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daughters

Family

Fixing Dad

July 16, 2024
dad

In February 1998, I stood outside the home of a psychiatrist whom I had found in the Yellow Pages. I had made the appointment because I needed help with two important matters: to find out what was wrong with Dad, and how to fix him. I was 25 and had never sought this kind of help before. But my family was in a crisis.

The directions led me to an affluent residential area by the river in the middle of town. A sign by the front door instructed patients to walk to the back door and ring the doorbell. I hesitated for a moment. It wasn’t too late to change my mind. I could turn around, walk away, and forget the whole idea. I looked at the paver walkway. And when my legs started walking, they obediently followed the instructions, and at the back door, my finger pressed the button.

This obedience was a grin-and-bear-it skill I had learned in my childhood from observing Mom as she raised me and dealt with Dad. He was the only one in our family allowed to have a voice and to express his emotions. For decades, I thought this life skill had made me strong and independent, but in my late 40s, I learned that I suppressed my emotions, sometimes to the point of numbness.

I grew up in Sweden in the 1970s and 1980s. Mom worked full-time, and Dad stayed at home. Nobody ever cared about Mom’s occupation. But dads weren’t supposed to be at home. So, I suffered from worrying about the dreaded question: “What does your dad do?” And having to answer: “He’s unemployed.” I chose friends who wouldn’t ask me about him.

When some asked Dad what he did for a living, he would start talking about the vendetta against him. This all began when he and Mom attempted to start a produce farm and were denied bank loans to continue their business.

After it failed, Dad isolated himself in our apartment. He refused to visit with friends and relatives. He also refused to deal with the aftermath of their bankruptcy. Mom had to do it all. She hired a bankruptcy attorney and showed the debt collector around our apartment while he inspected our assets. She contacted a realtor to put our summer house property on the market and found a buyer for our Volvo station wagon. Per Swedish law, the debt collector couldn’t force my parents to sell our apartment. At least their entrepreneurial risk-taking did not make us homeless.

In an interview I watched, Kevin O’Leary, from “Shark Tank,” said something to the effect that all successful entrepreneurs experience failures. They grow from them and start over.

But there was no starting over for Dad. Instead, he spent lots of time in bed and blamed his enemies for conspiring against him and ruining his life. His mood was unpredictable and could quickly escalate into something scary and dangerous.

In our home, where I was supposed to feel safe and protected, Mom was powerless and unable to handle him. I would freeze up and imagine myself shrinking into an ant and running away. At the same time, I remained terrified and conflicted because my imagination couldn’t shrink Mom and rescue her from Dad or save Dad from himself.

At Dad’s lowest moments, often in the middle of the night, he kept us awake with his crying and threatening Mom with “doing away” with himself. One time, he almost succeeded. The police came, and he agreed to go to the hospital. I was seven.

While Dad was gone, we experienced a period of peace at home. For a few weeks, I could relax and focus on myself and have fun with my friends. I got a break from the war he fought, one where the real enemy was himself, and the victims, who suffered wounds and losses, were us, the ones who cared and loved him most.

Growing up, I kept everything that happened at home a secret. Raw and unprocessed, I stored it deep inside my body where nobody could see it or ask me about it. The war at home remained there for decades. I never talked about it. Nobody knew—until my appointment.

**

A petite older woman with a stern face opened the door to the psychiatrist’s house. She didn’t ask my name, only waved for me to enter and pointed to a couple of wooden armchairs.

“Take a seat,” she said and went to another room and shut the door.

I sat down and looked around. My eyes searched for something to latch onto, some kind of reassurance, a reason to stay, but they found nothing. The furniture, wallpaper, and pictures looked tired and dated. They belonged to a generation of adults who had turned their backs on me.

My inner voice yelled. This is a mistake. Again, I contemplated taking off. But just like earlier, my body obeyed, and I remained seated.

**

We sat across from each other in a pair of high-backed leather armchairs. I had anticipated a male version of the woman who had let me in, but instead, the doctor’s face was warm and friendly, and hairy, like a laid-back shaggy dog. My protesting inner self relaxed a little.

“What can I do for you?” He gazed at me with curious eyes. “You are quite a bit younger than most of my patients.”

“I’m not a patient,” I said. “I mean. I’m not here for me. I’m here to talk about my dad.”

His eyebrows went up. “This is a first,” he said. “I have never had anyone come to see me about someone else before. What’s the matter with your father?”

A hard lump formed in my throat. This was a first for me too. I had never shared my concerns about Dad with anyone outside my family before. I couldn’t speak right away, but then the words began to line up inside my mind, and I felt a sudden urge to let them out.

“Mom divorced Dad seven years ago. She moved out of the apartment where I lived growing up. Dad still lives there. But they never finished dividing up their things before he stopped opening the front door and cut off all contact. I haven’t seen him since before the divorce. He goes outside to visit only three places: the grocery store, the electronics store, and the post office. He buys empty cassette tapes and records messages on them. Then he mails them to people. He doesn’t write letters because nobody can read his handwriting. Sometimes I get two 60-minute tapes. He has pissed off his cousin with his tapes. Now the police are involved, and he has a restraining order against him. –But that’s not why I am here. The problem is that he’s unemployed. He refuses to answer the phone, sign any papers, or open the front door. And the apartment is in Mom’s name, so she has been paying all his bills up to this point. Years ago, she contacted the Social Assistance Office and showed them her divorce papers, because she couldn’t afford to pay for two apartments. They started reimbursing her for Dad’s costs. But now, after he turned 65, they won’t give her any more money because he qualifies for a social pension and needs to contact the Social Insurance Agency.” I took a deep breath and swallowed. The hard lump was still there.

The doctor had held his hands clasped in his lap while he listened, but now he cleared his throat and stroked his beard a few times before he spoke.

“Has your father ever been seen by a psychiatrist?”

I shared about my childhood and how Dad was hospitalized once in the early 1980s.

“I worked as a hospital psychiatrist back then,” he said. “I might have been one of your father’s doctors. The mental healthcare system has changed dramatically since those days. We used to be able to hospitalize people who needed our help for all kinds of reasons and keep them admitted for long periods, but not anymore. The laws have changed. Now, they must manage out there in society on their own.” His eyes met mine. “So, what does your life look like?”

I sat up straight.

“I’m fine.”

I shrugged.

“I go to school. I’m married…and pregnant.” The last part made me smile.

He tilted his head and smiled back. “You have a family.”

“Yes.”

He stroked his beard.

“But what about Dad?” I snapped—and immediately felt embarrassed.

“Your focus should be on your own family,” he said. “Don’t try to be a social worker and fix your parents’ problems.”

I slumped back into my chair while his statement swirled inside my head.

He continued, “There isn’t much we can do at this moment. According to the law, a person must be a danger to himself or others for the authorities to act. Currently, your father is neither. Besides his trouble with an angry cousin, he manages to live peacefully…in his own way.”

I tried to digest everything the doctor had told me, but it was too confusing.

“So there is nothing I can do?” I swallowed. The lump in my throat was becoming harder to control, but I refused to let myself fall apart. “Dad will never agree to meet with the Social Insurance lady to fill out the forms to start getting his checks.”

The doctor looked down at his watch. “We have to end our session here, my dear,” he said. “I have a patient sitting out there who can get rather difficult to handle if I let her wait too long.” He winked and smiled.

“OK, I understand.” I stood and offered him my hand to shake goodbye. I wanted to hurry up and leave.

“You know,” he said as he let go of my hand, “if your father doesn’t have any money to buy food, he can’t eat. Then technically, he is a danger to himself. You can contact his primary doctor. A nurse will have to do a wellness check. And then, it won’t be long before they must do something.”

There it was. The doctor had spelled it out. His solution sounded logical, even kind. But I didn’t know what an emergency commitment was. And if I had known then what would follow, I wouldn’t have had the courage to set the process in motion.

**

A month later, on a March evening, two policemen went into the apartment where Dad had just sat down at the kitchen table to have his supper, two fried eggs. The eggs were left untouched. The policemen didn’t wait for his cooperation. They grabbed him and said he was going to the hospital. With no winter jacket or shoes, they pushed him out the front door, down the stairs, and into the police car.

In a meeting with Dad’s hospital psychiatrist, I learned that Dad would need medication and help to manage his life to avoid a relapse into isolation. He asked if I would be Dad’s legal guardian. Right away, I knew that I couldn’t be that person. He wouldn’t listen to me. But what kind of person is a daughter who says no to helping her suffering dad?

The weight of responsibility rested like a sandbag on my chest and shoulders. Dad’s war and enemies weren’t real, but why did I feel like I had joined the vendetta that he believed conspired against him?

I remembered my own psychiatrist’s advice: “Your focus should be on your own family.” Then I understood. I couldn’t continue where Mamma left off. But logic didn’t help against the pain I felt in my heart as it tore apart when I said No.

A month earlier, I had felt hopeful. For the first time, I was old enough to do something. I was going to fix Dad’s problems and help Mom. But it turned out, I was still a naïve child. I didn’t foresee the consequences of my actions. Immediately after Dad was hospitalized, Mom cleaned out their apartment and contacted a realtor. I understood she couldn’t afford to pay for two apartments, but where would Dad live after he was discharged? Mom didn’t have a solution, but her answer was for an adult, not a little traumatized girl who wanted to rescue her parents. “I’m not his wife anymore,” she said. “He’s your problem now.”

What would happen to Dad? I loved him so much. Life was so unfair.

During my childhood, I believed I was smarter than Mom and Dad. As an adult, I would never make their mistakes. But look at me now. Instead of fixing Dad’s problems, I had made his situation worse.

I didn’t know what to do. I felt scared and alone. There was nobody in my corner, nobody who said: Wait a minute! Take a deep breath. You are brave. You do more than most people. Not until Ed showed up.

Ed was a short man with a tidy appearance and kind eyes. A retired insurance agent, he understood legal matters and the healthcare system. Up to this point, he had served as a power of attorney for a small group of individuals, but after meeting Dad, he agreed to sign up as his legal guardian.

Dad’s social worker introduced us in her office. In a previous meeting, I had told her that I wanted to be part of Dad’s support team. Concerned and suspicious of who the person was who decided to take legal ownership of Dad, I asked Ed why he decided to do it.

He smiled. “Your dad and I have a lot in common. We’re a similar age and grew up in the same neck of the woods. But to be honest, we just clicked.”

I believed him. Maybe it was his calm presence and confident voice, but his words wrapped around my tense body and squeezed me like a warm hug. I liked Ed from day one.

**

Dad passed away peacefully one night in March 2018. During those last 20years, thanks to medication and Ed, a guardian he grew to love and trust like a brother, Dad and I enjoyed a functional father-daughter relationship. But after his death, I learned there was a seven-year-old girl inside me who needed reparenting and healing—when I write, I can connect with her and explore and process our hurts.

Ann-Christine Vevera is a Swedish-American writer who lives with her husband, Matt, and two dogs, Breeze and Zuzu, in Ormond Beach, Florida. By day, she works as a physical therapist assistant in a busy hospital. And by night, and on her days off, she reads and writes memoirs, personal essays, and poetry.

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Guest Posts, Mental Health

Hunting for Joy

September 28, 2023
Joy Kitty

Years after we had all moved out and gotten married, my mom bought herself a kitten. A medium-length tabby with soft gray fur named Jazz. Completely smitten, my mother went 100 percent cat lady and quickly decided that Jazz needed a friend. Along came a shorter haired gray kitty named Joy. My mom went gaga over these cats. They have more toys than I ever did growing up. She pays the cat sitter an exorbitant amount of money if she ever has to leave them. She lavishes them with more affection than I ever received. I’ve given my mother framed prints of her grandchildren and she responds with a curt thank you, but when given pictures of her cats she completely lights up.

Now when I bring my own children to visit, Jazz and Joy mostly hide when my rambunctious crew shows up. Eventually Jazz makes her way out of the bedroom and begs for attention, and then completely ignores you in the assholey way that cats do. Joy, the more timid and moody feline, avoids being held or even seen. Jazz sits on my dad’s lap every morning and they watch Perry Mason together. Joy, only shows her face for tuna fish and my mom.

Growing up we had a cat or two and occasionally a dog. There was a short run with a snake, fancy fish tanks and even ducks in the pond. My favorite, an overweight, odd-looking calico named Mittens. Her face and body, blotches of orange and black but all four feet seemed to be dipped in perfect white paint.  I was fond of Mittens. She often slept on my bed but could just as easily be found in the yard stalking prey or wandering off for days at a time. There were no photos of our pets on the Christmas card. Pets were pets. They were reminders to feed and litter boxes to clean. If you were lucky, you could catch one long enough to snuggle.

I’m not completely sure when my mom crossed over from stressed to anxious, but the line has long been crossed. I remember her always working, cleaning or worrying but it has gotten progressively worse over the last several years. She keeps notes on all the doors to not let her kitties out, but I’ve never once seen either of these cats attempt to go outside. They probably don’t even know what grass feels like, but the idea of them running away terrifies my mother. These days, a lot seems to terrify her. Simple things, like a deleted junk email can send her over the edge.

When I visit I hate that I can expect to be woken up by the sound of the vacuum before the sun is up or my mom attempting to wash the sheets while I’m still snoring in them. Lately, it isn’t only the vacuum waking me but my mom calling for the cats long before dawn. Jazz usually turns up, but Joy always hides. My mom searches every room, regardless who is sleeping, turning on lights and looking under beds for Joy. It almost always results in tears.

“Where is my Joy kitty?”

“Help me find Joy?”

“Did you let her out?”

This is not a one- time occurrence. This is every visit. Every morning.  She will not relent until someone gets out of bed and looks behind dressers and in closets never opened. On a recent weekend trip home, my father boiled crawfish that we ate by the pound. My daughter insisted on taking the boat to her favorite island. My son caught dozens of perch off the dock. The weather, food and company could not have been better.  My kids, sunburned and content, had barely argued all day. I decided to reward them with snow cones and returned long after my parents usually go to bed. My children came in laughing with blue raspberry snow cone stained lips and I worried that I’d wake them.  To my surprise my mom waited up, like I was a teenager. She was not worried about us, but wanted to be certain that we did not let the cats out. We watched her check the front door multiple times to make sure it was locked and the oven three times to make sure it was turned off before finally going to bed. She walked upstairs and asked if we could leave the bathroom light on for the cats.

I said yes without asking any questions. My daughter puzzled by this behavior went quiet. Her smile gone, but she knew better than to ask why. She turned to me and you could read the worry on her twelve -year -old face.

“Mom, how do you not have anxiety?” she asked, but what she meant was,

“Will you be like this too? Will I?”

I told her that of course I have occasional anxiety. Just not to that extreme. I reminded her of tools we can use to help and rattled off several examples. My preteen just sighed. “I know how to breathe.”

I want to assure her in a hundred ways that I am not my mother. I want to point out all our differences. That I sing loudly in the car, that I laugh often, I rarely cry over emails and that I run the vacuum even less. The truth, however, is that sometimes I do worry, I will catch “it”, whatever “it” is. This crippling anxiety. This unpleasantness for life.

This complete lack of joy.

And right that moment, I hear my mom calling downstairs. She is close to tears, “ Here, Joy kitty, where are you?”

My mom, forever hunting for Joy.

Michelle Hurst is a writer and educator in Texas. Her favorite topics to write about are faith, chronic illness, hope, family relationships, and middle age. You can read more at www.michellewallishurst.com.

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Guest Posts, Family, healing

Neverland

June 29, 2022
art

I am wandering around inside The Quadracci Pavilion building of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the building that’s shaped like a giant cruise ship run aground. Or maybe it’s supposed to be shaped like a bird with its wings outstretched or, possibly, a beached whale, its bones bleached by the sun. I am far from home in a lakeside city loved by tourists but I am not on vacation. Instead, I have driven from southern Minnesota to Milwaukee, a drive that normally takes 5 hours but yesterday took me eleven in sleet and snow, so that I can visit my daughter. So I can bring her home.

Yesterday, as I drove the ice-covered roads, I saw car after car after semi after truck in the ditch, and was witness to an accident. I called my daughter along the way with updates, letting her know I was still coming. Letting her know I’d be there soon. But travel was slow. Too slow, it turned out. The last time I called, telling my daughter that I’d be just a little longer, she sobbed that they wouldn’t let me in late. They didn’t have adequate staffing. I missed visiting hours by 15 minutes. They would not let me see her, they would not let me in.

Had she looked out the window of her hospital-like room, she would have seen me looking up for her as I drove my Jeep to my hotel just one block away. So close yet so far. I parked my Jeep in a nearby ramp, wiped away my tears, pasted on a smile so I could present myself at the front desk. Checked in to my hotel. Found my way to the elevator. Made my way up to my room. After eleven hours on the road, bumping and sliding along, with my daughter just out of my reach every mile of the way, my body was sick from motion and emotion. Quaking in my legs. Queasy in my gut. Grieving in my heart. I set down my suitcase and the bag of things I’d packed to bring for my daughter – the soft purple quilt I made for her high school graduation, a book, her favorite lipsticks, some art supplies, a warm sweater – and then, too exhausted to get to a chair or the bed, I laid my body down on the floor.

The next morning, the treatment center staff made an exception to the “no guests at mealtime” rule because I had traveled so far, and they allowed me to join my daughter for breakfast. Arms full with my coffee and to-go breakfast and my daughter’s quilt and things, I was buzzed in and rode the elevator to reception. I signed in, was met by a staff member and told they would not let me bring in my daughter’s quilt because it’s not store bought – regulations of some sort – so I leave it in the locker with my coat, my purse, my phone. Another elevator ride. And there she was. My daughter not looking like herself. Hair buzzed short. Eyes with dark circles. Her olive skin sallow. More like a lost little girl than a woman of nearly 20 years who two months previous was traveling the world, who one week ago was attending college and living on her own.

I pulled her into my arms and kissed the top of her head. She smiled some, but cried, too. She was hesitant. Quiet when she talked. Unsure of her responses. She is not doing well. Sick. Mentally ill. Eating disorder. All sorts of words are used to describe what is going on with her but I don’t see diagnoses, I see my daughter and I can see that she is not herself. Unless this shell of herself is a new normal for her. I don’t know. I will love her no matter what state she is in – physical or mental – but now she is in a mental state that is not a good one and a physical state that is hours away and all I want to do is bring her home.

We had breakfast together. Me food from Starbucks. She a dietician-planned meal on a compartmentalized tray. She was eating fine until I brought something up that made her sad, caused her to stop. Somehow I said something else, trying my best to make it all better, and she started eating again. She finished almost all of her meal. I did, too. Then I was allowed to sit in on a meeting with her dietician and therapist. They are kind and I can tell that my daughter likes them. I wanted to talk about a plan to get her treatment closer to home so my husband and I can see her, support her, help her. But as we talked, it was made clear that this is where my daughter needs to be, that I would not be taking her home.

Meeting done, it was time for my daughter to go to programming. And time for me to leave but I did not know where to go. I took the elevator down to the mail floor. Walked out the glass doors then down the block, into the hotel. I took the elevator up to my room, dropped off Rose’s quilt, rode the elevator back down, stepped out into the cold, cold, air and started walking because I did not know what else to do. I did not know where to go.

I tried to open the door of a historic church so I could sit inside, rest and get warm –  visiting churches during our travels is something my daughter and I like to do – but the door was locked. So I started walking again. I did not know what else to do. Soon I could see the lake not far away. How far had I gone? A mile? More? I saw the art museum, its great ship or bird or whale body beached there. I decided to go there.

I walk into the labyrinthian galleries of art hoping for respite but immediately I want leave. To get out of there and go see my daughter and take her home. But visiting hours aren’t until 4:30. Hours from now. And I can’t take her home. I am wandering in the neverland of parenting a young adult who makes choices of her own. Why can’t I still be the mom who can make the decisions for my daughter who is struggling?

But I’m not. So I am here, here in the belly of the whale or the bowels of the ship or stuck in the gullet of a giant bird. There is beauty all around me but I cannot enjoy it. There are sculptures by Degas, Russell, Rodin. There are paintings by O’Keeffe, Renoir, Monet. Photographs. Pottery. Furniture. Art from long, long ago and art from recent years. My daughter would love this place. If things were different and she was here, she would wander the galleries with me, comment on the pieces of art that she adores.

I wander amongst the sculptures and paintings, wending my way through another of the art-filled rooms when I hear a low thrumming. The noise fills my ears, ebbs and flows like water lapping on a shore. Puzzled, I look around, wondering about the source. Is it the heating system thrumming in the background? That doesn’t seem right. Museums are always so quiet.

I think about what a great semester my daughter was having; she had just switched her major from Chemistry to Studio Art. She has always been an artist at heart. Just yesterday she was a little girl smiling, laughing, pointing at artwork alongside her little brother as we walked through the galleries of the museum near our home.

I continue to wander around the museum, that low and constant sound buzzing in my ears all the while I am thinking thinking of how my daughter has withdrawn from college so she can get better. Thinking of her bravery in knowing she needed help and finding it. Thinking of the struggles she’s had these past three years. Thinking of how I do not get to drive her home.

I stop in a room, the art swirling around me. The humming continues and it is only now that I have stopped that I feel the vibrations in my throat, radiating down to my heart. I am the source of the noise. I, who so often sing and hum to bring myself joy and comfort, have been moaning deep and low, a keening hum.

I begin to walk again, still humming deep and low, and notice paintings of children with their innocent smiles and portraits of mothers and daughters together. These strong young women with bright eyes and steady gazes seem to look out of their gilded frames, right at me, as though to say, “She will get through this. You will get through this.” What do they know of my daughter and her struggles? What do they know of the ache in my heart?

I’m not sure I believe them, these women captured in paint on canvas, but, as I head back outside into the cold and start the walk back to see my daughter, I decide that I must believe them, that I must cling to the hope that, yes, some day my daughter will get better. That some day she will make it back home.

Myrna CG Mibus is a writer and bookseller living in Northfield, Minnesota. She writes articles on topics ranging from aviation to afternoon tea and essays on family, motherhood, and life. Her work has been published in a variety of publications including Feminine Collective, Grown & Flown, Minneapolis StarTribune and Wanderlust Journal. When she’s not writing, Myrna enjoys baking, bicycling, gardening, reading and being mom to her two young adult children.

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“Blistering and visionary . . . This is the author’s best yet.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Gratitude, Grief

I Say Goodbye and You Say Hello

June 19, 2022
flowers on table time

“When it comes time for you to leave, try to just slip away without him noticing. Do not make a big deal out of saying goodbye which could confuse him, especially in the beginning.”

That was the advice the nurse manager gave to my family when we moved my dad into a memory unit once his Alzheimer’s became too much for my mom to manage at home. The thought of leaving without saying goodbye made my heart break, but I wanted to do the right thing for my dad so I would visit and then wordlessly walk away, wondering how soon or if he ever noticed I was no longer holding his hand and walking the hallways alongside him. Soon I missed the bear hugs that were always a part of our farewell ritual, so I would begin our visits with them instead. “Dad, I’m going to leave in a little while,” I would say, hugging him when I first arrived. “This is me saying goodbye now in case I don’t have the chance to later.”

One time, about six months into my dad’s stay, I tried to slip away, but he kept following me. I could not make myself leave while he was standing there watching me. A member of staff noticed and tried to redirect my dad, but my dad, who by now rarely spoke out loud, stood his ground and said to her, “leave me alone, I just want to say goodbye to my daughter”. That was all the permission I needed to rush into his arms for that familiar hug, look into his eyes and say “goodbye for now, dad,” which I did at the end of every visit after that.

I said my final goodbye to him as he was taking his last breaths, grateful to be able to be with him in spite of the pandemic. Or at least I thought I said my final goodbye. Minutes after my dad passed away I had to call the funeral director. Saying out loud, for the first time that my dad died felt like I was saying goodbye all over again.

The conversation with the funeral director was just the beginning. The next morning I had to call the rabbi and the cemetery to make burial arrangements. There were uncles, aunts and cousins to be notified. Each call, each time I had to repeat the words ‘my dad died’, was like re-opening a goodbye wound that was barely beginning to heal. I began to wonder if it ever would.

Once I came home from the funeral I had to tie up my dad’s affairs, calling his bank, insurance, credit card and several other companies to tell them my dad died. Over and over again I found myself saying goodbye to my father for what I thought was the last time and each time was as painful as those early days in the assisted-living memory unit and the day he died.

For the first few weeks after my dad passed, I experienced pop-up grief that would come as I was driving to the grocery store or gassing up my car or making dinner. A flash memory of my dad – teaching me to check the oil in my first car or standing by the stove chopping onions for his famous home fries – would hit me and instantly tears would flow. And with each time, I felt another painful goodbye. Desperate for help, I finally asked my dad to send me a sign to let me know that he was okay and that I would be okay, and maybe my pop-up grief and ‘goodbye’ pain would stop.

In early January a friend sent me a calendar she made to celebrate the new year. As soon as it arrived I looked through and noticed she added a little saying to one day of each month.  On January 1st she put ‘Happier New Year’. On February 23rd, ‘It’s a glorious day’. I skipped to June to see the message for my birth month, and saw ‘Someone is missing you’ on the 17th, which happens to be my dad’s birthday. And there he was, popping up to say…hello.

Devra Lee Fishman is a writer and long-time hospice and hospital volunteer, in awe of and fascinated by death, life and all the experiences in between. Her essays have been published in The Saturday Evening Post, The Manifest-Station and Laura Munson’s summer guest blog series. She lives in Falls Church, Virginia.

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Have you pre-ordered Thrust


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Guest Posts, aging, Family

On Aging: Lessons From Mother and Grandmother

May 8, 2022
mother

By Chantal Laurie Below

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother’s further proof of it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trusting that even slightly brings a modicum of peace.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Posts, memories, storytelling

The Ever-Expanding Story

April 24, 2022
dad

I don’t discover the broken tree limbs until weeks after the ice storm. By then, my family has weathered not only the most snow and ice Louisville, Kentucky has seen since the 90s – we’ve also gotten through Achilles surgery, a child’s fractured pinky finger, and a $9,000 bill for a roof coming apart at the seams. I’m not even surprised when my husband returns from taking the boys to school one day and says, “Did you notice we lost some branches?”

I follow him into the backyard shaded by the abundance of trees planted on our small plot. I love our home like it’s another member of the family, our permanent address a respite after years of ever-rotating rentals. It’s where we have movie nights on a couch the size of a city bus, where I’m making my way through Wendell Berry’s collected poems in the living room we converted into a library, where I write, where I feed the blue jays and chase off the squirrels.

I clutch my coffee tighter against the chill still in the air. It’s the first official break in the February gray and sun streams across everything like someone threw the curtains open on the world. The rays of light dance across our one remaining pine – another ice storm our first winter took down its twin – now missing two enormous limbs. My heart aches for the damaged tree at the same time my brain starts running the numbers on calling someone to clean it up versus buying a chainsaw, like a self-respecting Kentuckian. Everything costs money.

It’s a few days before it occurs to me that my dad heats the rural home he shares with my stepmom and niece with firewood. Every fall, right around my birthday, he hooks the carryall to the tractor, rides down the big hill into the woods, and gathers firewood for the winter. I don’t have to close my eyes to imagine the wood pile that sits near the house. It stands so tall we could climb it when we were kids. If anyone has a chainsaw up for the job, it’s him. But I’m not in the habit of asking my father for things. Outside the refuge of my home, words don’t come easy in my familial relationships. There’s nothing noble about my silent suffering, the way I swallow everything because it’s easier to avoid someone I love than it is to tell them complicated truths.

A year ago, I probably would have made the drive to the hardware store for the chainsaw and tried not to break any bones getting down the massive limbs, one still attached ten feet up the trunk. But a lot can change in a year. I text my dad a picture of the tree and ask if he has time to help.

I prepare myself for it to be days before he texts me back, like when I sent the rare vulnerable text around the one-year anniversary of my brother’s death and asked him not to drink his way through grief. But this time his response comes back quickly. He fires off questions about the tree, but also the roof, my husband’s physical therapy, my youngest’s pinky finger.  He tells me we can get this done, no problem, do not hire a tree service, he wants to help in any way he can.

Survivor’s guilt goes from concept to experience as the thought darts through my head: He has time to help me because my brother’s dead. Even if it’s true that my brother’s addiction and the resulting costs to my father’s time, money, and resources impacted his ability to help me, it’s not as if I would have agreed to pay that price to have his help now. Not even for the way something blooms in my chest when I ask my dad for help and get an immediate yes in response.

*

The words dad and father have such different connotations. My dad cuts down the wood that heats his house. My dad and I take my niece on hikes and tell her stories about her daddy. My dad has a chainsaw I might borrow. A father, on the other hand, is mostly an explanation. I’m estranged from my father – that’s the formal line I used to tell people to explain his absence.  Writers care about diction and connotation because the right words help us tell our stories. The reader feels different things if I use the word deadbeat or mysterious or long-lost to describe my father. They feel the frost in father and the warmth in dad. There is no alternate word for daughter; only the one.

The story I’ve long told myself about my father uses straightforward words: my father stopped seeing me when I was in middle school and my mom and stepdad raised me through the hardest years on their own. A chapter in the story might read like this: The last time I asked my father to come to Louisville and help me with something it was 2010 and he said no.

*

Long before the Veterans Administration and an unprecedented streak of stable employment allowed me and my husband to buy our home, we rented an 1,100 square foot bungalow five miles west. It was 2010 and we were still feeling the effects of the post-2008 fallout. It turned out our landlords were, too. They were forced to sell their home and we (the colicky newborn, the toddler, and two over-degreed and underemployed adults) were forced to accept the grim reality that we could not afford a new place. Instead, we would move into my mom and stepdad’s small brick ranch.

The day we moved out of the rental house, when it came time to hoist the washer up the basement stairs, the tight fit took some of the original 1920’s doorframe with it. The white-painted frame splintered and exposed raw wood, like flesh tearing to reveal bone. We will never save up enough for a new place if we don’t get our deposit back was my only thought as I stared at the wounded doorframe. Neither my husband nor I are what you would call handy, especially then (this was before you could look up anything on YouTube). I was desperate. I flipped up my Blackberry Pearl, composed a text asking for help, and used the new camera feature to send a grainy picture to my father. We hadn’t spoken since my second son was born. I don’t remember exactly what he said back, but I know it could be summed up as no. I called my mom in tears. She brought over putty and paint and we fixed it enough to make it unnoticeable.

I never asked him for anything else. At least that’s the story I told myself.

*

My dad arrives to help me take down the broken branches on a sunny spring day. He brings his chainsaw, my stepmom, my niece, and donuts. He’s dressed in the working clothes I associate with cutting up wood – jeans, denim long sleeve shirt, work boots, and a hat to block the sun. If not for the lack of hair under the hat and the lines that now run across his face like creeks through earth it would be like no time has passed since I was a child trailing him around the farm.

My husband is working, the once colicky newborn and toddler are now older and away at (middle) school, and my stepmom’s attention is on my six-year-old niece, so it’s me and my dad left to tackle the tree.  In another life my brother might have come down too, like we helped with the firewood when we were kids. Sometimes I think about how my whole adult life we poured our love into my brother but not each other, and how these moments, just the two of us, are like a consolation prize, when you get something nice but you still lost.

We get to work, breaking only for pizza or to admire my niece’s theatrics and occasional demands for attention. We fall into an easy pattern – he cuts, I carry. We work like that for hours. We don’t talk a lot beyond the job. We couldn’t hear each other over the buzz of the chainsaw anyways. But even in the quiet lulls there are no serious discussions about the past, or my brother, or the conversation we have both tucked into our pocket like a buckeye you save to worry with your thumb: the what happened when I was a kid? talk and the what’s your side of the story? conversation.

They’re conversations he says he’s eager to have. When I sent the text on the anniversary of my brother’s death and he finally responded a few days later, he casually mentioned he read an essay I published about him under a pen name back in 2017. At the time we barely spoke unless there were updates about my brother’s various legal troubles and addiction relapses, or the dutiful invite to one of the boys’ birthday parties. In the essay I wrote about how my father was a stranger, a ghost. Four years later, as we texted about that very essay, he said wanted us to know each other, wanted to fill in the gaps. I didn’t text back all the things I have learned about him since I wrote that essay: that he likes the way walnut casings smell, that he has buddies who play bluegrass with my favorite musicians, that he found his youngest child dead from an overdose and survived it.

Today we are both content to keep those conversations tucked away awhile longer and do something we haven’t done in almost thirty years: work together. I wonder if other people realize the small miracles found inside the basic act of doing a task with their dad. Painting a room. Doing the dishes. Moving a dresser. We’ve never done these things together. In the past year we’ve spent more time with each other than in the previous thirty, but mostly on hikes or sitting around a table talking. This act – this doing – feels different. Like my whole adult life, we’ve been strangers visiting but today, today we are a dad and his daughter cleaning up a mess.

*

The truth is growing up I was a daddy’s girl and I basked in his attention like a seedling in spring weather. Dad, read the poem I wrote. Dad, look at the snake I caught, caught him right behind the head so he can’t bite me, like you showed me. Dad, can we play baseball after dinner? Dad, watch this.

What is it about our parents that makes us revert back to our youngest selves? My friends describe this phenomenon, too. How after five minutes with their mothers they go from self-assured middle-aged woman to the irresponsible child flushed with shame, or how the presence of their father can take them from easy going adult to willfully obstinate adolescent for no understandable reason. It’s as if our bodies remember the time when our parents were our whole universe, and what it took to break away and make a universe of our own. Maybe that’s why almost every essayist and memoirist writes about our parents. Maybe it’s muscle memory.

*

Like the sun makes its arc over the yard as we work, casting us first in silver and later in golden light, the passage of time also casts things in a different hue. Before the ice storm took down the tree limbs, I was working on another essay, this one revisiting my brother’s eulogy. I reread every one of my brother’s letters in preparation. I found new details for the essay, but the two letters that stayed on my mind long after I’d put the box back on the shelf had little to do with my brother.

One was the first letter my brother ever sent me from prison, dated August 2009. I saw the date and did the math. My brother was locked up off and on for ten years, a tidy decade, age twenty-two to thirty-two. Holding the letter, I realized our dad spent a decade with an incarcerated son. The new beginnings and relapses, lawyers’ fees and court costs, commissary deposits and phone cards fell on him. When I was asking him to come to Louisville and repair a piece of splintered wood, he was fresh in the early days of trying to figure out how to fix a splintered son.

The second was a letter from my father, written in 2012 (two years after the infamous no). I flushed with shame when I realized I held his response to a letter I wrote asking (begging) for money. We’re more of a generational trauma than generational wealth kind of a white family, so no one had anything to spare. Except my dad. He sent a check for $75 (more than I got for hocking my vintage dress collection) with the letter I now held in shaky hands: Glad to help, keep us informed and we will help when possible. I enjoyed seeing everyone at the birthday party. I am very proud of you and your family. We love you and hope to spend more time with you.

I forgot about the letter and the money, my memory cutting out what didn’t fit the narrative. I forgot my dad has never expressed anything but pride in me. When he found the essay I wrote about him the first thing he did was compliment the writing. When I wanted to write about the things that killed my brother, he gave me his unconditional blessing. A year of quarantine and grief had already made me question the story I told myself about my childhood, especially the one-dimensional main characters: mother – hero; father – villain; daughter – victim. And now I held in my hands tangible proof of a glaring plot hole.

Sometimes it feels like the narrative of my life is crashing down like the big limbs in our backyard, unable to hold under all the weight of something new.

*

We writers (and readers) want tidy endings, or at least emotionally satisfying ones. When I wrote about my dad before, I said There is no word that explains how girls love absent fathers. Maybe I got that right; sometimes there is no word. There’s only an ever-expanding story.

It’s fitting that something as ordinary as wood split in two could expand ours. I only have to close my eyes and I’m eight years old, riding the carryall down into the woods to get the firewood for the winter. I’m scrambling onto the back with my brother and lining up on the L-shaped lift, as good as any ride at the county fair. My belly flips as we rise in the air. There are no helmets or belts. We whoop, we holler, we hold on tighter for the descent and hope the worn wood doesn’t give us splinters. The air is thick with the contrasting smells of decaying leaves and fresh sniffs of split wood. The sun shoots through what’s left of the canopy in perfectly defined beams; they warm the crown of my head as we work. Our annual tradition falling right before my birthday makes it feel special even though it’s simply preparing for the next season before the current one slips away. When my brother dies eight days after my thirty-seventh birthday, I will think of the way I’ve always felt autumn in my body, deep in my chest, like something I love that I’m going to lose, and I’ll wonder if I always knew.

Once the branches are cut into pieces and stacked in tidy piles my dad loads the chainsaw back into their car. My stepmom and I bump elbows and my niece jumps into her booster seat with an unceremonious wave. The normalcy of the afternoon leaves disbelief in their wake as they drive away. This, then, is what it can be like. This is what can happen when the branch breaks and you use what remains to start a fire, to warm something new.

We finally got a clear view of the damage once we’d cut our way to the last of the second branch. The biggest of the two, it was still attached to the trunk. With most of the mess cleared we could now see the deep wound three feet tall, shiny and thick with sap congealed like a scab where the branches broke and took big pieces of the trunk with them.

As we stared up at the injured pine, I asked my dad if the tree was going to make it.

“Maybe,” he said. “The wound is pretty bad. But even if you lose it eventually it’s still got some time left.”

Lucie Brooks is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. You can read her work in Catapult and Taunt

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Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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    • 2-3 members will have their pages workshopped per meeting (each participant will be workshopped twice)
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  • Ongoing online communication between members of the cohort to share resources and ask questions in between sessions
  • Writing prompts
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Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

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Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

Guest Posts, Hope, parents

Cake, and Other Necessary Comforts

April 17, 2022
mountain

The cake, with its creamy swirls of orange and yellow, is weirdly magnificent—a sunset in a pan. Banana caramel upside-down cake. I want it, but the list of ingredients and onerous instructions kill my appetite. I text the picture to my kitchen-whiz friend, Yvette.

She replies: “Wow. Are you going to make it?”

“Yes, someday.” And then I add: “Before I die.”

She sends back laugh-crying emojis because she knows me. I love salads-in-a-bag, jars of minced garlic, one-pot frozen meals from Trader Joe’s. Why rinse and chop, dice and blend (and then do all the clean-up) when you can catch up on grading, or putter in the garden, or better yet, sit on the porch with your cat?

I also send the picture to my mother, which I regret at once, because she wants the recipe, and though she would have made a wonderful cake, a sweet sunset like no other, there is no way she can.

And my heart hurts again as I face the chasm between what could be, and what is.

***

When she and my stepdad Mark decided to live off the grid eight years ago, they were in their early 70s, and a working kitchen was one of the loves my mother gave up. They’d used their last $10,000 to buy the tiny one-room cabin on 20 isolated acres, the sloping land so matted with juniper and bitter brush you have to shove your way through. They haul up water in 200-gallon containers and hike up a hill to the outhouse; keep their perishables in a Coleman cooler. It’s like dry camping year-round. Their mountain cabin is so hard to get to that if they were gravely injured, they’d have to be rescued by helicopter.

Yet she still pulls off savory bread in the Dutch oven, and makes pioneer-style cakes on the wood stove. Sometimes she sends me pictures if there’s a good enough cell signal.

***

“It’s like going on a cruise,” my mother says every time she visits my son and me in Reno. From her door to mine, it’s only 135 miles, but it takes her half a day. Their 3-mile road, originally a deer trail, is so steep and narrow and winding, so rocky and rutted that only a 4-W drive truck can manage—and then only at 2 mph. So they get up early and throw in Hefty bags of garbage and laundry in the truck, along with Mom’s duffel and the dogs, and trundle down the mountain.

In the valley, “the flats” they call it, a rancher lets them keep their ‘90 Suzuki Swift on his property. It sits there like a faded blue go-cart in the weeds, attracting mice to its innards, which they scare off with a few thumps on the hood.

After they transfer her bags to the car, Mom waves goodbye to my Mark and the border collies, Jasmine and Teddy, whips on her wraparound sunglasses, and takes off along the two-lane highways that cross the high desert basin of northeast California and into Nevada. Sometimes a highway patrol officer pulls her over for going so far under the speed limit—but at 79, her eyesight is bad and her hearing worse, and what’s the rush anyway. Three hours after leaving the flats, after a stop in Doyle to pee and eat an ice cream bar, she’ll pull into my driveway.

***

Before she comes I clean the house in a flurry. I have no answer to why—she doesn’t notice or care if the place is cluttered or clean, dusty or wiped and gleaming. To her, it’s glorious enough to walk from room to room. To sit at a dining room table or on a couch; to use sinks with running water, a flush toilet. Still, I fluff the pillows on her single bed in the little guest room, lay out new fleece socks for her feet that are always cold. I cut flowers in the summer, buy them in winter. Put a box of Junior Mints on the nightstand because her sweet tooth is legendary.

The two main things I offer that are the most magical in her mind (and you’d think I’d hired a limousine to escort us to the Atlantis spa): ice cream and a hot bath. So I always buy a gallon of salted caramel ice cream and an extra jar of caramel topping. She’ll finish both off in three days.

The bath is less grand, but she doesn’t agree. I live in a small manufactured home, with a crappy, cramped bathtub with plastic walls that bow inward if you lean against them. But on the mountain my parents use an outdoor shower—a solar-heated canvas bag of five lukewarm gallons. In the winter, they wash by the wood stove with vinegar and a basin of melted snow. When she comes here her hands are stained with dirt and wood ash.

At night, during her visits, I light a candle, and set out tropical bubble bath from Whole Foods. She soaks in the tub for up to an hour, reading a book or, I imagine, feeling her bones relax. Now and then I’ll hear the hot water blast as she freshens the temperature, and who can blame her for wanting to make it last?

***

It wasn’t until she met and married Mark, a taciturn, misanthropic man who loves the remote outdoors, 30 years ago, that the idea of this kind of living began for her. Although she’d taught my brother and me to revere nature, we grew up in neighborhoods and apartment complexes, and our times in the “wild” were spent in campgrounds with vending machines and hot pay showers. We never lived on a road that wasn’t paved.

With Mark, my mother moved from a house in a small town, to a farmhouse on 23 acres, to a trailer alongside the Gila National Forest in New Mexico, to the faraway cabin they have now. Each dwelling more rustic, more remote, than the last.

Early on, my mother was worried and went to see a therapist, who suspected their marriage was suffering from “folie a deux,” madness of two. She warned, One day one of you will die from this.***

I mail them care packages between Mom’s visits. Because for them the post office is a 40-mile, 3 hour round trip, I try to make it count, with fun and useful variety. I do what I can afford, and it’s never enough:

Just-Add-Water mixes: pancake, soup, mashed potatoes, tea and coffee
Hand and foot warmers
Waterproof gloves
Hats with LED lights built in
Books
Chocolate, no nuts that can break a tooth
Coconut oil for chapped skin

***

My stepdad doesn’t like comfort and convenience; they are signs of weakness, of capitulation to the bullshit status-quo. (When I got her a pedicure, he rolled his eyes.) But he loves her cakes, even when they’re dense from the 6,800’ elevation, or burnt on the edges. He calls my mother a trooper, which she enjoys. She likes being the only woman who could even begin to live up there.

Their clothes, mostly from the thrift store, take a beating from the rough mountain life, and when they go to town, they look like homeless people, or refugees who have walked across the land for a very long time, in all kinds of weather. As my mother says, it’s futile to try and keep clean on the mountain, what with all the dirt and dust, plus their two big dogs, and water so precious. “It’s just dirt, it won’t kill you,” she’s fond of reminding me. (This from Portland, Oregon’s 1964 Rose Festival Princess.)

One time, a woman walked up to them in the parking lot of Grocery Outlet and handed them a loaf of bread and a $5 dollar bill.
“So funny!” my mother texted, but I tried to picture the scene without crying.

***

When she comes here, I do all the cooking. On her first visits, years ago, I thought she’d jump in with glee to make her favorite recipes with every power kitchen tool I had: soufflés and mousses, Boston cream pies and buttery Dutch babies with a golden surface that bubbles and rises like the surface of the moon.

Yet she only hovers nearby, loving to watch—and, I realize, to rest. At the cabin, she does everything related to food—the grocery list and shopping, the cooking, the cleaning up that is a daunting chore when you have no plumbing. Burying scraps down the trail so as not to tempt mountain lions or other creatures.

For the first night, I buy appetizers, her favorites that are hard to keep on the mountain: egg salad, Greek yogurt, seafood salad in creamy white sauce, which she eats by the forkful straight from the tub, eyes raised to the ceiling in what can only be called ecstasy.

Theirs is a life of such physical work that even the thought of my mother’s day makes me want to go to bed and collapse into a long, warm nap.

***

I try not to show it, but her visits take a toll. After the third night, I get antsy at the work that’s piled up, and my 14-year old son retreats more into his bedroom for the solitude he’s used to. He likes having his bathroom to himself.

I’ll be quiet as a mouse, Mom tells us before a visit, which is impossible, and anyway, my kid and I are introverts, and she’s an extrovert. A flaming extrovert, she once admitted. And that is another love she’s given up to live on the mountain with a man who prefers silence and space. Each morning, if the reception is good, he’ll read fringe blogs on his phone about the New World Order, the dark dangers of the vaccine, chem trails, and other concerns.

Mom told me that she sometimes just talks to herself, which Mark doesn’t seem to notice. “I’ll say, ‘How’d you sleep, Carol?’ And then I answer myself: ‘Well I had to get up six times to squat and pee in the chamber pot, so it was pretty awful! What do you think about that!?’”

Knowing this, I just have to buck up (as my mother would say), but it’s not easy to throw out the routine that anchors my day: I get up at dawn, make coffee, throw out bird seed, and then feed the cats after giving Tiger Bomb his thyroid tablet in a salmon-flavored “pill pocket.” And then, with my son still blessedly asleep, I can return to my room to work. Sometimes, when there’s a lull in the semester, I get a chance to write. When those precious mornings come, the time feels carved out of my life like a vein of gold.

When Mom’s here, she tries. She tiptoes and peers in my door, which I leave open for the cats to go in and out.

“Oh! You’re up!”

That’s my cue to click off whatever I’m doing and tell her, Yes it’s fine, come in and sit here beside me and I’ll get you some coffee. She settles into the teal velvet chair next to the bed, wrapped in my robe. When I return and see her sitting there, like a grateful gnome who’s crept in from the cold wilderness, the pang returns to my chest and I think, to hell with the Forum posts. We sit and sip and chat about the day and I tell her funny stories about my classes. “This student’s title is ‘The Farters of the Enlightenment,’” I say, and she whoops. Haha! I tell her about the girl who wants to be a “pillow in the community,” which we agree is both funny, and sort of wonderful.

“Quiche or French toast,” I ask.

Her eyebrows raise. “French toast? With fruit?”

“How about sautéed strawberries? And powdered sugar.”

She sighs and says, “It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

***

By the second day I’ve usually blown off my work entirely, and have sent an announcement to my students to text me if there’s something urgent.

“How about we go to World Market today?”

“Could we?” Mom chirps, as if I’d offered to fly us to San Francisco for steamed clams and French bread. I feel a burst of anger because whatever I do or buy is so small, so fleeting, it doesn’t deserve such gratitude. What she needs is not gourmet groceries but a new car, a new wardrobe, hearing aids, solar panels for the cabin and a snowplow and a greenhouse that can withstand the winter storms. The list of what she needs is so long my pen will run dry before I’m done.

Instead we go to World Market and buy Sicilian pesto and German egg spaetzle, and Walnut Scottish shortbread for dessert. She lingers over lingonberry conserves and I say, toss it in. Then I add a jar of Devon cream and butterscotch root beer to drink while she discovers a few more things to try. In line, she says to the woman behind us, “Isn’t this place a kick? What a feast we’ll have tonight!”

On the way home, she inspects the items again one by one, as if these were gifts sent from around the world, just for her.

Each time she comes, she resembles a bit more the trees on the mountain, the dark, gnarled branches of the mahogany, the juniper and Manzanita; even the bitter brush that crouches and grips the earth through the harsh summer winds and the deep snowstorms of winter. She’ll be 80 next spring.

“Can’t you keep her,” a friend asked, after seeing a picture of us on Facebook during one visit. As if my mother were a stray dog who’d wandered in from the desert. It’s her choice to live this way. I tell myself this, again and again. She always tells me what she loves on the mountain—the birds who make their home in the cabin’s eaves, the view clear to Mt. Shasta hundreds of miles to the west. I see that her visits are a way of replenishing herself, and if this is all I can do, then for now, that will have to be enough. Beyond that, the future is a path that curves out of sight and into the dark.

By the fourth day we’ve done their laundry at Mr. Bubbles (with extra wash/extra rinse because the clothes are stiff with dirt and grime), which we fold and stuff back in the Hefty bags, and nestle them in her car. This process takes at least four hours. On top of the laundry we layer boxes of food and supplies from Wal-Mart. We find a space for the used books she’s picked out from Grassroots Books.

The night before, I’d heard her on the phone with Mark for their evening call, telling him about our day, and as always she asked about the sparrow family and the dogs, wanting to know if they missed her. She described all the things she’d be bringing home.

“You won’t believe your eyes,” she told him.

Then it’s time for her to go and my son carries out her duffel bag and we all stand in the driveway. She puts on her cowboy hat and the giant sunglasses and gives us both hugs, and I try not to feel the way her bones push through her coat.

“It’s not goodbye, it’s so long,” she says. Then she backs the car out slow as a tractor into the street, and before heading forward, waves out the window to us and yells, “Tra la!”

***

The other day, she texted she wouldn’t be able to visit any time soon. The Suzuki had broken down, needed to be towed away. It would cost a lot and they’d have to save up.

“When I do visit again,” she wrote, “can we make that cake, the banana caramel one? The one that looks like a sunrise.”

“Sunset,” I started to write, and then stopped because we try to have hope where we can.

Joelle Fraser, is the author of two memoirs (The Territory of Men and The Forest House). A MacDowell Fellow, her work has been published in many journals, including The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Pangyrus, Crazyhorse, and Michigan Quarterly Review. 

She lives in Reno, Nevada with her 15-year old son and three rescue cats and is researching her next book, NO ONE CAN FIND YOU. Her website is www.joellefraser.com.

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

Guest Posts, Family, memories

Whatever Will Be

March 19, 2022
flowers on table time

Which scene should I begin with?

The time I threw coffee in her face to shut her up? Fortunately, it was a cold cup of coffee and we laughed about it. I haven’t the foggiest idea what we were arguing about.

Or the time she sat across from me and told me about a man who was dying of cancer who forgave and embraced his lesbian daughter after disowning her. I asked her what that had to do with me. (I, too, had cancer.) She said, well, you could forgive your daughters for not shaving their arm pits. (I think she thought she was being funny.) I gave her my most evil stare and said, “Never.” I was serious and she knew it.

How about when I sat all my girls down in the kitchen nook that looked like a diner with its red vinyl booth seating and told them what they needed to hear: that their father was a terrible man, a drunk, an alcoholic, who probably didn’t love them. She was 10 years old. She smiled, sort of a confused smile, and looked out the window and then asked to be excused.

I called her to ask her to come take care of me after my upcoming surgery to have my varicose veins removed. I told her that she should be the one to take care of me because she didn’t have anything important going on in her life. She refused.

She did come at a different time, when I really did need her. She stayed for a week while my husband, her stepfather, was away. I was very sick, bedridden. She asked me if I was afraid of dying. I said no, giving her my famous dirty look. I told her I was afraid of suffering. I made her read to me. I mean she was happy to read to me until we came to this pornographic section of the novel and she said she wouldn’t read it aloud to me and I made her.

When she was in college and needed money, I would sigh deeply, expressing deep disappointment, and tell her to ask her father.

Or how about the time she announced she was dropping out of college, in her last year. I was so angry. I told her I had always wanted to drop out of college but no one let me. Then I screamed at her, what about all that wasted money?

When a son-in-law I couldn’t stand and who I refused to talk to died, she was visiting me. My response to his accidental death: Well, that ends that argument. My response to his large funeral: Well, if you die young, you get a big turnout. I was with her when her father died, my first husband. My response: It is for the better.

She gave me a book that she said changed her life and she thought I would like. It was called, Women Who Run with the Wolves, all about women and creativity and psychology. I could not stand the book. I told her it was a bunch of baloney. I hate goddamn character-building experiences.

I took their father back to court for more child support. The judge laughed at me. My daughters were grown women. He still owed me money, I said. I don’t care. I was right.

I refused to see any of my children at the end. I didn’t want them to see me in my weakness. I refused to accept the fact that I was going to die. If I let them come visit me, I would be admitting defeat. I didn’t want their pity or their new-age, hippy ideas to comfort me.

Someone sent me a guardian angel pin. I opened it and it was broken. I showed it to her. See? I said. See the damage of this guardian angel shit.

***

When I called my stepfather to tell him we were coming, he said we were too late. She died 20 minutes ago. When I heard the news, the first thing that popped into my head was the song: Ding, Dong the witch is dead. I would like to wipe that from my memory.

We sat with a minister my stepfather had brought to their house. The man began by saying, “I never knew your mother.” Of course he didn’t. They weren’t churchgoers. Why was he here? To talk about the funeral service and to be of help in this sad time. I piped up: “That’s it. That’s all there is? That’s her life? It’s over?” There was some awkward silence and I looked around at my siblings and her husband, a bit apologetic. I’m certain the minister thought it was grief speaking but it wasn’t. What I meant was: No goodbyes. No final I love you. No final shared memories or laughter or forgiveness. No nothing. That’s it. It’s over.

This is what I will do. This is what I will try to do. I will go back to the time before.

“There is a time in our lives, usually in mid-life, when a woman has to make a decision – possibly the most important psychic decision of her future life – and that is, whether to be bitter or not. Women often come to this in their late thirties or early forties. They are at the point where they are full up to their ears with everything and they’ve “had it” and “the last straw has broken the camel’s back” and they’re “pissed off and pooped out.” Their dreams of their twenties may be lying in a crumple. There may be broken hearts, broken marriages, broken promises.”   – Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves

I will remember a houseful of women, giggling daughters and a divorced suburban mom. She was in her early 30s. Our dancing together to ‘Shall We Dance’ and ‘I feel Pretty’.  I will remember her as the actress she was and that the roles she played, from Rumpelstiltskin to Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I will remember her joy at seeing me on stage and calling me a ham. (Was she jealous of me? Wait, don’t go there.)  I will remember her loyalty to us and her involvement in our school lives. And how we laughed as we imagined the men in our neighborhood as possible boyfriends for her.

When the memories of my bitter, angry mother overwhelm me, I will go back to the time before, the time before she succumbed to a resented life with no regrets. The time when we would sing together, off-key, ‘Que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be, the futures not ours to see, que sera, sera’.

time

J. Courtney Reid is a playwright, with two produced plays, Don’t Leave Me Just Yet for the Unchained Theatre Festival in Long Island City and Still in Prison, performed in venues in the Capital District of New York, under a New York State Artist Grant. She is an essayist. Published pieces include Learning Through the Ages in the Oxford Journal of Public Policy, and Sarah Orne Jewett in Maine Life Magazine. She has been a Features Editor for a small newspaper in NH and a bookstore owner in Saratoga Springs, NY. An emeritus Professor of English from SUNY Adirondack Community College, she was awarded the President’s and Chancellor’s Award in Teaching. She has, astonishingly, discovered a new love of painting. (Proof is above.)  Follow J. Courtney online at her blog, Opening Up the Valves and on Twitter: @JCourtneyReid1

***

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***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Guest Posts, memories

Charm School

February 22, 2022
PBS

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

What grade was I in? Did I like school?

No, I did not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My enthusiasm crashed. Unfair question.

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

Guest Posts, Fiction Fridays

Wildfire

July 30, 2021
regan

by Holly Easton

Shortly before he left my mother, my brother, and me, Daddy gave me a copy of Heidi for my eighth birthday. He wrapped it in glossy red paper and left it on my bed. Before the year was out, he was gone.

I see him again the summer I turn 12 and Lukas turns 16. My mother screams into the phone, then click, and she tells us we’ll be spending three months with him in the Rockies. I kiss her even though I know she’s mad about it. Daddy’s been bouncing around these last few years, but whenever I asked, he said when he had a place of his own, we’d get to visit. Now it’s finally happening.

I got my braces wire tightened just before we left. I spend the flight placing balls of wax over the metal brackets in my mouth. I ask Lukas if he thinks Daddy will have goats, like the grandfather in Heidi, but he’s writing out guitar chords to whatever’s blaring on his headphones. He lets me rest my head on his shoulder though, which is progress since he swore off talking to me when I snipped all the strings on his guitar a few weeks ago.

My mother wants to buy me a training bra but I keep refusing. My chest is throbbing though and when we land, I hold the new triangular growths in my hands while we wait for Daddy, but then I see him and I drop my arms.

This Daddy has rough fur, instead of the prickly pear face he had when I was little, but otherwise, he’s the same. I run to him but then I see Regan, like The Exorcist, next to him. Regan’s his “life model.” She gives both me and Lukas tight hugs, leaving Lukas breathless.

“My chauffeur,” Daddy says, patting her scapula and we load into the car. I had forgotten that my mother used to drive him everywhere.

***

Regan wears her hair in a black braid that goes down to her hips and arrives a little before dinner almost every night. Lukas hangs onto her every word, although she is parsimonious with her speech. After dinner, she and my father lock themselves away as Daddy works on what he’s calling his “experimental phase.”

Lukas tells Daddy the altitude gives him headaches, so he spends most of his time in town drinking slushies and chatting with tourist girls. I’m too pimpled and my chest is too sore to be seen, so I stay on the cliffside with my Dad and his cans of turpentine.

I have no memories of him painting before he left, but remember having the notion that he was ‘known’. Parent-teacher conferences with his uneven stubble and my mother’s polished suit; his exhibits rather than my comportment, teachers ignorant to the brandy on his breath. I didn’t mind then. I misbehaved a lot.

“Stevie at the diner says he’ll teach me how to cook if I help him serve the lunch crowd on the weekends,” Lukas tells us over dinner. He gets loud whenever he talks about his new job at the diner.

“That’s good, a man should know how to cook,” Dad says, pointing the prongs of his fork at my brother.

“Stevie says,” gulp from Lukas, “he says the ladies love it.” Dad looks over at Regan, who meets his eyes and pours him some more wine. I keep staring at him in case he decides to share the secret exchange with me too. He doesn’t. I start to clear the dishes.

“Stevie’s probably right, but it’s still a bit early to think about that, son.” I pile them in the sink and reach out for the dish soap, but Regan’s hands stop me. I flinch because they’re cold, but her eyebrows soar up and her head shoots back like a concerned chicken.

Lukas shrugs his right shoulder and stares into his root beer, “yeah, but still, cooking’s better than just wiping tables and stuff.” I plonk down in my chair and Dad knocks my elbows off the table and flips through the day-old newspaper.

After dinner, Lukas locks me out of our loft. I can hear the twanging of his guitar through the door.

***

Because Dad is nocturnal in his work and he often retires for the day around eleven in the morning, leaving me alone on the mountain with no older boys to flirt with, and no younger girls to chase. It’s too quiet when Dad’s asleep, so I carry around the small radio I find in the loft. We only get the CBC on the mountain and even then, it’s fuzzy. Still, it’s better than silence.

I catch Lukas before he heads out one morning. “Can I come with you today?” I ask, even though I don’t really want to, I’m just bored.

“I’m working all day,” his thumb and forefinger stroke the fluff above his lip as he gives himself a final look in the mirror.

“I could come watch. Read, or something.” He spits in his hand and flattens his hair.

“You can’t sit in a diner re-reading Heidi all summer, Daisy.” I hear Dad send him off and I roll over and go back to sleep.

***

CBC starts its hour of classical music just as I hear my father crawl into bed. I turn it off because I can’t stomach another concerto. I want to run and scream, but the peaks of snow in the distance scare me off, I’m afraid my voice will boom and start an avalanche. Instead, I find myself in Daddy’s studio.

The door creaks only slightly, but it’s so quiet that I’m immediately on edge. His studios, his gallery openings, his work has always been off-limits. I was too young, it was too dangerous, the work was too precious. Standing there, for the first time, I see the brilliance that has driven a stake through my family. The colours of his passion refracting against itself and rolling over.

Regan puts her hand on my shoulder and leads me out.

She stays late to make me lunch. I tell her it’s too hot for soup, but she puts some on anyway. “He’s teaching me to draw,” she says, drying the mug he uses for his brandy. My face is dewy with sweat as I eat. She stares at me and I flush tomato, like the soup. I feel the bumps on my forehead or the new wires on my chin more pronouncedly. I think, maybe if I focus hard enough, they’ll retreat back into my face. She leans closer towards me, our noses level and almost touching. She traces my features with her eyes. She reaches for her sketchbook but pulls her hands back. Instead, she grabs her purse. “Do you want me to show you how to pluck your eyebrows?”

Leaning away from her, I smash my elbow into my bowl of cold soup. The clatter echoes out because there’s so little noise, so little else, on the hill. “You have a beautiful natural arch,” she says, reaching out to stroke my brows.

“Does it hurt?” I ask

She smiles, tucking my hair behind my ears. “You get used to it.” Her fingers brush my skin so gently, they smell like cocoa butter. “Besides, I think Jack– your Dad– would like it if we had some Big-Girl bonding time.” She smiles and then collapses her lips into a pout as she searches through her purse.

I hold my breath as she brings the tweezers to the first hair. “Ow!”

“Did that hurt?” Regan pulls back.

“Of course it did, you ripped my hair out!” I snap. She gets up and I think she’s about to leave, but she just goes to the fridge. The crack of the ice tray and she wraps ice cubes in a paper towel to numb the skin.

She shapes in silence, pulling back to look at me or tilt my chin as she sculpts and paints my face with the contents of her purse. I wonder if this is what my father does to her in his studio and suddenly I remember I hate her. “My daughter would be a little older than you,” she says.

I don’t ask what she means. My neck starts to ache from supporting her canvas and I straighten out. I hate her for staring at me. I hate her for making me untimely soup. I hate her for taking my father’s time. And I hate her most, in that moment, for acting like a friend, or maybe a mother.

Regan moves the ice over my pimples. “The cold will help them heal,” she says. My parents had to evacuate their home the day after I was born due to a forest fire. When they returned, the fields were already germinating with flowers, daisies, and trees that had been scarified into growth. The surface of Regan’s face was smooth like pulled toffee. I imagine the ice putting out the little fires burning under my skin. I lean into her hands.

My father shatters his coffee cup when he sees what she has done to my face. She’s traced my eyes like an Egyptian queen. I’m done-up like a, he struggles for a word, choking before he spits up “an inappropriate” and storms off into his studio. Regan tries to follow him.

“We’re just having fun,” she says, but he slams the door in her face. I ask if I can keep the lipstick she put on me.

***

 

Wearing Pomegranate Persuasion, I return to the studio every morning after that. Regan doesn’t linger after her sessions with my father anymore, so there’s no one to stop me. With the door shut, the studio air is damp in my throat. Every step is muffled by globs of oil streaked across countless canvasses. Every day I push in a little further until the colours don’t make me dizzy anymore. Then it’s the texture I absorb.

I run my finger pads over the peaks and ridges, feeling how they expand after every sleep. The landscapes are vast and uninhabited. The newer works scattered around the easel have been hybridized with Regan’s form. Her guitar-shaped body as mountains; her black hair as waterfalls, her eyes as valley basins. Oil takes a long time to dry. I push in from tip to first knuckle, squishing Regan’s curves. The paint parts around my finger, tarnishing my glitter nail polish.

I’m not allowed in the studio anymore after that.

Instead, I’m sent down the mountain with Lukas. Dad waits at the kitchen table with his mug in the morning to ensure we leave. He doesn’t say anything to me when we do. On our way down, Lukas splits the slushie money with me, waving at everyone we pass. “I’m going down to the quarry with the boys. If I’m not back here for 5, just head up without me, okay?” He says, sticking his too-long thumbnail between his front teeth to get out a fleck of toast. I pull out Heidi from my back pocket and spend the day reading at the bus stop.

“What the hell are you wearing?” It’s after 5. Lukas is still at the quarry and I’ve come home on my own. We go through this every day. My summer clothes from the year before hadn’t quite fit when I packed them, but it’s been getting worse as the days go on and grow hotter. My shorts ride up the back or bunch in a V at the front. My shirts are too short as I’ve grown a good few inches since my eleventh. My mother’s promised a shopping spree for my twelfth, but that’s just before school starts. And, of course, I’m with my father until then.

“They’re just shorts, Dad.”

“They’re inappropriate.” There’s something else “inappropriate” every day. His concerns are more than just fit. The colours, the patterns. When I dress, I make-believe a theme for the day. The light-up sneakers with my cupcake dress (celebration). These butterfly shorts and the inappropriate unicorn top (things that can fly). Dungarees and Dragons (that one’s self-explanatory). It all bothers him. He still hasn’t forgiven me for defacing his work.

“What’s on your mouth?” Pomegranate Persuasion. I stay quiet. He shakes his head so slowly.

“Everyone wears it– ” but I’m wiping my lips into my palm.

“My child will not.” He sniffles with a summer cold and wipes his nose with the back of his hand. I edge towards the loft. I’ve got my hand on the stair railing, “and you’re wearing those clips again.”

My daisy clips. He hates them most of all. The daisies come in every colour with smiling faces in the pistil. “Take them out.”

“They’re my favourite.” I reach up to touch one of the smiling pistils with a finger.

“Why do you never listen?” The mug pounds onto the table.

“I can just stop wearing them, Daddy.” He’s looking away from me. I climb a few stairs.

“You need to learn how to dress your age.” If he means I looked too young, or too old, I never know.

Regan brings shepherd’s pie for dinner, but Lukas still hasn’t returned and she and my father don’t eat with me, so I listen to the CBC. It’s been a dry summer and fires are burning along the west coast. After dinner that night, I find the clips, the plastic cracked through the pistil, in the bathroom garbage.

***

Marvin, who sells the slushies in the village, calls one afternoon. My father yells at everyone that night. Regan leaves in tears before their session. He tells me he doesn’t need to be woken up by concerned citizens telling him his daughter is “whoring about with boys on motorcycles.” I tell him they were mountain bikes. He’s not consoled. I don’t tell him they only asked me for directions.

The next day, he piles up his old painting clothes and Lukas’s hand-me-downs on my bed. But after a night of bridge at the cottage with Marvin and a few of his pub buddies, he bans me from going into the village altogether.

The village is unsuitable, but I’m still not allowed in the house. Instead, I throw a pack of Oreos in my backpack and walk halfway down the mountain, to the pasture, with Lukas. My beaten-up copy of Heidi was growing more insipid with every read. So I bring the radio too, but the reception is even worse in the pasture.

The radio tracks the fires as they move across Alberta. It’s all anyone seems to talk about. The sun beats down on my back and I lie in the grass staring into that speaker like it’s a face. They interview people who’ve lost homes, people looking for their pets, firefighters, and climate scientists. Sometimes they’d ask people to call in with their stories.

“We’ve got Daisy on the line,” I imagine.

“Hello,” I say, “No fires here yet, but my brother Lukas says the village is booming with tourists.”

“Really?” Roger’s voice is like dark chocolate and whole milk.

“Oh yes, Roger, they’ve been pushed out of Jasper and Banff by the flames.”

“So that must mean there are lots of kids around for you to play with Daisy.”

“So many, Roger! You wouldn’t believe. I might even get a boyfriend before the summer’s out.”

“Aren’t you too young for that, Daisy?”

“I wouldn’t kiss him or anything, he’d just be mine.” And then Roger would laugh, or invite me to be his co-host, or send me undercover on special assignments. But sometimes we didn’t talk about the news or the fires at all. And sometimes they’d just play music, and then I’d lie on my back with Heidi as a pillow, counting clouds and wondering if like Clara and her wheelchair, I could push Regan down the mountain.

***

The fires leave a grey cloud on the horizon that’s visible even at night. It’s hot and I can’t sleep, so I go outside to watch the smoke. Being outside at night feels against the rules, although it was never strictly mentioned, and I get that bubble of fearlessness in my stomach at the thought of being free and in charge. “Trouble tummy” my mum had called it after she caught me stealing chocolate bars from the Mac’s Milk. I crawl underneath the open window to my dad’s studio.

“You don’t know what she’s like,” he says, his voice startling me by how close it is to the open window.

“She’s just a little girl, Jack.” It’s Regan, but she’s using her other voice, the one she only used with him. It’s higher, smoother. “She’s curious. She didn’t– ”

“She knows what she’s doing.” There’s a pause. The sounds of Regan shifting on the stool, and the lick of a brush on a palette waft from the window.

“I think she misses you.” I hear as I lie down and close my eyes, warm from the summer air wrapping around me. My father’s snoring when I come back inside to brush my teeth.

***

“I like it here,” Lukas says after meeting me in the pasture so we could march home together. “It’s a simpler way of life.” We stop near some bushes out of eyesight from the cottage so I can put on the windbreaker and jeans my father has deemed more weather and age-appropriate than my tee-shirt and shorts. I rub Pomegranate Persuasion off on the sleeve of the jacket.

My father’s in a good mood when we get home. He slings his arm around Lukas’s neck and ruffles my hair. “My babies!” He yells, but not an angry yell like I’m used to. We eat dinner as a family because Regan isn’t coming tonight. My father even puts off his work for a few hours to hear all of Lukas’s exploits. I gather and start to wash the dishes and watch as my father leads Lukas into his studio. They don’t come out before I’m in bed.

Their snoring wakes me up. They’ve passed out cold on the couches and there’s an empty bottle of wine between them.

“Celebrating,” says Regan’s voice from behind me. We haven’t been alone together since the afternoon she plucked my eyebrows, the regrowth of my messy brows as evidence of the month that’s passed. “Jack called me last night, so I came up this morning to congratulate him. I guess I should have known he’d be asleep.” She turns to the sink and starts re-washing the dishes I did the night before. “It’s exciting, isn’t it?”

I don’t know what’s exciting, so I don’t answer. Locking myself into the loft, I block the door with the wicker chair so Lukas can’t stumble into bed. The loft is so sparse and dark and the only evidence of home is Lukas’s guitar in the corner. I flick on the CBC, but the radio sputters and the batteries die, leaving only the muffled sound of water running over already clean dishes.

When Lukas finds his guitar, the neck is tucked into bed, and the body has been launched from the tiny loft window, smashed against a weathervane. He spends a week with Stevie from the diner. My dad even goes down to the village to be with him. When Lukas agrees to come home, he doesn’t look at me anymore, which I can handle. But he packs up the rest of his stuff only a day later and moves it to Stevie’s. Dad starts having dinner with him in town every night. Being alone in the loft is like being trapped in the brain of a zombie. Everything is muffled, grey, dead. If the house burned down, no one would know I had ever been alive.

***

As the days grow shorter, Regan’s nights with my father get longer. The day of my birthday, she hikes a rainbow sprinkle cake up the mountain for me with my father’s bridge buddies. I blow out my twelve candles and my father uses real wine glasses, not just a paint-stained mug for his booze. I don’t get any presents because I’ve been bad, but they teach me to play bridge and for one night, forgive me. I pour their drinks and laugh at their loud jokes, even if I don’t understand them. My father lets me have a small glass of wine.

As Regan brings me to bed, my head is foggy from the early hour and the cigarette smoke flooding the house. I hear Marvin downstairs. “She’ll be a heartbreaker one day, Jack,” He’s got a heavy wheeze caused by his belly or maybe his smoking. Regan shuts the door behind us before I hear my father’s response.

“Happy birthday, Daisy,” Regan says, handing me a little box. I don’t take it at first, because I don’t really understand. “Don’t tell your father.” Inside is a bracelet with tiny beads of jade and a small silver flower charm. “The green brings out your eyes.” She takes the bracelet from my hand and slips it over my wrist. “Oh, and I made you this.” Regan reaches into her pocket and pulls out a piece of heavy sketch paper.

It’s a charcoal portrait. My eyebrows mid regrowth, with the smiling faces of my daisies in my hair. She doesn’t have my father’s skill, but her hand is practised. I touch a finger to the pistil of the daisy. She lifts my duvet for me to slip into bed. Her touch is gentle as she pulls the blanket up to my armpits.

“Regan?” I ask, and she looks at me straight in the eyes. “Thank you.”

“You’re almost a young lady now.” Her eyes are on mine until I break away. “Good night.”

They’re all still there when I wake up, asleep on the couches and kitchen chairs. My father’s bedroom door is open. He and Regan are naked, covers kicked off in the heat. The mountains, the valley basins, the waterfalls of Regan’s body, encircled inappropriately in my father’s arms, his face discoloured from alcohol, buried in bunched, patterned sheets.

I walk past them into the studio. It feels tighter. The colours have melted with the heat and the oil is spiking off the canvasses, reaching out to press into my skin. I dry heave from the stale air, the bottom of my lungs filling up the way they had when I blew out my cake the night before. I think about my birthday candles.

***

The crack of the fire wakes my father when I’m only halfway through the masterpiece. The ash from the pasture has darkened the clear mountain air. I’m sure he’s yelling, but his paintings burn so loudly, air pockets trapped under oily prisons exploding from the heat, that I can’t hear him.

My mother arrives later that day, but Lukas stays through the school year. We have our shopping spree, as promised. She lets me buy whatever I want.

Holly Easton has a degree in archaeology that has proven to be just as useful as her parents said it would be. She is currently pursuing a Master’s in science history. Holly is a volunteer science communicator at a local museum where she teaches guests about evolution and ecology. She enjoys meeting and chatting with neighbourhood cats.

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

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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