You can tell by the way his footsteps sound coming down the stairs if he’s having a grumpy morning or not. It’s okay—getting out of a warm bed sucks for you, too. Just don’t talk to each other until you’ve both had your coffee. The stronger the brew, the faster your moods improve. Talking while grumpy is always a bad idea. Kiss goodbye—a good kiss, not one of those ones you give your elderly relatives—when you separate for the day. A pat on the ass would be welcomed, too.
You can tell by the look in your child’s face how much her feelings were actually hurt. You clench your jaw so you don’t call the other kid a bad name. You know the other child’s mother might have done the same. Tomorrow they will be best friends again, and the rhododendrons are starting to bud, and your new kitten is getting so incredibly fluffy, and you plan to make a carrot cake with cream cheese frosting on Saturday. Life always goes on, but your child’s life has been too short for her to know that yet, so you must wrap her in the best furry blanket and cuddle her, until your words and touch permeate her being.
You can tell from the height of the bedside stack that you won’t ever have enough life to read all the books you need to read. There’s a sunny yellow puddle on the floor because you were too engrossed in the Abigail Thomas memoir to remember that you own dogs. Small dirty socks scatter across the floor because your children are real, not model children by any measure but the love they have for you, beyond what you’ve ever imagined receiving. The stately Mount Clean Clothes in your laundry room tells everyone you aren’t a good housekeeper. You smile when writing these words because you don’t care. Your husband is mostly silent when observing the laundry room (or any other room, honestly) so maybe he’s finally accepted that you’re not Marie Kondo or anyone like her. You can tell by your inner serenity in the house chaos that you aren’t willing to waste the life you have remaining on house perfection.
You can tell by your son’s jawline that he will be a man, sooner than can be tolerated, faster than is decent for a mother to have to endure. All you can do is hold him as long as he will allow it, patiently listen to his never-ending stories about things you care nothing about—the bad guys in Minecraft, the desire he has for a pocketknife, the funny thing his friend said which is really not funny at all, the newest Nerf machine guns that shoot foam bullets “ so super fast!” because it’s enough that he cares about them, and walk him to the basement—without complaining—to play video games because he won’t be scared to be alone forever.
You can tell by your daughter’s voice, attitude, face—all of her—that she has more confidence than you had at her age. Fourteen, and when she shrieks in laughter the entire cafeteria can hear and recognize it—no careful tittering for her. Her joy overtakes her and she roars, falls on the floor with its force, her mouth wide as the promise she holds. She stomps up to a boy who insulted her friend—not stopping her stomping until he is pinned to the wall like a fly on a corkboard—and informs him that what he did is not okay with her, and he will be apologizing now, and she claps her hands in front of him for emphasis. She radiates righteous anger. You are thrilled and you are jealous. You hope that she has more of all of it, of everything there is here, because surely no woman ever had as much of life as she deserves.
You can tell by your jeans button that you have gained weight. When you grasp your belly roll in both hands, marveling at its heft, at its rubbery texture, know that goddesses need solidity and heft, something to work with if they want to reign effectively. Just remember, you alone decide if you want to repaint or remodel your dwelling, and you alone can accomplish it. Whether the Venus of Willendorf was a fertility statue, a goddess, or ancient porn, she was made that way for a reason and so are you. Your breasts can and have nourished in more ways than one, and your children fight for your lap because it is cushioned for their needs. Praise yourself for your mightiness, for your strength, for your steadiness in a storm, knowing these things make you a sanctuary.
SARAH BROUSSARD WEAVER is a Southern transplant living in Oregon, a spouse, a mother of four children, and an MFA candidate at the Rainier Writing Workshop. Her essays have been published in Hippocampus, The Bitter Southerner, and The Nervous Breakdown, among others. Find her at sbweaver.com or tweet her @sarahbweaver.
My dishwasher broke. So I’m standing at my sink, hand-washing all of the dirty dishes I’d rinsed and loaded into the dishwasher the day before, plus the rest of what had accumulated since. Doing the dishes always means looking out the kitchen window. In the warm weather, with the window open, I can hear the bullfrogs and waterbirds from down in the creek. Today I’m washing and watching, my rubber-gloved hands warm in the soapy water, Joe’s work-gloved hands lifting broken cinder blocks and chunks of concrete off of the back lawn and onto the trailer, which is hitched to the back of the John Deere.
His arms still bear bruises from the beating he took changing the John Deere’s blades the week before. His shins are scratched from mushroom hunting in shorts deep in the woods, and his right knee is scabbed over from where the guardrail on the bridge gouged him impressively as he tried to climb over it. Last week, he took a weedy thorn to the front of his nose, and it bled and bled and bled, but he said he wasn’t hurt. Now he’s outside my kitchen window, in the fenced-in part of the back yard, bending over and righting himself, lifting and moving one jagged hunk at a time. His black gloves say CAT in big yellow letters. After he has removed the blocks, he mows inside the fence. I go upstairs to get some work done on my laptop, the push mower sputtering in the background. After a while it’s quiet, and he comes in to ask for a burger. I’ve learned to keep ground beef, Swiss cheese, and buns on hand at all times.
I head back to the kitchen and open the fridge, hunting and gathering, tomato, lettuce, ketchup, provolone, that brown mustard that he likes, butter for the cast iron skillet and to toast the buns. I look out the window to see the shorn lawn out back, and Joe in reverse motion now, heaving new cinderblocks off the trailer into a tidy little octagon in the grass, his yellow-lettered CAT hands swinging with each heavy hoist. I quickly pat the beef into concave disks and set them on a smear of butter in the pan. For nearly two decades I was a vegan, but today the sound and smell of sizzling fat and flesh make my mouth water without compunction. Outside, Joe stands back to admire his work: We have a sweet new fire pit in the back yard now. He comes in, washes up, and sits down to his burger and a Gatorade. Purple, low-calorie. His favorite.
There are always a million repair projects around my property. Or maintenance. Sometimes I lose track of the difference. And there are upgrades too. Things that work perfectly well but are ugly or old or otherwise undesirable. I don’t expect Joe to take on everything all on his own. I make calls, set appointments, take care of the household business. I need to have the heating vents cleaned. And several stumps ground out of the front yard to make it easier for Joe to get the mowing done. It’s a part time job, the mowing. A few hours a day, a few days a week, in season, to keep everything sensible around here.
And I had a painter come out the other day to give me a quote on several smallish jobs: My kitchen ceiling has that horrible popcorn texture on it and it’s impossible to clean, so it has this greasy little beard on it right over the stove. Twenty-three years of the detritus of cooking here, ten of them mine. My son’s bedroom needs painting too, and then there’s the trim on the inside.
It used to be that I would come home from work in the late evening to find the house a wreck, my husband and son still in their pajamas, homework incomplete, no dinner or bath or bedtime stories in progress. Upstairs in the master bedroom, my husband would proudly show me the fruits of his day of labor: tiny, elaborate, repeating patterns of flowers and leaves and berries that he had painstakingly painted on the wooden trim around the windows and doors and the crown molding framing the room. He would spend the hours I was at work on a stepladder in the bedroom, choosing and mixing paints and delicate brushes, dabbing dots of gold and silver highlights on his acrylic flora, all the while neglecting the real plants on our small farm and the real boy pinging off the walls downstairs wondering what would ever be for dinner.
The kitchen ceiling and the boy’s room are easy enough problems to solve. The trim is another story. “You could sand it and prime it and paint it,” explained the man through his fuzzy gray beard, “but you’d still be able to see it.” I nodded. “Some days the light will hit it just right, and even with a few coats of paint, those patterns will make themselves known to you again.”
I could imagine exactly what he meant, and there was no way I was going to pay someone to do all that work only to still see those flowers in relief just refusing to die in the afternoon light.
“Call Kevin,” he suggested. “He’ll come in and redo that trim for you, and it’ll be much nicer than what you have now. Get those corners right with a miter saw.”
I think to myself, Joe’s such a real man to be able to lie with me in my big marital bed with that shitty trim and the painted ramblings of an unbalanced mind insistently outlining the bedroom.
My first divorce hearing was scheduled for Valentine’s Day, 2014. We were still living together, but my husband had moved himself to the guest room in the basement. The night before the hearing, the tension in the house was horrific. There was screaming and wailing and it was so, so dark. It finally simmered down to a wretched and tearful talk in the kitchen, just outside my son’s bedroom door. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep, wanted to be out of my son’s earshot, for crying out loud. I excused myself from further conversation. My husband responded sorely, “I hope you sleep well in the bedroom I made beautiful for you.”
Like my divorce, all these repair projects always cost more than I think they will, and at this point it’s all money I don’t have. In the nineteen months since the sheriff removed my husband from the house, I’ve had to put in a new water treatment system and a new barn door. I bought a new used car on credit—appropriately enough, a Ford Escape. Bought a new doghouse and a new compost bin too.
I put in a security system after my husband broke in. I guess that’s an upgrade, though, not really a repair. I’ve had to replace siding and remove birds’ nests and repair both garage door openers after a bad windstorm. Fixed the refrigerator once and the dishwasher twice; now it’s not working again. I should’ve just replaced it the last time. Sometimes things aren’t worth repairing; it’s cheaper to get a newer, more efficient model than it is to keep sinking money into something that just doesn’t work. I know, I know, that’s how our landfills get full: planned obsolescence. Things don’t always last like they should.
Once Joe moves in, money will be a lot less tight. It’ll be different having a second income in the house after all these years of family breadwinning by myself. He’s not afraid of work. He brings in good money and he’s handy. Strong, incisive, good at figuring out how everything works: people, machines, plants, animals, electronics, toys.
I’ve never once heard him holler at things that get in his way, not even the stump that took out the blades on the John Deere. “There’s no point,” he says. “You can’t reason with inanimate objects.” This property has long felt to me like just a lot of work, but Joe says he’s always wanted to take care of a place like this. I can see that it satisfies him. I hope it stays that way. I’m trying everything I know to make sure that he feels like it’s his home too, even though it’s technically my house. I call it Our House, in the Middle of Our Street. I ask him to help me pick out area rugs and bedding. I’ve made space literally and figuratively: cleaning out closets and dressers, and learning to stop hosting him when he’s here because then he feels like a guest. But nothing that I do or don’t do is really key, because the thing that makes him feel most at home here is working on the place. He likes that John Deere. He was proud of those bruises.
I’ve been known to tell people that owning a home is a lot like being in love: At the outset, it’s all spacious and bright and airy. It looks and feels perfect and seems worth all the sacrifices you had to make to get it. But then you move in and you start to fill it with your crap and you notice its flaws. Spaces fill up. Cracks start to show. New things get old. The dust settles, and one day you look around your place and realize that it’s not only not perfect, it’s a hell of a lot of work. Everything needs repair or maintenance or replacement. So you sand and you prime and you paint, and one day the light hits things just right and those old patterns just make themselves known all over again. An adult lifetime of monthly payments starts to seem a lot longer than it once did.
I also tell people that this home is a dream home, but it was someone else’s dream. I’m a city girl, a third-generation Angeleno. I lived in Paris and Chicago before I married, and I thrived. I never really even imagined myself paying a mortgage, let alone paying for a stump grinder or a John Deere or a barn door. I never dreamed of this place: a big pine-log home with a pitched metal roof and skylights, perched atop hilly green acreage in the rural Midwest. This winding road runs between two small central Illinois towns, and all my neighboring farmers—real farmers—have gone organic.
This place is beautiful, no question, when I take a longer view, when I can see past the claustrophobia of repairs and projects and dust. Out front, I have a porch swing and a healthy ecosystem and a pretty good sunset almost every night. There is no time of year that the view out my bedroom window is not breathtaking, if I look beyond the framework of florid trim. When it’s winter and the air is frozen clean, the early twilight colors the snow on the ground periwinkle blue. It happens every year. I’ve spent a decade in this house all told, long enough to see the patterns emerge.
My husband had two favorite lies, and he told them louder and more frequently the closer I got to divorcing him: One was “you’ll never be able to take care of this place without me,” and the other was “no one else will ever love you.” I’m in my seventh season on my own here now; soon Joe will move in and that will change. It’s a good change, I think. The light is hitting everything just right, and from my perspective, it all seems to be in good repair.
GINA COOKE is a linguist working toward her second graduate degree, a pursuit that has spanned half of her adult life. She lives and works on a small farm in the rural Midwest with her son and her dog. She typically writes about spelling: word histories, word structure, and word relatives. This is her first foray into the personal.
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 Mama, The 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.
Two years ago, my husband and I moved away from Portland, Oregon, on purpose. We left behind friends, career prospects, and a two-bedroom rental house that cost a mere $875 a month. And we loaded our dog and kid into our Outback and drove as fast as a ’99 Subaru can go all the way to Marietta, Ohio, the town where I grew up.
“We just need to be closer to family,” I told people in the perplexed silences that inevitably followed when they heard our plans to relocate. What illustrious family could possibly woo us away from an artsy Eden on the Willamette?
The family thing was true and untrue. We needed to be closer to them because we were perpetually broke, and the broke-ness had become such that it was time to deploy the emergency move-in-with-my-folks plan.
But there was also an ache that hadn’t gone away despite five years of gamely trying to adore that adorable city where we fit in so well, in so many ways. Portland loved me, and I could not love it back, and I felt like a shithead because of it.
We arrived in Portland in 2007, three mayors and at least two ultra-bougie New Seasons food markets ago. Before that, we lived in New York City, and in comparison Portland seemed preposterously quaint and manageable. Our first months in Oregon, my husband and I would admire the downtown skyline and the conifer-studded hills rising behind it and coo, “Oh, look—it thinks it’s a city!”
The intensity of city life was what we moved to escape, and our new no-name strip of neighborhood between I-205 and the used car lots of Southeast 82nd Avenue struck us as a quiet haven of playgrounds and modest houses, with a few hookers thrown in for color. Two greasy old-school Chinese joints bordered us, Hung Far Low to the south and Chinese Garden to the north. We had a spacious backyard, where I doggedly pruned an overgrown apple tree and hacked away at diseased lilac bushes. We got a dog from the Humane Society. My husband joined a few bands. On heady Portland summer days when the sun cascaded down like a shot of heroin, he haunted a skate spot under the Hawthorne Bridge. Though magazines and newspapers in New York barely gave me the time of day, in Portland I wrote freelance stories for the food section of Portland’s major news daily, eventually worked in their test kitchen, and also taught cooking classes on nights and weekends. My husband had a string of long-term temp assignments in administrative offices. It was almost enough to keep us afloat.
All the while, we looked for better jobs. And looked and looked and looked. There were two main problems we grappled with in Portland: rain and money. Too much of one, and never enough of the other.
Let me tell you about Marietta, Ohio. Founded in 1788, the first permanent settlement in the Northwest Territory. Situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, which means it’s in spitting distance of West Virginia. It’s an Appalachian Interzone, at once very Midwestern and not Midwestern at all; a generous pinch of twang runs through the local speech. The population is staggeringly white, though there might be about twenty black residents now, and if memory serves, back when I was in high school there were maybe five. So that’s improvement. As for other ethnicities, if you live here and you’re Asian, you’re probably a doctor. There’s one shop that serves decent coffee, but it’s a nutritional supplement store/smoothie bar that doesn’t open until nine in the morning. Vietnamese food? A taqueria? Fat chance.
Portland feels like another universe in comparison. I still struggle to define the charms and drawbacks of each place. Both are defined by the big, dirty rivers that run through them. Portland had innumerable food carts and strip clubs; Marietta has innumerable churches and fracking rigs. You’ll have to wait for hours to score a table at Portland’s Tasty n’ Sons for breakfast on a Sunday, but in Marietta, the Busy Bee Diner offers immediate seating and a waitress who wears her hair in, yes, a beehive. Sure, Portland has scads of idealistic youths engaged in civic activism—but you’d never guess how many grumpy retirees in Marietta volunteer their time for charitable causes. Instead of laptops, they might carry concealed weapons. John Deere pajama bottoms worn as all-purpose outerwear are a common fashion statement, true, but the population overwhelmingly accepts proven science and public health—that is, you don’t see citizens coming together against fluoridated water that way they do in Portland.
Living here is a bit like going back in time. After my high school experience as the resident misfit weirdo, I skipped town with a happy shrug, never suspecting that decades later I’d come to crave Marietta, with its scenic bridges and dozens of historical markers and goofy festivals and rickety, underfunded little museums. It’s an all-American community with a picturesque downtown of antique stores and brick streets. The thrift shops and flea markets are great, because the records and mid-century furniture aren’t all picked over. Baby boomers abound, as do minimum-wage positions in nursing homes. Among the ladies there’s an unfortunately popular haircut, this wedged-in-the-back/spiked-in-the-front chemical-drenched thing with streaky highlights that my husband and I call “crispy hair.”
And I have to be slightly more mindful of what I say in mixed company. In Portland, most people likely lean Democratic, or support reproductive rights. In Marietta, I have friends who vote for Tea Party candidates.
Free from the confines of that infamous Portland bubble, I like walking around and not running into endless clones of myself and my political views. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the rest of America is like, and a window into the goodness of people who don’t think like me. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I’d get asked when we first moved back to Marietta. The old guard here clings to a deeply ingrained Midwestern/Appalachian skepticism of outsiders, and they are reluctant to embrace change, even small ones, like installing pedestrian crosswalks on the busiest street downtown.
“I grew up here, actually,” I delight in replying. Not fitting in is my comfort zone. I’m used to it. I’m comfortable in Marietta.
My California-bred husband still wakes up dazed upon realizing that he resides in the ass-end of Appalachia. He loves record stores, ethnic food, post-rock bands, and independent movie theaters. He’s trying to be a good sport.
But once we had our daughter, those things phased out of our Portland lives, anyway. By then I’d veered away from my culinary career, landed job with the county library, and was thoroughly enjoying the best employee benefits of my life.
Which was great, because we needed those funds to cover childcare. It became apparent that raising Frances in Portland would present increasingly complex logistical problems. For our one-car family, Frances’s daycare had to be reasonably close to my library. Both Joe and I worked until six many nights, and nearly all daycare centers closed before then. Through desperate combings of Craigslist we found a few options, but there was precious middle ground between total sketch-fests that reeked of sour milk and tiny palaces of early childhood education where the tuition was higher than my paycheck.
When my husband’s temp gig with a Portland city agency ended, even though he wanted to work, we realized we couldn’t afford it. We reluctantly pulled Frances out of the loving daycare we’d been lucky to find and had him stay home with her, collecting unemployment until he got a job offer high enough for us to clear her monthly fees.
That put us more in touch with the day-to-day struggles of the working class than we were comfortable admitting. We could have chosen housing that was even lower-cost than our moldy house of sadness, where I had to make wiping the backs of our bookcases down with bleach water a weekly task. I developed a ceaseless runny nose that eventually blossomed into massive sneezing attacks, ones that disappeared once I walked out our door, and I realized I was allergic to our own home. We knew we had food, a roof over our heads, and a bank account that was barely ever overdrawn.
The biggest ache was a battle we raged with our privileged identity. We’re educated, liberal, and artsy. People like us are supposed to gentrify neighborhoods, not get pushed out of them. For extra money, I picked up sub shifts at public library branches; eventually, I worked at least once at all eighteen branches in the county system, the grand slam. It was a great way to see the parts of city that the alluring travel features in magazines don’t show you. That was the Portland I ultimately fell in love with, the one that didn’t trump itself up. I saw a lot of meth teeth and smelled the stench of urine wafting from clothes that had not been washed in years, sure, but I also saw people who were more or less…normal. People who needed jobs and barely had any tech literacy, so I’d have to walk them through filling out a resume online as they raced to submit it before their allotted time for the day ran out on the library’s public computer. People who needed referrals for free legal services, or were trying to locate their parent’s birth records, or who just wanted recommendations for a good book.
To a casual observer, I looked like the Portland dream: The librarian-writer! With nerdy glasses! Who used to be a chef! But really, I was one of them, the other Portlanders. The ones who constantly did the utility bill/paycheck triage. The ones whose shady landlord, when asked to take down the 1970s wood paneling because it’s housing a robust colony of mildew, replies “But if I take down the paneling, it’ll expose the hole in the wall!” The ones who shopped at the discount grocer not because thrift is trendy, but because thrift is necessary. A few strokes of massive bad luck and I could have been the urine-reeking patron, or the patron who lived in her car, or the patron who lost visiting privileges with her kid.
We were tearing our hair out, working with a tiny margin of error from month to month, with no bright future in sight. We cobbled together our work schedules for Frances-watching duties, doing that frantic parent-to-parent handoff as one of us headed out the door; I worked every weekend, and we rarely had relaxed family time together. What’s the point of living in an amazing city when you can’t access its best attributes?
“You know that feeling you get when your plane descends to land in Portland, and you look at the city below and think, ‘I’m home’?” A friend posed this question, and I had to confess I’d never once felt that way. It was more like, “Huh. Here we are again.”
The love that Portlanders have for their city borders on romantic. I felt like a third wheel, immune to the giddiness. While tall bikes and food carts made out on the couch, I skulked in the corner of the rec room, alone. I became cantankerous about the stupidest things, hundreds of soggy twigs to fuel the brush fire of animosity shouldering inside me. I think of myself as a person with pluck, a problem-solver who deals with the situation at hand, but I’d somehow let my circumstances neuter that part of me. On I went, pruning the apple tree. Bleaching the furniture. Polishing a turd.
But really, I was angry for us at not getting it together enough to thrive in one of the most livable cities in the country. Portland was often good to us. We had lovely friends, and I adored my library job. Every morning I’d wake up and resolve to bloom where we’d planted ourselves, and then the sad numbness would settle in, and it became impossible to suss out which part of that sadness was Portland’s fault and which was mine.
There’s that TV show. You know the one I’m talking about—it pokes affectionate but absurdist, sketch-comedy fun at Portland and its charming yet maddening idiosyncrasies. It’s big there; it’s very Portland not to get enough of Portland. If you live, or once lived, in Portland, people will inevitably bring up That Show.
Please don’t bring it up with me. I can’t watch it. Not because I don’t like it, but because it’s too close. Why watch a parody of something that felt like a parody the first time around, in real life? “Come sit with me,” my husband implored as he sat on the sofa a lifetime later, in Marietta, enjoying That Show. He says it reminds him of bygone times, times when it was unlikely that he would have a co-worker named Delmus who wore a t-shirt that read “Dicky-Doo Champion: My Tummy Stick Out More Than My Dicky Do!”
I recognized all of the spots on That Show that Portland people recognize, the cutesy storefronts and brunch places and busy intersections, and I felt both so glad to be rid of them and so idiotic for my inability to flourish there. That Show is a little like my past punching me in my gut.
We had a big garden in our Portland backyard, which I spent many pleasant hours tending, and we curated a collection of the jagged, dirt-crusted bits of metal and plastic and glass that perpetually worked themselves to the surface of the soil in an ornery dis to gravity. It was not a pretty garden, but it produced enough vegetables that it created a decent dent in our grocery bill during the summer months, and yanking at its prolific weeds was an excellent outlet for the bad juju I carried around. Besides, I love to be outside in the sun. With three dependable months of it, I had to soak up as many Pacific Northwest rays as I could.
One day, Frances, who was out playing with the broken Fischer-Price farm I found for free on someone’s curb, called out, “Mama, look at what Scooter did.” I looked up from my weedy reverie and saw a bloody rat between the parsley and Swiss chard. Our dog looked up at me, beaming over his fresh kill. The rat, I assume, had been nosing around in our compost heap. I dug a shallow hole at the base of our fruitless apple tree to bury the thing, and in the process unearthed two corroded AA batteries. Who knows how long they’d been lurking down there? It was nothing, really, but after that, I was done with Portland. The rat-battery incident was my final straw.
I was poised to score a coveted Library Assistant position at the library, one that would nearly double my pay. But I didn’t have it in me to hold out any longer. I couldn’t be content in a saggy dump of a poorly-insulated house, donning two sweaters indoors to stay warm and buying organic spinach and avocados on our credit card. We aged out of that, but couldn’t get it together to bring in the income for necessary creative-class trappings we saw our friends enjoy: Waldorf preschool, annual beach house rentals, February trips to Hawaii in order to remain sane until mid-June, a compact, tidy home in a cute neighborhood within walking distance of a bar full of synth music and unevenly executed vegan menu options. Portland is a shitty place to be broke, though I guess you could say that of any city.
Still, on most days, Marietta squeaks ahead as a less shitty place to be broke. We lived with my parents until we found a house that does not give me allergy attacks. Its rent matches what they raised the rent to in our old Portland dump after we moved out. To the new tenants of the putty-colored house on SE 89th Avenue with the collapsing back patio: I hope the apple tree’s fruiting now. The flower pot of rusty nails and glass shards you found in the shed are the spoils of my unintentional garden archeology digs. Let me know if you ever accidentally encounter that rat.
Sometimes in Marietta, I look at the lazy bends of the Ohio River’s familiar brown muck, and waves of profound contentment wash over me, a strange mixture of bliss and relief. We came back to Portland in July for a visit, our first since moving to Ohio. I rode busses all over town, savored frequent cups of expertly-brewed coffee, and enjoyed the absence of crispy hairdos. At the tail end, I started getting a twinge of the coolness fatigue I had when we lived there. Boutiques selling tiny terrariums, bars built to resemble libraries, movie theaters selling rosé by the glass. In Marietta, maybe a dozen things are cool, and half of those are cool because they are utterly not cool at all. It’s special to be cool.
When we got back to Ohio, our cherry tomatoes were ready to pick. The first sweet corn of the season hit the farm stands. Vinyl banners advertising dozens of vacation bible schools crinkled in the breeze. My daughter returned to her preschool, where she played with classmates named Kolton and Kaylee instead of Mabel and Forester.
The flight back was uneventful. The plane took off and I looked out the window at the familiar vista below, crisply outlined in the magical Portland summer sun, and I thought, “There it is. That was my city.” Keep on loving it for me, okay?
SARA BIR is the food editor of Paste Magazine and a regular contributor to Full Grown People. “Smelted”, her essay from this site, appeared in Best Food Writing 2014. She lives in southeast Ohio with her husband and daughter.
I was driving around what seemed the perfect neighborhood, looking for signs, when I found the sprawling, two-story log house for sale on three park-like acres, filled with ponderosa pines and giant rose-colored rock formations. The location was ideal, with easy access to the highway, yet no visibility from the road. The price on the flyer seemed too good to be true.
Our community is made up of a few small towns strung along U.S. Highway 285, which curls through red rock cliffs and rolling ridges of forest as it climbs two thousand feet in elevation, from the historic two-block town of Morrison, up through Tiny Town, Aspen Park, Conifer, Pine, and all the way to Bailey, Colorado. The speed limit on the highway is 55, but most people take the curves closer to 70. Once you start ascending, you can feel the wildness of it, from Turkey Creek Canyon through Windy Point all the way to Crow Hill.
According to the news reports, on September 27, 2006, sixteen-year old Emily Keyes drove to school as usual, with her mother Ellen and her twin brother Casey in the car. The sun was rising over distant mountain ranges, and they turned the Red Hot Chili Peppers up loud as Emily navigated from their mountaintop home down the narrow twists of a dirt road lined with aspen groves. At the highway, she followed the winding path of the wide, rushing South Platte River. At 7:17 a.m., Emily and Casey got out of the car at Platte Canyon High School, and Ellen drove to work.
The house we were living in, which I’d bought with my previous husband, wasn’t even on the market yet, but we were ready to sell it. It didn’t feel right to live there anymore with all those memories. We needed a new home, but we wanted to stay in this community. It was the kind of place where neighbors watch out for each other, and people still cared.
The 285 corridor and surrounding areas are referred to as the Foothills of Denver, but there’s no doubt that we live in the mountains. In early fall, when the elk start to rut, we can hear the bugling for a mile, and months later, dozens of pregnant females take their afternoon naps in our yards. Deer eat our flowers all summer long, staring at us like the invaders we are. It’s not uncommon to see fox dashing, cat-like, between the aspen. Bears will rummage through our trash cans if we leave them out, and we live in fear of mountain lions snatching our dogs.
Between 8:42 and 11:40 a.m., a dilapidated yellow jeep, later discovered to be the living quarters of a fifty-three-year-old homeless man by the name of Duane Morrison, came and went from several different spaces in the high school parking lot.
I pulled up the long circular driveway on a mild day in October 2005 and there he was, standing next to a weathered gold Jeep Cherokee with a little red light on top. He wore a crisp cotton button-down, broken-in jeans, and cowboy boots; he introduced himself with that nice clean Irish name. The business of real estate can make me uneasy, but I felt instantly that this was a guy we wanted on our side. I was sure my husband would agree. He had a humble calm you don’t often find in sales people, and he mentioned that he had a lot of ties in the community. I later learned this was an understatement.
We are what’s called a bedroom community; most everyone commutes to Denver about thirty miles away, and we run our errands and go to the movies down the hill. Up the hill, there are a few bars, a couple of gas stations, and some small specialty stores. Until recently, there wasn’t even a Mexican restaurant. Most of the businesses are family owned, and you always bump into someone you know at the market. The schools are ranked some of the highest in the state. Crime is practically negligible, and the natural beauty surpasses that of most places. Some might say life up here is idyllic.
At 11:40 a.m., Duane Morrison, who had been living out of his car but had a Denver address, calmly entered the school building, claiming he had “three pounds of C-4.” He was wearing a dark blue hooded sweatshirt and carried a camouflage backpack. Inside were a semiautomatic pistol and a handgun. Morrison headed upstairs to room 206, where Sandra Smith was teaching honors English. He instructed her to leave, and when she would not, he fired his gun into the air. He then told the students to line up facing the chalkboard and made everyone leave, except for six girls, of which Emily Keyes was one.
In the course of our dealings with the realtor, we learned he was also a volunteer firefighter. When he wasn’t helping people buy and sell houses along the 285 Corridor, he was responding to accidents and other 911 calls, often saving lives. He’d pried toddlers out of crushed cars, fought forest fires, and evacuated the sick and elderly from deathly blizzards. He’d signed up nine years earlier for the excitement. He’d stayed on because it taught him to appreciate that, as he put it, “life is brief and precious and important.”
A code-white alert—meaning a full lockdown—was sounded over the intercom. County Sheriff Fred Wegener began negotiating with the gunman. The sheriff’s son Ben, a junior who once had a crush on Emily Keyes, was in a classroom nearby. Morrison wouldn’t talk to Wegener directly—he used the girls to relay his messages. The only clear demand he made was that the police back off.
I tried to imagine what it must be like to live with a high-frequency radio in your home. We awakened to acres of blue sky above pine-covered peaks, the sounds of an occasional dog, crows cawing and squirrels chattering. Our realtor and his wife must emerge from dreams to the beating static and cacophony of voices reporting drunks, families killed in car accidents, petty thieves, and the elderly having massive heart attacks in bed. Or one morning, as you’re writing up a carefully considered Inspection Objection—as our realtor might have been on the morning of September 27, 2006—you hear words reverberating over that crackling scanner that make you briefly pray you haven’t really woken up at all. “Six students have been taken hostage at Platte Canyon High by a man claiming to have a bomb. The school is being evacuated—negotiations are ongoing.”
Morrison sexually assaulted all of the girls before releasing four of his hostages and keeping two. Fifteen-year-old Lynna Long later said that even though they were all lined up facing the chalkboard, she knew the other girls were being molested because she could hear “the rustling of clothes and elastic being snapped and zippers being opened and closed.”
After the four girls were released, Emily, who was still a hostage, managed to respond to her father’s text message, which asked, “R U OK?”
She wrote back, “I luv u guys.”
In July, our realtor called, asking if my husband and I wanted to join him and his wife for a Rockies game. There was light rain that day, but our seats at Coors Field were sheltered by the overhang of the level above us, so even when it sprinkled, we were protected. We drank beer and ate hot dogs, basking in the relaxation of the ballpark. His wife and I went for a second beer during the sixth inning, but our realtor stopped at one, since he was driving.
“Seen too many accidents,” was all he said.
By 12:10 p.m., all eight hundred students, except the two remaining hostages, had been evacuated. A four-mile stretch of Highway 285 on both sides of the school was closed. Ambulances were parked in the end zone of the football field.
All the parents standing outside the school were urged by authorities to go back to the sheriff substation.
At least twenty parents shook their heads at once and said, “No.”
At 3:20 p.m., the gunman told police that something “big” would happen at 4:00, and that it would “be over then.”
The Jefferson County SWAT Team had witnessed Morrison sexually assaulting the girls, and at 3:30, Sheriff Wegener made a decision. Later he’d say that he made the decision, “Because I’d want whoever was in my position to do the same thing, and that is to save lives.”
At approximately 3:35, the SWAT team stormed the classroom, and Morrison used the two girls as human shields. When she tried to run, he shot Emily Keyes in the back of the head before killing himself.
Our realtor was just one of many who stood by and watched as Emily was carried on a gurney from the classroom to the Flight-for-Life helicopter.
Emily’s father, John-Michael, who had been waiting there all day, hoping to see his daughter, shouted out, “Is there anything I can do to make her more comfortable?”
Someone replied, “No.”
The helicopter took only a few minutes to arrive at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, where Emily was pronounced dead at 4:32 p.m.
The word community typically refers to many people, and sometimes it’s a group so large that it fills a whole highway. On October 7, 2006, close to six thousand motorcyclists rode the forty miles from Columbine High School to Platte Canyon High School in a show of compassion for the victims of the shootings at both schools. After a moment of silence and a balloon release, they rode off beneath an archway of pink balloons. Sheriff Fred Wegener was among them. Proceeds from the riders’ registration fees went to The “I Luv U Guys” Foundation, established in memory of Emily Keyes. This tradition has continued every year since.
Emily’s life was full of accomplishments. According to those who knew her, she was trusting, kind, and fearless. She was active in speech class, worked on the school paper, and played volleyball. The day before she died, she had done such a great job on a world history paper that her teacher had read it out loud to the whole class.
Her boss at the restaurant where she waited tables said she was, “One of the nicest girls. Just a real sweetheart. Always a please and a thank you and a smile.”
On September 27, 2006, our son was almost two, and we’d lived in our new home about five months. This was where we would parent him through his childhood and adolescence, and where, fates willing, he would someday graduate from high school. I mourned fiercely, almost inappropriately, for Emily, so consumed with shock and sadness that I could barely think of anything else for days.
It was as if I knew her, and in some ways I did, for we all drive the same roads, watch the same aspens turn to fiery gold each fall, and notice the same rise and descent of the trout-laden South Platte River, which feeds the same creeks we all drive alongside each day.
Every year now, on the Saturday closest to September 27th, my husband, children, and I walk up the big hill to where our neighborhood meets the highway, carrying a cardboard sign that reads “We Love U Guys” written in bright red poster markers. We stand there waving at thousands of honking motorcyclists, our sign bending in the wind as they pass. From time to time, we exchange the international sign for “I love you”—thumb, middle and ring finger down, pointer and pinkie up, with a rider.
Up the highway a few hundred yards is the fire station, where the tallest truck is parked, emergency lights flashing like fireworks in honor and commemoration of the children killed in our schools and those who’ve leapt in to save them.
Throughout the hour that it takes for all those bikes to go by, I keep waving and smiling, stinging hot salt in my throat, doing my best to explain to our kids in choked-up stutters why we come here each year and pay tribute to a girl none of us knew, but we all remember.
I really do love these guys. I love that they show their compassion with a bike ride up a twisting mountain highway, I love that they all wear pink in honor of Emily, I love that so many of them see us here by the side of the road and answer our hand signals with a wave. But what I love even more is that when they reach their destination at Platte Canyon High School and join Emily’s family, whose foundation now helps schools everywhere enhance their safety, they’ll have carried our message to where it belongs.
CANDACE KEARNS READ is a writer and creative writing teacher living in Morrison, Colorado. She is the author of the screenwriting guidebook Shaping True Story into Screenplay and a forthcoming novel, The Rope Swing. She blogs at lawomantologlady.wordpress.com, and can be found @ckreadwriter, candacekearnsread.facebook.com, and candacekearnsread.com.
I am parked out front of a Cape on Chesterford Road. I don’t know whose house this is, only that my grandparents lived here when my mother was born in the 1940s.
Occasionally, a wistfulness will settle over me, a haze that suspends clock-time, and I’ll turn left at the Hess Station instead of heading home, to the next town over, where I now raise my own children. From the opposite side of the street, I stare at the front steps, imagining my grandmother on the top stair, her ankles crossed and tucked to the side, holding her auburn-haired daughter. Above the stairs is the window in front of which my mother’s crib once sat. I picture my mother climbing the wooden rails to look out onto Winter Pond and the world beyond her windowpanes, decades before a place in her went vacant.
There are children-of-divorce, and there are children-who-follow-divorce, who have their own experience of its aftermath.
Children-of-divorce and children-who-follow-a-divorce often live together in blended families, where they are introduced as his, hers, and ours. There can be whole-, step-, and half-siblings all under one roof, and depending on parental visitation, different combinations of siblings at any given time. I am a child-who-followed-divorce. I have five half-siblings, but I have always disliked the qualifier: half, as in less than whole, so I often would drop it when describing them. But this, too, would feel inauthentic because, when I was little, they weren’t always around or, when they were, they weren’t always accessible: they had other families and homes—homes I only ever drove past. I spent my childhood guessing what went on inside of them.
In fact, as a child, I was driven past a lot of homes.
Even blended families come to share habits, although their origins are harder to trace. The custom in mine is that if you are near a place where you, or some family member, once lived, you ride by it. This doesn’t mean chatting with the current occupants or even stopping to get out of the car. A nod can suffice. A snap-inventory of changes in structure or color, a sizing-up of tree growth, but almost always, one last glance before pulling away, in case what we’ve come in search of may, finally, burst through the front door and chase us down the road, waving at us to turn the car around.
When my father’s mother passes, he organizes the family into a long caravan to drive by the places that he knew as a child.
His father was a builder. They lived in the houses his father built until it was time to sell.
The afternoon after the memorial service, my father drives with his window rolled down, us following behind, and when we near one of his former homes, he slows the car, reaching out the window to point at the one that matters.
I’m not in the car with him so I can’t hear what stories he would have told, but I’ve heard them before. He’s taken me on this tour once, maybe twice, when I was a child and we happened to be passing through Rhode Island. I recognize the white house with the grill over the front door as the one he lived in when he was seventeen and his father died in the den.
Eight years after the memorial service, when my father turns seventy, I ask him if he’d like to take a road trip to see the factory where he had made polystyrene before I was born. I had always wanted to see the old Union Carbide plant, to see where he spent a decade of his life. Before I was born, around the time of his divorce, he left plastics for a career in public service. He had changed religions, too, but he rarely speaks about how he rebuilt his life.
After a false start of my own, I became a sociologist who studies environmental legacy—everlasting things like plastic or pollutants that pose a burden passed between generations. I’ve been trying to understand how I came into my strange fixation with abandoned factories and polluted places. Only now do I see some continuity. I’ve broadened the family habit to include driving by other kinds of places that harbor past hurts inherited by subsequent generations.
It was my father who suggested we add old homes to our itinerary.
So en route from Boston, we pull off the Parkway to see the north Jersey house where I spent my childhood. The maple out front, the one I remember my brother leaping over, now blocks the front window out of which, as a toddler, I waved to my father as he left for his job at Town Hall.
As a child, living in this house, my five siblings are teens. I sometimes ride in the backseat of our station wagon when my father picks up his three kids for the weekend. They live in homes I never see inside, although once, my sister sneaks me in to use the bathroom in her mother’s house.
Mostly, I am alone riding out the tide of my siblings’ ebb and flow from the household. By the time I reach grade school, they have stopped visiting or moved out, two sisters to college, one brother to boarding school, another to mechanic school, and my oldest sister following a boyfriend to Wisconsin. We never get to know the interior of each others’ lives.
When my father steers the car down Webb Court, I feel a pang of familiarity. It is the arc of that curve, that way my body senses the shift in direction as I ride in the passenger seat next to him, rather than the sight of the actual house, which to my surprise, doesn’t induce nostalgia at all.
We drive by, turn around on the cul-de-sac, one more rolling pass and that is it. We don’t stop. I don’t look over my shoulder. There is no need.
The next morning, my father takes me by his first central New Jersey apartment, a slouch-roofed ranch at the back of another home’s property. I try to picture him, a newlywed with his high school sweetheart, riding his bicycle past the junkyard to make polystyrene for the plant down the road.
My father and his first wife don’t stay long then. Neither do we. Before the features of the place can develop into memory, Dad pulls away, heading to the next town to see the duplex, where after a miscarriage, my oldest sister is born.
From there, we press on to Leland Gardens, a complex of red-brick garden apartments nearby. Once inside, he quickly turns around, disoriented by the labyrinth of similar structures that look much as they did in the sixties. He stumbles on the apartment, as if some visceral homing device steers the car to the place where my second sister is born.
Next we pass the Randolf Road house, my brother’s place of birth, where it occurs to me I’ve never seen a baby picture of him.
My father drives on, effortlessly navigating the grid of streets and storefronts.
But as we approach the turn for the next house, I see him slide his foot off the accelerator. Only momentum carries us forward. I look over at him from the passenger seat. He stares straight ahead, one hand on the wheel, the other covering his mouth. This is where I lost them, he says.
He inhales and exhales deliberately, through pressed lips, before swinging the car down Dixie Lane. He ducks to see out the passenger window as we creep along. And when we are finally out front, he pulls over. The tires squeak against the curb.
The conversation stops, but I sense an opening, and I begin to feel my way around it.
The white house hugs the road, its porch covered with a canopy of foliage. A steep flight of stairs climbs from the sidewalk to the front porch. I imagine his feet clambering up them, moving in his family box by box, and within a short time, carrying what few belongings he has back out.
Do my siblings watch his last descent? There are questions I have never asked, and until only recently, probably couldn’t have asked. I couldn’t bear to know the extent of their suffering upon which the very possibility of my life has been contingent.
I inquire about custody. My father’s voice cracks. It was the early seventies, he says. Mothers got custody, without question. It’s raining, and the windshield wipers strain to keep up. I have asked him too much.
Something unresolved still resides in this house. I wonder if its current family can sense its distress the way I do sitting at its curbside.
Two more houses complete my mother’s side of the story. I’d been driven by them before.
On this trip, we don’t drive past the Kempshall Terrace house, the house into which my sister and brother were born. Even without seeing it again, I can picture it. My mother tells me often how on the day she first walks through this house, the owner, a widow, has a pot of baked beans in the oven. It is the homey smell that sells her—the scent of a life she longs to lead within those walls.
The house we do drive by was a trim Colonial on Graymill Drive, where my mother and her first husband move to make room for their growing family and which holds the possibility for a third child. She turns thirty in this house. Her husband has thrown her a surprise party to celebrate, and then the next morning, moves out with the woman from two doors down.
After he has closed the door behind him, I imagine my mother collapsed, fallen to her knees, her hand pressed to the window that she won’t look out to watch him leave. But she can’t wallow. My brother and sister are little and will need her soon. She lives there for a while longer as a single mother on Valium.
My father stops the car to comment, of all things, on the chimney.
When he married my mother and moved into Graymill Drive, the brick chimney had started to split away from the house. They lashed it to the side, cheaper than rebuilding from its foundation. The braces remained more than three decades later. Look at that, he says, it’s still holding on. This is symbolic of my parents, who married into each others’ heartbreak, and remain married, defying expectations, possibly even their own.
I am conceived in this house. It strikes me then that conception is cellular union followed by cleaving, again and again, splitting apart to carry on, until, at last, something whole and unbroken comes into the world. But I am a half-sibling, conceived only after the split and merging of two other families, and born from the fact of their devastation. Sitting in front of this house I realized how much my identity has been shaped by things that I imagined to have happened inside its walls.
Sometimes I would wonder whether some part of my parents still lived in those houses where their first attempt at family fell apart, especially my mother, who still talks about her first husband, their divorce, and the house she left behind, though he died in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the stories she tells read like scripts. She repeats them often, always with the same phrasing. Sometimes, she’ll launch into a memory, and though I’m sitting beside her, I long for who she might have been had she not been left behind.
Which is why, a year after the road trip with my father, I’ve come back to her childhood home.
From my car parked across the street, I see two teenage girls shuffle out in flip-flops and climb into the Jeep parked in the driveway. They glance at me and are gone. I hear the bass-line from their stereo fade into the distance. A scruffy Labradoodle wanders to the curb, its gaze fixed on me in anticipation. And I realize it’s time to move on.
REBECCA ALTMAN serves on the Board of Directors of the Science and Environmental Health Network and has taught seminars on environmental health for Tufts University. She is working on her first book with Vanderbilt University Press. Other creative non-fiction has appeared in Brain, Child, Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. She occasionally blogs at tothescratch.blogspot.com.
With the first lilting chords of the piano, we take the floor. The snare drum eases into a 6/8 shuffle. We melt into one another as the strings sigh the opening notes of the melody line. The horns respond with a glissando in the second verse, and we are afloat on liquid gold. We are bodies swaying in a collective embrace, in love with every-other-body in this place.
My dress is buttercup yellow, strapless with a sweetheart neckline. The chiffon skirt cascades over a crinoline of nylon netting. My hair is combed into a sleek bouffant, its curled-up ends grazing my bare shoulders. My dance partner wears a white sport coat and a crew cut. His face is indistinct, but no matter; he is not the point of this imagined memory.
The point is the convergence, the enfolding of each of us into all of us. The song, to which I have never really danced, is “Theme from A Summer Place.” In my reverie, we sway to the familiar instrumental recording, Percy Faith’s 1960 orchestral arrangement. But other artists—my favorite being The Lettermen in 1965—have recorded “Summer Place” with vocals. Listen and you will hear a song less about romance than about sanctuary:
There’s a summer place
Where it may rain or storm
Yet I’m safe and warm
For within that summer place
Your arms reach out to me
And my heart is free from all care…
Since childhood, I have cast myself in fantasies with soundtracks from my parents’ youth. I was six years old in 1980, when my family moved to Nebraska and settled into the Craftsman house where my parents still live. The formal living room, unfurnished for nearly a year, was the theater where my brother and I performed “Rock Around the Clock,” “At the Hop,” and other teen anthems from the American Graffiti soundtrack.
In fifth grade, I pictured my sixth grade crush pining for me as I listened to Frankie Valli crooning “My Eyes Adored You.” Carried your books from school, playing make-believe you’re married to me. You were fifth grade, I was sixth, when we came to be. I knew no sixth grade boy would carry my school books—not least because I was the kind of kid who listened to the Four Seasons in 1985—but envisioning such a scenario made the unfamiliar territory of adolescence feel navigable. The same was true in the final months of my eighth grade year, when I sweet talked my dad into deejaying a sock hop at my middle school. With high school on the horizon, I imagined joining the letter jacket crowd, the clean-cut kids with social status. (That the sock hop itself was not imaginary is equal parts mortifying and miraculous.)
At no time were my retrospective daydreams more persistent than during my first year of college. Living in Kansas I was homesick, so homesick. Studying to the oldies and wearing vintage clothing bolstered my spirits, but the image that sustained me emerged from a trashcan in the bathroom of my residence hall. On my nineteenth birthday, I discovered a date stamp on the trashcan’s raised lid: October 10, 1967—the month and day of my birth and the year my mom entered college. Never mind that she had attended a different college; it seemed profoundly significant that this trashcan was installed when my mother was a freshman, seven years to the day before my birth.
The date stamp became my talisman. Glimpsing it as I left the shower each morning, I would borrow my mother’s courage for the day ahead. She too was homesick, so homesick, when she arrived on campus, but she came to regard her college years with fondness. In her footsteps, I would do the same. I was into The Ventures that fall, and as I ascended the stairs between my residence hall and the main campus, a mental guitar loop from their 1960 hit “Walk, Don’t Run” propelled my steps. In my sophomore year, my confidence as a returning student was affirmed when Pulp Fiction made Ventures-style surf rock popular again.
I more or less maintained that confidence through the transitions of marriage and motherhood, relocations to Colorado and Minnesota and corresponding career changes. I believed homesickness was for kids and for people who moved internationally or under duress. Even as a college student, homesickness seemed to place me in an immature minority. As an adult, I did not expect to come unmoored when my husband’s career took our family from Minnesota to the Pacific Northwest.
Here is a partial catalog of things that have made me cry since we moved to a suburb of Seattle last year: a parking structure where all the spaces are compact, because I miss the ample welcome of a Midwestern parking lot; the opening page of a novel dedicated to “the great state of Minnesota”; an area car show, because it was to St. Paul’s annual vintage car show as “Rock Around the Clock” is to the entire American Graffiti soundtrack; a photo of John C. Reilly, because I once noticed that Minnesota’s eastern border looks like his face in profile.
I am ashamed of my emotions, ashamed that I am not content to live in a comfortable house in a safe neighborhood between the Puget Sound and the Cascades. Our new hometown has good schools, a downtown with an art gallery and a live theater, hiking and biking trails, a farmers market. Our new neighbors build community in many ways—educating and caring for children, volunteering at the food bank and soup kitchen, protecting natural resources, creating art—and they have welcomed our participation in these activities. We’re surrounded by beauty: trees, lakes, mountains, and a creek where the salmon run every fall. My husband says he is still astonished that we get to live here.
I know how he feels. When we moved to Minnesota, I was overwhelmed with gratitude. We arrived in autumn, my favorite season. I basked in the low-angled sunlight reflecting off St. Paul’s Como Lake, the red and gold leaves crunching beneath my feet as I circled the water. Our family picked apples at a local orchard, watched squirrels and birds at an urban nature center, and met other families at a park where my son learned to ride his bike. In winter, the season that defines Minnesota for people who have never been there, we discovered sledding hills and indoor playgrounds, and the tropical plant room at the free-admission conservatory, where anyone could find warmth and color on a bleak day. We found that we lived among neighbors who would clear our driveway with their snow blowers without being asked.
But I loved Minnesota before I experienced those things. I loved it before I lived there because my grandparents had called it home. I had spent Christmases and summer vacations with them, and with the aunts and uncles and cousins still living throughout the state. I knew something of Minnesota’s history and its coalescence with my family’s history, and so moving there felt like a homecoming. Moving away felt like an evacuation, like being emptied from a vessel made from parts of myself.
I assumed that these feelings would fade after a brief adjustment period. Months after moving, I wrote off my ongoing melancholy as stress or Vitamin D deficiency. When it occurred to me that I might be homesick, this self-diagnosis seemed so implausible that I Googled “adult homesickness” to verify its existence. My search turned up several recent articles on the subject, including an op-ed in The New York Times by a writer named Susan Matt. Based on a decade of research, Matt concluded that feelings of displacement and depression are common among adults who relocate. Yet we are reluctant to acknowledge “the substantial pain of leaving home” in an era that regards mobility as a virtue.
Matt’s byline referred me to her book, Homesickness: An American History, in which I read about homesick colonists and nineteenth-century immigrants. I learned that homesickness became taboo in the twentieth century, when embracing progress meant surrendering ties to the past. What most interested me was the connection between homesickness and nostalgia, which are literally synonymous. The word nostalgia was coined in the seventeenth century as a diagnostic term describing a painful longing for home. It combines the Greek words nostos (“return home”) and algia (“pain”) and remained in use as a medical term through the Civil War. It was only during the rapidly changing twentieth century that nostalgia gained distinction from homesickness—longing for a lost time as opposed to a lost place.
I recognize these desires as twins, but how do I understand twins born years apart? What does it mean that I am nostalgic for a time before my own birth? It’s notable that when I cry for Minnesota, I am moved by my sense of its shape, of a history that predates my life by decades. Like the homesick freshman I was, I am again sustained by popular music of the past. I recently bought a turntable and have acquired on vinyl the greatest hits of Bobby Vinton, Herb Alpert, The Brothers Four—artists who were on the charts the year my dad graduated from high school. My most common earworm, the song that both rouses and soothes my sentiments, is “Theme from A Summer Place.”
In 1960, when Percy Faith recorded “Summer Place,” my grandparents owned a creamery in Fingal, North Dakota. My dad was fourteen years old. His parents had purchased the creamery when he was four and would operate it until 1968, when my dad was in college.
My grandfather was a butter man. He bought cream from farmers, pasteurized the cream in a heated vat, and churned it by the ton. By hand, he scooped butter from the churn into 64-pound boxes that were trucked to school cafeterias and military bases. He kept two boxes from each churning and parceled that butter into one-pound cartons sold locally. The town was proud of its butter, deeming it the best around. Fingal butter was served in restaurants and at the Woolworth counter in Valley City. Fingal natives who had moved to Fargo or Grand Forks filled shopping bags with Grandpa’s butter on return visits. At a reunion just months ago, a former classmate showed my dad a yellow carton with a Fingal Creamery label that she has saved for almost fifty years.
Butter unifies. It absorbs and concentrates flavor. It creates texture and emulsifies, blending ingredients that would not otherwise mix. A man who makes butter connects farmers with townspeople, towns with cities, schoolchildren with soldiers. The butter maker’s family is embraced. His wife is esteemed, his children golden boys and girls.
This is the refuge I seek in my father’s past. I want to know the butter maker. I want to break bread with the butter maker’s family. I want my children to walk to school with the butter maker’s children. I want to be the butter maker, and the butter, melting into the place where I belong.
I have become a broken record. At some point the longing to be absorbed becomes self-absorption. I must reconcile my butter-gold narrative with reality. In 1960, Fingal was homogenous as milk. I imagine it was possible there to feel separate from the world, from the civil unrest churning the nation, from the state’s native population. Even so, I hear whispers of Fingal residents who did not find sanctuary in small-town North Dakota.
Nostalgia is too easy. It saddens me that the Fingal Creamery ceased operations in 1970, two years after my grandparents sold it and returned to Minnesota. But to romanticize an era when mom-and-pops outnumbered franchises is to overlook disenfranchisement. My own comfort and safety are not enough, after all. I am out of my element where I live now, like frozen butter unevenly spackled on toast, and maybe that is the point. Maybe I am here, in this place and time, to be uncomfortable in a culture consumed by comfort. Frozen butter will keep safe indefinitely, but safety is not its purpose. Butter is for flavor and texture, qualities that are lost after too long in the freezer.
In other words, it is time to expand my soundtrack. I’ll always have a soft spot for golden oldies. But there are living voices singing songs I want to hear, street musicians and symphony members I want to know. I want to feel the pulsing of every drum in the beating of my heart. If the asynchrony is jarring, I am ready to be shaken.
This is KIM KANKIEWICZ’s second essay for Full Grown People. While writing it, she discovered that The Brothers Four are from Seattle and are still performing. She has tickets to attend a Brothers Four concert the next time her parents are in town and hopes to hear a live performance of her dad’s favorite road trip song, “Blue Water Line.”
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.
Since my father died, my mother has tried to stay busy by selling antiques and collectibles. She fills up her time and clutters her house with dressers, armoires, vintage hats, children’s toys, and books: leather bound first editions, dusty Zane Gray westerns, school primers, old children’s books with full-color plates. All her purchases, full with their history of use, offer my mother hours of escape from a life steeped in the absence of my father.
When I visit my mother, the only meal we eat at home is cereal. A box from the pantry and milk from the refrigerator don’t interfere with the stacks of Depression glass, lead crystal, bone china, sterling flatware, and collectible spoons she has piled in the kitchen to clean and sell. Ultimately, we find ourselves in restaurants for a large chunk of my trip. After carefully considering specific words, as well as the tone of voice I should use, I muster up the courage to ask about her collecting. She doesn’t look up from her enchiladas, takes a swig of ice tea, and shrugs her shoulders.
“Well … it keeps me out of pool halls,” she snaps.
“No, really, Mom.”
“I don’t know. I like it and it keeps me busy,” she says, punctuating the inevitability of her pastime, as if she had no choice in the matter.
I can’t think of what to say next. I envision her old and frail, in a house so filled with things that to walk through it requires navigating through a maze, a system of paths through unknown territory. My intrepid mother won’t seem inconvenienced by the slow switchback trails between the bathroom and the kitchen—she just bushwhacks through the endless underbrush—stacks of books, boxes of costume jewelry, daguerreotypes, stereoscope cards, enamel kitchenware—and reveals the treasure beneath. “Look,” she says. “Look at this Depression-glass cake stand. What a score.” The extensive collection of objects with a past and a possibly profitable future now waits out the present in her midst.
“Are you done?” she says, jarring me back to my unfinished dinner. “I’m gonna go pay the bill. It’s almost time for Antiques Roadshow.”
Each time I go, the initial entry into my mother’s house is pleasant. It still smells like home, even though she doesn’t cook anymore. After I settle in, look through the pantry to see if there is anything worth eating, situate my things by the stairs in the hallway, I check out the newest magazines in her stacks, piles of SouthernLiving, CountryLiving, House&Garden, and Antiques and Collectibles. Then, the reality of my surroundings sinks in.
The piles are neat and orderly, but they cover almost all the kitchen counter space. There is enough room for the coffee maker, and we could easily pull the toaster out, if the desire for toast arises. The kitchen table is clear and clean; its glass top reflects carefully placed items on the display shelves above the windows. Vintage biscuit tins, teapots, and assorted ceramic curios tier the room. Grotesque pioneer faces on porcelain mugs look down with a cold, fixed gaze. I turn away from the stern faces, and notice the pocket door to the dining room is closed. I glide over, quietly slide back the door, and see jumbles of overloaded boxes, filled to the brim and beyond, overflowing with so many goods that not a single sliver of tabletop or floor space is visible. The hallway and sitting room suffer from the same condition. The TV room seems relatively clear; my mother can easily get to the couch and television. I circle back to the kitchen, past the wet bar, and my eyes become filled, cluttered with her accumulations, like the rest of the downstairs.
My head spins. This is what she does. She buys things, spruces them up, and resells them at a profit. This is her reason to wake up in the morning. But I can’t stop thinking how all her purchases will be my responsibility to dispose of after she is gone.
I lug my bags to the room at the top of the stairs, my brother’s former room. I glance around and realize I could be in an entirely different house than the one I left downstairs. The upstairs is clean, spare, and light. When my brother and I left home, my mother commandeered our rooms; his became the guest room, mine became her office. I place my things in the bathroom and drift into her bedroom. The walls are now a soft blue. Instead of my father’s desk, there is a white couch, and blue and white china plates hang on the wall in a geometric pattern. Antique, twin, brass beds occupy the place where the king-size bed used to be.
I remember when she started to change the room; it was several years after my father’s death. I was helping her put clothes away in the closet and she still had my father’s bathrobe hanging on what used to be his side. She became quiet, lowered her face against it, and sobbed, “It doesn’t even smell like him anymore.” Days later, she had fans of paint chips and new fabric to upholster a Victorian couch crammed into the garage. Now this room is hers, but it looks unused, sterile, especially in relation to the downstairs, the part of the house in which she really lives.
I venture downstairs and get comfortable on a couch, my mother already cozy on hers with a quilt and a pillow, ready for Antiques Roadshow to begin. Mom doesn’t just watch the show—she participates in the dialogue, interjects comments about the scarcity of a book, or informs the woman that her vase is, unfortunately, not a Tiffany. An expert asks a young computer executive about the piece of furniture he brought for appraisal. Mom chimes in. “That new-money idiot stripped the original finish from that Queen Anne highboy—bet that took about seventy-five thousand off the price.” The appraiser estimated removing the finish reduced the value by ninety thousand dollars.
Yet my mother is not solely interested in the monetary value. She reveres the heirlooms: the handmade rug with family names stitched around the border, the letters from a soldier to his family at home, the solitary item that a young woman retrieves from her grandparent’s estate. She beams when people relate the stories of who owned the item, and how it is important to them because it was important to their family. One woman, about sixty or so, brought a needlework mural that she thought was peculiar. The appraisers proclaim it the finest specimen of American decorative arts they have ever seen. My mother becomes speechless. The woman learns, via the strange embroidered cloth with a village scene of thatched cottages, hay wagons, and children, that her great-grandmother emigrated from England and had faithfully reproduced her former village onto a hanging that would be placed over a mantle. The woman sheds tears of joy, and my mother grows misty-eyed.
I’d like to think that this is the part where I tell her that everything will be okay, that in time she won’t turn around thinking my father called her name from another room, that she won’t absent-mindedly wait for him to pull his Mercury into the driveway. That in time she won’t dread the words Just one tonight? when she musters the will to get dressed, leave the house, and go out for dinner. Although it is hard for me to accept the sudden loss of my father, I have a husband and daughter at home. I worry about my mother alone in this house full of memories, wandering through rooms dense with echoes of family life.
But I don’t tell her it will be okay. I just sit here, next to her. Somehow, in our numb silence, I know she understands.
When my mom dies, I know it will take months just to get everything unpacked, spread over what little available space is left, and what will I do with it all? What’s important to me? I imagine myself emptying a dresser. I pull out a drawer just a bit too far. It falls to the ground and I spy an envelope taped underneath. I open it and see a sepia-toned photograph of my grandfather stashed next to a tiny key. I now know I will have to open every drawer, every wooden cigar box, every container, or I will inadvertently toss out something hidden away for safekeeping. I will have to search through jacket pockets, desk drawers, and shoeboxes, inside vases, books, and kitchen cabinets. I will have to organize items into piles. Piles to keep: family photographs, my father’s watch, my mother’s ring, a few letters, important papers. Piles to donate: towels, bedding, blankets, clothing. Everything else would fall into piles to sell: a multitude of books, furniture I have always loathed (the pair of round faux-Colonial end tables, the tufted brown leather sofa, embroidered footstools) and the hoards of items I neither care about, nor have room for in my own home.
I could look in the phone book under Estates, call people who specialize in selling the entire contents of households, but I stop short of letting absolute strangers peer into my mother’s solitary life, inviting in larger groups of strangers to speculate whether or not she was totally crazy or just mildly eccentric. I could call other antique dealers to come and buy her treasures, but I would constantly hear my mom’s voice chiding me that everything was worth much more and I’m being duped. The alternate scenario—me dealing with the house item by item—scares me so much that I shiver. Maybe I’ll just torch it all.
But I’m lucky—my mother’s still here. Since my father died just one year after his retirement, my mother had to quickly figure out a life on her own, difficult in a society that dismisses women and the elderly. So I tell her how proud I am—of her resilience, her stubbornness, and for proving that you are never too old to start again. She’s important to me. Not her house, or her things, no matter how many memories they may hold. I tell her, but even if I were silent, she would understand. She always does.
LEE GULYAS lives in Bellingham, Washington, and teaches at Western Washington University. Her poetry and nonfiction has appeared in such journals as Prime Number, Event, Barn Owl Review, and The Common.
We’re climbing the hill where I used to search for arrowheads. But we are in the car. It is night, dark. And we can see only the small patches of road illuminated by our headlights. My father is driving and he knows the turns from memory. In preparing for this trip, I’ve tried to piece together a patchwork of my own memories, to create a full picture of this place, whole. Now, in the pure, expansive darkness, the absence of sound except for gravel crunching beneath our tires, I recall a vivid picture of the farm of my childhood.
We pause outside the car for a moment, breathing in the darkness. I look up for the ceiling of stars I once tried to memorize as I lay on my back on this ground until my mother called me in for bed. But tonight the stars are hidden. Years have passed since I last came to my granduncle Joe’s farm. It is more than the place of my memory, more than the place of my imagination. Yet the hole takes up the most space. I have avoided seeing this place again because I would prefer to remember it instead, to preserve my pictures of it from before the fire. But Uncle Joe is here, in the last years of his life. For him, being here is too hard and leaving is too hard, so he moves restlessly back and forth between this place and Lucy’s, the neighbor down the hill.
He’s at Lucy’s now, and we make our way toward the new house where we’ll spend the night without him. The porch is a tiny cement platform and we crowd on, waiting as my father searches for the right key and works it into the new lock. The old house, we never locked. It had an old screen door that banged, a huge, wide porch that wrapped around the house, torn screens that failed to keep out the bugs. Dad turns the knob, and we move into the small, new kitchen.
This is a house of plastic and vinyl, of fresh-painted walls and furniture donated by neighbors or purchased by my father from a failed hotel. The flypaper is missing from the kitchen. The woodstove is old and beautiful but dwarfed by the imposing one of my memory, the one with the big pot of soup simmering on top. We light the stove to warm ourselves. The burning wood cannot erase the invasive smells of pre-fab modernity that have displaced the smells I remember most. The smell of my Uncle Joe’s pipe. The smell of old books lining the walls and stacked on tables. Of hay from the barn and my brothers’ fresh-caught fish. Those smells settled into you when you arrived and clung to you when you drove away, after two weeks of satisfying long days, in the wood-paneled station wagon with your three brothers and three sisters and your still-married parents.
The new house is tiny; there’s not a lot to see. And it’s late. So, soon, my father carefully extinguishes the fire in the stove and we turn in, my father in one small bedroom, the four of us—my sister Megan and me and our boyfriends—wrapped in blankets and sleeping bags on the cold floor of the other.
The house of my memory is an enormous collection of narrow rooms and doorways: small, comforting spaces. Megan and I slept in the first bedroom at the top of the stairs. She once slid off our bed in the night, when she was about two years old. She fell into the space between the bed and the wall without ever waking. They searched every room for her, only to find her still there tucked just out of sight, in that small space, asleep. I slept through their looking and I remember only the telling of it, but I can see her there, curled up and dreaming.
Uncle Joe’s voice wakes me in the morning. His voice is the same (even now, I can hear him still, saying my name) and I go out to receive his strong, familiar hug. His arms and hands have healed. He burned them throwing water onto the fire, trying to save the house that he’d lived in for more than ninety years. I had imagined a black scar in the landscape to mark its loss, but instead there is just this house. He calls it the little house, as if there is a need to distinguish it from the other, as if the other is still here.
We leave my Uncle Joe at the house to walk the hill with my father, and my father talks about his great-grandparents, the Brennans, of the house they built further up the hill, and the other, the house of my memory, built later for their daughter’s family. From the hill I take pictures of the farm—the sheds and tractor, the barn, all unchanged, the garden, much smaller now and closer to the house.
In the afternoons of my childhood summer visits, Uncle Joe would walk me down the hill to the mailbox. The mailman raised a little flag on the box when he’d left a letter, addressed simply to “Joseph McEneany, New Albany PA.” I wrote Uncle Joe later, from home, just to hold that image of him releasing the flag, opening the box to a crisp white envelope marked with two simple and true lines in my own practiced printing.
As we walked back up from the mailbox one day, Uncle Joe stopped to survey the rocky ground.
“I sometimes find arrowheads out here,” he said.
It was a new word for me, arrowhead, and he described stones worn into smooth arrows for hunting and protection by the people who’d lived on this land long before. I followed him into the house then and he reached back on a shelf in the kitchen, drew out his collection of four or five found stones, and showed each of them to me, pressing their smoothness into my palm. I imagined them bound to sticks chosen for their weight and swiftness. I remember that I felt a grave longing to keep one of those arrowheads, to carry away with me its slight weight, its endurance through time, but I studied them and then handed them back, one by one.
Back in the new kitchen now, Uncle Joe instructs me to pick a zucchini from the garden, a big one, then he follows me out there to tease me about choosing the right one. His laugh is a familiar comfort. At home I have a picture, taken about twenty years before this visit. I’m running alongside my Uncle Joe, away from the camera. He doesn’t yet carry a cane but his walk is stooped. He carries a metal bucket, filled, I remember, with potatoes we have dug from the garden. I’d knelt beside him in the dirt, rooting for the things he’d planted there beneath the surface.
We slice the zucchini into slender green wheels and grill it in butter and salt on the stove. And Uncle Joe talks. His jokes and stories are familiar, reminiscent of other visits. But I’m most conscious of his missing pipe. He must feel its absence, too, enough that he needs to acknowledge it.
“I don’t smoke my pipe any more. Not after the fire,” he says, and stops there, without talking about the ash from the stove smoldering beside the house, or the sight of the flames swallowing it. He complains only about new doorframes, misaligned. He does not talk about the old house.
This is my last visit to the farm with Uncle Joe, and we both know this, I think, when he asks us all to stay a little longer. We drive him to Lucy’s house and dawdle there, until it is time to take our leave and begin the drive back. Joe fidgets about Lucy’s house, distracted. He does not linger over the final goodbye.
A couple of years after this last visit, I will pull out the photos from this trip to bring to Uncle Joe as he is dying. But on the long drive to the nursing home I will remember suddenly, startlingly, that he has gone mostly blind, so I will have to describe them. And I do this, although he has lost consciousness by the time I arrive.
The photos are crisp, vibrant. I took only one of the little house. With the others, I maneuvered the lens to try and cut it from view, but the house creeps in, corners of it, to disturb the past.
KAREN DEMPSEY lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her family. She has written for publications including the New York Times Motherlode, Babble, and Brain, Child. This is her third essay for Full Grown People. Follow her @karenedempsey or read her work at kdempseycreative.com.