Begin, years before, by trying to be traditional. Invite friends from your graduate program in English over for a big Thanksgiving meal. Your fiancée will make a turkey, and you can make the stuffing and mashed potatoes. Serve some green beans, too. Buy a pumpkin pie. This is, after all, your first Thanksgiving since you moved in together, just a month and a half before your wedding. You are Very Serious Grown Up People now, people who can be trusted to pay their bills on time and maybe even raise a kid. And this meal, you think, will somehow prove it.
Of course, neither of you really likes turkey—oh, sliced thin for a sandwich it can be fine, but huge chunks of dry meat? Even smothered in gravy, about the best you can say is that the gravy makes the meat less bland. You know that there are people who claim that their own turkeys are succulent and flavorful, but you suspect that they are fucking liars and that there is no way to turn turkey into an enjoyable meal. You can try to move stuff around on your plate so the turkey gets mixed up with the stuffing and the potatoes and the green beans, but doesn’t that just seem wasteful and silly? There’s always that flavorless chunk of bird flesh ruining every mouthful of delicious carbohydrates.
Your friends eat enough to be polite but are really more interested in drinking the wine and beer you bought for the occasion while they talk about Marcel Proust or Emily Dickinson or Jorge Luis Borges or Ron Jeremy. Drink your own Pinot Noir slowly as you try to clean up the kitchen—you don’t want to be the drunkest person at your own party. Not this early in the evening, anyway. But you despair and think about drinking even more as you realize you’ll be eating leftovers for the next several days.
In the ensuing years, try to find new ways to do Thanksgiving as you move across the country multiple times. Go out one year. Order a pizza another. When you’re both vegetarians, do up a vegetable stir fry or just eat sides at someone else’s house. All are better than the usual Thanksgiving dinner, but it doesn’t quite feel special. Well, except for the part where you drink beer in the afternoon while watching football. And then, when you both agree you’re not really into football, drink beer in the afternoon while watching movies.
And though beer in the afternoon is always enjoyable, something seems off. Thanksgiving should be more notable than your typical day on vacation. You long for the pleasures that tradition provides. Without some way to mark the day as unique, an annual holiday to be celebrated as opposed to just a day off from work, it feels like you and your wife are missing out on something.
Develop your own Thanksgiving tradition accidentally, after you both go back to eating fish and fowl when you learn that soy products have a negative interaction with a prescription drug that you have to take every day. Agree that neither of you wants to cook and eat a whole turkey, but decide that turkey burgers might be tasty. Acknowledge that stuffing and green beans, while good enough at a typical Thanksgiving dinner, don’t really appeal to either of you, and that while potatoes are delicious, they’re much better in “tot” form than mashed. Decide that you’re not really interested in being around other people—that you’d prefer to spend this day together alone. Also, conclude that the day’s movies will all be horror films, beginning with Friday the 13th, Part 3—the DVD of which actually came with 3D glasses that will allow you to enjoy the original theatrical 3D effects from the comfort of your own couch.
You or your wife should divide the ground turkey in half. Mix half the turkey with the Parmesan cheese, and half with the habañero cheddar—your wife is not as into spicy food as you are. Divide the chili powder, garlic, and salt and pepper between the two turkey and cheese mixtures. Form each mixture into two patties. Grill on a grill pan, turning frequently, until cooked through. This will take about fifteen to twenty minutes.
In the meantime, make the tater tots. Directions are on the bag.
Realize as you take your first bite that this is the best burger—turkey or otherwise—that you have ever eaten. It’s juicy and spicy and more flavorful than you ever imagined turkey could be. Dip your tater tots in the barbecue sauce—dip the entire burger in the sauce too, for that matter. Wipe your hands on a napkin before putting on your 3D glasses and pressing “Play” on the remote control.
Compliment your wife on this amazing recipe that is, mostly, her creation. Smile when she replies, “Thank you, baby.” Watch the film’s opening sequence, as Jason stalks and kills Harold and Edna. Watch your wife’s face as the teenagers load themselves into the van and the hippie guy—who looks like Tommy Chong and is clearly too old to be hanging out with these kids—hands them a joint that seems to leap from the screen into your living room. Laugh, both with and at her hysterical response.
As you finish your meal, lean back on the couch and put your arm around your wife. Let her snuggle into your chest, but be careful not to crush the arms of her 3D glasses.
“We’re so fucking cool,” she’ll sigh.
“We should have a kid,” you’ll say in agreement.
Repeat this process, once a year, every year—alternating movie choices and maybe someday no longer talking hypothetically about a kid—for the rest of your life.
WILLIAM BRADLEY’s work has appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including The Normal School, The Bellevue Literary Review, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Missouri Review, Brevity, and Utne Reader. He has recently completed a book manuscript—a collection of linked essays—that he is now sending out to publishers, agents and contests. This is the second essay he has published in Full Grown People that references horror movies. He has a wife and two cats, but kids remain hypothetical for the moment.
There was likely a time when I didn’t know that that long stretch of 47th Street on the west side of Manhattan was called “the diamond district,” but I can’t remember it. There was a sort of shorthand for streets in Manhattan that I learned as a kid: diamonds: 47th street, shoes: 34th Street, Indian food: 6th Street, and so on. This is the old city, the city of my parents and grandparents, that remarkably still exists inside the twenty-first century one, if you know where to look for it.
So when I found myself at the end of my marriage, panicked nearly every second about money, with my only valuable possession a diamond engagement ring buried in a tiny box on the top of my dresser, well, I pretty much knew where to go.
And so, on a hot summer day, a couple of years ago, I stood in front of a diamond exchange store on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, considering my options.
I don’t know what drew me to this particular store, but there I was. It was simply the first one I noticed. It was large and on the corner, which seemed like important details. Now, as a rule, I don’t excel at comparison shopping. In fact, when I am looking for something, I will pretty much snap up the first thing I see, and that’s it. Then I spend the next day? month? year? hearing about everyone else’s great deal on the very same thing that I should have gotten if only I’d bothered to shop around. In front of that store, I told myself that I could just see what they had to say and then try a few more places. But I knew this would be the only place I would enter.
The tiny ring was now in the pocket of my jeans. I hadn’t worn it in about a year.
The minute I entered the store, some young people rushed over. Really, I’m remembering this as a sea of twenty-somethings, men and women, descending on me. I told someone that I wanted to sell my ring. A young woman took a look at it and then there must have been some unseen communication going on (why is there no HBO drama set in the underground world of the diamond district?) because seconds later, a man in his late seventies, wearing a rumpled suit, came sweeping past everyone, took one look at my ring, and said, “Come with me, young lady.” He grabbed me by the arm and led me away. I knew at that moment that my ring was valuable. There was an actual charge in the air.
The man swept me past the crowd of young people all the way to the back of the store and up a flight of stairs into his crowded messy office, which looked probably exactly the way it had looked for the past forty years. Was there a manual typewriter? I know I’m not getting this right. He introduced himself and I’ll call him Abe Feldman, which may be his actual name; I no longer remember.
Abe Feldman was of a time when people said things like “how do you do” upon meeting someone and I wish I’d had the foresight to say such a thing. It might have given me an advantage. Instead I came across exactly as I was: hopelessly out of my element. I knew I would have to play the game I had been dreading, the ancient ritual of figuring out a price. Some people find this thrilling, I know, but for me it is simply exhausting. But Abe Feldman was raring to go.
Here is what I knew: the ring had cost six thousand dollars. The man who would become my husband, and then my ex-husband, had bought it with a credit card, which eventually we both paid off. I couldn’t imagine what the ring would be worth now, and probably I should have done extensive research into this, but I hadn’t. I knew that Abe Feldman would say some number and I would succumb pretty quickly.
I can’t remember if Abe Feldman wore one of those eyepieces that jewelers wear to look at diamonds, but let’s just say that he did. He spoke fast and urgently as he examined the ring, explaining that it had a slight crack in it (which I suddenly remembered) but that it was in decent shape.
“I’ll give you two thousand for it,” he said. He opened the safe on his desk, which I hadn’t noticed, and took out a big pile of cash. He started counted out hundred dollar bills, one at a time, flipping them onto the desk like cards, hypnotizing me. Abe Feldman was a master of seduction. He looked at me carefully and then said, “I’ll throw in another hundred,” and placed one last bill on top of the pile.
This was a ton of money. And yet, the number sounded right to me, which made me think that it was worth even more. But I wanted to stop the game, which Abe Feldman clearly knew. “Now, come on,” he said, “It’s nearly four. I have to leave. You should take the money. I’m giving you a good deal.” I had the feeling that Abe Feldman had all the time in the world. It was me who wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.
I must have agreed to it, because I remember him asking for some identification, which surprised me. Nothing at all felt legal in that tiny crowded office, but I handed him my driver’s license and he copied everything down.
It hit me at that moment that Abe Feldman was getting the deal of a lifetime and I knew that I couldn’t just give up so soon. I realized that he had seen my name. “As one Jew to another,” I began (I could be seductive too), “you know I’m supposed to bargain with you as long as I can, right?”
He smirked. “As one Jew to another,” he said, “I’m giving you a good deal.” And then I really knew there was nothing left to say.
I don’t really remember this part, but eventually I must have left his office and gone back downstairs and out onto the hot summer sidewalk. I remember thinking about Abe Feldman laughing to himself the moment I left. And maybe he did, but the best part about this was that I had a pile of money now in place of a ring that had been sitting in a tiny box on top of my dresser. And that ring, which, to be honest, I had always felt conflicted about, as I never really saw myself as a diamond-ring–wearing woman, had become more important, more useful, at the end of its life than it ever was before.
I would love to end this story with me throwing my hat in the hair all Mary Tyler Moore–like and then skipping down the street to buy myself something fabulous with all that money, or just simply strolling down the street, grinning, with an enormous sense of relief. And I would get there, eventually.
But this story actually ends with a sudden flash of memory: the man, who would later become my husband, and then my ex-husband, but now still my boyfriend, sitting on the end of our bed and asking me to marry him. And then, as we were both laughing and crying, just beside ourselves with feeling, he said simply, “I have a ring.”
And then there I was, standing on the corner of 47th Street and 6th Avenue, with thousands of dollars in my pocket and a terrible sinking feeling.
The 16th of November was eerily warm, and neighbors were out in full force with their leaf blowers, trying to clear their yards before the weather turned. My husband was raking enormous piles of leaves onto the blue plastic tarp and then dragging them to the corner of the yard. We live on the banks of the Red Cedar River in a subdivision adjoining several natural areas, and the deer cross through our yard every day and bed down in the leaves for an hour or so before moving on. We hadn’t seen any for days since hunting season had opened.
In the previous week, we stumbled upon deer bones at Sander Farms, a natural area near the busy Dobie Road, a death trap for deer. Most days we take our dogs, Quin and Omar, to Sander Farms where they run off leash. A person I’ve never seen mows a trail through the tall grasses. Omar found the first bone—what looked like a leg—on the side of the trail at the entrance. Each day we found another piece of the deer, another leg with the fur still on, a rib cage, the pieces scattered through the fields as if one animal after another had taken him up and then put him down.
On this day, only Omar was with Richard in the side yard. I hunted inside the house for Quin and found him lying at the foot of the bed on the carpet breathing hard. His chest was rising and falling. Earlier that morning, I had stopped to talk to him when he was lying on the stairs’ landing. He didn’t lift his head in greeting or wag his tail. He didn’t give any indication that it mattered to him that I was sitting on the step caressing his beautiful face that had in the last year become shot through with white hair.
He was the dog who came from wherever he was to greet me at the door when I came home and made sounds that welled up inside him like a moaning, but they were not caused by pain or discomfort—they were caused by relief and happiness that I had come back to him.
Lately on our walks, Quin would stop and then after a few minutes be ready to continue. Last summer after leaving the fields, he’d lie down in the shade of a yard before continuing home. He had grown slower, bringing up the far rear, so far that it often felt as if Quin and I were on our own separate walk from Richard and Omar. Sometimes he stopped right at the edge of the driveway as we were entering the street before we had even started.
He struck me as far away, sunk into himself as if he was in pain and was conserving himself. I suspected that despite the pain medicine, he hurt. Still I thought his difficulties had to do with arthritis and joint deterioration. I didn’t think anything else was going on. He always had a good appetite.
But he stopped wanting to sleep on the bed, preferring the floor in his own space. Then he developed a cough, the telltale cough, it turns out. A dry, hacking cough. He wasn’t coughing all the time. Some days it didn’t seem as if he coughed at all, and we forgot about it. Richard said Friday that he thought we should take him to the vet on Monday. It was time to do something but still not urgent. Saturday morning he didn’t eat breakfast, didn’t go out into the leaves, sat unresponsive on the steps, and I Googled coughs in dogs and found they could be a sign of illnesses like congestive heart failure and cancer.
I wonder now why I didn’t Google the cough before. Hadn’t I been paying enough attention or hadn’t I wanted to see what was going on because I knew that seeing it, really seeing it, would be the first step down an unhappy road? And so I put those steps off. Now I looked at his breathing and I knew we couldn’t wait until Monday. Our vet doesn’t work on the weekends and I took Quin to the Emergency Clinic at the Michigan State University Veterinary Center.
I arrived at one-thirty and things went very fast even though I was sitting for hours in the waiting room. Someone came to the front desk right away and took Quin to the back of the clinic and I never saw Quin again. He jumped up on me in his anxiety. And I hugged him and lowered him to the floor, resting my head on his cheek as was my custom. And then he allowed himself to be led away. I’ve gone back over this part a hundred times; at that moment I believed he would be returned to me and that this was not our goodbye.
After the first hour, an assistant returned to update me about the primary vet’s concerns on the basis of the preliminary examination. They put him on an I.V. to give him some liquids. His gums were pale, his breathing and heart rate advanced. They were going to do more investigation and be back. The assistant hung back a bit and said I might have to make a decision today. He was kneeling down, in a kind of crouch, and he looked up at me when he said that, as if it pained him to sound so ominous.
I called Richard and said, “This is not good.” And then I waited. But I knew.
When I decided to take Quin to the clinic, when I helped him into the back seat, I didn’t know I’d have to make the decision, that we had arrived at that awful place, a place I had been before.
I noticed boxes of Kleenex scattered everywhere. I was not alone in requiring them. While waiting I had watched a woman carry in a puppy near death and then walk out an hour later alone. She arrived sobbing so loudly that they could hardly understand her at the front desk. She left in silence.
The young vet appeared, and we went into one of the small examination rooms and he told me what he feared but couldn’t yet confirm. He wanted to do a chest x-ray. Cancer. He thought the cancer started in the spleen perhaps and had moved to the lungs. The chest x-ray might show us something. And then he was gone. Primary lung cancer is very rare in dogs—they don’t smoke. If you find cancer in a dog’s lungs there is a ninety-nine percent chance the cancer originated elsewhere and is inoperable.
I called Richard again. This time he was riding his bike to the clinic and the noise from the wind and traffic was terrible—but he was on his way.
Then I saw Richard ride by on his bike and a few minutes later he walked in—his clothes filthy from raking leaves for hours, his hair plastered away from his face by the wind. Another hour passed and still it felt like time was flying. I wanted to hold it in my hands and quiet its pace. Employees kept apologizing for the delay—I wanted to say don’t apologize, don’t speed things along. I want a lifetime of delays.
Then the young vet appeared again, Dr. Carver. This time I caught his name. Without his having said a word, I could see in his face the news he was about to deliver. I’ve seen this look before—the look that says your dog is dying, we can’t do anything, and you are going to have to put him down. The look that says this news will devastate you, how shall I tell you?
We stepped back into examination room # 5—this time I noted the number as I noted the vet’s name—and he said “I’m sorry.” The x-ray shows that Quin has cancer in his lungs, and there is nothing we can do about it. Did we want to see the x-ray?
No, we did not. I’m not sure why we didn’t want to see it. I’m not exactly sure why in this moment and the moments that followed that I wanted to shield myself from seeing. I didn’t care to have the images of his ruined lungs. I didn’t want further tests to nail down whether there was a tumor on his spleen or liver or abdomen or all three. What did it matter? In a matter of minutes I knew I would decide as I must to let him go. We would never have a complete narrative of his decline.
If Quin were a person, he would have come home and had hospice care for the remaining time. But we don’t do that with dogs. None of my animals have had a natural death at home. They have all had a precipitous decline and I’ve taken them to a vet where it has been determined that they are dying, that nothing can be done, and then I have had the dog or cat put to sleep.
My daughter and I carried Irene, our first dog, into the vet. We lay her down on a blanket in the exam room and held her as the drug was administered that would stop her heart. It happened in a second and was utterly quiet. And then we left, walked to the car, and drove home. We left Irene there to be picked up for cremation.
The death of Larry, our second dog, was not so smooth, if that’s what you could call it. He had a tumor on his spleen that I knew could rupture at any time. Still I had some months with him, watching him every day for signs, saying goodbye every time I left the house as if it might be our last. His spleen did rupture. By the time I realized what was happening, he was very weak and I could barely get him into the car to drive him to the vet. Twenty minutes later, he was too weak to get out of the car. Several of us had to carry him into the exam room where he lay on the cold floor. With the greatest difficulty I had him put to sleep. His head was in my lap, he looked at me as he died.
And I will never be able to do that again.
Now when I see Larry I see him on the blue speckled floor, I see his eyes looking at me for assurance, to somehow make it all right as I had done for ten and a half years. But there was no making it right, no reassurance. The vet kept saying he’s looking to you to let him go. Was he?
I didn’t want that power. Eventually I let him go and he died. We walked out of the room and got back into our car and left my great boy behind. That’s what you do. Some people bury their dogs in the yard as in days of old but Larry was a ninety-pound field golden retriever and our yard was exceedingly small, postage stamp size. And we knew we weren’t going to stay in that house forever. I couldn’t imagine leaving my buried dog behind. There was no burying him. There was only cremation and picking up his ashes and keeping them near me.
I wasn’t in attendance when my mother and father died. They died in Pennsylvania and I lived in Michigan. They were not young and they weren’t in good health; nevertheless their deaths, when they came, were sudden. My mother woke up complaining of a headache. After lunch she said the pain was unbearable and my father called an ambulance. She was dead by nine-thirty that night—she had sustained a massive cerebral hemorrhage. My father returned to his apartment after a week’s trip in Florida and had a massive heart attack. He died before he reached the hospital. Never stood by their hospital beds, never saw their bodies slip into death, their faces in death. Never saw their bodies wheeled away and stored in a refrigerator with a bunch of other dead bodies until the funeral home could pick them up. My parents’ deaths were managed, and their bodies were managed without me. When a person or a dog dies, we relinquish them to someone—to coyotes, to medical experts, to funeral managers, and to the people who work the crematoriums.
I have seen two of my dogs die. I thought I should be with them, touching their faces, looking at them, saying goodbye. I should be there. And I was. With my parents, I felt pained by my absence. It wasn’t something I decided. My sisters stood by my mother’s hospital bed as she died; they touched her hands and spoke to her. They both arrived at the hospital after my father had died in the ambulance, too late to say goodbye. But they saw him in his death. I feel that I let my parents down and at the same time I feel grateful that I did not see their faces rearranged by death.
Dr. Carver asked, “Do you want to say goodbye to Quin? Do you want to be with him for his final moments?” I put my head in my hands and sobbed. Give me a minute, I asked. I have to think. But I knew I couldn’t see Quin die. I didn’t want that to be the last image of him I had. I wanted to remember him as he emerged from Lake Michigan after an afternoon of swimming or pulling an enormous fallen branch through the snow. I wanted to see him alive, unfinished. I am not a novice in this dying business.
Now I know that the last image will be the one I carry with me forever—it will write over all the others. Selfish is what I am. I chose not to be the angel of death. I did not give my Quin the sign that he could go. Richard said goodbye. I didn’t even want to hear about it, didn’t want to know how Quin looked, what the room was like, was the lighting bright, was it low, what color was the floor, was he on a table, who else was in the room, did he lift his head, did he know? I didn’t want to know.
Did I fail him as I hadn’t failed the others? After nine years of never failing Quin, did I fail him in the end? Was I unable to summon up that last bit of strength to serve him? It was so fast. I would be undone forever to see him die. My refusal wasn’t about the insufficiency of love.
And then like all the other deaths, we waited for the assistant to retrieve his leash and collar and walked out the doors of the clinic and got into our car and drove the long ride home. It was dark now and it would begin to rain shortly.
When we came home without Quin, Omar looked confused and anxious. He lay by the door, facing it, ready for Quin to walk through it. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. At some point, Richard asked if I wanted to take Omar to the fields. Yes and no was my answer. But we went because we still had a dog and he needed exercise and some sense of normalcy. We passed a couple we knew who walked their two dogs every night. When they saw that Quin wasn’t with us, that it was just Omar, the woman started to ask where and stopped. Something about our faces, our forlorn figures told her that Quin had died. We got to the fields relieved we hadn’t run into any other people who would inquire where Quin was and realized we had days and days of being asked the dread question ahead of us. We let Omar off leash but he didn’t take off. We walked the trail and he stayed right by us. On the slight slope uphill he found the deer’s skull not far off the path, the last part of the deer to emerge. I don’t know if a more perfect thing exists. So delicate and small, as white as can be, lying in the grasses and mud as if it belonged there. And perhaps it did belong there. Where else should it have been?
The next day was a terrible day. Dark, foreboding, with winds up to sixty miles an hour, and intermittent torrential down pours. By evening, we lost power and huddled in the bedroom listening to tree limbs being ripped from trees and flying against the windows. And it went on like this for most of the night, and I thought yes, this is how it should be, the world should come unhinged, it should flail and bang because something great has left it. Of course, it was me who was unhinged. It was my grief that I saw in the storm.
And the next day came as it does and the storm was over, power was restored, and the temperature plummeted. It was winter now. The leaves had been stripped from the trees, what had remained by mid-November. Some roads were blocked because trees had fallen across their way. I heard saws buzzing nearby.
I pulled out a photo of Quin at Sleeping Bear Dunes in 2005 when he was young. He’s just emerged from the lake, no doubt fetching sticks we were throwing. He’s running towards the camera, sand and foam coats his face, his fur is wet and deep red, and he looks right at me. I take the photo. Our eyes are locked. This was the face I wanted to remember. Not because I am deluding myself in thinking someday I’ll return home from work and find Quin waiting at the door for me, or that it will be Quin sitting on his perch on the landing overseeing our world, or Quin emerging from the dry brush of the fields and running towards me, but because I know he won’t.
One week to the day after Quin died, his ashes arrived in the mail. They arrived in a small metal container about three inches tall, blue larkspur sprays on the beige background.
Thanksgiving morning, Richard and I bundled up against the cold and, with Omar, walked through the falling snow to the fields. No one was on the streets and the fields were empty. At the place where we enter the fields, we unleashed Omar, as we had always unleashed both dogs. They’d bound into the fields and then abruptly stop to smell whatever they smelled before hurrying on into the open area. Here I pulled out my little baggie, dipped my bare hand in and gathered some of Quin in my fingers and scattered it. The first fingers of ash were smooth, like sand, and they blew in the wind and carried a little ways off the trail to coat the dry stalks. “To Quin,” I said, “your final pasture.”
But the pain of losing never is finished. A friend writes about how she dreamed she found her lost dog sitting on a shelf in a second-hand shop on sale for nine dollars. “I picked her up and she smelled exactly the same, and she started licking me. It was as if she’d been waiting for me for ten years. Then I woke up, but for a moment there, life seemed healed.”
The kitchen floor is sinking. It’s not a shock―it’s been failing for quite some time. I step to the sink and feel it give under me. Even worse, when I’m washing dishes and the hubby steps next to me to get something from the cabinet, I’ve suddenly lost an inch.
At first we decided we had to fix it. After all, it’s directly under the sink, meaning we have a leak.
“We have to take care of it, or we’re going to be breathing in black mold, which is unbelievably unhealthy for us and the dogs, who are stuck in here all day, and eventually the floor’s going to drop out,” my sky-is-falling husband initially barked. Back when we discovered the problem. Back when we gave a damn.
Since then, larger, more pressing problems have presented themselves, and like we did with the floor, we’ve pretty much just let them go too.
It’s not laziness; it’s survival.
Three and a half years after we moved into this ancient metal sheet-clad camper that was never, ever meant to be used for more than a few weekends a year, I’m still stepping gingerly atop the spot as I wash a pan from dinner. A chore unto itself.
The hot water heater, located at the back of the camper and yet another problem unto itself, began leaking months ago―the plastic piece that connects the water line gave way, and the new one is back ordered. So, I boil pots of water on the stove, adding a couple of electric kettles’ worth for good measure, to one side of the ceramic sink. I soak the dirty dishes in hot, soapy water, then rinse in cold. It never really gets anything fully clean.
I’ve done all the small stuff, and now I can clean the frying pan. I empty the soapy water, scrub it off, rinse it in cold and place it, gleaming, into the itty bitty drying rack, the words All Clad stamped into its sturdy handle.
The pan is one of a few holdouts from the previous iteration of my existence. Back when I could afford an entire set of All Clad. Back before the proverbial floor dropped out.
“The more you make the more you spend,” a friend admonished recently when I explained that I need a better paying job. I have to admit that was the old version of me: I lived that life, making more and, consequently, spending more. I’d spend entire Saturdays shopping, not content until I came home, arms bulging from my latest retail conquest.
My friend Nora and I used to have a game in high school―we’d try to see who could score the most cool stuff for the least amount of money. It’s a game I continued to play well into adulthood. But unlike in high school, when the cheapest, gaudiest earrings or most sole crushing pleather shoes could rate high on the awesome scale, I later refined my retail love to pretty much only the best, for less.
Which is how I wound up with an apartment full of designer duds, high-end small appliances, and damn near useless bakeware. Not to mention the bright red Volkswagen in the drive. I was expected to live the part of employed professional with a master’s degree. You showed your worth by what you owned.
The problem is, you have to continue to maintain that trajectory, constantly making more. Your belongings denote your status in the hierarchy of common culture, no matter what subset of the culture you belong to. I remember, as an undergraduate working full-time while taking a full load of classes, marveling on my way to work at the black-clad punks begging on Haight Street. Their leather jackets, tattoos, piercings, and Doc Martens cost more than my tuition. They were faux po’, playing the part. They’d scurry back to the ‘burbs during the week, probably troll the mall for more black duds with their weekend beggings. Whereas I was plain ol’ po’, heading to the graveyard shift at the local diner.
I grew up fairly poor, until my father started making a decent salary as an airline pilot when I was in high school. I went from hand-me-downs to a fancy hand-built German sports car in the blink of an eye. But I still paid for my own education, working though my twentiesto cover living expenses while earning my BFA. I was the proverbial starving artist, but in those days it was impossible to tell who truly was and who was the trustafarian.
Without a family fortune in my back pocket, I had no choice but to work. That included the usual twenty-something jobs ―barista, waitress, data-entry temp―along with bike messenger, tourist t-shirt designer, and phone warrior for the environment.
I never made much at any of these gigs, but they fulfilled two important aspects to my working life, in addition to paying the rent: a job where I could continue to be creative outside the daily grind and work where I wouldn’t lose my soul.
The problem came after grad school when I bought into the hype of my own superiority, my unassailable right as a member of the educated creative class to make more money than I actually needed to survive. I was told, and believed, that I deserved everything money could buy and more, by virtue of having attended school. Never mind the fact that I financed my degrees to the nines. Never mind the fact that all that learning made me no better than anyone else. I had a piece of paper, but I was still me. I just didn’t realize it at the time.
But that was then and this is now, and my current now is actually not so far from where I was back before my ego got the better of me.
The difference is that even if I wanted to, I couldn’t maintain the ruse. Probably part of the reason the soft kitchen floor doesn’t seem like the problem it really is: there are only so many fires that can be put out before you just don’t care if the motherfucker burns.
So, we just move forward, leaving all that was behind in physical and emotional form. Or at least try.
My husband needed work pants, so we headed to the Goodwill. Browsing others’ cast-offs, I froze in the housewares section. An empty picture frame sat on the shelf, innocuous, seemingly nothing, except for the fact that, in my mind, I could see the photo that belonged in it.
“Oh my god, this was mine,” I gasped.
“Are you sure? Look at the back—was it messed up like this?” he said, turning over the faux stained-glass frame with flowers pressed between glass. It was very poorly constructed, with the lead messily bulging out where some shoddy worker, likely ill paid or, worse, forced labor, hadn’t given a damn.
“I… I’m not sure,” I stammered. I honestly didn’t know. I’d owned the thing for years, but couldn’t remember the back. And why would I? When I put the photo in it, I’m certain I wasn’t paying attention, and I know I wasn’t the day I took it out, shortly before nearly everything I owned in our tiny one-bedroom was left sitting in its place, like Miss Havisham finally gave up and walked away. Or, like us, was forced out for lack of cash.
I think of all the things we left behind, all the things we bought when times were flush, and wonder why. Why the hell did I need all that crap when, eventually, it would all just wind up in a Goodwill somewhere for me to find and not only not need, but not be willing to purchase again?
Don’tget me wrong. It’s not like I’m against stuff. On the contrary. Sure, I lost just about everything in the financial meltdown and what I do have pretty much sucks. My car doesn’t have heat. Or a working radio. I live in a goddamned RV. I live in a hallway, really. But I have to admit that walking away from everything caused me to rethink, well, everything.
Would it have changed the situation if I hadn’t purchased any of it? In the long run, not at all, because we had a significant amount of money in savings as well, which we ran through in practically no time. I was out of work for two years―an amount of time that requirestrust fund money, not the piddly bit we’d squirreled away.
Yet my fiscal downfall hasn’t turned me into the miser of my grandparents’ ways. They survived the Great Depression and never really recovered, at least in their own minds. I remember their front door. I remember my grandfather stuffing newspaper in the cracks between it and the jamb each night, placing a bean-filled snake along its base, to keep the draft out.
After they died, my aunt went through the place. She found several thousand dollars in rolled-up small bills, stuffed in corners, under towels, a fifty folded neatly under the statue of a coal miner atopthe china cabinet. They could’ve bought that front door dozens of times over with the money tucked away inside that house. But they suffered in fear of losing everything yet again.
Trust me when I say I never, ever want to not be able to buy the little things. I will never willingly don a hair shirt and wander the earth a pauper. I love Sephora far too much. I’m not willing to give everything up. I’m not the Buddha. Being able to afford a cup of coffee when I want one is one of the few pleasures I will never take for granted. I remember taking the bus to work after the car quit right before the economic fall. I sat down, tried to take my bag off my shoulder, and dropped my coffee all over the floor. As I watched it roll around under peoples’ feet, spreading in opposite directions with each turn and jolt of the bus, I quietly cried, because I knew I didn’t have money to buy a new cup. And I had eight hours of non-caffeinated work ahead of me. That was hell.
I still don’t make enough to tuck even pennies away right now, but my determination is that as things get better, I will find balance. My car may be old, but it’s a sturdy Volkswagen. I won’t be trading it on something shiny, cheap and new. No matter what kinds of eye rolls I get when I pull out my old non-smart phone, I won’t give in to new gadget pressure. And I’ll be happy about the fact that the things I did purchase before the fall—the ones we managed to save that are tucked away in a tiny storage space in Philadelphia—were quality enough to last a good long time. The memory foam topped mattress we strapped to the top of the Golf because it was on sale, the Kitchen Aid mixer―the only actual item we got when we got hitched―that will probably outlast me, the espresso maker, my grandmother’s sewing machine.
I won’t live in this disgusting, falling-apart Tin Can forever, but I might get a bigger one. Or not. But no matter what, I’ll remember what matters―having a job, sure, that pays me what I’m worth. And doesn’t suck the life force out of me in return. I am not my job, and I am not my possessions. As much as I swoon over the Vitamix and the perfect smoothies it makes when I go to the grocery store, I can live without it. For now. Maybe one day I’ll find it at a great price and it will end up with the rest of the keepers.
ERICA S. BRATH is a journalist and writer currently living in Ithaca, New York. She has written for publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly, Certification Magazine, and Men’s Health. She is currently working on a memoir about her experience living in a travel trailer full-time. Her website is esbrath.com.
My father loved architecture the way a 1950s teenager loved rock and roll. He was an art professor by trade but admired the craft of architects with the ardor of a fanatic and the admiration of a fellow artist. Frank Lloyd Wright was my father’s Elvis and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York his Jailhouse Rock.
Bruce—or Dad, as I never called him—died before I was old enough for him to tell me of his passion. But for as long as I can remember, there’d been proof hanging in our house: a framed black and white print promoting a German Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit from 1964, the year my parents were married. The only pictorial reference to Wright was that of the Guggenheim, in various degrees of pixilation as if printed in an old newspaper and blown up to abstractness. The image is unmistakable. As a child, the form of the building loomed like a mammoth, multi-tiered spaceship that, in my imagination, rotated and hummed and twinkled and could rise effortlessly from the ground before soaring upward toward infinity. Long before I could read, the architect’s name in bold, art-deco lettering at the top was a cryptic alien code designed to prescribe the spaceship’s astral trajectory.
The poster didn’t have the name of the museum written on it. I knew it was called the Guggenheim, though, because I’d been told. The glottal G’s and hard vowels in the name made me giggle. The sound brought images of clowns and bubbles and circus acts.
To me, Wright took pride of place in our home gallery amid other names I’d grown up with: Ben Shahn, Hundertwasser, as well as Bruce’s own sculptures and watercolors. Maybe it was the graphic, monochromatic minimalism that appealed to me; maybe it was that spaceship thing. Or maybe it was because the framed print was imbued with the few scattered memories I had of my father.
By the time we moved out of my childhood home in Toronto, my mother had collected new favorites to take center stage so FLW got seconded to the unlit, low-traffic zones of the new house. Eventually it was removed from the wall and stored in the dank, cement basement where its wooden frame dampened and sagged and eventually broke. When I moved out for the first time shortly thereafter, I salvaged it from its indifferent hiding place and had it reframed. I like to say I inherited it from my father. Today the poster crowns the top of the stairs in my south London home.
Last year during a chilly, late-winter afternoon, I found myself heading up 5th Avenue toward the Guggenheim. It was my first trip to Manhattan in over twenty years and the first time I’d had the opportunity to visit the museum. I could have taken a taxi or the subway after my meeting near Union Square but instead I walked the eighty or so blocks up the east side of Central Park. Call it a pilgrimage of sorts.
As the street numbers got into the 60s and 70s, I thought about the print on my wall and the excitement my father must have felt in purchasing it more than forty years earlier. When I was growing up, my adventurous weekends were spent taking the subway into downtown Toronto to find posters in the head shops along Yonge Street. I couldn’t wait to put the new image of David Bowie or The Police on my bedroom wall. But none of those earned the esteemed framing treatment that my father’s Frank Lloyd Wright poster deserved.
Approaching 88th Street, I expected to see the great flying saucer of my childhood magically hovering over the leafless trees on the edge of Central Park: broad, white circles spinning and buzzing in preparation for take-off. But it was smaller than I’d imagined, the smooth, white cement dwarfed and hemmed in by the surrounding brick brownstones. The famous circular rotunda, an inverted round ziggurat, sat compactly on the street corner. It appeared weightless, lifting from the sidewalk like a dandelion in seed on the wind. Far from being disappointed by its size, I marvelled at the scale and eagerly went inside.
The indoor space belied the first impression given by the exterior. The spiralling gallery seemed to rise magnetically up toward an infinite glass dome. The endless sources of natural light created intimate shadows that mingled with the reverential whispers of the gallery’s visitors. If the outside seemed unnervingly squat, the interior had quite the opposite effect. It existed in a constant state of levitation; a swirling, weightless eddy of white light.
Sitting among the dizzying ramps of the Guggenheim, staring at the buoyant structure and the artwork—secondary to the building in which they were housed—I was struck by two things. First, the building so favoured by my father, that to me had been little more than a two-dimensional representation of his joy, was very much real. Secondly, so was my father.
As I explored the scrolling halls and surprising annexes, I was aware that Bruce had scaled them, too, and, like me, was taken more by the building than the priceless Kandinskys and Chagalls. But whereas the museum’s unique architecture and cultural grandeur drew my father close, it was his visceral crush on Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece that brought me there. In doing so, it brought me closer to Bruce than I’d felt in many years.
When my father died, I felt his loss the least; I was the youngest in my family. I understood that he was gone, but I didn’t grieve as an adult would. What I lacked in melancholy, though, I more than made up for in appreciation for the good fortune my life had given me in spite of his death. It was as if some mystical authority was atoning for the missing Dad in my life. The stories I knew of him were generally the ones told to me as family myths by those who remembered him more clearly. In this way, his presence remained.
In New York, I reclaimed memories of my father, no longer relying on the words given to me by others. Flashes of him that simmered like mirages and grew threadbare with age became fluid and elegant in the Guggenheim. He showed me how to swing a baseball bat; he let me throw clay on the wheel in his pottery studio; he taught me that it was okay to laugh at myself. His toothy smile and brown beard were at home in a gallery with portraits both traditional and contemporary. For a moment I thought I heard his voice, a sound I’d missed for nearly forty years. In this building I was infused with him in his eternity.
Like the museum, my father’s memory had always seemed to levitate and rise toward infinity. It coiled around me, at once ethereal and tangible, like a celebratory cloak that waved in the wind as I flourished and settled over my shoulders when I needed reassuring. This was all the proof of immortality I needed: testimony of our ability to create life after death by keeping ourselves alive and experiencing those who died over and over again.
If I believed in heaven, I would imagine the entrance to be more like the Guggenheim: a slow-rising ramp rotating with centrifugal equilibrium and endless promise. Not a rigid stairway with lavish, baroque gates at the top. And if I believed in heaven, then this is where my father would live out his eternity. After all, shouldn’t we be allowed to choose what our heaven looks like? I would certainly choose this place for Bruce.
After a couple of hours visiting the memories inside the Guggenheim, I crossed 5th Avenue into Central Park. By the time I’d reached the footpath that circles the reservoir, I looked back over my shoulder at Frank Lloyd Wright’s gleaming white spaceship, Bruce’s heaven. But it was gone, discreetly grounded behind the curtain of winter trees. Or perhaps it finally lifted off. I walked on alone, leaving my father inside where he belonged.
JON MAGIDSOHN is originally from Toronto, Canada. He’s been featured in the Guardian and Bangalore Mirror, also on Brevity,Chicago Literati, Good Men Project, Mojave River Review, 100 Word Story, and currently publishes three blogs. This is his second essay for Full Grown People. He’s been an actor, singer, waiter, upholsterer, sales representative, handyman, and writer. He and his family are now in Bangalore, India, where Jon writes full time. www.jonmagidsohn.com
Come on, girls. (I know you know this.) Do you believe in love? (I know you do.) I have something to say about it. (Of course).
It goes like…this.
The video for “Express Yourself” came out when I was in eighth grade. I watched it a million times, splayed out in the recliner with a Diet Coke in one hand and a remote glued to the other. Madonna was on a video gold streak with her “Like a Prayer” album. I watched, captive to MTV, as she pranced in front of burning crosses, frolicked on the beach with mermen, and sat atop a high-rise art deco building, her cropped blonde hair stirring in the breeze.
I didn’t buy her albums or read glossy magazines to follow her antics. There was no need. To a young person then, the Madonna juggernaut mingled with the particulate matter in the air we all breathed.
So it was unremarkable when I, at fifteen, channeled Madonna just by sitting on a stoop on a gray January afternoon during crew practice. Being on the crew team was the one thing that got me off the recliner and away from the TV. At school I half-assed it; there was no half-assing in crew. Ponch, our coach, made sure of that.
Our team had its winter conditioning at a dilapidated former Catholic school. The room that housed our medieval weight machines had a pressed tin ceiling, and when we did bench presses, I’d stare up at random patterns that water stains had made on the peeling white paint. Ponch—who did, in fact, have a paunch—had instructed the girls in my boat to run sprints up the fiercely pitched sidewalk outside while he oversaw the varsity girls’ weight training.
We all felt sluggish that day. After a few halfhearted sprints, I flopped across one of the large stone posts flanking the school’s entrance. And then the Spirit of Madonna entered me, as abrupt and ecstatic as the fiery tip of a spear. Unlike St. Teresa, I did not swoon. I rallied. “Come on girls!” Pause. “Do you believe in love?”
My teammates laughed. I kept going with a catlike crawl on the sidewalk, mimicking what Madonna does later in the “Express Yourself” video. The video has a plot, I think: Madonna, a pampered concubine sequestered in a factory, liberates herself by seducing a strapping, cosmetically dirt-smudged factory worker/male model.
Energized with my impromptu performance, we all attacked our sprinting with newfound vigor. When Ponch sent us out to do sprints again the following day, I sensed my teammates looking at me expectantly. That’s how the Madonna act became a regular feature of crew practice.
At our public high school in rural Southeast Ohio, crew was a sport not for preppies, but for savvy misfits. All of the athletic hippies and punkers and unclassifiables—my tribe!—rowed. Crew girls trained hard and goofed off harder. Practice was one of the few places where I could be myself, and apparently this meant imitating Madonna daily. Once spring came and we took our shells on the water, I modified the act for the narrow confines of our eight-woman shell and did Madonna bits when Ponch’s launch was well downriver. A shell sits only inches above the water, and its slenderness limited dance possibilities, so I’d mainly flail my arms and caress my sports bra before grabbing my crotch as a grand finale. “He’s coming!” our coxswain, Cecelia, would warn me. “Three, put your shirt back on!”
I rowed in the women’s varsity lightweight eight. We were ferociously devoted to each other in the sweet but maddeningly intense way of teenage girls. We spent hours together every week, training our bodies and minds to meld into a collective organism. In the confines of our rickety wooden shell, emotions ran high, and we bonded as snow or sun pummeled us, and we channeled our rampaging energy to tear our boat through the polluted froth of the Ohio River. Often delirious with hunger from the starvation jags we went on in order to get our weights under the dreadful 120-pound limit to compete in the Lightweight division, we elevated incidental bits of nothing—the plastic head of a bunny figurine, the yellow shorts our bow’s crush always wore, most of the words that came from Ponch’s mouth—into elaborate inside jokes. Blisters mottled our palms; black smears of slide grease stained our claves and the backs of our cutoff sweatpants. We practiced six days a week. The only single place I spent more time than the boat was in bed, sleeping.
Madonna quickly joined our complex network of good luck charms, superstitions, and pre-race rituals: the wearing of lucky underwear, the application of temporary tattoos, the stringing of matching beaded necklaces. It worked; we won, and won. Being Madonna was my duty to my team.
“You rowed good today, girls,” Ponch, sporting smudged aviator sunglasses and ever-present black stubble, would tell our boat as we came into the dock after a race with a triumphant outcome. He didn’t dole out compliments often, but we loved it when he did, bad grammar and all.
Secretly, I cooked up a Madonna performance for the hotel where we’d stay during Midwest Championships. The genesis was a very elaborate black lace bra I’d recently persuaded my mom to buy me at Victoria’s Secret—my first actual article of sexy lingerie, something I’d never have considered pre-Madonna. “Justify My Love” had recently come out. The video took place in a hotel. It was too perfect.
The week before, I’d rehearsed in my bedroom instead of studying, because a successful debut of my Madonna routine was undoubtedly top priority. For the costume, I wore the Victoria’s Secret bra and a flowing black silk chador my dad had brought back from his deployment in the United Arab Emirates. My awareness of world affairs was such that I did not recognize the absurdity of adapting Islamic dress for a Madonna impersonation.
I quietly spread word to my boat to come to room 112 after our charter buses brought us back from dinner at the mall. Jittery with nerves, I couldn’t eat a bite, though that was probably in my favor, as I was always tipping the scales at weigh-ins. My boatmates all heaped on the hotel room’s beds as I readied myself in the bathroom. Then I signaled Cecelia to cue “Justify My Love” on the boom box. That tense, confessional beat came on—a countdown—and the stupidity of the situation that I’d constructed hit me. But my boat was out there on the other side of the flimsy bathroom door, waiting. This was my duty to them.
I opened the door, terrified, and it happened again, just like it did in front of the Catholic school: the fiery point of the spear, a force outside of me triggering the intense urges inside of me. Worlds away, the Material Girl herself looked down upon me and smiled. I gyrated. My boat howled.
But my moment was cut short. After the first third of “Justify My Love,” several guys from the men’s junior varsity eight and then a grumbling chaperone crashed the party; panicking, I bolted to the closet, and the crowd scattered. The whole thing lasted all of a few minutes, but writhing in front of the crew team in my new black bra, I had found my bliss. (Where were your coaches? you ask. Where was Ponch? Why, in the hotel courtyard, doubtlessly wearing his threadbare “U.S. BEER TEAM” t-shirt, with a lawn chair and a cooler full of Miller Lite, gladly oblivious to our shrieking shenanigans.) As Sara Bir, I was brash and awkward and clumsy. Boys fled from me; I wallowed in angst and longing. But as Madonna, I was brash and desirable and powerful. It took a long time to fall asleep that night.
Madonna only grew in scope. My audience was receptive, and god knows I was willing. I straddled the sawhorses we rested out shells on; I strutted on ramp pretending to grind my oar; I vogued in the boat as the seven other girls leaned into their oars to keep it set.
For our hotel stay at Nationals the following season, I came up with something more polished and provocative, showcasing a black mini-dress with a built-in stretch satin corset I found at a trashy fashion outlet. I made breast cones out of foil-covered birthday hats and attached rhinestone-crusted spheres to dangle from the tips. It was a bondage-meets-glam masterpiece.
And that second year, when boys turned up our room along with the girls, I didn’t mind. If it took dressing like a sci-fi hooker for them to pay attention to me, fine. They were there, on my terms, and for the ten minutes that followed, I owned that hormone-packed hotel room. With the lights dimmed, I slinked out of the bathroom to a few lines of “Justify My Love” before throwing off the chador to reveal the corset. Cecelia flipped the light switch on, cued up “Like a Virgin,” and everyone sang along as I busted out my amateur choreography. My best friend videotaped the whole thing. It was a hit.
Afterwards, I was all riled up, and so a few of my boatmates and I slipped out to walk around the hotel grounds and see what happened when Madonna mingled with the public. What happened was a fleeting, micro-Mardi Gras. Two boys from another team had their pictures taken with me as they grasped my cone-breasts. It was the first time boys touched me there, and I was thrilled, even if they were groping hollow cardboard and not my actual body.
Tall, slouchy and slight, I didn’t resemble Madonna at all. Fortunately, her attributes were so iconic that it took only a pronounced dot of eyebrow pencil above the lip and a brassy attitude to evoke her. The breast cones didn’t hurt, either. I was a drag queen trapped in the body of a teenage girl. In my mind, I wasn’t imitating her. She and I acted in tandem; we were peers, fellow entertainers. Even back then, in my self-absorbed fog, I was onto her ruse: using this persona is cathartic, a tool.
Perhaps because she feared my Madonna habit was compromising my academic well-being, Mom eventually hid the costume from me. I easily found it crammed in the back of her dresser, upgraded the cones with red velvet, and wore it to school on Rock-n-Roll Day for Spirit Week. I donned the costume at the crew team camping trip, then my freshman college dorm, and then at the run-down lodge in Colorado where I cleaned rooms one dreary summer. (My mother, whose position had softened a bit, kindly sent it at my request).
In my twenties, I kept the costume, which became my backup for Halloween parties, but it elicited disappointingly mild responses, even from the man who is now my husband. Maybe I wasn’t feeling it anymore. Maybe I needed my boat, the best audience ever. So I kept it in my closet, where once a guy who was over for our first date caught a glimmer of cone and corset in the corner of his eye. He got the impression I was into scenes I was not into; it was also our last date.
The Madonna costume itself held up impressively after many moves from apartments and rental houses. The cones would get smooshed a little each time, but with a little cajoling, they’d pop right back into their pointy glory with a resilience worthy of Madge herself. More amazingly, I could still fit into the thing, even after having a kid. But its potency had faded somehow; I had no inclination to wear it. Even for kicks or kinks. In a fit of closet-crap purging, I took it to the Goodwill last year for some lucky vixen wannabe to snatch up. I assumed it couldn’t serve me any longer.
My husband and I have been married for almost ten years. Theoretically, that means I have access to unlimited sex. It means I could make out with the same person every single night. How incredible those prospects would have been to me at sixteen! And how incredible the prospect of making out seems to me now, or to anyone who’s been married for longer than three seconds. Who the hell has time for frivolities like that?
Now I get it. I need that Madonna costume because I have invoices to send, recipes to revise, emails to cull through. There’s a ring of crud around the toilet bowl, a car tire with a slow leak, and a menacing, colorful heap of mismatched little girl socks. There’s a credit card balance that makes mismatched little girl socks positively alluring by comparison. Sometimes I wake up and put together stylish outfits with giant baubles of jewelry and pearly lipstick shades, and it helps, but I consider those piles of neglected tasks and I might as well be shuffling around in fraying pajama bottoms. The prettied-up version of me is still me.
Even Madonna has her own Madonna version of these problems. Even Madonna needs a Madonna costume! Because Madonna Time is not what you do for other people, even if you are dancing right in front of them. It’s not about a spouse or partner, or even your boat. Madonna Time is for you. I want my Madonna Time back. There are no toilet bowl rings in Madonna Time. There are no tire leaks or accounting departments who “never received that invoice.” In Madonna Time, things happen because you make them happen. You are sexy. You are powerful. You have a physical need to be outrageous in public, and you have no issue with that whatsoever.
After I did my youthful Madonna routines, friends would tell me how brave I was. “I could never do that!” they’d confess. But I could never not do that. I grew up and found out that, as adults, our most daring performances are not about what we reveal, but what we successfully cover up.
My best friend still has that videotaped hotel room performance squirreled away somewhere, and thank god I know she’s trustworthy enough not to post it on You Tube, or I’d see a loudmouth teenager with bad makeup and a beaky nose wriggling around half-naked in a desperate plea for attention from her peers. And I’d be massively embarrassed, and also a little proud, because when I was insecure and vulnerable, I was not repressed. I was irrepressible.
They sell birthday hats at the dollar store. I probably have some red velvet fabric somewhere, some tacky glue. Maybe I should ask my best friend to send me that videocassette. It’s time to feel shiny and new again. It can’t be that hard to find a black corset.
SARA BIR, a writer and chef, lives in southeast Ohio. You can read more of her writing at www.sausagetarian.com. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
We’re climbing the hill where I used to search for arrowheads. But we are in the car. It is night, dark. And we can see only the small patches of road illuminated by our headlights. My father is driving and he knows the turns from memory. In preparing for this trip, I’ve tried to piece together a patchwork of my own memories, to create a full picture of this place, whole. Now, in the pure, expansive darkness, the absence of sound except for gravel crunching beneath our tires, I recall a vivid picture of the farm of my childhood.
We pause outside the car for a moment, breathing in the darkness. I look up for the ceiling of stars I once tried to memorize as I lay on my back on this ground until my mother called me in for bed. But tonight the stars are hidden. Years have passed since I last came to my granduncle Joe’s farm. It is more than the place of my memory, more than the place of my imagination. Yet the hole takes up the most space. I have avoided seeing this place again because I would prefer to remember it instead, to preserve my pictures of it from before the fire. But Uncle Joe is here, in the last years of his life. For him, being here is too hard and leaving is too hard, so he moves restlessly back and forth between this place and Lucy’s, the neighbor down the hill.
He’s at Lucy’s now, and we make our way toward the new house where we’ll spend the night without him. The porch is a tiny cement platform and we crowd on, waiting as my father searches for the right key and works it into the new lock. The old house, we never locked. It had an old screen door that banged, a huge, wide porch that wrapped around the house, torn screens that failed to keep out the bugs. Dad turns the knob, and we move into the small, new kitchen.
This is a house of plastic and vinyl, of fresh-painted walls and furniture donated by neighbors or purchased by my father from a failed hotel. The flypaper is missing from the kitchen. The woodstove is old and beautiful but dwarfed by the imposing one of my memory, the one with the big pot of soup simmering on top. We light the stove to warm ourselves. The burning wood cannot erase the invasive smells of pre-fab modernity that have displaced the smells I remember most. The smell of my Uncle Joe’s pipe. The smell of old books lining the walls and stacked on tables. Of hay from the barn and my brothers’ fresh-caught fish. Those smells settled into you when you arrived and clung to you when you drove away, after two weeks of satisfying long days, in the wood-paneled station wagon with your three brothers and three sisters and your still-married parents.
The new house is tiny; there’s not a lot to see. And it’s late. So, soon, my father carefully extinguishes the fire in the stove and we turn in, my father in one small bedroom, the four of us—my sister Megan and me and our boyfriends—wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags on the cold floor of the other.
The house of my memory is an enormous collection of narrow rooms and doorways: small, comforting spaces. Megan and I slept in the first bedroom at the top of the stairs. She once slid off our bed in the night, when she was about two years old. She fell into the space between the bed and the wall without ever waking. They searched every room for her, only to find her still there tucked just out of sight, in that small space, asleep. I slept through their looking and I remember only the telling of it, but I can see her there, curled up and dreaming.
Uncle Joe’s voice wakes me in the morning. His voice is the same (even now, I can hear him still, saying my name) and I go out to receive his strong, familiar hug. His arms and hands have healed. He burned them throwing water onto the fire, trying to save the house that he’d lived in for more than ninety years. I had imagined a black scar in the landscape to mark its loss, but instead there is just this house. He calls it the little house, as if there is a need to distinguish it from the other, as if the other is still here.
We leave my Uncle Joe at the house to walk the hill with my father, and my father talks about his great-grandparents, the Brennans, of the house they built further up the hill, and the other, the house of my memory, built later for their daughter’s family. From the hill I take pictures of the farm—the sheds and tractor, the barn, all unchanged, the garden, much smaller now and closer to the house.
In the afternoons of my childhood summer visits, Uncle Joe would walk me down the hill to the mailbox. The mailman raised a little flag on the box when he’d left a letter, addressed simply to “Joseph McEneany, New Albany PA.” I wrote Uncle Joe later, from home, just to hold that image of him releasing the flag, opening the box to a crisp white envelope marked with two simple and true lines in my own practiced printing.
As we walked back up from the mailbox one day, Uncle Joe stopped to survey the rocky ground.
“I sometimes find arrowheads out here,” he said.
It was a new word for me, arrowhead, and he described stones worn into smooth arrows for hunting and protection by the people who’d lived on this land long before. I followed him into the house then and he reached back on a shelf in the kitchen, drew out his collection of four or five found stones, and showed each of them to me, pressing their smoothness into my palm. I imagined them bound to sticks chosen for their weight and swiftness. I remember that I felt a grave longing to keep one of those arrowheads, to carry away with me its slight weight, its endurance through time, but I studied them and then handed them back, one by one.
Back in the new kitchen now, Uncle Joe instructs me to pick a zucchini from the garden, a big one, then he follows me out there to tease me about choosing the right one. His laugh is a familiar comfort. At home I have a picture, taken about twenty years before this visit. I’m running alongside my Uncle Joe, away from the camera. He doesn’t yet carry a cane but his walk is stooped. He carries a metal bucket, filled, I remember, with potatoes we have dug from the garden. I’d knelt beside him in the dirt, rooting for the things he’d planted there beneath the surface.
We slice the zucchini into slender green wheels and grill it in butter and salt on the stove. And Uncle Joe talks. His jokes and stories are familiar, reminiscent of other visits. But I’m most conscious of his missing pipe. He must feel its absence, too, enough that he needs to acknowledge it.
“I don’t smoke my pipe any more. Not after the fire,” he says, and stops there, without talking about the ash from the stove smoldering beside the house, or the sight of the flames swallowing it. He complains only about new doorframes, misaligned. He does not talk about the old house.
This is my last visit to the farm with Uncle Joe, and we both know this, I think, when he asks us all to stay a little longer. We drive him to Lucy’s house and dawdle there, until it is time to take our leave and begin the drive back. Joe fidgets about Lucy’s house, distracted. He does not linger over the final goodbye.
A couple of years after this last visit, I will pull out the photos from this trip to bring to Uncle Joe as he is dying. But on the long drive to the nursing home I will remember suddenly, startlingly, that he has gone mostly blind, so I will have to describe them. And I do this, although he has lost consciousness by the time I arrive.
The photos are crisp, vibrant. I took only one of the little house. With the others, I maneuvered the lens to try and cut it from view, but the house creeps in, corners of it, to disturb the past.
KAREN DEMPSEY lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family. She has written for publications including the New York Times Motherlode, Babble, and Brain, Child. This is her third essay for Full Grown People. Follow her @karenedempsey or read her work at kdempseycreative.com.
Despite regular walks, despite yoga, despite the latest belly support devices for pregnant moms, every step was labored and small. I hadn’t expected this. Since I’d already been pregnant once and had our first daughter, I thought that I knew what to expect with the second. I thought my pregnancy and her infancy would be familiar, wrapped in a bit of the unfamiliar.
How do you write about your second child? To do her justice, to give her due time in the sun? Part of the problem was that I was a lifelong reader and overachiever, finding too much comfort in the preparation, the predictable, the expectable. With our first daughter I had read parenting manuals every week, every month, finding out What to Expect and What to Avoid and What to Expect to Avoid. I tried not to read too far into the “what happens when things REALLY go wrong” chapters of the book. A man who likes to prepare calmly for the worst, my husband Josh did read those chapters. He was terrified most of the time, a fact he took great pains to hide from me and did not confess until years after our daughters were born. I’ve heard that pregnancies after the first one are easier, since the systems have been primed. So in some ways, my second pregnancy really was easier. We didn’t crack a single parenting book.
And then our second daughter Sophie was born.
Not long after she was born, we’d somehow managed to rent and watch Juno. We’d heard Juno was funny, and touching, with a Holden Caulfield female protagonist who called bullshit on anything or anyone phony. Before renting the movie, we might or might not have known that Juno was about an unplanned teenage pregnancy. And I don’t think anyone had told us about the soundtrack’s Wes Anderson-esque use of music as a form of characterization. (The geeky Michael Cera, lacing up his track shoes to “A Well-Respected Man”? Brilliant.) During the movie we waited, as the title character did, for the birth of her child.
Unlike our first daughter Ella, newborn Sophie was colicky, which we did not expect. As in, did-not-expect-the-Spanish-Inquisition unexpected. Her colic meant that for about an hour and a half every day, she would cry. Hard. Car rides, manufactured ocean sounds, soft toys, slow dances, swaddling her like a tightly wrapped burrito—none of it could help her to stop.
Josh and I took turns holding Sophie for these hours, along with any other family members who were able to take her crying in stride. Thankfully we didn’t panic as we would have with our first, or take it personally. With Ella, we were worried about her crying: “Is there something we can do?” and we would find that something. We knew enough from raising Ella that Sophie didn’t really need anything when she cried. We knew enough to run down our unwritten what-does-baby-need? checklist. She wasn’t wet, she wasn’t hungry, she wasn’t tired, she wasn’t scared—she just needed to cry. We did consult the parenting manuals for this situation; one parenting manual told us that colic was a result of babies storing up energy all day and having nowhere else to put it, except in tears.
As experienced parents we were physiologically primed, and our bodies leapt to respond to her cries. It’s said that a common torture device is to play sounds of babies crying to prisoners. I believed it then. If we left Sophie with her grandma for an hour or two and ventured out into the world without her, we would still sway wherever we stood, as if we were rocking her. Our heads practically snapped over at the sound of another baby crying in a restaurant. During colic all we could do was hold her, and sing to her, and dance with her, and hope that eventually she’d tire herself out and fall asleep.
I made up a mix of very, very slow dance songs that I could listen to and sing to Sophie while she was crying. The soundtrack helped me more than it helped her. In those colicky newborn days, I found that whatever helped the parent would translate in some way into help for the baby. (A note to future parents: Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” did not seem to ease the situation.) Colic, or what we started to call Sophie’s “sad time of day” lasted for three and a half months, every afternoon. With colic, our parenting response wasn’t about panic; it was about a bittersweet fatigue, a terrible and wondrous surrender.
The resulting exhaustion may be why Juno’s “Sea of Love” hit me so hard.
Before watching the movie I had heard “Sea of Love” by The Honeydrippers, with its lovingly schmaltzy strings, Robert Plant’s most lounge-singer voice, and a backup chorus. The Honeydrippers version is a love song, dedicated to a romantic love interest. In fact, Josh had put it on a mix tape for me, in the years when we still made mix tapes and wrote letters to each other.
Do you remember when we met?
That’s the day I knew you were my pet
I want to tell you how much I love you
I listened to those tapes over and over again, as if they were letters meant for me, as I suppose they were. So I knew “Sea of Love” very well; it made me smile every time. It’s a song with barely one verse and one chorus. It’s a song about the tiny magic of a first meeting, and how that might become the vast promise of a future. In the song the speaker actually never does tell the listener “how much” the love is; it’s all about the invitation and the promise.
In the movie, after Juno gives birth to her child, the baby’s adoptive mother meets her child while Cat Power sings “Sea of Love” over a sparse ukelele. It’s a series of cinematic moments that now strike me as a perfect metaphor for the bittersweet nature of mothering: the simultaneous joy of meeting life coupled with the raw ache of letting it go. We hear a few chords played on the ukelele, soft as baby blankets, and then she sings the chorus:
Come with me, my love
To the sea, the sea of love
I want to tell you how much I love you
Do you remember when we met?
That’s the day I knew you were my pet
I want to tell you how much I love you
I hate to cry, but I cried when I heard “Sea of Love” just then: I was holding my sleeping baby daughter against my chest. The energy had nowhere to go, except in tears. And to this day, I still crave the warmth I felt right then; to this day, thanks to the colic, Sophie still needs and asks for cuddling.
That’s how I found out that a romantic love song could be a motherlove song. Music writers might say that’s what a good cover does: it takes the familiar and makes it new enough to be interesting. This version of “Sea of Love” now belongs to my second daughter, just her: the magic of “when we met,” the infinite promise of love’s telling, the renewed knowledge of mothering as something as vast, as complex, and as deeply textured as the layers of the sea itself. It is the familiar wrapped in the beautifully unfamiliar; it is the love for my second child.
TAMIKO NIMURA is a freelance writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared in Edible Seattle, Discover Nikkei, Seattle Star, Avidly, Remedy Quarterly, and New California Writing 2012. She is working on a book, a novel, and other essays. For more of her writing, see her blog, Kikugirl (http://www.kikugirl.net).