Browsing Tag

daughters

Eating/Food, Guest Posts

Taking Up Space

July 7, 2021
scale

by Molly Krause

Maybe it’s just the quarantine fifteen. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t weighed myself to get the actual number. I do know that my clothes are tight and some don’t fit. I know that it was sometime after I started weighing my eighteen year old daughter weekly that I stopped stepping on the scale myself. This was months before we were all gripped by the onslaught of all that the novel virus brought to our lives. I couldn’t have even imagined all that at this time. This was when my anxiety rose like a freight train when my daughter said, “I’m struggling to eat enough.”

I flew into action – appointments with the primary care physician, the therapist, the dietician, and I bought The Scale. I ordered it online with some dread as I’ve never had a scale in my house. Shiny and black with a digital display that revealed the number to a tenth of a pound, it was both inexpensive and highly rated. I hid it in my closet.

I bought it to monitor my daughter’s weight but this is not a story of a young adult controlling her life through restricting.

As a serious student of ballet throughout my teens, I viewed my body as a vessel to create beauty through movement. At a yoga class a few years ago I scoffed internally when the instructor said, “If it’s available, reach for your extended leg.” If it’s available? This was not a cooperative relationship I had with my limbs; I would make it available without question. Naturally lean, I did not grow up worried about my weight because I didn’t have to. I was happy with my size and my size was small. My body performed well for me by executing the physically difficult movements of ballet. I wasn’t conflicted about my body image as mine was easily accommodating with what I wanted from it. I never even had to consider if what I wanted from it was reasonable or even right.

Two pregnancies and changing middle age hormones stretched my comfort with my shape. I resolved to stay under a certain number, I even wrote that number down in my planner. I exercised to burn calories and played around with various diets. I only weighed myself occasionally at the gym and used clothing fit as a measure if I was on target. But it wasn’t until The Scale came in my house did I realize the pull the number had on me – what is the numer? Have I been going “good”? Is this water weight or muscle? So I stopped myself from stepping on The Scale, hidden in the closet, every day as a friend of mine told me she did to control her weight. When my daughter entered an intensive outpatient program for eating disorders I gave myself permission not to ever get on that scale again.

But I’ve wanted to and what I’m not sure about is why. To feel better about myself or worse?

When I told a friend that I had gained some weight during quarantine she said, “Really? You look the same to me.” I responded, “I can tell I have but I haven’t stepped on a scale because I don’t hate myself.” We snickered and quickly moved on but my comment stuck with me. Wouldn’t it be better to like myself no matter what the number is?

 I get out The Scale once a week for my daughter. Covid has eliminated in person meetings with most therapeutic professionals, dietitians included. My daughter does not resist The Scale and doesn’t seem fazed by the number it reveals. I still haven’t gotten on it for almost a year at this point. I’m trying out the idea that it’s ok for my body to take up as much space as it wants – whether that’s active on my paddleboard or lazily watching my new favorite station, Acorn TV. The Corora virus has taken away many things from me – from us all – but perhaps it has given me the time to view my shape as something other than a way to project smallness or beauty. Maybe this same body that I happily allowed to grow large to carry two lives will be the vessel to grow new chapters and lives so far not lived, of an unknown and exciting future, of a time that is not bound or defined by a number.

Molly Krause is the author of the memoir ‘Float On’, the novel ‘Joy Again’ and the cookbook ‘The Cook’s Book of Intense Flavors’. Her writing has appeared in numerous locations, including Brain Child, Ragazine and Front Page Review. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband, her grown daughters and a pack of dogs and loves to hike, snowshoe and paddle board.

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emma

Stories of parent/child relationships can be complex, and Emma’s Laugh, The Gift of  Second Chances, is no exception.  Convinced of her inability to love her “imperfect” child and give her the best care and life she deserved, Diana gave Emma up for adoption. But as with all things that are meant to be, Emma found her way back home. As Emma grew, Diana watched her live life determinedly and unapologetically, radiating love always. Emma evolved from a survivor to a warrior, and the little girl that Diana didn’t think she could love enough rearranged her heart. In her short eighteen years of life, Emma gifted her family the indelible lesson of the healing and redemptive power of love.

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

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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Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Grief, Guest Posts

Emergency Cigarette

June 25, 2021
barb

By Ellen Wade Beals

Barb thinks she’ll call out, “Hello,” but when the front door key sticks in the lock, she has a moment to realize that Bernadette, her mother, is gone. To call out seems kind of maudlin, but Barb does it anyway. That’s how she’s feeling. What better place than an empty house to show those feelings? Her “hello” sounds feeble.

The house smells fusty, which would have driven Bernadette crazy. She’d be opening windows. “Let’s get some fresh air in here.”

It’s been three days since the funeral. Barb had needed a break. Now she plans to start the first rash of cleaning out her mother’s home. She’s been dreading the task. Sifting through all her mother’s possessions—it’s like paring down a life. And so final.

Today’s goal:  tackle the top layer, the trash that can be safely tossed without regrets. The hard stuff—whatever was too good to toss but of no use to her; her mother’s personal items; the things Barb would look at for fifteen minutes and still not know what to do with—is for another day. This is the preliminary trash day, she told herself and Alec and Aunt Rosemarie who had offered to help, and she can handle it. She’ll get as many trash bags done as she could and that will be that.

Barb drops the box of giant plastic bags in the hallway and looks around. She slips off her shoes. Though the lady herself is gone this is still her mother’s house. Neat and tidy. But chilly. She goes to the thermostat to turn up the heat and then to the closet to hang up her jacket.

First order of business: her mother’s winter coat, the green one she’d bought new for Barb’s graduation and that was over 25 years ago. She checks the pockets (nothing but lint) and notices the sleeves, so worn the coat couldn’t go to charity. On the front collar of the coat is the Christmas wreath brooch Bernadette had bought at Woolworth’s and wore every holiday season for as long as Barb could remember. She unpins it and tucks it in her jeans pocket.

Barb puts her nose to the wool blend and recalls the afternoon they met on the Evanston corner before going to the movies. The cold air was so clear that Barb could smell the coffee on Bernadette’s breath when she spoke: “Lead the way.” They were going to see Philomena, about an Irish woman who was forced to give up her baby. That they chose the  movie without first reading the reviews was a mistake, it turned out, because it brought up issues. Barb had to bite her tongue lest she sputter that the Catholic church could be evil. Bernadette’s reaction was “At least the child wasn’t denied life.” Barb sensed Bernadette held back too. Though she was adamant about the mortal sin of abortion, the son in the movies had been gay, and Bernadette did not exactly denounce homosexuality. Instead she shook her head and summed it up as something she could not understand. At least they both liked Judi Dench

She slides the coat off the hanger, notices the label and  laughs. In marker are written the initials “B. S.” Bernadette always said one reason she named her daughter Barbara was so they’d share a monogram. That way if she ever had a mink with her initials embroidered on the silk lining, she could leave it to Barb and the monogram would still be right. The uneven block letters on the tag make Barb a little sadder–one of Bernadette’s ideas that never came to pass. When she billows the garbage bag to open it, the noise is so harsh it makes her grimace. In it goes.

She moves into the bedroom and opens the big dresser drawer. Beige and white, the bras and panties have that funky rubbery smell of old elastic. All sorts of cotton and rayon, no lace, no silk. Lots of Platex. Or ordered from an ad in Parade Magazine. She grabs handfuls to add to the trash bag. Secondhand underwear. Nobody wants that.

Beneath the underwear are cards and letters, but she dares not start with them lest she get waylaid. Her mother saved all the cards she ever received. She can see the corner of a pink envelope, knows it was from her father, and doesn’t have to pull it out to picture her Father’s perfect Palmer method handwriting. Ephemera, that’s what it’s called, but just seeing the envelope evokes her father. What if he were still alive?  How might their lives have been different? Maybe he would have softened Bernadette because sometimes she was hard. Especially on herself. On the dresser top is their wedding photo, black and white, Buddy was in a dark suit and Bernadette wore a lace mantilla veil.

Since his death in 1982, Buddy has gone on to sainthood. Bernadette idolized him. Countless times throughout her childhood and even more-so when her mother had grown infirm. Bernadette would proclaim, “My one and only” or “the love of my life,” and hold the framed photo to her heart. A rare moment of weakness and heartfelt emotion that Bernadette let show.

As she pushes the drawer shut with her hip, Barb tries to think whether she’d describe Alec as the love of her life. Maybe. But not in the same way Bernadette meant it. They were partners.

Especially as she got older and dated and moved out, Barbara wondered whether companionship wasn’t something Bernadette lacked. There was no one. No other. But it was not a subject her mother cared to discuss. Bernadette worked as a receptionist for a dentist, Dr. Ken, since 1986. For a while when Barb was in her teens, she entertained the idea that maybe he was her mother’s love interest. But that was not the case. Bernadette was loyal to the dentist and even protective of him, but it was just old-fashioned respect. He was a doctor and he was her boss. That was that.

“My one and only,” Barb says to herself. Her voice sounds tinny. Suppose her father had not died –what then? No matter how she thinks about the question, there is really no answer.

Barb drops the bag by the bedroom door and heads to the kitchen. The only male who sparked anything in Bernadette was Bill O’Reilly. She watched him every day. If Barb called while The O’Reilly Factor was on, Bernadette asked her to call back, she wanted to watch. When Barb asked what was so special about him, Bernadette would say, “He’s just so no-nonsense,” and “He’s easy on the eyes.”

“Anderson Cooper is handsome,” Barb had countered once but Bernadette wasn’t hearing it

“Barbie, it’s not the same thing.”

Later when Bill O’Reilly faced sexual harassment charges and lost his show, Barbara didn’t want to bring it up. By then Bernadette was sick again.

Barb flicks on the kitchen light switch and the fluorescent fixture buzzes awake. If Barbara’s purging of the house goes okay, she’ll have to chalk that up to Bernadette. Her mother had a file folder “My Demise,” and it had all the necessary papers – the DNR and Living Will, the last Will and Testament, the contact info for the attorney, the numbers (and even PIN numbers) to Bernadette’s banking and credit accounts.

Barb hadn’t known how to go about selling the house but, on the refrigerator,  there was a magnet from a Realtor, Mike Toomey, who specialized in estate cases like this. Bernadette’s house will be listed in two weeks. It will sell pretty fast, he’s assured her. As is.

In the kitchen, the Formica is the same: boomerangs in grays and pink on an open field. The refrigerator’s been replaced over the years. It’s a bare bones side-by-side Kenmore, meticulously maintained by Bernadette. Just the other week Barb came across the wire brush contraption her mother used to dust the condensers.

A couple of weeks ago, when her mother was still in hospice, Barb gave the refrigerator a once-over, so today it does not contain much: a carton of creamer she doesn’t dare open, the green carboard can of Parmesan cheese, some other condiments, all of which she dumps. The freezer is more packed.

Barb pulls up a kitchen chair, slides the garbage can over to her side and sits in front of the open freezer compartment. There are two standard blue plastic ice cube trays. But typical Bernadette, there are also two of the old-fashioned aluminum kind that are louvered like window blinds. Bernadette never threw out anything that was still useful.

As Barb puts the trays in the sink for the ice to melt, she notices something stuck to the bottom of one of the aluminum trays. It’s a white envelope, labeled clearly: Emergency Cigarette. Barb stares at it. She touches the letters.

When Barbara was in fifth grade, she had her first health class and came home with handouts on the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. It was obvious to both of them that  her mother should quit smoking. Bernadette made a promise to Barbara. She remembers it clearly. They were at the kitchen table. Barbara rested her head on her crossed arms. The Formica felt cool. No more, Bernadette told her, only maybe this one exception. Barbara watched side eyed as her mother took the last Kent from its pack and wrapped it in waxed paper, which she carefully creased into a rectangle that she then tucked into a small envelope. With a black felt-tip marker, she wrote on a white business-sized envelope: Emergency Cigarette. She put the smaller envelope into this, sealed it.

“I’ll feel better knowing it’s there if I ever need it,” Bernadette told Barb. “What if there were an emergency and I needed something to calm my nerves? The last thing I’d want to do is run out to buy a pack.” Then Bernadette walked to the fridge and stashed the envelope.

“Of course, I’m hoping we’ve had all the emergencies we’re going to.” Bernadette raised her eyes to heaven.

Her father Buddy had been a big man in every way. He was an ex-Marine who worked as a building engineer at the Standard Oil Building. He took the earliest train there every morning. He had a clunker car, Old Bess, a Ford Maverick, banana yellow, that he drove to their station and back.

Bernadette and Barbara were stumped when it was still in the lot, even after the later train. He wasn’t in the tavern across from the station. He wasn’t anywhere they looked that Friday night. They came home exasperated and could hear the phone ringing as Bernadette put the key in the lock, but it stuck when she turned it until finally the bolt released and Bernadette shoved open the door, “It’s bad news Barbie I just know it.”

She ran to the phone, but it had stopped ringing. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.” The phone rang again. Buddy’d had a fatal heart attack on the 4:04. Her mother crumpled and then let out a cry that pierced Barb..

She feels the envelope; the cigarette’s still there but it seems different, shorter maybe. After that day so many years ago, Barb never saw her mother smoke again. She puts the envelope on the counter to deal with later and tries to resume her work, marveling at the thought Bernadette had kept that cigarette all these years.

Her mother’s ability to hang onto things seems impressive now. When she was a kid, Bernadette’s frugality only embarrassed her. She can still feel how the color rose in her cheeks. It was recess, sixth grade, always a fraught time, but she felt good, wearing the new sweater her mother had given her the night before–a Fair Isle pullover, off-white with forest green and purple accents; the label had a name she didn’t recognize.

AmberLee Donovan practically announced, “Oh my god, my sister had that sweater and my mother just donated it to rummage sale at church. Where did you get it?” Barbara knew then where Bernadette had gotten it, but she had no answer for AmberLee. That night Bernadette had not understood why there was a problem. If AmberLee wanted to make fun of Barbara because she wore a perfectly good sweater, well, that was AmberLee’s problem. Bernadette, always big on the Catholic notion of redemptive suffering, had admonished Barb, “Offer it up.”

Barb stands, shuts the freezer, walks to the counter, and picks up the white envelope to inspect it again. She presses it gently between her fingers. Had Bernadette smoked it, or had it shrunk from the cold?

Barb opens it carefully not wanting to rip her mother’s printing. A cigarette is there, but this one is wrapped in Saran.

She looks again at the envelope. This is a different Emergency Cigarette.

Sure enough, it’s a Marlboro Light, not a Kent. And the tip is gone. Bernadette must have had a drag or two and then put it out and snipped it with a scissors. But it’s been smoked because the filter is yellowed and there’s Bernadette’s lipstick, Tangerine Dream. Barb always urged her mother to change her lipstick color because it was far too orange for her rosy complexion. She even bought her a pink shade from Clinique but always Bernadette came back to Tangerine Dream.

She feels herself deflate. What? Did she expect her mother to never have smoked the Emergency Cigarette? Is she disappointed? Really? Get over yourself.

She’s not really mad at her mother for smoking. What hurts is that she didn’t know this about Bernadette. Maybe she would have seen her mother differently if she had known this vulnerability. Bernadette came across always so matter of fact, so certain.

When had her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette?

Maybe when she got sick. After all, she kept it to herself. At first, she waited to see if the lump would go away. Then she kept the diagnosis quiet for at least a week. It was only after she made her first appointment to determine the course of her treatment that she called Barbara, asked if she would accompany her. Bernadette explained it was good to have another set of ears to hear everything the doctor said. Always practical.

At the appointment, when the nurse called her name, Bernadette started on her way to the examining room and Barb followed, but Bernadette halted in her steps, said, “I’ll have the nurse call you in when it’s time for the consultation.” For some reason that nearly brought Barb to tears right there in the waiting room. How stupid. Here she was crying when her mother was so strong.

Had Bernadette bought a pack of cigarettes during that time? Maybe she’d wanted one last smoke to steady her nerves. What had she been thinking? Why hadn’t Barbara been at her side?

Barb always envied those close mothers and daughters who joked and teased. She and her mother had a strong connection, a reliance on one another– not a friendship. Now she had a sincere appreciation for Bernadette’s grit as a single mother. Growing up she hadn’t seen things so positively. She’d be the first to admit she’d been a haughty teenager who looked down on the life her mother wrought. Barb was going to accomplish something, not merely eke by. But after all those months of her mother’s being sick, of Barb coming up so often and sharing hours with her mother, they had come to a kind of ease with one another.

There was the circuit they did on Saturdays to the Greek diner and the grocery store and Dollar Tree, Bernadette’s favorite store. Some evenings they brought out the TV trays for dinner; Bernadette would say grace and they’d eat and watch the local news. Barb washed up and usually left when Wheel of Fortune was on. During the commercials Bernadette would switch to Special Report with Bret Bair.

How many times had her mother replaced the Emergency Cigarette? Barb shakes her head and takes her seat back at the open freezer.

Aside from a penchant for Fannie Mae candy, Bernadette didn’t have many bad habits. Butter was something she indulged in, stocked up on. And there it is: a one-pound brick, which hits the garbage bag solidly. Bernadette would kill her for throwing out good food, but there’s no going back.

Next in the trash is a bag of frozen peas, strictly used as an ice pack. Bernadette would drape a bag over her knee and settle into watch reruns of Law & Order, or NCIS, her favorite show, what with that Mark Harmon so handsome and so nice in real life—did Barb know he’d rescued someone from a burning car?

There are plastic containers (filled with what Barb doesn’t know, but suspects is cabbage soup). All of which she tosses without opening. She considers how she should really recycle them, but it’s garbage day tomorrow and everything must go. Clunk, clunk, clunk. A pint of Walgreen’s ice cream. Butter pecan. Clunk.

Between an olive green Tupperware and a butcher-wrapped chop, Barb finds another white envelope. This one is labeled “Emergency Cig, 2011,” so it has been in the freezer for seven years, for as long as Barb’s been married to Alec. Is that why her mother needed it? Bernadette and Alec never seemed to warm up to each other. “Your Alec is as smart as Alec Trebek,” Bernadette told Barb like it was a compliment, but Barb could decode it, knew it meant Bernadette felt intimidated. She didn’t correct her mother on the Jeopardy host’s first name.

Alec was raised a Catholic, so he had that going for him. His parents were from Cuba and he grew up in Miami. But like Barbara he was a lapsed Catholic. So, both of them disappointed their parents.  They managed to peeve everyone even more when they got married at the clerk’s office. Alec’s parents wanted to host a luncheon at their club to celebrate the nuptials. But Bernadette wouldn’t get on an airplane. So, to compensate Barb and Alec had a Chicago celebration; a brunch party at a nice restaurant. They invited their close friends along with Aunt Rosemarie, Bernadette’s priest friend Father Malec, and Dr. Ken and his wife. It hadn’t seemed stressful but maybe Bernadette had needed to light one up to get through it.

Barb puts this envelope on the counter next to the first one. She shuts the freezer, leans back in the chair, and closes her eyes.

How many cigarettes have there been? When had the first Kent been lit and when and how many Marlboros had she needed?

If her memory is correct and the first cigarette had been put away when she was in fifth grade, it was only a few years later that Barbara had changed, insisted on being called Barb or Barbara –she hated Barbie. The tweens. That was the start of when she could see only her mother’s shortcomings. Conformist. Boring. Barb had been such a handful, so strident, it was no wonder her mother hadn’t smoked carton after carton.

The heat comes on, and it makes a regular tick, once, twice, three times. Barb listens to the house; wonders if it will belong to someone loud after all these years of quiet.

She thought she might get teary when she cleaned out Bernadette’s dresser or smelled the White Shoulders perfume.  Instead, it’s here at the freezer where her feelings thaw.

Then it flashes to her, how egotistical she is to presume the reason her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette had anything to do with her. Didn’t her mother have a life of her own? Barb did not share with Bernadette, but maybe Bernadette didn’t share either. There could have been things she never mentioned. Worse even, it could be that something had upset her mother and she didn’t even know. And now would never know.

Or perhaps her mother, with her TV companions, poured herself a 7-Up and lit one up. She could picture it, maybe. Bernadette would take the time to arrange cheese and crackers on a plate and use cocktail napkins. She’d probably even used an ashtray, though it seemed the Emergency Cigarette was only smoked for a puff or two.

Barb would have known if her mother smoked then because she was around a lot; she came home to take care of her mother on those treatment days when the radiation and nausea sapped Bernadette’s strength. And most weekends. Barb had been a dutiful daughter, hadn’t she?

Come to think of it, with the world as crazy as it is, it could have been a news event that drove her mother to the white envelope in the freezer — 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina? Surely the Emergency Cigarette was not from that long ago. Maybe it was when the classrooms of kindergartners were shot up?  Or something else. There were plenty of atrocities–there were many to choose from.

The freezer stands empty and the garbage bag sags like a heavy heart. Barb is ready to tie it up when she notices some items on the shelves of the door. Behind a sticky can of frozen orange juice concentrate, she finds another white envelope, this one with a plain face, no writing. How many emergency cigarettes had her mother needed?  And why did she save them? Had she lost count or forgotten them?  Was she further gone than Barb suspected?  Barb tosses the envelope on the counter.

Taking the full garbage bag to the can outside the kitchen door, Barb wonders how much she doesn’t know about her mother.

Back at the counter, the three cigarettes are lined up: a Marlboro Light, an Eve, and a Benson & Hedges, all partially smoked, each white filter ringed in faint tangerine. She gathers them all, brings them with her when she sits at the kitchen table.

Lately who hasn’t wanted to smoke and drink and tear their hair and jump off buildings?  Even Barb, Ms Health Consciousness, had been tempted to bum a smoke those weeks at the end of 2016, the situation so bleak with the election turning out as it did. And that was another thing that drove them apart. Really drove them apart.

“Even the Trib won’t endorse that woman,” Bernadette had told her when Barb brought up the election.

“But you’re going to vote for that man?”

“I’m voting for the Republican Party,” Bernadette said firmly. She never mentioned it again, but Barb thought about it a lot.

Such a disappointment. Barb could not come to terms with how Bernadette voted. It flabbergasted her. Of all the things she did not understand about her mother, this seemed the hardest for her to fathom. How could someone who valued decency vote for him? And now the cigarettes.

Her mother is dead and the man she voted for is the President and they are all left to deal with it. It’s a mess. The only mess Bernadette left behind.

They were getting to a good place with one another, she and her mother, where they understood and appreciated one another. But he ruined things between them just like he is ruining the nation. Everything tainted.

Here she is 46, the same age as Bernadette when she had her. She used to want a baby. But now she is glad she never conceived because the world is so screwed-up. When menopause started and the possibility of pregnancy diminished, Barb was relieved as well as disappointed, if that made any sense.

Her eyes are watery as she touches the cigarettes. She’ll smoke them all, one by one, just to imagine she is taking in some breath of her mother. But she can’t get up from the chair and she doesn’t have a match. All that’s in her pocket is that stupid Christmas brooch. Somewhere far down the street a car alarm starts up and then seems to fade away.

When Barb looks down at her hands, she finds that without thinking, she has broken the three half-cigarettes, crumbled them until the filters and paper and tobacco are in a pile on the table. Tears come. When she is done crying, she picks up the three tangerine-tinged filters, lines them up in the smoothed-out Saran, and carefully wraps them. This she puts in the smallest envelope, which she then tucks into next envelope, and then the last. She looks once again at the indelible printing: Emergency Cigarette. She brings the packet to her lips. Then she shifts in the chair to put it in her back pocket.

Only tobacco and paper shreds are left on the table. She brushes all the mess into her palm. Because the garbage can is empty, she doesn’t want to use it. Instead she opens the kitchen door and blows her hand clean, all the little bits flying this way and that.

Trained as a journalist, Ellen Wade Beals writes poetry and prose. Her work has appeared in literary magazines, in anthologies and on the web here and in Ireland and the UK. Her poem “Between the sheets” appears in the textbook Everything’s a Text (Pearson 2010). She is editor and publisher of Solace in So Many Words. Her website is: www.solaceinabook.com.

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If you’ve had the opportunity to take a class from Janice Lee (we highly recommend her class at  Corporeal Writing) then you understand why we are excited about her forthcoming book, Imagine a Death. Her work is, frankly, groundbreaking both in terms of form and content. If you aren’t familiar with Janice, check her out. A description of Imagine a Death. from her website:

A depiction of the cycles of abuse and trauma in a prolonged end-time, Imagine a Death examines the ways in which our pasts envelop us, the ways in which we justify horrible things in the name of survival, all of the horrible and beautiful things we are capable of when we are hurt and broken, and the animal (and plant) companions that ground us.

Join us in preordering her book now, and if you take a class with her, let her know we sent you. Preorder a copy today at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Family, Guest Posts, Mental Health

I Come From Wicked Women

May 24, 2021
mother

by Ramona Mead

Like many eighth-grade girls, I spent a lot of time at my best friend’s house. A woman lived down the road who was a menace to their neighborhood, would start a feud with a neighbor over an errant garden hose. Her trailer home set at the end of a long gravel drive was the kind of place kids avoided on Halloween. She sped around on a bicycle, stiff and severe, never acknowledging her surroundings.

Whenever the woman passed by, my friend’s family burst into a mocking rendition of The Wicked Witch of the West’s signature tune, “Duh-duh, duh-duh, duh-duh-duh!” My friend and her family had no way to know it was my grandmother on that bicycle, and I never spoke up.

It was my mother’s mother, I called her Mom-Mom. Though I was around her as a kid, I can’t say I knew her. By the time I was in eighth grade, she and my mother had been estranged for more than five years. Ever since then, when I see that witch from The Wizard of Oz, I’m struck by the resemblance to the women in my family, including myself—it’s mostly the sharp profile (and the meanness.)

Mom-Mom’s husband, my Pop-Pop, died when I was six. At the time, I only knew he was “very sick.”  I spent countless hours in squat pleather chairs of a mauve ICU waiting room, supervised by friendly nurses in pastel scrubs. My mother stayed at her father’s bedside until it became clear there was no hope he’d recover, and his life support machines were turned off.

I don’t recall the first time my mother told me the story how Pop-Pop died, it’s always been our family narrative and it goes like this: Mom-Mom and Pop-Pop were drunk and had an argument, she hit him in the head with a frying pan and he never woke up. It’s such a nonchalant description, I didn’t question this narrative until I was an adult in therapy.

“You mean she murdered him?” my therapist’s eyes widened after I casually recounted the version I’ve known my whole life. It always came across as it was his fault for not waking up. That’s a classic move in our family, blame the victim to avoid responsibility. After all, it’s not like that was the first time she’d hit him.

Our family lore says alcohol fueled altercations between my grandparents were common. Pop-Pop occasionally sported a black eye as a result. He never retaliated or talked about it. As an adult, I’ve asked my mother and aunt why Mom-Mom was never arrested after Pop-Pop’s death, and they give the same explanation, which is surprising. They say their dad “loved his wife so much,” they knew he wouldn’t want them to pursue legal action.

I was twenty-one when I had my first fight with a boyfriend. I didn’t want him to take a trip without me because I was jealous of another girl who’d be there. We were yelling at each other as I gathered up everything to do some laundry. I walked out mid conversation, to our building’s laundry room two doors down. I fumed while stuffing everything into a washer and cramming quarters into their slots.

I marched barefoot back down the sidewalk, my retorts finely tuned and ready to launch at him. Then suddenly, there he was getting in his car without offering me so much as a glance.

The blocky jug of laundry detergent soared across the parking lot before I even registered that it had left my hand. It landed on the wide hood of the Mustang with a solid thud as the car inched out of its parking space.

I rushed to our door without looking back and slammed it behind me, my lips trembling. What had I done?! My chest tightened and my tongue tingled. My anxiety had never escalated to this level in front of J before.

In the two years we’d lived together, he saw me kick over a kitchen chair or cry during episodes of panic when I was overwhelmed balancing my checkbook or studying for a test. Those were incidents where I’d struggled against myself, and he’d left me alone to work through them. This was the first time I’d lost control in J’s direction.

Through a slit in the blinds, I watched his car ease back into its space. J retrieved the jug of Tide with little effort and came through our front door as if he were returning with groceries.

I braced for the slap and barrage of insults I imagined I’d earned, as had always been the case growing up. Like the time in my junior year of high school when, in a fit of agitation over finishing a report on time, I’d slammed my palms against the keys of our electric typewriter until they stung then tossed it across our kitchen table. My mother pulled me out of my seat by my hair, slapped my face and called me an ungrateful bitch.

J set the jug on the coffee table without comment. Time seemed to slow down as I fought to get my breathing to a normal pace. He came to where I still stood by the window, pulled me close and held me for a moment. Then he gently separated us to arm’s length and spoke slowly and softly, “If you ever do anything like that again, we are done. I will never be with you anymore.”

When I realized he was comforting me, not punishing me, my confusion morphed into relief then embarrassment. I couldn’t lift my head to meet his gaze. I stared down, watching my hot tears drip onto my t-shirt.

J said he knew I needed help. What did I need? he asked, he’d help me get it. I didn’t know. Neither of us understood at the time that this behavior was how I had been taught to react to conflict. Despite the fact that we were later married, J never knew the details of my abusive childhood or the extent of my mother’s dysfunction because I didn’t fully understand it myself yet nor admitted it to anyone.

We decided I would start by scheduling a doctor’s appointment the next day. Later that night, our argument settled, I lay in the dark picturing that jug of Tide thunking onto the car’s hood, over and over and over again. Sour shame rose in my throat every time. And then in my mind, the jug was a rock spidering the windshield of my step-dad’s truck. My mother stood panting beside our front porch after hurling the softball sized rock, screaming insults as he drove away.

I was transported right back to that morning, holding my breath until I exhaled as the rock rolled down the windshield, off the hood of the truck and continued down the hill. While my step-dad had never raised a hand to my mother, I thought surely today was the day. I kept watch as his truck continued around the curved driveway, veered onto rutted dirt lane, then to the paved road, and out of sight.

This wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed my mother’s rage and wondered Why doesn’t someone stop her? It never occurred to me that someone might have tried.

My mother creates her own version of reality to get her through without ever taking accountability for her behaviors. When people call her out, she bails on the relationship. Whether it’s a spouse needing a break, or a hairdresser wanting to change her standing appointment time. When my mother tripped over a throw rug in the house, it went into the trash. If she choked while eating spaghetti, that brand of pasta was forever boycotted. So the question I’ve pondered for more than a decade is not why didn’t my mother want to change but why did I?

J was the first person to tell me, “You need help and I love you, so I want to help you get it.” All my life, my mother told me “there’s something wrong with you,” and “you’re sick in the head like your father.” She never once told me how I could make an effort to be different. She took me to medical doctors for my physical symptoms: chronic stomach pain in sixth grade, migraines at age fourteen, and I took treatments but there was never a search for a root cause. A doctor’s suggestion that these things could be stress related was dismissed by my mother. I was being dramatic, exaggerating, seeking attention.

Sometimes it feels like the strongest drive in my life, even stronger than my will to live, is my desire to not be like my mother. For many years, it felt like turning into her was inevitable.

The day I threw the laundry soap was the first turning point away from that course. It was the start of other people teaching me how to be a person in the world. My mother didn’t teach me or allow herself to be taught. I’ve determined the difference comes down to who we are at our cores. I have always had love and light at my center, my mother and grandmother had meanness at theirs. I didn’t always let my light shine because I was mocked and punished for being different from my mother, for being sensitive and silly. I was taught by example to behave in a way that went against my nature. That caused me a great amount of distress and anxiety. J was the first person to give me another option.

I have the possibility of wickedness in me. It was passed down from the surly old woman on her bicycle, to her daughter who then abused her daughter. Acknowledging that wickedness in me was the first step in not acting on it and taking a different path. I do not want to be a woman who terrorizes people. I don’t want to be a joke in my neighborhood or feared by my family.  I am my mother’s daughter but I am not my mother. I come from wicked women and I choose not to be one.

Ramona Mead is a writer, reader, and book blogger, among many other things! Her personal essays have appeared in various online publications. She’s working on a memoir about her relationship with her mother in regard to trauma, family estrangement, and Huntington’s Disease. She lives outside Bozeman, Montana with her husband and a houseful of pets. You can find her on Instagram @RamonaMeadBlogger and her website www.RamonaMead.com.

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Megan Galbraith is a writer we keep our eye on, in part because she does amazing work with found objects, and in part because she is fearless in her writing. Her debut memoir-in-essays, The Guild of the Infant Saviour: An Adopted Child’s Memory Book , is everything we hoped from this creative artist. Born in a charity hospital in Hell’s Kitchen four years before Governor Rockefeller legalized abortion in New York. Galbraith’s birth mother was sent away to The Guild of the Infant Saviour––a Catholic home for unwed mothers in Manhattan––to give birth in secret. On the eve of becoming a mother herself, Galbraith began a search for the truth about her past, which led to a realization of her two identities and three mothers.

This is a remarkable book. The writing is steller, the visual art is effective, and the story itself is important.

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Autism, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Ordinary Lives

April 16, 2021
risa

by Marlene Olin

Margaret hears the sound of cabinet doors slamming. When she walks into the kitchen, her heart lurches. The walls are splattered, the floors crunchy.  But her daughter’s happy. Tomato sauce spackles Risa’s hair and her glasses. On top of a pot, steam billows.

“Dinner’s almost done,” says Risa.  A tornado of arms and legs, she whirls from the sink to the stove. “By my calculations, nine minutes tops.”

Once again Margaret glances at her kitchen. Risa has created a workspace like she’s been taught. The counter is covered with newspaper. The ingredients lined just so. Bay leaves. Garlic. Onion. Oregano. The measuring spoons and cups. The mixing bowls and slotted spoons. Not one dish will be cleaned until after dessert.  Order is everything.

“Looks great, sweetie. It’s such a help when you cook dinner.” Then Margaret mentally makes a note of the post-cleaning required long after her daughter has cleaned and gone to bed.

But there’s no denying that Risa’s happy. There’s a lift in her step and she hums while she works. When she’s finished, she walks up to Margaret. Most people would leave an ample amount of space between them. But space is subjective. Space is a loose and wobbly entity that one intuits. Instead Risa lines up toe to toe with her mother and waves a finger in Margaret’s face.

“One more step on the road to independence, Mom.”  Then she remembers her smile cards and creases the corners of her mouth.

***

Three hours later, they are lying down. Risa’s bedroom has looked the same for decades. The sheets are soft and flannel, the shelves lined with her collections. Stones. Crystals. Shells.

As always, Margaret picks a book of poems and reads. Dickinson tonight. Perhaps Browning tomorrow. Outside the window the moon waxes and wanes. Inside the words fall like waves. It’s the sound that matters, the lilt, the lull, the up and down. Meanwhile Margaret stifles yawn after yawn. Her day can’t end soon enough.

“Do you know that a giraffe just needs 1.9 hours of sleep?” says Risa.

While she turns the page, Margaret listens to the quiet of her house. A TV drones. A dryer rumbles. Somewhere her husband is lurching. Hunched, his hands clenched, his eyes darting.  A lost soul, her husband. A Victorian ghost. A daguerreotype, grayed and grim, save for the waistcoat and watch.

“Do you know that sharks have to keep moving?”  says Risa. “Do you know that sharks never sleep?”

“Never sleep?” says Margaret.

Despite herself, Margaret savors the moment. For she knows that moments like these will soon be come and gone.  This is the year that Risa’s turning forty. With the proper supervision and support, Risa will be getting her own apartment. Her bags will be packed. The house will be emptied. The shrinks, the social workers, the experts all say it’s time.

On the ceiling are Day-Glo constellations. As soon as the lamp’s turned off, they grab the light. Margaret closes her eyes. In seconds she’s transported to 1980’s. They had just moved to Miami for her husband’s new job.

  “Spring has sprung!” said the banner. Bunnies and egg-lined baskets.  A chain of pastel construction paper crisscrossed the room.

The teacher kept her voice to a whisper. “I have twenty children in my kindergarten. Twenty children and two aides. But Risa’s the one we watch. She runs with scissors. Walks into the seesaw. The other day she followed a stray dog out the school and down the block.”

What was her name?  Miss Susan or Miss Sarah. It was mythical the way she saw into the future. Like some sort of blind seer. Back then there were no catchphrases. No spectrums. No labels. Nothing to hang your hat on but despair.

“Her IQ is sky high. That’s obvious. And her knowledge of trivia endless. But she flinches at the slightest touch. She’s terrified of hugs.”

Instead of friends, Risa had pets. No dogs or cats. Margaret’s husband was allergic. To the hair. To the dander. To the pollen on their fur. Instead they adopted an ever-changing zoo. A guinea pig that kept them up all night. A savage hamster. A gerbil that found its way into the dryer duct. Saltwater fish. Freshwater fish. One morning they’d be fine. Then the next they’d be floating, a lifeless eye staring toward the light.

A fitful sleeper, Risa tosses and turns while Margaret inches closer to the edge. Of course, her daughter has no idea what awaits her. Noisy neighbors. Nosy landlords.  Butt crack plumbers. Pervs. But what Margaret fears most is the loneliness. She can see it now.  The hours of bone-crushing silence, the kind of quiet that screams.

Margaret’s dealt with pitfalls and potholes. And now an old familiar panic starts to grow.  Margaret’s learned to trust her instincts. Her instincts rarely fail her. But all she envisions are red lights and stop signs.  Risa’s own apartment? All she can hear is her voice shouting no!

Meanwhile Margaret’s bullied right and left.

From her son, the lawyer in Washington, the one who will one day bear the burden. Each rebuke is spewed with fear: “You’re not getting younger, you know.”

From the shrink. Good or bad, inspired or idiotic, the meter keeps running:  “What’s the worst that can happen?”

From the professionals in their air-conditioned offices, sweatered in smiles, gripping their coffee cups, glued to their screens: “It’s time to cut the cord, Mom.” Like Margaret’s a fucking stereotype. Like there’s an instruction manual she somehow missed.

Only her friends can she count on. In darkened rooms, she sobs while they sip Chablis. “She’s going where?” They say. “You’re doing what?”

But her daughter is insistent. She’s like a dog with a bone. Pulling. Tugging. The whole world has narrowed to this one theme, this one topic, this one road.

Margaret lowers her voice, taps into some patience, and slips a mask of calmness on her face. It won’t be as easy as you think, Margaret reminds her. The words coil like an undercurrent, slipping into every conversation. You’re too kind-hearted. Not everyone is as trusting and as kind-hearted as you.

But no argument chips the concrete. Instead Risa rolls her eyes. Then she reminds her mother of her accomplishments. The 3.3 average in college. Her job at the library. Plus she’s cooked dinner for three nights straight!

***

They make apartment hunting more of a pastime than a project. Marilyn, their realtor, is a friend. Blonde, bronzed, roped with jewelry, she carves out time in her busy busy schedule. She has known Margaret and Risa since forever.

Every Sunday, it is now part of their routine.

Marilyn points out the window. Beyond the pool is Biscayne Bay. “The condo is vacated,” says Marilyn. “Its owners just fled. Tax problems. Immigration problems. Who knows?  A bedroom and two baths plus lots of light.”

Margaret struggles to find fault but finds herself tongue-tied, stumped.

“I like this place,” says Marilyn. “There’s a nice view. Incredible amenities. A party room plus a gym!”

While Margaret follows the swoop of her hand, Risa has disappeared.  They find her checking out a spider down the hall.  When she joins them, her face is vacant, her eyes glazed. Security deposits. Down payments. It’s all too much too absorb.

“Do you know that living rooms were once called parlors?” says Risa. “When you died, they laid out your body on a table. Then all your friends and relatives dropped by.”

“Really?” says Marilyn. She is listening and not listening. Punching her phone.

“Really,” says Risa. “Then one day death became a business. Morticians took the bodies, cleaned them up, and moved them to funeral parlors. Then people started calling their parlors living rooms. Get it? Living rooms.”

“Is that a fact?” says Marilyn.

“Do you know that after mating,” says Risa, “the male arachnid dies?”

It was eighth grade. All the kids in Risa’s private school were supposed to perform community service. The voices in Margaret’s head said no. The voices yelled and screamed, are you insane? But Risa pleaded, all the kids were doing it, here’s the list of places we can go.

The plan was to drop her off at the animal shelter every Saturday. Margaret insisted on her version of a hazmat suit. Long sleeves, long pants. Covered shoes. They gave Risa all the jobs no one else would do. Clean bird shit from cages. Clean dog shit from crates. Every afternoon Margaret would pick Risa up, drive her home, and direct her straight into the shower.

Still the first month went smoothly. No chore was too vile. Risa would rake her fingers through a dog’s fur and instantly decompress. She’d stroke a cat and shudder as it purred. It was the second month that proved a disaster.

A staff member named Timmy started hanging around. A scruffy beard to cover up the acne. Torn jeans and checkerboard teeth. He’d wash a dog and spray Risa with the hose until her clothes clung. Then he’d warble, look who’s got titties. He talked her into wearing white tee shirts, the more to gawk at when they clung.

Then one day he asked her along to pick up a litter. They took off in his truck, his hand slipping on and off the gear stick, digging in the space between her thighs.  You working out, Risa?  She sat up straighter, startled. You seem tense, he said. I can feel your muscles clench.

She took a shower for two hours that night. Then she plucked out all her eyelashes. Clean couldn’t get clean enough.

But Marilyn’s not on the program. While Margaret wants to press the pause button, Marilyn’s programmed to make a deal. It’s almost Thanksgiving when she finds the perfect apartment. Fully refurbished. Fort Knox Security. The place is only two miles from their house.

“I’m sending you a lease,” says Marilyn. “We’ve got to jump on this one fast.”

The three of them had just finished eating a quick dinner in the kitchen.  Margaret. Her husband. Risa. The family response is all too easy to predict.

The husband retreats to his den.

Margaret gulps an antacid followed by an Ativan chaser.

Risa puts her hands on her hips. Then she lectures her mother theatrically like she’s seen people do on TV. “Everyone has their own apartment. I’m the only person in the world without her own apartment. This is your problem, Mother. Not mine.”

“But Risa,” says Margaret scrambling for words.

Next her daughter lifts her chin toward the ceiling and starts bugling like an overgrown toad.  When she’s finished with her performance, she turns once more to Margaret.

“Do you know,” says Risa, “that a Panamanian gold frog has no outside ears? It can even ignore its own voice.”

The days slog by. Marilyn texts every hour on the hour while the three of them gnash their teeth. But the more Margaret vacillates, the more anxious Risa becomes. She gives up sleep altogether. She bites on her lips and chews on her hands, gnawing her nails to the quick.

If only there were a guidebook, thinks Margaret. A primer for extraordinary people who crave ordinary lives. The problem is so much more than geography. There’s a hole in Risa’s heart that she can’t identify let alone fill. Though Risa’s life is consumed with routine, it’s shockingly empty.  Sure she has contacts on social media. But they aren’t true connections. They aren’t real friends.

And while Risa stays stuck, the rest of the world has moved on. Her brother has married and has two children. Even her younger cousins have families, too.

Is this something you can imagine? Margaret once asked her. Is this something that you want? When you look into the future, is this something that you see?

No, says Risa. I really can’t.

It’s a reality that Margaret has difficulty accepting. At night, she dreams of happy endings.  She pictures satin wedding gowns. A handsome groom and a multi-tiered cake.

But there’s no cooing infant in this picture. There’s no strolling down an aisle festooned with baby’s breath and ferns. Instead, Risa envisions a menagerie, a home for the lost and the neglected. There are no playpens and Pampers. Instead there’s meowing and barking. Chirping and cheeping. Room after room of flying feathers.

Her husband hides. Her son yells. Her realtor nags. And like mercury in a thermometer, her daughter’s stress shoots up. Meanwhile Margaret walks on tiptoes and speaks in whispers. It’s like living with a volcano that’s bound to explode.

“I hate you, Mother,” says Risa.

“They want signatures,” says Marilyn.

But Margaret shakes them off. There are and will be other apartments. This is another roadblock they can overcome.

She spends hours on the computer. Then she locates a special organization in Wisconsin that sells trained dogs. They aren’t service dogs. Risa would have to wait years for a service dog. But they know forty commands right off the bat.

The family response is all too easy to predict.

Risa’s eyebrows nearly jump off her head. Then she bounces up and down like she’s on a trampoline, waving her hands and wiggling her fingers. “I’m getting a dog! I’m getting a dog!”

The husband starts sneezing.

The son whines. “I always wanted a dog. We never got a dog before. Now Risa gets a dog?”

By January, the two of them are in Madison. The temperature is below zero and everything’s white. The rental car passes frozen lake after lake, the air’s still, the sky crisp. A few crazies are ice-fishing. Convenient stores sell cheese balls, cheese curds, cheese soup. Churches scream, Save Your Soul! Their laps are littered with road maps while their phones prove useless. Heading into the woods, they drive clean off the grid.

After two hours, they locate the kennel. Ten acres, a barn, and a house. A lumberjack kind of guy opens the door. Six feet tall, he’s a Paul Bunyan look-alike.  Flannel shirt. Workman boots.  Jeans.

Soon their efforts are rewarded when twenty Labrador Retriever puppies greet them. Black. Yellow. Brown. Licking. Yapping. Pawing. Deciding is impossible. Ridiculous!  With tears in her eyes, Risa becomes enamored with each and every one.

Finally, as the sun sets, a gold-colored dog picks Risa. She is sitting on the floor when a two-month-old ball of fluff waddles over, lies in her lap, and falls asleep. Smiling, Risa gives her a name. She looks like a Milly, don’t you think? Then they say their goodbyes and leave the puppy in Wisconsin to be trained. After a five-month gestation period, they’ll fly back. Then they’ll pick up the newest member of the family.

In the meantime, they get ready. They sign a lease. Purchase furniture. And every few weeks they’re emailed photos of the dog. Risa forwards them to everyone she knows. Like any proud parent, she diligently records milestones. She carries a brag book. To strangers on the bus she says, Have you seen anything cuter? To her mother she says, You’re the best.

There are commands to learn and supplies to buy. Leashes. Crates. Rawhide toys. Could Risa register for gifts at a pet store, Margaret wonders? Can I send out an announcement when our latest addition arrives? Sure, she tells her friends. Getting a new dog doesn’t have to be this hard. But when is learning to love ever easy?

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, PANK, Catapult, and The Baltimore Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee twice for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

The Art of Acceptance

March 15, 2021
jessica

CW: This story contains outdated, culturally insensitive references to individuals with developmental disabilities. Prior to the 1990s, the term ‘’mental retardation’ was used to describe individuals diagnosed with low IQ.

By Cathy Shields

“Your daughter Jessica is profoundly retarded.”

The string of words yanks like an invisible chain, back to that moment in 1988 when the doctor made his decree. Those five words launched a journey I struggled to navigate for twenty-four years. Today I face what awaited at the end of my passage.

I stand in the middle of Jessica’s bedroom. Everything appears the same as yesterday; the same, but different. An assortment of posters hangs on the wall above her bed, most of them, images of the band, the Backstreet Boys. In one photo, the five boys lean forward, arms linked. They smile, and for a second, I imagine they can hear me. I whisper the words like a well-kept secret.

“We moved Jessica to a group home today.”

I turn my attention to the posters Jessica told me to bring. My fingers tremble as I grab the edges. I wonder whether my heart will crack into a million little pieces, like the broken keepsakes she has refused to throw away. Jessica often followed me around the house and repeated the same questions. “Mommy where we go today? Mommy, what we do? Mommy? Why you no answer me?”

What if we made a mistake moving her? Thoughts teeter like a seesaw. We should have waited. What if she doesn’t like it? What if she thinks we’ve abandoned her?

“You’re making that face again.” My husband Chip stands in the doorway. “I can tell what you’re thinking. The staff at the group home said they’d call if there were any problems.” He folds his arms across his chest. “We were supposed to wait a few days. You’re going to call anyway, aren’t you?”

I shrug. “Sorry, I have to.” I grab my cellphone and dial. Two rings later, Nina, the house manager, answers.

“Hi, it’s Jessica’s mom. I know you advised us to wait a few days to call, but can I speak to her?” The words leap from my mouth as if they possess a mind of their own.

“Yes, Mrs. Shields, but we want her to adjust to the new environment. Can you wait? I promise she’s fine.”

A long silence follows. I’m not sure whether to wait or hang up. When I don’t respond, Nina sighs. “Okay, I’ll get her.”

Seconds tick by until I hear Jessica’s voice.

“What you want Mommy? When you come here?”

“Um, I’ll come soon. In a few days.”

“You forget my posters? You say you bring them.”

“No, I didn’t forget. I started taking them down.”

“Okay Mommy. I love you. Bye.”

I hang up the phone and stifle an urge to cry.

“So do you feel better now?” Chip uncrosses his arms, a tiny smile peeking through his graying beard. His green eyes are like beacons calling me home. “What are we making for dinner? It’s getting late,”

“I’m not hungry,” I murmur. “Go ahead and grab something. I might be a while.”

“Are you still worried? Nina just told you Jessica’s fine.” He waits for me to respond and when I don’t answer, he says, “Okay, fine. Do whatever you have to. I’ll be in the kitchen.”

A rumpled pink bedspread covers Jessica’s mattress. I sit, pull her pillow close to me, and inhale. Faint traces of her vanilla-scented shampoo remain. Chip doesn’t understand. He didn’t spend years worrying about how to make Jessica normal. It seemed easy for him to accept. Why couldn’t I?

Stacks of empty video boxes, loose CDs, magazines, and crumpled pictures are scattered over the top of Jessica’s nightstand, and when I straighten the hodgepodge of items, I spot my favorite picture, a photo of me and four-year-old Jessica. In the photo, we smile at the camera. Her saucer-like blue eyes sparkle with childlike innocence. Silky bangs frame her face and her blonde hair cascades like a waterfall of curls. People often said she should be a child model. If things had turned out differently, it could have happened. My finger traces the curly lines of the embossed silver frame. I had insisted Chip take that picture. To mark the occasion.

I slide the photo from the frame and turn it over. In blue ink, I had written the date. April 5, 1988.

Dr. Morgan, the neuropsychologist who headed the program, met with us. He made his pronouncement. My mind reconstructs the scene. Snippets of details; the cold room, the red leather chair, the click of a pen, the tears. The meeting ended. Chip clasped my hand and led me away from the shards of broken dreams. I remember the way Dr. Morgan rose from his seat as I swept past him and headed into the hallway. For one split second, my mind had conjured an entirely different scene. What if I could change the ending? Then Chip opened the door to the children’s activity room. Jessica saw us. Her eyes lit up. She pointed and beamed at us. “That my Mommy.”

The woman beside her, clad in pink scrubs, laughed as Jessica tugged on her hand. “I’m Carol,” she said, “one of the nurses here. Your daughter is so sweet and adorable.”

A second nurse sidled up and stroked Jessica’s hair. “She certainly is. She’s angelic.”

I nodded, barely able to look at Jessica. Perhaps I would never see her the same way again. What then?

Carol touched my shoulder. “Oh, please don’t cry. So many kids come to our center, but your daughter is special. Perhaps she arrived in your life to help you. They say the Lord works in mysterious ways.”

I hated it when people said that. It sounded so condescending. Jessica held up both hands. “Up, Mommy. Pick me up. We go home?”

“Yes. Daddy and I will take you home.”

I remember how I held Jessica, pressed my face against her cheek, and inhaled the fragrance of her skin. A precious, heartbreaking moment. How could I live with the fact there was no cure for her irreversible brain damage?

*

Chip pokes his head through the bedroom doorway. “Didn’t you hear me call you? You’ve been in here for over an hour. Dinner’s ready. Come and eat.”

I steal one last glance at Jessica’s photo before I return it to the nightstand. It might take the rest of my life to learn the art of acceptance.

Cathy Shields is a retired educator with an M.S. Ed in Exceptional Education. She is a member of the South Florida Writers Association and a member of the Memoir Writers Circle. Her short stories have appeared in Ariel Chart International Literary Journal, ’45 Magazine Women’s Literary Journal, Flash Fiction Friday, A Story in 100 words, Spillwords and Variant Literature. Her work “The Phantom Ovaries” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2019. Cathy resides in Miami, Florida where she and her husband raised their three grown daughters.

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A book about tears? Sign us up! Some have called this the Bluets of crying and we tend to agree. This book is unexpected and as much a cultural survey of tears as a lyrical meditation on why we cry. 

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Forgiveness, Grief, Guest Posts

Forgiving Mom…Finally

November 29, 2020
day

By Fredricka R. Maister

“Sorry, girls, but the car won’t start so I can’t drive you to the pool today,” Mrs. Gilbert told Joanne and me that hot summer morning. The date, forever rooted in my memory:  August 8th, 1961.

I may have been a clueless 12-year-old kid, but I instantly suspected Mrs. Gilbert was lying.  I didn’t believe for a second that her car had mechanical problems.  Besides, she could have used her husband’s car.  Dr. Gilbert was working in his home medical office, his car sitting unused in the driveway.

I don’t know why, but I could just feel that something catastrophic had happened or was about to happen, something unspeakable. Why else would Joanne and I have had to stay cooped up inside all day, cut off from the sunny outside world?

Strange as it may seem from today’s vantage point, my dread-filled focus and feelings that day centered on nuclear annihilation, World War III, the end of the world. As a baby boomer growing up during the Cold War, I could not forget the  “duck and cover” drills we regularly practiced during the school year. Crawling under my desk, my arms covering my head, I would silently wait,  contemplating what death would feel like in a nuclear blast while still hoping for the “All Clear” bell to sound.

Even though I never heard any news reports or air raid sirens warning us to seek refuge in a fallout shelter, that doomsday consciousness haunted me all day at Joanne’s.  Of course, I kept my thoughts to myself; Joanne would have laughed at me had I told her we were going to be blown to smithereens.

I had slept at Joanne’s house the night before, the latest in a succession of sleepovers at friends’ houses since my 54-year-old father had suffered his first heart attack three weeks before.  While my sister, who was four years younger than I, stayed at home with Mom, I was passed around “like a hot potato” from friend to friend.  I couldn’t remember when I last slept in my own bed; I sometimes wouldn’t see my mother and sister for days.

Physically ousted from my home, I was kept out of the loop on the latest medical updates about my dad’s condition. On the rare times I was there, I would eavesdrop on my mom talking on the phone with family and friends.  That’s how I found out my dad had suffered two heart attacks and was still in the Intensive Care Unit at the hospital.

I once cornered my mother in her bedroom, my need to know the truth about my dad trumping any upset I might cause her. “Is Daddy going to die?” I blurted to which she responded with an evasive “We hope not.”  I never asked again.

For the first time in my life, I felt utterly alone and abandoned, but no one seemed to notice or care. I found myself pretending that my home life was normal, and that my dad would soon be discharged from the hospital.  No one ever sat me down and explained just how precarious his medical condition was.

I recall Leslie, another friend I stayed with during my father’s hospitalization, telling me one night before we went to bed, “Let’s pray for your dad.” I didn’t comprehend why we needed to pray when his condition didn’t seem life-threatening.  The possibility that he might die eluded me then and during my stay at Joanne’s house.

In retrospect, I don’t think I consciously connected the dots between Mrs. Gilbert’s “lie” and my father’s health status.  I was too obsessed with being obliterated by an atom bomb.

Joanne and I passed that endless day playing board games and Solitaire.  I kept watching the clock for the hours to pass, but time stood still as my anxiety spiked.  I needed to be with my mom and sister when the bomb was going to drop, but I had to wait until Joanne’s parents could drive me home that evening.

***

An ominous quiet filled the car.  Although I looked forward to seeing my family, the anxiety and dread that had surged inside me all day only intensified.  When Dr. Gilbert didn’t turn the car into the street leading to my house but proceeded to my uncle’s home where Mrs. Gilbert said the family had gathered, I felt my heart sink into the pit of my stomach.  Why was my family gathering anywhere?  Why weren’t my mom and sister at home?  I suddenly realized that the end of the world I had anticipated had been nothing but a figment of my imagination.  All my foreboding had related to an inexplicable inner knowing that my father had died.

By the time we arrived at my uncle’s home, I could no longer deny my new “fatherless” reality. As I raced up the steps to the door where my uncle was already waiting for me, Mrs. Gilbert called out, “ Honey, be strong.”

Finally, privy to the truth, I learned that my father had died at 8 o’clock that morning.  His nurse had just turned on the television. When she turned around to say something to him, he had already succumbed to a massive heart attack that ended his life.

And, just as I suspected, Mrs. Gilbert had lied about the car.  She and my mother had spoken after Dad passed that morning and decided I should be kept away from the pool to avoid running into someone who might say something about his death.

***

That fateful August day back in 1961 has left an indelible impression on my memory and my psyche, more so than my dad’s funeral the following day, which I barely remember.  A few days after his funeral, my mother sent me away, not to mourn but to have fun at the Jersey Shore where my cousins had a bungalow. I was never asked if I wanted to go; I know I would have preferred to stay at home. For over a week as I rode the ocean waves and biked the boardwalk, I, the expert at the “pretend” game, acted as if nothing out-of-the-ordinary had happened.

Unresolved feelings of anger and abandonment associated with the weeks before and after my dad’s abrupt passing followed me into adulthood with an emotional vengeance.  Even now, more than 50 years later, my emotions often feel raw and palpable and I can’t seem to let them go.  Whenever I hark back to those feelings in sessions with my therapist, she tells me that their grip on me keeps me stuck in the past, unable to embrace the present and move forward into the future.

She reminds me that the intentions of family members and friends like Mrs. Gilbert were all well meaning.  In the 1950s and 60s, the priority, as a society, was to shield children from the trauma of a loved one’s death.  There was little recognition that children were emotionally sturdier than they appeared and could handle the truth.

***

I recently had an honest talk with my family about that turbulent time and its emotional impact on my life.  As I expected, my sister justified my mother’s decisions.  “I was in day camp then.  Mom was at the hospital with Daddy all day.  She couldn’t leave you alone at home to fend for yourself. You were only 12-years-old.  As a mother, I would have done the same thing.”

I assumed my nephew, whom I call “my soul child” because our emotional temperaments are usually in sync, would be more sympathetic to my side in our family drama.  Instead, he told me that although it might be cathartic for me to tell the story from my “angry” perspective, I should put myself in “Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time.”

The need to empathize with my mother, who bore the brunt of my anger, has not been a new concept for me. I just never felt motivated to re-visit that part of my past without the resentments and bitterness I’ve been dragging around for decades.  However, since my heart-to-heart sharing with my family, not to mention the emotionally mellowing and wising up that seems to occur as one ages, I’ve felt a shift in attitude, a possible readiness to extricate myself from all that psychological baggage.  To that end, my nephew’s words “to put myself in Grandma Bea’s shoes at that time” resonated, flashing me back in time.

I see my 45-year-old mother, grappling with the reality of sudden widowhood, alone among her friends dealing with the death of her spouse and the father of her young children.  Unlike today, there were no how-to books, self-help articles or support groups; as a woman conditioned to hiding her innermost feelings, seeking professional help was never an option.

Unsupported by the 1950s-1960s culture bent on protecting children from parental illness and death, my mother was muddling through as best she could.  In fact, when I eventually confronted her decades later about her “hurtful” behavior, she apologized, explaining  “I was just doing what I thought was best for you.” I had no doubt that her remorse was sincere, but I still held onto my grievances, unable to cut her some slack.

Despite the blame and anger I have felt towards my mother, now deceased for over a decade, I have never ceased to stand in awe of her strength and resilience in surviving the death of my father.  His sudden passing not only left her a widow but a widow without money.  Our family’s financial status took a sharp downturn to the point of bankruptcy.  My mother sold our lovely house and we moved into a cramped rental apartment she could only describe as “indescribable” in another part of town where my sister and I had no friends. Mom had to go to work immediately.  She had nursing credentials, but the pay was low and the shifts long.

In a matter of a few months, I watched my mother morph from a dependent housewife into a struggling breadwinner who would single-handedly raise two daughters—no mean feat for a single mom.  I might add that those two daughters, despite the trauma of losing a father at a young age, matured into high-functioning, responsible and independent women.  For that, I credit my mother and am most grateful.

***

I have always been a firm believer that people, places and things appear in your life, when the desire to heal is greatest. Such was the case when I came across this quote in an inspirational book I read each morning:  “Forgiving is not about forgetting, it’s letting go of the hurt.”

I’d never encountered that quote nor heard of its author, Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955) who, according to the National Women’s History Museum, “…became one of the most important black educators, civil and women’s rights leaders and government officials of the twentieth century.”

The timing could not have been more appropriate as the quote matched up with my growing willingness to let go of the hurtful emotions of my past. Had Mary McLeod Bethune’s inspiring words caught my attention for a reason? After more than 50 years, could it be time to finally forgive Mom?

THE END

When I finally was ready and able—emotionally and creatively–to address my dad’s death in my writing some 15 years later, that fateful day back in August 1961 became the inspiration for my poem, “To My Father.”

TO MY FATHER

Bells of doom

rang in the day.

World War 3, I thought

being a child of the 50’s.

Something was out of tune

silencing all gay songs.

Even time trudged by

like dead weight falling

each plunge—

a dirge of doom.

Why a shroud

over the sun

this day—

until,

Grown-ups’ tears

later revealed the truth to bear:

The bells had tolled for you

at 8:00 am

while my eyes were just opening

to the prospect of a new day—

your doomsday.

Fredricka R. Maister is a freelance writer, formerly of New York, now based in Philadelphia, whose personal essays have been published in a variety of print and online publications, such as The Baltimore Sun, Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune, New York Jewish Week, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, the Forward, Big Apple Parent, The Writer, OZY.  She has also appeared in the anthologies, ‘The Man, Who Ate His Book: The Best of ducts.org, Volume II and Wising Up Press’ View from the Bed/View from the Bedside.

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Grief, Guest Posts

Sleep Training

November 18, 2020
dreams

By Lindsey Abernathy

“Mommy, you disappeared in the dark,” you say, as I turn off the bedroom light. Though you are three years old, we still have not mastered the fine art of independent sleeping. Each night I curl up next to you as you tell the mole on my stomach good night with a gentle pat, the glow of the lamp fuzzy and blond like your head.

I shiver at your words. This is how I lose my own mother, in my dreams.

You do not understand, yet, that I had a mother. She has been gone more than half your life, dead 26 months this March. If my grief was a child like you, son, it would be cutting second molars, maybe experiencing fear of strange places, possibly having difficulty pronouncing “l’s” or “th’s.” “My how time flies!” the parenting websites exclaim.

When you were littler, and Daddy put you to bed, you came looking for me sometimes, wailing “mommymommymommy,” a woeful pitch so pleading that it could wake the dead.

If only.

You don’t know this important thing about me, but some days it seems you are the only person who understands. You have known the inside of me more completely than anyone ever will.

The dreams ebb and flow, coming usually around the time I start my period. You don’t know what a period is, but it is the time of month when I beg you to give me privacy in the bathroom. You don’t understand privacy just yet. Sometimes you scooter in, full speed ahead. Sometimes you sit on my lap. You are so young that you say “poop,” when you see the dark stains.

They are always bad, the dreams.

Sometimes, I am a child, older than you but still little. Vacation has ended; we are sunburned and my scalp is an itchy layer of sunscreen and sand; it is time to go home. I search between the legs of aunts and uncles for my mother, but it seems she has left without me. I scream for her, but my cry is not strong like yours. My mother, she does not come back.

Sometimes she is the child. The teenager from that palm-sized, rounded-edge photo I keep on our bookshelf near your fall daycare picture, the one of you holding the white pumpkin. In these dreams, she is scared and lost. I take her in my arms and I tell her she will die, and we cry together.

I had not called my mother “mommy,” like you call me, for more than three decades, but I called her that as she died. We were all children at her death. She wore mesh underwear, the same kind the hospital gave me after you were born, and said “tee tee” when she needed to use the bathroom. I dropped her, that last day she was alive, there in the bathroom. I worried so much about dropping you in those early months, and here I had lost grip of my mother.

I got my first mammogram this year because I will do anything so that you do not dream like me. A mammogram is where nurses take pictures of breasts, to make sure they are not sick.

Afterwards I waited, shirtless, for the doctor but the doctor didn’t come. A nurse finally opened the door. “Doctor says everything looks normal,” she said. “For a 32-year-old breast.”

I took my 32-year-old breasts and left the clinic. A clogged milk duct, it turned out, I learned that night in the shower, though you have been weaned for more than a year.  You did not want to wean, still tried to catch my nipples in your mouth months after.

In bed, tonight, you grab for me, small hands frantic in the dark. “Mommy, where did you go?” I extend an arm to you and you nestle into me. I know that later my arm will go numb from the weight of your neck, that I’ll have to roll you gently onto a pillow.

“I’m still here, baby,” I say, and you sleep.

Lindsey Abernathy is a mother, daughter and writer from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Abernathy studied journalism at the University of Mississippi and has worked as a writer, editor, and sustainability activist in higher education. Her most recent work was published in the Bitter Southerner.

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Guest Posts, Relationships

Dear You Who Now Hates Me

October 15, 2020
daughter

By Caroline Leavitt

Today, after two years of silence, an email arrives from you and my hands are shaking when I read it. I despise you. You are dead to me. I want nothing to do with you. I hope you have a miserable life and you know the same brutal suffering you have caused me because you are evil. You are pathetic and unlovable.

As always, you put your words in all angry bold caps, each one carrying an embedded sting, meant to hurt. You think I have done something unforgivable, something horrific to you. But I’m not certain what it is and why I am the target of your ire. All I know is that your personality has totally changed and I don’t know how to be with you any longer.

It wasn’t always this way, was it? You and I grew up together  as sisters, you three and a half years older than me, but we were more than that, more than friends. We both were big readers and we both wanted to be writers, and we walked all the way to the Star Market and back to buy big block pads that we would write in together and illustrate, novels, we called them, always about a girl who had adventures at camp, or at boarding school or on a schooner. We worked on our stories all the time because hey, we planned to be famous, cool authors. As we grew, so did all the adventures we had together, going to movies and sneaking into double features, walking to Belmont to go to Filene’s and shop. You were the one who taught me how to iron my curly hair, and dress cool in lace-up the leg sandals of yours I got to borrow.  And you were the one who protected me from my father’s brutal moods, his screaming, who kept me from my mother’s endless rages about how I was too fresh, too independent, too messy and ugly and of course I didn’t get in the school play because who would put someone who looked like me on a stage? I never knew why, but our parents left you alone, so I stayed closer to you, so maybe they would leave me alone, too. And they did.

***

As teenagers, we were so joined at the hip, that you invited me on your dates with your boyfriends, introducing me to clubs and fancy restaurants, letting me wear all of your clothes, which were much hipper and cooler than anything I had in my closet. You made me feel special and a part of your world. When men stopped you on the street because you were so beautiful, you ignored them, focusing on me.

But then things changed dramatically, and I couldn’t figure out how or why. They say a personality change can start at adulthood and maybe that’s true, maybe that’s what happened to you. You, who could have had any guy you wanted, dropped out of college one credit shy of a degree, and married at 19, a dull, critical boy who was so wrong for you that I wept,  “Don’t do this,” at your wedding right before you stepped onto the alter and bonded your heart to his. And then boom, boom, boom, you moved to a stomach cramp of a town away from Boston and boom, boom, boom, you got pregnant, with a son and then a daughter. And when I came to visit, beaming, happy to see you, the air felt charged. You were different, overwhelmed by motherhood. The spark was gone and worse, you wouldn’t speak to me. You snapped and asked me when I was going home. You yelled when I picked things up in your apartment to look at them. “Put that the fuck down,” you said. Later, you said, “I’m just unhappy.” You told me you never should have married, that the kids overwhelmed you. “You can leave,” I told you. “You can live with me or live with our mom.” You shook your head. “No,” you said. “I can’t.

Okay, let’s be honest here. I didn’t really realize the depth of your unhappiness back then. No, I was busying being young and selfish and wild at college, sleeping my way through the alphabet at Brandeis because I was so astonished that here were men who not only liked me, but wanted to share my body. You didn’t approve and said I should be more stable, but you didn’t approve when I moved to New York City, either, which you said was dirty and dangerous. You didn’t like it when I experimented with drugs and you and your husband both yelled at me. “I’m disappointed in you,” you said. “You never used to be like that.” Your disapproval stung.

I stayed away from you after that, still young and selfish, I admit, until your daughter went into third grade and suddenly there was a story she had written in my mail box, about a lonely little girl who goes to see her “crazy aunt in New York City,” and who is rescued by a mouse. “Is this me?” I asked you, wondering what you had told her about me, why you used the words crazy. “Of course not,” you said, “the mouse is the hero, not you,” but still I wondered. I called your daughter to tell her how I loved the story. Her voice was soft and shy, and I heard you yelling at her not to tie up the phone. Poor little sweetie, I thought. Maybe I should get to know her.

But I was still busy being wild, and I didn’t want to come to your small boring town. I wanted you to all come visit me in Manhattan, but suddenly, you who had been so brave, so adventurous, were afraid of everything. You wouldn’t fly or drive or travel. You wouldn’t even pick up the phone for food to be delivered. You who had once been a stellar teacher now couldn’t hold down jobs and were fired for what you said were mysterious reasons, but you wouldn’t say what those reasons were. One by one by one, your friends fell away. “They betrayed me,” you said, but you couldn’t tell me how. You began to snipe harder at me, your casual cruelty about my looks, my writing.

I tried to help, to make you happy, to try and fix things, but none of it went over well. When I sent you books I loved, imagining you pouring over them, lost in their worlds, you told me they all stunk. When I sent you clothing, you tore up silk shirts and linen pants with scissors and then mailed them back to me with notes that said: you like this, I don’t. I had a necklace designed and made for you, and you tied it into knots and threw it in an envelope to me. One day on FB, you attacked all my friends over a discussion about how much we all loved thrift stores. You called them stupid middle-aged bitches who should get jobs. When people protested or tried to explain, you used all caps to tell them to all go fuck themselves because you would not be silenced. But you were, because I blocked you then, and that made you furious, too. “Why are you so angry at me?” I cried.

We didn’t speak for months after that time. Not until my fiancé died, and I fell apart and called the one person who had always been my anchor when I was so young: you.  I begged you to come and be with me, you said you couldn’t, that your daughter had a slight cold. It wasn’t until our mother, still alive then, got on the phone, her voice sharpening, that you did come, but you stayed for just half an hour, and then, while I was crying for you to stay, please stay, because I needed you, you got your coat and took a plane back home. You didn’t come to the funeral or call me or even talk to me for a whole year while I drowned in grief, and in the end, because I missed you, I still loved you, I still wanted a relationship with you, I called you. You listened on the phone, but you never apologized. Instead you blamed me because you said I  hadn’t been appreciative enough that you had come at all. You said only, “I’ll try to do better.” I loved you, so of course I believed you.

You didn’t do better for me. But surprisingly, inadvertently, your daughter did. When she was fifteen, she called asking if she could visit me and my new husband Jeff. “My mom says it’s okay,” she said, which surprised me. When she arrived, her face tense and miserable, her hands thrust into an old army jacket that I recognized as mine. Of course we took her in! She was your daughter, wasn’t she? Of course we fed her and let her stay all that long weekend, checking in with you to make sure it was okay, and after a day or two, she got relaxed enough to tell us the part of your story we didn’t know. She told us how unhappy she was, how she was supposed to act as a conduit to you, even when she was little, calling people you were unhappy with. She took the blame for the things you did wrong. You shouted at her constantly and berated her. She couldn’t go anywhere, have any friends, make any decisions.

Why had you let her come here? Did you feel better about me? Did you actually love me? Your daughter shook her head. It was because you wanted time alone. That was when Hillary told me how you talked about me. I was no good, you told her. You actually used that word: evil. I was selfish and cruel to you and Hillary should have nothing to do with me because I was a terrible influence. She told us she wanted to be a writer, but you wouldn’t let her touch your computer because you said it was your thing, and she should find something of her own, but then again, you weren’t writing anymore. You didn’t like the way she looked and you called her loser, idiot, worthless piece of slime. You told her not to be a slut  because she was dating. You told her she was just like me. “But maybe that’s a good thing,” your daughter said quietly, and I hugged her and stroked her hair.

Your daughter went home. I spoke to you on the phone, aghast, but you denied saying any of the things that Hillary had said. You denied that she was unhappy. “She lies,” you insisted. But that sorrow of hers was palpable.

Suddenly, your daughter and I were like two lonely planets thrown out of your orbit, adrift in space, and we began to feel each other’s gravitational pull, to use it as a safety harness. Sometimes it felt like we were the only two who knew what it was like to grow up in your company, where everything was our fault, a world of screaming and sniping and gaslighting—and that was the thing we clung to, the thing that seemed to save us and keep us steady. You’re not crazy, we told each other. It’s going to be okay. Things don’t have to be like this. We began writing each other, getting closer, as if at we recognized something in each other. The way we were both afraid all the time, the way we were desperate to be liked, to know this wasn’t our fault. The way we were always terrified around anger, especially when it was uncontrolled. The more I helped your daughter, the more I was really helping me.

And that was when you screamed, “you need to step away from my daughter.” When you called me and slammed down the phone repeatedly. When you told me you had a heart attack and it was my fault, even though our mother later told me it was a panic attack, that was all. You called with dire medical reports that turned out to be nothing, with reports of a head on car crash that had never happened. When you hacked into your daughter’s email and read the messages we sent each other, you demanded they stop because they were all lies, because nothing I said had ever happened. But how could I stop connecting to the person who was saving me who made me feel valuable because I was, in my own way, saving her?

But it wasn’t just your daughter you didn’t want me to see. When your daughter married and then had babies, you wanted me kept away from them as well. Your daughter and I refused to listen and we met up at Ocean City where you called me, furious, screaming into the phone. You acted as if we had committed a crime. Did I think you were a fool that you didn’t know what I was scheming to take your daughter away from you, you screamed? I invited you to come with us, I tried to explain, but you hung up the phone.

I am a Pollyanna. It’s true. I have always been the fixer of the family, the one to make things right when there’s been discord, to try to help. I tried with you. I begged you to see a therapist because I wondered if it was some sort of illness that could be helped with medication, and you said you would.  I offered you writing classes. I would help the people I loved.

That included your daughter, especially when she shyly asked if she could show me some writing. Of course I said okay. Or course I didn’t think much would happen. She had told me only that you hadn’t wanted her to write, that you had insisted she had no talent, that it would be a waste of time and money. “My mother says I’m totally untalented,” she told me. “She says I’ll never amount to anything.”

“You know that’s not true,” I said.

“No, I don’t.”

I read the novel in one swoop, gobsmacked. I could have written it. It was as if we shared the same DNA. When I told her how good it was, she shook her head. “No, No, I’m really awful,” she insisted. So I showed her that she was not, pointing out gorgeous passages, showing her the pages that had made me cry out loud. I took the novel to my agent, who never looked at any one’s work that she didn’t cherry pick herself, who had only once before taken on someone I had suggested. My agent called me within a day. “I want this,” she said. And it’s now out on submission.

“Tell your mom,” I urged her. I imagined how happy you would be, and how happy that would make me. I imagined we’d all get close again, but instead, you shouted. You accused me of writing it, not your daughter. You hung up the phone, your voice curt.

“She doesn’t see you anymore,” my husband told me. “And the person you loved growing up isn’t here anymore. Let go. You cannot make someone love you who doesn’t.”

“Why can’t you?” I said.

***

It’s been two years now, and you have not seen or spoke to me or your daughter or your grandkids. You refuse to answer my calls, my emails. Yes, it’s terrible and tragic and painful every day. When the occasional angry email messages come, less and less these days but always like little electric shocks, I don’t have to explain the pain, the longing to your daughter because she knows and has experienced it all herself, and when your daughter calls me upset from a snipe you made to her, or a nasty blaming email, I get to help her, to empathize, to tell her she’s been conditioned to think it’s true, but it’s not.

So this is it, the end of our story, maybe.

I lost you.

But I found your daughter.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

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Guest Posts, motherhood

Drawers

October 11, 2020
drawers

By Hillary Richard

When I was a kid, my brothers and I routinely rifled through our single mom’s drawers. We didn’t really know what we were looking for. Clues, maybe? Mom was something of an enigma then, alternately mystifying and terrifying.

While we three roamed the Upper West Side barefoot, bedraggled, and unsupervised, Mom worked as a registered nurse, mostly at night because it paid more. Because she worked nights, she slept during the day. When we feral kids woke her (which was often) she raged. Screaming, hitting, and punishments galore followed. Sometimes, if we really, really misbehaved, she would take away holidays like Halloween or Christmas.

But Mom could also be really fun. A musician at heart, a lifelong pianist, she loved to cook up a big pot of spaghetti, invite tons of people over, and make music. More often than not, though, we sat alone at the kitchen table, eating chicken potpies and TV dinners. Sometimes a live-in student swapped rent for nighttime babysitting. Men came and went. Some were nice and taught us things we loved, like how to burp on command (I can still do this). Some, not so much.

Who was this mother we loved, but whose actions confused and frightened us? The answer, we figured, was in her drawers. My brothers and I were usually disappointed to find only scarves, pantyhose, and underwear. Sometimes, we found matchbooks and notes. We pondered their meaning.

In time, I would find much more.

I now have three kids of my own. I have the luxury of a husband, a well paying job. When the kids were younger, I was able to employ an excellent nanny who not only cared for them, but who cleaned and cooked.

I can only imagine how hard it must have been for my mom to never enjoy the gift of time when I was a child. Just time to play with me or read to me; time free from worrying about how to pay the rent or clean the apartment. I, on the other hand, have clocked countless hours playing with Barbies, endless games of Candyland (which I never let the kids win without a real fight), and hours and hours of reading to them in bed or just laying there, feeling their hearts beat while they fell asleep. These quotidian minutiae shaped my relationships with my three girls. As did my desire to be an open book, unlike my mother.

When I was in third grade, I found some pot in one of my mother’s drawers. I had been fully indoctrinated into the belief that marijuana was a gateway drug that led directly to heroin. Naturally, I was hysterical. I told my older brother Chris, a sixth grader, that our mother was a drug addict, likely to die any day now of a fatal overdose. I thought we could confront her directly, you know: scare her straight. Chris calmly explained that he too smoked pot. Perhaps, he reasoned, if I tried it, I would understand it wasn’t dangerous like heroin. While I appreciated his soothing tone and calming efforts, I demurred. And rather than confront her, I just kept on spying.

Naturally, I grew to learn that weed doesn’t kill you, although alcohol might. And raising three girls firmly convinced me that of the two, weed was definitely the safer option. Alcohol would inspire me to make stupid and risky choices. Pot just made me hungry. My mom struggled with both. I joked that she could get addicted to anything – Coca Cola, aspirin, you name it. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem so funny.

When my middle daughter started smoking pot in high school, I was relieved she wasn’t coming home drunk. I didn’t want her to be vulnerable. Unfortunately, just being female and a teenager makes you vulnerable. But I didn’t want her to be more vulnerable.

Eventually, I found some papers in my mother’s underwear drawer. They appeared to reference a medical procedure. I didn’t understand them. But I remembered the word abortion. Or a word close to abortion. They might have been in Spanish; I don’t really remember. But they scared me.

Sometimes we spent weekends with our dad (dads really, as my little brother had a different one). We never wondered what my mom was doing because we were kids and mostly just thought about ourselves. To the extent we ever thought about it, we just assumed she was at work or at home, like always. I was frightened to think that when we were away, my mom was having medical procedures, or doing who knows what else. But I couldn’t ask without admitting I went through her stuff. Was this taking away a holiday kind of bad? I wasn’t sure of the grade of the offense, and I didn’t want to risk it. Still, I thought about those papers for years.

We left New York for California soon thereafter. My mom married her third husband. We stopped going through her drawers. He had a bad temper and it wasn’t worth the risk. Also, she was home more. She stopped nursing. Actually, she stopped working altogether.

I understand now that she was desperately searching for herself. All of a sudden, she had the luxury of time. She wrote music, poetry, plays. She was finding herself as an artist. We kids remained feral, complicated, and unruly. I’m sure this contributed to the demise of that marriage. We moved on. My brothers left to live with their respective fathers. I stayed behind.

As a full-fledged teenager, I acted out, fell in love, got arrested, cut classes. My mom played in rock bands, had tumultuous relationships, and went on welfare. She was no longer an enigma to me. I learned she’d had a particularly rough childhood, was orphaned young, then separated from her three siblings in foster care, only to later learn that between her mother’s death and her father’s a year later, he’d remarried and sired another child. I knew that she was overwhelmed by sadness. That she had complicated relationships with men. That she loved us as best as she could, but often felt we were just too much for her.

I was no longer in danger of getting punished for going through her drawers years ago, so at 14, I asked her about the papers I had found.

As it turned out, she’d had an abortion. Not in New York, where it was illegal. She’d been having a fling, maybe an affair, with a doctor at the hospital where she worked. He didn’t want a child, at least not that one, and my mother couldn’t afford another one. So, he flew her to Puerto Rico, where abortion was legal. Indeed, during the 1960s and 1970s, it was fairly common for women to fly from mainland US to Puerto Rico to obtain a safe, legal abortion. My mom could never have afforded that on her own.

I’ve often wondered what would have happened if she had gotten pregnant instead by the violin player she dated for ages, or the Con Ed worker who for a while was a fixture in our house. Would she have gotten a back alley abortion and possibly died? I can’t imagine her having another child when life was already so hard, money so strained, and my mother so tired. Our lives, already in motion, already difficult, would have been so much worse. Not only am I grateful, I’m astonished she could do such a thing. It must have been frightening to leave home, have an abortion, and return to three loud, needy kids, and pretend like nothing happened.

In that moment, I realized that there was so much of her I hadn’t realized. All along, she’d been a nuanced, complex woman with experiences and feelings unknown to me.

I soon left home and set out to live my own complex, nuanced life. About two weeks  before graduating from college and heading to law school, to begin what I saw as my real life, my adult life, I found out I was pregnant. I wasn’t in a committed relationship, although that wouldn’t have mattered. I was going to law school and there was no possibility that I was going there pregnant. Is it awful to admit that I don’t remember exactly who got me pregnant? It was a long time ago. What I do remember – vividly – was that I had a graduation party at Danceteria. I had the abortion money in my clutch (worn with my vintage cocktail dress and combat boots – thanks, Madonna). I guess he had given me his half at the party. I put my bag down to dance and when I looked over, it was gone. I ran off the dance floor and headed for the exit. (I had no money. This was a big deal.) There was the cuprit, fleeing down those steep Danceteria stairs. I screamed at her to stop and was about to jump when she tossed the bag up to me and ran.

My mother, sick with cancer, wasn’t able to attend my graduation. It was the first time I realized just how sick she was because she wouldn’t have otherwise missed it for the world. I didn’t tell her about the abortion; it didn’t seem necessary. And, given her pragmatism about hers, I was confident that she would appreciate my pragmatism about mine.

My mom died during my first year of law school. What can unmoor you more than that? (Spoiler alert: losing both parents.) I went to El Salvador and lived under martial law during a civil war. At least you can’t feel sorry for yourself under those circumstances. I blew up a relationship that probably deserved detonation. I graduated law school with honors. I had another abortion. These things were unrelated. I marched forward towards my real life. After graduation I met the man I’ve now been married to for almost thirty years. We’ve had three kids together. When I was pregnant with my eldest daughter, I longed for my mom. How did she feel when she was pregnant with me? Was she excited? Was I a surprise? I had so many questions that I’d never thought to ask. I longed for the time when I could rummage through her closets, scrutinize her expressions, pepper her with questions, if only I had known the right questions. Indeed, raising three girls, I long for her daily.

I firmly believe that we all keep secrets, even from those we have long, intimate, loving relationships with. Even those of us who consider ourselves an open book as I do. But am I an enigma to my kids? I think not. They know that I’ve had abortions. And they know not to eat any candy they find in my drawers because maybe it’s not just candy. But more than that, we spend endless amounts of time together; deeply together. We talk about things that were verboten when I was a kid: mental health issues, alcoholism, why every girl should own a vibrator, and just what it means to be alive and engaged in the world. Unlike my mom, I have the luxury of time. And I hope to have it long enough that they can ask me (once they are interested) what it felt like to be pregnant with them. How I coped working full time and raising kids. What to do when you find yourself pregnant and you don’t want to, or can’t afford to be. Let the rest of their lives be a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Not me. Just stay out of my drawers.

 

Hillary Richard is a former lawyer and now helps run a social media platform for women over 40 called The Woolfer. She is editor of the weekly newsletter and occasionally writes short pieces for the site. Hillary also writes, is the executive producer, and co-host of a podcast called Raging Gracefully

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Family, Guest Posts

Unstuck

September 24, 2020
tub

By Sherry Shahan

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

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

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

 

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Divorce, Guest Posts

She Cannot Make It Out

September 22, 2020
water

By Stina French

He isn’t grieving but she imagines him grieving. Maybe he’s grieving. She dreams he is talking to others about her as if she is dead, though they are only divorcing. He says she loved the moon. She loved the moon so much she told our daughter her first word was moon. Though it maybe wasn’t. It made for a good story, and she loved a good story. A lot could be spared with one good story. He says she loved to swim. She loved to swim so much everyone said she was a mermaid. She loved the moon and she loved to swim so much that sometimes she would swim in the ocean at night. He says I was never so brave. He says she cried and cried. Sometimes she cried so much I thought the water she swam in was her tears. She knows he is no poet and would not speak this way.  But maybe in her dreams he is a poet. Maybe he would speak this way if she were dead.

In the dream, she is swimming in a vast sea cave. Other women swim with her. Some girls, some grown.  One watches her jealously or with desire. One doesn’t watch her at all, a small girl. Not her daughter but someone else’s daughter. Someone else’s mother, maybe one day. Surely, she will cry waters of her own making. Some breaststroke in straight lines, some backstroke in circles. This is what they know to do–to cut the water with their bodies. To make the water with their bodies.

She cuts the water with her body as if she could swim a story across and wide.  A story she could live inside. He is on the shore saying I wish I knew what to do. I wish I knew how to help her stop crying. And she is shrinking now hearing these things. She would rather hear him talk about her love for the moon again. The way she is cutting the water with her body. He is holding their daughter. Their daughter she made herself with her body.

The daughter is laughing. He has given the daughter this, and she has given the daughter story. Story does not come without cost. Laughter is free and easy, as he is free and easy. She wonders why she wants him so badly to sink. And though he could not keep her afloat, he wants her there on the surface. He would not begrudge her a view of the moon, from any angle. He wants her alive and happy even if it means swimming alone without him under the moon at night. He does not understand the ocean under the moon at night because the things in the water at a certain depth scare him. He is on the shore saying more things about her as if she is dead, but it is so far now and she cannot make it out.

Now, there is only the story of water. It sloshes, dividing and rejoining. When she left him, maybe she was just parting the water. Maybe all these bodies in the water are parts of herself dividing and rejoining. Water fingers her hair, tugging tendrils into rays, a corona wet and waving. A crown for the Queen of the Unconstituted, Beloved Dissolved. Fluid surrender, shapes spells the moon could cipher if it were watching. Her pulse beats blood in ear canals, her red tide internal. She dreams she is not dead, only swimming. Only swimming beyond bereft, beyond the leaving of a life.

Stina French writes mystery, magic-realist memoir, flash fiction, and poetry. She has featured in many venues in Denver and Boulder, Co., and her work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Punch Drunk Press, and on the podcast Witchcraftsy. She is scratching at the window of her body, writing poems like passwords to get back in. To get forgived. To get at something like the truth. To get it to go down easy, or at all. She wears welts from the Bible Belt, her mother’s eyes in the red fall. She’s gone, hypergraphic. Writes on mirrors, car windows, shower walls. Buy her a drink or an expo marker. She’s shopping her manuscript, Also Arc, Also Offering, a Southern-queerdo memoir in flash non-fiction and verse.

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Family, Guest Posts

My Disapproving Mother Unwittingly Fuels My Creative Expression

September 8, 2020
expression

 By Lisa Mae DeMasi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Words penetrate the thickness.

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

Here we go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh yeah. “Girl reactivated.”

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

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

Needless to say, my mother is my outer critic.

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

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

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

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

Why should I expect anything different this Christmas Day?

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

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

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

My expression sours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing more is said on the matter.

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

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

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Guest Posts, Trauma

I Remember My Dad As Brutal, But It Was Far Worse

August 14, 2020
father

CW: This essay discusses sexual abuse and/or assault.

By Caroline Leavitt

There it is, the photo I have saved to remind myself of the feelings I had tamped down. I’m at my Aunt Gertrude’s sedar table, standing for the obligatory family shot. I’m ten years old, in a starchy blue sailor dress my mother made me wear and though I am smiling, I am terrified, desperate to get away. I can’t, though, because my father is holding my elbow in a vise grip even as I lean away toward my older sister on the other side of me. She’s smiling, not coming to my rescue. My mom, who I love, is outside the frame, her face turned away.

Here are the facts: My dad is a bully who often uses a strap and literally screams so loudly that it sounds like his voice is tearing from his throat. When he talks, he belittles. He never says I love you, never hugs or kisses anyone, and the one time he takes me to a movie, he leaves me alone in the cavernously empty theater to watch the film by myself while he stays at the refreshment stand wolfing down candy. My mom endures him because she doesn’t know what else to do, my sister inexplicably loves him, and his rageful behavior is never spoken about in my house. No, that’s quarantined, a room full of secrets roped off by silence.

Family, I’m told, is everything.

Instead, I learn to bury my feelings, and in many ways, myself. I make myself small—as small as the last line on a vision chart. The one nobody can see.

I grow quieter and quieter because any sort of speaking up can get me hit. I’m not allowed to close the door to my room (and if I do, it will be yanked open and I will be yelled at or struck), but I learn to simulate privacy by getting lost in the world of books, and then writing. I do this for hours and hours because who can yell at me when I am so silent, so invisible? And in books, my writing, I’m lost in a whole other world which seemed much safer than the real one.

I grow up around my father’s rules. Don’t dress like a hippie and embarrass him. Don’t dare get up earlier than he does because I’d wake him with my noise and be punished. And, of course, the rules include what to think. I soon know that my thoughts are not respected, that any opinions have to match his. The government’s always right. Any war going on that the United States was raging is the right one. Women are lesser than men. We are to respect his mother and agree with whatever she does when we visit her every week, and if we don’t say good morning in the right way, he will give us the silent treatment for week, making us beg over and over, “What did I do?” until he would deign to tell us.

But if my thoughts are not my own, then either is my body. We are little girls, my sister and I, but my father never tells us we were darling or smart or beloved. Instead, my father keeps piles of Playboys around the house, the glossy centerfolds of women who look nothing like us, nothing like our mom or any woman we have ever seen, out in plain view and my sister and I stare at them amazed and uncomfortable. One day, my father catches me looking and snatches the magazine away. I go to sit on the couch, and turn on TV, and then my father strides over to me and takes my little hand and shoves it into his wet mouth. Horrified, I jerk my hand free and run to the bathroom, washing my hands over and over, and when I come back, he motions me to him, and he does it again, only this time he’s laughing.

And that’s when I begin to have nightmares. I sleep with the covers bunched over my head and only my nose poking out, terrified. Sometimes I call for my mother and ask her to lay beside me until I fall asleep and then gradually I can and it becomes a habit.

But my father doesn’t like that.

One night, my mother cautiously tells me, “Your father wants you to sleep beside him tonight.”

I look at her panicked. “I don’t want to,” I say. “Why do I have to?”

My mother sighes.  “Please do it. His feelings are hurt. He asked me to ask you.”

“Can I say no?”

I am five. I have no power. That night, I curl into my father’s twin bed, separated from my mom’s bed by a night table, my whole body turns away from my father, facing my mother, whose eyes are closed. All of us have pajamas on, and I’m careful not to let any part of him touch me. I move to the edge of the bed, reaching across to try and touch my mom. I whisper, “Mom,” but she doesn’t hear me. Her eyes stay shut. Mom. Mom. Mommy. In the morning, I wake as my father is getting out of bed, but he doesn’t have pajamas on now, and he is naked and hairy, and I stare at his penis, his balls, the first I have ever seen. He sees my eyes locked on his genitals and he shouts, “What the hell are you doing? Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? What’s the matter with you?” My mother, rising, says nothing except his name, trying to calm him down. All that day I live in terror that he will ask for me to do this again, but he stays silent, and my mom and I never talk about any of it. But it roils inside of me.

Three weeks later, my mother is called in by the kindergarten teacher because we have been asked to draw paper dolls of our family and I have drawn mine all naked. My father’s penis is so large, it dwarfs him, reaching down to his ankles. His balls are like balloons. The teacher’s concerned but my mother shrugs it off. “She’s precocious and imaginative,” she tells my teacher.

When my mother comes home, she holds me and tells me about the meeting. “Maybe keep things in the family in the family,” she says gently. My sister, listening, looks appalled. “You’re disgusting,” my sister tells me. “You lie and lie and lie. You made Mom feel bad,” she says, and I feel a flash of guilt. I never think to ask my sister, does he ever make her sleep in the bed with him, too?

We grow, and I turn ten and then my sister tells me the facts of life. “It’s revolting,” she says. “No one wants to do it, except for guys.” She bangs two rocks together to show me, a violent coupling that scares me. I grow afraid when I think I’d have to do this with boys. “You just do it,” my sister says, and then she asks me if I want to touch tongues with her, if I want us to touch each other’s butts. I recoil. “Why would I want to do that?” I ask and she laughs at me. But it makes me wonder. Did something happen with my sister and my dad? Or did she escape it all? And if she had, how? What does she know that I did not?

And then I turn sixteen, and then seventeen, and while my sister, the good girl, never rebels, I begin to tentatively speak out and this time, for the first time, my mom yells at me. “Don’t be so independent!” she shouts. She doesn’t like my fresh mouth, my wildly curly hair, the way I dress in skirts so short I’m always being sent home. My dad yells in chorus with her. My sister begins to date and I listen to my mom talking to her about “playing her cards right,” getting married as soon as she can, but not letting any boy get fast with her. “Men need sex. Women don’t,” my mother says, and I listen, bewildered. Was that true?

My sister, newly gorgeous, suddenly has all this male attention, boyfriends who came to the door with flowers and smiles, Is it any wonder I look for my own male attention? That I fall in love so hard and fast with any boy who pays me attention in a kind of madness? I’m skinny and unpopular, and when a known “bad boy” boy in school asks me out, my mother tells me I can go, but we never tell my dad.

That date is magic. The boy likes me. He really likes me. He holds my hands and talks quietly and by the time we arrive back to my house and I have my first tender kiss in our doorway, I am insane with love.  But just as we are about to kiss again, my father barges out in his boxers, his fly wide open, screaming at me that I’m late, and who told me I could date? My father sends him home and then shoves me. He tells me I’m never to see that boy again, and if I do, he will keep me prisoner in the house.

Go ahead and try it, I think, feeling a flush of power. And that whole summer, I lie to my parents about having a job as a camp counselor, about going on overnights, so I can sleep with my boyfriend at an abandoned ski slope by his house, because by then I know for sure that it isn’t just boys who need sex. We are together off and on for a year, and my family never knows it.

I keep dating. My father has no idea about all the boys I sleep with. I keep score in a notebook, as if the amount proves my worth. 70 guys. Then 100. Then more. Every one I sleep with feels like I am ripping away the seam that still connects me to my family.

I go to college halfway across the country to Ann Arbor, as far away as I can get. Every week I speak to my mom on the phone, and when my father gets on, all he says is that I should work hard. “Don’t think I won’t cut you off if you don’t,” my father threatens. He shouts so loudly I have to hold the phone away from my ear. Good, I think. Cut me off. Good.

Why don’t  I ever confront anyone? Because I’m told my memories are wrong, that I must have exaggerated, “the way I always do.” I’m told this  so often, that I begin to believe it. And so I replace those memories with something else: My father loves me. In his own way. I visit home once a year, for two days at the most, and nothing important is ever said. I sleep in my old childhood room, the door locked, the covers around my head.

I am 25 when my father dies. He’s 57 years old, obese, with skyrocketing blood pressure and high cholesterol, a man whose only exercise is walking from the car to our house. I feel nothing about his death. I come back home and my sister is sobbing, my mother wailing, “I want him back.” She is so upset, I didn’t have the heart to ask her why. Later my sister tells me that she thinks she sees him watching over her, his profile in a nearby tree. “He protects me.”

“How?” I ask. She shows me the tree and I stare at it blankly.

“What was so great about him?” I ask.

“Lots,” she says. She tells me when she was in high school and she went to a party, some of the kids were dropping acid, snorting coke, and afraid, she called him to come and get her. “You did the right thing,” he told her. He would always take care of her, she says. “Shame on you for saying those bad things about our wonderful father,” she said.

My father leaves my mother nothing, no insurance money, no savings, but she has the house, and a teaching job, and friends, and without him, she blooms. But for me and my sister, he leaves a legacy. How are either of us to know what a good male partner looks like when our dad was our only model?

Doesn’t it make sense that my sister marries young, a man like our father, someone silent with a temper, a sexist who likes to cup his hands in the air like he was weighing boobs when a buxom woman walks by. I cry at her wedding, begging her to change her mind. “Don’t be silly,” she says. She has kids, one after another, the way our mother had, focusing on them for happiness. When I ask my sister why she stands for his behavior, she says, “because I have to.” When I ask her why she doesn’t shout back at him, she says, “because he can scream louder.”

I’m afraid of marrying a man like my father, like my sister’s husband, so I go for the opposite, the fast talkers who never shut up, who fill the silence so I never have to feel uncomfortable in its danger. It takes me time to realize they keep talking only about themselves, what they want, who they want me to be.  But with all those motor mouths, no one really notices how quiet I am. How quarantined.

And then, in my 40s, I meet Jeff, a smart, funny journalist who’s kind and sometimes quiet and I can’t believe he might really love me, so I test him, yelling sometimes, and instead of leaving, he comes closer, wanting to solve issues, to make things right. He actually sees me—all of me. He wants me to be happy. And that makes me want to revise my childhood, to try to think about it in a happier way, too.

I try to talk to my mother about my upbringing, my voice quiet, composed, even sympathetic to what she must have gone through. “I don’t want to talk about this because I have nothing to feel guilty about,” she says, and then her whole face changes, and she looks a thousand years old, and because I love her, I can’t hurt her, so I stop talking.

I never find out the things I’m so desperate to know, not then, and by the time I’m ready to try to ask again, my mom has dementia, and then she dies. I try to talk with my sister, but she now feels angry with me. She says I’ve stolen her life, grabbing the happy marriage, the writing career, that she was meant to have. The more I try to help her, to talk, the worse I make things. Her rage grows until she estranges herself from me. I haven’t seen her or spoken to her in two years.

So who can I find answers from? How can I put this to rest? I ask my friends, my cousins what they remember about that time, they said only that my father was oddly quiet, that they just felt he had a blah personality. When I tell them what I remember, they see my father through the lens of my reality. “Oh my God, I never knew,” they tell me. “I never imagined. If I had known, I would have done something”.

One day, just before the pandemic begins, I’m sitting with my friend Leora, and she’s asking me about my past, and I start to talk, and as I do, I see her face changing. I talk and talk and when I’m done, she is so still that I worry. “I’m not making this up,” I insist, and she shakes her head and reaches over and takes my hand. She says quietly, “Caroline, you were abused. You have to look at this trauma.” It’s the first time anyone’s ever used that word: abused.

 CLICK.

There it was, the lens of clarity as my friend reflects this truth back to me. And now it’s my turn to look. How could I not have known from the start who my father really was?

And so I go to talk to strangers, therapists who might help me decode what had happened.  When I tell my first therapist that I feel nothing about my father, that my memories are all jumbled up, he insists I am not telling the truth. “You have to feel something,” he says. Then he asks me to consider my father as a man who had had dreams and yearnings, that I consider his feelings, what he might have been going through. And that’s when I get up and leave the room, wired with rage.

And then I find a therapist I love, a woman who tells me that the brain neurons fire and rewire when we’re young, that a lot of what I’m feeling is leftover responses and if I talk about them enough, the firing will get weaker—I will be able to safely bury the past. “And,” she says. “You need to write about it. Writing about it will help you remember what was really going on underneath it all. The brain won’t know the difference.”

And so I do. Here. Now. The old feelings come back in a rage blizzard. I write about my love for a mother who took me to the movies, and was funny and bought me books, but who couldn’t stand up to her husband to protect her daughter. I write about hurt for a sister who seems to follow my mother’s past path unseeing, one choice after another. And I write out my outrage for a little girl who never got to be the adored daughter, who went through terrible things that she knew were terrible but she never once thought: this is wrong. You need to stop.

 And then I hear it again. CLICK. Like when you’re at the optometrist and you’re doing the vision test and you put your chin in the cup and stare at the chart, eyes wide, unblinking, and the doctor clicks different lenses in front of you as the random configuration of numbers and letters grow clearer and blurrier with each one. You see the first row, the second, the third—things seem clear. Then they don’t. CLICK. But the chart itself has not moved. Neither have you. And as you age, your vision changes, your clarity about your life changes, too. But the facts never change. The truth. You just may need different lenses to see it.

Now, I want to go back in time, first to my father to stand up to him and ask him why he did what he did, how dare he not treasure his little girl, how dare he not love her or want to know her? Why did he yell and abuse? Your loss, I want to tell him. You were wrong about everything, I want to say, especially me. Look at me, I want to tell him. I broke the pattern. I have a loving husband, a wonderful beauty of a son. No one yells. No one rages. No one hits or abuses emotionally or physically.

But you did. And it is your loss.

Then I want to go back to that other me, that quiet little girl in the starchy sailor dress and tell her, it’s going to be okay, honey. Because you are absolutely and completely okay. Right now. And later, too. You will be able to leave all of this behind. You will be able to be loved by someone who deserves you, whom you deserve—and you deserve happiness. You will have wonderful friends and work you love. You will continue to talk and talk and talk and write about all of this, telling the story of your family, the truth, until all that pain loses its power and all of your quarantine will be over.

You will remember. You will see.

Caroline Leavitt is the New York times Bestselling author of Pictures of You, Is This Tomorrow, Cruel Beautiful World and 9 other novels. Her new novel With or Without You was published August 4 by Algonquin Books.

 

 

On Being Human Online Workshops

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Other upcoming events with Jen

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Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND

 

Guest Posts, motherhood, parenting, Self Image, Self Love, Women

The Pink Wig

July 24, 2020
wig

By Tricia Stearns

I have more regrets than Amazon has distribution centers. Still, one regret I do not have: buying a pink wig for my middle daughter.  At age 10, she was the self-appointed influencer for her brat pack, as well as her sisters. If she decided it would be cool to cut up their designer jeans and make them purses, they would have stripped and handed her the scissors.

While I chauffeured them through childhoods I wish I had experienced, Daughter Two commanded the CD selection for the ride to school and taught her sisters backseat dance moves to Brittany Spear. From fashion to food to music, she navigated her world as if she was the CEO of Me, Inc.

Her zest for extra-curricular activities kept me spinning a schedule of dance lessons, theater rehearsals and private singing lessons. I couldn’t count on child support, but I could count on the sun rising and a new performance idea from Daughter Two. Kitchen clean-up doubled as a re-cap of dance class or a reprise of the opening of “Newsies.” Bedtime stories were told with a theatrical flair and always included happy endings.

She scrimped her allowance to buy the acrylic pink bob only to learn that her school dress code banned wigs. After a few rounds of letters to the school board failed to change the rules, she threw it in the Prop and Future Halloween Costume bin.

When Daughter Two decided to wear the wig on a rare outing for pancakes, it did not surprise me. The smell of bacon and maple syrup thickened the air as our waitress sugar-pied us up, and we ordered. We gave no further thought to Daughter Two’s accessory, accepting the pink wig into everyday wear. However, pink wigs were rare in our southern suburb, and breakfasters’ glances soon fell into stares.

The girls and I folded our straws into pretend people and created a story, positioning the ketchup and salt and peppershakers as props. My voice rose trying to drown out the chatter from a four-top of older ladies going to a Baptist bake sale, or maybe on their way to bingo.

“I never.”

“…should know better”

“Bless her heart. ”

Daughter Two’s mouth pursed. She wiggled in her seat. She twiddled her straw.

She stared right back at them. She re-arranged her fork and knife on the menu.

“Why in the world…”

We started a new play; our straw characters already tired. Daughter Two surveyed the restaurant, meeting the looks of a family of four wearing matching soccer jerseys and the chatty ladies closest to us.

She slapped her napkin down and plowed by our waitress carrying a load of pancakes.

She’d be back, we assured the waitress who volunteered to keep her plate warm. We slathered on butter and syrup, and wondered about Daughter Two camping out in the toilet. Perhaps, there was a line.  Daughter Two’s chair sat empty. The glob of butter now melted over her pancakes, cold.

We found no line in the bathroom, just a weary traveler, adjusting her snowman sweatshirt, preparing to wash her hands. Outside a stall, I tried to coax Daughter Two with bathroom humor. The lady nodded toward the last toilet.

The girls and I shifted, peaking through the cracks. Daughter Two perched on the edge of the toilet, her blonde hair flattened, her small hands wringing the wig.

With eyes red and big tears raining, she declared she would never eat a pancake ever again, and to leave her alone. Forever.

“No pancakes for the rest of your life?”

“Can I have what you ordered?” asked Daughter Three.

“Hush.”

“Can I have your bacon?” asked Daughter One.

Elevator music looped, toilets flushed.  Women moved in and out, offering looks and opinions. “Yes, thank you.” “NO, thank you.” “Bless YOUR heart.”

My youngest squatted down in the corner of the bathroom, looking up and under the door begging Daughter Two to come out.

My mom genes kicked in. There was more at stake than a little restaurant embarrassment. I had to get it right.  I felt the weight of the moment: The rock of my daughter’s soul was tumbling down a dark hole and she might never be the same.

I needed time, to figure out how to pull the knife of doubt out of her heart, to stop the bleeding and convince her she could love the identity she created; at the bare minimum to re-enforce her natural strengths and beg her not to question her ability to pull off a fashion statement. She needed assurance it was okay to trust her truest self.  If she couldn’t trust herself then I had failed as a mother, as a fellow female.

No longer was I standing in the bathroom of an interstate pancake house. No longer were we just using a coupon for pancakes before it expired. I was kneeling in a forest next to a hole freshly dug by a beautiful human, my child. She had sunk into a deep space carrying her childhood comforts: cookies, nuts, a blanket. She smoothed out the tattered edges of her childhood lovey questioning her place in the world.

I looked through the crack of the door. Her puffy eyes met mine. And in that moment, she knew I knew that place, too. She made room for me under her blanket.

I wanted to tell her, it gets easier, but judgment is timeless. Judgment is a relentless foe. We all stood in silence. Swoosh, another toilet.

I knew when I gave birth to a bevy of girls what I wanted for them. I also knew it would be difficult to teach. I was still trying to figure it all out: How to be myself in a world ready to tell me who I ought to be.

The real battle, the battle for one female to get it right, was right before me.

“You know, I don’t know a lot, but I do know if you wear a pink wig, you will get stares,” I said, with a calm assuredness. I held her gaze through the crack of the door, leaning on the door.

“ You got to be ready for it. If you wear it, you can’t care.” I paused, not knowing what I was going to say next, praying for the right words to come out of my mouth.

 

“Wear it. Don’t wear it. You decide. But if you do wear it, wear it with guts.

But be ready. You do not need permission to be yourself.”

Stillness. We sat in stillness. No one walked in or out for a moment.  Daughter One sat down and grabbed Daughter Three’s hand. Moments passed into a future memory that I hoped would become a point of reference for my girls.

Daughter Two straightened and smooth out the pink wig and opened the bath room door. We walked out and into the world, feeling altogether different. Altogether better, all together.

Tricia Stearns has been published in Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bloom, Loose Change literary magazine, and wrote a weekly column for five years for  the Fayette Daily News. In this column, Tricia dcumented how she started a farmers market and built the largest community garden in the Atlanta metroplex. She is currently working on a personal narrative essay collection. Tricia can be found on twitter as @tstearns2014 and on instagram as @triciastearns.

On Being Human Online Workshops

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

Other upcoming events with Jen

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

Anti-racist resources because silence is not an option.

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

THE ALEKSANDER SCHOLARSHIP FUND