That night when Scout was finally asleep, and I was tossing and turning in my bed, Glenn told Mom is was her fault that Scout got hurt.
“Why weren’t you watching the baby?” he demanded.
“Dear God, Glenn, I can’t watch them every single minute of the day. I feel awful as it is. Accidents happen. Don’t you blame this on me.”
“Who else am I supposed to blame?” he yelled.
“Who gets them up in the morning? Mom started yelling. “Do you? No. Who makes their meals? Do you? Who takes care of them all day, every day? Do you? Are you ever here? Do you ever help? Where the hell were YOU?”
And then Glenn muttered something I couldn’t hear and walked to their bedroom. I sat in bed motionless, waiting. Ten minutes later I heard Glenn’s Ford truck crunching over the gravel, and I knew he wasn’t coming back. Ever.
I guess we were too much for him.
Mom told me the next day that Glenn had left and probably wouldn’t be back.
“It’ll be alright,” she said, looking at me with puffy eyes. “I’m gonna take care of everything. Who loves you, Sara?”
I looked down at my French toast, too shy and hurt to look at her. “You do,” I whispered.
Scout started sleeping with me a week or so after Glenn left. It’s like she knew even though she was just two. I’d cuddle her up next to me and stroke her hair. Sometimes she’d wake me up and say, “Sawa, I scare.”
“Go back to sleep.”
“No,” she’d say louder. “Monstas in here.”
“There are not.”
“Yes, go see Mommy.”
We’d walk tiptoe into Mom’s room and shake her shoulder slightly. It got to be a bit of a ritual during those early months after Glenn left. She’d groan and roll over to look at us. “Monster alert?” she’d ask. We nodded.
She sat up, grabbed a Kool from her bedside table, lit up and walked us to the back door with her hands on top of our heads. “Wait here,” she said and walked to the closet to get Glenn’s shotgun.
Scout and I stood shivering on the cold linoleum floor from anticipation as Mom loaded two shots into the gun. “Are they in the back field again, Scout?”
“Yes,” Scout whispered bravely.
Mom kicked open the back door with her bare foot and started hollering out into our back field, an acre or so of land that seemed harmless enough during the day.
“O.K., monsters,” Mom would yell into the blackness. “Get outta here or else!”
Scout and I covered our ears as Mom pumped two shots into the dark. It’s a good thing our closest neighbors were a half mile away and knew about “monster alerts.” The shots echoed from the woods, and Scout and I stood there blinking as Mom walked calmly back to the closet, emptied the gun, and locked it back up.
“I feel better,” she said to us. “How about y’all?”
We nodded, still wide eyed.
“Good, then let’s hit the hay,” she said and stamped out her Kool.
If you’re just starting this reading adventure, start with part one. Here’s part two:
My father, Glenn, left us when I was seven and Scout was just two. I don’t remember seeing him much, because he worked nights fixing cars over in Montgomery. I remember sometimes he used to come and sit at the edge of my bed when he came home from work. I always woke up because even in my sleep I could smell the mix of gasoline and metal on his jacket. I’d open my eyes, and he’d be sitting there in the dark patting my back or playing with my hair. For years when I was little I thought Glenn was just a dream, not even real.
“Hey,” I’d say.
“Hey yourself,” he’d whisper.
“Lemme see your hands,” I always demanded.
He’d give me one of his enormous hands, and I’d sit up and look at it. It was always rough and scratchy and even in the dark I could make out the oil and dirt under his short nails. I’d run my hands over the lines of his palm and try to memorize them while he pulled a Camel from his shirt and lit up with the other hand.
“That dirt won’t ever come off all the way, will it?” I asked every night.
“Nope,” he said easily. “It’s here to stay. Now, roll over, rugrat, and get you some more sleep.”
I’d let go of his hand, and he’d pat my back until I fell back asleep.
The only time I remember seeing him in the daytime was when Scout tripped and her head on the corner of the coffee table and cracked her head open. I remember Mom being so calm as she scooped Scout up off the floor screaming and gushing blood from her forehead. I thought Scout was dying, and I started bawling.
“Sara,” Mom said firmly. “She’s gonna be fine. Now run and call Glenn and tell him to meet us at the emergency room.”
When Glenn got to the emergency room, I was sitting in a beige plastic chair swinging my feet and biting my fingernails. Mom was behind a yellow curtain with Scout and the doctor. They were giving Scout 10 stitches, and she howled and sobbed like they were killing her. Glenn walked up to where I was sitting and I looked up, surprised to see him suddenly there. His curly brown hair was wild and windblown, and the skin above his green eyes was pinched and tense. He looked scared and pale.
“Where’s the baby?”
“Behind the curtain with Mom. They’re giving her stitches. That’s her crying,” I said, my voice breaking.
He sat down next to me and pulled me onto his lap. I leaned against him, exhausted, and started tracing the red cursive letters on his jacket. G, L, E, N, N, over and over.
“You girls…” he said softly into my hair. “Sometimes I can’t hardly take it.”
I recently came upon a short story I wrote during my senior year of college. I can’t share this story without thanking my professor, Dr. Bob Ready. His early encouragement, suggestions, and thoughtful questions helped me craft a story that I think still works. Maybe you can let me know if it does. I’m going to share it in bits, so, here’s part one:
Mom always says that men are pretty dumb and that neither me or Scout, my little sister, should ever expect anything from them other than “heartache and headaches.” It’s funny she always that to us and then goes off every Friday night with some greasy loser from town with a limp handshake and a plastic grin.
The last guy she brought home, Earl, was just pitiful. Black hair slicked back, and the dumbest gold ring on his pinky he kept pointing at us whenever he said anything. He thought he was so cool when he lit up his Marlboro until I pointed out to him that he had lit the wrong end. Mom had shot me a look and laughed her fake laugh to Earl, and me and Scout almost threw up right there. I hate it when she laughs like that; it sounds like a sick hyena or that dumb Marjorie James from class who’s always sucking up to the boys. I managed to give Earl the finger while Mom was putting on her lipstick which Scout thought was the funniest thing ever. Stupid old Earl just grinned and nodded. After he figured out which way to light his cigarette, Mom all but pushed him out the door. She knew we hated him; we hated all of them. Mom stuck her head back in the kitchen and shook it at us.
“Honestly, girls, he’s an O.K. guy. Give me a little credit, huh?”
Scout stuck out her tongue and began to pout.
“He’s too greasy,” I said. “And that ring is the silliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“It’s a crucifix ring,” Mom said. “He’s Catholic,” she whispered, like it was some secret. “I’m leaving,” she said suddenly. “Bed at 9:30. No fighting. No horror movies. Who loves you?”
I rolled my eyes. Scout stopped pouting long enough to shout, “You do!”
The screen door slammed as she disappeared into the dark. We could hear Hank Williams, Jr. hollering out of Earl’s Duster as they backed down the gravel driveway. Mom says Patsy Cline is the only country music worth listening to. Hank Williams. Barf.
Aaron Draplin is an incredibly talented and prolific graphic designer, and I’m a huge fan. I had the pleasure of hearing him speak a few years back. Even got to shake his hand (solid, warm grip), get a signed South Cackalackee Draplin poster, and grab a photo with him. He was as great in person as I had imagined him to be. Who lives up to that? Awesome.
I follow Aaron’s blog and work, and like all of his friends and fans, I was shocked and saddened to hear the news of his Dad’s sudden passing last October.
If you’ve been on this site before, you know I did a lot of writing about my Dad after he died in 2009. I did a lot of reading, too. All, I suppose, in an attempt to make sense of his death, his life, my feelings, and who in the world I was supposed to be without him. And, I suppose, to keep him “alive” even after he was gone.
Aaron wrote about his Dad, too. His 30 Day Sad For Dad series is full of heartbreaking, funny, warm, and honest moments of grief and memory. And I couldn’t be more grateful that he wrote his way through them. Some men speak kindly about their Fathers. Some men revere them.
Meet Aaron’s Dad:
And meet my Dad, if you haven’t already.
It’s strange. When Dad died, I learned that the fathers of two friends from high school had died around the same time. In those early days when my grief was at its most raw, I thought of my friends and imagined what they were going through. Sometimes they commented on posts I wrote about Dad, and I think somehow it all helped us feel a little less alone.
Reading Aaron’s posts about his Dad made me remember those feelings, even now, 4 1/2 years later, and again, I feel less alone.
Thanks to Aaron for writing down the things we’re often afraid to even say. And, for sharing his Dad with us. I wish I could’ve met him. And I wish he’d met mine.
I found this poem while going through some old folders. It started with Emily Dickson and ended with me.
“adored with caution, as a brittle heaven” is no way to approach love.
she sees more than I
knits sweaters I wear
comfort against the bone chill of my fears
and insistent spirits
is it because I feel called to make sense of my past
that I often forget my now
wring my hands
point to the door though no one asked to leave
so easily torn in two
my own skills the finest
me the undoer
me the albatross
that’s where my head goes
until I pull back
past my past
to long days spent climbing trees
splashing through creeks
though shyly so
when I was older
Annie Dillard recommended
spending the day
as it can’t be taken with
no brittle heaven
no such thing
just open acres
rooms without doors
and a woman with better vision
First of all, applause for my fellow blog goddesses, writers, and friends Amanda, Ami, and Monica who aren’t just staying true to this post-a-day challenge, but who are also cranking out some beautiful, poignant, and hilarious tales.
Special thanks to Monica for her amazing post on overcommitment.
And for calling us all bitches in the sweetest way possible.
There is almost always something else you can do rather than write.
Let me get specific as I am one who makes her living from writing for others.
There is almost always something else you can do rather than write for yourself. Laundry. Masonry. Animal husbandry. The list goes on.
H. Jackson Brown, Jr. (author of Life’s Little Instruction Book, remember that?) wrote,
“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
Ouch, H. Jackson. Take it easy. It’s Monday.
But I ask you.
Did Michaelangelo have to sift through 50+ emails about timeshare opportunities, male enhancement, and casual sex in my area inquiries each morning? (Oh really, it’s just me?)
Did Mother Teresa worry about being mowed down on the streets of Charleston by a college coed in an SUV who’s applying mascara while texting her BFF about some OMG LOL moment while drinking a Red Bull? Nay, I say.
Did Leonardo da Vinci ever even hear of a Kardashian? Methinks not.
This modern age is hard on the gentle soul of a writer. But the glimmer of hope is this: the angsty, I-have-no-fargin’-time-for-this slowly melts away as you write. The beginning is still uncomfortable, in a middle school first dance kind of way. But it’s well worth pushing through, because on the other side of the angst are the words, arranged by you and you alone. And as you read it, you discover that you’ve shared something, and it’s often not the thing you expected to share at all.
That’s the gift. That’s why we write. For that. And for our bitches.
I recently read Joan Didion’s new book, Blue Nights, a memoir about the death of her daughter Quintana, who died at age 39 of pneumonia and septic shock.
This is a heartbreakingly beautiful book full of grief; vivid, happy memories – and a long list of questions about what it means to be a mother, a writer, an aging woman, and the surviving member of your own family.
For a few weeks after I read Blue Nights, I found myself thinking nonstop about how old, or rather young, Quintana was when she died, mostly, I’m sure, because I am the same age. I thought of my mother and where she was at 39. It was 1976 – she was married, had three children: ages 16, 9, and 4 (me), and was making beds and dinners and building people. I cannot fathom what my life would have been like had we lost my Mom when was 39, any more than I can imagine what my Mom would do if she lost me right now.
The truth is, none of us can fathom loss, expected or sudden, until we are in the midst of it – and even then it carries a surreal quality that, at times, feels so foreign we catch ourselves watching ourselves from the outside in.
Which makes me think of what Mona Simpson, Steve Jobs’s sister, said in his eulogy: “We all — in the end — die in medias res. In the middle of a story. Of many stories.”
Even when we “have time.” Even when we “say what we need to say.” There is always the thought. It wasn’t enough time. I need more.
During an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air, Didion shared a conversation she and Quintana had near the end of her life about what kind of mother Didion was. “Quintana, to my surprise, said, ‘You were okay, but you were a little remote,'” said Didion. “That was a very frank thing for her to say, and I recognized myself in it.”
What are our parents to us and we to them? A collection of tics, idiosyncrasies, stories, secrets, assumptions and hyberbole? Do we ever truly know one another, or are we bound by our own definitions of parent and child?
A friend whose father has terminal cancer told me recently that her father is cleaning out dresser drawers and organizing things. “It’s almost as if he were a pregnant woman nesting,” she said. I was so struck by that – the notion that what we do to prepare for a new life could so mimic what we do to prepare for the end of life.
As our conversation continued, I spoke about my Dad, who died nearly two and a half years ago. I heard myself say, “I’ve adjusted to his death, but I don’t think I’ve accepted it.” I could not have surprised myself more.
My Dad lived a full life, 80 years, and by his last days, he was not living the way he nor anyone who loved him would have wished for him. And yet. But still. Grief is muted and morphed by time. And I still long for the sound of his laugh, his eyebrow raised in jest, his warm hand on the top of my head when I was young. As Didion writes, “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”
So she writes. And remembers.
As I do. As I will.