Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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I live on Florida’s northern Gulf Coast, on the edge of the world, alone except for the occasional boyfriend or husband, always in the company of pets, books, art, friends, and sundry wildlife. Only part-time neighbors inhabit the houses closest to mine. On this narrow sandbar there is but one store, which is rarely open and where a carton of milk will cost you five times what it costs in town. The only real commerce that occurs here is illegal, and no one speaks of it, so it may as well not happen. Though I have less money than anyone I know, I rarely wake up depressed and often feel inappropriately rich. I suppose it’s all this beauty: dunes, water, sky, and wildflowers whose lives are so temporary they tremble in silence between life and death.
Here creatures soar and scuttle, slither and lope, swim and sleep, their existence seen and unseen, their lives forever unfurling. Amid the bustling rhythms of the natural world, time is not an abstraction. Rather it is visible, amorphous, revealed in tumbling swaths of sunlight, cloud, shadow, and fog.
At dawn, amid the chime of first birdsong, I throw back my bedcovers, walk across worn pine planks, and step into a waking world. The sky’s canvas is full: A rising sun. A sinking moon. An insistent, bright planet. Hungry seabirds cut dark and fast against blooming white clouds. Sand gathers around the edges of my bare feet. I close my eyes, knowing that below, hidden from view, silent to my ear, limestone mazes shift and crack. Subterranean tangles of tender roots attached to salt-impervious plants curl through these mazes with a natural ease I will probably never possess, tethering the dunes to this ever-changing landscape. Perhaps they tether me, too.
To linger here, a woman must get her bearings.
The wide sweep of the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Apalachee Bay is in perpetual motion, reshaping, and at times reclaiming, my front yard. Alligator Harbor, with its clear shallows and deceptive currents — pulled by the moon, the sun, the trickster we call weather — defines and sculpts my backyard, revising boundaries and property lines, confounding appraisers and owners alike. Sometimes I watch in awe as, under the influence of hurricanes or winter gales, this usually placid bay boils forth — whitecaps and all — pushing unmoored boats, wayward crab traps, and lost life jackets to within a few feet of my shack.
Butterflies, neotropical birds, songbirds, sea turtles, seahorses, seashells: everything is in flux, a state of constant rebirth, which means death, too, is ever present. Ants swarm a nest of black-capped chickadees, stinging the baby birds to death and then devouring their warm, swollen bodies. In turn a blue jay eats the ants, ingesting their chickadee-rich nutrients.
At its zenith this peninsular sandbar known as Alligator Point rises only thirteen feet above sea level. My old sea shack is perched atop it like a weather vane — windblown, crooked, and sweetly tattered. This coastal scrub plain is home to an astonishing variety of wildlife: bear, coyote, bobcat, fox, gopher tortoise, deer, snake, lizard, skink, white squirrel, gray squirrel, raccoon, possum, alligator, hermit crab, ghost crab, termite, horsefly, deerfly, yellow fly, beach mouse, and rat. Its sugar-sand shores and wind-ribbed dunes are, like the living human body, never static. And, also like the human body, complexity is its greatest strength; fragility in the face of sudden change, its greatest weakness.
Amid the burgeoning sunlight, I am pelted by shadows cast by enormous wings. I look to the sky and count twenty-seven brown pelicans racing in a straight line from the west, moving southeast into the open blue eye of the gulf.
Like me, these birds are survivors. Like me, their survival depends on the kindness of strangers.
On December 31, 1972, the Environmental Protection Agency made the pesticide DDT illegal in the United States. DDT, scientists had discovered, thinned eggshell walls to the point that when the parent birds sat on the nests, the eggs cracked under the weight. A parent nurtures its unborn, does everything right, yet kills its offspring thanks to a poison humans rolled out in the pursuit of mosquito-free evenings on the lawn. Without that legislation — and without Rachel Carson’s environmental masterwork Silent Spring to change the mood of the country — these twenty-seven birds would not exist.
On December 31, 1972, my father was long dead, my sister was out of the house, and my mother and I were living a tremulous existence in a roach-infested cottage in Tampa. Blooming into a teenager, I was afforded small but significant freedoms. On New Year’s Eve morning Mother dropped me off at a friend’s house — a trailer on the edge of town — so I could spend the day with him and his family. Four hours later she phoned, her voice wavering as she said, “Don’t come home tonight. The house is crawling with goddamned demons.”
The next day my mother and I abandoned everything we owned. Every shoe, every blouse, every skirt, every dress, every scarf, every pair of underwear, every earring, every pillow, every book, every juice glass, every dish, every music album, every scrap of paper, every Christmas card, every towel, every spoon, every knife, every photo, every mirror great or small. Everything.
We took only my dog, Tiny, and the clothes on our backs. As we drove around town on New Year’s Day, looking for a place to live, my mother spoke in detail about the knives that had flown through the air all night and the Bible the demons had hurled at her before ripping it into holy confetti and the rosary that had levitated right before her eyes. I held Tiny close to my chest, running my hand down her spine, fingertips pausing at each vertebra, knowing the only thing saving me at that moment was the love of a castaway dog.
The thing about memory is this: it’s who we are. We define ourselves by memories, however shape-shifting they may be. Without them we possess no narrative, no history, no If this or that had happened, I’d be a different person. If I hadn’t ferried into adulthood the memory of Tiny — the one constant in my life who exhibited what I interpreted as unconditional love — I don’t think I would have had the strength of mind to discover this sandbar. Love counts, wherever we find it, even if it dwells solely in the hazy lens of recall.
In his journals artist Paul Gauguin wrote, “Painting is the most beautiful of all arts. In it, all sensations are condensed; contemplating it, everyone can create a story at the will of his imagination and — with a single glance — have his soul invaded by the most profound recollections; no effort of memory, everything is summed up in one instant.”
Despite his conceit that only painting stirs the soul with such a profound sense of recall, Gauguin is approaching something quite important: the power of a single image to reveal an entire life or vast emotional landscape — as large as a continent yet as intangible as air — within the divine territory of a canvas, a poem, a dancer’s gesture.
My father’s smile. My father surf-fishing at “the rocks,” a spit of coquina sand — orange like my hair and made of tiny pieces of shell. My father relaxed and in his element, his eyes crinkled with mirth, his white hair blown by the breeze: a crooked crown.
A happy daddy immersed in nature, always larger than life, always rabidly cursed or hysterically praised by my mother, his masculinity and gentle humor on display amid the salt air and the Atlantic surf and the rocky outcroppings: that single image prompts me to spend days, weeks, months peering through the windowpanes of my childhood.
From my front yard I look toward the sea and will my mind to cover the windowpanes, to avert my gaze, to forget about remembering, but it’s no use. Perhaps it’s the sandbar’s silence or the infinite sky or the fact that at this moment I do not see another human being — no one and nothing to stanch the flow. The memories insist on their due. Their weight is enormous. They are a flood tide. There I go.
Before Tampa there was St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city, the place I lived when my father, Henry May, was alive. That image of a happy daddy — the sea, the sky, the coquina, his hair, his smile — might be why I keep insisting on love; why, when I feel divorced from nature, I tumble, a grown woman in free fall who fears a hard landing.
In St. Augustine I was my father’s reflection. He fished, so I fished. He cast nets, so I cast nets. He loved little dogs, so I loved little dogs. He gazed at the big blue sky and smiled, so I gazed at the big blue sky and smiled. In St. Augustine I knew he loved me, and my goal was never to abandon him.
But there is no talking to the dead, or to a woman shattered by the loss of the complicated man she both loved and hated with an intensity few could sustain over a lifetime. He died when I was six, and my mother, unable to withstand the memories that crowded in on her no matter the time of day or angle of light, whisked my sister and me out of St. Augustine, out of the lives of our half siblings and aunts and uncles and nieces, away from everyone who’d known and loved my father, away from everyone who knew and loved us, away from every kernel of family history, away from the sea that even on its most violent days offered me glimpses of hope.
First my father died. Then my mother ripped us from the familiar. Maybe those two events are not wholly bad. Maybe they prepared me for the losses to come.
Decades later, even in the salt air of Alligator Point, this memory clings to me:
As Mother slipped behind the steering wheel of our black Rambler to drive to Tampa — her cigarette clamped between ruby-red lips — she displayed her usual bent for drama by issuing a final edict: “None of us will ever hear the sound of the surf again. That’s for damned sure. Not one whoosh. So get used to it. Because it goddamn isn’t going to change.”
But change is constant. My mother should have known that; her life was rarely stable. I have no idea if the madness that gripped her as an adult was also present when she was a child. And does it matter? Does the moment my mother lost her mind mean anything? I don’t know.
I walk toward the sea. In a few minutes I will pass over sand dunes whose history I chart in small, spiral-bound notebooks. I will pause at a clump of sea oats and notice how their circumference grows slowly but with purpose as they send out new, tentative roots, unsettling yet strengthening the sand they grow in. I will look up at the sky and ponder the motion of something creating upheaval and strength simultaneously. I will understand that there are holes in my family history I will never fill.
But, still, I will try.
My father grew up among Florida’s oldest houses, its deepest history, and its earliest tourist traps. He was a street urchin, dancing and singing for tourists who tossed coins at his bare feet. St. Augustine is where, I believe, my mother and father met. If there was a stable home among our people, it was my grandmother’s house — filled with glinting glass trinkets she had stolen from the tourist shops — in the African American neighborhood of West Augustine. The fact that we lived on the wrong side of the San Sebastian River, opposite the more affluent African American neighborhood of Lincolnville; the fact that my parents explained that my grandmother (who, unlike me, was dark-skinned and black-eyed) wasn’t allowed to live in a white neighborhood; the fact that each time I asked about the grandfather I’d never met, I was summarily told he’d joined the circus; the fact that my parents answered almost all of my questions about our ancestry with the vulgar, dismissive quip that there was a “nigger in the woodpile” — all these were clues. Even the replies designed to hush a too-curious child were faint proof of a complex lineage the adults refused to discuss.
Grandmama May died when I was five, and she was buried in West Augustine across the street from the St. Luke AME Church, her headstone the size of a baby’s pillow. A year later my father died at home of a massive coronary and was buried under the pink blossoms of a crepe myrtle in Jacksonville Beach. In the springtime you have to brush away the fallen petals to see his headstone.
In the first few weeks after his death I transferred much of what I felt for my father to his hometown. Thinking about him could be a perilous venture, but if I poured it all into his beloved St. Augustine, I could focus on memories that did not hurt: the old town’s ancient Spanish houses; the sea oats and palm fronds that rustled with what my grandmother said were the voices of our ancestors (even though who those ancestors were remained a mystery); the pin oaks sculpted into a resolute tilt by the near-constant westerly wind; the jewel-toned coquinas we gathered at dawn and ate in a chowder at dusk; the moment in first grade when I was lifted off the ground by a nor’easter’s abundant gale.
My notions of St. Augustine were fed by mental movie reels that flickered incessantly through my mind. I could not stop them, and that was OK, because by and large they were benign: Mother and Father barreling down the coastal highway, A1A, past the glory of the palmetto hammocks and the primal perfection of the Guana River; the nights we were a happy family as we traveled through the pungent marshlands bordering Vilano Beach; the nightly brawls my parents seemed unable to avoid (brawls made only slightly more tolerable by the balm of nature’s beauty, the comfort of books, the lessons taught to me by stray dogs, lost cats, and caged birds); my father’s ghost, who rambled through our beach house in the weeks following his death and later seized my mother’s fevered mind, after we’d fled St. Augustine for what she hoped would be a more bountiful life in Tampa, triggering in her a temper that would know fewer and fewer boundaries.
Within a year of my father’s death, my body could not contain all these memories. I had to put them somewhere, I thought, or I might burst. What did that first time look like — that moment when a child, me, wrapped her fingers around a pencil and pressed it to paper? This is my story. This is how it goes. This is exactly what happened. Let me whisper my truth.
I was awash in my own private tsunami. Memories filled the page: poems and stories and novel fragments. I wrote on anything I could find; notebook paper was reserved for school projects. We — my mother, my sister, and me — were a government-check family living in vermin-infested hovels that seemed to grow humbler with each new gleaming high-rise added to Tampa’s skyline. Everything was a luxury. So I began scribbling on grocery bags.
“I want to be a writer,” I announced to my mother when I was twelve — this after I’d given up on becoming a marine biologist, bowing to the irrefutable fact that science required something I was incapable of grasping: math.
Mother laughed and, taking a deep draw on her Salem, said, “You stupid little fool. Stenographer. Airline reservationist. Typist. Jesus! Do something that will give you a goddamned future.”
But with my father dead and buried, it was the past I craved. I wanted to know who those mystery people were in that mythic woodpile. I wanted a living daddy. I wanted his ghost to wither and die. I wanted his flesh, blood, and bone to be made manifest. I wanted resurrection to no longer be reserved for the anointed. I couldn’t remember for sure, but I didn’t think Mother had beaten me when he was alive. She’d slapped and spanked me and called me names littered with expletives, but she’d saved the worst for after he was gone. Perhaps she had been too preoccupied with pointing out his sins and indiscretions to bother much with mine.
Why was I so insistent on writing down everything I could remember, even the most horrible moments? Because, I think, creating images crystallized my past so that I could look at it and contemplate the love that grew like weeds despite my family’s violence. It was my attempt to impose order and beauty on chaos and ugliness.
These are the things I learned living in poverty:
Roaches can eat through anything — plastic hair clips, textbook covers given out on the first day of school, homework, paperback and hardcover books, the glitter card I made for my teacher, the Almond Joy bar I didn’t eat fast enough, the dirty clothes I left too long in the hamper, plastic fruit, my skin.
Do not stomp on that giant spider lumbering across the floor because she might be pregnant, like the one I smashed in a fit of hysteria when I was eight and we lived in a broken-down blister of a travel trailer. My foot broke open her belly’s dome, sending her premature, now motherless, head-of-a-pin-sized babies scurrying in surprised panic from the destroyed womb.
Ignore the landlord’s protestations and keep the stray cat happy and fed because she kills the rats that dart through the darkness.
A dog, despite how much he eats and how many pairs of shoes he chews and how much he poops and pees, is worth the trouble. The alternative — life without a dog — is the bleakest of songs.
No matter the violence or ridicule, write everything down because even at six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, a child knows the power of words: Worlds spawned from consonants and vowels, syllables and phrases. Words upon words. Prayers for the hopeless, prayers for the beaten, prayers for the poor, prayers for the fatherless, prayers for two girls who wished their mother dead, prayers for a mother whose Appalachian childhood had been so on fire with cruelty that rising from the ashes was never an option. An unending avalanche of words piled up all around me, but I kept writing.
I scribbled in the darkness and the light. And every word I wrote, I burned when my mother wasn’t home. I planned ahead, stealing matches from her tobacco-flaked pocketbook and then — alone except for the rats and roaches that ate each other’s droppings (roaches sought me out at night, feeding on my skin as I slept; Mother’s uncharacteristic tender response? “They’re just nibbling a little”) — I torched the stories and poems in the kitchen sink. If I wrapped the charred remains just right in toilet paper, I only had to flush once.
And if Mother returned home before I had time to air out whatever rented trailer or termite-gnawed bungalow or fleabag motel we found ourselves in, I would lie, saying I had burned toast. The lie was a much safer choice than the truth, because she would beat me for writing, and when she beat me, it was with abandon. And although I will never know for sure, I remain convinced that, if she had read my scribbles, I would never have survived her leather-belt fury.
I pass over the dunes, and in my mind’s eye I see the belt. It slices the air before striking me across my mouth. And though the violence occurred years ago, I still taste the blood. This is not a memory I want. So I push it away by envisioning my sea shack filled with impromptu altars, cluttered with sacred found objects: feathers and bones, seashells and sea glass, the collars of dead pets and black-and-white photos of long-departed parents. As I dig my toes into the sand, I wonder: Is this why I write — to bear witness amid the silent void of my mother and father’s absence? If it weren’t for this life built of words, would I even exist? Or would I simply be a spectral presence chasing an idea of me?
My skirt hitched up, I stand knee-deep in the gulf. The surf is calm today, the water clear with vast stretches of turquoise and teal. The twenty-seven brown pelicans have flown beyond my sight. Four orange-billed American oystercatchers glide by and land onshore, searching for a meal of limpets, crabs, clams. About two yards away a mullet jumps from the water three times. Beyond the languid breakers a dolphin and her calf meander westward. Their pace is slow, casual, as if this is a day free of tribulations. Something rubs against my leg, catlike, and moves on. Nurse shark? Maybe. I do not bolt. In fact, I will it to return.
I hitch my skirt a little higher — the tide is coming in — and knot the hem in two big bunches to keep it dry. A plover — a white bird no larger than my hand — torpedoes into the water and snags a shiner. Plovers lay their eggs on the beach, the shells exquisitely camouflaged in order to trick raccoons and other marauders. But this evolutionary survival strategy is no match for the biggest problem plovers possess: humans, humans who don’t see the eggs and largely don’t care whether they avoid them or not. They stomp right through the clutches, breaking open the shells, hellbent to stake out whatever bit of sunbathing real estate they can: manifest destiny reduced to weekend drinkers intent on having their way.
I close my eyes against the strengthening sun, and a recently acquired memory blooms: a plover looking out to sea with a single chick beside her. The baby bird, like all baby birds, was a marvel of down fluff and unsure wings. The baby stayed close to its mom, taking in the world and its new home, the sandbar, and I wanted to know if it felt the absence of its unborn siblings, the ones whose shells had been crushed under the feet of unaware beachgoers.
The plover flies westward, toward the end of the Point. A pod of dolphins cruises closer to shore. An incoming tide, with all the fish that ride on it, means mealtime for the dolphins. And, just like that, there it is again: life and death in a single pulse beat. I shade my eyes and watch. A dolphin tosses a mullet into the air and catches it in its mouth. Dolphins possess extremely sharp teeth. This gives me hope that the fish died quickly. The whole suffering paradigm seems unnecessary to me, cruel and unfortunately not unusual, like a really big mistake God made.
But there are so many mistakes, so many memories sliced and diced, borrowed and earned, born in childhood and repeated in adulthood, remembrances made dynamic if only because I fear they will never end:
My much older half brother, my mother’s son, never speaks to me without mentioning how many times my father cheated on our mother, how many times my father beat our mother, how many times my half brother interrupted their fights, how our mother’s nose was broken at the hands of my father, how our mother’s teeth were knocked out by my father’s fists, which is why my mother, a former Catholic nun, kept a ready supply of paraffin wax and penitently — at least every three days — ran a nub of it under hot tap water, ignoring the scald, fashioning a fake tooth. When the wax was shaped just so and still incandescent and malleable, she affixed the temporary tooth to her gums and the teeth on either side of the gap.
My half brother obsessively repeats details that suggest I was brought into the world in a whirlwind of regret and violence: when our mother was pregnant with me, it was not a cause for celebration, because she had convinced everyone but her doctor she was going to die giving birth. My half brother is not the only person in my family who behaves as if this story were a cause for familial pride. Mother often told versions of it during Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. “You were the last thing on this planet I wanted,” she would say, studying her cigarette as if it offered answers to long-held quandaries. According to her and my half brother, deep into the pregnancy Mother and Father got into a shouting match, which was quickly threatening to escalate into a physical altercation. In every rendition I have ever heard, my half brother is a hero, saving the lives of my mother and her unwelcome, unborn child: “I beat that son of a bitch down. I told him next time I would kill him. It was the last time he ever laid a hand on her.”
To this day I haven’t a clue what to do with that information.
My horror regarding my father’s treatment of my mother is shot through with confusion. He was always kind, even indulgent, with me. My memories are of my mother raging against him the moment he walked through our front door at the end of each day. And when he didn’t come home, my memory is this: the three of us — my sister, my mother, and me — getting in the car at twilight and cruising the local bars, searching for his car. When we found it, my sister or I or both would wander in and retrieve him.
And this memory: Mother and Father giggling, drinking, and dancing in the living room.
And this memory: the golden brooch studded with pretty, faceted stones — a bird in flight — my father gave my mother, which she wore with all the preening coquettishness of an in-love schoolgirl.
And this memory: Mother screaming at my father, hurtling cuss words like they were Mardi Gras beads, telling him what a worthless, useless piece of shit he was.
And this memory: Mother ordering my sister and me into the hallway to witness our father — drunk, naked, swaying, and laughing — as he reached into the hall closet for a towel, unaware of our presence or the words my mother uttered in a calm, acid-laced voice: “Look at him, girls. Look hard. This is who your father is. Nothing but a goddamned drunk.”
Yes, my memories are wholly different from my half brother’s. My sister, who is also older than me, says she retains no memories.
There was a time — say, for almost my entire adult life — when I would occasionally reach out to my other half siblings, my father’s children, but their recitation of my father’s antics — rarely home, other women, my mother as the Other Woman — eventually became too painful. I cannot fix my parents. I cannot heal my siblings. I cannot change their memories. I cannot reconcile my memories with theirs. Some days I am the baby who needs to be held.
I have stopped reaching out.
But I have not stopped loving my father. Should I be ashamed of this?
The incoming tide is gaining on me. My hitched skirt, despite my impromptu efforts, grows wet at the edges. I love an incoming tide almost as much as an outgoing, so I stay put as baitfish swarm my ankles. A crab skitters past, trying to hold its own against the hydraulics of the waves. For some reason crabs remind me of spiders. And spiders remind me of fear and shame. I think about the enormous spider I squashed when I was a girl and realize I had it wrong all these years: The babies weren’t in the mother’s womb. Spiders don’t experience live births. They lay eggs. And in a wondrous act of nurturing, wolf spiders, which arachnologists insist are very good mothers, carry their hundreds of infinitesimal spiderlings on their abdomens. This knowledge does not help me. The fact that the spiderlings were already born — I must find a way to banish the false memory of them exploding from the mother’s battered womb — doesn’t make me feel better about killing her.
Nor does knowing that Lenore May was given to hyperbole and madness make me feel any better about my birth story. I could not have been older than eight or nine when she told me she drank a full bottle of castor oil while pregnant in hopes of ridding her body of me. She intimated that a friend had given her pills that were supposed to induce a miscarriage. She said she would have gone to a back-alley doctor had she not feared death by mangled abortion.
A wave slaps my thighs, soaking my skirt, and I have a sudden urge to cry. How horrible those nine months must have been for her, carrying within her a child she did not want and going through a pregnancy she viewed as a death sentence. I wring seawater out of my skirt. I hear my mother’s voice rising through a blue haze of smoke: “I have no goddamned idea how you managed to be born.”
And yet here I am.
There are animals in my shack who aren’t supposed to be inside: a lizard, a frog, and a rat snake. The rat snake, to be honest, is just a part-time visitor. Sometimes I find him curled up in a jeweled coil on my kitchen windowsill, warming himself.
I don’t mind, but I worry about these guests getting enough to eat. I keep telling myself if they grow hungry, they know the way out.
Freshly showered and dressed after my sojourn in the gulf, I sip tea and watch the brilliant-green lizard I’ve named Ed sun himself in a circle of light on my living-room floor. I wonder if it’s healthy, living with all these animals. And then I remember what Gauguin said: “Civilization is what makes you sick.”
Connie May Fowler