My Pistol-Packin’ Papa

Dad, 2022; photograph courtesy of Jen Agahigian

            Good storytellers are born, not made. I know, because I was born to one. My father delivers his aphorisms with the acerbity of Mark Twain and his tall tales with the folksy charm of Garrison Keillor. Early on, I was no match for my father’s unheralded talent, which is why I tried to follow him around with a tape recorder. The stories were too rich to forget. But when he caught on, he refused to speak, so I had to settle for listening and remembering, then recording as best I could. Now I know I was learning craft from a master, knowledge that would prepare me for one of two vocations: stand-up comic or writer.

            You know which path I chose.

            I was reminded of this recently while on my way to the dentist. Having given myself plenty of time to get there, including a shortcut through my old hometown, I was irritated when my plans were derailed by a traffic jam caused by roadwork. There were five cops and several DPW guys milling around with hands in their pockets while the line of traffic grew. I remembered my father’s many complaints about the waste of taxpayer dollars: “I’m paying five guys to stand around and look at hole in the ground,” he’d say.

            Just as he would have done, I rolled down the window and a flagged a cop.

            “What’s going on?”

            A small excavator was stuck in a ditch; the operator was rocking it back and forth to try to get out.

            “I’m really glad my dad’s not sitting in the front seat with me,” I said. “He operated a machine three times that size, and he’d have a thing or two to say.”

            Of course he would. A real zinger, as he would describe it.

            The cop gave me directions to detour the mess and I readily escaped, but I was prompted to call my father, who I telephoned most mornings to say hello. As usual, AM radio news—including the traffic report—was blaring.

            “It keeps me company,” he had said about his new habit, instigated after my mother’s recent death.

            “Guess what happened to me just now?” I said. “I saw an excavator stuck in the road, backing up traffic by about ten cars,” which was a slight exaggeration.

            “Hold on a second, lemme lower the radio,” he said. “Okay, shoot.”

            I repeated my report.

            “Those guys don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” he said, “Were they union?”

            How would I know? Would they have UNION stamped on their forehead? Was there some secret sign that he would pick up on that I did not?

            Then he said, “You shouldn’t have cut through that area—it’s a shithole. Christ, I hate going over there, even to see your sister.”

            I was listening when I spotted something completely gonzo.

            An older construction worker standing by a dump truck: he had a white mustache divided into two braids, each reaching down to his chest and tied with ribbons.

            “You are never going to believe what I just saw,” I said, barely able to contain myself. I was actually snorting, and that was a good thing. Two days before, I had found a breast lump and was in a three-week long queue for a diagnostic mammogram. I needed a good laugh.

            “What the hell’s going on?” he asked.

            I described the man with the mustache combed and plaited into two fifteen-inch long ropes.

            “You’re kidding me,” my father said. “Say that again.”

      “He had two long braids, kind of like Willie Nelson’s,” I said, still screeching, “except they were his mustache.”

            “Jeezus H. Christ,” he said.

            “If you had been sitting next to me,” I said, “you would have pissed your pants.”

            “You get a lot of bumpkins in the construction industry,” he observed.

            He was qualified to speak, having achieved a 50-year perfect safety record.

            He continued, “Can you imagine having to wake up next to that each morning?”

            I took a break long enough to say, “Maybe he braids it for safety reasons.”

            “Safety reasons, my ass,” my father said. “He’s gonna get a big surprise when one of those braids wraps around the axle of a tire.”

            I screamed with a little too much glee, “He’s gonna get his face ripped off!”

            We were laughing so hard, I needed to pull over.

            “Well,” my father said, “at least you got the day off with a good laugh,” not realizing that the biggest laugh I got wasn’t from the braided mustache. There had been a time when I wouldn’t have been able to call him up off the cuff, nor would I have found his wry observations amusing, since I was often the recipient of his criticism and sometimes sarcasm. From the Greek sarkazein, “to tear flesh.” And he tore mine.

            “Tuna fish costs a buck a can—you couldn’t eat something else?” he shouted once, when I was a weight-obsessed teenager. “Your ass looks like the back end of a truck.”

            He said worse, but that’s enough to convey a sense of the power of his words. (And my ass looked fine.)

            I prefer to remember his impersonal observations. He gave instructions for fixing a radiator the way Jimmy Rogers sang “Pistol Packin’ Papa” and toyed with language like a cowboy poet.

            For example:

            “I told you, it’s Trader Joe’s,” I said once, “not Trailer Joe’s.”

            “Well, I like to say Trailer Joe’s,” he said, “and I can call it anything I want.”


            “I wouldn’t give you a dime for Cambridge, and I wouldn’t give you a nickel for Boston.”

            Or of my sister who “married up”:

            “She likes to run with the high-rollers.”

            Or his highest compliment for another man.

            “That guy is a good lookin’ bastard.”

            Sometimes he said a thing that wasn’t necessarily poetic, but the delivery was comic gold. Like the time I gave him a handheld blender to make smoothies; he was getting dental implants, and his mouth hurt. He took the blender out of the box, looking it up and down carefully, and gave a long slow whistle, almost as if he were examining a shiny new power tool. Then he frowned and looked at me sidelong.

            “Do you think this thing would shred lettuce?”

            Or the time I told him he should sit rather than stand in the Stanna chairlift we got for our mother, because his caregiver warned about falls.

            “Falls, what do you mean, falls?” He marched over to the chairlift, a bottle of chocolate Ensure in one hand. “I call this ‘the trolley.’ Watch closely, because I’m gonna show you something.”

            He flipped up the seat, stepped onto the footrest, and smacked the switch.

            “That’s all there is too it,” he said in what I called his “man-voice,” the one he reserved for instruction on all things tools and mechanics. He let the chairlift take him up a few feet then stopped.

            “Now pay attention,” he said, descending.

            When he got to the landing, he stepped off.

            “How the hell am I gonna I fall off? I know what I’m doing,” he said. “I used to jump off a tire twice your height, when I got off the machine.”

            “Yes, and you broke your ankle,” I said. “I remember Mom had to cut the boot off your foot because it was so swollen.”

            He pointed an index finger at me sharply.

            “That happened exactly one time. Once.

            “Okay,” I said, “but what if—’

            “I l-o-o-o-v-e this baby,” he sang. “Christ, I ride it upstairs just so I can find something up there to do.”

            Then he laughed uproariously.

            Before retirement, he had another “baby,” bright yellow with a toothy bucket the size of a boat. I was driving him to an appointment one day when he swiveled in his seat to stare longingly at a similar machine being hauled on a trailer.

            “I miss being up high like that,” he has observed wistfully, “feeling all that power in my hands.”

            Power in his hands. That was the chairlift’s switch, albeit a poor substitute. 

            “I give up,” I said, handing him a package of toilet paper. “This needs to go upstairs.”

            The best of what he offered up is indelibly etched in memory because often, he was teaching a lesson. Like when I got my first car, a tiny cheaply made Mitsubishi that I guarded as if it were a Delorian. It was time for an oil change so I read the manual, then I called my father. I wanted to be economical, as I earning peanuts at the time. I asked, should take the car back to the dealership or the handyman garage down the street?

            My father the union man was no fan of dealerships, corporate fat cats, Republicans, or the New York Yankees. All the same thing.

            “Those bastards tell you to get the oil changed every 3,000 miles so they can make a buck,” he said. “It ain’t gonna hurt the engine if you wait until 3,500, or even 4,000, and any mechanic worth his salt can do an oil change.”

            Okay, so local repair guy.

            “I have one more question,” I continued. “When I get the oil changed, do I have to change the filter, too?”

            Yes: I had a liberal arts education but zero knowledge of cars.

            There was a pregnant pause, so long I wondered if the line had gone dead.

      “Let me ask you this, Melanie,” he said finally. “After you take a shower, do you put your dirty underwear back on?”

            That story is over 25 years old. I didn’t laugh then but I do now, because I appreciate his unmatched wit. And now I know where he got it, sitting in his father’s general store surrounded by fisherman warming their hands near a fire or sipping a bit of rum. He was a boy then, which accounts for the quality of innocence that comes through in the delicate emotions that surface in his face: he enters the story in order to tell it. Before I knew the story of his childhood in Nova Scotia, that quality told my father possessed the softness I yearned for. And it conveyed as well an attentiveness to the wonder in all things. A writing sensibility, if you are fussy; clear-eyed presence, if you are not. 

            A person of such singular talent can tell a tale that is raunchy and even offensive to some…because his listeners recognize in the telling the promise of the rare gift that is love. That’s the aim of any good writer, and in my father’s case, it almost always comes through, which is better than I can say for myself, with a hefty list of manuscript rejections to my name.

            My favorite tales, by far, are the two he told at last Christmas celebration attended by the entire family, four daughters, their partners, and all seven grandchildren. At the dinner table, my sister Stephanie suggested we take turns expressing an appreciation or memory in lieu of grace. When my turn came, I rose to tell the assembled grandchildren that if they stood on the highest point of Boston Common, they see evidence of their grandfather in Boston landmarks: the Prudential Center, the Hancock Tower, and Beacon Hill.

            “Papa is everywhere you look,” I said.

            After dinner, I and my sister Jennifer and her husband were sitting by a fire as children tore around in the adjoining room, playing with their new toys. Still beaming from my dinnertime appreciation and warmed by a splash of red wine, our father embarked on stories about Boston from “before your time.”

            “I had a boss from Winchester—” (Stephanie lived in Winchester) “and this guy was a real pain in the ass,” he began. “He gave me special parking in Boston, for the pickup, but I’d ruther go in on the train. It was January, and I used to get off at the Charles Street station and walk through the hospital, naturally, because it was warm.

            “I get there one day, just coming daylight,” he continued, squinting as if he could see dawn sky, “go out through the sliders, and this guy, the superintendent, is waiting to open the gate so I can go in and warm up the machine.”

            He turned his head as if something had caught his attention.

            “I look down the street to my right, and here comes a black chick. I would say she’s forty years old, maybe forty-five, nice looking girl—big, probably five-ten—and she walks right up to me. She says, ‘Hey man, what are you doing?’”

            He feigned a stunned look.

            “I says, ‘Can’t you see what I’m doing? I got my lunch bag, and I’m waiting for my boss to open the gate so I can get in there and start my machine.’ She says, ‘Do you want to get laid?’ ‘No, I don’t want to get laid,’ I says, ‘I’m going to work.’ She says, ‘C’mon, c’mon’—”

            He stopped to chuckle and wipe his mouth.

            “And what do you think she did next?” He looked at each of us in turn. “She had a full-length fur coat on, and she whipped it open. And she didn’t have one stitch of clothing on, not even underwear!”

            Jennifer seemed always to be studying our father, as if he were a puzzle she was trying to figure out.

            “Okay, so she’s nude,” she said expressionlessly, her foot tapping. “Then what?”

            “You get what I’m saying?” He slapped his thigh. “She was bollocky bare-assed!”

            “Yeah, we get it,” said Jennifer, “but what did you do?”

            “What was I supposed to do? I says to myself, ‘Jeezus Christ, I’m on my way to work, I ain’t got time for this foolishness.’”

            He leaned back and mimed pointing at something in the distance, his voice nearly a whisper.

            “I tell her, ‘You see the guy over there unlocking the gate? It’s cold and his hands are freezing, and he can’t get the gate open. Just wait a minute, and when he gets the gate open, you walk up to him and say, ‘I’m looking for some action.’”

            “So you punted her to your boss,” Jennifer said evenly. “You pimped her.”

            He looked at my sister incredulously.     

            “How else was I gonna get rid of her? She walks up to the guy, and she whips it open on him, too!”

            I was dying.

            “And the boss figured out you did it?” Jennifer asked.

      “Oh shit, he was all bent out of shape,” said our father. “He says to me, ‘Can you imagine these hookers roaming around come daylight, no clothes on and it’s cold enough to freeze the ass off a skunk?’”

            The jig was up. Jennifer’s lips twitched, betraying a smile.

            “I says to him, ‘everyone has a right to make a living.’”

            But our father wasn’t finished.

            “Around the same time, I was excavating a basement over in Roxbury, near the city hospital, and there was a rundown duplex next to the job. The boss told me that I could put all the dirt along the backside of this building.

             “Pretty soon I had a mound of dirt about fifty feet high”—he motioned with his hand—“but I didn’t realize the dirt from the pile was going over the top and it was rolling down a hill, going right up to the back doors of this house. There was nobody in it as far as we knew. Anyhow, I finished my work, closed up for the day, and got on the train.”

            He wiped his hands as if to say “that was that.”

            “But as soon as I walked in the house,” he said, “the phone rang.”

            Long pause.

            “I pick up and I hear, ‘You gotta go back into Harrison Avenue right away.’ What’s going on?’ I ask. ‘Why do I have to go back into Harrison Avenue right away?’”

            He frowned.

            “‘Well,’ the boss says, ‘you piled all this dirt that you excavated, and half of it is up against the side of this building,’ he says. ‘There are four or five Chinese hookers in there, and they’re screaming because they can’t get out.’”

            Jennifer and I howled.

            “This ain’t bullshit!” he said, as if we were laughing with disbelief. “I’m not making this us. I had to turn around go back in, and it was November, pitch-dark. We had to put up spotlights—they had two guys watching me—and I had to pull all the dirt back from the building so they could let the Chinese hookers out. Aw, Jeezus, you never saw anything so pathetic in your life.”

            I wish I could so fearlessly tell a tall tale. I wish I had such stories to tell, as he does. There isn’t a shred of artifice about the man, just plain talk from a man who worked a plain job and lived a seemingly plain life—no drinking, carousing, or ill-gotten gains. Like many men who live upright lives, he worked hard, lamented his taxes, grew bent in old age, and watches too much cable news.

            But those tales tell of an extraordinary life, in no smart part because he can captivate an audience with accounts of the ordinary, imparting a sparkle and depth that make all our lives richer.

            It is a welcome legacy.

A List of Songbirds

Published in Ruminate magazine, issue 55, 2020.

            The scrap of paper fell from the pages of an old copy of Sherwin Nuland’s How We Die, a book I had begun in graduate school but never finished. I’d somehow left it at my parents’ house of thirty years, the house I’d grown up in, then reclaimed it during their move to a condominium an hour north of Boston. Reading on a train to work, I was engrossed by Nuland’s eloquent account of his own learning to greet death as an inevitable chapter of life, rather than a battle to be fought, when the scrap slipped out.
            My father didn’t read books; it wasn’t his bookmark. I must have scrabbled around for something to mark my place and tore a page off his scratch pad, not realizing he’d written on it.
            The three-by-four-inch rectangle was unremarkable but for my father’s distinctive cursive, a left-handed script so jagged it reminded me of teeth or of cuneiform writing—letters incised with a hammer and chisel. I’d seen the blade like script on checks, billing invoices, the birthday cards my mother made him sign, and once in a note—not a letter, just a note without a greeting—during my first year of college. Then, he’d ripped out a lined sheet from a spiral-bound pad to tell me that I had disappointed him tremendously and that I would have no one but myself to blame if my life tanked. What I had done to anger him was host a male high school friend in my dorm room for a weekend. That my own friend was two years younger than I was and like a brother made no difference to my father. The note was blunt, angry, and written with such force that the letters embossed the paper like Braille.
            “You weren’t raised to be a butana,” he had written, borrowing a forbidden word from my Sicilian maternal grandparents. My father is Nova Scotian. The Italian word for whore was about as far from his vernacular as charmuta—the Arabic word with the same meaning—is to mine. He used it because he understood its particular power to shame.
            But the scrap of paper that fell from the book wasn’t a missive, it was a list. It said, simply:

            High St ’07

            Nut Hatch
            House Finch
            Mocking Bird

            Each name was capitalized. Sparrow lacked the wnuthatch and mockingbird were two words, and woodpecker was hyphenated.
            I recognized it immediately as a catalog of the birds my father had seen alighting in the feeder that he hung in the crabapple tree, planted the year I turned fifteen. The prior winter, the car driven by my sixteen-year-old boyfriend had slid off the icy driveway and skittered across the front yard, wiping out a sapling that had begun to flower the summer before. We had just moved to the “High Street house,” as we’d called the place they had just vacated, and my father was livid. All winter we’d been stuck with the ragged stump of the broken tree, jutting from the snow like the splintered bone of a lost explorer. Digging it out would have to wait until spring. 
            It was a reminder to my father that while beloved young trees could be broken, frozen ground could not, and a reminder to me that even when I wasn’t at fault, in his eyes, I was.
            I tucked the list in my bag. Later, I would tack it to the corkboard over my desk at Boston University, in a building that practically straddles the Massachusetts Turnpike, which he, as a young immigrant, had helped to build. Then he had been a truck driver, one of many that lined up daily to cart away dirt removed by steam shovels to make room for the new highway. By the time we lived in the High Street house, he had a license to run heavy equipment—front-end loaders, backhoes, and mammoth excavators. Eventually he bought “the machine,” as he called his second-hand red backhoe, a fossil compared to the bright yellow Caterpillars and John Deeres then appearing on the scene. But that intrepid red backhoe worked on the Boston Garden, Northeastern University, the Big Dig, and the Harvard Square subway station, where I first saw my father at work.
            The memory is as bright and clear as the day it happened. I was sixteen years old and skipping school so I could shop for poetry books and posters at the Harvard Coop. It took two buses and two subway lines to get to Harvard Square, the gathering spot for the Cambridge elite. I knew that I—a working-class kid, chubby in dungarees and clogs—would never fit in there. That awareness enabled me to move through the square as if I were invisible, like a foreign tourist, until I turned onto Brattle Street and happened upon the red backhoe chomping at the earth.
            My feet carried me forward, arms flailing, before I remembered that I was truant.
            “Dad, Dad!” I yelled.
            He had on ear protectors and couldn’t hear me. I stood outside the perimeter fence, jumping and waving like a windmill, until he caught sight of me. He pulled a lever, and the machine coughed to a halt. Then he jumped down and trotted over, his face set and his body rigid.
            My thoughts were some variant of, I’m in the shit.
            But as he approached the chain-link fence, he broke a bright smile.
            “How’d ya know it was me?”
            “Because of the red,” I answered, knowing that was what he wanted to hear.
            “You don’t see many red ones, do ya?” he laughed.
            My father was a beacon of pride, and I picked up on it like a human antenna.
            Sudden tears burned my eyes.
            I don’t know if he saw.
            “Tell Ma I’ll be late for supper,” he said as he trotted away.

            My tears that day were the same tears I would later shed almost every time I gazed at the tacked-up list of songbirds. Songbirds—feather soft, light in the bones, little more than flowers with wings—are everything that heavy equipment is not. A backhoe or an excavator or a crane is as near as human beings can get to dinosaur-power, monsters that bite into rock and soil that shovels and pickaxes can merely dent. Passersby see only dust-covered boots and hard hats, if they stop long enough to notice of the operators. But the work of the people in those hats and boots is sacred: they build the world in which we live. I have often thought, as I’ve observed the operators of excavators as tall as a house or of cranes pivoting several hundred feet up, that there is something divine in their harnessing such might. The crane operator sees the horizon in every direction as well as the human activity below; the operator of a three-story excavator thrills to a power that we can only imagine.
            Such persons share an enviable seat, one with a view on both the puniness and grandeur of humanity. I would come to see them as modern-day pyramid builders, exercising dominion over the earth and pointing the way to the stars.

            But human or godlike, their work is also strenuous, exhausting, and costly. There is constant noise, not insignificant risk, and exposure to heat, cold, and precipitation. The work stops only when the ground is frozen, and forges furiously ahead in the fiercest heat. The operating engineers—as construction workers are called—are baked, frozen, sweated, and soaked. Their eyes are pinked by dust and red rimmed by goggles; their skin is often leather. My father endured at least one serious work-related mishap a year. He dislocated his ankle jumping from a tire the height of a man, twice. He operated a crane on an old pier and had to be rescued when the pilings began to sink the machine, with him in it, into Boston Harbor. Falling cement chunks pelted the machine in the same Central Artery tunnel from which ceiling bricks eventually fell, killing a woman driver. He got stuck out in the famous 1978 blizzard when state troopers commandeered his backhoe to dig out cars on the highway. He didn’t come home for three days, sleeping in the unheated cab of the machine in the middle of winter.
            If there were one feature that attested to the work I did not witness until I was a teenager, it was his hands, perennially cracked, grime etching every crevice, as if he could never get them entirely clean. I was drawn to those hands, strong and square and capable, at the same time that I feared them. They wielded a hammer or paintbrush with the same skill they applied to the levers of “the machine.” But they also inflicted the sting of anger and the grip of rage. In my earliest memories, my father was a man who could hurt me, whose temper burned in the coal of his eyes, and whose power exploded in those hands.
            At the end of the day he would hop from his truck, the laces of his boots already loosened, shed them in the basement workroom, and sack out on an armchair before and after dinner. If my sisters and I squabbled, or someone had gotten in trouble earlier in the day, I—the eldest—would “catch hell.” Sometimes I was so terrified by the anticipation of the strapping that awaited me that I was unable to eat my dinner. If I tried to run away, he chased me, usually into a corner where I reflexively peed my pants. “I promise I’ll be good, please don’t hit me,” I would beg, but it never worked. Down came a meaty backhand or the grip that left marks where he held and shook me.
            Sometimes the hands snapped a leather belt that bit at my legs.
            Worst of all, I was expected not to cry.
            “Don’t you dare cry, mister,” he would shout, “or you’ll get it again!”

            The tears for the list of birds are not the same as those shed for my school-aged self, a little girl who believed her own iniquity was as fixed as freckles or eye color. I did not know then what I would later learn, and I could not say what I would have said if I had. It wouldn’t have been “I promise I’ll be good.”
            It would have been, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
            I could not have understood that a list of common songbirds, noted as if they were rare and treasured sightings, told as much or more about my father as the rage that seemed to fill every room he entered for decades.
            My own life would have been entirely different had I known that rage is often evidence not of indignation at wrongdoing, but of vulnerability. I think of the bird carcasses left in my yard by my predatory cat; the bones are translucent and hollow, the porcelain-like chassis for a winged vessel of song. Birds, especially the small ones—the chickadees, juncos, nuthatches, and sparrows—are like a kiss in flight.
            Long after I left college, I would have a son, and he and I would play a game. He would kiss his fat toddler-hand and blow the kiss to me, and I would catch it. Then I would send one back. I like to think that, standing by the window and putting the names of those birds to paper, my father was doing something similar—taking for himself what he needed and longed for, but would not reveal to me until he was an old man. Even then, the wound was so raw, the words came out like hard pits of fruit that attested to his once, too long ago, having tasted something sweet.

            He was seventeen years old when he left Nova Scotia; this I knew. As a child, I often took the ferry across the Bay of Fundy to spend a few weeks of summer with my grandmother. I slept in my father’s old bedroom on the second floor of a tiny cottage overlooking a bluff and, farther below, a picturesque fishing village. Afternoons I would stand on a stool and look through a kitchen telescope, as my father had, to scan the horizon for my grandfather’s lobster boat, and evenings, I would listen to the clack of my grandmother’s knitting needles and the sigh of my great-grandmother, who sat like a plump hen in her corner chair and pieced together fabric scraps for quilts like the one I slept under at night. I ate homemade brown bread and preserves, and dried pollock from Grampy Vic’s line in the basement, and loads of fish chowder. I picked strawberries for jam and watched my grandmother hand-knead bread dough, enough for four loaves, more quickly and cleanly than the messes I would later make with a stand-mixer. I saw her carry and hang heavy wet laundry and observed the steady stream of fishermen’s wives and kids who wandered through her kitchen, as they did all the kitchens of the other village cottages.
            It was a very different life from the one in suburban Boston, and if truth be told, at the time I didn’t very much like it. The salty fish wasn’t anything like the Sicilian peasant food I had grown up on, and I detested having to use the outhouse. The fisherman’s wharf was postcard perfect, but it smelled of brine and chum and gasoline. Life was smellier and grittier in Nova Scotia, even if the sky seemed brighter and the ocean, blindingly white.
            But those are the same things I would grow to love as an adult. At the age of thirty-three, during what would be my last visit before my grandmother’s death, I asked to see photographs of my father as a child. Grampy Vic—her second husband, and not the man who raised my father—had long since died, as had her third husband. But much of the early family history remained sketchy. I knew only that my grandmother had remarried within six months of her first husband’s death. Right around the same time, my father quit high school, opted not to be a fisherman, and emigrated to the United States, where he got a job at a printing press.
            Despite sleeping in his bedroom and wandering his village, I encountered scant evidence of my father’s childhood, and had seen only one photograph from his boyhood: a wall hanging of a knicker-clad kid with a cowlick and a few missing teeth, his shoes polished and knee socks pulled high. It was easy to believe he was my father. The boy in the photograph looked just like me.
            The day before I left, I sat on the floor with a leather-bound album, shards of brown glue collecting in the cracks as I flipped the black pages. I had crawled into the eaves to dig it out from among the boxes of quilts and Christmas decorations. I knew as soon as I saw the round baby sitting on a porch, reaching for a kitten with eager hands, that I was looking at a snapshot of my father. Sobs that I hadn’t known were in me burst forth, followed by an almost tidal surge of love. “He was so tiny,” I howled, and my grandmother chuckled with puzzlement.
            “He was a very happy baby,” she assured me, and looking at the photograph, I believed her. That was the day I caught an inkling of something that needed mourning. The bright giggling baby reaching for a kitten was the embodiment of joy, and the taciturn father who had chased me around the kitchen wielding a dust broom, stick, or belt was an engine of misery.
            What had happened in between? I yearned to know. But somehow, I knew to tread lightly.
            That same year, my grandmother sent along copies of photographs in the Christmas boxes she packed with hand-knit socks and slippers. When I handed my father a print of the knicker-clad boy, a dreamy quality came over his face.
            “I remember the day they took this,” he said softly laughing. “I was scratching like crazy. My long-johns were wool. Everything Nan made for me was wool, and I can’t stand the feel of it next to my skin.”
            I felt a surge of warmth. A shared allergy to wool wasn’t the stuff of legacy building, but it was a beginning. 

            I went to college halfway across the country, followed by graduate school and a ten-year stint in Washington, DC. One decade turned into two, and the jet fuel of anger that propelled me away spent itself, leaving the ashy gray of longing. In my mid-thirties, I returned to my birthplace where in short order I married, had a baby, got divorced, and got a second graduate degree. On lonely nights, I wended my way to the High Street house with the excuse that my young son missed his “Papa.” My little boy did indeed love his grandfather, whom he called a “digger man.” Together they read books and assembled puzzles about diggers, and rolled miniature trucks and backhoes around the kitchen floor. Their other favorite activity was lining up my son’s rubberized animals—dozens of miniatures that fit a child’s hand—and naming them, one by one. Some he had seen at the zoo: chimpanzees, zebras, and elephants. But many were prehistoric: tyrannosaurus rex, parasaurolophus, and triceratops. My son was a typical kid in his love for dinosaurs, perhaps less so in his ability at the tender age of two and half to pronounce the alphabet soup of their names perfectly.
            Each time he did, my father looked at me wide-eyed and gave a low whistle.
            “This kid’s a genius,” he would say. “He’ll probably be a doctor someday.”
            Watching my boy’s eyes light up as they turned the pages of a favorite book, my father smiled with something akin to reverence.
            “Look at his eyes,” I remember him saying. “They sparkle just like diamonds.”
            That was why—the dark memories of thrown dishes and burning rage notwithstanding—I returned to the High Street house again and again. I went toward what I needed, even if it wasn’t being given for me. 
            It was his tenderness toward my son that emboldened me to ask what it was like to lose a father. The answer he gave was both blunt and anguished, and entirely unexpected.
            “What was it like?” he asked, his eyes looking far away. “It was the worst day of my life—I lost my best friend. It was a shock to my system. I cried for three days.”
            Had my father been to therapy, as I had, he might have announced, I am a survivor of childhood trauma. He might have disclosed the entire story: that his adored father Doug, who had long suffered from the lung damage wrought by tuberculosis, died suddenly in his early forties from a horrific winter bout of pneumonia.
            He might have described how my grandmother loaded her husband into the car that would disappear into the 1954 rural dirt-road night, and how he—just past sixteen—begged to be allowed to go along. He might have teared up when he recounted his mother making him stay behind, and he might have broken down telling how his frail and feverish father hadn’t survived to the next morning. He would likely have sobbed with regret that he never had the chance to say goodbye. But he said none of these things, only that he had endured a shock to the system, one that left him crying for three straight days.
            I had never seen my father even tear up.
            Had he felt more trusting, he might have opened up further and let me hold him as he shared having found out at the age of twelve that he had been given at birth to his mother’s sister, and that Doug was not his biological father. He might have described what he learned as yet another trauma, his having secretly overheard that he was, inexplicably, unwanted by his birth mother. He might have relayed fear about leaving behind a rural fishing village with its one-room schoolhouse, button sized store, and two churches—blink, and you miss it, I often joked—and his two best friends from childhood, and ending up in a gritty northeastern factory, staring out at asphalt instead of shoreline and trucks instead of lobster boats. He might have shared a longing for comfort and the elation he felt meeting my dark-haired Sicilian mother, exotic by Nova Scotia standards. He might have even disclosed how they had to get married when she became pregnant, and how he had to take a second job greasing garbage trucks at night just to make ends meet.
            He might have, he might have, he might have. But he didn’t, and I burned to know. I would learn the story in bits and pieces over many years, in equal parts by asking questions and looking up records. He had tried to get his high-school diploma by taking night classes, but he had dropped out, too tired in the evening to stay awake and study. By then he had three young children. When the fourth arrived, our family moved to the four-bedroom High Street house. For years my father hammered and sawed and painted, transforming the spacious but run-down house into a place of classic beauty.
            That’s when he strung the bird feeders, filling them nights after work. He was feeding the birds the occasion of the chest pain that he’d ignored for weeks because construction work is seasonal and he’d worried that if he were out sick there would be no income. I had been called home from college for his first open-heart surgery and, standing in the intensive care unit over a once-frightening form now stilled by anesthesia, I had floated a silent request.
            “Please don’t die before I have the chance to know you.”
            His brush with death prompted me to dig more deeply into the details of his life, hoping to find in them a tidy explanation for his rage. His aggression. Why he seemed to be sleepwalking when he came after me, neither hearing nor seeing the kid—a freckle-faced little girl who was almost his double; why he never allowed himself to cry. 
            “Don’t you dare cry, mister, or you’ll catch it again.”
            In the course of twenty-five years, beginning with that last visit to my grandmother, I would not only uncover the story of his childhood, I would also learn the identity of his birth family, discover my own dual Canadian citizenship, and manage to unseal his adoption file—no small feat for a baby born in rural Nova Scotia in 1937.  He didn’t even have a birth certificate. The project would involve researching family history, tracking down death certificates, paying for replacement birth certificates, and even traveling to Nova Scotia to talk to extended family members, a multipronged effort that seemed—right up until nearly the end—to lead only to dead-ends.
            But the frustrating search served another purpose as well. It was like a rope that pulled me out of a dark hole and closer to the light. And the closer I became, the less willing I was to hold on to old resentments that had kept me at a self-protective distance for that same twenty-five years.  The cost had come in Christmases and other holidays spent alone, birthdays unobserved, achievements uncelebrated, and a grievous sense of “unbelongingness” that began to outweigh the old emotional armor.
            In the spring of 2019, I was out for a walk when my cell phone rang. I was coming out of a string of my own losses—most notably, the cancer-death of my beloved husband only five months after I married him, three years before. My father had instantly loved the man too; the death shook him. He’d taken to wearing one of my husband’s caps nearly all the time, a gesture that touched me in my own grief.
            “There’s a big envelope here from Nova Scotia,” my father said. “It looks official.”
            “Did you open it?”
            “No—I was waiting for you.”
            The next morning, I was behind his door by nine o’clock. Together we opened the oversized envelope and spread the contents across the kitchen table. Inside were copies of affidavits and his adoption certificate, along with documentation of his family history. The name of his biological father, whose identity I had long ago confirmed, had been redacted per the family’s wishes. But the most compelling line was in the social worker’s notes, a sentence not about his biological parents, but about Doug—the man who raised my father. “One helluva nice guy,” my father had always said of the fisherman who played the bones in an old-time band and bought his son chickens and ducks and rabbits to raise, and a white half-chow named Snooks.

             The child seemed very much devoted to the father and followed him around a great deal.

            “Listen to this, Dad.” I read the line out loud.
            “I did follow him around,” my father replied, leaning in close, his blue eyes liquid with light. “My mother would look out the window—remember that telescope over the sink? She would look for my father’s boat coming in and I would run to meet him. And—”
            I instantly sobbed, and so did my father. I reached for his arm and held on tight.
            I understood. Once, years before, I had run to my own father, and jumped up and down on the other side of a chain-link fence. He had longed for his father, just as I had longed for mine.
            “It still bothers me,” he said afterward, “that I never got to say goodbye.”

            By the time my father learned his adoption story, I was fifty-seven years old, and he was eighty-one. He was in failing health, having undergone three open-heart surgeries and developed congestive heart failure. The surgeries left him with vascular dementia which made him hazy and sometimes anxious. But as he approached his own inevitable mortality, I observed an emergent clarity, honesty, and welcome tenderness.
            One weekend, a precipitous drop in his blood pressure had landed him in the hospital. He was alone when I visited. Seeing me, he teared up; thinking he was hungry, I called the kitchen to order food.
            “That’s not it,” he said. “There’s something I need to say to you.”
            He worked his mouth, trying not to cry.
            “I know I was hard on you when you were growing up,” he said slowly, “and I am sorry.” 
            I had waited fifty-seven years to hear those words.
            “It’s enough, Dad.” I laid a hand on his leg. “It’s the past. I love you.”
            I didn’t say, I would do anything to take away your grief, but I thought it.

            A child without a parent experiences a singular suffering. She dons emotional armor to protect her from a rough world. But armor is heavy, and it hurts, a constant reminder of the vulnerability she would rather forget.
            I wish it hadn’t taken fifty-seven years to understand my father. His days are numbered. One weekend during the spring of his eighty-second year, I met him and my mother at a historic garden where we strolled among rows of irises, peonies, and roses. I watched his old-man hands, thin skinned and purpled, gently cup a blousy hot-pink blossom as he exclaimed, “Have you ever seen a color like that?” Then we stood on a veranda and watched birds flitting in the fruit trees, and he chuckled at the rabbit that had somehow managed to find its way into a gated patch with rows of delectable beans.
            “Can you smell that?” he asked about the lilac bushes, and “Did you hear that?” of a redwing blackbird’s familiar song, as if he had never heard anything so lovely.
            Pure beauty—scents and sounds and sensations: this was now the stuff of my father’s life. What had seemed an occasional oddity was in fact his essential feature. Gone were the days of pounding the earth, and gone were the times he pounded on me.
            Gone, too, the armor.

            Nut Hatch
            House Finch
            Mocking Bird

            I finally typed a key code to the now nearly illegible list pinned over my desk. The list is fading, much like the life of the man who drew it up. I can’t look at the list for too long; it hurts. Instead, I stand to gaze out my window at the rising skyline of Boston, dotted with the magnificent cranes that defy mediocrity. That’s when I finally understand that list of birds—not only why he wrote it, but why I kept it. Before my son, before the birth story, before the simple but clear-eyed expression of remorse, that list offered a glimpse of one boy’s hidden and protected heart. 
            Small, delicate, and chirping as he fed them, songbirds were the children he could love without words.

From “A Bird in the Forest”

A chapter from my fiction manuscript; this one, about a boy’s father and uncle, in 1949 Nova Scotia. Sometimes dialogue writes itself. This one was fun.

After Christmas came the coldest and hardest part of winter, when snow piled up against the doors and all the little houses seemed buried in an expansive crust of white.  Every Saturday night Uncle Floyd came over and sat in the warm parlor, while Nevin’s father reclined with his feet on the hassock and the boy sprawled on the floor next to Snooks.  Sometimes Uncle Floyd surreptitiously drew out a metal pocket flask and took a sip.

         “Don’t tell your mother,” he quietly cautioned. “Your mum’s a teetotaler.  She likes to say, ‘Drunkenness is the devil’s backdoor to hell, and don’t you forget it.’”  Then Uncle Floyd winked, signaling that he didn’t believe a word of it.

         Nevin’s father didn’t drink unless Uncle Floyd pressed him, and Uncle Floyd only pressed when he was telling a story.  All of his stories were old, but they sounded new on the retelling, and Nevin’s father went right along, pretending he was hearing them for the first time.

         “You remember Harvey Taylor?” Uncle Floyd began one evening.  “He went away after his parents’ house burned down.  By the time he come back, his folks was dead and buried.  Killed by a logging truck, they was.  In their hay wagon on the way to church, flattened just like that.”

         He clapped his hands loudly, and Nevin jumped.

         “Old Harvey might’a set his parents’ house on fire himself, come to think of it,” Uncle Floyd went on.  “Anyhow, he had a pretty good job up New Brunswick until something big fell on him.  After that, he couldn’t straighten up anymore.”

         “You don’t say,” said Nevin’s father with a faint smile.  “He must’a been all bunged up.”   

         “Yessir, bunged up, that’s what he was.  Anyway, no one had heard from him ‘til he come back.  Poor bugger didn’t have one damn thing to his name, except the land where that house burned down.  Some folks said he got some money from the accident and buried it, but you can’t prove that by me.”

         “Where’d he bury it?” asked Nevin, intrigued by the thought of buried treasure.  His father hid jars full of silver coins—“better than a bank,” he said—in the kitchen cupboard behind the cans, and the boy liked to take them out and jingle them before returning them to their hiding place.

         “Shh,” said his father.


         “Listen what I’m telling you,” continued Uncle Floyd.  “That old Harvey hollows out a cave in the side of a hill, and he goes and puts a wooden door over the opening—a real door, with a doorknob and everything.  And damned if he didn’t live in that cave all winter with nothing but a great big old German shepherd named Killer.”

         Nevin’s father snorted, his face flushed and his eyes bright with amusement.  He took a sip of whiskey and passed the flask back to his brother.

         “You laugh, but wait ‘til you hear the rest,” said Uncle Floyd.  “Come spring, Harvey puts up a tarpaper shack with a stove and a bed for him and the dog.  I’m out the McCormack Road one day, and I get it in my head to have a look.  I go up and knock on the door, and I hear him say, ‘Come in.’  Don’t you know, that looney’s sitting back in his skivvies, got a greasy beard down to here.”

         Uncle Floyd touched his hand to his belt buckle.  Then he took another quick swig and lowered his voice.

         “Now you’re not gonna believe what I’m about to tell you.”  He leaned in.

         Nevin’s father winked at the boy as if to say, “Get a load of this.”

         “I take a look around, and I can’t believe my eyes.”  The other man’s voice rose.  “There’s this big old ham bone on the table—Old Harvey has ahold of one end, chewing on it, and Killer is chewing on the other!”

         Warm from the whiskey, Nevin’s father burst into hearty laughter.

         “That is a load of utter horse shit,” he said.

         “Mind your language, Kenneth!” Nevin’s mother called from the recesses of the kitchen, but her husband was holding sides that ached from belly laughter that was all too rare.

          “Oh it’s horseshit, is it?” asked Uncle Floyd with mock indignation.  He wagged a finger at Nevin.  “Don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”


Letters: Saving a Life

Dear D:

            One day a summer or two ago, I encountered a new photograph in your Facebook feed that looked somehow familiar.  In it, you stand next to the congressmen I gather you worked for; you and he wear suits and ties; behind you, the American flag.  The picture wasn’t familiar because I’d seen it before, but because I had one almost exactly like it.  In mine, I stand next to Janet Reno, the attorney general under President Clinton, with a statue of Lady Justice (or something like that) in the background.  Janet Reno dates the photograph, snapped by a colleague, to the mid-1990s; the first President Bush had been voted out and Bill Clinton voted in.  None of the Clinton scandals had yet happened, but we had recently lived through the Oklahoma City bombing, the first large-scale attack by home-grown terrorists.  I remember being hastily evacuated from my office building as bomb-sniffing dogs were let in; all the federal buildings were at risk.  It was my first experience of a threat to national security, but it wouldn’t be the last.  (The second would come a year after your birth, when I put you down for a nap and turned on the television to witness the collapse of the World Trade Center.)  A week or so after the bombing, I was in my office with the door shut, writing a draft presidential proclamation, gold seal and all, that would be passed out to attendants at a Rose Garden ceremony.

            I don’t know if the Reno photograph was taken that year or the next, but it captures the moment right after she read remarks that I—one of many anonymous wonks—drafted for her on the annual occasion of Crime Victims Rights Week.  What struck me from a side-by-side comparison of your photograph and mine was not only the shared experience of public service, but also the rarity of our being dressed in formal wear (the male and female versions of business attire).  I traded pantyhose for athletic-wear decades ago, and in the few recent photographs of you that I’ve seen, you sport a sweat-soaked bandana and hiking gear.  We are alike in particular ways, as interested in public policy as we are in scaling peaks.

            I lived in Washington, DC for almost nine years, having gone there as a recruit straight out of graduate school.  After graduating from Beloit college, I took a job as the night manager of a battered women’s shelter, as much for the work as the compensation, free room and board.  By then I had given up studying art, partly because of the impracticality of making pottery sculptures for a living—I had student loans to repay.  I took the front room of a two-story house on the rough side of town, living with women and children who often showed up in the middle of the night, delivered by an unmarked police car and confined to the shelter until new housing was found.  The experience was profoundly unsettling, mostly because of the children.  I remember a little girl of about three named Jen, blue-eyed with a matted tangle of long blond hair, and bare feet that looked too big for her skinny legs.  She didn’t speak, and when I tried to play with her, she hid.  The morning after Jen and her mother arrived, the full gallon jug of milk was missing from the refrigerator.  The replacement that we bought disappeared the morning after that, and so on, until someone realized that Jen was sneaking downstairs at night and lugging the jugs back up to her room, where she stashed them under the bed.  Jen, her mother, and her siblings had been routinely chained up in their backyard so her father could “keep an eye on them.”  She hadn’t ever had enough to eat.   None of them had.

            Bearing witness to the peculiar behavior of this very hungry little girl shattered me.  I had signed on for the night manager position with genuine hubris, having written my senior honors thesis on the shelter movement.  I had the academic bona fides for the job, I thought. What I didn’t anticipate was the emotional toll of living with women who showed up beaten within an inch of their lives or children who had witnessed the assaults.  One woman showed up with her arm nearly hacked off by her husband’s machete.  The situation worsened considerably when I learned that the “woman” who called the crisis line regularly in the middle of the night was actually a man well known to the staff.  Listening to him nauseated me, as did learning the truth.  As bright as I was, I was also naïve.  I couldn’t have imagined that a sympathetic female ear for his lurid tales gave him a sexual thrill.

            I could do more, I decided, putting my intellectual skills to better use.  I got into a public administration program at the University of Wisconsin where a faculty member nominated me for a Presidential Management Internship.  That fact seemed as ridiculous to me then as it does improbable, now; I have no idea what made me appear qualified.  I hadn’t distinguished myself in any way except that I was more bookish than talkative, and I ended up walking out of a day-long competitive interview convinced that I was not government material.  The group interview had gone reasonably well but for the distraction of the panel’s only woman, who wore a ridiculous paisley jabot over an ivory satin blouse. All I could think about was how I didn’t want any job that required me to dress that way.  I stood up in the middle of her question and said, simply, “I need to leave now,” practically running out of the building in the cheap navy pumps I had bought for the occasion.

            I don’t know how or why, but the PMI program invited me back for a second interview, and in the end, every agency that interviewed me offered me a job: the Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health; the Children’s Bureau in the Department of Health and Human Services; and the Office for Victims of Crime in the Justice Department.  That last job is the one I ended up taking, and it was probably the roughest of the three.  One of the first constituents I met was the father of a young woman who had been sexually assaulted and murdered.  Imagining the suffering of the bright beautiful young woman in the photograph he carried was bad enough; but much worse were his eyes, which ran constantly with something like shiny jelly, as if they were melting.  I wanted to say something compassionate and polite, but the sight of his watery eyes brought up an urge to cry that forestalled rational thought.  Jack and I would eventually develop a friendship that lasted nine years, during which time his eyes never stopped leaking chronic anguish and grief.

            I did a lot of writing at Justice because I was good at it.  Crime victims from all over the country wrote letters about mothers and fathers and children who had been assaulted or murdered or kidnapped and perpetrators who got off or got out and came back to harass the victims.  Though most of the crimes were not federal, we wrote back with suggestions for support and information, which was all we could do.  I revised all our form letters so that they were more personable and genuine, and on the basis of that work, my boss—a diehard Republican whom I adored—sent more writing tasks my way.  I wrote testimony for Attorney General Bill Barr and briefing books for lower level political appointees.  I wrote part of a presidential report on crime that was highlighted in Time magazine.  I wrote talking points on crime victims’ rights for presidents Bush and Clinton, and I wrote the aforementioned Oklahoma City proclamation.  But my most important achievement at the Justice Department was saving the life of a Filipino woman I would never meet.  Her name was Eunice Alfred, and her handwritten letter to Janet Reno—pages and pages of line paper ripped from a spiral bound notebook—happened to land in my inbox one summer day in 1994 or 1995.

            Eunice was writing from a woman’s prison in Louisiana, as I recall, where she alleged that a prison guard had raped her.  She had been jailed for forging a check with the name of the husband, but she insisted that her husband had set her up after he learned she was leaving him.  Eunice had two young children, a son and a daughter from a prior marriage, and the current husband was physically and sexually abusing them.  The criminal check-writing charges had prompted the revocation of her green card, and she was scheduled for deportation.  She was frantic about her children, who would be left behind with their abuser, and pleading for help.

            As with all such letters, I made phone calls to victims’ advocates in her state to learn more about her case.  Most of the time, these calls were dead-ends.  The case had been decided, or all leads had been exhausted, and there was nothing else to be done.  But in Eunice’s case, I reached a woman prosecutor who told me that Eunice had indeed been set up by her husband to forge the check; that he had abused her children; and she had been raped by a prison guard.  What was the problem? I wanted to know.  It seemed that her husband was protected by buddies in power, which is to say, the obstacles were institutional sexism and racism.  She had been convicted, and her case seemed hopeless.

            I knew that the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994, included a provision whereby immigrant women, whose status normally hinged on marital status, could not be denied green cards for seeking shelter or obtaining a restraining order.  Buoyed by this emergent legislation, I put together a detailed memo about Eunice Alfred along with her letter and the relevant excerpted sections of VAWA, arguing that she was a woman in exactly the circumstances that the law was designed to address.  What’s more, rape by a corrections official made Eunice the victim of a felony.  I sent the document through the appropriate channels to the attorney general’s office, recommending that she intervene.  Then I waited.

            Many such letters and memos went up the ladder, and many did not.  Taking an interest in a case was entirely the choice of the person whose desk they landed on.  Most of the time we spit out form letters with little more than a referral, and in almost all cases, we knew nothing of the eventual outcome.  Weeks passed, then months, without my hearing anything about Eunice Alfred.  Then one day, about ten days before Christmas, my boss knocked on my door.

            “Can I come in?” she said.  “I have something important to tell you.”

            I thought—as usual—that I was in trouble, but she was smiling.

            “Eunice Alfred is on a bus heading home,” she said.  “She gets to spend Christmas with her children.”

            She set a hand on my arm as I began to cry.

            Minutes before take-off, federal marshals had boarded the plane set to return Eunice to the Philippines, plucking her from the flight at the direction of Attorney General Janet Reno.  Charges would be brought against the guard who raped Eunice, and she would be allowed to remain in the United States.

            I couldn’t believe it.  We received hundreds of letters from anguished victims, some of them so traumatized that they sounded insane.  People wearing foil helmets, accusers of aliens, political conspiracy rants.  Nothing shocked us, inured by the scope of human fallibility and our own powerlessness to help.  I often coped by indulging black humor that might have horrified outsiders.

            “Dear Janet Reno,” I once wrote to a colleague, “I am writing to ask you to intervene on my behalf.  I fear for my life.  I am being relentlessly stalked and harassed by a large black cat with a pronounced lisp. Yours truly, Tweetie Bird.”

            Sounds stupid, but we roared; if I didn’t laugh, I fell apart.  One day a young mother died while trying to pull her infant from the backseat during a carjacking; she had been dragged a mile, her arm caught in the seat belt, before she was thrown to the curb.  After hearing the news, I wandered across the street and sat in a garden behind the National Gallery of Art, taking in the garden.  My boss happened to see me on his way back from lunch.  When he sat down beside me, I didn’t bother to hide that I had been crying.

            “You’re a good person to feel so deeply,” he said before squeezing my shoulder.  “It’s good to let yourself be around flowers and sunshine.  Take your time coming back.”

            The words “you’re a good person” stuck with me; no one had ever suggested that being moved by tragedy was evidence of my innate goodness.  On the contrary, the fact that so much of my work made me cry confirmed my belief that people were basically cruel and unjust.

            Some of my faith was restored the day I got the news about Eunice, and not solely in other people, but also in myself.  I wasn’t just a paper-pusher.  I had gone the extra mile for someone I didn’t know, saving her life and probably the lives of her children.

            I don’t know how many weeks passed before my work telephone rang with a follow-up call.  Eunice Alfred had managed to track me down.

            “Oh, Miss Melanie Smith, I am so happy to hear your voice!” she practically shrieked, when I answered.  In a minute we were crying as easily as if we were sisters.  Strangely, though, I didn’t want to bask in her thanks or my own glory.  Instead I felt overwhelmed.  Her elation at being freed was a measure of how much she had suffered; the tremulous thanks conveyed an undercurrent of still-raw pain that overwhelmed me.

            After we said our goodbyes, I closed my office door and bawled.

            I wonder where she is today and what happened to her children.  Have they healed and moved on to more prosperous lives?  It is strange to think of having helped reunite children, now adults, with their imprisoned mother, for obvious reasons.  The legal system was used to keep me from you for weeks that became months that became years; and even with a well-paid lawyer, our “reunification,” as they called it, could not be considered a success.

            The case of Eunice Alfred was a bright spot in almost nine long gray years, and my time in Washington ended in much the same way that initial interview had.  One day I decided I was done—sick of working in a tiny cubicle under the glare of fluorescent lights.  Sick of the gendered dress code–pantyhose and dresses–I had broken by wearing wool pants in winter.  And sick of an intractable loneliness as perennially gray as my cubicle walls. The irony is that, as adept and ready as I was to help Eunice Alfred, there was one life that I could not so readily save, and that was my own.  I had made some friends, gone on dozens of solo hikes, and acquired the dreaded wardrobe necessity of satin blouses (though not jabots).  But I had also moved out of emotional numbness into the relentless monotony of depression, and a geographic cure was appealing.

            First I made a detour to North Carolina, but within a few years of leaving my government job, I would meet your father and contemplate motherhood.  It would not be the first time, just as Eunice Alfred’s was not the first life I saved.  But that will have to wait for another day.



A Visual Essay: No-Recipe Sourdough

Wednesday morning: Starter (fermented flour and water) taken out of refrigerator and fed half a cup of flour and water, each, to activate.
Half the starter is poured in a bowl; another cup of flour and warmish water is added; the mixture is set out for most of the day to enhance action of yeast and flour. (I’ll cover this and return the half-emptied jar to the fridge until next baking day.)
Wednesday @ 10 pm (I got caught up in binge-watching, but that’s the nice thing about sourdough: It’s patient): bubbly starter on the left and autolyse (regular flour and water mixed to develop gluten) on the right. These will be combined, with increments of flour, to form a shaggy dough. ~ I am sorry to say that I do not use a recipe, nor ever have. If you need a recipe, here’s my advice: Online guidance involves thermometers, scales, and special tools, none of which are necessary; bread is made the world over with simple ingredients in simple ovens. But if I had to guess, I’d say my finished dough consists of about two cups of water; a tablespoon of salt; and five or six cups of flour. All of that includes the contribution from the starter, the autolyse (a 3/2 mix of flour and water the consistency of mashed potato), and the added flour when kneading. (Don’t fret over amounts, and skip the autolyse if you want to. If you simply add flour to the stuff that’s been sitting out, you’ll still get a respectable loaf of bread.)
Once I’ve mixed the starter-mixture and the autolyse, I add about a tablespoon of salt dissolved in 1/4 cup warmish water.
More flour until I have…
…a shaggy dough. It will be sticky and stretchy: That’s how you want it. Some of the flour may not be entirely mixed in, but that’s okay. The unmixed bits will absorb water and disappear.
Plopped in a crockery (I’ll cover it) to rise overnight. I set mine on the counter, but you can rise sourdough in the fridge. The main thing is that it will take much longer–hours–than bread risen with yeast from a jar, so you have to be patient.
Next morning! The dough is full of bubbles and three times its previous size.
The dough has been lightly kneaded with a bit more flour so that it takes shape. It is still tacky and stretchy, unlike the drier elasticity of non-sour-dough bread. This is what you want. Note to new bakers: Do NOT punch down dough as so many recipes needlessly advise. Dough is not the enemy. Be kind to the dough, and it will be kind to you.
Risen, seam-side up, in colander lined with flour-dusted cloth. This can take a hour or two. You want the dough to look a bit tighter on the surface and maybe twice its size, though sourdough doesn’t “double in bulk” the way traditional bread dough does.
Flipped onto baking parchment; surface is slashed to prevent cracking in the oven. Notice how relatively flat the dough is — deceptively so. The dough is full of nicely trapped gas bubbles that will expand on baking. I lower the dough, parchment paper and all, into a Dutch oven.
Baking at 400 degrees in a covered Dutch oven for first half-hour traps steam and prevents crust from breaking; second half-hour, uncovered gives the lovely brown crust.
Eh voila, the bread, ready to eat 24 hours after I set out the starter (so by noon on Thursday). Prepare to become addicted.

The Last Day of “Social Proximity”

Jon Hales playing the bagpipes overlooking the Ogden Valley and Ben Lomond Mountain.

            ONE night a couple of days before social distancing commenced, my elderly father called me–he was out for a walk trying to get space from my mother, who was volubly upset that their trip to Italy had been cancelled. When I found out he was walking by the river near his home, at night, ostensibly to tell me about the turkeys nesting in the trees, I knew something was wrong. He has some health problems, as does my mom, that make them emotionally vulnerable; in his case, that can mean forgetting to eat or take his meds.

            Clearly, anxiety had clearly begun to invade their lives.

            I was worried enough that the next day–a bright sunny day, and my first day of spring break–I called to find out their plans. They were driving from Amesbury to Stoneham to drop off their taxes. Without telling them, I drove to Stoneham and waited an hour outside their tax guy’s office until they drove up. It was nearly rush hour by then, so I asked what they planned to do afterwards, and my mother said they were driving to Woburn to do another errand.

            What errand? I wanted to know; the traffic was likely to be horrid.

            To drop off a plastic food container that someone had lent them, she told me.

            I said, “You’re going to spend this beautiful afternoon driving in suburban Boston traffic to drop off a 59-cent piece of plastic?!”

            I convinced them to follow me to my house where they sat on the porch watching the birds; my dad helped me fill my feeder. Then my mother drank white wine and my dad, Limoncello; their distress about the cancelled trip to Italy abated. We decided to go out for Thai food at a place they like.

            As we got out of the cars at the restaurant, a man jumped out of a truck parked nearby and burst into a bagpipe rendition of “O Danny Boy”–just a guy in a parking lot, sending this plaintive dirge up into the dusky blue evening. I didn’t know what we were in for, then, but now it seems as if he were somehow heralding the days to come.

            After dinner I hugged and kissed my parents goodbye, and they drove away. I am pretty sure that was the last familial outing they had–almost a month ago. A day later, the pandemic sent us all inside.

            I’VE thought a lot about that day, how we waste time with stuff that is unimportant when we could be listening to birds or better yet, to music–real or imagined. How we could be present to one another in the quiet that Wendell Berry calls “the peace of wild things.” Those bagpipes were a glorious gift, as was that brief time sitting outside, in the sunshine, less than six feet from my parents.

            Who knows when I’ll get to sit that close, or hug them–or hug anyone–again?

White Flower

[An excerpt of old writing]

A white flower grows in the quietness. Let your tongue become that flower. –Rumi

            It is mid-autumn, October, and though there is no snow yet, the days are often gray and overcast.  My new room in on the third-floor of the apartment, and when I wake up in the morning, I roll over and stare out at the expanse of sky over the treetops.  The leaves are changing with brilliant color and my worn comforter is cozy; but somehow the days have a somber quality about them.  I lie on my side listening to the patter of rain on the rooftop or nestle into the soft sheets, cocooned in heavy bed-warmth; even when I am not sleeping, some deep-down part of me is resting, quiescent and contracted inward, letting lie the parts that have been raw and exposed for a long time.  I am quiet; I move slowly and say little.  A pile of books grows at my bedside and eventually makes its way into my bed; I sleep with my books, The Upanishads and Neruda’s Love Sonnets and collected works of Anne Sexton, and The New Jerusalem Bible.  I don’t read the books systematically.  I dip in and savor a line, a paragraph, a poem, a page.  I turn the words over and over in my mind.  Late at night, in the boat of myself.  Pale almonds of fingernails. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  Then I think of your tongue, half-ocean, half-chocolate… Some deep part of me is resting, and another deep part of me is stirring; the words are like water that gets to the roots.  I don’t think about what they mean, I simply drink them in.  Nor do I talk about these things.  It is not because I have nothing to say, but rather, because I cannot find the words for this deep, ocean-bottom place I am in, enormous and still and scintillating.   It is like the afternoons I spend with Nonno.  Most of the time I say very little to him; yet the space is as pregnant as if it were brimming with new life.

            I look across from him and think: In that body is a newborn, a schoolboy, a husband.  I think, those are the ears his mother nibbled, the fists that punched out bullies, the body that lay next to my grandmother.   I have always loved his hands, large and strong but somehow gentle; my mind travels years past, remembering those hands.  The feeling of his fingers, resting lightly on the back of my neck, when I was fourteen or fifteen: I was crying, and he was trying to comfort me.  Your father doesn’t mean it, that’s just the way he talks.  C’mon, Mel, cheer up.  ‘You know what’ll happen if I take my belt off,’ he would say, mimicking my father.  My pants will fall down.  C’mon, laugh.  The way he lightly held his shaving brush—the same way he holds a jelly donut, now: I would sit on the toilet cover in his basement bathroom—I was seven or eight—and raptly watch him shave.  He still used a wooden brush and shaving mug to mix up the cream and would dab the stuff systematically over his stubbly chin and cheeks, drawing his lips in to get it in the crevices under his nose; then he would hold the skin taut with one hand, and with the other, draw the razor down over his face and neck as delicately as if he were painting the ceiling of a church.

            I think of the afternoons we spent in his basement workroom, with its table saw and router and workbench, and pegboard covered with tools, and the piles of sawdust and scraps of wood.  Under a dangling light bulb and squinting through dusty, smudged glasses, with a burnt-down Marlboro stuck to his lower lip, Nonno would plane doors, cut molding, and measure two-by-fours for his next job.  I sat on a stool, watching, while he narrated in words that I didn’t understand—louvers and joists and mullions.  But I didn’t care: it was artistry.  When I was fifteen, he built me a dollhouse—simply because I asked him to.  He spent months laboring in the basement, but this was one project he didn’t let me see until it was finished.  It was a true labor of love: Plexiglas, four-paned windows; doors that opened on tiny hinges; and a chimney out of pressboard that was patterned and painted red, to look like real brick.  But there was more.  Nonno gave me a set of castoff tools—a jigsaw and a hacksaw and a hammer, and nails and glue and scraps of wood, so I could make my own furniture.  I took the tools home and set up a corner on my father’s workbench, and turned out tables and beds and old-fashioned dressers with drawers that really opened.  I knew how to do it—to use tools and measure wood and make things square: I had watched Nonno for years.

            Nonno was a carpenter until well into his seventies, and though he was never a big man, his body was strong and limber; he could ride a bicycle and stand on his head and climb a ladder with a pile of lumber on his shoulder.  And now, I see, that body is shrinking, the limbs as withered as old sticks.  The head looks too heavy for the neck and the hands look too large for the arms.  He is all elbows and knees and gums; sometimes it seems the bones are trying to poke through his delicate skin.  He grimaces when touched.  The eyes are sunken and clouded over, seeming to look inward, recognizing nothing and no one.  Sometimes he wails and bangs his fists in frustration; his hands are scraped and mottled with bruises from green to blue to black.  Still, he is not allowed to stay in bed; the nurses dress him in his flannel shirts and pants and baseball cap and park him in the recreation room.  I am glad when I find him asleep.  More often I find him crying, crossing and uncrossing his legs and rocking in his chair, in room with ten other sick, old people but no one to hear his pain.  I cannot bear the thought that he should suffer alone.  I cannot bear the thought that he is afraid.

            I wonder if he knows that he is dying.

Letters: Dark-Eyed Babies of the World

Dear D:

         Every morning when the alarm rings, your cat Zoey jumps up from where she is sleeping on the foot of the bed—usually on my legs, which makes rolling over really hard—and climbs on top of me, licking my face in anticipation of being fed.  Sometimes it’s annoying, but mostly it makes me laugh.  At eleven pounds, Zoey is the weight of my small kettlebell, and after scratching a little around her neck (which you know she loves), I have to push her off so I can breathe.

         Eleven pounds is what you weighed when I brought you home from the hospital, after your surgery.  For the first year of your life, every night, you slept on top of me.  I had begun having you sleep that way at Children’s Hospital after waking up a few times with no baby in the room.  The nurses would wheel you out because there was a crisis, like a dislodged feeding tube, or because you were the only baby on the endocrine ward and they wanted to feed you rather than wake me up to do it—your cuteness being the deciding factor more than anything else.  But if you were sleeping on my chest—and all mothers sleep lightly, I think; nature wires us to wake up at the slightest sound—they couldn’t take you out without waking me.  Because even with you sleeping a few feet away, the brief interludes of not knowing—when they took you into the closed “booboo room” to reinsert the dislodged nasogastric feeding tube or move your clogged intravenous line to a different arm—was an abject horror.  Whatever I imagined happening to you was far worse than reality, even though seeing you cry made my breasts leak milk and my insides quiver not so much with worry, but with shared distress.  You were inside me for almost ten months.  It’s not surprising that after you were delivered, my body registered your pain—and still does.

         I have many mental pictures of that time, but one of them more than any other is—to me, anyway—analogous to the situation in which we now find ourselves.  In the wee hours of a late September morning in 2000, your father and I walked, you in my arms, to the pre-op area in the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  Born on August 2nd, you had spent almost five weeks in the Children’s Hospital of Boston, where doctors were unable to treat you.  You were diagnosed with hyperinsulinism—too much insulin, which depresses blood sugar—a disease then treatable at only three locations: Jerusalem, Paris, and Philadelphia.  I have written about the exhausting tribulations of our time in Boston, including the suspicion that I was somehow making you sick.  I can’t go there again; I’ll have recurrent nightmares for a week.  The important thing is that we got clearance from the insurance company for the Lear jet that took us almost from door to door, Boston to Philadelphia, in the middle of the night.  The endocrine team at CHOP was headed by Paul Thornton, an Irish transplant who now heads an entire clinic for children with hyperinsulinism, in Texas.  Those children are treated as you were, with a high degree of successful outcomes.  But in 2000, his protocol was still emerging, and pediatricians were learning how to screen and diagnose children, whose low-blood-sugar seizures were often misdiagnosed as epilepsy.  The fallout of mistreated seizures is permanent brain damage, and I know this not from an academic perspective, but because of a little girl named Amal who was at CHOP while you were there.  She was almost one year old, but she couldn’t sit up, babble, or hold a cookie.  I had seen her mother before and after your surgery, when it was clear you were cured.  The mother expressed the hope that Amal would have “the same outcome” as you.  I casually shared that communication with Dr. Thornton, who shook his head and, in a few words, conveyed to me that Amal’s brain damage was tragically permanent.  I had known all along how very serious the disorder was, but seeing that beautiful toddler who would never toddle, her abundant brown hair tied with pink ribbons, I understood how dire our own outcome could have been.

         Amal was a shadow, the story of misdiagnosis, the seed of a ruined future.  I wonder where she is today; she would be twenty-one, a year older than you.  She is out there, somewhere in the world, unable to feed or dress herself, or perhaps even get out of bed.  She requires 24-hour care.  What about her parents?  Did they remain married, or was their partnership fractured by financial woes, exhaustion, and disparate views on how much care to give, or whether to put Amal in an institution?  What about her brothers and sisters—I seem to recall she had at least one sibling. What was it like for them to live with a sister so needlessly disabled?  Did they lose out on parental attention?  Did they grow up knowing they carry the genetic mutation that could disable their own children, if not detected early on?  And how many Amals are out there?  Each of them is one facet of a family living with disability and—maybe—despair.  I saw many such children in CHOP, and I saw many such parents as well.

         The doors to the pre-op room opened, and we took you in.  It was about 6:30 in the morning.  The nurse, whom I remember was Russian, took you from my arms, and I began to cry.  I had been told of the surgical risks, as had your dad; we had to sign the consent, which listed death as one of the risks.  I wondered, as I handed you over, if I would every see you again.  I remember your father saying, “Goodbye, Zachariah,” a term of endearment that vanished when we split; then I kissed your damp little head and said, “I love you, Zachary.”  And you disappeared.

         The operation was supposed to take at least ten hours; the doctors had advised us to leave the hospital and get a break.  But I was exhausted and dirty.  I had no clean clothes—I had been rinsing things in the hospital sink for weeks, and everything had a greyish tinge.  All my attire was maternity, meaning yards and yards too big, and my clogs had run over on the sides from pacing.  My short hair had grown out and was flat and unmanageable, and my fingernails were all bitten down to stubs.  I knew that we would not return to your hospital room after the surgery, because you would go to the NICU; your bed in the regular ward would go to another waiting child, not to the parents who had been crashing there.  I opted to take a nap, with the goal of cleaning and organizing our stuff when I woke up.  But half an hour later, your father’s telephone rang, and he shook me awake.

         “The nurse just called—they’re finished!”

         Finished with what?

         “The surgery!”

         It had been less than two hours since I saw you.  I sat up, confused.

         “They found the lesion,” your father said.  “They’re closing him up now.”

         “OH MY GOD!” I yelled and leapt out of bed.  We practically ran down the escalators; every part of me quivered like jelly.   We paced outside the recovery room’s swinging doors thinking we could see you right away, but no: you were still anesthetized.  How long we ended up sitting there, I don’t know; at least an hour.  I was so tired, my body swayed from side to side, and I stunk from perspiration.  Even though I was recovering from a c-section, I wasn’t a patient; I was sitting among other families.  But I was still in my nightgown, and unwashed, having long ago given up caring how I looked.

         When the doors did open, we stood up, but the team of doctors came out, not you.  Their faces were lit with joy.  They were happy scientists who had just witnessed a perfect but until then aspirational outcome.  “Zack’s doin’ great,” said Thornton in his brogue, and explained how, the thing that never, ever happened, happened: The surgeon had seen the normally invisible lesion.  A “blush” was how Thornton described it.  The surgeon snipped it out, and pathology confirmed the discoloration as the source of your erratic blood sugars.  You lost only a quarter of a teaspoon of blood; no transfusion.  You were done.

         For weeks I had been in a kind of suspended animation, waiting for the nightmare to end.  Now I had another kind of disbelief.

         “I don’t get it,” I said to your father.  “Explain it again to me so I get it.”

         “They found it on the first try” was all he said, but not unkindly.

         I washed and dressed, and two hours later we were again sitting outside the swinging doors.  They opened to a posse of nurses and doctors wheeling an adult-sized gurney with a tiny bundle in the middle—you.  I ran past the no-admittance sign before they were all the way out, and they stopped, but only for a minute; you were headed to the NICU.  That’s when the picture of you was so indelibly laid down in my memory that conjuring it even now softens my insides with the somatic imprint of a new mother’s anguish.

         You were pale and swollen with a tube in your nose and another in your mouth.  You had red patches around your eyes from where they had been taped shut, and your sprawling limbs were ice-cold.  They had chilled you for the surgery, to minimize bleeding and infection, and now you lay in a nest of heat-packs.  You trailed a bramble of intravenous lines, electrical wires, and drain-tubes that prevented even a longed-for half-hug.  But I leaned over and kissed you, and that’s when I registered your eyes.

         They were open, your blue-brown pupils big and dark, and cloudy with the ointment that had been smeared on them for added protection; still, through all that swirling haze, you found your mama’s eyes, and stared.

         I’ve undergone brain surgery; I remember how strange the world appeared from the horizontal position on a gurney, the flashing overhead lights and undersides of faces, and the stiff bloodless feeling that makes not only calling out but crying impossible.  You went through all of that as a defenseless newborn, and you were now on the other side of that ordeal.  The memory of that moment reminds me that I will never be a normal mother, and I will never be a normal mother to a normal newborn.  I don’t have a funny-charming birth story I can share with my “chums.”  No, I will forever be mother to the dark-eyed babies of the world whose faces I see in footage about war, catastrophe, and outbreaks.  Their big eyes are everywhere, searching for their mothers and fathers, and they stir my insides with the somatic imprint of anguished childhood.

         But my memory is not only about pain; it is also about resilience.  Even in that moment when your health still lay in the balance, those big dark eyes were like pools of deep water pierced by sunlight.  I glimpsed something like the soul shining up from their depths, the antithesis of shadow, your insistence not only on life but on life with love.

         You emerged from that operating room with a scar that horizontally halved your belly.  First it was red, then it was white.  I thought it would fade entirely, but instead, it grew as you did, morphing into the faintest crease, curved upward like an extra laugh-line.  I have a twin scar in my abdomen from the c-section, although it is not truly a twin because it is lower and smaller; in fact, almost completely invisible.  Invisible or not, our scars memorialize that time.

         Some children develop health or learning problems when they get a little bit older; some, like you, live through divorce and even the death of loved ones.  But for you, from the get-go, life itself was the challenge; you had to fight for it.  I was right there, fighting alongside you, as was your dad.  He—unfortunately—was also battling me, and though I don’t understand that entirely, I choose to believe that, at some level, he—like me—was profoundly terrified that you would lose that fight.

         You didn’t.  You are a tall and strong young man whom I cautiously expected to grow up to be a handsome shrimp—the doctors told us surgery might inhibit your growth.  That’s another way you have defied expectations; in a phrase I used to detest, you have “landed on your feet.”  But two decades later, you are also still that infant whose clouded eyes gaze out at a big strange world in which a mother is calling to you.

         I hope someday those eyes can find and return her gaze.



Letters: Wandering

Dear D:

            Wandering led me on a few memorable adventures, even if all it did was buy me time and help me to figure out that I am not an ideologue, a recruiter, or someone who wants to change my name as the marker of a spiritual transformation.  (The biggest change I have made on that last point is signing emails to students as “Professor Ess,” partly as an ironic takedown of my own authority, and letting friends call me “Em,” because it’s the first letter of my name—the same way your dad used to call you “Zee”).

            Yours truly lived in a teepee on a commune; there, I made sauerkraut in a clawfoot bathtub and rolled ceramic beads to supplement the in-kind income (room and board) I earned by chopping down trees and providing childcare.  I was 19 and—in a phrase made defunct by “new ageism,” exploring “alternative lifestyles” before yoga, veganism, and sustainability had become cultural watchwords.  If I had a photograph from that time—and I don’t, because for years I didn’t allow my photograph to be taken—you would see a round-faced teenager who looks a lot younger than almost twenty, clothed in baggy overalls and Timberland boots, with a big floppy hat atop long brown hair.

            The boots are still cool.  Everything else, just no.

            But before I arrived at the commune, I did hitchhike and made the quintessential rookie move of letting the driver take me to a remote location that he alone knew.  I asked the trucker who picked me up where I could pitch a tent for the night, and he drove me up a dirt mountain road to a small pond behind a burned-out farmhouse.  There were no other houses, no other human beings.  Still, I pitched my tent and made my dinner, then went to sleep.

            The sound of a truck engine and breaking glass woke me at probably at three or four in the morning.  I heard footsteps, then smelled tobacco smoke from the man I knew was standing a couple of feet from my tent.  Was he the truck driver?  Who else could he have been?  I was in the boonies.  Certain that I would be raped and killed, I took out my journal and wrote my last words, that I loved my family and didn’t want to die.  Then I waited.  How long he stood there, I don’t know, just that eventually, for whatever reason, he walked away, got in his truck, and drove off.  But I shook uncontrollably for hours, particularly after emerging from the tent to see large footprints and a cigarette stub in the dirt within arm’s reach of my tent.

            Shadows, and whatever is the antithesis of shadows.  How can I explain my emerging unharmed?

            I strapped on my frame pack and hiked to the Abode of the Message—the commune—where I settled into a dorm-style guest house.  Then I was assigned chores: fetching wood, childcare, and working with the kitchen staff, who rotated meal preparation responsibilities.  There I got my first experience of what I would now call mansplaining in the form of a white-blond yoga bum in mauve linens who poopooed the input of his female crew.  Maybe that’s when I perfected my furtive eye-roll; naïve as I was, I knew he was a pompous fart.

            My favorite job was childcare.  I loved having a crew of toddlers climbing all over me as I read stories in a pretend-wolf or piggy voice.  I suppose that playing with those trusting kids gave me back something of my lost childhood, the same way—over twenty years later—being your mother did.

            (Wow, I would never have imagined, at the age of eighteen, that it would be two more decades before I became a mom.  I always knew I had wanted children; it seemed inevitable.)

            At the Abode, I met a young brown-skinned man named Ariel who was even more screwed up than I was; he was too skinny for his near-constant fasting, and listening to him talk about a horrid childhood, I realized that the Abode was an escape.  Oddly, I urged him to leave and get psychiatric help, even though I wouldn’t have taken that same advice.

            I stayed for three months, during which time I got a case of bronchitis from sleeping in damp unheated buildings and having insufficient clothing for the cooler months. When I got better, the administrative people told me I had to commit to joining the community or leave.  Joining meant that I would become a devotee of Pir Vilayat Khan, whose followers repeated this prayer daily:

Toward the One,
the Perfection of Love, Harmony and Beauty,
the Only Being,
United with All the Illuminated Souls,
Who form the Embodiment of the Master,
the Spirit of Guidance

            I love traditional prayers, particularly the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm—the Psalm of David—which I think of as a prayer because it asks God to walk with us.  And I love the Doxology, which you have never in your life sung, because you didn’t attend church.  It has a similar kind of message:

Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

            Yes, it’s got the patriarchal language of the father in there; it’s got the male holy trinity.  But I can still faithfully sing it because of its ascendant melody, and because if I think of it simply as a song praising God the creator, it’s inoffensive.  Plus, I grew up with it; I sang it every Sunday as the offering plate circulated in church.  It’s more familiar to me than the grace we said over Nanna’s dinner table, which was something about gratitude for the bounty of God’s blessing.  Liturgical music and recitations have always been an anchor-point, probably because—recited or sung in unison—they valorize belonging.  They stitch people together in the shared expression of hope.  For me, prayers and songs opened the door to my heart, and I frequently wept in church.  But the prayer of Pir Vilayat Khan did not do that for me.  It lacked the majesty and grounding in collective memory that I had taken in as a kid in Sunday school and church, and as the granddaughter of a woman who memorized Bible passages.

            If anyone was responsible for my love of prayer, it was Nanna.  Maybe that’s why I opted to leave the Abode rather than stay.  I had seen traditional, unvarnished, un-gimmicky faith.  I had taken it in with Sunday dinners, and I had stood next to my grandmother in church, hymnal in hand, singing with all my might, “Christ the Lord is risen today,” on Easter morning.  Church was, for a time, the conduit for a light stream that seemed to single me out and offer the promise of something like redemption, which I sorely needed.  I wasn’t going to trade that in for something of lesser value.

            It bears stating that my parents visited once while I was at the Abode.  My mother was convinced I was being brainwashed by a cult.  The idea that—if that were the case—she and my father might have a role in my going in search of something better had not occurred to her.  I was still her screwed up, depressed, stubborn, and—yes—selfish daughter who was living in rags intentionally to torment her.

            (I have one humorous memory of proudly handing my father a slice of tofu pumpkin pie I had helped make, only to have him hand it back with the blunt assessment, “It tastes like shit.” I laugh because I would probably myself say the same thing about tofu pumpkin pie, today.)

            I made the decision to leave.  I packed up my stuff and got in the car with a woman who was driving to Philadelphia to see her adult kids.  I had never been to Philadelphia, but it seemed as good a destination as any.  Late November was the beginning of the holiday season, and for the first time in my life, it looked as if I would not be celebrating Christmas with “la famiglia.”  Many more solo Christmases would follow, and none of them ever felt good.  In fact, I still haven’t figured out a way to get through a beloved holiday—a mere 24 hours—on my own without feeling as though I’m undergoing open-heart surgery without anesthesia.  I hate it.

            But my experiment in communal living was not a waste.  I culled new-age-y fads from my interests while also affirming my belief in something greater.  One day I would learn at the knee of a real guru, the Hindu chaplain from Harvard University, Swami Tyagananda, with whom I briefly studied the Gita and Upanishads, sacred Indian texts I had read on my own and discovered had much in common with my most beloved Bible verse, Deuteronomy 6:5: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength,” and my second favorite Bible verse, John 1:1: “The Word was God and the Word was with God.”  More about that later.  The take-home point here is that I had a kind of natural faith and inquisitiveness that nonetheless needed a home, because as the Katha Upanishad says, life is really, really hard.

Get up! Wake up!  Seek the guidance of an illumined teacher and realize the Self.  Sharp like a razor’s edge is the path, the sages say, and difficult to traverse.

            But study of Hinduism and a renewed appreciation for the Christianity in which I had been raised was decades down the line.  At the age of almost twenty, my urgent work was still, simply, survival.  Each day that I came through unscathed added to a trauma-free timeline, akin to miles between me and the explosion in the rear-view mirror.  It also shifted the proportion of my life that was truly mine and not under the authority of parents.  I didn’t know that as that proportion changed, so would my responsibility for making good decisions.  I didn’t know that, because no one had ever taught me.  I had to figure it out myself, and that took a long time.

            I guess that’s another reason I am writing this.  I think of you doing a similar thing, getting distance from a loss-laden past and accumulating a lengthening succession of unruffled days.  At least that’s my hope.  I mean it when I say that there is no end of sorrow for the anguish I caused.

            I will end there for now, on a hope for peace.



P.S.  Please don’t ever hitchhike.

Letters: Sandford

Dear D:

            And if I’m going to write about Nanna and Nonno, I have to write about Nanny and Grampy too.

            You had two sets of maternal great-grandparents, though I knew my mother’s parents better than my father’s because they lived a mere mile away.  My father’s parents lived in Nova Scotia.  Or rather, I should say my father’s mother and stepfather lived in Nova Scotia, because Grampy Vic, as I called him, was not the man who raised Papa.  That man, Doug Smith, died when Papa was halfway to seventeen, in 1955.  It was a terrible trauma for my father, but I didn’t even know it had happened because he never talked about it.  He was taciturn and tight-lipped, which meant that I suspected he was always a hair’s breadth away from anger.  Still, when I got old enough—nine or ten—I realized that I could get him to talk if he was doing something—painting, plastering, spackling, that sort of thing.  I sit cross-legged on the floor and send out a question, then wait for the answer that came in short clips.

            “How did you learn to fix things?”

            He had learned in school, in carpentry and auto-shop classes.

            “But why didn’t you become a fisherman like Grampy Vic?”

            How the hell was he going to become a fisherman when he got seasick every time he set foot on the boat?  “I used to get sick as a dog.”

            “Don’t you miss Nova Scotia?”

            I’m not sure when he gave the answer that stuck—whether it was when I was nine, or much later.

            “I wouldn’t give you ten cents for that place.”

            “That place” was my destination for two weeks of most summers.  I took you there when you were not yet two.  We stood in my grandmother’s driveway and I looked out over the familiar brown hayfield that rolled down to the shore.  In the years since I had visited Nanny as a child, little had changed, but everything had changed.  I was the newly divorced mother of a bright button of a boy, but the red and green fishing shacks a mile away—including the shack that had once belonged to Doug Smith—were exactly as I remembered them.  It is strange to remember how, on that particular day, even with a bubbling boy-bundle running delightedly around on the grass, I thought I had so little to hope for.  I hadn’t yet gone back to graduate school, bought my own house, or found true love.  I hadn’t yet become a teacher or unearthed my father’s adoption history.  I hadn’t done the arduous eighteen years in therapy that would force me to face not only old pains but also my own unrecognized intellect.  I had begun to write, but I hadn’t shared any of my work because I didn’t believe in it or in myself.  Writing was a fuzzy dream.

            I have what I wrote about Nova Scotia back then.  I used to get up early, before you woke up, so I could write.  It’s good to able to share it, here, this other part of your heritage:

               “Sandford, Nova Scotia is a tiny, hardscrabble fishing village about ten miles north of Yarmouth, the port from which the Prince of Fundy ferries travelers to and from Maine.  A horizontal row of tiny houses neat and uniform as baby teeth sit up high on the horizon, broken in each of two places by a clean white steeple; this is the backdrop for a cluster of red fishing shacks nestled by the shore.  Tourist literature boasts that Sandford is home to the world’s smallest drawbridge, a red wooden structure that straddles the mouth of an inlet where the boats are docked.  It is odd to read that one of the main reasons that people like to visit here is to see what is noted to be the smallest drawbridge…from here you can stand in the evening and watch as the sun sets beyond the Bay of Fundy.  It is strange to think of Sandford’s shanties as a tourist destination and of its fisherman as a tourist attraction. To me it was the village in which my father grew up and the place that told me—even as a child—what he could not say himself.  In my mind, Sandford was my father: simple, traditional, and pastoral, qualities that enabled me to connect with and love the man who came home each night now spent, angry and uncommunicative.  Somewhere in him must be that clean, bright place with blue skies, a sea-salt breeze, and the shrill cries of gulls that circled the shore…the waves, thousands of points of sparkling light so fierce under the sun, it hurt your eyes to look.  Somehow he must carry inside him the memory of this place, a landscape almost painfully magnificent in its stark and elemental beauty.

               “To get to Sanford, we drove to Portland, Maine, and then onto a ferry that carried us, car and all, across the Bay of Fundy.  The journey was a mix of seasickness and wonder: I hated the stuffy, cramped sleeping cabin but delighted in standing on the moonlit deck–we always crossed at night–to watch dolphins jump and dive in the white froth of the ferry’s wake.  After the crossing to Yarmouth, came a ten-mile drive over Rural Route 1—the Evangeline Trail after Longfellow’s poem—up through Hebron and Chegoggin, through gently rolling hills dotted with weathered cottages and herds of cows, onto the ramrod straight dirt portion of the road that ran through Sandford.  Nanny’s house always seemed fantastically tiny when we finally arrived, a button-sized, green-blue cottage overlooking a half-mile-wide expanse of brambly, rutted fields that sloped between it and the sea.  The first owner dug a crude cellar and over it erected three rooms, and after that my father’s father added on.  As a result the house had a cobbled-together feel, older parts preserved within newer parts, like the space where an ironing board had once folded up into the wall now a shelf sprinkled with porcelain knick-knacks, or a shaving mirror and medicine cabinet intact on a kitchen wall.  A door in the dining room opened to a narrow staircase that led to three perennially chilly bedrooms, heated only by open floor-grates that let up the warm air from the floor below.  In the basement my grandmother kept an old-fashioned roller washing machine that she still used to do laundry, her red, rough hands feeding wet clothes through the wringers and then toting a heavy basketful outside to the line.  Down behind the house was the outhouse stacked with pages from old catalogs and a fenced-in frog pond where my father had raised chickens and ducks as a boy.

               “There were some features of the house—the way of life—that seemed quaint relics of a bygone era.  The cool, dank basement—a dirt-floor cave scattered with tools and fishing gear—was a refrigerator of sorts: in a low-ceilinged room off to the side, a long shelf was laden with mincemeat pies, coffee cans of boiled puddings, loaves of brown-bread, and tins of gingersnaps, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies.  A clothesline strung across the other side of the basement bore not laundry but salt-cured pollock hung by the tail with clothespins.  My grandfather would tromp down the rickety steps and peel off a chunk of flesh for a snack, or bring up two or three fish for dinner.  These were boiled and served with potatoes and beet greens. With a long-tined fork he would flatten his food into a uniformly patterned disk of white, green and gray which he then doused with butter and hot cream from a pitcher.  Grampy Vic as we called him was a huge hulking lobsterman with a bulbous nose and red face, enormous hands and a maw of a mouth.  He shoveled the cream-drenched fish in great mouthfuls and washed it down with tea.  I sat miserably looking at my own eye-level plate teaming with fish, potatoes and greens, the overpowering fish smell making me want to cry.  “You can’t get up ‘til you clean your plate,” he announced and I would sit long after his plate had been cleared.  But I don’t remember one instance in which I actually cleaned my own.

               “The other fixture in my father’s boyhood home was Nan Goodwin, my great-grandmother Annabelle Frost Goodwin, whom we called Big Nanny.  Big Nanny passed the better part of each day nested like a massive hen in her crushed-velvet recliner in a well-lit corner of the living room where she pieced fabric squares for assembly into quilt tops.  I remember her hands and her eyes: gnarled, arthritic fingers that deftly pushed a needle in and out of swatches of calico while she squinted half-blindly through spectacles that sat low on her nose.  Piecing fabric is all she ever did, speaking rarely and then only to allow that “children should be seen and not heard.”  The silence in the living room was punctuated by two sounds: the tick-tock of a little cuckoo clock and Big Nanny’s occasional inward sigh. “Yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh-yuh,” she would say as she drew breath in, speaking to no one in particular and in response to nothing said.  Big Nan scared me.  Her physiognomy, her hands, her hair and eyes, bespoke a constitution as enduring as steel wool: she was conservative, utilitarian, plain and sharp-spoken.  Once a day I observed her great waddling gait as she made her way, sighing and clucking, to her chair where once plopped down she remained for the duration.

               Nova Scotia has a maritime climate; its summer days are hot and humid but nights are cool enough to sleep under quilts.  Nan’s backyard was blindingly bright with white sheets snapping on the line against a sunlit line of ocean that melted into the sky.  Nan would hang the laundry and go to town, leaving me in the care of Clara Landers, a girl two years older who lived next door.  Clara seemed always to be laughing at me as if I were the most unusual creature she had ever met, a pudgy girl from the States who was afraid of bees and brambles. She would lead me through the pasture to the frog pond, giggling as I winced and recoiled at thorns, insects and mud.  How she managed to lure me, one summer, to strip to my underwear and wade in the pond to catch tadpoles is a trick I cannot remember. What I do recall is sitting half-naked and crying, covered from top to toe in sludge, on my grandmother’s stoop until she returned from town while Clara snickered nearby.  “Land sakes alive,” Nanny exclaimed boisterously when she finally pulled in. Something happened to one’s voice in Sandford: the ever-present shush of wind and waves fuzzed the edges of words and carried off portions of sentences.  Nanny adapted by speaking at the same volume inside the house as she did in the backyard.

               “Nanny don’t know why a big girl would make such a fuss over a little mud,” she mused hastily as she roughly washed off the mud.

               “For reasons I do not understand she always referred to herself in the third person, and this I think is the reason, in part, that I was unable to feel close to her: she never seemed owner of the thoughts she expressed.  Inside the house was cool and dim, and smelling of soap and brown bread, and I swallowed my shame with the buttered toast and cookies that she offered.

               “Some days we went berry picking so Nan could make jam.  The fields were hot and dry and the bushes prickly.  Nan could pick for hours.  On other days when I was left in Clara’s care, she and I and her sisters Emma and Ida, and other stray village children would walk a mile down the road “to the Island Pond,” to a secluded spot between two cottages where you could swim.  You had to wade out through the shallow part, the bottom of which was slimy with rotting leaves.  The other children splashed and swam while I sat on the rocks and watched, self-conscious of my plump pale legs.   The return walk back was hot and dusty; sunlight glittered on the road and the village of Sandford was a watery mirage in the distance.  On the way back we passed two churches: the Methodist church on one side of the road where the Landers went, and the Baptist church on the other side that Nanny attended.  Every Sunday the church bells rang and the Sandford villagers, mostly women in hats, walked half a mile to church, the Methodists on one side of the road and the Baptists on the other.  Our church was a simple white-washed structure with a steeple visible from the shore that was said to have been built with timbers that washed ashore when a fishing boat sank.  The building was weathered and the pews hard, worn and narrow.  “I was glad when they said let us come to the House of the Lord,” the parishioners intoned.  I was glad when it was time for the children to leave the service for Sunday school in the basement, where I colored pictures of Jesus and shepherds with broken crayons from a biscuit tin.

              “On occasion Grampy Vic took us out on the fishing boat to pull in the lobster traps.  We drove down the Shore Road to the fishing shanties in his pickup truck then walked out to the pier where he anchored the boat.  Getting onto the boat was the stuff of nightmares for a suburban school child.  You reached the boat by climbing down a ladder and then jumping over three feet of dank, gray-green brine to the safety of the boat’s deck.  In low tide the boat would bob and sway while the seawater clunked and lapped at the pier’s pilings.  Grampy would descend first, then stand with open arms shouting for me to “climb down and jump!” while I stood frozen in terror.  At last I was scooped under his arm and carried down like a rag doll, certain that when he leaped over that dark water we would drop into its cold depths and drown. Nothing of the kind happened.  The boat soon chugged out past the point where the land was visible and we were afloat in an endless expanse of inky-gray, no obvious reference points beyond an occasional red and white buoy, and the sun.

               “How will we find our way back?” I asked him anxiously, and he only laughed and spun the wheel.  I clung to side as the vessel churned and coughed to hone in on the trap markers, terrified we would capsize and be swallowed up.  On one occasion we entered a pod of right whales, sleek, stone-colored mounds that bobbed to the surface and sprayed.  So far out did Grampy go that Nanny kept, on a sill in the kitchen, a pair of worn-out binoculars to scan for the fishing boat at day’s end.

               “There’s Grampy, coming in now,” she would say, and know how long until dinner.

               “Summers in Sandford are now a series of snapshots relegated to memory, never to be revisited, not even by my own child.  The old folks have passed on, the young ones have moved away, and the cottage has burned to the ground.  My recollections of the place are the kind children want to hear when they ask parents to “tell me a story about the old-fashioned days.”  They are the kind I too wanted but never did hear from my own father until childhood was long gone, and I was grown enough to understand how much of a true story is never told.”


            I hated Nova Scotia when I was a kid: I hated the outhouse swarming with flies and having to wipe with an old catalogue.  I hated the smell of fish and the scratchy feeling of clothing pulled in from the line.  But in the years since I spent summers there, I have learned Papa’s true parentage, secured my dual citizenship papers, and returned to hike the hills of Cape Breton Isle and spend a week living in the house of the acclaimed American-Canadian poet, Elizabeth Bishop. When I was a kid, my father and mother often packed us into the car for long drives into New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont—trips that lacked a destination, which is why we not infrequently found ourselves stuck on dirt roads that led deep into the woods.  Often they were hunting roads, and more than once the likelihood that we would emerge unscathed was dubious.  But I now think of those drives as a kind of wanderlust on my father’s part, a yearning to outrun or run toward something significant; I am not sure which.  But I understand it, because that same urge has compelled me to go back, again and again, as if I am looking for something I’ve lost but will only know it’s mine when I find it.

            Does that make sense?

            It turns out that my father was running from the same thing I’ve been running toward, and that is the story of family, which is to say, the stories that make us.  Legacy, the lives of those who preceded us, which have as much or maybe more impact on who we become than the coincident factors—where we live, go to school, befriend.  I guess, now that I think of it, that’s partly what I’m doing here, telling you what came before.  That’s something worth your knowing and something worth my doing, though I need to stop for today.