I don’t quite recall the last time I fully understood something that happened in my life. Two seconds ago, I was just entering high school and worrying about keeping my room clean, and now I am working five days a week, going to school, and trying to sleep more than 4 hours; and I am doing it all in a different country. For a long time, I begged for a pause. The world finally heard me —the novel Coronavirus hit the world in March of 2020. My life took a 180-degrees turn, just like everyone else’s. However, I was not affected by the shortage of toilet paper, Criminal Minds ending after 15 seasons, Zoom classes, trending workout videos, the emergence of TikTok as the new Vine, and not even having to spend five months by myself. What impacted me was time and how suddenly, what seemed like a blessing turned into a curse. It is 2 am, and my wrist hurts from awkwardly holding my phone; I have been trying to sleep since 11 pm, but my mind keeps running: What the f*ck is going on?
As a child, there was a point when my parents had to beg me to go outside to play, but it wasn’t always like that. My parents tried to keep me away from social media for as long as possible. For years, I only cared about finishing my homework and playing soccer with my brother and cousin. Those years when I was innocent, when I could wear long basketball shorts and bright t-shirts, when having one friend was enough—the years when I did not care about what the rest of the world thought about me. Now, I find myself stuck living in a time where my presence online is more important than who I am. I feel the pressure of the whole world watching me, waiting for the moment I finally make a mistake.
I opened social media for the first time when I was 12 years old. As I scroll through my friends’ requests on Instagram, kids no older than 11 have sent me requests. It makes me cringe. I don’t want to sound old-school or dull, but life has become monotonous since everyone has become obsessed with social media. We all follow the same people, trends, and music; we even shop for the same clothing items. For example, I bought a $100 pair of jeans just because my Tiktok page told me I needed them. I am sure I am not the only person who has surrendered to what the internet tells them. New trends come and go; some are good, like metal straws and the ice bucket challenge. Some others just bring the worst of each person out — like the Birdbox Challenge and Pokemon Go.
The hard pill to swallow when it comes to social media is that it has taken control of everything. But, honestly, how do you explain to someone that having less than 100 likes on an Instagram post is okay? We have created such a toxic online culture that likes define how much you are worth. Now that I am older, I can see what is wrong with that mindset, but growing up, I remember how self-conscious I was about every pic I posted and how important it was to follow the steps:
Selfies. Full body pics are for girls with good bodies, and mine was not it.
Editing. A plain picture is a mediocre one. It needs to be touched, and if your friend with a thousand followers does it, then it is better. If the image is not good, black and white always does the job.
Time. Anything before 6 pm is lame. Cool and older kids always check and post their pictures around 7 pm, but never after 8:30 pm. Time = likes = popularity.
Tell everyone. The moment you post, you need to tell the whole group chat you posted, so they can go like it and comment, which will boost your post.
Now that I am typing these “rules,” I realize how stupid they sound. It also reminded me of one of my favorite songs – Crazy by Simple Plan.
Tell me what’s wrong with society When everywhere I look I see Young girls dying to be on TV Won’t stop ’til they’ve reached their dreams
Diet pills, surgery Photoshopped pictures in magazines Telling them how they should be It doesn’t make sense to me Is everybody going crazy?
Now, is everybody going crazy? Or am I the problem?
What would happen if I did not fit into the world created for me? A world where I need to study and then work for the rest of my life; a world where I need to dress girly but not like a teenager; a world where religion is not necessary anymore and having kids is not a dream anymore. For years, I have seen how cruel the world can be, even worse if you are naive. The idea of “wanting to grow up” to finally be free was and probably still is the biggest scam I have succumbed to. At the end of the day, half of the things you see on the internet are fake, but so many people take them as the ultimate truth. And wanting to go against the majority is scary.
I dreamt about finding love, getting married, and raising kids with the perfect husband for years. However, the more I thought about these dreams, the less likely they seemed. I can summarize how each relationship I’ve had has gone using five words: a different idea of love. I had my first crush. Then, the older guy, who I thought was more mature, and since he liked me, I was also mature (none of us were). After that, the first t heartbreak — I fell in love with my best friend, and he then fell in love with my girl best friend. By 14, I was sure love was not for me. Two years later, I decided to try again; however, the naive part of me was unaware of how much things change when you enter high school.
Parties, alcohol, drugs, and sex, but love was never an option. Every Friday, while all my friends were out partying and making out with strangers, I was alone in my room watching their Snapchat and Instagram stories. What a loser, you might think. I was a loser, but was I wrong for trying to find love? Was I wrong for wanting to fall in love with someone and stay together longer than three months? Was I wrong for thinking about the future? When did society start to tell me how I wanted to love was wrong? When did love became a competition to see who could hook up with the most boys? When did still being a virgin mean that you were wasting your life? The world was not stopping, and social media kept adding to the struggle of growing up in the internet era.
I saw my friends post about their perfect relationships when I knew about all the fights and cheating scandals. I read posts about lovely moms for Mother’s Day when half of my friends couldn’t even communicate with theirs. Pictures about a current disaster were everywhere, asking for help and donations when I knew my friends were the first to ignore a homeless man begging for food. Wanting to be someone else was the norm because showing who you are meant social suicide. Many still fail to realize that the word suicide has slowly started becoming a reality for many young teenagers – teenagers who fail to live up to the expectations of many faceless trolls hiding behind a screen.
According to the Global Health Organization, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. I wish I could act surprised, but this is something well known among my generation. I was 14 the first time I thought about dying, the same age I was when my “friends” started bullying me for not using curse words, going to church with my parents, wanting to find long-lasting love, and many other views. Years later, I still think about death constantly. I know there is something wrong with me, but nowadays, everyone wants to die, so I don’t know what to believe anymore. It is a coping mechanism for me, but I know deep down I am scared. However, I don’t actually fear death and how it might present to me, but how fast it is approaching. There is no point living in a world that is slowly dying, thanks to global warming and an older generation that cares more about two girls kissing each other than the well-being of their children. Dying is this generation’s joke, and if that does not make you wonder what the fuck is going on with society, you are part of the problem.
It is 2022, and I deactivated my Instagram 6 months ago. The Coronavirus is here to stay. I eat two meals a day and go to the gym, so I don’t kill myself. I listen to sad music when I am happy. I stay up scrolling down TikTok until 2 am. I drink more coffee than water, and I ignore my parents as much as possible. I follow clothes trends, and I dye my hair. Welcome to the world where teenagers are “talking back” to their parents if they express how their actions make them feel. A world where having no social media is a red flag. A world where having a college degree does not take you anywhere most of the time. A very warm welcome to the world where nothing makes sense anymore, and at the end of the day, the same question goes without an answer — What the f*ck is going on?
Arlene Maria Rosales Alvarado, born and raised in El Salvador, I left my house when I was 16 to study in an international high school in rural India through the United World College program. I fell in love with writing and film while there and once I graduated I was accepted into the University of Oklahoma on a full scholarship. I am currently 21-years-old and a junior in college pursuing a double major in Creative Media Production and English Writing. I plan on going to Grad school for Creative Writing and I hope to write a book that I can later turn into a movie.
 Red flag: a sign or warning of any impending danger, disaster or doom. This is the Urban Dictionary’s definition, which is nothing less than another fake source teenagers (myself included) use to feel like they are making a difference.
Maybe for father’s day I could rent a boat and take him out to the lake. We could go fishing like we did when I was a kid. Maybe I could introduce him to Columbus, and Cincinnati the way he showed my Chicago. Maybe I’ll stick to cities with C’s to start; Cleveland, Charlotte, Colorado Springs. Maybe he’d have flown out to see me read my work at Corpus Christi for Texas A&M University. Maybe he would have felt proud to watch me win first place. Maybe it would make up for that time in middle school when I tied for second place with Power of the Pen. He lived within walking distance. But I didn’t invite him. It wasn’t that I didn’t want him to go, it’s just that I hadn’t heard from him in so long. I guess I’d gotten too used to his absence. Like now.
Once when I was working at Mc Donald’s, my first job, second year, I was seventeen, I saw a man who looked like him, like my father. My heart leapt up so high in my throat it choked me with shock. Without thinking I rushed out from behind the counter, and through the door. I chased this man to the edge of the parking lot. He turned around. A stranger.
It never happened again. I don’t even double take anymore. I’ve gotten used to his absence.
If my father were alive he would have gone to my high school graduation. If he could. If my father were alive he might have gone to my community college graduation, watched me get an associates degree, watched me get my bachelors degree, maybe I’d invite him here to see me receive a masters. Maybe he’d stay off heroin for good. Maybe he’d get his life together. Maybe he’d get back together with Karen and we could go fishing again at that pond by her condo where I once caught a carp. Where I once went swimming with my friends.
Once I saw him in a dream. My father. I kept asking why I hadn’t seen him in so long. He wouldn’t tell me why. He kept changing the subject, shifting the way dreams do, morphing again and again into something else. When I woke up I remembered. A cold shock of water. I remembered his absence.
Maybe if my father were alive I wouldn’t have made such bad choices. Maybe if my father were alive my sister would be better adjusted now as an adult. Maybe her anxiety would ease like a slow release of air. Less pressure. Maybe if my father were alive I’d have asked him for his advice on Los Angelis. What to see and do in this non-C city? Maybe I’d tell him about my professors, maybe I’d tell him about my friends, that one homeless guy, that one ex, her, him, them. Maybe I’d tell him about you.
Maybe I’d answer the phone every time he called me no matter what. No matter where I was, no matter what I was doing. Maybe I’d never turn my phone off. Maybe I’d keep the volume up, always, no matter what. Maybe I’d keep it on vibrate too. Maybe I’d carry a battery pack. Extra charger. Maybe I’d make up for that period of time in which I refused to speak to him. That long never goodbye. The silence that grew and grew and became forever. A silence so long I can scarcely remember the sound of him. An absence gotten used to.
Maybe If my father were alive we’d have a huge graduation party and invite over all our family and friends. We’d plan it over the phone. Maybe we’d face time, months of arrangements and research. Maybe we’d fight about the theme. Maybe I’d want to keep it simple but he’d want more. Maybe we’d compromise and settle on a cookout by the lake. A fish fry. Maybe the charcoal would burn too hot and our smoke would bellow up into the sky, a trail, a cloud of silver lining, something to be seen from Cleveland, from Chicago, like a flag of pride, a boast, a scream. Maybe we’d run and charge like there was never anything to fear in the first place, no reason to avoid, nothing to make up for, maybe we’d jump out so far and so wide each splash was an explosion, each wave tidal, something louder than a phone call, an absence that could never be missed. Water like a river running for millions of years carving deep into the earth the words we never said, the words we owe each other, I’m sorry where it can never be missed, never forgotten.
Kate E Lore is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction. With many publications in both genres, Kate has been featured in Orsum magazine, and Longridge Review. Originally from Dayton Ohio, Kate is currently earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Miami University. Kate got her bachelor’s from The Ohio State University.
A jack-of-all-trades Kate splits her time up between fiction and nonfiction, screenplays, flash prose, full-length novels, painting, and comics.
Kate is openly queer and neurodivergent. She grew up the youngest of four, scraping by on low income, raised by a single widowed mother.
In early 1991, I interviewed for a faculty position at the University of Western Ontario. During my visit, a real-estate agent drove me around some residential areas in northwest London. I remember being impressed by Orchard Park, a quiet, leafy subdivision within cycling distance of campus.
I was offered the job, and accepted it. A few months later, my wife Francine went to London to find us a house. Unfortunately Orchard Park turned out to be too expensive for us. Her search narrowed down to two houses in White Hills, less leafy and a bit further from the university. She faxed me the details, and we made our decision.
At the end of the summer, Francine and I moved to London and took possession of our new house. It didn’t have much curb appeal: aluminum siding, a prominent garage, no street-facing windows on the main floor. But I already knew that from the photographs that Francine had taken. The unpleasant surprises began when we went inside. The living room was dark, with stuccoed walls. The bedrooms each had a different colour of carpet and a different type of garish wallpaper. Every renovation or repair had been done in the most half-assed manner imaginable. For example, the en-suite powder room, which I referred to as “the Black Hole of Calcutta”, was floored with sheet linoleum that curled up at the edges, because whoever installed it hadn’t bothered to remove the baseboards first.
Me: “This is so ugly!”
Francine: “I don’t remember it looking like this!”
But the low point was the dining room. It had a carpeted floor, and walls that were adorned with gold-patterned mirror tiles.
Me: “These tiles look like something you would find in a New Orleans cat-house.”
Francine: “How would you know?”
More unpleasant surprises lay behind the house’s walls and under its flooring. The wiring was aluminum, a known fire risk. The bedroom walls had never been primed, so stripping the wallpaper also removed the paper backing of the wallboard, as well as some of the underlying gypsum. Worst of all, the house had electrical baseboard heaters. Despite having access to vast amounts of free power from Niagara Falls, the province of Ontario had some of the highest electricity rates in the world. Heating our new house through the impending winter was going to bankrupt us.
We got rid of the baseboard heaters and installed a more efficient forced-air system. Now we had affordable electricity bills, but we also had gaps in our baseboards, holes in our walls and ceilings, and exposed ductwork running everywhere. This in addition to the bordello tiles, grotty carpeting, Age of Aquarius wallpaper, and all the other problems we had inherited.
In short, the place needed a lot of work.
Fortunately, help was at hand. Francine’s dad, Nick, was co-owner of a home-building company. He’d come to Canada from Italy with fifty dollars in his pocket and no marketable skills. By claiming to be a trained carpenter, he’d found a job on a building site, where he faked it until he learned the trade. After many years, he and a paesano were able to start their own business. Thanks to hard work, luck and bribes to municipal politicians, they became millionaires, at a time when that word was not yet synonymous with “home-owner”.
Nick and his wife were happy to come to London every weekend: she to play with her granddaughter, he to work on the house. The problem was that I was expected to help him, and I was emphatically not a handyman. Things got off to a bad start when Nick asked me for a hammer. When I brought him the only one I owned, he laughed. “That’s a child’s hammer!”
Way to emasculate your son-in-law, Nick! Don’t you want any more grandchildren?
Thereafter he brought his own tools, and we set to work: building a wall between the kitchen and dining-room, installing a French door, enclosing the new ductwork, tiling the carpeted floors. To elaborate on the plural pronoun: Nick did all the actual work, while I brought him the tools he needed. Once I had learned what “spikes” and “two-by-fours” were, and the difference between Phillips and Robertson screwdrivers, I was allowed to graduate to simple, hands-on tasks – such as using a proper, man-sized hammer to drive “spikes” into “two-by-fours”.
Nick believed in building things to last. Maybe it’s because he was Italian: the Coliseum is still standing, after all, and Rome’s first-century Pantheon looks like it was completed yesterday. The wooden frame Nick made to enclose the heating ducts was so robust that I could hang from it and do chin-ups. He brought the same philosophy to a closet he built in the family room. I decided that, if nuclear war broke out, the family would take shelter there. London might become a post-apocalyptic wasteland, but our family-room closet would still be standing.
Eventually Nick lost interest in spending every weekend working on his daughter’s house. Now I was on my own. Francine would have helped (or so she said), except that she was pregnant again. Apparently that was my fault! But I’d served my apprenticeship, and now knew the rudiments of home renovation: rough carpentry, drywalling, some wiring, a bit of plumbing. One of my solo projects was replacing the flooring in the Black Hole of Calcutta. When I took up the linoleum, which had a garish pink floral pattern, I was baffled to find beneath it another layer of the exact same lino! Below that was a layer of blue vinyl tiles. By the time I reached the subfloor, I felt like Schliemann at Troy.
Eventually I was proficient enough to build my own wall, although I had to get Nick out of retirement to hang the door in its opening. As far as I know, my wall is still standing, although I wouldn’t expect it to survive World War Three.
Throughout the disruptions of all these renovations, Francine and I consoled ourselves that this was just our starter home; in five years or so, we’d be able to move up in the world. But the mid-nineties were lean years for Ontario, and its university sector wasn’t spared. Even with help from Francine’s parents, it was nine years before we were able to think about house-hunting. By that time we had replaced every surface in the house. No more, I vowed. I’m hanging up my toy hammer. In the next house, I don’t want to do anything.
We found that house by accident. Cycling to work one morning, I came across an “open house” sign at the end of a street in Sherwood Forest, which was even leafier than Orchard Park. I detoured along the street and found the house. It was all brick, built on a centre-hall plan. When I got to work, I phoned Francine. We arranged that she’d pick me up at lunchtime.
I’d made a mistake. The house wasn’t open to the public – the sign I’d seen indicated a viewing for real-estate agents. But even though the property hadn’t been gussied up yet, the owner agreed to let us see it. A potential customer is a potential customer, after all. For the most part, the interior was as attractive as the exterior. Hardwood flooring throughout, crown moulding, large windows, a separate dining room, stained-glass panels flanking the front door. The basement was only semi-finished, but that wasn’t a deal-breaker – the house we were living in didn’t even have a basement.
There was only one thing wrong with the house – the asking price was more than Francine and I could afford. We made a lowball offer; the owners counteroffered. We found some spare change down the back of the sofa, and made a higher offer; the owners made a new counteroffer. But it was still too rich for our blood. We told our realtor to forget it, and I went off to a conference. A couple of days later, I phoned Francine from New Hampshire, and she told me that the owners of the Sherwood Forest house had decided to accept our second offer.
“Can they do that?” I asked.
Well, it turns out that they could. And, as a result, we had our dream home.
It was the beginning of November when we moved in, and it soon became obvious that the family room, which had been an addition to the original building, was unpleasantly cold. Unlike our previous house, this one had a hot-water heating system. And for some reason, the hot water wasn’t reaching the radiators in the addition.
So we called a plumber. He told us that we were lucky to have hot-water heating, because that was the best system. When we asked him why it was the best system, he explained that radiant heat was “warmer” than that produced by forced-air furnaces. I studied chemistry in my youth and retain a passing familiarity with the laws of thermodynamics. But I don’t understand how any form of heat can be “warmer” than any other form of heat, unless it’s actually, you know, at a higher temperature.
The plumber also explained that the family room, as well as about half of the original main floor, was on a separate “zone” from the rest of the house. Flow of hot water through each of the zones was governed by a valve, which was opened and closed by a thermostat in the corresponding part of the house.
Unfortunately he wasn’t able to fix the problem. Nor, as it subsequently turned out, were other plumbers who worked for his company, or plumbers who worked for different companies. No matter how much they tinkered with the system, the family room remained an uninhabitable meat-locker. Giving up, we installed a gas fireplace.
The fireplace kept the room warm for many years, although the noise of its blower was a bit annoying, particularly if you were watching television. But I had bigger problems, principally Francine being diagnosed with cancer. Five years after she died, I remarried, and my new wife moved into the house. Sue didn’t seem to understand that the stone-cold radiators in the family room were just a fact of nature. She thought we should get them fixed. So we started over again, this time with a new team of plumbers. Over the next few years, these gentlemen (and one lady) replaced various pipes, pumps, valves and gauges with shiny new pipes, pumps, valves and gauges. Unfortunately, all this work on their part, and expense on ours, resulted in at best a temporary warming of the family-room rads.
But at least by now I had learned enough about my heating system to converse intelligently about it with the plumbing profession. It seemed to me that the problem must be the zone valve controlling the addition. After all, if the shiny new boiler was heating water, and the shiny new pump was sending that water to the rest of the house through shiny new piping, surely the leading suspect was the valve controlling flow to the family room? However, a succession of plumbers “tested” the zone valve, and assured me that it worked perfectly. Look, Graeme, try it yourself. You just have to turn this wheel. Hear the click? That’s the sound of the valve opening. See, the wheel continues around until it’s back at the starting position. So the zone valve is fine. That will be three hundred dollars, please. Cash, check or credit card?
But, to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, if every other part of your home-heating system has been replaced, then the one part that hasn’t been replaced, no matter how merrily it spins around, must be the culprit. I phoned the plumbing company once again and asked them to send someone to replace the zone valve. The woman in the office promised to do so, and assured me that, as it was a standard part, a new zone valve didn’t have to be ordered – the plumber would have one in his (or her) truck.
When the plumber arrived, he insisted on “checking the system” – in other words, performing a billable diagnostic procedure that I didn’t want or need. Then, when he admitted that maybe the zone valve was the problem, he told me that he didn’t have one with him, and would have to come back another day. But in the fullness of time it came to pass that the old valve was removed and replaced with a shiny new one.
When the plumber was packing up his kit, he told me that, just out of curiosity, he’d disassembled the old zone valve to see what the problem was. It turns out that the teeth of the spinning wheel were supposed to engage with those of another wheel mounted perpendicularly to it. However, the teeth of the invisible second wheel were stripped. Thus the visible wheel was turning, clicking, and doing absolutely nothing!
“How about that?” I said, parting with another five hundred dollars. Then I went upstairs and put my hand on the deliciously warm metal of the family-room radiators, doing their job at last.
Graeme Hunter‘s essays have been published in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly, Talking Soup, The Writing Disorder and Canadian Notes & Queries. His web site is https://graemehunter.ca/.
“Child with a child pretending Weary of lies you are sending home So you sign all the papers in the family name You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed.” —Joni Mitchell
In 1970, annual numbers for children being placed for adoption in the US increased to a peak of 89,200, then quickly declined to an estimated 47,700 in 1975.
In 1970, the dominant psychological and social work view was that the large majority of unmarried mothers were better off being separated by adoption from their newborn babies.
“In most cases, adoption was presented to the mothers as the only option and little or no effort was made to help the mothers keep and raise the children.”
62% of children adopted through private adoption were placed with their adoptive families within a month of birth.
Researchers find that generally children adopted before the age of six-months fare no differently than children raised with their biological parents.
68% of adoptees are read to every day as young children, versus 48% of children who are not adopted.
73% of adopted children were sung to and told stories to every day, compared to 59% of children who were not adopted.
Making me faint on the “L” platform on my way to work, you announced your existence and got my attention.
Arrested, robbed, fired, evicted; at the time you were one piece of bad news among many.
A “foot doctor” (with the largest feet I ever saw), and some other MD, illegal abortionists: no phone? no car? no money? “no way” your fate was determined
as well by your father, who had said he was sterile, then refused to give me the hundred bucks he had borrowed and told everyone I was lying about you.
an ad: “Young people wanted to restart farm in rural Wisconsin” a stroke cancelled their plans, Divine intercession, stroke of luck, kindness whatever you call it, I went alone.
Volkswagen bug of a trailer, plopped in the middle of cow fields six miles out of town. know something? my mother and your mother, pregnant, alone in the country she was terrified, me? finally, at peace.
I loved you with your miniature combat boot kicks. I wanted you to have what I could not give you… a loving home, security, love, two parents… so much more than I had to offer.
I didn’t want to pass on the dysfunction I carried inside me like a twin nestling Alongside you But you carried abandonment, didn’t you?
Endless labor, screaming alone, an aide sitting silently watching from the corner; Finally they knocked me out and you were born, unseen.
Your bassinet turned to the wall. After carrying you and loving you, I couldn’t NOT see you. I insisted. At long last there you were behind the glass, one quick glance. As I turned away to ask a question, they took you away… forever.
Six weeks later, living with my parents, who should have been proud grandparents never telling them about you but a friend from Wisconsin broke my trust and called, Tough we all acted as if nothing had changed, everyone knew everything had.
Four years later, watching a TV show on adoption, my first memory of having signed you away.
Please forgive me. You are in my thoughts, my heart and prayers. May our paths cross again. With love, Your birth mother
There is a recent news photo from Afghanistan of a crying baby still in diapers being passed from a set of parent’s hands over razor wire to another set of hands belonging to an American soldier.
There are no photos of all the children taken, stolen, snatched, beaten away from their parents’ grief in countries all around the world, including times of slavery.
There are no photos of children being sold, given away by their parents to traffickers because of poverty, greed, despair.
Sometimes children are passed into hands that will protect them, feed them, clothe them, love them, and sometimes into hands that will abuse them.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why did you leave me/let me go/reject me/abandon me?
First it wasn’t personal in that I had never met you; the decision was made long before you were born. Know I love you but I couldn’t give you what I wanted you to have. I hope you received those in abundance!
What are my birth parents like? We weren’t famous or rich or anything special. Me an 18yo naïve young girl on my own for the first time. Your father, 15 years older, a contractor who denied your existence. I was never a drug addict or alcoholic or any other kind of addict you may have been worried about.
DO You ever think about me? OF COURSE I DO! I have always kept you close in my heart, though I had let go of the sorrow years ago. I only hope you have had a great life so far and it would be nice to finally meet you.
Do I have any brothers or sisters? No you are an only child, but you have cousins and great cousins. Your grandparents have all died.
How do I answer questions about my “real parents?” The folks that raised you are your real parents. I am your birth mother.
Why don’t I look like anyone else in my family? I am sure you now know that you are adopted. Both I and your father are short people with curly hair. I have never seen your adoptive family, though I helped choose where you went. I hope they’re not all tall and straight-haired skinny people!
Frequently thought but Never Asked Questions: PLEASE FILL IN THE BLANKS.
How did you find out you were adopted and how did you feel? Did you feel a need to forgive me? And did you?
What were your worst fears about me? Are you willing to know the truth?
Were you happy and well-loved as a child?
Did you have brothers and sisters to grow up with?
What was the best day of your life? Worst? How/Who are you now?
Were you born in Illinois? Or are you searching for someone born in Illinois? Adopted.com is proud to offer an Illinois state adoption reunion registry where you can meet by mutual consent without having to open records. We have provided a form on this page for you to check your matches. If both parties want to meet then you can find each other on Adopted.com! Adult adoptees who are 21 years or older are able to request a non-certified copy of their original birth certificate.
Find Birth Parents Guide Adoption.org Describes how adoptees can conduct research about their birth families and prepare for reconnection. Search and Reunion in Domestic and International Adoption [Webinar] Center for Adoption Support and Education (2018) Discusses reasons that adoptees choose to search for birth relatives, outlines the search and reunion process, and describes common relational dynamics present during reunions.
Yolanda Wysocki has an MA in the Study of Human Consciousness, and two BA’s. She retired from a career in Social Services, Counseling, and Life Coaching in 2020, and is now pursuing a creative and spiritual life focused on writing, photography and meditation. Although she has been writing—poetry, bits of fiction, interviews—for several years, discovering creative non-fiction last year felt like a perfect fit. Her second- ever-to-be-published essay was recently published in Stories That Need to be Told 2022. She lives in the Portland Oregon area.
The scholar wishes she had begun writing poetry many years ago, that she had been writing it all along, all along. The scholar regrets that she buried her true self under intellectual thought, and for years, thought using words like “beautiful” was weak and silly and a ploy to get someone into bed. She mistrusted beauty for so long, because she couldn’t really feel, because she feared ridicule and rejection, and because study was her strength, or so she thought, so she was told throughout her childhood and college years.
The scholar had never been pretty or popular or especially gifted in sports or in being nice or kind or selfless, and so, she buttressed herself behind books and essays and philosophy, because rejecting her scholarly arguments was not a rejection of her, but of mere ideas. As scholarly arguments were built on the shoulders of other scholars’ work and thoughts, there was a solidarity to it. Rejecting a thesis was challenging the great thinkers before her, and that was exciting and the point of research, anyway.
Still, the scholar concludes that she was an asshole a lot of the time during this period–not intentionally, but is only now learning how to be a better person. After all, all her emotions and love and appreciation for the beautiful and broken things were there all along, just sleeping so far under the snow, so frozen, that they were hibernating and rarely came out for nourishment. The scholar can always tell people her poetry is fiction, and that way, if they scoff or become angry at something she has written, she can claim it isn’t autobiographical. Hopefully. For the most part.
The scholar used to hate winter growing up, but now she has a child, and the child’s sheer joy at waking up to snow, his cheerful intrepid donning of layers to march outside and embrace the cold, make her excited, even if vicariously. The scholar should buy him new snowpants today, as her town just got its first snow unexpectedly early in the season.
But instead, the scholar is sitting here, writing this informal essay about how she’s no longer afraid to talk about all the beauty she sees around her.
Margaret King enjoys penning poetry and flash fic. Her recent work has appeared in MoonPark Review, Levatio Magazine, Nightingale & Sparrow, and Great Lakes Review. In 2021, she was nominated for a Pushcart for her eco-flash fiction story “The Sky Is Blue.” She teaches tai chi in Wisconsin. She is also the author of the poetry collection, Isthmus.
Following the highly publicized disappearance of Elias Peshaman late last year, this unfinished manuscript was found among a small number of cloud files authorities reviewed for possible information related to his whereabouts.
It is a mouth radically different from other human mouths — infused with an eerie otherworldliness. The mouth attracts attention precisely because of its unsettling difference. It seizes the attention of others because, like a catastrophic car accident, we can’t look away. To some, this mouth is hyper-real and in its weird fleshiness, suggests an authenticity, the way a blood-rare steak suggests “real food.”
When at rest, the mouth often does not relax but returns to a puckered, circular kissing shape that suggests it is at once both open and closed, an orifice of both inbound and outbound potential. Let’s be honest, this mouth also has an anal quality to it and is always pantomiming an expulsion of waste. It is always conveying the ejection of impurity, mirroring his promises to eject things and people.
There is also the tongue. Disabled by the neuro-impairments that prevent its full control, the tongue throbs, bends and extrudes in ways that reinforce the expulsion conveyed by the lips.
In its totality, the shape of the mouth as an emblem of disgust and discharge is also connected to his frequent interest in what comes out of human bodies, especially the bodies of women. It enacts his revulsion at excretion, for example, or menstruation or breast feeding.
altogether ill at ease about what is happening with us
The water hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes) is a large aquatic plant native to the Amazon basin. It is known chiefly for its ability to overwhelm the surface of bodies of water, pushing out native species and depleting its water ecosystem of oxygen, suffocating all fish, water creatures and other plants.
So too, all the things he is — liar, chiseler, malignant degenerate, traitor, deadbeat, daughterfucker wannabe, child rapist — may be viewed as precisely evolved for indifference to the question of what a “pond,” is actually for. The old blackhats (Ratched, Moriarty) are quaint by comparison.
His skin, like the fixtures around him, in the primitive way imaginable, conveys that he cannot escape how gold rushes in upon him, following him like a cloud of gold dust seeking the man who is both its source and its destination. He is Chrysos, Xipe Totec, Midas, Shen Wanshan, Goldfinger, communicating with every image not that “I’m like my people” but rather “I’m radically unlike my people or any people.”
But in its obvious artificiality there is more. With his skin, he is sending us a message deeper than, “I am a golden man.” The message also says, “I am wearing a me-shaped golden suit.” His skin invites you to imagine an inner creature, but simultaneously humiliates you for accepting the invitation.
To some, the skin is an alarm light alerting to a dangerous duplicity — the way the coloration of certain animals alerts other animals not to eat them. To others, the situation is more complex. Via its alchemy, broadly speaking, there can be a gratitude, even a love, engendered by the ways he affirms the fundamental duplicity, and the inevitability of the way things are.
The skin serves both as camouflage (allowing him to blend in with the other perceived liars — like certain poisonous toads blend in with a pile of leaves in the forest) and as a beacon calling attention to itself as camouflage (providing a basis of assurance and trust — as if he might be the one true leaf in a pile of poisonous toads).
read marcus aurelius of each particular thing ask what is it in itself what is its nature what does he do this man you seek
In totality, we know this as “The Uncanny Valley,” a term coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori to describe the phenomenon by which robots become deeply disconcerting to us at the point where they come closest to mimicking human features.
The Uncanny Valley teaches us to think about how we are different (if we are) and how we are the same (if we are). Perhaps it teaches an instinctive revulsion at the not-quite-human — an instinct that may have prevented our early ancestors from breeding with apes. Though perhaps also (if not instead), it teaches us revulsion at ourselves, at what we are capable of. Perhaps it forces us to ask: When face to face with a monster masquerading as your companion, what do you do?
Mirroring the nausea created by our experience, his experience as a sociopath may be one of looking at us across his Uncanny Valley, where he is unable to see or feel the full humanity of any person — to distinguish emotionally between a chair, a car, a bucket, a fish or child. To operate across his Valley, he creates simulacra of human engagement to deal with people because he is unable to generate actual human responses.
Little by little as he deprives our pond of oxygen, he becomes less able to conceal the fact that when he looks at us, no matter who we are, he sees the same lifeless mask we see when we look at him, useful to him or useless, using our own shames and weaknesses and hatreds against us the way serial killer might use the skin of his victim to make a lampshade.
my god my god to be haunted by the end of everything we are and have created together it is like choking finally after all it will be like choking my god they are gouging his eyes with a flagpole i think
Here Peshaman’s manuscript ends, providing scant basis for development of a general synthesis. While pleased to share this important manuscript with specialist and lay audiences, overall, we urge caution in the extrapolation of broad-brush conclusions from what was clearly a work left unfinished and in disarray at the time of his disappearance.
Greg Sendi is a Chicago writer and former fiction editor at Chicago Review. His career has included broadcast and trade journalism as well as poetry and fiction. In the past year, his work has appeared or been accepted for publication in a number of literary magazines and online outlets, including Apricity, Beyond Words Literary Magazine, The Briar Cliff Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Clarion, CONSEQUENCE, Flashes of Brilliance, Great Lakes Review, The Headlight Review, The Masters Review, New American Legends, Plume, Pulp Literature, San Antonio Review, Sparks of Calliope, and upstreet.
“A rose is a rose is a rose.” In this paper, we explore the intricacies of this oft-quoted statement by Gertrude Stein through a discursive textual analysis, of each word in serie, in an attempt to definitize the meaning of each, while realizing its connectivity to metaethics. Having set the paradigmatic table, as it were, we begin.
A: In American education, A refers to the top grade in an ABCDE or ABCDF grading rubric. In some school districts and colleges, A can be modified to A+ or A-, with A+ then becoming the highest possible grade.
However, use of A to signify the highest or best is not universal in the United States. Consider these counterexamples: In minor league baseball, the A leagues fall below the AA and AAA leagues. In high school athletics, schools are often classified by size for competitive purposes, so that a high school with 50 students does not compete against one with 5,000; this is particularly true for football, although state athletic associations frequently use a classification for other interscholastic sports as well.
Similarly, in financial markets, A represents the sixth highest credit rating for a bond in the Standard and Poor’s grading system. AAA, AA+, AA, AA- and A+ bonds are all better than A bonds.
While this level of detail is not required to parse Gertrude Stein’s intent, we can nonetheless safely conclude that “A” represents a grade of some sort. Which classification system she was referencing is a detail to be examined later.
Rosé: A wine with a pinkish color, between that of a red wine and a white wine. This coloration occurs as a result of the red grape skins coming in contact with the juice less than is the case for actual red wines. Few current wine classifications use letter designations. However, the St. Emilion Classification of 1955 notably held 1st 1e Grand Cru Classe A as its highest class, just above 2nd 1e Grand Cru Classe B. As Stein died in 1946, this particular rating schema could not have been her inspiration. Nevertheless, as Stein attended both Radcliffe and Johns Hopkins, and lived in France for many years, it is certainly conceivable that a precursor to the St. Emilion wine grading system is intended.
Is: The singular, first-person, present-tense form of the verb “to be.” Here, Stein cleverly uses one short word to convey several powerful concepts. First, she alludes to singularity, perhaps in the sense of uniqueness, but also, perhaps in the sense of unwedded bliss. Then, she reminds us that a personal experience is being portrayed. This is not a mass event, nor is it second-hand, a vicarious experience belonging to someone else and only shared with the author afterward.
Further, she does not write “a rose are,” which could be second person, or plural, or both. Rather, this is intimately first person. She claims reality for the rose. She also provides a time element. The rose is … now! The immediacy of her writing could not be clearer on this. Finally, Stein provides existential truth. “A rose is.” If she had stopped there, she would have pronounced a truth well worth remembrance. However, she continues, ever more deeply.
A: Singular, indefinite pronoun. Again, Stein emphasizes singularity. Note how easily she combines the singular “is” with the singular “a.” Now, however, she denies uniqueness. A unique, specific item would typically be denoted by “the,” not “a.” She has moved us swiftly from consideration of unity, to a discussion of universality. A rose stands for all roses in this sense. We see Plato’s cave shadows in that any rose is an exemplar of all roses, a standard-bearer for rosedom, as it were. Stein clearly recognizes the inherent tension of living one’s self-interest while living in community, the same tension France experienced during her life there, as communism and capitalism struggled to win French hearts and minds.
Rose: A flower of the genus Rosa. A symbol of romantic love since ancient times, the rose is perhaps the most purchased flower in the world. However, it is unlikely Stein is alluding to purchased love, whether via prostitution, dowry, bride price, or through the Western ritual of dating in which both wine and roses play prominent roles. She appears rather to refer us to the single rosebud, a potent symbol of chaste love, love that has not yet fully blossomed. Elsewhere, Stein wrote, “What is marriage, is marriage protection or religion, is marriage renunciation or abundance, is marriage a stepping-stone or an end. What is marriage.”
The Cherokee rose, Rosa laevigata, a symbol of the state of Georgia, is ironically an invasive species from China. The irony of existentialism finds “full flower” in this selection of a cultivar named after people driven from Georgia by President Andrew Jackson and his minions following passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 and originating in an area from which migrants to Georgia were excluded. Stein uses this imagery to demonstrate historic solidarity with those oppressed peoples.
Is: In mathematics and logic, equal or proportionate. One plus one is two. A is to B as B is to C. One should not, however, reduce “a rose is a rose is a rose” to the tautological x = x = x, which would be to trivialize Stein’s profound insights. Further, she does not appear to intend comedic relief, as seen in “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”,Egalité in the political sense seems to be intended here.
If Stein is using rose in its symbolic sense to represent romantic love, then she clearly espouses marriage equality. In this, love is seen as a natural state, an innate human need to minimize suffering. As Wilde may have said, “Any love is good love.”
Arose: In Christian theology, the belief that Jesus resurrected from death.Unlike the Phoenix story in Greek mythology, this renewal occurs once. As a singular event, “arose” completes Stein’s theme, initiated with “is” and “a”.
It is not surprising that deconstructionists from weird societies, who have uncovered Christian symbology in works by authors as diverse as de Pisan, Faulkner, Achebe and Carle, find a religious undertone in Stein’s seminal phrase. It would perhaps be more surprising had they not.
As depicted by Stein, the Christ story also contrasts with the Prometheus story in which the nightly rebirth only extends his punishment. If Stein were alluding to Prometheus, then the theme becomes much darker. By giving of himself (figuratively, by providing fire to humans), Prometheus is condemned to give of himself (literally, by having his heart ripped out each day). Whereas having one’s “heart ripped out” is one possible outcome of a spurned romance, we cannot reject the hypothesis that Stein intends her audience to recall such feelings in their own lives; however, we much reject this as the main thrust of her statement.
In a larger sense, Stein avers resurrection and rebirth evoke awakening to a new reality, an elevation to a higher plane. Love and, dare we say, spirits, remind us that “being is becoming.” This enlightenment, this fulfillment, provides the basis of Stein’s notion of Hegelian Aufhebung, with its dual sense of lifting up and self-abnegation.
Note that “arose” in its spiritual sense brings us full circle to the spirit, the rose, at the beginning of her epigrammatic expression. Clearly then, when Stein says, “a rose is a rose is a rose,” she means “Love intoxicates and uplifts my spirit,” and not, as others have supposed, “Mon Dieu, I love this wine.”
 Derrida, “Of Grammatology” (Les Éditions de Minuit, 1967)
 Florida, for example, maintains eight classes in football with 1A for the smallest schools and 8A for the largest One oddity, however, is Iowa’s classification system for high school eleven-person football, which has five classes designated A, 1A, 2A, 3A and 4A, so that 1A schools are larger than A schools.
 The competing Moody rating system uses Aaa, Aa1, Aa2, Aa3, A1, A2, A3, so that Moody’s A3 is roughly equivalent to S&P’s A. Both systems use variations on B and C to designate bonds that are riskier than A-level bonds. Note that Moody does not use A by itself as a grade.
 In its commodity grading programs, the US Department of Agriculture uses the letter A. Inexplicably, the USDA has three grades for eggs, which humans eat, and 45 grades for cotton, which they do not.
 In this researcher’s studied opinion, Stein defies convention, as always, by omitting the acute diacritic on this e; other scholars contend omission of this glyph was an editing error. Regardless, getting the é right is essential to understanding Stein.
 Heidegger’s term “dasein” is particularly cogent in this context.
 Whitehead and Russell, Principia Mathematica (1910)
 Marx. Every good academic paper must have at least one reference to Marx.
 For a different take on this, see Freud, Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten (1905), often translated as Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, or Jung’s Wandlungen und Symbole der Libido (1912).
 Recall the French motto, Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, was supplanted byTravail, Famille, Patrie in Vichy France and that Stein was living in France with Toklas at the time.
 Rousseau, Du Contrat Social, Principes du droit politique. (1762)
 Wilde, “Poems.” While Wilde’s work was condemned as plagiarism during his lifetime, the actual origin of this phrase is lost to history. See also: Overdrive, Bachman-Turner, You Ain’t (sic) Seen Nothin’ (sic) Yet (1974).
 Augustine, Confessions; Jerome, selected works; Origen, De principiis; various other dead white men.
 Diamond, The World Until Yesterday (2012). WEIRD is shorthand for Western, educated, industrial, rich and democratic. Diamond credits this construct to Henrich, Heine and Norenzayan’s 2010 articles in Nature and Behavioral and Brain Sciences, respectively entitled “Most people are not WEIRD” and “The Weirdest people in the world.”
Joan of Arc (1429), The Bear (1942), Things Fall Apart (1958), and The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) respectively.
The author graduated from the University of Kentucky with a BA in demography. Employed by the Defense Department for 37 years before retiring in 2013, he has had several works published, including the popular “A Case for Change in the Management of Class V” in Army Sustainment, volume 44, issue 5, co-authored with Major General Gustave F. Perna.
My parents had the foresight to pick out a name for me before I was born. Unfortunately the name they chose was Lorna, which became a bit of a problem when I showed up with outdoor plumbing. Maybe Mum and Dad were a bit hazy about the law of averages and thought that, already having two sons (David and John) and one daughter (Alison), they were guaranteed another girl.
But what’s the chances of me ending up married to someone who had also been prenatally misgendered? Sue’s parents were anticipating a boy, and it wasn’t a boy named Sue – it was a boy named Roy. In that case, it’s a bit more understandable, as Mr. and Mrs. Colquhoun already had three male children.
So I was supposed to be Lorna, and Sue was supposed to be Roy. I’d love to sign our Christmas cards that way, but I’m pretty sure that nobody would get the joke. “Honey! Do we know a Lorna and Roy?”
In giving me the name “Graeme” rather than its more common homonym “Graham”, my parents ensured that I would have to spell it out for the rest of my life. Here’s how that works.
Person behind a counter: “Name?” Me: “Graeme Hunter.” Person: “How do you spell that?” Me: “Graeme? It’s G-R-A-E-M-E.” Person: “G-R-A…” Me: “…E-M-E.” Person: “And what’s your last name again?”
Whenever I complained to my mum about this unnecessary complication, she told me that Graeme was the standard spelling in the south-west of Scotland, where she grew up. And that seems to be true. I remember being in a gift shop in Newton Stewart and seeing personalized mugs with the name Graeme, but none with its variant. Take that, “Grey Ham”!
In the end, it didn’t really matter which way my name was spelled, because most people called me Gordon. In the Scotland of my childhood, that was a much more common name than Graeme (or Graham), so you can see why people defaulted to it. When I moved to Canada, nobody called me Gordon anymore. They called me Greg.
Then Starbucks became a thing. Me: “A grande latte, please.” Barista: “Can I have your name for the cup?” Me: “Graeme.” Barista: “How do you spell that?” Me: “I don’t care how you spell it! It’s a disposable cup!”
No, I didn’t say that. I went through the usual spelling-Graeme routine. When I got fed up with that, I tried using the name Greg. But then the barista would write C-R-A-I-G. It seemed that I couldn’t win. Until the day a guy in front of me at Starbucks gave his name as Dave. I had an epiphany. Dave is the perfect disposable-cup name! You can’t mishear Dave. You can’t misspell Dave. And as far as the Starbucks Corporation is concerned, I’ve been Dave ever since.
People who hear my first name can’t spell it; people who see it can’t pronounce it. It’s not uncommon for people to phone me and ask to talk to “Grah-EEM” or “Grimy”. Other people elect to give me a pet name. One day my girlfriend called me at work. The female co-worker who answered the phone yelled “Graemey!” When I got on the line, the first thing Francine said was: “Who was that woman? And why did she call you ‘Graemey’?”
My mother was almost ninety when she died, and to the end remained mentally sharp. At some point, however, she lost the ability to distinguish between her three sons. Sometimes she called me Graeme, but she was equally likely to call me David or John. Or else she would scroll through a list of possible names, and call me Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme. I didn’t take this personally. I answered to David, I answered to John, I answered to Joh-Da-Graeme or Da-Joh-Graeme. The only thing I asked was that Mum didn’t call me Lorna.
It’s a funny thing that my siblings and I all got “English” first names (Graeme is not as English as Graham, but it’s certainly not a traditional Scottish boys’ name). Perhaps in compensation, we all got Scottish middle names (Ian, Margaret, Andrew, Kenneth). Ian is the Gaelic version of John. Scotland has had many famous Margarets, including Queen Margaret, who was canonized, and Mons Meg, which is a cannon. Andrew is, of course, the patron saint of Scotland. The name Kenneth also has an honored place in Scottish history. According to legend, Kenneth MacAlpin was the first king of Alba, the land subsequently known as Scotland.
King Kenneth (Coinneach, in the Gaelic) was born in 810 C.E. on the Hebridean island of Iona, where Christianity had arrived in Scotland two and a half centuries earlier. After uniting the western kingdom of Dal Riata with the eastern kingdom of Pictland, he established his capital at Scone (pronounced “skoon”), in central Scotland. He brought with him a red-sandstone block of mysterious origins that became known as the Stone of Destiny. Scottish kings were crowned sitting on it until 1296, when it was seized by King Edward I of England. The “Hammer of the Scots” put the Stone of Destiny in Westminster Abbey, where it became part of the coronation chair. Seven hundred years later, it was finally returned to Scotland and placed in Edinburgh Castle, where Mons Meg should deter any marauding English monarchs.
When I started to publish scientific papers, I used the name ‘Graeme K. Hunter’. I included a middle initial to distinguish myself, for indexing purposes, from other Graeme Hunters. One day a female colleague asked me: “What’s your middle name?”
I said: “If I told you that Kenneth means ‘handsome’, what would you guess my middle name is?”
“Hmm … Kevin?”
But Kenneth does mean ‘handsome’. Is that nominative determinism, or what?
Unlike my siblings, I got a second middle name. My mum explained that Wyness was her maiden name. But her full name was “May Baxter Hunter”, so wasn’t Baxter her maiden name? Or what about Welsh, which was the surname of my maternal grandparents? On the other hand, why did everyone call Mum “Winnie”? Was that short for Wyness?
I still hate being asked the security question “What is your mother’s maiden name?” Whatever. Pick a number.
It took a long time for me to learn the whole story. My mother was born to a single mother, Ella Wyness, and named May. When she was fostered by a family named Baxter, she was given their surname. During the Second World War, May Baxter worked in a munitions factory. There she made friends with Doreen Welsh, whose mum and dad became surrogate parents to my future mother. May never had the surname Welsh, but I was brought up to believe that Doreen’s parents were my grandparents, so you can see how the confusion arose.
I don’t know why Mum decided to give me Wyness as an extra middle name. Although it must have been obvious to her that, at age 36, this was probably her last kick of the can. Unfortunately, I didn’t like the name Wyness. I could claim that I already had enough problems, having to spell out Graeme all the time, and apparently not being handsome enough for a Kenneth. But the fact is I just didn’t like the sound of Wyness (wino? whiniest?), and was uncomfortable being the only person I knew who had two middle names. So at some point I just stopped using it. As noted above, my moniker in the world of professional science was Graeme K. Hunter.
The last vestige of Wyness in my life was my U.K. passport. Three years ago I had to renew that document, and decided to ditch the dubya, which required convincing the Passport Office that I hadn’t actually used the name Wyness for a number of years. That was fairly easy to do, since I’d gone W-less on my Canadian passport for a long time. Now the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, like the Government of Canada, the Province of Ontario and the City of London, all know me as Graeme Kenneth Hunter.
And my mother didn’t live long enough to see the day when I finally dropped her (real) maiden name.
Hunter isn’t as quintessentially Scottish a name as Macdonald or Stewart or Campbell (I included Stewart because, if you put a Macdonald and a Campbell together, they’ll get into a fight). But there is a tartan. Quite a nice one, too; I have a Hunter tartan tie that I wear on formal occasions.
If there’s a tartan, there must be a clan. The Hunters didn’t play a big part in Scottish history; they weren’t bold seafarers like the Macleods, fierce Highlanders like the Gordons or border reivers like the Douglases. The name Hunter doesn’t even appear on many clan maps of Scotland. But there is a place in Ayrshire called Hunterston, and that is indeed the ancestral seat of Clan Hunter. There’s even a castle.
In August of 2009, David and I were driving to the seaside town of Largs to scatter the ashes of our late mother, May “Winnie” Wyness Baxter Hunter. David remarked that he’d been hiking in this area and had come across signs for Hunterston Castle. Since Mum wasn’t in a hurry, we decided to take a detour. After a few false turns, we came across two stone pillars bearing the words ‘Hunterston Castle’. We drove down the roadway marked by the pillars until we encountered a sign that said: “Strictly no admittance. Clan Hunter business only.”
OK, bit of a mixed message there. On the one hand, “strictly no admittance” seemed clear. On the other, were we there on “Clan Hunter business”? Do you automatically become a member of the clan by virtue of having the last name Hunter, or do you have to join and pay a fee? We decided to go on. What’s the worst that could happen?
The road ended at a large manor house. No-one was around, so the obvious next move was to knock on the imposing oak door. David pulled birth order and made me do that. As he sat in the car, I took a deep breath, grasped the ancient cast-iron ring and knocked it three times against the ancient strike-plate.
I expected the door to be opened by an ancient, wizened retainer dressed in a black Victorian frock-coat. In fact it was a youngish man in casual clothing.
“Hi!” I said brightly. “My brother and I were hoping to see the castle.”
“I’m afraid it’s not a good time, old chap” he replied in an English accent. He’s the head of Clan Hunter and he’s English? “Bit of a flap on at the moment.”
“We’re Hunters,” I added helpfully.
This seemed to do the trick. “Look, I’ll give you the key,” the laird said. “Just let yourselves in.”
He disappeared inside, came back with a giant cast-iron key, and directed us to the castle. We’d actually passed it on the way in, but it was hidden by trees – a square Norman tower, in good shape considering that it dates from the fourteenth century. David and I unlocked the door and start wandering around our ancestral home. Unable to figure out how to turn on the lights, we were dependent upon what little sunlight filtered through the narrow windows, but that only added to the atmosphere. There were suits of armor, racks of medieval weapons, hunting trophies, a dining table and chairs with the Clan Hunter crest. For half an hour, David and I were the lairds of Hunterston Castle. (Well, he was, being older than me).
I’ve always liked the name Hunter; it has a rugged, outdoorsy connotation. In her 2020 novel ‘The Mirror and the Light’, Hilary Mantel wrote: “Hunters, it is said, live longer than other men; they sweat hard and stay lean; when they fall into bed at night they are tired beyond all temptation; and when they die, they go to Heaven.”
Picture the scene: I show up at the Pearly Gates and there’s St. Peter. He’s holding the naughty-and-nice list.
St. Peter: “Name?” Me: “Graeme Hunter.” St. Peter: “How do you spell that?”
Graeme Hunter is the author of ‘Vital Forces’ (Academic Press) and ‘Light Is a Messenger’ (Oxford University Press). His personal and hybrid essays have appeared in Riddle Fence, Queen’s Quarterly and Talking Soup. He publishes the blog Opera Through the Looking Glass. For further information, see www.graemehunter.ca.
After reading Pogo, Katzenjammer Kids and a few other comic strips in the newspaper, I turned to the sports page to check on the number of hits by Richie Ashburn and the new won/loss record of the Phillies pitcher. They won the National League Championship in 1950 and my support at age eleven. I could care less about anything else in the paper and neither did most of the adults and other kids in our small town.
The following summer mom and dad took brother Joe and me on vacation for the fifteen hour drive to Washington D.C. and a side trip to Philadelphia for a double header with Robin Roberts and Curt Simmons, their aces, pitching. The immaculate field and the cavernous stadium put me in Oz. The largest crowds I had seen up to that time were those that attended our annual church picnic for the turtle soup and taking chances on a quilt. The roar and foot stomping of these baseball fans intimidated me at first but I soon started yelling and jumping up and down, losing some of my salted peanuts.
Dad pulled on my shoulder to sit me down. “It’s only a baseball game, son.”
I looked up. “Oh dad, it’s much more than that. It’s my best dream come true.”
Other events of my childhood fade away but not that one.
A couple of years after that game, Curt Simmons, a lefty, slipped and fell using his power mower, a newfangled machine he had recently purchased, severing several toes on his left foot. He tried to pitch again but he couldn’t forcefully push off the mound with his injured left foot so he gave it up and the Phillies got off on the wrong foot too. Brother Joe got my goat by gloating over the success of Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and the rest of his Dodgers.
We played softball at recess and practiced fielding grounders and pitching baseball in our spare time, including “burn out,” where we threw the ball as hard as we could until one of us quit with a sore paw, but the first organized school sport we played was basketball.
Our small town of Ferdinand did not have a high school or gym so we played against teams from other small towns at a gym belonging to a nearby Benedictine monastery. Father Edwin, bland looking and speaking just above a whisper, coached our sixth grade team. We called him Sleepy Jesus because he often fell asleep during the silent reading portion of our religion class. We played roughhouse basketball like in games after school: fouling the other team, pushing to get a rebound, always grabbing for the ball. During our first game against another school, Father Edwin called us into a huddle. Leaning over, hands held together in prayer, he had us do the same and pleaded, “For the love of the Lord, behave yourselves. The object of this game is to put the ball in the basket.” Well, to make a basket you have to first get the ball and the only way to do that was to fight for it.
The following year our crew cut, athletically looking seventh grade coach appropriately called Crapper, had us always walk on the balls of our feet. He overheard some of us having an animated conversation in his Volkswagen van on the way home from a game. At a stop sign, he turned to ask, “You boys talking about girls?”
I said, “Yeah, I think Peggy Brockman is the best looking girl in our class.”
Another player snorted. “Whoop de doo, Bonnie Schaefer has her beat six ways from Sunday. Blue eyes, curly hair, what more could you want?”
Crapper smiled a wicked smile. “They all look the same underneath.” He turned to continue driving.
Did he mean that looks don’t matter? Wholesomeness counts more than looks? Or did he mean girls with no clothes on? Seemed like a sin to even think about that but scuttlebutt had it that sin didn’t seem to be a subject that Crapper concerned himself with. Our pastor, Father David, his round florid face looking stern, called each of us boys one by one to his office at the rectory before our seventh grade Confirmation. He supposedly tried to explain sex but in such vague terms that he seemed to mainly say that I should consider the priesthood. If Crapper, full of it as usual, had commented on sex in his naughty way, Father David’s discombobulated discourse ranked as only the second time any adult had ever said anything about the subject. We had begun noticing girls but not in terms of sex, which became this tantalizing but never talked about topic except by older boys who made it clear that we didn’t know our ass from a hole in the ground.
Ferdinand finally got a high school in 1950, with me still in seventh grade. They enrolled only freshmen and sophomores to start with but our basketball team played against varsity teams from other small towns in the area.
The Frank Heidet Machine Shop distributed a calendar for that year listing our town‘s population as 2000. They must have included cats and dogs because the official census said 1,252. Our population still outnumbered the residents of the towns we played but their juniors and seniors stomped on our young team without mercy. Selvin lost its post office earlier that year of 1950 but their Netters defeated us 80 to 24. The U.S. census did not list a population for Otwell until 2010 and that as 434, declining to 396 in 2020, but their Millers beat us 68 to 29. The Bluebirds of Birdseye, which even today has only one intersection and trailers vastly outnumbering houses in the area, won the final game of the season 70 to 20.
Our guys did, however, come close to winning against the Folsomville Fearless.
On the school bus going with other students to the game, I joined in yelling “Goodnight Irene Goodnight,” “Peg o’ My Heart “ and “Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall.” At bottle number forty-seven, the bus driver pulled over, stood and turned to face us with murder in his eyes. “If y’all can’t keep a lid on I’m goin to turn this damned thing around and you can forget about me drivin you to any more games and not nobody else is dumb enough do it neither.”
Since he resembled the old time comedian, I said during the hush, “Okay, Fatty Arbuckle, drive on, take away anything you want but not our basketball games.” He gave me an index finger and a piercing look but turned and held down on the horn as he got back on the road. He eventually pulled into a lane with a farmhouse and large barn. That seemed odd but we entered the barn to see a basketball court only a little more than half the size of a normal one. Eight rows of seats lined the one side of the “gym” with a pot-bellied stove that smelled like puke beneath the visitor’s section. Probably one of the Fearless did that deliberately earlier in the day.
Our star player, Leon Wenholt, used a one handed pump shortly after crossing the center line but it hit the ceiling, twenty-five feet above the floor, each time. A referee called it out of bounds and gave the ball to the other team. We yelled, “What! How much are they paying you?” and similar appropriate remarks but the referee gave us a threatening look, as if he might call a technical foul on us, so we kept our cussing quiet for the time being.
Our three girl cheerleaders ran onto the playing field during the first break in the action, wearing saddle oxford shoes, bobby socks and pleated short skirts as they jumped about, shaking their blue and gold pompoms and yelling out their theme song:
We are the Crusade girls
You’ll like our hair in curls.
We wear our dungarees
Away above our knees
The playing field ended two feet from the wall at the side of the gym opposite the bleachers. At the start of the game, a student brought out a stepladder and the scorekeeper mounted it to sit on a small ledge ten feet above the floor. He then marked the score with chalk and an eraser on a small blackboard. At halftime the student brought the ladder for him and he got down to get a bag of popcorn he brought to the game. He got back up on the ledge when play resumed but an errant ball headed his way, causing him to throw up his hands, along with the chalk, eraser and his popcorn. The custodian tossed him the chalk and erasure, swept up the popcorn and headed for the trashcan. The scorekeeper yelled, “Give that back! The floor’s clean.” The custodian turned to glare at him and, arms akimbo while holding the dustpan, gave him a I-may-look-like-a–fool-but-you’re-a-worse-one and tossed the popcorn in the trashcan. The irate scorekeeper called for the ladder, got down and stomped off, thumbing his nose at the custodian. They coaxed a younger kid to take his place and he seemed to mount the ladder with a certain amount of trepidation.
All of the fans, and especially ours, filled the small space with a deafening roar, constantly booing the referees with insinuating epitaphs such as, “You’re so crooked they’re going to have to use a corkscrew to get you into your grave!”
The sports writer for the Ferdinand News described the rough and tumble of the game. “Nearly all foul ball plays ended up on the floor and the game was not unlike a football meet. The players couldn’t get out of each other’s way and, before the game was over, the referees called a total of 47 fouls, sending five players to the showers.” The referees always called the foul on the defensive player, never charging on the offense, except when there occurred an oddity that has probably never happened elsewhere. The sports writer continued, “Near the end of the game, one referee finally caught a boy charging but the other referee called it a foul on the boy in his way, so each was given a free throw and each charged with a personal foul.”
The sports writer summarized the game as a “heartbreaker” since Folsomville squeaked by with a score of 39 to 37, the only game our Crusaders lost by less than twenty points.
They offered no concessions but a hand printed sign said, “Stop at Mr. Leslie’s Grocery Store after the game for a cracker and slice of baloney sandwich for five cents and a Coke for ten cents. Look for the U. S. Post Office sign as it is located in the back of the store.” People in the area called Folsomville “Lick Skillet.” At least we didn’t have to do that to get a snack.
Ferdinand got a gym two years later and I sat on the bench as a freshman but had high hopes that, with practice, I could gain a starting position. Too cold to play outside, my fellow benchwarmers and I wanted access to the gym and thought that the janitor or somebody would let us in. We banged on the doors and windows without success but then I noticed an unlocked window just under the roof near a downspout so I climbed the twenty feet to push the window open and squeezed inside to then let the others in at a front door.
Father David, the pastor who found out about everything, called home the next day to tell mom of my reckless behavior. Mom put her hands to her sides and gave me a discouraged look. “Father said breaking and entering is a felony but for my sake he isn’t going to press charges. Why would you do something like that? Basketball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”
I didn’t try out for the basketball team the next year and turned my attention to baseball. I served as batboy for our hometown Cardinals, who played teams from the area. We especially wanted them to beat Jasper, a much larger town whose fans called us the Ferdinand Twinkies. We hated their guts. Having pitched ten scoreless innings, Nig Schriener, called that because of his dark complexion, knelt on one knee in the on-deck circle. In his mid-forties and his last season, he looked plum tuckered as he leaned on the upright bat. He spit tobacco juice in the direction of their pitcher. “I’m tired of looking at that ugly bastard.” He pointed his bat to center field and hit a home run to win the game. Babe Ruth had nothing on this guy.
Making the baseball team during my junior year in high school I sat on the bench but did get to play the day after the prom. Most of us junior guys from town, a few country jacks and a bunch of seniors had an after the prom party at the St. Meinrad Conservation Club, just an open concrete building with a roof. Two seniors had asked older brothers to get us three cases of beer and four guys agreed to drink only three each so they could get the rest of us home. A few girls showed up but left early.
Several guys who had starting positions on the baseball team called in sick the next morning so the rest of us had to fill in at those positions for our game against the Cannelton Bulldogs. Blurry eyed and weaving a bit, we looked forward to the last out that would end our misery. We had only eight players so Dickie Lee, the water boy, had to play right field. He had to borrow a glove from the other team and let one through his legs but managed to not fall down as he ran after it.
The next morning, Sister Therese, our homeroom teacher, stood to the side of the room, looking down, arms folded in front of her and not saying a word. Sister Frederica, the principal, burst into the room and slammed her hand on the teacher’s desk. “This is a Catholic school you ingrates. No senior prom for you. I don’t like to punish the girls as well as the boys but I know that some of you girls attended this disgraceful and disgusting affair and the innocent will have to suffer along with the guilty.” She pointed her right index finger across the lot of us. “Father Bede will hear confessions at the end of the day and all of you miscreants will admit your degree of guilt in this sordid sin.” She slammed the door as she left.
So what, I thought. She can flush her prom down the toilet for all we cared. Just don’t take away baseball.
In our senior year I started at third base. During that year I sometimes got on base due to walks as I scrunched my small size over the plate to shrink the strike zone and the other team made errors but I got only one hit. Joe Todrank pitched for the Holland Dutchmen. At the end of an inning, as I walked to the dugout, he strolled to the mound, cocky as ever, and said, “You’re Larry’s brother, aren’t you?” I gave him a quizzical look but nodded. “You’re up. Take the first pitch. It’ll be a nice one.” Right down the middle at medium speed, I hit it into shallow center field. Felt pretty good standing on first base as my teammates cheered in amazement. I didn’t advance to second base and none of the rest of us even got to first as Todrank could smoke em and even threw a nasty curve.
In another game, the Dale Golden Aces had an exceptionally good player named Reinhardt, hard as nails. During one at bat Reinhardt blasted a screaming line drive at me. As I walked in at the end of the inning and coach LaGrange jauntily strolled to his position as third base coach, he smiled and winked. “ You’re not supposed to duck when they hit a ball at you.” Yeah, sure, stand still and get a big hole in my head.
A classmate told me that when he went on his honeymoon he took his bride to eleven major league games in ten days, traveling from city to city in the Midwest and along the East Coast. Perhaps she took knitting with her, but when they got back home, she said, “I will never go to another Major League game the rest of my married life, which may not last very long at the rate we’re going. Baseball isn’t the most important thing in the world.”
He said, “It isn’t?”
Tom Backer had fun growing up in the small town of Ferdinand, Indiana. After obtaining a PhD in History at the University of Cincinnati, he taught that subject for 43 years, mainly at a college prep high school but including two years at the International School of Kenya. Upon retirement he took classes in Creative Writing at Northern Kentucky University and, with encouragement from Blaise Weller, he began submitting. The Barker’s Voice published a poem called Cheezee, describing a horseshoe game and a theft of cheese. Two fiction stories appeared: “Goodwill” in aaduna describes an unsuccessful attempt to help two homeless people and openarstsforum listed “A Small Town” where hijinks in a bar led to an accusation of witchcraft. Creative Nonfiction stories include two in aaduna: “Fear,” about a carjacking in Los Angeles, and “Slick,” describing teenagers on the loose. Wilderness House Literary Review also presented two: “The Elephant Trap,” where his brother and he played a trick on Grandpa and got punished, and “Carly: a Christmas Carol,” describing the loss of his local boyhood hero. Sortes Magazine published “The Circus,” where he and other kids put on a circus in his backyard.
Mailable Motorcycle Art: Two-Wheeled Postcards from Around the World
Story & Photos by Paul Garson
Redlands, California 1900
Postcards were utilized as means of advertising more than a hundred years ago as demonstrated by his example printed by a California shop offering both bicycles and motorcycles.
Before there was Twitter and text messaging there were postcards. Tons of them. In fact, many millions have been posted from almost every country in the world, the appearance of postcards stretching back more than 150 years. While there’s no special term for collecting motorcycles, postcard collecting and their research has one… Deltiology. And at last count it happens to be the third largest collecting hobby in the world, next to coin and stamp collecting.
Naturally when you have postcards you have the postal stamp. The first, known as the Penny Black, was printed by England in 1840 while privately produced postcards that included images first appeared in Austria in 1869 and the die was cast, the phenomena of illustrated postcard skyrocketing in popularity around the world. The first colored postcard was introduced in 1889 while images of the newly erected Eiffel Tower helped to greatly expand interest in postcards. The first cards showing real photographs began appearing in 1900.
In 1906 postcards benefited from another boost with the appearance of the Eastman Kodak foldable camera, amateur photographing booming and the resulting images transferable to postcards. In 1908 the U.S. population was listed at 88,700,000. In that same year, some 678,000,000 postcards were mailed within and from America. The era was called the Golden Age of postcards, but that all faded a bit with the advent and spread of the telephone as a means of rapid communication, but then the introduction of color postcards bumped it back up. The advent of the Internet and today’s electronic cards have had an impact, but postcards, recognized as an art form unto itself, still remain popular, especially with collectors who have nearly 150 years of postcards to choose from and a bunch of them motorcycle related including the following.
As a motorcyclist of some 40 years, I focused on postcards with images that spoke (or bespoked) to me over the years, some of which follow…no stamps needed.
1908 – Embossed Postcard – Made in Germany – Mailed in the U.S.
This special embossed color postcard was postmarked from Cuba, Missouri at 5:00 PM Sept. 7, 1908 by a person who signed her name Jannine to a Miss Edith Barker of Millers Falls, Massachusetts. The depiction of a wicker sidecar is accurate as many similar “chairs” were built to carry family and cargo. As for the “P F” on the gas tank, no reference could be found to link it to a real motorcycle made in Germany or the U.S. and its may the initials of the artist. The card itself was apparently printed in several different languages and sold internationally.
1910 – 86, 414 British bike riders have registered their machines. By this year 31 U.S. motorcycle companies are in still in production, although several have fallen by the wayside
1913 – Bike registrations in England have jumped to 180,000, nearly a 100,000 added in the previous three years.
1914 – WWI French Postcard – “Missed!”
The caption in both French and English relates to a motorcycle courier outrunning
German sentry’s rifle shots as he speeds on his mission through enemy lines. The artist’s name is listed…de Carrey apparently excerpted from another work titled “The Mirror.”
France is rich with its own motorcycle history with literally hundreds of manufacturers, most of whom have come and gone, but many leaving exceptional machines. One famous mark was the Gnome et Rhône originally known for their aircraft engines. During WWI, some 100,00 of their 9-cylinder Delta and Le Rhône 110 hp rotary designs powering the majority of all aircraft in the early years of the war. Even larger engines powered WWII aircraft. In 1920 they introduced their first motorcycle, the Gnome et Rhône 500 cc while various other models were produced up to the early 1950s,
World War One French Postcard – On Leave a Soldier delivers flowers to his ladyfriend via his Rene Gillet. Tank on rear may be extra fuel or gas for the headlamp. The R G’s first appeared 1897, V-twins by 1904, eventually the side-valve 750 and 1000cc machines popular with the French army.
1915 – WWI U.S. Army Motorcycle Sidecar Mounted Machinegun Trooper
While the iconic Harley-Davidson first appeared in 1903, the company began supplying the U.S. military in 1915, it solo mount and sidecar machines gaining experience during 1916 when some 20,000 U.S. troops under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing were granted permission by the Mexican government to enter their country in pursuit of the bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa. While they never caught up with him, even with their Harley and Indian motorcycles that could go where heavier vehicles could not, the American army learned valuable lessons including those concerning the new “Motor Mobile Infantry” and “Mounted Infantry.” Oddly enough their quarry, Pancho Villa, was an avid motorcyclist himself, preferring the Indian.
1915 – U.S. motorcycle registrations had skyrocket to an estimated 180,000. But by the 1932, of over 300 total original builders, only two will have survived: Indian and Harley-Davidson.
1917 – “Motor Cycle Scouts in Action”
The colorized postcard dated Dec. 6, 1917 was sent from Greenville, South Carolina, site of a U.S. military training camp. While the driver of the sidecar rig ducks for cover, the rifleman aims his Springfield carbine at some imaginary enemy for this posed photo.
When the U.S. finally entered the war in 1917, Indian gave its entire production to the military, almost bankrupting itself, selling them at cost and leaving civilian showrooms bare. Harley took a different strategy, providing 50% of its production, the rest going to the public. The Harleys, powered by 1000cc v-twin engines produced 15hp. The factory prospered, many bikes also going to the Dutch and Russian military including gun and stretcher carrying models. Harley-Davidson supplied about one third of the 70,000 machines ordered by the U.S. military, the remaining two-thirds divided between Indian and Cleveland. Of the 26,486 Harleys bought by the U.S., some 7,000 going to England and France where they served as convoy escorts, dispatch, scouting and reconnaissance vehicles.
Henderson Four Goes Hill-Climbing – Original Photo Postcard – Apparently a Model F circa 1913-17
Three Up on a 1927 Böhmerland Attire – Original Czech Postcard
Various models of the Böhmerland were built from 1934 until 1939 in Czechoslovakia. So where did it get its “styling” cues? Well, literally out of thin Czech air. Seems the builder, one Albin Hugo Leibisch started with a clean sheet to draw up his vision of the ultimate road bike, one that could carry up to four passengers. Rear “rockets” actually house the fuel. The 37 cubic inch engine specs include bore and stroke of 78 mm × 120 mm (3.1 in × 4.7 in.), good enough to pump out 16-20 HP.
While our side of Iron Curtain called it the Böhmerlander (Böhme related to the name of Bohemia, part of then Czechoslovakia), back in its home country it was known as the Cechie. The factory was located in the Czech city of Krasna Lipa aka known as Schonlinde since it was in German speaking area of the country “absorbed” in October 1938 by Germany. Some 3,000 bikes were built, however few surviving to the present.
1940 – Finland – Love at First Bike
A rider appears well-attired for motorcycling complete with goggles, gloves and helmet although his passenger sits in a less secure side-saddle position minus any protective gear. The colorized postcard was dated June 7, 1940 and sent from the city of Turku, the oldest settlement in Finland, and located in southwest coast of country at the mouth of the Aura River. In 1996 Turku was declared the official Christmas City of Finland, then designated the European Capital of Culture for 2011.
Only a couple motorcycle references to Finnish motorcycles could be found and one happened to be made in none other than Turku, the company being Tunturi, its history beginning in 1922 and leading to successful bicycle production. In the 1950s the Tunturi led the Finnish domestic market leader in mopeds. They are best known in foreign markets for their range of physical fitness equipment development including stationary bicycles now sold in 40 countries.
The other Finnish manufacturer was Helkama Oy best known for its bicycles (Helkama Velox), and also for umbrellas, cables for ships and communications, household appliances and some car parts. During the 1970s and 1980s a Helkama trial bike won several trial races. The company also made several mopeds that were very popular in Sweden until production ceased in the 1990s.
1941 – U.S. – Harley-Davidson and Thompson .45 Machinegun
As early as 1937 the U.S. military visited the Harley-Davidson factory intent on finding a suitable motorcycle for the war they saw as inevitable. Toward that end the Milwaukee company sent the head of its factory service school on a cross country tour of every Army camp east of the Mississippi, logging 200,000 miles on his Harley EL “Knucklehead.”
By 1939, the Army had compared various Harleys and Indians as well as a BMW clone produced by the Delco Corporation. It chose Harley-Davidson, but required that it could reach 65 mph, be able to ford streams 16 inches deep and not overheat at slow speeds slogging through muddy fields.
1953 – England – Triumph Thunderbird 650cc – “The Best Motorcycle in the World” An illustration from the Triumph factory’s 1953 catalog appears on a commercial postcard.
The previous 500cc vertical twin Triumph powerplant was bored out to 650cc to appeal to the power hungry American market. Designated as the 6T Thunderbird, the name conjured up the Triumph’s stellar engineer Edward Turner during a visit to the U.S. The new model was debuted in Paris at the Monthery racecourse where three factory riders average 92mph over 500 miles after the riders had ridden from the factory in England to the track and then back again, providing some high profile press for the new machines which was further enhanced when Marlon Brando rode a 1950 Thunderbird in the “The Wild One” in 1953, although the conservative owners of Triumph officially objected to their machine appearing in a rowdy biker movie. However they did not complain about the big jump in Triumph sales that followed the release of the film. The last Thunderbirds were made for English consumption in 1966 by which time the even more famous Bonneville had taken center stage.
1961 – England – Norton Manxman – Mayfair Cards of London – Courtesy of Norton Motors, Ltd.
The caption on the reverse of the card reads: “Every feature of the 1961 Norton was a direct development of Grand Prix racing. It was the know-how gained from winning races all over the world which gives a Norton bike race-bred performance which is second to none. By 1961 the Norton had won 32 T.T. races.”
The Manxman derived its name from the famous Isle of Mann race course, the island also home to the famous tail-less Manx cat. Norton also built the famous Manx single cylinder racers that earned the company so many victories. On November 7, 1960 the first new 650cc Norton Manxman with the vaunted Featherbed frame was launched for the American market only. It was later followed by the larger displacement 750cc Norton Atlas in April 1962 because of the American market demand for more power. However the Atlas proved too expensive to build, profits meager and the cause of growing financial problems for the company. Fortunately in 1968 the new Commando appeared to save the day, at least temporarily.
1970s – U.S. – “The Coke Machine”
An example of a limited production privately produced postcard shows the creation of Angela Johnston and David Cargill of Des Moines, Iowa. The 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead’s 74 cu. in. motor was pumped up to run the quarter mile in 12.09 seconds at 120 mph. The caption on the reverse reads, “A metal sculpture. A kinetic array of Coca-Cola nostalgia. A collage of advertising. Certainly, things go better aboard a customized Harley.”
Paul Garson is an American writer and photographer who lives and writes in Los Angeles in a small apartment with an old rug and a loyal cat. He has written nonfiction articles—many with his own photography—for over 70 US and international publications as well as written a dozen nonfiction books. He has high hopes of being a space tourist or at least getting to Iceland before it turns into Hawaii.
I take knives seriously. My collection is crafted by a German manufacturer that has forged blades since the early 1800’s. I know how to identify a high-quality knife, as well its specific function—carving, chopping, slicing, peeling, cleaving, cutting, or deboning—based on the size and shape of the blade. Good knives are crafted in a complex forging process where a metal alloy—ideally both carbon steel for ease of sharpening and stainless steel for durability—are melted and poured into forms. Forged knives are far superior in strength and durability than knives stamped out of thin sheets of metal.
I like the feel of a forged knife. It follows the contours of my hand and is smooth in my grip. Quality forged knives have a bolster—a band of metal in the center of the blade—where my thumb can rest above and my knuckles behind it. A bolster in the center of a knife not only offers the blade better balance, it also protects me from injuring myself when I am cutting apart the legs, wings, and breasts of a chicken for roasting.
In the dark background of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, the masterpiece that memorializes Basques killed during the Spanish Civil War bombing of Gernika, there is a bird. It stands awkwardly on a wooden table between the defiant bull and a wounded horse. While birds usually symbolize freedom, this particular bird—what most critics claim is a dove of peace or even the Holy Spirit rising above a war-torn field—is trapped. It raises its head in anguish and one of its wings, likely broken, hangs down at an odd angle. I also want to see a dove. I want to believe that peace will someday overcome my own dark hours of self-hatred, but to me the bird in Guernica seems like nothing more than a lowly form of poultry, perhaps a chicken produced for mass consumption despite no comb on the top of its head or fleshy wattles hanging under its neck. There are several differences between the bird in Guernica and a dove. Both the neck and the crudely drawn legs of the bird are longer and more pronounced than those of a dove. Dove tails also tend to have tapered points while the bird’s tail in Guernica has a small plume of feathers similar to that of chicken.
What is even more convincing that the bird is a chicken, however, is the context in which it appears in Picasso’s painting; the bird—it is certainly very ugly and unrefined—stands on a table, its beak stretched toward heaven as it waits to be slaughtered. There is a searing white line—what looks like a sharp knife—that cuts across the base of the bird’s neck. The bird is about to die and no one seems to care. Like some primitive petroglyph on a cave wall, the bird recedes into the dark background of history and is forgotten, while the horse writhing in the dust and the soldier staring up at heaven are seared into the memory of those who witness Guernica. The women of the painting who are also immortalized, one fallen out the window of a burning building and the other fleeing her bombed city moments before she is struck in the back by bullets. Then, of course, there is the unmistakable agony of the weeping mother holding her dead child. Who can forget her breasts twisted into missiles or her mouth ripped into a scream? The weeping woman will be forever remembered as the pietà, the mother of God with her sacrificed Christ child, while the terror-stricken bird in the background of Picasso’s Guernica will be left to die alone.
Nobody cares about chickens.
Sometimes my thoughts are elsewhere when I am using a knife to cut off the legs, wings, and breasts of a bird I am preparing for a meal. Sometimes at the end of a long day, I concentrate more on what I have always struggled to keep alive, something so ephemeral as an endless blue expanse of possibility deep inside me. Emily Dickenson once referred to it in a different way when she said, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.” Perhaps Dickenson’s definition of hope is too sentimental and naive—worn to a cliché by the modern tendency toward cynicism—but when I am cutting off the wings of a bird, I sometimes look for this small, feathery thing inside me. Usually, though, I am too caught up in the dark things of my “chillest land” and “strangest sea,” those aspects of myself that limit my endless blue expanse: anger and sadness, an alienating sense of otherness, self-judgment, and then—most shameful—an inability to truly love. How have I hated others? Howhave I hated myself? My knife slips on the wet, rubbery skin of the dead bird that I am handling, and—despite the forged strength of the metal, the weight of my full tang blade, and the centuries-old reputation of my German manufacturer—
I cut myself. When this happens, I usually slice open the tip of my thumb. There is always that searing shock—a bright white silence before pain—and then blood lets out from under the pale flap of my skin.
Someone once asked me a strange question.
How do you know that you have a heart?
Because I never have actually seen my heart, I was unsure how to respond. Even though my heart is a bodily organ that supposedly keeps me alive, beating 4,800 times an hour and pumping 2,000 gallons of blood every single day, the only way I can actually verify that I have a heart is because I have been told this by experts in the field of medicine. These same experts claim that my heart is the size of my fist and that it can actually break, caused not only by disease—as one might suspect—but stress. It is true, though, that I do have anecdotal evidence my heart really does exist. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I cut myself and the blood lets out. Sometimes I feel like I have a heart when I am startled awake in the middle of the night and something with wings beats hard and fast inside of me. Something in the middle of the night pounds in my chest. It will not let me sleep and I am unable to set it free from my body. Without actually seeing my heart, though, I suppose there is always a small possibility that what I believe is not actually true. Maybe I don’t really have a heart after all.
Certainly there are many types of internal struggle that are sometimes expressed in unusual ways such as midnight panic attacks, obsessions and fixations, dissociations or feelings that the world is not real, and even self-mutilation as a coping tool to release unbearable tension. Those of us who have endured any sort of high school literature class can probably identify a long list of internal conflicts that might result in such symptoms. Some are moral in nature, others are sexual, existential, interpersonal, religious, or political in origin. While civil war is not normally considered an internal conflict, at least not in the context of literature, it is still a conflict that takes place in a particular body—the country in which one lives—with all its systems and structures that are similar to a living organism.
There is an ancient metaphor of political thought called body politic where the state is conceived as a biological—usually human—body, though the use of it has declined since the Middle Ages when the authority of both the monarchies and the church were challenged. One of the earliest and best known examples of the body politic metaphor appears in the fable The Belly and the Members, attributed to the ancient Greek writer Aesop. In this fable, the other members of the body revolt against the belly which they think is doing none of the work while getting all the food. The hands, mouth, teeth and legs initiate a strike, but then when they grow weak from hunger, they realize that cooperation with all the body members is vital for a healthy existence. In the fourth century BCE, Plato further articulated this political metaphor in the Republic and Laws, emphasizing fitness and well-being over the illness that occurs when different parts of a political body fail to perform the functions that are expected of them.
It is not without reason, then—if one is to follow the logic of Aesop’s comparison—for the country in which one lives and breathes to be considered a living organism. Civil war might also be understood, through extension, to be the internal struggle of a body set on destroying itself until there is a reconciliation of conflicting desires. There is perhaps no better example of this type of struggle than the bombing of Gernika during the Spanish Civil War, the event that inspired Pablo Picasso to create Guernica. During a three-hour German aerial attack that was sanctioned by the soon-to-be dictator General Francisco Franco, Gernika was leveled to the ground with anywhere between thirty-one and forty-six tons of incendiary bombs. The bombing was later internationally condemned as one of the first aerial attacks against innocent civilians. Approximately 270 or 85% of all the buildings in Gernika were destroyed. Fires from the incendiary bombs were not extinguished until two day later and the scope of the destruction of the city was so massive that it is still unclear how many people died. George Steer, a British journalist who witnessed the bombing, estimated that at least eight hundred people had been killed, though this amount does not consider those who were either buried in debris or incinerated in the bomb blasts. The estimate also does not take into account those victims who were visiting on market day nor those who later died of their injuries. Further complicating an accurate assessment of those who died as a result of the bombing, General Francisco Franco and the Nationalists, publicly downplayed the number of casualties, even suggesting that Basques had set their own city on fire, an outrageous claim of collective suicide.
Suicide—the attack and killing of one’s own body—might also be considered a variation of civil war if the body politic metaphor can be considered reciprocal and then reversed; if a political state can be considered a living body, then perhaps a living body can be understood in terms normally associated with a political state. In 1963, the American poet Sylvia Plath—overcome by her husband abandoning her for another woman, sickened with the flu, and filled with despair during a dark London winter—jammed towels and rags under the door of her kitchen to protect her small children who slept in another room, turned on the gas in her oven, laid her head inside, and killed herself with carbon monoxide poisoning.
Months earlier, Sylvia Plath had written a poem titled Cut that describes a time she injured herself with a knife while slicing an onion. Initially awakened by the cut—“What a thrill”—Plath later parallels the pain of her injury with images related to historical periods of American war and conflict. Her psychological turmoil is reflected in European and Native Americans conflicts, as well as the phrase “A million soldiers run, / Redcoats every one,” referring to the red uniforms of British soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. She also admonishes the Ku Klux Klan for their hate killings that result in a bloody “stain on your gauze,” perhaps the common principle of equality that weaves together a range of diverse people in the United States of America. Plath then goes on to confront her own “Redcoat” blood cells that have seemingly fled her body: “Whose side are they on?” she demands. While these phrases suggest an internal struggle, a kind of civil war within herself reflected in the United States’ continual fight for freedom and equality within its own borders, Plath’s mind has become so emotionally detached, so cut off from her own physical body, that she can only view it as an enemy.
Plath’s internal conflict parallels the conflict between countries during that particular time in history. Her poem Cut was written during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962, when for nearly two weeks during the John F. Kennedy administration, the world seemed on the brink of nuclear war after an American U-2 spy plane discovered that the Soviet Union was building nuclear bombs in Cuba. The self-inflicted cut on Plath’s finger seems to allude to a world grown progressively more violent. It may also reflect the turmoil of her own internal landscape.
Cutting up a bird with a forged knife should be a pleasure. High-quality knives are crafted to glide through flesh with both ease and precision. Before I can even begin cutting up a chicken or turkey with my knife, however, the animal must first be raised, slaughtered, and then delivered to a butcher shop, or—in our era of modern convenience that is so disassociated with death—a grocery store chain with bright refrigerated display cases of shrink-wrapped animal parts. Much has been said about the slaughtering of poultry for mass consumption and none of it is pleasant. While there have been efforts in recent years to more humanely grow and slaughter an estimated nine billion chickens every year in the United States, they are often raised in darkness and small cages. The birds are forced to gain weight so quickly that their growing hearts and skeletal systems cannot keep up with the accelerating size of their bodies, often resulting in congestive heart failure and physical deformities at only six or seven weeks of age. When their excretions are not removed from their cages, they sometimes go blind from the ammonia fumes that burn their eyes. Under these extreme and stressful conditions, the birds are often debeaked so that they cannot peck each other to death.
Once the birds reach their desired slaughter weight, they are taken off food and water in order to empty their digestive tracts and reduce the potential for contamination. In the middle of the night they are captured, loaded onto trucks and sent to processing facilities where it is common for eight thousand to fourteen thousand birds to be killed per hour with a high degree of automation. The live birds are transferred to a track of continuously moving shackles where they are hung upside down by their legs. They are then sent through an electrified water bath that stuns them before they are slaughtered, either by hand or by a mechanical rotary knife that cuts the jugular vein and the carotid arteries in the neck. If one of the birds manages to escape death in this automated process, a facility worker quickly kills it by hand with a knife. The birds are allowed to bleed out for approximately ninety seconds, depending on the size and species. Then they are sent through a scalding bath that removes their feathers.
One of the final steps of poultry processing is evisceration where all internal organs and entrails are removed from inside the bird. In order to do this, the preen gland at the base of the tail must first be cut out of the body. This procedure opens up a slit in the bird that is used to pull out organs such as the heart. The removal of internal organs can be done by hand, but is usually performed by automated devices that can cut out the organs of about seventy birds per minute. Internal organs and entrails are inspected and separated. The edible organs—also known as offal—include the bloody heart, kidney, gizzard, and liver. They are removed from all the other inedible organs. Stomachs are sliced open and their contents, along with the yellow lining, are removed. The lungs of the bird are separated from other visceral organs with a vacuum pipe. When the internal edible organs pass inspection, they are often packaged and reinserted back into the cavities of large birds sold for consumption.
Before placing a bird in the oven for roasting, I wash and dry it in order to avoid bacterial contamination. Then I remove the neck and giblets from inside the cavity of the bird. Giblets are all the edible organs. They include the heart, liver, gizzard, and sometimes the kidneys. Most people do not know that a gizzard is an organ that aids digestion. Poultry swallow a large amount of small stones and grit when they graze. These stones remain in the gizzard, grinding against each other to help birds digest their food.
The neck and giblets of large poultry are usually shrink-wrapped together for easy removal. In the particular bird that I am preparing, though, the neck is separate from the packaged giblets, so this is what I reach for first inside the hollow carcass. The neck seems strangely displaced, as if the entire bird had been turned inside out. When I pull it out of the body and hold it in my hand, I pause for a moment. It is long, muscular, and slightly curved. This peculiar neck, with its thin, bluish-pink skin still firm to my touch, is a faintly familiar appendage—oddly sexual—like something I once enjoyed long ago, but now struggle to even identify. Because I have no use for it now—neither a comforting stock nor sensual jus to flavor—I toss the severed piece in the trash.
While the gizzard of the bird seems so foreign and I am uncomfortable with the neck in my hand—it both titilates and embarasseses me—the heart is what I really want to see. When I pull it out of the vacuum-packed plastic storage bag tucked deep inside the cavity, I realize it is what I would expect of my own heart: small and muscular, deep red in color and slightly narrow on one end. It fits neatly in the palm of my hand and I am light-headed; there is a strong metallic smell that I recognize from my own dried blood. The heart, though, might not even be from this particular bird; in poultry processing facilities, the body parts get mixed up during slaughtering.
There is a story of King Soloman who ruled over a conflict between two women living together in one household. They both claimed that the same baby was their own flesh and blood. In order to determine the real mother, Solomon asked for a sword and ordered that the infant be cut in half so that each woman could have part of him. One of the women, who was not the real mother of the child, agreed to the judgment of the king. If she could not have the child, she did not want anyone else to have him, either. In a great act of selfless love, the second woman begged Solomon not to kill the infant. Instead, she asked that the king give him to the first woman. In this way, Solomon determined that the real mother was the second woman, the one willing to sacrifice her life with her child in order to save him from certain death. The king then ordered that the sword be removed and the baby returned to his real mother who was filled with joy. There is no story in the Bible, though, of a mother not wanting her own child.
Mothers always want their children.
During the violence of the Spanish Civil War, thousands of desperate mothers in Bilbao—their husbands sent off to fight during the conflict—entrusted their children to the care of strangers in a foreign country. Bilbao, a port city on the northeastern coast of Spain in the Basque Country, bustled with steel mills, shipbuilding, and maritime trade. Because it exported large quantities of goods and natural resources to other parts of Spain, one might have even referred to Bilbao as the belly in Aesop’s fable. In the spring of 1937, only a few weeks after the destruction of Gernika, Basques continued to endure aerial bombing and machine gun strafing by German and Italian air forces that were sanctioned by General Francisco Franco, who had led the Nationalist’s revolt against the legitimate democratic government. In addition to aerial attacks, the Nationalists set up a naval blockade of Bilbao, restricting ships from entering the port. With the added pressure of infantry steadily advancing from the south to push back the Iron Ring, a defense network of Republican fortifications surrounding Bilbao, food deliveries were unable to reach the city by either sea or land. Franco’s goal was to starve Bilbao into submission.
On May 23, 1937, this desperate situation convinced Basque mothers that the only way to save their children from death was to send them away—tearing their very hearts from their bodies—to live with strangers in a foreign country, the United Kingdom, despite the fact that the British government had signed a non-intervention agreement and the care of these children was solely the result of the generosity of the British public. In total, four thousand Basque children were sent to live in England and Wales with not much more than hexagonal tags pinned to their clothing that stated an identification number and the words Expedición a Inglaterra. The children, not knowing if they would ever see their parents again, departed Bilbao on the SS Habana for Southampton in crowded conditions on a dilapidated ship that was intended to accommodate only eight hundred passengers. Some of the children—crying, tired, and terrified—were so young that they did not understand why their parents were sending them away. When they arrived in Southampton, they were inspected by doctors for lice, disease, and malnutrition. They were given vaccinations, sorted into groups, and sent to different facilities across England and Wales. While some of the Basque children were never reunited with their parents who were either killed during the war or never found, and some older children simply chose not to return to Spain—the country that had brought them so much pain—it is a testimony to the selfless love of these mothers that every one of their children’s lives was saved.
Sylvia Plath did everything she could to save the lives of her children. On that dark winter day in London, she waited until her children were asleep in their beds to turn on the gas in her oven. With a considerable amount of forethought and love—before she laid her head down to die—Plath stuffed socks and rags under the door to her kitchen so that her children, Nicholas and Frieda, would not risk inhaling the poisonous gas that she so desired for herself. In the end, though, all her effort was not enough. On March 16, 1984, Sylvia Plath’s forty-seven-year-old son, Nicholas Hughes—who had been only one year old when his mother died—hung himself in a house thousands of miles away from that dark London apartment. While it is unclear why Hughes committed suicide, the causes of mental illness are often too difficult to sort through—they get mixed up with all the other abandoned remains—it is likely that his mother’s death still haunted him. More poetically stated, the writer Barbara Kingsolver once said, “Memories do not always soften with time; some grow edges like knives.”
If internal organs can get mixed up during slaughtering and lives can get mixed up during war, I wonder if there is ever a bird—one of those cold and hollow carcasses—that accidentally ends up with two hearts. It must be possible, I would think, despite the precise automation of modern processing facilities. I ask this because I once found myself with two hearts, one slow and one fast. The fast heart was too small for me to even feel in my body. I did not know it was there until someone told me. This other heart—the small and fast one inside me—was not really my heart and I did not want it there. The heart must have known that I did not want it because one day it stopped beating—all on its own—and I had to have it cut out of my body with a knife. I never held it in my hand. I never measured it against the weight of my own heart. When I was offered the remains of everything cut out from inside of me—when I was offered the remains to put in a grave—I turned my head away and said that I did not want them. When I said that I did not want the heart, it was thrown in the trash with all the other remains that no one wanted.
I wonder where this heart is now.
I wonder if there is ever a dead bird that ends up with no heart at all.
During the Spanish Civil War, those who opposed the fascist uprising were often executed and thrown in mass graves. When archeologists unearth these lost souls, it is often hard to separate the bones. Sometimes bones are missing. Sometimes the remains are all mixed up. In 2020, Spanish archeologists in the small village of Uncastillo—located in the northeastern province of Aragon—uncovered one such mass grave. It contained the remains of ten women whose bones were set free. They were mothers, daughters, and wives who were killed on August 31, 1936, during the early days of the war. While the exact total of those who died during the civil war will never be known, most historians estimate that at least 500,000 people were killed between 1936-1939, and that at least 100,000 bodies still remain missing in unmarked mass graves.
Historical research of the Spanish Civil War has largely left untold the story of war atrocities toward women. Until recently, Spain did little to recognize any war crimes—male or female—after the death of Franco in 1975. Instead, the government politically arranged “The Pact of Forgetting,” with the goal of ensuring a peaceful transition back to democracy after years of Franco’s iron-rule dictatorship. Parties on both the left and right of Spain’s political spectrum agreed to not pursue investigations or persecutions related to the civil war. Essentially they wanted the past to stay buried in the past. This is not what happened, though. Families of those who had been brutally killed by Franco’s uprising and subsequent dictatorship—some executed and thrown into mass graves—would not forget. Eventually in 2020, the Spanish leftist coalition government agreed to finance the exhumation of mass graves in an attempt to “restore democratic memory.”
On that fateful day in Uncastillo, the ten women—whose bones have recently been unearthed—were dragged from their homes and shot by a firing squad. Their bodies were dumped in a shallow pit in the neighboring town of Farasdués. The mass excavation revealed one particular skeleton of interest, a woman with one arm outstretched under the neck of another woman buried next to her in the pit. To someone not normally experienced with the haphazard positioning of bodies tossed into a mass grave, the woman’s gesture might appear to express solidarity, even in death.
While it is unclear why this particular woman was shot—some were targeted because of their political leanings, activism, or as substitutes for a male relative—there is no mistaking the horrifying angle of her skull. Tipped back against the dry earth—jaws spread wide in an eternal scream—the head is that of the woman cradling her dead child in Picasso’s Guernica. The likeness is unmistakable. This woman, though—the one shot by a firing squad and later buried in a shallow pit—has a bullet hole through her skull. There are also a few remnants of the dress that she wore when she was killed: seven white buttons that are oddly recognizable when taken out of context. They trace a winding path up the woman’s spine.
The artistic technique of collage, where different materials, such as paper, fabric or wood are taken out of context and applied to a surface with glue or paint, was frequently used by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque in the early twentieth century. Both artists are, of course, well known for developing the style of art called Cubism. One of the characteristics of Cubism is that it is emotionally detached from the subject it portrays, focusing more on physical qualities than internal conflict. Eventually, however, Picasso and Braque realized that the expression of Cubism had become too analytical and lacked emotional depth. In 1912, they began applying collage to their drawings and paintings in order to add additional layers of meaning. They used scissors to snip, trim, and clip pieces of modern life: newspapers, journals, wallpaper, and sheet music. They used utility knives to cut up pieces of cardboard and linoleum. Picasso and Braque then took these cut pieces of life from the places they frequented—cafes, hardware stores, newsstands—and pasted them directly on the canvas. Sometimes they even painted or drew over them with charcoal, pencil, and watercolor. These collage pieces were what Braque called certitudes, recognizable images from modern life.
In 2011, Spanish archaeologists excavating an old cemetery in Palencia, found a surprisingly recognizable object in the dry and dusty grave of a young mother, Catalina Muñoz Arranz, who had been shot by a firing squad on September 22, 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Next to her skeleton—where most likely there had been the pocket of her dress—was a small baby rattle. Brightly colored and shaped like a flower, it contrasted with the dry Spanish soil and Catalina’s dull gray bones. The toy rattle had been for her youngest son, Martín de la Torre Muñoz, who was just eight months old at the time of his mother’s death. A witness to the execution remembers that Catalina held Martín in her arms when she was chased by local members of the Falange who were sympathetic to Francisco Franco. When Catalina, who had been accused of attending leftist demonstrations, fell while fleeing her pursuers, she handed Martín to her neighbors who saved the child’s life. Catalina was arrested and killed by a firing squad, the bullets shattering her skull. Martín, who is in his eighties with no memory of that day, now has the baby rattle that was intended for him as a child. When asked about Catalina, he said with tears in his eyes, “If my mother were here, I would tell her that I love her and that she made me very happy.”
Almudena García-Rubio, an anthropologist with the Aranzadi Science Society who excavated Catalina’s baby rattle, affirms that it was a remarkable discovery; no other similar object has been unearthed from the Spanish Civil War. García-Rubio also acknowledges the emotional significance of the baby rattle when she says, “It is a very symbolic object, the lively colors next to the earth-colored bones is a reminder of a motherhood that was cut short, which to a degree, represents everything that happened in the war.”
When Picasso cut paper collage pieces from typical forms that are universally identifiable—the way a baby rattle is always a rattle, for example—and then applied them to a new context, he achieved multiple layers of meaning. There is always the original meaning of the object—a rattle is still a rattle—but the image of the rattle in a grave alongside the skeleton of the baby’s mother creates a new context that is both dark and disturbing. Picasso synthesized images of many familiar objects—guitars, bottles, and human bodies—with snippets from newspaper columns, true crime novels, and literary essays. This superimposition of meaning and material, when effectively balanced, creates an uncomfortable discord of competing interpretations.
Balance is important in a knife.
Quality knives have approximately the same amount of weight in both the handle and the blade. If a knife is properly weighted, when I place my extended index finger under the knife at the hilt and hold it horizontally with the cutting edge down—essentially resting the knife on the top of my finger—the knife should remain balanced and suspended in mid-air, neither falling forward nor backward when, with the other hand, I remove my grip on the handle. A balanced knife is important for repetitive movements of force when my hand—and perhaps my soul—tires from the work of cutting up something that was once alive.
Picasso experimented with collage when painting Guernica, but only with the women in the painting, each one emotionally overcome by the brutal and relentless attack on their city. The artist applied floral wallpaper to the body of the woman fleeing a burning building, transforming the cut paper into a head scarf that hung from her shoulder and covered an exposed breast. He also applied wallpaper to the torsos of the weeping mother and the woman trapped in the burning building. It is unclear, though, why Picasso only applied collage to the women characters in Guernica. It is possible that these pieces of wallpaper were meant to represent the destruction of everyday things in their lives, such as tables, chairs, and clothes—or even children—-that were torn apart by bombs. Whatever the case, these cut papers that Picasso applied to the women did not survive his creative process. He later tore the pieces from their bodies like clothing in a violent attack. The women of Guernica are forever exposed—running, mourning, and wailing—in all their vulnurability.
In order to determine if a knife is sharp, I hold up a sheet of paper and—from top to bottom—cut cleanly through it. While this test may seem like nothing more than a clever parlor trick, if the knife fails to slice cleanly through the paper—if there is any resistance such as torn or ragged edges that might reveal internal conflict—I know my blade needs to be honed with a sharpening steel. Honing my knife makes difficult jobs much easier, but it also requires a good deal of skill. When I hone my knife before cutting up a bird, I hold the sharpening steel at a vertical angle with the handle at the top. I then place the edge of the knife blade at a fifteen-degree angle to the steel. This precise angle is important for proper honing in order to maintain a sharp edge. Once I have the correct angle, I slide the blade down the steel with a sweeping motion. With years of practice, I have learned to do this quickly and efficiently. A total of four or five passes on either side of the blade is usually enough to realign and straighten the edge until I have a razor-sharp knife that will easily cut through resistant cartilage or flexible tissue that connects and articulates the joints of animals.
For particularly labor-intensive tasks that require additional force—such as severing limbs—I prefer a blade where the metal extends through the entire length of the knife and is seamlessly bolted between the handle on either side. This characteristic of a high-quality knife is called full tang, as opposed to partial tang where the blade either ends at the hilt or only slightly deeper into the center of the handle. Full tang knives have better balance and are stronger than knives that have only partial tang. They are also better able to overcome the resistance of bone and those memories that do not always soften with time.
Sometimes when I am cutting up the wings and legs and breasts of a bird, the joints refuse to separate despite the sharpness of my knife and the weight of my body pushing down on the flesh and bone. Sometimes the bird refuses to yield to me. I feel a lightheadedness when the watery blood pools on the cutting board, a kind of queasiness and sudden awareness that a child once inside me—not some vulnurable animal slashed at the neck and left to bleed out, not some small feathery thing or broken-winged bird rendered with oil on canvas—a child, long dead and receded into the dark background of my past, still has the will to live. It still has a heart.
I am unable to see the heart of the bird in Guernica.
The bird must have a heart, though—even if I cannot see it—because it cries up to heaven, knowing that it is about to die. I see that its eyes are painfully twisted and one of its wings is already broken, but because I cannot see its heart, I am not sure that it is there. I can only see that blinding white reflection where there should be a heart, where there should be an endless blue expanse deep inside me. This blinding white reflection is my own knife—full tang and forged for strength—slicing the neck of the bird.
I tell myself it was only ever a memory.
Because my knife is forged for strength, when I extend one of the legs of the bird, I am able to easily cut through the skin. I cut through the skin just enough so that when I pull the leg away from the carcass, the ball joint pops from the socket. This helps me to determine where exactly I need to cut. When I have correctly positioned my knife, I completely slice the leg from the body as close as possible to the backbone, repeating the same steps on the other side of the bird. Then I separate the thighs from the lower legs by slicing through a line of fat that marks the joint between them. Once I have removed the thighs, I place the slaughtered bird breast-side up and remove the wings. I do this by pulling them away from the body and using my fingers to feel for the joints that I cut right through. Finally, I turn the carcass on its side—in its own pool of blood—and look for a line of fat that runs from top to bottom. This is where I place my knife to cut through the rib cage, separating the breast from the backbone. I repeat this process and remove the other breast. There is nothing really left of the bird now and I have grown tired from all the effort. I never did find its heart.
With this living thing that was once a bird, then a child, then a memory—or perhaps it was first a child and then a memory and then a bird—all the pieces get so mixed up that not even a high-quality knife—forged for strength and forgetting—is enough to do the job. There are days when I am startled awake in the middle of the night with the frantic flapping of wings, my own heart that will not slow its beating. There are days when I see a bird. There are days when I see a child. When this happens—when I see a child—I abandon my knife and resort to using my bare hands to loosen and pull the bones free.
Sometimes not even that is enough.
“10 Interesting Facts About the Human Heart.” Flushing Hospital Medical Center. 22 June 2018. https://www.flushinghospital.org/newsletter/10-interesting-facts-about-the-heart. Accessed 15 November 2021.
Armentrout, Jennifer. “How to Cut a Whole Chicken into Pieces.” Fine Cooking. https://www.finecooking.com/article/how-to-cut-a-whole-chicken-into-pieces. Uploaded 14 October 2021
Chiasson, Dan. “Sylvia Plath’s Joy.” The New Yorker. 12 February 2013. https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sylvia-plaths-joy. Accessed 23 October 2021.
“Cuban Missile Crisis.” John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. https://www.jfklibrary.org/about-us/about-the-jfk-library. Accessed 23 October 2021.
Davies, Hywel. Fleeing Franco: How Wales Gave Shelter to Refugee Children from the BasqueCountry During the Spanish Civil War. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales, 2011. Print.
Dickenson, Emily. “Hope is the Thing With Feathers.” Emily Dickenson: The Collected Poems. 1924. Barnes & Noble Publishing, Inc., 1993. Print.
Domínguez, Nuño. “The Rattle that United a Mother Shot in the Spanish Civil War and Her 83-Year-Old Son.” El País. 24 June 2019. https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2019/06/24/inenglish/1561378371_010230.html. Accessed 14 November 2021.
Farago, Jason. “An Art Revolution Made, Made With Scissors and Glue.” The New York Times. 9 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/01/29/arts/design/juan-gris-cubism-collage.html. Accessed 4 November 2021.
Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Center for Basque Studies. University of Nevada, 2018. Print.
Irujo, Xabier. The Bombing of Gernika. Ekin. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 2021. Print.
Katz, Brigit. “Archaeologists Open One of Many Mass Graves From the Spanish Civil War.” Smithsonian Magazine. 30 August 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/archaeologists-open-one-mass-graves-spanish-civil-war-180970175/. Accessed 13 November 2021.
Martin, Russell. Picasso’s War: The Destruction of Guernica, and the Masterpiece That Changedthe World. Dutton, 2002. Print.
McMechan, Ian. “‘Cut’ by Sylvia Plath: Ian McMechan Discovers not Just an Ironic Personal Summary but a Concise History of America in this Short, Neglected Poem.” The English Review. Vol. 16, no. 1, Sept. 2005, pp. 21+. Gale Literature Resource Center, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A136339231/LitRC?u=anon~93010af1&sid=googleScholar&xid=d44370ca. Accessed 23 Oct. 2021.
Medina, Juan. “Women’s Mass Grave Sheds Light on Female Victims of the Spanish Civil War.” Reuters. 17 December 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-spain-mass-graves-women/womens-mass-grave-sheds-light-on-female-victims-of-spanish-civil-war-idUSKBN28R14W. Accessed 14 November 2021.
Murray, Lorraine. “Factory-Farmed Chickens: Their Difficult Lives and Deaths.” EncyclopaediaBritannica: Saving Earth. Encyclopedia Britannica. 2021. https://www.britannica.com/explore/savingearth/the-difficult-lives-and-deaths-of-factory-farmed-chickens. Accessed 14 October 2021.
The New American Bible. Stephen J. Hartdegen, O.F.M., S.S.L. and Christian P. Ceroke, O. Carm., S.T.D., Nihil Obstat. Saint Joseph Personal Size Edition of the New American Bible. Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 1970. Print.
O’Connor, Anahad. “Nicholas Hughes, 47, Sylvia Plath’s Son, Dies.” The New York Times. 24 March 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/24/books/24hughes.html. Accessed 15 November 2021.
Palmer, Alex W. “The Battle Over the Memory of the Spanish Civil War.” SmithsonianMagazine. July 2018. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/battle-memory-spanish-civil-war-180969338. Accessed 13 November 2021.
Picasso, Pablo. Guernica. 1937, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid.
Walther, Ingo F. Picasso. Taschen. Köln, Germany, 2000. Print.
Jean McDonough has a bachelor’s degree in Fine Art Photography from the Cleveland Institute of Art and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Poetry Writing from the University of Michigan. She has taught creative writing at the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, as well as middle school art and language arts. Currently she works as an elementary school librarian and lives in Woodstock, Illinois. Jean is working on a collection of essays inspired by Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.
In the January 10, 2022 issue of the New Yorker, an article by Parul Seghal appeared called “The Key to Me,” and advertised as The case against the trauma plot. I dropped what I was doing and read it instantly. As a writer who draws mainly upon the struggles of my own life for material (my ex-husband joked that I should call my unpublished novel “The Things That Hurt Me”), I wanted to know precisely what I was being accused of.
As I read, my fears were confirmed. Seghal laments the proliferation of what she calls “the trauma plot” in contemporary storytelling, listing many examples and complaining that their creators cannot “bring characters to life without portentous flashbacks to formative torments….the trauma plot,” writes Seghal, “flattens, distorts, reduces character to symptom.”
What a magnificent counterargument can be found in the essays that make up Melissa Febos’ new craft book, Body Work. Although Febos’ essays focus on memoir rather than fiction, they very much take up the argument. Each piece focusses on a different aspect of memoir writing, but Febos’ embrace of trauma as material for writing would make Segal shudder—indeed, Seghal mentions Febos’ words on trauma as an example of how oppressive “trauma narratives” have become. The elegance and depth of Febos’ writing in this collection are the best comeback.
In “In Defense of Navel-Gazing,” Febos’ justification for writing the self is three-pointed. One of these points is political. She writes:
That these topics of the body, the emotional interior, the domestic, the sexual, the relational are all undervalued in intellectual literary terms, and are all associated with the female spheres of being, is not a coincidence. This bias against personal writing is often a sexist mechanism.
Citing works like Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Diary of a Young Girl, and Night, she points out that “Social justice has always depended upon the testimonies of the oppressed.”
A second point of her defense: Personal writing is art. Just because we write about ourselves, this “does not excuse you from the extravagantly hard work of making good art, which is to say art that succeeds by its own terms.”
Her third point: It heals. Febos cites a study done by James W. Pennebaker in the 1980s, in which people were instructed to write about a past trauma. The results:
Monitoring over the subsequent year revealed that those participants made significantly fewer visits to physicians. Pennebaker’s research has since been replicated numerous times, and his results supported. Expressive writing about trauma strengthens the immune system, decreases obsessive thinking, and contributes to the overall health of the writers.
Later essays in Body Work focus on writing sex scenes, writing about others in memoir, and writing as recovery. In the last essay, Return, Febos dives deeply into the connections between healing, art, and the divine. This is where Febos leans most on trauma and is also the point at which I was most drawn in. Rather than expressing embarrassment about the confessional nature of memoir writing, Febos celebrates it.
In Return, Febos recalls a longing she felt, even as a child, for a certain transcendence. This longing found an outlet in writing, a need and obsession that never left her. As a child, Febos tell us, she wrote with “religious enthusiasm.”
As a mature writer, writing sometimes afforded her a chance at that longed for transcendent state. Febos describes herself at a residency, writing the story of an obsessive relationship in her life. As she wrote, in
a kind of trance, characterized by total self-forgetting…inside an intelligence…loyal only to the work to which it is applied…I had the lucid and entirely certain realization that there was only one correct ending to my story: my narrator would leave her lover.
In the act of writing, she had unearthed truths about why she was in the relationship that she had hidden even from herself, and which she subsequently acted on—life follows art. Febos here uses the word “recovery” in both senses—a healing from illness, but also retrieval of some aspect of the self that had been lost to the writer—and shows that these two meanings are intimately connected.
My own novel, coming out next year, is autobiographical. If I had to say what it was “about,” I would list these themes: passion, the Buddhist concept of emptiness, illusion, and depression.
Depression is difficult to capture on the page. So heavy, so paralyzing, so…wordless. While writing countless drafts, that was probably where I got stuck the most—how to show what that kind of despair is like.
I spent roughly thirty years of my life in and out of therapy with a diagnosis of major depression. A fact that, as one friend put it, was ridiculous. It was. I was white, middle class, heterosexual, educated, healthy, gainfully employed, and at that age, good-looking. I had no right to feel the way I did.
But there it was—chronic insomnia; daily crying fits, drinking myself to numbness nearly every night.
How many times during my depression was I told by friends and family to “get over it?” When depressed, that is exactly the problem. Intellectually, I knew: yes, I should get over this. But I didn’t.
In Return, Febos mentions an attitude of toughness she took to her own sexual trauma at a certain point in her life. “Embedded in that choice,” she writes, “was my abiding belief in the fantasy of toughness.” This attitude covered a deeper sense of shame she felt. In her first attempt at nonfiction, she tells us, she wrote about the experience of being a sexual submissive for pay. She was not ashamed of what she had done, but rather “I was more ashamed of my unknowing than of my actions…for me, at twenty-five, a lack of self-knowledge was a cause for shame.”
I recognized both states of mind. When I began to write, I, too, hoped writing could be a tool that would help me resolve unanswered questions and the shame I felt about my depression. My friends were right of course—I had plenty of privilege, a lot “going for me.” How to explain myself? What was wrong with me, after all?
I also had ambivalence about writing my own story. I had, at that point, been studying Buddhism for a few years, and my teacher made a point of urging his students not to get mired in our own self-pity. A key tenet of Buddhism is the idea of “no-self,”—that we manufacture an idea of self through the combination of sensations that coalesce in our brains. If we are to cultivate awareness of this truth, focusing on a narrative we create about ourselves would be counterproductive. This teacher ridiculed students who wanted to pour their hearts out to him. I remember once trying to speak to him about things that troubled me. He smiled gently. “Soap opera,” he said.
I wrote about myself anyway. I had to. Like Febos, I wrote to free myself from the shame of own lack of self-knowledge. In the long process of trying to know myself more deeply through writing, I found that writing changed me.
Story has its own demands. There must be verisimilitude. There must be a shape. In the struggle to bring these elements to my personal story, an interesting alchemical process took place. Slowly, draft after draft after draft, I began to get some distance from my pain. The hold that my story had on me, especially the despairing, self-pitying part, began to loosen. I came to see the “things that hurt me,” as my ex so mockingly put it, were actually, in a sense, accidents. It wasn’t personal.
In Return, Febos writes that “memoirs begin as conversations with the self…Our first confessions must be to this internal witness.” Through this process, both textual and spiritual, we begin to see ourselves clearly, and, more importantly, forgive ourselves. When she writes, Febos tells us, she is two selves—the one who has experienced the past, and the one who observes, processes, and sees through what she thought was there. “By my own higher power, by the self that is capable of holding the most pitiful part of her past and loving her clean” Febos is able to clearly see a former self, and have compassion.
I had a similar experience writing my own life. At a certain point, I realized that while much of what my Buddhist teacher had instilled in me was valuable, contempt for myself and my own story, my own version of myself, was not. It came to me that if Buddhism was a religion based on compassion, there was no reason not to have compassion for myself as well, and that this compassion, paradoxically, made me more emotionally available to others. What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that in Body Work, I believe Febos unearths valuable truths.
I write, but my main occupation is teaching adult literacy. I’ve done this work since 1990, working with adults who dropped out of high school for various reasons such as pregnancy or the need to care for a family member, as well as immigrants who received various levels of education in their own countries.
Few groups are more in need of writing their stories. Most of my students have suffered, and continue to suffer, multiple traumatic experiences—the traumas of racism and/or immigration; the shame of being less well-educated; the ongoing hardship and humiliation of poverty. Teaching adults has shown me that, regardless of literacy level, the wish to be heard is universal. When I ask my students to write; when I repeat to them the adage that my own writing teacher shared with me—tell the story only you can tell—there is often a moment of hushed surprise. Me? A story? And then, permission granted, they begin.
“The final phase of trauma recovery,” writes Febos in Return, is often described as grounded in a reconnection and restored engagement with social life.” This reconnection with the community is another spiritual aspect of confession as Febos conceives of it in the essay, and it is something my students understand instinctively. The stories can be heartbreaking—multiple foster homes, addiction, losing one’s own children. When one student reads, the rest of us listen respectfully and for as long as it takes for the storyteller to finish. At other times in class—when reviewing comma use, or the parts of a cell—I may be divided from my students by our different backgrounds, but when we read our personal narratives, we are always a community as sacred as church.
Seghal complains that the “trauma plot,” as she calls it, “reduces character…can make us myopic to the suffering of others…disregards what we know.” Febos is more generous.
“Listen to me,” she writes. “It is not gauche to write about trauma…bring me your books about girlhood, about queer families and sex workers, your trans bildungsromans. I will read them all.”
Febos dedicated her book to her students, but this book will touch many of us—all of us who have questioned our right to speak—who have not thought ourselves worthy of being heard. It’s one thing to be censored, spoken over, silenced by others—quite another to do it to yourself. In Body Work, Febos has freed us from that self-censure, and I am grateful.
Kate Brandt’s work has appeared in various publications, including Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Talking Writing, Literary Mama and Redivider. Her novel Hope for the Worst will be published by Vine Leaves Press in 2023. She works as an adult literacy instructor in New York City.
It is said that the average American moves every five to ten years. In my lifetime, some fifty-plus years, I have dwelled in four homes. I’ve lived in my present house for the longest period, nearly three decades.
The longer a person remains in a home, the more things they are likely to have accumulated. When they move, they may face having to relinquish much of their possessions, especially if downsizing into a smaller home. This purging can be challenging, but surrendering things can also be liberating, a cleansing of sorts. I went through this process twice. And not by choice. I was forced to purge after being displaced by catastrophic events. Not only was I faced with rebuilding my home, but I also had to surrender things that I held dear.
In 2009, my house was devastated in a fire. My partner, Drew, and I were on our way home from a weekend down the shore. The pet-sitters had stopped by in the morning, and shortly after they left, lightning struck the house. Neighbors heard the thunderous bolt but at first, they didn’t realize our house was hit.
The fire started on the lower level. It simmered, burning slowly in the laundry room for hours. A dresser in which I kept acrylic paints for art and craft projects caught afire. The paints ignited and accelerated the fire to the point where it quickly spread upward to the ceiling and along the rafters. It became what the Fire Marshall called a rolling fire.
The whole structure did not burn down as one might imagine, but the smoke extensively damaged the house. Since it was late summer, the house was air-conditioned, and the windows were shut. The house became filled with smoke, and the smoke finally seeped outside through the windows. Neighbors at first marveled at the unusual mist forming along the creek before they realized it was smoke and that it was coming from our house. They panicked and many called 911. The fire trucks came swiftly, and when we arrived shortly thereafter, the firemen had already broken down the front door with a hatchet and were inside the house. I could see them through the doorway, dragging furniture around, searching the fire’s angry ascent throughout the insides of the walls. Fallen things were scattered everywhere, but the firemen’s work was not about our items of importance and value. Whatever was in the way was thrown aside. Saving the house was their priority.
In the ensuing months after the fire, we saw the house gutted to the studs. Everything was removed, even the toilets and bathtubs. All that was left was a shell of the house, and we rebuilt it from within. It was a long ongoing, project that lasted nearly two years.
Just over a decade later, in September 2021, during Hurricane Ida, our house was flooded by the tiny creek that runs along the back of the property. The creek became overwhelmed in a deluge of rainfall, and it came up to the back of the houses of our neighborhood. It was quick and sudden. Many neighbors, including us, were flooded out.
Earlier in the evening, before the flood, we had retreated downstairs due to tornado warnings. We watched the news on television, and when the warnings passed, we went back upstairs. The phone rang. It was a neighbor, asking if we had a wet-vac that they could borrow. This should have been the first sign for us, but it didn’t register until my partner went outside on the deck, and he heard the roar of the creek. We shone a flashlight to see how high the creek was. We couldn’t see much, only that the ground seemed to be moving. That’s the creek, I said to my partner, stunned with disbelief. We are being flooded.
We raced downstairs to the garage to move the cars. When we opened the garage door, the creek roared inside, and the entire downstairs became flooded. The cars started to float, and one of them got dinged up as we backed it out. We were able to get both cars up to the top of our driveway.
Shortly afterwards, the police showed up and ordered us to evacuate. We left with our two dogs and found out later that we were lucky, as a neighbor had to be rescued by boat and others had to jump out of their windows to escape the rising creek. Our cats were left behind, unable to be found, but hiding on the second floor, which wasn’t being flooded. Fortunately, they survived by remaining upstairs beneath perhaps the beds or a dresser.
Both events, the fire and the flood, were of biblical proportions. What’s next, but locusts as a friend pointed out. (Instead of locusts, in the subsequent months we were consumed with an invasion of stink bugs and centipedes.) Creatures ranging from raccoons, rats, and opossums roamed through and around our house. Deer stalked the perimeter as if to claim the house as their own. Nature claimed our lives.
However, as the fire was devastatingly slow; the flood was swift. After the fire, we stayed in a local hotel for nearly a week and then rented a condo for the duration of the rebuild that took nearly two years. After the flood, we spent most of the night at a firehouse where an emergency shelter was set up and we returned early the following morning despite the evacuation order still being in place.
In both instances, we were forced to go through and clean out what was left of our house and determine what could be saved and what was deemed to be destroyed. I had to evaluate everything that I possessed. I cherished the many items that I had collected over the years and those that had been passed down to me through generations. Every object represented something to me, whether it was a link to my childhood, a connection to a relative who was no longer with us, or a significant moment of my life. I grieved over the loss of the upright piano that was passed through my family, made by my great-great-grandfather’s piano manufactory company during the early decades of the last century. I mourned for the elaborate pair of three-foot-tall porcelain statues of French courtiers: a man and a woman dressed in eighteenth-century clothing and posing as if watching people dancing around a ballroom floor at Versailles. During my childhood, my grandmother had them poised on a round end table in her living room. We’d always said it was King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and from my grandmother, I learned all about the tragic history of the French Revolution.
I have an accumulation of dishes. My grandmother collected Lenox china. As a child, I was very inquisitive, and I shared my grandmother’s interest in fine china. To her chagrin, when we would go to dinner at someone’s house, I would lift a plate and look at the bottom while asking if the dishes were Lenox or Noritake. My relatives were delighted by my interest, so unusual for a little boy. My grandmother always told me afterwards not to do that. It was rude, she said. I have and hold on dear pieces of her fine china that survived both the fire and the flood.
An aunt gave me a favorite piece before she passed, a deviled eggs platter. I treasured it even though I rarely made deviled eggs. This dish survived the fire, but it did not survive the flood. It disappeared, perhaps washed off a shelf in the garage by the raging water and shattering against the cinder-block wall. This is most likely what happened as later I found a large fragment of the dish’s scalloped edge in the driveway, probably having been carried out there as the water receded. I was heartbroken, not because I liked the dish so much, but because it was a lasting connection to my Aunt Violet.
Fires have always frightened me. I’ve read about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where workers, in an attempt to escape, leaped to their deaths. My grandmother told me a story that has haunted me to this day. When she was in her early teens, a house, allegedly of ill repute, exploded down the street from her home. This was during Prohibition. There was a distillery in the basement, and it had blown up.
Neighbors rushed outside and watched people running out of the house that had exploded, many in flames and screaming as they shed their fiery clothing. My grandmother said the smell of burning flesh was ungodly. People died right there on the spot.
Before my house fire, I once worked delivering newspapers. A house on my route had caught fire and was reduced to mere shell of charred remains. The neighboring houses on both sides were impacted as well, and they had melted siding. This was during the holidays, and I speculated that the fire was caused by Christmas tree lights. Ever since, I have always been wary about using them in my own home. And I always wondered what it would be like to lose your home in such a manner. What it would be like to watch your house in flames, knowing everything that meant something to you was inside.
Everyone from the Fire Marshall to the restoration crew said that our house fire was a strange one. It was deemed as suspicious at first because the inferno was centered in one specific place from where it accelerated centrally due to the poorly placed jars of paints by the furnace. Also, many objects survived, while others were destroyed. In some closets, metal melted, yet candles on another shelf remained intact. Everything in the house was covered with soot. It seeped into drawers and even inside the refrigerator and stove. Most things made of fabric, such as clothing, mattresses, pillows, and stuffed animals, absorbed the smell of the smoke and were ruined. The things that could be saved had to be cleaned professionally. We had to decide what was worth saving and faced having to pay to restore these items.
All four of our pets died in the fire. Two dogs and two cats. The carbon monoxide got to them, and they had no idea what hit them. At least that’s what the firemen said. They just went to sleep. I always wondered: Isn’t this what is always said? He never knew what hit him or It was so fast they didn’t realize what was happening. The dogs were found huddled together in the bathroom. A cat was found wedged beneath the sofa as if to secure the last few gasps of oxygen. There was the imprint on a smoke-covered duvet in the guest bedroom where the other cat eventually collapsed and died. I do not believe they didn’t suffer. To me, they did not appear to have simply fallen asleep, but and seemed have experienced some level of terror during the last moments of their lives. A neighbor told me a dog was still alive when the firemen arrived, but I did not press her for further details. I know I am unable to handle knowing if this is true.
When we were evacuated the second time, after the flood, I reexperienced the trauma I went through after the fire. I feared for the cats we left behind. I felt I couldn’t go through the loss again, but I came to realize that I had no control over the situation. I had to let go of my fears and remain strong.
In both events, I lost nearly all my books. My office survived the fire for the most part because I, by chance, left the door closed, and that prevented much of the smoke from entering the room. But the pages absorbed the smell of smoke. Due to the generosity of the faculty and my peers in graduate school, many donated titles to replenish my library. Over the years I collected even more books, but the office was then destroyed in the flood. My books on the lower shelves were soaked. The one on the higher shelves absorbed the dampness, and the pages became bloated, crinkled, and curled. It broke my heart to see my books once again being thrown by the restoration crew’s workmen into oversized garbage bags and then tossed inside an oversized dumpster at the base of our driveway.
It’s time to use a Kindle, Drew tells me. I prefer having the actual book in my hands, and not a gadget. But this way, Drew explained, I can have all my books in one place, no piles of books everywhere, and in the event of a tragedy such as a fire or a flood, I won’t lose them. Does this mean we are expecting another catastrophic event? I asked him. He simply shrugged. Having experienced two such events in a decade surpassed all the odds. You should be playing the lottery, friends have told me.
Now it is the same house that we bought thirty years earlier, yet it is different as we have made changes. We redesigned the layout after the fire. Then, after the flood, we kept the lower level as is, but redesigned how we would utilize the rooms. For example, in the drawings, I created reading space for myself in Drew’s man cave so I can sit there with him and read while he watches a sporting event or a movie. It is a simpler arrangement that involves a pair of recliners. No more oversized sectional sofas with a humongous ottoman in the center. This means that our aging German shepherd we got after the fire will no longer has a spot on a sofa to sleep, and she will have to adjust to sleeping on the floor. I promised Drew we can get her a dog-bed.
Because the fire destroyed the entire house, we lost a lot of things. The flood, however, only impacted the lower level. Fortunately, our main quarters are upstairs and weren’t flooded. Downstairs, anything porous had to be thrown away. I was filled with sorrow to find that nearly all my Christmas decorations were destroyed. I was able to salvage several small porcelain figurines of elves, pixies, cherubs, and Christmas carolers that belonged to various grandparents, along with the many mementos that were stored on shelves above the waterline.
Yes, I have a lot of stuff. Some friends tease that I am a hoarder, yet they marvel at my collections, from the DeGrazia artwork to religious icons, old books, antique family photographs, Native American jewelry, and the many bee-themed dishes and pieces of silverware that I have accumulated over the years.
I do not believe that I am a hoarder; I am a collector. I have heard horror stories about people who hoard and cannot move from room to room with ease, or who drop dead and are not found for days, buried beneath piles of newspapers or bags of old clothing. This is not me. My clutter is organized and provides me with a connection to the world. My past, present, and future are all represented within every significant object. Each beautiful piece means something and has a story behind it.
We treasure these items that we still have after the destruction of the fire and the flood. I treasure them even more than I did before. Beautiful things. I may have lost a lot in both events, and on some level, it was liberating, a purge of sorts, but I have come to realize it is no longer about what I have lost. Not anymore. It is about what I have now, what I still possess. These are the things that matter most to me. I hold on to these precious items as I never know if they will one day become lost possessions too. These pieces are lasting survivors as I am.
William Vandegrift is a freelance writer. He’s written author interviews and restaurant reviews. He’s also have published short stories. William graduated from Bennington College with an MFA in writing and literature. His work has appeared in various journals including Agni, Quarterly West, The Writer’s Chronicle, and US 1 newspaper.
“The real function of art is to change mental patterns, making new thought possible.” Jean Dubuffet
To Carson Grace Becker
After a tortuous renovation, I hang the artwork back on freshly painted walls. Three framed Soviet posters on this side, three male nudes here, and three Ionesco lithographs over there. My friend Kim approves: “Everything looks better in groups of three.”
A fissure opens on the wall I’m facing and inside, a cavernous tunnel. I’m not saying that nature, life, and art do not have any other underlying code, don’t get me wrong. But all I can see, as of right now, is the master, organizing principle, the permanence of three.
“Methodic writing distracts me from humankind’s current condition,”, says Borges in The Library of Babel. In that infinite library that will outlive humans. a curious reader will find an encyclopedia of everything, everything, on the number three.
Khepri, one of the three forms of the Egyptian sun god, surfaces from the horizon and is represented in the shape of an ovoid scarab. Re, or Ra, the sun of the midday, supervises creation and fertility. Atum, dusk, sets on the horizon to complete this world.
I learned in school: “Living beings are born, grow, reproduce, and die.” That version of the maxim is not entirely accurate, loaded with implications, because not all living beings, me for one, end up reproducing. Birth, growth, and death: the three absolute constants in life.
Birth is the beginning, growth is the middle, and death is the end. Life rendered as the daily sun or an Aristotelian climactic narrative in three acts. The moment a storyteller messes with that primordial, organic expectation, the audience moves uncomfortably in their seats.
I’m sitting at a table across from my guy, and he tells me he can fold anything into a trifold brochure. He grabs a piece of paper and folds it into itself, in three. Then, he folds a plate, then the table, and when he is about to three-fold the room with us inside, I wake up.
I kept having these night-long dreams that I’m in a department store as large as a city. The layout, the clerks, and the shoppers change every time. In the final reiteration, the dream becomes a nightmare when I notice all products in the store are in the shape of a triskelion.
When I’m pregnant with new writing, without fail, the anxious dreams start. Tonight, I dreamt of my arrival at a palace, where I met a king, whose name I didn’t remember and whom I needed to impress. A menacing third person I couldn’t see was surveilling us.
My graduate advisor, Amy England, emails every day an original translation of a traditional Haiku. “A cold moon:/amid the withered trees/a stand of three bamboos.” Each haiku, three Japanese vertical lines, dances in my head softly, bamboo shoots in the wind.
“I’ve been down so long/That down don’t worry me/Repeat/ I just sit and wonder/Where can my good man be?” sings Billie Holiday. The blues repeats the first two stanzas and then surprises with a rhyming third. The loopy pain of the blues, a musical swinging razor.
What if I could declutter sentences, chopping the output of my brain with a machete? What if I could streamline all thoughts and ideas into something that could be three mere whistles? What if every new thought could fit in a small index card, three horizontal bamboos?
Anu was not only the god of the sky in Mesopotamia; he also was the father of other gods and, most surprisingly, demons too. Enlil was the Lord of the air, and he separated Heaven and Earth to make room for agriculture. Ea completed another godly triad as the Lord of Water.
The ancient spiritual and medical practice of Ayurveda defines the three doshas as vata (air), pitta (fire), and kapha (water). Vata relates to the nervous system, pitta to the enzymes, and kapha to the mucus. Health means the doshas are balanced and in equilibrium.
In The Timaeus, Plato discusses the order and beauty of the universe. He declares the existence of four primordial elements: fire, air, water, and earth. All of them are formed, everything is formed, he believed, by the most basic of shapes: the triangle.
Pythagoras thought that there were three types of men. Those who came to the games to buy and sell, those who came to compete, and those who came to watch. Those who love wealth and material possessions, those who search for honors, and those who look for wisdom.
The three states of matter are liquid, solid, and gas, as it happens with water, ice and steam. The states correspond with our three basic animal needs for life: drink, food and air. At the atomic level of matter, another triad: protons, neutrons, and electrons.
Three is the first non-symmetrical plurality that is not perfectly divisible in half. You can have one or two, but it is at three that a pattern kicks off. Three is the first number that gets things slightly off-kilter, and therefore, I would argue, when they finally get interesting.
Creation, preservation, and destruction are the forms of the Trimūrti of Hinduism: Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva. Brahmā, the self-born, is often the mind, Viṣṇu, the protector, the heart and Śiva, the destroyer of evil, is the body. Of course, mind, heart, and body, the braid within us all.
The three Hindu Gods have a trinity of companions, the Tridevi. Saraswati, Brahma’s wife, represents learning and cultural fulfillment, and Lakshmi, Vishnu’s wife, material and spiritual fulfillment. The third, Śiva’s wife, is Parvati, is the goddess of both war and love.
Vishvanatha Chakravarti Thakur was a wiseman from the 17th century of our era and wrote poetry and rhetoric. He established three types of merits in excellent poetry: sweetness, energy, and perspicuity. Perspicuity is, in my case, the elusive goddess of clear thinking.
Three sons of three merchants were given refuge in the middle of the night by a beautiful widow who offered to marry the one who could tell the scariest tale. Each young man told a horrific, bloody story. To this day, she has not decided which of the three was the scariest.
While three princes went to war, a maid ordered their fiancés to be gouged. The three blind queens delivered three baby boys while hiding away in a cave. One of the boys cured the queens by blowing three candles, so they all returned home and roasted the maid alive.
Once upon a time, a girl was granted three wishes, or maybe it was three guesses or three opportunities to crack a riddle, I am not sure. Once upon a time, there were three bears, three little pigs, and a three-legged cat. Once upon a time, humans built all tales around trinities.
The Golden Triangle was the preferred compositional form of the European Renaissance. Raphael used it in all of his portraits of Madonna and the child. In art textbooks, they superimpose the triangles over the paintings as if to show its secret code, its x-ray.
The rule of three divides any visual composition into three vertical columns and three horizontal rows. In the intersections lay the focal points. They are like the beginning, middle, and end of a story, or the sun’s daily journey, so ingrained, we don’t even notice them.
Three kinds of light illuminate opaque bodies, observed Da Vinci. The “direct light,” that of the sun, the “diffused light,” of cloudy or misty weather, and the “subdued light,” when the sun is entirely under the horizon. Was he talking about painting or my moods?
In the Book of Revelations, God is that “who was, and is, and is to come.” When he became human, according to that tradition, he had to face three temptations. And the ending of the story, a re-start: he was dead for three days before resurrecting.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The three Archangels are the Catholic tradition’s mega-angels, and the Wise Men who visited Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were also three. In the Last Supper by Da Vinci, the Apostles sit in groups of three.
Providence, both omnipresent and omnisapient. At the Uffizi in Florence, in The Supper at Emmaus by Pontormo (1525), the Eye of Providence supervises us, mortals, from inside a triangle. The same eye that watches us from a pyramid in the US dollar bill.
“I’m writing about triangles,” I mention to my friend Margaret Mary. “You mean the musical instrument?”, she asks. This makes me laugh, and then I remember that when I was a Catholic kid, the triangle was the only instrument they let me play at mass.
My first communion at age nine was the culmination of a year-long process of Catholic indoctrination. Among other things I learned: the Confiteor. Hand in fist, one knocks three times on the chest while confessing: “por mi culpa, por mi culpa, por mi grandísimas culpa.”
In Persia, third century of the common era, a new doctrine that boils everything down to two principles, Good and Evil, takes shape: Manichaeism. Two create an illusory comfort. The third idea, object, or person crashes in and makes room for something that is not as simple.
The French say: “Liberté, Égalité et Fraternité“. Franco, in Spain, cried: “¡Una, Grande, Libre!” Jefferson applied “Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness” like lipstick on John Locke’s lips, because, let’s face it, Property, not the Pursuit of Happiness, is the ultimate American god.
A new generation has shattered the binary perception of gender. Still, so many false binaries are assumed in the American conversation left/right, red/blue, right/wrong. Manichaeism’s righteousness (us vs. them) is alive and well in this irritable capitalism of late.
Populism, fundamentalism, authoritarianism offer those tired of complexity a respite from the messiness of a nuanced third: you’re with us or a heretic. At one point, oversimplifying catches up. Binary dogmas will continue to implode because their falseness is not sustainable.
The North-Atlantic democracies seemed a given, but are now just brittle. In life and online, I’m surrounded by loud Roman emperors, displaying a thumb up, or most often, a giant Pollice Verso. So here I am, doing my best to resist by longing for moments of messy maybes.
Two is company, three is a crowd, they say, but I beg to differ. Somedays, one is a crowd, and I guess that the experience of finding two to be a crowd may not be that uncommon, mainly when the novelty, like dead fish, expires. But who says three could not be good company?
Finally, a portion of the hetero-world has become more accepting of certain forms of queerness. How many friends, straight and gay, have casually denied to me the existence of bisexuality? Bi is not here or there and therefore is a threat to the false safety of the simplified.
When I watched Cabaret on TV, as a young teen, I loved the songs. The bisexual love triangle at the heart of the personal drama either totally escaped me, I found unremarkable, or maybe both. In the song Two Ladies, the MC sings: “Twosie beats onsie. But nothing beats threes.”
Growing up in Spain, in the last years of General Franco we only had two TV channels. American Hollywood classics played in rotation. On my bedroom wall, I collected posters of old movies with a trio of characters at their core: Casablanca, The Apartment, Some like it hot…
Lubitsch, Wilder, Hawks, all the great directors seemed to recognize the primordial balance and tension of the triangle. Most of the time one of the two men won over the woman. Only, in Lean’s Blithe Spirit, the love triangle of one man and two women sublimate in the afterlife.
Barthes: “The three trials of the writer are Doubt, Patience, and Separation”. The first one is an abstract trial, what to write; the second a practical one, the step-by-step process; the third one, a moral one, how society will judge. He was so blocked, he died before writing his novel.
I have no doubts: I’m compulsively researching the implications of three. The process is limited and helped by the three-line constriction. The third one: if I were to worry how anybody will judge my musings on three, I wouldn’t be able to put down one word.
Author Emilio Williams passed away last night in his sleep. He was known for his essay “Thrice,” a piece credited with ending all two-person entanglements. It was adapted into an Academy Award Winning film starring Antonio, Brad, and Denzel, as the perfect threesome.
Growing up, my family. My father and two brothers, my mother and two sisters, my two brothers and me, my two sisters and me, my parents and me. Me, the baby who came a bit late, could take two at a time, but the minute three of them got together, there was no entry point.
Our sense of time passing is measured in days, months, and years. If I drill down, it also is measured in hours, minutes, and seconds. The first set of times is easier to remember, more historical, but the second just gets lost, it dissolves in the blur of a non-existent present.
I finally move the debris of my father’s life from a storage locker into our new garage. Not absolute chaos, things are contained in boxes, but not proper order either. Here it is now, the cruel randomness of the private archive in all its brown-boxed glory.
My dad takes me to the Prado, and I hold his hand, afraid to get lost. We come into a room where people are waiting in front of a box on the wall. A man in a grey uniform and white gloves unfolds the covers, and there it is, Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.
The left panel includes Jesus, Adam, and Eve in a bucolic paradise. The right panel is a scary, grotesque black scene of Hell. But the mystery of the triptych is in its central panel, a paradise where hundreds of human figures give themselves with complete abandon to hedonistic joy.
Purgatory is that space where souls are triaged before ending up in heaven or hell. My father passed just before the COVID-19 lockdown, and his boxes arrived shortly after. I started opening them in the early summer, but by box number three, I had to stop, it had become too much.
According to the Cleveland Clinic website, there are three types of tears. The basal covers and protects the eye; the reflex appears when a foreign object enters the eye; and the emotional, well, that one you know. “Humans are the only creatures known to produce emotional tears.”
In the Catholic tradition, tears can be a gift, not a curse. Holy tears can be penitential (regret), tears of love (grace), or tears of compassion for those suffering. In my all-boys Catholic school, like the song, we were only taught one thing about tears: “Boys don’t cry”.
Cranach, the Elder, painted several versions of the Allegory of Melancholia. The most famous is at the National Gallery of Denmark, and it is as abstruse as melancholia proper. This 1532 oil has three naked toddlers trying to pass, with two sticks, a ball through a hoop.
Few thinkers have had a more decisive influence on our messed-up sexuality than St. Augustine. The ordeal started when, as a teenager, he had an involuntary erection in front of his father who reacted with pride and joy. The mother, Monica, who was very devout, shamed them both.
After a long life of “sin” and belief in Manichaeism, Augustine developed the doctrine of peccatum originale. Based on the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Augustine codified that every human being is a born-sinner stained by voluntary and involuntary desires.
For Augustine there were three types of lust: that of the senses, that of power and that of curiosity. The first two are better known and more straightforward. The third one is a lust of the eyes, a craving that includes an interest in theater, the sciences, and knowing more.
Quintilian was a Latin master of oratory who was born only an hour away from my mother’s birthplace. He established a binary between “clear” and “obscure” speech. But the French enlightenment came later to save my day with a new concept, that of “Je ne sais quois”.
Woolf said, “life is a luminous halo, a semitransparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.” Attempt to discuss the semitransparent nature of life, and they will make you pay a high price. Although the pathology is in dichotomous thinking.
Who is afraid of the “Je ne sais quois”? Why is every piece of writing, every play, every artwork only as valuable as some desire to have it explained? Let’s celebrate that certain experiences transcend our ability to pin them on a cork board as if we were collecting butterflies.
Early movies were called the theater of silence, just a camera sitting there while the actors moved around the stage. Then, montage helped movies find their mojo. If you place this image here, next to this other image you get a third thing pregnant with symbolic meaning.
At the Studio Museum, in Harlem, artist Fred Wilson reorganized objects in the collection, as part of his project “Mining the Museum”. By placing a 19th-century chair, next to a slave whipping post, Wilson created a third thing. Parataxis is the dot, dot, dot between two ideas.
In 1982, three major events took place in Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s life. She married, published her avant-garde “novel” Dictee, just a week before being murdered. In her cult book, she combines two elements (text and image) to create a third thing teeming with new connotations.
Bierce famously defined good writing as “clear thinking made visible”. Who gets to decide what is good writing and how do they get that job? Oh, how I hope that by now I have made translucent to you my current lack of clear-thinking!
Refranes are popular sayings, proverbs, that usually have a rhyme or work as a couplet. In Spanish, they are considered the wisdom of the people. “No hay dos sin tres” literally asserts that there are no two, without a third.
In English, the “where” adverbs are binary: here and there, this or that. In Spanish, there are three forms aquí, ahí, allá, and esta, esa, aquella, with gendered options to the latter. So ahí, and esa, eso, ese allow a vagueness to be in a middle-range, a place in the in-between.
Duermevela in Spanish is a type of light sleep between being awake and falling asleep that I thought had no exact translation into English. But apparently there is a word, a term that sounds more pathologic than poetic, no wonder it is not commonly used. The word: hypnagogia.
The Japanese concept of Ma is usually translated to English in a binary sense: negative space. A better translation could be the in-between, for example the Ma between two karate fighters. The kanji symbol for Ma is a door with a sun peaking, the life between the edges.
A door has three frames, two vertical, one horizontal on top, but it is the empty space that creates a threshold. To cross a door, for an instant, I walk in the liminal space that is not here or there. Like breathing, travels in the in-between are so constant most times they pass unnoticed.
Laudonia, one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, is divided into three: the city of the dead, the city of the living, and the city of the unborn. The city of the unborn feeds the city of the dead like sand passing through an hourglass. The amount of sand is, of course, finite.
As the first anniversary of my father’s passing approached, I couldn’t procrastinate any longer the opening of old boxes filled with the debris of a lifetime. In one folder among my old letters to him, somebody else’s letter had been misfiled. Its secrets were not for me to read.
Deleuze in The Logic of Sensation discusses Bacon’s triptychs by quoting the theory of rhythm by the composer Messiaen. There is an active rhythm and a passive rhythm. But there is also a third one, a rhythm he names attendant, a witness to a conflict, who remains inactive.
The Borromean knot receives its name from the Italian House of Borromeo which used its shape in their coat of arms. The knot is made out of three, inseparably linked shapes, usually circles that connote the eternal. When one of the links is removed, the structure falls apart.
Lacan borrowed the metaphor of the Borromean knot to explain the human mind. The symbolic ring is linguistic and the imaginary ring involves images and mirrors. The third one is the real: everything that is impossible to represent with images or words, the unknowable.
Lacan defined three functions of the father related to the three rings. The symbolic father represents the law and the imaginary father is a construct of our ideas of the father. Even people who understand Lacan (I don’t) consider his third definition, the real father, difficult to grasp.
The Classic era of Athens and Rome eclipses two and a half thousand years of history in Northern Europe. The three matrons (the mothers) were the triple goddesses of Ancient Europe. Their function was the protection of the family and fertility and, at certain times, war.
Myth, life, and that space in between called the stage. Lear had three daughters and Macbeth, three witches. Later, Chekhov created The Three Sisters, Genet three women role-playing The Maids, Beckett three old friends in Come and Go, and Albee, Three Tall Women.
Pessoa wrote three women mourning a dead body in the play The Mariner. In a night-long wake, they sit still, uttering non-sequiturs, each line more beautiful than the last. The third watcher says: “It horrifies me that soon I will already have told you what I am about to say.”
I’m thinking of the three graces in Botticelli’s Primavera interlocking their fingers playfully. I’m thinking of the three fates, the Parcas: Nona, Decima, and Morta, spinning, measuring, and cutting the fine thread of life. I’m thinking, mostly, of my mother and two sisters.
I’m Theseus in a labyrinth of cathexis and amnesia. In 2011, when I moved back to Chicago, my father’s hometown, I saw an arresting exhibition of amateur snapshots, women posing three at a time. I reorder the old catalog online: I don’t remember a single one of them.
The photo reads on the back “Lindau, c. 1920’s,” probably snapped from a boat. The black silhouettes of three women on a pier walk away from the camera, back towards land. Maybe they came to see the boat off, to wave goodbye to the photographer, this time probably for good.
PHOTO CREDIT: Untitled (Lindau [?]) c. 1920/29. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Emilio Williams is a bilingual (Spanish/English) award-winning writer and educator. His fragmented essays have appeared in Hinterland Magazine, and Imagined Theatres, among other publications. His critically acclaimed plays have been produced in Argentina, Estonia, France, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington DC. Emilio has lectured around the world, and taught in several U.S. universities, including DePaul University, Columbia College Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and Georgia State University. He holds a BA in Film and Video and an MFA in Writing. He is a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists where he is also a faculty member. www.emiliowilliams.com
I called my mom from the yearbook office phone—being on the staff had its advantages, including dialing home without the need to find a quarter or wait in line at the payphone—and told her I’d be driving around with Laura to sell ads as part of my official duties of cataloging the 1995-1996 academic year. Laura was a junior, one of my best friends, not even on yearbook staff, and not old enough to have a license; but her dad allowed us to use his old powder blue Chevy Celebrity station wagon as long as I drove and neither of us got in trouble.
“Not today,” Mom said, letting out a drag. I could tell she was smoking, and probably holding the phone between her cheek and shoulder while doing dishes, all with a lit cigarette. It was like she had three hands, always.
“Why?” I asked. I was never told no. Like ever. Especially now that she was busy with the kids.
Christopher and Brittney were still in diapers, and they shared the middle room in a small cabin-like house we moved into right after the owner died (we’d kept all his things, even the spaghetti in the cabinet), shortly after we moved back to Pennsylvania from four years in Oklahoma—where they’d been born and I’d lost my virginity.
“Just not today,” she repeated. “Take the bus home.”
My school district was big. It’s vast and rural and woodsy here in the Poconos, and it takes me almost an hour on windy backgrounds to get to school on Bus 31—only about 35 minutes, though, if I catch a ride with Wayne, who has a black pick-up truck and good radio. Laura lives in another direction, and I have an unofficial-permanent pass to ride her bus. (I lived with her for a few months when we first moved back to PA because there wasn’t room for me at my step-dad’s parents’ house. And the bus driver liked me.) The plan was to take the bus to Laura’s, get the Celebrity, and then drive up and down Route 940 to visit restaurants and video stores and ski rental shops to talk the owners into buying a full page ad—or, please just at least half, sir—to support the Cardinals.
I twirled the tan cord around and around while taking stock of the closet I was in; we call it the yearbook office, but this is actually a storage room that happened to have a phone jack, so Mr. Jeffries (or maybe the yearbook advisor before him) equipped it with an extra school desk, chair, and telephone. We worked on the yearbook in an actual classroom, in the basement, next to the graphics arts room, woodshop, and ceramics studio. I would sometimes get a pass out of class to come to this office-closet to do official yearbook business; I’d bop into Jeffries’ English class and I didn’t even need to say anything; he’d just take the yearbook key off the main ring and hand it to me and continue talking about Chaucer or whatever he was teaching that day. Laura joked that I was in love with Jeffries and that we’d do it, right here against this desk. [Maybe I had a mild, mild crush, and maybe I fantasized about it once or twice, but only after she put the idea in my head.]
What could be SO important that I couldn’t go to Laura’s after school? I thought. And then I finished that thought by thinking aloud, “What? Did you get me a computer or something?”
“Just. Come. HOME.”
My uncle Matt—my mom’s little brother and one of the twins [Melissa is the other]—was at the house when I got home. Came all the way from outside Philly. He was in business school and was getting rid of an old computer, so my mom bought it (promised to pay him one day?) as a surprise for me.
I was happy, but also I felt terrible. I’d ruined the surprise. I didn’t know if I was smart or psychic, but somehow I knew.
I knew that my mom knew my deepest desire was to write and that I longed for a computer more than anything in this world. I knew that deep down my mom wanted to make me happy if she could. So I knew that if she was telling me to come home after school that it must be something big. And the only thing big enough, special enough, to me, would have been the miracle of a home computer.
Things had settled down and I was in my room playing Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing, and I was in heaven.
“Donna got a ’puter,” Chrissy kept saying, and it was adorable as the time he shoved a pea up his nose and started to cry.
I still called them “the kids” long after they were out of diapers and big enough to microwave themselves hot dogs for dinner.
“How are the kids?” I’d ask my mom every time I called, which I know wasn’t often enough. I was out of the house at 18, never to look back. It wasn’t her, exactly. It was her choice in men. I was old enough to know better before I should have been old enough to know better. That’s why I had multiple after-school jobs, and seasonal ones, too, because the Poconos was a tourist area and there was always work at the ski resorts in the winter. [That’s how I met Wayne, with the truck.] If I was awake, I did not want to be in that house. Not ever.
So I remember them in diapers, maybe training pants. And they remember me as the older kid with the ’puter.
If I’m being honest, when I asked my mom, “How are the kids?” I already always knew the answer, especially as they became tweens. And if I’m being really, really honest, I was asking my mom because I wanted her to say it out loud. And hear herself saying it. I wanted to be right.
That procreating with a monster meant these poor kids’ lives were doomed.
When I was working on my MFA thesis in 2009, even though it’s almost two decades since that first IBM interrupted my afternoon of official sales calls, I still thought of it as the ’puter. Still do. And when I think of the ’puter, and the tiny voice that said it, I want to cry.
My thesis has been in today’s digital equivalent of a drawer for more than 10 years. It’s not that I’m NOT writing, but I write so much in my day job and read and edit so much in my passion project literary journal that sometimes my creativity is drained. My emotional energy, spent. When people ask about my memoir-in-progress, I remind myself that I can’t even call it a work-in-progress because, progress it doesn’t. But I was once told it still counts as writing when you’re constantly thinking about your story, working it out in your head.
I could also be fooling myself. It might not be lack of time or lack of energy — or not JUST lack of time or lack of energy. It could also be that when you’re writing about your own life, it’s a never-ending story. But it — that “it” being a specific piece of that story, a story within a still-evolving story — has to stop and start somewhere. And, sometimes, I feel that I don’t yet know my destination.
I haven’t seen my sister since my cousin Adam’s funeral. He’s OUR cousin, I know. But “my” always comes out. Just like my mom never referred to “Grandma” as “grandma” when talking about her; instead, she’d say things like, “My mom grew up in Jersey….” or “My mom is coming over today.”
Adam, only 39, died not long after his dad; our Uncle Paul. Which was not long after our mom, my (adoptive) father, my cat, my same-age aunt Theresa—and just before “our mom’s mom.”
It was a rough couple of years.
Then my (our) brother Christopher Then their (not our) dad.
“I have nightmares that Britt kills me,” I tell my other childhood best friend, Jasmine. “Like, they’re crazy vivid.”
“That’s some shit,” Jasmine says. We’re talking about my gradual approach to getting back in touch with my sister. Jasmine lost her dad many years before I’d experienced the loss of the parent, before that few years of terrible family losses; at the time, I know, in my heart of hearts, I was not there for her like I should have been. It’s true what they say: you’d don’t know the gravity of losing a parent until you do. I want to be a better friend to her, forever and ever.
This is why you need distance when you’re writing a memoir. I’d added an epilogue because it seemed important at the time, but it didn’t belong in my story, at least not in this way.
But, at the time, when I called my mom and asked, “How are the kids?” I found out that one of the kids would be having one of their own.
I told you so, was what I wanted to say. But instead, I asked the due date.
Later that night, I lamented how it was so unfair that these two kids shared their DNA with a monster, while also realizing that they wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, and, now, neither would this baby, and this tortured my conscience. Then, a thought came to me. I’d lost my virginity to a much older man at about the same age my sister and brother are now; it’s just that no one had to ever know about it because I did not become pregnant.
A few months later, as I left work early to rush 45 minutes in one direction to pick up my brother from Red Rock Job Corps., where he was living/working/learning at the time, to race to Lehigh Valley Medical Center an hour in the other direction to meet my mom and sister (and new niece or nephew), the adrenaline told me, this THIS is the end of your book.
We come from a family of halves. My mom has a half-sister and a much older half-brother, but they are still my real aunts and uncles. So I promised my mom that I’d consider Chrissy and Britt my “real” siblings, even though we had different dads. Even though HE was their dad.
In my late 30s, as I became distant—and grew ashamed of their actions—I started referring to them as half-siblings in conversations with newer acquaintances, people I’d just met. I wanted to ensure 1) that people knew that half of them came from something I have zero part of and 2) that nothing was their fault, really.
All I knew about my sister was via her public Facebook posts. I was usually scared to look; but sometimes I would, especially on days on which I had dreamt or night-mared about her the evening before. In 2021, the content of her posts began to change significantly. I accepted her lingering Friend request.
I run a literary magazine and one of the essays we published in the March/April 2021 issue hit me in a way I didn’t expect. Empathy poured out for my sister, instead of my anger toward her father and resentment for my mother’s choices. These thoughts were overwhelming and definitely something I’d need to talk with someone professionally about, to sort through all of these memories and grudges and emotions—and grief for the years with her I’d lost, and for those with our mother and brother neither of us would get again.
But, in that moment, I knew those feelings were the start of something big, something healing. I suddenly saw my sister as a whole person, her own person. I reflected back to the time I thought I had an epilogue to my story (I’d still need 10 years to figure out what I was actually writing and why). I also thought about superheroes and supervillains and origin stories and the rising popularity of prequels in Hollywood/Streamingwood—when the beginnings help us better understand the end.
It’s not that I no longer have a story to tell. It’s just that—that little diapered girl I left behind when I packed up my ’puter and headed off to college and then to forever—I want to know what happened to her.
This is more than a realization that Britt has a book in her, one that might pick up where mine left off. Rather, this metaphor of the prequel is helping me understand that she’s not a bit character in my story, but a main character in her own. A survivor.
She is my sister. She has a story. And I can’t wait to learn it—and learn from it.
Donna Talarico is an independent writer and content marketing consultant in higher education, and she also is the founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its annual conference, HippoCamp. She writes an adult learner recruiting column for Wiley, and has contributed to Guardian Higher Education Network, The Writer, mental_floss, Games World of Puzzles, and others. Her creative nonfiction appears in The Los Angeles Review, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. Donna teaches or has taught about branding and digital identity in graduate creative writing programs, including Wilkes University and Rosemont College, as well as at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design. She lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Make It Go Away: Love, Loss, and What I was Reading
By Joan Frank
Quick: what’s the first goal for a writer—for artists, for anyone—living in a time of worldwide plague?
Easy, on the face of it: Survive. Keep strong. Stay well, and alert.
Shut up and do everything it takes. Care for beloveds. Minimize risk. Obey the Surgeon General. Stay put. Get the vaccine when it shows up.
Soon—maybe by the time you read this—we’ll be looking back on the scourge in relief. Trading memories of how it was.
At this writing, we’re barely able to keep up with the now.
That’s become—putting it gently—the trickier task.
For this moment, breaking revelations still blizzard down nonstop, burying us past our eyebrows. By revelations I don’t just mean the progress of vaccines, political wars, riots and insurrections, gossip, ecological cataclysm, mortality numbers, or dwindling hospital beds.
I mean revelations about meaning. Hide-and-seek with meaning.
With the advents of all the above, meaning itself seems to mutate almost hourly, twisting, collapsing, shredding. Life’s under siege. Nothing can feel the same from the moment one steps outside the door—though if you squint, things on their surfaces appear familiar. It’s what’s directly beneath those surfaces that decimates. The news screams death, destruction, chaos. Our minds struggle to look straight at it.
Unsurprisingly, our responses have popped forth in waves, a surging of flung-open jacks-in-the-box. We’ve had awful trouble sleeping. We’ve experienced bad dreams, anxiety, stress; muzziness; depression, manic panic. We’ve felt spaced out or angry or glum, tired or twitchy, scared or numb or listless; wanting to eat or drink ourselves insensible or just to stop eating and never get out of bed. We’ve burst into tears at odd moments. Former goals (productivity; social gestures; acquiring things) have flattened and bled out, unrecognizable as road kill.
The known world shrank to the size of domestic floor space. Fastidiousness seguéd into neurosis, childlike irritability, and straight-up freakouts. You’re standing right where I want to be. I like that cup best. Get dressed? Why?
Analogies for lockdown realities have varied. One is Ann Frank’s attic. Another is living under house arrest. Another—repeated ad nauseam like the particulars of our days themselves—is the movie Groundhog Day, which I’d only reprise here to highlight one refinement. Our predicament’s best captured, I think, by one crucial cut in that film—to the scene in which Bill Murray calmly reads a book at the lunch counter of the local diner. With that inspired shot (which no one, to my knowledge, has yet singled out for major praise) we’re slammed by the totality of Murray’s character’s surrender. Forced to accept his entrapment, sentenced to live out the same day into eternity, he’s done a poignantly existential thing.
He’s made himself at home inside it.
To a large degree, many of us have done the same. We’ve resigned ourselves to reading quietly at the eternal lunch counter.
It’s consoling—sort of—to find oneself inducted into a huge club by default. But that does not change the unspeakable conditions of membership. A dear friend commented wisely: “I know we’re lucky and that so many people we know are lucky [to have] good health, homes, enough food, etc. It sometimes strikes me that complaining is a luxury. Even so, I complain—and malls are closing and small businesses can’t pay rent, so the outside world is a twisted art installation of shuttered doors.”
It may be that when this thing is past—if it will ever be past—we’ll promise each other never to forget it, to be and act and do better. Then we’ll quickly forget every last speck of it and go back to being heedless, grabbing idiots. It is possible.
Meantime? The prime internal bulletin for me, during the deep-vault exile of lockdown, has been one I don’t see a slew of writers admitting.
A saggy joke throughout this pandemic, from well-meaning friends and family referring to us writers—well known to be introverts, cranks, hermits—went like this:
“Jeez, you must be in heaven. You don’t have to go anywhere or see anyone. You can live in your pajamas and eat popcorn and write your heart out.”
Cue everyone’s sour laughter. Utterers of the quip sounded proud of its fresh wit, waiting for the writer to find it hilarious, too.
Technically, it’s true. We’ve gone straight to the work every day. We’ve maybe felt some guilty thankfulness for being able to do it, without preamble or apology.
But that’s where the joke breaks down. Have writers viewed this new, enforced working time as perfect heaven? Did we feel clear and purposeful about whatever we’d been tapping out in our plague-buffered hidey-hole?
Yeah—no, I don’t think so. No. Would you easily celebrate hunkering down at the notebook or keyboard while an asteroid sped toward earth, or a tidal wave raced toward your home? Feel compelled to restyle interior decor in the Titanic’s cabins?
I couldn’t. Can’t.
No question, in the old days certain jolly distractions—travel and recreations imposed by my dear spouse and innocent others—seemed a zombie-conspiracy to drink my blood, to block my blazing love affair with reading and writing.
Yet if you asked any number of writers during a plague year, I’m suspecting they might well confess the unspeakable, as I do here:
We’ve missed everything and everyone. Teeth-chatteringly.
That could, I know, be another way of saying we’ve missed the enemy.
We’ve missed Zorba’s “full catastrophe:” the pulse and chaos of life, the fussing and yammering, juggling and chafing. The endless, draining noise and dance.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ve missed ground-level hubbub—even if it was always something I routinely fought. Like Kingsley Amis’s battleships laboring to turn around at sea, I’ve begun to grasp the stunning lesson of plaguetime: the utter primacy to us as animals, of gathering.
Take away gathering; little remains. Commerce, services, systems implode or go wonky—and with them, culture, and close behind that, mental health. Without familiar shapes, motions, and networks, we lose our bearings. Who’d guess that even within the saddest, most people-hating hearts lurked an actual, physical longing to hug and be hugged (even those lucky enough to live with a beloved partner)? Some of us have also painfully missed the very small beings (not, alas, in our pods) whom we once could unthinkingly hold in our arms. By the time we can safely hold them again, we fear they may be grown.
I never could have accepted this, had I not felt it.
But the revelation goes deeper. It’s been about more than animal hunger to hang out and be held.
What’s also gone mushy and mealy is identity. One defines oneself, as a rule, against a witnessing backdrop. If you say to a wino crumpled on the curb hey, I’m a writer, he or she might or might not deign to grunt back at you. But you’ll have named a calling in recognizable language before a fellow-member of your species. Something happens. You’ve defined yourself—if only for yourself—before another’s gaze, another’s sensibility, however weird.
If witnesses vanish, do we exist? Crisp boundaries loosened during lockdown, disassembled, floated off in motes. This weightlessness seems related to the riddle of a tree falling in a forest with no one near to hear. It also feels connected to the futility of dressing in street clothes—street suddenly such a telling designation—or wearing makeup or jewelry. By extension: why fuss with meals? Why arrange the green beans in their own little pile beside the veggie burger? Why anything? Why not just stare out the window watching the light change for, oh, twelve or fourteen months?
(Bathing, I do hope, won’t fall by the wayside.)
Parents raising kids? You’re hereby given a complete pass on everything. Not for you such lazy whithering. More: You deserve medals and prizes. The same for healthcare workers; also service workers, first responders, and everyone on the front lines: everyone who’ll have acted, in Mr. Roger’s words, as a Helper.
At the beginning of all this, an astronaut wrote an article advising us that if she could live in space alone for a year, we could manage living in isolation under lockdown. She itemized her principles: make a routine, exercise, care for your brain and emotional health; stay connected. Turns out these sane basics did not prove so easily adaptable by earthbound types. Are we inferior creatures? Certainly, later historians will feast on the naughty-nice list of our small triumphs and cavernous failures. And without doubt a ton of zingy post-facto studies will appear, like thousand-piece human nature puzzles (shadows of Lord of the Flies flickering through the window).
Except, guys? To hell with it.
Like everyone, I never wanted to be part of this experiment. I want back the simple luxury of fighting people for private time. I crave the clarity of knowing, without an avalanche of second (third, hundredth) thoughts, what I’m doing and why. I want to embrace friends while eating and drinking with them—if later grumbling about them.
More than anything I want people to stop getting sick and dying, to get jobs, food, health care, schools, and decent life restored to them.
In the words of my then-very-young stepson when my husband, telling him stories, channeled a scary invented ogre named Mr. Meany:
“Make it go away!”
It’s worth noting here that in many an artist’s heart a tremendous deadlock has raged, around which all the above-named commotion twirls—like that symbol for medical doctors with its famed righteous sword entwined (menaced) by snakes.
How can writing—any art—matter during mortal terror?
“Leave me alone to make—”
To make what, exactly? More to the point, why?
Who wants to make up stories or discuss vagaries of style when people are dying in swaths? What can any of us produce that will be of real use—or even make sense in this context?
Cue the slow, deep breath. Cue the lowered head.
Multiple times the above question has reared its big angry head. And my reflex each time is to surrender, conceding the worst: that mere art, during a plague, can make no more difference than morning dew—that it can scarcely matter. If bombs are falling, how puny art must seem.
Yet in the next instant I’m forced to remember the heroism of European museum curators who, during war years, evacuated precious inventories and hid or buried them in secret locales until it was safe to exhume them. How this fact repeatedly fills us with wonder as we gaze on incalculable treasures, generations later.
Then I begin to think about our own personal choices, daily, hourly, for the use of time during isolation—with no observer taking notes or holding a gun to our heads.
I notice what I’ve seen myself reach for constantly as comfort, nourishment, reinforcement. And from their reports, a lot of friends have appeared to be doing pretty much the same.
I’ve reached for music, films, and books. Simple as that.
I’ve never stopped playing the music I love, Bach to Barbosa-Lima. Evenings we’ve watched movies that distracted, beautified, stirred, soothed, or made us laugh like maniacs. Documentaries. Dance. If anything made me happy-cry, so much the better.
But above all I’ve been constantly immersed in the reading I sensed would fortify me, the language that would feel irreducible—even if bombs fell.
This reading has included some horrific material, stories others might consider nihilistic or weird. Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye (my paperback edition introduced with fierce relish by Tennessee Williams), proved as powerful a nightmare as they come. Yet something about its calm recital of human peculiarity and darkness felt like release, pure and invigorating as lungfuls of alpine air. The terrible truths embedded in every word of its eerie murder story—of jealousy, erotic confusion, inchoate mortal longing—reassured. I couldn’t question this odd chemistry. Most of what I’ve been reading could not have been written to address someone stranded in frightened isolation during a plague year. Yet there was no escaping the awareness that the material had been written because it had to be written. Thus, the writing that most mattered felt as if it had been murmured in the dark to a secret friend—me—with that gorgeous one-on-one urgency that reverberates in a reader’s skull like a struck gong.
Meredith Hall’s novel Beneficence, an epic, glittering novel chronicling an American farm family’s ordeals during the early 20th century, was one such discovery. So was Nicole Krauss’s dreamlike yet ruthlessly cerebral story collection To Be a Man, and Robert Hass’ latest book of glittering, gritty poetry, Summer Snow. Wright Morris’s Plains Song (I’m late to it) struck me as wondrous. I was swept away by Peter Cameron’s dark, austere, nearly perfect What Happens at Night, and wished it would never end.
Other reading that “gave good weight” during plague-time included Henri Troyat’s brilliant, bristling biography, Tolstoy. (Troyat’s oeuvre proves eye-poppingly vast.) Another was Rachel Cohen’s deep dive into her own experience interleaved with that of Jane Austen, in Austen Years. Another still was Margot Livesey’s luminously compassionate The Boy in the Field.
I’ve got a queue of waiting titles at the library (via curbside pickup) as tall as me. In that queue are some surprises, if what I’ve cited sounds too draconian. I’ve ordered plenty of what’s making the rounds (Ayad Akhtar, Charles Yu, Yang Huang, Robert Jones Jr.) but also essays: Homo Irrealis, Andre Aciman; My Lives, Edmund White; The Way of Bach, Dan Moller. Black Futures, Kimberly Drew. Late Migrations, Margaret Renkl. Wintering, Katherine May.
Underpinning the above also runs a series of impulses to reabsorb some timeless icons. The Russians. Shirley Hazzard. Marguerite Yourcenar. Tove Jansson. Virginia Woolf (A Writer’s Diary was written while real bombs fell, and describes them).
Not every title works. I’ve had to abandon some. It’s a waste of time to pretend otherwise. And time’s still precious, even as it collapses and bubbles like lava. The oldest criterion applies: given horrific straits, what insists we stick around? What reaches into us; what puts something back? Engagement’s slipperier than ever, given our pulverized attention spans. I’m after whatever works—aware too, very sadly, that for plenty of others this might mean video games.
As my canny young granddaughter notes, shrugging: “What’re you gonna do?”
Maybe good art (in any form) fixes a hard ground-floor of honesty that can be stood upon calmly while the planet shudders; a sturdy roof when the heavens open: Here is the church, here is the steeple. The works that feel talismanic, as if they emit lifesaving signals, demand we hold them tightly: Here’s who we are. Here’s who we’ve been. Here’s what we have meant and can still, may still, mean. Certain books act like emergency-relief parcels dropped straight into the yearning heart. Their voices—all some variant, per Louise Glück, of “the solitary human voice, raised in lament or longing”—still talk to me, telling me things it helps to remember while the shitstorm rages outside. In truth, the exact same chemistry applies post-shitstorm. It’s the only answer to inarticulable anguish I can locate for now—one I’ll keep taking as I find it.
Joan Frank (www.joanfrank.org) is the author of eleven books of literary fiction and nonfiction. Her newest novel is THE OUTLOOK FOR EARTHLINGS (Regal House Publishing). Concurrent works include WHERE YOU’RE ALL GOING: FOUR NOVELLAS (Sarabande Books), and TRY TO GET LOST: ESSAYS ON TRAVEL AND PLACE (Univ. of New Mexico Press). She lives in Northern California.
terrified run across a freshly plowed field, the earth exploding around me, is
a frequent memory. Then I wonder why my father would shoot at my nine-year-old self.
plowed is one term for drunkenness. Besides describing tilled soil, the word is
also used to describe a ponderous, plodding way of walking.
is a condition that can foster a tendency to walk carefully and slowly. I have
been drunk a few times in my life. Brandy and I are no longer speaking.
first foster family was my favorite. When I faked an illness, giving social services
grounds to take me from my mother, I demanded a new family. And got the Brady
Bunch, replete with three girls and three boys.
favorite animal of mine is Doona. Under five pounds with no tail, Doona is a
black cat who tends to remain elusive when I want to pick her up. But when she
relents to be hugged, it feels like a reward.
Doona means dark maiden in the language of Manx, the native language on the Isle of Man, and is where the tailless Manx cat originated. A friend found Doona in her Virginia driveway, a tiny kitten a long way from her ancestral island.
The language of animals, and
especially cats, has the same tonal value of human language. They speak of
anxiety, want, anger and contentedness. My cats understand that books make me
deaf, so one of them always jumps onto whatever I am reading.
Cats have always been a family
member. I once had twenty-seven rescue cats residing on my farm. One day, I
heard screeching above my head and saw a kitten clutched in the talons of a
bald eagle. Poor baby. Mama couldn’t save you from that.
The member of my blue eyed, white stallion is often on display as he dances around his mares in the pasture. Even when the mares are not in estrus, Mykael feels obligated to remind them of his manhood. But, when he comes too close, they reward him with a kick to the chest. Like a player waiting for his turn off the bench, he waits.
White is supposed to be the color of sheep, but my Katahdin ewes are brown, black and tan. All four were to be lawn mowers to save me from the tyranny of grass. But, instead of munching grass, the girls decided the asparagus, Japanese plum and forsythia bushes were better eating. So they were fired from their day job and are doing the real work of mothering.
Color is a motivating factor in my life. Right down to my farm gates (hunter green), driveway gates (a subtle light gray) and my animals. Charcoal gray, Burmese white and black with green eyes are the cats. Blue merle and black tricolor are the dogs. And dun, dark bay, golden bay, chestnut, paint, palomino, and perlino white are the horses. But the ducks: all buff.
My central theme for farming is subsistence. But planting, watering, hoeing and weeding is arduously repetitive. No wonder farmers always kept a crop of children on hand to do the chores. I farm because I am a closet prepper and have memories of food insecurity. I should be thinner.
Subsistence living is akin to a prisoner lifestyle as the need to grow food imprisons me on my farm. A diverse crop is key to ensure enough vegetables for the year survive if weather or insects destroy some varieties. It’s a lot of work to live without grocery stores. No wonder fast food is popular. Less work.
A prisoner by choice, my vegetables and animals are my inmates. All look to me for care. Every morning I am a minor celebrity when I appear on the front porch, all animal eyes on me, waiting. Will I pick up the buckets first or load the hay cart or fill water tanks? I change it up just to keep them guessing.
The animals are my family, more honest than most humans and accepting of multiple hugs. Some let me sit next to them to meditate. Bugs, bees and wasps buzz around us as we zone out, listening to our breathing.
Honest reflection at times makes me desire less responsibility, to answer the urge to thru hike to see. Just see. This need for movement motivated my long-distance bike rides, marathon running and competing in endurance races of 50 miles or so on horseback.
Desire for a life of meaning awakens me every morning, along with my latest “why” question that needs an answer. My father, now eighty-nine, says he is waiting to die, when he can remember. Long after the incident, I asked him why he shot at me, my sisters and Mom when we ran from his rage all those years ago.
“I was trying to get you to stop.”
“Dad, people run away from gunfire.” He remained
silent until I asked, “What does a deer do when you shoot at it?”
“I think it is going to rain today.”
Heilgeist is an
MFA student at Lindenwood University and a volunteer tutor for an adult
literacy program. Ruth writes about her life past and present. An avid
opportunity-maker, Ruth’s experience ranges from paper girl, modeling, belly
dancing, waitressing, actor, portrait artist, horse breeder/trainer, fraud
investigator, endurance rider, marathon runner, voice over artist, mortgage
underwriter, farmer, illustrator, bartender, equine sports massage therapist,
cartoonist, writer and a receptionist for The School for Private Detectives.
Ruth lives on her farm with seven horses who think she’s the bomb (but only
when she feeds them), three cats who complain when she’s late and two Aussies
training her to get up early. In the near future, Ruth hopes to survive tandem
What you will start with: You’ll be supplied with one mother, 36 years old when you are born. She will have many fine qualities and, of course, some baggage.
Your mother grew up on a farm, during the Great Depression, in a religious family, one of seven children with a stern father and a mother who was chronically ill. Your mother was kept out of school the year she was 13, but not told why. She resented her mother that year. Partway through the year, though, her baby sister Fran was born. Fran’s arrival was a surprise to all the children, because Brethren in Christ parents in 1933 did not speak of such things as pregnancy. Your mother adored baby Fran and took care of her. When their mother died less than a decade later, your mother, now married, took Fran into her home. Your mother felt guilty for the rest of her life for having resented her mother and the lost year of school. “There will never be tension between me and my daughter,” she vowed.
your birth: Be
your mother’s long-expected daughter, her girl-gift from God after four boys.
Be her great joy. Be an easy baby, in tune to her rhythms as she is to yours.
Be a peaceful toddler, such a contrast to her rambunctious sons. Be the child she
can take anywhere, to any meeting, and put in a corner with crayons and paper. Don’t
let her leave you in the church nursery, though; sit right next to her on the
hard pew, perfectly quiet, through the whole Sunday service, including your
father’s sermon. Draw neat little pictures and letters on scrap paper, using
the tiny pencils provided in the pew racks for filling out offering envelopes and
“Pray for me” cards. You will never deface a hymnbook or a Bible. After church,
while your mother meets and greets church people as the pastor’s wife, hold
tight to the hem of her gray wool skirt so you can’t possibly lose her. Keep
your eyes down to avoid fawning parishioners who think you are cute. Be quiet
as a mouse. To get your mother’s attention, just give the hem a little tug and
she’ll bend down to see what you need.
you grow: Be
your mother’s creative outlet. Be the child she can finally sew for, a girl who
wears dresses. Even let her dress you in pink, though it will not be your
favorite color later. Learn to cook with her; browse Woman’s Day magazine at
her side; learn early how to make the family’s special oatmeal cookies. Be her
little helper, a child who likes to dust furniture. Be the daughter she can
count on; feel bad when she has migraines and give her get-well cards you make
yourself. Be the one who reads your
mother’s moods better than anyone, better than your brothers or your father,
and hugs her when she’s sad. Be her companion. Be that girl for many years.
you are nine:
When you go away to Bible camp for the first time, hide your feelings, because
the camp handbook says, “No homesickness allowed! Playpens available for crybabies.”
Be afraid of the consequences of breaking any rules — there are so many — at
this strict place where children get fined real money for talking during rest
hour, being late to chapel, or wearing play clothes when dress-up is required,
which is almost all the time. Be grateful for the seven dresses your mother
sewed and packed for you, a different one for each day at camp, and try not to resent
it when your counselor, a young missionary wife without much sense, tells another
girl (without asking) to borrow one of your dresses because you have so many,
and the girl takes one you haven’t worn yet. Try not to be upset when someone
steals your spending money, and be forgiving when the money is suddenly
replaced, appearing on your freshly made bunk while you are down the hall cleaning
the bathroom with PineSol as your cabin chore. Turn your homesickness into a
stomachache by the last day of camp, and cry just a tiny bit when you visit the
camp nurse, who gives you aspirin you can’t swallow unless it’s crushed up into
tiny bits, because all you’ve ever had is chewable baby aspirin. Be so glad to
see your mother when she and your father come to pick you up. She is an angel,
beautiful and comforting and smelling of Lily of the Valley cologne. Give her
the present you bought her at the camp store: a ring, fake silver, with a Bible
verse engraved, because you know she never, ever had a ring before, not even
for her wedding, and you want to grant her deepest wishes.
you are twelve:
Start going to a new camp run by strong, confident, athletic women in their
twenties and thirties. No one brings dresses to this place. Your mother, now
49, is unsure of herself, fears deep water, and wears frumpy clothes. Fall in
love with the bold young female energy of the camp counselors. Paddle a canoe
on Lake Bunganut; get stung by yellowjackets; sing your heart out at campfires;
cry when you leave. Tell your mother flatly, “I didn’t want to come home.” Fail
to realize how that stings. Disappear into your room for hours, writing your
new friends; watch for their letters and dream of being back in the Maine woods
with them next year. Be furious when your mother snoops, when she reads your
letter to a counselor you have a crush on; know from your mother’s face that
you cannot say so. Let it smolder while you hide your letters more carefully.
Pretend it doesn’t bother you. Pretend you aren’t embarrassed and afraid about
having these crushes. You’ll have no context for envisioning a future life with
a girl. You won’t even know the word lesbian yet.
you are fourteen:
When the Jesus Revolution comes to your youth group, have a spiritual crisis.
Get fired up for God; also vow to be kinder to your mother. You can still
rebel, but in a complicated way your parents won’t forbid: wandering the
streets with hippies and staying out late—but witnessing, not drinking;
praying, not doing drugs. Let out the hems of your jeans so they fray; innocently
sew pink buttons down the fly, horrifying your mother. Buy men’s work boots at
the Army Surplus store; avoid wearing dresses. Praise God with your hands in
the air, in big hugging circles of singing, swaying Jesus Freaks, accompanied
by candlelight and guitar.
Some of your freakiness will fade in time,
but not your vow to be a better daughter. Hit upon a way to survive: be
pleasant and agreeable, but never tell your mother about your deepest feelings,
your doubts and worries, and least of all your yearning for attention and
affection from women who are not her. Keep this vow for the next two decades.
Also move away, farther and farther, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Seattle. Live your
life; go to therapy. Write sweet letters and remember Mother’s Day. Send delightful
homemade Christmas presents but live too far away to visit on holidays.
you are thirty-five:
Mail your parents an audiotape you record on two rainy Sunday afternoons in
your tiny Seattle apartment, drinking tea. You know they’ll be able to listen
to it because you recently gave them a cassette player as a gift, hoping they
would record memories for their grandchildren (something they’ll never get
around to). On the tape, tell them first that you are no longer an evangelical
Christian, and then that you are a lesbian. Ask them not to argue the Bible
with you. Be more honest than since you were twelve. Also tell them you are
moving to Wisconsin to be with the woman you love. Be terrified when the tape
is in the mail. Wait a month for their response, which, when it comes, is in
two separate letters on identical stationery that say almost the same thing and,
ironically, arrive via overnight mail.
“We love you so much and we always
will. You know our beliefs; we cannot approve. Our hearts are so heavy. But we
love you so much.” They will not quote the Bible or argue; you asked them not
to. But you will know what they now fear: that you are lost and bound for hell;
that they will lose you forever. Still, you will be relieved to have been
honest. You will be glad not to keep this secret from them anymore.
You will have careful, tentative phone conversations with your mother now; she will not speak directly about your revelation, but she will tell you she loves you, every time, her voice breaking. You will talk about less frightening things, like your new pet guinea pig, for whom your mother sends presents, and small details about your upcoming move. After you move, she’ll call less often, sounding afraid if your partner answers the phone. “Hello, may I please speak with JoAnne?”
Find out from your oldest brother that your mother confided in him, and he defended you: “Don’t say you’ll keep praying for JoAnne; say you’ll keep loving her.” He’ll tell you what your mother said: “Oh, of course we will! I think I love her more than ever — if that’s possible.” Don’t find out for many years that she also confided in your cousin Doug: “This woman JoAnne is with; I think she has influenced her.” Don’t find out for many more years — until your parents have dementia and have forgotten so much — that in those early months they acquired some conservative literature about the misguided path you chose. (When you do find this literature years later, in the bottom of an unused drawer in your mother’s dresser, spirit it out to the dumpster and never mention it.)
After you buy a house with your beloved, invite your parents to visit. See them relax, especially your mother. Your partner is a midwife, she delivers babies on Amish farms, she is making a quilt — cozy, familiar things your mother can relate to. Your partner can also drive a nail, wield a power drill, and cook hearty food — things that impress your father. “Well, Martha, you pass!” he’ll blurt out at dinner, and you’ll know he doesn’t realize all he is saying. They can’t help but love her, no matter what they believe. “May the Lord bless you and keep you,” your mother will say when they leave. They’ll send Martha presents every Christmas, although at first those gifts will be separate from the ones they send you.
Then give them a harder test when you invite them to your Quaker wedding, which is planned for Valentine’s Day. Again they will take weeks to reply. Finally your mother will call in tears. “We can’t come,” she’ll choke out. “You know our beliefs. But you know we love you, and we love Martha too.” You’ll be angry: “That’s hard to believe right now,” you’ll say. But you will write again: “If you come,” you’ll assure your mother, “no one will assume you approve. They’ll just assume you love us.” Also say, “I wish you could be there with me when I get married. I wish you could see my wedding dress.”
Then, just one week before the
ceremony, your mother will call again. “We’re coming,” she’ll say. “We got
flights. We won’t come early, and we’ll stay at a different hotel. And we don’t
want to be in group photos the grandchildren might see someday, that might make
them think we were okay with this.”
You won’t be able to eat on the
morning of your wedding. You’ll be terrified to see your parents, and you’ll wonder
what they’ll do. But to your surprise, they will ask to wear the same lapel
flowers as other close family and friends. Your mother will sit in the Quaker
silence before you speak your vows, trembling and quiet. You will catch her eye
and say silently, “I love you,” and she will mouth it back. She and your father
will behave perfectly at your reception, shy but friendly, eating cake,
watching and listening. For years afterward, notice that your mother doesn’t
refer to your wedding as such, but as “that time we were there, that February.”
And when you write to your Aunt Fran — her baby sister — you’ll find out your
mother hasn’t told the relatives you are married. You’ll also learn that Aunt
Fran doesn’t approve of your lifestyle either.
you are fifty:
Watch your mother losing memories but never her yearning to be close to you.
See her trust and confide in you. Travel many miles, many times, over many
years, to care for her with tenderness. See her confusion about the passage of
time. “Did you go to my one-room school too?” she’ll ask, and also, “Are you
old enough to remember when the Twin Towers fell?” Take her to doctor’s
appointments and be her advocate; do not discount her complaints of pain.
Measure out Tylenol, and Vicodin, and keep careful track. Help her in the
bathroom. Hear her mention “your wedding.”
Be amazed when your mother, in her mental
fog, wonders whether another of her sisters — a spinster missionary — had a
female partner. “Who was Anita with?” she’ll ask you. “Was she with
Martha?” Hide your surprise. Say nonchalantly, “No, Martha is with me.”
“Oh, that’s right,” your mother will say. She’ll ask again and again why you
can’t move in with her. “Martha, too!” she’ll insist. “We can make room.”
See your mother mistake you for her baby sister. Feel her turn to you as if you are her mother. Assure her you won’t leave while she’s at daycare. Put stuffed animals and dolls in her arms. Recognize she is human and vulnerable; understand how many decades it has been since she had any power over you. Wish you could give her more power over herself; wish you could grant her deepest wishes. Have no resentment, no regret. Know that your own heart is on the mend.
JoAnne E. Lehman edits a gender studies review journal at the University of Wisconsin. She has an MFA from Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Her creative nonfiction has also been published in The Cresset, and she is a book reviewer for Good River Review.