Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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In 1948, my mother dressed the varsity football team at Drake University in pink-paper tutus and taught them enough ballet to enable them to win the university talent contest. Now, nearly fifty years later, she shows me a set of creased snapshots and says, still glowing, “Those were my boys.”
In other pictures young women grin and vamp, Betty Grable-style, beside gray-stone walls or stout hedges. My mother points to one picture and says, “She was a real beauty”; to another and says, “She was homely as a mud fence.” I am bewildered; every one of them looks like a 1940s movie star to me in their dark, fitted suits and silk stockings, hair in disciplined waves, lips deeply shaded. These are college sophomores, dressed for campus life. I marvel.
There is more: a newspaper clipping showing a row of girls in sweaters and pearls, singing the school song. But more than just singing it, they are jack-knifed in earnest effort, pushing at the words with all their strength. My mother is the sixth one in; at first I don’t recognize her with her hair braided and pinned high on her head. She is holding nothing back, secure in a universe with visible boundaries.
More artifacts: yellowed party invitations and playbills and crisp roses that flake from scrapbooks. (One boy, my mother tells me, brought her nine white roses trussed in half a yard of satin ribbon.)
All these relics make me feel awkward, uncouth, left out. But the thing that stops me cold is a faded mimeograph titled “House Rules,” which instructs: “All young ladies will change into suitable dresses for dinner, which will be served at 6:00 P.M. sharp. No one will begin eating before the house-mother takes her place at the head table and says grace. If anyone wishes to sing in the dining room, she will quietly inform all the tables so everyone may join in.”
There is more about hair curlers, bandannas, slacks, and curfews, but I am devastated by the thought of these pin-up girls, neatly spaced at white-clothed tables, set beneath windows blackened by an Iowa winter night, unself-consciously deciding — somewhere between the mashed potatoes and the green beans — to sing. Together.
Fast-forward to the seventies and my own college days. At our meals, the only group activity was a food fight, the only art form the napkin snap that glued a pat of butter to the ceiling. Absent was grace of any kind. Our dress code stopped just short of nakedness: we wallowed in tattered flannel and the anarchy we had earned. And on Saturday nights we roamed in packs — looking, had we only known it, for a wall to lean on, a boy holding flowers, a boundary to define us.
It was the trump card of every evangelist who stopped at the small rural town where I was reared. If the harvest of saved souls had been sparse during the revival — as always seemed to be the case — then the theme of the preacher’s final sermon would be the need for us to surrender our lives to Christ before He came again, for then it would be eternally too late.
I dreaded that final sermon because I believed it. With all my heart and mind, I believed it. But for the life of me, I couldn’t do as it instructed.
One late Sunday night in my teenage years, after the revival’s concluding service, I walked from our house to the barn to feed and water the livestock before I went to bed. Suddenly it seemed to me that the moon had taken on the shape of a man: it was Jesus coming again in the clouds. I ran into the house in a panic, convinced that this was the end of time and that my soul was eternally and everlastingly lost, with no one to blame but my own stubborn self.
“What on earth is wrong with you?” my mother asked. “Nothing,” I shouted as I rushed to my room to hide. I couldn’t surrender to her either.
I didn’t really understand what it would have meant to surrender — to Jesus or to my mother. I only had a vague sense that surrender meant I’d somehow have to deny myself or give myself away. And my self, especially the self I dreamed of becoming, was too important to me.
Now I wish I could simply have surrendered my life to Christ or my parents and then moved on. Instead I have spent my life refusing to surrender to anyone or anything, pushing against the grain, seeking an authentic, uncompromised selfhood that is probably illusory. Once-divorced and still a renegade in my profession at an age when it is no longer very becoming, I now suspect the evangelists may have been right: there comes a time when it is too late to surrender.
“No, I’m not feeling OK,” I answer him in a low voice, mumbling because I am turned inside out and the sound of my voice embarrasses me.
“What is it?” he says into the dark.
“The pot — it fucked me up. I can’t think straight.” Images flicker across my mind. I feel like I’m sitting alone in a movie theater, and someone I can’t see is rapidly flashing pictures on the screen. I am helpless, sunk deep into the red velour. The relentless images randomly come and go. An ochre silhouette of a flower — a zinnia or marigold — rests on a black-velvet background. The edges shimmer and blur, and then I forget what I was just seeing as cold fear enters with an image of tadpoles and tiny sinister creatures swimming across the screen. This image melts into pure scarlet, so thick you could drown in it. Then a cold wind, billowing clouds of white snow, and the dangerous scent of auto exhaust. The snow turns brown, the sky an urban piss yellow.
“Are you OK?” he asks me again, his warm hands roaming across my body, anchoring me just barely.
I touch my lips to his to silence him, take his lower lip into my mouth and suck gently.
“Do you still want to go to Wally’s? It’s blues night,” he says.
“Oh no. It’s too late.” I kiss the gray hair resting on his sweating forehead and hook my elbow around his neck like a prayer.
The fifty-mile-an-hour wind blowing through the open cabin gave little respite from the humid heat of South Vietnam, as we followed two Cobra attack helicopters toward the U Minh forest. Normally our medevac missions flew without escort, but this one entailed picking up South Vietnamese soldiers who had fallen into an ambush. We’d been warned that casualties were heavy.
As the Cobras headed toward the tree line, lighting up the night with their fire, we came in on the directing red flare. The skids were barely on the ground before the wounded began to fill the cabin from both sides — some were flung in; others crawled inside under their own power. As we sorted out the tangled mass of bodies, IV bags, and blood-soaked dressings, the crew chief scrambled to hurl out the women and children who, hoping to accompany their husbands or fathers, had climbed aboard. Then, in minutes that seemed like hours, the pilot pulled us up into the safety of the black night.
Securing bandages, a penlight gripped between my teeth, I felt a painful kick. I turned and saw a soldier slumped against the corner of the cabin. He had both arms heavily bandaged and was kicking at me with his right leg. Half his face was covered with a large dressing that obscured everything but his eyes, which were glassy and wide beneath his rapidly rising and falling eyebrows. He was saturated with blood. Suspecting that he couldn’t breathe, I loosened his dressing. As I did, the wind coming through the cabin whipped back the bandage and blood began to spurt. I shined the light on his face to look for the bleeder. Where his lower jaw once had been, there was only a void occupied by his tongue, which danced crazily back and forth with the gyrations of his head. As I watched, his chest heaved a gurgling sigh and he coughed spasmodically, spraying more blood on me. Then his leg stopped kicking, and his head fell back quietly, leaving his tongue flickering in the wind.
Brooklyn, New York
The long, narrow box lay in the attic next to the Christmas lights. Only once in my memory was it opened — when I was ten and asked my father what was in it. “War souvenirs,” he said. And he took out the rifle, showed me how the bayonet fit on the end of the barrel.
Two other items came out of the box: a notebook filled with strange writing and an opened pack of cigarettes with more of the same writing on the front. “Where did you get these?” I asked my father. “Off the body of a Jap,” he said, turning the pack over and over in his hands. Did you kill him? I wanted to ask. Was he smoking when you killed him? Was he writing in his notebook?
When my father died years later, he was laid in a long, narrow box on the shelf of a mausoleum. Wondering what had happened to the war souvenirs, I found out they’d been sold at a yard sale years before. The notebook? The package of cigarettes too? I wanted to ask. But it was too late then for what I wanted to do: give them a decent burial — put them in the box with my father’s body and let him bring them into the next life and return them to their rightful owner, return them with apologies for their thoughtless theft.
Kansas City, Missouri
When I was still an infant, my parents divorced under mysterious circumstances never spoken of in my Southern family. My mother left for college and, later, other marriages. Because she wed famous men and eventually became well known in her own right, I could always catch up with news of her at the library. Raised by my paternal grandparents with unqualified love, I found in my absent mother an all-important role model: a woman who moved from country to country helping the oppressed and publishing brilliant poems, critiques, and books.
Ultimately I, too, became a writer, began to work with troubled, desperately ill people, and took off to travel the world.
Over decades my mother never contacted me, nor I her. At long last, however, my pride crumbled, and offering the excuse that I needed family information, I called her. Amazingly, she agreed to fly to Spain and bring along the family records and pictures I’d requested. Thus one October afternoon on the veranda of my villa outside Barcelona, my mother and I sat together for the first time. Spread out on the table before us were dozens of faded, sepia images of aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins.
For hours, tales were spun like magic: the Civil War drummer boy, the English girl who’d played in Sherwood Forest, the long line of judges and lawyers who traced their roots back to medieval England, the long parade of maiden aunts and great-grandparents and stepbrothers and first cousins once removed. All of this came alive through my mother’s marvelous storytelling. During one afternoon in Barcelona I met, grew to love, and irretrievably lost a whole family.
I suddenly fled the room, tears of grief coursing down my cheeks. All I could think of was how my normally stoic Argentine father-in-law had sobbed uncontrollably when, after the war, he received a letter from Eastern Europe that said, “They’re all gone.”
Shelley V. Ashley
I inherited a penchant for punctuality from my mother, who always worried about being late. Before a trip, she would be fully packed days in advance, and she would be so nervous about missing her flight that she’d sit in the living room, fully dressed, the night before the cab was due.
However, my good record on being punctual came to a halt when I got married. My husband is a truly wonderful man, but he is habitually late — a fact of life to which all his friends, family, and employers have had to adjust. In fact, when we make plans, we are generally expected to arrive fifteen to thirty minutes late.
The day after Christmas, we were visiting my in-laws in Washington, D.C., when the nursing home called to say my mother had become suddenly and dramatically ill. She had been suffering an agonizingly slow decline due to brain disease, and we knew she would never get well, but this call sounded frantic.
We had barely packed our suitcases when the doctor called back. After keeping vigil over the long years of illness, I was too late to say goodbye. My mother, as usual, was in a hurry to leave.
“Walk me out to my car,” he demanded — my old lover, my first lover, my out-the-back-door-over-the-fence-to-meet lover. “It’s important.”
We stood in my living room, an adobe-like addition illegally tacked on to the house by my landlord over a long weekend. My next-door neighbor was there too, pregnant and sweating in the Miami heat. I was eight years out of high school.
“No,” I said.
I looked him in the eyes. They were the same eyes, but they no longer held any power. And it was the same voice, but it could no longer make demands of me. He was a visitor now in my life, somehow different after Vietnam — looking for something he’d misplaced back in 1969.
“Come with me now,” he said, “or you’ll never see me again.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I have a guest,” and I watched him turn to go, heard the gluey sound of his shoes on the poorly laid linoleum floor as he walked out.
Within the next few years I got married, had two children, and moved to Atlanta. It wasn’t until I visited my mother years later that I thought about him again.
It was a summer day, and rain fell from a black sky. By now I had three daughters, a workaholic husband, and a life that had little to do with who I was. I picked up the phone book and thumbed through it, but his name wasn’t there.
I called everyone who had known him. I checked the post office, but there was no forwarding address. Back in Atlanta I scanned microfilms of phone books in other places — big cities, small towns, anywhere he had lived or even visited — but I never found him. He was gone, this man who held the secrets of my emergence from childhood, who had held me on the front seat of an old Chevy when my dog died, had kissed me as the waves tugged at our bodies. Not a trace.
My obsession abated, but once or twice a year it happens, this compulsion to find him. I don’t know whether it’s him I need to find or something that I, too, misplaced. But sometimes in this city of my adulthood, my children, my job, I remember barefoot days, the creaking of a porch door in the silence of dawn, and I wish I could go back to that last time I ever saw him and do it differently.
Suzan Holtzman Crawford
I have few memories of my grandfather, but the ones I have are crystal clear. I can still see shiny, new silver dollars glinting in the morning sun. My grandfather would tuck them beside our breakfast plates in the early hours while my brothers and I were asleep. By the time we found them, he’d already be gone, an early riser on his way back to a comfortable retired life far from our home.
During his yearly visits, he’d always insist on taking the family out for dinner at an expensive restaurant. He’d drive us in his car, not willing to give up the independence a car provided. A teenager then, I would shrink into the brown upholstery of his monstrous Buick, embarrassment stinging my face, as he careened obliviously through town, his eyesight dimmed and his hearing gone.
All through high school and college, he sent me letters regularly. They were always typed and they often contained carefully folded newspaper and magazine clippings. I threw them all away until he was at the end of his life; then I hoarded every letter and card, knowing it could be his last.
I didn’t go to his memorial service, nor to the place where my mother and aunt scattered his remains.
Recently I have renewed my relationship with my father, crossing boundaries I had thought impermeable. My grandfather’s death made me realize how priceless and finite our time together is.
I have a photograph of my grandfather, the last one I ever received. He is dignity at its best, immaculate and well groomed. His fine white hair is brushed neatly back from a forehead speckled with liver spots. My father is sitting next to him and they are leaning toward each other, my father’s hand raised to his mouth, more than likely shouting so my grandfather can hear. But from this photograph, it looks as though they are whispering secrets.
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
When I was eleven my dad bought me a three-speed bike. We didn’t have much money, but like most kids I had little sense of what that meant. Mom just said Dad was bringing home a bicycle, so I was very excited. I’d been riding my old red one with foot brakes far too long, as far as I was concerned.
But the bike Dad showed me was ugly and old. The paint was chipping off the frame, and the white-vinyl seat (it must have been white at some point) was now a dingy brown and tilted at a funny angle. “It’s ugly!” I screamed. “I hate it! I don’t want it!”
Dad turned around slowly, walked the bicycle out to the back yard, and started to polish it. He never said a word.
My mother tried to get me to apologize to him, but I wouldn’t, even though I soon began to feel guilty because of how sad he looked, stroking the handles of the bike with a cloth as if he were petting a dog. Finally I went outside and mumbled, “I’m sorry.” But he never stopped polishing that bike.
I battled many times with my father in the years after that incident. We were both proud and stubborn, so we often didn’t communicate just out of spite. I was young and selfish and free, and I thought that one day — when we were both safely “adult” — we would become the best of friends.
He died just after my nineteenth birthday. My mother says he knew I loved him. But the image that still haunts me is of him stooped over a bike he sold his golf clubs to buy, polishing the handlebars so his selfish child wouldn’t think of him as a failure.
Chuck liked to play foosball with a skinny blonde named Starla. He was a loudmouth — except when it came to women. So it took him many nights and many, many games of foosball before he finally made his move. She had been dropping hints — standing close, looking into his eyes. So he planned it all out: exactly what he would say, what she might say, what he would say back. He had it all down.
They were leaning against the railing between games, drinking beers while the band took a break.
“Starla,” he said, watching the bass player tune his guitar, “I’ve been thinking . . .”
“Uh huh?” She looked sweetly into his eyes.
“I’ve been thinking how nice it’s been . . .”
“Yeah?” She watched his lips while he talked.
“That you and me —”
But before he could get another word out, the band kicked in. Electric guitars, drums, trumpets, an organ, guys screaming in the mike, and the sound system feeding back.
Chuck tried yelling in her ear.
“Huh?” she yelled back. “WHAT?”
He shook his head. “Oh, never mind.”
A few nights later he went dancing with the bartender. We hooked up, had babies, lived happily ever after.
The firefight was already over. The last Marine Corps helicopters were leaving with the dead and wounded, and the coppery stench of blood hung in the morning air. Gear and enemy bodies were strewn all over the bombed-out hill. All we could do was police the mess and salvage the enemy equipment for the intelligence guys back at base camp. We were told to send back all North Vietnamese packs, rifles, uniforms, and other equipment. We were also to comment on whether the dead had fresh haircuts and looked well fed. We were allowed to eat their rice cakes.
I approached the first body. He was very young, and at first glance I couldn’t see any bullet hole or blood on him. He looked like he was sleeping. I emptied the contents of his pack while my radio man peeled off his uniform. We needed to get this done quickly, before the day’s heat made the job intolerable. I found two rice cakes, and while searching for more I uncovered a plastic wallet containing a picture of Jesus and a half-written letter. I called Sgt. Tong, the South Vietnamese scout assigned to our platoon, and asked him to translate the letter for me.
He looked it over carefully and said, “He writes to his wife and baby. Says he must go south to fight. He’s told to do this by the army, told to help people be free. He does not understand why he does any of this. He misses his wife and wants to go home.”
Any one of us could have written that letter.
In 1987 I was on vacation in the south of France, traveling on a Eurailpass and doing my best to stay in small towns. On one particular morning, I had to catch a 9:05 train to Nice. Since I knew from experience that French trains rarely run on schedule, I dawdled over breakfast and arrived at the station at an appropriate 9:10. The train was already gone. I stood dazed on the platform and stared stupidly down the track, as if that would make the train reappear.
I left the station and crossed the street to a café, where I ordered an espresso and took out my journal. Missing the train was hardly a momentous event but worth at least noting, especially since I had nothing more pressing to accomplish.
Soon an American couple came into the café. I had spoken with them the day before, and they were surprised to see me since I had mentioned I was leaving for Nice. I explained my missed rendezvous at the train station and invited them to sit with me. It turned out they were the owners of a monthly travel magazine. When they heard that I’d published a few travel pieces in my hometown paper, they asked me to write for them. Since hooking up with them I’ve had enough writing assignments to enable me to return to Europe for several months every year. And all because I was too late for my train.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
My grandparents were immigrants, Jewish refugees from Poland. I never got to meet any of them, save my paternal grandfather for a few short years. Since my parents don’t tell stories easily, I have little knowledge of what my grandparents were like. There came a time in my life, however, when I began to be intensely interested, especially in my maternal grandmother, Rose. I made up lists of questions to ask about her, but all my mother would say was: “She came over when she was sixteen, alone. She was supposed to find a cousin she’d never met. She worked in the textile mills in New York City, and walked twenty blocks to work year-round to save a nickel. She died before she ever got a chance to rest. What else is there to say?”
My mother seemed annoyed I would ask. I thought I saw the beginnings of tears in her eyes.
But I had so many questions. What kind of woman was she? Did she nurse her children? Did she laugh easily, or have a quick temper? Was she religious or politically minded? What kind of home had she left?
My mother is a mathematician, not a storyteller. She would just shake her head. “Rose died before I was old enough to get curious. She was a good woman. She gave everything she had to her family.”
The last time I visited my mother I came across a couple of old photos — one of Rose and one of her parents. I took them to place on my mantel. They are posed studio portraits. In them I can find no lightness, no joy, no spontaneity, no expansiveness. I imagine these people lived very close to the bone. There are other pictures at my mother’s house. One is of a burial in Poland. People are huddled over the hole in the ground, all wearing black, mourning — I imagine — their lives as well as the death.
One morning, as I fight my own tightness, my guilt for being the first in my family to have enough of everything — money, food, health, safety, interesting work, love, joy — I throw my ancestors’ pictures off the mantel with a fierceness that surprises me.
My parents separated when I was twelve. After that my mother always referred to my father as “The Rat.” Shortly after the separation, my father came to take my sister and me to a movie. Before he picked us up, my mother said, “I don’t want you talking to The Rat. Don’t say a thing to him.”
I said this wasn’t fair. He was still my father.
She insisted. “Don’t disobey your mother after how hard I’ve struggled for you.”
My father didn’t have a car and there was no bus to our neighborhood, so he walked. And we walked with him to the theater downtown. I said nothing, and neither did my sister. Reaching the theater was a great relief. There I could sit in the dark with my thoughts and not have to say anything.
After the movie he walked us home. It was the longest walk of my life — made even longer because it was all uphill, so that we walked especially slowly. I wanted to say something — anything — to let him know that I was sorry about how things were. I glanced at my sister. Her look said, “Say nothing.”
My father’s eyes were moist when he said goodbye. It was the last time I ever saw him.
Years later I was fishing with my own son, who was then about seven, when he looked up and asked, “Was your dad a good dad?” I was surprised. I had never mentioned my father to him. “Why?” I asked. “I just wonder if he was a good dad like you,” he said.
From the relatives who would discuss my father, I found out that he had been living in Newark, New Jersey, but they had lost touch with him. So I contacted the city government. A few weeks later I received a copy of his death certificate. He had died just six years earlier, at the age of eighty-one.
The only roses I remember seeing in the house when I was young are those my father sent my mother after she told him she didn’t want to be married to him anymore. The flowers sat in full bloom on the dining room buffet the morning the moving van arrived. My mother had found us a small apartment a few blocks away, and she was determined to fit nearly a houseful of furniture into it. After she, the dogs, and I were gone, only my father would remain in the house. I was glad he had gone to work that morning without knowing that it was moving day.
That night, I took the dogs out for a walk and headed over to see my father. The house I had lived in for fifteen of my sixteen years looked empty and enormous. My father sat in his recliner, reading the newspaper under a dim lamp while watching the local news on television. The only other furniture left in the house was in the dining room: the table, chairs, buffet — and those roses.
When I was a child, I wasn’t interested in my family’s stories. I wanted to be living in a story other than that of an immigrant — a story like the kind I watched on “Father Knows Best,” “The Donna Reed Show,” and “Leave It to Beaver.” Now that I want to know the stories, the people who could have told them to me are long dead.
It’s too late to ask Great-uncle Mendel about his life in late-nineteenth-century Russia before he came to America. What was the ocean voyage like? Was he scared or excited? Was he as glad to leave his family and their old ways as I was to leave mine for South America, California, Asia, Hawaii, and now North Carolina? And when he met us at the dock in New York at the end of 1949, did we look like the refugees we were?
As an old man, how did he feel having our family of three move in with him in his one-bedroom apartment? Did he mind having me, an energetic child, around — and then my sister, born only six months later? Or did he welcome us as the only remnant of his family to survive the Nazis?
It’s too late to let him — and all the other family members who helped us — know how their kindness made it possible for me to grow up in America and have all the privileges and opportunities our relatives in Europe never survived to enjoy.
But most of all, for me, at age forty-six, it’s too late to give my parents the one thing in the world they deeply yearned for, the thing they lived and hoped and saved for: grandchildren. That would have redeemed their struggle — to know that the family line wouldn’t die out, that the Nazis hadn’t obliterated them after all.
Asheville, North Carolina