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Guest Posts, memories

My Mom Drives a Red Race Car

May 13, 2024
Traci

When my mother was alive, she never drove a car. She didn’t fly on airplanes, either or climb the slatted staircase to the observatory at the college where my father taught, to see the stars. My mom had severe anxiety and agoraphobia, and throughout my childhood, our one weekly family outing, besides attending church, was a trip to the public library.

But my mother drives now. She wears glamorous black sunglasses and a scarf around her neck as she roars off in her red Pontiac GTO, similar to the souped-up 8-cylinder Mustang I would have bought with my inheritance, if I’d been brave enough to rumble up in such a car to my job as a college professor in Los Angeles.

Recently, when I told my therapist about my mother’s post-death transformation, his face grew still, a noticeable effort to conceal his reaction. I don’t blame him. I’ve had a hard time believing it myself, but the truth is that my daughter Ivy is a medium, and according to her, my dead mother has things to say.

When grief-stricken people come to Ivy for a reading, she senses the personality and sees the faces of their departed loved ones clearly enough that she could draw their picture. The dead show Ivy images in her mind’s eye, and she describes these to her clients, evidence from their lives the dead can see, or items they remember: a teacup set painted with twin cherries, a toddler’s Jellycat sloth, a hidden box of love letters, lilacs that bloomed where a grapevine was planted.

I didn’t know Ivy was a medium until two years ago. She went to Dartmouth and USC, where she now teaches, and if anyone else had told me they could talk to dead people, I would have had the same reaction as my therapist. But Ivy has always been a thoughtful and serious person. After her fiancé, a beloved psychiatrist, drowned in a surfing accident, as she describes it, “the dead became too loud to ignore.”

Thanks to a research study that involved Ivy as a subject, I now understand that mediumistic experiences, whatever they are, often emerge alongside unexpected loss. When she first told me, though, I was skeptical. I teach critical thinking for a living. As a young mother, I’d left the evangelical church in which I was raised and had spent my adulthood as an atheist. To go back to believing there was an afterlife after all felt like reverting to an inside-out version of the organized religion I had years before dismissed.

But I wanted to support Ivy, somehow help her bear the weight of grief. To understand mediumship better, I set an appointment, using an untraceable fake identity, with Traci Bray, a medium certified by researchers affiliated with the University of Arizona. I had heard it suggested to ask a departed loved one ahead of time for a sign, and although I felt sure I would hear nothing of the sort, I asked to be shown the Christmas cookies with pastel-colored icing and sparkly sprinkles my mom baked with me and my sisters every year, a tradition I had carried on with my daughters.

“Hello?” Traci said on the phone. Her voice seemed surprisingly ordinary, and after offering to allow me to record our call, she immediately came up with the name of my high school boyfriend, the name of my youngest daughter, Allison, and an accurate description of our family dog, who had died years before. She also said my mom was there, showing herself, and gave my sister’s middle name as evidence.

My mom showed the specific grosgrain ribbons she’d tied on my braids in girlhood, then showed herself taking deep, relaxed breaths. Traci asked if that meant anything to me, and I thought back on my mom’s last days. She’d been intubated and I’d sat by her side watching the machine artificially, and what had seemed violently, pushing air in and out of her lungs.

My mom also showed herself reaching for a glass of orange juice from a refrigerator, and when Traci made a point of describing the glass as small, my eyes welled up. Many people drink orange juice for breakfast, but my family’s dietary habits were a defining feature of my childhood, which I have often recounted to friends. My mom grew up traumatized by an alcoholic father. She wanted to give me and my sisters lives of stability, and to her that meant a familiar routine. She made us the same breakfast every morning—one scrambled egg, one piece of toast, a large glass of milk and a small glass of orange juice.

Traci then asked if my mom had had Parkinson’s – no, I said, but she did have an essential tremor, which others often mistook for Parkinson’s. Was this coincidence? Just good guessing? Lots of older people have shaky hands. But of the many symptoms a person could have when they are aging, Traci had described the symptom my mom had found most distressing. In the last few moments of the call, Traci asked, “Did your mom have a special recipe for the holidays, some kind of sticky green spread or cream cheese you’d spread on crackers?” It took me a minute before it dawned on me. Was she seeing our Christmas cookies?

I found the conversation remarkable and moving, but later in the day I was surprised to hear Ivy had another message for me. “Gran’s here,” she said, and when Ivy described seeing a name-inscribed, silver chain link bracelet my boyfriend had given me in high school, my mind began to shift. I hadn’t thought of that bracelet for years. How would Ivy know something I’d forgotten about myself?

Still, trying to absorb the surreal possibility that my dead mother could talk to me felt difficult. When I was a small child, my mom sometimes disappeared into her bedroom for hours, leaving me to cope on my own. And although we had cozy times, too, Sunday night popcorn, reading in lawn chairs together in the front yard, and as many presents on Christmas and birthdays as she could manage, much of my young life revolved around her distress.

The year I was a sophomore in high school, my parents and sister and I went on a rare outing to a new restaurant at the mall, which was on the second floor, up a flight of red-carpeted slatted stairs. When we got there, my mom put one foot on the first step and one hand on the railing, but couldn’t get herself to go up. The restaurant was visible above us on an open balcony, and I remember gazing at the people chatting at tables, as my dad searched for the elevator. After we realized it was out of order, and we’d spent a few moments standing awkwardly around, we got back in the car and drove home.

When I was eighteen, my sister and I tried to teach her how to drive on a country road near our home in southern Idaho, but she gripped the steering wheel for only a few minutes before her arms began shaking from fright and exertion. I can imagine how she might have felt, the road stretching out into the distance, impossibly long, open fields all around. When she put on the brakes and the car jerked to a stop, my hand flew up against the dashboard, and she didn’t want to try again. Everyone drove in Idaho—it was the way we got around, and her refusal to take agency over that part of her life felt emblematic of the way fear was allowed to rule our lives.

But we didn’t press her on these issues. We kept silence around them; that was our family’s unspoken pact. And now in this moment, I was finding it hard to accept this new mom, talking to me so openly, as if my childhood trauma had never taken place.

I decided to schedule a follow-up call with Traci, to confide in her about Ivy’s mediumship experiences, and the conflict I was feeling. “They’re showing me your mother’s anxiety came partly from her own unrecognized psychic abilities,” Traci said, describing mediumship as a strange inheritance that often runs in families. Traci said her own family has refused to acknowledge her stigmatized profession and remarked that my open-minded curiosity was a gift to my grieving daughter, who was struggling with self-acceptance.

And whether I believed it or not, Ivy frequently felt my mom’s presence, so I kept listening. “Why does Gran keep showing me a single raspberry and then strawberry shortcake?” Ivy asked me one night.

I was stumped, then remembered the cereal heaped with raspberries I’d had for breakfast. That morning, I’d been thinking of my girlhood, and how fresh berries had been a rare treat. I have so much, I’d thought, feeling grateful. I had said nothing out loud to anyone about this, but through the images she was showing Ivy, my mom was bringing it up.

“We did have strawberry shortcake in the summer. I remember that now,” I said, laughing at my mom’s correction of my memory, a moment that felt like normal conversation between two people.

It took a while after I started hearing messages from my mom for me to say to her, “I know you loved me so much, but I wish you had been more consistently present for me.” It took guts to say that, even to a dead woman.

Through Ivy, she responded, “I’m so sorry. I will say I’m sorry as many times as you need me to.” And then she said, “that’s the reason why I’ve been showing up so consistently for you now, because I want to try to make up for that.”

Her words made me weep. There were regrets on my side, too. I’d felt guilty when she asked to live with me in Las Vegas where I had a teaching job at the time, choosing instead to visit her in Idaho at the assisted living facility where she spent her final months. But now she showed herself to Ivy in what was unmistakably her own sense of humor, flying over The Strip in a cartoon airplane, quipping, “Granny goes to Vegas! Can you imagine? That would have been a disaster!”

I’d also felt ashamed about the amount of my inheritance I’d wasted buying clothes online, but before I even asked, my mom communicated that shopping had been a form of self-care for a grieving daughter. She said she was glad I’d found a way to bring myself joy in a hard time. I hadn’t known how badly I needed to hear that, and a knot of tension released in my chest.

I marveled at all my mom seemed to know about the private moments of my ongoing life, and she responded by showing Ivy the “cone of silence,” the goofy device used on the TV show Get Smart to send secret messages, as if to show me I now have a direct pipeline to my mom with my thoughts. It seemed purely silly, another perfect example of her sense of humor, until I watched a clip of it again on YouTube, and listened to the dialogue in the scene. Max says, “Well, Chief, I appreciate you taking me into your confidence like this.” And the Chief replies, “Max, there is always someone in whom we must have faith.”

My other daughters say I seem lighter now, more attuned and present. I know intellectually from therapy that my wiring from my upbringing has the potential to tip me into fear and anxiety, but as my ongoing relationship with my mom has evolved, I can feel something inside me healing.

Recently, Ivy spoke as a medium on a podcast hosted by two therapists called Love, Sex, and Attachment about how evidential mediumship can help the grieving develop a more secure attachment through the cultivation of continuing bonds. Similar to narrative therapy, Ivy’s abilities have helped me rewrite my own story of loss.

Somewhere I read that healing doesn’t occur outside of relationships; healing occurs inside safe relationships. Perhaps the most convincing evidence that my mom really might be alive and well in another dimension: my relationship with her is finally becoming a safe place to be.

Constance Ford is originally from Idaho, and has earned degrees in creative writing from Hollins University and UNLV. Her short stories have been published in Pif, Switchback, and Brain, Child, among others, and she currently has a novel out on submission. She lived in Las Vegas for thirteen years, raising her daughters there, and now teaches writing at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Her daughter, Ivy Sunderji can be followed at here.  

***

We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.

It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.

Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.

aging, Guest Posts

Keep On Rockin’

April 28, 2024
Neil

No one has ever compared me to Neil Young.

No one but me.

When your heroes are Jesus and Jimmy Fallon, and your aesthetic is Strawberry Shortcake, you accept that many will deem you tame. This is fine. This is an occupational hazard of being stubbornly innocent, which is the wildest quality ever underestimated.

But undomesticated earnestness confuses critics. It is no surprise that few would guess my most feral friendship.

I encountered Neil the way most of his younger buds do, on the paltry sampler platter of classic rock stations. Perched between Bruce’s garlic knots and Bon Jovi’s bruschetta, there was an artichoke heart of gold.

I loved him instantly, that anguished voice with its audible ache. The old man with the harmonica made me inexplicably happy. I found my way to Ohio and bayed beneath the Harvest Moon.

When I finally found a picture of my friend, Neil was somehow exactly as I’d pictured. His hair was an independent animal, his hats a declaration of independence, his eyes amphitheaters for thunderstorms.

He always appeared to be wearing too many layers, suedey coats and grizzly flannels his only protection against the infuriating world.

He loved the world, though, loved it enough to howl and growl and kick and rock. He believed we could do better. He wheezed the exasperation known only to lovers.

By the time I was old enough to know I was uncool, I realized how much cooler Neil was than his collaborators. There was a wearied, wild warmth under all those jackets. No Crosby on earth could keep up with this bleeding heart of gold. No hypocrisy was safe. Every harmonica was holy in Neil’s care.

But Neil needed care, too.

There are salty facts that come to you like lightning. When trivia comes close to the bone, it’s like discovering fire.

I did not go looking for “Neil Young’s chronic illness,” but this nontrivial information sought me. There it was, fact-checked and boggling: Neil had lived with Type 1 diabetes since age six.

My type 1 diabetes.

My exceedingly uncool, exasperating type 1 diabetes.

He doesn’t speak of it often, but neither does he deny it — nor the polio that made a run for his life, nor the epilepsy that still encroaches.

I stared at the screen, glowing into the dark. It was one or two in the morning, and I was awake with bratty blood sugar and out-of-tune ketones. I have an arsenal of strategies against self-pity on such nights, special teas and lap cats and distracting websites reserved for these times.

Suddenly, I had craggy camaraderie.

I pictured Neil, seven decades into this dastardly disease. He’d lived through the Jurassic age of endocrinology, taking charge of his life long before at-home blood testing or low-carb cupcakes.

He’d known the symptoms you can describe but not really capture, the upholstered tongue of hyperglycemia and the hollow elbows of a low.

He’d done midnight combat with the threat of complications.

He’d also done all sorts of things that Strawberry Shortcake never dared, solids and liquids and gases and ghastlies that his body surely did not appreciate.

But he was still here, body and voice and hats and thunder.

He was still rockin’ in the free world.

He was, perhaps, having a night very much like mine. Tomorrow, the world would expect us both to sing.

Now, I had a new layer against the cold. My worst wee hours would hereafter be Neil Young Nights, less lonely by half. I pictured my feral friend and flexed my own claws. My heart of gold and pancreas of folly would outlast the swooping sugars.

I have a fantasy that someday I will glimpse Neil, who has been seen strolling a certain town fifteen minutes from mine. When I do, I will raise my insulin pump high, a lighter against the dark, a silent shout of solidarity.

Old man, look at my life. I’m a lot like you.

Angela Townsend

Angela Townsend is Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary, where she bears witness to mercy for all beings. She graduated from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cagibi, Chautauqua, Clockhouse, Glassworks Magazine, Hawaii Pacific Review, Invisible City, The Penn Review, and The Razor, among others. She is a Best Spiritual Literature nominee. Angie has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 33 years, laughs with her poet mother every morning, and loves life affectionately. She lives just outside Philadelphia with two shaggy seraphs disguised as cats.
***
We believe that every individual is entitled to respect and dignity, regardless of their skin color, gender, or religion. Everyone deserves a fair and equal opportunity in life, especially in education and justice.
It is essential that you register to vote before your state’s deadline to make a difference. Voting is not only crucial for national elections but also for local ones. Local decisions shape our communities and affect our daily lives, from law enforcement to education. Don’t underestimate the importance of your local elections; know who your representatives are, research your candidates and make an informed decision.
Remember, every vote counts in creating a better and more equitable society.
Guest Posts, Relationships

Crossing the Threshold

March 29, 2024
prayer
The bridegroom carries his new wife over the threshold to start a life together and we all sigh at the romance! But I have crossed more than one threshold in my life. In some cases, like the birth of my son, they were new beginnings filled with joy.  Others, like the death of my husband, left me in despair.  At times these thresholds were decision points, but others were crossed before I even understood what I had done. That was the case with my retirement and a move across two states.

My husband died in 2010 and for the next six years I immersed myself in my job as a school superintendent.  I spent two Christmases at my son’s house and loved being with my grandsons.  Retirement and a move to their town started looking very attractive.

Signs that this transition might be a challenge popped up one Thanksgiving a few years before I moved, when we all gathered at my sister’s house for Thanksgiving.  I joined my son for breakfast at their hotel the day they were leaving.  I brought up Christmas and assumed I would be joining them again.  He studied the menu and then scrolled through his phone, not looking at me.  Still scrolling he casually announced, “We don’t want you to come on Christmas this year. Why don’t you come after Christmas.” I sat there, mute for a few minutes, then I got up and left the hotel in tears. The atmosphere was tense when we said our goodbyes at my sister’s house several hours later.  Never one for outright conflict, I tucked this memory deep in my brain’s filing cabinet.

***

A recent blog on retirement statistics announced: “On average, 10,000 baby boomers reach the average retirement age every day.”  In 2016 I was one of the 10,000, retired, widowed, and living in a new town, where my son and his family also lived. I have often wondered if this move was a good idea.  I justified it to myself as a favor to my only child. When I get older and need assistance in daily life, I won’t be a day’s drive away.  It may be more honest to say I was lonely without my job and without a family.

Navigating this new life has been a challenge. The big stuff happened, as it usually does, in relationships.

My son was in high school the last time we lived in such close proximity. Two- or three-day visits and sporadic phone calls have been the norm since those days. That fact did nothing to quell my expectations that we would spend the rest of my days in a loving, close relationship.

One evening a few weeks before I moved, my son and his family had dinner with me at a local restaurant a block from their house. The place is a beloved Greek eatery with a deck, umbrellas, and picnic tables. I chose a spot facing my daughter-in-law who looked as lovely as she always does.  I thought: “This is what I’ve been waiting for…a family dinner in a favorite spot…”  My mind took off, imagining Sunday dinners at my house……my son stopping by after work for a drink…babysitting my grandsons. Heaven!

My son got up to greet friends and acquaintances in the restaurant and my daughter-in-law focused on helping the boys decide what they wanted to eat.  Her long blond hair draped over her shoulders, onto her fashionable black maxi length dress. She began to tell me about the news from her large extended family in the Delta of Mississippi, not far from Oxford. Several sorority friends from college stopped by to say hello and they all talked over each other excitedly.

“Don’t you look the cutest”.  “I love your hair that way”. “How’s your grandmother, she’s so funny!!”   Her infectious laugh drew smiles from nearby tables, and she was the center of attention at ours.

My son, who had been quiet during our meal, gathered up the boys after dinner and they started home.  My daughter-in-law and I lingered to drink our wine and chat. The buzz around us got louder as the deck filled up with diners.

“…..worried about you moving here….. doesn’t know what to expect”.  Those words found their way through the noise.

“ Who?”

“R—”

“Why?” My stomach tightened.

“What’s he think I’m gonna do?  I’m not gonna butt into your lives!”

We stopped to pour more wine…She continued to tell me what she apparently thought I needed to hear.

“We’ve got our own traditions and routines, Ruth.  And you need to make your own.”  I thought, “you are one tough cookie” and I grudgingly tipped my imaginary hat.   I said, “I am glad you are being honest. Part of the tension last year around Christmas happened because R___ was given the job of telling me I wasn’t welcome on Christmas Day. It might be better if you and I talked.” I mimicked the blunt way he had blurted out the news.

“Oh, I didn’t know that”.  Heightened emotion and the wine tinted her porcelain cheeks. I ruefully noted to myself “She would be quite a formidable opponent if I chose the competition path.”

As we walked back to their house, she unexpectedly remarked,” I feel so much better”.  I realized it had not been easy for her to tackle the boundary issue with her mother-in-law. I had plopped myself into their pond and the ripples seemed threatening.

I had bought a house, moved my furniture, and there was no going back now.  Somehow, I needed to build a new life and accept that it would not look like a Norman Rockwell painting.

A prayer written by Reinhold Niebuhr, the great theologian, eventually became the famous serenity prayer, a staple of all the 12-step programs.  It became mine.

“God, grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”

This became my daily and sometimes moment-by-moment prayer over the next seven years.

My son was chairman of the school board during the COVID mask controversies.  He rebuffed any advice I had as a former school superintendent. Serenity prayer.

The mythical Sunday dinners that took enormous effort by an inadequate cook (me) lasted 45 minutes because everyone was busy.  I gave away the dining room table and created a study nook for myself.  I took them out to eat when it was convenient for everyone.  Serenity prayer.

My grandsons, 7 and 9 when I moved, enjoyed coming to my upstairs floor full of their video games, board games, and order out menus.  It dawned on their parents that this was a safe place for the kids to be and it afforded them some free time.  Serenity prayer.

I deliberately found volunteer activities that used my skills and enthusiasm, involved myself in community organization that focused on building  better government, and made many friends along the way.  I took control over what I could do and let go of what I could not make happen.  Serenity prayer.

I ask my son to lunch one or two times a month and he has started suggesting it himself sometimes.  That is the only time I am with him by myself, and it has taken seven years for those conversations to become more personal.  He is married to a strong woman, has a law practice, is maneuvering the teenage years of two boys, and I am not his top priority.  Serenity prayer.

And then one day, during a family trip to Ireland, my daughter-in-law sought me out to talk about a personal issue that was troubling her. Somewhere in the time we spent together that day, I heard: “I love you” and “I trust you”. Serenity prayer.

Ruth O’Dell is an emerging writer with a previous publication in Atticus Review. Ruth is a retired educator living, loving, and writing in Oxford, Mississippi.

***

Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

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

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

***

Guest Posts, aging, Family

On Aging: Lessons From Mother and Grandmother

May 8, 2022
mother

By Chantal Laurie Below

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother’s further proof of it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trusting that even slightly brings a modicum of peace.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Posts, cancer

You Can’t Make That Up

April 26, 2022
breast cancer

How do you know your dog is dead?

My mother was concerned and texting me about her elderly dog. I asked if he was breathing and no, Wilbur was not breathing. He had collapsed soon after peeing. I told my mother to put a towel over him and I would be there as soon as possible. It was already a busy day. My novel was coming out in two months and I needed to respond to emails before picking up the kids from a local park. But trouble worships at the altar of inconvenience.

Later that night, after transporting the corpse to the vet, I found the lump in my breast.

I am now being treated for breast cancer. According to my oncologist, one in eight women gets this disease. More women get breast cancer than floss regularly. This makes my diagnosis somewhat run-of-the-mill, which is both reassuring and frightening. As I write this, I am sitting up in bed leaning against something called a wedge pillow. I am between surgeries and chemotherapy, considering a buzz cut and reading about the likelihood of mouth sores. I want to write, but as it turns out, cancer is time consuming. It’s infuriating. It won’t let me make stuff up.

Like parenting, cancer is something you do while you do all the other things. “Breast cancer is the one you want,” said my friend with lung cancer who manages a fitness center. Another friend, upon learning of my diagnosis, said, “At least it’s under a Biden Administration.” And then she promised to knit me a boob and would I mind merino wool if they were out of cashmere.

The day after I dropped off the dog corpse, I scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound. As the Russian woman with the blue mascara and N95 mask maneuvered my breast into a plastic tray while explaining that, due to my age (47), half of my breasts had migrated to my armpits, I stared at the daffodil mural and wondered why women needed to be reminded of flowers while they’re standing topless in front of a big white machine. One week later, I was back for a biopsy and, this time, a field of bright orange poppies. As I perched on the table awaiting the technician, I jotted down some notes for a story about a Russian woman with blue mascara.

Soon after, on my way to pick up my daughter from physical therapy, I got the call. “It’s not the news we were hoping for,” is how the nurse began. As I pulled the car over, she declared matter-of-factly, “You will get through this. But we should act quickly.” There were other words: fast-growing tumor, surgery, chemotherapy. I interrupted her. “I need to find parking. Can you email me what you just said?” She said she would. I found a spot around the corner.

In the car, I told my 13-year-old the news. “I’ll be ok,” I said, crying, “But I have breast cancer.” She was quiet and stared out the window. Back at home, she made me a cup of mint tea and suggested we watch Gilmore Girls. It was the episode where Paris gets bossy about the school newspaper. We stared at the screen and waited for the rest of the family to come home. My husband had taken the older one to the DMV to test for her learner’s permit. When they walked into the kitchen, permit in hand, I restated something I would later say one hundred more times to my extended family. “I’ll be ok. But I have breast cancer.” As I described what I understood about my disease so far, my older daughter cried, and my husband nodded slowly, as if drawing an invisible line between his brain and his body. We ordered Thai food and read the pathology report. After dinner I excused myself to listen to a sample of my audio book.

“The good news is that you can keep the top skin and nipples,” the plastic surgeon informed me, after drawing a diagram of my breast showing the location of the tumor. He depicted my breast as a perfectly round circle with the nipple as a tiny donut, smack dab in the middle. I told the surgical team my first novel was coming out in a few weeks. “How exciting,” one of the residents said. “We can schedule around that.”

I spoke to a stranger who, eight years ago, had a double mastectomy and reconstruction with the same surgical team. She told me to buy this wedge pillow, and to request an anti-nausea drug to get me through general anesthesia. She encouraged me to take the pain medication, and to wear a button-down blouse to the hospital because I wouldn’t be able to pull shirts over my head for several weeks. She assured me I was doing the right thing, and what my new breasts would lack in sensation, they would make up for in symmetry and perkiness. She sent me a photo of her cleavage and offered to meet me somewhere so I could see and touch her silicon breasts. “It’s just what we do for each other,” she said, when I marveled at her invitation and politely declined. Then I put on lipstick and attended a virtual event for debut novelists.

Between blood tests, Zoom book events, and doctors drawing on my breasts with Sharpies, it began to hit me. Rocking back and forth on the floor of my bedroom, I fantasized about running away. I could fly to an island, swim in warm water, and order drinks from someone who thinks I’m healthy.

On a Friday in March, I woke up at dawn and showered with antiseptic body wash. After removing my jewelry, I pulled on sweatpants and my mother’s button-down shirt. My husband drove me to the hospital and held my hand in the waiting room. When the woman with the hoop earrings asked if he was my next of kin in the event I couldn’t make health decisions for myself, I started crying. My surgeon visited and asked if I was writing another book. “I think so,” I told her. “I’ve been busy.”

The nurse with the mole on his forehead had to put the IV in my foot. The veins on my hands are “tricky,” he said. I surrendered to him my merino wool knit boob, and he promised everyone would take good care of me. Then he put a mask over my mouth and told me to take several deep breaths.

Six hours later, I woke up woozy with a large bandage across my chest. I felt an incredible weight which made normal breathing difficult. Below the bandage, under my skin and pectoral muscles, were two expanders that would hold the place for future implants. Drains to collect excess fluid hung down from my body like extra intestines. My husband kissed the top of my head. His lips were soft. “You did it,” he said, looking proud and relieved. We ordered chicken teriyaki from the hospital menu, and I sipped apple juice through a straw. That night I requested that the nurses leave the shades open so I could watch the lights flicker in the skyscraper next door. I half-watched Crazy Rich Asians and a corset movie with Keira Knightley while I drifted in and out of sleep. I first saw Crazy Rich Asians on a plane two years ago. I had cancer then but didn’t know it.

Back at home in bed, propped up against the wedge pillow, I checked my email. Many people had enjoyed my novel. One reviewer called it “strange and beautiful,” and another said, “This book will haunt me for a while; maybe forever and not in a bad way.” I smiled and swallowed more pills. I could barely move. Sharp pains shot through my chest like lightning bolts. My left armpit felt like it was on fire. I had no appetite for anything other than ice water. And more frightening than the physical pain, was the psychosis. I was scared to be alone. I was worried I might rip the drains out of my sides and pick open the incisions to tear the expanders out of my chest. I didn’t want to hurt myself, but I wanted, no – I needed – the foreign objects out of my body. The next day I picked up a prescription for an anti-anxiety med.

A few days later, I went to a bookstore for a signing. I wore a black hoodie with inside pockets to hold the drains. It was designed for women who had had their breasts removed. It also came in pink but that seemed too upbeat. I sat in a folding chair and signed 30 copies of my novel. A customer asked me what it was about. “Secret-keeping,” I replied.

My oncologist’s assistant called today, interrupting a short story I was working on. Next week I will start chemo. This will involve 16 infusions over the course of five months. The story is about a policeman who is concerned about his aging body. I can’t decide how to end it. The strongest of the drugs, Adriamycin, is bright red and can cause burning sensations in the body, which is why it is referred to as The Red Devil. You can’t make that up.

Rebecca Handler is a writer who lives and works in San Francisco. Rebecca’s stories have been published and awarded in several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at www.onewomanparty.com. Edie Richter is Not Alone, her debut novel, was published by Unnamed Press in March 2021, received a Kirkus Starred Review, and was longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize. Rebecca was recently awarded a MacDowell fellowship and looks forward to spending April 2022 in the woods in New Hampshire, writing her second novel.

***

If you liked this essay you will love this book:

“A tragicomic exploration of the collateral damage of Alzheimer’s disease… Handler gets it right from the title on out. Edie is definitely not alone. Her plight is one many readers will respond to deeply and perhaps even be soothed by… Profound yet often quite funny, keenly observed, and deeply affecting.” ―Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Alcoholism, Family, Fiction

Asylum

April 8, 2022
moira

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All of them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?” Liam asks.

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m talking about Dad.”

“That much we got,” Liam says.

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

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

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

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

“So how is he?” says Kate.

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

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

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

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

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

“Scared?” Kate says.

“He’s all alone; he’s got no one.”

“And whose fault is that?” Maggie says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is he still drinking?” says Kate.

“Talk about stupid questions,” says Liam.

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

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

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

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

“Shut the fuck up,” Peter tells him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then get him a live-in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, it’s okay. I’ll go down.”

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

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

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

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she does.

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

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Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Guest Posts, Relationships

Woman Seeking Man, Age to be Determined

January 24, 2022
years

It was three years since my husband died. I sold the house, found an apartment in New York City and decided to try on-line dating, signing on to JDate, Match, and Plenty-of-Fish. My oldest son, the arbiter of all things popular, told me to never post my real age. He said nobody does. Everybody lies.

I agonized for a week. I’m a pretty straight shooter but sixty-seven was kind of up there and so I wrote down sixty. My son was upset. “Put fifty-nine,” he said. Have you ever seen a dress priced at $600? It’s always $599. And if it’s on sale it’s $399 not $400. It’s psychological.”

I knew from the psychological. I was a psychologist with a doctorate; he knew he was speaking my language, but I told him I wasn’t a dress, and I wasn’t ready to be discounted. I stuck with sixty and hoped that my picture would pull it off. If I met someone viable, I would tell him the truth.

Sophisticated 60-year-old woman looking for a sophisticated man. I’ve climbed to see the mountain gorillas in Uganda and barged down the Amazon to meet the Yagua Indians. I’ve done research in Africa, live in NYC, have a practice in Princeton, and a writing cabin in Woodstock. I have a long story to tell a good man over a slow dinner.

I read it over. Even I was impressed. I clicked send and waited.

It didn’t take long. I was the new kid on the block. It was great but all the guys were under forty-five. I responded to an eager 35-year-old, suggesting he reread my profile; I was sixty-years old. I gulped at the lie but couldn’t imagine that the extra seven years mattered in this case. He said he had seen my age; it was fine; he liked older women. I said it wasn’t fine with me.

This went on for several weeks. None of the age-appropriate men were knocking on my door. I decided to get aggressive, remembering the younger Linda—the one with chutzpa—who’d been married at nineteen, had three kids by age twenty-seven, started college at thirty and got divorced at thirty-one. The Linda that signed on for assertiveness training, consciousness raising and masturbation workshops. The masturbation workshops—taught by a bald woman in a mini skirt with very high black boots—were particularly intriguing.  She had a carousel filled with slides of female genitalia. The diversity was fascinating. She flashed them on a screen side-by-side with slides of Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings. It made me consider taking an elective in contemporary art.

Sadly, I had completely missed the sixties. Instead of doing drugs and making love, I was changing diapers and stitching needlepoints. It was 1970 when I divorced my first husband—a heady time for women. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were leading the march for equality while Gloria Gaynor sang the anthem, I Will Survive. Fortified by the women’s movement, and with no time to waste, I headed for the singles bar.

I walked in, scoped the scene, picked out the best-looking guy and started a conversation. The following month I went on a singles vacation to the Club Med in Martinique where the help, hired for their looks, were paid extra to fraternize with the guests. I was having a great time but then my friend Sally called and said her best friends had recently split and did I want to meet the husband?

“He’s fifteen years older than you,” she said, “but he’s a great looking guy. Think Omar Sharif or Sean Connery.”

The fifteen years worried me, but Sean Connery? Friday night he came to pick me up and by Saturday morning my single days were over.

Now thirty-seven years later, my husband gone, it was time to be proactive again. Thinking about the age difference between my second husband and me, I decided to flip the coin and reconsider the interest of the younger man. According to Ron, the cutie from Queens: younger men preferred older women because they’re more interesting, don’t play games, do drugs, or want kids and, he added, they’re great in bed.

Great in bed was going to be a stretch. These guys were physically fit. I hadn’t been to a gym since I’d had back surgery the previous year. Pictures from the Kama Sutra flashed in my head. My back started to ache like a phantom limb.

I got a hit from an African American man. His handle was Bodybuilder. He was forty years old. He said I was beautiful and asked if I would like to chat. “Beautiful” was always a hook. I thanked him for the compliment and confessed that I didn’t take a shine to buffed men. He said he wasn’t buffed, he was chiseled. I told him to post a picture and I’d decide. The picture looked like a guy out of Sports Illustrated: naked from the waist up, elbows out, fingers gripped, gleaming pecs. He wasn’t chiseled. He was buffed. I said I’d like to see him in a suit.

“What would you like me to wear?” he asked.

I suggested for formal attire he consider a well-tailored suit, probably black, with a French blue shirt and a good pair of shoes.

“And for casual?”

I suggested pleated linen slacks, draped nicely over his hips, a white shirt open at the neck and good shoes.

“What about you?” he asked.

I told him for casual I’d wear a pair of tight-fitting jeans, black boots with a good shine, a white man-tailored shirt and a straw Stetson hat.

“And for formal?”

“The same outfit but I’d ditch the hat.”

“LOL,” he said.

I told him I was looking for a man who had as much confidence in his brains as he had in his body. He said he would send more pictures.

The next week he posted another photo. The only thing between him and pornography was the steering wheel of a boat. I told him to contact me when he got dressed.

This was fun. The Internet lent itself to snappy repartee and vapid conversation. I was pretty good at both. It became my entertainment after a long day at the office.

There was the forty-three-year-old writer from Plenty of Fish. His first email asked, “Why haven’t you invited me over yet?” I thought that was a little presumptuous. I wrote back something brilliant like “We haven’t met yet.”

He wrote, “Let’s meet. We’ll have a drink and we’ll go back to your apartment.”

I told him no one comes back to my apartment on a first date.

He said I was closed-minded.

“How about a ninety percent chance we’ll go back to your apartment?”

I said, “No way.”

“What about eighty/twenty?”

I wouldn’t budge.

Negotiations went on for two weeks. It was Friday night and I told him I was going to the Café Luxembourg for a martini and some oysters. He was welcome to come. He said fifty-fifty was his final offer. He didn’t show. That was fine with me. The oysters were superb.

A week later he agreed to meet, no strings. He was waiting when I walked into the cafe. He was nice looking—young, but young was beginning to look older. He said he’d written four novels and taught creative writing at City College. Okay, this had possibilities. Ten minutes into the date he took my chin in his hand, turned my head to him, held up two fingers, pointed at his eyes and said very seriously, “Look at me. You really want to take me home, don’t you?”

I began to laugh. He had to be kidding. He let go of my chin, turned back to his drink, and said, “Whatever.”

Two minutes later he turned around and did it again. After the fourth time, I was rolling on the floor.

“What’s so funny?” he asked in exasperation. I said I wanted to know how he wrote four novels when he only knew ten words?

“Whatever,” he shrugged, turned around and walked out of the bar.

That was my best night out since I’d signed on to the dating sites. I laughed all the way home.

In January I got an email from an attractive fifty-four-year-old, 6’5” Israeli. His picture showed him standing at a stove, a bandana on his head, apron around his waist concentrating on whatever it was he was stirring in a pan.

His profile read: “Good man/bad boy/ whiz in the kitchen…blah…blah…blah.” I liked the “blah…blah…blah,” at least he wasn’t into platitudes. “Looking for a woman,” it continued, “thirty-five to ninety-nine.”

Ninety-nine. I figured I’d made the cut with room to spare. I gave him my number. He called five minutes later and invited me over for dinner on Thursday.

“You’re in Israel,” I exclaimed.

He said, “So, you’ll take a plane. You’ll come to Israel. What you like? Chicken? Fish? What you like, I’ll make. Come. You won’t be sorry.”

He was serious. I laughed. We said we’d talk the next night. He was a fantasy without a face.

The on-line thing was beginning to get tired. I was thinking about going off. The coup-de-gras came a few days later. Each day Match sends you your perfect match. I logged on one morning to find I was staring into the face of my first husband. Your perfect match, it said. I screamed, as though a large beetle had crawled out of my computer. His profile read; “…likes to travel but hasn’t really gone anywhere. Likes to do crossword puzzles but not the New York Times. Likes to go to the movies but rarely has the time.” Last book read, “The Da Vinci Code- waited for it to come out in paperback. Wanted a woman 45-65.”  Seriously? I was too old even for him!

That was it. I’d had it. I got off all the sites. It didn’t matter if I was sixty or sixty-seven; if my ex-husband was supposed to be my perfect match then I’d rather live the fantasy. I picked up the phone and called Israel.

“What’s for dinner?”

Linda I. Meyers is a clinical psychologist in private practice in NYC. She is also a writer and author of the memoir, The Tell

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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aging, Guest Posts

Fifty

March 12, 2021
fifty

By Shell Feijo

Goddess delineates the cusp of my navel
Stretch marks circle my thighs, stripe my ass, sag into skin hanging as wings
My knees crack, random ache in an ankle
Twinges I don’t remember
Reminded of space and time

Baby girl curling body hiding from yelling mother
Little girl learning to keep her mouth shut
Silence is necessary
Cigarettes come to close
Cherries burn
Why is it a cherry, its not sweet or red
Orange fire turns gray ash in blonde hair and the smell of girl skin.

Thighs ache
Bottom burns
Rashes with names
From infections she should never have
Step fathers like little girl bodies
Mothers do too
Ripe for destruction.

Burn marks mixed with freckled tattoos of time and loss and men and love and babies
States and food and sex and starvation
Scars, dimples
Stories in skin.

Oakland target
Trafficked before it was trafficking
Fifty dollar teenage girl
Riding buses with pimps who didn’t drive their cars
Anything for a meal
A bed
Warmth
An arm to keep her safe.

She warns
Protects
Acts in my defense
Keeps me alive

Foster home
Group home
Cottage
Shelter
Bull pen
Foster home
Thirteen Times

Sixteen marriage
Little girl face, stringy blonde hair
Ripe
Running
Scared
Survival.

She did what she needed to.
See how she can disassociate?

Twenty to forty
Never look in mirrors
Never below the neck
Move through the world in fear
Acting
Impenetrable stubbornness camouflaged as strength
Babies and beatings and bottles thrown
Body keeping secrets between heated folds.

At forty, few fucks left to give. I dance with her, start to think about her, rub her, talk to her
Her response?  Smooth and forgiving
“Welcome,” she says. “I’ve been waiting.”

But when I love her fierce, outside? Push back.

The white boys on the Pentacrest of the college town yell, “Roll her in flour and look for the wet spot!”

The white women online, “Go to the gym/ try this/that/shame on me I ate/try this and this and this and this/its worth the money in the end/fat fat fat fat fat

She was not beloved, she was shunned. There was no discussion of thick white women when I was a child budding big hips and a round ass. There was no love of flesh that ripples. There were only skinny blonde women with long cigarettes to keep them from eating.

But I’d seen them – women in my neighborhoods, strong hips and moving bodies of all sizes, shapes, and shades, wearing tight shorts if it was hot, tank tops with no bra, big breasts hanging – laughing and cooking and loving all the same. Even in the pain. Laughing. I paid attention.

The men though
Give me, give me, give me
Age is just a number
Old stories
Act.

There are skin stories and there is culture and there is racism and there is aging and there is writing and there is brand making and there is capitalism and my body doesn’t fit. Alive little girl in the system that tried to kill her now a grown woman.

Reclaiming
Body
Pain
Sex
Love
Joy
Beauty
Scars
Dirty.

Balled up bracing for a mans fear turned to fist
Protects me
Holds me tight
Helps me get loose

She holds memory
Loss
Triumph
That 5K
Pushing
Burning
Babies
Meals
Wanting
Him

Morbidity and all their labels

Thicc
Fat
Teased
Once, a long time ago, too thin

Too many freckles
Too much love
Too much want
Too much desire
She has always been too much
And always just enough
And no one
Ever
Truly hears her.

She has lines
Scars
Puckers
Deposits
Still
She wakes up every morning
She loves me fierce
Pulls in breath
Lets me know I am thirsty
Growls at me for food
Reminds me the world is still out there
I can move through it
however that takes shape.

I go to Instagram to look at Lizzo
Goddess

I watch her and love her love of her body. I smile at Lizzo twerking and holding her belly, praising it, and laughing and eating and loving and loving and loving. And I am not Lizzo.

I want to twerk by a pool and hold my belly and take fabulous pictures that show my glorious traumatized beautiful fucked up body. She kept me alive, whole, and I am here, survivor.

Fifty.

Shell Feijo is a former foster kid from the streets of Northern California. She never graduated from high school, but she earned a PhD from a fancy midwestern university. She is a workshop facilitator for A Trauma Healing Center (ATHC), a new site being developed for holistic healing from trauma. Her publications have appeared in NailedThe Fem Literary Magazine, Utne, Hip Mama, The Manifest Station, and the edited collections Places Like Home and Without a Net: The Female Experience Growing Up Working Class, among others. Her memoir of surviving foster care and the streets is forthcoming. 

Photo Credit: Marques Brooks- Divine Media Group LLC

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Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Guest Posts, Self Image

Me and My Body – A Tumultuous Love Affair

October 22, 2020
body

By Skye Nicholson

I have always struggled with body image – weight was the major area of concern for me. I have fluctuated up and down in a 50-pound range for most of my life, going through phases of diet and exercise then gradually gaining again as I slipped into complacency or depression.  Determining at which precise angle to lift and tilt my head to avoid multiple chin folds in pictures has been a constant priority.  Sucking in my soft tummy and pushing out my average-sized boobs as I entered a bar made me feel more desirable. I was always frustrated at the last 10-20 pounds that swarmed about me like annoying gnats.

I won’t say I “hated” my body, but I have found it to be an irritating nuisance for most of my life since puberty.

I remember feeling FAT at 14 because a small roll (of skin, probably) would squish out over my tight stonewashed jeans, preventing me from wearing sexy crop-top sweaters like all the cool girls.  Looking at pictures from back then, I see a self-conscious child with a sweet round face. She was not overweight at all, but was weighed down by a look of fearful yearning in her eyes. Like most young girls, she wanted so much to look like the waif-ish overdone models on TV and believed her perfectly-unique self did not measure up.

In junior high we had to wear shorts for gym class – you know, the mandatory Poly-blend uniform shorts that shimmered and chafed. My legs were so white, not like pink-white or beige-white or even cream-white… I’m talking see-through, clear, transparent white. So white that my purple and blue veins shined through like neon ribbons across my shins.  And my leg hair that I begged and begged my mom to let me shave in 7th grade was black as coal.  So even after I won the tearful battle of the disposable razor, that spotty black stubble would inevitably be growing back in by 6th period gym class. My legs under those blue polyester shorts looked like 2 flabby plucked chickens.  (Maybe no one would notice, I would hope every single day in the locker room. But, unfortunately, junior high kids are not known for their kindness and discretion)

It wasn’t until my 30s that I began voluntarily wearing shorts again.

My reflection in the mirror has always been picked over by my critical eye: Is that a pimple? Why are my chin hairs so dark? I wish my freckles would go away. I wish my freckles would come back. Why don’t I have cheekbones? My face is fat. My neck is droopy. My skin is too pale. My skin is too red. Are my eyelashes thinning? I wish I had a thinner waist. My butt isn’t the right shape.

My body was always a thing I had to deal with because, well, it was where I lived every day.

There were times when I would join Weight Watchers and start working out, and I would feel good for a while. But again, it was all tied to my size and shape: numbers on a scale or not having to stretch my neck quite as far to reduce the amount of chins, etc.

I don’t know if I ever looked at my body and felt LOVE for it.

By the time I decided to quit drinking for good I had been on Weight Watchers for about 5 months and lost 20 pounds or so. I had been tracking my points pretty regularly, but I didn’t ever count the points from the 8 vodka tonics at the bar or 4 bottles of wine at home.  I couldn’t face the shame, and so those calories didn’t exist to me.

I started being very honest with my point counting once I decided to get sober. It was a good motivator and a necessary distraction from drinking. If I could get through this ONE DAY without adding any alcohol points to my tracker, then I was winning. And try to do the same thing the next day.

I went and got my old gym membership back. My sober friend Ed said that when he first quit drinking he would go for a run anytime he felt a craving sneak up. Then he would be too tired and too legitimately thirsty to want alcohol. And of course, when you start exercising you release endorphins, and you tend feel a little better about yourself when you are done. Therefore, less likely to hide from life and seek out poison.

I have done much damage to my physical self over 25+ years of heavy drinking. I could feel the aches and pains, the difficulty breathing, the red skin, the digestive problems, sleep problems, etc. I hobbled and wheezed through my first few weeks at the gym. Getting myself there was worth a fucking medal in itself.  I was sweating my ass off and watching my heartrate go through the roof as I flailed around on the elliptical, trying to get my arms and legs to sync up.

But soon I began to be in touch with my body in a different way than ever before.  I started meditating by listening to short guided clips on YouTube, and for the first time in my life I could actually connect with the energy inside my body.

When I was about 3 weeks into sobriety, I went to a Breathwork session. I had never heard of it before and I had no idea what I was getting into, but something was pulling me there. I knew this was something I had to do.

In the Breathwork session, we used our own deep breathing to shift our minds into a state of open clarity. I had the sensation that I was observing my body from outside. As the practitioner moved her hands across trigger points, I began to feel pent-up rage and pain and sadness release through me. As she reached my liver I started sobbing, deep convulsing wails of grief and guilt. I cried for what seemed like hours. In my head I kept repeating “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry” on a loop as I connected with my body in unconditional love.

That experience opened up a relationship with my body that had been silent for decades. I began to fall back in love with my being. I felt a glimpse of the way little kids must feel when they find comfort and awe in their own skin.

I practice yoga regularly now, and many times I am moved to tears as I stretch through the poses. It is my body sharing with me emotions that have surfaced, some good and some difficult. I always feel waves of love for myself when this happens; like my body and I are no longer on opposing teams, but partners in this life.

It is this relatively new loving relationship with my body that gets me back on track when I inevitably stuff myself with Chinese food and feel bloated and weak the next day, or skip 2 weeks of exercise because of sick kids, or get frustrated that my favorite jeans are tight, or feel that familiar tug to go out to the bars for (just one) night.

There are times when I get fed up with my body and still catch myself throwing shade at my reflection. But I can’t get mad at my gray hairs or my turkey neck or my wrinkled brow or my tummy roll. My body is not aging to spite me. It’s just biology and entropy.

I am not defined by the imperfect details of my appearance. I depend on the health of my organs to keep me going so that I can pack lunches and remember where everyone left their shoes and buy cat food and listen to my daughter sing the shark song for the nine-hundredth time and be a loving spouse. I can’t do those things without my organs being on board for all this responsibility; and they can’t function without me giving them healthy stuff most of the time, like yoga and kombucha and cucumbers.

Skye Nicholson rediscovered her love of writing after she had been sober for 2 years. She is currently a Stay-At-Home mom living in Indiana with her husband and 2 kids. Skye posts on her blog www.wakinguprazzledazzle.com under the pseudonym Vixen Lea.

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