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.
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.
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?”
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?”
“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 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.
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
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.
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.”
My daughter has begun to do this thing where she tucks both of her little thumbs inward and then clenches her four fingers around the thumbs into tight fists held in front of her, all while tensing the muscles seemingly in her entire body. She doesn’t breathe for a few seconds as her face grows from a porcelain white to pork pink and finally to bullfighter-cape red. A few veins stick out in various places and she shakes slightly from the effort, as if her thirty-two inch body were lifting some invisible too-heavy weight. Then she abruptly stops, unclenches her hands and releases everything she had previously tensed. The red leaves her face and she goes about whatever she was doing before.
She did this the first few times in the same afternoon. We asked her what was wrong, why she did that—as if she could respond—and then finally we told her, “No! Don’t do that!” She understands surprisingly much for a one-year-old, but she kept doing the clenching and tensing no matter how many times we admonished her in Spanish first, then English although she understands it less. My wife began to cry and I was at a loss for words to console her. We called the pediatrician, not sure what was happening with our daughter. The pediatrician asked us a few questions: Did she have a far-off look in her eyes after the “episode”? Did the actions seem involuntary? No and no, we said. Another string of questions led the pediatrician to rule out seizures and thus he saw no need for us to take her to the emergency room. Because we had the one-year visit scheduled already in two days, the pediatrician told us not to worry—he would look at it then.
Those two days, of course, were agonizing. Any new parent that hears the word seizure in reference to their child, even if it’s to say that they don’t suffer from seizures, is incapable of ignoring possible symptoms. We looked for a far-off look in our daughter’s eyes at every turn and analyzed every movement to make sure it was voluntary.
Two long days later we were in the pediatrician’s office, with our daughter receiving the necessary vaccines, her height and weight being checked, blood drawn to check iron levels and so on—all the standard one-year visit formalities. At some point, between vaccines, our daughter tucked her thumbs inward, clenched her fists as tightly as she could, and tensed her entire body. She turned red and visibly shook from the effort, this time looking more as if she were ferociously constipated than if she were lifting an invisible weight. The pediatrician pulled the needle back and asked us if this was what we had called about. Yes, we said, this is exactly what she’s been doing that has us so worried. That, the pediatrician responded, is your daughter’s way of expressing her frustration or anger at something. Because she can’t speak yet, she has to show or let out her frustration in other ways. It’s perfectly normal, he concluded, and in fact, from the age of one up until eighteen or twenty months, she will have moments of intense rage, with outbursts of tears and screaming that could last several minutes. We should ignore these moments and not try everything in our power to console her—the outbursts will pass with time.
My wife left the appointment satisfied with the pediatrician’s explanation—seizures left her mind—and ready to ignore our daughter’s future fist clenching scenes and moments of rage when they should start to appear. I, on the other hand, was distraught; I knew that the pediatrician didn’t have the full story and neither did my wife.
During my days, I represent immigrant youth from Central America who can’t afford an attorney and are being deported—many of them will be slaughtered by gangs in their home countries if they’re returned. What my wife and the pediatrician had not taken into account was my daughter’s time alone with me following those days when the world seems to have you in its teeth and won’t soften the bite. The times when I would come home from work destroyed from my interactions with the Department of Homeland Security and she would cry deep and uncontrollably into my face while I tried to put her to sleep. Or a fifteen-year-old Salvadorian girl would share the rapes she had suffered on her journey to the United States, and then my daughter wouldn’t eat the food I had prepared for her that night. Or a young woman, an undocumented college graduate, would beg me to find some form of immigration relief that she could possibly qualify for so that she can live out just a slice of the American Dream she was told existed for everyone, and there would be nothing I could do for her, and then my daughter would thrash around while I was changing her diaper and everything on the changing table would be a mess, dripping to the floor. All of these moments would intertwine inextricably with the 2016 presidential race, the ominous cloud hanging over everything and all of us.
In those moments, where my thoughts would seem profoundly dark although the sun had just set and rays of light still broke through the Brooklyn townhouses visible from my daughter’s bedroom, I would clench my teeth and tense my whole body, not breathe for a few seconds and if there had been a mirror nearby, I likely would’ve seen my face turning red as well. I would shake slightly from the invisible but actual weight and if I was holding my daughter in my arms, I would hold her a bit tighter and sometimes even jump up and down a few times, begging her through gritted teeth to stop crying and go to sleep, eat her food, or be still while I changed her diaper. The throbbing at my temples would become less dull and unrelated frustrations would blend together. My daughter had undoubtedly picked up her fist-clenching, body-tensing behavior from those moments—I know it and no explanation from the pediatrician can change this. The frustrations of my days representing immigrant youth in an unfair system, interspersed with the twenty-four-hour news cycle on the general decline of American policy and politics—including a man that wants to deport everyone, all of the young men and women who have become more than clients to me—are bleeding into my nights with a rapidly developing baby, who soaks up every emotion and stimuli her father gives her. These are the cracks on the hardened shell of a man who keeps everything in.
In one of my rare escapes from the house after work, I met up with a friend at a bar not far from the Nostrand stop I get off at the other day. As with any conversation for the last six months, we talk about the presidential race and it feels as if we are summarizing an episode of Jerry Springer more than the intricacies of the highest office. I try to share some of the things I see and hear at work, but as often happens, not much comes out. I say the government is unfair and that President Obama, a man I love, is complicated when it comes to immigrants and immigration. Complicated indeed, replies my friend. He brings up the basics: the two million deportations carried out under President Obama that have torn apart families versus the Executive Orders signed by him to protect young immigrants and the undocumented parents of US citizens.
We change the subject. This friend of mine has a more hands-on job than mine: he works at a butcher shop in Park Slope. I prefer to hear about his job, since he’s always creating new sausage recipes and so on. He mentions a Banh Mi flavored sausage he is tinkering with.
After we clink glasses on our second beer, he tells me something he’s never told me before about his job, and it sticks with me. He tells me that he has no problem advising each person that enters the shop which cut of meat is the freshest that day, which would make a great dinner and the best way to cook the meat; that he derives pleasure from imagining the customers enjoying their meat products; that he even enjoys slicing the meats and arranging them on display. But, in order to do all of this, he said it is vital that he cannot think about the lambs being slaughtered.
I thought about this a lot on the walk home. Every immigrant youth that has come into my office has the same question, the question that has forced itself into every legal intake I’ve recently done, every application I’ve completed, every court appearance, as if none of these painful and tortured migrant lives really matter in the end. It is the question everyone working with immigrants—and maybe all of us in general—cannot escape: What if he wins the presidency?
Eleven million people will be deported, he says. No Muslims will enter the country and Mexico will pay for a wall to keep everyone out of the U.S.
My friend’s comment came into my mind again tonight on the way home from work.
Now it’s one a.m.
I have sat at this couch since eight p.m. watching a map of the United States of America slowly and incomprehensibly turn more red than blue. I listened half-heartedly to analysis and prophecy—teetering between falsities and doomsday—finally turning the television off when the end was all but assured. I didn’t wait for the final call or hear either candidate speak; I held a slim hope that I was already asleep and the morning would reveal the actual reality. My eyes have been closing for some time and there is no one awake to talk with me. This could all not be happening.
Asleep or awake, I get off the couch. I pour myself a glass of water and go into my daughter’s room, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, to the new world. Once they have, I look into her crib and see her lying on her back, arms and legs in a peaceful outstretched X with her chest slowly rising and falling in the middle. I reach into the crib and pick her up. She murmurs slightly and moves a bit as I put her on my shoulder and carry her to our bed. My wife is sleeping just as peacefully—she has an early day tomorrow and was convinced enough by the confident and uniform predictions that tonight held no surprises. She watched the first states being called, shaking her head when I tried to explain what little I understand of electoral college. Then she went to bed and I thought I would follow soon after. My wife, the immigrant. America has just slit her wrists.
Looking at my wife and holding our daughter in my arms, I become more aware, somehow more at ease than at any moment in the last year—as if all of it has been a daze of too many deadlines and deportations played to the soundtrack of bigotry and racism. I know what is happening now: the dull fear, the this-will-never-happen, is reality. I am awake. I feel my daughter in my arms and shiver at the thought that my days had been transferred to her in some way, that her bright eyes and developing mind are soured by emotions I have let overrun me. How do you help others without destroying yourself, your family? How do you keep a belligerent world from seeping into your daughter’s bedroom? My fatherhood has been enveloped by a dark blanket which I just now—ironically—feel that I am shaking off. This is the moment we have most feared coming true. And I find that we are ready for it.
I lay our daughter next to my wife and crawl into bed next to them. My daughter has kept on sleeping just as peacefully as before, like her mother. I roll onto my left shoulder so that they fill my view. It doesn’t seem so dark now; I can make out all of their features. I think to myself that every day will be okay if this is how it ends. I breathe deeply and instead of tensing muscles and clenching teeth—symptoms of the anger and frustration I’d felt so much in the last year—I discover love and comfort where it has always been. The world away from our mattress matters as much as an itch on a toe as you fall asleep: you leave the doorstep of sweet dreams if you scratch it. These women next to me are my lifeline. I see this as if a blanket has been lifted.
My eyes are too heavy now but I steal one last glance at them, then I quietly fall asleep. Tomorrow the world will be different, but this and us will not. We were part of a tussle; now comes the war. Tomorrow the fight erupts: the butcher is coming for every lamb.
J. J. MULLIGAN is a non-profit immigration attorney representing immigrant youth who cannot afford an attorney in New York City. He is a new father, former college basketball player, and a diehard San Francisco Giants fan. His writings and translations have appeared in his mother’s native Chile and in various publications here in the U.S.
I nose the rented mini-van onto the side of the narrow road, and Gram and I get out. It’s a lovely little grassy patch that slopes down to a sun-dappled creek. Or crick, as we call it.
“She had one arm raised above her head,” Gram says, “like someone dragged her there.”
When I think of western Pennsylvania fondly, it’s summer that I’m remembering: the greens of the trees and grass, the bursts of neon yellow from lightning bugs, the red tomatoes from the garden up on the window sill. But PA in the winter is, frankly, depressing—the grim black-and-white tableau—with the black mountains, the stark white snow, the clumps of gray frozenness along the turnpike. It’s a place where the coal mines have made their mark, and slate piles still stand.
When she died, on January 22, 1932, it was cold and the forecast had called for rain. It’s likely her body was found soaked, her long skirts muddied and bloodied. I imagine the creek’s waters rising toward that arm.
She’s my Gram’s grandmother, my great-great-grandmother. Growing up, I only knew three things about her: The legend was that her husband, a coal-miner like so many Polish immigrants, was in “frail health,” and as a result, she took up bootlegging—and was successful enough at it to own three houses. Her fourth child, her youngest, was rumored to be of mixed race. And she was murdered.
How could I resist mythologizing her? On these barest of bones, I pressed on flesh that reflected the fantasy of who I’d be if my back were to the wall. A bad-ass! A proto-feminist! An outlaw! A woman who landed on her feet when times got tough! Myths, of course, always represent the imagination of the myth-maker. I didn’t even know her first name or what she looked like, but I was eager to find a woman in my lineage who didn’t play by the sometimes arbitrary rules.
Mom told me that Gram didn’t like to talk about her, so when I was a kid, I didn’t dare broach the subject. She was a warm grandmother and doted on us, asking my sisters and me to sing songs on their breezy porch, teaching us Scrabble and Boggle, and rewarding us with small gifts. But there were unspoken rules to be followed, enforced by the time-honored code of passive aggression. We—especially as girls—were to appear “neat” (for some reason, that was and is a massive compliment in Gram’s eyes), not bicker, attend church regularly, and excel in school. Gram didn’t smoke or drink or swear. The most outrageous thing she did on a regular basis was to wiggle out of her bra while driving, twirl it on her index finger, then fling it onto the backseat of her Cadillac.
Sometime in my twenties, Gram and I became friends. She’d somewhat loosened up by then; she’d occasionally have a glass of pink wine when her son-in-law encouraged her, and she let my boyfriend and me sleep in the same bed when we visited. When I became a mother, we grew closer, swapping tales of motherhood, then and now. (If only for the accessibility of washing machines, now is better.) In recalling the hard times, Gram reverts to the second person.
In my thirties, I felt close enough to Gram the person to ask directly about her grandmother. What happened? We talked, and over the course of several years, I pieced together the memories and legends with possibly the only person alive who actually knew her.
I told Gram I’d do some research. “Be careful,” she warned me. “There are some people in the family you don’t want to talk to.”
This was code. Not every relative had become respectable.
When someone is a myth, it’s easy to forget that she was also a person.
Her name was Anna Dec Fisher. She and my great-great grandfather John emigrated from Poland. Her first name was sometimes “Annie” and their last name wasn’t really Fisher. According to census records, their true last name might have been Ezoeske, Jezorski, or Yozarski. They spoke Polish, and a few fragments of their language still run in my family. “Zamknij się” means “Shut your mouth.” “Jest zimno” means “It’s cold.” We, the descendants, have bastardized the foreign phrases to accommodate our American tongues.
Annie and John immigrated in 1901, a time when the United States was still figuring out how to sort the new waves of immigrants into the racial categories it had constructed. Poles were technically white, placing them above some races, but not the right kind of white. Or maybe the right kind for certain interests. Bluntly put, Poles were considered by mainstream America as strong and hard-working—the perfect fit for manual labor—but stupid. Ralph Waldo Emerson, approvingly, wrote in 1852, “Our idea, certainly, of Poles & Hungarians is little better than of horses recently humanized.” (Oh, Ralphie, go shoot your eye out.) A U.S. Steel Corporation want ad from 1909 read, in part, “Syrians, Poles, and Romanians preferred.”
Annie wasn’t stupid. She was just new. It’s unclear if she and John landed in U.S. together, but they came from different parts of what was Poland. (Poland didn’t technically exist as a country in 1901.) John was from Galacia, the poorest region of Europe at the time, then in Austria-Poland. Annie claimed Russia-Poland. They started off their new lives together in Ohio, where their first child, Mary, was born, followed by Helen (my great-grandmother, Gram’s mom), and Walter. By 1910, they were in Walkertown, a small town in West Pike Run Township, Pennsylvania. John worked as a coal miner. It’s where their last child, Adam, would be born.
The first time I saw of picture of Annie was in an old photo that my distant cousin Nicole shared with me. (She’s Walter’s granddaughter.) It’s a family photo from before Adam was born. Annie is standing, one hand on her hip, the other holding Helen’s hand. Her hair’s styled in one of those froufy buns popular around the turn of the century. She wears a bow-tie in her puffy white shirt with a full-length skirt.
By the April 1920 census, they already owned their own home, free of a mortgage. In January that year, the government had enacted the eighteenth amendment, also known as Prohibition. At some point, Annie and John started breaking the new law.
I started finding more artifacts, and the myth of Annie started breaking down. A different picture of her emerged from the bath of historical documents and the context of her life. And that picture of Annie’s life and how she spent it would haunt my family all the way down to my own upraising.
“My dad said everyone did it,” Mom told me, referring to the Prohibition-era law.
“Yes,” I said. “But not everyone went to jail for it.”
Walkertown was small, and people talked. Adam was born in 1916 and was not yet five at the time of the 1920 census. The census-taker seemed to be confused. In the column for race, a Mu for mulatto is marked, then written over more strongly with a W for white.
It wasn’t just the census taker. There seemed to have been a non-governmental consensus that John wasn’t Adam’s father. Gram told me that when she was a kid, sometimes she’d go to the movie theater where Adam worked. He’d let her in for free. But neither would get too close because, you know, the rumors. Later, Adam would leave Walkertown, marry a white redhead, and join the military. Outside of Walkertown, as far as I know, no one questioned his whiteness.
Nicole is also the one who first showed me pictures of Adam. He was a handsome guy, although slightly darker than the other Fisher siblings. This doesn’t mean a lot to me; I have an uncle with a darker skin tone than his siblings, too. Genes pop up in the most peculiar ways.
This interracial brouhaha is so unremarkable now that I feel ridiculous bringing it up, but then I remember that sometimes my grandparents would explain their youths to me in ways that could only be seen as racist. Dating an Italian was almost as bad as dating a black. Meaning, in the poor white community, you lost status. You lost your advantage, which was the measure of respect that your skin color afforded you. The only thing that kept you from being at the very bottom of the American pecking order. Even the rumor of blackness was enough to awaken the racism of Walkertown.
I wonder sometimes if the people of Walkertown would have even questioned Adam’s race had there not been a man, labeled by the census as mulatto, living next door to Annie and John. Short of finding Adam’s descendants and convincing them to give me a quarter teaspoonful of their spit to send to an online DNA profiler, I’m not going to know. I don’t need to know; we’re judged on how we present, not who we are, anyway. Annie could well have had an affair with the guy next door. But she just as easily—more easily, actually—been friendly to her next-door neighbor. Or, easier still, she could have done nothing at all.
All the rumors mean is that Annie was the kind of woman that her white peers thought capable of crossing the line between proper and improper. Whether Adam was John’s son or not, they were right. Annie was woman who crossed lines.
By the summer of 1929, if Annie hadn’t earned respect through piety and birthright, she was grabbing it in the real American way: money.
Two of Annie’s children had married and had had children of their own. According to the family, Annie owned three houses by then. Her oldest, Mary, lived with her family in one. Helen lived with her family in the multi-unit house next to Annie, John, Walter, and Adam.
Annie was bootlegging. She was good at it. I believe she was the brains of the couple, able to read and write while John couldn’t. Gram remembers the yard filled with cars. She was young, just five when her grandmother died, too young to understand that these were probably the cars of paying customers visiting her grandparents.
On July 29, 1929, police raided Annie and John’s house. According to police reports, Helen yelled, “Beat it! The law is coming!”
I imagine customers scrambled into those parked cars and beat it with a quickness.
Next, Helen dumped out a pitcher of liquor that was on the back porch and told the cops, “Go ahead and search. The evidence is gone.”
The evidence wasn’t gone. They found sixteen quarts of beer, two barrels of wine, and a quarter gallon of moonshine in a gallon jug.
Annie, John, and Helen were arrested.
I questioned the documents that I received from Washington County. Did the woman I knew as Grandma Crawford, the permed lady with the puffy pink toilet seat and yappy dog named Duchess, really call out, “Beat it!”?
But then I remember how notoriously blunt and mouthy she was. When I was a kid, she accused me of cheating at 500 Rum and made me cry. When her daughter-in-law and her son-in-law left her children for each other, her remark was, “Why would he leave one fat one”—her daughter—“for another fat one?” When my parents separated, she cut to the chase—no I’m sorry, honey—and offered Mom money if she could live with us. (We didn’t have anywhere to put her.)
And looking at photos of her when she was a teenager, with her bobbed hair and defiant face, I could believe it.
But I also believe that the arrest changed something in Helen.
The next morning, John was charged with manufacturing and possession. Annie and Helen were charged with sale and possession. The bail was $1000 for Annie, and $500 each for John and Helen. None of them could make bail, so they sat in the Washington County jail.
They sat there for a while.
(This was news to Gram. When I told her, she immediately asked, “Where was I?”
She would have been not quite three years old when the arrest happened. My breath caught, realizing that this isn’t some historical curiosity, that I can’t stand on my middle-class perch and think that my research doesn’t have real-life ramifications, just as current-day journalism doesn’t have ramifications for the subjects, especially ones whose names show up in the crime section, not the society section, of the newspaper. My voice softened. “Your dad’s mom Amanda lived with you then, Gram. I bet she took good care of you.”)
On August 21, 1929, the testimonies of the law enforcement officers were entered into the record. On September 9, 1929, John, Annie, and Helen went before a judge. John and Annie pled guilty at some point—perhaps that day—but Helen did not. On October 1, 1929, the district attorney filed a motion with the court for a nolle prosequi (meaning that the state acknowledges it doesn’t have enough evidence against the defendant to prosecute) for Helen. He noted that Helen’s parents were now serving their sentences. I don’t know what those sentences were, but they’ve become irrelevant in the story of my family. I spoke to a friend with a legal degree, and she suspected that Annie and John’s plea deal included the stipulation that Helen go home. She’d already been in jail for over two months.
Helen had missed Gram’s third birthday during her time there; her son was five years old, her second daughter, just an infant. Her breasts must have ached terribly, lumpy and swollen with milk. I think of her there, now a twenty-three-year-old married mother, in an iron and steel facility once called “a modern day Bastille.” I can’t imagine the shame that must have plagued her, the dignity robbed. I can imagine, though, that the experience strengthened her already-entrenched resolve: Become respectable.
I was well into adulthood before I heard of respectability politics, and I only learned of them in the context of African-American history. In a nutshell, it means when a group outside of the mainstream tries to assimilate in order to become accepted. The opposite is when a group outside of the mainstream fights against what the mainstream insists is The Right Way of Living.
In terms of race, only white people can win the respectability game because we don’t carry any visible markers that we’re different. We can dress like the respected people; we can adopt their mannerisms, their biases, their way of speaking.
We can, but not all of us do. The people who don’t are the people who Gram spoke of, the ones I shouldn’t want to know, like the relatives who came to my grandfather’s viewing and were caught rifling through the pockets of the mourners’ coats. As now-respectable white people, we don’t know what to do with them, even as we know their personal histories and how much they’d have to overcome to have a shot at mainstream lives. They’re not the rebels we mythologize. They’re problems to be avoided because they’ve proven they will fuck us over in real time.
I see our family’s striving for respectability in an artifact. There’s a photo of John and two friends, the Novak brothers*, in my grandmother’s box of old photos. Written on the photo is, “The Drunks.” I recognize the handwriting. I’ve seen it once a year for half of my life on birthday cards that arrived with a five-dollar bill tucked inside and signed “Love, Great Grandma Crawford.”
Actually, I don’t know for sure if the Novaks were Annie and John’s friends. They seemed to have been, although God knows I’ve taken drunken photos with people who were little more than acquaintances.
On the year Annie would turn fifty-two years old, though, she went over to help Pete and Agnes Novak render lard from a recently slaughtered pig. One version of the story has her doing it out of the goodness of her heart and maybe some portion of the lard. Another version has her working as hired help. In any case, by that time, John wasn’t working; his lungs were severely compromised due to his time in the mines.
Annie didn’t come home the night of January 22, 1932. Her body was found by the creek the next morning.
I came to the story of Annie originally believing that I could Nancy Drew this sucker open and find out what really happened. Was she murdered? Was it some sort of cover-up? Were the Novaks ever implicated?
What I found out was that I’m so far removed from the underclass—by my own foremothers’ design—that I took for granted that her suspicious death would warrant the kind of investigation that mine would.
On January 25, 1932, Annie made the news in a non-criminal way for the first time. The Charleroi Mail (a newspaper from a town not far away) reported the headline, “Find Lifeless Body of Woman on Road; Heart Attack Victim”:
The lifeless body of Mrs. Anna Fisher, 52, of Walkertown, was discovered yesterday morning by John Hans, lying beside the road between Walkertown and Daisytown, near California [Pennsylvania].
Deputy Coroner J.F. Timko, of California, stated that the woman had been dead about twelve hours when discovered. Mrs. Fisher had left the home of Pete [Novak] for her own home shortly after dark Friday evening. Members of her family were not alarmed over her absence because her husband was away from home. Death was due to a heart attack.
She leaves her husband John Fisher, and four children: Walker and Andrew Fisher, at home, and Mrs. Helen Crawford and Mrs. Mary Smolley, both of Walkertown.
This wasn’t journalism’s finest moment. They got the date wrong, the spot wrong, and Walter’s and Adam’s names wrong. They probably even got her cause of death wrong.
Her death certificate lists her cause of death as “acute gastritis and enteritis” and states her death occurred around eleven at night.
Believing that the Novaks were her friends, I formed a story in my head in which Annie, who was likely a pretty hearty drinker, went to help the Novaks with the pig. While she was there, she died of natural causes. The Novaks—who didn’t have such a clean record with law enforcement themselves, both with arrest records on alcohol-related charges—panicked and put her body by the creek.
I messaged Nicole about it, and she wasn’t buying it.
“Did they do an autopsy?” she asked me.
I looked at the paper in front of me. “It’s blank. So I guess not.”
“Then how do they know?”
Later, with the help of a friend with medical knowledge, I looked into whether one can die of gastritis and enteritis. Turns out, people have actually died of it—but the real cause of death is dehydration as a result of prolonged vomiting and diarrhea. It certainly doesn’t seem like something that would cause you to keel over while walking home after rendering lard.
Nicole was right. We’re never going to know.
When Gram and I visited, all of Annie’s houses were still standing, although the movie theater wasn’t there anymore and the general store was boarded up. Gram’s knees were bothering her, but I held her hand—so much like mine, long-fingered and slim—and we made our way to Mary’s former house where a picture of Gram was taken so many years ago. That solemn, round face, those straight bangs and pageboy haircut. We knocked, but no one answered.
Annie’s house was now painted a mustard yellow. Gram’s childhood home was still white. As we stood there, a woman came out of one of its units. She didn’t know any of the history, and besides, she was on her way to second shift.
After Annie died, the story goes that Mary didn’t pay the taxes on the houses (why she was the one in charge, I have no idea), and that they were taken by the government. Helen’s family wound up in Daisytown, around the bend, in company housing.
We stopped there, too, but we didn’t get out. I have no poker face, and I didn’t cover how appalled I was fast enough. I think my expression showed the gulf between my life and hers. The houses were exactly as Gram had described them: one room that was the kitchen and everything else, two smaller rooms that served as bedrooms, no matter how many children your family had. The reality—the poverty—of it didn’t hit me until then. People still lived there. “That one was ours,” Gram said. “At least we had an end one.”
“I used to visit my grandfather when I was a kid,” she said later. “We’d walk from Daisytown to Walkertown.” I told her that the census reported that he didn’t speak English, only Polish. She laughed. “He spoke English. I remember him as kind. He was gentle with us. He and Adam lived in a house that was half-burned down, but he loved when we visited him.”
With Annie transformed from a myth into a woman, I’ve had to face the myths that I built about myself.
When I was a kid, my family went though a serious rough patch, and it made a mark on me. Even before the steel industry imploded, we weren’t financially stable, but once my dad got laid off, we were forced, for a time, to go on food stamps. I ate government cheese. We relocated to a different state and eventually gave our Pennsylvania home back to the bank. Those aren’t the things that made the mark. It was the knowledge, even then, of the difference between someone’s compassion for us and someone’s pity—which is somehow worse than scorn. You can meet scorn with scorn; you can only meet pity with shame.
It’s been more than three decades since I’ve been in that place, but I still think of myself as the underdog. I’m not. My own descendants—including my son, who (despite my fears) did not become an entitled little shit—will find that I’m a relatively rich woman, and any problems I’ve had with respectability are only visible if you know what to look for. But I’ve clung to the underdog myth because part of me believes that I’d be incapable of showing compassion—not condescending pity, not scorn—to marginalized people if I hadn’t, on some level, experienced it myself. I still grapple with the idea that compassion springs from who you are, not who you come from.
Try as I might, I can’t let go of my own myth. Go ahead and search. The evidence isn’t gone. It’s just trace amounts at this point.
JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. She’s changed the “Novak” family’s name out of respect for their descendants.
The new Executive Director’s father is dying. Her name is Angela; she moved here from northern Virginia and has brought him with her. She holds his elbow, and together they learn this small town in North Carolina. They walk carefully over the cobblestones in the parts of downtown still cobbled. They examine the construction, having never seen the slender strip of grass that used to be where these cement blocks and this mound of dirt now sit. In a year or so the block extending east from the obelisk will be a bigger expanse of grass, a real park: with benches, one of those water spouts for kids in summer.
Her father is old and has dementia. She wears what she can of his condition inside her own body and it shows. She worries, calls her new rental house from the office throughout the day to make sure he answers. When he doesn’t, she drives home and back, reports that he was asleep. This is how she learns her way around.
The Asheville Citizen-Times and the free weekly run articles announcing her hiring. I watch her try to fix her hair for the photos: she stands in the gallery next to a banner I’ve never seen, retrieved from the basement. It has our logo on it. Asheville Area Arts Council: AAAC. Our town is glad she’s here. We shake her hand with both our hands. Sometimes we clasp her forearm. We nod our heads, tell each other Oh, her father. We say to ourselves, It’s so sad. We say, She has so much on her plate. So much to do. We’re a town of artists and college students and retirees, and we have been waiting for her. We radiate excitement to watch her try to live. We love seeing her walk her dad across the street from the office to get ice cream.
In Florida, in the ’90s, families that we knew and did not know were buying tarps and specialty fencing and in other ways trying to prevent this thing that took over like a wave, like an accidental fad. It was the thing that kept happening: people’s children were drowning in their own pools. My dad, a pediatrician, was interviewed on the local news and my sister and I felt famous by extension.
One family we knew bought a pool fence to prevent this exact thing from happening, but their baby followed a cat through the crack between the latch and the rest of the nylon fencing. A grandparent was babysitting and had fallen asleep.
And another: my third grade classmate’s baby brother, a fat toddler who accompanied us on school trips when his parents chaperoned. He was famous for this wiggly dance, probably the product of just having learned to stand upright, that was like the chicken dance only shorter and unplanned. The memory I have, that I return to every few years, is of this baby wobbling around in a diaper outside the Arlington Street pool. We had gone on a field trip. My friend’s brother did his dance and our whole class stood around him, and his dad was there and we laughed.
These things did not happen in public pools, though, only in the carefully planned backyards of the people who loved their babies. And so, weeks or months later, my friend’s father fell asleep while his baby was awake and curious. It was the first funeral I ever attended. I sat with another classmate, and I don’t remember if my parents were even there. The baby’s dad stood at a podium and sobbed. He said he would miss that little dance so much. He held tight to the podium and we watched the rest of his body try to collapse and he shook. His hands were the only still parts.
Four days after Ryane’s dad dies I email all of our friends. “I wanted to let you know that Ryane’s dad died on Monday morning. If you have a chance and are inclined to send her a note, I know she would appreciate it. We don’t yet have email at the house, but the physical address is…”
He died three weeks after his fifty-first birthday. Ryane was twenty-five. Three of our friends respond to my email, telling me to tell Ryane they are sorry. One person delivers Tupperware ravioli while we’re in Indiana for the funeral. One sends a note in the mail saying she wishes she could give Ryane a hug.
At funerals, the idea is to look around: to see the group you’re given to grieve with. A temporary family, or an actual family. A room full of people with similar, complicated feelings.
The idea is once you walk out of that room, away from those people who understand what you feel because they also feel some version of it, subsequent acquaintances are less likely to understand. They might not understand at all.
A friend drops off a Tupperware of ravioli while you’re out, never to mention your loss again.
A friend asks, within months, why it’s still a topic of discussion.
People extend birthday party invitations, or they don’t extend them at all. Both situations feel the same.
No one mentions it.
Or a few people mention it, asking, How are you? when there is no answer. Thinking about you, xo.
I study the grief around me to understand my own, which technically hasn’t happened yet. I grieve a family that still exists, parents I can call on the phone today, who were always just themselves instead of the people I needed them to be.
Waiting to actually lose someone can become confused for actually having lost them, after a while. We humans float around each other in so many ways.
Angela has moved her father back into his house in Florida. At first he manages with the help of nurses whom she pays to stop by. But he falls, forgets who they are, becomes upset when they unlock his front door one by one and enter as though it were their house. He calls her at work, and through the drywall separating her office from mine, I hear her whisper insistent Spanish into the receiver. Mira, Papi.
She has him transferred to an assisted living facility somewhere east of Orlando where he has limited telephone privileges but nurses sometimes call with updates. Every six weeks or so she flies on Allegiant air—tiny planes to tiny airports, something like $86 round-trip—to Sanford, rents a car and drives to visit him. She flies back frazzled, calls from the car on the way back from the airport, asks questions the answers to which she does not hear and says she’ll be in the office later.
“Thanks for coming,” Dad says to us at our gate, before we board. My sister and I are in the Montgomery airport. Because Mom and Dad flew up early, we’re on separate flights and they don’t leave until tomorrow. When he says, “Thanks for coming,” he refers to our attendance of his mother’s funeral. Breast cancer. “Thanks for coming”: we hadn’t thought it was optional. We board our plane and return to high school. Our friends say, “Sorry about your grandma,” and we say things like, “Thanks,” and “She was old,” because we don’t know how else to respond.
She’d been sick for a while, in and out of the hospital, and when my dad wasn’t addressing her by her first name in exasperated tones over the phone he was arguing with my mom about the money he was sending to his brother to care for her. This serves as a reminder to us that it is always possible to walk around something too vast, to fight about something like money instead.
We’ve just moved into a new house and are sleeping on the floor, on a mattress exhumed from the pullout couch. It is seven-thirty in the morning and Ryane is dreaming that her father has died. In the dream, she’s misheard someone. At first she thinks her grandmother is dead. Then she realizes her grandmother is alive, that her father has died instead. She asks again to make sure. Yes, he’s dead, someone tells her. In the dream she cries and cries and cries, and when she wakes up she thinks she’s been crying in real life but hasn’t been. She wakes up because my cell phone is ringing. The light outside is lazy. Did we set an alarm? The phone is plugged in, ringing next to the bed on the floor. I look at the area code. It’s Bloomington, Indiana. I hand the little phone to her and know.
“Hello?” It’s her grandfather. Her phone is dead and he’s been calling it for hours. I watch her start to cry and I hold onto her shoulder. “This morning?” she asks into the phone.
When she hangs up she says, “I dreamed that he died!” She is wearing a white men’s undershirt and she sits upright in the bed, hunched over like another broken thing.
There are the religious concepts. Let us confess the faith of our baptism as we say I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
They do not help. Rather, I do not know whom they help. Rather, they do not help me.
At the funeral of a man who had waited for his wife and children to leave for work and school, walked to the shed, grabbed a shotgun and sat down under a tree in his backyard to shoot himself in the face, hundreds of us pour into a Western North Carolina hillside chapel to hear the minister say, If God is for us, who is against us?
This was when I dated Zoe. The dead man was her coworker. I had never met him or his wife or his children. The day before, after the body was removed and the grass under the tree was cleaned and the shotgun destroyed and the widow and her children had gone to her parents’, Zoe and her coworkers and I drove to the widow’s house with boxes and duct tape and markers. Into the boxes we put his clothes, their photo albums, framed images taken from the walls and coffee tables of their wedding, vacations. We took the sheets off the bed. We collected anything that seemed like his and wrote things on the full boxes like “clothes,” “photos.” Half the house went into storage for when she was ready to come back. She would look through the “clothes” and “photos” when she was ready.
That was over a decade years ago and I wonder how long it took her to be ready. Has she retrieved those boxes yet? Has she sold the house? Did she even ask for us to do that? All I remember is being invited to join.
If God is for us, who is against us? The packing day and the funeral day: one felt like prayer, the other just something to be done.
After we found out Ryane’s dad had died, there were logistics. We needed to drive to Virginia to pick up her mom and youngest brother, and from there go to Indiana where her dad’s body and Ryane’s grandparents and middle brother were. But first I had to do two things.
When I called Angela to say I wouldn’t be coming to work for a few days she said, Oh my God I’m so sorry and Can you drop those prints at the framer’s before you leave? Ryane and I had been moving from the house on Arbutus to the one on Larchmont, and were supposed to finish cleaning out Arbutus that weekend. Instead we were driving to Indiana. After hanging up with Angela I called the Arbutus landlord and told him we needed more time. He said he had renters moving in on Thursday and couldn’t give us any. I told Ryane I had to run errands before we could leave and she said that was fine even though I knew it wasn’t. She sat very still in the deep-cushioned yellow chair I’d gotten at Goodwill the year before. “I’ll pack a bag,” she said, but she didn’t move.
During the drive to the framer’s I held two thoughts in my head: I’m doing the wrong thing by running this errand and This absolutely has to get done right now. The Arts Council had contracted with a new Hyatt to provide art for the walls, and it was a disaster. The artists were being underpaid for their work and asked to sign away rights of ownership. Because Asheville is a town of struggling artists, they all said yes but hated us for suggesting they do it. For the last week I’d been taking call after call from frustrated painters, trying to calm them and failing. And the framer, who’d agreed to take on the project at a significantly reduced rate, had been waiting for Angela to bring the prints all week. On Friday Angela had finally just stuffed them all in my car and told me to do it Monday morning.
“I have other customers, you know,” the framer said when I got there.
“Michelle, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why Angela didn’t drop these off.” I suspected she’d just forgotten. Sometimes grief takes over before the person you’re grieving has gone.
Afterward at Arbutus I stuffed everything I could from that house into my car. In the years that followed, every once in a while Ryane and I would realize something else left behind in that basement.
On my last trip to the car I stopped in the front yard. We’d planted sunflowers along the fencing and walkway that spring, and few had bloomed. The soil wasn’t very deep and elms shaded our corner of the neighborhood. But next to the mailbox a mammoth sunflower had been growing up and up. When we’d last left Arbutus, Ryane’s dad was alive and the mammoth’s face had appeared but not opened and Ryane was wondering whether she should go up to Indiana for a while to be with him. I stuffed some loose kitchen utensils in the trunk of the car and stood there. Ryane’s dad was dead. We would never live in east Asheville again. Peter was dead. Later I would see his body. I would need to know the correct things to do and say this whole week. I would need to say the soothing things and first I would need to think of what those things could be. And I would need to say goodbye to someone who had started to become a parent to me.
The sunflower had opened overnight. Half of its fingery petals extended from its face, and the other half still held to the big center circle. It was an eclipse. I convinced myself our one sunflower had opened part way because Peter had died. I texted Ryane a photo and left to pick her up for our drive to him.
At a gallery opening Angela has one glass of red wine and yet appears to be deeply intoxicated.
“Have you seen The L Word?” she asks me, because I am a lesbian and the show is about lesbians and because she is newly brave and apparently has been waiting for the moment to ask. She leans across the sales counter behind which I stand. Patrons mingle around us. Here we are, the only two staff members left. Everyone else has quit.
“Yes,” I say. “But it’s not a very good show.” She agrees and then switches topics.
“Have I told you I have fibromyalgia?” she offers.
“No,” I say.
“For ten years. I’ve been to many doctors.”
What I know about fibromyalgia is that it’s contentious, that some doctors don’t even believe it to be an actual medical ailment, that rather some believe it to be a psychosomatic manifestation of emotional problems: physical repercussions to psychic issues. I know that it presents as a series of seemingly unrelated pains, sometimes diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, other times as the flu, other times as fibromyalgia, other times as depression. Fibromyalgia has no cure or known cause.
What I now know about Angela, as I stand at the sales counter watching the minglers adjacent to her slack body, is that she takes painkillers and occasionally mixes them with alcohol. What I know about Angela is that certain chemical reactions are happening in her bloodstream in possible parallel to the bodily emotional stress of preemptive grief. I know she is suffering in a number of ways.
Of course it’s hard to know how to close the gaps between us. We spend the most trivial moments together: at work, in classrooms, splayed on couches talking on the phone, and when the inevitable happens we look each other in the face and don’t know what to say. We are suddenly strangers and this is how we lose each other in little bits. When my grandmother died, I wrote letters to my mother and her three siblings saying how sorry I was, that I couldn’t imagine their grief at losing their only mother, and none of them responded. I assumed writing the letters had been the wrong thing to do. When Peter died, our friends waited quietly at the edges of Ryane’s grief for her to return to real life. But the place she was in was also real life. Our friends were so patient with their furrowed brows and genuine concern, waiting. Eventually everyone forgot they were waiting. Eventually everyone but Ryane forgot that her father was dead. Inside our little house on the steep hill on Larchmont Road, inside her grief, Ryane and I talked about how what they were doing was the wrong thing.
But how do we do this?
What is supposed to help?
What is the right thing to do?
“Tell me how you’re feeling,” I say to Ryane as she sits upright in bed sometime later, after everything has been moved into the new house. She has tears on her face, but new ones have stopped coming. “You can just feel however you feel about this,” I say, because granting permission for the things I can’t control seems like a possibility somehow. She hears me, and doesn’t respond. She sits propped against two pillows, her shoulders tilted inward, and I rub her back as she looks out from opaque blue eyes toward nothing.
SARAH MEYER is a writer and illustrator who lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in VICE Magazine, Paper Darts, and The Manifest-Station.
Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I hopped in a rental car with our three-year-old and drove fourteen hours from Brooklyn to Indiana. We wanted to celebrate the holiday with my parents, my seven siblings, and the chaotic swarm of children that makes up my many nieces and nephews.
We set off around four in the morning, and our son had a diaper explosion just before dawn at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was a mess of such magnitude, I stood paralyzed for several moments under the florescent lighting, debating if the best strategy was simply to burn the structure down and flee. I didn’t know it then, but I should have taken my son’s booming bowels as a warning shot: a foreshadowing of the weekend to come.
When we finally pulled up to my parents’ house, we were greeted by black skies and the ominous wail of a tornado siren, which for southern Indiana, isn’t exactly a seasonal sound in late November. My mother hugged us in welcome and croaked into my ear that she had awoken that morning with the flu. But not to worry—she was still making the entire meal.
Which she did, despite protestations and offers of help. The next day she waved us all away, hobbling around the kitchen high on Tylenol Cold, basting the bird in its juices and what we hoped wasn’t the Norovirus.
My brothers and their families trickled in with their children, and the clouds outside hung heavy and low, still teasing the idea of a storm. Adding to the odd energy in the air was the fact that it was my parents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary. While under normal circumstances this would be a very happy occasion, my father is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s in a wheelchair and can no longer really speak. My mother has insisted on keeping him at home with her throughout his illness while a rotating cast of caretakers comes in to assist her with his needs. There have been various pushes over the years to consider placing him in a nursing home, but my mother was as receptive to this idea as she was to someone offering to cook her Thanksgiving turkey: thanks but no thanks, now please get out of her kitchen.
Growing up in my large, Catholic family, holiday meals are some of my most vivid memories. We used to squeeze into our tiny dining room, my father pressed so tightly against a bay window it’s a wonder he didn’t shatter through to the backyard. We wore our “church” clothes, which for me meant a dress and thick tights that made my legs feel like they were in plaster casts. Gravy was served in a gravy boat shaped like a turkey, and when you tipped it, gravy poured from the bird’s mouth as though it was vomiting beige mucus onto your meal. We used to fight over whose turn it was to use it.
Our local priest would join us for dinner, my parents perhaps hoping that having a man of God at the table might keep us from reenacting scenes from Alien with the turkey carcass. They were wrong of course. Father Jerry or no—someone was still likely to hide a bit of potato in Teddy’s milk, so that he’d take a swig and send his partially digested green bean casserole back up onto the table, barfing in unison with the gravy boat.
When he was well, my dad was what people called “a real character.” And his blue eyes especially blazed to life at these dinners. He’d repeatedly clink his glass, offering various odd toasts and teasing decrees. One year he ordered there to be an election to select one of the family dogs “President.” We each cast ballots, and when his beloved yorkie “Holy” (so named for her tendency to lie motionless upon her back as though deep in devout prayer) lost out to the labrador “Brown” (much more lazily named for the color of his coat) my dad feigned outrage for hours, snorting with laughter as he shouted for a recount.
For years, at the end of each Thanksgiving meal, he’d wink at us kids and flash a thin box of mini Swisher Sweet cigars. Neither of my parents were smokers, and this was the one special occasion where this rule was broken. We’d follow my Dad to a secret location, where he’d allow us to join him in a puff of a post-meal stogie. Unfortunately for my mother, this “secret” hideaway generally turned out to be her walk-in closet, and she’d spend the next two weeks attending church in dresses that smelled like she’d just rolled in from an all night poker tournament.
But those days were now long gone, now. Father Jerry now lived in Indianapolis and, due to health reasons, was unable to travel. Trying to fit everyone into the dining room would be akin to a clown car routine, so now we dined in the living room, at long cafeteria tables borrowed from the elementary school.
As my family wandered through the house last Thanksgiving, I was reminded of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, where the illuminated ghosts swirl through the rooms. My parents’ house now felt more crowded with the past than it did people. To sit as an adult in a nest of childhood memories, before the same vomiting gravy boat, created in me a kind of emotional vertigo. Like one of those disorienting dreams where it’s your house, but also not your house. It’s you—but also not you.
It was clear none of us really had the words for the transformations within our family. No one knew how to talk about the force that was my father and how it was now gone. Yes, he was still at the table with the same bright blue eyes, but there would be no call for a canine electoral college. No brandishing of mini-cigars post meal. The truth was, he would never really speak to us again.
It seemed we were all coping with this in our own way. Offering and re-offering Stove Top stuffing to our children. Repeatedly complimenting my mother on the dumplings. But the air above the table felt as leaden and dense as the air outside.
One of my brothers—who is normally the calm, steady voice of reason—decided the best way to ease the tension was to drink a quarter bottle of whiskey and become as loud as was humanly possible. He tied a dishrag around his face and chased the grandchildren, making them scream with laughter. He pushed aside pie plates and challenged other brothers to arm wrestle. It was practically a one-man show of distraction and diversion, one that culminated in him slamming out to the front porch, shouting, “Watch this!” and proceeding to decimate some wind chimes with a broom.
Around the time the wind chimes clanged to the ground, I realized my mother had left the festivities. I wandered through the house and found her sitting in the library, where my father now slept. The room was dark, except for the flicker of the television. She sat perched beside my dad’s hospital-grade bed, holding his hand. I heard shrieks from the TV, and realized they were watching No Country For Old Men.
“Would you like me to put on something a little lighter?” I asked. “Maybe something with Meg Ryan?”
“No, no,” she said. “We like this movie.”
Forty-nine years ago on that night they’d been cutting the cake at their reception, my dad clutching a black top hat in his big hand. Now my mother sat at the edge of his adjustable bed, holding that same hand, while a veritable tribe of their creation stomped around on the other side of the door. They’d had ten children together. They’d lost two of those children. They’d watched each other’s parents die. Watched the leaves outside the window bud green, turn crimson, and drift to the ground, over and over and over again. They’d raked those leaves together. One holding open the Hefty bag, while the other stuffed it full of fall.
There were words I wanted to say. Words that swarmed through my head and chest. But I didn’t know how to form them or how to corral them into sentences. So instead I simply sat on the floor at their feet. Together we watched Javier Bardem murder people with a cattle gun, while the muffled shouts of my siblings drifted in from other rooms.
The next day most of the family returned to their own nearby homes, and the only ones who stayed on with my parents were my husband and I and our son, and my youngest brother and his girlfriend. While the house was much quieter, it wasn’t much calmer, as my three-year-old seemed to be coming down from the previous day’s mania. He streaked through the house like a toddler on a cocaine bender, eschewing all offers of toys in favor of banging open the china cabinet door and attempting to rake my mother’s Franklin Mint bell collection to the floor. Meanwhile, my mom was still wandering the house in a fever haze and was once again insisting on fixing an elaborate dinner, this time coughing her way through bacon-wrapped steaks.
By the time evening rolled around all I wanted was to put my child to bed, sit down with a fishbowl of wine, and stare off into the middle distance. I finally got him to sleep and collapsed on the couch. We were once again eating in the living room so that my Dad could eat with us because his wheelchair didn’t fit at the kitchen table. Together we sat before the Empire Strikes Back, our plates balanced on our laps. Exhausted, I stared blankly at C3PO and shoveled meat into my mouth on autopilot.
At one point, as I chomped down, I felt something sharp. Oh, well. I thought. Probably just a bone. Which perfectly captures my frazzled mental state. For 1.) I thought steaks should have tiny sharp bones and 2.) That it was perfectly fine to swallow them whole. Only after I cleared my plate, did I glance down and see the broken half of a large wooden toothpick and realize what I had done.
I quietly carried my plate to the kitchen then Googled on my phone: “Swallowing a toothpick dangerous?”
As someone with hypochondriac tendencies, I was all too familiar with turning to Google with strange medical concerns. My search history over the years was a treasure trove of “Mole shaped like a hat deadly?” and “Pain in which arm means heart attack?”
So I wasn’t surprised when my toothpick query sent back the WebMD equivalent of a breathless, wide-eyed woman screaming into my face: “Death comes for us all!”
Heaving a heavy sigh, I walked back into the living room and announced that I had swallowed half of a toothpick and, according to the Internet, it could puncture my internal organs, and so would someone kindly take me to the ER?
Everyone paused. My mother’s glass of white zinfandel hung in the air. Darth Vader breathed heavily from the TV. Everyone’s face did a slow motion dance between laughter and concern, ultimately forcing their features to settle into concern. My youngest brother leapt up and offered to drive me, so that my husband could stay home with our son. My brother’s twenty-four-year-old girlfriend began tugging on her stiletto boots, insisting on coming along.
The ER the night after Thanksgiving was a crowded place. I stood at the window and explained to the nurse that I had swallowed a toothpick.
“Yikes. That’s not good.”
I could see she very much wanted to ask—as any sane human does—how did I swallow a toothpick? Was I, an adult human, unfamiliar with the process of chewing and swallowing food? But she controlled herself, and simply ushered me back to a room, my brother and his girlfriend trailing behind.
A weary nurse came by and explained that because the toothpick was wooden, there was no way to do an X-ray.
“So instead, we’d like you to eat this turkey sandwich.”
I stared in confusion. Was it an electromagnetic turkey sandwich that was somehow capable of detecting wood?
“Look,” she sighed. “It’s to make sure the toothpick isn’t blocking anything. That you can get food down, okay?” She dropped the sandwich in my lap and left.
“It’s going to be okay, Miss Jo. I know it is!” My brother’s girlfriend smiled at me encouragingly. She always called me “Miss Jo,” like I was an old tap dance teacher from her childhood. She placed a hand on the back of my hospital gown, closed her eyes, and began to mumble under her breath something about Jesus taking the toothpick from my person.
I chewed the dry turkey and willed myself not to scream. All I’d wanted to do that night was relax for one goddamn minute. And now I was eating a hospital cafeteria sandwich at midnight while my brother’s wide-eyed girlfriend prayed over me. Not that I wasn’t touched by her kindness and concern in that moment: I very much was. I just didn’t want to be having that moment, period.
The sandwich went down, which seemed promising. Finally, a doctor rushed in clutching a clipboard.
“Ok, so uh…uh…I think…well I think…uh.” He had a nervous, halting way of speaking. Which is precisely the last thing one wants in an ER doctor. We all stared at him in anticipation.
“I think you’re going to…uh…uh…”
YES? Die? Live? Self immolate?
“I think you’re going to be…uh…okay.”
There was a collective sigh of relief.
He informed me that, while, yes, there was a chance it could puncture my liver leading to my untimely death, most likely I would just “pass it.”
“So you can just…uh…go home. But if you don’t feel…you know…okay…then…then…come back. Okay?” He had me sign his clipboard and left.
“Well that sounds…good? Right?” my brother asked, pulling on his coat.
I nodded, though my heart was pounding. That doctor had just doled out the absolute worst possible scenario ever for a hypochondriac: You might be okay, but if you think you’re dying of sepsis, give us a ring.
Did he not realize he was dealing with someone who was pretty much always sure she was dying of sepsis? Someone who had once gotten a CAT scan because she left Crest WhiteStrips on too long and it made her head feel funny?
I tried to take deep breaths while my brother and his girlfriend went to get the car. As I was signing my discharge papers, the nurse looked up at me.
“Oh and listen, if you do, uh, you know, pass it, you probably won’t know. So you shouldn’t. You know… Go looking for it.”
I nodded, imagining myself kneeling in the bathroom at my parents’ house, desperately pounding at my own excrement with a hammer.
“Good to know.”
Back in my childhood home, all was quiet. My mother and husband, upon hearing my stomach hadn’t in fact exploded, had gone to bed. I eased myself into my parents’ old bedroom, where my husband and son lay in the darkness, lightly snoring.
I wearily pulled on pajamas, jamming my mouthguard into my mouth. I lay down between my husband and son and stared into the darkness. This was the same room I used to pad into as a child when I was frightened or had had a nightmare. It still had the same wallpaper that used to creep me out because the shape of the design reminded me of ET when he was dying. But even with the unsettling wallpaper, coming into this room used to be like stepping into a warm cell of safety. I would climb up between my parents, and the warmth of their bodies would fill me with a certainty that everything was going to be okay.
Now, my mother slept in my old bedroom across the hall, where she’d been staying ever since my dad got sick. Dad was in his bed in the library. And my own son was now stretched out beside me, breathing softly. I was now the parent. I was meant to be the certainty.
The weight of this knowledge fell over me, and suddenly the stress, and sadness, and anxiety of the whole weekend began to whirl in my stomach, along with the dreaded toothpick. I could feel myself start to come undone. My eyes welled with tears, and my chest constricted.
And then suddenly, in the shadows, my son sat up. He turned to me, reached out his tiny hand, and patted my arm. Then he said something he’d never said to me before in his life: “It’s okay, Mama.”
He immediately lay back down, drifting back to sleep. And I stared at him, dumbfounded, wondering if I’d just imagined the whole thing. He had missed the events of the night—had slept through the whole “Mommy swallowing a foreign object” portion of the evening. But he had clearly, in that moment, intuited my distress. And something about hearing his soft little voice, hearing him try to comfort me, it was like a switch flipped, and a wave of calm flooded through me. My eyes went dry. My breathing slowed. And I began to pull myself back together. Because I had to. Because that’s what we do for our kids. For our spouses. For the people we love.
I thought of my parents sitting side by side, holding hands. If their forty-nine years together—a whole lifetime of immense joys and devastating heartbreaks and weird movies in the dark—if it had a lesson to offer, it was that when things get scary, you stay brave for the people who need you. You wade through the muck of worry. You continue to seek happiness, even when overwhelmed by ghosts and sorrow. You do whatever it takes. And sometimes that might mean not spiraling into anxiety. Sometimes it might mean being the strong one. And sometimes, it might even mean pushing out a toothpick.
JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for New York Magazine, Salon, and BUST. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 10, A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Encounters Around the World, and Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. www.JohannaGohmann.com