My dear husband,
So much has happened. And you weren’t here for it. At least, not that I could see. Oh yes, I think you were here. I think you are the reason I have slept so peacefully and soundly at night. I think you have breathed your logic over me and enabled me to carry on into the wind. I think you are the reason for my sheer happiness instead of utter devastation after losing my job last month, when I, the breadwinner with a mortgage and bills, faced no income. But you weren’t here to physically hold my hand through it or to hold me and tell me it’s going to be okay. You were always my solid anchor when I would be climbing the walls.
Two Christmases, and you weren’t here. I bought myself gifts and drove seven hours to spend the holiday with my older son. The first year, the younger son rode with me. This past Christmas, I drove alone. The first Christmas, we put your favorite Vols cap on the top of the tree. This past Christmas, we didn’t.
Two Thanksgivings, and you weren’t here. Remember, oh remember, those joyous Thursdays when our house was full of family. We had honey-baked ham and a huge turkey roasted in Jack Daniels and apricot preserves, and you were the carver and ran everybody out of the kitchen out of your way. I know I fussed and grumbled about having to clean and cook all those desserts and side dishes, but how I loved it, down to the year I made that fancy pine cone spread out of cream cheese and pecans. The first Thanksgiving, it was just Corey, Leah, and me. You never met Leah. She came from North Carolina to be with Corey when you died and he was falling apart, and she came to your funeral and ordered the director to move out a TV and bring in a table so we could set out your pictures. You would have liked her. The second Thanksgiving, I spent alone, in Cleveland, in my mother’s empty house one month after she died.
Oh, and you weren’t here for that either. My mom died. It was a grueling death, and you weren’t here to hold me and tell me it was going to be okay. I did her eulogy, too, and you weren’t here sitting on the front row and giving me the thumbs up for being strong enough to get through it, like you did for my dad.
The twins will be one year old in two weeks. You never got to know about them. The process of in vitro was started a week after your death. My two grandchildren were born a few weeks early and unexpectedly last April and I had no one to share the joy with. I waited for the word once they all went into delivery, and I walked around the block, and when I got the text “theyre here” I was ecstatic and it was all stuffed inside because there was no one to tell and you weren’t there either to laugh with me and to hold me down on solid ground while I flitted and floated and danced around.
Two Valentines Days, and you weren’t here to bring a card and roses home, like it was going to be a surprise but I knew you would do it because you always did. A day for lovers, and I had no flowers.
And the job I lost…I went to work six weeks after you died because when you died, so did your company and the business we ran together. Last month, half of us were let go because of a client decision to pull their work. You weren’t here to listen to my daily tales about my colleagues. You weren’t here to provide footing when all that was gone.
Oh, and I sold your domain name.
After a trip last month, I drove back home up the Natchez Trace and cried like I have for the past twenty months. Then I decided I didn’t want to do it any more. I’m tired of crying. Just tired of it. Yes, I still love you, and I miss you more than anything in this whole wide world, and I will always want you back. But damn it all, you are gone. So I stopped at the Tennessee River, upstream from where I had dumped your ashes, and told you I needed to move on.
After you died I ordered a book of poems written by a woman who had lost her husband, and I read them all. And cried, and understood. Every word, every feeling of the grief experience. Until I got to the last poem…
“Suppose I moved your photo…”
“Suppose I liked the sound of his voice,
the way he kissed my shoulder?”
“Suppose I were walking on a bridge
that began to sway too much and I ran
to the other side instead of heading back.”
It rattled me. It cut me in half. It seemed so wrong. I felt sick. I couldn’t deal with that.
Time works its way.
And I want you to know I have moved your picture.
(Thank you, Stephanie Mendel, March, before Spring.)
That little snot.
Who does she think she is? Spitting out that cookie on the floor.
OK, so I’ve trained her up with routine. Still…
Regarding cookies, we have certain kinds for certain times of day. She knows what comes when, and she demands that I stay on schedule and do it right and in the proper order. She has food allergies, so I have to be careful what I buy, I have to read the ingredients on the labels, I even bake one variety. Canned venison and potato: let the mashed up food slink out of the can, cut it into five round patties, cut the patties into six little triangles, put on cookie sheet, bake for three hours at 275. Let her lick the remains on the cookie sheet. (It’s her cookie sheet and no one else uses it except the son when he comes home to visit and what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.)
So we’re out of venison and potato cookies and they MUST come first. It’s her first treat of the morning, followed by a boy-shaped peanut butter that I break into six little pieces and then a veggie heart that I break in half. That’s the routine. Without the special baked variety, I lay the others on the floor in her standard spot. She looks at them, picks up one, spits it out, walks away.
“You little snot,” I say.
So I drag myself barefooted into the kitchen holding my first cup of coffee in the red cup with a growly face and the words GO AHEAD — MAKE MY DAY! I tie my hair back out of my eyes. I open venison/potato cans, pull the cookie sheet out, spray it with Pam, turn on the oven. I light a candle because that venison stinks like hell when it bakes, and I’d really rather be smelling bacon and toast this time of morning.
For three hours she sits in front of the oven. And waits. When the alarm goes off, she jumps up and watches as I pull the cookies out and put them in a bowl. She wags her tail as I put the cookie sheet on the floor for her to lick. I leave one cookie on it. She eats it, then licks the sheet clean.
Then, get this, she goes to her standard spot and eats all the rest of the peanut butter and veggie cookie pieces I left out earlier. She is committed to doing this in the proper order. And she holds me accountable.
“You little snot,” I say again. She looks at me and licks her lips.
… My youth group follows Route 66 toward a Baptist conference center in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. For a week, we sing fun songs like “I love the mountains, I love the rolling hills, I love the flowers . . . .” We go to classes and get preached to, we stroll through the prayer gardens, and we have free time for organized games and sight-seeing in Santa Fe. At every meal in the giant dining hall kids from every state represented stand and sing their state song. When it is our turn, we stand up and sing: Go Mississippi, keep rolling along; go Mississippi, you cannot go wrong; go Mississippi, we’re singing your song. M-I-S—S-I-S—S-I-P-P-I. There aren’t many people from Mississippi there, and we sound weak. Some people just mouth the words. Like me. I sit at a big round table with all Texas people because I have met a boy there from Waco and I stay with his youth group the entire week and there’s nobody near me singing about Mississippi. When it is my table’s turn to sing, over half the hall stands and shouts in thundering unison, The eyes of Texas are upon you till Gabriel blows his horn. I want to be a part of this and own this much pride in where I’m from. These kids are different from the kids in my hometown. They had liked President Kennedy and like the now-President Johnson. But we have some things in common. We snicker in Bible study at a girl sitting down the pew who has never shaved her legs and has long curly hair on the bare calves sticking out from her pastel dress. We hike to the top of Old Baldy where my new friend Sandi’s boyfriend had gone the day before and spelled out her name in big rocks. We all stay in Thunderbird Lodge, like a motel, and we sneak out of our rooms late at night and visit with kids from Waco and Big D, dodging “Marshall Dillon” who drives an old car and shines a spotlight along the walkways and doorways of the three lodge buildings, making sure we are safe in our own rooms and not out up to no good.
On our return trip home, the kids in my group do what we do best—play foolish tricks on some poor unsuspecting victim among our own kind. The first night out, I take a muscle relaxer because my back hurts from an old swimming accident and it makes me fall asleep. The girls I room with fill the motel’s ice bucket with cold water and stick my hand down in it because they think it will make me pee in the bed. I wake up and they are laughing and hustling to get more ice to keep the water cold, and I realize it isn’t fun to be singled out on a prank. I am usually the one thinking up the dirty deeds.
The last day out it is Billy who is the butt of the joke.
It is hot August, and the old green rattletrap bus bounces over the east-west two-lane highway somewhere in rural Arkansas. All the windows are down and hot air is rushing in, blowing our hair, cooling the sweat on our faces. Billy is lulled to a deep sleep with his head nudged in the corner between the vinyl bus seat and the window frame, his mouth wide open. The rest of us have yelled a chorus of a hundred bottles of beer on the wall down to forty-five bottles of beer, and we are tired of singing. Billy is too much to resist.
A few girls pull out train cases and makeup bags and get to work. I am on the periphery of this action, but stick my head in to coach. We apply round red circles of rouge to his cheeks, using a light touch so as not to waken him. We apply the brown of a stubby Maybelline pencil to his brows, and the line zigs and zags because of the bumpy bus. Next we lavish on creamy sky-blue eye shadow from lashes to brows. Then comes lots of red lipstick. We cover him with color. Then we let on nothing, as the bus rocks and rolls into a city parking lot and comes to a stop. Billy awakens, and we all disembark for lunch at a nice restaurant. We walk across hot concrete, biting our lips to keep from laughing, pointing our faces the other way so he won’t see us when we can’t help but burst out. We try not to look at Billy so we won’t give it way. We don’t want him to suspect that he is any different.
The restaurant is packed with people on their lunch hour, and Billy’s clown face draws some stares. Right off, he goes to the bathroom upstairs. We are all downstairs waiting to be seated, huddled in a tight group because we know it’s bound to happen, and he will explode, and sure enough, we soon realize that somewhere in the bathroom he has discovered a mirror. We hear loud stomping and slamming and shouting coming from up there, and then Billy appears at the top of the stairs, grabs the railing and looks down at us, and yells over the hubbub in the busy crowded place: WHO DONE IT? WHO DONE IT?
And here comes Billy charging down the stairs with faded color smeared all over him, color he has tried to wipe and wash away.
We all have the color on our hands.
Billy, a good sport, 2/12/1948 — 3/13/2010
I am working this through and talking to myself here because the question of point of view often comes up in my writing. I often write in first person from the viewpoint of a child. But the thing is that I often use some words or description or wisdom beyond a child’s years or understanding. And is that okay?
As for tense, when I speak in present tense from a child’s point of view, it is obviously not the child writing my story. I am placing my adult self in her point of view for a while. I am immersing my grown-up self into my ten-year-old self so that I can pull up memories and share them with the sense of immediacy that present tense affords.
In writing memoir or personal essays, I do not want to focus on I, I, I…. I want to bring in my reader and allow the reader to share the experience, to connect with it, to take away something memorable, to hopefully gain new understanding of himself. Creative nonfiction is all about telling a compelling true story and embedding reflection, speculation, and interpretation.
I transport myself back across the years and tell my story as though I am living it in the moment. Naturally, it comes out spilled across the page with the sights, sounds, smells, details, thoughts, and understanding of a little girl. But all of that is filtered through the experience of a woman because that’s what I am now.
Occasionally, I will shift the tense, as in at the end of a story, to be in future tense, prefaced by, “I don’t know it yet, but…” or “Years later, my sister will tell us….” This adds complexity, allowing me as the narrator to become someone who has knowledge of the past and also the future. Point of view and tense work hand in hand.
So I am not writing as the child/author/I, but I am writing from a constructed persona — a separate someone who has the innocent perspective of a child filtered through the eyes of an adult, someone who knows past and future. Someone who can lay it down on the line as with that fat multi-colored pencil I have that has red, blue, and yellow lead all meshed and formed into one sharpened point and as it slips and shifts in my fingers when I write the colors all run together to form the words.
They don’t make pencils like they used to. I discover that this morning after I grab a tall black one because I cannot read without a pencil in my hand. I curl up under warm fleece with A Walker in the City. Somewhere after the tenth page I shift positions and automatically lift the sharpened wooden tip to my mouth. I remember from my childhood the smell and taste of pencil wood — three-number multiplication and long division problems and in between the multiplying or adding or subtracting biting into that soft, scented wood. I set it on my tongue, put my teeth on it, and bite down.
No bite marks. No sinking in. No distinctive taste. The wood must be too hard. I look at the pencil and frown and then put it sideways in my mouth. Surely my molars can make a dent. I remember kids’ pencils in grade school all bitten into and rough, and how I hated to touch one after someone had chewed on it up and down. I can’t seem to make bite marks in this one and that is somewhat disturbing.
I go upstairs to my office desk where there’s an old Florida Queen Perfecto box in the first drawer, full of old pens and pencils that my husband accumulated years ago, and I have left there and never used. The first one I pull out is a four-inch stub of silver with the Alcoa logo on it in blue. He worked at the Pittsburgh headquarters for eighteen years. Next to the cigar box, I find an old business card that says, Manager, Corporate Procurement Services. I think of the research project he was asked to do after he went to work there in the late sixties. Alcoa wanted to produce an aluminum pen stylus instead of whatever metal was being used at the time, and he pulled together all the facts and made a recommendation that this would not be practical or profitable because the industry seemed to be going in the direction of plastic. Right after that, all the Bics and others came out with their plastic insides filled with ink. He was so damn smart.
So I pick up the silver Alcoa and lay its sharpened wood in my mouth and breathe in the smell of real wood and my teeth easily sink in. I am taken back to what used to be.
My sister brought four air mattresses. We filled them and stacked them, two where my twin bed used to be and two where hers was in the room at 807 we shared all our growing up years. We both wanted to spend one last night in the house on Deering before we closed the sale on Friday.
Look, here’s the ghost, I said. What ghost? she said. On our wooden bathroom door the sap lines had run in the shape of what to me had always looked like a little man with a robe that I called a ghost. She had never noticed.
Whatever happened to your white French dresser? she asked. I think Mama sold it, I told her. She laughed and commented on how I had all my makeup and stuff there and I told her not to touch any of it, ever. Did you? I said. Of course, she said.
I walked through the house and remembered. The casual dining room always had a chocolate cake in the cake dish in the built-in china cabinet. The kitchen was full of sounds and smells and light, and Mama was always standing over the stove. In the living room our Christmas tree stood on the chest that is now in my sister’s attic waiting for my son to go get it. Mama and Dad both spent their final moments in the front bedroom after being in this home for sixty years. In the middle bedroom were a stereo, a piano, a couch where I talked on the phone for hours every night during my high school years. And the back bedroom my sister and I shared — I could look at the red blinking radio tower south of town from the window beside my bed, in the fall I could hear the compress humming, I could smell honeysuckle on the back fence. Every night in the adjoining bathroom, I’d wash my face and apply Clearasil, I’d roll my hair on jumbo rollers, and I’d read my Bible in there so I wouldn’t disturb my sister, already asleep. I read a verse every night, even late, after a date.
This place is where I became who and what I am. How do you leave this? How do you walk away from all these memories?
In the backyard Mama’s Carolina jasmine was just about to open in thousands of blooms.
Friday morning, my sister put on a red sweater. Oh my gosh, I said. I have the same sweater in blue and I’m wearing it today. We laughed and said, yes, we are definitely sisters.
One thing I noticed strongly: the house was too quiet. It was never quiet. But now it was unsettlingly quiet. Mama and Dad weren’t there, and the silence hummed in my ears.
I hung the old flag out front that Dad flew every patriotic holiday…the one I hung the day he died, and then the day Mama died. The flag signals all ends.
We went to the cemetery and told Mama and Dad a new family was going to be living in the house at 807. Then we signed on the line. And cried. And cried.