2020 Nonfiction Judge
David McGlynn, Nonfiction
David McGlynn is the author of three books: One Day You’ll Thank Me: Lessons from an Unexpected Fatherhood, A Door in the Ocean and a story collection, The End of the Straight and Narrow, which were all published by Counterpoint Press.
A Door in the Ocean was reviewed on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, earned the Council for Wisconsin Writers’ Nonfiction Book Award in 2013 and was named an Outstanding Achievement by the Wisconsin Librarians’ Association. The End of the Straight and Narrow received the 2008 Utah Book Award, was a finalist for the 2009 Steven Turner Award for Best First Fiction by the Texas Institute of Letters and was named an Outstanding Achievement by the Wisconsin Librarians’ Association.
McGlynn’s writing has appeared in Men’s Health, Real Simple, Parents, the New York Times, Swimmer, Best American Sports Writing and numerous literary journals. Three of his essays have been named Distinguished Essays in the Best American Essays and Best American Non-Required Reading anthologies. He teaches at Lawrence University in Appleton, where he lives with his wife and sons.
A lifelong swimmer, he captured a national championship in the 500-yard freestyle at the 2001 United States Masters National Championships and now competes most regularly in open-water races. On most mornings, he’s the first one in the pool.
Horse Training, Toddlers, and Tradeoffs
by Rebecca Zornow
My son asked, “When can I go ride Wyatt?”
“You want to ride grandma’s horse?” I knew what he was asking, but I was stalling for time.
His brow furrowed darkly in response to my reluctance. His pursed his lips – as if he couldn’t believe he had to justify his request – then described exactly why he should be allowed to ride my mother’s bay horse.
Pierce was just two, his bouncy cheeks thinning, his cubby legs elongating, but he had the vocabulary of a five-year-old. I teased my husband, who’s a natural talker, that Pierce couldn’t help but absorb all the words flying around our house.
This happy benefit was coming back to haunt me as my two-year-old described how a) he was a big boy and old enough to ride a horse, b) he would follow directions for sure, and c) his older sister already got to ride Wyatt so he should be able to as well.
I let Pierce talk as I again put off answering. I’d ridden horses throughout most of my life, but I didn’t want him out at the barn too young or too often.
“You can go out to the barn and ride Wyatt when you turn three,” I finally told Pierce. It was the same answer I gave his older sister when she was his age.
His face lit up, a little too much to my liking. Was this going to be a regular request?
His third birthday was months away, so it was a relief not to have to worry just then. Pierce took it upon himself to make sure plans were in motion for the big day in March of 2020.
As a kid, I did the traditional pony rides at fairs and on the horse-loving island of Mackinac, but I didn’t start riding regularly until I was in fifth grade. It started through none of my own doing. It was my mom – owner of the famous Wyatt – who made friends with a boisterous woman from church. Diane lived on the outskirts of town with a dozen horses. Her country-style home wasn’t an especially idyllic place for horseback riding, it was muddy more often than not and the nearby highway hummed constantly, but my animal-loving mother took to it quickly.
I soon did too. Despite the mud and horse poo, I fell in love with the way the summer sun hit the tall grass. I reveled in the satisfaction of watching dust fly up in the air as I brushed down a horse. The horses were huge and powerful, but once I got in the saddle, I felt huge and powerful too.
I never asked for a horse, a rarity among American girls of my generation. Even more extraordinary, I was gifted one. My mom gave me Mike, a white pony who was the first of four horses I’d own.
Mike acquired a purple halter and then a purple saddle blanket (it just so happened that my favorite color was purple too) and we became buddies.
Working with horses is marked by routine. I’d walk out in the dry summer dirt or spring mud to catch Mike as he grazed. The older gelding was patient and easy to halter but his white coat was difficult to keep clean. I’d put the heavy saddle on, adjust it from my short vantage point, ask for help with the bridle, and go ride in the small fenced paddock or along the irrigation ditches.
Mike’s shaggy white coat was more than hard to clean – it was also his downfall. Horses and ponies with white coats are susceptible to skin cancer just the way people are. Mike grew critically ill and the vet came out to the barn to put him down. Just as he was about to depart life, a woman who boarded her horse at Diane’s slipped her arm around my shoulders and walked me away. I didn’t start crying until I had my back to Mike. I would have liked to have stayed with him in his last moments.
As I got older, I graduated to riding properly sized horses; first Duchess, a black mare, then Katie, a bay. Katie was easygoing and seemed like the perfect horse for me to advance my technique with. I had simply sat on Mike and Duchess while they moved, but with Katie I began to learn how to give direction and listen to a horse’s response. My mom graduated too and now boarded our horses at another location with a full-size barn, an indoor arena, and a trainer.
Over the years, I’ve ridden on trails and in competition circuits, along highways and in paddocks, but my favorite place to ride is a dusty indoor arena in the summertime. It’s hot outside; the still shade a relief. The sliding back door is open completely to watch the other horses meander about the pasture and listen to the wind blow through tall grasses. Sparrows zip in and out the open door while mourning doves coo in the rafters. Other riders might stop in to chat, but the overwhelming feeling is of utter peace. You don’t notice the smell then, but afterwards you find the gentle scent of horse, dirt, and leather sticks to your hair.
One spring day, I went to tack up Katie and she inexplicably pulled back in the cross ties while I tightened the girth of the saddle. Katie lurched so hard backwards that she broke one of the improperly hung cross ties. A metal hook swung at my face, backed with the power of a horse. The hook hit underneath my left eye.
I fell to the ground. I couldn’t see anything, but I felt hot blood spill across my face. Extraordinary pain broke over my head and neck. I was fading away, not dizzy, but like I was growing smaller and smaller in a pitch-black place.
Slowly, I came back to myself. I sensed that the trainer caught Katie and my mom was on the ground alongside me. An ambulance was called and the trainer returned with a pack of frozen vegetables for my face. I said aloud, partly to my mom but mostly to myself, “I guess I’m not going to die.”
That tragic afternoon spawned a medical saga that crossed my eighth and ninth grade years at school. My upper check bone had broken, and it had to be mended with a metal plate. Fortunately, my eyeball was unmarred, and my sight survived. But then, my face got badly infected. I had seven or eight surgeries between the reconstruction of my face and fighting the infection. That summer, a doctor put an IV in my arm to pump in antibiotics which finally beat the infection. Another doctor – I saw many that year, all men, all bemused by my youthful commentary – took cartilage from the roof of my mouth to help rebuild my lower eyelid.
Now, over a decade and a half later, I still think of the incident every day. You see, my face is permanently scarred. My lower left eyelid does not move; my eye does not close all the way.
My husband tells me no one sees it, but I see it in the mirror every day. My sister nudges me during a business meeting and gestures meaningfully – my tears have spilled over again and are slowly tracking down my face. I meet someone new and see them double take but continue talking – emphasizing that it’s not a big deal, but they know about it nonetheless.
I don’t know why Katie panicked that day. She wasn’t an aggressive horse and never showed any other bad behavior.
Still, my mother and I made the decision to sell Katie at a horse auction. She was one of the last horses shown in the arena that day. I sat in the stands among bidders as they gestured at the auctioneer. The urgency of the bidding was fading, but the price was still shy of what we hoped for. My mom withdrew Katie and no sale was made.
Eventually, I decided to keep riding Katie with the help of a new trainer, Stacie.
I rode through high school and showed at 4-H and regional competitions. I perfected the basics like how to properly sit a jog under a western saddle and how to post while trotting hunt seat. Then, I advanced beyond simply riding horses in their natural gait. Jumping and disciplined rail tested my communication and leadership of a horse. I learned to ask a horse to pivot 360° on its front right foot, back through a series of cones, or perform a flying lead change.
My ultimate challenge came when my mother gifted me a weanling, the last horse I would own. I was going to name the baby Darius or Dameon or some sort of real person name like that, but my trainer talked me out of it. I settled on the name Felix. Felix’s coloring was a rare grey called grulla. As he grew, he surprised us all with his height, but stayed slender and kept his gangly legs past his youth.
During college, I pushed my limits as I tried to teach Felix all a horse should know. On top of those responsibilities, my trainer allowed me to work horses that needed a boost of confidence to try something new or required a practiced touch to break their bad habits. Just as I helped train these horses, Stacie elevated my self-esteem. I spent a summer helping her with chores around the barn. I went on trail rides with dozens of other women. I made friendships with other young riders and I intently watched the professional riders at competitions.
One tough training session while riding Felix, he reared, and I fell off. The middle finger of my dominant hand broke. This time, my mom drove me to the hospital herself. I repeatedly said, “I should have gone to the Christmas parade”, referring to the plans I canceled that evening to go riding.
The broken finger was a much quicker fix than my cheek bone, but, still today, I cannot make a full fist with my right hand. It doesn’t impact my daily life too much but, every so often, a new friend notices my split nail and asks what happened to me.
Both injuries hurt like the dickens, but the true grief didn’t come until after I healed. It was only then that I realized the long-term impact of the injuries. I had to accept that my physical body would be a little worse off for the rest of my life.
I knew plenty of riders who had never gotten hurt over the years. I also knew plenty of great riders that got severely hurt at one time or another. It forced me to ask myself if a couple of injuries were a sacrifice an experienced rider had to make to keep growing and excelling in the sport. I also asked myself, if I had known what I would lose, would I still have chosen to ride?
At the end of college, I prepared to move to another country for two years. It was impossible to keep Felix while I chased another dream. My mom and I sold Felix to a good family we knew would take care of him and keep him on the show circuit. I put my trophies in storage and my mom moved my saddles to her basement.
When I returned to the States years later, I rode with Stacie a few times and felt myself fall into the rhythm of the horse world. I contemplated starting up again, but then I got pregnant.
There have been more than a few days that I looked in the mirror and wished I had never gotten on a horse. Yet, I feel grateful for my experiences. I wouldn’t say it was a fair tradeoff. I wouldn’t willingly sacrifice the functionality of two parts of my body for personal growth, but I do realize the benefits I acquired through years of horseback riding. It wasn’t just the friendships and the driving purpose I felt in my youth. I’m now cautiously fearless and optimistically bold. I’m persistent, practiced, and resolute to reach my goals.
Because of all these tradeoffs, I’ve waivered on what exposure my own kids should have to the equestrian world.
After a serious talk about following directions, my daughter rode Wyatt for the first time when she turned three. Her slender frame sat atop the horse, completely fearless. My mother led Wyatt by the bridle, and I walked at my daughter’s side to steady her.
Pierce was delighted when I told him he could follow the same arrangement.
Then, a week before Pierce’s third birthday, I told him we would have to change our plans. He eyed me suspiciously as I haltingly tried to explain what a virus was and why it would keep us home all the time, not just on his birthday.
Trying to explain the COVID-19 pandemic and a Governor-mandated stay-at-home order to a toddler was tricky. I wanted Pierce to know I wasn’t purposefully reneging on my promise. I wanted him to understand how serious the situation was to justify unprecedented changes in our lifestyle, but also I didn’t want to scare him.
Now, locked inside my house with a young boy that gallops around the kitchen table but has never met a horse in real life, I wonder if we should have gone when we had the chance. Maybe not to have ridden, but to watch his grandmother move about the barn, caring for horses as the barn cats look on. To smell the dusty air of the arena and let Pierce shyly offer carrots to a horsey mouth.
As a parent, I ask myself continuously, what risks are worth it? How do I balance the beauty of our world with the danger that accompanies it?
Though I fight it, I find myself coming back to the same answer I gave myself as an eighth grader with a ruined eye and a heart for horses.
I wonder if I shouldn’t also extend that answer to my kids: that life is too short and the world too unpredictable to keep us from the good things.
Judge’s Comments: A lyrical, though harrowing, tale of a young mother’s lifelong love of horses and a fateful accident that would alter her relationship to both riding and the world around her. The story is ripe with the smell of hay and summer dust, and it sparkles with insight and joy. A pleasure to read. – David McGlynn
What We Talk About When We Talk About James Fenimore Cooper
by Meaghan Clohessy
We talk about offices with hunter green walls.
Splashes of excess paint on white ceilings. Newport smoke seeping into hardwood floors. Flimsy bookshelves bursting with water-logged paperbacks of Washington Irving. An oak door which always remains closed.
My father hunches over his computer desk, pecking out a few words on his keyboard. With a groan, he hits backspace. He retrieves his cigarette, smoldering over a crystal ashtray, and takes a frustrated drag. His restlessness disappears into the glare of a desk lamp.
He is writing The Ship and State, an analysis of how the work of James Fenimore Cooper symbolizes American national identity. At my house, it is known more colloquially as ‘dad’s dissertation.’ For a decade, the portrait of my father is that of tortured academic, spending nights sketching chapter outlines. The cross he bears is the leather binding that will soon sit atop that flimsy bookshelf, along with the doctoral robes that hang in his closet.
My father is a teacher, preaching Johnathan Edwards to the sleepy students of whatever first-year literature courses schools will offer him. Sometimes, he will take me to class. Unlike most children, I will gladly sacrifice trips to the park or museum for even one hour of my father’s class. Anything for a chance to write on a chalkboard. Tiny hands coat with dust as I write imaginary lesson plans. I pace about the room, gesturing wildly, trying to recreate the presence in which my father comfortably commands his classroom.
Later, attending classes means reading the assigned coursework. This does not stop me; in his classes, I prepare notes and ask questions, earning strange looks from my father’s actual students. Even then, I still make time to write on the chalkboard.
“Are you Dr. Clohessy’s daughter?!”
I am at the Pabst Best Place, waiting to perform a drunken production of Macbeth. I am finishing my second Abbey Ale when one of the audience members, the fiancée of a performer, bustles toward me with an outstretched hand.
“I was one of your dad’s students at UWM!” he exclaims. “I saw him by the speakers and I couldn’t believe it! It’s been – wow, I think it’s been ten years since I saw him!”
“You mean he hasn’t scared you off yet?” I ask.
“Oh no! I did think he was an asshole at first, but he quickly became one of my favorite professors. Didn’t realize he was a theatre guy!”
“You should ask him about the time he played MacMurphy for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
“No kidding! Does he ever talk about it?”
“Nearly every moment he can.”
We talk about timelines.
Cooper carves his name onto my personal history. At seven, I know the faculty of UWM’s College of Letters and Sciences by first name. At ten, I watch my father adorned with the bonnet and hood at his graduation, wondering when I will wear the same gown. I meet Natty Bumpo before Daniel Day-Lewis, Hawkeye before Alan Alda. During a seminar in college, my English professor will ask his students if they have ever heard of Cooper. I will be the only one who raises their hand.
Cooper once wrote that the United States was a nation without a yesterday. It was the duty of storytellers to create a past that captures our national sense of self. He has become a victim of his own proclamation. Clever and more charismatic voices incorporated his ideas into clever and more charismatic works. Cooper’s inevitability, it seems, is irrelevance.
How narrow the analysis of scholars.
Cooper captures the moments when my father’s voice soared with misdirected impatience, when criticism replaced all other forms of speech. Each interaction is graded on an ever-shifting rubric of expectations, his mood frequently switching from icy apathy to scorching anger. I am too young to understand the impossible expectations he set for himself, the frustration he bore onto others when they were unmet. Even when I developed a voice for these observations, it was always kidnapped into silence by his stinging tone.
One summer day, my father drafts me to uproot a tree he had pledged for months to complete. The roots were warped, making the task arduous.
“Come on, move the damn wheelbarrow!” my father hollers.
“It’s too heavy!” I cry, trying to pull the wheelbarrow toward my chest. It would not budge. Grunting, my father pushes me aside and grabs the wheelbarrow for himself.
“Get out of here if you’re only going to do half-assed work,” he growls.
Sobbing, I sprint to my room and do not leave until the next morning. Mom brings me dinner that night, a grilled cheese sandwich. I had never asked for this sandwich before and yet it is the only thing I wanted. It remains a comfort food for years afterward.
My father always apologizes. He expresses quiet regret, coupled with a kiss on the head. The immediate sorrow subsides, but the depth of the pain creates a framework of inadequacy, a deep distrust of myself. It also creates a feverish embrace of anger. This festers until one evening while babysitting as I am screaming at my younger sister to pick up her toys. She looks at me with glassy eyes and in the reflection, I see my father. I monitor my emotions ever since.
I turn to the authors for guidance. I read Orwell for knowledge and Eliot for empathy. I read Faulkner to understand how my father and I both gaze outward into open spaces, stranded in labyrinths spanning entire generations, but whose paths never seemed to cross. These authors inform my own writing, often dystopian adventures of robot apocalypses. Beneath those stories are tales of my father, failed translations of melancholy. He will never read these stories.
And I will never read Cooper.
“One of these days,” my father says from underneath the lawnmower. “You’ll write the novel about how your terrible father ruined your life.”
He reaches out for a wrench. It is the third time our lawnmower broke this summer. He chooses to ignore the fact that Home Depot is less than two miles away and Mom is searching for a Father’s Day gift. My exasperation echoes throughout the garage.
“I’ll give you an advance copy,” I quip.
“And you’ll really let me have it at my funeral.”
“Don’t be morbid.”
“Now remember: it must be an Irish wake. Less crying, more Jameson.”
“And silver dollars on your eyes?”
“Absolutely. Gotta pay my passage for the River Styx.”
The lawnmower clanks as a loose bolt drops to the floor. Dad whispers scheisse and scoots onto the garage floor.
“Okay, I’m going to need you to hold the flashlight while I fix the blade,” he says, then grins. “I promise I won’t yell.”
“It’s only been a half hour. There’s still time yet.”
We talk about wanderlust.
My father is a traveler. As a child, I am captivated by his tales of staring down tornadoes in Savannah and nearly trapping himself on the Soviet side of Checkpoint Charlie. If his eyes were not in a book, they were on a map. Cooper describes this character as the frontier hero, a romantic conqueror whose prize converges along the borders of history and culture, offering something new from the frayed fabric of the past.
My father is my first travel companion. In high school, he takes me to London for spring break, a belated celebration of accepting a full-time teaching position with MATC. For me, London is the dream that, in the waning weeks before the trip, becomes palpable in twitching fingers.
“Are you going to be okay traveling with Daddy for a week?” Mom asks me one night while I pack my suitcase.
“I’ll be fine,” I answer, biting my lip. Her hesitation is not unreasonable – the house still echoes from an argument over an improperly clipped bag of pretzels only a few days before.
“Well, toss him in the Thames if you need to,” Mom sighs.
Thankfully, it is not needed. Our week is spent eating fish and chips and searching for Jack the Ripper throughout the grimy snickets of Whitechapel. At Westminster, we listen as Big Ben silences bystanders with its thundering bellow. My father is the among the most reverent, displaying a calm I have never seen in him. Though we are four thousand miles away, he is very much at home.
He brings me to a house in Kensington at the end of Logan Place, marked with a green door bearing the name Garden Lodge. Freddie Mercury once lived there, writing the songs that filled my car rides and sleepless nights. My father rarely listened to Queen, but seemed to understand how the band formed the soundtrack of perseverance in an era before Buzzfeed made retro cool again.
My father stands across the street while I approach the house. The door and brick walls on either side serve as a shrine for Freddie, with messages and song lyrics scrawled with permanent marker. I write my own message, looking over my shoulder to find my father taking pictures and beaming. Even though he cannot connect to me through the band, he recognizes the moment when travel breaks open an imagination. It is a moment I carry with me on two more trips to London, two trips to Berlin and Brussels, and a smattering of European cities in between. Each time, I will remember the face of my father at Big Ben, his stare of solitude and longing.
“So Cooper’s The Spy is having its bicentennial in a few years,” my father informs Mom one evening after dinner.
“Oh?” she responds, voice disappearing in clattering dishes.
“Yeah, The Spy, Mohicans – nearly his entire catalogue, meaning Cooper will become in vogue again. And since – where are you going?”
“You’re going to have to follow me if you want to talk.”
My parents walk to the linen closet by my room. Though my door is closed, I hear my father throughout the conversation. His is the only voice with its own noise ordinance violation.
“As I was saying, since most people will write about Mohicans, this might be a good time to continue my research.”
“Which means you’ll actually have to write,” Mom says.
“Of course.” My father’s voice is indignant, but grows soft.
“You know, if I had half the determination Meaghan did for writing, I would have had no problem finishing my dissertation,” he finally says.
We talk about O’Hare in mid-December.
Our family sits scattered around the departure gate, awaiting our flight to Milwaukee. We have just returned from my graduation ceremony in London. After eight hours traveling across the Atlantic, we are exhausted. Motion sickness drains the color from Mom’s face. My sister charges her phone in another aisle. My master’s degree rests in my backpack, pressed flat by my laptop and holiday gifts from classmates. The silken tones of Anderson Cooper consume our silence from multiple television screens.
I scroll through Facebook on my phone, occasionally tossing glances toward my father. He has been short-tempered the whole trip. He barked directions on the Circle Line and stormed the intersection at Westminster. I think about the man who scampered around naval ships at the London Maritime Museum with untold glee nearly a decade before, his breath taken away by the untold vastness of the world before him. Tonight, his face is concealed by The New York Times and is not the same man.
“So it looks like my undergrad’s hiring an event coordinator,” I read off my phone to Mom. “Not sure if I would actually want to work there, but that could be a nice starting point.”
A scoff emanates from the international section.
“Something to add?” I ask, narrowing my eyes.
“Nothing,” my father says.
“It seems like you really want to say something,” I counter.
My father lowers his paper. “You really want to be a party planner?”
“Event coordinator, and all I said was that I would be looking into it. Not making any commitments here.”
“You really should be looking for jobs in your field.”
“I have been. I was more noting this job for its administrative experience, which—”
“Have you even tried looking at State Department opportunities?”
I draw a breath. Slow, through gritted teeth.
“They are currently in a hiring freeze,” I answer. “Meanwhile, I’ve been applying for dozens of non-profits and think tanks dedicated to international relations. If you recall, I just had that inter—”
“What about the CIA? FBI? Research takes more than five minutes, you know.”
“That’s not re—”
“And you should really talk with your cousin about jobs with his finance firm. I bet you any money they would kill for someone with your degree.”
“And I bet you any money that I would stab my eyes out at the thought of working there.”
“Well, you’re really making a half-assed effort then.”
“Ron, that’s enough,” Mom interjects.
“I’m sorry, but I’m not having her be a party planner,” my father sneers.
“That’s not all they do!” I exclaim, cheeks smoldering. “And I just said I’ve been applying non-stop, doing my research, so clearly I haven’t been dicking around. Why don’t you trust me?”
My father returns to his paper. For him, the argument is done. My eyes blister with tears, mind unraveling as I try to rationalize his outburst. He’s tired, he just wants to go home…
I see the progress of our relationship collapse into dust. I am twelve years old again, sobbing and radioactive with rage, while my father continues his day without second thought.
Shoulders heavy, I open my backpack and take out my master’s degree. My eyes trace over the embossed lettering of the London School of Economics. I run a hand under my nose.
“What are you doing?” Mom asks, placing a hand on my shoulder.
“Reminding myself what I have done,” I answer.
“You know Quinn doesn’t know anything about Cooper?”
My father drives us home after seeing The Death of Stalin at the Downer Theatre. My mom and sister are not the type for black political comedies, so my father and I are each other’s movie partners. Movie nights are always a treat, both because we are busy with work and because it gives my father a chance to drive through his college neighborhood. His Hummer turns onto Lake Drive, where the waves of Lake Michigan emerge toward the sparkling Milwaukee skyline.
“Oh yeah?” he responds.
“Yeah, I was telling her about this story I’m writing – about you actually – and mentioned how I was connecting it to Cooper,” I explain, falling quiet for a moment. “She just sort of cocked her head and asked who it was. It was very strange.”
“It makes sense. She was only a baby when I graduated. She will never know a time where I wasn’t, well, consumed with finishing the paper.”
“Oh, I get it. It’s just interesting because Cooper was so ingrained in my growing up experience, at least by proxy.”
“It is kind of weird,” he agrees. “But it’s just a different relationship.”
The lake sweeps gently onto the shore, washing the sand within the darkness of yesterday.
We talk about reflections.
I meet my father one morning in West Allis for an end-of-semester party hosted by MATC’s welding department. Now retired from the military, he pursues welding in what he calls ‘his second childhood.’ For Valentine’s Day, he welded a rose for my mother, which is now prominently displayed on our dining room table. Had he not already tormented his family with hour-long replays of class during dinner, he might have seen more enthusiasm toward his invitation. Then he promised pizza, so I went.
I find my father standing outside the entrance of the workshop, talking to three students wearing helmets. He introduces me to them when I arrive: they are not only classmates, but also students of his first year writing course. I notice how the three men stand just a little bit straighter as they are addressed by my father. I conceal a smirk as he leads me inside.
“Basil!” my father shouts, calling to a portly man with a kind face. “I want you to meet my daughter. Meaghan, this is Basil, my welding teacher this past spring.”
“Nice to meet you!” I exclaim, shaking Basil’s hand.
“Wow,” he says. “You look just like your dad. I could recognize you from a mile away!”
I give Basil a knowing smile. Others have made similar observations. For me, it is a token of pride, along with my cacophonous voice and sarcasm that cuts into others like jagged glass. My father is considerably more apologetic for these traits. I think he’s getting soft.
Sometimes, I look at myself in the mirror and study the features I recognize to be his. I see his bottle cap nose and broad shoulders, the things Mom recognized the moment I was born. I see his pensive brown eyes, nearsighted, yet staring far ahead toward a distance that few can see. When I step back, however, I see only myself.
At one point, my reflection captured my shame in my father’s flaws that have somehow found life in a new generation. Those moments were in the days of Cooper, before my father and I could consider each other as our own people. The tenser memories have softened as we have accepted the components of our shared identities, both positive and negative. As I accept this for myself, so too can I accept this for my father.
Perhaps my father will read this story. Perhaps he will not. Perhaps in the next story, Cooper will constitute a mere footnote in the respect I hold for my father. The respect that, I understand now, he also holds for me.
Or perhaps we will not bother to talk about him at all.
Judge’s Comments: A fascinating exploration of life with a father who teaches, studies, and organizes his life around one of America’s earliest “great novelists.” The writing is sharp and witty, and the essay keeps the reader going from the opening line to the very last sentence. – David McGlynn
by Jeanne Topic
The phone rang in the children’s department of the bookstore at 4:45 pm, fifteen minutes before I was due to end my shift and head home on this late summer day. As a middle school language arts teacher, there could not be a better place to spend my Saturdays as I was surrounded by all of the latest in publishing and on most Saturdays at least a few students of mine would wander in after spending time across the street at the Apple Store or Sephora.
I excused myself from the conversation with two mothers searching for appropriate beginning readers for their preschoolers and picked up the phone.
“Jeanne.” I recognized my sister Mary’s voice immediately. “I think I found the painting.”
I glanced over to the two mothers making their final book selections and for a moment could not register my sister’s words.
“Jeanne. Jeanne, are you there?” Mary shrilled. “Did you hear me?”
“Sorry, Mary. I’m here.”
“You need to make a stop on your way home. A resale shop. Laura just called me that she was there today and saw a painting on an easel with mom’s signature bottom right-hand corner. She also said there’s a notation attached to the painting about Risky Business.” Laura was Mary’s best friend since earliest childhood and would have recognized my mother’s name and Mary’s and my maiden name.
I struggled to take in the information. It had been several months since I had given the painting more than a brief thought. I glanced over one more time at the mothers who were now approaching the checkout counter with their book purchases.
“Are you at the shop now?” I asked.
“No. I can’t get there. I’m stuck in city traffic.”
“Okay, give me the address. I’m leaving now.”
After offering my good-byes to my co-workers and wishing the evening staff a heartfelt good evening, I made my way to my car. On the way to the resale shop, I brought back to mind the series of events that led to our pursuit of the painting of movie fame.
Caroline began taking art classes at the local junior college after the youngest of her four children went off to school. She joined the community art league and resurrected a niche in our basement for her artistic pursuits. About four years into these endeavors she began entering art fairs and was particularly proud when her work was accepted by a juried panel in a rather elite Chicago suburb. What a coup for my mother as this show drew hundreds and hundreds of people. Among those browsing that particular weekend was a buyer for the Standard Oil Company which was scheduled to open its new headquarters in downtown Chicago. This buyer was on the hunt for artwork for the first floor art gallery’s permanent collection in the skyscraper.
The buyer purchased one of my mother’s works, an oil painting of a shoreline scene depicted from somewhere in Door County, Wisconsin. In an indeterminate time of day, the painting captured a few small boats, sails down, entering a cove along with several unobtrusive buildings with eyes toward the water beyond the cove. Caroline had titled the painting Cove Life. My parents spent time every year in Sister Bay, and my siblings and I with families of our own used the condominium for vacations. Shorelines and prairie barns were her overall favorite scenes and there was no lack of inspiration in Door County.
Not long after the opening of the Standard Oil Company art gallery, my mother learned that a set director for the Tom Cruise movie Risky Business to be filmed in Chicago had visited the gallery and was negotiating to include artwork for the indoor scenes of the movie featuring young Cruise making the most of his time at home alone. Cove Life ended up on the living room wall in Cruise’s movie home.
“How many times did we go to the movie to see mom’s painting?” I asked myself. I couldn’t truthfully answer but remembered fondly that several family members of appropriate age met at the local movie theater the night Risky Business opened. All eyes focused on the indoor house scenes – never mind Tom Cruise-we came for Cove Life.
Caroline continued to paint and added quilting to her list of achievements. It all came to a somber end when she lost her fight with breast cancer.
Several years later Standard Oil announced they were vacating the headquarters in Chicago and another company was moving in. I immediately contacted the public relations department and asked what was going to happen to the artwork in the gallery.
“We have nothing to reveal regarding the artwork, ma’am. All contents are totally the property of the Standard Oil Company.” This bare bones bit of information came from a rather terse employee.
And that was that. Until today.
I hadn’t really given any thought to how to approach the proprietors of the resale shop. This had all happened so fast that I hadn’t had time to think of an approach or how I would deal with disappointment if this was not Cove Life. Because it was a resale shop, I did not expect that there would be a high price on the painting – if it WAS the painting. I felt certain that we would not be quibbling over price.
I entered the pleasant and homey shop and turned immediately to the living room furnishings to the right. There, on the easel, just as Laura said, was the painting of so many years ago and a typewritten note to its right: “this painting is rumored to have been featured in the movie Risky Business.” While that might have been the reason for the prominence of the painting in the shop, the price listed was more than reasonable. The family would have paid much more for its return.
I slowly sat down on the secondhand sofa immediately in front of the painting and simply stared at it. I could smell the oil paint Caroline had used – I could see her cleaning her brushes-I watched her lovingly wrap the painting in the flannel she utilized to transport her artwork to shows.
A salesperson approached me, interrupting my fleeting thoughts, and asked, “Are you interested in the painting or the sofa or maybe both?”
I smiled at her and tentatively answered, “The painting. How did you acquire it?”
She returned with a smile of her own, “This painting was part of an estate sale which we handled about two weeks ago. I’m not sure if the story about the movie is true, but the note came with the painting.”
“I’ll take it,” I said without hesitation.
The salesperson gently removed Cove Life from the easel and walked with me to the counter. “Do you want this note regarding Risky Business?”
“Yes, please include that in the wrapping.”
We concluded the transaction, and as I reached for my purchase the salesperson looked at me a little more carefully. “You came right in and went to the painting as though you were looking for it specifically. Is there a story here?”
“I wasn’t going to say anything because I didn’t want you to feel you had to cut me a deal, but my mother is the artist. She passed away several years ago and the family had been hoping to get Cove Life back one day. Here it is, no more than fifteen minutes from where I live and discovered by a family friend who just happened to stop in here this morning.” I felt a tear form in the corner of my eye.
“How fortunate for you and for your family. I might suggest that you have it examined by a professional and see to new framing. You are going to want this as an heirloom for years and years to come. And I am going to watch the movie the next chance I get!”
Driving home with the precious cargo in the trunk of my car, I thought of the narratives shared with students in my classrooms of victims of aggression losing their beloved possessions and the reactions of these same people when an item or items were miraculously returned. While Cove Life was not stolen but sold, it must be a similar feeling – the little space between one’s heart and one’s soul that now feels whole again.
Judge’s Comments: By a combination of chance and good fortune, a woman’s painting – of Door County – ends up gracing the walls of a major corporation and then, if that weren’t enough, appearing in a major motion picture. Years later, the artists’ daughters find the painting in a resale shop, prompting a mad scramble to reacquire the work and a loving memory of the artist who first put her brush to the canvas. A compelling, swift read. – David McGlynn
*listed in no particular order
by Megan Williams
Twenty years ago, knowing that my grandmother might die soon and I will forever lose her stories, I drive from Philadelphia to Bar Harbor to talk about the Great Fire of 1947. In keeping with her sheer obstinacy and force of will, it takes Frances fifteen years after this final visit of mine to die.
It’s late winter, so I drive the coastal route, thinking you’d have to have a serious screw loose to live alone in coastal Maine, as my grandmother has for thirty years. Everything here is cold and black. The evergreens are laden with ice, and the ocean roils beneath the bridges connecting the fingers of land I cross as I make my way North.
In March, there are no RVs chugging caterpillar-like along the one lane roads. The tourist shops remain boarded up, but I’m happy to see that many of the things that punctuated the summer trips of my childhood remain. The Orange T-Rex outside Boston, the “Big Cheese” store just before Thompson Island in the shape of a giant wheel of Swiss with a mouse standing on top. The mouse disappeared long ago, and the building is now painted an anonymous Pottery Barn brown, but I recognize it immediately. That building means I’m about to drive onto Mount Desert Island – home to three generations of my family.
Maine is where I learn to ride a bike on our summer visits; where I first see the fan-like top of a barnacle unfurl in a tidal pool, where I fall asleep to the companionable sounds of my parents drinking gin and tonics on the porch. Time is marked in Maine from summer to summer on the kitchen wall. “This is my mark. This is where I was last year.”
No matter how much life changes in the years after I was a child – with my mother disappearing into a bottle of vermouth and my father leaving his thirty-year marriage – the house on Cromwell Harbor Road stays the same.
“I remember your grandfather’s hands shaking as we drove from town back to the house on the day the fire left,” my grandmother tells me over tea, her own fingers folding and refolding the sides of her paper napkin. ‘It was a moonscape. People around here say October 23, 1940 was “the day Maine burned.” Dead animals, charred trees. Horrible. Horrible. And then we turned onto the gravel driveway and came over the rise in the meadow, and our house was standing, right where we’d left it.”
During the turmoil of my young adulthood, when my mother calls me to ask for my father’s phone number because our house in Boston is in foreclosure, I call Maman and she describes life in the little salt box house our family has owned since 1940.
These are boring conversations. We talk a lot about the snow and about her potatoes. Once she starts in on the root vegetables, I stop listening. What do I, a chain-smoking twenty-two year old Ph.D. student in English, care about growing things?
My grandmother is a master-gardener, defined by the dirt beneath her fingernails. Alone in the house on Crowell Harbor Road, she never seems lonely; instead, she has fallen in love with the future perfect of gardening. “They don’t like to get their feet wet,” she pronounces, describing her transplanted irises. I want to cut through the comfort she gives me, to tell her that plants aren’t people, that they can’t walk into her kitchen for a cup of tea to cure their sodden feet, but her blanket declarations leave no room for my dissent. “My plants are always in the process of becoming,” she sighs. Alone and lonely in my apartment in Philadelphia, I shake my head, more interested in going over the wounds of the past than in building a living present. I haven’t planted anything since I was child, gardening with my parents. Japanese blue fern. Mahonia. I used to know the names of everything that grew in our backyard. Now, I’m simply good at destroying things.
A true child of the Depression, my grandmother punishes me for my complete lack of interest in her garden by sending me bushel upon bushel of potatoes during the growing season. During the summer months, they sit in bags upon my porch, their black eyes staring at me in recrimination. As an adult, I’m good at destroying things. Friendships. A house plant. My grandmother’s bags of potatoes aren’t really alive anymore, but I let them rot in the summer sun.
When my grandmother drones on and on about bulbs and shoots, I imagine the smell of the freshly cut meadow and the squishing sound the rotting apples make as my sister and I race barefoot through the orchard as children. All my memories of Maine happen in the summer. Summer isn’t really summer in Maine. Even on a hot day, you feel the cool dread of fall lurking beneath the pine trees. By mid-summer, there’s already one tree on every mountain that has turned cardinal red. I don’t live in Maine, have never lived there, yet still it feels more like home than any place else.
I always love hearing about The Great Bar Harbor Fire of 1947. Sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, I watch the embers inside the pot-bellied stove burn, hissing and spitting out a wet winter, and wonder what it is about the Maine chill, even in the summer, that keeps bringing us back to the Fire. It’s always cold in my grandmother’s house; she hates Bangor Power Company, so she never turns the heat on, choosing instead to trick her guests by setting the thermostats to 70 and turning the main switch off.
“I just can’t understand why it’s so cold in here,” she complains as she bundles up to go chop yet another load of wood. I smirk, but know better than to suggest it might be because the heat is off.
After a lifetime of shivering in my grandmother’s kitchen listening to my family talk about the Fire, it burns, independently, in my imagination. The details I collect form soft pebbles, worn from overuse and handling.
In my memory of the day the Fire came to my grandparents’ house on Cromwell Harbor Road, I see my grandmother doing what she always does when we talk. Bent over the sink, her hands pry open teabags. A wet mound lies on the counter, a week’s worth of Earl Grey.
“Why don’t you just throw those out?” I dared to ask once when I was six.
“Compost,” she spat back. Maman didn’t like being told what to do. After she eviscerates them, she piles the torn bags of cheesecloth together. Their damp strings trailing behind them, they look like miniature jelly fish, washed up to dry on the side of our sink.
At lunch time on October 23, 1947, when the evacuation whistle sounds for Cromwell Harbor Road, Grandma is standing over the sink with her tea bags. Her hands still, but just for a moment. She finishes the pile. She lived through the Depression, saw her father line the driveway with the chicken cages that would pay for her and her two sisters to go to the Mount Holyoke College for Young Women. She knows the importance of saving.
“For days we watched the fire crawl over the shoulders of Cadillac Mountain towards the house,” my grandmother sighs. “We sent your dad and uncle up to the roof to play with hoses on the day the fire came. That’s the reason it was the only house on Cromwell Harbor Road that survived.”
Once the whistle blows and it’s time, my grandmother shuffles through the house, clucking to herself in her half-damning, half-soothing way. With fifteen minutes to pack up a house, a family, a life, she doesn’t hesitate. Three kids, an English setter, a Maine coon cat named Puff. She spreads three large blankets on the living room floor and fills them with photographs.
“Besides our family,” she explains, “baby photographs were the only things that were irreplaceable.” In an instant, she chose warmth and history.
At the same time that stories about the Fire bring comfort, a momentary softening of the ocean dampness, they color the places I live with fear. When I leave my own house, I return, again and again. Double and triple checking to make sure the gas burners are off, the coffee pot plug is firmly anchored to the wall, the back door is locked. Sometimes, when I leave, I feel as if I could be stuck inside for hours, touching everything, lingering, putting my memories in my fingertips in the braille-like way I learned from my grandmother.
My grandmother, it turns out, doesn’t leave the house on Cromwell Harbor Road easily. At the end of the driveway, she demands that the evacuation convoy the National Guard sent turn around. “I’d forgotten my sewing machine,” she tells me, her jaw set tightly.
“They think the fire was started in one of the campgrounds,” she shrugs when she reports this, for it no longer matters. In a matter of hours, my grandmother’s Bar Harbor disappears. While she, Tommy, Susie, and Jack sleep on the sandbar outside town, my grandfather volunteers in town and the National Guard stops the fire by dynamiting the big hotels and the sprawling summer cottages. The destruction is total. Mount Desert Street becomes a place where you can now buy a thirty dollar t-shirt that reads, “You cahn’t get theah from heah.”
“There are great stories about the fireman and the Big Fire Chief from Camden who they brought in to take a stand on Mount Desert street,” my grandmother continues, slipping easily away from the neon motel present into the past. “There are stories like that, you know. People who were here, then, you know. Would remember. They lost everything.”
“You should talk to the people who are left,” my grandmother advises, “before we all die.”
I want to tell her that stories don’t keep me warm at night, but I’m not sure I believe this, plus, nothing I say matters anyway. Maman bulldozes ahead, setting up three appointments for the second day of my visit.
Whitely Patterson, my father’s childhood friend, comes for tea with my grandmother first. “I love this house,” he sighs when he arrives, bundled against an early spring blizzard. “It smells like the past.”
My grandmother and I nod, sharing a rare moment of agreement. Even after decades of paint, the cedar smoke from the stove is embedded in the walls. There’s a wistfulness in Whitely’s voice, as if he were sorry his family sold the house on Cromwell Harbor Road to mine in 1940.
During the Fire, Whitely was in the hospital with pneumonia.
“To this day, I blame my mother for forgetting to open the door to the chicken coop before they evacuated.” Whitely makes a fist with both hands. My grandmother has heard this story before, as have I, but rehearing it brings a warmth I never feel when it is just the two of us sitting in her kitchen.
“That’s the way it is with sons,” my grandmother smiles, sipping her tea. “Always blaming their mothers—”
“—See, it was my job to take care of those chickens.” Whitely looks mournfully at me. “And when we came back to Cromwell Harbor Road, we could see your house still standing, but ours, and everything around it, was gone. I was still very sick when my mother told me about the chickens. I was so upset. As only a boy of ten can be, I suppose.”
“Some people wouldn’t leave,” my grandmother reminds him. “Your family was lucky they did.”
After tea with Whitely, I visit Mrs. Brown at Sonogee, a rehabilitation home that faces Frenchman’s Bay. Walking down the hallways, I immediately want to run for the salt air, to be free of the cloying antiseptic they use to disguise the smell of growing old. I’m happy that my grandmother has her meadow, just beginning to crackle beneath its ice casing, and not this place.
“Come in here,” a booming voice demands.
In the middle of the room, sitting like a tortoise in the hard shell of her wheelchair, is a wizened old woman.
“You look just like Frances.” Something about her tone suggests this isn’t a good thing.
“Hi.” I try to lower my voice. Talking at Sonogee, I feel too loud, too full of life.
“Marion Brown,” she extends a hand, parsimoniously, as if her touch were a privilege. “Our families went through the Fire together,” she declares with finality, as if it were an ending and not the beginning of a conversation.
“Yes.” There are no chairs in the room, so I balance on the side of her bed. Outside her window, a lobster boat passes, its engines throbbing dully.
“You’ll never be able to understand,” she states, and I wonder why she has agreed to speak with me, if she truly believes I’m trying to understand her, instead of my own grandmother.
“Pass me my glasses so I can see you better. Not there.” She shakes a finger at me, and I see it’s swollen jointless, like an inchworm. “There, on the cupboard. No. There.”
“Yes,” she pauses and nods. “You still look like Frances.” Apparently, she and my grandmother have a history of hating each other.
“We weren’t in the convoy that came to pick your family up that day.”
I nod, understanding that all stories in Sonogee lead back to the Fire.
“Stupid Frances,” Mrs. Brown spits. “Going back for her sewing machine. What was so special about a sewing machine?”
“Ummm hmmm.” Her eyes are far away, looking back at the person she was.
“What I remember about that day was what people carried with them. When the siren rang, one woman went back to her house and grabbed all the jelly glasses. That’s all she took. Just jelly glasses. Can you imagine?” A cruel little smile escapes the side of Mrs. Brown’s mouth.
“So, what did you take?” I ask, challenging the idea that you can measure people by what they carry in the face of a disaster.
“I don’t know what she thought she was going to do with all those glasses,” Mrs. Brown continues. There is a natural order to her story that she will not allow my presence to derail.
“Me, I took a lot of trousers.”
“For my husband and the boys,” she adds. “But I forgot the belts. The wind was blowing so hot, I couldn’t think straight. When we drove back from McFarland’s hill, past the greenhouse on the corner of Kebo and Mount Desert, all the panes had melted. They were hanging down like icicles.”
Mrs. Brown’s eyes open wide, holding on to her past amazement.
“What was on McFarland’s hill?”
“Rope,” Mrs. Brown says the single word shortly, in the same clipped tone my grandmother talks about her compost.
Rubbing my hands on my jeans, I shift forward, ready to leave.
Mrs. Brown wheels closer, trapping me against the side of the bed.
“Sit,” she orders.
“We’d just bought this great rope. My husband left it on the side of the hill to drag trees. I would’ve hated to see that rope burn. It was very valuable.” She rubs her hands together, massaging her oversized knuckles. Outside, the lobster boat idles, doubling back on its traps.
“So, we took the silver from the house, dinner, the trousers, and stopped on our way out of town to pick up the rope. We spent the night in Ellsworth. I didn’t sleep at all. When we came back, our ten room house was just a cellar. We couldn’t see if what was in the smoldering hole was a refrigerator or a bed frame.”
She shakes her head, trying to empty the memory. “But we were able to save more than some.”
“Who was in the car?”
I want to hear about what was saved, not lost.
“My husband and our children.”
“Well, we had two dogs,” she dismisses them with a wave of her hand. “We had to let them go. English setters, they were. We let them run off into the woods. There just wasn’t room.”
I stare at her, silhouetted in the window against the grey of the ocean, and think about all the pets, all the stories my family tells about animals. I know that Nellie the English Setter rode in the weapons carrier convoy, that one year she ate all the Christmas presents, and the boys came downstairs to find only mangled wrapping paper scattered around the living room.
“We couldn’t take them with us,” Mrs. Brown adds lamely. “It was a fire.”
“It was nice meeting you.” I push the wheels of her chair backwards.
She grunts and turns away, towards the ocean, and I think that this home, filled with old people, where you can see the ocean, hear it, but can never smell it, is the perfect place for her.
In the parking lot outside Sonogee, the wind blows in from the northeast, leaving a frozen sheen over everything it touches, whipping my hair against my face like seaweed.
On the drive back to Cromwell Harbor Road, I think about all the neighbors, all the stories that were never recorded, all the houses that didn’t survive. Coming around the bend, the house is there. As it always is. Yellow clapboards against the granite mountains. It has survived, waiting for the next generation. And the next.
Mrs. Jane Sleeper didn’t take anything from her house on Hancock Street, the house she lived in until she died, because she never left. She stayed while her husband, in his first year as fire chief, fought the Fire.
“I always had a crush on David Sleeper,” my grandmother giggles as I help her up the steps to Mrs. Sleeper’s house on our way to tea. I don’t know why she’s whispering since Mr. Sleeper has been dead for twenty years. “He was so good looking and charming.”
The house on Hancock Street feels different from my grandmother’s, as if it has survived a different fire. I imagine Mrs. Sleeper in 1947, leaning, as she does now, against the heavy damask upholstery of her wing chairs. Maybe because this house almost touches those next to it, because the wind doesn’t whistle through it at night, because it doesn’t have wicker furniture, it feels more permanent than my family’s house. Maybe this is the way a house feels when no one deserts it, as my family did by moving to Duxbury, Massachusetts, after the Fire.
“I forget sometimes that your family lived through the Fire,” Mrs. Sleeper murmurs, and I nod, politely, before she continues with the damning finality of a small New England town. “You aren’t from here. You’re from away. You’ve always been from away.”
My grandmother lets out one of her characteristic snorts, and I brace myself, certain Mrs. Sleeper is about to get a serious dressing down. But my grandmother stays strangely silent. My family has lived in Bar Harbor since 1940, and I wonder what it takes, in Mrs. Sleeper’s world, to belong, to finally be “from here.”
When the kettle whistles and Mrs. Sleeper walks into the kitchen, my grandmother waves me closer.
“It’s because people in our family go away to college.” She wrinkles her nose, disdainful of Mrs. Sleeper’s small town parochialism. ‘That’s why we’ll always be “from away.”’
After pouring tea, Mrs. Sleeper returns to the Fire, drawn back to it in the way so many of the people of her generation are.
“The whole thing has a dream-like quality to me now.” She smoothes her plaid skirt over knobby knees. “The town changed forever that day. The Thursday the Fire came was the last maid’s-day-off Bar Harbor ever saw. We didn’t have help like them,” she flicks her wrist towards the hill where the big summer “cottages” used to sit. “But I would look out my window and know it was Thursday because the streets were full of young girls, dressed in white and walking hand in hand.”
“What were you doing that Thursday?” I ask, knowing that in my family, the moments before the evacuation are sacred, immortalized by images of Tommy and Jack roof sledding with the hose.
“We knew they were going to blow the whistle soon, so I was making a cold pot roast that David, my husband, could take with him to the fire house. We didn’t know it then, but I wasn’t going to see him for five days. He ended up sleeping on the floor of the station. And I started to write letters to my family and friends off the island. I wanted them to know . . . .” Her voice stutters and stops as she reaches, without looking, for the box of tissues next to the chair. The side of the table is worn, unvarnished, as if she often sits here like this, on the edge of tears.
“David and I had just moved into this house,” she confides. “We hadn’t been married very long, and he’d just started his new job as fire chief.”
The Fire of 1947 was the beginning of the Sleeper’s life together.
In the ceramic blue of Mrs. Sleeper’s eyes, I see their first moment together after the dynamite stopped the flames. Mr. Sleeper climbs the front steps, leaving soot marks on the white portico banister that Mrs. Sleeper will wash away the next morning. He opens the screen door, surprising his wife, enveloping her in an embrace that mixes the outside smells of singed yellow tin cloth with the tannic breath of her tea-drinking and five day panic.
Fifty years later, Mrs. Sleeper holds onto this embrace, this homecoming, and the memory of it marks her husband’s absence. I want to touch her shoulder, to acknowledge her tears, but her eyes have turned a kettledrum grey color.
“I’m sorry I upset you.”
“You didn’t.” She looks up, surprised to find me and my grandmother in her living room. “I do that.”
After we leave Mrs. Sleeper sitting in her chair with her tissues and her cup of tea, I wonder what it is I have done by collecting these stories. While I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m more like Whitely and Mrs. Sleeper and my grandmother than Marion Brown, I wonder why my grandmother appointed me custodian of her past. She could easily have collected these stories herself, bypassing me, the granddaughter who is strangely present but also absent.
Since I was a young child, I have replayed how I would act in the face of my own fire. I have spent hours imagining what it would be like to be fully present in my family’s past. Unlike my grandmother, I would not throw pictures on a blanket. My photographs are packed and ready. In my albums, there is a picture of my grandmother and my three-year-old father on the front step of the house on Cromwell Harbor Road, washed in sepia tones. There are color images of me, my sister, and all our stuffed animals lined on the lip of the lawn, right where it turns into a meadow of Indian paintbrushes. My grandmother gave me her photographs when she died. Having survived one fire, I will not abandon them to another.
God’s Boot Camp
by Nove Meyers
I leaned against the massive chapel doors of St. Pius X Seminary, watching Dad’s green Ford van recede through the line of Eucalyptus trees lining Twin Cities Road. After the van had disappeared like the green dot that flashes just at sunset over the ocean, I found my way back to my dorm. I sat on my bed, identical to the dozen or so others that filled the room, except for the pattern of my bedspread. Mother had spent most of the last two hours fussing over making my bed and putting my clothes away in the nightstand and the small locker at the end of the room. She was not normally a “fusser,” but she was delaying leaving her firstborn in his new world, one she didn’t control.
I lay back on the bed and shut my eyes. I was where I had wanted to be ever since I’d learned that going to the seminary was how a person got to become a priest. I was thirteen and leaving home, fearful and excited, in equal measure.
I was Daniel at the lion’s den, a Christian entering the Coliseum. I was Don Quixote, fully armored astride my faithful steed ready to take on the largest windmill. I could see myself on the altar transforming the bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood with my words, “Hoc est enim corpus meum – this is my body.” All that separated me from that moment were twelve years in the seminary: my lifetime again.
“Hi. I’m Bob.”
I opened my eyes to see a tall, skinny guy with a blond crewcut standing over my bed. This was the first seminarian I met, other than the two classmates, Joe and Sabia, who had come with me from my grade school.
“You must be Nove, right? They sent me to look after you, show you the ropes. I’m supposed to be like your ‘Guardian Angel’ for a few days until you know your way around here.”
“Yes, I’m Nove. Good to meet you.”
“I’m a sophomore, from Sacramento. Would you like to take a tour of the place?”
“Sure. They gave us a quick tour when we came for the test, but it’s a little blurry. So much to see, and I was concentrating on getting the test right.”
“Where do you want to start?”
“I don’t know. Anywhere, I guess. Only place I know is my dorm here, and the office.”
“Well, let’s start with the gym and the pool. Most guys like that. By the way, where’re you from?”
“Holy Spirit, in Fairfield.”
“Oh. Very end of the diocese. You guys just made it in. A little further south, and you’d be going to the old seminary down by San Jose. You’d miss this nice new place we have here.”
“Yeah, that’s what they told us.”
“Who’s your pastor?”
“Fr. Carney. And before that it was Fr. Murphy.”
“And the assistant priests. Who were they?”
“Well, we had Fr. Finnegan and Fr. Gallagher and a couple I don’t remember.”
“Notice anything about them? The names? They’re all Irish, FBI, short for ‘foreign born Irish.’ Most of the clergy in our diocese are Irish, from Ireland. That’s what makes Sacramento a ‘missionary’ diocese. We don’t have nearly enough native clergy, priests, or nuns, so they import most of them from Ireland. Technically, that makes our diocese like Africa or China. That’s why we have this new seminary. It’s kind of like a factory for priests.”
“Hmm. You’re right. I knew the nuns in our school were from Ireland, because they all talked about it, but I never thought about the priests before now.”
Bob lead me out through the dorm past the communal shower room that separated my dorm from an identical one at the other end of the hallway. Before we got to the gym, he told me to look outside the windowed hallway to the right.
“See that space, with the markers on the ground? That’s where they’re going to build another dorm. If you notice, the north to south buildings are two stories. They’re for sleeping. There’s three right now. Your dorm and the one next to it are for students. The one past the chapel is for the priests and brothers. It’s not really a dorm. They have individual rooms. At least that’s what I’m told. Nobody’s allowed to go over there.”
“Why are they adding on already? I thought this place was brand new.”
“Two years old, but I think that the dorm was planned originally. They just didn’t know they’d have to add it so soon. I heard you guys have over sixty in your class. That’s huge. Biggest group that’s ever come to the seminary. It’s because our diocese is growing so fast, and they’re pushing to make more priests. Plus, we get the guys from the two new dioceses, Santa Rosa and Stockton. You’ll have guys in your class from Modesto, Turlock, places like that. Probably even up near Eureka, where the seminary used to be before they built this new one here in Galt. They did it right. Planned it to take care of the priest need for the next century or so. Several hundred acres here. Lot of room for expansion. Before long there will be plenty of native-born priests. And you and I, we’re the beginning.”
(St. Pius, built for a century, closed fifteen years later and produced fewer than two dozen priests).
“Well, here’s the gym. Other than the dorms, it’s the only two-story building. The single stories are for classrooms. Oh, and the chapel. That’s tall, nearly three stories. It has to be that big because some fancy artist in Paris built a huge stained-glass window for it.”
“Wow. Nice gym. And big. What are the curtains for?”
“Oh, that’s where the stage is. We also do plays here. Every Lenten season we have a Passion Play. You know, about the end of Jesus’ life.”
“Yes, I know. I was in one last year in Fairfield.”
“Anyway, it’s a big deal. Everybody comes, parents and all. Almost all the students are involved; actors, stage crew, ushers, you name it. Fr. Nick, he’s our music teacher, he’s the director. You’ll meet him soon enough. Can’t miss him. I mean that literally. You can’t miss him. He’s a big guy, biggest priest here.”
“Weird thing, though, about the play. Since everybody here at the seminary is a guy, all the actors are guys, even the girl parts. There’s only a few though: Jesus’ Mother Mary, Veronica, and Mary Magdalene, I think. They’re not speaking parts. Veronica just stands there holding her veil and Jesus’ mother holds Him after they take him down from the cross. I don’t remember what Mary Magdalene does. But here’s the thing. Fr. Nick is talking about doing a Fall musical, ‘Finnian’s Rainbow,’ ‘Oliver,’ stuff like that, which have talking girl parts. Not sure how that’s going to work out.”
“Well, here’s the pool. It’s nice. You a swimmer?”
“Yeah, I learned in second grade.”
“That’s good. And I hope you learned how to hold your breath. They like to dunk people here, especially Freshman. Hold you down till you think you’re gonna drown and then let you up. The meaner ones do it again. You have to watch out for that. Otherwise the pool is fun. We play ‘Marco Polo’ and other games.”
“We don’t have time right now to explore all the grounds, but out back there are auto, and carpentry shops run by the brothers, a pool hall that also has ping-pong tables and way out back, a shooting range. One of the brothers keeps everyone’s rifle locked up and brings them out when a group wants to go practice.”
“What do you mean when you say, ‘brothers’ Bob?”
“Well, there are some other men who live here at the seminary. They’re not priests, even though they dress the same. I don’t think any of them teach, but they might. They do stuff like oversee the grounds, keep the cars running, and lots of other little stuff it takes to keep this place going.”
“But they’re not priests?”
“No. Mainly they can’t say mass or hear confessions. That’s the big difference. I don’t know why they are ‘brothers’ instead of priests. Maybe the Latin was too hard for them. Maybe God just didn’t call them to priesthood. I guess you can ask them after you get to know them. Most of them are nice, a little quiet, but cool.”
Next Bob took me down a couple of corridors and showed me the classrooms, music room, labs, and the library. Finally, we got to the chapel.
“I’ll take you inside and we can look around. Can’t talk in there, so we’ll come back outside, and you can ask me questions.”
The chapel was like a big letter “U” laid on its side with the bottom of the “U” holding the altar and this huge stained-glass window of Jesus and his disciples. It was faced so the sun blazed through the window when we came for morning prayers and mass. Pretty impressive, even if a person isn’t a Catholic. There were confessionals in the back, near the big doors; an organ up front, but no separate choir loft as far as I could see. The strange thing, though, was that instead of statues of Mary and the saints, there looked like there were four or five more altars besides the main one, scattered throughout the building.
“Why are there so many altars, if that is what they are?” I asked Bob after we exited.
“Oh, those are side altars.” He went on to explain how every Catholic priest in the world is obligated to say mass every day, not just on Sunday like the rest of us. This reminded me of the nuns telling us about the priests locked away in Communist prisons who must save or steal a crumb of bread and then sneak in their mass when the guards aren’t looking.
“We have about a dozen priests here at St. Pius,” Bob went on, “and they each have to say their own mass. So, each morning, while we are praying, meditating, and having our group mass, you’ll see individual priests, usually with one altar boy, coming out from the sacristy and going to one of those altars to say his own daily mass. They’re fast though. One of them can get through it in under fifteen minutes.”
“I see that the organ is up front near the altar and there’s no choir loft?”
“That’s because we’re the choir. Everybody sings. It’s all in Latin.”
“Well, it’s about time for dinner. Let’s head across the courtyard to the refectory. That’s what they call the dining room. Not sure why, that’s just what they call it. Kind of like it being the ‘mess hall’ for the military.”
As we crossed the open courtyard, Bob pointed out a Koi pond with a white statue rising above the goldfish. “That’s Pius X, Saint Pius the tenth, the one the seminary is named for. He was the first pope of the twentieth century. They made him a saint, probably because he made it so kids could start going to communion when they were seven instead of waiting until they were teenagers.”
The dining hall was full of guys, new ones trying to figure out what to do, where to sit, and others renewing friendships after the summer. The rectangular tables each sat eight. Bob took me to one and stood me behind a chair. Everyone was still standing. Bob introduced me to the guy at the head. “Nove, this is Mr. McFadden. He’s a senior. We call the seniors “Mister.” He is the table proctor. He makes sure that everyone behaves and eats their food.”
Did I mention that I was a picky eater? I hadn’t planned on this part. It was my first brush with seminary reality. I know I didn’t expect to survive on communion wafers like some of the saints the nuns told us about, but I hadn’t really considered the food part. Probably best, or I might not have signed on. In grade school, lunch had consisted of one of my two favorites, either a salami and cheese or a PB&J sandwich. I won’t say that I eschewed vegetables entirely, but I chewed very few of them, and there were several hundred food groups not on my preferred list.
The table proctor (dictator) had other ideas. He insisted that we eat everything on our plate, recognizable or not. This was okay at breakfast, especially on French toast days with their vanishing slices of one of the few items we praised the kitchen for. I’d say they were just this side of delicious, but we wolfed them down like a pack of dogs, hardly taking time to taste them. I was a small kid and only managed eight slices on my best day, but I believe the record was twenty-two. Dinner was a different matter. Fr. Tim, the seminary treasurer was the original gleaner. One story has it that the train that passed by two blocks from our classrooms spilled a load of tomatoes. That explained, for us, the months of stewed tomatoes that seemed to accompany every evening meal, as if the tomatoes were “getting it on” in some dark corner of the pantry and producing stewed offspring overnight.
You either ate the food that was provided, or… you ate the food that was provided. If you balked, you might also get a special assignment, such as writing a five-hundred-word essay on the sex life of the eggplant. My picky appetite was one of the first casualties of my seminary career. Those iron-rich tomatoes soon provided an iron lining to my stomach.
After dinner that first evening, one of the priests showed us a movie. I guess it was to help us not feel homesick or something. It was some kind of World War II film. I’m not sure it helped with the homesickness, but at least there was popcorn.
The next day was Freshman orientation day. The first part of the day went okay. After our morning rituals in the chapel and a passable breakfast, we got our textbooks for various class and learned where each one met, and when. Our “Guardian Angels” were around, plus some of the other priests who would be our teachers.
After lunch they crammed us all, sixty-three, into one classroom. Guys were sitting in chairs, on desks, and on the heater registers along the wall. A few latecomers were standing. The same priest from last night’s movie came in. He walked to the front of the room and stood on the dais where the teacher’s desk was. The six-inch dais made his own 6’3” frame even more imposing in the long black cassock he wore. He had the bearing of a military general, chiseled features, and jet-black hair, thinning on top, although I had to take others’ word for that because at five foot, zero inches, I couldn’t get a bird’s eye perspective.
Some things are a blur, but the next hour went something like this.
“What do you do when a priest walks into the room?” were the first words out of his mouth.
Silence. Finally, one voice ventures a guess. “We stand up?”
“That’s right. You stand up. And what do you say?”
“You say, ‘Good morning, Father.’”
“But its afternoon,” a voice from the back blurted out.
“A wise guy. Stand up. What’s your name, Son?”
“That’s not what I mean. When I ask you your name, you say, ‘Michael, Father.’ That’s the right answer. Now Michael, you know so much about time, you want to be our timekeeper? You want to get up extra early to ring the bells to wake everybody up in the morning?”
“That’s better. Sit down. Now, let’s try this again. I’m going to go out and come back in.” He leaves the room, and a few seconds later he re-enters.
We all stood up and said, “Good afternoon, Father,” as he returned to the dais.
“Much better. I’m Fr. Luke, Fr. Luke McArthur. I’m the Dean here.
Any of you know what ‘Dean’ means? It means, I make the rules.
You know what else it means? It means you follow my rules.
Look around this room. Any of you see your mommies here? No, you don’t. That’s because they’re not here, to take care of you, pickup after you, mollycoddle you. Look outside those windows. Any of you see a truck outside with ‘Janitor’ painted on the side? No, you don’t. And you never will.
Here at St. Pius we clean up after ourselves. We make our beds, sweep the floor, take out the trash, do the dishes, wash the windows.”
“Here’s the first rule. Each morning, after breakfast you’ll have a few minutes to make your bed. When I was in the army our sergeant used to check to see if we made our beds to regulation. He’d walk up to each bed and drop a quarter on it. If the quarter bounced, we passed. If not, we had to remake the bed. Here in the seminary I use the same procedure. With one exception. I won’t bounce a quarter on your bed. I use a feather.”
Thus, began my lifelong hatred of bedmaking.
“Your dorm rooms are where you sleep, change clothes, and clean up. You don’t go in there to sit, fool around, or eat. No food in your dorm. We’re raising priests here, not packs of rats, so we don’t want you feeding them.
Anything that can’t be done on a daily basis is saved for Wednesday afternoons when we don’t have classes. The harder jobs, cleaning the toilets and stuff like that is for my ‘work crew’ guys, the ones who forget about any of my rules.”
There were no pins dropping in the room because we would have heard them. I looked down and took in a deep breath. When I looked up again, Fr. Luke was still there. But now I see him dressed in battle fatigues; his rifle slung across his shoulder; its bayonet rising above his steel helmet; pineapple grenades hanging from his camouflage vest, like the troops in the movie last night.
“I wasn’t always a priest, you know. I didn’t start out in the seminary like you guys. I found God in a foxhole, in France, during the Battle of the Bulge. That was us, in the movie last night, the 101st airborne, the Battling Bastards of Bastogne. You know what happens if you’re late getting into your foxhole?
You get your effing head blown off, that’s what.
“That’s my next rule. Don’t be late. There’s no excuses. We have bells here. They tell you when to go to sleep, get up, study, pray, eat. Everything except when to take a piss.”
Fr. Luke went on like this for another hour. I had so many rules spinning around in my head, they were running into each other.
His final threat was, “And if any of you even think of bending one of my rules, may God have mercy on your soul. There will be crap and blood – yours – all over these walls,” pointing to the chalkboard behind him.
The assault finally ended. As with all seminary activities, except possibly getting a haircut in the student barber shop, the gathering ended with a prayer.
Mine was getting out of this place alive.
“Holy crap. What had I gotten myself into?” This wasn’t what I’d bargained on. I had never heard a priest talk this way. No priest I had ever known used curse words. And now here was this guy wearing a Roman collar and claiming to be a priest, threatening me to within an inch of my life, on the remote possibility that I would do anything wrong, and saying words that my mother wouldn’t allow within a block of our house. In an hour, Luke McArthur, had shattered my lifelong idea of what a priest was.
The quitter’s phone was in a booth right next to the office, but for reasons known only to God, I kept the nickels in my pocket and walked past it that day, and the next, and every other for eight years.
Let’s Speak of The Things We Don’t Tell Our Mothers
by Meghan O’Brien
There were four of us, and we met at the end of a bright and brutal summer. It was the time of year when the golden tint of August began to fade towards fall, when humidity lost its luster and the seasons readied themselves towards their natural shifting. We were in Nashville, Tennessee, a place poised on the edge of potential, a small town ready to burst forth into a grand city. We were there before the world rebuilt itself. The roads were still empty and quiet, the soon-to-be-hip eastside was speckled with empty lots, the grass grown long and damp with dew.
We were a small group, a handful of women that met when we were young and shared a place where none of us grew up or grew old. There was nothing special about us, really. Our lives were jagged, pitted by bad jobs and the heartache of family, mothers who spoke too little and fathers who spoke too much. Just a few young women with forgettable names. We married young, and met at a church we eventually left. Nashville caught us at just the right time.
The book club was Laura’s idea.
“What do you think about a book club,” she asked. “We could do it once a week.” She asked me on the phone or maybe in a coffee shop, perhaps in passing.
“That sounds perfect,” I might have said. I don’t remember how it started, just that it began.
Laura and I shared a friendship that was the oldest of us all. We met at twenty-two, and I could count her ex-boyfriends on my fingers, she remembered mine. We bore an unintentional log of each other’s heartaches and highest moments, simply because we were present when no one else was. Even in her early twenties, Laura carried herself with a sense of world-worn wisdom. It was as if she’d plumbed the depths of a place none of us would ever be privy to. She worked as a therapist, and her insight came honestly. Brilliant and blonde and funny, I trusted her inherently.
Laura invited Sarah.
“Of course!” Sarah answered. Sarah, bright, open, insatiable in her hunger for the broad potential of the world. She subsisted on spurts of spontaneity. There was no heartache grand enough to bind her to emotion. She was skinny and tall, and wore her dark hair long, straight, and almost to her waist. She was born with the odd ability to take the world for what it was worth, while never quite allowing it to touch her. She could withstand any heartache, and she fought long and hard for those she loved. Sarah was a protector. She gave us everything.
I didn’t know Claire, but Sarah did.
“She’s great,” she said, “You’ll like her. She’s young, but great.”
Claire was twenty-years-old, and the third-born of seven children. She was haphazardly homeschooled by her religious parents and encouraged to marry young, which she did. She was an observer and carried herself with an ephemeral dreaminess. When we met Claire worked as a nanny, but I remember her as a nurturer. Her home was green and lush with houseplants, each of which she grew from their tender beginnings. Claire could coax blooms from the most shriveled leaves, and she nursed dead things back to health with quiet, consistent attention.
I was twenty-four when we began our book club. I was newly married, and worked two jobs to put my husband through night school. I was quiet and determined and violently insecure. I was at once a dedicated new wife and a hard-headed marketing associate and a daughter who couldn’t bear to spend time with her family. They broke my heart more assuredly than anyone else. That’s the thing with youth: there is nothing balanced about it. Everything is volatile, and there’s a grand spectrum to swing.
In that way we were complete. There were four of us then, and there are none of us now.
We began to meet every Thursday night, late enough that the traffic had waned, but the sun was still strong. We picked up Oreos on our way home from work, our hair frazzled and faces hot, and set out grapes and crackers on our Goodwill coffee tables. $3 blocks of cheddar grew warm on just-scrubbed plates. Someone brought wine. We sat on each other’s porches or in dark living rooms, we spoke low when our young husbands came home, and exploded with laughter when the house was empty. We bonded over the things we didn’t tell our mothers, and all that we couldn’t.
It’s a strange thing, to lack a mother. Especially so when they’re still alive and kicking a half hour down the road. The year we began our book club, my own mother cut me out of the family through a text message. I was in a roadside restroom in Kentucky, haphazardly navigating puddles of urine and clumped toilet paper when I got her text message.
“I need a break from you,” it said in essence, but it might as well have read, “I don’t want you.” I laughed at first at the ridiculousness of it. Can you imagine, I told my husband, I told Laura on the phone. A mother that doesn’t want their daughter? Their first born? It can’t be true. Later, it made me cry. Still later, I learned to live without. There is something dreadfully dark about a parent that chooses to leave their own child.
Laura’s mother was kind, but could be overbearing in her dogged need to provide for her children. Their relationship was lopsided but generous, and Laura complained with a half-smile about their honest complications. They bickered over home renovations and wedding plans but they loved each other incessantly. I was, and remain, largely envious of their relationship.
Sarah’s mother had been in and out of therapy for years. The survivor of traumatic abuse and injustice in her youth, she carried the heartache of the past into her parenting. Their relationship ran hot and cold, but when Sarah left her husband a few years later, it was her mother who gave the greatest comfort. They remain a testament to the willful ebb and flow of family relationship, and their healing has a flair for the cinematic.
Claire’s parents were religious, and largely so. They did not believe in formal education, and Claire bore a deep bitterness and insecurity from her early lack of schooling. Her family’s fundamentalist beliefs drove a deep wedge between her parents and Claire’s anxiously liberal husband, but holidays were spent together and the correct phone calls were made throughout the year. They tried and failed, as most families should.
Where the families of our youth were no comfort, we built a kinfolk of our own. Every young woman needs a confidant, and somehow we were lucky enough to have three. Youth is heavy. It’s thick with mistakes, and most of the time those ragged early years simply require a foundational element of safety. Each of us broken were broken in our own way, and we trusted each other with our pasts and that trembling mirage of our future. We spoke of the things we could not tell our mothers, and somehow, that was all we needed.
We could not tell our mothers about the hearts crushed underfoot after old breakups, the stray twigs caught in our hair when we stayed out too late, glitter stuck to the wet corners of our mouths. We didn’t tell our mothers about the late nights with strangers, the ones from our teenage years, before we met our husbands. The men with their cheek-cracking smiles, the women who whispered beautiful things when the night grew old. There were no calls home when our mouths were bruised, nothing said to about the hickeys speckled across a much-used chest, the sour smell of gin on the breath, mosquito bites that sat in the hollows of dirty ankles. The husbands that came home late or the ones that didn’t touch us enough. The terror we harbored when we thought about splitting our bodies with children. The fear we had about losing ourselves to the wonder and mystery of the world, only to find that it’s lacking. We didn’t tell our mothers, but we told each other. Tongues loosened by wine and the comfort of one another, we told each other.
With these women, these absorbing, fragile, dreadfully wonderful women, I lost my anonymity in the world. It was a welcome loss. How many of us wander the earth, unmoored by the simple reality of never being truly known? How lucky are those of us who have found the ones who want to know us? Laura, Sarah, Claire, and Meghan. Four culturally normative names, easy to spell, unremarkable on their own. Our names are paper thin titles, and they hide the history we’ve made of our lives. Behind them, we were teeming with heart, with tenuous ambition and desire. Perhaps words, like the shallow advice of youth, are simply too paltry to carry the weight of their requirement.
We met on Thursdays for two years. We read a few books, but we left them on counters and coffee tables and entryway racks. The words of another are shockingly easy to forget. It wasn’t the stories we read, but the people we were, that kept the date on the calendar.
When Laura got a promotion, we gathered with wine under old Christmas lights on the back deck. The air was dense with summertime humidity. Sarah worked at a popular wedding venue in town, and a handful of us, husbands included, helped her set-up for events in the cooling air of springtime. We ushered in Claire’s twenty-first birthday with too many margaritas at a kitschy restaurant on the East side of the city. We held sweating glasses and ate too many chips as she told us they just might move out of state, and it seemed far enough away that it simply couldn’t happen. We did not focus on our books, they were unimportant in the end.
We did not want to be our mothers, but no one wants to be their mothers. Our mothers made us cry because they were broken and shallow and human, but what a gift their imperfections gave us. These women that bore us, they bound us together. There’s nothing that binds people closer than shared heartache, than the sweetness of the words, “I’ve been there, too.” It’s the gift the four of us gave each other.
These women have highlighted that fact that friendships forged in adulthood tend to be highly underrated. Instead, we’re told to seek lifelong companionship in childhood, as if the scraped knees of a playground or perhaps the sweaty embrace after a Little League game is meant to overshadow the plod of adulthood. I do not carry many relationships from youth. My loose teeth and the scar that judders up my stomach mark the tired wounds of my early years, but they don’t compare to the loose change I gathered in my palm when bills were tight, the scars I drilled into my wrists and ankles. My parents divorce, the anger of my step-father, my first car accident. The death of so many family members, too many family members, a best friend. They’re the wounds of my beginnings, but they aren’t the experiences that required a witness.
The friendships of adulthood are not compulsory. No, they are beautifully unrequired, which makes them easy to miss. It is an incredible privilege to share the world with women who make it safe. There is an obscure beauty to the humans who choose to bear witness to the life of another, because they want to and not because they should. It is a rare gift. These friends of adulthood, the ones who find their way to your front door by way of a life that’s split at the seams, these are the people who will follow you down dark roads just to lead you back towards the light. These are the friends to which you should crawl to when life becomes its most wretched self, these are the ones who will applaud the sparkle of your swift moment on the mountaintop.
We do not meet in our living rooms anymore. Our houses have been sold, rented, burned. Time takes pleasure in the demolition of the past, but the memories of women are strong and sacred.
Laura is in Georgia. She is kind and stable. She’s irrevocably in love with the spontaneity of her husband. Progressive yet steadied by its own history, Atlanta matches her tireless fight for transparency and heart. Her new city fits her.
Sarah lives in Los Angeles, in a small house off of Santa Monica Boulevard. She’s a planner, a networker, a force. She’s hungry for the world and she fights for it. Her life is borne by the bright lights of Hollywood, and she matches them the incredible brunt of determination.
Claire is a schoolteacher in Kansas City. Born and raised in the south, she’s left it for the Midwest, and I can only imagine the beauty she leaves in her wake. Claire is an aesthetic, beautiful in heart and mind, a human that exists in her own time and place. Missouri has been given a great gift.
I, of course, have found myself in New Orleans, writing about the women who’ve taught me how to live in the world. I still don’t speak with my mother. We’ve somehow missed the mark, and I’ve made peace with the woman who cannot fill the hole I’ve wrought in myself. Over time, I’ve come to accept that not every duo of women is meant to co-exist, and some relationships are only required for a season. There are some people who care more for the devastation they wreak than the beauty they bring.
At first, the four of us tried to preserve the magic of who we once were. We scheduled video calls, and our faces flickered across our computer screens. We became a series of pixels in place of flesh and blood. Instead of living life together and alongside one another, we tried to check-in. We shared about the parties we hosted and the coffee we savored, but there were no invites. Our friendship was on a slight delay. Everything we spoke of was now in the past, instead of the present. We owe Nashville a great debt. It was a place lush enough to foster our beginnings, and empty enough to afford the loneliness required to need one another.
We do not call each other anymore. Time, you see, is quite the villain. It gives us beautiful seasons just as surely as it will take them away. Our phone lines stay silent, and our heartaches are quelled by new people. We have drifted in and out of each other’s lives as surely as anything else. Is it not the way of the world, for something to simply and suddenly end?
I suppose if we still spoke, if we still met over coffee and laughed in our living rooms, we would laugh. Maybe we would poke fun at one another, maybe we would wax poetic about the people we used to be. Remember how young we were, we would say, our voices gone thin across the phone line? Remember that hell hot day you moved, that boy you loved, the job you hated? Remember the house that split at the ceiling, the rainwater that gathered in the corners of the living room? Remember when we stayed up late, talking about things that we don’t tell our mothers?
We remember, we’d say. We do.