Tag Archives: Memory

Explaining my mother

I’m at my dad’s house. Leah is visiting from across the waters and we are preparing to go on a sightseeing tour.

And suddenly I’m stopped. Can’t write. There’s so much I want to say, and all of it clogs together in my head, a cacophony of words demanding their moment to be heard, to shape themselves into images, to present themselves in the form of recollections and reflections.

What I want to say is that my mother was extraordinary. (Why did I write “is” at first?) Because I’m unfolding the retrospective slowly, and trying to describe what happened without too much explanation or unpacking or projecting forward into the “now,” it might seem that she was a terrible mother in some ways, that she made unforgivable mistakes. But she was not. She was very sick at the time, with an illness nobody could figure out. She was living the dark burden of her own traumatic childhood, trying to overcome it alone, without the benefit of counselors to help her recast her past in a new and more illuminating light. As a child I knew none of this, or at least, I knew she was sometimes sick in bed, but I didn’t know how deeply her illness weakened her emotionally, and I knew nothing about her past.

What amazes me about her is that she overcame all of it, all the horror of her own upbringing, her father’s suicide when she was five, her mother’s raging alcoholism, the dysfunctional society in which her family stood as some kind of beacon of respectability. She changed, altogether. Those who knew her in the last 20 years of her life knew her as someone fully kind and loving, generous to all, always looking for the best in people. There was a lag in how she applied her love to her children, I realize. It started on the outer edges of the pond of her life and rippled back towards the center, where we were grouped. She could not, in the early years, be as unstintingly generous with her compassion towards us as she was towards others. But she did love us. She did everything out of what she believed was the best for us. And in truth, there were good days. There were days when she showed up at school, and the school secretary came to fetch us from class, and we would go to the beach with another family to take advantage of the rare sun. There were days when Dad was home late, and we would sit in the kitchen with her friend and her friend’s kids, and eat biscuits (cookies), and talk and laugh. We went to the pantomime and the opera. We got swimming lessons in Dublin, and stopped off at the campus bakery for fresh-baked meltingly soft rolls on the way home. We went to Bewley’s on the half day at the end of every term for raisin buns and fudge. We marched in Dublin to try to save Wood Quay, the site of a Viking excavation, and she helped us make a placard for our dog, and afterwards we ate in the newly opened McDonald’s, Ireland’s first, with the dog curled under our seat. I tasted my first milkshake then, and laughed when the boy who was mopping the floor pretended to mop up the dog.

We had fun. There was joy. I did laugh. I know I did. It’s just that the dark moments intervened at times, and they shaped me as much as the fun times.

So I have to say, before I continue my retrospective, that my mother was an extraordinary, beautiful, kind woman, who saved herself somehow from her own traumatic past, and in doing so gave us — her four girls — the tools to help us heal ourselves. Two of my sisters have had extensive counseling, one on the East coast and one in Ireland. One should probably consider it. I have visited a counselor now and again, not often, and done what I can through reading and walking meditation and prayer — my mother’s path. It has not always been easy. It will not ever be easy. But it is possible, and every time I breathe deep and feel joy, I think of my mother, who taught me how.

Retrospective 15: 1977 — Bastard child

I was 12 when I finally asked Mum why Dad hated me so much. I remember every moment of that conversation. We were in the drawing room of our Georgian home, a room with heavy red velvet curtains, a marble mantelpiece over the fireplace, dark leather sofas. The wooden floor gleamed, and the area rug that is now at the beach was still somewhat plush back then. My mother’s desk graced the bowed window at the end of the room. The other window, the one that looked out to the front, let in the green light of sunshine filtered through a dense curtain of wisteria.

I was polishing the mantelpiece. Mum was paying bills. I hesitated, then dived in, taking a risk. We weren’t allowed to interrupt her when she paid bills.

“Why does Daddy hate me?” I asked.

“He doesn’t hate you.” Her voice was absent-minded. She flipped over a piece of paper.

“He treats me differently than the others.”

“What makes you say that?”

“People notice. People from school.” In fact, I had stopped trying to invite friends over. It was just too embarrassing. But I remembered the comments from the few aborted overnighters friends would attempt.

She stopped. She put down her pen, a fountain pen, very carefully. She turned in her chair, red leather, with a high, scrolled back. She sighed.

“He’s not your real father,” she said.

I don’t remember being shocked. I don’t remember anything much emotionally, except perhaps a small, trickle of relief. Something settled in me, like sand shifting.

“Not my father?”

“No. You and Rachel have an American father. His name is JD. Daddy treats you differently because you’re not his child.”

“But he doesn’t treat Rachel like he treats me.”

She sighed again, a soft exasperated sound.

“Rachel was sick when she was a baby. Do you remember? She had diarrhea and exzema. He’s always liked underdogs. I would get impatient, and he wanted to champion her.”

I remembered Rachel’s explosive diarrhea. I remembered helping Mum change Rachel’s nappies in the apartment in Switzerland. It didn’t quite line up, but I accepted it.

“What did he look like?”

She stood up, drew a box out from underneath the desk, and pulled out a small album. A handful of thick black pages held glossy photographs. My mother, arms around a stranger, a dark-haired man. A baby on his shoulders. Me.

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know. We lost touch.”

“Why did you leave him?”

“We just weren’t made for each other.”

She was careful in her answers, guarded, kind. In the end I knew nothing more than that he was not right for her. He had vanished. She had simply taken up life with Dad as though we had always been together. By the time we came to Ireland, we had become one family, with no subversive, difficult, damning history.

Did she warn me not to tell anyone that Dad was not my father? Or did I just know, because I was living in Ireland in the 70s, that my state was sinful in some way? That I was a bastard child? That if anyone knew, we’d never be accepted? It’s hard for me to imagine, from this angle here in the U.S. where I’m divorced and most of Zeke’s friends’ parents are divorced, how I just knew, at the age of 12, that I couldn’t tell anyone. I understood why Mum had kept it a secret.

That night, when I went to bed, I didn’t cry for the sense of family I had lost, or rail against injustice. I just breathed a little deeper, relieved that there was a reason for my Dad’s treatment of me. He didn’t just hate me because I was unlovable. He hated me because I wasn’t his.

Somehow, that made it better.

Retrospective 14: 1976 — Half Wit

Continued from here:

Half wit.

I told you she was stupid.

That girl’s crazy.

These days I find myself wondering if he really said those things about me. I can’t imagine it. I don’t know why those memories are so strong. They infuse my past, and sometimes I hear them again, echoing down the years, when I’ve made a mistake, when I haven’t been quick enough in picking up the joke at the party, when I’ve forgotten something at work. I push them aside, tell myself I’m imagining them, but that’s worse than listening and acknowledging them. It makes a lie out of my past.

I don’t remember. I don’t know why I hear them. He doesn’t say those things any more. The closest he’s come is the inevitable dig at English majors: “The soft option. Anyone can do it.” Or the way he ignores me when I ask a question sometimes. He’s hard of hearing; it’s easy to imagine that he simply didn’t hear me, until my sister asks him something quietly, and he answers.

In the end, whether he used those exact words or not, I know that in some ways he treated me differently. My friends saw.

“He’s your own flesh and blood,” my friend Sara said one day. “How can he treat you that way?”

But that was later, after I knew. When I was 10 and 11, I didn’t know anything at all other than that he was my father and the father of the four of us. We had come from Switzerland to Ireland. We lived in the country, in a big house on four acres, a long way from school. We rarely had friends over, but when we did, they always commented on how he treated me. “Why is your father so mean to you?” they asked. I didn’t know what they meant. It was the way he had always been towards me. “Why doesn’t your father like you?” they asked. I didn’t know how to answer. I was inarticulate in those days. I couldn’t speak right. I was teased because I lisped and stuttered and couldn’t say my “R’s” right. That year I ended up in the Irish equivalent of speech therapy — elocution class.

Is that why he thought I was stupid? Because I couldn’t speak right? I had to memorize long poems and speak them clearly. The elocution teacher coached me through them. She was also the drama teacher, and she loved to gossip with her students. I remember sitting in the small, gray-carpeted drama room upstairs in the art building. We used lighters to shrink crisp (potato chip) bags. The heat from the lighter flame did something to the plastic. We would end up with tiny bags, an inch or so square, the colors heightened, the picture and the brand name, Tayto, tiny replicas of what they had been. She let us bitch about the head mistress, and she asked us questions about boys (strange, foreign creatures that they were to us, in our all-girls’ school). But that was later. When I first knew her, I took lessons alone, and recited poetry that I have willfully forgotten, and learned to speak in a way that could be understood.

Still, he thought I was stupid. And crazy too. A half wit. Did he say it? Perhaps I am crazy to think he did. Perhaps he was right and I am deficient in some way. Perhaps I made it up. But a memory stirs. I wrote about this once, a long time ago, triggered by something he wrote to me. I go looking on my computer. I find it, an essay called “Recreating Reality.” Maybe I will post it some day. I was 29, and I wrote it 14 years ago.


I always seem to miss the important days. It’s something in me, in my mind, that blocks the connection. All this month I thought of her, thought of the day she died, remembered our last conversation, remembered the crow that represents her. I remembered that it’s been 10 years since I’ve seen her, and that I miss her, and that she and my mother hit it off immediately when they met, first in Ireland 17 years ago and later when she and I hired a mini van and drove to the airport to pick up Mum and Dad the day they arrived in this country with two dogs and all their possessions.

I remember the books we shared, the walks, the cups of tea and coffee, the ice cream and whipped cream and hot chocolate. I remember that our dogs tried to kill each other, and then became best friends. I remember the day I called her to ask her a breast feeding question a few days after Zeke was born, and found out she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in the hospital, having a mastectomy. She hadn’t told me because she didn’t want to ruin my joy in Zeke’s birth.

Five years later, she was added to the “survivor” list. If you survive breast cancer for five years, you’re considered a survivor, a statistic that represents life and overcoming. Less than two months later, she was dead. She’d spent five years fighting the disease. She made it past the five year mark, and then she died. I wasn’t with her at the time, but I’d spent days with her, hours holding her hand and rubbing moisturizer into her skin and giving her ice chips and trying to feed her what she could eat. When I hear the theme song from the Titanic, I cry, remembering her daughter (my goddaughter), an accomplished pianist, playing the grand piano in the next room. I remember that her daughter and I went shopping for clothes for her mother’s funeral a few days before my best friend died, because we knew it was coming, and because A wanted it.

Ten years ago on the 21st, Trish passed away from breast cancer at the age of 42. I was going to write about it, but I couldn’t. I watched the daffodils nod on my drive to work — they are her emblem, the brightest thing blooming in the days leading up to her death — and I thought about earth day, a perfect tribute to her love of nature and animals. And I couldn’t write about her.

The next day Loren wrote about loving crows, and I remembered after my mother and I were diagnosed with breast cancer ourselves just a year later, how I went walking in a park right by my mother’s house. I walked the five-mile walk around the park, and a crow followed me, hopping from tree to tree, swooping and diving overhead, and never letting me out of its sight. I heard Trish in its laugh. I saw Trish in its bright, curious head tilt. I took my shoes off and ran on the bare dirt, with the crow flying overhead, and I heard Trish scolding me.

There used to be a whole colony of crows in the birch tree by my condo. They’ve gone. Now and again I hear one or two, scolding me for getting too close, but mostly they’re just gone. I wonder if they’ve been taken by West Nile Virus, if the crow that fell from the tree onto my lawn and died there a couple of years ago was a victim of the disease. A woman from the CDC took it away for testing after I called, but I never heard what the cause was.

Regardless, my mind circles and circles, and for three days I couldn’t stop thinking of her, and I couldn’t bear to write of her. I have a dark shadow in my life, my loss of her, my loss of A, which I must explain in the context of the loss of my mother.

I wish I could say I hear a crow outside. But I must wake my daughter for school, and head for work, and remind myself that Trish and my mother simply ARE.

Retrospective suprise

So my mother comes out the bad one. I thought I was going to dive into the darkness around my father — and no, it is not so bad, really. Just the distance of another time and culture, of trying to be a father to four girls, one definitely not his own, another born in his presence, and raised from birth as his. Still, Rachel and I have shared memories of that moment at the edge of the Singing Tree, a moment I remember as defining every moment before something is known. How to explain? We had a tree at the curve in our driveway where it split to go around the house. We had a long driveway, a couple of hundred yards, I guess, and then it circled the house, and one branch went off down to the garage and the stables. And to the left of the spot where it curved and headed downhill to go to the back of the house and the garage stood a tall tree we called the Singing Tree. We used to climb it and survey our four acres from its higher branches. Ruth May fell from it and broke her jaw. I stacked hay bales under it every weekend of winter, so that in the early frosty hours of schooldays I could toss breakfast over the fence to the donkeys without having to go all the way down the dog pen where the hay was stacked safely under cover. We loved that tree, the way the wind sighed through it, the way we felt above the world and safe in its tall branches. It was some kind of evergreen, with branches that bounced as we climbed them, and it smelled tart and mountainous. When I remember that it is gone, I feel something resist in me, and turn away.

Anyway, it obscured the back of the house, where Dad parked the Volvo. Rachel and I would run down the driveway after school, waiting for that instance when we could round the Singing Tree and discover what we wanted to know most, at that moment — was the Volvo there? Was Dad home? I think of getting letters from literary journals and publishing companies and agents, those letters that will accept or reject you, and the moment when you hold the letter in your hand, before you KNOW. It might be good news. There is a delicious joy in that moment, in all the possibilities it holds. Then you slit the envelope open, slip the letter out, unfold it, and the words are there, shattering what you’d hoped for. So often rounding that tree was a shattering of hope — the Volvo neatly parked by the kitchen window, Dad home, nothing to look forward to but being sent to our rooms the moment we entered the door, till tea was ready and we could come out long enough to sit and drink it with the silence of the house echoing around us. Then outside to play, or lined up to do our homework, and always the taut, hard silence ringing in our ears, my father’s dark, impenetrable presence upstairs, in his chair in the living room. To this day, Rachel hates silence, the silence of anger that permeated so much of our childhood. She’s rather instigate a screaming match with her partner than sit through that icy quiet.

Sometimes, on rare, beautiful occasions, the car would be gone, and Rachel and I would barrel down the hill and burst through the back door and into the kitchen, the words tumbling from out mouths: “When’s Daddy back at?” And Mum would say, “When will Daddy be back. You don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” and we’d stand and jig with our satchels still on our shoulders, waiting to hear whether we should go to our rooms or could fling off our coats and flop down for tea and as many biscuits as we wanted (chocolate-covered, of course), and laugher and conversation till the long blue grumble of the Volvo rounding the corner woke us to the silence once more.

Retrospective 13: 1975 — Pineapple upside down cake and bread board spankings

“Don’t!” someone yelled. “Please don’t eat that.” I don’t remember which one of the four of us it was. It could have been any of us, all of us. We all knew the consequences of the thievery, and dreaded the moment of discovery. But Louise didn’t know. She didn’t care. She had grown up in a house that seemed to us enviably free and joyous. She and her sister (and the baby sister who was so much younger than us that we thought of her as a decoration or a cat or something occasionally troublesome but mostly simply not there) had a house filled with treats. Her mother was always making flapjacks and fudge, and at Lent the two older girls gave up candy and collected it in big baskets on top of the fridge, and then on Easter Day they gorged themselves sick and left the rest of the candy for the rest of the year. There were always Flakes and packets of Rollos available there on the fridge. And not only were they sitting out free in the house, but they were allowed whenever, wherever, however the girls wanted them. The delicacy of Jaffa Cake biscuits wasn’t kept for special deserts and doled out for good behavior. The girls could help themselves whenever they were hungry. And so when they visited us, they took the same liberties with our food as they did with their own, always to our trepidation — though it wasn’t always discovered. Till one day they didn’t just cut a slice off an already cut cake; they dived into a newly turned out pineapple upside down cake and cut a fresh slice, and divvied it up between them, and ate it, laughing at our terror-stricken faces. They just didn’t know.

And sure enough, Mum got back from shopping or wherever she had been, and the grilling began. By then the other girls were gone, unable to verify our account of the matter.

“But we didn’t eat any!” we insisted.

“There’s a slice gone. That was supposed to be for pudding.” (Irish for dessert.)

“It was the Hannety’s. They ate it.”

“You’re responsible for making sure your friends know the rules.” And she reached for the bread board, hanging on the wall to the left of the Aga in its neat little kitchen alcove.

“Mummy, please! We didn’t do it. Please don’t spank us.”

But our pleas went nowhere. Mum was determined to teach us. Down came our trousers and underwear. We bent over her knees. The breadboard whistled through the air and slapped hard on our bare bums, stinging hard, three times. Each precise, carefully placed spank was accompanied by her mantra: “This (spank) hurts me (spank) more than it hurts (spank) you.”

She didn’t know any better. She believed she was doing the right thing. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” she said, and she congratulated herself because she was so in control of all her actions. There were clear rules, clear consequences, always carefully carried out. She was always measured when she spanked us. Her voice was steady and not raised. Spanking us was simply what she had to do. As an adult, looking back, I realize how much better our experience was than hers, shaped by her drunken mother’s midnight belt beatings — totally out of control, raising vicious welts on my mother’s pale skin — and I realize how deep and loving her self-control really was.

We became a household of petty criminals. I remember creeping into the freezer room to sneak packets of chocolate-covered McVities Digestives into my bedroom and hide them in the clothes cupboard. Later on, I found my sisters had done the same thing. Did Mum ever wonder why she was always having to buy more biscuits? Or did she prefer to turn away from our pilfering, because to acknowledge it would be to acknowledge her greatest fear, that we were not perfect?

Last year, Rachel admitted that she had chosen not to have children because she couldn’t bear the thought of fighting with them over food. The way we fought, as we grew up, for control over the chocolate biscuits, over what we could avoid eating. I look at Zeke, at her haphazard eating habits, her undisciplined approach to meals, and I realize that unconsciously I chose the opposite path for her than my mother had for me. She could eat when she was hungry, and not when she wasn’t. She didn’t have to “clean her plate.” She didn’t have to force down food that made her sick to think of, as Leah had to eat cooked carrots despite the fact that more than once she vomited afterwards, out of disgust and despair. She still won’t eat them, even in carrot cake. If Mum could, she’d probably come down out of the wild wind spirit where she howls her fury at our insubordination, and she’d spank me for letting Zeke refuse breakfast, for letting her eat dessert even when she hasn’t finished her peas.

Odd, that my father, the man Mum blamed for all the rules, just laughs. “Let her have what she wants,” he says, when I tell Zeke to stay out of the fridge unless she has permission, and then he turns to her. “Do you want ice cream?” he says. “I bought ice cream.”

Continued here

Retrospective Resistance

I think, on occasion, about picking up my pen and delving back into my retrospective. But I cannot do so without a sense of disloyalty. For four years after my mother died, I visited my dad 160 or so miles away every couple of weeks. The past six months have been harder. Unusually snowy weather has frequently shut down the mountain pass between us, sometimes for an hour or two, and sometimes for several days, making the trip longer and more hazardous. Gas prices strain a budget already tightened by huge vet bills that took me months to pay off. Summer is a time with only a small paycheck. I need to be ready to get through it without digging into my savings — Zeke’s college money, gathered slowly but steadily since she was born. She can’t go to Harvard on it, but it will lighten the load if she stays local, and if she chooses a community college for her first two years. Spending a couple of hundred dollars a month driving across the pass to my dad’s and back (gas, plus more frequent oil changes etc. My 4-year-old car has almost 100,000 miles on it!) is too much a strain on the budget right now. I feel terrible when I find myself telling him I can’t make it, when I hear the resigned disappointment in his response. He’s always gracious: “Oh, of course. I wouldn’t risk it myself. There’s no point being stuck in traffic for five or six hours just for an overnight trip.” (The 3-hour drive over the pass easily turns into five or six hours in the winter with avalanche closures and miles of stop-and-go traffic.) But still, I know he’s disappointed. I know having company pleases him, even if it’s just the quiet of another presence in the house. I know he likes the help with fixing up my sister’s old house, and likes that Mum’s roses are still alive and even thriving, because I’ve been caring for them.

“I don’t suppose,” he says after a moment, “It would be practical for you to come across on the 24th. They’re doing the HMS Pinafore at the local theatre, but only for one night, a Thursday.” I feel a fleeting sorrow. Every year in Ireland we went to see a Gilbert and Sullivan show, that and the annual Christmas pantomime at the Gaiety with Maureen Potter. I loved HMS Pinafore as a child, and for a split second I imagine jumping in my car after work, driving across the pass for the show, and driving home at midnight. But that’s madness.

I decline, and he sighs, and I tell him I’ll come over for three days the weekend of our spring holiday in two weeks. But that means I’ll have been to see him only once a month since winter ended. Only three times in the past two  and a half months. It doesn’t seem enough, especially since Ruth May is so busy with her baby and her rarely sees her unless he makes the effort to come up the hill and drive across town to the house she shares with her boyfriend.

But what does all that have to do with the retrospective?

I am confused about the past. I am confused about the truth of the past, about the slippery difficulty of it. I cannot reconcile who he is now, my own current desire to help him, with the memory of the man from my youth. If I am to recall what I remember of those years, he will not look good. He will look cold and even somewhat cruel. He will look distant and ominous. He did nothing wrong, nothing overt, nothing like the kinds of atrocities I hear of from students and friends. No, he was a war child, raised in a country in which keeping the upper lip taut remained paramount. He learned to survive, and to brick himself off from pain. And I wasn’t his daughter, so he never did know how to reach out to me, the interloper, the competitor for my beloved mother’s attentions.

Growing up, I didn’t know anything about the situation, about what he took on when he took on my pregnant mother and me. All I knew was that I called him Daddy and that he didn’t seem to like me. What I remember of him is what is shaped by the prism through which I gauged him. It is not what he is, or what he was, only a distorted memory that I fear sharing. I don’t wish to speak ill of him. We do what we can with what we have. He did his best, and ultimately his best was far better than what would have happened had my mother stayed with JD. But as a pubescent child, growing towards the sullen years of teenagerhood, I knew nothing at all about his past, about mine, about my mother’s. I knew only that he didn’t like me, his “own daughter,” and I didn’t know why. So forgive what I say, if I continue my retrospective. It is not about the man I know now, whose roof I patch and whose roses I prune. It is about what I thought he was, in my own lost way, before I had experience to see it all in context.

Retrospective 12: 1974 — Beauty and despair

We settled into our lives in the new house, which was really old and cold and damp, which had rock walls two or three feet deep, and bedroom windows opening to the sound of the river. We had four acres, and next door, across our orchard and a ditch and a hay field, was the house my grandfather (Dad’s father) had grown up in. It wasn’t till years later that I understood the sense of history associated with the house next door, with the way Dad must have felt, walking into it to visit the neighbors, knowing that his father had spent his childhood there.

I would wrap my memories of our old house around me like a blanket. And now I wonder at the nostalgia that arises, when I think of it. I hated my childhood. I didn’t get on with Dad. Mum was sick for years back then, before she discovered that she was allergic to soy and anything associated with it, and we had to suffer her dark moods and her days in bed, the time she had small strokes and talked with a slur and ran into walls, as though she were drunk. By then she had given up hope on doctors, who told her her problems were all in her head, so when she stood up one day and canted sideways, then thrust out her arm and righted herself, but couldn’t quite dredge up words and shape them as she had always done, she didn’t go running to the hospital. She stayed home, and fought back alone. We children were witnesses, but children don’t know what they see — or at least I didn’t. We went to school in the morning, and came home in the evening. She made us our breakfasts, always the same thing: a glass of orange juice; two slices of brown soda bread, toasted on the Aga and spread with marmalade but no butter; a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup; a mug of Lyons tea with milk and no sugar. We carried the lunches she had made, sandwiches on brown bread, and some kind of fruit, and sometimes a yoghurt or a homemade flapjack. When we got home, the kettle was always on, and she’d make tea for us, which we drank with two McVities Digestives (chocolate covered on a good day), and then we’d do homework or go outside and play, or whatever seemed right, till supper at 8:00 or so.

She did our laundry, and hung it outside to dry under the corrugated roof that jutted out in front of the garage. My ponies and later my thoroughbred mare, who had to pass by the garage to get to the stables, never had a problem with flapping laundry. They were too used to walking through lines of sheets and towels and jeans, of feeling the clothes run across their backs, and being blinded for a minute if they had to thrust through a particularly big sheet. Flapping things of any sort never phased them.

We lived routine-driven and yet gloriously free lives, and I remember the bliss of playing outside on spring and summer and fall evenings, inventing games, making “houses” out of grass clippings on the expansive lawns. I remember paddling in the river, and swimming in the deeper pools upstream, crossing to the big hill opposite and wandering around in the acres of woods there, finding pools filled with frogs that we brought home. We liked to collect their eggs, too, floating in that translucent jelly, and we filled Ruth May’s aquarium and watched them hatch and transform from tadpoles to frogs before freeing them outside again.

Yet all these blissful memories compete with the memories of my mother in bed, or covered in bruises not because Dad beat her, but because her health was so poor that any touch raised dark blotches on her pale skin. When I reach back into the past, I feel schizophrenic, because I remember days of joy and sunshine and freedom, and I remember the darkness too. Neither memory is right; neither wrong. They simply mark the tenuous beauty and despair of childhood.

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.


Last night, I dreamed of my father, my biological father, that is — the sperm donor. The alarm woke me, or the dog barking, and the dream fled. I retained a slight sense of disturbance, a sense that I needed to remember the dream, but no details yielded when I probed the darkness of my sleeping memory. But later it came back to me surprisingly, all of a piece, during a student conference. I read a paragraph from my student’s paper, and a single word resurrected the memory, entire, with all its associated feelings. As soon as the student left — not soon enough — I typed the memory into my computer and emailed it to my home address, an unlike-me blurring of the boundaries between work and home. I work at work. And I write at home. Sometimes I work at home, but I never write at work. I never write down my dreams on my work computer and email them to my home address, though as a writing teacher such splits between what is right for work and what is right for home are artificial at best, and damaging ultimately. But that is my life — full of compartmentalization. Until today, when I wrote down my dream at work and emailed it to home. Somehow it seemed important.

Later I came home to find an email from an old acquaintance on the beach. He was my mother’s friend. He knew me when I was an embryo, a fetus, a squalling newborn. He came to my college graduation. I shared a bed with his lesbian daughter when I was 17. I liked her. We lay in the window of the loft bedroom in his beach house, which was glassless, just a six-foot square space that let in the sea-salt night air, and we counted the stars. She is my age now, and a smoker, and her voice is deep and evocative of late nights in bars. We pass on the beach, and I wonder if she remembers that night in the window. Her father, anyway, emails me to tell me that my biological father’s second wife, whom my father divorced the year I met him for the first time since babyhood, had toured the beach that day. He then suggested it was time that Zeke met my “her grandmother,” that the call of blood and heritage was too important to dismiss. But I was confused. Zeke has met both her grandmothers. She knows my ex-husband’s mother well, and sees her several times a year. And she was close to my mother, till my mother died. So who is this grandmother? Perhaps my father’s second wife, a step-grandmother of sorts? But she was never my stepmother, being divorced from my father only months after I met him at the age of 19. Why should she care to meet the granddaughter of her ex-husband’s first wife? It’s confusing, right?

And then I realized he was talking of my grandmother, my biological father’s mother, who is Zeke’s great-grandmother, and I felt a rush of irritation at his assumptions. Zeke has met her great-grandmother. Zeke’s great-grandmother is not interested in her. She said, once, “The first granddaughter to give me a son will inherit my estate. Otherwise it goes to my dog.” It will go to her dog. Rachel is childless. I have a daughter, a miracle child. I don’t care that she’s not a son. I am horrified that my grandmother does care. I have not been averse to the odd email or phone call, but the onus is on her. If she cares, she’ll make the effort. My daughter has heritage a-plenty in her life.

So I emailed back: “I don’t feel Zeke needs to know her great-grandmother any more than she does already. As far as I’m concerned, Dad is my father. He is the man who raised me as his own when JDS was long gone. He has loved Zeke as a grandfather loves his blood kin. Family, to me, is a product of love, not DNA, and my Dad is the only father I care to know.”

And then, on returning home from dinner with Summer tonight, I found a package in the mail: It was the “paperback” I had ordered a few days ago, “In Memoriam,” about my mother’s father. And there it was, the neatly packaged transcript of the memorial service held at Vanderbilt after my grandfather’ death. And within it was a family story — which I always thought apocryphal — proven true.

And I see the links, entwined like the separate locks that twist together to make a braid, my dream of my biological father last night, and then the email reminding me of the importance of blood, of the connection between my biological father’s mother and my own daughter. And finally, that relic from my mother’s side of the family, the booklet recalling the words spoken at my grandfather’s memorial service, evoking a day that fills my mind as though it is my own memory.

My father calls. I am buzzed on gin. Summer grabs the phone: “Let me listen. I’ve never heard his voice and I’ve always wanted to. You invited me over, and then I backed out. Now I want to know him.” We are cheek to cheek in the restaurant, the phone between us. Dad’s voice leaks out and falls away. I can barely understand him. What lingers is the softness of Summer’s cheek, and the restaurant sounds in the background.

Afterwards, I think of the confluences of this day: My biological father, my biological grandmother on my father’s side, my biological grandfather on my mother’s side. On this one day they all crowded forward, demanding their place in my memory, their pre-eminence in my heritage.

But my (step)father is the one who matters. Blood is only one strand in the braid of life, and in my braid, blood is the thinnest strand. What remains, what endures, is love.