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Guest Posts, Divorce, memories

Blossom

March 6, 2022
blossom

The morning after my father announced he and Mom were getting divorced, he made everyone strawberry pancakes for breakfast because it was the sweetest apology he could muster. Afterward, my brother Brian and I went out back and hit golf balls into the woods. One swing and the balls lifted into the trees, gone. Over the summer, Brian and I caddied at a swank country club and scrounged up almost a bucket’s worth of balls. Working them down to a handful, I took a sloppy hack and my ball caromed off the chicken shack and into the mixed elms and birches. I frowned; even at 10-years-old, the metaphor of a jettisoned ball and my father’s imminent departure was not lost on me.

At that point in our lives, we didn’t have much to remedy our parents’ fracture: there was no extended family in the area, we didn’t belong to afterschool clubs or organizations, and we certainly didn’t attend church: one of the reasons we’d moved downstate, besides a job opportunity for my dad, was to escape our Pentecostal church. They were straight up Old Testament fanboys who believed in demonic possession and speaking in tongues. During service, the pastor would step over the bodies of those “overcome” by the spirit of the Lord. They’d be lying on the floor, eyes closed and blissed out, and he’d carry on with his sermon about how to be a good Christian in an ungrateful world. Then he’d flip his mike cord and high step over the pronounced girth of some lady snoozing it off near the podium. “Praise Jesus”, he’d say, and continue on with his motivational speech as if walking over the prone bodies of zonked adults was all perfectly normal.

But I digress.

It would be another month before my dad was fully moved out, but Brian and I found solace in the backyard, the small woods behind it. So did my younger brother, Josh. My little sister Liz was an afterthought, and she mostly stayed inside, not because she wanted to but because we three ignored her. Brothers are cruel like that. The backyard became our go-to, our refuge in a time of complete uncertainty. Out back, we were the ones in charge.

In the center of the yard was an overgrown grape vine. We ate some of the fruit but were grossed out by their abundance of seeds. So instead, we whipped them at each other in impromptu battles, splotching our shirts like blood.

Once, the two boys across the street that used to pummel Brian and me for sport came over and the four of us pretended to make wine, crushing the grapes and filling an empty soda bottle with the run-off. We drank it and acted like what we thought drunk people acted like, which was to giggle and walk in circles. We’d later learn at various neighborhood blowouts that drunk people mostly complained loudly about each other, air guitared to Iron Maiden, and threw up in the rhododendrons. But that was still a few years away. Sensibly, my mom decided to make jam with the grapes and that was probably the smartest thing anyone did with them.

Alone after school, we rummaged through the basement to find curious odds and ends, stuff both there when we moved in and items our father hadn’t taken with him: spooky chemicals in ancient brown bottles lined the shelves in one corner, along with crooked boxes filled with European history books, maps, old clothes, and sword and sorcery paperbacks. We also discovered our dad’s record collection. He used to be a disc jockey, and we admired the colorful copies of folk and rock artists none of us had heard of: The Who, Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio. One box held these odd, extra thick albums with no covers at all. The artists were old blues and jazz musicians, and today, I’m sure these records would be worth the price of tuition at an elite college. We were duly unimpressed. And since they were made by a bunch of guys who were probably dead anyway, we figured the records would be perfect for a lively discus competition.

At first, we hucked the albums toward the trees, but they didn’t fly straight and kept smashing sideways into the ground. So we threw them straight up in the air and ran away as they hurtled back towards us. We agreed to add a marksman category, and after one of us tossed an album, another took aim with a pellet gun. Our aim wasn’t half bad. And we took safety very seriously, pointing the gun away from most windows and sometimes each other.

The dimensions of the backyard were just right for Wiffle ball and we declared it our own Fenway Park. Brian and I grew up watching the Red Sox on Channel 38 with our parents. I watched Carlton Fisk wave the ball fair in the ‘75 Series and suffered the humiliation of Bucky-Bleeping-Dent in ‘78. In the backyard, I was Yaz, and the chicken shack served as a kind of Green Monster. Even the grape vine was in play, like the outfield ivy at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Nothing was better than smacking the ball into the grapes as one of us frantically tried to dig it out, wild eyed and cursing. Many a single was stretched into a double courtesy of that vine.

We decided to best way to utilize the woods was by setting up animal snares we read about in one of the books we hauled out of the basement. We bent the necks of saplings down and used carrots as bait. We’d check the snares faithfully each day, but to our disappointment, no rabbits. Not even an unlucky squirrel.

On my birthday, my friend Jamie and I blew up a can of Renuzit air freshener in a makeshift campfire in the woods. We had hoped for fireworks and got it: the can rocketing up about 20 feet. Afterward, Jamie and I put the campfire out with sand and went over to his house to shoot hoops. I was excited as my dad was going to be home that night to help me celebrate turning 11.

Later, as I made my way back home, I kept hearing sirens and noticed a small cloud of smoke hovering over my road, and then over the woods. The closer I got, the more I became filled with an increasing sense of doom.

I stood around with my brothers and sister in the backyard as a couple of firemen zipped this way and that. They came in through the backside of the woods and quickly contained the blaze. My father came right up to Brian and me, and for the first time in my life he looked scared.

“Do you boys know anything about this?” A fireman clad in yellow stood behind my dad, waiting.

Brian and I looked at each other and did the right thing: we lied.

“What? No. No way. I was over Jamie’s house,” I said. Which was technically true.

Brian denied culpability as well, even though he knew what Jamie and I were up to.

“Well, this is certainly one hell of a set of birthday candles,” my dad said, and walked back to the fireman, arms raised.

I should have felt guilty for lying, but I didn’t. Why ruin a perfectly good birthday with the enormity of truth? Truth, I thought, only spoke of painful things: that our dad was gone, that I could daily see the struggle of being a single parent in my mother’s eyes, that our family had very little money and even less reasons to be happy. Birthdays were supposed to be a once-a-year moratorium on all of that. I couldn’t sacrifice my brief window to joy.

Somehow, we all got through that mess. And as fall stretched to winter, and winter to spring, it became increasingly apparent that dad was never coming back, that this really was permanent. But we all did something extraordinary: we persevered.

As we got older, the yard morphed into a different kind of haven; our mother slowly cultivated it into a dazzling flower garden. She tore out the grape vine and almost every corner of the yard now billows with (nonlethal) explosions of pink, purple, white, and red. There is a small koi pond. Japanese maples. The chicken shack has been removed in favor of French lilac. Butterflies are the new rulers of this domain.

In fact, when her grown-up sons and daughter now come to visit, she takes them on tours to show them what she has added, points out what is thriving or what still remains stubborn to rise. I wonder at it all. And am amazed. Because I remember a time, however misguided, when the yard was overrun by those seeking their own path to blossom.

Christopher Locke was born in New Hampshire and received his MFA from Goddard College. His essays can be found in The Sun, The Rumpus, JMWW, Parents, Slice, Atticus Review, and elsewhere. His memoir “Without Saints” (Black Lawrence Press) and poetry collection “Music For Ghosts” (NYQ Books) are both due in 2022. Chris lives and writes in the Adirondacks. Chris can be found online here.

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Guest Posts, memories

Charm School

February 22, 2022
PBS

In an early memory I’m six years old playing quietly in our family room in Kentucky when I overhear my parents talking in the kitchen. My dad suggests to Mom that I go to charm school for guidance on manners. It’s a vague memory; the context blurred and the topic faded as quickly as it was introduced. I don’t know how or when I learned, even, that a charm school was a place to better one’s etiquette, and it all seems entirely out of place given our middle class standing.

I was not by any standards a messy or impolite kid, but I often disappointed my mother, who was a compulsive neat freak. Play-Doh, scissor crafts, and nail polish were among an extensive list of forbidden items and activities in our house, and she likened me to Ramona Quimby, the messy and mischievous character in my favorite Beverly Cleary novels—though I never felt like I had nearly as much fun. My mom collected figurines that reminded her of each of us. My brothers’ were an infant (my baby brother Chris) and a monkey reaching out to be picked up (my colicky little brother Andrew who always wanted to be held). Mine was a smiling pig feasting on corn on the cob. I was a skinny kid, but I had a skill, that persists today, for hastily devouring buttered corn.

Rather than for my etiquette refinement, the suggestion of “finishing” school was more likely inspired by the constantly shifting expectations of my father. We reflected him, and our goal was to be polished, shiny, smooth on the outside, secrets on the inside. He ruled our house with a permanent scowl and mercurial temper.

“When you answer the phone, say ‘Vititoe residence’ instead of ‘hello’,” he began requiring when I was in my early teens. The idea of such public obedience was mortifying. I could imagine friends calling me and giggling after hearing me recite a formal greeting, and I was only on the verge of achieving high school status mediocre enough that classmates might forget their serial bullying of me in middle school. So, I avoided the phone ring, pretending not to hear, turning up my stereo louder. I think I only got stuck having to execute that order once, answering a phone call in the presence of my dad, and I don’t think he acknowledged my social sacrifice.

“When you come to the breakfast table on weekends, you kids should get dressed and brush your hair first, instead of rolling out of bed looking like animals,” Dad said. So, I’d sleep in on weekends until I heard him busy with activities outside of the kitchen. I became a master in active avoidance and finding rule loopholes. I navigated teenage independence with a tenuous balance of dodging conflict and defining the boundaries of my integrity.

***

When I was five, my dad pointed out tiny pieces of skin peeling from my cuticles, which I’d never noticed. He plucked them and told me to do the same as they appeared. I overachieved. I picked and picked, trying to smooth out everything. My fingers were bloody sometimes from too much skin peeled off in an effort to make everything smooth. Never smooth enough. Never polished enough. Eventually I got in trouble for picking too much, but by then I was addicted to trying to smooth, smooth, smooth and could not stop.

In my memory the entire decade of the 1980s is a panicked string of news warnings about kidnappings and stranger danger. How much of that fear was substantiated, I’m unsure. In second grade we were fingerprinted at school, so the prints would go on record with the Kentucky Task Force for Missing and Exploited Children. I had picked at my fingers so much, going far beyond cuticle terrain and now extending to the tips and sides of each digit, that the people taking prints had to work hard to ink good fingerprints for me. Certain fingerprints were taken further down the finger, as the tips were too smooth. I blushed and held back tears as I registered the concern on their faces. I’d tried to polish myself so much I’d erased parts of me.

***

Before I started sixth grade we moved to a St. Louis suburb, after a brief three years in a small Illinois town. Things weren’t going well at school, I was made fun of relentlessly for different reasons, and I felt incredibly ugly for the first time. When Mom was grumpy and shivering with the flu the night my dad had his company Christmas party at a Doubletree Hotel, my dad asked me if I wanted to go. The party theme was one of those murder mystery dinners with outside actors. I knew I couldn’t refuse my dad’s invitation without repercussion, but I also was intrigued and eager to leave the house.

I wore a dress and some blush. I felt pretty and happy to be included, to feel like an adult, even if it was sort of weird to be my dad’s “date.” There were no other kids in attendance. After the murder mystery act and dinner, of which I remember nothing, I was seated with my dad in a circle of adults. The buffet chairs were pulled from various tables to create a table-less conversation. Were there too many people to fit at a table? I recall a feeling of naked vulnerability, sitting around a ghost table in a cavernous conference room.

The adults in conversation were gracious to me, making small talk as they sipped their cocktails.

What grade was I in? Did I like school?

No, I did not.

My distaste for small talk must have preceded sixth grade, or…maybe its origin was right in this moment. The adults in suits and dresses and sparkly jewelry moved on to their adult conversations about work and…whatever.

A TV news anchor for the St. Louis evening PBS News Hour was present at the ghost table. Slender and glamorous in a suburban way, she had short dark curly hair done well–a hair goal for me. My own short curls were often the topic of ridicule at school because I had no clue how to control them. I think she might have also played a character in the murder mystery. She smiled a lot. My dad instantly liked her and his (nerdy! embarrassing!) love for PBS was an entrée to conversation. My dad inexplicably loved any documentary and subjected us to them on the regular.

I sat, ankles crossed, politely in my tights and dress in the circle. I watched everyone talk and accepted that I was not invited to their conversation. I was a good reflection of my dad. I let him brag about me. I did not pick at my fingers despite fiending to do so. I tried to pretend I was not dying of boredom. I wondered how Mom was feeling at home, sick and caring for my six- and four-year-old brothers. It was getting late. She would’ve put them to bed by now.

Adults began to bid their leave while my dad and Ms. PBS drank and laughed. At some point I began to feel that even though I was being the Perfect Version of Myself, I was a burden just for being there. My eleven-year-old brain detected something that made me uncomfortable, though my dad and Ms. PBS never touched, maybe other than a handshake. In fact, they were seated fairly far apart. But it was beginning to feel like they were the only people really there. The rest of us were fading away like that phantom table. Or extras in a rom-com.

Was she married? How come I don’t remember that—did I not look for a ring? In present-day review I interrogate and pressure my past self for clues. When you felt uncomfortable, can you explain why? Such a missed opportunity, being a fly on the wall at a moment in which I could have dissected how my dad started potential affairs. But all I felt was unease, something in the air I didn’t like and couldn’t label. Can a pre-teen smell pheromones? I would come to have the same sense again, a few years later, when a parent dropped me off after a babysitting job and got her first-generation minivan stuck in our snake-long sloping driveway. My dad offered to turn it around for her, asking her to move to the passenger seat I’d just exited. She seemed rattled when she left after he rescued her, unlike Ms. PBS at the Doubletree. Was this the last time I babysat for her? I ask my past self again and again. Did my dad scare off a coveted employer with his sleazy vibes? I do remember she was very pretty.

What struck me, more than a growing feeling of wanting to disappear or go home, was that whatever my dad was doing—laughing? Telling his dumb dad jokes? Fawning? Complimenting?—was working. He was charming Ms. PBS. This portly man with terribly fitting slacks, you actually like him? You, an attractive newscaster on TV, are falling for my dad? You should see him at home. I’ll give you two days. Count his smiles now, they are scarce when he gets comfortable, and he would find fault soon enough with you, too.

Finally, finally, finally we left. What if we hadn’t? What if they’d gotten a room and he’d made me wait in the car? Like he made my brothers wait when he visited a girlfriend after my parents divorced years later? On the way home my beaming dad asked, “Isn’t she pretty? Look how well she takes care of herself. Isn’t it impressive that she works? Wasn’t she so nice?” I nodded, “Yes!” to all things, in naive agreement. That curly hair she rocked! That alone was talent. And a newscaster! Mom didn’t even have a college degree.

“Would you like to have a mom more like Ms. PBS?” he asked.

My enthusiasm crashed. Unfair question.

He kept talking, comparing this stranger to Mom, home sick in bed, who chose not to work outside the home because he traveled all week, and if she did, she never would have left him alone sick to go flirt at a company Christmas event. And in fairness, my mom could clean up well too, when circumstances prescribed. She’d play up her doe eyes, gloss her lips in Clinique’s Black Honey shade of plum, and put on fashionable boots when my parents had to make an appearance somewhere, and I would be in awe. And she could light up a room with her smile and tell a self-deprecating story that would make you roll with laughter.

I stared out the dark window the rest of the ride home, a nauseous traitor occasionally offering a random chipper acknowledgement to please him.

“Do you want to listen to some music?” I asked at last.

***

Mom was a soap opera fanatic, and never watched PBS. But when my dad was home watching documentaries, I’d exit around 9 o’clock when Ms. PBS might show up on the air. I’d seen her on News Hour before the murder mystery dinner, but now I couldn’t see her the same way. And I didn’t want to be tempted to watch my dad’s reaction to her. I was an accomplice now, with shared guilt.

Decades later I finally admitted the event to Mom. She was neither upset with my “secret” nor surprised.

***

Within four years of the company Christmas party, my father lost his sales job that had forced us to move to St. Louis. We would be moving to Indiana for his new job. He claimed he’d been mistreated, that he said “one thing” to a female employee and she “took it the wrong way and blew it up.” He’d simply suggested that she consider wearing more make-up and “dressing more professionally.”

Mom discovered he was fired for sexual harassment. It was Missouri, early 1990s; not exactly the epicenter of female empowerment. In my adult life I’ve wondered often what he really did. How did my dad affect others’ lives, beyond that which I witnessed firsthand as a child?

***

Growing up, uprooting often and relocating around the Midwest (how many other times was this his fault?), the world outside our family often new, foreign, temporary, and our extended family fractured and geographically distant, the limited role models for living as an adult were my parents. I could be small, submissive and hidden like my mother mostly was, or charming, careless, and harmful like my father. I never fit well into either mold, but something-close-to-hiding seemed like the lesser risk to others.

Emily Schleiger is a writer in the Chicago area. She has studied writing at The Second City, Catapult and elsewhere, and improv and sketch at The Second City and Westside Improv. Her work has been published on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Reductress, The Second City Network, and more. She’s also performed at a few storytelling shows and readings. She is a survivor of a short career in human resources, and a mom of two. She is currently working toward her MFA at UCR-Palm Desert’s low residency program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Follow Emily online here. If she has gone missing, please check anywhere hot buttered popcorn is sold.

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Guest Posts, memories

Letter From A Friend

February 14, 2022
coffee

Before work I’d stop at Grey Dog Cafe for iced coffee and a morning muffin sprinkled with blueberries that stained my fingers inky purple. There was never a good place to stand, but it was cozy and the line moved fast.

I was a regular who noticed the other regulars, especially the woman in the velvet technicolor blazer who wrote in a pencil on a yellow legal pad most every day. I imagined her to be a writer or maybe an award-winning therapist. She was single, I thought, and a very good aunt, one who sends you books in the mail, and slips you a $20 for a cab home after taking you to dinner at a really good Indian restaurant.

I lived so much in my head back then.  I made up lively stories about the people pressed against me on the subway, the people in coffee shops, the people I passed on the street.

But my neighbors? Instead of meeting them, I scurried into my apartment each time I heard their palms press into their doorknobs. I lived in the same apartment in Astoria for five years, and I never met the people who shared my walls.

I should have knocked. I should have brought them brownies. I should have asked them for a book of matches or an egg.

But I never did those things. I stepped into the peaceful loneliness of my apartment at the end of each day; shut out the whole world so I could watch a never-ending loop of Law and Order: SVU. Made a pot of pasta or ordered in thai food. Fell asleep reading a book, cats curled up behind both knees.

Being alone felt like magic. I’d left a no-good relationship with a brilliant man who held himself in the lowest regard. We broke up because he refused to go to the doctor despite having a deep, unsettling pain in his gut for over a year.

“Chuck, I’m giving you six months. Go the doctor or we’re over. Please. I’m too young to be a sort-of widow,” I said.

On the final day of the sixth month I asked him if he’d made an appointment.

“Seriously? You’re asking me TODAY? I need more time, I’ll do it,” he said, red faced and furious that someone not related to him cared enough to want him to live.

Of course, he never went to the doctor. Of course, I had to leave.

Now here I was, alone with Benson and Stabler and my cats and the loneliness of it all settled on me like a dog’s thunder coat.

“I’ve got to get back home. You know, feed the cats,” I’d say, ducking out of happy hours and birthday parties earlier than most. I had excellent friends, beautiful co-workers, and together we had the kind of fun you have before life’s obligations start grinding you down. But I wanted to be back home, back to the safest place–inside my apartment, inside my head.

Inside my head that coffee shop woman, the writer or therapist with the legal pad and a bowl-sized mug of cappuccino, was a friend. Sometimes she’d smile at me. We’d make eye contact. She’d look appraisingly at my outfit, the green and blue snub-toed cowboy boots, the fluorescent pink hunter’s cap. Were we kindred spirits? Twenty years from now could I be living in Greenwich Village and working out of a bohemian coffee shop decorated with reclaimed wood and hand-painted tables, just like her?

There was a perfect fall morning. The sky was the color of a shack by the sea. The clouds ripe and soft. In my head I ran through a list of things I was grateful for–living alone in an apartment with yellow lemon walls, having a job that was very hard but always exciting, landing in a city like New York with all its wonderful weirdness.

The door was a little sticky that morning at the Grey Dog, and I had to push a little harder than usual to get inside.  I remember smiling, the morning muffins looked especially excellent, my outfit looked especially cute. It was cardigan weather.

On the way out, I stopped to grab a straw and an extra napkin. Coffee shop woman stood up, headed my way, slipped a folded piece of paper into my hand.

She said nothing, but her eyes were so bright before she turned away to sit back in her seat.

My brain lit up like the Broadway marquee.

She wants to be friends! We’re going to be friends! The lady writer / therapist and I are going to be pals and do cool things and this is such a perfect NYC story—

I walked a block away, turned a corner.  The paper, yellow and lined, of course. The message? The damn message.

“I got lap-band surgery and lost 75 pounds. You could do it too. Ask me about it.”

All the brightness in my brain fizzled out. Was she a writer or a therapist? I’d never find out.

After she slipped me that note I never went back to Grey Dog for coffee or morning muffins or anything. It was the scene of a crime, the scene of hopes dashed, and I started going to a coffee truck instead. The man slinging buttered rolls and cups of strong coffee called me beautiful and knew my name. If I looked sad, he slipped me a free jelly donut and told me it would be ok.

Rachel Kempster Barry is the author of several books on creativity and kindness.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Future Past

December 18, 2021
portland maine lighthouse

by Casey Walsh

I’ve been craving just one good beach day all summer, nothing to do but lie in the sun and gaze at the peaceful horizon. There’s something hopeful about looking out at the sea, as though you can see the past and the future, all there in the shimmering expanse of blue. Beyond the children on the sand and in the shallow water, past the more capable swimmers and surfers and the small vessels, ocean kayaks and canoes and catamarans, farther even than the cargo and cruise ships miles out, there is, at some point, nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination. No end in sight.

I’ve finally had the day I dreamed of—two of them in fact—at Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, MA. My husband, Kevin, and I spent a couple of days there and two more in Newburyport, just what we’ve needed as fall closes in.  Now we settle in for a meandering drive home, including a planned detour north along the coast.

Leaving Newburyport’s historic downtown, I assume my role as navigator to Kevin’s as driver. When we first began this alliance, my task typically involved paper maps. Now, though, it’s a dance of devices. As we drive over the Merrimack River on Route 1, I plug the address into the dashboard GPS, and while it calculates, I alternate between checking the Maps app and the radar on my iPhone. Glancing up to admire the boats in the inland harbor, I plan our route and hope the weather will hold while we explore Portsmouth, NH.

For the past few days, I’ve been focused on local treks, how to get from our hotel into town or from one hotel to the next. But as we turn off onto 1a—the scenic road along the coast—I take a broader look at our surroundings. It surprises me we’re so close to Hampton Beach, the crowded honky-tonk seaside scene my first husband and I had thought was fun back in the dark ages, before kids, when we still believed we’d be together forever. It won’t take Kevin and me long to reach Portsmouth. We’ll get a feel for the city, browse the shops, and grab a bite to eat before heading home to Albany.

Scrolling up on my phone as we drive, I see the places where my high school friends spent yearly summer vacations with their families: Kittery, York, Ogunquit, Wells, Old Orchard Beach, places I only dreamed of. I scroll still more, farther up than I remember, and there it is: South Portland.

Suddenly, it’s fall 1997 again, and I’m driving east across Massachusetts, then up into New Hampshire with my oldest son, Eric. We reached the outskirts of Portsmouth, then ventured on into Maine, past exits for beach towns, and finally arrived in South Portland. I was instantly enchanted by this small city, with its cobblestone streets and cyclists and parks, as we drove along the mouth of the Fore River. I pictured Eric here in the fall, riding his bike to a job in town, making a little cash to keep him afloat.

Eric and I drove out of downtown and out toward the water, where the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse marks a dangerous obstruction on the west side of the main shipping channel into Portland Harbor. Like most lighthouses, its distinctive beam patterns, varied sequences of light and dark, not only warn sailors of hazards but help them find their position as well.

Beautiful as it is, the lighthouse was not our destination. We were here to see the campus of South Portland Technical College, where the lighthouse is located on a breakwater at the tip.

Earlier in the year, I’d ventured into Eric’s high school guidance office asking for information about colleges for him. While the counselors offered personalized support to top-tier students, they paid little attention to kids like my son—those who had caused more headaches than pride for faculty in recent semesters. Screw ups…I believe that was the technical term. I was fairly certain the only way we’d figure out the right direction was for me to show up in person, put my best intelligent, efficient foot forward, and ask all the right questions. Essentially, I would stand in for Eric: patiently navigate the information, lay out his options, and apply just the right spin to help him see all the world could offer outside of Cambridge, our small upstate New York village.

Predictably, the counselors were busy, busy, busy, but they could steer me to a computer with a program that allowed a filtered search. Carefully, as though his life depended on it, I entered my criteria, channeling Eric as best I could: Industrial Drafting and Design. Dorms. Intercollegiate soccer program. Bingo. South Portland Technical College it is, I thought, within driving distance yet far enough to allow him to see what’s out there.

I gathered materials and made my pitch. Eric was surprisingly enthusiastic, devouring the catalogs, and soon we were planning a visit. I remember the tour, Eric realizing he’d had such good preparation at Cambridge, having already taken many courses in high school not available to some of the other students on the tour. And the coach was bursting with enthusiasm for what Eric would add to the team. All spring phone calls and letters arrived from the college, encouraging Eric to keep up his grades and updating him on who had been recruited, what promise lay ahead.

“By the time I graduate, I will have made so many new friends, snowboarded on the toughest mountains, and played college soccer,” he’d said with his trademark grin, slipping into the future past tense that swelled with optimism.

“Ah, but first you have to do well on that chemistry exam,” I’d teased.

From Eric, in characteristic form: “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

After years of guiding him through life closer to home, it seemed he, too, was ready to broaden his view to a world that just might include South Portland.

None of this would ever be. In the end, Eric settled on a local community college rather than leave his on-again off-again girlfriend, who had somehow completely drowned his ability to imagine a future on his own. That semester was a bust; partying and killing time killed all of his focus and enthusiasm for life. Afterward, he floundered for a while, searching for a path until he chose the Navy. He scored so well on the ASVAB that he was selected for aircraft technician school in Pensacola, FL, following completion of naval basic training in Illinois. If only he would stay the course.

Yet each of these options was somehow part of the tornado of trouble, the huge disturbance that had already begun its wreckage and was simply too big to fail. Though they offered brief glimmers of possibility, it was obvious even then that they were never to be. There would be stressors of a divorce that no amount of my own intelligence or efficiency could allay, adults who let him down, bad decisions and bad luck. There would be factors even I, the better part of two decades later, couldn’t begin to understand. Ultimately, a tragic crash would end his life.

Still, I remember so well how South Portland, where it all began, had a different vibe entirely. It seemed its lighthouse—which had protected seafaring travelers on Casco Bay from all sorts of dangers for more than a century—had the power to keep my son safe as well. But first he would have had to get there. Once Eric had turned away from that beam of hope, he lost his way. With nothing but sea and sky, no hint of a destination, there was no end in sight.

I squirm in my seat next to Kevin, who is oblivious to the places I’ve gone in my mind. Staring out the window at the sand and the waves, I feel the lump form in my throat, feel the tears form, hot and insistent. I let them wash over me. I’ve learned there’s no use in the fight, anyway. It’s a mystery to me, how I can feel so resolved at times, accepting of Eric’s life and of his passing as what was. What is. Then come days like this one, when everything is so present, invading my thoughts, refusing to share space with my current life, teasing me with visions of the life he never had.

I think of something I heard years ago—how sadness is missing what has been lost, but sorrow is missing what will never be—and I’m overcome with a rare wave of anxiety, something I haven’t felt in quite this way since the day Eric dashed out the front door that one last time. If only I could reach back and change one little thing, it all so easily could have happened for him. He’d been so damn close. I picture Kevin and me driving to Maine to visit Eric and his wife and outdoor-loving, risk-taking kids living out their happy lives in an idyllic seaside town. It tortures me.

I sit silently for a while as we drive along the coast, wallowing really, and fantasize about the student Eric could have been—living in the dorms, playing on the soccer team, making new friends on campus and in town, enjoying the ocean views that might have inspired him as they do me. Caught in the past, I’ve been exercising my best Google-fu, frantically searching for the online home of the place that had once drawn us in, frustrated that SPTC seems to have vanished along with the life I imagined for my son, and for me. Using the lighthouse as the beacon it was meant to be, I finally locate Southern Maine Community College on the web, the same campus anointed with a new name, another entity entirely. How like my own life, it strikes me, completely rewritten, though some of the old remains in different form. Still, the college will never again be what it was on that day, at that time.

And neither will I.

I notice we’re about to reach Portsmouth.  Kevin and I are on vacation, after all, and I owe it to him to at least attempt to come up for air. “Hey, listen to this,” I offer, feigning enthusiasm, hoping the feelings will follow.  “They even have a comic book on their website describing the lighthouse and its origins.”

Step Into History!  the title commands.

If only it were history, I think, not a future imagined but never fulfilled.

I close the app, drop the phone into my bag, and turn my eyes to the road ahead.

Casey Walsh is a writer and former speech-language pathologist living with her husband in West Sand Lake, New York. She writes about life at the intersection of grief and joy and embracing the in-between. Her work has appeared in The Good Men Project; Fresh.Ink, The Under Review; Circulation: Genomic and Precision Medicine; Barren Magazine; Brevity Blog; and ModernLoss, among others. Casey’s essays also appear at TheFHFoundation.org, an organization dedicated to the genetic cardiac disorder that affects her family. Learn more at www.caseymulliganwalsh.com.  Casey is currently seeking representation for her memoir, The Full Catastrophe.

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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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Guest Posts, Family, 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

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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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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