Backwards, Opposite, Contrary

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

By Marion Agnew

Rowing: using oars to propel a boat. When you row, everything is backwards. You face away from your destination. Your right oar is to port, the boat’s left side. Your left oar is to starboard, the boat’s right side.

Maneuvering feels strange at first, but with practice, your brain adjusts. As it does to so many things.

•••

It’s mid-August, and I’m visiting my parents, retired professors, at our family property on Lake Superior. We’re at the larger of our two camps (what are called “cottages” outside of Northwestern Ontario), washing the supper dishes, when my mother starts in, her voice anxious.

“Oh-oh, it’s getting late. It’s ten, twenty past … past two.” She compares her watch to the clock on the mantel.

My father sighs audibly.

I resist shooting him a look. He’s been with her all day, I remind myself. Meanwhile, I had precious alone time all afternoon, before coming over to fix supper. I say, “Mom, it’s still early. Just twenty past seven, that’s all.”

Her voice is doubtful. “Now, my watch says, twenty, nearly half-past seven.”

I muster bright energy. “Yes, and look how much of the evening is left! Let’s sit by this nice fire you’ve got going.”

They don’t need the fire—the late-summer sun still warms the room—but tending it gives Mom something to do, and its crackle adds cheer.

“Well….” Mom’s dubious.

I hand her the knitting needles holding the half-finished square she’s been working on. “Here— you can do this while Dad reads a chapter from our book.”

Mollified but still suspicious, she plops down in her rocking chair.

“I suppose I could do a few more on this guy.” She adds under her breath, “Let’s see, one, two, three, then one, two,” as she counts different-coloured rows. I try not to remember how intricate patterns once delighted her mathematical mind.

As Dad reads, I relax a little.

•••

My father’s voice always lulled me to sleep at camp. My childhood dreams were full of stories from the Old Testament, Narnia, and Middle Earth.

When we kids—my four siblings and I—grew up, we stopped reading aloud, in part because my brothers, as adults, brought their own family traditions. And although I don’t have other family demands, my vacation always feels too short. I’d rather spend the evenings rowing or otherwise near the water at the smaller camp at the point, not cooped up with my parents in the larger camp around the bay.

This summer has been different, for many reasons. Mom’s increased forgetfulness this spring, fifteen months after her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, meant I had extra tasks, all done long-distance, to get her here. Her neurologist didn’t understand why I felt so strongly about her visit. I’ve wondered about it myself—first as I nixed my father’s blithe plan to “drive up as usual” over three days from their home in Oklahoma. Instead, they flew—still a long day’s travel for a couple in their early eighties—and rented a car for their stay. I wondered again as I flew to Canada from my Colorado home to open the place and fill the freezer. And I wondered yet again as I used vacation time and money I didn’t have for this second trip up to support my father.

The hardest task of all has been pushing past my fears: What if everything goes up in flames? What if a bear gets Mom and Dad? What if something else terrible happens? I’ve tried to rein in my imagination to foresee and prevent actual problems.

So far, I’m glad I persevered. Mom enjoys being here, where she’s spent at least part of almost every summer since her childhood.

And I’m glad to be with them, most of the time. It’s hard to handle the fearful, fretful woman who replaced my brilliant, dynamic mother. My father, a short-tempered devotee of routine and predictability, has welcomed my presence, even as he’s successfully adjusted to her needs in ways I couldn’t have predicted. Like reading aloud in the evenings again—this year, a murder mystery by one of Mom’s favorite writers.

Earlier this summer, I’d noticed that Mom didn’t read for pleasure anymore. I wonder if she consciously decided to stop, frustrated by her inability to understand or remember what she read. I hope not; I hope she just put down her book one day and never thought to pick it up again.

•••

That evening in front of the fire, I peek at Mom. She seems to feel my eyes and looks up from her work to smile. I smile back but look away quickly, so she’s not tempted to interrupt. Soon I’m drawn into the story, its plot a puzzle that can be solved.

Dad looks up at the clock without losing his place, and then flicks a glance at my mother. She’s quiet, so he moves smoothly into the next chapter.

I look toward Mom, too. From his angle, Dad can’t see her trying to catch my eye. She shakes her head at me, lips drawn together. I quickly turn back to Dad. I see from the corner of my eye that Mom’s knitting sits idly in her lap, and the fingers of her left hand pull at her lower lip, a sure sign of her worry. She sighs and gets up. I tense, but she only adds a log to the fire, then sits back down and picks up her knitting again.

Dad reads a little longer, then looks at the clock. It’s been an hour, the upper limit of Mom’s attention span. At the next stopping place, he puts in the bookmark.

“Could the daughter have done it?” I ask.

Dad thinks for a minute. “Not from what we know so far.”

Mom breaks in. “We have a one here,” she points to the long cot in the corner strewn with knitted squares and yarn, “and more upstairs.” She continues knitting, watching me.

I smile but raise a finger to say, “Just a sec while I finish this thought with Dad.”

As I chat more with Dad, I watch Mom try to wait. She finishes out the row of knitting and then leans forward in her chair. At the next break in our conversation, she says, “Because of course we have that one,” and points to the cot, “and at least one other one.”

My smile is polite, if a bit tight. “Yes, thank you.”

She heads to the bathroom. As she comes back into the living room, she fiddles with her watch. She waits for one of us to take a breath and points at the cot. “So, would you rather this one, or I suppose you could use that one…”

I take a deep breath and say, “Thanks, Mom, but I’m not staying here tonight. I’m staying at the little camp, over at the point.”

She looks at me in dismay, her black eyebrows drawn together. “Oh, no, surely not.”

“Of course.” I try to keep the irritation out of my voice. This is the fourth night in a row we’ve had this conversation, and I can answer her objections before she voices them. “It’s perfectly safe. I know where everything is.”

“But I just … wouldn’t you rather stay here? We have a place here, and another upstairs.”

“Thanks, Mom, but no. Look, it’s early yet. Wouldn’t you like to sit down and talk with us?”

“Well, yes,” she says, not moving. “I’d like it if you stayed here. Are you sure you want to go?”

“Yes, Mom. I love sleeping over there. I get to see you during the day.”

She sighs. “Well, I suppose….” She wanders near the window before planting herself behind my chair.

I try to pick up the conversation with Dad. Mom breaks in to say, “You know, we have one here…”

I talk over her—rudely, firmly. “Mom. I’m staying at the other place.”

She says, “But I worry about you there.”

I attempt reassurance. “I’ve stayed over there by myself a lot. Look, it’s still very light. I’ll be fine. I promise.”

“Well, if you really want to, I suppose he and I could take you over, in the, the…” she points outside.

“I have my own car. See the blue one? I’ll drive myself when it’s time.” I try to tease. “You know, I’m starting to think you want to get rid of me.”

She doesn’t see the joke. “No, I’m not. I want you to stay here.” She checks her watch, then sighs again. She takes a couple of steps toward the cot. As her eyes fall on it, she says, “You know, we have this one….”

Dad closes his eyes and inhales deeply, then exhales.

I give up. “I guess it’s time to go.” I pick up my purse. Mom watches unhappily, pulling at her lower lip. I give Dad a brief hug and then go to hug her.

She reaches up to put her hands on my shoulders, and says, “Why, you’re awfully tall! When did you get so tall?”

I laugh. “Twenty years ago, when I was a teenager.” I kiss her cheek.

She puts her arms around me, saying, “I just worry about you so.”

I hug her and say it yet again. “I know, Mom, but I’ll be fine.”

“You’re sure.”

I try not to shout. “Yes. Good night!”

Once down the steps, I turn to wave. They wave back, Dad’s arm around Mom, comforting her. I hurry to the car. Maybe she’ll stop worrying when I’m out of sight.

But I’m annoyed. Worse, her worries have stirred up the voices I’ve been working to keep at bay: You’re not doing it right. You’re not competent. You’re failing.

•••

Rowing: A sport, with defined rules and roles. A culture.

When Mom was a child and the small camp at the point was the only one, her family always had a motorboat—a wooden hull powered by a tiny engine my grandfather assembled from spare parts. He’d taught my mother to treat the lake with respect, and she repeated his lesson to us often: “Storms can blow up giant waves out of nowhere.”

When my parents were first married, my grandparents built the second camp about a kilometer away. Every summer, Mom and Dad brought their growing family to play at the little camp. When I was very young, my grandparents died. Without my grandfather, no one had the skill to keep a motorboat, so my parents didn’t replace it. We had a flat-bottomed wooden rowboat for a few years, but by the time I was ten, it leaked too much to caulk, and Mom decreed its day over. After that, we had a small canoe, and although my mother allowed my then-teenaged brothers to take all-day excursions, she watched the water with what she called “a weather eye” until they were safely back home.

When I was in my mid-twenties, my parents began thinking of retirement. Mom bought a twelve-foot aluminum rowboat and fitted it with the oarlocks and oars her father had made. In the prow, she added a long heavy chain and a keyed padlock.

For this rowboat, she dictated strict rules. Unless we were out on the water, we must wrap the chain around a tree and lock the padlock. If we weren’t on the beach watching, the boat must be pulled completely off the beach to keep it safe from sudden storms. The oars were to be stowed in the camp’s breezeway to make it even harder for someone to steal it.

Although my siblings and I were in our twenties and thirties by this time, we rolled our eyes like teenagers, flouting some rules and obeying others only when she was around to inspect.

In spite of our behaviour, we had learned the lesson. On vacation, my sister and I often stayed out in the rowboat for hours, circling islands and exploring reefs—but always keeping an eye on waves and weather.

•••

That night after supper, back at the smaller camp, I turn on the gas light and lay a fire in the fireplace. Then I walk the few yards to the beach. The water is too choppy to take the rowboat out, so I just swat mosquitoes and watch darkness settle over the water.

When it’s time for bed, I first light the fire for my own portion of cheer. As I settle into my sleeping bag, I listen to the fire crackle, its whispers as comforting as my father’s voice.

•••

The next night after supper, Mom frowns intently at her knitting while Dad reads aloud. That afternoon she’d dropped a stitch, and fixing it has required her full concentration. She’s been focused and absorbed all evening.

At the end of the chapter, I say to Dad, “Well, now it sounds like the son did it.”

Dad shakes his head. “He couldn’t have been the mugger, and that’s what led to the murder.”

“Hmm, you’re right.” I glance at Mom. “How’s the knitting coming?”

“Oh, fine,” she says. She holds it up to show me, pointing to an uneven spot. “This doesn’t look too good, but I guess it will do.”

I lean forward to pick up the end. “You did a good job of fixing it. If you don’t say anything, nobody will notice.”

“Well, it’s not too, too much or anything, but I enjoy it. Say, it’s nearly, nine. Nine o’clock? Can that be right?”

I look up. “Yes, it is. I’d better get home.”

“You’re going home?” Mom is surprised.

“Well, to the other place, at the point. I’m staying there this week.”

“Oh, you are.” Her busy fingers finish her row. “And you’re not scared to stay alone?”

I smile. “Not at all. I know where everything is there, and I feel very safe.”

She sighs. “Well, if you’re sure….”

“I am, Mom.” I gather my purse and jacket.

Mom puts down her knitting and gets up to say goodnight. As I hug her, she says, “Would you like us…we could go in the….”

She seems so tiny. “Thanks, Mom, but I have my own car. See you tomorrow!”

I hug and kiss Dad. As I drive off, they wave from the window. I say aloud, “So much more pleasant! See how unnecessary all that worry is?”

But back at the point, I’m restless and discontented. I rinse my coffee mug and take out the garbage. I pick up my book and put it down. Finally, I head outdoors to collect sticks for the fireplace. The sunset behind the camp trails reddish-orange fire across the water to an island in the bay.

In just a few minutes, I’m rowing through the majestic evening, following the sunset’s path. Automatically adjusting my stroke for the greater strength in my right arm, I skim across the water, trying to outdistance my agitation and unhappiness.

The big lake is nearly calm. Even when the sun itself disappears beyond the trees, the evening sky dazzles my eyes and turns the water around me an opaque platinum. A breeze ruffles the water’s surface, shooting lilac and iridescent highlights along the tops of the ripples. With each stroke, my dripping oars create new patterns of pink-rimmed circles that grow, overlap, and fade.

Time slows. So does my pace. So does my anxious heart.

Finally, I rest my oars and sit quietly. A slight swell moves the water beneath me. I inhale and exhale, matching the lake’s breath.

•••

Rowing: A pastime. An activity. A way to get from here to there. Except you can’t see where you’re going. Only where you’ve been.

When my parents finally retired completely, they stayed at the bigger place my grandparents had built around the curve of the bay, out of sight of the small camp. Mom’s disease has transformed her respect for the lake into fear. Earlier this summer, I took her out for a row once or twice, but she fretted and complained. Another loss, like her lost pleasure in mathematical patterns and in reading, but somehow deeper and more painful for the rest of us.

•••

Ripples murmur against the rowboat’s hull as the lake and I breathe together. The sky darkens. I look over my shoulder at the island’s black silhouette. It’s time to turn around. As I row in, I watch new stars pierce the indigo sky.

I’m no longer restless, but discontent still lies along my shoulders, feather-light but impossible to ignore.

Back at the beach, I pull the boat up, far beyond the recent high-water mark, though not as far as Mom would demand. I wrap the boat’s chain around a tree, ignoring the padlock. She’d be furious if she knew I haven’t used the lock in several years. I lean the oars against the house, feeling momentary guilt at not bringing them into the breezeway.

Indoors, I light the usual fire and zip myself into my sleeping bag, but I’m not sleepy. Instead, I watch the sky through the bank of windows and wait for the moon to rise. I can still feel the movement of the boat in my bones.

The thought surfaces: She sure worries about that boat. And then it clicks.

She wasn’t as worried about me tonight. That’s what felt wrong—backwards, opposite, contrary. When she worries about me, I feel insulted. But when she doesn’t, it feels as if she doesn’t care.

As the fire chatters away, I mull over Mom’s illness, our worries, our desire to keep each other safe. As always, I wish I could heal her. But maybe navigating these waters with her is enough. In any case, it’s all I know to do.

•••

MARION AGNEW’s fiction and creative nonfiction have received support from the Ontario Arts Council. Her work has appeared in journals in the U.S. and Canada and online, including The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, Compose, and Gravel, as well as anthologies such as Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). Her office, in a house that sits between the two camps described in this essay, looks out over Lake Superior, and on calm evenings, she takes her late mother’s boat out for a row. More about her is at www.marionagnew.ca.

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You’re My Only

Photo courtesy Linda Kass
Photo courtesy Linda Kass

By Linda Kass

On the day my father turned eighty-eight—just over six years ago—my mother shuffled down the hospital corridor to visit him after surgery. Her five-foot stature diminished by degenerative arthritis and a series of falls, Mom had been the needier of my parents; my dad her loyal caretaker, driver, friend and, most of all, loving husband. She slowly pushed forward her walker, a metal substitute for my father’s arms that until then had always been there for her. This was the first time in their sixty-two-year marriage that she had to manage without him.

At the elevator, Mom stopped to sign a birthday card my sister bought for her to give to my dad. My husband gave her a book to steady the card and a pen.

She grasped the pen and, without pause, began to write. I looked over her shoulder and read her words.

You’re my only.

•••

I watched Mom sit in the chair at Dad’s bedside and gaze at his face. His decision to get knee replacements was part of his plan to keep the two of them together, to live independently. His bowed legs were failing him. By getting new titanic knees, he could continue taking care of my mother. As he slept, Mom held his hand in hers.

They were always holding hands. I’d often meet them for lunch at our neighborhood cafe. After we kissed goodbye, I’d watch them shuffle along the sidewalk to their car, Mom bent over, her eyes focused on the ground; Dad, a foot taller when they were younger, stooping to clutch her hand and support her weight. This image always left me wondering if it would be the last one I would see of them together.

•••

My parents were born within six weeks of each other in 1923, both to Jewish families—my father in the “waltz city” of Vienna, my mother in rural eastern Poland. Dad’s family immigrated to the United States in 1938, narrowly escaping the Nazi take-over of Austria. My grandmother wanted to live in the mainstream of American life, in a university town, in a place of opportunity. Dad was fifteen when they settled in Columbus, Ohio.

He finished high school and was halfway through college at Ohio State when, in 1943, he was drafted into the army. He served first with the ski patrol in the 10th Mountain Division located at Colorado’s Camp Hale. He contracted rheumatic fever there and, because of his understanding of the German language and culture, was transferred to an infantry unit and placed into military intelligence school at Camp Ritchie in Hagerstown, Maryland. His unit was redeployed to a military camp in Manchester, England, and assigned to the 63rd Division, with which he remained throughout the war.

From September of 1944 until April of 1945, Dad was part of a regiment in Paris during the time when Germans had infiltrated that city after the Battle of the Bulge. Reaching the level of staff sergeant, he assisted in the Alsace Mission, top-secret work involving the translation and analysis of captured papers on the German V-2 rocket, and helped locate installations at the Ziegfrid line, the defense demarcation between Germany and France. For his war efforts, he received a Bronze Star. Back in the U.S., he finished college on the GI Bill.

During this time, my mother’s family was fighting oppression—first, at the hands of the Soviets, then the Germans. When Mom was sixteen, her mother was deported to a Siberian work camp. Later, my mother and her father hid in a bunker underground to escape a Nazi concentration camp. Mom’s family reunited after the war, travelling to Krakow then Vienna, where my mother spent a year in medical school. Finally receiving affidavits of support to sponsor them, Mom and her parents set sail for America and settled in Atlantic City.

Shortly after their arrival in 1947, an aunt and uncle from Columbus invited my mother to live with them. Mom could resume her education at Ohio State, they said, quickly adding an even more persuasive argument to the parents of a single, twenty-four-year-old Polish daughter: a nice and handsome young man from Vienna finishing his degree at the university worked for them in their small office supply business.

A match was made.

•••

Other than feeling self-conscious about their foreign accents, I never thought much about my parents’ dramatic entries to the only country I knew. I took for granted their journey toward freedom and didn’t grasp the struggle that must have been part of their legacy as I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s. Now, I can only imagine the challenges for an immigrant woman still wrestling with a new language and culture, married with two young daughters—a former medical student turned Midwest suburban homemaker in an era when the work of being a wife and mother carried such urgency and social expectations.

I grew up thinking my mom hadn’t accomplished anything, all those afternoons she was waiting for me at the door, fixing me a snack, and making sure my sister and I understood the importance of an education. I watched my dad strive to build his business and spend many evenings doing volunteer work, part of his commitment to repay the kindness of a stranger—a Chicago businessman—who took a calculated risk on a Jewish family and sponsored their entry, a journey from Trieste to Ellis Island that spring of 1938. I didn’t know then that in the coming months and years, the war they barely escaped would destroy my father’s Viennese home, along with so many other residences, businesses, and synagogues.

Like most children and teenagers, I was in my own world and trying to fit in as one of very few among my peers who were first-generation Americans. I went on to college unaware of the deepening renewal of my parents’ commitment to each other. Their union seemed an anachronism back in the early seventies. During my twenties, while developing my career, I lived in Detroit and New York and was in a marriage that produced a son and ended in divorce. After I remarried at thirty-three and returned to Columbus, I was able to see my parents with fresh eyes. I used my journalism background as a license to ask detailed questions about their pasts to collect family history.

Over time, I gained a different lens, one that revealed two young European immigrants who found one another through quite distinct journeys but shared a deep desire for a safe haven in the middle of their new country. Shutting one door, opening another, and never looking back.

•••

Two years before Dad’s knee replacement surgery, my sister and I helped my parents move out of their condo to an apartment building with assisted-living and dining services. My sister was already at the condo when I arrived on the first day of what became a six-week process of thinning out the belongings of a lifetime. Mom sat in a chair wrapped in a white linen shawl that had turned up earlier that morning.

“Don’t be so quick to throw things out,” she said, watching my sister rummage through papers in the kitchen drawer. “Let me see them first.”

As I scanned the handwritten lists of names and phone numbers covering the desk, and the brief reminders scratched out and rewritten, my vague observations morphed into a troubling realization of the secret that our father had kept from us. It was confirmed as we later found Dad’s cell number scattered throughout the condo, neatly written on no less than three-dozen pieces of paper.

Mom had also saved countless birthday, Mother’s Day, and anniversary cards. Dad came through the kitchen as I was trying to gauge the sentimental value of one particular card. “Throw it away. It’s from our neighbor.” Muttering, as he walked away, “He’s dead.”

As we uncovered photos and albums from as far back as the early twentieth century, my sister and I realized that Mom had kept every card, every photo, every newspaper article, every memento. To her, everything mattered and she wanted to remember it all.

On the afternoon I planned to wade through Mom’s closet for giveaways, Dad went with my husband to watch the Buckeyes play Northwestern. My dad never used to miss Ohio State’s fall football season; I remember attending games with him throughout my childhood. But as Mom’s needs rose, attending a football game moved farther down his list of priorities. Left alone for hours with my mom, I took her to lunch and looked at old photos. I wasn’t prepared for the greeting I witnessed when Dad’s key turned the doorknob. Their eyes lit up for one another as if they had been separated for months.

•••

While Dad’s knees were like new, Mom’s physical condition continued to deteriorate. She had frequent falls. Her memory lapses became more numerous, although she continued to call forth the most obscure details of decades past. Dad still drove, played bridge, and voraciously read magazines and books—and continued as Mom’s loyal custodian. But in the fall of 2015, both of them ninety-two, he began admitting that taking care of my mother—something he’d considered a life’s mission—was no longer sustainable. For the first time in their enduring union, they would need to live apart.

A new memory-care facility opened just fifty yards from their apartment building. Mom became its first resident. For nearly a year, Dad visited almost all day, every day. I’d often come by and find my parents in Mom’s sizable room—she in her wheelchair and he sitting on an ottoman close beside her. They were holding hands and watching television, the sound blasting down the hall. She cared little for what was on the screen. The man at her side was the source of her happiness.

When she left this world last May, eerily on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Mom and Dad were one month shy of celebrating the sixty-eighth year of their love affair. Instead we celebrated Mom’s life, and buried her on Mother’s Day. Dad had brought over Mother’s Day cards that he’d picked out weeks earlier, one for each of the moms in our family. I found a sealed envelope among his stack with my Mom’s name front and center, a heart drawn around it. I slipped the card from the pile and, later, unsealed the envelope, as if opening it for Mom. After the printed message from husband to wife—that she was the woman he would marry all over again—came three words in Dad’s shaky handwriting: “To my treasure.”

While Dad was heartbroken, he did what he always did in life. He pressed on. At Mom’s funeral, he told my best friend that he needed to “reinvent” himself. He added a fourth bridge game to his week, attended a few more Columbus Symphony concerts with friends from his senior residence, and even took a trip with my husband, our daughter, and me for part of my book tour in the Florida Panhandle. He engaged more deeply with friends and family. Always a realist, he knew life was precious and was determined to live fully for whatever days he had left.

When a nodule showed up on a lung CAT scan during an ER visit prompted by a fall last October, Dad handled the news with his usual pragmatism. He was uninterested in pursuing medical interventions.

“I’ve lived a long life,” he said. “A good life.”

By November, pneumonia and a lung infection left him weaker, and he developed an uncontrollable cough. Still, he’d get up around seven a.m., shower, put on a nice shirt and pants, a handsome sweater, and go down to breakfast. He continued to play bridge and would win most games. He read when he could. Right up to his last days, he possessed his gift of connection, a fellowship he’d built for a lifetime: with his business associates, with innumerable colleagues encountered through volunteer work, with his growing family from whom he took great pleasure, and with his network of friends.

Just eight days before he died, Dad had a nonessential physician appointment on his calendar that he had made months prior—to see his ear doctor. He seemed bent on making this visit to get his ears cleaned and have his hearing aids checked. He was extremely weak that morning and had trouble standing up with his walker. I told him I didn’t see how I could take him out that day. He was terribly disappointed—the appointment was on his calendar and Dad always showed up for every commitment he made. This one was no different.

So I called the doctor’s office and asked them to let me know if they had an opening in the afternoon. The receptionist phoned two hours later. They had a 3:45 p.m. cancellation and I took it. Dad rallied, as he often did, his will and determination pushing through. My sister came over as reinforcement and, together, we took him to the appointment. In the waiting room, we laughed; we shared personal stories. Dad voiced his impatience even though we were early and told him so. We laughed more. When finally in the treatment room, he chatted with the doctor and staff. My rather fast driving even got him back to his residence in time to have dinner with his friends. He was happy, grateful. He’d had a victory—one more in a life that he saw as so full of them.

•••

I keep going back to that March day of Dad’s first knee replacement, our trek with Mom to the fourth floor of the hospital. Except for the slightly glazed look in Dad’s eyes from pain medication he preferred not to take but did, he was alert, lying in a slightly reclined position, a serving table hovering over his lap. We placed his favorite Graeter’s black raspberry chocolate chip ice cream pie in front of him. On cue, the nursing staff came in to sing happy birthday. As they filed out, Mom handed Dad her special card, bending to kiss him. My camera in hand, I automatically pointed and clicked to capture the moment.

•••

LINDA KASS worked as a magazine reporter and correspondent for regional and national publications, such as TIME and The Detroit Free Press, early in her career as a journalist. She currently serves as an assistant editor at Narrative, an online literary magazine. Her debut novel, Tasa’s Song, inspired by her mother’s life in eastern Poland during World War II, was published in May 2016. She is working on a novel of linked stories, this time inspired by her father’s life. She is the founder and owner of an independent bookstore, Gramercy Books, in Bexley, Ohio.

Falling

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

By Betty Jo Buro

Yesterday I ran into my mother at the mall while I was waiting for the elevator outside the food court. It was midafternoon, and I had just finished eating for the first time that day.

I’m going through some stuff. I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat or even if I wanted to eat, so I settled on turkey soup. After the first bite of salty broth and soft noodles, I realized I was starving. And since I had just overspent on a pair of ripped jeans, I decided it was time to go home. When the elevator doors parted, the usual crowd of mothers with babies rolled out, a teenage couple—obviously and thoroughly in love—and then, the very last person to walk off was my mom. And I was surprised to see her because my mother is dead.

I’ve been in love a bunch of times. There is really nothing like that free-fall into desire. The whole world seems friendlier, more sharply focused, like when I got my first pair of glasses in fourth grade and I could suddenly see each individual leaf on the maple trees, and the sharp letters on the street signs felt like precise miracles. Falling in love warps time, making it speed up then slow down and it’s difficult to sleep or concentrate.

I’ve fallen out of love, too. It’s happening to me now. And it’s not nearly as much fun as it was going in. There is that sense of falling, but into darkness, into a mysterious place that may be cold and lonely. The butterflies in my stomach are more like panic. Sometimes insomnia wakes me at four a.m. I imagine the imminent scene where we’ll tell our daughters. I picture the For Sale sign piercing the grass in front of the house where we’ve raised our family, where our bones have settled into a quiet routine. On the days I’m especially sleep-deprived, I wonder if I’ll die alone.

My husband and I saw our first of many marriage counselors twenty years ago, when our oldest daughter was still a baby. We brought her with us to our appointments in her infant carrier. We went at night, in winter, the baby bundled into a tiny snowsuit, the black cold biting through our coats. I remember, on our first visit, the therapist told us we had an opportunity to change not only ourselves but generations to come. We quit her, like we quit all the therapists that came after, and I wonder now what kind of disservice we’ve done to our children, and our children’s children. How many generations have we fucked up?

We plan to tell our girls over spring break, since the college student will be home and in a rare alignment of schedules, we will all be together under the same roof. The date looms with a dread similar to the one I felt traveling to Boston two years ago, to sit with my mother while she died. Anticipatory suffering lodges itself under my sternum, and accompanies me wherever I go, an uninvited guest. Yesterday, while tossing a pair of sneakers in her room, I catch sight of my high school daughter’s desk calendar. SPRING BREAK!! is written across an entire week. I look away, quickly, but my body has already registered the all caps, the bright pink sharpie, the joy in the exclamation marks. Later, it will occur to me that this may have been one of the saddest moments I’ve ever experienced, but at the time it’s visceral. A punch to the gut. My knees go a little weak.

My mother left my father when I was the same age as my oldest daughter, and I was angry with her in vague and selfish ways. It’s disturbing how accurately history is repeating itself. My mother stepped out on her own in the late nineteen-seventies, when divorces where rare in my predominately Catholic hometown. What is commonplace now, was for her, an act of fierce independence. Maybe, I think now, my mother was setting an example, modeling for her daughters the kind of strength we might someday need: this is how to be courageous, this is how to walk into the face of the unknown, this is how to take care of yourself.

In the elevator, there’re just two older women and me. After a couple of minutes, they tell me, in the kindest way possible, that I need to push the button to make the elevator descend. I apologize and say, “That woman reminded me of my mother,” and then I start to cry on the elevator in the mall with the strangers, holding the bag with my ridiculous jeans. “It’s hard,” they say. “It’s never easy,” they say, and “Have a nice day,” when the door finally opens onto the floor where the overwhelming scent of Abercrombie blankets the air, where the fake greenery rings the fountain in perfect rows, and a new batch of stroller-moms wait to get on. I wonder if this may be a sign, that my mother is going to help me, that she is going to send me surrogates, glimpses of her to remind me to be strong, and kind ladies in elevators to comfort me.

•••

BETTY JO BURO holds an MFA from Florida International University. Her work has appeared in Cherry Tree, Hippocampus Magazine, Hunger Mountain, The Lindenwood Review, The Manifest-Station, Compose Journal, and Sliver of Stone. She was a 2016 finalist for Southern Indiana Review’s Thomas A. Wilhelmus Award, and a 2016 semi-finalist for American Literary Review’s Annual Creative Writing Awards. She lives and writes in Stuart, Florida.

Making Do

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

By Elizabeth H. Boquet

“I’m fifty,” I imagine saying to my mom. “Can you believe it?”

“No,” she would say back to me. “No, I cannot.”

I used to call her every year on my birthday. It became a funny thing, me thanking her for having me. I would have already gotten her card—she always mailed it early—and sometimes a little gift, though not every time. I know if I had waited long enough, she would have called me, but I was an hour ahead of her and up early to go to work. She was retired and a night owl. I would call her first thing, and she would still be in bed. I would remind her what she doing however many years ago on that day and she would always say she didn’t remember much, mercifully. Because that is how they did it in those days. My friends and I were some of the first babies born in the hospital in our town. Our mothers went in pregnant and came out not. What happened in between was for someone else to say.

She remembered enough to tell me she thought the hospital sent her home with someone else’s child; I know that. And for a long time I wondered whether she believed it. I had been big—almost ten pounds. Enough to warrant forceps, one tong clamped to the right side of my forehead, which left me with what she used to call a horn. “What do you mean a horn?” I would ask.

“A horn,” she would say, as if it were self-evident.

When I pressed for more details, she would never describe it exactly, would just say it was so big my christening cap didn’t fit and so unsightly that she heard my grandfather, leaning over my crib, say to one of his brothers, “Look at that, Camille. What the hell you think about that.” A lament. I was lamentable.

“When they brought you to me,” she would say, “you were so ugly. I was just sure you were the wrong baby. And I told them that, too. I said, that’s the wrong baby. But they kept insisting you were mine so what was I gonna do. I took you home.”

Those were also the days when babies spent most of their time in the nursery, bottle-fed, so the new moms could get some rest. “Well, my room was right down the hall,” she would say, “and there was one baby in there that cried all night long. I mean, all night long. I remember feeling so sorry for the poor momma that was gonna take that one home. Little did I know, that one was you! And that poor momma was me!”

The stories would spill out from there of her new-mother all-nighters, of the local TV stations going off at midnight and of her having to rock and sing or bounce and hum to me into the wee hours. Of me sleeping all day, through every visitor who came by wanting to meet me and my horn. “We would wipe your face with an ice cold washrag to try to wake you up,” she would say. “Even that didn’t work. You were out. But come ten o’clock—poomp!—your little eyes would pop open and you would be ready to play. All night. I would just get you to sleep, and then it would be time to get your brother up for school. I’m telling you, I thought I was gonna die.”

My mom loved babies, the littler the better, but she was not sentimental about them. She could sit content with a newborn in her arms all afternoon and talk about how hard they were, every once in a while catching the baby’s eyes with a coo and a smile and a high-pitched “Isn’t that right? Yes, it is. Yes it is,” until she got a rolling giggle in response.

It never occurred to me to wonder whether she wanted me. If pressed, I would have said I assumed she did. By the time I came along, my brother was eight. My mom and dad had been married eleven years, and she had had at least two “misses,” as she used to call them. Maybe more. “In those days, we didn’t count.” My mom would have said she was not of a generation that thought about kids as something you wanted or didn’t, or of a generation of kids who thought about whether they were wanted.

She loved the story of the time she told her nephew, my cousin Todd, that he was an accident. “He was so upset,” she used to say. “Now, why would you be upset by that?” she wondered. “I mean, I was an accident too. You think I care? By the time you’re number three or four or five, I hate to tell you: You’re an accident.”

When my husband asked what I wanted to do for my fiftieth birthday, I told him I wanted to talk to my mom. He knows I only ever most want what is impossible and that, if he waits a beat or two, I will get to something that is more possible, which I did. So I told him I wanted to spend it with my brother—my first best friend—and his family. I told him he was in charge of arrangements. All I wanted to have to do was pack.

I threw my clothes in a bag the night before—it’s my brother, it’s Florida, there’s not much that needs to happen. But the jewelry required some thought. I have pieces I love, pieces I travel with and pieces I don’t. Like most things in my life, my jewelry is poorly organized. The necklaces are tangled and often need polishing, the earrings are separated, left from right, backless, and sometimes bent. As I dug, I unearthed a cardboard box with a peacock on it. I was looking for one pair of earrings in particular, brushed metal with tiny blown-glass cornflowers on them. They’re more delicate than most of the others and I halfway expected to find them broken beneath a large pewter lily seedpod pin that only comes out during the winter. I unfolded the lid on the box and discovered a note from my dad atop the mess of chains and buttons and assorted cleaning cloths. “Nothing is lost as long as someone remembers,” he wrote.

I remember. I remember this is the note that accompanied the last birthday present from my parents, the last birthday for which my mom was still alive. It was not long after they moved from Louisiana to live near us in Connecticut. The note is written in my dad’s certain left-slanting print on an index-card-sized piece of plain white typing paper. The edges are frayed, so he must have folded it and torn it along the kitchen counter, as was his habit. I’m a leftie too. Scissors are no good. I turn the paper over. “Senoir citizen’s make do,” he wrote on the back side. My dad can’t spell, can’t punctuate. He knows what he does is wrong by someone else’s standards and he doesn’t care.

I remember the gift. A costume chainlink bracelet with a gold-and-silver heart. I wonder who it belonged to first, or who he bought it for and when. “Senoir citizen’s make do” means he didn’t buy it for this occasion, and there’s no way in hell it belonged to my mom. In Connecticut they have no money, no car, and he has not yet figured out the bus. No—he brought this bauble up with him from Louisiana.

“Do you like it?” my mom asked.

“Oh, I do.”

“Oh, good. When your dad showed it to me, I wasn’t sure.”

She was right not to be sure, about this and so many other things. But still, after fifty-some-odd years of marriage, in the end she trusted him. Because what else could she do? The bracelet is not the sort of thing I would ever wear. It slides around the bottom of the peacock box. I found the earring I was searching for tangled in one of its links and wrested it loose.

After my mom died, sympathy cards slipped through our mail slot for weeks. Most people wrote about how kind she was, how much they knew we would miss her, how she would always be in our hearts. But one I remember most of all, a note from Miss Lorraine, one of my mom’s oldest friends, who I hadn’t seen in years and years. I remember her especially from a vacation our families took when I was about eight to a state park in Mississippi, where we rented cabins and skied in the lake and made homemade ice cream and root beer at night. We did that only one year and never again.

I’ve wondered whether my parents couldn’t afford it—it was hard for them to leave their small business for a week at a time—but I also wonder whether all their friends knew. Knew what I knew, even then. That my dad was cheating on my mom. That everyone had to look away all the time. Had to pretend it wasn’t happening. Whether my mom’s friends would worry that their own husbands would get ideas. Whether the husbands worried that my dad, always and still a handsome man, would make a move on their wives. Infidelity is contagious in that way.

“I remember,” Miss Lorraine wrote, “going to visit your mom in the hospital when she had you. She was so happy to finally have her little girl.”

By the time I arrived, eleven years into her marriage, my mom was already protecting me, protecting herself, from the disappointments of being women who love too easily, too hard, too unselfconsciously. By eleven years into her marriage, I wonder whether she knew how many others my dad had already had, whether she hadn’t dared to believe, after so many misses, that this one was really hers. A unicorn. A fantastical creature.

Can you believe it? I’m here, Mom. I’m still here.

•••

ELIZABETH H. BOQUET is a writer and educator whose work explores themes of violence, suffering, and peace-making through writing. Originally from southwest Louisiana, she now lives and works in southwest Connecticut. Her most recent work, Nowhere Near the Line, was published in 2016 by Utah State University Press.

You Are There

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

By Jeanne Shoemaker

When I call, her voice sounds like a bird’s. She chirps “yes” to every question. I say, “Are you cold?” or “Did you eat lunch?” or “Are they nice to you there?” And she says, “Where’s there?”

Then I try something else. I say, “Are you wearing your night gown?” and she says, “Yes,” in that child/bird voice that trembles out the syllables.

When my daughter speaks to her, my mother thinks it’s me, but me when I was young. So we have these conversations, when we can, when she’s more lucid and can hear me, and she speaks to the adult me—the one who’s worried about her and doesn’t know what to do—and then to the young me who was brave and reckless and didn’t think about her, at least not very much.

There is where you are, but not me. There is what I say when I mean where you are. My there is your here. Get it? No, I can’t say that. It doesn’t even make sense to me. I have to pose questions that are simple to get answers that may or may not be true. “Are you wearing a bathrobe?” My mother answers yes, but later says she isn’t. “What color is it?” I ask. “Blue,” she replies. I am not trying to trick her. I don’t think she’s lying. I know she’s not. The world swims before her like a blurry movie screen and she’s confused and it comes through in her voice.

In the South they speak in slow rhythms, let the syllables fall over on each other like old friends, intertwined, a filigreed pronunciation. But my mother is not from the South. She’s asking a question in every answer. “Yes” turns into three syllables because she is asking, “Is yes what I’m supposed to say?” She is not who she used to be. Or if she is, she is just hanging on to herself by one little filigreed thread.

•••

When I visit, she is in the hospital-like wing of her fancy, assisted-care “home.” She’s propped up with pillows, tilted slightly to one side, but she won’t last long. Soon she’s going to fall over and bang her head on the hard shiny rail of the hospital bed. As I get closer, I can tell that she can’t see me, and when I say hello she casts her eyes about, scanning the room.

“Oh, hi,” she says finally, but she’s faking it. She can’t see and doesn’t know who it is. I tell her it’s me and take her dry little hand. She looks in my direction and grips my hand like she’s afraid I’ll go away.

“I’m here, Mom. I’m going to stay with you a while.”

“When are you leaving?”

“Not for a while. I’m here now.”

“Good,” she says and clucks her tongue like a hen and looks around. When her eyes fall back on me, she sticks out her head. Now she’s like a turtle. I hold her hand with both of my hands.

I say, “Let’s have coffee. Want coffee?”

“Sure. I’ll have some.”

I pry her hands off mine.

“I’m getting coffee. Be right back.”

“When are you coming back?”

“In just a minute. Don’t worry. I’m getting coffee. We’ll drink coffee, okay?”

“Okay.”

I run out of the room—she can’t see me running—but it doesn’t matter. She doesn’t know what odd behavior is anymore. I ask one of the nurses where I can get coffee and she points to a buffet-like area in the back of the ornate lobby.

My mother’s “home” has an entrance like the Waldorf Astoria’s, but it’s all downhill from there. Each guest room contains a lost soul, cast out from their own life, adrift on an ice floe, though not dressed for the weather. And me? I’m standing on the shore, waving a white handkerchief. “Good-bye!” I say, over and over again. “Farewell!” I yell. “’Til we meet again!”

On a black marble counter, pitchers of juice and ice water drip with condensation. Next to them is a pyramid of cold muffins. Why is everything so scrupulously cold? Two thermoses, one for coffee and one for tea, sit on a silver tray surrounded by the sad pink remains of Sweet’N Low packets. Could anyone here be on a diet? My mother weighs ninety-five pounds. There’s a stack of extra-large Styrofoam cups, the size teenage boys drink Slurpees from. Everything is too cold, or too hot, or too large, and I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of dislocation. There’s an aura of impersonality, as though someone not quite human is in charge of this place. I splash coffee into the cups and run back to the room.

When I sit, my mother looks over with her blind eyes and I can see that the whites have disappeared— it’s all iris now. Did her eyes shrink? It doesn’t make sense.

“Here, I’ll hold it,” I say, steadying her cup.

We sip coffee and talk about the funny things I did when I was young. Her favorite story, the one she tells her friends over and over again, is about me. It is a fusion of fantasy and reality and, maybe, wishful thinking. My grandparents had a farm and four dairy cows, and I used to ride the cows. Well, not really. I used to sit on them when they lay down in the field, as cows do, and they never seemed to mind. Over the years, my mother embellished this event and I never corrected her. It made me seem like a daredevil, instead of a three-year-old looking for a comfortable spot to sit.

“Remember when I used to ride Grandpa’s cows?” I say, and we both laugh.

Later, I leave to get muffins and almost knock over an elderly man wearing a pink chenille bathrobe. Is he wearing his wife’s robe, I wonder? He’s as thin and fragile as a praying mantis, and I watch him struggle with the walker, hands shaking, as he attempts to regain his balance after our near collision. But I don’t stop. I run backwards, saying “Sorry, sorry, sorry.” Then I turn the corner and sprint down another long hall—away from him, away from her. And, when I ask myself why I’m running, I don’t have time to answer. I’m in that much of a hurry.

My mother is different though she must still be in there somewhere. Are you in there, Mom? Age and Alzheimers have worked their deadly magic and transformed her. But I’m different too. I’m always in a rush when I’m around her and I don’t know why. It’s like I’m a contestant on that old game show, Beat The Clock.

•••

The night before my mother dies, I sit with her and play music on my laptop. My mother doesn’t have much time left, so everything I do feels contrived and weighted with import. I had turned off the lights, but the heart monitor glowed, the oxygen monitor beeped, and my computer cast a eerie halo of green light. It’s cozy, just my mother and me and these contraptions. But the vast universe is pressing in. The unknowable is just outside the room.

We’re listening to “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” when the nurse barges in. She flips on the light, then pokes around the room. She fiddles with the IV, then glares at me because it’s after visiting hours and I’d turned off the lights. She knows my mother will die tonight or tomorrow, and she knows she should not ask me to leave. But she wants me gone and I imagine why. The nurses will play poker after nine p.m. or they’ll have a dance party. I can picture them limboing and mamboing down the halls, snapping their fingers and swaying their hips, swigging champagne and trumpeting, trumpeting with life.

“If looks could kill,” I whisper, and the nurse finally leaves.

My hand is drawn to the oxygen tube that snakes into my mother’s nostril, then to the IV that runs antibiotics and fluids into her stick-like arm. I play Louis Armstrong’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” then Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But my mother stares at the ceiling, never toward me.

•••

“Hurry up, hurry up” she says, again and again. And I think, is she talking to The Angel of Death? But I don’t believe it. I only know that she is not talking to me.

I find the crabby nurse. “We need more morphine,” I tell her.

•••

My brother and I have been trading off, not wanting our mother to be alone. We worry that in the time it takes to shower, or eat a pork chop, or park the car, that she will sneak away. I leave at eleven o’clock and then my brother spends the night sleeping beside her in a cold leather chair. In the morning, he drives her car, this big Buick, back to his house to change his shirt and to get me. We’re going to have breakfast and spend the day with her. But she dies minutes after my brother leaves, sneaks out the moment his back is turned, just as we feared. There had been a plan and now it is all goofed up.

Someone calls from the “home.”

“Your mother passed this morning,” says this person I’ve never met.

Passed is the P.C. term, but I don’t like it. It reminds me of passing gas, pass the potatoes, pass the buck. Why be coy? She died. She’s dead. There will be “arrangements”: cold storage, caskets, morticians, cemeteries, body bags with heavy zippers.

When my brother walks in, I hand him a mug of coffee. “Sit down and drink this,” I say, before I tell him.

•••

I remember my parakeet and the three childhood dogs I loved and lost. I buried my dead pets in the backyard, marked their graves with crosses made from Popsicle sticks. For the parakeet’s casket, I used an old metal lunchbox, filling it first with thick rolls of cotton, and sprinkling the tiny weightless body with pink and yellow rose petals and red cinnamon Valentine’s hearts. For the dogs, I used cardboard boxes covered with Christmas wrap, even a bow if I could find one. A shiny, boxed gift for God! Each pet wept and prayed over on one knee. I was only devout in my faith at times of death. For my dog Pearl’s funeral, I shot an air rifle into the sky—a 1-Gun salute—and wore a black armband for weeks. But my mother’s funeral will be modest by comparison, lacking the high dramatic flair of my youth. She will be buried in a strange place by strange people. I will not dress or touch the body. I will not shovel the earth, say the prayers, or fire the gun. I will stand squarely in the dirt, like a lump of stone, a tombstone myself.

•••

I call Diego and Sons Mortuary. I need to find out what my mother had pre-arranged for her funeral. She’d told me she had already done it—long ago when death seemed far away and talking about it was a silly thing to do. A man with just the whiff of an accent answers. His voice is silken, almost romantic.

I say, “Can you help me?”

“I hope so,” he replies.

I explain that my mother has died and that she had already arranged for the funeral, or at least I think she did. He asks her name and when I tell him, he repeats it.

“Dorothy,” he says, as though he knew her and misses her already.

He is so nice that I wish I could meet him, see him, but I know he is trained to be nice, like realtors, but not my mother’s nurses. Still, I wish I could talk to him forever, this exotic sounding man, this under…taker. Will he be the one to drive the hearse? Collect her from her “home?” Zip the bag?

I ask, “So it was pre-paid?”

“Let’s see,” he says in that beautiful, seductive voice. A pause. “Yes, she put it on her Visa card.”

I laugh. It’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard. He laughs, too. We laugh together. I never want to hang up.

•••

Later, I attempt to write my mother’s obituary. “You’re the writer,” my brother says, delegating the enormous task to me. So, I try to produce something heartfelt, but my sentences are bad and sound phony. She lived here. She lived there. It’s too short. I freeze as if it is an extra-credit question on an exam that I’m ill prepared for. All I can think of are weird moments from my childhood, odd behaviour, hers and mine, and fights we had.

My brother and I sit on the sofa and look through the family albums. There’s a childhood photo of my mother with her six siblings taken in front of their gigantic house. Even as a child, my mother had a wary expression as if she knew what was in store for her. We stare at our parents’ wedding photo. They look so young and skinny. We keep looking, hoping to find a suitable photograph to run with the obituary I have yet to write.

Then, for some reason, I remember one of the last times my mother and I did something together, before she had Alzheimer’s, before she was in her new “home”— when she was still here. I’m in the car and my mother is driving that stupid Buick of hers down the Bayshore Freeway, going 30 m.p.h. though the speed limit is 65. People honk, one guy gives us the finger. The car is so old and decrepit that it won’t go any faster and the turn signal broke off, so my mother had made a new one with a popsicle stick and some duct tape. We’re a family of oddballs, cow riders, and duct tape mechanics. The obituary should reflect this somehow, shouldn’t it?

My brother and I can’t find a photo we like, and again I try to write the obituary. But, it’s all a big jumble. I can’t do it. I appeal to my brother to write it.

“You’re the writer,” he says again, managing to make the word writer sound both truthful and accusatory.

Why can’t I do this? Why can’t I sum up my mother’s life in a few simple paragraphs? I realize now, too late, that I should have asked her to write the obituary herself, when she was still lucid, and before the Alzheimer’s kicked in. “How would you like to be remembered?” I’d ask. But no one is that organized, are they? Must I have the final word?

Once upon a time my mother was young and hopeful, but then things happened. Her first born child died when he was a month old, and her marriage turned so bitter it was like a cancer spread through our home. But in an obituary, you’re only supposed to write about the wonderful things. I’m having trouble thinking of any right now. The recent past is so filled with tragic events, it blocks out all earlier years. At the end, my parents’ lives were, well, pretty bad. My father had a heart attack and later a stroke. My mother got Alzheimer’s, then broke her hip, and, over time, became so fuddled up that she had to live in that fancy assisted-living “home.”

Still looking for a photo to include with my mother’s obituary, I come across an album I’ve never seen before. Old and dust-covered, clearly it has not been touched in decades. The first pages contain my oldest brother’s birth certificate and many cards of congratulations—happy cards with bunnies and kittens and colored balloons—then his death certificate. I turn this page. More than fifty cards of condolence have been carefully pasted into the album by my mother’s own hand. With shock, I realize that this forgotten tome had started as my brother’s baby book. It was meant to be filled with celebrations, birthdays, Christmasses, graduations, and the progress of his life.

Two years ago, when my mother and I sat down to write my father’s obituary, she scratched out the sentence I’d written about their “three” children and wrote in the word “two.” She was already editing, rewriting her life, improving it, leaving out the bad parts. I guess I will do that too. Why not? My own life, if I look at it objectively, has nothing as tragic as the loss of a child, but there are moments of failure I’d rather not think about. Suddenly, I understand the form and its purpose—to call into high relief the events that can be celebrated. And those high points will, we hope, cast a shadow over the things we must forget.

For inspiration, I look in the local newspaper, and read the obituaries. I need a template. I see that a friend’s mother has also died. What luck! My friend’s mother and my mother are almost the same. They’re the same age, both mothers and wives. My friend’s mother even looks like mine in the youthful photograph they supplied—same blond pin-curled hair and pretty lip-sticked mouth. The obituary is beautifully written. Our beloved mother, etc. I have to change a few facts but not that many. I copy the words and the sentiment I don’t feel and pawn it off as my own. I don’t know how I feel. I’m not there yet.

•••

JEANNE SHOEMAKER graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Pushcart Prize: Best of the Small Presses, the Iowa Review, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

Bolognese

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

By Jon Magidsohn

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

Read more FGP essays by Jon Magidsohn.

Last Thanksgiving

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

By Johanna Gohmann

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.

Courtesy Johanna Gohmann
Courtesy Johanna Gohmann

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.

Courtesy Johanna Gohmann
Courtesy Johanna Gohmann

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

Read more FGP essays by Johanna Gohmann.

The Motel Mansion

hawaii
By Waifer X/Flickr

By Sobrina Tung Pies

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.

Read more FGP essays by Sobrina Tung Pies.

The Road Trip

road-trip
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Karen Collier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t watch ‘Family Feud.’”

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about chicken?” Doug asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“What about my puffs?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Granny,” I yelled to get her attention.

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

“Want to go to Midland?”

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blinked hard. What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

At some point during the night, Granny came awake.

“Remember we have to get those pictures tomorrow.”

I pretended to be asleep.

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

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

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

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

“Thrown away.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shook her head and finished her waffle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Absolutely not,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

“Me, too.”

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

“I know.”

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

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

•••

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

Southern Man

By Amy C. Evans/Flickr
By Amy C. Evans/Flickr

By Terry Barr

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…”

—Gilbert O’Sullivan

 

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.

 

Read more FGP essays by Terry Barr.