Browsing Tag

mothers and daughters

Guest Posts, parenting, parents

Driving With Mom

August 15, 2021
car

by Susan Cohen

The house is bathed in black. There are no lights to guide me.  I move slowly, step by step on the icy walkway covered with snow, clinging to the iron railing.  When I reach the landing, I stamp the snow off my boots and ring the doorbell.

I hear the quiet, gentle, familiar sound of the chimes echoing through the hall and then wait patiently for the lights to flip on and to hear the sounds of footsteps on the carpet.  But minutes later, the house is still dark.

The car is sitting in the driveway covered with a layer of snow, and I don’t see any fresh footprints along the walkway.  My mother never goes to bed before the 9:00 movie.  My heart beats faster, remembering how last winter she was anchored like in her chair, robotically bringing a cigarette to her lips, one after the other.

Reaching into the ceramic pot through a clump of gray snow, I feel the sharp edge of the key and then try to push the front door open with a firm shove. It resists opening as if it’s frozen shut, and I need to muster up all my strength until it finally gives in.  I wonder when the door was opened last.

“Anybody Home? Mom?”

The electric radiator is clicking away, struggling to heat the air through a film of dust. I fight the urge to sneeze.

I am beginning to regret my decision to hitchhike home to retrieve the backdrop for “Midsummer’s Night Dream.”  I came without warning because I didn’t want my mother to get excited, make a fuss, and start shopping and cooking, but I forgot after one year at college that she had a habit of folding inside herself during the cold dark days of winter.

I slide open the kitchen door, and I see my mother surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke.   She doesn’t jump up, shout my name in surprise and wrap me in her arms.  Instead, she is staring at the upper left-hand corner where the kitchen cabinet meets the ceiling.   Deep in concentration, her eyebrows meet in the middle of her forehead, and her eyelashes flutter as if she is dreaming sitting upright in her chair.

The plan was to take her to a restaurant for dinner and then borrow her car to drive to the summer cottage where the backdrop is stuffed in a trunk in her bedroom. But I can’t leave her this way.  I decide to take her with me. Perhaps the memories of sticky hazy afternoons dangling her feet into the lake from the dock will reignite and warm her spirit.

After I rinse and load dishes in the dishwasher and scrub away fried egg glued onto a frying pan, I sit opposite her at the kitchen table.  I push aside a burning cigarette that’s dangerously close to an open newspaper.

She startles when I gently touch her hand.

“You want to drive with me to the summer cottage?”

Her gaze moves down from the ceiling and but she doesn’t look at me. It’s more like she sees through me.

“It would be nice to get out of the house, don’t you think?”

I pat her hand gently. She nods, gets up from her chair, and slowly heads towards the coat closet.  This is a good sign.

I watch her quietly as she slips on the same ankle-length mink coat she has been wearing for over thirty years. Miraculously preserved, it’s still soft and shiny, and I feel an impulse to pet it, just like I did when I was a child.

Thrusting her hands into the deep pockets of her coat, she pulls out a red wool hat with a pom-pom and a brightly striped scarf that I wore when I was in junior high. If she was pushing a shopping cart, she could be mistaken for a homeless person. On a good day, I could tell her I am calling the fashion police, and she would laugh.

In the car, we sit on the icy cold seats and put on our seat belts. I crank the heater all the way up.  A chill from the night air seeps in as my Mom opens her window a small crack and lights up a cigarette.

She blinks as she exhales as if the smoke is stinging her eyes.  I am waiting for her to ask about my studies or ask if I am seeing someone.  As much as I long to hear her voice, I’m not in a mood to answer either question. All I hear is the purr of the fan.

Suddenly she giggles.  I don’t know why she’s laughing.  It’s silly to visit a summer home in the dead of winter, but I wouldn’t call it funny.  My grip grows stronger on the wheel until my knuckles turn white as I drive down the ramp and merge into the middle lane of the highway.

“Hope you’re in shape. We have to hike through the snow to our back door.”

She’s doesn’t turn to face me but keeps her gaze straight ahead at twelve o’clock.

“Have you been to the summer cottage in the winter before?”

I am afraid she has been hypnotized by watching the white lines fly by, one after the other, and is now even further away from me.  Perhaps I won’t be able to coax her out of the car, and I begin to fear we will be doomed to driving forever. I fiddle with the radio until I find a light rock station. Putting my hands firmly on the wheel, I keep the speed at a steady 65 miles per hour.

Then I hear Carole King’s voice.  I see myself, thirteen years old sitting on my twin bed looking at my poster of a fluffy white baby seal taped on my wall, and I begin to sing,

“It’s too late, baby, now it’s too late.”   

“What does this mean?”

She’s speaking!  Her voice is sweet and soft, like a bashful child.   But then I am confused, and I don’t know how to answer. There are several different possibilities.  She might want to know why we are driving to the summer cottage or maybe the significance of life itself.

“Are you asking what the song means?”

She nods her head up and down. Something as simple as being heard feels magical.  My shoulders soften.

“A woman fell out of love and wants to end her relationship.”

“Yes, but what does it mean?”

“I guess there comes a point in a relationship where you just can’t try anymore.”

Then my mother exhales smoke with a loud sigh.  She seems satisfied with my answer for now.

I want to ask her what “it’s too late” means to her.  But I am afraid her answer will bring memories that will force her back inside her shell.  I have memories of my own.  Like the night my father came home late after making full professor; purple balloons strung along the ceiling, a bottle of champagne sitting in a sea of melted ice, cheese dreams with a hard crust from turning cold.  At midnight my mother jumped, thinking she heard his footsteps on the landing was the sound of a tree branch blowing in the wind, rubbing against the windowpane.

A sign announces a familiar exit up ahead, and I panic because I can’t remember if I’m supposed to take it. I try to bring back the warmth from the hot sun beating on the roof, the sound of crickets through the open window to remember if this is the exit l took last summer. Meanwhile, the exit is coming closer.  I need to decide.

I feel a sharp tug on the steering wheel and the car veers sharply to the right.   Terrified, trying to regain control, I grab the wheel and pull to the left. The car begins to skid.  It spins into a circle and then falls gently against a snowbank with a muffled crunch.

I turn towards my mother, looking straight at me for the first time, and I let her have it.

“What were you thinking?  You could have killed us!  If you reach for the wheel again, I am going to put you in the back seat.  Do you want to sit there all by yourself?”

My mother is squished against the car door, looking small and helpless, but now she is looking me straight in the eye as she tries to defend herself, “The exit was coming closer, and you were listening to the radio and not paying attention..”

“Why can’t you speak to me instead of grabbing the wheel?  Why do you have to act crazy and scare the hell out of me like this?”

This is a familiar pattern.  The withdrawal, a blowup, and then the gentle trickle of confessions and regrets.  A slow slide to something that resembles normalcy where you say what you feel, and it’s possible to breathe love in and out.

We drive in silence for a few minutes.

“Sorry I yelled at you.  But you could have killed us.”

“Why are we going to the summer cottage, anyway?” Her voice is stronger, challenging me.  Only now she realizes how strange it is to go to a summer cottage in the dead of winter.

“I want to get the backdrop for our production of “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“Ah, yes, it’s stuffed in the antique trunk in my bedroom.”

I sigh and take a deep breath. Although the spell is broken, there are more challenges ahead. I haven’t thought this through.  The snow might be so deep or icy that it is impossible to hike to the back door.  I didn’t even think to bring a shovel.  The door could be frozen shut.  Even if I succeed in prying it open, it would still take a miracle to hop through all the lawn furniture stored in the hallway, find that trunk, pry it open, and drag out that backdrop.  Even if I can set it free and reclaim it, it might be stained by mildew or, even worse, became a nest for baby mice or squirrels.

As we approach the lake, there are fewer and fewer street lights, just an occasional spot of yellow between long dark corridors.  When we reach the road closest to our house, there is a windy ribbon of snow leading to our back door. The snow has a slight crust on it, like cake icing.

Before I can take the key out of the ignition, my mother opens the passenger door, and a blast of cold air comes into the car.

She places her right boot on the snow, and she manages to stand momentarily when suddenly the layer of ice beneath her foot gives way with a loud crunch.  With one foot six inches below the other, she begins to lose her balance but manages to steady herself with her two hands extended out on either side. Images flash in my head of her twisting her ankle, me trying to lift her back into the car, looking for an emergency room back home late at night.  But she’s filled with energy and isn’t discouraged in the least bit.

She laughs, “I ate too many cookies.  I am just an old fatty.”

“Mom, it’s not you. The mink coat weighs a ton.”

I walk around the car and have us swap coats so that she can wear my light down jacket to reduce her weight. As I slip on my mother’s mink coat, there is the faint smell of sweat mixed with a hint of Channel Number 5 that I give her every year for Christmas.

“I will hug you from behind to help you keep your balance. One, two, three march!”

We sink just a little bit. Thankfully the edges of the ice aren’t sharp.

I start chanting a song we sang together when we hiked through the woods in the summer years ago.

Left, left, I had a wife, but she left.  My wife left me with 36 children, and there is no gingerbread left.

Crunch, crunch, crunch,  our feet keep pace with the beat. The snowdrifts form a peak reaching up to the roof.

“Oh my Lord, where is the door? Mom, I need to set myself free so I clear the snow.”

I release my arms from around my mother’s waist to walk around her from the left.  At first, the ice supports my weight, but then after just a few seconds, my foot crashes through.  I grab onto my mother for support.  We stagger and fell to the ground giggling, making two small craters where we lay side by side, our backs on the snow, our eyes to the sky.  The snow isn’t wet but instead squishes under our bodies like a soft cushion.  There is a grounding feeling of being flush with the earth.

I look up to see a long band of stars packed so close together they form a swirl across the sky.  I feel like I am a child again at the Planetarium, seeing a black field filled with lights.  There is awe in seeing the width and breadth of forever.

“Mom, look at the arm of the Milky Way.  It’s beautiful.”

“Did you know that there is a whole generation of children that have never seen the big dipper?  New laws are forcing businesses to shut off their lights so people can see the night sky.”

Ah, here is the mother I love, quoting US News and World Report, a river of words traveling through topics all over the world and through time.  There is that opening of the chest, the spark to the brain, the rapid exchange of thoughts and ideas, insightful, thoughtful, and rational.

“Mom, we could talk all night.  But if we don’t move, we’ll freeze to death. How can I even find the door through all this snow?”

My mother chuckles and then laughs.

“No need.”

“Mom, why are you laughing? You’re scaring me with this laughter of yours.”

“The backdrop is back home in the attic.”

“What?”

“I brought it back last summer when we closed the cottage. I thought you might need it for college.”

“And you just remembered now?”

I reach over and place my gloved hands on my mother’s neck as if I want to strangle her. We wrestle in the snow like we are two little kids.

We follow our footsteps back to the car.  This time separately, my mother leads, and I walk behind her, putting my feet in the same impressions in the snow.  After we settle in the car and fire up the heat, I hear about my cousin’s wedding and my uncle’s retirement.  After half an hour, she snores lightly.

I open the door to my home that this time surrenders to my touch easily, tuck in my mother, and place a kiss on her cheek.

Lying on my childhood bed staring at the wallpaper with vines running up and down the walls, I think about the patterns of my shared life with my mother;   the laughter, silence, withdrawal, absence, hospitalizations, medications, and her homecoming to start the cycle again. There are no facts but only theories about what triggers her slow disappearance; a bad gene, chemical imbalance, poor nutrition, failed marriage, empty nest, boredom, loneliness.  Perhaps it’s all of these things, or maybe it’s something simpler. Her spirit is searching for the calm that comes from having a witness, a caring soul to exchange her thoughts and feelings, the positive energy that comes from breathing love in and out.

Susan Cohen has had her work appear in Cyclamens and Swords, All Things Girl, Adanna Literary Review, Six Hens, and Chaleur Magazine and has been shortlisted twice for Glimmer Train short story awards. She is also the co-founder of a PR firm located North of Tel Aviv.

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Leigh Stein is amazing, no really she is. Leigh was cofounder and executive director of Out of the Binders/BinderCon, a feminist literary nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women and gender variant writers. The Land of Enchantment was our first introduction to Leigh, and her memoir of a broken love and lost dreams placed this writer firmly on our radar. Leigh’s recent novel, Self Care, received rave (and starred) reviews and is a highbrow yet satirical look at influencer culture. This month, though, she released a book of poetry  that is everything. What to Miss When: Poems is a look at the internet, the pandemic, and the life lived in between. Leigh is an amazing talent, pick up one of her books and let us know what you think!

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Guest Posts, pandemic, Relationships

Building Mom A Bridge: How To Cross Over Seas and Pandemics

August 12, 2021
mom

by Amy Challenger

Connecting has never been easy, my overweight rescue coonhound reminds me with his fervent stare. He once refused eye contact when I found him at a dusty Northern California farm nine years ago running in circles as if entirely disconnected from other beings. This disconnected feeling has become one most of us have suffered with this year. We’ve had to find a way out of our own little heads, seeking a thread to others in strange ways — squishing eyes over masks, staring through screens, and waving at mouthless friends in parking lots or at bonfires. I found a way to build a bridge to my sick mom and other women this year, all the way over the Atlantic, in a way I wouldn’t have imagined without the pandemic..

In March 2020 after lockdowns began in Switzerland, where I live with my husband and children— my asthmatic then 78-year-old mother coughed heavily on her couch in South Carolina. She struggled to breathe on Facetime causing even her fox terrier Harry to point his long nose to the side. I was petrified. I’d just returned from Northern Italy where crowds of masked passengers packed my train, and truckloads of dead bodies appeared on my Ipad screen. To me, the pandemic was no distant myth like it still was for many of my American friends. So when my mom hacked, I said, “Get tested.’’ Naturally, she brushed me off. I’m the family worrier, afterall, and people were still spreading the ridiculous myth that only those who’d traveled to China could have COVD-19. A week later, her symptoms had made her so weak she could hardly walk. So she finally got to the doctor who diagnosed her with pneumonia. And due to a lack of access to COVID test kits, she still didn’t know if she had the virus.

At that point, my mom and I started connecting daily face-to-face, online. I felt helpless watching her suffer in her floral patterned bed. She listened to me jabber about home learning challenges and the risks of spreading COVID. My father who suffers from Alzheimer’s roamed nearby, peeking at the screen.  Thankfully my mother’s friend made arrangements to stay with her, and my nearby sisters visited regularly, but I wanted to do something too. Even if I could afford to fly to the US, leaving my husband working from home with my three kids home-learning— travel was unwise especially with my flaring autoimmune condition.

So aside from sending my mom pizza dinners, Amazon gifts, and Facetiming regularly, I needed a more meaningful way to reach her. What about writing together? I thought. My mom and I are both painters and writers. And years before, she’d attended one of my creative writing workshops originally designed to connect women in crisis through writing. I’d been trained to lead these sessions by the New York Writers’ Coalition in Connecticut to serve struggling moms of neurodivergent kids. After my mom visited a workshop, she’d said she loved the method inspired by Pat Schneider, a poet who created a format for all levels of writers to gather and seek what Pat called “the original voice.’’

So one morning my dogs and I had an idea as my mom flopped like a five foot pale doll in her dimly lit Carolina bedroom with Harry perched nearby, his eyes pooling with worry. She’d just become breathless trying to fix breakfast.

“I might start an online writing workshop— to supplement my normal Zürich workshops,’’ I remember saying.… “Would you want to join if I do it?” I kept my tone casual. She might think my suggestion idiotic.

“I’d love it.” Her voice quivered. “You don’t know how much I could use that.” I think my mom needed more than connection. She needed a way to use her creative muscles to heal and find hope. The pen, if filled with the stuff of her powerful mind, could help with that.

And so we started meeting weekly online with a small group of women. My mom woke early, dialing in, along with several writers from Switzerland and some from the US. We gathered from bedrooms, Swiss lakes, and offices to write about feeling stuck, about growing, about finding wellness through dialogue we created in separate rooms, but together.  In these two-and-a-half-hour sessions, we greeted each other, then penned responses to my visual or verbal prompts. We scribbled our bottled up stories into our notepads, and then we shared verses that continued on, for that small moment, into the spaces of others. These connections bound us. Each week we became closer, and I felt more like I was really touching my mom.

“What’s strong?” I asked after a woman read her work. It was a question I’d learned from my former teacher Valerie Anne Leff a fiction writer whose voice I still hear if I try. She taught me to treat everyone’s original words like a newborn. I attended her workshops for several years during a crisis with my atypical boy. This question, what’s strong, was one I needed to repeat even in the midst of my child and family’s pain— to find meaning.  It was also a question I had to ask this year. To my children, my mother, my husband, and workshop attendees, I had to inquire, what’s strong in your words, your work— in you and in others? I needed to identify my power, as I fumbled through my own identity in a pandemic.  When I felt insufficient, I had to dig for strength. This habit was the bridge to my mom then to all the other women who wrote with me, virtually.  Through asking for strength in workshop sessions, I touched the space between my mother’s world that flowed into mine. Her tales of waking as a child in her victorian home in Big Rapids, Michigan; her views on mothering three girls; savoring shades of fern; meeting my naval officer dad— these powerful narratives brought her to me physically.

As she shared, our stories transcended internet boxes, oceans, and expectations. Common threads emerged in verses that had little to do with the prompt, yet pieced our strange pet stories, our favorite flowers, our lonely walks together. My mother wrote poems that slipped under my skin. Her narratives incorporated the feel of a forgotten Christmas ornament, the voice of my grandmother calling her home, the pine scent of my grandfather’s cabin beside a river. My mom waded for her strength like she was in the river fly-fishing with her father, and I saw her emerge healthy while reading her own mind. Eventually, after weeks of workshops, she dialed in from the couch— rosy-cheeked like the mother I longed for, even if still on a screen beside Harry’s twittering tail.

Almost a year later, my mom and I still write online with many of the same women. She and my dad have been vaccinated and are bearing well, all things considered. My cats’ and dogs have become so attached to me, after a year mostly indoors, that sometimes I think I’m a pet too. Though we’ve got scars, we’re closer and stronger than we knew. We’ve survived a pandemic, afterall.

This summer my husband, three kids, and I plan to finally visit my parents. When I’m physically there, I’ll feel their hands and arms embrace me in a way I wouldn’t without our separation and our storytelling over the sea. But in the meantime, I’ll celebrate the power of all the unpublished parts of each of us. In these narratives, if we listen, we’ll find ties that bind us together, even over seas and pandemics— and maybe forever.

Amy Challenger is a contributor at The Washington Post, Newsweek, Huffington Post, International Living, Poets Reading the News, and elsewhere. She completing a novel about an atypical boy and his mom trying to grow and find truth in a work that wants everyone typical. Amy can be followed online at amyaveschallenger.com.

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Margaret Attwood swooned over The Child Finder and The Butterfly Girl, but Enchanted is the novel that we keep going back to. The world of Enchanted is magical, mysterious, and perilous. The place itself is an old stone prison and the 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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death, Grief, Guest Posts

Breathwork

December 1, 2019
breathe breath

By Nicole Cooley

Now I say mom and I float to the ceiling.

Meaning “ability to breathe,” hence “life” is from c. 1300. Meaning “a single act of breathing” is from late 15c.; sense of “the duration of a breath, a moment, a short time” is from early 13c. Meaning “a breeze, a movement of free air” is from late 14c.

Five months ago in New Orleans my mother stopped breathing.

Now at yoga class in the final pose—savansana— pose I struggle with most because I must sink into stillness– I know it’s wrong but I imagine a lit cigarette between my fingers.

My mother was the first person to teach me to leave my body. She taught me well and carefully and with gifts. In high school, she bought me cigarettes so I would not eat, left cartons each week on my bed.

Breath: Old English bræð “odor, scent, stink, exhalation, vapor” Old English word for “air exhaled from the lungs,”

Now I mourn my mother through breath. Each morning I lie on a mat in a hot room and squeeze my eyes shut and breathe her in. Or breathe her out. Yes, breath is supposed to anchor me in my body but I use it to exit my body, just as my mother taught me. I rise to the celling of the yoga room, alone and untethered.

I lie on the levee in the dirt and gravel. I lie on the sticky mat miles away from the house where she died.

Drown smoke suffocate. What is the difference?

I close my eyes and in my dream my mother is drowning in the river two blocks from her house.

In the dream I shake my mother awake. I ask her, with frustration, if she will go on being dead.

I only practice hot yoga, infrared heat that spills from vents and warms the floor. I love the punishing heat. And the intense heat echoes a New Orleans levee walk, all stifling humidity. I lower my body into plank, crush my breasts to the ground. Think of my mother’s body,

Breath from Proto-Germanic *bræthaz “smell, exhalation” (source also of Old High German bradam, German Brodem “breath, steam).

As a teenager, I’d come home from school to find a carton of Benson and Hedges on my white bedspread. My mother saran-wrapped and labeled all my food with calorie counts. 25. 50. 75. I stood in the refrigerator’s wedge of light and counted. I unwrapped a pack of cigarettes. It will keep you from being hungry, my mother explained. Celery. Grapefruit. Diet bread thin as dress fabric. A silver lighter she pressed into my hands.

Breath: an act of breathing: fought to the last breath

Yoga reminds me of the geometry of the body, the shape the body makes—So then what shape did my mother’s body make on the living room floor? What shape was her mouth when my father pressed his mouth to hers to perform useless CPR? What shape was she under the sheet on the stretcher at the Veterans Highway Funeral Home– who knew a funeral home has a stretcher but if you don’t pay for a coffin you get that? — when she looked so small and thin and what shape was she—altered?—when my sister and my father and I ran back to her to kiss her for a final time?

Drown suffocate smoke.

The irony is that after my mother dies, in the days after, in New Orleans, we eat. My father, my sister and me. And we eat very good food. Friends bring platters and trays and Tupperware, and it is delicious. The kind of meals I would not normally allow myself. The kind of food my mother would have forbidden me. Red beans and rice and sausage. Baked ziti. Cheesecake. Doughnuts. A half-bottle of wine.

Now at yoga class I fill my lungs with imaginary smoke. I imagine I flick a cigarette lighter over and over on and off till my thumb scrapes with ache.

Breath: opportunity or time to breathe; respite. Also, a slight breeze

I’m lying on the mat. I am under the heat vent. I am under the spell of yoga. Or I am just under— as grief’s water closes over my head.

My teenage daughters think the stories about my mother telling me to smoke are very strange. This was the eighties—a different time, I say.

Three days after she is dead, my sister and I clean out my mother’s closet and find 72 cartons of Salem 100s hidden – in boxes labeled “Taxes 2003” and “Family Medical 2010.” And yet my mother often told me, when we were alone: “I’ll never stop smoking.” Then why did she hide her cigarettes like contraband?

Breath—

Mother’s Day yoga is — as I know it would be — the worst. Why did I go? The teacher suggests we dedicate our practice to “your mother or a mother figure in your life” and I feel tears leaking out the sides of my eyes. Later she returns to it: “Think of the mother or mother figure and focus on a happy memory.” I want to ban this language. I want to run from the room. So instead I still just work hard as I can to no imagine it: the crematorium, my mother’s body on a shelf, flames, body who once housed my body, turning to nothing.

For so long I longed for another body—is this my mother’s fault? What could I tell you about my relationship to my body and my mother? What could she tell me now?

A different time, I tell my daughters.

Missing my mother is pain that though it can’t possibly be feels bone deep. My wrists are splintering. My hips lock shut. My jawbone burns.

My mother’s legacy: how I don’t want my daughters to long for another body.

After my mother dies, predictably, all I want is to smoke. Though I have not had a cigarette in more than twenty years. In my mother’s room, I suck on one of her old cigarette butts in the ashtray, set my mouth where hers imprinted, while my sister watches, alarmed.

I want to ban this language.

Putting my mouth where her mouth once was—

Do you want to go in and say goodbye to her feel free to take all the time you need to say goodbye to her—

What could my mother tell me now?

What can I tell my daughters?

Once, I remember my mother taking a photograph of me after a bad break up when I stopped eating, a photo at the edge of a pool while I posed in a blue striped bikini. As my sister and I finish cleaning out our mother’s study, I think about this bikini photo, and my sister and I toss the cigarette cartons in the trash, aware of the waste of money yet not wanting others to have them.

Breath: a spoken sound: utterance. Also, spirit, animation.

Nicole Cooly is the author of six books of poems, most recently Of Marriage (Alice James Books 2018) and Girl after Girl after Girl (Louisiana State University Press 2017). Her essays have appeared in The Paris Review Daily, The Atlantic, Feminist Wire and the Rumpus.

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Family, Guest Posts

Family Table

October 13, 2019
table

By Kat Read

This was my family table: I’d open the glove compartment and peel a small stack of paper napkins off the pile wedged inside. I’d layer them over one another on the open door and then reach into the paper bag, extract the packets of ketchup, usually three or four. I’d squeeze the foil packets onto the napkins, scraping down from the outside with my fingers pressed together. I’d jostle the fries loose onto the tray. Then I’d take the salt shaker that we kept in the glove compartment and sprinkle more salt onto the fries – we really like salt, my mom and I – and I’d hand her a fry, crisp and kissed with ketchup.

My dad did most of the cooking in our house when I was little, but he died suddenly when I was fourteen. My mom has never liked to cook. “Cooking was never an interest of mine,” she’ll say to me now, but I know that’s not the whole story. After he died, it felt ridiculous to sit and eat an elaborate dinner at our big empty dining room table, like we were performing in a play that no one was watching. Here we are, sitting down to dinner, bravely carrying on. My mom was exhausted. She worked full time, took care of me, took care of our house, all while trying to figure out how to live the rest of her life without her husband. Cooking dinner was just not a priority. I covered the table with my schoolwork and we mostly ate prepared foods and fast food.

We drove an hour and a half together in the car each day, and we’d spend the time talking about my classes, her work, our friendships. We made jokes and we listened to music and sometimes we’d stop for fries. We had our dose of family togetherness in the car, so most nights when we got home, we’d retreat to separate corners of the house. My mom would eat a frozen dinner in the kitchen and I’d sit alone in front of the tiny TV in the living room. Sometimes, I’d make myself a paper plate of nachos: a pile of Tostitos chips and pre-grated cheese melted in the microwave, the whole thing sprinkled liberally with Kosher salt that we kept in a little Pyrex bowl next to the stove. I’d peel the chips off one by one and sink into a crunchy fatty salty bliss. When I was done, I’d head into the kitchen, say hi to my mom, and wipe the plate down with a paper towel before sliding it back into its spot above the microwave. Even now, I love to make a huge plate of nachos and devour them all by myself, luxuriating in solitude.

Is that sad? I don’t know. Sometimes I think it must be, especially when I hear other people talk about their food memories from growing up. We didn’t have shelves of sauce-spattered cookbooks. I didn’t learn to cook from my mom. We didn’t sit down together at seven o’clock sharp every night for a family meal.

And yet: sometimes, we would stop at Whole Foods on the way home from school. She’d helm the cart while I skittered around the store looking at the cheeses and the fruits and the sushi. We always ended up buying the same stuff: a baguette, a slab of good butter, a jug of grapefruit juice, and two cannoli with little chocolate chips studding the ends. We’d eat the cannoli before we left the parking lot.

When we got home, we’d pour two huge glasses of juice and sit on the couch. We’d tear off chunks of bread with our hands and punch the cold butter into the crevices with the tip of a knife. We’d sit beside each other and giggle and chat and watch other people cook on America’s Test Kitchen.

I still crave the pairing sometimes, the fattiness of the butter and the acidity of the juice. It is strange and unexpected, like the life we had to make together after my dad died. But we made it work, sitting side by side, facing forward.

Kat Read is a writer in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator program, an intensive writing course based in Boston, MA. She recently published an essay on the intersection of therapy and writing on the Brevity Blog and an essay in Coastin’, a weekly arts magazine. Kat works as a fundraiser at GrubStreet and lives with her husband and their dog in Cambridge, MA.

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Guest Posts, Holidays

The Christmas Tree That Saved My Parents’ Marriage

November 30, 2018
tree

By Julienne Grey

Right before my mother died, she wanted to give me a gift. “I want to give you something,” she’d said. “Anything you want. Something special. What would you like?”

Surrounded by family photos and irises and loving cards from the years, in the room she’d chosen to die in, I wasn’t thinking of gifts. That week she’d been dipping in and out of consciousness. She’d glimpse a photo from her Mykonos honeymoon and say, under the influence of morphine, “It’s beautiful being here on this island.” I’d smile back and say, “Yes, it is.”

What did I want? I wanted my mom alive, alert, awake. But that wasn’t something she could give for much longer. And I didn’t want to make her sad. So instead I said, “Can I have a puppy?” Imagining a sweet little bichon or a shih tzu was the only thrill I could imagine in that room. But when I looked up, my mom had already fallen asleep. Continue Reading…

#metoo, Guest Posts, motherhood

Learning to Say No: #MeToo and Mothering

September 3, 2018
learning

CW: This post addresses unwanted sexual advances and may contain explicit language.

By Lilly Bright

“Mommy, I love this beautiful person staring back at me from the mirror!” my five-year-old daughter exclaims from the bathroom where she stands facing the sink. Inwardly I rejoice, then wonder how many of us women think that on a daily basis, or ever? An honest exclamation, wild joy for the person staring back at us in the mirror?

For the past year, I’ve been contemplating how to make a meaningful contribution to the #MeToo movement, a personal experience that could illuminate, an allegory, some teachable moment. Then last week, walking the streets of Santa Monica, an uncomfortable memory surfaced. One of those that never actually left but that also wasn’t a regular visitor. But there it was- Proustian in the way it overwhelmed my senses and severe in the way it challenged held notions of categorization. The event isn’t murky yet it’s felt this way whenever I’ve attempted to package it. For years I diminished what happened because I didn’t say “no” and the harassment didn’t strike me as apparent. But the truth is, a line was crossed, a red zone rife with sexual power-play and coercion. And it went like this: Continue Reading…

Family, Guest Posts

What Reminds Us of Our Mothers

July 30, 2018
mothers

By Amie Newman

What reminds us of our mothers? What do we see, smell, think, hear that tilts us towards knowing? As adults we barely recall – or want to recall. For me, it’s Patti Smith. Her beautiful plain-ness strikes me like the dark murky mix of my mother’s turmoiled young adulthood. Young parenthood between two worlds. Poetic in its sadness. In its realness. Poetic in its young destructiveness.

Yet not without a maternal expression of love. Not without the desire to love, to be present. To be a poet. For my mother, as a young woman, through song. For Patti through song. To express the unexpressed yet deeply felt.

My mother searched for release in a man. In many men. The only place she thought she could find it. The only place her world allowed her to search.

Patti pushed through. Patti found herself and immersed herself afraid and real. Dipped full-bodied into the beauty of truth and pain and brilliance. Patti Smith is strong and smart and deep like my mother.

My mother is not her true self. Or maybe she is more of herself. But she doesn’t know who she is as she did not know decades ago as she did not know years ago as she’s never known. She’s lost herself to a society that told her she was not good enough, human enough, really, man enough — to be worthy.

What reminds me of my mother? The smell of cigarettes in bed, long fingernails and wet cheeks. Depression and laughter. Books and a tamped passion never fulfilled. What reminds me of my mother? Me, in my untamed emotion. Me, in my battles with my body. Me, in my love of people. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

The Last Hurrah

May 7, 2018
moms

By Amy Connor

I was about 8 years old when I realized my mom wasn’t quite like all the other moms. Most other moms didn’t speak of their wish to commit suicide to their kids. Most other moms didn’t threaten to drive the car off the bridge on the way home from school when they’d had a bad day. Most other moms didn’t spend a week in bed with the curtains drawn.

My mother suffered from severe clinical depression that left her consumed by emotional anguish. She felt that life had dealt her a raw deal (and maybe it had) and she expressed her resentment of her circumstances by lashing out. When my mother felt wronged in some way, which was regularly, no one and nothing was off limits. Her objective was to hurt her target by whatever means necessary, all the while convinced that she was the true victim. This often resulted in unwanted drama at otherwise joyous family events (graduations! weddings! births!) and the innocent, notably my sister and me, were collateral damage. Making other people feel bad when she was in such pain leveled the playing field and made her feel better. Quite simply, confrontation gave her a buzz. It was her comfort zone and an area where she excelled.

My mother’s verbal outbursts were only slightly upstaged by her love of angry letter writing. When she felt she had received poor customer service, she would sit down and dash off a letter with the hopes of getting someone fired. Her angry letters were a source of humor for me and my teenage friends and would always begin by proclaiming that “[Insert company name here] is the loser!” in bold type. She’d insist that we proof multiple letter drafts and only when she was satisfied that the missive would present the maximum level of discomfort for the recipient would it be mailed. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, love, Mental Health, sisters

Piece

July 28, 2017
beaten

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.

Note: most names have been changed.

By Noreen Austin

Gere’ December 1993

My sister Gere’(Jer-ray) has been missing from her North Hollywood, California group home for several days. Raoul, her counselor, a stocky man, coiled with a black belt in martial arts, has the skills to survive in this socioeconomic oppressed part of town. He cares for the mentally disabled. His home is a place of refuge in hopelessness. But he can’t keep Gere’ safe after all, and he files a missing person’s report with Los Angeles County.

My father calls me in my Northern California home from his apartment in Southern California and explains, “She was badly beaten.” The police had interviewed Gere’. They told Raoul they had never seen anyone so severely beaten and still able to walk.

“She wasn’t taken to the hospital?” I ask.

“She bolted before the ambulance got there.” My father says.

Gere’ is 29-years old, has Tuberous Sclerosis, a gene mutation that causes tiny benign tuber-like tumors to grow onto the ends of the synapses in her brain. Autism, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, anger and defiance behavioral problems, ash-leaf shaped skin pigmentations, and seizures are a few of the symptoms of this condition. Some people with TS don’t have seizures. But Gere’s started when she was eighteen months. Each seizure causes brain lesions, which contributes to her cognitive decline. It’s easy for me to understand her confusion. The police are there to arrest bad people. The police are talking to her. It’s when the police leave the room to get some information from Raoul that Gere’ runs. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

The Chair

June 11, 2017
chair

By Kirsten Larson

Three days before my mother started to talk to angels, the hospice nurse suggested I get her a recliner. Over the phone, the hospice nurse explained to me that my mother could no longer both lie down and breathe.

That day, instead of eating lunch, I went to The Chair Store, with its unironic name. The sign read “We have over 100,000 chairs in stock.” A store like that would normally repel me.

Inside, a skinny young salesman who wore a thin, short-sleeved, button-down shirt and a sideways smile walked toward me like we had all the time in the world. I waited by the entrance and tried to take in a breath past my throat.

When he got to me he reached his hand out, looked at me, and then pulled it back. “Welcome to The Chair Store. I’m here to help you find what you are looking…”

“I know what I’m looking for,” I said.

I wanted a nice chair for my mom, a chair she would like—a chair that matched the old lady furniture she had left, a blue couch that she loved, and her antique dark wooden side tables. I wanted a chair she could get up and out of easily for when her friends came to visit—something quality, because she deserved every fucking break she could get. That’s what I wanted to say to the salesman, but stress and illness and grief had a way of pounding the nice out of me.

“I’m looking for is a chair for my mother to die in. A recliner. Which way?” I pointed my hand left, then right. The sales clerk’s arms fell to his sides, his mouth dropped open to an O. I felt better.

In the recliner section I sat hard on each chair and kicked the legs out, one after another, until I found the right one. The salesman stayed quiet. Maybe they had over 100,000 chairs in stock, but they had only one that was both soft enough to prevent bedsores on her thin skin and easy enough to get in and out of. And it was ugly—an overstuffed, maroon, synthetic cloth recliner chair that I knew she’d hate. I hated it myself.

I told the salesman that I needed it delivered that day, no matter the cost. I told him if he couldn’t do it, I would send one of my own employees to pick it up. I handed him my credit card and took a call on my cell phone about a work issue while he rang up the purchase. That’s the kind of person I had become.

Usually, I spent the lunch hour with my mom. That day I had called her and explained that I wouldn’t visit until after work because I was going shopping at lunch to “get her a nice chair.” I told her I thought she would like it. I hated myself for saying “nice chair.” I spoke to her like I was talking with a child. She was sixty-five.

To be honest, I was really trying to manipulate her into showing appreciation for the new chair, which I was buying so she could die as comfortably as possible. We never talked openly about her dying. We barely spoke an honest word to each other about her impending death for the entire two years of her illness. We talked around it using our age-old trope, the to-do list.

I loved a to-do list. It made me feel like I was in control, like I could make a difference in the outcome of her illness by being busy. But everything I did for my mother back then took something away from her. The recliner chair was no exception.

While I dealt with getting rid of property, moving her to Oregon, creditors, doctors, prescriptions, medical appointments, medical emergencies, hospice, cremation arrangements, and the like, she continued to act like she would live forever. I let her, something that made me feel more alone than I thought possible.

Over the phone I heard her breathing like an electric teakettle always on boil, “Do you think you could call Dr. Cain and find out if she could put me on that first chemo drug, the one that worked so well?” I heard her roiling breath while I thought up a lie. The familiar churning of pity, anxiety, fear, and sadness made my stomach clench and my fingertips tingle.

“I can do that mom, sure.” But she’d been past any treatment for months.

I was such a fraud.

I didn’t know at the time, but the chair was the last thing I would cross off my to-do list. The only other thing left was to write the obituary. She’d asked me to help with the obituary, but then she started holding conversations, lively and pleasant, with invisible people. “Angels,” the too pleasant hospice worker said. I was angry. Angry that my mother, after all I’d done for her, a woman who’d pouted and argued when she talked with me, was talking so reasonably to “angels.” I was angry that the demented hospice nurse dismissed one of the most profound and disturbing things I’d ever seen with that one word—angels.

+++

The next morning, when the chair arrived, my mother barely registered it. She turned her bald head, her sadder-than-sad face, toward the window.

But she used it.

A day or so later my mother only got out of the chair to take a wheelchair to the bathroom. She worked all of the controls easily and napped often. I felt good about the chair purchase then, despite its appearance.

She spent the last ten days of her life in that chair while I sat across from her on the blue sofa.

On one of those days we had a difficult conversation. She flicked the oxygen tube in front of her with her once elegant hands, then swollen like baseball gloves. “I have something I want to say,” she said.

“What?” I sounded five years old.

“You have become a cold, hard person,” she said. It was true, but it hurt. Stoicism was always my defense against overwhelming emotion. What I really wanted was my mother’s comfort, not her judgment, but I couldn’t ask for it.

My mother, too, was asking me for something, in her familiar roundabout way.

I struggled against the tight pain that clenched my chest. She was the one who had taught me about the uselessness of self-pity. The warm protection of my anger held back the sorrow that I could not bear.

I looked down at my own hands, still young and unlined. “Well, who is the one taking care of you?” I asked.

My hands looked like her hands, strong, but with slender finders. Her hands rested on her swollen abdomen, just five feet from me. The hands that had cleaned and fed me, slapped me, loved me, hands that held cigarettes and too many glasses of scotch. Hands that had cradled her grandson, still slick out of my body. Hands that, for the last two years, had appreciatively dug into what I cooked, helped clean my home while I worked, held tissues to her nose when we argued.

Well, I wanted more arguments. Some perceived or real slights. I wanted it back, that daily shit that falls away when someone is actively dying and all of the love is left out in the open without the protection of irritation. Painful love. Love that was too much for me to have and too much to lose.

For the two years I cared for her, she also cared for me; she took my side on every argument between me and my husband or my son, listened with interest to anything I wanted to talk about, called me several times a day, “Hi honey, it’s Mom.”

If I could write her a perfect ending, she would have had a different daughter, an angel. Someone endlessly patient to deal with her bullshit, someone cheerful, someone who drank less. A daughter who wasn’t rude to chair salesmen and hospice workers. Someone who didn’t flip off slow drivers. Not someone like me. Me, who called the hospice chaplain and asked him to help my mom find peace—I even tried to find someone to fix my mother’s spiritual peace of mind.

If I could rewrite the ending, I would have made her scream and hit and cry. But she sat still in that ugly chair, and I sat on her blue sofa, both in our tense silence, terrified of what sat between us, unspoken, the enormity of the loss.

+++

Even if it were possible to rewrite the ending, there was one thing that happened that I wouldn’t change. Two days before she died, right after the angels came, after we wrote her obituary, she was in the chair, fingernails like chips of bark, pole pine sticks for legs.

Her face was turned away from me, the soft curve of her cheek, my first, hard love. My stomach was in a barber pole twist, my heart a discordant bass drum. There was nothing left but to wait for her to die. Anguish pushed up through my chest.

Her face turned to me and I saw pain. The liquid morphine was beside her, but I didn’t move for it just then because I saw her chin relax into a small smile, her head fell slightly and her eyes went soft on me. Like my own eyes soften on my son, the wonder and beauty of him. My son whom I love more than I thought it possible to love.

I saw that she loved me like that. I didn’t look away.

I slid down to my knees, put both palms in front of me and crawled over to my mother in the chair I bought for her to die in.

I laid my head in her lap. Under my head her body was still and firm. The same lap it had been when I was a child and had trouble sleeping or had an earache. The place where I learned to love stories and songs, my oldest sacred space.

I laid my head in her lap, cried from somewhere down in the animal of me, up through my screwed up face. “I love you so much, Mom. I’m so sorry this happened to you. I’m just so fucking sorry I can’t help you, this is so unfair,” I yelled, choked on snot and coughed hard between words, words that had cost me so much to hold in. My body was cold to the core with fear and wonder.

“I am going to miss you so much.” My knees shook on the stiff carpet, my chest pressed against the soft arm of the chair. I said these things over and over. Her body, my confessional.

Her hand, falling leaf delicate, quieted my head to her stomach. My mom, soft and slow, touched my head, ran her hands down to the ends of my hair. I let my dying mother comfort me. That time I didn’t pull away first. I knelt like that, into the side of the chair, until my knees stopped hurting and went numb, until her cotton skirt had soaked up my tears and dried.

“I feel like I’ve been a good mother these last two years,” was all she said.

I didn’t pay much attention to those words at the time, but years later when, on an ordinary day, they popped into my head, I understood what she meant. When I took care of her those last two years, I let her into my life. I just let her be my mother. It was the best thing I’d done.

+++

Three in the morning on the day she died, my mother lay in the chair breathing what they call the death rattle. It was just us in the room. I slipped dose after dose of liquid morphine and Ativan under her wooden tongue until her hand stop struggling in mine, and her breathing slowed way down. I told her over and over how much I loved her, soft and calm.

Soon my family arrived along with some of the hospice people I’d pissed off over the last months. We surrounded her in her chair.

My brother sat on one side and I sat on the other. My knees were pressed into the chair’s soft side. We were holding her hands when, comfortable in the chair I bought for her, she died.

For a few hours afterwards we stayed in the room with her still sitting in the chair. Eventually I called the crematorium. They came with a stretcher and, using care, moved her body from the chair onto a stretcher.

One of them remarked that she wore an adult diaper to protect the chair. We may not have talked about her dying, but she planned far enough to preserve the resale value of the chair, something in line with her practical, Midwestern values.

When she died, we divided her belongings as she’d instructed, but no one wanted the chair.  I could not bring myself to bring it into our home, instead put it in the garage where I’d look at it only when I went to and from work. The loss of my mother, while expected, was so very shocking that all I had of her was the absence of her. The chair seemed to have the outline of her body in it.

Sometime later, when I was ready, I put an ad in Craigslist. The chair sold that day.

Kirsten Larson lives in Portland, Oregon. She earned an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. Links to her published essays and stories can be found at kellenlarson.com.

 

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Grief, Guest Posts

I Didn’t Want to Exist Today

May 14, 2017
chest

By Sarah Dwyer

I didn’t want to exist today. It’s not that I wanted to hurt myself or remove myself from the Earth forever. I just didn’t want to exist—just for today.

I got up to get ready for work, took a shower, and forced myself to blow dry my hair while tears dripped down my red, blotchy, scrunched up face and tightness pulled across my chest. I had this infuriating desire to do a handstand into a somersault—or to burst every inch of bone, muscle, and organ out of my skin. I didn’t just want my insides to escape my body, I wanted to be the one to initiate the explosion, to be in control of the process–to  push the button. 3, 2, 1…be free.

At that moment, I was (and I still am) physically incapable of both doing a handstand into a somersault and exploding, so, naked and sobbing, I climbed back into my bed, pulled my tangled sheets up to cover myself haphazardly, and lay there on my back with the sun shining brightly through the shade and curtain in my window. Continue Reading…

Abuse, Guest Posts

Blame

May 12, 2017
blame

By Jill Goldberg

The morning sun was streaming in through the big window, bright and nearly blinding. We were both sitting at the kitchen table; she was putting on her makeup, and I sat across from her, watching. My older brother was already at school, and my half-day school didn’t start until the afternoon, so it was just the two of us, together. She always put on her makeup, every day, at the kitchen table. She never, ever went a day without makeup. Her light-up makeup mirror was round and big and double sided, and her makeup, a mix of brands, was kept in a plastic food storage bag. As a wide-eyed five year old, I loved watching my mother’s daily makeup application.

Usually we would talk about plans for the day or something similar, but this time she wasn’t saying anything to me. I was talking to her about the doll I was holding, but she wasn’t responding. Something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. Her face looked different to me, but I didn’t really know what exactly was different. It was puffy somehow. Then I realized that she wasn’t actually putting on her makeup, she was holding an ice pack on her face and she was crying. Continue Reading…