The Mark I Chose

Photo courtesy Pennie Bisbee Walters
Photo courtesy Pennie Bisbee Walters

By Pennie Bisbee Walters

I tried to talk my sons out of getting tattoos. To me, tattoos seemed like something for circus performers or punk rockers: a way to mar lovely, pristine skin. They were ugly, in design or placement, sometimes both, like the one of a snake I’d seen creeping up the cheek of a man’s face at the beach. I’d been noticing more and more tattoos during our summer beach vacations. Military sayings like Semper Fi stretching across a young man’s shoulders, the black words stark against his sunburnt skin. An intricate lacy sleeve of bright flowers and ivy covering a barista’s arm from wrist to shoulder. The odd trail of pink stars on the calf of the mother holding her toddler’s hand.

Snakes. Someone else’s words. Flowers and ivy. Colored stars. They were all unnecessary and permanent, I told Tim and Sam. What design could you get that you’d never regret? Don’t forget. You have a tattoo forever. But kids are all about the here and now. Tim, who was sixteen at the time, talked about getting a tattoo of Pittsburgh’s skyline or the small black-and-tan outline of our family dog. Sam, who is nearly four years younger, wanted a tattoo of the Coca-Cola polar bear, but with a bottle of Mountain Dew instead of the cola, claiming to be a rebel. I didn’t know if they were serious or just trying to provoke me, but I hoped the urge would pass before they turned eighteen and could get one without my assent.

•••

The idea first came to me while skimming through a small tabloid newspaper while I waited at a restaurant. Maybe it was the colorful ads for punk band concerts and head shops or the small brown tattoo of an owl on the back of the hostess’s calf that my daughter Meg pointed out. Something made me turn to her and say, “I’d like to get a tattoo someday. One of Tim’s birthdate or name or something.”

Meg snickered, then said something like, “Oh you’d never do that.” But my sister Kim said, “Yeah, that would be a nice thing to do. To remember him.”

•••

After getting a haircut one bright afternoon in August, I walked the four blocks to a Starbucks for a mocha, a drink that, in my grief, had become a staple—something about the warmth of it in my hands and its decadence. Allowing myself that indulgence was, in a weird way, a self-kindness that was still hard for me. I had to remind myself I was worthy of it. Like I reminded myself kids with good parents were dying every day. From cancer or car accidents maybe, though not drugs. Maybe I had been a good parent. But despite the number of drug overdoses—in Pittsburgh and everywhere else it seemed—it was still something I didn’t believe.

Kayla was standing beside the tattoo parlor three blocks down from my hairdresser, her head shaven except for a small blue tuft above her forehead. One side of her skull boasted her newest tat: a black tarantula beside the pink open bloom of a flower. Weeks before, I’d seen her photo on Facebook and thought, as a mother would, Oh Kayla, what are you doing to your body? That tattoo was just the latest in a series that spread across her chest and legs and arms. What led her to get one after the other after the other? Wouldn’t she someday regret at least one of them?

“Hey,” she said.

“Hi, how are you?” I walked up and hugged her. I remembered the card she sent to me after. I remembered all of them.

“I’m good. You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m doing okay.” I noticed the blue lipstick around the filter of the lit cigarette dangling in her hand. Blue lipstick looked so natural on her. The tattoos probably helped with that. “Hey, I’m thinking of getting a tattoo. Of my son’s handwriting. Can they do that?”

“Oh, that is so cool. What a great idea.” She dropped her cigarette to the cement and ground it out with the toe of her shoe. “Come talk to Ed about it.”

Ed was tall and in his forties, with a long gray ponytail and tattooed arms. His stencil machine could make an exact tattoo of Tim’s handwriting for just fifty dollars—what seemed a pittance. Before the parlor door even closed behind me, I knew that I would do it. It would go on the inside of my right wrist because he was right-handed. I could peek at it whenever I wanted to. It would be my secret.

•••

I made myself go into his bedroom, hoping to find his handwriting on a school paper in his desk drawer or a page of his Narcotics Anonymous workbook, if I could bring myself to read through it again. I’d read it the day after he was found, but remembering anything from those first days was like pulling something out of the ocean’s center, bottomless and dark. Some memories were just gone. I was thankful for that.

As soon as I stepped onto the dark blue shag carpet, I took a deep breath. This room still held things from his good years, before he got sick, before things went so far they could never be the same. Baseball trophies, bobbleheads from Pirates games with his brother and dad. The faceless brown bear I’d named Bruno before Tim could talk. The thin white poster board covered in pictures of him. Of us all together. After the viewing, I’d propped it up against the mirror of his dresser, unable to pull the pictures off.

And now I wanted the tattoo there on the inside of my wrist. To look down and see it throughout the day and night. We had lost so much of him. He left his belongings on buses or at friends’ places where he’d stayed briefly those days he had nowhere else to go. And items I suspected he’d sold for drug money—his Xbox 360, my favorite Laurel Burch earrings, Meg’s nano iPod. Other things had probably been stolen by roommates when he lived at three-quarter-way houses after rehab, things we’d bought him before realizing just how much shit we were in, things that were cheap but desirable to someone who had little: the e-cigarette we bought him to keep him from the real, more dangerous kind, the black rainproof jacket with the warm fur lining, the silky soft throw because he loved the feel of soft things against his skin. All those things had gone missing, along with the son I’d known.

•••

When I couldn’t find anything with his handwriting in his room, I remembered the Mother’s Day card he wrote to me when he was seventeen and still living at home. It was a bright shade of yellow, an oddly cheerful color for him to choose then; he always seemed to be somber, even sullen. The front of the card read “from your son. Mom, because of you, I grew up a healthy, well-mannered person who always tries to make the right decision,” and the inside read “As far as You know anyway.” Those words mocked me, since I knew he was already smoking marijuana then. Arguments about it had replaced civil conversations between us, despite the therapists and doctors, despite my pleading. Below the typed words “Happy Mother’s Day!” were the handwritten words, “From Tim!” that he’d scratched out and replaced with “Love, Tim!” when my husband Ken pointed out “From” was unnecessary. Tim sometimes needed to be reminded of what was obvious, lost as he was in the outer-space regions of his teenage mind.

•••

My tattoo would be monochromatic and simple: the words Love, Tim! in black ink. What my son wrote to me. His printing. His words. I imagined seeing them whenever I turned over a soapy dish in my hands or spread lotion that smelled like oranges and ginger across the dry palms of my hands. I’d linger in those tasks, seeing the black, block handwriting that wasn’t yet there. I could feel him write the words, his hand twisted around the pen, face tight with concentration. He had hated his handwriting homework, even before the torture of writing cursive letters began, but now those shapes he hated drafting seemed to be all I had left.

•••

On my fifty-fourth birthday, I felt like a switch had flipped inside me. I had to get the tattoo that night. The urgency I felt was a wave pushing me along. I didn’t resist.

“Hey there. What can I do for you?” Ed said. He was the only one working at Jester’s Court Tattoo that night.

“Hi. I was here before. I’m Kayla’s friend. I wanted to have a tattoo made from this card.” I opened it and pointed to Tim’s words.

“Oh yeah, I remember. Just words, right? We can do that. It’ll be fifty dollars.”

We stood together looking at the card, and I explained how I wanted to include the exclamation point but not the thin underlining that Tim had drawn under his name. Meg and I had debated in the car whether to include those extra markings. At first, I thought I’d just include his name, but then decided that Love was an equally important word, since I knew in my heart that it was true. Despite how things had ended.

One of our last phone conversations had convinced me of that love, relieved me of a little bit of my guilt. That talk had been an absolution, a gift, though I didn’t see it at the time. Love, however powerful, was not, it turned out, strong enough to cure or rescue or tame. But love lived on in spite of death, of heartbreak, of a parent falling short. I had learned that much.

Meg liked the punctuation mark because it showed the exuberance and energy he had then. I liked the idea of a marker that showed who he once was, before the addiction took full hold. Thinking of him adding the exclamation point made me smile, although it made me feel sad, too. Every memory had those two opposing sides: happiness and sorrow. Glad to have known him, so sad that he was gone. I lived a dichotomous life now.

“Take a seat here and get comfy. I’ll be back in a flash,” Ed said, walking to the stencil machine. When he returned and handed the card back to me almost gingerly, like he knew its value, I slipped it carefully back into the plastic sleeve I’d brought it in and laid it beside me on the chair. He rubbed my wrist down with alcohol and then a milky lotion to help the stencil ink stick to my skin. He showed me the stencil first, then peeled the back of it off and held it parallel to my wrist, ink side down.

“I want it tilted so I can read it.”

He shifted the paper, waited for my okay, and then pressed it onto my skin for several seconds, rubbing it once with his thumb. When he peeled the stencil back, Tim’s words were left behind.

The needle, when he took it out of sealed plastic wrapping, was longer than I’d imagined and reminded me of the IV needle the nurse had pushed into my skin the night I went into labor with Tim nearly two weeks early. I’d felt so unprepared to parent him.

I watched Ed feed the needle into the top of the small machine and turn a stubby knob until the needle was in place. Holding the gun in his hand like a pencil, he dipped the needle into a cup of black ink the size of a thimble. I heard a thick buzzing noise as he tested the machine, operating it through a small pedal on the floor near his feet. He bent over my wrist and I heard the buzzing again as he began at the top of the letter L. I watched as the needle punctured the skin on my wrist, leaving ink on top of the purple stencil markings. When I asked Kayla what getting a tattoo felt like the day I stopped into the parlor, she said like a cat scratching your sunburn. For me, it was just a subtle scraping, dull and somehow distant, like it was imagined or in the past. Maybe I wanted to feel Tim so badly that I welcomed the feeling of his words being etched into my skin, my body that had held him for those eight and a half months, kept him safe. Maybe the tattoo really didn’t hurt much. Maybe it did, but I was too numb to feel it. Or maybe I wanted to feel pain to feel him again, I don’t know. I only know the needle felt light and quick.

When we left the tattoo parlor, my wrist wrapped with bright purple tape, I was euphoric, a feeling little known to me since Tim’s death. I felt lit and warm and accompanied in a way I hadn’t when I walked in. My skin was now home to a secret kinship, a shelter for a part of my tender, vanished son, suddenly found.

•••

When I’d seen him last, his hair had grown shaggy and wild again like when he first started using. He mostly wore black cotton t-shirts that hung on him like a tent and bore the silhouettes of Notorious B.I.G. or Big Pun. I’d grown used to those XL shirts that swallowed up his five-foot-eleven frame, his narrow hips and shoulders, as if he wanted to hide, his pants so long and wide-legged they billowed up around his bright green and white skate shoes. His clothes were more than a fashion statement: He didn’t want anything pressing in on him.

•••

For weeks, I babied the skin of my right wrist, following Ed’s instructions carefully: wash three times a day with an antibacterial soap, pat it dry with a paper towel, then rub in a fragrance-free lotion and let the tattoo get some air. I enjoyed the ritual of it, the patting dry with a gentle touch, the feel of the lotion, cool and soft.

•••

When I first considered the tattoo, imagined the script carved into my wrist, I kept going back to my penultimate conversation with Tim. I said before it was a gift, though I spent much of the call pleading with him to listen, to hear me, when—I see it now—he was no longer capable of it. The addiction had suppressed his ability to listen, the way that other diseases suppress your immune system, leave you unable to fight. Maybe if I tell you what he said, you’ll understand. Even without having been in my shoes those six years. Maybe it will be enough to recount his words that day.

I had been at my office with a stack of pages to edit, but I was getting little done. Most days were like that for me then. A struggle to focus, to care about work when my son’s life—and therefore mine—was becoming a natural disaster. He’d been texting me for forty-five minutes, seeking my approval, my acknowledgement that his plan for the immediate future held merit.

Here’s what he was planning to do just weeks after his second overdose and week-long hospitalization: move into an apartment with Jake, a young man about his age whom he met at rehab. Two addicts who thought the occasional use of marijuana or can of beer would be no problem. Two addicts still living in denial, unable or unwilling to face the reality of their disease.

When the phone rang, I considered not answering. I had so much work to do, and debates with him took a circular path, his reasoning so illogical there was no possible resolution. Afterward, I had trouble retracing the tangled branches of his thought. It was, I suppose, a symptom of his drug use, his brain struggling to follow its own thoughts, the connections numbed or diverted. But I knew I had to try.

“Hi, Tim,” I said, doing my best to not sound annoyed and probably doing a poor job of it. I was lousy at hiding how I felt, especially with him, especially when I felt afraid or angry—two emotions he always seemed to bring out in me.

“Hey, Mom.” His voice always sounded monotonic, flat and emotionless, his mind forever planted firmly somewhere in the middle of happy and sad. I wondered if he ever felt anything anymore without drugs.

“Tim, I think you need to go back to rehab now. It’s what you need. Not moving in with Jake.” When he didn’t respond, I kept going. “You almost died. Again. Tim, you need help.”

“Mom, it’s okay. I’m done with that shit. Jake and me are gonna get an apartment and it’s gonna be fine. I got my job now, and he’s working. We can afford it.”

“Jake is an addict, Tim. He’s a nice guy and a friend, I know, but he’s not good for you. Remember what they said at rehab? That you need to change your friends, your habits, your hangouts. It’s the only way. You need to find friends who are clean and have been that way for a while.”

“It’s fine, mom. He does a little marijuana now and then, but that’s okay. We can do that. A lil marijuana or a beer ain’t gonna hurt. I’m off the hard stuff, I promise.”

I swung my chair away from my desk until it faced the window. Hearing him talk that way was scaring me. Most of my knowledge of addiction came from the Sunday family sessions at rehab, and I remembered what the counselor said every week: Addicts had to leave their old friends behind. Old friends led to old habits and old habits led to relapse.

“Mom, did you hear me?”

“Yeah. You know you can’t drink at all anymore, Tim. Or use any drugs.”

“Mom, it’s okay. I can do it once in a while.”

“No, you can’t. Mel was clear on that. You can’t. You have to stop it all. And you have to get new friends.”

“Mom, I can’t. And I don’t want to. I have a job now, and I want to be out on my own. I can do this.”

I stood up and looked at the sky, at the single bird gliding toward the building just a hundred feet away. Tonight, when I was locking my door and heading out, the whole flock, black and busy, would be gathering on its rooftop. “Tim, you can’t. It’ll happen again and this time—” My voice fell into my throat and I started to choke up, my voice suddenly thin and wispy. “Tim, you can’t. You won’t survive it again. You…you will die. And I can’t take that, I can’t.” I started to cry. “I can’t let that happen, Tim. I love you. You have to do what you can to stay clean.”

“Mom, I love you too, but it’s my choice. I can’t go back to rehab. I just can’t do it again. I’m gonna move in with Jake, after I get a few more paychecks.” He paused, and I watched the lone bird land on the rooftop, his black silhouette clear against the darkening sky.

“And Mom, no matter what happens…if I die, it’ll be my fault, not yours.” The quiet between us thinned and stretched out, but I was too terrified to speak. I could hear the ticking of my office clock, the blood rushing in my ears. I began to sob openly, holding a wet Kleenex to my face.

“Mom, I know you and Dad love me. You guys are the only reason I’m still alive.”

•••

Looking back, I knew. The way he was talking, there was only one way things could turn out. He wouldn’t go back to rehab. He wouldn’t stay clean. He would make what few choices he could, decide the few benign things that drugs had left him control of, like it or not, without my help.

Today I wonder, was he saying goodbye to me? Did he know it, too? To leave me with those words I’d cling to just weeks later, words full of his love for me and Ken, proof that he knew all we had done to try and save him.

I don’t know the answer. But the word Love—the way he wrote it—on my wrist above and just to the left of his name—is how I remember that call, his words, uttered to me with all the certainty his numbed heart could feel, a mark of his love for me, true.

•••

PENNIE BISBEE WALTERS, who works as a technical writer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is currently working on a memoir about loving and losing a child who suffers from the disease of addiction. Her poems have appeared in Voices from the Attic.

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Knee Jerk

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Amy E. Robillard

When the birds wouldn’t stop shitting on our new patio furniture, I tried everything and then I called our friends who have guns. I asked them a) if it was legal to shoot birds within the city limits and b) if so, did they want to help us get rid of the birds who were making a mockery of us.

It’s not like this was just a pile or two of dried bird shit. No. I’m talking about multiple fresh globs of shiny white liquid bird shit. So many that they bled into one another. The birds weren’t flying overhead and shitting from the air. They were coming specifically to our furniture, resting on it, and shitting. The chair at one end of the table seemed to be a particular favorite. They were using our new teak furniture as their personal toilet. And the stoop right outside the sliding glass door, what we called Essay’s perch, where she liked to lie and sun herself.

We thought we had solved this problem two years earlier when we’d just moved into this house. At the old house, we kept two bird feeders, and my husband Steve diligently refilled it when it ran low. This was his project. I didn’t hate the birds the way I do now, but I didn’t participate either. When we moved into this house and the birds we were feeding began to show their gratitude by shitting all over the patio and our furniture—not quite as nice as the new teak, but not the point—I suggested moving the bird feeders to the back of the yard. When that didn’t help, we removed the bird feeders altogether. When they continued to shit, we bought a bobble-head owl and a falcon and staked them into the yard, moving them each time we mowed the lawn. Problem solved.

Until this spring. Looking back, I think it may have had something to do with the two dead birds we found in the yard within the space of three weeks. Were the birds who wouldn’t leave our airspace—the ones who constantly flew overhead cackling and cawing and landing on our end chair to shit—actually grieving? Was there a mourning period they had to observe before they could move on to shit in someone else’s yard?

To the branches of the trees I tied shiny reflective tape specifically designed to detract birds. It looked like we were gearing up to have a party. Festive streamers blowing in the wind. The damn birds flew right past them.

I ordered plastic snakes from Amazon. When they arrived a couple days later, I was pleased with their life-like slithering tongues sticking out of their pebble-sized heads, satisfied that they might make even me jump if I happened to forget that they were fake. I distributed them on the patio and on the furniture, paying special attention to the favored end-chair toilet. Steve and I ate dinner that night on the patio beneath the stars with three rubber snakes at the other end of the table.

I ordered yellow eyeball balloon detractors from Amazon. Three balloons per package. Except they’re not really balloons. They’re more like beach balls decorated with six red “eyes” that are supposed to resemble the eyes of predators and cause birds to redirect their flight patterns. When they arrived, I went to the basement to find the foot pump. I came back up to the kitchen, attached the silver stickers to the six red circles on each of the balloons, and set to pumping. Both dogs cocked their heads, puzzled by my project. By the time I got them inflated and hanging from the branches of the trees in the yard, I was sweating, my hair was falling loose from my ponytail, and I was desperately thirsty. But before going inside, I stepped off the footstool to admire my handiwork.

From each of the biggest trees hung reflective streamers, two per tree, each five or six feet long, and one yellow inflated balloon decorated with six red eyeballs. A bobble-head owl and a falcon each staked its claim to the lawn. A dozen rubber snakes littered the patio and the table. The overall effect might be described as quasi-festive, and I could imagine a newcomer backing away slowly upon entering, wary of the invisible traps surely hidden strategically throughout the yard. I may have lost my sense of perspective.

•••

I have never once shot a gun. I’ve never held a gun or even a bullet and I’ve never had any interest in doing so. We do have three guns in the house, all given to Steve by family and all kept in cases primarily as family heirlooms. Two are shotguns and one is a Winchester rifle and I wouldn’t be able to name the differences among them if my life depended on it.

We have friends who hunt. They’re gun enthusiasts, you might say. One day Steve and AJ got to talking about Steve’s guns, and AJ asked to see them. Steve told him about their history, and AJ offered to teach Steve how to clean them. They set a date to do so, and they spent hours taking the guns apart, AJ showing Steve the tiniest details and intricacies of cleaning them. The one he couldn’t quite get apart, though, was the Winchester. “Okay if I take this home with me and ask a buddy to help me figure this out?” he asked Steve.

“Of course. No problem. Do whatever you can.”

“And then I’ll bring it back and one of these days I’ll teach you to shoot.”

I had been teaching most of the time they’d been cleaning the guns, but I was back home by this point. AJ looked over at me and chuckled. “And Amy can join us.” He looks at me. “If you want.”

“Yeah, I’m thinking I’d probably shoot my own foot off or something.”

When AJ returned a few weeks later with the Winchester reassembled and cleaned, he also brought with him his AK-47 to show Steve, who has an avid interest in military history. It was a monstrous case. He heaved it up and lay it on our kitchen counter, opened it up, and I saw, in my home, an honest-to-God military-style assault rifle. I had never seen one before. I took a quick look and backed away, uneasily, as if it might jump out of its case at me. I made a joke about knowing some people I’d like to use it on, and even as the words escaped my mouth, I was shocked. But I kept going. “I now have access to an AK-47,” I said. “Somehow that makes me feel better.”

I think sometimes we don’t have control over the words that come out of our mouths. Maybe they come from the most primitive part of our reptile brains, the part responsible for regulating our breathing and our balance. My words were a knee-jerk reaction, and while we commonly think of a knee-jerk reaction as something we say without thinking, it is also something that literally provides balance with little conscious thought. Our knee jerks out reflexively to keep us standing when we might otherwise collapse. The words that come from our reptilian brains, the deepest parts of ourselves, are those that keep us balanced, the ones that help us maintain equilibrium.

The family I grew up in did not communicate well. We were not taught how to express our emotions and we were not affectionate with one another. We isolated ourselves from one another, my mother with her soap operas in the living room, me with my books in my bedroom, and my siblings with who-knows-what in their bedrooms. We walked past each other on the way to the refrigerator at home and in the hallways at school. My sister expressed her own frustration and anger by beating me. “As soon as Ma leaves, you’re dead. I’m going to kill you.” I stored my anger inside for years, feeling it solidify into depression and shame, and ever so very gradually, as an adult, working to alchemize it into a tentative and ultimately confident belief that I have a right to my own feelings. Some days I still have to work at it.

What I am trying to say is that, though I make my living teaching others about the value of language, the power of the written word, the lingering, life-or-death effects of the words we choose to speak, I understand that sometimes we don’t choose our words and sometimes violence just seems easier, so much more efficient.

•••

When I teach undergraduates about the concept of ideology, I ask them to think about it using the metaphor of marinade. As products of an ideology, we are the meat that is being marinated. The marinade is the ideology—the coherent set of values, beliefs, and ideals that guides our thoughts and actions, that shapes our perception of reality, and that largely remains invisible. When a piece of meat has marinated in a mixture of seasonings and sauce for a long time, the marinade becomes part of the meat. It infuses and is therefore inseparable from the meat. One can no more easily remove the marinade from the meat than one can remove the brain from the body. And a piece of meat needs time to marinate. One cannot marinate a piece of meat in five minutes, just as one cannot subscribe to a new ideology in a week.

The marinade I grew up steeped in was this: Your life is not valuable. Nothing about you is valuable. You’re fat and ugly and stupid. I’m going to kill you.

You’re dead. You’re dead. You’re dead.

My life was not precarious because my life was not valued. I have never been afraid to die. I am still trying to understand that most people value life. Most people love their families. Many days there’s still a mental hitch I have to get past when I consider this. Infused in me is a belief that I am not valuable. I marinated in it for too long a time when I was too impressionable. Beliefs can change. Of course they can. But the original beliefs, the original flavor of that first marinade is still there. It cannot ever be removed. It can only be masked.

There’s a certainty for me in sadness. I know sadness. I know boredom. I know depression and I know fear. I’m comforted by disappointment because I know how to respond. I don’t know how to respond to good fortune. It’s not where I live.

I have always felt most comfortable in discomfort. I learned from my mother that when things were calm, when nothing was unsettled in the house, the way to make it so was to pick a fight. What are you thinking about? Why don’t you ever talk to me? Why don’t you ever fill up the sugar canister when it gets low? Why am I always the one who has to do the grocery shopping? You don’t really love me, do you?

Bring what’s inside out: the self-loathing and the bottomless insecurities. Share them so that you’re not so alone loitering in your despair.

•••

When the birds would not stop shitting on our patio furniture, I wanted to shoot them. I thought of AJ and how I had access to guns now. I tried shooing them off using the jet setting on the hose nozzle, but that didn’t work. It didn’t stop me from trying. Picture me standing there in my yard on an early summer evening, on a quiet street in a quiet city in the Midwest, in my shorts and tee-shirt, no bra, among my plastic birds of prey and my predator eyeball balloons, shooting the jet spray straight up in the air, onto the roof and into the dense branches of the trees, cursing under my breath at the birds who would not leave us alone.

Knowing that I had access to an AK-47 changed my thinking when I couldn’t get rid of these nuisance birds. I was being reasonable. I was doing all of the things the internet told me to do. They were still in our airspace. “This is a no-fly zone!” I yelled at them as they flew by. My rational approach wasn’t working and I knew something that would. Shoot the motherfuckers.

Not that I would actually use an AK-47 on the birds. Of course not. I would ask AJ to come over and use whatever kind of gun one uses to shoot birds. I had figured out that these weren’t random birds. It seemed to be just four or five birds who kept coming back to the yard to shit, stopping on their way to our neighbor’s yard for food. This strengthened my theory about their being in mourning. Maybe it was a family.

After the horrifying shooting in Orlando, I decided to give blood not because I thought it would help anybody there, but because I felt helpless after signing the petitions to ban military-style assault weapons and imploring Congress to do something about terror suspects’ access to guns. Doing something physical felt good. While going through the preliminary health screening, the technician was surprised to find that my pulse was just fifty. “Is it always this low?” she asked me. I shrugged my shoulders. “I have no idea.” A pulse of fifty is the Red Cross’s minimum for blood donors, so I just made the cut-off. Usually it was my iron level that was a cause for concern.

Later, when I told Steve about my pulse, he remarked that that’s the heart rate of an athlete. It means I’m really healthy, that my heart doesn’t have to work very hard to pump the blood throughout my body. “Maybe it’s all the walking I do with the dogs,” I said. “Or maaaaaybe it means I’m dying.” This was a familiar trope in our home. I was always turning the slightest problem, the tiniest bump or bruise, into a life-threatening disease. I was always dying. I am always dying. I have never really learned how to expect this life to continue, to believe that what I do matters, to think of any of it as permanent.

Just the other day I read a piece in the New York Times about therapists’ developing understanding of depression being rooted not in past traumas but in an inability to anticipate a positive future. And it occurred to me how much of my life I have spent unable to anticipate a future. Yet here I still am.

I heard a rumor a few months ago that one of my colleagues has a gun and he wants to use it. This comes to me fourth- or fifth-hand, so its veracity is anybody’s guess, but though my response when I heard it the first time was an exaggerated disgust, I think I understand that desire. When you have something shiny and new, you want to use it. It occupies your thoughts. You shape your actions and plans around it. You think, When I get home, I’m going to switch my old purse for my new one right away. You think, I can’t wait to find an outfit that works with these new shoes. You think, I can’t wait to try that new lens on my camera. You think, I can’t wait to use my gun.

Possession of a shiny new object changes your thinking. Likewise, knowing you have access to that object changes what is possible. This knowledge affects the ways you troubleshoot problems.

Writing this makes my pulse go up a little. It scares me to think of myself as somebody who professes to believe in the power of language but at the same time sometimes understands the will to violence.

I recently lost respect for somebody in almost an instant, and it occurred to me just how long it takes to build up respect for somebody, how long it takes to earn somebody’s respect, and how quickly we can lose it. Respect is earned slowly, over time, in tiny increments, through actions that show again and again what kind of person one is.

•••

The bird shit all over our brand new patio furniture was the ultimate sign of disrespect, day after day. At first it seemed so trivial. I mean, I was being driven to distraction by bird shit. But each morning, before I could go outside to enjoy a beautiful early summer morning with a cup of coffee on the patio, I’d have to get a roll of paper towels and the spray cleaner, grab a plastic bag, and gag my way through cleaning up globs of fresh shiny liquid white bird shit. I could feel my pulse rising. I took it personally. Why this yard? Why this furniture? Why us?

I wanted to reason with the birds, to show them that I’m really a good person, that we’re good people, that my dogs are lovely, that we deserve a little bit of peace. I’d have to do it slowly, over time, but birds don’t understand language. I knew I couldn’t really shoot them.

Violence is a perceived shortcut to respect. And a gun is nothing if not a symbol of violence. To have a gun or have access to a gun is to have near-immediate respect. A gun says, You will respect my power to snuff out your life in an instant.

A gun says, I don’t have time to earn respect. Instead I demand it.

A gun says, Look at me. Now.

A gun says, I don’t have time to persuade you. What if I can’t?

A gun says, I am afraid.

•••

My knee-jerk reaction to other people’s families, to animal families is to believe that they love one another. I never experienced that love, and I can name dozens of friends who have similar experiences with their own families, yet still I simply assumed, when considering why it was the same four or five birds flying over our yard, that it was probably a family in mourning. It seems that at the same time that I’d been marinating in the belief that I was worthless, that nobody loved me, I was also receiving and holding on to the message that other families were not like ours. Other families love one another. That’s what a family is. Never mind the stories you hear about domestic violence. Never mind the stories you hear about husbands shooting wives. Never mind your own experience.

I want to use this new understanding. It’s shiny and new, like a gun. It will not always seem so.

This new understanding says, Family members do not necessarily love one another.

This new understanding says, Blood is thin. It runs in times of danger.

This new understanding says, You were not alone.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays have also been published on The Rumpus and in Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Creative Nonfiction.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

The Changeling

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Lillian Ann Slugocki

Lucinda shows up in Wisconsin, on September 25 by way of North Carolina—our half sister from another mother. She is the younger, better version of me in every way, but I’m the only sibling that she talks to—there are three others.

She arrives after a twenty-five-year absence in our brother’s life; a seeker, a philosopher, convinced she can carry the weight of his impending death, that she could, in fact, be his angel of death. Like Charon, she has the gold piece for passage in her teeth at all times. She is both midwife and doula for the dying. Our first night together, at the all-night grocery store, Mark wears flannel pajama bottoms, white socks, flip-flops. His eye sockets are purple under the canopy of fluorescent lights. She’s Martha Stewart on crack:

Pro biotic for your belly. Score! Fresh ginger, for nausea, Ooooh, I like this soap, it’s organic, it’s lavender! I love these fruit cups! I love mandarin oranges! We’ll have lasagna for dinner tonight.

And he’s in absolute thrall to her: a school-boy crush, for this paragon of love and light. My god, so much light, so much energy—it crackles from her skin like static electricity. This girl is lit up. I trail behind the two of them; so animated, so colorful, it’s like watching a passion play. He willingly hands over all his power to her. I am completely stupefied, silenced, erased. Back at his apartment, breakthrough pain! Lucinda calls her mother, who is not our mother. Mark takes the phone, turns his face to the wall. He might be crying. I don’t know. I can’t bear to see him like this. It unhinges me. I smoke at the window in another room. Lucinda enters, crying—she takes my hand. She wants to be the doula for my pain and grief, too. But here’s the thing. It’s not what I want from her, at all.

I want her to get out of my way; I need her to shut up, be humble, bear witness, and respect a bond she knows nothing about. But she’s too high on her mission to help, to fix, to redeem—and doesn’t see this, or if she does, chooses to ignore it. I’ve been dispossessed in my role as the oldest sister, his oldest friend. She is the changeling who replaces me, and then tries to help me. When he’s passed out on his pain meds, she wants to go to a salon and get a pedicure, go shopping for new clothes, sample cheese curds, go for a drive. I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep, too. This is not a vacation. And does it really matter if your intentions are pure, and your compassion is real, but your actions ultimately create even more chaos? Who can really tell when times are so fraught?

I can see her mind working: He’s a cool guy, after all, full of flaws, like we all are, but also charismatic and funny. And I see her guilt and her regret, for ignoring him all of her life, but I can’t fix it for her. I can’t fix it for anyone. And I don’t want to. I don’t have the bandwidth. I have my own path to walk—this is my mandala. Go find your own.

At the V.A. clinic the next morning, his doctor examines him. He sits on the table, emaciated, yet still very much in his power, in his body, and still very hip, a rocker—in his black hat, purple hair, and Tibetan beads. We’re in an air-conditioned, windowless room, beige walls and tiled floors. Lucinda and I sit on folding chairs, facing them, doctor and patient, as if it’s a performance. And he’s the star of the show. At one point, the doctor says to him, So yes, you could die in your sleep, and that’s when Mark got up and left.

As I leave to follow him, I hear Lucinda still with the doctor: He needs a higher dose of Fentanyl, now. Today.

In the parking lot, in the sunlight, Mark leans against her neon blue rental. His beads are loose around his wrist and his neck. We don’t say anything. It’s too much; I try to hold him, but we both pull away. What if Lucinda sees? But also the idea of his death is just too crazy. We try to square up to his mortality—the white clouds roil in the sky above our heads. It’s a perfect September day. The leaves are just starting to turn. We’re on the south side of town, in a neighborhood I don’t recognize. He has six weeks to live. Lucinda triumphantly emerges from the clinic,

The patches, she announces, one thousand milligrams, will be in your mailbox, tomorrow! Fed-exed, baby.

Back at his apartment, she draws up a complex schedule for his complex meds, puts it in a spreadsheet, gets it printed, and tacked to the refrigerator. Also tacked to the refrigerator are all her cards and letters to him—spanning the entire length of their relationship, almost six weeks, including a selection of her favorite quotes from their time together:

Screw break out pain!

You’re like a real sister to me!

And taped to the purple wall in the hallway is a hand-painted birthday card from her son. It hangs next to a Xeroxed copy of a prayer by Tecumseh, a Shawnee Indian chief, which reads:

When it comes your time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.

•••

In the kitchen, she heats up the lasagna, and I pour vodka into a green plastic cup. Mark eats a tiny sliver of his dinner, and then they’re off to the dunes of Lake Michigan, so he can smoke his evening joint .I don’t go. It’s not my ritual. It’s theirs. I pour more vodka into the green plastic cup, which I drink in silence and utter confusion in his empty living room. The hospital bed is to my right, Tibetan prayer flags overhead, courtesy of Lucinda. When they get back, she kisses me on the cheek, says, I love you, and is gone. She sleeps at my aunt’s house. She’ll get her hands dirty, but not that dirty. I’m happy that I’m getting out of here tomorrow.

In the morning, I’m confident, at the very least, she’ll give me some space to say goodbye to him. I have to go home. I have a full teaching load. I have a dog. I pay New York City rent.I’m at the limit of how many classes I can miss before my pay is cut. In his bedroom, I’m packing; she arrives precisely at ten a.m. to take me to the airport. She picks up my hair brush, and pulls out a new one from Walgreens: Look! I got it for you on the way over! The old one is so gnarly. She marches into the living room, calls out his name:

Mark! Honey, hi, you up? Did you take the anti-nausea meds? Let’s look at the schedule.

He’s been avoiding me all morning, will not talk about how this might be my last morning on earth with you. I don’t want to go there either, but I do want five minutes at some point in the day, before I get on the plane, to say goodbye. Because it might really be goodbye. So, will you, Lucinda, will you give me that space? But it’s not looking good. I stand in the shadow of The Changeling, a sister he never really knew, who now controls everything. Because in the land of dying, everything is upside down. Everything is topsy-turvy. It’s like the circus has come to town. Lucinda and Mark make plans to eat lobster, in downtown Milwaukee, after they drop me off at the airport.

And I see as I get in the back seat, and they get in the front, that this is the way he wants it. He’s not going to say goodbye to me. It’s a much smoother ride with The Changeling in charge. It’s easier on him. He hardly knows her. He basks in her reflected light, as they talk cornfields and lobster rolls. I’m in the back still holding out hope—two minutes alone at the airport, that’s all I’m asking. This is all I want. And Lucinda is an exceptional woman. We’ve been friends for 20 years. She will honor this connection, which doesn’t include her, and step aside, but when we are pulling into the entrance for my airline, she says,

Let’s take a family picture!

She gets out, helping me with my bags, I whisper furiously to her,

I do not want to take a family picture.

And I can’t even manage to sound like a sane person. I’m acutely conscious that my head might explode. She wants a picture to post on social media? My brother looks terrible. I look terrible. I don’t want a digital snap shot, or simulacrum of any kind, of this day, this moment. This moment can burn in hellfire, the second I don’t need it to move to the next. Mark stands at the curb, says, What’s wrong? Lucinda, on the verge of tears, replies, She doesn’t want a family picture, and points at me. I pick up my suitcase and throw it at her. It’s too big and too heavy to make much headway, but I make my point.

I’m out of control.

Mark calls out to me, as I walk away, You’re coming back, right?

In the lounge, at my gate, I call my younger brother of the same mother, and tell him what has just happened. I stand in front of a row of floor to ceiling plate glass windows, overlooking a 747, illuminated by a brilliant afternoon sun. I’m center stage, on the red carpet, in the brightest spot in the room, practically blinded by the light, and I weep. It is such a relief to finally be the despairing, messy, breaking-down woman that I’d been holding back for so long and so hard. Everybody in the terminal watches me cry. It’s the happiest, and most satisfied I’ve been in weeks.

•••

The next time I fly back, The Changeling has vanished, for good, dethroned when my brother didn’t want to go along with their suicide plot. She said it was time, and he said, no. He texted me: She’s Dr. Kevorkian! Tell her to stay away! She got on a plane anyway. She called me from Atlanta. I knew her heart was breaking. I told her, don’t go. Turn around and head home. She didn’t listen. She didn’t know him. When he says no, he means it. She pounded on his door. Crying. Let me in. But it was over.

This long-lost half-sister brought him, for a brief time, what he needed—organization to the chaos of his dying. This must’ve been a relief, and maybe it even promised a different ending, a kind of redemption. But in the end, she didn’t prevail. She was banished. Two weeks later, I flew back into town, at his request. Left to our own devices, we watched movies and smoked pot with cousins and siblings, ate frosted cinnamon muffins for breakfast, and a candy bars for lunch. I didn’t try to fix him, redeem him, or help him.

I bore witness, and believe me, this is infinitely more difficult because it’s acknowledging that you are helpless, and power greater than you is in control. I tried to stay longer, but he said, no, go home. I knew better than to argue. He died a few days later.

He died like a hero going home.

•••

LILLIAN ANN SLUGOCKI has been nominated twice for Best of the Web, a Pushcart Prize, and was winner of the Gigantic Sequins prize for fiction. She’s been published by CCM, Seal Press, Cleis Press, Heinemann Press, Spuyten Duyvil Press, as well as Vol 1: Brooklyn, Bloom/The Millions, Salon, Entropy, The Nervous Breakdown, Hypertext Magazine, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, The Manifest-Station, The Forge Literary Magazine, BUST Magazine, Angels Flight, literary west, and others. Her latest book is: How to Travel with Your Demons (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2015). She founded BEDLAM: New Work by Women Writers, a reading series @KGB Bar. @laslugocki

How to Tell Without Words

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sarah Broussard Weaver

You can tell by the way his footsteps sound coming down the stairs if he’s having a grumpy morning or not. It’s okay—getting out of a warm bed sucks for you, too. Just don’t talk to each other until you’ve both had your coffee. The stronger the brew, the faster your moods improve. Talking while grumpy is always a bad idea. Kiss goodbye—a good kiss, not one of those ones you give your elderly relatives—when you separate for the day. A pat on the ass would be welcomed, too.

You can tell by the look in your child’s face how much her feelings were actually hurt. You clench your jaw so you don’t call the other kid a bad name. You know the other child’s mother might have done the same. Tomorrow they will be best friends again, and the rhododendrons are starting to bud, and your new kitten is getting so incredibly fluffy, and you plan to make a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting on Saturday. Life always goes on, but your child’s life has been too short for her to know that yet, so you must wrap her in the best furry blanket and cuddle her, until your words and touch permeate her being.

You can tell from the height of the bedside stack that you won’t ever have enough life to read all the books you need to read. There’s a sunny yellow puddle on the floor because you were too engrossed in the Abigail Thomas memoir to remember that you own dogs. Small dirty socks scatter across the floor because your children are real, not model children by any measure but the love they have for you, beyond what you’ve ever imagined receiving. The stately Mount Clean Clothes in your laundry room tells everyone you aren’t a good housekeeper. You smile when writing these words because you don’t care. Your husband is mostly silent when observing the laundry room (or any other room, honestly) so maybe he’s finally accepted that you’re not Marie Kondo or anyone like her. You can tell by your inner serenity in the house chaos that you aren’t willing to waste the life you have remaining on house perfection.

You can tell by your son’s jawline that he will be a man, sooner than can be tolerated, faster than is decent for a mother to have to endure. All you can do is hold him as long as he will allow it, patiently listen to his never-ending stories about things you care nothing about—the bad guys in Minecraft, the desire he has for a pocketknife, the funny thing his friend said which is really not funny at all, the newest Nerf machine guns that shoot foam bullets “ so super fast!” because it’s enough that he cares about them, and walk him to the basement—without complaining—to play video games because he won’t be scared to be alone forever.

You can tell by your daughter’s voice, attitude, face—all of her—that she has more confidence than you had at her age. Fourteen, and when she shrieks in laughter the entire cafeteria can hear and recognize it—no careful tittering for her. Her joy overtakes her and she roars, falls on the floor with its force, her mouth wide as the promise she holds. She stomps up to a boy who insulted her friend—not stopping her stomping until he is pinned to the wall like a fly on a corkboard—and informs him that what he did is not okay with her, and he will be apologizing now, and she claps her hands in front of him for emphasis. She radiates righteous anger. You are thrilled and you are jealous. You hope that she has more of all of it, of everything there is here, because surely no woman ever had as much of life as she deserves.

You can tell by your jeans button that you have gained weight. When you grasp your belly roll in both hands, marveling at its heft, at its rubbery texture, know that goddesses need solidity and heft, something to work with if they want to reign effectively. Just remember, you alone decide if you want to repaint or remodel your dwelling, and you alone can accomplish it. Whether the Venus of Willendorf was a fertility statue, a goddess, or ancient porn, she was made that way for a reason and so are you. Your breasts can and have nourished in more ways than one, and your children fight for your lap because it is cushioned for their needs. Praise yourself for your mightiness, for your strength, for your steadiness in a storm, knowing these things make you a sanctuary.

•••

SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER is a Southern transplant living in Oregon, a spouse, a mother of four children, and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. Find her at sbweaver.com or tweet her @sarahbweaver.

Read more FGP essays by Sarah Broussard Weaver.

You’re My Only

Photo courtesy Linda Kass
Photo courtesy Linda Kass

By Linda Kass

On the day my father turned eighty-eight—just over six years ago—my mother shuffled down the hospital corridor to visit him after surgery. Her five-foot stature diminished by degenerative arthritis and a series of falls, Mom had been the needier of my parents; my dad her loyal caretaker, driver, friend and, most of all, loving husband. She slowly pushed forward her walker, a metal substitute for my father’s arms that until then had always been there for her. This was the first time in their sixty-two-year marriage that she had to manage without him.

At the elevator, Mom stopped to sign a birthday card my sister bought for her to give to my dad. My husband gave her a book to steady the card and a pen.

She grasped the pen and, without pause, began to write. I looked over her shoulder and read her words.

You’re my only.

•••

I watched Mom sit in the chair at Dad’s bedside and gaze at his face. His decision to get knee replacements was part of his plan to keep the two of them together, to live independently. His bowed legs were failing him. By getting new titanic knees, he could continue taking care of my mother. As he slept, Mom held his hand in hers.

They were always holding hands. I’d often meet them for lunch at our neighborhood cafe. After we kissed goodbye, I’d watch them shuffle along the sidewalk to their car, Mom bent over, her eyes focused on the ground; Dad, a foot taller when they were younger, stooping to clutch her hand and support her weight. This image always left me wondering if it would be the last one I would see of them together.

•••

My parents were born within six weeks of each other in 1923, both to Jewish families—my father in the “waltz city” of Vienna, my mother in rural eastern Poland. Dad’s family immigrated to the United States in 1938, narrowly escaping the Nazi take-over of Austria. My grandmother wanted to live in the mainstream of American life, in a university town, in a place of opportunity. Dad was fifteen when they settled in Columbus, Ohio.

He finished high school and was halfway through college at Ohio State when, in 1943, he was drafted into the army. He served first with the ski patrol in the 10th Mountain Division located at Colorado’s Camp Hale. He contracted rheumatic fever there and, because of his understanding of the German language and culture, was transferred to an infantry unit and placed into military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Hagerstown, Maryland. His unit was redeployed to a military camp in Manchester, England, and assigned to the 63rd Division, with which he remained throughout the war.

From September of 1944 until April of 1945, Dad was part of a regiment in Paris during the time when Germans had infiltrated that city after the Battle of the Bulge. Reaching the level of staff sergeant, he assisted in the Alsace Mission, top-secret work involving the translation and analysis of captured papers on the German V-2 rocket, and helped locate installations at the Ziegfrid line, the defense demarcation between Germany and France. For his war efforts, he received a Bronze Star. Back in the U.S., he finished college on the GI Bill.

During this time, my mother’s family was fighting oppression—first, at the hands of the Soviets, then the Germans. When Mom was sixteen, her mother was deported to a Siberian work camp. Later, my mother and her father hid in a bunker underground to escape a Nazi concentration camp. Mom’s family reunited after the war, travelling to Krakow then Vienna, where my mother spent a year in medical school. Finally receiving affidavits of support to sponsor them, Mom and her parents set sail for America and settled in Atlantic City.

Shortly after their arrival in 1947, an aunt and uncle from Columbus invited my mother to live with them. Mom could resume her education at Ohio State, they said, quickly adding an even more persuasive argument to the parents of a single, twenty-four-year-old Polish daughter: a nice and handsome young man from Vienna finishing his degree at the university worked for them in their small office supply business.

A match was made.

•••

Other than feeling self-conscious about their foreign accents, I never thought much about my parents’ dramatic entries to the only country I knew. I took for granted their journey toward freedom and didn’t grasp the struggle that must have been part of their legacy as I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s. Now, I can only imagine the challenges for an immigrant woman still wrestling with a new language and culture, married with two young daughters—a former medical student turned Midwest suburban homemaker in an era when the work of being a wife and mother carried such urgency and social expectations.

I grew up thinking my mom hadn’t accomplished anything, all those afternoons she was waiting for me at the door, fixing me a snack, and making sure my sister and I understood the importance of an education. I watched my dad strive to build his business and spend many evenings doing volunteer work, part of his commitment to repay the kindness of a stranger—a Chicago businessman—who took a calculated risk on a Jewish family and sponsored their entry, a journey from Trieste to Ellis Island that spring of 1938. I didn’t know then that in the coming months and years, the war they barely escaped would destroy my father’s Viennese home, along with so many other residences, businesses, and synagogues.

Like most children and teenagers, I was in my own world and trying to fit in as one of very few among my peers who were first-generation Americans. I went on to college unaware of the deepening renewal of my parents’ commitment to each other. Their union seemed an anachronism back in the early seventies. During my twenties, while developing my career, I lived in Detroit and New York and was in a marriage that produced a son and ended in divorce. After I remarried at thirty-three and returned to Columbus, I was able to see my parents with fresh eyes. I used my journalism background as a license to ask detailed questions about their pasts to collect family history.

Over time, I gained a different lens, one that revealed two young European immigrants who found one another through quite distinct journeys but shared a deep desire for a safe haven in the middle of their new country. Shutting one door, opening another, and never looking back.

•••

Two years before Dad’s knee replacement surgery, my sister and I helped my parents move out of their condo to an apartment building with assisted-living and dining services. My sister was already at the condo when I arrived on the first day of what became a six-week process of thinning out the belongings of a lifetime. Mom sat in a chair wrapped in a white linen shawl that had turned up earlier that morning.

“Don’t be so quick to throw things out,” she said, watching my sister rummage through papers in the kitchen drawer. “Let me see them first.”

As I scanned the handwritten lists of names and phone numbers covering the desk, and the brief reminders scratched out and rewritten, my vague observations morphed into a troubling realization of the secret that our father had kept from us. It was confirmed as we later found Dad’s cell number scattered throughout the condo, neatly written on no less than three-dozen pieces of paper.

Mom had also saved countless birthday, Mother’s Day, and anniversary cards. Dad came through the kitchen as I was trying to gauge the sentimental value of one particular card. “Throw it away. It’s from our neighbor.” Muttering, as he walked away, “He’s dead.”

As we uncovered photos and albums from as far back as the early twentieth century, my sister and I realized that Mom had kept every card, every photo, every newspaper article, every memento. To her, everything mattered and she wanted to remember it all.

On the afternoon I planned to wade through Mom’s closet for giveaways, Dad went with my husband to watch the Buckeyes play Northwestern. My dad never used to miss Ohio State’s fall football season; I remember attending games with him throughout my childhood. But as Mom’s needs rose, attending a football game moved farther down his list of priorities. Left alone for hours with my mom, I took her to lunch and looked at old photos. I wasn’t prepared for the greeting I witnessed when Dad’s key turned the doorknob. Their eyes lit up for one another as if they had been separated for months.

•••

While Dad’s knees were like new, Mom’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. She had frequent falls. Her memory lapses became more numerous, although she continued to call forth the most obscure details of decades past. Dad still drove, played bridge, and voraciously read magazines and books—and continued as Mom’s loyal custodian. But in the fall of 2015, both of them ninety-two, he began admitting that taking care of my mother—something he’d considered a life’s mission—was no longer sustainable. For the first time in their enduring union, they would need to live apart.

A new memory-care facility opened just fifty yards from their apartment building. Mom became its first resident. For nearly a year, Dad visited almost all day, every day. I’d often come by and find my parents in Mom’s sizable room—she in her wheelchair and he sitting on an ottoman close beside her. They were holding hands and watching television, the sound blasting down the hall. She cared little for what was on the screen. The man at her side was the source of her happiness.

When she left this world last May, eerily on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mom and Dad were one month shy of celebrating the sixty-eighth year of their love affair. Instead we celebrated Mom’s life, and buried her on Mother’s Day. Dad had brought over Mother’s Day cards that he’d picked out weeks earlier, one for each of the moms in our family. I found a sealed envelope among his stack with my Mom’s name front and center, a heart drawn around it. I slipped the card from the pile and, later, unsealed the envelope, as if opening it for Mom. After the printed message from husband to wife—that she was the woman he would marry all over again—came three words in Dad’s shaky handwriting: “To my treasure.”

While Dad was heartbroken, he did what he always did in life. He pressed on. At Mom’s funeral, he told my best friend that he needed to “reinvent” himself. He added a fourth bridge game to his week, attended a few more Columbus Symphony concerts with friends from his senior residence, and even took a trip with my husband, our daughter, and me for part of my book tour in the Florida Panhandle. He engaged more deeply with friends and family. Always a realist, he knew life was precious and was determined to live fully for whatever days he had left.

When a nodule showed up on a lung CAT scan during an ER visit prompted by a fall last October, Dad handled the news with his usual pragmatism. He was uninterested in pursuing medical interventions.

“I’ve lived a long life,” he said. “A good life.”

By November, pneumonia and a lung infection left him weaker, and he developed an uncontrollable cough. Still, he’d get up around seven a.m., shower, put on a nice shirt and pants, a handsome sweater, and go down to breakfast. He continued to play bridge and would win most games. He read when he could. Right up to his last days, he possessed his gift of connection, a fellowship he’d built for a lifetime: with his business associates, with innumerable colleagues encountered through volunteer work, with his growing family from whom he took great pleasure, and with his network of friends.

Just eight days before he died, Dad had a nonessential physician appointment on his calendar that he had made months prior—to see his ear doctor. He seemed bent on making this visit to get his ears cleaned and have his hearing aids checked. He was extremely weak that morning and had trouble standing up with his walker. I told him I didn’t see how I could take him out that day. He was terribly disappointed—the appointment was on his calendar and Dad always showed up for every commitment he made. This one was no different.

So I called the doctor’s office and asked them to let me know if they had an opening in the afternoon. The receptionist phoned two hours later. They had a 3:45 p.m. cancellation and I took it. Dad rallied, as he often did, his will and determination pushing through. My sister came over as reinforcement and, together, we took him to the appointment. In the waiting room, we laughed; we shared personal stories. Dad voiced his impatience even though we were early and told him so. We laughed more. When finally in the treatment room, he chatted with the doctor and staff. My rather fast driving even got him back to his residence in time to have dinner with his friends. He was happy, grateful. He’d had a victory—one more in a life that he saw as so full of them.

•••

I keep going back to that March day of Dad’s first knee replacement, our trek with Mom to the fourth floor of the hospital. Except for the slightly glazed look in Dad’s eyes from pain medication he preferred not to take but did, he was alert, lying in a slightly reclined position, a serving table hovering over his lap. We placed his favorite Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream pie in front of him. On cue, the nursing staff came in to sing happy birthday. As they filed out, Mom handed Dad her special card, bending to kiss him. My camera in hand, I automatically pointed and clicked to capture the moment.

•••

LINDA KASS worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press, early in her career as a journalist. She currently serves as an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May 2016. She is working on a novel of linked stories, this time inspired by her father’s life. She is the founder and owner of an independent bookstore, Gramercy Books, in Bexley, Ohio.

Lift

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jennifer Richardson

My grandfather Woody occasionally picked up hitchhikers. We only knew about it when he mentioned it in passing. He certainly never did it when my sister or I, his only grandchildren, were in the car with him. This is not to say he was overly conservative in our company. A swig from an airline bottle of Smirnoff while driving was on the acceptable end of his personal scale of safety around kids.

Woody would drop news of his latest lift into casual conversation as if it was no big thing, because to him, a child of the Great Depression, it was no big thing. The two defining stories of his personal mythology were both Depression-related and he told the first one with tremendous pleasure at every family gathering. It was the story of how he, along with his parents and siblings—Burl, Vernyl, Leonard, Pauline, and Helen—headed west from Arkansas and the Dust Bowl along a wood plank road in a used hearse. Mistaking them for a funeral procession, other cars on the road would stop, the passengers doffing their caps. The other story is that he picked cherries for a penny a pound when he eventually made it to Redlands, California. He told this story less often and, when he did, there was no nostalgia.

In the intervening years of the mid-twentieth century, he achieved the American dream that still exists today, even if it’s largely unattainable, rising to middle-class wealth as a salesman for the gas company. His childhood of grinding poverty stayed with him, surfacing in the stories, his pleasure in growing his own food in his backyard vegetable garden, and the combination of fearlessness and empathy that occasionally led him to stop and pick up a stranger on the side of the road.

My grandfather’s circumstances when I came to know him were a world away from those when he arrived in the Golden State; my own experience at that age overrode any knowledge I had of his past. That experience, as a child of the eighties, was hysteria over mall kidnappings that had ingrained into me to never get into a car with a stranger. The thought that someone would actively solicit getting into a car with a stranger and that my grandfather might be such a stranger was wildly illicit and dangerous and strange. I wanted to know everything.

I would, however, learn nothing. My grandmother Willie’s dagger-eyed distaste for my grandfather’s disclosures always cut the conversation short. Her reaction was not one of concern for his safety, although that may have been the pretense, but rather a cool disdain for his violation of bourgeois norms. She had also come from severe hardship, first in the panhandle of Texas where the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 orphaned her before she was one, then in Oklahoma before finally making it to California. She was a career woman, working her way up to head the San Bernardino County DMV, and, together with my grandfather, had achieved a standard of living that included flocked wallpaper in the guest bathroom and membership at the Arrowhead Country Club. Willie, understandably, had no interest in behavior that lacked alignment with this hard-earned status.

•••

Both my grandparents have been gone for years now, but my husband’s recent foray into driving for Uber reminded me fondly of my grandfather’s predilection for providing transport to strangers. When Doug first broached the idea about a year ago, I reflexively resisted. Surely our insurance wouldn’t cover it—a drunk person would vomit in the car, think of the wear and tear! Hiding just under the surface of my purposefully reasonable objections was a smidgen of my grandmother. My protests turned out to be unnecessary. Our 2004 Volvo was too old to meet Uber’s standards.

This was not the first time my own bourgeois hang-ups had led to discomfort about my husband’s job. Early in our marriage, after a decade working in the entertainment industry and the heady early days of the internet, he had turned down a non-optional work transfer to Dulles, Virginia so that we could stay in Los Angeles. In the aftermath of that decision, he bobbed around some start-ups before landing part-time work at Los Angeles International Airport, employed by an acquaintance who had a contract to maintain the airport police’s computer systems. One of his jobs was cleaning out the keyboards in airport police cars. He had no qualms about his menial tasks, although he did find the depth of seriousness exhibited by one of his colleagues amusing. This colleague, who had been charged with training my husband on his first day, had presented him with a PowerPoint in which he declared with characteristic post-9/11 American earnestness, that, armed with tiny canisters of compressed air, their mission was to “save lives.”

We bonded over this joke, but the subtext for me was that he was working with losers and, well, you are who you surround yourself with. To put it another way, at this point in my life I was unclear on the distinction between who you are and what you do for work. (Fifteen years later, it’s something I’m still teasing out.) My husband seemed less concerned about the potential for disastrous Svengali-ism at the hands of Mr. Saves Lives. In fact, he was downright relaxed. Much to my annoyance, I often found him in a state of repose on our couch when I arrived home from work. He had been in full-time employment since he was seventeen, he occasionally reminded me. He deserved a nap.

•••

Late last year Uber relaxed their rules and our old Volvo, affectionately known as Virginia, was in. Deterred by my earlier reaction, Doug didn’t tell me about his first drive until after it was done. He need not have been concerned. My qualms had subsided, which I attribute in part to the life-changing magic of not giving a fuck—to borrow the title of a bestseller—that comes with every hard-won year of my middle-age. My ease was also a product of our financial security relative to the position we had been in when my husband worked at the airport. This time we didn’t need the money, a fact that served as a psychological buffer. It was an updated version of my grandmother’s flocked bathroom wallpaper, only this time it gave license to take the stance opposite of hers. She and I were two generations apart, bonded by our adherence to two sides of the same snobby coin.

It also helps that Doug dabbles in other more conventionally middle-class pursuits, most recently interning as a marriage and family therapist. He’s a Gen-Xer, but he has a millennial’s predilection for the gig economy which is handy, since apparently, we’re all going to be working multiple part-time jobs till we die. In addition to Uber and the intern hours working towards the therapist license, he does freelance project management and offers his services as a pet-sitter on Rover.com. Sometimes the dog he watches semi-regularly, a pit bull/Australian cattle dog mix, comes along with him when he drives Uber, which has gone down surprisingly well with his customers. I think there’s more potential synergy to tap between my husband’s varied vocations: micro-therapy sessions for the length of your ride, uberPOOL as group therapy.

After all, people love to talk in an Uber. (I know, I’m one of those folks recently lampooned on SNL who always asks my Uber driver how long he or she’s been doing it.) The company may go down in history as the poster child of the on-demand economy, but that is missing the more interesting sociological point. Uber may be a smartphone app, but the experience it facilitates feels like one of the last places left where strangers still speak to each other. I’ve never been on either side of the hitchhiking equation, but I imagine the dynamic, assuming nobody is committing murder, is more akin to Uber than cab.

In just two weeks, my husband’s Uber stories top anything I’ve heard at the corporate watercooler in twenty years. His first passenger’s boyfriend packed parachutes for people about to skydive solo for the first time, a stranger’s life literally in his hands. His second was a neurosurgeon from Ecuador who lives in North Carolina, with whom he discussed the convergence of psychology and neuroscience. Then there was the wheel-chair bound young man who declined assistance as he folded up his chair, explaining that six months earlier the hydraulic lift had broken while he was working on his car, paralyzing him from the waist down. In Santa Barbara, a Manhattan couple got a ride to an anti-Trump party in a mansion in Montecito. On inauguration day, a military man on his way to Port Hueneme explained he would be watching the ceremony because “I voted for him.” That afternoon two gay Latino brothers, both high as kites, got a lift to the TGI Fridays in Oxnard to meet up for drinks with friends.

My husband claims the part of Uber he finds most interesting is the technology, fascinated by the algorithms of supply and demand. But every day that he drives he tells me his best stories with obvious relish, and I listen to these tales of strangers with vicarious delight. These are the stories I never got to hear from my grandfather, the ones he took to his grave.

•••

JENNIFER RICHARDSON is the author of a memoir, Americashire: A Field Guide to a Marriage. Her husband now drives for Lyft, and she’s yet to convince him to pick up a hitchhiker. Find her online at http://jenniferrichardson.net/ and on Twitter @baronessbarren.

Read more FGP essays by Jennifer Richardson.

The Other Jacob

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jacob Westlin

This past Sunday night, nine o’clock, did you know where your kids were? In Saint Joseph, Minnesota, one family thought they did. But, their eleven-year-old son on his way back from a nearby convenience store was abducted by a masked gunman. For four days, a massive search has been underway. This terrible crime has brought terror to the country’s heartland.

•••

My dad and I sit together at the dining table. It’s a staple of the rarely used room—in place for years, rarely seeing guests. I study its light oak veneer, thinking it’s strange that while sofas and chairs and headboards and cabinets from thirty years ago almost always loudly proclaim their distinctive 1980s style, classic wood tables fit in any era. It doesn’t stand out, unlike the yellow and yellowing linoleum floor in the kitchen.

My father, sitting across the table from me, grips and re-grips the outside of his drink glass, spinning it maybe thirty degrees each time he does. I do this, too. Maybe it’s the condensation. Or maybe it’s some kind of nervous genetic twitch we both have.

It’s unusual, just the two of us drinking. Typically, however, our wives join us, but tonight they both reluctantly went to the same family baby shower. We were going to spend our Saturday night at the bar anyway, just us, but his arthritic foot is troubling him. Staying in doesn’t bother me. I rather enjoy an evening in the dining room—it reminds me of Christmas as a kid. I’m nostalgic like that.

The row of low-level cupboards beneath the buffet catches my eye and I chuckle.

“Do you remember when you bought us a Nintendo? What, 1986 or something? We played it right here on a little ten-inch TV.”

My dad smiles and turns around to face toward the kitchen, as though looking at the empty shelf where a video game console used to reside will jog his memory. I guess it did for me.

“I do remember! We didn’t really play, though. I took a five-second turn, and then you played for twenty minutes.”

“Yeah, I don’t get it. How could a little boy who never played video games be better than a thirty-three-year-old man who never played video games?” It wasn’t uncommon for me to tease my dad. Actually, it wasn’t uncommon for anyone in our family to tease my dad. It’s probably because he exhibits less vanity and egotism than anybody I’ve ever met. He not only doesn’t mind the casual ribbing but—particularly when it makes his sons or wife look better than him—embraces the barbs.

“Seriously. You kids pick up things way faster than I ever did,” he boasts.

“But check it out. Do you remember when I was lying down right there, playing Mario, with my feet on the glass cupboard?”

“And you kicked it out and shattered it?”

“Yes! And you never replaced it, look! Why didn’t you ever get new glass?” I ask.

“I don’t know. Maybe we cut our losses, figuring you kids’d just break it again. We had to be smart about that kind of stuff. Remember, bacon or bowling.”

His signature phrase.

“We could only afford one or the other when you were a kid. Your mom and I had to pick every week—bacon or bowling. We couldn’t have both.”

Fathers have a way of forgetting that they’ve told you the same thing monthly for a decade.

“I know, Pop.”

•••

Last week an eleven-year-old boy named Jacob was kidnapped from the streets of Saint Joseph, Minnesota. The effect on Jacob’s family has been obvious, but his kidnapping has also torn the tightly knit social fabric of the entire town.

•••

Just this year, my dad installed a flat-screen television above the fireplace. It doesn’t really fit; it’s mounted in front of cabinet doors, trapping inside more dusty, old dishware. My mother could’ve squashed the plan with a single sternly worded sentence, and she knows that. But now she gets the best of both worlds: when someone voices their objection to its poor placement, she can say, “I know, it looks ridiculous, right?” But she also gets to watch the Vikings while warming herself by the fire.

The TV is the only thing separating today’s dining room from the one in which I left cookies for Santa a generation ago. It certainly modernizes the cozy space, an apt symbol that distinguishes my folks’ current financial stability from the less certain future envisioned in the eighties.

The way Americans interpret wealth and socioeconomic position has always puzzled me. We display an inexplicably energetic pride when discussing how poor we used to be. People fight with one another, arguing passionately about who was the least well-off—as if the sheer act of having no money is commendable. And it seems to apply only to one’s past.

We love the idea that bad things in our past become good character-building foundations of our future. Maybe it’s true. Empathy and understanding are born from experience, I suppose. Isn’t it possible, though, that shitty situations are just that—shitty? Nobody would imagine telling a destitute family, unable to pay their bills and on the cusp of starvation, that they should really cherish these moments because they help establish essential personality traits.

I guess it’s easy to discuss the hardships of the past from a distant position. After all, we made it. Americans hold dear the rags-to-riches narrative, even if “riches” simply means you’re still breathing. We love to fit ourselves into some patriotic myth involving bootstraps and the like, despite rarely being applicable.

“What do you think of the TV?”

“It’s nice.”

•••

Posters of the abducted boy are reminders of an evil that is all too real. We have to protect our kids and we can’t take things for granted anymore. Now we have a new deadbolt on our door, and we lock it when we’re in the house as well as when we’re not.

•••

A muted baseball game is playing on the television. We aren’t really watching; it’s just flickering background to our boozy banter.

I freshen my beverage in the kitchen and sit back down at the table. In our conversational lull, between discussions of the bizarre election season and our fortune at not having to attend the family function, we both notice the ten-second local news ad at the end of the commercial break: an image of the other Jacob’s parents, sadly embracing, as the words “Jacob’s Remains Found: Confession Obtained” flashes beneath them.

The silence in the room morphs from an empty lack of words to a pregnant disquiet. Not an awkwardness, exactly, but an abruptly heavy moment weighed down with the unexpected drumming up of simultaneously personal and shared experiences.

If you lived in Minnesota during the eighties and nineties, the case was naggingly omnipresent, a horrific event that framed the way families understood danger in their own neighborhoods. A small-town boy, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities, was biking back from the video store when, on a dark road, he was kidnapped—that panic-inspiring buzzword that engulfed the media and terrorized parents.

That was 1989. And, despite instant wood-scouring, sweeping national attention, and law-changing influence, the case was never solved. Until, it seems, today.

My dad and I are not particularly sentimental. The pragmatic emotional sterility of the men in our family irritates our wives, oftentimes with good reason. We don’t often passionately connect to news-story victims.

The stillness in the dining room now suggests a rare and unforeseen exception.

•••

They’re going through the nightmare of not knowing, and hoping that sometimes, in a rare incident, a child has gotten back that’s been gone for a long time. But all of the people sitting there today know the harsh reality: that lots of kids that are taken are not taken by some caring person and taken to Disneyland. They’re taken by someone who is into sexually assaulting children and, if you’re lucky, you’ll find the body in a field.

•••

Proximity to tragedy is a peculiar thing.

If you’re close enough to have a relationship with the victim, it’s all about them—as it should be. To know somebody personally affected by something as heinous as an unsolved kidnapping leaves no space for any emotion except withering sadness for the family.

On the other hand, if you read a news bulletin about a hurricane or flood or earthquake or uprising half a planet away, you’re granted—if not altogether legitimately—a certain disconnection and the ability to simply mutter, “That’s too bad,” before eating dinner.

There is also, however, a third middle ground, a grayish terrain where genuine grief or emotional detachment gives way to narcissistic self-preservation.

The immediate response in Minnesota after the kidnapping case was truly touching. I remember natural anguish and heartache, leading to volunteer search parties, songs, and the genuine coming together of community residents. There was real statewide concern for this boy and his family.

What happened simultaneously, though, was an almost palpable wince, a stiff shrug that transformed empathy for others into locked doors for yourself.

Displaying compassionate warmth for the parents and taking safeguarding precautions against potential dangers are not mutually exclusive. But sometimes, with just the right adjacency, the flesh-and-blood victims become caricatures and the nebulous threats blossom irrationally.

“How could this happen here?” was the frightful inquiry of the day. The incident materialized an already sensational perception of safety, or lack thereof. Dramatic movies of the week, a bygone favorite of network primetime television, assured us that unscrupulous predators lingered around every corner, waiting for the right guard-down moment to strike a randomly targeted stranger. And, before the Saint Joseph abduction, it was easier to dismiss these crimes as confined to New York or California—not wholesome flyover country. Maybe the world was a scary place. Maybe ABC was right.

“I remember that so vividly.” My father breaks the silence with an altogether appropriate cliché. In my trance I had momentarily forgotten I wasn’t alone.

“You’re telling me.”

“You remember it? You were only five or six years old.”

He queues up an interesting point. Because my nostalgia lobe is monstrously oversized, and because I spend so much time contemplating the changing cultural conditions of my boyhood versus those of my as-of-yet unborn children, I often view things from a skewed and manufactured perspective. I wasn’t a parent in 1989. But, as a child during the regional hysteria, I did, in this situation, have a very intimate and unique relationship to this case.

•••

We’re not really going to let Jacob walk to school by himself, are we? I know he’s done it for months, but with everything that’s happened, I don’t think we should. I’ll walk him there. At least for the next few weeks. To make sure nothing happens.

•••

Until first grade, I had a forgettable name. Jacob Westlin was just the name of another average-looking white kid. Then, in October of 1989, as the other Jacob was victimized in the most infamous crime in Minnesota history, it became something else entirely. It became close enough.

Overnight, classmates began pointing at me and yelling clever quips. “Found him! Found him!”

The entire state was in a frenzy over this missing child and I, sixty miles away and with no more connection to Jacob than sharing the first seven letters of his name, became his tease-able avatar—the ceaseless butt of adolescent jokes.

At first it was kind of surprising and funny. But, as the case continued to receive pervasive coverage and word spread about my coincidental name, the casual taunting rapidly devolved into relentless mockery and rejection. One boy was particularly brutal, the unofficial leader of the witch hunt, soliciting support from willing classmates: Ian. But he didn’t pronounce it ee-an. No. It was eye-an. I’ll never forget.

He made sure, at least during a few harrowing months at the end of 1989, that nobody would come near me on the playground. “Stay away from that kid, everyone, or you’ll get kidnapped!” And everybody would play along, in this case by not playing with me. Kids in groups are not unlike adults in groups, turns out. Easily led astray by one mouthy facilitator.

I remember being very upset, trying to apply kiddy logic to a completely illogical and visceral problem. “I’m not that Jacob, guys! You know that, right? Come on!” This proved useless.

“Do you know what hell I went through in first grade?” I half rhetorically ask my dad.

“No, what do you mean? Because you were afraid of being abducted?”

It’s such a fatherly response, anxious to protect his son from the overtly conspicuous dangers of the world when the real soul-altering crises are almost always more intimate and invisible. But it’s not his fault. I never told him about the tormenting.

“No. Everyone made fun of me because my name sounded so much like his.”

My dad half scoffs and leans back in his chair. “Well, that’s dumb.” Indeed, as I cite the ridicule aloud, maybe for the first time in decades, I realize how absurdly innocuous it sounds.

“Uh, yeah, of course. I knew there were more important things going on with that kidnapping than my silly sadness,” I lie, stumbling over my words in embarrassment. I lie because I’m ashamed of feeling sorry for myself. I lie because the other Jacob was sexually assaulted and murdered, and I was subtly picked on. I lie because people have a way of ascribing wildly inaccurate nobility to previous behavior, built upon years of hindsight and experience. And newly discovered shame. The truth is that, in my childish mind, I was the victim. I didn’t know this other Jacob and I was angry at him for being taken.

Young minds have a remarkable proclivity for tunnel vision. It would be reasonable to expect children in this hysterical climate to become terrified of the lurking hazards all around them. The reality is that while kids are the targets, and adults go to painstaking lengths to construct in their sons and daughters a skeptical guard against strangers, most of them leave worry to the parents.

I was never afraid of being taken. I was afraid of having no friends.

Authentically remembering events from years ago is a trickier pursuit than re-experiencing the emotions they spawned. I remember very few actual teases and hardly any of the kids that painfully avoided me. But I do recall the paralyzing aloneness, feeling like my tiny world was caving in through no fault of my own.

I do, however, distinctly recollect lying in bed, thinking I had a choice. I could keep fighting or just embrace the joke—show these kids that it didn’t bother me and that I was a fun, normal boy.

•••

Hey, guys! Let’s play hide and seek—try to find me! You know the police couldn’t!

•••

Jacob didn’t get a choice. The other Jacob. I think about this for a while.

My dad adjusts in his chair, likely reading my discomfort and probably feeling bad for disregarding my infantile problems. He would never intentionally dismiss something important to me, and he now perceives his cavalier response as inappropriate.

“I’m sorry. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”

He didn’t need to apologize. He’s my father, and I’ll always give him the benefit of the doubt. Also, he wasn’t wrong.

“No, it’s fine. It’s just funny, isn’t it, the things you remember? It’s like, I should be feeling so terrible for the family, and I do, really, but seeing them just makes me think about—you know, my own shit. I don’t know, sorry.”

My dad nods, making eye contact this time, almost overly engaged. He doesn’t say anything for a while after that, eventually averting his eyes down to the table with one hand again spinning his drink glass. He’s deep in contemplation and I study his face. People have this view of their parents as stoically static.

My father uses quantifiable milestones to mark my maturation: graduation, college, moving out, starting a career, finding a wife. None of these markers exist for me to assess my dad. He evolved from a probably frightened twenty-nine-year-old father to the veteran rock he’s becoming without me even noticing. He’s always just been Dad, and the lack of lifetime-accomplishment receipts now, for the first time, bothers me. It’s like an absent parent’s lamentation at missing their kid grow up—I feel an odd regret, like I’ve failed to appreciate my own dad’s evolution while being so enthralled with my own.

He was not, and will never be, a complete and infallible adult. None of us will. I am struck now with the simultaneous profundity and triviality of this realization.

“Twenty-seven years later, they close the case,” he finally says. “A lot’s changed.”

“What do you remember about the whole thing?”

He perks up.

“Oh, man. It was mortifying, as a parent. But we still had to raise you right, you know?”

I didn’t.

“What do you mean? Did it change the way you and Mom parented?”

“Oh, we had our own uncertainties, for sure.”

•••

He’s going to be fine.

But what if he isn’t?

He will be! I’ve had enough of this! How is he ever going to learn independence, or believe that the world is anything but a nightmarish place full of maniacs looking to kill him, if we bring him to school, hand in hand, until he’s seventeen?

But—

But nothing. Let him go.

•••

“I give your mother a lot of credit,” my dad blusters, as he often did—not incorrectly. She’s a tough lady, a good mother who was always willing to make hard decisions if it meant raising responsible men.

“The right balance between independence and smothering. We had a hard time with it. You know me—I worry about all the stupid details. Your mom, rightly so, made sure you had your space—saw the big picture. I feel like that was a big deal, even though you probably don’t remember it.”

I didn’t. But I listen intently, enraptured by this completely new information. I realize, at this moment, for the first time, that the monumental event that so influenced us individually had never been spoken about collectively. I don’t think it’s because we were purposely withholding information. Maybe it just didn’t seem relevant until now, even if the relevancy of who we’re becoming as human beings is all around us.

•••

JACOB WESTLIN is a writer, copyeditor, and humanities professor from Minneapolis. He has numerous publications—including a book titled Poker Players are Narcissistic Sociopaths, a collection of tongue-in-cheek poker observations—though this is among his first forays into creative nonfiction.

Bolognese

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jon Magidsohn

There are some things I never told my mother: When I first tried smoking pot, that time I stole a one dollar plug adapter from the hardware store. And I never told her about the unique digestive effect her bolognese sauce had on my lower intestine. It was one of the few kitchen creations she made with pride and I couldn’t burst her bubble.

Admitting this, even now two years after her death, gives me a profound measure of passive-aggressive guilt my mother so inimitably instilled in me.

Because there was a time when I told her everything.

She was a single mother to my older sister and me. I was raised with respect and autonomy, given credit when I deserved it and allowed to make my own decisions. When my sister moved out, Mom and I relied on each other for surrogate intimacy. I had no reason to withhold information about my ambitions, my feelings, my sex life. She was gently maternal, a sounding board and my go-to guru.

But the shift in our relationship coincided, not surprisingly, with the onset of my marriage. My mother had been, if not literally then symbolically, replaced by a woman with whom I’d become more eager to share my thoughts. A woman who helped me to view my mother more objectively. A woman whose own bolognese sauce didn’t routinely result in my disappearance into the bathroom for fifteen minutes immediately after consuming it.

Through my twenties and thirties I shared less and less with my mother. In those rare moments when my marriage faltered, I didn’t bother her with any of the distressing ordeals in which my wife and I indulged. She didn’t need to know. Besides, she would only take my side in a struggle that sensibly didn’t have any sides to take.

I’d started to view my mother as more of an inconvenience than the wise soul she was. Although I was grateful she didn’t disappear altogether, I rarely went out of my way to include her. To her credit, she elbowed enough of herself into my life to ensure she always had some stake in it. She deserved that, but she did that all on her own.

We’d established a new precedent that included regular telephone updates but not, despite her questions, intimate play-by-plays of my every thought. After many years she recognised the pattern but owed it to my own maturity rather than any significant modification to our exchanges.

“I’ve just realized,” she said, “you’re a really private person.”

“Mm-hmm,” I said. I wasn’t necessarily a private person. Only with her.

During my wife’s illness I relied on Mom for support and babysitting, but little else changed. By the time I’d become a widowed single dad, the new paradigm with my mother remained. Even as I acquiesced to the weekly favors she called me in for—mowing the lawn, moving a piece of furniture—poorly disguised, in her passive-aggressive way, as an excuse to have my son Myles and me all to herself. And to feed me.

“Just come this afternoon,” she said after requesting help to trim the branches of the honey locust tree behind her house. “And then stay for some supper.”

•••

We’d become a formidable twosome, my son and me. A pairing both indivisible and desperately lacking a third person. Complete yet only two-thirds whole. I accepted my mother’s help; once a week Myles slept over at her house so I could have a night to myself, which typically involved taking myself out to dinner and a movie. I was okay keeping my own company if there was something to do.

The sun was already high before noon on this early summer morning; the type of sun that would blister the pavement by mid-afternoon. I loaded the boy and his diaper bag into the Toyota and drove to Mom’s house on the other side of the city. Most of the journey was spent on the Gardiner Expressway, a convenient east-west artery pumping across the Toronto lakeshore but otherwise a blight on the urban tableau. A twenty-minute drive in good traffic.

“I think I’d like to move to London,” I said, picking up the fallen tree branches. About a year and half after my wife died, I started seeing Deborah, an old school friend who’d moved to the UK ten years earlier. Mom knew about Deborah but until then, like me, she wasn’t sure where the trans-Atlantic relationship was heading.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m telling you now.”

“But … it would be nice if you kept me in the loop,” she said. Passive. Aggressive.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “Which is why I’m telling you now. I’ve only just figured it out myself.”

This was partly true. I’d known that I was falling in love but it had been unexpected. The decision to leave my homeland was easier than I’d imagined—I could make a fresh start. What’s keeping me here?—but I recognized that it came at the expense of my family. Still, if there was one thing I’d learned from my mother: Love conquers all.

“Well … I think it’s wonderful,” she said. Mom always came around in the end.

I finished bagging up the trimmed tree bits and carried them out to the curb while Mom entertained her grandson with rice crackers and extemporaneous songs. I wished I was already in London.

•••

Inside, the pots were boiling on the stove. I sat at the table, indulging my mother’s need to wait on me. Conversation was sparse. In his high chair to my left, Myles enjoyed some fresh plain noodles. Then Mom brought me my plate. Spaghetti. Bolognese.

I’d grown up on this sauce so any reminder of it, at least its flavor, brought some particularly welcome comfort. Typically bolognese is made with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and seasoning. My mother always added a unique touch of mushrooms and peppers. Her distinct flavor never seemed overstated nor was it ever bland enough to threaten my gastronomic pleasure. It tasted like home.

That’s all I know. I can’t attest to the kind of beef she used or which spices gave it that characteristic tang or her method of preparation. It was distinctly hers.

I wanted to have Myles in bed by his usual time so I’d have the rest of the evening quietly to myself as I normally did. I thanked Mom for the food, packed Myles and his bag into the car, and was scaling the westbound Gardiner Expressway on-ramp as the sun began to set in front of me, the orange glow in watercolor ribbons across downtown.

Then without warning, two events, one predictable one not, developed simultaneously as if the vengeful god of inevitability waved his hand over me and chuckled with malevolent satisfaction.

First, a traffic jam forced us to a standstill.

Second, the bolognese backlash.

I should have known. I should have stayed at my mother’s house until this inexorable episode had passed and then I would be free to travel home comfortably, traffic jam be damned, and ensure Myles was in bed slightly later than usual. But I had insisted, as young parents do, to keep with routine lest any lifetime scarring should result from keeping him up past eight o’clock. Now I couldn’t keep still in my seat as my bowels played full-contact Twister with my abdomen.

What did she put in there? What was the secret ingredient that had mocked me and my digestive system during a lifetime of spaghettis? More importantly, was my intestinal fortitude going to hold out until I got home? It was bumper to bumper and my exit, so to speak, was five miles away. The Gardiner is an elevated expressway without a paved shoulder. There was no escape.

I held my breath. I shifted. I clenched. I was grateful Myles had begun to drift off in the back seat and that he was too young to offer any comments on the odors emanating from the front. For fifteen minutes we’d barely moved and I broke out in a cold sweat as I drew perilously close to the proverbial edge.

That’s when I took great interest in the diaper bag sitting on the passenger seat.

“What if …?” I wondered.

As the car inched forward I reached into the bag with one hand and withdrew a crisp, pristine diaper decorated with pictures of Dory and Nemo. It smelled enticingly fresh like an orange blossom and a clean baby. I wanted to smell like a clean baby.

What followed was a procedure never printed in any how-to book, from parenting guides to the Boy Scout manual. It involved some stealthy unbuttoning followed by strategic placement of a baby’s diaper beneath an adult undercarriage. I didn’t have time to worry about the insufficient size of the absorbent equipment; the wheels were now in motion and I simply had to proceed.

After some careful buttock shuffling, everything was in place. I checked my blind spots to make sure no high-riding vehicle drivers were peering down through my window and when I recognised the all-clear …

… I relaxed.

•••

Is this what I get for trying to look after myself, I wondered? Is this what happens when I withhold information from my mother? What had she done to deserve my cold shoulder? Are these the consequences for taking my son far across the sea where his grandparents, aunts, and cousins will only watch him grow up on Skype and annual visits? How could I reconcile a purge that was at once liberating and profoundly emblematic of my relationship with my mother?

If I was going to soil myself every time I considered these questions, then my adventure abroad was about to turn into exile.

I’d never felt so unclean.

Naturally, as soon as I’d employed the emergency apparatus the traffic cleared and within ten minutes I’d pulled into the parking spot behind my house. I managed to squelch inside without befouling my son, cleaned myself up, put Myles to bed and began to enjoy my quiet evening as anticipated.

That was the last time I ate my mother’s bolognese. She didn’t need to know about this or any other less dramatic consequence of her cooking. Maybe it was an effort to maintain familial cohesiveness. Perhaps embarrassment. Or else I’d simply become too overwhelmed by my mother’s passive aggressive communication and too stubborn to keep her in a larger loop than I was prepared to allow her into.

It was too late then. And it’s too late now. I’ll have to live with that until I’m an old man in diapers.

•••

JON MAGIDSOHN, originally from Toronto, is the author of the memoir Immortal Highway and is a memoir writing teacher and facilitator. His work has been featured in The Guardian, National Geographic Traveller, The Bangalore Mirror, Hippocampus Magazine, and Today’s Parent. He and his family live in London where Jon received an MA in Creative Nonfiction from City University. www.jonmagidsohn.com

Read more FGP essays by Jon Magidsohn.

Cleaning Girl

By Allen Goldblatt/ Flickr
By Allen Goldblatt/ Flickr

By Rebecca Weaver

Oh my god … what is that smell? My boss and I had just crossed the threshold of his house. Dark, shades drawn. Bikes and skateboards in the corner and hanging from the wall. A couch converted into a bed in the living room. He had a greasy brown ponytail and pale blue eyes, one of which would twitch unpredictably. The second you thought it was done, it started up again. Mostly he kept his eyes on the floor.

“So, yeah. It’s been a while. I lost my last cleaner a couple weeks ago.”

An orange cat with matted hair strolled across the back of the sofa to me. I reached my hand out to pet it. It sniffed and backed away.

“Yeah, they’re shy,” he said to the floor.

“I like cats,” I said.

“Oh!” My boss looked around. “You have more!”

Across the living room, two were lolling around on the couch atop what looked like a baby blanket of cat fur. Polluted cream clouds against navy blue cushions. In the slants of daylight I could see wisps of hair floating. It had to be at least a year since any other human had been in this place. My eyes watered. I’m not even allergic. By the time my day was over I would count six cats, but there may have been more.

“Well, give us a tour!” my boss said.

•••

I started cleaning houses in 2011 a couple months after I graduated from college. I had moved to the Bay Area with my older boyfriend, and I—along with my degree in Dramatic Literature—couldn’t get a job anywhere. The recession and the boom in Silicon Valley were chewing up San Francisco and even the coffee shop baristas were really out-of-work professionals in their thirties and forties making latte art. The hipster cafe (we still called them hipsters then) was getting into full swing. I’d only worked in shitty coffee shops earlier in the 2000s when they were grungier, less sleek, with more couches and board games and plants, java vibes held over from the nineties.

I didn’t want a job but I needed one. I mostly wanted to be left alone. It was a relief to clean. My dad had just died two years earlier from cancer and I saw his face all day long. Sometimes he was healthy and laughing, and sometimes his face was gray like cement and his hair was growing back in mousy patches after the chemo.

My motivation to begin a post-college life was unpredictable. I kept making to-do lists to start an acting career or to write a novel, but the lists just made me feel like a failure. I’d set up auditions then wouldn’t show up, unable to imagine how I could ever speak in front of people again. I had panic attacks where it felt like my blood was carbonated and I was afraid I might start screaming any moment.

A funny thing that happens when you’re in deep grief: you forget why you’re depressed. I spent years waking up and reminding myself that my dad was dead. Later in the day I would forget and try to remember why I wasn’t able to drag myself to the dentist or wash the dishes. And then I would have to tell myself: Your dad’s dead, he died from cancer, he was white and skeletal the last time you saw him, he looked down at his hands when the hospice nurse spoke, he was embarrassed when he knocked his coffee over at Christmas because he was less than a month away from dying and he was weaker than anyone knew or could understand.

And I would think, Oh, that’s right. I would then collapse and crawl into bed and click around on health websites or read books on how not to get cancer.

I didn’t have any friends in the Bay Area and, while I wanted them desperately, I couldn’t handle people my own age, their happiness, their bored wit. I had nothing but emptiness; even my laugh sounded false and far away to me. I had studied acting in school and I wanted nothing more than to be invisible.

•••

My boss—I’ll call her Dani—was a springy soccer mom with wiry hair, zero body fat, and the best, chipperest, can-do attitude I’ve ever seen. She wore sweatshirts with the neck cut out like in Flashdance, leggings, and white Reebok sneakers. She once injured her back in yoga class because she wanted to be the best. We found each other on Craigslist and I started cleaning the day after she hired me.

Sometimes Dani would meet me on the road in front of the house and we’d tour it together, but other times I’d be on my own. People showed me their cleaning supplies and told me how they liked certain things done. One woman had a typed up list for every single surface of her home and a specific cleaner required for each item, including faucets and light fixtures. In a Berkeley apartment an old cat swatted at me and meowed sourly like it was sick. It stalked me around the apartment and couldn’t be deterred even when I threatened to hit it with a chair. I got it behind a bathtub and had to call my boyfriend. He came and chased it out with a broom and it screamed its way into the guest room I’d already cleaned. We locked it in and, when I left, I opened that door and ran. One house had two heavy metal musicians that had gargoyles for knobs on their kitchen cabinets. In their bathroom they had essential oils and Chanel products and in their basement they had a thousand dollar sauna.

My boyfriend and I were living in an in-law apartment in the hills of El Cerrito—the cheapest place we could find with some of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen and an incredible view of San Francisco. We didn’t have a couch so we hung out on the futon mattress on the floor or on a blanket on the carpet by the TV. At night we’d look across the bay at the city we couldn’t afford.

Our landlord, who I’ll call Jim, was a skinny Carradine brother–lookalike in his sixties with a gray bushy mustache and wild eyes. He liked to chitchat and once caught me for two hours by describing at least five different episodes of Ancient Aliens and bringing down a photo album with photos of his old girlfriends and his fiancée who had been a model and had died tragically from cancer. Once I had to go up into his home to deal with the WiFi, and he had Playboy covers from the eighties in frames on his wood panel walls.

Another time he wanted to show me an option for a refrigerator he had in his garage. The garage was filled to the ceiling, three quarters of it full, with boxes stacked haphazardly on top of one another. They looked like they hadn’t been moved in a long time and the cardboard had softened over years of fog rolling in across the bay. He pointed at the boxes. “My mother’s wedding dress is in there. I can’t bear to go through her things.” His mother had died the same week as his fiancée. Almost twenty years ago.

•••

My boss and I toured the rest of his home, a bungalow on a dead end street in Oakland. The cats scattered as we walked the rooms and then softly tiptoed behind us. The kitchen at the back was surprisingly neat, just a couple crumbs on the counter. The bedroom seemed all right although the air was suffocating. As it turned out later, there was solid mass of white and gray cat hair under the bed an inch thick, like a secret rug.

He brought us to his office, a long narrow room running the length of his living room on the opposite side of the house. There was an enormous desktop computer setup with speakers and a soundboard where he would later sit almost the entire time I was cleaning. The smell was pervasive in here, sharp and unwell. In the corner was a closet without a door, a bright light overhead. He nodded toward it. “So the real part that needs to be cleaned is over here.” We walked over and hit a wall of ammonia and stench I’d never experienced before nor since.

Twenty-five square feet of cat piss. The two boxes of kitty litter were overloaded and the cats had taken to going on the floor where he’d spread newspapers. It was clear he’d waited maybe a year, maybe more to clean this closet other than a quick scoop of the kitty litter and another layer of newspaper which was now about one to two inches thick. I could see cat urine shining on some of the rotting floorboards where there were holes in the paper. A cat hopped out and ran past us, leaving wet paw prints through the office.

“Wow! Oh! Okay!” Dani clapped her hands and turned away. She smiled wildly, blinking hard, her knuckles whitening in front of her chest. I kept my face neutral and held my breath. We looked at each other a second. The room was silent as her mind ticked. She’s getting me out of this, I thought. This is not part of the job description.

“Well!” she said finally. “She’s gonna need some gloves!” She pointed a finger at the sky, triumphant.

“Yeah, I got some,” he said from the other side of the room. He’d never even come with us to the closet but instead watched us from afar, testing the waters.

“Well, how about she leaves that”—she stepped delicately away from the closet and I followed—“to the end, cause that’s a big job!” I’m from the Midwest and I can tell you that there was practically a “dontcha know” at the end of that chipperest of statements. It was all well and good. We’d take care of it—meaning me.

“Yeah, well, that’s the main thing I need done.” His eye twitched as he looked around at his walls, his fingernails, anything but us.

“Well, it’s a whole house cleaning we agreed on, so that will wait to the end.” Dani pinched her lips, firm, and he agreed as he walked her to the door.

A few minutes later she was gone and I was cleaning, sucking the hair carpet and kitty litter crumbs off his couch, dusting tables and shelves that hadn’t been cleaned in a year. He barely had enough rags for the job. I eventually resorted to vacuuming his shelves of cat hair and dust before using a cloth. He worked at his computer, some unknown alt-rock playing on his speakers. Every once in a while he’d laugh asthmatically at something online. He sat five feet away from the cat closet. I had to step out to his backyard regularly just to breathe.

•••

Recently, back in Wisconsin, my mom had had to put down our dog Hans. Hans was a huge, fluffy Golden Retriever that would lie on the bed with her when she cried for my dad. The dog would rest his squishy face by hers and let her release her tears in a torrent and wait patiently for her to let it go. His legs had always been weak and one day they stopped working and he couldn’t carry himself any longer. She was on her own in our family home and I was in California, cleaning houses. When she told me Hans was gone, I fell to the floor in my kitchen and sobbed uncontrollably until my neighbor knocked softly on the wall to please stop.

It occurred to me once that cleaning people’s houses felt as if I were helping to prevent their homes from rotting. The moisture on the bathroom ceiling, the dust on the bookshelves. Dead skin cells everywhere. I cleaned and thought about how we were all trying so hard not to die. Stainless steel in the kitchens. Everyone wanted it and yet the stains were sometimes impossible to remove. It reminded me of fingerprints on iPhones, but permanent. A polished lifestyle that had no room for human dirt and oil. Touchscreens that aren’t meant to be touched.

•••

I once wrote a script for a short film about this experience. I wrote the Cleaning Girl working her way through his home with one eye on the guy the whole time. Petting the cats when she could for comfort. Avoiding turning her back on him for too long because sometimes she could feel his twitching eye on her body. Texting her boyfriend out on the back stoop so someone knew where she was. The Cat Guy passive aggressively bringing up the closet two, three, four times as a reminder that “that had to get done,” while she insisted every time that she had to clean everything else first. Only in this version the Cleaning Girl found her courage and stood up to the Cat Guy, called him “disgusting,” and threatened to call Animal Services, eventually storming out. She even gave a cupcake to a homeless guy on the way to the freeway at the end because what the hell, why not.

I never made that short film.

This story is not like that one. This is the story of how I did the job.

I had the gloves. I should have had goggles. The air was thick with dander and urine. Stinging, acidic, ammonic in my lungs, I imagined them raw and red like the back of your throat when you’re sick, though really I have no idea what lungs look like other than drawings from textbooks. My entire chest hurt and my eyes watered and my nose burned all the way up through my forehead. I closed my mouth and worked as long as I could without breathing but then I realized I had to and breathed under my shirt which kept slipping as I carefully picked up flat, inch-thick pads of newspaper, soaked in cat urine and shoved them into plastic garbage bags.

The cats watched me from around the corner, eyes wide in that pointed, appalled way that cats have, glancing down at their soggy, rotting bathroom and back up at me.

•••

I drove home without the radio on. Rush hour from Oakland to the Berkeley Hills. My head throbbed all the way to the back of my skull. I didn’t know if I could tell my boyfriend or my mom or anyone. I had taken my shoes off and put them on a newspaper I’d found on the floor in the back. Soles sticky with cat piss.

I got home and scrubbed myself raw in the shower and crawled into bed. It was six o’clock on a Friday and I would spend the entire weekend sick in bed with head and body aches. I clicked around on my computer and found a movie on Netflix and waited for my boyfriend to come home. I was sick and I hated myself but I really didn’t mind. I was grateful for a reason to fall apart. My dad had been dead for over two years and my mom was alone and I was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place and it felt exactly, exactly right.

•••

REBECCA WEAVER is a writer/director/actor raised in Wisconsin and living in Los Angeles. Her first feature film, June Falling Down, is currently playing at film festivals around the country. Visit JuneFallingDown.com and SilverLeafFilms.net to learn more about her work.

Waitlisted at Yale

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Judith Sanders

I’m fortunate to have a child who shares my aptitude for schoolwork. Before my Yale cohort and I had children, we probably assumed they would all resemble us in that regard. After all, it was our defining characteristic, our common denominator, the reason our disparate selves had been gathered at Yale from across the country and the economic spectrum. But I don’t recall that we thought about children for a nanosecond during our “bright college years” in the mid-seventies, caught up in our studies and each other—not to mention feminism, gay rights, all the rapidly changing social mores and dwindling turmoil of the sixties. Also we expected, as Dylan nasally wished for us from every turntable, that we would stay forever young.

Well, we didn’t, and for most of us, children eventually took center stage in our lives. And in the way of children, they exploded our assumptions and insisted on becoming their own unique selves. By now, three decades later, many are interesting grown-ups, making contributions, passionate about their work, etc., but not all are scholars. I’m guessing from anecdotal evidence that the regular percentage has coped with learning disabilities. But some of us—those who somehow passed down the gene that enabled us to fill in the right circles on the SATs and forgo the dubious thrills of teen social life to stay up late perfecting a proof—open a new chapter in our relationship with Yale: Parent of Prospective Applicant. So we return with the precious offspring in tow and set out on the Admissions Tour. As we revisit the scenes of our youth, compulsively checking for similarities and differences (Did frosh still streak? Was that an actual Women’s Center?), we wonder if the scholarly child would flourish among them as we had. Or had we? Had I?

We all know of alums who center their lifelong identity on their Alma Mater. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, one of those too occupied with family and house and work, work, work to dwell on college memories and youthful folly (the bad boyfriends, the risky behaviors, the squandered time). But on the tour with my son last April, it all came flooding back: I could have navigated blindfolded and backward from Commons to the Sterling Library Periodicals Room, had such a stunt been required. Yet the campus key that I’d illegally preserved as a quasi-religious relic would, in these days of magnetic strips, no longer unlock the quads’ wrought iron gates. I was no longer a native but a visiting ex-pat, anonymous in a mob of photo-snapping tourists and non-alum parents escorting their own high-achieving offspring, who, in the way of teens, were pretending not to know us.

New Haven’s blocks surrounding Yale were all spiffed up. The corner where I remember being pelted with bottles by local youth expressing their sentiments about town-gown relations was now thick with cappuccino bars. But the campus itself seemed unchanged; like the Grand Canyon, the cathedrals of Europe, or The Rolling Stones, it had maintained its aura of timeless magnificence. Here still was the carved, buttressed, and gargoyled no-expense-spared beauty that had long ago promised me, like some shimmering Emerald City, a richer world than the flimsy ranch houses and malls in which I’d spent my childhood. The maze of courtyards, the gargoyles and crenellations, looked genuine, not one of those camp imitations in theme parks and Vegas; one didn’t question what Oxford-and-Cambridge was doing here off I-95. Perhaps that’s because these stately gothic buildings evoked Learning, stood as a solid tribute to an enduring intellectual tradition that bridged the pond. And like Daisy’s voice in Gatsby that sounded like money, their class credentials were solid gold.

However, partway through the tour the skies opened and drenched us, despite the garbage-bag ponchos the Admissions rep passed around, as if enacting a pathetic fallacy of dampened and disposable hopes: So few of those touring would actually “get in.” The residential colleges seemed to turn their spiny, mullioned backs as we trudged the grid of puddled streets to dutifully ogle the next tourist destination—from outside, or at most, the lobby.

Our student guide—more poised and polished in boots and beret than I remember any of us ever being, given our slavish devotion to tees and jeans, which to us warded off Caulfield’s phoniness—kept tossing off astonishing statements: We’re standing over the underground recording studio. If you’d like funding to go count birds in Guatemala, just ask. After your seminar with the former PM of England, you’ll head off to your poetry workshop with the winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The buildings might look much the same, but in inner sanctums inaccessible to us hoi polloi, apparently, Yale glittered more than ever. It was the court of the Medici, Versailles under the Sun King, the Manhattan Project, and the Brill Building all in one, an astonishing concentration of talent, resources, and power. The endowment, now a staggering nineteen billion, had mushroomed until it dwarfed the budgets of many countries. All to be expended on an select few, if any, of these ordinary, gawky, blank-faced youths withdrawing into their cell phones. It was unjust. It was obscene. Someone had said callously of the community colleges, of urban high schools, Let them eat cake. But what good to refuse to participate on principle? No sense in making an ineffectual one-person social statement on the back of my fledgling son.

Yale had been rich in my day—but not this rich. Still, even then, Yale with its regal formality had the power to make you feel self-conscious about being ordinary. Somehow a bowl of cornflakes had felt like an insult to the carved beams and proud banners of the magnificent dining hall. How could the mind wander off Plato or Rousseau onto a roommate’s rebuff while you were ensconced in a leather armchair in Sterling Library’s towering cathedral? And of course there was that omnipresent nagging doubt confided in late-night bull sessions: Had the Admissions Office made a mistake? I suspect that insecurity still haunts many of us who have gone on to an unglamorous middle age, who bend double to clean our own bathtub. Have we been worthy of the privilege once heaped upon us? Done enough? We’ve been tattooed on the forehead with a blue Y in invisible ink; it shows only in certain lights. At times it gives us entry into not-so-secret societies of privilege, but at times it’s a mark of difference that we hide, like Harry Potter’s scar, under our forelocks, when we fear accusations of being “elite intellectual snobs” or pointy-headed, Parsel-tongued double agents. Yale’s legacy is a mix of buoying self-confidence and corrosive self-doubt: It’s as if at the end of our lives, instead of having to account for ourselves to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, we’ll face the Dean of Admissions. Did I want Yale’s curious combination of boost and burden for my child?

And what was Yale really like these days? After the tour, when we paused for lunch, Commons, with its lofty ceiling disappearing into shadows illumined by constellations of winking chandeliers, seemed like the Great Hall at Hogwarts. Mounds of food catering to every preference, ethnicity, and allergy appeared as if prepared by invisible house elves. The Hogwarts analogies (as on any Gothic campus) kept accumulating. The place was magically rich. Training the young wizards in the spells that would release power and wealth and happiness. Lumos et Veritas. For wands, they had their smart phones. But there is a Voldemort lurking, and his name is Stress. As I watched the young Hermiones, and doubtless a few Dracos, nourish their corporeal selves, memory supplied a reality check.

A former student of mine, now attending, had emailed that he lives on “coffee-drip life support.” His homework tends to be on the order of, read all of Karl Marx for tomorrow, then War and Peace for the day after. And that’s for just one of his five courses. But how to fit it in? He rushes from tea with The Tiger Mother to a seminar with Gaddis. He churns out articles for the prestigious Yale Daily News, known as “The Shark Tank” and a career pipeline to the New York Times. He added that elsewhere everyone’s very nice, down-to-earth—even if they just bought weed with a celebrity’s namesake or “weekended” with the son of an international playboy…but of course my young friend seldom has time to write at all. Voldemort has him and his cohort fully occupied with training for life on the Dark Side, the high-speed, eighty-hour-week rat race that passes for success.

Was it so different when we were there? The tales of the workload sound familiar—stressful and stimulating in the extreme. I too would have described my friends as down-to-earth, but I felt I’d lucked into an extraordinary sub-group—confident, ethical, funny, accomplished yet unpretentious people—for me, they formed a more enduring and valuable legacy than whatever I absorbed in the lecture halls. (Not that there weren’t pompous pricks around, and, more surprisingly, colorless blobs my parents would have dismissed as “nebbishes,” but these could be circumvented.) During my child’s “application process,” as I compared notes with my friends, I was surprised when one volunteered, “I didn’t take advantage”; another mused, “A smaller school would have helped me personally and professionally”; and, “I should have gone where a professor cared to know my name.”

To the extent it was impersonal like that—is it still? I was bamboozled by the morés of Yale’s predominant upper-class WASPs, whose academic skills, social graces, and stiff upper lips, not to mention sportsmanship and social drinking, had been shaped in private academies with weird secret-lingo names I was apparently supposed to revere but couldn’t pronounce or spell. (Choate?) I still remember my queasy disequilibrium at a reception for incoming students, when I first encountered people with last names for first names, ski-jump noses and lank light hair, smiling fixedly and exchanging banalities around a punchbowl of a yellowish fluid that fumed like Lestoil, but which apparently, unlike the students imbibing it, had a proper name: Tom Collins.

But no one at Yale cared to meet me where I was; no one felt any responsibility for helping a kid like me to adjust, academically or culturally—learn to write an essay, for example, much less eat an artichoke or cross-country-ski. (I would eventually flounder to competence in these vital life skills; by now I bet I could perform them simultaneously.) Yale had an Outward Bound approach, abandoning you in the woods and letting you find your own way, whether or not you’d brought your own internal compass. Maybe that toughens you, teaches self-reliance, but now that I’ve been a teacher for a long time, I’ve come to believe that those charged with adolescents’ development should calibrate the independence dose. I’d like to imagine that Yale’s teaching and advising have evolved in keeping with more nurturing modern values, but again and again, current students, their parents, and college counselors tell me, today’s Yale still works best for students assertive enough to take advantage of it. Otherwise, it can be now as it was for those of us who were unprepared then: overwhelming—and lonely. I recently heard stories of two students who retreated to their rooms for the first year or so, because they just couldn’t figure how to navigate.

Did I want all this for my child? He had the schoolwork gene, yes, but I wouldn’t say drive and initiative were his strong points. Would acceptance at Yale for him be a mixed blessing, a poisoned chalice, the gift of a white elephant, too much of a good thing? Wouldn’t he thrive in a smaller school, where his professors might not be ex-prime ministers but might care to know his name?

•••

The prospective-student tours tout the school and woo applicants to boost the US News and World Report rankings, to earn that coveted acceptance rate of below 7%. One Yale friend’s teen loves to needle his father, You’d never get in now. And it’s probably true for most of my cohort; I’m surprised I “got in” then, and that was before high schools required what for me would have been impossible stunts of physics and calculus, and admissions competition came from round the world. The acceptance rate in my day—not that we were much aware of it, in contrast to today’s applicants—was one in ten, not one in thirteen, and those ten were a much more local crew. Another Yale friend tries to tell people, going there back in our day was normal. You were a smart kid in high school, you got A’s, you applied, you got in. That matches my experience.

You filled out your application in ballpoint pen at the kitchen table. Maybe you doodled through a few questions in an SAT practice booklet—until you got bored and wandered off to watch I Dream of Jeannie or Get Smart. Once there, you studied and you played Frisbee. That contradicts what I wrote above, I know—but both were true. It was a Big Deal—and it wasn’t, not from moment to ordinary moment, and certainly not relative to today. And of course for my father-in-law’s generation of Old Bluesfrom the 1930s, it was entirely different—before the democratization of the student body in my era, you went to a feeder prep school and then—if you weren’t unlucky enough to be Jewish or female, not to mention being labeled, like a paint can, with a color—you went. My father-in-law reports that once there, a lot of studying wasn’t strictly necessary; he enjoyed many a gentlemanly game of dorm-room floor hockey between sailing excursions and cocktails at Mory’s.

On the rare occasions nowadays that I must divulge that long ago I went to Yale, people who are only aware of current admissions standards tend to do a double-take: I don’t look like some combination of Einstein and Bill Clinton. I suspect they conclude I’m like a former child star who has lost her dimples. So how are the current students affected by knowing they are, in this golden moment of their youth, the Chosen, the Select, the less-than-seven-percent solution? Does it make them feel arrogant—or humble? Talented or unworthy? Lucky or intimidated? Does it distort them, like fame did Michael Jackson and Elvis? Do they know how ridiculous it is to measure the worth of a person by high school grades and test scores? How crucial emotional intelligence is—not to mention kindness? And luck?

•••

At first the Admissions Office courts you, plying you with colorful brochures. In the lobby, as you wait for the info session to begin, a dazzling Bollywood-style video plays in an endless loop: happy, beautiful, multiethnic undergrads cavort in unison on a verdant hilltop and harmonize over swelling chords, “And that’s why we cho-o-ose Ya-a-ale!” On tours the guides flaunt the magnolia-hung cloisters, the “cloud-cap’d towers,” of the gorgeous campus. And then the tables turn. They solicit your application so they can reject you. We all know it’s bait-and-switch, seduce-and-abandon. But still, would a rejection of my son from my Alma Mater hurt—or rather, how much? Exacerbate my own lifelong sense of inadequacy over having once, long ago, been invited, for not very evident reasons, to the ball? Even worse, would my son be rejected not for his own credentials, but for mine—because I hadn’t been a “good enough” alum? Hadn’t donated a bell tower or a gym, hadn’t accrued enough accolades that redound to Mother Yale’s glory? That double-edged legacy of security/insecurity, that sick game of ranking self and others, lived on.

Well, rejection was what my son and I expected, given that’s the fate these days of over 93% of the twenty-seven thousand applicants. Of these, Yale accepts two thousand to fill fifteen hundred freshman seats. The odds seem better of going from cardinal to Pope. The Dean of Admissions claims he could fill a second class, and even a third, without a drop in academic “quality.” Although that’s not entirely what it’s all about. You don’t get in just because you are smart. For all the talk of the best and the brightest, the actual selection, for better and worse, as we all know, is controlled by multiple competing factors: athletics, geography, interests, gender, legacies, parental fame, affirmative action: “balancing the class.” Admissions can’t risk ending up with two dozen male bassoonists from North Dakota and no goalie for women’s lacrosse. A friend who is an Ivy professor reports a surprising range of academic ability in her classes, explicable in part by athletes with 550s on their SATS having unseated applicants with scores of 800. I myself interview applicants from among the one-hundred-twenty-five or so hopefuls spawned annually in my small city, of whom maybe one or two are selected. Many of my interviewees impress the hell out of me, having volunteered in senators’ offices, won science prizes, founded Ultimate teams, mastered microeconomics on their own, etc., but Yale doesn’t want to overstock from our outpost, and none of mine has ever made the cut. From them I have a small sense of how impossible the Admissions officers’ task is, making micro-distinctions among these superabundant deserving. Among these meritorious rejected could well be my son.

Fine. But the next step gets complicated. The Admissions Office might or might not choose my bright child to balance out the class in some mysterious way, but should he choose them? Would I even want my son to be tattooed with that blue Y?

Well, of course. Yale is fabulous. Incomparable. If the glass slipper fits, you marry the prince. You don’t look the gift horse in the mouth.

But what if it’s a Trojan horse? What if the prince is a jerk?

Why “choose Yale”? I recall only the Bollywood-style dancers’ conclusion in the chorus but not the supporting detail in the verse. In retrospect, I’m not sure I “chose” it at all; rather, I stumbled into it by dumb luck. My immigrant family had barely heard of it; my suburban public high school, as intellectually barren as the malls surrounding it, offered no college counseling. In a way that seems impossible to imagine now, I was entirely unaware of Yale’s cultural cachet: perhaps I offered Admissions a chance to fill out its ignorance quotient. I picked Yale from the Barron’s catalogue because the SAT scores matched mine, I didn’t need to take a plane, and—this was the clincher—I wouldn’t have to take math. And when I visited, I saw that the campus was pretty. And I was so fed up with being ostracized at school and belittled at home for being a smart girl, that I was pumped to prove that dammit I really was just as smart as boys—so Yale’s newly coed status appealed.

But once admitted, and somehow lasting through to graduation, did I end up reaping benefits from my accidental good fortune? For me as for some of my friends, going to Yale actually held us back professionally. For example, no professor would sponsor my thesis on contemporary women’s poetry, and no campus organization would support my summer research into the effects of The Hyde Amendment. My “women’s interests” put me outside the fold. And when I contacted the famous professor tasked with advising about grad school in English, in a phone call that lasted under a minute, she didn’t feel obligated to find out anything about me, including my name, but just delivered a boilerplate “Don’t.” Well, I tunneled under those roadblocks—found a grad student to supervise my thesis, for example, and had a grand time in grad school anyway—which perhaps was character-building. But it wasn’t optimal— it wasn’t “just ask” or the Old Boys Network or the door-opening letter from a Big Name—wasn’t the one-way ticket to opportunity that a Yale acceptance implies.

Subsequently, has the prestige factor affected my career? “Yale” on the CV has served as a handy shorthand for “smart” and “competent” when needed—maybe when applying to grad school or jobs, or needing acceptance from future in-laws, themselves Ivy grads and skeptical of my “Joisey” background. But it has also been interpreted as meaning “over-qualified” and “snooty.”

Every place I’ve worked—and granted my career had been spent in the un-prestigious, woman-heavy, underpaid lower levels of publishing, academia, and education—my colleagues have gone to a variety of colleges. How well or poorly we do our jobs doesn’t correlate with where we received our diploma. The “Ivy Effect” seems to wear off minutes after graduation—or at least with the subsequent credential of grad school or first job. A savvy friend, however, tells me that if you want to work at Goldman, you must go to Harvard—that certain schools and frats are still feeders for certain firms. So maybe if my son were to undertake a career in such a field, where he went to college might make more of a difference in his work-life than it has in mine. But among his cohort, anybody in the biz knows there aren’t enough chairs in the Ivies for those who on paper deserve them—and that plenty have spilled over into other institutions. Paradoxically, the absurdly competitive admissions rates should make the label mean less and less, since to a certain extent it’s obtained not by merit alone, but by chance.

And yet…you spend formative years with all those bright people, among all that sculpted stone and old leather and leaded glass, with ready access to Old Masters and the Gutenberg Bible; you get fed lines in every speech about how you are a future leader—and without realizing it, you imbibe the brew from the punchbowl—or at least inhale the fumes. A voice you are ashamed of starts whispering poisonous things you want to ignore; on some level you start to believe Yalies really are the smartest. The snobbery has infected you, but you struggle to turn a deaf ear and let the child find his own way.

•••

The Admissions Office’s noncommittal response to his carefully crafted application? Waitlisted. The limbo between the alleged heaven of acceptance and hell of rejection. In which 1001 lost souls are condemned to languish, possibly until the last trump shall sound, in far-off August.

If you’re waitlisted and you want to “get in,” you are supposed to demonstrate your “passion,” your undying yearning for admission. Should he? Should he continue to struggle to find the magic formula, the Open Sesame, that would open the door to the treasure cave? Should I prove I was a loyal alum by walking blindfolded and backwards from Commons to the Periodicals Room, penitently holding my ancient key aloft, since I couldn’t come up with a bell tower? Is this a case of beware-what-of-you-wish-for? On the tour, the windowless Secret Society buildings had looked like tombs. What kind of crazy world even needs Secret Societies? Especially with ghoulish names like Skull and Bones? Should we turn and run screaming?

Yale, I’d wait-list you too; I’m not sure about you, either. Not sure I want to leave my first-born on your temple steps, to be brainwashed into worshipping your narcissistic god.

Given my own experiences, that is. From this great distance, peering back through the thickening fog of years: It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was wonderful; it was awful. I felt connected for the first time in my life, at last among fellow geeks, dorks, grinds, and nerds—a whole tribe of my gung-ho people: student council presidents, editors in chief, musical leads, team captains, teachers’ pets, Most Likely to Succeeds.

I also felt miserably alone, as a lower-middle-class Jewish girl in an upper-class WASP and historically-male institution. As an artsy-intellectual dreamer, in a sea of pragmatic, goal-oriented future doctors (forty percent), lawyers (forty percent), and businesspeople (ten percent). I was thrilled, I was entranced; I was anxious and alienated, but in the throes of adolescence, I might have felt that way anywhere. Even if a professor had wanted to know my name, I might not have wanted to tell it; on some days, I might not have been able to summon it up. Even if I’d gone someplace where the professors cared more to teach than profess, where a woman writer or two had been deemed worthy of a place in the English Department intro syllabus.

Elitist, sexist, snobby, cold. On a rainy day like that of our tour, the campus’s stone walls can look like an impregnable fortress, a prison.

On the other hand, when I am with my Yale friends, I feel lit up along all my synapses. How much they love to talk, learn, joke, explore. To extract all possible information out of every conversation, every situation. How much they do, how fully they live. Not that other people don’t, of course—my own non-Yalie husband, for example—but the concentration is high in this particular group. And even in circles beyond them. When I volunteer at the local food bank on the annual Day of Service with teams of Yalies of all ages, the clients benefit from the food, but I’m fed by the talk. While we’re bagging lumpy yams rejected by supermarkets, or stacking sacks of almost-outdated frozen chicken, the talk ranges from local linguistics to firehouse norms to recent biographies to civil liberties to critiques of the flawed food-bank system in which we’re participating. Talk that bespeaks passionate engagement with wide worlds beyond the immediate and personal.

I’d grown up with talk that turned on venting personal grievances, so I’d quickly had to pick up two foreign languages at Yale. I don’t mean the French and Italian I mangled in class: I mean Small Talk and Big Talk. If I’d at first recoiled from punchbowl Small Talk—which I came to understand as the art of revealing nothing while jockeying for dominance—I’d immediately thrilled to Big Talk. I had first basked in Big Talk from the professors, those distant stars shining on their lecture platforms. How I’d thrilled to their precise, informed, wide-ranging eloquence. I took notes as fast as I could, eager to have their brilliant locutions pass through my hand, as if doing so would incorporate even a spark of their energizing fire, their blazing intellectual vitality, into my forming, nebulous self.

But as for what I’d call teaching, there hadn’t been much. It was rather like watching a TED Talk online.

•••

My son’s fortunate facility with schoolwork earned him acceptance at several outstanding liberal arts colleges, where the focus is on teaching undergrads as well as research. I know he could get a fine education and meet wonderful friends at any one of them. We do elite private colleges well in this allegedly meritocratic country; those fantastical, top-heavy, unfair endowments ensure both fabulous resources and financial aid for the fortunate few. From where I sit deep in middle age, it all sounds idyllic: Four years of not having to mow your own lawn or clean your own toilet or even make your own lunch, much less earn your own living. Four years of learning for learning’s sake. Four years of dancing along the Brownian zigzag of your own evolving interests, contemplating big ideas, exploring impractical subjects. Of imagining that the future is bright, that you’ll live forever, that you matter—if being young or some more random catastrophe doesn’t get in the way. (For now I’m averting my eyes from the dark underside—the hook-ups, the frat-party assaults, the beer pong, those toxic side effects of competition and stress, of worries about the future in a warming, overcrowded, debt-ridden, terrorist-haunted planet. On top of dislocation and that state of temporary insanity called youth.)

But despite—or perhaps because of—his mother’s poorly-concealed preference (formed not because of my own irrelevant experience, I keep hoping, but because of who he is) for him to attend one of these smaller, allegedly more nurturing schools, my son has decided not to withdraw from Yale’s waiting list.

“Mom,” he says, “when I visited, I felt like I fit in.” He assures me that he is accustomed from his rigorous prep school to managing a stressful workload and taking initiative. He applied because he was attracted by Yale’s emphasis on service, which my student confirms, writing that “Yale consciously grooms public servants, so that to those whom much is given, much is expected”—which, to whatever extent it’s true, is surely a far better reason than mere prestige, not to mention pretty architecture and the lack of a math requirement. So while we wait, I try to remember that whom you marry, who your children turn out to be, how everybody’s health holds up, how the economy fares, whether history leaves you alone…are all far more important to your happiness, to shaping your life, than your Alma Mater is.

And yet…although I still suspect high-powered Yale would be wrong for my son, despite his assurances and sound reasoning, part of me can’t let go of the idea that if he is lucky enough to get in, he just can’t refuse.

Do graduates of other colleges have this problem—or rather, do they have it this bad? While seeing all the flaws, the occasions on which the emperor has no clothes, can they too still not let go of the brand loyalty, the fatal attraction, the blind patriotism that defies every avowed principle? While it’s hard not to be blinded by Yale’s glitter, I have to wipe the stardust from my eyes. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter so much which of these great schools he attends. It’s really all about match, not prestige—about where he can flourish, where he can most readily locate those nutrients that will help him become himself.

I know that, and yet…

Yale’s a smart place, but it makes you stupid about one thing. The worst of its complex legacy, I realize, is snobbery about itself.

I don’t know if my son will get in, or if he does, what he’ll decide to do. This story ends with a cliffhanger.

•••

JUDITH SANDERS, a writer and former English teacher, lives in Pittsburgh. An update on how it all went down: “In June, my son received a letter from Yale informing him that the incoming class was now full, so his application was no longer being considered. As we discussed this outcome, I mused that it was ironic that he, more academically talented and better prepared than I had been, couldn’t go while I could. ‘Well, Mom,’ he said, ‘different times.’ Wise kid. He’ll be fine.”