Recommended Reading for Writers and Dreamers

After reading Cormac McCarthy and Robert Goolrick, back to back, I’m stunned into silence with my own writing.

McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men, flowed with a dialogue so raw, I didn’t realize I was reading. It was more of a knowing that these events were playing out in my mind’s eye. It’s a rough story, made all the more powerful by the tenderness of some of the characters involved.

Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful starts with a first-person dialogue that, on the second paragraph reads, This story actually happened, and it happened pretty much the way I’m going to tell it to you. The speaker tells that there may be some things misremembered, after six decades of remembering, so we know he is at least sixty years old, most likely older.

He puts the setting in Virginia, 1948, himself as the child, his father as the operator of the town’s general store. He alludes to an incident, saying, Was I damaged by it, wounded in some way? And I always say no. From this point on, the story unwinds as leisurely and slowly and the longest summer day in Brownsburg, Va, in 1948.

With McCarthy, it was also a slow telling, but the subject matter encouraged me to read faster. With Goolrick, the reading demands a word by word approach, if only for the poetry of his words.

Each writer takes a fascinating story, first. Then they take their own particular style, whittled to perfection, and wrap each word, each scene, in that style.

Could I manage this with the story I’m telling? Because it too, is a strange story, particular to me, set in eastern Ohio in 1969. I don’t know. I don’t know because now, after reading the work of these two artisans, I’m paralyzed with indecision. I’m already ¾ of the way finished with the telling. Have I made it urgent enough, for a reader to want to continue with me? Did I, like Cormac and Robert, wrap each word, each scene, in my unique style? I don’t know. I won’t know until I go back to it, and at this point, today, I don’t feel worthy. But that’s not right either, is it? To presume to even belong in that ilk. No.

I know I will go back to my own writing, but I’ve been forever changed. A good book will provoke thought. A great book will change you forever; the way you measure all other books you read, the way you write a sentence the next time you sit down to write.

I’ve read two great books in the span of a week, so you might understand how I feel somehow hobbled by what has been absorbed into my brain. Three times absorbed, first by the poetry of language, then the stories as they unraveled, finally as a writer reading possibly the finest writing I will ever read.

Please give these two books a place in your reading time, if for nothing other than the sheer joy of elevated language. For escapism, there’s no equal. And, if you’re a writer, you’ll see what all the fuss is about when a great book is published. I’m not speaking in terms of Fifty Shades of Grey, although I’m not poking any fingers at that sort of reading, if that’s what you prefer. But if you want to feel your heart open, right at the spot where your throat gasps, give these books a try.

I sat up in my bed in the midst of both, finding my face wet with tears, but I can’t say what brought me to that point, which part of which story, it just happened. And I’m so grateful.

Burlesque

I’m putting on my boots, pulling the zipper that runs from my ankle bone to the soft flesh on the inside of my knee.

“You don’t let him do anything, do you?”

She says this with such revulsion that my throat tightens. I forget to breathe.

Heat rises up my neck, into my face. I grab my purse and rifle through the contents, practicing nonchalance. We are so different, her and I.

I know my cheeks are flushed and I worry she’ll mistake this for guilt.   How, I wonder, do you explain desire to a woman who lusts after Betty Crocker?

“No, of course not.” My voice sounds louder than usual.

She turns away, washes the coffee cups that have been sitting since breakfast.   I straighten my skirt, pressing my hands into the hollows above my hips. I remember the last time I wore this skirt. He seemed surprised that the nubby wool was backed by a cool, silky lining. His hands slid effortlessly along my thighs.

She closes the cupboard door and faces me, the edge of a teaspoon glistening through the folds of her dish towel. I’m smiling. Lust is dripping from my upturned lips.

I catch myself and look down at the paper-strewn table. In among the bills and grocery lists is the latest Life Magazine. The cover displays some of the over nine hundred bodies; men, women, and children, bloated and rotting in the tropical heat, the buttons on their clothing strained. Disciples of mad man Jim Jones, they believed that the poisonous Kool-Aid they drank was their one-way ticket to Nirvana. There’ll be no happy Thanksgiving for this group.

“Once you let them have their way you’re damaged goods. I hope you know that.”

You’re damaged goods, I think. She shuffles over to the silverware drawer, her ratty slippers making a shush shush sound like crumpling paper. Her legs are heavy, the thickness of her thighs causing her calves to flare out from the knees down. She shuffles back and sits down at the kitchen table.

She has said these things before. The words run in a loop behind my eyes. When his hand touches my knee, I hear her. When he kisses my neck, they’re all alike.

She thumbs through the TV Guide.

“Oh, Good Lord,” she grins, “guess what’s on tomorrow night?”

It’s got to be a one of handful of our movies, the movies we watched when my dad was working late. We’d lie in their bed, burrowed beneath the blankets, watching the little black and white TV. We’d eat brownies and cry over women who sacrificed everything for love; the small town girl in Picnic, the lonely socialite in Madame X. We watched them over and over until I had memorized the lines. I’d play all the parts and she’d clap and laugh, “Bravo!”

“My favorites are the cheating movies,” she confided.

“What’s on tomorrow night?” I set my purse down and slip into my coat.

Gypsy, at nine o’clock.”

We loved Gypsy, it was one of our favorites. I saw it for the first time at eight years old. By the time I was ten, I’d seen it more than five times and could mouth the dialogue along with the actors.

My mother came up with the idea but I leaped onboard, more than a little excited by the thrill of the hunt and the prospect of a masquerade.

“You’ll have to dig. It’s in the back of the closet, way back behind the coats.”

That’s where she said I would find the dress.

“It’s satin, baby blue.”

I’d been in that closet plenty of times, poking around the same as any other kid. I’d never seen a blue satin dress.

She ran the palm of her hand over the table top in a circular motion like a medium conjuring a spirit. Her eyes belonged to someone I didn’t know.

The closet door opened onto a row of house dresses, dowdy handmade numbers faded from repeated washings. I slid them to the left and tugged at the coats, my mother’s wool herringbone next to my dad’s gray overcoat, and a long trench coat stiff with age. The weight caused them to stall along the horizontal pole. I sank to the floor resting among my dad’s Brogans. I tugged at the coats again and they let loose opening onto the rear of the closet and a wardrobe that surely belonged to someone other than my mother.

The first dress was black crepe with spaghetti straps, a row of sequins along the bodice. There were others ; cinch-waisted, femininely flounced, candy colored skirts. And the shoes! High heeled pumps and peep-toed little beauties. I scooted further into the closet. A hint of something within the fabrics evoked a memory. It came to me slowly, that powdery sweetness that hit me in the gut on long car rides, overcame me on special occasions. Shalimar. It tied the petite party dresses to the housedresses she wore. In that moment I understood that the woman downstairs, wrapped in a thread-bare bathrobe, two inches of gray outgrowth exposed by randomly placed pin curls, had once been a woman of style. I could almost imagine her dancing in spike heels, her pleated dress a pastel blur.

I pulled the blue dress from the hanger and crabbed back out into the bedroom. The long white gloves were where she said they would be, in the drawer behind her brassieres, the handkerchiefs, and the small hand embroidered purse. I slipped into the dress and the black pumps that were too big for my feet. I pinned my hair on top of my head and pulled on the gloves.

When I walked into the living room she gasped.

“My God, you look gorgeous.”

I did the burlesque walk and sang Let Me Entertain You, peeling off the gloves one finger at a time, like Natalie Wood did in the movie. I tossed them over my shoulder, shimmied and dipped, ending with “We’ll have a real good time.”

She applauded, gave my performance a standing O. We both laughed.

“Ah,” she sighed, “thank God your dad isn’t here.”

“Now, go put my things away where you found them.”

I was anxious to get back into that closet, to inspect the other dresses and shoes.

I hung the blue dress and sidled in a bit further.

My foot bumped up against something on the floor. A metal filing box. I dragged it close to the closet door where the lighting was better, thumbing through the papers inside; tax receipts, life insurance certificates, car titles. I came across a heavy paper emblazoned with a gold seal. The words took my breath away, CERTIFICATE OF ADOPTION. I read far enough to see that it wasn’t my name listed as the adoptee, but my oldest brother, Wesley.

I was furious, confused, and angry at the deception. I ran downstairs, crying so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. I waved the paper in front of her, indignant in my need for answers.

I’d never had any reason to believe that my brother, twelve years older than me and the object of my absolute adoration was not my real brother. I had been told, “You know, when I had you, I was so exhausted, I just couldn’t hear your cries at night. Wes was only twelve at the time and he slept across the hall from you. He’d get up in the middle of the night, make a bottle, feed and rock you until you fell asleep.”

Now he was thousands of miles away in a place called Marble Mountain in Vietnam. God, I loved him.

“Stop crying, come here.”

I kneeled on the floor and pushed my face into her lap. She caressed my hair and rocked back and forth as she spoke.

“Before I met your dad I was married to someone else. You know your grandpa was sick, with Lou Gherig’s disease, we’ve talked about this. It was hard on me as well as him. I was the one who took care of him.” She falls silent for a few breaths and then, “I was so young. You grandmother was loaded half the time so she couldn’t help with my dad. Towards the end I had to bathe him. It was so embarrassing for me. But Dad, he was such a proud man and suddenly he was left paralyzed and without a shred of dignity. I s’pose I wanted out of the house, I don’t know.  I was working in a jewelry store downtown and I met this man. He was older. He seemed nice and I found myself falling in love with him. At least that’s what I thought at the time. So we got married and a few months later I found out I was pregnant. He’d been coming home drunk. He’d knock me around; pull my hair, slap me.  When I was eight months along, he pushed me down the stairs. I had just three cents in my pocket when I walked out and went back home to my mother’s. When Wes was a little over a year, I met your father. We were married and on Valentine’s Day, he adopted Wes.”

I put the paper back into the silver filing cabinet, brushing past the pretty dresses on my way out of the closet. I folded the gloves and pushed them to the back of the drawer, past the brassieres and the handkerchiefs and the small embroidered purse, and pulled the pins from my hair.

For a few years afterwards, until I realized that 1950’s burlesque was dead and I didn’t have the nerve or the boobs for the job anyway, I seriously considered classy, lady-like stripping whenever someone asked, “So, Suzy what do you want to be when you grow up?”

My grandmother had told me, “Your father is a good man. I knew it from the start, and I told her, ‘look at this man, Jim. He works hard, he has a nice car. He’s not a drinker. He doesn’t drink. He doesn’t even smoke cigarettes.’ He’d come to take her out for dinner and I’d have to call her two, three times. I’d have to walk up the stairs to shake her awake.   ‘Tell him to come back later,’ she’d say and then turn over and go back to sleep. It took me for her to see what was right before her eyes. Opportunity rarely knocks twice. It wasn’t just her, she had a little boy to think about. Which I was left to watch while she worked, mind you.”

That was my father. Opportunity. Not mad love. Not, God forbid, lust but solid. He addressed my grandmother as, Mother.

When he proposed she turned him down. “I’m not divorced. I can’t afford it.” He paid for the divorce. My mother was able to quit her day job at the Pottery and her night job at the diner.

There was one photo of their wedding day, a black and white picture with scalloped edges. My dad was in a suit and my mother in a dark dress with a wildly huge corsage that ran from her right breast to her waist.

I grab my purse and walk over, kiss the top of her head that smells like White Rain and sweet peppers.

“Ok,” I agree, “I’ll stay home tomorrow night. But I want to watch it down here, on the big TV.”

She picks up her cards, slices the deck and spreads it face down, prepping for a game of Solitaire.

“I’ll see you at midnight.”

She flips an ace right off the bat.

“One o’clock,” I counter.

“Twelve-thirty,” she winks.

I check myself in the hall mirror, turn and give her my very best smile, thinking again of those poor people in South America.

Who Will Care for the Caregiver?

At twenty-nine I still felt like a child. It was an odd number, a strange year. Thirty was magical. Suddenly, I felt like I’d finally become a woman. And what that meant was that I was responsible and able to make good decisions. It also meant that I was a nurturer, a comfort to others. I could make chicken soup and fluff a pillow and whisper softly, “this too, shall pass.” I watched other women. The ones I admired the most were those who were quick with a compliment, they remembered the names of their friend’s children and knew who went to what school and what they were studying. I stayed in that class for years, believing it to be a master class for becoming a better woman.

As the mid-point of my fifties approached, I started to become irritable. I felt drained of humanity. Was this menopause? Was it a combination of fibromyalgia, degenerative disc disease, too little sleep, too much housework?

I’m trying to figure this out the best way I know, on the page. As I write these words I’m realizing that instead of being a student of women, I should have been paying more attention to humans. It’s not about the soup or the warm blanket. Just now I’m seeing this.

It’s about empathy. Imagining with all of your heart what someone else is experiencing. Listening with the intent of a psychotherapist, but one who is emotionally invested.

While I was honing my woman skills, my empathy, instead of being recycled, was pouring out of me like a sieve.

So here I am, on my fifty-sixth birthday, feeling depleted and tricked. No one told me that a good life was one in which I tend to myself as much as others.

I was a caretaker at the age of eight to my grandmother. I stayed with her in her high-rise apartment in Ohio, washing her clothes, dusting, walking to the grocery store through the very worst part of town. I enjoyed the role of adult. It meant I could sit at the table with a group of elderly women, drinking coffee like a peer, but staying silent as the only child in the group was expected to do. I listened to them complain about their ungrateful children, the elevator that stuttered between floors and what would happen, “My Good Lord, if it should decide to die. I, for one, can’t stand to be cooped up like that. I’d go bananas.” They talked about some of the residents. One lady, Marge, had enormous boobs and a great figure for a woman most likely in her seventies. They were envious. “It’s in my contract, no guests allowed. And yet she has that man staying with her. Someone should report her.” Wait, wasn’t I staying with my grandmother? They didn’t consider that a violation of the rules. Maybe if I were a man they’d feel differently.

One of the ladies had been married to a guy in the mob. They had a huge home, beautiful. One day when they were out, it was bombed. She didn’t mind sharing the fact that her husband was a criminal. She was short and round, and kept a hand pressed to the small of her back when she walked. She only ate tiny bits of food. “I’m going to go eat a little piece of meat” she’d say. “I had a little slice of bread and a piece of cheese for lunch.”

“I’d like to see that little piece of meat,” my grandma said. She told stories of working down south at the age of eight, standing on a box and cutting tobacco with a knife. Those stories, and not the quantity of food she may or may not be eating, are what mattered to me.

When I was twenty-one I went on a date with a guy who had been nothing more than a friend for over a year. After a few dates I began to fall for him. He was falling for me too. We were married six months later. He had been married previously and had custody of his three children. Now, I was Mom to a six year old, an eleven year old, and a thirteen year old. My life changed quickly. There was no honeymoon period, no getting to know each other in a quiet, private way. But I didn’t mind. I loved being a wife and a mother. I knew how to take care of people. I was in my groove.

My mother, who had apparently sacrificed the first part of her life taking care of her terminally ill father, then four children, became increasingly selfish the older I got. She made some good business decisions, and some horrible personal ones.

Some things come back to bite you in the ass. Hers came in the form of a crisis of health. She grew more sick, and more withdrawn and lonely.

Even though I was married, every Monday night I’d go to her house to spend the night. We’d play Scrabble or cards, I’d clean her kitchen and sometimes bake a cake. On Tuesday I cleaned the rest of the house. She paid me $20, but I’d have done it for nothing. While I was upstairs scrubbing the bathroom floor she’d call up, “Hey, why don’t you come down and have some coffee with me.” It took all day to get through two floors of rooms. I’d stop for lunch, then in the afternoon, more coffee. As her health got worse, I battled my father who tried to manage her medication without a doctor’s supervision. At one point, I sat on the floor and cried when she refused to go the hospital despite the fact that I knew she was dying. My father sat in the living room doing the daily crossword. After relenting, we took her to the er. She was in kidney failure. Even so, she pulled through, regaining a little of what she had lost. It was another few years until a massive stroke took her life.

Our kids all married. Soon, they were having their own children. I watched my grandson when he was a baby so that my daughter could keep her job as a hair stylist. He was a good baby and I loved spending time with him.

These days my husband is struggling. He’s been through prostate cancer and a triple bypass. In 2005 he broke his tibia. The treatment paper that his doctor issues after a visit states dementia along with all of his other diagnosis. I watch to make sure that he takes the medication I put into his pill organizer. I don’t let him eat too many sweets. I check his blood pressure and put his clothes out each night so that he doesn’t try to go to Lowes wearing an old work shirt.

So I guess this is something I’m stuck with, like curly hair and fair skin. I’m a caregiver. I’m wondering, if God allows me to live to old age, will there be anyone who will care for me? I’d prefer to go out while I’m still on this side of the fence. But I don’t think I’ll be taking on any new people. I don’t think I have anything left to give a new person.

So if you want to be my friend, you better be strong and able. Unless of course, you really need help. Then I’ll try to do what I can to take care of you.

Eulogy for my brother, Wesley Hall White

EULOGY FOR MY BROTHER, WESLEY HALL WHITE

Thank you all for coming today.

Some of you know Wes from right here in Newton Falls, or Warren, or maybe from Deerfield where he was a volunteer fire fighter, but Wes’s journey began in New Castle, Pennsylvania where he was born in 1947. When he was three his little brother, Scott, who is here today, was born.  A few years later a third brother came into the family, Jim. Jim is here today also.

From stories that I collected through the years, theirs was a typically happy 1950’s childhood. Wes attended Croton Elementary School, in the heart of an Italian-American neighborhood.  He reminisced frequently about the first 11 years of his life in New Castle, and it was surprising to me that he remembered the names of so many of his classmates.  A few years ago, Wes was riding the city bus. When the bus cleared out he moved up front and started talking to the driver. It turned out that they’d both gone to Croton around the same time.  Wes told him, “There was a kid in my class…this kid could play any sport, and he was GOOD.  His last name was Rich.”  The driver said, “That’s my last name.”  “I think it was Ray,” Wes said.   That bus driver WAS Ray Rich.  He is also my neighbor.  His wife and my sister-in-law are sisters.  Coincidence?  I don’t believe in coincidence.

My father’s job took the family to Warren in 1959.  That’s when I was born.

Maybe it’s because I’m the little sister, but he liked having fun at my expense.  I can hear him now, in that comically sarcastic voice, “Nice shoes.  I hope you didn’t have to pay for those.”  Likewise, I had no problem calling him out on his clown shoes or his umbrella hat with the propeller on top.

I bet some of you remember the one-shoulder bib overall look?

Wes went on to graduate from Warren G. Harding high school in 1965.  He enlisted in the Marine Corps.  Eventually, he shipped out to Vietnam.  My family was proud but scared.

But he made it through the war and came home safely.  He told me that being in Vietnam for all of 1968, he felt as if he’d lost a year of his life, wondering what happened in the United States during that time. I’m sure he had trouble processing his experience.  Patriotism was at an all-time low.  Outside of family and friends, there was no hero’s welcome.  He struggled with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, though at the time, no such diagnoses existed.

In 1972 Wes married his girlfriend, Phyllis Forst, giving me the gift of a sister and friend that I love dearly.

Father’s day, 1978 took on a special significance with the birth of their first child, a boy, Jason Michael. A few years later, just before Christmas, Melissa Marie was born.  And a few years after Melissa, days before Wes’s birthday, Jamie Leigh was born.

They had a tradition.  Phyllis, Wes, Jason, Melissa, and Jamie, would form a circle, arms around each other.  “Family hug,” Phyllis would call out.

Even after the marriage ended, there were a few more ‘family hugs.’

There’s no doubt that Wes loved his children with all of his heart.  He ‘sported them out’ when they were small: little golf clubs and putters.  They all inherited the sports gene.  All three are natural athletes.  All three love the Cleveland Browns.

The girls told me about time spent with their dad playing Yahtzee  and a game called Farkle.  The winner of that game earned the honor of wearing a Burger King crown.  Knowing Wes, he fought hard to win that crown for himself.

Wes loved doo-wop music.  The lyrics to one of his favorite songs, by Gene Chandler reads, “As I walk through this world, nothing can stop The Duke of Earl.”

Wes embodied that philosophy.  He had a larger than life personality.  With him, it was all…or nothing.

He was passionate about so many things: his kids, naturally, the Cleveland Browns, a well-written book or a captivating movie.  Golf and pool and boxing and his cat Socks.  He’d rail about politics and a meatloaf dinner… in equal measure. He loved spaghetti; hot, cold, or Chef Boyardee in the can.  Tacos and pizza and green apples and a good hamburger.  Recently he was on a quest for the best local breakfast for the money. And Christmas?  He loved Christmas. In his younger days he worked as a department store santa at Hills.  I’m pretty sure he would have done it for free.   He owned his very own santa suit.  Now that is commitment!

I listened to the story of Wes suiting up as Santa one year, Phyllis herding all three kids into the living room to catch him in the act.  And they believed…until he said hi to the cat, calling him by name.  How did santa know the name of our cat, they wondered.

Last year he asked me what I was getting my husband for Christmas.  “Probably nothing,” I told him.  “But you have to get him a present,” he insisted, “it’s Christmas.”

Phyllis moved on with her life, marrying Mark Leyman.  Life and circumstances and PTSD took their toll on my brother.  He fell down a few times.  Phyllis and Mark both helped him get back on his feet.  Her and I talk daily, she knows how I much I love her.

And Mark, I know I told you privately, but I need to say it again, “thank you for all of the kindness you showed my brother.  I love you for that.”

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.”  Wes sang all the way there.  His time here on earth has taught me to take life by the reins…but to stay focused on the trail.

On Christmas Day in 1992, we lost our mother.  It was devastating.  But as time went on, I found comfort in knowing that she was with the Lord.

I believe that Wes and my mother are together again in heaven, where every day is Christmas day and Santa Clause has joined the celebration.

**The Lord’s Prayer**

Night Owl

I’m a night owl.  I tend to get my second wind around midnight.  It’s then that my mind harnesses those elusive ideas for the novel I’m writing.  I glance at a box of jeans designated for donation and wonder how a braided denim rug would look in the upstairs bedroom.

I listen to AM radio after midnight.  A few years ago I discovered a talk show that highlights near death experiences, ghosts,  and all around creepy topics.  People phone in with their stories.   One caller told about the time he lived in an apartment building in St. Louis.  It shouldn’t have, but the elevator stopped on the seventh floor.  He was going up to ten.  The doors opened and a gray-looking guy in old-timey clothes was standing there.  “You getting on?” elevator guy asked the gray guy.  The gray guy just stood there, silent, and the doors closed.  When elevator guy mentioned this to the building manager he said, “Seven? Yeah, seven’s a funny floor. I’ve heard stories that’d make your skin crawl.  We don’t even use that floor anymore.  The sinks sprout leaks and there’s a lotta electrical stuff we can’t seem to fix.”

You see, how can I possibly entertain thoughts of sleep with so many interesting possibilities looming?

It’s not practical, though, staying up when most everyone else has passed their rem phase and are settling into a deep, dreamless sleep.  Nurses and paramedics, cooks and waitresses at all-night diners, guys and gals who pull the midnight shifts; we are members of the same tribe.

But most people rise with the sun and begin their day before the noon hour.  I drive past fast food places and flash the evil eye at establishments that, in their corporate wisdom, determine that breakfast ends at eleven a.m.

I’ve tried re-setting my biological clock.  I read an article in Readers Digest outlining various steps to get you back into a normal circadian rhythm.  It included setting the alarm an hour earlier for one week, then yet an hour earlier the following week.  Have these people not heard of the snooze bar, I thought, even as I ticked off number one of ‘Ten Steps To Becoming A Morning Person,’ or some such title.

I was watching a reality Cops-like show filmed in Connecticut where medical marijuana is legal.  The cops were called to the property of a man who’d been zooming up and down the road in his ATV.  He was relatively new to the neighborhood and his neighbors were disgruntled.  They also made mention of the fact that he might have marijuana growing on his land.

The cops rolled up and the guy explained that he did have marijuana growing on his land, that he was a ‘care provider’, and had the paperwork to back it up.  As he walks into the house one cop says to the other, “The law says he can have sixty-five plants so we’ll take a quick look and make sure he doesn’t have seventy.”

Turns out he only had fifty-two so they shook hands, the cop saying, “have a good one,” the guy saying, “thanks, fellas.”

All’s well that ends well.

That scenario would have played out a little differently in 1970.  I’m sure when my brother set a marijuana plant on the window sill in the bedroom of his apartment, he never imagined the tribulations that would beset his parents, his younger brother, his little sister.

My oldest brother had made it through Vietnam.  Once he was home, safe, my dad took his twenty-five year watch from the steel mill and my parents sold the house, moving thirty miles to a quaint little town where they opened a tavern. My mother’s preferred term.  I suppose she thought it elevated the bar to something beyond reproach.

My middle brother had recently finished his own stint in the Marines.  He was discovering the hippie culture that this quaint little town had to offer.  He moved into the house of the richest kid in town.  My sister-in-law told me, years later, “Something was always going on in that house.  You could walk in the door and a couple would be going at it, right there in the living room. Under a blanket, of course.  And the drugs flowed.”

This party house was no secret to the townspeople.  Or, as it turned out, to the police.  They raided the house one night and found a pot plant in my brother’s room.  He wasn’t home at the time so they issued a warrant for his arrest.  Word spread and he slipped away, went into hiding.

During this time my grandmother and I had gone on vacation to my uncle’s place in Pennsylvania.  While we were gone, the police raided our house.  Guns drawn, they pushed past my father, searching every corner of every room.

My mother, who slept in the nude, was horrified.  I’m not sure which upset her most, having a swat team in her house at four in the morning or being made to leave the bedroom with only a sheet wrapped around her.  From what transpired after, I’m guessing the swat thing.

By the time my grandma and I came home my brother had turned himself in to the police, gone through the hearing process, and been sentenced to six to twelve months in the county jail.

My parents had refused to bail him out.  It was against their principles.  Drugs were a no-no.  It was okay to drink.  Alcohol was legal.  But marijuana was an illegal drug and jail was fitting punishment for possessing it.

This began the downward spiral of my family.

My mother decided that she couldn’t live with herself; the mother of a criminal, on drug charges, no less.  What were people saying about us?  What did that say about her as a mother?  She started spending more time at the family business.  She had always worked the bar during the daytime while I was in school.  Now, she would wait until I fell asleep, put on her make-up and go to the bar to drink.

My brother, Jim, who was fifteen, took advantage of this time to run the streets and do a little drinking of his own.

I’d wake up around midnight in the house by myself, absolutely terrified.  I heard noises, tapping on the windows.  I’d call the bar crying, only to be told to, “Go to sleep.  I’ll be home in a while.”  That while rarely came until three or four in the morning.  After closing time at one a.m., my mother continued on with her own party.

I had a little radio with a coin slot for the ‘on’ button.  I’d lay with it next to my ear, wide awake until I heard the door open and my parents come in, just hours until I had to get up for school.  Then I’d push the button that released the coin into the bank underneath and sleep, however brief that time was.

I tried to make her do the right thing.  I’d ask, eye-to-eye, “Mom, you’re not going to leave me tonight, are you?”, even as she sat spine-straight, pretending to be engrossed in TV, her make-up perfectly applied.

“No.  I’ll be right here.  Now, go to bed.”

But I’d wake up an hour or two later, alone.

My dad had never been a drinker, maybe a beer now and then on a hot summer day. Now, he was drinking too.  There were other things going on, things I didn’t understand.  One night my mother opened my bedroom door, “Come say good-bye to your father, he’s leaving.”  He was crying.  And drunk.  He knelt down to give me a hug, swaying back and forth then grabbing onto the dresser.  He got up to leave and put his pistol into the waistband of his pants.  “Lock the door when he leaves,” my mother ordered.   I left the door open that night.  The next afternoon my dad came home and by dinner time things between my parents were was A-okay.  I was exhausted.

I heard that a group of my brother’s friends had started a defense fund for him.  They were short of the amount needed for his attorney.  I hatched a plan to come up with the money.  I had a little ring that I’d gotten for Christmas.  The diamond was tiny but I wasn’t dissuaded.  I walked to the one jewelry store in town.  The little bell tinkled over the door.   I stood at the end of the glass display case waiting for someone to acknowledge me.  When the salesman walked over I thrust my hand out and pointed to the little diamond ring.  “How much can I get for this?”  I thought he’d employ his fancy loop, discuss the stone and how much money he’d be willing to offer me.  Instead, he said, “Does your mother know you’re here?”  I took off running, crying all the way home.

When my mother found out what I’d done, she took the ring off my finger, telling me I’d get it back when I was more mature.  I was confused.  I thought I’d just done the most mature thing I could think of.

My brother wrote to me from jail.  He had dreamed about me.  We were at my aunt’s house, which sat between two farms.  The lane that led to the house was a narrow strip between two large corn fields.  We were in the middle of a family picnic when the police arrived.  They were looking for a killer, they said, a psychopath who had taken a sickle to some people the next farm over. After the police left, my brother saw me standing near the edge of the field, my dress covered in blood.  “I woke myself up crying,” he wrote.

One Saturday, my parents decided it would be okay to go see my brother.  He was now a trustee so we could see him in a concrete yard outside of the jail.  We stopped on the way and got a pizza to take along.  I could barely eat I was so excited to see him.  He looked like Jesus.  His dark hair was shoulder length and he had a full beard.  He was never heavy but when I hugged him, I felt his slightness beneath the jumpsuit he wore.  He had lost weight.

We got our six week report cards.  I was failing almost every subject.  I wasn’t worried.  My mother signed the back without ever looking at my grades.

Jim got suspended from school for pulling the fire alarm.  It was his second suspension.  I don’t think he went to school most days.

I’m not sure what got my parent’s attention.  One day my mother announced that they were selling the bar and we were moving back to Pennsylvania.  To her, it was back.  I’d only ever known Ohio.

Jim joined the Army.  My brother got out of jail.  We were all starting over.  I was happy to begin again, at a new school.  We moved into our house in Pennsylvania on a Thursday.  I was starting at my new school on Monday morning.  Sunday night I went to bed at nine o’clock.  At two a.m., I finally closed my eyes.

The Art of Marriage

I have a friend who, for the sake of privacy, I’ll call Nancy.  Nancy is in her mid-forties but she looks thirty.  She’s got a beautiful smile and the kind of laugh that makes you want to laugh just hearing it.  She’s kind and generous and hard-working.  And she has a great figure.  Just sayin’.

When Nancy was twenty-one she married Ted (also a fictitious name).  Ted was a good guy and they made a great pair.  They were always on the go; bowling, movies, vacations.  Ted played guitar in a local band.  Nancy was clearly his biggest fan.  They had a weekly date night.  Nancy fussed over Ted and vice versa.  It seemed like they’d found the answer to a successful marriage.

A little over a year after they’d been married, Nancy had a baby girl, Elise.  (Yes, I changed the baby’s name too).  Nancy and Ted were ecstatic.  Elise had Nancy’s curly hair and Ted’s brown eyes.  She rarely cried and slept through the night and said her first word when she was thirteen months old.

After Elise came along, Nancy and Ted didn’t go out as much as they used to, but that was normal.  Babies ground you, in a good way.  Nancy took to motherhood as if it were her life’s work.  She was completely and wholeheartedly in love with her little girl.  Ted was a doting father in his own way.  He pitched in with diaper-changing and took his turn at middle-of-the-night feedings.

Sometimes Ted worked late.  And he’d started teaching guitar.  He had a few students and the extra money helped a little with diapers and formula.

I’m not sure when it happened or what the catalyst was, but one night Nancy appeared at my door with a bag in her hand and a strange look on her face.  “Can I get ready here?  It won’t take me long.  And listen, if Ted calls, tell him I ran to get a bottle of wine… or something.”  She came out of the bathroom wearing a tight black dress and spike heels, her dark hair piled on top of her head with a few loose curls framing her face.  “What’s that sparkly stuff all over your face,” I asked her.  I’d skipped right over, “What the hell’s going on, Nancy?”

I back-tracked and said, “What the hell’s going on?”  And in a rush of words she told me how, ever since Elise was born she felt alone and unattractive.  Ted had taken on a new student, a young girl in her twenties with no musical ability but extremely large boobs.

“How can a half hour lesson turn into an hour?”

“I smell him when he comes home.  He gets mad when I do that.”

“What’s he smell like?” I can’t believe I said that.

“I don’t know.  Like himself.”

“So what are you doing?”

“I don’t want to be married anymore.  I met someone online.  He’s really cute.”

“What do you know about this guy?  He could be a serial killer.”

“He’s not.  We’ve been seeing each other for about a month.”

That’s when my jaw came unhinged.  Instead of butterflies, I could have swallowed small field animals.

I tried to talk to my friend about marriage, to explain that it’s not a linear experience.  It’s more like a relief map; smooth bodies of water and miles of desert.  Green fields that rise into mountains.  Rocky ledges barely wide enough to stand on.  And again, placid waters and acres of forests.

I told her, “hey, marriage is not a sprint it’s a marathon.”

My analogies did nothing for Nancy.

“Do my boobs look okay?  I mean, they’re not what they used to be.  But are they okay?”

“How do I know?  Is that all Mr. Internet cares about, your boobs?”

“No.  He’s not like that.”

I didn’t really want to know what he was like.  I asked her what Ted was doing at home.

“He’s with Elise.  He rented a movie with princesses in it.  She’ll like that.”

I felt sick in my stomach.  This marriage that I thought was perfect, that I’d even been jealous of a time or two when my husband and I would argue, was beginning to end.

That was nearly fifteen years ago.  Nancy and Ted divorced.  It was amicable and they’ve remained friends.  Meanwhile, Mr. Internet turned out to be controlling and an arrogant bastard.

Nancy moved on to Charley.  Initially, he was ‘everything I’ve always wanted in a man.’  A year later, Charley became boring and reclusive.  He was followed by Rob and Matthew.

Bobby and I have been together for almost thirty-four years.  I’m not a marriage expert.  I’m probably not even qualified to give marital advice.  But there are a few things that I do know, that have worked for us.

There is truth to my relief-map theory.  Some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you.  There will be times when you say to yourself, “what was I thinking when I said I do? Sometimes I want to pick up a dish and hurl it across the room.  Then I think, I’m already down two of these plates and I don’t think they make this pattern anymore. And sometimes I look at his profile, when he’s relaxed and unaware that I’m doing so, and I see the same handsome man that I fell in love with in 1980.  There are times, when he calls me from his cell phone, and the sound of his voice gives me butterflies in my stomach.  We argue, passionately.  But every night before bed we hug each other, holding on, it seems, for dear life.

I barely remember my life without my husband in it.  Our courtship was fiery and wild.  That has changed.  We have changed.  And life is just that way.  Nothing’s static, so you must keep going.  It’s senseless to keep searching for what I call, drug love. That ‘can’t sleep, don’t feel like eating, every second thought is of this man who makes you feel and say and do things I never thought possible’ kind of love.  That type of love is wonderful, but it has no legs.

It’s like building a house without walls or a roof and saying, “Who needs walls?  We don’t need a roof, we’re in love.” It’s great for a while, until winter comes and you’re going at like bunnies with coats on, cuz snow is coming in from all directions.

If you keep at it, if you are kind and tender towards each other, especially when you fight, you begin to build your resume.  Sometimes you reminisce, laughing at your younger selves.  You look in the mirror and see the lines on your face and the spot of gray that you missed the last time you colored your hair.  You see those same lines around your husband’s eyes and the furrows on his forehead, one for each one of our children.  Life has taken its toll, as it will.  Two years after we were married, my father-in-law died unexpectedly.  When I was thirty-three I lost my mother.  At the age of ninety-three, my mother-in-law passed away.  There have been marriages and divorces and births among our children and relatives.  A few years back, I was in the hospital five times in one year.  My husband has survived prostate cancer, a heart attack, triple bypass surgery, and a broken tibia.  We’ve borne witness to each other’s lives, so that we can say, “because of you, I exist.”

In her poem,  How do I  love thee? Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “I love you to the breadth and depth and height my soul can reach.”  It can only be reached through time and experiences.

This love of mine, in all its complexities, is greater than I ever expected.

This is my own secret to a lasting marriage.  Hang in there.

Accessory

Norma Rollins had a cool purse, a badass blood-red patent leather purse with a shoulder strap.  It was obvious that it didn’t hold much value for her. If  it were mine, I thought, I surely wouldn’t stuff it into a toy chest.  But that’s where Norma kept it; in among naked dolls and board games with missing pieces, and her brother Buddy’s miniature soldiers.

After a day of playing at Norma’s house I’d think about that red purse, what I’d do if it were mine.  For starters I’d shine it with a sock and load it up with a few of my doll’s dishes, a comb, and maybe some gum.   If it were mine.  And for awhile, it was.

It was time for me to go home.  I hedged.  I plotted.  Maybe asked for a glass of water or the time.  And when the opportunity presented itself I opened the lid on the toy chest, pulled out the red purse, walked out the front door of the Rollin’s house, down the sidewalk and home.

I may have tried to hide it.  Somehow I knew that this purse wouldn’t be mine for long.  It wasn’t.

“Where did you get this,” my mother asked me.   “This is not your purse.”  Then in one swift, painful maneuver I went from sitting Indian-style on the living room floor to running to keep up as she dragged me out the door and up the street to the Rollins’.  The purse was in her one hand, my elbow in the other.

“You are going to give this back to Norma and tell her that you’re sorry.”

I was afraid. And sad.  I hadn’t had time to put as much as a Barbie shoe in it, and this beautiful purse that I coveted with every inch of my seven-year-old body was being snatched from my grasp.

“You know, I don’t even like you playing over there.  He’s a drunk and she’s a hillbilly.  Those kids don’t look very clean, either.  So you apologize and that’s it.  No more playing with Norma Rollins.”

I hid behind my mother, held out the purse, and mumbled an apology.

It was my first conscious experience with loss.  And I had a childish awareness that I was capable of doing bad things, like stealing.  Afterward, I’d think about Norma Rollins, her average brown hair and the knee socks she wore with her black Mary Jane’s.  I would miss Norma, and that gorgeous red purse.