Categories
nonfiction

Identify Your Triggers: Whole Foods Parking Lot by Cassie Burkhardt

Identify Your Triggers: Whole Foods Parking Lot | Cassie Burkhardt

I’m with my two-year-old at the grocery store today, truly the most demoralizing place for stay-at-home mothers when you haven’t showered, your stomach is grinding coffee beans in your sleep and you feel the exact same color as the uncured ham slices lying flat and helpless. My cart is piled high with chicken breasts, boxed broth, tomato sauce, jumbo cartons of berries, organic bananas—of which the two-year-old’s eaten two— the ripped-open peels an upside-down, stringy version of what used to be whole. It’s a food pantry in my cart and it will probably only last us half the week. My two-year-old is climbing out of the cart, trying to help me by lobbing pears onto the conveyor belt at checkout, dangling an egg carton as I sweep in to save it. I’m sweating and my winter coat stinks in the armpits, I’m the boring age of thirty-seven, dressed in some sort of stained, Luleisure combo, frantically searching for the Amazon Whole Foods app that will save me $2.41 on my $280.00 purchase. My daughter is shrieking that she wants to do everything herself, pressing buttons and licking the handlebar on the cart, screaming, “Cookies!” and then taking her shoes and socks off, her little mullet flipping back off her forehead as she thrusts off the flamingo print Gap sock.

The elderly couple behind me smiles, waving and cooing, just beaming because they remember the time and it goes so fast and, “You can have her!” I yell. Chuckle chuckle. Luckily, the cashier is unphased by my existence, lets me struggle alone, his nails are blue, he doesn’t even look up, I am pineapple two-for-one and what is this green stick? Lemongrass? A manager in a bossy green apron struts by to coach one of the drones who collect groceries for the rest of society when we catch his eye. He is terrified that my daughter, now standing in the part of the cart where she is supposed to be sitting, will fall mullet-first to chalky, lavender death in a bucket of bath bombs or worse, sue him. “She’s my third, she’s got this,” I tell him. He winces and motions to me to restrain her, accompanied by gasps from several other customers who are on their way to the fifteen items or fewer aisle. I stare longingly in the direction of that line, the breezy way the man in chinos walks by with his salad and a single tangerine to pay. What I wouldn’t give to have a lunch break, to be the mandarin in his palm… Hello little satsuma. It floats by, so cool, bursting with flavor underneath that skin, already undressing…

Beep beep beep, my daughter has taken over control of the credit card machine and is en route to planet Please Stop. I remove my daughter from the cart and place her before a wall of novelty magnets she can knock over or bite. One says: “I should’ve partied harder in 1999” and “Just another day of pretending I’m fine!’” and “You’re awesome” (It’s Bill Murray pointing at me) and thank you Bill, these are actually making me laugh for a second in the midst of this sweaty bagging nightmare, so I slip one in my coat pocket and don’t tell anyone, just because. Oh whatever, it’s fine. I deserve this, right? Are we done yet? The cashier is mixing everything up after I told him not to, when I quickly had to save my daughter from imminent grocery cart death. Perishables and pantry items are being tossed together into a beef-juice-animal-cracker-soup and somehow he didn’t use half of the tentlike, soft cooler bags I brought and he’s taking two decades to do it, but I’m too bored and flustered to care. I just want to be home. I want to rip off my clothes and burn them in the backyard or maybe move to Australia with my three kids, live in a thatched-roof hut where “beach” is written in chalk on a piece of driftwood or maybe just sit on the toilet and stare into my phone at home. Clothes on Shopbop. Clothes. Pretty clothes. Pretty clothes to wear one day to make-believe party. Art. Pretty abstract art in frames, swirly pastel mess contained on a canvas. Bench. Pretty velveteen entry bench, pretty bench where I will never sit but looks nice. Friend. Pretty friend on pretty cliff-laced lagoon in Europe I want to choke for jealousy. Like. Like. Like.  Sweet little dopamine feedback loop. It’s already happening before it’s happening, like some Black Mirror episode I can’t get out of. I heave a bag into the cart and the handles pop right off.

“Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommeeeeeee!” Here, Coco, shake these and do this! (mints and magazine rack to dismantle while I pay) and what? My receipt. Hell no! Keep it! My gift to you! We’re done! Hallelujah, let’s get the F outta here babe! Let’s push this bitch! I practically need a mule to get me to the elevator, but no, I’m fine, please leave me alone everyone. Oh wait, no one gives a shit. No one even asks me if I need help. No one says hello anymore. No one says goodbye. Only the disabled man by the disinfectant wipes in the dark garage says, “Thank you for coming!” but he is talking to someone behind me. It’s fine. I can muscle my way through this experience, move the scooters and helmets, heave cases of sparkling water and paper towels into the trunk the way I pushed three kids out of my poon. I got this. (Ok, two out of three came out the poon, the first one was an emergency C-section.) Anyways, snap out of it, unlock the car you idiot. Garage. Darkness. The carseat, click, phew. Child is restrained. Collapse into my seat, Exhale. I practically weep in the driver’s seat. Life is so impossible and mundane. 

And this is it, right? This is motherhood. Stinky armpits and “put cookie monster song on!” and clementine peels everywhere and a dented minivan, some vacations in between, some odd jobs teaching yoga on Zoom or helping a friend write something clever for something important, but mostly this grind. Oh geez, it’s all coming out of my head now. Anyone can do it for a day, a week, but: Every. Single. Day. I know, you are telling me, “Order your groceries online! Get a nanny! Go on a yoga retreat!” But that would be missing the point. That would be to misunderstand the feeling, the universal ache of the mother entirely. That ache that has nothing to do with how much help you get or manicures you treat yourself to and everything to do with feeling trapped, invisible, robotic, burdened by responsibility, and fueled by love, yet ambivalent about every decision you make trying to keep the web together. Yearning for freedom yet clinging to routines. Feeling like life is over yet hasn’t begun, starving, but I just ate, fuck me but don’t touch me, unreliable with basic tasks and pediatrician’s appointments, but completely in tune with the children’s every need, food, sleep, poop, and whose tiny underwear is whose, and constantly obsessing that we should be eating more vegetables. Exhausted, but I can’t stop, a ghost in a suburb getting gas, cleaning up Magnet Tiles, buying balloons, stirring broth, then staring into my phone at 11:48pm standing up in my bathroom saying I should really get some sleep. I am not alone, but I am so alone. 

How can something so universal feel so singular, so isolating? I’m life-threateningly useful to four people and useless to the rest of the world, invisible even. I haven’t watched the news in a hundred years, but I’m wiser than a goddamn-baby-whispering-sage. Why do I push friends away yet crave connection? How can I be the person I was meant to become? What is a writer and am I one? Who will be my huckleberry friend waiting round the bend with a ukulele and a wink? Unfortunately, it’s not my husband. He’s on call! And my mom is on a cleanse with my dad in Puerto Rico, so I guess it has to be my own goddamn aging self. And look at her! She’s pale and hollowed out like an avocado shell, her hair looks like it’s been licked by a camel. This is the person I have to confront?! This person in the rearview mirror?! Is she the writer? The question and the answer? What can I whisper to myself in the dark of this parking garage to validate this soul-crushing experience of life? The oddity of this mothering experience, this complete crapshoot I’ve launched myself headlong into. And will I die before I figure this out? Or worse, give up? 

No. No, for me there is pressure. I’m ambitious, I went to NYU, I ran a marathon, I survived an eating disorder as a child. I can do this! I must keep putting mascara on and doing push-ups and going up to the attic to write. I will not rest until I create art out of this despair. I cannot stop trying, stop noticing, collecting, recording the details, ideas, images like food for winter. Some images and scenes I’m collecting lately: My heart is a carbon monoxide detector that keeps chirping long after the batteries have been taken out, my children’s hummingbird heartbeats keep fluttering even in sleep and I swear I can hear them from my room, their Micros scooters in blue, purple and pink keep working even after I’ve accidentally run them over a couple of times. Resilience! A dinner of apple skins and toast fragments, ham rinds and dry pasta pairs well with an expensive Sancerre, I am a diamond that can bust out of the prongs at the stroke of twelve, but still be home to make their lunches for tomorrow. 

The ambivalence stuff: the weird joy I feel that when I run after my kids at the playground, pretending to be a wolf, that horrified look of delight in their eyes when they ask me to do it again, again, again, then after the fifth time screaming “no more!” and sulking on a bench with my phone wishing I were at a dark party on the lower east side, so low it’s underground and only Chloe Sevigny and I know about it. Another one: Lying in the sand with all of my children on top of me late into the evening, sticky with ocean and sweat and wind and we should really be getting home, my husband is worried about us, but lingering longer because we can, I’m the mother bear back off, and we love squeezing the last drop out of a beach day, dancing in the dunes. Two seconds later, my daughter chucking sand in my mouth and the baby pooped in her bare bathing suit and no one helps me carry anything to the car, but oh well. I’m happy/miserable. Reading stories cozy in bed, relishing the purr of my own voice, the smell of the kids’ shampoo, then two seconds later my daughter sneezes and snots all over the book and everyone is yelling and I just can’t anymore and I tell everyone to get out. Moments like this stacked up every day. Do you know what I mean?

I start the car. 

Blazing through yellow lights and careening through the familiar, winding forest roads, we are on our way home. I look and feel exactly like Cruella DeVille— when she didn’t catch the dalmatians and had to get herself out of a lump of snow— and that’s ok. I’ll come out on the other side of this. I have food for my family, my daughter is click-clocking her tongue and I have my images in my head like friends that flicker off the dashboard into my brain. She is just a child. I am her mother. A woman, a flawed human headed home. I am reminded that creativity can only exist in times of uncertainty, that art is born when opposing feelings collide, rub up against each other, start a dialogue. Loneliness can be celebrated, or at least renamed “solitude” which sounds more romantic. Anger is really fear and my worst fear is losing myself. 

I pull into the driveway and my daughter is madly sucking her finger and sniffing her little blankie. In two hours I have to pick up the other two kids, but now it’s naptime. The story about Curious George making pancakes will calm us both down. I’ll sing her my made-up, weird songs she loves and hold her hand, smell her head, her pure, sweet scalp that gives me hope. It’s going to be ok. Is it going to be ok? Write it down. For god’s sake, run up to the attic once she’s asleep and write this all down before you forget.

Winter Star by Andrew Jordan

About the Author:

Cassie Burkhardt is a poet from NY, currently based in Philadelphia. She has three children and is working on a collection. Her poem “Study Abroad” recently won Rattle’s Ekphrastic Poetry Challenge, Nov 2021.

Categories
nonfiction

Swimming: A Meditation by Lynne Golodner

Swimming: A Meditation by Lynne Golodner

When I was little, I rode on my father’s back while he swam the length of our neighbor’s pool in one breath. My legs gripping his sides, my arms waving in the wind, I tilted my head back and laughed as he pulled me through the water. The pool seemed impossibly long, and I could not imagine holding my breath the whole distance the way my father did. He carried me from the depths to the shallows, where I climbed off and he rose out of the water like a great whale’s tail, shaking drops from his face, his grin as wide as mine. I believed he could do anything.

Four years ago, after my father was diagnosed with an incurable blood cancer, I sought the pool as refuge. When I sat at home on the couch, silent tears trailed down my face and I shuddered into the angsty anticipation of a world without him. In the pool, I couldn’t cry. Once, tears overcame me in the middle of a swim, and I fought to breathe, stopping mid-lane and treading water to regain control. Crying ruined my rhythm and made me choke on chlorine, and I lost count of how many laps I’d completed.

My father swam backstroke at Mumford High School in the 1950s. One year for Halloween, I wore his robin’s egg blue and burgundy varsity sweater, and all the parents smiled when they saw me, sharing memories as they dropped candy into my plastic pumpkin. I didn’t think about my dad as an athletic star until he was dying though, when we had long conversations in his hospital room about the places he’d been and the things he’d accomplished. We hadn’t swum together in years and we no longer could (with the port in his chest for infusions, a public pool could have killed him), so I settled for collecting his stories.

*

I’ve always found water soothing – being by its side, watching its tempestuous emotions, immersing in its cold embrace. The big gusty gales of Lake Michigan. The swift current of the Detroit River. The mirror-like surface of my old next-door neighbor’s pool, ready to absorb our summertime squeals and childhood energy. The ocean more powerful than what I imagine God to be, its strong hands reaching up and out, slapping the sand and peacefully retreating. Our bodies are mostly water, even our bones. We need water to survive and, in a way, it needs us too. We begin floating and throughout our lives water symbolizes purity, fertility, life and renewal.  But equally as much, water has long been a symbol of wisdom, power, grace. Essential for existence and cleansing, water has the power to change us and to bless. Some ancient cultures saw water as chaos, but I see it as deliverance. As much as its power can overwhelm, it gives me power that I desperately need.

Water is beautiful. Its movements, its elegant glow, its translucency, the rainbows it inspires when interacting with light at the right angles. I love to watch a rain drop on a blade of grass or a river cascade over rocks. I love the sound of water. I love the way it feels when I am in it, the way it holds me, allows me to be lighter than I am on land.

But I didn’t always seek reassurance in the waves. I am not a lifelong competitive swimmer, nor a person home-birthed into a tub. I come from very mundane and ordinary roots. The pool only became my refuge when I was divorcing the father of my three children who were aged four, three, and one at the time. My work was imploding— the economic downturn caused so many of the magazines I had been writing for to halt publication or shutter completely. I went from earning six-figures as a freelance writer to desperately searching for people to hire me to write for a few hundred dollars at a time. And I wouldn’t be getting much from my soon-to-be ex-husband, an Orthodox Jewish musician whose earning potential was limited because his faith prevented him from performing on Fridays and Saturdays.

A week after we signed the divorce judgment, my ex moved his boxes and suitcases out of our house. I sat on the carpeted steps while my kids watched Sesame Street in the family room. The big house was all mine with its stone façade and two-car garage, my daughter’s pink bedroom, the 1960s blue-tiled bathroom, the oak-floored living room, the 1980s kitchen with Formica counters and laminate cabinets, the basement that flooded in a hard rain. We had bought it at the height of the market and now at the housing industry’s lowest point, I couldn’t even sell the house to pocket the proceeds. I was stuck with a mortgage to pay, lights and heat to keep on, a refrigerator to fill. For months, hoping to leverage my skills into a career pivot, I’d been looking for companies to hire me to write press releases and blogs. Some had signed on, but the CEO of my biggest client, a family-owned grocery chain, said my business idea was stupid. I wondered how I was going to make it.

Months later, when I had three clients and income to cover the mortgage and utilities, I scraped together enough money to join a health club with outdoor and indoor pools. Many afternoons I took the kids to the club, leaving them in childcare for an hour so I could swim laps alone, then picking them up and swimming with them until they grew tired under the sun. The laps grounded me and reminded me to breathe, assured me that I could float in choppy waters. The time splashing with my children in the zero-edge kiddie pool showed me that I could work hard and have time to play. We would keep each other afloat. Those sun-lit days playing in the water with my children, I felt lucky. I was forging a path for us and I even had time and space for fun on a hot day. Once, as we carried buckets and pool toys and bottles of sunscreen from the car to the club, my older son Asher asked why I had to swim alone before we could all swim together. I couldn’t tell him that if I didn’t swim, I might crumble in front of him. Instead I said, “It makes me a happier Mommy,” and that answer seemed to suffice.

*

I never worried about money until I became a single mother. Then, I needed a safe car large enough for three car seats, clothing, winter coats, and sturdy boots for my children. They outgrew everything within months and their hearty appetites demanded three nutritious meals a day, plus snacks, and sippy cups full of juice. One day in the not-so-distant future, they would need thick textbooks, sports equipment, SAT tutors, college tuition. 

The money was a literal need, but it became a symbolic one too, representing my value, my success. No matter how much clients paid me, it was never enough for me to feel secure. In the year after the divorce the notion of enough grew big and scary, a monster in the night looming over me as I tossed in bed. I called my father at least once a week asking for advice and seeking reassurance that I would land enough clients, that I could keep them. My father had created a company when I was ten. At the time he had three young children too, but my mother stayed home to raise us so he could go out and build a name for himself in the scrap metal industry. I had no fallback, no one to keep the home front going while I went out into the world.

“Take the money and do the work,” he said. “It’ll all work out.” A simple truth, that if I completed the work in front of me, I’d always have work to do. His advice was tangible and immediate. A job well done was the best way to ensure more jobs. Focusing on an unknown future took me out of the moment and away from delivering on any project. It tied me in knots I had a hard time climbing free from.

I loved the sound of my father’s voice when he answered the phone and realized it was me: “Hi, Lynnie!” he’d exclaim, as if my call was a highlight of his day. It certainly was for me. He didn’t say much about the specifics of my fears, just reassured me that if I kept showing up and doing well, I’d be ok. He never worried and his voice calmed me, like the undulating waves of the pool do now. After he was diagnosed, I started saving his messages so I could listen to him long after he was gone.

*

My company grew and I gained more clients, developing a niche in the yoga world, where I helped studios and yoga personalities build brands, land TV interviews, and create social media content. Before I made the pool my sanctuary, under the guidance of one of my clients, I tried mindfulness meditation. I bought a Back Jack chair to put on the floor and left my desk twice a day to close my eyes and breathe in and out through my nose. I’d stare at the place where my third eye was supposed to be, trying to escape the papers cluttered around my computer, the oversight my employees required and the ongoing worry of whether I could retain clients while trying to attract more.

Meditation worked for a while. I grew calmer about managing my small staff and less concerned about money. But I fell out of practice. In the midst of work and home, too many demands competed for attention. I had to leave the scene of chaos to step into calm.

In a Michigan winter, it takes effort to drive icy roads, face the biting wind, peel off my clothes, and plunge into waiting waters. But still, I go. On a busy day, when there are more demands than minutes to devote to them, I go. When my children pull at me, beg me to sit with them on the couch, I promise to sit later, after I swim. The water beckons and I respond. My anchor, my sustenance

I love the equanimity of swimming. The water welcomes me, like a lover, and I give myself over to its embrace. For the first fifteen laps, worries clutter my mind, shouting: my contract might be threatened, that client isn’t happy, will any publication take my writing? Tick-tick-tick: looming deadlines and endless to-dos. Soon, they will leave and silence will settle in, the rhythm of my body in the water, the peace of the pace. With every stroke I am reaching for the inevitable calm.

I fill my lungs and push off from the wall. I part the waters, my legs fluttering. My hands are cups filling and emptying. I point my toes and tap my heels to complete a stroke. There’s no place like the pool. Focusing on form lets the worries bubble up and float away. I breathe out of my nose, my skin pulses.

In breaststroke, my arms extend like eagle’s wings before coming together at my heart and pushing forward. Back stroke and free style are long-limbed and reaching, exposing the heart. Even butterfly, which I rarely swim, is an open-arm hug before an elegant crashing into the water. In swimming I become expansive, open to everything, full of love for this moment, full of understanding for all the complications in and around me. I become an observer, not a judge.

*

In high school, swim class was mandatory for ninth graders. The gym teacher handed out brown, starchy swimsuits that were washed every night in abrasive industrial detergent. We clipped the straps together with a barrette to keep them from falling down. When my oldest son Asher was in high school, he swam against my alma mater, and my mother, father, and I watched from the bleachers. The pool seemed half the size it was in the 1980s. In my memory I treaded water, staring up at bleachers that rose like mountains of creaking seats the gym teacher traversed, shouting instructions. Asher was not a fast swimmer, but he took whatever the coach threw at him. Once, forced into the 500, the longest and hardest event in the competition, he finished last. I watched with a knotted stomach, nervous that all eyes were on my boy. I admired his resolve to plow through one lap at a time, as if no one were there, immersed in the water’s lulling support. The natatorium shimmered with cheering. After, he and my dad commiserated about what it felt like to compete in the pool. Although all eyes were on them, they lost themselves in the rhythm of the strokes. It was as if the rest of the world fell away. I knew exactly what they meant.

*

With every length, my worries have less energy and I have more. Twenty lengths in, my mind quiets. Until I reach my rhythm, I negotiate with myself to keep going: Another ten lengths. If you want to quit at thirty, fine. But I never quit. Once I am submerged, I stay. After thirty lengths, it’s all freestyle, long and gliding. Worries are little birds flying away without sound. Safe travels, little creatures – go find light and warmth.

*

I spent two years watching my father die. When his life finally ended on a dark, windy day, I thought, I spend my life waiting and then death comes to the door. There is no better time for anything. 

I’d been wanting to visit the Keys for years. I yearned to leave the gray cold, short days and ice-crusted streets for slow beach strolls, an unlimited horizon and the cool reassurance of a shimmering pool, a kiss of sweet air on my skin. I drove lonely, two-lane roads under bright sun, crossing long and narrow bridges stringing islands together until I arrived in the tropical refuge of a seaside resort. I chose Cheeca Lodge in Islamorada because it had a lap pool. I could swim in the milky dawn counting lengths by the clicking of insects

Breathing in the winter can be painful – each inhale burns and harsh wind bites exposed skin, turning it red and raw. I needed to be in a place where it didn’t hurt to breathe, where I could bare my skin and feel the sun seep in quietly, kindly. It was more than a literal winter that February. The weeks after my father died were the darkest time of my life

I loved those early mornings flip-flopping across asphalt, past the golf course where sprinklers switch-switch-switched, all peaceful silence and reverence for the rising day. The air was cool, like the water. I was the only one in the pool that early, the morning whispering reassurances like my father used to. With each lap, I felt more certain that I could continue on without him, even if I didn’t want to.

*

The water and I, we are close. I push and it pushes me back. I glide and it holds me. It molds around my body and I let it comfort me. I breathe out as long as I can until there is no air left. I am a buoy in a constant current. I cannot sink no matter how hard I try.

When I finish the longest part of my set, steam rises from my skin and I duck under to cool my face. The drumbeat of music in the speakers is as rhythmic as the waves. I can’t make out words and I don’t really want to. Children squeal and splash, old people float in the shallows, a marathoner in the next lane pounds up and down the lane. Everything is happening around me and the worries I brought to the pool have long since floated away. Everything that felt heavy, draining, is simple in the haze from the water. The world is an unimportant blur.

My main set done; I proceed through my last twenty-two lengths to hit my mile. I alternate strokes, slow my pace. In my water cocoon, I watch bubbles become blinking stars in a night sky.

I’ve swum three or four times a week for more than a decade now and I sought refuge in a pool long before that. But only in the past few years have I realized that, in the pool, I find the comfort and support my father gave me. Swimming infuses me with strength, clarity, and determination like my conversations with Dad. I no longer need to hear his words to know everything will be alright. In the absence of his voice, I listen to my own.

I finish every swim with side stroke, a kindness to my weary self. Goggles off, I lay my head in the water as if it is my father’s palm. My hands and legs scissor in opposite directions. Water gurgles in my ear. And when I rise from the pool, sparkling drops drip off of me, my hair shaking out from its cap molding. I am the great whale’s tail, inhabiting the space my father used to occupy with his single-breath strength – I am carrying the little girl to safety.

About the Author:

Lynne Golodner has an MFA in Poetry from Goddard College and is the author of 8 books and thousands of articles. She works as a writing coach and professor and is the host of the Make Meaning Podcast. Lynne lives in Huntington Woods, Michigan with her husband and four teens. Learn more at https://lynnegolodner.com.

Categories
nonfiction

The Smock by Betty J. Cotter

The Smock | Betty J. Cotter

My mother’s maternity top has had at least three lives – maybe four, as I am wearing it now: a loose cotton smock covered in a gaudy pattern of blue roses and daisies. For a while I thought it was homemade; it has no tag and some hand stitching in the seams. My mother could sew, although she hated to; in fact, she won a Necchi sewing machine in one of the many jingles contests she loved to enter. But just the other day I found the top on page eighty-seven of the Sears Roebuck Spring & Summer Catalog. “Look pretty while you’re waiting,” Sears advises above the model, who has paired the shirt with blue pedal pushers.

My sister would have known the smock wasn’t hand-sewn. But Andi has been dead for four years, and when we pulled the shirt out of a trunk after my mother died, I did not think to ask. Because Andi was not examining the needlework or waxing nostalgic over the pattern. “I remember that shirt,” she said, “because she slapped me right across the face one day when she was wearing it.”

This would have been 1959. I was there only in utero, but when I picture the scene the camera of my eyes hovers just behind Andi. I imagine the blur of blue flowers, my mother’s enraged face, and her right hand striking with rapier speed. The vision is as real as a memory. But that is all: I don’t recall why my mother slapped her (Had she spilled something? Made a smart remark?), but after all the child is not responsible for the parent’s anger. My mother was nearly forty years old, unexpectedly pregnant, probably hot, hormonal, and irritated at something that had nothing to do with her eight-year-old daughter.

In the 1950s, only pregnant women and painters wore smocks. In fact, although the style would become fashionable twenty years later, no definition in the dictionary explains this article of clothing or women’s relationship to it. The word derives from the Anglo-Saxon smoc (Middle English smok), meaning a loose dress or chemise, or “an overgarment of washable material” – a sort of workman’s apron. The 1977 Webster’s New Collegiate labeled the chemise definition archaic, but made no note of the smock’s evolution that decade into a fashion trend. Even in the 1998 edition, its principal dictionary denotation was as a cover-up for workers. The shirt’s identity as maternity clothing or Baby Boomer styling went unremarked; dictionaries were still written primarily by men.

Sometime in the 1970s, I discovered the loose shirt in my mother’s drawer and asked if I could wear it. Smocks were in. On Simplicity patterns and in the pages of Mademoiselle and Glamour magazines, models like Barbara Minty and Colleen Corby wore them loose or tucked into jeans. Andi and I combed through our FBS (French Boot Shop) catalog, from a retailer in New Rochelle that sold trendy clothing for modern women. Here the term “smock” became a catch-all for peasant blouses, India-print shirts, and short tunics. There was the “dude smock,” the “absolute smock,” the “gauze smock,” the “scarf smock.” The descriptions paid homage to the shirts’ origins: “The easy going smock is really a Mexican’s work shirt with a mandarin collar, front pocket”; another was “made from real peasant scarves in prints of the provinces.” Were there actual Mexican workers or peasants behind these creations? In 1975, no one cared. The models flaunted these shirts in third-world countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic, giving them a certain native cachet. I wanted to live like the women of FBS, who summered in exotic locales and carried sisal bags with flowers poking out of the top, who played tennis and strode down cobblestone streets, whose tall, lean bodies had never been pregnant and surely never would be.

What happened between my mother’s maternity smock and the tops of the 1970s? For one thing: Elizabeth Taylor. In the 1966 movie The Sandpiper, she plays a bohemian artist living on the coast of Big Sur in California whose wild young son is sent to a conservative private school run by a British headmaster (Richard Burton). It doesn’t take long for the buttoned-up Dr. Edward Hewitt to fall for the free-living Laura Reynolds, and the best parts of the campy movie consist of location shots of Taylor painting on the beach, dressed in, you guessed it, floaty artist’s smocks over tight pants. By the time Laura and the minister sneak away for a picnic in an isolated cove, she has shed everything but that smock, her legs emerging provocatively as she entwines herself around him.

But in 1975, I did not question how a garment that had once served as maternity clothing became a fashion statement. Why would women want to wear smocks if they weren’t pregnant? I had no answer for this at fifteen, and I put on my mother’s blue-flowered maternity top hoping my friends would not make the connection. I had no intention of getting pregnant, then or ever.

My mother never slapped me. She did pop me on the bottom once, when I was older than Andi, maybe ten, because I was teasing her about her middle name. Hope. What kind of a name was that? Hopie, Hopie, I heckled. She was infuriated. The smack did not hurt, not really, but her rage was incomprehensible. Why so sensitive? She would have these sudden fits, dissolving into tears, threatening to go to bed or never do our laundry again. Menopause, we blamed. Always there was some female condition responsible for her anger. But did pregnancy really make her slap Andi? Were hormones behind her fury about her middle name? My mother was angry. I suppose she had plenty of reasons to be, but she would have denied all of them. She did not like to admit my arrival was unplanned. She dismissed the resulting end of her teaching career with a shake of the head; she wasn’t healthy enough to continue, that was all. Women of her generation wore smocks to cover up their condition, and my mother was a master of subterfuge. One never really knew the full story. It was true she had hemorrhaged badly after I was born, and the pregnancy left her with some unpleasant physical issues, but it’s also true that she petitioned for a year’s leave of absence and the School Committee denied her appeal. Only then did she cash in her retirement fund and stop working. So, which was it? Was she relieved to stay home and be a full-time mother? Or was she papering over the truth, that she would have preferred I hadn’t been born at all?

My mother quit teaching school as soon as her pregnancy showed. It was considered unseemly for visibly pregnant women to be out in public, as though young children might be corrupted by the sight of them, as though the condition were contagious. It was only a few years before my birth that the wildly popular TV show I Love Lucy was enjoined from using the word “pregnant” on TV. Lucille Ball, as Lucy Ricardo, dressed for TV much as she did in real life: in stretchy pants and balloon-like maternity smocks. The tops were so expansive that you never saw the belly lurking beneath; that was by design. A woman who was pregnant was the subject of lame jokes about pickle cravings and mood swings. Pregnancy was a temporary and charming spell not to be broken by the actual word or a real belly bulge. It was a state of euphemism: “Look pretty while you’re waiting.”

As it happened, I was named after another pregnant woman on TV. “Betty Jean” was a character on the CBS soap opera The Edge of Night, whose husband was having an affair. One night he brought her ice cream to make up for an argument, but he left it on the counter to melt. At least, that is how my sister remembers it; in the plot lines of 1959, Betty Jean and her husband Jack are indeed estranged, but they already have a child, Bud. Andi may have been recalling an earlier episode: She would have seen enough of them in her preschool years, when she lived with my grandmother during the week. In any case, you might wonder why my mother would name a child after an unhappily married woman. The answer is she didn’t – my grandmother, who was devoted to her “stories” as she called the soap operas, picked out “Betty Jean.” My mother wanted to name me Caroline. She probably changed the spelling to “Jeanne” to give it a little pizzazz.

My mother’s pregnancy was more The Edge of Night than I Love Lucy. She would have been wondering how they were going to fit a third child into their two-bedroom house (the answer: a crib in the kitchen), how they were going to get by on my father’s meager earnings as a sawmill operator, and what it would be like to take care of a child full time. My grandmother, her mother-in-law, had raised Andi and Mary Jane while my mother taught school; they only came home on weekends.

So, I can’t really blame her for that slap. It was a momentary fissure in her composure, a cry for help even. My mother was overwhelmed. I know how she felt. One evening, one of the many nights when my husband was working and I had three children seven and under to corral, I lost my temper. It may have happened twice, although I only remember once: I slapped my eldest across the face.

During my three pregnancies, from 1989 to 1995, maternity clothing was still loose and camouflaging. It was unheard of to wear tight knit shirts that clung to one’s belly like plastic wrap on a bowling ball, as women do today. I started out in polyester pantsuits until they became too tight, and graduated to loose dresses and jumpers. By the last weeks of each pregnancy, hardly anything fit. I remember one summer when, as the birth of my second child approached, only one sundress accommodated my girth. Somehow I did not think to borrow my mother’s smock as I had in the ’70s.

Like my mother, I was working full time. But all these years later, the choice she made – to leave her children in someone else’s care from Sunday evening to Friday afternoon – shocked me. We cobbled together babysitting between my aunt, a day care center, and my husband’s split shift. I wanted my children to sleep in their own beds at night. I wanted to see them, cook them supper, bathe them, play with them. We had a routine, and most of the time it worked out fine. But some nights it was all too much: the boys running amok, refusing to settle down, my baby girl disinterested in sleep. I snapped. The slap, sudden like a thunderclap, stopped the commotion. The sad thing is it worked.

Years later, I confessed to my eldest that I still felt guilt for striking him. He just laughed. Unlike my sister, he had no memory of being hit at all.

The smock was the only maternity clothing that my mother saved. She did not intend to have more children. Why did she keep it? Did she, too, imagine wearing it while writing? The only other clothing she stowed away was her college sweatshirt. Not even her blue wedding suit survives, but the smock and sweatshirt were folded carefully in a drawer, along with our snowsuits and my father’s Army uniform. She never wore either one again, but they must have represented something to her: She had graduated from college. She had borne three daughters.

I think of my mother in that hot kitchen, unable to bear one more trial of motherhood, smacking my sister in a rage. I don’t know if she felt deep shame later, as I did for slapping my son, or whether she even recalled the incident that had embittered Andi. She liked to hide behind forgetting, and cited Andi’s memory as though it were a character flaw: “Oh, your sister. She doesn’t forget a thing.” When I appropriated the smock as a teenager, I was innocent of its history. What did my mother think about her youngest parading around in it? I wonder now if women in the 1970s donned smocks precisely because they could: freed by the birth control pill and the women’s liberation movement to control their fertility, they transformed a maternity shirt from a garment of camouflage to one of allure. It seemed only fitting when my daughter, another generation, took an interest in it. Enchanted by its bright blue flowers, she made the smock into 21st-century chic by adding a leather belt.

Today I see my mother’s smock as something sacred. Whether you are painting a picture or making a baby, the smock is a sign you have something gestating. I put it on now to write. Although it is weighted by its history – by the lives of my mother, my teenage self, my sister, my daughter – it feels light and loose; not confining, but not tent-like either. It was well made. After sixty-two years, the smock has held up – its colors a little faded but its stitching tight, its lines true. And I suppose mothers are like that. We are not perfect. We are stretched and stressed by the demands placed on us, and sometimes we snap in ways that are unforgivable. I wear the smock to remind myself that if I judge my mother, I must judge myself. That if I empathize with my sister, I must not forget to atone for my son, even if he did not hold onto the memory. The smock, that garment that was supposed to hide so much, continues to reveal: our humanity, our creativity, our potential. Its story also is a cautionary tale. It reminds me how quickly we can turn from loving to cruel. But it also carries with it the possibility of forgiveness. Like the smock, my mother was more than maternal; she was a teacher, a writer, and a flawed human being doing the best she could. And the smock, like my mother, has transcended its maternity function into a garment for the ages.

About the Author:

Betty J. Cotter is the author of the novels Roberta’s Woods (Five Star, 2008) and The Winters (which earned her a Fiction Fellowship from the R.I. State Council on the Arts). The first chapter of her novel Moonshine Swamp was selected for the premiere issue of Novel Slices (2020) and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A Rhode Island resident, she holds an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Categories
nonfiction

Here, Gone, Again by Sarah Lass

The 2021 Honeybee Prize for Nonfiction; Selected by Marco Wilkinson:

Here, Gone, Again | Sarah Lass

It is late May in a quiet corner of New England. I sit on a hill that tumbles towards a pond in two definitive slopes: the first precipitous drop from the quiet street above empties into an inviting grassy expanse before dropping off again towards the water. Two edges, two drops, separated by the fleeting respite of horizontality. Green flesh whispers softly to green flesh. Every so often, the water shivers. 

It isn’t warm. Summer is tentative. Evening slinks across the lawn, bringing with it a more assertive chill. Above, an echelon of geese parts the sky. The formation circles, circles again, and then descends. Two wings stretch out from each plump feathered body, doming elegantly over unseen supports. The approach to the pond’s surface is met with increasing exclamation and outcry. “It’s happening,” they shout—vehement, uncertain, alarmed, ecstatic. “We’re landing! It’s happening!”

The next day, I’m back at the pond, but this time in the dance studio nestled on its banks. I stand with my back pressed against the wall, the generous expanse of the studio floor spilling out from my toes. These are trees underfoot: oak. Two bodies move a few yards away, beginning their exquisite play of weight and tone and rhythm and reference and space and relationship and and and; they listen, they offer, they listen. Light drapes across limbs like a soft, indulgent fabric, continually redoing its weave on their bodies. We have begun. We are improvising. I could reach the two bodies in a few steps if I wanted, but I stay on my edge, simultaneously dilating myself open and extending myself outward into the action. The brew of that meeting place—between my attention and their movement—will tell me something about what’s happening. This is how my body can begin its strange calculations, etching emergent formulas across and through itself. There will be no resolution or conclusion, only the narrowest of windows into revelation: now. Enter now. All I can do is be ready to answer the call—whenever, whatever, however it emerges. Attachment, in this circumstance, is impediment. 

The moment arrives and I go. I don’t decide to do it, but suddenly I am in it. I arrive into the free-fall of composing. I trip and stumble (sometimes literally, more often figuratively). I’ve released myself from the demands of logic, but I am still involved in sense-making, just with a more expansive understanding of what that means and how it happens. Occasionally, in this regard, I find a fleeting foothold. What are we doing? I know from experience that if I look at the question directly, I’ll have no hope of answering (and answering is not even of primary concern). More reliable (and more interesting) is a mantra: this is happening. The unblemished spread of oak, the generous emptiness of the room, the landscape of light and shadow—it all gives the impression of controlled conditions, the circumstances of laboratory work. But in addition to this winnowed focus, the world goes on. We are in it. It is in us. Conditions are anything but controlled. Even though we experiment and question, improvisation is not a laboratory—it is a garden and an unruly one at that. 

More dancers arrive, forming a loose cluster nearby. They are clouds gathering before a storm. They are the unruly chorus of instruments that greets the arriving orchestra-goer, all tuning towards whatever lies ahead. They are the scattered chants that ultimately build into protest. I don’t think these things there in the studio, in the moment of perceiving them. Naming them in this way will slow me down. I will miss things. More perilous still, if I name them and require that they meet and maintain whatever moniker I have assigned them, then they cannot become anything else. No—they are all of these things and none of these things. They are people moving together—here, now—and I know what they’re doing just like I know how the clouds gather and the orchestra prepares and the chants build. 

I drop into a peculiar rhythm as I travel around the group, feeling a syncopation of my right toe, tail bone, and left shoulder. To say I feel it isn’t quite right, though. I don’t simply feel it—I feel into it, like when I stretch my hand into a glove and reach around for the fingers. I excavate the sensation. I am active inside of it. I commit myself to the rhythm even as (or especially as) I wonder about it. On the opposite side of the group—itself wrapped up in some imprecise geometry of embrace—another body loops about languidly. She is a moon in orbit. She shifts her pelvis this way and that, flirting with momentum as she falls in half-circles, her limbs trailing, ribbon-like. My rhythm cedes into increased muscular tone; I begin to feel desire. I want physical contact. I want pressure. A body brushes up against my own, spilling into me from my left hip up to my shoulders. It is warm, steady, reliable, and still moving. The fleshy surface offered dips gently downward. Here is support, if you want it. I do. I fall into it. I am carried—delivered from my location on the periphery into the tangled mass. I feel what it is to share my weight with another; to stay active without leading; to experience a shift. I feel what it is to be moved. This is happening. 

To say our dance is collaborative is true. Since we don’t know what will happen or how it will come about, our primary commitment is to being together. However, being together does not mean agreeing. In fact, in order to discover anything at all we have to challenge one another—a little, a lot, just enough—so that we all have the sense—no matter where we are or what we’re doing—of being on the brink and at our limits. I remember the playful contests of childhood. I bet I can make it to the fence before you. Whoever does the most cartwheels wins. Let’s see how fast we can go. The game is proposed not so much to bring about the outcome, but rather to engage the players. We hold hands (or arms or legs or feet or all manner of imaginative ephemera) at the lip of a precipice. We step into it together.

I think of the geese. Webbed feet splay in readiness, stretching into the rapidly closing space between palmate and pond. Wings beat with new desperation and bleating voices reach a chaotic zenith. Feathers fan, their tips reaching out and up like the ends of paintbrushes dragged from upper canvas to lower. Water welcomes ample bellies and breasts with fanfare, sloshing and spraying in jubilation. This has happened before and yet, it is somehow still surprising. A few final exchanges and expletives amplify the excitement, and then the urgent discussion is over. Quiet returns. The water parts gently just as the sky did above. Fine lines of disruption trail each perky tailfeather, the ripples extending into a ghost of the V-shape marked, when airborne, by fellow fowl. The geese land, but glide on, the voyage not ended, but altered. 

I don’t know that luck is responsible, but it always feels lucky, coming upon that thing on the other side of composing—that thing that we’re hoping to reach through the act of composing. Whatever it is, it doesn’t feel like we’ve made it; authorship is not absent, but it’s also not the point. Whatever it is—that thing—it emerges. It catches us. We land in it. 

I am tempted to say that our dance crystalizes. This is not the wrong word to use, but it is also not the right one. There is certainly a coalescing and a clarity. There is a kind of undeniability of structure and form (no matter where the dance falls on the spectrum of those terms). And yet, the dance does not solidify. It is not immobile. It is not set. Perhaps we could say this: it goes from being many things to not being many things. Or, similarly, it goes from not being some things to not being most things. Or we could liken it to the experience of hiking up a mountain, of finding one’s way through trees and brush, looking through shaded density, winding and weaving through foliage, possibly losing one’s way any number of times, and then, finally, emerging into the clearing or onto the mountain-top lookout and feeling the accompanying quieting and stilling, the sense of wide-eyed arrival. 

I describe this because of the feeling—the quieting, the stilling, the wide-eyed arrival—but landing in that thing on the other side of composing is, truthfully, nothing like hiking to the forest clearing or the mountain lookout. It is more like wandering the tundra, without commitment to route, to destination, or even to eventual return; it is like setting off with the commitment only to go, and then—on the way and in the midst—discovering a mossy stone, which you bend down to caress with complete devotion for a time; and then, later, looking to the sky to find a bird accompanying you from above, tracking it and you for a while as you move in an unlikely duet; it is like when, later still, you become transfixed by the crunch of your feet in concert with the chirp of an insect. One thing about the thing on the other side of composing is this: the mossy stone leads to the bird, and the bird gives way to the crunch and the chirp. The clearing leads, once again, to the woods. The thing we’ve found—precious and specific—keeps moving, slipping away, becoming something else. In other words, the grassy expanse drops into the next hill. The hill empties into the pond. The geese take flight again. 

Over the course of two quiet afternoons in July 2020 I read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. I finish it sitting on the hill by the pond. My back leans against its first sloping incline, my legs sprawl out into the grassy field. The sun has lain down across my skin like a warm, gentle body wrapped intimately around my own. A breeze picks up, toys with becoming a wind, and then decides against it. Flowers bloom. 

“There’s so many of us,” the ghost Richie says in the book’s final pages. Though he has discovered the circumstances of his death, there is no redemption for Richie, who had hoped that the knowledge might help him “cross the waters,” “be home,” “become the song.” There is no redemption for the countless other ghosts, who Jojo, the novel’s young black protagonist, encounters in the story’s final pages. “They perch like birds but look as people” on the branches of a great tree in the woods behind Jojo’s house. The ghosts—men, women, the elderly, and the newborn, those who lived two hundred years ago and those who lived last week—look out at Jojo from their crowded branches in the gathering dark and tell him about their deaths with their eyes, each one singularly horrific. That these ghosts might know their own murders and still have no peace intimates that such horrors remain unresolved, remain present, remain alive. “The ghosts don’t still, don’t rise, don’t ascend and disappear.” Even when Jojo’s little sister Kayla commands them to go home, they stay. There can be no ascension—no resolution—while the horror continues. And it does. It goes on and on and on.

Why the protests that surged across the nation in the spring of 2020 gained such momentum and garnered such widespread involvement will likely be the source of research and discussion for decades to come. The murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery ignited the wave of outrage, but the murder of black and brown people by white police officers was not and is not new. What was it about that time in particular that, more than any other in recent history, made inaction—especially within white communities—finally unconscionable? George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. These were the names shouted out in call and response in the gathering heat of approaching summer—these names, these singular people, murdered in singularly horrific ways. And yet. There’s so many of us. Standing in a city street in May, facing a police precinct lined with unmoving, armed officers, I added my voice to the chorus, shaping the names to summon the people and I felt how many, many more arrive. 

It is one thing to know of racism—to know it is present and operational and monstrous—and it is another to know racism. The ability to experience a distinction is a privilege afforded by racism. It is one thing to perceive the motor of white supremacy—to hear it, to feel it, to see its gears and pistons, well-oiled by systemic and systematized hate. It is another to discover oneself an operator of this motor and a benefactor of its machinations; it is another still to find its wiring extending into and through one’s body, to feel it ignite when picked at, to become intimately acquainted with its unoriginal methods of trickery: deflection, disguise, disassociation. The spring and summer of 2020 felt to be characterized, in some ways and some white communities, by this profoundly overdue realization. Now. Enter now.

Posts proliferate. Emails are sent. Books published years ago and long available are suddenly out of stock. Solidarity is professed and action steps, communicated; racial violence and injustice of every guise is condemned, vehemently. I lose count of the number of posts I see. I am part of the problem. I have not done enough. I have been complacent. I have been complicit. I can see now. Newsfeeds repurposed as confessionals host hoards of penitents, all piling in with the requisite contrition and the necessary disclosures. The noise, the commotion, the fanfare— here is a landing of sorts.

The net of bodies into which I’ve been deposited continues knotting and unknotting itself. Those involved dart through empty pockets of space, which balloon open between moving masses and then pop closed, punctured by continued action. The speed at which they appear and disappear thrills. The moon—that dancer flung outward from the ensemble—seems to have metabolized the loping circles which carried her wildly through space moments before, that unruly curving and carving now traveling through the interior of her form, buffeting her from the inside-out.

Though there have been a couple of spatial reconfigurations and though a number of seconds have now elapsed between what was happening and what is happening, the facts of the dance remain largely unchanged. And yet, in the midst of it all, I perceive a kind of sharpening, as if we all, having entered an unfamiliar room without glasses and having stumbled about there for a time, have now found and donned our much-needed eyewear. This is happening has led us to this, this, this. Moss. Chirp. Bird. Attached as this may be to them, it is also more than them; dependent upon them, but also irreducible to them. This swells beyond its facts—exceeds them—lifting off from them the moment it lands in them.

I remember another dance, from years earlier. “What if attention is the dance?” Jennifer Monson called out from a corner of St. Mark’s Church on a hot afternoon in July 2017. We had turned off all the lights, perhaps in an attempt to trick ourselves into believing the space was cooler than it actually was, or perhaps in order to better facilitate the score we were exploring—something about light and shadow. I was at the back of the church, at the perimeter of the wood floor that blankets it, surrounded by the thirty or so other dancers participating in the workshop. I was a couple of feet from one of the poles that supports the church’s second-story balcony, which now provides office space for a couple of arts organizations but which ones, I discovered while reading a New York Times review of choreographer Reggie Wilson’s work, served as a slave gallery.

I was pouring myself into and out of an ill-defined corridor of light which beamed down from the west side of the building to the east. I had been doing this somewhat aimlessly for a few minutes, winnowing my focus to the prompts offered so that I might be led—via the confluence of my activity, imagination, and curiosity—into expanded presence. I had been largely unsuccessful until Jennifer Monson’s provocation. The question materialized in the air like a sculpture. As we danced, we moved around it, surveying it from various perspectives so we might come to understand something about it. 

Upon hearing it, I suddenly perceived my own form as nothing more and nothing less than a landscape of light and shadow—one which was contiguous with the landscape of light and shadow around me. I tracked the estuary of these light-based landscapes—my own and the room’s—and I discovered that I could be moved according to the refraction of the room’s light through the various fleshy densities of my form. Dark matter meets warm light, splinters and scatters, eddies, pools, pours back towards darkness, tends to itself there, meets more shadow, commotion, agitation, uproar, light spreads, shadow beckons. This. The landing was not in movement, exactly—not in the compositional particulars of time, space, gesture, effort, though all of these were certainly present and happening; it was instead in a way of attending to what was already happening. 

If the dance is not, in fact, its facts—if it is not the moss or the chirp or the bird, not the movement that takes me into and out of that corridor of light—but rather a matter of attention in relation to these facts, then I wonder if the dance isn’t always, already happening, if it isn’t perpetually underway. If this is the case, then there is nothing to make, but rather everything to find. The missing element—the element that shepherds us, ultimately, to this—is attention, which is not to be confused with awareness, a related but by no means synonymous term. As we have seen, we can be aware of something without attending to it; I can know of something without knowing it.

In an episode of the podcast Code Switch, hosts Shereen Marisol Meraji and Gene Demby question why white people showed up and spoke out in the summer of 2020. “Some major shift appears to be happening with a large cohort of white people. But why now?” Meraji and Demby ask. After posing that very question—“why now?”—to their many new white followers on Instagram, a theme emerged: white people saw other white people speaking out. Whereas previously it had felt conspicuous to discuss and post about racial injustice and violence, it now felt conspicuous not to. There was both pressure and permission in white communities to say something, Meraji and Demy explain, but regardless of the specific rationale, action arose due to dynamics between white people. “Few people who responded to me said that they had become activated because of social proximity to black people,” Meraji continues. “So, while much of the conceptual space and groundwork for this moment was laid by black organizers, these messages suggest that much of this political foment among white people is happening because of contact with other white people.”

I try to remember who it was, that dancer who transplanted me into the tangled mass of bodies, carrying me from the periphery into the fray, to that place where, eventually, we came upon the dance? Does it matter that I know who it was who carried me? Absolutely. It matters that I am here, certainly, and it also matters how I came to be here. If I know who it was who moved me, I can call upon this as the composition continues. It matters because it tells me something about how I might attend to the dance now—in this new moment—and now—in this one. The dance doesn’t stop, and if I do, I am no longer a part of it. It is important to be here, to have landed, but it is most important not to stay here. There are countless clearings to reach. 

The geese float across the surface of the pond. Their journey appears calm, but I know it’s a ruse. Just below the water’s surface the webbed feet that trailed them like rutters in flight have been repurposed as motors. They paddle themselves forward in flurries of undisclosed activity—a few seconds of quick, insistent kicks at the water around them, a few seconds of rest. Repeat. They remind me that stillness is a myth, simply a slowing of perpetual, though sometimes imperceptible motion. They reach the center of the pond and then, responsive to some impulse or stimuli unknown to me, they cry out to each other. They beat their wings with a muscularity that seems to alarm even them, hoisting themselves from the water with heroic though inelegant effort. Their transition to flight seems most difficult in the intermediate space between pond and sky, the horizon, its underneath riding the seam of the earth and its top indicating with a peculiar clarity (considering the imprecise nature of the term) that realm we describe as “above.” The work is arduous, but eventually, the geese gain the sky. How strange and beautiful—to watch momentum increase in an upward trajectory. They circle, collecting themselves and each other, and then set off across the treetops which surround the pond, heading towards the mountain a few miles away. They disappear behind the trees. I do not know where they’ll land.  

I wonder what it’s like on the other side of revolution. I wonder who I am there. I write this because it’s true—I do wonder—but my formulation is misleading. I am already happening, already underway. So, too, is revolution. Instead of wondering, then, I continue. I activate and inquire in the intermediate; I ready myself for engagement; I enter before I’m ready; I fall; I commit without commentary; I lose and am lost; I marvel: I embrace: I let it all go: I delight and exclaim with each arrival; I expect departure; I attend; I attend again; I attend differently. 

One might say I am made and re-made over the course of things. One might say I am undone, over and over. Which of these is more correct is, perhaps, not the most interesting question. It is not that we are remade or undone, but simply changed—here, and then elsewhere, this and then this.

Bibliography

Ward, Jesmyn. Sing, Unburied, Sing. New York: Scriber, 2017.

Kourlas, Gia. “Review: Connecting Dance and Worship With Poetic Imagination,” The New 

York Times, (New York: NY), Jan 8, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/08/arts/dance/reggie-wilson-review.html.

Demby, Gene and Shereen Marisol Meraji. “Why Now, White People,” Code 

Switch. Podcast audio. June 16, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/16/878963732/why-now-white-people.

About the Author:

Sarah Lass is a Colorado-raised, Massachusetts-based dancer, writer, and educator. Her current book project, Small Dances, is a collection of essays which connects the work of dance to the work of building a more tender, more compassionate, and more joyful world. Her essay, “Ephemeral Does Not Mean Impermanent,” was recently published in the 2021 issue of The Briar Cliff Review. Lass received her MFA in Dance from Smith College in 2018 and graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon College in 2013. She has taught dance courses at Smith, Hampshire, Marlboro, and Keene State Colleges.

Categories
nonfiction

Fences for Neighbours by Rebecca Davey

Fences for Neighbours | Rebecca Davey

*Pseudonyms are used.

“We’ll do it quick,” I say. “So quick, they won’t even know it happened.” 

I’m trying to convince my husband and father-in-law to knock down our decrepit old plaster kitchen wall. The goal is to beautify the wall as well as put up new layers of soundproofing—all in the space of a weekend while my neighbours are away. My husband acquiesces and picks up the sledgehammer. Boom. Right away we discover (as is the way with renovations) that this quick and dirty job is not at all quick, and is exceptionally dirty. With the knocked down wall comes many layers of plaster dust, along with a thick layer of black charcoal. Who knew the wall was covering up a chimney?

“Will some of that black stuff land on their side?” I ask my father-in-law as he reaches for the broom, his body covered in soot.

“A little,” he says. Which means A LOT. Dread creeps into my belly as they dig around in the wall muck, feeling the implications of our rash act. Indeed, the neighbours come home to their entire kitchen sprinkled in a black dredge that has settled on both sides of the wall. I know this because when I put my ear to the fresh drywall, now adorned with a triple layer of insulation, I can still hear the upswing of Jeff, my neighbour.

“What did they do?” he asks, at which point the terror starts to course through me. How is it possible that I can hear him more clearly than before? The triple layer of soundproofing was supposed to fix that. Now it’s as if there’s no wall at all.

My fraught relationship with my neighbours—Jeff and Mandy—has taken up many years of brain space—eight years to be exact, as I try and guess what they’re thinking, wondering constantly if I’ve upset them, if they like my bangs, how I could bring up the sharing of the cost of porch paint. 

“You’ve always been like that,” my friend Sarah says, “a little obsessive.” We are sitting in her backyard eating bran muffins as I try to pick her brain for memories of me. Is this who I am, I wonder. Obsessive? I’m tempted to defend myself, but it’s true, certain people do take hold.  

It’s another Sunday and the service has just ended. Everyone is milling about the way it happens in evangelical churches. I see my childhood friend across the sanctuary. She has long wavy hair and just discovered she has a long-lost dad who’s also an actor. She also has a singing voice like vanilla pudding, which makes me totally jealous. I too want to be an artist but only consider myself a solid medium. Nice church people like Thomas and Ruth and Renfrew Bently—all come up to shake my hands. People are friendly and interested in my life here, but I’m only half listening to everyone because I have one eye on my friend and who she is talking to. Who is the person that is interested in her life? Whose orbit is she moving into next, and will I be excluded? I want to be her. 

“Sam was another obsession,” Sarah says. “You pursued him with an unwavering focus too. Remember all those letters?” 

“I signed them with a star instead of a heart.”

“Sounds like you. You just weren’t particularly interested in the odds if you wanted something.”

 I think it’s a family trait this intent focus—animal-like—compelling us to seek out our prey, but with soft loving hearts. 

Jeff and Mandy move into the Victorian row house next to ours a year after us and I’m instantly enamoured. She’s in fashion and wears surprising combinations like sky blue shorts and a yellow t-shirt with brown leather loafers. Her hair is cut into a sleek bob and sometimes she ties it all together with bright red lipstick, setting off her perfectly imperfect front teeth. I can’t take my eyes off her. He makes high end shoes from scratch and sometimes wears a smoking jacket. I tell all my friends that my neighbour makes shoes. I feel cool to be orbiting so close to them, the same wall. 

It’s ludicrous the proximity—practically incestuous—sharing the same wall. I think about how with the right tools I could cut a hole in the wall like they do in movies and walk right through. If I put my ear to the wall in our kitchen, I can hear their banal conversations, but I listen anyway. Until their voices start to make me feel sick, from the over extension of my neck! Why am I standing there? What am I hoping to find?  

One time, Jeff sends me a text in the middle of the night. I was in Winnipeg, staying in an unglamorous dorm room with my family during a weekend break from a summer course. There were no students in the dorm because it was the summer, so we had been running the bland halls with our toddler. My older daughter, who we had unfortunately trained to love fancy things, found the dorm disappointing. The duvets weren’t cozy and the bathroom didn’t have a TV. She acted disgusted the way I felt inside. Plus, the only take out we could find was less than average. We ate it on the bed, and nobody thought it was delicious. My toddler managed to slurp the occasional piece of noodle; the rest getting ground into the industrial carpet. 

“It’s a full moon tonight,” he wrote, taking me by surprise. I was just getting up to go to the bathroom when I saw my phone flash. I took my phone into the bathroom to read it a couple more times. My heartbeat accelerated. Up until now we hadn’t spoken more than five words to each other alone. I didn’t even know I registered on the radar of the dapper man with the homemade shoes, so specific in his taste and moments of kindness. So, a sudden text at night about the moon? I’m making headway. 

“Yeah, great moon from Winnipeg,” I wrote back. I wonder if he thought I was on the other side of the wall that night. I sat on the toilet and waited for a response, but nothing came. 

It takes me a while to accept that Jeff and Mandy are actually terrible neighbours. Their intimacy is inconsistent, always on their terms. She texts me when she needs something: an onion, ice cubes (it takes them three months to return the trays), a lemon, ketchup. I keep telling myself we’re in the building stage. This is us getting to know each other as I give her my last egg. He texts me when he’s bored, starting the conversation with, “Hey. What are you doing?” which dupes me into thinking he really wants to know. It takes me a while to learn what he’s really after. 

When she says at a porch party early on in our relationship that we should go to Cape Cod together as families, I’m ready to go inside and start packing. But the next morning and every other time we meet it never seems to come up again. Even after she blows off our early morning yoga date, our park date, and our wine date, I continue to dream about Cape Cod—a symbol of what could still be. 

   “Are you mad?” is her constant text refrain. 

Of course, I’m effusive about saying how not mad I am. I don’t want conflict. Plus, I have reciprocated a few texts to her husband. I’ve stepped over a line. Good people–neighbours aren’t supposed to do that. I have no moral ground to stand on and the quality of the ground beneath my feet has always been a concern for me. I’m a church girl after all. I have been trained to worry about others. Especially my neighbours. To think about my output. Now everything is getting marred. The pristine leather shoes are covered in scuff marks—some of them mine.  

Once there was a pair of narcissists who lived right next to a naive Christian girl, who was wracked by guilt for receiving their attention. Or was their attention more like ignoring? More likely they were too busy staring at their reflections in the kiddie pool in their backyard while she obsessed about her ranking on the scale of good to very, very bad.

  If you climb into our attic, you will find that it is completely open across six houses, meaning, if you don’t slip through the floorboards to your death, you can run from one end to the other. I imagine avoiding near death and climbing down on their side. I will find them at the dinner table, “Surprise, it’s me! Remember me? The neighbour you dangle like a cat toy.” They will look confused because they don’t have a cat, but my point will be made.

I make a short film in our house and get caught up in the moment of the scene. I let the actor sing her climactic aria over and over ending in a high-pitched squeal. This is my first time directing and I love every second. Again! Again! More squeal! It doesn’t occur to me until Jeff knocks on the door in the middle of the scene that the actors’ voice has been breaching our shared wall for hours. 

Maybe that’s when they decide to go to Cape Cod by themselves. I imagine them walking around Commercial Street in matching salmon pants and chewing on saltwater taffy. I feel left out because there was that one night of drinks where she said we were going to be best friends, two cool couples living side by side in a Victorian row houses. Also, I love the chewy tang of saltwater taffy. I thought they knew. 

Jeff leaves a vase of lavender on our porch for Mother’s Day one of those years, which feels like an olive branch, but then they don’t look at us for the next four months. That typical push and pull that reels me in over and over—the sucker that I am—disappointed by their stabs of kindness. Puncture, then a jab. 

Somewhere along the line, I stop responding to his texts. Maybe it’s because my mind is full of grief? We have just received the news that our baby will be born with a heart defect requiring open heart surgery at six months. I’m grieving in my usual obsessive way—constantly, a writhing sort of agony—at which point the NEIGHBOURS deign to have a party. I make Sam go over to knock on their door and put an end to their music that is echoing through the walls. (Did they install a speaker system along the stairwell? My god, they’re satanic!) Jeff tries to divert Sam by inviting him in for some chocolate fondue, but Sam stays strong, 

“My wife is weeping upstairs because of your reverberating bass.”

 Boom. Boom. There it is again.

We each build up our grievances, like an osprey building its protective nest. Stick after stick. It’s easier to hate than love. Jeff tells me that he despises opera. I leave them an expensive bottle of wine to apologize. They never say thank you. 

It’s around the time that I stop texting that I start listening avidly at the walls. I want to know if I’ve been found guilty. Also, to see if they are drinking my wine. I am certain that they are talking about me and I need to know what, precisely, they are saying. I have to listen a lot—every chance I get—to confirm my suspicions. It’s making me ill. The knot in my stomach is constant as I strain my neck to press my ear flat. The cup technique is a ruse. I can only ever make out a few words but it’s enough to keep me coming back for more. One time I hear them say “Emily.” And more than once I hear “her.” Her. I am her. For a while I think I might die when I come in my house because the neighbours are so close. I can hear their front door open and close. I can hear their footsteps on their staircase, their lives on the other side of the wall. 

I read a poem recently called “In Praise of Pain”—it seems relevant to those fanatical years, where I returned to the discomfort again and again.

The obsession seems to wane on both sides when we have kids, but I’m still a little too interested in what they think, still hoping that Cape Cod can happen—the symbol of what was gained and lost in a matter of minutes. Let’s chalk it up to my faith-based naiveté. God can move mountains. Noone is irredeemable. 

We are no longer filming shorts in our houses or throwing chocolate fountain parties because now we are doing other annoying things, like sanding our floors at odd hours of the day and night to save money. We don’t give the neighbours any warning because it takes too much effort to talk to them, to deal with their inconsistencies. It’s also our histories that prevent us from speaking clearly. When Jeff is feeling empty inside, he still sends me a random text. He finds me when I’m rocking my baby to sleep, when I am just about to get into the bath. I listen at the wall to see what he might be doing when his voice pierces through the drywall interrupting my life. I listen for the ice cubes clinking into his glass (he must be drunk!) or the snorting of cocaine (he must be high!). 

And yet I have envied how Jeff and Mandy look at each other, able to shut the whole world out, while I am clawing at the walls trying to find a hole so I can see what they’re doing over there. Just like I looked for my friend across the sanctuary. Always longing to be somewhere else, to be someone else, convinced that “there” was better than “here,” “she” better than “me,” even if I know I’m staring at people who don’t deserve all this time and energy being expended. 

I forget which particular construction project is the last straw for Mandy. Is it the charcoal detritus or the sanding of the floors? Or is it Sam asking to see the plans for their basement excavation? Definitely our contractor coming to cut a single piece of wood for a window trim is the catalyst to let it all out. When his jigsaw rings we receive a sharp text saying,

“From now on we need 24 hours’ notice for ALL work.” 

We’ve never sent these kind of acrid texts; we’ve never spoken our disdain out loud. Something has been unleashed. The walls become hot to the touch and I don’t even dare listen. I’m afraid of burning my hands, my ears on her wrath. But the world conspires and we run into them in the park that same day. For 45-minutes Mandy yells at Sam about our insensitivity and bad behaviour. The floors, oh how she put up with the sanding of the floors at every hour. And the random banging without warning. And our happy times too—they rubbed her most of all! I watch the scene play out from across the park, unable to move my body over to where they sit and support my husband who is graciously taking the fall. I watch human behaviour—petty and wounded—spread itself out like the chalk markings of a dead body. 

“Good fences make good neighbours,” says Robert Frost in his poem “Fences.” The inverse is also true: no fences at all and a shared wall make for bad neighbours especially if you’re a masochist who gets enamoured with people to the point of obsession and can’t find relief even in your own home. Also probably true if you’re just a normal group of humans causing normal levels of irritation. A lack of boundaries, aka, human beings sharing the same wall is a recipe for danger. Messed up humans. Full of good and so much bad, full of holes we think texting about the moon will fill up. Thinking we are doing a good job loving because our families are okay, but forgetting to spread the love just five metres to the right.

The first time I remember eavesdropping was in grade three. I had won a hands-free phone from “Jump Rope For Heart” and discovered that the flimsy phone, when plugged in, could listen in undetected on all my mom’s calls. I heard her cry with my aunt about my dad who wouldn’t talk to her, the genesis of my worrying about their marriage. Another year, I “eavesdropped” on all my Christmas presents, unwrapping and then subsequently rewrapping each one. None of them were what I wanted. Merry Christmas, Emily. 

Curiosity kills the cat. 

Curiosity feel like a restless hamster rooting around in my belly. 

Curiosity, what some might call obsession, has been my nemesis, even before I met Jeff and Mandy.

Now that we’re forty and mellowing with every year, texting is boring. We each have a few failures under our belt. We’re getting a little more body fat that we can’t get rid of which makes us humble. Our kids have exposed our inconsistencies, our parental inadequacies for all the world to see. They have heard me yell. I have heard their repeated door slams. It also helps that Mandy has quit her high paying job in the fashion industry and started listening to Tara Brach. She posts about the environment now and how she lets her children be sad when they need to. I am mixed about the changes I see in her—not sure if this new better person will extend any of that grace to me, her neighbour. I still brace when I get a text from her, knowing she probably needs my penultimate lemon.

But even still, I am tired of slandering them to anyone who will listen, “My neighbours. God, my neighbours!” 

Sometimes I try to cross the expanse between us by chit chatting about the things I know she cares about now. In my mind I imagine also talking about the things I still care about: Remember when you didn’t come to yoga? Remember that interminable yelling session in the park? Remember when you took three months to return our ice cube tray and as payback you offered to fill them up with water first? I would accompany these questions with the beating of my breasts. I would confess that I have texted her husband. I would invite her to church. I would say “I love you” and “I’m sorry” at the same time, which would sound like another language, “I slorry.” 

Maybe we could laugh about how good fences make good neighbours, but we share the same wall! The joke is on us!

I don’t want to feel that anger toward my neighbours anymore. I don’t want to feel that anger toward myself. I want compassion and empathy in my life, to transform myself like psycho Carol who returns to the Netflix show “Superstore” dramatically as the “empath.” I want to be this empath, to take long slow breaths with my back to our shared wall and wish them well. A long inhale and an even longer exhale. I think if I must put my ear to the wall, it should be to listen for something to pray for. What if I eavesdropped in order to pray more specifically? I’ll have to see what my God thinks about that idea. 

This morning I still crawled out of my bed when I heard them talking on the street—just to see what they were wearing. A compulsion in my body that I haven’t quite evacuated. Obsession is a habit. I have considered moving to get away from them. But I know that I will just find other neighbours to problematize. Relationships are always quandaries because they are dictated by broken people. If you interact with another human, you are at risk. Relationships, half-relationships, waving from across the street—it’s all risky. Exposing ourselves a bit or a lot. And doing it with shared walls? It’s going to be hell. Sometimes at least. Unless we stick it out until we’re seventy, at which point maybe our conversations start to resemble heaven?

But I can also feel myself backing away from the drama. Will she disappear completely, the youthful me who could get swept away by a text, who could fall in love with a shoe man for a few months without worrying where it all might go wrong? I have seen and experienced too much. I have lived through a pandemic along with the rest of the world. I have woken up too many times to the news of ten more deaths in a mass shooting. Today the victims are in Boulder, Colorado. 

With these newer older eyes, I see the dapper man’s fuller humanity. Cocky, a bit narcissistic, but also just a human, made in my God’s image, getting more and more normal with each passing day—especially in his new dad costume: running shoes and the same drab vest. Just an average man wanting to blend into a crowd. Not the decade ago shoemaker man who texted me about the sky. Who were we then? Where did we get that energy to love and hate each other? From the upstairs window I can see Mandy walking with her dog. Her hair is thinning and she badly needs a haircut, like everybody else. Also, a hug. 

Unearth a rusty nail here, tighten a screw there: we are all works in progress, under construction, full of charcoal dust if you dare to cut through a layer.

About the Author:

Rebecca Davey is an actress, writer and producer and founder of Ceres Productions Inc, a multi-media company which fills its expanding creative universe with diverse projects big and small. She has written several web series including Running With Violet, which has garnered over thirty awards and nominations and is available on OUTtv and Amazon Prime. She has a Masters of Creative Writing from the University of British Colombia and is working on her first middle grade novel. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters, but is actively discovering what more time in nature brings to her creative work.

Categories
nonfiction

Picking Up Where We Left Off by Amie Heasley

Picking Up Where We Left Off | By Amie Heasley

I lifted a woman off the bathroom floor in an Italian restaurant. The twenty-something hostess didn’t know what to do, or maybe she just didn’t want to do what clearly had to be done. I’m no EMT. I’ve run almost twenty half marathons, but I have a bad back and wouldn’t say I’m particularly fit or strong. I am definitely not heroic. 

The door was locked. I shimmied under the stall, my middle-aged hands and knees pressed to the dirty tile, my face up close and personal with (fill in blank with bodily fluid). The woman used a walker, but had misjudged the distance between her ass and the toilet. Happens to the best of us after a couple, I thought.

I avoided direct eye contact; yes, because I’m shy, but also to protect this woman’s dignity. Her pants were crumpled around her calves. She had on a sagging Depends. Her pale and papery skin reminded me of my late grandmother, who my mother and I helped care for those last months in the nursing home. “Helped” meant putting on Grandma’s bra when the CNAs had too much on their plates. Or placing another pillow behind her head. Or telling her it was time to throw out the leftover fried chicken my mother often brought her. (Grandma liked to stash it in the drawer next to her bed.) Or loading her and her oxygen tank into the car so she could attend my dad’s—her youngest son’s—funeral. 

And yes, lifting her. 

We lifted my grandmother a lot. Sometimes from the bathroom floor and onto the toilet, like this woman in the restaurant. By some miracle I managed to get her on the John without breaking her hip or mine. She thanked me. Then I left her to take care of her business and headed back to the dining area to rejoin my husband and daughter for family-style lasagna or pizza or whatever non-authentic Italian dish we’d ordered. My husband wondered why I’d been gone so long, but not enough to come after me. We’d been together since we were teens, and until a few months earlier, I had fully expected to grow old beside him. For better and for worse, in continence and in incontinence. 

#

Whatever awaited us, I’d likely have to be the one to pick up the pieces. I’d already had to pick myself up and dust myself off from his midlife-crisis floor. 

#

I’ve lifted him. Years ago when my husband had thrown out his back and had to recline in agony on a wooden booth in this place with fantastic pizza and terrible service. We shared a love affair with this specific pizza joint. Our passion reached all the way back to our freewheeling twenties. 

At forty-seven, I hoisted him out of a hospital bed. This time following his surgery for L4-L5 disc trouble, mere months after he’d enlightened me about his trouble with us. He was unhappy and squarely pinned his unhappiness on our marriage. Maybe we weren’t compatible, he suggested. He wasn’t invested in my humor, he said. I wasn’t comfortable enough in my own skin. He loved me, but wasn’t in love with me. 

During his recovery from back surgery, I picked up his socks, phone, irritations, underwear, wet towels, eyeglasses, grievances, keys, prescriptions, frustrations, receipts. He wasn’t supposed to bend or twist or lift anything over ten pounds for several weeks. He’d dropped the worst kind of bomb on me, and here I was, bending, stooping and twisting to collect and give him whatever his heart desired. 

#

A lot of people swear they’ll never own a minivan. For me, it’s a pickup (no matter the color, make or model). 

#

I wouldn’t have the first clue how to pick up anybody in a bar, or elsewhere really. My husband has spent a lot of time in bars, alone on barstools, drinking whiskeys and cokes and chatting with people. He’s a breezy chatter. He likes chatting up women better than men, I think. But could or would he fuck another woman given the right opportunity? I’m pretty sure I know the answer. What I don’t know is if that’s what it would take for me to wave the white flag. 

#

I’ve picked up plenty of bad habits in my lifetime. Most recently I’ve begun to smoke with my neighbor. I’ve never been addicted, but I used to smoke in college, especially at the bars and when writing term papers. I gave up even the occasional cigarette when we were trying to have kids in earnest. Besides the prospect of conceiving, mixing nicotine and tar and God knows what with the fertility shots and medications could prove harmful to me, even deadly. I should probably care more about my mortality now. Yet sometimes all I give a shit about is the headrush brought on by that first American Spirit. 

#

My self-esteem required a little pick-me-up. My husband bought another house across the street from a lake, his goal of residing near water at last realized. He bought a new couch, a new bed, a new refrigerator, a new metal roof, a new garage door, a new air fryer. He held the prospect and the promise of a new and separate life, wherever that new and separate life led him. 

Tit for tat, I bought a new knockoff version of Invisalign. I bought new jeans and new boots and new dresses. I bought a new hair color. New glasses and new eyeshadow. New earrings. New perfume. New vitamins reportedly good for my old skin. 

I’ve never been a big spender. I waited for my breadwinner of a husband to challenge my spending—he who’s never been one to tighten the purse strings—knowing full well he wouldn’t. Who was I trying to attract, impress, piss off, placate? Why was I focusing all of my energy on my appearance in order to feel better about myself?

That void though. Who was it that said, “The surest cure for vanity is loneliness?”

#

My husband is no stranger to picking up the tab. I’m no longer certain this gesture is only about altruism.

#

It was oppressive that morning, or at least I remember how the heat made me queasy. Or maybe it was the anti-depressant I’d been taking since my husband informed me he no longer wanted to be married, a couple days before the government shutdown over a global pandemic. Whatever the reason for my nausea, I’d forced myself out for a jog. 

Was it June? July? COVID-19 had at least blessed us sheltering-at-home Michiganders with fair summer weather. I rounded the corner into our neighborhood and that’s when I heard her. 

“Excuse me,” the postal worker said. “Could you give me a hand?” 

She wasn’t wearing a mask and neither was I, but the comingling of our respiratory droplets wasn’t why I considered running by her. Despite any outward appearances, I was a physical and mental train wreck and, on a good day, I have a hard time interacting with people I don’t know. (A “social burden” my husband had said in our first couples’ therapy session.) 

The postal worker held the bony arm of a man who’d propped himself on a rickety white-picket fence. She’d seen him fall in his driveway during her delivery route. The man had recently undergone a spinal procedure and said he wasn’t supposed to leave the house: a rule enforced by a woman upstairs fast asleep. 

Mercifully, I had my phone. The postal worker and I didn’t think we could carry or navigate this frail older gentleman back inside. I dialed my husband. The call went to voicemail. He was probably on another Zoom or Google Meet or Go-To. COVID-19 had heightened the fear of losing his job, fear of his employees losing their jobs, and worst of all, fear of losing the one thing he had control over—his beloved career. For months he’d been immersing himself deeper and deeper away from our life and closer to his work life. I texted and told him the address.

Thank God he’d replied. Lately he blew off, unintentionally missed or delayed responding to my texts. Not very long ago I wouldn’t have read anything into this lack of or slow response. Flash forward to the present day and the threat of separation and divorce made me pine for my husband’s attention. No emoji was too pathetic or sentimental. (How I longed for him to send me the winky-face blowing a kiss in the shape of a heart.)

I didn’t have a clue who I was supposed to be anymore, and yet, I was still that woman who picked up people—those I loved and those I’d never even met.  

Another neighbor arrived with a portable wheelchair in her trunk, followed by my husband and the doctor who lived across the street from us. I insisted the postal worker carry on with her mail route. The men managed to guide the man into the chair and wheel him into the house, but not before bending the already bent and battered screen door. 

Once inside, I tried not to fixate on the surroundings. The ripped-up carpet revealed stained floorboards. The kitchen was dark and dank. The smell danced between cat piss and spoiled milk. I worried for this man and this woman (now awake) standing before us, and after she discovered her ruined door, I worried for myself, too. 

My husband and the doctor had already left. The neighbor with the wheelchair and I discussed calling 911. Was it safe for this man to keep living here? Could this woman take care of him? Were they related? Husband and wife? Was any of this our concern or business? The decision became clearer when the woman started screaming, not about the state of the man’s health, but about the door. “Who the fuck broke my door? Fuck, shit! Goddamn it! My fucking door!” 

I slipped outside, dialed 911, went through the standard list of questions and waited with the neighbor from up the street. We listened to a continued stream of obscenities and insults. The sun beat down on us from a sky of hopeful blue. Funny how we women sat tight for the ambulance and the firetruck to arrive while the men bolted as soon as they wheeled the old man over the threshold. Funnier still, my husband and the doctor were likely at fault for causing further damage to the screen door. 

After exchanging a few solemn words with the paramedics, I made my way back home. Home, the shelter that contained and confined our family: me, the brokenhearted, my husband, the heartbreaker, and our daughter, the one we’d both die for in a heartbeat. 

#

Once upon a time we hiked up a mountain in Squaw Valley. We peeked over the lip of the Cliffs of Moher, faraway specks of white birds dotting and floating around the rocks. We attended every single home football game at Spartan Stadium, and the home team won every single football game that season. We drove from Seattle to San Francisco in a green Mustang convertible. We rode to the top of the CN Tower in a narrow glass elevator, despite my husband’s fear of tight spaces and heights. We tattooed our skin with the monogram from our wedding, his on his arm, mine on my back. We sat on barstools drinking syrupy pink martinis and won eight-hundred dollars playing Keno the day before we found out we would finally become parents: a baby girl born in Southfield, Michigan. This is a brushstroke. A first blush. A kaleidoscope glance. 

Does he remember any of the good times spanning our relationship of three decades? Why can’t we seem to pick up where we left off?

#

Of course, there was the daily lifting of our daughter from age zero to about three, sometimes off the floor and out of the grocery store while she punched and kicked and wailed.

#

When tidying up around the house, I’ve rolled my eyes at my husband. Tidying has included gathering and redistributing toys, throw pillows, Yahtzee dice, half-completed crossword puzzles, hairballs, Christmas ornaments destroyed and discarded by our new puppy. 

In our third and final couples’ therapy session, my husband called out this eye rolling. He said it made him feel like I couldn’t stomach his very existence. While this was far from the truth, I admit I should’ve been more direct about asking him to help me pick up. 

Did you know they have genders for bolts and screws? This should be the beginning of a bar room pick-up line. 

#

My husband has picked up a lot of his belongings and moved them into his new house. I guess you’d call this a trial separation. If we don’t make it, I don’t know what he or I will do with the rest of his stuff. His fingerprints are all over the home we shared together, the one that’s in my name only now. Yesterday, on our twenty-third wedding anniversary, he invited me over to help him with a home improvement project, a guard rail he hoped to build for his loft space. 

Our daughter can’t wait to occupy that space. She’s nine and the last thing my husband or I want to do is pick her up from a great fall.  

About the Author:

Amie Heasley received an MFA in fiction from Western Michigan University. You can find some of her recent work online or in the pages of Fleas on the Dog, The Boiler Journal, Juked, Fiction Southeast, Stoneboat Literary Journal, Monkeybicycle and Literary Orphans. When she isn’t writing fiction and creative nonfiction, she’s a freelance marketing and advertising writer, and blogs lovingly but not often enough at chopperchronicles.blogspot.com. Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo—it’s the place where Amie was born and still proudly calls home.

Categories
nonfiction

Mother by Adrienne Pine

Mother | By Adrienne Pine

My mother died in the early minutes of March 21, 2012, just as spring was coming to its fullest expression in Birmingham, Alabama, the city where she was born, married, and had her children, and where she had lived her entire life. The foliage was a promising shade of bright green. The suburban lawns were visions lined with banks of azaleas in full bloom. The year was still young; as yet, the sun’s heat had no weight to it.

On March 9, she was diagnosed with bone cancer. How long she had had the bone cancer, her doctor would not suppose. What was known was that the bone cancer was a metastasis from breast cancer she had survived fourteen years ago. For the past twelve years, she had been cancer-free, but, as it was explained, breast cancer is sneaky and insidious and doesn’t give up easily.

The doctor giving her the diagnosis stressed the positive aspects: the cancer had not spread beyond the bones, and with chemotherapy, she might live a few more years, although she would likely be confined to a wheelchair. If this was meant to be the silver lining, my mother didn’t see it that way. She confided her true state of mind to her rabbi. “Rabbi, I know I’m dying,” she said to him when he visited her in the hospital. 

“We’re all dying,” he replied.

“No, I know I am dying soon,” she said, “and it’s all right.”

He told us this after the funeral, at the shiva minyan.

* * *

As I drove along the roads of my childhood, it occurred to me that my mother’s youth had been the best season of her life. Everything afterwards was a disappointment. And she had never really gotten over it.

Inside the woman she became, there was always the popular girl, the belle of the ball, whose life had never fulfilled its promise. Once her wit and repartee had charmed girls and boys alike, and young and old; she was accustomed to being the center of attention, adored and adorned. 

Long after she married and had children, flirtation lived on in her encounters with tradesmen and repairmen–Stanley at the grocery store, Gus at the gas station–men she saw casually in the course of her errands. She seemed happiest when she was flirting, but I never saw her flirt with my father. Nothing so lighthearted existed between them. Instead there was a furious passion that erupted in explosions and battles.

It is one morning at breakfast, and I am three or four years old. I don’t know what started their argument, but Daddy wants to leave for work, and Mama is angry and threatening to pour coffee on him. He is angry, too, and taunts her that she won’t dare do it. “Don’t you believe it,” she cries, grabbing the coffeepot from the stove. She flings a fountain of hot coffee that reaches him as he tries to escape out the front door, splashing all over his good suit. He screams, and she flees back inside. Furious, he stomps up the stairs and inside the house to change, cursing her but avoiding her. His suit is stained the color of dirt, the color of excrement.

That stain endures—dirty, shameful, coloring our family life for years to come. So much unhappiness and disappointment. And so little tolerance and affection.

Long before my parents met, something had happened to each of them that left them damaged.  Neither was emotionally whole enough to love in an unstinting and generous way. Their connections to each other and their children were based on transactions. “I’ll do this for you, if you do that for me.” Nothing was free, and everything had its price. 

This was how they related to each other, and it was how they treated their children as well.

Mom tyrannized over us because she could dominate us.  The home was the only sphere in which she was powerful. Every morning Dad escaped into the practice of law. It was a place where he had reason and justice on his side, and she didn’t exist. Only within her family was she all-powerful. 

My parents fought constantly about money. There was never enough. Because my mother had no way of earning money and no intention of trying, she intensified the pressure on my father. He’d left a law firm where he was unhappy to go out on his own and struggled for years as a single practitioner before he was successful. But even after success came, the obsession with money continued.

It was more than a need for money that they expressed. They thought about money constantly, how to get it, how to hoard it, how to save it from anyone else spending it. My parents let their lust for money control their lives. The conclusion was that money was worth more than we were. We were constantly being reminded that they couldn’t afford us, but they were stuck with us. They calculated each expenditure, and it was up to us to prove we were worth every cent they grudgingly spent on us.

In her battles with our father, my mother pressured us to take sides, and woe befell us if we didn’t select hers. We grew up afraid of her temper and her outbursts. “What if Mom gets mad?” we would worry, and by “mad,” we meant her screaming until the veins stood out on her neck, and her vocal cords sounded as if they were stripped raw. In her rages, she hit us, and she tore up our rooms. Once, when I was a teenager, she picked up a heavy pair of ceramic mushrooms that sat on the coffee table and hurled them at my head. I ducked instinctively, and when the mushrooms exploded against the wall, shattering into fragments, she screamed that I had broken them. And in the shadows of her screams was Mimi, trying to find a way to glue the mushrooms back together.

Mom did not care how much she inflicted hurt. The harm within her that in turn caused the wish to harm seemed inexhaustible. That she never apologized was like a badge of honor for her, as if an apology were an admission of shameful weakness.

She claimed that she hadn’t wanted any of her children, that we were all the results of accidents and mistakes. She told us that she had jumped off the kitchen table, and thrown herself down the stairs, hoping for a miscarriage, but it hadn’t worked. Even though she said this many times, it was hard for us to believe. After all, she took care of us; she hadn’t abandoned us. She shopped and cooked, sewed our clothes, made sure we went to school, and took us to the doctor. 

She was kindest to us when we were sick, and then she would bring us trays with soft boiled egg scooped out of the shell into an egg cup, to be spooned up with bits of toast, ginger ale with some of the bubbles stirred out, and hot tea and saltines. She loved us best when we were babies, before we had learned to talk or to walk, or express our will, when we were still helplessly dependent. Once we were toddlers, she did not like us so well. She was sure to find something in our behavior to object to.

* * *

At our first therapy session after my mother’s death, my husband said, “It may sound blunt, but I think that your life will be a lot better now that she is gone.”

It was hard for me to hear this. It set me apart from other daughters. It was as if I could hear my mother’s voice in my ear accusing me of being hard-hearted and unnatural. She enjoyed reducing me to tears, until I had dissolved into a pool of water, like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. 

“Everyone thinks you’re a good girl, a smart girl. You’re a sneak, you’ve pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes but mine,” she would yell at me. “I know the real you. You’re a nasty, two-faced little bitch, you’re a selfish fuck who doesn’t give a good goddamn about anyone but herself. You don’t love me, you don’t know how to love. Look at you! I can’t stand the sight of you!”

How I sobbed and begged for forgiveness, hoping she would stop. But she remained cold and hard, as ungiving as steel. And I thought what she was saying must be true, because when I searched my heart at those moments, I could find no love for her.

Ten years passed, and twenty. This scene was replayed hundreds of times, in countless variations. My mother’s gift for twisting meaning was worse than the cursing and the hitting, because it caused me to doubt myself. 

When I was younger, the only way I knew how to resist was passively. While she attacked me, I stood stiff and still, my face expressionless, while my mind escaped. I imagined that I was a prisoner in a cell, peering out the bars of a window, turning myself into a bird flying free. When she gripped me violently by the shoulders and shook me so that my teeth rattled in my head, I imagined that I had left my body behind, and I was somewhere else, where I wasn’t being hurt.

She knew what I was doing, and it infuriated her. And even though I tried as hard as I could to be a stone that absorbed nothing, I didn’t completely succeed. There was a part of me that took in every word she said and believed it. 

And in between her rages, my father lectured me that it was my duty to endure whatever she did to me, just as he endured it when she got mad at him. He believed that his forbearance made him morally superior, and he wanted me to be like him. He insisted and then pleaded that I should give in to her. Do it for me, he begged.

And so I would agree to give in. And then all the crying that I had repressed, the sadness and the suffering that I had been holding back with rigid control, would burst out of me, and I would sob, wanting to believe that what he was offering me was comfort. 

And I would go to my mother, dread in my heart. Time and again, my dread was fulfilled. Despite my father’s promises, my mother interpreted my apology as an opportunity for a further attack. She went for the chink in my armor, and she struck deep. She struck again and again, until I was like the mutilated dragon, writhing at St. Michael’s feet.  

My father’s claim of the moral high ground went hand in hand with his belief that he commanded an impartial view from this exalted place. He meted out blame. “What do you do that sets her off? She never gets mad at your sisters the way she gets mad at you. Why can’t you learn not to provoke her?” 

I didn’t want to provoke her. I wanted her to love me, but she didn’t. She constantly found fault. Something I did or said, or something I didn’t do or should have done was always setting her off. Maybe she was right. Maybe deep down I was a bad person, pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. The truth was that I hated my mother, and at the same time I loved her with a painful love.

It took me a long time to learn to protect myself. It took distance. It took silence. It took decades.

* * *

At the end of my mother’s life, she stopped battling. In our last conversations, she showed no wish to fight with me. While there were no deathbed confessions or revelations, neither were there accusations or threats. I didn’t know how close to death she was, but she knew, and she kept her own counsel. She never used the word “cancer” in conversation with me. She insisted that it was her chronic fatigue syndrome and her chronic mononucleosis that was causing her problems. I had stopped challenging her years ago. I listened, and I sympathized. 

In a strange way, illness always brought out the best in my mother. She was long-suffering and heroic. As a patient in the hospital, she made an effort to cooperate. On that floor, she was the nurses’ favorite. She always wanted sympathy, and now it came to her in abundance.

But she wasn’t getting better. And the depths to which she was falling took her by surprise. I could hear the shock in the tone of her voice. 

The pleasures of her life slipped away from her; she could no longer concentrate on reading, or watching television. Eating, walking, going to the bathroom, getting dressed were no longer activities of her daily life. Given this state of things, did she make a conscious decision to die sooner rather than later, in order to avoid the misery that lay ahead of her? Did she will her heart to fail, her lungs to fill with fluid? I wonder what it was like for her in those final moments, alone in the hospital room. I admire her courage, and I love her for not fighting the inevitable. If I were in her place, I would prefer it her way. 

* * *

After my mother’s death, I was left with a sense of emptiness. I found consolation in the family treasure trove of pictures. I loved looking at the images of my parents at the beginning of their marriage, when they were younger than I had ever known them, and their life together was a future promise. They seemed to beckon mysteriously from the unknowable past. What secrets could I unlock if I were to speak to them?

 My sisters and I have fallen in love with these pictures; we copy and exchange them by email and flash drive. In these idealized images, our parents are smiling and beautiful. They appear happier and more confident than any of us ever remember them being. 

Appearances deceive. Self-assertive and opinionated though my mother was, she was not confident. Despite her obvious gifts and accomplishments, she allowed herself to be paralyzed by fear. She was miserable every day of her life, and yet, long after her children were grown, she didn’t have the nerve to leave an unhappy marriage where she felt dissatisfied, overlooked, misunderstood, and unloved. She was afraid to take a risk for happiness, although she found my father emotionally stunted and self-absorbed, and she blamed him for not providing for her in the way that she wanted. Ultimately, it was not love, loyalty, or friendship that kept her from leaving my father. She had never worked outside the home, and she didn’t intend to start. She was worried enough about losing financial security that she clung to the evils she knew rather than fly to others that she knew not of. 

In his own way, which was not her way, my father loved my mother very much. Once she was gone, it was touching to see how much he missed her, and how lost he was without her. Oddly enough, what he seemed to miss most was her sarcasm. Funny how I never realized how much he actually enjoyed being the butt of her jokes. When I asked him about his happy memories, he fondly recalled her witticisms at his expense, variations on the theme of how she wished she’d never married him. 

“The thing with Mom is that you never knew if she really meant it or not,” I commented.

“Nah, she didn’t mean it,” he replied softly, twisting his body with shyness like a schoolboy. Or was the gesture just a manifestation of his Parkinson’s disease?

* * *

A friend who recently lost her own mother wrote me, “The best metaphor I have heard for this rite of passage is that it’s like having the roof of the house yanked off, and suddenly you’re looking up at the sky, exposed to the elements.” 

I find this metaphor rich and suggestive, as it hearkens back to the maternal ideal as intermediary, shelter, protector. I picture the black sky, pricked by stars. I feel the cold wind. But I don’t feel the same way that my friend does.

I feel an emptiness, but it isn’t the vastness of space. It is more like a physical sensation in my body, located at the pit of my stomach. It can’t be relieved, or explained away. It’s just there. 

Instead of a roof, it was as if walls came down for me when Mom died. From the time I was young, my mother had erected walls to try to separate us from each other. Her idea was to divide and conquer. With walls, she controlled us, confined us, defined us. The walls were metaphorical, and they were also real. Sometimes they were the misunderstandings she liked to stir up between us, the way she talked about us to each other behind our backs and goaded us with what others said about us, or how she interrupted when two of us began to have a conversation that wasn’t about her. 

Now she is gone, the walls that she put up are gone, too. Each one of us sisters had spent years without speaking to the others, but now we find common connections in our shared griefs, our worries about our father.

We are trying to reach across the void my mother left when she died, and hold hands.

About the Author:

Adrienne Pine’s essays have appeared in Feminine Collective, The Yale Journal of Humanities in Medicine, Carte Blanche, bioStories, Linden Avenue, Soft Cartel, Gravel, The Write Place at the Write Time and others.

Categories
nonfiction

Kathy Kay by Megan Saunders

Kathy Kay | By Megan Saunders

Dear Mom, 

The day before you died, I hugged you in the hallway of my childhood home. The framed photos to the right, just before rounding the corner into the kitchen, were hung too closely together and yellowed from the sun shining through the front door. Your bones looked so thin under the soft cotton of your T-shirt. You smelled like you. 

***

Things between my mom and me weren’t what one would call “fine,” but that was nothing new. I was seven months pregnant and Annabelle, my three-year-old, and I had visited for a couple of days to belatedly celebrate Christmas. My husband, Cory, stayed home. He was understandably angry at my mother’s recent relapse and refused to support the occasion. I was angry too, of course, but I couldn’t bear the thought of no one from my nuclear family showing up for our post-Christmas gathering. What if it tipped her over the edge, whatever that edge may be? I cursed Cory on the three-and-a-half-hour drive to my parents, stopping at a McDonalds in Abilene so Annabelle could get lunch and use the restroom. It was blistering cold and the wet wind whipped my car door open. I pictured him playing video games in our living room by the fireplace.

 That was two days before that hug. Now it is warmer and sunny, and I’m hugging my mother goodbye for the last time. She held Annabelle, and I told her to be a good girl for Ammaw and Papa while they kept her for an extra night.

“She always is,” my mom said. 

She wore the necklace we had given her for Christmas. Casually, I leaned forward and hugged her with one arm and Annabelle with the other. Did I sense it, in this moment? That my mother would be dead in twenty-four hours in the bedroom ten feet from where we stood? No. But it’s so easy to imagine I did. 

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said.

***

Dear Mom,

You spent much of your life apologizing. Apologizing for the trauma you faced as a child and its effects into adulthood, apologizing to my father for your inability to control your addiction, apologizing to my brother and me for being drunk for most of our childhood. Did anyone ever turn to you and say—I mean really say—they were sorry to you? Sorry for refusing to acknowledge the terror and humiliation you faced repeatedly, or sorry for our lack of understanding of what you needed to fill that gaping wound? I don’t know if it would have made any difference. 

I have some apologies of my own. I didn’t understand how—or didn’t have the courage—to voice them to you while you were still alive. That is my first apology. 

I’m so terribly sorry that I often saw you as a one-dimensional addict. When you were drinking, it was so much easier to be angry with you for the physical act of consuming alcohol and what it did to our family on the surface. There was some comfort in the predictability. You drank, which usually involved lying or at least evasiveness, then you became some combination of belligerent, embarrassing, pathetic, and comatose. The fact that this behavior was a direct result of a liquid you purposely put in your body made it easy to lean on my anger. It was perhaps too painful to peel back that layer to see your pain, to better understand the perpetual nightmare of shame that existed within you. I didn’t understand that it was your own betrayal that led to the one you would enact on us.

***

The parting words my mom and I spoke aloud were full of love and familiarity, but our final digital communication was ridiculously mundane. I began my eastward return home, sans Annabelle, and decided I’d stop at a local children’s consignment shop in Great Bend. Three shopping bags later, I was back in the car and I texted her.

“Stopped at that consignment place in Great Bend. Super cute stuff if you’re ever looking for stuff for the girls.”

“Yep. Been there.” Our last communication. 

The consignment shop was called Forever Young. 

***

Six days later, I was back in the car, this time with Cory in tow. Annabelle, too, as my father had returned her to our home the same day my mother killed herself, probably as he was driving back. We were returning for her funeral.

I purposely timed our arrival so we would miss most of the visitation. Maybe I should feel shame for my selfishness— didn’t my dad need me, after all?— but I know my mom would have understood. She shared my dread regarding crowds of all sizes, well-meaning acquaintances encroaching on our space. The sorrowful eyes, the uncomfortable hugs, the “suicide is such a different type of grieving” sentiments. I just couldn’t. Being quite pregnant meant I wasn’t as nimble in my attempts to dodge them, either. More than this well-worn anxiety, though, I was terrified that I might catch a glimpse of my mother’s cropped blonde hair lying on a satin pillow in the open casket down the aisle of the chapel attached to the funeral home. I simply could not bear it. We arrived at the tail end, plenty of time for sympathetic shoulder patting, but not enough time for my disobedient eyes to wander to the chapel. 

***

Dear Mom,

I’m sorry I couldn’t bring myself to touch your hand one more time. I still remember how the veins patterned their backs and how your nails could grow so much longer without breaking than mine ever could. I’d rather imagine them in the kitchen, though, wiping a finger across a metal mixer before popping it in your mouth to gauge seasoning for mashed potatoes. You made the creamiest mashed potatoes.

***

My brother, Marc, was brave enough to face my mother in her casket and for that I’m grateful. He and I operate as different sides of the same coin, perhaps more so than most siblings. In a way, his courage feels a little like something I can share. She looked like a reflection of herself, Marc said. Physically, of course, she had the same attributes as in life, but the lack of a spark made her a stranger. 

I white-knuckled my way through the tail-end of the visitation, knowing the worst was to come. Several months ago my father had rented my mom an apartment in an attempt to save his own sanity and keep her out of the house while she was drinking. While she still spent a lot of time living in my childhood home, most of her possessions resided in this apartment. In the pristine cream-sided house back on the farm her memories permeated the walls and her footsteps were beat into the floors, but it was still a shared space that allowed for a level of diluted avoidance. Within that apartment, though, every item had been chosen, organized, and arranged with my mother’s hands. 

I prepared myself to enter that apartment, the one you left just a week before, fully expecting to return. You would not, but I would. It felt like an altar.

***

Dear Mom,

Did you like living alone? I know you were sad to not be back in the house with Dad, but I like to think you found some power in being away from his suspicious eye. He wasn’t fair to you. I wish I had told you that so long ago, but I spent my childhood and early adulthood being told that he was the hero of this story. He was the one who carried the burden of the alcoholic wife, the embarrassment of your missteps, the raising of the children when you were incapacitated, and, most of all, making the money and keeping the family together. 

“Your father is a saint. I couldn’t put up with everything he has.” I heard a variation of this sentiment a million times. And he did put up with a lot, you knew that and you felt the guilt. But you also did the emotional labor that is rarely recognized in women, especially women who are constantly tripping over their own trauma. 

When you weren’t intoxicated, you were usually planning the next time you could drink or you were reliving the shame of your last binge. But even with all that chatter and distraction ping-ponging in your head, you still managed to wake children up in the morning, yell at them for eating five granola bars for breakfast, harp on them about making their beds, ensure they had clothes that fit, scheduled haircuts and doctors’ appointments, enrolled them in school and sports, attended their sporting events, bought groceries, made lunch daily for Dad and his hired hands, drove grain cart during harvest, ran to the parts store for farm emergencies, bought birthday and Christmas presents, taught Sunday school, chaperoned field trips, and substitute taught at my school (much to my chagrin). 

You made plenty of mistakes, but we all know what the Bible said about casting the first stone. Dad cast a lot of those stones and while I’ll never judge the anger and betrayal he felt toward a spouse who chose a liquid over everything he provided, I think you had some stones to cast, too. 

***

The apartment was silent but for the air gusting in and out of my lungs. At the top of the stairs, just beyond the front door, my mom’s scarves hung neatly on hooks and her gloves rested in a basket below. In my mind, my knees gave out and I tumbled back down the stairs, but in reality, I found myself somehow moving forward. Cory followed behind, silently, letting me soak my grief in and out like a sponge. My dad said to take anything I wanted, as the apartment was going to be cleaned and back on the market by Monday. 

How does one decide the items they’ll take from their dead mother’s apartment four days after she died? I grabbed two small suitcases and began filling them with a hunger that will never be satisfied. I started in the office, grabbing scraps of paper with her handwriting, books I knew she loved, then I turned to the bedroom. Her curling iron sat on the bathroom counter, cord dragging on the ground, makeup scattered nearby. I didn’t take any of that. I’m not so sentimental that I wanted a half-used tube of deodorant. Instead, I took the framed picture of my mother as a child that sat next to her bed and the simple flat stone she’d painted with Psalm 18:2, “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer.” I took the shawl tossed on the bed, not necessarily because I wanted it but because I liked imaging her placing it there, fully intending to return and hang it back up in the closet. 

Sitting on the closet floor, my face wet, I held her sweaters up to my nose, memorizing the smell of the laundry soap. I heard the front door open, followed by my father’s voice softly greeting Cory who waited on the couch.

A moment later my dad popped his head in the closet. “Just wanted to say goodnight before we headed home,” Dad said as he glanced around the closet. “You should pick out some of her clothes to take with you. You two always had the same taste.”

***

Dear Mom,

Do you know that Dad told me that I should take some of your clothes because we “had the same taste”? Hilarious, right? You and I both know that isn’t true. You were constantly pushing boots, dresses, and shirts onto me and I would politely push them back. You were a size four on a bad day and the thought of me shimmying into your dresses now would have made us both cringe a little, even if you would have been politely encouraging.

Still, I did as he suggested.

***

“Yeah, okay. I will. Is there anything you want me to make sure I leave here?”

“No, take whatever you want,” he responded as he turned to walk out. 

I stuffed cardigans and sweaters into suitcases—items with a better chance of fitting my very differently shaped body—and quickly zipped them shut. Wheeling them out toward Cory a thought bulldozed me. I ducked back into my mom’s office, trying to channel her thoughts. Where would she have put it? Would it even be here? I poked around in the closet and there it was—the blanket my mother was knitting for the granddaughter she would never meet. Periwinkle blue, perfect in its slight imperfections and, best of all, nearly finished. I let out a low laugh. Even in death she held our shit together. 

***

Months later, I was back at the house—the apartment long gone—for the weekend, this time with the new baby in tow. While my dad was preoccupied I resumed my new reluctant pastime: Searching the house for anything that could remind me of my mom. After turning up little in the hall closets, I opened the coat closet off the front door and felt around the top shelf. Bingo, notebooks. She must have been doing a Bible study in the months before her death as the writing seemed to have a focused quality, like she was answering questions. Beneath all the surface-level familiar highlighted Bible verses a stunningly painful theme began to emerge: Heartbreak. 

“I will forgive Kirk, I will forgive Kirk, I will forgive Kirk,” my mother wrote in one corner, line by line. “I will work on bettering myself so Kirk will want me back.” 

***

Dear Mom,

I’m sorry I read your entries, but I think they gave me your final beautiful, terrible gift: understanding. The divorce a year before had been sold to the family—myself included—as more of a legal formality. What if you injured or killed someone on the road while you were drinking? It may sound cruel, but it’s practical—if you two were still married potential victims could come after the farm and the assets that he, his father, his grandfather, and now Marc had worked so hard to accumulate. Divorce could insulate our historic livelihood. 

Slowly, though, the severity of the break became much more apparent. I can’t imagine what that was like for you, watching your marriage dissolve in extreme slow motion, knowing your own actions were causing it but not being able to stop that train. By the time you died it had progressed from “on paper only” to “only at the house when necessary.” 

It was clear how long you had been hurting and how little of it had to do with your alcoholism. “I’m so frustrated that he won’t recognize my value to not only the farm, but in raising our children,” you wrote. I know that’s true. Dad is a kind, hard-working man, but his focus is narrow and his flexibility is that of a fresh carrot (you would like that joke). It’s not that he didn’t love or respect you, but I don’t think it is unfair to say he viewed you as inferior. I think you viewed yourself as inferior, too. He was the man, after all, so he made the money and gave his blood and sweat to keep you at home and comfortable. So what if you were home alone all day, in the middle of nowhere with two small children and near-crippling anxiety that made a social life next to impossible? You had a comfortable bed, plenty of food, and Bible class on Sundays. What more could you want? 

I must admit that the overwhelming feeling I felt reading those notebooks was guilt. It was the kind of guilt I didn’t feel when Dad called me that terrible evening after Christmas to tell me you had killed yourself. “I should have done something more,” people say in those situations. But I knew there was nothing more I could have done to stop you from putting a gun in your mouth at 2 p.m. alone on a Sunday afternoon. You were drunk—the coroner could still smell the booze in the room—and so afraid and sad. At that point I had no power to help you.

But reading those journals, I fear that I failed you. I know the psychology—I was the child, you the parent, albeit often an incapacitated one. It wasn’t my job to monitor your emotions. But my heart whispers a different story. I wasn’t just your daughter, I was one of your only true friends; one of the only other people in your world who understood the suffocation of anxiety and the constant threat of negative thoughts looping through your brain. Maybe most of all, I understood on some level the complications of the man you married—my father—and how he could be so compassionate and understanding one moment, then quickly turn off emotion at the drop of a hat and repel any source of warmth. 

I may not have been able to change it, but I should have felt your hurt at losing your true love. Dad had rescued you from a mother who sat silently with the knowledge of your abuse and now it felt as though he was the next one to turn his back on you when you were struggling. Don’t get me wrong, Mom, I was angry with you too. I was on Dad’s side, and I shared a portion of his pain. But toward the end, I know we had a tendency to treat you as An Alcoholic, and not as Kathy Molitor. You became flat, a two-dimensional problem that was best dealt with using tough love. Often, though, it was more tough than love.

***

The morning of the day my mom would die my dad briefly left the house to check cattle, getting in a quick chore before bringing Annabelle back to our house. My mom planned to tag along, an opportunity to help me organize the nursery. Instead, when my dad returned home around 7 a.m., he found his wife passed out in bed, inebriated beyond belief and Annabelle standing alone in the hallway looking afraid. We’d been thrilled to leave her there just one extra day, not only to give Cory and me a break, but to give her one-on-one time with her Ammaw and Papa. Subconsciously, maybe it was a misguided motivation to help my mom stay sober. 

“Are you coming with us to bring Annabelle back?” my father asked the unmoving form lying on the bed.

“No,” she murmured, lips barely moving.  

He left my mother in the same bed in which she’d soon die. Several hours later he would stand in my kitchen with me and explain why she wasn’t there. We both simmered in the familiar disappointment and anger. 

“If she thinks she’s coming up when the baby is born, she is very wrong,” I said. “She made that decision for herself.” Dad just nodded somberly. 

“If you want to see her from now on, you’ll have to visit her in her apartment,” he said. “She isn’t coming back to the house anymore.” I returned his nod.

He got back in his truck for the return trip that marked the start of his nightmare. For the second time that day he would find her still body in bed. When my father called to inform me that normal life had ended, I blurted out, “I can’t imagine feeling that kind of hurt.”

Of course, I couldn’t, because I was immersed in my own hurt. But her hurt was real, too, and I can’t help but wonder if we’d spent more time surrounding her with love and support and less time trying to parent the alcoholism into submission, maybe that morning would have gone differently. Maybe she would have woken up to find Annabelle making a mess in the kitchen, then made her some peanut butter toast and started a cartoon on the tablet for her to watch. Then, after going to church, the three of them would have driven Annabelle back up and I would have hugged her at least one more time. 

***

Dear Mom,

I’m not disillusioned—you still would have been an alcoholic no matter what steps we took. Your trauma preceded us by decades. You probably still would have been the mom who got drunk on mouthwash while substitute teaching my high school class or who had to be carried to the car after my wedding reception. 

But you still would have been my mom. 

Cory disagrees with me and maybe it’s the irrational thought of a grieving mind, but I told him the other day that maybe we should have just let you drink. Would it have been so bad? Even intoxicated, you were never cruel or hateful. Really, any embarrassment or danger came from imposing such strict restrictions that caused you to resort to stupidity in order to rebel. 

What if we would have just taken away the keys and let you be? 

While you were still alive, I often had a silly, wistful thought: While many of my friends were reaching the age where they spent time with their mothers at wineries, treating themselves to a fancy cocktail at dinner, or even engaging in a little old-fashioned drunken bickering over Christmas I knew I would never have that milestone. I’d never share a glass of wine with you. It’s inconsequential, in the scheme of things, but I think it speaks to a bigger, yet childlike desire: To go back in time and save you from the monster who stole so much from you as a child, every shred of innocence, not just once but time and time again — and still had the nerve to call himself family. What’s worse, the people who mattered knew and they turned away from the little girl in front of them who was loudly crying for help. I want the impossible; I want whatever chewed you up and spit you out, damaged and terrified, to have never existed, so that I could have a mother who still did. 

 I was robbed of the mother-daughter relationship I craved. Crave. 

We were never a family that said a lot of “I love you’s,” but that mistake ends here. I will tell my daughters I love them every day until they’re sick of hearing it and then I’ll tell them some more. I’ll also tell them about their Ammaw and how she loved them both so much that you could see it welling in her eyes when she’d talk about them—even Adeline, whom she never met. On that last Christmas you hastily hung up an extra stocking and pinned a slip of paper with Adeline’s name, even though we weren’t sure yet of the spelling. I treasure the few times I heard her name come off your lips and I grieve so hard that I couldn’t bottle up that sweet sound and play it for her. 

Adeline’s middle name is Kay, after you, and I hope that isn’t all she gets from her grandma. I hope she has your fierce kindness and subtle sense of humor that was both eye-rollingly lame and refreshing. I hope she searches for similarities with others, not differences. I hope her silent presence is just as comforting and that she isn’t afraid of her emotions. Your emotions were what made you so strong, stronger than Dad, even. Your weakness was that you didn’t believe it. I hope both of my girls love in the face of great impossibility and hardship, just as you did for all your life, and I hope that, like you, they never give up. 

Because you didn’t give up, Mom. You fought like hell for decades to overcome sexual trauma and PTSD, depression, anxiety, bulimia, alcoholism, and a sense of both geographical and relational isolation. You survived. Demons just seized your reason when you were most vulnerable. 

“Let’s not end it like this,” you whispered to me at the breakfast table that last morning as I wrestled a screaming Annabelle into her booster seat. “Just let her be.”

I, too, must now let you be.

“I know that I am gone.” – The last text my mother sent my father.

About the Author:

Megan Saunders is a full-time marketing copywriter who moonlights as a creative nonfiction writer. Most recently her work was published in the Mud Season Review. She lives in Kansas with her husband, two young daughters, and too many pets.

Categories
nonfiction

Paper by Kerby Caudill

Paper | By Kerby Caudill

It wasn’t even close to a decent time to wake up but I couldn’t ignore the rumbling coming from the other side of my bedroom wall. The whirr, whirr, whirr sounded like semi-trucks parading through my room. I banged on the wall as hard as I could. “Oma! Stop pulling the toilet paper!” The noise stopped and I put my head back on the pillow. After a few minutes of silence, the whirr, whirr, whirr began again. 

“You’re going to clog the toilet!” Now completely awake, I had to get up and assess the damage. I’d counted six whirrs. That could produce a lot of toilet paper. I hopped down and landed on the hard wood floor, shocked at how much colder it was than my warm bed.  

I inhaled deeply, held my breath and opened the bathroom door. Oma was perched on the toilet, pajamas at her ankles, holding a giant wad of toilet paper over her nose that was still connected to the roll, like a party streamer. 

“Oma, you’ve been in here long enough. Are you done?”

“My name’s not Oma, it’s Annie.”  

My family had seen the play Annie at a local theater and it became a family joke that Oma was the lead, our dog Jack was Sandy, and naturally, even without the fortune, our Dad was Daddy Warbucks. The part that wasn’t funny was our mom became known as the abusive Miss Hannigan. Although we knew Mom loved us and did all of the dutiful mom-stuff like cooking and cleaning, we knew she didn’t really like to do it and we often felt we were a nuisance or burden, just like the orphans. And when provoked, our mom’s high pitched rage could be heard all the way in the cheap seats, just like Miss Hannigan in the play. I never got an official role, but by default I was Molly, Annie’s side kick. We referred to the play on and off for a few years, but after our family finally got a VCR—we were definitely the last people I knew to get one—we rented the movie and watched it over and over. Little by little Oma decided she was Annie and by her seventeenth birthday that was the only name she answered to. It was never changed legally, but to us she became Annie. Her headstone reads Oma “Annie” Kunstler. 

 “Well, when you’re bad, you’re Oma. When you’re good, you’re Annie. And if Miss Hannigan sees this she’s going to flip.” I helped her up, made sure her butt was clean as we sang our new getting dressed anthem, unabashedly stolen from Bob Marley: “get up, stand up, stand up for your pants.” 

My sister used to be able to go to the bathroom alone just fine, but gradually her left side stopped working. Doctors said it was because she had series of mini strokes. They were amazed she was still alive, but they didn’t offer answers or treatments. Nothing happened suddenly. As she changed we changed with her, adjusting our routines as needed, until eventually our whole lives were transformed. 

The bathroom was by far my least favorite part of our new routine and made me appreciate being able to grip things firmly with both hands. She didn’t have the strength or mobility to hold the roll steadily enough with one hand to be able to rip off a normal sized piece, so she would try to use her right hand to pull it hard and rip it off— the result being enough paper to cover a man-sized mummy or a high school enemy’s house. She piled it so high in the toilet that you could actually see the top of the paper mound above the rim. To this day I can’t eat mashed potatoes and gravy. 

We looked down at the mess. “Sorry,” she said with a slight lisp—which was another side effect of the strokes—as she looked up to me for a solution.  She had started wearing the kind of cotton turbans that old ladies wear instead of her hand-made bonnets. Her wide and innocent doe eyes shining brightly from that turban disarmed any anger I had over the disgusting task that lay before me. Bambi was always one of my favorite movies. 

As I helped her wash both of her hands, our reflection in the mirror confirmed Annie’s biggest fear. Her little sister had become bigger. Her medications and lack of mobility continued to add to her weight gain so I was tall and skinny and she was short and plump. She started to resemble a Winnie the Pooh balloon from Disneyland with half of the air let out—still cute and cuddly enough to make you smile, but sad enough to make you wish you could go back to the time when it was fully inflated.

“It’s okay,” I told her. “I’ll take care of it. Go back to bed.” I rubbed her back and massaged her shoulders while pushing her towards our room.

“I’m not tired.” The warmth and sympathy I had for her cute little face was starting to disappear as it usually did when she made things unnecessarily difficult. Her childhood bossiness was growing into full on authoritarianism as she grew older and weaker. She brought toys and blankets into the living room like we used to, but now she would stretch out with them on the couch so there was no space for me to sit while we watched the shows only she was allowed to pick. If it was my birthday, she would be so upset she’d put her head on the table and mope, so eventually she started to get a pile of presents for my birthday, too.  I couldn’t complain. How could I dare? For my birthday I once got a (used) root beer-colored three-speed bike I could ride gleefully throughout the neighborhood. She got my old bike with rusty training wheels to ride very slowly back and forth in our driveway.  Things were never fair between us, but I don’t blame our parents. It’s hard to make things even for your kids when the world didn’t. 

“Go draw or something,” I said. Then it dawned on me. “You know what, it’s Mom’s birthday. We forgot to make her a card.”

“I’ll make a masterpiece,” she said. Although she probably wasn’t thrilled she wouldn’t be getting any presents today, she didn’t mind our parents’ birthdays as much as she minded mine, so she was happy to draw for our mom. 

I gave her a kiss on the forehead. “I know you will. I love you.” 

When your mom is an artist and wants to keep her kids busy so she can paint, she buys you a lot of art supplies. Annie turned out to be an incredible artist in her own right. Although her human figures looked like Mr. Potato Heads with circles for bodies, eyes and teeth, her abstract drawings were covered edge-to-edge with rainbow colored shapes and scribbles coming together to make magical, mystical terrains I wished I could run through. 

I didn’t have the imagination she and my mom had, but I used to draw all the time. Once when it rained on Mom’s birthday and I could tell she was really depressed. I thought the sun would cheer her up, so I drew and cut out a big yellow one and drew a happy face on it. Then I traced it with gold glitter and hung it on the fridge. While she thanked me, the drawing didn’t cheer her up at all. Years later, when she checked herself in and out of several mental hospitals, I found out she’s bi-polar, but back then I just thought she didn’t like us very much, that we were not enough to make her happy. 

“You good now?” I asked once Annie was all set up at the kitchen table with her pad and fairly new box of 64 crayons. 

She answered with a thumbs up and went to work. So did I. I got a plastic grocery bag from under the kitchen sink and went back to the bathroom.  I held my breath and used the toilet brush to shovel the heavy, drippy mess into the bag. Once I got enough out to allow the toilet to flush, I used more paper to wipe up all the drips from the floor and toilet, tightly tied up the bag and took it outside to the trash. The bag was leaking toilet water so I had to run. I retraced my steps to wipe up those drips with a hand towel, collapsed in a chair next to my sister, and watched her draw. 

 I heard the hiss of a match being lit. It was Mom lighting her cigarette first, then the pilot light on the wall heater near her bedroom. I peeked around the corner and down the hall. She was sitting on the floor in front of the heater smoking and crying, the mauve-colored velveteen robe we bought her for Mother’s Day tied tightly around her thin waist. She must have taken an early shower because her hair was dripping down her back in long black tendrils, water darkening the robe like blood. She often sat there and smoked, but this morning she seemed especially sad. Birthdays were hard for her. Maybe she counted up the years and they didn’t amount to what she wanted them to. 

Later that night we went out to celebrate at a Japanese restaurant. This was a big deal for because although walking wasn’t the easiest for Annie anymore, she refused to try a wheelchair. Taking her places was becoming more difficult she walked more slowly, got tired easily and then sometimes even a little grouchy. 

“This is like a palace,” Annie said while we waited for our table. Her wide eyes slowly took in the golden paper screens depicting peaceful images of cherry blossoms and cranes flying over lakes and the shimmering pink and blue kimonos hanging on the walls.  Although l was a young teen out with her family, I had to admit I liked it too. 

“Well, you are all my princesses,” Dad said as he bowed to us. Mom coughed loudly. “And my queen of course.” He kissed her hand and bowed to her. Mom smiled and reluctantly curtsied. 

“I can take you to your table now,” said a lovely young woman. Our dad dropped Mom’s hand and gave the hostess his full attention, chatting with her as they walked to the table as if she were his date. Mom’s smile dropped but when her eyes met mine she tried to play it off. 

The table sat in front of a mural of Mt Fuji and was very low to the ground. Around it were four silky cushions the same colors as the kimonos on the walls. 

“Where are the chairs?” Annie asked loudly.

“Those cushions are your chairs. Here, I’ll help you.” The hostess, trying to impress our dad, took Annie’s arm and tried to help her sit.  She didn’t take into account that Annie was heavy and was surprised when she fell limp into her arms almost knocking them both down onto the wooden table. Somehow she wrestled Annie to the ground and Dad took her arm to help her up. She pulled away from his grip red faced and said our server would be with us shortly. Mom didn’t sit down with, us but instead walked away.  

“I’ll be right back, ladies,” Dad said as he followed Mom.

“They’re fighting,” Annie said.

“It’s not that bad. They’ll be back in a second. Mom probably had to smoke.” Just like Mom, I tried to hide how embarrassed I was. 

“She should call Schick,” Annie said.

“I know. You’re right. Let’s play I Spy,” I said.

We played a few rounds. It was easy to win because she always picked whatever was right in front of her vision. Each time it was my turn I correctly guessed: chopsticks, water glass, table. She got frustrated quickly. Annie was never good at games. Most of the time I would just let her win or say she won even if not one checker was moved properly. But she was good at Hungry, Hungry Hippos, because all she had to do was slam that little handle down and try and get as many marbles into the mouth as you could. I usually pushed extra marbles towards the mouth of her hippo but she had no problems gobbling them up on her own. When we went to an arcade I’d set her up in front on Pac Man but wouldn’t put in a quarter. She just moved the joystick left to right with no idea she wasn’t controlling it. That may seem mean, but it saved a lot of quarters and she had a ball.

Our parents returned smelling of freshy toked pot and were much more relaxed. “We’re back. Sorry for the delay my royal highnesses,” Dad said as he lowered himself into a cross legged position. He was limber enough to do it in one move even though he was so tall. Mom was at least a foot shorter than Dad and sat down with the ease of a yoga instructor. She smiled graciously when our waitress, a much older woman this time, came to get our order.

 “I’m starving. Let’s get one of everything!” Mom said.

We didn’t get one of everything, but when the food came it seemed like we did. 

“This is delicious!” I said as I stuffed my mouth with meats and vegetables covered in sauces I’d never had before. Dad took us to a lot of authentic places he found when he filled their cigarette machines, but this was by far my favorite. I forgot everything else for a while as I happily ate and talked to my parents.

“I got an A on my essay about the Amish,” I bragged to my parents.

“Good job, Nick,” Dad said. I didn’t choose that nickname but I loved Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran, so my Dad called me this a lot. Still does. I was glad I had graduated from being called “Ina,” which came from the sound I used to make when I sucked my thumb. 

They changed the subject to my Dad’s upcoming gig with his Reggae band and I lost interest. I picked up an origami paper crane table decoration and flew it around my water glass. Annie and I got an origami set as a gift once and neither one of us could make anything good from it. I couldn’t figure out the directions and Annie couldn’t follow them anyway, so the delicate paper went in with our arsenal of art supplies. I flew the crane towards my sister but she wasn’t there. She had lain down completely flat, right from where she was sitting, making a perpendicular angle from the table so that her head almost hit the cushion of the person sitting behind her. 

“Mom, Dad, where’s Annie?” I whispered.

They couldn’t see her at all from where they were sitting and looked panicked. They were pretty high so they may have actually thought she was gone. I pointed down at her and they leaned over the table. We watched her big belly rise up and down like a hibernating bear sleeping at the foot of Mt Fuji. Her hat had come off slightly and you could see wisps of thin brown hair float over her otherwise bald head. The peaceful scene was interrupted when Mom let out the huge laugh she had been trying to suppress from deep within her throat. Dad and I joined and we all laughed until we cried. Most strangers had a hard time figuring out where to look or what to say when they saw Annie, but the kind family behind us noticed something strange was going on and laughed along. They even scooted over to give her a little more room. 

Mom wiped away her tears with a silky napkin. “Oh Annie, what would we do without you?”

About the Author:

Although born in Ashland, Oregon with family roots in New York, Kerby Kunstler Caudill has spent the majority of her life in Southern California. She earned a BA in Film from the University of California at Irvine, an MA in education from Cal State Long Beach, and then taught elementary school for 20 years. When she decided to switch gears, she joined a writing workshop with author Francesca Lia Block. This piece is an excerpt from her larger work, a memoir exploring her relationship with her terminally ill sister. Kerby lives in Culver City with her husband, daughter and two dogs.

Categories
nonfiction

Criminy Sakes Alive by Jody Rae

Criminy Sakes Alive | By Jody Rae

Details are foggy, like a Drunk History: Family Secrets Edition, but it was over frilly cocktails when my sister and I learned that Mom was “maybe just a little bit” pregnant with us when she joined my dad at the altar. We nudged her sugar-rimmed lemon drop an inch closer and demanded more information. Likewise, Dad and I were sitting side by side at a bar and, racism being no less corrosive when filtered through rum and Pepsi, I gasped, “What do you mean, our relatives destroyed evidence of our American Indian bloodline?” My mom’s relatives did, too, it turns out.

My mom’s mother became an alcoholic late in life, so it’s ironic that Grandma Juanita died from non-alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver while my mom was away at college in Idaho. As a result, Mom never kept alcohol in her house. Dad only drank Coors in his house while watching TV after hammering on lakeside mansions all day. Shielded from the atomic cloud of booze, my understanding of our diaspora evolved through all the clarity of a nuclear winter.

Discussions about our genealogy weren’t taboo, but more of an oversight or an afterthought. Dad didn’t learn of our ancestral heritage until his own folks aged well into their eighties and conversationally revealed that our family tree’s European roots extend into Germany, Scotland and Ireland. “Someone was Jewish,” I recall them musing one afternoon, in their air-conditioned assisted living apartment. “You’ll have to go back and look.” Look where, my dad and I wondered later, over pints of heavy IPA’s.

But it’s my mom’s side of my chemical equation that has almost literally haunted me since birth.

After my great-grandmother Honey and her family emigrated to Fort Worth, Texas from Poland, she begat my grandma Juanita through one of her five marriages.  Honey forced everyone to call her “Honey” when her first grandchild came along because she believed she was too young to be a grandmother. Her given name was Edna, but in most parts of Texas one simply does not address elders by their first names. We found a photo of Honey in her silver years wearing a fur stole, pearls, and big salt-and-pepper Texas hair styled like a U.S. Senator’s.

Family lore suggests Juanita’s father was a bit of a womanizer who had a thing for a Mexican woman he couldn’t be with, so he named his daughter after her. Grandma Juanita has a half-sister somewhere, also named Juanita.

Grandma Juanita raised her kids Catholic, even though she was divorced and held a reputation for being the life of the party. And then she started drinking. I have to imagine being a single mother of four, divorced twice, and without a family estate to draw from would be an extremely stressful and desperate situation. But she muddled through, every weekend sauntering into the parlor or having liquid dinners with friends and relatives, yelling, “Down the hatch!” almost before the needle fell on the record, and then rolling up the carpets to make anyone dance with her. She was a winning personality, a budget stylist, a strict mother. She wore a scarf and sunglasses like movie stars in convertibles, but was never late to work as a telephone operator. However, she once hurried out the door and hopped into the car, slamming the door before realizing she was sitting in the back seat. “And I was stone cold sober!” she later recounted to howls of laughter among her friends. Here, I always imagined her draped in her mother’s hand-me-down jewels and furs and perhaps a tiny tiara. I began to think of her as Madame Juanita.

From the sound of it, much of the housework fell to my Aunt Carole, who was also struggling as a high schooler. My mom remembers being home alone one night when she was only about eight or nine. She was watching TV in the dark when someone pounded on the door and then the window, and when she recognized the voice of Carole’s boyfriend, she reluctantly let him inside so he could rummage through Carole’s bedroom to retrieve a handgun he kept hidden in her dresser.

A few weeks later money went missing from Juanita’s purse, so she sat her kids at the table and forced them to drink baking soda and water until one of them confessed. Even though Mom was the youngest, she wanted to selflessly relieve her siblings, so she confessed, “It was me! I did it, okay? It was me!” My mom was a goody-two-shoes who had never done anything bad in her entire life. Juanita sneered and said, “Like hell it was you.”

Aunt Carole broke up with that gun-toting purse snatcher. But not long after that, Juanita got a call from the school asking if Carole was feeling better. They wanted to know how Carole’s leukemia treatments were coming along, as she hadn’t been in school for nearly a month. Aunt Carole had a twenty-something gal pal, the real loser type that hangs out with high schoolers and forges notes or calls in sick, pretending to be their mother. Juanita started personally dropping Carole off at school each morning, but Carole would walk around the corner and get in her loser friend’s car to go hang out and smoke cigarettes all day.

Recently over wine, Mom revealed that she dated a guy in Moscow, Idaho after she graduated college. He heard about work in Alaska. They moved with friends to what sounds like a genuine commune in the Yukon so he could work on the pipeline or something. After living in Alaska with her boyfriend in a tiny trailer for six months, he went to work one day and Mom stayed behind in, again, what I suspect was a commune disguised as a work camp. While she was reading a novel, an enormous, hungry Grizzly bear came sniffing around the camp and nosed it’s way towards Mom’s tiny trailer – the kind on wheels. It smelled something it liked inside and got up on its hind legs to rock the trailer to and fro with my Mom inside, alone, as she fumbled with a pistol – the only firearm she has ever touched – as if a single shooter would so much as spook a hungry Grizzly in the wild.

Her hands shook as she aimed the gun in the direction of the narrow door that somehow stayed intact under a bear claw until the the bear got bored or distracted and let the trailer drop back to the ground. When her boyfriend came home from work she was still shaken and retold the story through tears.

Her boyfriend paused at the end of her story, and then doubled over in a hoarse, knee-slapping laugh as if the very prospect of coming home to find his girlfriend’s remains strewn throughout the camp would be the funniest thing ever. The next morning, Mom packed up and went back to Idaho, where she lived with friends in Orofino and soon met my dad in a backcountry bar.

Born and raised in McCall, Dad was once the best downhill skier in the United States, and I know this because everyone I meet from his youth, including his fellow U.S. Ski Teammates tell me about it. But even though his dad was the head sawyer at the sawmill, his family couldn’t afford to send him to France to compete, and they wouldn’t accept charity from the townspeople who really wanted their local boy to win. It was heartbreaking and he became depressed. Then the sawmill where he and his dad both worked burned down and closed for good. He was accepted to Columbia University but declined and enrolled at the University of Idaho instead.

Dad is a master craftsman, and soon convinced himself he could make more money as a carpenter than as a math major, which is perhaps the only miscalculation he has ever made in life and he will tell you he still regrets dropping out of college. It proved to make a hard living.

When he quit college, following a handful of public arguments with his professors, Dad moved home to McCall. When he wasn’t working construction he drove an ambulance for years, which he refuses to talk about other than to admit he still has nightmares, decades later. Like my mom, he was in a bit of a wandering phase when he entered that fateful bar in Yellowpine.

The thing about my parents is that they are very amazing people apart from one another, but incompatible in almost every way. But since they were also the two most attractive people in Idaho’s backcountry it was probably inevitable that they would end up together. They saw each other across the bar in Yellowpine and fell madly in love.

Stranded at the McCall, Idaho hospital with a team of every doctor within a fifty-mile radius, it was immediately clear to my parents that no one in the room had ever performed a C-section. Before 1981, McCall’s two-room hospital didn’t have an ultrasound machine, so based on the size of her belly, most people assumed my mom was carrying a brawny lumberjack boy, tentatively named Christopher. But when my mom went into labor six weeks early on a warm summer day, she was a hundred miles from a NICU.

My parents called my aunt Carole in California to tell her they needed her to come visit much earlier than expected. She quickly packed a suitcase and bought a one-way ticket to Boise at the Oakland airport. Sherda, a friend of my parents’, borrowed my mom’s VW Beetle and drove down the canyon to pick Carole up from the airport. By the time Carole’s plane landed, the mountain doctors had a better idea of what was actually going on.

Instead of Big Christopher, it was now quite obvious for the first time that there were actually two little babies in there. When her obstetrician felt around for a heartbeat, ours must have been in sync, because he never heard a third heartbeat.

My dad called his parents in Washington and told them he was having twins. My grandpa, who had ordered nursery furniture for one, called Sears and told them to double the order. Word got around our tiny town, and because my dad was so well known for living there all his life, it was a matter of days before the entire second bedroom of our house was stacked, floor to ceiling, with diapers and supplies.

Sherda drove Aunt Carole back towards McCall, but as they gained altitude through the trees along the narrow swath of Highway 55 that cuts along the Payette River, the beetle’s headlights started to flicker and then the car died. It was pitch black. There were no other cars on that stretch of road. They searched the car for a flashlight and when Carole found one in the glove compartment and switched it on, she realized she was standing mere inches from a steep drop that ended in Class V rapids.

They waited in the dark for cars to come along, preserving the flashlight’s battery. The roar of the whitewater failed to mute the sounds in the woods. Sherda recalled there had been a recent wolf sighting, a rare occurrence in that area during the 80’s. But there were hundreds of bear sightings. She was nervous and chatty about local wildlife until Aunt Carole stopped hyperventilating long enough to tell her to shut up about it.

Finally they heard a motor and saw headlights appear around the bend coming from the south. They waved the flashlight and their arms while shouting. The car pulled over and they got in. It’s hard to look a gift horse in the mouth, but the two scruffy men, in their early thirties, congratulated Carole on being an aunt, and then the men quickly, unapologetically, revealed they were both ex-convicts, sprung from prison.

“We’ve only been out a few hours! We’re headin’ to the bars, if either of you ladies would like to join us. No? Well, I guess you gotta go see your sister. Hey, either of you want a hit a this joint?” Aunt Carole counted her blessings every time they successfully rounded a corner or corrected the wheel if they drifted out of the lane.

In a panic, the doctors kicked my dad out of the operating room, while nurses treated my mom’s pain and frantically searched the building for a C-Sections for Dummies manual. Sure enough, by the time Aunt Carole arrived, shaken, but alive, she walked past the operating room window that was already covered in my dad’s tears and sweaty handprints, and she saw the medical team flipping through the book together. Aunt Carole was terrified.

The medical text didn’t provide all the answers, so they got on the phone with a surgeon in Boise, who couldn’t make it to McCall by the time they knew he was needed. With a spiral phone cord bisecting the O.R., they curtained my mom’s head and shoulders from view and made several attempts at an incision at her lower abdomen. I usually stop here and ask why someone didn’t just call the local veterinarian. They do C-sections on livestock all the time, and you would think, during an emergency such as this, a mammal is a mammal. Usually my family rolls their eyes at that, but I bet nobody even thought of it.

Mom didn’t feel a thing. My dad is still good friends with Dr. Allen, her anesthesiologist.

But when the doctors, surgeons themselves now, opened her up they pulled my sister out and the last thing my mom remembers before she blacked out was a doctor standing over her and shouting, “Somebody come get this other kid, she’s gonna die!” And that’s how I came into, and almost left, the world.

When my mom woke up she was pretty sure one of her babies was dead. I was fine, sort of, once they ordered me  to stay inside an incubator for at least a week and achieve a goal of four pounds before leaving the hospital. My sister was five pounds, so she got to go home right away. Our mom got stitched up after the doctors reconstructed her abdomen. Her scars don’t resemble other C-section scars at all. But those doctors and nurses never gave up on us.

The day after we were born, the McCall hospital ordered an ultrasound machine. So I like to tell anyone born in Valley County after July of 1981 that their parents have me to thank for that.

Mom was certain that I wasn’t going to make it, considering my weight and the level of medical expertise available to us. She told my dad, “We just need to let her go, Mike.”

Mom named my sister. Dad named me after the babysitter he grew up with in his childhood neighborhood who he always had a thing for.  He also gave us both nicknames. My sister was christened “Princess”. I was called Bird Butt.

I stayed in the hospital longer than they had hoped, but my dad would come to the hospital to visit my incubator every day, and he would tap on the case, saying, “You’re. Gonna. Live. You’re. Gonna. Live.”

When my mom held me for the first time, she blinked twice at my face and said, “Mom? Is that you?”

Suspecting that you might be your own reincarnated grandmother is a much bigger responsibility than you might imagine. I bore the mantle as if I possessed or developed a superpower that I could not quite fathom, yet understood it should not be misused. My mom encouraged this notion, wondering aloud how I knew that particular song her mother used to love so much (it was now used as a commercial jingle), or certain phrases I used or facial expressions. Mom was going through a spiritual exploration herself, no longer a Catholic, and that meant all bets were on the table, including reincarnation.

And yet, at seven, I could not be trusted with the knowledge that I might have nominal authority over anyone.

“Criminy sakes alive! If you could only hear what your Grandma Juanita would say about your messy room, or how lazy you are to get ready for school every morning,” my mom would say as she manually dressed me while I was still half asleep in bed.

I would level my eyes with hers and solemnly say, “I am Juanita.”

And apparently the creepiest child in America.It’s true that projecting Madame Juanita restricted my personal identity, but it also gave me the confidence to address my own mother by her first name, and at times make demands. There was a tendril of eccentricity that desperately needed to be nipped in the bud. When I was home alone at age eight or nine, I pulled garments vaguely resembling capes and gowns from my mother’s ample closet. Mom acquired her Masters in Library Science when we were toddlers, so her wardrobe consisted mainly of tweed, polyester, and pantyhose. I used her cheap jewelry, layers of flowy scarves, and librarian-grade Payless pumps to approximate a costume worthy of Madame Juanita.

Even though my aunts and uncles swear up and down that Grandma Juanita was a strict, Southern, somewhat chemically imbalanced matriarch with strong opinions on proper etiquette, I always suspected she might have a soft spot for me underneath her hard knock armor. Just like she never would have allowed her slip to show in real life, I nevertheless imagined her as a lounge singer, draped across a grand piano, one shoulder strap playing chicken with gravity. I don’t know how old I was when I realized I am not my own grandmother, reincarnated, but it was probably much older than necessary.

By the time I was in my late twenties and still on the fence about having kids of my own, I mentioned over highball 7 and 7’s with Mom that I have always loved the name Amelia.

“It’s my absolute favorite name, and if I were to ever have a daughter or a heroine in a best-selling novel, or a pet turtle, her name would be Amelia, no arguments,” I said.

“Oh, that’s so interesting,” Mom said between tiny sips through her skinny straw. “Your Grandma Juanita went by her middle name all her life. Her first name was Amelia.”

About the Author:

Jody Rae earned her B.A. in Literature – Creative Writing from UC Santa Cruz. Her essay, “Crumble to the Sea” won the nonfiction contest in The Climax Issue (2020) of From Whispers to Roars. She was the first prize winner of the 2019 Winning Writers Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry Contest for her poem, “Failure to Triangulate”. She lives in Colorado.