the remembering child

When you’re in kindergarten two boys in fresh crewcuts will stomp your toes as purple-dark as berries until your toenails fall off. There you’ll be, in your self-cut bangs and patchless Brownies’ smock standing five kids from the water fountain, and they’ll turn around and start stomping. You won’t tell them to stop. You’ll just look down at a couple of dusty grey-beige linoleum floor tiles and wait for someone to save you.

You’ll forever be looking for someone to save you.

A couple of nights later, your mother will see your toes with their crooked nails hanging on like November leaves and ask what you’ve gotten yourself into. You’re always getting into something. But it will be too late. Four out of 10 toenails will be too damaged to save.

You’re the new girl in town. Just six and you’ve already had four homes. This will be the second without your father. You’re starting to forget his laugh. By now, you’ll know how to make your bed, rinse conditioner from your hair, make peanut butter cookies with the criss-cross fork marks, and say involuntary manslaughter.

You will spend two years in the house on Ford Street. It will have a potting cottage with a cobblestone floor and vines of wild strawberries and buttercups in its back garden. You will spend most afternoons alone, catapulting yourself into its yard from a rickety red metal swing set left by the previous owners.

Your grandma will visit from D.C. and sit quietly with you in your room and watch you move dolls around the floor. She will know you’re faking it. This childhood play. You’ve seen adult things you can’t unsee with those child eyes. She will buy you a kite instead. She will know you need run alone in a field tethered to Heaven.

It’s true, despite what they tell you about all the good people in the world. No one will want to hear about how your father used to play John Denver songs on his guitar until you fell asleep. How his humming filled a room like the aroma from a candle. How he walked into a building and the windows shot out onto the pavement. How his watch was found a quarter-mile away, his hand and wrist still attached. How the men who set the bomb didn’t know he’d be there, or that his four-year-old daughter, in her birthday dress, would be waiting for him in the parking lot. When these truths slip from your tiny pink mouth, even good people will look away.

You’ll learn to be careful with your truth.

Years later you will make remembering a career. Before the Internet, and yes there was a time, you’ll hunt the stacks of your college library for his name. You’ll see that it was nine men, two of them brothers, who fastened colored wires to ticking clocks to take down the building with your father inside. You will discover this story alone, across from a group of strangers reading Tolstoy and Hemingway in the late of night. With old newspapers spread out like sadness before you, you will want to write your own stories. Nouns, verbs, punctuation, strings of sentences like obsessions. Like picking at a hangnail, you won’t be able to stop.

Around this same time, you’ll start looking for your father in bars, in boys. Dark haired, blue-eyed boys who turn into serpents when given six beers and an hour in an empty alley. Boys with checks from home big enough to pay for attorneys and a full four years of tuition — not the three you’ll be able to afford with your life insurance check and a part-time job washing other people’s dirty laundry.

You’ll learn the hard way, my love, God doesn’t favor fatherless girls.

This won’t mean there won’t be blessings. Two healthy children; and, my God, their chubby faces will be gifts. One will grow to look like your father, the other like you. Your words, which by now will have turned into weapons, will go into a box under your bed. Your new job will be to put on a mask and protect these children from dark basements.

Over the years, these children, the only true goodness you’ve ever known, will grow tall and straight into themselves. It will now be your job to let them go from the house you’ve bought with money made from other’s stories. It will be your twenty-first house in 42 years and possibly your last. It is here, in the quiet of the morning, you will find your voice again. 

It is here, you will remember that you have always been his remembering child.

how to get away from it all

 

Pack light. Don’t even think about bringing more than can fit in your hot pink backpack. There won’t be enough room as it is in the rusty Plymouth Voyager your dad calls his mini-man. But you will find a way, somewhere between your grandmother’s collapsible walker and the cherry red cooler your mom will load with two bags of ice, Shasta cola, and ham and cheese on Wonder bread in individual Ziplock bags.

Don’t forget your swimsuit. You are going to Myrtle Beach. Your mother will not buy you a new one if you forget. By the time you plopped out, your mother was already versed in excuses. She will not be interested in the reasons you forgot. She will look at you like you just told her you were pregnant and say, “Swim in your cutoffs.” Even with your underwear, they will feel like sandpaper against your who-ha when they get wet.

Don’t dilly-dally. You don’t want to be the reason the mini-man doesn’t pull out of the drive on time. Your dad will already be pissed because your mom isn’t in the van. She will be running around the house, dumping a week’s worth of cat food and water into mop buckets so “Cat” the cat won’t die while you’re away. Then, she will pop her head out the front door and yell for the whole neighborhood to hear, including Joe Matthews your neighborhood crush, “Who the hell took a dump in the toilet and forgot to flush? Do I have to do everything around here?”

Don’t answer this question. She will not be looking for answers. Open your mouth and she will glare at you in that your-father-works-so-hard-and-was-really-looking-forward-to-this-vacation-and-you’ve-gone-and-ruined-it-before-we’ve-left-the-drive sort of look.

Just look down at your hands and pick the dirt from your nails.

Myrtle Beach is a straight shot from Kansas City to St. Louis, after that it’s a nightmare. Your dad is going to want to drive it in one stretch. One 15-hour drive. Don’t even think about drinking anything, because he won’t stop for your juvenile bladder requests.

You will have to pee in a jar. You’re a girl, and this will be much harder than you think.

When your dad does pull into McDonald’s for his dangerously-hot coffee, order a regular cheeseburger and nothing more. This will not be the time for special orders. You can pick off the pickles and onions. Your dad is not made of money, and he will tell you this so many times you will think he has Tourettes.

Don’t even think about asking for a pack of McCookies. He will look at you like he just caught you with a joint and say, “No. Who do you think I am, Rockefeller? It doesn’t matter which one. They’re all rich. Don’t get smart with me. It’s a long drive and I don’t want to hear your mouth running the whole time.”

McDonald’s is clean and ergonomically designed to accommodate the quick piss. This is important, because your father won’t wait. He’ll pull into the Drive-Thru and give you just as much time as it takes to order and pick up his cup of coffee. There’s a door when you enter the Drive-Thru and one when you exit, which will lead you to believe that there are other dads out there like yours, dads who are obsessed with the shortcomings of juvenile bladders.

Sit in the very back of the mini-man, because the hatch will not have been recalled yet and the exhaust from the tailpipe will give you a buzz. Couple this with the fact that the family now has a Game Boy and you’ll be set.

Your parents will only be able to afford one Game Boy and you will be lucky to get it, so don’t complain about having to share with your older brother. When you do get a chance to play, it will only be because your brother will want to flip through his Hustler Biggest Tits of ’88 Special Edition. He will study the magazine front to back without getting caught by sticking it in between the pages of Mad Magazine. You will want to tell. But you will also want to look at the pictures, which will make you feel dirty. Because you are 13 and even without the magazine you have thought about what it would be like to have a boy touch your boobs.

Your parents will be smoking like Chernobyl the entire length of the trip, and they won’t stop on account of your whiney baby lungs being in the car. Don’t look up from your brother’s magazine and ask them to crack a window. The air conditioning will be running full blast and rolling down the windows will only waste resources.

“Second hand smoke my ass,” your dad will say with his pirate grin. “Do you know the kind of crap I had to breathe when I was a kid? I lived two blocks from a paper mill. Do you know what that smells like? Shit on a stick in July, that’s what.” Your grandma will also be smoking, but she won’t know it, and her ash will snake onto the upholstery and burn a hole in the seat the size of your thumb.

You will eventually reach St. Louis and the highway will wind around like the tail of a tornado. Your dad will go the wrong way. Don’t even think about opening your mouth in St. Louis. He will be looking for someone to blame.

Just look down at your t-shirt and pick at the link.

The arch will be open and you will imagine tiny silver boxes carting happy families to the top. Beyond that, you will see the river. Huck Finn went down that river. When you return to school from summer break, you will tell the kids in your class that you saw Huck Finn’s river with your very own eyes. They will stare through you like you were a sheet of cellophane and you will wish you had kept your mouth shut.

When the arch and the river disappear and all you see is a car on cement blocks parked next to a house with no glass in the windows, you will know your dad is lost, officially. Your mom will ask in her mouse voice, “Should we stop?” Your grandma will clutch her purse and say, “Let’s lock the doors.” But your dad fought in Vietnam. He has a mossy green tattoo of a skull on his right shoulder and has killed a man. You will take solace in this. He will have a loaded gun in the glove compartment, and this will make you as excited as the time you sang Oklahoma in the seventh grade play. You will see the gun, want to hold it, show it to a friend. It will be just one of the million stupid things you will want to do as a kid.

When he finally finds the highway, don’t mention he was lost. He will not be against pulling over to the side of the road and belting you on the butt. Your mom will not get involved and save you if you open your big mouth. She will be on his side. You seal your own fate when it comes to your dad and the belt.

At some point in the trip, your mom will tell you she’s had it with you and your brother’s bickering. But actually, she will be contemplating what’s worse: working or staying home and cleaning up after three kids all day. Scrubbing toilets and making beds like some goddamn maid at the Super 8, snooping in your dad’s wallet when he’s in the shower to see if he’s sleeping with the lady at work. The one with the long fingernails. You will know this is her problem, because you will have heard her tell this to her sister in whispers behind a locked bathroom door. She may even be thinking of an old boyfriend. She’s surprising like this. She owns a pink bra and makes desserts for no reason.

“Let’s stop for ice cream!” The words will fly out of her mouth like a hot pin and puncture the bad air that has been building up. Your dad will agree that this is a good idea. Probably the best idea of the whole trip, and you will wish it had been yours. Although you will know he wouldn’t have thought it was such a good idea had it come from you. Never mind this; you will get to order whatever you want at the Dairy Queen outside Macon, Georgia.

You will remember this particular Peanut Buster Parfait every time you get ice cream for the rest of your life because your dad will order one too. You’ll sit next to him on an egg-white fiberglass table with the words Jody loves Keven 4-ever! Darcy is a big fat bitch! scribbled in black marker and he’ll smile at you and say, “I didn’t know you liked Peanut Buster Parfaits.” Then you will know that he notices you. Years later, you will pass Dairy Queen and burst into tears. This will scare your kids, but you will tell them you are okay. You will have outbursts like this for the rest of your life and behind your back people will say you are unstable.

You won’t go to the bathroom at the Dairy Queen, and this will worry your mom. You’ll tell her there is nothing you can do about it. You don’t have to go at that very minute and cannot force yourself just to appease your father. Your dad will have to stop an hour into the drive. It will be an emergency. Your bladder will fill up like a rubber balloon and you will have to pee. There won’t be a container left in the van that isn’t filled with your brother’s piss. You will also be lactose intolerant. It won’t be your fault. It is something you were born with.

Quick N’EZ will have toilets in the back, but they will not have hired anyone to clean them. Quick N’EZ is where people with explosive diarrhea go. You will wonder if God made others’ parts different than your own because you will see shit splattered in places you never thought possible. You will also run into a drifter washing his armpits in the sink. This will make you weary of gas station bathrooms for the rest of your life. You will beg your father to reconsider.

There will be a state-funded rest stop up the way, and in Georgia that won’t mean two shits. Someone will obviously be pocketing the money. You will want to be careful. Word on the street will be that some psycho chopped a kid’s penis off with a rusty knife in one of the stalls earlier in the summer. There will be a black-and-white photocopy of him hanging outside the pisser. Have you seen this man? Yes. You will think. It looks like Mr. Stevens your eighth grade math teacher. The one who sniffs your skin every time he walks past your desk. The boy was about your age and his parents never heard him scream. They were probably sitting in their minivan smoking with the windows rolled up and the air conditioning blasting, which is what your parents will be doing when you are all alone in one of the stalls, rocking back and forth, trying to poop as fast as you can. You will be thankful you don’t have a penis to cut off.

When you’re done you will hurry back to the mini-man. You won’t bother to wash your hands. There’s never soap in the dispenser and the water will just spread the germs. You know this because you are logical. Your mom will ask, “Did you wash your hands?” You will say, “Yes.” You are not a liar, just smart. You already know there is no point in discussing it. She will ask questions like this for the rest of your life and you will have figured out early that it is best just to lie. It is her motherly duty to ask questions, like putting green vegetables on your plate. She doesn’t care about the truth. She wants you to tell her what she wants to hear. Did you do your homework? Did you clean your room? Are you dating that boy? Whose marijuana is this? Didn’t he wear protection? Will you be coming home for a visit? What did you say your name was?

Eventually you will reach the beach and the salty air will sting your eyes like a campfire. Cleansing flames will burn the stench of the 15-hour ride like old newspapers. Your dad will pull the mini-man under the Days Inn carport and you and your brother will run as fast as you can toward the water. Put on your bathing suits!” Your mom will yell from the car port. “We’re just getting our feet wet!” You will yell back, then dive head-first into the waves. The water will be cool and warm at the same time, and you will find this unbelievable.

You will lose your left shoe in waves, but your mom will buy you a pair of rhinestone studded flip-flops in the gift shop and she won’t even ask why you didn’t take off your shoes before jumping into the water. She will be too happy to care.

Your dad will sit like a turtle shell, bare bellied under a yellow hotel umbrella, and you will not see him move the entire trip.

Your older brother will sneak cigarettes from your mom’s purse and make you smoke one so you won’t tell.

Your baby brother will be too young, and your grandmother too old, to do anything remarkable.

You will meet kids from Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago, all who will ask where you’re from and then say, “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy.”

You will eat soggy ham and cheese on the beach and wash it down with an ice-cold Shasta cola.

You will watch the sun burn upward from the ocean for the first time and think nothing could be more beautiful.

This is your family. This is your life. These are your memories you will carry around with you like the sand you won’t be able to remove from the pockets of your cutoffs.

*

Years later you will be too old to go on vacation with your family. You will go to Mexico with your dorm mate on Spring Break. You will get drunk and do things you will not remember, things you will want to forget. These things will involve a bottle filled with a Windex-vodka concoction that you will purchase from a dishonest maid. When you get back from the Mexican Emergencia, you will stand on the balcony of your hotel room and lift your shirt to show your boobs. No one from below will hoot. You will eat Ramen noodles to save money and vomit to stay thin.

You will meet a boy with eyes the color of heartbreak. A boy who has never shot a gun. You will laugh, lose your virginity, fight about the blonde he is still dating out east, break up, and get back together. His family will fly First Class to Kansas to meet your family and they will have nothing to talk about. Your mom will cover the cigarette hole in the gingham couch with a cotton blanket. Your dad will think it’s a good idea to take everyone to the riverboat casino. His parents will stand by one slot machine all night, nervously dropping in coins. You will be furious at the thought of what his parents must be thinking about your parents. You will carry this anger around with you like a pail.

You will marry Heartbreak in a used wedding gown that your mother will spend her entire month’s salary to buy. It will have hundreds of faux pearls the size of teardrops and a train that your bridesmaid will not be able to keep straight. As you walk down the aisle toward your new life, something inside you will crack. Your heart will burst before he breaks it, and your knees will give. No matter, your father will lead you to your groom like a wounded fawn. You will remember when you were going somewhere, anywhere but here.

Your brothers will be ushers at your wedding and empty the church out backwards. No one from your side of the family will have ever been to a wedding reception that wasn’t in a church hall, and they will sit at their tables and frown. None of this will matter. You will convince yourself that this is the start of a lovely life. You unsuccessfully tried out for drill team every year for four years, and you are determined like this.

Just look down at your fingernails and pick off the polish.

You will miss your mom and befriend your cleaning lady. You will not allow smoking in your house, and therefore your parents won’t visit. They will accuse you of treating them like second-class citizens for making them smoke in your garage.

Your mom will send birthday cards with pink teddy bears and request you tell your children she loves them. You will be angry and vow not to return to Kansas. Instead, you will take your family on a jet to Hawaii. You will hire a boy from the neighborhood to mow your grass and feed your Persian cat. He will charge too much, but not enough to complain. Your kids will whine like you never did, suck down Diet Cokes and walk freely down the airplane’s aisle to the bathroom at their leisure. You will stay at the Four Seasons and your children will order Tai Lemon Chicken and bubbly water. They will beg for tiramisu. You will smother them in enough sun block to keep them glue-paste white, even after a week in the sun.

They will have weak bladders and selfish hearts. You will worry that they are not like you, that if faced with something other than the life you have provided, they will fail.

You will sit on a teak chase under a straw hat and watch your children tiptoe in and out of the Hawaiian tide. You will wonder where your husband is. You will think of your old family and want to call them. You will wish for Myrtle Beach, a pair of cutoffs, the sun frying your face like an egg, your mother smiling from the carport, and a 15-hour ride with your family just a week away.

the ‘not writing’ chair

So, this little share site of mine isn’t going as planned. When the idea first popped into my head, I was going to record every moment of my move and write myself out of the pain. My dear friend gave me a journal with a personalized inscription inside to encourage me. My family sent many a reminder to just write.

“It’s not that easy!”

“You’ve done it before.”

“What? The writing or the starting over? It’s all so tiresome.”

The last time loss happened I wrote a short story. It was fast and loud. It shook like a freight train on the page. It was published. It won an award. I read it aloud to an audience. Then, I threw the words in a box.

The loss before that, I wrote a poem. It was snarky and arrogant. It wreaked of my ’20s. It was published. I got the magazine in the mail with a check. I cashed the check and threw the words in a box.

It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate the acknowledgement. It’s just that the words the stories contained were painfully honest and raw. (I imagine that’s why the editors liked them.) The words were my truth, and I was embarrassed that I had let anyone read them. So, the words had to be locked in a box.

Now, here I am. Writing (or not writing) about loss again.

This whole loss-writing-healing thing is getting old. I’m getting old. The voice in my head who whispers the words is getting old. So, I’ve been reading. One book a week. Yes, on this chair. There’s nothing wrong with reading. Every good writer must read. It’s just that I’ve been reading to avoid writing; because if I’m going to write about this loss, it has to be real. As Hemingway put it, you have to write hard and clear about what hurts.

The truth is, loss is ugly.

Loss is a hateful punch to the gut. Loss makes you drop to your knees and cry in all the soft parts that, frankly, I don’t want people to know I have; because people with soft parts get shivved. People with soft parts get that look, you know? The look you give a puppy with one eye.

I’m also finding this loss is different than the others.

Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s all the moments I’ve sat with friends in witness to their losses, but I somehow feel practiced in the art of letting go. It’s almost routine, like a plant you water and then go about your day. This isn’t to say it’s not incredibly painful; it’s just so common — too common — that words become cliché.

ONE ART | Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

decluttering for the move

Here she is, my baby berm. At 1500 square feet,  she’s half the size of the colonial home from which I am moving. This means, minimalizing is a must.

This past week, with the help of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, I’ve been purging anything and everything that does not bring me joy. Clothing, furniture, kitchen supplies — buh-bye. Having just completed my divorce, the purge has been quite healing. It’s a lessening — a reminder — that life is about letting go.

I’ve hauled generations of clutter from house to house over the years. Clothes I knew I could fit into, (if I’d just not eat so much); furniture that had been passed down from my maternal and paternal grandparents; baby clothes (for my now 11 and 15-year-olds). I have 24 days to prepare for my move and there is no room for 20 years worth of stuff, which is just fine with me. What I can donate, I do. So far, I’ve donated 35 bags to the Goodwill. What is too tattered, I throw away.

We are bringing with us only the best pots and pans, our bedroom furniture, a few linens, a couple of hutches, our clothing, sheets, bikes, plants, and a few tubs of books, journals and photographs.

I plan to buy a couch, a smart TV, memory foam toppers for our beds, a dining room set, glassware and tableware — all of which I will share with you in future posts.

Back to decluttering …