Don’t Know Love

The barbecue is in full swing; hands delve into coolers for beer, fruity wine, Lime-a-Ritas. This cooler squawks as its lid is raised; the Styrofoam one makes a painful, teeth-sweat inducing squee as its lid fits tightly back in place. No one even realizes their bellies are empty as the booze loosens lips and love is passed around like a joint at a rave.

“I love you, Uncle Matt,” says my niece, full of alcohol and the kind of promise and hope that follow a graduation.

“Oh kid,” my brother slurs. “You don’t know love until you have kids.”

What did you say?” I ask. For clarification, hoping that I heard wrong.

“I said, ‘you don’t know love until you have kids.’”

Only now, after he’s said it twice, does he look sheepish.

I say nothing. I stare at my older brother, whom I thought I loved. But I’m nobody’s mother; I can’t know what love is. He begins a long, histrionic apology that fails to demonstrate any understanding of why my feelings are hurt. I know I will have the words to explain later, but now all I can do is walk away.

His words echo in my brain, repeating in a loop. You don’t know love. You don’t know love.

He said this to me, who has always held love for him and from him as a given, a solid point in a constantly shifting landscape of confusing family dynamics. All the feeling he has for me, all that I have for him—that’s not love? He said it to my niece, for whom life is just starting—an eighteen-year-old beauty who chose a college close to home because of her little brother. My niece, who just told her uncle that she loves him, doesn’t know love?

You don’t know love. The words tripped off his tongue like the truest thing he knows, telling a young woman that life isn’t complete, she isn’t complete, until she has kids. She will be bombarded with that message the rest of her life; she has countless years ahead for people to pass judgment on what she wears, how much she makes, when and whom she marries, the kids she has, and how she raises them. She’ll learn soon enough the difference between choosing what’s right for her and choosing what’s right and proper as a woman.

There will always be the voices of those saying that her choices aren’t enough, that she isn’t enough. Her life, accomplishments, generosity of spirit, feelings, and her body matter only in the context of the children she does or does not have. She doesn’t need her uncle, who’s supposed to have her back, to be one of those voices.

You don’t know love. I try to look at this sentence through the prism of my brother’s life. For him, becoming a parent was huge and transformative, an event that ushered into his life a different kind of meaning, purpose, and yes, love. Yet, his words pass judgment on love. There may be different kinds, but the only love that matters is the kind a parent has for a child. We can’t even acknowledge those other types as real love.

Other types of love, like the kind I have for my husband, my family, my friends—all people who know that I would do anything for them. With one flippant sentence, my brother has invalidated all that love, relegating every relationship in my life, and my niece’s life, to a pale, shallow imitation of what he knows.

My sister-in-law tells me not to take it personally; he didn’t mean to hurt my feelings. I know he meant what he said; saying it to me was the real accident. Now I’ll always know that my brother looks down on my life as less consequential than his—my love less full, less meaningful . . . less important.

His voice has joined the chorus of judgment hailing down on me, on every woman. A hundred years after suffrage; fifty years after birth control, The Feminist Mystique, and equal pay—women’s life choices are still being prescribed for them. I’ve had years to learn the chorus’s sexist lyrics, but this might be my niece’s first verse of the outdated song. I’d hoped for her, for women of future generations, that the song would fade out and be forgotten.

Then again, what do I know? I don’t know love.


In the Numbers

Dad’s breath grew erratic and ragged. He drew one last, long burst of air and pushed it out, exhausted and spent. That was it.
Dad was gone.
This gentle, wry man—the one who showed me the numbers running throughout our entire lives—was gone.
From him, I learned that numbers are everywhere, pulling order out of chaos. Say, for example, the geospatial trajectory of a BB shot through the air by a malicious brother.
Numbers were in the kitchen when I asked Dad a cooking question, like how many cups were in a gallon. “Pint’s a pound, world around,” he’d respond, matter-of-factly. Beneath those words, layers of equations and calculations would produce the answer I needed (16).
Numbers were with me even when Dad wasn’t. In gym class, I mentally graphed my deceleration as that Presidential Fitness mile wore on—an exponential curve with speed along the y-axis and time over the x-axis.
In second grade, I caught hell for using the top of my desk to track the ratio of times the teacher called on girls versus boys. Sitting at that desk over recess, scrubbing away the carefully penciled charts and graphs, remains a vivid childhood memory.
The moment after Dad took his last breath, his empty shell lying on the bed, the numbers were silent. No equation could graph our pain.
I grappled behind me for something, anything solid, and found Charles. I turned into him, buried my face on his shoulder and sobbed as he held me tightly.
My Charles. He was there with my family that whole horrible week. He took shifts like the rest of us, staying up with Dad, plying him with morphine. He ran errands, made phone calls, smoothed ruffled feathers. He stroked my back and held my hand.
In the days following Dad’s death, Charles was there. He pooled music for my dad’s wake and funeral. He brokered peace between brothers at the funeral home. He made sure my mother ate, helped hustle her out of the house when she would have lingered indeterminately, and corralled all the paperwork needed for the business of death.
On the day of the funeral, we sat in a straight line in the front pew of the church—all fixed points in a cruel equation of life balanced with loss.
Charles pulled the eulogy he wrote from the pocket of his suit jacket and walked up to the stage. Numbly, I sat, holding my mother’s hand. Charles began talking about the strong and quiet man my father was. Suddenly, we heard a catch in his voice.
Then, a sob.
Two weeks of attending to our grief, and my husband had forgotten about his own. All that time, he was anything and everything my family needed. He did it all without fanfare, blending into the background of grief. But his pent-up emotion would no longer be set aside.
Suddenly, the numbers snapped into focus. I could see a graph for how I’d loved my husband (y-axis) over time (x-axis). Far from a straight line, the points on this graph jumped around, snuck up on me, surprised me. This moment in time soared above the rest, as Charles grieved for my father and I saw my husband for the man he was—for me, for all of us.
Charles was still crying. Everyone sat, silent and waiting.
I jumped out of my seat and onto the stage. I hugged my husband, took his hand, and looked down at his notes. I began to read, “For Dad, God was in the numbers.”


Ghosts in the Bathroom

I was five years old when my mom sat my two older brothers and I down on my childhood bed. She fumbled with the words, not knowing how to begin. The telling was hard for her. Her father had died.
Died? What did that even mean? I looked to the other people on the bed for how I should react.
My mother was crying. My oldest brother looked unsurprised at the news, but terribly sad. My other brother was shocked and crying.
I felt like I should ask some questions, because I sure didn’t understand what was happening. Yet, this didn’t seem like the right time to raise my hand.
After a pause for the information to sink in, my mother continued. “You know, while this means you can’t see Granddaddy in person, he’ll always be there, watching over you.”
Puzzled, and still working out what had just happened, I walked out of the room with my brothers. I tried to feel sad like them, but I was too young to understand what it all meant.
I mulled over the words my mother said, but the more I thought about it, the less it made sense. If Granddaddy was watching over me, that meant that somehow, he was here with me. What about my brothers? My mom? My Grand Mother? He couldn’t be with all of us all the time, could he? Did this mean we all had to stay in the same place now?
What about the times when I didn’t want anyone watching? Would Granddaddy see everythingI did now? I would think about this when I lit my doll on fire playing with a lighter, when I snuck out of the house after being grounded, when I got caught hiding others’ belongings in my play kitchen. Was Granddaddy watching? I cringed to think he had seen me at my worst.
I thought about it most when we were at Grand Mother’s house.
After walking into the bathroom, as I closed the door, I would plead quietly, “Granddaddy, if you’re here, please don’t watch.”
Just in case.

It’s All in the Stuffing

What I remember most about Thanksgiving when I was a kid is my mother’s stuffing. I would sit up with her late at night, Thanksgiving Eve, thinly chopping celery and dicing onions. (Onions didn’t make Young Megan cry.)
For this magic concoction, Mom used a special cauldron. She’d duck into the garage to hunt it down, bring it inside, and wash it in the sink. Only this pot could hope to contain her creation as it morphed and grew.
The sausage went on the fire…pop pop pop.
The onions were browned in butter…sizzle.
Then the celery.
And cubes of stale bread…chink chink chink.
Finally, some herbs.
All in the pot it went.
Then the tasting began. In dove the small spoon, quickly disappearing into Mom’s mouth. I could see her rolling the flavors around, deciding what she needed to add.
A dash of pepper here. A bit of salt there. Maybe some more celery?
The mixture grew in the pot as flavors were added and balanced, like a terrific-smelling abacus there on the stove. Finally, Mom would consult me. “Taste this. What do you think this needs?” Of course, I didn’t know. But I loved to taste, anyway.
Only when Mom was satisfied was the stuffing declared ready. What followed was twelve hours of torture in which I tried not to think of what awaited us in the refrigerator the next evening.
Years later, stuffing remains my favorite part of the meal. You can take my share of the turkey; just pass the stuffing.

It’s On the Corner

My niece, Jacquelyn, and I recently took a trip to Kirksville, MO, to tour my alma mater, Truman State University. I was excited to be back, already filling with nostalgia as we drove around the small town.

After dinner, my niece and I spent our evening in the pool of the hotel; we had it to ourselves. Once acclimated to the cold water, we floated aimlessly, musing and making plans. I realized we were about to spend the day walking around campus. Outside. In the sun.

With my skin.

ME: I need to stop in the morning to buy sunscreen.
NIECE: Okay.
ME: Did you see a Walgreens while we were driving around today?
NIECE: Yeah.
ME: Where?
NIECE: On the corner of Happy and Healthy.

Yep. She’s definitely related to me.