“I hope you’re good at C-sections, ’cause you’re gonna have to cut this calf out,” Dwayne said as he climbed out of his pickup.
My anxiety grew at the thought of a Caesarean section. I was only just beginning my second spring of calving as a young veterinarian. Roger, the owner of the ranch, was elderly and fragile and would be of no help pulling the calf. Dwayne, a neighbor, was supposedly there to help, but he just stood outside the pen commenting to nobody in particular that the calf was too big to be delivered; he had felt inside the cow earlier that day, and there was no room for his hand, much less a calf, and he didn’t see how some girl vet was going to be able to pull it.
Dwayne stood with his hands in his pockets and Roger shuffled out of the way as I opened the barn door and shooed the heifer into the chute, running after her to close the gates and get her secured in the head catch. Then I grabbed a stainless-steel bucket filled with warm, soapy water and my obstetrical chains. “You’re not going in there, are you, girl?” Dwayne asked, referring to the chute in which the heifer was caught.
“Of course I am. I have to examine her.” It took all of my willpower not to tack “boy” on the end. As Dwayne continued his monologue on how the only way out of this was to do the damned surgery and stop messing around with examinations, I hopped over the fence, washed the heifer’s back end, and inserted a well-lubed, sleeved arm. The calf pulled his tongue away as I gently squeezed it, so I knew he was alive. His feet felt large, a good indication of his size, but he was in the correct position.
I applied a halter to the heifer’s wildly tossing head and tied the rope to a nearby corner post. Dwayne finally walked over to lend a hand, still voicing his objections. I said a silent prayer: Please let me pull this calf so I don’t have to perform a Caesarean on a wild beef cow in a cold, muddy lot with a delusional senior citizen and a half-drunk chauvinist for assistants.
With much maneuvering, we got the heifer on the ground and secured to wobbling fence posts. As I positioned my chains and my calfjack — a device that helps extract the newborn — Dwayne’s son Adam showed up with his three kids. Adam’s response to his father’s grumbling about my gender and my attempt to pull the calf was “Shut up and watch, Dad. You might learn something.”
I felt relief as Adam got down in the mud with me and grabbed one of the handles of the jack. We began to pull, timing our exertions with the heifer’s contractions. Dwayne yelled, the heifer bawled, the kids cried out in disgust, and the dogs tried to sniff the coming calf.
Once I felt the calf’s shoulders pass through the heifer’s pelvis, I knew he could be delivered vaginally. I took a deep breath and rotated the calf to ease the rest of him out. He coughed and snorted, shaking amniotic fluid from his eyes and nose. Then he cried for his mother, who replied vigorously.
Dwayne was silent. Roger shuffled over and said, “I knew you could do it.” I checked the heifer for uterine damage, cleaned up the calf, and began hosing blood, mud, amniotic fluid, urine, and manure off myself and my equipment.
When I was done, I packed up the truck, answered the kids’ questions, and made a final check on the calf, who was receiving an enthusiastic bath from his mom. As I pulled out of the corral and passed the small group of men, Dwayne said, “Good work.”
When I gave my baby up for adoption nearly forty years ago, the social worker at the agency bent the rules and allowed me to read some case histories of families who were waiting to adopt. I chose a family based solely on the fact that they had a piano in their home.
My son was born on a cold, windy November afternoon. As I was admitted to the Catholic hospital in the throes of labor, I signed a paper saying that I didn’t want to see my baby after he was born. I watched the birth in a mirror, and the doctor laid the baby on my belly, but I did not touch him. He was not mine. He belonged to the family with the piano.
On my second day in the hospital, one of the nurses mistakenly brought the baby to me. He was crying loud and hard for his mother. I fainted. When I awoke, a nun was standing at the foot of my bed, asking God to forgive me.
I slept with many men in my life after that. I even married some of them. But I never again conceived a child.
Twenty-one years after my son was born, the state where he was adopted opened its adoption records, and I initiated a search for him. Two years later, I received a postcard from him that said simply, “Hi.” We wrote each other letters, sent anonymously through the agency. We talked on the phone almost every day for months. Finally we agreed to meet.
At the busy airport gate, we knew each other instantly. We spent the next few days telling one another about our lives. We had the same laugh and found the same things funny. Some days, when we met in the hotel lobby, we were dressed nearly alike. We both knew the names of all the stars and how they moved across the sky. Our favorite key was D minor. When he left, I collapsed in grief for my loss.
We have met many times since then, and taken trips together. We’ve even visited each other’s families. One night, in a small cabin on a lake, he told me he loved me, and he held me and rocked me in his arms.
My son and his wife are going to have a baby in a few months. The crib I have bought for my grandson waits for him in a room of their home. I will hold this baby; he is mine. They are all mine now.
Sandra Van Doren
Clayton, North Carolina
When my sister Leslie called, I was prepared to hear another hard-luck story. The last time we’d spoken, more than two years earlier, she’d asked me for money. I was determined to refuse this time, knowing that the money would go for drugs.
Instead of asking for money, Leslie told me that our father had died.
Dad had been living with Leslie, and he’d had a series of strokes. He’d gone into the hospital a few days before, and now he was gone.
“He told me to tell you to keep writing,” she said.
I laughed wryly. I’d given up on writing decades ago, after Mom had said she would no longer help pay my college tuition if I changed my major to English.
At a young age, Dad had become a husband, a father, and a professor of biochemistry, only to find that he couldn’t tolerate my spiteful mother, the clamor of four little children, and the drudgery of teaching. As he saw it, all that was left for him was to work for forty more years and fulfill his responsibilities.
Rather than face his situation, Dad drank until Mom divorced him. Then he drank to escape his failure as a husband and father. He drank his way into and out of another marriage. He drank until he was fired from his job. He drank until he had to keep a jar of wine next to his bed, or else he would vomit at 4 A.M. from lack of alcohol in his blood.
Finally my brother Miles, just fifteen at the time, loaded Dad into the car and drove him to the nearest hospital, where doctors operated on his liver. When Dad awoke, a doctor told him he was lucky to be alive and that if he ever took another drink, he would die. Alone in that hospital bed, with the fear of death in him and no one left counting on him but himself, Dad decided to clean up.
After Dad recovered, he went on disability and became a Buddhist. He lived with Leslie and helped her kick her methamphetamine habit. He also smoked grass with her when his disability check came in. He was an utter failure by society’s standards, but I think he had found some joy, and even brought some to his daughter.
The last time I talked to him was in 1995. “My old bartender lives near you, you know,” he said, and he laughed.
“Really.” My replies were terse. Pity and rage battled for dominance in me. He had let my mother and the alcohol make all the tough choices for him, never giving me a clue how to do any better.
“Well, listen,” he said, “don’t you ever stop writing.”
I didn’t take his advice. I stopped. Until now.
“You’re playing!” one of my students said.
I looked up from the book. “I am not playing,” I said. The class smiled.
“So Ewell was messing with his own daughter?”
I was teaching “at-risk” high-school freshmen To Kill a Mockingbird, a required book. Many of them were shocked and fascinated by the story of racism and incest.
“It says right here that he did,” Chuck answered. He read a line slowly and carefully while everyone listened.
“Man,” Alvi said, “that’s nasty. And then he goes and pins it on the black guy. And his daughter don’t say anything either. It’s just not right.”
The bell was about to ring, but many of their books were still open.
“This book is straight,” Emmanuel said. “I don’t really like books, but this one is good.”
After they left, I clutched the book to my chest and closed my eyes until the next class wandered in.
I likely did not raise any test scores that day. Most of them would forget to do their homework. One of them probably fell asleep in class. I did not save them from drugs, gangs, abuse, pregnancy, violence, or fear of failure. I did not instill in them a lifelong love of learning or respect for literature. I hadn’t even chosen the book. All I did was read them a story. And they walked out of my classroom knowing that at least one book in the world holds some truth for them.
They’ll never know that such days are the only reason I continue to teach.
Oak Park, Illinois
I was only a few months sober when I was invited to a gathering at a friend’s house. My do-it-alone sobriety had so far not included a party with loud music, dancing, and drinking.
I never even considered not attending. Though I’d stopped drinking, I was still a drunk: saying no was not in my repertoire. But I was anxious. How could I be at a party without drinking? How could I be interesting and witty without a drink in my hand? How could I dance, for heaven’s sake, without being drunk?
At the party, I filled a plastic cup with Diet Coke. I tried to talk to people, but the music was too loud. Someone asked me to dance, and I did, self-consciously. Afterward I grabbed my cup from the windowsill where I’d left it and took a swig. But it wasn’t my soda; it was someone else’s whiskey.
I spit the liquor back into the cup and returned it to the windowsill. Then I rushed to the host’s bathroom, found a toothbrush and toothpaste, and brushed until the taste of whiskey was gone.
It was my first sober party. I may have spit into a stranger’s beverage and used someone else’s toothbrush, but, by God, I didn’t drink.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
I spent two years in Guinea, West Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer. The Guineans did not understand why a woman my age (early twenties) wasn’t married, didn’t have children, and did not know how to pound rice or gut a chicken. I was, in their eyes, in need of food, family, and a few life lessons.
A mother in the village where I lived made sure to drop off food at my hut every mealtime. At first I accepted the food shyly. Soon our polite greetings at the door stretched into conversations. I began to take my meals outside, next to her family’s rice bowl.
After dinner, her children played in the moonlight, and she and I sat in big wooden chairs talking about our day, our lives, the future. She asked about my family in the U.S., my prospects for marriage, and how American parents disciplined their children. I listened intently to her stories about her marriage, the death of her first child, her parenting experiences. Underneath the night sky, I was free to be myself, and I sensed that, after a long day of work, she could too. Despite all of our differences, we were two women in the world.
When I got back to the U.S., family and friends were grateful for my safe return. “Thank goodness you survived!” they said. Everyone wanted to hear about the “weird” food and “primitive” living conditions. When I began to talk about the mother who’d been my best friend in Guinea, my listeners seemed to lose interest.
One evening I went out to dinner with an old friend. He asked about my experiences in Africa, and I began to talk about my friend.
“What’s her name?” he asked.
I was shocked. In the months since I had returned to the U.S., I’d tried to tell this story countless times, and no one had ever asked the mother’s name.
“Domanine,” I said. “But I called her ‘Mom.’ ”
My kids were visiting their father for the evening. I’d stayed late at work and was walking back to my car from the subway. I could see the raindrops in the glow beneath the streetlights. The shrubs around the suburban houses glistened.
Perhaps because of the wet weather, the sidewalk was deserted except for a man in a windbreaker, coming toward me. I could see his bald head fringed by sandy brown hair, but his face was in shadow. I altered my course to let him pass. At the last second he stepped into my path and said, “This is a gun. Don’t do anything stupid. I just want a little sex.”
In his hand was a pistol with a long barrel, pointed at my stomach.
He marched me to the side of a house that had no lights on and no car in the driveway. We went behind a rhododendron bush, and he ordered me to strip. It worried me that he wasn’t trying to conceal his face. I looked down, hoping he’d think I never got a good look at him, so he wouldn’t need to kill me.
I’d read that it sometimes helps to humanize yourself to a rapist. So when my fingers had trouble with the buttons on my coat, I said, “I’m not trying to stall; my fingers are cold.” When I got no reply, I added: “I have two children. Girls. Little girls.”
That irritated him. “Shut up,” he said.
So I did. He made me kneel in front of him, placed the end of the gun barrel against my temple, pulled his penis out of his pants, and worried it into my mouth. After about a minute, he ordered me to lie on the ground. It was muddy, and rocks poked into my bare skin, but I didn’t feel the cold. He thrust between my legs a few times. Then he stopped and stood. The gun gleamed in the rain.
“Turn around and put your coat over your head,” he ordered, like a teacher telling a student to pay attention. “Count to a hundred.”
This is when he will kill me, I thought.
A couple of years before, my office had worked on a case in which a rapist had told his victim to turn around; then he’d shot her in the head. I knelt and pulled my coat over my head from behind. As I started to count, I dropped onto my elbows and bent my head down into my chest. My hands, still grasping the coat’s collar, were balled into fists. Perhaps in the drizzling darkness it would look as though my fists were my head, and he would shoot my hands by mistake. I hoped that, if my plan worked, I wouldn’t cry out and reveal the deception.
I counted to a hundred, added another twenty to be safe, then flung my coat aside and stood up as fast as I could. The man in the windbreaker was gone. The rain was still falling. My body was crusted with mud. I pulled my clothes on over the dirt.
After telling this story many times to the police, and a few times to close friends, I took a kind of pride in the trick I’d come up with to fool the rapist into shooting me in the wrong place. It didn’t matter that it had turned out to be unnecessary. It didn’t matter that it probably wouldn’t have worked. What mattered was that, in a life-threatening situation, I’d thought of a way to increase my odds of survival ever so slightly.
And I’d lived.
Paula K. Speck
Silver Spring, Maryland
Wearing only a towel, Gary is intent on shaving. His tongue probes the inside of his right cheek, and the not-so-steady hand holding the razor follows a familiar path. He leans against the edge of the sink. I slip up behind him and put my hands on his hips.
Prior to his stroke and before his cancer, this gesture was all it would have taken to initiate foreplay. Our life together is different now, but in many ways more intimate.
The cancer treatments and surgeries have taken their toll on him. His two-hundred-pound frame has been reduced to 140. A large indentation pulses where the bone of his forehead used to be. His right eye dropped a centimeter after the first surgery, leaving his face asymmetrical, but his gaze in the mirror still comforts me.
Gary never bemoans the physical losses. It’s like a chess game to him, and body parts are like pawns, easily sacrificed to keep the king alive. He is focused on ridding his body of cancer. “It’s just what I have to do,” he says matter-of-factly. “It’s my job.”
I’m ashamed to admit how I felt the first few times we went out in public. I wasn’t prepared for the awkward glances, the averted eyes, the rude stares. Gary seemed unaware of it all. I used to think he didn’t notice, but now I think that vanity was the first thing to go.
Was the anger I felt toward these strangers justified, or was it just an outlet for my pent-up rage at this disease? I remember the first time I ever really wanted to punch someone: We were taking our daily walk, Gary leaning on his cane, focusing on each step, making sure to lift his right foot high enough for a successful stride. Then a kid riding by on his skateboard said to his friend, “Check out the Vulcan dude. What a freak!” I wanted to pull the little shit right off his board and kick him in the knees. See how well he could skateboard then!
At times, perspective and clarity feel unattainable — until I lock on Gary’s eyes and see his inner strength. Then I think, Maybe we really can beat this.
He turns and leans against the bathroom counter. I take the razor and touch up a few places on his mostly bald head. “You know,” I say, “if they’d just aim the radiation a little to the left, I wouldn’t have to shave this spot.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I mentioned that to Mary on Friday, but she wouldn’t go for it.”
“Did you tell her about my compulsive need for things to be even?” I ask. “Maybe I should talk to her.” He smiles, and his hands rest on my hips.
These are the moments when I know it doesn’t matter what is to come. All that matters is that we have won the most recent battle. He has recovered from the stroke. It may be just a small victory in the war against this disease, but it’s ours to claim.
I had coached my daughter’s soccer team for five years and was ready to take on another challenge, so I volunteered to coach in a new league for inner-city kids. My team was made up of ten- and eleven-year-olds, plus one player’s eight-year-old little brother and a nine-year-old who practiced with us one day and decided to stay.
The night before our first game, I called the kids to remind them to wear their uniforms and shinguards, and to bring some water or juice to drink. Dwight’s mom sounded out of sorts on the phone. She said she didn’t know how she was going to get her son to a soccer game because she worked every Saturday morning. “No problem,” I said. “Just tell me where to pick him up, and I’ll give him a ride.”
She gave me the address and vague directions.
The next morning I was running late. After several wrong turns, I finally found the dead-end street. Trash was blowing all over, and beat-up cars with no wheels were marooned on the sidewalks. It seemed everyone who lived there was outside, standing around as if waiting for something to happen.
At the end of the block were four single-story apartments with a concrete courtyard between them. “Is Dwight here?” I asked a man.
“Who wants to know?” he answered.
After I’d explained who I was, a door opened, and out came a little boy I had never seen before. “There he is,” the man said.
“That’s not Dwight,” I said.
“Sure it is,” said the man, becoming annoyed.
This boy may have been named Dwight, but he wasn’t the Dwight I was looking for. Did I have the wrong street? The wrong building? Whatever the mix-up was, there was certainly room on the team for another Dwight. “All right, get in the car,” I said. “I’ll have him back by noon,” I told the man. Dwight sat stiffly in the back seat. I tried to make small talk. “Have you ever played soccer before?”
“How old are you?”
Luckily I had an extra uniform. I had to show him how to put on the shinguards. He pulled the jersey on over his shirt and was ready to go.
We lost that first game, and each game after that. But the kids continued to show up, laugh, and kick the ball around with joy. Dwight loved soccer. His coordination was excellent, and he caught on quickly. His favorite part was the head-ball drill. “Throw me another,” he’d say. “Come on, one more time, Coach.” Dwight was always the last one off the field.
Dwight’s mom brought him to every practice. She had three other kids and worked hard to provide for her family.
Every Saturday morning I picked Dwight up for the game, and we stopped on the way to get a Gatorade and a snack. Dwight’s street was always crowded by the time we got back in the afternoon. One day I had to steer around a scantily clad, middle-aged prostitute who was standing in the middle of the road, sealing the deal with a customer. Young men stood against the wall, talking and smoking joints. I wondered how long it would be before Dwight joined them.
I dreaded the final game, because I knew it would be the last time I would see most of the kids. Afterward I took the long way back to Dwight’s apartment and stopped to get him an extra bottle of Gatorade. When we got to his block, the same prostitute was standing in the street.
I told Dwight to look into the bag of soccer balls in the trunk and pick out one for himself. He looked at me to make sure I was serious, then reached in and pulled out the Kappa MLS Logo size 4. My favorite. I was glad to pass it along.
I walked him to the door, and he gave me a big hug. When I turned to leave, the prostitute was standing between me and my car. I avoided her, but she moved over and blocked my path. She was about my age, though the years had been much tougher on her. Her eyes looked familiar.
“You did a good thing for my baby’s boy,” she said. “I want to thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, trying to hide my surprise. “I had a great time coaching your grandson.” Then she stepped aside, and I got in my car and drove away.
Durham, North Carolina
Dropping off my daughter at grade school, I pass him in the hallway. He and I both do a quick double take, then keep walking. That couldn’t be him, I think. But the adrenaline rush tells me otherwise.
Chuck Anderson was my grade-school nemesis: athletic, well-liked, and always ready with a nasty remark or a threat for a scrawny, socially awkward, unathletic outsider like me. Does he have a child attending my daughter’s school? My wife and I send our daughter to a Quaker school where tolerance and acceptance are the rule, and bullying and exclusion are not. I find Chuck’s presence here incongruous and unsettling.
Leaving the building, I wonder which parked car is his. I’ve never seen that silver Jaguar before. Could it be the one? Though owning a Jaguar isn’t my idea of success, I’m guessing that’s how Chuck might define it. His imagined accomplishments sting as much as his playground taunts once did.
Every morning for a week, I look for him as I drop my daughter off. On several days I see the silver Jaguar parked on the street, but no sign of Chuck. I decide the car isn’t his after all.
Today, as I drive my daughter to school, we pass the back entrance, and I see a milk truck pulled up to the building. And then I see Chuck pushing a dolly loaded with cartons of milk into the cafeteria. “Anderson’s Dairy” is painted across the side panel of the truck.
So that’s it: he’s the milkman. For a brief instant I feel victorious. After all, I’m a professional with several degrees to my name. But that feeling slowly fades, to be replaced by shame and sadness. Although thirty years has passed, the hurt, anger, and fears of a scrawny ten-year-old boy still reside within me, making me want to feel superior to my old enemy.
Helping new mothers learn to breast-feed is rewarding but often frustrating work. At times I find myself wishing I lived someplace where women don’t need lactation consultants; where all mothers nurse their babies as naturally as breathing; where women carry nursing infants strapped to their breast while they haul water or firewood. But I live here in the U.S., where mothers click their babies into car seats and often think that breast-feeding is not for them: they don’t have enough milk, enough time, enough energy.
Yesterday I met Tonya, who has saucerlike eyes and a pierced eyebrow. She had not nursed her first two children, but her one-week-old had already tried two different formulas and was still vomiting and constipated. So Tonya came to see me.
We spoke for a while, and then Tonya sat down in the rocker and opened her shirt, and that baby girl knew just what to do, suckling her mother’s breast until she fell asleep, happy and drunk, her mother gazing down at her like all mothers of all generations. The baby gained a full two ounces afterward.
I know that Tonya might not continue to nurse her baby; her mother is not supportive, and she’s not sure she can bring herself to nurse in public. But as she left with her sleeping baby, carrying the child to a waiting car seat, I felt, for the moment, victorious.
I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1998. Parkinson’s drastically reduces the brain’s level of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The symptoms are tremors, rigidity, reduction in movement, and fatigue.
Over the next five years, almost without my noticing when it happened, I lost the ability to write or type. I had problems walking and difficulty driving or taking public transportation. Holding the phone to my ear became an agonizing ordeal. I reached the point where I could not dress or take a shower by myself. I often could not get to the bathroom in time. I was forced to retire on disability.
But while my outer world shrank, my inner world expanded. Without a job, I now had time to appreciate local birds. I grew to enjoy the cycle of each day: the fresh smell of morning grass, the hot flatness of noontime, and the cool slowing-down of evening. And poetry — my God, what a gift. Most importantly, I learned to treasure my wife and my son.
In August 2003 I underwent a new type of brain surgery, and I can now participate in the world again in relatively normal fashion. But I no longer take anything for granted. Each day, I feel blessed to see the sunrise, to watch birds fly overhead, or to drive into the city to visit my son. I say a prayer of gratitude for each small victory. Then, illogically — almost obscenely — I laugh with joy.
Perhaps the hardest case at the after-school program was Charlie, a tiny first-grader with short dreadlocks, a foul mouth, and a seemingly astonishing absence of conscience. I was twenty-five years old and wondering where the hell I’d gotten the notion that I was qualified to start an after-school program for “at-risk” kids. To the teachers at the school, what these kids were most at risk of doing was hurting each other while under my inexperienced supervision. Though defiant on the outside, I feared the teachers were right.
Charlie was impossible to confine to a single room or activity, let alone a chair. He flitted manically between groups, escaped altogether on a regular basis, and engaged in activities only to disrupt them. When I tried working with him one-on-one, he would bat his eyelashes, pout, smile, fold his hands, pull my hair — anything but relate. Inevitably he would burst out laughing and run off. I suspected neglect or abuse, or both. The only time I ever saw a genuine emotion on his face was when he was cornered.
One afternoon Charlie burst from the school and shouted that he was going home. I caught up with him crossing the parking lot, crouched in front of him, and held his shoulders. Tears running down his cheeks, he told me that another child had broken the sunglasses his grandmother had let him borrow. This was the first time I’d seen him care about something. As I searched for words to comfort him, he wrenched himself away and kept walking. I followed.
Between sobs, he told me this was the second pair of sunglasses his grandmother had lent him, and that he’d broken the first pair, too. When I asked if he thought she’d be angry, he shouted, “That’s not it!” His fists were clenched. I told him he could stomp on the ground, or hit it with his fist if he wanted. “Why?” he asked skeptically. I explained that it could help to get out his anger and keep him from hitting something else. I’d stay with him.
He looked at me for a while, still skeptical but a little calmer now. I agreed to let him continue home from there, since the day was almost over. As he walked off, I felt helpless.
A couple of days later, two boys got in a fight on the playground. I ran over and saw Charlie with his hand on the shoulder of one of the boys, who was sniffling and angrily professing his innocence. “It’s OK, man,” I heard Charlie say. “Hit the ground. You can just hit the ground.”
In the fifth grade, my gymnastics ability and easy confidence were enough to make me popular. That summer my parents got divorced, and I got my first period. When I returned to school in the fall, all the rules seemed to have changed. Suddenly I was supposed to be wearing a bra and curling my hair. Nobody wanted to climb trees anymore, or make forts in the basement. Getting boys to like you was the only skill that mattered. I struggled with eye shadow and carrying a purse. What was everybody else keeping in theirs? Mine was nearly empty. I wasn’t sure who to be. All I knew was that the person I had been was all wrong.
Meanwhile the boys seemed unchanged. They still roughhoused and showed off as usual. One morning before math class, a group of them were arm-wrestling. Jon, a popular, athletic boy from my neighborhood, had already beaten two opponents and was looking for his next contender. Without thinking, I plopped down opposite him. Silence fell. By the time I thought to wonder whether girls were still allowed to do this, we had locked hands.
Maybe his prior two matches had softened him up. Maybe my gymnastic workouts had given me freakishly strong arms. Whatever the case, I won. Jon’s eyes widened with horror as his hand met the desktop. A great cheer went up from the other girls, even from the teacher. For a moment I remembered how it felt to be good at being me.
Redwood City, California
Dad was a tough guy who kept his feelings hidden. He owned an Italian restaurant, and the Sicilian and southern-Italian dishes he prepared were his displays of affection to the world. If customers requested a northern-Italian dish, he was quick to lecture them on his disdain for the French influence on northern-Italian cuisine.
My dad was no teacher. Once, he tried to show me how to drive a stick shift; to this day, I won’t even be a passenger in a car with a manual transmission. One time, however, I mustered the courage to ask him how to make pasta e fagioli — pasta and beans. “OK, I’ll teach you,” he said, “but you are going to do it my way.”
As he was instructing me, I asked innocently, “Can we put in more garlic?”
“What the hell did I tell you?” he barked. “Do you want to learn how to do this the right way or not?”
“Yeah, but what’s wrong with adding more garlic? You like garlic. Garlic is good for you.”
“Do whatever the hell you want, but if you ruin it, don’t blame me, you little son of a bitch.”
I couldn’t tell if he was giving me his blessing or not, but I added an entire head of garlic.
“What the hell are you doing?” he yelled.
“Dad, I love garlic, and I want to try this.”
“OK, but don’t ask me for help anymore, you hardheaded little bastard.”
After Dad had gone to bed, I finished my pasta-and-bean creation: I sautéed the garlic and tomatoes, and stirred in the beans, basil, salt, and pepper. I boiled a pound of rigatoni to perfection, drained it, and piled a bowl high with pasta and sauce. Then I sat alone at the dining-room table and polished off two bowls. When I was done, I put the remainder in the fridge and headed for bed.
That night, at about two in the morning, I heard a noise from the kitchen. I snuck out of bed, crawled across the hallway, and peered in. There was Dad, eating my leftovers. He finished one bowl and went back to the refrigerator for seconds. I was tempted to jump out and say, “See, I told you it would taste good.” But instead, I leaned in the hallway and enjoyed the rhythmic sound of his spoon scraping the bowl.
Dean J. Fusto
Our neighbor Greg was an intimidating man. He had huge, muscular arms and stood well over six feet tall. In his spare time, he rode motorcycles, played sports, collected guns, and built speedboats. Greg was charismatic, reckless, and dangerous — and my mother loved him for it.
At fifteen, I was just beginning to notice how Mom flirted shamelessly with Greg. Whenever he was over, she wore bikinis around our pool and gave him long, lingering looks. At our family’s dinner table, she talked about his guns, motorcycles, and wild lifestyle.
My father, a gentle, soft-spoken man, listened patiently and rarely spoke. Dad tended his rose garden and enjoyed opera. He preferred sailing to speedboats and had never played a sport in his life.
That summer, Greg fixed my motorcycle, played football with me, and even gave me a summer job to help me save money for a car. But I hated him. I hated him for the way he emasculated my father. I hated him for all his toys and guns. And I hated him because I knew he was going to take my mother away.
One hot Saturday afternoon Greg came over with his family in tow — yes, he was married — to use our pool. They came over nearly every weekend during the summer. Greg liked to throw me, my brother, and my father into the pool and roughly dunk us — usually in front of Mom.
That day, as usual, Greg dunked my head and held me underwater. When he pulled me up, I heard my mom and him laughing. Then he dunked me again. Finally he threw me into the air, and I splashed down a few feet away.
Instead of retreating, I came back at Greg in a rage. Miraculously, I got him in a headlock. And what a headlock it was. I’d been lifting weights all summer, getting ready to play junior-varsity football. I clamped my arm under Greg’s chin and squeezed so hard it brought him to his knees. Adrenaline rushing, I began to dunk him.
I shoved his face into the water over and over while his giant arms flailed, trying to get a grip on my slippery body. I made him gasp for air and watched his face turn blue. He could not escape. I was fighting to defend my father, to prove to my mother that Greg was not invincible, and, above all, to keep my parents together.
When I let go, Greg stumbled to the side of the pool, gulping for air. He had deep scratches in his face from our struggle. Greg’s wife and my parents stared at me silently, mouths agape. No one said a word. Greg’s wife held a towel to his bleeding face.
That was twenty-five years ago. My parents are still together. Mom started seeing a counselor shortly after that, and she and Dad entered couples counseling that fall. Though I feel certain that it was not my fight with Greg that prompted them to work things out, I like to imagine that it was.
I watch my mother struggle to write her signature over and over: Downstroke. Loop. Upstroke. Over. Across. Again. The pen slips out of her hand sometimes, her grip weakened by the chemotherapy.
“After Poppie had his stroke,” she says to no one in particular, “he couldn’t remember how to write his own name. That’s when I knew he would never get better.”
Determined not to follow her father down that road, she plows on, filling each line with her shaky handwriting. This has become her daily ritual during the hour between The Price Is Right and her favorite soap opera. I can see the blue veins beneath her dry, papery skin, and I make a mental note to put some lotion on her hands later — gently, so as not to bruise them. She writes until she reaches the bottom of the page. Then she holds it at arm’s length, scans it, and frowns. When she catches me watching her, she flashes a smile and says, “See, I still got it!”
I take the page from her, turn off the lamp, and help her into her wheelchair. Each day brings a new humiliation, but today she can still write her name, so it’s a good day.
That evening the hospice nurse comes by to check Mom’s blood pressure and calcium levels. Her particular form of cancer is leaching calcium from her bones, making them increasingly brittle; it will be only a few more days before we stop getting her out of bed, rather than take the risk that her bones might break.
Before she leaves, the hospice nurse brings out some papers for Mom and Dad to sign. Mom looks at me, so tired she’s almost unable to speak. But I know what she is asking for. I retrieve her pen and place it in her hand. The hospice nurse hovers. “All you really need is to put an X on the line,” she says. But Mom stubbornly writes her full signature on the do-not-resuscitate order. Then she puts her pen down with a satisfied nod and leans back with eyes closed. She is ready for bed now.
Charles Town, West Virginia
I was born in 1941 to Jewish parents in Budapest, Hungary. My father died when I was an infant, just as the Holocaust was looming. I have few memories of those years. Through some turn of events, the details of which my mother was unwilling ever to talk about, she and I managed to survive. Nearly everyone else on both sides of my family died.
At the end of the war, my mother decided to leave Budapest and move back to the provincial city where she’d grown up, in northeastern Hungary. There she married a man who had lost all his family too, and they decided not to practice their religion any longer.
At the start of my first-grade year, just before the Communists came to power, all schoolchildren were brought to the Catholic church in the center of town each week for services, none of which I understood. At one point during mass, I forgot to kneel. I felt a sharp whack on the back of my head, and a male teacher grabbed me by the ear and forced me to my knees, saying, “I will teach you to kneel when you have to, you dirty little Jew.” This is how I found out that I was Jewish.
When I went home and asked my mother what “Jew” meant, she was of no help. The only thing she said was to keep a low profile and not be noticed.
Though I tried to be unobtrusive, I received one humiliation after another for the next ten years. I felt guilty for failing to “hide” successfully.
After the 1956 revolution, my parents and I left Hungary for the United States, where my mother’s brother had immigrated before the war. For me, America was a great adventure. There were many Jews here; I would not be alone anymore — or so I thought. I didn’t know how to fit in with other Jews because I thought to be Jewish meant to be afraid and to hide. It didn’t help that many of the people I met, Jews and non-Jews alike, were not tolerant of other people’s differences.
As an adult, I joined the armed forces, got married, and had two children, but I was unable to overcome my fear of being “noticed.” It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I consented to get help and slowly started to regain my sense of self-worth.
In 2001 I decided to return to my childhood homeland. My wife and I traveled to Hungary for a weeklong visit. Near the end, we went to the church where it had all started. I looked at the pew where I’d been whacked, then up at the statue of Christ, and I knew that it wasn’t he who hated me. On my way out I left a sizable contribution in the poor box.
Outside the church, I looked around the town square in the brilliant sunlight, and I forgave all my persecutors without having to see any of them. Then I got on the train and came home.
My kids loved it when my husband’s mother, their one living grandmother, made her annual visit to our house. She always brought gifts and fantastic homemade chocolate-chip cookies and poundcake.
My mother-in-law was not always kind to me, though. She treated me as inferior because I wasn’t Jewish. Certainly I wasn’t good enough for her highly educated and handsome only son. But I wanted the kids to like her, so I pretended to be glad to see her and ignored her not-so-subtle criticisms. Inevitably, if we planned to do something all together, she developed a migraine headache, and we wouldn’t go.
As my mother-in-law’s health began to decline, my husband persuaded her to move here to Tucson. He found a wonderful doctor for her and assisted-living facilities that met her high standards. Her son’s attention helped revitalize her.
As my mother-in-law entered her nineties, she lost her power to hurt me. I suppose I matured some, too. My skin had grown a little thicker. Hesitantly, I became involved in her life. I bought her things she needed and surprised her with flowers or a new shade of nail polish. (She’d let me know if she didn’t like it.) I made certain her son always remembered her birthday and Mother’s Day. I felt good to be helping, and, I’ll admit, a bit superior.
A few weeks before her death, my mother-in-law and I were having a quiet visit. She sat in her wheelchair facing a window with a view of the mountains. Her agitated tapping on her lap tray ceased for a moment, and she turned to me and said, “Do you like me?”
At last, she was asking me for approval. Without hesitation I said, “Yes, I do.” No longer afraid of her criticism, I asked her, “Do you like me?”
And she said, “Yes, I do. Very much.”
Barbara Chaney Goldman