“So, Dad,” I sit down at the kitchen table, face him, and speak loudly so he can understand me. “I think it’s time to go through Mom’s clothes. What do you say?”
My eighty-nine-year-old father puts down his cup of instant Maxwell House coffee laced with Sweet ’n’ Low and stares at me. “What?” he asks.
I give him a look. We both know that despite his hearing loss, he knows what I just said. It’s been four years since my mother left us for what she called the great Sak’s Fifth Avenue in the Sky and I ask my father this question every time I visit. And each time I ask, my father answers: “Not yet,” in the tone of voice he used throughout my childhood, which always signaled the end of discussion.
I repeat my question even louder, and my father surprises me by not offering his usual response. Instead, he says nothing for minute. And nothing for a minute longer. And then he lets out a huge sigh as if he’s finally admitting that my mother is never coming back. “I suppose,” he sighs again, “it’s time.”
While my dad turns on the TV and settles down in front of a blaring Yankees game with a can of salted peanuts and a glass of diet Coke, I trudge up to my parents’ bedroom. Off to the side is my mother’s “boudoir” which contains a makeup table, a fainting couch, and two enormous closets, each one bigger than the sixth-floor walk-up I rented in Manhattan four decades ago when I first graduated from college.
Where to begin? I had tried over the years to get my mother to at least start cleaning out her clothes but she wouldn’t let me touch a thing. “If it can’t hurt you and you don’t have to feed it,” she’d say, shaking a sharp red fingernail at me, “just leave it alone.”
I enter the closet on the right, lined with double racks on either side, and I’m immediately overwhelmed by blouses, skirts, sweaters, slacks, dresses, hats, belts, scarfs, gloves, stockings, slips, and shoes. I gaze in wonder at stripes, polka dots, plaids, paisleys, sparkles, sequins, lace, and leopard print. I run my hands along silk, velvet, velour, wool, cotton, leather, suede, and satin. I take a deep breath and inhale my mother’s unique scent: a combination of Chesterfield Kings, Arid Extra Dry, Chanel No. Five, and Aqua Net. Suddenly, I understand my father’s reluctance to let any of this go. Everything in this closet contains my mother’s DNA. Every blouse at one time was filled with my mother’s pale, plump arms. Every skirt swished around her short, shapely legs. Every pair of pants cradled her zaftig belly and hips. Standing here, I can almost pretend my mother is downstairs with my father, screaming at him to turn down the damn TV. Getting rid of all this is like saying goodbye to her all over again.
But as my father said, it’s time.
I head to the back of the closet where I come face to face with six hanging shoe bags, each one with sixteen pockets, which according to my quick calculation, adds up to ninety-six pairs of shoes. My mother’s love affair with footwear started long ago when she was a young bride working in the shoe department of Orbach’s. All day long, squatting on her heels, she measured feet and fit them into fancy footwear she couldn’t afford. Plus, she and my father lived in a tiny basement apartment in Brooklyn. “The windows were above my head,” my mother told me. “I looked out at the street day after day and all I saw were shoes.” At the time, my father was a law student at NYU and, as he has told me numerous times, my parents were so poor they “didn’t have two nickels to rub together.” My father promised my mother that when he became an attorney, he would buy her anything she wanted. And clearly what she wanted was an Imelda Marcos-size collection of shoes.
So many shoes! One shoe, two shoes, red shoes, blue shoes, black shoes, white shoes, left shoes, right shoes. I feel like a character in a Dr. Seuss children’s book. Or like the child I was once, clomping around in my mother’s high heels with one of her beaded evening bags slung over my shoulder. How I wish my mother were here to tell me the story of all these shoes. For surely each pair has a story to tell. Here are the pink satin pumps dyed to match the gown my mother wore to my brother’s Bar Mitzvah in 1966. Here are the gold lamé tassled flip flops she always wore to the “beauty parlor” when she went to get her monthly pedicure. Here is a pair of red stiletto sky-high heels that showed off her stunning calves (it’s not for nothing she was known as “Legs Levin” during her salad days). And here are the most heart-breaking shoes of all: the flat navy blue sneakers she wore when the cancer made her feet so swollen, she couldn’t squeeze them into anything else.
Just for kicks, I take down a pair of black patent leather three-inch heels with a bow across the toe, and, feeling like one of Cinderella’s ungainly step-sisters, try to stick my feet inside. I know they won’t fit. Unlike me, my mother had lovely feet. Size six and a half. Baryshnikov-worthy arches. Alabaster skin. Delicate toes. Toenails expertly trimmed and buffed and polished candy apple red. I have no idea where my mother got her gorgeous feet.
Her mother’s feet were a sight to behold. Squat, flat, wide. Flaky, crusted skin. Gnarly prehistoric toes. Thick yellowed nails. Great big bunions. Still, like my mother, my grandmother loved shoes. When she moved into a nursing home at the age of ninety-nine, she marched in on white open-toed, high heeled T-strap sandals. The nurse took one look and told me to bring her some flats. “The last thing she needs is to fall,” she said. Since my grandmother didn’t own a pair of flats, I returned the next day with a pair of my own. My grandmother slipped on the moccasins, took two steps, and promptly fell down. “Please mameleh, can I have my heels back now?” she begged. I returned them and my grandmother wore them till the day she died.
How I wish I had my mother’s dainty feet! “Mom,” I say aloud, “I could wear your shoes as earrings.” Standing in her closet, my mind wanders back to the last day of my mother’s last hospital visit. She was lying in her hospital bed on top of the blankets in a sweat. “You have such beautiful feet,” I said to her, for even at that point, her pedicure was perfect. “I wish I’d inherited them,” I went on. “I have your mother’s feet.”
“And her face,” my mother said, gazing at me with love for the last time. “You have my mother’s beautiful, beautiful face.” And then she shut her eyes. And now I wipe at mine.
No wonder my dad didn’t want to go near my mother’s closet. Though we buried my mother four years ago, this feels like a burial all over again.
“You can do this,” I tell myself. I step out of the closet to fetch a cardboard box big enough to sit in and start chucking my mother’s shoes into it. Each one makes a dull thud that reminds me of the sound made by the clumps of dirt we dumped onto my mother’s coffin on that blistering August afternoon long ago. That was the saddest sound I’d ever heard. Until now. “I can’t,” I say aloud. My mother’s voice appears in my head. “One step at a time,” she says, as she reminded me so many times when she was alive. “Brooklyn wasn’t built in a day. You can do anything you set your mind to.” And she was always right.
Somehow the afternoon turns into evening, and by the time my father comes upstairs to tell me that the Yankees have lost, I have seven huge boxes of shoes and pocketbooks, fifty enormous plastic bags of clothing, and two empty closets. I am exhausted. My dad is amazed.
Since we scheduled my mother’s clothes to be picked up the next morning between seven a.m. and noon, I set my alarm for six. When it jars me awake, I leap out of bed, pull on some clothes, and lug everything out to the driveway. Then I drag myself back inside, crawl between the covers, and try to go back to asleep. But a minute later, I throw off the blankets and creep outside again. I can’t leave my mother’s clothes out there by the curb waiting to be picked up like trash. Soon I hear the front door open and see my father coming towards me. We stand side by side, each of us with one hand raised to shield our eyes from the glare of the morning sun, as if we are saluting my mother’s wardrobe. Neither of us says anything, for what is there to say? My head tells me that these are only things, but my heart disagrees: these are my mother’s things. There’s a big difference.
An hour passes and my father goes inside to get ready for work—though he is about to turn ninety, he’s still practicing law. I stand guard over my mother’s clothes until ten a.m. when a big yellow truck pulls up to our driveway. “Thank you for choosing Big Brothers/Big Sisters,” says the driver as he tosses bag after bag into the back of the truck. It takes him all of five minutes, and then he is gone.
And so is she.
LESLÉA NEWMAN’s seventy books include the poetry collection, I Carry My Mother which explores a daughter’s journey through her mother’s illness and death, and the children’s classic, Heather Has Two Mommies. From 2008-2010, she served as the poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. Currently she is a faculty member of Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program. Her newest poetry collection, Lovely will be published in January 2018 by Headmistress Press. More information here: http://www.lesleanewman.com/newbks.htm
Is it weird to anyone else that so many of the processes of our body occur in the dark? In my mind’s eye, I’m watching things happen the way they would in an educational film in high school science. Everything: digestion, oxygen exchange, salivation, ejaculation, menstruation.
I mean picture it: a woman releases an egg, it travels down the fallopian tube, if no sperm find it, it dies and passes through the body with the rest of the uterine lining. If it’s fertilized, that egg changes, grows, and moves into the uterus and usually embeds in the right spot. Now imagine that in the dark. How the hell does this happen?
Hormones. Temperature. Luck. All regulated by biochemistry and stuff I can’t see at all. Why do I care? Is it because I’m logical and scientific? Is it because I run a little anxious?
The corpus lutem is a little watchmen that waits for any sign of a fertilized egg implanted in your body. It’s the part of the ovary that the egg bursts out of. It waits in the dark for a wave of heat—estrogen—to signal that the uterus should hold on to its lining if you are pregnant. You know the rest: the mystery of life and really if you think about it, death. Something happens and cells thrive or something happens and cells die and it all happens inside us.
It’s embarrassing how hard I tried to have a baby. How badly I waited. I thought I would be laid back and spontaneous. Finally, we can just have sex and not worry. Like Sally Albright, I thought we’d bang on the kitchen floor whenever we wanted but the truth is, it really is a cold, hard, Mexican ceramic tile and super uncomfortable. I really did take the fun out of it.
In every month, you spend three weeks waiting to find out. Waiting to ovulate, waiting to find out if you are pregnant and waiting to start again.
I had months and months of starting over. I wasn’t medically outside of normal limits. We were told that getting pregnant within a year of trying is normal. I absolutely break for people who endure this for years.
After six months and eight cycles, I woke up in the middle of the night. I felt like I was riding the tiniest tidal wave of heat. I felt a vibration—like a buzzing, happening in me. I sat wide awake in the dark and smiled. This was unusual enough, chemical enough, that I absolutely knew I was pregnant.
I was right. The next day, a few days before my period was due, I took a pregnancy test and yep, two lines, that little heat wave was the start of a baby.
I rode other waves too. Like the nausea wave. That is no joke. I texted my Dad who had recently stopped chemotherapy for what we had just learned was terminal throat cancer. We joked about puking first thing in the morning, how much we puked, how gross it is, all the different weird words for it: Puke, barf, vomit and his favorite an onomatopoeic RAAAAAALPH.
But at my first OB appointment I found out, I would be starting over again. My baby had no heartbeat.
It’s a thousand tiny deaths … all those steps from there to here. Cell death. Death of what you thought would happen. The death of your father.
When they showed me the tiny form on the screen, all I could think was that it was dark inside my womb. I didn’t want my baby in there alone and unseen when they turned the monitor off.
The body works along, without our consent whether living or dying.
I endured a few very hard weeks hoping for a natural miscarriage and, when I couldn’t take it anymore, I scheduled a D&C.
I found myself really curious about how the D&C procedure is performed. I asked the doctor to explain the approach in detail to me. Why does a physician go in blind when they remove the fetal tissue? Wouldn’t it help to have the procedure guided by ultrasound? Why do you do it in the dark? Why can’t you see?
When I asked the OB these questions, a lady I had never met but had already spoken to on the phone, she seemed offended and sort of scuffed when responding. “Um, I’ve done this before. We don’t use an ultrasound because we don’t. We know how to do it.”
Is it so much work to educate a patient about your methods, about the risks? I pressed on. “How are your outcomes? What are the risks?”
Again, annoyed and terse. “They’re good. There is a small risk of puncturing your uterus and therefore of bleeding, of hysterectomy, and, of course, even death.”
“So I could wake up without the ability to have children?”
“It’s possible, but what else are you going to do?”
She actually said that to me.
The first nurse couldn’t get an IV in. Another nurse came in and got it. She offered her condolences to me. The office was plastered with pink and red hearts. Fresh roses sat proudly at the nurses station. It was Valentine’s Day, after all. My husband offered a thankful nod and the nurse left. He held my hand and waited with me, assuring me it would be okay. He was an ocean of calm.
A small-framed man walked in, the anesthesiologist. We pulled his chair close to mine and started with this:
“My wife has sat where you are sitting five times. We joke that we have two only-children because there are nine years between our first and second living children.” He had kind eyes and a friendly energetic voice. “I’m going to talk you through the risks of anesthesia. The procedure involves sedation, no intubation or ventilation but there is a risk, less than a lightning strike, that I would need to intubate you, okay? It’s safer to do this than to drive home. You could have a bad reaction to the medication but again, these are old meds, very well studied and I am an excellent doctor.” He went through a few other risks, including the tiniest risk of death, which he said was like suffering two lightning strikes in the same day and told me I’d wake up a little groggy.
He consistently addressed me before addressing my husband. He put his hands on mine and said he was so sorry I was suffering and he wished me well, hoping that I would fare better than his wife. As he was leaving the room he turned and said “After this, you can start over and try again.”
I wrote him a thank you note later. That man is why I let them wheel me into the room, let the somewhat rude OB scrape the baby out of my body without even looking.
He was right. I did get another chance to start over. Two months later, they peeked again and saw a strong heartbeat and a tidal wave of heat with their machines. I was ten weeks along when Dad passed away in the dark of morning. And the mystery of that baby growing in the dark accompanied the grief, the way the sun rises even if you didn’t sleep great. I had a daughter that December, she has my Dad’s curls.
I got to try again two years later and have a son. We named him after my dad. He was born as fast as a lightning strike into a unlit hallway of the birth center. The midwives turned on the lights later and we all laughed at the trail of blood I left from the lobby to the spot he emerged. “That looked a lot better in the dark,” the midwife said. That was true. When I play the video of his birth in my head, I see nothing. I don’t need to see it. I had gone through enough life and death by then to trust what I can’t see.
I feel the power of his body moving through me. The weight of him leaving me, the people bustling around me, I hear myself yelling out, I hear splashes of liquid hit the floor. A nurse tells me to squat, which I ignore and deliver him standing up. I don’t even see him yet, he is just pressed against my abdomen screaming. I hold him to my belly. I feel his squishy shoulders, his tiny frame. At that point, we didn’t know it was a boy. I did have to move out of the dark hallway to confirm that.
CARLY BERGEY is a Speech-Language Pathologist, singer, and writer currently crafting a memoir about her work as a voice therapist. Her creative and academic writing has been published in Intima, Pulse, the ASHA leader, ENT Secrets and CHEST. She lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, with her family.
On our fridge, there’s a pair of grainy black-and-white ultrasound stills, held up with a small plastic duck magnet and looking back at me and my husband every time we open the door for half-and-half or orange juice. In the photographs, our baby looks like a fuzzy cashew. A lima bean. A smudge on a window you could wipe away with Windex and a rag. It’s hard to believe this is where we all begin.
You may be daydreaming about having a boy or a girl, but the external genitals haven’t developed enough to reveal your baby’s sex. (Try our Chinese gender predictor for an early guess!) Either way, your baby—about the size of a kidney bean—is constantly moving and shifting, though you still can’t feel it.
I am going to be a mother, and all I can think about is my father.
My dad and I haven’t talked in nine years. But I’m the one it seems to bother. Closer to a decade than not. No phone calls, but also no letters, no emails, no texts. Not that I can imagine my dad—or the practical, literal, somewhat-adverse-to-technology engineer who was the father I used to know—texting. When I was a teenager, he was morally opposed to call waiting; in my early twenties, I alarmed him with my fumbles at blogging. I’m not alone in this—my parents had three daughters, and my younger sisters don’t have contact with our father either. It’s been so long since we’ve last talked that I have to stop and count, skip back like I’m flipping through a photo album in reverse, tallying up the times we missed. Graduations. Christmases. Birthdays. Father’s Days I avoid thinking about by giving the card section at Target plenty of distance starting right after Memorial Day.
It is surprisingly easy as an adult to go through everyday life not talking about the person who contributed half of your genetic makeup. When other people talk about their fathers, I smile or nod and hope the conversation moves on to weather. Or I talk about my father-in-law, or I cast my mind back to some time when my dad and I were talking, the more distant and innocuous memories papering over more recent unpleasantness. It’s as if I have one half of a family tree and simply painted over the other side. As if I’m walking around tilted, weighed down by one branch heavy and rich with boughs and leaves and fruit, and on the other, there’s nothing but air.
There are some big no-no’s when it comes to activities for expecting moms. Some of them are pretty obvious—no bumper cars, no new tattoos, no hot tubs—but others may surprise you.
I tell my mother I’m leaning toward sending my dad a letter. I have specific reasons. A letter is quieter. It does not demand but asks. Informs but does not interrupt.
And then, of course, I make excuses not to write it—I’m busy with grading, with talking to my students about their writing, with planning a friend’s wedding shower. In early March, I wake up, and before I can change my mind, I write to him, still in my pajamas, standing up in my kitchen, early spring light bathing the wooden countertops as I blow toast crumbs off the page. What I have to say is short and straightforward, more of a note, really, scrawled on a bright green handmade paper card from a long ago Christmas stocking. The paper feels fibery, alive, like skin; I think this card will be good luck. This feels like a special occasion, the right time to use it, but I have to use two because I ruin the first by splashing tears onto the ink.
I tell my father if all goes well, he will have a granddaughter around Labor Day. Maybe I make a bad joke about planning my pregnancy that way, evidence of a nervous tick I can’t seem to avoid even when I have the chance to edit it out. I write that I am thinking of him. That I don’t expect anything in return.
But the truth, of course, is I do expect something. I can’t not expect something even as I try to let him go. The letter itself is an extension of a hand, even if it is hesitating and trembling and uncertain. In that small envelope, I have sent part of my heart.
Your pregnancy: 15 weeks! Your growing baby now measures about 4 inches long, crown to rump, and weighs in at about 2 1/2 ounces (about the size of an apple)…although her eyelids are still fused shut, she can sense light. If you shine a flashlight at your tummy, for instance, she’s likely to move away from the beam.
Each Monday, cheery pregnancy email newsletters arrive in my email inbox comparing our baby’s growth to something edible: this week your baby is the size of a kumquat, the size of a mango, of a rutabaga, of an ear of corn. One week, my husband will receive a digital bulletin comparing our growing child to a pot roast. I’ll get an eggplant.
Included in these newsletters is no advice on how to talk to your estranged father.
My father and I stopped talking for reasons that now make us both look foolish. Maybe we have that in common. Perhaps I can stash this away in the basket of traits I’ve inherited from him: overly thick and unruly dark hair! hazel eyes! stubbornness and the inability to admit we’ve been wrong about something!
I’m sure, too, he has his own version of events, but here is how I remember it. Nine years ago, my youngest sister was graduating high school. To celebrate, my mother’s family planned a party. What my father said after he was invited: he was just there for the ceremony, flying down from New Jersey for that and only that. What he didn’t say: he had done the calculus, the return-on-investment, and the three children from his first marriage were not on the winning end. I remember pleading with him outside the newspaper where I worked at the time, my face hot and sweaty from being pressed to my cell phone. I paced up and down between hydrangea bushes, attempting to appeal to his most logical side, what rhetoricians, or people who study language and communication call logos, as in logos = a waste of time and money to fly five hundred miles only to sit in a hotel room. And then, because this was always a second and often less successful tactic with my dad, I attempted to appeal to his emotions (pathos = come on, it’s his daughter, my sister, we’re talking about here). He was unmovable as a boulder, which made me a foaming, irrational kind of furious. He grew calmer. I grew angrier. Mistakes were made, as they say. He cancelled plans to come at all. Maybe he mailed me a card, maybe followed up with phone call or two—all of this is lost in the fog of anger and hurt I was determined to wallow in—and after that we settled into a firm standoff of silence.
Here’s an addendum. The way my husband recalls it, I was also trying to persuade my dad to stay a few days longer. I was proud of the life we were building: the old bungalow we were renovating, our careers, our promise. We had 401(k)s! We had health insurance! What more can you ask of your adult children, especially if you happen to be into logic? He declined. He had to get back for Father’s Day, he said, to spend the day with my two younger half siblings.
Even now, right now, when I Google these dates and re-Google them, I’m shaking my head thinking, no, no, memory, you have it wrong. Memory may be slippery but a calendar isn’t. In 2008, my sister’s high school graduation ceremonies were on June 14. Father’s Day was the day after.
Your pregnancy: 16 weeks! Get ready for a growth spurt. In the next few weeks, your baby will double his weight and add inches to his length. Right now, he’s about the size of an avocado: 4 1/2 inches long (head to rump) and 3 1/2 ounces. He’s even started growing toenails.
The pregnancy newsletters are silent, too, on when you will know you’re bonded with your unborn child. Will it be when they are the size of a turnip? Of a butternut squash?
Early in my pregnancy, I hope I wake one day and find my instinct to be a parent waiting for me beside my bed with my glasses. Instead it feels as if I’m walking around with a low-grade flu for two or three months. It’s a malaise that spreads to my head and my heart. My body changes but not in a way that delights me; most mornings, it’s time for another nail biting game of “what clothes will fit me today?” The first and only time I enter a maternity store, I ease around racks of tee-shirts declaring in chubby script “Happiness is On the Way” implying that, at least to the wearer, happiness had never existed before and indeed could not without the prospect of becoming a biological parent. “It’s a miracle,” a friend says of my pregnancy. I shrug. Isn’t it just nature?
Science assures me indifference is normal. According to anthropologist Meredith F. Small, prenatal bonding usually happens during the second trimester. This is when mothers begin to feel their babies move; the moving it seems, makes things more real. The attachment changes with experience, too. In one study, women who have given birth and raised a child for one year felt a stronger bond with their offspring than when they were still pregnant. And this attachment isn’t solely a matter of sharing a body. It leaves room for fathers and non-biological parents to bond with their children because they want to, not because they have to. Logically, this all makes sense. Still, I study the grainy image of the cashew on the fridge and try to name what I’m feeling, testing it like it is a twisted ankle. Is it love yet? Now? Now?
What is messy and confusing about with my relationship with my father is that there is so much good I can’t wipe from my hard drive. It isn’t possible for me to just pack these childhood memories away, like old books or toys or faded clothes that really should be taken down to the Salvation Army for a donation. I replay them even when I don’t want to: the tree house he outfitted with a crate and pulley system so I could haul up my books and less compliant passengers, such as my cats; the handle he engineered out of duct tape and cardboard so I could carry cupcakes to school without squishing them; the eight-foot tall bookshelf he designed and built me after college. The nights when I had a stomach bug and he sat with me on the bathroom floor, holding back my hair as I wrapped my arms around the cool, slick sides of the toilet bowl. The wide-mouthed Cheshire cat faces he sketched in red marker on paper bags when he packed my lunch, or the songs he made up to sing to me when I had nightmares. The time, more than a year after I graduated college and should have been better able to take care of myself, when I called him from the side of a Pennsylvania interstate because my ten-year-old Nissan Sentra’s alternator had given out and I had no idea how I was going to pay for the towing let alone the cost of repairs.
Perhaps we all keep a running tally of how the people we love the most hurt us. And our parents, because they often are our flesh and bone and blood and the first humans we know, they are the ones destined to be at the top of that list. A plus in the black here for something that makes us feel loved. A row of red minuses for the things that really tick us off. Are we ever really even? When do we understand our parents as people?
Your pregnancy: 20 weeks! Your baby weighs about 10 1/2 ounces now. He’s also around 6 1/2 inches long from head to bottom and about 10 inches from head to heel—about the length of a small banana. You’ve made it to the halfway mark in your pregnancy, so celebrate with a little indulgence. Need some ideas? Try a new nightgown or pajamas, a prenatal massage, professional pictures of your pregnant self, a beautiful frame for your baby’s first picture after birth, or a piece of clothing that makes you feel really good.
For years, I thought a letter was the key to crack the silence. It was all I needed to pick this lock: a handful of magic words, a password, just like in a fairy tale. But now that I’ve sent it and it’s gone and nothing comes back, a letter also gives me license to imagine what could have been and what might have happened. What if it got lost? I wonder if I should email instead. I wonder if I even still have his email address, if he is even still working where he worked eight years ago, if he is working at all, because he could be retired. What are other ways of reaching out to your estranged father? Hallmark doesn’t make cards for this. I weigh the emotional pull of an ultrasound, the possibility of a birth announcement. “Should I send another letter?” I ask my husband. “What about certified mail?” I’m not even sure how certified mail works; will he have to go to a post office to sign for it? It seems aggressive, to send a letter that way. Demanding to be read, or least to be seen. The certainty appeals to me, though. How else do I know he knows?
What I did not write my father: I didn’t tell him it took me a long time to get pregnant, longer than I thought I should have to wait, as if becoming a parent was my right. At first, we told ourselves all the things other people were telling us: to be patient, to not worry, which, as the anxious among us know, worrying about worrying is really the most futile game a human can play with their mind. After two years, we began to see doctors. I didn’t tell my father I tried to see my life without being a mother even as we were so bent on having a child we were on the verge of starting in vitro fertilization. And we knew—we didn’t talk about this much but we knew—once we opened that box we would keep throwing money we didn’t have into it, as bottomless as it might be.
I didn’t tell my father, either, how friend after friend gave birth to one kid, then another, in the time we were trying for just a first. The few I knew were struggling, I avoided like they had a disease I could catch. How, when I heard one couple was starting IVF with an egg donor, I scoffed out loud it was going too far but inside, I was envious of their choices. I didn’t tell him what it was like to be jealous of your friends’ miscarriages, because, if you miscarried, at least you knew you could conceive. I didn’t tell him how I stopped going to baby showers. How I laid on the crackly, tight paper of an exam table at my infertility doctor’s office gazing at a poster of a Caribbean beach taped to the ceiling. There, I waited three separate times for a nurse to insert a catheter loaded with my husband’s sperm and three separate times it was in vain even though the sperm and the egg were right there, we were setting them up on a date and pulling out all the stops, a view of sugar white sands and palm trees and everything, so how could this not happen?
I didn’t tell him how infertility tests showed nothing wrong. How, for me and my husband, trying to make something together began to feel like it was cracking us apart. How we blamed each other and then when we were tired with that, we turned back to blaming ourselves. How phantoms hovered over our bed as we tried, again and again, to bend our bodies to our will and create the image of a family fixed in our heads.
How when I missed my period just after Christmas, I took five pregnancy tests over a week, so uncertain I was by then that my body could even do this.
If I could say something to my dad now it would be that I’m lingering in the doorway of parenthood, peering down the hall and trying to see down its dimly lit walls and understand where to walk and what to do. A letter, I realize now, also gives us an exit.
Your pregnancy: 23 weeks! With her sense of movement well developed by now, your baby can feel you dance. And now that she’s more than 11 inches long and weighs just over a pound (about the size of a large mango), you may be able to see her squirm underneath your clothes. Blood vessels in her lungs are developing to prepare for breathing, and the sounds that your baby’s increasingly keen ears pick up are preparing her for entry into the outside world. Loud noises that become familiar now—such as your dog barking or the roar of the vacuum cleaner—probably won’t faze her when she hears them outside the womb.
By the middle of my fifth month, my belly has the tight, round heft of a basketball. If I lie very still on my back, I see my skin vibrating like a drum. The pregnancy updates remind me this may be my baby hiccupping. I picture her turning and tumbling in her amniotic sea, flipping like a fish. As soon as nineteen weeks, the prenatal newsletters suggest, a fetus can start to perceive sounds outside the womb. Talking or singing to your baby is encouraged. Instead, I talk to my father. I tell him how I think I see my husband’s nose on our child in a more recent ultrasound, how she was leaning on her right arm and the ultrasound technician whacked my belly to get the baby to move so she could be sure that arm was there. I tell him I am scared. Not just of labor but of what happens after, of trying to be a good teacher and a writer and a mother and still hold onto myself, my adult, fully-formed-if-flawed self who drinks a little too much bourbon and stays up a little too late reading in bed and probably doesn’t eat enough vegetables, even at thirty-seven. I tell him there are things you hope for your child, and in my case, in addition to all fingers and toes, I hope she doesn’t inherit my anxiety and my deep desire to please and fix. I tell him how I hope she will be braver and better and more curious than me, and I wonder if every parent feels that way, if that’s why we keep on going.
I ask him what he hoped for me, when I was a piece of stardust, floating peacefully inside my mother.
I also ask my father questions. I start with the normal kind of questionnaire-like, the catching up conversation starters you might ask a college roommate you’ve fallen out of touch with. Do you still go to Maine each summer? Do you still run? Do you still love trees and know how to identify them by their leaves as well as their bark? Did you ever make that trip to the Grand Canyon? Am I even remembering that right, that you wanted to go there? If and when you went, were you as disturbed by the herds of gawkers with selfie sticks as I was? Because if so, here we can pause, laugh, hold onto something we have in common. We can take another sip of our beers before we move on to the more difficult questions, the ones he will never answer. In complete sentences, please consider how can a parent just give up talking to his children. For extra credit, what does my stepmother think of all of us? Does she urge you to contact us? Or, because it’s the easier thing to do, because that would open wounds and vulnerability, does she just not talk about it, as you surely do not talk about it, nor encourage my half siblings to talk about it. What are my half-brother and -sister like? Do you text them? Come on, really? You can’t not text with a teenager now. Do they wonder about us? Do you see us in them? What, to you, is family?
I tell him I want the lightweight freedom of forgiveness—for me and for him—but I’m mired in the thick, dark mud of anger. I tell him we can see each other’s broken places now, the cracks all of us as adults try to glue back together. The places where cracks have become invisible parts of us, the scaffolding that carries us through life with resilience and experience. The places where the workmanship was more hasty.
Your pregnancy: 30 weeks! Your baby weighs almost 3 pounds (about the size of a large cabbage). You may be feeling a little tired these days…you might also feel clumsier than normal, which is perfectly understandable. Not only are you heavier, but the concentration of weight in your pregnant belly causes a shift in your center of gravity.
At a friend’s wedding in April, surrounded by a circle of new spring leaves, she and her new husband turn to each other and to his two teenage children from his first marriage and then all four of them pledge to love and support each other. It is the opposite of trite—it feels true and real, a very public way of making a new family. Later that month, I stop by my neighbors’ house, a lesbian couple who have each had a baby within a year and a half. I am there to go through hand-me-down baby clothes. In their living room, I fold tiny shirts the size of my hand, socks smaller than my thumb. The two mothers sit cross-legged on their polished wooden floor and ease their babies into their laps and at some point they both begin to breastfeed. So here is another kind of family. One block over, there’s a family with two white parents, one from France and one from Indiana, and two adopted black teenagers, and that is another kind. There is my middle sister, who has lived with her boyfriend for years. My single friends who bought houses for themselves and their dogs. Divorced couples with kids who still make a point of eating some meals together, or buy houses close enough for their kids to walk between, or don’t. All of these are families.
A few weeks later, my husband and I drive across the country. I am headed to write for a month at a residency in Washington State and we combine it with a route through the Southwest and then up the California coast. We stop in Los Angeles, and my aunt, my father’s sister in-law, insists we stay with them. They are good and generous to us; my uncle, my father’s younger brother, keeps saying, “We’re all family here,” and each time he does my heart opens and breaks all at once. Maybe the boughs on one side of my tree aren’t dead. Maybe they are leafing out. My husband likes my uncle, appreciates his collection of antique corkscrews and bottle openers, his home brewed beer, his stories and photos of camping and traveling with his kids throughout the West. I wonder what kind of father-in-law my uncle will be someday. What kind my father would have been.
Your pregnancy: 37 weeks! Your due date is very close now…While you’re sleeping, you’re likely to have some intense dreams. Anxiety both about labor and about becoming a parent can fuel a lot of strange flights of unconscious fancy.
I sometimes forget what is happening to my body in these final weeks but then I will be doing something ordinary, like getting dressed, and I catch myself in the mirror, all round and curve, and I’m surprised what I’m now feeling in my heart and my womb is so physically evident to the rest of the world. My immediate future is written for all to see—motherhood, parenthood—inviting speculation and soothsaying from strangers. She’ll be a princess, she’ll be sweet. I just want my daughter to be. I trace my fingers down my linea negra, the dark, pigmented line that appears on many pregnant women’s stomachs, dividing their bellies into two tidy halves like the neat crease of a peach. My daughter inside, her head down low near my pelvis, positioned to eject. The scrape of her arms, the lean kick of her limbs. She’s becoming more fully formed each day. She is no longer a fish; she is a human with all her parts still safe inside, still unwounded, unbroken, unscarred. Still all possibility.
Your pregnancy: 39 weeks! Your baby is full term this week and waiting to greet the world! He continues to build a layer of fat to help control his body temperature after birth, but it’s likely he already measures about 20 inches and weighs a bit over 7 pounds, about the size of a mini-watermelon.
On the late August day when my daughter is officially full term, a short letter from my father arrives sandwiched between a West Elm catalog and a Home Depot credit card offer. In romantic comedies and beach reads, this might have caused me to go into labor. Instead, I leave it unopened on the dining room table for a few hours while I pace around the house, making up things to do. When I finally tear open the envelope, I see his familiar tight, tall script, the handwriting of the Cheshire cats, the handwriting I’ve known since I could read. He says he has been meaning to respond, that he has been carrying around my letter. Happy for us. Small steps. Send details when you are ready.
Instead of a resolution, I’m left with more questions. Is it is too late to be a parent at any point? When is the damage done, or when can the relationship between a parent and a child be saved? Does forgiveness have an expiration date? When can I stop looking for hurt and harm?
Sometimes when we decide to have a child, we put a lot of faith in its power. We impose incantation on what is really just biology. Foolishly, we think it can save a marriage. Make us stronger. Make us kinder, more empathetic, more patient, into people we aren’t really, at least not all the time. We all know this in our hearts this isn’t true, and yet, as a species, we do this again and again. I knew having a kid would mean I would be a parent. But I also thought it would be the spell to have both my parents in my life. But even this, this growing person inside of my body, all these cells dividing and folding and weaving their way into someone new, a beautiful magic chronicled by ultrasounds and fetal heartbeat readings and genetic tests where we breath hope toward that deep, dark salty sea inside of me—even this isn’t enough to repair my relationship with my father.
The truth is I want to turn to my own parenting now, to my daughter and my chance. I want to push into the future rushing toward us like a wave. When people ask if we are ready, I am now saying yes, and yes, and yes. Yes, in that her crib holds a mattress and yes, her car seat is installed and inspected, and yes, we have built a fort of readiness out of diapers and pacifiers and tiny hand-me-down onesies, but also our hearts are ready, so ready, so open. Yes and yes and yes.
There is so much I don’t know about being a parent right now. I’m pausing here on this curb of pre-parenthood, waiting to cross a busy street to the other side, a street I will never cross again and corner I will never return to. But I carry this image in my head in these last hours and minutes. It’s of me and my daughter together working in the garden on an early spring day a few years from now. We dive our bare hands into the soil, turning over the dirt to wake it up. We knead in compost. We count earthworms. Then we feel bad and nudge them back into their dark homes. We rip into colorful paper packages, the seeds inside as small as periods at the end of sentences, all these tiny promises of radishes and lettuces and peas. We sprinkle them with a soft blanket of soil as if we were putting them to bed.
I will tell my daughter each seed is like a little wish for the future. I will tell her we plant them, and we hope, and then we just have to wait.
LAURA GIOVANELLI is an essayist and writing teacher. Her other personal writing can be found in The Washington Post. She was a newspaper reporter for nine years and has an MFA from NC State University. She now teaches at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Punch the number sequence on the garage-door keypad with increasing agitation until you get it right. Slide into your supercharged Mini Cooper—red, with white racing stripes—and start it up, engaging “sport” mode so the exhaust backfires when you take your foot off the gas. You like this feature. It makes you feel like a renegade, just as when you drove your first car, a loaner from your father. You were sixteen, and he’d known you for less than a year. He hadn’t a clue about your lead foot when he handed over the keys for a 340-horsepower, four-barrel Dodge Challenger. It was orange, with black racing stripes.
Turn on the radio, harumph at the commercials, and plug in your phone. Scroll through the dozen or so playlists to find one of the only two that you ever play anymore: The Tragically Hip, whose song lyrics have replaced mitochondria in the cells of one out of every three Canadians, or Little India, a band you adore both despite and due to your nephew’s role as bass guitarist.
Crank up the tunes to drown out your next-door neighbor, who near-permanently idles on the front porch to chain smoke and cough a wretched aria that crescendos with him hocking multitudes of loogies over the edge. Sometimes he coughs so hard he vomits, and you almost vomit. Sometimes you want to swear at him, but the menace of the teardrop tattoo on his face keeps your words in check.
Throw the gearshift in reverse. Inch back until you clear the garage; hit the gas and rocket to the driveway’s end. Execute this maneuver by looking over your shoulder, a habit ingrained since your Young Drivers of Canada lessons. It strikes you as ironic that your father paid for the program; it hadn’t struck him as necessary to help with food and rent when you first fled your psychosis-afflicted mother and had nowhere to live. Your sister intervened, negotiating two hundred bucks a month from him so she could move into a bigger apartment and you could have a bed. Once you saw how it worked, you started scheduling your own appointments at his office to plead for what you needed: cash for your senior high school trip; cash to buy a prom dress; cash to see a therapist. He squirmed and flinched and cleared his throat. You took his money.
Hit the brakes hard.
Turn the music down a notch so the neighbors don’t think you’re a tool, though you’ve always loved the adrenaline whammy of operating a moving vehicle while rocking out. You even remember the song that was playing the moment the Dodge Challenger slammed into a lamp post, after your attempt to beat Mike in his silver Honda turned into a fishtail on a corner. Your father was upset that you wrecked his car. You pretended you didn’t care. Physically, you were fine, aside from glass in your hair and a bruise or two. Your cassette tape had a permanent warp at the moment of impact. It was in the middle of Black Cars by Gino Vannelli.
Avoid looking in the rearview mirror. You don’t want to be reminded of the dark circles under your eyes.
Look in the rearview mirror to check for chia seeds between your teeth. Notice the dark circles under your eyes.
Roll back past the perimeter hedge and scout for the sibling set who always seem to be traipsing past your driveway but won’t make eye contact with you. Their mother doesn’t, either. It all started one sweltering day in July, eight years ago. Your husband walked three lots south to their house and asked the patriarch to turn down his music. Its booming bass broke your concentration while you worked on the eulogy for your father’s funeral. Papa was drinking. He swore at your husband for coming onto his property without a shirt on and disrespecting him. Meanwhile, you were trying to write something that was respectful. The anecdotes all originated within the last decade; it had required that much time to cease being merely transactional with your father, for you to pull back on your condemnation of what he wasn’t and allow some acceptance of what he was. Loving is more difficult than driving, you’d discovered. But you were determined to stand in the front of the hall at his service and demonstrate—to his friends, business associates, yourself—that you’d been an attentive enough daughter to speak to his character and accomplishments.
A cursory check for traffic.
Pull out into the street. As you shift from reverse to first, let your car roll before you hit the gas so anyone who’s looking can tell you own a standard, thus putting you in an elevated category of drivers. It’s also vital to impress upon the young man across the street that middle age doesn’t equate to boring and feeble. And yes, you admit, you advance this point with your loud music, too.
Drive off, taking both hands off the steering wheel to fasten your seat belt. The German engineering in your British car makes it so it practically steers itself.
Keep the speedometer under thirty until you turn the corner, otherwise you will be one of the many your husband curses at for speeding on your street.
Head for the highway so you can push the needle on your tachometer past five as you shift into sixth. This is when you need to hang on to the wheel. Right now.
Pull out into the left lane to pass a taupe Toyota, and another taupe Toyota, and an orange Dodge Challenger with black racing stripes. The model was restarted in 2008, a year before your father died. You feel a familiar pang of regret, wishing once again that you’d dropped by a dealership with him and taken the car for a test drive, an homage to how far the two of you had come, outdistancing expectation and obligation. And yet, still not far enough. You would have appreciated the chance to rack up another hundred thousand miles with him before his engine gave out, even knowing the limits of his responsiveness: As much as you itched to bring up the old days—when you were a six-year-old at Christmas and he didn’t show up, and a thirty-three-year old on your birthday and he didn’t show up—if he couldn’t address his failings as a human, neither could you. Emotional limits have an upside, though. In your father’s shortsightedness, he didn’t see your failings.
Sing as you drive. Even if you don’t know all the words, sing. Emulate the vocal stylings of Adele mashed up with Dave Grohl, and scream and thrash your head around and drum on the steering wheel until your conscience is deaf.
LAURA ZERA’s work can be found in Catapult, Quartz, The Washington Post, and other places. She has completed a memoir and is working on a novel set in South Africa. Website: laurazera.com. Twitter: @laurazera.
“How big should I make it?” I asked my tattoo artist, a fashionably underfed hipster in a tiny, spotless shop on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He was probably ten years younger than he looked—the image I was hoping for with my first tattoo. I had just graduated from college and was living on Avenue C in the late ’90s. I was still far too baby-faced to look the part I thought I was playing. I wanted to look like I had experience, like I had a story.
He said, “Big enough so the people at the other end of the bar can see it when you lift up your shirt to show it off.”
It was good advice for a twenty-two-year-old. Now, almost two decades later, I’m more apt to wonder how it looks as I wade into the YMCA family pool, following my two-year-old daughter and my five-year-old son, where I’m less inclined to show off my body than submerge it from sight. Like most of the fathers in my company, my body is succumbing to the undertow of the parenting years: a slack at the chest, a collection at the waistline—story that I’d rather lose. My tattoos now show not the look of experience, but of inexperience, of youth.
I’ve gotten three tattoos while being only a son, and one as both a son and a father. As a son—which is to say, as someone who has tumbled into the world and seeks his place in it—I still like my tattoos. Getting them has felt as essential as the body they’re inked on. My tattoos have stamped something permanent onto my life, which has otherwise confirmed itself to be uncontrollable—even unknowable. It’s an exhilarating power, and, I believe, the primary allure of getting tattoos. In the face of so much mystery I can say, with this ink on this skin, I know this much—I am this much—at least.
The image itself doesn’t so much matter, which is why so many tattoos appear to be so meaningless. I have a heart with an arrow through it on my arm, and a star on my shoulder: why do I have them, instead of not have them? It is assertion, and assertion alone, in response to some other questions I often ask: why do I have to be so white? Why male? Why such average height, why this mop of hair? I don’t know, but I can say that one day, at the foot of Seattle’s Capitol Hill, a young man wore a surgeon’s face mask and, holding my arm, inked perfectly straight lines and acute angles on my shoulder. The tattoo is both the most meaningless and precise thing about me.
Incidentally, it also gets the most attention at the YMCA from the swim-diaper set. Every so often I feel a poke on my shoulder and turn to find a toddler saying, “Star!”
“That’s right,” I say, and smile. The parent glides over to fetch his or her child, and gives a smile to say “sorry.” I smile back to say “no problem.”
We’re all smiles, and mine is the most awkward. When I became a father I felt as though I had re-entered the world—tumbling still, and now holding a newborn. Even now, I don’t know my place in the world, but I know my purpose—fatherhood—and to this purpose, my tattoos are all dreadfully embarrassing. I’m embarrassed for all of us, bobbing into the YMCA family pool with our marks of youthful inexperience, images that look more to the taste of our kids than to the parents we’ve become: dragons, fire, dice, swirly lettering, abstractions in black, and yes, stars. Why have them instead of not have them indeed. Now I often think of the question my own dad asked me when I pulled up my shirt to show him my first tattoo.
“It comes off?” he said.
“No, Dad, it’s a tattoo.”
“But it’s not real.”
“Well…” My stepmom searched for her words. “You’re… expressing yourself.”
My dad said to himself, aloud, “And on Father’s Day.”
So it was. We had all met at the beach for a June family reunion. Instead of letting people notice and say something (or more awkwardly for me, not say something), I thought I’d just make the announcement about my new tattoo.
My parents have been less than enthusiastic about my tattoos, which I can understand, now as a parent myself. A decision like this must look like guaranteed regret. When I showed them my fourth and final tattoo, the only one I have gotten as a father, my stepmom said, “Well, I… I liked your arm the way it was.”
“An illustrated man,” my dad declared, again keeping his distance from voicing an opinion.
Oh, well. You learn to live without approval from your parents. I had hoped that this was a tattoo they might have liked, however, as it involves our family. My sister, an artist, drew it as part of the wedding invitations she made for my wife and me. There is a single-story pagoda-like structure in black, at the edge of water, whose currents are shown by dark grey swirls. Above it, in teal, are tiny check marks, Xs, circles, diamonds, and a crescent moon all appearing to be in motion—a kind of swirling cosmos that corresponds to the water below it. In this swirl there are three small rowboats in black, their oars set in their locks but hanging slack. One rowboat is gliding toward the house, one is at the house, one is headed upward and away, at the edge of the cosmos.
The pagoda to me is home, and the boats show the three stages of a cycle that was apparent to me on our wedding day, held at the farmhouse where my wife grew up, and continues to be apparent as I have become a father: it’s a return home to leave it again, and it’s a departure from home, even as far as the edge of the universe, that foretells a return.
“You can never go home again”—yes, but also true is that I never really left, not in any permanent sense. In raising children, I constantly reflect on my own childhood. In being a parent, I constantly recall my own. Having my own kids has also brought me back to the family I came from because there’s a new relationship I’m now obliged to foster—that of the grandparent and grandchild. My parents want to feel like they “know” my kids, and, being grandparents who spoil them rotten—by which I mean give them junky little plastic toys, dubious gummy treats, and unrestrained joy and affection—our kids want to know more of them.
In our wedding ceremony, the minister gave a “blessing to the parents” in which she said, “They are of you, and now they move beyond you.” What I have learned in the years since is that “moving beyond” doesn’t mean I’m no longer “of.” In fact, being “of” my parents has only intensified in having supposedly “moved beyond” in marriage and parenthood. My past, my upbringing, my youth, my sense of inexperience has all become more vibrant in adulthood, in contrast to the tattoos that represent them, whose colors have begun to fade.
“I want a tattoo,” my son says, looking at the one my sister drew. A part of me is happy to hear it. I’ve learned to live without the approval of my parents, at least as it pertains to my appearance, but now I’m struck by how much I want the approval of my kids. Another part of me, the protective father, is, well … concerned. I don’t want my son to do something he regrets.
“Okay,” I say, “but not until you’re a grown-up.” He’ll be of me and not beyond me for many years to come. “You can get a temporary tattoo. One that comes off.”
My two-year-old daughter hasn’t said much, but in the YMCA family locker room recently, as I wiggled her into her swimsuit, she touched my chest and said, “Daddy, you have a name.”
I smiled. On my left pectoral muscle, just above the heart, where a name tag is sewn on a shirt, in Times New Roman typeface, black, all lower-case, about 40-point font, is my first tattoo, a word that described me then and, sometimes in spite of my most sincere wishes, describes me now: tender.
As a young man on Avenue C I wanted something to show great virtue and great fault, something that shows conflict, and the conflict I have now, eighteen years later, is to determine whether it was an act of virtue or fault to get it. I was—and am—sympathetic, gentle, impressionable: tenderhearted. I also was and am perpetually unprepared for the world, especially in parenthood, as each new phase highlights my embarrassing inexperience with it. I’m not so baby-faced anymore, but I’m as tender-footed as my kids are. As a twenty-two-year-old I was attracted to the irony—what kind of man has “tender” tattooed on his chest? I knew it would be a provocation to my future self, and, duly, as a father I am provoked.
Does all this spell “regret”? Yes, and no, and not simply either. I would never get this tattoo now; my taste for this kind of daring irony has since far softened. Yet, it suits me perfectly, then as now, and I’m glad my former self had the temerity to mark me. As a friend of mine said, “People regret tattoos because they once thought they looked cool but no longer do. This is a tattoo you know you should regret. So you probably won’t.”
“Yes, I do have a name,” I said to my daughter, in that chirpy parenting tone, proud of a toddler’s perception. But I said it under my breath, as I hoped not to explain it further, not while I fussed with the diaper, socks, pants, shoes, shirts, towels, goggles, lock, and the bags, and not with all these other people around.
BRIAN GOEDDE teaches writing and literature at the Community College of Philadelphia.
Dad believed that the countless objects he amassed held value, and he took great pride in that. My parents had both come from families of working poor and weren’t familiar with terms like 401K; my dad played keno as part of a financial plan. Being able to pay their bills in full and on time was a Herculean feat. When my dad died, there were no life insurance policies or inheritance to claim. There was only his stuff.
I was raised in the countryside of Oregon, but my mom often recounted a story of when we once lived in town. I was still a baby then. She and I were home alone together. Holding me on her hip, she answered a knock at the door and was surprised to see a policeman. He told her this was a city and there were ordinances. She was going to need to clean up her yard, or he’d have to fine her. With the pride she took in her appearance and her impeccable housekeeping skills, she choked up with embarrassment. She didn’t mention my dad, that the mess was his. She spent the afternoon with a neighbor woman feverishly cleaning up the small yard and garage. When my dad came home, he was enraged. He screamed at her, red-faced, for touching his things, accusing her of trying to get rid of him. My dad was over six feet tall and barrel-chested. When angered, he was a charging bull.
Mom had a decision to make; either leave him or accept this craziness as the life she had married into. She was a young mother, seeking stability for herself and her family in whatever form she could find. She wanted us to stay together. She looked for a way to make it work. Within a week, she found a house for sale in the country, and they moved every last item away from the judgmental gaze of city life. Mom always wanted to move back to town, but Dad’s stuff kept them rooted until the day he died.
When I was growing up, we would constantly find new things strewn about the yard: battered oxygen tanks or a discarded boat motor, pieces of sheet metal twenty feet long and wine distilling equipment. How he got some of those things home single-handedly remains a mystery. He had an idea in mind for all of it; he would cultivate a vineyard or engineer a new type of sea-going vessel. Not one of the plans ever came to fruition, but he refused to part with a single thing.
There were rare occasions when mom spotted the latest addition out in the yard and couldn’t contain herself. “What is that? What’s that metal for?” she’d demand.
“I’m going to build a two-person passenger plane,” he replied. ”I can fly you to Chicago to visit your sister when it’s done. Think of the money we’ll save on airfare.”
Out in the countryside of the Willamette Valley, my dad was free to accumulate to his heart’s content. The wooden skeleton of his barn sagged with rot, unable to contain the vastness of his imagined treasures. The contents piled up to the rafters and cascaded out, covering the yard and becoming entangled with the rampant, wild vegetation. There was no system to any of it. Wherever he put something down last, that’s where it would stay, and he heaped new things on top of old as he brought them in.
When he passed away, my husband and I began working to help my mom prepare the house for sale. As I looked out over their property, I realized I would have to touch every relic of our lives from the past four decades. I would have to revisit each painful moment; and ultimately, I would have to grieve that his entire lifetime of ambitions amounted only to the worthless piles stretched out in front of me.
Dad always bragged about his vintage coin collection, his prized guns, and his classic cars. For safekeeping, the coin collection was stored in a locked briefcase shoved under the bed. The combination had long since been forgotten. We pried it open to find a sea of wheat pennies and US state quarters encased in plastic. We found two-dollar bills squirreled away in his sock drawer. A coin collector assessed nothing we brought in was worth more than face value, including the plastic-enshrined quarters. At work, an older colleague of mine had also recently lost a parent and he would say things like, “I’m going to be out tomorrow; I need to tend to my parent’s estate.” I thought about this phrase as I slammed plastic-enshrined quarters against the kitchen floor to break them free of their casings: “I am tending to my parent’s estate.”
Dad had left his two-dozen assorted guns and boxes of ammunition lying haphazardly in a pile on the garage floor. We were too frightened to touch any of them, not knowing whether any remained cocked or loaded. My uncle, who we had not seen in years, showed up to claim them all. That would be the last time we heard from him.
Dad’s automobile collection consisted of nine vehicles in states of mild to severe decay. He constantly talked about his intention to resuscitate each of them to the glorious condition of their heydays, and the amazing fortune he would reap. The best car of the lot was the one pick-up that still ran. The driver’s seat was broken into a permanent position of recline and the rearview mirror dangled by a thread. Most perplexing of the bunch was the 1972 Chrysler Crown Imperial.
Even in my earliest memories, the Chrysler never ran. I never saw it driven, never saw anyone start it up, never even saw anyone open the driver’s side door and sit on one of the plastic bench seats to reminisce.
In the early years the Chrysler sat adjacent to the driveway. After a decade without improvement it was decided—I’m not sure exactly who decided—to move it to the back of the house, near the barn. In Dad’s mind, this probably equated to progress. The car needed to be near his tools if he was going to repair it. In my mom’s mind, I’m certain she just wanted to get the eyesore out of sight from the general passerby.
In Oregon, the elements of nature are subtle. There are no bone-rattling earthquakes, the complete and sudden devastation of hurricanes, or the intensity of a Midwest blizzard. There is only the rain, the omnipresent dampness. It seeps in quietly, seemingly harmless. But left unchecked over time, that ubiquitous moisture is power.
Over the years the two-ton Chrysler turned from dusty rose to a bleached mauve to forest green, covered in moss. The sodden earth began to consume the car—the tires buried up to the rims. And out of nowhere, the descent of Himalayan Blackberry, vegetation that seemed like science fiction.
When my aunt came to visit a few years back, she looked out the family room window onto the overgrown backyard and asked, “What’s that red thing sticking out of that bush?”
Sheepishly, my mom murmured, “That’s a tail light.”
Brambles had grown up and around the Chrysler, devouring all of it except one final piece of tail light. They grew twelve feet tall, surpassing the height and width of the barn, engulfing not just the car, but the expanse between the car and the barn, using both as makeshift trellises.
After Dad passed away, I wasn’t sure my husband and I were up to the challenge of unearthing the car from the grips of the brambles. But my wiry husband assured me we could do it. Not knowing where or how to start, we each simply bought a new pair of work gloves and hedge clippers.
On a crisp winter morning, the smell of wood smoke permeating the air, we embarked on our odyssey. I began clinically, like a novice surgeon taking the first cautious snip. The weed was covered in stickers, shooting out in catawampus directions like an army of angry penknives. It clawed at us with vicious tentacles, pulling at our arms and legs. We emerged from the bushes with scratches everywhere, on our backs and faces, blood dripping down our forearms.
Soon I was hacking and lunging with unquenchable hostility. Questions cascaded through me. What other daughter had to engage in an activity like this in the wake of her father’s death? Why did he leave this mess for us to clean up? Why didn’t he take better care of things? Why didn’t he take better care of us?
After several days of relentless toil we stood smugly over the decimated thicket and beheld the Chrysler in full exposure. The initial victory was sweet; we felt like laborers excavating the ruins of Machu Picchu.
Once we turned our attention to the car, our spirits sank. The windshield looked like a kaleidoscope. The interior seats were brittle and splintered, the ceiling upholstery torn and dislodged; where the passenger side floorboard once existed there was now an irreparable hole. After waiting for decades to be restored to its former glory, the car was unceremoniously sold in an estate sale, purchased by an anonymous buyer for the paltry sum it could fetch as scrap.
I looked up the number for Molalla garbage service online.
“I’d like to arrange for delivery of a drop box.” I used terms I found on their website and hoped I could translate my needs into their language.
“What size do you need?”
Barn-size? “What are the options?”
“Our smallest is twenty yards. That’s 7’5” by 16’ by 4’7” and the largest is forty yards. 7’5” by 22’ by 6’8”.” She rattled the numbers off with quick efficiency and I hurried to jot them down.
I shoved the figures imploringly in front of my husband with a “???” and a helpless look on my face.
“The biggest,” he mouthed back to me.
“The biggest one,” I responded. I feared the woman on the other end would question me. What does a well-spoken young lady like you need with a dumpster that large? I thought she would doubt me. That’s really large, honey. Are you sure you need something so big?
But she did no such thing. She merely asked when I wanted it delivered.
I responded without hesitation, “As soon as possible.”
For over two decades, with joy and fear I’d envisioned the day I would walk into the barn and clean it up. In my imagination, I’d be wearing knee high rubber boots and would have somehow gotten my hands on a Hazmat suit. In reality, I wore a grey Army t-shirt (Dad’s) and my mom’s jeans with an elastic waistband. The clothes were foreign to me, which fit the foreignness of the experience. It is hard to remember what my gloved hands touched first, but once started, I was transfixed. We had always been forbidden from touching his stuff. This would never have occurred in his lifetime.
On our first pass, we filled the forty-yard industrial dumpster in less than three days. It was so full, I’d end up owing over-tonnage fees. We’d only scratched the surface, though; we decided the rest would need to be addressed in stages and subsequent visits to the dump.
As we loaded the bed of my father’s truck with memories from my childhood, I was mystified to find decomposing rolls of shag carpet Dad had removed from the house when I was eight years old. My mom made plans for its disposal back in 1986. But Dad demanded to keep it; he planned to repurpose it. How did he think he was going to repurpose used 1970s Granny Smith apple–green shag carpet?
The hundreds of pairs of identical, fringe-beaded earrings intrigued my husband. The summer before I started high school, my dad was fired from his job. I don’t know if he looked for other work and couldn’t get anything, or if he became enticed by a pyramid scheme before he ever got that far. He sent money in to some unknown destination, and in return, he received a set of beads and string. He simply had to construct them into earrings and make five times the profit on his money. Except, of course, his beaded constructions were never purchased, leaving us with hundreds of sets of identical earrings and a hole in the bank account. When my childhood friends asked what my dad did for a living, it was hard to explain.
My mom hadn’t had reason to visit the dump in ages, but she thought she remembered the way. She was mistaken. Neither of us had any idea where it was. Unbelievably, in the year 2013, neither of us owned a smart phone or GPS. My mom’s idea was to roam through the Wal-Mart and ask for directions.
Upon entering the store, Mom instructed me, “Look for someone who looks like they’d know where the dump is.”
“What would someone who knows where the dump is look like?”
Without missing a beat, she said, “Someone like us.”
I gazed over at my mom, a reflection of myself, in her messy flannel shirt, muddy boots, and stocking cap pulled tight over her ears. We burst into raucous laughter at the absurdity of it all. Silently, I also prayed this would not be the instant I run into someone I knew from high school.
Once we found our way to the facility, I stood at the edge of the platform and tossed our mold-infested memories into the dump. It is hard to throw away a life.
In the next round, we rented a metal “drop box”, another forty-yard container we’d fill to brimming and sell the contents for scrap. I was determined to get all the riding lawnmowers in there. Dad bought a new one every few years on credit. Whenever he mowed for the last time in the fall, the lawnmower would stay put right there on whatever the last patch of grass had been, uncovered all winter, until the next spring. After several cycles of this, the machines would rust into disrepair, the wheels would lock up, and he’d buy a new one. On the day he died, there would be four riding lawnmowers scattered around the yard, immobile.
My mom, husband, and I groaned collectively under six hundred pounds of riding lawnmower. In perfect synchronicity, we exhaled and lifted on the count of three. We progressed across the backyard in inches. There was a point where I looked down and saw I had gashed my leg. Blood ran into my shoe. I felt nothing. I was a robot-o-tron with one thought: Metal in the bin. Not metal to the dump. Surprisingly, many things had morphed to a point where it was impossible to tell what their origins were.
Mom begged me to come inside the house and spend time with her.
“Mel, why don’t you take a break? We can visit.”
“What do you mean? You can take break. I want to keep working.” Throughout my life I’d been merciless with my own belongings, throwing things out without a hint of sentimentality. With all that was in front of us, how could she think of stopping with so much still to get done?
“It’d just be nice—to visit for a while.”
“We can talk while we work. I came to work.” At my response, her shoulders slumped with a heaviness I didn’t understand. I was oblivious to the loneliness of my recently widowed mother. I felt nothing except a driving desire to finish this. I had to finish this.
Among the ruins, I found a handicap bar, the kind attached in restroom stalls. When I was ten years old, my dad worked security at a rehab facility and brought the bar home. I had begged for a ballet barre in my bedroom. The stolen handicap bar was his solution to purchasing a real one. When he showed it to me, it didn’t look sleek and pretty like a real barre, but it would be mine nonetheless, and I was excited in the way only a child could be. The bar sat on the floor of my bedroom, awaiting installation, until I left for college. Seventeen years later, I threw this symbol of my dashed childhood hopes into the dump.
And then there were the papers.
Stashed into dozens of file cabinets, boxes, nooks and crannies, we uncovered every “official” piece of paper that had ever entered our home. Every phone bill, bank statement, tax return and department store receipt since 1974.
Some of it was just plain odd—prescriptions my mom had received for conditions long since forgotten; the pay stubs I’d received from my first job at age fifteen.
Some of it inspired a spark of pride—a commendation memo Dad had received for some task he’d completed in the Army Reserve.
Much of it told something deeper.
The court summons addressed to Dad for stealing from his employer (items which were likely still sitting out in the barn at the time he passed away.)
Business cards that had women’s names and phone numbers scrawled on the back, which my mom pulled angrily from my hands.
Written warnings Dad received for being too aggressive with his co-workers.
A lay-off notice addressed to Dad when the cannery shut down.
Records from a financial consultant when my parents filed for bankruptcy.
Notices from the IRS regarding the lien they had had on the house.
Through these papers, the story of our family was told.
We burned all of it.
After many months, we were coming to the end. We’d worked our way across the yard, to the outer reaches of the barn and into its depths. Only the “wine distillery,” a slapped together addition at the back of the barn, remained. Dad fermented cherries into a putrid concoction he generously called “wine” and then boasted of his plans to sell to major distributors once he’d produced enough jugs. After all we had dealt with, this final hut would be simple. The structure and everything in it were completely dilapidated. I just needed a stash of garbage bags and a bit more endurance.
The space was more disgusting than I had anticipated; it smelled like the walls were doused in cherry wine. It was nauseating. I hastily started to sweep whole shelves into a sack. But the stuff—a conglomeration of rags, plastic tubing, cardboard boxes—was molten and disintegrated under my touch. I discovered glass beakers that still had a deep burgundy substance in them, solidifying. I stepped in something far too squishy and found myself gagging reflexively.
Before I knew what was happening, I was doubled over, convulsing, tears soaking my face. I cried until I felt empty. I crumpled onto the waterlogged plywood serving as a floor.
In that moment, I finally understood. I was not cleaning up my dad’s selfish mess; I was cleaning up the remnants of a disease. This yard, this barn, were not merely the objects of a careless man who brought home too many bicycles. He had a psychological condition. I was only able to recognize this after he passed away, after spending countless hours cleaning out his things. I had spent my life feeling so much anger toward him and so much shame about the turmoil we were forced to live in. But I could not hold on to that resentment. Just like I would not feel irritation at a stroke victim for slurred speech, I could not continue this animosity towards my dad for a mess he couldn’t stop himself from making.
I saw now he was not collecting garbage—he was collecting possibilities. The possibility of a gleaming classic car, the possibility of success and accomplishment. He wasn’t a perfect man and didn’t follow through with his plans, but he was able to believe in the impossible. And there was beauty in that.
Out there in the space that had been the source of so much shame and humiliation, I was able to find my own form of forgiveness.
MELISSENT ZUMWALT is an artist, advocate, and administrator who lives in Portland, Oregon. She learned the art of story telling from her mother, a woman who has an uncanny ability to recount the most ridiculous and tragic moments of life with beauty and humor.
“It looks like you’ve got a horn growing on your face.”
That’s what the dermatologist says—literally says—to my father. A horn. I hadn’t thought of the growth as a horn until this moment, and now I wish I had looked at it more closely, even though it’s the kind of thing I don’t generally like to get too close to. I thought it was a big wart or a skin tag, or maybe a weird looking skin cancer, but I hadn’t considered that it might be a horn. I won’t get another chance to look at it, because the dermatologist cuts it off with no ceremony or drama—just a quick shot of Novocain and he starts digging it out. He’s done in five minutes. A horn on someone’s face is not a big deal to dermatologists. They’ve seen worse.
I should have said, actually, that I don’t get another chance to look at it attached to my father’s face, because the doctor shows it to me in a little vial, suspended in pinkish liquid.
He’s sending it off to the lab. Right now, the horn could be skin cancer or not.
Either way, the dermatologist isn’t concerned. He says, “There’s nothing to worry about. If it’s skin cancer we’ll take care of that, too.”
Maybe cancers that take the form of horns are easy to treat. Or maybe dermatologists just don’t get that worked up about eighty-four-year-olds who may or may not have skin cancer.
When I get home I google “people with horns growing on their faces” and it’s an eye-opener. You can’t mistake them for anything else because they are clearly horn-shaped. They’re hard, like dark, super-charged fingernails, and they’re huge. There are all kinds of horns, each resembling the horn of a different animal. Elk, moose, goats. Some curl up in a spiral, like they were designed by Dr. Seuss. Just when you think you have a handle on all of the ways human bodies can go wrong, you learn something new.
By taking my dad to the dermatologist while his horn was so little I saved him from possibly ending up with a giant horn, which would have been (presumably) more difficult to remove. Nobody gives you a medal for that though.
I send my dad the link to the page of pictures of people with horns. I tell him, “If I didn’t take you to get your horn removed, it might have ended up like one of these.”
He correctly points out, “We’ll never know how my horn would have turned out because we cut it off.”
Right now, his horn is in a vial being looked at to see if it’s cancer or not. It might be cancer and it might not be. It’s one or the other, but at this very moment it could be either. We have to consider both possibilities.
It’s like Schrödinger’s Cat. A couple of smart people have explained this to me and I still don’t understand it, because a cat is alive or dead, not both, no matter if we know it or not. But the relevant point here is that since we don’t know, we need to treat it as if it’s both alive and dead. You need to cover all the bases.
In the days leading up to this dermatologist appointment, my father, who has early Alzheimer’s, took it upon himself to make a dentist appointment the same day. His dentist is in the same medical park as the dermatologist and, coincidentally, has the same last name too.
“They must be brothers,” my father tells me every time he calls me about the appointment, which is more times than you might imagine.
“They might not be,” I say, because that’s the truth.
But they are. We learn that because when we get to the dermatologist’s office, the dentist’s office is right across the hall and my dad says to the dermatologist’s receptionist, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
Three minutes later as I’m filling out his medical history form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
A minute later, before I finish the form, he goes up to the receptionist and says, “I have a question. Is the dentist across the hall related to the dermatologist?” and she says yes, they’re brothers.
This time she gives me a long look and when I quietly ask her if she could call me instead of my dad with the results, she quickly agrees.
Because he made the appointment with the dentist for the same day as this appointment, but four hours later, and because I don’t have time to stick around all day, my dad has formulated a plan. He will walk across a busy road with no crosswalks and have lunch at a shopping center, and then will walk back afterwards, find the dentist again in this medical park, which is the most complicated medical park in the world.
I have told him several times that this was not a safe plan, but he assured me that he did this kind of thing all the time, and had been an officer in the U.S. Air Force and flew several kinds of complicated airplanes and he could certainly manage crossing the street. I had put off the argument for later because I was so tired of talking about it.
He mentions this plan to the nurse once we’re in the doctor’s office, and she says, “No, you won’t. You’ll get killed, and even if you don’t, you’ll never find your way back here.”
He replies, “Oh!” and looks truly surprised.
“No, I’ll drive you to lunch and then I’ll drive you back here,” I say, even though I really don’t have time. I agree with the nurse. It was a crazy plan. But, also, I’m aware that I would seem neglectful if I let him do it, and I’m sensitive about looking neglectful.
My choices are to piss him off or to look neglectful to everyone else in the world.
It seems like there’s only one right answer. I have to keep him safe. But it’s so much more complicated. It’s difficult to know at any given moment if he should no longer be doing something he used to be able to handle. I have power of attorney, and, sure, I can play it safe, err on the side of caution, but every little freedom that he loses diminishes him a little more.
He’s stopped driving. Although he’s in “independent living” at his senior living home, someone comes to his apartment twice a day to make sure he takes his pills. I started handling his banking after he made a few concerning mistakes with his money. He’s unhappy with all of these changes.
When an older person wanders off and gets lost, it ends up in the news, and the reaction in the comment section is predictable. “Someone should have been watching him!” Just like when a kid is allowed to walk home from school by herself (imagine!) and something bad happens. “I’d never let my kid walk around without supervision! Bad parents!” The online judgment comes fast and hard.
The problem is, until the older person goes missing or something happens to the kid, you don’t know for sure that it’s not safe to let them do this thing that they want to do. Maybe the kid is ready. Maybe the elderly parent is still able to take an unsupervised walk. How do you know? Maybe this will be the last time he can do it.
With Schrödinger’s Cat, the way it works is this: the cat is in a steel box. Also in the box are a radioactive substance, a vial of poison, a Geiger counter, and a hammer. When the radioactive substance decays, the Geiger counter detects that and makes a hammer smash the vial, releasing the poison, killing the cat. But the thing is, you have no idea when the radioactive substance will decay. So at any given time you don’t know if the cat is alive or dead.
It’s the same thing with elderly parents with dementia. Until something goes wrong—they mess up the bank account, they forget to take their pills, they get lost—you don’t know that the decay has gotten to that point. If you wait too long to start giving them that extra supervision, there can be a disaster. If you jump the gun, you’re taking away some of their quality of life before you need to.
After the appointment I drive him to the shopping center and we have lunch. Then I drive him to the dentist. It will be two and a half hours until his appointment. I can’t stay. The home where he lives provides rides to and from doctor’s appointments, so I have him call and request a ride, but he can’t get anyone on the phone.
“Try again,” I say, because I don’t want to leave him without a ride.
“It’ll work out,” he says. It’s one of his favorite things to say and it drives me insane. It happens all the time. He tells me about a problem and asks for help. Something with his computer, or his phone or TV, or something more important. Maybe his knee is bothering him. I start looking into it, but before I can do anything he says, “It’ll work out.”
It works out because I make it work out, not because it magically works out.
He assures me, though, that he will just call again after the appointment and get the ride. I tell him to let me know if he can’t get through. Then I leave and drive the forty minutes to get home.
That night he calls me and says that he never got through so he walked across a major road, this one with a crosswalk, at least, to catch a bus back home. He got on the right bus, had cash for the fare, got off at the right stop, and crossed the road again to get home.
“It all worked out,” he says.
Three days after the appointment we get an answer about the horn. The dermatologist says it’s benign.
JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The 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.
Once a year or so, I drive my 2006 Prius out to the county to have it detailed. It’s a ridiculous amount of money to spend on washing a car, especially this one. The back passenger door panel is a slightly different color than the rest, and rust spots are beginning to speckle the roof. The floor mats are wearing through, and the silver paint is beginning to chip away from the steering wheel controls. We bought the car used, and I intend to drive it until it dies.
When I was a kid, my father made me wash his cars in the side yard. I used Comet on the white walls, Windex for the windows, and Palmolive dish soap for the rest. No matter how much I concentrated on swiping away every inch of grime and dust, Daddy could always find a streak of dirt after the sun sucked the finish dry—a memory of dusty roads and a sign pointing to my lack of precision.
This detailing shop gets my car cleaner than anyone could at home, that’s for sure. My favorite thing is the air-pressure tube they use to blow out miniscule bits of lint and salt and sand and dust that collect in crevices and catch my attention while I’m waiting at a stoplight. I try not to see the detritus lining the grooves of the steering wheel or the seams of the dashboard. If I think about it too hard, I’ll dig into the glove box for a plastic knife or toothpick to push along the cracks, pulling up months of grime that gathered by no fault of my own. Or I’ll drag my fingernail across the patch of crust that forms over the START button, oils from my fingertips deposited each time I start the car.
I don’t care as much about the outside of the car, because I don’t often look at it from that angle. Inside the vehicle, encased in fiberglass and metal for quick excursions across town or longer trips on interstates, I have time to notice what shouldn’t be there. I regularly remove trash—paper cups and used napkins and parking passes. I stuff my gum wrappers into a little garbage bag fastened to the back of the front passenger seat, emptying it when it gets full or when someone has crammed a banana peel inside. It’s the little bits that I can’t see at first, but amass until they are noticeable, that prompt my call to Diamond Detail on Old Padonia Road.
With little effort of my own, I’ll be rid of the thoughts I’ve had about the grime—the shards of fingernails and skin and hairs that my wife, daughter, and I have shed there. Several fellows in coveralls will spend hours going through each and every inch, inside and out, removing our waste. Filth will be sucked up into vacuum tubes and blown out of sight by pressurized air and washed into muddy puddles and pushed down drains. I won’t see it again ever and the new silt will take time to notice. After detailing, the surfaces and gaps are clean slates, ready once again for what I inadvertently leave behind in my quest to go somewhere.
My first real job out of high school was cleaning rooms at the Knight’s Inn near I-81 Exit 73. At the time, this was a new chain of motels, decorated in rich purples and dark “wood.” Guests were meant to feel as if they were staying in a castle. But, really, it was a drive-up hotel, with the thirty-nine-dollar-a-night rooms opening up to the outside, so you could keep an eye on your car. I might have stayed in a hotel a handful of times, and most of them much like the Knight’s Inn, so the place looked good to me.
I got this job because I had few real skills and because there were few jobs available to recent high school graduates in my small Appalachian hometown. Two major interstates intersected just outside of town, prompting the construction of several chain motels and restaurants and creating a small boon of low-wage service employment. Waiting tables frightened me, but running a vacuum cleaner and scrubbing a toilet were things I thought I could manage with little difficulty.
I needed only enough money to pay for my books and incidentals at college that fall. That was the deal: Momma and Daddy were paying my tuition and board, but I was in charge of the rest. Working mornings left evenings open for my boyfriend, when we milked the cows and made out in a pickup truck that smelled sweetly of manure and hay. Besides, I have always been a lark, preferring to rise with the sun. My younger sister and I applied for hotel jobs at the same time and were both hired. She quit after a few days. I stayed throughout the summer.
Mostly I loved the solitude. I could push my cart full of supplies from room to room, without talking to a soul for six hours or so. If I was lucky, I could watch a movie on HBO, starting it in one room and finishing it by the end of the row. The work was mundane and ritualistic: I began in the bathroom, then changed the linens, and finally vacuumed and dusted. This wasn’t a spot for hookups or drunks, and because the rooms were cleaned so often, they never seemed particularly dirty. But once I found a pornographic novel between a mattress and box spring.
I was drawn to the process of setting things straight. A hotel room is sparse, and each one is arranged like the last. Plastic-covered cups go to the right of the sink, and little bottles of shampoo and cakes of soap are lined up on the left. Towels are rolled and stacked on a metal shelf above the tub. Toilet paper is placed on the holder facing outward. The remote belongs in front of the television, and the one-cup coffee maker is next to the telephone. I followed the same process in each room, which appealed to my sense of ceremony. In this progression, my mind could wander, fantasize about life away from home.
I started each shift with a cart full of clean—bottles full of soapy liquids, stacks and stacks of laundered towels and sheets, a bucket of fresh rags and brushes—and ended with dirty. It was as if I had turned each room inside out, bringing it into the sun. I exchanged linens dotted with flecks of skin and swirled with hair for disinfected sheets and towels, fresh from the dryer and folded while hot. I blurred my eyesight to avoid catching a glimpse of anything gross. I learned to pull the sheets off the mattress and into the center of the bed into a ball, catching and covering what the previous guest might have left behind. If I didn’t see it, it didn’t worry me. My hands spent hours soaked in cleaning chemicals; I felt safe from bacteria.
Once in a while, I was asked to come in at night to wash and fold linens. This was my favorite task. The laundry room was lined with several pairs of washers and dryers. When they were all going, the room got steamy and loud enough to cover my singing. I brought in a tape player to blast old 1950s music or Bach’s minuets. When the dryer buzzed, I pulled out the hot linens and folded them immediately. The heat prevented wrinkles and made the cotton layers like cascading sheets of hot water. I learned to fold even the fitted sheets, with their pocket-like elastic corners. I never tired of the geometry of the process—the halving and halving again, an origami of white cotton. I appreciated the purpose of my work, the precision required to get all of the sheets on the correct shelf or to roll the towels so that they fit on the cart for the next morning. The room smelled fresh and clean, like that whole summer. I was preparing for my new life away from home, earning money and learning how to withdraw into my thoughts, to examine my life from the inside. I was a becoming a clean slate.
The first therapist I saw didn’t take. I was in high school, dependent on my parents to make the appointments and pay the fees. I found out in college that I could see a counselor on campus for free and without my parents knowing a thing. I skimmed the surface of my psyche, and the counselor sent me to a psychiatrist for pre-SSRI medications that made me drowsy and out of touch with any of my feelings.
After graduating from college, I found Bernadette in an ad in the monthly queer newspaper. I saw her for five years or so. By then my life was radically different. I was married, my wife and I living in a city far from the mountains of my childhood and the valley of college.
After my daughter was born, I stopped sleeping, and so six months later, I found a psychoanalyst. Her name was the same as mine, and her office was in a strip mall. I knew I wasn’t supposed to, but I figured out which car was hers in the parking lot. Once, her husband and two children burst into the office while we were in session. I felt like I was taking her away from something more important. I began taking Zoloft, along with Trazodone to help me sleep at night. I resented having to see her, so much so that once I sat in a session without speaking a single word. Because she was a psychoanalyst, she followed strict rules, and so she didn’t say anything either.
My family moved to Baltimore when our daughter was five years old. I stopped sleeping again and found another analyst. We started out in once-a-week, face-to-face sessions, but I eventually let her talk me into going whole hog: lying down on the couch and staring at the ceiling for four fifty-minute sessions each week. It was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on mental health, considering I was relatively healthy. Still this is when something inside me cracked open, like a dampened seed, and bloomed.
Having your “clock cleaned” usually means that you were beaten up by someone stronger or bigger or both. While I didn’t feel as if I had been physically hit, these sessions were emotionally bruising. The progression backwards through time—the rewinding of my clock—to reveal deeper truths and understandings was a perplexing process. I worried over choosing a topic to start with. I wondered if I was saying and doing the right things. And so my thoughts flitted to mundane details. I noticed the little paper napkin where my head rested on the couch, thinking about the person who had lain there before on his own paper napkin. I couldn’t help but internally giggle at the crack in the ceiling that looked like the profile of a breast, remembering what little I had learned of Freud in college psychology and literature classes.
My clock was getting cleaned; the detritus of my past was being reviewed and reorganized, with some bits cast aside and others polished to a shine. The use of the passive voice here is not accidental. Although I was in the room, speaking, sometimes crying, sometimes laughing, I felt removed, as if the process was being done to me. The distance between my therapist and me shifted something inside me. The gap allowed for some pain to be vacuumed up and thrown away, for some memories to be stacked together neatly and others to be tossed in the recycling bin.
I couldn’t have done this alone. I tried too often to make it work with someone else. I wanted the intimacy of face-to-face conversation within a fifty-minute time period to help me understand myself, to sift through the remnants of my past to find meaning. It turns out that I needed both distance and another person. And after several years, I could turn inward and marvel at the order of my psyche, the clean slate awaiting the next many years of pain and happiness and living to clutter me with leftovers.
Daddy needed a liver, and I was about to give him mine. Well, not all of mine, but enough that would grow to fill the space where his diseased liver was at the moment. After years of his immune system attacking it, his liver was dying. He wasn’t sick enough for a rare cadaver liver, and mine was big enough to share.
The liver is one of the body’s filters, helping to excrete toxins and unnecessary junk that builds up in the everyday process of keeping you alive. When it’s not functioning properly, the body can become overwhelmed with grossness. Blood clogs with waste, while the body struggles to metabolize fat and carbohydrates. Minerals and vitamins are flushed through the digestive system instead of stored. And old blood cells die off with fewer replacements. The liver is a disgusting organ, but so necessary that evolution has allowed it to regenerate. The half of my liver left inside me would grow to full size; the half of my liver put inside my father would too.
The night before the surgery, I had one job: to clean out my insides. Daddy and I checked into the hospital in the afternoon and were told to drink a gallon of GoLYTLY, a hellish solution that would flush everything from our digestive systems. Even with the packet of raspberry tea-flavored Crystal Light I added, the stuff tasted like sea water, so I sipped on it for hours, hoping my conservative approach get me to the finish line. By ten o’clock, I realized I was in trouble. Daddy had drunk the whole thing down and been given an enema. I was only a quarter of the way through. By midnight, the nurse got worried. I hadn’t reached the halfway mark, and I was starting to gag on the sips. If I weren’t done soon, they’d have to cancel the surgery. I began looking for alternative ways to finish the nasty solution. That’s when the nurse flippantly said, “We could put in a nose tube.” Do it, I told her.
She didn’t think I was serious, but I was. This stuff had to get into my gut, but my gag reflex was getting bolder by the swallow. I didn’t see any other way, and so she called in the intern who was on the floor. It took two tries to get the tube down my nose and into my throat, and once it was in, the nurse simply poured the liquid through a funnel and into my stomach, bypassing my taste buds. I was giddy with relief, trying to talk between the pours. Within ten minutes, my gut was full and the bottle was empty. I spent the next hour in the bathroom, letting the stuff do its job. And the surgery proceeded the next morning, on time.
The transplant was a success, but six weeks later my father died. His new liver was working like a champ, growing and filtering and making bile. It was his lungs that did him in. In a long afternoon of his body shutting down, his liver was the last organ to fail.
Within a few hours, Momma and I were in the little apartment she lived in during Daddy’s hospital stay. Because the hospital was so far from their home, he would have recuperated there, close to his doctors. We packed up his belongings: the magazines he had planned to read, his shoes, his wallet. When I came across a stack of papers detailing instructions for wound care and such, I slammed the whole lot into a big trash bin in the hallway. We packed everything into suitcases and boxes, loading them onto a brass hotel cart and rolling it down to Momma’s van in the garage. The room looked sad and empty—not quite a hotel room, not quite an apartment. Bare, metal clothes hangers dangled from a rod in the closet. The medicine cabinet in the bathroom, once jammed with prescription bottles, gawked open under a harsh, florescent light. The emptiness was shocking.
On the morning of the funeral, one of Daddy’s friends came to the house and asked for the keys to Momma’s car. He took it up to the truck stop to be detailed—washed, waxed, and vacuumed. It was all he could think of to do with his grief.
On Saturday, my daughter and I will climb into the freshly cleaned Prius and head south on a tour of colleges in Virginia and North Carolina. We’ll be on the road for nearly a week, visiting six schools and staying with family, except for two nights in a hotel in North Carolina.
Last week, I gave my daughter the rundown of our trip. “I thought we were sleeping in the car,” she said. And I thought she was kidding around. But no, somehow she’d gotten this idea stuck in her head, that staying in a hotel would be too expensive, and so we’d save cash by pulling over into a Walmart parking lot or some such, reclining the seats for our slumber. She was relieved to hear we’d have beds and bathrooms.
I have the trip mapped out in my head—not only the route we’ll take but what will happen along the way. There will be times when my daughter refuses to speak and times when she won’t shut up. I’ve saved up episodes of a podcast we both like, and we’ll talk about her college essays. The most we’ll drive in a day is three hours, so we’ll have lots of down time—time for writing: my work and her college essays. When traveling with a teenager, the trick is to keep expectations low, be willing to move in and out of her peripheral vision, be with her without needing her attention.
It’s being in that closed space for so long that made me think of having the car detailed. It’s a fresh start, an opportunity to shrug off the old stuff. My daughter is reaching for a door that will lead her to a new life. She deserves an adventure with no dust, fresh linens, space for thinking. I can’t provide much for her right now, except things that money can buy: a clean car, a hotel room, a college education. And so I do what little I can.
LAURA LAING works from her home in Baltimore, where she is writing an unconventional memoir. In a former life, she was a journalist and magazine writer. Her first literary essay appeared this March in TheRumpus.net. She is an MFA student at Goucher College’s creative non-fiction program.
On the day my father turned eighty-eight—just over six years ago—my mother shuffled down the hospital corridor to visit him after surgery. Her five-foot stature diminished by degenerative arthritis and a series of falls, Mom had been the needier of my parents; my dad her loyal caretaker, driver, friend and, most of all, loving husband. She slowly pushed forward her walker, a metal substitute for my father’s arms that until then had always been there for her. This was the first time in their sixty-two-year marriage that she had to manage without him.
At the elevator, Mom stopped to sign a birthday card my sister bought for her to give to my dad. My husband gave her a book to steady the card and a pen.
She grasped the pen and, without pause, began to write. I looked over her shoulder and read her words.
You’re my only.
I watched Mom sit in the chair at Dad’s bedside and gaze at his face. His decision to get knee replacements was part of his plan to keep the two of them together, to live independently. His bowed legs were failing him. By getting new titanic knees, he could continue taking care of my mother. As he slept, Mom held his hand in hers.
They were always holding hands. I’d often meet them for lunch at our neighborhood cafe. After we kissed goodbye, I’d watch them shuffle along the sidewalk to their car, Mom bent over, her eyes focused on the ground; Dad, a foot taller when they were younger, stooping to clutch her hand and support her weight. This image always left me wondering if it would be the last one I would see of them together.
My parents were born within six weeks of each other in 1923, both to Jewish families—my father in the “waltz city” of Vienna, my mother in rural eastern Poland. Dad’s family immigrated to the United States in 1938, narrowly escaping the Nazi take-over of Austria. My grandmother wanted to live in the mainstream of American life, in a university town, in a place of opportunity. Dad was fifteen when they settled in Columbus, Ohio.
He finished high school and was halfway through college at Ohio State when, in 1943, he was drafted into the army. He served first with the ski patrol in the 10th Mountain Division located at Colorado’s Camp Hale. He contracted rheumatic fever there and, because of his understanding of the German language and culture, was transferred to an infantry unit and placed into military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Hagerstown, Maryland. His unit was redeployed to a military camp in Manchester, England, and assigned to the 63rd Division, with which he remained throughout the war.
From September of 1944 until April of 1945, Dad was part of a regiment in Paris during the time when Germans had infiltrated that city after the Battle of the Bulge. Reaching the level of staff sergeant, he assisted in the Alsace Mission, top-secret work involving the translation and analysis of captured papers on the German V-2 rocket, and helped locate installations at the Ziegfrid line, the defense demarcation between Germany and France. For his war efforts, he received a Bronze Star. Back in the U.S., he finished college on the GI Bill.
During this time, my mother’s family was fighting oppression—first, at the hands of the Soviets, then the Germans. When Mom was sixteen, her mother was deported to a Siberian work camp. Later, my mother and her father hid in a bunker underground to escape a Nazi concentration camp. Mom’s family reunited after the war, travelling to Krakow then Vienna, where my mother spent a year in medical school. Finally receiving affidavits of support to sponsor them, Mom and her parents set sail for America and settled in Atlantic City.
Shortly after their arrival in 1947, an aunt and uncle from Columbus invited my mother to live with them. Mom could resume her education at Ohio State, they said, quickly adding an even more persuasive argument to the parents of a single, twenty-four-year-old Polish daughter: a nice and handsome young man from Vienna finishing his degree at the university worked for them in their small office supply business.
A match was made.
Other than feeling self-conscious about their foreign accents, I never thought much about my parents’ dramatic entries to the only country I knew. I took for granted their journey toward freedom and didn’t grasp the struggle that must have been part of their legacy as I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s. Now, I can only imagine the challenges for an immigrant woman still wrestling with a new language and culture, married with two young daughters—a former medical student turned Midwest suburban homemaker in an era when the work of being a wife and mother carried such urgency and social expectations.
I grew up thinking my mom hadn’t accomplished anything, all those afternoons she was waiting for me at the door, fixing me a snack, and making sure my sister and I understood the importance of an education. I watched my dad strive to build his business and spend many evenings doing volunteer work, part of his commitment to repay the kindness of a stranger—a Chicago businessman—who took a calculated risk on a Jewish family and sponsored their entry, a journey from Trieste to Ellis Island that spring of 1938. I didn’t know then that in the coming months and years, the war they barely escaped would destroy my father’s Viennese home, along with so many other residences, businesses, and synagogues.
Like most children and teenagers, I was in my own world and trying to fit in as one of very few among my peers who were first-generation Americans. I went on to college unaware of the deepening renewal of my parents’ commitment to each other. Their union seemed an anachronism back in the early seventies. During my twenties, while developing my career, I lived in Detroit and New York and was in a marriage that produced a son and ended in divorce. After I remarried at thirty-three and returned to Columbus, I was able to see my parents with fresh eyes. I used my journalism background as a license to ask detailed questions about their pasts to collect family history.
Over time, I gained a different lens, one that revealed two young European immigrants who found one another through quite distinct journeys but shared a deep desire for a safe haven in the middle of their new country. Shutting one door, opening another, and never looking back.
Two years before Dad’s knee replacement surgery, my sister and I helped my parents move out of their condo to an apartment building with assisted-living and dining services. My sister was already at the condo when I arrived on the first day of what became a six-week process of thinning out the belongings of a lifetime. Mom sat in a chair wrapped in a white linen shawl that had turned up earlier that morning.
“Don’t be so quick to throw things out,” she said, watching my sister rummage through papers in the kitchen drawer. “Let me see them first.”
As I scanned the handwritten lists of names and phone numbers covering the desk, and the brief reminders scratched out and rewritten, my vague observations morphed into a troubling realization of the secret that our father had kept from us. It was confirmed as we later found Dad’s cell number scattered throughout the condo, neatly written on no less than three-dozen pieces of paper.
Mom had also saved countless birthday, Mother’s Day, and anniversary cards. Dad came through the kitchen as I was trying to gauge the sentimental value of one particular card. “Throw it away. It’s from our neighbor.” Muttering, as he walked away, “He’s dead.”
As we uncovered photos and albums from as far back as the early twentieth century, my sister and I realized that Mom had kept every card, every photo, every newspaper article, every memento. To her, everything mattered and she wanted to remember it all.
On the afternoon I planned to wade through Mom’s closet for giveaways, Dad went with my husband to watch the Buckeyes play Northwestern. My dad never used to miss Ohio State’s fall football season; I remember attending games with him throughout my childhood. But as Mom’s needs rose, attending a football game moved farther down his list of priorities. Left alone for hours with my mom, I took her to lunch and looked at old photos. I wasn’t prepared for the greeting I witnessed when Dad’s key turned the doorknob. Their eyes lit up for one another as if they had been separated for months.
While Dad’s knees were like new, Mom’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. She had frequent falls. Her memory lapses became more numerous, although she continued to call forth the most obscure details of decades past. Dad still drove, played bridge, and voraciously read magazines and books—and continued as Mom’s loyal custodian. But in the fall of 2015, both of them ninety-two, he began admitting that taking care of my mother—something he’d considered a life’s mission—was no longer sustainable. For the first time in their enduring union, they would need to live apart.
A new memory-care facility opened just fifty yards from their apartment building. Mom became its first resident. For nearly a year, Dad visited almost all day, every day. I’d often come by and find my parents in Mom’s sizable room—she in her wheelchair and he sitting on an ottoman close beside her. They were holding hands and watching television, the sound blasting down the hall. She cared little for what was on the screen. The man at her side was the source of her happiness.
When she left this world last May, eerily on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mom and Dad were one month shy of celebrating the sixty-eighth year of their love affair. Instead we celebrated Mom’s life, and buried her on Mother’s Day. Dad had brought over Mother’s Day cards that he’d picked out weeks earlier, one for each of the moms in our family. I found a sealed envelope among his stack with my Mom’s name front and center, a heart drawn around it. I slipped the card from the pile and, later, unsealed the envelope, as if opening it for Mom. After the printed message from husband to wife—that she was the woman he would marry all over again—came three words in Dad’s shaky handwriting: “To my treasure.”
While Dad was heartbroken, he did what he always did in life. He pressed on. At Mom’s funeral, he told my best friend that he needed to “reinvent” himself. He added a fourth bridge game to his week, attended a few more Columbus Symphony concerts with friends from his senior residence, and even took a trip with my husband, our daughter, and me for part of my book tour in the Florida Panhandle. He engaged more deeply with friends and family. Always a realist, he knew life was precious and was determined to live fully for whatever days he had left.
When a nodule showed up on a lung CAT scan during an ER visit prompted by a fall last October, Dad handled the news with his usual pragmatism. He was uninterested in pursuing medical interventions.
“I’ve lived a long life,” he said. “A good life.”
By November, pneumonia and a lung infection left him weaker, and he developed an uncontrollable cough. Still, he’d get up around seven a.m., shower, put on a nice shirt and pants, a handsome sweater, and go down to breakfast. He continued to play bridge and would win most games. He read when he could. Right up to his last days, he possessed his gift of connection, a fellowship he’d built for a lifetime: with his business associates, with innumerable colleagues encountered through volunteer work, with his growing family from whom he took great pleasure, and with his network of friends.
Just eight days before he died, Dad had a nonessential physician appointment on his calendar that he had made months prior—to see his ear doctor. He seemed bent on making this visit to get his ears cleaned and have his hearing aids checked. He was extremely weak that morning and had trouble standing up with his walker. I told him I didn’t see how I could take him out that day. He was terribly disappointed—the appointment was on his calendar and Dad always showed up for every commitment he made. This one was no different.
So I called the doctor’s office and asked them to let me know if they had an opening in the afternoon. The receptionist phoned two hours later. They had a 3:45 p.m. cancellation and I took it. Dad rallied, as he often did, his will and determination pushing through. My sister came over as reinforcement and, together, we took him to the appointment. In the waiting room, we laughed; we shared personal stories. Dad voiced his impatience even though we were early and told him so. We laughed more. When finally in the treatment room, he chatted with the doctor and staff. My rather fast driving even got him back to his residence in time to have dinner with his friends. He was happy, grateful. He’d had a victory—one more in a life that he saw as so full of them.
I keep going back to that March day of Dad’s first knee replacement, our trek with Mom to the fourth floor of the hospital. Except for the slightly glazed look in Dad’s eyes from pain medication he preferred not to take but did, he was alert, lying in a slightly reclined position, a serving table hovering over his lap. We placed his favorite Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream pie in front of him. On cue, the nursing staff came in to sing happy birthday. As they filed out, Mom handed Dad her special card, bending to kiss him. My camera in hand, I automatically pointed and clicked to capture the moment.
LINDA KASS worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press, early in her career as a journalist. She currently serves as an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May 2016. She is working on a novel of linked stories, this time inspired by her father’s life. She is the founder and owner of an independent bookstore, Gramercy Books, in Bexley, Ohio.
“I’m fifty,” I imagine saying to my mom. “Can you believe it?”
“No,” she would say back to me. “No, I cannot.”
I used to call her every year on my birthday. It became a funny thing, me thanking her for having me. I would have already gotten her card—she always mailed it early—and sometimes a little gift, though not every time. I know if I had waited long enough, she would have called me, but I was an hour ahead of her and up early to go to work. She was retired and a night owl. I would call her first thing, and she would still be in bed. I would remind her what she doing however many years ago on that day and she would always say she didn’t remember much, mercifully. Because that is how they did it in those days. My friends and I were some of the first babies born in the hospital in our town. Our mothers went in pregnant and came out not. What happened in between was for someone else to say.
She remembered enough to tell me she thought the hospital sent her home with someone else’s child; I know that. And for a long time I wondered whether she believed it. I had been big—almost ten pounds. Enough to warrant forceps, one tong clamped to the right side of my forehead, which left me with what she used to call a horn. “What do you mean a horn?” I would ask.
“A horn,” she would say, as if it were self-evident.
When I pressed for more details, she would never describe it exactly, would just say it was so big my christening cap didn’t fit and so unsightly that she heard my grandfather, leaning over my crib, say to one of his brothers, “Look at that, Camille. What the hell you think about that.” A lament. I was lamentable.
“When they brought you to me,” she would say, “you were so ugly. I was just sure you were the wrong baby. And I told them that, too. I said, that’s the wrong baby. But they kept insisting you were mine so what was I gonna do. I took you home.”
Those were also the days when babies spent most of their time in the nursery, bottle-fed, so the new moms could get some rest. “Well, my room was right down the hall,” she would say, “and there was one baby in there that cried all night long. I mean, all night long. I remember feeling so sorry for the poor momma that was gonna take that one home. Little did I know, that one was you! And that poor momma was me!”
The stories would spill out from there of her new-mother all-nighters, of the local TV stations going off at midnight and of her having to rock and sing or bounce and hum to me into the wee hours. Of me sleeping all day, through every visitor who came by wanting to meet me and my horn. “We would wipe your face with an ice cold washrag to try to wake you up,” she would say. “Even that didn’t work. You were out. But come ten o’clock—poomp!—your little eyes would pop open and you would be ready to play. All night. I would just get you to sleep, and then it would be time to get your brother up for school. I’m telling you, I thought I was gonna die.”
My mom loved babies, the littler the better, but she was not sentimental about them. She could sit content with a newborn in her arms all afternoon and talk about how hard they were, every once in a while catching the baby’s eyes with a coo and a smile and a high-pitched “Isn’t that right? Yes, it is. Yes it is,” until she got a rolling giggle in response.
It never occurred to me to wonder whether she wanted me. If pressed, I would have said I assumed she did. By the time I came along, my brother was eight. My mom and dad had been married eleven years, and she had had at least two “misses,” as she used to call them. Maybe more. “In those days, we didn’t count.” My mom would have said she was not of a generation that thought about kids as something you wanted or didn’t, or of a generation of kids who thought about whether they were wanted.
She loved the story of the time she told her nephew, my cousin Todd, that he was an accident. “He was so upset,” she used to say. “Now, why would you be upset by that?” she wondered. “I mean, I was an accident too. You think I care? By the time you’re number three or four or five, I hate to tell you: You’re an accident.”
When my husband asked what I wanted to do for my fiftieth birthday, I told him I wanted to talk to my mom. He knows I only ever most want what is impossible and that, if he waits a beat or two, I will get to something that is more possible, which I did. So I told him I wanted to spend it with my brother—my first best friend—and his family. I told him he was in charge of arrangements. All I wanted to have to do was pack.
I threw my clothes in a bag the night before—it’s my brother, it’s Florida, there’s not much that needs to happen. But the jewelry required some thought. I have pieces I love, pieces I travel with and pieces I don’t. Like most things in my life, my jewelry is poorly organized. The necklaces are tangled and often need polishing, the earrings are separated, left from right, backless, and sometimes bent. As I dug, I unearthed a cardboard box with a peacock on it. I was looking for one pair of earrings in particular, brushed metal with tiny blown-glass cornflowers on them. They’re more delicate than most of the others and I halfway expected to find them broken beneath a large pewter lily seedpod pin that only comes out during the winter. I unfolded the lid on the box and discovered a note from my dad atop the mess of chains and buttons and assorted cleaning cloths. “Nothing is lost as long as someone remembers,” he wrote.
I remember. I remember this is the note that accompanied the last birthday present from my parents, the last birthday for which my mom was still alive. It was not long after they moved from Louisiana to live near us in Connecticut. The note is written in my dad’s certain left-slanting print on an index-card-sized piece of plain white typing paper. The edges are frayed, so he must have folded it and torn it along the kitchen counter, as was his habit. I’m a leftie too. Scissors are no good. I turn the paper over. “Senoir citizen’s make do,” he wrote on the back side. My dad can’t spell, can’t punctuate. He knows what he does is wrong by someone else’s standards and he doesn’t care.
I remember the gift. A costume chainlink bracelet with a gold-and-silver heart. I wonder who it belonged to first, or who he bought it for and when. “Senoir citizen’s make do” means he didn’t buy it for this occasion, and there’s no way in hell it belonged to my mom. In Connecticut they have no money, no car, and he has not yet figured out the bus. No—he brought this bauble up with him from Louisiana.
“Do you like it?” my mom asked.
“Oh, I do.”
“Oh, good. When your dad showed it to me, I wasn’t sure.”
She was right not to be sure, about this and so many other things. But still, after fifty-some-odd years of marriage, in the end she trusted him. Because what else could she do? The bracelet is not the sort of thing I would ever wear. It slides around the bottom of the peacock box. I found the earring I was searching for tangled in one of its links and wrested it loose.
After my mom died, sympathy cards slipped through our mail slot for weeks. Most people wrote about how kind she was, how much they knew we would miss her, how she would always be in our hearts. But one I remember most of all, a note from Miss Lorraine, one of my mom’s oldest friends, who I hadn’t seen in years and years. I remember her especially from a vacation our families took when I was about eight to a state park in Mississippi, where we rented cabins and skied in the lake and made homemade ice cream and root beer at night. We did that only one year and never again.
I’ve wondered whether my parents couldn’t afford it—it was hard for them to leave their small business for a week at a time—but I also wonder whether all their friends knew. Knew what I knew, even then. That my dad was cheating on my mom. That everyone had to look away all the time. Had to pretend it wasn’t happening. Whether my mom’s friends would worry that their own husbands would get ideas. Whether the husbands worried that my dad, always and still a handsome man, would make a move on their wives. Infidelity is contagious in that way.
“I remember,” Miss Lorraine wrote, “going to visit your mom in the hospital when she had you. She was so happy to finally have her little girl.”
By the time I arrived, eleven years into her marriage, my mom was already protecting me, protecting herself, from the disappointments of being women who love too easily, too hard, too unselfconsciously. By eleven years into her marriage, I wonder whether she knew how many others my dad had already had, whether she hadn’t dared to believe, after so many misses, that this one was really hers. A unicorn. A fantastical creature.
Can you believe it? I’m here, Mom. I’m still here.
ELIZABETH H. BOQUET is a writer and educator whose work explores themes of violence, suffering, and peace-making through writing. Originally from southwest Louisiana, she now lives and works in southwest Connecticut. Her most recent work, Nowhere Near the Line, was published in 2016 by Utah State University Press.