Common Purple Lilac

Photo by Michael Rathwell/Flickr
Photo by Michael Rathwell/Flickr

Content warning for sexual assault. —ed.

By Alexis Paige

“Can you believe I drive a friggin’ Volvo?” I text one of my oldest friends. We trade shorthand code, the sort developed with those who have seen you through many decades and phases—the well-scrubbed-coed-ordering-amaretto-sours-without-irony phase, the hairy-armpits-and-knockoff-Birkenstocks-with-wool-socks phase, the slaggy-handkerchief-halter-top-and-bumps-in-the-bathroom-with-the-drummer-or-was-it-the-bassist-from-Metallica phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-still-bartending phase, the can-you-believe-I’m-in-rehab-and/or- jail phase, and now this, the can-you-believe-I’m-driving-a-Volvo-and-Googling-perimenopause phase.

“You in a Volvo station wagon is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard of,” my friend fires back.

Now in my forties and out of the feigning street cred game, I seem by most external measures happy and stable—rooted even. I have something akin to that common domestic dream which Zorba the Greek lamented in the 1964 film: “wife, children, house, everything, the full catastrophe.” I have a devoted husband, an accountant who is also the town fire chief, a bric-a-brac of teaching and editing gigs that passes for a career, three mature lilac bushes, and 2.2 dogs. (I refuse to call them my “fur children.”) Keith and I joke that our three-year-old boxer, George, whose name is loosely derivative of Seinfeld’s George Costanza, counts as 1.2 dogs, the extra two tenths owing to his extra alpha-dog-bro-ness. This exterior sketch of my life on paper isn’t false, just thin. Anthropologists and other social scientists favor a “thick description” of human behavior, one that renders a fuller picture and which explains not only the behavior itself, but also its larger context. A thick description of my life, for example, might include a study of regional linguistics and attitudes, a family tree of mental illness, a personal history of addiction and trauma, and even what it feels like to be a sexual assault survivor during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, Groper-in-Chief. What I suppose I mean by the thick description is that the human condition is a motherfucker.

Beyond our Fisher Price town with its steepled square and mix of Colonial and Victorian storefronts winds the small river that hugs our country road. Between this river and road, farms nestle—some ramshackle, some picturesque—in the furry, coniferous hills of central Vermont. If you scrub past the rosy patina of Norman Rockwell Americana, you find ordinary America too, or perhaps ’Murrica, as some of my local students like to declare proudly: blue tarps and Gadsen flags, guns, black tar heroin, snowmobiles, high rates of domestic and sexual violence, and other assorted clichés of rural poverty and dis-ease.

Down this road a few miles sits the 1830s farmhouse that Keith and I bought last summer, flanked on one side by hay fields and on the other by the not-so-mighty, but lovely, First Branch of the White River. Because we lived in Arizona when I was a child, and swimming pools were ubiquitous, Mom plunked me in a toddler swim class at two, and I’ve been a water lover ever since. Given a chance to swim, especially in the wildness of an ocean, lake, or river, I will stay submerged for hours—until my skin is pruned. Here, in the town that we now call home of just over a thousand souls, I watch and listen to the river daily from our back deck. If the weather is warm and the river high enough, I head down to the water for a dip or to sit on a giant granite boulder, deposited as glacial moraine during the last ice age, and marvel at my luck. Calling this place, any place, home does a number on my psyche, yet here, I’m making peace with the full catastrophe. Something I can’t yet name washes over me here, or perhaps that something is finally washing away.

Nearly fifteen years ago, and six thousand miles from my apartment in San Francisco where I lived in my twenties, I sat nervously in a cold, stone office in the bowels of the stazione policia, on Via Zara in Florence, Italy. I was twenty-five and on my first trip abroad. The night before, I shared dinner with friends on the Piazza Della Repubblica, fifteen minutes by foot from the police station. The night before, I wore an outfit I bought special for the trip: tight red pedal pushers and a tight red blouse, heeled sandals, and a purple head scarf. We chatted gaily with our waiter, who joined us for Fernet Branca and Prosecco after his shift. He spoke little English, and I little Italian, but in broken Spanish and flirty eye contact, we managed well enough. My friends and I and the waiter walked over the Ponte Vecchio, but at some point while browsing the trinket shops and smoking cigarettes with our arms draped through the stone portholes over the Arno, he and I drifted from the group. At another point, I figured they’d gone back to our hotel, and he offered a “corto trayecto” on his moped. Still drunk and sun-baked from the day, intoxicated by the wafting lilac and street disinfectant, and dizzy from the ridges of terracotta rooflines undulating by, the ride exhilarated me in those first moments. But after twisting down more dusty lanes and bumping over cobblestones and emerging onto a faster, wider boulevard, my giddiness evaporated. I began to feel sick and to spin, adrift from my friends and our hotel and the center of town. He slowed the moped to a stop, hopped it onto a sidewalk in front of an apartment building, and with his strange, sweaty hand, the nice-seeming waiter led me up a flight of steps and into his small apartment.

•••

We got here as soon as we could, my husband and I like to say—both in a literal and metaphorical sense—about our arrival in Vermont, about how we are late bloomers, about how long it’s taken to arrive at some place we might call home. We came to Vermont nine years ago, fleeing Houston, Texas, in a little hatchback packed with everything we owned. We drove past the Texas refineries and Louisiana swamps, then into the lush hills of Mississippi and Alabama, and on through the Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah Valley. When we reached the Maryland panhandle, I knew the Mason-Dixon Line was close, and once over that arbitrary boundary, my body flooded with relief, as if I had been safely extracted from behind enemy lines.

I say that we fled because at the time we felt that we had to get out of Texas if we wanted to make it. A few months before I met Keith, I got drunk and crashed my jeep into three other cars at a major city intersection. Miraculously, and despite epic vehicle wreckage, no one was killed, and only one person was hurt. After my initial arrest for drunk driving, I was charged with a felony that carried a five- to ten-year prison sentence, and the ensuing, protracted legal ordeal loomed over everything, including our budding romance. Dating tips don’t cover how to handle the “I’m under felony indictment” conversation on the first date, but Keith stayed, even as life became a two-year blur of court hearings, AA meetings, endless chauffeuring and bus rides, sporadic paychecks from temp agencies that would overlook my circumstances, pre-trial supervision, and finally, a five-day felony trial. I was more fortunate than most who get devoured by the Harris County Criminal Court system, convicted ultimately of a misdemeanor and sentenced to just 121 days in the fearsome Harris County Jail. With good time, I served sixty.

My lawyer’s early admonishment about the Texas criminal justice system proved prophetic: “You might beat the rap, but you won’t beat the ride.” While on the ride, Keith and I talked about “going home” once everything was over. Despite early years out West, I had spent much of my youth in New Hampshire, and on visits to New England Keith became enamored of the beauty, history, and landscape. He grew up in Texas, but as someone who is naturally taciturn, who loves flannel, snow, and early mornings, I suspect he was a New Englander in a past life. While in jail, and with a firm end date and real second chance in hand, we finally began to make plans in earnest. Even though it was considered contraband, I kept a photograph stuck to my bunk with the adhesive strips from a stamp book, so that I could remember what waited for me on the outside. It was a picture of Keith and me, from the trip we made to Vermont for my thirtieth birthday, standing outside in an October snow flurry. Vermont had become our new starting line.

•••

Why did I go with the waiter? This was the tortuous refrain that ran through my mind the morning after, as I sat in the police station. I didn’t speak Italian, but I found a sympathetic translator from the American Consulate who escorted me to the station to help me file a report. Why did I go? I thought, as she mouthed the Italian words for the images that stabbed into my mind as if from a knife. The words sounded cheerful when this nice lady spoke them in Italian, the words for oral sex, for finger penetration, for erect penis, for without consent, for kick-start scooter, for champagne headache, for swarthy waiter, for slim build, for a Calabrian driver’s license, for his email address scrawled on a napkin, for No, for a partial apology in Spanish, for a cigarette afterward, for a walk over the only bridge in Florence to survive World War II, for permission to call my father, for the correct change in liras.

A movie about my twenties would begin happily. A young, quirky Ally Sheedy would star, Sofia Coppola would direct, and most of my boyfriends would be played by John Cusack. These early adult years weren’t without bumbling and angst, but for the most part, I had my act together. I lived in San Francisco, my dream city, where I was on track to complete a master’s program in creative writing. I had my own studio apartment on Russian Hill, a tight group of friends, and steady, lucrative work as a cocktail waitress, which helped me save up for my first European adventure. The itinerary dazzled me—Paris, Amsterdam, Switzerland, Italy, Provence, and finally, Spain—but I never made it past Florence. So, despite the auspicious beginning of my fantasy movie, the film would end unhappily, would tumble perilously thereafter across the screen, in a non-linear montage of depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts, or what one shrink euphemistically called “gestures.” Not even the best film editor could suture these storylines. The jump cut was too rough.

This twist in my story has only recently, all these years later, begun to rise to a place from which I might access and write about it. It’s the story of, and here’s the problem…my rape? Or, my sexual assault? The first term I associate, technically, with penile-vaginal penetration, and the latter with euphemism. None of what happened feels technical or easily categorized, and neither does it seem deserving of euphemism, a language akin to evasion. See how the words still confound me, how the taxonomy remains fraught? I suspect that when the writer becomes a statistic, the language has to be dealt with as much as the event. Is rape what you want to call it? my father said to me in those early days. Of course, he didn’t mean harm. We don’t learn how to talk about such things in our culture, least of all men, least of all middle-aged fathers whose daughters call from payphones halfway around the world to say, Daddy, I’ve been raped. While I understand his quibbling now as an effort to make the thing somehow lesser or more manageable, or perhaps as an effort to attach language to the nightmare that we all could then live with, those words damaged me.

I felt misunderstood and silenced, as if I couldn’t be trusted to name my own experience. Though legal language varies, RAINN—the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network—defines rape as “Penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” Even though, technically, my experience does fit the definition, the truth is that I remain ambivalent about whether to call what happened to me rape.

Not long after the incident, the translator stopped returning my emails. Over time, I got mail from the Italian court that I couldn’t read. One letter came. Then maybe another. This timeline, too, is fuzzy, mired as these months were in heavy drinking and a growing dalliance with cocaine. When I returned from Italy, I holed up in my boyfriend Mike’s nondescript apartment in the Outer Richmond, which in those years was still a working class neighborhood on the northwestern corner of the peninsula. His apartment was closer to my university and far away from my friends who lived downtown. Its location conscribed a small, anonymous circle of the city in which I could limit my travel and social activity. I felt safe only in the darkness of his apartment and zipped into the anesthesia provided by the drinking. But the safety was an illusion, and the alcohol and drugs provided only temporary relief—if anything, they slickened the slippery in-roads of my mind. Previously closed-off territory opened up, as if in a nightmarish version of Chutes and Ladders, wherein I replayed every slutty thing I’d ever done and every unpleasant encounter.

Long buried before, I suddenly remembered another assault, dredged from the depths of my consciousness like a car hauled from a riverbed, mud-caked and slick with algae. I was seventeen that time, and in my first week of college at Rutgers University in central New Jersey. Late in that first week, a junior from my dorm, a fast-talking, animated guy from Jersey City, took an interest. Now, of course, I know I should have been wary of a guy whose opening line to my roommate and me was, “Youse freshmen?”, but then I was charmed. His accent and swagger were so different from the Boston Irish guys I grew up with, and he was not just some immature high school boy, but a college student—a man. Within minutes he was showing me his Don Mattingly swing impression and inviting my roommate and me to his dorm room for movies later that night. We went, of course, and while my roommate made out with his roommate (another beefy guy from Jersey City) beneath the Under-the-Sea phantasmagoria created by a spinning lava lamp, he made a move on me. We kissed for a minute, but a hunger in his movements frightened me, and before long I demurred, asking him to “slow down.” But he was somewhere else, his eyes glazed and fixed on the wall behind me. In fact, he sped up after I said that, as if further aroused, and then rolled on top of me.

“C’mon, baby,” he grunted, grinding his erection into my thigh. I tried to push him off of me, but he wouldn’t give.

“Please stop,” I said shakily, looking over at my friend who seemed oblivious and tangled up with the roommate. I assumed happily so, but I have wondered since if she had been in trouble too. How could I know what I was seeing, having never been taught what to look for? He pulled my shirt up and took my breasts in his mouth, suckled hard and with his teeth, then cupped my crotch over my jeans, rubbing his thumb hard back and forth against the zipper, which is where I imagine that he imagined my clitoris was. Finally, I managed to wiggle free by shimmying up the bed and wriggling out from between his legs. I hopped off the bed, pulled my shirt down, grabbed my bag and shoes, and clutched them to my chest to hide my breasts, which were still loose from the bra that was now pulled around my shoulders like a sash. I hurried to the door with the man panting after me.

“Don’t leave,” he begged. “I promise I’ll be good. You’re just so sexy, baby.” But once I was in the threshold of the door, he turned off the charm like a switch, and snarled after me down the hallway, “Bitch.” It’s probably important to point out that Rutgers, a state school where most students’ hometowns were no more than two hours away, was desolate on the weekends—an additional factor that made my roommate and me, two rubes from out of state, easy prey. As I rounded the corner to the freshman wing of the dorm I heard him holler the charming words that my roommate and I later turned into a kind of revenge refrain: “You can’t just leave me hanging! You gotta jerk me off or sumtin.”

•••

Mike worked long hours as an options trader, but I remember that one night he came home early with takeout. I couldn’t tell you whether this happened six weeks or six months after the rape, nor whether it was meant as a gesture of kindness or normalcy, or even as a gesture at all, but his early return with dinner was unusual. Without much comment, I took a plate heaped with fried rice and egg rolls and my tumbler of White Russian and plunked down on the floor in front of the television in the living room. I had gained maybe fifteen pounds since the assault, and while I was nowhere near fat, neither was I the lithe ingénue he began dating years before. We were on the outs anyway, so what he said to me then—while not untrue—didn’t penetrate my new armor.

I was fortified by then, had taken up residence in my own sad kingdom. Standing in the doorway, his arms crossed, and with a mix of tenderness and perhaps disgust, he said, “Where is my bright, beautiful girl? I don’t recognize you anymore.”

I smiled wryly, raised my cocktail as in a toasting gesture, and said, “That, my love, is exactly the point.”

I spent less and less time at my own apartment, which now seemed a place belonging to another person and time, a “before” shot from the “before and after” portrait of my own life. Through a bartender friend, I had lucked into the cute, cheap, centrally-located rental. No one I knew paid seven hundred dollars for a studio in the heart of the city, let alone one with a private garden patio that teemed with bougainvillea, lavender, rosemary, eucalyptus, and the Purple Chinese Houses that looked like ornate, amethyst bib necklaces. The elderly, housebound woman who lived upstairs had cultivated the garden for decades, but since she could no longer enjoy it, the garden became my private Eden—an idyll rich with a bracing cologne of eucalyptus and herbs. But that was before. After, I preferred exile.

No one seemed to want to talk about the assault anyway, or no one knew what to say, but perhaps that characterization isn’t fair—or even accurate. Memorably, someone did say something—just the right thing, in fact. In a hand-written note on delicate ivory stationary, Jenna, a motorcycle-riding, beer-drinking girlfriend originally from Down East Maine, wrote: “You are the purest little rosebud, just beginning to flower. Please don’t let this stop your petals from opening to the sun. Remember, in the end it is harsh pruning and bull shit that makes the rosebush grow strong.” Perhaps I convinced myself that it was easier for everyone else, when I actually meant that it was easier for me, to forget the whole thing. After all, it happened a continent away, in another language even. The more that time passed the fuzzier and more distant the details became. Occasionally I would pull out the Italian paperwork from a file box. Four documents summarize my sexual assault: a report made by my friends; an initial filing made by me at a mobile police unit; a complete report made to the Florence police; and a notification I received from the court many months later, and which as far as I can make out, gave me twenty days to declare a domicile in Italy. I can read Spanish, and the languages are close, but still the documents are hard to decipher. I thought over the years about getting someone to translate them for me, but again it seemed easier to let it lie, to let the words, and therefore the event, remain a kind of secret or mystery that I kept even from myself. In a sense, then, I answered my father’s rhetorical question about what to call it by default, be deciding not to call it anything, to put the whole thing in an unlabeled box, and bury it on some godforsaken alien continent inside me.

•••

Why did I go? I hate that I still ask myself this. I know this what-if game leads only to self-blame and shame, but I play anyway, because this is what sexual assault victims do. Perhaps I shouldn’t have worn red, shouldn’t have flirted, and shouldn’t have asked where we could get some pot. But actually, it was my girlfriend’s boyfriend who asked, and the waiter who said he had some in his apartment. He said his apartment was just around the corner, and we could ride over there on his moped. He seemed so nice, so harmless. I should never have gone, should have said “no” more forcefully, should have kicked his teeth in—something. But what magical thing would I have done? I play this game, as all victims do, because our culture trains us to blame ourselves. Instead of teaching boys and men not to rape, we teach girls and women the dubious art of avoiding rape, and yet when, inevitably, women are raped, they are abandoned, or worse, they are re-victimized by a legal system that reinforces its own bogus mythology. Every case becomes her word against his, despite empirical research that puts false reports as low as with any other violent crime. After mustering the courage to report these crimes in the first place, victims fight again to convince police, prosecutors, judges and juries, when ultimately, ninety-seven percent of rapists receive no punishment at all (this, according to RAINN). The message is clear: victims must bear their own burdens. We must learn how to survive our own rapes.

Though many of the direct memories of my assault remain sealed in drums and buried like radioactive waste or time capsules under hard-pack, I am still not safe from them. Trauma interacts with memory in complex ways, so memories of certain events—flashes—appear to me as non-linear images and sensory details. I am not unique in this. In an article for Time Magazine on December 9, 2014 on the neurobiology of sexual assault, Drs. James Hopper and David Lisak explain why rape and trauma survivors have fragmented and incomplete memories of their traumas:

Inevitably, at some point during a traumatic experience, fear kicks in. When it does, it is no longer the prefrontal cortex running the show, but the brain’s fear circuitry—especially the amygdala. Once the fear circuitry takes over, it—not the prefrontal cortex— controls where attention goes. It could be the sound of incoming mortars or the cold facial expression of a predatory rapist or the grip of his hand on one’s neck. Or, the fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of sexual assault by focusing attention on otherwise meaningless details. Either way, what gets attention tends to be fragmentary sensations, not the many different elements of the unfolding assault. And what gets attention is what is most likely to get encoded into memory.

Not only are my memories fragmented, but because of the nature of trauma, and despite my best efforts to neutralize them, the memories intrude in on my thoughts without warning. One moment I’m sitting by my river at home, and the next I’m back in Florence, holding my friend Bernadette’s hand, then tap-dancing on cobblestone, eating pasta, on the back of a moped. Suddenly, the man’s fingers are inside me. His tongue inside me. I am crying. His penis is in my mouth; is that right? I am crying in his kitchen, asking for a ride to the hotel. Then I’m back with my friends, outside the hotel, in relative safety under some streetlights. Bernadette and I are having a cigarette, and I am racing to tell her before the man gets back on his moped. As I tell her the story, the man is apologizing, inexplicably, to Bernadette’s boyfriend. Where’s my apology? I want to scream. I am still waiting.

•••

Perhaps because I am just now unearthing my sexual assault, it doesn’t occur to me until all these years later, when my husband points it out, that this game, as I’ve always thought of the obsessive event replay, is a textbook hallmark of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. One morning not long after moving into the house, we’re out on our deck, drinking coffee and admiring the view of surrounding mountains, meadows, and the river. The lilacs, which light up with pleasure from the same brain circuitry that alights with fear—the amygdala—are still in bloom, and the river is running high. Listening to the rush of the water, I tell Keith about the compulsion I have to replay the night over and over.

“You know what that is, right?” he asks. I shake my head, even as I guess that I do. “It’s PTSD,” he says.

I do it with the car accident too, another trauma. I’d always assumed because in both instances I was drunk, that the replay was more about getting the narrative straight, trying to fill in certain holes. Is the inability to fill in the holes trauma, alcohol, memory, or all of the above? I run the replays automatically, absently, while drifting off to sleep or walking the dogs or washing the dishes. Each starts as a kind of mental video game, with Player 1 (me) flashing on the screen, and then we’re off. Either we’re running the crash scenario in Houston, or we’re running the moped scenario in Florence, each a sort of gauntlet where I imagine I can get points if I can lock certain features in place. Perhaps I can grab a new street name, a new weapon, or a new clue. Invariably, of course, the features of the game blur. So too with the features of memory, which escape me, bringing me once again upon the giant sinkholes that open up and swallow time, matter, memory, me.

“Lex,” Keith says, waving his hand in front of my face the way we do to inquire if the other person is paying attention. And with that I come to, having been belched from the beast of my past, returning to our morning in progress.

“I don’t know what’s worse,” I say. “The sudden jerks into the past, or the fact that I can never seem to stay in the present.” I try then to settle into my chair, my body, my breath.

“Be where your hands are,” my yoga teacher says. I study my hands, my oversized mug, and the lilacs in the yard, so purple they are almost blue. With their heart-shaped leaves and from the way they cluster into crown-like bunches, they remind me of the swim bonnets worn by the elderly women at my fitness center. But the fragrance is so unique, that it reminds me of nothing but itself.

Oh, and that night in Italy.

•••

High on adrenaline and instinct and a lifelong good sense of direction, the morning after my assault, I led the officers back to the man’s apartment, which was not just around the corner as the man had suggested, but rather, some four-plus back-switching miles from the piazza. Since I had the napkin with his name and email address, the officers matched it with one of the occupants listed in their records. “Ben Fatto!” one of the officers shouted and pumped his fist from the front seat of the little police car.

“It means good job,” the translator said.

“I know,” I said. While still parked in front of the apartment, the officer craned around to face me in the back seat. He began talking intently, passionately, and looking back and forth between the translator and me.

“He says he’s very sorry this happened to you, and this is good evidence, but these things are hard to prosecute,” she said. I nodded and thanked him. He turned forward as if to drive off, but twirled back again, this time addressing mainly the translator. I made out the last word, commune: common. I looked at the translator, and she shook her head.

“C’mon, tell me,” I said.

“There’s no precise equivalent in English,” she sighed. “It doesn’t mean quite the same thing, but he says these things happen. They are common.”

When I packed for my flight just hours later, I flattened the words on the police report in the bottom of my suitcase like a freighted souvenir, underneath the red pants and blouse and stacked heels I wore the night before. I realized then that my panties were gone, probably still in the man’s apartment. Once on the plane and headed back to California, my seatmate asked if I was going home, and I nodded, then faltered. “Well, yes, I live there,” I said, thinking home was not a word I understood anymore, not a place on any map.

•••

The night we closed on our house, Keith and I stood in the back yard at dusk with our hands clasped. We have two dogs, a ten-year-old rescue pit bull mix named Jazzy, and George, the boxer tween we got a year after our first boxer died. As a puppy, George, white- and fawn-colored with a comical black and brown eye patch of fur, was predictably mischievous, but it was Jazzy who—upon visiting the house for the first time that evening—had gotten so excited that she arched over in the entry way and took a massive dump. We were still giggling about it as we stood in our new yard, watching George zoom around the acre in obsessive circles, doing his “racetracks.” The river was high and the lilacs in bloom, and the music from the water and the perfume from the flowers washed over us. “This is ours,” Keith said, squeezing my hand a little harder.

“Yep,” I said, squeezing back.

The common purple lilac, or syringa vulgaris, like those in the loamy northwest corner of our own yard, is a flowering woody plant in the olive family. Olives thrive in temperate Mediterranean climates so unlike the harsh, snowy winters and humid summers of Vermont that it surprises me to learn this. I know it’s greedy and provincial, but I’ve always associated lilacs with New England, which somehow made them mine. After all, the common purple lilac is the New Hampshire state flower, which I was forced to memorize in school, along with the state bird (purple finch), state fruit (pumpkin), state gem (smoky quartz), and state insect (the ladybug). But I do remember lilacs in Italy, whose fragrance stood out to me amid the other Florentine scents—amber, tobacco, lavender, cypress—as a kind of olfactory beacon of home. The family name, syringa, comes from the Greek word syrinx, or hollow tube, which refers to the plant’s shoots and their large piths, while the species name, vulgaris, means common or usual. However ubiquitous lilacs may be, nothing about their loveliness seems common to me.

Later that night, while washing dishes and looking out the kitchen window that overlooks a side yard where the previous owners had a sizeable fenced-in garden, I tell Keith about everything I want to plant. I’m excited, and the list grows absurd: star fruit, melons, Christmas trees, cucumbers, potatoes, peonies, roses, bleeding hearts, corn, lilies, bananas, chips and salsa trees, puppy seeds, and book awards. Keith laughs. I’ve never been a gardener, never planted anything other than pain, but here in my fortieth year, I want to plant something finally that can thrive.

We’ve been in the house six months now, and while unpacking the last of the boxes, I find a package marked “FRAGILE” in Keith’s neat handwriting. I can’t think of anything fragile we own—no valuables or heirlooms—but as I peel back the layers of plastic shopping bag used as wrapping, I see a box, about the size of a shoe box, which I recognize immediately as the urn containing the ashes of our first dog, Jimmy. A ninety-pound boxer, with a heart and personality to match his size, Jimmy came with us from Texas and lived here in Vermont until he was thirteen. Losing him was eased by the wonderful staff of our local vet office, who treated the loss as their own. We opted to have him cremated, and when we went to pick up the ashes, they were stored in a pine box with a handwritten card taped to the lid. The card, which had a raised, lumpy paper heart affixed to it, read, “Plant this in loving memory.” The veterinary technician, who emerged from the back to tell us how sorry she was, explained that the heart adornment contained wildflower seeds and that we could plant it. At the time we lived in an apartment and decided to hang onto the card until we found a place of our own. I show Keith the card and read the instructions out loud: “Remove adornment from card, plant in your garden and wildflowers will blossom year after year.” I ask him if he remembers the garden I was talking about our first night in the house. I hold up the card and touch the little heart adornment and say, “We can start with this.”

•••

ALEXIS PAIGE is the author of Not a Place on Any Map, a collection of flash lyric essays about trauma, and winner of the 2016 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Collection Award. Her essay, “The Right to Remain,” was a Notable in the 2016 Best American Essays, and she’s received three Pushcart Prize nominations. Paige’s work appears in The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Manifest Station, Fourth Genre, The Pinch, and on Brevity, where she is an Assistant Editor. Winner of the 2013 New Millennium Nonfiction Prize, Paige holds an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine. She lives in Vermont and can be found online at alexispaigewrites.com.

A version of this essay first appeared in the Mercer University Press anthology, A Second Blooming: Becoming the Women We are Meant to Be, edited by Susan Cushman.

Pin It

Space Oddity

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

By Reyna Eisenstark

I. Self-Diagnosis

About a year ago, I was editing a behavioral psychology book when I came across the following sentences: “Special receptors also provide proprioceptive information, letting us know where our body parts are, and their position in space. This awareness is called proprioception.”

I stopped reading. I stared into space. I don’t have proprioception, I thought.

In fact, had this been a movie, there would have been a dissolve from my face, with its look of slowly dawning realization, to a series of scenes from my life playing themselves out in rapid succession: me constantly banging my legs into the low shelves around our living room, the collective disgusted sigh of a group of girls as I once again completely failed to make any contact with the volleyball coming right at me, my toe breaking as I sped from one room to another and failed to clear the wall entirely, repeated scenes of me stepping out of my car to discover it somehow parked two feet from the curb, me walking through various stores with my arms firmly at my sides, terrified of knocking into anything, certain that I would.

This moment of revelation really was like the proverbial apple falling on Sir Isaac Newton’s head and, considering how often I have misjudged and banged my head, the metaphor is especially apt. I realized that not only have I had this problem my entire life, but I have also been compensating for it my entire life, convincing myself that nothing was out of the ordinary.

Funny enough, I vividly remember reading an essay by Sloane Crosley about ten years ago about her serious problem with spatial awareness. Did I feel even a glimmer of recognition? Not at all. I actually chuckled to myself, wondering how someone could possibly get by with such a poor sense of direction. I prided myself on my (falsely understood) excellent sense of direction. Didn’t I read the part about her getting lost in a large box store and did I not recognize that this happened to me regularly? When I read the words, “To counterbalance my deficiency, my visual memory became stronger,” did I not realize that this is how I’d been managing my whole life? No, I did not. And yet, that essay struck me somehow and stayed with me all these years, perhaps stored away as something I might want to revisit at a later date. I suppose this is what they refer to as denial.

The thing about spatial awareness is that it extends way past your body and out into the world. For example, I cannot tell north from south. If I am walking in Manhattan, I picture myself on the street my dad lived on until I was nearly thirty and then picture which way the street numbers went up and which way they went down, and adjust myself accordingly. I thought this—which I have never admitted before—was totally unremarkable. One afternoon, when I was maybe ten, and before I figured out this trick, I asked my father how to get to Vinnie’s Pizza, a now long-gone but beloved pizza place on the Upper West Side (Amsterdam between 73rd and 74th Street). He told me to head west out of the building and then, after a block, to head north. Much as I tried to explain I didn’t know how to do this, he refused to offer any alternatives. He was of the belief that children learned things by simply doing them. What I learned was never to ask my father for directions again. I headed out of the building, choosing a random direction, making sure to note any visual details that would help me trace my way back. This being New York City, I eventually ended up at a pizza place, but it was definitely not Vinnie’s. As I sat there, eating a highly inferior slice and disgustedly watching a couple of flies hover over the pizzas that had just come out of the oven, I thought, This is probably what I deserve.

Because, in fact, I always realized that I had difficulties, but I had no way to explain them. My mother constantly yelled at me for knocking into things, and I often had bruises on my legs or my hips, but I didn’t actually feel clumsy. It’s just that I wasn’t able to see what was often right in front of me or below me, and I didn’t realize the wall or the coffee table or the glass on the counter was so close.

As for driving, I always assumed I had difficulty with parking because I started driving late; I didn’t have the experience. In fact, the only way I can parallel park is to tell myself to deliberately ignore the warning signs my brain is trying to send out. When I start thinking, Oh my god, the car is too close to the curb! I just keep backing in. But this takes enormous concentration, and when I don’t do it, the car ends up inevitably two feet from the curb. Or some unacceptable distance; I don’t really know for sure. Because this is another aspect of having spatial awareness problems: I can’t judge distances at all. I’ve always accepted this as a fact about myself, but when my older daughter was about eight years old and said something like, “Oh, it was about fifteen feet ahead of me,” I actually asked, “How do you know what fifteen feet in front of you looks like?”

And yet, I managed to live forty-six years without really knowing what was wrong with me, without quite realizing that something was wrong with me. I have always had a remarkable visual memory for things. I can find things in my house by picturing where I last saw them. When I was once accidentally dropped off at my private elementary school on a day the school was mysteriously closed, I managed to walk home just by recognizing the streets I had passed each day in the car and retracing them back home. I had been compensating just fine.

II. Diagnosis

This whole realization happened to coincide with an ordinary visit to the optometrist, in which the optometrist, using an instrument new to that particular office, noticed that I had enlarged optic nerves. This being a sign of glaucoma I was immediately directed to an ophthalmologist, and after a battery of eye tests that culminated in my eyes being held open (not unlike like the famous scene in A Clockwork Orange minus the Ludwig Van) and bright lights shined in them, it was determined that I did indeed have enlarged optic nerves.

But six months later, my enlarged optic nerves were exactly the same, and it was thought that perhaps they were just like this naturally. More (horrible, nauseating) yearly tests would determine this. And then, back for another ordinary visit to the optometrist, I casually mentioned to her my recent realization of the spatial awareness problem I’ve had my whole life, which, I was beginning to realize, involves poor peripheral vision. She was delighted! This was definitely related to my optic nerves! They must have been enlarged for most of (or all of) my life, thus affecting my peripheral vision all this time! It probably had nothing to do with glaucoma at all!

So there it was. I had spent a lifetime struggling with something that wasn’t even my fault, that a simple eye test could have detected years ago, but somehow never did. This realization also brought with it a flurry of memories: panic over having to make split-second decisions of left versus right, panic over a Frisbee coming straight toward me, panic over driving in the dark when I can no longer see the lines that keep me from drifting too far to the left. I felt exhausted just thinking about it.

And yet. There was also a sense of great relief. There was now a medical explanation! My problem was neurological! I’m off the hook for everything!

III. Self-Awareness

And yet. There was something about this realization that was sad, too. In all my reading about spatial awareness difficulties, I couldn’t help noticing that there are easy ways to detect the problem (I had every single sign) and that there were ways to improve it (this was never attempted). I’d been dealing with this as best I could all my life, but (and I knew already that the answer was definitely no and that this question needed to be buried with so many other questions from my painful childhood) couldn’t things have been made just a bit easier for me?

A couple of months ago, my sixteen-year-old daughter started driving lessons. Once, after a lesson was over, her driving teacher said to me, oh so casually, “She’s doing really well. She has a really great sense of how much space she takes up. It’s actually something called proprioception.” I smiled. In my head, I translated this into “Your daughter is not you,” something that I didn’t know I needed to hear until I heard it.

When we went driving together, I asked her to bear with me because I was panicking every single second. This was only because, since I have no sense of where exactly the car ends, it appeared to me that she was driving in the shoulder. But she was not. I watched with amazement as she calmly navigated us down country roads (with no dividing lines!) and then on to the highway. This person who was once inside my body, and then basically hung all over my body for many years, now distinctly had a sense of her own space. She was better at this than I was. I was just figuring it out.

•••

REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer and editor living in Chatham, New York. She is a regular contributor to Full Grown People. You can read more of her writing at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.

Read more FGP essays by Reyna Eisenstark.

One She’ll Never Forget

By aphrodite-in-nyc/Flickr
By aphrodite-in-nyc/Flickr

By Desiree Cooper

When I was a teenager, my mother and I were like sisters. If my date arrived more than fifteen minutes late, she would hide me upstairs and tell them I’d already left with someone else. Then we’d eat popcorn and watch movies.

I got married to my law school sweetheart in 1984. I’ll never forget waving good-bye to my family in Virginia and heading for Detroit to start my new life. I was a grown twenty-four-year-old, but I couldn’t imagine life without my mom nearby. I cried for the entire twelve-hour trip.

Over the years, we learned how to stay close despite the miles between us. We yakked on the phone constantly, me updating my mom on my life and the kids, my mom filling me in on her garden and the latest episode of Oprah (which she watched every day at four p.m.). We got together on holidays and family reunions. And, in the days before digital images, I sent her stacks and stacks of actual pictures to thumb through when she felt lonely. Nothing could keep us apart.

Except Alzheimer’s.

When she got the diagnosis in 2006 at the age of seventy-three, I was devastated. Immediately, I felt like I was railing against time. While tomorrow is promised to no one, it’s different when you know the days you have to love someone—and be loved in return—are numbered. We were both powerless in the face of this disease, but I had to do something—anything—to mark the time we had left.

And then it came to me. We’d make a memory that would be so profound, it would be permanently stamped into her DNA! It would be a memory that would even triumph over Alzheimer’s!

I would take my mother to The Oprah Show!

One problem: I had no idea how to get on the show. I started emailing and calling the producers, telling them about my beloved mother, her disease, and her abiding love for Oprah. But I never heard anything back.

I thought about WWOD? (What Would Oprah Do?) and started manifesting my intention. Everywhere. I told everyone I knew that I was going to take my mom to see Oprah, somehow, some way. This went on for months, until one day, a woman in my circle of associates said, “I can make it happen.”

I was ecstatic, but I didn’t tell my mom right away; I wanted everything to be certain first. Then on a Friday in February 2008, I got a call from my friend. “Can you and your mom get to Chicago on Wednesday?”

“YES!” I screamed into the phone. “Absolutely!”

And then I hung up the phone and wondered how the hell I was going to get my mother to The Oprah Show in four days. At the time, I was commuting from Detroit to work in St. Paul, Minnesota. My mother was living in Virginia. The family rallied and we got concurrent (expensive) flights to Detroit, and then a flight together to Chicago. When we sprung the news on my mom, she was shocked. Then came the uncertainty, “I don’t want to fly alone,” she said. “It’s too expensive.” But I wouldn’t take no for an answer. We were going, and that’s all there was to it.

My plane landed in Detroit an hour before Mom’s. That’s when I finally started to let myself get excited. I posed at the end of the jet way with my camera ready to capture the first glimpse of my euphoric mother running into my arms.

But instead of dashing forward, weeping at the prospect of meeting her lifelong idol, Mom rushed up to me and said, “Des! I want you to meet Maria!” She put her arms around a Philippina who had evidently been her seatmate on the plane. “She’s going on vacation now, but when she comes back, she and I are going to play bingo. Can you take our picture?”

That’s the cruelty of Alzheimer’s. If it were just about memory loss, that would be one thing. But before the memory goes, there’s a slow substitution of one person for another. Instead of being excited about the trip to see Oprah (or even just the tiniest bit excited about being with me), she was oddly focused on the stranger who’d been kind to her on the plane. Maybe she’d been afraid during the flight and mistook the woman’s kindness for friendship. Mom’s focus on the bigger picture was all but lost.

I was crestfallen, but I tried to be patient. I understood that this wasn’t my normal mother. I awkwardly took their purses and bags and snapped photos of mom and her baffled new friend.

My ego significantly bruised, I took a deep breath and schlepped us to our gate. I was annoyed that Mom had dragged along a carry-on; it was enough work to just keep track of her, much less her bags. We arrived at the gate early and were munching on sandwiches when announcement came. Our flight had been cancelled. Fog.

We waited anxiously as flight after flight was canceled. Finally, after about three hours of waiting, we were booked for a flight the next morning. The schedule would be tight, but I was sure that we were going to make it, come hell or high water.

We used a voucher to stay at the airport hotel. By then, I was totally frazzled, consumed with the fear that my plan had been too ambitious. Now that we’d been derailed, my mother began to lose focus again. “Why don’t we just go to your house so that I can see the grandkids?” she kept asking. I ignored her. She could see the kids anytime. This was our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Oprah.

For moral support, I called the friend who’d gotten us into the show. And just like the voice of Oprah herself, she said, “Oh, no. You will be on that morning flight. It’s already done. It’s in God’s hands. You just show up for it.”

My resolve was bolstered, but it was no match for my mom’s grating mantra: “Let’s just go see the kids.” I was losing it, so I curled on my bed and pretended to sleep. Resisting the urge to smother myself with the pillow, I listened to my mother fumble around the room, zipping and unzipping her carry-on.

All of a sudden, I felt something cover me. I looked up and Mom was holding a pair of Valentine pajamas.

“Here, baby, I brought these for you.”

She even had bought a pair for herself. We put them on, and I curled up in the bed beside her, my arm around her waist. After a long time of listening to her breathe, I fell asleep.

The next morning, the weather was all clear. We were booked for the nine a.m. flight, but my mom was completely off kilter, confused by waking up in a strange place. She needed constant reminding that we were on an adventure. She couldn’t seem to get organized. I helped her, careful not to seem impatient.

When we arrived at security, the line was shambling and tedious. I began to wonder if we were going to miss our plane while standing in the airport. Mom started to complain about everything—the line, the expense of the trip, the temperature. At one point she said, “September 11 screwed up this country. That’s why I don’t like to fly anymore.”

I’d had it. I turned to her and yelled, “You’ve got to stop it! If you keep complaining, I’m going to lose my mind. We’re going to see Oprah, and we’re going to have a good time. You have to be positive from here on out.”

People in the line gawked in horror as the crazy daughter berated her dear, frail mother. But at that point, I didn’t care. After that, my mother, sufficiently cowed, withdrew into silence and followed my every command.

Once we got on the plane, our moods lifted. This was it! We were on our way to The Oprah Show!

We landed in Chicago with just enough time to make it to the taping. As we hopped into a cab, we should have been giving each other high fives. Instead, I pouted while my mom engaged with the Jamaican cab driver in an annoyingly detailed conversation about how he got his cabbie license.

When we arrived at the studio, it was a bland warehouse in an unimpressive part of town—not the Emerald City that both of us had expected. We queued up with about a hundred other members of the studio audience, and the staff stripped us of all cameras, cell phones, even paper and pens. We were not allowed to document The Oprah Show in any way.

The staff sat us thigh-to-thigh in rows of chairs like patients in a crowded doctor’s office and handed out boxed lunches—a sandwich, pasta salad, a cookie, and a soft drink. Then we were herded into the studio where I couldn’t believe our luck. My mom and I were seated right behind Oprah’s chair!

As we waited for the taping to begin, we eyed the studio and the set in front of us. In that moment I realized that perhaps I had ruined the illusion by bringing my mom to the show. The studio was smaller than it appeared on TV. The stage props seemed to be slap dash and temporary, mainly because they were. The pitch black walls made it feel like we were in a coffin. As the audience coordinator came on stage and congratulated us on wearing the requisite “Skittles” colors, I worried that perhaps mom would never love Oprah the same way again.

Then, She came out! Oprah was wearing a flowing top and slimming pants, and, to spare her notoriously bad feet, bedroom slippers. As she made her way through the audience to toward the stage, she stopped only once and that was to turn to my mother in a moment of strange recognition. A genuine smile broke across Oprah’s face. For a second, I thought she was going to speak my mother’s name. Instead, she took my mother’s hand and gave her a warm, “Hello.”

I couldn’t believe it. Out of all the people in the audience, only my mother got to shake Oprah’s hand!

We were still agog as Oprah bent to plop down in her seat. And that’s when we were graced with a peek at the royal plumber’s crack. That was followed by an upfront view of Oprah’s bunions as her staff came to shoehorn her feet into gorgeous pumps.

The next two hours are a blur. As we watched the show from the inside out, it was hard to digest that this was really happening. The show was called “The Secret Behind The Secret,” about the power of positive thinking. How what you intend will manifest. How every day, you create the world you want to live in. If you see life as a battle, then prepare for war. I sank into a contemplative silence; it seemed that the message had been tailor made for me. Maybe I wasn’t at war with time, or with my mother’s disease. Maybe it was time for me to settle down and accept the gift of the time we had left.

After the show, we had no time to process what we’d just witnessed. As a cab zipped us back to the airport, we held hands in tender silence. Aside from platitudes like “It was beautiful,” and “I’m glad I went,” and “Thank you, baby,” I didn’t hear my mother speak about the trip again.

A year later, I was visiting my parents and some friends came over for dinner. We were chatting when my mom piped in: “Did I ever tell you about the time my daughter took me to The Oprah Show?”

The room went silent. I looked at mom expectantly, wondering what she would remember from our great adventure to Chicago. But she only smiled and said, “My daughter is so sweet. She’s my best friend.”

•••

A 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, DESIREE COOPER is the author of Know the Mother, a collection of flash fiction that dives into the intersection of racism and sexism to reveal what it means to be human. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010 and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio Fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers. She lives in metro Detroit.

We’re Done Here

cabin
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Ellen S. Wilson

The smell hits the moment you walk through the back door into the kitchen—damp wood, mildew, and sadness. In just a few minutes, it is possible to acclimate to all three.

My sisters and I have come with my mother to The Mountain House, a sturdy little family vacation home in western North Carolina, built up on a ridge that is said to be haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Heaton. We’re here, as my mother says more than once, to “tear the house apart.”

But first, the ghost story: This ridge was the property of the Heatons years ago, and greatly beloved by Mrs. Heaton. When financial hardship hit, Mr. Heaton, less emotionally wrapped up in the land, wanted to sell. Mrs. Heaton, whose name may or may not have been Loesa Emmalie, resisted. The years went by, the times got tougher, and one day Mr. Heaton made a sneaky trip into town and sold the land without telling his wife. He didn’t have to—by the time he got home, she had hanged herself from a tree, and an enormous white owl sat in the branches above her nodding head, screaming “like a woman,” the storytellers always say.

To placate the ghost of Mrs. Heaton, whose white owl still screams in the night, or perhaps to honor her memory, the inhabitants of the vacation homes that now dot the hillside have representations of owls on their placemats, hand towels, coffee mugs, everywhere. My own mother collected hundreds of tiny owls, and we all abetted her habit because a souvenir owl was a small and convenient gift for her when we traveled or hunted for stocking stuffers. An owl for Mom, from Turkey or Kenya or Lake Tahoe. Bookshelves laden with owls made of stone, glass, crystal, and porcelain are partly why we have come. It’s time, we have decided, to save anything we care about from the encroaching damp. We are rescuing our treasures from the future. If we have learned anything from the mountains, it is that appearances to the contrary, not even they are eternal. We are here to make one last stand against that reality.

The owls belong to my mother, but the ghost of my father sits in every corner of this house, in the barn wood paneling, fine rugs, bird prints, and odd collectibles. We lost him once already, seven years ago, and we dread losing him again to creeping mildew and anonymity.

•••

I’ve been coming to these mountains and tolerating the stomach-churning hopelessness they inspire in me since I was two years old, long before The Mountain House was built. Every summer—every goddam summer—my parents would load my three sisters and me into the car in Louisville, Kentucky, and drive seven hours over the mountain roads while I lurched and puked in the back of the station wagon. The way, way back. This began before there were seatbelts. Once we arrived, there would be warm ginger ale to quiet my heaving guts while we settled into our cabin at the High Hampton Inn and Country Club, a worn, sprawling establishment well over a hundred years old that prizes tradition and simple virtues and has now added a spa and some llamas (llamas being indigenous to the Blue Ridge Mountains).

Our regular cabin was a wooden structure with twin beds, soft, thick linens that never felt completely dry, and a lovely veranda overlooking the lake. The place smelled of boxwood—subtle, sweet and green—and my normally spider-fearing mother loved it so much she suspended all her fears when we arrived. The mountain air reassured her. Not me.

The lake our cabin overlooked was still, small, and—to me—fathoms deep. Potential death lurked in its depths, and there was said to be a dam that you shouldn’t paddle your canoe too close to, although when I found it as an adult I realized the silty pool at its base was hardly lethal. But even now that lake, which I have swum in, and paddled over, and hiked around, can fill me with dread. The memory of my pale legs dyed green by the murky water, my vulnerable white body suspended over god knows what dark threat, and my forcing my teenaged self to dive down and swim out to a tethered float, causes an internal quake when I’m sitting on my own dry porch in Pittsburgh miles away.

During those family trips, my sisters and I were habitually shunted over to the Children’s Program, and since I’m the youngest, I was rarely with any of them. My happiest day was when I cut myself on a rusty nail in the donkey barn and one of my sisters had to rescue me and take me to my mother, once she had finished on the golf course and was available to tend to my wound, and perhaps to worry about me a little. My unhappiest day was the evening hayride (this happened frequently, this unhappiest day) in a wagon filled with prickly bales and noisy children, pulled by a mean woman on a tractor. I remember ghost stories I took very seriously, and kids only a little older than me singing songs I didn’t know. I remember feeling powerless, and suffering the necessity to either pee in the woods or wet my pants, and not knowing which was worse.

There was no reason to have been so miserable. My mother and father were loving and attentive enough. I know now that parenthood means a gentle pushing away, and that the only time one can encourage dependence is during the first months of breastfeeding. Apart from that, it’s all “you can walk across the room unaided, you can survive a morning at preschool without me, you can sleep at a friend’s house, go to college, go to France.” But what did I know, at age four? The mountains made me then, and make me now, feel irresistibly lonely, pressing-on-a-sore-muscle lonely.

Somehow the eternal mountains embodied impermanence and loss. My oldest sister, the one who was my surrogate mother much of the time, was found sleepwalking toward the lake one night when she was fourteen, and the story was presented as a near tragedy. My father caught her just in time, before her pale foot was sucked into the black greeny goop and she was lost to me forever, becoming the next ghost story. The image of her small figure in a white nightie (she would have needed one, if she was to haunt the lakeside), foot extended from the slippery rocks along the shore, rocks alive with snakes and toads, entered our own family lore, those unsettling tales on which the mountains depended to keep you from feeling too comfortable as you sat in a rocker and digested a doughy mountain dinner. The lake was peaceful and silent, we swam in a little fenced off part during the hot humid afternoons, but the grabby mud bottom was never trustworthy.

•••

The summer I was nineteen, my father got me a waitress job at the resort. I don’t remember being given an option about that. The owners couldn’t say no to him, either—he’d been a patron there for years, had bought that piece of property on the ridge they owned that overlooked the resort, and was building himself a house. And perhaps most important, my father was one of those charming, friendly people that strangers took to on first sight and never had reason to change their minds. When he was dying, the mail carrier came in to say goodbye. His funeral was standing room only. Naturally, the president of High Hampton Inn agreed that I could wait tables in the creaking sunlit dining room.

I felt the old lurch of nausea and loss as my father drove away at the beginning of that summer. His natural optimism (along with his desire for me to stop being such a lost puppy) convinced him that I would manage. He had been mostly abandoned by his own father at age five and sent off to live with relatives to save money, and he turned out just fine. He knew I would meet this minor challenge and I did, befriending another summer hire and convincing her to let me share the trailer she had rented—housing was not included in our stingy wages.

And there I was, stuck in a place of fear and loathing, zipped into a gold polyester dress and ferrying glasses of iced tea to guests in my section. It was an easy job, and I managed to pay my rent in tips and send my paycheck home to my sister in Louisville, who put it in the bank for me. By August, I had more than enough to buy the electric typewriter on which I would write my senior thesis in college.

In the meantime, my trailer-mate and I sat on our tiny porch, listened to the radio because there was little else to do, smoked (or I did, again because there was little else to do), and necked (or I did, see above) with the boys across the driveway who were also there for the summer. When we got off work, we grabbed sleeping bags and ran up the various mountains to spend the night, no tents, no food, no supplies. We went into work the next morning needing a shower and a good nap and convinced that we were living much more intensely than the middle-aged people waiting for me to pour their coffee. Being middle-aged myself now, I know that that was true.

•••

My parents came to spend their customary week in the mountains that summer and check on the construction of their new house, and one day during the long afternoon break, I saw my father sitting on the lawn in a shaded Adirondack chair. I invited him to go with me to, as I put it, “see something pretty,” and luckily for us both, he accepted. I drove him to my favorite waterfall, a big one that rushed thirty or forty feet over a cliff, reachable by an easy path from a rough parking lot. Above those falls, I had camped and swam and slid into the pools in a game that terrified the older waitresses at the resort, who knew of people swept to their deaths doing that. I had slept on the flat rocks at the very top, rocks that were surely submerged when the water was high. The waterfall was mine, and I wanted to share it with my father.

This outing led to further discoveries as my parents began to find more in their summer vacation than golf and cocktails. The new house acquired some new dimensions, and the family a veneer of rustication. We hiked in the mountains and provided our own names for favorite spots (Toe-Mash Creek was one). We picked thumb-sized blackberries from the brambles down the hill from the house and made jam and pie. My father bought a small used pickup truck.

High Hampton Inn had its charms, with the grease from its famous fried chicken embedded in the pine walls along with the odor of loneliness, but the mountains themselves acquired characters wholly separate—blooming, gray, and fearsome. People do die there—my own father slipped on moss once, reached for my hand, said later that I had saved him from a fatal fall. I did not remember it that way, but that didn’t help. To love the mountains the way Mrs. Heaton did is to wordlessly accept the inevitability of loss, all kinds of loss.

Years passed. One summer, the wild blackberry brambles were mowed to the ground and never grew back. If we had known they were a temporary pleasure, they would have become too precious and we would have enjoyed them less.

The rough parking lot at my waterfall was paved and a map installed, and I felt it like abandonment, like my old secret lover was openly dating other people. Trails were marked clearly, construction and condos were everywhere, and the hidden pools and perfect little glens were all discovered. Now when you hiked in a place that felt deserted, you came across used tissue and empty Perrier bottles. The town of Cashiers that provided High Hampton with a mailing address grew from a minimal crossroads to a town center with shops devoted to baskets (just baskets) and delis, and cuteness. There was more to offer a nineteen year old—artisanal coffee, for example—but none of it felt relevant anymore.

•••

My family’s own history unfolded at the Mountain House. It wasn’t any messier than most, just the run-of-the-mill ending of marriages, illness, disappointment. And into this soup of memory and history we have come, to tear it all to pieces in a hopeless attempt to rescue the parts we want to save. The Audubon print has mildew behind the glass – it needs to be taken to dryer quarters and re-matted. Is there any way to remove the spots on the silk hanging from China? The big rug in the living room smells musty. Something must be done. So we go round robin in a civil exercise to say what we really want, what we can’t live without, and we try to be generous. “I gave Mother and Daddy that, but I’m so glad you want it.” Of course the thing we want—do we?—is to undo some of that passage of time, to go back to the miseries of childhood, to put the past in a box as though that meant not losing it.

I took my own children when they were small to see the donkeys and feed them carrots and crackers, and if my urban kids recognized the sadness in the donkeys’ faces, they did not let me know. There was no need for a salutary cut on a rusty nail for them—I was right there, and rightly or wrongly I had no plan to send them on any hayrides. They have their own vulnerabilities, their own dark lakes that are not to be found at High Hampton.

At the end of the weekend, I say goodbye to my oldest sister, and tell her I love her, and she looks at me questioningly and I know that we have not said everything there is to say and that we never can. If we sit in a circle in the living room now stripped of the colorful rug and travel mementos, the walls bare of pictures, and we acknowledge what we have done, we will be devastated. We can’t turn and look the sadness in its face, we can’t tell my mother it’s all over, which at ninety-one, she understands well enough. Here in the stoic, silent mountains, it is better not to say.

•••

ELLEN S. WILSON lives and writes in Pittsburgh, PA. Her work has appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Carnegie Magazine, and other local and national publications. She is proud to have her first essay in Full Grown People.

Imaging

princess
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Jill Margaret Shulman

The rhythmic clicking is so far in the background that I think, how bad can this be?

Country, top 40, ’80s rock

I wait for the technician to list a station I like, classical or maybe jazz.

…hip hop, jazz?

Jazz.

The right earphone lands a little too far south. It cuffs my upper cheek and skims my ear. It will have to be close enough for the next half hour or so because I don’t speak up in time. As she motors me into the tube, the technician drops a soft cloth on my face. It’s still bright behind my shut eyes. I open them and peek beneath the cloth’s bottom edge at the glossy, spiraling cavern. I shut my eyes again fast. Later, my husband Mat will ask me, How close was your face to the ceiling?, and I’ll say, I don’t know.

The technician tucks a buzzer button beneath my left hand. In case of emergency, she says.

I squeeze it without meaning to. It buzzes.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

The first test will last one minute. Hold real still.

My feet are taped together as if I’m in a hostage situation. I try not to think of it that way, like I’m enclosed in a thick plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. Only one person could hear me scream, if I screamed, and I just met her. I don’t even know her name. She’s wearing false eyelashes and a wig, as if in disguise. I’m here to diagnose and regain control of my left hip and my life, the very same life a stranger now controls. Now that’s irony. For the moment, the only option is trust.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

The next test will take about three and a half minutes.

The sound patterns change. Grinding happens, and then the noise my printer makes when it spits out pages. It’s not exactly pleasant, but it’s fine. I wonder if she’s selected the correct station because the song sounds more like swing than jazz. The machine gnashes and moans, while a smooth, clear, female voice sings up-tempo about something wonderful. That’s the honest-to-God lyric: something wonderful. More irony. Every time I want to fidget, I bite my tongue hard to yank me back to the top of my body, the part that can will my toes not to shift position.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

The next two tests will take about four and a half minutes each.

I want to ask about the tests. What exactly are they testing for four and a half minutes? Then what different thing are they testing for the following four and a half minutes? But I also want to get this done, and she’s chatty, this technician. Her children are both grown, the boy is married and works nearby, loves his job, and the girl lives farther away but has provided grandbabies who compensate for the distance. I know all this from limping in socks and a hospital gown from the waiting area to the room I’m in now—about twenty-five steps, maybe less. If I ask about the tests, she will want to be clear, explain every detail, and I appreciate that, but I want this done more than I want to know what’s being done to me. I want information about this stoppage in my joints, so I can walk properly again and go through with my daughter Hannah’s high school graduation trip. I splurged on plane tickets to Italy for one last family hurrah and the promise of daily gelato before college tuition payments begin. I’ll never be forgiven if I cancel it. I’ll ruin it if I go and can’t walk. A bad diagnosis is lose-lose. Still, I want to know.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

It’s the correct station after all. The instrumental jazz I’d hoped for plays, but I can barely hear the saxophone above the machine’s jackhammering. I was a New Yorker for a while, so the noise is no big deal. Over time, we adjusted. The baby slept through it, but not Hannah, my sensitive toddler. She approached my side of the bed in her pink princess nightgown, a curl stuck to her forehead glistening with sweat and sleep. Frowsy and blowsy, Mat called it when the kids awakened disheveled, warm, and pink like that. At eighteen, Hannah’s pincurls have softened into waves but remain the same brown and blond and red. The sun still tracks freckles across her nose. I still see that frowsy and blowsy child in the pink princess nightgown every time Hannah the young woman barrels through the door after a run, ponytail swaying. When she was little, I wanted her to stay curled into me forever beneath the cocoon of sheets, yet I itched for her to return to her own bed, where her twitching and breathing wouldn’t keep me awake. Now it’s differently the same. When she’s home, sometimes I can’t sleep, thinking about her leaving for college in just a few months. I can’t sleep when she’s not home either, worried she’ll pile into a car driven by some drunk teenager, even though I’ve told her a thousand times to call me if there’s ever a situation like that. No questions asked; just call.

Are you okay?

I’m okay.

The next three tests will last about four minutes each.

The pole towers over a deep, bottomless ravine, swinging wildly from wind, and I balance in a chair on top like a character from the Doctor Seuss book Daddy read to me before bed. Lurching awake saves me, though the nightmare pounds inside. I’m frowsy and blowsy, and lace ruffles down the front of my flannel nightgown. The gold wall-to-wall carpeting stretches down the hallway into my parents’ bedroom. Mom’s beehive hair, flattened on the side from sleep, is either real or lifted from pictures I’ve seen, but the warm, safe smell of her perfume leftover from the day is real. The curving ivory edges of my parents’ monumental headboard remind me of animal tusks. I never liked that headboard. (Mom tried to give it to me during a cleaning spree and told me how expensive it was as a selling point, but I didn’t take it.) Mom lifts the edge of the sheet, and I curl into her and listen to her breathe. In and out. And then I listen to my own child’s breathing, in and out, while she cuddles into me and jackhammers attack the street outside the apartment window.

How are you doing?

I’m fine.

You moved during one of the tests, so we’ll have to do it again.

What did I move? I didn’t think I moved anything. I sound defensive. I don’t mean to; defensive is just the way it comes out.

The monitor tells me you moved something, but it doesn’t say what. It could be that you rearranged your hand, or a toe.

It was my toe. I must not have bitten my tongue in time. I’ll try to do better.

You’re doing great. It will only be three and a half minutes.

Why always a half? What can they possibly tell from that extra half a minute that they can’t detect from the first three? I bite my tongue, so my toe won’t move. I try to go back to the safe spaces, with nightgowns and mothers and deeply sleeping, trusting little girls. I open my eyes and shut them again, but I can’t seem to return to my childhood home or our old apartment where my entire little girl fit into the pocket of my body curving around her. I’m alone and powerless inside a plastic tunnel, strapped down with my feet taped together. When my girl leaves for college in the fall, I can’t drown out the jackhammers or conquer the nightmares for her.

That’s it. You are done. I’m coming to get you out of there.

The original rhythmic sounds re-emerge. The saxophone, the bass, the brush against cymbals abruptly stop, and the platform moves like a forklift delivering rubble onto a pile. The technician removes the tape from my feet. I’m free. My hip is stiff, my mother is old, my child has grown, and we mostly wear pajamas instead of nightgowns now—except for Mom. Her light cotton nightgowns with pleated fronts must be forty years old, and they’re still her staple. My daughter has switched to 100% pajamas. She told me once the pink princess nightgown is in her room somewhere. She’ll probably leave it behind when she moves away for college. Moving forward, always forward, and here I was going backward for some reason, when I should’ve been moving forward too.

I’m afraid you owe $150.00, the receptionist tells me. These tests used to be free, but now the insurance. The receptionist is nice about it.

I limp out of the hospital and drive home with my good leg pressing the pedal then I pump the brake when the car begins moving too fast. I wish my hip would heal already, so I can walk properly. We will take that graduation trip. Hannah will leave. I’ll grow old like my mother, but I’ll wear pajamas. Maybe I should’ve taken that giant, ugly, valuable headboard when Mom offered it. Maybe I should search for the little pink nightgown folded in the closet of Hannah’s vacated room when she’s gone. I’ll keep moving forward, but sometimes it feels too fast, with no button to press in case of emergency, no break to pump.

Mat asks, How did it go?

Is it weird that I almost enjoyed my MRI? For forty and a half minutes, my only responsibility was to hold still while voices sang something wonderful and asked Are you okay? My mother protected me. I protected my daughter. Then the machine shut off, and the world started up again, the world where my daughter will leave, as children do.

I’m okay.

•••

JILL MARGARET SHULMAN is a freelance writer, parent of teenagers, college essay coach, and works seasonally in college admissions. Some of her recent essays have appeared in The New York Times, Family Fun, Good Housekeeping, Parents.com and O the Oprah Magazine. Visit her website at http://www.otherwords.us/ for college essay coaching inquiries and links to more of her writing.

Preserved

By Xalion Malik/ Flickr
By Xalion Malik/ Flickr

By Kristin Kovacic

It’s the end of October, it’s my birthday, and my husband and I are on our way to grant me some wishes, one of which I’m already realizing—to be traveling in October (every teacher’s wish). I also want to see the Atlantic from the French side, I don’t remember why, and we are four hours from the coast when we stop to have some lunch and fulfill my third desire—to eat cassoulet, in its region, in its season. A chilly mist penetrates the Languedoc today, and the French people filling the restaurant around us—we’re the only foreigners, an attendant wish—are tucked into their somber winter scarves.

I’m experiencing all of this with my interior eye half-open, a psychological squint. I’m not accustomed to such indulgences, to even having words like birthday and wishes, refer to me alone. Semi-retired from parenting, with my two kids at college, it feels strange to be on the receiving end of some of the world’s booty. For more than twenty years, I’ve been tending to other people’s dreams and desires. Teacher, mother, Santa—that’s me. I’m not sure who this woman is, here, free from so many obligations, taking the heavy menu at Restaurant Le Tirou, her life served back to her. Que desirez-vous?

Suspicious of my luck, I talk to my husband about unpleasant things, like the fact that I forgot my debit card PIN code, took my husband’s card and somehow botched the transaction, and now we’re shut out of the ATMs here and are penniless, cashwise. We have to rely upon the mercurial power of our credit card, which has a computer chip, just like European chip-and-PIN cards, but no PIN number, for an unfathomably American reason, and so, well, there’s nothing to remember with the credit card, except how to sign our own names, except that some places here can’t accept the signature and our card simply doesn’t work.

I worry aloud if this could be of those places.

Did a new card come in the mail before we left? my husband asks reasonably, and I’m forced to face one of the spaces in my memory that have recently opened up, white and empty rooms, like the ones in heaven you see in movies where no trace your life as it was actually lived survives. By now, at age fifty-two (a new number I will need some willpower to remember) I have visited these rooms before, and I know with certainty that I could walk around in here forever, feeling the walls, asking his question—Did a new card come in the mail?—and never get out.

So I pick up the wine list, also heavy. Another wish my husband is granting is driving our car on this trip, so I can—unspeakable pleasure—enjoy wine the way French people do, savoring a modest glass or two over the large unhurried lunch they call midi, but which actually starts at 12:30. I scan my choices, pretending to evaluate vintages and terroir, when in fact I’m looking at the prices and wondering how little we need to spend, really, for my solitary uneducated palate, and noticing that there are words on the menu I’ve recently looked up, like Corbière, which may or may not mean crow, and whether the fact that my French is not sticking the way it used to, or that I’ve lost consciousness of something as essential as my bank card, is a sign of dementia, until I stumble across an odd word on the Rouge list: Fitou.

Fitou. Fitou. It sounds like something you say when you can’t say the worst, like Fitou! You forgot the PIN code! but then, I remember: my friend Lynne liked a wine called Fitou; I had it at her house in Miami the year we lived there. This factoid is all I have to go on, so I order the Fitou, une demi-bouteille, and am rewarded by the waiter, who compliments me on an excellent choice.

Of course, he also compliments our choosing cassoulet for lunch, which is simply what one orders in October at midi. We are in Castlenaudary, after all, one of the trinity of cassoulet cities—Castlenaudary, Carcassone, and Toulouse; Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Everyone here will be having the Father.

Le Tirou (which means something I once looked up) is a cassoulet itself of haut and bas décor, lamps emerging out of teapots, houseplants from the necks of Victorian dolls, tables set with the overblown goblets Americans think of as wine glasses, but which in France indicate that you’re about to pay too much for your meal. I remind myself that today is my birthday (fifty-two, which sounds suspiciously like Fitou) and should not be wasting my desires, whatever they may be, on the check.

The wine arrives and I taste it. A French word I’ve recently relearned returns, souple—supple, gentle in the mouth. I take another easy swallow. Why have I retained the memory of this wine, not well known or expensive, which I drank just once in 1992, when I have forgotten so many more important things: how to formulate the subjunctive, the time it takes to hard-boil an egg, where the hell I think I’m going. It makes me wonder what this says about my priorities, now, our children’s futures banked at universities, our retirement years on the near horizon. Is this what will stick, the wine? Will my husband, in addition to driving, be designated to remember everything else? What is going on, here, in the newly foreign country of me?

A busboy comes by to brush our breadcrumbs with that . . . thingy, and I look away to see two donkeys pass by the dining room’s sliding-glass doors. Diners at the next table send their children out to visit. I am puzzled by the French passion for donkeys. They are installed everywhere around here, like living stuffed animals, eating and excreting and making a sound like agony finally expressed. Nobody seems to ride them, or, thankfully, eat them. Close up, they’re dirty, with flies in their eyes. There could be a reason for the donkeys I’m just not remembering, or perhaps it’s one of those things you can never understand about another culture, like our neighbors back home on Halloween, installing inflatable, light-up, fog-emitting graveyards on their lawns.

Which reminds me of when our kids were little (by which I mean Once upon a time, by which I admit the years have blurred together), when we used to bring them to France to create delightful, unDisneyfied memories together. Here in this region, in fact, we stayed in a renovated farmhouse (a gîte) and I mapped out places to visit—Roman aqueducts and forums, medieval fortresses and cathedrals—that could be both historical and fun. Which is how we once arrived at Carcassone, the Son, a few kilometers from here.

From a distance, Carcassone looked magical, its crenelated walls and turrets rising up to form a fairy tale kingdom on a hill. Inside, though, on the other side of the drawbridge, it was a roiling cauldron of tourists suffering that summer’s (I don’t remember which) record-breaking heat (the record has since been broken). Like the people expiring all over unairconditioned France, we were heatstruck in Carcassone, our feet swollen and appetites evaporated, yet we saw blazing plazas full of foreigners like us consuming souvenir bowls of steaming cassoulet. Just thinking of putting a hot spoon inside my mouth made me want to bray. We stumbled with our miserable kids along Carcossone’s authentically buckled cobblestone streets, lined with gift shops selling cassoulet keychains and cassoulet refrigerator magnets, and looked for shady places to duck into that weren’t restaurants serving cassoulet.

Which is how we came to be seated at an animatronic sideshow about the massacre of the Cathars, former religious inhabitants of Carcassone, who held, among many heretical beliefs, that Catholics could not possibly, in the thirteenth century, still be eating Christ’s body. Christ just wasn’t that big. And anyway, they asked the Pope, do you know where those wafers have been? First they were straw, that went through a donkey’s ass and fertilized a field of wheat. The Eucharist was donkey poop, according to the Cathars.

I’ll never forget watching rock’em-sock’em robot Crusaders knocking off the heads of the poor literalist Cathars, accompanied by a weird English voice-over narration that sounded like Bill Murray playing a drunk, screaming New Zealander (their jowls, their bloody jowls!). Like any real massacre, the story was complete chaos, impossible to follow, and the kids closed their sweaty eyelids against it, slumping heavily into our overheated laps.

Carcassone was one of the first reconstructed historical sites in the world, setting the path for preservation destinations like Historic Williamsburg and Historic Greenfield Village and all the candle-dipping, blacksmithing field trips my husband and I went on when we were kids. What we failed to remember, as we dragged our own kids through it, is that we ourselves never came to appreciate history, at least in the form of blacksmithing or the Revolutionary War, and even if all the power went out in France we still couldn’t summon light from a string. We’d also failed to notice, though we thought about our children constantly in those days, that they weren’t of the castle-knight-dragon-princess-obsessed variety. Look at the turrets! we screamed at them in Carcassone, in what we suddenly heard as our Bill Murray voices, The bloody turrets! They never had their eyes on the prize, it seemed, never truly saw the things we had paid extravagantly for them to see.

Like the donkey at the gîte we rented, advertised as a family-friendly, authentically renovated farm, though when we arrived at the property the stubborn âne wouldn’t come out of the barn. He doesn’t like children, our hosts explained merrily, and the feeling was mutual.

What they did like was a German police drama they caught in reruns on TV at the gîte, featuring mod, smoking detectives and a crime-solving shepherd dog named Rex. They became obsessed with “Rex,” though his barking was the only dialogue they could possibly comprehend. They wanted to stay all day in the gîte to watch “Rex,” please, torpedoing my memory-making itinerary. They liked all gîtes, in fact, all hotels, motels, B&Bs. Like birds or dogs, turning in concentrated circles, they liked scoping out a new nest: opening the drawers, sniffing the soaps, changing the channels. Like Goldilocks, they tried all the beds. With her one-button plastic kid’s camera, our daughter took a photograph of the toilet in every place we stayed, making a serious study of the variation of the species.

As is traditional, our waiter brings the cassoulet to table, in its signature earthenware pot (cassole), fired at a kiln nearby. He deftly dishes out a portion of every meat—duck confit, pork shoulder confit, house sausage, all shining dully with fat—then ladles some of the famous white (Appellation d’origine contrôlée) beans artfully over that. There’s a pause, during which I’m too shy to applaud. Instead, I take a deep inhale of the scent of my desire—a warm dish on a cold day, a hunger about to be satisfied. He leaves the cassole on the table, still bubbling and brimming.

The word confit derives from the French verb confire, which means to preserve. Le Tirou does their own confiting, in a stainlessly cozy meat atelier next door (which could be, now that I think of it, what le tirou actually means), where animals are slow-cooked in lard, then put up in jars and cans. Paradoxically, it’s the fat that creates a sterile environment, an impenetrable barrier to bacteria, allowing something as delicate and ephemeral as the thigh of a duck to be kept on a shelf a long time. With a pantry full of confit and a bag of beans, you could make cassoulet any day of the week, all year long. To hell with the seasons. You could feed four hungry people with just the bowl they’ve served us.

As I imagined once upon a time when I made my wish, watching a German shepherd dig a femur out of a flower bed, cassoulet is delicious in October. Wild, savory, rich, father son and holy ghost, all the separate ingredients melt together into one texture and flavor—something like a warm, salty, ice cream sundae. Then comes the Fitou, souple, gently washing all the fats away. Fitou is made around here, too, so it shouldn’t be surprising that it pairs perfectly with cassoulet, but it surprises me that it is my wonky memory, and not the sommelier, that has made this excellent choice. I think about the hundreds or thousands of hours (the math is beyond me now) we passed together with our children–at tables, theatres, zoos, in castles, cars, beds, on couches, bicycles, airplanes, trains, funiculars, carousels, boats. I wonder what is sticking with them now, as they drift into their own history, what will be preserved in the mind’s impenetrable fat. I wonder, not for the first time, if I’ve been a good mother. It’s my fitou birthday, which I’m trying to remember. My memory stinks, a fact I’m trying to forget. I wonder if what’s scrambling the signals right now is that what I truly desire and can never have again is my children’s uncomplicated presence beside me. I tuck into the cassoulet, so my husband doesn’t see me cry.

You can eat a cassoulet almost without chewing—everything’s that tender. Soon I am seriously full—Thanksgiving-full. I excuse myself for a stroll to the toilettes, passing by vitrines displaying jars of confit you can take home to make your own cassoulet, if you so desire. You can even pick up a monstrous silver can, of a cassoulet already assembled, happy pig skipping across the label, offered by a formally dressed Teddy bear. It makes me a little sick, actually, thinking about everything I’ve just swallowed and may never properly digest. It occurs to me it really doesn’t take that much faith to believe in a meal that lasts forever.

Before he left for college, our son filched some pictures from our albums to paste into a scrapbook to leave behind for his sister. Though touched by his sentiment, I was furious that he’d raided the family photos without asking. Then I saw the book he made, intended only for her, captioning seemingly random photographs (not the ones I would have missed) with inside jokes. The book is called LMAO (Laugh My Ass Off, I had to look it up), which is exactly what our daughter did when she read her little book.

She shared it around, but no one else, including me, could see what was so funny. Like “Rex,” their childhood was a story they’d been telling to themselves all along. In LMAO, my husband and I are pretty minor characters, smiling like cartoon pigs on the sidelines, and I had to consider that while we were earnestly plotting their futures, arranging the scenery (fortresses, spaceships, windmills, caves) to be as inspirational and educational and pleasant as possible, they were naturally oblivious, laughing their asses off, following their own desires.

In LMAO, there’s just one photo from our Carcassonne trip. Remember, my son wrote to his sister, under a picture of the two of them, adorably eight and nine, or seven and eight, standing on the reclaimed wooden fence next to the stone barn where the donkey was brooding, those amazing pillows?

The credit card works, and my husband excuses himself to walk off his cassoulet, or maybe the shock of the bill, while I finish, yes, the whole half-bottle of wine. With my sidelong eye I watch him lope away, slender back I still have a crush on. It really is just the two of us now, and that’s more than a girl could wish for on her birthday. I pick up his pen to write a note on my hand: Remember. To thank him for the lovely lunch. To apologize again for the card thingy. And to tell him about the chef in his toque, white and wide as a sail boat, navigating among the groaning diners towards me. He asks, with a shyly satisfied smile, if the cassoulet has pleased me. I take his hand, and my fingers disappear into the largest palm I’ve ever held, a deep bed of warm, meaty flesh, softer than the softest pillow. I am, oui, pleased. This I will remember.

•••

KRISTIN KOVACIC is a teacher and writer currently on sabbatical in France, where she is watching, with sympathy and recognition, the traumatization of a culture. Winner of numerous awards, including the Pushcart Prize, for her essays and poetry, she makes her home in Pittsburgh, where she teaches creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Carlow University. A new chapbook of her poems, House of Women, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press.

Read more FGP essays by Kristin Kovacic.

Counseling

yarn
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Seema Reza

We go to see a counselor. Karim will not accept that he should see someone for his anger, but he agrees to couple’s therapy. I’ll take what I can get. Based on the bio on the office’s website, it appears that the primary focus of this therapist’s career has been on issues of gender identity and homosexuality. But she is available on the day we need, and I don’t want Karim’s compliance to dissipate. Lainey has short hair, thick wire-rimmed glasses, black socks, and orthopedic shoes.

Karim tells the story of spanking Sam with a shoe in our hotel room on our vacation. Of telling me, when I stood between them, I have another shoe for you. In his retelling, Sam pushed his brother and sent him flying headfirst into the wall. He could have seriously hurt him. It was unacceptable.

I see, Lainey says. So you wanted to make a strong statement.

Yes. And then Seema challenged my authority in front of the kids. I got mad. I shouldn’t have said that to her.

It seems so simple, so reasonable explained this way. I wonder if I’ve been overreacting all along. Maybe we’re not so badly off. Maybe we just have a few little issues.

She asks Karim, Why do you want to stay married?

Because of the kids. And she can’t afford to be on her own.

She turns to me. Seema, what do you think about that?

My teeth are white, my hair is thick. I know this man, know that he loves me. I laugh. That’s bullshit. I’m an excellent cook and the sex is fantastic.

•••

For the rest of the summer and into the fall, we see Lainey nearly every Monday evening. Lainey prods us to say kind things about one another and encourages us to implement date nights.

In October, after the push that changed my perspective, that shook me from my slumbering pretense, we go back to see Lainey. I’ve decided that I’ve outgrown the fight. Now, he begs me to visit the therapist one last time. I agree, taking along a ball of wool and knitting needles. We sit in the now familiar office, meeting at our regular time, but days are shorter and the room is darker than usual. He begins to talk, and I begin to knit. He catalogues my crimes: making him jealous at seventeen, rekindling a friendship with an old boyfriend at twenty, disliking his mother from the start, dancing with another man at a nightclub one night. He tells it chronologically, has clearly been rehearsing this narrative—collecting the evidence.

Several times anger rises up from my core, forces my mouth to fall open, but I knit more furiously, shut my mouth. I am determined to give him this opportunity. After thirty minutes, Lainey interrupts him. The clock is ticking; he needs to wrap up. He moves to my most recent crimes: not believing him when he said he didn’t make romantic advances toward my friend, forcing him to have to push her because he felt backed into a corner, because he thought we were ganging up against him. Forty of our fifty minutes are up.

Lainey looks at me. Seema?

I look up from my knitting. I let it fall to my lap, push my glasses up. I take a deep breath. I’m done. For a moment, I consider responding to the accusations he has made, defending myself, reminding him that he has left out his responsibility in all of it. But the feeling evaporates with my exhale. I don’t want to do this anymore.

Okay, she says. Let’s talk about divorce counseling.

•••

Afterward, Karim is livid. How could she have given up on us like that? What kind of counselor is she? It’s your fault. Why were we seeing a social worker anyway? He goes to see a therapist on his own, and he tells me that therapist said we shouldn’t get divorced. That therapist thinks that Lainey was wrong to have told us what to do.

She didn’t tell us what to do. I told her I was done.

You told her you were done after she told us to get divorce counseling.

The order of things is always uncertain with us. He remembers it one way; I remember it another.

•••

SEEMA REZA is a poet and essayist based outside of Washington, D.C., where she coordinates and facilitates a unique hospital arts program that encourages the use of the  arts as a tool for narration, self-care, and socialization among a military population  struggling with emotional and physical injuries. Her work has appeared The Beltway Quarterly, HerKind, Duende, Pithead Chapel, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. When the World Breaks Open, her first collection of essays, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.

Immortality and Architecture

guggenheim
By missvancamp/ Flickr

My father loved architecture the way a 1950s teenager loved rock and roll. He was an art professor by trade but admired the craft of architects with the ardor of a fanatic and the admiration of a fellow artist. Frank Lloyd Wright was my father’s Elvis and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York his Jailhouse Rock.

Bruce—or Dad, as I never called him—died before I was old enough for him to tell me of his passion. But for as long as I can remember, there’d been proof hanging in our house: a framed black and white print promoting a German Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit from 1964, the year my parents were married. The only pictorial reference to Wright was that of the Guggenheim, in various degrees of pixilation as if printed in an old newspaper and blown up to abstractness. The image is unmistakable. As a child, the form of the building loomed like a mammoth, multi-tiered spaceship that, in my imagination, rotated and hummed and twinkled and could rise effortlessly from the ground before soaring upward toward infinity. Long before I could read, the architect’s name in bold, art-deco lettering at the top was a cryptic alien code designed to prescribe the spaceship’s astral trajectory.

The poster didn’t have the name of the museum written on it. I knew it was called the Guggenheim, though, because I’d been told. The glottal G’s and hard vowels in the name made me giggle. The sound brought images of clowns and bubbles and circus acts.

To me, Wright took pride of place in our home gallery amid other names I’d grown up with: Ben Shahn, Hundertwasser, as well as Bruce’s own sculptures and watercolors. Maybe it was the graphic, monochromatic minimalism that appealed to me; maybe it was that spaceship thing. Or maybe it was because the framed print was imbued with the few scattered memories I had of my father.

By the time we moved out of my childhood home in Toronto, my mother had collected new favorites to take center stage so FLW got seconded to the unlit, low-traffic zones of the new house. Eventually it was removed from the wall and stored in the dank, cement basement where its wooden frame dampened and sagged and eventually broke. When I moved out for the first time shortly thereafter, I salvaged it from its indifferent hiding place and had it reframed. I like to say I inherited it from my father. Today the poster crowns the top of the stairs in my south London home.

•••

Last year during a chilly, late-winter afternoon, I found myself heading up 5th Avenue toward the Guggenheim. It was my first trip to Manhattan in over twenty years and the first time I’d had the opportunity to visit the museum. I could have taken a taxi or the subway after my meeting near Union Square but instead I walked the eighty or so blocks up the east side of Central Park. Call it a pilgrimage of sorts.

As the street numbers got into the 60s and 70s, I thought about the print on my wall and the excitement my father must have felt in purchasing it more than forty years earlier. When I was growing up, my adventurous weekends were spent taking the subway into downtown Toronto to find posters in the head shops along Yonge Street. I couldn’t wait to put the new image of David Bowie or The Police on my bedroom wall. But none of those earned the esteemed framing treatment that my father’s Frank Lloyd Wright poster deserved.

Approaching 88th Street, I expected to see the great flying saucer of my childhood magically hovering over the leafless trees on the edge of Central Park: broad, white circles spinning and buzzing in preparation for take-off. But it was smaller than I’d imagined, the smooth, white cement dwarfed and hemmed in by the surrounding brick brownstones. The famous circular rotunda, an inverted round ziggurat, sat compactly on the street corner. It appeared weightless, lifting from the sidewalk like a dandelion in seed on the wind. Far from being disappointed by its size, I marvelled at the scale and eagerly went inside.

The indoor space belied the first impression given by the exterior. The spiralling gallery seemed to rise magnetically up toward an infinite glass dome. The endless sources of natural light created intimate shadows that mingled with the reverential whispers of the gallery’s visitors. If the outside seemed unnervingly squat, the interior had quite the opposite effect. It existed in a constant state of levitation; a swirling, weightless eddy of white light.

Sitting among the dizzying ramps of the Guggenheim, staring at the buoyant structure and the artwork—secondary to the building in which they were housed—I was struck by two things. First, the building so favoured by my father, that to me had been little more than a two-dimensional representation of his joy, was very much real. Secondly, so was my father.

As I explored the scrolling halls and surprising annexes, I was aware that Bruce had scaled them, too, and, like me, was taken more by the building than the priceless Kandinskys and Chagalls. But whereas the museum’s unique architecture and cultural grandeur drew my father close, it was his visceral crush on Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece that brought me there. In doing so, it brought me closer to Bruce than I’d felt in many years.

When my father died, I felt his loss the least; I was the youngest in my family. I understood that he was gone, but I didn’t grieve as an adult would. What I lacked in melancholy, though, I more than made up for in appreciation for the good fortune my life had given me in spite of his death. It was as if some mystical authority was atoning for the missing Dad in my life. The stories I knew of him were generally the ones told to me as family myths by those who remembered him more clearly. In this way, his presence remained.

In New York, I reclaimed memories of my father, no longer relying on the words given to me by others. Flashes of him that simmered like mirages and grew threadbare with age became fluid and elegant in the Guggenheim. He showed me how to swing a baseball bat; he let me throw clay on the wheel in his pottery studio; he taught me that it was okay to laugh at myself. His toothy smile and brown beard were at home in a gallery with portraits both traditional and contemporary. For a moment I thought I heard his voice, a sound I’d missed for nearly forty years. In this building I was infused with him in his eternity.

Like the museum, my father’s memory had always seemed to levitate and rise toward infinity. It coiled around me, at once ethereal and tangible, like a celebratory cloak that waved in the wind as I flourished and settled over my shoulders when I needed reassuring. This was all the proof of immortality I needed: testimony of our ability to create life after death by keeping ourselves alive and experiencing those who died over and over again.

If I believed in heaven, I would imagine the entrance to be more like the Guggenheim: a slow-rising ramp rotating with centrifugal equilibrium and endless promise. Not a rigid stairway with lavish, baroque gates at the top. And if I believed in heaven, then this is where my father would live out his eternity. After all, shouldn’t we be allowed to choose what our heaven looks like? I would certainly choose this place for Bruce.

After a couple of hours visiting the memories inside the Guggenheim, I crossed 5th Avenue into Central Park. By the time I’d reached the footpath that circles the reservoir, I looked back over my shoulder at Frank Lloyd Wright’s gleaming white spaceship, Bruce’s heaven. But it was gone, discreetly grounded behind the curtain of winter trees. Or perhaps it finally lifted off. I walked on alone, leaving my father inside where he belonged.

•••

JON MAGIDSOHN is originally from Toronto, Canada. He’s been featured in the Guardian and Bangalore Mirror, also on Brevity, Chicago Literati, Good Men Project, Mojave River Review, 100 Word Story, and currently publishes three blogs. This is his second essay for Full Grown People. He’s been an actor, singer, waiter, upholsterer, sales representative, handyman, and writer. He and his family are now in Bangalore, India, where Jon writes full time. www.jonmagidsohn.com

The Little House

clothesline
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By Karen Dempsey

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.

Catching Up with Dad

gloves
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Lisa Lance

“You don’t have cancer,” my sister, Katie, says slowly, with certainty.

“Are you sure? A few weeks ago you thought you had a stroke because the side of your face felt numb,” I say. (The “stroke,” as it turned out, was a pinched nerve from spending too much time in front of her computer.)

“Yes, I’m sure. You’re the healthiest person I know.”

“No, I’m not. But thanks, I needed to hear that. I’ll talk to you later. Love you.” I hang up the phone. About twenty minutes later, I receive a text: “Stop worrying. You don’t have cancer.”

About once a month, my sister and I have a conversation just like this. Sometimes I think I have a brain tumor. Other times she’s hysterical and convinced that her “number’s up.” This anxiety about death is a constant undercurrent in our lives, and it’s grown stronger as we’ve both entered into our thirties. It lies in wait until one of us notices some minor change in her body or reads a news story about the latest health concern. Then it swiftly attacks, aided by an army of medical websites and online symptom-checkers, and the panic sets in. Whichever of us thinks she might have a fatal disease calls the other, and we take turns calming each other down. We are our own little support group, reassuring each other that we still have plenty of life left to live.

•••

On an ordinary Monday in March, I step out at lunchtime to mail a couple of birthday cards. I pull my car into the post office parking lot and sigh when I see the sign that says it’s closed. As I drive through the suburban streets toward a nearby Starbucks, my thoughts begin to work their way from the cards on the passenger seat next to me to the upcoming anniversary of my own birth. I will soon turn thirty-three. It may not be one of the traditionally important birthdays like eighteen, when you’re officially an adult, or even thirty, when you realize you’re actually supposed to be an adult, but to me, thirty-three has its own significance. To me, it means I might only have one year left.

This fear originated in the summer of 1987. I was nine years old, and it had been a year of changes. We had moved from Minneapolis to Fargo, to a new house where I had my very own room and no longer had to share my personal space with my little sister. I was a junior bridesmaid in my aunt’s wedding, and I wore a grown-up pink satin and lace dress just like the one my mom, the matron of honor, wore. I was looking forward to a new school and new friends. I was about to be a fourth-grader, and life was good.

But on the morning of August 18, I woke up to chaos. My mom found my dad collapsed in our basement laundry room, and by the time I realized what was going on, an ambulance had already taken him to the hospital. It was too late; he died. Just two weeks earlier, we had celebrated his thirty-fourth birthday.

His death was sudden. One night he was there, and the next morning he was gone. At the time, the circumstances of his passing were mysterious to me, and I didn’t find out the official cause of his death—heart failure—until many years later. Because he didn’t have a history of heart trouble, my mom suspected radiation poisoning from treatments he’d received for Hodgkin’s Disease in the early 1970s. I was never given a clear explanation of his death, and I still don’t quite understand how it could have come about so quickly.

My memories of that day are fragmented, like I’m looking through a kaleidoscope in dim light with all the pieces jumbled around. I know my grandparents were there, and I clearly remember sitting on the edge of the tub in our guest bathroom with my grandma and sister while my mom was still at the hospital. My grandma, a farm wife whose need to control life led her to the point that she ironed washcloths so wrinkles could not infiltrate her linen closet, sat on the edge of the tub and told us we should be prepared in case he didn’t make it.

Then the scene swirls in my head to Katie and me sitting on the couch in our basement family room, crying as my mom explained to us that he wasn’t coming back. A pastor who lived in our neighborhood was standing next to her. We’d never seen him before, but apparently someone thought a strange pastor was better than no pastor at all. Then the scene shifts again as my dad’s parents arrived, my grandpa climbing the stairs in our house carrying his brown leather portable liquor cabinet. And my dad’s sister, who was six months pregnant with my cousin, arrived on our doorstep without her husband. Everything else about that day is a blur.

Since we had moved so recently, and many of my dad’s family and friends lived in the Twin Cities, we had two funerals. We drove the four hours to Minneapolis for one, which was held at the large Lutheran church where I had been baptized, attended preschool, and carried a palm frond to the alter with the children’s choir each year on Palm Sunday. The church was usually such a comfortable, friendly place, but this time, as I walked to the front of the sanctuary with my mom and sister, wearing my new white and navy funeral dress, I could feel the pitying stares of the people sitting in the rows of wooden pews. We made our way to the open casket in the front where my dad lay so still, as if he were sleeping. I reached my small hand up and touched his lips. Their coldness confirmed the reality of his death—although the figure in the casket looked like him, he was not actually there.

After the funeral, we drove north and did the whole thing all over again, this time at the church where my father and mother were married, in the small town of Rustad, Minnesota, where my grandparents lived. I think the universe has shown me a great kindness, acknowledging that two funerals for a parent might be just a bit too much for someone so young; I scarcely remember the event in Rustad at all.

•••

When I think about scenes from his life, the memories develop like Polaroids in my mind. “Puff the Magic Dragon” will always be one of my favorite songs, because it reminds me of the times he would play the guitar and make up funny words to familiar songs. He would help my sister and me produce concerts on the stage of our fireplace hearth, providing the tape-recorded background music and audience applause as we sang doo-wop along with the Manhattan Transfer into our hairbrush microphones. Even though he had a job as a salesman, I picture him working with his hands. He had built that fireplace, as well as the deck on our house and a new roof on our lake cabin. He took pride in his work and in his workshop in our garage, but he didn’t say a word when he discovered I put Hello Kitty stickers all over his big red toolbox and wrote, “I love you Daddy” in black marker on his workbench.

But he wasn’t perfect. My dad abused alcohol in an attempt, I suppose, to deal with the remnants of a childhood with his own alcoholic father and enabling mother who dreamed of having a doctor in the family but instead wound up with a son in medical sales. He had a favorite bar near our house, Sandee’s, and our family would often have dinner there. I was allowed to feel like a grown-up with my own kiddie cocktail, and we would spread cheese on rye crisp crackers from a basket on the table while we waited for our food. The place was full of people, bright and cheerful on those nights, but I also remember visiting in the afternoon, when I knew we shouldn’t be there. On those days, it was cold, dark, and empty except for my dad and the bartender, and me sitting in a booth with my sister, impatiently waiting for him to finish up so we could go home.

Even from my limited childhood view, he and my mother didn’t seem to have a happy marriage, and many nights I’d wake up to him yelling and her crying. I alternated between hiding under the covers with my stuffed animals and venturing down the hall with the hope that if they saw me, they would stop. As much as I would like to only remember the happy times, I was too aware of the dynamics within our house to simply file away the more unpleasant memories in the archives of my brain.

But the most vivid memories of my childhood, and of my dad, are of trips to our two-room, yellow log cabin on Little Toad Lake in northern Minnesota, about an hour’s drive east of Fargo.

It’s at the lake where I spent the most time with my dad, and where I most felt his presence after he died. It’s where he taught me how to fish. I loved the quiet hours in our battered red and silver Lund boat, drifting among the lily pads as he showed me how to bait the hook and cast my line, and the thrill of riding in the bow with the wind in my hair as we sped back to the dock with our freshly caught dinner. It’s where he taught me how to build a campfire, stacking logs in a teepee formation with just the right amount of birch bark and newspaper underneath for kindling. And it’s where he showed me how to toast the perfect marshmallow for s’mores, helping me rotate them over the smoldering coals until they turned golden brown. To this day, I feel most at home—and most alive—outdoors, listening to the soft lapping of water against a shore, breathing in the earthy scent of pine, or getting lost in the dancing flames of a crackling fire.

•••

About once every three years, I travel back to the Fargo area for a family reunion, and I take a trip out to the country cemetery where he’s buried. All of the grave markers are flat, which makes it easier for mowing and other maintenance, I’m sure, but more difficult for visitors to find individual plots. I always wander through the rows for a while, silently acknowledging the graves of other family members who have passed on, most of whom were in their eighties or nineties when they died, before finding my dad’s resting place. His stone is a small rectangle engraved with my birth flower, lilies of the valley.

The last time I visited the cemetery was for my grandmother’s funeral in 2009. My mom’s cousin Curt, who had been one of my dad’s best friends, told me a story I had never heard before about one of their many hunting trips.

“I wonder what he would think of me now,” I said, and then I laughed. “I’m a vegetarian.”

I realized how different my life is from the one he lived. While he would skin deer in the garage and freeze the meat for our winter meals or teach me how to gut a fish for dinner at the cabin, I can no longer bear the thought of killing animals for food. Although he could be great fun to be around, he also kept his feelings bottled up and, when he was drinking, would explode in fits of raging frustration. I love to relax with a glass of red wine or a few beers with friends, but I consciously limit myself. And I write to work out my emotions and practice yoga and meditation to ease stress. He was unhappy in his medical sales career, and, as far as I know, didn’t have the chance to explore something that truly interested him. I am lucky to be able to further my passion for writing through graduate school. As I worry about my own health and my own decisions, I can look back at his and learn from them.

•••

On this sunny afternoon in March, I sift through these memories as I drive from the post office to the coffee shop, and I think about entering the last full year before my own thirty-fourth birthday. I wonder what my father might have done differently in that year if he had known it would be his last. Tears stream down my face as I finally understand just how young thirty-four really was—is—and just how much life he should have continued to live.

Did my dad understand on some level how much time he had left? Seeing him every day, it was difficult to notice the signs of his declining health, so physically apparent in photos from the summer of 1987. It’s clear to me now that he quickly went from tan and muscular to a gray, gaunt shadow of himself. What did he want to do with the rest of the life he never had? Was he happy with the choices he made along the way? I’ll never have the chance to ask.

In 2002, when I got married, I tied my dad’s wedding ring into the white satin ribbon of my bouquet so a little piece of him could walk down the aisle with me. My sister did the same at her wedding. Nearly twenty-five years after his passing, I continue to carry the memories of my dad with me. For good and bad, his choices have influenced mine, and his death has shaped my life.

I may always have those phone calls with Katie, needing her to help calm my fears. We don’t know if we’ll live to be thirty-four or one-hundred-and-four, but every birthday marks the gift of another year lived. It’s a struggle to stop all the worrying and just enjoy living. But I think of my dad, and I try.

•••

LISA LANCE is a writer and communications manager living in Baltimore, Maryland. A graduate of the M.A. in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University, her articles and essays have appeared in publications including Baltimore Magazine, National Parks Traveler, Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine, Seltzer, neutrons protons, Bmoreart, and Sauce Magazine. Learn more at www.lisalance.com.