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Christmas, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Waiting For Flicker, Christmas 1963

December 18, 2020

By Byron Spooner

“The holidays are hard on everybody,” Mother says, stubbing out her half-smoked Kent in a chocolate-smeared dessert plate, as if that might head the conversation off at the pass. If Dad were here he’d be giving Mother his usual hyperbolic ration of shit about smoking, but he’s long gone so she can do pretty much anything she Goddamn well pleases. Plus, she only smokes about three or four a day. Five, tops. If I could get away with that I’d still be smoking.

Arranged around the table in roughly the same configuration as at that lunatic Christmas dinner forty-odd years before, the three of us are the only ones left and none of us remembers exactly. Not that it matters.

“And really, what was Dad thinking?” my brother Davey says.

Which is exactly the question Mother doesn’t want me or Davey asking, the start of a discussion she’s endured many times; another rehash of that evening we still tell stories about—obsessively, she would say—and embellish and laugh about, at our increasingly infrequent gatherings. She hopes she can still steer clear of it.

“Who knows?” I say.

“Who cares?” Mother says too late.

At the head of the table, the tinsel-shimmering tree in the bay window behind him, looming over us, was six-and-a-half feet of Dad. He was halfway into his third martini. At the other end, Mother, tiny and starting to put on weight, had a VO on the rocks within easy reach; who knew how many she’d had in the kitchen. The entire Northeast region, as the weatherman called it, may have been glazed stiff from three days of continual freezing rain, but inside the heat was on full, the food was steaming. The perfect way to bring the day to a fitting finish.

Granted, the morning’s gift exchange hadn’t gone as well as it could have. Davey and I had each gotten at least one thing we wanted and had managed to keep the whining to a minimum. Davey, at seven, had been, for weeks, nearly beside himself with anticipation; I played it cool, it was my tenth Christmas and I acted the unimpressed veteran. Dad’s asshole buddy Garnett and his glamorous wife Marge were with us and, as always, exchanged token gifts with Mother and Dad. But they’d been staying with us ‘for a couple of weeks’ since around April. Another thing for Mother to be chronically pissed off about.

Things got off on the wrong foot early when Dad gave Mother a flat white box with red wrapping paper and a gold ribbon. She unwrapped it carefully, putting the paper and ribbon aside intact, and slid the top off the box. She peeled away the tissue paper and slowly, with a puzzled smile on her face, held it up for view in front of us before she realized what exactly it was; the flimsiest, shortest, sheerest negligee legally offered for purchase within the borders of the contiguous United States. There were straps going every which way with seemingly no imaginable purpose, it looked as if the whole rig couldn’t modestly cover one of the cats. What there was of it was the thinnest black fabric with blacker vertical ribbing and a feathery—or maybe furry—scarlet trim. The second she realized what it was, her smile disintegrated and she flushed red as the trim, dropped it back into the box while trying simultaneously to refold the tissue paper around it, jam the top back on the box—if she could have rewrapped it she would have—and drop it on the floor next to her. She couldn’t look at anyone in the room, instead scowling at the box as though it were a Great Dane soiling her clean floor.

“Go ahead, try in on!” Dad said to her, leering slightly and elbowing Garnett.

“What was that?” Davey asked, “What’s it for?”

What was Dad thinking? Did he mistake the flush of embarrassment and anger on her cheeks for some rosy dawn of eroticism, a pinkening of the cadaver of desire afresh? Was he so out of it that he misinterpreted the obvious signals?

Mother was short-tempered the rest of the day and when I asked Dad why, he said, “Christ, who knows? It’s always something with her.”

Dad wore his suit to dinner nearly every day and there was no reason Christmas dinner should be any different. Expecting guests, especially wealthy guests like Aunt Doobie and Uncle Flicker, brought out the blade in him. Flicker had inherited money—“a shitpot full,” according to Dad— from his family. Money made from the manufacture and sale of a nationally-known constipation remedy. Which was what made “shitpot full” even funnier, again according to Dad.

When Flicker wasn’t around Dad referred to him as the “The Laxative King,” but on the rare occasions Flicker was around he sucked up to him unsubtly, calling him “My favorite brother-in-law” and stuff like that. It was Dad’s conviction, his only unshakeable tenet of belief, that the one and only reason Flicker existed on the earth, the reason he’d been born of woman and suckled and nurtured and expensively educated and raised to maturity and unleashed on an unsuspecting and undeserving world in all his slim, urbane, cigarette-holder-sporting, Thunderbird-driving, condescendingly-nasal-voiced glory, was to make Dad look bad.

Dad’s attitude was: You never knew when a rich person might be suddenly convulsed by the irresistible urge to begin handing out random cash. Stranger things had happened after all and there was no reason not to be close by should such a compulsion come over Flicker.

But Doobie and Flicker, never the most reliable of jetsetters, still had not shown. They were already a couple of hours late when Mother and Dad powwowed in the kitchen, hissing and whispering. Mother wanted to go ahead and serve; dinner was going to be too late for us kids if we waited much longer. Dad wanted to hold off for another hour or so. Mother’s winning point, the one that changed Dad’s mind, was ‘If we stall around any longer the roast’ll be ruined.” Overdone and tough. Hearing this, Dad, who liked his beef cooked ‘so it moos’ immediately relented and started herding everyone in sight to the table. He always said sophisticated people ate their meat rare.

With or without Doobie and Flicker, Dad had been looking forward to the Christmas roast since sometime around the Fourth of July. He loathed Christmas and all things associated with it but wasn’t about to let that spoil a good meal. Just because he’d been collecting Unemployment for the better part of nine months didn’t mean we couldn’t splurge a little for the holidays. The roast alone had set him back enough to feed the entire family the usual slop for a week. We’d be eating nothing but macaroni and cheese and store-brand canned crap into mid-January at least, but it would be worth it. Mashed potatoes, peas with pearl onions, Parker House rolls, real butter, Jell-O salad. Gravy. Garnett had said he’d kick a share into the pot but came up short, having been unemployed even longer than Dad.

Dad seemed to hover over the roast, a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, letting the anticipation build.

He peered into the gravy boat, the good one our grandmother had given us, silver and shaped vaguely along the lines of Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, from over his glasses. If you asked him—not that anybody ever did—there was never enough gravy; the woman never made enough. If it had been up to him he would never, ever, have to ladle out the gravy in carefully measured, niggardly portions as if we lived in the poorhouse or something. If it had been up to him, he’d have poured it. He’d have poured it on his meat, his potatoes, his vegetables, his salad, his goddamned ice cream, if he wanted to. He’d float the whole flipping meal in it.

And he always, at this point in the proceedings, asked the same question, “The gravy situation is MIK, I presume? More In Kitchen?”

“Just what’s there,” Mother said, her voice tense. To her, the most galling part of the whole performance was he always, no matter how many times he trotted out the same tired line, felt the need to translate the acronym for her. Did he think she hadn’t heard ‘More In Kitchen’ the last two hundred times he‘d said it? Did he not realize he was prodding a hornets’ nest with this MIK nonsense?

He shared a downcast look with us kids, and then with Garnett and Marge, as if to say, ‘See how much I have to suffer?’

He paused for another solemn moment.

“I must say that Christmas dinner is always extra special when I’m serving all these wonderful people. All these people who are so close to me and whom I love so dearly.”

Was he sincere or just bullshitting us? Probably a little of both if my ear could be trusted. It was hard to know.

“I know we’re all broke this year…”

“Just like last year…” Mother muttered.

“…but there are still some things…”

“…and the year before that…” she continued.

“…that are more important…”

He went on from there, blessing each of us several times including the roast and the gravy and the pearl onions, with the gravy ladle.

“A-men, a-men,” Marge said.

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said. He was defrocked minister, so he still knew how to make stuff like that sound sincere and insincere at the same time..

“The food is getting cold,” Mother said.

Carefully and with all the high-seriousness befitting the occasion, Dad carved the roast and doled out the slices, a few at a time. His disappointment was obvious as each successive slice peeled away; the meat was gray, without even a trace of pink, through and through. The rest of us, hungry and not nearly as worldly as Dad, fell on the food like starved peccaries. All the while we kept one keen eye on the remaining food and plotted ways to get a little more than the others when the time came for seconds. Everyone talked at once: the gifts, the rain outside, the fire in the fireplace, Santa, Christmases past, Dickens, the Grinch, a week off from school.

No one mentioned Kennedy, who’d been shot and killed just over a month before.

“We’re not going to spoil our Christmas just because that sonofabitch is dead,” Dad had said, earlier in the day, making clear his position. As if there had ever been any doubt.

Garnett pulled a palmed marshmallow out of Davey’s ear. He kept a bag of them hidden in his coat pocket. Davey giggled.

“I love this time of year; the Christmas trees, the decorations, the store windows,” he said.

“Yes, it is lovely isn’t it? Why don’t we drive into the city tomorrow and see the decorations on the big stores one more time before they take them all down,” Marge suggested.

“Good idea,” Mother said, “We all get tired of being cooped up in the house after a couple of days. I know I do.” A glance at Dad.

Dad rolled his eyes ceilingward. Not his idea of a fun way to fill an afternoon.

“Did you see the guy owns the hardware store downtown?” Dad said, “He stuck a sign in his window says, ‘Give Your Husband a New Screw for Christmas!’ You might want to take the kids past that way. Good for a couple of laughs.” It was always hard to pinpoint who his intended audience was for this kind of thing. The rest of us could practically hear Mother simmering at the other end of the table. He was oblivious. At least it seemed so.

Garnett laughed, as would be expected, but Marge hid her mouth behind her napkin.

“Why would you say something like that at this table, with the children here, everyone in such a good mood?” she said.

“It’s a joke, m’dear, a joke. Best just to let it pass.” Garnett said, pulling another marshmallow from Davey’s ear. I monitored this pretty closely. Usually after another highball or two he’d switch from marshmallows to quarters. You wanted to be around for that.

“I hear Doobie and Flicker are headed for Aruba after the holidays,” Dad said.

“Yes, they are,” Mother said, perking up, momentarily encouraged that her husband had been paying attention to something other than his own needs for a change.

“Maybe they decided to head down there early,” Dad said.

“I understand it’s lovely this time of year,” Marge said.

“Me, too,” Garnett said, “No freezing rain, at least.”

“Art Plouts had a buddy went to Aruba,” Dad said, “He told me it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said.

“I remember ole Art,” Garnett said, “Wasn’t he…”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said again, incredulous, wanting none of Art Plouts, a gin-soaked housepainter Dad had met in a barroom in Memphis who’d mooched room, board and booze off us for several months in exchange for a couple of shaky coats of exterior white.

Mother said, “If Aruba’s such a hellhole how come people are practically killing themselves to get there?”

“Just ‘cause you’re rich, doesn’t make you smart,” Dad said, directing this at me and Davey as if it were a valuable piece of advice.

Mother said, “I guess by that measure you’re about the smartest man in town.”

He gave her a look of wounded incomprehension.

“You should be a regular genius,” she said.

Garnett reached over and pulled a quarter out of my ear. I must have miscalculated his rate of consumption.

“You and Art and all your other deadbeat friends? You idiots think it’s smart to not work? You and your friends are too fucking smart to hold a steady job?”

The table went silent.

Garnett issued a barely audible burp.

Dad swore like a drill sergeant, we heard obscenity and profanity daily—hell, hourly—from him. It had only been only a year or two since I’d figured out ‘motherfucker’ wasn’t another word for ‘lawnmower.’ Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, exclamations, he swung the words the way Dizzy Gillespie swung high notes, the way Jackie Gleason delivered a punch line, with precision and artistry, yes, but also for the sake of pure entertainment. But that word—Fuck—coming from Mother, and not just the word but in that tone, in front of her children and Marge and Garnett, and on Christmas, was nothing but unalloyed rage. It sent a charge of fear through the room.

“See here,” Marge said.

“Shut up,” Mother said, “You’ve been on my last nerve all day with your holier-than-thou, high-and-mighty attitude, so right now, just for now, why don’t you shut up?”

After a minute and with deliberate and exaggerated patience Dad said, “If you’re referring to the alleged differences between me and the sainted Flicker, I would like to point out, A, he’s never had to lift finger one in his entire pointless goddamned existence. B, he inherited everything…”

“It wasn’t Flicker who gave you the idea for that…that…filthy…thing you tried to give me this morning. That idea had to come from Art or some other dirty-minded friend of yours.”

“I came up with that on my own…” he said, leering again at the memory.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Garnett said.

“And in front of these poor children…?”

“…and, getting back to my original point, don’t forget, C, everyone…” he said, going back to his list, his forefinger pointing to the ceiling, massively oblivious to what was coming.

“…and on Christmas…?” she said, wanting nothing more to do with his alphabet.

“… on the entire face of the planet…”

“And…in…front…of…all…these…people?”

  As she said this last, she jumped out of her chair, gripping the edge of the table, bringing her end up with her as she rose.

“…kisses his rich ass…”

Like all tragedies, this one happened in slow motion.

We all watched breathless, frozen in place, useless, as Mother tilted her end of the table upward and sent an avalanche into Dad’s lap; the tablecloth with our dinner, dishes, silverware, serving platters, water glasses, the cocktails, the roast, the Jell-O salad, the peas with pearl onions, the mashed potatoes, the gravy—the gravy! Dad tried to save the roast, grabbing it as it sailed by. At the same time, he tried to stand, to get out of the way of the rest of our dinner, but in his rush to throw himself clear his legs got tangled in his chair legs; his left shoe clomped onto the silver-plated gravy boat, half-flattening it. He slipped in the spreading slick of gravy and fell backwards, kicking out, shooting the gravy boat, which no longer resembled Aladdin’s Magic Lamp or anything recognizable, at a terrifying speed and sending it smack against the opposite wall. It ricocheted back at him, caroming off the ceiling on its way. There was still enough gravy in the ruined thing to spatter Dad’s face and clothes when it struck him square in the forehead and rattled to the floor, came to rest in nearly the exact spot it had taken off from. More stunned than wounded, he fell backwards into the tree, bringing it down with a great, sickening crash. The plugs on the Depression-era light strings sputtered and smoked under the strain and finally gave up the ghost, flickering once, twice, and dying. Dad sprawled on top of the ruined tree, the roast resting on his chest like some wet trophy.

“Shit,” Dad said.

An extended stunned silence ensued punctuated only by the miniature crash—Ding!—of a last glass ornament dropping to the floor. We all sat in our chairs feeling suddenly exposed, absent the table, napkins in our laps, knives and forks still in our hands

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said and Dad, from where he lay moaning, his suit gravy-spattered and covered with pine needles, could only laugh. He always thought Garnett was a fucking riot.

“A few years ago,” I say, “It came to me that the world didn’t need me to point out all the already obvious hypocrisies of the season. Most people work out ways to live with them, reconcile with them, so they can still enjoy the season. And I’m not helping anything by acting like Dad; trying to convert everyone into an atheist or a Scrooge. So he hated Christmas? So what? What gave him license to go around spoiling everyone else’s holiday?”

“So if you don’t have anything nice to say I just dummy up? ” Davey says, “Doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’s the new me,” I say.

“How’s that working out for you?” Davey asked.

“So-so, I’d have to say, Dr. Phil,” I say, I’ve been the other way for so long it’s just habit to be that way.”

“Forty Christmases under our belts since that one,” Davey says, “I guess we’re the last of them.”

I ask Mother, “What happened to Garnett?”

  “After your father died, I lost touch with Marge and Garnett,” Mother says, “I assume they’re gone. It was no state secret I never really cared much for them.”

She always said that, “No state secret.” Some things never change. Actually, most things never change, if you think about it.

“No, it certainly wasn’t,” Davey says, laughing at her understatement.

Mother says, “The last we heard they’d gone up to Providence to live with Marge’s sister, ‘looking for work’—probably sponging.”

“Doobie and Flicker never did show up,” Davey says.

“The peripatetic Doobie and Flicker,” I say, jumping on the rare chance to insert ‘peripatetic’ into a conversation.

“Wow, nice word,” Davey says. In our family, sarcasm is the mother tongue.

“Yeah, and I remember how pissed off you were,” I say to Mother. Davey just laughs. Whatever happened to her sister Doobie and Doobie’s husband Flicker that night is lost in the mists—the freezing rain—of history; never satisfactorily explained, never resolved. Nobody ever asked, nobody ever explained. Like everything else, we all just acted as if nothing had happened and trudged on. It was a tradition that had been passed down through generations. They died a few years later off the coast of Mexico, marlin fishing. Apparently everyone on board was loaded—’knee-walking drunk’ was how Flicker’s ancient mother put it—when they capsized.

“They always lived like the rules didn’t apply to them. They were terribly reckless.” she says, “And, just to set the record straight, I wasn’t ’pissed off’ so much as disappointed.”

Davey laughs again, “‘Disappointed?’ Hell, you didn’t speak to them for a couple of years after that.” He is always brutally honest with her, the one who calls her on her bullshit, never giving her an inch, ever since he was little.

“Yes, I never got the chance to reconcile with her,” she says, “And I would’ve too.”

Davey and I exchange glances that say, ‘Yeah, right.’

“It was all so long ago,” she says, sighing “I don’t understand why we always have to come back to it. Every Christmas it’s the same Goddammed thing.” She lights her last Kent of the evening and shakes the match out.

Davey says, “You’re right, ‘the holidays are hard on everybody.’”

Byron Spooner has recently retired after twenty-one years as the Literary Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library where he produced literary events including a weekly poetry series with San Francisco Poet Laureate Emeritus Jack Hirschman. He founded and edited of The Readers Review, the Friends’ literary blog, where he wrote about books, music, film and bookselling. With his wife, writer Judith Ayn Bernhard, Byron co-edited Arcana: A Festschrift for Jack Hirschman (Andover Street Archives Press, 2014). His writing has been published in the San Francisco Examiner, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Autobiography and Isis. He has written introductions to several anthologies published by FSFPL. His short story, A Book for Christmas was published by Red Berry Editions in 2011. Byron has served on the San Francisco Poet Laureate Nominating Committee and the One City, One Book Selection Committee of the SFPL, on the Board of Litquake, and the Advisory Board of the Beat Museum.

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Forgiveness, Grief, Guest Posts

Forgiving Mom…Finally

November 29, 2020
day

By Fredricka R. Maister

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

THE END

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

TO MY FATHER

Bells of doom

rang in the day.

World War 3, I thought

being a child of the 50’s.

Something was out of tune

silencing all gay songs.

Even time trudged by

like dead weight falling

each plunge—

a dirge of doom.

Why a shroud

over the sun

this day—

until,

Grown-ups’ tears

later revealed the truth to bear:

The bells had tolled for you

at 8:00 am

while my eyes were just opening

to the prospect of a new day—

your doomsday.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Family, Guest Posts, pandemic

I Could Have Run a Railroad

November 25, 2020

By Alisa Schindler

I have always loved the rain. The quiet of the sky. The soothing drone of a million hearts beating overhead. The deep grey seeps into my bones like a drug, slowly calming, and telling my brain to shhhh. There is nowhere to go; no bright and tempting sun guilting me with its happy warmth, pressing me forward to run, skip and laugh. No open, welcoming day beckoning me with possibilities. Now it is alright just to breathe and embrace that feeling where pressure simply evaporates. There is only a moody somberness, a gentle drum lulling me into peace.

When I was younger, my father used to chasten me about the bubble I surrounded myself in and accuse me of complacency. “Don’t be another boring housewife,” he’d say and gift me books by Ayn Rand hoping to inspire. “You’re a Dagny.”

I’d roll my eyes, but take the books, devouring them in private. Deep down I heard him, his message taking root in the brain I was busy ignoring, although I refused to give him the satisfaction of acknowledgment. It wasn’t like he had the right to judge, I thought. He had done nothing of substance. He was a man with huge romantic notions of the world and no follow through, all about the ‘big ideas’ and being one of the ‘beautiful people’.

To be fair, he was beautiful. Strong and masculine, with crystal green eyes that mirrored my own and thick wavy hair that had prematurely grayed. He was a legend on the ball field and the racquetball courts. With his charismatic smile, easy laugh, and love of a good party, both men and women gravitated towards him.

Even with erratic work habits, his charm, good looks and intelligence helped him survive and, at times, even thrive, in his vocation as a salesman. But that was in the 70’s and 80’s when no one looked too deeply. If they had they would have seen an addict who moved from one sad, dirty, cluttered place to another, often sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Someone who lived from paycheck to paycheck and visited his kids on the weekends at their new home with their new family out in the suburbs. Still, he always came bearing gifts and smile.

For a time.

By my twenties, his alcohol and recreational drug years were behind him, but his struggles were just beginning. I made the mistake of moving in with him after college after a failed back operation led to dependencies on pharmaceutical opiates. It didn’t take long to realize I was trapped. He needed me to shadow him as he staggered around on pain medications. He needed me as he seesawed between the lows of depression and manic bursts of energy and enthusiasm. Some days he couldn’t leave his bed, other days we played tennis. Some days I wrestled car keys from his hand; his glazed unconscious eyes in complete opposition to the strength of his anger and grasp. Other days, we sat side by side watching episodes of X-Files or Star Trek eating Tupperware bowls filled with cereal, finding moments of ridiculousness and laughing till milk came out our noses.

It was the inconsistencies of health, mental and physical, that kept me tied. The highs that reminded me of his sparkle and my childhood adoration and the lows that overwhelmed and obligated me. He had no one else. I was his sun, his moon, and his savior. But when he talked to me about stepping outside my bubble, I could see nothing but his need and my potential floating away.

Like a good first-born child, I took to my martyrdom like worker bee to queen. I dove in and let it define me; using it to separate myself, to hide, to solidify the bubble into armor, until there was only me and my struggle with his struggle.

As the years passed, I finally found a way to move out and leave him – I got married. Had babies, boy one, two and three. Created a life filled with privileges and pleasures. But through it all he was there, an umbilical rope of need and devotion connecting us.

As he aged and weakened, he softened his view of me and the world. Dagny Taggart wasn’t all that anymore. He excused my complacency and decided to extol my virtues instead. “You’re a great mom,” he’d say. “I understand why you like your bubble. The world is crazy. Your bubble is good.”    

My bubble was better than good – a wonderful husband, beautiful children, the house in the suburbs, endless books to read, writing to keep me satisfied and sane and good friends to laugh and cry – but with him attached I remained, as always, harnessed. Stuck to the ground, rooted, never taking flight. No longer sure I even wanted to.

And then, he died.

Something that was ‘a long time coming’ and should have happened decades before, took me by complete surprise. I was suddenly free from his tortuous, desperate need. I could float in the sunshine of my family, meander in and out of marshmallow clouds, drift through the lazy rainbow days of baseball, baking and boys. I could write. Or run a railroad.

Yet, the relief everyone talked about didn’t come. I missed the burden. The insanity. The ridiculousness. I missed him. The man who dreamed I could be Dagny Taggart but whose everyday life careened off the rails. The man who laughed without limits but also cried without restraint. The man who opened my eyes to the joys and horrors of the world, but also made me turn inward and away. The man who was one of the ‘beautiful ones’ who became disabled and deformed.

Maybe it was always my nature. Maybe I gravitated toward a life heavy with a responsibility that allowed me to stay shielded, my purpose small but mighty. My world limited but loved. My heart soaring in words but my feet on the ground.

I’m okay with the bubble. The smallness. The calm. The nothing.

I always loved the rain.

Alisa Schindler is a freelance writer whose essays have been featured online in the NYT, Washington Post, Brain, Child, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and The Well at Northwell Health, among others. In her spare time, she writes sexy, suburban fiction. Find out more about her at alisaschindler.com.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Abuse, Guest Posts, Letting Go, Mental Health

Yellow

November 10, 2019
smoking

By Kelly Wallace

I was still in love with my ex when I broke up with him over the phone late at night at the Hilton Garden Inn in Ithaca, NY. It was the first Sunday in June 2017. I was there for my friend’s 20th college reunion. My ex was making me question my sanity. I wasn’t telling my friends what was going on because I was ashamed. We argued for hours. We had tried therapy. It failed.

I had had enough.

According to an article titled “In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship? 5 Steps to Take” on the website Psych Central “…Is it me or him? You feel anxious around him, believing that somehow you can make things right again, you want to feel the love you did when the two of you first got together. Deep down, your biggest fear is that his opinions of you are right..that there really is something wrong with you, and you just may not be loveable the way you are.”

I was enough for myself.

***

We talked for hours in his kitchen and he made me pesto with the basil that was almost dead from his garden box. He referred to his ex, Stephanie, as “shitbag” when he told me about her. She was the mom of one of his students. He taught elementary school band in a suburb of Boston and retired at 40, a few years earlier. She had had her eye on him for a long time. When her daughter was done with band she swooped in. They met for coffee. She was still married. She told him she was divorcing soon. They started dating. Three years of them breaking up and getting back together should have been a red flag.

For me it was an invitation.

It’s August 2018, a little over a year after I have ended things with my ex. I’m on week two of vacation with my mom but take a side trip down to Boston to get away from the 250 sq. ft. cabin we are sharing on Sebago Lake in Maine. Throughout the trip Mom is coughing up a storm. In the morning. At night. It drives me bonkers. She has COPD and sounds like death.

She smoked for 15 years. 3 packs a day until she quit.

***

I am creepy.

On my side trip to Boston away from my Mom and her coughing I take another side trip-to Medway, Massachusetts, a rural town 45 minutes west of Bean town. It’s sleepy, woods, twisty two lane roads and ponds. My ex hated it and left to live in Portland, Oregon where I live. We live. We live on the same block. I don’t talk to him.

He stares at my driveway when friends come to visit and studies their cars. They come to the door saying the same thing over and over: “Did you know your ex was standing in his yard totally staring at me as I parked and got out of the car?”

“Yes.”

It’s beautiful in Medway. On the radio, the Dj asks: “how are you creepy? There’s something trending on Twitter about being creepy.” I think about calling into the radio station to tell them what I am doing but decide to pull over to the side of the road and use my notepad on my phone to write down what the DJ is talking about. This is perfect for a story.

***

My parents divorced almost 35 years ago. Dad is bald, 69 and glasses. He is home resting in Oregon after falling off a ladder and breaking his right shoulder and hip. He texts me: “Boston. My aunt so and so lives there. I haven’t been out that way in a long time.” He has so many aunts I can’t keep them straight.

He was in the hospital for two weeks undergoing intense physical therapy. Sometimes I feel like he is judging me but I don’t know. I don’t know what the what is. There’s something in me that wonders. He has yellow teeth. He’s a lawyer. There are no grey areas. He is black and white. Law and order.

Right before he fell I had a phone reading with a psychic. The psychic, Donna, kept talking about him in the past tense. I corrected her.

“But he’s alive.”

“I hate to tell you this dear, but, I’m talking to him from the other side.”

“What does that mean?”

“He will be passing soon.”

That was a year ago.

According to the AARP, the increased chance of older people dying after hip fractures has long been established in a number of studies. Now a new study has found that breaking other major bones also may lead to higher mortality rates for older adults.

***

My ex was a heavy smoker. When he quit smoking twenty years ago he was living at home in Medway with his parents. He started chewing Nicorette, that terrible gum. His Dad worked for a pharmaceutical company and would bring home bags and bags of it. He became addicted to the gum and then had to wean himself off it.

One day my ex’s dad came home from work and my ex was searching in the couch cushions for a piece of that gum, in case one had fallen out of his pocket.

“Why don’t I just give you a piece of that gum?” His dad said.

“No dad,” he turned an easy chair over and was searching under it. “This is what I need to do to stop chewing that gum.”

According to WebMD, “Most users of nicotine gum…see it as a short-term measure. GlaxoSmithKline, marketers of Nicorette, advises people to “stop using the nicotine gum at the end of 12 weeks,” and to talk to a doctor if they “still feel the need” to use it. But that guideline hasn’t kept some people from chomping on it for many months and even years.

My ex’s childhood home in Medway is two story, purple with a horseshoe driveway and even more rural than I imagined. I drive to the end of the cul-de-sac, put the car in park and look at the front windows. That’s where he was hunting for the Nicorette under the couch. I drive away because I’m creepy. A half mile away there’s a “Stephanie Drive.” His ex’s name. I pull over to write the detail on my notepad. Another perfect idea for the story.

***

My fourteen-year old formerly feral cat, Billie, died two months before that night we broke up on the phone in Ithaca, NY. Billie would go over to my ex’s house on her own and spend time there. I had to get another cat right away. The house felt lonely without her. My ex and I went to Purringtons and he found a tuxedo with a little white star on his head staring out the window at all the people walking by on MLK, Jr. Blvd. I put a hold on the cat with the star on his head, Starboy, and took video of him playing with a Donald Trump catnip toy. My ex was coughing in the background and talking excessively. He was always talking so much with his dull yellow teeth. They were yellow because he smoked for over a decade and never went to the dentist.

I said something to him and sounded annoyed in the video.

According to the website Empowered by Color, “…The color yellow can be anxiety producing as it is fast moving and can cause us to feel agitated.”

My teeth were yellow after a friend committed suicide and I started smoking a pack a day for almost two months. I quit shortly afterward. Cold turkey. No Nicorette gum.

Starboy’s eyes are green.

My ex eventually did quit the gum.

***

The motorcycle cops started going by my house escorting the hearses following closely behind. It became a regular Sunday morning routine along with me reading self-help books with Starboy and his green eyes curled up next to me on the couch. There’s a cemetery nearby. I would tear up as the cars drove by with their flashers. Yellow. Blink. Yellow. Blink. I was determined to be different.

Billie’s eyes were yellow.

My house is green.

***

After she is done coughing Mom goes into the kitchen in our cabin in Maine and rustles plastic bags, pushes buttons on the microwave, talks to herself and clinks spoons while she eats her breakfast. “What are you doing in there old lady?” I wonder. Her ocd and need for order marching her around like a drill Sargent. I get up from reading in bed. She separates crookneck squash from the trash into a plastic bag. It’s not for compost. It’s to keep it from smelling up the regular trash she tells me.

***

I text my best friend back in Portland about the weird food separation. “She’s crazy,” she texts me back. I probably shouldn’t use that term to describe my mom. According to the article, ‘Personal Stories: Don’t Call Me Crazy,’ on the NAMI website…”Mental illness is an illness, even though some choose not to accept it. ‘Crazy’ has been a word to portray those who suffer with mental illness as dangerous, weak, unpredictable, unproductive and incapable of rational behavior or relationships. It is a word used without any serious thought or consideration… It is a word that can be used to criticize an individual or group, keep a stigma in place or, when used in commercials, sell cars, sweets and even peanut butter.”

***

While I drive around Medway I hear my ex in my head telling me I’m crazy. He told me things like, “northeastern women had an edge.” He didn’t need to tell me that. I had spent considerable time on the East Coast. I knew about that edge. I had friends in New York. I had plans to move there at one point. He said I wouldn’t survive in New York because I wasn’t assertive enough.

“Bobby, from Leominster,” The DJ says in his thick Boston accent. “What’s the creepiest thing you have ever done?”

“For a while I was collecting corn snakes,” Bobby from Leominster pauses. “That didn’t really attract the ladies.”

“Ugh,” the DJ says. “That’s pretty weird.”

This is perfect for a story.

***

During my verbal fights with Mom when I was in high school she would say “you’re just like your father.” I didn’t know what it meant except that I was bad. I was always the bad one. I carried a yellow blanket and sucked my thumb until 10. I was the bad one for reporting that Dad’s dad, my paternal grandfather, molested me. My grandparents hid the blanket in their closet. Dad’s silence. The paternal family’s silence made them complicit. The police searched my grandparent’s house and found the blanket.

***

My paternal grandmother allegedly called me “Crazy Kelly.” Whenever we argued my ex called me crazy. After we broke up I wondered what nickname he had come up with for me.

Crazy?

Crazy Shitbag.

***

My ex told me he had a lot of projects he wanted to tackle when he bought his house in Oregon. He wanted to install a new roof himself on the back side of his house. “I don’t want you doing that,” I told him when we were together. I didn’t want him breaking a bone or ending up in the hospital.

A year after we broke up I saw shingles being loaded onto the roof of his house.

I didn’t care if he broke a bone.

He deserved it.

***

I was a smoker for 5 years.

My mom smoked for twenty years.

My ex smoked for 15.

My dad never smoked.

I wasn’t going to end up like any of them.

 

Kelly Wallace developed a writing style that both roots in the moment and peels back the layers of human nature at the Pinewood Table writers group led by award-winning authors Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose. Kelly’s writing honors include publications in VoiceCatcher and Perceptions magazines, fellowships at the Summer Fishtrap Gathering and the Attic Institute, and residencies at Hypatia-in-the-Woods. A graduate of Wells College in Aurora, New York, and an entrepreneur in Portland, Oregon, Kelly avidly photographs odd sights while out driving for her day job. Kelly is an active and recognizable member of the Portland writing community, consistently engaging with hundreds of readers and authors of all genres and levels of writing.

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Family, Guest Posts

The Difference Between a Father and a Dad

October 20, 2016

By Alisa Schindler

I call multiple times in the hope that when I arrive he will be outside waiting. There’s the wakeup call. The check in an hour later to make sure the wakeup call actually prompted some movement. The, ‘I’m getting in my car’ call, the, I’m ‘five minutes away’ call, and of course, the ‘I’m outside waiting’ call.

Depending on his coherency and agitation, I judge whether it seems sane to actually wait for him to come out. In about 1 in every 10 or so visits, I actually pretend that he might just walk out without my assistance, so I sit and play on my phone or read a few pages in my book letting the minutes disappear along with my hope, before eventually giving up and heading in.

Walking into his apartment my face immediately falls, but I am quick to pick it up because the floor is disgusting. Even with a home health aide there six days a week, he spends much of his alone time upsetting any attempts at cleanliness or organization she may have accomplished.

It is Sunday, the aide’s day off, and already the apartment looks ransacked. Pills everywhere – purple ones, pink ones, yellow and white ones dotting the floor like dropped M&M’s. Multiple red Solo cups darkened with colas, crusty mixes of yogurt and cereal and more pills stand up and out in the clutter of papers piled all around. Cabinet doors suspend open, cereal boxes ejected to the counter, Kashi and Cheerios strewn onto the floor. Clothes covered in food stains and old cigarette holes hang on the backs of chairs while a pizza box that was apparently used as a plate for what may have been his middle of the night snack of eggplant parmesan, remains discarded on the couch. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts

Missing Someone Before They’re Gone

September 9, 2015

By Marissa Dubecky

For as long as I can remember, my dad was sick. It started when I was in kindergarten, and he had several heart attacks that our family physician misdiagnosed as heartburn. When he went to him the third time, after collapsing in the grocery store parking lot and crawling the rest of the way to his car, the doctor took his complaints more seriously. After doing some tests, he wasted no time life-starring him to the hospital in the nearest city, where he had a quadruple heart bypass. Bypasses were less common twenty years ago, and the doctors were honest about the fact that it was a risky procedure. But all went smoothly, and the blockages around his heart were soon circumnavigated by clear vessels grafted from other parts of his body. The blood could flow to his heart again.

After a few months of recovery, my dad returned to the bookstore where he worked, but he was never the same. He’d always been a worrier, painfully aware of his mortality since he hit puberty, and now death felt all too real. My brother and I were only nine and five respectively, and he became obsessed with the idea that he wouldn’t live long enough to watch us grow up. Though fixed for the time-being by surgery, his health issues weren’t gone for good. The physical ills morphed into morbid, troubled thoughts that made themselves comfortable in his brain.

My dad worked at a bookstore an hour and a half away from where my mom, brother, and I lived in the country. They’d moved to get me and my brother into a better school system, but hadn’t found work to support us, so my dad kept his job in the city and the apartment we’d inherited from his mother. It wasn’t a bad situation; my dad loved his job. He worked next to the Yale School of Drama and Art, so he was constantly connecting with artists, actors, and writers. He was a jack-of-all trades kind of artist himself, so he could easily converse with the customers, forming bonds with movie stars and screenwriters.

My mom carted me around to her freelance graphic design gigs, and I joined her most days as she volunteered as the librarian at my brother’s elementary school. On Friday nights, my dad would come home with a VHS tape and stories to tell us over a big dinner. Saturdays were spent grocery shopping and scouring thrift stores for books, clothes, and antiques. Sundays we relaxed, and Monday mornings he headed back to the city for work.

After the surgery, his lifestyle there changed. He started drinking when he got home from his shifts, and when we would visit the apartment during the summers, my mom would find the porch littered with beer cans. Among other anxieties, he felt that his death was impending, and alcohol was the best way he could erase that thought from his mind.

My mom eventually got certified as a teacher, and my dad was able to move up to the country with us the year I turned nine. We hoped he’d find work there and his drinking would stop, but it didn’t end until a court-ordered trip to rehab when I was sixteen. He didn’t get a job, but he built a studio on the side of our house and spent hours filling its walls with paintings.

Throughout this, I worried about my dad’s physical and mental health. He had a temper, and his sadness was palpable. You could feel the stress emanating from him when he was angry. He looked healthy and handsome, with smooth, glowing brown skin and a thick head of bright white hair, but he drank and smoked a pack a day. He joked constantly, always making me laugh, but it was obvious from what he talked about that death was never fully out of his mind.

He was also one of the most loving people I’ve ever known. He was complicated, but he wore his heart on his sleeve. I lived in constant fear that I’d get off the school bus and find him dead from a heart attack, but I never worried that his love and adoration for me would die.

When I was fourteen, my dad went to the hospital for an angiogram, a test that examines arteries for blockages. He refused to go to the doctor unless his pain was unbearable, and this time it was. We all breathed a sigh of relief when the angiogram revealed clear vessels. It was summer, which meant we were all free of obligations. It was our time for adventures. We hit the road, driving up to Maine to see the ocean.

Somehow, no matter the frequency of arguments or tension, we all thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. Long drives were spent in constant conversation, and none of us ever ran out of things to say to one another. We cared about the same issues, shared the same sense of humor, and were curious about the same topics. The trip was as memorable and magical as all our others.

The day after we got home, my brother, mom, and I were eating pancakes in the kitchen when we heard a crash come from my parents’ room. We ran down the hall to find my dad has knocked over a lamp to get our attention. He was gasping for breath. My brother ran and called 911. To this day, I’m not sure what I did. Eventually, the paramedics made it out to our rural home. They loaded my dad into the ambulance and took him to the local hospital, where he was again life-starred to Hartford.

The angiogram had punctured his lung, allowing fluid into it that he was literally drowning in. The moments while I heard him suffocating and waited helplessly to see if he would somehow make it were familiar. I’d felt that worry when I was five, begging a God I didn’t really know much about to give me more time, because I had no idea what else to do. I’d felt it dully over the years as I watched him neglect his health.

After a couple of weeks in the hospital, my dad was able to come home, but he was too weak to really get out of bed. The timing was especially hard because my brother was about to start his freshman year of college in upstate New York, a six hour car ride away. Our only option was for my mom to drive him, so I was left home caring for my dad. It was stressful the moment they left, but took a serious turn the day she was heading back. The previous night, his temperature had been rising and he’d been very confused. The next morning, it was dangerously high, and he was near-delirious.

I was scared and helpless at only fourteen. I paced the house, passing time taking care of him the only ways I knew how, which were mostly by getting him water and turning on fans or adding blankets. My mom got home around dusk. She took his temperature, and then as calmly as possible began to get him dressed and into the car. Then she drove him straight to the emergency room. Continue Reading…

Binders, Forgiveness, Guest Posts

A Shot at Forgiveness

August 20, 2015

By Lea Page

I click on the YouTube link that my stepsister Sally just sent me—she hasn’t labeled it— ready to see another video of her playing her banjo on yet another stage. I click on the YouTube link, ready to feel the same jealousy that I always feel every time I see my stepsister acting the part of middle daughter, acting MY part as middle daughter. Forty years ago, when I was eleven, my father traded my mother and my two sisters and me for another woman with three daughters our age. A clean swap. Ever since, I’ve always hated to see Sally doing what I should have done: being creative, being successful, being happy.

In the video, my father is lying on his sofa in jeans, turtleneck and flannel shirt, one arm crooked under his head. He looks a little green around the gills and shrunken, shockingly shrunken. Last week, in the middle of a perfect storm of procedures and surgeries, infections and dueling medications, my father was sent home from the hospital. Continue Reading…

death, Grief, Guest Posts, healing

Triggers

July 21, 2015

By Heather Regula

My dad died on April 17 2014. It was totally unexpected – he was getting ready to get his hair cut and boom –  just dropped dead.  My mom opted not to do an autopsy as there was little good that could come from it. The doctor told us it was likely a stroke or massive heart attack and that he was probably dead before he hit the ground. My dad’s death has been brutal on me and there have been a few times over the past year when I’ve felt that reminders of my dad’s death were going to crush me. There are physical symptoms associated with where I’m at mentally and emotionally – inability to sleep, restless sleep, grouchiness, extreme sensitivity and being overly emotional, etc… Mainly I feel like fifty bricks are sitting on my chest – every day for the past two weeks.

My dad’s birthday was on September 1st and in a typical overly dramatic fashion I’d like to announce that September damn near killed me. My annual “Dad’s birthday” alert popped up on my iPhone. That visual reminder hit me harder than I ever imagined and it took me months to seemingly bounce back. My dad’s birthday was definitely a sorrowful trigger and I’m cognizant of the fact that September 1st will probably hit me hard every year. I left the birthday alert on my phone – sure I could’ve easily deleted the reminder but I chose not to. Not because I want to feel heartache when it pops up, but because I want the forever reminder – kind of like how my dad is still listed in contacts on my phone. Perhaps if I don’t delete his contact or the birthday reminder, then his death won’t be so permanent. Childish? Perhaps. Unrealistic? Definitely. Avoiding? Likely so. Continue Reading…

Fatherhood, Guest Posts, healing

Letter To My Homeless Father

July 16, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Toni White

Dear Dad,

I knew from an early age that our story would never end well but it was a July Saturday that you changed our lives forever.

That was the day you died. 
 At least, that’s what I’m telling myself.

You’re supposed to be in your teenage years when you get your heart broken for the first time.  You’re supposed to run home from school in tears that your relationship is over and your dad is supposed to be the one that threatens to ‘hurt him’ because he’s upset his daughter.  You are not supposed to be 10 years old when your heart breaks for the first time and your father is not the one that’s supposed to break it for you; and yet you were.  You agreed to come to Disneyworld with mum and I despite the fact that you were no longer married and I was over the moon to think I would have my first family holiday.  Five days later, however, you changed your mind and you broke my heart; I remember that conversation like it was yesterday.  You called me the following Tuesday, like you always did, but I was still too upset to speak to you; mum told you I didn’t want to talk and you hung up; you never rang back.  It was 6 weeks later when I had to call you and apologise for my behaviour and listen to your mother tell me what I had put you through.  I never got over it.  That was the day I truly began to see you for what you were.  Even writing this brings tears to my eyes and anger to my heart to think you could treat your daughter so callously.  I wish I hadn’t missed you as much as I did and called you; I doubt you would have ever had the courage to call me back and I would have been free from you for all these years.  Hindsight is a cruel mistress.

You are my shameful secret.  If I don’t have to speak about you to anyone, I won’t.  If you were anyone but my father, I would have walked out of your life when I started to see you for the manipulative and controlling monster you really were.  Instead, you pushed everyone away and left me being the only person you had in the world despite the fact I wanted nothing to do with you.  We, as a society, are told to look after our parents no matter what; ‘love unconditionally’ as they say but why?  You have done nothing to deserve my respect, help or love and so I’m going against everything I’ve ever been taught and I’m walking away because I can’t carry you as my shameful secret any longer; I have no desire or energy to keep something so big, so quiet.

Continue Reading…

Fatherhood, Guest Posts, healing, Race/Racism

A Black Remembrance of My White Father.

June 21, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Erika Robinson

I have not shared this photo before. I have wanted to keep my father to myself, perhaps because, when he was alive, I had to share him with so many.

But it’s Father’s Day, and it is both nationally and personally a sober time. So I am giving all of us a gift by sharing my father once again.

My father left for college when he was only 16. He left for the big city from a farm in Nebraska, where he had no exposure to Black people.

There was no one whiter than my father, with his light eyes and hair, his aquiline nose, his Midwestern twang, and the way he said words like egg and roof. Tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and Oxford shirts were his uniform. He lent them a white guy cool by finishing his look with khakis and topsiders that he wore with no socks. He smoked a pipe. He loved Latin and classical music and German food. He was completely and unapologetically white.

My father was also the greatest man I have ever known. I described him to a friend recently: the way my father was committed to social justice and the cause of civil rights; the way he gave his voice, his body, his life force to the struggle for equality for Black people to the degree that he received letters of thanks during his lifetime from Martin Luther King, and to the degree that he was eulogized in Congress upon his death.

My friend said “Your father sounds as though he was very…optimistic.”

This friend of mine is a very polite young white man. I could tell from the pause between the words “very” and “optimistic” that what he’d wanted to call my father was “naive.”

Here is what my father was: he was grounded in his identity as a white man, aware of the privilege this status conferred upon him, and acutely conscious of the mantle of responsibility laid upon him to live a life of service to those upon whom society had conferred a different status entirely. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Jen Pastiloff, Jen's Musings

Lying to Ourselves.

June 11, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Jen Pastiloff.

Hi, from Aruba. Whoa! I am in Aruba.

I.

Am.

In.

Aruba.

I’m trying to blog more in an effort to remember details. So hi. Here I am.

I have this chalkboard in my room at home where I have written YOU ARE A WRITER: SO WRITE! because I don’t carry a notebook, thinking (naively) that I will remember that man with a speedo, a selfie-stick and a beer precariously taking a photo on the edge of a cliff in Aruba, and how I thought about my mom’s second husband Carl because the speedo man had his beer in one of those cooler things which I just had to google “What are those foamy things you put a beer in to keep it cold?” because I couldn’t think of the name of them (apparently they are called Koozies) and Carl used to drink his beer out of said Koozies. I have been thinking about Carl a lot because there are cacti everywhere here on the island and he collected them- had hundreds in his yard at home. He only drank Coors and I keep seeing Coors ads here so I think maybe, in some way, his spirit is here, and I wonder if he had ever been to Aruba but I can’t ask him because he is dead a long time now and that man in the speedos looks like he may fall into the ocean because of his dumb fucking selfie, so I want to write this stuff down but because I don’t carry a notebook or jot things down. I memorize it until I sit down here, at the table by the window, the wind blowing on my back, and I think if only I had a table at home where the wind blew on my back like this, I would really write, I would really get shit done.

Right.

Isn’t it amazing how easy it is to lie to ourselves?

Unknown

Carl, if you were here, dude, you’d go crazy for the Bringa Mosa Bush and the Yatu Cactus. Also, we hardly wear shoes here and you’d love that. You hated shoes. Especially when you ran on the beach, which to me is just about the worst thing in the world. I tried to do yoga on the beach yesterday and I felt like I ran a marathon, it was that exhausting. My hands kept sinking deeper and deeper into the sand and I had nothing solid to balance on so I kept falling over. You used to run with Monet on the beach at sunset. I miss Monet. Every West Highland Terrier I see is him. We used to call him MoMo. You didn’t, but my sister and I did, especially after you and my mom got divorced and we moved back to New Jersey. MoMo and the cats, Runt and Tiger. And when I drank beer I high school, I thought of you because you were the only person I knew that had drank beer. I don’t recall my father every drinking so lord knows where I got my affinity for it. His thing was speed. Anyway, you’d love it here. So would Monet. There’s so many dogs everywhere. And cactus plants.

And Koozies. (I wonder why they are called that?)

I think sometimes I am afraid of remembering.

I should start writing things down more though because details, they’re everything. I think my mind can store it all, the way that boy with the braces from Houston was collecting rafts in the pool to build a bridge and run across, how proud he was of his achievement, and the way the woman who worked at the hotel bent down by the edge of the pool, a You are making my job more difficult pair of eyes, the way she stooped to collect the glass candles so we wouldn’t break them, her mouth a line of blame. Meanwhile I can’t even remember what I did last week so I should totally start taking notes.

Maybe I am afraid of remembering.

I remember sitting on the floor of the airport in Dallas a few days ago and how there was a little girl in a chair next to me with a sweatshirt on that said Birthday Diva. I asked her if it was her birthday. She had just turned 13 and had these huge stuffed animals on her lap. Her mom snapped photos of her as I sat on the ground and charged my phone. A man talked to me but I have no idea what he said. I wonder how often I lie to myself.

My sister is not feeling well back in the States, in Georgia. I don’t know how to not experience it in my own body. With her, or my mother. I do not know how to separate them from myself. I do not know how to not feel guilty.

I have moments- sitting here, the wind, the perfect Aruban wind and my God, is it ever fucking perfect, I would marry the goddamned wind if I could- sitting here with my coffee and the wind on my back, the sun burning the little patch of skin that is exposed, I do not feel guilty. I feel settled in my body, my ears are ringing as usual, but I am writing and the tinnitus can’t stop me, not when I am truly in it.

I so rarely get truly in it, not lately anyway. This past year I have hardly written a word. Right now though, I don’t feel guilty or like an appendage of anyone else- I am not aware of my hearing loss, or my family, or how dare I be happy because I am in it, waist-high, swimming in the bluest water you have ever seen. I am writing. I hate that hashtag (maybe because I so rarely write) but here I am #Iamwriting and so I am spared the responsibility of my guilt and how it weights me to the bottom of the sea where not only am I deaf, but I can’t breathe. So, there’s moments, brief ones, where I float and I sit on airport floors and watch Birthday Divas, everything still ahead of me, a possibility, not yet a disappointment. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, healing, parenting

How My Father Taught Me I Was Not Beautiful

June 7, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Heidi Paulson

My parents split up when I was nine. A tender age where everything is up in the air anyway, from your laugh, to your smile to the way you walk in the world. A very pliable age.

It wasn’t long before my Dad starting looking around for women to date. All kids want is for their parents to be happy. My brother and I watched as Dad would ogle women in the grocery store, say certain things and join social groups to be around more possibilities. Before the divorce, I hadn’t thought much about attraction, dating and how people actually got together. You have your Mom and you have your Dad, and they walk around the house and feed you.

It was back in the 80’s. The internet was just a figment of Al Gore’s imagination. The only way to meet people was at work, church, through friends or by writing a personal ad in the Willamette Week newspaper. We did not attend church, so Dad wrote an ad. I remember when the letters came pouring in. Dad sat with me on the couch and showed them to me. All interested women responding to his classified.

It is here where the damage began. He would shuffle through the letters; the ones with the photos were kept the others thrown away. Then the next tier of decision making began. I am sure he did read the letters as a stroke of his ego; however the next cut would be made by looks. “She’s pretty, we will keep her.” It went on and on. He started to date, and meet these women. Sometimes, if he liked them very much they would come and meet us.

A pattern soon emerged. Blondes. Tall blondes, that were thin. It was his preference. Mom had been blonde when they got together, bleached hair like straw, but blonde. In good shape from tennis.

I came along after a number of years. Dark, dark brunette hair, blue eyes that turned to hazel. Actually I have the coloring of my Dad. My Mom thought I was beautiful, she loved the contrast of my pale skin and dark hair, “My Snow White,” she said. Your Mom is supposed to tell you that you hung the moon, so I put it aside as just another reference point.

Dad’s years of chasing blondes wore on me to where I could not even look at blonde women without feeling inferior. Ugly. I had no blonde friends, as I instantly felt like the ugly stepsister of the group. I was also petite, so the vision of the tall blonde, blue eyed women was the polar opposite of what I was. And in his eyes that was beauty. No room for someone like me to be “Beautiful.” Continue Reading…

Binders, death, Guest Posts

Gone To Feed The Roses

May 31, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Katherine Vaz

The home I share with Christopher Cerf, on Gerard Drive in Springs, was not spared Hurricane Sandy.  We were residing in our main residence in New York City when the water rose over the spindly, mile-and-a-half long cape bounded by Gardiners Bay and Accabonac Harbor.  Police cars blocked the entrance to Gerard, we read in the Times.  It was not safe to enter.

Aerial views made the spit of land look like the Loch Ness Monster surfacing—humps of spine, the creature mostly submerged.  A friend reported that our yard and patio were ravaged, but our house was unharmed.  After a spell came the news that my eighty-seven-year-old father had collapsed in northern California.  A day later, for the first time, I entered my childhood home without him greeting me with a blessing and kiss.  Content with his history books, his painting and gardening, he was a homebody; I sensed the vacancy as a prelude to loss.  At Eden Hospital, he cried out my name when he saw me, the daughter from far away. Continue Reading…

cancer, Grief, Guest Posts

Scared

May 25, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Trish Cook

“Scared,” my dad croaks, pointing painstakingly at me, then my brother, then my mom.

It’s an understatement.

We’ve summoned his personal physician to our home today to hopefully deny, but probably confirm, our suspicions: The cancer has gone to his brain.

We hold our collective breath as the doctor asks my father, “Who is the President of the United States?”

An underwater, foggy pause. Finally, Dad replies, “Reagan.”

The three healthy people in the room exhale a sigh of relief. He got it right! This must count for something, we think. A small shred of hope still inhabits the homey little den we’re all crowded into. Our prayers, crossed fingers, and wishes on stars and eyelashes might yet magically release him from cancer’s insidious clutches.

My dad is only fifty-two on this day. I am twenty-four, though, so both he and the non-descript middle-aged male doctor seem something close to old to me. Not old old, sitting in a rocking chair waiting to die old, but old enough to have really lived, to have really made it count. I hold on to this thought, stroke it for comfort inside my head like a beloved baby blanket. Even if Dad doesn’t beat this thing in the end, at least he made it far enough to look back and know he lived a long and satisfying life.

Today, at fifty, this notion seems ridiculous. My father was not old then, just as I am not old now. Not nearly old enough to die willingly, anyway, or to feel as though everything that needed accomplishing had been accomplished. Continue Reading…