My twentieth high school reunion was held at a restaurant right across the street from my former school in Budapest. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to be there so badly. I didn’t love high school—who does?—but what’s worse is that I barely remember it. I have no memories of, well, of anything really from that time, except for one boy I had a huge crush on for four years.
But this story is not about that.
I was repeating the tale of what I’ve been up to for the past twenty years for about the fifth time that evening—this time to a former teacher—when he asked me, “So, did you just decide one day to move to America?” At first I wasn’t sure why the question shocked me. But then I realized that it was because it assumed that there was a decision involved, a moment in time when I said “no” to staying in Hungary and “yes” to becoming an American.
But really there wasn’t. My trip to America wasn’t driven by war or famine, by financial difficulties, or political unrest. I didn’t have to come to America. And I certainly didn’t have to stay.
I was eighteen when I came here and, looking back, it’s hard to imagine how I had the courage to do this. Actually, it’s hard to imagine how my mother had the courage to let me go. She worked at the American Embassy in Budapest and when the question of college came up in my junior year of high school her colleagues encouraged me to apply to American schools. I am sure my parents thought about and discussed the pros and cons of sending me off to another continent. I am sure. But I don’t remember my own thought process, my actual decision about going ahead with the plan. And even if there was a decision, I certainly never considered the possibility that it would have an impact on my life twenty years later. You just don’t think of that when you are eighteen.
Mountains of paperwork, a full scholarship, and a trans-Atlantic flight later, my mom and I were driving through the woods of Pennsylvania to the school where I would spend the next four years. We spent the night in my new dorm room drinking iced tea from the vending machine and arranging furniture. My mom left me there the next day and after she drove off, I went to the bookstore to buy thumbtacks for my new posters.
My one-year scholarship turned into four years. Graduation turned into a job. My job led me to my husband and marriage. Pennsylvania turned into Maine and Connecticut. Jobs, a child, friends, a life.
And now, twenty years later, in that half-lit restaurant in Budapest, I realized that I have become an immigrant. I don’t even like to call myself an immigrant. That word to me somehow means desperation, flight, the life of a fugitive. I became an immigrant just by living my life, doing whatever comes next.
When we arrived in Budapest just a few days before the reunion, there was nobody there to greet us at the airport. My parents moved to the U.S. a few years ago, and so they weren’t there to pick us up or drive us around during our visit. With no close friends or relatives, we were left with a grumpy taxi driver who gave us curious glances hearing me speak Hungarian to my son and English to my husband. We were tourists.
If you didn’t know me, you would never guess that I am not an American. I don’t have an accent. I write and dream in English. The pull I feel to my homeland is invisible to everyone else. It’s a faint tugging feeling in my chest, something empty and burning. I go through life, day by day, even feel happy most of the time. It’s only when I am quiet that I get that uneasy vibe, that feeling that something is not quite right. Something is out of place.
Whatever. Move on.
There is a life to live, things to do. No time to wallow.
I assume all immigrants feel this no matter why they are away from home.
The cruel thing about all of this is that going “back home” does not make you feel better. Suddenly you are a stranger not in one place—your new, chosen land—but two places.
The first thing I did after booking our plane tickets to Budapest was to buy a map of the city. It’s stupid really, because I know—or used to know—the city and its streets by heart. As a teenager I went everywhere by myself—on trains and trolleys and buses.
But suddenly I felt unsure about whether I would find my way from the hotel to the metro station, to the store, to my old high school, to a friend’s house. It was all unfamiliar territory and, like a tourist, I stood on street corners with this little crumpled map in my hands, drawing lines with my fingers from street to street.
Of course, it all came back after a day or two but with a sense of strangeness at every corner: I tried to pay with a bill that’s been tucked in my wallet from our last trip, only to find out that it’s been out of circulation for over a year. Bus stops have moved. Shops closed. Neighborhoods fell and rose. Buildings crumbled. There were new parks and fountains, coffee shops, hip bars.
People have moved on. It was hard to find things to talk about with my former classmates and not just because so much time has passed. I couldn’t really imagine what their lives were like and I assume they felt the same. There were the inevitable questions about America: “So, does everyone really own a gun?” And there were the personal ones about how much money I make or what kind of car I drive—both very American pursuits to the outside world, I assume.
And despite all of that—the feeling of being a stranger in your homeland, the loss of friends—there is a comfort to being “at home.” Old reflexes return, memories surface, the empty, burning feeling of homesickness is suddenly gone when I am on the streets of Budapest. I have no reason to feel at home, yet I do. And more than just feel at home—it all feels right. Settled. Comfortable.
My late grandmother’s apartment in Budapest had a long, narrow hallway leading from the front door to the living room. One the left side of the hallway was the kitchen, a wall with a mirror and coat hangers, and a smaller hallway leading to the bathroom. On the right side of the hallway were three floor-to-ceiling cabinets.
It was a tradition during my childhood that my parents and my grandma would harvest the fruit growing in the garden of our summer cabin, haul it in big wooden crates to our apartment in Budapest, and make jam. For a few days each summer, our small kitchen would smell of apricots or plums or peaches—whatever was in season. Jars boiled in huge pots on the stove, and the floor was sticky with the juice dripping from our fingers as we peeled, sliced, smushed.
Once sealed in jars, most of the jam would make its way to my grandma’s apartment and to her pantry cabinets for storage. She would bring a jar or two with her every week when she came to visit, or she’d use the jam for baking.
When she died last year, her cabinet was still full of jars—carefully labeled with a mysterious system of letters and numbers. For example “08P” might mean plum jam cooked in 2008. On some jars, the writing faded and only after carefully removing the tight lid would we be able to tell what the jar held—the color of its contents darker with age, but the scent of the fruit still potent and unmistakable. Ah, apricots! Is this cherries, maybe? Let’s taste it.
On a recent weekend we were sitting around the breakfast table with my parents, my brother, and my son. This particular breakfast table happened to be in Maine, a world and lifetime away from the summers of jarring jam in Budapest. But there they were: two jars of jam that my parents brought with them when they cleaned out my grandma’s apartment. One jar of apricot and a jar of cherry and sour cherry mixture.
My son preferred the sugary, sickeningly sweet grocery store jam. But the rest of us used long spoons to carefully spread grandma’s jam on buttered toast and savored every bite.
I couldn’t help but think back to the person I was at eighteen—to the people we all were twenty years ago. When my grandma tightened the lid on these particular jars just a few years ago, she already knew that her son and grandchildren would be eating it somewhere far away.
But I didn’t know how much it would taste like home.
I think that when people say that America is a melting pot, they don’t actually mean it. It’s not a huge vat of gooeyness that’s all blended together, uniform, smooth. It’s more like a tossed salad—chunks and bits and pieces of this and that thrown in. It’s easy to fit in—it’s just as easy to stand out. I think that most of us immigrants alternate between those two options—embracing what makes us different, but just as happily disappearing into the crowd.
I have to admit that there is some comfort in the limbo I feel when I am trying to decide where I belong. I can be a bit exotic, a bit different, slightly off-kilter and blame it on my Hungarian-ness. I wonder if this is what I have become, if this is my “thing” now: being different, being from nowhere and everywhere, being two people in one body. Should I let it define me?
But maybe that is the lovely thing about America: no definitions needed. I can be defined by my memory of cobblestoned streets, jars of jam, first kisses along the banks of the Danube. I can also be defined by the life I built here out of nothing really, just the two suitcases I brought with me twenty years ago.
I had hoped that as the anniversary date of my arrival in the U.S. gets closer this summer I would feel more settled with my American-ness and less conflicted about the eighteen-year-old me making this huge decision without realizing what she was doing. But maybe it’s time to embrace all of it—the homesickness, the uncertainty, the double life.
Maybe it’s time to plant some trees and start making my own jam.
ZSOFI MCMULLIN lives in Connecticut with her husband and son and blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
Since my father died, my mother has tried to stay busy by selling antiques and collectibles. She fills up her time and clutters her house with dressers, armoires, vintage hats, children’s toys, and books: leather bound first editions, dusty Zane Gray westerns, school primers, old children’s books with full-color plates. All her purchases, full with their history of use, offer my mother hours of escape from a life steeped in the absence of my father.
When I visit my mother, the only meal we eat at home is cereal. A box from the pantry and milk from the refrigerator don’t interfere with the stacks of Depression glass, lead crystal, bone china, sterling flatware, and collectible spoons she has piled in the kitchen to clean and sell. Ultimately, we find ourselves in restaurants for a large chunk of my trip. After carefully considering specific words, as well as the tone of voice I should use, I muster up the courage to ask about her collecting. She doesn’t look up from her enchiladas, takes a swig of ice tea, and shrugs her shoulders.
“Well … it keeps me out of pool halls,” she snaps.
“No, really, Mom.”
“I don’t know. I like it and it keeps me busy,” she says, punctuating the inevitability of her pastime, as if she had no choice in the matter.
I can’t think of what to say next. I envision her old and frail, in a house so filled with things that to walk through it requires navigating through a maze, a system of paths through unknown territory. My intrepid mother won’t seem inconvenienced by the slow switchback trails between the bathroom and the kitchen—she just bushwhacks through the endless underbrush—stacks of books, boxes of costume jewelry, daguerreotypes, stereoscope cards, enamel kitchenware—and reveals the treasure beneath. “Look,” she says. “Look at this Depression-glass cake stand. What a score.” The extensive collection of objects with a past and a possibly profitable future now waits out the present in her midst.
“Are you done?” she says, jarring me back to my unfinished dinner. “I’m gonna go pay the bill. It’s almost time for Antiques Roadshow.”
Each time I go, the initial entry into my mother’s house is pleasant. It still smells like home, even though she doesn’t cook anymore. After I settle in, look through the pantry to see if there is anything worth eating, situate my things by the stairs in the hallway, I check out the newest magazines in her stacks, piles of SouthernLiving, CountryLiving, House&Garden, and Antiques and Collectibles. Then, the reality of my surroundings sinks in.
The piles are neat and orderly, but they cover almost all the kitchen counter space. There is enough room for the coffee maker, and we could easily pull the toaster out, if the desire for toast arises. The kitchen table is clear and clean; its glass top reflects carefully placed items on the display shelves above the windows. Vintage biscuit tins, teapots, and assorted ceramic curios tier the room. Grotesque pioneer faces on porcelain mugs look down with a cold, fixed gaze. I turn away from the stern faces, and notice the pocket door to the dining room is closed. I glide over, quietly slide back the door, and see jumbles of overloaded boxes, filled to the brim and beyond, overflowing with so many goods that not a single sliver of tabletop or floor space is visible. The hallway and sitting room suffer from the same condition. The TV room seems relatively clear; my mother can easily get to the couch and television. I circle back to the kitchen, past the wet bar, and my eyes become filled, cluttered with her accumulations, like the rest of the downstairs.
My head spins. This is what she does. She buys things, spruces them up, and resells them at a profit. This is her reason to wake up in the morning. But I can’t stop thinking how all her purchases will be my responsibility to dispose of after she is gone.
I lug my bags to the room at the top of the stairs, my brother’s former room. I glance around and realize I could be in an entirely different house than the one I left downstairs. The upstairs is clean, spare, and light. When my brother and I left home, my mother commandeered our rooms; his became the guest room, mine became her office. I place my things in the bathroom and drift into her bedroom. The walls are now a soft blue. Instead of my father’s desk, there is a white couch, and blue and white china plates hang on the wall in a geometric pattern. Antique, twin, brass beds occupy the place where the king-size bed used to be.
I remember when she started to change the room; it was several years after my father’s death. I was helping her put clothes away in the closet and she still had my father’s bathrobe hanging on what used to be his side. She became quiet, lowered her face against it, and sobbed, “It doesn’t even smell like him anymore.” Days later, she had fans of paint chips and new fabric to upholster a Victorian couch crammed into the garage. Now this room is hers, but it looks unused, sterile, especially in relation to the downstairs, the part of the house in which she really lives.
I venture downstairs and get comfortable on a couch, my mother already cozy on hers with a quilt and a pillow, ready for Antiques Roadshow to begin. Mom doesn’t just watch the show—she participates in the dialogue, interjects comments about the scarcity of a book, or informs the woman that her vase is, unfortunately, not a Tiffany. An expert asks a young computer executive about the piece of furniture he brought for appraisal. Mom chimes in. “That new-money idiot stripped the original finish from that Queen Anne highboy—bet that took about seventy-five thousand off the price.” The appraiser estimated removing the finish reduced the value by ninety thousand dollars.
Yet my mother is not solely interested in the monetary value. She reveres the heirlooms: the handmade rug with family names stitched around the border, the letters from a soldier to his family at home, the solitary item that a young woman retrieves from her grandparent’s estate. She beams when people relate the stories of who owned the item, and how it is important to them because it was important to their family. One woman, about sixty or so, brought a needlework mural that she thought was peculiar. The appraisers proclaim it the finest specimen of American decorative arts they have ever seen. My mother becomes speechless. The woman learns, via the strange embroidered cloth with a village scene of thatched cottages, hay wagons, and children, that her great-grandmother emigrated from England and had faithfully reproduced her former village onto a hanging that would be placed over a mantle. The woman sheds tears of joy, and my mother grows misty-eyed.
I’d like to think that this is the part where I tell her that everything will be okay, that in time she won’t turn around thinking my father called her name from another room, that she won’t absent-mindedly wait for him to pull his Mercury into the driveway. That in time she won’t dread the words Just one tonight? when she musters the will to get dressed, leave the house, and go out for dinner. Although it is hard for me to accept the sudden loss of my father, I have a husband and daughter at home. I worry about my mother alone in this house full of memories, wandering through rooms dense with echoes of family life.
But I don’t tell her it will be okay. I just sit here, next to her. Somehow, in our numb silence, I know she understands.
When my mom dies, I know it will take months just to get everything unpacked, spread over what little available space is left, and what will I do with it all? What’s important to me? I imagine myself emptying a dresser. I pull out a drawer just a bit too far. It falls to the ground and I spy an envelope taped underneath. I open it and see a sepia-toned photograph of my grandfather stashed next to a tiny key. I now know I will have to open every drawer, every wooden cigar box, every container, or I will inadvertently toss out something hidden away for safekeeping. I will have to search through jacket pockets, desk drawers, and shoeboxes, inside vases, books, and kitchen cabinets. I will have to organize items into piles. Piles to keep: family photographs, my father’s watch, my mother’s ring, a few letters, important papers. Piles to donate: towels, bedding, blankets, clothing. Everything else would fall into piles to sell: a multitude of books, furniture I have always loathed (the pair of round faux-Colonial end tables, the tufted brown leather sofa, embroidered footstools) and the hoards of items I neither care about, nor have room for in my own home.
I could look in the phone book under Estates, call people who specialize in selling the entire contents of households, but I stop short of letting absolute strangers peer into my mother’s solitary life, inviting in larger groups of strangers to speculate whether or not she was totally crazy or just mildly eccentric. I could call other antique dealers to come and buy her treasures, but I would constantly hear my mom’s voice chiding me that everything was worth much more and I’m being duped. The alternate scenario—me dealing with the house item by item—scares me so much that I shiver. Maybe I’ll just torch it all.
But I’m lucky—my mother’s still here. Since my father died just one year after his retirement, my mother had to quickly figure out a life on her own, difficult in a society that dismisses women and the elderly. So I tell her how proud I am—of her resilience, her stubbornness, and for proving that you are never too old to start again. She’s important to me. Not her house, or her things, no matter how many memories they may hold. I tell her, but even if I were silent, she would understand. She always does.
LEE GULYAS lives in Bellingham, Washington, and teaches at Western Washington University. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals as Prime Number, Event, Barn Owl Review, and The Common.
My daughter Shannie is singing an old song. It goes:
Meet me in the middle of the day. Let me hear you say everything’s okay. Bring me southern kisses from your room.
She’s eight, though, and she has a lousy ear for pitch, so it’s all off-key, sliding around the melody like a kid in socks on a hardwood floor. Which she is also doing literally.
Meet me in the middle of the night. Let me hear you say everything’s all right. Let me smell the moon in your perfume.
The song is called “Romeo’s Tune,” by a guy named Steve Forbert, and it was a hit in 1980. It made it to #11 on the charts. Shannie likes it. Maybe because she’s a precocious Shakespeare fanatic, and Romeo and Juliet is her second favorite Shakespeare play, or maybe because it’s a pretty good song.
I remember when I first really became aware of this song. It was the summer after my first year in college, and my friend Phil and I were trying to score some weed. So we decided to drive two hours from DC all the way down to Charlottesville to visit my cousin Missy. Missy was a few years older than me, twenty-two or so, and she was one of my favorite cousins. She was very pretty and sweet, a kind of fun-loving hippy chick with a boyfriend who played guitar for a popular Grateful Deadish jam band, and I was pretty sure she would know where we could get some marijuana. So we went to visit Missy, and sure enough she did have a little sack of weed, which, because she was such a sweetheart, she just gave to us. But before we left, she said, “You should listen to this tape.” And she pulled out this cassette tape and put it in a boombox, and we all smoked a bowl and started listening.
This tape was a work of art. The little paper insert to the plastic case had been made by hand, a collage of old comic strips and wrapping paper, with a title drawn across the spine spelling out VARIOUS MUSICKS. The K was pretentious, or ironic, or both. It had a song list typed by an old ink-blotchy typewriter and pasted in place, and it was filled with deep cuts from Blondie and Neil Young and NRBQ and The Stranglers and “Romeo’s Tune” by Steve Forbert. I asked Missy who had made it, and she said, with a hint of embarrassment, the name of a boy. I can’t remember the name. His name meant nothing to me. But we kept listening. “Do you like it?” said Missy. “You should take it.” And I did.
I listened to VARIOUS MUSICKS with a K for years, riding in my car, or in the background on a sunny afternoon. One of the things I loved about that tape was that its creator was so clearly smitten with my cousin Missy. The whole thing was filled with longing and hope and despair. Which I understood completely. Missy was lovely. She must have had guys falling in love with her all the time. And I knew how that felt to fall in love—not with my cousin—but with girls like that, and so I couldn’t even remember this guy’s name, but I felt a kinship with him when he tried to speak to her through Steve Forbert’s “Romeo’s Tune. It was the perfect song for a mixtape. Meet me in the middle of the day.Let me hear you say everything’s okay.
I felt a little sad for him that his mix tape to Missy had missed its mark. That it had fallen into hands of some random younger boy cousin.
Oh, Gods and years will rise and fall, And there’s always something more. Lost in talk, I waste my time, And it’s all been said before, While further down behind the masquerade The tears are there. I don’t ask for all that much. I just want someone to care.
Well, I was someone—not the right someone—but I did care. It was the least I could do, to appreciate how he felt, and I did, often, for many years, until the invention of the CD. All the mixtapes I made myself over the years were a little inspired by his.
Years later, I was standing in line at the grocery store, and my eyes were drawn to this woman waiting in the next line over. I didn’t recognize her, and yet somehow I did. It was the strangest feeling. I was sure that I’d never seen her before, and yet I felt I’d known her all my life. I couldn’t keep myself from sneaking glances. I never believed in anything so silly as love at first sight, but there was something happening here that refused to be explained. It wasn’t that she was extraordinarily Helen of Troy beautiful or anything. I just had this feeling, like we’d known each other long ago in a dream that I could almost remember, and all I wanted to do in that moment was to meet her and make sense of this. Which was awkward. Not least of which because I was married. Maybe not blissfully married, but still. What the hell was wrong with me?
And then—BAM—suddenly I understood. I knew who she was. She was the older sister of my best friend in high school. I hadn’t seen her over a decade, long enough for me to enter some eerie, liminal state between remembrance and forgetting. It felt a lot like being in love. I don’t know, maybe those two states occupy the same region of the brain or something. But stranger still, and kind of sad and lucky given that she and I were both all grown up and married, was that as soon as I knew who she was, the sensation of being in love went away, and she went back to being a girl I once knew grown into a woman. It was like losing your footing and catching yourself, a second of being airborne and weightless and in peril, except that the peril is delicious in a way that didn’t even know you missed, and when you are safe again in the gravity of your life, you go on missing it for a bit as you carry your bags to the car.
It wasn’t as though I’d even had a crush on her in high school. I liked her well enough, but I liked all girls back then. And she was three years older than my friend and I. We were pimply little frogs, and she was a benevolent, big sister, soon off to college. I had only a handful of memories of her. One of them was that that summer we’d been at my friend’s house, and I had been playing VARIOUS MUSICKS, and she popped her head in to say hello, and she’d heard “Romeo’s Tune,” and she said, “Oh, I love this song. I always liked that line about how they fade like magazines.”
I hadn’t really noticed that line yet. And after she said that, I always noticed it. And ever since I’ve always loved that line as well.
I met Steve Forbert. My band opened for him one night at the Gravity Lounge. All these years later, he was still touring, driving himself from town to town, playing tiny rooms, rooms so small that a band as obscure as mine could share the bill with him. I was kind of excited to meet him, though what could I have to say to him except that I’d always loved his song “Romeo’s Tune.”
And it occurred to me that this was probably something he’d heard so often that he must be sick of it. I would be. Think of it. He had one hit song in 1980. It made it to #11. And that was the highwater mark of his fame and fortune. I couldn’t name another song that he’s recorded in the next thirty years, and I was willing to bet that few people could, and so everyone who remembered this song would have to mention it, and he would have to graciously acknowledge their admiration for this one song, this one sentiment that he’d felt once back when he was young and pretty and ambitious.
I wrestled with this as I waited to meet him. But he never showed up for our set, and then he breezed in fast to play his own. And he was good, though not amazing, and at the end of the night he dutifully played “Romeo’s Tune,” and then the show was over and he was packing up to leave. I bought his Best Of CD, put the cash in his hand myself, because it had the one song I knew on it. I invited him to have a beer with us, and he said no thanks, and we wished him well, and he hurried for the door. Maybe I felt a little snubbed. The club owner told me later that he had hours left to travel for another gig in another state.
It’s king and queen and we must go down Behind the chandelier, Where I won’t have to speak my mind, And you won’t have to hear Shreds of news and afterthoughts And complicated scenes. We’ll weather down behind the light And fade like magazines.
Nowadays when people want to make mixtapes, they do it on iTunes. It’s not the meticulous labor of love that it once was, cuing up the vinyl and the tape, and punching fat, clunky buttons with twitch-fingered timing, and lettering the cases in ink until your hand cramps. Now it’s kind of easy. You drag and drop songs into a list, and you can reorder them on a whim, or if you change your mind and decide that song reveals too much or too little of what you feel, you can just delete it, and the hole fills in as if it were never there.
One day I was looking at the playlists in iTunes on our family computer, and I saw a list that I didn’t recognize, and I opened it. I could tell by reading the titles that it was mixtape. A mixtape in love. Yes, “Romeo’s Tune” was on there. Ripped from the CD that I bought from Steve Forbert the night I met him. It’s the perfect song for a mixtape. Even the mixtape that my wife was making for her lover.
Meet me in the middle of the day. Let me hear you say everything’s okay. Come on out beneath the shining sun. Meet me in the middle of the night. Let me hear you say everything’s all right. Sneak on out beneath the stars and run.
This was not the moment that I knew, or anything so dramatic as all that. I knew already. This was just one extra little punch in the gut. Everything is not okay. Everything is not all right.
Since she moved out, there are some nights that the kids and I need cheering up, so we do something that we never used to do when we were all together. We have a little dance party in the living room. I put on the music on the family computer. I make a little mix for them. I don’t know if it’s a kind of masochism that made me put “Romeo’s Tune” in that mix. Maybe it’s that I wanted to take it back. I was not ready to let her take that song away from me and give it to a stranger. I don’t want to wait for the pain to fade like a magazine. I want to take seeing that song in that context and tape over that experience by hearing again and again and again in a new context. So I put it in the mix for me and my kids to dance to. And now my daughter loves the song, and she dances around the living room like a hippy chick, singing “Romeo’s Tune,” all out of tune, sliding, and holding on.
BROWNING PORTER has been in two musicals, both times in the chorus, first as a singing pirate, and then as a singing Nazi. He started smoking cigarettes when he was a singing Nazi. It took him twenty years to quit.
New snow on top of the old makes the yard look curvaceous, bundled-up, like a new layer of insulation batting has been laid over the bones of old architecture. In the air, glitter, flakes blowing off rooftops, snow chipping and rising off its own surface. The yard, up close, is a sheet of crystalline alphabets, a cold, alien Braille—a version that disappears if you touch it.
Sometimes, when the sun shines on freshly fallen snow, it’s hard to look outside; I find it painful to keep my eyes open. I have to squint or use my hand to shield my eyes or, more wisely, put on sunglasses. In the morning, when I check the window fresh from sleep, my glasses aren’t handy, and so I look out and see a snow-globe scene, a world of swirling, sparkling snow, sun glaring off all surfaces with an intensity that makes me turn away. Snow blindness—photokeratitis—is caused by the eyes’ exposure to ultraviolet rays reflecting off snow or ice. I’m in no danger unless I wander wide-eyed outdoors for hours without sunglasses, but I learn through a little research that if you’re ever lost in the winter wild without sunglasses, you can fashion a functional set of eyewear by cutting narrow holes in a bandana. Inuits used caribou antlers, creating goggles by carving slits in the antler and securing them to the head with sinew.
Today I’m hunkered down indoors, in need only of reading glasses, puttering around my study looking for something to occupy my thoughts or my hands or my time. While half-heartedly dusting some bookshelves, I come across a treasured gift from my grandmother, a small, leather-bound book labeled DIARY 1947. I don’t remember how it came to be mine, but I think my grandmother gave it to my mother, and when my grandmother died, my mother passed it on to me.
If my facts about my grandmother are accurate—and there are plenty of reasons to believe they may not be, including family lore about her birth certificate being altered by a priest, presumably so she could get a job at an early age—she was born in 1910, which means she was thirty-seven when she wrote in the journal. She was widowed at thirty-four, and when I first saw this book, I had hopes that I’d glean some insight into what her life had been like, how she’d coped with the sudden loss of a beloved husband, how she’d raised three children on her own. Instead, I found listings of celebrities my grandmother saw on her frequent trips to New York City from her home in New Jersey.
As I flip through the diary’s pages, I realize I’ve already made a factual error. The book didn’t belong to my grandmother, at least originally. My mother bought it for herself as a teenager. She made a few entries—very few—but one clearly says “I bought this diary today.” On March 3, 1947—a Monday—my mother went with her friend Marie and purchased a book that she intended, I surmise, to regularly write in. There are exactly five entries made by my mother. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, were made by my grandmother. I don’t know if they agreed to share the book, or if my mother lost interest and my grandmother decided to put the diary to use. My mother’s concise notations are here, in their entirety, complete with her idiosyncratic errors:
Today after school I went on the ave. With my girlfriend “Marie.” I bought this Diary Today.
I went to my aunt’s New Year’s party. Went to bed 4: o’clock. Sleep there all night.
Today I went to New York and I saw Jimmy Stewart who was guest star on the broadcast “It Pays to Be Ignorant.”
Went to girl scouts. Met a new girl named Pat.
From these notes, all made, presumably, when my mother was about thirteen or fourteen years old, I learn she had a few noteworthy female friends. She was a Girl Scout. She was not accustomed to staying up late. She once attended a radio show featuring Jimmy Stewart. What I can’t discern is any evidence that she missed her father, that her mother or she struggled at all with his absence, that she had two younger brothers, that she ever attended school, that she liked boys, that she lived in Jersey City. There is no mention of emotion, of ambition, not even a reference to the weather. Her most common verb is “went.” She went places.
(My favorite photograph of my mother is in black and white. She’s just a girl, maybe ten years old, and she’s somberly staring out a train window, on her way to the city. She’s wearing a white dress and white anklets, and has an adorable haircut. It looks like she has a pencil case on her lap, and she appears to be deep in thought. The picture fascinates me, feels historical, weighty, relevant, like if I study it long enough I might see myself as a flickering idea in the back of my mother’s mind.)
My grandmother’s entries are numerous and her handwriting flamboyant. While my mother’s cursive style is tight and her words huddle together, my grandmother’s script has a lot of air in it, lots of curves. She pays no attention to the lines on the page and often slants her entries as though the words are climbing steeply uphill. Representative entries from my grandmother:
I went to H.R.C. to Christen my Nephew Victor. I stood up for him. We had a Delicious dinner and at night we had a party for family. Had a swell time.
Went to New York with Dorothy. Went to see Ingrid Bergman. Manager let us in. Saw Last Act of Play Joan of Lorraine. Swell.
Saw Lucille Ball. She is one swell person.
Went to New York. Saw Quick as a Flash. Saw the Shadow (great) then went to Kate Smith Show. She sang all Irish Songs. She certainly is swell.
Dot had a party. 7 girls came. Had a swell time. Made some mony. Got some nice gifts.
A few notes:
I’m not positive as to what H.R.C. stands for, but I think it’s probably Holy Rosary Church, which claims to be the “oldest Italian Roman Catholic church in New Jersey” and was just a few blocks from where my grandmother and her children lived.
Dorothy (Dot) is my mother.
During the thirty years I knew my grandmother, I never heard her use the word “swell.”
Lest one think my grandmother found everything swell, I should point out that interspersed among the more positive entries—which are the bulk of her notations—are what she calls her “crumb lists.” These are stars who did not stop and say hello, sign autographs, or even wave to their fans.
There’s no entry on my birthday. How could there be? I wouldn’t be born for twelve more years. Still, the blank page feels disturbing.
There is no entry on May 8th, which would eventually be the date on which my grandmother died—forty-three years in the future. That, conversely, seems fitting.
At the end of the book is a page for addresses. There are seven entries: women named Marie, Catherine, Theresa, Betty Anne, Dolores, Rita, and Mrs. Prichard. There are no addresses for men.
My grandmother wrote with a fountain pen. Several fountain pens, actually, with inks in various shades of blue or black. Just a few entries are in pencil, with inked notations adjacent to them, like this:
Mary Martin (in pencil) swell person (in ink)
Both my mother and grandmother seem to have abandoned the diary after October 9th. On that day, in 1947, they attended the premier of the play High Button Shoes, where they saw in attendance Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Danny Kaye, and Doris Day, among others. My grandmother’s assessment of the show: Very Good. I’m not sure if very good is better than swell.
(My favorite photograph of my grandmother appears to have been taken in a studio. She is wearing a white dress with dark stripes on the sleeves. It is fitted and stylish, and my grandmother—whom I knew as a short, plump, elderly woman—is slender and stunning. Around her neck are pearls and she’s wearing a trendy hat and white gloves, clutching a small purse. Her hair appears to have been done professionally. It is, in other words, a glamorous shot, dramatically different than the Polaroids and faded photographs that show her sitting in a lawn chair wearing white Keds or clustered with one or another of her sisters or grandchildren. Although she is smiling in every photograph I have and, in fact, was often laughing and was, in fact again, considered the life of any party, I can’t help but see her, in these photographs and in my memories, as lonely. Perhaps it is because she spoke, aloud, to her deceased husband every night in bed. Perhaps it is because she lived considerably longer without him than with him. Or perhaps photographs are mirrors, and I see some fundamental loneliness in her that is simply my own default nature.)
Before I learned to write, I’d implore my mother to read my scribbles and tell me what they meant. I’d take a pencil or crayon and scrawl something that resembled, I thought, actual handwriting. “What does it say?” I’d ask, holding my work up to her. My mother would make up a story, tell me what I’d written, and I’d listen, rapt, impressed with my own startling creativity.
I didn’t stop there, however. I tried to read meaning into everything. During breakfast I’d take a few bites out of a slice of toast and hold it up to my mother as though the bread were a sheet of paper. “What does it say?” I’d ask.
“It says ‘I am a hungry tiger,’” my mother would respond, absent-mindedly.
Looking up at the clouds, I’d ask what they said, and she’d read me the clouds’ message. If I had scratches on my leg, I’d ask her what letters the scratches made. When my father told me stories at bedtime—stories that often featured me as the protagonist—I didn’t understand that he had made them up; I didn’t know yet what it meant to imagine. When a little girl named Donna was able to ride a flying horse in those stories, I thought it was magic not only that a horse could fly, but that in some parallel world there existed a girl with my exact name, my exact age, with a family just like mine, with long hair like mine. I wasn’t sure how my father knew about her, but I didn’t doubt the veracity of that knowledge.
I still try to unearth meaning wherever I look. Whether it is a snow-covered field, or a book written in by a woman gone for two decades, or whether it is the body of a lover that I am studying with my fingertips, I am attempting to read a text. That’s a common tendency—as is trying to find meaning in erasures, blank spots, in what isn’t said or written.
I have an envelope of “skeleton leaves,” which are made by soaking actual leaves—in this case, those of a rubber tree—in bleached water for a few weeks. After that lengthy bath, someone hand-rubs the green off the leaves. This is a delicate process, as the leaves’ veins can easily tear. I don’t know who discovered this process, or exactly why anyone does it, although it appears to be a kind of art. But a friend gave me the packet, imported from Thailand, and I love the gift. I study the skeletons with my eyes, with my fingertips, under which they feel like rough paper. Human fingers are hypersensitive; scientists believe we can detect a bump 1/25,000 of an inch high. I’m doubtful about my own sensitivity, but I can feel a leaf’s midrib and its veins, and the entire remnant is surprisingly sturdy. I could tear it, but I’d have to make an effort. Inflicting damage would be intentional rather than accidental, knowledge that allows me to study the skeletons without worry.
I have no memories of my grandmother in winter, I have no memory of her in New York City, I have no memory of her beyond being mine—my grandmother. When I picture her, the sun is always shining, she is always tan and freckled and sleeveless, her shoulders smell of Noxzema, she is laughing. I hang on to this diary the way one covets any treasure, storing it away for safekeeping, taking it out every so often, blowing dust off its leather cover. Sometimes I use the book as a kind of talisman or oracle, deciding that whatever page I open to will mean something, give me some kind of important message to live by.
Today when I open the book to look for a message, both pages are blank. But I can see through the blank pages to the writing underneath, as though looking through skin and seeing blue shadow veins beneath. It is a list of celebrities, of stars, and I can see, if I squint, the last words she wrote in her loopy, lovely penmanship: It was Swell.
DONNA STEINER’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine. She recently completed a nonfiction manuscript and is working on a collection of poems. A chapbook of five essays, Elements, was released by Sweet Publications.
“I’ll take the big room in the back,” Marie announced after our host family waved good-bye, dust trailing their little red Fiat. “That way, you get the room by the front door,” she said to me, “so you can protect us.”
Marie and I hadn’t traveled together for years, and back when we did, it was usually in triple-sheeted luxury hotel rooms at resort destinations where booze and business mixed, and our corporate expense accounts picked up the tab. She’d been that go-to friend for over twenty-five years, even though time and distance and life meant that we sometimes went months—even years, a few times—without talking much. She was the anchor during my divorce over two decades ago, and I can still hear her laughing when I’d call, irate over my estranged husband’s latest transgression. “The only thing funny about it is that you’re so shocked and angry,” she’d say. “Let it go!” She was right, of course, and I’d been reminded of her sage counsel more than once in recent months. My second marriage was crumbling under the weight of deceit and abuse.
Here we were, together again, this time in Solanas, Sardinia—a tiny beach village along the island’s southern coast—in a home exchange arranged months earlier. It had been advertised as a “charming, rustic beachhouse”; it bore little resemblance to the luxury hotels of our traveling past, and, as far as we could tell, had no proximity to anything resembling a beach.
Marie had been my go-to source when Sardinia beckoned, not because she’d ever been there or had any special insight, but because her grandparents emigrated from Sicily over a hundred years ago and their Italian roots held firm, even if her passport proclaimed her an American. What is normally considered spaghetti bolognese, she calls macaroni with gravy, and her pasta lexicon is numeric, vaguely explaining those mysterious numbers on pasta boxes. She’s the diva of her Italian-loving Manhattan meet-up group, and I’m convinced that should someone cut off her hands, her tongue would fall out as well. For all things Italian, she’s my source.
And for that matter, maybe all things too hard to navigate alone.
We’d met back in our DC days, me a young lobbyist for the plastic bag industry, and her, the savvy insider, keeping safe the distilled spirits industry of America. She peddled Boodles gin, Moet champagne, Absolut vodka, and single malt scotch while I tried to convince the nation of plastic’s benefits. She drew the crowd, and I rode her coattails.
It was her DC apartment—its tiny galley kitchen, ten-foot ceilings, and Victorian molding—that was my respite during the drama of my first divorce. My then two-year-old, Owen, knew her as “Aunt Marie,” our wacky friend with the elegant apartment where we had pajama and movie parties, mostly when Mom seemed sad and needed a friend. It was a regular enough occurrence that Aunt Marie’s apartment came to be stocked with Owen’s own melamine bowl and plate and cup, and a can of Chef Boyardee, to be opened only in the event of dire emergency. It should be noted that the can was never opened, Marie horrified by its mere presence in her cupboard. She finally tossed it, declaring that no kid she loved would ever eat that junk.
Sometime after my first marriage and two new kids into my second one, she was my pick to stay with my babies when my new husband and I secretly jetted off to Honolulu in search of schools, housing, and jobs, the next step in my plot to move my family from beltway politics to the beaches of Hawaii. She routinely questioned my logic, first on the new husband—whom she called Church Man because she never remembered his name and because we met at church—then on both my moving strategy and my common sense in choosing her to watch my kids. Unmarried, with no kids of her own and no tolerance for the suburbs, she looked bewildered as I handed her my house keys and a map to the preschool and waved goodbye.
She swears I never called to check on them, a point I contest, but maybe it’s true. But when I returned two weeks later, she’d become the Peter Pan in my children’s magical world. Five-year-old Austin introduced her to Thomas the Tank Engine, and she sat with him, transfixed, convinced that the show’s narrator, George Carlin, would surely revert to his stand-up calling of smut, that this children’s movie phase was purely hallucinogenic.
Like the actress glumly owning her box-office failures, she reported that two-year-old Emmi couldn’t be swayed by Coco Chanel’s timeless fashion wisdom about elegance and simplicity, insisting instead on prints plus stripes plus plaid—and the tiara—on a daily basis. “That’s okay, I guess,” Marie told me. “I did what I could. She’s young. There’s still time. And thank god the women at the preschool knew she wasn’t mine.”
Teenagers now, Austin and Emmi had not spent much time with her in the years since—just short visits whenever we passed through New York City, her home since retiring from her high-flying lobbying days—but time and distance hadn’t dulled her mystique. To them, Aunt Marie was a living, breathing, designer bottle of pixie dust. Me? I believed that bottle to be filled with truth serum and honesty. Exactly the potions I needed about now.
For our Sardinian adventure, we rendezvoused at the airport in Calgieri and giggled like schoolkids as we engineered the inclusion of my family’s meager carry-ons and backpacks in the rental car after stuffing it full with Marie’s steamer trunk, designer carry-on, and expensive leather satchel. There was none of the usual whining as Austin and Emmi crammed in on top of their bags, their feet settling for the cracks between the suitcases on the floorboard. Marie drove, while I navigated the nonsensical maze of narrow, twisting, scare-you-breathless roads between the capital city and our Solanas summerhouse.
While our hosts—Italian grandparents straight out of central casting—escorted us through the history and rustic nuances of their family home, I exchanged nervous glances with Austin and Emmi. Their eyes registered our common thought: the queen of luxury—with her designer bags, Chanel sunglasses, and perfectly manicured nails—is actually going to stay here?
The small, dated kitchen with the lean-to roof jutted off the covered porch, separated from the rest of the house as though an after-thought, behind the bougainvillea vines threatening to overtake the eaves. A wobbly table and chairs—circa 1950 with the formica top and metal frames—anchored the room. Rickety cupboards flanked the fireplace where a picture of the Virgin Mary leaned against the mantle, food splatters suggesting she’d enjoyed more than a few meals here.
Across the small porch, past the simple square table and two wooden straight chairs, Grandma guided us through three sparse bedrooms flanking a space that might have once been the entryway, before TVs demanded a room. Grandma pointed to the mismatched, folded sheets on each bed, miming that we could make our own beds as we wanted. She showed us where she’d cleared the closets so we had room for our belongings and shook her head forcefully when pointing to the closed bureau in the small master bedroom. Off limits. We got the translation. Ignoring our nervous glances, Marie smiled and tested her rusty Italian, chatting and miming with Grandma, conveying our understanding and appreciation.
Outside, Grandpa scurried around the property, showing us the fresh herbs in the garden. The basil and rosemary we recognized immediately, but the thick green leaf vines brought us to a bi-lingual, miming quandary. Crowns, the couple mimed, weaving the vines together and placing them on their heads. Plucking the leaves individually, they held them to their nose then pretended to drop them into a pot, their eyes pleading that we figure it out.
“Bay leaves!” Marie suddenly declared much to our collective relief, our American city-dwelling ignorance in full bloom. Our meager herb gardens never included bay leaves, and we reveled in the just-discovered truth that they weren’t brought forth as those dry, sad leaves in the McCormick jar.
Pulling a small, distressed plank of wood from his pocket, two old fashioned keys bound to it with baling wire, Grandpa tugged me, leading us to the rusty double-wide chain-link entry gate—the one at the end of the dirt path, off the dirt road that intersected the main road that led back to the house—then handed me the key and motioned that I demonstrate my ability to successfully lock and unlock our fortress. I struggled at first, then again. He demonstrated a second time. Marie giggled quietly over my shoulder; I knew better than to catch her eye. With Grandpa’s calloused hand guiding mine, I eventually maneuvered the key into the intricate lock, forced it open, then locked us back in the safety of the compound. Grandpa nodded with satisfaction.
In the kitchen, he pulled the bottle of Mirto from the refrigerator and pointed to the small glasses reserved for the occasion. More miming—berry picking, grinding with a pestle, cooking, stirring, tasting. A Sardinian specialty made from honey and myrtle berries, Mirto liqueur warms from the inside out and sucks the breath away with the first sip. His bottle was hand-labeled “Rosalba Mirto 2012.” He’d made it himself, and named it in honor of his wife, Rosalba. We nodded appreciatively and walked them to their car.
As instructed, I took the room by the door to the porch, the door that didn’t quite close completely, the door for which the only lock was a padlock. On the outside.
No cell service, no Internet, and definitely no three-sheeted luxury beds. A rusty old gate with an antique key that I’d successfully mastered once in my four attempts. A crossroads village with one restaurant, a couple of markets, and one gas station. A winding, indecipherable maze of switch-back, harrowing roads leading in all directions but with no maps or GPS to explain them. And absolutely no idea what we’d do for the next two weeks. We reached for the Mirto.
For the next fourteen days, over early morning coffee at the simple square table on that front porch, kids still sleeping, a catharsis unfolded. Always the first one up, I cut up some melon, made toast, brewed coffee, and retreated to my writing while the birds awoke and chattered in the surrounding trees. Marie joined me an hour or so later. In our faded pajamas, hair pulled back, no signs of make-up or any trappings of luxury, we sipped our coffee in silence until our brain waves fired with the first jolts of caffeine. Then the stories poured out. Each morning, a ceremonial ritual commenced, an exhalation, a release of the long-held weights that I’d not even acknowledged I’d been carrying.
“I never, ever expected to be twice divorced at fifty.”
She nodded and shrugged.
“I loved him, you know.”
She pursed her lips, shook her head ever so slightly, and locked her eyes onto mine. I knew the look all too well. It was the same one she gave me whenever I doubted my ability to get a job done. Or when I wore something she didn’t approve of, which happened so often that I took to planning my wardrobe around my plans to see her. A look of impatience, hoping I’ll eventually catch up and realize the error of my ways.
“I’ve supported myself and my kids all these years, but can I really do it again? Can I start over? Re-build a career?” Her eyebrows arched, the pshaw audible. “I’m a tired, fifty-year-old, overweight woman with rebuilt boobs cross-stitched by a freeway system of scars and no nipples because I never went back to have that done after the mastectomy. And I don’t have a fucking clue what I’m going to do next.”
Marie guffawed, the kind of belly laugh that she’d release whenever I complained about my first ex-husband.
“Really?” she said. “We’re here, facing all this, and we’re talking about your boobs?”
Once again, she was right. I laughed. “At least they’re all perky again. I don’t have to wear a bra, you know. They stand up all on their own.”
Over those mornings, on that porch in the wobbly chairs beneath the bougainvillea vines, along with the smell of fresh toast and a dwindling supply of coffee, I exhaled, letting go the months—years, maybe—of fear and destruction and failures that defined my marriage. That Marie never quite liked Church Man in the first place made it all the more poignant. She never reminded me she hadn’t liked him. She just listened.
I held back the lurid details: the slamming me against the walls, the forced sex after my chemo treatments—rape, I’d eventually come to understand—the monies stolen, hidden, and squandered. But in those mornings, those facts didn’t matter. I wasn’t quite ready to speak those truths out loud, preferring instead to write about them first.
With Marie, it wasn’t about the details of what had happened, but rather, what was happening with me. Now. Time and distance would sort out the past, I knew; my challenge now was the journey forward, what happens next, and she was my most trusted guide.
“How could I let my kids down like this? Will Emmi ever know what a healthy relationship looks like? Will Austin?”
“Yes,” she reassured me. “They will. Because you will teach them.”
“How could I have been so stupid? How did I rationalize it, ignore the obvious, let it keep happening? Am I really one of those women, the he-loves-me-no-matter-how-he-treats-me types?”
“You loved him,” she reminded me. “You believed what you wanted to believe.” Then she reminded me of her friend, the one whose husband was fired from his seven-figure post, and only after his failed suicide attempt did she know of his years of deceit and embezzlement—and that they were completely broke. “It happens,” she reminded me. “And we pick up the pieces and move on.”
I talked about my anger—the type that boils up from within and sticks to the tips of my fingers and the back of my tongue, tainting everything that passes through my hands or from my mouth. I talked, and she listened.
“Life never turns out like we think it will,” she said. “Who’d have thought I’d end up single, facing retirement in a 600-squarefoot mid-town apartment and loving it?” She told stories of her childhood, living in a walk-up apartment on East 5th, between Second and Bowery, raised by doting parents whose factory on Canal Street in Chinatown made Christmas stockings and aprons and hats, and doll dresses in the off season. “I remember we were the only ones of all my friends to have a shower and a sink in our bathroom,” she recalled, smiling. The teenager who always wore her best dress to visit the neighbors, apparently a fashionista even in the ’hood. The young lady who got a secretarial job and climbed the corporate ladder to eventually be the legislative voice of a multi-million dollar company. She’d defied tradition, expectation. And none of it had come easy.
“Remember your treks out to Staten Island?” I reminded her, giggling. Every weekend—even into her fifties—she’d retrieve her car from the garage to visit her dozens of cousins and ailing aunts, all of whom sent her home with fresh tomatoes and basil and pastas, because “you just can’t get good food in the city.”
“You and the kids really have to come to New York at Christmas,” she insisted. “Come to my party. Matt and Jake put up the ten-foot tree and do all the cooking,” she explained, “and I only invite people I really, really like.” Her family—friends from a rich career and special people collected along the way—all gathered around for the holidays, and Marie holding court. I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the season.
I listened to her stories of dinner and theatre dates with girlfriends she’s known for decades, and stories of the men she dates occasionally—nothing serious, just company, she assured me. I admired her strength—the same strength and charisma that drew me to her so many, many years ago. “You’re a great mom,” she said, abruptly changing the subject. “You’re going to be fine.” Her sudden turn shocked me. In that moment, somewhat surprised, I realized that she admired me, too.
Without the clutter of technology, under the birds’ chirping and flapping, in the company of that old friend rediscovered again, I found the acceptance to own my past. And the realization, as she put it, to rebuild and move on.
Eventually our mornings turned to afternoons, and breakfast gave way to a drive into Villisimius, the resort town seven kilometers away, where the waiters at La Lanterna held our favorite table and knew our favorite dishes. We wandered in and out of every tourist shop, jewelry store, and occasional boutique and made a point to try every gelato joint in town.
We managed to conquer the switchback roads, and even went exploring beyond Villisimius a few times, always getting lost, and always managing to eventually wind back to the summer house, our only landmark the blooming cactus that hung so low over the dirt road that I ducked every time we drove under it. I handed off my gate duties to Austin, who turned out to be far more talented at ancient key mastery than me.
Sunset always brought us home again, to those wobbly chairs and creaky table, where re-matches of “Name that Tune” would commence. The kids had thought it lame when Marie suggested it that first night after dinner, in those hours when TV and the web might otherwise fill the void. But when she cranked up her iPhone to sounds from Flo Rida and Emeli Sande in her first few challenges, they were hooked. It became their obsession, and over the two weeks, and countless challenges, Marie never missed a beat.
I wandered through the summerhouse garden, hanging our laundry on the clothesline strung between the trees, just past the rope swing where Emmi and Austin wiled away the early evenings. I marveled at the bay leaves, their strong vines weaving a maze amidst their small plot. They aren’t dried and wrinkly at all. Sometimes discovery is gradual. Sometimes, it comes all at once. No, my marriage couldn’t be saved, I realized. And what’s more, it shouldn’t be.
Our two weeks coming to a close, we reluctantly packed our things and headed to bed on our last night there. I drafted an email to Marie, to be sent once we finally had internet again, attaching a copy of the essay I’d been writing—the long, rambling, lurid story of my marriage, its collapse, and the truths too painful to share on that porch. “Here’s the entire story, including the stuff I couldn’t say on that porch,” I wrote. “Thanks for listening.”
Just then, Austin whispered, “Holy shit!” loudly in my direction as he looked out the window into our courtyard, just beyond the table where we sat every morning. “Come look at this, Mom!”
Emmi and I rushed to his side, adjusting our eyes to the dark garden, lit only by a glimmer of moonlight through the olive trees. Slinking along the wall of the shed, silently gliding towards the porch, it was unmistakable. The moonlight cast an eerie reflection off its beady eyes—a rat, far bigger and fatter than any housecat we knew, and it was headed straight for the house.
“Don’t tell Aunt Marie!” Austin and Emmi whispered in unison.
“No shit,” I said in return.
I slammed shut the door next to my room—the front door, the one onto the porch, the one without a lock—and slid a chair in front of it for extra measure. She’d put me in that room for protection. It was the least I could do.
POWELL BERGER is a freelance writer living in Honolulu with her two teenagers and two kittens, where she revels in their havoc and joy in equal measures. She is currently plotting to split her time between Honolulu and her other favorite city, Paris, where she spends every July as a Program Fellow at the Paris American Academy’s Creative Writing Workshop. Besides Full Grown People, for which this is her second essay,her work has appeared in various print and online publications, including Travelati, Hawaii Business, and Inside Out Hawaii. She hasn’t made it yet, but she still plans to eventually show up at Marie’s annual Christmas party. Her writing world is housed at www.powellberger.com.
If you had known me as a kid, you would not have pegged me as a tree-hugging granola girl. Sure, my family loved nature, just not intimately. Friends’ families went camping (unsanitary) or canoeing (unstable) or skiing (expensive, probably deadly). My family went on road trips. We drove through or around Yellowstone, Estes, Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde. My mother, a tuberculosis survivor who believed that if one couldn’t sit in the lap of luxury, a reasonable compromise is to just sit, and my father, a former farm boy who had spent too much of his youth shoveling the smellier elements of nature, preferred to view the great parks through a windshield. Any forays from the car were to the well-paved lookouts where Dad, in his Saturday Sansabelts, would snap photos of his doughy children leaning against the reinforced railing that safely separated us from the wild.
As an adult, I want to experience nature more naturally. I hike, snow shoe, ski, kayak, swim—albeit not very often or particularly well. Keep in mind that I got a late start.
I was just on the shady side of fifty when I returned to the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, this time with my husband Jeff and our teenaged daughter Kate, and I was looking forward to experiencing the park on foot. The first test of our bi-pedal fortitude was to stand in line for forty-five minutes to acquire our passes for ranger-guided tours of Balcony House and Cliff Palace, two of the most spectacular cliff dwellings in the park.
Eventually, we were greeted by a woman nearly my mother’s age perched behind a tall, wooden counter. Jeff initiated the conversation, but she trained her rheumy eyes on me.
“Did they tell you,” she asked me, “that The Balcony House hike is very strenuous with thirty-two feet of ladders, narrow tunnels and walk ways overlooking hundred-foot drops?”
They would have been her fellow ranger retirees, one of whom was a wiry gentleman wearing Tevas with socks who told us that if he had to choose only one site to visit, it would be Balcony House because it is so “arduous.”
“It is very challenging.” She raised her wiry eyebrows for emphasis. “You might want to just wait up top in the car.”
I wondered what she could see through the thick, curved wall of the wooden counter—the bluish swell of veins along the insides of my calves, perhaps. Could she detect my fallen right arch propped up by orthotics, my weak ankle and attendant knee? Perhaps she could smell my pheromones and determined that I am postmenopausal and therefore at increased risk for osteoporosis and heart disease. I am again a bit doughy, as I was when I first visited the park as a child, but no more so than many other people in line, less so, in fact. I fucking do Zumba, lady.
“Just be careful,” she said, tapping the edge of counter closest to me as if she were patting my hand. Did she think that we were contemporaries? How could we be, I thought, observing the half dollar-sized purplish-black carcinomas peering through her thinning hair, the plume of white that sprouted like pampas grass from a mole on her neck, the slight palsy in the hand still reaching for my own?
“I’ll be just fine, thank you very much.”
“Me too,” said Jeff helpfully, and he steered me away before I could say anything more.
Our first stop was at the Spruce Tree Dwelling (where I did not wait in the car). We hiked down switchbacks to the circa 1190 structure where the Early Pueblo people once lived. My long-legged husband and daughter sprinted ahead. I marched steadily at my own, more comfortable pace. I am generally the carrier of the camera, not to mention the family backpack loaded with waters, sunscreen, and snacks. As family historian, I must allow time for photo ops. As a writer, I must allow time for rumination and observation, but as a fifty-something, perhaps I just need more time.
I pondered this along with the Counter Lady’s warnings as I made my descent. I noticed I was following a woman wearing three-inch wedged heels and carrying a designer purse tucked tidily under her armpit. I wondered if my Counter Lady had a cautionary conversation with her. What about the very white family from Holland who embarked on their hike without hats or sunglasses, or—judging by the pinking of their noses and ears—sunscreen? What about the myriad flatlanders attempting to hike in flip flops, the gay couple (one of whom sported ballet flats), the pair of Cheetos-fed adolescents in their XX Large, orange-dusted T-shirts drawn taught against their heaving chests—did any of these travelers receive the Counter Lady’s dire warning, or was it just me?
I was still fuming about this when we stopped for lunch at the cafeteria near the visitor’s center. Kate took off to peruse the gift shop, while Jeff and I lingered to finish off the brownie we shouldn’t have ordered.
“Is it my imagination, or was that lady singling me out with the warning thing?” I asked him.
“No. It was really obvious. She was talking to you.”
“She didn’t seem worried about you at all.” Sure, Jeff is better coordinated, faster, and stronger than I am, but I exercise more than he does. Beneath his bargain-box tee-shirt with the Mickey Mouse ears and the letters C-A-L-I-F-O-R-I-N-I-A laid out in a misspelled arch beats a heart that loathes gyms. And beneath his Cardinal’s baseball cap hides his balding pate. But that’s not what the Counter Lady saw. She saw only the fine fringe beneath the rim that is the same fawny brown it was when I met him thirty years ago.
“It’s my hair, isn’t it?” I asked, but I knew the answer. It’s my effing hair, my long, wavy, slightly sweaty, gray hair.
“Yeah, probably so.” It’s the answer he didn’t want to give. He spent a year convincing me that going gray wouldn’t be so bad. I had been chemically dependent on drug store dyes for more than twenty years. I dyed every month up to my fiftieth year, and I would have kept on dyeing had I not poisoned myself.
It happened one afternoon. I made the mistake of answering the phone shortly after applying my box color to my hair. The call was from an old friend whose wife had just left him. What was I supposed to do—tell him to hold his story so I could rinse the toxic sludge off my head? I either ignored the timer or didn’t set it. By the time I got off the phone, my entire head was sizzling. I ran to the shower, but it was too late. My scalp was raw, oozing clear pus from open wounds. For the next few days, I felt like I had the flu. My head ached both inside and out. Everything tasted faintly of chemicals. My doctor sent me for blood tests. My liver is fine, thank you, but that experience scared me straight. I haven’t cracked open a box of color since.
I spent the next eight months visiting the salon the way another addict might visit a methadone clinic. Bridgette, my therapist/stylist, mixed high- and low-lights (none of the above ever touched my scalp) to create a hazy blend of brown and gray. Eventually, highlights stopped offering contrast, lowlights wouldn’t take: I was gray.
Honestly, it was a relief not to play the dyeing game anymore. I was glad to be rid of the gloves, goo, and stench, not to mention the potentially toxic overexposure to trideceth-2, carboxamide mea, propylene glycol, hexylene glycol, and aluminum hydroxide.
As I progressed in my recovery, I developed a kind of radar for dye jobs. I saw them everywhere—the fresh and too vibrant brunettes or luminescent blondes, the barbeque reds. And the dimming shades, I saw them too—the tinny, brassy, dulling, sometimes frizzing tresses, the tell-tale skunk stripe at the scalp foreshadowing emergency trips to Walgreen’s or desperate phone calls to stylists: How soon can you get me in? I was free of that now.
I could see them easily, but I felt less seen. As my hair grew lighter, I noticed fewer people made eye contact with me in stores and restaurants. The barista at the coffee stand at the community college where I teach stopped asking me how my day was going. A new acquaintance asked how much older than Jeff I am. I’m just waiting for some freakin’ Boy Scout to offer to help me cross the street. Or maybe up to some cliff dwellings.
You might want to wait in the car.
“This is exactly what I wanted to avoid all those years by dyeing.”
“I know,” Jeff said, trying to soothe me.
“Women are treated differently when they go gray.”
“It isn’t right.”
I could tell that he couldn’t decide if he wanted to try to calm me down or run off to join Kate in the gift shop.
“This, this was blatant.”
“And from a woman!” I roared as Kate walked up. She looked at her dad, then at me.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing. I’m just a grumpy old lady.”
“I could have told you that,” she said. I must have glared at her.
“Jeez. Take a joke, why don’t you?”
My appalling lack of humor about ageism is nothing new. I remember as a toddler, my parents would trot me out at dinner and cocktail parties to spell C-A-M-E-R-A or S-O-M-B-R-E-R-O. Guests sloshing high balls and Manhattans would ooh and aah for my parents. But they talked to me in that high-pitched voice adults reserve for infants and Chihuahuas.
As an older teen, I would balk when my mother, who ran the sales department of the family want-ad business, insisted on taking me along on sales calls. My jobs were to drive the car and fill out the paperwork. I was her “shill,” she joked, but I didn’t think it was funny when a lecherous client would offer me Cokes from the mini-fridge and invite me to sit a little closer.
I rankled as a young adult on my first writing job at a city lifestyle magazine when the then editor called me “honey” and assigned me the crappy fashion and shopping guide stories. To be fair, I was young and untested as a writer, and if I were the editor, I might have given me fluff stories to start, but I wanted to be taken seriously, even as a toddler, a teen, and young adult. Too often I felt dismissed as a kid or girl.
Eventually, I outgrew all these awkward and easily-labeled phases of life and hit the sweet spot, chronologically speaking – sometime around thirty through early forties. This is the age of relative respect in a woman’s life. You still have your looks, but you look like you might have some experience. By this age, you probably have launched a career, maybe had a child, have done, or at least begun, some important life work.
But, I was a late bloomer. The looks started to go before the career was launched, before my baby was a toddler, before I was ready. I kept dyeing not because I wanted to be a Barbie or a bombshell. I just wanted to linger in that sweet spot a little longer, before I felt discounted again.
My mother, who is a very young eighty-nine-year-old, still lives alone, drives, plays the piano and keeps up with the news. Sometimes when I take her shopping she insists that we bring her “Cripple Card” so that we can park in handicapped spots. She says she wants to spare me the long walks, and she takes my hand. She likes it when we shop together, but she is annoyed when I try to do too much for her. She is perfectly capable of carrying her own bags, of retrieving her own mail from the box. “I’m not as old as you think,” she says. She speaks slowly so I can understand: “I’m not in-valid. You are dis-abling me.”
We arrived a few minutes early for the Balcony House tour and parked in the lot overlooking the first descent before the arduous, strenuous, death-defying climb. Jeff and Kate suggested I might want to wait in the car. “We’ll crack a window,” Jeff offered. I offered my middle finger in return.
My anxiety, which had not been great, diminished considerably when we joined our fellow adventurers at the shaded and paved waiting area. Among them was a long-limbed woman from London who appeared to be at least six months pregnant, the increasingly pink-nosed family from Holland, and the gay couple, one half of whom had exchanged his ballet slippers for flip flops. In fact, flip-flops outnumbered Keens, Tevas, and athletic shoes. There were sunglasses and hats, but only on the smallest of children, one of whom was a three- or four-year-old boy with round, red, tear-stained cheeks who was in need of a nap.
The ranger introduced herself as Nancy. She looked to be near my own age with a thick, wavy (dyed) auburn hair and a matter-of-fact attitude. She asked us to introduce ourselves and to say where we were from. “Let’s find out who has traveled the farthest.”
The English lady and the Dutch family were in the lead until we met Yaya and Jack, a couple who had flown in from Qatar that morning to visit their daughter and her family living in Colorado on a work visa. Judging from their attire—casual business slacks and basic brown lace ups for Jack, a floral short-sleeved blouse and black walking shorts for Yaya—the couple had no idea what they had agreed to do on their first afternoon in the States. Jack and Yaya’s daughter and son-in-law, each with a child on hip or in hand, seemed well acclimated to high altitude and thin air of the Rocky Mountain desert. Jack looked pale and clammy. Yaya looked terrified, particularly when she looked at Jack.
Privately, I wondered if they had come all this way to break the news in person: Jack has congestive heart failure, or Jack has leukemia, or Jack has any number of ailments that make taking him on this arduous, strenuous, death-defying climb a bad idea. But there couldn’t have been time for such a conversation so early in their trip. The young couple with their very young kids seemed unconcerned by their father’s waxy complexion. But Yaya and me, we were worried.
How is it that I got the Counter Lady’s warning and these people did not?
I was wrong. Everyone got the warning, just no one took it seriously. Ranger Nancy recited the same narrative, even added details that the Counter Lady omitted: “If you are acrophobic, claustrophobic, suffer from shortness of breath or poor balance, this may not be the hike for you.” In addition, she said, you must be able to climb under your own power and use both hands on the ladders, so “children must be able to climb unassisted.”
The ranger looked at the family from Qatar. I looked at the red-cheeked preschooler. Yaya looked at Jack. Jack looked into the middle distance. No one spoke. And so we were off.
Ranger Nancy stopped us from time to time to tell us about the dwellings. Balcony House wasn’t the largest of the cliff dwellings, but it may have been one of the best protected. Tucked into the rock wall like a multi-roomed pearl in an oversized oyster, the dwelling would have been virtually invisible from above. Invaders from below would have had to climb hand-over-hand up sheer rock to reach the hidey-hole homes, which is to say their hands would be otherwise occupied and unable to wield their weapons, making them easy pickings for the cliff dwellers above. Further, invaders were usually flatlanders, unused to the ups and downs of cliff life. Of course, the cliff-dwelling people were expert climbers, often hoisting baskets of food or water along with themselves up the rock wall, nothing more than their fingernails with which to secure their purchase. Even the children skittered up and down the rock like spiders. I wonder if Ranger Nancy enjoyed telling us this bit so that we modern-day climbers might feel a little like sissies relying on the sturdy, double-sided ladders secured to the rock by bolts and cables. As an added protection, our thirty-two-foot ascent wasn’t continuous, as the Counter Lady would have led me to believe. Instead, we climbed two discrete ladders, separated from each other by a bit of paved trail and a short set of concrete steps—with railings. Easy peas. Even the preschoolers skittered.
The second ladder delivered us to the dwellings themselves. Our party spread along the narrow walk ways that circled sunken kivas and edged the rock walls of the remaining apartment-style sleeping quarters. We paused not only to observe the ceilings stained black with thousand-year-old smoke, the symbols etched into the stone indicating wind, water, or the cycle of life, the worn footprints in the stone floor, but also to catch our breath and enjoy the cool shade provided by the stone alcove. Everyone was quiet, even the children.
Ranger Nancy used this time to tell us a bit about the Ancestral Puebloans. It is politically incorrect, she informed us, to call the original dwellers Anasazi. The old Navajo word does not just mean “Ancient ones,” as we were taught as kids. It literally means “ancestors of our enemies.” The new terminology is more accurate. The natives of the Four Corners area didn’t die out but moved on to become the Pueblo Indians of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.
The Ancestral Puebloans took up residence 1,400 years ago and made a good long run of it—seven hundred years—here in the rocks. Their lives were difficult, not only in terms of acrobatics and tribal warfare, but they were at the mercy of the weather. The average life expectancy of an Ancestral Puebloan was thirty-five years, said Ranger Nancy. Jack and I would have been anomalies.
Jack was still standing, if winded, during this high-altitude lecture. Yaya leaned heavily against a rock. But eventually, the lecture ended, and it was time to move on. The next hurdle was to climb up a large boulder-sized ridge to reach a narrow crawl space. We would be aided, Ranger Nancy said, by hand and foot holds left for us by the Ancients. For most, the hand and foot holds were unnecessary. The flip floppers all but flew up the rock. But Jack struggled. He slid. Yaya tried to grab his arm but missed. His son-in-law caught him and helped pull him up to a flat spot where he could get down on his hands and knees in order to crawl through the narrow tunnel. Jack and his family disappeared into the dark crevice before we even entered it. Kate moved gracefully ahead of me, and I followed, less gracefully, behind.
Finally, we reached the last set of ladders that would return us to the top, but the flow of traffic stopped. Jack was stuck, seemingly unable to move up or down the ladder. Yaya was ahead of him, cajoling him to move forward. The son-in-law positioned himself beneath Jack, prepared to give him another boost.
Jack’s arms and legs shook. He stared vacantly, away from the stone wall before him, ignoring the worried voices, the overly helpful hands. When he was ready, he climbed. When he needed to, he rested. Eventually, he made it to the top. We were too far behind to see Jack crest that final rung. I didn’t get to see him hurried off to the car or the rest area where he could throw back some baby aspirin or nitroglycerine or whatever he needed. But I’m sad I didn’t get to see his face. I would like to think he wore an expression that said to Yaya, his daughter and son-in-law, the preschoolers and the other adventurers, I made it, suckers, and you didn’t think I could!
I had underestimated Jack. I had underestimated the flip floppers, the preschoolers, the pregnant and the pink—just as the Counter Lady had underestimated me.
Later that summer, I took Kate and friends to the public pool. The teenaged girl working the sales desk pulled herself away from a giggly conversation with off-duty life guards. “Do you consider yourself a senior?” she asked, not quite looking at me.
“No, I do not,” I snapped. I consider you impertinent, I thought but did not say. I paid the $1.50 extra for my admission—a small price for dignity.
The question came up again and again that summer—at the theater, museum, car wash, amusement park. One woman just gave me the senior coffee (smaller and cheaper) at McDonald’s without even asking.
I went back to my color therapist Bridgette. She walked around me. “The silver is pretty but not on you. Your face is too young.”
I love Bridgette.
Bridgette suggested trying a demi: “A temporary color. It will blend with the gray, and it won’t hurt your scalp.”
And suddenly, I was brunette.
It was like celebrating eighteen months of sobriety with a beer.
Jeff was startled. Kate rolled her eyes. But both said they liked it, kind of. Shortly after the start of the fall semester, a male colleague at the community college stopped me in the copy room: “You look so much better.” I posted my picture on Facebook expecting to receive what-did-you-do-that-for comments. Instead, I received “likes.” People in grocery stores and theater lobbies started talking to me again. And no one asked me if I consider myself a senior.
I’m back, baby!
I am embarrassed to admit it, but I fell all too easily back into the dye. I look at my face once again framed in brown and I see hints of possibility, glimmers that the Counter Lady clearly did not see when she looked at my hoary hair first and at me second. And, to be fair, I looked right back at her as if through her tuft of cotton candy white. Like sisters raised in a culture that treats aging like a disease, we saw in each other what we are expected to see: one compromised, diminished, or, as my mother would say, in-valid.
Kate, my now sixteen-year-old daughter with the long golden brown hair, is far wiser than I. She eschews make up, hair doo-dads, curling irons. She prefers sweat pants to skinny jeans, and she is beautiful. She tells me what she learned in her history class about how cultures who revere their elders tend to be more peaceful. If you want a warrior society, separate the aged from the young.
She tells me this during our trip to the grocery store to pick up a few items for my mother. It’s a Wednesday. Senior discount Wednesday.
The cashier, a man near my own age, looks at me with pleading eyes. He wants forgiveness. “I don’t know how to ask this,” he begins. The young woman bagging the groceries seems annoyed. “He’s trying to ask you if you qualify for the senior discount.”
“I’m fifty-three,” I say.
“Well.” The man seems relieved. “You don’t. It’s so hard to ask. You know, people are so sensitive. I mean a lot of women. They get angry. I don’t mean you. You seem nice.”
He could have meant me, but I smile benevolently and shake my hazy-brown head. “Some people.”
PATRICIA O’CONNOR is a demi-dyed mother, writer, and teacher of English composition living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her semi-athletic husband and altogether graceful teenaged daughter. Her creative non-fiction work has appeared in Brain, Child and Vela magazines.
I work for a Jesuit university, which surprised everyone in my life, especially me. Upon accepting the job, my devout old Catholic aunt, who has long been worried about my rejection of religion, sent me a rosary. Friends and former coworkers laughed and speculated on how long it would take me to get fired. Others told me I’d do well, as long as I didn’t talk.
I’m an opinionated atheist. No one thought I’d last at an institution whose buildings are decorated in religious art on a campus full of statuary and crosses. I told myself I could fake it—after all, I know Catholics. My family is Catholic. I went to a Catholic high school. All I had to do was blend in to the background, and everything would be fine.
For the first few months, I was profoundly uncomfortable. People were much more open about their faith than I’d anticipated. Employees are constantly reminded of Jesuit values, and open discussions often happen about how to live those values in our jobs and our everyday lives. I waxed pathetic one evening about how long it would take my coworkers to realize that I wasn’t like them, that I wasn’t suited for that sort of environment. Sooner or later, they’d find out that I don’t believe in God, and then what? How would they react to having an atheist in their midst? I felt like an intruder. I had stepped into a world that I had consciously rejected, and now it was going to reject me. I was convinced that it was only a matter of time.
Though my husband listened patiently, he showed no mercy. He simply looked at me and said, “This is the best job you’ve ever had. Don’t screw it up.”
The best job I’ve ever had began with a Master’s degree in Literature, which led me to market research and eventually into data analysis. People often find this odd, but the purpose of studying literature is to analyze narratives: to think critically, ask a lot of questions, and be able to understand and apply a variety of concepts. It’s not so odd that my skill set easily translated from analyzing Victorian novels to analyzing large quantities of raw data.
A narrative is a narrative, whether it’s constructed of words, or numbers, or ten crosses hanging on an office wall.
The owner of the crosses was one of the first people I met, in a computer lab that he announced had once been the shower room for the original group of Jesuits who inhabited the building more than one hundred years ago. It was a strange feeling, knowing the history of that room. And my coworker is full of those sorts of tidbits and trivia. His memory is itself a vast database, one that I was advised to access as often as possible, and that I still rely on two years later.
When I walked into his office for the first time, I immediately noticed a line of crosses hanging above his office door. Crosses are hardly out of place in a Catholic school, hardly something to be startled by, yet it somehow struck me as excessive. When I asked him about them, all he said was, “I plan on covering my entire wall.”
The first time I asked why, he didn’t answer.
On a campus that’s full of crosses, the only crosses I continue to find odd and distracting are my coworker’s. Every time I’m in his office, I end up staring at them, counting them repetitively in my head, studying their ornamentation. It seems so strange, looking at crosses that are decorated with colors and flourishes, crosses that are downright cheerful. I understand that they’re symbols of faith, of hope, of forgiveness and eternal life. But I can’t get out of my head that they were also an instrument of punishment and torture, peculiar Roman contraptions upon which many suffered and died.
Several times, I asked him why he had so many. The first time I asked, he told me that it was his intention to cover the wall with them, starting from the doorway, and wrapping all around his office. I asked him why again, and he told me how carefully he spaces them apart, so that they’re equidistant. It bothers him if they’re not aligned correctly. He told me about standing up on a ladder, about feeling uncertain about his balance, about being worried that he’ll fall.
I asked him why he hangs them then, if it’s such an inconvenience, and he told me again that he wanted to cover the wall in crosses.
Though I kept asking the same question every time I visited his office, he would always act like he hadn’t heard it. He would tell me instead who gave him this cross or that cross, or repeat his intention to cover his entire wall, or even talk to me about the other random items he’s collected over the years.
That sort of technique doesn’t work well on me. Even if someone won’t answer, I typically won’t stop asking. It is my most endearing and infuriating trait—and the Jesuits’ as well.
Asking questions is one of the core values that our university encourages. This may seem strange to some, as Christians are often characterized by the godless as mindless followers taking their marching orders from a two-thousand-year-old book. That’s an unfair stereotype, as Christianity is much more nuanced and complex than simply a set of rules handed down by a judgmental God-figure. The Jesuits in particular encourage people to think and question. They’re the rebels of the Catholic faith, the original bad boys, founded in 1540 to educate, to serve, and to work for the greatest common good. In their nearly five hundred years of existence, they’ve spread to every part of the globe, leaving behind a network of universities.
One of them is nestled on ninety-one acres in North Denver, a university which is made up of three separate colleges and enrolls nearly ten thousand students per year. Many of them are online—the Jesuits have always been open to change, and our university was one of the first to offer online-only degrees. Even though practically every school followed our lead, it’s still a point of pride to know that tradition can still be cutting edge. That faith can be supported by data and technology.
That’s what I do—I work with the university data.
Data, much like the Victorian novel, is not easy to understand. Learning the complexities of the university systems was at times frustrating and made me reliant on others for questions and guidance. In my first few months, I had the frustration of a high learning curve complicating my adjustment to a work environment that encourages open religiosity. The only thing that overcame my defeatist thoughts was pure stubbornness. I figured, as long as people are willing to answer my questions, I’d keep asking them.
I still periodically visit my coworker’s office, and stare up at the beige-colored walls, compulsively counting the crosses. In fact, it’s the first thing I do, every time I’m there. The moment his attention is on his computer, my eyes are drawn upwards. There were eleven, then twelve, then thirteen. I find them hypnotic. Though I value everything that he takes the time to explain to me, I often have to struggle to pay attention to what he’s saying. I have to remind myself to listen to him, to look at the screens in front of us, to take notes and ask the right questions—the ones I’m supposed to ask, not the ones I want to ask.
Seventeen crosses in, I was beginning to feel like I understood something. The day I counted the seventeenth cross, I began to visualize our database in a way I hadn’t before. I imagine it as a series of flat planes that glow a soft blue, with a lot of moving pieces and endless loops. I see it not as if it’s something I’m constructing, but as if it’s something I’m remembering.
That was when I started to think that maybe I wouldn’t screw it up.
Except for the whole Christian thing. That still scared me.
When I first professed to my family that I didn’t believe in God and didn’t consider myself a Christian, they took it as nothing more than a passing phase. My father used to sometimes say, “If you’re raised Catholic, you’ll always be Catholic, even if you don’t go to church.” As if Catholicism was a scar I couldn’t ever get rid of, a stain that would never wash out. For years, I was sent Christmas ornaments and asked why I hadn’t put up a tree. For years, I vacillated between politeness and annoyance. I don’t need ornaments because I don’t put up a tree. I don’t put up a tree because I don’t celebrate Christmas. Even though I asked people to stop sending me Christmas-themed gifts, they continued. I realized my family didn’t take me seriously, and I resented them for it.
This continued until well after I was married, when they finally began to grudgingly accept my adulthood and admitted to themselves that my lack of religion is not something I’ll grow out of.
Atheists are no different from anyone else. We’re not the smug, self-assured people that some think we are. We have questions and doubts. We wonder why we’re here, what our purpose is. We think about life, and we think about death. We just don’t think of those things through the filter of faith or a higher power.
Getting a job at a Jesuit university has instilled in my family a sense of hope that I might be coming around, that I might once again embrace the religion I was raised in. Two years later, I can say with confidence that I am not. If anything, working for a Catholic school has only solidified the fact that I don’t believe in God. I never anticipated anything changing that.
One of the major things I dislike about religion is that it seems like it has an answer for everything. To me, faith sometimes feels like a way to manage fear. I was in a seminar recently when the speaker admitted that he turns to faith when he doesn’t like the answers science gives him. Everyone else in the room nodded and murmured in agreement. I wanted to jump up and shout, No, that’s not good enough! It cheapens your faith! Admittedly faith is something I don’t understand, but to me, it seems that faith should be about more than simply finding the most satisfying answer.
That’s why it means a lot to me to see people who are heavily steeped in a very complex religious system encouraging others to ask questions, and not settling for the first answer they’re given. It means a lot to me that our university has branded itself on this notion, on the notion that we’re not going to give you all the answers—we’re going to teach you how to find them yourself.
Early on in my employment, someone told me that it wasn’t the purpose of our university to provide people with a blueprint for their lives. He said that it was our purpose to give them the tools to create their own blueprint. He said that answers are not as important as questions, and that sometimes the act of asking the question is more profound than any answer ever could be.
The story in Genesis, one of the first things I learned as a child in Sunday school, makes sense now—knowledge is a drug. A very powerful drug. I can’t get enough of it.
Perhaps that’s what attracts me to data-related jobs. There’s something satisfying about being able to take something raw and unformed and turn it into something meaningful. But I’ve had to evolve how I understand data. Like any narrative, it has plot holes and ambiguities. It can be read and interpreted in a multitude of different ways. It’s not always interesting, and it’s not always true. It can be used for, and it can be used against. It can only answer questions that you’re willing to ask.
I’m willing to ask all sorts of questions. Being both an analyst and a writer makes me curious to an extent that I sometimes come across as intrusive. I’m like Eve, and all the archetypes that step outside of boundaries and break the rules simply because there’s something on the other side that they need to know. And I accept the consequences of this terminal curiosity.
Sometimes the consequence is that I learn things that are disturbing. I make discoveries that bother me or that leave me with more questions. Sometimes it means that I have to learn to live with dissatisfaction and ambiguity, or try to be graceful as someone dodges my questions.
Such as my coworker, who for a long time acted as if he simply didn’t hear me when I asked him why he hung up crosses. Perhaps he feels that the answer is obvious—he’s Christian, and these crosses are a symbol of his faith. Perhaps he doesn’t know the answer, but doesn’t want to admit it. Perhaps he tunes me out the same way I sometimes tune him out. Perhaps he’s making himself listen to me the same way I have to make myself listen to him, even when his answers are the only thing I want to hear.
I was in his office again recently, and couldn’t resist indulging my new favorite habit of counting his crosses as he pulled up our database on his computer. I counted them as he mumbled at his keyboard.
“You’ve got twenty-four crosses now,” I noted.
He stopped typing. “Twenty-five,” he said proudly, and pulled another one from his drawer, telling me who gave it to him. Telling me again how he wants to cover his entire wall.
I’ve evolved a lot as a person since I started in my job. I’ve learned a lot about questions and answers, about faith and facts, about knowledge and ambiguity. I’ve discovered that while I’m okay with not knowing, I’m not okay with not asking.
So I did it again. I smiled, and I asked, “Why do you want to cover the wall?”
For once, he didn’t rush into another thought, or repeat himself, or dodge my question entirely. Instead, he glanced at me and then up at the wall.
“Because there’s too much beige,” he replied.
That was the worst thing I could have imagined him saying. I chose to believe he didn’t mean it.
An act of faith, perhaps?
Persistence is one of the hallmark of the Jesuits. They’ve been controversial for nearly their entire existence. They’ve dealt with oppression and suppression, accusation and intrigue. Their commitment to social justice and liberation theology has ensured that they’ve remained in the center of many debates.
Persistence is also one of the hallmarks of the particular institution I work for. Enrollments are falling at most higher education institutions, and we’ve got the additional challenge of being a private school, which means higher tuition rates that some of our local competitors. We don’t only have to work harder, we have to work more creatively. That’s why data is important—data tells the university’s story, and by doing so, allows our leaders to revise that story when the need arises. Data people are the watchdogs, the soldiers in the tower, guarding the castle, keeping an eye on what’s going on within the walls as well as outside of them. We provide the intelligence.
I can’t imagine doing anything else. Data, and the stories it tells, will always be an integral part of what I do.
As intelligent as my coworker is, he doesn’t seem to understand the narrative he’s constructed on the wall of his office.
“People see my crosses and always say they’re surprised I’m religious, and they’re even more surprised when I tell them I’m not,” he said to me the other day.
I kept myself from laughing, but barely, remembering my own shock the first time I was in his office. “Then why do you have twenty-five crosses hanging in your office?” I asked.
“Because I like crosses,” he replied.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because I think they’re beautiful,” he said, giving me the shrug I’ve seen countless times before, signaling that he’s ready to move on to another topic of conversation.
This time, I didn’t let him. I was determined to understand why a symbol that so often reminded me only of the bloody end of a human life was so often construed as a thing of beauty. I take a deep breath, and I again I say, “Why?”
This time, he doesn’t ignore me. This time, his face is different. “Because,” he says, then pauses.
I watch his face change from its normal expression, one I can only describe as bored curiosity, to something astoundingly unfamiliar. And also astoundingly familiar. It’s just that I’d never seen that sort of expression on him. His face softened, the lines seeming to disappear, as his gaze shifted from me to some invisible thing behind me somewhere, something only he could see. He lingered for a moment on that word. Because.
There have only been a two times in my life that I can safely say I’ve witnessed the descriptive cliché, “and then his face lit up.” The first time was in Philadelphia, when a waiter set the most beautiful osso buco I’ve ever seen down in front of the dedicated foodie I was dining with, and I watched his entire face lift into an expression of happiness I’ve never seen before or since. The second was when I told a teammate that his arch-nemesis in an adjacent department had just given two weeks’ notice, laughing when he actually gasped in delight, like a child on Christmas morning who just discovered that he had been given the gift he’d always wanted.
The third time was that afternoon on our sleepy little campus, watching my coworker dig deep into the recesses of his faith and pull back what its greatest symbol meant to him. The because was still lingering between us, when he said, “They represent a perfection yet a cleansing, and I think that’s beautiful.”
I have no idea what that means. I’ve thought about it a lot since he said it, and I can’t even begin to fathom it. Perfection is something I don’t believe possible or desirable, and the concept of cleansing, in a religious context, makes me profoundly uncomfortable. While I can see how cleansing is a comforting thought to someone who believes in sin, it seems like an oppressive concept to someone who doesn’t.
Yet my disappointment in not understanding his response in the slightest was countered by my ability to connect with his expression. It looked something like how I’d felt the first time I read Whitman’s Song of Myself, or the day my best friend, who was almost as broke as I was, gave me the last fifty dollars in her bank account because she thought I needed it more than she did.
It was joyfully transcendental. It was lit up yet peaceful, both his eyes and his mouth smiling. The words were foreign, but I connected with his face. I know that feeling, inside and out, and I could go there with him. I could be in the moment, and I could understand what he felt without understanding why.
I can’t say that my coworker’s blissful moment of sublimity or that the Jesuit spirit I so admire moved me to re-embrace the religion of my family. I don’t want to go back to church, or celebrate Christmas. They haven’t persuaded me to believe in God, but they have done something that, for me, is even more beautiful—they’ve made me want to.
CASSANDRA MORRILLY is the pen name of a writer who was raised in rural Ohio before receiving a BA in English from Seton Hall University, followed by an MA in Literature from the University of Colorado. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her pack of ravenous terriers. You can read more of her writing at cassandramorrilly.wordpress.com.
I worry about how my feet look to the young Thai woman giving me a pedicure. I don’t have any bunions, but my nails have this whitish tinge that I’m ashamed of. The woman sands my weathered heels with a porous, pistachio-colored block.
Across the room, I can see Jennifer Lopez’s face glowing on the cover of InStyle magazine. Her skin is golden and shiny like a flan. I Google her on my phone. She is eight years younger than I am. I take comfort in the fact that, even eight years ago, I never looked that good. I pick up the People magazine on the chair next to me but recognize none of the starlets in the pages. The one actress I do know—Melanie Griffith—I barely recognize. She is no shiny dessert. Something has gone wrong on her face. Her lips are bulbous, cheeks lumpy, eyes startled and buggy. She is building a wall of fillers and neurotoxins to hold back the tide of aging and it isn’t working. I Google her on my phone. She is eight years older than me. I am exactly between Jennifer and Melanie. I wonder if eight more years will do to me what they’ve done to Melanie. I realize that her extensive plastic surgery and too much time in the Hollywood sun may have aged her prematurely, but I also have first-hand experience of how the aging curve isn’t so much a slope, but a cliff. Three years ago I had perfect eyesight, and now I can’t read a book, let alone an aspirin bottle, without my glasses.
My body is beginning to soften and wear out. The skin on my neck is what I heard a woman describe as withering. It’s beginning to look like my mother’s neck, a fine, wrinkly mesh of powder-soft skin. When I see it up close in my magnifying mirror, it startles me. I think there is a stranger in the bathroom. Melanie must know the feeling. My knees hurt after I run, and I understand why Anne Lamott calls her thighs her “aunties.” When I look at mine they seem like relatives. They are dimpled and jiggle when I pat them, like my cat’s belly.
While my physical shell becomes more foreign, there are other changes going on that are all too familiar. I’m increasingly anxious, emotional, and squirrelly, and this woman is no stranger. It’s me at fourteen. Now fifty-one, I’m embarking on my second great hormonal shift. My body is betraying me at the most inopportune times—meetings and crowded trains—but instead of bleeding, I sweat. Hot flashes are disruptive and a total bitch and I have sworn off turtlenecks, wool, and pullover sweaters. Luckily, the hot flashes strike only five to eight times a day—whereas the mood swings go 24/7. I have no control over my emotions.
They are mercury—fluid and slippery—vacillating between anger, worry, and indecision. Like the teenager I was thirty-five years ago, I’ve lost my confidence and not just about my looks. I used to feel strongly about things—the color of a wall, the wording of a headline—and now I second-guess everything. I’ve started buying the same food at the grocery store every week. I thought confidence was supposed to increase with age and experience, but mine seems to be dwindling away along with my muscle tone and eyebrows.
It’s too soon for me to be able to label my fifth decade, but if the first year is going to set any precedent, this decade seems as if it’s going to be one of change. I hate change. My friend calls this transition the second “tweener” stage.
For most of my life, I had a clear purpose. In my twenties, I was focused on my career, dating potential mate material, and drinking as fast as I could. In my thirties, I had two children; that was enough. In my forties, I was busy raising those kids, getting sober, getting divorced, and trying to jumpstart my dead career.
What does a woman do in her fifties? I’m too young for retirement. I’m too tired to harbor exhausting illusions of setting the literary world on fire. I’m no longer eye candy for letches at the gym. I’m done procreating and almost done parenting; my children need my financial, and occasional, moral support, but I could disappear for a few days and they wouldn’t notice. (Really. Last Sunday I returned home from a well-planned girlfriend’s weekend. When I popped my head into my son’s room to say hello, he pulled off his headphones and asked where I’d been.)
When I was younger—like forty-two—I imagined that in my fifties I’d be coming into some Gloria Steinem–style glory, my feet solidly planted, full of knowledge about myself, and secure in my place in the world. I did not expect to feel like a shivery sixteen-year-old girl with wrinkles. Before my divorce, this was going to be a time of my life when I enjoyed a lot of butter, not when I still worried about what I looked like naked.
It’s not that I wasn’t prepared for any of this—people age and get divorced, children grow up—but it still surprised me. Even though the path I’m on is worn from the footsteps of generations of women who have gone before me, I feel lost.
I thought I was a hip mom, the kind who stayed abreast of fashion, trends, and technology. I may not know who Leighton Meester is, but I listen to The Shins. And yet, there are things about my kids I don’t understand. I wouldn’t call it a generation gap, maybe a generation crack. The day I turned sixteen, I ran out and got my driver’s license. It was a rite of passage for me. But my children, now sixteen and eighteen, have no interest in driving. When I prodded, my oldest said, “Why would I want to contribute to the demise of the Earth, which you’ve already destroyed?”
This same son has a friend who is a girl. The first time I walked into his room and found the two of them passed out—one sprawled horizontally on the bed, the other vertically, a “T” for teenagers—I gasped and backed out of the room quietly. Although I had purchased a large tin of condoms for my son—hip mom!—I was shocked. A part of me felt that this was wrong. Should I worry about the young girl’s honor? I definitely felt I should notify her mother and did. She knew. She reassured me that our children were just friends. “All the kids have co-ed sleepovers now. It’s great,” she said, clearly the hippest mom of all.
When I ask my boys how to take video with my iPhone or what SnapChat is and why Facebook would pay millions for it, they give me the look I gave my father when I found out he didn’t know how to use an ATM—that he was a cantankerous footnote in the path of progress. This was not going to be me, and yet this is me.
My anxiety has always been kept in the wings by the grace of youth, knowing there was time to fix things. I miss that grace. People I know and love (some of them my contemporaries) are dying, and I forgot to save for retirement and college and my days are long with work and commute and gym and cooking and cleaning and weed pulling and worry. Now that I’m awash in hormones, my anxiety is center stage, delivering a soliloquy. It’s titled, “You don’t know what you’re doing and your life is almost over.”
I’m standing at my kitchen sink, fanning myself, when outside my window I see my neighbor, Leta, in her yard. She’s two months from turning 102, yet still drives her brown Chevrolet sedan to the market and plays bridge several times a week. Leta’s struggling with an umbrella the wind has blown over. I run over to help. We both decide the umbrella is done for and I close it up and set it on her patio. We sit around her table and she tells me who she’s lost since the last time we spoke: her brother; her friend, Claire; her friend, Nita. She is grateful that she feels good and doesn’t have to rely on a live-in caregiver who might steal from her like Nita’s did, cleaning out her jewelry box and driving off in Nita’s car.
Leta is twice my age. She has been through the tweener and second tweener stages. And yet, she doesn’t really have any wisdom for me. “Life just is,” she says. “You make the best of it.”
A friend invited me to house sit for a week in Mendocino, and my older son said he wanted to go with me. I told him that I’d be reading and writing and walking a lot, that I wasn’t planning on doing a lot of talking. He said that suited him just fine. He was leaving for college in the fall. This would be our last “normal” summer.
At dinner our first night, I expected to sit in silence, but he asked questions: how was my book going, what was my friend’s book about, what did I like to read? He told me he liked abstraction. He liked the fried calamari that he recently had in Berkeley. He liked the book he was reading, The Woman in the Dunes. He was on the other side of his first tweener stage and enjoying his new confidence. All these opinions! “This is who I am,” he was telling me. For now, it is who he is. And this is who I am: a moist, sweaty woman in the middle of a change. It will be okay.
EILEEN BORDY lives and writes in Northern California. She’s almost down to one kid, but she’s up to three cats. She has her fingers, toes, and everything else crossed that her first novel will be published soon.