Marlena Maduro Barafcame to the United States from her native Panama and studied at Occidental College in Los Angeles and Parsons School of Design in New York. She is principal at a small interior design firm in New York. She also worked as Editor with the McGraw-Hill Book Company and has been an active member of the Sarah Lawrence Writing Institute community. Her work has been published in the Westchester Review. La Misa is an excerpt from her memoir, working title, Mami. You can contact Marlena at https://twitter.com@MarlenaBaraf
One by one, every girl in the queue to the chapel reaches into the basket by the open double doors and plucks a head covering, a round doily the size of a yarmulke pinched with a single bobby pin that does not discredit the sweetness of the tulle and the lace. I attach mine, and I walk in.
We adjust our eyes to the softened light. Opposite the altar, at the foot of the room, is a stone bowl half-filled with holy water. Girls that remember dip their middle fingers into the liquid and touch their foreheads to begin the sign of the cross. En el nombre del padre, at the forehead, del hijo, high on the chest, del espíritu santo, left shoulder, then right. Nuns are singing Gregorian chants in the balcony. Voices of angels rain down on our heads. The procession continues down the center aisle. There is a single row of pews on the right and the same on the left. The younger grades settle closest to the metal grille near the altar, the older, high school girls at the back. We genuflect. We slide into each pew from the center axis towards the wall until every pew is filled. Before the priest begins, we kneel onto the wood ledge that is attached to the seat in front, clutching the petite, shiny white misales with white-ribbon tails peering out from gold-edged pages. After the right number of minutes we sit, and the mass begins.
Because the prayers are in Latin, the bells serve to alert us that it is time for communion. Voicing rhythmic incantations, the priest lifts the round wafer above his forehead, consecrating it, pronouncing it the body of Christ. The altar boys agitate the bells. Girls who have confessed earlier squeeze past the rest of us in the pew toward the center aisle. They line up quietly in dutiful intention. They approach the priest at the grille and kneel before him.
Panama, ninety-five percent Catholic, had been a crossroads for trade for hundreds of years, and panameños were accustomed to people of many sorts. But if someone asked, “¿eres judía?” you pulled in a short breath and gulped it down. The word for Jew in Spanish is harsh, the letter “j” sounding like an “h” in English, thrown from the throat across the upper palate. Hebrea was a better, softer word, “h” in Spanish having no sound. Los hebreos were the people of the book, children of Abraham and Moses, receivers of the Commandments
“¡Tú mataste a Jesús!” I was sitting in the back of the bus with no way to escape. I still remember the burning words. Eight-year-old Camila had twisted her head to face me. “You killed Jesus! (Small flames circled my spongy heart.) The school bus fell silent. We knew the damning fact. We had learned it in la clase de Religión: Judas the traitor turned in the son of God. Judas the betrayer, un judío.
On any one year there were only three or four of us at Las Esclavas –always cousins. We were a tiny group of Jews in Panama and those of us niñas who attended Las Esclavas had to go to mass before classes like the other girls. The Catholic orders had the only good schools in Panama then. Some of my tíos chose to send their children to public school in the Canal Zone where they would study in English, but had no religious instruction. Papi wanted us to be “panameñas primero.”
Our adviser at school was madre Concepción, a massive woman covered completely except for the exposed shield of her face–and her hands. She and the other nuns at school wore thick black robes in ample folds held at the waist by a band, reaching down to the tips of their shoes. I noticed the shoes. The squeaky, black-leather, laced shoes were radical. Our mamis wore pretty three-inch heels. The nuns sailed down the halls surrounding the courtyard, their dark headdress with a white band across the forehead making their skin very pink. They were a different sort of creature. And they were kind.
We, the Spanish Jews, were an established community in Panama, older than the country. Almost rabiblancos, the “white-tailed” elite of Panama. Nevertheless I studied Catecismo and Religión and learned about Purgatory, where souls with venial sins could take up temporary residence.
“Madre, can Jews go to Purgatory?” I asked.
“Not unless they convert.”
“But if you are good and you die before you convert, what happens? ¿Vas al infierno?”
“Sí,” replied my teacher. “The rule is that if you have heard of Jesus and don’t convert, you cannot be saved.”
“What about Limbo? Can Jews go to Limbo?”
“If there was a baby not Catholic who died before he had ever heard the name of Jesus, he can go to Limbo.”
Where did I belong? How could these madres who knew my family believe that we would skid down in a giant chute to burn forever with the Devil?
I became a pest at Catechism. Still, the story of Jesus and the tactile wisdom of the tradition were irresistible. There was a glossy rosary bead for each prayer. Our fingers touched the prayer when we recited each sonorous call and riposte. My sister Patricia and I succumbed. We snuck pink rosary beads into the house and said prayers at night under our bed sheets. When Patricia worried about a boy, she prayed to the Virgin Mary.
“I want to convert,” I confessed to Madre Concepción. “I want to be a nun like you.” The madres held me back for a while then arranged a meeting with a priest in the front room where they welcomed parents. I poured out my anguish, “Padre, me quiero convertir. Me quiero convertir.”
“Niña,” he said, “espere un poco. Wait until you are older. You have a fine tradition in your Judaísmo.¿Sábes?”
A girl sticks out her fleshy tongue to receive the gift, a small piece of the unyeasted wafer; then she stands up with lowered eyes. She brings her fingers together and drops her chin to contain the presence that is now inside of her and returns to us, walking slowly along a new tributary to the outer end of our pew. The girl steps in, and the rest of us, subdued and empty, slide toward the center to give her space.
I listen for the angel voices. The priest concludes the mass. “Ite. Missa est,” he declares, “the mass is ended,” and we file out to begin our day.
I long for communion.
Because I didn’t grow up in her time, I never understood my grandmother’s disquiet. At the end of a school day when I might come to visit, my doting abuelita would look up at me with her troubled-blue questioning eyes, “¿con quién andas?” Who are your friends?
She never spelled it out, but I knew that I was meant to unearth an ‘Arias,’ a ‘Vallarino,’ or another prominent name in Catholic society. I resisted revealing the names of my friends, friends that did match what my Amamá longed for. My friends were my friends, Anita, Marce, Ceci, mis amigas católicas who lived not too far from mi casa de piedra on Calle Uruguay.
Were Amamá’s worries miedos de un pasado antiguo? Were they lingering fears resulting from the Jews’ banishment from Spain centuries ago, fears that coursed in the family blood? Why was mi abuelita so bothered?
At the close of Yom Kippur we gather at tía Connie and tío Stanley’s house to break the fast. As if we need reminding that we are a clan, all the tíos and primos come together. Even the Motta brothers who married Catholic women and raised their children Catholic come to break the fast. At my aunt’s white draped table we reach for the tall silver carafe–hot to the touch–steaming with coffee boiled in cinnamon water. A pretty, distended bowl holds a glossy mound of egg yolks and sugar that have been whipped to a frenzy. We dip a large silver spoon into the white, and we wait while the thick cream drops into our coffee cups with a slow-moving plop. There are not many rules. Ham but not pork. We eat shellfish now. My country is the land of the shrimp. Distant from other Jewish groups, we are on our own.
Our sinagoga is a long rectangle with stucco walls and a turret in the middle. On Avenida Cuba con Calle treinta y seis. Tíos, it’s almost all tíos. There is a minyan every Friday night. The same ten or twelve alternate the roles of presidente, vicepresidente o tesorero. One De Castro, one Fidanque, one Motta, Cardoze, Maduro, Lindo or Toledano–reading at the podium in their guayaberas. In earlier decades it would have been different men with the same last names, a game of musical chairs. It would have been one or the next and then the same one again sitting on the red leather chairs facing the family in the pews, next to the Ark holding the Torá and the Panama flag on its slender pedestal.
An elder reads a prayer for the “Reader” and the group responds with their lines marked “Congregation” or “Chorus” from the blue books stored in slots behind the pew in front. They drone their rumble in English, skipping the prayers in Hebrew except for the Shema and the Kaddish (naturally using the Spanish inflections, Cheh-má and Kahdeesh).
I hear the soft thunder of the congregation in the double height above my head. The bells and tiny concave metal discs dance to their own music on the silver staff holding the scrolls of the Torá.
At the leftover end of the synagogue las tías organize a school on Saturday mornings, a one-room schoolhouse for primos. It is a long and slender void dotted with square folding tables with tubular legs that keep pieces of your flesh when you click them in place. In this shiftable room the adults also meet after Friday night service for a glass of Manishevitz and little chunks of pound cake. We sing from the red hymnal and act stories from the Bible. I win an award for learning Hebrew words that I do not understand.
During World War I a chaplain assigned to the Jewish enlisted men in the Canal Zone introduced the small Panama clan to the Union Prayerbook used by the Reform congregations in the United States. The group completed a synagogue in l935 and hired their first rabbi, a young graduate from the Hebrew Union College, still clinging to Spanish and Portuguese chants. The rabbi served for five years. There were others, but the community was not able to hold on to a rabbi for long.
I imagine that my tíos looked upon the new rabbi’s talit with long tendrils of fringe at the ends and felt connected to an ancient and venerable wisdom. He made them think and called them to moral action. I experienced an occasional visiting rabbi, and that’s how I saw it. I didn’t have many details.
We were a tiny minority living in a small nation with a capital city set next to the Pacific Ocean, warm and open, an expansive country. We had little reason to complain, and we were careful not to offend.
Anne Liu Kellor is a Seattle-based writer and teacher who has received support from Hedgebrook, 4Culture, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Jack Straw Productions. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the anthology Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), The Los Angeles Review, and on her blog: heartradical.blogspot.com. Anne’s memoir, Searching for the Heart Radical, follows her quest for language, love, and belonging as she migrated between China and America during her twenties, and is now in search of a publisher.
I met Zhang Jie at a noodle shop in Markam, Sichuan province, China. When she walked in wearing a dark blue sun hat, a yellow windbreaker, jeans, Reeboks, and a giant black camera bag across her shoulder, I could tell that she too was not from around here. To my surprise, she sat down next to me and introduced herself. Soon I learned that she was from the coastal city of Guangzhou, where she’d just finished studying at the university. Since Zhang Jie could speak a little English, we switched back and forth between languages. I told her I was from America and had just graduated from college myself. My mother was Chinese, and my father, American, I explained, so I grew up speaking some Chinese. Now, I was looking for a job in Chengdu, but had wanted to get away from the crowds for a few days. I’d also hoped to find the parents of a Tibetan friend I’d met in the States, but when I’d called the number I had, it hadn’t gone through.
As we introduced ourselves, a Tibetan monk came in the restaurant, begging, and I dug in my bag for small change. The Tibetan shopkeeper and Zhang Jie shot him scornful looks.
“Don’t give him money,” she whispered to me in English.
“Why not?” I asked.
“They don’t do anything. All they do is beg.”
I withdrew my hand from my purse and slurped my noodle soup.
“Are you going to Seda?” Zhang Jie asked.
“Seda,” she repeated, and told me of a monastery that was a day’s journey from Markam. Seda. I hadn’t planned on seeking out any remote Tibetan monasteries this weekend, but I was interested. In fact, part of the reason why Chengdu appealed to me as a place to teach and live was because of its proximity to these Tibetan regions. Ever since I’d traveled through these remote areas of Sichuan, Gansu, and Qinghai province on my first trip to China, three years ago in 1996, I’d longed to return.
“I tried to go to Seda today,” Zhang Jie continued, “but there were no buses. There’s a bus tomorrow morning at six. I just sat in my room and watched TV all day– there’s nothing to see here. Why else would you come all this way?”
She seemed to be suggesting I come with her. I wasn’t sure we were the best match in traveling partners, but why not? I’d feel disappointed if I just turned around and headed back to Chengdu after a full day’s journey to get here.
“Okay,” I decided. “I’ll go.”
Early the next morning I boarded the mini-bus and took a window seat near the front behind Zhang Jie, where I knew I’d be less squished by those who would sit on stools or bags in the aisles. Soon the bus was full, and the passengers were mostly Khampas, Tibetans from the Kham, the southeastern region of Tibet, who are known for their fierce brazenness and horse-riding skills. I recognized them from the bright strands of red cloth they braided into their hair and then twisted atop their heads, men and women alike. They stared at me fearlessly with a mixture of amusement and curiosity.
I smiled when I caught their eyes, but with Zhang Jie near me I felt less outgoing than I might have been on my own. Instead, I stared out the window as our bus rattled over rocky dirt roads, winding higher across the plateau, passing empty grasslands devoid of human signs except for a lone white tent here and there, a tuft of smoke rising from within. Herds of yaks grazed and romped about, their thick bushy tails swishing from behind. The Tibetans in the back gave out a little cry each time we hurtled over a particularly large hole, which sent them bouncing up in their seats. All the Tibetans sat in the back of the bus… somehow this could not be a coincidence. I wanted the Tibetans to know that I was not like the Chinese, that I did not see them as barbaric or inferior as was so often the case, but I was not so eager to attempt to explain my views to Zhang Jie in my basic, broken Chinese.
The bus chortled on for hours, stopping only once at a little no-name shack in the middle of nowhere for lunch. Here, I sat at a table with a few Tibetan men, offering them some of my loose green tea as we each filled our thermoses with hot water. When Zhang Jie walked over, she looked at them uncomfortably and suggested we sit at an empty table. I obliged. After lunch, when I gave our remaining food to a Tibetan beggar, Zhang Jie looked at me strangely.
As the afternoon wore on, the bus grew silent and some passengers slept, while I stared out the dusty window at the miles of endless grasslands, framed by mountains on all sides. Finally, as the sun sank low into the sky, I saw my first sign of the monastery: a lone monk walked at the edge of the road in a long burgundy robe, glancing up to meet my eyes as we rattled past. Up ahead, I spotted a row of white chotens or stupas that marked the edge of a path that wound out of sight into a valley. Seda. Other passengers began to stir; we were here. The bus stopped and a few people got off, the driver helping them to retrieve their bags from the rooftop. Zhang Jie turned to me. “We’ll stay in the town tonight and go to the monastery in the morning.”
At the guesthouse, I let Zhang Jie do the talking. She gave the Chinese woman proprietor her shenfenzhen, the identity card all Chinese must show before registering.
“What about her shenfenzhen?” the stodgy woman gestured to me suspiciously.
“One shenfenzhen is enough, isn’t it? You don’t need both of ours,” Zhang Jie insisted.
The woman shook her head, “I need both of your shenfenzhens.”
Zhang Jie sighed as if this were an unusual request. “She’s a huaren,” she
explained. “She doesn’t have a shenfenzhen.” Huaren. Overseas Chinese. Zhang Jie hadn’t said meiguoren, American. This way there was a blood affinity established. She’s one of us.
The woman shook her head. “Must have shenfenzhen. Foreigners can’t stay here.”
Zhang Jie sighed again. “Come on,” she pleaded, “it’s only for a few nights. Anyway, her mother is Chinese.”
Suddenly grateful to be traveling with Zhang Jie, I admired her feisty, uneasily daunted character, and tried my best to appear pleasant and non-threatening.
Hao le, hao le. “Fine, fine, write down your name,” the woman thrust out a form, then took our money, grabbed a ring of keys from a nail near the door, and led us to our room.
Inside, an old rusty stove sat between two hard twin beds on a bare wooden floor. I wandered off to go find the toilets, and returned to find Zhang Jie talking with a tall, young Chinese man in wire-rimmed glasses and a sporty red and black jumpsuit. “This is Xiao Mao,” she said. He rose to shake my hand limply, meeting my eyes for a moment before quickly looking away. Zhang Jie explained that he was from Tianjin, a big city near Beijing. I sat down on my bed and listened as they talked, picking up bits and pieces of his story. Xiao Mao had first come to Seda two years ago and stayed for a whole year, building a little wooden cabin and studying Tibetan Buddhism. Last year, he’d gone home to save up more money, and now he was back for a short visit. He spoke quietly, his motions and expressions restrained. I’d never met a Chinese before who was studying Tibetan Buddhism. I wanted to ask Xiao Mao what had led him to Buddhism and to Seda, but I wasn’t even sure how to say Buddhism in Chinese. Zhang Jie seemed animated and engaged, speaking faster and with far more complicated words than she used with me.
After Xiao Mao left, Zhang Jie made a fire in our little wood stove, and we talked while huddling under our filthy bed quilts and layers of clothing. This was the first time that I’d shared a room with a Chinese traveler, since usually we were not allowed to stay with them in the dorm rooms at hotels. Zhang Jie was a business major, whereas I’d studied writing, art, and dance. I tried to explain how at my college we were also allowed to create independent contracts and travel or study subjects of our own choosing. “Did you do this?” she asked. “No,” I lied. How could I tell her about the peace march I went on for Tibet? I feared that without the vocabulary to get into my views in depth, telling her this would only prove to Zhang Jie that Americans are always chastising the Chinese. For now, it was easier just to let Zhang Jie believe that she had invited me to a place with which I had no prior connection.
The next morning we rose early and boarded a black jeep with Xiao Mao, a Tibetan monk, and the driver. The sky was clear and blue, the hills blanketed with fresh green. We rode back to the chotens we’d passed the day before, then turned to head up the bumpy dirt road to the monastery, thick plumes of dust rising behind us. Suddenly, as we turned a corner, the hillside was covered with small wooden structures: quarters of the monks and nuns. Long draping cloths with Tibetan symbols hung in place of doors in the cabins. Xiao Mao said there were one thousand monks and nuns studying here, an impressive number for a faith only cautiously tolerated in this country. I knew that there had been a resurgence of religious activity in the last ten or fifteen years, and the government was more relaxed in these Tibetan areas of China as opposed to in the “Tibetan Autonomous Region,” or what most people think of as the official Tibet, but still these numbers surprised me.
As we stepped out of the dusty jeep, a few monks stared at us curiously. Xiao Mao led us around a complex of temples, cabins, and shack-like wooden stores that sold pictures of the monastery’s lama, books of scriptures, bowls of instant noodles, snacks, and bottles of Pepsi. Many of the temples were newly built or being repaired by monks who busily hammered, sawed, and painted Tibetan symbols on wooden beams in bright red, yellow, green, blue, fuchsia, and white. At the top of a hill, a small group of pilgrims circled an unfinished temple, its roof partially covered with a shining plate of gold.
After touring the area, Xiao Mao led us into a dark, shack-like restaurant to eat some steamed meat dumplings, known as momos in Tibetan. We sat down on little stools before a low wooden table, and Zhang Jie began asking Xiao Mao more questions about the monastery. I couldn’t be sure I was understanding correctly, but I thought he said that the monastery had been bombed during the Cultural Revolution, which didn’t surprise me since most monasteries in Tibet had been destroyed in one way or another. Apparently the government was now allowing Seda’s recent growth to unfold with only a watchful eye.
“How many Han Chinese did you say are studying here?” I asked Xiao Mao.
“Over three-hundred maybe.”
“And it’s okay for them to come here?”
“Yes. There is a special temple for the Han students where the instructions are given in Mandarin.”
“So, the government allows this? They don’t care?”
“Yes, they know. Sometimes they come around and make them tear down some of the cabins. They say it’s for health reasons. But then they go away.”
“Yes. The stream that comes from the mountains is becoming polluted.”
I nodded, thinking of the piles of plastic bags, bottles, and waste I’d seen.
Xiao Mao looked at me closely. “Why are you so interested? Are you Buddhist?”
“No,” I shook my head, my cheeks growing hot. “I’m just curious.” I still didn’t call myself a Buddhist, even though I identified strongly with Buddhist teachings.
“I can take you to visit the lama here if you’d like,” Xiao Mao said to us.
Zhang Jie quickly shook her head. I felt a tug of longing to meet the teacher and holy man that presided over Seda, but I too shook my head, not wanting to be an opportunistic Westerner of dubious faith, coveting an interesting encounter with a “real Tibetan lama.” But mostly, it was too hard to imagine trying to explain to Xiao Mao and Zhang Jie all my layers of belief and disbelief.
After we’d eaten our fill of hard stale dumplings, Zhang Jie asked Xiao Mao about sky burials. He nodded. Yes. He had visited them before.
“Do you know what a sky burial is?” Zhang Jie turned to me.
Tian zhang? I wasn’t sure what this word was.
“You know, when Tibetans die and leave the bodies for the birds?”
“Oh, yes,” I nodded.
“Can you take us to one?” Zhang Jie asked Xiao Mao.
He hesitated before nodding, “They have them every day. We can go later this afternoon if you’d like.”
Zhang Jie turned to me, “Do you want to go?”
“Are you sure it’s okay?” I glanced at Xiao Mao.
“It’s fine,” he said, staring down at his hands. “They don’t mind if people watch.”
When we stepped out of the restaurant, a morning prayer session was coming to an end. Monks and nuns spilled out of a nearby temple’s doorway. Zhang Jie and I walked over to take a peek inside. All around an open courtyard, the railings of the wooden balcony above were wound with strands of pink, red, and yellow fake flowers. Chanting music played from a loudspeaker affixed to the banister above; a few older pilgrims grasping prayer wheels stood with their leathery faces upturned, listening. The courtyard buzzed with small clusters of monks with shorn heads—no, I soon realized, they were nuns.
Zhang Jie and I drifted apart taking photos, while the nuns chattered noisily and watched us as we approached. They nodded and gathered close together when I motioned to my camera and asked permission in Chinese. Zhao xiang? Some smiled shyly, others posed stiffly, and one nun stared brazenly, almost smirking, obviously entertained by our visit. I could tell that we were not the first tourists that had ever come through, and yet there probably hadn’t been many.
A small nun, maybe seven or eight years old, grabbed my hand and tugged. With one hand, I took a photo of her face staring up at me, her hand holding my hand, and my arm outstretched. Her dark brown eyes gazed unblinking into my camera. I glanced at Zhang Jie busy snapping away on the other side of the courtyard, then took out a photo of the Dalai Lama from my pocket and slipped it to the little nun. Snatching it, she ran off to show it to others. I couldn’t be sure, but I sensed she didn’t know who it was. No one mobbed me afterwards, begging for more. Could they have never seen the Dalai Lama’s image? I knew it was forbidden in the temples, although I thought most Tibetans would still have seen it before. But maybe not, especially in this part of Sichuan, in these Tibetan areas of China that had been long assimilated, more removed from the politicization of Lhasa. I walked around slowly, taking more photos and passing out a few pictures to a similar muted appreciation, and then it was time to go.
Xiao Mao led us away from the monastery to a path that traveled around a hillside to another valley on the other side. As we approached the sky burial site from afar, I could see a small gathering of Tibetans and a horse grazing at their side. A waft of smoke drifted in the air from somewhere near a small white choten with prayer flags draped around it. As we drew closer, I was hit by a thick, pungent slightly sweet smell—bodies and decay. Juniper. A few heads turned our way, but no one paid us much attention. I tried to take slow, careful steps, not wanting my presence to be more obtrusive than it was. Then I saw the vultures.
They were so huge I mistook them at first for goats. They waited on the hillside above. Zhang Jie, Xiao Mao and I sat near the base of the hill, keeping our distance from the family members and the sky burial site, yet still close enough that I could see clearly the two corpses that lay in a small crumpled heap on the ground. Their tufts of matted black hair, their ribs exposed: a young man and an old woman, their sex and age still roughly discernable. Tattered remnants of old clothes lay scattered nearby, their colors faded.
A Tibetan man in a monk’s robes moved back and forth casually between the bodies, carrying a leg here, an arm there, placing them on a flat rock and then hacking them into smaller pieces. The man moved slowly, nonchalantly, as if he were going about the actions of an ordinary day. Which he was. This was his job.
I stared. With the exception of seeing my uncle in a funeral casket when I was little, made-up and pasty in full-suit attire, this was the first time I’d ever seen a dead body. Zhang Jie and Xiao Mao moved in closer to stand near a small group of people up front, but I stayed back on the hillside, near the others, family members I assumed, who sat clustered in two small groups. I didn’t sense in them the same solemn nature that one would expect from a funeral service, but rather, their reclining relaxed postures made it feel like they could’ve been out on a picnic. Knees pulled up in front of me, I noticed the grass beneath me was dotted with delicate yellow and white flowers. When I looked closer, I saw it was also scattered with feathers and small shards of bone.
I covered my mouth and nose with my sleeve and watched as the burial man shuffled back and forth. My eyes insistently returned to rest on the corpses, as if trying to convince myself I was really staring at what had just a week ago been two live human beings. I didn’t know much about sky burials, only that it was a ritual as normal as cremation is to us in the West. Did the Tibetans see this ritual as an offering, I wondered, a continuation of the food chain, a relationship between the cycles of life and death? Did they believe the birds would carry the spirits of the dead to the heavens? Or had the spirits already departed in the days before? But Buddhism doesn’t even believe in a fixed, unchanging spirit or soul. The Buddha taught that what we refer to as our “selves” is a combination of physical and mental aggregates, something like energies that are constantly changing from one moment to the next. If there was never one fixed, unchanging self or soul to begin with, then there could be no fixed person or self to be reborn. Instead, life and death is a continuous unbroken series of change.
Buddhism, of course, had changed since it spread to Tibet from India around the year 800, morphing with the gods and rituals of Tibet’s native Bon religion. I had no idea what the Tibetans at Seda actually believed in or what they trusted would happen to their loved ones when they died. I also didn’t know then that sky burials were a ritual that had grown out of practical necessity: there is a high death rate in Tibet, little firewood for cremation, and scarce land suitable for burial in the ground. Sky burials were thus a logical solution, believed to have emerged sometime after Buddhism was introduced to Tibet.
At some point, the vultures began to stir. I hadn’t noticed the burial man give a definitive signal, but somehow, the birds knew he was ready. Before I knew what was happening, they began to rush down the hillside—half flying, half running and hopping—leaping with an ancient, pre-historic gait.
“My god!” I cried as I jumped to my feet, hurrying out of their way. Squawking and vying for position and space, they swooped in to pick and tear at scraps of flesh. Zhang Jie began taking pictures and I took out my camera as well. Some birds waited at the edge of the flock. Others dove right into the center, the greediest or hungriest of them all.
The burial man turned towards us and waved angrily. “No pictures,” Xiao Mao said quietly. Of course. I knew better and guiltily put my camera away.
After about five minutes of watching the bird’s frenzied feeding from the side, the burial man wandered back into their midst. They scattered, allowing him to retrieve some pieces of bone and smash them even more. Was the last thing he produced the head? He cracked something with his mallet that sounded like a skull, then threw it towards the birds who dove in with increased fervor. Zhang Jie took out her camera to sneak in a few more photos. I motioned to her, annoyed. Who cares, she shrugged. He’s not looking.
The whole ritual lasted about thirty minutes. Afterward, the birds began to fly into the sky, circling in wide arcs above the valley. Hundreds of them, circling. As the vultures flew off, the family members rose and began to disperse. A young couple approached us, leading a horse behind them. They nodded and gave us each a piece of hard candy. Another part of the ritual? Candy for the attendees. I took off the wrapper and sucked on the sweetness, the smell of death lingering all around.
As the three of us left, Zhang Jie lagged behind Xiao Mao and me, taking more pictures of the sky burial site and the valley. I felt a weight in my chest for my own photos, and Zhang Jie’s flippant shrug had rubbed in my shame all the more. What did she see in this ritual? Some savage act of uncivilized beasts? Something she could show her friends back home so they would be impressed by her bravery to have watched such a disgusting act of primitivism? But was I really that different? I knew I could not blame Zhang Jie for my desire to take my own photos. I resented her influence on me, and yet in many ways, we were the same—swooping in to ingest this world with our hungry eyes and questions, wanting to take a piece of it home so we could try to remember what we saw here and felt. A moment of reckoning: this is what will happen to us—whether we choose to face it or not.
I let myself drift away from Zhang Jie, not wanting to wait for her as she continued to take photos. Xiao Mao walked silently ahead. I wondered if he regretted taking us here, and our need to document and preserve, remaining one layer removed from direct experience.
“Look!” Zhang Jie called out as she ran to catch up with us, pointing up into the sky. I looked. The clouds had parted to shape the perfect arc of a bird with its wings outstretched. I couldn’t resist. One last shot.
But I should have known better. When I developed the pictures months later, the sky and the clouds hovered overhead, but the bird was nowhere to be found.
Linda Saslow is a 2013 graduate of the USC Master of Professional Writing Program where she focused on Creative Nonfiction. Linda works as an art teacher and freelance writer in Fullerton, California. Her essays have been published in The Cleveland Jewish News, Lost Coast Review, The Fullertonian, Shaker Life Magazine, and The Fullerton Observer. She is currently working on a screenplay on the fast-paced sport of Women’s Skeleton at the 2002 Winter Olympics titled “Speedsuits.”
The Shiksa Sisterhood
“So he’s bringing home his girlfriend tomorrow. Another shiksa,” Joan said, my raven-haired, born and bred Jewish friend who came into my life sometime in college, so long ago. “It’s always the blondes with him.”
“I have to object to the slur,” I said. “I’m a shiksa too.”
She stared blankly at her wine glass, unable to take back the insult. When I took the plunge into the ritual bath of a mikveh at age twenty-five and started calling myself a Jew, I innocently dreamed the religious and secular world would accept me unconditionally as a Jewish woman, wife, and especially as a mother. Now nearly two decades later, I’m reassessing what that all really means.
The definition of shiksa is: “A Gentile girl or woman, especially one who has attracted a Jewish man. The term derives from the Hebrew word “sheketz,” meaning the flesh of an animal deemed taboo by the Torah. Since a Jewish man marrying a non-Jewish woman is taboo, this word applies to her too.” (Urban Dictionary)
As Joan offered me a second glass of wine, she said, “People can’t actually ask you if you’ve converted. It’s forbidden to ask. How do they know?”
“You must live in a world where no one is rude. I don’t live in that world.”
It is easy to guess I’ve not been born and bred in a Jewish household. Among other tells, each and every year I forget tradition and light the Hanukkah menorah from left to right instead of right to left, mimicking the way the Hebrew language is read. And, I look positively Irish, red hair and freckles, sigh.
On a warm California spring day in 1995, I, nude as the day I was born, took a prayerful plunge into the Los Angeles University of Judaism’s mikvah, an indoor ritual bath with cobalt-blue tiled steps that descended into warm chest-high spring water. Emerging back into the Earth’s atmosphere, I’d become Jewish. Like Charlotte in “Sex in the City,” I dunked in the mikvah to spiritually cleanse myself before marrying the man I love. The reality that my conversion only mattered to a small group of Jews in the Western world beyond the ritual bath’s walls was an insignificant detail to me at the instant I clicked the spiritual reset button.
My high dive off the religious plank of American Christianity was not only for love. I wanted to swim far away from the hypocritical Protestant family that raised me. My people espouse Christ’s forgiveness while finding themselves unable to turn the other cheek in their day-to-day lives. Also, they are betting on the rapture to see the divine, and I’m not so patient.
A few weeks before the mikvah, I had to face a beit din – or, rather, an evening quiz show of three jovial rabbis assembled in one of their living rooms drinking diet pop. I had to prove I had learned something in the University of Judaism’s semester-long class.
I answered the obvious question right: I would raise my children as Jews. As for the rest, I wavered. Regarding the kosher law against mixing meat and dairy, I defended turkey and Swiss, contending that poultry doesn’t lactate. They asked about my feelings about Israel, and I started reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the stars and stripes. Still, I was good to go.
What I did was not unique. Many Americans have entered into marriages and cultures not of their birth in recent years. According to the landmark October 2013 Survey of Jewish Americans, interfaith marriages make up fully 50 percent of unions among Reform Jews. As for millennial Jewish offspring, 48 percent of their parents are engaged in mixed marriages.
In the twentieth century, the snag that sent many shiksa fiancées, like me, off to a semester of conversion class followed by a dip in the spring water mikvah was the fact that a rabbi required a bride’s conversion to officiate on her wedding day. Back then, rabbis wanted to avoid an interfaith ceremony.
This mandate appears to be relaxing as the ethos of the new century emerges. Chelsea Clinton’s still a Methodist and the rumble from the Reform pulpit was overwhelmingly positive when she married Marc Mezvinsky under a chuppah canopy. Neither lightning bolts nor thunder ensued. I remember the day well; my youngest daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was also on July 31, 2010. Chelsea’s ketubah, a written Jewish wedding contract, was celebrated, not cursed.
Likewise, Ashley Biden, daughter of Vice President Joe Biden, married Jewish surgeon Howard Krein in a Roman Catholic Church on June 2, 2012, but the ceremony incorporated Jewish traditions. A rabbi officiated along with a priest. Marking the end of a wedding ceremony by the groom breaking a glass with his foot might just become more and more common, even under a crucifix, as Jewish intermarriage surges this century.
Every temple I have joined in the past two decades has what is called a “Sisterhood,” a women’s group that comes together for socializing, entertainment, and nominal community service projects. In those same temples and Jewish parent groups across North America there’s another, unofficial “Shiksa Sisterhood” hovering below the radar. We shiksas understand each other’s sincerity, in spite of our faux pas. Each of us wants to raise our children with a Jewish identity. We wholeheartedly want our kids to be included in the Jewish club that their fathers hold dear, no questions asked. Having the kids learn a bit of Hebrew to become a Bar or Bat Mitzvah is a good idea. A teen’s free trip to Israel can be the prize at the end of the carpools. (Spoiler: Your daughter might come home with an Israel Defense Forces sweatshirt.)
Whether in my native Southern California or back in Ohio, no matter what reform temple my family joins, in my experience, the shiksas manage to find each other. At my neighborhood shul in north Orange County, we shiksas could literally fill the temple’s social hall with a sorority as diverse as the chirping doll choir in Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World” musical boat ride. Today, I’m friendly with many women and men who have opted not to take the plunge, but still drop their kids off every week to learn a bit of Torah.
Shiksas today are not just the cookie-cutter blonde, buxom Scandinavian starlets paraded on stage of pop culture and in the Jewish mother’s mind as a romantic threat to her hunky sons. (Think “Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson Bloom” in “The Producers.”) The big news in the new millennium is that a growing number of shiksas are not Caucasian, let alone blonde and buxom. At my most recent congregation, the shiksas are Asian, Native American, Latino, and there is one solitary African-American lesbian. For me, this diversity is very good news.
A temple potluck that includes Malaysian eggplant, potato curry, and Argentinian flan appeals far more to me than the perennial kugel cook-off in Middle America’s synagogues. No one feels compelled to ask these ladies of color if they were born Jewish, so all those supposedly forbidden questions are out the window. I bet life is easier without the charade. Recently, I had to bolt the social hall when faced with an ear-piercing Texan chanteuse singing a gospel spoof satirically titled “Amazing Schmaltz.” Please. Really? “Amazing Grace” is a powerful and cherished spiritual hymn. I sang that song in Protestant Sunday school as a child, and it was no joke.
Yet a shiksa aims to please. I cook my matzo balls to the exact specifications that my mother-in-law learned from her mother-in-law. My Latina shiksa friend Ann Marie performs this culinary magic too, even though she’s never converted. Far be it from her to stop making her own family’s pork tamales for Christmas Eve. Why would she? They are some of the most delicious creations I have ever tasted.
I worship the Passover main dish recipe from the Cleveland Heights kosher butcher, aptly named Mr. Brisket. My vegetarian tsimmes is divine. And, I’ve learned to make gefilte fish loaf so perfectly that it rivals a four-star French restaurant’s fish terrine. Never mind that my in-laws sit around lamenting that they like the jarred fish balls in jellied broth from the Kosher section of the supermarket equally well. I have no fond memories of hockey pucks in fishy slime served cold with beet-red horseradish, so I prefer something that tastes fresh and that my kids will consent to eat.
What brings us shiksas together? What bonds us? Simply, at a basic level, we love a Jewish man or woman and most of us have married that person. Some, like myself, have converted. Others haven’t bothered to study up and are still dropping the kids off every Saturday. Even if our understanding is very rudimentary, we love the faith and the powerful family structure that Judaism promotes. The American Jewish world provides a great sense of pride and a warm nest of support for our children.
I don’t doubt that many brides’ conversions are of a spiritual nature rather than simply a way to check a box to assure the in-laws that Christmas trees and Santa Claus are off the December agenda. I’m a person who embraces the spiritual unknown, so my own conversion was not a simple dunk in the water to let me join a club.
I wanted my personal spirituality to be relevant. Judaism gave my husband’s family a foundation for living in the here and now. The Saslows aren’t waiting for salvation from a poorly lived life.
The deity I envision is amorphous and genderless. The Earth mother or Gaia, perhaps, but with powers reaching far beyond our own planet’s atmosphere, defying the physics of space and time. My new religious path offered me the liberty to shake the patriarchal Protestant shackle learned in Lutheran and Presbyterian Sunday school classes. Sure, Orthodox Judaism is still a male-dominated game, but Reform Judaism in North America, for the most part, is not chauvinistic these days. Female Rabbis and Cantors are everywhere you look in the Reform Jewish world. The Fullerton temple uses a gender-neutral prayer book and I wholeheartedly embrace this modern invention.
There are Jewish traditions that I find spiritually meaningful. I like to fast on Yom Kippur and do believe this small personal sacrifice helps me at least be mindful that I have erred in the past year. On Rosh Hashanah, I like to mark the Jewish New Year by performing tashlikh, a ritual where a prayer of repentance is recited while one casts one’s sins, symbolized by breadcrumbs, into a living body of water. I do a considerable amount of hands-on volunteer work as well as driving my children to get their own hands dirty for the benefit of others. I consider my unpaid toil to be my family’s own personal tikkun olam, or obligation to repair what is unjust the world. I may be new to the game, but I’m not half-assed about it. The majority of shiksas I know share a similar devotion.
This is not a resignation; it is simply a rumination that a shiksa’s cultural DNA is not as easy to drop as her drawers before a ritual bath. While what my friend Joan had said stung, her sentiment reflected a deep insecurity on her own part, and her words didn’t matter when I gazed back at my own big picture. I had gladly crossed my name off the wait list for the rapture, but Judaism hasn’t swallowed me whole in return. The comfort of the spiritually off-center “Shiksa Sisterhood” will always draw me back. The shiksas get it when the other sisters don’t. We’re in on the joke together.
Danusha Goska‘s new book Save Send Delete tells the true story of her debate about God, and love affair, with a prominent atheist author. Celebrity Larry Dossey, M.D. called her work: “Lyrical, forceful, inspiring…” Her blog is http://save-send-delete.blogspot.com.
I descended my neighbor’s outdoor, concrete flight of stairs, as I always do on Food Bank Day. I descended from bright August sun and stifling Indiana heat to the basement’s cool, dank dark. My neighbor had a new tenant; this tenant had cats; the basement, where the twice-monthly Food Bank was held, would reek. The aluminum shelves of canned food and cereal boxes would be lit by one overhead, sixty-watt bulb. There would be people like me there: poor, but decent. At last, I’d get to feel at home. As we filled our bags – even, on a bad week, with just five boxes of breakfast cereal and one can that had lost its label – we’d rejoice that we were receiving the weapons with which we could defeat hunger for the next two weeks, till the next Food Bank Day.
As I pulled back the screen door, I was happy with anticipation. But something had gone wrong. Three sweating white males crowded the readily available space and monopolized the air. In opposite corners were two women. The only sound: the scrape-scrape panting of a hound.
The younger, slutty woman was a stranger. I studied her. She was looking, alternately, absent and then focused and then absent again, like a black-and-white, rabbit-eared TV, oscillating between clarity and static.
I know the small woman in the other corner. She is a food bank regular. I don’t know her name. I know her enough to like her and care about her looking cornered and scared. She’s tiny. She wears worn but conservative skirts and blouses, even in this heat. She has neatly cut and permed hair. She has stopped me in the street, downtown, and told me that angels have informed her that she must relocate to Minneapolis.
She was snarling like a weasel trapped someplace rectangular and domestic; she was shooting looks and balling her fists. One of the guys, sleekly bare-chested, like the others, but with tattoos, was smirking. This guy was maybe in his early 20s. He was like a human razor: economically designed for mental or physical assault. He stood out as the leader of his own pack: another, blonde boy, the substantial hound, and the slutty blonde teen.
I’m big. Taller than the average woman, big-boned, and I walk a lot so I look sturdy. Before I got sick, and came to need food banks, I had been a teacher. I demanded, just with my body, “What’s going on here?” and I announced, with my body alone, “Whatever it is, it had better stop.” I created a passageway. The Small Woman took it, sliding behind me, bolting out the door and up the steps. I glared at the tribe of Smirkers. They deemed me unworthy of eye contact. But I knew that they had “heard” me. The Smirkers shot challenging looks at the third man. The third man suddenly seemed very alone, under their stare. He’s an organic farmer, another food bank regular, a man I know, and a new father, but I’m not sure of his name. Taking their cardboard boxes and their time, the Smirkers sauntered out, one by one. Even their hound was surly.
I was now alone with the Farmer in the basement. I looked at him. He volunteers his truck and his back to gathering food at drop-off points – restaurants, bakeries, supermarkets – and bringing it here. He was sweating from his exertion. He was fuming with righteous rage.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
“It’s not worth talking about,” the Farmer announced. He knows that this food bank, that materializes every other Wednesday, is as much my place as his. I, too, have unloaded the trucks full of expired soymilk and day-old loaves for our vegetarian, low-impact, food-bank-cum-lefty-political-powwow. I’ve put in hours in the dim light and cat-piss smell and instructed newcomers to sign the waiver (the back of a recycled sheet of paper, usually some political flier) stating that they won’t sue if they get sick from spoiled food. I, too, have adjured patrons to donate (into a coffee can with a slotted plastic lid) and begged them to volunteer (to carry stuff in off the trucks; to watch the many toddlers that accumulate underfoot like dust under a dresser, so that they don’t fall on the concrete stair). The Farmer doesn’t know my name, but he’s seen me do this work; he wasn’t dismissing me or being unkind. It’s just that he is a farmer, and his idea of what is worth talking about and my idea of what is worth talking about, are two very different ideas. But I was frustrated, and I was curious. My route back to serenity out of such a frightening stand-off is words. His route is silence.
We opened some boxes and stacked some shelves. We greedily pocketed some goodies for ourselves alone – I grabbed the lone can of mandarin oranges. We set some goodies aside for others: “Cashew butter! Jed will love that. His kid’s allergic to peanuts.” I love cashew butter, too, but I did the math in my head: added my hours of volunteer work, subtracted the mandarins, multiplied by Jed’s kid’s allergy, and found my balance could not cover the cashew butter.
Eventually, the Farmer did speak. The head Smirker, the dark haired one, with the tattoos, had once beaten up a woman friend of the Farmer’s. That Smirker – that batterer – had yet to repent. The Farmer wouldn’t have that. He needed the guy to publicly state, “I did it. It was my fault. I’ll never do it again” before he’d allow him back into the community.
The Smirker, fresh from prison following the battering, had showed up this morning at the food bank, surprising everyone. The Farmer, apparently thinking, at that moment of the Smirker’s arrival, that it was worth talking about, had dropped a comment about the Smirker’s rap sheet. “You smell like prison,” he had said. The Farmer repeated the line to me. He had meant this as an open door, he explained. The Smirker could apologize, and lose that smell.
The Smirker had been bending over a box. He stood up straight. He did not apologize. Rather, he stated, loudly and clearly, “Takes two to tango.” The Farmer was infuriated. But, he decided to just let it go. Some things are not worth talking about.
The Small Woman, as far as I could make out, had never even seen the Smirker before, and knew none of his story before she arrived. She’s just a food bank regular. She just walked in on it all. She just overheard. She just wanted to brain the Smirker, the batterer, the bare-chested man/boy ex-con with the tattoos – I never learned his name. She just itched to torpedo her small, marginal, girly body, which had maybe never done violence to anything more threatening than a pack of tofu, and make him, just, just, make him sorry, just show him what it’s like, make him know, make him … just, make him. The Farmer had had to hold her back. Everyone had been staring their challenges when I walked in.
“Mmm.” I nodded. I went back up the stairs and outside.
I found the Small Woman hyperventilating in front of a sun-drenched, bee-thick patch of Jerusalem artichoke growing in my neighbor’s yard. Careful of the bees, I approached. The sun was punishing. I squinted. I had no idea what the appropriate thing to say would be. I didn’t have much vocabulary here. The tough looking Smirkers in the basement hadn’t actually said anything after I’d entered – had they? The Small Woman had merely muttered. Had I understood everything the Farmer just told me? Had he told me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth? Whatever had just happened was something I was feeling, not reading. I didn’t even know the Small Woman’s name, either, though I’m sure that at one point she had told it to me. It was something Midwestern, like “Betty,” “Sue,” or “Jane,” not the kind of coastal name associated with those who speak with angels that you’d expect in Berkeley or The East Village. Not knowing what else to say, I settled on, “Do you want me to stick around?” My large body will never make a man fall in love with me, or land me the lead role in just about anything. But I have known, since kindergarten, that I can use it to make smaller people safer, when that is needed and I like the smaller people.
“No, no. That’s cool. I’m fine. I’m leaving Indiana soon anyway. I think I’m supposed to be in Minneapolis. That’s where my fate awaits me. But you know…no, no. I’m fine. That’s okay. You don’t have to stick around. That son of a bitch.” She was still hyperventilating.
I stuck around without calling it “sticking around,” until the Small Woman got into her rickety, perforated compact car and drove off.
If it’s a good haul, I get two weeks’ worth of food, or at least two weeks’ worth of something – bread, soy milk, cereal – on a given Food Bank Day. But then I need to transport the boxes back to my room. I usually do this by stationing myself next to my boxes of food and gazing hopefully at other food bank patrons as they pass me, returning to their jalopies. I never have to ask. They ask me. And they do go out of their way.
The Smirker approached. I could smell his sweat. I could hear the air bruising the thick, dry sycamore leaves above my head. He sized up my load. “Come on,” he said to me, with a jerk of his head toward his rusted Caddy. “Get the dog in the backseat,” he directed this to the younger, blond guy, the deputy Smirker. “Get her boxes in the trunk. Get that shit out of the way,” he said to the blonde girl. “Here. Sit here. Where you going? Okay. I know the way.”
I sat next to him in the front seat. I was afraid.
I wasn’t afraid of physical assault. I’ve been there and done that so many times, from both ends, that maybe nothing scares me less than flying fists, which I know is not a healthy or normal response. I was afraid of being awkward. I was afraid of saying something stupid. I was afraid of being struck dumb, indicting him with a silence so icy it could only be understood as, “I’m a woman and I’ve been beat up and I think scumbags like you should have your balls cut off and shoved down your throat. You hillbilly gangsta geek, you’ll never get a decent job in your life, ever; I’m better than you, and I’m taking your ride, but I will not talk to you.” I was afraid of saying something school teacher-y, Politically Correct, “Oh, so you are a batterer, how nice, and do you have other hobbies? Everything is beautiful in its own way.” I was afraid of failing, of not being equipped, of not being cool. I was so focused on adrenaline and ego that if a Hoosier had cartwheeled naked in front of the car, I would have missed it.
Then I realized that my focus was pathetic. So I drew my focus away from my fear. Lacking any other handy targets for my racing brain, I folded my hands in my lap, as our nuns used to encourage us to do when we prayed silently at our school desks, and, just, sat, quiet, listening, seeing, and waiting, making myself ready for the voice of God.
It was the Smirker who spoke. “I am not seen.”
Someone nodded ascent; maybe the deputy smirker, the out-of-focus girl, or the hound jammed into the backseat with three-people-and-a-dog’s-two-week haul of foodstuffs. I thought I heard some kind of “Amen” back there. I looked at the man/boy holding the steering wheel.
“I’m seen as a label. I refuse to be a label.”
His biggest complaint was not that the Farmer rejected him, pretty much ensuring that his post-prison readjustment would have to proceed without benefit of the only food bank in this small, tightly-knit town. His biggest complaint was not that I was stiff and silent while sitting next to him. His label metaphor impressed me.
He asked, “Is a person the worst thing he has ever done?”
I gasped and stared really hard. I resisted the urge to dive in and lead a discussion analyzing this very question.
“They don’t react to me. They react to the image inside their heads. They never say anything about us, and we were ‘us.’ But forget her. I’m more than that. When you turn a person into a label, you’re not talking about a human being any more. I’m not going to participate in that.”
The Lead Smirker, the Bare-Chested Tattooed Man Who Has Done Time, melted. The unlabeled struggled to communicate himself to me during our timed car trip. Apparently, he, too, had been trying to find the right thing to say. He looked younger. He looked human. Same species as I, as the Farmer, as the Small Woman, as the girl he had battered.
There was another long silence. Tossing out the hope of saying anything pertinent, I tilted my head and asked what seemed most immediately pertinent to my curiosity, “How does your mother feel about all those tattoos?”
“Pfft. My mother? I would not know. I ran the fuck out of there when I was fifteen.” The way he pronounced this suggested that he was unaware of the full dimension of the dictionary definition of the word “mother.” I immediately lunged at the clock of our time, trying to slow it down, so that things could be said and done that would expand the world and make it better.
I saw where we were. “Yeah, that’s it, right there. That’s what I call ‘home.'” He pulled up. Our journey was ending.
They insisted on carrying my boxes of food inside and putting them on the table, though I could have easily done so, and usually do. I was confined in my room with two scary, bare-chested men; the dog and the girl were out in the car. As they had in the basement, they did take up space, these men/boys; no, they throttled it, with their muscled bodies claiming the sole possession of limited things like the space in a room, or the dignity.
I was no longer afraid. I knew I wouldn’t say the stupid thing. It was a hot day. They had worked hard. I said the obvious thing. I offered them some juice, or water, and homemade cookies. They took water. I plopped in some ice cubes. The Lead Smirker had a five-pointed star tattooed on his back. It was solid and dark blue.
“Why a star?” I asked.
“Five points,” he told me. “Like a human being.” Demonstrating, he slapped his head, point one; his hands, points two and three; and, lifting them, the soles of his feet, points four and five. Ah, of course, a human being. “It’s not satanic,” he insisted. “That’s bull cooked up by the officials.” As he explained, he seemed tall, though he hadn’t, before. Suddenly I realized that I was looking up at him, which I hadn’t realized, before, either. He seemed a professor, with worthy knowledge he was happy to pass on. “In prison, they strip you; they penetrate you; they take everything. They give you a number instead of a name. They can’t take away your tattoo.” It was time to go. He left.
Before their departure, the younger guy, the deputy Smirker, hesitated – stalled – not the right words at all – took time, made time, to stand at my door, make eye contact with me, and shake my hand.
Sigrid Erro lives in a cohousing community in Santa Cruz, CA. She has worked as a massage therapist, security officer, avocado ranch owner, graphic designer, and lay chaplain. She is writing a memoir set in a psychiatric hospital.
My friends want to be cremated when they die. Not me. I want my bones to survive.
I’m home for Thanksgiving, visiting Vista cemetery, where the bones of my ancestors live. My paternal grandmother, Astrid, and my grandfather, Hans, lie here. Their flesh has disintegrated, but not their skeletons. Bones can live for hundreds, thousands, of years. When I feel my clavicle, press on my rib cage, I know these parts will endure, and it comforts me.
Some people want their ashes spread over the ocean. The notion chills me—to have no idea where my body will land, particles traveling this way and that. I know exactly where I’m going to end up: in this cemetery, buried six feet under the ground, in our family plot, the space furthest from my father.
I find the place where we buried my father’s ashes. The headstone is small and unadorned, as he wanted. First and last name, middle initial, 1931 to 2003.
For forty years, I prayed he would die. As a child, I imagined his headstone with longing; I stand on it now. Anger and relief course through me. It feels good to be on top of him, for a change. People nearby place flowers at the graves of their loved ones and weep. I’m afraid I appear irreverent, but I don’t move. Having been cremated, his skeleton does not remain; this pleases me.
When I was younger, I came to the cemetery with Honey, my maternal grandmother, and we visited the graves of her husband and daughter. I stared with dread at the empty spot next to my grandfather, knowing Honey would be there someday, her kind face decaying. Then I reflected that the bones in the hand I held would always be here, just under the ground.
I see my own grave site and move to the space where I will be buried.
As Honey’s headstone now sits on her grave, mine will eventually rest here. I wonder, though of course it would be impossible, what I might think about in my coffin. What would I regret? What, like Marley’s ghost, would I wish I had done, but be forever unable to?
So I ask my dead self. I talk to the ground. What is it that I need to do? What is most important? And I imagine myself underneath, forever unable to see, or move. My message to my living self is clear: Give up your rage and bitterness.
Immediately, I feel a release—a vast, cool river, washing away my fury, grief, and shame. And in that instant, it feels possible. Like Scrooge on Christmas morning, I know my life can change, and I’m eager to begin.
I turn to leave and eye my father’s headstone. I want to stand on it again, grind my heel in, feel the power I now have over him. The brilliance I just felt is gone. My reverie disappears as my wrath takes hold.
So I stand there. Angry at my father. Angry at myself, for giving in to the rage. Angry at my dead self, for not granting me the power to cling to its message.
I don’t stand on his grave again. Instead, I take a deep breath, grateful for lungs that still breathe, legs that still carry me.
I return to my car. With one stride, I yearn for freedom from bitterness, I pray for grace; with the next, I picture his headstone with vengeance. Whether I stand on him or not, his bones are nothing but dust.
J.W. Young’s essays have been anthologized by Random House, Dzanc Books, and Pinchback Press. Her work has appeared in both print and online journals including The Apple Valley Review, Memoir, and Front Porch. Her recently completed memoir, Blood and Circumstance, recounts the effects of living as the daughter of one of California’s most notorious serial rapists. You can contact her and read more of her work at www.joyousinhell.blogspot.com.
Big Dumb Baby
I was raised by my maternal grandmother who—among teaching me the finer points of smoking non-filter cigarettes and ironing a perfect crease into polyester slacks—made sure I grew up understanding the one true pillar of friendship: “Most friends,” she’d say, the words oozing from her mouth like some fine poison, “wouldn’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire.” So many times was this phrase repeated that it should have been etched into our family crest and set above the front door.
I knew Grandma to have only two friends. The first, a woman named Linda who was several years Grandma’s junior, seemed to come around only when the two of them were going on cruises to Mexico. Linda owned a pizzeria and as a kid I spent afternoons inside the small restaurant feeding quarters into the pinball machines in the back while the two of them sat at one of the small tables and smoked and laughed over pictures of their latest trip. The last time Grandma saw Linda, I was nearly an adult. We were both invited to her wedding—she was on her fifth or sixth husband by then—and while we were welcome at the ceremony I remember feeling as if we’d crashed the reception. Grandma didn’t know anyone at our table and spent much of the afternoon trying to make her way over to the one with Linda’s adult children. When she finally made it, she sat down next to a tanned young man who looked just like his mother. He seemed to not know who she was, though Grandma spoke loudly, saying, “I used to feed Mark strained peas. They were his favorite.”
Taking her place in the receiving line, ready for a warm response from Linda, all Grandma got was a short hug, a brief introduction to the groom, and a complicit smile. I don’t think the two women ever spoke again. Grandma stopped mentioning her cruises, sitting at captains’ tables, and the fact that a little boy named Mark used to hang on her every word.
The only other friend Grandma had was a German immigrant named Gretta who called our house three or four times a day. Each time Grandma picked up the phone, perhaps hoping to hear from Linda, she’d cheerfully say, “Hello,” and then roll her eyes. “Hi Gretta.” For the next hour she’d be roped into listening to the thick accent, the woman recounting her most recent complaint about her adult daughter or her newest physical ailment. When Grandma hung up she’d say, “God I hate that damned woman.” But she still picked up the phone every day. Eventually, one of Gretta’s many ailments proved fatal and the day after her funeral—where Grandma was the only friend in attendance—the phone rang and Grandma joked, “That’s probably Gretta calling me from beyond the grave.” She picked up the receiver only to find dead air. This happened more than a dozen times over the next month, and I came to believe that when a friendship died, its haunting spirit somehow remained.
Perhaps it goes without saying that for most of my childhood I was lonely. Sure, I had schoolmates and neighbors, but I was only allowed to socialize with one girl, Michelle, whose parents were both teachers. For some reason, Grandma trusted them and so I was allowed on occasion to have a little contact with Michelle outside of school. Still, I can count on one hand the number of times I was allowed to accept invitations to her house. Miraculously, the summer before I was fourteen, I spent two weeks with her family in Hawaii. They treated me like a second daughter, allowing Michelle and I entire hours of time on our own that we spent on the beach, exploring sea side walking paths, and swimming in the resort pool. When I returned home, I regaled Grandma with tales of our adventures.
After that trip Grandma went out of her way to keep Michelle from being a part of my life. She moved me to another town. She wouldn’t allow me to talk to Michelle on the phone; I wasn’t permitted to accept any more invitations to her house, even for her birthday. Since both of us were too young to drive, I saw my childhood friend again only one other time. She appeared on my doorstep a few weeks after my fifteenth birthday with a card and a copy of Stephen King’s newest book. I stepped out onto the front porch and sat with her on the cold cement step while her mother waited in the car.
“You’re not mad at me, are you?” she said.
“It’s just, I don’t get it. Why don’t you want to be my friend? It’s okay that you live here now. We can still keep in touch.”
I didn’t know how to explain. I didn’t realize at the time Grandma had purposely moved me away from my only friend. But I knew that move had made us destitute—house-rich and everything-else-poor. When Michelle showed up at my door that day I couldn’t invite her inside in part because I had nothing to offer her; our refrigerator housed a carton of Pall Mall cigarettes, a head of lettuce, and a jar of mayonnaise. I feared—because Grandma said it—that Michelle would somehow know we were suffering and judge me for it, terminate the friendship. Sitting on the front step, not looking into the face of the girl who’d been my friend since kindergarten, I suddenly felt like a baby whose only response was to cry—my face burned with tears. Michelle looked at her shoes, green Converse sneakers I envied. “I gotta go,” she finally said.
These years preceded email and social media, so we only exchanged a handful of letters over the next few months, letters I received only because I was the one to check the mail each day. One of the last Michelle sent was an essay she’d written in her English class about her best friend, me. She’d made a cover for the essay, a collage of photos of the two of us over the years, and in the essay she lamented the fact that we drifted apart.
As I grew into an adult, I constantly thought of Grandma’s words, “They won’t piss in your ass if your guts were on fire.” But once I’d left home I was able to gain some perspective on our life together that suggested to me I’d forever be hard-pressed to find a healthy friendship. I’d been damaged by fate: Grandma—like so many other single-parents—had developed an emotional dependency on me. She’d been divorced several times, had a hard time maintaining relationships with her own children and siblings, and because she didn’t work was isolated at home for most of the day, her only hobbies were chain smoking and obsessively dusting her antique furniture. I was her sole companion, and if I’d had a relationship with someone else she would have felt threatened. Today this condition is known as Parental Co-Dependency, but when I was young it was simply the way my world worked.
Or maybe Grandma was incapable of maintaining more than one close relationship, as a large majority of adult Americans are wont to do. Based on her track record with Linda and Gretta that seems to fit the bill. Or she could’ve been like the millions of people on the planet who simply use a spouse—in her case a pseudo-spouse, me—as their best friend. Some psychologists argue that it’s only natural for a spouse to become the best friend, while another camp argues such behavior results in an unhealthy marriage of co-dependency. We surely fell into the latter category. Whatever the reason, I wish Grandma would’ve told me what she was feeling so I could’ve tried to understand it, if not somehow grow from it, maybe even learn to be a better judge of character.
As I entered my thirties—the age experts agree signals the plateau of true friend-making—I took a short assessment of my friendships: I knew six people who would pee on me if I suddenly burst into flames. To those close friends, I’d become fiercely loyal. One in particular, Gibb, had earned my respect over the ten years I’d known him. And while I admired him, the longer I knew him, the more I pitied him: he lived alone, hardly left his apartment, his bookcases were filled with Disney DVDs and Playstation games. He spent the wee hours of his mornings in chat rooms. In an attempt to show the world what a good guy Gibb was, I named him Managing Editor of a writing journal when I stepped down.
The following year, my husband Adam and I moved to another state. But we got together with Gibb whenever we could. During one visit we sat around in his living room—movie posters on the walls and scented candles lit on every surface—drinking beer and catching up on each others’ lives. Before we left, he told me, “That’s what I like best about you guys. I don’t have to talk to you every day to be close friends. We just kinda pick up where we left off.” Though I didn’t say it, I couldn’t shake the feeling that for years he’d been meticulously measuring our friendship against others he had, weighing me against some criteria for keeping and discarding people.
A few years later, when a position opened at my workplace, I wrote Gibb a letter of recommendation. I put in a good word for him with my boss, telling her how much the two of them had in common, and that I thought he’d really fit in. It didn’t take long for him to get the job. It took even less time for him and my boss to become lovers. At first, I was supportive of their relationship. I helped them keep it a secret from the higher-ups so neither one of them would be fired, and even deceived my fellow coworkers so they wouldn’t be found out. Gibb was my friend. And friends put out fires for one another.
Then I found out about Big Dumb Baby, a sex game they played where Gibb was made to act like an infant called Big Dumb Baby and my boss acted like Mommy, spanking him and telling him what she wanted him to do to her. I’m all for kinky sex, but never have I felt turned on by the idea of intercourse with a baby. Gibb liked Big Dumb Baby enough to marry her. Every time I saw him in the halls, in the copy room, at parties, all I could think about was him trussed up in adult diapers wearing a baby bonnet and sucking his wife’s toes. I imagined him bent over and allowing her to spank him.
A few months after taking their vows, Gibb told me over the telephone, “I unfriended you on Facebook.” Because I hadn’t seen Gibb around the office or at any social gatherings since his marriage, deleting me from his Facebook list was the emotional equivalent of what I’d done to Michelle over a decade earlier.
“You what?” I asked.
“It’s not personal or anything. It’s just, sometimes you post comments about your boss.”
“And? So do a lot of people.”
“Your boss is my wife.”
“She’s not my only boss.” I’d been irate about some policy changes and had posted a few comments about how unjust they were. And while Mommy had started to go out of her way to make my work life miserable, none of my posts were directed at her. “I haven’t posted anything about her,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s true.”
My face suddenly got very hot and before I could stop them, my eyes filled with tears. “So instead of talking to me about it you just unfriend me?”
“I’m sorry, but your posts make for awkward conversations around my house. Conversations I don’t want to have.”
Just before their marriage, Gibb told me he and Mommy had never fought, had never had a full-blown, heated argument about anything. Which made me wonder if they even really cared about each other. I suddenly blamed myself for Gibb’s passionless, dishonest marriage where his wife treated him like an infant. But instead of revealing what I knew about him, trying to help him through his embarrassment, I got angry, Grandma’s warning ringing in my head. I’d befriended someone who was simply pissing on me. “This is bullshit,” I said.
“It’s not bullshit. I’m married. My wife and I are one,” he said. As if after his wedding he’d gotten a lobotomy or been plugged into the Borg. And with that, our friendship was officially over. Like me and Michelle, like Grandma and Gretta.
Gibb systematically cut all of his pre-marriage friends out of his life. It’s a common enough phenomenon. Some couples end decade-long friendships prior to getting hitched. But usually, the ties are cut with single friends not married ones. Still, I’m not naïve enough to believe people don’t change during marriage. Compromise is part of a working relationship. But never have I thought during the course of my own marriage that I needed to end a friendship because Adam doesn’t approve. We maintain common friends—most of them other married couples—and our own friendships that came with us before we took our vows.
“I feel so used,” I told another one of Gibb’s toss-aways.
“It’s funny that she still has all of her friends, but he’s had to get rid of his. The people he’s friends with now are people she brought with her to the marriage,” she said.
“I don’t get it. How could he just use me? Just jump ship?”
“It’s the type of person he is,” she said, shrugging. And something in her tone reminded me so much of Grandma’s warning that I shuddered. “But if you really want to know the truth,” she said, “I think he had a crush on you before he got married and was stupid enough to actually tell her about it.”
I didn’t want to believe it. But I immediately recalled an evening at Mommy’s house when I made a joke about how I’d landed my husband. “If Adam hadn’t wanted me,” I’d laughed, “I was going to move in on to Gibb next.” Big Dumb Baby blushed, and Mommy’s smile became a tight-lipped mask. After Adam and I got home I asked him, “Do you think Gibb thought I was serious about wanting to date him?”
“Obviously,” he said. “You saw her face, too.”
“So she hates me now,” I said. “She’ll probably try to get me fired.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Adam said.
Shortly after Gibb unfriended me, I began to imagine him as a prisoner in Mommy’s house. He was trussed up in his Big Dumb Baby garb, drooling and crying for a diaper change. She circled him while slapping a riding crop across his bare legs. No matter how he cried, she was determined to keep him right where he was. I never dropped by their place for fear of realizing their game had gone too far. For fear that I’d failed to help my friend out of a humiliating relationship, failed to put out the flame. I, too, had become the very sort of friend I’d worried myself over.
The end of my relationship with Gibb made me question the validity of every close friendship I still had. Three of my five remaining friends lived hundreds of miles away and most of our weekly interactions took place through social media. I sent cards at holidays, but my ability to remember birthdays and anniversaries was sadly lacking. I loved these friends very much, more so even than family members. But I’m unsure if they really knew how valuable they were in my life, how crushed I’d be if they suddenly cut me out. I contacted each of them, letting them know I’d pee on them in a second, should the need ever arise. And they all assured me they would happily do the same. Without Gibb I would’ve never recognized how miserably I was failing as a friend. For that, I’m thankful.
And I wish I could’ve saved him from Mommy and Big Dumb Baby, though I know that ultimately he made those choices on his own. Still, the more I think about his end to our friendship and those that—despite my shortcomings—are still thriving, the more I relive the moment with Michelle on the front step, her green sneakers, and my desperate, silent plea for my best friend to recognize I was being forced to give her up. If I’d just swallowed my pride, or had the courage to stand up to Grandma, to tell her our relationship isolated me, perhaps my life would’ve been a little less lonely. Perhaps I could’ve grown into a woman who saw strangers as potential friends rather than people who, at the sight of me aflame, would turn tail and run.
Kurt Caswell is the author or two books of nonfiction: In the Sun’s House: My Year Teaching on the Navajo Reservation, and An Inside Passage, for which he won the 2008 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. He teaches creative writing and literature in the Honors College at Texas Tech University, and in the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. For more information, please go to: www.kurtcaswell.com.
It was like coming down the mountain, not like dying at all, but like living and coming down the mountain, even as the world wanted to die, as the rooms of the house went dark in daylight, the great dust cloud of the haboob come over the top and pressing in, the sun blotted out, the view of the neighbor’s house blotted out, the sky blotted out, the weird orange light in the darkness at mid-day, like the bomb at Trinity, I imagined, like Semipalatinsk, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki, sitting alone, wondering if this might not be the end of something, the end of this thing now, the end of the world, at last. It was like coming down the mountain from the pure, happy clarity of the high country, its sparkling waters and expanses of blue, its trees and wild strawberries, its bears at root in the ground for termites and in the air for cutworm moths, lazing in the sun, its horny toads, the little ones, poinging off into the shades of sage and pine and stones on the trails that ascend to the nine summits where from this vantage, you see cranes in migration on the wing, another 10,000 feet above, still, almost into the heavens. It was like coming down the mountain into the dark valleys and onto the wide plains filled and covered over with the smokes and wastes of industry and the chemicals of agriculture, the writhing masses of the people living one on top of the other, one on top of the other, and the land scorched and burned by summer fires, and spring fires and autumn fires with the rise of the mammals, and then the primates, and the great apes, and Cain and Abel into you and me and we, and into the ten thousand years of agriculture pushing the sixth great extinction on earth.
In Muleshoe, Texas, October 17, 2011, a haboob came to town out of the Llano Estacado, the dry, flat wastes of the Texas tableland. A photograph taken by a resident showed a massive wall of black dust towering eight thousand feet into the atmosphere. The photograph made its way onto the local news in the neighboring city of Lubbock, where I live. Get ready, everybody, the weatherman announced. Seek shelter now. This haboob is headed our way. It’s a wall of dust, a great body of black dust moving at about thirty miles per hour and pushed by winds with gusts of up to sixty miles per hour. It won’t take long to get here. It will be here real soon. Get ready.
Your poet, Li Po, the simple man, the lover of wine, the lover of the moon, the Banished Immortal, writes:
Sunlight is light bringing tangled sorrows Facing ten-thousand-mile winds, autumn geese leaving, we can still laugh and drink in this tower tonight,
chant poems of Immortality Land, ancient word-bones.
The word “haboob” is Arabic, as haboobs are most common in desert regions like the Middle East, North Africa, and also in western Australia and on the southwest plains of North America. Why Arabic, I wonder, and not Comanche, or Kiowa, or Nubian, or Walmajarri? I wonder what the Comanche called the dust storms descending upon their horse herds and their teepees, on their camps out on the flat wastes of the Llano Estacado where the U.S. Calvary feared to go? The word comes from the root “habb,” which means “wind,” and “haboob” means “strong wind.” During the Dustbowl years of the 1930s, most of the great dust storms were haboobs, but people in this part of the world called them “black wind storms,” or “black blizzards.”
At my home in Lubbock, Texas, the photograph from Muleshoe came to my attention on the local news. It was astonishing. It was terrible. It was beautiful. I had no idea what it meant. The local TV news turned to the national TV news. Maybe I’d see what was happening in the world while waiting for the haboob. Then I’d know what it meant. I wanted something new, but it was the same news as last night, the night before, every night. Conflict all over the world. Nations at war with each other. Nations at war with themselves. Nations at war with drugs. Drugs at war with drugs. The real estate crisis in America. A world economic slow-down, recession, financial collapse. Nations going bankrupt. Banks going bankrupt. Corporate executives taking people’s money, and then going bankrupt. Another environmental disaster and its cleanup, even while new legislation makes future environmental disaster inevitable. The most disastrous heat, again, in the history of record keeping, but don’t ever, ever use the term “climate change.” One person is murdered in a city park, and a famous person has died. A thousand people are born. The world’s population at seven billion and climbing ever faster. What are we going to do? Never mind that. Pro life! Pro choice! Abstinence. It doesn’t work, but let’s pretend it does. Get married. Get divorced. Pro gay marriage. Anti gay marriage. Humidity. Terrible flesh eating bacteria. AIDS. Avian flu. Swine flu. Whooping cough is back. The common cold, stronger than ever, killed nine people. Fracking is poisoning your drinking water, and nobody cares. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE! Pause for a commercial break. Buy this prescription drug. It will relieve your symptoms from your obscure condition; the short-term side effects range from shitting yourself to death, to death, but if you live, the long-term side effects are unknown. Ask your doctor about it now. Your doctor isn’t smart enough to know what treatment you need. You do, because you watch TV. Take aspirin for your heart condition. If you don’t have a heart condition, might as well take it anyway. Buy this insurance for your insurance. You can never have enough insurance. Back to the news. A plane crashed in Russia, everyone dead. A white collar criminal goes unpunished, again. Nobody cares. A poor minority (fast becoming the majority) gets the electric chair, in Texas. Nobody cares. Everybody in America is obese, and the children are obese, soft, dying. Nobody cares. Does your school have a contract with Coke or Pepsi? More darkness. More degradation of the earth’s air and water and the loss of biological diversity. The ice caps are melting. Greenland is melting. Glaciers are melting. Polar bears are dying. Maybe. Nobody cares. The conservatives publically maintain that climate change is natural, and Jesus will solve all our problems. What would Jesus do? Don’t bother with voting or recycling or walking instead of driving your car. Just pray. Pray, baby pray. And then, the finalé, to counterbalance all this death: an orphaned, three-legged dog finds a friend in a blind chess champion, somewhere in small-town West Virginia. And that’s the news, folks.
The haboob is coming.
Haboobs form when strong winds flow down and out of the leading edge of thunderstorms and cold fronts. These winds pick up dust, condense it, drive it forward, usually at about half the velocity of the winds themselves. The dust cloud can extend for sixty to ninety miles, and reach five thousand to eight thousand feet into the atmosphere. Some might reach as high as fifteen thousand feet. Such storms don’t usually last very long: thirty minutes maybe, three hours at the most. Haboobs in the Middle East and North America are typically associated with thunderstorms, which is why it often rains after a haboob, though in arid climates, this rain might never reach the ground. Haboobs in Australia are most often associated with cold fronts.
Out of the thunderstorm or cold front comes a strong wind. When this wind passes over dry, loose soil, the smallest dust particles (0.002 millimeters and smaller) are immediately suspended in the air. The threshold velocity of a wind that can move small particles like this is only about nine miles per hour, so a strong wind will move much larger particles as well (0.5 millimeters). The largest particles are often too heavy to be suspended in the air, so they roll along the ground, a process known as “creeping.” Between the small and the large particles are the medium sized particles (0.002 to 0.5 millimeters), which climatologists call “silt” or “dust.” Dust particles are too heavy to be suspended, but too light to creep. They bounce against the surface of the earth. When these bouncing particles hit other particles, those other particles bounce too, and then those particles get still more particles bouncing. The effect is exponential, like the world’s birthrate. Dust particles bouncing off the surface are born aloft when caught in the power of the wind, and as more particles are drawn into the storm, particles have yet more particles to bounce against. The result is that these medium sized particles, too heavy to be suspended in the air under normal circumstances, are suspended in the air by bouncing from the surface and from one particle to another. They climb thousands of feet into the atmosphere by bouncing.
These bouncing particles also generate a static electrical field. By bouncing, they acquire a negative charge. The ground has a positive charge. The flow of energy between positive and negative creates an electrical field. As this electrical field builds, the particles require less and less wind energy to keep them aloft, until ultimately, the field itself will lift particles from the ground.
The interplay of bouncing particles, which escalates rapidly with the force of the wind, and the building static electrical field, is known as “saltation,” and is the major action of a haboob; saltation makes a haboob a haboob.
The summer of 2011 was the hottest on record in west Texas. Like a lot of places in the U.S., in the world even, heat records of all sorts were broken daily. Many of those records were set in 1930s, during the Dustbowl. In Lubbock, June, 2011 was the hottest month in recorded history. Until July, which broke the June record. Until August, which broke the July record. It didn’t rain. One hundred miles to the north, Amarillo recorded fifty consecutive days with temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And no rain. Lubbock recorded forty-nine consecutive days at temperatures above normal, and as many at above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. All records. The night temperatures in the region, the low temperatures, were also the highest on record. At midnight, it might still be 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Lubbock. And no rain. The trees in the city were dying. Juniper and red oak, pecan trees and pines, Siberian elm and rose of Sharon. You could hardly grow a tomato in your backyard. Even the weeds failed. People went on watering their lawns, sometimes at mid-day, and often they overwatered, so water flowed in the streets. The city insists it is not running out of water, though it exhausted its main water source at Lake Meredith in 2011, a reservoir on the Canadian River one hundred forty miles to the north. At the end of 2012, a new pipeline, sixty-five miles long and costing $2,000,000 per mile, began pumping water to Lubbock from Lake Alan Henry, a reservoir to the southeast on the South Fork of the Double Fork of the Brazos River. Stage two water restrictions are in place. Even still, when I go out for morning runs, most any day of the week, any time of the year, water flows in the streets.
The haboob rolled in over my house, snuffed out the sun. I sat in my little room with the TV news, and my vision became a tunnel, darkness closing in until the TV was the only light. I looked down the little tunnel to the TV, like looking through a tube or a pipe, or looking into a drinking glass. It came on fast enough that I didn’t notice it at first, that adrenaline dream-time in slow motion, or some delay in my brain’s synapse. It was light. It was dark. I stood up. I went to the window. I could see it wasn’t night, and it wasn’t an eclipse, and it wasn’t a monstrous thundercloud. The atmosphere was brown, black-brown, and the air had thickened like a gravy, heavy, saturated, laden with material. I could see it, the stuff in the air, swirling around. I could not see it. Even as it went dark like a switch—on/off—it went dark in stages too, like rungs on a ladder, steps in a staircase. Step one. Step two. Step three. I remembered the steps—one, two, three—as I stood at the window after it had already happened. I stood at the window in the center of the haboob, and I experienced the haboob as it came in. I could not now distinguish between what was happening in front of me, and what had just happened. I lost my belief in the flow of time from the past to the present. It all seemed to happen at once, the on/off, the stages, the blotting out of the sun, the tunnel vision to the TV. These separate events seemed to occur separately and simultaneously. I knew then that Einstein was right. I stood at the window. I looked out. It was astonishing. It was terrible. It was beautiful. I stood at the window.
The major hazard of a haboob is low visibility. You can’t see shit. And it comes on suddenly, within seconds. Planes cannot take off or land. Drivers on the road panic and stop without warning, triggering multi-car pile-ups. The particulates in the air combined with the wind can uproot trees and power lines, and cause damage to electronic equipment, houses, barns, buildings, everything. In the Dustbowl of the 1930s, people developed “dust pneumonia.” The storms came so frequently, it troubled and choked their lungs. The morning after a storm, farmers woke to find their livestock dead in the fields. These days, such dust clouds are more toxic, containing pollutantslike heavy metals, carbon monoxide, pesticides, sulfur, salt, byproducts of industrial agriculture, and all of it raised up from the land.
You need a lot of dry, loose soils to form a good haboob. In North Africa and the Middle East, you have a sea of sands. The Sahara Desert, for example. In west Texas, you have a lot of cotton farming. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, the southern plains, the Llano Estacado, was a sea of grass, supporting the greatest bison herds in North America. If a windstorm got up, a downburst from a thunderstorm or a cold front, the grass held the topsoil in place. These days, everywhere you go on the Llano, you see plowed fields with exposed topsoil. Thousands and thousands of acres of it. Top soils drift away on the wind, and then when the time comes to plant cotton, Texas farmers fertilize. Maybe the word “haboob” is Arabic and not Comanche because the Comanche didn’t know haboobs. They knew wind, but the ground, in those days, was luxuriant grass that supported their horse herds, and the wind was a helpful spirit that blew in over the land.
Your poet, the Banished Immortal, writes,
But slice water with a knife, and water still flows, Empty a winecup to end grief, and grief remains grief.
You never get what you want in this life, so why not shake your hair loose on a boat at play in dawn light?
At Preston Smith International in Lubbock, the tower was evacuated, and the controllers directed air traffic from the backup room on the ground floor. A small cargo plane on the ground turned over in the wind. Across the city, trees unmoored and came down, shingles flew from roofs, neighborhoods lost power. Instead of a thunderstorm, this haboob came out of a cold front, the winds of which hit sixty miles per hour. After all, winter was coming too.
The haboob passed over. Where I stood in my house at the window, blue sky and bright sun. I went to the back door. I thought about seeing the turkey vultures a week or so before, kettling, floating in that narrow gyre on their southern migration, right there behind the house. Some years they roosted right there behind the house, a couple days, a day more, and then moved on. I went out to check for damage, but the crepe myrtle and the red oak, all intact.The massive pecan on the neighbor’s side, still intact. The Siberian elm, not much to boast about, still intact. A few small branches down, dead branches that would have come down anyway. The Rose of Sharon still dead from the impossible summer heat. For now, the living were still living and the dead were still dead. The haboob was still a haboob, but it was over there now, instead of right here, as it was when it was in Muleshoe, before it was here, that little window between then and now, between now and what came next. The haboob would blow itself out in an hour or so, its winds would spend out their energy, and the dust—the small, the large, the medium sized particles—would return to earth. Somewhere else. This is how things get moved around, how change occurs. A chaos of wind. A calm of light. Blue sky and bright sun. I did not know it in that moment, but soon, from behind my house, I would see sandhill cranes high overhead, a steady pattern to build the day on, and winter would arrive with its cooler temperatures, temperatures that would allow me to believe, once again, that the world would endure another year.
Ellen Brooks is a teacher and writer living in Westchester County, New York. She currently teaches at Hunter College (New York City) and Manhattanville College (Purchase, NY) and has worked as a special education teacher, literacy consultant, and writing workshop leader. Ellen has published two professional texts on the teaching of reading and writing (Learning to Read and Write, Garland Press and Just-Right Books for Beginning Readers, Scholastic); her writing has appeared in other publications for parents and teachers. Ellen completed a doctoral degree in education at the University of Pennsylvania (Ed.D., 1981) and recently completed an MFA in nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College (December, 2012).
At ten minutes before six on a cool October evening, I follow my teenage daughter Lizzie along the narrow stone path that leads through the garden to the yoga studio. We are early, but the classroom, where we will practice vinyasa yoga, is almost filled to capacity, and we will need to put our mats close together, leaving only an inch or two of floor exposed between. In the front of the room, propped up against the wall, is a small white board with a quote by Ganga White, founder of the White Lotus Foundation and a well-known figure in the yoga world: “Being present is balanced and tempered by keeping a long view, a lifetime perspective.”
The lights are low, and the glow of the evening sun filters through the side window, casting a faint shadow across the floor. Stillness permeates the space. Lizzie whispers, “Please stay next to me.” She lines her mat up on the floor, taking care to make the edges straight, to secure a bit of space between her mat and others nearby, and to roll the front edge under to keep it from curling up. She pulls her sweatshirt over her head, folds it neatly next to her, and takes a cross-legged seat on the mat. She takes off her earrings, necklace and bracelets, carefully placing each on the floor next to her. She glances at me. Smiling. All sweetness. I picture her room, which we have just left behind— socks, shirts, and sweaters scattered on top of her dresser and on the floor. I picture the gum wrappers on the night table and piles of jewelry strewn everywhere. And I can see her angry look; she is scowling at me and reciting a familiar mantra, one that seems to give her momentary pleasure as she distinctly utters each word: “You don’t know anything, Mom. You are such a loser.” I am happy to be here and not there.
When we go home, the notes for the research paper for her ninth-grade history class will wait in disarray—spread across the kitchen table and floor where she left them. Maybe she’ll be in a better frame of mind to face the challenge. Maybe she’ll try to read her own handwriting on the note cards and just maybe she will feel sturdy enough to grapple with the task of organizing and synthesizing the notes into a unified whole—to follow her outline step-by-step—to put in the time and effort it will take to write the paper. She wants desperately to do it herself; I want desperately to offer my support. After all, this is what I do everyday. As a teacher, I am practiced at helping kids just like Lizzie— students with language-based learning difficulties who work hard to meet the demands of reading, writing, and listening in school. As a mom, though, it is difficult to watch her struggle. When she encounters a problem or makes a mistake, she blames herself. I can’t, she says. I’m not any good at this. I remember a scene in the car—she is seven, and we are on our way to dance class. Mommy, am I smart? This, from a small, voice in the back seat. Even then, the lilt in her voice warned that there would be little I could do to give her assurance. In school her teachers offer praise for her hard work and persistence, but she believes that the world values performance. She doubts herself, and I want to boost her up, to give her the confidence that her efforts will make a difference. To help her develop the mindset that she can learn and grow even when the challenges are great.
Meanwhile, in the yoga class, our teacher, Shannah, will start class with a personal story or maybe she will say that this is a moment of bliss. Although I like to think of myself as positive and optimistic, and although I love words, bliss is a word that is a bit too optimistic, too cheery and over the top for me. But maybe Shannah is onto something that I can’t quite see. I imagine collecting all this bliss, bottling it up, and taking it home. Saving it for when we need it most.
I feel Lizzie shifting on her mat, adjusting her spine, relaxing her shoulders, and sitting tall like a dancer, graceful and poised. I wonder if this is the young woman who will walk through that door later when we leave all this serenity and return home. Or will it be the beautiful girl who glares at me, standing tall, hands on hips, summoning up the same words she hurled at me when she was three: “You’re not the boss of me.” She’s right. I am not the boss. I’m the ally that she cannot see.
I don’t dare let my gaze fall directly on her. It is enough to feel her presence next to me as we settle into the practice by standing tall in mountain pose; Shannah directs us to rest our hands at our sides, to close our eyes, and focus on deep rhythmic breathing. I resist the temptation to turn my head in Lizzie’s direction. I know that she doesn’t want to stand out, to feel that all eyes are upon her, and especially not mine. I also know how much she loves attention. Mommy, look what I can do! I see the proud, confident little girl who can do it all by herself: taking her first steps, swimming across the pool, riding her first two-wheeler, running across the school playground as she clutches her latest artistic creation—a still-life pastel of poppies in a vase.
Shannah guides us through the flow from one pose to the next. I notice all that breathing in the room. It is a rhythmic whooshing like the sound of the undulating waves of the ocean, reminding me to breathe and push the outside world from view, but I still see the image of the crumpled papers tossed on the floor. I hear the harsh words intended to push me away. I breathe in. I breathe out. I recoil in silence.
There was a moment earlier in the day. I am hurrying to get dressed, she wants to borrow my make-up and blow-dry her hair, and your bathroom is so much nicer she says, and then she makes herself at home, turns up the volume on her iPod, and suddenly I am no longer feeling annoyed by this intrusion. We have landed in a familiar place—a routine we both loved when she was a toddler: we are dancing in the bathroom to “Brown Eyed-Girl.” This is how I want her to think of us.
Inhale. Exhale. I picture a moment with my own father: I am the stubborn teenager who knows it all. We are upstairs in the hallway, just outside the bathroom, and while I can’t remember how or why we arrived at this moment, the hostile and unforgiving words in my head fill me with shame, but the rage takes hold, and I hear myself say the unthinkable. Die. This? Aimed at my father whom I adore? My tall, dark-haired, handsome father? I turn away, avoiding his face. I can’t disappoint him. My anger is real, but the words untrue. “Dai….enyu,” I say, grasping for a way out. With just one syllable of Hebrew, everything changes. As a child, “Dayenu” was a favorite Passover tradition, a single word conveying “it would be enough” as we sang of God’s help in our journey from bondage to freedom. As an adult, I am beginning to understand the beauty in these words. Dayenu is a reminder to be grateful to God for his many gifts. With each gift—from taking the Jews out of slavery in Egypt to the gift of Shabbat and Torah—the words echo a feeling of gratitude and convey the sentiment that this gift alone would have been enough. No more is needed. My father’s glare softens, and the tension is broken with the sound of a syllable—enyu; we are in a place where we would both rather be. I imagine my father’s initial outrage, anger and disappointment. This, from the daughter that he loves? And then he simply lets it all go with a smile. Even now, he likes to tell the story. We laugh. But I still feel ashamed.
At the end of the class, when Shannah slowly brings us back to our awareness of this time and place, of the world we’re about to re-enter, she asks us to close our eyes and imagine where we would like to be if we could be anywhere. Imaginea place that brings comfort, joy and peace.Keep your eyes closed, your gaze inward. What do you see? Where are you? Picture the scene. She tells us to remember this place and this feeling. Know that you can always come back here again. She talks about carrying this moment off the mat into our lives. I take a sip of water; my eyes wander. Lizzie’s eyes are closed.
By the time we reach the car, I am half in calm serenity and half-thinking about the fact that it is already 7:30, we will need to get dinner on the table, maybe my husband, Marshall, remembered to make a salad and maybe he didn’t; it’s turned so cold outside, and my sweatshirt is not enough protection for this night when a blustery wind comes howling across the island. On the short ride home, a drive I love, I settle back in the seat, taking in this clear October night sky, a deep navy blue sea of stars. We seem to be the only car out on the road. I think about how I would love to paint this night sky. I wonder if Lizzie will settle into her work. Will she get the job done or will she ask for just five more minutes to change back into her jeans, and then five minutes will become ten, and ten will slip away into twenty, and she will be up in her room listening to her music, checking her Facebook, and calling down to me, “I’m almost ready,” while I pace the kitchen floor, resisting the temptation to organize the books and pick up the papers. Resisting— until I cannot stand it any more.
Lizzie breaks the silence.
“Where was your place?” she asks.
Her question startles me; at first I don’t even remember that we have just come from this peaceful space where we can hear our own breath and focus on the stillness. I breathe in and then out, a long deep exhalation. “Good question,” I say, remembering our teacher’s words, remembering how I drifted in that moment.
“So where were you?” I ask, shifting the focus away from me.
She’s quick to answer, eager to share. “It was a Sunday morning at Grandma’s. I had a sleepover, and Grandpa made Mickey Mouse pancakes with chocolate chip eyes and a chocolate chip smile. Grandma said they were made with love and kisses.” Her voice is sweet, gentle—this is the graceful girl who sits tall on her mat.
My father’s famous pancakes. My mother’s familiar words—made with love and kisses. Words handed down from generation to generation. Those pancakes have received considerable attention over the years and have made their way into Lizzie’s writing with a notable degree of regularity: a first-grader’s illustrated sentence about a favorite food, a third-grader’s guide for making the best pancakes in the world, a seventh-grader’s reflections on lessons learned while making pancakes on a Sunday morning with her grandfather: Grandpa taught me that it’s often the small moments in life that mean the most.
“I love your story,” I say.
“Thanks. And thanks for taking me with you.” Her voice is soft and kind and gentle. It’s not her usual fourteen-year-old voice at all. It’s a voice of quiet strength, self-assurance and satisfaction.
“Anytime,” I say. “Okay, sweetest…I’ll tell you my place.”
No response. I try again, louder this time. “Lizzie…Lizzie?”
Nothing. I turn and see that she is wearing her headphones—listening to her music. Her head and shoulders sway in rhythmic motion as if she has transported herself from the passenger seat to the dance floor.
One day I will tell her that the place I imagine is one in which she is the central figure. It is a cold October evening, just like this one. The rain is pounding, and the trees whip against the house, but inside, our home is filled with a feeling of calm, quiet, and serenity. The light glows from Lizzie as I watch her sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by papers and her laptop. She works on the final revisions for an essay for history class; she is in a deep state of concentration. The usual activity continues—the dogs chomp on their dinner, the dishes clink in the sink, the phone rings—and, yet, she seems to block it all out. She has worked at this makeshift desk for more than an hour. I watch as her eyes move from her notes to the laptop screen. I want to move closer, to see what she’s writing—but I resist the impulse. I imagine that she is searching for just the right word or remembering a detail that she wants to add. Maybe she is taking time out—time to take stock and enjoy the feeling of control. Eventually she gets up and says: Want to hear what I wrote? Can I read it to you? She stands tall, her shoulders relaxed. I am aware that my own breath is slow and steady as I exhale. Her presence in this moment is a reminder that patience is an essential part of a long view of your child’s development. Lizzie begins to read. She probably doesn’t even realize that the corners of her mouth are turned gently upward.
We are home again, and in the kitchen, the bright lights shine on the table, now set for three, with Lizzie’s books and papers neatly stacked at the other end. Marshall has picked up the crumpled papers from the floor. I wonder how my father let go with such ease. Each year at the seder table, I can’t help but remember that long ago fight. Dayenu calls for us to notice each single act of goodness. It calls our attention to the extraordinary and to the gifts that reside in the small everyday moments; dayenu reminds us that each step is significant in the process of moving us closer to the life we seek. Perhaps, it is easier to be a teacher than a mother, easier to be accepting of the students in my classroom, honoring and rewarding their successive approximations of the desired strategies, behaviors, and routines that I aim to teach. It occurs to me that the moment Shannah asked us to imagine was already within my view—the image of a teenager on her yoga mat, moving through the poses with intention, making the choice to commit this time to the yoga practice and to herself. Dayenu.
Balvinder Banga works as a lawyer in London. Several of his short stories have been published and he has completed a novel, Land Without Sorrow, that traces the journey of two untouchable boys from India to England.
Bare Footed Dreams of my Father
It didn’t matter if a hockey stick smashed your bare shins, or the fat man, some tailor from Ludhiana, used your feet as a trampoline, launching off them to strike at your face. If you played hockey you played without shoes, with your bare feet pounding the makeshift pitch, your heels throwing dust in the face of your foes, and your heart pounding out, “I am alive.” This was my father’s truth. Shoes were rich men’s toys, for city boys from Delhi, or tailors from Ludhiana, a district in the Indian state of Punjab.
Back in the village, when the family’s cow needed feeding he would walk it to the water’s edge, his feet gripping the earth so that his chappals stayed dry, saving their tread for days that never came, keeping their pristine purity beneath a charpoi his father had made. It didn’t matter that one time his feet met a snake, and he danced into the sky until it slinked away, oblivious to my father’s sweaty panic. To bare your feet was to bare your soul, to show the village you walked like a man.
But four decades come and go in the blink of an eye, in the same time that it takes for a tear to fall. When he came to the West he was felled by a stroke more powerful than any tailor could give. And for a year his life swayed between a Victorian hospital and home, and his ankles swelled in proportion to the shrinkage of his hopes. As days passed, he would tell my mother to slip shoes on his feet and dress him in the cheap suit that she had bought from a market in readiness. In readiness for what? He would sit and wait for the white nurse who visited daily, not wanting her to think that Indians were slovenly or dirty or undignified, not knowing that he was not an ambassador. He was a peasant and the earth was his, but he had retired with the force of his bare feet now shriveled like dead roots in cheap shoes. If only God had told him. Ask him now what it means to walk, to walk as a man with nothing but the entire earth gripped and held still by your feet. See if he doesn’t throw his shoes in your face.
Tom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His research, essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of scientific and literary journals. Awards include The Motherhood Muse (1st place contest winner). His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.
August 1963. The Leskiw family is going to party. Our parents had just moved into a new home in the Bay Area’s Santa Clara Valley. The subdivision was carved out of cherry, plum, and apricot orchards that stretched to the horizon. Although my three siblings and I understand that the orchards belong to someone, their vast acreage—ripe for exploration on foot or by bike—retain an air of unkempt mystery, of wildness.
Even a nine-year-old like myself senses the transformation—renters buying a dream home. Long into the night, my mom and dad discuss plans for home improvement projects: a sidewalk toconnect the front yard with a soon-to-be enlarged back patio, landscaping that will include fruit trees, a series of stone planter boxes slated to zig-zag across the entire width of the back yard. These new surroundings—from front and backyard crannies to bike treks further afield—all seem to symbolize a new beginning for our family. Settling into our home gives us a sense ofsecurity, palpable and positive.
So, we head to a pizza parlor to celebrate. My dad orders two pizzas and the first of several pitchers of beer. I don’t remember how many pitchers my father drinks, but Leskiw-lore holds that it was several and that my mom abstained from drinking.
I don’t know why I’m telling you this.
We finish our dinner and leave the pizza parlor, all four kids in the back of the Pontiac Catalina.
We begin a right-hand turn onto Homestead Road, but my dad is slow to react and the driver-side tires carom off the curb of the pedestrian island. We four siblings come to attention.
“Give me the keys, Walt,” says my mom. “I’m driving.” In a slurred voice, my dad replies that he doesn’t want to give them up. There’s more verbal thrust and parry between my parents, until, finally, my mom commands, “Just get out. I’m driving the kids home.” The door opens and, into the darkness, with cars whizzing by, my dad gets out. Mom slides over behind the wheel, puts the car into gear, and drives off. We are stunned. Long moments pass before anyone says anything.
Ellen, the eldest, speaks first. “Mom, it’s a long way home. How will Dad get there?”
Silence. Then my mother says: “I don’t know. He’ll probably take a cab.”
I dared to speak up. “Should we go back and pick him up?”
“No. Even if he has to walk… he’ll get home.”
Given the distance—over two miles—it occurs to me that, should Dad have to walk all the way home, he is going to be pissed. However, tension fills the air, and one look at the expression on my mom’s face, makes it clear that this is an opinion best kept to myself. Once at home, we siblings are too amped up to even consider sleeping, but my mom insists. “Off to bed you go.”
I awake to my mom standing over me, shaking my arm. Downstairs, pounding at the front door, my dad is shouting. “Eileen! Ei-leen!!” Mom, her voice quavering, speaks to us. “Tom, Larry, get in the bathroom.” We do as we’re told, encountering Ellen and Beth who are already there. My mom joins us, locking the door behind her.
I really don’t know why I’m telling you this.
I hear sounds of the front entry hall door being opened and an unsteady clomp of feet up the stairs. Dad continues his bellowing, “Eileen! Ei-leeen!!” Huddled together in our jammies, we look to our Mom for an answer.
Bam. My father tries to kick in the bathroom door. Bam, Bam, BAM! The hollow-core door reverberates like a kettledrum, the percussion pounding at my inner ear until I think I’ll pass out.
“If your dad gets in, he’ll kill us all,” cries my mom. We know the lock could be picked with a hairpin. That, combined with the splintered shards of the hollow-core door giving way beneath my dad’s kicking, petrifies us. Mom slides open the tiny bathroom window. Climbing out requires a drop of several feetonto a sloping roof. “Beth and Ellen, out,” she commands.
Bam, Bam, BAM! “Eileen! Ei-leeen!!”
Larry and I join our sisters on the roof. I wish I could say that our shivering is due solelyto the cold night air. Stars must be blazing in the inky darkness, but we have no time for that.
The events of that night grow hazy at this point, but I think my dad passes out. Neighbors must have called the cops. Theyarrived to escort him away.
At our new house, my siblings and I build a fort in the back yard. A month or so later, our dreams of adding a second story to our Children Only—No Adults Allowed refuge are put into action. My parents had replaced the shattered bathroom door, so we claimed it for our fort. The door served—not only as the floor for the entire top story, but also as a reminder of that chaotic night.
Several years later, my parents divorced again—the second of three from each other—I moved in with my dad. By this time, he was consuming a half-gallon of bourbon every three days, and my mom had remarried. The judge in the custody suit was aware of the toxic relationship that had formed between my stepfather, my mother, and me, and decreed that I’d be better off with my dad.
Although I was intensely curious about my dad’s side of the story, I avoided bringing up the topic of “What the hell happened that night?” for several years. Finally, one weekend afternoon, when I was about sixteen, I couldn’t contain myself any longer. Maybe it was a question I should never have asked, because I wasn’t prepared for his response.
“Tom, don’t ask me why, but I just felt that night like your mother might harm you kids.”
“You were trying to protect us… fromMom?”
“Yeah, I thought she might try something.”
Over the years, I’ve sometimes wondered if there could have been a way for my mom to get my dad to relinquish the car keys without forcing him to walk home. However, since then, I’ve encountered enough drunks to realize that the answer is most likely no.
Maybe now I know why I’m telling you this.
I’m the only one of four siblings who chose not to parent. Even after I told my mom about the vasectomy I got in 1986, she continued to confront me about the need to “Grow up and raise a family.” Over the years, I’ve cited the standard litany of reasons that people give for not raising a family. “The organization Zero Population Growth had a big impact on me. The planet—with its finite resources—isn’t able to feed an ever-expanding population. ” Or, “Who would want to bring a child into this messed-up world?” Or, “Being a parent has its drawbacks, such as loss of freedom and a financial sacrifice I don’t want to make.”
I knew that no matter how valid these points might be, they weren’t the real reason. Even when I was four, in the Chicago courtroom where my parents’ first divorce took place, I could see how they used us kids as weapons against each other. I remember the pressure I felt when the judge asked me which parent I wanted to live with…while both parents waited for my response. Like my three siblings, I elected to live with my mother. I’m confident the judge felt that taking my preference into consideration was the right thing to do. And maybe it was. But the judge lacked the backstory. He was unaware of the lengths my parents had gone to win our favor. They even enlisted both sets of grandparents in their game, catering to us for several weeks—trips to the park, buying copious amounts of baseball cards for my brother and I—to tip the scales in their direction.
Finally, I know why I’m telling you this.
Did I mention that my mom was a nurse? Long before the term codependent was coined, my parents found themselves ensnared in those dynamics. Nurse and patient. Bad-boy drinker and his good-girl savior. Although each of my parents had a good side, the genes I inherited from them terrified me.And the only way I could ever positively, absolutely know that I’d never wield my kids as weapons against aspouse was to never have them in the first place.
Susan Knoxenrolled in writing classes after moving to Seattle and got an idea for her first book, which bridged the gap between her old career as a CPA and her new one as a writer. Financial Basics, A Money Management Guide for Students was published by The Ohio State University Press in 2004. Lately she has become interested in retirement and aging and is working a collection of essays on this subject. Her short stories, creative nonfictions, and personal essays have been published in CALYX, Forge, MacGuffin, Melusine, Monkey Puzzle, Pisgah Review, Rusty Nail, Signs of Life, Still Crazy, Sunday Ink: Works of the Uptown Writers, Wild Violet, and Zone 3.
Twenty years ago my mother decided it was time to move into a facility where she would be cared for in her old age. When I was a child, they were called “old people’s homes,” but now they are “retirement homes” or “continuing care facilities” or “active retirement communities” and they have bucolic names like Tall Oaks, Willow Knolls, Primrose Manor; or hopeful names like Horizon House, Golden Age Center, Friendship Village; or corporate names like The Alliance Community, Emeritus at Regency Residence, Five Star Premier Residences of Plantation; and mottos like “Beautiful Vision,” “Whole Life Living,” or “Destination for the Ageless Generation.”
Mom was considering Copeland Oaks Retirement Home in Sebring, Ohio, a premier facility twenty miles from her home. She was seventy-seven, still driving, and in good health except for epilepsy that was usually, but not always, under control. She told me she was slowing down and she was worried if her epilepsy worsened, she wouldn’t be admitted to Copeland. “I need to be healthy enough to walk in the door, and if they accept me, I’ll be taken care of for life,” Mom said. Copeland Oaks is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and like so many retirement homes under church auspices, they guarantee lifetime care even if a resident exhausts her fiscal resources. It was a comforting thought for both of us.
I felt fortunate my mother was taking charge of her future. My aunt Rachel, the matriarch of our extended family, was unwilling to move from her Minerva, Ohio, home of more than sixty years. Her children, Liza and Leo, were beside themselves. They lived in Arizona and wanted their mother safely settled with caregivers. She refused to move and, for a while, hired people to stay with her, but her worsening heart congestion canceled her say in the matter. Aunt Rachel’s ambulance journey to a Kentucky nursing home near her granddaughter might as well have been a dead-of-night exit since her children did not offer Aunt Rachel time for farewells to neighbors and relatives in the town where she had lived for ninety-two years. I don’t know why Liza and Leo didn’t invite family and old friends over before they moved her, but they are the same cousins who, without consulting any of the other twenty cousins, sold the family Bible at public auction.
Copeland Oaks Retirement Community, built in 1967 on 250 acres of land with stands of alder, ash, oak, sycamore, Scotch pine, birch, and hickory, was situated in the Ohio countryside, a location inviting peacefulness and pleasing views but isolated, being five miles from the nearest town. A long lawn as verdant as my dad’s alfalfa field led to the main building constructed with bricks rosy in summer sun. Thick cream columns stretched two stories high and invited us into an atrium lobby reminiscent of a four-star hotel with its apricot and ivory walls, soft easy chairs, and taupe, low-pile carpeting. We viewed various-sized apartments and meeting areas on each floor where residents could gather to play cards, read, and entertain visitors. We surveyed the library, fitness and aquatic center where a water aerobics class was in progress, art studio where two women were working with watercolors, health services center, and chapel. Everything was clean. There was a fresh citrus scent in the air. The dining room, spacious with floor-to-ceiling windows and French doors, opened onto lush lawns and gravel-covered walking paths around a lake featuring two swans. We stopped for lunch and ordered tuna melt and tomato soup, and Mom pronounced the food good. We talked money. Copeland required $30,000 to secure a place and a monthly fee based on the apartment she chose. She’d had to pinch pennies when we kids were small, and it wasn’t until she went to work as a beautician that our family was pulled out of near-poverty. She was proud she could afford to live here.
For the next ten years, Mom lived in a series of apartments at Copeland—she enjoyed change. She played bridge almost every evening, she read, she did water aerobics, she went on day trips arranged by the staff. The only complaints I ever heard were that the swans were territorial, and no one walked near them for fear of being attacked and that all the residents were Republicans. “I just keep my mouth shut about politics,” she said.
Mom was bright, had a great sense of humor, a trim figure, and two boyfriends. Homer was genteel, tall, thin, soft-spoken, a retired county extension agent. Bud was a lively man, short, muscular, loud, a garage mechanic. Bud eventually won the competition and spent every day with her, took her out for dinner on Saturday, and phoned before he went to bed. Mom made it clear, she didn’t want marriage. She had no intention of cooking, cleaning, and caring for a man in her old age. Mom and Bud enjoyed eight years of companionship and love until he died in 2001.
My brother Tom and I visited Mom after Bud’s death and took her out for dinner as a pick-me-up. When I checked in with Bridgett, the head nurse, she told me Mom was missing appointments, showing up on the wrong day, often wearing the same food-spotted clothes. “We didn’t notice she was slipping,” Bridgett admitted. None of us had realized Bud had been keeping Mom on track. I opened her pillbox, which contained eight different medications segregated for each day of the week. Even though it was Friday, near the end of the week, there was an uneven number of pills in the preceding slots. It was clear she was confused and missing important drugs like Dilantin, which prevented epileptic seizures.
Looking back, I realize I missed a lot of signals. My mother couldn’t balance her checkbook anymore; Tom took over her bill-paying; she mentioned how hard it was to follow the story line of a book she was reading; a bridge partner complained that if she couldn’t count cards, she shouldn’t be playing. While I don’t think there is much I could have done to change her decline, if I had been more aware, I would have been less critical and more understanding of her needs.
Bridgett insisted she move to assisted living. I told Mom. “Assisted living? That’s like going to jail.”
“Have you ever visited assisted living?” I asked her.
“No, but I’ve heard stories. Friends drop away and the rooms aren’t nice, just small bedrooms. It’s like a dormitory.”
“Why don’t we take a look?”
We walked to the manager’s office. Bill said, “We have two single room vacancies.”
Mom looked at me with a raised eyebrow as if to say what did I tell you?
“And there’s one unit with a separate bedroom and a spacious living room, but it costs more money.” He named the figure. “Can you afford it?” I told him she could.
Bill led us to the assisted living wing. When we entered the light-filled living room, larger than her current apartment, Mom’s eyes lit up. She loved the space and was delighted to learn her laundry would be done for her, and she would continue to take her meals in the main dining room. She agreed to move.
A year later, in 2002, she began to wander at night, looking for my father who had died twenty-two years earlier. The staff insisted she wasn’t safe in assisted living. “But she’s so happy here,” I said to the floor nurse. “Isn’t there a way to monitor her movements?” I was told no. “Could I hire someone to stay with her at night?” I was told it had never been done. The staff wouldn’t budge so for the last year of her life, Mom lived in Crandall Nursing Home. She did not go happily. Sitting together on her new blue couch, Tom broke the news. “Must I?” she asked. He nodded yes. She looked at him, her lips compressed, and turned away.
After moving to a small room furnished with a hospital bed, recliner, and chest of drawers, Mom quit wearing hearing aids. Hershey chocolate bars, once irresistible, went uneaten. She lost weight. She didn’t answer her phone when I called, and I had to contact the nurses’ station to get her attention. My mother had tremendous will. I think she’d decided it was time to go. She died just short of her eighty-eighth birthday on July 28, 2003.
Through all of this, I never thought about my older-age future. I was in my fifties, healthy, energetic, strong. Retirement home? Not for me. But today, in my seventies, still healthy, I am not as energetic, not as strong. I can no longer scramble on top of a desk to dust high shelves or paint a room or move heavy furniture. My hearing is not as sharp. I’m developing cataracts. Recently I tore cartilage in my shoulder doing a simple move in Pilates—a move I’ve been doing for fifteen years. “A common injury for older women,” said the physical therapist. Twice my optometrist has spotted a ruptured retinal artery and sent me to a specialist. The condition was uneventful, but frightened me and I wondered, is it starting—that downward slide to infirmity?
Then there’s my brain. My mother developed dementia in her eighties. My late father’s siblings, Mildred and Jack, have Alzheimer’s. That’s both sides of my family. Does that double my likelihood? According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in eight Americans over sixty-five has Alzheimer’s or similar dementia, and nearly half the people over eighty-five have the disease. My mother lived to eighty-seven. I will probably live longer.
My husband, Weldon, and I were invited to visit our friends John and Beverly in their apartment at the newly opened Mirabella Retirement Community located in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. John had been an engineer at Boeing and is a community activist—vigorous and energetic. Bev is a pianist and one of the best-informed people I know. John and Bev met after having been widowed in their seventies and have been a couple for ten years. They delight in shocking people with their unmarried cohabitation status.
Mirabella Retirement Community, constructed of maize and burgundy brick eight stories high, covers a city block. The building seems uninviting, its design cold, and the location feels remote even though it’s only eight blocks from downtown. Across the street is the Seattle Times buildingwith its charcoal gray exterior. I saw no coffee shops, no retail, just a few fast food restaurants, and a dry cleaner. I would not want to walk in that desolate area.
After drinks in John and Bev’s Mirabella roomy apartment, they took us to the top-floor restaurant for dinner. As we waited for a table, most people arrived carrying a bottle of wine, already opened, so they wouldn’t have to buy the restaurant’s higher-priced wine. All the residents wore name-tags. They greeted one another effusively. Everyone was old. Weldon and I were quiet as we drove home. Returning to our building, we took the elevator with neighbors, Jack and Kathy, and I blurted out we’d had dinner at Mirabella. “Everyone looks the same and they act desperately happy,” I said, “and you have to pay for thirty meals a month in the restaurant. So much togetherness. I don’t think I could be with the same people day after day.” Kathy nodded her head and said, “I’ll never move to a retirement home.”
Shortly after the Mirabella visit, I received an invitation from Skyline at First Hill, “downtown Seattle’s only true life care retirement community,” to join residents for lunch. A colorful trifold brochure had a picture of a smiling woman seated at a table with a grouping of white-haired men and women standing behind her holding wine glasses in a celebratory fashion. I wondered, would I act older and feel older if I lived exclusively with people my age?
Every week I write with a group of women ranging in age from forty-two to sixty-two. I am the oldest. I learn from them about raising children in today’s world, about dating, changing social mores, current vernacular, their work world. This is an important connection I might lose if I were in a retirement home. Fourteen-year-old twins and their parents recently moved into a condo on my floor. I enjoy our brief elevator conversations, getting a glimpse into their young lives. My book editor introduced me to a thirty-something entrepreneur who lives in my building, and we went to the Virginia Inn for drinks and conversation. Would this happen if I were in a retirement home?
I’m entering unknown territory. My mother and I never discussed what it was like growing old. One time she mentioned being scared of dying and I was scared to have the conversation with her. In her last year I questioned Mom’s physician about why she was sleeping so much. He looked at me, a little exasperated, and said, “Old people don’t have much energy. Even the act of eating a meal can exhaust them.” In her essay “Why I Moved Into an Old People’s Home” the British writer Diana Athill, reflecting on an acquaintance who insisted on dying at home with the help of friends, wrote, “I had not realized until now that an old person can be reduced to helplessness—can reach the stage of having to be looked after—almost overnight.” As I write these words, I feel a frisson of apprehension move through my midsection. It’s visceral, my denial, my apprehension. I recall my mother’s words in her later years, “We come here to die. We all say that to one another. We come here to die.”
I watch the elders at Market Place North—a condominium building in downtown Seattle where my husband and I have lived for the past seventeen years. I observe them in elevators, converse with them in the lobby, query our doorman about their health. I’m curious about how older residents are managing while staying in their homes. One couple, Phyllis and Mike, installed an electric chair to trundle them up and down their unit’s stairs. My place has thirteen stair steps, and it’s reassuring to have this option. Mark, in his nineties, a former physician, shops Pike Place Market every day and finishes by walking the steep incline on Virginia Avenue that borders our building. I tease Weldon, who exercises six days a week, that I will be long gone and he will still be running up Seattle hills. Pat relocated her husband Brewster, ill with Parkinson’s disease, from a nursing home back to their unit at Market Place North and hired round-the-clock nurses. We often see him being wheeled around city streets and always say hello even though he can’t return our greeting. I was seated next to neighbor Gordy at a fundraising dinner for the Seattle Chamber Music Festival when he leaned over to whisper he was scheduled for radiation treatment for a brain tumor. Nine months later Gordy died in his bed tended by his wife and a nurse’s aide. Bob and his early-onset Alzheimer’s-afflicted wife shifted to assisted living until she died. He returned to his condo and remarried. Unable to shop the Pike Place Market anymore, Pia, a widow who kept her husband’s ashes in her living room until hers could join his and be buried in their native Italy, had groceries delivered from market vendors she had long frequented. Pia made her own Limoncello digestivo and drank it daily saying, “It’s good for my heart.”
Maybe I will be able to stay in my condo with its view of Elliot Bay and spectacular sunsets. I love living in downtown Seattle where the streets are alive with residents in low-income housing and young Amazon employees in recently built high-rise apartment buildings and empty nesters and retirees who’ve downsized to downtown condominiums. I hear Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, German, French, and Italian as I move through the Pike Place Market. And, yes, there are homeless people begging for money and drug dealers darting into alleys to conduct transactions and while I’m thoughtful about where I walk, I don’t feel threatened. The street life invigorates me. I value the diversity.
I’ll continue to walk to Benaroya Hall for symphony concerts and to ACT for plays. I’ll walk to the movies and the Seattle Art Museum and the public library. I’ll go to Caffé D’arte every morning for doppio espresso and chat with the regulars. I’ll shop in the Pike Place Market. I’ll converse with the fishmonger, the green grocer, the cheese purveyor, the grocer, the baker, the wine merchant. When I don’t feel like cooking, I’ll dine in a neighborhood restaurant.
Last summer I prepared a thick notebook for our children entitled “After We’re Gone…” In 2012, nine years after my mother died, we discovered a life insurance policy she’d taken out when she was nineteen. It had been fully paid by 1954. Prudential Insurance Company was ready to turn over the proceeds to the state of Ohio unless we made a claim. Her $500 life insurance yielded $5,000 to her heirs. I didn’t want our children wondering what we’d wished or if they’d missed an important paper. I made lists and copies of documents for them: financial advisors, attorney, insurance agent, real estate agent, Last Will and Testament, social security and Medicare cards, banker, bank accounts, safe deposit box location, key for box, condo deed, supplemental health insurance, doctors, passwords, artwork bequests, jewelry bequests, disposal of possessions, cremation wishes, spreading of ashes, celebratory dinner in lieu of funeral. I included articles on dying that reflect my own wishes for care at the end. Weldon and I have talked with our children about not letting us linger, but I wanted to reinforce our desires.
All that remains is finding a compatible retirement facility. While my intent is to follow the example of older neighbors at Market Place North and spend my remaining years at home, I know there may come a time when I can’t cope on my own. I’ve been declaring for five years that I will visit retirement homes in Seattle to collect information, assess their desirability, persuade Weldon to visit my short list, and inform the children of our preferences in case they have to move one of us quickly, like my Aunt Rachel. But the truth is I haven’t done the research; I’ve only talked about it. I’m resisting this project. I think, it’s too early. My mother was seventy-seven when she went to Copeland Oaks. I’m only seventy-two. I’m a lot like my mother. Will I know, as she did, when it’s time to get assistance, time to quit driving, time to move to a full-care facility? I’m going to trust that I will be as decisive and responsible as she was, that I will know when it’s time.
Patricia Canright Smith writes fiction, memoir, and personal essays. Her linked stories feature human/animal intersections—condors, spiders, pythons, wallabies, rats, a feral cat, gnats—and consider the solace of the natural world. Or not. The essays explore problems, psychotherapy, nature, religion, and death. She also creates visual art in various mediums and sometimes images find their way into the narratives. Until recently, she practiced psychotherapy. Her work has appeared anthologies and journals including Short Story America (third prize), Jabberwock Review, and Catamaran Literary Reader, with new stories upcoming in Fourteen Hills and North Dakota Quarterly. www.patriciacanrightsmith.com
Me & The Toad
Question: If you accept that you have 83 problems and will always have 83 problems, how do you keep from giving up?
I arrived at my brother David’s fiftieth birthday party wearing the Shoulder Toad. You know, Mr. Negatory, that fetid little ear-hisser whose running commentary can suck the sweetness out of honey. Carrying Toad was getting old; I’d been in this funk for a while and I had no idea why. Still, I was happy to be at a beach party and happy to be in California, in the way only a Los Angeles refugee who has spent forty sodden years in Seattle is happy, almost unbearably happy, in that envious way, to be in California.
I skidded down rooty cliffs onto the seed-gravel sands of Monastery Beach, a mile-long shore across from the old Carmelite Monastery that skirts the picture-postcard southern cove of Carmel Bay. I had impulsively decided that this party would be the perfect opportunity for me to start on an art project I’d been thinking about. Why not? Away from home, I could be whoever I wanted, meaning I could be nobody, meaning I didn’t have to be the Therapist. I take it on faith that not all therapists feel this way, but it seemed obvious to me that everyone – family, friends, other therapists, the mail carrier – expected me to be – not behave, be – a certain way: healthy. As in: Is it healthyto get involved with that younger guy so soon after your divorce? (I hope so. I married him.) As you can imagine, this was a burden. Therapists can be as neurotic as the next guy.
Here is the Buddhist parable that had me fired up to do an art project:
A desperate farmer travels across Asia seeking the Healer. “Oh Buddha!” the farmer cries, “the drought stretches seven years, locusts swarm the fields, my wife – horribly stout, huge! – yet her cooking would stymie a starving man, and my six children lie, steal, and gamble. Rats pilfer my duck eggs, termites devour my house, thieves and mendicants swarm my village. . . .” Finally he winds down and waits for the words that will put things right.
The Buddha says, “I cannot help you.”
The farmer’s eyes pop – all this way he came!
The Buddha says, “Everyone has 83 problems. If you solve one, another will surely take its place. And some problems, like death, have no solution.” As the farmer starts to splutter the Buddha leans forward and spreads his hands. “It may be I can assist with the 84th problem.”
The farmer stops. He looks up.
“Your desire to not have problems.”
Assignment: Take a one-hour vacation. Pack only three problems.
To start, I figured I would need problems, so I carried a tiny spiral notebook and a pen. You would think procuring problems would be easy for a therapist. If psychotherapy is a barrel, wouldn’t problems be the fish? But I had a rule: no client problems. Client problems belonged in the office. Which meant I needed outside problems. Which meant I would have to collect, like the Anthropologist of my fantasy: observe, ask friendly questions, write stuff down. In the brand-new tiny spiral notebook.
And no solving.
I surveyed possible subjects: tanned, fit natives running like race-horses after Frisbees. I was squeamish about asking a stranger what his problem is. I don’t like to talk to strangers. I don’t like to intrude. Theoretically, this could render my job undoable, but not at all. My office provided the platform, my chair, the persona; I could ask anything. But a party is different. If a therapist at a party asks a person, oh, how they like their new watch, for example, the person will back away and say “Don’t psychoanalyze me!” Seriously.
I reminded myself that these people did not know me.
Finally I spied someone I recognized, Mickey, a wiry truck driver with golden retro curls whom I knew from when he lived in Venice Beach with David – two pot-smoking hippie musicians. I set my shoulders, sauntered across the sand, and sank down beside him on a driftwood log. We nodded through hellos, long times, so what are you up to nows. Then we sat and nodded at the sand, the sea, the sky. Gulls shrieked. Harbor seals surfed the breakers.
Finally, I braved the question. “So, if you had to say what your problem is – you know, just name some problem – what would it be?”
“I’m just collecting, you know, problems. For this art project I’m doing?” The effort to sound casual was distorting my voice, as though a tiny bot in my larynx was trying – and failing – to polish it up. I cleared my throat.
Mickey took a swig of Moosedrool Ale. He nabbed a twist of manzanita. Together we surveyed the fat amber glisten of bull kelp, rising and falling as if the bay were breathing. Mickey hurled the manzanita into a breaker. Another swig of Moosedrool.
“The problem doesn’t have to be deep or personal or anything,” I said. Mickey chuckled again and I burrowed my toes into the cold wet. Now I could see what a bad idea this was but I was stumped right along with Mickey – what to say to let him off the hook?
Road rage? My eyes slid sideways to see if Mickey meant himself, and like a machine my brain generated Mickey-to-Road Rage links – expression, gesture, musculature, haircut, body art. You might wonder: did I have my usual urge to probe, to try to help? Well, maybe, but that switch was off. I simply closed my mouth, wrote down road rage, closed my notebook, smiled at Mickey, and returned my gaze to the heaving Pacific.
Number one: Road rage.
Question: How can the Dalai Lama giggle when asked about China?
That Buddhist parable, stumbled across six months earlier, had inspired more than art. You know how most things transform in an incremental way, following a traditional pattern – egg to nymph to dragonfly? Not this time. When I happened upon the parable it was a conversion experience. You toil in the garden, nose to the ground, trying to eliminate every rock, bug, weed, day after day, rocks, bugs, weeds, and then one day something makes you stop. You don’t bend down, you raise your head. It has rained, and now the sun is shining, and everywhere – among the rocks, adorned with bugs, alongside weeds – you see parsley, lettuce, chard, chives.
See? Where once I saw problem, I now saw life. But what did it mean? How could I use this dazzling realization?
I started with sharing: friends, family, choir practice, dinner parties.
I told my clients: Imagine believing that we all have 83 problems, every last one of us, even Bill Gates, even Oprah. Then imagine rising up out of your bed of problems and getting to work. Not on your problems. On something else.
Maybe it confused them. It might have been a letdown, a breach of faith – to contemplate acceptance in the face of one’s problems. Or maybe it helped. One woman, catching herself in a litany of complaint, lifted her hands and lilted, “Oh, well, it’s the way of the world!”
At the beach, I set a chipped enamel pot of marinating chicken on the card table near the grill and headed back up the cliff. I worried about raw chicken in the sun, but there did not seem to be coolers, so I ferried supplies, set out cutlery, and speared skewers through possibly spoiled meat, mushrooms, onions, peppers and cherry tomatoes. Beer and wine were passed around, some pot along the fringe. As the pyramids of shish kebabs grew, I egged myself on: You are The Collector. Just ask anyone. I cracked a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
David’s wife, Anne, a trim, fit woman in khaki shorts and a white tee shirt, whom I esteem greatly – rock climber, writer, photographer, world traveler, book editor, and inspiring reader and thinker – joined me with her platter of glistening shish-kebabs.
She pointed at my little notebook.
“I am collecting,” I said. I explained the 83 Problems project.
“Ah.” She laid shish kebabs on the wire grate in neat, efficient rows.
“I’m lazy,” she volunteered.
“No, you’re not,” I said.
“Yes, I am,” she said.
“You are not,” I said. “Look at you. My god.”
“Well, but I’m not doing my own work.” Anne meant her photography, she meant her writing, which she did in fits and starts.
“Well, still – you’re not lazy.”
“So you won’t accept my problem? I thought you were collecting. Shouldn’t you be impartial?”
I studied Anne, her squinty, direct gaze. The breeze riffled her hair, which she calls dishwater – every time we get together she wants me to dye it red. She swiped at a strand with a quick backhand and laid another shish kebob on the grate.
“Okay,” I said. “But I don’t believe it’s lazy. Something is – .” Oops.
I smiled. Anne smiled. Lazy, I wrote.
Assignment: Write a story with problems as characters. Describe what they wear, their hair.
The parable had made me wake up, as the Buddhists say, but the parable had not made me happy. Oh, the idea of the parable made me happy, but something was wrong – and getting wronger – and I could not make sense of it. I had spent the last few years solving my problems: the difficult marriage, the move, the new office, marrying the younger guy – and something was wrong?
I wanted to accept my problem, but I could not figure out what it was.
Question: If you do not think about your problems, where do they exist? (Tree falling in forest phenomenon.)
At the beach, a tall, sinuous woman in black leggings and purple Converse high-tops sauntered up cupping a wine glass – not plastic but her own glass goblet. She stared at the grill.
“Do they all have meat?” she asked.
Without turning, Anne gestured toward the other battered card table and said in the manner of a person reading a phonebook, “You can make one with only vegetables, Louise.”
“Oh,” Louise said. Deadpan behind mirrored aviator sunglasses, she stared at Anne, and then at me, one beat too long. Then she said, “All right,” and sauntered off.
“Can I change my problem?” Anne said.
When he wasn’t slopping after bugs – or whatever toads do when they aren’t harassing you – the Toad waxed foul in my ear about my personal failings: too selfish, too loud, too sharp, and all those past mistakes. He especially sneered at my work, questioning its worth, inflating the flaws. It was getting to me.
I had become a therapist because I thought it was important to help people, because I am a natural cheerleader, because my brain likes puzzles (detect, assess, sort, assist), because I needed to make a living, because I was too self-doubting to test other talents, because I hoped to figure out why my mother went crazy, because everyone was doing it, because the workings of humans fascinated me (permission to stare at talking faces!), and because I had healing to do, though I did not know that then. I was good at it, and I liked that. I also liked the stories. I liked the people. I learned a lot, and they (mostly) used what I learned to make their lives better, sometimes much better, at times to my surprise, always to my satisfaction. On occasion, the work seemed sacred – something that arose of its own accord as I sat with souls whose pain and whose courage were awe-inspiring.
But practicing psychotherapy had never felt like a calling to me the way it seemed to for others, and I had wondered if I was deficient in some way, especially since, at the moment I decided to apply to graduate school, I had heard in my head, like a bell tolling, You will help other people do their things instead of doing your thing.
Well, what was that supposed to mean? What “thing?” True, when I was young I had played piano; I learned guitar; I sang folk songs like Joan Baez. But not for one nanosecond did I believe I should become a singer. We didn’t do that in my family. We did academic things. Anyway, I had performance anxiety. So I ignored the tolling bell of doom and over the years as I practiced as a therapist, I did “things” on the side: sang in a choir; took classes in drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture; joined a writing group.
Excuse me, Toad, but what about this was abominable?
Assignment: Even though you know another problem will take its place, go ahead and solve one. Yours or someone else’s. Big or small.
“I went for seductive, when I should have gone for lovable.”
A small, dark-haired woman in black crop-pants, a skinny black t-shirt, and round, pink plastic sunglasses had planted herself in my path. She tilted her head in a way that reminded me of a nuthatch stalking an ant. I glanced at the prominent knobs of her collarbones. I reminded myself, stop that.
“I’m sorry?” I said.
She squinched up her bony shoulders. “Anne said you were collecting problems.” She nodded.
I nodded back, transfixed. Her entire body seemed to buzz, electricity housed in translucent skin.
Enunciating as though my grasp of the language was uncertain, she said, “I said, I went for seductive – which didn’t work. He wasn’t into seductive. I should have gone for lovable.”
“Oh! Okay. Thank you!”
She hopped off. I set my beer on the sand, flipped open my little pad, and extracted my pen. It hovered over the paper. What had she said? I went for seductive when I should have gone for lovable.
I couldn’t see it. Not lovable? She was adorable, little bird.
Sometimes I would endeavor to explain why I did these on-the-side things as though someone were condemning my frivolity. Or my conceit. One explanation I believed in: therapists need art. Spending so much time in other people’s soup can dissolve you. Having “good boundaries” is supposed to protect – but what do you do with the sorrows of others? How do you not give your heart? One psychologist I knew worked in her garden on Mondays, painted on Thursdays, and saw clients the other days. Another became a master potter, spinning deep, delicate rice bowls of porcelain on Wednesday mornings and Friday afternoons. Five of the six women in my first writing workshop were therapists. The psychiatrist in my office was a poet. On the side.
Question: Are your problems better than mine?
Louise, whom I learned was a model-actress-screenwriter-realtor, was again staring at me, now over her vegetable shish kebab. I nodded hello, again. I asked her the question.
“Well, my mother, who has x-ray vision for the fatal flaw, rules out every man I date, or woman, too, though that goes without saying – but I mean, she doesn’t have to forbid, nothing like brute force, because once she’s pointed out the fatal flaw, it’s over for me, I can’t get past it, so I haven’t had sex for, I don’t know, forever – which might be the plan – and she’s even more critical of me, but then she gives me money and vacations and stuff – only when she wants to; she has control issues – which is actually hostile – ”
“I’m looking for, you know, just one problem. Maybe something recent?”
“Oh,” Louise said. She twisted her mouth. “Recent.” She raised her eyebrows behind the aviator sunglasses. I waited.
“Well, at that craphole, Esalen – I always sneak into the hot tubs on the drive up from L.A. – they pissed me off so bad that on my way out I drove into a wall out of pure spite and took the side off my new Toyota.” She brandished a bare arm toward the cars on the roadside.
Did I follow up with: “Why were you pissed off?” “So does this happen often?” “Would you say anger is a problem in your life?”
I did not. I nodded and said, “Great!” And I wrote Took side off new Toyota out of pure spite. Esalen. That was it. I was done.
Assignment: Tie Problem-Ribbons in your hair. Get a haircut.
I became rabid: Problems Without Pathology! Happiness does not depend upon their eradication! But if problems were not weeds to be pulled, what was I doing in the office? It could have been the Toad polluting my thinking: I was railing against complexes, diagnoses, proscriptions and prescriptions, ranting about the Tyranny of Mental Health as though mental health were a bad thing. I called psychology flat, final, reductive.
“We pin issues on people like identification tags,” I snapped in consultation group one day. “Susan Sontag called it the aggression of interpretation. What’s to say that a client’s struggle is rooted in a complex rather than, oh, I don’t know, hormones? Or genetics.”
The purpose of consultation group was to explore psychological knowledge, not genetics or endocrinology. Why did it sound like some ignorant, evil conclave?
At the beach, people handed me problems as if I were asking for spare change and they had fists full. Beerman Brian? Louise. Anne, again? Louise. Rose? Well, Louise. This suggested some problems are contextual. The sun flamed copper and then plunged into the sea while I recorded In-laws. My thighs. Raging sexuality. Rude people – no. . . how about, Upstairs neighbor is not a nice person. By the bonfire, one reveler belted the theme from “Rawhide.” I thought about whether it was a problem that he knew every word of the theme song from a 1959 TV show. I took down Too much fun. Fatal indecision. My willpower is not what I thought it was. Bruce the Winemaker, who was driving the wine table with two drunken buddies, interrupted his soliloquy on terroir to raise his chin to the sky and roar, I was raised by wolves. I wrote it down. Carry on, I wanted to sing. It’s fine. There is no being done with problems until you die. And for Buddhists, you’ll be back.
It was dark, without a moon. The breeze was gentle off the water, and cool; the bonfire was mostly glowing cinders. The last partygoers had settled into quiet clusters of twos and threes. Fiddler Will sat alone by the dying fire, a skinny denim scarecrow with superlative teeth – the cigarette stains did not detract – and clear plastic glasses mended with band-aids.
I joined Will. I asked him the question. He raised his eyes, he squinted his eyes, he closed his eyes. He displayed the rack of teeth in the manner of a dentist’s model, as though they might ward me off. He laid his cheek on his fiddle and sawed a creaky little jig. Then he dragged the bow across the catgut strings in a stretched shriek.
“Shy guy,” he whispered.
Shy guy, I wrote. I resisted the impulse to draw him out. I could not resist the impulse to pat his arm.
Question: Why does it make you feel better about your problems to hear about someone else’s?
It was exhilarating, collecting. Exhilarating, relating to people without the Therapist mantle. I felt free. And when I came home, I could think again, and I began to sort out what my problem was. I speculated about what I might want to do about it. I had been railing against Psychology as though Psychology were bad, but Psychology was the same as it ever was. My problem was: I did not want to practice Psychology anymore. I hadn’t realized it earlier because, apparently, Quitting the Practice was against the Rules.
Or maybe I lacked courage. What would I have said if someone had asked at a party, “What is your problem?” Toenail fungus? The Toad on my shoulder?
Yes, there was self-interrogation – I mean, isn’t it always exhilarating to be on vacation? Don’t you always come home a new person? How could anyone decide anything, let alone something this big, because of a beach party? But I knew it was right: the Toad seemed to be off somewhere.
At our next office lunch, after murmuring through the usual – kitchen, scheduling, clients, consultation, kids – I apologized for how cranky I had been.
“I thought I might be depressed, but that’s not it. It’s just – well, I’m still interested in people. I’m just interested in thinking about them in a new way. You know, that is more, I don’t know, literary.”
“I love how writers make their characters so vivid.”
They didn’t get it. “Yeah. . . ” Because I hadn’t said it. “But – I think I’m tired. I think I’ve done what I have in me to do.” My heart was beating hard and my eyes felt like Basset Hound’s – sorry. “I think I’m going to quit psychotherapy.”
Nothing happened. No Hand of God knocked me flat; my mates did not turn me out. In fact, they beamed – That’s wonderful, Patricia – and we moved on. My officemates, my consultation group, my colleagues let me go. It was not shameful that I did not want to practice psychotherapy anymore. It was not a betrayal of my work or my clients. It did not negate what I’d done. Psychology was not a religion, where once you lose the faith you are officially a non-person. But I had treated it as though it were. I had believed that I had to do this work, had to keep trying, and every year, it cost me more. There is no doubt a psychological explanation, but I did not need to work it through. I just needed to say I’m done. Not so easy when what you’re done with is not only how you earn your keep, but, if not your actual “thing” (which, let’s face it, you may never discover your actual “thing” because “things” may not even exist because they are human constructions), it’s still your ”identity.”
But here’s the deal: How can you solve the new problem if you won’t allow for its existence?
Assignment: Build a little Problem House. Hang it in a tree.
That was a couple of years ago. It took time to say good-bye. Yes, I gave people two-years’ notice. It’s not regular life, it’s therapy.
Meanwhile, I have been working on the 83 Problems project. Besides collecting problems, I am making 83 ceramic heads. I like the number 83. Because I am a literal person. Which I accept.
First, I crafted one out of clay – well, I crafted a few, but I kept the one I liked, which I modeled on Adam Sandler because I like his nose. I got stuck on the ears – somehow, that took one entire August. When I figured it out, I made four separate molds and I started cranking out Adam Sandlers. (Not that anyone recognizes him.) I gave them different expressions. People usually assume each represents a particular problem but it doesn’t. I figure it’s up to the viewer to supply the problems.
Now that I’ve got the ears, I can’t figure out the body. The heads need to be posted on some kind of body so the viewer can be eye-to-eye, but I don’t like the prototypes I’ve tried – blocks, sticks, branches – maybe because every time I come up with something, I think about making 83 of them. My latest idea was plain rebar – industrial and man-made, just like problems – but heads on rebar might look like a Cannibal Thing. Can’t have that.
And I want the piece to be interactive but I don’t know how. Should I include the Parable, the Collection, the Questions and Assignments? I want to show the work outdoors: Green Lake, an urban lake in Seattle which people walk around talking about their problems. But I’ll need permits, helpers, a way to haul the heads. Maybe I should just research galleries so the piece can be up for longer than a day. Actually, my dream is to take the heads on the road and photograph them in different locations, not to mention spread the word about everyone having 83 problems – the mandate of the work, after all. But if I don’t have the gumption to install them at Green Lake, what will I do in Omaha?”
It is not fun, being stuck. I have to argue with the Toad – yes, him again – who is questioning the work’s worth, inflating its flaws. Not to mention harping on the never-ending past mistakes. Thank you, Toad. Also, please shut up. I’m working here.
Assignment: Make a little Problem Doll. Do whatever you like with it.
Christine Stewart-Nuñez is the author of Snow, Salt, Honey (2012); Keeping Them Alive (2011); Postcard on Parchment (2008); Unbound & Branded (2006); and The Love of Unreal Things (2005). Her piece “An Archeology of Secrets” was a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2012. Her work has appeared in such magazines as Arts & Letters, North American Review, Prairie Schooner and Shenandoah. She teaches at South Dakota State University.
Marriage and Marble
Before you and our three-year-old son joined me in Prague, I worked in Poland for two weeks without you. The separation from your hugs, from your sleep-filled breaths, from your chitchat over an evening meal, from your gourmet cheese omelets, from your memorized punch lines, from your presence in my bed, electrified my desire for your touch. You wouldn’t walk the St. Charles Bridge with me at dawn – you preferred to sleep in – but we watched fog lift from the Vltava River, drank beer in low-lit pubs, toured hill-cresting castles, and followed a guidebook’s scavenger hunt. “Like geocaching with art,” you said. You led us down winding, cobbled road after winding, cobbled road until we saw all the listed David Cerný sculptures: babies crawling up the Žižkov Television Tower, a statue of St. Wenceslas riding a dead horse, the two “peeing men” outside the Kafka Museum.
Cerný’s “Hanging Man” – Sigmund Freud dangling by one hand from a four-story building – took the longest to find. I would’ve missed the intersection of Husova and Skorepka streets if you hadn’t scrutinized the map. How bleak Freud seemed there, suspended from the building, its burnt-orange pipes and gutters like veins against the building’s buttercream skin. “It represents the human need to make the decision to live life or let go,” you read aloud.
The sculpture that drew me in adorned Prague’s park on Petrin Hill, a height to which we ascended via cable car. It wasn’t one of Cerný’s. The male figure supported the female figure’s shoulder with one hand, the other cupping her cheek; her arms wrapped around his neck, she’s sinking into the embrace, marble skirt pooling around his feet. They kiss as if nothing, not even the green lawn with its handful of strolling, rain-drenched tourists, existed beyond them. Do you remember kissing me in a deli the October weekend you met my parents? We’d finished our sandwiches and chips, were still sipping sodas and chatting with my mom, when you slipped your arm around my waist, dipped me back, and kissed me long and deep in the middle of lunch rush.
Grabbing your hand, I pointed to the sculpture. I wanted that kiss. You wouldn’t lean in. Not even to peck my cheek. Not even when I asked. I wondered if you loved me as this sculpted man adored his beloved. Now, I see that love’s end emerged here in the ways we moved, spoke, kissed, danced – or didn’t.
“I feel like we’re spinning away from each other,” I said after we returned from Prague, and I found the words. You sat on the deck stairs that hot July day, and I stood in front of the ornamental crabapple tree, many of its branches barren. Even though I lopped off those I could reach, from across the yard anyone could tell it was dying.
“You’ve been pulling away from me. Even before the trip. Hours playing video games, watching movies alone, checking your email until midnight. What’s going on?” I grabbed a few leaves off a low branch, studying them for blight. None were curled or frayed. No leaves displayed spots or clusters of mold. I couldn’t tell why some branches refused to bud, as if immune to the pull of summer’s heat.
Your expression hardened. “What exactly do you want?” you asked. I didn’t have the courage to say to feel loved again.
“I want to spend time together. Go on dates. Go dancing,” I said.
I waited a few seconds, imagining you’d say, “Let’s go out this weekend. I’ll find a sitter.” Instead, your eyes narrowed, gazing into the chasm between us.
“Nothing I do seems good enough,” you said.
In Russia, I visited the Fallen Monument Park in Moscow with my colleagues. The park was started after the collapse of the Soviet Union when Russian citizens toppled statues of Lenin and Marx, workers and peasants, and dragged them to rest – haphazardly – here. Usually curators shape the gestalt of the viewer’s experience by making deliberate choices about how to place statues and metal sculptures in relationship to each other. And in the newer sections of the sculpture park, I could tell that the curator had considered the dynamic architecture of landscape; how, for example, each piece in the newer section conformed to a hedge’s bend, a hill’s slope, a boulder’s angle.
You often sought such direction from me. You often said, “Just tell me what you want me to do” about cooking, tending the yard, planning a date night, whatever. So it went. If I asked you to clean the bathroom on a Tuesday, I’d spend three days ignoring the toothpaste speckles on the mirror and the grime lining the toilet bowl. On Saturday, I’d interrupt your videogame campaign. “When will you clean the bathroom?” I’d ask. You’d march off, emerging ten minutes later with the toilet, sink, and mirrors sparkling. But something would always be left undone. I wouldn’t notice that you skipped the shower until the next morning when I’d see the ring around the porcelain tub. When I’d tease, “I think you missed a spot,” you’d sigh, your gaze narrowing.
In the newer areas of the sculpture park, I found myself studying couples. One piece, “Minuet,” depicts two Victorian dancers, arms held up and locked, hand-over-hand. Such fine-chiseled costumes: the woman’s fancy handkerchief and the man’s detailed pockets. When I followed the gaze of each dancer and observed a neglected park – litter tumbling between installations, grass nine-inches long sprouting tufts, weeds creeping up pedestals – it was clear the groundskeepers didn’t share the curator’s meticulous care. I never wanted to map out the long-term dreams or daily directions for our married life; I wanted us to curate together.
Remember when you bought me dance lessons as a Valentine’s Day gift the year we got engaged? Swing, salsa, foxtrot. I loved watching you pivot and step, your body’s muscle memory retaining the poise and fluid motion from years of martial arts training. You had perfect posture – head up, shoulders back, elbow right-angled. Lean and muscled, strength swept you across the dance floor. You just needed to learn the dance sequences and how to communicate your intentions to me with pressure from your hand. Even when you looked away – toward the instructor, toward the door, toward the parking lot – I was supposed to understand your intentions by the turn of your hand. When you forgot to signal me, I anticipated the movement of your hips.
From the angle I snapped the photograph of “Minuet,” I notice the woman’s arched eyebrows, her lips drawn into a pout. I can see only the back and side of the male dancer’s body. Without his face, I can’t see the hard gaze of disinterest.
“Do you want this life?” I gestured to my body, our bedroom.
You were angry because I’d asked you to help me plant my garden before I flew to Russia. You hate being outside, sweating and dirty, and I know this, but I asked for an afternoon of digging so we could enjoy fresh beans, tomatoes, carrots, and squash. You gave me four hours on Saturday, but for the rest of the Memorial Day weekend, you avoided me by staying up late and slipping away to run errands. Exasperated, I confronted you.
From where I stood next to the bed, I could see the garden, the spiral structure for herbs at its center. Our five-year-old had helped me lift the concrete squares to form its base, and he hugged armfuls of dirt to fill it in. In the following weeks, we watched our sculpture sprout basil, dill, oregano, cilantro, chives, parsley, tarragon, rosemary, and sage. He cut sprigs for salads, and he remembered how we planted the sand-sized seeds. You always forgot what we grew and returned from the store with herbs sealed away in plastic containers.
“Yes,” you answered. “I want you.”
For two years – since that Prague trip – I heard words come out of your mouth that your actions contradicted. Yes, I’ll go to the street dance, but you sat on the side, even when other men tried to dance with me. Yes, I’ll go to the parade, yet you listened to a podcast on your iPod and leaned against a tree, unable to hear our son’s excited chatter, unable to see the happiness on his face as he caught Tootsie Rolls and Smarties thrown from the floats as they passed.
During a break from walking in the Fallen Monument Park, I sat on a bench across from a twenty-something couple – close to our age when we met. I chuckled because I knew you’d make fun of their matching clothing: white t-shirts, white shorts, black sandals. The woman lay across the red-slated bench, head on his right thigh. She clutched his hand, as if she dreamed she needed to hold on tight, as if she felt his attention spinning away. On his left thigh rested a mini-laptop computer; his left hand pecked out words. They fit into the park, as if planned. The man attended to the computer screen as a dance instructor would study the alignment of a student’s heels and bones or scrutinize a dancer’s plié to see if her scapula lay flat. I don’t remember when you started to choose screens, two-dimensional games and movies as an easy way to pass time. I wanted to approach the woman, to pull her to my bench and warn her, “Be careful, be careful.” Instead, I photographed them.
When I saw a pair of marble figures beyond a smattering of shrubs in Moscow, I still believed work and creativity could renew our relationship. From a distance, one figure had long hair, curls flowing as if in defiance of the form. She knelt in front of a seated figure, his head in front of her hips. An intimate kiss. My breath quickened and my heart softened. I walked closer to see the expression on her sugar-colored face. From this new perspective, I could see that the male figure was kissing her smooth torso, and I recalled your lips against the stretched skin of my swollen, pregnant belly. Even heavy and tired and scattered by hormonal surges, I floated from moment to moment with you, the sharp edges of our lives rounded out. At night, with your arm over my hip, I felt an intense dimension of love – love triangulated with this person we’d created together. The shift in evening sunlight brought me back to the figures and my new understanding of our muted love.
A few weeks after you say “divorce,” I sort my photos from Russia. I realize I photographed more than pairs. Among the couples, Alexander Pushkin sculptures, and busts of Stalin, are three singles: Child Hugging an Object, Man Alone, and Woman on a Bench.
I scrutinize them. I wonder what it means that I photographed these statues. Was I trying to tell myself something? Face your fear. Admit your family is broken, so broken that its elements can’t exist in the same piece of art. A wave of panic seizes my heart. Where another viewer of Child Hugging an Object might see the child’s chubby arms, full cheeks, and smooth, bald head and say “adorable,” I obsess about his posture: he kneels, sitting over his thighs, and he hugs a pillow almost his size; his eyes are closed, his lips drawn to a pronounced pout. Is this our son, heartbroken? No. Child Hugging an Object represents the past when our unhappiness burdened him. The future will free him, too.
Man Alone’s arms hug his knees against his chest. His curly beard and longish hair age him beyond your years. Cottonwood seeds blanket the green blades of grass around the statue like snowflakes. Sunlight filters through the branches and leaves making shadows on the statue’s back and casting his face in darkness. You say you want to live alone. I can’t imagine this means happiness for you, now or ever. I finally understand that you don’t curate life experiences. You live them.
I’ve sat the same way as Woman on a Bench, arms resting on her thighs, elbows drawn into her body as if she’s cold. The sculptor carved her from rough-hewn rock and placed her on an unadorned pedestal. To her right, the bench is empty. Her face turns away from the space, chin resting on her shoulder. Her eyes are closed, lips frowning. She grieves the emptiness beside her. Yet the evening sun warms her face and the left side of her body, lightening the cement-gray stone. Her toes are pointed like a ballet dancer’s. She’s ready. All she needs to do is step away from the space into a new rhythm.
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Milkweed Editions, 2013 ISBN 10: 1571313354; ISBN 13: 978-1571313355 390 pages, paper
Review by Sue Ellis
Braiding Sweetgrass has the feel of a bible, and the essays that make up the chapters are like sweet psalms that gently admonish and instruct with practical advise to help us save our environment. That a good many of us haven’t made the connection between the earth’s health and our own is at the heart of the problem Robin Wall Kimmerer addresses. And it becomes clear within a few chapters that she’s uniquely qualified for the job, writing from the perspective of botanist and professor of plant ecology, and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.
She begins with the Native American perspective on creation, how Skywoman fell from the heavens like a maple seed, and finding earth covered with water, stepped onto the back of a turtle. Soon aquatic birds and other water creatures began to dive below the surface, searching out mud for the woman to build upon. Skywoman spread a precious handful of their gift across the back of the turtle, and then began to dance in celebration, causing the earth to grow and grow. It was then that she shared the gifts she had brought with her – plants and seeds to provide food and shelter for all who lived upon Turtle Island. The exchange of gifts was an act of reciprocity, the importance of which is stressed throughout the book: people must learn to give back rather than always taking from the earth.
The essays are too numerous to list, each filled with both Native American folklore and scientific facts that pertain to the natural world. They cover such topics as the making of maple syrup, the preservation and harvest of black ash trees for basket making, and the many uses for cattails.
There is an essay about Lake Onondaga in New York State, the most polluted lake in the United States. It describes the industry whose lack of consideration for the environment led to the lake’s pollution. It also tells the story of a man who planted patches of grass in the shape of letters spelling H E L P upon a section of the lake’s ruined shoreline. And help did begin to arrive in the form of concerned citizens, scientists and ecologists who made headlines by banding together to find a solution for the lake’s distress. Meanwhile, unlauded, Mother Earth works to renew herself.
My favorite essay is about the Pacific Northwest’s Nechesne people. Their management of wild salmon runs in the glory days before wetlands were leveled out and filled to make more pasture for cows is a masterpiece of lyrical prose, and a human history deserving of Kimmerer’s eloquent telling.
Toward the end of the book, Kimmerer describes Windigo, the Native American version of the devil, who seeks to destroy all that he touches. Here’s an excerpt describing her fantasy about curing Windigo of his evil ways by making him drink her handmade, medicine – after she’s rendered him manageable with a kettleful of poisonous buckthorn tea:
He lies spent in the snow, a stinking carcass, but still dangerous when the hunger rises to fill the new emptiness. I run back in the house for the second pot and carry it to his side, where the snow has melted around him. His eyes are glazed over but I hear his stomach rumble so I hold the cup to his lips. He turns his head away as if it were poison. I take a sip, to reassure him and because he is not the only one who needs it. I feel the medicines standing beside me. And then he drinks, just a sip at a time of the golden pink tea, tea of willow to quell the fever of want and strawberries to mend his heart. With the nourishing broth of the Three Sisters and infused with savory wild leeks, the medicines enter his bloodstream: white pine for unity, justice from pecans, the humility of spruce roots. He drinks down the compassion of witch hazel, the respect of cedars, a blessing of silverbells, all sweetened with the maple of gratitude. You can’t know reciprocity until you know the gift. He is helpless before their power.
His head falls back, leaving the cup still full. He closes his eyes. There is just one more part of the medicine. I am no longer afraid. I sit down beside him on the newly greening grass. “Let me tell you a story,” I say as the ice melts away. “She fell like a maple seed, pirouetting from the autumn sky.”
I was impressed enough by this beautifully written book to hope it will become required reading in schools, serving as a guide for environmental awareness and the conservation of natural resources. Braiding Sweetgrass shines a light down a narrowing path, if only we are wise enough to follow.
Sue Ellis is a sock knitter, soap maker, gardener, and retired postmaster who lives near Mt. Spokane in Washington State. Some writing credits include Christian Science Monitor, Prick of the Spindle, Wild Violet, The Cynic Online Magazine and BluePrint Review.
Scott Russell Morris is a PhD student at Texas Tech University’s English program. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University. His essays have previously appeared in Brevity, SLAB, and Best of Mormonism 2012. He is currently working on a food memoir about a winter in Kazakhstan.
On Whom Things Are Lost
If I should certainly say to a novice “Write from experience and experience only,” I should feel that this was rather a tantalizing monition if I were not careful immediately to add, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!” -Henry James
I am not one of those people. Things are lost on me and by me all the time.
For example, I lost the first draft of this essay. No joke. Given the nature of this essay, I am pleased that it worked out this way; it’s perfect, really, that I should lose an essay about losing things.
I started the essay in March, and had written a fairly thorough draft, probably eight or nine pages. It was a rough draft, to be sure, but I was pleased with where it was going. As is my general habit, I didn’t touch the essay for several weeks. I like to let essays sit and settle so that I have a fresh perspective when I return to them. When I tried to come back to the essay in early June, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I checked every folder in my computer twice, including the recycle bin; I searched for the word “lost” with the computer’s search feature (in the process discovered the manuscript of an award-winning ghost story I’d written as an undergraduate, which I thought I’d lost years ago, which has the phrase “lost at sea” in its critical moment); I checked and double-checked my portable hard drive and both of my flash drives; I checked my laptop; I checked my work laptop; I checked my email to see if I had sent it to myself. I couldn’t find it anywhere. Gone.
I spent hours smoldering quietly and rummaging through the electronic sinkhole that my computer had apparently become before I gave up the search and started a new draft, almost completely from scratch. I felt the loss of that first essay keenly, though it was a delectably laughable loss. With any other essay, I might have just given up, but after the initial frustration, I got back to work, now with both less and more material.
And yet, this is not the same essay it would have been; I’ve forgotten the witty way I mentioned the TV show Lost without actually mentioning it; the connection between salt which has lost its savor and books that I can’t find; the genius tie-in to the Beatles’ lyrics, “We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold and the people who lose their soul and gain the world,” which I think is how I began thinking about the love that was lost on me. I am not the same person I was then, either. I’m married now, learned to love, but when I started that first draft, I was still weeks away from meeting the woman I would marry. And even as I started this the second first draft, that was only a flirtatious friendship. Every time I tweak this essay, it becomes a new draft, it reflects a new person, becomes a palimpsest of personas.
* * *
I’ve lost sleep; confidence in myself; the lens cap for several of my camera lenses; time; my mother, my grandmother, and both grandfathers; car keys, house keys, work keys, bike-lock keys, pretty much any key ever given me; computer passwords; shoes; the remote shutter control for my camera, only two weeks after getting it for Christmas; books; money, both literally and figuratively; games; weight; opportunities; a yellow tie with a blue-checked pattern; my flash drive; my train of thought.
* * *
Because of the very nature of writing, you’re not getting the whole truth of these stories. For example, in the story you’re about to read about me losing a shoe, you will get only the details I’ve included, which will mix with your own memories or imaginings of the place, and then you will have your own version of the story. Your image of my mother standing on the banks of the river will look one way, and my image another, and we’ll both be right for our own sakes, but neither of us will grasp the truth. Even as I remember it, I have lost details, remembering my mother older than she was at the time, her hair color slightly off. David Shields quotes Patrick Duff to tell us: “All memories are predicated on loss. . . It’s through the act of remembering that we bring these forgotten experiences back from oblivion. . . . Our memories are filled with gaps and distortions, because by its very nature memory is selective.” The act of writing and recording those memories is equally selective.
When I was young, my family twice stopped at Zion National Park and hiked a trail called the Narrows, which followed a series of shallow side-winding twists in the placid Virgin River as it creates a beautiful chasm of high canyon walls with sandy beaches and smooth stones. I remember water snakes gliding along the surface; I remember areas I was frightened to go in because the water reached up to my thighs; I remember a particular bend in the river where the sandbar was widest, where a single tree glowed in sunlight. Where the water was deepest, my older, more adventurous brother Michael took off his shirt and dove off the canyon wall into the pool. I remember this spot in particular because on both occasions, I tried to swim with my brother and I lost a shoe both times. I remember peeling off my shoes and feeling how the gentle river tugged the shoes from my fingers; I remember the way my mom tried not to laugh and the way my dad’s eyes flickered when he learned my shoe was gone.
* * *
Here is another story, which was true when I first wrote it, but that truth has been lost by time:
In that summer after I lost the first draft of this essay, a friend told me that she loved me. In fact, she said “no other girl in the world” loves me the way she does. Which, as far as I could tell, was probably true, but I had no feelings for her. We were friends, and I welcomed the friendship, but there was nothing else. What is a man to do when a woman calls him Prince Charming and pours her heart out to him, but there is nothing in his heart to return to her?
“Why don’t you love me?” she asked. “Is it because I’m not smart enough?”
Her intellect is actually quite impressive. And she always gave me handmade perfect gifts, like the squirrel camera bag, the squirrel collage, and the painting of a squirrel at Delicate Arch. I lied: “There isn’t anything in particular.”
There were in fact some rather particular things I didn’t like about her: the way she sometimes talked down to my socially awkward younger brother; the way every little drama sent her into a flurry of emotion; the way she didn’t talk to me for three months when she found out I had asked an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in almost a year for a date; the way she frequently asked if I was mad at her though I never was. But I wasn’t about to expound on what I thought her faults were. If we had been dating, a discussion of such things might have been appropriate, but we weren’t. I tried to change the subject. And I acted like I didn’t notice how much she was hurting.
Besides, those things I didn’t like aren’t important. I am her friend anyways, her faults are not who she is, and though I had no desire to date her, I liked having her as a friend. But I confess that I was not always as good a friend to her as I might have been. I kept hoping that she would become less interested – there were times when I intentionally didn’t laugh at her jokes; didn’t smile too big when I saw her; evaded those good-bye hugs that are commonplace in my other friendships; avoided sitting next to her in public; occasionally didn’t invite her to outings with other friends; made sure to talk about her in a way that people would know we were just friends, especially when I was otherwise complimenting her and giving her high praise: all this as a way of hoping she would get the hint. I feel a deep sense of guilt for treating her badly, but most especially for not treating her well.
What bothers me is what I lost in turning her down. We were still friends, but no longer as close as we once were. She no longer laughed so much at my jokes; she didn’t smile so big when she saw me; she no longer requested good-bye hugs, though she still gave them to my younger brother; she made no special effort to sit near me in public; she didn’t invite me as often to outings with other friends; she still talks about me but only in the casual way a friend mentions another friend. Sure, she had gotten the hint, but what did I gain by my callousness?
“Why don’t you love me?”
Were love rational, I believe I could have convinced myself to love her in the way she wanted. But if love were so fickle as to be persuaded by mere reason, there would have been other girls whom I might also have fallen for – those beautiful women who have crossed my way through the years. Women I shared intimate moments with, women I watched B-movies with on rainy Saturday afternoons, women I ate Waldorf salads with and then did the dishes with in a quiet kitchen where the only sound was the swish of sudsy water. Women who thought they loved me. Women I ultimately disappointed or grew weary of.
It is difficult feeling obliged to love someone. It is especially difficult when you do love that person, just not that way.
The most amusing or instructive companion is at best like a favourite volume, that we wish after a time to lay upon the shelf; but as our friends are not always willing to be laid there, this produces a misunderstanding and ill-blood between us. -William Hazlitt
Did we get over our disagreements? Yes. We are friends again, quite close even. My wife and I had dinner with her and her new husband last night. But even knowing how it has all turned out, I still think back with a sense of regret. Not a regret that we didn’t date, but regret for my silence, for causing pain. For being at a loss for what to do when she trusted me, and for letting her down no matter what I did.
* * *
Lost, depleted, used up, drained, exhausted, gone, given up, wasted, forgotten, forfeited, failed, fallen, fell short, divested, misplaced, passed up, missing, off-track, disoriented, irrevocable, lacking, strayed, vanished, absent, absorbed, adrift, astray, bewildered, overcome, perplexed, spellbound, misled, unredeemed, wayward, without, took a beating, took a loss, took the heat, kissed goodbye, came up short, wiped out, went out of business, bombed it, fell between the cracks, away at sea, down the drain, fell on deaf ears, blew it.
* * *
Wordsworth said that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recalled in tranquility.” In my experience with writing, this seems a contradiction. The second first draft of this essay, when I sat down to rewrite the written pages but instead began to write about my friend’s broken heart, was not written in tranquility. It was written after the thoughts had persistently bothered me for several days. And when I returned to the essay again, months later, the powerful feelings were gone. The parts I wrote as a “spontaneous overflow” and the ones I recall in tranquility are at differences now, but both truths resound in their time, even if neither tells the complete story.
* * *
Having lost the first draft of this essay, I consider this a second chance to record my losses. What you are reading is not the second draft, though. Nor is it the third, or even the fourth or fifth, but some bizarre mixture of the past and the present that are, somehow, all the present. It still has parts of the first first draft: the story of Zion Canyon was there from the beginning, as was the list of things I have lost, though I don’t think everything on the original list has been accounted for. There have been losses from the second first draft as well. For example, the second first draft had quotes from the Bible: parables of lost sheep, coins, sons; nothing is lost to Christ or God the Father; be ye therefore perfect. I took those out because I couldn’t get them to flow evenly with the rest of my thoughts. The messages of the apostles seemed too full for the small net of my imperfect experience.
Also lost are the things that I don’t remember that I don’t remember. I have no idea what I have completely lost, only a knowledge that there must be something I’m missing. When I try to remember what I have forgotten, there is only a quiet place in my mind, a cemetery of thought where even the gravestones have worn away until they are indistinguishable from river stones, the grass has died to a yellow shag carpet, and the gate rusted down to nothing.
In a sense, all memories have been forgotten. -Duff, via Shields
Naturally, I pull these thoughts and experiences from my own mind, from the fragmented pieces of my own memory, where the lines are blurry and dull, the colors muted, even if I try to recall them vividly. Even though I have described these memories to you, you will not actually feel the coldness of the sun-drenched water that swept my shoes away, nor experience the delightful frustration that spread through my body when I lost the essay, nor will you taste the bitterness of the words in my mouth when I told my friend that I didn’t love her.
* * *
All essays are written in the present, but as they explore the past, they become bridges between memory and loss. Just as old drafts and new drafts combine to form a current draft, perhaps with deleted fragments from other files, so, too, essaying mingles present and recalled emotions, making a new view, a new person. Montaigne has said that he did not make his book so much as his book made him, and now that I am writing this essay – revising this essay – I find myself coming closer and closer to a truth.
These first drafts are like sourdough starters: still brewing, but if you let them sit for a while, occasionally stirring and shaking them, adding flour and sugar until at last they have fermented enough and you can add the rest of the ingredients, you can be confident that they will come out as loaves. But even with sourdough, you don’t use the whole starter. You have to leave some on the side, food for your next batch of loaves. This remainder is, essentially, the first draft of your next meal. Well, there was a first draft of the conversation with the girl, too.
Almost two years before the conversation above, there was a party at my house. She stayed after to help clean up. I knew why she was helping. I dreaded a private conversation with her, but I took comfort in knowing that my roommates were close at hand. Eventually the plastic cups were in the trash, the dishes in the dishwasher, and my roommates in their rooms. Of course, she asked if we could talk.
I sat in the corner of the large sofa; she sat on the coffee table, directly in front of me, cornering me. I knew what was coming, because I had known she was interested in me for a while. I also knew that I wanted nothing more than friendship.
“I like you,” she said, then surprised me by bolting to the door, fumbling with the bolt. She half tripped as she tumbled into the darkness, then turned, her hand still on the knob, her feet on the steps below.
“Like, really, really like you,” then she closed the door and was gone, her words lingering like a glass slipper on the steps, an invitation to pursue.
And how did Charming react? He set his precedent for silence, and said nothing to the girl about the incident. He let the whole thing stew, and she didn’t bring it up again for two years. And what did he do with the glass slipper? He laid it on the shelf where he kept the dusty others, where he could muse on them while he thinks about the girl he’s hurt, while essaying to account for his losses.
* * *
Here is the rest of the story, the details I’ve essayed around, avoiding because I thought their absence would protect people I still cared for:
The girl, Laura, is one of my close friends, even still. And when I said that I had dinner with her and her husband, I meant that I had dinner with her and my brother, because it turns out that an awkward nerd was exactly what Laura needed.
I could tell you more about Laura, about our relationship past and present, or more about how she fell in love with my brother after I scorned her. I could even tell you more about lost shoes, lost keys, and lost love, but these essays can’t contain everything, even though, like Montaigne, I continually revise the essay, adding new material. But even with the new material, the story will never be true, though it was true once, by which I mean that the events actually happened, and I actually did feel this callousness. Now, I no longer do. I’ve lost the edge on the regret, the main impetus for including Laura’s story, and where I once felt guilty for her unrequited love, now I feel guilty for exposing her pain and my lack of interest. When I first started this essay, we hadn’t yet had that second conversation. But when I was trying to recover my thoughts, it was fresh and new, and so it took over my thoughts, and all I could think of was myself. Now, two years later, that first essay completely swallowed up, this present essay is true of a lost self, and thoughts that are now past thinking. We’ve both lost the people we were then, lost them to time, to new relationships, to a kind of forgiveness.
I return to the question I asked before, when I was essaying about Laura the first time: What have I lost by my callousness?
It seems, now that we are so far removed from the event, that I’ve lost nothing. I’ve gained a great deal, in fact, in terms of relationships. Which isn’t to pardon my own misbehavior – I still know I treated my friend poorly. Here’s another detail: when she told me she loved me the second time, we met in the street because I was walking to pick up my date for the evening, an evening which Laura, my brother, and I had planned to spend together. So, no, I don’t excuse myself; I see now that my childishness gained me nothing, but also that so very little was lost. Like a child’s shoe in a vast river.
Heidi Andrea Restrepo Rhodes is a Queer, Latina, scholar, writer, artist, and activist. Her performance, creative writing, and photography have been seen in places such as San Francisco’s SomArts, Galería de la Raza’s Lunada, the Mission Arts and Performance Project, the SICK Collective, the Mixed Race Queer and Feminist Zine, Brown and Proud Press, Skin to Skin, Harvard’s Queer, and others. She also has work forthcoming in Wilde, and The Progressive. She currently resides in Brooklyn.
On the Question of Your Grandfather: A Letter
I remember your grandfather’s hands. When we sat there together at the diner escaping the New Jersey winter chill, fumbling for conversation, did you notice how the Question lived in his hands? Had you seen it before? Twice, I caught it, and perhaps it could not have been detected from where you sat beside him, but only across from him, where I was. The first time I noticed, it was illegible and I let it pass through me as some gestural quirk. And then later, as the words came out of his mouth, “It’s a possibility,” and he shrugged, I saw it. His fingers traced out the unmistakable line and dot of a question mark. I could see it lingering there in the air, as if there was a window between us and he’d drawn on the glass, half out of habit, not realizing, but sure that the only sure thing was the Question of it all.
I sat there and contemplated the poetry of it, the words he repeated through the day: “It’s a possibility.” Then a shrug, and he’d draw the question mark with his fingers, the question of possibility, and the possibility in the question. I could not help but wonder when this habit began, for I noticed no other symbols at the tip of his fingers through the day, (which isn’t to presume he has none) and I thought of the procession of those who came before him, generations of Romanian Jews whose faith would not have been unfamiliar to, or unbounded by, the Question – that small but politically dangerous spiritual, grammatical inquisitive that may be the substance of G-d itself…
Throughout the day, I watched your grandfather trace the ribbony, snake-like curvature (oh, the snake and the question are no strangers). Those moments, which each time lasted perhaps three seconds, have played over and over in my mind. What residue is this, what years and books and forgotten memories now contour this single finger’s aerial ballet, the invitation to foray into another territory, into the question of the possible? As if speaking what could otherwise not be spoken, as if, in between the atoms in the air, he articulated his own exile: the diaspora that ever defers his knowing, and your own knowing, of who you and who your family are and were and will be. The expulsion of any certainty, the fragile wanderings of his generation, of Yiddish itself as the tongue that binds them, and every generation’s wonderings: “Will we survive?”There was simultaneous joy and sadness in Murray’s shrugging cheeks, rising up against years of gravity, in sync with his eyebrows as they too stood back to ponder the wide open unknown future. Over and over, he revealed the Question, and its attendant invitation to the meet the unfamiliar. It was never doubt that scraped at the back of his throat, but potential, chance, the unmapped, unnamed secret that lived on his tongue, and endured at the tip of his finger: the Mystery of all mysteries, faceless and bright, the radiant brilliance of the World to Come.
“But it is a mere gesture,” some might say. Mere indeed! Would we really be so bold as to believe it is ever, only, merely that?When thousands of years live, like residue, like a psychological tattoo, like a map of time engrained into our bones, infusing our marrow, pulsing through our blood? Could this be another iteration of what it is to be haunted? And doubly so, for it is not only the Question that haunts your grandfather’s index finger, but the question of the Question. . .
I wish I could replay the moment for you, the scene in my mind’s eye, with all the details around us: the décor of the diner, dark and dated; the sports game blaring behind me on the television to which your grandfather remained fairly attentive; the clink-clank of dishes; the hostess and waitresses and waiters; the desserts on the bar at the front; our plates half empty, the blinds drawn to block the glare of the sun; the empty seat and table-setting next to me, space we’d saved for Elijah, or the ghost of Edmond Jabés, or perhaps a stranger; you sitting a bit nervously across from me, and this stream of sunlight glinting through to touch the persistent two-step of Murray’s single digit, as if to spotlight it in the theatre of its own inheritances.
Maybe you have seen it a thousand times before. But it was new to me and worth every bit of consideration.
Ken Lamberton’s first book, Wilderness and Razor Wire, won the 2002 John Burroughs Medal for outstanding nature writing. He has published five books and hundreds of articles and essays in places like Orion, Los Angeles Times, Arizona Highways, Gettysburg Review, Puerto Del Sol, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2000. In 2007, he won a Soros Justice Fellowship for his fourth book, Time of Grace (University of Arizona Press). His latest book, Dry River: Stories of Life, Death, and Redemption on the Santa Cruz, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 2011. This essay is from his next book, Chasing Arizona: One Man’s Obsession with the Grand Canyon State, forthcoming by UA Press in 2014. Visit his website at www.kenlamberton.com.
Kitt Peak National Observatory. Elevation: 6880 feet. Founded: 1958. Population: two dormitories of sleeping astronomers on any given day.
On the afternoon of June 5, 2012, I wait on the rugged desert peak which the indigenous O’odham people call “Ioligam,” or “Red Stick,” for the twisted, iron-stemmed manzanita shrubs that grow here. A raven tips her dark wings to the white temples of the mountain, riding the wind with the effort of outstretched limbs. Raven is “curocu” in the tongue of my Native American friend, Phoenix Eagleshadow.
I look south toward the lifted thumb of Baboquivari, sacred peak of the people who have lived in its shadow for 2000 years, and think about the last time I visited there with Phoenix. She had wanted to offer her hunting bow to I’itoi, creator spirit and elder brother of the O’odham, and I agreed to be her companion for the long, sun-blasted day of hiking and ceremony. She said that she chose me because of my dusty smell. “You remind me of a hill I like to sit on where I can sing to the wind.” That was exactly nine years ago, and proper bathing practices still mystify me.
We left Tucson at 5 a.m. and drove to Sells, then south on Indian Route 19. Phoenix – whose middle name is Psyche – chatted with her brother, who rode along in the back seat. I couldn’t see him because he was a spirit. I couldn’t see many of Phoenix’s relatives and acquaintances. Around this time, she was seriously involved with someone named Gabriel. “Psyche,” I asked her, “is this a person I can see with my eyes?” It was a question I asked her often, and this time I wanted to know because she said they’d recently gotten married. “Probably not,” she said. “He’s one of the warrior angels, the sexy dark one. Gabriel, the archangel.”
We had just graduated from the MFA in creative writing nonfiction program at the University of Arizona. Phoenix’s writing often included these kinds of stories, for which some of her professors and fellow students criticized her. They thought she should switch to the fiction program. They couldn’t understand that for Phoenix, there was no line between nonfiction and fiction, between reality and myth. I learned to never doubt her stories. Too often she showed me the truth in them.
We climbed a trail among blooming coral bean, skyrocket red against the chlorophyll-wrung grasses and oaks. At I’itoi’s cave, the smoke from votive candles blackened the rock ledge above them. People had left other offerings: photographs, prayer sticks, colored beads, silver trinkets. Phoenix collected mugwort, which grew around the cave entrance, bundling together the gray leaves. Under the pediment of Baboquivari Peak, she strung her bow, then took out an abalone shell holding cornmeal and pollen, shaking the fine mixture to the four cardinal points.
I watched in silence as she handed me a feathery sprig of mugwort. “In thanks for strength,” she said, her dark eyes shining, and then sat quietly facing south and burned the remaining herb with dry sage, the smoke clinging to her skin and smelling of High Mass (some might say ‘high school’). Next, she used a rounded rock to knap an obsidian point, placing it in a black medicine bag tied around her neck. After rubbing the bow with mugwort and sage, and casting more cornmeal and pollen to the wind, she laid the bow on the ground, sprinkled it with water, and began to sing.
Ravens answered from the mountain. Phoenix greeted them in her language as they winged around us, sending love and blessings to someone she called Grandfather Raven. Listening to her that afternoon, I thought: I have no ceremonies in my life. I have no faith in anything.
“I’itoi’s got himself a very fine bow,” she said, after placing it in a juniper tree (only the dead leave bows on the ground). “That is, if a raven doesn’t come and steal it first.”
Near the center of the O’odham world, Kitt Peak rises into the thin blue air at the center of the astronomical world. Here, the planet’s largest collection of telescopes – twenty-three optical and two radio – tug at, unravel, and follow the singular threads of the universe’s story. Today I’m participating in an event the tale of which has been told only six times in history – an event that has ended the careers and lives of astronomers who’ve sacrificed everything for the chance of witnessing it, a story that established the very shape of our solar system – the Transit of Venus.
In her book, Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens, Andrea Wulf follows the adventures and misadventures of a score of eighteenth-century scientists from six countries as they travel to remote places on the globe to measure the passage of Venus across the face of the sun as predicted by Edmond Halley in 1716. The British astronomer calculated that on two dates, June 6, 1761, and June 3, 1769 (transits always occur in pairs), Venus would appear as a black circle moving across the sun’s disk. Knowing he wouldn’t be alive then—unless he lived to be 104—he called on future scientists to join in an endeavor to record from both of earth’s hemispheres the exact time and duration of the transit, achieving, Wulf writes, “what had hitherto been almost unimaginable: a precise mathematical understanding of the dimensions of the solar system, the holy grail of astronomy.”
Andrea Wulf’s book explores the personalities, rivalries and obsessive passions of men in knee-britches and powdered wigs – scientists like Sweden’s Pehr Wilhelm Wargentin, France’s Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, and America’s Benjamin Franklin. It’s quite a tale. Catherine the Great, wanting to recast Russia as an enlightened nation, ordered eight expeditions to cover the second transit and included naturalists, taxonomists, hunters and painters along with her astronomers. James Cook sailed all the way to Tahiti, only to have his telescopes stolen while building his observatories. The British Royal Society and the Académie des Sciences in Paris, whose two countries were at war, sent their astronomers into the path of cannon fire.
My favorite story of Wulf’s is the one about a “not very well-to-do” Frenchman with a very long name that I’ll shorten to Guillaume Le Gentil. A member of the Paris Académie, the thirty-four-year-old minister-turned-star-gazer was the first in the transit race and the last to return from it. His destination was Pondicherry, India, but after more than a year of trying to reach it, monsoon winds and the Seven Years’ War left Le Gentil to attempt measurements in the Indian Ocean on the deck of a rolling ship. It didn’t go well.
Undaunted by the failure, Le Gentil decided to stayin India and wait eight years for the second transit. A true naturalist, during the interim he studied the region’s geography, flora and fauna, stars, winds, and tides. He built an observatory at Pondicherry. Then, when June 3, 1769 finally arrived, so did the clouds. That day, Le Gentil wrote in his journal that he had risked everything “only to be a spectator of a fatal cloud which came to place itself before the sun at the precise moment of my observation…”
Deeply depressed and suffering from dysentery, he returned to Paris empty-handed, only to find that his heirs had declared him legally dead. They had “enthusiastically” plundered his estate, his wife had remarried, and he’d lost his seat at the academy of science.
“That is the fate that often awaits astronomers,” Le Gentil said at the end of his eleven-year odyssey chasing Venus. It could’ve been worse. Another Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Chappe D’Auteroche, observed the first transit in Siberia but never returned from seeing the second in Baja, California. Only one member of his party survived an outbreak of yellow fever. It’s no wonder astronomers don’t sleep at night.
“Great title,” I tell Andrea Wulf when I catch up with her at the visitor center where she will be speaking about her book. “I’ve been chasing a few things myself – I just caught the solar eclipse at Grand Canyon.”
“I’ve never been there,” she says with an English accent. “I have a few days in Arizona. Where should I go?”
“North Rim, if you have time. But the South Rim is amazing, too. Everyone hikes the Bright Angel Trail, but I like the Hermit Trail for a day hike.”
Andrea was born in India but grew up in Germany before moving to Britain, where she studied history at the Royal College of Art. “I don’t own a telescope. I’m a historian,” she says as we step outside to where observatory staff has set up filtered binoculars and telescopes.
We’re minutes away from the start of the transit, and dozens of people have gathered at the viewing stations on the patio outside the visitor center. “We’ve set up a hydrogen-alpha telescope at the McMath-Pierce Solar Observatory,” a docent tells us. “There’s a prominence right where Venus will appear – be cool to see that!”
I leave Andrea with the group, and take off toward the McMath with a guy from New York named Elias. Baboquivari Peak rises at my right shoulder. Three people stand inside the white dome housing the Meade Solar Telescope Array, and as we arrive one of them calls, “First contact!” I look into the eyepiece and see a black fingernail notch in a boiling red field at the two o’clock position. Fifteen minutes later, Venus slips completely inside the disk, a black pea against the sun’s glowing softball. I’m watching an event that won’t recur until 2117 – not in my or any currently living person’s lifetime.
“I’m very excited to be here during the transit of Venus,” Andrea Wulf says at the beginning of her presentation, pushing a long strand of blonde hair behind one ear. “Normally, I have to explain what the transit of Venus is…but I don’t think I have to do that here…” I settle into my chair to listen to her talk about men in knickers who, for the love of science, chased the only planet named for a female, the goddess of love and beauty.
Later, our group crowds a spit of rock called Sunset Hill to catch the last images of the sun as it sets over O’odham lands with Venus in transit. Some peer through scopes while others cluster to talk about the region’s geology or the clear view from here to Mexico. Nine visitors find seats on a rocky outcrop, each wearing solar glasses, the reddening sun on their faces. Sweatshirts appear from backpacks.
“Oh, look,” a green-shirted staff member named Geronimo announces, and points to a swiveling dome. “SARA is waking up. Some professor is working from his laptop.” SARA, Geronimo explains, stands for Southeastern Association for Research in Astronomy, a consortium of institutions that remotely operates the .9-meter telescope and its sister telescope in Chile. With a depth perception gained by having two eyes separated by thousands of miles, the SARA telescopes allow astronomers to accurately measure the orbits of asteroids, including and especially those that cross the orbit of earth. “In my opinion,” Geronimo adds, “SARA is the most important telescope on the mountain.”
After showing us the Belt of Venus, a rosy band above the eastern horizon with the curving shadow of the earth beneath it, Geronimo gives us a walk-in-the-dark tour of Kitt Peak’s observatories. We wander from the most prominent, the 4-meter Mayall, a 200-foot observatory that I can practically see from my home in Bisbee one hundred miles away, to the RGT, what Geronimo calls the “Rich Guy Telescope,” the only privately owned telescope on the mountain. I hear a string of superlatives – the “sharpest,” the “world’s largest,” the “greatest,” the “most,” and several claims of “the first ever to…”. Kitt Peak really is the hub of the astronomical world.
Finally, Geronimo’s radio comes to life. “Where are our guests?” a voice asks. We’re overdue to report to the visitor center.
In the gathering darkness, observatory domes brighten like moons breaching the peaks. Motors pull on steel cables and metal gears moan – Pythagoras’ new music of the spheres. Like the nine-headed Hydra opening its many slitted eyes, the mountain is awakening.
Kitt Peak is named for Philippa Roskruge Kitt, the sister of George J. Roskruge, our first Pima County Supervisor. I had driven past Roskruge School in Tucson earlier today on my way to Kitt Peak. The marquee out front had caught my attention:
In Loving Memory
Ray Bradbury died today. On the day of the transit of Venus – on the day of a once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime celestial event, the man who, for me, brought the mythical heavens to earth, passed on at the age of 91.
I grew up with Ray Bradbury. Not in person, but with his books. Bradbury’s first book was a sequel he wrote to Burroughs’ Gods of Mars. He was twelve years old and a student at Roskruge Grammar School. Burroughs liked to end his John Carter books with cliff-hangers, so it’s easy to see why a budding science fiction writer might be inspired to complete a favorite story. I did the same in grade school – stories about the first people to visit Saturn who discover that the rings are composed of previous space travelers, or about a misfit geek who builds a spaceship out of schoolyard trashcans and stolen plumbing and launches himself into space to escape his tormenting peers. Mrs. Tream, my eighth-grade English teacher at Canyon Del Oro Junior High, once wrote on one of my compositions: “This is the way Ray Bradbury got started.” I like to think that Ray Bradbury had a Mrs. Tream – maybe the same Mrs. Tream; she seemed ancient to me! – who wrote on one of his early stories, “This is the way Edgar Rice Burroughs got started.”
As a boy, I imagined a future when the entire human race would one day look like Ylla, the golden-skinned Martian with eyes like yellow coins. Only yesterday I read in The New Yorker how he said The Martian Chronicles wouldn’t exist except for the impact the John Carter of Mars books had on his boyhood life. Bradbury was influenced by the science fiction stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs, who had been influenced by Percival Lowell, drawing his Martian canals while staring through his Clark telescope on Mars Hill. “I would go out to the lawn on summer nights,” Ray Bradbury writes about his childhood in Tucson, “and reach up to the red light of Mars and say, ‘Take me home!’”
Welcome home, Ray.
This place is the navel of the world, according to the O’odham. Near here is the opening in the earth from where the people emerged, wide-eyed like John Carter, into an inconceivable world. The heavens feature prominently in O’odham cosmology. Elder Brother gave them spectacular desert sunsets simply for their enjoyment. First Born made the sun to light the darkness and the moon and stars for the people to follow. Coyote created the stars of the Milky Way galaxy after stealing a bag of white tepary beans and scattering them across the sky.
One thing universal among humans is that we create stories to explain our existence and the nature of our reality. Out of dust we are made, says the book of Genesis. From the mud of the earth, Elder Brother formed the first people. Philosophers and poets say we are stardust, recalling what scientists say about the elements in our bodies having been forged inside a long-dead star. Some call this myth-telling, others – scientific theory. And still others choose not to draw lines.
Geronimo showed us a telescope that first revealed the spiral shape of our home galaxy, the Milky Way – Coyote, apparently, liked to chase his tail. Geronimo then pointed out another telescope which astronomers Vera Rubin and Kent Ford used to discover firm evidence of dark matter. The Dutch astronomer Jan Oort had suggested in 1932 that only unseen “dark matter” could account for the orbital velocities of stars in our galaxy. A year later, Swiss astrophysicist Fritz Zwicky came up with the same idea of a dark theoretical substance to explain the missing mass in the orbital velocities of galaxy clusters.
Dark theoretical stuff. Matter and energy. Mystery that shapes our world. Ninety-five percent of what fills the universe is invisible. We can’t see it or measure it except for its effect on what we can see and measure. The theory of dark matter explains why the universe behaves the way it does. In the same way, people use story to explain the unexplainable. Myth sometimes is reality. My friend Phoenix would say that what Rubin and Ford discovered on this mountain more than thirty years ago was the handiwork of I’itoi.
Tonight, Kitt Peak astronomers traverse holy ground to gaze upon the handiwork of awe. And awe, writes the poet James Galvin, is the only thing that makes life worth living. This high mountain allows us multifaceted glimpses of the same mystery – and perhaps an answer to the oldest question asked by humankind: Where do we come from?
Steven Sher is the author of 14 books including, most recently, two new poetry collections: Grazing on Stars: Selected Poems (Presa Press, 2012) and The House of Washing Hands (Pecan Grove Press, 2013). A native of NYC, he currently lives in Jerusalem. Find out more about his work at stevensher.net.
Giving Up Trees
“It appears you’re ready to give up trees.”
I was in New York for my father’s unveiling, another emotional visit “home.” His death the year before is one of those turning points by which I measure my life, a yardstick of almost indefinable inner searching and change. During this visit, I was moved to call on the rabbi who had married my wife and me fourteen years before. I now told him about our considering a move back East, perhaps returning to Brooklyn, where we had lived as newlyweds. The idea had burned in us for as long as my father’s battle with cancer, as if in rekindling that connection to the East we might provide an antidote to physical distance and to illness.
My wife and I were feeling a genuine dissatisfaction with our separation from family, and had become exasperated during my father’s year-long illness and his passing, not unexpectedly, during Pesach (Passover), a time of year I had always associated with family gatherings of a more joyous sort. At the heart of our discontent was our search for a more observant Jewish community.
Yet give up trees?
“If you’re ready to come back, I’ll be glad to help,” offered Rabbi Fund. “There are trees in Brooklyn, too.”
When I think of giving up trees – giant redwoods, spruce and Douglas fir – I admit they are not the lure that they once were, some quarter-century ago, though the Northwest’s rugged beauty is still just as appealing and I will always feel its pull. It says in Pirkei Avot: “Know from where you come and where you go.” Already my soul is scouting out the step ahead, preparing for the journey.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I was a product of change, born of rabbis and garment makers on my mother’s side, socialists and musicians on my father’s: two families that had crossed an ocean in search of something new. Raised in a largely Jewish community in East Flatbush, I later embraced the ‘60s counterculture, turning my world on its head, seeking spiritual and communal answers. And not necessarily from Judaism.
It was then that I saw the Northwest for the first time, traveling with three college buddies – all of us with long hair and guitars. At once, I knew I would head West some day to live. The space and pace appealed to me. Friends had spoken of buying land, communal life. For me, the dream wouldn’t easily subside.
Oregon seemed at first an ideal place to settle, and to return, as far as I wanted and on my own terms, to a meaningful Jewish life. I found a context that was informal and empowering, yet foreign from anything I’d known in New York. It was like receiving manna in the wilderness, enough to sustain my spiritual hunger.
Yet over time I felt displaced among the trees, too much the outsider – Easterner, big city kid, missing familiar culture and tradition – too much connected to my past to keep resisting an inevitable return. You climb this far out on a limb and you will land where you began the slow ascent.
Those “old world” notions I had put aside when my generation pursued its radical course had thankfully remained intact for when I’d need them again, for when I’d have a family of my own and want to draw upon my past to face, and thereby shape, the future more ably.
If I can live anywhere, why the West? When I consider that I spend most of each week’s precious hours at home – enjoying family time or at the computer creating verse or in the kitchen cooking vegan fare or in study or in prayer – it’s apparent to me that I’ve chosen to live within narrow parameters, in direct contrast to this vast land, this open space where the continent comes to an end. I have built a necessary fence around my life, at first to light a holy spark and protect it from the steady secular wind, and now to contain renewed observance as it glows, the spirit growing in intensity. Again I’m living in the holy Brooklyn of my youth, though far removed from Brooklyn. Surely, if I pursue this path, as I go deeper, I will be back where I began. But physically this is not an easy transition.
Several times my wife and I have left the Northwest, for good we thought, only to return, still not having our fill of giant trees and precipitous ocean views and snow-capped peaks, a landscape that surprises and inspires. First, Kentucky and back. Then North Carolina. Back again. Only now, after moving across the country several times, can I finally understand what is at stake, just where we stand. We don’t simply live in the here and now, but in our memories and traditions, and in the hopes of previous generations, a family’s dreams. Susceptible to constant winds, I bend like a tree testing each direction till I find the one for me.
How fragile, how rare, is Jewish life out in this vast, indifferent land, this wilderness beyond the American pale, out where the trees and peaks compete with God for our attention. And the soul, though we know enough to nourish it, is fed no more than what we see and what we feel, the most easily attained exhilaration. What I want is so much more, and harder to achieve.
There are images from my childhood that call to me, reminders of a lifetime searching, images as foreign to the Western mind as New York’s skyline is to the small town. Poet and Jew, I dare to see the world from the perspective of the spirit, through the language of the soul. But to risk thus is to live. New York taught me this. Somehow I learned to carry a portable homeland, portable dreams. And though I seem to welcome impermanence, nothing is as solid, or as real, to me.
So, give up trees?
I’m revived, as if from a whiff of my father’s smelling salts on Yom Kippur, when I consider the trees of my childhood. In Borough Park, large maples stretched over the second story porches of the brick row homes where my grandparents lived, where I sat and watched how people went out in the world through the sun-dappled patterns of shade and light. There is comfort in this memory, these trees that stand untouched in my mind, guarding the block where I first lived, like golden cherubs guarding the Ark. Again, I’m standing in shul with my grandfather, surrounded by davening men as if lost in a forest, every tree swaying in unison, the wind of devotion driving them toward the East – this wind has been blowing in my soul, providing comfort, for as long as I remember. The haunting songs echo in me still.
Lucky to be touched by such grace and awe at so young an age, I consider my children – worry about the images that shape their lives, about the kind of world that will be left to them. I worry about their growing up in Oregon, despite how beautiful and livable it is, so far from the heart of our people.
My daughter, our eldest, speaks wistfully of visits to New York, of spellbound walks through the old neighborhoods, past countless shops with Hebrew lettering, exotic promises and crowded aisles, more children like herself. I’m reassured that she hasn’t forgotten the family gatherings of the times we traveled East, the many smiling, doting relatives, the holiday foods and festival observances.
If we intend to give up trees, then we must be sure we plant something in their place.
Yvette A. Schnoeker-Shorb’s work has appeared in The Broken Plate, Foliate Oak, Sleet, Spectrum, Epiphany Magazine, Dark Matter: A Journal of Speculative Writing, Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, Pedestal Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poydras Review, The Blueline Anthology (Syracuse University Press), The Voices Project, Science Poetry (a Canadian anthology edited by Neil McAlister), Entelechy: Mind & Culture, Concho River Review, Midwest Quarterly, Spillway Magazine, The Meadowland Review, and other journals and online forums, with work forthcoming in the anthology 200 New Mexico Poems (University of New Mexico Press), Kudzu Review, 300 Days of Sun, and others. A recent Pushcart Prize nominee, she holds an interdisciplinary MA from Prescott College and is co-founder of Native West Press, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit natural history press.
Mouse-Rat, Kin, Kind, and the Rodent Mind
We conclude that male mice have some . . . neuroanatomical features thought to be unique to humans . . . .
-G. Arriaga., E. P. Zhou, and E. D. Jarvis
When we first moved into our house, the odor was unbearable, drifting thickly through the wall that separated the bedroom from the main hall bathroom. The nausea-inspiring scent of some decaying thing that used to have life before it fell and became trapped inside the wall prompted us to call a friend, one with a respirator, to retrieve the remains, and thus relieve us of the reminder that something had died in our new home. Often awakened in the middle of the night by the scampering of tiny feet in the attic above the bedroom, we assumed that the dead thing found would be a mouse or a rat.
Tearing into the bottom of the bathroom wall where the scent was strongest, the friend pulled out the decaying body of a chipmunk. Upon further exploration of that area, our friend excavated the skeleton of a rat and no less than eight mice carcasses in various states of decay, as well as a few complete mouse skeletons and some that were merely skeletal parts. After patching the lower wall, he and my husband went up into the attic, where they found and sealed off from the inside a small hole in the roof. Without this unintended invitation to rodents to come in to explore, particularly seductive in the colder seasons, we now hoped the opportunity for fatal falls into the “deathtrap” would end.
In addition, we called a pest control service to see if the experts could enlighten us as to how to bait and trap alive those beasts who were already inside when the roof entrance was sealed off, and who were thus still using the passageways up in the ceiling. The pest guy supplied us with a wire mesh trap, into which we placed sunflower seeds. We set the trap in the upper crawl space of the house. We also bought a similar trap of our own, which we placed in the garage near a possible entranceway to the attic. The pest guy said to check the traps every few days, which we did. Experience taught us, however, that we should check the traps every day. We found, two days after the traps had been set, what looked like a grasshopper mouse in one of the traps. He was, to our dismay, not releasable. He was dead. We assumed the creature had died from lack of food and water, or possibly from exposure or shock. The other trap was still empty, but the door was down and the seeds gone.
We reset this trap, replenishing the seeds, and found our efforts rewarded the next morning. A small, light-colored deer mouse was frantically trying to sniff his way out of his predicament. We carried the little beast into the forest and released him, watching him scamper away into the scrub brush as if he had expected his freedom all along.
But a few nights later, we were awakened by the sound of tiny feet scurrying around above us. And then, silence. Since I was awake, I decided to make a nocturnal trip to the bathroom. Once there, I could hear it – the soft sound of gnawing directly above. I tapped the wall, and the gnawing stopped. The sound of scampering feet replaced the gnawing. The next night the same thing happened. I could tell by the gnawing that the persistent little rodent was unaware of, and more importantly, dangerously close to the “wall of death” drop area.
Terribly task-oriented, by the third night, the beast accomplished what I had feared. I heard him fall. Then there was the pathetic scraping of claws along the bottom of the inside wall. This sound occasionally switched to scurrying – back and forth, back and forth, the tail sliding against the wall each time the mouse came to the end of the small space. Then the vertical escape attempts in the form of jumping would begin – a thump, then claws scraping the side of the wall, thump, claws scraping, thump, scraping. At some point in the morning there was a brief silence, very brief, before the whole clamor of desperation began again.
I didn’t know before I actually saw his nose whether he (if it was a he) was a mouse or some kind of a small rat, so I referred to him as “Mouse-Rat.” This is how I addressed him in our one-way conversations while I pondered what to do about his imprisonment. I listened and talked to Mouse-Rat during his trauma of being caught within the wall.
I could somewhat determine his size as small. He did not sound as big as the pack rat who dwelled in the shrubbery-adorned hole beneath a prickly pear cactus a few yards from the back deck steps. Nor did the little rodent sound as big as the huge, feral, white rat (no doubt someone’s ex-pet) who lived in the garage, and whose home consisted of newspapers, old financial records, and stashed dream journals taken from stored boxes and recycled in a way that we had not planned – shredded and formed into a large, cozy, urine-scented nest. No, Mouse-Rat, relatively speaking, sounded tiny compared to a rat.
Absolutely unwilling to tear the bottom of the bathroom wall apart again, I noticed that a weak part in the replaced plaster, caulk, and wood at the bottom of the wall had started to give way. This was no doubt with the help of Mouse-Rat’s continuous gnawing and clawing. By early that evening, an extremely small piece of the wall bottom had fallen out. The dark hole behind it was now filled with either the point of a little, grayish pink snout with long, thin, front teeth (hard at work, I might add) or the tip of a paw with its tiny, black claws pushing through. Mouse-Rat had offered a solution to our problem. Given time, he could dig himself out, and the hole, being of an economical size and causing hardly any damage to the wall, could be easily patched again with caulking material. All I would have to do is supply Mouse-Rat with food and water for strength, and supply myself with the trap for when he successfully accomplished our joint mission.
Armed with the trap, as well as sunflower seeds, whole wheat bread crumbs, broken raw peanuts, and an old eyedropper filled with fresh water, I walked into the bathroom, closed the door, and sat down on the bathroom floor. Setting the trap aside, and noticing the rodent’s teeth protruding through the tiny but growing gap in the wall, I attempted to see if Mouse-Rat would allow me to be his accomplice. I offered the tip of the eyedropper and felt a sudden pulling and vibrations caused by what felt like chewing. At first, the water level of the dropper didn’t go down, but once Mouse-Rat figured out what was being offered, he accepted the drink.
When enthusiastic chewing on the dropper edge resumed, I took that as a sign that Mouse-Rat was finished drinking, and I removed the eyedropper. The tip of his furry, pink-tipped nose (temporarily minus any sign of teeth) pushed through the hole. I offered a slender, blackoil sunflower seed. The seed was pulled quickly from my fingers, followed by the clickity sound of the shell being removed – and, no doubt, dropped on his side of the wall. For almost an hour I was Mouse-Rat’s servant, feeding him seeds and crumbs and peanuts, every so often offering him water in case he grew thirsty.
I then sat quietly for another half hour, listening to him work on the escape hole and watching the size of the hole increase ever so slowly. Fixing the trap so that it was placed directly outside the hole and ready for Mouse-Rat when he crawled through, I left to tend other things. Later that night, as the hole became large enough for him to come through, I checked the bathroom often, and even more often in the early morning hours. Both my husband and I were anxious to see what kind of mouse he was.
But by morning, although the hole was large enough to easily accommodate Mouse-Rat’s escape, the trap was still empty. All was quiet within the wall. I gently tapped against the side. This provoked a sudden scampering, the tail of the startled creature slapping the wall. Mouse-Rat had been sleeping. We waited a couple more hours, but the rodent seemed more interested in returning to sleep than to freedom.
About mid-morning, confident that the trap would hold Mouse-Rat when he chose to come through, we decided to let him be, and left to run some errands. Upon our return, we were discussing the best place to release him when we noticed that we had left the bathroom door ajar. Upon entering, we found the tipped-over trap, as well as pieces of sunflower seed shells that had evidently been connected by cobweb dust to Mouse-Rat’s fur and had rubbed off as he fled.
So, I never got to see what my rogue rodent-friend looked like, as he never made an appearance anywhere in the house. However, there was the sudden presence months later of two young, cream-colored deer mice who showed up, looking extremely innocent, in our living room one evening. We watched them as they went about their business, chasing each other around the bookcases, through the air slots in the bricks of the unused fireplace, underneath the couches – occasionally looking up at us with an “Oh, it’s just you” glance. The young mice were indeed innocent in that they were just going on with life as usual; they had obviously seen us before and did not consider us a threat. They didn’t know that we had not seen them until now.
Upon closer inspection of the bottom side of the smaller of two couches in the living room, we realized that the cute, big-headed, little youngsters had been dwelling with us probably since their birth. The corner of the bottom of the couch was ripped, and a pocket was filled with an accumulation of bird seed and an assortment of papers – shredded, of course.
My husband and I each got a small, empty wastebasket and chose our respective creatures to catch. Upon sensing that we were trying to get them, the little mousy things would crawl, not very quickly, and hide under furniture or behind books. When we became still, they would crawl back into view as if nothing out of the ordinary was going on. Occasionally, one or the other would stand up on its hind legs, awkward and wide-eyed, looking around. Then, once again, the light, furry underside would shift from vertical to horizontal, as the little mouse came down on all four ready-to-scamper feet. We began the chase again and, when they weren’t too occupied chasing each other, they would stop to indulge us in what seemed to be a hide-and-seek game to them. The young deer mice were too distracted by each other to take our attempts to catch them very seriously. Eventually, we captured the youngsters and took them out into the dark night air to the far end of the backyard, where we released them together under the cover of scrub oak, manzanita, and skunk brush. We then went back into the house to clean and repair the bottom of the couch.
Sometimes, our house seems like a kingdom of rodents. It is humbling to know that there will always be some enduring creature here besides ourselves that creates its own place as well. Whether we want this type of neighbor or not. I often wonder, particularly with Mouse-Rat and his kin, if the rodents’ sense is that we have invaded their dwellings, and that they grudgingly put up with the humans who are infesting their territory.
Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in Hamilton Stone Literary Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Tell Us A Story, Construction, Melange Press, Sport Literate, and is forthcoming in Compose. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina, with his wife and two daughters, and teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College.
Harvey: “My Burden Gladly Bearing”
I’m standing in the showers of my freshman dorm on registration day. Naked, vulnerable, soapy, and alone. There are twenty spigots mounted in regular intervals along the tiled walls of the rectangular bath. Nowhere to hide. A radio perched on a nearby sink plays a forgotten song as I wash my hair and anticipate a long day of placing myself in the right lines, the correct buildings, the most suitable foreign language class. Latin or Spanish? Such dilemmas, but at least they’re normal, straightforward.
Unlike the sound I hear now.
“All right!” With finger-snapping.
I open one eye. There’s a grown man standing in the shower doorway. I rinse quickly.
“All right!!!” He’s louder this time, and now that I can look at him clearly, I see he’s middle-aged in that way eighteen-year-olds have of perceiving anyone from thirty to sixty as middle-aged.
“All right!” His right finger is in the air, and he’s smiling broadly. I wish to God that I knew what to do, and I don’t want to think about what I might have to do.
But then my survival instinct kicks in.
“All right?” My voice is hesitant and shy.
And with that, he grins even more widely and exits the shower room, exposing me to my first taste of college life.
At lunch, I ask the guys at my table if I should report the pervert in my shower, and if so, to whom? The Dean of Men? Campus Police? The Bursar?
“I mean, other than staring at me for a while, he didn’t really do anything,” I say, my words belying all my shaken feelings.
“Wait a minute,” a seasoned sophomore named Rick says. “Don’t you know about Harvey?”
Do all institutions have their Harveys?
In my childhood, they were called “Buford” or “Elijah,” or maybe even “Harry Smith.” They cleaned up messes, were present from sunrise to sundown every day the doors of the school, church, or grocery store opened. In some cases, they wandered through nicer neighborhoods pushing popsicle or hot tamale carts.
In the worst cases, they just went walking. Holding a steering wheel taken from some rusted-out vehicle, they made puttering sounds and walked past your house on late July afternoons heading for distant highways that only they could see.
I never knew that particular “driver’s” name, where he stayed, who made him put down that steering wheel, or who calmed his motor at night.
“He’s just simple,” my grandmother would say. “But don’t go near him!”
Of course I didn’t; I wouldn’t. Soon he vanished from the streets of my childhood, only to reappear during my high school years when my friends and I gathered at Pasquale’s, our local pizza joint. One Friday night, he came driving up in one of those mail carts, the single-occupant kind with both sides open so the carrier could hit right and left as he traversed the streets and country roads. On this night, though, we watched through Pasquale’s windows as there emerged from the zippy cart, not a mail-carrier, but the same “simple” man I had seen all those years before, only now he had donned what his tortured mind considered an official uniform: police-style cap; off-kilter tie, gun holster, and some kind of cardboard badge affixed to his formerly white trench coat. He looked sort of like me, actually, in those days when I pretended to be a “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” On his cardboard badge someone had written in crayon-drawn script: “Protect of people. Doonot dissturb.” He carried a pipe as he wandered into Pasquale’s and took his seat at a front booth without ordering anything at the service counter.
After he had completed whatever business he had in this cheap Italian bistro, he exited as if he had another pressing assignment elsewhere, another locale to stake out. My group of friends and I didn’t hesitate. To a guy, we followed him outside, but much too closely. He heard us, saw us, and turned toward us. We got a good look at his eyes then: yellow, swollen, unsimple, and so very mad. And his teeth: ugly, misshapen, and few. He replaced his pipe in his front coat pocket.
He was looking at all of us.
“Arrest,” my friend Donnie asked. “For what?”
“Spicion” was right, for even an insane man can detect the sadistic nature of high school boys. Donnie started laughing then, as we all did.
And then, he pulled his gun on us.
Not since my days of playing Secret Agent had anyone pulled a gun on me. And no stranger ever had, especially not a stranger with swollen, yellow eyes.
Strangely, in that moment, I wondered again just who had outfitted this former steering wheel driver? His getup was part school crossing-guard, part garbage man, part military. Was one of us about to die at the hands of a man who had at best only a cloudy notion of who he was?
Our laughter evaporated into the night air, and all grew still as we fully absorbed this gun. We accepted that it was swiveling from heart to heart, and it seemed for a few seconds that although this wasn’t High Noon, one of us would have to move.
And then, one of us did. For after the surprise of that first, gun-drawn moment, we saw the gun for what it was. Not even a cap pistol, it was one of those toys that you might find packaged on the novelty aisle at the local Rexall. Donnie started running in widening circles, and while the rest of us laughed even louder, the “officer” pursued his quarry in similar circles around the parking lot of the pizza joint.
I left our ensemble then because I could, and while this evening made a good story to tell my parents on the following morning, I figured that was all it would ever be: a story, a laughing moment from my high school adventures. I never imagined then that I would continue seeing this simple man – that he and others like him would play a recurring role in my reflective life.
So when I really saw Harvey – saw him for what he was – I began wondering at my own circles: how I moved in them, in what order, and according to what time.
What are we supposed to do with life’s “simple” men?
What will it take, Harvey, to really make things all right?
He wasn’t a large man, maybe 5’6” tall, 180 pounds. But he was solid, even chunky. Rectangular. That’s the word I think of most when I see Harvey. Rectangular, thick-lensed glasses that seemed to distort his eyes into long, slitted openings. But instead of madness, Harvey’s eyes showed an innocence that gave him, I believe, a completely undistorted view of his world.
He cuffed his blue jeans in rectangles as neatly as I’ve ever seen. His pants size must have been 38 x 26, for his legs, sturdy and thick, looked like dwarf-legs, with his feet splayed out against the ground so that when he walked, he kind of bounced or hopped in a steady, rectangular rhythm. It’s as if his people danced polkas or Cossack high-steps somewhere in their glorious past. Or maybe they were all simple Appalachian buck dancers.
Harvey wore baggy flannel shirts in all seasons, well-tucked, and again, rectangularly folded at the elbows, showing off his massive forearms, though I’m sure Harvey never knew that showing off was an option. Each shirt, too, was checked, but sometimes when it turned too warm, he’d hang that shirt on a doorknob and finish mopping in his clean and tidy t-shirt. Then you’d see his biceps, rectangular muscles that came not from dumbbells, but from Harvey’s life.
In fact, the only part of him not rectangular was Harvey’s domed pate: a spectacularly bald top-head with gray-black stubbles around the lower sides. As I see it now, his head wasn’t so much shiny as it was glazed. But maybe it’s only my memory that’s glazed, searching for what it really shouldn’t remember.
Harvey wasn’t shy, so you’d hear him coming. His baritone voice would echo through the halls, singing the church hymns he loved. His voice, as I hear it now, reminds me of Andy Griffith’s – especially in that episode when Andy and Barney are sitting on the front porch in Mayberry early one Sunday evening, singing “The Church in the Wildwood”: “O come, come, come, come, come to the church in the wildwood, O come to the church in the dale. No place is as dear to my childhood, as the little brown church in the vale.” For Harvey’s voice, after you got used to it, was Mayberry-soothing. So soothing that you might go with him to his little brown church. If he ever asked.
He did his job well. Like the “white tornado,” the halls, bathrooms, and foyers, would be “Spic n’ Span” once Harvey finished. But even while he worked, he always made time to talk to the guys, his boys of Napier dorm. He never said “Hello,” or “How’s it goin’?” His greeting was the same, winter, spring, summer, or fall: “All Right!” Never a question, and never a statement of his own well-being, though you might presume that he was claiming to be “all right.” Not exactly a statement of environmental conditions either, because if it were going to rain or turn cold, Harvey would report on that after his greeting: “Rain coming later. Yep. Bring umbrella!” I don’t know if he kept up with the world via a farmer’s almanac on his bedside table, or if he listened to the morning reports on a kitchen radio. Maybe he posted a school calendar near his front door, or maybe he could tell the days and conditions just by the look of the world when he’d exit whatever front or side door contained him during the hours when he simply didn’t exist for the rest of us.
But whenever he was with us, Harvey was our internal register of all things external.
On Wednesdays, ubiquitously and forever, after “All Right,” came this: “Hump Day!” What did Hump Day mean to him? Did he long for Friday as we students did? How did he spend his off hours on those two weekend days, and were they as precious to him as they were to us?
Also, any day of the term, you could approach Harvey and ask, “Hey Harv, how many more days to winter break?” Without pause, Harvey would turn to you and announce, “53 more days,” or “22 more days,” or “7 more days.” And then he’d smile that rectangular grin as if he knew just what it was like for us to face research papers, 8 a.m. Algebra classes, or Thursday afternoon labs. Or final exams. Sometimes I’d see him as I was carrying my suitcases out to whatever ride I was getting home. “All right,” Harvey would shout, “Christmas is coming. Two more weeks!” And I’d shout back, “All right, Harv! Merry Christmas!” And that’s the last I’d think of him until after I returned to the dorm, weeks later, to see him sweeping the halls as usual. Like he had never left.
In those Alabama winters, Harvey would don a tweed sports jacket, one he’d surely worn for decades, and a houndstooth hat with a feather sticking out of its right-side band. I’d see him occasionally on his way to the cafeteria for lunch. When my friends and I first spotted that hat, bouncing along with Harvey up the main cobblestone street leading to the cafeteria, my friend Dan pointed at it and laughed: “Look at that!” We all laughed then, out of range of Harvey’s hearing. Or so I like to believe.
He’d make his way into the cafeteria and sit at one of the square tables in the center of us all. His tray would be full of chicken and mashed potatoes and Crowder peas and coleslaw and at least three rolls and four glasses of sweet milk. A piece of chocolate cake or cherry cobbler for dessert. He ate well for his $1.50, but he always ate alone.
I wonder now what Harvey thought about while he ate – what he observed about us, if he observed anything at all. I know he didn’t judge who we were, what we did, how much we left on our trays. I know he didn’t have such powers of discernment. But at least he never needed a steering wheel or makeshift badge to get on with his life. Above everything else, he just seemed happy: happy to eat; happy to hear us; happy to get back to work when his half-hour break was up.
In fact, I’m trying to remember now if I ever saw him unhappy. Did he grumble at the trash pile left for him at the end of hallways on Monday mornings? Did he groan at the state of the urinals, paper towels occasionally stuck in them? At the commodes which boys left slopped and stopped with their private business? Did he mind that the garbage dispenser in the bathroom doorway might contain anything? And I mean ANYTHING.
Lurking in the back of my mind is a scene in which Harvey is sweeping our hall. He’s angry, not smiling at all. In fact, there’s a sort of scowl on his face. What could be bothering him? Spoiled food containers? Puke in a urinal? Something scratched on the bathroom wall?
Or maybe he’s not feeling well. Maybe he has that horrible stomach bug I caught in the winter of my sophomore year. Guys were always marching off to the infirmary, leaving Harvey to disinfect whatever bacteria remained in their wake. He never wore a mask or gloves. And to my knowledge, he never missed a day of work.
But that’s the problem: my knowledge. So maybe I’m seeing an anger that wasn’t really there, just as after I moved out of Napier Hall in the middle of my junior year, Harvey quit being “there” for me, too. Oh, I’d see him in the cafeteria from time to time, especially when I made it for Sunday lunch. There he’d be in his Sunday coat and tie and matching slacks, houndstooth hat perched in its accustomed place. As usual, Harvey would be eating alone, and I could be wrong or wishful here, but his face seemed just a bit different on these Sundays. Just a bit beatific, which makes more sense now, given what I’ve learned about him.
But after lunch on those Sundays, practically right after I noticed him, my mind and body would move into a different rhythm, a higher circle, and one that never had space or calling for Harvey. I forgot him as quickly as I dumped my tray in its proper receptacle.
We assume so much about the people on the periphery of our lives. Or maybe it’s worse than that. Maybe we don’t assume anything at all. Did I really never wonder back then, back in my liberal college days, what his home life was like? If he lived alone or with his people? With any people? Was his place an old family home, an apartment in a duplex south of town? A room over a hardware store?
Did he “go home” for Christmas like I did?
Unlike that steering-wheel man from my hometown, Harvey didn’t live entirely in his own fantasies. He carried with him, was guided by, the weight of his responsibilities for cleaning our dorm. Of course, he could guide himself only so far. I wonder who got him the job at the college? Who paid his bills? Did he foresee the day when he’d have to retire? Did he daydream, and what were his night dreams like? Did he ever wake up in a panic? Did he know what to do for a fever? Did he think about sex? Did he even know what it was?
Who took care of him when everything wasn’t all right?
Not that these questions plagued me in the immediate years after I graduated. I’m sure I saw other “Harveys” roaming the streets of my grad school campus and in the towns I moved to after that. But I never lived in a dorm after college, and in my pursuit of a doctorate and then a teaching position, I was much too focused on Faulkner seminars and detailed resumes to worry about the hallways and bathrooms of my institutional life.
After all, I was a well-adjusted, normally self-absorbed young man.
Sometimes on TV, a Harvey-figure would steer himself into my periphery. One of the best was “Benny,” the mildly retarded errand clerk in the hospital of “St. Elsewhere,” back in the 1990’s. Benny’s troubles sometimes seemed almost normal. And he was always endearing. But Benny couldn’t do Harvey justice. Harvey wasn’t an invention. Nor was he a stock character, a cliché. For Harvey wouldn’t have known what a cliché was, though in reality, he saw plenty of us walking, and showering, around him every weekday. Plenty of us who’ve forgotten, or maybe never even noticed this man and what he did for us every weekday. What he bore, and what we didn’t.
Harvey died on January 31, 2005. I don’t know if he died alone, in a hospital, or where, because the obituaries don’t say. He was survived by his sister, his nephew, and by “a host of friends.” That makes me feel a bit better, but I keep wondering: were they there when he died? Or before? Did anyone explain to him what was happening? Did he understand that his body was wearing out? Did he ever wake up in the morning or in the middle of the night wondering why he felt the way he did: not as strong, not as able?
Did he ever stop saying “All Right?”
I hate to imagine his eyes roaming the walls of his room, unable to comprehend what he was seeing or wasn’t seeing. I hate to think of him crying out in the night for comfort, for calming, for the pain to go away. For someone to hold him.
I hate to imagine all of these scenes, but I do. I can’t help it. Because Harvey cleaned up after me for several years, and he never said an unkind word to me. And he saw me naked. There aren’t many, or even any, others whom I can say this about.
Sometimes what seems so simple is the most complex and troubling thing in the world. I don’t pretend to have the answers, or the right questions regarding my own doubts about this world and what, if anything, comes after. Of course, many people have told me that believing in God or not is a simple choice. In fact, one day in my college cafeteria, maybe even near where Harvey was sitting, a guy I knew from our Social Work classes together casually approached me:
“Terry, you know your eternal fate lies in whether you’ll be going to Heaven or Hell,” he advised.
“You know Mike, I just don’t believe that a loving God would consign anyone, especially not well-intentioned doubters, to a fiery hell. Or any place like that.”
“But Terry, where’s your faith?”
“My faith in hell?”
“In God’s plan!”
“I guess when it comes to believing in hell, I just don’t have that kind of faith.”
“Well. GOODBYE!” He didn’t mean “See you later” either.
But it’s a strange thing to me, and even more troubling, that neither he nor I, none of us – believers, non-believers, doubters – took any time to see Harvey when we had the chance. To find out about his life. To help him if we could, or even to make life just a bit easier for him. But here I am assuming again that somehow, his life wasn’t all right.
Just like I’ve always assumed that mine is.
But here is something that gives me comfort on the nights when I lay in bed thinking about Harvey: in a 2009 article in the Shelby County Reporter – home county and paper of my college – a gathering of the Montevallo High School class of 1945 remembered their fallen friends. Friends like Harvey Lee Riffe, who “read the devotional almost every morning” and whose strong voice captured the essence of that great hymn, “How Great Thou Art,” for which he “sang his soul” on Sundays.
Harvey was born on January 5, 1923, and is buried in Shady Grove cemetery, in Bibb County, which, I assume, is his home county. That sounds like such a peaceful ending.
And one more thing. From what I’ve read and from what I remember, I am sure that whatever else Harvey did or did not understand about life or the intricacies of Scripture, he believed in God, in Jesus Christ.
While I myself understand so little.
“How Great Thou Art” was my grandmother’s favorite hymn. She was a devoted Christian woman, too. But I didn’t follow her religious path. I attended her church for many years; however, I never accepted Jesus as my savior. And even today, if I believe in God, it’s not the one that governs my Christian or my Jewish family.
Like my Christian grandmother, toward the end of her life my Jewish grandmother began praying to her God, and then urging my father to go back to synagogue, which he did. Now, I believe that when I envisioned Harvey lying alone in bed, sick, dying, and unable to comprehend himself and maybe not even his Maker, I was thinking of my Dad in the last year of his life, when he was becoming more and more incontinent, saying his nightly prayers; being helped into bed by my Mom and me, tremors in his arm and leg from Parkinson’s palsy. I felt glad in those moments that he was safely in bed – that my mother could still tend to him. That maybe he could forget about, or relax from, his own dementia for that night at least.
Did God watch over him? Did God allow him to suffer? I don’t know, but from down the hallway, I could hear his murmuring prayers. Did he believe in God despite what was happening to him – the God that had allowed or even caused it to happen to him? And if God was truly taking care of my father, I wonder where that leaves me? What will God do with me in the failing light of whatever last space I’m in?
I don’t have the answers to these questions, and I still don’t share my father’s faith. Yet, I’m happy that he had it during his last days if it gave him comfort. I say “if” because I saw my father’s eyes before he lost consciousness for good. They were restless and wild. Some might even have called them “mad.” But then I can’t really know what my father was seeing as he lay in his hospice bed. When his eyes did close in his last hours, he looked at peace. When I whispered to him that he could go now, that everything would be all right, I believe that my words gave him comfort. And for that, I am deeply happy.
Just as I am deeply happy that throughout his life, including, I hope, his end, Harvey thought his God was great. That he believed in Jesus. And that his body and mind are at rest.
All right Harvey, while I’ll always remember you, I can set you down now, gladly, and leave both you, and me, in the quiet and peace of our fathers.
Eric A. Gordon is the author of the first biography of composer Marc Blitzstein, and co-author of the autobiography of composer Earl Robinson. He earned his undergraduate degree in Latin American Studies at Yale University, and a doctorate in history from Tulane University. For fifteen years, he served as Director of The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. He is Chair of the Southern California Chapter of the National Writers Union (UAW/AFL-CIO). His most recent book is a translation from Portuguese, Waving to the Train and Other Stories, by Hadasa Cytrynowicz.
Memoir of a Mattress
Rick and I brought our new queen-sized mattress in a van from New York when we moved to Los Angeles in 1990. We set it down, beatnik-style, on the carpeted floor of our oceanfront apartment on Ozone Avenue in Venice.
The persistent cough began in late 1991. By early 1992, Rick had a diagnosis of pneumocystis pneumonia, familiar to our generation as one of the first indices. I slept alone on our mattress the week he spent at Cedars-Sinai getting through that fateful transition from HIV+ to AIDS.
At the same time, the publishers of my first book remaindered it. My agent advised me to buy up every available copy – they’d come in handy. Indeed they did: Rick had trouble getting up from our mattress, so we built a platform of twenty-five identical book cartons, and placed the mattress neatly on top. For a year, Rick ricocheted between the mattress on Ozone and those in the AIDS ward.
In January 1993, Rick and I had sex for the last time. Safe, of course. On that mattress. Even at his weight of a ghastly 135 pounds, he could still give me the kisses I lived for and, surprising us both, he achieved a satisfying orgasm.
We lay in bed together. I asked him, “After you’re gone, will you watch over me?” He said, “You know, I don’t really believe in that.” I answered, “I know, I don’t either.” And we both melted into tears, holding each other as we had never before, the one conversation I consider our truest, most intimate farewell. We stood at the precipice of the Great Unknown, maybe more so for me than for him, for he had a clearer view of the future than I did. Every time I see an opera like La Traviata, or the musical March of the Falsettos, with their drawn-out deathbed scenes, I remember Rick’s suffering as an inextricable part of my autobiography.
Toward the end, Rick entered that final phase of dementia that precluded logical conversation: In early February he asked me, “Are you one of the people who work here?” He hadn’t a clue what month it was. Apropos of nothing but his certainty of imminent passage, he said, “I think I’ll die on the 14th.”
“Oh, Rick,” I said, “please don’t. It’s Valentine’s Day and you’ll spoil it for the rest of my life.” On the 21st he lay in his final coma. The Ativan he had taken a couple of days earlier was wearing off and he began convulsing uncontrollably. Hospice recommended crushed morphine around his gums, which I administered. It calmed him down, and he died an hour later, at the age of thirty-seven. On our nine-inch mattress from New York.
I attended ten weeks of a bereavement group that spring. We talked about papers, notices, estates, clothes, bequests, acknowledgments, feelings. No one mentioned mattresses.
My astrologer friend Debbi advised disposing of the mattress as a necessary act if I wanted to move on and find a new partner. I remembered a Puerto Rican friend who told me how mortified her family had been when an aunt of hers on the isla actually took a neighbor to court, accusing her of casting a fufú – a magic spell – with a bundle of herbs hurled against her door. I thought how ridiculous it would be for me all of a sudden to embrace such mystical gibberish, the very stuff of voodoo and superstition. What was wrong with my comfortable mattress, only three years old, that in any case held many precious memories? Why discard it and spend hundreds of dollars on a new one? My rational, practical sensibility won that argument hands down.
Years passed. I slept soundly on my nice, firm, familiar mattress. I welcomed new lovers into my life, and into my bed, but no one else appeared who would have watched over me forever if he possibly could. When I bought my house in 1999, the mattress came with me. Now I purchased a respectable bed frame and box spring for it. Every time I closed the door behind a lover, Debbi’s advice came back to haunt me. Could the mattress have put a curse on this new relationship before I even got around to mentioning that my former lover had died on that mattress? No, I said to myself, I’m in my fifties now, way beyond the modern gay man’s acceptable age range. And suddenly I was in my sixties, and getting more set in my ways. And living with HIV myself.
I had known the singer-songwriter Blackberri decades ago. I reunited with him in San Francisco in June 2012. I hadn’t known that he’d been to Cuba to train as a santero, a priest of santería. As the afternoon progressed, filled with stories of his practice, I felt the need to share my mattress problem with him. He said, “Give it to Goodwill!”
On July 6, 2012, twenty years since Rick’s last birthday, I went and purchased a new combination coil-foam mattress, fourteen inches high, and the accompanying box spring, new sheets and pillowcases, mattress protector, even an anti-bedbug casing. I spent that last week on our mattress, awaiting delivery of the new one on Saturday.
Blackberri reminded me to smudge the new mattress with sage. I mumbled a few promising words of fufú, to summon the watchful spirits.
Tom Leskiw lives outside Eureka, California with his wife Sue and their dog Zevon. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. His research, essays, book and movie reviews have appeared in a variety of scientific and literary journals. Awards include The Motherhood Muse (1st place contest winner). His column appears at www.RRAS.org and his website resides at www.tomleskiw.com.
Lithic Voices: Honoring Those Who’ve Come Before
Droplets of sweat fell from my dad’s face as he leaned over to pick up another rock. Grunting, he placed it into the trunk of our 1960 Pontiac Catalina. Shadows lengthened. The day expired, yet the heat clung. The housing tract was of 1962 vintage, an extraordinary crush year for California’s Santa Clara Valley. Landscaping was absent outside the new house we’d just bought, so we were building a rock wall – one that would hold a raised bed – along the back cinderblock wall. The sawtooth pattern of the bed required that we obtain enough rock to build a wall 150 feet long by about fourteen inches high. That’s a lot of rock. So, as we’d done many evenings before, Dad, my brother Larry, and I made our rounds of nearby housing subdivisions, searching for rocks unearthed by backhoes excavating for foundations and utility lines.
Despite these numerous collection forays, we ran out of rock a mere sixteen inches shy of connecting the end of our wall with the existing cinderblock wall. So, we had to use a single cinderblock to complete the structure. The presence of that single cinderblock still bugs me, even though it was faced with rock and no living person shares my secret. But, I can’t get this transgression out of my head: we cut a corner; we compromised the purity of our craftsmanship.
Fast-forward twenty years. My friend Duane and I had decided to take a break from the Pacific Northwest’s winter rain by fleeing to backpack Kauai’s Na Pali coast. The trail, built long before the advent of explosives and heavy equipment, never lingered on level ground, but was forever heading steeply up or down to avoid rock outcrops. Hawaiian legends speak of a race of hard-working beings called the menehune. At night, away from the prying eyes of humans, the menehune built the trail, blazing a route into this region of dazzling sea cliffs and spectacular waterfalls.
We strayed from the main trail, intent on exploring a side canyon. Here, our progress was slow due to dense jungle and slippery rocks. We crashed through the last bit of brush to behold a towering waterfall slicing through a notch in the basalt cliffs. At its base was an immense plunge pool. Jungle fragrances – the perfume of flowers, overripe fruit, damp vegetation – wafted to us on air currents generated by the waterfall.
We pulled off our sweat-stained clothes and slipped into the water. It was refreshing, surprisingly cold. After our swim, we poked about the undergrowth. In the dim light, I paused to let my eyes adjust and permitted myself to slip into a well-worn fantasy: I am the first person ever to stand in this spot. A sapling grew at the base of a small rock outcrop. I studied the area a bit more closely and realized that I was looking at a stone that was but one of many stacked together to create a rock wall about four feet high. We now saw that the portion of the wall we were inspecting was just a short segment of a lengthy, interconnected network. I leaned over and sighted down the length of the top of the wall, surprised to discover that it was level. The mortar-less, narrow joints indicated high-quality rockwork constructed by skilled craftsmen. Finally, it dawned on me. These were retaining walls, built to create fields that were then flooded to grow taro.
Talk to me, I implored the rocks. How many people lived here – and when?
Me, the first person to stand here? Not by a long shot.
Four years later, I supervised the construction of some large rock structures of my own. Seizing the opportunity to transfer into the fisheries department, my first task was to inspect the placement of 1- to 2-ton boulders in California’s Willow Creek to benefit salmon and steelhead restoration. Laid in a downstream V-pattern, the purpose of the structure was to slacken the water’s velocity just enough to allow gravel to drop out immediately upstream of the rocks during floods. Hopping from rock to rock while wearing waders, I’d check the elevation of each rock and give a thumbs-up or down to the excavator operator. On that particular project, not wanting to wait for the next flood, we placed clean, washed gravel into the stream.
That year, the rains came early, calling the Chinook salmon home. It seemed as though the raucous echoes of the excavator had scarcely subsided before my colleagues and I glimpsed the first returning salmon slaloming through gaps in the boulders, the females depositing their eggs in the gravel we’d imported, closely followed by multiple males, jousting with each other for the chance to fertilize the eggs.
Last year, my wife Sue and I traveled to Santa Cruz, California for a concert. On the way home to Eureka, I convinced her to detour to my old neighborhood in the Santa Clara Valley. The orchards had long ago drawn their last breath, moments before bulldozers uprooted and piled them for burning. In their place were endless subdivisions and the gleaming, multistoried castles of the semi-conductor industry. We pulled up in front of the house I had lived in between 1962 and 1968.
I climbed familiar steps and rang the doorbell. No one answered. Was the rock wall still there? I made a quick calculation: 1962 from 2012: 50 years. Fifty years. . . Had the wall meshed with the plans of its subsequent owners, the ebb and flow of changing landscaping motifs? Slipping into the backyard was just too audacious. What if the residents returned? Hello, Sunnyvale Police Department? We have a problem…
The home Sue and I live in was built on an old log landing – a hillside area scraped level by heavy equipment. Behind the garage stands the deepest cut: about sixteen feet. The previous owner had landscaped the yard into a series of raised beds and terrace walls, all constructed from rock. Several years ago, I needed to replace 150 feet of rotten wooden retaining wall. I hired a backhoe operator to place the boulders, some of them weighing more than a ton. After the project’s dust settled, I took stock of the job. I realized that the stonewall will long outlast the wood house. Many years after our home’s 46-foot-long roof beams are reduced to cellulose compost, this imposing structure will remain, the rocks whispering seductively to future archeologists. Who were the residents of this place? What endeavors filled their days? What things did they deem important?
I’m reminded of lyrics from a 1960’s Jefferson Airplane song, “Life is change. How it differs from the rocks.” However, rocks do change: mountains are upthrust, slowly weather to fine sediments, are then compacted, then upthrust again. It’s the rate of change that can be so slow as to be rendered imperceptible. A number of factors – water-aided transport, freeze-thaw, gravity, and rain creating a weak solution of carbonic acid – conspire to make little rocks from larger ones.
This process has aided a new tradition of Sue’s and mine, the collection of “memento rocks” that are displayed along the rim of our solstice site. During our travels, we try to collect a good-sized but transportable rock from a location that has special meaning for us. Each has a story to tell – a partial stratigraphy of my life. It might be from a beach hike with friends the day after Thanksgiving dinner, or perhaps a black-capped rock that I spied minutes after seeing my first Black-capped Vireo. Rock #22, a conglomerate that I collected from a cobble bar along the South Fork of the Eel River in California, was collected on June 21, 2002 – the Summer Solstice – near a cabin owned by the Naylor family, our hosts for a camp-out. I collected Rock #22 during a spirited, but ragged, rendition of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that we performed in honor of the 41st anniversary of the cabin’s purchase by the Naylors.
Studying Rock #22 more closely, I see pea-gravel-sized nuggets of varying shapes and colors embedded in a dark gray sandstone-like matrix. Some are round or oval, whereas others have sharp corners, indicating a shorter transport distance in the stream prior to the conglomerate’s formation. I pulled out some textbooks to brush up on the exact definition of a conglomerate rock: “A clastic – accumulated particles of broken – sedimentary rock containing numerous rounded pebbles or larger particles. Clastic, from the Greek word klastos: broken.”
Conglomerate rock is formed by the wedding of broken and dissimilar pieces of rock into a unified whole. It’s an apt metaphor for my life. Rock has forged connections throughout my life, weaving together seemingly disparate strata: as material for walls built both by hand and with the aid of machines, and as elements imported to or rearranged in streams during the decade I spent improving salmon habit. Rocks have served as portals into native cultures, as trinkets that serve as benchmarks along my life’s journey, and finally, as mnemonic devices to remember family and places.
To Native Americans, the term “all my relations” refers to both animate and – what we newcomers might consider to be – inanimate objects. A Lakota medicine person may address a stone as “Tunkashila,” meaning grandfather. When I work with stone, I think about its mass, its permanence. I believe that the act of its placement is a way of honoring those who’ve come before. I find myself reflecting on those who’ll gaze upon these rocks in the future. And, in so doing, acknowledge those who have come before. . . and on and on to complete the cycle.
From time without
there in the midst of the paths
in the midst of the winds
covered with the droppings of birds
grass growing from your feet
your head decked with the down of birds
in the midst of the winds
Epilogue: The housing tract that contained my parents’ home in the Santa Clara Valley had a furnished “model home” to entice prospective buyers. My parents ended up buying a number of its furnishings, among them two light brown marble-topped end tables. Gazing back in time, I can see my mom in the living room. It’s after the divorce. She’s sitting on the sofa, flanked by the end tables. She’s smoking a cigarette, taking a break from the never-ending duties of a working single mom with four children.
My mother died thirteen years ago this spring, shortly after entering a nursing home. My brother, two sisters, and I gathered at her house to sort through her belongings. At the end of a long weekend, the end tables had not been claimed by any of us.
“Our house is too small,” Sue and I agreed. “Would anyone be offended if we just take the tops? I know I’ll find a use for them.”
No one objected, so we did. For several years, the marble slabs waited in our garage. Then, eleven years ago, while connecting a loop trail on our property, I encountered a steep bank that required several steps. The slabs worked out perfectly as risers to the short staircase. Now, when Sue, our dog Zevon, and I take our daily walk around our property, I detect a new murmur among the lithic voices.
1. From the Omaha people. Kenneth Lincoln, “Native American Literatures,” in Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature, Brian Swann, ed., (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).
Carly Sachs teaches writing and yoga at Kent State University. She is the author of The Steam Sequence and the editor of the anthology, The Why and Later, a collection of poems women have written about rape and assault.
It’s crowded for a Wednesday night and a man with headphones slips into the only open seat at the bar. “Sauvignon Blanc,” he says, without taking off the headphones. I drop a napkin in front of him and nod. When I return with his drink, he still hasn’t removed them.
Occasionally, I’ll joke with some of the after-work patrons who are on their Blackberries, that I should just get their email addresses and ask via mobile device whether they want another drink. That comment usually gets a chuckle, until their phones buzz and it’s a call, or email, or text that ends our conversations. Once, I approached a woman on her cell phone and offered her a drink menu. She held up one finger and stared hard. I backed away and made myself busy wiping down bottles.
Sometimes I wonder what our world was like before we were all online all the time. And I know I can’t judge because I keep my phone behind the bar. I tell myself it’s so I can look up restaurants and directions for the hotel guests. But really, I know it’s so I can keep up with my emails while working, and text friends who may be in the neighborhood.
I smile at the man with the headphones when I catch him glancing over at me. It’s a bit late for work, but maybe he’s listening to a book on tape. Some people love to read at the bar: a newspaper and a martini; a novel and a glass of wine. Perhaps it’s a signal: Don’t engage me in any useless chatter. I’ve come here to be by myself. So I leave him alone.
I was working a cocktail shift when I found out that my cousin Meredith had passed. She had been in the hospital. I read the email about it before I heard my mom’s voicemail. I was sitting in the stairwell where I kept my purse, the marble steps cold against my bare legs. What was I thinking, wearing a skirt in January?
Along the back of my thighs, I could see the veins, the same purple-indigo, Meredith’s favorite color, that swirled into the marble. When I told my manager about Meredith’s death, she told me to go home, but I finished the shift. What else could I do? I moved glasses from bar to table, brought more when needed. This is how January feels, I thought, looking at the few patrons and the candles flickering. Most of the velvet chairs were vacant.
It’s March now and there are tiny green buds forming on the trees along the avenue. Only a few months ago, they were lit up in white. We were getting emails every day about Meredith’s condition. I know that because they would arrive around four o’clock, one hour before opening. I’d look out the dark windows in the quiet moments during the shift and think about my cousin, how much I knew and didn’t know about her. I’d wonder how her parents and sister were doing, sitting around in a waiting room while I was making drinks. I would ask, up or on the rocks, and pretend like it mattered. I convinced myself that if I could just move from one end of the bar to the other, for ice or scotch or wine, things would move along for Meredith in the same manner. Over the weeks, different people went to visit Meredith in the hospital. The names of family friends and high school acquaintances turned up in the emails. We’re lucky, her father would write. When I said Cheers to the patrons, I was thinking Go Meredith, which is how cousin Billy closed his email updates. Most days, I wrote something small to her father, noticing something witty about his writing, or expressing my gratitude for taking so much time and care to keep us all informed when every day he slept in a strange bed and looked at his daughter hooked up to IVs.
I’m putting ice in the shaker, feeling that something is about to happen. The patrons next to the man with the headphones are trying to inch their stools away. He’s singing “I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain.”
I skate over and make eye contact, “James Taylor, right?”
He looks up at me, amazed for a second before a wave of embarrassment hits. “I was singing,” he says.
“You were,” I smile.
He puts his headphones back on, holding one finger up to his lips. The other patrons relax a bit and go back to their conversations.
I want to tell him that James Taylor was one of my cousin’s favorites, but I know better than to talk about Meredith. People come here to meet friends and unwind before their commute. Talking about my cousin wouldn’t be fair. Besides, I’m the one who is supposed to wear sheer black clothes, pour what is asked of me, and do all the listening. I look out the window and watch clouds roll across the sky.
The next time I look over at Headphones, he’s twirling a wedding ring on one of the long black straws he plucked from the napkin caddy. I move over and touch his arm. “Hey, James Taylor,” I say, “you okay?”
He sighs and takes off his headphones but keeps on spinning the ring. “You would have liked this one,” he says. “It’s a good one.”
For the first time he looks directly at me. The ring lands on the bar’s inlaid glass top. “Not you,” he says, “my wife.”
I don’t know if I should play along.
“Remember when,” he says, and I know he’s talking to his wife again.
“Will your wife be meeting you this evening?” I say, hoping to reel him in a bit.
He stops twirling the ring and tosses it up in the air, trying to catch it in his hands. When he misses, he leans back on his chair and tips over. By now everyone is staring as the man recovers himself and gropes the floor in the dark.
Luckily, he finds the ring. I move away, letting him regain his composure and offering some time for the heaviness of the moment to pass.
But in a minute, he’s flagging me over, pointing to his empty glass.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but I don’t think – ”
He drums his hands on the bar, “You know, my wife died. A year ago today.”
“I’m so sorry. My cousin – ” I start.
He looks down at the bar. “Breast cancer.”
I nod. I don’t even know his name.
“Can I get another one, dear?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. You see, I think maybe you were drinking before you got here, and since I’m the last person who served you.” It just doesn’t feel right – explaining dram shop laws to a grieving and already somewhat intoxicated patron.
“What I mean is,” I try again. “Is there someone I can call for you, to get you home, or maybe a cab?”
He puts a ten on the bar and turns up the headphone volume.
After he leaves, I think of all the things I could have said to him, or to Meredith’s husband Brian at the funeral, and I wonder if anything would have made a difference. As I’m walking to the train after the shift, I look for Headphones in the windows of the bars on 36th street, hoping that I’ll see him and be able to say the right thing. I see men my age drinking with their friends or girlfriends, and I think about Brian, home with his infant daughter and most likely asleep by now. I zip my jacket a little tighter.
When my best friend Suzy lost her baby the weekend of her wedding, everyone surrounded her and her husband Eric asking how they were, what they wanted or needed. I was the one who cut fruit, cleaned the kitchen. Years later, I apologized for not doing the right thing, for maybe not connecting with her enough.
“But you did,” she said, “you were present.”
Riding the train home, I wonder about Headphones and think of him waking up tomorrow in sheets tangled by another restless night. I wonder whether he’ll notice the light coming through his window and feel less shaky. Maybe his feet will meet the hardwood floor of his apartment, gently landing him in a quiet but budding present. I think of Suzy and her husband back in Ohio, and Brian in Minnesota, and wonder if any of the trees there have begun to show the first signs of a new season.
A.M. Thompson is a wife, mother, blogger, and distance runner. She holds an AA in Liberal Arts and Certificate in Creative Writing and is currently pursuing her B.A. in English online. As a freelance writer, she has authored several press releases, travel and tourism articles, nonfiction works and written webcontent for various sites. Her works have appeared in APIARY Online, andiran.tumblr.com and Examiner.com. One of her stories was turned into a short film, which was screened at the International House in Philadelphia in 2011.
“I told your father there are three things I will never tolerate: lying, cheating, or hitting. If you lie to me, I will leave you. If you cheat on me, I will leave you. And if you ever lay your fucking hands on me – if you ever hit me – I will leave you.”
I wonder if that was in my mother’s vows: I, Evelyn, take you, Daniel, to be my wedded husband. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness or in health, until death do us part (unless, of course, you fucking hit me. Then your ass is out on the curb).
You may now kiss the bride.
My husband and I opted to write our own vows. His included mutant pigs and deformed frogs; mine were sappy and sentimental, like a greeting card dipped in chocolate and rolled in sugar. My teeth hurt while saying them. My wedding took place on October 19, 2007. It was nearly 90 degrees and rained all day, not quite the fall weather we were hoping for. By the time I arrived home from the hair salon, I had to re-curl the free-flowing strands that once framed my face: humidity had caused them to fall flat in less than five minutes. Of course, it didn’t matter in the end, but when you are getting ready to marry the man of your dreams; the smallest things will set you off (like realizing you don’t own a single umbrella that isn’t broken). Two years of planning and $10,000 later and all I remember are the vows, the kielbasa, and the roasted potatoes.
The first time he hit me was over a banana. We were in our one-bedroom, white-walled apartment in suburban Philadelphia, and he had had one too many beers; I hadn’t had a drink all day. We weren’t yet married; engaged, yes, but still – essentially – single. He was a joker and began pulling bananas, one-by-one, off from a bunch on our kitchen counter and then smashing them, Hulk-style, on the floor. We weren’t made of money and while each one cost no more than ten or fifteen cents, I became angry: he was wasting both food and my hard-earned cash (not to mention he was making a slippery-yet-sticky mess). I told him to stop; I told him to clean it up. He grabbed another banana. When I attempted to take the banana from his hand, a struggle began. Not a true struggle; it wasn’t like I was trying to wrestle a gun from his grip, but a drunken tussle. Before I knew it, his right hand had connected with the left side of my face; I couldn’t see it – or the macerated bits of banana and blood on my orange hoodie – until the swelling went down two days later.
I told everyone I was in a car accident. Not a terrible one – there were no broken bones or fractured ribs – just one strong enough to deploy the airbag, shatter my nose, and blacken my eye. It seemed reasonable enough. Truth be told, I would have kept it to myself if I didn’t have to work the next day, but since I did, I stuck by my story. No, I said, the car was okay; a few dents and dings but nothing terrible. It was only body damage.
That’s the thing; you make excuses. You know better than to say you fell down a flight of stairs – it isn’t viable in the movies and certainly your friends and family will see through the lie – but you also can’t bring yourself to say it; your husband-to-be clocked you in your face over a banana. So instead you deny it; you deny it like you denied yourself that spa treatment last weekend, the one in the city with your girlfriends at the W Hotel. You forget it like you forget what you had for dinner last night. It becomes just another story.
You make eggs and bacon for breakfast, sip your coffee, and choke down that burnt bagel you thought you could soften with copious amounts of butter. Sort the laundry. Get dressed. Toss your hair in a ponytail. Whatever you do, avoid the bathroom and the full-length mirror in the hall. And don’t touch your face; it will sting.
The second time it happened was a blur. I woke with bruises on my legs and left arm and the leftover traces of fingertips on my neck. Pictures from the night before proved they were fresh; they also proved we were both wasted. I had walked around town in an oversized Justin Timberlake t-shirt and smiley face thong (these were my more voyeuristic days), and sometime before taking the photo beneath the basketball net (the one with my pierced tongue hanging out) and arriving back home, the bruises formed. His story differed from mine, and in the haze of the hangover that followed I began to believe whatever he said.
You promise yourself this will never happen again. You consider leaving, talk about getting a divorce – you can do it; you don’t need him – decide to go to couples therapy but find yourself going on a dinner date instead. Too many years; too many memories.
You immerse yourself in boxes and bubble wrap. You will be moving next month and need to pack six years and four rooms in just over five weeks. Pack the bookcase first then pictures and DVDs. Move to the closet; toss the t-shirts you haven’t worn since you were seventeen, but keep the twin-sheet sets that no longer fit your queen-sized bed. Leave the kitchen for last. Call the cable company, the gas company, and the electric company and schedule their shut-off dates. Call back and complain when you find yourself without power two days too early. Wish you had a house phone to slam, then throw your cell phone anyway. Contemplate why you are so angry as you slink around the house, shuffling Sharpie-labeled boxes from room-to-room while checking cabinets you already know are empty.
The third time was in Disney World. We did what Walt warned us about and drank around the world. (For those unacquainted with this concept, “drinking around the world” involves consuming an adult beverage from every “country” in Epcot; at last count, there are 11 countries.) We started in Mexico, made our way through Norway and China, and ended up in England where – we thought – success tasted like Smitwick’s and Guinness. Then we realized a fatal error: While we had shopped in Japan, we forgot to buy a beer or plum wine. With minutes to spare, we ran halfway around the globe to order a single cup of sake we never should have been served. Success was creamy, smooth and sweet, until we got onto the Walt Disney World Transportation System, realized we forget to pee prior to our departure from the park, and found ourselves lost and stumbling around the oversized lake at Coronado Springs with urine dripping down our legs. I could see our hacienda in the distance – each section of the Coronado Springs resort bears a different Mexican marker. I turned to my husband, muttered something I thought was clearly “I’ll meet you in the room,” and made a run for it. After a few misguided swipes of the room key, I entered, drew a bath, and jumped in the tub; my toe didn’t even test the water. I took a breath and plunged my face beneath the surface, letting the bath water carry my shoulder-length hair from side-to-side. I stayed under as long as I could; I didn’t even hear him enter. When I opened my eyes I saw his face, red and trembling, inches from mine. He told me that I left him. He told me if I wanted to drown myself I should do it – stop fucking around and just do it – then he held my head and shoulders down. I kicked and flailed, hoping to break the surface and take a breath.
After finally breaking free, things got worst. Closed fists met my arms, my chest, and my face. Everything was in extremes: black or white, hot or cold, dead or alive. I tried to call my friend for help but my phone was waterlogged (having been in my pocket when I took the bathwater plunge). Eventually he passed out, and I lay shivering on the floor. I remember being surprised how comfortable the carpet was. We slept, if one can call it that, until we were picked up and whisked away to Animal Kingdom for the next phase of our fun-filled family vacation.
You try and keep up. The small things are easy. You go to the grocery store, bring in the mail, make sure the milk isn’t spoiled before pouring it in your coffee or over your cereal, but the big things – like that article you were supposed to write ten days ago but haven’t started – fall to the wayside. You fight with the clerk at Stop and Shop: sure they may make minimum wage, but pineapples were advertised as $2.99 each and you don’t want to pay a dollar more. No, I asked for plastic, not paper. You put the food away and drop a carton of raspberries on the kitchen floor. Shit. You attempt to rinse the barely bruised berries and toss the rest. Pay the bills. Hang the Christmas cards. Do the dishes. Curse yourself when a glass cup slips from your hand and shatters. Grab the remains and cut yourself while moving the oversized shards from the sink to the trash. You rinse the blood away – under cold water – cover and bandage. You sit on the couch and take a nap; crawl under the covers and take a nap; take a Tylenol PM and hope you can take a nap.
Your desk is covered with clutter: uncapped pens, receipts you meant to rectify but haven’t had the time to do, and dozens of opened envelopes (just because you bring in the mail doesn’t mean you open it). You start forgetting tasks at work; even the ultra-bright Post-it notes adhered to the side of your monitor fail to remind you to report payroll or oversee the annual company inventory. Just be grateful Paychex calls you if you don’t call them.
It happens again and again: in the living room, in the bedroom, in the kitchen. Every room is tainted by memories only you can see. Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser can’t clean these spots from my eyes, though he can clean blood from the walls. It happened just before my birthday, days before our anniversary, and one week after Christmas. (There’s always a card to mark the occasion: an unintended Hallmark moment.) It happened in Florida, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia—at the Loews Hotel on Market Street, and at the Four Points Sheraton on Race Street.
It was our first trip back to Philadelphia after moving to Brooklyn just three months prior. I was scheduled to run in the Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon, and since the race began at 8:00am, we decided to get a hotel room in the city the night before. I could carb load on breadsticks and pasta while my husband bonded with friends and beer. We were only supposed to be out for a few hours, only supposed to stop by one restaurant and one bar. But friends kept filtering out, one-by-one, and the hours passed almost as quickly as the shots (and since I was running, all these drinks were passed his way and not mine). By the time we arrived back at the room, it was well after midnight. Four hours, three noise complaints, and two paramedics later he finally passed out. I crawled into bed and cried myself to sleep, my cheeks still damp when the alarm went off two hours later.
You always smile at the desk clerk on the way out, but this time you also thank the bellboy for his help at 4:00am. You call your husband on the way to the race, and tell him if he isn’t at the finish line we are done. You know the ultimatum should be more than a mile long walk and two extra hours of sleep, but you can’t seem to shake the good memories: the late night talks on your mother’s front porch when you were 18, the way he dances with your cats like a proud father at his daughter’s wedding. The key is to forget it; forget it like you forget your toothbrush every time you travel. Forget it like you always forget the milk, bread or toilet paper at the store.
Somewhere between mile one and mile three you consider pressing charges. You consider going to the cops – confessing your husband beats you in your face – but by mile nine you consider running off the Falls Bridge instead. He’s a good man. You don’t want people to think otherwise. Besides, it’s your word versus his, your friends versus his. But you can’t seem to kill yourself either, so keep running, keep crying, and hope something will change when you cross the finish line.
Remember you did nothing when it happened. Sure, you called the cops this time, but you didn’t press charges – just wanted a second opinion, someone else to see if he needed his stomach pumped. Realize you were abused and did nothing. Realize you are abused and still lay side-by-side with the perpetrator.
He waits for you just before mile marker 13. You ask how he feels, even though you don’t care. You go to brunch with friends; he orders water, you order a beer. Smile and nod, appear engaged; don’t talk about the night before. You ride the bus back to New York City in silence. When you arrive home, he goes to bed. Turn on the TV. Search the web. Feed the cats. Pour a cup of water and open the mail you have been putting aside.
One envelope grabs your attention: It carries extra postage and is slightly bigger than a bill, but smaller than a greeting card. You peel back the pearlized paper and pull out a folded-over piece of black cardstock. You read the stamped silver ink, first in your head and then out loud:
He slipped the ring on her finger, a promise made for life…
Join us and share their joy as they become man and wife!
You stare at the response card for what feels like an eternity. Only the sound of a distant snore breaks your concentration. You slip in the bedroom and stare at your husband; he is on his back, legs spread, and sound asleep. You watch his chest rise and fall, fall and rise.
‘till death do us part.
You return to the office and fill in your name — Mr. and Mrs. Thompson — on the line appointed attending. Some things are as simple as selecting chicken or beef for dinner (I am a chicken girl myself), but others, like deciding to end a marriage, are better left unanswered.
You slip the card in the enclosed self-addressed and stamped envelope, seal it, leave the room and turn off the lights because you know the sun will rise in the morning, he will wake headache and hangover free, and you will be lying beside him: silent, drained, strained but still together. You don’t know this will be the last time it happens. You know you are strained, drained, and silent but still hanging on.
Carla Sarett has worked in academia, TV, film and market research. Her short fiction has appeared in The Linnet’s Wing, Subtle Fiction, Eric’s Hysterics, Scissors and Spackle, The Greensilk Journal, Absinthe Revival, The River Poet’s Journal, Loch Raven Review, Danse Macabre, The Medulla Review, Rose Red Review, among others. Her first short story collection, Nine Romantic Stories, is available through Amazon.
In every family, there’s a story about a will. No matter how little is left, there’s a petty fight about money, a greedy relative who crawls out of the woodwork at the last minute. Whether it’s a Picasso or a dismal-looking vase, we wrangle endlessly about who gets what. Every bit matters, that is, at least at the very end. It’s our compliment to the dead in a weird, Antiques-Roadshow way.
My mother was an only child so, on that score at least, she had little to worry about. Her parents, Sam and Genya Morowitz, had lost their families ‘in the war’ as we said. My mother was all that they had left. They weren’t rich or anything close to it, but they had saved every penny for her and they were people you could count on.
When I was young, we saw them almost every week. It must have taken hours to get from Upper Manhattan to where we lived on Long Island. Genya turned up on Wednesdays to babysit and Sam visited on Sundays. Once in a blue moon, maybe for Thanksgiving or a birthday, they’d take the train together.
Genya came armed with bags of oranges and bananas—we were stick-thin kids and she pursued us with offers of fruit. When my mother was safely out of sight, she’d suggest slyly: “A little banana?” Whether I accepted or not was irrelevant. Either way, I’d soon hear: “An orange maybe?” For his part, Sam hid delicious chocolate bars in his pockets, Hershey’s chocolate—it was our little game. I’d rummage through his jacket pockets until I found it. More often than not, I would hand it over to my chocolate-loving big brother.
Sam and Genya lived in a modest one-bedroom apartment near the Cloisters in New York: pale mauve walls, a few scattered Art Nouveau prints, books in Russian and Yiddish. To my eyes, accustomed to our shiny split-level on Long Island, their apartment seemed faded,and it had the smell of old things and onions. The small windows were always shut. In the dead of winter, the living room was sweltering, hissing with forced air heat.
Much as I loved them, I felt that it was a sad place. Sam and Genya rarely spoke to one another, although, occasionally, I’d hear a sharp, tense burst of Yiddish. They didn’t quarrel—it was more like the aftermath of a wearying fight, an uneasy truce. When I later read Willa Cather’s novel, My Mortal Enemy, I thought of my grandparents, in their bleak no-man’s land of a marriage.
“What’s wrong?” I would ask my mother.
She would explain with her mordant cheerfulness, “It was always like that when I was growing up. I think she hated him, poor man.”
Hate’s a strong word, I thought.
They’d met in Warsaw. Genya and her sister owned a dressmaking shop in Warsaw, successful enough to support the two women. Probably, even then, she had a noble presence. Genya had exotic looks—light eyes that, even in old age, were clear as a lake, and blue-black hair. She wasn’t a catch in the conventional sense, though; she was a few years older than Sam, a Russian immigrant and a widow, besides.
My mother hinted that Genya’s marriage to Sam was a concession, unlike her first marriage – a young husband who’d died of tuberculosis. It made little sense to me. Genya’s first marriage had been arranged, but she’d married Sam by choice.
Or perhaps it hadn’t been a choice. Hitler’s thugs had already made one power grab in the early ‘20s, and Sam might have been Genya’s easiest escape hatch. Genya had fled danger before–Warsaw wasn’t her birthplace, it was a refuge from Russia’s pogroms. Or maybe she was lonely, and no other suitor came along. But I think on Sam’s part, there was love, the kind that grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. Not long after they were married, my mother was born, and she had Sam’s slanted brown eyes and olive skin.
In 1926, when the going was still good for Jews, Sam left Warsaw for New York. Like scores of poor immigrant husbands before him, he entered Ellis Island alone. Three years later, Genya and my mother followed (my mother had never met Sam before then).
Throughout the Great Depression, Sam and Genya worked in a millinery factory. Those were the grand days of hats—everyone in American cities wore hats. There were bowlers, feathered hats, velvet cloches, smart berets, fedoras, even hats shaped like birds, and Sam had a flair for hat design and blocking. Eventually, he headed his own department (“shop”) on the floor—in my mother’s words: Sam was a “crazy Trotskyite, always fighting for the union.” Vacation pictures show a satisfied, even dandyish, man in a white suit, savoring his perennial cigar. By the standards of the Bronx, Sam had done well.
“My father adored me,” my mother told me. She recalled freshly made cocoa delivered to her, in bed, before Sam headed to work. On her first date, he hid behind a tree to act as her “secret” chaperone. She was always “a good girl” and clever, too; she galloped through school and was admitted to Hunter College at the age of fifteen. But in her final semester, she stunned her parents by her decision to quit school and get married. My father had been drafted for the army.
Desperate, Sam tried to bribe her to graduate. He pledged to escort her to wherever my father was stationed, after she got her degree. Sam argued, the delay meant months, not years—and he and Genya approved of the match. But my stubborn mother had set her sights on my curly-haired father in high school and wasn’t letting him slip away.
“It broke my father’s heart,” my mother said. She never returned to college. Even now, after all this time, I can’t bear to think of Sam’s broken heart.
When I knew Sam, he was about sixty: a reserved heavyset man with my mother’s happy, almost dancing, eyes. He smelled of fragrant cigars, although he avoided smoking when I was around. On his Sunday visits, Sam wore a suit and tie, an old-style vest and, always, a hat. He and my mother spoke quietly in Yiddish while I sat in his lap and played with the few stray hairs on his head.
One odd memory about Sam stuck with me. Dad and I had enjoyed one of our special days in New York—we’d gone to see a ballet. Driving home (by that time, we lived in North Jersey), we lost our way, since my father had taken one of his “shrewd” routes which invariably took five times as long as the ordinary ones. We saw a man in an overcoat and hat walking briskly—in my memory, we saw him on an overpass, and we were below.
“That’s Sam Morowitz,” my dad said, forgetting to call him Grandpa Sam. It was the first time that I’d heard Sam referred to by his real name and it startled me. “I wonder where he’s going?”
“Where do you think?” I asked, uneasy without knowing why.
My sense of New York geography was sketchy. We were uptown but a distance (so I thought) from hilly Fort Tryon Park where Sam lived. That was where tiny grandmothers sat and talked of their clever grandchildren. On the ridge, you could see the grandfathers carrying enormous black pumpernickels and Russian babkas along with Yiddish newspapers, back to their wives. Torn from the neighborhood, Sam seemed like a ghost of himself. Where could he be headed?
“Who knows,” said my father, laughing. “The man likes to walk, that’s for sure.”
Genya’s last years were filled with illness and hospitals, and I saw less of her. She died while I was at summer camp. After that, Sam fell apart. There were bitter arguments with my mother, in Yiddish. I heard her screaming into the phone, late at night. “He’s going crazy,” she said.
Within a year and a half, he was dead of a stroke. We buried him near where Genya lay. It wasn’t a traditional Jewish funeral. Sam and Genya had nothing to do with rituals, rabbis, and prayers.
Then came Sam’s will. In it, he left all of his money to a Dr. Hoffman.
Dr. Hoffman was my grandmother’s “family” doctor; and to us, she was always “Dr. Hoffman.” I never learned her first name. I’d met her at Sam’s burial – a harmless wisp of a woman, fair-haired, about Sam’s age, in a lady-like knitted suit. It was Dr. Hoffman who had diagnosed Genya’s chronic coughing as bronchitis or allergies or even hypochondria. “Don’t worry so much,” Dr. Hoffman had said.
Genya died a painful death from esophageal cancer. The last time I saw her she was frail as a girl, her grey eyes still bright and curious. Her coughing should have been a tell-tale sign, but it had been ignored. And in a sick twist, her incompetent (or perhaps indifferent) physician was rewarded with Genya’s money.
My parents challenged the will on the grounds that Sam was demented. Obviously, he’d plucked a name from thin air—a family doctor, who else? It seemed an open and shut case, until it emerged that Dr. Hoffman and Sam had been lovers for over a quarter century, perhaps more. The facts were indisputable. The affair was well known to Dr. Hoffman’s children.
“That’s where he was walking that day,” my dad joked. “No wonder those walks were so long.”
“True,” my mother agreed, half-sad, half-mocking. “She wasn’t even pretty.”
The lawyers slowly hammered out an agreement. Dr. Hoffman didn’t give up without a fight, and it was a long, ugly fight. Maybe the money was split, or maybe she got most of it. I never knew, and I never asked. To me, the money was poisoned.
My mother recalled that as Genya lay dying, she’d wanted to alter her will to ensure that her half went to my mother. (The money was supposed to pay for our college education.) Genya had warned, “You don’t know your father.” My mother had cast off those words as ashes from a bitter marriage, ramblings from a sick old woman, and only later recognized their truth.
Later, my mother expressed a more sanguine view of Sam’s affair. “It makes me happy in a way. At least someone loved him. My mother never gave him any happiness.”
Sometime later, after the will was settled, I learned of Sam’s other daughter, Bella.
She was the child of Sam’s first young marriage, and was older than my mother by some years. Sam and Bella never spoke – there was some old wound there. And at sixteen, she left without a word to anyone. She vanished into the city, or so I was told.
My mother said: “I thought about finding Bella when Grandpa Sam died. But no one knows where to find her and maybe she isn’t alive, or she’s married and has a different name.”
For years, I’d listened to my mother lament her solitary childhood as an only child. It was unnerving to discover, as if by magic, a half-sister, my own aunt. Yet, my mother had never lifted a finger to find her, and, I knew all too well, she never would. Even if she lived a hundred lifetimes, she would never find Bella.
Every secret suggests another that is deeper, uglier, and darker. I’d read about families where ordinary men preyed upon their daughters in attics or cellars. That might explain Genya’s air of reproach, the flickers of contempt that I caught in her eyes whenever Sam came near. Maybe she had stood guard, protecting Bella and my mother—or maybe she’d failed. And my mother, erasing the shame, re-invented herself as the only child.
That was one version. But years after I heard a different story.
Sam Murawiek (the name was changed to Morowitz at Ellis Island) was the younger of two sons. The family lived in that part of Russia that became Poland after the First World War. As in many families, the parents favored the older over the younger. Often, older children were schooled while the younger were consigned to factories. Such arrangements were common. Sam accepted it, but it rankled him.
An auspicious match was arranged for the older son: a girl from a good family, a family that could provide a hefty dowry. But the older brother had strayed or fallen in love—after all these years, it doesn’t matter. Either way, there was a child. No girl from a good family could tolerate a “love child,” and no poor family could waste such an opportunity. So a new “father” had to be produced, and the family bore down on the younger son
Sam Murawiek had no sympathy for his reckless pampered brother. It wasn’t as if the older brother were a doctor or a scientist, someone important. But at nineteen, he was too weak to defy his family, and the brother sweetened the deal with money. Sam became a father to a girl—presumably there was a marriage, too.
By the time Sam courted Genya, he was saddled with the girl, Bella. That shame alone would have downgraded Sam in any woman’s eyes. A man like that was no bargain.
In 1929, Bella travelled to New York with Genya and my mother. At 14, she spoke no English and like many Polish girls, had but a smattering of schooling. America didn’t offer her a fresh start. More likely than not, she played caretaker to Sam’s real daughter. Perhaps Bella had steamed the milk for my mother’s morning cocoa.
Bella was well into her twenties when my mother entered Hunter College—far older than the age I’d imagined. She must have been sick with envy as she watched the spoiled favorite forge ahead. No one had grand plans for Bella, and by then, surely there were unpaid debts and slights, real and imagined—in all lives, there are. Bella furiously slammed the door behind her.
But she didn’t vanish at all. My mother soon spotted her on a neighborhood street, and Bella lowered her eyes, and rushed away. My mother let her go.
I like to think that later on, Bella was grateful. True, he’d been cold, but Sam Murawiek had spared her Warsaw’s terrors. He was no hero, and he didn’t pretend to love her, but he honored a promise, and because of that, one life, Bella’s, was saved. But maybe she never gave it a second thought. Injuries often linger longer than favors.
Sam cut off contact with his older brother who lived in upstate New York. As for Bella, he never spoke of her again. And who knows, one buried secret might have led to others. I know many of Genya’s stories – her first betrothal, her blue-eyed sister Sonya, her darling little brother Maurice. But Sam Murawiek is a mystery. I never learned his birthplace or what his mother and father did or if they, like blue-eyed Sonya and darling little Maurice, perished in the war. He faded into the background.
On one of Sam’s last birthdays, my dad presented Sam with a box of fancy cigars. Sam looked him straight in the eye and said quietly, “I gave up smoking years ago.” I can picture my father’s feigned surprise, my mother’s nervous laughter, and Sam’s tired smile. Of course, they hadn’t taken notice. Why would they?
My mother pleaded with me from her deathbed: “Remember my mother, please, don’t forget her.” She didn’t mention Sam.
Ironically, the battle over the will was for nothing. My father invested all of the money in the stock market, and in the bruising crash of the 1970’s, it evaporated, the way that money does. By my college years, the family was bankrupt, and my mother’s own vendetta against my father started. Genya and Sam’s sacrifice had been in vain—“schlect” as my mother said in Yiddish.
But maybe that’s why Sam changed his will.
I once heard Sam sing. Late on a Sunday afternoon, we watched James Cagney, dancing and singing, in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Sam began to tap his hand against his knee, and in his thick Polish accent, sang loudly: I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy, Yankee Doodle, Do or Die! And he laughed and laughed like a little boy. His slanted brown eyes, so much like my mothers, turned upwards—and we sang along, together, two confident and joyful Americans.
My father always blamed the will on my mother’s crazy temper, while my mother argued that Sam’s stroke warped his mind, and the corrupt mistress finished the job. And for years, the mere thought of the will made me hollow and heartsick. If only he and Genya had spent the money, I thought. If they’d lived in a big house (as we did), there would have been so little left, nothing to fight about or divide. Sam’s betrayal would have died gently, yet another secret in a lifetime of secrets.
But I can’t regret how it turned out, how he changed his will. Without Sam’s will, I’d get the story all wrong. I’d see escape rather than a young man’s adventure. I’d speak of sacrifice and disappointment, and I’d leave out the aromatic cigars and chocolate and love affairs. I’d suppress the brisk walks in unknown directions, but, I know now, those walks lead Sam to me with a force that astounds me.
I can hear him now. Look at me, he says. Take a good, long look. In America, an educated doctor loved me, Sam. In America, I counted. Whether you knew it or not, I counted.
Whether you saw me or not, I was here. Look behind you, I still am.
Roz Leiser has worked as a grief counselor, research coordinator, RN, non-profit director, staff member for Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, waitress and movie theatre janitor. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle,Common Ties, The Noe Valley Voice, The Sun, and Moment Magazine. She has also authored or co-authored work in the Journal of Nurses in AIDS Care, JAMA (Journal of the AMA), and other medical journals. She lives in San Francisco and is currently at work on a memoir.
I didn’t realize I was waiting for the story until the guide finished her tour and hadn’t told it.
Slightly queasy from the crooked floor in Copenhagen’s Jewish Museum, I was a little annoyed that Daniel Liebeskind had used this architectural ploy twice. I had already walked on the uneven floor he designed in the Jewish Museum in Berlin. According to the Danish guide, the reference was to the sea voyage to Sweden, which had saved the Jews of Denmark, and also a nod to this building’s original maritime function. But yes, it was also symbolic of the Jews always being a little off kilter, never knowing what to expect.
I didn’t need a tilted floor to feel the impact of the centuries of persecution. My refugee parents had installed the constant anxiety and grief in our apartment, which felt like a haunted house visited by silent, spectral relatives. I was frightened by all those lost relations, but at the same time, curious to understand their lives and deaths.
My father tirelessly watched documentaries about World War II, and read histories of the Third Reich and biographies of its leaders. Images of emaciated corpses piled behind the “Arbeit Macht Frei” inscribed gates of Auschwitz, stories of babies thrown against walls, the endless catalogue of sadistic acts and futile deaths were an ironic backdrop to the “Father Knows Best,” American 1950’s of my childhood. Although I knew that Eisenhower was the president of the country I lived in, Hitler seemed just as alive and powerful. The horror of “the war,” as my parents referred to that time drew me toward it with the force of gravity, and at the same time led me to search for a booster rocket to launch me out of its atmosphere.
And so, I swung like a pendulum, toward and away, from coming face to face with my personal historical nightmare. I watched all the films from “The Sorrow and the Pity” to “Schindler’s List.” When I was seventeen, a lampshade constructed from human skin in Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum, sat next to a bar of soap that might have originated from one of my distant relatives. As I struggled not to vomit, I wanted to run but had to look. When friends asked me if I had been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., I said I felt no need. I had grown up in a Holocaust museum. Finally, I decided I’d had enough and swore off Holocaust-related movies and books. From Hannah Arendt to Elie Wiesel, nothing was going to make this comprehensible or bearable.
But years later, when I traveled in Europe, I felt compelled to visit sights commemorating this history, if only to bear witness. In Paris I climbed down steps that led through a white passageway on an island where I watched the Seine flow by through barred windows. In Venice, where the term ghetto originated, I stood in the leafy square where the deportations began. In Amsterdam I climbed the narrow steps to Anne Frank’s attic. In Prague I viewed the artifacts that the Nazis collected for their planned museum of the extinct Jewish race.
Each time I visited one of these places I swore it was the last time. I knew enough. Leave it to those who were unfamiliar with these events to learn about them.
But because the story was different in Denmark, which unlike much of Europe did not annihilate their Jewish population, I convinced myself to visit Copenhagen’s Jewish museum. I admired the young guide’s even-handed presentation that did not portray the Danes as saints, that stuck to the facts, which included a German officer who leaked the news of the plans for Jewish deportation possibly to save his own neck after the war, (which he did). And he cleverly succeeded in making Denmark Judenrein (free of Jews) without massive murders.
Almost 8,000 Danish Jewish lives were saved, with the help of the Danish people, some demanding huge sums for the use of their boats, others risking their lives and asking for nothing in return. In either case, they transported the Jews to Sweden where they lived through the war.
I had known this history, without the details, since childhood. Like many other Jewish children of my generation I was told, among the horror stories, the heroic exception story of Denmark’s Jews, and of the Danish king who in solidarity with his Jewish subjects had appeared in public wearing the yellow star that marked them. That such people existed shone a small beam of light into the seemingly unending darkness of cruelty and betrayal.
I imagined the Danish king, seated high astride a big white horse, with a huge yellow star sewn onto his regal garb. I imagined people cheering him in the streets; people I imagined were outraged at the idea of killing their innocent neighbors. Imaginary Danes led by their imaginary king provided me with a model for resistance instead of capitulation without which I might never have imagined resistance at all.
As the tour through the small museum concluded, I waited for the guide to use this story as the climax of the tour. But she made no reference to this event. So, as the few people in our group stood talking, I asked her about it. The guide looked at me and then looked down at the crooked floor. “Sadly,” she said, “that didn’t happen.”
The king did go out on his horse and served as a symbol of Danish sovereignty during the German occupation. He took some risks, didn’t praise Hitler enough on his birthday, which caused a major incident, but, as for the yellow star it never graced his lapels.
I stood there on the verge of tears. A tale that had been a beacon of hope for me had suddenly become an urban legend. As I tried to absorb this new version of reality, a dark-haired man stepped in front of his family and began to berate the young guide, saying that what had happened to the Jews of Denmark was not a big deal.
“Jews were hidden and saved in other countries too,” he insisted.
The guide looked at a portrait hanging across the room as if it could tell her what to say. The man and his son as well as the rest of our small group drifted away.
That young part of me that grew up clinging to the legend of the heroic king drew me toward the guide. Now that I knew the truth, I still wanted her to know that man did not speak for me. I thanked her for the information she had given us.
“What happened in Denmark is important,” I said. “It mattered to me all my life.”
Tiff Holland‘s poetry, fiction and non-fiction has appeared in dozens of literary-magazines, e-zines and anthologies. Her poetry chapbook Bone in a Tin Funnel is available through Pudding House Press. Her short fiction chapbook Betty Superman won the 2010 Rose Metal Press Prize. She teaches at Austin Community College.
“You were signing before they woke you up, an L, I think, an I. It was hard to tell with all those tubes going in and out.”
lines, like, lights
A resident appears, asks me to squeeze one hand, then the other, to push my soles against his palms, to tell him how many fingers as his hands orbit my range of vision: here and here and here.
You are the first thing I see, standing wide-eyed beside the bed and my mother there, too. Both of you with the same expression.
“You should have seen your mom,” you tell me. “I told her I thought you were signing and she made the nurses check your lines and turn down the lights. She ordered the doctor around like a drill sergeant.”
My throat is raw. I tell you I sound like an old man.
lips, lick, lie
You get closer. “You know the first thing you said?” You are smiling like on our wedding day. I wonder how long I have been gone. “What the fuck happened?” you tell me.
My mother is gone now, giving us a minute? Looking for a doctor? “Where the fuck am I?” you finish. You shake your head and I know this gave you some comfort, let you know I was really back, but I don’t remember it. I don’t remember anything. “You should have seen your mom. ‘That’s how she talks’, she said.”
You are holding the railing of the bed with both hands, leaning in. On the chair is a library book, overdue, I think, lying open on the pages near the end. You are a slow reader. It has been a while.
library, list, lift
My mother returns. “You had us scared,” she says, but that’s it. She looks around the room as if to make sure everything is in order. Later you will tell me how she had one of her coughing fits and I dimmed her out, “COPD” I whispered to the nurse in the midst of my deep unbeing. She will tell me that she told you I might never be the same. You will tell me about the stroke and the seizures, the EMTs whisking our six-year old out to look at the fire truck so she didn’t have to see me like that. You will tell me about the helicopter that took me to the trauma hospital.
little, life-flight, limp
I have forgotten most of what happened before. I had a headache. You took me for an MRI. I spoke to the doctor on the phone. She told me I’d had a stroke. She told me to take an aspirin. I remember the white pill centered on the flat of my hand, and then the two of you beside the bed. You tell me the rest. You tell me about the thick white liquid that kept me asleep, that they turned off every two hours to ask me those same questions, run neurological tests. You tell me how many days I was away and how, the first night, our daughter told you she wanted to just pretend I was home, how she stopped at my bedroom door and blew goodnight kisses into the darkness.
I tell you I don’t want to know anything else. That is enough, but I start to remember, images, mostly. I remember the milkshake we had on the way back from the MRI, scooping the whipped cream from the top with a finger, licking it off. One night, watching some medical show on TV I see a plastic tube with a yellow ball and I remember blowing into one after I was extubated. We’ll go to the follow-up visit with my neurologist and I won’t know him at all but the narrow face of his resident will reassure me. I will develop an inexplicable craving for iced tea. After I drink an entire gallon I will remember its place on the hospital tray, upper right corner with a holeless plastic lid.
It takes a few weeks for me to remember what I was trying to sign. The closed fist of the “A” is so easy to miss. Alive, I was asking if I was alive.
DebraFox’s poems have been accepted for publication in various haiku journals. In addition, her short stories and essays have been accepted for publication in in Hyperlexia Journal, Squalorly, Embodied Effigies, Chamber 4 Literary Magazine, Burrows Press, and The Meadow. She is a lawyer, and the director of an adoption agency. In her spare time she loves to dance. She lives just outside Philadelphia with her family. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
He doesn’t care if he doesn’t get invited.
He’d rather walk to Rosa’s garden and touch the lamb’s ear, the rebbekiah in early bloom, and the pachysandra. He’d rather track the bumblebees and sign to me he knows they sting, a determined look to his dark eyes.
In the intensive care nursery days after his birth, we’re told a consult is needed with a speech therapist, and I am slightly alarmed. Newborns don’t talk, I tell myself — calm down. In the dimmed nursery lies our baby, a nasal-gastro tube down his nose and throat eventually reaching his stomach where it deposits formula. We are told he is losing too much weight. He becomes fatigued too quickly when feeding. He has low muscle tone throughout his body, including his mouth, which needs to suck to draw sustenance, but can’t. The speech therapist is called in to evaluate the problem.
Meanwhile our seven year old, Alex, is in second grade. He decides to write and illustrate a book about his brother’s birth, for a school project. He proudly shows it to me, its pages all laminated. I feel his sweet breath on my cheek, as he leans in and reads to me: there I am in labor, a woman with a big stomach lying on her side as a doctor puts a needle in her back. There is Daddy cutting the umbilical cord after Matthew is born. There is Mommy holding the baby.
“Honey, why aren’t I smiling in this picture?”
“Because you have your social worker face on.”
“What does that mean?”
“When you get worried, Mommy, that’s how you look.”
He doesn’t care if he doesn’t get invited.
He tolerates all the doctors’ appointments, the electrodes, the needles, and the cardiograms. He looks forward to the drive on the expressway, along the river, past the railroad tracks, and into the darkened parking garage where sounds echo and gasoline reeks. He wants to push the elevator button, watch it light up, and feel the sensation through his body of being lifted through space. He walks the long hallways, pressing his face close to the walls, watching them whirr by, the colors all blurred. Even at the age of thirteen, he still runs his fingers over glass windows, mosaic tiles, bulletin boards, office dividers, and trash cans.
When I was pregnant, I manipulated his date of birth, before I had reason to know anything was amiss. He was past due, and I was given several dates to choose from for inducement. I didn’t want him to be born on the thirteenth, so I chose the seventeenth. I thought I had such control.
When he turned one, I honestly can’t remember how we celebrated his birthday, or if we even did. Was there a cake? Were there candles? Did he receive presents? I don’t think I took any pictures. He wasn’t walking. He wasn’t talking. I felt too frozen to celebrate.
When Alex turned one, seven years earlier, we had a big celebration. He clutched my shirt with his tiny hand as we lit the candles and everybody sang “Happy Birthday.” He took his first tentative steps on my parents’ front lawn, his legs all chubby, as he tried to reach for a new baby lawn mower. I took those milestones for granted and expected them, fully expected Alex to reach them each and every time. And he did.
“Will he ever talk?” I ask the doctor. He regards me in his white crisp lab coat with his name embroidered meticulously in red on his chest. He looks bored or better, preoccupied. Perhaps he is thinking he is hungry, and is considering the sandwich his wife packed him for lunch. My husband reaches over to hold my hand. Mike wants to comfort me. He wants to be there for me, whatever the doctor might choose to tell us right now at this moment, while our son, who is now two years old, is still crawling on the hard linoleum floor, and staring at the shiny metal of the swivel chair the doctor deigns to sit on.
“Do you want my honest answer?” The doctor says as he flips through Matthew’s chart, not looking me in the eye. I want to stick a pin in his side and watch him suffer, because I don’t know if he truly understands what it is to suffer.
“Yes,” I hear myself say, the way a person might say “yes” to a fortuneteller who asks, “Do you really want to know how you will die?” My son crawls up to me, and puts his grimy hands on my knees, wanting me to pick him up and put him in my lap. I feel him trying with all his might to stand, but his muscles are spongy, and soft, and they can’t support his weight.
“I seriously doubt it. If he isn’t even uttering meaningful sounds now, that is troubling. He will continue to fall behind his peers, until the gap is ever wider.” I hear Mike say, as if through water, “But you can’t know any of this for sure, can you?”
“No doctor can ever know anything for sure, Mr. Zimmerman.” That condescending voice. That dismissive attitude. I reach down and gather my sweet boy, and bury myself in his curls. I am not going to give this doctor the satisfaction of seeing my tears.
He doesn’t care if he doesn’t get invited.
He’d rather me tell him stories about the wind, dark skies, and lightening. He’d rather run to every window in the house to make sure it’s still raining out of each one. He’d rather flap his arms and shriek with delight, his cheeks sticky from ice cream, his shorts slightly askew.
By his second birthday, Matthew still isn’t walking. Shortly after he was born, I bought him a pair of soft white leather baby shoes with suede soles. They are stored in a drawer underneath my bed. Unworn. By the time Matthew took his first steps, at two and a half, the shoes were too small. Besides, he needed orthotic inserts that wouldn’t fit inside the shoes. But, when I bought them, I didn’t know that, couldn’t have known that. All I knew was that I loved the soft supple leather and how it felt between my fingers, and that I associated that smell with hope. So, I wonder, what does a mother do with her son’s baby shoes that he never wore? Is it wrong to keep them?
He doesn’t care if he doesn’t get invited.
He’d rather fly a kite in the field and watch the wind snap it back and forth. He’d rather let a balloon escape into the sky and watch it become a pinprick of red against blue. He’d rather watch bubbles rush down the street in the wind.
A topaz is the birthstone for November, Matthew’s month of birth. A pure topaz is colorless and transparent, but usually tinted by impurities.
As Matthew’s third birthday approaches, then ten year old Alex ran to our neighbor Rosa, and blurted, “Guess what? We finally found out what Matthew has.” Rosa put down her garden hoe, wiped her dirty hands across her faded t-shirt, grinned at Alex and asked matter-of-factly, “What?” I stayed within earshot, and strained to hear his response, “You see, he’s missing a small piece of his 10th chromosome. Now we know.” Oh how I loved Alex in that moment – his pure joy in feeling the Matthew puzzle was finally solved.
Except, we didn’t know anything.
The function of all of the genes Matthew is missing is unknown. Matthew is the first person in the world known to have this genetic disorder. The gift Matthew received on his third birthday was a meaningless label: 10p1.53 deletion.
He doesn’t notice my increasingly superstitious thoughts.
If we see three Volkswagen beetles on the way to the doctor’s office, his cardiogram will be normal. If we get home before the storm, he will live into adulthood. If I remember to wear the earrings my grandmother gave me, there will be enough money to take care of him after I die.
Birthday parties have superstitious origins. It was feared that evil spirits were most attracted to people on their birthdays, and that the way to ward off these spirits was to assemble friends and family who made lots of noise. In ancient times, people prayed over the flames of an open fire. They believed that the smoke carried their thoughts up to the gods, and they would make birthday wishes come true.
I start to research other people who were born on Matthew’s birthday, or what events happened on the seventeenth of November. I discovered that November 17 is the 321st day of the year, with 44 days remaining. November 17 is not the most popular birthday in the Northern Hemisphere: that honor is reserved for December 3, which is nine months from the longest night of the year. November’s birth flower is the chrysanthemum. For a month that seems to have lost all color, this feels like a fitting flower. Then I asked myself, why? How would any of this help me?
The first birthday party of Matthew’s I can recall is the one at Smith Playground when he turned four. My mother bought him a beautiful cake with balloons frosted in primary colors on top. Matthew was obsessed with balloons at that age, but I don’t believe he was able to appreciate the cake, much to my mother’s disappointment. She took his hand and tried walking him over to the cake, hoping for some sign of recognition or delight, but he couldn’t give it to her, couldn’t concentrate on that one thing, separate and apart from everything else. He couldn’t help it; he didn’t know that my mother required recognition for such things. She finally retreated to the periphery of the room, dejected. Somebody unintentionally photographed my mother that day, just at the moment she sat down, and that is the image I have of Matthew’s fourth birthday party.
Then, when he was five, there was the year of his unbirthday –the only year when we celebrated Matthew’s birthday in a month other than his real birthday.Our niece turned five that same winter, and my sister-in-law had complained about how many parties her daughter had to attend, how many presents she had to buy, how many Saturdays were made even more hectic.
Matthew was in kindergarten with seven other children. He did not receive any birthday invitations. Of course, to Matthew it made no difference.
We waited until the following spring when grass started growing on our lawn, when the sparrows appeared in front of our house, when we could leave our winter coats at home and drive an hour north to take a mule barge ride along the Delaware Canal. Matthew ran his hand in the water and giggled.
An unbirthday is a neologism, or a newly coined term that may be in the process of entering common use, but has not yet been accepted into mainstream language. In psychiatry the term neologism is used to describe the use of words that only have meaning to the person who uses them, independent of their common meaning. At five, Matthew’s neologisms include calling Alex “Baba,” or a playground a “Gaga.”
We bring in a speech therapist named Pauline. She puts Matthew in a high chair, at the age of five, so he can’t escape. She withholds his favorite toy until he verbalizes his desire, which is a keyboard that lights up as each key plays a familiar tune. “What do you want, Matthew?” She says to him in a high, sing-song voice that you would use to speak to a baby, not a five year old. He points to the keyboard, very directly, very exactly. She acts as if she doesn’t understand. “You have to tell me with your mouth,” she says. He points to his mouth, and then to the keyboard. She exaggerates the word “muuuuussssicc??” He kicks his feet at the bottom of the chair, and the chair starts moving backwards. My stomach tightens. I want to reach over and grab the keyboard out of her hand with the painted finger nails, and give my boy what he wants, which he communicated to her himself, even if not in “words.”
He doesn’t notice I sometimes cry when I am with him.
I watch him when he’s six years old struggling to climb the steps to the big slide on the playground, when kids half his age have no problem. I watch him playing in the swimming pool, fascinated with the rainbows that glisten in the splashes, oblivious to the other children around him.
As Matthew’s seventh birthday approaches, I place a Dixie cup filled with baby teeth on my dresser—Matthew’s baby teeth, to be exact. He doesn’t understand the concept of a tooth fairy, so it would be pointless to put a tooth under his pillow. But I can’t part with his baby teeth. They sit at the bottom of a paper cup and get dusty. I justify my action by telling myself one day scientists will want a piece of his DNA to better understand his syndrome, and I will have just what they need in a Dixie cup. Never mind that they already have bits of his DNA that they tested and retested. I think uncertainty is the problem. I keep trying to clarify for myself who is irretrievably lost and who is still here. I am not oblivious to the notion that maybe, in not throwing out his baby teeth, I am unable to let go of the “normal” Matthew I never had. On the other hand, I wonder if I am demonstrating a healthy tolerance for ambiguity. I can coexist with the dusty baby teeth.
By the time of his eighth birthday Matthew sits down at the piano, and after we sing “Happy Birthday,” he slowly teaches himself to play the song using one finger, one halting note at a time. When he is done he looks at us, as we stare at him in disbelief, and he applauds. Alex, Mike and I applaud back, and Matthew dances in circles, delighted that we have found something to be proud of about him.
“Happy Birthday to You” is the most recognized song in the English language. The melody was composed in 1893. In that year, Matthew’s great-great grandparents were just being born. The genetic flaw that Matthew one day would inherit may have already been flowing through their veins.
He doesn’t know the dreams I have.
He runs onto a highway, and I am paralyzed to save him. He goes too far out into the ocean, and I can’t remember which wave swallowed him. We are in a large crowd in India, and all of a sudden he is no longer with me.
Then there are the dreams where we talk to each other. I hear his voice, and it is beautiful, but in the dream I take his voice for granted, so I don’t pay attention to it the way I should. It is natural the way we speak. Like we do it every day. Some nights I try to train myself into dreaming we will talk. But I find I have no control. And it is so cruel to wake up and not hear his voice anymore. His voice is so sweet, I want to record the sound, but my brain won’t hold onto it.
They dangle all around the place, around him, around me. They are written on the pictures that hang on our walls. They are written in the books on our shelves around the house. They come out of the radio and the television.
They taunt us in our everyday life.
I only remember one of our dream conversations. He said, “Mommy, why do you have those lines between your eyebrows whenever you are with me?” I reach for his soft hand and say, “Because I can’t help it; I worry about you so.”
“But why, Mommy? Why don’t you smile more?”
“I want to smile more. I want to enjoy you more.”
“I heard Alex tell you that as long as he is alive, you shouldn’t worry.”
I start to cry in the dream, and I don’t want to. I want our time together to be happy. There is so much I want to know. And in that realization, I can feel the dream start to slip away. His words were like jewels, clear and sparkly. I want to hold them one at a time and raise them up to the sun. But they start to turn cloudy, and I can see veins running through them. The light won’t penetrate them anymore. I am drifting away.
I am back awake in “the real world,” the world of haze and abstraction— where I can only surmise what it would be like to want to communicate, but not have the means to do so. Where a brain can form a thought, but then have to wade through a substance that disrupts everything, and can’t form the sound that the brain hears. In this world, I still find myself trying to teach Matthew to speak. I say a word with great exaggeration, moving my lips slowly, showing him every movement that is involved. He dutifully watches me. Then I say, “Now you try it.” He walks up to the mirror in Alex’s room. He puts his face close as he watches himself try to imitate me. But this exercise never results in intelligible language.
We’re driving to the mall, our Saturday ritual, for the past year. Matthew is 10 years old. He is gesturing for my attention. He is slamming his hand on the right window, saying, “Eh Eh Eh … Mama.” I am in my own world; I don’t know why he is agitated. Then I realize I missed the right turn, just after the underpass. It occurs to me, he has a sense of direction. That same morning, as I am preparing my oatmeal, Matthew goes over to the cupboard and on tip-toes, reaches for the jar of honey he knows I like, and puts it on the table, next to my place-setting. This is the form that communication and language take with him. I want to call that doctor on the telephone and scream that he was wrong—my son does communicate.
He doesn’t know how others see me.
They think I am doing well. I go to work every day. I wake up each morning. I walk the dog. I do the grocery shopping. I pay the bills. I keep myself clean. I function.
By his twelfth birthday, I tentatively approach Mike:
“I am thinking about Matthew having a Bar Mitzvah.”
“I didn’t think you were that religious.”
“I’m not, but I like what the Bar Mitzvah signifies—a coming of age. “
“But how would we do it?”
“Remember Elizabeth, the woman who grew up Orthodox and taught with you? She said she helped a non-verbal boy become a Bar Mitzvah.”
“I don’t know why I didn’t talk to you about it over the years, but I have been thinking that’s what we would do when Matthew turns 13. Elizabeth said the only requirement of Matthew is that he be able to utter a sound, which he can do.”
“But how would he sit through an entire ceremony?”
“We would rent a moon bounce, one of those large enclosed domes that kids love to jump in. We can put it in an adjacent room.”
“Are you crazy?”
“I already called the Y, and they said they own a moon-bounce, and they would set it up, no problem.”
He doesn’t know what I do when he sleeps.
I walk through the rooms of the house in silence. I savor the taste of cold ice cream. I read books as I lay in my bed with the ceiling fan turning above me. Sometimes I cry, and I can’t stop, and I don’t want to. Sometimes I make love to my husband.
He doesn’t know the vocabulary I’ve learned to use.
He is “developmentally delayed.” Other kids are not “normal,” they’re “typical.” He has “special needs.” He is “non-verbal.” We have a “companion dog.” I call him “my little imp.” We still talk about “putting a pee-pee in the potty.”
I show Matthew the sign for “I love you,” and he tries very hard to imitate it. It is a difficult sign, because it involves folding the third and fourth fingers down, while holding the others up. He struggles. I am intent on him expressing this emotion, if he has it, so I go and get his “PECS” book, which is short for “Picture Exchange Communication System.” One-inch square icons with Velcro on their backs are stuck inside a binder. Matthew is able to catch onto this way of communicating very quickly, easily distinguishing between the pictures, and the meanings of them. I ask him to find the icon for “Mama,” a happy face with long hair curled at the ends. He easily flips through the book and finds it, and hands it to me. Then I ask him to find the icon for “I love you,” which is a red heart. Again, he is adept at locating it and handing it to me. I smile, and tell him how proud I am that he found them so easily.
He doesn’t know he has become a teenager.
When Matthew turned thirteen, I still hadn’t planned his Bar Mitzvah. Had he been “normal” my parents would have put pressure on me. Instead, they said nothing. Matthew didn’t realize he had become a teenager. He didn’t know when I was his age I was Bat Mitzvah’d and Joe Malinowski held my hand at the skating rink, or that I wore a dark blue velvet dress with a pale blue ribbon the night of my Bat Mitzvah service. Or that Joey Langman seemed surprised I had a good singing voice, and that the Rabbi said something disparaging about non-Jews.
When a boy is Bar Mitzvah’d, he becomes accountable for his actions, and his parents are no longer answerable for him in quite the same way. Before Matthew turned thirteen, I liked the idea of shifting responsibility to him, however slightly. I made Mike promise me he wouldn’t shave Matthew for the first time until after his thirteenth birthday. Now that he is thirteen, his childhood is leaving us. His breath no longer smells sweet when he wakes; he has hair under his arms; his cheeks are becoming rough, and he has the beginnings of a mustache. When he utters sounds, his voice is deeper, and it sounds unexpected, because he isn’t saying anything intelligible. I don’t know if he’s ever had an ejaculation. I don’t know whether that would be confusing to him. I don’t know whether he is interested in girls, or boys for that matter. What remains, though, is a child’s innocence.
I keep trying to comfort myself by saying I can make Matthew a Bar Mitzvah any time after he turns thirteen; I don’t have to do it right now. And I really do believe myself: one day I will reconcile who he is. Just not now. Now I am not ready.
He doesn’t understand my laughter.
I laugh with Alex as Matthew brazenly walks along the side of the pool, splitting up two lovers as they move out of his way. I laugh with Mike as Matthew imitates him, trying to tell me Mike was frustrated with him. I laugh at our dog that carries a half eaten sandwich home from our walk, hoping I won’t notice.
It is early one Saturday. I am in the process of making my bed, on a dreary, rainy February morning. I want to go back to sleep like other people do on weekends. I want time for myself. I hear Matthew pulling icons out of his PECS book, and I am frustrated. I envision having to painstakingly place them back on their appropriate pages. I yell into the hallway, “Matthew, do not make a mess of your PECS book.” The removal of icons continues. I hear a giggle that irritates me further. I lie on top of my bed; I don’t want to do anything anymore. Matthew appears in my bedroom in his superman pajamas and a smile across his face. He climbs onto the bed next to me, and just as I feel myself growing more frustrated with him, he hands me two icons: the one for “Mama,” and the one for “I love you.”
Natalie J. Friedman is the Dean of Studies and Adviser to Seniors at Barnard College. She received her Ph.D. in literature from New York University in 2001, and has been a college instructor and administrator ever since. Her scholarly and literary nonfiction articles have appeared in various journals, such as Legacy, MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States, The Connecticut Review, and The Equals Record. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.
Among the various “Frog and Toad” stories by Arnold Lobel that I like to read aloud to my two children, there is one called “Shivers,” in which Frog tells Toad a nightmarish tale about a giant frog that likes to eat children, because Frog likes to feel “the shivers”— a frisson of danger that comes from tiptoeing to the edge of an abyss and looking in.
Toad keeps asking Frog if the monstrous tale is a true one, and Frog’s refrain— “maybe yes, maybe no”— adds yet another frisson, drawing Toad, and the reader, ever closer to the darkness, tempting him with the possibility of truth while keeping him wrapped in the safe cloak of fiction. After feeling “the shivers,” one retreats back into the safety and security of the contemporary and the quotidian, back to the warm hearth, the good meal, the close embrace. And one can feel virtuous for having felt pity and sympathy for the sufferer in the story who has come through the fire and stands, whole and seemingly unblemished, before you.
For years, my mother told me a story that always gave me the shivers. It is a story about my grandfather, someone I never knew. He died when my mother was sixteen, so in a way, she barely knew him, either. But she had a small handful of memories, a little store of stories about him. One such story was about how he survived the Bor labor camp. Bor, which was in the former Yugoslavia, was a labor camp notorious for torturing its Jewish inmates. My grandfather had been tortured, in various ingenious ways, by the Nazi guards there. Luckily, he had somehow befriended an Austrian camp guard by the name of Johan Schlosser, who would rescue him from these various tortures. Once, my grandfather told my mother, someone had hung him up by the feet, a common punishment meted out for no apparent reason. The idea was that, with all the blood rushing to one’s head, one would pass out, and maybe, eventually, die. Johan Schlosser hurried to cut my grandfather down. That small act of kindness would have been enough to embalm him in the golden amber of memory, to warrant the amount of respect and awe in my mother’s voice as she recounted these facts. But then this brave Johan Schlosser later took ten men, including my grandfather, and smuggled them out of the labor camp under cover of night and led them into the frozen forests, where they were discovered by Serbian partisans: freedom fighters. My grandfather wore wooden shoes, regulation footwear for Bor labor camp Jews, and after walking in the forests for hours on end, his feet were bleeding, and a large Serbian carried him on his back to safety.
I loved this story. As a child, I would ask her to repeat it over and over again. I wanted to connect with the grandfather I had never known, a man who, in this story at least, seemed like a dashing character out of an espionage mystery. I loved that my grandfather had not one but two heroes to help him along his way, his very own “righteous Gentiles” who risked their own lives to save my grandfather’s. I loved that my grandfather had escaped from Bor, a camp that was “liquidated” – what a word for a child to know! — by the Nazis. I loved hearing the name “Johan Schlosser.” It had music in it, and it made my spine tingle.
I used this story to replace a real knowledge of my grandfather, who was no more than a ghost; stories like this one made him seem like flesh. The way that prayer has come to replace the need for animal sacrifice, stories about my grandfather – and this one in particular– replaced the bones-and-blood person he had been.
But as I grew older, and wise to the ways history is passed down, I started to ask myself whether the details of this story were, in fact, real. I didn’t doubt that my grandfather went through everything he described – I did not doubt that he had been an inmate at Bor, or that he had been tortured, or that a Serbian had carried him on his back – but I began to wonder whether there was a gap between what he had lived and what he had told my mother. Or maybe there was a gap between what my mother had heard and what she told me. I was especially curious about the mysterious Johan Schlosser, and what had become of him and the other men who had escaped, with my grandfather, from Bor.
My research did not turn up any Johan Schlosser who had been at the Bor labor camp. I discovered an Austrian composer named Johan Schlosser; there was an Austrian visual artist named Johan Schlosser; there were many, many men by that name living in Vienna today, eager to be found in the phone book or on the Internet. But none of them, as far as I could tell, was the one I was looking for, the character my mother had heard her father describe. Had Johan Schlosser served out his term as a Nazi and then re-entered civilian life, silently taking up the thread of his old prewar existence? Or was he building a new life in Vienna? Or Buenos Aires? Or had he been discovered as colluding with Serbian partisans, and had been shot or hung or electrocuted? I dug around; I looked at some books, some museums archives. I found nothing.
There is, by contrast, a lot of information to be found about the Bor labor camp. Bor was one of the infamous work camps that used up the energies of its prisoners, wasting them through work rather than gassing them upon arrival. In 1944, the Hungarian Jews were rounded up and deported across the constellation of concentration camps, and Bor absorbed about three thousand Hungarian men, my grandfather among them. As the Russian troops began advancing across Europe, Nazis began to retreat, emptying labor and concentration camps as they went, marching Jews and other inmates across snowy landscapes, often shooting them along the way, if they weren’t already dying of typhus, dysentery, and the cold. The Bor Nazis split up the camp: half of the Jews embarked on a death march that ended with most of the inmates dying or being shot; the other half was marched into the frozen woods, where they ran into a band of Serbian partisans that captured them. The Serbian partisans quickly dispatched the Nazis, and they conscripted the Jews into partisan fighting units, eventually helping them make their way out of Yugoslavia.
I found no evidence that ten men had been smuggled out of Bor under cover of night to make their way into the Serbian forests. I read a lot about the “liquidation” of the camp, but nothing about daring escapes.
So I had some facts – a few. What did this give me? A new sense of truth? Of the way things “really” were? I had no grandfather to cross-examine, no one to ask about the relative “truth” of the story I’d been told, or how that story lined up with the facts. And even the facts, to me, became suspect, since perhaps the historians themselves were blinkered, their accounts partial, sullied by time and gaps in the archives.
Then I began to wonder about my mother. What was her role in this? She had listened to my grandfather tell his story at a very young age. Had her memory added some tints and shades, or perhaps erased some lines and figures, from the story as she had heard it? Had she been told a fable and believed it, or had her own mind supplied some of the fable-like qualities to this tale? If my grandfather had told her, for example, that he had marched into the forest with other Jewish men, and that Johan Schlosser was one of the guards accompanying them, and they had been set upon by Serbian freedom fighters, then perhaps her overactive imagination, fed, as it was, by the Red Fairy Tale Book and The Thousand and One Nights, gave Johan Schlosser a bigger role in the story than he actually had. And perhaps— if we might entertain this line of reasoning for a moment, as a thought experiment— Johan Schlosser was not even his real name. Perhaps his name was Heinrich, or Klaus, or Hans. Perhaps my mother had come up with the name Johan Schlosser, the name of a famous composer, readily available, something she read somewhere, a name with the romance of castles in it — schloss. The schloss in the forest. Was there really a Johan Schlosser who led ten men through the frozen forest under cover of night? Maybe yes, and maybe no.
I thought about talking with my mother about the paucity of facts regarding Johan Schlosser, about the Bor escape, confronting her and asking her outright if she had made some of this up. Or perhaps I would tell her that she and I both had been told a partial tale– that my grandfather had escaped into the forests of Serbia, but not with the help of an unidentifiable Nazi and not as part of some cloak-and-dagger plan. Then I thought better of it. If I myself had put so much value in believing in the existence of a kind Nazi officer, if I had put so much effort into believing the story of the ten men escaping into the forest, then imagine the emotional investment my mother had in this story, a story about the father who was stolen from her when she was still in her girlhood, a father who missed many of the significant passages of her life, from her migration to America to her wedding and the birth of her two daughters. She had only childhood memories of him, a few photos, and the stories he had told her – who was I to go and ruin it all?
I will never know how my grandfather really managed to get out of Bor. I will never know if there really was a Johan Schlosser. Nor will I ever know the name of the brave Serb who carried him on his back. These are things my grandfather has taken with him to the Other World, olam ha-bah in Hebrew or yenne velt in Yiddish, the place from where no one has yet returned to tell us what it’s like.
But it doesn’t matter; I have accepted the not-knowing.
This probably makes me a very bad Jew. Jews put a premium on knowing. It’s important to know things: how to pray, how to read the Torah, how to understand the ancient holy languages, how to remember the Ten Commandments and the six hundred and thirteen “good deeds,” and how to honor one’s family and ancestors. Not wanting to know is tantamount to sin – or, it can lead that way. One who willfully shuts her ears and eyes, like a child, is one who will surely wander off the path.
And wandered I have, because it is a betrayal to admit that the story I was told, the one that gave me pleasant shivers in a way no other Holocaust story in my family ever had – and trust me, there are hundreds, enough to fill the brain of an over-imaginative child until she suffers from constant nightmares – may have been transmitted to me as a partial truth. To do so is to invite the hateful invective of Holocaust deniers: if survivors’ stories can be so hard to trust, who is to say any of it really happened? My grasp on what really happened is slippery, and the only person who knows for sure has been buried for nearly fifty years in a crumbling cemetery in what is now the Ukraine. My grandfather is not able to counter the deniers; he is not here to tell them that he lived through it all, and therefore it must be real.
I have my handful of stories.
I might as well have a handful of ashes.
I think Holocaust stories give people the shivers, and although they can be hard to hear, people keep coming back for more, they keep coming back to the edge of darkness to peer in, but not enter. They know they are safe; they are hearing something, not experiencing it, and it all happened in the distant past, at a safe remove. But the teller of the tale— whether survivor or grandchild, telling a story that is wholly true or even partially unverifiable — is hardly unmarked. A reader of this essay, for example, can feel the shivers after reading the opening paragraphs, and then put the essay away and forget— I cannot. The reader might assume that I, as a grandchild of survivors, who has not lived through the atrocities, can do the same — but I cannot. Although I have been, thankfully, spared the first-hand knowledge of those horrific past events, I know what traces of the past are on me, in me, and because they are unseen, or I have become a terrific liar and good at hiding them, no one knows how deep they run. I am jealous of those who seek out the shivers and who can sink back into their blanket of ignorance, while I must return always to the things I cannot escape from: my family’s painful histories, the ruined lives, the ways that past tragedies can distort the present and warp its surface of safety. I never can or will ever feel completely protected or sheltered from what might emerge out of the dark abyss that I approach in retelling the Holocaust stories. But in order to advance the cause of “never forgetting,” of ensuring that these stories have a life, I need to compel listeners and take them with me to where the monster lies in wait, even if it means I will not sleep that night for having reawakened it in my imagination.
And so I write this essay that repeats the word “torture,” and I casually throw around the word “liquidate,” and I tempt my reader with the “maybe yes and maybe no” of truth and memory. Without the horror that I hope will linger in your mind, you might forget the crux of my argument. And even the argument ceases to matter, because, cravenly, all I want is for you to remember that the Holocaust happened, that people were tortured, maimed, burned, violated – all in the name of nothing. And I am not so noble as to think that upon hearing these dark tales you will be moved to get up and do something, find a charity to give to or sign a petition to stop genocide in Darfur or rape in Somalia or anything as big-hearted as that: I just want you to share some of my own pain. The bogeyman that lived under my bed when I was a child? He always had a Nazi uniform, and I want you to see him, too. Because if you and I look at him together, maybe he will become less scary, maybe the truth, however partial, will be less difficult to bear.