“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.
This past Sunday night, nine o’clock, did you know where your kids were? In Saint Joseph, Minnesota, one family thought they did. But, their eleven-year-old son on his way back from a nearby convenience store was abducted by a masked gunman. For four days, a massive search has been underway. This terrible crime has brought terror to the country’s heartland.
My dad and I sit together at the dining table. It’s a staple of the rarely used room—in place for years, rarely seeing guests. I study its light oak veneer, thinking it’s strange that while sofas and chairs and headboards and cabinets from thirty years ago almost always loudly proclaim their distinctive 1980s style, classic wood tables fit in any era. It doesn’t stand out, unlike the yellow and yellowing linoleum floor in the kitchen.
My father, sitting across the table from me, grips and re-grips the outside of his drink glass, spinning it maybe thirty degrees each time he does. I do this, too. Maybe it’s the condensation. Or maybe it’s some kind of nervous genetic twitch we both have.
It’s unusual, just the two of us drinking. Typically, however, our wives join us, but tonight they both reluctantly went to the same family baby shower. We were going to spend our Saturday night at the bar anyway, just us, but his arthritic foot is troubling him. Staying in doesn’t bother me. I rather enjoy an evening in the dining room—it reminds me of Christmas as a kid. I’m nostalgic like that.
The row of low-level cupboards beneath the buffet catches my eye and I chuckle.
“Do you remember when you bought us a Nintendo? What, 1986 or something? We played it right here on a little ten-inch TV.”
My dad smiles and turns around to face toward the kitchen, as though looking at the empty shelf where a video game console used to reside will jog his memory. I guess it did for me.
“I do remember! We didn’t really play, though. I took a five-second turn, and then you played for twenty minutes.”
“Yeah, I don’t get it. How could a little boy who never played video games be better than a thirty-three-year-old man who never played video games?” It wasn’t uncommon for me to tease my dad. Actually, it wasn’t uncommon for anyone in our family to tease my dad. It’s probably because he exhibits less vanity and egotism than anybody I’ve ever met. He not only doesn’t mind the casual ribbing but—particularly when it makes his sons or wife look better than him—embraces the barbs.
“Seriously. You kids pick up things way faster than I ever did,” he boasts.
“But check it out. Do you remember when I was lying down right there, playing Mario, with my feet on the glass cupboard?”
“And you kicked it out and shattered it?”
“Yes! And you never replaced it, look! Why didn’t you ever get new glass?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Maybe we cut our losses, figuring you kids’d just break it again. We had to be smart about that kind of stuff. Remember, bacon or bowling.”
His signature phrase.
“We could only afford one or the other when you were a kid. Your mom and I had to pick every week—bacon or bowling. We couldn’t have both.”
Fathers have a way of forgetting that they’ve told you the same thing monthly for a decade.
“I know, Pop.”
Last week an eleven-year-old boy named Jacob was kidnapped from the streets of Saint Joseph, Minnesota. The effect on Jacob’s family has been obvious, but his kidnapping has also torn the tightly knit social fabric of the entire town.
Just this year, my dad installed a flat-screen television above the fireplace. It doesn’t really fit; it’s mounted in front of cabinet doors, trapping inside more dusty, old dishware. My mother could’ve squashed the plan with a single sternly worded sentence, and she knows that. But now she gets the best of both worlds: when someone voices their objection to its poor placement, she can say, “I know, it looks ridiculous, right?” But she also gets to watch the Vikings while warming herself by the fire.
The TV is the only thing separating today’s dining room from the one in which I left cookies for Santa a generation ago. It certainly modernizes the cozy space, an apt symbol that distinguishes my folks’ current financial stability from the less certain future envisioned in the eighties.
The way Americans interpret wealth and socioeconomic position has always puzzled me. We display an inexplicably energetic pride when discussing how poor we used to be. People fight with one another, arguing passionately about who was the least well-off—as if the sheer act of having no money is commendable. And it seems to apply only to one’s past.
We love the idea that bad things in our past become good character-building foundations of our future. Maybe it’s true. Empathy and understanding are born from experience, I suppose. Isn’t it possible, though, that shitty situations are just that—shitty? Nobody would imagine telling a destitute family, unable to pay their bills and on the cusp of starvation, that they should really cherish these moments because they help establish essential personality traits.
I guess it’s easy to discuss the hardships of the past from a distant position. After all, we made it. Americans hold dear the rags-to-riches narrative, even if “riches” simply means you’re still breathing. We love to fit ourselves into some patriotic myth involving bootstraps and the like, despite rarely being applicable.
“What do you think of the TV?”
Posters of the abducted boy are reminders of an evil that is all too real. We have to protect our kids and we can’t take things for granted anymore. Now we have a new deadbolt on our door, and we lock it when we’re in the house as well as when we’re not.
A muted baseball game is playing on the television. We aren’t really watching; it’s just flickering background to our boozy banter.
I freshen my beverage in the kitchen and sit back down at the table. In our conversational lull, between discussions of the bizarre election season and our fortune at not having to attend the family function, we both notice the ten-second local news ad at the end of the commercial break: an image of the other Jacob’s parents, sadly embracing, as the words “Jacob’s Remains Found: Confession Obtained” flashes beneath them.
The silence in the room morphs from an empty lack of words to a pregnant disquiet. Not an awkwardness, exactly, but an abruptly heavy moment weighed down with the unexpected drumming up of simultaneously personal and shared experiences.
If you lived in Minnesota during the eighties and nineties, the case was naggingly omnipresent, a horrific event that framed the way families understood danger in their own neighborhoods. A small-town boy, an hour northwest of the Twin Cities, was biking back from the video store when, on a dark road, he was kidnapped—that panic-inspiring buzzword that engulfed the media and terrorized parents.
That was 1989. And, despite instant wood-scouring, sweeping national attention, and law-changing influence, the case was never solved. Until, it seems, today.
My dad and I are not particularly sentimental. The pragmatic emotional sterility of the men in our family irritates our wives, oftentimes with good reason. We don’t often passionately connect to news-story victims.
The stillness in the dining room now suggests a rare and unforeseen exception.
They’re going through the nightmare of not knowing, and hoping that sometimes, in a rare incident, a child has gotten back that’s been gone for a long time. But all of the people sitting there today know the harsh reality: that lots of kids that are taken are not taken by some caring person and taken to Disneyland. They’re taken by someone who is into sexually assaulting children and, if you’re lucky, you’ll find the body in a field.
Proximity to tragedy is a peculiar thing.
If you’re close enough to have a relationship with the victim, it’s all about them—as it should be. To know somebody personally affected by something as heinous as an unsolved kidnapping leaves no space for any emotion except withering sadness for the family.
On the other hand, if you read a news bulletin about a hurricane or flood or earthquake or uprising half a planet away, you’re granted—if not altogether legitimately—a certain disconnection and the ability to simply mutter, “That’s too bad,” before eating dinner.
There is also, however, a third middle ground, a grayish terrain where genuine grief or emotional detachment gives way to narcissistic self-preservation.
The immediate response in Minnesota after the kidnapping case was truly touching. I remember natural anguish and heartache, leading to volunteer search parties, songs, and the genuine coming together of community residents. There was real statewide concern for this boy and his family.
What happened simultaneously, though, was an almost palpable wince, a stiff shrug that transformed empathy for others into locked doors for yourself.
Displaying compassionate warmth for the parents and taking safeguarding precautions against potential dangers are not mutually exclusive. But sometimes, with just the right adjacency, the flesh-and-blood victims become caricatures and the nebulous threats blossom irrationally.
“How could this happen here?” was the frightful inquiry of the day. The incident materialized an already sensational perception of safety, or lack thereof. Dramatic movies of the week, a bygone favorite of network primetime television, assured us that unscrupulous predators lingered around every corner, waiting for the right guard-down moment to strike a randomly targeted stranger. And, before the Saint Joseph abduction, it was easier to dismiss these crimes as confined to New York or California—not wholesome flyover country. Maybe the world was a scary place. Maybe ABC was right.
“I remember that so vividly.” My father breaks the silence with an altogether appropriate cliché. In my trance I had momentarily forgotten I wasn’t alone.
“You’re telling me.”
“You remember it? You were only five or six years old.”
He queues up an interesting point. Because my nostalgia lobe is monstrously oversized, and because I spend so much time contemplating the changing cultural conditions of my boyhood versus those of my as-of-yet unborn children, I often view things from a skewed and manufactured perspective. I wasn’t a parent in 1989. But, as a child during the regional hysteria, I did, in this situation, have a very intimate and unique relationship to this case.
We’re not really going to let Jacob walk to school by himself, are we? I know he’s done it for months, but with everything that’s happened, I don’t think we should. I’ll walk him there. At least for the next few weeks. To make sure nothing happens.
Until first grade, I had a forgettable name. Jacob Westlin was just the name of another average-looking white kid. Then, in October of 1989, as the other Jacob was victimized in the most infamous crime in Minnesota history, it became something else entirely. It became close enough.
Overnight, classmates began pointing at me and yelling clever quips. “Found him! Found him!”
The entire state was in a frenzy over this missing child and I, sixty miles away and with no more connection to Jacob than sharing the first seven letters of his name, became his tease-able avatar—the ceaseless butt of adolescent jokes.
At first it was kind of surprising and funny. But, as the case continued to receive pervasive coverage and word spread about my coincidental name, the casual taunting rapidly devolved into relentless mockery and rejection. One boy was particularly brutal, the unofficial leader of the witch hunt, soliciting support from willing classmates: Ian. But he didn’t pronounce it ee-an. No. It was eye-an. I’ll never forget.
He made sure, at least during a few harrowing months at the end of 1989, that nobody would come near me on the playground. “Stay away from that kid, everyone, or you’ll get kidnapped!” And everybody would play along, in this case by not playing with me. Kids in groups are not unlike adults in groups, turns out. Easily led astray by one mouthy facilitator.
I remember being very upset, trying to apply kiddy logic to a completely illogical and visceral problem. “I’m not that Jacob, guys! You know that, right? Come on!” This proved useless.
“Do you know what hell I went through in first grade?” I half rhetorically ask my dad.
“No, what do you mean? Because you were afraid of being abducted?”
It’s such a fatherly response, anxious to protect his son from the overtly conspicuous dangers of the world when the real soul-altering crises are almost always more intimate and invisible. But it’s not his fault. I never told him about the tormenting.
“No. Everyone made fun of me because my name sounded so much like his.”
My dad half scoffs and leans back in his chair. “Well, that’s dumb.” Indeed, as I cite the ridicule aloud, maybe for the first time in decades, I realize how absurdly innocuous it sounds.
“Uh, yeah, of course. I knew there were more important things going on with that kidnapping than my silly sadness,” I lie, stumbling over my words in embarrassment. I lie because I’m ashamed of feeling sorry for myself. I lie because the other Jacob was sexually assaulted and murdered, and I was subtly picked on. I lie because people have a way of ascribing wildly inaccurate nobility to previous behavior, built upon years of hindsight and experience. And newly discovered shame. The truth is that, in my childish mind, I was the victim. I didn’t know this other Jacob and I was angry at him for being taken.
Young minds have a remarkable proclivity for tunnel vision. It would be reasonable to expect children in this hysterical climate to become terrified of the lurking hazards all around them. The reality is that while kids are the targets, and adults go to painstaking lengths to construct in their sons and daughters a skeptical guard against strangers, most of them leave worry to the parents.
I was never afraid of being taken. I was afraid of having no friends.
Authentically remembering events from years ago is a trickier pursuit than re-experiencing the emotions they spawned. I remember very few actual teases and hardly any of the kids that painfully avoided me. But I do recall the paralyzing aloneness, feeling like my tiny world was caving in through no fault of my own.
I do, however, distinctly recollect lying in bed, thinking I had a choice. I could keep fighting or just embrace the joke—show these kids that it didn’t bother me and that I was a fun, normal boy.
Hey, guys! Let’s play hide and seek—try to find me! You know the police couldn’t!
Jacob didn’t get a choice. The other Jacob. I think about this for a while.
My dad adjusts in his chair, likely reading my discomfort and probably feeling bad for disregarding my infantile problems. He would never intentionally dismiss something important to me, and he now perceives his cavalier response as inappropriate.
“I’m sorry. I’m sure it wasn’t easy.”
He didn’t need to apologize. He’s my father, and I’ll always give him the benefit of the doubt. Also, he wasn’t wrong.
“No, it’s fine. It’s just funny, isn’t it, the things you remember? It’s like, I should be feeling so terrible for the family, and I do, really, but seeing them just makes me think about—you know, my own shit. I don’t know, sorry.”
My dad nods, making eye contact this time, almost overly engaged. He doesn’t say anything for a while after that, eventually averting his eyes down to the table with one hand again spinning his drink glass. He’s deep in contemplation and I study his face. People have this view of their parents as stoically static.
My father uses quantifiable milestones to mark my maturation: graduation, college, moving out, starting a career, finding a wife. None of these markers exist for me to assess my dad. He evolved from a probably frightened twenty-nine-year-old father to the veteran rock he’s becoming without me even noticing. He’s always just been Dad, and the lack of lifetime-accomplishment receipts now, for the first time, bothers me. It’s like an absent parent’s lamentation at missing their kid grow up—I feel an odd regret, like I’ve failed to appreciate my own dad’s evolution while being so enthralled with my own.
He was not, and will never be, a complete and infallible adult. None of us will. I am struck now with the simultaneous profundity and triviality of this realization.
“Twenty-seven years later, they close the case,” he finally says. “A lot’s changed.”
“What do you remember about the whole thing?”
He perks up.
“Oh, man. It was mortifying, as a parent. But we still had to raise you right, you know?”
“What do you mean? Did it change the way you and Mom parented?”
“Oh, we had our own uncertainties, for sure.”
He’s going to be fine.
But what if he isn’t?
He will be! I’ve had enough of this! How is he ever going to learn independence, or believe that the world is anything but a nightmarish place full of maniacs looking to kill him, if we bring him to school, hand in hand, until he’s seventeen?
But nothing. Let him go.
“I give your mother a lot of credit,” my dad blusters, as he often did—not incorrectly. She’s a tough lady, a good mother who was always willing to make hard decisions if it meant raising responsible men.
“The right balance between independence and smothering. We had a hard time with it. You know me—I worry about all the stupid details. Your mom, rightly so, made sure you had your space—saw the big picture. I feel like that was a big deal, even though you probably don’t remember it.”
I didn’t. But I listen intently, enraptured by this completely new information. I realize, at this moment, for the first time, that the monumental event that so influenced us individually had never been spoken about collectively. I don’t think it’s because we were purposely withholding information. Maybe it just didn’t seem relevant until now, even if the relevancy of who we’re becoming as human beings is all around us.
JACOB WESTLIN is a writer, copyeditor, and humanities professor from Minneapolis. He has numerous publications—including a book titled Poker Players are Narcissistic Sociopaths, a collection of tongue-in-cheek poker observations—though this is among his first forays into creative nonfiction.
Oh my god … what is that smell? My boss and I had just crossed the threshold of his house. Dark, shades drawn. Bikes and skateboards in the corner and hanging from the wall. A couch converted into a bed in the living room. He had a greasy brown ponytail and pale blue eyes, one of which would twitch unpredictably. The second you thought it was done, it started up again. Mostly he kept his eyes on the floor.
“So, yeah. It’s been a while. I lost my last cleaner a couple weeks ago.”
An orange cat with matted hair strolled across the back of the sofa to me. I reached my hand out to pet it. It sniffed and backed away.
“Yeah, they’re shy,” he said to the floor.
“I like cats,” I said.
“Oh!” My boss looked around. “You have more!”
Across the living room, two were lolling around on the couch atop what looked like a baby blanket of cat fur. Polluted cream clouds against navy blue cushions. In the slants of daylight I could see wisps of hair floating. It had to be at least a year since any other human had been in this place. My eyes watered. I’m not even allergic. By the time my day was over I would count six cats, but there may have been more.
“Well, give us a tour!” my boss said.
I started cleaning houses in 2011 a couple months after I graduated from college. I had moved to the Bay Area with my older boyfriend, and I—along with my degree in Dramatic Literature—couldn’t get a job anywhere. The recession and the boom in Silicon Valley were chewing up San Francisco and even the coffee shop baristas were really out-of-work professionals in their thirties and forties making latte art. The hipster cafe (we still called them hipsters then) was getting into full swing. I’d only worked in shitty coffee shops earlier in the 2000s when they were grungier, less sleek, with more couches and board games and plants, java vibes held over from the nineties.
I didn’t want a job but I needed one. I mostly wanted to be left alone. It was a relief to clean. My dad had just died two years earlier from cancer and I saw his face all day long. Sometimes he was healthy and laughing, and sometimes his face was gray like cement and his hair was growing back in mousy patches after the chemo.
My motivation to begin a post-college life was unpredictable. I kept making to-do lists to start an acting career or to write a novel, but the lists just made me feel like a failure. I’d set up auditions then wouldn’t show up, unable to imagine how I could ever speak in front of people again. I had panic attacks where it felt like my blood was carbonated and I was afraid I might start screaming any moment.
A funny thing that happens when you’re in deep grief: you forget why you’re depressed. I spent years waking up and reminding myself that my dad was dead. Later in the day I would forget and try to remember why I wasn’t able to drag myself to the dentist or wash the dishes. And then I would have to tell myself: Your dad’s dead, he died from cancer, he was white and skeletal the last time you saw him, he looked down at his hands when the hospice nurse spoke, he was embarrassed when he knocked his coffee over at Christmas because he was less than a month away from dying and he was weaker than anyone knew or could understand.
And I would think, Oh, that’s right. I would then collapse and crawl into bed and click around on health websites or read books on how not to get cancer.
I didn’t have any friends in the Bay Area and, while I wanted them desperately, I couldn’t handle people my own age, their happiness, their bored wit. I had nothing but emptiness; even my laugh sounded false and far away to me. I had studied acting in school and I wanted nothing more than to be invisible.
My boss—I’ll call her Dani—was a springy soccer mom with wiry hair, zero body fat, and the best, chipperest, can-do attitude I’ve ever seen. She wore sweatshirts with the neck cut out like in Flashdance, leggings, and white Reebok sneakers. She once injured her back in yoga class because she wanted to be the best. We found each other on Craigslist and I started cleaning the day after she hired me.
Sometimes Dani would meet me on the road in front of the house and we’d tour it together, but other times I’d be on my own. People showed me their cleaning supplies and told me how they liked certain things done. One woman had a typed up list for every single surface of her home and a specific cleaner required for each item, including faucets and light fixtures. In a Berkeley apartment an old cat swatted at me and meowed sourly like it was sick. It stalked me around the apartment and couldn’t be deterred even when I threatened to hit it with a chair. I got it behind a bathtub and had to call my boyfriend. He came and chased it out with a broom and it screamed its way into the guest room I’d already cleaned. We locked it in and, when I left, I opened that door and ran. One house had two heavy metal musicians that had gargoyles for knobs on their kitchen cabinets. In their bathroom they had essential oils and Chanel products and in their basement they had a thousand dollar sauna.
My boyfriend and I were living in an in-law apartment in the hills of El Cerrito—the cheapest place we could find with some of the biggest spiders I’ve ever seen and an incredible view of San Francisco. We didn’t have a couch so we hung out on the futon mattress on the floor or on a blanket on the carpet by the TV. At night we’d look across the bay at the city we couldn’t afford.
Our landlord, who I’ll call Jim, was a skinny Carradine brother–lookalike in his sixties with a gray bushy mustache and wild eyes. He liked to chitchat and once caught me for two hours by describing at least five different episodes of Ancient Aliens and bringing down a photo album with photos of his old girlfriends and his fiancée who had been a model and had died tragically from cancer. Once I had to go up into his home to deal with the WiFi, and he had Playboy covers from the eighties in frames on his wood panel walls.
Another time he wanted to show me an option for a refrigerator he had in his garage. The garage was filled to the ceiling, three quarters of it full, with boxes stacked haphazardly on top of one another. They looked like they hadn’t been moved in a long time and the cardboard had softened over years of fog rolling in across the bay. He pointed at the boxes. “My mother’s wedding dress is in there. I can’t bear to go through her things.” His mother had died the same week as his fiancée. Almost twenty years ago.
My boss and I toured the rest of his home, a bungalow on a dead end street in Oakland. The cats scattered as we walked the rooms and then softly tiptoed behind us. The kitchen at the back was surprisingly neat, just a couple crumbs on the counter. The bedroom seemed all right although the air was suffocating. As it turned out later, there was solid mass of white and gray cat hair under the bed an inch thick, like a secret rug.
He brought us to his office, a long narrow room running the length of his living room on the opposite side of the house. There was an enormous desktop computer setup with speakers and a soundboard where he would later sit almost the entire time I was cleaning. The smell was pervasive in here, sharp and unwell. In the corner was a closet without a door, a bright light overhead. He nodded toward it. “So the real part that needs to be cleaned is over here.” We walked over and hit a wall of ammonia and stench I’d never experienced before nor since.
Twenty-five square feet of cat piss. The two boxes of kitty litter were overloaded and the cats had taken to going on the floor where he’d spread newspapers. It was clear he’d waited maybe a year, maybe more to clean this closet other than a quick scoop of the kitty litter and another layer of newspaper which was now about one to two inches thick. I could see cat urine shining on some of the rotting floorboards where there were holes in the paper. A cat hopped out and ran past us, leaving wet paw prints through the office.
“Wow! Oh! Okay!” Dani clapped her hands and turned away. She smiled wildly, blinking hard, her knuckles whitening in front of her chest. I kept my face neutral and held my breath. We looked at each other a second. The room was silent as her mind ticked. She’s getting me out of this, I thought. This is not part of the job description.
“Well!” she said finally. “She’s gonna need some gloves!” She pointed a finger at the sky, triumphant.
“Yeah, I got some,” he said from the other side of the room. He’d never even come with us to the closet but instead watched us from afar, testing the waters.
“Well, how about she leaves that”—she stepped delicately away from the closet and I followed—“to the end, cause that’s a big job!” I’m from the Midwest and I can tell you that there was practically a “dontcha know” at the end of that chipperest of statements. It was all well and good. We’d take care of it—meaning me.
“Yeah, well, that’s the main thing I need done.” His eye twitched as he looked around at his walls, his fingernails, anything but us.
“Well, it’s a whole house cleaning we agreed on, so that will wait to the end.” Dani pinched her lips, firm, and he agreed as he walked her to the door.
A few minutes later she was gone and I was cleaning, sucking the hair carpet and kitty litter crumbs off his couch, dusting tables and shelves that hadn’t been cleaned in a year. He barely had enough rags for the job. I eventually resorted to vacuuming his shelves of cat hair and dust before using a cloth. He worked at his computer, some unknown alt-rock playing on his speakers. Every once in a while he’d laugh asthmatically at something online. He sat five feet away from the cat closet. I had to step out to his backyard regularly just to breathe.
Recently, back in Wisconsin, my mom had had to put down our dog Hans. Hans was a huge, fluffy Golden Retriever that would lie on the bed with her when she cried for my dad. The dog would rest his squishy face by hers and let her release her tears in a torrent and wait patiently for her to let it go. His legs had always been weak and one day they stopped working and he couldn’t carry himself any longer. She was on her own in our family home and I was in California, cleaning houses. When she told me Hans was gone, I fell to the floor in my kitchen and sobbed uncontrollably until my neighbor knocked softly on the wall to please stop.
It occurred to me once that cleaning people’s houses felt as if I were helping to prevent their homes from rotting. The moisture on the bathroom ceiling, the dust on the bookshelves. Dead skin cells everywhere. I cleaned and thought about how we were all trying so hard not to die. Stainless steel in the kitchens. Everyone wanted it and yet the stains were sometimes impossible to remove. It reminded me of fingerprints on iPhones, but permanent. A polished lifestyle that had no room for human dirt and oil. Touchscreens that aren’t meant to be touched.
I once wrote a script for a short film about this experience. I wrote the Cleaning Girl working her way through his home with one eye on the guy the whole time. Petting the cats when she could for comfort. Avoiding turning her back on him for too long because sometimes she could feel his twitching eye on her body. Texting her boyfriend out on the back stoop so someone knew where she was. The Cat Guy passive aggressively bringing up the closet two, three, four times as a reminder that “that had to get done,” while she insisted every time that she had to clean everything else first. Only in this version the Cleaning Girl found her courage and stood up to the Cat Guy, called him “disgusting,” and threatened to call Animal Services, eventually storming out. She even gave a cupcake to a homeless guy on the way to the freeway at the end because what the hell, why not.
I never made that short film.
This story is not like that one. This is the story of how I did the job.
I had the gloves. I should have had goggles. The air was thick with dander and urine. Stinging, acidic, ammonic in my lungs, I imagined them raw and red like the back of your throat when you’re sick, though really I have no idea what lungs look like other than drawings from textbooks. My entire chest hurt and my eyes watered and my nose burned all the way up through my forehead. I closed my mouth and worked as long as I could without breathing but then I realized I had to and breathed under my shirt which kept slipping as I carefully picked up flat, inch-thick pads of newspaper, soaked in cat urine and shoved them into plastic garbage bags.
The cats watched me from around the corner, eyes wide in that pointed, appalled way that cats have, glancing down at their soggy, rotting bathroom and back up at me.
I drove home without the radio on. Rush hour from Oakland to the Berkeley Hills. My head throbbed all the way to the back of my skull. I didn’t know if I could tell my boyfriend or my mom or anyone. I had taken my shoes off and put them on a newspaper I’d found on the floor in the back. Soles sticky with cat piss.
I got home and scrubbed myself raw in the shower and crawled into bed. It was six o’clock on a Friday and I would spend the entire weekend sick in bed with head and body aches. I clicked around on my computer and found a movie on Netflix and waited for my boyfriend to come home. I was sick and I hated myself but I really didn’t mind. I was grateful for a reason to fall apart. My dad had been dead for over two years and my mom was alone and I was doing the wrong thing in the wrong place and it felt exactly, exactly right.
REBECCA WEAVER is a writer/director/actor raised in Wisconsin and living in Los Angeles. Her first feature film, June Falling Down, is currently playing at film festivals around the country. Visit JuneFallingDown.com and SilverLeafFilms.net to learn more about her work.
Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I hopped in a rental car with our three-year-old and drove fourteen hours from Brooklyn to Indiana. We wanted to celebrate the holiday with my parents, my seven siblings, and the chaotic swarm of children that makes up my many nieces and nephews.
We set off around four in the morning, and our son had a diaper explosion just before dawn at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was a mess of such magnitude, I stood paralyzed for several moments under the florescent lighting, debating if the best strategy was simply to burn the structure down and flee. I didn’t know it then, but I should have taken my son’s booming bowels as a warning shot: a foreshadowing of the weekend to come.
When we finally pulled up to my parents’ house, we were greeted by black skies and the ominous wail of a tornado siren, which for southern Indiana, isn’t exactly a seasonal sound in late November. My mother hugged us in welcome and croaked into my ear that she had awoken that morning with the flu. But not to worry—she was still making the entire meal.
Which she did, despite protestations and offers of help. The next day she waved us all away, hobbling around the kitchen high on Tylenol Cold, basting the bird in its juices and what we hoped wasn’t the Norovirus.
My brothers and their families trickled in with their children, and the clouds outside hung heavy and low, still teasing the idea of a storm. Adding to the odd energy in the air was the fact that it was my parents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary. While under normal circumstances this would be a very happy occasion, my father is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s in a wheelchair and can no longer really speak. My mother has insisted on keeping him at home with her throughout his illness while a rotating cast of caretakers comes in to assist her with his needs. There have been various pushes over the years to consider placing him in a nursing home, but my mother was as receptive to this idea as she was to someone offering to cook her Thanksgiving turkey: thanks but no thanks, now please get out of her kitchen.
Growing up in my large, Catholic family, holiday meals are some of my most vivid memories. We used to squeeze into our tiny dining room, my father pressed so tightly against a bay window it’s a wonder he didn’t shatter through to the backyard. We wore our “church” clothes, which for me meant a dress and thick tights that made my legs feel like they were in plaster casts. Gravy was served in a gravy boat shaped like a turkey, and when you tipped it, gravy poured from the bird’s mouth as though it was vomiting beige mucus onto your meal. We used to fight over whose turn it was to use it.
Our local priest would join us for dinner, my parents perhaps hoping that having a man of God at the table might keep us from reenacting scenes from Alien with the turkey carcass. They were wrong of course. Father Jerry or no—someone was still likely to hide a bit of potato in Teddy’s milk, so that he’d take a swig and send his partially digested green bean casserole back up onto the table, barfing in unison with the gravy boat.
When he was well, my dad was what people called “a real character.” And his blue eyes especially blazed to life at these dinners. He’d repeatedly clink his glass, offering various odd toasts and teasing decrees. One year he ordered there to be an election to select one of the family dogs “President.” We each cast ballots, and when his beloved yorkie “Holy” (so named for her tendency to lie motionless upon her back as though deep in devout prayer) lost out to the labrador “Brown” (much more lazily named for the color of his coat) my dad feigned outrage for hours, snorting with laughter as he shouted for a recount.
For years, at the end of each Thanksgiving meal, he’d wink at us kids and flash a thin box of mini Swisher Sweet cigars. Neither of my parents were smokers, and this was the one special occasion where this rule was broken. We’d follow my Dad to a secret location, where he’d allow us to join him in a puff of a post-meal stogie. Unfortunately for my mother, this “secret” hideaway generally turned out to be her walk-in closet, and she’d spend the next two weeks attending church in dresses that smelled like she’d just rolled in from an all night poker tournament.
But those days were now long gone, now. Father Jerry now lived in Indianapolis and, due to health reasons, was unable to travel. Trying to fit everyone into the dining room would be akin to a clown car routine, so now we dined in the living room, at long cafeteria tables borrowed from the elementary school.
As my family wandered through the house last Thanksgiving, I was reminded of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, where the illuminated ghosts swirl through the rooms. My parents’ house now felt more crowded with the past than it did people. To sit as an adult in a nest of childhood memories, before the same vomiting gravy boat, created in me a kind of emotional vertigo. Like one of those disorienting dreams where it’s your house, but also not your house. It’s you—but also not you.
It was clear none of us really had the words for the transformations within our family. No one knew how to talk about the force that was my father and how it was now gone. Yes, he was still at the table with the same bright blue eyes, but there would be no call for a canine electoral college. No brandishing of mini-cigars post meal. The truth was, he would never really speak to us again.
It seemed we were all coping with this in our own way. Offering and re-offering Stove Top stuffing to our children. Repeatedly complimenting my mother on the dumplings. But the air above the table felt as leaden and dense as the air outside.
One of my brothers—who is normally the calm, steady voice of reason—decided the best way to ease the tension was to drink a quarter bottle of whiskey and become as loud as was humanly possible. He tied a dishrag around his face and chased the grandchildren, making them scream with laughter. He pushed aside pie plates and challenged other brothers to arm wrestle. It was practically a one-man show of distraction and diversion, one that culminated in him slamming out to the front porch, shouting, “Watch this!” and proceeding to decimate some wind chimes with a broom.
Around the time the wind chimes clanged to the ground, I realized my mother had left the festivities. I wandered through the house and found her sitting in the library, where my father now slept. The room was dark, except for the flicker of the television. She sat perched beside my dad’s hospital-grade bed, holding his hand. I heard shrieks from the TV, and realized they were watching No Country For Old Men.
“Would you like me to put on something a little lighter?” I asked. “Maybe something with Meg Ryan?”
“No, no,” she said. “We like this movie.”
Forty-nine years ago on that night they’d been cutting the cake at their reception, my dad clutching a black top hat in his big hand. Now my mother sat at the edge of his adjustable bed, holding that same hand, while a veritable tribe of their creation stomped around on the other side of the door. They’d had ten children together. They’d lost two of those children. They’d watched each other’s parents die. Watched the leaves outside the window bud green, turn crimson, and drift to the ground, over and over and over again. They’d raked those leaves together. One holding open the Hefty bag, while the other stuffed it full of fall.
There were words I wanted to say. Words that swarmed through my head and chest. But I didn’t know how to form them or how to corral them into sentences. So instead I simply sat on the floor at their feet. Together we watched Javier Bardem murder people with a cattle gun, while the muffled shouts of my siblings drifted in from other rooms.
The next day most of the family returned to their own nearby homes, and the only ones who stayed on with my parents were my husband and I and our son, and my youngest brother and his girlfriend. While the house was much quieter, it wasn’t much calmer, as my three-year-old seemed to be coming down from the previous day’s mania. He streaked through the house like a toddler on a cocaine bender, eschewing all offers of toys in favor of banging open the china cabinet door and attempting to rake my mother’s Franklin Mint bell collection to the floor. Meanwhile, my mom was still wandering the house in a fever haze and was once again insisting on fixing an elaborate dinner, this time coughing her way through bacon-wrapped steaks.
By the time evening rolled around all I wanted was to put my child to bed, sit down with a fishbowl of wine, and stare off into the middle distance. I finally got him to sleep and collapsed on the couch. We were once again eating in the living room so that my Dad could eat with us because his wheelchair didn’t fit at the kitchen table. Together we sat before the Empire Strikes Back, our plates balanced on our laps. Exhausted, I stared blankly at C3PO and shoveled meat into my mouth on autopilot.
At one point, as I chomped down, I felt something sharp. Oh, well. I thought. Probably just a bone. Which perfectly captures my frazzled mental state. For 1.) I thought steaks should have tiny sharp bones and 2.) That it was perfectly fine to swallow them whole. Only after I cleared my plate, did I glance down and see the broken half of a large wooden toothpick and realize what I had done.
I quietly carried my plate to the kitchen then Googled on my phone: “Swallowing a toothpick dangerous?”
As someone with hypochondriac tendencies, I was all too familiar with turning to Google with strange medical concerns. My search history over the years was a treasure trove of “Mole shaped like a hat deadly?” and “Pain in which arm means heart attack?”
So I wasn’t surprised when my toothpick query sent back the WebMD equivalent of a breathless, wide-eyed woman screaming into my face: “Death comes for us all!”
Heaving a heavy sigh, I walked back into the living room and announced that I had swallowed half of a toothpick and, according to the Internet, it could puncture my internal organs, and so would someone kindly take me to the ER?
Everyone paused. My mother’s glass of white zinfandel hung in the air. Darth Vader breathed heavily from the TV. Everyone’s face did a slow motion dance between laughter and concern, ultimately forcing their features to settle into concern. My youngest brother leapt up and offered to drive me, so that my husband could stay home with our son. My brother’s twenty-four-year-old girlfriend began tugging on her stiletto boots, insisting on coming along.
The ER the night after Thanksgiving was a crowded place. I stood at the window and explained to the nurse that I had swallowed a toothpick.
“Yikes. That’s not good.”
I could see she very much wanted to ask—as any sane human does—how did I swallow a toothpick? Was I, an adult human, unfamiliar with the process of chewing and swallowing food? But she controlled herself, and simply ushered me back to a room, my brother and his girlfriend trailing behind.
A weary nurse came by and explained that because the toothpick was wooden, there was no way to do an X-ray.
“So instead, we’d like you to eat this turkey sandwich.”
I stared in confusion. Was it an electromagnetic turkey sandwich that was somehow capable of detecting wood?
“Look,” she sighed. “It’s to make sure the toothpick isn’t blocking anything. That you can get food down, okay?” She dropped the sandwich in my lap and left.
“It’s going to be okay, Miss Jo. I know it is!” My brother’s girlfriend smiled at me encouragingly. She always called me “Miss Jo,” like I was an old tap dance teacher from her childhood. She placed a hand on the back of my hospital gown, closed her eyes, and began to mumble under her breath something about Jesus taking the toothpick from my person.
I chewed the dry turkey and willed myself not to scream. All I’d wanted to do that night was relax for one goddamn minute. And now I was eating a hospital cafeteria sandwich at midnight while my brother’s wide-eyed girlfriend prayed over me. Not that I wasn’t touched by her kindness and concern in that moment: I very much was. I just didn’t want to be having that moment, period.
The sandwich went down, which seemed promising. Finally, a doctor rushed in clutching a clipboard.
“Ok, so uh…uh…I think…well I think…uh.” He had a nervous, halting way of speaking. Which is precisely the last thing one wants in an ER doctor. We all stared at him in anticipation.
“I think you’re going to…uh…uh…”
YES? Die? Live? Self immolate?
“I think you’re going to be…uh…okay.”
There was a collective sigh of relief.
He informed me that, while, yes, there was a chance it could puncture my liver leading to my untimely death, most likely I would just “pass it.”
“So you can just…uh…go home. But if you don’t feel…you know…okay…then…then…come back. Okay?” He had me sign his clipboard and left.
“Well that sounds…good? Right?” my brother asked, pulling on his coat.
I nodded, though my heart was pounding. That doctor had just doled out the absolute worst possible scenario ever for a hypochondriac: You might be okay, but if you think you’re dying of sepsis, give us a ring.
Did he not realize he was dealing with someone who was pretty much always sure she was dying of sepsis? Someone who had once gotten a CAT scan because she left Crest WhiteStrips on too long and it made her head feel funny?
I tried to take deep breaths while my brother and his girlfriend went to get the car. As I was signing my discharge papers, the nurse looked up at me.
“Oh and listen, if you do, uh, you know, pass it, you probably won’t know. So you shouldn’t. You know… Go looking for it.”
I nodded, imagining myself kneeling in the bathroom at my parents’ house, desperately pounding at my own excrement with a hammer.
“Good to know.”
Back in my childhood home, all was quiet. My mother and husband, upon hearing my stomach hadn’t in fact exploded, had gone to bed. I eased myself into my parents’ old bedroom, where my husband and son lay in the darkness, lightly snoring.
I wearily pulled on pajamas, jamming my mouthguard into my mouth. I lay down between my husband and son and stared into the darkness. This was the same room I used to pad into as a child when I was frightened or had had a nightmare. It still had the same wallpaper that used to creep me out because the shape of the design reminded me of ET when he was dying. But even with the unsettling wallpaper, coming into this room used to be like stepping into a warm cell of safety. I would climb up between my parents, and the warmth of their bodies would fill me with a certainty that everything was going to be okay.
Now, my mother slept in my old bedroom across the hall, where she’d been staying ever since my dad got sick. Dad was in his bed in the library. And my own son was now stretched out beside me, breathing softly. I was now the parent. I was meant to be the certainty.
The weight of this knowledge fell over me, and suddenly the stress, and sadness, and anxiety of the whole weekend began to whirl in my stomach, along with the dreaded toothpick. I could feel myself start to come undone. My eyes welled with tears, and my chest constricted.
And then suddenly, in the shadows, my son sat up. He turned to me, reached out his tiny hand, and patted my arm. Then he said something he’d never said to me before in his life: “It’s okay, Mama.”
He immediately lay back down, drifting back to sleep. And I stared at him, dumbfounded, wondering if I’d just imagined the whole thing. He had missed the events of the night—had slept through the whole “Mommy swallowing a foreign object” portion of the evening. But he had clearly, in that moment, intuited my distress. And something about hearing his soft little voice, hearing him try to comfort me, it was like a switch flipped, and a wave of calm flooded through me. My eyes went dry. My breathing slowed. And I began to pull myself back together. Because I had to. Because that’s what we do for our kids. For our spouses. For the people we love.
I thought of my parents sitting side by side, holding hands. If their forty-nine years together—a whole lifetime of immense joys and devastating heartbreaks and weird movies in the dark—if it had a lesson to offer, it was that when things get scary, you stay brave for the people who need you. You wade through the muck of worry. You continue to seek happiness, even when overwhelmed by ghosts and sorrow. You do whatever it takes. And sometimes that might mean not spiraling into anxiety. Sometimes it might mean being the strong one. And sometimes, it might even mean pushing out a toothpick.
JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for New York Magazine, Salon, and BUST. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 10, A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Encounters Around the World, and Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. www.JohannaGohmann.com
I see my dead father. Not in dreams, but physically, alive, out in the world. He’s always alone. I’ve seen him numerous times. He seems at peace, not lonely or struggling to understand his fate, his new whereabouts. Not laboring to return to the earthly plane. Problems endured alive, resolved; no longer important. On his own, no one else to answer to, to provide for, or support. Children, ex-wife, and wife number two no longer a responsibility or concern. Mistakes made, unmet expectations abandoned and not rectified. Unfulfilled and incomplete duties not complete and not fulfilled. Pain and sorrow, remorse and apology, lifted. A freedom he didn’t know in life. An aura of wonder surrounding him. He died on April 23, 2009, at age seventy-four, his cremains now interred at a cemetery in South San Francisco.
I saw him while on a Caribbean cruise in 2015. The ship docked at St. George’s, Grenada, and we had a half-day to explore the island. Walking back from Grand Anse Beach I noticed a man sitting on a pylon looking out to sea—my father, Ed. At least, it looked exactly like him. The bend of his back, the slope of his shoulders, the side-view of his face, his gray hair, even the clothes—K-Mart Bermuda shorts, a well-worn tee-shirt, brown leather fisherman sandals; his favored outfit. My father, Edward Willis Thompson. I did a double-take. I stopped and stared, studying, wondering, wanting, and needing. I wanted to go to him, but I did not. I wondered if it could actually be him, knowing—in my rational mind—it was not. In my fantastical mind, wishing it to be truth. I needed the healing that didn’t happen when he breathed.
He sat alone; no one else on the beach or near him. The way he gazed out at the water—as if he was there, on that pylon, permanently. Like he’d found his place to rest, to live out his eternity. Possibly, I was meant to pass him, to discover him there, at his final resting place. So I’d know he was okay, now at peace. The sereneness of my vision of him led me to believe this was the case—a communication from his beyond to my within. And it could have been him. Who’s to say it wasn’t? We don’t actually know where the dead go. Maybe “Heaven” is a favored place from life. The beach—any beach, especially a tropical one—Dad’s favorite place in the world.
Before the Caribbean sighting, I’d seen him a handful of times: in a Home Depot parking lot; in a crowd at the mall; on the street in Glendale, California, where we live. Each time I had the same experience, I thought: Jesus, that man looks exactly like my father. After the third sighting, I didn’t question whether it was or was not. For me, it was. Even if it’s as straightforward as me seeing my father’s corporeal doppelgangers, it was still him. This is not something ghostly. It is something else. Ghosts are fine, I like them, I have no problem with them, but these sightings are not phantasms. And it’s okay. I’m not sure I need to understand or label them. They simply are. I find them soothing and calming. Is he reaching out to me? Possibly.
I was never all that close to my father. My parents divorced when I was five. He left the family and wasn’t around much when my sister and I were growing up. We’d see him on summer vacations, spending a week with him staying at a cheap motel in Avila Beach, California. The days filled with sun, sand, and water—and a whole lot of fun. He seemed to enjoy the time we spent together. He spoiled us rotten by buying us everything we wanted: ice cream at all hours; any toy we pleaded for; cash to spend ourselves. Standard absentee father conduct—making up for ever-present guilt. At the end of the week, he’d drop us off at home, our white skin now a dark brown, temporarily happy, father-sated yet sad all the same. We wanted him to park the car and come inside, return to our mother, to the family.
The vacations ceased when I was eight, the moment he married his second wife, Mabel. She wanted as little to do with us as possible. He went along with what she wanted. A strong-willed, opinionated woman married a weak-willed and lazy man. A mama’s boy, he wanted to be taken care of—the way his own mother had spoiled him. Mabel provided a clean, comfortable home, three squares a day, and her body at night. They had an unspoken understanding. He did what she wanted, and, pretty much—sadly too—only what she wanted. From that point on my interaction with him was sporadic at best.
When he was sick and dying of lung cancer, I visited him in the hospital. A shell of the man I once knew, he recognized me despite his dementia; he knew I was there and was happy to see me. Dying in a hospital bed at the VA facility in Palo Alto, California, his six-foot-four frame, legs twisted yet still gangly long, slid down the hospital bed so his feet dangled uncomfortably off the edge. I only spent a couple of days visiting; there was little to do except be in his presence and pull him back up the bed so he didn’t dangle off—over and over. He’d move, or wiggle, or shift his body, and down the bed he slid. Due to dementia, his stage four lung cancer, and the medications he was on, holding a conversation with him was not possible. Expressing my anger and displeasure for the way he treated us—his two children—would not be happening. Instead, I sat close to the bed and held his hand, or helped him eat ice cream or his lunch or dinner, feeling sorry for him in so many ways. I hurt for him and for myself. I did my best to do the prescribed things a person does for another, a relative, a father, who is in the throes of dying. I told him I loved him. I wish I’d done all of it because I truly felt love for him.
And, I can’t say I felt much either when he died. Mostly, I was saddened by what we were unable to achieve: a loving father and son relationship. A seemingly ethereal idea foisted upon me by societal expectations, out of reach, a dream in our family—but something I still desperately wanted. I didn’t mourn his loss in the accepted ways one is supposed to when losing a loved one. My grief was tied to lost possibility, to what would never be, not to losing my “father,” my “Daddy.” I hadn’t spent enough time with the man for the type of familial intimacy to develop that would warrant true and deep feelings of grief over his loss. To add to my confusion and misery, his wife cremated and interred him without telling my sister or me. There was no viewing, no service, and no burial—at least none we were invited to. Even in his death, we were treated the same as when he lived—excluded like we didn’t belong or exist.
A recent sighting took place at our local Trader Joe’s. Dad was putting groceries into the trunk of a car. I found myself thinking, there he is again. Like before, it looked exactly like him—the height, the build, his movements, the clothes, all Ed Thompson, my father. A rote calmness emanating from him—a task as mundane as grocery shopping joyful. Not a care in the world. Similar to the island pylon resting place, I’m left thinking he’s still in that Trader Joe’s parking lot, still loading groceries into his trunk, over and over, on a continuous, never-ending loop, stuck in time and not unhappy about it in the least. A chore no longer a chore but a happy task. A final resting place or action could be malleable, or exist in multiple places, couldn’t it? The world of the dead not curtailed by human, earthly barriers of time and space.
Observing him, I wondered if he was buying groceries for us. Like this father, the version I saw in the present day, might go back in time, and do the right thing. Was he going to bring groceries to help feed my sister and me? To add to our food stamp-supplied coffers? To remove some of the burdens on my overworked mother? To ease her financial strain? He’d bring the groceries when he came to pick us up for a weekend visit. Like a good father and ex-husband, he’d hand the bag of groceries to my mother and then help us with our suitcases. We’d drive off with him to a motel for another spoil-us-rotten weekend, momentarily forgetting how he wasn’t in our lives. Or, would this be one of the numerous occasions when he didn’t show up?
One of those times, my sister and I, dressed, coats zipped up, suitcases ready, waited patiently by the front door. Then, the allotted time passed and no Dad. Hours went by, still no Dad and no phone call. Our mother tried to locate him by making a series of calls. Her anger with him—for us, for herself—palpable. Coats removed, suitcases stashed, she wiped away our tears, and finally, a phone call came days later. He didn’t have money for gas, or his car broke down, or he had to work, or who knows what the fuck else of an excuse he’d come up with. Not once, but over and over this took place. Our childhood a never-ending, continuous loop of disappointment.
How to explain simultaneous love and hate? Or concurrent joy and anger? Recently, since seeing my dead father out and about in the world, I realized how I felt about him: I loved him and hated him; he made me happy and so fucking mad. I now see my entire involvement with him existed on a yo-yo continuum. He could be the most charming man—father—in the entire world one day—bringing us gifts, taking us to the movies, showing us a good, fun, time. Through a child’s filter he loved us, he brought us happiness, and we loved him back. Followed by a long absence, a cancellation or a no-show when he was supposed to take us for the weekend, or some other equally injurious hurt. After one of these, the tears, the anger, and the hatred bubbled to the surface, polluting the prior felt love. This up and down, love to hate, joy to anger went on all through my childhood, into my adulthood, up to his death.
Buddy—the nickname he earned growing up with four siblings outside Oklahoma City—was a jokester and a kidder; a big, overgrown kid. Bighearted too, generous of spirit, he was kind to small children and animals. Without question, I know a gentle soul resided within the man. Social, he loved people, he loved his family; he had Okie and country blood in his veins. He used to sing Merle Haggard’s lyrics “I’m proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” over and over. And he meant it. From him, I learned to appreciate my Okie heritage. The salt of the earth, hardscrabble people my relatives were and still are; survivors. People and a place he evolved from.
But, there was another side to the man that didn’t jive with the Okie-identifying, softhearted big kid version. Life kicked him in the teeth over and over, and he took the hits. He didn’t fight back. His divorce from my mother. His unintended abandonment of his children. His failed career—stuck in middle management after earning an MBA. His second marriage to a horribly controlling woman. A woman who cut him off from his siblings, from his children, from his friends. The parts of him I hated were the results of him quitting, giving into life: his confusion about right and wrong when it came to us kids, his passivity, and laziness in not doing the right thing or allowing others to decide what he wanted, or even what he felt, and the selfishness all of this manifested. He ended up a depressed, inadequate, and indolent wimp, and he knew he was. And I hated him for it.
I now see the hatred overrides any love I may have felt. It is the stronger of the two emotions, and I don’t know if it is changeable. I have often wondered if it would have been easier not to have a father, to not know there was a man out there in the world, living and breathing, who was my so-called “father”—the man who gave me life. The mere fact he existed and ignored us feels more problematic, difficult, and painful than if he simply didn’t exist or had permanently disappeared. The hurting hurt over and over and over, and it still does. And, once dead, no going back. A door slammed shut, hard, in my face. I’d forever believed there would be enough time to fix it. Then, there was not.
I have a French friend who, when she was a young girl, lost her mother to suicide. She once told me a story of walking along the crowded streets of midtown Manhattan where she lived during her early twenties and passing a woman who looked exactly like her long-dead mother. Her mother she hadn’t seen since childhood. She stopped and turned around to look for her, and when she did, the woman wasn’t there.
I understood why she told me the story. It gave me chills then, it still does now. Was the woman she saw her mother, a ghost, something else? Who can say? It’s not important. For her, it was real. Somehow, the woman who brushed past her and then vanished was her mother. I feel the same about my fatherly sightings. He can be real for me, there in the flesh, if I decide he is. He hasn’t ever come to me in my dreams, not that I remember or am aware of—only in these sightings. Unfinished business, it could be. I suppose we have quite a bit. I wanted something from him he could not give, and I know he was aware of failing my sister and me. I know he felt guilty and remorseful but not enough to fix it. That’s the unfinished business.
No matter the explanation or understanding of the sightings, they bring me comfort. These are unanswerable questions. I accept he might be somehow trying to reach me. Why would I ever not? Why would I cut myself off from that possibility, from any possibility? I wouldn’t and I won’t. After all, who truly knows the truth of what is out there, of how these things work? The dead versus the living. We should all be open, like a conduit, to all of it, to any possibility. Shouldn’t we?
C. GREGORY THOMPSON lives in Los Angeles, California where he writes fiction, nonfiction, plays, and memoir. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Offbeat,Printers Row Journal, Reunion: The Dallas Review, Every Writer’s Resource, and 2paragraphs. He was named a finalist in the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival’s 2015 Fiction Contest. His short play Cherry won two playwriting awards. He earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California, Riverside/Palm Desert. He is on Twitter as @cgregthompson.
I was never into Barbies. Instead, I was a sucker for chubby-cheeked, troll-eyed Cabbage Patch Kids. I named my first one Cindy, and my second one Linda. When the “official” birth certificate arrived in the mail addressed to Linda Renstrom (the names of the person—and the doll—have been changed), my mom unleashed holy fury in the kitchen, ranting about the mailman’s audacity to deliver Linda’s mail to our house. That’s when I learned about my dad’s ex-wife.
Despite the court’s decree that she reassume her maiden name after the divorce, Linda kept my dad’s last name for professional reasons, even after she remarried a few years later. I’ve always wondered what her second husband thought about that. It wasn’t a big deal that my dad had an ex-wife (my mom also had an ex-husband), especially given that one of the reasons they split was because she didn’t want kids. Linda introduced herself to me at a fundraiser when I was about ten and over the years I bumped into her here and there. She was friendly and I admit it—I liked her.
In 2006, my dad was diagnosed with cancer. Linda visited him once while he was ill and jokingly asked if he would finally consider retirement. Dad said he’d keep working until my younger sister was through college, continuing to build his retirement fund for his kids and his grandkids. In retrospect, this friendly visit seems ominous. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that I can’t read minds, and probably don’t want to.
A few months later, Linda came to my dad’s memorial service and sat right behind the rest of us, offering words of condolence and pats on the back. She struck up an unlikely, but uniquely comforting friendship with my mom. Linda was the only other person who had loved my dad the way my mom did and made my mom feel less alone as she adjusted to the reality of life without Dad.
Meanwhile, my mom also struggled with the logistical aspects of my dad’s death—namely, his retirement account. The account representatives were strangely cagey with her, and eventually told her that while she was the owner of his account, she wasn’t the beneficiary—a distinction that still baffles me. My mom grew increasingly distressed, and Linda acted as a sounding board, disgusted and empathetic.
Just before the New Year, almost four months after Dad’s death, Linda called to tell Mom the “good news”—she was the account beneficiary and would consider sharing.
I didn’t think we had room for this kind of fiery rage, but there it was, tangling with the sadness, twin tornadoes upending everything we thought we knew. When depression came down heavy and smothering, anger functioned like a combustion engine. My brother and I pulled ourselves from naps or afternoons spent on the couch hiding inside of television shows in order to chop wood in the backyard, splitting the remains of a diseased tree my parents had taken down months earlier. Working with the ax made my shoulder blades ache in a way that offered some small distraction from the other, bigger pain, and vented some of my anger. Chopping wood was the only way I felt I could shape things.
For my mom, it wasn’t so simple. On top of managing grief and the ensuing legal battle, she also stung from Linda’s betrayal and from the loss of a friend. We learned that Linda had been aware of her beneficiary status for some time and had cozied up to my mom to harvest information and increase her chances of netting the most cash possible. I didn’t think things like this happened in real life; then again, I didn’t think colon cancer killed otherwise healthy sixty-three-year-old dads, either.
None of us understood how Mom’s beneficiary status could be in question. The financial services company had records of his divorce from Linda and his thirty-year marriage to my mom. But there was a problem with paperwork—Dad’s retirement was supposed to go into a trust he and my mom had set up, but this was before the time of the internet, a time when something important could get lost in the mail or a file could drop behind a desk unnoticed. My parents were meticulous in financial matters and frequently updated their wills and advanced directives, especially after Dad got sick. But something had slipped through the cracks. Accounting and paperwork don’t care if a family’s heart has been ripped out. Lawyers don’t observe grieving periods. Linda had bided her time until she had my mom’s trust and a keen understanding of our ability—or, more accurately, our inability—to function. Then she made her move, maneuvering legal complexities to her advantage while we were still sorting through the wreckage.
Of course, Linda wouldn’t have been able pull this off if others hadn’t made mistakes. The most likely explanation is that the financial services company bungled Dad’s account. It’s possible they never sent my dad the necessary documentation in the first place, as we later learned happened to one of his colleagues. It’s also possible that he sent the paperwork back but they improperly filed it or never received it and didn’t follow up. Our lawyer, who agreed this was both unfair and ridiculous, somehow couldn’t uncover or subpoena records that proved beyond a doubt my dad’s intentions with that money.
Dad’s death raised questions about fairness, about whether good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. My dad had colonoscopies at the proscribed intervals, didn’t have any family history of colon cancer, exercised regularly, took good care of himself, and was otherwise healthy and happy. He didn’t deserve what happened to him. He was wronged, and so were we.
Linda’s grab for his money was unfairness squared, a double-down on his death. As furious as I was with Linda, I was even angrier that the world didn’t possess a mechanism to stop her. I desperately wanted—and at first expected—someone to look her in the eye and say, This is wrong. You can’t do this. I wanted her to reach a point where she simply couldn’t increase the suffering of the family of a man with whom she had been in love, a man who, among other things, put her through graduate school and let her keep his name. But she never did. Instead, she said that unless we cooperated, she would take everything.
As I cleaned out Dad’s office looking for documents that could help us with our case, I allowed myself a dark thought: What if it wasn’t a mistake? But the only communique I found from Linda was mixed in with thank you notes from students—a photo of a twenty-something Dad on the beach wearing a silly hat and a note that read, “thought you might like to have this.” I looked at the photo and thought about my dad having married this woman. Did he have any idea what she was capable of? It’s hard to imagine he did, though I suppose that could be one of the reasons he divorced her. Or perhaps her morality had evaporated in the decades since their divorce. There’s no comfort in either possibility.
Ultimately, our lawyer advised us against going to court. While fairness was on our side, no one could guarantee what a judge would do. Linda and her lawyer both seemed convinced of a win and were happy to drag us through the expensive and laborious process. For the first time since his death, I hoped Dad wasn’t out there somewhere, in some form, still aware of what was happening with his family.
The choice between settling and going to court paralleled the competing feelings of sadness and anger. Anger was in many ways easier, but it was more toxic, as court would be. As far as I could tell, anger didn’t have stages like grief did—it was a hot burn all the time. On principle, we wanted to fight. But we were so sad and so tired. I kept thinking about what advice Dad would give us if he could. While he would want us to have access to the money he had spent his life earning, he wouldn’t want us to prolong our own suffering by allowing Linda to define our lives any longer. As it was, Dad’s death would define our lives for the foreseeable future.
It was hard not to feel as though we were giving in or paying Linda to go away, and maybe that’s what we did. Even though she received a staggering amount—an amount that suggested she was every bit the intended recipient as Dad’s actual family—we settled.
The desire for vengeance has never entirely dissipated. My brother and I brainstormed various nonviolent schemes, my favorite of which was a plan to get our friends from various parts of the world to send postcards to Linda with horrible images on them: a kitten getting stung by a scorpion, a bloody toenail, a gangrenous limb. Little anonymous deliveries that would put into her life, at least momentarily, some fraction of the unpleasantness she caused us. But we didn’t do it.
About a year after the settlement we ran into Linda at an event. The anger resurfaced, as though we’d been storing it like fat. Utterly unprepared even to see her face, we tried to avoid her, but none of us could forget she was there. We kept our distance until my brother saw Linda talking to his two daughters, who were eight and eleven at the time. They knew Linda from Dad’s memorial service but knew nothing of what had happened since. That Linda had the gall to make friendly chitchat with anyone in our family was simply too much.
My brother walked over just in time to see Linda take a photograph of his girls. “Don’t you dare talk to them!” he hissed, corralling them away.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Linda said.
“Are you kidding me?” my brother said.
“I didn’t take anything I didn’t deserve,” she said, looking him straight in the eye.
And, in a moment that could have come straight from the movies, my brother said, “I’ll show you what you deserve,” and threw his glass of red punch on Linda’s cream-colored blouse.
We all stood there, dumbfounded. My nieces started giggling—they had never seen their father do anything like this. I never had either. We all left in a hurry. Our last image of Linda was with her mouth open, gaping in shock.
That moment has achieved infamy in our family, but as vivid as the image of the punch on Linda’s blouse still is, what I remember most is her silence. Her voice had been so powerful, overruling all of ours, especially my dad’s. Shocking her into silence, even if only temporarily, provided space for us to be heard.
JOELLE RENSTROM‘s collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in 2015. She maintains an award-winning blog, Could This Happen, about the relationship between science and science fiction. She’s the robot columnist for the Daily Beast and her other work has appeared in Slate, Cognoscenti, Guernica, The Toast, The Guardian, and others. She teaches writing and research at Boston University.
We had reached that routine-but-often-dramatic juncture in testimony when the victim is asked to point to his assailant and describe what the perpetrator is wearing.
It shouldn’t have been difficult.
Richard Ackerman—gaunt, pockmarked, in his mid-thirties—had finished telling how he was beaten and robbed by two men. One suspect had eluded police but today the other, a blond, sneering youth in a navy-blue jail jumpsuit, sat at the defense table with his lawyer. “He’s right there,” Ackerman said. “He’s got red hair and he’s wearing a black cape.”
On this slow courthouse afternoon in 1981, a nutty, disruptive event taking shape in what should have been an ordinary string-up for a standard-issue mugger could turn into column inches. Journalist me, in the public section, leaned forward. After a pause, the prosecutor sighed. Fists on hips, he regarded Ackerman: a problem. And a problem not for the first time in Rockford, Illinois.
“Let’s start over,” he said. “Can you point to the person who did this to you, and describe what he’s wearing?”
Ackerman’s deep-set eyes darted at three people in the benches with me: a young woman (probably the defendant’s girlfriend); a retiree picking his teeth with his fingernail (he was a courthouse regular); and me, in my red plaid shirt, sniffing out a possible story.
“There,” Ackerman decided. “He has brown hair and he’s wearing a red plaid shirt.”
I doubt Ackerman remembered me. More likely he panicked and, believing he had done the wrong thing, sought to fix his blooper—may it please the court —by the quickest available means. But I won’t forget Ackerman.
Nine years old, summer, I trudge across the Whitman Street Bridge, aimed for the Burpee Museum of Natural History, where I will traipse the creaky floors—alone but for the stout curator, who checks me sideways—amid the stuffed birds and the glassed-in replicas of dinosaurs. Visit to visit, they stay the same, which pleases me and lets me down. A fatherless boy, I become an appreciator of artifacts.
I don’t notice Ackerman until he is beside me, and says hello.
A teenager with bombed-France acne scars, he wears an East High School jacket (cloth vest, fake leather arms) despite the heat. I’m already scared because of the bridge—height, water—and now this. His eerie solemnity and a slow manner, like a spider about to strike. Apropos of nothing he volunteers that he owns one hundred pairs of Levi’s jeans and sleeps at night in a coffin. Do I want to see the jeans, the coffin?
I run like a kid in flames.
In the following weeks, Ackerman pops everywhere in my neighborhood. The other boys, I discover, know all about him. “Has he showed you his dick yet?” Mickey Lindell wants to know. Everybody laughs. Ackerman, they say, is always talking about his denims and casket, and asking boys to visit his house. (Nobody does). And, at every opportunity, Ackerman is showing his dick.
Later I find out his first name and miss the pun. He terrifies me. All the grown men of our households have abandoned us—because of me, somehow, I believe. My father leaves my mother who sends me for raising to my grandmother, whose husband abandons her for another woman the year after I arrive. I am bad luck for grown-ups, goes my mantra, bad luck. Later, twice divorced, I will become bad luck for myself. But today this Ackerman apparently wants to be my big brother. When I tell my slightly-older-than-me uncle about Ackerman, he says, “I’ll bust his face!” but he’s laughing, too, and plainly useless.
Thanks to the ever-present jacket and his distinctive posture—rigid, soldier-like—I can spy Ackerman a block away, make detours. For the rest of my years in grade school, I manage to evade him. Other boys, I hear, are less fortunate.
My mother remarries and we relocate a few miles west of town. High school comes and goes. I suffer college briefly, and drop out for my first job in journalism, covering cops and courts.
Again, still, Richard is everywhere.
He keeps getting busted on misdemeanors—disorderly conduct and, of course, indecent exposure. At this point I’m equipped to see the humor in his escapades, which I chronicle for the newspaper with quiet glee. What an embarrassment to his family, Ackerman! Especially his older brother, a cop who ends up taking Richard into custody on his most serious offense, car burglary.
Officer Ackerman must have included in his narrative the make and model of the vehicle his brother pried into with the crowbar. Later I wished I’d had the sense to track this information down. Didn’t seem important at the time, but it would later.
“There,” Richard said, and pointed at me in court. “He has brown hair and he’s wearing a red plaid shirt.”
The prosecutor shook his head, the judge grinned into the sleeve of his robe, and the public defender leaned back in his chair, half-smiling as if Ackerman’s horse had crossed the finish line first but would shortly be disqualified.
“Fifteen-minute recess,” the judge said.
The trial ended with a guilty verdict for Ackerman’s attacker. Over the years, Ackerman continually found for himself more low-grade trouble. Free on bail, Richard he misbehaved again.
He joined an open-casket funeral where he didn’t belong. Until someone singled out this odd stranger, Ackerman spent long minutes gazing at the body—almost meditatively, a mourner told me later. Officers had to drag him away. In another incident, Ackerman complimented the ass of a sign painter downtown, who didn’t see the humor, and gave chase. “You’re cute when you’re mad!” the fleet-footed Richard yelled over his shoulder, according to the police report. Repeatedly, incorrigibly, Richard showed his dick.
After the car burglary, the state made a move to revoke Ackerman’s probation and send Ackerman to prison for a while. (This clownish freak!) I flipped through the weighty file. A manila envelope slid into my lap: the pre-sentence report, a confidential document that clerks are instructed to remove before handing over any paperwork. Secret because it contains hearsay—interviews by officials with family, friends, and associates, material used by the judge to decide whether to give the probationer another chance or lock him up. I opened it.
Although, in my published account of the matter in re: Ackerman, I couldn’t quote from material that I was never supposed to see, but I’m at liberty to tell you here. Richard is beyond harm. He died in 1998.
His mother said in the report that Ackerman had not been normal since he was a lad—not since about the age I was when I met him, not since the day he tapped his pale father on the shoulder, shook him gently, and opened the car door wider to let the cold body fall sideways onto the garage floor. Tailpipe smoke must have floated around them, boy and man. His mother found him running in circles and screaming. The report does not disclose if the car is a Ford or Chevy or Oldsmobile. I wonder if things might match up.
Match up, like two images of him that persist for me. Ackerman in frantic motion, dizzy from the carbon monoxide and from whatever this loss had begun to mean for his soul, never fully known or understood, maybe, by him. Surely not by me.
And then Ackerman on the witness stand, trying to make right his wrong. His finger extends at me, the plaid-shirted one, an ill portent—the damned boy who makes the men run away. As if I am again and forever accused.
RANDY OSBORNE’s work has appeared in many small literary magazines online and four print anthologies. It was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. One of his pieces is listed in the Notable section of Best American Essays 2015. He lives in Atlanta, where he is finishing a book. He’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.
Here’s something funny: Back when I was a kid, Porter Wagoner was one of biggest stars in country music. Hell, he was one of the biggest stars in American entertainment. Wagoner had his own TV show from 1960 to 1981. It became even more popular when he added the then unknown Dolly Parton as his duet partner.
If you don’t remember Wagoner right off, look up a picture of him on the internet. He was known for wearing Nudie suits, garish looking things with rhinestones and flashy colors. The suits were made by Nudie Cohn, a Ukrainian-born Jew who landed in Los Angeles and somehow became the tailor to country and western stars and others until his death in the 1980s. Wagoner was a big customer, but so was Elvis, Elton John, John Lennon, and even Ronald Reagan. While that is odd, that’s not the funny part.
Back in 1973, Wagoner released a self-penned tune call “George Leroy Chickasha.” It wasn’t one of his biggest hits, but it charted. The song was about a mixed-race man who was so anguished by his identify that within two minutes and forty-three seconds (the song’s running time) the title character is dead. “I have no race or creed, I pray to die,” Wagoner sings for his protagonist. The message is clear: a mixed-blood life is not worth living.
I teach at a mid-sized state university in rural Pennsylvania. Sometimes one of my departmental colleagues goes on about the woes of our students and the barriers to their success. Often I reply, “Tell them to suck it up. They got nothing. I was born a half-breed bastard in a coal-town orphanage.” I’m only half kidding.
It’s true. I’m the product of an affair between a married woman, who was the granddaughter of a Pennsylvania German farmer, and a Baltimore black man. Or that’s the best I can figure. All I have to go on are lore, half-truths, lies, and best guesses. I know that a woman named Charleen gave birth to me in March 1960 at a Catholic maternity hospital and orphanage in Dunmore, a northeastern Pennsylvania coal town next to Scranton.
Charleen signed papers that gave up her parental rights. Someone signed papers as the father, giving up his parental rights. I don’t believe that man was my biological father. I can almost state that as fact, but I have no evidence. I do have lore. Rose, the woman who adopted me, told me once that one of Charleen’s brothers signed those papers. All this must have been done with a wink and a nod on the part of the Church. Surely no one believed that farce, that an infant with obvious African ancestry was the natural child of two white people.
Some months later—five I’ve been told—Rose adopted me. Rose is the elder sister of Charleen. Rose and her husband Bill married at the end of the war. Rose had several miscarriages but still longed for a child. Five months. I’m not sure why there was a wait. I am even less sure why Rose thought adopting her sister’s half-breed baby was a good move. I was a constant reminder of something that should not have happened. Charleen remained married to her husband for several more years, despite the affair, despite me. In fact, they had a child, their first and only son together, less than a year after I was born. As we grew up, he and I grew as close as brothers.
Rose and Charleen were part of a large extended family. Their mother, Wilhelmina, had three sons and three daughters, one of each to three different husbands. Wilhelmina was the anchor of the family. She was married at least four times, the last time past child-bearing age to a man who helped raise her youngest daughter. The rumor I heard that she was married briefly one other time, as a teen girl, and had a stillborn child. As a consequence of all these husbands, there were lots of halves in Wilhelmina’s family: half-brothers and half-sisters. I was the only half-breed.
Here’s another funny thing: It was not until 1967, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Virginia v. Loving, that Maryland repealed its anti-miscegenation laws, first enacted in 1692. For nearly three hundred years the law of the land was no race mixing. I am the product of an illegal act.
To his credit, Charleen’s husband treated me well. He always acted like a friendly uncle despite my sordid history that was unknown to me at the time, but certainly not unknown to him. I can’t imagine those holiday dinners where young Chuck, Charleen’s other son, and I would play amidst the other cousins, listen to older kids’ 45 records, run up and down the hallways even though we were told not to, and generally act like the wild boys we were. What the hell was on Charleen’s mind then? Or Rose’s? Who thought it was a good idea to bring me into the fold? Of course, I was not completely in it. I always also told I was adopted, but not the whole circumstance, not until much later. I grew up thinking my half-brother and sisters were my adoptive cousins, that I had no blood kin within that family.
This even I find funny: Everybody wants me, at least everybody of a certain type. This semester I have three Dominican girls in a first-year seminar. They insist that I am Dominican. I joke with them in busted-up Spanish, handing back a graded essay, shaking my head and saying muy mal. Once I wore a sports coat and ball cap during a fall day. These girls spotted me walking across the quad and later in class said this outfit proved I was Dominican because that’s how all the election officials in the DR dress. When I dress in all black with a white t-shirt showing at my throat, I joke with them that once I was to be a priest, a Dominican priest. Their eyes light up like I am letting them in on a secret that the “American” kids don’t understand.
I lived on the South Shore of Massachusetts for several years in the 1980s and 90s. There’s a large Cape Verdean population in the region, brought in decades before, to work the whaling boats and later the cranberry bogs. On some Saturday mornings I would rise early and go the Laundromat at Scituate Harbor. Someone would always start speaking Portuguese to me.
Once, only a week or two after I moved there, a woman speaking in a mix of Portuguese and English came over to me, cursing me out for my actions at a party the previous evening, threatening to slap me. I was so perplexed, I could not muster a reply. She grew frustrated with me and stomped out the glass front doors and into the foggy morning. I had never seen the woman before that moment and had spent the previous evening alone in a rented beach house watching TV. I was stationed at a nearby Navy base and, because I’d only recently moved there, I knew not a single soul in the town. Best I could figure, my doppelgänger had caused some damage at a house party the night before. A few years later, after I left the Navy, I was a newspaper reporter in the same area, often covering crime stories. Cops are often hardnosed, but even Louie Lopes, a serious-minded police captain of Cape Verdean descent, joked that he could be my father.
A woman of Middle Eastern descent, a psychologist at the college I taught at just after graduate school, insisted that I was of North African ancestry. A devout and modest Muslim woman, she talked to me about Islam and got me to order materials from the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., not so much to convert me, but for me to learn about my heritage. A Spanish professor at the university where I now teach once told one of my English department colleagues how proud she was of me, how I had learned English so well that I had become a professor of English. Again, it was another Dominican claim.
I have passed this legacy of ethnic ambiguity on to my own children. My son, now in his early twenties, tells me white kids are often unsure, but black kids always know that he is partially black. My daughter, a college student in Pittsburgh, told me of how after a long interview for a campus job her middle-aged white male interviewer said he had only one more question: “What nationality are you?” She didn’t think that was funny.
Rose followed in her mother’s footsteps, but only partially. She had only two divorces. She and Bill split after I finished first grade. Later she married a man named Ronald, and part-way through fourth grade, we moved to southwest Florida. We moved just before Christmas, which I always thought of as odd timing. Rose got the timing of the year a bit better. It was only that fall that the Lee County Public Schools desegregated. We obviously lived in a white neighborhood. Black kids were bused north across the Caloosahatchee River from the Dunbar neighborhood of Fort Myers proper to suburban Tropic Isles Elementary School nestled in between planned developments and a shopping district off Pondella Road. Of course, not everything was desegregated. The local barber refused to cut my hair. I was nine. It didn’t matter to him. “I ain’t never cut no colored’s hair and I ain’t fixing to start,” he said. His shop was within sight of my elementary school.
Bill is the man I have always considered my father, despite losing him after divorce. I lost him because those days were different. Both Bill and Rose remarried others soon after the divorce. Bill and I were close. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the two of us riding in his truck on Saturday mornings, heading into the small town of Danville to make the rounds. We lived a few miles outside of town in a small house built on a corner of my great-grandfather’s farmstead. Bill and I would go to Jack Leighhow’s barbershop where one or both of us would get a haircut while Jack talked about his luck at the horse track that week and smoked an ever-present cigar. We would also stop at the Washies, which is what everyone called the Washington Volunteer Fire Company. A peculiar Pennsylvania institution, many small towns have several volunteer fire companies that have full bars and short-order grills, social halls that are rented out for wedding receptions and illegal gambling in the form of punch boards and poker machines. Dad would often stop in the Washies, and sometimes the East End Fire Company, to drink a quick draft with guys he knew. I liked stopping at these places because someone would always buy me a soda and a bag of chips. Sometimes I would get a quarter and go shoot pool by myself. I developed into a decent pool player at a young age.
After they separated, Bill took me for a ride one Saturday morning. He had already introduced me to his new girlfriend and her daughter. He said he was going move in with them in a big brick house in Danville and that he wanted me to live with him and them. In the end, I chose to live with my mother. And even if I had wanted to live with Bill, he probably would not have gained custody given the customs of the day. It would have been rare for a father to have been given custody of a child except under the most extraordinary of circumstances.
For a while after he moved to Danville, Bill would come get me every few weeks on a Saturday, but I was now living in Sunbury with my mother and we no longer made the rounds. Sometimes I would sleep over in the new house he and his new wife built outside of town. Those get-togethers became less frequent and then halted altogether after we moved to Florida. In those days, working-class people didn’t make long distance phone calls. Raised during the Depression, people of my parents’ generation considered long distance prohibitively expensive. Bill also never wrote me a letter during the years I lived in Florida. Rose said he didn’t write that well, since he never graduated high school in order to join the army during the war. I saw Bill a few times when we would travel back to Pennsylvania during summer vacation, but as I approached my teenage years, those visits stopped. When Rose and I returned to Pennsylvania after her second divorce when I was sixteen, I never bothered to contact Bill. He never bothered to contact me either, though surely he heard though the grapevine that I had returned. He came to my high school graduation and gave me a card and a check for fifty bucks, which was a decent amount for the time. We only talked for a minute or so. I was eager to go out and celebrate with friends. After, I thought that I should have talked longer. Or promised to call him and set up a time to visit, and followed through. I didn’t.
Within a year after I had gotten my current teaching job at a university only five miles from my childhood home, I read Bill’s obituary in the local paper. I was listed with my given name (Arthur) and it stated I was living in Massachusetts, which I hadn’t been for nearly four years.
I went unannounced to his funeral at the Wesleyan church a few blocks from the university. His second wife greeted me warmly and insisted I stand beside her in the family line to greet the funeral goers. She sometimes, though not always, introduced me as Bill’s adopted son. She told me how fond Bill was of his grandson, his stepdaughter’s child. I thought of how close Bill and I had been and how that was lost. Bill never met my two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom I love dearly. My son was the age I was when Bill and Rose divorced, my daughter a few years younger. I sat with the family during the service. The wife invited me to accompany them in the funeral car to the gravesite burial and then the reception after. I declined and went home to my children.
Leona Jones was Rose’s closest friend since they were girls. Leona lived up the hill from our house out in Cooper Township in Montour County, the smallest county in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Leona and her husband, Don, were my godparents. I often stayed over at their house on Saturday nights and went to church with them and their teenage daughter, Donna Rose—named after her father and my mother.
I loved going to the Jones’s house on Saturday. In the warmer months we would go to May’s, a local drive-in, for pizza. Afterward we would head about a quarter-mile down the road to the Hi Ho. The Hi Ho stayed in business until only a few years ago. Though another drive-in, the Hi Ho was known for its specialty, the Hi Ho itself, a sort of thick shake with bits of chopped ice disbursed throughout. It was perfect for a hot, muggy summer evening in river valley towns in a time when most folks did not have air conditioning.
Sometimes we didn’t go out to eat, but we went to the Selinsgrove Speedway. The dirt track oval featured midget racers and stock cars, and French fries. They had great fresh-cut fries served in a paper cone and sprinkled with vinegar.
The restrooms at the race track were in concrete buildings under the grandstands. The restroom attendants were older black men. They were likely the first black people I ever saw in person. Perhaps I had seen some black people on television, but given the times, that isn’t a certainty. There was something I recognized in them. When I would go to the restroom, these men would give me a silent nod, acknowledging our connection. Though I could not have articulated my feelings at the time, the exchange made me feel uncomfortable. Just from observing the people around me, my family and others, I knew that “coloreds” were not like us and somehow inferior.
Here are two other funny things: 1) Don had a couple of hunting dogs he kept in a pen at the back of his property and Leona had a couple of cats. Her name for one of the cats, the all-black one, was “Niggy,” her variant of nigger. 2) Once, when Bill and I were outside playing catch, he caught me picking my nose. He said, “You’re just like Abraham Lincoln, freeing the boogies.”
At the time, these things made me feel odd, unsettled. It’s obvious that they bothered me to remain clear memories all these years later. How could two people who loved me, whose job it was to protect me from the abuses of the world, use such slurs in front of me?
Sometimes black people claim me. That would seem obvious, given the variety of skin tones and body shapes within the African-American community. However, it is not obvious. I have few markers of black culture. I have never lived amongst black people and have had only a handful of black friends throughout my life. It took me years to learn to give the silent, almost imperceptible nod to a black person gives to another when passing on the street in a predominantly white area.
Here are two other funny things: 1) Rose once told me a story about how some of her friends in high school tried to get her to go out with the only black boy in the school. She told me she refused because she did not feel that dating a “colored guy” was right. 2) Rose used the term “colored” up until she died in 1993. This was even after we finally had a difficult talk when I was twenty. She acknowledged that Charleen had given birth to me, though this was something I had already known for years, and that a man who sounded like a “colored guy” had called on the phone for her a few times after Charleen returned from Baltimore pregnant. The talk was precipitated by me coming home half drunk and pissed off because someone in the bar I was in made racist comments about me. I’m not certain how we got on the topic—probably Rose was upset about my drinking, which was often frequent and heavy back then. When I told her what the guy said, Rose said I must be “awfully sensitive.”
Because I knew being black was bad, I used to avoid listening to black music and had a fevered hate of disco during its heyday. I liked Dylan, Neil Young, and, most of all, Bruce Springsteen, the hero of working-class white boys who, when they had fathers, did not get along with them, and who longed to move from their small towns to a place where they could make a better life. Although Springsteen often included black people in his band, especially his longtime sax player Clarence Clemons, his audience was, and remains, primarily white. Like disco, I ignored Motown and soul music, and traditional songs. When I got invited to a few mainly black gatherings as a new college professor, I faked my way through “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written by brothers James Weldon Johnson (words) and James Rosamond Johnson (music), a song that is a staple in black churches and was once known as the “Negro National Anthem.” I had no clue.
Still there were times when black people claimed me, like during a ninth grade driver’s education class in Florida. On days when the driving instructor took a trio of students out for longer road drives, the remainder of the students had to sit in the cafeteria. I usually sat by myself, close to no one else, and read. One day, the only black kid in the class came over. I’d known him since middle school. We’d never talked before except for one other time outside of school. My Boy Scout troop, sponsored by a Catholic church, volunteered to hand out school clothes to needy families at a St. Vincent DePaul Society building over near Dunbar, the black neighborhood. I was going into ninth grade then and this same kid came through the line. He asked me if I got free clothes for helping. I probably mumbled something about the Scouts, even though I was in uniform.
In the high school cafeteria, he came over and asked about my test score for the written portion of the class. We talked for a while, and he returned each day to sit with me the rest of the term. I don’t remember what we talked about. I must have been a puzzlement for him. I lived in the wrong part of town, had only white friends in all my other classes, and even came from the North. Virtually all the black kids at that high school were native Floridians. After the term ended, I don’t remember ever talking with that kid again.
Years later, when I had my first abortive attempt at college, I made friends with an outgoing guy who had lived in Harlem all his life. The school was small, and most people knew everyone else. Derrick was particularly outgoing, but he and I struck up a genuine friendship. I am sure I was a puzzlement to Derrick as well. He knew I was from a small town in Pennsylvania, and probably assigned some of what he perceived as my quirkiness—such as my profound fondness of Springsteen and my lack of knowledge of Afro Sheen—to that. “You’re a funny nigger,” he once said to me while we were hanging out. Later I invited him to come to my hometown for the weekend. He did. He met Rose. He met some of my other relatives and a few of my hometown friends. While he was there, he never saw one other black person, and virtually everyone he met told him a story about the one other time they had met a black person. Derrick never called me a funny nigger again.
Here’s something funny that’s not really funny at all. George Banks killed his children. I’ll tell you about George Banks in a moment, but first let me tell you this. After two years of college, I dropped out. I came back to small-town Pennsylvania and floundered. After a few months, I landed a job up near Wilkes-Barre, perhaps a bit over an hour’s drive from Sunbury. Not wanting to commute, and more to break the bad habit of hitting the bars every night in Sunbury, I looked for a small apartment or room to rent. Time after time I would go check out a place only to find it had just been rented, or that the owner would let me know later, only I never got that call. This kid Gary, a coal region kid with long hair and a penchant for death metal bands, also worked in the office that I did. He clued me in. He asked for three or four numbers I had recently called and been told the place was rented. He called. Each one was available.
A couple of years ago I ran into Tony, a guy I knew from a few years earlier when I used to attend church in a different town. Tony runs a bed and breakfast out in Vicksburg, a post-stamp sized town in central Pennsylvania. Big into social justice, Tony related a conversation he had with man when he was on a business trip in Wilkes-Barre. Tony remarked to the man that for its size, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area had an exceedingly small black population. “We didn’t need niggers,” the man said. “We had Polacks.”
I kept the job in the Wilkes-Barre area for a while, but grew tired of it. Not wanting return to Sunbury full time, and not knowing what else to do, one day I walked into the Navy recruiter’s office and asked, “How soon can I leave?” About a month later I was gone.
That fall in Wilkes Barre, on September 25, 1982, George Emil Banks killed thirteen people including seven children, four past and present girlfriends, and two other adults. Now George Banks was and is as crazy as anyone can be and what he did was horrific.
Banks’ father was black and his mother was white. He was a mixed-race person, a half-breed. At the trial, the defense argued that the constant racism Banks faced throughout his life in Wilkes-Barre as a mixed-race boy and then as a man drove him insane. Banks, the defense said, wanted to spare his own children, ones he fathered with the girlfriends, from the painful experience of racism. In the end, Banks was convicted. Banks has sat in solitary for decades, judged too mentally deranged to be executed.
A few weeks ago I drove past Rockview, a large state prison near Bellefonte in the center of the state. I was picking my daughter up from college. As we drove along in the interstate, the low-slung prison buildings spread out in the pink-yellow light cast by dozens and dozens of streetlamps illuminating the complex. I thought about George Banks sitting in his cell on a lonely, late winter night. I thought about how perhaps racism could drive a person crazy, make him do the unthinkable. I could almost understand. There is nothing funny about that.
JERRY WEMPLE is the author of three poetry collections: You Can See It from Here, which won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, The Civil War in Baltimore, and The Artemas Poems. He is co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. His poems and journals appear in numerous journals and anthologies. He teaches at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
The silence in the sunlit office grows. The priest behind the desk, young and rosy-faced, looks expectant. My mother looks at my brother. My brother looks at the floor. Nobody looks at me.
I’m surprised by the priest’s question. I haven’t been to many funerals, and it hasn’t actually occurred to me until now that there will be a eulogy and someone will have to deliver it. I’m not surprised that my mother is looking at my brother. I’m the older and was closer to my father, but my brother’s the male and has always been her favorite.
“Would you like to think it over?” the priest asks, looking pointedly at my brother this time. The priest is new and has never met my father. My parents were not regular churchgoers, and for the past six months they were absorbed in treatments for my father’s cancer. Months of radiation therapy for a tumor in his mouth. Months when he couldn’t eat, liquids and yogurt dribbling out of his nose as he sucked on a straw.
The room we’re sitting in is lined with leather-bound books. They don’t look well thumbed or personal. I suspect they don’t belong to the priest, but probably just come with the office as clergy rotate in and out of the parish. Outside the window the autumn sky is deep blue. The lawn is littered with yellow and red leaves that shuffle and recombine with each gust of wind.
“I’ll talk about his birthday then,” the priest says. “How’s that?”
He’s decided to focus on my father’s long life in his own short eulogy after the homily, and the pending eighty-eighth birthday he didn’t quite reach. After talking to my mother the priest hasn’t found much more to say. “The man was a saint,” my mother keeps repeating. Not exactly something the priest can include. Not exactly true either.
My brother didn’t say no to the priest right then, but he postponed his decision. A successful businessman, he nevertheless hates public speaking, and maybe that’s the reason he refused to give the eulogy. Or maybe it was more complicated than that, part of the damaged father-son relationship that no one ever faced in my family, as we refused to face so many things. I didn’t exactly say yes to the priest. I murmured that we’d get back to him.
Fretting over what I might say in the eulogy dominated my thoughts as my mother and I visited the mortuary, wrote and called in the obituaries, visited the florist to choose arrangements for the altar, went through decades of clothes crammed in her closet to choose her outfit for the funeral, and argued about her reasons for not calling any relatives. “It’s a long trip,” she insisted. “It’s just too expensive. I’ll tell them later.” My mother wanted to know how much she was supposed to pay the priest and the Ladies Auxiliary that was providing some food at the meager reception after the service. She wanted to give the lavish floral display she’d ordered to the church for their Sunday mass. “Might as well,” she said. “What am I going to do with it?”
What I Considered Including in the Eulogy:
My father’s love of Ireland
His love of his job
How much his employees loved him (at least according to my mother, but I think it was true)
His engineering accomplishments, drafting abilities, passion for math
His carpentry skills, and all the work he invested in our eighty-year-old house
His love of literature (a long time ago, really)
His love of music (ditto)
His love of art (ditto)
His love of his family (despite)
No, not despite. I couldn’t include that.
I can see him in his wing chair in front of the fireplace reading my high school report card. He’s wearing a maroon polo shirt, beige Bermuda shorts, dark brown nylon knee socks and slippers, his feet stretched out in front of him on the wicker footstool. I’ve gotten all As and a C in Phys. Ed. “What’s this C in Phys. Ed.?” There’s a bit of a twinkle there, but he’s also partly serious.
My brother’s hovering in the hall, his report card crammed in his pocket. He’s going to get in trouble and he knows it. At the very least he’ll be grounded for his grades. My father will force him to quit the football team. Sports are not important, in my father’s opinion. Grades are important.
When my brother responds by flunking half his classes, my father roughs him up in the downstairs hall. I hang over the second floor banister while my father shoves my brother against the wall and my mother wails. Somehow my brother manages to graduate with a good enough GPA to get into the engineering program at Lehigh, but he drops out of Lehigh, and then out of the University of Wisconsin, and then out of Middlebury, and then out of the University of Wisconsin again.
He stays there, marries a local girl, bowls and golfs and drinks a lot of beer. His grammar changes. He starts to say “ain’t.” He builds an enormous house to impress my father, who’s not impressed. My father never revises his original blueprint for my brother’s achievements. After he dies I find a folder with my brother’s name on it in one of my father’s file cabinets. He’d preserved all the bad report cards from school and college. There’s an article on college failure rates, with statistics showing that boys are more likely to fail than girls. He’d underlined whole sections of the article in red ink.
Never unconditional love. Always qualified. Years of barely suppressed rage because my brother failed to finish his college degree. “He broke your father’s heart,” my mother repeated, for decades. Years of festering anger because I fell in love with the wrong men—wrong race, wrong politics, wrong ethnicity, wrong profession, wrong income bracket. Not the conservative, Ivy-educated, white brain surgeon he’d had in mind for me to marry. Not the dazzling professional job in a big engineering firm he’d envisioned for my brother. My father’s Horatio Alger story prematurely concluded in one generation when we failed to follow the scripts for upward mobility he’d written even before we were born.
A scholarship boy in the engineering program at Cooper Union, a privately funded college in New York City, my father wanted my brother and me to go to private colleges and to climb the intellectual and social ladder he’d barely begun to ascend himself. He was professionally successful, working his way up from copy boy to draftsman to junior engineer to senior engineer to vice president and member of the board. He was proud of that. He would have wanted those achievements in the eulogy. But he never felt socially accepted. He never saw other men in management (there were no women) outside the office.
I didn’t comprehend the depth of his isolation until shortly before he died. He’d pretty much ignored my half Mexican American son until Ben got an early acceptance to Harvard. Then he showed an interest.
We were sitting on the tiny balcony of their independent living apartment in their retirement complex in North Carolina.
“The perfect son,” he said, his voice vibrating with emotion.
It was so clear he felt he hadn’t had the perfect son.
He wanted to know more about Ben’s victories in cross-country and track. I was surprised he cared at all.
“I never fit in. I didn’t play golf or tennis.” I could hear all the yearning of a bookish, working-class kid who’d spent his high school years in the dark room developing photographs, who’d started working full time at seventeen and done his college classes in night school. Who’d never played sports, or enjoyed the privilege of leisure.
“Ben doesn’t play golf or tennis either, Dad.”
“But he could, couldn’t he. He could learn. I couldn’t.” The longing in his eyes was almost unbearable.
My mother didn’t want my husband and son to come to the funeral in North Carolina. My husband was teaching in California. Ben had just started his freshman year in Massachusetts, and he was running in a cross-country meet that weekend. She didn’t think it was worth making the trip. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” she said.
I didn’t realize how much that hurt my husband until he told me later. At the time it just seemed part of my mother’s insane thrift and determination not to make a big deal about the funeral arrangements.
So my husband and son didn’t attend. Partly because I was acceding to my mother’s wishes. Partly because I inherited some of my mother’s insane thrift. We’d just spent money flying out East to see our son off to college. We’d just paid our first tuition installment.
But they should have been there. Looking back, I can see that. The few relatives who might have come should have been there, too. Not for my father, who was dead. Not for my mother, who didn’t care. Maybe for me, so I wouldn’t be looking back now at the nearly empty church and a ceremony that felt so incomplete. But for something larger too. For the occasion. For all of us and our deep-seated need to mark the significance of a loved one’s life and death in a fully realized communal ritual. Our hope that we, too, won’t pass unnoticed.
The eulogy was botched in a number of ways. Before the service, I told the priest that the three of us wanted to go up to the pulpit to say goodbye at the end. I was thinking I might even deliver a full eulogy then, but I was still not sure, still turning over the possibilities in my mind. The priest didn’t call us up. It might have been because the Catholic funeral service was so emphatically directed at the joys of the afterlife and not saying goodbye. Or he just forgot.
I ended up extemporizing a eulogy at the entrance of the parish hall, with the handful of mourners standing in the vestibule. I put my hand on the coffin, which was being wheeled out of the church by the mortuary attendants, who stopped and stood back. I cleared my throat. “I’d like to say a few words.”
I kept the eulogy short, and positive. I talked about inheritance. How my father had passed on his love of Ireland and literature to me. His ability to build and repair things to my brother. His mathematical and scientific skills to my son. I don’t know why I gave the eulogy at all, under such awkward circumstances, to my parents’ cleaning lady and a small group of acquaintances from their retirement complex. People who barely knew my father, and certainly didn’t mourn his passing. My mother was misty eyed, my brother stolid. The rest of them milled in the vestibule of the empty church, respectful smiles pasted on their faces, waiting for me to finish. The daughter who’d flown in from California. “Did you know she’s a professor?” I heard one of my mother’s bridge partners say afterwards. “Isn’t it funny, Peggy never mentioned that.”
I could see them eyeing the trays of sliced cheese and cold cuts on folding tables in the parish hall behind me. The white-haired volunteers from the Catholic Ladies Auxiliary were putting out paper plates and Styrofoam cups and plastic knives and forks. The bitter smell of boiled coffee filled the air.
Tips for Writing and Delivering a Eulogy that the Internet Would Have Provided, If I’d Looked:
Think about the person and your relationship to the person.
Gather information, including special accomplishments, career, hobbies, family anecdotes. Look for humorous and touching memories.
Decide whether your tone will be light or serious. Look for appropriate religious quotations if your eulogy is serious.
Organize your information and create an outline.
Write, review, and revise.
Have tissues and a bottle of water handy. Take a deep breath before you begin. Remember to speak slowly and distinctly.
I’m used to public speaking, in the classroom at least. I was composed, and spoke slowly and distinctly. I was choked up but didn’t cry. I didn’t gather any information beforehand or tell any anecdotes, though I did mentally rehearse what I was going to say. I don’t know how useful the Internet tips would have been. Even if I had located them and proceeded in an orderly fashion, I would have been stalled on the first one.
“Think about the person and your relationship to that person.” How to express my mixed feelings about the father who nurtured my creativity and intellectual development and then turned his back on me and the choices I made? Who strong-armed me into transferring to another college by threatening to cut off my funds after he learned of my African-American boyfriend? Who thought I traveled too much, lived abroad too long, stayed in school too long? Who never fully accepted my Mexican American husband or our son? “Look for humorous and touching memories.” How far back would I have to go? I could have said more about his job. There was a lot I left out, and a lot I couldn’t say, not that anyone there would have cared.
What I Did Not Include in the Eulogy:
My father’s rages when we were children
His anger and resentment later
The burden of his expectations
The fact that I’d lived in California for almost twenty-five years and he’d never once visited
How I felt about that
My mother was pleased with the eulogy, and six months later asked me to send a copy to her. It hadn’t been written to begin with, but I typed up what I remembered. It seemed sparse and inadequate to the man and my feelings about him.
I didn’t keep a copy for myself.
“I’ve lived longer than anyone in my family tree,” he said more than once, so perhaps the priest was right to emphasize his age. The fact that the priest focused his eulogy on something my father didn’t reach—his eighty-eighth birthday—fits the man, whose expectations exceeded his grasp, whose youthful dreams dominated a life where nothing was enough.
He was a man who held on to his ambitions, even to his detriment. Whose sense of duty never flagged. Who worked hard. Who retreated into angry solitude when he felt others had failed him. Who couldn’t look past his son’s failure to finish his degree. Who may have been proud of his daughter’s Ivy League Ph.D., but never said so. Who fought constantly with his wife but may have derived more from their bond than an outsider, even his own daughter, could fathom.
When they got the news that his tumor had spread beyond the possibility of further treatment, “We just lay on the bed,” my mother told me, “holding hands. We didn’t say anything. Just held hands.”
I hold on to that. I like to think he found some comfort amid so many disappointments, some companionship in his alienation.
What I Would Include, If I Were Asked to Deliver His Eulogy Today:
After eight years, I still don’t know. I stare at the blank computer screen in my home office, fingers frozen on the keys. My wooden desk chair, a swivel chair that my father bought as a young man in Greenwich Village, creaks as I lean forward. I review my directions from the Internet, stuck on the first point. “Think about the person and your relationship to the person.” I write:
“My father had big dreams for his future and his family’s. They weren’t my dreams.”
It’s all I’ve come up with, after years of writing, so much of it about my father. I’m like him, meticulous, critical, socially awkward, a hoarder of memories and books and souvenirs of the past. Obsessive in my quests—obsessive in this quest to write something that would express the man and our complicated history together.
To eulogize is to forgive, James Baldwin writes in “Notes of a Native Son,” a better guide than the Internet to the enormity of the task. Everyone hopes that upon death he too “would be eulogized,” Baldwin writes, “which is to say forgiven, and that all of his lapses, greeds, errors, and strayings from the truth would be invested with coherence and looked upon with charity.” I continue to seek that truth and coherence, labor to forgive the unforgiving, to find the words that no one in my family wants to speak.
My father’s dreams died with him. His disappointment and anger died with him. His love did not.
JACQUELINE DOYLE’s creative nonfiction has appeared in South Dakota Review, Waccamaw, Southern Indiana Review, Cold Mountain Review,Under the Sun, and elsewhere. Her essays have earned Pushcart nominations from Southern Humanities Review and South Loop Review, and Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays 2013 and Best American Essays 2015. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle
My father doesn’t want the pictures anymore. When he finds them in drawers or old shoeboxes, he passes them on to me—in used mailing envelopes bearing his new address, or in secondhand shopping bags printed with the names of retail stores long defunct, with curlicued fonts that spell names like “Bambergers” or “Gimbels.” When he does so, I am struck by the incongruence of my childhood memories, grouped together in no particular order.
The pictures usually make me cry when I take a moment to look at them later by myself. They guide me back to living rooms in houses long since packed up and sold, to the feel of scratchy rompers and dresses sewn by my mother from McCall’s patterns, and to the smell of my grandmother’s Chanel No. 5 perfume, cloying and comforting on hot July days in Brooklyn backyards. They return me, quite viscerally, to the freedom of childhood summers, to the comfort of love and acceptance craved by an only child and bestowed by a dysfunctional—albeit well-meaning—extended family, to days when what has become would never have been foreseeable or possible.
My parents divorced ten years ago, after more than thirty-five years of marriage. They were high school sweethearts, who amassed decades of memories between them. These pictures are markers of what once was and what never should have been, of what cannot be fixed, and what will never return. So they’re put aside, someplace dark, and tucked away.
I was thirty-five, in my own marriage for nearly ten years, as I witnessed the dissolution of my parents’ union. The small, lacquered coffee table, the Pfaltzgraff dishes, the Christmas ornaments, the kitchen chairs with cane seats—all once merely functional items—were now essential to my mother and father, after passing through their lives largely unnoticed. They were life rafts, and my parents clung to them, alone and adrift, as they became unmoored from the weight of their married life. It was jarring to visit each of them in their makeshift apartments and see the physical objects of our former home, now unmatched and without their counterparts. Tables without chairs. Couches without pillows. Cherished collections, now halved.
The photographs, however, were largely left by the wayside. Who wants the wedding album from the marriage that didn’t survive? Who needs the box of Kodachrome slides from the honeymoon in late-sixties-era Kauai, that Christmas in the first apartment in Manhattan, the first ride in the new car, or the time we went on that trip north to Vermont and stopped along the way for fruit pies to take home? Who wants to remember that there was good there, even if it was only as bright and brief as the flash of light capturing it? Who wants visual proof of the dour, cold faces, the spark gone from someone’s eyes, the distant body language, the signs, all the signs—long before the other had awakened to it?
Most of our family photographs remain in a storage unit that my mother has rented for too long in Connecticut, because she still can’t bring herself to sort through everything. When her promised dates of delivery come and go unfulfilled, I don’t press her for them, out of kindness. My father has a few in his possession, and he offers them to me when he thinks of it. When he does, I discover moments I’d forgotten, or that I had never been cognizant of, given my age in the photos.
There are familiar memories, new to me again from alternate angles of relatives’ cameras. I sift through shots of birthday cakes and party hats, cellophane-wrapped Easter baskets, tricycles with streamers, toys long since lost or sold at garage sales, presents stacked under tinseled Christmas trees, and every-day moments on outerborough summer streets and in backyard pools. There are blurry ones, many poorly framed, with ripped edges and creases. They were captured with cameras that we no longer own — my parents’ old Instamatic with the blinding flash bulb box, from my uncle’s old Nikon, or from the Polaroid we kept for a while around the house.
Sometimes, they humble me as I realize how little we had—and how much there still was to go around. We all lived in close quarters, seemingly on top of each other, in two-family houses and apartments and row houses. We were together. Often. This explains why several relatives often usually weren’t speaking to each other, my desire to have borne my husband more children, and why I yearn for a houseful of people yelling and clattering together on any given holiday.
One photograph will never be returned to me. It’s a vertical shot of me in cap and gown, bearing a broad, white smile, at my college commencement. I’ve taken my glasses off, for vanity’s sake, which ironically worsened my look with the tight squint of near-sighted eyes. I can sense that my father is there somewhere before me, squeezing the shutter button, but I’m not exactly sure of anything except his shadowy shape.
I was the first woman in my family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree from college, and the first person to go away to college at all. My parents were proud of my accomplishments, and of their numerous sacrifices to get me there. After my graduation, my mother had a large print of the photograph framed to suit the decor of my father’s office. It matched the cherry credenza behind his desk, and he displayed it there for several years in his midtown Manhattan office.
When my father’s company moved downtown to the World Trade Center in the mid-nineties, he brought the picture to adorn his new office on the 92nd floor. On September 11, the day the towers fell, he survived because he was simply late to work that morning, and had not yet arrived at his desk.
In the weeks that followed, I thought of the photograph’s journey and wondered what its fate had been. Had it fluttered out to the murky Hudson River? Had it incinerated in the collapse? Would it be recovered in someone’s backyard in Brooklyn, clinging to a chain-link fence and wrongly labeled as the photo of a 9/11 victim? The thought process was my irrational way of distancing from the physical horrors that had occurred. The thought would surface when I could only focus on the chaotic flight path of flimsy photo paper, unable to humanize the abject pain and fear that took place on that day.
Photographs are small truths. They house our past. They help us to remember who we once were, when we have strayed so far from our beginnings.
KATHLEEN MCKITTY HARRIS is a writer and native New Yorker, living in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children. Some of her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, Literary Mama, Brain, Child, and McSweeney’s. She has also been named as a Glimmer Train Press short story finalist and as a three-time finalist at the Woodstock Writers’ Festival Story Slam. Her website is sweetjesilu.com.