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.

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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.

 

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The Swap

sundress

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

Though the forecast semi-promised rain, the afternoon of our upstairs housemates’ clothing swap was ushered in to the best Memorial Day weekend in New England weather. It was hot, yet fresh in the sunshine, comfortable in the shade, bright, clear blue sky with puffy white clouds above and thick, healthy green grass below.

Em and Nell—the two sisters from upstairs—and a few friends began to lay down sheets and unpack clothing from bags and boxes. Other friends walked down the grassy hill with more, which were placed by category onto the ground. They brought shirts and pants, skirts, dresses, and shoes. Home baked goods—a plate of brownies, another of cookies dusted on top with powdery confectioner’s sugar, and chocolate chip cookies—appeared, as well as bags of salty snacks and plates and containers with watermelon and grapes. Beer and a big bottle of wine arrived, too. There were no cups. People shared, swigged.

Nate and Ben, the two sisters’ boyfriends, looked on. The ponytailed boyfriend was a housemate, the shorthaired boyfriend a visiting beau. Ben walked from his woodshop in the barn and back to the grass several times. For a year, every Saturday morning he drove off early to attend a boat building class. His canoe was lodged on a rack in the open middle barn. An onlookers’ corner formed in the shade, more males than females. There wasn’t much for them to do but sit and chat and drink a beer and look moderately bored. This was a big step up from waiting at a ladies’ clothing store while your girlfriend tries stuff on, but that vibe endured, just a bit, the price of boyfriend-dom or of being part of any group that wasn’t engaged in your dream activity. It wasn’t quite a Memorial Day Party.

In the thicket of swappers, though, hugs and squeals and vamping ensued with gleeful abandon as clothes came on and off of bodies and bodies moved between states of dress and undress. A pause in the action occurred about an hour in for everyone in that swapping circle to make introductions: name, gender, preferred pronoun—the icebreaker trifecta for twentysomethings in the twenty-teens.

One of the most beloved in the group had recently announced her transition. She’d changed her name, completed a course of testosterone blockers, and begun estrogen. Short dark hair growing out, Marta graced a new-to-her blue dress quite stunningly—to everyone’s accolades. The male clothing she’d had—work clothes, play clothes, and so much workout gear—couldn’t come along. Her former drag items no longer worked, either. Whatever those had been, playful or experimental, no longer applied. What to wear and who to become melded now and, amongst the heaps of clothing, she found nothing else she really wanted. Meantime, a rainbow-striped baseball cap made the rounds of heads. Eventually, it was left on the roof of our black sedan, and I brought it inside to our mudroom. Perhaps some child or tween might take a shine to it.

•••

The big yellow house we live in has an apartment on the top, which, for over a dozen years, we’ve bartered for hours, mostly for childcare and the light housekeeping duties that keep a family functional: laundry assists and kitchen cleanup and some cooking.

The barter tends to be with young adults in the twenties, a changeable time. Newly graduated from college, newly cohabiting, newly married, newly out (but not to the family), newly employed or trying to become employed, or applying to graduate school, no one who’s moved here planned to set roots from a top floor flat. Transition, even when there’s a person who stays for a couple of years, is implicit, because the apartment’s appeal is the bargain—no cash money, just time and utilities and Wifi and laundry and a place to park off-street in the winter—and the feel of your own place but in such proximity to a family. It has a separate kitchen and bathroom and entrance, yet it shares heat and laundry and Wifi and off-street parking in the winter. In over a decade-plus, the two-bedroom has housed somewhere near twenty people—it’s hard to keep count. Perhaps it’ll click for someone for longer, but somehow I don’t expect it, at least not in this incarnation.

The spring and fall swaps started two years ago with these sisters. My closet and drawers emptied in increments over time, to my relief. Clothing and shoes of my twenties and beyond that had lingered in my possession unworn were released—and I was freed of whatever the threads held over me. The sisters pluck favored items from my contributions to the swaps before they begin. A running top went to Nell; that morning, Em and her best friend appeared in linen sundresses, sleeveless with collars and big buttons down the front I’d released from my closet, sundresses I used to wear. My best friend, Penny, wore those dresses, too. I had three. I kept just one for the dog days. I know Penny still has at least one left, because she wore it when visiting last summer. Once, a grey and white striped cotton tank dress was handed to me. I put it in my closet, never felt comfortable in it, and placed it in a bag six months later. The way I want the swaps to work for me is as license to push the extraneous away and let my closets and drawers speak to the life I lead right now—or as close to that goal as I can get.

A swap cycle ago, my daughter received the metallic lacy tank shirt—a shirt for Em, a dress for my daughter—that she’d coveted; it’s become a dress-up staple. There is an element of dressing up to the swap culture—and to the twenties. “The clothes have gotten nicer, more professional,” Em observed earlier this year. “More of us have real jobs, ones you need to dress for.”

One of our dearest of babysitters—a friend and former housemate, too—moved to New York just over a year ago, and she’d come up for the weekend’s swapfest. In belted jeans that fit perfectly and a tee, Lila looked fantastically herself, but a sleeker version, as New York can bring out. Her reddish hair was longer but seemed to have been cut recently. She seemed neat, put together. She loved her job and the chance to go to art openings and film screenings and her housemates in Brooklyn. She awaited another position at the auction house, and grad school loomed more as possibility than pressure. “It couldn’t be better,” she said. She’d pieced together work, first in a store and then increasingly “in her field” here for a couple of years before the right New York opportunity arose.

Nell spent more time with her visiting beau in the onlookers’ corner than in the swap heap of clothes and people. She held up clothing that came from her not-quite-two-years-older sister and shrugged. “I almost always end up with Em’s clothes in the swap.” The older sister lost a lot of weight over the past year and the beloved green sweatshirt dress already went to her taller, broader-shouldered (former swimmer), barely younger sister. Both are high achievers, highly engaged, competent, capable and lovely. Their sisterhood is obvious, especially their arresting oblong eyes, and yet they come across with completely different energies—one more muscled in her upbeat-ness and drive, the other lower-keyed, yet more serious and at the same time, funnier.

Another former babysitter friend and housemate for a summer flashed her gentle smile. “I’m in Montague, now,” she’d explained—a thirty-minute drive from our house, “an herbal garden, my herbal practice and then work with a program for youth. It’s coming together.” I’d listened to the ups and downs of managing the piecemeal work and the herbal training. And on this bright day, it was all smiles and a sense that they all were nowhere near finish line but rounding the track and feeling fine.

•••

What of the other moments? I remembered them so clearly—tears in the kitchen, eyes pooling puppy-dog wide. “I didn’t get the job,” choked the recent college graduate. It was a halftime position at a local parents’ center and while it was closer to her desired field—public health and sex education—it really wasn’t that at all. A parent from the center had gotten the job, assisting other parents and kids at the drop-in center.

“You’d have been great,” I cheered her on, “and yet you’d have been frustrated, too, because it’s not exactly what you want to do. Already you have a job doing what you want and you’re not six months out of college. The right thing will come along. It will. You’re doing so wonderfully already.” More tears, big hug—and onward, that’s the twenties. That’s life, really. She’s getting her PhD now, full ride, and the last position she applied for—sex educator at a local college—she got.

Jobs missed and gotten is only part of it. Long ago, our babysitter’s eyes blazed with adoration and she smiled like the cat that ate the canary. She and I stood with the laundry basket of clean clothing in between us. We both folded. “We’re… dating,” Hallie offered. The other half of “we” was another babysitter. Although Nic did not live in the house, she did, which meant that while the romance burned brightly, we often had moon-eyed twofers of babysitters, because they could hang out with the two kids, cross-legged amongst the blocks and books and trucks. Distracted by love, there was so much laughter that the romance was, for the kids, infectious. They loved both the very fair and self-declared sensitive young woman and the beanpole young man with slack eyes and a zest for Buddhism, so the pairing was kind of magical. Please don’t break up in my living room if it comes to that, I remember thinking. I hope I didn’t say it out loud, but I might have. I wasn’t so very far from breakups myself, and I still had enough single friends searching for love that the potential for disaster felt fresh enough—coupled with the fact that my kids were small and I felt dependent upon the babysitters for my emotional survival.

Hallie is married now—not to Nic—and has an eighteen-month-old boy with carrot hair and blue eyes that will bore holes into her heart.

What sticks? What do you let go? What returns? Like the clothes on the piles, there’s not really one answer. Answers form a shape shift, the questions blend in, the colors are your favorite and then you’ve worn them so much they’ve worn out their welcome. There will become, in your mind, a bright green era or a vegan period or a time when the relationship was all about starry-eyes and then… not.

•••

Meantime, the afternoon’s happy, hugging crew strewn across the lawn like so many to-be-swapped clothes included a reluctant eleven-year-old boy and a toddling one-year-old boy. The clothes and people continued to arrive. The neighbors’ grandchildren looked on at first and then disappeared, having seen some bras and tattooed bellies. People in states of undress reveal things about themselves that you did not know in inked bellies and backs with flowers and words and leaves. My daughter, who is six, went from the swing to Lila’s lap. Our two-year-old neighbor pal stuck to the climber and swings, mostly swinging on her belly. Yoni, her babysitter, found clothes. I snapped photos; I chatted with former and current babysitters and their friends, my friends through them and hoped my clothing found happy homes. Besides the linen dresses, this time I’d unearthed some things from deep in a closet—a brown jacket and pleated skirt that would be retro now, and likely in style again, a flowered corduroy dress that I’d loved, brown, grey, reddish hues and drop-waist with buttons in front (I guess I liked buttons), leggings and comfy black pants that straddled the line between clothing and pajamas.

I love to watch these young adults grow, to see the ways they reach toward dreams, and especially perhaps the way they revel in friendships. They sew a world together between them like homemade fabric flags waving. I envy their time—the potlucks and parties and nights out dancing, the brunches and weekends and hikes—not because I want for friends, or because I never see mine. I do, in fact. But I miss the way these young adults’ time unfolds opportunities to hang out abound so amply. Friendships take up a particular kind of space, edged out by romantic partners and children and extended family. Things become more encumbered, more weighted, less blowy. My friendships were like that once: juicy, time consuming, and filled with rituals and catch phrases and photos of one another that we passed around, hand to hand.

I’d let go of the electric blue suede short boots with the pointy toes and chunky heels a while before, but they were emblematic of my twentysomething self. They were as hip as I got, a little sassy, cute, and hopeful. They were confident boots and in them, I felt confident. That’s a sensation that I experienced fleetingly—and remains, frankly, fleeting. When Em nabbed low cowboy boots a couple of swaps earlier, she’d declared, “I think I know what you were like when you were my age now,” and in a way, I think she did.

Some of the clothing I’ve offloaded over time is very big and baggy, other things are small and clingy. My body, my style, my stage of life changed over those decades. I worked. I went to graduate school. I moved away as a newlywed for an eighteen-month adventure in London. The wedding was a huge affair, with so many friends spilling in from afar and from near. We feasted on the friendships, the old ones and new ones and middle-length ones. For years and even decades when someone became important to us, we wished that somehow through magic or time travel, we could have shared that friend-fest with that person, too. We returned from London barely three months before our first baby arrived. I became a mom, and despite conflicted feelings, a Mom, too. I became a writer. I volunteered.

•••

I’d joked for years that our house served as excellent birth control, filled with one, then two, then three, then four kids—but the fourth brought infant lust to the towheaded artist on the top floor. Sloan wanted a baby so badly and adored our tiny gal so much that it saddened him to leave for graduate school. Being gay served as excellent birth control just then, too. I cried when Sloan left (in our old car, sold to him for cheap) because I so adored him. But with all these people, something reminds me of them and I can reach out and they reach back, because we did happen into one another’s lives during rich times, ones that we hold tenderly.

The whole time, with all those practice twentysomethings I thought that by the time I began to launch—or prepare to launch—my own kids, I’d be able to do it better because of all I’d learned. And maybe that’s true: I saw that encouragement is what older adults can offer and the willingness to brainstorm and write endless references for as many years out as requested. I saw that you could love new things via younger people: music and Zumba, a better way to make jam or put the toys away. You could remember how poignant and how free and how confusing freedom felt and how much it cost to have your car towed.

But now I have to let go. I have to not worry about the fact that things will go awry and the place will be a mess—and then maybe clean, maybe not, depending. I have to trust that trial and error is, it turns out, inevitable. Nothing is smooth, not really. All that effort to smooth the way for my children, not so much to do their laundry (although there’s that) but to manage things for them—the many check-ins with teachers and the many lessons and classes and teams and enriching books and rules or letting go of the rules, the endless, endless bedtimes—wasn’t a recipe for these next steps. How much is rent? How much is insurance? What do I do when I can’t do the math assignment? Do I ask her out? I couldn’t have pre-answered those questions and so many others. I tried; I whispered to my eldest son as an infant all the important stuff, like “don’t drink and drive,” or “use condoms” or “respect women.” I like to believe he heard me, and when he needs that critical good advice, it’ll rise up like the long buried memory it is, soggy and warm and still intact.

The swaps are the young adult version of offloading the kids’ hand-me-downs. You keep letting go, and eventually, you realize you’ve grown. Each one of you has grown, not just the kids. The thing that remains isn’t a shirt; it’s not a moment or a skill; it’s love. You’ve done right because you’ve loved. You’ve loved and you’ve done right. That’s how it comes out in the wash. That’s how every one of you gets to the thirties.

•••

SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a contributor to Full Grown People. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and the 2014 anthology The Good Mother Myth, amongst other places.

 

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The Status of Pain

microphone

By Ally Mauro/ Flickr

By Sonya Huber

A friend at a writing conference asked me how I was doing. I said, “Pretty good, all things considered.”

“That’s good,” he said. “All I see on your Facebook page is ‘Pain, pain, pain.’”

I gave a half smile and a knowing shrug to get away from the conversation, but my brain buzzed with distraction, embarrassment, annoyance, and a bit of curiosity. That’s all I’d managed to leave as tracks on his brain: pain? Was he razzing me in a failed attempt at flirtation, or maybe trying to be sensitive in a backhanded way?

Then I began to worry that I’d set up an inadvertent Wailing Wall on social media, even though I’d tried to do the opposite. I had made a conscious decision to post as little as possible about my medical adventures with Rheumatoid Disease and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.

Sure, I needed to vent. After scrolling past enough pictures of people’s dinners, rock-climbing feats, and dogs, I felt compelled to put a bit of myself into the maelstrom. And sometimes I wanted to share that my small life was also part of the big picture of life, even if it was posted from flat on the couch.

The last thing I wanted to become on social media was what I felt like in real life: pain, pain, pain.

•••

When I was in college, a young woman in philosophy class told us that she had chronic pain from ulcers. I couldn’t fathom it. Pain, like stubbing your toe, but all the time? Wouldn’t that drive you bat-shit crazy? She was beautiful and a campus athlete, and I began to revere her from afar as some kind of saint, which was the reference point I had for unrelenting suffering: that it ennobled.

Lucky for me, I had exactly twenty more years to live my lovely normal life, filled with sex and sports and walking and soccer and sleeping late and hardly ever having to fill prescriptions. My body could swing and shake and dance for hours. Eventually my immune system revved up into crisis mode when I was in my late thirties, which catapulted me into rheumatoid disease. It’s systemic, autoimmune, and incurable. My joints hurt pretty much all the time. I’m four years into the rest of my life, the part that comes with pain.

Since then—in case you’re tempted to share with me your quick fix—I’ve tried everything, and I manage stuff like a pro. Supplements, exercise when I can, a new diet, medications, acupuncture. I work it like a job, and I have to say I am as responsible as one can possibly be in caring for this very needy pet. But although pharmaceutical company commercials want us to believe that new drugs make life better for everyone, the drugs for my condition don’t work all the time, and they don’t erase pain.

•••

Pain itself is a weird experience, but you get used to it, even if it does drive you a little bat-shit crazy. It’s as tiring as parenting a newborn. It creates so many interesting conundrums and challenges. You can imagine it as adding a World of Warcraft addiction or a constant remodeling of one’s kitchen to your already busy life. That’s what it’s like: a weird project that you have to manage in addition to everything else you already have going on. A weird project that will never go away. Imagine remodeling your kitchen for the rest of your life.

People who don’t know pain think it is really depressing. This makes sense, because it is the core biological imperative for preservation of one’s existence: avoid pain. Run, in fact, from any mention of it.

When I post on Facebook about being in pain, or admit to pain in a casual face-to-face conversation, I read the winces in the emoticons, and I feel and see the edges of my friends’ mouths pull back in grimaces of displeasure, winces of agony, as if they themselves are feeling discomfort. As if, in mentioning it, I am the one hurting them. They don’t want to talk or hear about pain. But they have questions, and they are embarrassed to ask. Some friends do ask, and I have loved how they listened as I tried to describe it. I feel very cared for in those moments and immensely relieved.

It’s hard to figure out what to do with this pet Pain I have if I can’t post picture of it on Facebook. It’s not going anywhere, and yet the thought that it makes other people uncomfortable adds to my own discomfort. Not only do I have a physical problem to deal with, but I also have to feel guilty and watch that I don’t inflict thoughts about pain onto other people like some kind of social contagion. People want to fix pain or to convince themselves that it’s not that bad. They want to tell you their grandmother cured her osteoarthritis with cactus juice. I’ve done the same for different difficulties, responding with vague clichés about “what makes us stronger” when friends have lost parents, marriages, jobs, and medical battles.

It’s hard to know what to say. It’s easy to say the wrong thing in those situations.

Sometimes it’s harder to watch someone we love suffer than it is to suffer one’s own pain. I can’t do anything about this pain (aside from seeing my doctors, getting on the treadmill, and eating turmeric and fish oil like candy) but at least I can know it. And that’s what causes anxiety for others, I think, and for me when I’m on the other side of a skin barrier from pain: it is unknown, unfathomable.

•••

I decided to read through a year’s worth of my Facebook posts to assess whether this friend’s comment about “pain, pain, pain” on my Wailing Wall was accurate. Because I love Facebook, I had hundreds of my own inane status updates to click through, mostly quotes about writing, teaching, books I loved, political activism, or events on my campus. I had posted links to articles on fighting racism, pictures of my family, jokes, laments about my dying car, and a photo of a squash that we’d kept on my kitchen table for over a year because my son drew a face on it with a permanent marker. I posted about getting solar panels, my love of the cartoon Adventure Time, and many thoughts on the Affordable Care Act. I posted ideas for imaginary band names and jokes about Star Wars, as well as an update on happened when I spilled a full can of seltzer on my desk. I posted about the sport of soccer-tennis, a trip to Hong Kong, kayaking, and the zombie apocalypse.

Throughout the whole year—June, 1, 2013 to June 1, 2014—I discovered six posts about my illness. Three of these were not about my own situation, but instead links to content created by other people: a graphic about national awareness day for Rheumatoid Disease, a link to a survey about Rheumatoid Disease, and a link to a book about coping with chronic pain. The remaining three posts gave updates about my own health situation, all within a few weeks last summer in which I had a thyroid crash and was having problems with my energy levels. One was a simple apology that I was having trouble returning emails in a timely fashion because I wasn’t feeling well. The second: “When I have the energy, I’m going to write about finding the energy to parent with an autoimmune disease.”

And the third: “It turns out that giving up caffeine after a 22-year habit is actually not that big of a deal if you have RA. I have learned this morning that my pain tolerance and my pain levels are both so high that a teeny little caffeine headache barely registers. It’s kind of cute, this little chemical headache trying to act all important.”

Two posts for the entire year had mentioned “pain” by name.

•••

In that last post, I injected some humor, as I know I should when talking about illness, as a way to sweeten the subject and not drag my friends down, but also because it’s one of my own coping methods: I have to laugh at it. At the same time, I was trying in that status update to give myself a little credit: I do have a high pain tolerance. People in chronic pain are often desperate for a sense of how others might experience their level of pain, not to share the misery but because they would like to know whether they are merely being overly sensitive or whether they are dealing with something that is as epic as it feels.

This is all complicated by the fact that pain research shows that a chronic pain sufferer’s nervous system can get activated and become permanently on alert, so that everything does feel like agony. The question is epistemological, as all seem to be: how would this pain feel to another person? That’s impossible to know, because pain is not an abstract essence. It is an experience, a process.

•••

My friend might have been exaggerating, but I believe his comment, and his memory of the “me in pain” that I’d shared on Facebook, meant something, despite the fact that it was factually incorrect. Pain is searing and it creates an emotional connection. Expressing pain affects others deeply, creating discrete and uncomfortable memories. One expression of pain, and that is what he remembered. This, too, must be keyed into our species’ survival.

When I thought of this friend and his own online persona, I happened to remember most vividly a few honest posts he’d made about his own troubles. It could be that empathy burns those associations into our brains, and that we vividly remember the strong emotions that are drawn forth by the agony of others.

The question, then, is whether even a few honest statements about our conditions become what people see when they think of us. If we are vulnerable, will people automatically associate our whole beings with those moments when we are at our weakest?

•••

Maybe as a result of this awareness, which began well before his comment, I’d also been consciously checking myself. I felt embarrassed after I posted more than one thing about my health because an administrator at work who is also a Facebook friend said, “You’ve been very honest on social media about your medical issues.” He said the word “very” like I’d done something scandalous and unwise, or as if I were into an odd hobby like sticking goldfish up my nose. Or as if admitting to Rheumatoid Disease was akin to posting a picture of myself doing a kegstand. He’s one of those administrative types that make you feel like you might be in trouble for everything. He kind of has principal voice.

After his comment, I got a little paranoid and decided to post less on social media about my pain, partly out of vanity: I didn’t want to be depressing. I wanted people to see me as someone who had more going on in my life than pain. I wanted to be seen as sexy, lively, cute, funny, and relevant. Smart. A thousand other favorable adjectives to please my ego. So maybe vanity won over honesty, or maybe I was trying to condition myself to focus on more than the pain in my joints.

After I’d made the promise to myself to craft an ideal version of myself, a witty well-read upbeat figment of my imagination, another friend said, “I noticed you haven’t been posting stuff about your health on your page. You must be doing well. I’m so glad.” I wanted to tell her about my continued troubles, about the complicated nature of invisible disability, but I said nothing. We hugged and rushed off in opposite directions in the middle of some event.

•••

I have gone back and forth about what risks I take when I publicly acknowledge on the Internet that I am sick. Or that I am me plus a sickness, or however I might want to describe it to make myself feel better on a particular day. For a while, I thought that sharing would actually protect me, because I figured that the more people knew, the more they’d be required not to discriminate against me. But this is a whole other legal and medical privacy conundrum. I know, ultimately, that the social protection of sharing outweighs any of this, because I stumble slowly into networks who will be truly supportive when the chips are down.

I know that the data I post on social media might be used for specific marketing purposes and is public in a way that might have an impact on me in the future. I can’t be denied insurance for a pre-existing condition under the Affordable Care Act, but new methods of discrimination are always being hatched. Still, this condition is already recorded everywhere in my records, so I’m not safe anyway.

I can’t maintain a cagey fear of anyone finding out about my healthcare issues. Pretending a big part of my life doesn’t exist only makes me feel insane, and ashamed, as if I have done something wrong that I need to hide. I needed people to know what was really going on in my life because the pressure of trying to pretend to be normal was more exhausting than being sick. I needed my coworkers and friends to adjust their expectations of me. I needed them to know what I was up against so that they might understand when I said no. Putting my reality on Facebook was a way to train myself and others to deal with my new normal.

For that reason I have decided to be “out” despite the consequences, but I have to remember that I am able to be vocal about a few conditions in my life due to social privilege. One: I’m a writer, so if someone does discriminate against me on the basis of a health issue, I can put it up on the Internet in a reasonably coherent narrative. Two: I’m an activist, so I would know how to make a stink about it. Three: I’m white, so I have the social privilege to be listened to and believed. Four: I’m a tenured professor with a decent income, so I have the flexibility and time to write, the ability to have a flexible schedule that works around my illness, the support of colleagues, and the ability to be relatively safe from health-related discrimination at work.

•••

Or did I just want sympathy? I admit, at my weakest moments, that I did want that. But I also wanted to benefit other people with these conditions, which is a major motivation for people who post information about illnesses on social media. A recent study found that 94% of patients were willing to share their social data to help patients like them, even if there were privacy risks involved. Hence, the link sharing. And another survey found that 33% of adults use social media to find out about medical conditions and “to track and share symptoms.” For that function, I would sometimes post questions or comments to a series of Facebook and blog comment boards where patients could crowdsource information about new treatments, tests, medications, research, and side effects.

At base, I wanted my friends to understand me, including this new little wrinkle in my life. I wanted to be out as a person with Rheumatoid Disease because being quiet about it added shame and loneliness to a host of other problems, mainly the pain.

It’s hard to know exactly what I want in response. Sympathy helps a little, but it almost directly transforms into my friends’ agony and discomfort, and I don’t want that. Instead, like sharing haircuts or publications or travails about broken cars, I just want them to know and to have known, so that they can form an accurate and honest picture about me and who I really am. That’s intimacy, I suppose, and it seems to break down the wall that anxious sympathy erects.

And it’s true: I do have chronic pain. But I can name your imaginary band in two seconds, and I have a thousand books you should read, and I’ll send you a link to a great news article, and I think your dog is really cute. And I do have a lot more going on than lying on the couch. It’s just that right now … I’m lying on the couch.

•••

SONYA HUBER is the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Opa Nobody (2008) and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir (2010), and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers (2011). She teaches at Fairfield University and in Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

 

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