Beautiful Music

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

By Kelly Shire

I already loved the desert before I’d met Mike. I’d been seduced during a long weekend a few years earlier, when I’d accompanied a friend to a wedding. I hadn’t paid much attention to the church ceremony, distracted by the spectacle of the San Jacinto mountains looming out the tall windows. Hours later, in the midst of the reception at a tony Palm Desert resort, I’d escaped the ballroom and swirling DJ lights to walk outside. Strolling alone across the dark golf course, the hot, dry breeze instantly calmed the restless want that so marked my early twenties, offered up the same release and luxurious solitude as sinking into a hot bath. I didn’t want to return to the party; I fantasized instead how I might arrange to stay behind when my friend drove back to L.A.

After returning home, my imagination kept returning to the desert. I wrote a short story about a woman who lived alone in a trailer on the outskirts of a grove of date palms. The wind blew at night, and the woman lay alone in bed, trying to decipher the curses and premonitions told in the clatter of palm fronds.

•••

I truly fell for the desert while riding shotgun in Mike’s black Cadillac. On a summer afternoon, we left his little ranch house in Orange County and headed east on the 60 freeway through traffic. His mother and younger sister, visiting from Oregon, rode in the backseat of the secondhand Caddy. Mike had grown up in Cathedral City, the shabbier eastern neighbor of Palm Springs, where his family had relocated when he was still in grade school. They’d followed in the footsteps of Mike’s maternal grandparents, who’d preceded them by a few years.

As soon as we exited the freeway to approach the Palm Springs city limits, Mike tuned the radio to KWXY, a station he said had been on the air forever. We drove down the main drag of Palm Canyon Drive, past shops and restaurants, the sidewalks nearly empty of tourists in the low season. We rode in silence, except for the radio. The station’s playlist consisted of the music one might associate with the desert’s huge population of golf-cart driving retirees: lush instrumentals, choral groups like the Ray Coniff Singers, and a sprinkling of mid-century pop standards. In short, KWXY played “beautiful music.”

When I’d first met Mike, he’d sported a long ponytail, cowboy boots, and a Metallica t-shirt. A later inspection of his large CD collection revealed mostly metal and guitar rock, but my fingers occasionally tripped over Kraftwerk, Neil Diamond, or ’80s funk, artists hinting at deeper complexities than his headbanger image suggested. I also often sported cowboy boots, pairing them with cut-offs and shirts knotted at my waist, a nod to my solidarity to both Lynyrd Skynyrd and Thelma and Louise. I didn’t fancy myself a good match for Mike, or for anyone, and had warned him of such. And yet here we were, nearly a year into our romance, cruising his home turf with his mom and listening to more music I’d never have guessed he enjoyed.

•••

KWXY had been the preferred station of Mike’s grandparents. Not so long before, they’d been an extremely active couple, using all the amenities of their gated mobile home community—the golf course and tennis courts, the themed dinners and bridge luncheons. We were there primarily to visit those grandparents, who’d remained in the desert long after Mike’s parents had decamped for the drastically opposite climate of Oregon. His grandmother was now in the later stages of dementia and had been moved to a nursing home.

This would be my first time meeting any of Mike’s grandparents; I’d met his immediate family only months earlier. Mike had invited me along on this journey to his home turf as a matter of course, but I worried how his mother, Brenda, felt about my presence. Unlike me, Mike was something of a serial monogamist. For all his parents knew, I was just another girlfriend who’d disappear a couple more years down the road.

•••

Brenda had booked us all into The Riviera, one of many older Palm Springs establishments claiming itself a former Rat Pack hangout. It was a sprawling hotel with faded carpets and a parrot in its tropical-themed lobby.

That night, after taking his reluctant grandpa out to dinner at a noisy chain restaurant, Mike and I lounged nearly naked on the private balcony off our room. It was late evening, but still well over ninety degrees. As with my previous wedding visit years before, my nerves were soothed by the heat as we chatted over a shared bag of melting M&Ms. Date beetles buzzed a shrill hum in the pepper and palm trees.

Our balcony faced west, toward the mountains; I could make out their silhouetted peaks against the dark sky. Mike pointed up, directing my eyes to a bright light near the top of the tallest mountain. He explained that it came from the tram station, over 8,500 feet up on Mt. San Jacinto. During the day tourists rode on gondolas suspended over a canyon of treetops and jagged boulders while steel cables pulled them thousands of feet up the mountain. The tram ride closed at sunset, but the station light remained on all night. Its beam winked down on us, a low-hanging star.

•••

The next morning we visited Mike’s grandma at her nursing home. I was already awkward around his family—my answers to his mom and sister’s questions alternately too complicated or flippant—so I retreated into the role of silent bystander. In the large greeting room the family crouched in turn before Barbara in her wheelchair, a frail woman with spun sugar hair who didn’t recognize any of them, who possessed barely the faintest spark of sentience.

Perhaps this was my first solid clue that if I stayed with Mike, my only relationship that had lasted more than two months, there would be more than fun times ahead. Of course I knew that, but at twenty-five, I only barely believed it. All of my grandparents were still alive and comparatively healthy, as were my parents. So far they’d dodged the trauma of true illness or infirmity. Before me was solid evidence of the not-fun times: a trim, gruff man who woke alone each morning, who drove his sedan each afternoon to a low-slung beige complex to sit beside his silent wife. He helped her to eat when lunch was brought around; tried to keep her upright when she slumped over in her wheelchair. This was his life now, and he seemed irritated by his family’s gentle suggestions that he might want to go, try, or be anywhere else.

•••

After our visit, we left the grandparents at the nursing home (Mike’s grandpa refused to join us for lunch) and drove to their gated mobile home park. I was struck by how their home was caught in time, preserving a specific flavor of elderly loneliness. The yellow stack of National Geographic spines on the coffee table were several years old. Beside them was a current TV Guide and a remote control for the small TV in the wicker entertainment center. On the matching end table sat a box of Kleenex, a pair of reading glasses. Out the sliding glass door was a tree heavy with grapefruit, out another window a glimpse of mountain tops popped against the sky.

Brenda and Mike’s sister, Liz, tackled some light cleaning, and I offered to help but was kindly rebuffed. It was a small home, uncluttered by much of the past. Yet in the kitchen I yelped in pleasure over the wall clock. Around its yellow face, twelve fives, one for every hour, ringed a martini glass with two speared olives. Across its stem, a curvy font proclaimed Cocktail Hour. Mike recalled how his grandparents used to celebrate cocktail hour every evening, how in their old, larger house with a pool, they’d sit with matching drinks, rattling the ice cubes in their highballs. He also remembered visits to his grandparents after they’d downsized to the senior community, of after-dinner constitutionals, the whole family enlisted to walk the green belts and circular streets, past the pastel mobile homes and white rock yards.

After my outburst at the clock, after Mike’s story, the quiet resumed. The house was so quiet; the neighborhood was so quiet, save for the hum of air conditioners and pool filters. The whole city felt stricken in the glare of noonday sun, hermetically sealed beneath the dome of cloudless blue sky.

•••

Later, we drove again through town on a nostalgia tour. Mike cruised slowly past his family’s old house, describing for my benefit how the front yard used to be much nicer, with a koi pond and tiny bridge built by his dad. Those features were gone, ripped out for an expanse of dying lawn. We drove past his old junior high and elementary school, past the Jack-In-the-Box on Highway 111 where he worked his first job.

From the backseat, Brenda and Liz remarked often at how the area had grown, at the big box stores and strip malls populating what had been a small town with limited shopping. The Cadillac turned left and right, down streets that used to dead-end onto swaths of open desert. In grade school, Mike and his best friend had wandered the desert for hours, encountering snakes and scorpions, abandoned cars, and once, a dead horse. Most of those dead-end streets were now paved through to the next intersection. They continued for long blocks, crossing wide boulevards named for celebrities who’d once been residents: Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Fred Waring, Gerald Ford.

On a corner lot sat a small building with a tall radio tower, the station offices of KWXY. It was the top of the hour; through the car speakers came a burst of harp strings in an ascending stream of notes. It was time for the weather: 104 degrees, a drop from the afternoon high of 107.

•••

A year later, on another trip to the desert, Mike proposed in a dark restaurant, scooting out the leatherette booth to drop to one knee. We didn’t know it then, but Billy Reed’s was something of a kitsch favorite, known for its bordello-pink décor and prime rib specials favored by the Early Bird crowd. Later, after I’d said yes, after the waitress had brought flutes of champagne, we sat out on our hotel balcony facing the mountains, somnolent and happy in the scorching August night, below the tram station’s steady beam.

That was twenty years ago.

Thanks to the internet, in recent years Mike and I often tuned into the live-streaming broadcast of KWXY whenever either of us felt our own specific yen for Palm Springs. For though we live only ninety minutes west, our manicured suburban town feels a world away from the desert and its particular charms. Like any place, it has changed over the years. The Riviera shut its doors, re-opening as a party hotel dripping in Hollywood Regency glamour. Housing prices have climbed, thanks to the renewed appreciation of mid-century architecture. And KWXY, after weathering ownership changes and flipping between AM and FM frequencies, has succumbed to the pressures of twenty-first-century corporate radio. In 2015, it changed for good, becoming, for now, MOD FM. Its playlist still consists of old standards, though too often interpreted by Michael Bublé or Rod Stewart rather than Frank and Dino; the lush instrumentals are mostly gone. Completely vanished are the harp strings signaling the top of the hour, along with the wintertime reading of news from Canada, geared toward the seasonal snowbirds.

•••

“Every day,” he tells me. It’s a thing he says, a reminder when I despair over the passing years, over wrinkles and grays, when I wake to a suffocating dread that blankets me some mornings. This is how much he loves me, then. He will sit with me, feed me, wipe away the pudding dribbling down my chin. “Just like my grandpa,” Mike says. “I’ll be there every day.”

I sock my husband on the arm and tell him to shut the hell up. I have zero interest in living out some West Coast version of The Notebook, and buried within me is that single girl who doesn’t need anyone, who still imagines that solitary trailer beneath the date palms. But my husband is steadfast, as his grandpa was steadfast. His grandparents live on as symbol for Mike, as he insists he’ll remain at my side, no matter what. Is that a promise, or a threat? I joke. We have been married forever; we repeat the same lines often.

I sock him, he holds me close; we hold dear our someday dream of maybe moving a little further east, out to Palm Springs or some other desert community in the Coachella Valley. We’ll sit in the brilliant nighttime heat and never have to say goodbye to the view of those tall brown mountains, the tram light shining from its high perch. Until then, we play harried parents to our middle and high school-aged kids, pay the mortgage and crack dark jokes in our kitchen. Above us, hung high on the wall, the Cocktail Hour clock and its ring of fives ticks the seconds slow and thick, a reminder that forever is all in context, fifty years, twenty years, a life.

•••

KELLY SHIRE writes about family and life as a third-generation native of Los Angeles county. Recent work has appeared in Hippocampus, Angels Flight/Literary West, and the Seal Press anthology Spent: Exposing Our Complicated Relationship with Shopping. She lives in Temecula, California, with her husband and children, and can be found online at kellyshire.com.

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Call My Name

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

By Amy E. Robillard

I first see him as I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed on a Sunday afternoon in August. I’m taking a break from composing syllabi for the approaching semester when I see the professional photos the Humane Society has commissioned for him because they want him to get more attention.

He’s ten years old. His name is Remi.

He’s a black lab mix who isn’t getting a lot of attention because of his age, but these photos ought to do the trick. In the photos Remi is stunning. He is out in a field of wild brush and wildflowers, staring at the camera with soulful eyes, the white hairs on his muzzle granting him a look of distinction. One is a profile pic, Remi’s tongue lolling lazily out of his mouth, his face lit up with happiness and contentment. Remi is clearly a happy, beautiful dog, and my heart can’t help but ache for him having no home at ten years old.

I call Steve over to the computer so he can see the pictures. Steve is a bigger softy than I am, and I know that all I have to do is give the slightest hint of a suggestion that we adopt him, and he’ll be in. He agrees that Remi is beautiful and he says, in response to my despair at Remi’s not having a mom or a dad, “We can adopt him if you want. But can we afford it?”

“No, of course we can’t. We can’t have three dogs.”

Thinking the issue is settled, Steve goes back to the living room, where he had been reading. “But honey,” I call out. “He’s ten. And he needs a home. And he needs two sisters. And we can name him Remington Elizabeth.” My mother had a habit of giving all pets, regardless of gender, the middle name Elizabeth, also my middle name. When I was growing up, I was never just Amy to her. I was always AmyElizabeth—one word—or just Elizabeth. When I asked her why she named me Amy, she said, “Your father and I liked the name.”

Steve responds with something I cannot now remember but which was probably perfectly reasonable, and I continue to think about Remi for a good two hours. Over the next week, I tell my friends about him and I show them the beautiful professional photographs the Humane Society commissioned of him. And always I end by saying, “But we can’t. Three dogs is just too much.”

Our home is full with the two we have. Wrigley is nine and a half and Essay is six. Both are black lab mixes, and while we’re pretty sure that there’s Beagle somewhere in Essay’s ancestry, we’re not sure what Wrigley’s mixed with. Whatever it is, it has made her coat softer than a typical lab’s, her ears smaller, and her disposition as sweet as honey. Wrigley is just a good dog.

Before we lost Annabelle, my soul-mate dog, four and a half years ago, Wrigley embodied her role of the younger sister in a way that most young Labradors will. She was, in a word, a nut. Energetic and playful and beside herself with excitement at times. Blinded by the love she had for the special people in her life. More than once we had to put her in time-outs to calm her down. Once Annabelle died, it seemed that she calmed down nearly overnight. She matured into what every dog owner dreams of when they adopt a crazy puppy. Wrigley will sleep in and snuggle as long as you want her to. She’s a dream on walks. She wants nothing more than to please us and, as a result, we want nothing more than to see her eyes light up in happiness.

In early October, the Humane Society reposts the professional photos with a note saying that sweet old Remi still doesn’t have a forever home. I mention it to Steve again and I show the photos to a couple of friends who hadn’t yet heard me talk about him. They take this moment to ask Wrigley and Essay if they want a big brother. They get down close to the dogs’ mouths. “They say yes,” they tell us.

That was on a Friday. On Saturday, Steve and I are sitting in the living room together, each of us reading while the dogs sleep between us. And Remi pops into my head again. “Honey,” I say. Steve looks up. “Remi.”

“I know. We can adopt him if you want.”

“But we can’t. We can’t have three dogs.”

Pause.

“But maybe we can just go look at him,” I say.

“You know that if we go look at him, we’re gonna take him home.”

“But he’s on some kind of medication and we can’t afford that.”

“Maybe they’ll pay for his medication if we adopt him. Why don’t you call and ask?”

“I’m scared to.” I take out my phone. “Here, I’ll look it up.” I go to the Humane Society website and look again at the photos of Remi. His description says he’s on Thyrokare. I type Thyrokare into Google and see that it’s a relatively inexpensive medication. “It’s cheap. Like eleven bucks a month. We could manage that.”

Steve picks up his phone and calls the Humane Society. Tells the woman who answers that we’re interested in learning more about Remi and asks about his medications. He’s not on any others. Steve also asks if we should bring our dogs with us when we come to meet him.

When he hangs up, he tells me that she said it’s best if we just come alone. “We can always come back and get the girls later,” he says.

“Honey, you told her we’d be there shortly.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m scared. Three dogs is a lot. How’m I gonna walk three dogs?”

“You get one of those harness things that hooks two of them together.” He puts his sneakers on. It’s nearly noon.

“I’m scared that we’re gonna fall in love with him.”

“We probably will.”

“I need something in my stomach.” I grab a banana as Steve gives Wrigley and Essay each a cookie. He tells them we’ll be back soon, maybe with a brother for them.

I feel sick to my stomach. I’m shaky. I’m afraid that I’ll love him. I’m afraid that I’ll love him and then lose him too soon. “Honey, this isn’t a long-term commitment. What if we take him home and he dies in two months?”

“I know. I don’t know.” He shakes his head.

“What do I do if I need to go somewhere with all three dogs? Can I handle that?”

“Good question. I don’t know.”

“Where will he sit in the car? Is there enough room back there?”

“In the middle. It’ll be fine.”

“Remi sounds a lot like Amy. When we call him, it’ll sound like we’re calling me.”

In many ways, Steve and I are a good fit. We love so many of the same things, and two of our biggest passions—dogs and the Chicago Cubs—give us plenty to do and to share together. We’re both smart, sarcastic, and empathetic. We both love reading and are not just content but happy to stay home and read together, our dogs snoring between us. We love the same foods, hate many of the same foods, and split the housework fifty/fifty. Our worldviews are similar though not the same, leaving room for productive and sometimes testy discussions about current events.

The biggest difference between us is the way we respond to potential bad news. I immediately think the worst, catastrophizing even the smallest bump on Essay’s leg, playing out the entire scenario in my head, from hearing the terrible news to putting her down to the dreadful task of telling others about how our girl died. Pain in my side is automatically some form of incurable cancer. I learned early in life not to expect much and so this has become one of my primary defense mechanisms. I expect, always, to be disappointed or even crushed.

Steve, on the other hand, hopes for the best, often to the point of dismissing my concerns. When I worry about Wrigley not putting weight on her leg after her knee surgery, Steve assures me that she’ll be okay. She’ll come around. When I tell him that my pulse is fifty, he says that that’s the pulse of an athlete. That means I’m really healthy. Or, I say, it means I’m dying.

All of this is to say that, in Steve’s mind, there’s always room for another dog.

As we drive to the Humane Society, I say, “We’ve never had three dogs before.”

“Sure we have. We had three when we had Annabelle and Scully and Mulder,” he reminds me.

“Yeah, but that was different.” When Steve and I met, I had Annabelle, and Steve had three dogs: Kylie, Scully, and Mulder. Kylie died before I moved in with him, and then the two of us had three dogs together. But I told him before I moved in that eventually I wanted us to get to two. Three dogs is a lot, I’d said.

The drive to the Humane Society is not a long one. There’s not very much time for me to either calm down or to become more worked up, so I’m basically in the same state I was at home when we walk in and tell one of the two women behind the desk that we’re here to meet Remi. She hands us a three-page application to fill out. “There are pens on the tables,” she says. I take a pen from my purse and Steve gives me a quizzical look. “Germs,” I whisper.

For the next five minutes, I complete the form, answering everything from what kind of food we’ll feed him to how many walks a day he’ll get to which veterinarian we’ll use. Answering concrete questions with certain answers helps me feel a little better, though the young woman crying at the front desk about not being able to film somebody answering questions about the facility for a course assignment does more to distract me than the form does. I realize later that her crisis—she had come there on the only day she had access to transportation, and if she didn’t get this documentary done, she would fail her assignment, and this is why she hates living in Illinois—gives me a focal point for my own anxiety. It feels better to worry with her about this problem—one I could at this point in my life solve so easily—than to feel the nervous anticipation of meeting a dog I might fall in love with only to lose within a year.

When the worker finally opens the door to the room she’d just shown us to and Remi comes barreling in toward us, my heart sinks. I look at him and then look right back up at the worker. Steve asks her to tell us his story. “Well, he was part of an investigation—”

I interrupt her. “What does that mean?”

“It means we were called out to investigate because his owners could no longer care for him or they chose not to care for him.” She sighs. “We tell everyone who meets him that he’s old. We say ten, but we think—” and her she does the thumbs-up gesture and motions upward toward the ceiling. “He’s probably older. We’re not sure if there’s anything wrong with him or if he’ll live for two months or two years. We just want him to go to a good home for his golden years.”

“What about all of these lumps? Have any of them been tested?” Steve asks.

She shakes her head. “No. We’re not sure about them.” She’s closing the door behind her as she leaves us. “I’ll give you some time alone.”

I take Remi’s head in my hands. His eyes are cloudy. I wonder how much he can actually see. His ears are almost entirely white. His teeth are bad, much worse than what you might expect from a ten-year-old dog. I pet his spine, which feels bumpy. But it’s the lumps on his stomach that make it so hard for me. There’s no fur on his belly, and he has at least eight or ten black lumps of various sizes, some of which dangle from his middle. At first I had thought one of the dangling lumps was his penis, but it wasn’t. It was just an ugly misshapen lump that could be cancer or just fat, but it made me shake. Remi runs over to Steve, who is now sitting on the floor. Remi rolls over on his back so that his tummy is exposed, and Steve rubs it, avoiding the lumps the best he can. Remi flaps his tail happily.

Remi runs back to me, and I pet his soft fur. He’s such a happy guy.

“I don’t think I can do it, honey,” I say. “He’s just too sick. And there’s no way he’s only ten.”

He goes back to Steve, who rubs his ears and says, “You’re probably right.”

This I do not expect. I expect him to minimize what we’re both seeing, to say that he’s not that bad, that we can make it work, that he’ll be okay, that we can love him back to health.

He says, “He’s just going to need so much medical care, and we can’t afford it.” To Remi he says, “I’m sorry, boy.”

I call Remi back over to me. I hold his head in my hands again. “I love you, Remi, but we just can’t. I’m so sorry.”

I stand up. “I’ll go tell her.” Steve nods, and I leave him and Remi in the room together.

I go out to the main desk, shaking my head, tears in my eyes. “We just can’t.”

She’s got tears in her eyes, too. “I know. He’s a lot to take on.”

“He’s just so sick. He would need so much medical care. And he’s got to be older than ten.”

She’s looking at our application. “And you know, with your two dogs at home, I don’t know that I would trust him. I’m not sure how well he sees. He could easily bump into them and that wouldn’t be good for anyone.”

She is trying to make me feel better.

“He’s got his own huge room here with a big comfortable bed away from all the loud dogs. He gets three walks a day and he’s happy. It’s gonna be okay.”

I nod. I can’t say anything else.

I hear her go back to the room where Steve and Remi are. I hear her say some of the same things to Steve, about Remi’s bed and his walks and how he’s gonna be okay. Steve comes out looking as depressed as I feel.

We walk to the car slowly. He tells me he had a talk with Remi. When we get into the car, he tells me that he held him and told him about heaven. “I told him that there’s a place where there will be no more pain and he’ll get to see everybody he’s ever loved and everything will be wonderful and I’m sorry we can’t take him home with us.”

“Did you mention the beach?” We had taken the girls to Montrose dog beach in Chicago earlier in the summer and I had said that from that point on, whenever I imagined doggie heaven, I would think of that beach. It was the happiest place on earth.

“I didn’t get that far. That’s when she opened the door.”

On the drive home, we comfort one another, processing what we’ve just seen, each in our own way.

“Why don’t they start a GoFundMe to raise money for surgery for those lumps?” Steve says.

“There’s no way he’s ten. He’s got to be at least eleven, and maybe even twelve.” I say.

“He’s almost not adoptable with those lumps,” Steve says.

“Those lumps are just so awful. I guess I’m not the dog lover I thought I was.”

“Of course you are. We just couldn’t help him. He needs too much.”

“You told him about heaven.”

“Yeah. I told him he’d have no more pain and he’d always be happy. I need to go home and hug the girls.”

Years ago, when Annabelle was nine and we went through a cancer scare with her, I wrote about Wrigley, wrote that she would always be a baby, that no matter how old she got, she would always be young. I was wrong about that. Wrigley’s eyesight is deteriorating and she is showing signs of her age. She gets up in the night and seems confused about where she is. It’s killing me slowly.

It took me only a few days to realize that part of the reason I wanted to adopt Remi was that I wanted a buffer between me and the brute fact of Wrigley’s age. We could tend to Remi as the old one and thereby continue to distract ourselves from the fact of Wrigley’s aging. She would become young again by comparison. He would be our senior dog. Not Wrigley.

In this way she would not die.

This story has a happy ending for Remi. He found a forever home just a week after we met him.

And yet. I’m not as relieved as I thought I would be about his forever home. Maybe because I know that his forever isn’t going to be very long and I know that no matter how much love he gets, he will still die.

I think there’s a part of me that wants to believe we can out-love death.

But no matter how much we love the beings in our life, death will come for them or for us.

I’m scared.

When Wrigley is called home, it will sound like they’re calling me.

•••

AMY E. ROBILLARD is a writer and a teacher of writing at Illinois State University. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People, and her essays can also be found on The Rumpus. Wrigley does not share her last name; instead, she is Wrigley Field.

Read more FGP essays by Amy E. Robillard.

Seeking Pauline

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

By Ona Gritz

I walked up Fifth Avenue on a crisp, sunny morning in late winter, the wind lifting my hair and burning my ears.

My sister’s birth name lay nestled somewhere within two thick volumes in the Millstein Division of The New York Public Library. I paused to gaze up the wide marble steps flanked by those famous stone lions named Patience and Fortitude, the two qualities I most needed to find one name amid all the birth records for New York City in the year of Andrea’s birth.

I recognized the librarian on duty as the man who, a month earlier, carefully explained to me, without once making eye contact, that if I had a copy of my sister’s amended birth certificate, I could match the number with her birth record and learn her name.

Amended birth certificate?” I’d asked, digging in my bag for a notepad and pen.

“The one they make up when an adoption is finalized. It has the adopting family listed as the parents.”

“What happens to the original?”

“It’s locked away.”

The following week I’d gotten lost in a maze of damp side streets in lower Manhattan as I searched for The Department of Vital Statistics on Worth Street. Finally, I found it, just past Leonard Street, a small lane bearing my father’s name. I filled out the necessary forms and, three weeks later, the amended certificate arrived in the mail.

Now I pulled the two thick volumes marked 1956 off the shelf and lugged them to a wooden table. My friend Julia was coming to help me search, so I placed one of the books in front of the empty chair across from mine. On top of that I laid an index card I brought to use as a straight edge, the crucial four digit number—2483—written boldly in black ink

All around, people typed on laptops or flipped through musty smelling tomes. I settled in and studied the layout of the book. Three alphabetical columns with an initial for the borough and the certificate number next to each name. I’d learned from her birth certificate that Andrea was born in Staten Island, known as Richmond, a gift since R’s in the borough column were relatively rare.

I’d made it through six pages when Julia arrived, her silver curls gleaming above a dark blue scarf. She sat down and opened the heavy book before her.

“Exciting!” she mouthed.

Julia and I have been friends for over twenty years. She stayed at my apartment in the first weeks after her marriage ended. When mine followed soon after, she attended my divorce hearing where she pulled an assortment of cookies and a book of inspirational quotes from her purse. She’s an emergency contact on all of my son’s school forms. Recently, when she was taken to the hospital after having a seizure, I stayed with her through the long night.

“Should we call your family?” I’d asked while she sat on a gurney waiting to be brought in for tests.

She shook her head. “You’re family,” she said.

I learned early to find sisters out in the world

•••

After an hour and a half, I was still in the A’s, my back growing stiff, my butt numb. Regardless, I slowed down each time I came across a Staten Island baby, reading and rereading the entry. When I finally reached the B’s, I let myself dwell for a moment on the reams of pages still to go. I started to worry that maybe I had skipped over my sister’s listing, mistaking that crucial R for a Kings County K.

Bronx, Manhattan, Bronx, Manhattan, Manhattan, Manhattan, Kings. Finally a Richmond.

“I found her!” I heard myself blurt.

Julia came to my side of the table and read over my shoulder as I carefully copied the spelling of my sister’s many-lettered name.

“I am Andrea B—’s sister,” I said aloud once we were out of the quiet library, enjoying the name’s rounded Italian sounds.

Julia grinned at me.

“How thoughtful of her to have an initial at the front of the alphabet,” I chattered on as we threaded through the crowds on Sixth Avenue. “I expected it to take days.”

•••

“I know my sister’s birth name,” I announced to my sixteen-year-old son when he walked in the door later that afternoon.

Ethan dropped his heavy backpack on the floor.

“Cool—what is it?”

“B—.”

He peered at the fat pillows of ravioli I had floating in a pasta pot. “Huh. Is that why we’re having Italian?”

•••

Andrea’s birth family had always been an abstraction to me, a part of her story so out of reach, I felt free to fictionalize. I imagined her mother as a tough, raspy-voiced beauty like Lauren Bacall. But Andrea B—’s mother was, or is, an actual person with a name unusual enough that she could potentially be found.

Late that night, after Ethan had gone to bed, I opened my laptop and looked up the name on whitepages.com. I hadn’t put in a city or state, but the first B— to come up was Pauline in Staten Island. She was eighty-six years old.

•••

“I don’t think it would be fair of you to contact Andrea’s mother,” my cousin Lauren told me on the phone. “She’s an old woman who probably assumes her daughter has had a decent life and is alive and well right now. Is finding her really worth taking that away?”

I saw her point, but now that there was a real chance that I might meet my sister’s mother, I couldn’t let go of it.

“I’ll be very thoughtful,” I promised. “I’ll choose my words carefully.”

“Would you lie to her? Because if you tell her the truth about how Andrea died, she’ll be devastated.”

For one crazed moment I considered pretending to Pauline that I was Andrea, middle aged and thriving.

“Trust me,” I said.

•••

Pauline’s number was unlisted but I had an address, so I composed a letter.

Dear Ms. B—,

We don’t know each other but I believe we may have a relative in common. My adopted sister, Andrea, was born in Staten Island on July 26, 1956. I’ve been doing some research on my family and recently discovered that Andrea’s original last name was B—.

My sister was beautiful, smart, and loving. I’ve always wished to know more about her. If you are related to her and wouldn’t mind contacting me, I would love to hear from you. Andrea meant a great deal to me. The fact that she was part of my family was the greatest gift. If you, by chance, helped to make that so, I am very grateful.

I Googled the address to be sure that I had it right. There, onscreen, I saw that this wasn’t a private house as I’d assumed, but a senior center. I sensed a door swinging open, a welcome mat placed before my feet. My mother had volunteered at a senior center through most of my childhood, one that resembled a hotel with visitors wandering through all the time.

Google also provided a phone number. Heart pounding, I grabbed my cell.

A woman with a wobbly voice answered. “Can I help you?”

“Uh, yes. Are there specific visiting hours?”

“No. We live in apartments. But you should make arrangements with the person you’re coming to see, don’t you think?”

“True… Would you happen to have a list of the phone numbers?”

“I do. Are you a relation?”

“Yes,” I answered quickly and gave Pauline’s name.

“Oh, she’s probably sitting in the lobby. Should I go see?”

My sister’s mother was probably there. She liked to sit in the lobby. Of course she did. She was a people-person like her daughter.

•••

When I was a child, it seemed to me my big sister had a magic people-magnet beneath her skin. I certainly couldn’t help following her from room to room, or through the maze of streets in our Queens neighborhood. We’d enter the candy store and the boys would drop their comic books back onto the stand to saunter over. We’d pass the high school and the girls lounging on the steps would call her name.

Always, Andrea roped an arm around my boney shoulder. “This is my kid sister,” she’d announce with pride.

But then a leaving-home magnet began to pull on my sister. She’d run away while I slept across from her in our yellow room, call to make sure my parents hadn’t changed the number or the locks, reappear smelling like a mix of home and the wide outside world, and then disappear again.

Eventually, she wandered three thousand miles away, to San Francisco, and stayed there. In time, she settled down and became someone we could visit and reach by phone.

Then, at twenty-five, she was drawn to the wrong people. Police found her body in a crawlspace, a towel tightly knotted around her neck.

•••

Pauline B— wasn’t in the lobby the day I tried to call her, thirty years after the murder of a girl to whom she might have given birth. The receptionist gave me her number, which I added to the contacts in my cell.

That weekend, I stood before Ethan in carefully chosen clothes.

“Do I look approachable?” I asked him.

“You’re over-thinking this, Mom,” he said.

•••

At the senior center where my mother had volunteered, residents populated the bright lobby throughout the day, talking or gazing out the windows. This was the image I had in my mind of where I’d meet Pauline, somewhere it would be easy to go unnoticed as I scanned the faces for one that struck me as somehow familiar.

But this senior center appeared deserted. I opened the cloudy glass door and entered a vestibule with mailboxes, buzzers, and a second locked door. Peering through to a small, dim lobby, I saw two elderly women, one on a sagging couch, the other in a wheelchair. They were the only people inside.

As I bent to read the names beneath the buzzers, a guy who looked to be a handyman came through, letting me in.

The two women stopped chatting and watched me approach.

“Hi. Could you tell me … is there an office?” My thought was that a receptionist could call Pauline and prepare her for the intrusion.

“It’s closed on Saturdays,” the woman on the couch responded. “Why, what do you need?”

“Well, I’m here to visit someone.” I paused. “Do you know Pauline B—?”

“Pauline was just here,” the other said, more to her friend than to me.

“Yeah, you just missed her. She was down here a minute ago checking her mail.”

“She left?”

“I think she went that way.” The woman pointed away from the door, deeper into the building. “She’s probably upstairs.”

“Is she expecting you?” her friend asked.

“No.”

“Well, then she can be anywhere,” she pointed out.

The hallway on Pauline’s floor smelled like chicken soup and mothballs. I located her door, took a breath, and knocked. After a long few minutes, I pulled out my cell and called her. I heard the phone ring in her apartment, then a mechanized Hello in my ear.

When I returned to the lobby, the two women glanced up.

“Nothing?” asked the one on the couch.

“You should have called first,” her companion said.

“How loud did you knock? She might be napping. You have to knock loud enough to wake her up.”

The idea mortified me. “I don’t want to scare her.”

The woman got up heavily and walked to the door, which she propped open with her foot as she leaned out to reach the bells. A moment later, we heard a sickly buzz. “She’s there. Go back up and give a good, loud knock.”

Upstairs again, I rapped loudly and heard the faint sound of shuffling. The door was opened by a tall, stocky woman with a deeply weathered face.

“Hi…Are you Pauline?”

“Yes.” She looked at me quizzically.

“B—?”

“Yes.”

Where was Andrea? Not in the eyes or the shape of the mouth. Maybe it was silly to expect to recognize a twenty-five-year-old girl in the now ancient face of her mother.

“I came to see you because I believe we may have a relative in common.”

“A what?” she asked loudly.

Raising my voice, I annunciated more slowly. “I think we may share a relative.”

Pauline shook her head. “I still don’t understand what you’re saying, but come in.”

Just inside the door was a kitchen table. I sat down and glanced around. The small apartment was cluttered with heavy furniture, a once large home packed up and squeezed into these few rooms.

Pauline sat beside me and waited.

“I’ve been doing some research on my family. The reason I’m here is that I had a sister who was adopted.”

“Adopted. What a shame.”

“She was born here in Staten Island. Her name was Andrea.” I studied Pauline’s face for a reaction, but she was simply listening. “Andrea B—.”

“B—?” she repeated, pronouncing the name slowly and emphasizing the middle vowel. “Because, you know, that’s not the original spelling. My husband’s people changed it.”

B— was her married name? I wondered why a wife of the 1950s would choose to give her baby away.

“They come from Salerno, his people,” she continued. “If you’re interested in the B—s, you can search their whole history on the computer these days. Salerno, Italy.” She then asked if I’d heard of the Italian ship that shared her family name.

“Yes!” I knew exactly one story about Andrea’s birthmother. “My sister’s mother named her for the sister ship, the Andrea Doria,” I reminded Pauline, watching her carefully. “It sunk the day before Andrea was born.”

This seemed to hold no meaning for her. Finally it came to me that I might have the wrong person. Still, I pressed on. “Can I show you her picture?”

“She was adopted?” she asked, flipping through the small stack of photos I handed her. “Was she a happy child?”

“She was.”

“Everyone is interested in family these days,” Pauline mused. “They call me when they have questions, so I sent away for information. You could do that too, find out about the B—s going all the way back to Salerno.”

“What I’m really interested in is finding out about my sister.”

Pauline squinted at the picture on top of the pile and shook her head. “And she’s where now?”

“She died young.” I braced myself, but Pauline asked nothing further.

“Such a shame,” she said, “adopting away children. In my opinion, adoption should be illegal.”

“Illegal?” I felt so flabbergasted all I could do was echo the word. Had she somehow confused adoption with the politically fraught subject of abortion? But no, she’d asked about my sister’s childhood. She understood that my sister had been born and lived in the world for a time.

Pauline leaned toward me. “Are you a mother?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Can you imagine giving up your child?”

“Well, no. But you know, people have their reasons. Accidents happen.”

“Accidents. Now, you know better than that. My mother taught me that if you don’t want to have a baby, there’s only one activity you need to avoid.”

I stared at her. Pauline wasn’t my sister’s mother. She was that one disapproving aunt or cousin or sister-in-law everyone hid the family secrets from.

•••

“Why’d you start this now, after all these years?” my cousin Lauren wanted to know.

I sighed, pressing the phone to my ear. Of course it was ridiculous. By now, Andrea had been gone for more years than she’d lived.

“Maybe because there’s no one else left in my immediate family,” I ventured.

But the truth was, I missed my sister with an ache I couldn’t allow myself when I was a teenager; when she died so violently I needed to pretend she’d simply run off one last time.

“I think it’s a very good thing Pauline didn’t turn out to be her mother,” Lauren said.

“Probably so.”

Nonetheless, I wrote emails, Facebook messages, and letters to all the B—s I could find. There weren’t many—maybe seventeen people all together—who spelled their name with that swapped vowel at its center. One, a woman named Jacqueline, also lived in Staten Island, but she would have been only eleven when Andrea was born. Pauline was the sole B—of an age to have given birth in 1956.

She was also one of the few B—s with a current address listed correctly online. Soon, my mailbox filled with envelopes stamped with red accusatory fingers and the words address unknown. In the end, that was the closest to a response I received, my own letter boomeranging back to me in multiples.

All that came of my efforts was a lovely Latinate sound that sometimes ran through my head like a snippet of a song.

Andrea B—. With a whole name, my sister became whole to me in a new way. Like every child listed in those volumes on the library shelves, she had the open road of a future before her. Anything had been possible for her the day her name was printed on that page.

I told myself I was looking for answers when I chased after Pauline so determinedly, believing she was Andrea’s mother; I was seeking as complete a picture as possible of the girl who was my first love in this life. But, really, all I wanted was to be in Pauline’s presence. I wanted to hear the voice of the woman who birthed my sister, see an expression cross her face, watch her gesture with her hands as she spoke. I even wanted the smell of her, as if her very existence—her pheromones, anything about her—might, for just a moment, bring my sister home.

•••

ONA GRITZ is the author of five books, including the ebook memoir, On the Whole: a Story of Mothering and Disability (Shebooks, 2014) and the poetry collection, Geode, which was a finalist for the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award. Her essays have appeared in The Utne Reader, MORE magazine, Purple Clover, Brain, Child, and elsewhere. Her essay, “It’s Time,” which appears in the Rumpus, was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, 2016. Ona just ended a twelve-year stint as a columnist for Literary Mama. She is currently at work on a book about her sister.

The Motel Mansion

hawaii
By Waifer X/Flickr

By Sobrina Tung Pies

My mom is nearly bald. Her hair started falling out in her late twenties, getting thinner and thinner, until what remained fell away after the round of chemotherapy she got for breast cancer treatment. The hospital gave her a wig, a short straight bob. Around the time strangers started confusing her for my dad, I tried to get her to wear it. She didn’t though. She hardly ever wore it, putting it on only for the rare special occasion.

I asked her once why she’d snipped a jagged hole in the bangs of her wig at my cousin’s wedding. She’d said, “It’s too hot.” I didn’t want to admit it then, but, as the sweat pooled in the strapless bra I wore under my pale green bridesmaid’s dress, I understood what she meant. Sometimes it’s just too much trouble to look the part.

Living life with a well-ventilated scalp, my mom doesn’t look like anyone else’s mom. And it’s not the only thing different about her either.

“I’d like to visit my friends when we’re in Hawaii,” she told me over the phone in Khmer. Our family vacation to Oahu was coming up.

“Okay,” I said. Nothing peculiar about that. I had no idea she knew people in Hawaii, but she was always making new friends at her Buddhist temple. Her words bounced off the back of my skull and landed in a soft pile where they remained to be thought about later.

“My friends have a farm. They raise crops and sell the produce at the flea market,” my mom said, intrigued, a few weeks before our departure date. “They live in a little house on the land.”

My mom’s friends weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor either. After all, they were getting by with that warm blue ocean in their backyard. It reminded me of a Kinfolk article. I pictured my mom’s new friends wearing stylish overalls in a refurbished Airstream.

“How’d you meet them?” I asked.

“YouTube,” she said.

“YouTube?” I asked. “You met them on YouTube?”

“Yeah, they had a video of their farm,” she said matter-of-factly.

The video came up in her search for Cambodian Buddhist temples in Hawaii. It ended with a phone number on the screen that my mom promptly dialed. We were invited to come visit; everyone was invited. (It was the “everyone” bit that struck me as most creepy.)

The scene in my head changed from Kinfolk to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This sounded not unlike that time a man lured people to his ranch by advertising a cheap car for sale on Craig’s List, only to shoot them all execution-style once they got there. Neither of my parents shared my concerns. Cambodian people wouldn’t do that, my dad said. “I guess” was the only clever response I could think of.

When we got to Oahu, we spent half of our time exploring the island and the other half bobbing in the water at the beach in front of our hotel. My mom asked when we’d go see her friends. Soon, I said. I was the only one properly insured to drive the rental van, and the rule-follower in me insisted I drive.

Three days before the end of our vacation, after we’d seen Mermaid’s Cave and eaten our fill of shaved ice, I decided the trip wouldn’t be ruined if we were to all die then. It was time. As I drove the van to the farm, I thought about the two sea turtles I’d swum with and the five rainbows that arched in the sky that day. I’d be going out on a high note for sure.

To my surprise, I didn’t turn the van around, delivering us all back to the safety of our Waikiki high-rise hotel. I followed my mom’s lead: She had a way of knowing things. Like that time she knew she had a tumor growing inside her and insisted the doctor cut it out. Her mammogram results had come back negative just one month prior. Only after she kept insisting something was wrong did they send her back for more testing and confirm her suspicions of cancer. If something was up, she would be the first one to know.

As I followed Google Map’s directions, the cramped city streets of Honolulu gave way to neighborhoods with more breathing room. I wondered where the farms were. I took a few turns before the map showed we were fast approaching our destination. Did we have the address right? These homes had tennis courts. These homes were mansions.

My dad called the phone number from the YouTube video and spoke with a man. We were in the right place. As we climbed out of the van, my sister Sophie and I laughed nervously the way you do when you’re pretty certain you’ll be okay but a small part of you still wonders if you might get shot. We walked down a long driveway to the house at the bottom.

My mind struggled to make sense of what was happening. Three younger men moved about, preparing a charcoal barbecue next to an open garage, while an older man stood holding a cell phone. A young boy splashed in the swimming pool in the middle of the grassless front yard. There was no lawn, just concrete and a shabby L-shaped mansion serving as the backdrop. A tall white spiral staircase from the eighties connected the two sides of the “L.” Whoever designed it must have thought it lent the property a grand air, but the effect reminded me of the motels we stayed in on our family vacations as a kid.

The cell-phone-holding man, impressively tanned, walked toward us.

“Don’t forget to greet him,” my mom said under her breath, pressing her palms together in the customary Cambodian salute.

The rest of my family immediately followed suit. A group of praying mantis sharing a hive mind.

“Welcome,” Tan Man said. “Do you want something to eat or drink?”

“No, we’re fine,” my mom said, answering for all of us. “We just wanted to come see your life on the farm.”

“Oh, right,” Tan Man said. “Well, this is where we live now.” He gave an apologetic shrug. Turning to face the other men, he said, “These are my sons and that’s their friend.”

The sons pulled up chairs for us around the folding table where they sat.

After a few more minutes of small talk, my mom said, “You guys hang out.” I shot wide eyes at her, willing her to say she’d just be a few minutes. She didn’t notice and slipped away into the mansion with my dad and Tan Man. The hive mind was broken.

“I’m Rithy,” the shorter son said. “This is my brother Magnus and my friend Toshi.”

We introduced ourselves. Toshi, the friend, was the only one wearing a shirt. It was his son in the swimming pool.

“Where are you guys from?” Rithy asked.

“California,” Sophie said.

“Oh yeah? Which part?” Rithy asked.

“San Jose,” Sophie said. “How about you?”

“Born and raised on the island,” Rithy responded. “Magnus lives in Washington now. He’s just here visiting.”

“Must be nice growing up in a place like this,” my sister’s boyfriend Jordan chimed in.

“Don’t be fooled by those pretty pictures in the travel brochures,” Toshi said.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“It’s hard making it here,” Toshi said. “Finding work, paying the bills. A one-bedroom apartment goes for a thousand dollars a month. A month. Can you believe it?”

I thought about the one-bedroom I rented for under two thousand in San Jose and how everyone I knew thought that was a steal.

“That is crazy,” I said.

Wrapped in a towel, Toshi’s son joined us at the table. He opened a container of poke and split apart a pair of wooden chopsticks. By the way he ate, I doubted all that fish would put a dent in his appetite.

“What do the locals like to do?” I asked.

“Party,” Toshi said. “Party and make babies.” He looked over at his son.

Rithy nodded in agreement. No one said anything; I took the moment to listen for anything unusual. A muffled scream or a crash from inside. Only the sound of the wind filled my ears.

I changed the subject. “How’d you guys end up here?” I asked, referring to the motel mansion.

“Oh, that’s a story,” Magnus said. “There was this Swedish couple watching the news one day. All of a sudden they decided to adopt a baby. The woman at the church they called said, ‘Well, I don’t have a baby, but I do have an entire family.’ We were in Cambodia at the time when stuff was starting to get bad. My mom was pregnant with me and there was also my dad and two brothers. Whatever the couple was watching on TV that day must have been crazy because they decided to do it. They sponsored our family to come to the States. That’s why I have a Swedish name.”

I might have asked why they didn’t all live in Sweden, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the logistics of adopting an entire family. A light, unseasonable rain fell, covering everything in a soft mist. A tropical storm was passing through the islands.

“Is this their house?” Sophie asked.

“This?” Magnus asked, surprised. “No, this belongs to this Japanese couple. They had it built quickly, so the floor plan is all fucked up. No one wants to buy it at $4.7 million.”

Must be the Magnum, P.I. staircase, I thought.

Magnus got up to check on the grill. When he came back, he sat down and resumed drinking his beer. It was dark out now, and there was nothing to look at except each other and the empty garage we sat in. I fought the urge to look at my phone. I could tell Magnus had finished answering the question, but I’d never stepped foot on a $4.7 million property before and wanted to know how one comes to barbecue in such a place.

“Do you guys live here?” I asked.

“My parents do,” Magnus said.

“But not the Japanese people?”

“Right. They built this place and left it.”

“So how’d your family get connected?”

“My parents have a cleaning business and one of their clients is the owners’ daughter. She told her parents about my parents and they fell in love with my mom. Asked her to look after the place.”

I nodded. The guys drank their beer. A lull in conversation settled over us like a fishing net trapping random sea creatures together. We weren’t sure how any of us came to be there.

After a long while, Rithy asked Toshi and Magnus about an upcoming wedding. They talked about the friend who didn’t get an invite and laughed. I fiddled with my hands and half smiled like I understood the joke. They started talking about who was coming over with the meat skewers, who was bringing drinks. It clicked then that the reason for the barbecue was Magnus’s visit home. We were intruding on their party.

“Mohammed’s here,” Toshi announced as a car pulled into the driveway. Looking at me, he said, “This is the only Cambodian Muslim you’ll ever meet on the island. Converted. Even changed his name.”

“I’ve never met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.

“There’s lots in prison,” Toshi said.

Somehow I knew better than to ask how he knew.

With Mohammed there, the conversation turned a corner, quickly moving past us to inside jokes and gossip about people we didn’t know. The guys tended to grilling the meat and disappeared around the corner to smoke pot. We sat with Toshi’s son who had moved on to an octopus poke. The longer we sat there, the more I felt how I did in high school when my best friend and I crashed parties we weren’t invited to. We weren’t privy to those conversations either.

When I couldn’t sit with my half-smile plastered on any longer, I went to the house to find the bathroom and did a double take as I stepped inside. There was no blood. No one on the ground having the life choked out of them. All four parents sat at the kitchen table, talking and laughing. Perhaps I would have been more patient had I stepped into a stickier situation, but I was annoyed that they were having the time of their lives. Meanwhile, sitting in the garage, the awkwardness pulled at my skin until I’d wanted to tear it all off. I caught my mom’s eye and silently tried to convey how much we wanted to leave. No luck. I used the bathroom (Magnus was right about this place: Even the bathroom in the apartment I rented back home was nicer than this) and then walked back to the kitchen.

“Can we go?” I whispered intently.

“Don’t you want to wait for the barbecue?” my mom asked.

No,” I emphasized. “We were going to get that sushi for dinner, remember?”

“Oh, okay then,” my mom said.

She apologized to her friends about her kids’ picky tastes, but surprisingly, she and my dad wrapped up their conversation, got up, and followed me outside. As we walked back to the driveway, my mom told me her friends had invited her and my dad to come back and stay in one of the empty rooms. I turned and studied her friends’ faces one last time. Just in case. We went in a circle doing the praying-mantis, said goodbye to the group of guys steadily forming in the garage, and got back into our rental van.

Before the van door had even swung shut, we unleashed on my mom. Sophie and I took turns, telling her how awkward it was, reprimanding her for leaving us like that. My mom didn’t say anything, letting us get it all out of our systems. She was in her own world anyway, one where people cleaned houses, lived in mansions, and went to the beach on their lunch break. Without getting the reaction out of her we wanted, we quickly lost steam. We moved on to swapping stories from inside and outside the house.

“So what’d you guys talk about?” I asked.

“Not much. Cambodian politics. The story of how they came here. We didn’t have a lot of time together,” my mom said.

I rolled my eyes at the last part.

“Japanese people own that house; my friends just look after it,” she informed us.

“Uh huh, the sons told us,” Sophie said.

We bumped along in silence until I thought of something they wouldn’t know.

“We met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.

“Muslim? You sure?” my dad asked. Clearly they had never met one either.

“Yeah, there are lots in prison,” I said.

When no one questioned me, I relished in my newfound street cred.

As the lights of the Waikiki strip came into view, I asked, “So, was there a farm?”

“Oh, we didn’t get a chance to talk about any of that,” my mom said, looking out the window. “I’ll have to ask when I see them next time.”

Next time. I looked at her in the rearview, beaming in her seat and dreaming about all the possibilities. I shook my head and smiled. I didn’t doubt her for a second.

•••

SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley. In addition to contributing to Full Grown People, she sometimes writes on her blog at www.quietlikehorses.com.

Read more FGP essays by Sobrina Tung Pies.

The Road Trip

road-trip
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Karen Collier

“Are you going to write about this?” my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother asked as she shambled across the convenience store parking lot with her walker, and I followed with her purse in one hand and her diaper bag in the other.

“No, Granny, what happens in the restroom stays in the restroom.”

She stopped and reached over to grab my arm. “It’s okay, darlin’. You can write about whatever you want.”

A month before, I’d come up with the idea of a road trip with Granny during a visit to my uncle Doug’s home in Burkburnett where she’s been living since leaving her home in Midland two years ago. Even though Doug had a heart attack last year and his wife, June, is on her third round of chemotherapy for lymphoma, they refuse to even consider a nursing home for Granny. Doug makes a weekly trip to Walmart to buy her beloved no-name-brand cheese puffs, and June cheers for her as she makes her laps around the pool table each day. Between them, they make sure Granny has three square meals a day, and when she needs to go to the doctor, they insist that she leave the housecoat at home and put on a pair of pants and a blouse, all neatly pressed by Doug.

I arrived in the late afternoon, and Doug met me at the door.

“Get in here.” He grabbed my overnight bag out of my hand and led me though the hall and kitchen into the den, carefully avoiding the knick-knacks balancing on every surface.

“Mother! Look who’s here,” Doug yelled at Granny who was sitting on the couch, eyes glued to the television.

“Huh?” Granny turned toward Doug and scrunched her face. She’s been almost deaf for a decade, but she won’t wear a hearing aid.

“Mother, look, it’s Karen.” Doug stepped out of the way, so Granny could see me.

“Oh well, what about that, you made it!”

I knew they’d had a conversation earlier in the day about my unreliability.

“What are you watching?” I plopped down next to Granny while Doug set my bag against the wall.

“‘Family Feud.’” She turned her attention back to the television. “Do you like ‘Family Feud’?”

“I don’t watch ‘Family Feud.’”

“Huh?”

“I DON’T WATCH ‘FAMILY FEUD,’” I yelled.

My aunt June walked in, patting her hair in place with both hands.

“You didn’t eat yet, did you?” she asked.

I glanced at the clock and saw that it said 4:30. “Nope.”

“Do you still not eat meat?” she continued.

“Still not eating meat, but don’t worry about me. I’ll make do with whatever.”

“What about chicken?” Doug asked.

“Nope, not chicken either.” We have this conversation every time I visit.

I sat on the couch with Granny, while in the kitchen Doug cut up chunks of cheese and June heated up cabbage soup. I was almost certain that she’d made the soup with chicken stock, but I wasn’t going to try to explain again that this matters to a vegetarian.

Just as the credits were rolling for “Family Feud,” June brought a plate into the den, and while balancing it in one hand, she pulled a T.V. tray in front of Granny with the other. Then June put the plate down on the tray. A frozen corndog, microwaved and cut into bite-sized pieces.

“Is that a corndog?” Granny seemed neither pleased nor disappointed.

“Yes, Mother, it’s a corndog.” June called Granny “Mother” just like Doug.

“What about my puffs?”

“Just wait a minute. Doug’s bringin’ ’em with your tea.”

“Okay then.” Granny forked a chunk of wiener covered in breading and popped it in her mouth just as Doug added the missing plastic glass of tea and bowl of cheese puffs to her tray.

“Want a puff?” Granny’s mouth was still full.

“Okay.” I took just one and felt my blood pressure rise from the infusion of salt. Where did that orange color come from? Real cheese isn’t that color.

After dinner, Doug, June, Granny, and I sat in the den and watched as June toggled between “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Voice.” During one of the rare moments when both channels were having a simultaneous commercial break, I asked about my aunt Betty. Betty is Doug’s sister and Granny’s only other living child. Betty suffers from Parkinson’s, and shortly after Granny had moved to Burkburnett, Betty’s children had moved her into a nursing home in Midland so her son—my cousin, John—and his girlfriend, Sharon, could keep an eye on her.

Doug said they hadn’t heard from Betty in a several weeks, so we decided to try to get in touch with her the following day. Around nine o’clock, June gave Granny her pills and helped her get ready for bed while Doug pulled out the sofa sleeper for me.

It was late the next afternoon when I finally got to talk to Betty on the phone. It had been two years since I’d talked to her, and the changes were staggering. I could barely hear her soft voice, and the words I did hear made no sense: Junior, Oldsmobile, Thanksgiving.

After I hung up the phone, I realized that Betty and Granny might never see each other again unless someone stepped up and offered to drive Granny the two hundred miles from Burkburnett to Midland. June volunteered Doug to go with me.

“Granny,” I yelled to get her attention.

“Whaaat?” She was annoyed. I’d interrupted “Wheel of Fortune,” her favorite.

“Want to go to Midland?”

“I would like to see my house one last time.” She perked up and lost all interest in the dinging that was blaring from the television as one of the contestants bought the right vowel. “I lived in that house for fifty-six years.”

“Okay, then.” I went in the kitchen to look at the calendar with June, and we found a couple of days that would work the following month.

“Do I need to put on my clothes?” Granny yelled from the den.

“You’re not going today,” June yelled back.

“Huh?”

June went into the den, sat next to Granny, and explained that I would come back in a few weeks, then Doug and I would take her.

“Okay.” Granny sat back against the couch, her gaze returning to the television.

The next day, I returned to Austin, and over the next four weeks, I told all my friends about my plan to take my grandmother to see her old home and her daughter, probably for the last time.

“Wow, what an adventure,” my friends said, and I’d teared up a little and shook my head. Yes, I was doing such a wonderful thing for Granny.

Four weeks later, we were on our way to Midland when we stopped for a restroom break, and I found myself following Granny and her walker across the asphalt parking lot of a convenience store while Doug grabbed a quick smoke.

When we finally arrived in Midland two hours and two restroom breaks later, we checked into the Hampton Inn and headed to Rockwood Manor to see Betty. When we walked in the front door, the comingled smells of iodine and boiling potatoes hit me and turned my stomach. I looked at Granny, thinking how lucky she was not to have to live in a place like this. When we found Betty’s room, John’s girlfriend, Sharon, was already there. John is Betty’s youngest son, and even though he and Sharon have been together for years, he’s spent most of them in prison. When it was time to move Betty into a nursing home, Sharon stepped up and offered to help John see after Betty, but I was pretty sure she was the one doing most of the work. She was definitely the one directing the campaign to convince us all that John had become an outstanding son.

“Look at her pretty finger nails! John paints them for her every week.” Sharon dragged a vinyl-cushioned chair next to Betty’s recliner, so Granny could sit close. Granny grabbed Betty’s hand and pulled it into her lap, while Betty stared down at their clasped hands, expressionless. Granny couldn’t hear, and Betty rarely makes sense, so everyone else did the talking.

“And this is where I put her snacks.” Sharon opened a drawer in Betty’s bedside table and pointed to a bag of Cheetos. I thought for a moment about retrieving Granny’s puff from the car so they could have a taste test but then decided against it.

“Hey, Sharon,” I said, “before I forget, can we come out to your house tomorrow and get Granny’s personal stuff out of your shed?”

“Uh, yeah, okay.” Sharon looked nervously over my head.

A little over a year before, when Doug had his hands full taking care of Granny and needed to sell her house, he’d made a deal with Sharon. If she would empty the house, she could have the money from anything she could sell. He’d told me that Sharon was keeping Granny’s personal items, like her photographs, in a storage shed until someone could pick them up.

“The thing I really want is the framed photograph of my mother as a child. It was hanging in Granny’s bedroom.” I thought the location of it might spur Sharon’s memory.

Sharon didn’t respond, so I continued. “It was in a beautiful silver frame with a blue velvet mat.”

“I don’t remember it, but I’ll look when I get home.” Sharon looked at her feet.

“It was the only photograph of my mother as a child.” Even I could hear the whine and the hope in my voice.

“Granny!” I raised my voice to get her attention. “If we leave now, we can drive by the house before we meet John for dinner.”

“Okay.” She squeezed Betty’s hand before letting go.

“I want to see the house, too,” Betty said softly.

“Then come with us.” I saw a glimpse of the aunt I adored.

“I’m not sure you want to do that,” Sharon warned. “She can be a handful in the car.”

“I was the one she was with the first time she tried to jump out of a car.” I smiled at Betty again. “We got this, right?”

Sharon protested for a few more minutes about Betty’s anxiety and then the size of her wheelchair. I didn’t know if Sharon was being protective or controlling, but it didn’t matter. I dug in my heels until she realized this was an argument I’d never let her win.

I drove to the house, with Doug in the passenger seat and Betty and Granny in the back. I’d engaged the child locks, as I didn’t entirely trust either of them not to jump out.

I slowed the car in front of the red brick ranch at 4012 Monty Drive, the house where Santa sometimes left our gifts before dark on Christmas Eve so my grandfather could see us open them before he had to report for his shift as a policeman. The house where my girl cousins and I had once collected all our parents’ change, placed it in a special plastic Easter egg, and then naively entrusted their older brother to hide it. The house where my grandmother, Joy Green, had spent over half of her life.

As I stopped the car at the curb, Granny looked excitedly out the window.

“They planted a tree.” She pointed towards a sapling staked in the middle of the long-dead grass in the front yard.

“My American Beauty is still there.” Her eyesight was sometimes perfect.

After Granny completed a full inventory of the plants, both old and new, we had a few more minutes to kill before meeting John and Sharon at the restaurant, so I decided to drive by Dennis the Menace Park—the park where Granny had taken us to play when we were kids and Dennis the Menace was a popular cartoon. Doug jumped out for a quick smoke while I pointed out what was left of the original park—a faded sign and a 1960s-era water fountain that looked like a rhinoceros.

We eventually made it to the restaurant, one of those family places that serve catfish and fried okra, dipped in the same batter and fried in the same grease so that the taste is indistinguishable. As our food was served, John blurted from the other end of the table, “Sharon told me about that picture you’re looking for. I’m pretty sure we don’t have it anymore.”

I blinked hard. What?

“We kept that stuff for a couple of years, but no one ever came to get it, so we finally threw it out.”

I bit my lip. Granny had barely left her house a couple of years ago, and it’s only been a year since the house was cleaned out and sold.

“What’s wrong?” Granny hadn’t heard a word.

“Nothing, Granny.” I stared down at my plate as I choked down the rest of my catfish or okra, I’m not sure which, and thought about the day Granny had given me the only picture she had of my mother as a child. In the photo, my mother, who was probably three or four, had a few wispy curls pulled back with a barrette, and her smile revealed her dimples. When Granny offered it to me, I protested—this was her memory, not mine—but she insisted, so I accepted the photograph and took it to be framed so I could give it back to her for Christmas. She asked me to hang it on the wall of her bedroom and made me promise that I’d get it back when she was no longer there to remember.

When we finished our dinner, Sharon and John offered to take Betty back to the nursing home. Granny wanted to drive by her house one more time. This time, Doug rang the bell of one of her neighbors, and the woman and her husband came out to visit with Granny in the backseat of the car. Their dogs tried to lick Granny as they talked about the couple’s impending move to the Northeast and how the Texas Rangers were playing. I stayed in the driver’s seat and stared out the windshield, fuming about the lost photo.

As we drove back to the hotel, I finally spoke.

“That photograph of my mother is gone.” I said it low so only Doug could hear.

“I’m afraid you might be right,” he said.

I was determined to say no more about it. Doug had taken on all the responsibility for Granny, and I didn’t want him to feel guilty about anything. When we got back to the hotel, Granny and I wished Doug a good night and closed our door. It was almost nine o’clock, and I was anxious for her to go to bed, so I could call my husband.

Unfortunately Granny had other ideas. Her old neighbor had mentioned that the Rangers were playing that night, and now she wanted to watch the game. I sat down next to her on the couch.

“Karen, tomorrow we need to go to John and Sharon’s and get my pictures.”

“Granny, there aren’t any pictures to get.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” I wanted to vent to my husband instead.

When Granny was finally ready for bed, I tucked her in and crept out to the lobby to call home. At first, I sobbed so hard, I couldn’t get the words out, and when I finally did, they erupted in a stream.

“What kind of person throws away someone else’s photographs? Why didn’t I go get it as soon as Granny said she was staying in Burkburnett? Why didn’t Doug tell me before he had Sharon clean out the house? Why did I trust someone I didn’t know to take care of it for me?”

“I don’t know,” my husband said softly over and over again. He usually jumps at the chance to solve a problem, but even he knew there was no solution for this.

I returned to the room and climbed into bed, exhausted. I’d lost my mother all over again.

At some point during the night, Granny came awake.

“Remember we have to get those pictures tomorrow.”

I pretended to be asleep.

The next morning, we had breakfast in the hotel lobby where they offered one of those free breakfast buffets. I chose the Fruit Loops like I always do when I travel because I love them but wouldn’t be caught dead buying them in the grocery store. Doug made Granny a waffle and then headed back to his room to shave.

“Karen.” Granny stopped her fork midway between the table and her mouth. “Don’t forget, we have to go out to Sharon’s and get my pictures.”

I tried not to yell. “There are no pictures to get. They’re gone.”

“Where are they?” She dropped her fork, her voice was rising.

“Thrown away.”

“Who threw them away?” Now people were staring.

“John or Sharon, I don’t know. All I know is they’re gone.”

“Well, they better not be or I’m gonna scream.” She was already screaming.

I shrugged in apology to the woman who watched from a nearby table.

“It’s okay,” she said, “She can scream if she wants.”

It never fails to amaze me the allowances people make for the elderly.

“Screaming won’t change anything. What’s done is done.” I tried to calm Granny down.

She shook her head and finished her waffle.

We loaded the car and headed back to the nursing home for one last visit with Betty. As I pulled into a parking spot, I braced myself for the moment I had been dreading, the moment when Granny said her last goodbye to Betty.

“Ya’ll run in and tell Betty I said ‘goodbye.’” Granny stared out the window of the back seat.

“What?” I looked at her in the rearview mirror.

“I’ll stay in the car.” She continued looking out the window.

“Uh uh.” I shook my head. “You’re coming in with us.”

“It’s too much trouble to get my wheelchair out of the trunk. You can say goodbye for me.”

“Mother,” Doug finally chimed in, “you need to go in and tell Betty goodbye yourself.”

“It’s just too hard on me getting in and out of the car.” She was holding firm.

“It’s all about you, isn’t it?” I blurted out and immediately realized this was one of those incidents she would recount to every friend and family member.

“Well, okay then.” She returned my stare in the rearview mirror.

Doug wheeled Granny into Betty’s room. John and Sharon and a couple of family friends were already there, waiting for us.

“I wanted to stay in the car.” Granny told them the whole story and ended, of course, by mimicking me in a tone much more hateful than the one I used. Then she laughed while the others shook their heads at me in disappointment.

We were ready to head home when John suggested that we all go across the road to a Mexican restaurant for lunch.

“Mother, you want to go have some enchiladas, right?” John leaned down in front of Betty.

“Okay.” Her eyes lit up, and I thought maybe there was hope for John after all.

Granny, Doug, and I had finished breakfast only an hour before, so we looked at the menu for something small. Granny asked me to order her some nachos, and then when I brought them to the table, said she didn’t want nachos and sent Doug back to order an enchilada. She was getting revenge for our insistence that she get out of the car earlier.

After lunch, as I was loading Granny into the back seat, she suddenly yelled, “Bye, Betty,” and gave a little wave. I realized Betty was already settled in the front seat of John’s car. They hadn’t had a chance to say a final goodbye.

Betty smiled and gave a wave in return. No one shed a tear, not even me. The reality of our road trip turned out to be nothing like what I imagined, except for the restroom breaks at gas stations along the way. Those turned out exactly like I expected.

I deposited Doug and Granny in Burkburnett where they belonged and headed back to Austin late that night. As I was leaving Wichita Falls, I started crying all over again. I’d remembered it clearly the night before, but now I was unsure. Did she have a barrette in her hair or was I confusing it with a photo of me as a little girl? Was she smiling or did she have her chin oh so shyly tucked?

When I arrived home that night, my husband asked me if the trip was worth it.

“Absolutely not,” I answered.

I thought I was giving my grandmother the opportunity to say a final goodbye to her daughter, but Granny and Betty parted as if one of them was simply running up to Walmart to buy a gallon of milk. How was it that I’d been the one who ended up devastated?

In the days that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother, not as a little girl in a photograph but as a dying woman in a hospital bed. She spent the last four days of her life unconscious in intensive care while I slept on a couch in the waiting room. When the doctor finally turned off the ventilator, my stepsiblings and their spouses gathered with me and my husband around her bed while Granny stayed in the waiting room with our children. I had been so surprised that she chose not to be with her daughter as she died. Granny was the one who’d brought my mother into the world. Why was I now surprised that Granny hadn’t wanted to say a final goodbye to her other daughter either?

Then I remembered the way my conversations with Granny always end.

“I miss your mother.” She always says it first.

“Me, too.”

“She was my baby, and you were her baby.”

“I know.”

Granny is the only person in the world who misses my mother as much as I do.

Today I can still feel the heaving of my chest and taste the salty tears running into my mouth as I drive home from Burkburnett, just as clearly as I can hear Granny yelling across the parking lot, “Bye, Betty” and see her cheerful wave. My grandmother’s heart and mine are broken in different ways, but broken just the same.

•••

KAREN COLLIER is a native Texan. She spent twenty long years in high tech before becoming a high school English teacher and discovering how the other half lives: in poverty. She left teaching after five years to pursue life as a creative writer. This is her first published essay.

The Thing About Love

soup
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofia McMullin

My mom is standing by the kitchen sink, squeezing pimples on a chicken. This is the 1990s in Hungary, when chicken still come with remnants of what makes them poultry: feathers, dry skin around the heel, nails that once scratched dirt on a farm.

Behind her on the kitchen table are carrots and parsley and celery root. She is making soup—maybe it’s a Sunday, or maybe it’s a regular Thursday and I just got home from school. It all looks complicated to me and, frankly, disgusting—the gizzards of the chicken in a plastic bowl at the edge of the sink.

“I can’t imagine ever, ever learning how to do this,” I tell her.

She rinses her hands under the running water. “Oh, you will,” she says. “When you love someone and they are sick and all they want is some chicken soup, you will learn.”

I think about this conversation when my son is sick and I am rinsing slimy, plump chicken livers in a colander. He loves chicken livers in his soup, so I buy them in a small tub at the grocery store and freeze them in batches. I feel certain that I would not do this for anyone else, even for myself.

I plop the livers into the water next to the chicken breast and the carrots and the parsnips and the celery. My mom was right: I did learn how to make soup.

•••

My grandmother writes letters to me in college on thin, see-through sheets of paper. Airmail from Hungary to the U.S. is expensive. I get one sheet in each letter, maybe two, filled with her fancy, cursive writing, usually in blue ink. I like getting the letters, I am sure, but I don’t remember them eliciting any sort of emotional response. I might even be disappointed: “Oh, it’s just another letter from grandma.” I keep them anyway.

When I look at them some twenty years after they were written and two years after my grandmother died—still neatly folded in their envelopes—I am knocked off my feet. They make me feel loved—cherished, even—like I never felt back then, not like this, not this explicitly and deeply. I suddenly see everything it took to write them—the process of purchasing the thin wax paper and the airmail envelope and the stamps at the post office, the writing of the letter with her arthritic wrists and fingers—in her armchair next to the radiator, right under her bright window filled with plants —the walk to the post office to mail them.

I can only read one before the tears start—written on my twenty-third birthday, seventeen years ago. She was proud of me. I had a car. And a job. And an apartment.

My grandmother taught me to iron and I used to think of her every night when I ironed my husband’s shirt for the next day. Now it’s all non-iron, synthetic, fake fabrics. And where’s the love in that?

•••

There are people who are clumsy at love. Who say the right words but have trouble putting them into action. Who don’t call. Or write. Or remember. Who don’t think the way I do, that for love you do things—real things: see that action movie, eat at that restaurant, sit with the in-laws at Christmas, listen to quiet fears in the middle of night, scratch the itchy spot in the middle of the back. Iron. Make soup.

That’s the hardest thing, loving someone like that. Someone who lets themselves be loved but cannot return it for whatever reason. They give you little glimpses of what it is like to be loved by them—and it is fucking brilliant and just enough to keep you coming back for more.

•••

I don’t love my baby right away. I know that this is not unusual, but it surprises me. I am happy that he’s here, and that he’s healthy, but beyond that, I feel very little. I don’t let him starve or cry too long or stay in a dirty diaper. I linger with him in the rocking chair and marvel at the fact that he has no eyebrows and the skin on his nose still looks unfinished somehow, almost translucent. I notice his features as if looking at a doll—a strange, antique doll with a porcelain face—that I can just set back on the shelf once I am done.

It’s funny that I don’t remember falling in love with him. It’s not like romance, where you get that initial tingle around the heart. It’s not a lightning bolt or a big spectacle. It happens at two a.m. when you are cleaning up poop. It happens at the playground. In the rear-view mirror of the car when he’s finally fallen asleep. In the middle of a temper-tantrum when both of you are crying and there’s snot on your hands.

•••

Things I love:

Brushing my teeth.

The way the birds go crazy around four a.m. in the spring.

Landing in Europe after a trans-Atlantic flight.

Whipped cream.

The smell of tomato vines.

Rainy October days.

Shoes.

Stationery.

Skypeing with my brother and not noticing that an hour went by.

Budapest.

The jingle of bracelets on my wrist.

My mom’s soup.

•••

My husband’s first heart attack happens in August, we think. We are in London and he wakes in the middle of the night to horrific back spasms. He has a bad back, but nothing like this has ever happened. He’s sweating and can’t catch his breath from the pain. I call an ambulance. They take him away and I sit by the window of our hotel room, staring at the street below until the morning, until our son wakes.

We take a cab to the hospital in the rain and sit with him as the doctors check his blood and re-check it again and again. In the end they rule out a heart attack. We fly home a few days later. He gets a muscle relaxer from his doctor for future back issues.

After he collapses in November and the surgeon threads a catheter through his arteries, he is fairly certain that what he had in London was not a back spasm.

I guess you can walk around with your heart broken on the inside.

•••

I once ask my mom about how you know that you have found “the one,” that you are really in love. Maybe that wasn’t my exact question, but something along those lines. Maybe I am asking her about marriage, about long-term commitment, what that is like. She says that if even after all the years you’ve spent together it still feels good to cuddle up close together at the end of the day, then you are in business.

I remember this on those evenings when we are both exhausted, when I feel just a tiny bit resentful that he is in bed, listening to music, while I finish up bath time and story time and get a glass of water and give another back rub. I stumble into bed and I don’t really want to talk or be touched or be seen. I want to be angry and stomp around like a child—and sometimes do.

I pretend to read and he reaches over to rub my shoulder. I melt into his touch, his warm palms. I put down my book so that I can be in full contact with his body, smell his chest and the spot behind his ears, to rub my nose in his beard.

I am so mad at him, damn it.

•••

When my son wants to tell me that he loves me, he switches over to Hungarian. That’s our language, our secret love code. The words are sweeter, more melodious, melancholy. “I love you” is such a throwaway phrase. “Mama, te vagy a szerelmem,” he tells me and I know it’s true. That we are each other’s loves. We are walking to my car and I hold his hand and feel him holding on, his palm almost as big as mine.

I like that our love is so uncomplicated.

•••

Isn’t it crazy that you can never really know that another person loves you? That you can keep something like this a secret? Maybe there is someone you see every day—at work or at the playground or at school dropoff—and have no idea that they have a crush on you. That they think about you during their day, when they are sad or bored. That they plan ways to run into you, to talk to you. That they imagine this whole other life with you, with you at the center—as their center. You could have this wild affair, this crazy romance, if only that person would speak up, make a move.

But we never do. Nobody ever does. We shuffle back to our desks, hide in our phones, pull forward in the dropoff line.

•••

We kiss past the crust of the morning. The wet spot on the pillow, the gunk in the eyes, the sour breath. We wipe away sweat and dreams from brows. We dip hands into hidden folds and curves, underneath, where it’s dark and heavy and damp. We lick and swallow and we spread and moan. We pinch and scrape and knead. We release—our hands smelling faintly of love all day.

•••

Things I want to learn to love:

An achy heart.

Being awake at two a.m.

Letting go.

•••

My husband does not like soup. When he’s sick, he wants to be left alone: no juice, no tea, no lemonade or honey. No soup. This is confusing—how can you not want chicken soup? My chicken soup. And if you don’t want chicken soup, what can I do for you? Is doing nothing a sign of love?

I stop making soup for a while. Then just make it for myself. Then for our son. You can’t just make a little soup. I offer it up on cold winter days and on sick days for years. “Nothing against your soup,” he says. But no thank you.

I resign myself: he is a no-soup person.

Fifteen years and four kitchens later, on an average Tuesday he suggests that I make soup for dinner. “But you don’t like soup,” I say.

“I could live on your soup,” he responds and I say nothing to hide my shock. Later there is crusty bread on the table and wine and the cooked carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl from the shredded chicken meat. He adds hot sauce and hot pepper flakes and dips his bread.

He makes my soup his own.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine—again!—where her soup-making skills will come in handy this winter. You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin.

Southern Man

By Amy C. Evans/Flickr
By Amy C. Evans/Flickr

By Terry Barr

It was my mother’s heart attack that brought us together. I’ll always see him sitting on that hard chair outside the intensive care unit, looking down, like if he could only pray hard enough, she’d be his again.

They’d been eating barbecue sandwiches at the now-defunct Golden Rule in Bessemer, a new location for an old Birmingham chain.

“Your mother was complaining of indigestion, but we thought it was just her acid reflux again,” he told me later. “But, you know, the pain kept getting worse.”

He drove her to Bessemer Carraway hospital, and then when the support staff determined that she had severe blockage, they transferred her to St. Vincent’s in Birmingham to insert a stent. She had given birth to me in St. Vincent’s all those decades ago, but now I lived two states away from my mother. She doesn’t have a living will, and I suppose that in many ways we were lucky that no life-threatening operation had to be performed, because this man who accompanied her and stayed with her, and who was now waiting for her to regain consciousness, was not her family. He was her new boyfriend, John.

I received the call the previous night, at the college where I teach, where I had been the invited guest of a Presbyterian youth group, talking to them about my faith. My father was Jewish, and I had been identifying with him, and explaining my choice to twenty earnest students. I remember vividly when my colleague entered:

“You need to call home immediately. It’s an emergency.”

My heart almost stopped, a fitting experience, for when I got my wife on the phone, she told me, “Jo Ann’s had a heart attack.”

Somehow I drove the forty-five miles home, and we booked a flight for early the next morning. A good family friend met me at the airport and drove me to my mother’s house so I could pick up her car and drive to the hospital. I remember looking down at the general area of the hospital from my plane, and then passing the turn to it on the drive to my mother’s house. I remember wondering if I’d get there before anything worse happened, and even if it didn’t, I wondered what I’d find in her room. What state she’d be in?

Draped across the top of the recliner in her den was the beige sweater she’d been wearing, and on the seat of her chair was her matching brown purse. In my mother’s world, purses have to match the basic color scheme, and I could have cried at that thought. I could also see the spot on the floor where she must have thrown up. Someone had cleaned it already, most likely John at my mother’s direction, for she’s the kind of woman who never leaves her house a mess. I grabbed her purse, her vitals and drove. When I got to the intensive care unit, there he was:

“Buddy, I know we haven’t met, but I’m John Vines, your mother’s friend. She’s all right. They say she’s going to recover fully. You know, I care so much for your mother.”

I had no doubt. I could see it in his eyes.

•••

Words you never want to hear your mother utter:

“Well, I’ve gotten myself in a sure-nuff fix this time…”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you know that I was supposed to go to a concert last night with ‘the little family’: Susie, Virginia, and John Vines. It turned out, though, that Susie and Virginia couldn’t go. So John and I went. Anyway, after the concert, he drove me home, and when we pulled up in the driveway, he kept the car running, turned to me, and said, ‘I want to say something now. I’m glad that the others couldn’t go. I’m glad it was just us. I’d like to continue seeing you.’”

My mother paused, and I felt sure she was about to ask me how to extricate herself from yet another man’s unwanted overtures. (This had happened twice before in her short widowhood with very different men). It’s not as if I didn’t believe my mother would date again after my father’s death; it was more that such thoughts left me as queasy as I normally get spending too much time in the summer Carolina sun. Or like that day my wife informed me that our oldest daughter was now “a woman,” an experience that left me reaching for the nearest door jamb. I even survived the special ceremony my wife planned for her new womanhood. We have pictures of our daughter then, at thirteen, with flowers in her hair. So queasiness can also feel sweet.

It can also unnerve a son.

“What did you say Mom,” I breathed.

“Well,” and then she laughed in a way that warned me that, unlike those previous occasions with those other men, this time she saw different stars:

“I told him I’d love to. He’s such a gentleman, the last of the old time Southern gentlemen. He even buckled my seatbelt for me!”

That might not sound like much unless you know my independent mother. But at least I was already sitting down.

“He buckled your seat belt for you? Did you want him to? Do you really like a man to buckle you in?”

Notice how I asked these questions instead of the other ones: “Are you in love? Are you ready to get married? Where will y’all live, and oh my God, will you be having sex now?”

Fortunately, I’m not a stupid man.

“Oh, I didn’t mind at all. It was such a sweet thing to do! But what do you think?”

So I told her. “Mom, all I want is for you to be happy. If you want to go out with John, that’s fine. And if you decide you want to marry him, that’s fine too.”

She laughed off the marriage part and instead uttered a few clichéd phrases about her time of life and having fun. Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what she said, because another thought had invaded me, concerning my father. Having his wife remarry, I don’t think, would have alarmed my dad. My alien thought, however, would surely have killed him again. While my mother rambled on across our long distance phone lines I silently protested.

“But John’s a Georgia Tech man, a Yellow Jacket! He played for and adored Coach Dodd, a man my Alabama Crimson Tide-loving father detested. A man my father referred to often as ‘Cry-Baby Dodd.’”

I can honestly say that my father disrespected only two of Alabama’s football foes: Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Not even Tennessee or Auburn roused Dad’s hatred like the Irish and the Yellow Jackets. Alabama and Georgia Tech no longer played each other, though, and while the former’s star continues to blaze, the latter’s has fallen mightily.

Besides, my poor father was gone and my mother was very much here.

“He’ll take me places, anywhere I want to go! And you know I always had to drag your daddy everywhere we went. Except to his mother’s, that is, and to the Alabama football game!”

As the weeks passed, it seemed my mother had found the antithesis of my dad: John drove a Lincoln, and my dad hated Fords. John was a gentile, my Dad a Jew. John played high school and college football. My dad, the clarinet and tennis.

Yet they were each loyal Americans, served their country proudly, and were hard-working providers for their families. They were both quiet, gentle men. And my mother, somewhat reluctantly, provided one other similarity.

“John and I went to the Bright Star the other night [Bessemer’s finest restaurant and the oldest continuous-serving restaurant in Alabama]. You know how good the seafood and steaks are there. They had stuffed snapper on the menu, so after I ordered, I looked over at John. And do you know what he ordered?”

I could hear it coming, This seemingly perfect man did the unthinkable:

“He ordered the hamburger steak, just like your daddy used to!”

Though I wouldn’t order it, because I’m no idiot, I have to admit the hamburger steak at the Bright Star does look good. Dad always smothered his in ketchup.

“Did he add ketchup?” I asked Mom.

“Of course! I just don’t understand men. All that good food and no matter what, they just want hamburger! And when it arrived, all he could say was ‘Oh yeah!’”

I wanted to pronounce an “Amen” on that, but decided that enough bland sauce had been poured already.

•••

Though she was still in intensive care, the doctors had successfully placed a stent in my mother’s damaged artery and declared her out of danger. John left me soon after I arrived at the hospital, and I’ve always wondered whether in his place I would have done the same; whether I would have ceded space to my steady companion’s son. He had been the one to accompany her through this trauma, and now his actions said, “I know my place.” I didn’t know his place, though, and even as I write this, I look at the phrase I used for John: my mother’s “steady companion.” It’s a true statement because they did go everywhere together, including church on Sunday, a church John didn’t belong to. Can seventy-somethings be described as boyfriend and girlfriend? As “special friends?” Even today, when I describe John, I call him “Mom’s friend, you know….”

Except that we really don’t know. I could never use the term “lovers” to describe John and Mom, even if I did think it described them accurately. Years into their relationship and while he was lying in his own hospital bed awaiting exploratory kidney surgery, John made the mistake of referring to another mutual female friend of theirs as his “other lady friend.” This so incensed my mother, who by that point had decided that she’d never marry John, that she left him in his room for a couple of days. That same lady friend, one of my former Sunday school teachers, fueled my mother’s ire some time later by wondering aloud whether John had spent the night at my mother’s because she saw him wearing the same clothes on that day as he had worn the day before, and the last she knew, he had been seen entering my mother’s house in the early evening.

Why my mother felt the need to report this to me during our weekly Sunday morning phone chat, I can’t say. Was she just passing the gossip before I could hear it from other mouths?

“I just couldn’t believe she would say that about me. She knows me better than that!”

But my mother has reported other strange information over the years, like the time she told me that a new, and newly-drunken, neighbor made a pass at her in her own house during a barbecue that she and my dad were holding for this new neighbor and his wife. My mother was in her late sixties at the time.

“Your daddy never knew, and I didn’t tell him. He would have been furious.”

Yet she told me long distance. Was I supposed to be furious too? Or appalled? Disgusted? Nauseous? My daughters have always laughed at me, saying I never know when someone is flirting with me. If I ever did know, though, I wouldn’t be calling them on the phone to report it.

Of course I didn’t think of these awkward moments while my mother was lying in the hospital. Part of me wished that John hadn’t left us alone because I wasn’t used to seeing my mother in such a vulnerable state.

She was alert when I walked in, though, saying “Hey darlin’” before I could get to her bed. I sat with her through the evening and offered to spend the night by her.

“Oh, you don’t need to do that, I’m fine. You just go home and get a good night’s rest.”

She was in no danger, according to all the nurses, and selfishly, I thought a bed at home sounded so much better than the pullout cot available there. However, when I reached home, I realized the strangeness of sleeping in my mother’s house alone, seeing but not seeing her flitting from room to room picking up stray items or straightening yet another decorous object. Hearing but not hearing her habitual smoker’s cough lapsing into such a choking fit that I’d wonder if this was the end.

When I returned to the hospital the next morning, she volunteered the information that she was determined to quit smoking. “I decided last night that that was it!”

I rejoiced. Her health, finally, seemed to mean more to her than her Virginia Slims Menthol Lights. That night when I returned to her house, I threw out the remainder of her carton, and the open pack in her purse. I remembered then the time in fourth grade when, after viewing an anti-smoking film in school, I played hooky and waited till she was out running errands then flushed an entire carton, bit by nasty bit, into the back bathroom toilet. When she asked that night what happened to her cigarettes, I confessed. Though upset at the loss of good money, she didn’t punish me.

“I don’t want you to get cancer,” I managed in the face of her initial fury.

She understood, and I know that despite her habit and need for a cigarette then, she forgave me. She loved me.

The next day when I returned to school, she ran to the store and bought a new carton. So we lived with her habit for another forty-five years. But now, after a serious heart attack, we were done.

My mother was released from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, and our beloved family friends, the Mulkins, invited us all—my brother, my wife, our two daughters, and John—for Thanksgiving lunch. We drove straight to their house from the hospital, and so Thanksgiving seemed restored, except that this combination of families had never spent any holiday together before. Not long after the meal, John made a suggestion. “Let’s get your mother back home. She’s still pretty weak.”

On that Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mom suggested that we let her rest while we went to a movie or something.

“You all don’t need to be sitting in this house watching me. I’ll be okay.”

After we returned, my wife walked past my mother’s bathroom and over to me.

“I think I smell cigarettes.”

I smelled them too, but only faintly, and then after a few moments I convinced myself that I had smelled nothing out of the ordinary, except, that is, the scent of my mother’s lemon body oil.

The next morning, I found a cigarette butt that hadn’t fully flushed, floating in her bathroom toilet.

She hadn’t left the house the entire weekend, and I was certain that I had purged her place of all offending smokes. So how had she procured these new heart-killers? When I confronted her, all she said was, “You just don’t understand. Only a smoker understands how hard it is to quit.”

I never asked, but I was sure that in the couple of hours we had spent at the movies she had persuaded John to buy her a new carton of smokes. After all, he had told me, “I would do anything for your mother.”

And so my mother continued smoking for another ten years until she finally gave up her habit after successfully undergoing radiation treatment for a small but malignant lung tumor. I suppose John stood by her through these trials, but she said it was the e-cigarette that really helped.

•••

“I remember I cried when my father died/Never wishing to hide the tears

And at sixty-five years old/My mother, God rest her soul…”

—Gilbert O’Sullivan

 

My mother isn’t dead, and she wasn’t sixty-five when my father died. She was sixty-seven, and I was forty-four. While it’s true that I did not wish to hide my tears, my mother told me to stop crying. “I need you to be strong now.”

I tried to stop; truly, I did. Fortunately, I was already in therapy, so I dealt with the grief. I don’t know how my mother wrestled with hers, but I suspect she did what she’s always done: pushed it back inside and moved on with her life. She jumped back into her civic and social clubs; she repainted the bedroom and ordered new furniture. She got a new mattress for the back bedroom where my father spent his last year because he’d been unable to control his bladder, and despite the bed-pads and adult diapers, the mattress was ruined.

She began getting offers from men. She seemed ready to enter that world again: of dating, of potential husbands. And so, it seemed, I had to get ready within myself to understand and accept the difference between “your father” and “your mother’s husband.”

•••

I am unlike my father in these ways:

I drink: Beer (now gluten-free), red wine, and bourbon, especially bourbon. Four Roses, small batch.

I read novels instead of the newspaper, and I write. A lot.

I am a political liberal. I never thought Rush was right.

I eat seafood of all types including anchovies.

I wear a beard and hate mowing the lawn.

I am like my father in these ways:

I cherish my home and the older I get, the less keen I am on leaving it.

I am loyal to my job, my family, and even my country.

I like meatloaf with ketchup.

I cherish the University of Alabama football team, recently buying a 55” TV just to get a bigger picture for this season’s games.

I try to stay fit, walking my dog for an hour each day and supplementing that with thirty minutes on the elliptical. I use free weights, calculated repetitions, though the calculations are often, if not always, based on some OCD number in my head.

The irony of this obsessive number is that it’s 64, taken from a framed Alabama football jersey mounted on the wall near my weights. When I lift weights I have to make sixty-four reps. Have to. That jersey is 1940s vintage, crimson wool with a wraparound crotch button. I received it in one of those be-careful-you’ll-smother-in-this-thing dry cleaners wrapping bag. My father gave me many Bama jerseys: numbers 22, 25, 38, but he didn’t give me this one.

John Vines did. John played on the 1951-2 National Championship Georgia Tech teams. He never pulled for Alabama, or Auburn either, his home state teams.

But not even John could remember where he got it or even how long he had had it. I wish I had my other jerseys. My mother junked them went I went off to college. But I’ll never lose or give up this one.

I tried researching to see whose jersey my number 64 could have been, but no luck, or at least there were too many possibilities and no winnowing down. John didn’t know either, but it didn’t matter to him.

“I want you to have it. I know how much it will mean to you.”

If I could have worn it, I would have right then. Players back then were smaller, even those on the offensive line. I weigh in the mid 190s, just too big to want to try stretching this precious wool. Besides, wearing it isn’t the point. The point is that a Tech man gave a Bama man, a man young enough to be his son, a Bama jersey, a precious keepsake, on a cold and cloudy Christmas season night. And when he left our house that night, for the first time, I hugged this man, my mother’s boyfriend, instead of merely shaking his hand as acquaintances do.

It was my wife, not a football fan of any sort, who suggested framing the jersey, because she understands what gifts mean and how to honor them and those who give them. She understands the texture of human hands and shoulders and hearts.

Though 64 is an easy number to reach with arm weights, and  I still feel sufficient after achieving it, I go beyond it usually, and every time I do, I think of John and how pleased he’d be. Not always, but more times than not, I think of my father, too.

•••

During the year after Mom and John began dating, I would have bet anyone that they were headed toward marriage. I waited for the news.

But it never came.

John had moved to a new house, just a block above where we used to live.

“I don’t know why he moved up there,” Mom complained. “That neighborhood is going down,” which was true enough, though very sad given the decades we all had spent there.

My mother helped John decorate it though, as if someone might soon be moving in with him. And someone did: the stray dog that showed up in John’s alley one day; a beautiful shepherd mix about the size of a young horse. John named him J.V., after himself.

The beautiful house that Mom helped John decorate stayed that way for almost a year. And then…

“You won’t believe that house! He’s just wrecked it. He is without a doubt the messiest man I’ve ever seen. One thing I’ll say about your daddy, he was neat.”

Yes he was, OCD neat, just like my mother is OCD neat. Shoes in proper order, beds made within five minutes of getting up, dishes washed, dried, and put up immediately after a meal. I could go on, but the funny thing is that despite knowing how she was, John went on doing what he wanted, “messing up” his house. I always wondered if what he did was just him, or some subconscious method of insuring that marriage with my mother, despite what he said, would never happen.

“You know, Bud,” he said to me once, “your mother is mighty particular.”

Oh yes, for who else would demand her own vomit be cleaned up while she is undergoing a heart attack?

Eventually, John bought another house in the same area and on the same street where my mother lives. My mother is a stubborn woman, and so once again, she helped John “fix up” his new home. And once again, just months after he moved in and staged an open house to show it off, my mother began complaining:

“I just wish you could see that house! All that work I did and for what? For nothing! He leaves stuff where he found it and never throws anything away. He’s just a pack rat!”

This coming from a woman who eventually throws everything away: my jerseys, my old comic books, my old journals, and if I let myself, I might remember other things I can’t find and don’t know what happened to. So it came to this: an OCD woman just couldn’t marry an extremely relaxed man. Still, my mother put her refusal to marry in her own inimitable way: “I just decided that I didn’t want to wash another old man’s dirty underwear.”

What could anyone, especially her son, say to that?

•••

Though my mother and John never married, they remained close friends, and Mom reported their adventures together. She even dragged him to see her favorite rock band, Chicago, once. When I’d come to town, she’d have John over for supper, and we’d both relish her roast beef, new potatoes, fresh lima beans, and creamed corn. Often, on the day I’d be leaving for home, John would drop by to say so long. More often, he’d give me a card, and in that card would be a twenty-dollar bill.

“That’s to get you a Coca-Cola on the way home,” he’d say.

As if Cokes cost twenty dollars. As if he were my dad or something.

•••

Last month I went back to Bessemer.

John was dying.

I thought about so many things as I drove, but the one thought I couldn’t put down occurred the previous summer when I was there: when John wanted to take me to a hamburger joint for lunch, just him and me. But I was too busy. I had overcommitted myself with other friends. At the time I knew I would live to regret turning him down, so why didn’t I do anything about it?

That following fall I called John to tell him I’d be coming down for a visit and that I wanted to take him out.

“Okay, Bud,” he said. John was never much for phone calls, especially from other men who were trying to take care of him, who were making him feel too much of what he had become: dependent.

Mom and I did take him to The Bright Star on that visit. He ate well—this time, the liver and onions—but in many ways it was a futile endeavor. His cancer was too far-gone, and he had chosen not to undergo surgery. He was eighty-eight years old, and people that age, surely, should get to choose how they approach their end. I remember how thin he’d gotten, this former lineman for the city. He still had his friendly manner, but it didn’t take a genius to tell that he was slowly moving on.

And so he did this summer, June tenth.

Mom and I went to visit him that day. His daughter Sallie had brought him to her house where she, her husband Noah, their children and grandchildren, and even John’s beloved J.V. could be near. Sallie recounted on that day a memory from her childhood: how her daddy would carry her on his shoulders to the Highland Bakery on summer nights after he got off work.

“I’d be in my nighties, ready for bed, but he’d walk us the two blocks to get ice cream. Cherry Vanilla or Lemon, my favorites. It’s just so hard. I’m gonna miss him so.”

That’s the way it is with people we love. Our fathers, and even those who never quite were, but could have been, and whom we loved anyway.

As I did with my own father on his deathbed, I told Sallie to speak to John. To tell him that he had been a good father and that it was okay to go now. I watched her lean into him and speak those very words.

She called a few hours later to say he was gone.

I couldn’t be at the funeral, but I heard that hundreds of his friends and family attended. A fire truck—he so loved fire trucks—led the procession to the cemetery, and there everyone gathered to honor this very gentle, very Southern man.

In his will, he left my mother one hundred dollars.

“Just a little Coca-Cola money,” he wrote.

•••

TERRY BARR is the author of the essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother. His work has appeared in South Writ Large, Steel Toe Review, Eclectica Magazine, Blue Lyra Review, The Bitter Southerner, The Dead Mule School of Southern Lit, and of course, Full Grown People. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.

 

Read more FGP essays by Terry Barr.

Her

her
by Sodanie Chea/Flickr

By Jiadai Lin

I never knew my grandmother well but I was told growing up that I had her yan sher, which literally means “eye expression” in Mandarin. I understood it more colloquially as referring to Grandma’s spirit, her aura. My father said this as a compliment. My mother, not so much.

The woman I call Grandma—my paternal grandmother—grew up in the pre–Cultural Revolution Chinese countryside just north of Beijing. She had a clumsy instinct for things like judgment and war and enemy lines. She played with the Japanese kids in the yard who nobody was supposed to play with. She unraveled the bandages wound tightly around her feet and learned to read. She became a wife before she was twenty, and a mother soon after. She birthed seven children from her tiny frame and lost two.

Of course, she wasn’t all good and mighty. Grandma’s fingers were just as clumsy as her instinct to judge, so she could never properly sift the rice hulls from their grains in the fall. The rice patties her kids brought to school for lunch weren’t white and pure as they were supposed to be but speckled with brown. This was considered an embarrassment, but Grandma didn’t lose any sleep over it.

When I was young, I sensed that Grandma wasn’t exactly the model of a woman that I should want to embody. Enemy-befriending, bandage-unraveling, wooden-fingered Grandma wasn’t supposed to be my ideal of feminine perfection. She was wrinkled and weathered by the time she was thirty, and she didn’t know how to smile properly for a picture. Her fingers, unnaturally thick for such a small lady, were dusted charcoal gray no matter which picture I looked at.

And I looked at many. From halfway across the world, from a second-floor apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I flipped through the thin stack of Kodak photos that sometimes came in the mail. The images I remember were all set in winter. Grandma and cousins posed wearing puffy neon jackets in their front yard. The ground wasn’t grass or the concrete sidewalks of Milwaukee, but a worn, packed dirt. Grandma sat on a wooden chair, cousins stood in a row, and the family dog, Little Black, lounged at their feet. Their expressions seemed never whole—never just a smile or a frown—but instead halfway through a sentence or question, as if they weren’t sure when exactly the camera would go off.

These pictures were mostly the same but I studied each one as if it were a unique blueprint for my own identity. Of all the cousins on my family tree, I was the only one to live in America. I was special in that way, but I was also alone.

“You’re like your grandma,” my father would say.

“How?” I’d ask.

“You have that same sarcastic look in your eye. Yan sher.

“What do you mean?”

He never replied directly. The answer came at me slowly, through stories and pictures gathered over years.

•••

Just before I turned two, my parents brought me to visit my father’s family. After the stay, I observed that Grandma didn’t pay much attention to me.

“She’s not an affectionate woman,” my father said.

“That’s right—she’s not!” my mother said.

I don’t remember this early impression of Grandma and clearly, it didn’t do anything to diminish her in my eyes. Maybe Grandma was busy playing poker with the village ladies or preparing dinner with the aunts or walking Little Black instead of cuddling me.

My family moved to America shortly after that visit, and I only saw Grandma a few more times in her life. The last was the August before my senior year of college. On this trip, I noticed that my cousin Hailian had bought gifts for the family—bottles of perfume, silk neck ties, a watch for my father, a jar of L’Oreal face cream for my mother. The girl had manners, my mother noted, and I decided that I should learn a thing or two from Hailian.

During afternoon nap on a particularly hot day, I snuck out to the village convenience shop with my little brother. When we walked in, a bell on the door jingled and a sleepy shopkeeper emerged from behind a shredded plastic curtain. We apologized for waking him and asked in our best Mandarin for a nice woman’s shirt.

“For your grandma?” he guessed right away.

“Yes.”

My brother and I examined the one option shown to us, a button-down shirt made from a flowered pattern. It would do.

Grandma had an afternoon routine. She spent hours hanging out with other neighborhood women on the stone ledges that lined the narrow village streets. I had often seen them perched in the shade waving their bamboo fans and swatting at mosquitos that buzzed by their legs. These women greeted everyone by name—kids returning home from school, men in suits riding bikes to and from work in the next town over, the fat lady with the toothy smile who herded her goats down the village’s most central streets every afternoon.

On this particularly hot afternoon, my brother and I found Grandma on the stone ledges and presented her flowered shirt. Almost immediately, the neighborhood ladies clapped their hands in laughter. Look at those American kids! What funnies! They called us not by our names, but as our father’s children.

Grandma laughed too, then started unbuttoning the shirt she was wearing. Soon she was topless and slipping her arms into the flowered shirt we had bought. I stood there with my eleven-year-old brother, unable to turn away. Grandma was skinny and tan, her breasts small and wilted, gently falling over her ribcage. Her skin was withered as if a layer tissue paper had been glued onto her actual skin beneath. I had noticed that Chinese women, who often showered communally, were generally more comfortable with nudity than American women. But an eighty-something-year-old woman changing out on the street with a group of ladies cheering her on? This was not normal. Afterwards, Grandma sat there on the ledge sporting her new shirt with a beaming smile on her face. This was her way of saying thank you for the gift.

When I recounted this story to my mother, she looked disturbed. I got the message. What Grandma did was not ladylike. It wasn’t something I should emulate. But over the years, I always remembered this story and felt a kinship with Grandma. Maybe she wasn’t refined and full of grace, but she was bold. She was a hoot. She didn’t care what others thought about her. She did what she wanted to do, in that nonchalant way that always had my mother shaking her head.

•••

My mother was a different kind of woman. She wore billowing dresses and strappy sandals and tortoise-shelled sunglasses with lenses the color of tea eggs. She knew how to stand for a picture, arm-in-arm with my father in front of Tiananmen Square the year before I was conceived, a silver flowered clip locked into her wavy hair. After we moved to America, she bought do-it-at-home hair perm kits that came in purple and silver boxes with a blonde lady on the front.

I can still see my mother standing over the sink in our tiny bathroom in Milwaukee, her hair dripping of something that looked like milk and smelling of chemicals. I’d watch her from the bed where we all slept—my mother, father, and me. Every night, my mother would come to this bed and put Lubriderm lotion on her hands, her fingers smooth and long like a ballerina’s legs. And then she would take mine and do the same for me, paying special attention to the dry cuticles that I had a bad habit of chewing off.

•••

For a long time, whenever my mother tried to teach me about being a woman, I felt like she was pulling me away from myself. More times than I can count, my mother would come up behind me, rest her hands on my shoulders and press her thumbs into my spine. “Straighten up,” she’d say.

I’d arch my back to an extreme. “Like this?”

She’d shake her head. “You know what I mean.”

Did I? I don’t remember. What I remember is feeling defiant. Proud of the fact that I didn’t naturally stand up tall or want to sit nicely at holiday parties with the women who gossiped until midnight spooning dessert from the table. I wanted to be the one rolling in the dirt, the one with the scraped knees hanging from the top branch of a tree, the one riding her blue Huffy down the street that ran the length of our apartment complex. Through grade school, I insisted on wearing tee-shirts and cargo pants, the kind that could be unzipped at the knees and transformed into baggy shorts for the summer. In high school, I wore my hair in a messy bun that I had to keep re-doing throughout the day to keep tousled because my thick hair always fell straight.

My mother thought of names for me. Things like kuang tou (basket-head) and bu-nan-bu-nu (not-boy-not-girl, or, as I guessed, tomboy) that she muttered when she saw my getups. I knew these names were not endearing. They were meant to stir me to change. I did change, but in the opposite direction. I messed up my hair even more and slouched defiantly. I wanted to show my mother that this was who I was.

I felt less that I was caught between two cultures and more that I was caught between two women. Except I wasn’t really caught. I knew who I wanted to be, but I was too young to be her yet. I felt a maddening ache to get out of the house and out of our town. Once I grew up, once I moved away, once I had my own place, my own money, my own life, I could be whatever kind of woman I wanted to be.

•••

A month before I started college, my parents and I attended a dinner reception for incoming freshman and their families. We drove into New York City in our green Dodge Caravan and circled the blocks around school several times before finding a parking spot. My mother wore an olive and bronze–colored silk dress with a sash at the waist. She had brought this dress with her from China and kept it in her closet, taking care to replace the moth balls every winter. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know that it had not occurred to me that I was supposed to look nice for this event. I probably wore my uniform at the time: jeans and a tank top, flip flops, and a choker necklace made of plastic sea shells.

There was a woman at the reception who seemed important. I don’t remember what color her hair was or what she wore, but I was alert to her presence. While the families sat at round tables, this woman paced around. She shook hands and made friendly conversation to which families laughed and nodded as if on cue. As this woman circled closer my table, I noticed the muscles in my mother’s neck clench. Her hair was twisted into a bun with a flashy jewel barrette that she saved for special occasions. By the time the woman got to the table next to ours, my heart was pounding hard in my chest. I was suddenly embarrassed at how out of place my family looked. I watched as the woman told her joke, smiled, and then moved straight to the table on our other side.

I ate a piece of my bread and tried to look unfazed. But I was confused. Did the important woman skip us by accident? Would she come back around? I was glad that I was spared an awkward encounter with this woman, but why didn’t she speak to us?

My mother and I never talked about this incident. It occurs to me now that maybe it doesn’t stand out in her memory as an exception to her everyday life. When I was growing up, my mother always reminded me that it wasn’t easy to be an immigrant. “You have to be better to get the same result,” she would say. A better student, a better woman, a better friend.

I’d usually laughed it off. “I don’t feel that way,” I’d respond, “You’re being paranoid.”

But being at that reception, as I sat proud and excited and anxious at the prospect of being alone in the world for the first time, I experienced something that never left me. Only years later did I understand that what I had experienced was how it felt to be an immigrant’s child. That lucky first generation. And all the pride and burden and vengeance that came with it.

•••

I graduated from college and then law school. I got a job at a firm in New York and rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. I worked long hours and indulged in fancy cocktails to justify those long hours. One Monday night in late September, I had come home and had just stripped off my corporate outfit when my mother called me. This was normal, so I took the call and steeped a peppermint tea. Then I put my mother on speakerphone on the kitchen counter and got ready to scrub at the dirty dishes in my sink.

“You should sit down,” my mother said.

I did.

“Your grandmother…” my mother started.

I immediately had a bad feeling in my stomach. My mother never said much about Grandma. Something big or bad had to have happened.

Grandma had died sometime through the night. The night in China that was the day I had just lived. I tried to remember something, anything, that had happened during the day that felt tragic or poignant. A moment I could identify in hindsight as a sign that I knew viscerally my grandmother was gone. I must have felt something. Grandma and I were connected by blood, and something even stronger. We shared yan sher. That had to count for something. But I had nothing. I had been sitting at my computer for most of the day, chatting occasionally with coworkers but mostly working on assignments that barely varied from one day to the next.

After I hung up the phone with my mother, I went to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror above my sink, next to my blue shower curtain. The pattern on my shower curtain was a map of the United States, and I thought about how my grandmother would never step foot on American soil.

Grandma wasn’t sick. She had been weak through the previous winter but rejected my uncle’s invitation to stay with his family. She liked where she was. She was walking to the market every morning for breakfast buns and soy milk and playing chess on the stone ledges with the ladies in the afternoon. It had been a good summer. She was getting stronger. Of course she would die someday, but I wasn’t prepared for her to die today.

I sat on the bathroom floor against the cold bathtub and cried. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and I hadn’t expected the tears to come so diligently, before I could even fully process my sadness. I was puzzled by my tears because along with vague sadness, I felt something light. I felt the peace of a life ended without great injustice. Grandma had lived long. She had died in her sleep, as she always claimed was the best way to go. Her death had not been big or bad.

That night, I lay in bed staring up at the wooden beams across my ceiling. I thought of my grandmother, who had gone to bed not long ago. Now her small body was cold and empty of life, her brain without consciousness. It was impossible to understand how a person could just be gone like that. And not just any person, but Grandma. The lady with the sarcastic look in her eye. Now there was only one of us in the world.

•••

A few nights later, I left my Midtown office building and walked up Sixth Avenue. I strolled along the southern edge of Central Park, past the row of carriage horses resting in the shade. It was a quiet night, the air cold but comfortable. I settled on the stone fountains facing Columbus Circle and spoke to my father, who had gone home to China.

In my grandmother’s village, funerals were celebratory events. My father described how the whole village had come out. There was a live band and two teenage go-go dancers. At funerals, it was tradition for family members to dedicate songs to the deceased.

“Your uncle selected two songs for you and your brother because you guys couldn’t be there,” my father said, “It was really a nice celebration. Everyone said that your grandmother was a really kind lady.”

I watched as two men in front of me played with neon rockets that could be wound up and shot up into the sky. At the top of their trajectories, the rockets flashed with bright lights, lingered for a moment, and then fell back down. I kept my eye on them. Up and down, over and over again. Something about the simplicity and sureness of their paths was calming.

All this reminded me of Grandma. As long as her life had been, it was never meant to be much more than what she was born into. She would get married and have kids. She would live in the same house through most of this and die there too. Then I thought about own my life. I was born in a hospital in Beijing, to a country-boy scientist father and a Manchurian mother with a graceful edge. Maybe I was not meant to travel far in my life either. But I had. What were the chances that somebody like me would be here sitting in Columbus Circle on this very night?

My grandmother could never have dreamed of this life for me, but she did live to see a glimpse of it. A few months before she died, Grandma found my lawyer profile online. She didn’t mention this until she overheard my uncle talking about my website profile in the other room. “I saw it,” Grandma said.

A clunky old computer had sat idly in the corner of Grandma’s room for months, maybe years. Nobody guessed that she knew how to use it. But there it was, in her browser history. My name, my picture, my degrees.

This last story makes me smile because this was Grandma’s way. Understated but crafty, insulated but modern, modest but full of pride.

•••

I see now that while Grandma could never have dreamed of this life for me, my mother did. And even more, she demanded it of me.

Over the years, I realized that the main difference between my mother and grandmother is how each woman handled judgment. Grandma was fearless. This was the essence of her aura. She was not ashamed. She did not care that her children brought to school rice patties that were not perfectly white. She didn’t often ask, am I good enough? She just was what she was.

But my mother, she never stopped asking that question. My mother didn’t believe in accepting what you were born into. She believed in being better. She believed in learning to sit up straight and breaking bad habits. She believed in going to the salon for a perm, and when she found herself in a new country with little money, she believed in doing it herself. She believed in upkeep. And most of all, perhaps, my mother believed in her kids. While I begrudged my mother’s attempts to mold me when I was growing up, I see now that her intentions were pure. She pushed me because she believed in me.

It is a humbling thing to look back on your younger self and see somebody who cared so much about how you would turn out today. The lesson, I think, is in the effort and intentions. Perhaps the time I spent as a girl searching for the good and bad and admirable allowed me to face the judgments I had of myself. Perhaps being exposed to the wildly different personas of my mother and grandmother instilled at a most basic level the idea that there was no one way a woman could or should be.

I never did find a model of feminine perfection that both satisfied my mother and sat comfortably with me. I was a college grad who sometimes dreamed of being a farmer, a corporate lawyer who changed immediately into sweatpants at home, a tomboy who learned to walk in heels. And while I was becoming these things, I forgot to think about how much I wanted to be like Grandma. I forgot to think about how much I wanted to show my mother exactly who I was. I forgot to try so hard. Without detaching from either woman, I detached myself from the idea of being confined to their qualities. In growing up I became my own woman, and I am still becoming her.

•••

JIADAI LIN lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is working on a novel based on her former life as a lawyer in Manhattan. She can be found on Twitter here: @jiadailin 

 

There’s Meth-Heads in the Woods

goat
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Heather Wilson

Michelle takes me up the hill to see the goats.

I’m in Arkansas for Thanksgiving and I haven’t seen my sister Michelle for going on seven years: This is our quiet, incomplete reunion. She lives in the sticks with a construction worker husband who built their house. It’s a beautiful place, but you can see the flaws. Most glaringly, the unfinished set of stairs are nailed in crooked, which Sam explains by popping the tab on a Busch beer—“Turns out I was too many in.” The back yard, too, is somewhere between a calendar pic and a junkyard. Right behind the house, there’s a dried up pond and a collection of household artifacts. An ancient ceramic bathtub riddled with bullet holes, a couple monster truck size wheels, scrapyard metal, discarded wood. But beyond that non-pond roll the wooded hills, goats grazing near a tin-roofed house.

Every couple of mornings Michelle goes out to patrol their property borders. It’s maybe a three-mile parameter, fenced in by a wood and electric wire fence. While our brothers Dan and Jon stay at the house to put back Busch beers, Michelle goes on her patrol. This time I join her. I put on my tennis shoes, a flimsy windbreaker. Michelle wears her usual getup: cut-off cargo shorts over long underwear, high rubber boots, and a Columbia jacket. “It’s the goat-herder’s uniform,” she says, sing-song Arkansas twang in her voice. She doesn’t bring her gun (she’s says she’s still afraid of it) but a little can of Mace. “There’s meth heads out in the woods,” she says, “squatters, drifters.”

I can’t imagine encountering a meth head climbing an electric fence without laughing, but she’s serious.

“Plus,” she adds, “I think our little Chinese neighbor was stealing goats.”

“Stealing goats?”

Her suspicion remains unexplained: I add it to the collection of differences, divergences, as startling to me as the closet full of guns, or her Confederate take on race politics. We head up the hill. As we climb, I keep looking at her, sneaking endless unbelieving double takes. My childhood vision of her keeps surfacing, an insistent holograph from the past. After all, I saw her last in the days before I left Arkansas for good. I was only eleven going on twelve when we moved.

•••

As a child, I knew her slightly. When mom regained custody of Dan and me, Jon and Michelle stayed with our foster parents. At fourteen and sixteen, they were old enough to choose, and the foster home was a safe bet: college, financial security. So I didn’t see her much. Instead of an upbringing together, we had visitations. Jon and Michelle would swing by and pick us up from mom’s apartment. Sometimes we’d go to the mall, and I’d follow Michelle around in the chill air, window-shopping. Sometimes we’d go swimming or take a couple hours at the park. They barely seemed like siblings to me: more like older guardian angels, distant aunts and uncles.

When I got old enough to notice such things, Michelle began to represent a world of grownup-ness I had no access to. Femininity, I might have called it, if I’d had the word for it. She took pains with her appearance. She was thin, and had jet black hair that hung in perfect ringlets. She wore skin-clinging Hollister tops and white-washed jeans. Even though she was only five-foor-two or so, she seemed so tall. I never imagined I could look like that, but I admired her. It occurred to me that if I had to turn into something eventually, it would be her.

Perhaps that was because her visits often included an itinerary of instructions on my coming of age. She “fixed” my hair, brushing out the knots and twisting it into a tight, painful knot at the top of my head. She told me to wear deodorant. Sunscreen, she informed me, would not help me get tan. My pale, sunburn-prone skin perturbed her to no end. As did my prematurely hairy legs and my arsenal of “heathen” clothes. Mom never complained about anything I wore, baggy athletic shorts or a shin-length toga-esque dress. But my outfits often elicited a cascade of scorn from Michelle. Some of the distaste targeted Mom—“I can’t believe mom lets you out the door in such rags”—but as I got older, the buck passed to me. I should have a little discretion, after all: I was ten years old.

•••

Halfway up the hill, the goats circle us in curiosity. One grizzled salt-and-pepper goat, ripe with age, nuzzles Michelle’s hip. “This one’s my baby,” she says. “His name is Coco. When he was born he was about this small.” She cups her palms together. “Sam, he promised me he would die. But I fed him by hand for months, and now he’s fatter than all of them.” She laughs. “He follows me everywhere, probably thinks I’m his mom.”

Coco nuzzles her, leaving a trail of white slobber on her cut-offs, but she doesn’t notice or doesn’t care. She’s not the sister I knew: pulling every strand of my hair into something presentable, searching my face for smudges. Instead, when she looks at me as I shyly extend my hand to the billy goat, she says my name with wonder: “Pilar,” stretching the r to its limit. For a second, the name catches me off-guard. These days everyone calls me Heather, but as a child my family preferred my more poetic middle name. Hearing it now, southern drawl dragging syllables, the name rings with a phantom. I feel rewound.

I say, “What?”

And Michelle shakes her head. “I can’t believe…,” trailing off. Neither of us can complete the sentence: I can’t believe who you are. I remember that other Michelle too well, and vice versa. We are both a little rewound: I can hear the static of cassette tapes slowly reeling backwards, the click of recognition. She rubs her knuckles in the groove of the Coco’s ears, and I try to make out the discrepancy, past and present kaleidoscopically aligning and departing before me. I can’t help but notice how thin she is—still is.

•••

I remember visiting Michelle and Sam’s place out in the woods when I was a kid. Sam was a big guy who called a plate of six tuna sandwiches a snack. The back of his neck was a swatch of desert, sunburned to boiling, and he wore mud-caked construction boots and worked sun-up to sun-down. When Michelle stood next to him she looked diminutive, a shadow. Sam would tease her for her size, calling her chicken-butt, mocking her strange and increasingly strict dietary habits.

Indeed, every time I saw her, the list of forbidden foods racked up: peanut butter, bread, mayo, egg yolk. Everything was too high calorie, even bread. Especially bread. When she did eat? The portions baffled me: one teacup of fruit salad? A sliver of hamburger? A bite of plain oatmeal? In my mind, you just didn’t eat oatmeal that way—you added maple syrup and apples, downed a whole bowl, and asked for more. I ate the way I dressed: like a heathen, mastering a ferocious chew-swallow system that almost matched Sam’s.

“You want some food with that plate?” Sam teased her.

Though Michelle’s eating habits perturbed me, I didn’t know to worry until I began to hear the rest of the family murmuring. Our mom especially—every time she saw Michelle, she made a fuss over feeding her. Or trying to feed her; these attempts usually met a wall of indignation. No, Michelle would not be joining in on a lunch of leftover hamburger helper. No, she did not want a dill pickle. And no, she certainly did not want a cookie—ever.

Sickness, that’s what mom called it when Michelle wasn’t around: “She’s so obsessed with the way, she looks she won’t eat a damn thing and now it’s killing her.” I began to believe that one day while flipping through an old family album I’d found. About a dozen or so photos had been doctored, some unknown figure cut out, leaving behind a ragged absence. My father, I thought at first. I tried to imagine Mom rampaging against his memory, and I couldn’t. Mom never cared much for revisionist history; she was always in the process of debriefing me on her mistake ridden life. No, it was Michelle cutting herself out of photographs. She didn’t like the way she looked, but she especially didn’t like the way she’d looked as a teenager, ten pounds heavier, the shimmer of baby fat clinging to her face.

The idea struck me hard, the way new knowledge always did. That Michelle, who I idolized, could hate her body enough to attempt its erasure, set in motion inside me a whole series of considerations: of self, of body, of borders. Before then, my body seemed a beatable, bruisable playground thing, vessel for hunger. It fluctuated, grew, needed sleep, got sunburned—but never failed. For Michelle, the body did nothing but fail. She perfected her appearance constantly, to no avail. Standing in front of the only full-length mirror in the house, I examined myself in this new light, thinking about the puff of my cheeks, the divot of my belly, how my gangly limbs intersected my torso like mislaid roads. If Michelle was imperfect, I was even more so. After all, she had put in enough time telling me so.

•••

We trudge up a hill so steep I think each new step will send me flying backwards. Michelle’s used to it but I’m sorely out of shape and probably a little anemic—I gather my breath for each burst of chat. And we talk about nothing—or everything: what we’ve been doing for six years, as if we can summarize our new selves. I tell her I do comedy now, write a lot, still read a lot. She tells me she’s been collecting first editions. She buys them on Amazon and sells them on E-bay for five times the price—“to suckers.” She promises to show me her Hemmingway collection. I promise to send her something I’ve written. We come up against the electric fence, the strip of wire that blends into the fallen foliage of silver, and follow it along the slope. I want to talk about bodies and borders, I want to know if she’s happy, if she’s changed. But I can’t. I don’t know how to breach the subject. “I don’t see any meth heads,” I say, and laugh.

•••

There came a point, right before I left Arkansas, that Michelle knew she had gone too far. She’d lost too much weight, looked sickly even to herself. But she still couldn’t eat. Every spoonful felt like a betrayal of some long-gone ideal, an invasion of substance: teeth resisted chewing, throat resisted swallowing, stomach resisted digestion. By the time things got easier for her, by the time she could eat a bowl of eggs, I had already left Arkansas. I never saw her heal, the slow motion of change.

•••

At the end of our walk together, Michelle and I end up where we started, by the shed. The goats come to slobber at our hands like they didn’t see us an hour ago. “We should probably go clear the table,” Michelle says, and I laugh. This isn’t a turn of phrase. Michelle’s kitchen table is an actual mess, covered with painting supplies: cups filled with color-filthy paintbrushes, bottles of acrylic and water paint, half-done portraits resting on their easel beds.

“We have real work to do,” I say, and we trot down the hill to the unfinished house and the cluttered table and the unmade mashed potatoes.

•••

On the way back from Michelle’s, Jon and I stop at a gas station to pick up a snack and cigs. A stick-thin, all-bones burnout of a woman swimming in her clothes pushes in the glass door to the gas station. “Meth head,” Jon says, “or anorexic—can’t really tell the difference around here.” He laughs. It sounds like some kind of sick game show. “Back when Michelle was anorexic I used to say, Michelle what will the neighbors think?”

I laugh too. But it hurts a little bit. “She’s better now, right?”

“Yeah,” he says, “Much better.”

But that walk along an electric perimeter confirmed what I feared—that I was more likely to imagine Michelle than know her, or know how to know her. Meeting her again, I mapped the life I had lived without her on her, stretched her to fit lines I’d drawn in her absence. I want to believe Jon more than anything, want to be able to see her as she is, but cut-up photographs keep swimming up to meet me, and I see only the girl who tried to erase herself, a girl who is as much me as it is her.

•••

HEATHER WILSON is recent graduate of the University of North Carolina’s creative writing program. Her work will be published in Off Assignment, an international online magazine for non-traditional travel literature. In college she performed in an improv and sketch troupe, The False Profits. She now lives in Durham, North Carolina.

 

We’re Done Here

cabin
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Ellen S. Wilson

The smell hits the moment you walk through the back door into the kitchen—damp wood, mildew, and sadness. In just a few minutes, it is possible to acclimate to all three.

My sisters and I have come with my mother to The Mountain House, a sturdy little family vacation home in western North Carolina, built up on a ridge that is said to be haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Heaton. We’re here, as my mother says more than once, to “tear the house apart.”

But first, the ghost story: This ridge was the property of the Heatons years ago, and greatly beloved by Mrs. Heaton. When financial hardship hit, Mr. Heaton, less emotionally wrapped up in the land, wanted to sell. Mrs. Heaton, whose name may or may not have been Loesa Emmalie, resisted. The years went by, the times got tougher, and one day Mr. Heaton made a sneaky trip into town and sold the land without telling his wife. He didn’t have to—by the time he got home, she had hanged herself from a tree, and an enormous white owl sat in the branches above her nodding head, screaming “like a woman,” the storytellers always say.

To placate the ghost of Mrs. Heaton, whose white owl still screams in the night, or perhaps to honor her memory, the inhabitants of the vacation homes that now dot the hillside have representations of owls on their placemats, hand towels, coffee mugs, everywhere. My own mother collected hundreds of tiny owls, and we all abetted her habit because a souvenir owl was a small and convenient gift for her when we traveled or hunted for stocking stuffers. An owl for Mom, from Turkey or Kenya or Lake Tahoe. Bookshelves laden with owls made of stone, glass, crystal, and porcelain are partly why we have come. It’s time, we have decided, to save anything we care about from the encroaching damp. We are rescuing our treasures from the future. If we have learned anything from the mountains, it is that appearances to the contrary, not even they are eternal. We are here to make one last stand against that reality.

The owls belong to my mother, but the ghost of my father sits in every corner of this house, in the barn wood paneling, fine rugs, bird prints, and odd collectibles. We lost him once already, seven years ago, and we dread losing him again to creeping mildew and anonymity.

•••

I’ve been coming to these mountains and tolerating the stomach-churning hopelessness they inspire in me since I was two years old, long before The Mountain House was built. Every summer—every goddam summer—my parents would load my three sisters and me into the car in Louisville, Kentucky, and drive seven hours over the mountain roads while I lurched and puked in the back of the station wagon. The way, way back. This began before there were seatbelts. Once we arrived, there would be warm ginger ale to quiet my heaving guts while we settled into our cabin at the High Hampton Inn and Country Club, a worn, sprawling establishment well over a hundred years old that prizes tradition and simple virtues and has now added a spa and some llamas (llamas being indigenous to the Blue Ridge Mountains).

Our regular cabin was a wooden structure with twin beds, soft, thick linens that never felt completely dry, and a lovely veranda overlooking the lake. The place smelled of boxwood—subtle, sweet and green—and my normally spider-fearing mother loved it so much she suspended all her fears when we arrived. The mountain air reassured her. Not me.

The lake our cabin overlooked was still, small, and—to me—fathoms deep. Potential death lurked in its depths, and there was said to be a dam that you shouldn’t paddle your canoe too close to, although when I found it as an adult I realized the silty pool at its base was hardly lethal. But even now that lake, which I have swum in, and paddled over, and hiked around, can fill me with dread. The memory of my pale legs dyed green by the murky water, my vulnerable white body suspended over god knows what dark threat, and my forcing my teenaged self to dive down and swim out to a tethered float, causes an internal quake when I’m sitting on my own dry porch in Pittsburgh miles away.

During those family trips, my sisters and I were habitually shunted over to the Children’s Program, and since I’m the youngest, I was rarely with any of them. My happiest day was when I cut myself on a rusty nail in the donkey barn and one of my sisters had to rescue me and take me to my mother, once she had finished on the golf course and was available to tend to my wound, and perhaps to worry about me a little. My unhappiest day was the evening hayride (this happened frequently, this unhappiest day) in a wagon filled with prickly bales and noisy children, pulled by a mean woman on a tractor. I remember ghost stories I took very seriously, and kids only a little older than me singing songs I didn’t know. I remember feeling powerless, and suffering the necessity to either pee in the woods or wet my pants, and not knowing which was worse.

There was no reason to have been so miserable. My mother and father were loving and attentive enough. I know now that parenthood means a gentle pushing away, and that the only time one can encourage dependence is during the first months of breastfeeding. Apart from that, it’s all “you can walk across the room unaided, you can survive a morning at preschool without me, you can sleep at a friend’s house, go to college, go to France.” But what did I know, at age four? The mountains made me then, and make me now, feel irresistibly lonely, pressing-on-a-sore-muscle lonely.

Somehow the eternal mountains embodied impermanence and loss. My oldest sister, the one who was my surrogate mother much of the time, was found sleepwalking toward the lake one night when she was fourteen, and the story was presented as a near tragedy. My father caught her just in time, before her pale foot was sucked into the black greeny goop and she was lost to me forever, becoming the next ghost story. The image of her small figure in a white nightie (she would have needed one, if she was to haunt the lakeside), foot extended from the slippery rocks along the shore, rocks alive with snakes and toads, entered our own family lore, those unsettling tales on which the mountains depended to keep you from feeling too comfortable as you sat in a rocker and digested a doughy mountain dinner. The lake was peaceful and silent, we swam in a little fenced off part during the hot humid afternoons, but the grabby mud bottom was never trustworthy.

•••

The summer I was nineteen, my father got me a waitress job at the resort. I don’t remember being given an option about that. The owners couldn’t say no to him, either—he’d been a patron there for years, had bought that piece of property on the ridge they owned that overlooked the resort, and was building himself a house. And perhaps most important, my father was one of those charming, friendly people that strangers took to on first sight and never had reason to change their minds. When he was dying, the mail carrier came in to say goodbye. His funeral was standing room only. Naturally, the president of High Hampton Inn agreed that I could wait tables in the creaking sunlit dining room.

I felt the old lurch of nausea and loss as my father drove away at the beginning of that summer. His natural optimism (along with his desire for me to stop being such a lost puppy) convinced him that I would manage. He had been mostly abandoned by his own father at age five and sent off to live with relatives to save money, and he turned out just fine. He knew I would meet this minor challenge and I did, befriending another summer hire and convincing her to let me share the trailer she had rented—housing was not included in our stingy wages.

And there I was, stuck in a place of fear and loathing, zipped into a gold polyester dress and ferrying glasses of iced tea to guests in my section. It was an easy job, and I managed to pay my rent in tips and send my paycheck home to my sister in Louisville, who put it in the bank for me. By August, I had more than enough to buy the electric typewriter on which I would write my senior thesis in college.

In the meantime, my trailer-mate and I sat on our tiny porch, listened to the radio because there was little else to do, smoked (or I did, again because there was little else to do), and necked (or I did, see above) with the boys across the driveway who were also there for the summer. When we got off work, we grabbed sleeping bags and ran up the various mountains to spend the night, no tents, no food, no supplies. We went into work the next morning needing a shower and a good nap and convinced that we were living much more intensely than the middle-aged people waiting for me to pour their coffee. Being middle-aged myself now, I know that that was true.

•••

My parents came to spend their customary week in the mountains that summer and check on the construction of their new house, and one day during the long afternoon break, I saw my father sitting on the lawn in a shaded Adirondack chair. I invited him to go with me to, as I put it, “see something pretty,” and luckily for us both, he accepted. I drove him to my favorite waterfall, a big one that rushed thirty or forty feet over a cliff, reachable by an easy path from a rough parking lot. Above those falls, I had camped and swam and slid into the pools in a game that terrified the older waitresses at the resort, who knew of people swept to their deaths doing that. I had slept on the flat rocks at the very top, rocks that were surely submerged when the water was high. The waterfall was mine, and I wanted to share it with my father.

This outing led to further discoveries as my parents began to find more in their summer vacation than golf and cocktails. The new house acquired some new dimensions, and the family a veneer of rustication. We hiked in the mountains and provided our own names for favorite spots (Toe-Mash Creek was one). We picked thumb-sized blackberries from the brambles down the hill from the house and made jam and pie. My father bought a small used pickup truck.

High Hampton Inn had its charms, with the grease from its famous fried chicken embedded in the pine walls along with the odor of loneliness, but the mountains themselves acquired characters wholly separate—blooming, gray, and fearsome. People do die there—my own father slipped on moss once, reached for my hand, said later that I had saved him from a fatal fall. I did not remember it that way, but that didn’t help. To love the mountains the way Mrs. Heaton did is to wordlessly accept the inevitability of loss, all kinds of loss.

Years passed. One summer, the wild blackberry brambles were mowed to the ground and never grew back. If we had known they were a temporary pleasure, they would have become too precious and we would have enjoyed them less.

The rough parking lot at my waterfall was paved and a map installed, and I felt it like abandonment, like my old secret lover was openly dating other people. Trails were marked clearly, construction and condos were everywhere, and the hidden pools and perfect little glens were all discovered. Now when you hiked in a place that felt deserted, you came across used tissue and empty Perrier bottles. The town of Cashiers that provided High Hampton with a mailing address grew from a minimal crossroads to a town center with shops devoted to baskets (just baskets) and delis, and cuteness. There was more to offer a nineteen year old—artisanal coffee, for example—but none of it felt relevant anymore.

•••

My family’s own history unfolded at the Mountain House. It wasn’t any messier than most, just the run-of-the-mill ending of marriages, illness, disappointment. And into this soup of memory and history we have come, to tear it all to pieces in a hopeless attempt to rescue the parts we want to save. The Audubon print has mildew behind the glass – it needs to be taken to dryer quarters and re-matted. Is there any way to remove the spots on the silk hanging from China? The big rug in the living room smells musty. Something must be done. So we go round robin in a civil exercise to say what we really want, what we can’t live without, and we try to be generous. “I gave Mother and Daddy that, but I’m so glad you want it.” Of course the thing we want—do we?—is to undo some of that passage of time, to go back to the miseries of childhood, to put the past in a box as though that meant not losing it.

I took my own children when they were small to see the donkeys and feed them carrots and crackers, and if my urban kids recognized the sadness in the donkeys’ faces, they did not let me know. There was no need for a salutary cut on a rusty nail for them—I was right there, and rightly or wrongly I had no plan to send them on any hayrides. They have their own vulnerabilities, their own dark lakes that are not to be found at High Hampton.

At the end of the weekend, I say goodbye to my oldest sister, and tell her I love her, and she looks at me questioningly and I know that we have not said everything there is to say and that we never can. If we sit in a circle in the living room now stripped of the colorful rug and travel mementos, the walls bare of pictures, and we acknowledge what we have done, we will be devastated. We can’t turn and look the sadness in its face, we can’t tell my mother it’s all over, which at ninety-one, she understands well enough. Here in the stoic, silent mountains, it is better not to say.

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ELLEN S. WILSON lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Carnegie Magazine, and other local and national publications. She is proud to have her first essay in Full Grown People.