Having Backbone

Photo By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Terry Barr

I watch her remove the jar of Maxwell House from the top kitchen cabinet. She lets me sniff the stuff inside, the coffee, in the only form I’ll know it for many years. She spoons two helpings into her open dull-green cup, one of a set of six. Except for the colder weeks when they are used for that still rare serving of hot tea, these cups are my grandmother’s exclusive property. When the pan of water is ready, she pours and then stirs in just a bit of sugar. Often her coffee accompanies a buttered and heated slice of yesterday’s pound cake—as if any more butter were needed. More often, the coffee complements her lunch of country vegetables and meat that, when I was a boy, I couldn’t bring myself to try. Not that I try the coffee either; it will be years until, freezing to death at a ball game, I opt for coffee over hot chocolate since there won’t be any hot chocolate on this night at this little league ballpark.

Sometimes your elders are right: coffee does taste bitter. Two sips and I’m done for fifteen more years, until grad school and doctoral pre-lims and the stimulant of champions. My Maxwell House will be “fresh ground” from a can, but my grandmother will have been dead by those same fifteen years. I’ll wonder about the distance between instant and ground, between black and au lait, between us, and our tastes.

It will be another form of coffee, though, that will bring me back to her.

•••

My Carolina Wild Dog, Max, strains at his leash. He’s smelling it now, not the collards I’m slurping but the bacon they’re cooked in. I pull out a meaty morsel and make him sit. We always sat for our supper when I was a boy growing up in Bessemer, Alabama. Unlike me back then, Max has to be asked only once to come to the table. He’ll do anything for bacon and, truly, I understand.

In this moment, coming back from a trip to visit our daughter in Virginia, we’re sitting out front of the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia, in chairs provided for “wanted loiterers.” My wife nourishes herself with creamy tomato dill soup, a grilled cheese on wheat, and Coke. My pinto platter is not only accompanied by homemade chow chow, and those collards (when the waitress asked “With or without bacon?” I looked at her, at Max, at myself and wondered who’s kidding whom?) but also by a triangular wedge of cornbread, which is a little bitter because they clearly don’t use Rumford Baking Powder.

Max hovers between our chairs because it’s raining now. He might look a bit Lab-ish, but he’s no water-lover. I’m sucking my beans and greens down faster than I want because the once-drizzle is picking up now, compromising the integrity of my lunch. These collards are so fine I don’t need the pepper sauce that I ritually use. Soon the rain lets up, and so I sip my Red Rooster coffee in peace.

Old-time mountain music rains down on me from the Floyd Country Store speakers, making me think of those Saturday afternoons of my childhood, watching The Wilburn Brothers or Porter Wagoner on TV with my Nanny. While I don’t own any music like this, don’t even plan to, when I hear it, I know exactly where I am, and I relax.

Inside the store, where along with pintos and collards you can also order roasted root vegetables—rutabagas, turnips—with gluten-free bread or a cup of Brunswick Stew, I note the blue-dyed hair of one server; the punk cut of another. The man handling sales at the other side of the store sees my Alabama Crimson Tide t-shirt and offers that his grandson is a Tide fan, from Decatur.

“They’re a mighty good team,” he says, and I agree. I tell him how much I’ve enjoyed the food, and while he is gracious, I’m definitely not providing him unheard of news.

Originally, I brought us to Floyd for the coffee, and while I was upset initially that today, and any Monday or Tuesday, Red Rooster Roasters is closed, if they hadn’t been, we might not have wandered, lingered, and found a meal that transfixed me, for when I saw the words “Pinto Bean plate,” my fate was sealed. I had found “home.”

Max feels similarly when we reach the beginning of the big woods. He looks like an old “yeller dog,” a retriever of sorts, but as I said, he’s skittish of water. He yearns for mountain paths; when we take him hiking on Caesar’s Head or Paris Mountain back home, he feels a spirit that can’t be explained, only experienced, which he does as fully and heartily as I attacked those collards. He wants a good trail, and other Carolina Wild Dog owners get this. When he gets the look in his eye, all I can say to him is “It’s okay, boy, I understand.”

It’s what he’d say to me if he could when he sees me eating today.

What he doesn’t know, of course, is the memory that this meal evokes: Saturday lunchtime with my grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, her stooped back hunched over her plate. Early on, I didn’t understand what that meat is she’s chewing, or why the smell of those greens appeals to her. I had my home-fried cheeseburger in front of me and wondered how anyone could prefer something else, something almost unnamable.

•••

I would have never heard of Red Rooster Coffee or Floyd had it not been for Yo Cup, a side-street coffee house that opened in my college town back in 2013 and closed this past Christmas. Originally, Yo Cup’s owners offered only frozen yogurt with various fruit and candied toppings, coffee drinks, and homemade cupcakes in both vegan and gluten-free varieties.

My college town, or more accurately the town incorporating the college where I’ve been teaching for the past thirty years, is a former mill village, populated by roughly nine thousand people. The mill closed back in the 1980s, and now there’s not much to do or see there. The town square has its Confederate monument; a train line bisects the middle of Broad Street, the town’s main artery; and while there are one or two lunch/meat and three joints and a Cuban cafe, the main food industry is clearly pizza. There is House of Pizza, Dempsey’s Pizza (formerly Pizza Inn), Pizza Hut Express, Little Caesar’s, Papa John’s, and there used to be Tony’s Pizza, but nine thousand people, including the one thousand students at the college, can consume only so much pepperoni and dough.

At the college, I teach courses in Southern Film, Modern Novel, American Literature, and Creative Nonfiction. When I started in the late eighties, I was told that people in the town didn’t exactly cotton to the professionals at the college. Town and gown, truly. At my initial interview on campus, I spied a downtown movie theater, and my first comment to the group interviewing me was my joy at seeing the old movie house.

“Well, they’re tearing it down next week,” my hosts said with attendant irony.

That told me much, but I still thought I was moving to a college town. Actually, after the interview and a couple of half-hearted searches for housing in the town, I didn’t move there, but chose nearby Greenville. That is, my wife suggested Greenville—it was at least a city that might offer her work. The town, she said, scared her. And I know better than to question her fear. Actually, I understood.

The image of any college town, to me, includes certain features: used or independent bookstores; pubs; homey cafes; alternative or vintage clothing stores; and coffee shops. This little town, though, contained none of these. Actually, there was a place called Robert’s Drive-In that had hamburger plates, and after I ate there once, I reported my discovery to my department chair who promptly informed me, again with all due irony, that Robert’s was a former Klan hangout.

How do you not tell new faculty beforehand of racist history?

I found in the end that I could live without hamburger plates, vintage clothes, and used books, but no coffee?

Our faculty lounge had an old Bunn coffee maker left there decades before by a retired dean. Supplied monthly by a new crate of individualized packets of Folgers ground coffee, complete with powdered and decidedly non-dairy creamer, what we had was not even better than nothing. Eventually, I bought my own coffee maker, brought my whole beans and ground them in my office, and stored half and half in the mini-fridge installed in the lounge.

And though I enjoyed my coffee, I felt like a snob. A snob all alone sipping coffee in his windowless office.

The town now has a McDonald’s and a Waffle House. If I lived there, I could see going to WH late for the experience. Students do that, I hear, or they go to the Sonic Drive-In. I don’t know. It all sounds sad and depressing, a far cry from the Jolly Cholly’s, Dari Delite’s, and Kollege Klubs, in Montevallo, Alabama, the college town of my undergrad years.

So when Yo Cup opened and provided several tables, couches, and piped in alternative sounds from the manager’s iPod, I thought, finally, a place to be.

It was almost hip.

They served lattes, shots in the dark, macchiatos, chai, with soy and almond milk alternatives. The chalkboard listing all the drinks, in flowing, colorful script, even contained my favorite, Café Au Lait. In most small coffee houses I have to instruct the servers how to steam one-third milk to two-thirds dark roast. Yo Cup knew its drinks, and all I said was “Café Au Lait,” and voila, a perfect blend. Just the right amount of froth in a clever design. What killed me, though, was the flavor of the coffee itself.

“What kind of coffee is this?” I asked Courtney, the owner.

“It’s Red Rooster, the Funky Chicken blend,” she said. “My husband and I found the roasting house last summer in Floyd, when we went to Floydfest.”

“Floydfest?”

“Yeah, it’s this great mountain music festival every July. You ought to go.”

Over the months of Yo Cup, I sampled a Bourbon Barrel Blend—definitely hints of the South’s favorite whiskey in the brew—the Sumatra and Farmhouse Blend, and the Old Crow Cuppa Joe.

I love the Old Crow, and I understand now, given its name, the resonant reason for why I would.

•••

My grandmother, Ellen Crowe Terry, led anything but the life of a typical southern woman of her age. At some point either she or her father changed the family surname from “Crow” to “Crowe.” Was this putting on airs, an attempt to distance the family from the common bird of nuisance, or from an almost forgotten tribe of Native Americans? If so, it didn’t work for me—I always saw that black bird when I heard her maiden name—even though I hadn’t seen the spelling change until last week in a family tree my daughter’s husband Taylor is filling in. A Crowe is a Crow is a Crowe again.

Ellen’s family came from northern Alabama, on her father’s side at least: Talladega or nearby Anniston depending upon whether you believe Ancestry.com or my mother. Whatever the town, the Crowes were rural folk, farmers, and from this area they eventually moved to Bessemer, a wide-open mining town to the southwest of Birmingham. In Bessemer, Ellen met a phone man, GC Terry who hailed from Cortland, Alabama. The Terrys were rural folk, too, as I know from family stories and from driving through Cortland once. It’s about as big as Floyd, and as my mother warned, almost every business sign I saw proclaimed that this hardware store, this transmission shop, or this used furniture place was run by a Terry. I could have stopped at any one of them. I should have stopped at least at one of them just to see whom I came from, but I didn’t. A girl in another state, a girl I used to love, beckoned.

My grandmother Ellen—I called her “Nanny”—loved to travel. Unlike my mother, Nanny saw Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, searching for and dealing in antiques.

“She especially loved Chicago,” my mother says, though I don’t remember if I ever heard why.

Before I was born and for the first few years after, my Nanny ran antique stores in Bessemer, one I remember on 19th Street, another not too far away on 9th Avenue, the Super Highway. I remember floating through the various rooms of her shops, all lavishly decorated and independent of each other. Who might live here? I wondered. It was like having another house, though, just as I was admonished in the formal living room of our own house, I was not allowed to touch anything in the shop.

Over the years, Nanny procured our family’s dining room set—mahogany table and six matching chairs—as well as my parents’ Queen Anne bedroom suite. My mother’s house still holds these and many other antiques: vases, side tables, and lamps, all from my grandmother’s wheeling-dealing days.

While those signs of her life were always evident, what was often missing from my mother’s younger days was my grandmother herself.

There’s a photo I found recently of my mother and her father at GC’s retirement dinner in Birmingham. He was wearing a double-breasted suit, tie in a Windsor knot. My mother had on an evening dress and looked so glamorous. No older than seventeen, she was her daddy’s escort at this commemorative occasion, because my grandmother was gone, traveling somewhere, finding new-old goods.

I look at the photo and wonder both about what I see and what I can’t.

•••

In her waning years, my Nanny turned her bedroom in the house I grew up in—the house she had been living in since the 1920s—into an artist’s studio. She painted in oils. Still-life of fruit. Old country barns. Flower arrangements. Not really primitive but not polished either. I can see her, perched at the edge of her rocking chair, dabbing into her palette, scattered tubes of oil paint around her, her easel holding the picture of the day, for Nanny finished one picture per day in the summers and winters of the last years of her life. These paintings would lie under her bed, in all corners of her room, piled at her feet. Many were framed; many more stacked on top of each other.

She died in the summer of ’71, and I have no idea what happened to all those works of her mind. My mother kept a few, but the rest? It would be nice to imagine them on the walls of homes near and far, or maybe in one of those roadside antique shops in the country somewhere, near Floyd, where they appreciate the gifts of random and unknown stars.

I wish I had even one of those gifts. I can’t even tell you anymore what one of them looked like, though I can still see the scene of their creation, the spattered paint on the carpet where she worked, near her slippered feet. She always painted in nightgown, robe, and those heel-less slippers. A woman of leisure, herself a subject that no one could ever capture.

For a woman this independent and self-sufficient, even aloof—though she kissed me every night and called me her “darlin’”—you’d think her taste in food would run toward lobster newburg, filet mignon, or baked Alaska. French cuisine befitting one who travelled to large and exotic cities. Not that she wouldn’t eat any of these dishes if served, or the creole pork chops, country captain chicken, and Italian spaghetti—whose recipe my mother got from our second generation Italian neighbors down the street—my mother prepared every night.

But left to her own devices, Nanny preferred simpler fare, rural foods like hominy, baked sweet potatoes, turnip or collard greens, corn muffins, cayenne and Tabasco peppers, and fresh chow chow she’d make herself. Once, she let me try a green cayenne. She cut it open and told me to just put my tongue in its center, where that white meaty layer lurked. I learned quickly that water won’t stifle that sort of heat.

“Try milk,” Nanny advised.

Seemingly more than anything else, though, she loved backbone meat.

When I envision her at our kitchen table, sitting at the end closest to the electric stove, hunched slightly over her plate of country goodness, it’s always a noon winter Saturday. Early on in these memories, my mother might have fixed me a cheeseburger—still to this day the best sandwich I’ve ever had—fried and then with the cheese melted on top in the oven, ketchup and mustard only.

At some point on one of these Saturdays, though, I got up the gumption to try the backbone meat, maybe with some corn or fried okra. It was another cold day, the sun still shining through our multi-paneled breakfast room windows; the bare cherry tree beyond telling me the time of that season.

I discovered then that backbone meat was good, that it was succulent with brown gravy. Then I tried some short ribs, a delicacy now that farm-to-table restaurants in the South charge twenty-five to thirty-five dollars a plate to taste. I haven’t seen backbone meat hit these menus yet, and just last week I asked my mother if you could still buy it anywhere.

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I saw some at Publix just the other day.”

“When you come up in a few weeks, we’re gonna have to get some so you can show me how to cook it.”

I’m almost sixty-one years old and still learning life lessons. I can fix the short ribs, braise collards, fry corn, slow-cook pintos and any other dried or fresh bean—olive oil, beef bouillon flakes, salt and/or sugar, and maybe some Cajun spices—fry green tomatoes, and bake numerous varieties of corn bread.

I can make all day meals, and though I try my hand at more sophisticated dishes—boeuf bourguignon, shrimp creole, turkey with oyster dressing, sweet potato casserole, even borsht—I feel proudest when I’ve shucked and cut and creamed my white corn; when I’ve turned slimy okra into salty, slightly-floured fried popcorn; when I’ve brined chicken in salt water and fried it to gluten-free-floured perfection. When my collards, cooked with bacon, melt in your mouth. When my lima beans or lady peas make you want to shout or cry and not worry about the gas to come. When you slice open my cornbread and melt a pat of butter inside and want to stick your face in it, too.

I’d wanted to take this Floyd route many times before, but time and distance held me back. Something kept calling to me, though, and now I see that it wasn’t just a place I had heard about. It was a link to my past. A memory of food and love that I was longing to taste again. And to share.

•••

TERRY BARR is the author of Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother, published by Third Lung Press. His work has appeared in Vol 1 Brooklyn, Eclectica, Left Hooks, Wraparound South, The Bitter Southerner, and, of course, Full Grown People. He blogs for The Writing Cooperative at medium.com, and can also be found on terrybarr.com. He eats and lives with Nilly and Max and Morgan in Greenville, SC.

Read more FGP essays by Terry Barr.

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The Road Trip

road-trip
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Karen Collier

“Are you going to write about this?” my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother asked as she shambled across the convenience store parking lot with her walker, and I followed with her purse in one hand and her diaper bag in the other.

“No, Granny, what happens in the restroom stays in the restroom.”

She stopped and reached over to grab my arm. “It’s okay, darlin’. You can write about whatever you want.”

A month before, I’d come up with the idea of a road trip with Granny during a visit to my uncle Doug’s home in Burkburnett where she’s been living since leaving her home in Midland two years ago. Even though Doug had a heart attack last year and his wife, June, is on her third round of chemotherapy for lymphoma, they refuse to even consider a nursing home for Granny. Doug makes a weekly trip to Walmart to buy her beloved no-name-brand cheese puffs, and June cheers for her as she makes her laps around the pool table each day. Between them, they make sure Granny has three square meals a day, and when she needs to go to the doctor, they insist that she leave the housecoat at home and put on a pair of pants and a blouse, all neatly pressed by Doug.

I arrived in the late afternoon, and Doug met me at the door.

“Get in here.” He grabbed my overnight bag out of my hand and led me though the hall and kitchen into the den, carefully avoiding the knick-knacks balancing on every surface.

“Mother! Look who’s here,” Doug yelled at Granny who was sitting on the couch, eyes glued to the television.

“Huh?” Granny turned toward Doug and scrunched her face. She’s been almost deaf for a decade, but she won’t wear a hearing aid.

“Mother, look, it’s Karen.” Doug stepped out of the way, so Granny could see me.

“Oh well, what about that, you made it!”

I knew they’d had a conversation earlier in the day about my unreliability.

“What are you watching?” I plopped down next to Granny while Doug set my bag against the wall.

“‘Family Feud.’” She turned her attention back to the television. “Do you like ‘Family Feud’?”

“I don’t watch ‘Family Feud.’”

“Huh?”

“I DON’T WATCH ‘FAMILY FEUD,’” I yelled.

My aunt June walked in, patting her hair in place with both hands.

“You didn’t eat yet, did you?” she asked.

I glanced at the clock and saw that it said 4:30. “Nope.”

“Do you still not eat meat?” she continued.

“Still not eating meat, but don’t worry about me. I’ll make do with whatever.”

“What about chicken?” Doug asked.

“Nope, not chicken either.” We have this conversation every time I visit.

I sat on the couch with Granny, while in the kitchen Doug cut up chunks of cheese and June heated up cabbage soup. I was almost certain that she’d made the soup with chicken stock, but I wasn’t going to try to explain again that this matters to a vegetarian.

Just as the credits were rolling for “Family Feud,” June brought a plate into the den, and while balancing it in one hand, she pulled a T.V. tray in front of Granny with the other. Then June put the plate down on the tray. A frozen corndog, microwaved and cut into bite-sized pieces.

“Is that a corndog?” Granny seemed neither pleased nor disappointed.

“Yes, Mother, it’s a corndog.” June called Granny “Mother” just like Doug.

“What about my puffs?”

“Just wait a minute. Doug’s bringin’ ’em with your tea.”

“Okay then.” Granny forked a chunk of wiener covered in breading and popped it in her mouth just as Doug added the missing plastic glass of tea and bowl of cheese puffs to her tray.

“Want a puff?” Granny’s mouth was still full.

“Okay.” I took just one and felt my blood pressure rise from the infusion of salt. Where did that orange color come from? Real cheese isn’t that color.

After dinner, Doug, June, Granny, and I sat in the den and watched as June toggled between “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Voice.” During one of the rare moments when both channels were having a simultaneous commercial break, I asked about my aunt Betty. Betty is Doug’s sister and Granny’s only other living child. Betty suffers from Parkinson’s, and shortly after Granny had moved to Burkburnett, Betty’s children had moved her into a nursing home in Midland so her son—my cousin, John—and his girlfriend, Sharon, could keep an eye on her.

Doug said they hadn’t heard from Betty in a several weeks, so we decided to try to get in touch with her the following day. Around nine o’clock, June gave Granny her pills and helped her get ready for bed while Doug pulled out the sofa sleeper for me.

It was late the next afternoon when I finally got to talk to Betty on the phone. It had been two years since I’d talked to her, and the changes were staggering. I could barely hear her soft voice, and the words I did hear made no sense: Junior, Oldsmobile, Thanksgiving.

After I hung up the phone, I realized that Betty and Granny might never see each other again unless someone stepped up and offered to drive Granny the two hundred miles from Burkburnett to Midland. June volunteered Doug to go with me.

“Granny,” I yelled to get her attention.

“Whaaat?” She was annoyed. I’d interrupted “Wheel of Fortune,” her favorite.

“Want to go to Midland?”

“I would like to see my house one last time.” She perked up and lost all interest in the dinging that was blaring from the television as one of the contestants bought the right vowel. “I lived in that house for fifty-six years.”

“Okay, then.” I went in the kitchen to look at the calendar with June, and we found a couple of days that would work the following month.

“Do I need to put on my clothes?” Granny yelled from the den.

“You’re not going today,” June yelled back.

“Huh?”

June went into the den, sat next to Granny, and explained that I would come back in a few weeks, then Doug and I would take her.

“Okay.” Granny sat back against the couch, her gaze returning to the television.

The next day, I returned to Austin, and over the next four weeks, I told all my friends about my plan to take my grandmother to see her old home and her daughter, probably for the last time.

“Wow, what an adventure,” my friends said, and I’d teared up a little and shook my head. Yes, I was doing such a wonderful thing for Granny.

Four weeks later, we were on our way to Midland when we stopped for a restroom break, and I found myself following Granny and her walker across the asphalt parking lot of a convenience store while Doug grabbed a quick smoke.

When we finally arrived in Midland two hours and two restroom breaks later, we checked into the Hampton Inn and headed to Rockwood Manor to see Betty. When we walked in the front door, the comingled smells of iodine and boiling potatoes hit me and turned my stomach. I looked at Granny, thinking how lucky she was not to have to live in a place like this. When we found Betty’s room, John’s girlfriend, Sharon, was already there. John is Betty’s youngest son, and even though he and Sharon have been together for years, he’s spent most of them in prison. When it was time to move Betty into a nursing home, Sharon stepped up and offered to help John see after Betty, but I was pretty sure she was the one doing most of the work. She was definitely the one directing the campaign to convince us all that John had become an outstanding son.

“Look at her pretty finger nails! John paints them for her every week.” Sharon dragged a vinyl-cushioned chair next to Betty’s recliner, so Granny could sit close. Granny grabbed Betty’s hand and pulled it into her lap, while Betty stared down at their clasped hands, expressionless. Granny couldn’t hear, and Betty rarely makes sense, so everyone else did the talking.

“And this is where I put her snacks.” Sharon opened a drawer in Betty’s bedside table and pointed to a bag of Cheetos. I thought for a moment about retrieving Granny’s puff from the car so they could have a taste test but then decided against it.

“Hey, Sharon,” I said, “before I forget, can we come out to your house tomorrow and get Granny’s personal stuff out of your shed?”

“Uh, yeah, okay.” Sharon looked nervously over my head.

A little over a year before, when Doug had his hands full taking care of Granny and needed to sell her house, he’d made a deal with Sharon. If she would empty the house, she could have the money from anything she could sell. He’d told me that Sharon was keeping Granny’s personal items, like her photographs, in a storage shed until someone could pick them up.

“The thing I really want is the framed photograph of my mother as a child. It was hanging in Granny’s bedroom.” I thought the location of it might spur Sharon’s memory.

Sharon didn’t respond, so I continued. “It was in a beautiful silver frame with a blue velvet mat.”

“I don’t remember it, but I’ll look when I get home.” Sharon looked at her feet.

“It was the only photograph of my mother as a child.” Even I could hear the whine and the hope in my voice.

“Granny!” I raised my voice to get her attention. “If we leave now, we can drive by the house before we meet John for dinner.”

“Okay.” She squeezed Betty’s hand before letting go.

“I want to see the house, too,” Betty said softly.

“Then come with us.” I saw a glimpse of the aunt I adored.

“I’m not sure you want to do that,” Sharon warned. “She can be a handful in the car.”

“I was the one she was with the first time she tried to jump out of a car.” I smiled at Betty again. “We got this, right?”

Sharon protested for a few more minutes about Betty’s anxiety and then the size of her wheelchair. I didn’t know if Sharon was being protective or controlling, but it didn’t matter. I dug in my heels until she realized this was an argument I’d never let her win.

I drove to the house, with Doug in the passenger seat and Betty and Granny in the back. I’d engaged the child locks, as I didn’t entirely trust either of them not to jump out.

I slowed the car in front of the red brick ranch at 4012 Monty Drive, the house where Santa sometimes left our gifts before dark on Christmas Eve so my grandfather could see us open them before he had to report for his shift as a policeman. The house where my girl cousins and I had once collected all our parents’ change, placed it in a special plastic Easter egg, and then naively entrusted their older brother to hide it. The house where my grandmother, Joy Green, had spent over half of her life.

As I stopped the car at the curb, Granny looked excitedly out the window.

“They planted a tree.” She pointed towards a sapling staked in the middle of the long-dead grass in the front yard.

“My American Beauty is still there.” Her eyesight was sometimes perfect.

After Granny completed a full inventory of the plants, both old and new, we had a few more minutes to kill before meeting John and Sharon at the restaurant, so I decided to drive by Dennis the Menace Park—the park where Granny had taken us to play when we were kids and Dennis the Menace was a popular cartoon. Doug jumped out for a quick smoke while I pointed out what was left of the original park—a faded sign and a 1960s-era water fountain that looked like a rhinoceros.

We eventually made it to the restaurant, one of those family places that serve catfish and fried okra, dipped in the same batter and fried in the same grease so that the taste is indistinguishable. As our food was served, John blurted from the other end of the table, “Sharon told me about that picture you’re looking for. I’m pretty sure we don’t have it anymore.”

I blinked hard. What?

“We kept that stuff for a couple of years, but no one ever came to get it, so we finally threw it out.”

I bit my lip. Granny had barely left her house a couple of years ago, and it’s only been a year since the house was cleaned out and sold.

“What’s wrong?” Granny hadn’t heard a word.

“Nothing, Granny.” I stared down at my plate as I choked down the rest of my catfish or okra, I’m not sure which, and thought about the day Granny had given me the only picture she had of my mother as a child. In the photo, my mother, who was probably three or four, had a few wispy curls pulled back with a barrette, and her smile revealed her dimples. When Granny offered it to me, I protested—this was her memory, not mine—but she insisted, so I accepted the photograph and took it to be framed so I could give it back to her for Christmas. She asked me to hang it on the wall of her bedroom and made me promise that I’d get it back when she was no longer there to remember.

When we finished our dinner, Sharon and John offered to take Betty back to the nursing home. Granny wanted to drive by her house one more time. This time, Doug rang the bell of one of her neighbors, and the woman and her husband came out to visit with Granny in the backseat of the car. Their dogs tried to lick Granny as they talked about the couple’s impending move to the Northeast and how the Texas Rangers were playing. I stayed in the driver’s seat and stared out the windshield, fuming about the lost photo.

As we drove back to the hotel, I finally spoke.

“That photograph of my mother is gone.” I said it low so only Doug could hear.

“I’m afraid you might be right,” he said.

I was determined to say no more about it. Doug had taken on all the responsibility for Granny, and I didn’t want him to feel guilty about anything. When we got back to the hotel, Granny and I wished Doug a good night and closed our door. It was almost nine o’clock, and I was anxious for her to go to bed, so I could call my husband.

Unfortunately Granny had other ideas. Her old neighbor had mentioned that the Rangers were playing that night, and now she wanted to watch the game. I sat down next to her on the couch.

“Karen, tomorrow we need to go to John and Sharon’s and get my pictures.”

“Granny, there aren’t any pictures to get.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” I wanted to vent to my husband instead.

When Granny was finally ready for bed, I tucked her in and crept out to the lobby to call home. At first, I sobbed so hard, I couldn’t get the words out, and when I finally did, they erupted in a stream.

“What kind of person throws away someone else’s photographs? Why didn’t I go get it as soon as Granny said she was staying in Burkburnett? Why didn’t Doug tell me before he had Sharon clean out the house? Why did I trust someone I didn’t know to take care of it for me?”

“I don’t know,” my husband said softly over and over again. He usually jumps at the chance to solve a problem, but even he knew there was no solution for this.

I returned to the room and climbed into bed, exhausted. I’d lost my mother all over again.

At some point during the night, Granny came awake.

“Remember we have to get those pictures tomorrow.”

I pretended to be asleep.

The next morning, we had breakfast in the hotel lobby where they offered one of those free breakfast buffets. I chose the Fruit Loops like I always do when I travel because I love them but wouldn’t be caught dead buying them in the grocery store. Doug made Granny a waffle and then headed back to his room to shave.

“Karen.” Granny stopped her fork midway between the table and her mouth. “Don’t forget, we have to go out to Sharon’s and get my pictures.”

I tried not to yell. “There are no pictures to get. They’re gone.”

“Where are they?” She dropped her fork, her voice was rising.

“Thrown away.”

“Who threw them away?” Now people were staring.

“John or Sharon, I don’t know. All I know is they’re gone.”

“Well, they better not be or I’m gonna scream.” She was already screaming.

I shrugged in apology to the woman who watched from a nearby table.

“It’s okay,” she said, “She can scream if she wants.”

It never fails to amaze me the allowances people make for the elderly.

“Screaming won’t change anything. What’s done is done.” I tried to calm Granny down.

She shook her head and finished her waffle.

We loaded the car and headed back to the nursing home for one last visit with Betty. As I pulled into a parking spot, I braced myself for the moment I had been dreading, the moment when Granny said her last goodbye to Betty.

“Ya’ll run in and tell Betty I said ‘goodbye.’” Granny stared out the window of the back seat.

“What?” I looked at her in the rearview mirror.

“I’ll stay in the car.” She continued looking out the window.

“Uh uh.” I shook my head. “You’re coming in with us.”

“It’s too much trouble to get my wheelchair out of the trunk. You can say goodbye for me.”

“Mother,” Doug finally chimed in, “you need to go in and tell Betty goodbye yourself.”

“It’s just too hard on me getting in and out of the car.” She was holding firm.

“It’s all about you, isn’t it?” I blurted out and immediately realized this was one of those incidents she would recount to every friend and family member.

“Well, okay then.” She returned my stare in the rearview mirror.

Doug wheeled Granny into Betty’s room. John and Sharon and a couple of family friends were already there, waiting for us.

“I wanted to stay in the car.” Granny told them the whole story and ended, of course, by mimicking me in a tone much more hateful than the one I used. Then she laughed while the others shook their heads at me in disappointment.

We were ready to head home when John suggested that we all go across the road to a Mexican restaurant for lunch.

“Mother, you want to go have some enchiladas, right?” John leaned down in front of Betty.

“Okay.” Her eyes lit up, and I thought maybe there was hope for John after all.

Granny, Doug, and I had finished breakfast only an hour before, so we looked at the menu for something small. Granny asked me to order her some nachos, and then when I brought them to the table, said she didn’t want nachos and sent Doug back to order an enchilada. She was getting revenge for our insistence that she get out of the car earlier.

After lunch, as I was loading Granny into the back seat, she suddenly yelled, “Bye, Betty,” and gave a little wave. I realized Betty was already settled in the front seat of John’s car. They hadn’t had a chance to say a final goodbye.

Betty smiled and gave a wave in return. No one shed a tear, not even me. The reality of our road trip turned out to be nothing like what I imagined, except for the restroom breaks at gas stations along the way. Those turned out exactly like I expected.

I deposited Doug and Granny in Burkburnett where they belonged and headed back to Austin late that night. As I was leaving Wichita Falls, I started crying all over again. I’d remembered it clearly the night before, but now I was unsure. Did she have a barrette in her hair or was I confusing it with a photo of me as a little girl? Was she smiling or did she have her chin oh so shyly tucked?

When I arrived home that night, my husband asked me if the trip was worth it.

“Absolutely not,” I answered.

I thought I was giving my grandmother the opportunity to say a final goodbye to her daughter, but Granny and Betty parted as if one of them was simply running up to Walmart to buy a gallon of milk. How was it that I’d been the one who ended up devastated?

In the days that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother, not as a little girl in a photograph but as a dying woman in a hospital bed. She spent the last four days of her life unconscious in intensive care while I slept on a couch in the waiting room. When the doctor finally turned off the ventilator, my stepsiblings and their spouses gathered with me and my husband around her bed while Granny stayed in the waiting room with our children. I had been so surprised that she chose not to be with her daughter as she died. Granny was the one who’d brought my mother into the world. Why was I now surprised that Granny hadn’t wanted to say a final goodbye to her other daughter either?

Then I remembered the way my conversations with Granny always end.

“I miss your mother.” She always says it first.

“Me, too.”

“She was my baby, and you were her baby.”

“I know.”

Granny is the only person in the world who misses my mother as much as I do.

Today I can still feel the heaving of my chest and taste the salty tears running into my mouth as I drive home from Burkburnett, just as clearly as I can hear Granny yelling across the parking lot, “Bye, Betty” and see her cheerful wave. My grandmother’s heart and mine are broken in different ways, but broken just the same.

•••

KAREN COLLIER is a native Texan. She spent twenty long years in high tech before becoming a high school English teacher and discovering how the other half lives: in poverty. She left teaching after five years to pursue life as a creative writer. This is her first published essay.

The Thing About Love

soup
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Zsofia McMullin

My mom is standing by the kitchen sink, squeezing pimples on a chicken. This is the 1990s in Hungary, when chicken still come with remnants of what makes them poultry: feathers, dry skin around the heel, nails that once scratched dirt on a farm.

Behind her on the kitchen table are carrots and parsley and celery root. She is making soup—maybe it’s a Sunday, or maybe it’s a regular Thursday and I just got home from school. It all looks complicated to me and, frankly, disgusting—the gizzards of the chicken in a plastic bowl at the edge of the sink.

“I can’t imagine ever, ever learning how to do this,” I tell her.

She rinses her hands under the running water. “Oh, you will,” she says. “When you love someone and they are sick and all they want is some chicken soup, you will learn.”

I think about this conversation when my son is sick and I am rinsing slimy, plump chicken livers in a colander. He loves chicken livers in his soup, so I buy them in a small tub at the grocery store and freeze them in batches. I feel certain that I would not do this for anyone else, even for myself.

I plop the livers into the water next to the chicken breast and the carrots and the parsnips and the celery. My mom was right: I did learn how to make soup.

•••

My grandmother writes letters to me in college on thin, see-through sheets of paper. Airmail from Hungary to the U.S. is expensive. I get one sheet in each letter, maybe two, filled with her fancy, cursive writing, usually in blue ink. I like getting the letters, I am sure, but I don’t remember them eliciting any sort of emotional response. I might even be disappointed: “Oh, it’s just another letter from grandma.” I keep them anyway.

When I look at them some twenty years after they were written and two years after my grandmother died—still neatly folded in their envelopes—I am knocked off my feet. They make me feel loved—cherished, even—like I never felt back then, not like this, not this explicitly and deeply. I suddenly see everything it took to write them—the process of purchasing the thin wax paper and the airmail envelope and the stamps at the post office, the writing of the letter with her arthritic wrists and fingers—in her armchair next to the radiator, right under her bright window filled with plants —the walk to the post office to mail them.

I can only read one before the tears start—written on my twenty-third birthday, seventeen years ago. She was proud of me. I had a car. And a job. And an apartment.

My grandmother taught me to iron and I used to think of her every night when I ironed my husband’s shirt for the next day. Now it’s all non-iron, synthetic, fake fabrics. And where’s the love in that?

•••

There are people who are clumsy at love. Who say the right words but have trouble putting them into action. Who don’t call. Or write. Or remember. Who don’t think the way I do, that for love you do things—real things: see that action movie, eat at that restaurant, sit with the in-laws at Christmas, listen to quiet fears in the middle of night, scratch the itchy spot in the middle of the back. Iron. Make soup.

That’s the hardest thing, loving someone like that. Someone who lets themselves be loved but cannot return it for whatever reason. They give you little glimpses of what it is like to be loved by them—and it is fucking brilliant and just enough to keep you coming back for more.

•••

I don’t love my baby right away. I know that this is not unusual, but it surprises me. I am happy that he’s here, and that he’s healthy, but beyond that, I feel very little. I don’t let him starve or cry too long or stay in a dirty diaper. I linger with him in the rocking chair and marvel at the fact that he has no eyebrows and the skin on his nose still looks unfinished somehow, almost translucent. I notice his features as if looking at a doll—a strange, antique doll with a porcelain face—that I can just set back on the shelf once I am done.

It’s funny that I don’t remember falling in love with him. It’s not like romance, where you get that initial tingle around the heart. It’s not a lightning bolt or a big spectacle. It happens at two a.m. when you are cleaning up poop. It happens at the playground. In the rear-view mirror of the car when he’s finally fallen asleep. In the middle of a temper-tantrum when both of you are crying and there’s snot on your hands.

•••

Things I love:

Brushing my teeth.

The way the birds go crazy around four a.m. in the spring.

Landing in Europe after a trans-Atlantic flight.

Whipped cream.

The smell of tomato vines.

Rainy October days.

Shoes.

Stationery.

Skypeing with my brother and not noticing that an hour went by.

Budapest.

The jingle of bracelets on my wrist.

My mom’s soup.

•••

My husband’s first heart attack happens in August, we think. We are in London and he wakes in the middle of the night to horrific back spasms. He has a bad back, but nothing like this has ever happened. He’s sweating and can’t catch his breath from the pain. I call an ambulance. They take him away and I sit by the window of our hotel room, staring at the street below until the morning, until our son wakes.

We take a cab to the hospital in the rain and sit with him as the doctors check his blood and re-check it again and again. In the end they rule out a heart attack. We fly home a few days later. He gets a muscle relaxer from his doctor for future back issues.

After he collapses in November and the surgeon threads a catheter through his arteries, he is fairly certain that what he had in London was not a back spasm.

I guess you can walk around with your heart broken on the inside.

•••

I once ask my mom about how you know that you have found “the one,” that you are really in love. Maybe that wasn’t my exact question, but something along those lines. Maybe I am asking her about marriage, about long-term commitment, what that is like. She says that if even after all the years you’ve spent together it still feels good to cuddle up close together at the end of the day, then you are in business.

I remember this on those evenings when we are both exhausted, when I feel just a tiny bit resentful that he is in bed, listening to music, while I finish up bath time and story time and get a glass of water and give another back rub. I stumble into bed and I don’t really want to talk or be touched or be seen. I want to be angry and stomp around like a child—and sometimes do.

I pretend to read and he reaches over to rub my shoulder. I melt into his touch, his warm palms. I put down my book so that I can be in full contact with his body, smell his chest and the spot behind his ears, to rub my nose in his beard.

I am so mad at him, damn it.

•••

When my son wants to tell me that he loves me, he switches over to Hungarian. That’s our language, our secret love code. The words are sweeter, more melodious, melancholy. “I love you” is such a throwaway phrase. “Mama, te vagy a szerelmem,” he tells me and I know it’s true. That we are each other’s loves. We are walking to my car and I hold his hand and feel him holding on, his palm almost as big as mine.

I like that our love is so uncomplicated.

•••

Isn’t it crazy that you can never really know that another person loves you? That you can keep something like this a secret? Maybe there is someone you see every day—at work or at the playground or at school dropoff—and have no idea that they have a crush on you. That they think about you during their day, when they are sad or bored. That they plan ways to run into you, to talk to you. That they imagine this whole other life with you, with you at the center—as their center. You could have this wild affair, this crazy romance, if only that person would speak up, make a move.

But we never do. Nobody ever does. We shuffle back to our desks, hide in our phones, pull forward in the dropoff line.

•••

We kiss past the crust of the morning. The wet spot on the pillow, the gunk in the eyes, the sour breath. We wipe away sweat and dreams from brows. We dip hands into hidden folds and curves, underneath, where it’s dark and heavy and damp. We lick and swallow and we spread and moan. We pinch and scrape and knead. We release—our hands smelling faintly of love all day.

•••

Things I want to learn to love:

An achy heart.

Being awake at two a.m.

Letting go.

•••

My husband does not like soup. When he’s sick, he wants to be left alone: no juice, no tea, no lemonade or honey. No soup. This is confusing—how can you not want chicken soup? My chicken soup. And if you don’t want chicken soup, what can I do for you? Is doing nothing a sign of love?

I stop making soup for a while. Then just make it for myself. Then for our son. You can’t just make a little soup. I offer it up on cold winter days and on sick days for years. “Nothing against your soup,” he says. But no thank you.

I resign myself: he is a no-soup person.

Fifteen years and four kitchens later, on an average Tuesday he suggests that I make soup for dinner. “But you don’t like soup,” I say.

“I could live on your soup,” he responds and I say nothing to hide my shock. Later there is crusty bread on the table and wine and the cooked carrots and parsnips in a separate bowl from the shredded chicken meat. He adds hot sauce and hot pepper flakes and dips his bread.

He makes my soup his own.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN is a regular contributor to Full Grown People and has published essays in several online and print outlets. She lives in Maine—again!—where her soup-making skills will come in handy this winter. You can read her other works at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin

Read more FGP essays by Zsofi McMullin.

Her

her
by Sodanie Chea/Flickr

By Jiadai Lin

I never knew my grandmother well but I was told growing up that I had her yan sher, which literally means “eye expression” in Mandarin. I understood it more colloquially as referring to Grandma’s spirit, her aura. My father said this as a compliment. My mother, not so much.

The woman I call Grandma—my paternal grandmother—grew up in the pre–Cultural Revolution Chinese countryside just north of Beijing. She had a clumsy instinct for things like judgment and war and enemy lines. She played with the Japanese kids in the yard who nobody was supposed to play with. She unraveled the bandages wound tightly around her feet and learned to read. She became a wife before she was twenty, and a mother soon after. She birthed seven children from her tiny frame and lost two.

Of course, she wasn’t all good and mighty. Grandma’s fingers were just as clumsy as her instinct to judge, so she could never properly sift the rice hulls from their grains in the fall. The rice patties her kids brought to school for lunch weren’t white and pure as they were supposed to be but speckled with brown. This was considered an embarrassment, but Grandma didn’t lose any sleep over it.

When I was young, I sensed that Grandma wasn’t exactly the model of a woman that I should want to embody. Enemy-befriending, bandage-unraveling, wooden-fingered Grandma wasn’t supposed to be my ideal of feminine perfection. She was wrinkled and weathered by the time she was thirty, and she didn’t know how to smile properly for a picture. Her fingers, unnaturally thick for such a small lady, were dusted charcoal gray no matter which picture I looked at.

And I looked at many. From halfway across the world, from a second-floor apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I flipped through the thin stack of Kodak photos that sometimes came in the mail. The images I remember were all set in winter. Grandma and cousins posed wearing puffy neon jackets in their front yard. The ground wasn’t grass or the concrete sidewalks of Milwaukee, but a worn, packed dirt. Grandma sat on a wooden chair, cousins stood in a row, and the family dog, Little Black, lounged at their feet. Their expressions seemed never whole—never just a smile or a frown—but instead halfway through a sentence or question, as if they weren’t sure when exactly the camera would go off.

These pictures were mostly the same but I studied each one as if it were a unique blueprint for my own identity. Of all the cousins on my family tree, I was the only one to live in America. I was special in that way, but I was also alone.

“You’re like your grandma,” my father would say.

“How?” I’d ask.

“You have that same sarcastic look in your eye. Yan sher.

“What do you mean?”

He never replied directly. The answer came at me slowly, through stories and pictures gathered over years.

•••

Just before I turned two, my parents brought me to visit my father’s family. After the stay, I observed that Grandma didn’t pay much attention to me.

“She’s not an affectionate woman,” my father said.

“That’s right—she’s not!” my mother said.

I don’t remember this early impression of Grandma and clearly, it didn’t do anything to diminish her in my eyes. Maybe Grandma was busy playing poker with the village ladies or preparing dinner with the aunts or walking Little Black instead of cuddling me.

My family moved to America shortly after that visit, and I only saw Grandma a few more times in her life. The last was the August before my senior year of college. On this trip, I noticed that my cousin Hailian had bought gifts for the family—bottles of perfume, silk neck ties, a watch for my father, a jar of L’Oreal face cream for my mother. The girl had manners, my mother noted, and I decided that I should learn a thing or two from Hailian.

During afternoon nap on a particularly hot day, I snuck out to the village convenience shop with my little brother. When we walked in, a bell on the door jingled and a sleepy shopkeeper emerged from behind a shredded plastic curtain. We apologized for waking him and asked in our best Mandarin for a nice woman’s shirt.

“For your grandma?” he guessed right away.

“Yes.”

My brother and I examined the one option shown to us, a button-down shirt made from a flowered pattern. It would do.

Grandma had an afternoon routine. She spent hours hanging out with other neighborhood women on the stone ledges that lined the narrow village streets. I had often seen them perched in the shade waving their bamboo fans and swatting at mosquitos that buzzed by their legs. These women greeted everyone by name—kids returning home from school, men in suits riding bikes to and from work in the next town over, the fat lady with the toothy smile who herded her goats down the village’s most central streets every afternoon.

On this particularly hot afternoon, my brother and I found Grandma on the stone ledges and presented her flowered shirt. Almost immediately, the neighborhood ladies clapped their hands in laughter. Look at those American kids! What funnies! They called us not by our names, but as our father’s children.

Grandma laughed too, then started unbuttoning the shirt she was wearing. Soon she was topless and slipping her arms into the flowered shirt we had bought. I stood there with my eleven-year-old brother, unable to turn away. Grandma was skinny and tan, her breasts small and wilted, gently falling over her ribcage. Her skin was withered as if a layer tissue paper had been glued onto her actual skin beneath. I had noticed that Chinese women, who often showered communally, were generally more comfortable with nudity than American women. But an eighty-something-year-old woman changing out on the street with a group of ladies cheering her on? This was not normal. Afterwards, Grandma sat there on the ledge sporting her new shirt with a beaming smile on her face. This was her way of saying thank you for the gift.

When I recounted this story to my mother, she looked disturbed. I got the message. What Grandma did was not ladylike. It wasn’t something I should emulate. But over the years, I always remembered this story and felt a kinship with Grandma. Maybe she wasn’t refined and full of grace, but she was bold. She was a hoot. She didn’t care what others thought about her. She did what she wanted to do, in that nonchalant way that always had my mother shaking her head.

•••

My mother was a different kind of woman. She wore billowing dresses and strappy sandals and tortoise-shelled sunglasses with lenses the color of tea eggs. She knew how to stand for a picture, arm-in-arm with my father in front of Tiananmen Square the year before I was conceived, a silver flowered clip locked into her wavy hair. After we moved to America, she bought do-it-at-home hair perm kits that came in purple and silver boxes with a blonde lady on the front.

I can still see my mother standing over the sink in our tiny bathroom in Milwaukee, her hair dripping of something that looked like milk and smelling of chemicals. I’d watch her from the bed where we all slept—my mother, father, and me. Every night, my mother would come to this bed and put Lubriderm lotion on her hands, her fingers smooth and long like a ballerina’s legs. And then she would take mine and do the same for me, paying special attention to the dry cuticles that I had a bad habit of chewing off.

•••

For a long time, whenever my mother tried to teach me about being a woman, I felt like she was pulling me away from myself. More times than I can count, my mother would come up behind me, rest her hands on my shoulders and press her thumbs into my spine. “Straighten up,” she’d say.

I’d arch my back to an extreme. “Like this?”

She’d shake her head. “You know what I mean.”

Did I? I don’t remember. What I remember is feeling defiant. Proud of the fact that I didn’t naturally stand up tall or want to sit nicely at holiday parties with the women who gossiped until midnight spooning dessert from the table. I wanted to be the one rolling in the dirt, the one with the scraped knees hanging from the top branch of a tree, the one riding her blue Huffy down the street that ran the length of our apartment complex. Through grade school, I insisted on wearing tee-shirts and cargo pants, the kind that could be unzipped at the knees and transformed into baggy shorts for the summer. In high school, I wore my hair in a messy bun that I had to keep re-doing throughout the day to keep tousled because my thick hair always fell straight.

My mother thought of names for me. Things like kuang tou (basket-head) and bu-nan-bu-nu (not-boy-not-girl, or, as I guessed, tomboy) that she muttered when she saw my getups. I knew these names were not endearing. They were meant to stir me to change. I did change, but in the opposite direction. I messed up my hair even more and slouched defiantly. I wanted to show my mother that this was who I was.

I felt less that I was caught between two cultures and more that I was caught between two women. Except I wasn’t really caught. I knew who I wanted to be, but I was too young to be her yet. I felt a maddening ache to get out of the house and out of our town. Once I grew up, once I moved away, once I had my own place, my own money, my own life, I could be whatever kind of woman I wanted to be.

•••

A month before I started college, my parents and I attended a dinner reception for incoming freshman and their families. We drove into New York City in our green Dodge Caravan and circled the blocks around school several times before finding a parking spot. My mother wore an olive and bronze–colored silk dress with a sash at the waist. She had brought this dress with her from China and kept it in her closet, taking care to replace the moth balls every winter. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know that it had not occurred to me that I was supposed to look nice for this event. I probably wore my uniform at the time: jeans and a tank top, flip flops, and a choker necklace made of plastic sea shells.

There was a woman at the reception who seemed important. I don’t remember what color her hair was or what she wore, but I was alert to her presence. While the families sat at round tables, this woman paced around. She shook hands and made friendly conversation to which families laughed and nodded as if on cue. As this woman circled closer my table, I noticed the muscles in my mother’s neck clench. Her hair was twisted into a bun with a flashy jewel barrette that she saved for special occasions. By the time the woman got to the table next to ours, my heart was pounding hard in my chest. I was suddenly embarrassed at how out of place my family looked. I watched as the woman told her joke, smiled, and then moved straight to the table on our other side.

I ate a piece of my bread and tried to look unfazed. But I was confused. Did the important woman skip us by accident? Would she come back around? I was glad that I was spared an awkward encounter with this woman, but why didn’t she speak to us?

My mother and I never talked about this incident. It occurs to me now that maybe it doesn’t stand out in her memory as an exception to her everyday life. When I was growing up, my mother always reminded me that it wasn’t easy to be an immigrant. “You have to be better to get the same result,” she would say. A better student, a better woman, a better friend.

I’d usually laughed it off. “I don’t feel that way,” I’d respond, “You’re being paranoid.”

But being at that reception, as I sat proud and excited and anxious at the prospect of being alone in the world for the first time, I experienced something that never left me. Only years later did I understand that what I had experienced was how it felt to be an immigrant’s child. That lucky first generation. And all the pride and burden and vengeance that came with it.

•••

I graduated from college and then law school. I got a job at a firm in New York and rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. I worked long hours and indulged in fancy cocktails to justify those long hours. One Monday night in late September, I had come home and had just stripped off my corporate outfit when my mother called me. This was normal, so I took the call and steeped a peppermint tea. Then I put my mother on speakerphone on the kitchen counter and got ready to scrub at the dirty dishes in my sink.

“You should sit down,” my mother said.

I did.

“Your grandmother…” my mother started.

I immediately had a bad feeling in my stomach. My mother never said much about Grandma. Something big or bad had to have happened.

Grandma had died sometime through the night. The night in China that was the day I had just lived. I tried to remember something, anything, that had happened during the day that felt tragic or poignant. A moment I could identify in hindsight as a sign that I knew viscerally my grandmother was gone. I must have felt something. Grandma and I were connected by blood, and something even stronger. We shared yan sher. That had to count for something. But I had nothing. I had been sitting at my computer for most of the day, chatting occasionally with coworkers but mostly working on assignments that barely varied from one day to the next.

After I hung up the phone with my mother, I went to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror above my sink, next to my blue shower curtain. The pattern on my shower curtain was a map of the United States, and I thought about how my grandmother would never step foot on American soil.

Grandma wasn’t sick. She had been weak through the previous winter but rejected my uncle’s invitation to stay with his family. She liked where she was. She was walking to the market every morning for breakfast buns and soy milk and playing chess on the stone ledges with the ladies in the afternoon. It had been a good summer. She was getting stronger. Of course she would die someday, but I wasn’t prepared for her to die today.

I sat on the bathroom floor against the cold bathtub and cried. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and I hadn’t expected the tears to come so diligently, before I could even fully process my sadness. I was puzzled by my tears because along with vague sadness, I felt something light. I felt the peace of a life ended without great injustice. Grandma had lived long. She had died in her sleep, as she always claimed was the best way to go. Her death had not been big or bad.

That night, I lay in bed staring up at the wooden beams across my ceiling. I thought of my grandmother, who had gone to bed not long ago. Now her small body was cold and empty of life, her brain without consciousness. It was impossible to understand how a person could just be gone like that. And not just any person, but Grandma. The lady with the sarcastic look in her eye. Now there was only one of us in the world.

•••

A few nights later, I left my Midtown office building and walked up Sixth Avenue. I strolled along the southern edge of Central Park, past the row of carriage horses resting in the shade. It was a quiet night, the air cold but comfortable. I settled on the stone fountains facing Columbus Circle and spoke to my father, who had gone home to China.

In my grandmother’s village, funerals were celebratory events. My father described how the whole village had come out. There was a live band and two teenage go-go dancers. At funerals, it was tradition for family members to dedicate songs to the deceased.

“Your uncle selected two songs for you and your brother because you guys couldn’t be there,” my father said, “It was really a nice celebration. Everyone said that your grandmother was a really kind lady.”

I watched as two men in front of me played with neon rockets that could be wound up and shot up into the sky. At the top of their trajectories, the rockets flashed with bright lights, lingered for a moment, and then fell back down. I kept my eye on them. Up and down, over and over again. Something about the simplicity and sureness of their paths was calming.

All this reminded me of Grandma. As long as her life had been, it was never meant to be much more than what she was born into. She would get married and have kids. She would live in the same house through most of this and die there too. Then I thought about own my life. I was born in a hospital in Beijing, to a country-boy scientist father and a Manchurian mother with a graceful edge. Maybe I was not meant to travel far in my life either. But I had. What were the chances that somebody like me would be here sitting in Columbus Circle on this very night?

My grandmother could never have dreamed of this life for me, but she did live to see a glimpse of it. A few months before she died, Grandma found my lawyer profile online. She didn’t mention this until she overheard my uncle talking about my website profile in the other room. “I saw it,” Grandma said.

A clunky old computer had sat idly in the corner of Grandma’s room for months, maybe years. Nobody guessed that she knew how to use it. But there it was, in her browser history. My name, my picture, my degrees.

This last story makes me smile because this was Grandma’s way. Understated but crafty, insulated but modern, modest but full of pride.

•••

I see now that while Grandma could never have dreamed of this life for me, my mother did. And even more, she demanded it of me.

Over the years, I realized that the main difference between my mother and grandmother is how each woman handled judgment. Grandma was fearless. This was the essence of her aura. She was not ashamed. She did not care that her children brought to school rice patties that were not perfectly white. She didn’t often ask, am I good enough? She just was what she was.

But my mother, she never stopped asking that question. My mother didn’t believe in accepting what you were born into. She believed in being better. She believed in learning to sit up straight and breaking bad habits. She believed in going to the salon for a perm, and when she found herself in a new country with little money, she believed in doing it herself. She believed in upkeep. And most of all, perhaps, my mother believed in her kids. While I begrudged my mother’s attempts to mold me when I was growing up, I see now that her intentions were pure. She pushed me because she believed in me.

It is a humbling thing to look back on your younger self and see somebody who cared so much about how you would turn out today. The lesson, I think, is in the effort and intentions. Perhaps the time I spent as a girl searching for the good and bad and admirable allowed me to face the judgments I had of myself. Perhaps being exposed to the wildly different personas of my mother and grandmother instilled at a most basic level the idea that there was no one way a woman could or should be.

I never did find a model of feminine perfection that both satisfied my mother and sat comfortably with me. I was a college grad who sometimes dreamed of being a farmer, a corporate lawyer who changed immediately into sweatpants at home, a tomboy who learned to walk in heels. And while I was becoming these things, I forgot to think about how much I wanted to be like Grandma. I forgot to think about how much I wanted to show my mother exactly who I was. I forgot to try so hard. Without detaching from either woman, I detached myself from the idea of being confined to their qualities. In growing up I became my own woman, and I am still becoming her.

•••

JIADAI LIN lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is working on a novel based on her former life as a lawyer in Manhattan. She can be found on Twitter here: @jiadailin 

 

Transportation

planes
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Wendy Wisner

We’re driving to my cousin’s wedding in Atlantic City. We’re on a tight schedule. We spin past the bare-branched sycamores. The ground is dotted with patches of snow. The wind lashes against our rickety Honda.

Ben says he’s too hot in his coat. Peter says he’s too cold. “Just wait. We’ll be there soon.” We’re getting closer. I begin to smell the waves of the bay.

Then Peter throws up.

We pull over, strip him down. He cries, his bare legs shaking in the cold. We toss his dirty clothes in a plastic grocery bag, find some clean clothes, mop up the vomit with baby wipes.

“Okay,” I say to my husband. “We’ll get there right when the ceremony starts. You’ll drop me off. I’ll change into my dress. I won’t miss it.

We keep driving. Now the ocean is clearer, on the edge of the parkway. I inhale it. I, who hate to travel, inhale the ocean and its expanse, its freedom.

Finally, we arrive at the hotel. Bright lights, gold fountains, Roman god pseudo-sculpture. I was naïve; I expected a simple hotel. It’s like we’ve entered an amusement park.

Dizzy circles through the parking garage. My stomach in my throat. My mother texts me: “It’s okay. She won’t notice if you miss the ceremony.”

A parking spot, finally. I toss all our “fancy” clothes in a garbage bag to change into along the way.

We enter Caesar’s Atlantic City. Immediately the smell of cigarette smoke and misery. The blinking lights of the slot machines. The room begins to spin.

I say to my husband, “Here, watch the children.” I take out my dress and tights, my good bra. I hand him the garbage bag with the children’s clothes, and run inside the ladies room.

I change inside a stall, my bare feet on the cold bathroom floor. I tie up my messy hair, smear on some lipstick.

My husband has changed Peter into his button-down shirt and necktie. He hands me the garbage bag and Peter, then wanders off with Ben to change.

This. This is when I begin to fall apart.

Peter wants nothing more than to climb on all the slot machines. Peter will not stay in my arms. He twists away with all his two-year-old might. I try to carry him, the garbage bag of clothes, and my winter coat. And I cannot. I cannot do it.

My cellphone is low on charge. I have no idea which direction my husband has gone. I am completely lost, alone, with a screaming toddler who is half-covered in vomit.

I can’t hold onto all of it anymore. I can’t stop the panic from boiling over, from my belly, to my throat, to my eyes.

And then I’m not in my life anymore. It is 1983, and I am alone with my mother in the airport. The stench of cigarette smoke in our hair. Is it from the airport, or from the cigarettes my father has been smoking?

My father is gone. He left just as the snow began to fall in life-size, enormous chunks. Just as the baby started to blossom in my mother. Winter and spring colliding.

We are utterly alone in that airport. We do not know where he is, only that we are following him. The airport tilts as the planes rise up into the sky.

•••

The airport was the room between the worlds. But not a room. A cavern. A chamber. An expanse of white that stretched beyond where I could see. There were no exits, no escapes, no way home.

The only way to out was to get on a plane.

We watched the planes through the window—a giant wall of glass. The planes were larger than life. They were dinosaurs: standing still, then suddenly running, lifting their clobbering tails up into the air.

The airport smelled of gasoline, cigarettes, and diaper cream.

It was 1984, and my sister was a newborn, snuggled against my mother. But her presence was slight, muted. She was young enough to sleep quietly in my mother’s arms. She closed her eyes and ignored it all.

My mother and I walked up and down the corridors. We were marbles being rolled up and down and around the tunnels, gates, entrances. We were being rolled by the great hand of my father. He reached for us across the continent. He didn’t want us with him, but he beckoned us nonetheless.

He made us want to find him. He made us look for him in each man’s face we saw streaming past.

Had he shaved his mustache yet? Was it just growing in?

I looked for my father, though I knew he wasn’t there.

I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to go with my mother. I wanted to run away.

I stood at the top of the escalator, and my mother stood below. “Take me home,” I said.

My mother had no words. And now I see my sister for sure, my mother holding her, running up the escalator as it’s moving. There is no way to stop it from moving. My sister, the suitcase, the tickets—everything in her arms but me. It is clear that she can’t carry me as well, that I must will myself up the escalator.

And I do. I follow her. I get on the plane. I begin the endless journey of looking for my father.

•••

I have been trying to piece it together, the origins of my anxiety—why my mind so easily jumps to the worst-case scenario.

I have had to untrain myself from assuming that any time my children get sick that they are going to die. I have to shut out the thought that any time I don’t hear from my husband for a few hours that he’s in grave danger. It is their lives—the ones whom I hold most dearly—that are at stake.

I have some theories. The loss of my father is one. But I didn’t completely lose him. He didn’t die. He just left. As a child, it was a loss that felt like death, but I still saw him often enough over the years. I could still find him, wrap him up in a bear hug.

I think the feeling of doom runs deeper, back to my ancestors, back through my DNA.

The dead babies, the boat, the planes, the entrances, the exits. Portals into the world, and out.

•••

My grandmother slid the box out from under her bed. It was a beautiful brown box, old, faded around the edges, but nicely preserved. Maybe she was going to show me one of her hats, or try to give me another of her soft patent-leather shoes. (We had the same tiny feet, size 5).

She opened it up to reveal a small dress. Light pink, with a lacy, embroidered neckline. It was flattened and neatly laid, like something you would see on display at a museum. Small enough to lie flat in the box—a dress for a very young girl. You could almost see her lying quietly there.

I thought it was perhaps one of my mother’s childhood dresses, or one of my grandmother’s from when she was a girl.

“This is the dress of the girl who died,” my grandmother said. She drew out the word “died.” She had this way of being completely serious, but with an airy, dramatic flair.

Then she told the story. I only heard it that one time and was too scared to ask about again.

Her parents and their daughter were immigrating to America from Kiev, Russia. The boat was dirty, disgusting, people piled on top of one another, nowhere to sleep, living in squalor. There was very little food. Everyone ate rice, she said.

The little girl never made it to America.

My grandmother didn’t know how she died. And I was too shocked to ask.

“They named me Nachama, which means comfort, because I was her replacement,” she said.

But no one ever called her that. Her name was Emma.

She was Emma, my grandmother. But now I knew she was born after trauma, after the deepest loss imaginable. It would haunt her, and me, for the rest of our lives.

•••

We moved thirteen times by the time I was thirteen years old. We were chasing my father up and down the west coast. But there was also a restlessness on my mother’s part that propelled us from house to house—a search for the key to happiness.

I never felt that I had a home. Home was intangible, something reserved for daydreams.

And real dreams, too. I have always dreamt about the houses. I dream that I can go back to a home of mine, one that we left, and is still there, preserved as it was.

I dream of the apartment with the walk-in closet that I turned into a room for myself. I’d make stacks of toy money and play bank, or I’d take in all the books in our house and play library. I remember playing with my charm necklace, hiding the parts behind the coats. I think I tried to sleep in there, curl up into a little ball behind my mother’s boots. But I couldn’t relax. I couldn’t rest.

I dream of the apartment where I did have my own room. The twin windows that faced the mint tree. I’d crack the window open and inhale. My room with the full size bed in the center, the faded pink blanket, boom box on the bureau. When the earthquake began, first the windows rattled, then the radio switched itself off, then the lights. I walked out of my room as my mom and sister were coming out of the kitchen. We watched the chandelier sway, slowly, calmly, as though nothing momentous and devastating was happening.

And last night, I dreamt about the apartment I lived in longest. I knew it would enter my dreams soon enough—the apartment we left last summer. Both of my children were born there. I became a mother in those narrow rooms. Last night, in the dream, I stood in the living room, its soft brown carpet under my bare feet. The carpet felt wet, like soil that had been newly watered. A breeze was coming in. Ben’s stamp collection was lying open on the floor. The couch was gone, but the piano was there—the keyboard open, the keys whiter and brighter than I remember them.

I couldn’t say goodbye to that apartment. The last time we went, to get an ice cream sandwich my older son had left in the freezer (I kid you not), I didn’t want to go in. Because I hate endings. I hate last times. Especially when it comes to houses.

If I never have to move again, I will be eternally grateful. But I know we will move again someday. We rent our new home, and I have a deep desire to own a house someday.

If I own a house, it’s like I will never have to leave. I can grow old there. I can die there. I can sink into it. Get comfortable. A small square of earth that is entirely my own.

•••

Then there was the story my grandmother never told me: the story of the other baby, her baby, the first one. I don’t think they ever named him.

In those days, you didn’t talk about stillbirth. The doctor told them to grieve briefly, then try right away for another baby.

That’s one of the few details I know. That, and the cord wrapped around his neck.

In my mind, the cord is blue, the room is blue, the baby blue. Gray and blue swirling together, enveloping the room in a dense fog.

I wonder if they ever saw him.

Did they hold him? Could they bear it?

Their second son, Raphael, the angel, was born a year later, as the doctor recommended.

But where did the grief go?

You never saw my grandmother in grief, only in fear. Her sister gone, this baby, too. Life so fragile, so temporary.

My grandmother used to read the obituaries every day. She’d sit in the rocking chair next to the aqua-blue telephone.

Did he die as he entered the world, as he journeyed out of her body? Or did he die inside her?

My son Ben was born that way, with the cord around his neck. The midwife told me to stop pushing for second; then she deftly hooked her finger under the cord, and slipped it off him. He came crashing out of me, alive and screaming.

I don’t know what happened with my grandmother’s baby, but sometimes I imagine that I could save him—unloop that cord, set him free, stamp out the panic that passed from my grandmother’s body, into my mother’s, into me.

•••

I started walking when I was eighteen. I was coming out of one of the toughest times of my life: the first time I’d experienced a period of panic attacks.

It started the summer I turned sixteen.

I used to spend the summer with my father in California. That summer was brutal. I missed my boyfriend (who would later become my husband), and I was starting to assert myself in new ways—typical of the teenage years. I began to criticize my father and my stepmom. Harshly. I wasn’t pulling any punches. It got nasty, fast. They couldn’t handle it. They couldn’t handle me. I couldn’t handle them. And I felt trapped.

After that summer, I developed an intense fear of flying (obvious connection there—flying meant visiting my father). And, devastated by my abandonment, my father cut off all communication with me for a year. In that year, my phobias increased. Things I’d never been afraid of before became tinged with the most incredible, raw terror I’d ever felt.

I was afraid of all modes of transportation, really. Cars, taxis, the school bus. There had been a shooting on the Long Island Railroad, and I was sure it would happen again, to me. I was deathly afraid of mass shootings. I’d get nervous in crowded places. The diner. The mall. Thank God school shootings weren’t rampant at the time—I’m sure I would have been too scared to go to school.

I gained a lot of weight. I’d always been a normal weight—curvy as I became pubescent, but always in a normal range. I gained at least twenty pounds then. I ate to cushion my frightened body. I ate to silence my racing heart.

Somehow—I’m not really sure how—I started to come out of the panic. I decided to see a therapist. She wasn’t great, but just the act of going was good for me. And I started walking, both to lose the weight, and also because I found it amazingly freeing. It seemed to wash the anxiety out of my body. And I liked being out of my house. I liked the fresh air. I liked the endorphins. I liked being able, at last, to think clearly. I liked slicing through the world at my own pace. I liked looking at the perfect houses, with the perfect families inside (or so I imagined).

All these years later, I still walk almost every day. Sometimes with a baby strapped to my chest, or a toddler in a stroller. And on weekends, entirely alone.

Since this past summer, I have added some running to my routine. I’m not sure why. I had been having dreams about running. It seemed absurd to me at first. But the dreams were like magic, like I was gliding through space.

•••

When we moved to the new house last summer, we noticed several white beings swooping across the trees out in the distance, over the pond.

Later, we realized: egrets.

And then the four of us—even the baby—would wait until night came (it came late then, in summer) and wait for them at the window. It was magic. Pure and simple. These great, graceful birds, with wings that were quiet, long breaths.

As the earth cooled, the egrets retreated. Where did they go? No one asked. We moved deeper into the everyday. School started. The days got shorter and darker.

But I have thought over the months, where did they go? You always hear that birds go south. But really—where? Or do some die? I guess that’s what I really want to know.

I am obsessed with beings—people—coming and going. The way they wander in and out of lives. And how they get there.

My grandmother would always ask: How did you get here? By foot? Car? Train? She was interested in modes of transportation—fixated on the travel routes of the ones she loved. She wanted to make sure you would arrive at your destination in one piece. “Call when you get there,” she’d say.

The formation of birds as they migrate—of course it takes our breath away. The unspoken communication, the way their bodies seem to magnetize to each other. Don’t we all just want to know where to go? And with whom to travel? What comfort there. What grace.

Ben wants to get a new camera with a zoom lens so that we can photograph the egrets this summer to preserve the magic. We know it’s temporary. We want to capture it.

Just a week ago, the pond was covered in snow, and under the snow—ice. Now it’s melted, and the ducks swim smoothly through it. On the way home from a walk today, Peter and I heard them quacking.

Yes, spring. Which leads to summer. And all the birds opening their wings, returning home.

•••

We missed the ceremony.

After we were all dressed, we rushed through the hotel, past restaurants and gift shops, up escalators, around corners—everything sharply glittering. We found signs for the reception (there were many) and took the final elevator up to the very top of the building.

The elevator opened onto the wedding. The reception was in full swing. I saw the bride first, my cousin, towering over me in heels, her burnt-red hair, endlessly flowing shimmer-white dress trailing behind her. She was rosy-cheeked, in a just-married daze, and thrilled that we made it.

No guilt. No worries. No fear. We made it.

An enormous picture window overlooked the ocean. It was twilight, and the grays and blues from outside drifted into the wedding hall, bathing everyone in a warm, ethereal light.

I began to breathe.

I scanned the room for my family. There they were, my mother and sister, sitting on a leather loveseat together, plates of hors d’oeurves balanced on their laps. My mother and sister—strange and beautiful to see them here, in this otherworldly place, a place none of us had ever been before, and would probably never return.

For a while I just watched them, and time seemed to melt away. Then I looked at my two sons, who had quickly situated themselves in front of the window, cheek to cheek, watching seagulls sweep across the sea.

My husband appeared beside me, put his arms around my shoulders, asked me if I was feeling better, and walked me down the aisle toward the ones I loved.

•••

WENDY WISNER is the author of two books of poems. Her essays and poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Washington Post, Literary MamaThe Spoon River Review, Brain, Child magazine, Bellevue Literary Review, Huffington Post, and elsewhere. She is a board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) and lives with her family in New York. For more, visit her website www.wendywisner.com. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

The Accidental Immigrant

budapest stamp
By Laszlo Ilyes/ Flickr

By Zsofi McMullin

My twentieth high school reunion was held at a restaurant right across the street from my former school in Budapest. I wasn’t sure why I wanted to be there so badly. I didn’t love high school—who does?—but what’s worse is that I barely remember it. I have no memories of, well, of anything really from that time, except for one boy I had a huge crush on for four years.

But this story is not about that.

I was repeating the tale of what I’ve been up to for the past twenty years for about the fifth time that evening—this time to a former teacher—when he asked me, “So, did you just decide one day to move to America?” At first I wasn’t sure why the question shocked me. But then I realized that it was because it assumed that there was a decision involved, a moment in time when I said “no” to staying in Hungary and “yes” to becoming an American.

But really there wasn’t. My trip to America wasn’t driven by war or famine, by financial difficulties, or political unrest. I didn’t have to come to America. And I certainly didn’t have to stay.

I was eighteen when I came here and, looking back, it’s hard to imagine how I had the courage to do this. Actually, it’s hard to imagine how my mother had the courage to let me go. She worked at the American Embassy in Budapest and when the question of college came up in my junior year of high school her colleagues encouraged me to apply to American schools. I am sure my parents thought about and discussed the pros and cons of sending me off to another continent. I am sure. But I don’t remember my own thought process, my actual decision about going ahead with the plan. And even if there was a decision, I certainly never considered the possibility that it would have an impact on my life twenty years later. You just don’t think of that when you are eighteen.

Mountains of paperwork, a full scholarship, and a trans-Atlantic flight later, my mom and I were driving through the woods of Pennsylvania to the school where I would spend the next four years. We spent the night in my new dorm room drinking iced tea from the vending machine and arranging furniture. My mom left me there the next day and after she drove off, I went to the bookstore to buy thumbtacks for my new posters.

My one-year scholarship turned into four years. Graduation turned into a job. My job led me to my husband and marriage. Pennsylvania turned into Maine and Connecticut. Jobs, a child, friends, a life.

And now, twenty years later, in that half-lit restaurant in Budapest, I realized that I have become an immigrant. I don’t even like to call myself an immigrant. That word to me somehow means desperation, flight, the life of a fugitive. I became an immigrant just by living my life, doing whatever comes next.

•••

When we arrived in Budapest just a few days before the reunion, there was nobody there to greet us at the airport. My parents moved to the U.S. a few years ago, and so they weren’t there to pick us up or drive us around during our visit. With no close friends or relatives, we were left with a grumpy taxi driver who gave us curious glances hearing me speak Hungarian to my son and English to my husband. We were tourists.

If you didn’t know me, you would never guess that I am not an American. I don’t have an accent. I write and dream in English. The pull I feel to my homeland is invisible to everyone else. It’s a faint tugging feeling in my chest, something empty and burning. I go through life, day by day, even feel happy most of the time. It’s only when I am quiet that I get that uneasy vibe, that feeling that something is not quite right. Something is out of place.

Whatever. Move on.

There is a life to live, things to do. No time to wallow.

I assume all immigrants feel this no matter why they are away from home.

The cruel thing about all of this is that going “back home” does not make you feel better. Suddenly you are a stranger not in one place—your new, chosen land—but two places.

The first thing I did after booking our plane tickets to Budapest was to buy a map of the city. It’s stupid really, because I know—or used to know—the city and its streets by heart. As a teenager I went everywhere by myself—on trains and trolleys and buses.

But suddenly I felt unsure about whether I would find my way from the hotel to the metro station, to the store, to my old high school, to a friend’s house. It was all unfamiliar territory and, like a tourist, I stood on street corners with this little crumpled map in my hands, drawing lines with my fingers from street to street.

Of course, it all came back after a day or two but with a sense of strangeness at every corner: I tried to pay with a bill that’s been tucked in my wallet from our last trip, only to find out that it’s been out of circulation for over a year. Bus stops have moved. Shops closed. Neighborhoods fell and rose. Buildings crumbled. There were new parks and fountains, coffee shops, hip bars.

People have moved on. It was hard to find things to talk about with my former classmates and not just because so much time has passed. I couldn’t really imagine what their lives were like and I assume they felt the same. There were the inevitable questions about America: “So, does everyone really own a gun?” And there were the personal ones about how much money I make or what kind of car I drive—both very American pursuits to the outside world, I assume.

And despite all of that—the feeling of being a stranger in your homeland, the loss of friends—there is a comfort to being “at home.” Old reflexes return, memories surface, the empty, burning feeling of homesickness is suddenly gone when I am on the streets of Budapest. I have no reason to feel at home, yet I do. And more than just feel at home—it all feels right. Settled. Comfortable.

•••

My late grandmother’s apartment in Budapest had a long, narrow hallway leading from the front door to the living room. One the left side of the hallway was the kitchen, a wall with a mirror and coat hangers, and a smaller hallway leading to the bathroom. On the right side of the hallway were three floor-to-ceiling cabinets.

It was a tradition during my childhood that my parents and my grandma would harvest the fruit growing in the garden of our summer cabin, haul it in big wooden crates to our apartment in Budapest, and make jam. For a few days each summer, our small kitchen would smell of apricots or plums or peaches—whatever was in season. Jars boiled in huge pots on the stove, and the floor was sticky with the juice dripping from our fingers as we peeled, sliced, smushed.

Once sealed in jars, most of the jam would make its way to my grandma’s apartment and to her pantry cabinets for storage. She would bring a jar or two with her every week when she came to visit, or she’d use the jam for baking.

When she died last year, her cabinet was still full of jars—carefully labeled with a mysterious system of letters and numbers. For example “08P” might mean plum jam cooked in 2008. On some jars, the writing faded and only after carefully removing the tight lid would we be able to tell what the jar held—the color of its contents darker with age, but the scent of the fruit still potent and unmistakable. Ah, apricots! Is this cherries, maybe? Let’s taste it.

On a recent weekend we were sitting around the breakfast table with my parents, my brother, and my son. This particular breakfast table happened to be in Maine, a world and lifetime away from the summers of jarring jam in Budapest. But there they were: two jars of jam that my parents brought with them when they cleaned out my grandma’s apartment. One jar of apricot and a jar of cherry and sour cherry mixture.

My son preferred the sugary, sickeningly sweet grocery store jam. But the rest of us used long spoons to carefully spread grandma’s jam on buttered toast and savored every bite.

I couldn’t help but think back to the person I was at eighteen—to the people we all were twenty years ago. When my grandma tightened the lid on these particular jars just a few years ago, she already knew that her son and grandchildren would be eating it somewhere far away.

But I didn’t know how much it would taste like home.

•••

I think that when people say that America is a melting pot, they don’t actually mean it. It’s not a huge vat of gooeyness that’s all blended together, uniform, smooth. It’s more like a tossed salad—chunks and bits and pieces of this and that thrown in. It’s easy to fit in—it’s just as easy to stand out. I think that most of us immigrants alternate between those two options—embracing what makes us different, but just as happily disappearing into the crowd.

I have to admit that there is some comfort in the limbo I feel when I am trying to decide where I belong. I can be a bit exotic, a bit different, slightly off-kilter and blame it on my Hungarian-ness. I wonder if this is what I have become, if this is my “thing” now: being different, being from nowhere and everywhere, being two people in one body. Should I let it define me?

But maybe that is the lovely thing about America: no definitions needed. I can be defined by my memory of cobblestoned streets, jars of jam, first kisses along the banks of the Danube. I can also be defined by the life I built here out of nothing really, just the two suitcases I brought with me twenty years ago.

I had hoped that as the anniversary date of my arrival in the U.S. gets closer this summer I would feel more settled with my American-ness and less conflicted about the eighteen-year-old me making this huge decision without realizing what she was doing. But maybe it’s time to embrace all of it—the homesickness, the uncertainty, the double life.

Maybe it’s time to plant some trees and start making my own jam.

•••

ZSOFI MCMULLIN lives in Connecticut with her husband and son and blogs at http://zsofiwrites.com. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People.

Skeleton Leaves: Diary, 1947

diary
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Donna Steiner

I.

New snow on top of the old makes the yard look curvaceous, bundled-up, like a new layer of insulation batting has been laid over the bones of old architecture. In the air, glitter, flakes blowing off rooftops, snow chipping and rising off its own surface. The yard, up close, is a sheet of crystalline alphabets, a cold, alien Braille—a version that disappears if you touch it.

Sometimes, when the sun shines on freshly fallen snow, it’s hard to look outside; I find it painful to keep my eyes open. I have to squint or use my hand to shield my eyes or, more wisely, put on sunglasses. In the morning, when I check the window fresh from sleep, my glasses aren’t handy, and so I look out and see a snow-globe scene, a world of swirling, sparkling snow, sun glaring off all surfaces with an intensity that makes me turn away. Snow blindness—photokeratitis—is caused by the eyes’ exposure to ultraviolet rays reflecting off snow or ice. I’m in no danger unless I wander wide-eyed outdoors for hours without sunglasses, but I learn through a little research that if you’re ever lost in the winter wild without sunglasses, you can fashion a functional set of eyewear by cutting narrow holes in a bandana. Inuits used caribou antlers, creating goggles by carving slits in the antler and securing them to the head with sinew.

Today I’m hunkered down indoors, in need only of reading glasses, puttering around my study looking for something to occupy my thoughts or my hands or my time. While half-heartedly dusting some bookshelves, I come across a treasured gift from my grandmother, a small, leather-bound book labeled DIARY 1947. I don’t remember how it came to be mine, but I think my grandmother gave it to my mother, and when my grandmother died, my mother passed it on to me.

If my facts about my grandmother are accurate—and there are plenty of reasons to believe they may not be, including family lore about her birth certificate being altered by a priest, presumably so she could get a job at an early age—she was born in 1910, which means she was thirty-seven when she wrote in the journal. She was widowed at thirty-four, and when I first saw this book, I had hopes that I’d glean some insight into what her life had been like, how she’d coped with the sudden loss of a beloved husband, how she’d raised three children on her own. Instead, I found listings of celebrities my grandmother saw on her frequent trips to New York City from her home in New Jersey.

As I flip through the diary’s pages, I realize I’ve already made a factual error. The book didn’t belong to my grandmother, at least originally. My mother bought it for herself as a teenager. She made a few entries—very few—but one clearly says “I bought this diary today.” On March 3, 1947—a Monday—my mother went with her friend Marie and purchased a book that she intended, I surmise, to regularly write in. There are exactly five entries made by my mother. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, were made by my grandmother. I don’t know if they agreed to share the book, or if my mother lost interest and my grandmother decided to put the diary to use. My mother’s concise notations are here, in their entirety, complete with her idiosyncratic errors:

Today after school I went on the ave. With my girlfriend “Marie.” I bought this Diary Today.

“My Birthday.”

I went to my aunt’s New Year’s party. Went to bed 4: o’clock. Sleep there all night.

Today I went to New York and I saw Jimmy Stewart who was guest star on the broadcast “It Pays to Be Ignorant.”

Went to girl scouts. Met a new girl named Pat.

From these notes, all made, presumably, when my mother was about thirteen or fourteen years old, I learn she had a few noteworthy female friends. She was a Girl Scout. She was not accustomed to staying up late. She once attended a radio show featuring Jimmy Stewart. What I can’t discern is any evidence that she missed her father, that her mother or she struggled at all with his absence, that she had two younger brothers, that she ever attended school, that she liked boys, that she lived in Jersey City. There is no mention of emotion, of ambition, not even a reference to the weather. Her most common verb is “went.” She went places.

(My favorite photograph of my mother is in black and white. She’s just a girl, maybe ten years old, and she’s somberly staring out a train window, on her way to the city. She’s wearing a white dress and white anklets, and has an adorable haircut. It looks like she has a pencil case on her lap, and she appears to be deep in thought. The picture fascinates me, feels historical, weighty, relevant, like if I study it long enough I might see myself as a flickering idea in the back of my mother’s mind.)

My grandmother’s entries are numerous and her handwriting flamboyant. While my mother’s cursive style is tight and her words huddle together, my grandmother’s script has a lot of air in it, lots of curves. She pays no attention to the lines on the page and often slants her entries as though the words are climbing steeply uphill. Representative entries from my grandmother:

I went to H.R.C. to Christen my Nephew Victor. I stood up for him. We had a Delicious dinner and at night we had a party for family. Had a swell time.

Went to New York with Dorothy. Went to see Ingrid Bergman. Manager let us in. Saw Last Act of Play Joan of Lorraine. Swell.

Saw Lucille Ball. She is one swell person.

Went to New York. Saw Quick as a Flash. Saw the Shadow (great) then went to Kate Smith Show. She sang all Irish Songs. She certainly is swell.

Dot had a party. 7 girls came. Had a swell time. Made some mony. Got some nice gifts.

A few notes:

  • I’m not positive as to what H.R.C. stands for, but I think it’s probably Holy Rosary Church, which claims to be the “oldest Italian Roman Catholic church in New Jersey” and was just a few blocks from where my grandmother and her children lived.
  • Dorothy (Dot) is my mother.
  • During the thirty years I knew my grandmother, I never heard her use the word “swell.”
  • Lest one think my grandmother found everything swell, I should point out that interspersed among the more positive entries—which are the bulk of her notations—are what she calls her “crumb lists.” These are stars who did not stop and say hello, sign autographs, or even wave to their fans.
  • There’s no entry on my birthday. How could there be? I wouldn’t be born for twelve more years. Still, the blank page feels disturbing.
  • There is no entry on May 8th, which would eventually be the date on which my grandmother died—forty-three years in the future. That, conversely, seems fitting.
  • At the end of the book is a page for addresses. There are seven entries: women named Marie, Catherine, Theresa, Betty Anne, Dolores, Rita, and Mrs. Prichard. There are no addresses for men.
  • My grandmother wrote with a fountain pen. Several fountain pens, actually, with inks in various shades of blue or black. Just a few entries are in pencil, with inked notations adjacent to them, like this:

Mary Martin (in pencil) swell person (in ink)

  • Both my mother and grandmother seem to have abandoned the diary after October 9th. On that day, in 1947, they attended the premier of the play High Button Shoes, where they saw in attendance Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Danny Kaye, and Doris Day, among others. My grandmother’s assessment of the show: Very Good. I’m not sure if very good is better than swell.

(My favorite photograph of my grandmother appears to have been taken in a studio. She is wearing a white dress with dark stripes on the sleeves. It is fitted and stylish, and my grandmother—whom I knew as a short, plump, elderly woman—is slender and stunning. Around her neck are pearls and she’s wearing a trendy hat and white gloves, clutching a small purse. Her hair appears to have been done professionally. It is, in other words, a glamorous shot, dramatically different than the Polaroids and faded photographs that show her sitting in a lawn chair wearing white Keds or clustered with one or another of her sisters or grandchildren. Although she is smiling in every photograph I have and, in fact, was often laughing and was, in fact again, considered the life of any party, I can’t help but see her, in these photographs and in my memories, as lonely. Perhaps it is because she spoke, aloud, to her deceased husband every night in bed. Perhaps it is because she lived considerably longer without him than with him. Or perhaps photographs are mirrors, and I see some fundamental loneliness in her that is simply my own default nature.)

II.

Before I learned to write, I’d implore my mother to read my scribbles and tell me what they meant. I’d take a pencil or crayon and scrawl something that resembled, I thought, actual handwriting. “What does it say?” I’d ask, holding my work up to her. My mother would make up a story, tell me what I’d written, and I’d listen, rapt, impressed with my own startling creativity.

I didn’t stop there, however. I tried to read meaning into everything. During breakfast I’d take a few bites out of a slice of toast and hold it up to my mother as though the bread were a sheet of paper. “What does it say?” I’d ask.

“It says ‘I am a hungry tiger,’” my mother would respond, absent-mindedly.

Looking up at the clouds, I’d ask what they said, and she’d read me the clouds’ message. If I had scratches on my leg, I’d ask her what letters the scratches made. When my father told me stories at bedtime—stories that often featured me as the protagonist—I didn’t understand that he had made them up; I didn’t know yet what it meant to imagine. When a little girl named Donna was able to ride a flying horse in those stories, I thought it was magic not only that a horse could fly, but that in some parallel world there existed a girl with my exact name, my exact age, with a family just like mine, with long hair like mine. I wasn’t sure how my father knew about her, but I didn’t doubt the veracity of that knowledge.

I still try to unearth meaning wherever I look. Whether it is a snow-covered field, or a book written in by a woman gone for two decades, or whether it is the body of a lover that I am studying with my fingertips, I am attempting to read a text. That’s a common tendency—as is trying to find meaning in erasures, blank spots, in what isn’t said or written.

I have an envelope of “skeleton leaves,” which are made by soaking actual leaves—in this case, those of a rubber tree—in bleached water for a few weeks. After that lengthy bath, someone hand-rubs the green off the leaves. This is a delicate process, as the leaves’ veins can easily tear. I don’t know who discovered this process, or exactly why anyone does it, although it appears to be a kind of art. But a friend gave me the packet, imported from Thailand, and I love the gift. I study the skeletons with my eyes, with my fingertips, under which they feel like rough paper. Human fingers are hypersensitive; scientists believe we can detect a bump 1/25,000 of an inch high. I’m doubtful about my own sensitivity, but I can feel a leaf’s midrib and its veins, and the entire remnant is surprisingly sturdy. I could tear it, but I’d have to make an effort. Inflicting damage would be intentional rather than accidental, knowledge that allows me to study the skeletons without worry.

I have no memories of my grandmother in winter, I have no memory of her in New York City, I have no memory of her beyond being mine—my grandmother. When I picture her, the sun is always shining, she is always tan and freckled and sleeveless, her shoulders smell of Noxzema, she is laughing. I hang on to this diary the way one covets any treasure, storing it away for safekeeping, taking it out every so often, blowing dust off its leather cover. Sometimes I use the book as a kind of talisman or oracle, deciding that whatever page I open to will mean something, give me some kind of important message to live by.

Today when I open the book to look for a message, both pages are blank. But I can see through the blank pages to the writing underneath, as though looking through skin and seeing blue shadow veins beneath. It is a list of celebrities, of stars, and I can see, if I squint, the last words she wrote in her loopy, lovely penmanship: It was Swell.

•••

DONNA STEINER’s writing has been published in literary journals including Fourth Genre, Shenandoah, The Bellingham Review, The Sun, and Stone Canoe. She teaches at the State University of New York in Oswego and is a contributing writer for Hippocampus Magazine. She recently completed a nonfiction manuscript and is working on a collection of poems. A chapbook of five essays, Elements, was released by Sweet Publications.

Under the Bed and Dreaming at Hillside House

reader
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jennifer James

About thirteen years ago, my husband’s grandmother, Miss Elizabeth, was moved to an assisted care facility. Initially, it seemed surprisingly nifty. There were big screen televisions, prepared meals, and lots of friendly staff members. Except for the occasional funky smell and confused outburst, it felt a lot like a geriatric college dormitory setting. This was a happy surprise—I had anticipated grungy green walls, stained linoleum floors, and rows of abandoned bodies anchored to wheelchairs. Instead, I walked into an open, airy atrium, decorated with large, luxurious Boston ferns and a spacious bird cage, home to a few brightly colored finches. Two cheerful ladies sporting tight perms and meticulously coordinated track suits greeted me as I stopped to look more closely at the finches. I was not crippled by sadness, walking into this place: a genuine blessing under the circumstances.

All kinds of folks landed at Hillside House, as I’ll call the facility. Elizabeth had been diagnosed with some nasty “female” (it was, in fact, uterine) cancer six months earlier. She had most likely been ill for some time before the cancer had been detected, but she had ignored some symptoms, assisted by well-intentioned physicians along the way. By the time her illness was acknowledged and diagnosed, it was statistically unlikely that Elizabeth would recover. Her treatment plan was labeled “palliative,” designed to give maximum comfort and healing without subjecting her to rigorous procedures and quasi-lethal medications. Reluctantly, the family agreed that she could no longer live independently and Hillside House seemed the least-terrible option available. Which didn’t make it any less terrible for Elizabeth.

•••

When I first met Elizabeth, she was in her late fifties and I was engaged to her grandson, Ed. Ed and I had met in college, fallen quickly and completely in love, and caused our parents all kinds of consternation as a result. Especially Ed’s parents. My parents were divorced and disorganized and fairly unconcerned with societal expectations and judgments. Sure, they hoped Ed was not secretly a serial killer with a collection of severed Barbie doll heads under his bed, but he seemed respectable enough, with his gentle Southern accent and aspirations to become a high school English teacher. On the scale of crazy in our family, he was hardly a blip on the screen.

Ed had grown up in a small, rural community, where your life was fodder for community review sessions, courtesy of your friends, neighbors, and your very own  respectable family members. What they knew was this: I had not been raised in Virginia, my (ahem…divorced) parents were both Yankees, and I had been baptized in the Catholic (aka “Papist”) church. I could have come with more familiar credentials, and certainly, a more civilized bloodline.

Still, Ed seemed to like me fine, and that was good enough for Elizabeth: she fed me right along with the rest of the family. Ed grew up three miles down the road from his grandparents and spent many happy days eating freshly fried chicken and as many ice cream sandwiches as he could manage at their kitchen table. Elizabeth didn’t talk about how she felt, or how you felt, or what was wrong with the world today; she was busy putting more potatoes on your plate and checking to see if you needed more chicken. She was a pragmatist, by necessity—dreamers in her time didn’t have a great survival rate. After all, there was too much work to do: there were parents, and grandparents, and if you were very, very lucky, children, to care for. Elizabeth did what was expected of her: she tucked her own dreams away and nurtured those of her children.

And Elizabeth loved children. She taught them handwriting and prayers and how to slaughter a chicken neatly. She fried piles and piles of salt fish and potatoes at four-thirty a.m. on winter mornings so “the boys” (she’d had two, three counting her husband) would have a good breakfast before they set out hunting. Both of her sons married spirited women who may have wanted their husbands home on chilly winter mornings, and as the years passed, Elizabeth found herself preparing fewer and fewer early-morning fish feasts.

When I came to the family, Elizabeth and I developed a heartfelt, if timid, affection for one another. We didn’t really speak one another’s language, but eventually I learned to shift my conversation to weather predictions and local news, and she learned that I was not judging her on the tenderness of her chicken or the tartness of her fig preserves. We became allies in the muddy world of multi-generational family allegiances, and by the time Elizabeth became a resident of Hillside House, she was much more like my own grandmother than any kind of in-law.

About three months before Elizabeth got sick enough for anyone to notice, I learned I was pregnant with my first child. This was a considerable relief to everyone involved. Initially, our families feared that our lickety-split trip to the altar indicated that a “six month” baby was on the way. After a year, there was no baby. Several years passed, in fact, with no baby, and family members began to wonder whether we were incapable of reproducing or just too selfish. Ed and I kind of wondered ourselves, so when we learned a wee one was on the way, we leaned into the future with happy resignation and notified our parents and grandparents accordingly. The ensuing excitement was tinged with achy sorrow as Elizabeth’s illness unfolded parallel to my pregnancy.

•••

So there we were: Elizabeth, wondering how she’d ended up in this silly establishment full of old people and food without nearly enough seasoning, and me, wondering kind of the same thing.

One afternoon, as we sat in a sunny spot on the back terrace, a tiny, hunched-over woman who I’ll call Miss Emily shuffled by. As she went back in, she threw us an accusing look, as if we’d just pelted her car with raw eggs or something like that.

“What’s wrong with her?” I asked. “Are we sitting at her table?”

Elizabeth snorted, coughing a little in the process. “Aw, don’t worry about her. She’s always on a tear.”

“Why?”

“I don’t rightly know, honey. She won’t talk to anybody. She just rushes around here like somebody’s after her.” Elizabeth sipped her chamomile tea. “It sure is aggravating, I’ll tell you that.”

I saw her point.

•••

A few weeks later, Hillside House had become much more familiar to me. It felt less like a college dormitory, and more like the set for an episode of The Twilight Zone. At first, everything had seemed pretty normal. Which I guess it was, since aging and death are normal realities. Still, it’s outside the norm to find a whole building purposed for housing folks in this chapter of life, and there was a certain sensibility that colored the residents and their visitors accordingly.

For example, we’d gotten used to a woman I’ll call Miss Agnes, who sat on the loveseat in the corner, singing, “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready for my ice cream.” Sometimes she got a little pissed and sang louder, in a growly tenor: “I’m READY. READY. READY FOR ICE CREAM.” And so on. The nursing assistants spoke to Miss Agnes gently, and would sometimes guide her to the next activity or simply let her chant the day away, dreaming of ice cream.

One afternoon, Miss Emily skittered by the periphery of the room we were sitting in, and I asked Elizabeth if she had heard anything that might account for Miss Emily’s strange behavior

“Oh, honey,” Elizabeth sighed. “Miss Emily is nuttier than one of Grandma Sutton’s date bars.” That much I knew.

This was her story:

Miss Emily was a book thief. Since her first day at Hillside House, she’d been collecting printed materials. She started with a stash of brochures at the front desk and soon moved on to the large print Reader’s Digest magazines. Because she only took a few at a time, nobody noticed at first. God knows, no one ever saw the woman sitting, much less settled in with a good book. Two or three weeks into her residency, however, Miss Emily’s secret was uncovered. The staff tried to keep the old lady relatively happy, while quietly culling her print collection from time to time.

I was impressed. I wasn’t sure I’d be innovative enough to snatch reading materials like that.

Elizabeth let out a very soft harrumph and said, “Well, Jenny, I don’t know what in the world that crazy old woman is thinking. What is she going to do with all those foolish books anyway?” I said nothing in response, but thought I knew exactly what “that crazy old woman” was thinking. Exactly. And I tried not to hold it against Elizabeth.

•••

Books are not a nicety for me; they’re a necessity. Books have always been my friends. There were long periods of time in my childhood when I was surrounded by lots of unhappy adults and books and not much else. The books made excellent allies, even the duller ones. Also, since the adults involved were pretty busy being miserable, they didn’t have too much energy to squander policing my reading selections. I learned a lot about sex (a few choice scenes from Peter Benchley and Ken Follett) and frontier living (Laura Ingalls Wilder) and deeply disturbed loners (Edgar Allen Poe) at a tender age.

As I grew older, and mercifully, gained access to a broader selection of books, I glommed onto young adult fiction. At a certain point in time, I probably could have recited full chapters of Judy Blume books from memory. I loved a book called The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger. I am still moved to tears by Madeleine L’Engle’s A Ring of Endless Light. The clueless (if loving and well-intentioned) adults in my life had very few helpful pointers for a chunky teen with poor social skills. If Judy Blume couldn’t teach me how to talk to boys, who could? Who would?

In the end, if you’re a reader, it doesn’t seem to matter so very much what you read. There is magic in seeing the world from another point of view, regardless of whose it is. And yet, there are some people who never quite get the magic. Elizabeth was one of those people. She read when obligated, but reading held no special pleasure for her. Maybe it correlates with the “no dreaming” environment she survived; her life had been shoved into external experience. Reading was an activity only the idle could afford, and she was too busy making sure that everyone was equipped with clean undies to read some trifling book. And hell, who really knows what batty Miss Emily was up to? Maybe she was just an elderly hoarder. She never said.

I like to think she read everything she took, though. Especially the Reader’s Digest. When it’s me, sitting in the determinedly cheerful atrium of Hillside House or Young at Heart, or wherever I end up in my final days, I hope I’ll have books to read, and I hope they’ll be my books, and not crappy little fliers and magazines stashed around the assisted care facility. I can see the fun in skittering around and snatching things too, though. It doesn’t matter if you call it a nursing home or an “assisted care facility” or the geezer house. What it means is, you can’t live by yourself anymore. Because you’re too old or too sick. And the next benchmark is not a new car or Hawaiian vacation. Even the crazy lady singing for ice cream had to know that. So you might as well enjoy the ice cream and read everything you can.

•••

I never did talk to Miss Emily, and Elizabeth lived for ten whole days after our baby was born. On the way home from the hospital, we stopped by Hillside House to introduce our new boy to Elizabeth. It was quite an event. Elizabeth was very sick by then, and spent her days drifting in and out of awareness.

Ed and I walked into the familiar atrium with the baby, hope and despair in equal measure bubbling around in our hearts. The old ladies gathered around to coo at the little one and to give us hugs. I was sobbing before we even got to Elizabeth’s room. The rush of raw joy and sadness coexisting made everything seem so terribly fragile.

We walked into her room. One of her sons sat beside her bed, holding her hand and quietly weeping. My husband and I sat down on the other side of the bed and she shifted her head slightly so she could see us.

“Oh, Jenny,” she said softly. “He’s just darlin’.” Then she managed a wink and a tiny chuckle. “Little boys are the best, you know.”

She was too weak to actually take the baby in her arms for long, but I put his tiny body down in the crook of her arm and he stayed like that for a minute or two. Then the spell broke and the baby cried and we had to leave.

We saw her one more time after that and the baby cried from the first moment we walked in. Finally, someone took the baby into another room, and Elizabeth took my hand.

“Jenny. Jenny, do you think I’m dying? Do you?”

In general, I like to think I’m okay being near very ill people. I think it’s because I am gifted in the finest nuances of denial and can carry on a quasi-normal conversation with the dying. I can discuss the weather, their medication, other family members, etc., etc. The problem is, I don’t want to scare the dying person. If they don’t know they’re dying, I don’t want to be the one to break the news.

I took a deep breath. “I don’t know. I think that’s between you and God, Elizabeth. I don’t know. But either way, it’ll be okay.”

Elizabeth coughed slightly and squeezed my hand. “I expect you’re right, Jenny. I expect you’re right.”

Just then, my husband walked in and reached for Elizabeth’s hand, resting his on top of mine. “Grandma, we’re going to have a little boy running around our hill again.” My chest caved in. She would never see our little boy run down the lovely, green hill that lay behind our house. It was the same hill she’d run down as a tiny girl, and that her children, and her grandchildren had called home. I thought I might smack my husband in the gut for reminding her of what would never be.

Of course, Ed was just as frightened as Elizabeth was, probably more so. And all he could imagine was how much she’d enjoy feeding another little blonde boy with an enormous appetite and smiling eyes. I think he was so happy and proud to have our little dumpling of a person to show his grandma that for a moment, he forgot that the story would go unfinished for her.

Elizabeth smiled again, the perfect grandma, wanting to comfort one of her boys one last time.

“Oh, Eddie,” she said softly. “I’ll dream of it.”

•••

JENNIFER JAMES lives with her husband and three children in rural Virginia. After graduating from William and Mary in 1989, Jennifer moved to Gloucester County, where she found work as a teacher’s assistant and veterinary receptionist until 2000, when her first child was born. After an approximate decade of diapers and interrupted sleep patterns, Jennifer started writing with purpose in 2010 and has been at it since. A good story is her favorite thing.

For What It’s Worth

earring
By la_farfalla_22/ Flickr

By Carol Paik

I’m holding in my hand an inexplicable jewel. It’s about an inch and a half long, just the right size to nestle inside my closed fist, and smooth; it feels slightly warm, not cold as a stone would be. When I was a child, I thought it looked like an eggplant—a miniature, precious eggplant. Not only because of its fat teardrop shape, but also because of its color—in my hand, it looks dark, almost black, but when I hold it up to the light it glows deep purple-red. On its blossom end is a bright gold cap that comes down in points just like the green stem part of an eggplant, which makes me think its maker intended it to look like an eggplant, and it wasn’t just my childish imagination. At the top of the cap is a gold loop, so that it can be worn on a chain.

This object used to belong to my Korean grandmother, my father’s mother. She gave it to her daughter-in-law, my mother, who kept it in her jewelry box, unworn, for years, where I used to love to find it. Not long ago, my mother passed it along to me.

•••

The eggplant is not the only jewelry my grandmother gave my mother. My grandparents made the trip from Korea to Boston to see us perhaps once every two or three years, and when they came my grandmother brought gifts. Matching sweaters she had knit for my two older brothers. Tiny rings for me: turquoise and amethyst. Cash, hidden in the hem of a coat. Once, my mother parted the wrapping paper in a large box; inside it was gleaming, dark fur. My mother reached for it, exclaiming, “A mink stole!” When she unfolded it, though, it turned out to be a tiny fur jacket that tied at the neck with big mink pom-poms. For a five-year old: me. I can picture my grandmother hiding a smile.

My mother and her mother-in-law were never close. It did not help that my father himself did not have a good relationship with his mother—“she’s a bullshitter,” he would always say of her. But my father was the first of his brothers to marry and so my mother was the recipient of a number of gifts from my grandmother, all of which are embedded now in my earliest memories.

When my mother gave me the eggplant, I was caught off-guard. My mother has a long, rich history of giving me presents I don’t like, although I have never believed she has done this intentionally. Gift-giving is simply not something she cares about, and thus she approaches it like the chore she finds it to be, to be accomplished with the least inconvenience to herself.

She frequently gives me old things that have been lying around her house, or that she has picked up at the swap table at the town dump. Now that I’m an adult, I’m glad that she just gives me old stuff because then I don’t have any qualms about throwing it away. But sometimes this tendency of hers annoys me, as when she wraps up things that are already mine. I’m not sure what she is thinking when she does this. It could be that she has forgotten that they belong to me, as when she presented me with a set of twelve wooden place-card holders, carved to look like miniature Korean villagers, that I somehow acquired on our one family visit to Korea when I was eight. When I unwrapped them, I said, “Mom, these are mine.” She seemed genuinely surprised. Since I had never bothered to remove them from her house, I suppose she was justified in thinking that they were hers. That still does not explain why she thought I would like to receive them as a gift, however.

For my fortieth birthday she gave me a set of gold-plated miniature spoons bearing the crest of my grandmother’s alma mater (Ewha Women’s College, in Seoul, Korea).

“Mom,” I said, letting the gift wrap fall to the floor. “If you want to get rid of old, ugly, useless crap, why don’t you just sell it on eBay?”

“What?” she said, incredulous at the suggestion. “Who would buy it?”

The point is, when opening a gift from my mother—when smoothing out the previously used gift wrap bearing the ghostly marks of old scotch tape and lifting the lid of a cardboard box bearing the logo of a long-extinct department store (Jordan Marsh recurs with some frequency)—expectations are low. It could even be said that the sight of a wrapped box can fill me with dread and anticipation of disappointment and bewilderment.

But when she began, within the past few years, to give me her old jewelry, I was moved. For the first time, I felt that she was giving me things that had some meaning for her, things she specifically wanted me to have.

The first time I opened a small box and found one of the bracelets she had been given by my grandmother, I believe my mouth actually fell open and I uttered a word I rarely say when I open her presents: “Thanks!!” This bracelet is made of oval domes of a material with the hue and translucency of apricot jelly. No, not apricot. Something redder, darker, something that must be plucked from a tree with blossoms and is juicy and tastes like honey—maybe quince? I can picture this bracelet as it used to nestle against white cotton in my mother’s cream-colored, red-silk-lined jewelry box. I used to love to look through this box and carefully handle the colored gems. My mother is a pianist, and I remember watching her get dressed for a recital, how exciting and disconcerting it was to see her put on little screw-back earrings that dangled and swung and caught the light and transformed her from mere mom to someone perfumed and lipsticked, floral and fine, an artist and a performer in a pretty dress and high heels. My mother was giving me part of my childhood, and part of her youth.

In addition to the bracelet, she gave me the earrings that match it. The earrings are more of a teardrop shape, but of the same deep clear orange. Another time she passed along to me a necklace and earrings of dime-sized slightly curved disks the color of the ocean at its greenest, set inside circles of silver. I also have heavy earrings of a green-gray stone carved into flower baskets that hang from enameled flower backs.

But my favorite piece of all was always the eggplant. My mother gave it to me in the condition in which it had sat in her jewelry box throughout my childhood—without a chain or any way to wear it, just its gold cap, and a rough patch on one side as if someone had dropped it in something sticky that then hardened forever.

•••

When I’ve asked my mother what these objects are made of, she has always been vague. There are so many opportunities for misinformation. It was never clear to me exactly why my mother was uncertain, but it could have been because she thought it was impolite to ask directly, and so my grandmother just hadn’t told her exactly what the pieces were; or perhaps she doubted what my grandmother had said; or maybe my mother just didn’t understand her because of the language barrier. My grandmother could be the source of uncertainty, or it could be my mother herself. At various times my mother told me she thought my grandmother had said the quince jelly jewelry was made of red jade. She told me maybe the ocean necklace was green jade. The flower basket earrings were white jade, perhaps. And the eggplant—she didn’t know, but she guessed amber.

All the references to “jade” made me suspicious. My mother doesn’t like to say that she doesn’t know something. And I know the “jade” answer solves a lot of problems for her. When she says something is made of jade, it is her way of saying: it’s from long ago and far away and however little I know about jade, you know even less, so just be quiet.

So I tried asking my father. My father is a scientist, a person who believes that facts matter.

“Dad, do you think this is red jade?”

“How would I know?”

“Grandma said it was red jade.”

“Then it’s bullshit.”

I wonder if my mother actually liked any of these pieces. The fact that she wore them doesn’t necessarily prove that she liked them. But she herself might not even have been able to answer that question. I don’t recall ever hearing her say, about a piece of clothing or jewelry, or item for the house, “I love this!” or even, “This is nice!” I heard her say, “It was on sale and it just fits the bill!” or, “It was right there in the back of the closet!” Liking or not liking something was not particularly relevant to her. Which also explains why, when giving gifts to others, she doesn’t tend to take their personal preferences into account. It’s not because she doesn’t care about them or intends to displease them—personal preference simply is not something she thinks very much about.

•••

I considered taking the pieces to an appraiser, but most of them were in need of repair and I didn’t want to take them anywhere in the condition they were in. In addition, I had been to an appraiser once, in New York. Their policy was to charge ten percent of the value of each piece, which, it seemed to me, provided an odd and transparent incentive to appraise on the high side. It was a transaction loaded with more than the usual distrust and positioning, and I didn’t want to go through that with my few family heirlooms.

Last winter, however, while skiing in Vermont over Christmas vacation, my husband and I came across a small, family-owned jewelry store in the base village, and we went in so I could choose my Christmas gift. The young woman standing behind the case of blinding diamond rings was wearing a great deal of jewelry. I thought that if I wore that much jewelry I would look like a crazed kleptomaniac, or a hoarder heiress. But Roxanne looked like a radiant goddess. She guided us through our options patiently, enumerating each piece’s characteristics with the deep, husky voice of a fortune teller, and by the time I finally settled on a pair of gold dangly earrings, I trusted and loved her like a sister. As she wrapped the earrings, I told her that I had some old, broken jewelry that I wanted to have fixed.

“I can help you with that!” she said. “Bring them in the next time you come.”

So when we returned home to New York I packed my pieces carefully in pouches, and when we went skiing over Martin Luther King Day weekend, I brought them to Roxanne.

She and I sat opposite each other under a bright light, with a small table between us. I suddenly felt afraid for my little jewels. Here’s the thing about them: they are all I have from a grandmother I barely knew and whose life was essentially unimaginable to me. We are not a family that has much in terms of handed-down possessions. My mother’s family left Korea when she was a child of six, and no family possessions came with them across the Pacific on that boat, the last to leave Yokohama for the United States in 1940.

My father’s family, still in Korea, fled their home in Seoul for the south as the Communists advanced at the beginning of the Korean War ten years later. On our one visit to Korea when I was a child, I explored my grandparents’ home and found doors hidden in walls, rooms behind panels, places where they could hide if the Communists came. My father calls his mother a bullshitter, but I prefer to think that she simply was a keeper of secrets, a role that often necessitates obscuring the truth. There are reasons why the provenance of things is unknown—in all that fleeing and hiding, all manner of things were lost and forgotten.

But now it feels important to know about these few things that remain, these things that comprise my inheritance: what is their value? Perhaps it is because my grandmother is gone, and my parents are aging, and soon this information will be irretrievable, unless someone makes an effort. Perhaps it is because I want to give these things to my own children, and I want to know what it is that I am giving them.

Roxanne placed a little pad on the table and carefully laid out each piece. She examined each with interest. I sat silent. I didn’t tell her about how I always thought the bracelet looked like jelly or the necklace like seawater.

She started with the bracelet.

“My mother always said that was red jade,” I ventured.

She shook her head. “It’s carnelian,” she said, eying it through a loupe. “Pretty, and it’s set in a high karat gold. The bracelet is lovely just as it is. And the simplest thing to do with the earrings is just to put them on gold wires so you can easily wear them. I can do that for you right now.” And she disappeared into a back room, re-emerged with two gold wires, and, with a twist of a pair of pliers, replaced the screw-backs.

She next picked up the green necklace and weighed it in her hand. I could tell from the quickness with which her hand lifted and fell that the weight was underwhelming. She showed me how the green color was pulling away from the edges of each little disk, leaving them clear. I was very disappointed in them. They plainly had no value at all. Roxanne, seeing my expression, held them up against her neck.

“They’re a pretty color, “ she said. “A fun piece, for your daughter, maybe.”

“Hum,” I said. I didn’t want to give my daughter anything crappy, not even for fun.

The jade flower baskets interested her. “Look,” she said. “The baskets and the rings they dangle from are cut from one piece of jade—see how there’s no break in the ring? “

“So they are really are jade?” I said, brightening a bit.

“A great piece of workmanship,” she said. “A real conversation piece. The enamel backs are going to be too difficult to clean, though, especially since I can’t tell what the metal is. So if you want to wear them we’ll find you just a simple pair of gold hoops, and you can hang the baskets from them. “

“Should I be careful with these, then?” I asked. “Are they fragile?”

“Well, they’ve obviously been through a lot—you can see how the rings are wearing thin in places. They can’t be as fragile as all that. And it’s not so much that they’re worth a ton of money—they’re just interesting. Nice pieces.”

And then we came to my little eggplant.

“Oh,” Roxanne said. She held it, and thumbed the rough patch. She weighed it in her hand. I told her to hold it up to the light, and she did.

“Oh, look at that,” she said. She weighed it some more. Finally, she spoke.

“I have no idea what this is,” she said.

“Neither do I, “ I said.

“It’s very light. I’m going to guess some kind of resin,” she said. “Amber.”

“Amber sounds right,” I said.

“But this gold cap is very high-karat,” she said. “And the workmanship on it is very fine. It indicates to me that it’s something of value. No one would put a fancy cap like that on something worthless.”

“You didn’t know my grandmother,” I said.

“Let me hold onto this one,” she said. “I’ll ask the people at our studio what they think it is, and what they think can be done with it. I’ll let you know.”

•••

I wear my new carnelian earrings quite a bit. I like their length, their color, and the way they dangle. But I still do not know what they are worth. Roxanne would not put a dollar value on any of the things I brought her. She said she didn’t know what they were worth, and determining exactly what they were made of would involve subjecting them to tests of various kinds to determine things like hardness and melting points that would probably damage them irreparably. Her view was, if you like them, then wear them—what difference does it make what they are worth?

This wasn’t a satisfying conclusion for me, though, so I went on eBay and plugged in “Carnelian earrings” to see what I could find. “Carnelian earrings,” it turns out, are a dime a dozen. Almost literally. I found a pair that approximated the size and shape of my teardrops, and the bidding started at: thirty-nine cents.

•••

I heard from Roxanne a few weeks later.

“The artists at the studio could not determine what the material is,” she said. “Our best guess is still amber. But I have to tell you that there is a possibility that it is plastic. We can’t rule it out.

“We can repair the loose cap by putting in a new pin, and we can take off whatever is stuck to it,” she said. “And I’ve found a perfect gold chain for it. The chain runs …”

I can’t even tell you how much. More than I would ordinarily pay for a piece of jewelry, especially one that could not be ruled out as being plastic.

I wrote back. “I would like to be able to wear this piece. But is there any way to guarantee that it is not plastic?”

“No,” she wrote back. “But it is a lovely piece, and I think if you love it, you should wear it.”

If I love it. It was as simple, and as impossible, as that. Being my mother’s daughter, I don’t ask myself that question very often. Do I love it? Is there an answer to that question that is separate from the questions of its utility, its dollar value? Of course I don’t love it. I don’t tend to feel love for inanimate objects. Although, you know, if I ever were to love an object, the eggplant might be the one.

“I wanted her to tell me what it’s worth,” I complained to my husband. “She didn’t answer my question at all.”

“Go ahead and get it fixed,” he said. “Otherwise, it will certainly be worth nothing.”

Ultimately, I gave Roxanne the go-ahead. In a few weeks she let me know that it was ready. She said it was gorgeous.

And it was. And it is. The chain is Italian gold, richly colored but not overly brassy or bright, substantial but not heavy. Roxanne had two loops put in so I can wear the pendant at different lengths. As it turns out, I wear it all the time. It suddenly seems that every outfit is enhanced by a possibly plastic eggplant on a lovely gold chain. I will never know what my eggplant is really made of, but at this point I’d almost rather not know, for its unknowability may be its most precious feature. When I give it to my daughter, she will know at least this part of its story: I took my mysterious inheritance of indeterminate value, and I put it on a gold chain, and I gave it to her, with all my love.

•••

CAROL PAIK lives in New York City with her husband in a half-empty nest.  Her writing has appeared in Brain, Child, Tin House, The Gettysburg Review, Fourth Genre, and Literal Latte, among other places, and has been anthologized in The Best Plays from the Strawberry One-Act Festival, vol. 6, and Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, fifth ed. More of her writing at: www.carolpaik.com. More about her short film, Pear, at www.facebook.com/pearthemovie.