Call Her Margaret

This is not going to be one of those stories. You know, where I explain my love of cooking with misty memories of my mom and grandma in the kitchen. That’s not my family. I didn’t learn food in the kitchens of my childhood; I learned guilt and shame, like a good Catholic.

I.  At seven, in my mother’s kitchen, I learned not to call my mom’s mother Grandma.

I was returning from backyard exile, flushed and sweaty from the July heat. I gave the woman a warm (and sweaty) hug. “Hi Grandma!”

She sucked air in through her teeth—a hiss like a snake, or the shocked sibilant of a vampire doused in holy water. “Grandma is for someone…” She paused. …warm? …inviting? …loving? She failed to finish her sentence, starting a new one instead. “You call me Grand Mother or nothing at all, you understand?”

I looked at my mom, wondering if it was too soon to retire to my bedroom with a book. Come to think of it, Mom looked like she could use a dose of Beverly Cleary, herself.

II. Every Thanksgiving I learned that, no matter what someone makes for you, you have to eat it.

Grand Mother’s signature dish—Jello salad—graced Mom’s table every year. It was neither Jello nor salad, but shredded carrots suspended in a sea of orange gelatinous goo. I retain only a whisper of memory when I was taught to suck it up and deal with how awful this food abomination was. I do recall, with startling detail, dutifully scooping orange jiggly carrots onto my plate and eating every bite.

III. At six or seven, I learned that you can do the wrong thing without even knowing it was wrong.

I was sitting at Grand Mother’s kitchen table, eating the sandwich she made me. She was standing several feet away when she bent over and looked under my chair to make sure that my Mary Janes did not touch the wooden spindles of her chair legs. Mary Janes have buckles, and buckles spell disaster for wooden chairs.

IV. At nine or ten, I learned that cheese makes you fat.

I stayed the night at Grand Mother’s house—an occasion that my mom forced on us both. Saturday morning, I sat in my pajamas at the kitchen table, slathering my bagel with cream cheese. Grand Mother watched me shrewdly. “You really like cream cheese, don’t you?” She drew out the word really until it was almost a song.

Later that morning, I dressed in my pale pink skirt set for the wedding we were attending. I emerged from the spare bedroom, nervous without knowing why. Grand Mother beckoned me over, turned me around. “You can certainly see where all the cream cheese is going, can’t you?”

V. At twelve, I learned to call things by their proper name.

It was Easter dinner at Grand Mother’s house. I had already learned the importance of being polite at the table; Grand Mother’s family had a lot of rules, like which direction to pass food and which fork to use to eat your salad. Of course there was a ritual for asking someone to pass you a dish.

Accordingly, I waited for an opening in the conversation before politely asking my cousin, “Laura, can you please pass the butter?”

“There’s no butter at this table,” snapped Grand Mother.

Terrified and confused, I looked to my mother. She smiled tenderly, sadly. “She means margarine,” Mom said, to me or to Grand Mother, I’m not sure.

“Well,” Grand Mother huffed. “Margarine and butter are not the same.”

I certainly knew the difference between the two, but in our house, you treated yourself to butter on a fucking holiday. Everyone understood my polite request, anyway, since the margarine was already en route when Grand Mother brought the snark.

If using the wrong fork or asking for the wrong spreadable fat was such bad form, how was it appropriate to make a twelve-year-old feel like shit at the dining table? Such was etiquette, in our family at least: a set of complicated rules wielded as power. Somehow, for Grand Mother, etiquette never extended to the good treatment of others. It only encompassed an invisible, ever-shifting set of rules she used to make everyone else feel inferior.

VI. At seventeen, I learned about rebellion and smarts.

I returned home, carrying the soda my brothers requested. Everyone was in the kitchen, setting the table. My quest had taken me to the grocery store in town; I hadn’t thought to check the newly constructed Walgreens on the corner.

Grand Mother, of course, had something to say. “Anyone with smarts would have checked Walgreens first.”

The woman passed out her insults with passive aggressive panache. It certainly wouldn’t bother her to call me stupid, but she never would do so in front of my family. Even if she did, probably nobody would do anything. It isn’t good etiquette to form a mob and hunt down your Grand Mother. With pitchforks. And shovels.

Good etiquette would have me tuck my tail apologetically and live a long, timid life without striving for greatness, in or out of the kitchen. But that’s not what I did.

I stood tall and looked her in the eyes. “What are you saying, Grand Mother, that I’m stupid?” Everyone in the room knew the complete opposite; she and I both knew she couldn’t say those direct words here.

For the first time, I had silenced my Grand Mother.

VII. Almost twenty years later, Thanksgivings in my home are full of friends and love.

Every dish is a tiny rebellion—brined turkey, gorgeous roasted vegetables, rolls made from scratch, and pies that make you give thanks.

We don’t serve judgment or Jello salad.

There is butter, made from goat’s milk. You just don’t have to ask for it by name.

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Thump

Our car passes over the seams joining concrete slab to concrete slab. An infinite number of cold, hard squares patch together the highway as it grows between me and the husband I just buried.

Thum-thump thum-thump.

The steady drumbeat of the road thrums through my body as I stare without seeing through the window.

Thum-thump thum-thump.

My heart syncs with the new and foreign rhythm. Seventy years of knowing one man’s heartbeat and it feels wrong for mine to beat on its own.

Thum-thump thum-thump thum-thump.

I try to think of the life I will have now that Jacob is gone, but it stretches out in front of me like this highway, grey and plain and unknown. I lived a life before him, but it was long ago swallowed by the tall gregarious man with hazel eyes.

Thum-thump thum-thump.

A car behind us switches lanes and picks up speed. As it passes, I see my son, pedal to the metal and eyes intent on the road.

Thum-thump thum-thump thum-thump.

We’re headed for the same destination; no doubt he hopes to beat us there and case the joint like the carrion bird he is.

Don’t touch a thing, sonny boy. Every single piece of that house belongs to me and your father. Every tchotchke, a treasured memory. They’re mine; without them, your father is gone.

Thum-thump thum-thump.

Mine–the picture he drew of us on our first date, walking between cars at a drive-in burger joint. He’d just taken my hand, under the guise of helping me navigate the dark parking lot. When he touched me, I knew. With blind certainty, I knew. My life had just skipped beats, skipped town, skipped tracks for another destination. I would never be the same. In the picture, my face is turned up to look at him, seeking him out like chlorophyll does the sun.

Will you think that valuable enough to pilfer, little vulture?

Thum-thump thum-thump.

Mine–letters written while your father served in World War II. Letters full of promises and love and fantasies sufficiently bawdy to make even you blush. We lavished it all on each other and on the army intermediaries censoring soldiers’ mail.

Mine–the letter announcing that you were born, the one he read and re-read while hunkered in the mud, fighting foreign enemies. Letters written when he fought in the Korean War–stories of you and life at home, stories of war, stories that laid bare Jacob’s darkest thoughts, born from killing enemies and watching friends die.

Page after page documented our separate lives until they were separate no more.

How much would those fetch you, son?

Thum-thump thum-thump.

Maybe they’re not what you’re after. Would you prefer his knife collection? Guns he polished at night while we all sat together in the living room? The tools he tinkered with, standing at the workbench in the garage? The pipes he smoked after dinner, always carefully cleaned and polished?

Go ahead. Take them. What do they matter? They don’t anchor me to your father; he was my anchor. Without him, I could float away into this cloudless sky—up, up, up, until there is nothing and nothing matters. All that stuff, the clunky baggage of our lives together only weighs me down, keeping me behind when I could just let go.

After all those years spent living and loving, creating and fighting, making up, making do, making out–maybe there is no letting go. Just the relentless thrumming of the highway.

Thum-thump.

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.”


               

Lost and Found

I walk through the park in the center of town as a fine rain begins to fall. There’s no umbrella in my hand, but I don’t mind getting wet. As the drops grow in size, I turn my face upwards to greet them. Lamp posts throw light behind the rain, illuminating it in turns and degrees.
Out of sheer contentment with the rain and this beautiful night, I open the door to that otherinside me and push it out to my surroundings. It expands around me in a sphere that grows out, out, out. Gradually, like coming out of a satisfying nap, I gather awareness to me. I am the blades of grass experiencing the percussive landing of a million drops; I am the parched soil greedily soaking water into myself. I am the rain drops, tracing the path I traveled from the heavens.
I rotate in a circle on my patch of land, basking in a rare moment of peace. Suddenly, I sense a presence. I drop my eyes to the horizon and scan. There, on the opposite edge of the park. I feel her. I see her, silhouetted in shadow. I can’t see the face, but I know who she is.
Is it possible?
Anything’s possible. I long since learned that lesson.
But what does it mean?
She turns and starts to walk away from me. I can’t let her leave me again. I’m still opened up to the air, the water, the earth. I close my eyes and reach into myself to that space within, resonating with the frequency and beauty that I can and cannot see. My power whispers to it, shapes it, molds it.
I open my eyes. The rain in the air has slowed almost to a stop. The drops are falling so slowly now that only I can perceive their movement. I peer past the rain; a couple hurrying through the park to find shelter are seemingly frozen in place; a dog running past is suspended, mid-leap, above the ground. I focus on my target; she’s frozen in her retreat.
My heart races, pushing blood through every cell of my body. I forge a slow and steady path through the suspended rain. Gingerly, I run my fingers down the frozen prisms, parting them in front of me like a beaded curtain. They crowd together, pear-shaped diamonds shimmering against the night sky.
Four. Four years since my sister died. She was only fifteen, overwhelmed by her own power. I watched as it consumed her, forever taking her from us.
Or did it? Though we held a funeral for her, there she is. I keep walking.
My sister. The light of living and loving in stark contrast to my own brooding presence in our family. With her, only ever with her, did I fit.
Now I can see hair falling over her shoulders, divided into a series of canyons and ridges by tiny rivers of water. Any doubts immediately disappear. I walk around to face her.
Where have you been? Are you really here now? 
What happened to you?
Finally, I see her face—at peace, a small, knowing smile cocked at the side of her lips. I reach up and brush lethargic, plump drops of water off her cheek. Like a flipped switch, the features of her face catch up with me suddenly; I see recognition dawn in her eyes.
The water begins to fall again.

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.