There are some things I never told my mother: When I first tried smoking pot, that time I stole a one dollar plug adapter from the hardware store. And I never told her about the unique digestive effect her bolognese sauce had on my lower intestine. It was one of the few kitchen creations she made with pride and I couldn’t burst her bubble.
Admitting this, even now two years after her death, gives me a profound measure of passive-aggressive guilt my mother so inimitably instilled in me.
Because there was a time when I told her everything.
She was a single mother to my older sister and me. I was raised with respect and autonomy, given credit when I deserved it and allowed to make my own decisions. When my sister moved out, Mom and I relied on each other for surrogate intimacy. I had no reason to withhold information about my ambitions, my feelings, my sex life. She was gently maternal, a sounding board and my go-to guru.
But the shift in our relationship coincided, not surprisingly, with the onset of my marriage. My mother had been, if not literally then symbolically, replaced by a woman with whom I’d become more eager to share my thoughts. A woman who helped me to view my mother more objectively. A woman whose own bolognese sauce didn’t routinely result in my disappearance into the bathroom for fifteen minutes immediately after consuming it.
Through my twenties and thirties I shared less and less with my mother. In those rare moments when my marriage faltered, I didn’t bother her with any of the distressing ordeals in which my wife and I indulged. She didn’t need to know. Besides, she would only take my side in a struggle that sensibly didn’t have any sides to take.
I’d started to view my mother as more of an inconvenience than the wise soul she was. Although I was grateful she didn’t disappear altogether, I rarely went out of my way to include her. To her credit, she elbowed enough of herself into my life to ensure she always had some stake in it. She deserved that, but she did that all on her own.
We’d established a new precedent that included regular telephone updates but not, despite her questions, intimate play-by-plays of my every thought. After many years she recognised the pattern but owed it to my own maturity rather than any significant modification to our exchanges.
“I’ve just realized,” she said, “you’re a really private person.”
“Mm-hmm,” I said. I wasn’t necessarily a private person. Only with her.
During my wife’s illness I relied on Mom for support and babysitting, but little else changed. By the time I’d become a widowed single dad, the new paradigm with my mother remained. Even as I acquiesced to the weekly favors she called me in for—mowing the lawn, moving a piece of furniture—poorly disguised, in her passive-aggressive way, as an excuse to have my son Myles and me all to herself. And to feed me.
“Just come this afternoon,” she said after requesting help to trim the branches of the honey locust tree behind her house. “And then stay for some supper.”
We’d become a formidable twosome, my son and me. A pairing both indivisible and desperately lacking a third person. Complete yet only two-thirds whole. I accepted my mother’s help; once a week Myles slept over at her house so I could have a night to myself, which typically involved taking myself out to dinner and a movie. I was okay keeping my own company if there was something to do.
The sun was already high before noon on this early summer morning; the type of sun that would blister the pavement by mid-afternoon. I loaded the boy and his diaper bag into the Toyota and drove to Mom’s house on the other side of the city. Most of the journey was spent on the Gardiner Expressway, a convenient east-west artery pumping across the Toronto lakeshore but otherwise a blight on the urban tableau. A twenty-minute drive in good traffic.
“I think I’d like to move to London,” I said, picking up the fallen tree branches. About a year and half after my wife died, I started seeing Deborah, an old school friend who’d moved to the UK ten years earlier. Mom knew about Deborah but until then, like me, she wasn’t sure where the trans-Atlantic relationship was heading.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.”
“But … it would be nice if you kept me in the loop,” she said. Passive. Aggressive.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Which is why I’m telling you now. I’ve only just figured it out myself.”
This was partly true. I’d known that I was falling in love but it had been unexpected. The decision to leave my homeland was easier than I’d imagined—I could make a fresh start. What’s keeping me here?—but I recognized that it came at the expense of my family. Still, if there was one thing I’d learned from my mother: Love conquers all.
“Well … I think it’s wonderful,” she said. Mom always came around in the end.
I finished bagging up the trimmed tree bits and carried them out to the curb while Mom entertained her grandson with rice crackers and extemporaneous songs. I wished I was already in London.
Inside, the pots were boiling on the stove. I sat at the table, indulging my mother’s need to wait on me. Conversation was sparse. In his high chair to my left, Myles enjoyed some fresh plain noodles. Then Mom brought me my plate. Spaghetti. Bolognese.
I’d grown up on this sauce so any reminder of it, at least its flavor, brought some particularly welcome comfort. Typically bolognese is made with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, garlic, and seasoning. My mother always added a unique touch of mushrooms and peppers. Her distinct flavor never seemed overstated nor was it ever bland enough to threaten my gastronomic pleasure. It tasted like home.
That’s all I know. I can’t attest to the kind of beef she used or which spices gave it that characteristic tang or her method of preparation. It was distinctly hers.
I wanted to have Myles in bed by his usual time so I’d have the rest of the evening quietly to myself as I normally did. I thanked Mom for the food, packed Myles and his bag into the car, and was scaling the westbound Gardiner Expressway on-ramp as the sun began to set in front of me, the orange glow in watercolor ribbons across downtown.
Then without warning, two events, one predictable one not, developed simultaneously as if the vengeful god of inevitability waved his hand over me and chuckled with malevolent satisfaction.
First, a traffic jam forced us to a standstill.
Second, the bolognese backlash.
I should have known. I should have stayed at my mother’s house until this inexorable episode had passed and then I would be free to travel home comfortably, traffic jam be damned, and ensure Myles was in bed slightly later than usual. But I had insisted, as young parents do, to keep with routine lest any lifetime scarring should result from keeping him up past eight o’clock. Now I couldn’t keep still in my seat as my bowels played full-contact Twister with my abdomen.
What did she put in there? What was the secret ingredient that had mocked me and my digestive system during a lifetime of spaghettis? More importantly, was my intestinal fortitude going to hold out until I got home? It was bumper to bumper and my exit, so to speak, was five miles away. The Gardiner is an elevated expressway without a paved shoulder. There was no escape.
I held my breath. I shifted. I clenched. I was grateful Myles had begun to drift off in the back seat and that he was too young to offer any comments on the odors emanating from the front. For fifteen minutes we’d barely moved and I broke out in a cold sweat as I drew perilously close to the proverbial edge.
That’s when I took great interest in the diaper bag sitting on the passenger seat.
“What if …?” I wondered.
As the car inched forward I reached into the bag with one hand and withdrew a crisp, pristine diaper decorated with pictures of Dory and Nemo. It smelled enticingly fresh like an orange blossom and a clean baby. I wanted to smell like a clean baby.
What followed was a procedure never printed in any how-to book, from parenting guides to the Boy Scout manual. It involved some stealthy unbuttoning followed by strategic placement of a baby’s diaper beneath an adult undercarriage. I didn’t have time to worry about the insufficient size of the absorbent equipment; the wheels were now in motion and I simply had to proceed.
After some careful buttock shuffling, everything was in place. I checked my blind spots to make sure no high-riding vehicle drivers were peering down through my window and when I recognised the all-clear …
… I relaxed.
Is this what I get for trying to look after myself, I wondered? Is this what happens when I withhold information from my mother? What had she done to deserve my cold shoulder? Are these the consequences for taking my son far across the sea where his grandparents, aunts, and cousins will only watch him grow up on Skype and annual visits? How could I reconcile a purge that was at once liberating and profoundly emblematic of my relationship with my mother?
If I was going to soil myself every time I considered these questions, then my adventure abroad was about to turn into exile.
I’d never felt so unclean.
Naturally, as soon as I’d employed the emergency apparatus the traffic cleared and within ten minutes I’d pulled into the parking spot behind my house. I managed to squelch inside without befouling my son, cleaned myself up, put Myles to bed and began to enjoy my quiet evening as anticipated.
That was the last time I ate my mother’s bolognese. She didn’t need to know about this or any other less dramatic consequence of her cooking. Maybe it was an effort to maintain familial cohesiveness. Perhaps embarrassment. Or else I’d simply become too overwhelmed by my mother’s passive aggressive communication and too stubborn to keep her in a larger loop than I was prepared to allow her into.
It was too late then. And it’s too late now. I’ll have to live with that until I’m an old man in diapers.
JON MAGIDSOHN, originally from Toronto, is the author of the memoir Immortal Highway and is a memoir writing teacher and facilitator. His work has been featured in The Guardian, National Geographic Traveller, The Bangalore Mirror,Hippocampus Magazine, and Today’s Parent. He and his family live in London where Jon received an MA in Creative Nonfiction from City University. www.jonmagidsohn.com
Last Thanksgiving, my husband and I hopped in a rental car with our three-year-old and drove fourteen hours from Brooklyn to Indiana. We wanted to celebrate the holiday with my parents, my seven siblings, and the chaotic swarm of children that makes up my many nieces and nephews.
We set off around four in the morning, and our son had a diaper explosion just before dawn at a rest stop somewhere in Pennsylvania. It was a mess of such magnitude, I stood paralyzed for several moments under the florescent lighting, debating if the best strategy was simply to burn the structure down and flee. I didn’t know it then, but I should have taken my son’s booming bowels as a warning shot: a foreshadowing of the weekend to come.
When we finally pulled up to my parents’ house, we were greeted by black skies and the ominous wail of a tornado siren, which for southern Indiana, isn’t exactly a seasonal sound in late November. My mother hugged us in welcome and croaked into my ear that she had awoken that morning with the flu. But not to worry—she was still making the entire meal.
Which she did, despite protestations and offers of help. The next day she waved us all away, hobbling around the kitchen high on Tylenol Cold, basting the bird in its juices and what we hoped wasn’t the Norovirus.
My brothers and their families trickled in with their children, and the clouds outside hung heavy and low, still teasing the idea of a storm. Adding to the odd energy in the air was the fact that it was my parents’ forty-ninth wedding anniversary. While under normal circumstances this would be a very happy occasion, my father is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. He’s in a wheelchair and can no longer really speak. My mother has insisted on keeping him at home with her throughout his illness while a rotating cast of caretakers comes in to assist her with his needs. There have been various pushes over the years to consider placing him in a nursing home, but my mother was as receptive to this idea as she was to someone offering to cook her Thanksgiving turkey: thanks but no thanks, now please get out of her kitchen.
Growing up in my large, Catholic family, holiday meals are some of my most vivid memories. We used to squeeze into our tiny dining room, my father pressed so tightly against a bay window it’s a wonder he didn’t shatter through to the backyard. We wore our “church” clothes, which for me meant a dress and thick tights that made my legs feel like they were in plaster casts. Gravy was served in a gravy boat shaped like a turkey, and when you tipped it, gravy poured from the bird’s mouth as though it was vomiting beige mucus onto your meal. We used to fight over whose turn it was to use it.
Our local priest would join us for dinner, my parents perhaps hoping that having a man of God at the table might keep us from reenacting scenes from Alien with the turkey carcass. They were wrong of course. Father Jerry or no—someone was still likely to hide a bit of potato in Teddy’s milk, so that he’d take a swig and send his partially digested green bean casserole back up onto the table, barfing in unison with the gravy boat.
When he was well, my dad was what people called “a real character.” And his blue eyes especially blazed to life at these dinners. He’d repeatedly clink his glass, offering various odd toasts and teasing decrees. One year he ordered there to be an election to select one of the family dogs “President.” We each cast ballots, and when his beloved yorkie “Holy” (so named for her tendency to lie motionless upon her back as though deep in devout prayer) lost out to the labrador “Brown” (much more lazily named for the color of his coat) my dad feigned outrage for hours, snorting with laughter as he shouted for a recount.
For years, at the end of each Thanksgiving meal, he’d wink at us kids and flash a thin box of mini Swisher Sweet cigars. Neither of my parents were smokers, and this was the one special occasion where this rule was broken. We’d follow my Dad to a secret location, where he’d allow us to join him in a puff of a post-meal stogie. Unfortunately for my mother, this “secret” hideaway generally turned out to be her walk-in closet, and she’d spend the next two weeks attending church in dresses that smelled like she’d just rolled in from an all night poker tournament.
But those days were now long gone, now. Father Jerry now lived in Indianapolis and, due to health reasons, was unable to travel. Trying to fit everyone into the dining room would be akin to a clown car routine, so now we dined in the living room, at long cafeteria tables borrowed from the elementary school.
As my family wandered through the house last Thanksgiving, I was reminded of Disney’s Haunted Mansion, where the illuminated ghosts swirl through the rooms. My parents’ house now felt more crowded with the past than it did people. To sit as an adult in a nest of childhood memories, before the same vomiting gravy boat, created in me a kind of emotional vertigo. Like one of those disorienting dreams where it’s your house, but also not your house. It’s you—but also not you.
It was clear none of us really had the words for the transformations within our family. No one knew how to talk about the force that was my father and how it was now gone. Yes, he was still at the table with the same bright blue eyes, but there would be no call for a canine electoral college. No brandishing of mini-cigars post meal. The truth was, he would never really speak to us again.
It seemed we were all coping with this in our own way. Offering and re-offering Stove Top stuffing to our children. Repeatedly complimenting my mother on the dumplings. But the air above the table felt as leaden and dense as the air outside.
One of my brothers—who is normally the calm, steady voice of reason—decided the best way to ease the tension was to drink a quarter bottle of whiskey and become as loud as was humanly possible. He tied a dishrag around his face and chased the grandchildren, making them scream with laughter. He pushed aside pie plates and challenged other brothers to arm wrestle. It was practically a one-man show of distraction and diversion, one that culminated in him slamming out to the front porch, shouting, “Watch this!” and proceeding to decimate some wind chimes with a broom.
Around the time the wind chimes clanged to the ground, I realized my mother had left the festivities. I wandered through the house and found her sitting in the library, where my father now slept. The room was dark, except for the flicker of the television. She sat perched beside my dad’s hospital-grade bed, holding his hand. I heard shrieks from the TV, and realized they were watching No Country For Old Men.
“Would you like me to put on something a little lighter?” I asked. “Maybe something with Meg Ryan?”
“No, no,” she said. “We like this movie.”
Forty-nine years ago on that night they’d been cutting the cake at their reception, my dad clutching a black top hat in his big hand. Now my mother sat at the edge of his adjustable bed, holding that same hand, while a veritable tribe of their creation stomped around on the other side of the door. They’d had ten children together. They’d lost two of those children. They’d watched each other’s parents die. Watched the leaves outside the window bud green, turn crimson, and drift to the ground, over and over and over again. They’d raked those leaves together. One holding open the Hefty bag, while the other stuffed it full of fall.
There were words I wanted to say. Words that swarmed through my head and chest. But I didn’t know how to form them or how to corral them into sentences. So instead I simply sat on the floor at their feet. Together we watched Javier Bardem murder people with a cattle gun, while the muffled shouts of my siblings drifted in from other rooms.
The next day most of the family returned to their own nearby homes, and the only ones who stayed on with my parents were my husband and I and our son, and my youngest brother and his girlfriend. While the house was much quieter, it wasn’t much calmer, as my three-year-old seemed to be coming down from the previous day’s mania. He streaked through the house like a toddler on a cocaine bender, eschewing all offers of toys in favor of banging open the china cabinet door and attempting to rake my mother’s Franklin Mint bell collection to the floor. Meanwhile, my mom was still wandering the house in a fever haze and was once again insisting on fixing an elaborate dinner, this time coughing her way through bacon-wrapped steaks.
By the time evening rolled around all I wanted was to put my child to bed, sit down with a fishbowl of wine, and stare off into the middle distance. I finally got him to sleep and collapsed on the couch. We were once again eating in the living room so that my Dad could eat with us because his wheelchair didn’t fit at the kitchen table. Together we sat before the Empire Strikes Back, our plates balanced on our laps. Exhausted, I stared blankly at C3PO and shoveled meat into my mouth on autopilot.
At one point, as I chomped down, I felt something sharp. Oh, well. I thought. Probably just a bone. Which perfectly captures my frazzled mental state. For 1.) I thought steaks should have tiny sharp bones and 2.) That it was perfectly fine to swallow them whole. Only after I cleared my plate, did I glance down and see the broken half of a large wooden toothpick and realize what I had done.
I quietly carried my plate to the kitchen then Googled on my phone: “Swallowing a toothpick dangerous?”
As someone with hypochondriac tendencies, I was all too familiar with turning to Google with strange medical concerns. My search history over the years was a treasure trove of “Mole shaped like a hat deadly?” and “Pain in which arm means heart attack?”
So I wasn’t surprised when my toothpick query sent back the WebMD equivalent of a breathless, wide-eyed woman screaming into my face: “Death comes for us all!”
Heaving a heavy sigh, I walked back into the living room and announced that I had swallowed half of a toothpick and, according to the Internet, it could puncture my internal organs, and so would someone kindly take me to the ER?
Everyone paused. My mother’s glass of white zinfandel hung in the air. Darth Vader breathed heavily from the TV. Everyone’s face did a slow motion dance between laughter and concern, ultimately forcing their features to settle into concern. My youngest brother leapt up and offered to drive me, so that my husband could stay home with our son. My brother’s twenty-four-year-old girlfriend began tugging on her stiletto boots, insisting on coming along.
The ER the night after Thanksgiving was a crowded place. I stood at the window and explained to the nurse that I had swallowed a toothpick.
“Yikes. That’s not good.”
I could see she very much wanted to ask—as any sane human does—how did I swallow a toothpick? Was I, an adult human, unfamiliar with the process of chewing and swallowing food? But she controlled herself, and simply ushered me back to a room, my brother and his girlfriend trailing behind.
A weary nurse came by and explained that because the toothpick was wooden, there was no way to do an X-ray.
“So instead, we’d like you to eat this turkey sandwich.”
I stared in confusion. Was it an electromagnetic turkey sandwich that was somehow capable of detecting wood?
“Look,” she sighed. “It’s to make sure the toothpick isn’t blocking anything. That you can get food down, okay?” She dropped the sandwich in my lap and left.
“It’s going to be okay, Miss Jo. I know it is!” My brother’s girlfriend smiled at me encouragingly. She always called me “Miss Jo,” like I was an old tap dance teacher from her childhood. She placed a hand on the back of my hospital gown, closed her eyes, and began to mumble under her breath something about Jesus taking the toothpick from my person.
I chewed the dry turkey and willed myself not to scream. All I’d wanted to do that night was relax for one goddamn minute. And now I was eating a hospital cafeteria sandwich at midnight while my brother’s wide-eyed girlfriend prayed over me. Not that I wasn’t touched by her kindness and concern in that moment: I very much was. I just didn’t want to be having that moment, period.
The sandwich went down, which seemed promising. Finally, a doctor rushed in clutching a clipboard.
“Ok, so uh…uh…I think…well I think…uh.” He had a nervous, halting way of speaking. Which is precisely the last thing one wants in an ER doctor. We all stared at him in anticipation.
“I think you’re going to…uh…uh…”
YES? Die? Live? Self immolate?
“I think you’re going to be…uh…okay.”
There was a collective sigh of relief.
He informed me that, while, yes, there was a chance it could puncture my liver leading to my untimely death, most likely I would just “pass it.”
“So you can just…uh…go home. But if you don’t feel…you know…okay…then…then…come back. Okay?” He had me sign his clipboard and left.
“Well that sounds…good? Right?” my brother asked, pulling on his coat.
I nodded, though my heart was pounding. That doctor had just doled out the absolute worst possible scenario ever for a hypochondriac: You might be okay, but if you think you’re dying of sepsis, give us a ring.
Did he not realize he was dealing with someone who was pretty much always sure she was dying of sepsis? Someone who had once gotten a CAT scan because she left Crest WhiteStrips on too long and it made her head feel funny?
I tried to take deep breaths while my brother and his girlfriend went to get the car. As I was signing my discharge papers, the nurse looked up at me.
“Oh and listen, if you do, uh, you know, pass it, you probably won’t know. So you shouldn’t. You know… Go looking for it.”
I nodded, imagining myself kneeling in the bathroom at my parents’ house, desperately pounding at my own excrement with a hammer.
“Good to know.”
Back in my childhood home, all was quiet. My mother and husband, upon hearing my stomach hadn’t in fact exploded, had gone to bed. I eased myself into my parents’ old bedroom, where my husband and son lay in the darkness, lightly snoring.
I wearily pulled on pajamas, jamming my mouthguard into my mouth. I lay down between my husband and son and stared into the darkness. This was the same room I used to pad into as a child when I was frightened or had had a nightmare. It still had the same wallpaper that used to creep me out because the shape of the design reminded me of ET when he was dying. But even with the unsettling wallpaper, coming into this room used to be like stepping into a warm cell of safety. I would climb up between my parents, and the warmth of their bodies would fill me with a certainty that everything was going to be okay.
Now, my mother slept in my old bedroom across the hall, where she’d been staying ever since my dad got sick. Dad was in his bed in the library. And my own son was now stretched out beside me, breathing softly. I was now the parent. I was meant to be the certainty.
The weight of this knowledge fell over me, and suddenly the stress, and sadness, and anxiety of the whole weekend began to whirl in my stomach, along with the dreaded toothpick. I could feel myself start to come undone. My eyes welled with tears, and my chest constricted.
And then suddenly, in the shadows, my son sat up. He turned to me, reached out his tiny hand, and patted my arm. Then he said something he’d never said to me before in his life: “It’s okay, Mama.”
He immediately lay back down, drifting back to sleep. And I stared at him, dumbfounded, wondering if I’d just imagined the whole thing. He had missed the events of the night—had slept through the whole “Mommy swallowing a foreign object” portion of the evening. But he had clearly, in that moment, intuited my distress. And something about hearing his soft little voice, hearing him try to comfort me, it was like a switch flipped, and a wave of calm flooded through me. My eyes went dry. My breathing slowed. And I began to pull myself back together. Because I had to. Because that’s what we do for our kids. For our spouses. For the people we love.
I thought of my parents sitting side by side, holding hands. If their forty-nine years together—a whole lifetime of immense joys and devastating heartbreaks and weird movies in the dark—if it had a lesson to offer, it was that when things get scary, you stay brave for the people who need you. You wade through the muck of worry. You continue to seek happiness, even when overwhelmed by ghosts and sorrow. You do whatever it takes. And sometimes that might mean not spiraling into anxiety. Sometimes it might mean being the strong one. And sometimes, it might even mean pushing out a toothpick.
JOHANNA GOHMANN has written for New York Magazine, Salon, and BUST. Her essays have been anthologized in The Best Women’s Travel Writing Volume 10, A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Encounters Around the World, and Every Father’s Daughter: 24 Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. www.JohannaGohmann.com
My mom is nearly bald. Her hair started falling out in her late twenties, getting thinner and thinner, until what remained fell away after the round of chemotherapy she got for breast cancer treatment. The hospital gave her a wig, a short straight bob. Around the time strangers started confusing her for my dad, I tried to get her to wear it. She didn’t though. She hardly ever wore it, putting it on only for the rare special occasion.
I asked her once why she’d snipped a jagged hole in the bangs of her wig at my cousin’s wedding. She’d said, “It’s too hot.” I didn’t want to admit it then, but, as the sweat pooled in the strapless bra I wore under my pale green bridesmaid’s dress, I understood what she meant. Sometimes it’s just too much trouble to look the part.
Living life with a well-ventilated scalp, my mom doesn’t look like anyone else’s mom. And it’s not the only thing different about her either.
“I’d like to visit my friends when we’re in Hawaii,” she told me over the phone in Khmer. Our family vacation to Oahu was coming up.
“Okay,” I said. Nothing peculiar about that. I had no idea she knew people in Hawaii, but she was always making new friends at her Buddhist temple. Her words bounced off the back of my skull and landed in a soft pile where they remained to be thought about later.
“My friends have a farm. They raise crops and sell the produce at the flea market,” my mom said, intrigued, a few weeks before our departure date. “They live in a little house on the land.”
My mom’s friends weren’t rich, but they weren’t poor either. After all, they were getting by with that warm blue ocean in their backyard. It reminded me of a Kinfolk article. I pictured my mom’s new friends wearing stylish overalls in a refurbished Airstream.
“How’d you meet them?” I asked.
“YouTube,” she said.
“YouTube?” I asked. “You met them on YouTube?”
“Yeah, they had a video of their farm,” she said matter-of-factly.
The video came up in her search for Cambodian Buddhist temples in Hawaii. It ended with a phone number on the screen that my mom promptly dialed. We were invited to come visit; everyone was invited. (It was the “everyone” bit that struck me as most creepy.)
The scene in my head changed from Kinfolk to Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This sounded not unlike that time a man lured people to his ranch by advertising a cheap car for sale on Craig’s List, only to shoot them all execution-style once they got there. Neither of my parents shared my concerns. Cambodian people wouldn’t do that, my dad said. “I guess” was the only clever response I could think of.
When we got to Oahu, we spent half of our time exploring the island and the other half bobbing in the water at the beach in front of our hotel. My mom asked when we’d go see her friends. Soon, I said. I was the only one properly insured to drive the rental van, and the rule-follower in me insisted I drive.
Three days before the end of our vacation, after we’d seen Mermaid’s Cave and eaten our fill of shaved ice, I decided the trip wouldn’t be ruined if we were to all die then. It was time. As I drove the van to the farm, I thought about the two sea turtles I’d swum with and the five rainbows that arched in the sky that day. I’d be going out on a high note for sure.
To my surprise, I didn’t turn the van around, delivering us all back to the safety of our Waikiki high-rise hotel. I followed my mom’s lead: She had a way of knowing things. Like that time she knew she had a tumor growing inside her and insisted the doctor cut it out. Her mammogram results had come back negative just one month prior. Only after she kept insisting something was wrong did they send her back for more testing and confirm her suspicions of cancer. If something was up, she would be the first one to know.
As I followed Google Map’s directions, the cramped city streets of Honolulu gave way to neighborhoods with more breathing room. I wondered where the farms were. I took a few turns before the map showed we were fast approaching our destination. Did we have the address right? These homes had tennis courts. These homes were mansions.
My dad called the phone number from the YouTube video and spoke with a man. We were in the right place. As we climbed out of the van, my sister Sophie and I laughed nervously the way you do when you’re pretty certain you’ll be okay but a small part of you still wonders if you might get shot. We walked down a long driveway to the house at the bottom.
My mind struggled to make sense of what was happening. Three younger men moved about, preparing a charcoal barbecue next to an open garage, while an older man stood holding a cell phone. A young boy splashed in the swimming pool in the middle of the grassless front yard. There was no lawn, just concrete and a shabby L-shaped mansion serving as the backdrop. A tall white spiral staircase from the eighties connected the two sides of the “L.” Whoever designed it must have thought it lent the property a grand air, but the effect reminded me of the motels we stayed in on our family vacations as a kid.
The cell-phone-holding man, impressively tanned, walked toward us.
“Don’t forget to greet him,” my mom said under her breath, pressing her palms together in the customary Cambodian salute.
The rest of my family immediately followed suit. A group of praying mantis sharing a hive mind.
“Welcome,” Tan Man said. “Do you want something to eat or drink?”
“No, we’re fine,” my mom said, answering for all of us. “We just wanted to come see your life on the farm.”
“Oh, right,” Tan Man said. “Well, this is where we live now.” He gave an apologetic shrug. Turning to face the other men, he said, “These are my sons and that’s their friend.”
The sons pulled up chairs for us around the folding table where they sat.
After a few more minutes of small talk, my mom said, “You guys hang out.” I shot wide eyes at her, willing her to say she’d just be a few minutes. She didn’t notice and slipped away into the mansion with my dad and Tan Man. The hive mind was broken.
“I’m Rithy,” the shorter son said. “This is my brother Magnus and my friend Toshi.”
We introduced ourselves. Toshi, the friend, was the only one wearing a shirt. It was his son in the swimming pool.
“Where are you guys from?” Rithy asked.
“California,” Sophie said.
“Oh yeah? Which part?” Rithy asked.
“San Jose,” Sophie said. “How about you?”
“Born and raised on the island,” Rithy responded. “Magnus lives in Washington now. He’s just here visiting.”
“Must be nice growing up in a place like this,” my sister’s boyfriend Jordan chimed in.
“Don’t be fooled by those pretty pictures in the travel brochures,” Toshi said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s hard making it here,” Toshi said. “Finding work, paying the bills. A one-bedroom apartment goes for a thousand dollars a month. A month. Can you believe it?”
I thought about the one-bedroom I rented for under two thousand in San Jose and how everyone I knew thought that was a steal.
“That is crazy,” I said.
Wrapped in a towel, Toshi’s son joined us at the table. He opened a container of poke and split apart a pair of wooden chopsticks. By the way he ate, I doubted all that fish would put a dent in his appetite.
“What do the locals like to do?” I asked.
“Party,” Toshi said. “Party and make babies.” He looked over at his son.
Rithy nodded in agreement. No one said anything; I took the moment to listen for anything unusual. A muffled scream or a crash from inside. Only the sound of the wind filled my ears.
I changed the subject. “How’d you guys end up here?” I asked, referring to the motel mansion.
“Oh, that’s a story,” Magnus said. “There was this Swedish couple watching the news one day. All of a sudden they decided to adopt a baby. The woman at the church they called said, ‘Well, I don’t have a baby, but I do have an entire family.’ We were in Cambodia at the time when stuff was starting to get bad. My mom was pregnant with me and there was also my dad and two brothers. Whatever the couple was watching on TV that day must have been crazy because they decided to do it. They sponsored our family to come to the States. That’s why I have a Swedish name.”
I might have asked why they didn’t all live in Sweden, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the logistics of adopting an entire family. A light, unseasonable rain fell, covering everything in a soft mist. A tropical storm was passing through the islands.
“Is this their house?” Sophie asked.
“This?” Magnus asked, surprised. “No, this belongs to this Japanese couple. They had it built quickly, so the floor plan is all fucked up. No one wants to buy it at $4.7 million.”
Must be the Magnum, P.I. staircase, I thought.
Magnus got up to check on the grill. When he came back, he sat down and resumed drinking his beer. It was dark out now, and there was nothing to look at except each other and the empty garage we sat in. I fought the urge to look at my phone. I could tell Magnus had finished answering the question, but I’d never stepped foot on a $4.7 million property before and wanted to know how one comes to barbecue in such a place.
“Do you guys live here?” I asked.
“My parents do,” Magnus said.
“But not the Japanese people?”
“Right. They built this place and left it.”
“So how’d your family get connected?”
“My parents have a cleaning business and one of their clients is the owners’ daughter. She told her parents about my parents and they fell in love with my mom. Asked her to look after the place.”
I nodded. The guys drank their beer. A lull in conversation settled over us like a fishing net trapping random sea creatures together. We weren’t sure how any of us came to be there.
After a long while, Rithy asked Toshi and Magnus about an upcoming wedding. They talked about the friend who didn’t get an invite and laughed. I fiddled with my hands and half smiled like I understood the joke. They started talking about who was coming over with the meat skewers, who was bringing drinks. It clicked then that the reason for the barbecue was Magnus’s visit home. We were intruding on their party.
“Mohammed’s here,” Toshi announced as a car pulled into the driveway. Looking at me, he said, “This is the only Cambodian Muslim you’ll ever meet on the island. Converted. Even changed his name.”
“I’ve never met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.
“There’s lots in prison,” Toshi said.
Somehow I knew better than to ask how he knew.
With Mohammed there, the conversation turned a corner, quickly moving past us to inside jokes and gossip about people we didn’t know. The guys tended to grilling the meat and disappeared around the corner to smoke pot. We sat with Toshi’s son who had moved on to an octopus poke. The longer we sat there, the more I felt how I did in high school when my best friend and I crashed parties we weren’t invited to. We weren’t privy to those conversations either.
When I couldn’t sit with my half-smile plastered on any longer, I went to the house to find the bathroom and did a double take as I stepped inside. There was no blood. No one on the ground having the life choked out of them. All four parents sat at the kitchen table, talking and laughing. Perhaps I would have been more patient had I stepped into a stickier situation, but I was annoyed that they were having the time of their lives. Meanwhile, sitting in the garage, the awkwardness pulled at my skin until I’d wanted to tear it all off. I caught my mom’s eye and silently tried to convey how much we wanted to leave. No luck. I used the bathroom (Magnus was right about this place: Even the bathroom in the apartment I rented back home was nicer than this) and then walked back to the kitchen.
“Can we go?” I whispered intently.
“Don’t you want to wait for the barbecue?” my mom asked.
“No,” I emphasized. “We were going to get that sushi for dinner, remember?”
“Oh, okay then,” my mom said.
She apologized to her friends about her kids’ picky tastes, but surprisingly, she and my dad wrapped up their conversation, got up, and followed me outside. As we walked back to the driveway, my mom told me her friends had invited her and my dad to come back and stay in one of the empty rooms. I turned and studied her friends’ faces one last time. Just in case. We went in a circle doing the praying-mantis, said goodbye to the group of guys steadily forming in the garage, and got back into our rental van.
Before the van door had even swung shut, we unleashed on my mom. Sophie and I took turns, telling her how awkward it was, reprimanding her for leaving us like that. My mom didn’t say anything, letting us get it all out of our systems. She was in her own world anyway, one where people cleaned houses, lived in mansions, and went to the beach on their lunch break. Without getting the reaction out of her we wanted, we quickly lost steam. We moved on to swapping stories from inside and outside the house.
“So what’d you guys talk about?” I asked.
“Not much. Cambodian politics. The story of how they came here. We didn’t have a lot of time together,” my mom said.
I rolled my eyes at the last part.
“Japanese people own that house; my friends just look after it,” she informed us.
“Uh huh, the sons told us,” Sophie said.
We bumped along in silence until I thought of something they wouldn’t know.
“We met a Cambodian Muslim,” I said.
“Muslim? You sure?” my dad asked. Clearly they had never met one either.
“Yeah, there are lots in prison,” I said.
When no one questioned me, I relished in my newfound street cred.
As the lights of the Waikiki strip came into view, I asked, “So, was there a farm?”
“Oh, we didn’t get a chance to talk about any of that,” my mom said, looking out the window. “I’ll have to ask when I see them next time.”
Next time. I looked at her in the rearview, beaming in her seat and dreaming about all the possibilities. I shook my head and smiled. I didn’t doubt her for a second.
SOBRINA TUNG PIES is a writer and tech marketer living in the Silicon Valley. In addition to contributing to Full Grown People, she sometimes writes on her blog at www.quietlikehorses.com.
“Are you going to write about this?” my ninety-eight-year-old grandmother asked as she shambled across the convenience store parking lot with her walker, and I followed with her purse in one hand and her diaper bag in the other.
“No, Granny, what happens in the restroom stays in the restroom.”
She stopped and reached over to grab my arm. “It’s okay, darlin’. You can write about whatever you want.”
A month before, I’d come up with the idea of a road trip with Granny during a visit to my uncle Doug’s home in Burkburnett where she’s been living since leaving her home in Midland two years ago. Even though Doug had a heart attack last year and his wife, June, is on her third round of chemotherapy for lymphoma, they refuse to even consider a nursing home for Granny. Doug makes a weekly trip to Walmart to buy her beloved no-name-brand cheese puffs, and June cheers for her as she makes her laps around the pool table each day. Between them, they make sure Granny has three square meals a day, and when she needs to go to the doctor, they insist that she leave the housecoat at home and put on a pair of pants and a blouse, all neatly pressed by Doug.
I arrived in the late afternoon, and Doug met me at the door.
“Get in here.” He grabbed my overnight bag out of my hand and led me though the hall and kitchen into the den, carefully avoiding the knick-knacks balancing on every surface.
“Mother! Look who’s here,” Doug yelled at Granny who was sitting on the couch, eyes glued to the television.
“Huh?” Granny turned toward Doug and scrunched her face. She’s been almost deaf for a decade, but she won’t wear a hearing aid.
“Mother, look, it’s Karen.” Doug stepped out of the way, so Granny could see me.
“Oh well, what about that, you made it!”
I knew they’d had a conversation earlier in the day about my unreliability.
“What are you watching?” I plopped down next to Granny while Doug set my bag against the wall.
“‘Family Feud.’” She turned her attention back to the television. “Do you like ‘Family Feud’?”
“I don’t watch ‘Family Feud.’”
“I DON’T WATCH ‘FAMILY FEUD,’” I yelled.
My aunt June walked in, patting her hair in place with both hands.
“You didn’t eat yet, did you?” she asked.
I glanced at the clock and saw that it said 4:30. “Nope.”
“Do you still not eat meat?” she continued.
“Still not eating meat, but don’t worry about me. I’ll make do with whatever.”
“What about chicken?” Doug asked.
“Nope, not chicken either.” We have this conversation every time I visit.
I sat on the couch with Granny, while in the kitchen Doug cut up chunks of cheese and June heated up cabbage soup. I was almost certain that she’d made the soup with chicken stock, but I wasn’t going to try to explain again that this matters to a vegetarian.
Just as the credits were rolling for “Family Feud,” June brought a plate into the den, and while balancing it in one hand, she pulled a T.V. tray in front of Granny with the other. Then June put the plate down on the tray. A frozen corndog, microwaved and cut into bite-sized pieces.
“Is that a corndog?” Granny seemed neither pleased nor disappointed.
“Yes, Mother, it’s a corndog.” June called Granny “Mother” just like Doug.
“What about my puffs?”
“Just wait a minute. Doug’s bringin’ ’em with your tea.”
“Okay then.” Granny forked a chunk of wiener covered in breading and popped it in her mouth just as Doug added the missing plastic glass of tea and bowl of cheese puffs to her tray.
“Want a puff?” Granny’s mouth was still full.
“Okay.” I took just one and felt my blood pressure rise from the infusion of salt. Where did that orange color come from? Real cheese isn’t that color.
After dinner, Doug, June, Granny, and I sat in the den and watched as June toggled between “Dancing with the Stars” and “The Voice.” During one of the rare moments when both channels were having a simultaneous commercial break, I asked about my aunt Betty. Betty is Doug’s sister and Granny’s only other living child. Betty suffers from Parkinson’s, and shortly after Granny had moved to Burkburnett, Betty’s children had moved her into a nursing home in Midland so her son—my cousin, John—and his girlfriend, Sharon, could keep an eye on her.
Doug said they hadn’t heard from Betty in a several weeks, so we decided to try to get in touch with her the following day. Around nine o’clock, June gave Granny her pills and helped her get ready for bed while Doug pulled out the sofa sleeper for me.
It was late the next afternoon when I finally got to talk to Betty on the phone. It had been two years since I’d talked to her, and the changes were staggering. I could barely hear her soft voice, and the words I did hear made no sense: Junior, Oldsmobile, Thanksgiving.
After I hung up the phone, I realized that Betty and Granny might never see each other again unless someone stepped up and offered to drive Granny the two hundred miles from Burkburnett to Midland. June volunteered Doug to go with me.
“Granny,” I yelled to get her attention.
“Whaaat?” She was annoyed. I’d interrupted “Wheel of Fortune,” her favorite.
“Want to go to Midland?”
“I would like to see my house one last time.” She perked up and lost all interest in the dinging that was blaring from the television as one of the contestants bought the right vowel. “I lived in that house for fifty-six years.”
“Okay, then.” I went in the kitchen to look at the calendar with June, and we found a couple of days that would work the following month.
“Do I need to put on my clothes?” Granny yelled from the den.
“You’re not going today,” June yelled back.
June went into the den, sat next to Granny, and explained that I would come back in a few weeks, then Doug and I would take her.
“Okay.” Granny sat back against the couch, her gaze returning to the television.
The next day, I returned to Austin, and over the next four weeks, I told all my friends about my plan to take my grandmother to see her old home and her daughter, probably for the last time.
“Wow, what an adventure,” my friends said, and I’d teared up a little and shook my head. Yes, I was doing such a wonderful thing for Granny.
Four weeks later, we were on our way to Midland when we stopped for a restroom break, and I found myself following Granny and her walker across the asphalt parking lot of a convenience store while Doug grabbed a quick smoke.
When we finally arrived in Midland two hours and two restroom breaks later, we checked into the Hampton Inn and headed to Rockwood Manor to see Betty. When we walked in the front door, the comingled smells of iodine and boiling potatoes hit me and turned my stomach. I looked at Granny, thinking how lucky she was not to have to live in a place like this. When we found Betty’s room, John’s girlfriend, Sharon, was already there. John is Betty’s youngest son, and even though he and Sharon have been together for years, he’s spent most of them in prison. When it was time to move Betty into a nursing home, Sharon stepped up and offered to help John see after Betty, but I was pretty sure she was the one doing most of the work. She was definitely the one directing the campaign to convince us all that John had become an outstanding son.
“Look at her pretty finger nails! John paints them for her every week.” Sharon dragged a vinyl-cushioned chair next to Betty’s recliner, so Granny could sit close. Granny grabbed Betty’s hand and pulled it into her lap, while Betty stared down at their clasped hands, expressionless. Granny couldn’t hear, and Betty rarely makes sense, so everyone else did the talking.
“And this is where I put her snacks.” Sharon opened a drawer in Betty’s bedside table and pointed to a bag of Cheetos. I thought for a moment about retrieving Granny’s puff from the car so they could have a taste test but then decided against it.
“Hey, Sharon,” I said, “before I forget, can we come out to your house tomorrow and get Granny’s personal stuff out of your shed?”
“Uh, yeah, okay.” Sharon looked nervously over my head.
A little over a year before, when Doug had his hands full taking care of Granny and needed to sell her house, he’d made a deal with Sharon. If she would empty the house, she could have the money from anything she could sell. He’d told me that Sharon was keeping Granny’s personal items, like her photographs, in a storage shed until someone could pick them up.
“The thing I really want is the framed photograph of my mother as a child. It was hanging in Granny’s bedroom.” I thought the location of it might spur Sharon’s memory.
Sharon didn’t respond, so I continued. “It was in a beautiful silver frame with a blue velvet mat.”
“I don’t remember it, but I’ll look when I get home.” Sharon looked at her feet.
“It was the only photograph of my mother as a child.” Even I could hear the whine and the hope in my voice.
“Granny!” I raised my voice to get her attention. “If we leave now, we can drive by the house before we meet John for dinner.”
“Okay.” She squeezed Betty’s hand before letting go.
“I want to see the house, too,” Betty said softly.
“Then come with us.” I saw a glimpse of the aunt I adored.
“I’m not sure you want to do that,” Sharon warned. “She can be a handful in the car.”
“I was the one she was with the first time she tried to jump out of a car.” I smiled at Betty again. “We got this, right?”
Sharon protested for a few more minutes about Betty’s anxiety and then the size of her wheelchair. I didn’t know if Sharon was being protective or controlling, but it didn’t matter. I dug in my heels until she realized this was an argument I’d never let her win.
I drove to the house, with Doug in the passenger seat and Betty and Granny in the back. I’d engaged the child locks, as I didn’t entirely trust either of them not to jump out.
I slowed the car in front of the red brick ranch at 4012 Monty Drive, the house where Santa sometimes left our gifts before dark on Christmas Eve so my grandfather could see us open them before he had to report for his shift as a policeman. The house where my girl cousins and I had once collected all our parents’ change, placed it in a special plastic Easter egg, and then naively entrusted their older brother to hide it. The house where my grandmother, Joy Green, had spent over half of her life.
As I stopped the car at the curb, Granny looked excitedly out the window.
“They planted a tree.” She pointed towards a sapling staked in the middle of the long-dead grass in the front yard.
“My American Beauty is still there.” Her eyesight was sometimes perfect.
After Granny completed a full inventory of the plants, both old and new, we had a few more minutes to kill before meeting John and Sharon at the restaurant, so I decided to drive by Dennis the Menace Park—the park where Granny had taken us to play when we were kids and Dennis the Menace was a popular cartoon. Doug jumped out for a quick smoke while I pointed out what was left of the original park—a faded sign and a 1960s-era water fountain that looked like a rhinoceros.
We eventually made it to the restaurant, one of those family places that serve catfish and fried okra, dipped in the same batter and fried in the same grease so that the taste is indistinguishable. As our food was served, John blurted from the other end of the table, “Sharon told me about that picture you’re looking for. I’m pretty sure we don’t have it anymore.”
I blinked hard. What?
“We kept that stuff for a couple of years, but no one ever came to get it, so we finally threw it out.”
I bit my lip. Granny had barely left her house a couple of years ago, and it’s only been a year since the house was cleaned out and sold.
“What’s wrong?” Granny hadn’t heard a word.
“Nothing, Granny.” I stared down at my plate as I choked down the rest of my catfish or okra, I’m not sure which, and thought about the day Granny had given me the only picture she had of my mother as a child. In the photo, my mother, who was probably three or four, had a few wispy curls pulled back with a barrette, and her smile revealed her dimples. When Granny offered it to me, I protested—this was her memory, not mine—but she insisted, so I accepted the photograph and took it to be framed so I could give it back to her for Christmas. She asked me to hang it on the wall of her bedroom and made me promise that I’d get it back when she was no longer there to remember.
When we finished our dinner, Sharon and John offered to take Betty back to the nursing home. Granny wanted to drive by her house one more time. This time, Doug rang the bell of one of her neighbors, and the woman and her husband came out to visit with Granny in the backseat of the car. Their dogs tried to lick Granny as they talked about the couple’s impending move to the Northeast and how the Texas Rangers were playing. I stayed in the driver’s seat and stared out the windshield, fuming about the lost photo.
As we drove back to the hotel, I finally spoke.
“That photograph of my mother is gone.” I said it low so only Doug could hear.
“I’m afraid you might be right,” he said.
I was determined to say no more about it. Doug had taken on all the responsibility for Granny, and I didn’t want him to feel guilty about anything. When we got back to the hotel, Granny and I wished Doug a good night and closed our door. It was almost nine o’clock, and I was anxious for her to go to bed, so I could call my husband.
Unfortunately Granny had other ideas. Her old neighbor had mentioned that the Rangers were playing that night, and now she wanted to watch the game. I sat down next to her on the couch.
“Karen, tomorrow we need to go to John and Sharon’s and get my pictures.”
“Granny, there aren’t any pictures to get.”
“Never mind. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.” I wanted to vent to my husband instead.
When Granny was finally ready for bed, I tucked her in and crept out to the lobby to call home. At first, I sobbed so hard, I couldn’t get the words out, and when I finally did, they erupted in a stream.
“What kind of person throws away someone else’s photographs? Why didn’t I go get it as soon as Granny said she was staying in Burkburnett? Why didn’t Doug tell me before he had Sharon clean out the house? Why did I trust someone I didn’t know to take care of it for me?”
“I don’t know,” my husband said softly over and over again. He usually jumps at the chance to solve a problem, but even he knew there was no solution for this.
I returned to the room and climbed into bed, exhausted. I’d lost my mother all over again.
At some point during the night, Granny came awake.
“Remember we have to get those pictures tomorrow.”
I pretended to be asleep.
The next morning, we had breakfast in the hotel lobby where they offered one of those free breakfast buffets. I chose the Fruit Loops like I always do when I travel because I love them but wouldn’t be caught dead buying them in the grocery store. Doug made Granny a waffle and then headed back to his room to shave.
“Karen.” Granny stopped her fork midway between the table and her mouth. “Don’t forget, we have to go out to Sharon’s and get my pictures.”
I tried not to yell. “There are no pictures to get. They’re gone.”
“Where are they?” She dropped her fork, her voice was rising.
“Who threw them away?” Now people were staring.
“John or Sharon, I don’t know. All I know is they’re gone.”
“Well, they better not be or I’m gonna scream.” She was already screaming.
I shrugged in apology to the woman who watched from a nearby table.
“It’s okay,” she said, “She can scream if she wants.”
It never fails to amaze me the allowances people make for the elderly.
“Screaming won’t change anything. What’s done is done.” I tried to calm Granny down.
She shook her head and finished her waffle.
We loaded the car and headed back to the nursing home for one last visit with Betty. As I pulled into a parking spot, I braced myself for the moment I had been dreading, the moment when Granny said her last goodbye to Betty.
“Ya’ll run in and tell Betty I said ‘goodbye.’” Granny stared out the window of the back seat.
“What?” I looked at her in the rearview mirror.
“I’ll stay in the car.” She continued looking out the window.
“Uh uh.” I shook my head. “You’re coming in with us.”
“It’s too much trouble to get my wheelchair out of the trunk. You can say goodbye for me.”
“Mother,” Doug finally chimed in, “you need to go in and tell Betty goodbye yourself.”
“It’s just too hard on me getting in and out of the car.” She was holding firm.
“It’s all about you, isn’t it?” I blurted out and immediately realized this was one of those incidents she would recount to every friend and family member.
“Well, okay then.” She returned my stare in the rearview mirror.
Doug wheeled Granny into Betty’s room. John and Sharon and a couple of family friends were already there, waiting for us.
“I wanted to stay in the car.” Granny told them the whole story and ended, of course, by mimicking me in a tone much more hateful than the one I used. Then she laughed while the others shook their heads at me in disappointment.
We were ready to head home when John suggested that we all go across the road to a Mexican restaurant for lunch.
“Mother, you want to go have some enchiladas, right?” John leaned down in front of Betty.
“Okay.” Her eyes lit up, and I thought maybe there was hope for John after all.
Granny, Doug, and I had finished breakfast only an hour before, so we looked at the menu for something small. Granny asked me to order her some nachos, and then when I brought them to the table, said she didn’t want nachos and sent Doug back to order an enchilada. She was getting revenge for our insistence that she get out of the car earlier.
After lunch, as I was loading Granny into the back seat, she suddenly yelled, “Bye, Betty,” and gave a little wave. I realized Betty was already settled in the front seat of John’s car. They hadn’t had a chance to say a final goodbye.
Betty smiled and gave a wave in return. No one shed a tear, not even me. The reality of our road trip turned out to be nothing like what I imagined, except for the restroom breaks at gas stations along the way. Those turned out exactly like I expected.
I deposited Doug and Granny in Burkburnett where they belonged and headed back to Austin late that night. As I was leaving Wichita Falls, I started crying all over again. I’d remembered it clearly the night before, but now I was unsure. Did she have a barrette in her hair or was I confusing it with a photo of me as a little girl? Was she smiling or did she have her chin oh so shyly tucked?
When I arrived home that night, my husband asked me if the trip was worth it.
“Absolutely not,” I answered.
I thought I was giving my grandmother the opportunity to say a final goodbye to her daughter, but Granny and Betty parted as if one of them was simply running up to Walmart to buy a gallon of milk. How was it that I’d been the one who ended up devastated?
In the days that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about my mother, not as a little girl in a photograph but as a dying woman in a hospital bed. She spent the last four days of her life unconscious in intensive care while I slept on a couch in the waiting room. When the doctor finally turned off the ventilator, my stepsiblings and their spouses gathered with me and my husband around her bed while Granny stayed in the waiting room with our children. I had been so surprised that she chose not to be with her daughter as she died. Granny was the one who’d brought my mother into the world. Why was I now surprised that Granny hadn’t wanted to say a final goodbye to her other daughter either?
Then I remembered the way my conversations with Granny always end.
“I miss your mother.” She always says it first.
“She was my baby, and you were her baby.”
Granny is the only person in the world who misses my mother as much as I do.
Today I can still feel the heaving of my chest and taste the salty tears running into my mouth as I drive home from Burkburnett, just as clearly as I can hear Granny yelling across the parking lot, “Bye, Betty” and see her cheerful wave. My grandmother’s heart and mine are broken in different ways, but broken just the same.
KAREN COLLIER is a native Texan. She spent twenty long years in high tech before becoming a high school English teacher and discovering how the other half lives: in poverty. She left teaching after five years to pursue life as a creative writer. This is her first published essay.
It was my mother’s heart attack that brought us together. I’ll always see him sitting on that hard chair outside the intensive care unit, looking down, like if he could only pray hard enough, she’d be his again.
They’d been eating barbecue sandwiches at the now-defunct Golden Rule in Bessemer, a new location for an old Birmingham chain.
“Your mother was complaining of indigestion, but we thought it was just her acid reflux again,” he told me later. “But, you know, the pain kept getting worse.”
He drove her to Bessemer Carraway hospital, and then when the support staff determined that she had severe blockage, they transferred her to St. Vincent’s in Birmingham to insert a stent. She had given birth to me in St. Vincent’s all those decades ago, but now I lived two states away from my mother. She doesn’t have a living will, and I suppose that in many ways we were lucky that no life-threatening operation had to be performed, because this man who accompanied her and stayed with her, and who was now waiting for her to regain consciousness, was not her family. He was her new boyfriend, John.
I received the call the previous night, at the college where I teach, where I had been the invited guest of a Presbyterian youth group, talking to them about my faith. My father was Jewish, and I had been identifying with him, and explaining my choice to twenty earnest students. I remember vividly when my colleague entered:
“You need to call home immediately. It’s an emergency.”
My heart almost stopped, a fitting experience, for when I got my wife on the phone, she told me, “Jo Ann’s had a heart attack.”
Somehow I drove the forty-five miles home, and we booked a flight for early the next morning. A good family friend met me at the airport and drove me to my mother’s house so I could pick up her car and drive to the hospital. I remember looking down at the general area of the hospital from my plane, and then passing the turn to it on the drive to my mother’s house. I remember wondering if I’d get there before anything worse happened, and even if it didn’t, I wondered what I’d find in her room. What state she’d be in?
Draped across the top of the recliner in her den was the beige sweater she’d been wearing, and on the seat of her chair was her matching brown purse. In my mother’s world, purses have to match the basic color scheme, and I could have cried at that thought. I could also see the spot on the floor where she must have thrown up. Someone had cleaned it already, most likely John at my mother’s direction, for she’s the kind of woman who never leaves her house a mess. I grabbed her purse, her vitals and drove. When I got to the intensive care unit, there he was:
“Buddy, I know we haven’t met, but I’m John Vines, your mother’s friend. She’s all right. They say she’s going to recover fully. You know, I care so much for your mother.”
I had no doubt. I could see it in his eyes.
Words you never want to hear your mother utter:
“Well, I’ve gotten myself in a sure-nuff fix this time…”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know that I was supposed to go to a concert last night with ‘the little family’: Susie, Virginia, and John Vines. It turned out, though, that Susie and Virginia couldn’t go. So John and I went. Anyway, after the concert, he drove me home, and when we pulled up in the driveway, he kept the car running, turned to me, and said, ‘I want to say something now. I’m glad that the others couldn’t go. I’m glad it was just us. I’d like to continue seeing you.’”
My mother paused, and I felt sure she was about to ask me how to extricate herself from yet another man’s unwanted overtures. (This had happened twice before in her short widowhood with very different men). It’s not as if I didn’t believe my mother would date again after my father’s death; it was more that such thoughts left me as queasy as I normally get spending too much time in the summer Carolina sun. Or like that day my wife informed me that our oldest daughter was now “a woman,” an experience that left me reaching for the nearest door jamb. I even survived the special ceremony my wife planned for her new womanhood. We have pictures of our daughter then, at thirteen, with flowers in her hair. So queasiness can also feel sweet.
It can also unnerve a son.
“What did you say Mom,” I breathed.
“Well,” and then she laughed in a way that warned me that, unlike those previous occasions with those other men, this time she saw different stars:
“I told him I’d love to. He’s such a gentleman, the last of the old time Southern gentlemen. He even buckled my seatbelt for me!”
That might not sound like much unless you know my independent mother. But at least I was already sitting down.
“He buckled your seat belt for you? Did you want him to? Do you really like a man to buckle you in?”
Notice how I asked these questions instead of the other ones: “Are you in love? Are you ready to get married? Where will y’all live, and oh my God, will you be having sex now?”
Fortunately, I’m not a stupid man.
“Oh, I didn’t mind at all. It was such a sweet thing to do! But what do you think?”
So I told her. “Mom, all I want is for you to be happy. If you want to go out with John, that’s fine. And if you decide you want to marry him, that’s fine too.”
She laughed off the marriage part and instead uttered a few clichéd phrases about her time of life and having fun. Honestly, I don’t remember exactly what she said, because another thought had invaded me, concerning my father. Having his wife remarry, I don’t think, would have alarmed my dad. My alien thought, however, would surely have killed him again. While my mother rambled on across our long distance phone lines I silently protested.
“But John’s a Georgia Tech man, a Yellow Jacket! He played for and adored Coach Dodd, a man my Alabama Crimson Tide-loving father detested. A man my father referred to often as ‘Cry-Baby Dodd.’”
I can honestly say that my father disrespected only two of Alabama’s football foes: Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. Not even Tennessee or Auburn roused Dad’s hatred like the Irish and the Yellow Jackets. Alabama and Georgia Tech no longer played each other, though, and while the former’s star continues to blaze, the latter’s has fallen mightily.
Besides, my poor father was gone and my mother was very much here.
“He’ll take me places, anywhere I want to go! And you know I always had to drag your daddy everywhere we went. Except to his mother’s, that is, and to the Alabama football game!”
As the weeks passed, it seemed my mother had found the antithesis of my dad: John drove a Lincoln, and my dad hated Fords. John was a gentile, my Dad a Jew. John played high school and college football. My dad, the clarinet and tennis.
Yet they were each loyal Americans, served their country proudly, and were hard-working providers for their families. They were both quiet, gentle men. And my mother, somewhat reluctantly, provided one other similarity.
“John and I went to the Bright Star the other night [Bessemer’s finest restaurant and the oldest continuous-serving restaurant in Alabama]. You know how good the seafood and steaks are there. They had stuffed snapper on the menu, so after I ordered, I looked over at John. And do you know what he ordered?”
I could hear it coming, This seemingly perfect man did the unthinkable:
“He ordered the hamburger steak, just like your daddy used to!”
Though I wouldn’t order it, because I’m no idiot, I have to admit the hamburger steak at the Bright Star does look good. Dad always smothered his in ketchup.
“Did he add ketchup?” I asked Mom.
“Of course! I just don’t understand men. All that good food and no matter what, they just want hamburger! And when it arrived, all he could say was ‘Oh yeah!’”
I wanted to pronounce an “Amen” on that, but decided that enough bland sauce had been poured already.
Though she was still in intensive care, the doctors had successfully placed a stent in my mother’s damaged artery and declared her out of danger. John left me soon after I arrived at the hospital, and I’ve always wondered whether in his place I would have done the same; whether I would have ceded space to my steady companion’s son. He had been the one to accompany her through this trauma, and now his actions said, “I know my place.” I didn’t know his place, though, and even as I write this, I look at the phrase I used for John: my mother’s “steady companion.” It’s a true statement because they did go everywhere together, including church on Sunday, a church John didn’t belong to. Can seventy-somethings be described as boyfriend and girlfriend? As “special friends?” Even today, when I describe John, I call him “Mom’s friend, you know….”
Except that we really don’t know. I could never use the term “lovers” to describe John and Mom, even if I did think it described them accurately. Years into their relationship and while he was lying in his own hospital bed awaiting exploratory kidney surgery, John made the mistake of referring to another mutual female friend of theirs as his “other lady friend.” This so incensed my mother, who by that point had decided that she’d never marry John, that she left him in his room for a couple of days. That same lady friend, one of my former Sunday school teachers, fueled my mother’s ire some time later by wondering aloud whether John had spent the night at my mother’s because she saw him wearing the same clothes on that day as he had worn the day before, and the last she knew, he had been seen entering my mother’s house in the early evening.
Why my mother felt the need to report this to me during our weekly Sunday morning phone chat, I can’t say. Was she just passing the gossip before I could hear it from other mouths?
“I just couldn’t believe she would say that about me. She knows me better than that!”
But my mother has reported other strange information over the years, like the time she told me that a new, and newly-drunken, neighbor made a pass at her in her own house during a barbecue that she and my dad were holding for this new neighbor and his wife. My mother was in her late sixties at the time.
“Your daddy never knew, and I didn’t tell him. He would have been furious.”
Yet she told me long distance. Was I supposed to be furious too? Or appalled? Disgusted? Nauseous? My daughters have always laughed at me, saying I never know when someone is flirting with me. If I ever did know, though, I wouldn’t be calling them on the phone to report it.
Of course I didn’t think of these awkward moments while my mother was lying in the hospital. Part of me wished that John hadn’t left us alone because I wasn’t used to seeing my mother in such a vulnerable state.
She was alert when I walked in, though, saying “Hey darlin’” before I could get to her bed. I sat with her through the evening and offered to spend the night by her.
“Oh, you don’t need to do that, I’m fine. You just go home and get a good night’s rest.”
She was in no danger, according to all the nurses, and selfishly, I thought a bed at home sounded so much better than the pullout cot available there. However, when I reached home, I realized the strangeness of sleeping in my mother’s house alone, seeing but not seeing her flitting from room to room picking up stray items or straightening yet another decorous object. Hearing but not hearing her habitual smoker’s cough lapsing into such a choking fit that I’d wonder if this was the end.
When I returned to the hospital the next morning, she volunteered the information that she was determined to quit smoking. “I decided last night that that was it!”
I rejoiced. Her health, finally, seemed to mean more to her than her Virginia Slims Menthol Lights. That night when I returned to her house, I threw out the remainder of her carton, and the open pack in her purse. I remembered then the time in fourth grade when, after viewing an anti-smoking film in school, I played hooky and waited till she was out running errands then flushed an entire carton, bit by nasty bit, into the back bathroom toilet. When she asked that night what happened to her cigarettes, I confessed. Though upset at the loss of good money, she didn’t punish me.
“I don’t want you to get cancer,” I managed in the face of her initial fury.
She understood, and I know that despite her habit and need for a cigarette then, she forgave me. She loved me.
The next day when I returned to school, she ran to the store and bought a new carton. So we lived with her habit for another forty-five years. But now, after a serious heart attack, we were done.
My mother was released from the hospital on Thanksgiving Day, and our beloved family friends, the Mulkins, invited us all—my brother, my wife, our two daughters, and John—for Thanksgiving lunch. We drove straight to their house from the hospital, and so Thanksgiving seemed restored, except that this combination of families had never spent any holiday together before. Not long after the meal, John made a suggestion. “Let’s get your mother back home. She’s still pretty weak.”
On that Sunday after Thanksgiving, Mom suggested that we let her rest while we went to a movie or something.
“You all don’t need to be sitting in this house watching me. I’ll be okay.”
After we returned, my wife walked past my mother’s bathroom and over to me.
“I think I smell cigarettes.”
I smelled them too, but only faintly, and then after a few moments I convinced myself that I had smelled nothing out of the ordinary, except, that is, the scent of my mother’s lemon body oil.
The next morning, I found a cigarette butt that hadn’t fully flushed, floating in her bathroom toilet.
She hadn’t left the house the entire weekend, and I was certain that I had purged her place of all offending smokes. So how had she procured these new heart-killers? When I confronted her, all she said was, “You just don’t understand. Only a smoker understands how hard it is to quit.”
I never asked, but I was sure that in the couple of hours we had spent at the movies she had persuaded John to buy her a new carton of smokes. After all, he had told me, “I would do anything for your mother.”
And so my mother continued smoking for another ten years until she finally gave up her habit after successfully undergoing radiation treatment for a small but malignant lung tumor. I suppose John stood by her through these trials, but she said it was the e-cigarette that really helped.
“I remember I cried when my father died/Never wishing to hide the tears
And at sixty-five years old/My mother, God rest her soul…”
My mother isn’t dead, and she wasn’t sixty-five when my father died. She was sixty-seven, and I was forty-four. While it’s true that I did not wish to hide my tears, my mother told me to stop crying. “I need you to be strong now.”
I tried to stop; truly, I did. Fortunately, I was already in therapy, so I dealt with the grief. I don’t know how my mother wrestled with hers, but I suspect she did what she’s always done: pushed it back inside and moved on with her life. She jumped back into her civic and social clubs; she repainted the bedroom and ordered new furniture. She got a new mattress for the back bedroom where my father spent his last year because he’d been unable to control his bladder, and despite the bed-pads and adult diapers, the mattress was ruined.
She began getting offers from men. She seemed ready to enter that world again: of dating, of potential husbands. And so, it seemed, I had to get ready within myself to understand and accept the difference between “your father” and “your mother’s husband.”
I am unlike my father in these ways:
I drink: Beer (now gluten-free), red wine, and bourbon, especially bourbon. Four Roses, small batch.
I read novels instead of the newspaper, and I write. A lot.
I am a political liberal. I never thought Rush was right.
I eat seafood of all types including anchovies.
I wear a beard and hate mowing the lawn.
I am like my father in these ways:
I cherish my home and the older I get, the less keen I am on leaving it.
I am loyal to my job, my family, and even my country.
I like meatloaf with ketchup.
I cherish the University of Alabama football team, recently buying a 55” TV just to get a bigger picture for this season’s games.
I try to stay fit, walking my dog for an hour each day and supplementing that with thirty minutes on the elliptical. I use free weights, calculated repetitions, though the calculations are often, if not always, based on some OCD number in my head.
The irony of this obsessive number is that it’s 64, taken from a framed Alabama football jersey mounted on the wall near my weights. When I lift weights I have to make sixty-four reps. Have to. That jersey is 1940s vintage, crimson wool with a wraparound crotch button. I received it in one of those be-careful-you’ll-smother-in-this-thing dry cleaners wrapping bag. My father gave me many Bama jerseys: numbers 22, 25, 38, but he didn’t give me this one.
John Vines did. John played on the 1951-2 National Championship Georgia Tech teams. He never pulled for Alabama, or Auburn either, his home state teams.
But not even John could remember where he got it or even how long he had had it. I wish I had my other jerseys. My mother junked them went I went off to college. But I’ll never lose or give up this one.
I tried researching to see whose jersey my number 64 could have been, but no luck, or at least there were too many possibilities and no winnowing down. John didn’t know either, but it didn’t matter to him.
“I want you to have it. I know how much it will mean to you.”
If I could have worn it, I would have right then. Players back then were smaller, even those on the offensive line. I weigh in the mid 190s, just too big to want to try stretching this precious wool. Besides, wearing it isn’t the point. The point is that a Tech man gave a Bama man, a man young enough to be his son, a Bama jersey, a precious keepsake, on a cold and cloudy Christmas season night. And when he left our house that night, for the first time, I hugged this man, my mother’s boyfriend, instead of merely shaking his hand as acquaintances do.
It was my wife, not a football fan of any sort, who suggested framing the jersey, because she understands what gifts mean and how to honor them and those who give them. She understands the texture of human hands and shoulders and hearts.
Though 64 is an easy number to reach with arm weights, and I still feel sufficient after achieving it, I go beyond it usually, and every time I do, I think of John and how pleased he’d be. Not always, but more times than not, I think of my father, too.
During the year after Mom and John began dating, I would have bet anyone that they were headed toward marriage. I waited for the news.
But it never came.
John had moved to a new house, just a block above where we used to live.
“I don’t know why he moved up there,” Mom complained. “That neighborhood is going down,” which was true enough, though very sad given the decades we all had spent there.
My mother helped John decorate it though, as if someone might soon be moving in with him. And someone did: the stray dog that showed up in John’s alley one day; a beautiful shepherd mix about the size of a young horse. John named him J.V., after himself.
The beautiful house that Mom helped John decorate stayed that way for almost a year. And then…
“You won’t believe that house! He’s just wrecked it. He is without a doubt the messiest man I’ve ever seen. One thing I’ll say about your daddy, he was neat.”
Yes he was, OCD neat, just like my mother is OCD neat. Shoes in proper order, beds made within five minutes of getting up, dishes washed, dried, and put up immediately after a meal. I could go on, but the funny thing is that despite knowing how she was, John went on doing what he wanted, “messing up” his house. I always wondered if what he did was just him, or some subconscious method of insuring that marriage with my mother, despite what he said, would never happen.
“You know, Bud,” he said to me once, “your mother is mighty particular.”
Oh yes, for who else would demand her own vomit be cleaned up while she is undergoing a heart attack?
Eventually, John bought another house in the same area and on the same street where my mother lives. My mother is a stubborn woman, and so once again, she helped John “fix up” his new home. And once again, just months after he moved in and staged an open house to show it off, my mother began complaining:
“I just wish you could see that house! All that work I did and for what? For nothing! He leaves stuff where he found it and never throws anything away. He’s just a pack rat!”
This coming from a woman who eventually throws everything away: my jerseys, my old comic books, my old journals, and if I let myself, I might remember other things I can’t find and don’t know what happened to. So it came to this: an OCD woman just couldn’t marry an extremely relaxed man. Still, my mother put her refusal to marry in her own inimitable way: “I just decided that I didn’t want to wash another old man’s dirty underwear.”
What could anyone, especially her son, say to that?
Though my mother and John never married, they remained close friends, and Mom reported their adventures together. She even dragged him to see her favorite rock band, Chicago, once. When I’d come to town, she’d have John over for supper, and we’d both relish her roast beef, new potatoes, fresh lima beans, and creamed corn. Often, on the day I’d be leaving for home, John would drop by to say so long. More often, he’d give me a card, and in that card would be a twenty-dollar bill.
“That’s to get you a Coca-Cola on the way home,” he’d say.
As if Cokes cost twenty dollars. As if he were my dad or something.
Last month I went back to Bessemer.
John was dying.
I thought about so many things as I drove, but the one thought I couldn’t put down occurred the previous summer when I was there: when John wanted to take me to a hamburger joint for lunch, just him and me. But I was too busy. I had overcommitted myself with other friends. At the time I knew I would live to regret turning him down, so why didn’t I do anything about it?
That following fall I called John to tell him I’d be coming down for a visit and that I wanted to take him out.
“Okay, Bud,” he said. John was never much for phone calls, especially from other men who were trying to take care of him, who were making him feel too much of what he had become: dependent.
Mom and I did take him to The Bright Star on that visit. He ate well—this time, the liver and onions—but in many ways it was a futile endeavor. His cancer was too far-gone, and he had chosen not to undergo surgery. He was eighty-eight years old, and people that age, surely, should get to choose how they approach their end. I remember how thin he’d gotten, this former lineman for the city. He still had his friendly manner, but it didn’t take a genius to tell that he was slowly moving on.
And so he did this summer, June tenth.
Mom and I went to visit him that day. His daughter Sallie had brought him to her house where she, her husband Noah, their children and grandchildren, and even John’s beloved J.V. could be near. Sallie recounted on that day a memory from her childhood: how her daddy would carry her on his shoulders to the Highland Bakery on summer nights after he got off work.
“I’d be in my nighties, ready for bed, but he’d walk us the two blocks to get ice cream. Cherry Vanilla or Lemon, my favorites. It’s just so hard. I’m gonna miss him so.”
That’s the way it is with people we love. Our fathers, and even those who never quite were, but could have been, and whom we loved anyway.
As I did with my own father on his deathbed, I told Sallie to speak to John. To tell him that he had been a good father and that it was okay to go now. I watched her lean into him and speak those very words.
She called a few hours later to say he was gone.
I couldn’t be at the funeral, but I heard that hundreds of his friends and family attended. A fire truck—he so loved fire trucks—led the procession to the cemetery, and there everyone gathered to honor this very gentle, very Southern man.
In his will, he left my mother one hundred dollars.
“Just a little Coca-Cola money,” he wrote.
TERRY BARR is the author of the essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother. His work has appeared in South Writ Large, Steel Toe Review, Eclectica Magazine, Blue Lyra Review, The Bitter Southerner, The Dead Mule School of Southern Lit, and of course, Full Grown People. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.
I never knew my grandmother well but I was told growing up that I had her yan sher, which literally means “eye expression” in Mandarin. I understood it more colloquially as referring to Grandma’s spirit, her aura. My father said this as a compliment. My mother, not so much.
The woman I call Grandma—my paternal grandmother—grew up in the pre–Cultural Revolution Chinese countryside just north of Beijing. She had a clumsy instinct for things like judgment and war and enemy lines. She played with the Japanese kids in the yard who nobody was supposed to play with. She unraveled the bandages wound tightly around her feet and learned to read. She became a wife before she was twenty, and a mother soon after. She birthed seven children from her tiny frame and lost two.
Of course, she wasn’t all good and mighty. Grandma’s fingers were just as clumsy as her instinct to judge, so she could never properly sift the rice hulls from their grains in the fall. The rice patties her kids brought to school for lunch weren’t white and pure as they were supposed to be but speckled with brown. This was considered an embarrassment, but Grandma didn’t lose any sleep over it.
When I was young, I sensed that Grandma wasn’t exactly the model of a woman that I should want to embody. Enemy-befriending, bandage-unraveling, wooden-fingered Grandma wasn’t supposed to be my ideal of feminine perfection. She was wrinkled and weathered by the time she was thirty, and she didn’t know how to smile properly for a picture. Her fingers, unnaturally thick for such a small lady, were dusted charcoal gray no matter which picture I looked at.
And I looked at many. From halfway across the world, from a second-floor apartment in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I flipped through the thin stack of Kodak photos that sometimes came in the mail. The images I remember were all set in winter. Grandma and cousins posed wearing puffy neon jackets in their front yard. The ground wasn’t grass or the concrete sidewalks of Milwaukee, but a worn, packed dirt. Grandma sat on a wooden chair, cousins stood in a row, and the family dog, Little Black, lounged at their feet. Their expressions seemed never whole—never just a smile or a frown—but instead halfway through a sentence or question, as if they weren’t sure when exactly the camera would go off.
These pictures were mostly the same but I studied each one as if it were a unique blueprint for my own identity. Of all the cousins on my family tree, I was the only one to live in America. I was special in that way, but I was also alone.
“You’re like your grandma,” my father would say.
“How?” I’d ask.
“You have that same sarcastic look in your eye. Yan sher.”
“What do you mean?”
He never replied directly. The answer came at me slowly, through stories and pictures gathered over years.
Just before I turned two, my parents brought me to visit my father’s family. After the stay, I observed that Grandma didn’t pay much attention to me.
“She’s not an affectionate woman,” my father said.
“That’s right—she’s not!” my mother said.
I don’t remember this early impression of Grandma and clearly, it didn’t do anything to diminish her in my eyes. Maybe Grandma was busy playing poker with the village ladies or preparing dinner with the aunts or walking Little Black instead of cuddling me.
My family moved to America shortly after that visit, and I only saw Grandma a few more times in her life. The last was the August before my senior year of college. On this trip, I noticed that my cousin Hailian had bought gifts for the family—bottles of perfume, silk neck ties, a watch for my father, a jar of L’Oreal face cream for my mother. The girl had manners, my mother noted, and I decided that I should learn a thing or two from Hailian.
During afternoon nap on a particularly hot day, I snuck out to the village convenience shop with my little brother. When we walked in, a bell on the door jingled and a sleepy shopkeeper emerged from behind a shredded plastic curtain. We apologized for waking him and asked in our best Mandarin for a nice woman’s shirt.
“For your grandma?” he guessed right away.
My brother and I examined the one option shown to us, a button-down shirt made from a flowered pattern. It would do.
Grandma had an afternoon routine. She spent hours hanging out with other neighborhood women on the stone ledges that lined the narrow village streets. I had often seen them perched in the shade waving their bamboo fans and swatting at mosquitos that buzzed by their legs. These women greeted everyone by name—kids returning home from school, men in suits riding bikes to and from work in the next town over, the fat lady with the toothy smile who herded her goats down the village’s most central streets every afternoon.
On this particularly hot afternoon, my brother and I found Grandma on the stone ledges and presented her flowered shirt. Almost immediately, the neighborhood ladies clapped their hands in laughter. Look at those American kids! What funnies! They called us not by our names, but as our father’s children.
Grandma laughed too, then started unbuttoning the shirt she was wearing. Soon she was topless and slipping her arms into the flowered shirt we had bought. I stood there with my eleven-year-old brother, unable to turn away. Grandma was skinny and tan, her breasts small and wilted, gently falling over her ribcage. Her skin was withered as if a layer tissue paper had been glued onto her actual skin beneath. I had noticed that Chinese women, who often showered communally, were generally more comfortable with nudity than American women. But an eighty-something-year-old woman changing out on the street with a group of ladies cheering her on? This was not normal. Afterwards, Grandma sat there on the ledge sporting her new shirt with a beaming smile on her face. This was her way of saying thank you for the gift.
When I recounted this story to my mother, she looked disturbed. I got the message. What Grandma did was not ladylike. It wasn’t something I should emulate. But over the years, I always remembered this story and felt a kinship with Grandma. Maybe she wasn’t refined and full of grace, but she was bold. She was a hoot. She didn’t care what others thought about her. She did what she wanted to do, in that nonchalant way that always had my mother shaking her head.
My mother was a different kind of woman. She wore billowing dresses and strappy sandals and tortoise-shelled sunglasses with lenses the color of tea eggs. She knew how to stand for a picture, arm-in-arm with my father in front of Tiananmen Square the year before I was conceived, a silver flowered clip locked into her wavy hair. After we moved to America, she bought do-it-at-home hair perm kits that came in purple and silver boxes with a blonde lady on the front.
I can still see my mother standing over the sink in our tiny bathroom in Milwaukee, her hair dripping of something that looked like milk and smelling of chemicals. I’d watch her from the bed where we all slept—my mother, father, and me. Every night, my mother would come to this bed and put Lubriderm lotion on her hands, her fingers smooth and long like a ballerina’s legs. And then she would take mine and do the same for me, paying special attention to the dry cuticles that I had a bad habit of chewing off.
For a long time, whenever my mother tried to teach me about being a woman, I felt like she was pulling me away from myself. More times than I can count, my mother would come up behind me, rest her hands on my shoulders and press her thumbs into my spine. “Straighten up,” she’d say.
I’d arch my back to an extreme. “Like this?”
She’d shake her head. “You know what I mean.”
Did I? I don’t remember. What I remember is feeling defiant. Proud of the fact that I didn’t naturally stand up tall or want to sit nicely at holiday parties with the women who gossiped until midnight spooning dessert from the table. I wanted to be the one rolling in the dirt, the one with the scraped knees hanging from the top branch of a tree, the one riding her blue Huffy down the street that ran the length of our apartment complex. Through grade school, I insisted on wearing tee-shirts and cargo pants, the kind that could be unzipped at the knees and transformed into baggy shorts for the summer. In high school, I wore my hair in a messy bun that I had to keep re-doing throughout the day to keep tousled because my thick hair always fell straight.
My mother thought of names for me. Things like kuang tou (basket-head) and bu-nan-bu-nu (not-boy-not-girl, or, as I guessed, tomboy) that she muttered when she saw my getups. I knew these names were not endearing. They were meant to stir me to change. I did change, but in the opposite direction. I messed up my hair even more and slouched defiantly. I wanted to show my mother that this was who I was.
I felt less that I was caught between two cultures and more that I was caught between two women. Except I wasn’t really caught. I knew who I wanted to be, but I was too young to be her yet. I felt a maddening ache to get out of the house and out of our town. Once I grew up, once I moved away, once I had my own place, my own money, my own life, I could be whatever kind of woman I wanted to be.
A month before I started college, my parents and I attended a dinner reception for incoming freshman and their families. We drove into New York City in our green Dodge Caravan and circled the blocks around school several times before finding a parking spot. My mother wore an olive and bronze–colored silk dress with a sash at the waist. She had brought this dress with her from China and kept it in her closet, taking care to replace the moth balls every winter. I don’t remember what I wore, but I know that it had not occurred to me that I was supposed to look nice for this event. I probably wore my uniform at the time: jeans and a tank top, flip flops, and a choker necklace made of plastic sea shells.
There was a woman at the reception who seemed important. I don’t remember what color her hair was or what she wore, but I was alert to her presence. While the families sat at round tables, this woman paced around. She shook hands and made friendly conversation to which families laughed and nodded as if on cue. As this woman circled closer my table, I noticed the muscles in my mother’s neck clench. Her hair was twisted into a bun with a flashy jewel barrette that she saved for special occasions. By the time the woman got to the table next to ours, my heart was pounding hard in my chest. I was suddenly embarrassed at how out of place my family looked. I watched as the woman told her joke, smiled, and then moved straight to the table on our other side.
I ate a piece of my bread and tried to look unfazed. But I was confused. Did the important woman skip us by accident? Would she come back around? I was glad that I was spared an awkward encounter with this woman, but why didn’t she speak to us?
My mother and I never talked about this incident. It occurs to me now that maybe it doesn’t stand out in her memory as an exception to her everyday life. When I was growing up, my mother always reminded me that it wasn’t easy to be an immigrant. “You have to be better to get the same result,” she would say. A better student, a better woman, a better friend.
I’d usually laughed it off. “I don’t feel that way,” I’d respond, “You’re being paranoid.”
But being at that reception, as I sat proud and excited and anxious at the prospect of being alone in the world for the first time, I experienced something that never left me. Only years later did I understand that what I had experienced was how it felt to be an immigrant’s child. That lucky first generation. And all the pride and burden and vengeance that came with it.
I graduated from college and then law school. I got a job at a firm in New York and rented an apartment on the Upper West Side. I worked long hours and indulged in fancy cocktails to justify those long hours. One Monday night in late September, I had come home and had just stripped off my corporate outfit when my mother called me. This was normal, so I took the call and steeped a peppermint tea. Then I put my mother on speakerphone on the kitchen counter and got ready to scrub at the dirty dishes in my sink.
“You should sit down,” my mother said.
“Your grandmother…” my mother started.
I immediately had a bad feeling in my stomach. My mother never said much about Grandma. Something big or bad had to have happened.
Grandma had died sometime through the night. The night in China that was the day I had just lived. I tried to remember something, anything, that had happened during the day that felt tragic or poignant. A moment I could identify in hindsight as a sign that I knew viscerally my grandmother was gone. I must have felt something. Grandma and I were connected by blood, and something even stronger. We shared yan sher. That had to count for something. But I had nothing. I had been sitting at my computer for most of the day, chatting occasionally with coworkers but mostly working on assignments that barely varied from one day to the next.
After I hung up the phone with my mother, I went to the bathroom. I stood in front of the mirror above my sink, next to my blue shower curtain. The pattern on my shower curtain was a map of the United States, and I thought about how my grandmother would never step foot on American soil.
Grandma wasn’t sick. She had been weak through the previous winter but rejected my uncle’s invitation to stay with his family. She liked where she was. She was walking to the market every morning for breakfast buns and soy milk and playing chess on the stone ledges with the ladies in the afternoon. It had been a good summer. She was getting stronger. Of course she would die someday, but I wasn’t prepared for her to die today.
I sat on the bathroom floor against the cold bathtub and cried. I had never lost anybody close to me before, and I hadn’t expected the tears to come so diligently, before I could even fully process my sadness. I was puzzled by my tears because along with vague sadness, I felt something light. I felt the peace of a life ended without great injustice. Grandma had lived long. She had died in her sleep, as she always claimed was the best way to go. Her death had not been big or bad.
That night, I lay in bed staring up at the wooden beams across my ceiling. I thought of my grandmother, who had gone to bed not long ago. Now her small body was cold and empty of life, her brain without consciousness. It was impossible to understand how a person could just be gone like that. And not just any person, but Grandma. The lady with the sarcastic look in her eye. Now there was only one of us in the world.
A few nights later, I left my Midtown office building and walked up Sixth Avenue. I strolled along the southern edge of Central Park, past the row of carriage horses resting in the shade. It was a quiet night, the air cold but comfortable. I settled on the stone fountains facing Columbus Circle and spoke to my father, who had gone home to China.
In my grandmother’s village, funerals were celebratory events. My father described how the whole village had come out. There was a live band and two teenage go-go dancers. At funerals, it was tradition for family members to dedicate songs to the deceased.
“Your uncle selected two songs for you and your brother because you guys couldn’t be there,” my father said, “It was really a nice celebration. Everyone said that your grandmother was a really kind lady.”
I watched as two men in front of me played with neon rockets that could be wound up and shot up into the sky. At the top of their trajectories, the rockets flashed with bright lights, lingered for a moment, and then fell back down. I kept my eye on them. Up and down, over and over again. Something about the simplicity and sureness of their paths was calming.
All this reminded me of Grandma. As long as her life had been, it was never meant to be much more than what she was born into. She would get married and have kids. She would live in the same house through most of this and die there too. Then I thought about own my life. I was born in a hospital in Beijing, to a country-boy scientist father and a Manchurian mother with a graceful edge. Maybe I was not meant to travel far in my life either. But I had. What were the chances that somebody like me would be here sitting in Columbus Circle on this very night?
My grandmother could never have dreamed of this life for me, but she did live to see a glimpse of it. A few months before she died, Grandma found my lawyer profile online. She didn’t mention this until she overheard my uncle talking about my website profile in the other room. “I saw it,” Grandma said.
A clunky old computer had sat idly in the corner of Grandma’s room for months, maybe years. Nobody guessed that she knew how to use it. But there it was, in her browser history. My name, my picture, my degrees.
This last story makes me smile because this was Grandma’s way. Understated but crafty, insulated but modern, modest but full of pride.
I see now that while Grandma could never have dreamed of this life for me, my mother did. And even more, she demanded it of me.
Over the years, I realized that the main difference between my mother and grandmother is how each woman handled judgment. Grandma was fearless. This was the essence of her aura. She was not ashamed. She did not care that her children brought to school rice patties that were not perfectly white. She didn’t often ask, am I good enough? She just was what she was.
But my mother, she never stopped asking that question. My mother didn’t believe in accepting what you were born into. She believed in being better. She believed in learning to sit up straight and breaking bad habits. She believed in going to the salon for a perm, and when she found herself in a new country with little money, she believed in doing it herself. She believed in upkeep. And most of all, perhaps, my mother believed in her kids. While I begrudged my mother’s attempts to mold me when I was growing up, I see now that her intentions were pure. She pushed me because she believed in me.
It is a humbling thing to look back on your younger self and see somebody who cared so much about how you would turn out today. The lesson, I think, is in the effort and intentions. Perhaps the time I spent as a girl searching for the good and bad and admirable allowed me to face the judgments I had of myself. Perhaps being exposed to the wildly different personas of my mother and grandmother instilled at a most basic level the idea that there was no one way a woman could or should be.
I never did find a model of feminine perfection that both satisfied my mother and sat comfortably with me. I was a college grad who sometimes dreamed of being a farmer, a corporate lawyer who changed immediately into sweatpants at home, a tomboy who learned to walk in heels. And while I was becoming these things, I forgot to think about how much I wanted to be like Grandma. I forgot to think about how much I wanted to show my mother exactly who I was. I forgot to try so hard. Without detaching from either woman, I detached myself from the idea of being confined to their qualities. In growing up I became my own woman, and I am still becoming her.
JIADAI LIN lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where she is working on a novel based on her former life as a lawyer in Manhattan. She can be found on Twitter here: @jiadailin
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.
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.
The panic attacks almost always happened deep in the night, their after-effects rippling through my life like the aftershocks of an earthquake. The first happened the summer before my junior year of college. I was sure that my heart would explode. But my heart didn’t blow up. Instead, its rapid, loud, insistent beat filled my head, and I rocked back and forth in bed until the sun came up.
Panicking, I quickly learned, was exhausting. Anticipating the next attack was grueling.
Panic afflicted my gaunt sepia ancestors; it has walked with us hand-in-hand for generations. We are a people who open doors to empty rooms, expecting to see our worst fears incarnated. It’s difficult to articulate what exactly those fears are. Some of them can be as nebulous as the panic and depression that have smothered the Latina and Jewish women in my family.
No one in my family talked about the forced cold showers, the electroshock therapy involved in keeping my paternal grandmother’s anxiety in check. No one said a word about my other grandmother’s body odor, greasy hair, and catatonic states. When I was a child, no one acknowledged that my mother masked her phobias, her phases of panic with bullying, narcissism, and half-hearted suicide attempts.
I suspect that the ghosts of panic that frightened my grandmothers and drove my mother to the brink of insanity have haunted me since the moment I was conceived. And when panic first happened to me, the machinations it planted in my mind threw me into a future I imagined so catastrophic that I saw myself completely incapacitated. What if, What if, What if, went around and around in my brain like ticker tape.
Dread and wonder coursed through my body the day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. How could I be a mother, let alone a decent one? When the panic strangled me in my sleep, I was terrified it would cut off oxygen to my baby. My heart revved up until its beating migrated to my head. I had never taken medication for panic. And now that I was pregnant, I wouldn’t even take a Tylenol.
Throughout my pregnancy I struggled to decipher arguments about nature versus nurture, biology versus psychology. I intuited that between these polarities lay a multitude of explanations for how behaviors developed and persisted not only within a single individual, but also across generations. Would my baby imbibe anxiety and depression through my milk? Would I model it to her? Would she inevitably flinch at my shaky touch?
The baby was beautiful and terrifying. What if, what if, what if? I filled in the hot white blanks with pure disaster. What if I stopped functioning and couldn’t care for the baby? What if I panicked with her in the supermarket? And most chilling of all—what if I had passed down my chipped, inferior genes to her?
“Stop torturing yourself,” said my gentle husband who, at the time, was working on the Human Genome Project. How I prayed that the genes that triggered my anxiety and depression would combine with my husband’s pristine genes, losing their power to hurt my daughter. I fantasized about him hard at work hunting down the gene for what ailed my ancestors, what ailed me. My husband was clearly on the side of nurture and promised me that our daughter would grow up secure and loved.
Nevertheless, I found articles that claimed phobias and panic disorder could very well be inherited. “Genetic switches,” I, practically panting, recited to my husband, “can get tripped and set off chemical changes that occur in a fetus’s DNA, thereby imprinting familial trauma on them.”
My husband shook his head. “It won’t happen to our baby,” he said.
“And why not?” I asked.
“Because we’ll know how to treat her right,” said my husband the geneticist.
“But what about bad luck—that’s always a factor that could wire our baby for anxiety and depression.” As I spoke, I thought about an observation my therapist made that there are some people who never panic under any condition. The first time I heard him say that, I pictured a flurry of Magritte’s topcoat-wearing men raining down on me. Cradling my newborn daughter, I knew that I could never share the Magritte image with her.
My mother, her long black hair falling out of its bun, frequently pleaded with my father to send her away. “Please,” she begged, gulping for air, “I need to go. Now.”
Over the years, I periodically asked my therapist to commit me too. “You’re just tired,” he said.
What I most remember about therapy with him was that I refused to acknowledge panic in my world. I was twenty-seven, eight years out from my first panic attack. I lived in terror that my world would shrink to the point that I couldn’t leave my apartment. The word “phobia” scared me so much that I asked my therapist to remove a book he had on his shelf with the word on the spine. “I am not that person,” I told him all the while living in fear that I would panic in public without a way to get home.
At the height of my panics, Prozac had just come on the market, and it was touted as the miracle drug for the anxious and depressed. I read testimonials in which people swore the drug gave them their life back. They were newly confident, newly capable, and most importantly, newly happy. The words “brain chemistry” bubbled to the surface in these articles. But I was sure my brain was beyond fixing. And more to the point, taking medication was one of my phobias. Would my memory slip away? Would I feel numb? Would my future children have birth defects? And worse yet, would the pills not work and leave me forever hopeless?
That last question scared me enough to keep me just on the other side of trying Prozac. I could tough it out. My people were scared to death of taking medication. “Do you want to be in La La Land?” my mother taunted me that first summer of panic. “I have two other children to take care of,” she screamed. “”I’ll send you to the Institute for Living,” she said threatening to institutionalize me. Her face was so close to mine I could see her large pores. At the time, I didn’t have the vocabulary to express that I could feel the weight of her mental illness imprinted on my cells.
I had been flirting with the idea of taking medication after I finished having children. A girl and a boy, perfect bookends, a friend said to me. Perfect bookends with an imperfect mother. But I hesitated to take medication. I wanted to be strong. I wanted to beat this thing on my own. But with whom was I waging war? Panic? Myself?
The night I wanted to commit suicide, I had been caught up in a loop of panic for weeks. My two small children slept peacefully as my husband rubbed my back. “It’s time,” he said. By that I knew he meant that I needed to call the psychiatrist I had consulted with for a prescription of Klonopin that I had not filled.
In the coming weeks I took the Klonopin with Lexapro, an anti-depressant. I didn’t feel relief exactly. Instead, I detected emotions coursing through my body, a circulatory buzzing of activity that the medication tamped down. The first side effect I experienced was how hard it was to cry. But the panic drained out of me until it was a bearable, hum of anxiety. And then one day I suddenly realized I was happy. The revelation happened in the car on one of my daily drives to and from my daughter’s school. I had settled into a routine. “You’re a caballo de circo,” my mother chided me when I was a child comforting myself with repetition. Maybe I was a circus horse driving the same route over and over. But on that day I picked up as many of my daughter’s friends as could fit in my SUV. Their chatter delighted me. Their energy soothed me.
I’d proved that anxiety was not an accurate predictor of a situation. This was what I told my daughter when she called me from camp. Just sixteen, she said the world had gone very sad on her. “It’s like there’s a curtain of gauze suffocating me,” she cried. My God, had my genes taken the best of her? As I listened to my girl on the phone, I knew that she was trapped in her thoughts. “What if I freak out in front of people? What if I die?” she said breathlessly. There it was again: What if? What if? Another generation struggling to fill in that sharp, menacing blank. But I also remembered my husband’s wise words—we’ll know how to help her.
My daughter is now twenty-one and also stable on Lexapro. She studies psychology. Her choice of major makes me believe that she wants to cure herself, even cure me. My daughter also knows that hiding is dangerous—even futile—and so she decides to tell the world about her condition with a one-word story literally written across her face. In the photograph, the word “Lexapro” starts across her forehead, goes down to the bridge of her nose, and finishes at her left cheek. “I am not my anxiety,” my girl declares. Her face, her struggle, is her contribution to the “What I Be Project” founded by a photographer who describes it as social experiment. In word and picture, a subject boldly declares that he or she is not solely defined by societal reactions to her life story.
With my daughter’s picture out in the world, I pray that the Lexapro will continue to quell her panic. I pray that the doubts, the worries, the blame will continue to diminish for both of us. I pray that the night will never again be a long tunnel of fear and hopelessness. And I pray that Magritte’s men will simply float away.
JUDY BOLTON-FASMAN is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared on the New York Times opinion page, the Boston Globe, Cognoscenti, The Rumpus, Lunch Ticket, Brevity, Salon, and other venues. Judy has completed a memoir called The Ninety Day Wonder, in which she tries to get closer to her remote father through saying the Kaddish—the Mourner’s Prayer—only to uncover her father’s secret past.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
Here’s something funny: Back when I was a kid, Porter Wagoner was one of biggest stars in country music. Hell, he was one of the biggest stars in American entertainment. Wagoner had his own TV show from 1960 to 1981. It became even more popular when he added the then unknown Dolly Parton as his duet partner.
If you don’t remember Wagoner right off, look up a picture of him on the internet. He was known for wearing Nudie suits, garish looking things with rhinestones and flashy colors. The suits were made by Nudie Cohn, a Ukrainian-born Jew who landed in Los Angeles and somehow became the tailor to country and western stars and others until his death in the 1980s. Wagoner was a big customer, but so was Elvis, Elton John, John Lennon, and even Ronald Reagan. While that is odd, that’s not the funny part.
Back in 1973, Wagoner released a self-penned tune call “George Leroy Chickasha.” It wasn’t one of his biggest hits, but it charted. The song was about a mixed-race man who was so anguished by his identify that within two minutes and forty-three seconds (the song’s running time) the title character is dead. “I have no race or creed, I pray to die,” Wagoner sings for his protagonist. The message is clear: a mixed-blood life is not worth living.
I teach at a mid-sized state university in rural Pennsylvania. Sometimes one of my departmental colleagues goes on about the woes of our students and the barriers to their success. Often I reply, “Tell them to suck it up. They got nothing. I was born a half-breed bastard in a coal-town orphanage.” I’m only half kidding.
It’s true. I’m the product of an affair between a married woman, who was the granddaughter of a Pennsylvania German farmer, and a Baltimore black man. Or that’s the best I can figure. All I have to go on are lore, half-truths, lies, and best guesses. I know that a woman named Charleen gave birth to me in March 1960 at a Catholic maternity hospital and orphanage in Dunmore, a northeastern Pennsylvania coal town next to Scranton.
Charleen signed papers that gave up her parental rights. Someone signed papers as the father, giving up his parental rights. I don’t believe that man was my biological father. I can almost state that as fact, but I have no evidence. I do have lore. Rose, the woman who adopted me, told me once that one of Charleen’s brothers signed those papers. All this must have been done with a wink and a nod on the part of the Church. Surely no one believed that farce, that an infant with obvious African ancestry was the natural child of two white people.
Some months later—five I’ve been told—Rose adopted me. Rose is the elder sister of Charleen. Rose and her husband Bill married at the end of the war. Rose had several miscarriages but still longed for a child. Five months. I’m not sure why there was a wait. I am even less sure why Rose thought adopting her sister’s half-breed baby was a good move. I was a constant reminder of something that should not have happened. Charleen remained married to her husband for several more years, despite the affair, despite me. In fact, they had a child, their first and only son together, less than a year after I was born. As we grew up, he and I grew as close as brothers.
Rose and Charleen were part of a large extended family. Their mother, Wilhelmina, had three sons and three daughters, one of each to three different husbands. Wilhelmina was the anchor of the family. She was married at least four times, the last time past child-bearing age to a man who helped raise her youngest daughter. The rumor I heard that she was married briefly one other time, as a teen girl, and had a stillborn child. As a consequence of all these husbands, there were lots of halves in Wilhelmina’s family: half-brothers and half-sisters. I was the only half-breed.
Here’s another funny thing: It was not until 1967, in response to the U.S. Supreme Court case of Virginia v. Loving, that Maryland repealed its anti-miscegenation laws, first enacted in 1692. For nearly three hundred years the law of the land was no race mixing. I am the product of an illegal act.
To his credit, Charleen’s husband treated me well. He always acted like a friendly uncle despite my sordid history that was unknown to me at the time, but certainly not unknown to him. I can’t imagine those holiday dinners where young Chuck, Charleen’s other son, and I would play amidst the other cousins, listen to older kids’ 45 records, run up and down the hallways even though we were told not to, and generally act like the wild boys we were. What the hell was on Charleen’s mind then? Or Rose’s? Who thought it was a good idea to bring me into the fold? Of course, I was not completely in it. I always also told I was adopted, but not the whole circumstance, not until much later. I grew up thinking my half-brother and sisters were my adoptive cousins, that I had no blood kin within that family.
This even I find funny: Everybody wants me, at least everybody of a certain type. This semester I have three Dominican girls in a first-year seminar. They insist that I am Dominican. I joke with them in busted-up Spanish, handing back a graded essay, shaking my head and saying muy mal. Once I wore a sports coat and ball cap during a fall day. These girls spotted me walking across the quad and later in class said this outfit proved I was Dominican because that’s how all the election officials in the DR dress. When I dress in all black with a white t-shirt showing at my throat, I joke with them that once I was to be a priest, a Dominican priest. Their eyes light up like I am letting them in on a secret that the “American” kids don’t understand.
I lived on the South Shore of Massachusetts for several years in the 1980s and 90s. There’s a large Cape Verdean population in the region, brought in decades before, to work the whaling boats and later the cranberry bogs. On some Saturday mornings I would rise early and go the Laundromat at Scituate Harbor. Someone would always start speaking Portuguese to me.
Once, only a week or two after I moved there, a woman speaking in a mix of Portuguese and English came over to me, cursing me out for my actions at a party the previous evening, threatening to slap me. I was so perplexed, I could not muster a reply. She grew frustrated with me and stomped out the glass front doors and into the foggy morning. I had never seen the woman before that moment and had spent the previous evening alone in a rented beach house watching TV. I was stationed at a nearby Navy base and, because I’d only recently moved there, I knew not a single soul in the town. Best I could figure, my doppelgänger had caused some damage at a house party the night before. A few years later, after I left the Navy, I was a newspaper reporter in the same area, often covering crime stories. Cops are often hardnosed, but even Louie Lopes, a serious-minded police captain of Cape Verdean descent, joked that he could be my father.
A woman of Middle Eastern descent, a psychologist at the college I taught at just after graduate school, insisted that I was of North African ancestry. A devout and modest Muslim woman, she talked to me about Islam and got me to order materials from the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., not so much to convert me, but for me to learn about my heritage. A Spanish professor at the university where I now teach once told one of my English department colleagues how proud she was of me, how I had learned English so well that I had become a professor of English. Again, it was another Dominican claim.
I have passed this legacy of ethnic ambiguity on to my own children. My son, now in his early twenties, tells me white kids are often unsure, but black kids always know that he is partially black. My daughter, a college student in Pittsburgh, told me of how after a long interview for a campus job her middle-aged white male interviewer said he had only one more question: “What nationality are you?” She didn’t think that was funny.
Rose followed in her mother’s footsteps, but only partially. She had only two divorces. She and Bill split after I finished first grade. Later she married a man named Ronald, and part-way through fourth grade, we moved to southwest Florida. We moved just before Christmas, which I always thought of as odd timing. Rose got the timing of the year a bit better. It was only that fall that the Lee County Public Schools desegregated. We obviously lived in a white neighborhood. Black kids were bused north across the Caloosahatchee River from the Dunbar neighborhood of Fort Myers proper to suburban Tropic Isles Elementary School nestled in between planned developments and a shopping district off Pondella Road. Of course, not everything was desegregated. The local barber refused to cut my hair. I was nine. It didn’t matter to him. “I ain’t never cut no colored’s hair and I ain’t fixing to start,” he said. His shop was within sight of my elementary school.
Bill is the man I have always considered my father, despite losing him after divorce. I lost him because those days were different. Both Bill and Rose remarried others soon after the divorce. Bill and I were close. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of the two of us riding in his truck on Saturday mornings, heading into the small town of Danville to make the rounds. We lived a few miles outside of town in a small house built on a corner of my great-grandfather’s farmstead. Bill and I would go to Jack Leighhow’s barbershop where one or both of us would get a haircut while Jack talked about his luck at the horse track that week and smoked an ever-present cigar. We would also stop at the Washies, which is what everyone called the Washington Volunteer Fire Company. A peculiar Pennsylvania institution, many small towns have several volunteer fire companies that have full bars and short-order grills, social halls that are rented out for wedding receptions and illegal gambling in the form of punch boards and poker machines. Dad would often stop in the Washies, and sometimes the East End Fire Company, to drink a quick draft with guys he knew. I liked stopping at these places because someone would always buy me a soda and a bag of chips. Sometimes I would get a quarter and go shoot pool by myself. I developed into a decent pool player at a young age.
After they separated, Bill took me for a ride one Saturday morning. He had already introduced me to his new girlfriend and her daughter. He said he was going move in with them in a big brick house in Danville and that he wanted me to live with him and them. In the end, I chose to live with my mother. And even if I had wanted to live with Bill, he probably would not have gained custody given the customs of the day. It would have been rare for a father to have been given custody of a child except under the most extraordinary of circumstances.
For a while after he moved to Danville, Bill would come get me every few weeks on a Saturday, but I was now living in Sunbury with my mother and we no longer made the rounds. Sometimes I would sleep over in the new house he and his new wife built outside of town. Those get-togethers became less frequent and then halted altogether after we moved to Florida. In those days, working-class people didn’t make long distance phone calls. Raised during the Depression, people of my parents’ generation considered long distance prohibitively expensive. Bill also never wrote me a letter during the years I lived in Florida. Rose said he didn’t write that well, since he never graduated high school in order to join the army during the war. I saw Bill a few times when we would travel back to Pennsylvania during summer vacation, but as I approached my teenage years, those visits stopped. When Rose and I returned to Pennsylvania after her second divorce when I was sixteen, I never bothered to contact Bill. He never bothered to contact me either, though surely he heard though the grapevine that I had returned. He came to my high school graduation and gave me a card and a check for fifty bucks, which was a decent amount for the time. We only talked for a minute or so. I was eager to go out and celebrate with friends. After, I thought that I should have talked longer. Or promised to call him and set up a time to visit, and followed through. I didn’t.
Within a year after I had gotten my current teaching job at a university only five miles from my childhood home, I read Bill’s obituary in the local paper. I was listed with my given name (Arthur) and it stated I was living in Massachusetts, which I hadn’t been for nearly four years.
I went unannounced to his funeral at the Wesleyan church a few blocks from the university. His second wife greeted me warmly and insisted I stand beside her in the family line to greet the funeral goers. She sometimes, though not always, introduced me as Bill’s adopted son. She told me how fond Bill was of his grandson, his stepdaughter’s child. I thought of how close Bill and I had been and how that was lost. Bill never met my two children, a boy and a girl, both of whom I love dearly. My son was the age I was when Bill and Rose divorced, my daughter a few years younger. I sat with the family during the service. The wife invited me to accompany them in the funeral car to the gravesite burial and then the reception after. I declined and went home to my children.
Leona Jones was Rose’s closest friend since they were girls. Leona lived up the hill from our house out in Cooper Township in Montour County, the smallest county in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Leona and her husband, Don, were my godparents. I often stayed over at their house on Saturday nights and went to church with them and their teenage daughter, Donna Rose—named after her father and my mother.
I loved going to the Jones’s house on Saturday. In the warmer months we would go to May’s, a local drive-in, for pizza. Afterward we would head about a quarter-mile down the road to the Hi Ho. The Hi Ho stayed in business until only a few years ago. Though another drive-in, the Hi Ho was known for its specialty, the Hi Ho itself, a sort of thick shake with bits of chopped ice disbursed throughout. It was perfect for a hot, muggy summer evening in river valley towns in a time when most folks did not have air conditioning.
Sometimes we didn’t go out to eat, but we went to the Selinsgrove Speedway. The dirt track oval featured midget racers and stock cars, and French fries. They had great fresh-cut fries served in a paper cone and sprinkled with vinegar.
The restrooms at the race track were in concrete buildings under the grandstands. The restroom attendants were older black men. They were likely the first black people I ever saw in person. Perhaps I had seen some black people on television, but given the times, that isn’t a certainty. There was something I recognized in them. When I would go to the restroom, these men would give me a silent nod, acknowledging our connection. Though I could not have articulated my feelings at the time, the exchange made me feel uncomfortable. Just from observing the people around me, my family and others, I knew that “coloreds” were not like us and somehow inferior.
Here are two other funny things: 1) Don had a couple of hunting dogs he kept in a pen at the back of his property and Leona had a couple of cats. Her name for one of the cats, the all-black one, was “Niggy,” her variant of nigger. 2) Once, when Bill and I were outside playing catch, he caught me picking my nose. He said, “You’re just like Abraham Lincoln, freeing the boogies.”
At the time, these things made me feel odd, unsettled. It’s obvious that they bothered me to remain clear memories all these years later. How could two people who loved me, whose job it was to protect me from the abuses of the world, use such slurs in front of me?
Sometimes black people claim me. That would seem obvious, given the variety of skin tones and body shapes within the African-American community. However, it is not obvious. I have few markers of black culture. I have never lived amongst black people and have had only a handful of black friends throughout my life. It took me years to learn to give the silent, almost imperceptible nod to a black person gives to another when passing on the street in a predominantly white area.
Here are two other funny things: 1) Rose once told me a story about how some of her friends in high school tried to get her to go out with the only black boy in the school. She told me she refused because she did not feel that dating a “colored guy” was right. 2) Rose used the term “colored” up until she died in 1993. This was even after we finally had a difficult talk when I was twenty. She acknowledged that Charleen had given birth to me, though this was something I had already known for years, and that a man who sounded like a “colored guy” had called on the phone for her a few times after Charleen returned from Baltimore pregnant. The talk was precipitated by me coming home half drunk and pissed off because someone in the bar I was in made racist comments about me. I’m not certain how we got on the topic—probably Rose was upset about my drinking, which was often frequent and heavy back then. When I told her what the guy said, Rose said I must be “awfully sensitive.”
Because I knew being black was bad, I used to avoid listening to black music and had a fevered hate of disco during its heyday. I liked Dylan, Neil Young, and, most of all, Bruce Springsteen, the hero of working-class white boys who, when they had fathers, did not get along with them, and who longed to move from their small towns to a place where they could make a better life. Although Springsteen often included black people in his band, especially his longtime sax player Clarence Clemons, his audience was, and remains, primarily white. Like disco, I ignored Motown and soul music, and traditional songs. When I got invited to a few mainly black gatherings as a new college professor, I faked my way through “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written by brothers James Weldon Johnson (words) and James Rosamond Johnson (music), a song that is a staple in black churches and was once known as the “Negro National Anthem.” I had no clue.
Still there were times when black people claimed me, like during a ninth grade driver’s education class in Florida. On days when the driving instructor took a trio of students out for longer road drives, the remainder of the students had to sit in the cafeteria. I usually sat by myself, close to no one else, and read. One day, the only black kid in the class came over. I’d known him since middle school. We’d never talked before except for one other time outside of school. My Boy Scout troop, sponsored by a Catholic church, volunteered to hand out school clothes to needy families at a St. Vincent DePaul Society building over near Dunbar, the black neighborhood. I was going into ninth grade then and this same kid came through the line. He asked me if I got free clothes for helping. I probably mumbled something about the Scouts, even though I was in uniform.
In the high school cafeteria, he came over and asked about my test score for the written portion of the class. We talked for a while, and he returned each day to sit with me the rest of the term. I don’t remember what we talked about. I must have been a puzzlement for him. I lived in the wrong part of town, had only white friends in all my other classes, and even came from the North. Virtually all the black kids at that high school were native Floridians. After the term ended, I don’t remember ever talking with that kid again.
Years later, when I had my first abortive attempt at college, I made friends with an outgoing guy who had lived in Harlem all his life. The school was small, and most people knew everyone else. Derrick was particularly outgoing, but he and I struck up a genuine friendship. I am sure I was a puzzlement to Derrick as well. He knew I was from a small town in Pennsylvania, and probably assigned some of what he perceived as my quirkiness—such as my profound fondness of Springsteen and my lack of knowledge of Afro Sheen—to that. “You’re a funny nigger,” he once said to me while we were hanging out. Later I invited him to come to my hometown for the weekend. He did. He met Rose. He met some of my other relatives and a few of my hometown friends. While he was there, he never saw one other black person, and virtually everyone he met told him a story about the one other time they had met a black person. Derrick never called me a funny nigger again.
Here’s something funny that’s not really funny at all. George Banks killed his children. I’ll tell you about George Banks in a moment, but first let me tell you this. After two years of college, I dropped out. I came back to small-town Pennsylvania and floundered. After a few months, I landed a job up near Wilkes-Barre, perhaps a bit over an hour’s drive from Sunbury. Not wanting to commute, and more to break the bad habit of hitting the bars every night in Sunbury, I looked for a small apartment or room to rent. Time after time I would go check out a place only to find it had just been rented, or that the owner would let me know later, only I never got that call. This kid Gary, a coal region kid with long hair and a penchant for death metal bands, also worked in the office that I did. He clued me in. He asked for three or four numbers I had recently called and been told the place was rented. He called. Each one was available.
A couple of years ago I ran into Tony, a guy I knew from a few years earlier when I used to attend church in a different town. Tony runs a bed and breakfast out in Vicksburg, a post-stamp sized town in central Pennsylvania. Big into social justice, Tony related a conversation he had with man when he was on a business trip in Wilkes-Barre. Tony remarked to the man that for its size, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area had an exceedingly small black population. “We didn’t need niggers,” the man said. “We had Polacks.”
I kept the job in the Wilkes-Barre area for a while, but grew tired of it. Not wanting return to Sunbury full time, and not knowing what else to do, one day I walked into the Navy recruiter’s office and asked, “How soon can I leave?” About a month later I was gone.
That fall in Wilkes Barre, on September 25, 1982, George Emil Banks killed thirteen people including seven children, four past and present girlfriends, and two other adults. Now George Banks was and is as crazy as anyone can be and what he did was horrific.
Banks’ father was black and his mother was white. He was a mixed-race person, a half-breed. At the trial, the defense argued that the constant racism Banks faced throughout his life in Wilkes-Barre as a mixed-race boy and then as a man drove him insane. Banks, the defense said, wanted to spare his own children, ones he fathered with the girlfriends, from the painful experience of racism. In the end, Banks was convicted. Banks has sat in solitary for decades, judged too mentally deranged to be executed.
A few weeks ago I drove past Rockview, a large state prison near Bellefonte in the center of the state. I was picking my daughter up from college. As we drove along in the interstate, the low-slung prison buildings spread out in the pink-yellow light cast by dozens and dozens of streetlamps illuminating the complex. I thought about George Banks sitting in his cell on a lonely, late winter night. I thought about how perhaps racism could drive a person crazy, make him do the unthinkable. I could almost understand. There is nothing funny about that.
JERRY WEMPLE is the author of three poetry collections: You Can See It from Here, which won the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, The Civil War in Baltimore, and The Artemas Poems. He is co-editor of Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. His poems and journals appear in numerous journals and anthologies. He teaches at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.