My first memory of Aunt Helen is of her sitting on the side of my bed and singing “You Are My Sunshine.” I was three.
A few weeks ago, as I was tidying up my house, I passed the living room and heard my now-seventy-two-year-old aunt singing the same song. I stopped, went to my piano, and played the simple tune.
“What are you playing?” Helen asked. “I like that music.”
I encouraged her to figure out the melody, but she couldn’t, so I sang the words as I played. Just as the chorus began, her face lit up. “I know that song,” she said. “It’s my favorite song.”
Helen, my mother’s baby sister, is mentally retarded — not severely, but enough to keep a “normal” life just out of her reach. While my eight siblings and I grew from toddlers to middle-aged men and women, she remained childlike and never moved out of her mother’s house. When my grandmother passed away fourteen years ago, Helen went right on living in the house alone. Family members took turns inviting her to stay with them on the weekends, buying her groceries, and seeing to it that she attended family events.
Two months ago Helen fell and fractured her tailbone. Two weeks after that, she fell again. In that moment I knew that our grandmother was finally holding my twin sister and me to the promise we’d made long ago: to take Helen in.
On being released from the rehab center, Helen moved in with me. My sister moved in too, to help out, and a friend who specialized in elder care gave us a hand. When Helen arrived, her feet were so swollen she couldn’t feel them, and she was unable to get up and down by herself. A note said she needed twenty-four-hour supervision.
Those first few weeks with Helen were difficult. She was not happy about leaving her home. Our efforts to get her well were met with complaints — to us and to every relative she could call. The thought of not having all her stuffed animals, dolls, and knickknacks was devastating to her.
Only after we were able to turn two rooms of my home into a miniature replica of Helen’s house did her anxiety begin to subside, and she actually began to enjoy living with us. My sister and I are adjusting, too: to our diminished space, to the responsibility of caring for another person after several years of living alone, and to Helen herself, an emotionally immature and needy woman-child.
At a recent birthday dinner for my mother, Helen laid her head on my shoulder and said, “Pam, I didn’t think I wanted to live with you and Penny, but I really like it. I am so happy.”
Helen’s physical disabilities (she also has multiple sclerosis and can barely get around, even with her walker) mean she requires our constant attention. Her incessant, repetitive talking is difficult to bear. But just when I think I can’t take any more, I remember all the things in life that have been out of Helen’s reach. And I take a deep breath and listen.
Pamela J. Martin
If an object isn’t between six and fifty inches off the floor, he can’t reach it. If the restaurant is two steps up from the curb, he can’t go in. If the park is down by the river and there is no ramp, he can’t get there. Too many rocks, too much mud, or uneven cobblestones mean another place he can’t go — at least, not without considerable effort or help. His life is restricted to even surfaces, where wheels will roll smoothly.
Yet he will tell you the advantages of being in a wheelchair: Little children speak to him easily and naturally. Many women have beautiful posteriors. Real friends are sorted from false friends. He is loved. Life is good.
I love him. He likes me well enough, and enjoys my company, but he remains distant. He has given up on the idea of a woman loving him in this way. He has emotions for other people, but not for me.
I try to understand and accept his detachment. Of course, I don’t want to think that I am somehow unattractive. And I hope he isn’t rejecting me for my own good, to save me from the difficulties of life with a paraplegic. I try to keep my heart open. I practice patience and nonattachment. I didn’t know the meaning of “out of reach” until I met him.
Lock Haven, Pennsylvania
When I was in high school, my mother and I lived with my grandparents. Though my grandmother and grandfather were not very religious, they would allow no Christians in their Jewish home. Nor would they allow contact with the Jewish community, because they were ashamed of their daughter’s mental illness, which they alternately feared they had caused and felt certain was just an act. Mother was isolated from the world, but she was always seeking a closer relationship with God.
One Saturday afternoon Mother and I had the house to ourselves. I heard the doorbell ring, and I went to the front door to find Mother speaking with two young men in white shirts, ties, and dark pants: Mormon missionaries. She invited them in, and we sat in a circle in the living room.
The young men said they wanted to help Mother learn the ways of Mormon and perhaps accept Mormonism as her faith. I remember the joyful anticipation in her voice. It was so unusual to hear. The Thorazine or lithium or Haldol dulled her emotions.
Everyone in the family wanted something more for Mother: My grandmother wanted her to find a job and a husband. I wanted her to be active and care about her appearance. Her brothers wanted her to participate in life and lose weight. I think what my mother wanted most was release from the fog of her medication. She wanted the sort of vibrant connection to life that she remembered from her youth.
As the young missionaries got up to leave, they invited us to pray with them. With bowed head, one missionary called out, “Heavenly Father,” and the hairs of my arms stood up. I felt a warmth across my back and a whisper of air rush through the room. Could this be the God Mother was seeking? It alarmed me to think of something so much bigger than us.
They are all gone now: Mother, Grandmother, Grandfather. There is no one left to ask, “Do you remember Mother’s constant quest for faith? Do you remember her conversations with Jehovah’s Witnesses on street corners, her visits to Catholic and Presbyterian churches, her passion for stained glass and the message of Jesus’ love?” Without others to talk to, it is hard to reach an understanding and, ultimately, to forgive. And whom would I forgive in this story?
Lisaana Otter Morley
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon the year I turned fourteen and my brother eighteen. China had just started to enact economic reforms, and foreign music, movies, and fashion were flooding in. Most Chinese, though, were still working for government-owned companies, living in government-owned apartments, and watching government-edited news. My father was the head of a state-owned company, and we lived in an apartment on the sixth floor of a company building.
My brother loved motorcycles and oil painting. He was going through a difficult time with my parents, and one night he quarreled with my mother and stormed out. The next afternoon, I was reading my favorite magazine on the veranda when Mother started to worry about my brother. He seldom stayed gone so long. I began to worry too. But the paper of the magazine smelled lovely in the sun. He’ll probably be back for dinner, I thought, and I went back to my reading.
That afternoon, unknown to us, my brother was in his motorcycle workshop on the first floor of the building when twelve strangers broke in and started to beat him. My brother tried to fight back, but someone hit him in the head with a tire iron, and he lost consciousness.
When he woke up, he lay helpless on the floor. He couldn’t call us for help because, like most Chinese families in those days, we did not have a phone. Though just a half dozen floors away, we were unreachable.
A neighbor found my brother and carried him home just before dinner. The tire iron had cracked his skull. After seventeen hours of surgery, he survived, but he lost his vision and has never been able to paint or ride a motorcycle again.
The police found out that my brother’s assailants had been hired by a teenage girl who worked in my father’s company. A week before the incident, my father had criticized the girl for bringing strangers into a restricted area.
My brother got married, had a child, and then divorced. I long ago became used to the fact that he is blind. But sometimes I still wonder: what if I had followed my instincts that afternoon and gone to look for my brother?
I have moved to the United States. My brother still lives in China, which is becoming more and more like the U.S.: they have insurance for everything; the rich are becoming richer; the poor are getting left behind. It is hard for my brother, living there alone since the divorce. When I worry about him, though, all I have to do is pick up the phone.
His Internet profile page listed Doonesbury as his favorite comic strip. That says a lot about a person here in Middle America, so I wrote to him. We flirted for a while and finally agreed to meet. On a hot day in August he greeted me with a rather sad bouquet of flowers, wilted from the heat. Within four days we were making love.
I called him “Birdman” because he was an artist and liked to draw birds. He’d had a tough life: two ex-wives, an emotionally delicate son, a struggling business, a blind mother, and a mentally handicapped aunt. I was fresh from a hellish divorce, with zero self-confidence. The relationship worked pretty well.
Birdman told me about growing up with an alcoholic dad who would steal his bike and sell it for booze money. They’d go on hunting trips together, and his father would pick up prostitutes and have sex with them while Birdman tried to sleep. Later, when his blind mother inquired about the trip, he would always cover for his father.
I told Birdman that I was smitten with him, though I knew him only in the bedroom. “In a couple of weeks,” he replied, “you’ll be trying to figure out how to get rid of me.” I never did.
It was his manliness, his sharp wit, his voice as thick as honey that made me love him. I focused on the things I liked, and turned my gaze from the things that hurt.
From the very beginning, our relationship fit in a box with SEX in big block letters on top, and that was that. Enjoy it while you can, I told myself. Think of him as your French lover. Think of him as your secret. Think of him as your midlife surprise.
Sometimes I felt as if I were his private whore. He’d call me up at ten o’clock at night and ask if I wanted “company.” I’d say yes, and he would come over around midnight. We would talk for a few minutes, then go to the bedroom and make love. Afterward he would leave.
But if I’d dared to have a cup of coffee with him, that would have been going too far. Then I would have known that there were other women. I would have known that there was no real connection between us. I would have found out the things that make most women run.
One day in January, while Birdman was waiting for the furnace repairman, he asked me to come over. After we made love, he followed me out his front door. The glare from the winter sky was too bright. I don’t know why I said it, but I did: “I love you.” He replied in kind, without hesitation.
That Valentine’s Day, while the country feared another terrorist attack, he made me a duct-tape heart.
One night we had a “talk.” He compared our relationship to that of a dog and its owner: the owner will far outlive the dog, and so the relationship will inevitably end, but that does not deter him from loving the animal. I listened, nodded, and smiled, though I was more than a little bruised.
Later, at home, I went outside and looked up at the moon. It had been a summer of fires; the moon was mango colored, its outline as soft as a child’s plush toy. Each time I turned my head, it looked different. How long did I stand and look up at the moon? When did I realize that it wasn’t the moon that was out of reach, but me?
My father greatly valued education, having largely put himself through medical school despite great hardship. So when I finished high school, he insisted that I go to a prestigious Ivy League women’s college.
There, for the first time in my life, I encountered the upper class: debutantes, Episcopalians, ancestral homes, eighteen-karat-gold pins, coming-out parties, bridge, lacrosse, and alcohol — lots of it. On the weekends boyfriends came roaring through the college gates in their little MGs. Some of my classmates kept horses stabled nearby and spent their leisure time at fox hunts, polo matches, and horse shows.
I needed money to fit in, but my father made it clear that sending me to this college was a monumental sacrifice. He paid for room, board, and tuition. That was all. There was no additional money for clothes from Peck and Peck, transportation to Boston for the big Harvard-Yale game, or ski trips and European vacations with my rich classmates. My father even forbade me to have a roommate because it might interfere with the one and only reason he had sent me to such an expensive and exclusive college: to get the best education possible.
“Never forget that you come from a plain Jewish family,” he said. “Don’t get any big ideas!”
Whereas I managed only C’s in the classroom, I achieved social success with relative ease in a fringe group of high-society rebels and misfits, girls who liked to drink, write poetry, and gambol across the fields at dawn in their nightgowns. It took me just three years to become a serious social drinker and a frivolous student. At the end of my junior year, I was expelled.
My father insisted I immediately enroll at New York University to finish my undergraduate degree. There would be no mistakes this time. I would live at home until I got my BA.
I was still in love with the upper class, however. They had enormous wealth without being ostentatious. They socialized skillfully and never offended. I envied their air of courteous indifference. As far as I was concerned, all their good breeding entitled them to privilege.
I went on to graduate school, where my anthropology thesis was titled “The Upper Class and Its Relation to Maximum Upward Social Mobility: An Analysis of the Marriage Patterns of Four American Upper-Class Families.” For three years I researched the family trees of the Rockefellers, du Ponts, Fords, and Mellons. I pored over decades of listings in the Social Register and Who’s Who, and half a century of engagement and wedding announcements in the New York Times. I produced thirty-eight tables of data comparing individuals on the basis of religion, occupation, education, and membership in certain metropolitan gentlemen’s clubs.
I had a consuming need to demonstrate that, although individuals of lower socioeconomic status could marry into these families, those individuals could not be Jewish. Marriage to a Jew meant eviction from the Social Register.
While working on my thesis, I began dating a scion of one of the four families I was researching. He was in his early thirties, tall, blond, and attractive, with the polished manners and unconventional behaviors that only four generations of great wealth and privilege can produce. But he was using his chunk of the family fortune to bankroll an international drug venture and would shortly be indicted for tax evasion. It was time for me to end my doomed romance with the aristocracy.
Brooklyn, New York
It’s a brightly polished October morning, and my daughter Ava and I are in the garden. At the age of fourteen months, Ava is endlessly fascinated with seeds, flowers, and trees. We kneel before the lamb’s ear, and I pry open the papery, umbrella-shaped pods. Tiny black seeds spill out and line the creases of my palm. Ava folds my fingers over the seeds. All gone! She unfurls my fingers, and they miraculously appear again.
We stage this miracle over and over throughout the day. When my daughter vanishes beneath a red scarf, I wonder aloud, “Where is Ava? I can’t find her. She’s gone!” At this, she pulls off the scarf to reveal a satisfied smile. My daughter is learning that an object that can no longer be seen is not gone forever, but can be retrieved from the void. Eventually she will grasp that when I leave the room, or the house, or the country, I still exist.
My daughter’s developing mind bears some resemblance to her grandmother’s, which is impaired by Alzheimer’s disease, the neurons hopelessly tangled and stunted, dying out as fast as Ava’s grow. These two people I love are passing each other on their trajectories of growth and loss. They both misuse words — the moon is “moon,” but also “bird.” Buttons on clothes confound them. They struggle to maintain their autonomy and often try to do something that far outstrips their abilities. They both long to be with their mothers much of the day.
It is now Ava’s third autumn, my fortieth, and Mother’s eighty-first. We are in the uninspired pocket garden just outside my mother’s room in the nursing home. My mother’s hands are shriveled but soft. The stroller and the wheelchair are parked side by side. I know that when I try to leave here with my daughter, my mother will panic. “Don’t go,” she’ll plead. “I have to get home to my mother. She’ll think I’m lost. Where is my mother?”
I will concoct messages from the dead: “Your mother wants you to eat all your lunch,” I’ll tell her. “Don’t worry. She’ll be back later. I’ll tell her where you are.”
Back at my house, I take out a picture of my grandmother and tell her that her daughter wants to come home. I think of neurons, tangled and clogged, like superhighways at rush hour. Ava wants to know if we can still talk on the phone with people after they die. “I don’t know” is the most honest answer I can give. I don’t recall ever feeling so lost.
Maureen Kerl DiSavino
New City, New York
Toward the end of eighth grade, I had to choose which program I would pursue in high school: college preparatory, business, or general. Like most of my friends, I chose college prep.
I would be the first person in my family to graduate from high school. Mom had been sixteen when she’d begun working full time, turning her paychecks over to her parents to help with expenses. My father had quit school to please his father, a farmer who had no use for education.
To take college-prep courses, I had to get my parents’ signatures on a permission slip. My mother furrowed her brow and told me college was out of the question. She wanted me to become a secretary or a nurse. (Being a secretary was an unfulfilled dream of hers.) She signed me up for business: bookkeeping, shorthand, typing. My heart sank, and I concocted a plan to defy her.
I went to high school for four and a half years, cramming in Latin, geometry, and history around my business classes. As graduation approached, I secretly applied to Michigan State University. I had been there with my 4-H farming group a couple of times. My mother intercepted the acceptance letter and angrily confronted me: “You can’t go to college. Where do you think the money will come from?” I lay around the house, angry and depressed, trying to decide whether to kill my mother, or myself, or both.
My mother arranged for me to work at the local bank and told me I would have to pay rent to stay at home. I got a job in the bookkeeping department, posting accounts and filing checks in the vault. I hated it. My mother proudly told people that her daughter worked at the bank.
As soon as I could, I got married, left home, and quit my job. I became a dairy farmer’s wife and raised four kids.
Fifteen years later, my husband and I sold a piece of property for a large profit. As we talked about what to do with the money, my dream of going to college returned. When I told my husband about it, he laughed and teased me. So did my family and friends. I was humiliated, but I didn’t give up.
One day I called my husband, now a real-estate broker, at his office in town and ordered him to come home. When he arrived, I was sitting in the barn under a rope I’d thrown over a rafter.
“Either I go to college,” I told him, “or the next time you come home, you’ll find me hanging here.”
“Well, for God’s sake,” he said, “if it means that much to you, do it.”
When I was twelve years old, my dad went bankrupt, and we were unceremoniously evicted from our huge, Spanish-style suburban home. The ten of us — Mom, Dad, and eight kids — moved to a small white caretaker’s house on the grounds of a mansion where the Catholic Sisters lived. The house had two and a half bedrooms, one bathroom with a tub (no shower), and a tiny kitchen.
Our new place was just a quarter mile from our old house, and at first I thought I might be able to keep my old friends. But it was never the same, especially since my best friend Sally’s family had “helped” us by buying our French dining-room set and my parents’ elegant bedroom furniture.
I also had to leave my contemporary Catholic school in the suburbs. My new school was three miles in the other direction, at a church built by German immigrants. It was old and dark, and the neighborhood was filled with German-style row houses.
After school, my new friend Bonnie and I would stop at a small neighborhood store, where she would pick up the meat for her family’s supper. When we got to her house, there were often noodles drying on the backs of the kitchen chairs. From there I’d walk through an even poorer area of gravel lots and withered trees and cars with flat tires or no wheels at all. Then came a steady climb up a long hill with a state forest on one side and private woods on the other. I would run my fingers along the stone retaining wall until they hurt.
After I got home, I would change from my uniform into bluejeans and walk the path through the woods from my new house to my old one, just to look at it. One day I came through the opening in the trees and saw my friend Sally and another neighborhood girl laughing and running from their bikes to Sally’s castle of a house. I watched them for a moment. They hadn’t seen me. I was relieved.
Jeanne Norris Weinberg
I was thirty-nine and a single mom for the first time. My four-year-old had just returned from a month-long visit with his dad. I bustled about, unpacking his things and gathering laundry. I was tense and tired. My son was sitting on a straight-backed chair, quietly watching my every move.
After several minutes, I finally stopped and told him that I had missed him very much.
He looked at me and asked, “Do you miss me when I’m here, too?”
I remember my head hitting the cold, hard floor. (We’d never been able to afford carpeting.) It hurt, but it wasn’t excruciating. When I opened my eyes, I saw the silver bookmark that my sister had given me for my twentieth birthday peeking out from behind a shoe box underneath the bed. So that’s where it is, I thought. But before I could be happy to have found it, I felt the shock of pain in my side, and I couldn’t think about anything else. I wrapped my arms around my body to protect it.
When it seemed safe, I looked up at him. He appeared huge, looming over me like that, but I knew he wasn’t. I remember the flush of anger in his cheeks and his wide eyes, as if he were surprised that I was looking at him.
Right before I turned my face to the floor, I saw the bottom of his white sock. It was gray-brown. I remember thinking that I would have to use a different cleanser on the floors. The current one wasn’t doing its job. (Or maybe I wasn’t doing mine?) I tasted blood in my mouth, salty and metallic. I touched the sticky pool of it beneath my face. I would have to clean it with the new cleanser.
I did not move. In that position, no one pain hurt more than another. I was content with that.
As a young woman, I’d spoken loudly about the things that would not happen in my marriage, and what I would do if they did. It seemed so long ago. I wondered what had happened to that girl. I opened my eyes and looked beneath the bed, as if I expected to find her there, too.
I was three years old when my dad helped me pedal a tricycle for the first time. I couldn’t get the hang of it. “Don’t pedal like a girl!” my dad shouted. “Put some muscle into it.”
But I am a girl, I wanted to remind him.
When I was seven years old, I inherited a boy cousin’s bicycle. My dad would not put training wheels on it because they were for “sissies.” Instead he pushed me off down the driveway and shouted, “Keep pedaling! Hold it steady!” When I crashed into the mailbox and fell sideways with the bike on top of me, he said, “Don’t cry like a baby. Get back up on the bike and do it again.”
I tried hard to be a boy. I climbed trees, wore boys’ racing skates, collected baseball cards, and swore like a marine. But I just couldn’t make my dad happy.
When I was thirteen years old and my period started, I went straight into denial. I wore my brother’s hand-me-downs and hung out at the schoolyard, smoking cigarettes with older boys. I drank my first Budweiser there and threw up in the gutter on the way home. “What do you think you are?” my dad said. “A guy or something? If you don’t watch it, you’re going to get a reputation that will get you thrown out of this house.”
In 1969 I moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village, where I could be whoever I wanted. The first time I came home for Christmas, my dad said, “Why do you have all those damn beads around your neck? Go put some decent clothes on before the relatives show up.” I went to my brother’s room, pulled the beads off, and put on one of his college T-shirts.
When I brought my boyfriend home to announce our engagement, my dad said to him, “What do you want to marry her for? What can she do?”
My boyfriend turned to me for an explanation. I shrugged and told him to forget it, that my father would never find anything about me that he liked.
“Sure I will,” my dad said. “Just tell me what it is I’m supposed to find so unique and wonderful about you, and I’ll brag about it to everyone.”
When my first wife and I got divorced, she and the children moved away. I remarried and started another family. I lost touch with my children from my first marriage. Somewhere along the line I even stopped sending them birthday cards.
Now I’m sixty-five and retired. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to re-establish a relationship with my kids. During a recent telephone conversation, my son accused me of being aloof and unapproachable. He said his sister had cried after I’d paid her a too-brief visit years earlier. I argued that I’d been busy with my career at the time, and besides, the phone worked both ways. The conversation ended in shouting, but it prompted me to reach out to my daughter again.
Today she has come to visit me. We sit on the porch, and she lights up a cigarette. I’m not sure where to begin. I want her to know that I’ve always loved her, but I suspect that I’m also seeking some sort of absolution.
I talk about my father, who used to beat me with a razor strop. Once, he became angry with me for playing around an abandoned wood stove in the yard. To teach me a lesson he stuffed me in the oven, held the door closed, and started a fire. I almost went insane when I smelled the smoke. I was four years old.
As I grew older, my father began to abuse my mother. I would stand between them, pleading to God to make him stop. My father constantly threatened to walk out on us, and one day he did. I learned of his death, alone in a hospital at the age of ninety-one, from a newspaper obituary.
I have vowed to break that chain of alienation. I remind my daughter that I was the only person in my family to graduate from college, and that I accomplished this feat while raising a family. Sure, I made some mistakes, but I learned from them as well.
My daughter turns to me in the gathering darkness and quietly says, “Dad, do you remember when you used to line us kids up and tell us that you and Mom were getting a divorce? Do you remember making us decide who we wanted to live with? And the worst part was, the next day, you’d have changed your mind again. When you finally left, we were actually relieved.”
She gets up, gives me a nervous hug, and tells me she loves me. I watch her drive away.
I wonder what she wore on the day of her wedding, what her laugh sounded like when she was a young woman. I think of my old man waiting for the end, lying between those cold white sheets.
Fifty-one years ago the polio virus traveled up my spinal cord and halted my breathing for a while. At the age of three I lay in an iron lung.
I remember virtually nothing of the time when my body was normal, and I’m sure this has made adapting to wheelchair life much easier. I was one of those fiercely independent polio survivors: went to public school, college, graduate school; drove convertibles for two decades; lived alone; moved across the country by myself; built a house and grew a garden around it.
I’ve been mostly happy, and aware of my many blessings. Still, there is always something that’s just out of reach: That lentil soup at the back of the freezer. The home-canned tomatoes two feet above my head. The shut-off valves for my water and gas supplies. (I pray I’ll never need to get to them in an emergency.) The center seat in a theater. A winding wilderness trail. The surf at sunset.
My most unattainable goal has been finding a mate. There have been lovers, even some I felt were in love with me, but none ever discussed a lifelong commitment. Was it me, or was it my body? I still keep an eye out for the right person.
Stargazing is my favorite pastime. It’s best done lying on the ground in my sleeping bag on a moonless night, far from any town. In a good year, I’ll sleep under the stars seven or eight times. On those nights, I understand that “out of reach” is a state of mind. The Milky Way spills brightly across my view and appears firmly within my grasp.
Barbara J. Mendius
When I was eight years old, my parents were divorced, and I lived with my father. At his house, only “good little soldiers” got to have fun. My punishments ranged from being locked in my room for the weekend with nothing but linens and a bedpan, to being made to stand on one leg until I collapsed. I was constantly in trouble at school because I would get up in the middle of class and wander around, talking to myself, searching for something I was sure I had just missed.
My older sister Tricia was my savior. She drilled a tiny hole in the wall between our rooms and sang to me so I’d stop crying. My father once caught her jimmying the lock to sneak me some food, and he forbade her to see me for a week.
Every day on my way to school, I would call my mother collect from a pay phone and beg her to let me come live with her. But Mom had a new husband, and a drinking problem.
Then one Friday my Great-uncle Dave picked me up on my way home from school and took Tricia and me to his “ranch” for the weekend. It was only a faux-adobe house with a pool and two half-blind horses, but to a city boy like me, it was the Wild West. I burst into joyful tears when I heard my mother was there waiting for us.
We spent that weekend swimming, playing board games, and talking about our lives. I told Mom again about the hell my father put me through, and she finally agreed to take me home with her. For some reason Tricia stayed with my father.
Now I’m in prison. Tricia won’t talk to me, or to my mother, but she still sees my father every weekend. He tells her she needs to lose weight and find a better job. She adores him.
I sit in my cell and write unanswered letters full of pain and hate and need and love. I write my mother, but she never writes back. She has a new church, new kids, a new prescription to fill.
I keep wandering around my cell, talking to myself, searching. Though I know Tricia’s not there, I tried to make a hole in the cement wall between my cell and the next. I spend three or four hours a day exercising. I could stand on one leg for hours if I had to.
The summer before I went to graduate school, my first boyfriend, Charlie, told me, “When you were a little girl, your father didn’t love you. You would have done anything to get him to love you, but you couldn’t. Now you’d do anything to get me to love you, but I don’t love you either.”
He was right that my father hadn’t loved me. Our relationship had been marked by screaming (from both sides) and random beatings. But Charlie was wrong that I’d tried to make my father love me. For the most part, I’d felt a cold hatred toward him.
I wrote my master’s thesis on father-daughter relationships. My research revealed that, for a woman like me, a healthy relationship with a good man was impossible. I would repeat the patterns I’d learned in childhood. I would be frigid, infantile, and disliked by men. I probably wouldn’t marry. Not only that, I would become like my father: cold, selfish, and full of hate. Charlie, who still talked to me on the phone sometimes, confirmed my findings.
I planned the kindest way to commit suicide: I would withdraw from school (so my teachers wouldn’t feel responsible), then check in to a motel and do myself in. But when I tried to drop out, my teachers good-naturedly goaded me into staying. I finished out the year and did well on my thesis. (My advisor complimented me on my choice of topic.) I put off my suicide attempt till the next year, when I was staying with my parents again, and I felt I couldn’t be this person any longer.
I’m now forty-one, and my husband of seven years treats me with love, fairness, and respect. If I’d had any inkling that such a relationship was possible, I can only imagine what misery I might have avoided.
In the dream, I sit beside my former lover, riding in a truck on a country road. I know that I must kiss him, but I resist. The waiting is agonizingly beautiful.
When our lips finally meet, it feels completely right. I savor the taste of tobacco and honey that I remember from years ago.
I can still taste him on my lips when I wake up beside my husband, who is practical and reliable, a fabulous father to my sons. I love him as a friend and partner. He pays our bills and keeps us all sane and stable.
But even in my waking hours, I dream about that kiss.
It was my first day as a doctor at an orphanage in Cuzco, Peru. One of the teachers brought six-year-old Diego into the clinic. He was small for his age — at least, by American standards — and wore ragged clothes. He told me that two big kids had pushed him, and he’d hit his face on the playground wall. A teacher had taped his lacerated lip, but it was so swollen that the tape was falling off. Diego needed sutures to stop the bleeding and save his lip.
The nurse practitioner and a student nurse went to collect the sterile supplies while I sat with Diego. He spoke Quechua, the native tongue, so my limited Spanish was useless. He was wet, shivering, and hungry because he’d missed lunch. I put my arm around him. We waited more than an hour.
When the nurses returned, we gave Diego some liquid ibuprofen, and he climbed onto the gurney. We told him to hold as still as he could. He was absolutely still. We were amazed.
The suturing took a long time because I was teaching the student nurse how to do it. Next, Diego needed a tetanus shot, which meant a trip to the local hospital by taxi to buy a syringe.
Diego had to take oral antibiotics twice a day, and we went home with him to explain the regimen to his grandmother. He lived two hours away and traveled to school each day by illegally hitching rides on the local buses. He’d jump off just as the money collector came by for the token. We took a taxi.
Diego’s grandmother was angry that he was late and spanked him into the house. She had difficulty understanding what we were telling her. I wondered if it would be better to take Diego back to the orphanage for the weekend, but I decided just to hope for the best.
When Diego returned to school, I went to the cafeteria to see him. Not surprisingly, he didn’t want to come back to the clinic for me to remove his stitches, but he knew that he had to. I waited while he scraped the other children’s leftovers into a plastic bag. Then he got up and followed me.
Diego held perfectly still while we removed the sutures. Afterward he accepted our praise and a photo of himself. As we walked back to his classroom, he shoved two girls down and kicked another boy.
I’d like to say I was shocked, but I wasn’t. This was survival. This was what he’d learned: you look out for yourself.
When I saw Diego in the weeks to come, he acted as if he didn’t remember me. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t reach him.
In the valley where I grew up, fall meant apple harvesting, football games, and the Shriners’ carnival in a hayfield just outside the city limits. Word spread among high-school freshman boys that, if you had the balls to try it, you could get into the “hoot show” the Shriners put on.
Five of us ventured out, with Jim as our leader. “Listen, fellows,” he said as we picked our way through the parking field. “What I’ve been told is: if you’re big enough to reach up and put your two dollars on the barker’s stand, then you’re big enough to go in.”
I stood about four inches shorter than my friends and had a freckled, boyish face. I felt certain I would be culled at the crucial moment.
Along the midway, the barker’s voice called out through the night air: “This is the show for men only. No boys allowed. So if you are truly a man, then step right up and get your ticket. Fellows, I tell you that Sugar can walk, she can talk, and she can wiggle on her belly like a snake in the grass. She can do things that Momma never told you about.” His cadences reminded me of the auctioneer my mother had hired to sell the family heirlooms.
Beside me, a Shriner in a purple fez said excitedly, “We’re just trying to help the community. Nothing the matter with having a little fun while we’re doing it. Ain’t that right?”
I held my two bills in front of the barker. He took them and handed me my ticket without breaking his rhythm. He never even looked down. A swish of the tent flap, and I was in.
A woman wearing only high heels danced around a small wooden stage. I wedged myself between a man who smelled of Aqua Velva and another with a slight aroma of gasoline. Sugar’s face looked old and tired, but her legs were as taut and muscular as a young woman’s. She stepped gingerly on her precarious heels and cantilevered her large breasts forward. Men reached up and rubbed her legs. She quickly pulled back, then pitched her hips forward, her legs spread above us. In the glow from strings of bare bulbs overhead, I could see her pubic hair, trimmed into a perfect triangle.
The show went on for about fifteen minutes. Then we were ushered out with promises of an even better show later in the evening. Jim talked excitedly about the performance, and in great detail.
Later on, while three of our crew reentered the tent, another boy and I paid fifty cents to ride the Ferris wheel. We were the only ones riding, and the operator let us keep going as long as we wanted. From our swinging perch, I could see the heavy tractor-trailers that transported the carnival rides, their wheels pressed deep into the farmland. Around and around we whirled in the night sky, the stars coming closer, then falling away, out of our reach.
Durham, North Carolina
Instead of an answering machine, I have a voice-mail service at home. I saved a number of my mother’s voice-mail messages before she died. Now I can’t bring myself to erase them. Every few months the automated system informs me, “You have had the following saved message for one hundred days, the maximum time allowed.” Then I hear Mom’s words beamed out to me from some digital vault at the phone company. When the message is over, I tell it to save again.
I figure I’ve resaved my mother’s messages about ten times since she died. In one message Mom says she’s sorry for getting angry and doesn’t want to go to bed mad. In another she needs me right away because there’s a problem with her new caregiver. That was the night I frantically drove to her house to find she’d banished the poor woman to the front hallway and told her not to move “until my daughter gets here!” Not long after that, I moved Mom into the nursing home.
In these messages, Mom is almost present. I hear her intake of breath, the familiar sound of her saying my name. Here is the voice that called me on the phone to chat and to deliver good or bad news. Now it’s a digital imprint on some remote computer hard drive. But every hundred days the automated system delivers her message to me.
It called again today. I saved her once more.
Susan Macy Jarvinen