Judgment Mountain

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
Photo by Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Sobrina Tung Pies

They say the first year after you lose your husband is the hardest. Ironically, it even has a cute name: The Year of Firsts. The first wedding anniversary, the first Christmas, the first baseball season—everything is the first time without him. The first birthday without Alan brings a picture to my mind of the candle-less pile of his favorite donuts that I strategically arranged on a plate into a circular cake shape. (Even as I write this I know memory deceives me. If I dig back hard enough, I remember our friend Grace made Alan’s cake that year. Carrot, his favorite. I was too numb to have been so thoughtful.) Then there was the first time I went in for a teeth cleaning that fall: the way the entire staff looked at me, how certain I was they all already knew without my saying a word, how I couldn’t bring myself to meet their gaze, how I was grateful for each scrape of the dentist’s scaler to distract me from the weight that pressed into my sternum. And there was the first time I tried and failed to talk about Alan using past-tense verbs, the sound of them ringing too final in my ears.

What no one tells you, though, is that the firsts don’t end after those twelve months. In terms of frequency, they start loosening their grip, but still they come, slow and steady. Sometimes when you least expect it.


I should have known another first was happening when something I saw on Instagram made me cry. A man I’d never met before was getting married. He had kind brown eyes and she had a wonderfully proportioned face. They could have been in a teeth-whitening ad. They were young, around thirty, and from the looks of his Instagram feed, did your typical around-thirty-year-old things. Except they seemed to do it better. There were pictures of her twirling in the sunlight in front of a vintage car and drinking a milkshake alluringly at one of those diners that are so old they’ve become hip again. I saw him, too, on the other side of the camera, laughing because he’d been too caught up watching her, missing the moment, and accidentally taking a picture of the table. Of course, I didn’t know if that’s what actually happened. I didn’t know him, and he didn’t know me. But we did share something. I saw it in his profile. One word that didn’t match the happiness I saw in his face: widower.

I clicked on the link in his profile, searching his personal blog for clues. How did he get his eyes to twinkle like that? Over the course of two hours, my phone casting a glow in the otherwise dark room, I uncovered the life-bones of the brown-eyed man, using them to build a person with a past, a present, and a future. He’d been married to his best friend and the love of his life for close to eight years. She was an artist with curly brown hair and a ready smile. Her funeral was standing-room only. Everybody who met her loved her. Reading about her and looking at her pictures, I loved her, too. She looked like the type of person I’d want to share my fries with. She’d been sick, though, and then suddenly, as it sometimes happens with sickness and young people, she was gone. Four months later, her husband started dating. Soon after, he met his current fiancée, and their smiles have been gracing dental-office posters ever since. Somehow Brown Eyes had managed to hit the jackpot. He had found not just one true love, but two. And he was marrying the second in a month.

For having never met the guy, I didn’t know why I cared. All I know is that I did. I pictured Alan in Brown Eyes’s shoes and me in the role of the artist wife. I imagined him going on dates a few months after I’d died: him wearing his favorite button-down shirt, her in form-fitting jeans. Dim lighting. Sangria. Furtive thoughts and shy glances. My face felt hot. If Brown Eyes had really loved his wife, how could he move on so quickly? He was wheeling past, rushing to forget. I felt betrayed by a man I didn’t know, on behalf of a woman I’d never met.

But I knew that wasn’t all. Reaching that conclusion did nothing to quell the spring of emotions welling up in my chest. I turned my phone off and lay back in bed, letting the darkness of the room seep in and swirl inside me. And then, before I could stop it, it happened. It was just for an instant, but it was enough.

I am Brown Eyes out on a date. Feeling not-Alan’s arm around me. Letting myself be drawn in closer.

Liking it.

The guilt sliced me in half. I shook the image from my head, and hot tears slipped down my cheeks. Of all the things I’d felt in the past year and a half since Alan had died, I’d never felt anything like this. It was a string waiting to be pulled. Thinking about finding the loose end made me feel sick, so instead I climbed a mountain and looked down at Brown Eyes from my perch. What kind of widower wanted to find someone new to share his milkshakes with? To go on adventures with? Who wanted that? Not me. I didn’t want any of it. And neither should he. Clearly, he didn’t love his wife as much as I loved Alan. It was an awful thing to think but it was easy. He was a stranger who couldn’t tell me otherwise. But that’s what made Judgment Mountain so great. It was a place where I could focus on assessing other people’s lives so I didn’t have to think about my own.


I was still up on the mountain, deluding myself, when I met up with Eddie for dinner a few weeks later. He sat across from me, smiling. I tried to read his eyes to determine if it was a real smile or the kind that hid things that hurt too much to think about. We most often exchanged the latter in the short time we’d known each other. We had met at a now defunct Kaiser bereavement group for young spouses. Most of the people in the group, including Eddie and me, had partners who’d been on hospice. Alan and Eddie’s wife Jeannie had had cancer. Paul Kalanithi described it best when he wrote, “Yes, all cancer patients are unlucky, but there’s cancer, and then there’s CANCER, and you have to be really unlucky to have the latter.” They both had the all-caps kind, one of the main commonalities in the intersection of the Sobrina-Eddie Venn Diagram.

“So how was your holiday?” I asked reflexively. I kicked myself as soon as I said it. Holidays sucked. “Sorry, dumb question.”

“You know, it was surprisingly good. I spent it with my friend and his family. His little girl made it her mission to make me smile. She even waited for me to get there to open her presents. It was really, really sweet. How was yours?”

“I visited the park where we scattered Alan’s ashes. I hiked up to the bench at the top of the hill, and it hit me for the first time how nice it was that he chose that spot. I never realized until then that he probably did that on purpose so I wouldn’t have to go visit some sad arbitrary plot somewhere.” My words caught slightly in my throat. Then I realized that Eddie might visit Jeannie at a cemetery, and I kicked myself again.

“I still don’t know what to do with Jeannie’s ashes,” he said. His eyes misted over, and I could tell he wanted to say something. A moment passed and he shook his head, changing his mind. “Leave it to you to make me cry.”

I laughed. We both cried at every single meeting.

We studied our menus in silence, and I debated between my usual chicken biryani and trying a new fish dish.

“I decided to make some changes,” Eddie said, smiling. It lingered in the corners of his lips, revealing a side of Eddie I’d never seen before. So it was a real one. “I’ve been exercising more. I’m up to doing an hour and a half on the elliptical machine every day at max resistance. And next week, I’m playing Ultimate Frisbee with people a lot younger than me. I hope I don’t break anything.” He laughed.

“Wow, that’s great.” When I first met him, he couldn’t walk or do the elliptical for more than ten minutes. I closed my menu but not before silently picking something to order for Alan: the lamb shank. He would like that. Another reflex.

“Oh, and I asked a woman out.”

“You did?” I put my menu down. Now this was news. “Who?”

“A woman from my sci-fi book club.”

“Wow.” My vocabulary was very impressive tonight.

“She said ‘no,’ but that’s okay.”

“Still, that’s huge. And you felt okay doing it?”

“I did,” he said. “I mean I did then, at the time. I might not the next time. Who knows.”

He looked back down at his menu, while I did the math. Jeannie had died in January. It was less than a year later. If it had been anyone else, I would have thrown him down the mountain already, but Eddie was different. I knew for a fact how much he loved Jeannie. I could see it in him, full, whole, and remarkably intact. And I realized, after the initial shock faded, that his asking another woman out did nothing to change that.


Dinner with Eddie gave me hope. I thought about coming down from the mountain, even if just a little. But when I told my sister about Eddie starting to date again, she texted back, “Whattt!!! Do people just not fall deep in love anymore?!?!?!?” And it put me right back up on the summit. It seemed that’s where everyone else thought I should be. I didn’t dare tell her how I’d found him brave.


It took a while before I found the courage to tell anyone else, until one day it came up in conversation with my friend Angela. We’d met at the same grief group that I knew Eddie from. Her husband Raymond didn’t have cancer; he had died suddenly in June from a blood clot after surviving a stroke the previous month. We were both in our early thirties, and I knew she knew what it was like to walk around in the world like a ghost, only to have that feeling subside and be replaced with the sensation that your skin is turned inside out. She texted to ask how dinner was with Eddie, and I texted back about how he’d started dating again.

“I swear men move on so much faster than women,” I said, dipping a toe in to test the water. I hoped I sounded nonchalant.

“Who did he ask out?” she asked.

“A woman from his book club,” I said.

I waited for her to blast him, but all she said was, “I’m glad he’s doing well.”

Her reaction emboldened me. I ventured further out up to my knees.

“Are you surprised about Eddie asking someone out already? It hasn’t even been a year yet,” I said, holding my breath.

“I used to be surprised by it, that people find other people so quickly. But everyone deserves to be happy.”

I exhaled.

And then she told me she had started dating, too: a really great guy who made her happy. He was a friend with whom she had lost touch over the years and recently reconnected with.

In true Angela fashion, she worried immediately after telling me that she had hurt me.

“No, you didn’t at all. I’m truly happy for you.” And I really meant it. I expected to feel the surge of emotions as I had with Brown Eyes, but all I felt was relief. She loved and missed Raymond deeply. We talked about it all the time. And now she was seeing someone new. She was proof those two things could coexist. The realization radiated through me.


Judgment Mountain began to crumble, and as it did, I recognized it for what it was: a place where I judged myself. I judged people for moving on too quickly because the truth was I was afraid I was moving on too fast. I wanted things to stay the same for as long as possible, to live in the world that Alan still lived in. But that world didn’t exist anymore. Could I still love Alan forever and simultaneously want to find someone new to share my life with? I hated myself for even wanting to ask. As if asking was somehow an admission that Alan’s love wasn’t enough. That I was replacing him. That he was even replaceable. It was out of the question.

But Eddie, Angela, and Brown Eyes helped me understand that it wasn’t the question that I had wrong—it was the answer. I wasn’t asking because Alan’s love hadn’t been enough. I was asking because it had been more than enough. It had lifted me and filled me and carried me gently when I didn’t even know I needed it. I could feel it when he watched me sleep in the morning, by the patient way he answered my questions on everything from foreign policy to the way last night’s movie had ended after I inevitably knocked out.

I miss the blond hairs on his arms. I miss his smell. I miss sharing life with him. The yearning to find someone new isn’t a way of replacing him as I’d feared. It’s a testament to how wonderful I know life can be with someone. And it’s because Alan showed me that that kind of love exists that I want to find it again. I don’t fully know what that means, but I’m ready to let myself find out.


SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley.

Read more FGP essays by Sobrina Tung Pies.

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About a Ring

By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr
By Gautier Poupeau/ Flickr

By Nikki Schulak

“This essay doesn’t have to be about our affair,” my boyfriend, who’s also a writer, told me.

This can just be a story about a ring.


My son Max turns fourteen next month. He was sprawled on the couch watching a YouTube video—that viral Bruno Mars lip-dub marriage proposal that took place in Portland—when my husband and I came in from walking the dog.

David and I were in the middle of having the Why Don’t You Take Drum Lessons bicker. This is the one where I nag at him to find a hobby, and he says, “It’s not your responsibility to organize my life” and then I say, “I just want you to get out more, and be happy,” and then I get pouty, and he gets mad, and then I get mad that he’s mad.

Max looked up from his phone like he’d just realized we were in the room. “How did you—you know—propose to Mom?” he asked.

David and I stopped our bickering and collected ourselves.

I answered Max’s question even though I knew it was meant for David. “He got down on his knee. He gave me a dozen roses.”

“Yeah, everybody does that,” Max said. “I mean, what did he do that was special?

“Knee bending and roses are romantic,” I explained.

David spoke up. “Well, son.” He lowered his voice in the name of drama. “I chased her—from the Upper East side to the Upper West side—by cab.”

“You did?” This was more the kind of story Max had expected. Put some music behind it, and you’ve got a YouTube video.

Our whole engagement story is in fact special, but not the kind of special I’m ready to share with my teenager. I didn’t tell Max, for instance, that I’d bullied David into marrying me. Maybe “bullied” is too strong a word. I’d said something along the lines of, “David, we have to get married as soon as possible.”

And he said, “Why?”

And I said, “Because my parents are going to die soon, and it’s important to me that they see me get married.” My father had late stage diabetes. My mother’s breast cancer had metastasized to her bones. Then I added, “I love you, honey. But if you aren’t ready to get married, then we’re going to have to break up because I need to find someone who is.”

After that, our conversation went on so long, I had to take a taxi to my psychiatrist’s appointment on the West side instead of the cross-town bus.

When I told the psychiatrist about my marriage proposal, she said, “Sometimes women are ready to get married before men are. Give him a little time.” My session lasted another twenty minutes. And, sure enough, when I walked out of the building, there was David waiting on the sidewalk. He did get down on a knee and handed me a dozen roses and said, “Nikki, I realize now if I don’t marry you, it will be the biggest mistake of my life.”

Then we walked along Central Park West holding hands until we found a pay phone and I called my mother. “Mom,” I said. “David and I are getting married!”

“Oh, Nikki, thank God!”

Then she asked, “When?”

“This summer, I think, Mom. On the farm.”

And she started to cry.

When we called David’s parents, his mother said, “Oh my goodness.” I couldn’t tell if she was excited or appalled.


A few months after we’d announced our engagement, David and I gathered in the dining room of his Grandmother Kaska’s house with his parents, Anton and Margaret, and my parents, Bernie and Esther, and David’s sister. We couldn’t gather in the living room because it was full with two grand pianos. Kaska had trained at a conservatory in Switzerland before the war, and had then taught piano in Queens for more than forty years.

The china cabinet in the dining room was filled with ivory figurines from China and silver sugar bowls with silver tongs and bottles of liquor dating back to the fifties. On the walls were oil painted scenes of Paris, and Brussels, and also a few dark portraits.

I hadn’t expected an engagement ring. David and I had never discussed it, and it wasn’t something I had ever dreamed about. So when his family gave me the diamond, I was surprised. My hands are not beautiful. I garden without gloves and at the time I worked with animals, cleaning cages, and my nails are thin and tear easily and I bite them. After I started wearing the diamond, I tried to take better care of my hands. I’d quit biting for a while, months at a time, but then, I’d be at the movies, and the film would be suspenseful, and before I knew it, my nails would be raw and my cuticles would bleed.

Grandmother Kaska sat at the head of the table. On the wall behind her was a portrait of a woman who could have easily been mistaken for a man. Kaska said, “Nikki, I’m going to tell you a story.

“This”—she turned and pointed to the portrait, her eighty year old fingers bent and swollen from arthritis—“was Vera. Vera was my mother-in-law, Rajmund’s mother. She was the first to wear the ring.” Everyone in the room looked at the portrait of Vera, who looked back at us. “Vera’s husband worked in the diamond industry and he made the ring for her, in Amsterdam.

“When I became engaged to Rajmund, Vera took the ring off her finger and put it on mine. I wore that ring to Cuba when we couldn’t get into the United States. Three years later, I wore it to Ellis Island.” Kaska took a sip of tea. “When Margaret got engaged to my son, I took the ring off my finger and put it on hers.” Now Kaska looked at the ring on Margaret’s finger, so we all did.

My mother once told me, “Remember, when you get married, you’re marrying a whole family.”

Then Margaret got up from the table. She came and stood between David and me, and she took the ring off her finger. “I have to admit,” she said, “I thought I’d wear this ring a few more years.” She handed the ring to David, and he slipped it on my finger. Actually, he didn’t slip the ring on my finger, because it wasn’t a perfect fit, although by the time we got married in August, and I’d lost my bride pounds, the ring did fit just fine.

Margaret sat back down. “Go ahead and get a new setting if you don’t like this one,” she said. “I know you’re hard on your hands.” Everyone at the table looked at my hands. “But then, of course, with a new setting, it would no longer be the same ring.”

David’s sister, who was in high school at the time, said, “It’s weird to see it on your hand, Nikki. I’ll always associate it with my mother.”

My mother said, “I can’t believe my daughter is going to wear a diamond.”

I told this story to my girlfriend Penny. Penny has many diamonds, and I told her how the ring on my finger is ceremonially passed from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law in each generation, and that the expectation is that someday, I will give this ring to my son’s fiancée. Penny, who’s husband recently gave her some $2500 Kiki de Montparnasse pearl restraints and the accompanying 24K dipped handcuffs with key and chain for Mother’s Day, said, “Give your diamond engagement ring away to your daughter-in-law? Darling, I think that’s assuming an awful lot.”

I do wonder, though, who will I give it to? Because my son and my daughter both currently date girls, it’s possible I’ll have more than one daughter-in-law. Then what? Does it go to the spouse of the child who marries first? Or the one I like best? This is confusing, perhaps, but the important thing is this: the ring has been handed from one generation to the next, from mother-in-law to daughter-in-law for over one hundred years; it was on my finger that the ring broke.


When I had the affair, then came out about it to David, I explained to him that I didn’t want to end the relationship with my boyfriend and I didn’t want to stop being a wife, either, and that was the beginning of our open marriage.

The transition was not elegant. David was hurt, and angry, and surprised. I became the family pariah, which of course, every family needs. David and I went to counseling, first just the two of us, then, my boyfriend, too. We called it tri-therapy, and it went on long enough that we couldn’t afford to rent a place at the beach that summer because our entire vacation budget was going to the therapist.

Near the same time we were becoming a truple, we had a step-niece who was divorcing after four years of marriage. Our kids had been in the wedding—a big wedding, at a vineyard in the Willamette Valley. The family opinion was that the divorce was unfortunate, especially given the twins, but still, much more socially acceptable than what David and I were choosing to do.

“It’s not like they get to vote,” David said.

“An open marriage?” David’s mother said to us. “What the hell am I supposed to tell people?”

“Tell people we love each other,” I answered. “And tell them that we love parenting our kids together in the same house.”

“But you cheated on him,” Margaret said.

“Tell them our sex life had irreconcilable differences. Tell them David’s dating lots of nice women. He’s doing just fine for himself.”

She considered this. “Why didn’t you come to us sooner? Maybe we could have helped.” Then she bestowed some advice: “Lots of married couples don’t have sex. After a while, in a marriage, sex doesn’t matter.”

“For me it matters,” I said to her. “It matters to me. And believe me, it matters to your son.”

What I didn’t tell her was that David hadn’t gone down on me in twenty years; that he’d confessed in couple’s therapy that he’d “never been that attracted to me,” but he thought it didn’t matter. I had tried to make myself more attractive to him. I lost weight, I dyed my hair, I wore sexy clothes and lingerie, but nothing I did made him want me the way I wanted to be wanted.


I asked my step-niece out for lunch. Sadie is the one member of my family who didn’t treat me like a pariah at the family gatherings we still got invited to. I admired her, and I trusted her to give me the straight story.

“Sadie, I feel a little paranoid. It’s been more than a year since you got divorced, and I came out about the affair, and I get this sense like everybody in the family is still just talking about me behind my back.”

“You aren’t paranoid. Everybody is still talking about you behind your back.” She took a big bite of her turkey reuben. “We have parties you aren’t invited to.”

“I know about the parties. What are they saying about me?”

“I knew you’d ask, so I brought some notes.” She took her Smart Phone out of her purse. “Do you want me to read them to you now, or do you want me to send them to you in an e-mail?”

“Oh my God, Sadie. Just read them.” The ice was melting in my tea.

I’ll never get over that she lied to us. It’s shameful.

I can forgive her for the affair. It’s the fact that she hasn’t stopped with that boyfriend.

If her parents were alive, they would be embarrassed by her choices.

She should take off that family ring and give it back to Margaret. Of course now no one will ever want to wear it.

And my personal favorite:

They should take their daughter out of St Mary’s and put her in the public schools.

Sadie closed her phone and finished her sandwich. “I’m sorry, Nikki. I’ve got about five more minutes and then I have to head back to the office. Let’s have dinner soon.”

“Listen. I don’t want to have to explain about us anymore. Neither does David. We’re always on the defensive. I want us all to be able to be in the same room at Thanksgiving this year. I really want to know: What do you think we should do?” Sadie freshened her lipstick. She took her keys out of her purse and set them on the table.

“You’re the ones who’ve chosen the morally ambiguous path. You owe them more education.”

I know Sadie hated selling their bungalow after the divorce. She hates the shared custody. She hates the way her kids come back from weekends with their dad all tense and frazzled.

My boyfriend is a good man. He and David get along. The kids like him. So does the dog. He makes homemade burgers that our son describes as “the best he’s ever eaten.” He was our daughter’s preferred driving instructor this summer.

“What we’re doing isn’t destructive,” I say. “It’s not simple, or easy, but it’s working for us.”

“Don’t tell me,” she said. “Tell them.”


I did not take the ring off out of shame or as a protest. The shank split just as we were preparing for a big family trip, and when we got back, I was busy and it sat in a box on a shelf in my bedroom for six months. The jeweler I took it to for repair called the split a “stress fracture” and told me it wasn’t my fault. He said the solder line had worn down from years of rubbing and normal wear. He asked me when I’d had it resized.

“Never. I think my mother-in-law had it resized when she gave it to me—more than twenty years ago.”

The jeweler nodded his head as if that explained everything, and he studied the ring with his loupe. “This diamond isn’t particularly brilliant, but it’s charming. I’d estimate it was cut sometime between 1790 and 1820.”

“1790? It’s older than I thought.”

The jeweler looked up at me.

“Old?” He kept a straight face. “This diamond was formed in the earth more than a billion years ago.” He looked back at the diamond and added, “This is an old European Cut. It’s got a high crown, a small table, and a large, flat culet. It also has a circular girdle, and—take a look here—it has fifty-eight facets.”

“That’s interesting,” I said. “The family tells a different story.”

He shrugged, then he pointed out that there was some prong failure. He got out a little envelope, dropped the ring in, and wrote out a claim slip. “I’ll have it done by next Saturday.”

When I got back home from the jeweler, I texted David.

Me: The ring was made by Vera’s husband and given to her, right? Because the according to the jeweler, the diamond is actually older than we thought. Can you ask your dad about this?

David: Actually, I think the ring was originally forged by Sauron. In Mordor.

Me: And can you ask your dad what his grandfather’s name was? And what year did he and Vera marry?

David: Why don’t you just ask my dad yourself?

So I sent my father-in-law a quick, casual e-mail, asking about the ring. He still hasn’t replied.


When I picked up the ring, the band sparkled in a way I’d never noticed. The jeweler asked if I’d like my other rings cleaned as well. I didn’t know that gold needed to be cleaned. I handed him the two other rings I wear: my mother’s wedding ring, that I’ve worn since she died nineteen years ago, and my wedding ring, which I’ve never had cleaned in the twenty-one years I’ve worn it. He didn’t comment on my mother’s simple gold band, but he admired my wedding ring. “This is old, too,” he said, impressed. “I’d estimate 1820s—because of the Lily of the Valley pattern, and the quality of the gold. Is it eighteen carat?”

“I don’t think so…”

“Is it English?”

“I don’t think so…”

He looked inside the band and found the inscription “David and Nikki 1994”. David’s wedding band has the same inscription as mine, except in his ring, my name comes first. We had asked the woman who designed the rings for us to copy an old pattern. We wanted them to look seasoned, like they’d seen a lot of love.

The jeweler shrugged.

Despite the family’s opinions, I don’t have any intentions of returning the engagement ring early. Partly, this is because I like the way it looks on my hand now that I’ve discovered a good gel manicure holds up for weeks, and partly because my boyfriend whispers sexy things in my ear when I’m wearing it, and partly because I won’t be shamed. I want my kids to associate this ring with my finger. Someday, I want them to reflect on the fact that I didn’t take it off.


NIKKI SCHULAK writes and performs comedy about bodies and relationships. Her work has been published in numerous journals and websites. Her essay “On Not Seeing Whales” (Bellevue Literary Review) was chosen as a Notable Selection in Best American Essays 2013. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her teenagers, her husband, her boyfriend, and her beloved dog, Calvin.


Summer of the Senior Discount

By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Patricia O’Connor

If you had known me as a kid, you would not have pegged me as a tree-hugging granola girl. Sure, my family loved nature, just not intimately. Friends’ families went camping (unsanitary) or canoeing (unstable) or skiing (expensive, probably deadly). My family went on road trips. We drove through or around Yellowstone, Estes, Grand Canyon, and Mesa Verde. My mother, a tuberculosis survivor who believed that if one couldn’t sit in the lap of luxury, a reasonable compromise is to just sit, and my father, a former farm boy who had spent too much of his youth shoveling the smellier elements of nature, preferred to view the great parks through a windshield. Any forays from the car were to the well-paved lookouts where Dad, in his Saturday Sansabelts, would snap photos of his doughy children leaning against the reinforced railing that safely separated us from the wild.

As an adult, I want to experience nature more naturally. I hike, snow shoe, ski, kayak, swim—albeit not very often or particularly well. Keep in mind that I got a late start.

I was just on the shady side of fifty when I returned to the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, this time with my husband Jeff and our teenaged daughter Kate, and I was looking forward to experiencing the park on foot. The first test of our bi-pedal fortitude was to stand in line for forty-five minutes to acquire our passes for ranger-guided tours of Balcony House and Cliff Palace, two of the most spectacular cliff dwellings in the park.

Eventually, we were greeted by a woman nearly my mother’s age perched behind a tall, wooden counter. Jeff initiated the conversation, but she trained her rheumy eyes on me.

“Did they tell you,” she asked me, “that The Balcony House hike is very strenuous with thirty-two feet of ladders, narrow tunnels and walk ways overlooking hundred-foot drops?”

They would have been her fellow ranger retirees, one of whom was a wiry gentleman wearing Tevas with socks who told us that if he had to choose only one site to visit, it would be Balcony House because it is so “arduous.”

“It is very challenging.” She raised her wiry eyebrows for emphasis. “You might want to just wait up top in the car.”

“Excuse me?”

I wondered what she could see through the thick, curved wall of the wooden counter—the bluish swell of veins along the insides of my calves, perhaps. Could she detect my fallen right arch propped up by orthotics, my weak ankle and attendant knee? Perhaps she could smell my pheromones and determined that I am postmenopausal and therefore at increased risk for osteoporosis and heart disease. I am again a bit doughy, as I was when I first visited the park as a child, but no more so than many other people in line, less so, in fact. I fucking do Zumba, lady.

“Just be careful,” she said, tapping the edge of counter closest to me as if she were patting my hand. Did she think that we were contemporaries? How could we be, I thought, observing the half dollar-sized purplish-black carcinomas peering through her thinning hair, the plume of white that sprouted like pampas grass from a mole on her neck, the slight palsy in the hand still reaching for my own?

“I’ll be just fine, thank you very much.”

“Me too,” said Jeff helpfully, and he steered me away before I could say anything more.

Our first stop was at the Spruce Tree Dwelling (where I did not wait in the car). We hiked down switchbacks to the circa 1190 structure where the Early Pueblo people once lived. My long-legged husband and daughter sprinted ahead. I marched steadily at my own, more comfortable pace. I am generally the carrier of the camera, not to mention the family backpack loaded with waters, sunscreen, and snacks. As family historian, I must allow time for photo ops. As a writer, I must allow time for rumination and observation, but as a fifty-something, perhaps I just need more time.

I pondered this along with the Counter Lady’s warnings as I made my descent. I noticed I was following a woman wearing three-inch wedged heels and carrying a designer purse tucked tidily under her armpit. I wondered if my Counter Lady had a cautionary conversation with her. What about the very white family from Holland who embarked on their hike without hats or sunglasses, or—judging by the pinking of their noses and ears—sunscreen? What about the myriad flatlanders attempting to hike in flip flops, the gay couple (one of whom sported ballet flats), the pair of Cheetos-fed adolescents in their XX Large, orange-dusted T-shirts drawn taught against their heaving chests—did any of these travelers receive the Counter Lady’s dire warning, or was it just me?

I was still fuming about this when we stopped for lunch at the cafeteria near the visitor’s center. Kate took off to peruse the gift shop, while Jeff and I lingered to finish off the brownie we shouldn’t have ordered.

“Is it my imagination, or was that lady singling me out with the warning thing?” I asked him.

“No. It was really obvious. She was talking to you.”

“She didn’t seem worried about you at all.” Sure, Jeff is better coordinated, faster, and stronger than I am, but I exercise more than he does. Beneath his bargain-box tee-shirt with the Mickey Mouse ears and the letters C-A-L-I-F-O-R-I-N-I-A laid out in a misspelled arch beats a heart that loathes gyms. And beneath his Cardinal’s baseball cap hides his balding pate. But that’s not what the Counter Lady saw. She saw only the fine fringe beneath the rim that is the same fawny brown it was when I met him thirty years ago.

“It’s my hair, isn’t it?” I asked, but I knew the answer. It’s my effing hair, my long, wavy, slightly sweaty, gray hair.

“Yeah, probably so.” It’s the answer he didn’t want to give. He spent a year convincing me that going gray wouldn’t be so bad. I had been chemically dependent on drug store dyes for more than twenty years. I dyed every month up to my fiftieth year, and I would have kept on dyeing had I not poisoned myself.

It happened one afternoon. I made the mistake of answering the phone shortly after applying my box color to my hair. The call was from an old friend whose wife had just left him. What was I supposed to do—tell him to hold his story so I could rinse the toxic sludge off my head? I either ignored the timer or didn’t set it. By the time I got off the phone, my entire head was sizzling. I ran to the shower, but it was too late. My scalp was raw, oozing clear pus from open wounds. For the next few days, I felt like I had the flu. My head ached both inside and out. Everything tasted faintly of chemicals. My doctor sent me for blood tests. My liver is fine, thank you, but that experience scared me straight. I haven’t cracked open a box of color since.

I spent the next eight months visiting the salon the way another addict might visit a methadone clinic. Bridgette, my therapist/stylist, mixed high- and low-lights (none of the above ever touched my scalp) to create a hazy blend of brown and gray. Eventually, highlights stopped offering contrast, lowlights wouldn’t take: I was gray.

Honestly, it was a relief not to play the dyeing game anymore. I was glad to be rid of the gloves, goo, and stench, not to mention the potentially toxic overexposure to trideceth-2, carboxamide mea, propylene glycol, hexylene glycol, and aluminum hydroxide.

As I progressed in my recovery, I developed a kind of radar for dye jobs. I saw them everywhere—the fresh and too vibrant brunettes or luminescent blondes, the barbeque reds. And the dimming shades, I saw them too—the tinny, brassy, dulling, sometimes frizzing tresses, the tell-tale skunk stripe at the scalp foreshadowing emergency trips to Walgreen’s or desperate phone calls to stylists: How soon can you get me in? I was free of that now.

I could see them easily, but I felt less seen. As my hair grew lighter, I noticed fewer people made eye contact with me in stores and restaurants. The barista at the coffee stand at the community college where I teach stopped asking me how my day was going. A new acquaintance asked how much older than Jeff I am. I’m just waiting for some freakin’ Boy Scout to offer to help me cross the street. Or maybe up to some cliff dwellings.

You might want to wait in the car.

“This is exactly what I wanted to avoid all those years by dyeing.”

“I know,” Jeff said, trying to soothe me.

“Women are treated differently when they go gray.”

“It isn’t right.”

I could tell that he couldn’t decide if he wanted to try to calm me down or run off to join Kate in the gift shop.

“This, this was blatant.”


“And from a woman!” I roared as Kate walked up. She looked at her dad, then at me.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Nothing. I’m just a grumpy old lady.”

“I could have told you that,” she said. I must have glared at her.

“Jeez. Take a joke, why don’t you?”


My appalling lack of humor about ageism is nothing new. I remember as a toddler, my parents would trot me out at dinner and cocktail parties to spell C-A-M-E-R-A or S-O-M-B-R-E-R-O. Guests sloshing high balls and Manhattans would ooh and aah for my parents. But they talked to me in that high-pitched voice adults reserve for infants and Chihuahuas.

As an older teen, I would balk when my mother, who ran the sales department of the family want-ad business, insisted on taking me along on sales calls. My jobs were to drive the car and fill out the paperwork. I was her “shill,” she joked, but I didn’t think it was funny when a lecherous client would offer me Cokes from the mini-fridge and invite me to sit a little closer.

I rankled as a young adult on my first writing job at a city lifestyle magazine when the then editor called me “honey” and assigned me the crappy fashion and shopping guide stories. To be fair, I was young and untested as a writer, and if I were the editor, I might have given me fluff stories to start, but I wanted to be taken seriously, even as a toddler, a teen, and young adult. Too often I felt dismissed as a kid or girl.

Eventually, I outgrew all these awkward and easily-labeled phases of life and hit the sweet spot, chronologically speaking – sometime around thirty through early forties. This is the age of relative respect in a woman’s life. You still have your looks, but you look like you might have some experience. By this age, you probably have launched a career, maybe had a child, have done, or at least begun, some important life work.

But, I was a late bloomer. The looks started to go before the career was launched, before my baby was a toddler, before I was ready. I kept dyeing not because I wanted to be a Barbie or a bombshell. I just wanted to linger in that sweet spot a little longer, before I felt discounted again.

My mother, who is a very young eighty-nine-year-old, still lives alone, drives, plays the piano and keeps up with the news. Sometimes when I take her shopping she insists that we bring her “Cripple Card” so that we can park in handicapped spots. She says she wants to spare me the long walks, and she takes my hand. She likes it when we shop together, but she is annoyed when I try to do too much for her. She is perfectly capable of carrying her own bags, of retrieving her own mail from the box. “I’m not as old as you think,” she says. She speaks slowly so I can understand: “I’m not in-valid. You are dis-abling me.”


We arrived a few minutes early for the Balcony House tour and parked in the lot overlooking the first descent before the arduous, strenuous, death-defying climb. Jeff and Kate suggested I might want to wait in the car. “We’ll crack a window,” Jeff offered. I offered my middle finger in return.

My anxiety, which had not been great, diminished considerably when we joined our fellow adventurers at the shaded and paved waiting area. Among them was a long-limbed woman from London who appeared to be at least six months pregnant, the increasingly pink-nosed family from Holland, and the gay couple, one half of whom had exchanged his ballet slippers for flip flops. In fact, flip-flops outnumbered Keens, Tevas, and athletic shoes. There were sunglasses and hats, but only on the smallest of children, one of whom was a three- or four-year-old boy with round, red, tear-stained cheeks who was in need of a nap.

The ranger introduced herself as Nancy. She looked to be near my own age with a thick, wavy (dyed) auburn hair and a matter-of-fact attitude. She asked us to introduce ourselves and to say where we were from. “Let’s find out who has traveled the farthest.”

The English lady and the Dutch family were in the lead until we met Yaya and Jack, a couple who had flown in from Qatar that morning to visit their daughter and her family living in Colorado on a work visa. Judging from their attire—casual business slacks and basic brown lace ups for Jack, a floral short-sleeved blouse and black walking shorts for Yaya—the couple had no idea what they had agreed to do on their first afternoon in the States. Jack and Yaya’s daughter and son-in-law, each with a child on hip or in hand, seemed well acclimated to high altitude and thin air of the Rocky Mountain desert. Jack looked pale and clammy. Yaya looked terrified, particularly when she looked at Jack.

Privately, I wondered if they had come all this way to break the news in person: Jack has congestive heart failure, or Jack has leukemia, or Jack has any number of ailments that make taking him on this arduous, strenuous, death-defying climb a bad idea. But there couldn’t have been time for such a conversation so early in their trip. The young couple with their very young kids seemed unconcerned by their father’s waxy complexion. But Yaya and me, we were worried.

How is it that I got the Counter Lady’s warning and these people did not?

I was wrong. Everyone got the warning, just no one took it seriously. Ranger Nancy recited the same narrative, even added details that the Counter Lady omitted: “If you are acrophobic, claustrophobic, suffer from shortness of breath or poor balance, this may not be the hike for you.” In addition, she said, you must be able to climb under your own power and use both hands on the ladders, so “children must be able to climb unassisted.”

The ranger looked at the family from Qatar. I looked at the red-cheeked preschooler. Yaya looked at Jack. Jack looked into the middle distance. No one spoke. And so we were off.

Ranger Nancy stopped us from time to time to tell us about the dwellings. Balcony House wasn’t the largest of the cliff dwellings, but it may have been one of the best protected. Tucked into the rock wall like a multi-roomed pearl in an oversized oyster, the dwelling would have been virtually invisible from above. Invaders from below would have had to climb hand-over-hand up sheer rock to reach the hidey-hole homes, which is to say their hands would be otherwise occupied and unable to wield their weapons, making them easy pickings for the cliff dwellers above. Further, invaders were usually flatlanders, unused to the ups and downs of cliff life. Of course, the cliff-dwelling people were expert climbers, often hoisting baskets of food or water along with themselves up the rock wall, nothing more than their fingernails with which to secure their purchase. Even the children skittered up and down the rock like spiders. I wonder if Ranger Nancy enjoyed telling us this bit so that we modern-day climbers might feel a little like sissies relying on the sturdy, double-sided ladders secured to the rock by bolts and cables. As an added protection, our thirty-two-foot ascent wasn’t continuous, as the Counter Lady would have led me to believe. Instead, we climbed two discrete ladders, separated from each other by a bit of paved trail and a short set of concrete steps—with railings. Easy peas. Even the preschoolers skittered.

The second ladder delivered us to the dwellings themselves. Our party spread along the narrow walk ways that circled sunken kivas and edged the rock walls of the remaining apartment-style sleeping quarters. We paused not only to observe the ceilings stained black with thousand-year-old smoke, the symbols etched into the stone indicating wind, water, or the cycle of life, the worn footprints in the stone floor, but also to catch our breath and enjoy the cool shade provided by the stone alcove. Everyone was quiet, even the children.

Ranger Nancy used this time to tell us a bit about the Ancestral Puebloans. It is politically incorrect, she informed us, to call the original dwellers Anasazi. The old Navajo word does not just mean “Ancient ones,” as we were taught as kids. It literally means “ancestors of our enemies.” The new terminology is more accurate. The natives of the Four Corners area didn’t die out but moved on to become the Pueblo Indians of Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado.

The Ancestral Puebloans took up residence 1,400 years ago and made a good long run of it—seven hundred years—here in the rocks. Their lives were difficult, not only in terms of acrobatics and tribal warfare, but they were at the mercy of the weather. The average life expectancy of an Ancestral Puebloan was thirty-five years, said Ranger Nancy. Jack and I would have been anomalies.

Jack was still standing, if winded, during this high-altitude lecture. Yaya leaned heavily against a rock. But eventually, the lecture ended, and it was time to move on. The next hurdle was to climb up a large boulder-sized ridge to reach a narrow crawl space. We would be aided, Ranger Nancy said, by hand and foot holds left for us by the Ancients. For most, the hand and foot holds were unnecessary. The flip floppers all but flew up the rock. But Jack struggled. He slid. Yaya tried to grab his arm but missed. His son-in-law caught him and helped pull him up to a flat spot where he could get down on his hands and knees in order to crawl through the narrow tunnel. Jack and his family disappeared into the dark crevice before we even entered it. Kate moved gracefully ahead of me, and I followed, less gracefully, behind.

Finally, we reached the last set of ladders that would return us to the top, but the flow of traffic stopped. Jack was stuck, seemingly unable to move up or down the ladder. Yaya was ahead of him, cajoling him to move forward. The son-in-law positioned himself beneath Jack, prepared to give him another boost.

Jack’s arms and legs shook. He stared vacantly, away from the stone wall before him, ignoring the worried voices, the overly helpful hands. When he was ready, he climbed. When he needed to, he rested. Eventually, he made it to the top. We were too far behind to see Jack crest that final rung. I didn’t get to see him hurried off to the car or the rest area where he could throw back some baby aspirin or nitroglycerine or whatever he needed. But I’m sad I didn’t get to see his face. I would like to think he wore an expression that said to Yaya, his daughter and son-in-law, the preschoolers and the other adventurers, I made it, suckers, and you didn’t think I could!

I had underestimated Jack. I had underestimated the flip floppers, the preschoolers, the pregnant and the pink—just as the Counter Lady had underestimated me.


Later that summer, I took Kate and friends to the public pool. The teenaged girl working the sales desk pulled herself away from a giggly conversation with off-duty life guards. “Do you consider yourself a senior?” she asked, not quite looking at me.

“No, I do not,” I snapped. I consider you impertinent, I thought but did not say. I paid the $1.50 extra for my admission—a small price for dignity.

The question came up again and again that summer—at the theater, museum, car wash, amusement park. One woman just gave me the senior coffee (smaller and cheaper) at McDonald’s without even asking.

I went back to my color therapist Bridgette. She walked around me. “The silver is pretty but not on you. Your face is too young.”

I love Bridgette.

Bridgette suggested trying a demi: “A temporary color. It will blend with the gray, and it won’t hurt your scalp.”

And suddenly, I was brunette.

It was like celebrating eighteen months of sobriety with a beer.

Jeff was startled. Kate rolled her eyes. But both said they liked it, kind of. Shortly after the start of the fall semester, a male colleague at the community college stopped me in the copy room: “You look so much better.” I posted my picture on Facebook expecting to receive what-did-you-do-that-for comments. Instead, I received “likes.” People in grocery stores and theater lobbies started talking to me again. And no one asked me if I consider myself a senior.

I’m back, baby!

I am embarrassed to admit it, but I fell all too easily back into the dye. I look at my face once again framed in brown and I see hints of possibility, glimmers that the Counter Lady clearly did not see when she looked at my hoary hair first and at me second. And, to be fair, I looked right back at her as if through her tuft of cotton candy white. Like sisters raised in a culture that treats aging like a disease, we saw in each other what we are expected to see: one compromised, diminished, or, as my mother would say, in-valid.

Kate, my now sixteen-year-old daughter with the long golden brown hair, is far wiser than I. She eschews make up, hair doo-dads, curling irons. She prefers sweat pants to skinny jeans, and she is beautiful. She tells me what she learned in her history class about how cultures who revere their elders tend to be more peaceful. If you want a warrior society, separate the aged from the young.

She tells me this during our trip to the grocery store to pick up a few items for my mother. It’s a Wednesday. Senior discount Wednesday.

The cashier, a man near my own age, looks at me with pleading eyes. He wants forgiveness. “I don’t know how to ask this,” he begins. The young woman bagging the groceries seems annoyed. “He’s trying to ask you if you qualify for the senior discount.”

“I’m fifty-three,” I say.

“Well.” The man seems relieved. “You don’t. It’s so hard to ask. You know, people are so sensitive. I mean a lot of women. They get angry. I don’t mean you. You seem nice.”

He could have meant me, but I smile benevolently and shake my hazy-brown head. “Some people.”


PATRICIA O’CONNOR is a demi-dyed mother, writer, and teacher of English composition living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with her semi-athletic husband and altogether graceful teenaged daughter. Her creative non-fiction work has appeared in Brain, Child and Vela magazines.