Clean Slates

Photo by Stefano Mortellaro/Flickr
Photo by Stefano Mortellaro/Flickr

By Laura Laing

Once a year or so, I drive my 2006 Prius out to the county to have it detailed. It’s a ridiculous amount of money to spend on washing a car, especially this one. The back passenger door panel is a slightly different color than the rest, and rust spots are beginning to speckle the roof. The floor mats are wearing through, and the silver paint is beginning to chip away from the steering wheel controls. We bought the car used, and I intend to drive it until it dies.

When I was a kid, my father made me wash his cars in the side yard. I used Comet on the white walls, Windex for the windows, and Palmolive dish soap for the rest. No matter how much I concentrated on swiping away every inch of grime and dust, Daddy could always find a streak of dirt after the sun sucked the finish dry—a memory of dusty roads and a sign pointing to my lack of precision.

This detailing shop gets my car cleaner than anyone could at home, that’s for sure. My favorite thing is the air-pressure tube they use to blow out miniscule bits of lint and salt and sand and dust that collect in crevices and catch my attention while I’m waiting at a stoplight. I try not to see the detritus lining the grooves of the steering wheel or the seams of the dashboard. If I think about it too hard, I’ll dig into the glove box for a plastic knife or toothpick to push along the cracks, pulling up months of grime that gathered by no fault of my own. Or I’ll drag my fingernail across the patch of crust that forms over the START button, oils from my fingertips deposited each time I start the car.

I don’t care as much about the outside of the car, because I don’t often look at it from that angle. Inside the vehicle, encased in fiberglass and metal for quick excursions across town or longer trips on interstates, I have time to notice what shouldn’t be there. I regularly remove trash—paper cups and used napkins and parking passes. I stuff my gum wrappers into a little garbage bag fastened to the back of the front passenger seat, emptying it when it gets full or when someone has crammed a banana peel inside. It’s the little bits that I can’t see at first, but amass until they are noticeable, that prompt my call to Diamond Detail on Old Padonia Road.

With little effort of my own, I’ll be rid of the thoughts I’ve had about the grime—the shards of fingernails and skin and hairs that my wife, daughter, and I have shed there. Several fellows in coveralls will spend hours going through each and every inch, inside and out, removing our waste. Filth will be sucked up into vacuum tubes and blown out of sight by pressurized air and washed into muddy puddles and pushed down drains. I won’t see it again ever and the new silt will take time to notice. After detailing, the surfaces and gaps are clean slates, ready once again for what I inadvertently leave behind in my quest to go somewhere.

•••

My first real job out of high school was cleaning rooms at the Knight’s Inn near I-81 Exit 73. At the time, this was a new chain of motels, decorated in rich purples and dark “wood.” Guests were meant to feel as if they were staying in a castle. But, really, it was a drive-up hotel, with the thirty-nine-dollar-a-night rooms opening up to the outside, so you could keep an eye on your car. I might have stayed in a hotel a handful of times, and most of them much like the Knight’s Inn, so the place looked good to me.

I got this job because I had few real skills and because there were few jobs available to recent high school graduates in my small Appalachian hometown. Two major interstates intersected just outside of town, prompting the construction of several chain motels and restaurants and creating a small boon of low-wage service employment. Waiting tables frightened me, but running a vacuum cleaner and scrubbing a toilet were things I thought I could manage with little difficulty.

I needed only enough money to pay for my books and incidentals at college that fall. That was the deal: Momma and Daddy were paying my tuition and board, but I was in charge of the rest. Working mornings left evenings open for my boyfriend, when we milked the cows and made out in a pickup truck that smelled sweetly of manure and hay. Besides, I have always been a lark, preferring to rise with the sun. My younger sister and I applied for hotel jobs at the same time and were both hired. She quit after a few days. I stayed throughout the summer.

Mostly I loved the solitude. I could push my cart full of supplies from room to room, without talking to a soul for six hours or so. If I was lucky, I could watch a movie on HBO, starting it in one room and finishing it by the end of the row. The work was mundane and ritualistic: I began in the bathroom, then changed the linens, and finally vacuumed and dusted. This wasn’t a spot for hookups or drunks, and because the rooms were cleaned so often, they never seemed particularly dirty. But once I found a pornographic novel between a mattress and box spring.

I was drawn to the process of setting things straight. A hotel room is sparse, and each one is arranged like the last. Plastic-covered cups go to the right of the sink, and little bottles of shampoo and cakes of soap are lined up on the left. Towels are rolled and stacked on a metal shelf above the tub. Toilet paper is placed on the holder facing outward. The remote belongs in front of the television, and the one-cup coffee maker is next to the telephone. I followed the same process in each room, which appealed to my sense of ceremony. In this progression, my mind could wander, fantasize about life away from home.

I started each shift with a cart full of clean—bottles full of soapy liquids, stacks and stacks of laundered towels and sheets, a bucket of fresh rags and brushes—and ended with dirty. It was as if I had turned each room inside out, bringing it into the sun. I exchanged linens dotted with flecks of skin and swirled with hair for disinfected sheets and towels, fresh from the dryer and folded while hot. I blurred my eyesight to avoid catching a glimpse of anything gross. I learned to pull the sheets off the mattress and into the center of the bed into a ball, catching and covering what the previous guest might have left behind. If I didn’t see it, it didn’t worry me. My hands spent hours soaked in cleaning chemicals; I felt safe from bacteria.

Once in a while, I was asked to come in at night to wash and fold linens. This was my favorite task. The laundry room was lined with several pairs of washers and dryers. When they were all going, the room got steamy and loud enough to cover my singing. I brought in a tape player to blast old 1950s music or Bach’s minuets. When the dryer buzzed, I pulled out the hot linens and folded them immediately. The heat prevented wrinkles and made the cotton layers like cascading sheets of hot water. I learned to fold even the fitted sheets, with their pocket-like elastic corners. I never tired of the geometry of the process—the halving and halving again, an origami of white cotton. I appreciated the purpose of my work, the precision required to get all of the sheets on the correct shelf or to roll the towels so that they fit on the cart for the next morning. The room smelled fresh and clean, like that whole summer. I was preparing for my new life away from home, earning money and learning how to withdraw into my thoughts, to examine my life from the inside. I was a becoming a clean slate.

•••

The first therapist I saw didn’t take. I was in high school, dependent on my parents to make the appointments and pay the fees. I found out in college that I could see a counselor on campus for free and without my parents knowing a thing. I skimmed the surface of my psyche, and the counselor sent me to a psychiatrist for pre-SSRI medications that made me drowsy and out of touch with any of my feelings.

After graduating from college, I found Bernadette in an ad in the monthly queer newspaper. I saw her for five years or so. By then my life was radically different. I was married, my wife and I living in a city far from the mountains of my childhood and the valley of college.

After my daughter was born, I stopped sleeping, and so six months later, I found a psychoanalyst. Her name was the same as mine, and her office was in a strip mall. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I figured out which car was hers in the parking lot. Once, her husband and two children burst into the office while we were in session. I felt like I was taking her away from something more important. I began taking Zoloft, along with Trazodone to help me sleep at night. I resented having to see her, so much so that once I sat in a session without speaking a single word. Because she was a psychoanalyst, she followed strict rules, and so she didn’t say anything either.

My family moved to Baltimore when our daughter was five years old. I stopped sleeping again and found another analyst. We started out in once-a-week, face-to-face sessions, but I eventually let her talk me into going whole hog: lying down on the couch and staring at the ceiling for four fifty-minute sessions each week. It was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on mental health, considering I was relatively healthy. Still this is when something inside me cracked open, like a dampened seed, and bloomed.

Having your “clock cleaned” usually means that you were beaten up by someone stronger or bigger or both. While I didn’t feel as if I had been physically hit, these sessions were emotionally bruising. The progression backwards through time—the rewinding of my clock—to reveal deeper truths and understandings was a perplexing process. I worried over choosing a topic to start with. I wondered if I was saying and doing the right things. And so my thoughts flitted to mundane details. I noticed the little paper napkin where my head rested on the couch, thinking about the person who had lain there before on his own paper napkin. I couldn’t help but internally giggle at the crack in the ceiling that looked like the profile of a breast, remembering what little I had learned of Freud in college psychology and literature classes.

My clock was getting cleaned; the detritus of my past was being reviewed and reorganized, with some bits cast aside and others polished to a shine. The use of the passive voice here is not accidental. Although I was in the room, speaking, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing, I felt removed, as if the process was being done to me. The distance between my therapist and me shifted something inside me. The gap allowed for some pain to be vacuumed up and thrown away, for some memories to be stacked together neatly and others to be tossed in the recycling bin.

I couldn’t have done this alone. I tried too often to make it work with someone else. I wanted the intimacy of face-to-face conversation within a fifty-minute time period to help me understand myself, to sift through the remnants of my past to find meaning. It turns out that I needed both distance and another person. And after several years, I could turn inward and marvel at the order of my psyche, the clean slate awaiting the next many years of pain and happiness and living to clutter me with leftovers.

•••

Daddy needed a liver, and I was about to give him mine. Well, not all of mine, but enough that would grow to fill the space where his diseased liver was at the moment. After years of his immune system attacking it, his liver was dying. He wasn’t sick enough for a rare cadaver liver, and mine was big enough to share.

The liver is one of the body’s filters, helping to excrete toxins and unnecessary junk that builds up in the everyday process of keeping you alive. When it’s not functioning properly, the body can become overwhelmed with grossness. Blood clogs with waste, while the body struggles to metabolize fat and carbohydrates. Minerals and vitamins are flushed through the digestive system instead of stored. And old blood cells die off with fewer replacements. The liver is a disgusting organ, but so necessary that evolution has allowed it to regenerate. The half of my liver left inside me would grow to full size; the half of my liver put inside my father would too.

The night before the surgery, I had one job: to clean out my insides. Daddy and I checked into the hospital in the afternoon and were told to drink a gallon of GoLYTLY, a hellish solution that would flush everything from our digestive systems. Even with the packet of raspberry tea-flavored Crystal Light I added, the stuff tasted like sea water, so I sipped on it for hours, hoping my conservative approach get me to the finish line. By ten o’clock, I realized I was in trouble. Daddy had drunk the whole thing down and been given an enema. I was only a quarter of the way through. By midnight, the nurse got worried. I hadn’t reached the halfway mark, and I was starting to gag on the sips. If I weren’t done soon, they’d have to cancel the surgery. I began looking for alternative ways to finish the nasty solution. That’s when the nurse flippantly said, “We could put in a nose tube.” Do it, I told her.

She didn’t think I was serious, but I was. This stuff had to get into my gut, but my gag reflex was getting bolder by the swallow. I didn’t see any other way, and so she called in the intern who was on the floor. It took two tries to get the tube down my nose and into my throat, and once it was in, the nurse simply poured the liquid through a funnel and into my stomach, bypassing my taste buds. I was giddy with relief, trying to talk between the pours. Within ten minutes, my gut was full and the bottle was empty. I spent the next hour in the bathroom, letting the stuff do its job. And the surgery proceeded the next morning, on time.

•••

The transplant was a success, but six weeks later my father died. His new liver was working like a champ, growing and filtering and making bile. It was his lungs that did him in. In a long afternoon of his body shutting down, his liver was the last organ to fail.

Within a few hours, Momma and I were in the little apartment she lived in during Daddy’s hospital stay. Because the hospital was so far from their home, he would have recuperated there, close to his doctors. We packed up his belongings: the magazines he had planned to read, his shoes, his wallet. When I came across a stack of papers detailing instructions for wound care and such, I slammed the whole lot into a big trash bin in the hallway. We packed everything into suitcases and boxes, loading them onto a brass hotel cart and rolling it down to Momma’s van in the garage. The room looked sad and empty—not quite a hotel room, not quite an apartment. Bare, metal clothes hangers dangled from a rod in the closet. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom, once jammed with prescription bottles, gawked open under a harsh, florescent light. The emptiness was shocking.

On the morning of the funeral, one of Daddy’s friends came to the house and asked for the keys to Momma’s car. He took it up to the truck stop to be detailed—washed, waxed, and vacuumed. It was all he could think of to do with his grief.

•••

On Saturday, my daughter and I will climb into the freshly cleaned Prius and head south on a tour of colleges in Virginia and North Carolina. We’ll be on the road for nearly a week, visiting six schools and staying with family, except for two nights in a hotel in North Carolina.

Last week, I gave my daughter the rundown of our trip. “I thought we were sleeping in the car,” she said. And I thought she was kidding around. But no, somehow she’d gotten this idea stuck in her head, that staying in a hotel would be too expensive, and so we’d save cash by pulling over into a Walmart parking lot or some such, reclining the seats for our slumber. She was relieved to hear we’d have beds and bathrooms.

I have the trip mapped out in my head—not only the route we’ll take but what will happen along the way. There will be times when my daughter refuses to speak and times when she won’t shut up. I’ve saved up episodes of a podcast we both like, and we’ll talk about her college essays. The most we’ll drive in a day is three hours, so we’ll have lots of down time—time for writing: my work and her college essays. When traveling with a teenager, the trick is to keep expectations low, be willing to move in and out of her peripheral vision, be with her without needing her attention.

It’s being in that closed space for so long that made me think of having the car detailed. It’s a fresh start, an opportunity to shrug off the old stuff. My daughter is reaching for a door that will lead her to a new life. She deserves an adventure with no dust, fresh linens, space for thinking. I can’t provide much for her right now, except things that money can buy: a clean car, a hotel room, a college education. And so I do what little I can.

•••

LAURA LAING works from her home in Baltimore, where she is writing an unconventional memoir. In a former life, she was a journalist and magazine writer. Her first literary essay appeared this March in TheRumpus.net. She is an MFA student at Goucher College’s creative non-fiction program.

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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.

Lexapro: A Mother-Daughter Love Story

Image courtesy of Steve Rosenfield's What I Be Project
Image courtesy of Steve Rosenfield’s What I Be Project

By Judy Bolton-Fasman

The panic attacks almost always happened deep in the night, their after-effects rippling through my life like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The first happened the summer before my junior year of college. I was sure that my heart would explode. But my heart didn’t blow up. Instead, its rapid, loud, insistent beat filled my head, and I rocked back and forth in bed until the sun came up.

Panicking, I quickly learned, was exhausting. Anticipating the next attack was grueling.

Panic afflicted my gaunt sepia ancestors; it has walked with us hand-in-hand for generations. We are a people who open doors to empty rooms, expecting to see our worst fears incarnated. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly those fears are. Some of them can be as nebulous as the panic and depression that have smothered the Latina and Jewish women in my family.

No one in my family talked about the forced cold showers, the electroshock therapy involved in keeping my paternal grandmother’s anxiety in check. No one said a word about my other grandmother’s body odor, greasy hair, and catatonic states. When I was a child, no one acknowledged that my mother masked her phobias, her phases of panic with bullying, narcissism, and half-hearted suicide attempts.

I suspect that the ghosts of panic that frightened my grandmothers and drove my mother to the brink of insanity have haunted me since the moment I was conceived. And when panic first happened to me, the machinations it planted in my mind threw me into a future I imagined so catastrophic that I saw myself completely incapacitated. What if, What if, What if, went around and around in my brain like ticker tape.

•••

Dread and wonder coursed through my body the day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. How could I be a mother, let alone a decent one? When the panic strangled me in my sleep, I was terrified it would cut off oxygen to my baby. My heart revved up until its beating migrated to my head. I had never taken medication for panic. And now that I was pregnant, I wouldn’t even take a Tylenol.

Throughout my pregnancy I struggled to decipher arguments about nature versus nurture, biology versus psychology. I intuited that between these polarities lay a multitude of explanations for how behaviors developed and persisted not only within a single individual, but also across generations. Would my baby imbibe anxiety and depression through my milk? Would I model it to her? Would she inevitably flinch at my shaky touch?

The baby was beautiful and terrifying. What if, what if, what if? I filled in the hot white blanks with pure disaster. What if I stopped functioning and couldn’t care for the baby? What if I panicked with her in the supermarket? And most chilling of all—what if I had passed down my chipped, inferior genes to her?

“Stop torturing yourself,” said my gentle husband who, at the time, was working on the Human Genome Project. How I prayed that the genes that triggered my anxiety and depression would combine with my husband’s pristine genes, losing their power to hurt my daughter. I fantasized about him hard at work hunting down the gene for what ailed my ancestors, what ailed me. My husband was clearly on the side of nurture and promised me that our daughter would grow up secure and loved.

Nevertheless, I found articles that claimed phobias and panic disorder could very well be inherited. “Genetic switches,” I, practically panting, recited to my husband, “can get tripped and set off chemical changes that occur in a fetus’s DNA, thereby imprinting familial trauma on them.”

My husband shook his head. “It won’t happen to our baby,” he said.

“And why not?” I asked.

“Because we’ll know how to treat her right,” said my husband the geneticist.

“But what about bad luck—that’s always a factor that could wire our baby for anxiety and depression.” As I spoke, I thought about an observation my therapist made that there are some people who never panic under any condition. The first time I heard him say that, I pictured a flurry of Magritte’s topcoat-wearing men raining down on me. Cradling my newborn daughter, I knew that I could never share the Magritte image with her.

•••

My mother, her long black hair falling out of its bun, frequently pleaded with my father to send her away. “Please,” she begged, gulping for air, “I need to go. Now.”

Over the years, I periodically asked my therapist to commit me too. “You’re just tired,” he said.

What I most remember about therapy with him was that I refused to acknowledge panic in my world. I was twenty-seven, eight years out from my first panic attack. I lived in terror that my world would shrink to the point that I couldn’t leave my apartment. The word “phobia” scared me so much that I asked my therapist to remove a book he had on his shelf with the word on the spine. “I am not that person,” I told him all the while living in fear that I would panic in public without a way to get home.

At the height of my panics, Prozac had just come on the market, and it was touted as the miracle drug for the anxious and depressed. I read testimonials in which people swore the drug gave them their life back. They were newly confident, newly capable, and most importantly, newly happy. The words “brain chemistry” bubbled to the surface in these articles. But I was sure my brain was beyond fixing. And more to the point, taking medication was one of my phobias. Would my memory slip away? Would I feel numb? Would my future children have birth defects? And worse yet, would the pills not work and leave me forever hopeless?

That last question scared me enough to keep me just on the other side of trying Prozac. I could tough it out. My people were scared to death of taking medication. “Do you want to be in La La Land?” my mother taunted me that first summer of panic. “I have two other children to take care of,” she screamed. “”I’ll send you to the Institute for Living,” she said threatening to institutionalize me. Her face was so close to mine I could see her large pores. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that I could feel the weight of her mental illness imprinted on my cells.

•••

I had been flirting with the idea of taking medication after I finished having children. A girl and a boy, perfect bookends, a friend said to me. Perfect bookends with an imperfect mother. But I hesitated to take medication. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to beat this thing on my own. But with whom was I waging war? Panic? Myself?

The night I wanted to commit suicide, I had been caught up in a loop of panic for weeks. My two small children slept peacefully as my husband rubbed my back. “It’s time,” he said. By that I knew he meant that I needed to call the psychiatrist I had consulted with for a prescription of Klonopin that I had not filled.

In the coming weeks I took the Klonopin with Lexapro, an anti-depressant. I didn’t feel relief exactly. Instead, I detected emotions coursing through my body, a circulatory buzzing of activity that the medication tamped down. The first side effect I experienced was how hard it was to cry. But the panic drained out of me until it was a bearable, hum of anxiety. And then one day I suddenly realized I was happy. The revelation happened in the car on one of my daily drives to and from my daughter’s school. I had settled into a routine. “You’re a caballo de circo,” my mother chided me when I was a child comforting myself with repetition. Maybe I was a circus horse driving the same route over and over. But on that day I picked up as many of my daughter’s friends as could fit in my SUV. Their chatter delighted me. Their energy soothed me.

I’d proved that anxiety was not an accurate predictor of a situation. This was what I told my daughter when she called me from camp. Just sixteen, she said the world had gone very sad on her. “It’s like there’s a curtain of gauze suffocating me,” she cried. My God, had my genes taken the best of her? As I listened to my girl on the phone, I knew that she was trapped in her thoughts. “What if I freak out in front of people? What if I die?” she said breathlessly. There it was again: What if? What if? Another generation struggling to fill in that sharp, menacing blank. But I also remembered my husband’s wise words—we’ll know how to help her.

My daughter is now twenty-one and also stable on Lexapro. She studies psychology. Her choice of major makes me believe that she wants to cure herself, even cure me. My daughter also knows that hiding is dangerous—even futile—and so she decides to tell the world about her condition with a one-word story literally written across her face. In the photograph, the word “Lexapro” starts across her forehead, goes down to the bridge of her nose, and finishes at her left cheek. “I am not my anxiety,” my girl declares. Her face, her struggle, is her contribution to the “What I Be Project” founded by a photographer who describes it as social experiment. In word and picture, a subject boldly declares that he or she is not solely defined by societal reactions to her life story.

With my daughter’s picture out in the world, I pray that the Lexapro will continue to quell her panic. I pray that the doubts, the worries, the blame will continue to diminish for both of us. I pray that the night will never again be a long tunnel of fear and hopelessness. And I pray that Magritte’s men will simply float away.

•••

JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared on the New York Times opinion page, the Boston Globe, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, Brevity, Salon, and other venues. Judy has completed a memoir called The Ninety Day Wonder, in which she tries to get closer to her remote father through saying the Kaddish—the Mourner’s Prayer—only to uncover her father’s secret past.

Read more FGP essays by Judy Bolton-Fasman.

Imaging

princess
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jill Margaret Shulman

The rhythmic clicking is so far in the background that I think, how bad can this be?

Country, top 40, ’80s rock

I wait for the technician to list a station I like, classical or maybe jazz.

…hip hop, jazz?

Jazz.

The right earphone lands a little too far south. It cuffs my upper cheek and skims my ear. It will have to be close enough for the next half hour or so because I don’t speak up in time. As she motors me into the tube, the technician drops a soft cloth on my face. It’s still bright behind my shut eyes. I open them and peek beneath the cloth’s bottom edge at the glossy, spiraling cavern. I shut my eyes again fast. Later, my husband Mat will ask me, How close was your face to the ceiling?, and I’ll say, I don’t know.

The technician tucks a buzzer button beneath my left hand. In case of emergency, she says.

I squeeze it without meaning to. It buzzes.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

The first test will last one minute. Hold real still.

My feet are taped together as if I’m in a hostage situation. I try not to think of it that way, like I’m enclosed in a thick plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. Only one person could hear me scream, if I screamed, and I just met her. I don’t even know her name. She’s wearing false eyelashes and a wig, as if in disguise. I’m here to diagnose and regain control of my left hip and my life, the very same life a stranger now controls. Now that’s irony. For the moment, the only option is trust.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

The next test will take about three and a half minutes.

The sound patterns change. Grinding happens, and then the noise my printer makes when it spits out pages. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it’s fine. I wonder if she’s selected the correct station because the song sounds more like swing than jazz. The machine gnashes and moans, while a smooth, clear, female voice sings up-tempo about something wonderful. That’s the honest-to-God lyric: something wonderful. More irony. Every time I want to fidget, I bite my tongue hard to yank me back to the top of my body, the part that can will my toes not to shift position.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

The next two tests will take about four and a half minutes each.

I want to ask about the tests. What exactly are they testing for four and a half minutes? Then what different thing are they testing for the following four and a half minutes? But I also want to get this done, and she’s chatty, this technician. Her children are both grown, the boy is married and works nearby, loves his job, and the girl lives farther away but has provided grandbabies who compensate for the distance. I know all this from limping in socks and a hospital gown from the waiting area to the room I’m in now—about twenty-five steps, maybe less. If I ask about the tests, she will want to be clear, explain every detail, and I appreciate that, but I want this done more than I want to know what’s being done to me. I want information about this stoppage in my joints, so I can walk properly again and go through with my daughter Hannah’s high school graduation trip. I splurged on plane tickets to Italy for one last family hurrah and the promise of daily gelato before college tuition payments begin. I’ll never be forgiven if I cancel it. I’ll ruin it if I go and can’t walk. A bad diagnosis is lose-lose. Still, I want to know.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

It’s the correct station after all. The instrumental jazz I’d hoped for plays, but I can barely hear the saxophone above the machine’s jackhammering. I was a New Yorker for a while, so the noise is no big deal. Over time, we adjusted. The baby slept through it, but not Hannah, my sensitive toddler. She approached my side of the bed in her pink princess nightgown, a curl stuck to her forehead glistening with sweat and sleep. Frowsy and blowsy, Mat called it when the kids awakened disheveled, warm, and pink like that. At eighteen, Hannah’s pincurls have softened into waves but remain the same brown and blond and red. The sun still tracks freckles across her nose. I still see that frowsy and blowsy child in the pink princess nightgown every time Hannah the young woman barrels through the door after a run, ponytail swaying. When she was little, I wanted her to stay curled into me forever beneath the cocoon of sheets, yet I itched for her to return to her own bed, where her twitching and breathing wouldn’t keep me awake. Now it’s differently the same. When she’s home, sometimes I can’t sleep, thinking about her leaving for college in just a few months. I can’t sleep when she’s not home either, worried she’ll pile into a car driven by some drunk teenager, even though I’ve told her a thousand times to call me if there’s ever a situation like that. No questions asked; just call.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

The next three tests will last about four minutes each.

The pole towers over a deep, bottomless ravine, swinging wildly from wind, and I balance in a chair on top like a character from the Doctor Seuss book Daddy read to me before bed. Lurching awake saves me, though the nightmare pounds inside. I’m frowsy and blowsy, and lace ruffles down the front of my flannel nightgown. The gold wall-to-wall carpeting stretches down the hallway into my parents’ bedroom. Mom’s beehive hair, flattened on the side from sleep, is either real or lifted from pictures I’ve seen, but the warm, safe smell of her perfume leftover from the day is real. The curving ivory edges of my parents’ monumental headboard remind me of animal tusks. I never liked that headboard. (Mom tried to give it to me during a cleaning spree and told me how expensive it was as a selling point, but I didn’t take it.) Mom lifts the edge of the sheet, and I curl into her and listen to her breathe. In and out. And then I listen to my own child’s breathing, in and out, while she cuddles into me and jackhammers attack the street outside the apartment window.

How are you doing?

I’m fine.

You moved during one of the tests, so we’ll have to do it again.

What did I move? I didn’t think I moved anything. I sound defensive. I don’t mean to; defensive is just the way it comes out.

The monitor tells me you moved something, but it doesn’t say what. It could be that you rearranged your hand, or a toe.

It was my toe. I must not have bitten my tongue in time. I’ll try to do better.

You’re doing great. It will only be three and a half minutes.

Why always a half? What can they possibly tell from that extra half a minute that they can’t detect from the first three? I bite my tongue, so my toe won’t move. I try to go back to the safe spaces, with nightgowns and mothers and deeply sleeping, trusting little girls. I open my eyes and shut them again, but I can’t seem to return to my childhood home or our old apartment where my entire little girl fit into the pocket of my body curving around her. I’m alone and powerless inside a plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. When my girl leaves for college in the fall, I can’t drown out the jackhammers or conquer the nightmares for her.

That’s it. You are done. I’m coming to get you out of there.

The original rhythmic sounds re-emerge. The saxophone, the bass, the brush against cymbals abruptly stop, and the platform moves like a forklift delivering rubble onto a pile. The technician removes the tape from my feet. I’m free. My hip is stiff, my mother is old, my child has grown, and we mostly wear pajamas instead of nightgowns now—except for Mom. Her light cotton nightgowns with pleated fronts must be forty years old, and they’re still her staple. My daughter has switched to 100% pajamas. She told me once the pink princess nightgown is in her room somewhere. She’ll probably leave it behind when she moves away for college. Moving forward, always forward, and here I was going backward for some reason, when I should’ve been moving forward too.

I’m afraid you owe $150.00, the receptionist tells me. These tests used to be free, but now the insurance. The receptionist is nice about it.

I limp out of the hospital and drive home with my good leg pressing the pedal then I pump the brake when the car begins moving too fast. I wish my hip would heal already, so I can walk properly. We will take that graduation trip. Hannah will leave. I’ll grow old like my mother, but I’ll wear pajamas. Maybe I should’ve taken that giant, ugly, valuable headboard when Mom offered it. Maybe I should search for the little pink nightgown folded in the closet of Hannah’s vacated room when she’s gone. I’ll keep moving forward, but sometimes it feels too fast, with no button to press in case of emergency, no break to pump.

Mat asks, How did it go?

Is it weird that I almost enjoyed my MRI? For forty and a half minutes, my only responsibility was to hold still while voices sang something wonderful and asked Are you okay? My mother protected me. I protected my daughter. Then the machine shut off, and the world started up again, the world where my daughter will leave, as children do.

I’m okay.

•••

JILL MARGARET SHULMAN is a freelance writer, parent of teenagers, college essay coach, and works seasonally in college admissions. Some of her recent essays have appeared in The New York Times, Family Fun, Good Housekeeping, Parents.com and O the Oprah Magazine. Visit her website at http://www.otherwords.us/ for college essay coaching inquiries and links to more of her writing.

Good Vibrations

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

By Barbara Clarke

“Did I tell you? I’m multi-orgasmic,” said my eighty-three-year-old mother. This was her conversational style—ditch the segue and go straight to another chat about sex. I was taking our picnic gear from the trunk of my car and needed a minute to process. “I learned that word in the book you gave me.”

Walking along our favorite beach with its long, easy-going shoreline gave my mother and I time to talk more honestly after my father’s death. In the process, we became friends. She was like a broken piggy bank as her collected stories spilled out. I was the first woman she had ever talked to about sex; from my teen years on, I knew more than she did on the subject.

On one of our earliest walks, she revealed that for their first twenty years of marriage, the missionary position was the arrangement. And for the last thirty years it had been husband-directed abstinence. Once I was past my do-I-really-want-to-know-this reaction, it was distressing to think how sexually unfulfilled she must have been her whole life.

Even though my father had enjoyed dirty jokes and recited smutty limericks, I realized as an adult how unworldly, if not prudish, he was. On one occasion after a lesbian couple had visited, my mother brought up a new topic of inquiry—how do two women make love? When I started to answer, my father said, “You can’t be serious,” in a tone freighted with yuck, and fled to the living room to watch The Brady Bunch with my kids.

“Now that I know more,” my mother said on another beach walk, her voice thick with resentment, “I realize that sex with your father was strictly for his benefit.”

I asked her to say more. She hesitated, her eyes taking my measure, as if to see whether I was grown-up enough. “The fact is,” she said, her face flushing with embarrassment, “I never had an orgasm during intercourse in my marriage. I’ve only had them in my sleep.”

“I’m really sorry, Mom,” was all I could think to say at the time.

The more she revealed, the more I was struck by the difference one generation can make.

When I was nine, the Big Talk with my mother consisted of her buying me the book On Being Born, which contained not one mention of how people “did it.” Ten years later, my mother’s second attempt at instruction came shortly before I walked down the aisle. She offered this as my sendoff: “Sex can be beautiful.”

With the advent of the women’s movement and the freedom to have intimate talks with women and men, I enjoyed a good lover or two. Unlike the women of my mother’s era, I knew how to take care of my sexual needs with or without a partner. A bonus was frequenting, without the slightest embarrassment, the paraphernalia treasure house in Berkeley called Good Vibrations.

I would have taken my mother to choose her own vibrator, but I didn’t trust that she could remain as composed as the sophisticates who shopped there. Only in the Bay Area could women pretend it was no big deal to see an entire shelf of hefty Day-Glo dildos. And so for my mother’s next birthday, I bought her a small, basic vibrator and the book Sex for One by Betty Dodson. I insisted she open my gift at home, after a birthday lunch with my daughters.

Later that evening my phone rang.

“Were you trying to kill me?”

“Mom?” I barely recognized her throaty voice.

“Who else? Your gift almost took the top of my head off.”

Then I remembered her special present.

“Well,” she tried again, “this is the best gift anyone has ever given me. I had no idea.”

With that it started. Sometimes, when my mother and I chatted on the phone, catching each other up, her tone would soften. I knew what was coming. It was as predictable as the ochery sky that precedes a Midwest summer storm. And sure enough, she would pause for a moment and then share, “Mr. Right dropped by today.”

I would picture her mischievous smile and appreciate her late-in-life pleasure all over again. “How nice for you,” I would say and mean it. “There’s nothing like an attentive lover.”

I was happy for her in private, but her did-I-need-any-batteries remark in the aisle at Rite-Aid made me—her enabler—blush. I was more comfortable in the roles of sympathetic listener and occasional sex educator. There were still things my mother wanted to know about in detail into her nineties.

She was curious about the younger generation. What did they use for birth control? She thought the morning-after pill was great, but she worried that kids took sex too lightly and had it too early. “It should be special,” she said lost in thought while we drove along the winding coastline after a day at the beach. “I hope it was for you and the girls.”

We never talked about my sex life and how my mother had openly fretted over my getting pregnant before marriage—ironic, since she hadn’t provided a single method of avoiding it. Several girls in my high school had been sent to “their aunts” for extended vacations. Their pregnancies were the narrative that dominated my mother’s vigilance until I was safely married off without the proverbial shotgun. Later, when she occasionally dug my first and sweetest love, Jerry, out of her memory vault, my feelings of resentment at being spied on by her reconstituted like a glass of Tang. Reliving my adolescence when sex was half terrifying and half aching required me to stop and take a breath before I could appreciate why she worried. It took a while after the Jerry exchanges before we were back on the friendship track.

•••

After a memorial service for a family friend, my mother brought up the topic that was most on her mind. I anticipated another gloomy pre-death drill on where to find the money she had stashed in various shoe boxes if she “croaked.” Instead, it was what if she died in bed and the paramedics found Mr. Right? What would they think of her at her age?

I wanted to honor our unique end-of-life discussion and not go for the easy retort, you’ll be dead. Instead I said, “I’m sure they’ve seen it all. Besides, they might think you’re really worth saving. Ignore the DNR on the fridge door and keep you going.”

We never stopped talking about sex. I should say my mother never did. We would laugh about the way intimate details of sex were being hinted at in the new century. “How ridiculous,” my hip mother said after watching a vaginal fragrance ad of a woman dancing through a field of lavender after the implied douche. “We need information, not crap like that.”

•••

On one of our last trips to the beach, my mother said, “You’re a writer. You should write about the fact that there are a lot of old ladies out there, like me, who think they have to go without. We still have all of our urges and body parts, but no one talks about it. And their daughters aren’t as thoughtful as you were.”

“If I did, it would be about you.”

“You could wait until I’m dead,” said Mom—the eternal shock jock. “It won’t be that long.” She could move between death and life in a matter of minutes, going over the details of her imminent departure in the parking lot and then once inside Safeway buy two half-gallons of ice cream.

“Oh. What do I care?” she said with a devilish grin. “Go for it.” She asked me more than a few times how this very essay was coming along.

We didn’t always have serious talks about sex. One time we settled on our beach blanket, and with a little wine to loosen our imaginations, made up commercials for vibrators, delighting in our witty jingles until the tears streamed down our cheeks. I miss those times.

Shortly before her death at ninety-seven, we were having coffee in her kitchen. “I want you to take this box,” she said, moving our cups to the side and putting a small silvery box on the table. She lifted the lid and I saw the very dog-eared book Sex for One and Mr. Right wrapped up like a mummy. “I think my time has about run out, and if your brother gets here first and finds these, he might think the worst of his old mother.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Yes, honey. I don’t think I ever thanked you adequately for that wonderful birthday present. It changed my life.”

When I saw how frail she was, I took the box.

Just when I was about to break down in sobs, anticipating how much I would miss her, she cut through my sentiment in the formidable directive tone I knew from my childhood. “And don’t put it in the dumpster outside,” she said, her eyes fixed on me until I nodded yes. “They probably go through the trash here. You never know these days who’s spying on you.”

•••

BARBARA CLARKE works as a freelance grant writer and written extensively for corporate clients, trade magazines, and newspapers on a variety of topics. Her memoir, Getting to Home: Sojourn in a Perfect House, was published in 2009. “How Many Writing Books Does It Take to Write a Novel, Memoir, Nonfiction or Something besides an Annual Holiday Letter?” appeared in the 2010 debut issue of Line Zero, a literary-arts magazine. She is currently completing a novel that includes socially relevant topics on the health insurance industry (where she worked as an executive for fifteen stressful years), the pre- and post-Feminine Mystique generations, and the various ways of love. She uses Beckett’s “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better,” as both her personal and writing guide. Her blog is www.thiscertainage.com, and her website is www.barbaraclarke.net.

The Toll Bridge

razor wire
By Kate Ter Haar/ Flickr

By Bonnie S. Hirst

It should be simple, purchasing a toll bridge pass. I cry when I consider it. My daughter lives on the other side of that toll bridge. In prison.

Several times I have attempted to purchase a pass online. I searched the Department of Transportation website, selected the toll bridge, but I couldn’t convince myself to click the purchase button. Buying a pass for future trips across that bridge would mean I had given up hope that she might win one of her appeals and be released.

My husband and I could have depleted four toll bridge passes by now. That would equate to twenty-four visits. Instead, we pull into the toll plaza each time and idle our SUV in the long line of brake lights. Vehicles with pre-purchased passes whiz by us, their toll fare deducted from their account by remote sensors.

In our rural county, on the opposite side of the state, we have no toll bridges. No need for multi-passes.

To visit our thirty-nine-year-old daughter, we drive six hundred miles round-trip. Those kind of distance and time constraints limit our visits to every few months. In the wintertime, our visits are further apart, with two mountain passes and treacherous snowy roads at higher elevations.

She has been there four years. Even with better weather, our visits are becoming less frequent. Visits are a double-edged sword: a reminder each time we pass through the clanging of the metal gates with the razor wire curled the length of the fencing, that this is now our daughter’s life. Visiting her in prison has become a part of our life.

My silent prayers prior to her conviction were, Dear Lord, may the highest good come from this situation. Please touch her heart with your loving goodness and keep her safe.

When she was arrested, and during the eighteen months she was out on bail, my faith in God’s goodness never wavered. I believed he would watch over her. I believed he would answer my prayers.

My belief in His goodness was answered when my daughter purchased a soft-bound red leather Bible. I was overjoyed when she showed it to me. From the amount of scriptures highlighted in yellow and bookmarked with torn scraps of paper, I could see she had been on her own journey to accept Him.

When she was convicted and sent to prison, I felt God had betrayed her and me. I questioned how I could continue to believe in his goodness when he had not answered my prayers for her safety. How could this be the highest good? I wondered if our daughter would be in prison if I had shared my beliefs vocally. If she had accepted Christ earlier, as I had as a child, would we be in this predicament now?

After receiving her sentence, she worried that our visits would lapse, and our letters would dwindle. I promised her that we wouldn’t forget her. I told her we’d visit often. I told her to not give up hope. I told her God would hear my prayers. I told her He would hear her prayers. During the past four years, I have doubted if he listened.

Time has eroded my faith in His powers. Hope is all I have left.

Visiting a few days after Christmas, my husband and I and our daughter’s daughter were waiting inside the prison lobby to check in. Behind us, a buxom Italian woman in a white peasant blouse chatted and extended kind words with everyone in her vicinity. I admire women like her who aren’t afraid to reach out to other people. Her dark hair tumbled in soft, bouncy waves to her shoulders, and her perfectly applied crimson lipstick enhanced her vibrant smile.

I used to have that type of enthusiasm for life. Since our daughter’s incarceration, I have become more and more emotionally closed in. More doubtful. More protective of my space. I prefer to observe quietly and stay under the radar when in public. I smiled at something the Italian woman said, but kept my body turned away from the conversation.

Our fourteen-year-old granddaughter stepped in front of my husband, and the top of her long brown ponytail grazed his salt and pepper beard. He tugged gently on the dangling portion and was rewarded with a smirk barely wide enough to see her braces. I placed my hand on his muscled arm as we stood in line.

When it was our turn to step up to the desk and present our IDs, I felt my usual trepidation. Would something appear on my clean record that would preclude me from visiting? Or would there be a new guard who wouldn’t recognize me? The picture on my driver’s license was three years old and barely resembled the tired sixty-year-old I was that day. My gray roots showed, and my brunette hair was chin-length and wavy instead of short and neatly wedged like when I renewed my license so long ago.

It seems a lifetime has passed since my daughter was sent to prison. I yearn for the days before her arrest, when I never questioned my faith in God’s steadfast love.

The normal guard with the kind smile was behind the desk.

The Italian woman’s presence had changed the atmosphere in the lobby; even I felt a lightness. She radiated kindness and warmth and brought smiles to the large group of holiday visitors. The lobby had the feel of friends reuniting after a long absence instead of a docile line of strangers.

We were assigned a table number for our visit and a key to a locker to leave our belongings in. We proceeded to the next station to remove our shoes and pass through the metal detector. When cleared, our hands were stamped with invisible ink, and we joined other visitors waiting at the third barricade. The guards released us, and we traversed outside to the next blockade.

Between buildings, a gentle mist of rain fell on our group as we gathered at the steel gate. It buzzed open. We moved like cattle into the next enclosure. The gate we passed through must clang shut before we were allowed passage to the next station. Shiny razor wire coiled in ringlets on the ground and double coiled on top of the fence that surrounded us.

The razor wire overwhelmed me. It’s as if my mind pretended my daughter was away at college. The razor wire jolted me back to reality.

The next double set of doors brought us closer to the visiting area. It had no razor wire. We wedged into the tight enclosure, the guards in their raised station behind tinted glass waited as the exit door behind us closed. In front of us a heavy steel door slid mechanically open. We formed another line and gave the guard our inmate’s name. Our assigned table had the number carved deeply into the top of the table, similar to the old-time school desks with the deep groove for pencils.

Our daughter is in CCU (Closed Custody Unit), the politically correct term for Maximum Security. Her unit is often the last of the groups of inmates to arrive at the visiting room. We watched as other visitors reunited with their daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers.

The Italian woman was assigned the table next to ours. When she saw her daughter, she stood and bounced with joy on her toes anxiously awaiting her daughter to clear the guard station. She rushed towards her excitedly and enveloped her with motherly hugs and happy tears.

Our daughter appeared and gave us a slight wave of greeting before she checked in with the guards. We nodded and smiled and waited. Her five-foot-four frame appeared thinner than the last time we visited. When she joined us, our quiet hugs seemed feeble compared to the Italian woman’s. I wondered if the other visitors felt the same.

Our visits follow the same routine. My husband and I sit on the opposite side of the four person table so our daughter can sit next to her daughter or her almost-adult son when he comes with us.

We asked about her new roommate. She asked, “What’s new at home?” We tried to remember something new to tell her. Our conversation felt stilted compared to the laughter and reminiscing that transpired at the Italian woman’s table.

Some days, our scheduled three-hour visits fly by. Other days, we play Yahtzee to pass the time and keep the conversation light. This was a Yahtzee day. Visits near the holidays are emotionally difficult. At home, I have tried to keep our daughter’s traditions alive; like baking and decorating Christmas sugar cookies with her daughter or preparing her kids favorite foods for their birthdays.

Her two children live with us. We celebrate milestones in their lives without her.

The guard at the raised station announced that visiting was over. We took turns hugging our daughter and joined other visitors in the exit line. Our daughter sat with the other inmates, all matching in their gray shirts and sweatpants. They would be searched before they returned to their units.

The heavy steel door opened slowly. We crowded into the tight enclosure. The Italian woman stood next to me and shared with everyone how good it was to see her daughter; that she hadn’t seen her for seven months. She dissolved into gasping sobs and tears streaked down her face.

I uncharacteristically wrapped my arm around her shoulder and leaned my head into hers and said “It’s difficult, the leaving, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “She doesn’t get out for another two years. Does it get any easier?”

I told her, “Some days are better than others.”

She smiled and with a trembling voice said, “I miss her so much.”

I tightened my hug, then released her. I prayed our conversation was over. I didn’t want her to ask the inevitable next question. Our conversation was not over.

She asked, “How long is your daughter in for?”

The agony of the answer contorted my face, and I began to cry. “Life,” I said.

Speechless, the Italian woman, wrapped me into her full bosom. The door buzzed open. She released me. Side by side, we walked towards the enclosure with the razor wire. Our group was silent as we passed through each buzzing, clanging gate. When we arrived at the original lobby, we swept our stamped hands under the black light. The invisible stamp magically appeared. We were cleared to leave.

I entered the single restroom and locked the door behind me. I splashed water on my haggard face to clear my smudged mascara. I lingered. I prayed the Italian woman had left. During previous visits, I had observed an unspoken code of ethics; no one asked about other inmate’s convictions. I was grateful it was taboo. I certainly didn’t want to talk about that, either.

My husband, our granddaughter, and I were in the parking lot walking towards our car when the Italian woman, from several cars away, waved and called out to me, “What’s your first name?”

I was stunned by her question. I preferred anonymity, but she asked with such urgency.

“Bonnie,” I yelled back and watched as my granddaughter disappeared into our car. I wanted to do the same.

The woman bellowed back, “Bonnie, I will pray for you and your daughter. I will have my prayer chain pray for you too. Never give up hope!”

Her kindness buoyed me. “Thank you.” I managed to squeak through the emotion that constricted my throat.

Maybe I have been wrong in doubting God. Maybe He had heard my prayers. Maybe the Italian woman was a sign from Him to keep my faith strong. Maybe I won’t be needing that toll bridge pass.

•••

BONNIE S. HIRST is currently working on a book-length memoir. After a thirty-five year hiatus from writing (being a mom and grandma), she is enjoying connecting with other writers. She loves feel-good movies and stories with happy endings. When life tries to shorten her stride, she prays, cries, reads self-help books, and writes. She can often be found kayaking on a calm mountain lake. Connect with her: https://www.facebook.com/BonnieSHirst and https://www.icantquotescripture.com.

Violets, Boxes, and Stars

violets
By Jessy Rone/ Flickr

By Sara Bir

The sight of demure violets and shaggy dandelions against the deep green of recently mowed grass has always delighted you. Normally you don’t like the combination of yellow and purple or yellow and green, because you hate team sports and those eye-searing pairings are often team colors, spotted on high school basketball jerseys or the itchy polyester cling of cheerleading uniforms. But in the context of spring, you love it, those three colors coming together for a few short weeks, radiant under the still-shocking intensity of midday sunlight. It calls to mind a suburban idyll, those violets and dandelions asserting themselves against an herbicide-drenched carpet of lawn.

But it is night now and you are looking at your phone, even though you’ve vowed to spend less time looking at your phone, and one of the feeds of text on it alerts you that a cookbook writer you admire just made violet syrup. It excites you, the very sound of it. Violet syrup. You imagine the violet syrup in a dainty pressed-glass jar, illuminated like an isolated shard of sacred stained glass in the path of an afternoon sunbeam, high on the shelf of a shabby-chic hutch. It calls to mind tea parties and Anne of Green Gables, harkening back to an age before phones that offer tiny visual enticements of violet syrup in the first place.

In your house there are all sorts of things to do, things that get pushed aside because of your job, which is to arrange little black symbols in lines against glowing white screen. It is called editing. The things you edit are lists about food, and you correct the mistakes in these lists because you’ve had enough jobs cooking food to spot misinformation quickly. You know what food does, even though your editing job consumes enough of your time that you now resort to serving boxes of bunny-shaped macaroni and cheese for dinner more often than you are comfortable with.

You do this editing from home, because that’s where the screen is, and your daughter often sees you scowling intently at it, and the magnetic power it holds over you infuriates her. You try very hard to limit her own exposure to glowing screens, both large and small, and yet there you are all day, tapping away at buttons as she implores you to draw with her or listen to her rambling preschooler stories. You want to give yourself fully to those stories, but the lingering demands of unresolved symbol-arranging pulls you away. Her job is to go to daycare, where she can play with other kids her age and build up her social skills so you can be at peace with your screen and your keys.

Sometimes you need a break from editing, so you switch to a different screen for a bit and click on little boxes and stars under photos of babies and dogs. You didn’t click on the star under the violet syrup on your phone. Is this worth a star? What does one do with violet syrup?

You try to shove the violet syrup to the back of your brain, but the violets do not give up on you. They appear all over, suddenly, in low-lying mobs: in the green strip of medians, along the path in the woods where you walk the dog. They grow in clusters, making pinpricks of color at the base of stop signs and between the cracks in the sidewalk. They soothe and disrupt you, because they are just another thing that you won’t get to. If you don’t pick the violets and make them into syrup, you’ll forget about how the purple and the green of violets make you feel.

You go with your daughter to a park without your phone so you can be somewhere and not really think about stars and boxes, and she runs off and then returns, bearing a fistful of white violets collected indelicately in her small hands. “For you, Mama,” she says. White violets? Was that one of Elizabeth Taylor’s perfumes?

The white violets do it. After a whole week confronting their quiet menace, you surrender. It’s Friday and you have deadlines. You are alone at home, busy editing inside and it’s glorious outside and you evict yourself from your dining room-cum-office. You close up the screen and grab a mixing bowl and go to your front yard, which, despite its minimal lawn, is infested with violets. You squat down, and you pick.

And you pick. One violet, two violets, three violets. You need a murder of violets build up in the bowl. You think of saffron, collected from the stamens of tiny crocuses, and consider how ill-suited you would be for the life of a saffron harvester, since after five minutes you are ready to quit this violet-picking business. You cannot give up. You do not give up.

The violet syrup recipe on your phone says to gather three handfuls of violets. You succeed, and you take a close-up picture of the bowl of violets with your phone, and you think about sharing this picture so other people—friends, kind-of friends, vaporous friends—can click on a box or star to agree with you about how great your life is, this life of carefree front-yard foraging. But you look at the real violets and then the violets on your phone, and you notice that they look nothing alike. Your phone violets are blue-ish and stiff and cool, and your real violets are a vibrant violet-purple, and the shiny metal bowl is warm from sitting on your lap. You delete the photo.

You retreat inside, to the kitchen, to separate the tender petals from their green bases that hold them together (a part of their anatomy called, adorably, the pip). So many small flowers, so many pips to maneuver around. Hundreds. Steeping the pips with the petals would make the resulting syrup bitter and to skip it would be to negate the already frivolous work you’ve invested so far. This is exactly the sort of thing you’d love to recruit your daughter for, but pulling petals away from pips requires more finesse than her unruly five-year-old fingers can muster. And so you do it by yourself, outsourcing the supervision of your daughter so you can blow off work and pluck itty-bitty flowers apart for making an essentially useless condiment.

It occurs to you that you should probably taste a violet before you go through with this. For all of the wildflower’s loveliness, its fragrance and flavor is that of the most bland lettuce ever, and you don’t imagine exposure to heat doing it any favors, but by now you’ve decided that making violet syrup will fill some hole in your life that needs to be filled. Even if you are just filling it with lettuce-flavored simple syrup.

Building up a critical mass of violet petals feels Sisyphean, absurd, impossible. Many times in your life, you have repeated insignificant tasks. You pumped the handle of the hopper and squirted a blob of Bavarian cream inside the donut. You stripped away the stranger’s slept-on sheets and unfurled a fresh sheet for a new stranger to sleep on. You took the rectangle of plastic from the customer, slid it through the reader, and made small talk as they paid for their pig-shaped corncob holders or glittery pink silicone spatula.

Do you receive our catalog?

Would you like a bag for this?

Enjoy your day!

You took the rectangle of plastic from someone else and slid it through the reader, and then another rectangle from another person, and then another.

A good place to eat around here? What do you like?

That meat grinder’s aluminum, so I don’t recommend putting it in the dishwasher.

Caribbean is my favorite Le Creuset color, too.

Your favorite Le Creuset color is actually Flame. The violets are tedious, still. Twenty minutes in, you have a pint of pip-free petals, not nearly the quart you need for the syrup. Screw it. You instead opt to make violet sugar, which requires only one handful of petals and one cup of granulated sugar.

It’s the big dirty secret of foraging that, with enough refined sugar, all things are possible. Only a few centuries ago, it was an expensive luxury. Crews of African slaves labored around the clock on Caribbean plantations to placate white people’s hunger for the laser-like precision of white sugar sweetness. On those islands that inspired a Le Creuset marketing expert to name a soothing shade of turquoise blue after their waters, there was a constant need for boatloads of new slaves, because they died before they got around to having children. Some fell into the boiling vats of cane juice, and some bled to death after getting their limbs caught in the rollers that pressed the cane, but most were simply worked to the point where they collapsed and never got up again.

Sugar is commonplace now, unavoidable. It infiltrates the snacks your daughter eats at daycare, the Nutri-Grain Bars and Fruit Roll-Ups. Now, the ability to afford eschewing sugar is a sign of membership in the upper class. Your white sugar, though, will not be white. After this, it will be violet.

A few blitzes in the food processor and that’s it. It tastes like regular sugar and looks like wet purple sand. To give it a boost, you add a grating of Meyer lemon zest, but it’s still not punchy enough.

You look at the windowsill over your kitchen sink and spy a vanilla bean pod. Of course you always air-dry the hulls of scraped-out beans after the majority of their flavor has been sucked into custards and compotes. They cost about a hundred dollars a pound and are actually the cured seed pods of a specific orchid, one that’s pollinated by hand a hemisphere away. The producers of these seed pods sometimes use a needle to prick a unique brand on them, just as a cattle rancher would, so the beans can be traced back should a vanilla seed pod rustler come to plunder the crop. Sometimes, before eviscerating them with a paring knife, you examine vanilla beans and you spy the tattoos, looking like leathery runes from another age, and you imagine having to prick thousands of still-green seed pods on orchid vines.

You realize you now have a small stockpile of dried vanilla bean hulls, and you grind them to several tablespoons of fine brown dust in your spice grinder, and you add a fat pinch of this dust to your violet sugar, and it does the trick. They’re kindred spirits, these two esoteric floral essences.

You retrieve your child from daycare, and you both return home to a big bowl of intact violet blossoms, ones that were not massacred into sugar, and you give this bowl to your daughter and send her to the yard and say, “Do you want to play with these?” She sprinkles the violets on the sidewalk and scatters decapitated dandelions and mangled clumps of grass among them, announcing, “I made a store!” and you approve.

The violet sugar is in a jar on the counter. It is subdued in color and soothing to look at, nothing at all like the cartoonish hues of purchased decorating sugar that you sprinkle on cutout cookies, and you just leave it there, even though you have no immediate plans to bake anything. Maybe you will divide it among smaller jars and give it to a few of your friends, the ones who appreciate things like the glancing presence of violets. The violet sugar means you are not entirely a useless and shallow person. You think about it and think about it and then sit and tap on keys and sort those feelings out, and then there it is, Violets, Boxes, and Stars, a few teasing lines on the screen of a phone, and you tap on them, and see this.

•••

SARA BIR is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. She lives in Ohio.

Read more FGP essays by Sara Bir.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

newman
Lesléa and her mother, Florence

By Lesléa Newman

A slim, tattered volume of verse with a dark stain on its gold cover is one of my most prized possessions. The book is called Poems for the Little Ones, written by Edie Scobie and published in 1925. The poems in it are rather dreadful:

I’ve dot a lovely dolly

Her name is Violet May

I always take her wiv me

When I go out to play.

It’s not what’s in the book that I treasure; it’s the book itself, which I received from my mother for my eighth birthday. When I opened it, I learned that my mother had also received the same volume for her eighth birthday. Given by her brother, my uncle Arthur, who was eleven years older than my mother, it is inscribed:

To Florence, from Arthur

January 25, 1935

A foundation stone for your future literary castle

Like me, my mother always knew that she wanted to be a writer. Unlike me, her dream never came true.

Even though I always knew in the back of my mind that my mother had once had literary aspirations, I didn’t think much about it. Growing up, my mother was just my mother: the person who put food in front of me, told me to clean my room, and took me shopping for school clothes every fall. When I became a teenager, my mother was someone to fight with about my short skirts, my long hair, and my militant vegetarian eating habits. As a young woman/budding feminist, I saw my stay-at-home mom as the symbol of everything there was to rebel against. And as a not-so-young woman, I relegated my mother to the sidelines of my life as I pursued my goal of being an author.

Though we always mentioned my writing career during our brief, once-a-month phone calls, my mother didn’t know the whole story. I sent home copies of my books that I knew she’d enjoy and could show off to her friends: picture books like Where Is Bear?, Skunk’s Spring Surprise, A Sweet Passover, and Runaway Dreidel! I did not send home books of mine that I knew she’d find upsetting, the thinly disguised autobiographical novels, short story and poetry collections: Nobody’s Mother, The Reluctant Daughter, Secrets, Jailbait, Just Like a Woman, Pillow Talk. These books starred the same protagonist (though she went by different names) who at various times struggled with an eating disorder, found herself in abusive relationships with men, came out as a lesbian, and always viewed her mother with an unforgiving disdain.

More of my books were published, more years went by, and then my mother got sick. She collapsed on a cruise ship and had to be airlifted to a hospital where she remained on life support for ten days. I flew across the country and remained at her side until she was well enough to come home. For hours on end I sat in her hospital room watching her sleep and contemplating our relationship. Our lack of closeness was something that I had always found extremely painful. And I had always blamed my mother for it. But of course it wasn’t all her fault. What could I do to bring us closer? I decided, though it was rather late in the game, to extend the hand of friendship and try to get to know her better.

A month after my mother was settled back home, I went to visit her. After lunch, I peppered her with questions. I wanted to know about her life as a young woman, if she’d dated anyone before she met my father, and whatever happened to her “future literary castle”?

“It’s not important,” my mother said, dismissing my questions with a wave of one manicured hand. Then she changed the subject. “Do you believe all this rain we’ve been having lately? Well, at least it isn’t snow.”

Since my mother was not forthcoming (to say the least) I called my “aunt” Phyllis, who had been my mother’s best friend since they were both ten.

“Oh, your mother was a very good writer,” Aunt Phyllis told me. “I still remember the story she published in Cargoes, Lincoln High School’s literary magazine.”

What? My mother had never told me she had written, let alone published a short story. Luckily my aunt never throws anything away and is very organized. Two days after we had this conversation, a copy of the story arrived in the mail.

I dropped everything and sat down to read, “M is for….” by Florence Levin.

All in all, it had been a pretty rotten day. If only I hadn’t shot my mouth off. It didn’t do any good. It never did. It only made things worse.

Whoa. My mother had written a thinly disguised autobiographical short story about shooting off her mouth? I read on. “Florence” is at the Sweet Shoppe where, “The rain poked an inquisitive finger through the doorway” and the “stool squealed in protest.” Florence, alone, and too upset to order a snack, watches the rain and remembers a recent fight she had with her mother. A huge fight that ends with the narrator thinking, “It’s a difficult thing to admit, even to oneself, that you hate your mother… ”

I had to put the pages down and ponder that sentence for a long time.

When I picked up the story again, it picked up with Florence remembering another recent fight she and her mother had:

“Look at her. She’s sitting there like a princess and I’m doing the dishes.”

“Please, momma. I’m doing my homework.”

“Oh so you’re doing your homework. So I suppose we’ll have to tiptoe around the house until you finish your homework. Pretty soon maybe we won’t be able to breathe if it disturbs you.”

“Oh, momma, please.”

“Oh momma, please. Oh momma, please again. A fine racket she’s got. She sits like a prima donna while I work until I’m ready to drop and nobody lifts a finger to help me….”

And the fight ends with Florence screaming words I had thought, but never dared to say aloud to my own mother: “I hate you, do you hear? I hate you! I hate you!”

Wow.

As Florence sits in the Sweet Shoppe alone with her memories, an “errant tear chased a freckle down [her] nose.” She studies photos pinned to a bulletin board of “Lincolnites” who are in the military and thinks of all the boys “over there” on Iwo Jima and in Germany.

I picked out the smiling face of my sergeant brother among the bevy of others…..Bob with his white teeth and broad shoulders. Bob who had set feminine hearts aflutter before the days of Tarawa: Before the mail stopped coming. Poor momma. It was such a long time between letters. She must be so terribly worried….

Why my mother chose to change her brother’s name but not her own remains a mystery to me. But no matter. The story ends with Florence coming to a new understanding of her mother.

I thought I had troubles. Troubles—why compared to momma—momma whose eyes had been reddened lately. Momma, who needed comfort so desperately lately. Momma, momma darling.

And as Florence comes to a better understanding of her mother, she suddenly realizes that she is hungry.

My mother’s story absolutely blew me away. It’s extremely well written for a high school student, full of sensory imagery, telling detail, authentic-sounding dialogue, and original metaphor. It makes good use of flashbacks. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end. Something happens. And in addition to literary merit, I was astonished by the similarities between my mother and her mother, and my mother and me.

Of course I had to telephone my mother right away. After we chatted a bit, I said, “Aunt Phyllis gave me a copy of Cargoes. I read your story.”

It got very quiet on the other end of the phone.

“It’s a wonderful story,” I went on. “You’ve got a lot of talent.”

More silence. And then my mother said, “Thank you.”

“So,” I said, going for a casual tone, “why didn’t you ever tell me about it?”

“I didn’t think it was important.”

“What else did you write?” I asked.

“I stopped writing after that.”

“Why?”

I could almost hear my mother shrug. “I didn’t see the need to pursue it.”

A thought occurred to me. “Did Grandma ever read the story?”

My mother paused. “She did.”

“What did she say when you showed it to her?”

“I didn’t show it to her. She found it. And she wasn’t pleased.”

I wondered if my mother could hear me nodding as I thought about what to say next. “You know, Mom,” I said, “I’ve written some stories similar to this one. Stories I’ve never showed you. Stories that might upset you.”

“So what?” my mother asked. “A lot of things upset me. Then I get over them.”

“Even stories about me and you?” I asked.

“Darling,” my mother said in a gentle voice, “don’t you know I’ve read everything you’ve written?”

“You have?” I asked, my heart pounding.

“Of course I have.”

“And?”

“And I think you’re a very fine writer.”

I started to cry. “But what about the stories where you and I—”

“It doesn’t matter.” My mother cut me off. “What matters is that you tell the truth. That’s what’s important.”

As I wept, it dawned on me: my grandmother must have said or done something to thwart my mother’s writing career. And my mother was not going to do the same thing to me.

“I love you, Mom,” was all I could say.

“I love you to pieces,” was how she answered.

From that point on, I showed my mother everything I wrote. She was generous with both praise and criticism. She had a good editor’s eye and often pointed out weaknesses in my writing that had slipped by me, the members of my writers group, my agent, and my editor.

Then she got sick again.

During my mother’s final hospital stay, she beckoned me to her bedside. “I’m giving you permission to write about all this,” she waved her hand around the room, “under one condition.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Promise me I’ll never have to read it.”

I promised.

After my mother died, I felt her presence most acutely while I was writing about her. My mother loved poetry, and I could feel her sitting beside me as I wrote sonnets, haiku, villanelles, and sestinas about her illness and death, and my own grief. Formal poetry provided the firm container I needed to hold my unwieldy grief. Two and a half years after my mother died, my book of poetry I Carry My Mother was published. As I held the first copy in my hand, I stared at the cover with its painting of red high heeled shoes (my mother loved shoes as much as I do) and my sorrow at being unable to show it to her was palpable. I like to think that wherever my mother is, somehow she knows that I made good on my promise. And that she is very proud.

•••

LESLÉA NEWMAN is the author of sixty-five books for readers of all ages including the short story collection, A Letter to Harvey Milk, the novel-in-verse, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard, and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. A former poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts, she currently teaches at Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, I Carry My Mother, explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death and her own grief.

 

Jacket Required

brunch
By Charles Kim/ Flickr

By Jody Mace

At the retirement community where my dad lives, on Sundays at 11:30 a.m., they have a buffet. It’s a special event, more special even than Japanese Food Night or BBQ Outside Afternoon. There’s a dress code. Men have to wear jackets and ladies have to wear a dress, a skirt and a top, or a pants suit.

It was the dress code that led my dad to boycott the Sunday buffet for the first eight months he lived here. Because nobody was going to tell him to put on a jacket. I kept on saying “What’s the big deal? It’s just a jacket,” but it was the principle of the thing.

Then one day he called me and told me every Sunday they have a buffet, and he went to it and it was wonderful. They had prime rib! He said this as if it was the first time I’d heard about it.

He said, “I don’t know why I haven’t been going to this!”

I said, “I know exactly why. It’s because you didn’t want them to tell you to put on a jacket.”

He invited us for the following Sunday, and my husband Stan and I leapt at the chance to go. I put on a skirt and top, not having a pants suit in my closet, and my husband and seventeen-year-old son happily put on jackets. We stopped at my dad’s apartment in the complex to pick him up, and he was wearing a powder blue jacket and looked great.

We got there a few minutes before 11:30 and a line was forming. Stan, our son, and I were thrilled because we love a brunch buffet, plus my dad was paying, but in general the mood was dark. There were several reasons for the discontent:

  • The line was too long.
  • Sometimes they did not open the doors right at 11:30, despite the published start time.
  • Sometimes the wait staff was not as responsive as desired.
  • Undisclosed reasons.

As we stood in line a friendly woman approached me and eyed my dad, husband and son appreciatively.

“Are you with all these men?” she asked.

“I am.”

“They’re all good-looking,” she noted. “And all different ages.”

Then she looked a little bit too long at my son. “Mm, mm, mm.”

Another woman came up to her and asked “Who are you with?” and she nodded at us and said, “I’m with them.”

Meanwhile another woman, noting that it was almost 11:30, tried to cut to the front of the line. She was turned away.

She muttered “JESUS CHRIST!” and stomped off.

When we got to the front of the line, the woman working the desk wrote down my dad’s room number. This took too long for the woman who had been eyeing my men, and she whisper-shouted, “It’s like she’s writing an encycloPEdia!”

Even with the litany of complaints, there was something special about the Sunday brunch buffet. Everyone was dressed up. There were different stations for food. It was like going to dinner on a slightly threadbare cruise ship or an old Victorian-era resort hotel that had hobbled into the twenty-first century. I loved it.

We were told to sit at Table 18. This was a good table because it was near the omelet station. There, two men were making omelets to order, with a wide range of fillings. These guys were pros. They did the thing where they each picked up two omelet pans, one in each hand, and flipped both omelets at the same time. It was a professional operation. Also there was French toast, link sausages, and bacon.

While I was waiting to order my omelet, the two women in front of me lamented about the choir they sing in.

“We need new sopranos,” one said.

“I know!” agreed the other. “I can stand right next to them and I still can’t hear them!”

“What kind of cheese would you like?” the omelet man asked the second woman.

“What?”

Besides the omelet station, there were three other buffet areas. There was a salad bar, a lunch buffet, which included a carving station, chicken, fish, breads, and vegetables, and a dessert table, which included slices of cakes and pies, half of them in a section called “SF,” which I learned meant “sugar free.”

There was a problem at the dessert table. The pecan pie was all gone, leading to a heightened sense of discontent and some raised voices. My dad did snag a slice of sugar free pecan pie but said it was horrible. He went back to try to find some chocolate pie but it was all gone, too. He implored one of the wait staff for help, and, probably familiar with the rate with which the tenor of his complaints have been known to rise, she went into the kitchen to investigate. She emerged with a slice of chocolate cake and that calmed him down a little.

Meanwhile at the salad bar, a man with a walker was despondent. They had bagels and lox, and I’m talking really good-looking lox, no brown patches, and a lot of it. But they had run out of cream cheese, or had failed to replenish it in a timely manner.

“How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?” he asked nobody. “How can I eat my bagel without cream cheese?”

The buffet had been a success. We loved it. In a family too often lacking in traditions, I thought this could be one. Every Sunday morning we would put on our finery, drive to my dad’s retirement community, where we’d pick him up at his apartment. He’d be more congenial than usual, or would at least seem that way, wearing his powder-blue blazer. We’d socialize in the lounge area, amidst the grand piano and sofas. Maybe my son would play a little “Rhapsody in Blue” when he learned more of it. We’d get to know the other residents as we reconnected every week. It was totally worth getting dressed up. Even our son didn’t mind putting on a jacket because he liked the bacon.

My own life sometimes seems so complicated. Taxes, college bills, vet appointments, trying to make a living. The seemingly endless demands on my time. People are always saying they don’t want to go into a “home.” If I can afford one like this, sign me up. I liked everything about the retirement community. The weekly schedule of activities. The planned trips to shows and museums. The happy hour. Bingo. And especially the Sunday buffet.

We decided to return the next week, and this time we’d bring our daughter too, because she’d be home from college for spring break. I felt kind of bad that she’d miss the tradition that was about to start. It had started too late. Kind of like when my parents joined a country club the summer after I’d started going to sleep-away camp. (Strangely they stopped after I quit camp.) I still hear all about how much fun the swimming pool was from my sister, who seems to always forget that I missed out on the whole thing.

I texted my daughter:

Me: Let’s go to Grandpa’s Sunday brunch when you’re home. It’s awesome. It’s like brunch-theater. But there’s a dress code. Make sure to bring home a skirt or a pants suit.

Daughter: I’m not wearing a “pants suit.”

Me: That’s just one option.

When we arrived there was some confusion over the change to Daylight Savings Time.

“Why are you here so early?” my dad asked.

“I’m not,” I said. “Daylight Savings time started this morning.”

“They didn’t tell me about Daylight Savings Time!” he protested. “Nobody told me!”

This time he suggested a different approach to check-in. We got to the check-in counter before the crowd. He checked in and got a table assignment, and then we relaxed on the couches in the lounge while the others lined up. When the clock struck 11:30 a.m., we walked right in, right past that line. Suckers.

Those people were pissed off.

Generally, you don’t want to get between old people and the Sunday buffet. They’re hungrier than you are, they’re meaner, and they’ve got nothing to lose.

I heard murmurs rising in volume as the whole line realized that we had played them. But I didn’t care. I was getting into the spirit of things. I might not be elderly yet but I was learning that I had an inner battle-ax.

As we entered the dining hall, I passed on some valuable advice to my daughter.

“When you walk in, stop at the dessert table. Take what you want. You don’t have to eat it right away but if you don’t take it now you’ll end up with sugar-free pecan pie.”

This time instead of bagels and lox there was shrimp cocktail. Big shrimp. And instead of French toast there were blintzes. Blintzes!

There was one old guy who wasn’t wearing a jacket. He was wearing a big slouchy red tee-shirt and I found myself feeling judgmental about him. Didn’t he know this was Sunday brunch? What was he doing on my cruise ship looking like a schlub?

I felt not only that I belonged there, at the retirement community’s Sunday brunch, but that he didn’t. One of the elderly women looked at him, then at me, and shook her head a little. I shook mine back. It was as if crotchetiness was contagious.

God, I loved the Sunday brunch.

The next day my dad called me. “Well, they’re doing away with the Sunday buffet.”

“What? Why?”

“Nobody liked it.”

“What do you mean nobody liked it? It was awesome! They were all fighting to get in! Who didn’t like it?”

“The people who went to the meeting and voted.”

“Well, this sucks,” I said.

Those old people were infuriating. They were living in this beautiful retirement community, being served great food. The omelet guys were flipping made-to-order omelets two at a time! And all they did was complain. They could go to lectures, concerts, poker night. Other people took care of it all for them. They didn’t have to do anything but show up. But their favorite activity, hands-down, was complaining.

“They’ll still have a brunch, just not a buffet,” my dad told me, trying to cheer me up. “It’ll still be nice. They might still have the omelet station. I don’t know. Maybe they’ll still have the bagels and lox.”

“You think?” I asked.

“But I’m going to bring my own bagels,” he said. “Their bagels are hard as rocks.”

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O MagazineBrain, ChildThe Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Read more FGP essays by Jody Mace.

Balloons

GohmannDad
Johanna with her father. By Ernesto Rodriguez

By Johanna Gohmann

Nine years ago, I am 27, and I am home in New Albany, Indiana visiting with my family. There is a birthday party for one of my seven siblings, and there are the usual hot dogs, and paper plates, and perspiring cans of soda. My mother has brought in a big bunch of brightly colored helium balloons as decoration.

The morning after the party, I am up in my childhood bedroom, and when I look out the window, I see my Dad standing in the front yard, alone in the quiet of a spring morning. The dewy grass is giving a sheen to his leather shoes, and he is holding the big bunch of balloons in his large hands. I watch as he struggles to carefully separate the strings, then he releases the balloons to the sky one at a time. He stares at each one as it drifts up and away, until it becomes just a tiny pinprick of color.

It is a rather odd sight—this 6”5, grandfatherly figure, clad in impeccable dress slacks and a sport coat, playing with a handful of children’s balloons. Watching him, I feel something inside me twist tightly. I slip on some shoes and go outside to join him. When he sees me, he smiles a distracted smile.

“I like watching these balloons float away, Josey.”

We stand together, and he releases the string on the last balloon. It drifts skyward, joining the other tiny dots of color in the sky. We watch silently as it sails up into the clouds, fading into the blue. It is a rare, quiet bit of togetherness for us, and should be a sweet moment. But watching those balloons drift away fills me with a strange, anxious kind of melancholy. I don’t like watching them go.

When I am 35, my Dad is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The diagnosis isn’t a surprise. He is 77, and I have seen the shift in him—his confusion with numbers and dates…the way he repeats stories within minutes of each other, sometimes transposing the names of people and places. And yet, when my oldest brother calls me with the news, it still feels improbable. As if my commanding, in charge father never would allow such a thing to happen to his solid, intelligent mind.

For a while, medication seems to slow things down, but then a full year later, it’s undeniable that my Dad is slowly coming uncoiled. It becomes the norm for him to appear wearing a shirt inside out, or sporting two pairs of pajama pants beneath his dress slacks, even in the heat of August. I buy him a beeping gadget to help him locate his constantly misplaced glasses and keys. He loses the gadget.

At 36, I am pregnant with my first child. When I talk on the phone to my Dad, I can feel my baby rolling back and forth in my belly, his strong kicks and punches occasionally making the fabric of my dress hitch and jerk. I listen to my father struggle through the conversation, and I try to float, relaxed and easy, through his tide of tangled words. I rub at the patch of flesh over my flailing baby, and I try to imagine my Dad holding my son as he did his other grandchildren—bouncing him gently on his knee, letting him teethe on his heavy silver wristwatch.

As I watch my Dad slowly lose bits and pieces of himself, I think about those long ago released balloons. I know the bright shades of my father are fading with each passing day. They are drifting further and further away from me. And I can feel myself scrabble to contain them…trying to grip the tangled strings of them tightly in my fists…struggling to somehow make them stay.

He spent his life as a successful insurance salesman. This makes him sound staid and dull, but in reality, he is a big, playful personality. His large blue eyes perch above a smirking mouth, and as a younger man, he bears a striking resemblance to Chevy Chase. As he grows older, his features crack and curl, and he suddenly begins to look and sound like Gene Hackman—the same knowing, smiling eyes—the same gruff voice. Once while watching a movie, I hear Gene Hackman tell someone to “shag ass”, and it’s as though my Dad has been transported to the big screen. Shag ass means “to hurry,” and the only other person I’ve ever heard say this is my father.

He has large, mitt-like hands, and their Shrek-like size renders certain tasks comical, such as when he struggles to use scissors, or when he reaches to pet his tiny terrier that he calls “Princess.” He has a tiny bit of shrapnel from the Korean War imbedded into the thumb of his right hand, and as children we probe this tiny black pellet with wide-eyed fascination.

He is, as my mother says, “full of foolishness.” In one of my favorite photos of him, he is in a Freddy Krueger hat and sweater, brandishing a pair of rubber knives, and giving a hilariously hideous snarl to the camera. As kids, he often tells us about pranks he pulled as a child. When he was a young boy, he and a friend took Limburger cheese (a product whose smell can only be described as fecal) and hid slices in their palms. They went up and down the stairs of their Catholic grade school, quietly greasing the banisters with the stink. When people came down the stairs, they walked away sniffing their hands with disgust.  As a little girl, I am enthralled by this prank, and my friends and I reenact it on our last day of school. The cheese is gooey and the smell makes me gag, but I love feeling mischievous like my father.

He likes teasing us—his children—most of all.  One warm May night we are all gathered watching “The Incredible Hulk”, and my Dad comes into the living room and looks at us with a grave, stricken face. He tells us that he’s just seen a special news report, and he has some terrible news. President Reagan has decided children simply aren’t learning enough, and he is cancelling summer vacation all across the United States. At first we just roll our eyes at him, but he keeps his face so stone cold serious, we become panicked.  We begin pacing the house and shouting. One of us anxiously flips through channels trying to find the “special report.” We groan on like this for almost half an hour, until some of us begin crying and shouting our hatred for stupid President Reagan. My Dad finally breaks down, and admits that he’s only joking. We pile on top of him—half furious, half laughing—and try to punch him with our tiny fists.

When we are young, he is gone a lot. He goes on business trips and golf trips, which are often one in the same. He leaves the house in a dark suit, toting a scuffed leather duffle and a rattling bag of clubs. When I kiss his cheek goodbye, my lips come away lightly greased with his aftershave.

When he is home for long stretches, it is an event, and the house buzzes nervously with his presence. At dinner, my six brothers and my sister and I sit around our large kitchen table passing plates of Shake and Bake pork chops and spilling milk. My Dad shouts out “reports!” Which means we are to share any interesting events from the day. My mind always goes blank at this, and I feel as if I never have anything worthy of reporting.

After dinner he helps my mother bathe us. We call bath time “souping”, because my Dad adores the nonsense words and nicknames that come out of our mouths as toddlers. When a little one refers to bathing as “souping”, he makes it part of our permanent lexicon. The same for “goosing”, which means teeth brushing.  He is forever asking us if we have “goosed our teeth.”

The best part of souping is when my Dad comes in, a giant bath towel in hand, and slings one of us inside the towel, then carries us on his back like a hobo sack. He hauls us to our respective rooms and deposits us on the bed with a bounce. We call this “geeking”, and we all beg to be “geeked.” When it is my turn, he drapes the rough towel beneath my underarms, then throws me over his broad shoulder. I travel down the long hallway bumping damply against his broad back, slick as a seal tucked into a papoose.

After our baths, he comes into my brothers’ bedroom and stretches his long frame out on the carpet. We excitedly cluster around him in footed pajamas, shouting for a story. He tells us made up, ghostly tales that are always designed to teach us a moral. There is the smug “Simon Cigarette”, who chokes to death on cigarette smoke. Or “Reginald Reservoir”, the bratty boy who ignores his parents’ pleas to never go near the deep reservoir, and of course meets a terrible fate. And then, the favorite, “Little Sally Go To Church”, about a little girl who doesn’t want to go to church, and instead wants to stay at home and eat junk food. Sally’s lack of piety is always punished by a visit from the Sunday Monster—a giant beast who jumps out of nowhere with a horrific roar. My Dad roars in his deep baritone, and we all scream with terrified delight, beg him to stop, then quickly beg him to do it again.

When I am small, he calls me “Josey Lamb”, because when I’m around the rowdy swirl of my siblings I appear shy and quiet: gentle as a lamb. He continues to call me this even after I am fully-grown, and have become loud and opinionated, and decidedly less lamb-like. But he does so ironically, with a glint in his eye.

He tears up easily. Which seems funny for a man with such a large, commanding presence.  But certain songs and movies leave his eyes pink-rimmed and glistening, and when I am growing up, I actually see him cry more times than my mother. On my wedding day I select “Someone to Watch Over Me” for our father-daughter dance, because it’s a song I know he likes. But he refuses to slow dance, and just keeps shimmying around the floor, making goofy faces. A few bars in I ask him what exactly is wrong and he says, “Josey! This music is too sad!” Flustered, I go up to the DJ and request that she instead put on Supertramp’s “The Logical Song”, another favorite of my father’s. He is thrilled, and in my wedding photos we are both spinning and laughing, giving high, jubilant kicks.

When I am in my 20s, I chafe at his politics, and what I consider his small-town small-mindedness. He is a staunch republican and extremely conservative, whereas I consider myself very liberal. We have heated arguments at the dinner table that leave us both red-faced and shouting, and make my mother flutter nervously around the kitchen. My other siblings never engage with my father in this way, and they find it hilarious the way we shout at each other about Clinton, and both Bushes.

Sometimes, to gall me, he tapes conservative news articles to the lamp hanging above my place at the table. I come down for breakfast and find Karl Rove’s smiling face torn from the paper, dangling in front of me from a piece of Scotch Tape. I sleepily look to my father, and he smirks at me over his bowl of Raisin Bran.

With the Alzheimer’s, the days of political debates and discussions come to an end. There is no longer any real, lasting talk of the present. My father’s mind becomes stuck in the past, like a wheel that can’t quite push over, and he speaks to me about long ago events, as though he is plucking dusty photos from an album in his mind, and holding them up to me, saying, “Here. See?”

He tells me several times about how his father once gifted him a new baseball glove. He says he loved the glove so much he oiled it every single night.

Or he recounts the time he found a dead body on the golf course. He describes how he and a friend were playing on New Year’s Day, and were the only ones stomping their spiked shoes though the frosted grass, knocking around balls. When my Dad rounded a sand trap, he spied the man—gray-faced and frozen, a bottle of whiskey at his side.

He talks about his time in the Korean War. About how frightened he was lying on the floor of a cargo plane, traveling further from his Indiana home than he’d ever been in his life. One night in camp he polished his army boots white, as a sort of goofy mini-protest, and he was soundly punished for it by the Colonel.

And he talks about Lynne Anne, the oldest child and sister I never knew. She died when she was five of meningitis. He fingers the tattered prayer card that he still, 38 years later, carries in his wallet, and he tells me in a low, quiet voice how delicate and beautiful her hands were. He talks about her golden hair.

I listen to him talk, and feel overwhelmed by how much there is about him that I don’t know, or can’t really fathom. His life stretches behind him full of heartbreaks and triumphs and mysteries that I will never really grasp. And through him, I learn that understanding people, and loving them, sometimes has very little to do with one another.

Now, when I am home visiting, he really likes to give me things. He has always delighted in giving gifts, but now, each time I am there, he gives me funny things—strange bits of odds and ends. He has taken to handing me the smallest of trinkets, the kinds of treasures a small child might hide away in a cigar box.

“Here Josey,” he says.  “You can take that home with you.”

And he hands me an old golf tee, or a tiny, pretty seedpod that he’s spied on the ground. A St. Anthony prayer card. Old fishing hooks. A tattered National Geographic. I save all of it. I bring it back to New York with me, and I tuck it into jewelry boxes and special drawers, hidden away like clues.

Losing someone in this way—this subtle losing, piece by piece—is its own unique kind of sadness. It’s a mean, cruel kind of grief that I feel could drag me under if I let it.  And so I try to focus on the fact that my father is still here with me. He still makes me laugh. He still loves to tell stories. And he still loves to tease. Even now, he still calls me up and holds the phone up to the radio, so that when I get back to my apartment I have a voicemail that is nothing but Rush Limbaugh ranting away. I play back these voicemails, and I picture my Dad huddling in the background, struggling to hold in his laughter. Just like the trinkets, I save these garbled voicemails. And I try to focus on the father I still have…on the bright shades of him that remain.

I can’t ever bring myself to think of when that final dot of color finally fades from sight, completely out of my view. Until then, I steadily train my eye on what I can still see. I take in every last glimpse.

•••

JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for Salon, The Morning News, xoJane, Scratch, Babble, and Curve, among othersShe is a regular contributor to Bust magazine. Her essays have been anthologized in A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the WorldJoan Didion Crosses the StreetThe Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010The Best Sex Writing 2010, and The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2015. www.JohannaGohmann.com

 

Republished with permission. Johanna Gohmann’s “Balloons” is one of 25 personal essays by women writers writing about their fathers in Every Father’s Daughter, a new anthology edited by Margaret McMullan, including an introduction by Phillip Lopate. Contributors include Alice Munro, Jane Smiley, Jayne Anne Phillips, Alexandra Styron, Ann Hood, Bobbie Ann Mason, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others.