Browsing Tag

mothers

Guest Posts, Trauma

Toodie

May 29, 2022

My father’s mistress was dying of vaginal cancer and my mother went to see her.  I can imagine how disarming Mom was when she entered the hospital room of her rival.  I’m sure she stopped to check her make-up under the harsh fluorescent lights of the hallway, and dabbed Ooh La Pink lipstick over a smile she’d rehearsed in the car’s rear-view mirror. She would have pulled up her girdle and sucked in her stomach before entering the sterile room with a vase of American Beauty roses from our garden.

Mom would have posed the bouquet on a table with the largest blooms facing the bed and paused to admire the flowers. With the same gentle hands she would have touched the shoulder of her rival’s once voluptuous body, now flaccid, rank and shrouded in blankets the color of her parchment skin. My mother probably held Liz in her arms while she cried and begged forgiveness.

The story goes that Liz said God was punishing her for the way she had lived her life,  and Mom said she knew Liz never meant to hurt anyone and only wanted a little happiness for herself, and God wanted us to be happy, and fun and laughter were gifts from God.

They’d shared the body of a man who could not love them, like all the men they’d known who told them what to do, who to be, and never saw who they were. To Dad, they were just “Broads makin’ a comeback.” Defeated by the prize-fighter who had to win each round, the mistress and the wife, the floozy and the saint, probably rolled their eyes and laughed at their lousy taste in men.

I know my mother thanked the mistress for making my father happy and giving me a Madame Alexander doll.  I’m sure Mom kissed the once strawberry-red crown of hair. Liz died one week later.

All hell broke loose. Liz’s death and Mom’s mercy were the talk of the town. Someone gossiped. I bet it was one of the fishwives at church or a customer from Dad’s bar, who derided Liz’s confession and Mom’s benediction.  I would like to pause here and tell the gossips about the upshot of their slander. Fifty years later, I want them to know, my bond with my mother was forever broken.

One night, there was a crash, a thud, a whimper and I ran from my bed to the living room to shield her from him. One of my parents must have said the name that must not be spoken.

The words “No Daddy No,” choke my throat.

Mom screams, “Toodie Toodie Toodie,”

A shadeless lamp lies sideways on the carpet among Mom’s books. The dog yelps in the corner. Dad must have kicked it and a pane of glass from the French door.  My feet might be cut but there is no blood. There is a rip in the frill of my Peter Rabbit nightgown but I keep screaming, “Please don’t hurt her anymore.”

Mom wraps her arms around my fat tummy. There is blood on the yoke of her nightgown.  Dad must have shown her the back of his hand. His brick-red knuckles bulge through leathery hairy skin. My father’s face is demented; a snarling werewolf with vicious hazel eyes stares down at me.  I meet his stare, and love the way my ten-year-old body feels. This is the ugliest part of me. How much I love my own anger.

“Toodie, Toodie, Toodie,” Mom yells.

***

Today, when I replay this memory, my knees still turn to jello. I gasp for breath and do not understand why she used to call me Toodie. Perhaps it was from a limerick or refrain that soothed her like a blessing that became my curse. Toodie never Clare, or any of the other names on my birth certificate, Sharon, Lynn, Hermine. Toodie was an apparition only Mom could see. I was exiled for seeing the truth.

Call it trauma, but either way the wound made me go sideways through life. The sounds of violence revved my amygdala into overdrive. The weight of shame lodged in my gray matter. Call it the curse of the ancestors, passed down in grandmother’s amniotic fluids, but we all know that when the truth hurts—the mind and the body go blank and the soul flash freezes.

Mom spun our response to the scandal like a Public Relations pro, with a stiff upper lip.

She decreed that boarding school would be an enriching experience. Being educated by nuns and living with girls like me would make me strong. After all, Mom had been sent away to British boarding school during her formative years.  I was sent away to protect me from gossip.

The taillights on Dad’s Cadillac disappeared down the driveway of Saint Joseph’s Academy.  I stood beneath the statue of Mother Mary and touched her outstretched palms and prayed to her for her protection. The Blue Lady did not shimmer or speak. Her heavenly dress was faded by the sun. Her smile had faded too.  Our Lady of Grace could not comfort all the sad sad girls who stood at her feet and shared the secrets of their hearts. The Blue Lady did not bless me. I could not feel her touch or the love in her heart for me. I could not feel my breath.

The Mother was mute.

“Stop pouting,” Sister Alice, my fifth grade teacher said, “You should be grateful to be here.”

I had escaped my parents’ marriage. Outlaw classmates taught me to pilfer frosty bottles of chocolate milk from an ancient vending machine, and penny-candy from the nuns’ closets. I was initiated by broken girls like me, who got angrier and fatter each month.We all woke up sobbing at night, and sought salvation in pancakes and deceit.

The rush of escape was an adrenaline high as potent as free sugar.

 

Clare Simons is aging gracefully in Portland Oregon and awaiting further instructions from the universe.  She has been deeply loved by a Guru and by a great man, and has come to understand that those loves are one in the same. Her memoir, Devoted explores faith, doubt and food.   

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Have you pre-ordered Thrust


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

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aging, Family, Guest Posts

On Aging: Lessons From Mother and Grandmother

May 8, 2022
mother

By Chantal Laurie Below

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

My mother’s further proof of it. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trusting that even slightly brings a modicum of peace.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Posts, Hope, parents

Cake, and Other Necessary Comforts

April 17, 2022
mountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh! You’re up!”

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

“Quiche or French toast,” I ask.

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

“How about sautéed strawberries? And powdered sugar.”

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

***

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

“How about we go to World Market today?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

Writing Cohort Opportunity

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

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

Cohort Includes:

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

Email info@circeconsulting.net for more information

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change

 

Family, Guest Posts, memories

Whatever Will Be

March 19, 2022
flowers on table time

Which scene should I begin with?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

time

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

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Time to (re)invigorate your writing?

Check out the Circe Promptapalooza!

Promptapalooza is the most fun you’ll have in a writing class. Instead of beat drops, we’ll have prompt drops.

Capped at 30 participants and happening only 4 times a year, these three-hour generative workshops, with opportunities to share, will get you motivated, inspired, connected, and curious.

Promptapalooza is great if you’re struggling with writer’s block, feeling adrift without a writing community in these strange days, or just want to laugh, learn, and dig deep.

When: Sunday April 3, 10am-1pm PST
Where: The Zoom Room
How Much: $250/person
Who: Gina Frangello and Emily Rapp Black.

**Anyone who enrolls in the class and later chooses to work with Circe privately will receive $100 off any of coaching/editing packages.**

Email info@circeconsulting.net to enroll now!

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

 

Guest Posts, memories

Charm School

February 22, 2022
PBS

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

What grade was I in? Did I like school?

No, I did not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My enthusiasm crashed. Unfair question.

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

Statement on Black Lives Matter and support for social change.

eating disorder, Guest Posts, pandemic

Mother Daughter Stew

July 25, 2021
ingredients

by Nancy Crisafulli 

Ingredients

From Mother’s Expansive Garden 

1 cup low-cal self-esteem

For correct blend mix equal parts shame, blame and overripe guilt.

2 cups shredded body image

Tear fresh images into bite-sized pieces, rinse under cold water and drain completely.

8 oz. night-blooming tobacco

Steep tobacco in 7-14 oz of any red wine (see directions below).

1 lb. depressed family history

This ingredient may also be found in Father’s garden and is often mistaken for a bothersome, invasive weed.

From Daughter’s Secret Pantry

1 cup high-concentrate anxiety – Use full strength – do not dilute.

2 cups well-seasoned perfectionism – Straight A+ seasoning is preferred, but type A will also work.

4 oz. flowering fear of failure (FFF)

Note: FFF is a bitter herb that will significantly impact the flavor of your stew -remember, a little goes a very long way.

2 lbs. genetic predisposition – This underrated ingredient can be found at many organic stores including Roots and MoMs Organic Market).

Optional Non-Organic Ingredients

7 Tbsp. expectation to excel in all endeavors (EEE)

EEE grows like a wildflower in suburbia so check your backyard before purchasing.

Multiple shots of reprocessed Insta-Selfies – Adjust lighting, filters, angles and number of shots for maximum impact.

Directions

Step 1: 

In medium-sized bowl, carefully combine mother’s low-cal self-esteem and shredded body image with daughter’s undiluted anxiety. Mix thoroughly.

*Mother: To be sure ingredients are thoroughly blended, pinch and knead the fatty area behind your knee (or any other unattractive body part) repeatedly while chatting heart-to-heart with your adolescent daughter. Adding this personal touch is guaranteed to work better than the most efficient KitchenAid.

Step 2: 

Macerate night-blooming tobacco in red wine and let soak in a tub until all liquid is absorbed.

*Daughter: While Mother macerates, use a paring knife or other sharp object to make shallow cuts in your flowering fear of failure. Cover carefully with a dry cloth and store in a cool, dark place.

Step 3

In a separate bowl, sift together mother’s depressed family history with daughter’s genetic predisposition. Do this slowly, alternating just a bit of depressed history with a little predisposition until you have the perfect mix of these secret family ingredients.

Step 4: 

Place all prepared items from mother’s garden and daughter’s pantry into the domestic cooking device of your choice (see side bar for choices). Sprinkle freely with non-organic optional ingredients to taste and cook as directed.

Step 5: 

Serve piping hot with a side of solitude and regret.

Sans appétit!

Tip

For a less robust stew, slowly introduce one or more tempering agents (Wellbutrin, Ativan, Lexipro) before the stew is fully cooked. See individual packaging for suggested amounts.

Yield

This recipe serves 1-2 but, properly stored, its prolonged shelf life can often under-nourish an entire family for generations! Studies have shown that a sustained diet of this popular stew is almost guaranteed to yield the following:

Daughter

  • Drastic reduction in calories and fat
  • Grinding, obsessive exercise
  • A feast of secrecy and self-loathing
  • Suicidal thoughts and/or actions

Mother

  • Growing dread of family meals
  • Searing, wild remorse
  • Frantic weeding of personal garden
  • Ravenous craving for a shared bowl of daughter’s favorite childhood ice cream

Chef’s Note:

Organic vs Non-Organic? Conventional wisdom suggests that our genes and the environment around us play important parts in the development of eating disorders and other chronic diseases. For people recovering from anorexia, bulimia or other EDs during this pandemic, the combined ingredients of Corona-related stress, grief, lack of structure, and social isolation may be the perfect recipe for relapse.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, please reach out:

National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)
https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support

Academy for Eating Disorders
https://www.aedweb.org/expert-directory

 National Alliance on Mental Health Illness (NAMI)
https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Eating-Disorders/Discuss

stew

Nancy Crisafulli received her BA in English Literature from the University of Maryland and spent the next forty years in the field of instructional design in and around Washington, DC. She did most of that writing in a corporate office. Her other writing has been languishing in her spare bedroom and recently asked to move out. A few of those pieces have been published in Under the Gum Tree and The Sun. When she isn’t writing, Nancy is probably out walking, doing yoga, playing with the grands, or on the co-ed softball field with her husband and best friend, Frank.

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Although each of Jenny Offill’s books is great, this is the one we come back to, both to reread and to gift. Funny and thoughtful and true, this little gem moves through the feelings of a betrayed woman in a series of observations. The writing is beautiful, and the structure is intelligent and moving, and well worth a read.

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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Eating/Food, Guest Posts

Taking Up Space

July 7, 2021
scale

by Molly Krause

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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emma

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

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Family, Fiction, Guest Posts

Lizard Brain

July 2, 2021
jeffrey

by Samantha Ley

Thud.

Feeling a dull throb where his forehead had hit the wall, Jeffrey wished he had cut out wider eyeholes. Then again, a lizard’s eyes are not that large, so bigger holes would ruin the authenticity of the costume. No, not costume; “costume” was what his mom called it. His suit. He had started making it with his dad. Jeffrey couldn’t wait to show off the finished version when Dad got home from his business trip.

He thought of it as his green self. His new self.

Two felt feet with long, clawed toes approached the stairs. Jeffrey could tell that his plan to scurry down headfirst was going to be noisy and probably not that safe. He decided, after swaying and testing his weight over the first step, that some lizards must crawl backwards. It would certainly confuse their predators. Holding on to his tail to avoid squishing or breaking it—and having to grow a new one, which would be tedious—Jeffrey slowly turned around and started to slide down the stairs, lizard belly to carpet.

The steady murmur of his mom’s dinner party. An underlying hum of voices. A shrill laugh. The deeper boom of a voice. Agreement. Fork against plate. Glasses clinking. Grown-up things.

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

More padding, thought Jeffrey, as he slid onto the landing. The next iteration of his being would come with way more padding. He couldn’t wait to show Dad the lizard suit once he got back from his business trip.

Jeffrey’s class was studying reptiles: where they lived, what they ate, what types of them existed, and how they acted. Jeffrey had concluded that you could figure out how anyone lived once you knew those details. So, this seemed like the next logical step.

Ker-thunk. Ker-thunk.

His two front feet gripped the new carpet on each stair as he drew closer to the sounds downstairs. And suction cups, he thought. Suction cups could make or break his life as a lizard.

He peeked around the corner of the wall dividing the foyer from the dining room. A quick scan: four grown-ups, two empty chairs. Crumpled napkins, empty plates, lots of empty wine bottles. There was a large man with a long white beard who looked a lot like the picture of Charles Darwin in Jeffrey’s science textbook. He was telling a very loud story to the other guests and using his wine glass, nearly empty, for emphasis. Did one of the seated women see Jeffrey?

Jeffrey darted backwards, thinking of the lizards he had seen out by the town pond with his dad. When they felt threatened, they ran and hid, bodies twisting wildly from side to side.

Scurry, scurry, with a light, accidental brush of his tail against an ornate vase in the corner. Then into the adjoining living room, dark. But Jeffrey knew the layout in here, and his senses turned on with a sort of click. The eye holes were too small, yes, but he could sense he was not alone. He imagined a hawk hunting for his little green self. Circling silently, gauging his prey, waiting for just the right nanosecond for a swift attack. If Jeffrey was lucky, he would be able to scuttle under the glass top coffee table for protection. If he were less than lucky, the hawk would snatch his tail, which would take two to three weeks to regrow. And if he were truly unlucky…

He heard his mother’s voice, right near him but as though it were far away.

“Did you hear something?” she whispered.

A man’s voice, and not Jeffrey’s father’s: “Stop worrying so much.”

Jeffrey froze, feeling his heart in his head. He could see from the corner of his eyehole his mother’s leg, her discarded stiletto heel on its side by the couch. A man’s hand gripped her calf and then ran smoothly up her leg, to where he could no longer see it without turning his head. He didn’t want to. His heart choked him, filling his throat. Thump. Thump. Thump.

Rather than acknowledging the cacophony of his heartbeat, they simply resumed whatever they were doing, with noises that Jeffrey did not wish to acknowledge. Sounds that must have been part of a huge misunderstanding.

Maybe, thought Jeffrey, his dad was not really in San Francisco on business. Maybe this was him, just different. Maybe this was what people were like when they came back from California. Or maybe his dad had died, and his mother didn’t want to tell him just yet. But even if he was dead, it made little sense for her to be kissing another man, a stranger, on the newly upholstered couch in the living room. Jeffrey wasn’t even allowed to eat on there.

This had to be a mistake.

His mother’s foot arched out towards him, nearly grazing the tip of his lizard nose. He burst out from under the glass top table and kept going, through the half-lit kitchen and back into the dining room. He faintly heard a crash and an exclamation from the living room, but the guests in the dining room heard nothing. They were all laughing, all drinking. The man with the puffy beard was red-faced and hideous. All Jeffrey could see through tears and his eye holes was gaping mouths with red lipstick, razor sharp nails. He heard shrieks and a yelp as he half-ran and half-crawled through the dining room, into the mudroom, and through the doggie door out into the night’s world.

Gasping, heaving, he ran into the neighbor’s yard. It had elaborate manicured gardens and an ornamental pond. Jeffrey was never, ever to go over there without an invitation.

He tripped over his tail, fell to the ground, and crawled, soaking his costume with the beginnings of the evening’s dew. Swallowing a wave of nausea, he imagined the hawk, swooping over him with night vision and an empty stomach. He quickly scuttled under the neighbor’s giant prize rhododendron bush.

Shoving himself through sharp branches, Jeffrey burrowed into the mulch. He pulled his tail around himself and clutched at it, fingernails clawing the fabric as he curled into a ball. Inhaling the scent of leaves and wet earth, he steadied his breathing. He pictured the lizard videos he had watched over and over. Lizards hiding from prey made themselves completely still, but the ones who were truly asleep had a tell-tale tic in their throats. In, out. In, out.

Jeffrey closed his mouth and breathed through his nose. He concentrated on not moving a muscle, on becoming a stone that a hawk wouldn’t look twice at. In just a few minutes, his breathing slowed. A light rain began to patter on the bushes as Jeffrey’s fingers loosened on his tail. His chest slowly rose and fell under the cover of glossy green leaves and delicate pink flowers.

Samantha Ley holds degrees from Kenyon College and the University of Virginia. Her fiction has been published in a number of online journals and has been nominated for Best of the Net. Most recently, her work has appeared in Fairfield Scribes and Albany Poets. She is a freelance writer and editor who lives outside of Albany, NY. 

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emma

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

Read Diana’s ManifestStation essay here

Order the book from Amazon or Bookshop.org

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

Click here for all things Jen

Fiction, Grief, Guest Posts

Emergency Cigarette

June 25, 2021
barb

By Ellen Wade Beals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Barbie, it’s not the same thing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When had her mother smoked the Emergency Cigarette?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen and on being human

Family, Guest Posts, Mental Health

I Come From Wicked Women

May 24, 2021
mother

by Ramona Mead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Autism, Fiction Fridays, Guest Posts

Ordinary Lives

April 16, 2021
risa

by Marlene Olin

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

“Never sleep?” says Margaret.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile Margaret’s bullied right and left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Every Sunday, it is now part of their routine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that a fact?” says Marilyn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The husband retreats to his den.

Margaret gulps an antacid followed by an Ativan chaser.

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

“But Risa,” says Margaret scrambling for words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, says Risa. I really can’t.

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

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

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

“I hate you, Mother,” says Risa.

“They want signatures,” says Marilyn.

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

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

The family response is all too easy to predict.

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

The husband starts sneezing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Special Needs

The Art of Acceptance

March 15, 2021
jessica

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

By Cathy Shields

“Your daughter Jessica is profoundly retarded.”

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

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

“We moved Jessica to a group home today.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seconds tick by until I hear Jessica’s voice.

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

“Um, I’ll come soon. In a few days.”

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

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

“Okay Mommy. I love you. Bye.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parents

Just a Moment

March 8, 2021
moment

A photograph of the author’s parents.

By Allison Amy Wedell

Here’s what you need to know for this photo to make sense: I love my dad. I say “love,” in present tense, even though he’s been dead for almost four years. I would raid heaven to have him back, even if just for a moment—a snapshot, if you will.

Here’s how it happened: Dad and I went on a six-day, 360-mile bike ride in Wyoming in mid-July, my brother got married at the end of July, then Mom and Dad left for a month-long trip to England and Scotland in early August. Two weeks into the trip, he checked himself into an ER in London, where they confirmed what my dad, a retired doctor, had already suspected.

He had acute myeloid leukemia.

So Dad spent four weeks in a London ICU, fighting to put together enough white blood cells that they would let him fly home to Cheyenne. After a night in the local hospital and a frank talk with his doctor there, he realized he wasn’t going to bounce back from this, and opted for hospice instead. He spent six wonderful, heartbreaking weeks in hospice, saying goodbye to everyone he loved.

He died on October 29, 2016.

If you’re doing the math, you’ve already realized that he went from biking up mountains with his daughter and dancing at his son’s wedding to his deathbed in a scant three months. The speed of it still takes my breath away, like that instant after a car crash when you’re just sitting there blinking while you try to figure out what just happened.

Anyway. Back to the photo. My mom sent it to me about six weeks after Dad died. She received it from her friend Shel, who had been on the England/Scotland tour with my parents. Shel had been sorting through his photos from their trip, and he sent her a few. This one is my favorite.

It’s so casual, isn’t it? Just a couple of tourists, surrounded by a few other tourists, taking a break in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in August of 2016. They could be any retirees, caught in a moment of rest, planning their next foray among the antiquities. But I see so much more. So many tiny details of this captured moment reveal to me, in heartbreaking clarity, all that I am missing.

For example, the man has a camera slung over his shoulder. It evidences his passion for both photography and technology, and makes me wonder how many beautiful photos he has already snapped on this day alone. Some of them have his wife in them; some are landscapes; some are closeups of flowers in gardens. All of them delight in the world around him.

You can’t quite tell, but those pant legs zip off. This man is nothing if not practical. If it gets too hot in Oxford on this summer day, he’ll convert his pants to shorts and stow the legs in a backpack (that same backpack that contains a windbreaker and hat, should the weather turn in the opposite direction) or on the tour bus. He was a Boy Scout, and their motto has served him well all his life: Be prepared.

Despite the fact that he is thousands of miles and an entire ocean from home, he manages to look neat and tidy, right down to that crease in his shirtsleeve. His wife ironed that shirt before they left, but he packed it carefully and hung it up as soon as they arrived at the hotel. He wears a plain white undershirt so it doesn’t get sweaty, and any excess sweat on his face will get mopped up by the clean white handkerchief he carries in his pocket. Tomorrow’s shirt will be similarly plaid and similarly crisp.

That lovely salt-and-pepper hair (that same hair he will lose to chemo in less than a month, but we don’t know that yet, do we, viewer?) sticks up a bit in front. Several times today, he will unconsciously run the fingers of his left hand through it, smoothing it down and to the side. When it gets particularly unruly, next time he’s in the men’s room, he’ll take a little black plastic comb out of one of his pockets and tidy it more thoroughly.

The guidebook he reads is probably not dog-eared or wrinkled or creased in any way; if it has a binding, said binding remains intact. If he has found it necessary to make notes in it, he has done so lightly in pencil. The man and his wife have a large library at home, love books, and have instilled a deep respect for them in both their children.

You cannot see his right ankle, but if you could, you’d realize that his left ankle is swollen by comparison. This is due to an issue he has with the lymph glands in that leg; complications from a condition he developed when he and his wife lived in Haiti 45 years before, where he gave inoculations and saved babies from tetanus seizures using Valium they had smuggled in for that very purpose.

And speaking of his wife, that’s her head (with the curly hair inherited by both their children) just beyond his, bent over a map. They sit in the companionable silence borne of decades of marriage. She is the love of his life; he knew it the moment he met her, and they were married less than a year later.

They have already begun to make plans for their 50th wedding anniversary, but he will miss it by just over three months.

So yes, it is just a snapshot. It is just a moment—and not even a moment I witnessed. But oh, if I could have it back, what I wouldn’t give.

What I wouldn’t give.

Allison Amy Wedell is a blogger and speechwriter for the state of Minnesota. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon & Schuster, 2004) and The #TeamEric Chronicles, a blog about her dad’s illness and death from leukemia. Her work has been published by MomsRising, Committee for Children, and Free Spirit Publishing. She is the single mom of one amazing daughter and one rather ill-behaved cat in St. Paul.

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

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

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, Siblings, sisters

The Things I’d Tell Her

December 12, 2020
sisters

By Christine Meade

My sister is moving with her husband and my twin toddler nephews to North Carolina in two weeks. That’s 811 miles away from her family of origin. They’re moving during a pandemic and only four months after I gave birth to my first son and I want it to be about me and tell them not to leave, but I know that’s not how this works. I’m dreading the day–the one when we’ll have to say goodbye–and the ugly tears I’ll cry. I wanted her to have the chance to fall in love with my son as much as I did with hers.

When my grandmother and her sister–Rita and Ruth–bought their first homes in Somerville, MA, with their WWII vet husbands in the fifties, they found two-family, white houses that mirrored each other on the same street. They each had a slew of kids who grew up as close as siblings. They would spend hours chatting on the phone to one another just across the road, giggling with the coiled phone cord wrapped around a finger when they couldn’t be together in person. They only wore heels when out walking, pushing their prams and chatting. One time, a drunk man dangled out a second floor window and shot at them as they brought their kids for a walk. When I imagine this, I picture their heels first–stilettos in a bright green color–panty-hosed knees bent ducking behind a car with their children huddled like ducklings around them. No one was hurt, and they made the newspaper.

The grandmother I knew had toes that were curled and feet curved with bunions. She always wore stockings with slippers in the house. It’s from wearing those heels, she’d say, without a hint of regret. She lived across from her sister until she passed away in 2007.

When my sister was little, I had her drink out of the dog bowl on the floor when we played “dog.” I had her squirmy body sit through rigorous school lessons that she was far too young to understand when we played “school” and I, as teacher, would get frustrated when she’d get bored and drop out. She could only read my books if she used the check-out system and library card I had created for her. I bribed her to do things by offering to “be her best buddy” when she was little, which she couldn’t refuse. She followed me around and copied what I said and wore and wanted to be until she was too old to get away with it. In a home video we found recently of the two of us as little kids in matching Minnie Mouse shirts before our brother came along, I told her “I loved you even when you were ugly.”

And then we got to high school and discovered the joys of having a close sister friend. We were three grades apart and we’d steal each other’s clothes and walk the hallways together, looking nothing alike, but liking the way “The Meade Sisters” sounded on other people’s tongues. It’s hard to feel lonely when you’re part of a team–a team that you can never opt not to play for. We were the funniest people we knew. Our family started referring to us as Rita and Ruth.

I went to college and moved to San Diego and then San Francisco and spent the better part of my twenties in California and I wonder now if this is how she felt to be the sister that stayed behind. If it’s what I’ll feel when she’s gone, except maybe worse, because the missing extends beyond her to the two little boys she created who have big eyes and big foreheads and call me Nini.

While in California, we’d talk on the phone and call each other by our nicknames and she’d visit and I’d take her to the best beach bars and Alcatraz and the Muir Woods. We handmade matching Halloween costumes and danced until we were sweat-slicked and tired. On bad nights, with ex-boyfriends, I’d lie awake in bed until 3 a.m. so it would be 6 a.m. her time and I’d call her for consolation.

When I moved back to Boston we made our own new set of traditions. We’d go to Salem every October for my birthday and get our fortunes read. When we were hungover, we’d order egg sandwiches and watch Blue Crush for the 100th time, a movie we loved because maybe it was a life we imagined for ourselves one day–simple beachside living, surfing, and sisterhood. I read online recently that 2020 is the eighteenth anniversary of Blue Crush, which made me feel old. To celebrate the 2002 film, the movie’s stars met on Zoom, which made me feel sad because maybe that’s what all ocean-loving, free-wheeling sisters have to settle for now–a quick video chat to connect.

As an adult, my sister became a nurse and a wife and then a distance settled between us. She wouldn’t answer my calls, and text responses came through a day too late. She was wrapped up in love’s arms and couldn’t be bothered with the trivialities of others’ day-to-day. I resented her or maybe more so him, but maybe that is love, I thought, since I was single at the time and couldn’t quite remember the flavor of that word in my own mouth. Maybe I’d do the same, I thought. Maybe I’d leave my sister for love. But I didn’t think so.

Then she had the twin boys and her role shifted. She became a mom, this place I knew nothing about. In motherhood, however, she needed me again, if only for the companionship, for a salve to the loneliness, the exhaustion. It’s a circumstance I only now understand, baby in my arms, calling her or my mother multiple times a day just to fill the blank space between feedings and diaper changes. The companionship needed in motherhood goes far beyond a spouse or a partner, I’ve found, but rests in other mothers whose bodies have been torn by the ones they love most. It rests in those who’ve been so stripped of sleep, they need to talk to someone who understands when they don’t have anything at all to say. When I became pregnant, our roles shifted again, and I needed my sister because why did my nipples hurt so much? And was crying this much normal? And would I ever–would he ever–sleep again?

A few months after the birth of her twins, my sister’s husband was deployed for a year and I had her back, all to myself. I got daily video calls and we saw each other a few times a week. I had visions of our boys growing up like brothers, only a year and a half apart, maybe going to the same school. We’d wheel them to the park together in strollers, carrying our iced coffees, and gossiping about the rest of our family. We’d take turns babysitting for the other and share big meals over loud dining room tables, our kids wrestling in the other room like Rita and Ruth’s boys.

Now her husband is back and they are leaving just to try something new. It will be her first time living in a different part of the country and there’s so much that I want to tell her. That it will be harder living that far away from a family as close as ours than she realizes. I remember my first night away after moving, crying quietly on my blow-up mattress, missing my family, the only home I had known for so long. That missing all the birthdays and barbecues and holidays feels isolating in a way you wouldn’t expect. That no matter how nice the place you moved to is–sunshine, beaches, all the promise of happiness–nothing replaces those random Tuesday night dinners around our parents’ kitchen island, drinking good red wine and laughing and eating with your siblings, and feeling, if nothing else, grateful.

And I would tell her, most importantly, that I love her and will miss her.

Christine Meade is a Boston-area writer and editor and first-time parent. She is the author of the award-winning novel “The Way You Burn.” Christine has published articles and essays for Dow Jones Media, The Boston Globe, Writer’s Digest, HuffPost, and GirlTalkHQ. She can be found online here: www.christine-meade.com.

 

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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

 

Click here for all things Jen