, adding water if necessary; add sugar to taste; leave out the dash of cinnamon because it sounds strange. I put my nose in the pot: steamy, warm, sweet, and nutty. I inhale and exhale. Inhale again and feel transported to Maman’s small apartment in the States, cozy and Iranian. Iran smells like a blend of saffron, sumac, and rosewater. Saffron to color the rice, tart sumac to spice the beef kebobs, and rosewater to flavor baked goods and ice cream.

3. Doogh

Next, I make doogh, a concoction that perfectly complements Persian cuisine. It is one of those Farsi words Americans can’t master; it is nearly impossible for them to make the rolling “gh” sound in the back of their throats. When I do it, I feel Iranian. Doogh is found bottled in Iran and here at the Iranian grocer. It is a healthy drink with a sour flavor, a tickly bubble, and a salty zing. I pour a glass of club soda, spoon a few tablespoons of whole milk yogurt into the glass, and stir vigorously. Then, salt to taste. I crush mint leaves between my fingers and sniff in the refreshing and bright scent. Add to the doogh and taste. Authentic and pure Iran.

I imagine my father pouring me a glass on our table by the patio in Iran. It doesn’t seem like a drink a child would enjoy, but my memory wants to tell me I did. I imagine my father teaching my mother how to prepare the drink in her adopted home. I imagine my younger sister tasting it and not liking it. These speculations are one way I stay connected to my Iranian identity. I am playing with memories, using imagination to fill the empty spaces. For as long as it takes to drink the doogh, I feel Iranian.

4. Sohan Asali

Next, I make sohan asali, saffron and honey candy. I put sugar, honey, saffron, and slivered almonds in a small pot over medium heat. The recipe says to stir often until the sugar is melted. My grandmother’s sohan was a smooth, dark orange and very hard candy with crushed pistachios on top. Sohan reminds me of family parties, where there were more desserts than my eyes could see: chickpea cookies, fried dough filled with honey, and delicate fried hexagon cookies sprinkled with powdered sugar.

I turn up the heat and stir; then I turn down the heat. As I really have no idea what I am doing, I just keep stirring. The sugar remains granular and white. Maman could tell me what to do; my father would know what I’m doing wrong, probably not being patient enough. I resign myself to the state of the sugar mixture and drop it by tablespoons onto a cooking sheet lined with parchment paper, knowing it is wrong, all wrong. I sprinkle crushed pistachios on top and allow to cool. This sohan is white, granular, and soft. I deem it an excellent effort though I feel like a fool. I missed the chance for my father to show me how it’s done properly.

5. Chaee

I prepare authentic Persian black chaee tea. My father used premium Ceylon tea, which is similar to English Breakfast. Today I use tea in a maroon and gold box. I take in the familiar earthy smell of the tea leaves. Then, I add two tablespoons to a small white teapot on the stove, pour in the hot water, and allow to steep for five to seven minutes.

You could not visit someone in Iran without being offered a cup of tea and then a second cup, and a third. In fact, visits get quite long because of lengthy goodbyes, because of the chaee and tarof. It is a ritual where a host insists you stay in their home, and you say you must leave. And the host will insist you stay. You could be offered more fruit, dessert, and tea. Even if the host has run out of time, or is tired, or really wants you to leave, tarof reigns. It applies to everyday negotiations as well, like paying for a taxi, or buying a meal, for example. This can go on for three rounds, the hostess insisting and the guest resisting. The rituals of chaee and tarof my relatives continue to use today make me feel Iranian.

I pour the tea over a tiny sieve into a mug, because I am ill-equipped; Iranians use an estakan, a glass about three inches high and an inch and a half in diameter. The estakans in my memory are rimmed with gold and come with a small white saucer. The color of the tea matters. Depending on how long it steeps, I may need to add hot water to make it lighter.

I put a sugar cube in my cheek, sip the tea as the granules melt and coat my mouth. Today, I don’t have any gaz, a sticky white candy with pistachios and powdered sugar that pairs perfectly with chaee.

Next, I cue up the Iranian music, press play, and turn up the volume. The crisp and vibrant strums of the setar transport me to my late aunt Mehry’s living room. The finger picking energetic and alive. A small drum provides a steady beat. I felt Iranian when the setar, my relatives, and a spirit of celebration filled an entire room. Now I do too, if only for the length of the song. I sway my hips, raise my arms in the air, and rotate my wrists in that seductive Iranian way. I become one with the strings and feel the movement in my belly. My breath quickens. I regret I can’t understand the words in the song, Chaharmezrab, Mahur. Not understanding touches an emptiness inside of me, of not quite belonging. I feel Iranian for the length of the song.

The music continues and I sit in my chair. I gaze at the patterns of the tablecloth and drink my tea. The meal was a half success, just like me, half Iranian. If my father were still alive, he would surely say the fesenjoon was watery. I say it is very tasty and authentic, the big triumph of the day. The sohan asali, unfortunately, was a complete failure. My future as a successful cook rests on learning from my relatives, finding the best Iranian cookbooks, and following the recipes my father told me from his memory. The items on the to-do list were to get estekans from my father’s house, ask my aunt for a good cookbook, and though I lost my chance to make sohan asali with my father, maybe my aunt Nahid will show me. I will need to buy more chaee, sugar cubes, and gaz.

The cooking is done, and those trickles of Iran, well, they’ll have to be enough for now.

With many relatives passed, I wonder, will I carry Iran for the rest of us? My intention is to retrieve Farsi, the Iranian language. I promise myself to do more than just celebrating Noruz once a year. I intend to share Iran with my teenage nephews so they know their rich heritage.

Will I carry Iran for all of us? Will I return to the country one day and stay with my second cousin, Fereshte? I imagine sightseeing in Tehran; would I weep at the sight of the architecture, the sound of the language, and the taste of the food? It has the potential to be an emotionally challenging experience, or would it be comforting to be home? Furthermore would it feel like home?

Would I feel Iranian?

Is Iran—and feeling Iranian—something that always needs to be chased? Seeking or crafting an experience is not the same as feeling Iranian naturally. That chapter has closed.

This is the way for now: sometimes feeling Iranian.

Maryam Keramaty received her bachelor’s degree in communications and journalism from Simmons University and a graduate certificate in public relations from Emerson College. Currently, she is a student at Grub Street in Boston, where she is studying the craft of writing the memoir and personal essay.

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We love this book for so many reasons! The writing is incredible, the story is important, and seeing what life looks like when you survive the unthinkable is transformative. If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of Sanctuary, by Emily Rapp Black. Purchase at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Birthday, Guest Posts, memories

I Hear You, Please Come In

December 26, 2020
birthday

By Charna Cassell

 “The hand that still works grips, won’t let go.”
-Margaret Atwood, A Visit

I recently turned 45 and for the last few years, I’ve dreaded my birthday. Not for reasons you might think, like sagging skin or facing my mortality or no longer making certain age-group cut-offs on dating apps. I’ve dreaded it year after year, right around my birthday, I re-experience the pattern that was imprinted on me before I could talk.

This bracing around my birthday began five years ago. That was the year I offered trauma and resilience training at an orphanage in my birthplace, Nepal. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t been to the country since I was 16: I felt like I belonged.

The staff and children threw a party for me on the day I left. The gifts were abundant, and touching: Hand-drawn pictures, a small Buddha statue, a red felt hat. 400 people celebrating your existence with genuine love sets a new standard.

The contrast of returning to Oakland (on my birthday, no less) was stark. As I unlocked the door to my apartment, it struck me that I was entirely alone. This wasn’t a new feeling; during different periods of my life, I’ve felt like an orphan too. Not because I developed a special talent for forgetting my past, or got good at being alone, what with my father in prison for the first half of my life and my mother addicted to drugs and habitually choosing men over me (her ability to parent herself, let alone a child, insubstantial). It was because of what happened when I was born.

A triangle of isolation existed between my dad, my mom, and me before I came into the world. My father was hiding out from the police when an earthquake hit Nepal and my mother fell down a set of stairs, leaving her with a partially severed placenta. Ten days in a rural hospital passed before her water broke and out I came in a rush. I was tucked into a cardboard box that functioned as a makeshift incubator while she grew distraught in a distant room, not knowing if I was okay. Although I imagine I was tended to well by the Nepali nurses, I only saw her intermittently. Years later, I learned they told my mother she would kill me if she overfed me and took me away from her frequently.

My body learned, before anything else, that I could not depend on my primary caretakers for food, shelter, or love. That I could not trust that protection would consistently be available when I needed it.

My nervous system recalls this when my birthday arrives. Around this time, I feel caught between two worlds; trapped between the panic of birth and the numbness of being in utero. A blanket of tension runs the length of my body while my chest feels like it’s clogged with stones.

Under my skin, I sense an urge to mobilize into action, to complete something. To get out of this skin, this relationship, this home, this womb. Anniversaries of any kind can evoke plenty.

What does this tell me? It reminds me that we decide a lot before we are verbal. We know and choose what feels good and right and safe, just as we know in our cells and bones what does not. The frantic flapping in my ribcage, the shame I feel for wanting contact and the assurance that it’ll arrive on time, those stones in my heart—all of these sensations that I experience when my birthday rolls around were created before I had the words to articulate what I needed.

We’re inclined to think of these preverbal feelings as the realm of fetuses and infants, but their distant cousins surface in the adults we become, dictating actions and reactions that emerge without the concrete memories to explain them. This unconscious voltage may run through us for years.

The day before my 45th birthday, I was at a friend’s party. Two men who previously held starring roles in my life—one as a close friend, the other as a lover—were milling around the dance party and food table. Both are my teachers (or my “sex angels,” as I call them) because they come in and out of my world to teach me things and help me evolve. (These lessons don’t have to involve sex, but they do usually involve intimacy and pain.) Echoes of the sorrow and fear I once felt in being alone and forgotten had been activated by both of these men in the past. I was already feeling vulnerable, and now this?

My formerly close friend told me at the party that he was moving to Bali and asked, “Have you been there?” I looked at him and couldn’t tell if he was joking. When I saw that he wasn’t, I laughed in pure awe. Eight years earlier, he had invited me on a month-long trip to the very place he was asking me if I’d ever visited. We’d purchased tickets, planned for it with giddy excitement—and then he disinvited me because his other friend wasn’t sure about traveling with me. Once I reminded him of this, he said, “Why would I want to remember something like that about myself?”

Why indeed.

But memory is an interesting thing. When I think of selective memory, I think of memories that were once conscious but carried an untenable amount of remorse, terror, or grief—so much so they fell into submission, below consciousness, to protect the feeler.

My old lover’s memory seemed to work towards a similar sort of self-preservation. We had an on and off-again relationship for years. When we were on, he expressed he loved me…then later denied it. A week after gender-bending, kinky sex, he forgot it happened.

I broke up with him, and broke up with him again, only to be pulled back in by an invisible thread that seemed to connect us across multiple dimensions. I imagine that our souls and bodies remember each other and that in a different timeline, we were madly in love and able to express this with ease.

In this particular life, he doesn’t have the capacity to be in a skillful relationship with me. Sure, we’re friendly when we bump into each other in the produce aisle—or around the cheese platter at mutual friends’ parties—but he’s cautious and awkward, no matter that (or perhaps precisely because) we’d seen each other naked. With a slice of brie in one hand and a glass of sparkling water in the other, I teetered between wanting to hold him a little too long when we hugged and the desire to turn away.

I saw both of these men three hours after an attachment therapy session where I moved through the preverbal fear of not being chosen, remembered, or loved. The universe, I’m convinced, orchestrated this encounter.

Because here’s the thing: A great deal can be imprinted on us before we’re born or when we were children, but we also have a lifetime to unwind the hardships our bodies remember. Triggers are opportunities to bring buried traumas into the present, to where they can be integrated.

When I was a child, my grandmother disowned my mom. This devastated both of them. It prompted my mom’s self-destructive, numbing actions—her tireless desire to not feel a thing, which she bedded down with for decades.

The first signs of my grandmother’s dementia surfaced during a conversation about attachment theory, when I was trying to explain what can happen when a parent is not attuned to their infant and care is erratic or nonexistent. She interrupted me to say, “Well, anyone who throws away a child should be taken out and shot. I found a baby in the trash can outside my house. I cleaned him up and gave him a haircut. His name is Charlie and he goes to college but every day, he always comes home and eats sandwiches with me for lunch.”

She paused. “He’s such a good boy,” she added.

Charlie was one of many children my grandmother rescued. By her 93rd birthday, she had hundreds of children she’d “adopted,” and they all lived with her in Cassell’s Castle. They all shared her birthday, too, and when we sang, “Happy Birthday, Marion,” she gleefully sang over us, “Happy Birthday to everyone.”

Some of our relatives thought she was crazy. I didn’t. I was only reminded that guilt runs deep, and that what she couldn’t remember—abandoning her flesh-and-blood daughter—was making itself known and asking, in its strange way, to be integrated.

My grandmother passed away five years ago. These days, I treat my nervous system with as much care as she, in her mind, did her Charlie.

I acknowledge my triggers and excavate the source of the original hurt; I try to remain in the present. I power through strength-training exercises with a personal trainer—slow, weight-bearing practices that activate my fight-or-flight response and fortify my nervous system. I parent myself each time I snuggle my dog or take a walk instead of blazing through work and ignoring my need for food or a good stretch or a conversation with nature. I’ve stopped choosing lovers who are scared of their desire for me or the emotions that are aroused in our relationship; ambivalence doesn’t have the same draw it once did. And in the process of becoming as conscious as I possibly can, I realize that these people—from my mother to my father to my sex angels—are each playing their part in reminding me that we are all doing the best we can. That so little is personal.

Through this lens, I see them as gifts that help bring the preverbal forward. I feel through the pain, loss, and separation as if feeling my way through a dark room, knowing, when I reach the light, that their forgetting and absences aren’t really about me.

I am alone I am not alone I am loved I am cherished I am valued I am important I am an item on the menu at Café Gratitude, apparently. And I am 45.

Charna Cassell is an Embodied Leadership Coach and Body-Centered Psychotherapist who has helped people heal and celebrate their sexuality for the past twenty-five years—first as as sex educator and sex toy clerk at San Francisco’s Good Vibrations, then as a somatic coach and bodyworker, and now as a psychotherapist specializing in working with trauma. Charna can be found online here.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

 

Guest Posts, Marriage, memories

Find My

November 23, 2020
phone

By Abby Frucht

I’m in bed under the covers, my phone in my hand, my eyeglasses on, locating you. The little bullseye thing twerking I invent a way to feel it in the palm of my hand, green throb with slow glow, the map of back roads and main drags so near to my face I might trace them with my tongue, disentangling them. In my hand your route stabilizes, agitates anew, then blurs to a stop at the dead end curb where that couple once parked to have sex in our yard. In a blend of moon and lamplight they stumbled out of their car and knelt on a spot of grass to fuck. It was three in the morning, just like now, so I sat naked at the window and cranked it open to watch them going right at it, their limbs paler than worms, half in and half out of Bermuda shorts. Undisturbed by their cries, you twitched in your sleep, dreaming of tennis. Later you were grateful I didn’t rouse you to join in spying on them, and so was I. It would have been like the two of us watching a movie, one I liked but you didn’t. It was way too predictable, you would say. It took forever to get there but you knew all along what was going to happen.

You’ll turn seventy three a week from this morning.

You like to joke about death, especially now, including me in the bargain.

“G’night,” I might say. “See you tomorrow.”

“Hope so,” you’ll say.

“Let me know what we should order for curbside pick-up.”

“Bones,” you’ll say.

The little cursor reconsiders and makes its way to your parking place in our driveway. To see it blinking there fills me with panicked rage. My own pulse climbs, as it did last night and the night before. My feet turn cold. I don’t like to be tricked. I don’t trust this app. There are all sorts of ways for someone smarter than me to make fools of the rubes on the opposite end of it. Even if I get up and prowl barefoot outside to see your truck where it belongs, I won’t believe what I’m seeing. I’ll feel cheated, let down, since you’re not out and about in the midst of this scourge, so I can’t stalk you any longer, follow you around. Instead I shut down the phone, then turn it back on and start the whole app up all over again, provoking myself, stoking my adrenaline in preparation for catching you clicking shut the truck door, backing out of the driveway, gliding away.

Locating… the phone confides.

It works more quickly this time, more confidently.

Oshkosh

Now

Careful not to make a sound, I snake my arm through the blankets to set my glasses and phone atop some books on the night table. My head still undercover I shimmy sideways until one of my feet meets yours. I jerk it away, then slide my whole leg nearer and sneak my toes between your ankles to get them warm.

You keep on snoring.

You in our bed.

Our bed in our room in our house on our street in this town in this world.

Now.

Abby Frucht is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and most recently, poetry. She has been published at Narrative, Virginia Quarterly and in Brevity. Her writing has received a Best of the Web citation as well as the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. She has published nine books, the most recent of which, Maids, is a collection of poetry.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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