Transference

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

By J. J. Mulligan

My daughter has begun to do this thing where she tucks both of her little thumbs inward and then clenches her four fingers around the thumbs into tight fists held in front of her, all while tensing the muscles seemingly in her entire body. She doesn’t breathe for a few seconds as her face grows from a porcelain white to pork pink and finally to bullfighter-cape red. A few veins stick out in various places and she shakes slightly from the effort, as if her thirty-two inch body were lifting some invisible too-heavy weight. Then she abruptly stops, unclenches her hands and releases everything she had previously tensed. The red leaves her face and she goes about whatever she was doing before.

She did this the first few times in the same afternoon. We asked her what was wrong, why she did that—as if she could respond—and then finally we told her, “No! Don’t do that!” She understands surprisingly much for a one-year-old, but she kept doing the clenching and tensing no matter how many times we admonished her in Spanish first, then English although she understands it less. My wife began to cry and I was at a loss for words to console her. We called the pediatrician, not sure what was happening with our daughter. The pediatrician asked us a few questions: Did she have a far-off look in her eyes after the “episode”? Did the actions seem involuntary? No and no, we said. Another string of questions led the pediatrician to rule out seizures and thus he saw no need for us to take her to the emergency room. Because we had the one-year visit scheduled already in two days, the pediatrician told us not to worry—he would look at it then.

Those two days, of course, were agonizing. Any new parent that hears the word seizure in reference to their child, even if it’s to say that they don’t suffer from seizures, is incapable of ignoring possible symptoms. We looked for a far-off look in our daughter’s eyes at every turn and analyzed every movement to make sure it was voluntary.

Two long days later we were in the pediatrician’s office, with our daughter receiving the necessary vaccines, her height and weight being checked, blood drawn to check iron levels and so on—all the standard one-year visit formalities. At some point, between vaccines, our daughter tucked her thumbs inward, clenched her fists as tightly as she could, and tensed her entire body. She turned red and visibly shook from the effort, this time looking more as if she were ferociously constipated than if she were lifting an invisible weight. The pediatrician pulled the needle back and asked us if this was what we had called about. Yes, we said, this is exactly what she’s been doing that has us so worried. That, the pediatrician responded, is your daughter’s way of expressing her frustration or anger at something. Because she can’t speak yet, she has to show or let out her frustration in other ways. It’s perfectly normal, he concluded, and in fact, from the age of one up until eighteen or twenty months, she will have moments of intense rage, with outbursts of tears and screaming that could last several minutes. We should ignore these moments and not try everything in our power to console her—the outbursts will pass with time.

My wife left the appointment satisfied with the pediatrician’s explanation—seizures left her mind—and ready to ignore our daughter’s future fist clenching scenes and moments of rage when they should start to appear. I, on the other hand, was distraught; I knew that the pediatrician didn’t have the full story and neither did my wife.

During my days, I represent immigrant youth from Central America who can’t afford an attorney and are being deported—many of them will be slaughtered by gangs in their home countries if they’re returned. What my wife and the pediatrician had not taken into account was my daughter’s time alone with me following those days when the world seems to have you in its teeth and won’t soften the bite. The times when I would come home from work destroyed from my interactions with the Department of Homeland Security and she would cry deep and uncontrollably into my face while I tried to put her to sleep. Or a fifteen-year-old Salvadorian girl would share the rapes she had suffered on her journey to the United States, and then my daughter wouldn’t eat the food I had prepared for her that night. Or a young woman, an undocumented college graduate, would beg me to find some form of immigration relief that she could possibly qualify for so that she can live out just a slice of the American Dream she was told existed for everyone, and there would be nothing I could do for her, and then my daughter would thrash around while I was changing her diaper and everything on the changing table would be a mess, dripping to the floor. All of these moments would intertwine inextricably with the 2016 presidential race, the ominous cloud hanging over everything and all of us.

In those moments, where my thoughts would seem profoundly dark although the sun had just set and rays of light still broke through the Brooklyn townhouses visible from my daughter’s bedroom, I would clench my teeth and tense my whole body, not breathe for a few seconds and if there had been a mirror nearby, I likely would’ve seen my face turning red as well. I would shake slightly from the invisible but actual weight and if I was holding my daughter in my arms, I would hold her a bit tighter and sometimes even jump up and down a few times, begging her through gritted teeth to stop crying and go to sleep, eat her food, or be still while I changed her diaper. The throbbing at my temples would become less dull and unrelated frustrations would blend together. My daughter had undoubtedly picked up her fist-clenching, body-tensing behavior from those moments—I know it and no explanation from the pediatrician can change this. The frustrations of my days representing immigrant youth in an unfair system, interspersed with the twenty-four-hour news cycle on the general decline of American policy and politics—including a man that wants to deport everyone, all of the young men and women who have become more than clients to me—are bleeding into my nights with a rapidly developing baby, who soaks up every emotion and stimuli her father gives her. These are the cracks on the hardened shell of a man who keeps everything in.

•••

In one of my rare escapes from the house after work, I met up with a friend at a bar not far from the Nostrand stop I get off at the other day. As with any conversation for the last six months, we talk about the presidential race and it feels as if we are summarizing an episode of Jerry Springer more than the intricacies of the highest office. I try to share some of the things I see and hear at work, but as often happens, not much comes out. I say the government is unfair and that President Obama, a man I love, is complicated when it comes to immigrants and immigration. Complicated indeed, replies my friend. He brings up the basics: the two million deportations carried out under President Obama that have torn apart families versus the Executive Orders signed by him to protect young immigrants and the undocumented parents of US citizens.

We change the subject. This friend of mine has a more hands-on job than mine: he works at a butcher shop in Park Slope. I prefer to hear about his job, since he’s always creating new sausage recipes and so on. He mentions a Banh Mi flavored sausage he is tinkering with.

After we clink glasses on our second beer, he tells me something he’s never told me before about his job, and it sticks with me. He tells me that he has no problem advising each person that enters the shop which cut of meat is the freshest that day, which would make a great dinner and the best way to cook the meat; that he derives pleasure from imagining the customers enjoying their meat products; that he even enjoys slicing the meats and arranging them on display. But, in order to do all of this, he said it is vital that he cannot think about the lambs being slaughtered.

I thought about this a lot on the walk home. Every immigrant youth that has come into my office has the same question, the question that has forced itself into every legal intake I’ve recently done, every application I’ve completed, every court appearance, as if none of these painful and tortured migrant lives really matter in the end. It is the question everyone working with immigrants—and maybe all of us in general—cannot escape: What if he wins the presidency?

Eleven million people will be deported, he says. No Muslims will enter the country and Mexico will pay for a wall to keep everyone out of the U.S.

My friend’s comment came into my mind again tonight on the way home from work.

Now it’s one a.m.

I have sat at this couch since eight p.m. watching a map of the United States of America slowly and incomprehensibly turn more red than blue. I listened half-heartedly to analysis and prophecy—teetering between falsities and doomsday—finally turning the television off when the end was all but assured. I didn’t wait for the final call or hear either candidate speak; I held a slim hope that I was already asleep and the morning would reveal the actual reality. My eyes have been closing for some time and there is no one awake to talk with me. This could all not be happening.

Asleep or awake, I get off the couch. I pour myself a glass of water and go into my daughter’s room, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the dark, to the new world. Once they have, I look into her crib and see her lying on her back, arms and legs in a peaceful outstretched X with her chest slowly rising and falling in the middle. I reach into the crib and pick her up. She murmurs slightly and moves a bit as I put her on my shoulder and carry her to our bed. My wife is sleeping just as peacefully—she has an early day tomorrow and was convinced enough by the confident and uniform predictions that tonight held no surprises. She watched the first states being called, shaking her head when I tried to explain what little I understand of electoral college. Then she went to bed and I thought I would follow soon after. My wife, the immigrant. America has just slit her wrists.

Looking at my wife and holding our daughter in my arms, I become more aware, somehow more at ease than at any moment in the last year—as if all of it has been a daze of too many deadlines and deportations played to the soundtrack of bigotry and racism. I know what is happening now: the dull fear, the this-will-never-happen, is reality. I am awake. I feel my daughter in my arms and shiver at the thought that my days had been transferred to her in some way, that her bright eyes and developing mind are soured by emotions I have let overrun me. How do you help others without destroying yourself, your family? How do you keep a belligerent world from seeping into your daughter’s bedroom? My fatherhood has been enveloped by a dark blanket which I just now—ironically—feel that I am shaking off. This is the moment we have most feared coming true. And I find that we are ready for it.

I lay our daughter next to my wife and crawl into bed next to them. My daughter has kept on sleeping just as peacefully as before, like her mother. I roll onto my left shoulder so that they fill my view. It doesn’t seem so dark now; I can make out all of their features. I think to myself that every day will be okay if this is how it ends. I breathe deeply and instead of tensing muscles and clenching teeth—symptoms of the anger and frustration I’d felt so much in the last year—I discover love and comfort where it has always been. The world away from our mattress matters as much as an itch on a toe as you fall asleep: you leave the doorstep of sweet dreams if you scratch it. These women next to me are my lifeline. I see this as if a blanket has been lifted.

My eyes are too heavy now but I steal one last glance at them, then I quietly fall asleep. Tomorrow the world will be different, but this and us will not. We were part of a tussle; now comes the war. Tomorrow the fight erupts: the butcher is coming for every lamb.

•••

J. J. MULLIGAN is a non-profit immigration attorney representing immigrant youth who cannot afford an attorney in New York City. He is a new father, former college basketball player, and a diehard San Francisco Giants fan. His writings and translations have appeared in his mother’s native Chile and in various publications here in the U.S.

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Before We Were Good White

By Jennifer Niesslein

Annie Fisher
My great-great-grandmother, the bootlegger

“That’s where they found her body.”

I nose the rented mini-van onto the side of the narrow road, and Gram and I get out. It’s a lovely little grassy patch that slopes down to a sun-dappled creek. Or crick, as we call it.

“She had one arm raised above her head,” Gram says, “like someone dragged her there.”

When I think of western Pennsylvania fondly, it’s summer that I’m remembering: the greens of the trees and grass, the bursts of neon yellow from lightning bugs, the red tomatoes from the garden up on the window sill. But PA in the winter is, frankly, depressing—the grim black-and-white tableau—with the black mountains, the stark white snow, the clumps of gray frozenness along the turnpike. It’s a place where the coal mines have made their mark, and slate piles still stand.

When she died, on January 22, 1932, it was cold and the forecast had called for rain. It’s likely her body was found soaked, her long skirts muddied and bloodied. I imagine the creek’s waters rising toward that arm.

•••

She’s my Gram’s grandmother, my great-great-grandmother. Growing up, I only knew three things about her: The legend was that her husband, a coal-miner like so many Polish immigrants, was in “frail health,” and as a result, she took up bootlegging—and was successful enough at it to own three houses. Her fourth child, her youngest, was rumored to be of mixed race. And she was murdered.

How could I resist mythologizing her? On these barest of bones, I pressed on flesh that reflected the fantasy of who I’d be if my back were to the wall. A bad-ass! A proto-feminist! An outlaw! A woman who landed on her feet when times got tough! Myths, of course, always represent the imagination of the myth-maker. I didn’t even know her first name or what she looked like, but I was eager to find a woman in my lineage who didn’t play by the sometimes arbitrary rules.

Mom told me that Gram didn’t like to talk about her, so when I was a kid, I didn’t dare broach the subject. She was a warm grandmother and doted on us, asking my sisters and me to sing songs on their breezy porch, teaching us Scrabble and Boggle, and rewarding us with small gifts. But there were unspoken rules to be followed, enforced by the time-honored code of passive aggression. We—especially as girls—were to appear “neat” (for some reason, that was and is a massive compliment in Gram’s eyes), not bicker, attend church regularly, and excel in school. Gram didn’t smoke or drink or swear. The most outrageous thing she did on a regular basis was to wiggle out of her bra while driving, twirl it on her index finger, then fling it onto the backseat of her Cadillac.

Sometime in my twenties, Gram and I became friends. She’d somewhat loosened up by then; she’d occasionally have a glass of pink wine when her son-in-law encouraged her, and she let my boyfriend and me sleep in the same bed when we visited. When I became a mother, we grew closer, swapping tales of motherhood, then and now. (If only for the accessibility of washing machines, now is better.) In recalling the hard times, Gram reverts to the second person.

In my thirties, I felt close enough to Gram the person to ask directly about her grandmother. What happened? We talked, and over the course of several years, I pieced together the memories and legends with possibly the only person alive who actually knew her.

I told Gram I’d do some research. “Be careful,” she warned me. “There are some people in the family you don’t want to talk to.”

This was code. Not every relative had become respectable.

•••

When someone is a myth, it’s easy to forget that she was also a person.

Her name was Anna Dec Fisher. She and my great-great grandfather John emigrated from Poland. Her first name was sometimes “Annie” and their last name wasn’t really Fisher. According to census records, their true last name might have been Ezoeske, Jezorski, or Yozarski. They spoke Polish, and a few fragments of their language still run in my family. “Zamknij się” means “Shut your mouth.” “Jest zimno” means “It’s cold.” We, the descendants, have bastardized the foreign phrases to accommodate our American tongues.

Annie and John immigrated in 1901, a time when the United States was still figuring out how to sort the new waves of immigrants into the racial categories it had constructed. Poles were technically white, placing them above some races, but not the right kind of white. Or maybe the right kind for certain interests. Bluntly put, Poles were considered by mainstream America as strong and hard-working—the perfect fit for manual labor—but stupid. Ralph Waldo Emerson, approvingly, wrote in 1852, “Our idea, certainly, of Poles & Hungarians is little better than of horses recently humanized.” (Oh, Ralphie, go shoot your eye out.) A U.S. Steel Corporation want ad from 1909 read, in part, “Syrians, Poles, and Romanians preferred.”

Annie wasn’t stupid. She was just new. It’s unclear if she and John landed in U.S. together, but they came from different parts of what was Poland. (Poland didn’t technically exist as a country in 1901.) John was from Galacia, the poorest region of Europe at the time, then in Austria-Poland. Annie claimed Russia-Poland. They started off their new lives together in Ohio, where their first child, Mary, was born, followed by Helen (my great-grandmother, Gram’s mom), and Walter. By 1910, they were in Walkertown, a small town in West Pike Run Township, Pennsylvania. John worked as a coal miner. It’s where their last child, Adam, would be born.

The first time I saw of picture of Annie was in an old photo that my distant cousin Nicole shared with me. (She’s Walter’s granddaughter.) It’s a family photo from before Adam was born. Annie is standing, one hand on her hip, the other holding Helen’s hand. Her hair’s styled in one of those froufy buns popular around the turn of the century. She wears a bow-tie in her puffy white shirt with a full-length skirt.

The Fisher family, before Adam
The Fisher family, before Adam

By the April 1920 census, they already owned their own home, free of a mortgage. In January that year, the government had enacted the eighteenth amendment, also known as Prohibition. At some point, Annie and John started breaking the new law.

I started finding more artifacts, and the myth of Annie started breaking down. A different picture of her emerged from the bath of historical documents and the context of her life. And that picture of Annie’s life and how she spent it would haunt my family all the way down to my own upraising.

“My dad said everyone did it,” Mom told me, referring to the Prohibition-era law.

“Yes,” I said. “But not everyone went to jail for it.”

•••

Walkertown was small, and people talked. Adam was born in 1916 and was not yet five at the time of the 1920 census. The census-taker seemed to be confused. In the column for race, a Mu for mulatto is marked, then written over more strongly with a W for white.

It wasn’t just the census taker. There seemed to have been a non-governmental consensus that John wasn’t Adam’s father. Gram told me that when she was a kid, sometimes she’d go to the movie theater where Adam worked. He’d let her in for free. But neither would get too close because, you know, the rumors. Later, Adam would leave Walkertown, marry a white redhead, and join the military. Outside of Walkertown, as far as I know, no one questioned his whiteness.

Nicole is also the one who first showed me pictures of Adam. He was a handsome guy, although slightly darker than the other Fisher siblings. This doesn’t mean a lot to me; I have an uncle with a darker skin tone than his siblings, too. Genes pop up in the most peculiar ways.

This interracial brouhaha is so unremarkable now that I feel ridiculous bringing it up, but then I remember that sometimes my grandparents would explain their youths to me in ways that could only be seen as racist. Dating an Italian was almost as bad as dating a black. Meaning, in the poor white community, you lost status. You lost your advantage, which was the measure of respect that your skin color afforded you. The only thing that kept you from being at the very bottom of the American pecking order. Even the rumor of blackness was enough to awaken the racism of Walkertown.

I wonder sometimes if the people of Walkertown would have even questioned Adam’s race had there not been a man, labeled by the census as mulatto, living next door to Annie and John. Short of finding Adam’s descendants and convincing them to give me a quarter teaspoonful of their spit to send to an online DNA profiler, I’m not going to know. I don’t need to know; we’re judged on how we present, not who we are, anyway. Annie could well have had an affair with the guy next door. But she just as easily—more easily, actually—been friendly to her next-door neighbor. Or, easier still, she could have done nothing at all.

Adam and his wife
Adam and his wife, Clara

All the rumors mean is that Annie was the kind of woman that her white peers thought capable of crossing the line between proper and improper. Whether Adam was John’s son or not, they were right. Annie was woman who crossed lines.

•••

By the summer of 1929, if Annie hadn’t earned respect through piety and birthright, she was grabbing it in the real American way: money.

Two of Annie’s children had married and had had children of their own. According to the family, Annie owned three houses by then. Her oldest, Mary, lived with her family in one. Helen lived with her family in the multi-unit house next to Annie, John, Walter, and Adam.

Annie was bootlegging. She was good at it. I believe she was the brains of the couple, able to read and write while John couldn’t. Gram remembers the yard filled with cars. She was young, just five when her grandmother died, too young to understand that these were probably the cars of paying customers visiting her grandparents.

On July 29, 1929, police raided Annie and John’s house. According to police reports, Helen yelled, “Beat it! The law is coming!”

I imagine customers scrambled into those parked cars and beat it with a quickness.

Next, Helen dumped out a pitcher of liquor that was on the back porch and told the cops, “Go ahead and search. The evidence is gone.”

The evidence wasn’t gone. They found sixteen quarts of beer, two barrels of wine, and a quarter gallon of moonshine in a gallon jug.

Annie, John, and Helen were arrested.

•••

I questioned the documents that I received from Washington County. Did the woman I knew as Grandma Crawford, the permed lady with the puffy pink toilet seat and yappy dog named Duchess, really call out, “Beat it!”?

But then I remember how notoriously blunt and mouthy she was. When I was a kid, she accused me of cheating at 500 Rum and made me cry. When her daughter-in-law and her son-in-law left her children for each other, her remark was, “Why would he leave one fat one”—her daughter—“for another fat one?” When my parents separated, she cut to the chase—no I’m sorry, honey—and offered Mom money if she could live with us. (We didn’t have anywhere to put her.)

And looking at photos of her when she was a teenager, with her bobbed hair and defiant face, I could believe it.

But I also believe that the arrest changed something in Helen.

The next morning, John was charged with manufacturing and possession. Annie and Helen were charged with sale and possession. The bail was $1000 for Annie, and $500 each for John and Helen. None of them could make bail, so they sat in the Washington County jail.

They sat there for a while.

(This was news to Gram. When I told her, she immediately asked, “Where was I?”

She would have been not quite three years old when the arrest happened. My breath caught, realizing that this isn’t some historical curiosity, that I can’t stand on my middle-class perch and think that my research doesn’t have real-life ramifications, just as current-day journalism doesn’t have ramifications for the subjects, especially ones whose names show up in the crime section, not the society section, of the newspaper. My voice softened. “Your dad’s mom Amanda lived with you then, Gram. I bet she took good care of you.”)

On August 21, 1929, the testimonies of the law enforcement officers were entered into the record. On September 9, 1929, John, Annie, and Helen went before a judge. John and Annie pled guilty at some point—perhaps that day—but Helen did not. On October 1, 1929, the district attorney filed a motion with the court for a nolle prosequi (meaning that the state acknowledges it doesn’t have enough evidence against the defendant to prosecute) for Helen. He noted that Helen’s parents were now serving their sentences. I don’t know what those sentences were, but they’ve become irrelevant in the story of my family. I spoke to a friend with a legal degree, and she suspected that Annie and John’s plea deal included the stipulation that Helen go home. She’d already been in jail for over two months.

Helen had missed Gram’s third birthday during her time there; her son was five years old, her second daughter, just an infant. Her breasts must have ached terribly, lumpy and swollen with milk. I think of her there, now a twenty-three-year-old married mother, in an iron and steel facility once called “a modern day Bastille.” I can’t imagine the shame that must have plagued her, the dignity robbed. I can imagine, though, that the experience strengthened her already-entrenched resolve: Become respectable.

•••

I was well into adulthood before I heard of respectability politics, and I only learned of them in the context of African-American history. In a nutshell, it means when a group outside of the mainstream tries to assimilate in order to become accepted. The opposite is when a group outside of the mainstream fights against what the mainstream insists is The Right Way of Living.

In terms of race, only white people can win the respectability game because we don’t carry any visible markers that we’re different. We can dress like the respected people; we can adopt their mannerisms, their biases, their way of speaking.

We can, but not all of us do. The people who don’t are the people who Gram spoke of, the ones I shouldn’t want to know, like the relatives who came to my grandfather’s viewing and were caught rifling through the pockets of the mourners’ coats. As now-respectable white people, we don’t know what to do with them, even as we know their personal histories and how much they’d have to overcome to have a shot at mainstream lives. They’re not the rebels we mythologize. They’re problems to be avoided because they’ve proven they will fuck us over in real time.

•••

I see our family’s striving for respectability in an artifact. There’s a photo of John and two friends, the Novak brothers*, in my grandmother’s box of old photos. Written on the photo is, “The Drunks.” I recognize the handwriting. I’ve seen it once a year for half of my life on birthday cards that arrived with a five-dollar bill tucked inside and signed “Love, Great Grandma Crawford.”

•••

Actually, I don’t know for sure if the Novaks were Annie and John’s friends. They seemed to have been, although God knows I’ve taken drunken photos with people who were little more than acquaintances.

On the year Annie would turn fifty-two years old, though, she went over to help Pete and Agnes Novak render lard from a recently slaughtered pig. One version of the story has her doing it out of the goodness of her heart and maybe some portion of the lard. Another version has her working as hired help. In any case, by that time, John wasn’t working; his lungs were severely compromised due to his time in the mines.

Annie didn’t come home the night of January 22, 1932. Her body was found by the creek the next morning.

•••

I came to the story of Annie originally believing that I could Nancy Drew this sucker open and find out what really happened. Was she murdered? Was it some sort of cover-up? Were the Novaks ever implicated?

What I found out was that I’m so far removed from the underclass—by my own foremothers’ design—that I took for granted that her suspicious death would warrant the kind of investigation that mine would.

On January 25, 1932, Annie made the news in a non-criminal way for the first time. The Charleroi Mail (a newspaper from a town not far away) reported the headline, “Find Lifeless Body of Woman on Road; Heart Attack Victim”:

The lifeless body of Mrs. Anna Fisher, 52, of Walkertown, was discovered yesterday morning by John Hans, lying beside the road between Walkertown and Daisytown, near California [Pennsylvania].

Deputy Coroner J.F. Timko, of California, stated that the woman had been dead about twelve hours when discovered. Mrs. Fisher had left the home of Pete [Novak] for her own home shortly after dark Friday evening. Members of her family were not alarmed over her absence because her husband was away from home. Death was due to a heart attack.

She leaves her husband John Fisher, and four children: Walker and Andrew Fisher, at home, and Mrs. Helen Crawford and Mrs. Mary Smolley, both of Walkertown.

This wasn’t journalism’s finest moment. They got the date wrong, the spot wrong, and Walter’s and Adam’s names wrong. They probably even got her cause of death wrong.

Her death certificate lists her cause of death as “acute gastritis and enteritis” and states her death occurred around eleven at night.

Believing that the Novaks were her friends, I formed a story in my head in which Annie, who was likely a pretty hearty drinker, went to help the Novaks with the pig. While she was there, she died of natural causes. The Novaks—who didn’t have such a clean record with law enforcement themselves, both with arrest records on alcohol-related charges—panicked and put her body by the creek.

I messaged Nicole about it, and she wasn’t buying it.

“Did they do an autopsy?” she asked me.

I looked at the paper in front of me. “It’s blank. So I guess not.”

“Then how do they know?”

“Good point.”

Later, with the help of a friend with medical knowledge, I looked into whether one can die of gastritis and enteritis. Turns out, people have actually died of it—but the real cause of death is dehydration as a result of prolonged vomiting and diarrhea. It certainly doesn’t seem like something that would cause you to keel over while walking home after rendering lard.

Nicole was right. We’re never going to know.

•••

When Gram and I visited, all of Annie’s houses were still standing, although the movie theater wasn’t there anymore and the general store was boarded up. Gram’s knees were bothering her, but I held her hand—so much like mine, long-fingered and slim—and we made our way to Mary’s former house where a picture of Gram was taken so many years ago. That solemn, round face, those straight bangs and pageboy haircut. We knocked, but no one answered.

Annie’s house was now painted a mustard yellow. Gram’s childhood home was still white. As we stood there, a woman came out of one of its units. She didn’t know any of the history, and besides, she was on her way to second shift.

After Annie died, the story goes that Mary didn’t pay the taxes on the houses (why she was the one in charge, I have no idea), and that they were taken by the government. Helen’s family wound up in Daisytown, around the bend, in company housing.

We stopped there, too, but we didn’t get out. I have no poker face, and I didn’t cover how appalled I was fast enough. I think my expression showed the gulf between my life and hers. The houses were exactly as Gram had described them: one room that was the kitchen and everything else, two smaller rooms that served as bedrooms, no matter how many children your family had. The reality—the poverty—of it didn’t hit me until then. People still lived there. “That one was ours,” Gram said. “At least we had an end one.”

“I used to visit my grandfather when I was a kid,” she said later. “We’d walk from Daisytown to Walkertown.” I told her that the census reported that he didn’t speak English, only Polish. She laughed. “He spoke English. I remember him as kind. He was gentle with us. He and Adam lived in a house that was half-burned down, but he loved when we visited him.”

•••

With Annie transformed from a myth into a woman, I’ve had to face the myths that I built about myself.

When I was a kid, my family went though a serious rough patch, and it made a mark on me. Even before the steel industry imploded, we weren’t financially stable, but once my dad got laid off, we were forced, for a time, to go on food stamps. I ate government cheese. We relocated to a different state and eventually gave our Pennsylvania home back to the bank. Those aren’t the things that made the mark. It was the knowledge, even then, of the difference between someone’s compassion for us and someone’s pity—which is somehow worse than scorn. You can meet scorn with scorn; you can only meet pity with shame.

It’s been more than three decades since I’ve been in that place, but I still think of myself as the underdog. I’m not. My own descendants—including my son, who (despite my fears) did not become an entitled little shit—will find that I’m a relatively rich woman, and any problems I’ve had with respectability are only visible if you know what to look for. But I’ve clung to the underdog myth because part of me believes that I’d be incapable of showing compassion—not condescending pity, not scorn—to marginalized people if I hadn’t, on some level, experienced it myself. I still grapple with the idea that compassion springs from who you are, not who you come from.

Try as I might, I can’t let go of my own myth. Go ahead and search. The evidence isn’t gone. It’s just trace amounts at this point.

•••

JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. She’s changed the “Novak” family’s name out of respect for their descendants.

We Carry Our Losses Inside

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

By Sarah Meyer

The new Executive Director’s father is dying. Her name is Angela; she moved here from northern Virginia and has brought him with her. She holds his elbow, and together they learn this small town in North Carolina. They walk carefully over the cobblestones in the parts of downtown still cobbled. They examine the construction, having never seen the slender strip of grass that used to be where these cement blocks and this mound of dirt now sit. In a year or so the block extending east from the obelisk will be a bigger expanse of grass, a real park: with benches, one of those water spouts for kids in summer.

Her father is old and has dementia. She wears what she can of his condition inside her own body and it shows. She worries, calls her new rental house from the office throughout the day to make sure he answers. When he doesn’t, she drives home and back, reports that he was asleep. This is how she learns her way around.

The Asheville Citizen-Times and the free weekly run articles announcing her hiring. I watch her try to fix her hair for the photos: she stands in the gallery next to a banner I’ve never seen, retrieved from the basement. It has our logo on it. Asheville Area Arts Council: AAAC. Our town is glad she’s here. We shake her hand with both our hands. Sometimes we clasp her forearm. We nod our heads, tell each other Oh, her father. We say to ourselves, It’s so sad. We say, She has so much on her plate. So much to do. We’re a town of artists and college students and retirees, and we have been waiting for her. We radiate excitement to watch her try to live. We love seeing her walk her dad across the street from the office to get ice cream.

•••

In Florida, in the ’90s, families that we knew and did not know were buying tarps and specialty fencing and in other ways trying to prevent this thing that took over like a wave, like an accidental fad. It was the thing that kept happening: people’s children were drowning in their own pools. My dad, a pediatrician, was interviewed on the local news and my sister and I felt famous by extension.

One family we knew bought a pool fence to prevent this exact thing from happening, but their baby followed a cat through the crack between the latch and the rest of the nylon fencing. A grandparent was babysitting and had fallen asleep.

And another: my third grade classmate’s baby brother, a fat toddler who accompanied us on school trips when his parents chaperoned. He was famous for this wiggly dance, probably the product of just having learned to stand upright, that was like the chicken dance only shorter and unplanned. The memory I have, that I return to every few years, is of this baby wobbling around in a diaper outside the Arlington Street pool. We had gone on a field trip. My friend’s brother did his dance and our whole class stood around him, and his dad was there and we laughed.

These things did not happen in public pools, though, only in the carefully planned backyards of the people who loved their babies. And so, weeks or months later, my friend’s father fell asleep while his baby was awake and curious. It was the first funeral I ever attended. I sat with another classmate, and I don’t remember if my parents were even there. The baby’s dad stood at a podium and sobbed. He said he would miss that little dance so much. He held tight to the podium and we watched the rest of his body try to collapse and he shook. His hands were the only still parts.

•••

Four days after Ryane’s dad dies I email all of our friends. “I wanted to let you know that Ryane’s dad died on Monday morning. If you have a chance and are inclined to send her a note, I know she would appreciate it. We don’t yet have email at the house, but the physical address is…”

He died three weeks after his fifty-first birthday. Ryane was twenty-five. Three of our friends respond to my email, telling me to tell Ryane they are sorry. One person delivers Tupperware ravioli while we’re in Indiana for the funeral. One sends a note in the mail saying she wishes she could give Ryane a hug.

•••

At funerals, the idea is to look around: to see the group you’re given to grieve with. A temporary family, or an actual family. A room full of people with similar, complicated feelings.

The idea is once you walk out of that room, away from those people who understand what you feel because they also feel some version of it, subsequent acquaintances are less likely to understand. They might not understand at all.

A friend drops off a Tupperware of ravioli while you’re out, never to mention your loss again.

A friend asks, within months, why it’s still a topic of discussion.

People extend birthday party invitations, or they don’t extend them at all. Both situations feel the same.

No one mentions it.

Or a few people mention it, asking, How are you? when there is no answer. Thinking about you, xo.

I study the grief around me to understand my own, which technically hasn’t happened yet. I grieve a family that still exists, parents I can call on the phone today, who were always just themselves instead of the people I needed them to be.

Waiting to actually lose someone can become confused for actually having lost them, after a while. We humans float around each other in so many ways.

•••

Angela has moved her father back into his house in Florida. At first he manages with the help of nurses whom she pays to stop by. But he falls, forgets who they are, becomes upset when they unlock his front door one by one and enter as though it were their house. He calls her at work, and through the drywall separating her office from mine, I hear her whisper insistent Spanish into the receiver. Mira, Papi.

She has him transferred to an assisted living facility somewhere east of Orlando where he has limited telephone privileges but nurses sometimes call with updates. Every six weeks or so she flies on Allegiant air—tiny planes to tiny airports, something like $86 round-trip—to Sanford, rents a car and drives to visit him. She flies back frazzled, calls from the car on the way back from the airport, asks questions the answers to which she does not hear and says she’ll be in the office later.

•••

“Thanks for coming,” Dad says to us at our gate, before we board. My sister and I are in the Montgomery airport. Because Mom and Dad flew up early, we’re on separate flights and they don’t leave until tomorrow. When he says, “Thanks for coming,” he refers to our attendance of his mother’s funeral. Breast cancer. “Thanks for coming”: we hadn’t thought it was optional. We board our plane and return to high school. Our friends say, “Sorry about your grandma,” and we say things like, “Thanks,” and “She was old,” because we don’t know how else to respond.

She’d been sick for a while, in and out of the hospital, and when my dad wasn’t addressing her by her first name in exasperated tones over the phone he was arguing with my mom about the money he was sending to his brother to care for her. This serves as a reminder to us that it is always possible to walk around something too vast, to fight about something like money instead.

•••

We’ve just moved into a new house and are sleeping on the floor, on a mattress exhumed from the pullout couch. It is seven-thirty in the morning and Ryane is dreaming that her father has died. In the dream, she’s misheard someone. At first she thinks her grandmother is dead. Then she realizes her grandmother is alive, that her father has died instead. She asks again to make sure. Yes, he’s dead, someone tells her. In the dream she cries and cries and cries, and when she wakes up she thinks she’s been crying in real life but hasn’t been. She wakes up because my cell phone is ringing. The light outside is lazy. Did we set an alarm? The phone is plugged in, ringing next to the bed on the floor. I look at the area code. It’s Bloomington, Indiana. I hand the little phone to her and know.

“Hello?” It’s her grandfather. Her phone is dead and he’s been calling it for hours. I watch her start to cry and I hold onto her shoulder. “This morning?” she asks into the phone.

When she hangs up she says, “I dreamed that he died!” She is wearing a white men’s undershirt and she sits upright in the bed, hunched over like another broken thing.

•••

There are the religious concepts. Let us confess the faith of our baptism as we say I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,

They do not help. Rather, I do not know whom they help. Rather, they do not help me.

At the funeral of a man who had waited for his wife and children to leave for work and school, walked to the shed, grabbed a shotgun and sat down under a tree in his backyard to shoot himself in the face, hundreds of us pour into a Western North Carolina hillside chapel to hear the minister say, If God is for us, who is against us?

This was when I dated Zoe. The dead man was her coworker. I had never met him or his wife or his children. The day before, after the body was removed and the grass under the tree was cleaned and the shotgun destroyed and the widow and her children had gone to her parents’, Zoe and her coworkers and I drove to the widow’s house with boxes and duct tape and markers. Into the boxes we put his clothes, their photo albums, framed images taken from the walls and coffee tables of their wedding, vacations. We took the sheets off the bed. We collected anything that seemed like his and wrote things on the full boxes like “clothes,” “photos.” Half the house went into storage for when she was ready to come back. She would look through the “clothes” and “photos” when she was ready.

That was over a decade years ago and I wonder how long it took her to be ready. Has she retrieved those boxes yet? Has she sold the house? Did she even ask for us to do that? All I remember is being invited to join.

If God is for us, who is against us? The packing day and the funeral day: one felt like prayer, the other just something to be done.

•••

After we found out Ryane’s dad had died, there were logistics. We needed to drive to Virginia to pick up her mom and youngest brother, and from there go to Indiana where her dad’s body and Ryane’s grandparents and middle brother were. But first I had to do two things.

When I called Angela to say I wouldn’t be coming to work for a few days she said, Oh my God I’m so sorry and Can you drop those prints at the framer’s before you leave? Ryane and I had been moving from the house on Arbutus to the one on Larchmont, and were supposed to finish cleaning out Arbutus that weekend. Instead we were driving to Indiana. After hanging up with Angela I called the Arbutus landlord and told him we needed more time. He said he had renters moving in on Thursday and couldn’t give us any. I told Ryane I had to run errands before we could leave and she said that was fine even though I knew it wasn’t. She sat very still in the deep-cushioned yellow chair I’d gotten at Goodwill the year before. “I’ll pack a bag,” she said, but she didn’t move.

During the drive to the framer’s I held two thoughts in my head: I’m doing the wrong thing by running this errand and This absolutely has to get done right now. The Arts Council had contracted with a new Hyatt to provide art for the walls, and it was a disaster. The artists were being underpaid for their work and asked to sign away rights of ownership. Because Asheville is a town of struggling artists, they all said yes but hated us for suggesting they do it. For the last week I’d been taking call after call from frustrated painters, trying to calm them and failing. And the framer, who’d agreed to take on the project at a significantly reduced rate, had been waiting for Angela to bring the prints all week. On Friday Angela had finally just stuffed them all in my car and told me to do it Monday morning.

“I have other customers, you know,” the framer said when I got there.

“Michelle, I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know why Angela didn’t drop these off.” I suspected she’d just forgotten. Sometimes grief takes over before the person you’re grieving has gone.

Afterward at Arbutus I stuffed everything I could from that house into my car. In the years that followed, every once in a while Ryane and I would realize something else left behind in that basement.

On my last trip to the car I stopped in the front yard. We’d planted sunflowers along the fencing and walkway that spring, and few had bloomed. The soil wasn’t very deep and elms shaded our corner of the neighborhood. But next to the mailbox a mammoth sunflower had been growing up and up. When we’d last left Arbutus, Ryane’s dad was alive and the mammoth’s face had appeared but not opened and Ryane was wondering whether she should go up to Indiana for a while to be with him. I stuffed some loose kitchen utensils in the trunk of the car and stood there. Ryane’s dad was dead. We would never live in east Asheville again. Peter was dead. Later I would see his body. I would need to know the correct things to do and say this whole week. I would need to say the soothing things and first I would need to think of what those things could be. And I would need to say goodbye to someone who had started to become a parent to me.

The sunflower had opened overnight. Half of its fingery petals extended from its face, and the other half still held to the big center circle. It was an eclipse. I convinced myself our one sunflower had opened part way because Peter had died. I texted Ryane a photo and left to pick her up for our drive to him.

•••

At a gallery opening Angela has one glass of red wine and yet appears to be deeply intoxicated.

“Have you seen The L Word?” she asks me, because I am a lesbian and the show is about lesbians and because she is newly brave and apparently has been waiting for the moment to ask. She leans across the sales counter behind which I stand. Patrons mingle around us. Here we are, the only two staff members left. Everyone else has quit.

“Yes,” I say. “But it’s not a very good show.” She agrees and then switches topics.

“Have I told you I have fibromyalgia?” she offers.

“No,” I say.

“For ten years. I’ve been to many doctors.”

What I know about fibromyalgia is that it’s contentious, that some doctors don’t even believe it to be an actual medical ailment, that rather some believe it to be a psychosomatic manifestation of emotional problems: physical repercussions to psychic issues. I know that it presents as a series of seemingly unrelated pains, sometimes diagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, other times as the flu, other times as fibromyalgia, other times as depression. Fibromyalgia has no cure or known cause.

What I now know about Angela, as I stand at the sales counter watching the minglers adjacent to her slack body, is that she takes painkillers and occasionally mixes them with alcohol. What I know about Angela is that certain chemical reactions are happening in her bloodstream in possible parallel to the bodily emotional stress of preemptive grief. I know she is suffering in a number of ways.

•••

Of course it’s hard to know how to close the gaps between us. We spend the most trivial moments together: at work, in classrooms, splayed on couches talking on the phone, and when the inevitable happens we look each other in the face and don’t know what to say. We are suddenly strangers and this is how we lose each other in little bits. When my grandmother died, I wrote letters to my mother and her three siblings saying how sorry I was, that I couldn’t imagine their grief at losing their only mother, and none of them responded. I assumed writing the letters had been the wrong thing to do. When Peter died, our friends waited quietly at the edges of Ryane’s grief for her to return to real life. But the place she was in was also real life. Our friends were so patient with their furrowed brows and genuine concern, waiting. Eventually everyone forgot they were waiting. Eventually everyone but Ryane forgot that her father was dead. Inside our little house on the steep hill on Larchmont Road, inside her grief, Ryane and I talked about how what they were doing was the wrong thing.

But how do we do this?

What is supposed to help?

What is the right thing to do?

“Tell me how you’re feeling,” I say to Ryane as she sits upright in bed sometime later, after everything has been moved into the new house. She has tears on her face, but new ones have stopped coming. “You can just feel however you feel about this,” I say, because granting permission for the things I can’t control seems like a possibility somehow. She hears me, and doesn’t respond. She sits propped against two pillows, her shoulders tilted inward, and I rub her back as she looks out from opaque blue eyes toward nothing.

•••

SARAH MEYER is a writer and illustrator who lives in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in VICE Magazine, Paper Darts, and The Manifest-Station.

Last Thanksgiving

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

By Johanna Gohmann

Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I hopped in a rental car with our three-year-old and drove fourteen hours from Brooklyn to Indiana. We wanted to celebrate the holiday with my parents, my seven siblings, and the chaotic swarm of children that makes up my many nieces and nephews.

We set off around four in the morning, and our son had a diaper explosion just before dawn at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was a mess of such magnitude, I stood paralyzed for several moments under the florescent lighting, debating if the best strategy was simply to burn the structure down and flee. I didn’t know it then, but I should have taken my son’s booming bowels as a warning shot: a foreshadowing of the weekend to come.

When we finally pulled up to my parents’ house, we were greeted by black skies and the ominous wail of a tornado siren, which for southern Indiana, isn’t exactly a seasonal sound in late November. My mother hugged us in welcome and croaked into my ear that she had awoken that morning with the flu. But not to worry—she was still making the entire meal.

Which she did, despite protestations and offers of help. The next day she waved us all away, hobbling around the kitchen high on Tylenol Cold, basting the bird in its juices and what we hoped wasn’t the Norovirus.

My brothers and their families trickled in with their children, and the clouds outside hung heavy and low, still teasing the idea of a storm. Adding to the odd energy in the air was the fact that it was my parents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary. While under normal circumstances this would be a very happy occasion, my father is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s in a wheelchair and can no longer really speak. My mother has insisted on keeping him at home with her throughout his illness while a rotating cast of caretakers comes in to assist her with his needs. There have been various pushes over the years to consider placing him in a nursing home, but my mother was as receptive to this idea as she was to someone offering to cook her Thanksgiving turkey: thanks but no thanks, now please get out of her kitchen.

Courtesy Johanna Gohmann
Courtesy Johanna Gohmann

Growing up in my large, Catholic family, holiday meals are some of my most vivid memories. We used to squeeze into our tiny dining room, my father pressed so tightly against a bay window it’s a wonder he didn’t shatter through to the backyard. We wore our “church” clothes, which for me meant a dress and thick tights that made my legs feel like they were in plaster casts. Gravy was served in a gravy boat shaped like a turkey, and when you tipped it, gravy poured from the bird’s mouth as though it was vomiting beige mucus onto your meal. We used to fight over whose turn it was to use it.

Our local priest would join us for dinner, my parents perhaps hoping that having a man of God at the table might keep us from reenacting scenes from Alien with the turkey carcass. They were wrong of course. Father Jerry or no—someone was still likely to hide a bit of potato in Teddy’s milk, so that he’d take a swig and send his partially digested green bean casserole back up onto the table, barfing in unison with the gravy boat.

Courtesy Johanna Gohmann
Courtesy Johanna Gohmann

When he was well, my dad was what people called “a real character.” And his blue eyes especially blazed to life at these dinners. He’d repeatedly clink his glass, offering various odd toasts and teasing decrees. One year he ordered there to be an election to select one of the family dogs “President.” We each cast ballots, and when his beloved yorkie “Holy” (so named for her tendency to lie motionless upon her back as though deep in devout prayer) lost out to the labrador “Brown” (much more lazily named for the color of his coat) my dad feigned outrage for hours, snorting with laughter as he shouted for a recount.

For years, at the end of each Thanksgiving meal, he’d wink at us kids and flash a thin box of mini Swisher Sweet cigars. Neither of my parents were smokers, and this was the one special occasion where this rule was broken. We’d follow my Dad to a secret location, where he’d allow us to join him in a puff of a post-meal stogie. Unfortunately for my mother, this “secret” hideaway generally turned out to be her walk-in closet, and she’d spend the next two weeks attending church in dresses that smelled like she’d just rolled in from an all night poker tournament.

But those days were now long gone, now. Father Jerry now lived in Indianapolis and, due to health reasons, was unable to travel. Trying to fit everyone into the dining room would be akin to a clown car routine, so now we dined in the living room, at long cafeteria tables borrowed from the elementary school.

As my family wandered through the house last Thanksgiving, I was reminded of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, where the illuminated ghosts swirl through the rooms. My parents’ house now felt more crowded with the past than it did people. To sit as an adult in a nest of childhood memories, before the same vomiting gravy boat, created in me a kind of emotional vertigo. Like one of those disorienting dreams where it’s your house, but also not your house. It’s you—but also not you.

It was clear none of us really had the words for the transformations within our family. No one knew how to talk about the force that was my father and how it was now gone. Yes, he was still at the table with the same bright blue eyes, but there would be no call for a canine electoral college. No brandishing of mini-cigars post meal. The truth was, he would never really speak to us again.

It seemed we were all coping with this in our own way. Offering and re-offering Stove Top stuffing to our children. Repeatedly complimenting my mother on the dumplings. But the air above the table felt as leaden and dense as the air outside.

One of my brothers—who is normally the calm, steady voice of reason—decided the best way to ease the tension was to drink a quarter bottle of whiskey and become as loud as was humanly possible. He tied a dishrag around his face and chased the grandchildren, making them scream with laughter. He pushed aside pie plates and challenged other brothers to arm wrestle. It was practically a one-man show of distraction and diversion, one that culminated in him slamming out to the front porch, shouting, “Watch this!” and proceeding to decimate some wind chimes with a broom.

Around the time the wind chimes clanged to the ground, I realized my mother had left the festivities. I wandered through the house and found her sitting in the library, where my father now slept. The room was dark, except for the flicker of the television. She sat perched beside my dad’s hospital-grade bed, holding his hand. I heard shrieks from the TV, and realized they were watching No Country For Old Men.

“Would you like me to put on something a little lighter?” I asked. “Maybe something with Meg Ryan?”

“No, no,” she said. “We like this movie.”

Forty-nine years ago on that night they’d been cutting the cake at their reception, my dad clutching a black top hat in his big hand. Now my mother sat at the edge of his adjustable bed, holding that same hand, while a veritable tribe of their creation stomped around on the other side of the door. They’d had ten children together. They’d lost two of those children. They’d watched each other’s parents die. Watched the leaves outside the window bud green, turn crimson, and drift to the ground, over and over and over again. They’d raked those leaves together. One holding open the Hefty bag, while the other stuffed it full of fall.

There were words I wanted to say. Words that swarmed through my head and chest. But I didn’t know how to form them or how to corral them into sentences. So instead I simply sat on the floor at their feet. Together we watched Javier Bardem murder people with a cattle gun, while the muffled shouts of my siblings drifted in from other rooms.

The next day most of the family returned to their own nearby homes, and the only ones who stayed on with my parents were my husband and I and our son, and my youngest brother and his girlfriend. While the house was much quieter, it wasn’t much calmer, as my three-year-old seemed to be coming down from the previous day’s mania. He streaked through the house like a toddler on a cocaine bender, eschewing all offers of toys in favor of banging open the china cabinet door and attempting to rake my mother’s Franklin Mint bell collection to the floor. Meanwhile, my mom was still wandering the house in a fever haze and was once again insisting on fixing an elaborate dinner, this time coughing her way through bacon-wrapped steaks.

By the time evening rolled around all I wanted was to put my child to bed, sit down with a fishbowl of wine, and stare off into the middle distance. I finally got him to sleep and collapsed on the couch. We were once again eating in the living room so that my Dad could eat with us because his wheelchair didn’t fit at the kitchen table. Together we sat before the Empire Strikes Back, our plates balanced on our laps. Exhausted, I stared blankly at C3PO and shoveled meat into my mouth on autopilot.

At one point, as I chomped down, I felt something sharp. Oh, well. I thought. Probably just a bone. Which perfectly captures my frazzled mental state. For 1.) I thought steaks should have tiny sharp bones and 2.) That it was perfectly fine to swallow them whole. Only after I cleared my plate, did I glance down and see the broken half of a large wooden toothpick and realize what I had done.

I quietly carried my plate to the kitchen then Googled on my phone: “Swallowing a toothpick dangerous?”

As someone with hypochondriac tendencies, I was all too familiar with turning to Google with strange medical concerns. My search history over the years was a treasure trove of “Mole shaped like a hat deadly?” and “Pain in which arm means heart attack?”

So I wasn’t surprised when my toothpick query sent back the WebMD equivalent of a breathless, wide-eyed woman screaming into my face: “Death comes for us all!”

Heaving a heavy sigh, I walked back into the living room and announced that I had swallowed half of a toothpick and, according to the Internet, it could puncture my internal organs, and so would someone kindly take me to the ER?

Everyone paused. My mother’s glass of white zinfandel hung in the air. Darth Vader breathed heavily from the TV. Everyone’s face did a slow motion dance between laughter and concern, ultimately forcing their features to settle into concern. My youngest brother leapt up and offered to drive me, so that my husband could stay home with our son. My brother’s twenty-four-year-old girlfriend began tugging on her stiletto boots, insisting on coming along.

The ER the night after Thanksgiving was a crowded place. I stood at the window and explained to the nurse that I had swallowed a toothpick.

“Yikes. That’s not good.”

I could see she very much wanted to ask—as any sane human does—how did I swallow a toothpick? Was I, an adult human, unfamiliar with the process of chewing and swallowing food? But she controlled herself, and simply ushered me back to a room, my brother and his girlfriend trailing behind.

A weary nurse came by and explained that because the toothpick was wooden, there was no way to do an X-ray.

“So instead, we’d like you to eat this turkey sandwich.”

I stared in confusion. Was it an electromagnetic turkey sandwich that was somehow capable of detecting wood?

“Look,” she sighed. “It’s to make sure the toothpick isn’t blocking anything. That you can get food down, okay?” She dropped the sandwich in my lap and left.

“It’s going to be okay, Miss Jo. I know it is!” My brother’s girlfriend smiled at me encouragingly. She always called me “Miss Jo,” like I was an old tap dance teacher from her childhood. She placed a hand on the back of my hospital gown, closed her eyes, and began to mumble under her breath something about Jesus taking the toothpick from my person.

I chewed the dry turkey and willed myself not to scream. All I’d wanted to do that night was relax for one goddamn minute. And now I was eating a hospital cafeteria sandwich at midnight while my brother’s wide-eyed girlfriend prayed over me. Not that I wasn’t touched by her kindness and concern in that moment: I very much was. I just didn’t want to be having that moment, period.

The sandwich went down, which seemed promising. Finally, a doctor rushed in clutching a clipboard.

“Ok, so uh…uh…I think…well I think…uh.” He had a nervous, halting way of speaking. Which is precisely the last thing one wants in an ER doctor. We all stared at him in anticipation.

“I think you’re going to…uh…uh…”

YES? Die? Live? Self immolate?

“I think you’re going to be…uh…okay.”

There was a collective sigh of relief.

He informed me that, while, yes, there was a chance it could puncture my liver leading to my untimely death, most likely I would just “pass it.”

“So you can just…uh…go home. But if you don’t feel…you know…okay…then…then…come back. Okay?” He had me sign his clipboard and left.

“Well that sounds…good? Right?” my brother asked, pulling on his coat.

I nodded, though my heart was pounding. That doctor had just doled out the absolute worst possible scenario ever for a hypochondriac: You might be okay, but if you think you’re dying of sepsis, give us a ring.

Did he not realize he was dealing with someone who was pretty much always sure she was dying of sepsis? Someone who had once gotten a CAT scan because she left Crest WhiteStrips on too long and it made her head feel funny?

I tried to take deep breaths while my brother and his girlfriend went to get the car. As I was signing my discharge papers, the nurse looked up at me.

“Oh and listen, if you do, uh, you know, pass it, you probably won’t know. So you shouldn’t. You know… Go looking for it.”

I nodded, imagining myself kneeling in the bathroom at my parents’ house, desperately pounding at my own excrement with a hammer.

“Good to know.”

Back in my childhood home, all was quiet. My mother and husband, upon hearing my stomach hadn’t in fact exploded, had gone to bed. I eased myself into my parents’ old bedroom, where my husband and son lay in the darkness, lightly snoring.

I wearily pulled on pajamas, jamming my mouthguard into my mouth. I lay down between my husband and son and stared into the darkness. This was the same room I used to pad into as a child when I was frightened or had had a nightmare. It still had the same wallpaper that used to creep me out because the shape of the design reminded me of ET when he was dying. But even with the unsettling wallpaper, coming into this room used to be like stepping into a warm cell of safety. I would climb up between my parents, and the warmth of their bodies would fill me with a certainty that everything was going to be okay.

Now, my mother slept in my old bedroom across the hall, where she’d been staying ever since my dad got sick. Dad was in his bed in the library. And my own son was now stretched out beside me, breathing softly. I was now the parent. I was meant to be the certainty.

The weight of this knowledge fell over me, and suddenly the stress, and sadness, and anxiety of the whole weekend began to whirl in my stomach, along with the dreaded toothpick. I could feel myself start to come undone. My eyes welled with tears, and my chest constricted.

And then suddenly, in the shadows, my son sat up. He turned to me, reached out his tiny hand, and patted my arm. Then he said something he’d never said to me before in his life: “It’s okay, Mama.”

He immediately lay back down, drifting back to sleep. And I stared at him, dumbfounded, wondering if I’d just imagined the whole thing. He had missed the events of the night—had slept through the whole “Mommy swallowing a foreign object” portion of the evening. But he had clearly, in that moment, intuited my distress. And something about hearing his soft little voice, hearing him try to comfort me, it was like a switch flipped, and a wave of calm flooded through me. My eyes went dry. My breathing slowed. And I began to pull myself back together. Because I had to. Because that’s what we do for our kids. For our spouses. For the people we love.

I thought of my parents sitting side by side, holding hands. If their forty-nine years together—a whole lifetime of immense joys and devastating heartbreaks and weird movies in the dark—if it had a lesson to offer, it was that when things get scary, you stay brave for the people who need you. You wade through the muck of worry. You continue to seek happiness, even when overwhelmed by ghosts and sorrow. You do whatever it takes. And sometimes that might mean not spiraling into anxiety. Sometimes it might mean being the strong one. And sometimes, it might even mean pushing out a toothpick.

•••

JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for New York Magazine, Salon, and BUST. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 10, A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Encounters Around the World, and Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. www.JohannaGohmann.com

Read more FGP essays by Johanna Gohmann.

Learning to Leap, From A to Z

By Daniel Novta/Flickr
By Daniel Novta/Flickr

By Sunanda Vaidheesh

 Axle (n)

A mechanism that enables a pair of wheels to rotate.

Bicycle (n)

At 4’8’’, my grandmother, or paati as I called her in Tamil, was just a few inches taller than I was at age six. It was my paati, sixty-nine years old at the time, who taught me how to ride a bike. Why did she decide to teach me? Because this was something I needed to learn to do. Besides, paati was holding on, so I’d be fine.

Clenching (v)

At the end of my first driving lesson, I was sore for a full two days after. It turned out I’d been clenching every single muscle in my lower back, neck, and shoulders for the entire two hours I was behind the wheel, driving through downtown Chicago.

Drive (v)

At age twenty-six, well past when most Americans complete this rite of passage, I enrolled in driver’s ed. I was determined to get over my fear of operating an automobile and get my U.S. driver’s license, once and for all.

Educated (adj)  

Paati had an arranged marriage when she was sixteen. Her last formal year of schooling was the seventh grade. Despite the abrupt end to her education, she loved to learn so much that she would secretly read her older brothers’ math, science, history, and Tamil textbooks in the attic, when they would discard them at the end of the school year. When paati’s son was in college, she began to teach herself how to read and write in English. Paati stayed with my parents several summers ago, well into her eighties at this point, and proceeded to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica, in English, cover to cover because it was there to be read.

Flight (n)

At the start of every driving lesson, I would find my heart starting to race, terror steadily rising from my knotted-up stomach and my dry mouth to my norepinephrine-flooded brain, my fight or flight response kicked into full gear. Every single time.

Garland (n)

As a middle-schooler, about a week into summer vacation every year, I would build a paper chain that hung from my bedroom ceiling to the floor. A paper chain to countdown the days before I could go back to school and start the new school year.

Harvard Graduate School of Education (n)

I spent a year drinking from a firehose of ideas, wisdom, and inspiration, before graduating with a master’s degree in how and why people learn, fired with the idealism and drive to change the world, one student at a time.

Inquisitive (adj)

After my thatha passed away last year, paati morphed into a completely different person. My aunts and uncles claimed it was dementia finally settling in, which led her to ask to her daughter-in-law one day, “Are the elephants going to stay for dinner? They’ve been sitting quietly in the living room all afternoon.”  

Jubilant (adj)

I bring her the good chocolate when I visit. She hates the sugar-free chocolate-for-diabetics crap.

Klaxon (n)

A few weeks before I left Bombay for college in the States, I got my Indian driver’s license. I didn’t use it again until the following summer. I bravely volunteered to drive my father and two cousins back home from the park, a five-minute drive, acknowledging that I was probably a little rusty. I didn’t account for rush hour traffic. I didn’t account for a six-lane intersection. I didn’t account for what happens when you stall a manual transmission car in the middle of a six-lane intersection during rush hour traffic.

The angry yells and indignant honks should have jolted me into action. But I froze. For the longest fifteen seconds of my life, I blocked out all sound and effectively blacked out. Accompanied by the rising panic in my father’s voice, I finally restarted the car and got us home in one piece.

I didn’t get behind the driver’s seat for another seven years, until I enrolled American driver’s ed.

Lethal (adj)

It was my last driving lesson before the road test. My left turns were a mess, I couldn’t figure out how to place my three-point turns, and I failed to notice stop signs in neighborhoods we’d driven through for weeks. I noticed every mistake three seconds too late and cursed myself for being so stupid. “Stay calm, you can do this,” I told myself. It was when I started to doubt myself that I’d make mistakes and with every mistake, desperation and fear piled on top of the doubt.

It didn’t help that it was Friday evening, after a rough week at work, and my road test was twelve hours away. My instructor was not at his best either. “Can we just stop?” he finally snapped at me. “You’re not getting any better—you’re just getting worse.”

Momentous (adj)

I’ve done the big milestones. I’ve graduated high school, secured an Ivy league degree, landed my first job, christened my first apartment, claimed my first promotion. I’ve moved halfway across the world, navigated the murky waters of immigration paperwork, and learned how to survive in America on my own.

Yet somehow every driving lesson felt like a step closer to a much more momentous life event.

North Carolina (n)

Paati rarely left the confines of their neighborhood in Bombay and had never dreamed that she would leave the country. When paati was in her forties, her third daughter—my aunt—was diagnosed with cancer. My aunt, who’d been living in the States with my uncle for several years by then, was admitted to the Duke University Hospital for treatment. Their son was just a toddler.

That summer, paati left India for the first time. She put her carefully collected self-taught English to use with strangers for the first time. She navigated airports and boarded planes, when until then she’d only ever been to the market down the street unaccompanied before.

Okay (adj)

I still don’t know how she did it. She says she doesn’t know how she did it either. But she did. And she was okay.

Purpose (n)

“I had to do what needed to be done,” she would later tell me. “My daughter and grandson needed me. And this was something I needed to learn to do.”

Quick (adj)

From a young age, I was told that I was a fast learner. I love savoring every “aha!” moment that follows a difficult concept that I’d unlocked for the first time.

Repeat (adj)

I’ve never had to retake a test, repeat a year in school, or re-do an assignment for work because I didn’t do a good enough job the first time.

Stories (n)

Every night after dinner, whenever I’ve visited paati or she’d come to stay with us, I’ve asked for a story. When I was younger, there were the stories of the clever crow and the greedy crocodile. As I grew older, I would stay hooked on her tales of kings and warriors and monsters slayed. In my twenties, while my cousins—all much older than me—had stopped asking for stories a decade ago, I would get out my iPhone and hit “record” before settling in for an evening of crocodiles and warriors alike.

Tears (n)

After every driving lesson this summer, I have burst into tears.

Unrecognizable (adj)

I last saw paati in late December of last year. It had been four months since thatha passed away. She slept for twenty hours a day. She refused to shower and had to be coaxed to eat meals. That was the first time in all my life that paati wasn’t able to tell me a story.

Verify (v)

The morning of my driver’s license road test, I resigned myself to the very likely possibility that I would be standing in the DMV line again in a month. I mean, my own instructor didn’t seem to think I was particularly competent.

When the examiner told me I passed, I didn’t believe him. “Really? Are you sure about that?” I asked him incredulously.

Whisper (v)

My paati gave me the courage to take a leap of faith, when she taught me how to ride a bike twenty years ago. She held onto the back of my bike as I started to pump the pedals and told me to keep saying out loud, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” Certain that she, literally, had my back, I whispered under my breath feverishly until I realized that paati no longer was holding on and that I was doing just fine all on my own.

Xerox (n)

Everyone says my cousin Sandhya looks just like paati did when she was younger. Same round face, same big eyes, same kind smile. I like to think I’m a Xerox copy of paati’s temperament.

Yearn (v)

The paati I’ve known my whole life may or may not return. My heart aches when she turns to my mom, after I’ve waved hello to them both over Skype, and asks, “Who was that?” But I will always cherish her for who I’ve always known her to be: my paati, my favorite person in the world.

Zealous (adj)

Getting behind the wheel of a car asks me to take a leap of faith, every single time. I’m invited to have faith not in the machine, not in the rules of the road, not in the civility of other drivers on the road. Driving asks me to have faith in myself.

At some point, I’m sure I’ll stop whispering under my breath, “Paati’s holding on, paati’s holding on.” But until then, I’m going to keep trying to push through the hard things in life, because she wouldn’t have it any other way.

•••

SUNANDA VAIDHEESH is a millennial immigrant. She was born in India, grew up in Indonesia, went to college in Iowa, and has moved houses twenty-one times to date. She explores the identity politics of transnationalism in her writing and loves a good scavenger hunt. Sunanda lives in Chicago and can be found online at sunandavaidheesh.com.

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.

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.