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.

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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. 

The Cupcake Man

girl on bed
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kate Banigan-White

The Cupcake Man was, at first, innocuous. He was part of an activity my daughter Charlotte devised with two girls—children of dear friends. For several years we had been spending time together as families: dinners at each others’ homes, throwing birthday parties, working on political campaigns, and eventually vacationing together. We camped on Cape Cod one summer and then took a holiday to Washington, D.C., over spring break. We stayed in a large glass hotel in adjoining rooms, taking the Metro into the city each day. It was then, I would later learn, during some interlude between Washington Monument and Smithsonian Museum touring, that the Cupcake Man was invented. It would take the aftermath of tragedy for me to understand this.

Many parents know that children can be captivated by something borne by a group of kids, but for one child, it can take hold and take longer to let go. It’s a benign experience, this, but it can make you cringe: soon your daughter may see that she has held onto the Cupcake Man longer than the others. She might face the hurt that she is now alone with her love for this character, this game.

One recent night, I told Charlotte that we’d be having dinner with her friends Lisa and Ellie, and she lit up, collecting materials for the Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration. She said that it was an event the three girls had been planning for late January. Today it was January 24: perfect! She found the bags of balloons that we had purchased weeks ago, plus other signs and stories they had written during recent dinner get-togethers. She even cried when she thought she had lost the illustrated story, one I could picture but had never really read. We found it, and still I hoped that the other girls were as into this as Charlotte.

We kept our same basic dinner routine that we’ve had for years: the girls ate together in the kitchen at the high table, chattering and devising an activity culminating in a show. The grown-ups sat in the living room, eating vegetarian pasta out of plates on our laps, splitting a bottle of red wine. We could now talk, unencumbered by children’s ears. We knew we’d ultimately be thrust in the middle of the Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration, but we’d stave that off as long as possible. I felt mild relief at the buzzing in the other room, with Ellie stringing up streamers and Lisa creating makeshift cupcakes out of buttercrunch ice cream globs, graham cracker crumbs, and candy bits. Charlotte was not alone in this. Whew.

•••

Six months before the Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration, my husband Dave—Charlotte’s father—died suddenly one summer morning at home after having an acute cerebral aneurysm. Only moments earlier, he was peeling plums and toasting bagels with Charlotte at the kitchen table. We had just returned from a vacation in Maine and were gearing up for a day of settling back in. Before taking our dog out for a walk and picking up the Sunday Times, I reached over Dave’s shoulder and took two casual bites out of his bagel slathered with cream cheese. I failed to kiss him then or say goodbye.

I returned from my walk and began playing a game of pretend with Charlotte as I had promised. Nothing seemed amiss and Dave was apparently upstairs. When he did not appear downstairs after a period of time, I checked on him, gasping at what I saw: my once vibrant husband, whose profile I had admired on a mountain just days before, was lying on our bathroom floor.

“Something’s wrong with Daddy,” I said to Charlotte as I raced to the phone. “I have to call 9-1-1.” As the police, paramedics, and fire truck arrived moments later, the only clear-headed thought I had was that now permanent memories were being formed in my eight-year-old daughter’s heart. I had to protect her. “I’m very worried,” I said, my voice shaking. “This is very serious. But we are going to be okay.”

•••

This is the charge, after all, of a parent who now presides over her grieving child: to make it okay. To let your child be a child amid a tragedy, knowing that her mourning will be the mourning of little girl and not the grown-up sorrow that is accompanied by planning a funeral, re-negotiating work schedules, selling the car, applying for survivors’ benefits, and arranging a make-shift child care and dog walking schedule. My grief is consciously ebbing or flowing as I find a way to have a decent supper preceded by saying grace, draw a warm bath, and tuck Charlotte into bed at night, now without my mate, her father.

In the early weeks in particular, just a day or two after Dave’s death, Charlotte needed to play, and play hard. Quickly, she surveyed the sudden influx of weeping visitors armed with flowers and food and books on grieving children, and she was having none of it. She was grateful to be scooped up by friends and family to go swimming, visit an art studio, and run around in various backyards. Meanwhile, I stumbled through the fog of the constant doorbell, the hugs, and the tears, alternately collapsing alone in the heat of summer on my bed, fan spinning above me. Each of us, then, did what we had to do.

During our funeral for Dave, Charlotte bent down her head and drew pictures on a clipboard of paper while I sat rapt, clinging to every person, word, psalm, and hymn. All throughout the reception, she ran around with her friends and cousins, making up games. I was front and center in a receiving line of grievers, embracing hundreds who endured the awkward wait to search for the right words, the gentle touch. I needed to be there, and Charlotte needed to be elsewhere. She seems to have such fond memories of this that she has asked me several times when her cousins can return to finish the game they played in the church basement. That was so much fun.

•••

I know that most grievers think that their lost one is special, that he or she possessed qualities that will be unsurpassed by any other living being. For Charlotte and me, this is beyond truth, the very reason we miss this man. He was the great creator of stories, mostly as a way of transitioning to the next fine thing. When Charlotte was a toddler, Dave would wake her up to “cat stories.” They would sit on her bed for long stretches, and he would tell an ongoing tale of the many stuffed kittens Charlotte had collected. Meanwhile, I was downstairs grinding coffee beans and scrambling eggs, so that the three of us could sit at the kitchen table for a cozy breakfast.

Dave was the inventor of games at all of Charlotte’s birthday parties, gathering the kids around the playroom floor, introducing musical hula-hoops, pin the whiskers on the kitty, What’s Different, and scavenger hunts. He also took Charlotte sledding on a huge hill near a local college. As they flew down the slope and marched back up its snowy paths, Dave made up a story. There would be a narrative flowing and this would guide their journeys as they made the arduous walk uphill. All this for the glory of the flight to the bottom. Whheeee!

•••

Charlotte’s way of mourning is mysterious to me. It’s evident in her anxiety at night, when she asks me to feel her heart and mine, making sure they are beating well, and when she staggers into my room, asking me if I am alive. In the early weeks, it poured forth in the deep dark of night when she would all of a sudden let out a wail like I’ve never heard before. Mostly though, it’s tucked away someplace, in her foul mood on a Saturday morning or in her defiance over small things: brushing her hair, locating her socks, completing her nightly homework.

The Cupcake Man’s fiftieth birthday party celebration might possess clues into Charlotte’s broken heart, and also, perhaps, her path through the loss of the man who invented him. The night we had supper at our friends’ house, the swirl of activity over the character picking up speed, my friend Jill said, “I think this whole Cupcake Man thing is intense.”

This is when I first realized that this game had special significance. My initial instinct was shame at the exposed neediness, my daughter’s sorrow as well as mine. Jill said that her daughters played the game now because they thought Charlotte wanted to, but they didn’t mind. She reminded me of its origin: it happened during some transitional period along the Washington Mall, where we had been the spring before. Maybe it was when we were waiting for the double-decker bus tour—though my memory then is of Dave organizing an impromtu soccer game with the three girls on an open green space. It was sunny and warm, and he had, somehow, carried with him a soccer ball, just waiting for time between activities.

Perhaps the tale was told just before we entered the cool marble space and gazed up at Abraham Lincoln on his throne. I had barely noticed it because my beloved was always inventing stories during down time. I adored that he did this, but paid precious little attention to the details.

At first, I thought it was odd, too. I suddenly fancied this ongoing game as a problematic expression of grief, a resistance to letting go of something and someone forever gone. Now this once-benign character took on an ominous tone, like a creepy clown. As we, the grown-ups, one of whom was now missing, reluctantly filed into the kitchen filled with streamers and balloons, eating the ice cream globs and singing Happy Birthday to the Cupcake Man, I thought I would die of sadness, right then and there. I cried silently to myself as Charlotte and I drove home in the dark. She, on the other hand, chattered happily in the back seat. She had had such a good time.

At bedtime, after Charlotte had me feel her heart and mine, making sure, once again, that they were beating well, she told me that she loved the Cupcake Man. “Why?” I asked. “Because he’s fun,” she said. “Because he’s all about celebration, and that’s fun.” I kissed her goodnight, and went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. Standing at the counter, I lifted a paper there, one that had been evident for weeks and weeks. I had seen it, but never read it. The paper included the by-lines and introduction to the Cupcake Man. It was written in Charlotte’s tell-tale perfect penmanship with sprinkles of misspellings. It read:

Cup Cake Man

By: Charlotte lisa Ellie

And help with Jill Sam and kate

An arigenle started

by Dave

Cup cakes all over the world have been sold Vanila too, Chocolate

too blue red purple

and orange and yello

and green and brown

and White

But, the Cup Cake Man — Yea, Yay.

He was a good, good man.

 

I can see him now: dancing around a fountain with the kids, near lunchtime, when we are idle. Abraham Lincoln presides over us at the end of the mall, on his throne, and words inscribed in his shrine tell us a story. Nearby, there is a place filled with soldiers’ names etched into a low-lying wall—each has a narrative all of his or her own. People file through to read the names and pay respect to the unspoken histories.

Meanwhile, Dave’s forty-three-year-old self is smiling, his graying hair is sparkling, his imagination brimming over. I could have been anywhere, really, which may account for my dim recollection of the Cupcake Man’s creation: stealing away for a solitary look again at Julia Child’s kitchen, the Greensboro lunch counter, or the sculptures of Louise Bourgouis. Maybe I was seeking stocking-stuffing treasures in some museum store, while my mate distracted our daughter. Most likely, I was right there, watching the whole character unfold and without seeing the specifics; I simply saw Dave, Charlotte’s father, leaping around the gleaming water. All I felt was unfettered joy. Maybe.

For my child, grieving over the inventor of such a sweet presence, I wish for her an ongoing celebration, without the burden of it being strange. Cupcakes all over the world. Monuments, history. He was, indeed, a good, good man.

•••

KATE BANIGAN-WHITE is a clinical social worker living in western Massachusetts with her family. She grew up in Louisville, KY.  She has had essays published in The Daily Hampshire Gazette, Hampshire Life, Patchwork Farm Journal, and the anthology Not What I Expected, published by Perugia Press.

Surrogate Daughter

ghostly
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jordan E. Rosenfeld

When the dead visit my mother in dreams, they always come bearing information, like a character in an Isabelle Allende novel. Her older brother, who died of liver failure when she was eighteen, made only one visit over the decades to reassure her he was at peace, and then not again until long after both their parents had passed. My grandmother made a similar walk-on appearance. These ghostly visitations in the realm of slumber are often a sign of peace or acceptance for my mother. But not with Gayle, my mother’s best friend of forty years, also my godmother, who passed away September 2013, slipped off the edge of our knowing, her end a question.

“I dreamt she was a prisoner upstairs in that bedroom crying for help and mercy and not able to get to the bathroom,” my mom texted me this week. “She even called out my name and said she was in such pain.”

The dream repeated on an exhausting loop all night, she said. The same loop that works its way through my brain every day. Like a badly written mystery novel, pieces keep falling into place since we learned, six months after the fact, of Gayle’s death.

Learned after the fact, long after the chance to say goodbye, because her husband, too, ghosted away, line disconnected, house sold, a man still flesh becoming phantom.

Our facts have been gleaned from those practitioners of health and death—the doctor, the dentist, the mortuary attendant.

Denied the chance to attend a funeral, my mother and I arranged a memorial, just a handful of Gayle’s oldest friends, clustered around the coffee table. After I’d gone, Mary Lou, with short-cropped hair, a self-professed “psychic” to whom my mother had not spoken in over thirty years, told her: “Gayle was here, I felt her. She said her greatest regret is what happened between Jordan and Jeff.”

There’s no way that Mary Lou could have known about the falling out between me and my godfather.

•••

Children give love the way the sun gives light—without reserve, daily, radiant. Unless it’s beaten or broken or shamed out of them. Children see the world with awe and love. Sometimes in the midst of a grumpy rushing morning, my six-year-old son will stop and notice a simple thing—a puddle looks like a frog or the cloud like an anvil, and my heart will tumble downhill at how much beauty I fail to see. I saw it once, too, though; I remember the dust motes streaming through slivers of light in my godparents’ New York apartment when I was about his age. Only, I didn’t think of it as dust, but particles of separate universes escaped from the books they stacked nearly to the ceilings, a tower where Rapunzel would never have been bored, with reading material for ages and Chinese food delivered at any hour.

Can I really remember such specifics from these early years? But I do—wooden floors that shined with a rare light. A red velvet couch, decorative buttons bulging off the taut fabric like the teats of a nursing bitch. Magazine pages, glossy and spilling open their stinky perfumed pages with half dead models in painful contortions that equaled beauty.

My godparents were mythical creatures—Gayle commanding us from her perch in the chair, or on the book-laden bed—small as a child, with an old cancerous bite scooped from her side, but a Goddess in her power. “Bring me those Malomars,” she’d command Jeff. “I’m hungry.” And he’d scurry off on his sinewy calves, a man-servant to do her bidding. Sometimes I imagined her holding a scepter of snakes entwining, a tiny clay urn of poison hidden around her neck. And Jeff, his mind a hoarded library of facts and verses, his super power in memory, recitation and detail, Shakespeare and Elliott, Baldwin and Foster Wallace, a shield woven of words to keep him safe from the world.

When I visited, I was the lone child, Eloise in my freedom to roam their rooms, while clouds of pot smoke filled the air. They’d let me sink my loosening little girl teeth into oily, creamy cannoli, tri-color marzipan cookies from Vignero’s bakery around the corner, greasy, fragrant NY pizza, cool cups of bubbling soda.

My godfather crooned stories to me, his accent musical, his eyes always slightly glazed. Soft brown bangs fell in his face—thin and fine like mine. John Lennon glasses. Skinny calves always thrusting out of long shorts.

When the New York apartment gave way to a bright San Diego condo for Gayle’s new job, I missed the luminous magic of that urban pad, even though the view was traded from back alley to blue ocean. The people here were surfer tan instead of poet pale. But the stacks of books were just as high. Jeff gave me strange and captivating books full of broken men and eccentric women. William T. Vollman and Burroughs, Steven Milhauser and R. Crumb.

I was a product of stories, those I read and those I wrote, mimicking the worlds of my reading. An only child until fourteen, I fancied myself a lonely orphan, my divorced but friendly parents preoccupied by their addictive monkeys and bare survival, making a living, making a score, making it through the night.

Did I love him simply because he was there, appointed by the guardians of my care in the interim between their own availability? Or did I love him the way that we accept the gravity that holds us to the earth? I took his presence as a sign that he must love me, too. After all, he didn’t have to spend a week entertaining a barely-teen girl every spring break. The kind of girl who alternated between scribbling in her journals in a fury and brooding over blasted MTV music videos, roaming the condo like a rangy young beast in search of snacks.

My instincts, even as a child, were sharply honed. Once, at the age of seven, a stoned friend of our downstairs neighbor found me playing alone outside and told me that he had “a little dragon friend” who was cute, but “not as cute as you.” Somehow, I knew this man for what he was. I stood up and shouted, “You can’t talk to me like that, I’m just a little girl.”

Perhaps I loved my godfather because I had known him all my life, the mythical man who could quell my bellowing baby howls with opera played full bore. Maybe I loved him because he came attached to the warm, sweet, often laughing, dirty-joke–cracking presence of my godmother. But I never trusted him. He always kept a mug beside him, retreating often to the kitchen to refill it. By the time I was fourteen, and visiting for spring break, my own mother having already gone to drug and alcohol rehab, I no longer wondered about the origins of that potent sweet-chemical scent; further, his slurring, babbling, suddenly-sitting-too-close told me that he was drunk.

•••

I knew that Jeff had a daughter: the mysterious “Beth” who lived in the same South that had carved his own verbal cadence, tight and twangy. She was older than me, and I pictured her like wild Mary of The Secret Garden, unkempt and blonde and inconsolably unhappy because her parents had abandoned her. Well, unlike Mary, only Beth’s father had left, however, and now he was mine, on loan, a fatherish figure who kept me company because he did not have to work. I don’t know whose not-quite-whispered whispers suggested that Beth despised me, usurper child who had stolen what was rightfully hers by my loving him.

This is also a story about selfishness, how a child wants what she wants and takes what she can get. Pocketfuls of stolen change scooped from her father’s drawers, or candy from 7-11 shelves snatched right behind a clerk’s turned back. This is a story of how one little girl never thought to wonder why her godfather had a faraway daughter, a child of imagined swamps with a sweet drawl, who never came to visit, or why he rarely went to visit her. Not until the faraway daughter had a child of her own, then two, did pictures appear of the then twenty-something daughter and her gleaming, golden-haired babes.

•••

Only those you have loved can break your heart. It doesn’t matter if they ever loved you back. The adult forms like a stone shell around the seed crystal of the child.

Life moved in tidal ways. Ebbs of happiness and dark depths, followed by riptides pulled into fissures where I pressed facedown, spitting out sand and bottom dwellers. As my godfather shifted his loyalties toward the clear liquor that he loves more than daughters or wives or having a job or reading or the genius IQ chipped away by years, the crystal of girl that I was responded in pain. She said hateful things and wrote them down. She aimed them with lethal precision.

Children give love like the sun gives light.

Adults transmute light into pain.

•••

One month after the one-year anniversary of Gayle’s death, after several unsuccessful attempts to contact Jeff, suddenly I found a friend request on my Facebook account from the faraway daughter herself, Beth. For a moment I could not swallow. Was she coming to take me to task for pushing him away? For taking what wasn’t mine?

And yet she was my only possible connection to the answers that my mom and I have been seeking for nearly eight months. Hands at tremble, I accepted, unsure of what was true: would she turn out to be the harpy full of hatred who I’d been warned about, who disliked me on principle for being the surrogate?

Her message to me suggested otherwise, breaking open a bloom of relief. She had not seen her father in over a month, though he’d been living in a house provided by her and her husband for the year since Gayle had passed. When Gayle’s life insurance came in, a sum roughly four times the amount my husband makes at his job every year, Jeff, she said, quite literally took the money and disappeared without a word, ran with the widow of one of Gayle’s cousins.

Beth bore witness to the aftermath of Gayle’s end. The feces dried upon the floor of her bedroom. Death by infection of the bowel. A pitiful end. Neglect or fear, shame or hate, I do not know. He was relieved not to hear her shrieking his name in the end, shrieking for help to the toilet. Calling to be rescued from the insult of her body, from the ravages of its unwanted pain.

“What I really need now,” Jeff said to Beth in the hours after Gayle was buried, “Is a wife.”

•••

When the wannabe orphan and the faraway daughter, both grown women, spoke to each other at last, voices slinking across state lines, there wasn’t any hate, only understanding.

Mendacious Synecdoche, he had once called me. Liar, stupid girlDon’t humor yourself. And to the faraway daughter: Drunken cunt.

Between us daughters, only sharp-edged clarity about loss, about leaving, about the gnawing ache left behind in the hearts of daughters, no matter their prefix: born or borrowed.

And in the end, through each other, we found pockets of leftover love, crystallized, untarnished, that through it all, remain uncorrupt.

•••

JORDAN E. ROSENFELD is author of the novels Forged in Grace and Night Oracle, and two writing guides. She is Managing Editor at Sweatpants & Coffee.com and her writing has appeared in Medium’s Human Parts, Modern Loss, the New York Times (Motherlode), Ozy, ReWire Me, Role/Reboot, The Rumpus, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and more. Her website is www.jordanrosenfeld.net. And on twitter: @JordanRosenfeld

Stranger Interlude

our country
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Terry Barr

I watched this man take off his hat. It was one of those worker’s caps like the one in that old photo of Allen Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, back in the twenties.

Before he took off the cap, the hair sticking out on both sides suggested a younger man. It was rich and lush and very black. But once he doffed it, I could see the dye-line, the gray eking out in the spots that he missed. He was completely bald on top, too. Something wasn’t right, but I couldn’t make myself look away fast enough.

“Terry?”

His companion. She stared as if affronted that I hadn’t spoken first—that I hadn’t recognized her.

“Who’s that, Daddy?”

I was at supper with my four-year-old daughter, Pari. Her sister had just been born the day before, and I was trying to show Pari that she was still special to me, that she would always be my first love. I had let her order a chocolate milkshake for supper at this upscale Greek diner along with a funny-face waffle, an indulgence that I hoped her mother would never discover.

“Just someone I know from our Amnesty group, sweetie.”

“Oh. What’s her name?”

“Cathy, I think.”

“Oh.” She wisely returned to her waffle.

However, Cathy’s relentless stare kept burning into me, and so unwisely I spoke.

“Hi Cathy. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m fine. Terry, this is my friend.”

And maybe she did say his name, and maybe it was Marvin. In any case, Marvin turned to me. He wore heavy, black-rimmed glasses, a yellow Polo shirt, and green hiking shorts. He straddled his chair, his hairy legs protruding from either side. They were the sort of legs one sees on short, but active Jewish men, like my cousin Arnold’s son, Donald: legs that are muscular, compressed, and slightly bowed. Legs used to supporting a thickish frame. Legs that I thought could transport their bearer quickly and with ease in case of trouble.

“So, how do you two know each other?” he asked Cathy, as if there were something between us, something suspicious in the air. Which, of course, there was.

“Oh, Terry and I are members of our local Amnesty International group.”

“Amnesty International?” He turned to me then. “Tell me about that. I’m all ears!”

And he was, though if I stared at his ears, I’d just keep noticing that dye-line: the one separating hair that was too dark from the natural more salt-than-pepper color. Hair highlighted by his pale bronze dome.

“You’ve never heard of Amnesty International?”

I wondered even then why I was about to go on talking to the strange friend of a woman I barely knew, a woman I wanted to know less of. Besides, this was supposed to be a special night with my beloved first daughter who, at this point, was slurping the bottom of her chocolate shake.

“No, I haven’t, so please tell me more. I’m really curious about that name, Amnesty, and what it refers to.”

I explained as briefly as possible about prisoners of conscience; about letter-writing appeals; about volunteers and human rights abuses. Who can say what he heard or didn’t hear; what impacted him or bored him? But what I said next truly did penetrate those ears.

“We work for prisoners all over the world, though by policy, we aren’t allowed to write appeals for prisoners in our own country. That’s because in some countries, the letter writer might then be arrested and thrown into prison or maybe even killed, so we want to ensure that the writer is safe. The only exception to that rule is in death penalty cases; there, you can write about prisoners in your own country. The U.S. has plenty of these cases.”

“Wait a minute. You mean that you aren’t free to protest prisoners in the U.S?”

“Right. As I said, it’s a general rule put in place especially to protect those in other countries who don’t have the same freedoms that we do. Plus, we wouldn’t want to single out a country that has more freedom and make it an exception to the policy.”

I thought I had explained this procedure pretty well. I thought that now I might be able to return to my daughter and our night together. We were heading back to the hospital soon, and visiting hours were growing short. I missed my wife and wanted to see our new baby, Layla.

“Not as free as we are? What makes you think that we’re free?”

I think now of all the things I could have said, “So long, buddy” being foremost. But, of course, feeling the need to defend our nation’s list of Rights and Freedoms, I kept talking: the Right to Free Speech; to Assemble; to keep a Free Press. The Right to eat peacefully in a Greek diner with your daughter without being interrupted by a shady-looking associate and her even shadier-looking partner, a stranger to you.

But this last right was being so easily violated by the pair that it just proved his point.

I looked over at Cathy then, and I remembered what I knew about her, reported to me by my wife who served on one of Amnesty’s subcommittees, the committee on Women’s Rights.

“She’s a member of BirthRight,” my wife said.

“What’s that?”

“A group that works for the rights of ‘the unborn.’”

Cathy had advocated that the subcommittee get BirthRight to endorse their work and be listed as a sponsor for an upcoming event. The subcommittee respectfully declined. Amnesty, despite appearances, refuses all political monikers and manifestos. Being non-political has allowed Amnesty to exist in places that other activist groups can’t. But to be completely honest, virtually everyone in our group was active in other political organizations: the ACLU, the Democratic Party, the Sierra Club. And no one I knew in our group, except Cathy, wanted to work against abortion rights, though if someone were imprisoned simply for speaking out against abortion, we would theoretically work for their release.

To my knowledge, Amnesty doesn’t consider a fetus to be a person. Actually, that’s not exactly true. Amnesty just takes no stand on this issue. But it does question and work against gender-directed abuses around the world—for instance, those who are victims of forced female genital mutilation or of rape and assault by governmental forces. Violations that are not anyone’s choice.

But now Cathy and Marvin were waiting on my response about freedom in our country, and all I could think about was BirthRight. And abortion, and where all of this was leading.

•••

Once, I got a girl pregnant. We hadn’t been dating long, but I knew that she was into me, maybe because once, she confessed that I was “the best thing that ever happened to her” since she’d started her graduate school program the previous fall. So much for what she got out of that Yeats seminar we had.

Of course she wasn’t on the pill. Is it worse that I asked first? That when she said, “No, I’m not,” but then didn’t request that I “be careful,” explosions didn’t erupt in my head?

In other words, we knew what we were doing in that very special way that really means we didn’t.

I didn’t love her; I barely even knew her. In fact, on my way to pick her up for our first date on a clear October night, driving down Kingston Pike, Knoxville’s busiest strip, past the Bearden Bowling Alley and the Half Shell Oyster House, I knew that I didn’t want to be going out on this date. Going out with her. I should have turned around then.

But of course, I didn’t. I have no idea why I asked her out now, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t know then, either. We had sex exactly twice.

Even when her phone call woke me at my parents’ house on a mid-December morning, the first morning of my semester break, I didn’t flinch. Much.

“So, what do you want to do?” I asked.

“I’m getting an abortion. But I need three hundred dollars. Can you help me?”

And so I went to my bank, withdrew the money from my savings account, wondering now what I was going to use to buy Christmas presents for my family, and mailed a money order to her.

Three days later, she had the abortion. She didn’t ask me to be there, and I didn’t offer. Her roommate went with her, I found out later. I saw her once more, when she gave me fifty dollars to help me pay my rent. A few months later, she was dating one of my grad school buddies. I had no regrets about that or how we ended.

For us, the abortion was the right thing to do because our lives together shouldn’t have started or continued with that sort of mistake. I’m sorry we were so stupid. I’m sorry she faced the procedure alone. I’m glad we had the right to do what we did, and I really don’t wonder what our child would have been like.

More than anything, I shudder to think of what would have happened to all of us had we decided to have the baby.

I do feel many emotions as I picture this time of my life, some thirty years ago now. But even after all that time, the feeling that lays strongest inside me is relief.

•••

I’m a little slow about becoming aware of those funny feelings that we all get. Or maybe it’s just that when I get them, I’m too slow to respond.

So as I stared at Marvin’s bald head, fringed with unrealistic hair, I realized that more than his hair was off. I know now that while Pari was finishing her funny face, I should have been calling for our check.

Instead, I looked at this strange fellow and asked, “Don’t you think we have more freedom than, say, people in Uganda, or Iran, or North Korea?”

“Don’t you think,” Marvin sneered, “that our government is watching us all the time, monitoring our phone calls, keeping tabs on what we watch, where we shop? What do you think all those cloudy tracks in the sky are?”

I remembered to breathe just then, and a new truth hit me.

“So, what do you do?”

“You don’t really want to know what I do.”

And in a sense, he was right. Ten minutes earlier, I couldn’t have cared less. Fifteen minutes earlier, he and his crazy legs didn’t exist.

If only we could abort certain scenes.

“Daddy, I’m finished.”

“Okay, sweetie.”

But I couldn’t stop now. It’s funny the challenges we choose to accept.

“No, go ahead and tell me what you do. I’m really interested.”

“Well, while people like you are out playing golf every day, people like me are working for something bigger.”

Now, I had taken two semesters of golf back in college, mainly to keep myself out of activities like tennis that would cause excess sweat and would necessitate a mid-day shower.

“Golf? That’s what you think I do?”

It’s strange what all can get in your way when you should be relating to your daughter, when you should be holding your other newborn daughter. Today, I’d avoid this scene like I would unsafe sex. In fact, just last night when I was sitting on a park bench outside my hotel—the Hyatt Regency—in downtown Louisville, a man scrambled to the bench across from me. He was smoking the butt of a cigarette. I had my IPod in, Wilco singing about “The Ashes of American Flags.” I knew immediately that this guy was off. I had seen him earlier at my lunch break; his eyes had the unfocused look of pure madness. And he was shaking. It was seven in the evening, temperature in the low eighties. I let the song finish, and as casually as I could, I left my bench for safer ground.

But with Marvin?

“No, man. I don’t play golf. I’m a teacher. And you don’t know anything about me,” I said.

“Well, if you must know, I’m part of the Patriot movement. We’re changing this country. Taking it back.”

I stared for a beat. I had heard of such “movements,” mainly from my Southern Poverty Law Center pamphlets like Human Rights Watch. And Klanwatch. Back then, in the mid-nineties, these movements were mainly underground.

What do any of us think of when we hear the word “patriot?” Nathan Hale? Sam Adams? The three-cornered hatted, three-point-stanced character who used to adorn the helmets of the former New England football team when they called themselves the Boston Patriots?

Then, “patriots” were showing up in places like Oklahoma City, Ruby Ridge, Waco. Two years later, one would set off a bomb at Atlanta’s Centennial Park. Another, or actually the same guy, would bomb a women’s clinic in Birmingham, my hometown.

And in my current home of Greenville, South Carolina, a four-year-old boy would get arrested for blocking the entrance to yet another women’s clinic. He was our neighbor, and now he’d have a criminal record. On the news that night, his mother would refer to him as a “hero…a real patriot.”

I wondered then about our definitions, our stances, the people we meet. This same mother once called me over as my wife and daughter and I were out walking. She wanted us to meet her mother, a grinning gargoyle of an old woman who was climbing out of a minivan and wearing an oversized t-shirt.

On that shirt was the silkscreened image of an aborted fetus, about three times the size it would have been. Below the image, the caption proclaimed, “This one might have been yours.”

We couldn’t escape fast enough.

I hope my daughter doesn’t remember that scene, as I do, although I realize, of course, that now she very well might.

•••

The waitress brought our check. I gathered my little girl up, looked back at Cathy and Marvin, and said, “Nice talking to you.”

I’ve always had such good manners.

I don’t remember what—if anything—they said, and I don’t care. I’m thankful that I never saw either of them again, although every time I get an edition of Klanwatch, I scan it looking for news, for the people I barely know. And I’m even more thankful for the freedom to associate with or to avoid whomever I want.

•••

TERRY BARR’s essays have appeared widely in such publications as Graze, Compose, Under the Sun, Tell As a Story, Sport Literate, Four Ties Lit Review, and Purple Pig Lit. This is his second essay for Full Grown People, a site his creative writing students at Presbyterian College read every week. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and daughters, both of whom are fine, compassionate young women.

Hush, My Darling

petals
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Melissa Bauer

I.

“I think it’s bad,” my mother tells me, as she lies flat on her back. Her large abdomen hugs the crisp white sheet draping over her. She’s recovering from a cardiac catheterization, a procedure to assess if there are any blockages in her heart.

I put down my book. “Why do you say that?” Even though I know she is probably right. With severely high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and morbid obesity, my mother is living on borrowed time.

“I could just tell by the look in the doctor’s eye,” she says, and then adds, “plus he used a lot of dye.”

“Hmmm,” I muse, “well, hopefully not.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” my mother offers.

D for denial should be our family crest.

•••

But my mother’s fears are confirmed; three out of four of her cardiac arteries are between 85% and 99% blocked. They need to transfer her to a larger hospital to perform a procedure where they insert tiny tubes to keep her arteries open.

They need to transfer her now.

An ambulance is called.

The doctor warns us that the procedure can be harmful to the kidneys because of the dye, but she is not a candidate for bypass surgery because of her weight.

The doctor tells us she needs this procedure to save her life.

We don’t ask any questions.

We don’t seek a second opinion.

We just do as we are told.

•••

I ride in the front seat of the ambulance with the EMT driver. The siren sounds and we speed down the interstate, passing curious onlookers who appear safe and secure in their compact cars. The driver and I share the same birthday. She tells me she plans to go to nursing school, too. I nod in agreement and recall my first year in nursing school, when my parents were hospitalized at the same time, my father for emphysema and my mother for a stroke in her right brain stem. I cared for them both single-handedly; my brother lived in New York City. I cooked their meals, arranged physical therapy, organized their medications, and took a leave of absence from work. I was twenty-one-years old.

•••

Now, seven years later, my father has been dead for eight months and my mother’s life hangs in peril. I will myself not to cry, to be strong, to be a nurse, but hot tears trickle down my cheeks instead. A whir of beeps ring from the back of the ambulance breaking my thoughts and terrified, I turn my head, bracing for the worst.

“Is she okay?” My voice is shaky as I yell to the EMT that is sitting in the back with her. “What’s all that noise?”

My mother yells back through the glass, “I’m fine, Melissa!” And the EMT confirms that the beeping is normal.

I exhale.

I listen to my mother tell the EMT about how much I worry and about my father’s recent death. My mother has never met a stranger, and yet I have felt like a stranger to her most of my life.

•••

We arrive at the hospital and I’m standing by the rear of the ambulance, watching as they unload her stretcher. The two EMT workers leave us momentarily to give their report to the receiving nurse.

We are alone.

My mother has to lie perfectly still because of the catheter in her groin, so she motions for me to come closer; she wants to tell me something.

I walk over and hold her hand.

“Did I really need an ambulance?” she asks me fearfully.

“I don’t think so,” I lie. “It’s probably just routine.”

A few minutes later my husband arrives and my mother’s emerald eyes light up.

 

II.

For as long as I can remember, there was a war raging inside our home, the three of us against my mother. My father, brother, and I formed a united front; we shared a sensitivity that was lost upon her. Every day, during my childhood, we carried out a similar routine seeking refuge from the onslaught of her abuse.

On most mornings, my father would gently wake me up for school, rubbing my back and whispering in my ear, “It’s time to wake up, honey,” and then he would walk into the kitchen to make our breakfast. I would sit sleepy-eyed at the dining room table, eating my cereal as my father smoked his cigarette and wrote in his journal, the news humming softly from our TV in the background.

Then it would be time to get in the car with my mother, who would drive my brother and me to school. “Melissa, get back in the god damn car right now!” she would yell as I sat outside to wait. I hated being alone with her while she smoked one cigarette after another in haste. The smoke was suffocating. Instead, I would move to the rear of the van and inhale the exhaust. I liked the way it smelled and I’d let the toxic fumes fill my lungs breath by breath.

My mother typically drove us half way to school. We would walk the remainder of the way. I would sit in the very back and stare out the window, counting the minutes until we were free. She would drone on about how we always made her late for work in between puffs from her cigarette. One day I finally had enough. I pleaded for her to crack the window open, and I lectured her on the dangers of smoking. “Mom, Miss Smith said that second hand smoke is worse than first hand!”

But she didn’t. “You snotty, little bitch,” she said as she blew a big billow of smoke into the air. She abruptly stopped the car and forced us out, making us walk farther than usual.

“You fucking bitch!” my brother yelled at her as he slammed the door. I ran after him, dodging traffic, fearful to be left behind.

•••

My mother is in the hospital again. My father has been dead for twelve months now; this is her sixth hospitalization since then. I’m sitting in a stiff vinyl chair next to her, watching her chest rise and fall, in a deep sleep. An IV pole stands between us; the clear tubing wraps around her arm and into her hand, delivering medicine through her body in a rhythmic drip.

Drip.

Drip.

Drip.

My trance is interrupted by the sound of the blood pressure cuff deflating. My eyes drift up toward the monitor; 220/110 flashes across the screen in red, and an alarm sounds waking my mother. Startled, she looks over at the monitor, then at me. She smiles. Her plump lips flatten, emphasizing the gap between her two front teeth.

“This friggin’ thing!” She yanks on the cuff, which is tangled in with her gown.

“No wonder my blood pressure is so high!” She scowls as she tries to untangle it, but then stops herself and looks over at me, the elephant in the room. Having watched her abuse and neglect her body for years, we both know a tangled blood pressure cuff is not to blame for her failing heart, but I don’t say anything. I’ve grown tired of challenging my mother, of arguing with her, not out of obligation or out of spite, but out of love. Because deep down, buried beneath messy piles of fear and anger, I want to believe my mother loves me. That she won’t abandon me. That she will guide me when I can’t find my way. Because right now, I am needy and frail, and I feel small and helpless. I am lost. I part my lips to tell her this but then close them. Scared to reveal to her how vulnerable I feel, how raw she makes me, I swallow hard instead, clench my teeth and gaze out the window as the nurse enters the room.

“You look familiar,” the nurse says to me, redirecting my attention as she administers more blood pressure medication through my mother’s IV.

“I’ve been here a few times,” I say, my words sounding colder than I intended.

“Honey, can you get my red lipstick?” My mother changes the subject, and she smiles sheepishly at me as if to say sorry we’re here again, but I know that she is really only sorry that she was caught. Caught in denial and her time is nearly up.

Alarms ring in my heart as loudly as the blood pressure monitor.

I walk over to the closet and fish out the lipstick, hand it to her, and tersely smile back.

This isn’t my first rodeo.

•••

I am ten years old and staring at my mother’s fingers. Her long nail beds, yellowed from years of smoking, are shifting from yellow to white as she grips the steering wheel of our brown, late 1980s model Chevrolet station wagon, as she fights her way through Los Angeles traffic. George, as she named the car, is safely carrying us on this mother-daughter date to our favorite store, Pic ‘N’ Save, so that we can buy my first bikini.

She swings the car into park after cursing, in sign language, the other driver who narrowly stole our space.

“We’re here!” She gives me her sideways grin. Her lips are painted Cover Girl red, her staple.

I am so excited.

Just as we are about to get out of the car, our favorite song, “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” plays on the radio and we linger in our seats for a moment longer, bobbing our heads to the beat and singing:

In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.

We croon in unison, building up to the chorus, and our favorite part of the song:

Wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh, wimoweh

We are shouting it now, singing with each other in sync, our bodies moving passionately to the music:

Hush, my darling, don’t fear, my darling, the lion sleeps tonight.

I look over at my mother, my lion, and her eyes are closed. Her eyelids are rapidly fluttering; she is fully present. Her hand is resting on my knee; her yellow fingernails are tapping against my skin with the rhythm of the music. I can feel her love; it burns as hot and passionately as her rage.

•••

I am sitting in the airport and, out of the corner of my eye, I notice her. A heavyset woman wearing a white t-shirt and purple slacks walking down the airport terminal with a younger woman, presumably her daughter. The backs of her heavy arms resemble the same shape as my mother’s were. Same shade of alabaster, too. Her gait is also similar, a sort of waddle and shuffle, as if her legs are going to give way any minute from the weight of her giant belly. I watch this stranger for longer than is polite, swallow hard, willing myself to look away.

She does not notice me.

Still I am nearly a puddle of tears, breathless from this small glimpse, this little reminder, of my mother.

And I know.

Regardless of how many books I read, of how many stories I share, of how many years pass; I will always be a motherless daughter.

I will always yearn for what I can never have back. And perhaps for what I never had to begin with: a mother’s unconditional love.

•••

Growing up, I always knew I was adopted. The picture of my birth father was missing, lost in the shuffle between foster homes. But I had pictures of my birth mother: three, to be exact. They were kept in an album labeled, “birth mother and foster home,” tucked away in my nightstand with my journal. I stare at these pictures now trying to remember her, but I don’t. I’ve studied her face, memorizing the gap between her two front teeth and the way her nose has a slight bump at the bridge, but I’m empty. Not a single memory of this woman, whose life is woven and welded into mine through our shared DNA, dwells within my heart.

Her brown, curly hair echoes my own. Our eyes are the same shade of gray blue. She was twenty-one years old when these photos were taken and, in these pictures, she’s sitting behind me, smiling brightly, while I pose for the camera in delight on my second birthday. But if you look closely you can see the clutter hiding behind her. You can see the tension in her smile. And you’ll notice her awkward grip on my waist; a mother who does not know her daughter, strangers to one another, posing for the camera in mockery at the nonexistent relationship between them. At the time of my adoption, two years after this photo was taken, my foster mother made this album for me, and included captions beneath every picture, “Anne and Melissa, second birthday, 1984.” It’s the closest thing I’ve ever had to a baby book.

 

III.

My mother is recovering from her cardiac stents. She is just getting settled into her room, when suddenly she starts to vomit profusely. The nurse, wide-eyed and frantic, immediately turns to my husband and me and orders us to leave the room. But before we can exit, a swarm of doctors and nurses enter, pushing us out of the way. I’m watching from the corner of the room as the doctor assesses my mother’s groin, the site where her catheter was placed, and yells for the nurse to call the vascular surgeon. I hear the words pseudo aneurysm. My heart races as I steal one quick glance at my mother before we are ushered out of the room. Her green eyes are wide with terror.

My husband and I sit in the waiting room at the end of the hall. Suspended in time, we wait. I get up to use the bathroom then return to our post. Waiting. We are silent as we wait. Minutes stretch into hours until finally the nurse comes out and gives us the okay to go back into my mother’s room. The vomiting caused her to strain, pulling her lower abdomen, tearing the delicate surgery site, which led to internal bleeding. As we enter her room, I notice there are needle caps on the floor, empty vials of medication used to stop the bleeding, bloody gauze, and bandage wrappers littered throughout her bed. It looks like we are at the scene of a crime. My mother jokes about her luck. “If something is going to happen, it will happen to me!” I don’t tell her that the doctor said that it was the weight of her giant belly that caused the tear. I want to protect her. I am also afraid of her reaction. I realize I love and fear my mother in equal measure.

I watch as my husband spoon-feeds my mother her dinner. She was instructed not to move for several more hours, but she has not eaten since dinner the night before. They both laugh and my mother puckers her lips like a baby, yelling, “More, more, more!

My husband taunts her with the spoon. “Here comes the airplane,” he jokes, and my mother opens her mouth wide. I glower at their lighthearted interaction with each other, my heart heavy with the pain of responsibility.

The next morning my husband returns to work and my mother and I are alone. A hospital volunteer stops by her room, an elderly woman selling magazines and candy.

“Would you like anything, Mrs. Devlin?” the kind old lady asks my mother.

“Sure, I’ll take the Snicker’s bar!” my mother excitedly says. “How much?” She digs through her wallet.

“No, Mom, you will not get a Snicker’s bar!” I scold and then inform the old woman she just had a procedure to clear the blockages in her heart.

“Well, you better listen to your daughter,” the woman offers as she leaves the room.

My mother pouts.

The nurse then enters the room to check her vital signs and my mother retells the story.

“Aww, you wouldn’t let your mom get a candy bar?” she chimes in, taking her side.

I stare at them both, but say nothing, befuddled and incensed by my alienation.

 

IV.

My mother died alone nine months after her cardiac catheterization. I received the phone call while I was at work. Her heart stopped beating. She was in her living room, sitting in her lazy-boy recliner, the TV blaring, when she took her last breath. I’ll never know her last thoughts, whether or not she gasped for air, or if she felt alone.

Hours after her death, my husband and I arrived at her house. We were greeted by a swarm of people, her friends from church, nosy neighbors, the coroner, the police, and animal control. Children played in the distance; their faraway joy broke my heart. I could see the very top of my mother’s head, her white downy hair peeking over the recliner from her living room window. I stood outside, afraid to go in, as I called my brother. I stared at the ground as we sobbed in unison thousands of miles away from each other, orphaned for the second time in our lives. Having buried my father seventeen months earlier, the formalities of her death felt familiar and foreign all the same.

“Mom, I’m scared,” I cried into the phone, raw and viscous with grief two weeks before she died.

“What are you afraid of?” Her voice sounded tiny and far away.

“Of losing you,” I choked out between breaths.

“Don’t worry, baby,” she tried to reassure me, but I knew the end was near. It was never far behind us.

Hush, my darling,

Don’t fear, my darling,

The lion sleeps tonight.

•••

MELISSA BAUER lives in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband. They are pregnant with their first child and due in November 2014. She works as a registered nurse and has been writing about her journey through grief, loss, and healing since the death of her parents in 2011.

I’m with the Band

[This is kind of art you get when your editor is a former band geek. —ed.]

By Rebecca Stetson Werner

In the enormous domed metal building—a cavernous space dominated by three regulation size basketball courts where adults coach the kids’ teams, shouting to be heard above the din—I find the court for Nicholas’s game and quickly sit down on the bleachers. Every once in a while, a dissonant buzzer shrieks, so awful a sound, so jarring it makes my scalp tingle, and I curl in on myself in anticipation of the next blast.

Nicholas’s good friend passes him the ball. He catches it, sort of, but his grip is not quite firm enough, and it barrels on through his hands and down onto his shoe, bouncing out of bounds. I hear a groan and a snicker from somewhere to my left. I fight the desire to turn and glare at the person. Nicholas smiles, forcedly, and I see him apologize to his friend.

Then he throws me a pained look. Hoping to communicate with him as the one person in the crowd who knows and holds his vulnerability, I try to return my best version of what proves to be an impossible expression: a blend of a smirk moving into a softening around the eyes and then a goofy grin, with a bit of a shoulder shrug.

But I am not sure I get the expression right, and I may have missed my chance to connect and communicate with him. Because today, from the moment I entered the arena, I have retreated to the sidelines, taken a stance as an outsider. I am tense, self-conscious, distracted, and frustrated with those around me.

While all the other parents on the bleachers chat and yell and gesture and growl, I am caught up in my own head, spinning through a series of questions. When did this happen? How did we get here? When did we stop wanting our children to play nicely together, stop insisting on apologies when they hurt one another, stop valuing kindness and social skills above competitiveness and drive? And when did it become a good play to foul someone on purpose? When did we stop calling careful with that stick across the playground and start shouting check him?

“Out of the paint!” one parent bellows. Another shouts, “Boards!” every time a player shoots. I have no idea what they mean and wonder if I may be eavesdropping on a bizarre carpentry-focused reality show. I amuse myself for a bit by trying to overlay this crowd’s behavior onto a playground scene from when our children were younger. I imagine what it would have been like to sit on the benches next to the swings with coffee cups in our hands, interrupting one friend’s narration of her clogged mammary gland to shout to one of our kids: Swing harder! Pump those legs! Come on, work those monkey bars! Share those Cheerios!

I’m tempted to turn to the parents beside me on these bleachers and offer an explanation for myself: I was in the band.

•••

In high school, I was a band geek, although there were lots of other, less kind names for members of this motley gang of musicians. On Friday nights, when the popular kids would sit in the bleachers with their French fries and sodas and cheer for their friends on the football team, I was there, too. But off to the side, clad in a royal-blue polyester men’s uniform, helmet perched atop my head, its plumes long ago snapped in half, yellowed, or simply lost.

On school days, I stood when the intercom called for the pep rally participants to go to the gym, and I left the room with all the Blue Knights in team jerseys and school colors. In the gymnasium, however, I was absent from the groupings of chairs in the center of the polished wood floors. Instead, I sat First Chair, adjusting my piccolo to a well-tuned B flat and offering it to each member of the pep band. Then I’d sit down again and await our turn to accompany the cheerleaders and play our school’s fight song.

And it wasn’t just pep band. I could also be counted on to maintain the spacing and pace of the most complex marching band formations, my whole row guiding left toward me, peering across the music holders affixed to their bent elbows. In the two-person pit orchestra, I routinely covered three woodwind instruments during school musicals, and would lean across the flute, piccolo, and oboe that lay in my lap so that I could reach the keys of the synthesizer. I must admit: I am a bit embarrassed for myself right now as I write this. Total nerd. But these musical talents did help me pass a bit socially, counterbalancing my polyester uniform and allowing me to relate to the jocks and popular kids. Sadly, these impressive skills were not sufficient to produce a flurry of prom invitations.

At some point during high school, I began singing, a sensible extension of my musical activities. Although some of my most important relationships were formed through singing groups, I never felt completely at ease in the choirs I joined. So I wasn’t surprised when, after her school choir concert, our daughter Julia unintentionally voiced what I also struggled with when singing. I asked her what it had felt like to be on stage, to stand before an audience.

“Well, I liked it when I played the xylophone,” she said. “I knew what to do with my hands. I didn’t know what to do with them when I was singing.”

Like me, it seems, Julia may be an instrumentalist at heart. I was accustomed to holding and playing instruments on stage, to having something protective between me and the audience. I often carried my black cases with me to keep my instruments warm enough, or because they didn’t fit in my locker, also conveniently giving my hands purpose as I moved through my school’s crowded hallways. I used to practice fingerings for scales on my desktop. It gave me something to do while I chatted with the more gregarious kids before classes began. Even now, when I am feeling nervous, my adult fingers long for the feeling of my oboe’s cold wood and silver. I can still call forth the smell of cedar and beeswax and saliva wafting up into my face as I open the case. I can even hear the creaking of the hinge as it opened and the snapping shut of the lid to my reed box. I mentally run my finger down the turkey feather I used to swab my oboe dry after I played.

But singing? As Julia said, it’s just you and your voice on the stage. But I pushed through this unease, this vulnerability, for whatever reason, and it led to something, someone, for me.

•••

My husband, Jonathan, and I met in our college’s choir. He was a dancer and a singer in high school. He tells me of an awkward stage involving leg warmers and acne medication and asking a friend when football rehearsal was over. When we met on his first day of college, I was his assigned greeter, or what we called a hand holder, sitting with him while he waited to audition for the choir that I had already joined. What I noticed about Jonathan—after overcoming my fascination with his strange fashion choices, including a do rag, white t-shirt, tightly cinched pants and shirt cuffs—was that, though I was there to make him feel less nervous as he waited, he was not nervous at all.

The next time we met was in the basement storage room of the performing arts center. I, in my role as choir manager, was responsible for fitting the newly selected men for their tuxedos. This was my first time measuring inseams for men’s attire, and Jonathan, third in line, intervened. Clearly I looked as confused and mortified as I felt, awkwardly holding a measuring tape, trying to figure out how I was going to determine pant lengths for all these young men I did not yet know. “Have him hold the top, and you hold the bottom down by his ankle,” he suggested.

Ah. Ankle. That’s good. I can handle ankles.

But I think the night that our relationship moved from friendship to more than that was at the famed a cappella karaoke night. That evening, we sang each other’s songs. Which is not a euphemism. We actually sang each other’s solos from our respective a cappella groups. There were a lot of red plastic Solo cups in people’s hands that night, though not in his or mine.

He actually volunteered to sing my song, confidently and in full voice, which was a folky Tuck and Patty love song. Jonathan knows how to work a room. But I was then involuntarily pushed up to the front of the crowd as his group began the accompaniment to his signature song, “The Reflex” by Duran Duran. He typically performed with full choreography, and there was clearly some expectation that I would shimmy along with his group as they boogied down. I was completely terrified and uncomfortable and breathless and uncool and not at all uninhibited by the contents of a Solo cup. Yet he stood in the middle of the crowd and mouthed the words for me, smiling warmly the whole time.

In that moment of my vulnerability and his strength, my discomfort and his ease, and during many other moments in the next few years in which we flipped and flopped roles of lending support and revealing weaknesses, our friendship grew into understanding of and love for each other. We were able to give each other what we needed when working through our most difficult, most vulnerable moments.

There was the night, sitting in the middle of our college’s clay tennis courts, in which he—overwhelmed by his work and the high expectations and his exhaustion—confessed, “I’m not going to be able to do this.” And I told him he could, and we did. Together. We created our us and, eventually, our family. We sang Tuck and Patty while rocking our babies years later. And our kids still think we are so weird when we lapse into the fle-fle-fle-fle-flex refrain on road trips.

Back then, we didn’t think about selecting someone who had skills that complemented the other’s. We didn’t anticipate the need to tackle our own home improvements or the requirement that we support all of the different homework subjects. Or that one person’s musicality should be rounded out by the other’s athleticism. And therefore, given our poorly planned love, our house is repaired with duct tape and the kitchen faucet drips. Yet we have inadvertently managed to rock the homework subject coverage at the kitchen counter. And, although our three children each fall in their own unique place on the continuum between gregarious and introverted, luckily, between Jonathan and I, we truly understand them.

Yet without question, our weakest collective skill set is athleticism. Jonathan is a self-described great blue heron with sore knees when asked to assume an athletic stance. And I am awkward and clumsy and often find it difficult to walk across a room without tripping. Of course, as with home improvement and homework coverage, engineering well-rounded genetic loading for one’s potential offspring is not typically how one goes about choosing a mate. One is much more likely to be drawn to another who likes the same things, someone who also shows up to the same a cappella karaoke event.

•••

This us, Jonathan and I. What we know from experience, despite our lack of sports expertise, is the importance of allowing oneself to feel and express one’s vulnerability. And we know the importance of where you place yourself in a crowd. As a couple, we are the result of the push and pull of social dynamics playing out while two people connected amidst a crowd’s pulse and noise. And we know how coming together—finding each other through an extended moment across the room—can evolve into a life together. A dance in which two people stop synchronizing themselves with those around them and fall into their own rhythm. Jonathan and I? We wish for nothing more than these moments, these connections, for our children.

Lately, I have been returning to that nervous, uncertain glance Nicholas shot me across the basketball court. About who I was, or perhaps wasn’t, for him in that moment. And about how Nicholas saw me, sitting among the spectators as well, caught up in my wonder at how our children are getting older and at how parenting requirements change with time. I lost sight of how this is all still about the connections, about forming the closest and strongest relationships we can with each other, relationships during our childhood serving as a springboard for embracing and moving out into the rest of the world. I want to change how I receive his searching look when it next comes my way. Though I know this will not always be the case, our children are still young enough that their raw and vulnerable glances are still directed at me.

Nicholas’s glance has also sent me back into my memory of that moment, albeit a more grown-up moment, between Jonathan and me so many years ago. Of the feeling of finding Jonathan across the crowd. And how that look moved us forward, shored us up, and helped us live. And the desire for connection with Jonathan is still there. I still hope for our eyes not to pass over each other, searching through the mess of parenting and work and distraction and stress. For our eyes to meet and linger, for this look to make the noise around us quiet. Once these intense and precious few days of parenting these beings has shifted and they move outward, that Jonathan and I will still be us, still finding each other, as the crowd thins and moves on. And for our growing children to see this, to know we are in the crowd for them now and for each other, available and strong. And for them to someday find this for themselves with another.

•••

REBECCA STETSON WERNER lives in Portland, Maine, with her husband and three children. She has contributed to Taproot and Grounded Magazine; this is her second essay for Full Grown People. She writes about parenting, children’s books, and life in their very old home at treetoriver.com.

Observations Brought Back From The Zoo

tiger
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Marcia Aldrich

Nothing is simple. Nothing is pure. Sorrow folds inside the wings of happiness. And, as Louise Bogan says, “At midnight tears run into your ears.”

•••

Late last April, when the fist of winter in Michigan was finally letting go, I sat in my tiny office and received the news that my essay “The Art of Being Born” had been selected for inclusion in The Best American Essays. I let out a little whooping sound that died quickly, and then I bounded into the hall looking for someone to tell. The hall was empty. I took big gulps of air and sighed. I even hit my chest to quiet its banging. Returning to my office, my euphoria began to trouble me. Didn’t I remember how once before, when I was carried away with my own good fortune, I looked through the windows of my dining room and watched as my neighbor’s hospital bed was wheeled out the front door? Roger had died that morning, the morning of my good news.

Nothing is simple, no one emotion comes without the accompaniment of another, the wolf inside the grandmother, the tears running into the ears.

•••

And sure enough I lost my balance.

In those early moments when the trees were finally leafing out and the world seemed warm and green again, I had only happy thoughts. I marveled at how an essay I had written for my daughter, detailing the day of her birth would be making its way to a larger audience. And then something brought me to a halt just as that hospital bed bumping down the front steps of the Gifford’s house had tutored me in the scale of human suffering.

•••

The Saturday evening before Mother’s Day, my daughter called, the Clare whose birth I wrote about in “The Art of Being Born.”

“Could you put the speaker phone on,” she asked, “so I can speak to you and Daddy?” As we moved into the bedroom I thought that she might be calling to tell us she was in love. She’s at the age when it wouldn’t be surprising news.

No, it was nothing like that. She called to tell us she had cancer. I don’t remember what words she said. My head was pounding too loudly to absorb everything she said. She tried to soften the blow, put a positive spin on it. I remember she said, If you have to have cancer, thyroid cancer is the kind to have. She was having a routine physical, and the doctor thought she felt something unusual in the area where the thyroid resides. She didn’t think it was anything, Clare said, but just to be sure, she told Clare to have a biopsy.

Clare joked with her friends that she had goiter, and she hadn’t been in a rush to have the biopsy done. She had just gotten the results a few days ago and they were positive. She did not call us with the news right away, I noted. It had taken a day or two for her to compose herself. She and her doctor felt certain they had caught the cancer early and that the prognosis was good.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Her doctor had shielded Clare from the more complicated scenario. And Clare, in turn, shielded us, minimizing her illness at every turn. A few days later, the specialist ordered more biopsies. The cancer wasn’t contained to the thyroid; they hadn’t caught it early, and the removal of the thyroid was no longer going to be enough because the cancer had spread into the lymph nodes in the neck. Now she was going to have to have a radical neck dissection.

•••

Mother’s Day was cold. As if the weather was in concert with my internal revolution, it snowed. A week before when the weather suggested spring, friends had invited my husband and me to ride our bikes to the Potter Park Zoo in Lansing. I wasn’t in any mood to go to the zoo or ride my bike through the snow. I was in shock. We should have bailed on the outing, but we didn’t. I’m not sure why. Unbelievably, we thought it would be easier to go than to cancel. Or maybe we were just frozen. We both felt an obligation to be as positive as Clare was being. I felt her presence in everything I did or didn’t do, and I knew she would be upset if we cancelled.

We went to the zoo with our friends, but we were shaken. I hadn’t been to the zoo in over a decade. Zoos have always been mixed affairs for me. On the one hand, it’s the only way to come into contact with wild animals, to be in their presence for a few moments. On the other, I can’t glory in them for long without thinking about their caged existence, how their world has been shrunk to the size of whatever exhibit that the zoo was able to construct. Each exhibit is accompanied by signage that narrates a sad fate. Almost all the stories are of loss —the word endangered comes up over and over, shocking tales of the disappearance of habitat, poaching, with only the slightest ray of hope that something can be done in time. In time.

The others had moved inside the reptile house. I stood outside the bars of the snow leopard exhibit remembering the last time I had stood there with my children. I wondered if the snow leopard high up on the rock ledge, whose great grey eyes could be seen despite the camouflage by trees and shrubs and dusting of snow, was the same leopard I had seen before, or had that leopard died? I learned Serena is the current resident, born in captivity and fourteen years old, which would make it probable that she was the same snow leopard I remembered. Famously reclusive animals, they don’t come down to preen close to the front of the exhibit where we would be able to see the deep grey and black rosettes on her body and the smaller spots on her head clearly. They hold themselves apart and, as in Yeats’s epitaph, cast a cold eye “on life, on death.”

A child several feet away said to his mother, the animals don’t look happy. And it was true. The Amur tigers in the next exhibit—what was supposed to pass as a range– paced in agitated circles, never settling down. When they looked in my direction, they looked angry, waiting for something that would never come. Just then the snow leopard rose up onto her wide paws, flicked her enormously long tail and leapt from her ledge across the open space to another rock where she landed softly as she must have thousands of times in her fourteen years of captivity.

•••

Shaken, shaken, shaken, that’s what I was. The cold eye of the snow leopard, practiced in a kind of dying every day, was beyond me. There’s nothing like thinking your child is safe and finding she is not and knowing nothing you can do will help. Everyone says this. I will hear it many times in the months to come and it will be true each time. Terrible things happen and we are daily surrounded by the news of them, but this wasn’t a terrible thing happening to someone else—it was happening to my child, the child I had carried inside me and given birth to and held on my chest, the child who had changed my life in every conceivable way, who had made me jump across the abyss and love her.

I had spent much of my early adulthood steadfastly believing I didn’t want children. I had doubts about my fitness as a mother born primarily from having been raised by a mother whose troubles had shaped my life. But as I started to turn away from the damage of my early life, I wanted to make the journey from young woman to mother, a journey, it turns out, that never ends, and decided to risk the free fall of childbirth.

In the last moments of my labor with Clare, she went into distress and I was wheeled into surgery. Despite pleas to stop pushing, I couldn’t and as she crowned my midwife could see what was causing the distress—the umbilical cord had wrapped around Clare’s neck. Each time I pushed, the cord tightened, cutting off her air. The mother knot, child and mother tied together, the essential couple. The midwife’s quick hands undid the cord and set Clare free. For a moment, though, things were complicated, one thing attached to another, life attached to death, nothing simple, nothing pure, one thing turned into another in a blink of an eye. And though that first cord was cut, Clare and I are not severed. There is nothing that undoes me from her even as life undoes itself. Perhaps it would be better to be as practiced in resignation as the snow leopard perched on her allotted rock and not like the tigers who wait for what might never come, but I can’t. I won’t.

•••

MARCIA ALDRICH is the author of the free memoir Girl Rearing, published by W.W. Norton and part of the Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers Series. Companion to an Untold Story won the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction. Her website is marciaaldrich.com.