Tag Archives: Dreams

Playing chess with my mother

My mother called me last night. I was preparing to visit a friend, and had chosen to wear a dress she’d given me, a silky flowing dress, very elegant, something she had worn often. It was a coffee brown, a perfect match to a coat I wear for work that she gave me before she died. It took me years to wear the coat, because it was too expensive, too consciously classic, for me to feel comfortable in it. And it was brown, my least favorite color, the color of my school uniform from the old days in Ireland. When I finally put it on, a few months ago, I was surprised at how good it felt, the expensive material soft and almost suede-like, though it was not made from any form of animal product. It was warm, and it fit me perfectly. So there I was, dressed in a coffee-brown, silk dress and my elegant coat, planning to visit a friend, and as I was trying to pass through the door, my phone rang. I fumbled to reach it, pockets, purse, backback. But I couldn’t find it, and it went to voicemail, and then I heard my mother’s voice. She was narrating a chess game. “Pawn to b3” she said. “Knight takes d7.” I threw my purse down, tore off my coat, ripped open my backback, desperate to find the phone. But every time I thought I’d found it it was something else, a book, a stapler, a turtle paperweight, my dog’s leash. And my mother’s voice droned on, part Tennessee accent, “nahn,” she said, “fahv.” Part Irish. “Tomahto,” she said. Not tomaydo.

And then the phone clicked off, and she was gone.

The chess game was good, though. I could see all the pieces, see the skewers and pins and forks. Color-coded lines mapped out the game, the best moves, the potential mates three or four moves down the line. It reminded me of a chess computer game my friend and I have been playing. I always liked chess, though for years I knew nothing more than the basic moves and how to castle, but my friend has taught a fair few people how to play, and last week he bought a chess set for the work release program where he works so the inmates can play. He’ll teach them, patient and thorough as he always is, and maybe some of them will learn something beyond the basic moves, will be caught up in the intricacy and challenge of it and pledge to work to become better.

My friend taught his nephew, who became state champion in high school and is now a more consistent and thoughtful player than he is. It’s a race these days, to see if my friend can improve his game enough to beat his nephew regularly, and as he’s learned so have I.

But why my mother? I’m unsettled today, thinking of how clear her voice was as she spoke those words that would have meant nothing to her. I was so desperate to talk to her, and then she disappeared, and I woke into a world dominated by chess sets. Then they floated away, and only the gray morning light remained, my sleeping dogs pinning me to the bed, and my hand reaching for a phone that doesn’t exist.

Changing the dream two

Continued from here:

None of this, of course, is a complaint against my mother. She simply did what everyone did back then, made an association between maths and Latin and getting into vet school. It’s false, at least in this country, at least now. But back then, if you wanted to get into vet school in Ireland, you got high grades in everything, including (especially) maths and Latin. She was saving me grief, saving me from a dream I could never have realized.

But her not believing in me, and my dad’s view of me as not too bright, colored everything. When I told Mum I won the English prize, she told me not to lie. It was impossible, in her world, for someone to get C’s in both the exams (composition and literature), and win the English prize. She only believed me when the picture came out in the Irish Times, me holding the certificate and the check, with two of my friends flanking me. Why didn’t I show her the certificate? Because by the time I had evidence, she had denounced me as a liar. It didn’t seem worth it.

But it’s not that bad, really. A few years later, when I was in college in America and made effortless As in every class I took except English 101 (hah! What irony…), I realized that she was just operating under perfectly reasonable assumptions. No one in the U.S. who got C’s in a class would win an award for that class. C’s aren’t very good grades. A B is OK. A’s, well, even those are often barely deserved. So it made all the sense in the world for her to assume that I couldn’t possibly, ever, under any circumstances, win an award when I’d received C’s in my exams. And when I realized that fact, everything else fell into place too. No wonder I was never good enough. My perfectly reasonable Irish grades looked like failures to her. And because I couldn’t please her, I gave up.

Dad, on the other hand, knew better. Why did he never say anything to convince her differently? I suppose because he went to Trinity and Oxford and worked at CERN and found maths and science easy, because he truly believed “Anyone can do English. It’s a soft option.” Because he was scathing of what I loved. In the end, I gave up trying for him, too. Early on, oh so early on, I simply gave up dreaming.

It’s easy, looking back, to realize how own’s right-meaning and perfectly loving parents (and they were), were simply shaped by what they understood of the world. In Dad’s world, everyone knew that English was a soft option that any moron could do. There was no point being proud of getting a good grade on an English essay, of winning the prize for English. Anyone can do that. Splitting the atom. Probing the mystery of the nutrino. Those are worthy goals.

In Mum’s world, grades of C were tantamount to failure. It’s just the way things were. A “B” elicited, “Is that all?” She didn’t mean to be discouraging. It’s just what she knew of the world, in the same way that she knew me going to a little regional university for my MA in English was a waste of time because it wouldn’t “mean anything.” She had high expectations because she came from a world in which everyone overachieved. Just being normal wasn’t good enough. It didn’t mean she didn’t love me. In fact it was a mark of her love.

It’s easy to say, “Just change the dream.” It’s not easy to do it. Others have changed my dream for me all my life. When I did leave home at 17, and eventually came to the States and went to college, I pursued my own dream, such as it was. Now, in many ways, I have realized what is a perfectly reasonable dream. I have a job I like, my own place, a loving daughter. The dream I can’t change is my family. I love them. It’s true I want to be able to smash the walls down, to assert myself, to say, “Things will be different now.” Some days I make progress towards that vision. But some days I don’t. I can’t beat myself up for not changing the dream because part of the problem is that I’ve always beaten myself up for it. I just have to accept what happened, whatever failure I brought upon myself — once again — and try to move forward.

So I failed, on my birthday, to connect to dad. Norman is right. I’m sure he was thinking “Happy birthday.” He probably mumbled it. Even if he didn’t, we did celebrate my birthday the night before. He made me a chocolate cake using “Mum’s special recipe.” These things mean everything. It’s my own hopeless paralysis that kills me, time after time. But I shake free of it. I take another step. I commit to trying again. That’s what I’ve always done.

A’s in the U.S. don’t mean much to those raised in Ireland. But they mean a lot to me, because they got me here, to graduate school and beyond, to a tenure track job. OK, it’s “only” a community college, a real disappointment for my mother whose father was dean of the medical school at Vanderbilt, for my father who worked at CERN. But I love teaching community college students. I understand my students’ struggles, because they mirror mine — in some slantwise way.

Over the years, I’ve made my working life into my own dream, changed my parents’ dream to my own. It’s a start. Other dreams will follow, do follow, slow though the progress is.

Changing dreams

“I’ve figured it out,” I told Mum that day 27 or so years ago. “I want to be a vet.”

I was the one who looked after the goats and the donkeys, who took the cats to the vet, nurtured the puppies, nursed the geese when they were sick. The vet knew me well. I’d show up with dying birds and sick abandoned dogs, and he would fix them or put them down or whatever he needed to do. Once I found a rabbit with myxomatosis when I was out riding my pony. I saw a piece of tattered fluff deep in a tussock of grass, then saw the ragged ears, the swollen face with puss-seeping blind eyes. I slid off my pony, looped his reins over my arm, and looked for a rock, a big one. I found it and stood over the rabbit, who lay so deep in his suffering that he didn’t realize I was there, or didn’t care. I swung the rock down hard, fast, and pulled out at the last minute. I couldn’t do it, couldn’t bear the crackling of the skull breaking, the blood, my own role in violent killing, even though I knew the rabbit was dying, and worse, suffering terribly in the process. In the end I wrapped him in my sweater and rode three miles to the vet, as fast as I could, where the vet slipped in the needle and the rabbit’s life slid away without a sound.

One day, a donkey was hit on the road outside our house. I sat with his head on my lap while someone called the vet. When he came, I held the donkey as the vet did his thing. Once again, the life force slipped quietly away, leaving behind the dead weight of a lifeless head in my lap.

Eventually, I began hanging out at the vet office, not to participate in bringing about death, but to give shots (lift the scruff and make a little tent, push in the needle quickly, no hesitation, and then it’s over, vaccinations given, illness averted). I helped at surgeries, held equipment, caressed the foreheads of deeply sleeping dogs as they lay with tongues out on the stainless steel table. I wasn’t afraid of blood. When my friend’s horse needed twice-daily penicillin shots, I rode my bike to her house and jabbed. You rub the area with rubbing alcohol, thump three times hard with your fist, then drive in the needle. Pull back to make sure you haven’t hit a vein. If there’s no blood, you push it in slowly and steadily. It’s thick stuff, a big needle. Horses are usually pretty good if you don’t hesitate, if you are matter-of-fact about it, and you talk to them. You change sides, places, every time, and after a while you don’t think about it. You just do it.

So the vet asked if I wanted to be a vet, and I said yes, and then I told my mother. She said, “You can’t be a vet. You’re no good at maths and Latin.”

That was it. Dream over. I guess it was just a little, hard idea in my brain, something self-contained, a cancer that hadn’t gone invasive. It wasn’t spread through the fibres of my being, hadn’t metasticized till excizing it would mean killing me. She cut my dream out neatly with her words, left nothing behind, barely a scar. I just gave up.

Loren suggested I change my dream after I wrote about my visit to my dad. It’s something I’ve been mulling over, something that has haunted me for years. In a sense, every day, every moment, is an attempt to change the dream. Most of the time I succeed….

To be continued…


I’ve been dreaming a lot lately. I’ve only ever dreamt when I’ve slept enough, which doesn’t happen often. I take that back. I suppose I dream, but just don’t remember the details. When Sadie was in the hospital, I hardly ever slept. Nothing like anxiety to get you into skinny jeans: the not-eating, the restlessness. Since she’s been home, clearly recuperating, I’ve been going to bed as early as I can, and sleeping hours. And the last three nights I’ve remembered my dreams.

Dream one:

Esperanza’s in danger. I’m the only one who can save her. I remember only bits and pieces. Shadowed halls, imminent menace, my heart pounding as I splash through acidic water in search of her. Huge lamps snap on in far recesses, spilling a harsh but unrevealing light. Her face is turned to me; she leans towards me; something snatches her away. Her father can’t save her. It makes no sense.

Dream two:

I am published. Someone else tells me. I am published in a nationally known literary journal. “Look,” someone tells me, pointing to my name. My name is everywhere: In the introduction, where the editor waxes rhapsodic over my talent; in the center of the book, which falls open to one of my older stories, one that has gathered dust for a couple of decades; in gold on the cover, the featured writer. It feels all wrong. I wake up and feel a surprising relief. Still, that evening, my friend tells me that I have to apply to Yado, where she spent five weeks this summer. “You’ve got to, TK. It opens doors. I’ll write you a letter of recommendation.” I am so sure, now that I’m not a writer any more, that she is joking, making fun of me, that I want to walk away from her. “It’s all well and good for YOU to say that…”

“You went to Hedgebrook,” she says. “A bunch of the others talked about Hedgebrook. ‘Are you going?’ ‘I just got back; it was beautiful.’ See. You should go to Yado.” I think of my mother’s ashes buried under the red maple at Hedgebrook, wonder how big it’s gotten in the ensuing years. We were going to put up a plaque, but the retreat went under new directorship, and I imagine the tree is bare. Only those who know will know that my mother’s spirit lingers in the air there.

Dream three:

I’m trying to teach in a state-of-the-art classroom. The teacher station is way fancier than even the ones in the new building at work. I break everything. The screens that drop down from the ceiling keep coming until they’ve unspooled themselves onto the ground. Then another one drops, and unspools. And another. And another. The classroom is filled with unspooled screens with their clean white centers and their black borders. They line up, reminiscent of zebra flesh, on the floor.  I try to write on the whiteboard, and it breaks too, cracking out from the center, a crazy frieze. People give me glasses of water, and I drop them, and drop them. Everywhere is the sound of breaking glass. Blood drips from my fingers, spatters across the downed screens. I walk out of the room holding broken glass and postcards from the Azores. Waking up is a relief, to the stillness of my room, and Sadie sleeping by me.