Category Archives: Retrospective

Retrospective 10: 1972 — Fromage in Ireland

My father flew overhead in a plane to Ireland, and Ruth May looked up at the plane passing and drove her tricycle into the paddling pool and broke her arm. Was that the year my friend was hit by a car and taken away in an ambulance one day? I don’t remember her name, only that she lived in a cheaper apartment complex than we did, across the road, one with broken lights in the stairwells and the smell of urine permeating the dark walkways. We always walked home from school together, till a car hit her as she was crossing the road, and she was taken away in the ambulance. The EMTs bribed her with chocolate and after a while she went willingly, but I will not forget her tears, nor the smell of burning rubber in the air, which brings back — every time — the lonely wail of the siren and my own sense of complicity in her accident.

Ruth May, howling in the empty paddling pool, looks up to the sky. The plane is gone, carrying my father. My mother picks her up, and off we go to the hospital. Ruth May comes back from some mysterious room with a cast, and she is smiling.

We spend nights in the living rooms of friends who live in a commune. Do I imagine it? The smell of incense; the sound of a guitar playing; laughter and clinking glasses. My mother is touched by firelight, and her long hair glows golden in the shadows. She is far away, although I could touch her if I tried.

And then we are going to Ireland. We are still in school when we leave. No. We have just gone back after the summer, and my father has been gone for weeks, and suddenly Mum says, “It’s time. We’re going to Ireland.” Dad is back, and we pack up the van, and he drives the Volvo. We take the ferry, and he fills the little head with bottles of alcohol, and we have to stay quiet when we go through customs.

Before we left, my teacher gave me a book about a flower. It was called Marguerite, and it was in French, and everyone in my class signed it. I kept it for years, till my mother gave it away in a frenzy, the way she did sometimes. We were each given a new stuffed toy, too, and Ruth May got the biggest one, and Leah the next biggest, and Rachel the next biggest. And I got the smallest one. I loved that little bear, even after the dogs tore it apart years later, and my mother had to sew it together again, make a mouth and eyes for it, and a dress to cover its shredded belly.

Ireland was damp and gloomy after the sunshine of Switzerland. We lived in a temporary apartment, a townhouse in Dublin, and I remember a square outside the front door, a patch of grass, and metal railings. We could have walked to school, but we didn’t. On the first day, the teacher asked me to translate something in French. I remember fromage. Cheese. I could barely read, and everyone laughed, because they thought I couldn’t speak French. It wasn’t that. I was eight, and didn’t read well, and then I remembered that people thought I was slow in Switzerland, and that Mum spent hours helping me learn to read, and I remember that I was the odd one, the hyper one, the one who didn’t track conversations sometimes, because I was living in my own world where words didn’t matter — a place of sensation and yearning.

Years later I learned that Mum wanted to leave Switzerland because they track people vocationally there, and she was sure I would never get to follow an academic path. Not with my reading difficulties. Not with my inability to sit still in a classroom.

Still, in Switzerland I didn’t know I was stupid. It wasn’t till I got to Ireland that I figured it out.

Retrospective 9: 1971 — Rock Climbing

The year nothing happened. Must be, right? I can’t remember much. I was in Switzerland. We went skiing in the Alps in the winter, and swimming in the lake in the summer. We went camping. We visited Mum’s friends. We traveled too. I forgot to mention the traveling. As part of Dad’s job, he was sent off to conferences all over Europe, and once in the Bahamas, so by the time I was eight I had been to many countries in Europe. We often took the van, a green “RV” that technically slept only four: two adults in a cramped bed converted from a table/bench combo, and two tiny kids in an overhead bunk that jutted over the driver’s seat. But Dad added two more “bunks” on either side of the van, one over the table/bed and another over the sink and stove, and Mum made colorful curtains, and we were off.

It was fun. We stopped at beaches and museums. Rachel’s flipflops got stuck to melting tarmacadam in a big square in Italy, and Dad captured it on old film. We had little folding chairs with our names on the back in black permanent marker, and we slid down big haystacks in a farmer’s sunny field till we were breathless and tired, and then sat in our chairs with our feet dangling in the cool water of a little stream. It was all lovely, though there must have been days when we were tired and grumpy and howled in the rain outside while Mum cooked on the miniature stovetop in the van. Still, I remember those days as joyful.

There was also this, a memory that haunts me, that is real or not, I don’t know. Sometimes I dream of her falling through the air, the flash of her red shoes in the gray air. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it happened or not. The truth is, I remember it, and it follows me.

One day, a year or so ago, Dad asked me, “Do you know why I have a picture of a rock in my photo files? Why would I take that picture? I’ve asked everyone and no one knows.” He’d been scanning old pictures into the computer, and he pulled up the picture in question. I recognized it instantly. “That’s the rock outside the canteen at CERN,” I said. “We used to play on it all the time.”

He knew, as soon as I’d mentioned it, what rock it was. “Yes,” he said. “Of course. I’d forgotten all about that rock.”

I can never forget it. It’s attached to my memories of CERN*, of Dad’s office, and the big underground rooms, and the huge computers, and all the mysterious experiments I sensed but didn’t understand. At lunch we would eat in the canteen, and sometimes we’d have sausages, which I hated — the ghastly bits of gristle sticking to the back of my throat, making me gag, and perhaps the catalyst for my eventual vegetarianism — and then we’d go outside and play on the rock. We’d climb to the top, and look out into the sunshine, and feel on top of the world.

Nothing happened that year.


*There’s a big article in this month’s National Geographic on CERN. My ex-husband dropped it by for me to take to Dad. “It’s probably all changed,” Dad said, a little sadly. “I probably wouldn’t recognize it any more.”

I just hope the rock is still there.

Retrospective 8: 1970 — Confusion

  • We toss little plastic men with plastic parachutes on fine string off our sixth-floor apartment balcony. They spin and turn as they float to the grass below. Then we clatter down the stairs (the elevators were always broken), and pick them up, and we wrap the string and the parachutes around their bodies as we go back up the stairs. And we do it again and again, a complete aerobic workout, in the breezy summer days of those early years in Switzerland.
  • Who is we? My sisters are younger. Ruth May is still an infant. Perhaps the parachute-throwers are me and my best friend, Genie. She speaks English too, and we have our own private language with which we can torment our friends. We tease them in French, then talk together in English, and they implore, implore us to tell them what we say. She has a cardboard Wendy house, and we paint it bright colors in her living room. Then we pop in and out in crazy games of hide-and-seek, while her round-eyed little brother beats on the roof with a paper towel holder.
  • I am five and inclined to be helpful. I decide to take the trash out one night. I tie the top of the bag and haul it down to the basement, where I heave it into the dumpster. By the time I get back upstairs, in the dark, my mother is frantic. She grabs me. “Where were you?” her voice high with panic. But Dad is home, has just walked in the door, and after she is done with me, he give me five francs. This is the beginning of a pattern that haunts me for the rest of my childhood. When Mum is furious with me, he is nice.

Retrospective 7: 1969 — Stubborn memories

My mother drives her flower-painted moped, and we wave her goodbye. She always turns her bright face back towards us, smiling, waving. And then she is gone.

That is not what I remember. I remember driving in the van out to the country, up a winding road to a farmhouse with a view. It must have been in the foothills of the Alps. The landscape was wide and rich with growth, and I turned around and around to pull it all into my heart. I felt like Heidi or one of the children from The Sound of Music.

I wrote about that time, those memories, here. Nothing has changed. The memories remain stubbornly the same. The man who was bearded and booming-voiced, and who pulled francs out from behind our ears.The wine and picnic baskets in the Alps. Swimming in a blue lake.

But something else intervenes. My baby sister is born, Ruth May, late in the year. My mother says Dad took her hand after the birth, and said, “Don’t worry, dear. The next one will be a boy.” My mother’s response: “Doctor. Tie my tubes!”

And that indeed did happen. Four children in five years was enough for her, four girls, each so different, each so lively and also so needy.

There are more snapshots. My aunt came, Dad’s brother’s ex-wife. She was blond and brassy, with a loud voice, and she filled the apartment. No. Wait. I have mixed her up. She came earlier, when Leah was born, so my mother could go alone to Nashville. No. She came before Leah’s birth, and cared for us when my mother went to Nashville for her mother’s funeral. No. My mother went to Nashville for the funeral, and took Rachel and me, and stood in the airport with her belly growing, feeling desperation. That’s when she went to the doctor to ask for an abortion. Aunt M never came.

But I remember her. I remember snapshots. They might have been taken on the same day, or not. They might be years apart. Aunt M with her commanding voice, and my mother at the airport with us in tow, and Ruth May’s blond wispy hair caught in a flare of sunshine as she reaches her plump hand towards me. I remember all of them, but their relationship to one another, their grounding in time and space, is long lost.

When did it start raining?

Retrospective 6: 1968 — Days without Rain

Snapshots of the early days in Switzerland.

  • I was three for most of 1968. Rachel had diarrhea and exczema and I spent an afternoon running from the bathroom to my mother, carrying clean cotton nappies, and then from my mother to the bathroom with the dirty ones. We couldn’t keep her clean. It was a game for me, helping with Rachel’s nappies. Leah was little and compliant that day and didn’t cry much, and the sun made a square on the floor of the living room. I passed through it over and over again, and marveled.
  • I found a stuffed toy fox in the dumpster underneath the apartments. I climbed into the dumpster and pulled the ragged creature out. Where was my mother? Perhaps I was older than three or four. Time was meaningless in those years. I have only snapshot memories of that time anyway, and they are jumbled up. Still, they were happy times. I took the fox home and Mum sewed it up and washed it and it became mine. I still have it, 40 years later, sitting in my room with my other stuffed animal, a bear, this one 60 years old, my mother’s own childhood toy. None of my sisters wanted him. His button eyes were gone, and his nose, and he had brown coffee stains on his worn yellow pelt, and he wasn’t new and shiny. But I love(d) him, and he and the fox share space on my bedside table.
  • I don’t remember rain in those days.

Retrospective 5: 1967 — Impossible Memories

I have always wondered about the life of the unborn. Babies feel pain. My daughter howled when her heel was pricked for the PKU test when she was a few days old. The old wives’ tale says that a happy mother brings a happy baby. I was a happy baby, the product of blissful months on the beach. Rachel was not, the product of my father’s wanderings, my mother’s loneliness and uncertainty, her cowed return to a home she had fled and an “I told you so” mother who hated the man she had married. And then there is Leah.

In spring of 1967 we are in Nashville. I am not quite two and a half. Rachel is seven months old. And my mother is pregnant again, already.

She feels well, as she always did when pregnant. But my dad has been offered a job at CERN in Switzerland. Her mother is growing sicker with every passing day. My mother has two babies and no resources for another. At some point, she sits in the doctor’s office and asks for an abortion.

He plays an imaginary violin. “You don’t want that,” he says. “Really, you don’t.”

Whether she really didn’t want an abortion and his words awoke her, or whether she simply bowed to male wisdom, accepting her fate as a woman without a mind, she folded her hands in her lap and said OK.

Thus Leah was given her chance. But since childhood this almost-aborted sister of mine has lived in horror of death, of the dark, damp, clamminess of it. She grew up with nightmares, with a jittering terror of the world around her and its dangers lurking everywhere. Still, she is the biggest risk-taker of the four of us: She has backpacked alone in Brazil, worked the agricultural seasons all over Europe, parachuted out of an airplane, squatted in a condemned London house, climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. She is both anal retentive and crazywild. She is empathetically generous and simultaneously grasping, always afraid of loss.

It was years after she was born that I found out about my mother’s visit to the doctor’s office. I don’t know if Leah knows about my mother’s moment of ambiguity towards her; I haven’t dared to ask.

One other memory: We are in Switzerland in November, in our sixth-floor apartment in Nyon. Leah has just been born. She has a shock of dark hair and an indignant expression. My mother names her after her mother, who died four months earlier. And I realize, now, that I don’t know whether my mother went home for her mother’s funeral. I realize that I know nothing at all about my mother, other than some facts, and a story I weave into a fabric of my own design out of my memories and those facts.

Retrospective 4: 1966 — In shadow

Two moments rise out of memory for this year, two pieces of information that I can never fully reconcile. There is my mother, in the doorway, backlit, with me on her hip. My dad (not my father, you understand) turns in his office chair, arrested by the fall of golden hair, the silhouette, the voice. When she comes into his office, he sees the clear pale cream of her skin, the scattering of freckles across her nose, and he aches with love. It is the first moment, the first recognition. It is the last image of her he carries, for after she dies, all the others flee. He remembers her most clearly in that first instance.

My mother asks for a job in my dad’s physics lab at Vanderbilt. My dad says yes. How long before they pass beyond boss and worker status? How long beyond friendship?

The other moment is my mother’s memory. She walks into her mother’s house, a house that is now historic, that was iconic when it was built because it was made to her father’s order in the new style by a rising architect. I hold only fleeting memories of the house, of long hallways, of flagstones in pale colors, of everything angled and squared. The roof is flat. The rooms are white, and the light beams in through cool square windows, straight and hard. But this is not true now. Now the house is surrounded by trees, and everything is softened.

My mother goes into her mother’s bedroom, and stops. Does she hear something that draws her there? Does the air feel different? Disturbed? Does she expect to find her mother, ailing, there in the bedroom? She finds, instead, my father coupled with her best friend.

Where was I? In the playpen on the grass outside, perhaps. In my grandmother’s arms, someplace else? It seems I can hear the dreadful silence of my mother’s cry. She sliced through whatever it was that had kept her loving him at that moment, and sent him off, back to the house on the beach, back to the the windy gray days and the gunmetal flash of the water that she had loved.

There is a shadow over this time. Did my father and my dad overlap? My mother says no, but still, the time is full of confusion. There were letters that Rachel and I found years later, love letters from Dad, recalling the “lawnmower engine” of her little Saab in those days. Recalling me in the playpen or on her hip. Rachel? Rachel was a blacocyst, then an embryo. At some point she was a fetus. At what point? We are 21 months apart. Was my mother pregnant that day in the doorway, standing in the light? Or did that come later?

We will probably never know. It is a darkness that shadows those years, that touched me, Rachel, all of us, in a future we could not predict, back then, when I was a baby and Rachel was still in waiting.

Retrospective 3: 1965 — Reconciliation

We are four, sitting on the grass, in bright sunshine. She wears a pink cotton dress, and her honey-lit hair falls sleek down her back. She turns to him, and he holds me on his shoulders, his hands dark against the pale cream of my baby legs. I smile, toothless still, wispy blond hair catching light. My grandmother, her mother, watches us all, wrapped in a lace and orange dress that is like a sari, that hangs loose over her body, which has been ravaged by cancer. She is breastless but bloated, large. Her dark hair is wrapped in a smooth bun on top of her head, and she carries herself imperiously. She must have one of those deep, commanding smoker’s voices. She looks happy, in the pictures where she holds me, but also distant. There is a time when those who are dying begin to let go, to drift away. She is right there, teetering, fighting for life, and yet somehow, irresistibly, beginning to leave.

My mother looks at my father, smiling, happy. She knows, already, his proclivities. These pictures must have been taken at the time of reconciliation, after she left him to come home to Nashville, and after he followed her, begging for another chance. And she loved him, hard and deep and without boundaries. Oh he drove too fast, so that she clung to me in the car and prayed to the God in whom she no longer believed. Oh he left her alone in her little house on the beach, sometimes for days, and then came blowing in with stories of danger, and lust and loss in Mexico, carrying flowers, or a handful of earth, or a stone from some far-off beach. “I thought of you. This stone is the color of your eyes.”

Carrying a leaf.

In the end, though, his rage, his fits, his acid-dropping hallucinatory nights, the way he drove as though he desired to push the car through into another dimension — to bring all of us with him to that place he longed to find, me crying or quiet, I don’t remember — these things were enough, and she fled.

In the pictures, taken after he followed her to Nashville, there is no hint of the darkness. I reach for him and he laughs. He looks as though he loves me. Everything is green and pink and white and orange and rich and filled with something lovely. But my grandmother is letting go, the cancer spreading through her. My mother is reaching for him, and he is looking elsewhere. And I? I am laughing, laughing, petulant in one of the pictures, spoilt, loved, oblivious.

Retrospective 2: 1964 — Commencement

My mother negotiated the boardwalks behind the houses with her belly swelling bigger and bigger, though the doctor told her she had a retroverted uterus and was at risk of miscarriage. She should take it easy. She should lie down, put her feet up. My mother laughed. She lived in a little house at the bottom of a cliff. She had to take 213 steps up the cliff just to see the doctor, and to go grocery shopping. She packed the trash out on her back. Walking down the stairs was harder because sometimes she thought she might tip forward with the weight of me in her belly; she might go end-over-end into the water below.

Those first months of her pregnancy were idyllic. Spring and summer came to the area and the water lay glass smooth with the sun going down behind the mountains across the bay. She sat on the deck with her feet up and drank wine. I know she smoked, and now I know she smoked pot too, and perhaps I turned and turned in a world thick with dreams and giddyness, there in the dark warm womb with the light shining pink through her belly skin.

She was happy when she was pregnant. The food intolerances that plagued her between pregnancies and after, till she died, quieted down in those days. She was young and pretty, and her husband was handsome and kind, and the beach was a place for hippies and long conversations and secret trysts, for finding God in the phosphorescence when they took the boat out at night.

Then fall came, the days shortening, the wind hissing across the water. Did she lug herself up the hill alone to buy food, or did that come later? There was a time it all changed; the bliss, the being young-and-beautiful.

In late October I was born. She wrote a poem years later about the birth, and gave Rachel and I a copy. How? She was dead. How did we find it? I forget; I think she came up out of some place of memory and said, “Read this.” It was an act of love.


Rachel said, “Mum wanted us to have this.” She handed it over. The light blew across the room, carrying Mum’s voice. I heard her read to me, from where she had gone just days before:

Your Father’s Gift

He brought a leaf,
Gold, russet, a touch of auburn, so lovely.
I imagine him spotting it as he walked, a girl by his side, smiling.
Its beauty a reflection of hers — in his eyes.
Were they lovers already?
Dappled, dazzled, by the sun as they danced through the whispering leaves.
Chattering. Laughing.

Golden as the leaf, the sun that filled my hospital window.
Golden, shading to amber, shading to umber,
As I waited.

When he came, he brought the leaf. So lovely.
A gift to exchange for the baby I’d just borne him.
I loved the leaf.
It was only the first of many such gifts but it was the best.
Forty falls later I pick up a leaf — shades of gold and amber-brown.
He’s long gone from my life, but I remember.
And I forgive because he brought a leaf.

Retrospective 1: 1963 — Hearsay

My mother and my father met in Mexico. He could have been Mexican, being dark-skinned and black-haired, but he was not. He was a suave American with native American filling out a quarter or an eighth of his blood — I forget which, remember only that he lived on the wild side, spoke Spanish and wooed my mother under the big shadowy moon.

She was in Mexico with her mother for the winter break, their annual trip. She was 21, and she had grown thin and elegant after a chubby adolescence. I imagine her, her life a desert right then. She had taken some classes at a junior college, and she was a model, and she was just waiting for the right man, because that’s what girls did in those days. She had learned how to care for a man, how to be wily and sweet, how to be not too smart, but cultured. None of it really fit her. Her older sister, a ballerina, artist, musician, and beautiful too throughout those awkward adolescent years, took all the awards for grace and poise. My mother learned to repress the wildness that got her kicked out of three schools; she learned to walk with a book on her head, and to nod, and to smile demurely. But my father walked up to her one night in Mexico, and held out his hand, and she went with him.

They fled to the Northwest. They made wild love in the trees and on the beach. They found a church, a little white church in a little water-front town. They got married there, when I was already splitting and turning inside her, growing fingernails, my heart beating. But it was 1964 by then, and spring winds blew down the coastline, shook their little wooden house up on its pilings above the heartbeat of the tide.

1963 is the year she turned her back on her family, on her alcoholic mother and the ghost of her dead father, on all the elegance of high society into which she had been born. 1963 is the year she chose my biological father, the acid-popping, drug-running, Timothy Leary-adoring hippie with the wet black eyes and the quick hands. It is the year of the confluences, when my life became a possibility, a time of hearsay, before I was there to bear witness.