Love, Luck, and Letters

heart stone

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Glendaliz Camacho

Letters from JR (2012)

On a February night in 2012, there was a knock at my door. When I looked through my door’s peephole, I saw a young man in my hallway. My neighbor’s son from upstairs. I figured that he was going to ask if I had heat or hot water or to borrow something, so when I opened the door and heard him say, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for a long time. Are you seeing anyone?” I put my hand up for him to stop talking and told him I’d get my keys and come out into the hall.

JR stood on the second step of the landing between our floors. He was built like the high-school football player he’d been—thick neck, broad shoulders, muscular legs. By the way his eyes, the color of wet soil, drifted up into a corner of the ceiling like a student remembering what the textbook said, I could tell that he’d rehearsed this in his head until he’d finally built up the nerve to do it. I knew what I should say. Point out our age difference—he was twenty-three, I was thirty-three. Point out how different we were as people—he wore his pants three sizes too big and I’d once heard him have a yelling match in the front of our building with his ex-girlfriend, while I stopped liking guys who wore baggy jeans in ’96 and kicked my previous boyfriend out for being too chaotic.

It would have been easy, too; it would’ve taken me all of a minute to say, This is sweet but no thanks. Instead, I gave him my phone number.

Breaking both cardinal rules I’d laid down the next day in his bedroom—this is not a relationship and discretion was required—JR and I went on dates, he met some of my friends, and we held hands in public. I played Otis Redding songs for him, introduced him to Carlos the Jackal via a mini-series, and read him Thich Nhat Hahn. He’d drive me to work and pick me up almost every day and make me tea in the evenings.

To see myself through his eyes was to witness feats of sorcery. The thrill was in coming up with more and more things to expand and amaze him with. All random things that I was into that he’d never been exposed to or never had the freedom to express interest in because of the street life he was drawn to. If I stopped too long to think about it, I knew I would find my relationship with JR to be unsustainable, but I swatted the thought away in exchange for how good the attention felt.

One evening, detectives knocked on JR’s door. I lied and said he wasn’t in. They left their card, saying they just wanted to ask him a few questions. JR admitted he’d committed a robbery. There was a good possibility it was caught on video. A week later, he decided to turn himself in.

We spent that evening sitting on the steps of the elementary school that we’d attended, across the street from our building. We had started out the same—two kids with cartoon backpacks and fresh pencils. As much as I joked that my School of Making Better Men was closed, I believed that boy could reemerge, the boy that went to the same gifted junior high school I did and earned a college football scholarship. From the corner at the top of the hill our building sat on, I watched him walk away until he disappeared into the precinct. He was sentenced to five years.

We wrote each other almost every week, at first. JR’s first letter began, “I miss and love you so much. I wish and pray I can go home to see, hold, and sleep with you again.” Another letter continued, “I also find myself trying to ascertain how or why you love a monster like myself. I know I haven’t shown you that side of me, but based on my way of living alone, it should’ve kept you at a distance from me.”

In another letter, “I still can’t believe I’m so lucky to have a woman like you on my side. My shrink tells me that I should call it a blessing, but I call it luck, because blessings have nothing to do with love. Luck has everything to do with it. Then he asked me how do I figure that and I explained, love is luck because not everyone in this world will ever know what love is, nor will they ever experience it. It’s like stumbling upon money in the street. That’s not a blessing, you was hit with enough luck to find that money.”

He closed another letter with, “please don’t leave me alone because without you, I’m just the same old monster I’m known to be.”

After a few months, I stopped writing back.

First letter from John (April 2013)

One afternoon, I checked my OK Cupid account to find a message from JLRodriguez. “Had I recognized you for you I never woulda stopped, but I did, and you probably already got a message that I did…so I will play this however you want me to,” it read. I had randomly popped up on his matches, and he didn’t recognize me until he was already in my profile.

I recognized JLRodriguez as John, a poet I met at a reading in the lower east side two years prior. We’d already been connected on social media, but the reading was our first interaction in real life. He leaned in conspiratorially and asked what happened between me and a publisher that caused the short-story anthology I was editing—that included one of John’s stories—to come to an abrupt halt. Wary, I gave John a diplomatic answer, something about my sense of timing with the publisher’s not being compatible. We didn’t speak again until a year later when we were reading at the same event. We were cordial, nothing more.

In his message, John closed with, “I’m looking like you are, and you look good. At any case, I do hope you find whomever you are looking for.”

I got called out on something I thought I’d hidden well. I was looking. I had been tirelessly looking since I was a child: for answers, love, approval, freedom, happiness. When I found some form of these things—in a conversation with my father, in a new love interest, in an acceptance letter—I sought it out in another way—spirituality, a new love interest, an acceptance letter to something else. Contentment is only a plateau, never a permanent state.

I liked that John offered to meet me on this plateau, as a fellow seeker, but with the openness to know that we might not remain there. If, scrolling through online profiles, I would’ve seen and recognized him, I also would’ve passed, but there was some significance to my appearing on his feed. One that was worth exploring.

Love letter from John (June 24, 2013)

On our first date, John and I had lunch at a Mexican restaurant that had a photograph of Marilyn Monroe on the bathroom wall. I told John I had been reading about the siren archetype and Marilyn Monroe, the prime example. I didn’t tell him that I took a photo of the picture thinking it was a good omen. We talked about Mourid Barghouti’s memoir and Rita Moreno’s autobiography in the park across the street from the restaurant. He gave me a tour of the college campus where he taught freshman English composition courses. It was one of the best dates I ever had.

John was the type of guy to listen to me over the phone so intently, I would ask if he was still there. One day, when I was marooned on my couch with a fever, he brought over tea, Gatorade, and croissants. We often spent time wandering through museums or at readings. He’d send me YouTube links to Wu-tang mashups and I’d send him Robi Rosa or Florence and The Machine songs. He introduced me to Vampire Hunter D and Dungeons and Dragons alignments. I was on equal footing with him intellectually and emotionally, standing on that plateau of contentment. If there was a right way to do a relationship, this was the one I’d gotten the most right. JR was the last page of Act I and John was the first page of Act II.

John was also the type of guy who when I ran out of toilet paper or Brillo pads, brought it up constantly as something that should never happen to an adult. In his thirty-nine years, he’d never once let that happen. The first time I made a meal for him—vegetable lasagna—he said that it was almost, but not quite, as good as his mom’s. In social situations, things could go either way: he was sweet and inquisitive or visibly uncomfortable until he was a block of ice. I wrestled with these pros and cons, but the pros still far outweighed cons.

When I was accepted into a week-long writing workshop in Berkeley, John dropped me off at the Airtran at JFK Airport. We hugged and kissed. “It’s just a week. I’ll see you Monday,” he said. A couple of days later I received a letter via email.

My Glendaliz:

We are far now, so very, and I want you to know how wonderful you make everything.

More than that day, when I saw that picture and wondered who was that beautiful woman; more than when I knew who she was; more than the red-cheeked rush of wonderment in writing you; more than reading your acceptance; it was your willing hand in mine.

You made me feel worthy of love. No one else ever has. It was always me dreaming, forcing the clichéd longing of pseudo-romance. You welcomed me and accepted me and for that, more than anything else that I have experienced, I love you.

You make loving so easy. My time, my concern, and even my Gmail password— it comes as no surprise that I share these things with you, that you find me good at sharing, at noticing, and that you are great at reading me, that you understand, and are willing to deal with the strange seeds watered around me.

With all my love,

Your John

I called to tell him he was the absolute best for sending me a love letter. We talked for about an hour. I can’t remember about what exactly, mostly about how things were going for me in the workshop. It was the last time that I ever heard his voice.

When my week in Berkeley was drawing to a close, my instructor pulled me aside during a break from our workshop and told me John was dead. His mother’s body was found earlier in the week, in her apartment, a hammer next to her bed. John was found a couple of days later when he never checked out of a hotel room where he slit his wrists in the bathtub. When I received his letter, he had already killed his mother and I imagine he had already decided he was going to kill himself.

That OK Cupid message, at first so ripe with fate, now seemed like nothing more than a cosmic joke, a lesson sent by a god in a Greek tragedy to humble me. I reread his letters daily. So many things had to align for John and me to meaningfully cross paths: algorithms, previous break-ups, the science behind what we found attractive. I kept regressing down that line of thinking until it seemed possible that even our parents leaving their respective homelands were part of this enormous web that extended further and further into history itself. If this wasn’t an aleph, it was the closest I ever came to a moment where every thing was visible at once, and painfully so. It was overwhelming to grapple with thoughts of chance, fate, and the way time moves more like nesting dolls rather than in any linear fashion, all while crying, making John’s final arrangements, and trying to meet the daily demands of work and parenting.

I did, however, begin to feel that there was still significance in joining John on that little ledge of contentment, beyond notions of good or bad. There is a quote by the sorcerer Don Juan Matus, from Carlos Castaneda’s books, that says, “The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” The challenge for me was to hold on to goodness and mercy, and the world as a place where these things still existed.

Something in John’s letter prodded me. “My time, my concern, and even my Gmail password.” A list of things he’d given me, except for the password. Yet, here he was saying I had it. John was a poet and he had established a rhythm here, then disrupted it. One night, I was up with newly acquired insomnia when I remembered that he’d once asked me for a favor. He’d given me his Submittable password and asked me to send his manuscript to a publisher. I typed that password into his email and it worked.

John had emailed himself a letter and addressed it to me. The subject line was “just in case,” but I think that he knew I would find it because he counted on my looking. He apologized if I was hurting. His use of the word “if” was grating, as if there was any way I couldn’t be hurting. He said his favorite times were with me. The last five lines read:

You.
You made me a believer in love.
You made me believe.
You did that.
You.

Letter to John. (June 24, 2014)

On the morning of the one-year anniversary of John’s death, I wrote to him.

Hey John,

We haven’t spoken in a minute, I know. You’re certainly making up for that. This morning, I hear you everywhere. And I know there are things we still won’t talk about.

I workshopped an essay about you last week. My group critiquing it said they couldn’t see my love for you. They felt distance there. And they were right. It’s because I still feel shame for having loved you. You left me with a lot of shame, John. To be ashamed of good memories is a fucked up thing.

Anyway, it made me think well, how to do I revise this? What were the things that made me feel love for you? And I keep coming back to that morning we wrote together. You, working on that sci-fi novel. Me, on a short story. That morning, I looked over at you and thought this could be a lot of Sunday mornings. Our equivalent of reading the Sunday Times or going to farmer’s markets or whatever couples do on Sundays. It was symbiotic. It wasn’t that aficiamiento where you’re half-crazed over someone, and I think you knew that. It was the sense of partnership, of working, creating, side by side. Harmony. That’s what I didn’t say in my essay. That this part was so stellar that I was more than willing to work with the more jodon parts of you. Yes, jodon.

People ask me if I think we’d still be together. I always say no, without missing a beat. I don’t know whose benefit that is for. I say the critical, unbending parts of you would’ve swelled like a supernova to overshadow everything.

You know, eventually, I don’t want to remember this date. You, of course, I’d like to remember random things and laugh, but this date, no. I won’t mark it forever so maybe I will talk to you next year. Maybe I won’t. In any case, I’ll see you around, John.

-G

Last letter to JR. (September 2014)

I intended to write to JR because I was working on this essay. I didn’t. It’s been about a year since I’ve written to him. I know that the last time was after John died because I have a letter from him that says, “I won’t lie, I’m glad you’re still single but I’m very sorry about your friend.” I didn’t see the point of getting into details.

I save his letters, the first ones still bound with white ribbon as if I would be able to keep everything that neat for the duration of JR’s incarceration. The ones that came after, the ones I had time to read, but never got around to answering, are piled haphazardly on top. Maybe I’ll still receive the sporadic letter from JR, but one day the letters will stop completely because he will be home, a twenty-eight-year-old man who may not see love, or perhaps me, in the same fortuitous light as before.

I used to wonder if JR grasped the nuance between the terms “luck” and “blessing” when I reread his letters, but it was I that had been using them interchangeably, like shrimp and crab in the same chowder, close enough that I couldn’t be bothered to distinguish between them. Blessings elicit gratitude because of their benefit, suggest having taken action to achieve or suffering to earn. Only good people are blessed. Luck, on the other hand is as transitory and undiscerning as love itself. A spin on a wheel. But lucky or unlucky, blessed or cursed, none of those words really seem to be a good fit for the magnitude or complexity of loving or being loved by JR or John. It was both and neither and all.

•••

GLENDALIZ CAMACHO was born and raised in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Her writing has appeared in All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color (University of Wisconsin Press, 2014), Southern Pacific Review, and The Acentos Review, among others. She was a 2013 Pushcart Prize nominee and is currently working on a short story collection.
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A Mild Suspension of Effort

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jamie Passaro

You are always searching for something that is somewhere in your small house: your keys, your cell phone, the other shoe, the cap to the marker, the library book, the salt. You spend so much time guiding your children—to wipe their mouths with napkins and not sleeves, to not write on their foreheads with Sharpies, to wear underwear (We always wear our underwear, you hear yourself saying singsongily)—that you are feeling a bit lost yourself. It is a rare day when you don’t wonder if it was dumb to quit your job.

It turns out, you are not so great at householding. The dust, the cobwebs, the splatters, a losing battle. The canning of summer’s bounty, time consuming and scary. The sewing of buttons and minor repairs to clothes? You are ill-equipped for this, let alone for teaching these skills to your daughters. Wouldn’t you rather read the New Yorker with a late-afternoon glass of wine while they build a fort out of toilet paper?

You have the garden, but more and more it seems a weedy embarrassment. With help from friends and cheered on by Michael Pollan, you and your husband tore up the tiny front yard and put in raised beds. It looked like you knew what you were doing, but you hadn’t much practice, hadn’t grown up the way some people do, these people who seem to have it in their DNA when to prune the blueberries and what to add to the soil to make it less cloddy. That first year, the garden was a beauty. It must have been all that fresh compost, all that weedcloth under the pea gravel surrounding the raised beds; it was all so tidy. The kale grew waist-high and stayed on through the winter. The basil—you couldn’t give enough away. Every year since then, you’ve had diminishing returns. Year five brought tomato plants with fungus, lettuce and kale and chard starts mowed down by snails at every turn. The kale that did grow was gray with aphids. Weeds busted through the weedcloth, more plentiful than anything, so many you could mow them. And it’s all on display, right there in the front yard!

You find a blob of peanut butter on your watchband. You have memorized the bulk food code for lentils at your grocery store. In other situations, words waver on the tip of your tongue. The name of one of your favorite actors? Gone the other day in an ordinary conversation. Later you Google the names of his films to get it back.

The newly scuffed-up back-to-school shoe. The My Little Pony you actually threw in the garbage because you were tired of stepping over it on the front porch. The crescent of blood on your husband’s nose from where he picked at a piece of peeling skin. In the morning rush, you forgot to tell him it was there. The autumn light is so perfect, it puts a little catch in your throat. Your fortieth trip around the sun.

You are a consumer of something that you like to call magic but is really just the suspension of effort. These small, unexpected moments. The conversation with a stranger in the produce department. The cigarette shared with a friend while your children sleep in your minivan at the trailhead to a hike you will not take. Riding your bike across the Ferry Street bridge on the Fourth of July, the warm night air on your bare arms while fireworks crackle in the distance. That was years ago. The magic, it’s getting rarer and rarer, you think. Your therapist says that you are getting in the way. It’s probably true.

Thus is your mood when your mother-in-law comes for a visit during the last week before school starts. Your mother-in-law is a cheerful and sprightly eighty-three, a member of the Tea Party, an attendee of the same Methodist church as Dick Cheney’s sister. She’s an expert knitter and is knitting a prayer scarf to donate to a hospital. Dick Cheney’s sister taught her the technique.

Your mother-in-law’s visits always remind you of how bad you are at talking—small talk or big talk. You are more a listener and a nodder, more of a spend-time-in-your-head-so-you-can-think-about-the-thing-you-said-yesterday kind of person. You are in awe of people who can talk at length about anything. The other day you heard someone give specific directions to a complicated destination, and it actually gave you a shiver.

Your mother-in-law is losing her short-term memory. Your husband’s brother has phoned ahead to let you know. In the first two hours of her visit, you talk about the weather six times. Yes, it’s usually this hot at the end of August in Eugene, you hear yourself saying again and again in the same voice you use with your children. You are exhausted already. And sad.

The plan is that your mother-in-law will move from her home in Boise into an assisted living facility that’s across the street from her church. She seems to be on board with this, and you talk about it many times during your visit. A part of you thinks that it’s heartbreaking to spend the last years of your life with strangers and that it would be much better to have her move in with your family, but another part of you knows that this would be difficult for you. You know you’re going to feel bad either way.

You’re meeting a friend for a coffee date while your kids are at a morning camp. You feel reluctant to leave your mother-in-law alone, but you need time with your friend. As you leave, you tell her that you’ll see her in a few hours and then you have a worry in the back of your head the whole time that she has slipped on a colored pencil and broken her hip. You hurry back home and it’s like you’ve been gone five minutes. How was the drop-off? she asks. It’s so hot outside, she says. Is it always so hot here?

Your daughter has been promised a kitten for her eighth birthday. And so on a Saturday during your mother-in-law’s visit, you all go to the local humane society to pick out the pet. The cat room manager takes one look at you all—ages five, eight, thirty-nine, forty-nine, and eighty-three—and directs you toward a room of energetic but tolerant kittens. Your daughter picks out a black and white four-month-old named Tia, and you receive the half-off senior discount because of your mother-in-law. She keeps referring to the cat as a dog, probably because your family has always had dogs for pets.

You decide to throw a small potluck for a few neighbors for Labor Day. It is something that your mother-in-law will enjoy. News of the potluck spreads and it becomes six-family affair. Your husband moves the grill and the picnic table into the front yard and your next-door neighbor does the same. You put out all of your silverware, all of your plates. You bring out the old crank ice cream maker and then make the same joke to different groups of neighbors: We’ve got a kitten and home-made ice cream; we’re running for the neighborhood association!

The neighbor children parade in the house to meet the kitten, who has already worn a dress, already been given a bath. She lets them cart her around like a baby. She lets them hold her up so she can walk on two legs. Sometimes she lets out a mew, but she never scratches.

There is watermelon and Caprese salad and Caesar salad and artichoke dip and lots of beer and wine. The grills are cranking out sausage and veggies. Everyone is talking happily in the front yard, drinking beer and wine from plastic cups. Your mother-in-law is re-meeting everyone she has already met, asking them where they’re from and where they live and what they do. She looks happy and you bring her a glass of the rosé she likes.

Into the chaos, your daughters appear on the front porch wearing the new roller blades that their aunt bought them recently. They’ve not yet mastered the roller blades, and for a moment you shake your head, No. But something, maybe the wine, lets you let them. Their dad helps them down the porch stairs and they make their way through the crowd to the sidewalk, your five-year-old in a kind of crawl-walk. Everyone is cracking up and saying thank goodness for the kneepads and watch out for the grill. Your next-door neighbor, who’s in law enforcement and is an overcautious dad, is cringing; he actually can’t look at them. His wife jokes that we should give them hot sharp sticks, or maybe the kitten. And you let go and laugh harder than you have in a while.

In the middle of the party, you notice that the doors to the room where you have been keeping the kitten are wide open. The kitten is … gone. You alert your husband and he searches the house, confirms that, yes, the kitten is gone. One by one, the kids find out. Two of them are in tears. The adults start searching, drinks in hand. Your party has turned into a search party, and the neighbors are parting through the weeds in the garden and are inside on their hands and knees shining tiny flashlights into the very dusty areas under the couches and beds. Here, kitty, kitty. Your mother-in-law is wondering if we might hear her bark.

Two neighbors have made their way to the kitchen, where the sink is piled with dishes, the counters cluttered with bottles and miscellaneous bags, caps, and lids. They are doing the dishes and you are grateful. You must continue the search, but you’ve run out of places to look. You walk around with your flashlight and a worried look on your face. She’ll turn up, the neighbors say as they leave in small groups. She’s probably curled up in a ball asleep somewhere. You agree, but you also wonder how you could have allowed this to happen. Maybe not such a great idea to have a party the day after you got a new kitten.

Everyone is gone by ten and the kitten is still not found. Your husband puts the reluctant girls to bed. You remember that the kitten is wearing a bell around its neck. In the quiet, maybe you will be able to hear it tinkle. You sit cross-legged in a patch of weeds in the garden. It’s the most still you have been while awake for as long as you can remember. You hear the snails munching, the crickets chirping, the pea gravel shifting under your weight. Every few minutes, a car roars by on the street and you worry again about the kitten. But you look up at the stars and feel lucky that this is your task tonight.

After ten minutes of your quiet vigil, you start calling again for the kitten. You hear a vague tinkling from the backyard and tiptoe around to the side gate. Kitty? The bell again, in the makeshift wood pile. You shine your flashlight back there behind it and see a flash of green eyes. She tries to squirm away, but you’re able to grab her. At first she wants to get back to the woodpile, get on with her outdoor adventure, but then maybe she realizes you are not one of the mauling children and she stops squirming away. She nestles into you. The two of you sit in the moonlight on the back porch. Her purring is the only sound you hear.

•••

JAMIE PASSARO’s articles, interviews and essays have been published in The Sun, Utne Magazine, Oregon Humanities Magazine, Oregon Quarterly, Forest Magazine, Culinate.com, and NWBookLovers.org, among other places. She’s at work on a collection of essays.

That Smell

woman in bed

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer James

It happens everywhere, in all kinds of situations; I’ll walk up to someone and smell That Smell. The last time it happened to me was the first day of Advent when all the families with young children gathered in our church parish hall to construct Advent wreaths. The smell wasn’t the first thing I noticed. In fact, when I first arrived with my husband and three children, the room smelled of old wood, fresh coffee, and evergreen boughs: genuine magic in the air. The Christmas tree stood in the corner, waiting for its bright lights and colorful ornaments. There were already some jars of peanut butter and Campbell’s soup under the tree for the food pantry. For me, it was the best of the Christmas season.

Then one of my favorite peeps at church, this young, amazing mom, with two little kids, came up and gave me a hug. I smelled the smell. You know it too, and it’s not armpit odor, or old urine, or greasy hair. It’s the smell of human skin trying to metabolize, to slough off, the stench of alcohol. You also probably know that this smell is not emitted (generally speaking) by some emotionally stable person who spent the previous evening nursing a tepid glass of merlot. Nope. This is the smell of poison, the result of one person consuming too much alcohol for his or her body to take. I know about this smell. I used to smell that way, too.

The first time I noticed my own skin generating alcoholic stench was one sunny December morning when I was teaching preschool. My husband’s company Christmas party had taken place the night before and there was lots of wine and beer. Lots of wine for me. Then, lots of chit chat. Chit-chat with my table mates about abortion. My Catholic tablemates. Whoops. Any grace I’d come to the table with had gone down with the third or fourth glass of wine. The next morning, I woke up nauseated and ashamed. This was a significant occasion for me, this one morning.

It would be very nice if I could tell you that I knew I’d been drinking too much, that I needed to stop or cut down. But no. I realized that I needed to do a much better job of hiding my relationship with alcohol. Otherwise, the jig would be up. And I was nowhere near ready to surrender my favorite thing, so no more drinking excessively in public.

There is a book called Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. Not surprisingly, she likens her relationship with alcohol to one with a lover. I like the analogy because, like it or not, most of us have loved someone who or something that is bad for us. Sometimes the loved one is a parent, a lover, a boss, a friend. Sometimes a job or food. But no matter how disastrous the relationship is, there’s always a moment, an episode, an element of deep, searing satisfaction to the whole mess. In an abusive relationship, it might be the part when the abuser begs for forgiveness, swears that his victim is kind and generous beyond belief, that he might cease to exist without her. Shit, that’s heady stuff: who among us doesn’t want to hear that? If only the truth in those promises lasted more than an instant. And eventually, alcohol does something cruel to its lovers: it tries to kill us.

For years, I hated alcohol. My mother was an alcoholic. She was one of the kindest, bravest, most loving people I’ve known, but her relationship with alcohol sucked away a lot of that. She was quietly depressed her whole adult life, so far as I could see. She was never violent or cruel, not short tempered or really angry. She was just irreparably sad and the alcohol made it very hard to hide that. I didn’t want that for myself.

Because I was afraid of becoming as sad as my mom, I didn’t use alcohol in many of the glorious ways that so many miserable adolescents do. I didn’t use it to fit in or to grease social skids. I didn’t use it to feel more confident or brave. Nope. I went through high school as a bona fide misfit. I was pudgy (and this is before the so-called obesity epidemic hit America) and as a child, had been raised in a series of small, international communities. It was no big deal for me to have one classmate who spoke three words of English and another who was fluent in three languages. So when my family returned to the U.S. for good when I was fifteen, I had no idea how to navigate The American High School. When most of my peers were exploring chemical solutions to adolescent angst, I didn’t touch the stuff. In retrospect, this may have been a tactical error: I desperately needed some social lubrication.

Probably, these years of social pariahism helped make my introduction to alcohol so dramatic. Alcoholism is tricky business from a scientific point of view. The current thinking seems to be that some alcoholics are alcoholic from their first sip of alcohol, that their first drink was like a first kiss or something, that the compulsion to drink came with the first rush. Then, there are others who drink themselves into addiction: the folks who start by drinking “a couple“ of drinks a night, and gradually work into “a few” drinks a night, and then somehow start using it to make it through the day as some people use Diet Dr. Pepper or Starbucks. Some people are lucky enough to get some nifty little psychological tic (sometimes not until their thirties or forties) and find that deep breathing and Zoloft are not nearly as effective as a well-timed glass (or tumbler or stadium cup) of Chardonnay. I’ve known people with all these backgrounds. In a way, I am a person with all these backgrounds.

I had a proclivity to anxiety and panic attacks from the start (my psychological tic), started consuming a few drinks about mid-way through college, with little effect. I was waiting for a magical transformation to transpire from the elixir smuggled into dorm fridges via grungy backpacks, and when it didn’t happen, I lost interest. That was probably the point in my drinking experience when I could have stopped. I was well ensconced in the life of a social misfit in college, just as I had been in high school, and I could have muddled through the social challenges unaided by alcohol if I’d been truly aware of how my genetics and experience made me such a likely candidate for alcoholism.

That was the time when I could have stopped. That doesn’t mean I would have. And I remember the night I started drinking with purpose, with an understanding that an alchemy occurred when enough beer was consumed. Some friends from high school had gotten together at someone’s house, the parents conveniently out of town, and rum, beer, god-knows-what beverages running freely. I got drunk. Like, crawling up the stairs, stumbling into things, drunk. And while the hangover hurt like childbirth, I had found some magic in that night: for just a little bit of time, I felt normal. I felt good, even. Pretty, funny, accomplished. Ha.

Alcohol was my first love. It was like a secret passport, giving me license to be a person I never knew I could be. Add beer and I wasn’t afraid of anything. Because I started this chapter of my life in college, I could look to the right and to the left, and always find someone who was drunker than I was. It never occurred to me that I might have a drinking problem: I was having a good time! It wasn’t like I was a diligent student before I discovered alcohol, and drinking didn’t make my schoolwork much worse than it had been previously.

Despite the hangovers and ill-advised hook-ups, I survived college intact. I collected a degree and a boyfriend. The boyfriend, Ed, was an anomaly. Ed was handsome, kind, wise, and funny. He was nice to me. He drank beer right along with me, but I didn’t have to be drunk to be with him. God bless him, he married me. And besides alcohol, Ed was the only thing I’d ever found in my life that made me feel whole.

Shortly after college, my husband and I were struggling professionally and financially, and I was having trouble finding work. I spent a lot of lonely days in our crappy little apartment feeling sorry for myself and watching whatever VHS tapes were available for loan at the local library (my Blockbuster habit was breaking us). I noticed that a beer (or three) around four in the afternoon helped to make the evening more pleasant. And again, alcohol became the only way I knew to feel okay again.

But even alcohol and a kind husband weren’t enough to fix everything that was broken in me. I was a hot mess. By my mid-twenties, I was overcome with weird, irrational fears, and some whiney-flavored depression. I was working at the preschool with young children, whom I loved. I didn’t always love the adults who came with them, however, and frankly, young children in groups bigger than—well, two, being generous—makes me a little panicky. So, I would come home from work at about four and drink a bottle of wine. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

In the meantime, I was having gruesome nightmares involving faceless vampire-like beings and dead people who inexplicably opened their eyes. I was convinced that I would die very soon. It would be cancer or AIDS that did me in, and I was too petrified to even contemplate going to a doctor to confirm or disprove my insanity. As a result, I would require my poor husband to examine my lumps and bumps and to tell me I wasn’t dying, really. You can imagine that Ed had his hands full. But somehow he managed not to drink a bottle of wine every night. It was a mystery.

Eventually, after one particularly grueling night of drinking and weeping (I had just watched a chick flick about a young woman who died of cancer: surely, I was next), I called a counselor. God bless Eleanor, she talked to me and my inner child, and we all talked about my mom and I actually got better, kind of. Every good alcoholic knows to lie about their alcohol intake unless they’re itching for an intervention, so I never told Eleanor how much I drank. I started taking Prozac and it helped my brain even out some. I wasn’t so worried about dying all the time, and got down to the business of living. I still had wine as an ally, but I was trying to control my drinking now. Only weekends and such.

For me, it wasn’t long before the weekends seeped into Wednesdays and Mondays and who could really blame me for a glass of wine on Tuesday night? A couple of years passed. I left teaching and tried another couple of gigs: travel agent, legal secretary. I settled in as a receptionist at my local veterinary clinic, feeling sorry for myself for my lack of ambition.

By the time I was miserable enough to quit drinking, I was not missing days of work, only occasionally driving drunk, and not closing down the bars. I’d never had a drink in the morning. I’d never cheated on my husband. My life was simply, quietly, a mess. Because alcohol had become the most important part of my life. I loved my husband but only wanted to spend the day with him if the day included alcohol. I loved my newborn nephew but resented the idea of caring for him over a weekend’s time because I knew I’d have to stay relatively sober for the duration.

So I quit. After much consternation and many false starts, some meetings in church basements and coffee shops were involved. Reluctantly, I acknowledged that I couldn’t stop drinking on my own. I went to meetings because I was more afraid not to. I didn’t find them as comforting as many people do, but at least I was in the company of other people who understood what it was like to love a drink more than anything or anyone else in the world. Eighteen years later, I still don’t drink and still go to meetings.

In my experience (and only mine), the twelve-step programs are kind of like church: you can find a fundamentalist church if that’s what floats your boat. If you’re more of a universalist who doesn’t dig creeds or rituals, you can probably find a worship service to accommodate those preferences. As alcoholics go, I’m more of a universalist. I couldn’t have maintained my sobriety or sanity without good therapy and a lifelong relationship with antidepressants. I don’t like it when people make a list of rules that I have to follow if I want to live. That doesn’t feel like hope to me—more like a threat. Still, those famous twelve guidelines and the people who brought them to me were a part of my salvation because they promoted humility, honesty, and kindness. There aren’t many places you can find those attributes in this life.

I stopped drinking because one morning I understood that I couldn’t have a full life if I kept drinking. One of my friends from work had come to visit me the night before. She was a much more advanced drunk than I was. At least that’s what I told myself. We sat around and drank and drank until we could barely stand. We felt sorry for ourselves together. We watched soap operas and god knows what else. When my husband came home from work that night, I am quite sure that he felt that sickness in his chest that all people who live with alcoholics feel when they open the door and find a stranger inhabiting the body of their loved one. My friend and I slurred our greetings to him, giddy with our chemical wisdom and angst, and then my friend got in her car and drove home. Yep. Just like that.

And when I woke up that next morning, it was with That Smell emanating from my pores. That same smell I get when I hug a person in the parish hall at church, when a bank representative leans in to show me where to sign. I know that the person across from me is suffering, not just from processing toxins through their pores but from trading away little bits of their soul, one glass at a time. There are a lot of us out there. You can tell us by the way our eyes light up when someone pours a drink. The way we joke about needing a drink. All the time.

All of us stop drinking at some point. It’s just that for some people, that point is death. When people “die” from alcoholism, it’s often not from cirrhosis or an automobile accident. It can be a fall. Or a fight. It can be a quiet, chemical whisper telling you, “one more pill won’t hurt.” After alcoholism seduces its victims with easy laughter and imaginary confidence, it sets out to spread darkness, like a nasty cancer. You’ll know the darkness when you choose a glass of wine over your child’s cry or a blurred drive home over your personal, legal, and moral safety.

So when I smell That Smell on someone else, I want to hug them. I hope they’ll drink a lot of water and get a nap later in the day. I want them to know that they are not alone, that other people have woken with that same crust on their souls.

For me, kindness made all the difference. I had to understand that I was suffering from a physical, moral, and spiritual disease, and that I had to find a way to live as it was, not as I wished it was. And damn it, life can be a mess sometimes. It can be magical, uncomfortable, frightening, tender, tedious, and exhilarating—sometimes simultaneously—and none of it is in your control. Still, there is a certain freedom in accepting this chaos and in walking through the messiness with your spirit intact.

Weirdly, I found myself enjoying being a sober person. I found that it was okay to be wickedly uncomfortable at social settings, that I didn’t have to punctuate every event, good, bad, or boring, with a drink. Sometimes I wonder what the hell I’m doing with my life.  But I don’t wake up poisoned anymore, with That Smell on my skin, or in my heart, for that matter.  And that is a reason to celebrate every new morning, whatever the day ahead might hold.

•••

JENNIFER JAMES lives with her husband and three children in rural Virginia. After graduating from William and Mary in 1989, Jennifer moved to Gloucester County, where she found work as a teacher’s assistant and veterinary receptionist until 2000, when her first child was born. After an approximate decade of diapers and interrupted sleep patterns, Jennifer started writing with purpose in 2010 and has been at it since. This is her second essay for Full Grown People. A good story is her favorite thing.

Stranger Interlude

our country

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Terry Barr

I watched this man take off his hat. It was one of those worker’s caps like the one in that old photo of Allen Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, back in the twenties.

Before he took off the cap, the hair sticking out on both sides suggested a younger man. It was rich and lush and very black. But once he doffed it, I could see the dye-line, the gray eking out in the spots that he missed. He was completely bald on top, too. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t make myself look away fast enough.

“Terry?”

His companion. She stared as if affronted that I hadn’t spoken first—that I hadn’t recognized her.

“Who’s that, Daddy?”

I was at supper with my four-year-old daughter, Pari. Her sister had just been born the day before, and I was trying to show Pari that she was still special to me, that she would always be my first love. I had let her order a chocolate milkshake for supper at this upscale Greek diner along with a funny-face waffle, an indulgence that I hoped her mother would never discover.

“Just someone I know from our Amnesty group, sweetie.”

“Oh. What’s her name?”

“Cathy, I think.”

“Oh.” She wisely returned to her waffle.

However, Cathy’s relentless stare kept burning into me, and so unwisely I spoke.

“Hi Cathy. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Terry, this is my friend.”

And maybe she did say his name, and maybe it was Marvin. In any case, Marvin turned to me. He wore heavy, black-rimmed glasses, a yellow Polo shirt, and green hiking shorts. He straddled his chair, his hairy legs protruding from either side. They were the sort of legs one sees on short, but active Jewish men, like my cousin Arnold’s son, Donald: legs that are muscular, compressed, and slightly bowed. Legs used to supporting a thickish frame. Legs that I thought could transport their bearer quickly and with ease in case of trouble.

“So, how do you two know each other?” he asked Cathy, as if there were something between us, something suspicious in the air. Which, of course, there was.

“Oh, Terry and I are members of our local Amnesty International group.”

“Amnesty International?” He turned to me then. “Tell me about that. I’m all ears!”

And he was, though if I stared at his ears, I’d just keep noticing that dye-line: the one separating hair that was too dark from the natural more salt-than-pepper color. Hair highlighted by his pale bronze dome.

“You’ve never heard of Amnesty International?”

I wondered even then why I was about to go on talking to the strange friend of a woman I barely knew, a woman I wanted to know less of. Besides, this was supposed to be a special night with my beloved first daughter who, at this point, was slurping the bottom of her chocolate shake.

“No, I haven’t, so please tell me more. I’m really curious about that name, Amnesty, and what it refers to.”

I explained as briefly as possible about prisoners of conscience; about letter-writing appeals; about volunteers and human rights abuses. Who can say what he heard or didn’t hear; what impacted him or bored him? But what I said next truly did penetrate those ears.

“We work for prisoners all over the world, though by policy, we aren’t allowed to write appeals for prisoners in our own country. That’s because in some countries, the letter writer might then be arrested and thrown into prison or maybe even killed, so we want to ensure that the writer is safe. The only exception to that rule is in death penalty cases; there, you can write about prisoners in your own country. The U.S. has plenty of these cases.”

“Wait a minute. You mean that you aren’t free to protest prisoners in the U.S?”

“Right. As I said, it’s a general rule put in place especially to protect those in other countries who don’t have the same freedoms that we do. Plus, we wouldn’t want to single out a country that has more freedom and make it an exception to the policy.”

I thought I had explained this procedure pretty well. I thought that now I might be able to return to my daughter and our night together. We were heading back to the hospital soon, and visiting hours were growing short. I missed my wife and wanted to see our new baby, Layla.

“Not as free as we are? What makes you think that we’re free?”

I think now of all the things I could have said, “So long, buddy” being foremost. But, of course, feeling the need to defend our nation’s list of Rights and Freedoms, I kept talking: the Right to Free Speech; to Assemble; to keep a Free Press. The Right to eat peacefully in a Greek diner with your daughter without being interrupted by a shady-looking associate and her even shadier-looking partner, a stranger to you.

But this last right was being so easily violated by the pair that it just proved his point.

I looked over at Cathy then, and I remembered what I knew about her, reported to me by my wife who served on one of Amnesty’s subcommittees, the committee on Women’s Rights.

“She’s a member of BirthRight,” my wife said.

“What’s that?”

“A group that works for the rights of ‘the unborn.’”

Cathy had advocated that the subcommittee get BirthRight to endorse their work and be listed as a sponsor for an upcoming event. The subcommittee respectfully declined. Amnesty, despite appearances, refuses all political monikers and manifestos. Being non-political has allowed Amnesty to exist in places that other activist groups can’t. But to be completely honest, virtually everyone in our group was active in other political organizations: the ACLU, the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club. And no one I knew in our group, except Cathy, wanted to work against abortion rights, though if someone were imprisoned simply for speaking out against abortion, we would theoretically work for their release.

To my knowledge, Amnesty doesn’t consider a fetus to be a person. Actually, that’s not exactly true. Amnesty just takes no stand on this issue. But it does question and work against gender-directed abuses around the world—for instance, those who are victims of forced female genital mutilation or of rape and assault by governmental forces. Violations that are not anyone’s choice.

But now Cathy and Marvin were waiting on my response about freedom in our country, and all I could think about was BirthRight. And abortion, and where all of this was leading.

•••

Once, I got a girl pregnant. We hadn’t been dating long, but I knew that she was into me, maybe because once, she confessed that I was “the best thing that ever happened to her” since she’d started her graduate school program the previous fall. So much for what she got out of that Yeats seminar we had.

Of course she wasn’t on the pill. Is it worse that I asked first? That when she said, “No, I’m not,” but then didn’t request that I “be careful,” explosions didn’t erupt in my head?

In other words, we knew what we were doing in that very special way that really means we didn’t.

I didn’t love her; I barely even knew her. In fact, on my way to pick her up for our first date on a clear October night, driving down Kingston Pike, Knoxville’s busiest strip, past the Bearden Bowling Alley and the Half Shell Oyster House, I knew that I didn’t want to be going out on this date. Going out with her. I should have turned around then.

But of course, I didn’t. I have no idea why I asked her out now, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know then, either. We had sex exactly twice.

Even when her phone call woke me at my parents’ house on a mid-December morning, the first morning of my semester break, I didn’t flinch. Much.

“So, what do you want to do?” I asked.

“I’m getting an abortion. But I need three hundred dollars. Can you help me?”

And so I went to my bank, withdrew the money from my savings account, wondering now what I was going to use to buy Christmas presents for my family, and mailed a money order to her.

Three days later, she had the abortion. She didn’t ask me to be there, and I didn’t offer. Her roommate went with her, I found out later. I saw her once more, when she gave me fifty dollars to help me pay my rent. A few months later, she was dating one of my grad school buddies. I had no regrets about that or how we ended.

For us, the abortion was the right thing to do because our lives together shouldn’t have started or continued with that sort of mistake. I’m sorry we were so stupid. I’m sorry she faced the procedure alone. I’m glad we had the right to do what we did, and I really don’t wonder what our child would have been like.

More than anything, I shudder to think of what would have happened to all of us had we decided to have the baby.

I do feel many emotions as I picture this time of my life, some thirty years ago now. But even after all that time, the feeling that lays strongest inside me is relief.

•••

I’m a little slow about becoming aware of those funny feelings that we all get. Or maybe it’s just that when I get them, I’m too slow to respond.

So as I stared at Marvin’s bald head, fringed with unrealistic hair, I realized that more than his hair was off. I know now that while Pari was finishing her funny face, I should have been calling for our check.

Instead, I looked at this strange fellow and asked, “Don’t you think we have more freedom than, say, people in Uganda, or Iran, or North Korea?”

“Don’t you think,” Marvin sneered, “that our government is watching us all the time, monitoring our phone calls, keeping tabs on what we watch, where we shop? What do you think all those cloudy tracks in the sky are?”

I remembered to breathe just then, and a new truth hit me.

“So, what do you do?”

“You don’t really want to know what I do.”

And in a sense, he was right. Ten minutes earlier, I couldn’t have cared less. Fifteen minutes earlier, he and his crazy legs didn’t exist.

If only we could abort certain scenes.

“Daddy, I’m finished.”

“Okay, sweetie.”

But I couldn’t stop now. It’s funny the challenges we choose to accept.

“No, go ahead and tell me what you do. I’m really interested.”

“Well, while people like you are out playing golf every day, people like me are working for something bigger.”

Now, I had taken two semesters of golf back in college, mainly to keep myself out of activities like tennis that would cause excess sweat and would necessitate a mid-day shower.

“Golf? That’s what you think I do?”

It’s strange what all can get in your way when you should be relating to your daughter, when you should be holding your other newborn daughter. Today, I’d avoid this scene like I would unsafe sex. In fact, just last night when I was sitting on a park bench outside my hotel—the Hyatt Regency—in downtown Louisville, a man scrambled to the bench across from me. He was smoking the butt of a cigarette. I had my IPod in, Wilco singing about “The Ashes of American Flags.” I knew immediately that this guy was off. I had seen him earlier at my lunch break; his eyes had the unfocused look of pure madness. And he was shaking. It was seven in the evening, temperature in the low eighties. I let the song finish, and as casually as I could, I left my bench for safer ground.

But with Marvin?

“No, man. I don’t play golf. I’m a teacher. And you don’t know anything about me,” I said.

“Well, if you must know, I’m part of the Patriot movement. We’re changing this country. Taking it back.”

I stared for a beat. I had heard of such “movements,” mainly from my Southern Poverty Law Center pamphlets like Human Rights Watch. And Klanwatch. Back then, in the mid-nineties, these movements were mainly underground.

What do any of us think of when we hear the word “patriot?” Nathan Hale? Sam Adams? The three-cornered hatted, three-point-stanced character who used to adorn the helmets of the former New England football team when they called themselves the Boston Patriots?

Then, “patriots” were showing up in places like Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, Waco. Two years later, one would set off a bomb at Atlanta’s Centennial Park. Another, or actually the same guy, would bomb a women’s clinic in Birmingham, my hometown.

And in my current home of Greenville, South Carolina, a four-year-old boy would get arrested for blocking the entrance to yet another women’s clinic. He was our neighbor, and now he’d have a criminal record. On the news that night, his mother would refer to him as a “hero…a real patriot.”

I wondered then about our definitions, our stances, the people we meet. This same mother once called me over as my wife and daughter and I were out walking. She wanted us to meet her mother, a grinning gargoyle of an old woman who was climbing out of a minivan and wearing an oversized t-shirt.

On that shirt was the silkscreened image of an aborted fetus, about three times the size it would have been. Below the image, the caption proclaimed, “This one might have been yours.”

We couldn’t escape fast enough.

I hope my daughter doesn’t remember that scene, as I do, although I realize, of course, that now she very well might.

•••

The waitress brought our check. I gathered my little girl up, looked back at Cathy and Marvin, and said, “Nice talking to you.”

I’ve always had such good manners.

I don’t remember what—if anything—they said, and I don’t care. I’m thankful that I never saw either of them again, although every time I get an edition of Klanwatch, I scan it looking for news, for the people I barely know. And I’m even more thankful for the freedom to associate with or to avoid whomever I want.

•••

TERRY BARR’s essays have appeared widely in such publications as Graze, Compose, Under the Sun, Tell As a Story, Sport Literate, Four Ties Lit Review, and Purple Pig Lit. This is his second essay for Full Grown People, a site his creative writing students at Presbyterian College read every week. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and daughters, both of whom are fine, compassionate young women.

Sneak Peek

FGP GH1 coverthumb

The back cover is really cool, too.

So, maybe you’ve seen something announcing the first FGP anthology? (Oh, like the huge purple banner above?) The book is at the printer right now. Thanks to the graphic design of Anne Hilton and the cover photo by Gina Easley, it’s a beautiful thing to behold. And thanks to the writers, it’s an amazing book to read. I’m extremely grateful for all of you who ordered it, and your faith and support. Fingers crossed that this anthology will be the first of many. What follows is my introduction to Full Grown People: Greatest Hits, Volume 1. —Jennifer Niesslein, ed.

The book you’re about to read grew out of the Full Grown People website, which grew out of my own existential crisis. This is something of a professional pattern for me.

When I was in my late twenties, my friend Stephanie Wilkinson and I started a literary magazine about motherhood, in part, because I was freaked out about motherhood culture at the time. (These were the olden days, when magazines aimed at mothers were still the kingdom of professional nags.)

When I was in my thirties, I worried that I wasn’t as happy as I might be. I wrote a book about it.

And the year I was to turn forty, Stephanie and I decided to shut down that literary magazine that had become part of my identity. I realized, after the fact, that I’d done something kind of stupid: I linked my personal life (the new motherhood crisis) to my professional life (the magazine about motherhood). By 2012, I was adrift. My kiddo was beyond the age where he needed me in the intensive way he had when he was younger, and I no longer had a job.

I wasn’t alone. I looked around at my friends, and I saw that so many of them were going through some life-changing stuff. A couple of them were going back to school for new careers. A couple of others were either divorcing or getting into new romances. Plenty of them began shouldering responsibility for their own parents. Others, like my own sister, found themselves wondering what the hell to do now that the children were off on their own.

Perhaps like Chaka Khan before me, I’m every woman. In any case, I yearned for stories about how other people weathered this awkward age. And, boom: this is it.

•••

Full Grown People is about transitional moments in adulthood. You might think that this is a coy way of saying “mid-life crisis,” but it isn’t. I don’t ask the writers how old they are, but I know that some essays on the site have been penned by people twenty years younger than I am, others by people twenty years older, give or take. That’s the thing about awkward ages—they can blow up on you at any time.

And yet. Sometime after the site launched, I was driving my teenage son somewhere—another awkward age, when the boy has so many commitments but no license—and I was listening to a story on the radio. It was about a woman named Pia Farrenkopf, who was found mummified in her Jeep, after dying some years before. No one suspected a thing until the bills that she’d been paying automatically ran her account dry. I’m paraphrasing the soothing voice of the commentator, but he said something like, “It was astounding to find out who she was. You’d think she was elderly, a recluse, but here Farrenkopf was, in the thick of life.” She’d traveled the world; she’d created a career in finance; she was from a big family, although she was often out of the country. When she was found, it was the year she would have turned fifty.

“The thick of life” stuck with me. Because that’s really what those decades between being truly young and truly old are, aren’t they? They’re not the thin broth of youth, waiting for ingredients; yet our lives aren’t solidified, either. We’re getting more acquainted with the hard stuff—the deaths, the limitations, the realizations that we can’t make people be who we want them to be—but we also have the hope, the smarts, and the gumption to take what we’ve created of our lives so far and evolve.

•••

This collection of essays is a sampling from the website, fullgrownpeople.com. (You can sign up for updates at the site that come with little intros that I write.) There are way more gems on the site than I could fit in here, but I have to say that this anthology just straight-up delights me. The writers here bring all the stuff that gets my heart pounding: the funny, the smart, the poignant.

The topics here run the whole gamut: romance, family, health, career, dealing with aging loved ones, and more. But what draws everything together is the sense that we’re all feeling our way along.

And we’ll continue to feel our way along because, hey, that’s life, right? No matter where we are, we’re going to keep encountering stuff that we know, intellectually, others have dealt with already, but it still doesn’t mitigate the feeling that we’re winging it. “Oh, Jenny,” my gram said when we talked last week, “how did I get to be old?” We laughed, but if I had my guess, I’d say the answer is just like this: one new befuddling, challenging, soul-stretching experience at a time.

Sounds good? If you’d like to get your very own, you can order here.

The Homes We Drove Past

steps

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Rebecca Altman

I am parked out front of a Cape on Chesterford Road. I don’t know whose house this is, only that my grandparents lived here when my mother was born in the 1940s.

Occasionally, a wistfulness will settle over me, a haze that suspends clock-time, and I’ll turn left at the Hess Station instead of heading home, to the next town over, where I now raise my own children. From the opposite side of the street, I stare at the front steps, imagining my grandmother on the top stair, her ankles crossed and tucked to the side, holding her auburn-haired daughter. Above the stairs is the window in front of which my mother’s crib once sat. I picture my mother climbing the wooden rails to look out onto Winter Pond and the world beyond her windowpanes, decades before a place in her went vacant.

•••

There are children-of-divorce, and there are children-who-follow-divorce, who have their own experience of its aftermath.

Children-of-divorce and children-who-follow-a-divorce often live together in blended families, where they are introduced as his, hers, and ours. There can be whole-, step-, and half-siblings all under one roof, and depending on parental visitation, different combinations of siblings at any given time. I am a child-who-followed-divorce. I have five half-siblings, but I have always disliked the qualifier: half, as in less than whole, so I often would drop it when describing them. But this, too, would feel inauthentic because, when I was little, they weren’t always around or, when they were, they weren’t always accessible: they had other families and homes—homes I only ever drove past. I spent my childhood guessing what went on inside of them.

In fact, as a child, I was driven past a lot of homes.

Even blended families come to share habits, although their origins are harder to trace. The custom in mine is that if you are near a place where you, or some family member, once lived, you ride by it. This doesn’t mean chatting with the current occupants or even stopping to get out of the car. A nod can suffice. A snap-inventory of changes in structure or color, a sizing-up of tree growth, but almost always, one last glance before pulling away, in case what we’ve come in search of may, finally, burst through the front door and chase us down the road, waving at us to turn the car around.

•••

When my father’s mother passes, he organizes the family into a long caravan to drive by the places that he knew as a child.

His father was a builder. They lived in the houses his father built until it was time to sell.

The afternoon after the memorial service, my father drives with his window rolled down, us following behind, and when we near one of his former homes, he slows the car, reaching out the window to point at the one that matters.

I’m not in the car with him so I can’t hear what stories he would have told, but I’ve heard them before. He’s taken me on this tour once, maybe twice, when I was a child and we happened to be passing through Rhode Island. I recognize the white house with the grill over the front door as the one he lived in when he was seventeen and his father died in the den.

•••

Eight years after the memorial service, when my father turns seventy, I ask him if he’d like to take a road trip to see the factory where he had made polystyrene before I was born. I had always wanted to see the old Union Carbide plant, to see where he spent a decade of his life. Before I was born, around the time of his divorce, he left plastics for a career in public service. He had changed religions, too, but he rarely speaks about how he rebuilt his life.

After a false start of my own, I became a sociologist who studies environmental legacy—everlasting things like plastic or pollutants that pose a burden passed between generations. I’ve been trying to understand how I came into my strange fixation with abandoned factories and polluted places. Only now do I see some continuity. I’ve broadened the family habit to include driving by other kinds of places that harbor past hurts inherited by subsequent generations.

•••

It was my father who suggested we add old homes to our itinerary.

So en route from Boston, we pull off the Parkway to see the north Jersey house where I spent my childhood. The maple out front, the one I remember my brother leaping over, now blocks the front window out of which, as a toddler, I waved to my father as he left for his job at Town Hall.

As a child, living in this house, my five siblings are teens. I sometimes ride in the backseat of our station wagon when my father picks up his three kids for the weekend. They live in homes I never see inside, although once, my sister sneaks me in to use the bathroom in her mother’s house.

Mostly, I am alone riding out the tide of my siblings’ ebb and flow from the household. By the time I reach grade school, they have stopped visiting or moved out, two sisters to college, one brother to boarding school, another to mechanic school, and my oldest sister following a boyfriend to Wisconsin. We never get to know the interior of each others’ lives.

When my father steers the car down Webb Court, I feel a pang of familiarity. It is the arc of that curve, that way my body senses the shift in direction as I ride in the passenger seat next to him, rather than the sight of the actual house, which to my surprise, doesn’t induce nostalgia at all.

We drive by, turn around on the cul-de-sac, one more rolling pass and that is it. We don’t stop. I don’t look over my shoulder. There is no need.

•••

The next morning, my father takes me by his first central New Jersey apartment, a slouch-roofed ranch at the back of another home’s property. I try to picture him, a newlywed with his high school sweetheart, riding his bicycle past the junkyard to make polystyrene for the plant down the road.

My father and his first wife don’t stay long then. Neither do we. Before the features of the place can develop into memory, Dad pulls away, heading to the next town to see the duplex, where after a miscarriage, my oldest sister is born.

From there, we press on to Leland Gardens, a complex of red-brick garden apartments nearby. Once inside, he quickly turns around, disoriented by the labyrinth of similar structures that look much as they did in the sixties. He stumbles on the apartment, as if some visceral homing device steers the car to the place where my second sister is born.

Next we pass the Randolf Road house, my brother’s place of birth, where it occurs to me I’ve never seen a baby picture of him.

My father drives on, effortlessly navigating the grid of streets and storefronts.

But as we approach the turn for the next house, I see him slide his foot off the accelerator. Only momentum carries us forward. I look over at him from the passenger seat. He stares straight ahead, one hand on the wheel, the other covering his mouth. This is where I lost them, he says.

He inhales and exhales deliberately, through pressed lips, before swinging the car down Dixie Lane. He ducks to see out the passenger window as we creep along. And when we are finally out front, he pulls over. The tires squeak against the curb.

The conversation stops, but I sense an opening, and I begin to feel my way around it.

The white house hugs the road, its porch covered with a canopy of foliage. A steep flight of stairs climbs from the sidewalk to the front porch. I imagine his feet clambering up them, moving in his family box by box, and within a short time, carrying what few belongings he has back out.

Do my siblings watch his last descent? There are questions I have never asked, and until only recently, probably couldn’t have asked. I couldn’t bear to know the extent of their suffering upon which the very possibility of my life has been contingent.

I inquire about custody. My father’s voice cracks. It was the early seventies, he says. Mothers got custody, without question. It’s raining, and the windshield wipers strain to keep up. I have asked him too much.

Something unresolved still resides in this house. I wonder if its current family can sense its distress the way I do sitting at its curbside.

•••

Two more houses complete my mother’s side of the story. I’d been driven by them before.

On this trip, we don’t drive past the Kempshall Terrace house, the house into which my sister and brother were born. Even without seeing it again, I can picture it. My mother tells me often how on the day she first walks through this house, the owner, a widow, has a pot of baked beans in the oven. It is the homey smell that sells her—the scent of a life she longs to lead within those walls.

The house we do drive by was a trim Colonial on Graymill Drive, where my mother and her first husband move to make room for their growing family and which holds the possibility for a third child. She turns thirty in this house. Her husband has thrown her a surprise party to celebrate, and then the next morning, moves out with the woman from two doors down.

After he has closed the door behind him, I imagine my mother collapsed, fallen to her knees, her hand pressed to the window that she won’t look out to watch him leave. But she can’t wallow. My brother and sister are little and will need her soon. She lives there for a while longer as a single mother on Valium.

My father stops the car to comment, of all things, on the chimney.

When he married my mother and moved into Graymill Drive, the brick chimney had started to split away from the house. They lashed it to the side, cheaper than rebuilding from its foundation. The braces remained more than three decades later. Look at that, he says, it’s still holding on. This is symbolic of my parents, who married into each others’ heartbreak, and remain married, defying expectations, possibly even their own.

I am conceived in this house. It strikes me then that conception is cellular union followed by cleaving, again and again, splitting apart to carry on, until, at last, something whole and unbroken comes into the world. But I am a half-sibling, conceived only after the split and merging of two other families, and born from the fact of their devastation. Sitting in front of this house I realized how much my identity has been shaped by things that I imagined to have happened inside its walls.

Sometimes I would wonder whether some part of my parents still lived in those houses where their first attempt at family fell apart, especially my mother, who still talks about her first husband, their divorce, and the house she left behind, though he died in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the stories she tells read like scripts. She repeats them often, always with the same phrasing. Sometimes, she’ll launch into a memory, and though I’m sitting beside her, I long for who she might have been had she not been left behind.

Which is why, a year after the road trip with my father, I’ve come back to her childhood home.

From my car parked across the street, I see two teenage girls shuffle out in flip-flops and climb into the Jeep parked in the driveway. They glance at me and are gone. I hear the bass-line from their stereo fade into the distance. A scruffy Labradoodle wanders to the curb, its gaze fixed on me in anticipation. And I realize it’s time to move on.

•••

REBECCA ALTMAN serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network and has taught seminars on environmental health for Tufts University. She is working on her first book with Vanderbilt University Press. Other creative non-fiction has appeared in Brain, Child, Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She occasionally blogs at tothescratch.blogspot.com.

Frederick Does D.C.

frederick

By Jody Mace

By Jody Mace

Most people dislike Frederick at first sight. To start with, he’s ugly. His gray hair and beard are tangled and dirty. He wears what looks like a random piece of fabric as a shirt and he has no arms or legs. I should mention here that Frederick is a puppet.

Worse than his bedraggled appearance is his personality. He speaks in a high-pitched voice and he doesn’t pull any punches.

When he met my friend, Lynn, for the first time, she introduced herself in the tone one uses with a small child. “Hello, Frederick. I’m Lynn.”

Frederick screeched, “I don’t like your name!”

He has a checkered past. With little prompting, he tells the story of how he was in Alcatraz, and how he “escaped, knocked out a guard, and swam to safety!”

When asked why he was in Alcatraz in the first place, he scolds, “Well, that was rather ruuuude.”

I can’t blame Frederick for his behavior. When I found him at a children’s theatre costume and prop sale, I thought he looked charming and grandfatherly, if a bit raggedy. He had been passed over at the annual costume sale for years but he caught my eye. He cost just three dollars.

It was only after he met my eleven-year-old son, Charlie, that he developed his personality problems. Charlie is a nice boy, a polite boy. But when Frederick is on his hand, a dark side emerges. Frederick has no respect for people’s personal space. He frequently perches himself on people’s heads, his greasy hair brushing against their faces, or gets within an inch of their noses during conversation. Frederick voices the thoughts that Charlie knows better than to say.

“This song is boring!”

“I’m your ruler! Bring me a popsicle!”

Once, for a joke, Lynn kidnapped Frederick for about an hour. It was not funny to Charlie.

“How would you feel,” he asked Lynn, “if I took Cooper?”

Cooper is Lynn’s two-year-old son. A human. Not a puppet.

His reaction made me realize that Frederick meant something to Charlie. That’s the only reason I didn’t ban him outright. But it worried me a little. There’s quirky and then there’s just disturbing, and having a misanthropic puppet permanently affixed to your hand is at least a little disturbing.

So before we left for our Thanksgiving trip to my sister’s house in Arlington, Virginia, a six-hour drive from our North Carolina home, I laid down the law. “Frederick stays home.” Thanksgiving is the one time of the year that our whole family is together. We were used to his oddities, but the rest of my relatives deserved to have family time with us, not with a rude, cranky puppet. We were going to be meeting my brother’s fiancé for the first time. What would she think? So the puppet stayed home.

It was only after we passed Raleigh that I saw a shock of dirty gray hair slowly rising to fill up the rear-view mirror. My husband I exchanged exasperated looks. “Frederick!”

“Put him away,” my husband said.

“But Frederick loves to travel!” Charlie protested.

“I’m serious. If I hear Frederick’s voice on this trip, he’s going to end up underneath a truck on I-85.”

So Frederick reluctantly returned to Charlie’s backpack. He emerged only briefly in Arlington. He greeted my two-year-old niece in that loud, screechy voice.

“I not like Frederick!” Gia announced.

“Yeah, me either.” I glared at Charlie. “Put him away.”

He came out again to meet my brother and his fiancé, who was too sweet, and possibly shell-shocked, to criticize the puppet. “No, really, he’s cute!” she said.

“It’s nap time for Frederick,” I told Charlie.

So Frederick retired to Charlie’s sleeping bag. He slept through Thanksgiving dinner. He slept the whole next day when we met up with some cousins in Baltimore. We walked the dogs, watched TV, videoed Gia dancing to some garish electronic toy. Frederick didn’t make a peep.

Without Frederick, Charlie was delightful and charming. His voice was not grating. He didn’t insult people or plop on their shoulders. He was a perfect eleven-year-old gentleman.

But with Frederick in his forced isolation, there was just something missing. Kind of like that relative who drives you crazy. You may complain about his boring stories and tasteless jokes, but Thanksgiving isn’t the same without him. Also, what if by next Thanksgiving, Charlie had relegated Frederick to the floor of the toy closet, among the army men and pirate swords? It wasn’t so much a sappy “every moment of childhood is precious” feeling, but, rather, that maybe we should value the un-precious moments too, because they’re part of who the child is for a short time, and that means they’re part of who the whole family is, too. That year, that Thanksgiving, that November night, we were the parents who had a son who had a possibly unhealthy attachment to a hideous puppet. Our family, our son, our ugly puppet.

It was our last night and we hadn’t yet visited the monuments in Washington, D.C.

The words came from my mouth like someone else was speaking them. “Hey, Charlie, want to take Frederick on a monument tour of D.C.?”

So we piled into the car, me, Charlie, his dad, and my sister. The first thing we did was buy Frederick an “I love D.C.” t-shirt, size 2T, from a vendor, who didn’t quite know what to make of a puppet ordering a shirt. Then we hit all the high points, taking Frederick’s picture with each. The White House, the National Christmas tree, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, the Washington Monument. The few other tourists smiled at Frederick, at the happy boy holding the puppet high.

Charlie, laughing, skipped beside his dad, with Frederick sitting on my husband’s shoulder. At that moment there was nothing odd about the tattered puppet. I didn’t feel annoyed, just thankful. Thankful for my funny son, who is like nobody else I know, and for my family, who embraces and accepts him no matter what. Thankful for this cool, clear night, and this beautiful city, with its white monuments bathed in light. Thankful for a holiday that asks nothing of us but to spend time with people we love, even people like Frederick, who might not deserve it.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. This essay was written several years ago and rumor has it that Frederick is on the bottom of the toy closet. He’s missed, a little.

Summers of Smoke

smoke

By Christopher Najewicz/ Flickr

By Susan McCulley

Late on a Connecticut summer night, a young man drives home after a date. He smells smoke. But he doesn’t see the fire until he gets to the pond at the bottom of the hill. Across the water a house is burning. Orange flames reflect on the water between the lily pads. He and a neighbor climb through a window, into the blackness, and pull an old man out of the smoking building. It is 1973. The old man is my grandfather.

•••

In early June 2014, my builder husband Frank complains of back pain for several days running. That can happen when he’s busy, and right now has several construction projects going at once. One house is in the last stages so there are thousands of details to track and a string of sub-contractors to direct. As he hobbles across the kitchen, we exchange pained smiles: Frank’s stress shows up in his back. It’s just stress. But the next morning, my beloved Frank crawls to the bathroom.

•••

My father gets a call at two a.m. at our house on Buzzard’s Bay near Cape Cod. His father, probably in a haze of alcohol, has fallen asleep while smoking in his favorite leather chair. The ambulance is taking him to the hospital with terrible burns from the fire that has destroyed his home. Dad immediately starts the two-hour drive back to Connecticut, headed for Middlesex Hospital. An hour later, doctors decide to transfer my grandfather to the burn center at Yale-New Haven. Realizing that Dad is driving in the wrong direction, his closest friend waits for him on the shoulder of I-95. At three-thirty in the morning, he waves Dad down and gets him to Yale-New Haven.

•••

We find a pair of crutches for Frank but they are awkward and uncomfortable. He settles on using the gnarled walking stick that he made from a dried Arizona cactus. Doubled over and shuffling along, he looks like a six-foot Yoda. The Force, however, is not strong with him. It is painful for him to sit, stand, or lie down. He goes to two massage therapists and a chiropractor and walks out of each appointment in more pain than when he walked in. We cancel a dinner with friends and then a visit with my family. At eight o’clock on a mid-June Saturday night, I call a friend who had back surgery not long ago and beg for Percocet. She gives me kindness, compassion, and every painkiller she has.

•••

My grandfather’s neighbors board up the fire-smashed windows of his home the next morning. In the hospital, Poppa is heavily sedated and asks my Dad to “clean up the house a bit” to get ready for a visit from his sister and her husband. My father has a long conversation with Poppa’s doctor about his condition, his prognosis, and his personality. The doctor says they can keep my grandfather alive, but he would need constant care and would be completely immobile. Poppa has no living will, so the doctor asks my father how he thinks Poppa would feel about that. Dad tells the doctor honestly about his father’s stubbornness, his fierce independence, and his recent battles over needing an in-home health care nurse. The next morning, the doctor calls to say he is terribly sorry but Poppa has died.

•••

Frank says he knows that the pain will go away. He’s been researching back pain, and he’s pretty sure it is just a matter of time before he feels himself again. It’s also possible that it’s not just stress. Maybe something else is going on. He goes to his doctor and gets some steroids and his own prescription for Percocet. He wades into the health care system to figure out what is happening in his spine. He has an X-ray that shows no arthritis and no bone damage. The doctor submits the paperwork for an MRI but it will take a week to ten days before it will be approved. The steroids make him sleepless and sweaty as a teenager. His right shoulder now has bursitis from his sleeping in only one position. We are at sea as to what to do and how to drag ourselves through the pain: his physical pain and my emotional pain watching him.

•••

My father’s father, my Poppa, was older—both in years and in spirit—than my tractor-driving, sailboat-captaining maternal grandfather. In my nine-year-old eyes, he was scratchy on the outside with a prickly mustache, wool suits, and a wool hat with bristly feathers. He had a bristly personality, too, and scolded me for eating like a bird. But his tender insides showed when I trick-or-treated at his door or when I sat with him on his deep leather chair to watch the Rose Bowl Parade on his color television. He drank more after my grandmother died and he smoked until his fingers were stained brown. My strongest memory of Poppa is his thorny-mustache kisses that smelled smokily of cigarettes.

•••

With a cocktail of painkillers, Frank can sleep but, after a couple of hours, the pain pokes him awake. After weeks of determined optimism, he finally crumples. At midnight, he sobs hot tears of pain, fear, and frustration, “What is wrong with me?” Hands resting on him gently, I am paralyzed with the exquisite anguish of helplessness. I’m in such despair that I can’t even cry, furious that no one can help us. After a time and another Percocet, Frank quiets and lifts his head with irritation, “What is that noise?” A scratching, like a mouse or a bat is coming from the woodstove stovepipe and it is driving my sweet man crazy. I leap into action. I can’t make the pain go away, but I can make the bat go away! Intent on new-found usefulness, I stuff paper into the woodstove and light it—not thinking that it’s late June and hot outside so the chimney won’t draw. In a minute, smoke fills the house and I’m crazily sealing Frank safely in the bedroom, opening windows to the thick, humid air, squashing out the burning paper. In the morning, I’m sure that the whole ridiculous scene was a Lucille Ball nightmare except the smell of smoke lingers in the living room.

•••

When Poppa dies, Auntie Jane, my father’s only sibling, flies in from California. She comes for the funeral, presumably, but my only memory of her visit is of my mother and her at the kitchen table drinking and smoking cigarettes. I have never seen my mother smoke. She sees me staring and mumbles that she shouldn’t be doing it. “You deserve it, honey,” says Auntie Jane loosely holding a glass heavy with ice and amber and leaning against the bright yellow kitchen wall.

•••

Frank’s MRI is finally scheduled but his morning appointment is scuttled. He simply cannot lie flat and still in the tube of the machine. My kind, gentle Frank yells and swears at everyone in earshot. “I feel like a fucking old man!” I don’t argue. In just a few weeks, he’s aged decades. The technician tells him to get as much painkiller as he can from the physician and come back.

Hours later, after a torrential rain, we return to the hospital with Frank double-dosed with Percocet and Valium. We pull up to the main entrance under towering pink-gray clouds like billows of smoke from a nearby fire. Between the drugs and the pain he can barely put two steps together, so an elderly hospital volunteer and I help him into a wheelchair and I roll him to the imaging lab. I do my best to make light of it, slaloming down the hallway, but the sight of my strong fit man withering in a wheelchair breaks my heart. The MRI technician suggests I sit in the waiting area, but I will have none of it. I’m not leaving him. Together, the tech and I slide Frank up to the MRI bed and gingerly he hoists himself up. The tired-looking technician arranges Frank’s legs straighter and he is howling and swearing again. She looks at me. “Do you have any more drugs?” I do: two Percocet and two Valium. Frank takes them down.

•••

The rest of the summer of 1973 is soaked in the smell of wet smoke. Every morning, my parents go to the wreckage of Poppa’s house, pull out whatever they can salvage, and toss the rest. They come home every night reeking of soggy soot. Everything in Poppa’s bedroom is destroyed. The intricate family silver and my grandmother’s cobalt blue glasses are melted and unrecognizable. The leather chair and the color TV blackened and soaked. Mom and Dad find some photographs and the big leather-bound family Bible with the metal clasp. Decades later, it still wafts the unmistakable smell of fire whenever it is opened.

•••

Frank sits in the wheelchair with his head is in his hands. The beleaguered MRI tech ushers us into an empty examining room. “Give the drugs some time to kick in,” she says and closes the door on us. I squat down, roll him up close, and press my forehead to his. “I’m right here with you, sweetheart. I’m right here.”

Frank cracks into sobs and says thinly, “It hurts so much. I just want it to stop.”

After a time, all those drugs make his eyes go smoky soft. I put my head into the tech’s office and tell her that he’s ready. We gently slide him onto the machine, straighten his legs, and look at him cautiously. “Okay?” we both say at once. He nods. She hands us both ear plugs like the ones airline workers wear on the tarmac. “You can stand right there and reach in and touch him. It won’t hurt anything,” she says. I put my hands on his head and stroke his hair while the machine sings and groans and zings oddly for nearly thirty minutes. Only after it’s finally over do I look up and notice a back-lit oversized photograph of purple and yellow crocuses on the ceiling.

•••

In the summer of ’73, long before playdates are a thing, a different family takes care of my sister and me every day. Since we had planned to spend the summer on Buzzard’s Bay, we have no day camp or activities in place—only friends. Every day, when my parents go off to dig through Poppa’s burned house, another family has us over to go to the pool or the beach, play in the sprinkler, go out for ice cream. Once, we spend the afternoon with my grandfather’s next door neighbor, the one who pulled him from the bedroom window. He has kids our age and a great swimming pool so it’s a welcome place to be, but the pull of the fire-wrecked house next door is strong. I can smell it across the yard. The kids dramatically tell me not to look, not to go over there, but with equal drama, I sneak to the edge of the yard and peer through the bushes. The plywood-covered windows are like empty eyes. The gray siding above each window is smeared with long black soot smudges like bristly eyebrows.

•••

After the MRI, I drive Frank home, slide him back onto his perch of pillows on the couch, and go to get him tea and an ice pack. When I come back he’s looking at me with tears in his eyes. “How does anyone ever do this alone?”

Up until then, I had made only shy, tentative requests for help from my sister and my closest friends. Gingerly asking if maybe, possibly, would you mind too much, could you please help us? My dearest ones were right there in an instant. Even so, I was ashamed to ask. I felt like I should be able to handle this, that I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed. That I shouldn’t need help.

Frank’s MRI shows a herniated disc in his lumbar spine that is pressing on his sciatic nerve. Just as the pain branches out from Frank’s compromised disc, I decide to reach out and ask for help. I send out a group email to friends and family explaining what is happening, what we know, what we don’t. In less than a day, friends start pouring in. Some bring enormous meals with funny, handmade cards and flowers. Some come play cards and Backgammon and watch World Cup matches. One sings him a song about chickens. The love pours in our door like a river.

•••

Frank’s back begins to heal, but the summer continues to burn. Four close friends’ fathers die. Another friend, younger than we, is diagnosed with colon cancer. Yet another friend has abdominal surgery to remove a painful and suspicious tumor. A neighbor is killed in a biking accident. A therapist of several friends commits suicide. The sadness and loss is staggering, relentless. The summer suddenly feels unpredictable, scary, dangerous. I take Frank to physical therapy and to get an epidural shot. I write sympathy cards, bring a bag of bagels to one family, bowls of cold summer soup to another. I feel disoriented, suffocated, blinded by all the sadness.

•••

I’m delivering a platter of roasted vegetables and a bowl of melon to another friend singed by the summer of 2014 when I suddenly remember the smoky summer of 1973. I remember the play date at Poppa’s neighbor’s house. I remember the smell mostly—the rest is hazy, except for how odd and disorienting it was as a child. I wonder what it was like for my parents.

When I ask my father about the summer of 1973, he says that what he remembers is the kindness and generosity of so many people: of the young man who spotted the flames, of the neighbor who helped him pull Poppa free, of my father’s friend who flagged him down on the highway, of the wise doctor, of people who just did what needed doing. “People are pretty awesome,” he says.

This summer has cracked me open. It’s challenged me to do things and be with things beyond what I thought I could. The edges of my heart are sore and aching from all the sadness and disappointment and loss. The fibers of my compassion and empathy muscles have been stretched and strengthened. I hug longer now, look with softer eyes, am gentler with my words. I’ve let go of any illusion that I have control over a single thing.

Memory is a funny thing. My father looks back on the tragic death of his father and it is the support, care and kindness that he remembers. As traumatic as it must have been, for my dad the summer of 1973 was about love.

It’s been forty years since Poppa died, but it’s only been a couple of months since Frank’s been walking without his Yoda stick. The string of memorial services is still unwinding. The soreness and bruising from the summer of 2014 are tender, and it is a tenderness that I hope never goes away. I have been tempted to call it The Summer of Sadness, but honestly, that’s not how it feels. The feeling of the summer of 2014 is love. The rest disperses like the smoke from a single match.

•••

SUSAN MCCULLEY is a mindful movement educator and a Black Belt Nia Instructor who has been dancing, traveling, and teaching since 2000. Her blog, Focus Pocus: The Magic of Inquiry and Intent (www.focuspocusnow.com), is dedicated to taking body~mind practices from the studio into life. This is her second essay for Full Grown People and others have been published on Elephant Journal. She lives with her (now fully healed) husband in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Professor

phoneandlamp

By Alan Bruce/ Flickr

By Daisy Alpert Florin

I remembered that voice. Cool, soft, diffuse: the kind of voice that you’d have to strain to hear over the noise in a loud restaurant. A voice that rocked you along in its low, gentle waves. I’d always loved the way he seemed to listen more than he spoke. We’d never gone to a restaurant together, anyway.

“I want to know what you remember about me.” I held the phone close to my mouth and watched the curve of my lips in the rear view mirror as I spoke. With the pad of my index finger, I traced the dark circles under my eyes.

“Well, you were a gifted writer.” I flinched at his use of the past tense. I wrote rarely now, if ever. Caring for two children left little time for intellectual endeavors. At times, the contrast between my life now and the way it used to be was overwhelming.

“I have an image of you then.” He paused. “Do you want to hear this?”

I did, absolutely. This was why I’d called him.

“Sometimes, when you would wait outside my office, I’d find you sitting on the floor in the hallway, reading a book. It was very endearing. Most students would just stand there, waiting.”

Sunlight reflected off the windows of the building across the parking lot. I pulled down the sun visor to shield my eyes. This was what I wanted to hear, that I was noticed, remembered for an unstudied pose. Did anyone still see me that way? I closed my eyes, remembering that moment. How was it possible that he remembered it, too?

“Why do you want to know this?” he asked.

I paused, thinking. I was a thirty-four-year-old woman reaching back for my twenty-two-year-old self, speaking to someone who remembered the world in which she existed.

“Because you knew me when I still had choices to make about the kind of life I would have,” I said. “I don’t feel like that person anymore and maybe I want you to tell me that I still am, which is crazy, since you don’t even know me anymore.”

“I still know you,” he said. “You were then what you are now: eloquent, serious, thoughtful. I sense no diminishment in you even though we haven’t spoken in ten years. What made you so compelling then is what makes you that way now—you ask hard questions of life, and you expect hard answers. Most people are not that way.”

I leaned my head against the steering wheel and allowed his words to wash over me. I was twenty-two again, self-conscious and bold, fearful and fearless. I saw my future unspooling before me, full of hope and danger.

•••

Twelve years earlier, he had singled me out. I was getting ready to graduate from college, slim and sarcastic and completely terrified. He was filling in for a professor on leave, and so we found each other stumbling around our distinguished college, both of us feeling more than a bit like frauds. I noticed right away how his eyes would linger on me a beat too long after I had finished speaking. I could feel him watching me as I stood up from the seminar table and wrapped a long woolen scarf around my neck. I was young, but not naive; something about me had attracted his attention, and I liked it.

I was taking his class—an intro writing seminar—on a whim. I had a vague notion that I wanted to be a writer and during the semester, I discovered the power that writing had to reveal my inner self. When I wrote, I imagined the professor reading my words as I typed them. He responded to my writing as well as to my presence in the sun-filled classroom. Our connection was palpable and strong.

A few weeks into the semester, we arranged to meet in his office so he could help me with my post-graduation job hunt. While other students pursued corporate recruiting or worked alumni connections in the career center, I scaled the stairs, two at a time, to his office, my long and billowing wool coat, a 1970s hand-me-down from my mother, trailing behind me. When I arrived, he was still meeting with another student, so I sat down on the worn carpet outside his office, my back pressed against the wall, my knees tucked under my chin. A few minutes later, he came out and looked down at me. There was something about his gaze, steady and intense, that emboldened me. I stood up, teetering a bit in my high-heeled boots.

Inside his office, the radiators clanked and hissed. The sun, low in the winter sky, shone through the tall windows, casting everything in pale grey. I could feel his eyes on me as I pulled back the fur-lined hood and undid the toggle buttons of my coat. I slid a yellow folder toward him, and he gently removed the papers that were inside.

I watched him as he read, his dark head bent down toward his desk. He was young, as professors went, although like most college students, I couldn’t have said how old he was, only somewhere between thirty and dead. He had curly hair and a mustache and wore a rumpled writer’s wardrobe: wool sweaters, soft jackets. On his left hand was a gleaming wedding band that I couldn’t help but notice, although it didn’t mean much to me. What attracted me more than his physical appearance was his voice, which was quiet and soothing, and the power of his gaze. When he looked at me, he seemed to see something I only suspected was there.

“These are good,” he said. “You write well, with humor and clarity.”

“Thanks,” I said, looking down. The whites of my knees shone through the smooth material of my tights.

I looked around his office, taking in the high ceilings and sparse furnishings. On the shelf behind him was a photo of two children dressed in colorful bathing suits, the bright blue ocean glistening in the background. I twisted my long hair into a knot, aware suddenly of the curve of my neck.

“So, city girl,” he said, leaning back in his chair, “how did you end up here?” He gestured at the snow-covered quad outside the window.

“Well, not many people from my high school wanted to come here, so I thought I might have an edge.”

He laughed. “Aren’t there other kids from New York here?”

“Yes,” I said, “but not from my high school.” I began to describe my high school, full of brilliant, quirky kids, the kind of school with a Japanese Animation Appreciation Society but no football team. Few of my classmates had chosen the kind of college I had—a politically conservative campus in a one traffic light-town—and now, as the end of college approached, I often wondered what I had been thinking. He listened, his chin resting in his hands, his eyes soft and heavy lidded.

After that day, I looked for more reasons to visit him, to envelop myself in the still quiet of his office and the heat of his gaze. After discussing my job search, I told him about frat parties, late night swims in the river, my hunt for a graduation dress that wouldn’t be seen beneath my robe and a pair of funky shoes that I hoped would be. I told him how my friends roused me from bed at night shouting, “You sleep when you die!” and I would dress myself quickly in layers of flannel and denim and head out to another party. When I spoke, I could feel the way that my youth and energy intoxicated him. I was a femme fatale in duck boots.

•••

I was the one who had rekindled our connection, Googling him one afternoon while my kids napped. He had appeared, suddenly, in a dream several nights earlier in which whatever barrier that had once stood between us was inexplicably gone. The connection between us was magnetic and erotic, and I woke up with the memory of him clinging to me like a wet bathing suit.

I quickly found his email address beneath a recent photo. He looked much the same, grayer perhaps, but his eyes had the same intensity. Was it melancholy? I wondered now. I typed what I thought was a casual note and quickly clicked send. A few hours later, he wrote back: I wont lie and say your email brought back fond memories of our time together. The truth is, I havent stopped thinking about you since.

I was stunned by the intensity of his words. Was he serious? Did he really still think about me? The thought thrilled me, a dollop of intrigue mixed into my domestic routine. We emailed each other a few more times and then set a time to speak on the phone. I didn’t want to call him from my house so I left my kids at home with a babysitter and parked my car in the parking lot of a nearby nursery school.

What was I doing? I asked myself as I dialed his number. This was dangerous territory. I was married now, the mother of young children. I had no intention of leaving my family, and yet I couldn’t stop myself. The young girl I had once been—the one he had known—beckoned me, and her pull felt like gravity. Besides, wasn’t this what he had always done, spoken to me in privacy, out of earshot of his wife and children? I had always assumed that I was a secret he kept from his family, although I had never asked. So maybe it was okay, I reasoned. I wiped my damp hands on my jeans.

He answered after the first ring.

“I think I know why I started thinking about you,” I told him, the words rushing forth. “I’m in the same place now that you were in then—married with two kids. And it’s so hard, harder than anyone ever tells you. So I think I get it now, what you might have been looking for in me. Do you know what I mean?”

“I do,” he said. “You brought conversation back into my life, the kind that disappears when you’re married and raising small children. I didn’t know how much I missed it until I found it with you.”

I thought about the kinds of conversations I had now with my husband and friends: whose turn was it to take out the trash, please could I drop off the dry cleaning, what was I going to do about summer camp?

“Why didn’t you run away with me?” I asked him, shocking myself with the boldness of the question. “It would have been easier then than it is now.”

“Well, there was a bit of a stigma, don’t you think? The professor running off with his much younger student? Our age difference was a bit more to overcome back then.” He paused. “You also told me you didn’t want that.”

“I did? When?”

“One day in my office. I remember I moved too close to you and you pointed your finger at me and told me to step back. You said, ‘There are lines for a reason.’”

I dug around in my memory like an overstuffed purse. I couldn’t remember this at all.

“Well, you could have fought for me.”

“I suppose so,” he said. “But you’re the one who didn’t meet me in Boston that day, remember?”

I watched a squirrel dart across the parking lot, jerking his head back and forth as he ran. Mothers were walking kids back to their cars, buckling them into brightly patterned car seats, doling out snacks and reprimands and kisses. I wondered what my kids were doing at home. Waking up from their naps, probably, their hair fuzzy, their skin pink.

“Well, we could have tried,” I told him, watching the women ease their cars slowly out of the parking lot, returning to their appropriate lives of duty and routine.

•••

After I graduated from college, our conversations continued. And perhaps because we were no longer face-to-face, they became more intimate. Freed from the boundaries of our teacher-student relationship, we called each other almost daily. I talked about my new life in the city of my youth: entry-level jobs, late nights in smoky bars, the men who came and went. He shared few details about his life with me, and I never asked. I didn’t know the names or ages of his children or what he did after he hung up the phone. I knew he spoke to me from an office with a phone that only he answered, but I didn’t know where it was or what he did there. In my mind, it was tucked in the corner of a clapboard house with a large wooden desk by a window overlooking a leafy backyard. It was always quiet and remote and bathed in a soft green light.

I came to crave these long conversations, the way they removed me from the life around me, a life I wasn’t sure how to become a part of. When we spoke, I heard only his voice soothing me, building me up. My power over him continued to thrill me and could, I discovered, be as erotic as touch. I was as lonely and lost as ever, but on the phone, my life was full of possibility and ever-changing. I wasn’t writing anymore but, in a way, I was, telling him the stories I wasn’t writing down. And he was my most avid reader.

I never stopped to question the propriety of a married man and father speaking on the phone with a woman almost half his age. That it made me feel good was all I cared about, and so I used him and his affirmation of me as material to fill the gaping maw that was my burgeoning self.

After about a year, something happened that pushed us beyond the safe borders that we had established for our relationship, if that’s what it could be called. One day on the phone, I mentioned that my friend Molly and I were planning a trip to Boston to visit our mutual friend Janine.

“Funny,” he said. “I’m going to be in Boston that same weekend. Maybe we can meet up.”

He sounded casual, and I tried to meet his tone. A face-to-face meeting would signify a shift in our relationship from the emotional and intellectual affair we’d been having to something very different. The thought both excited and terrified me. After some discussion, we made arrangements to meet on Saturday afternoon. From my desk in a towering New York office building, Saturday seemed very far away.

When Molly and I arrived at Janine’s apartment, he had already called looking for me there.

“Who is this man calling you?” Janine asked me as soon as I walked in the door. I had never told anyone about the professor, but now it all came out: the phone calls, the wife and kids, our proposed meeting. They remembered him vaguely from school and were appropriately scandalized.

“Holy shit!” Janine said. “I can’t believe you never told us!” Molly raised a pierced eyebrow at me. I laughed and tried to siphon off some of their exuberance for myself. After settling in, I called him from Janine’s phone and we firmed up our plans for the next day. I would meet him in a park on the far side of town. What would happen next, I did not know.

Molly, Janine, and I drank cheap wine from plastic cups and prepped for a night on the town. I wore a short floral dress and chunky Doc Martens, a poor man’s Winona Ryder. “Where’s my Ethan Hawke?” I shouted at my reflection as Molly and I primped in Janine’s tiny bathroom. I put on my best smoky eye and red lipstick while Molly slicked back her cropped hair. Janine slithered into a pair of tight black pants, teased her brown hair high and painted her delicate eyelashes with mascara. She was ready to leave Boston, she told us. “I’m too much woman for this one-horse town.”

At the nightclub, I tried to lose myself in the heat and sound. As I danced, I imagined the professor watching me. I swung my hair around, my neck loose and long. I imagined his hands on me, sliding around my waist and pulling me toward him, the space between us narrowing as we swayed in time to the music, the throbbing bass notes coursing up through the floor and our bodies. I slept fitfully on Janine’s futon that night, Molly’s lanky frame stretched out beside me.

The next day, Molly and I sat together in the front seat of her car sipping coffee out of paper cups and puzzling over a map of the city. She had agreed to drive me to the park where I was meeting the professor and, I suppose, pick me up a few hours later. The details were vague.

“What are you thinking, Daisy?” she asked after a few moments. I kept my head down, unable to meet her gaze.

“I don’t know,” I said, looking down at the map. The brightly colored roads blended together into an unnavigable tangle. “Do you think I should go?”

“Well, what do you think is going to happen if you meet him? What do you want to happen?”

I tried to conjure up a physical image of the professor, but he was hazy. All I remembered was his voice and the way he made me feel. I was chasing a ghost.

“You’re right,” I said. “Let’s forget it.”

We tossed the crumpled map into the backseat and Molly cranked up the radio. Liz Phair’s voice blasted through the speakers of the Honda Accord, foul-mouthed anthems of female empowerment pulsing through the car. We sang along until we were hoarse.

As the hour of our meeting came and went, I tried not to think about the professor waiting for me. A few hours later, the phone rang at Janine’s apartment. She handed it to me.

“Where were you?” he said when I answered the phone. His voice was louder than I’d ever heard it before. “I was really worried about you.”

“I decided not to come,” I said.

“Why not?” he said. “You could have let me know. This is a big city. Anything could have happened to you.”

“Oh, so you were worried about me? That’s why you’re calling, to make sure I’m okay?”

I pulled the phone down the hallway, the curly cord stretching behind me.

“Don’t you think this is a little weird? I mean, what are you doing?” I stretched the words out. “Did you really have plans to come to Boston this weekend?”

He said nothing. I felt the outline of everything we had left unsaid pushing against me until I could barely breathe. I wondered where he was calling me from.

“Do you have feelings for me?” I asked quietly. “Do you love me?”

“I think you know I do.”

I exhaled slowly, my heart pounding in my ears.

“Well, that’s why I didn’t come,” I said. And then, after several beats, “I think I have to go.”

“If that’s what you think is best,” he said.

“I do,” I said and hung up.

I stumbled back into the living room where Molly and Janine were sprawled out listening to the Indigo Girls.

“What happened?” Janine asked, sitting up. Molly watched me expectantly.

“He was kind of pissed but, whatever,” I said. And with that, I was swept back into their world, leaving the intensity of the phone call, and whatever it had meant, behind.

•••

And that was how it ended, on the phone, our relationship remaining emotionally charged but physically chaste. I went back to my life in New York and rarely thought about the professor after that day. He remained firmly in my memory, as a part of my past encased in amber. I’d met and married my husband and started my own family without ever thinking of the impact I might have had on his. And yet here I was now, back on the phone with him, listening to the same, soft voice speaking to me in a very different life.

We had never had a physical affair, but did that make what we had done all right? Our relationship existed in a kind of gray area, and I wondered if what we had done was outside the boundaries of acceptable behavior in a marriage. If he had felt bored, stifled by routine, burden and obligation, was it okay for him to seek a kind of comfort elsewhere? Was it okay for me to do the same?

“Were you happy?” I asked him, gazing out at the parking lot. The sun shone through the trees, sprinkling drops of light on the pavement. “I mean, back when we knew each other, were you happy?”

“I suppose I was,” he said. “Meeting you made me happy.”

“No, I mean with your wife and kids. Did they make you happy? You never spoke about them, and I think I understand why, but looking back, it seems significant to me now.”

I could hear him breathing on the other end of the line. “Marriage is complicated, Daisy,” he said. “We do love our spouses and children no matter how disinclined we may be to discuss them.” He was drifting into his cool, detached professor-ese. It pissed me off.

“Give me a break,” I said. “I’m a grown-up now, just like you. You don’t need to protect me. You don’t need to be my mentor. Here I am, asking you the hard questions and I want the hard answers.”

“Okay, Daisy, you want the truth?” he said. His voice turned to glass. “Today is my twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. In a happy marriage, today would be a moment to celebrate but, in mine, the day has gone by unnoticed, unacknowledged. Not even a verbal exchange of ‘Happy Anniversary.’ My twentieth was the same, as were many before that. I believe I’ve just given you a ‘hard answer.’ I’d be happy to give you more. I’d be happy to not be mentor-ly toward you, but I’d need to know what you want. And I’d need to know I can trust you.”

The sun beat down on the windshield of the car. Tiny pinpricks of sweat rose along the flat of my lip and quickly turned cold. The parking lot was empty, marked only by the regular grid of white lines. See, they seemed to be saying, there are rules we follow, unquestioning.

“Can I call you again?” he asked.

There it was, the invitation to a life of danger, the one I’d declined many years before in Boston but had asked for again. Did I want it now?

“No,” I said.

“Okay,” he said. “Whatever you want. But if you ever change your mind, you know where to find me.”

I hung up the phone and drove slowly down the street toward home, to my children fresh from sleep, to the trash that needed to be taken out, to the dishwasher that needed to be emptied. It was not a life my twenty-two-year-old self would have recognized, but it was certainly one she would have envied. My world came into focus again, its colors bright and vibrant, technicolor. I felt clean, like crisp white linen drying in the sun. As I moved through the streets of my quiet suburban town, past the familiar houses and trees, I knew that I would not call him again. I’d learned all that I needed to know from the professor.

•••

DAISY ALPERT FLORIN is the staff editor at Brain, Child. A native New Yorker, she lives in Connecticut with her family.

My Grandmother’s Abortion

shards

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sara Bir

There’s still a residue of dried cottage cheese curds on the wall. Our dining room is beige, and the white curds don’t show up much. But I know they are there. I’m the one who threw the bowl of cottage cheese.

Frances watched me do it. The bowl was Japanese, one of those cute little ones, a white good luck kitty against a pink background. It hit the wall and cleaved cleanly in half with a satisfying crack. Cottage cheese flew everywhere: the wall, the floor, the blinds, the bookshelf, the books on the bookshelf. The goddamn ceiling. Frances wailed.

I threw it because of her. We were not having a good day together, my daughter and me. Our heads butted over insignificant things, and as they piled up—whining, backtalk, tedium—they became an Ugly Significant Thing. Frances demanded cottage cheese for lunch, then rejected it, lower lip protruding, and that small assertion broke me.

Frances is three, and she is wont to act like a three-year-old. But she is also always extra everything: extra sweet, extra clever, extra loud, extra hitty. We have occasional periods of intense discord that neither one of us are equipped to navigate levelheadedly.

Frances escaped the flying curds but not their implication. The dog quickly began lapping at the cottage cheese spattered on floor, and for impossibly long seconds I watched his purposeful pink tongue erase a small corner of the mess I’d created.

Immobilized, I wondered if this sort of thing goes on in other, less-extra households. Then the urgency of Frances’s crying broke the spell, and I scooped her up and held her against me. I stroked her hair, and she sobbed. I put my hand between her tiny shoulder blades and felt her warm, smooth skin as our breathing slowed to a normal pace.

“Mama, why did you throw my lunch against the wall?” she asked.

“Because I was upset,” I tell her. “Sometimes Mama gets upset and can’t help herself.”

•••

Frances shares her first name with her maternal great-grandmother, my Grandma K. Grandma died when I was four, and I have few memories of her. I treasure a silly 1970s Christmas snapshot of her. She’s laughing, holding a recently opened joke gift from my mom: a giant bottle of Excedrin. Though it wasn’t really a joke, because Mom knew Grandma would use all those pills. She took Excedrin at a pretty decent clip. Shortly before Grandma’s fatal heart attack—there’d been previous ones—she’d posted a package to me containing a summery outfit: blue shorts and a Blueberry Muffin t-shirt that said “I love you BERRY much!” It arrived just days after her death. Thrilled with its contents, I didn’t even notice my mother weeping after we opened it.

Mom drove up to make arrangements for Grandma’s funeral. Mom and her siblings discovered a homemade cherry pie at the house, nearly as fresh as Grandma’s death. Grandma loved to bake, pies in particular, and her adult children all sat at the tiny table in the tiny kitchen of the tiny house that they grew up in and ate that cherry pie. My mother does not bake pies.

Outside of baking, there were not many things Grandma liked to do. An occasional canasta date with her cousin and his wife, short stories in ladies’ magazines, watered-down polka music on the radio to drain out the sound of the young voices filling the house. She was too busy not going insane from raising her four kids for luxuries such as liking things.

•••

The name Frances came into our awareness because of my commute. Heading downtown every morning, my bus passed a posh clothing store, the kind of spot where a pair of knee-high socks costs fifty dollars. It was called Frances May. I hadn’t once set foot in the store, but seeing its name repeatedly from my jouncy seat must have triggered a response. When I was pregnant, I told Mom that we were set on Frances for a girl name.

“You know that was my mom’s name, don’t you?” Mom asked.

I didn’t, and I instantly felt like an ass. As a kid, I always thought of Grandma and Grandpa K as my boring grandparents. “Oh, then all the better,” I told Mom to break the long silence that followed. “It will be nice to have a family name.”

But initially Mom was not enthused about the idea. “I’m sorry. It’s just not a very happy name to me,” she said. I didn’t quite understand why she felt that way, but in the awkwardness of the moment, I didn’t press her for reasons. Mom decided that she’d call her baby granddaughter Francie. Grandma usually went as Fran.

Mom knows little about her own mother’s youth. Grandma’s father died young, and Grandma’s mother married a man who Grandma and her siblings called “the old geezer”. Grandma left school in eighth grade to work—for money but possibly to just get away from home. At first she cleaned houses, and later on, she worked at bars. Since she was neither flirty nor fond of drinking, this seems an odd employment choice, but it probably wasn’t a choice. She needed a job; bars needed a workforce, and bars didn’t require a high school education.

My mom, who never knew her maternal grandparents, has some joyful memories of her own childhood, but not many. She’s the oldest of four, born while Grandpa K was deployed in the Pacific during Word War II. Grandma and Grandpa K met at a dance hall called the Paris Inn, where Grandma worked at the time. To me, it means that there was a time when they did fun things, like dancing.

A son and two more daughters followed Mom. They lived in a modest house on a rural road. The girls all shared one room. They had few toys, few books. Grandpa was an ironworker, and his pay went far enough for them to have a solid middle-class life. Sometimes he went to the bar after work to decompress with his cronies and didn’t come back home for hours.

They had one car and no sidewalks. When Grandpa was at work, Grandma, who was not an outside person, was stranded at the house. For discipline, Grandma brought out what all the kids called the hittin’ stick. My uncle got his dose of the hittin’ stick more than his sisters, until he was big enough to yank it out of Grandma’s hand and chase her around the yard with it.

Grandma K was an anxious person, either by nature or by circumstance. Beginning in her late thirties, like many middle-class women of the time, she took diet pills (stimulants, basically), which could not have been helpful in achieving the state of calm that always eluded her. Her stress management choices—if that’s all it was, stress and not something more clinical, more constant—were cigarettes and tea. She drank tea, not coffee.

After Mom graduated from high school and moved away to work as a secretary, Grandma wrote her letters every week. They could have easily just spoken on the phone, especially given the content of the letters, which were unexciting recaps of what Mom’s siblings were up to or afternoon visits with nearby relatives. Looking at one of those letters, with their precise grammar and neat, old-fashioned script, you’d never guess they came from the pen of a woman who didn’t finish eighth grade.

All of these things I know because Mom told me. She makes a point of telling me family things, because her mother didn’t. So I know I’m thin, like her. I wear glasses, like her. I bake pies, like her. I’m starting to get arthritis, which plagued Grandma’s hands, though she barely mentioned it to anyone.

Grandma didn’t have an explosive personality like me, although she did yell at her kids, and often, run-of-the-mill nagging-mom stuff: “Keep out of there!” “Quiet down!” “Your hands are filthy!” She was kind but not down-and-dirty nurturing. (A housekeeping fanatic, Grandma wasn’t dirty anything). Mom learned how to sew, not from Grandma, but Grandma’s sister-in-law, Mom’s Aunt P, who had a special fondness for my mom. Aunt P had married well and lived several hours away, in a big city that must have seemed cosmopolitan compared to the dull Rust Belt town where Grandma’s family had settled.

Aunt P lived a long, full life. Mom made an effort to see her about once a season, especially once Aunt P was in her nineties. During one of those last visits, Aunt P told Mom that Grandma had had an abortion.

When Mom said this to me, I was full of questions: When did this happen? Did Grandpa know? Did Aunt P accompany her? How did they pay for it? How did Grandma manage, in her little world and little town, to find a place that would provide this service?

The one question I didn’t ask was why. I already knew the answer to that.

•••

My husband and I were the first in our group of friends to conceive. Which is amazing, as we have yet to catch up to them with them in other aspects of being grown up. Like: developing solid careers, buying a house, building up savings. But I felt that yearning bodily urge for something to grow inside of me, and we figured why wait? Months later, I was pregnant. Simple.

What’s not simple is how, since having Frances, my highs have been higher and my lows have been lower. It’s like something chemical kicked in, a sinister hormone from a rogue gland secreted on scattered, dread-filled days. And then it’s my turn to be extra: extra unresponsive, extra reactive. Add a newborn to the mix and the default façade of sanity would crumble.

•••

Aunt P accompanied Grandma to the abortion. It would have been Grandma’s fifth child; she was about forty at the time. There was no money for another baby, but maybe there was a lack of something else, too. Mom remembers a phase in her teens, late in the 1950s, when Grandma would break down crying for no apparent reason at all. It had been a bad year; Grandpa had spent many months unemployed, no ironworking jobs available.

“I think, looking back on it, she was crying because she was pregnant again and didn’t know what to do,” Mom said in light of Aunt P’s revelation. “She may even have been hurting herself, trying to lose the baby. There weren’t a lot of options.” So Grandma’s option was an illegal abortion, which must have terrified her. How did she know if the doctor was trustworthy? Who would watch the kids while she left town and then returned, scraped raw inside, needing to recover? Did it wrench her apart, knowing that to preserve her family she’d have to end a pregnancy that began just as the ones resulting in the four children she loved? Mom’s family went on only one vacation, to Niagara Falls, when the kids were still at home. Outside of that, the abortion would have been Grandma’s biggest getaway. This one trip that she did for herself wasn’t anything she really wanted to do.

It’s not the details, but the lack of them, that are telling to me about Grandma’s branch of our ancestry. She must have been loved and cared for to some degree in her youth. What if my daughter had been born back then, to Grandma’s family, raised with the ominous, menacing presence of an unwelcome stepfather? Would she be the spirited, confident girl I recognize? Or would her sharpness be dulled, her light hid under a bushel until it extinguished, deprived of the oxygen that it needed to keep shining? How much Fran is in my Frances? How much Fran is in me?

•••

I have options. Unlike Grandma, I have reliable birth control. After Frances was born, I got an I.U.D. On my insurance plan at the time, it cost me a twenty-dollar co-pay, but that minute contraption—mere slivers of plastic and a few whiskery wires, like a T-shaped fishing lure—retails for about four-hundred dollars. It’s over 99% effective. Sometimes, after we have sex, Joe will ask, “Is that thing still inside you? Does it still work?” Yes and yes, and why he doesn’t ask before? Neither of us likes to think about the splinter of error there, the baby we could accidentally create, the good and the bad parts of us that would load the dice.

If my I.U.D. didn’t work and I got pregnant again, I wouldn’t rule it out, the thing that Grandma did. I’m thankful not to have to make that choice. I can access reproductive health care, even without insurance. I have a husband who, when I say, “Not tonight, honey,” will roll over, sighing, and respect my wishes. I have girlfriends and medical professionals I can talk about sex with frankly. Joe and I together planned when we wanted to become parents.

I wonder what kind of woman Grandma would have been if she’d been able to finish high school, or if she’d grown up in the kind of family that encouraged girls to explore their world. I wonder how many children the newly married her would have preferred to have, if that number was three or two or one. I look at the cottage cheese on my wall, ghostly freckles like snow, my reminder that fits are not worth having. More fits will come, but the aim is to keep them to a minimum, to have them out of everyone’s sight. With more than one kid, god knows what kinds of dishes would be flying around, and at whose head.

But that’s not a problem I have to deal with. Not now, hopefully not ever. I kiss Frances, my daughter, Fran’s great-granddaughter, and turn away from the mottled wall.

•••

SARA BIR lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. Her essay “Smelted,” from this site, is included in Best Food Writing 2014. Her website is www.sausagetarian.com.

 

Like this essay? There’s more of Sara’s writing—plus 29 other great essays in Full Grown People: The Greatest Hits, Volume 1!