Tag Archives: family


when we say “all in” we are bluffing

My grandpa and his second wife cheated at cards against my father, his middle son, and my mother, who regarded them all with a coolness I could never replicate. Cool the way the linoleum was cool in some kitchen in Alabama where my grandfather’s second wife was a girl. She said she would lie bare-skinned there, seeking reprieve from the long southern heat. She repeated that anecdote until the word ‘linoleum’ sounded like poverty to me and I studied our kitchen floor and wondered if we were also poor. Though I’d started to sense there was a lot of difference between our little, which we spread thin, and her having nothing.

In the winter, reading comic strips and standing on heat vents, I was such a lonely goat. Slow to rouse in the summer, wearing a bathing suit I’d begged for but felt shy in. I was prone to languor. Every day of my teens spent inventorying the things I’d lost or misplaced while all those things I’d maintained just sat there hoping to be numbered. Until one day it dawned on me, if one of the things I’d lost had been my ability to number the things I had not lost then surely all would have been lost. Yet it wasn’t. And I woke up a little. Maybe not all the way. Maybe not yet. But something stirred in me and stretched lazily towards actual gratitude

My grandpa’s second wife looked like she was from Alabama. She had that knife-like prettiness dulled only slightly by need and watchful silence. So my mother condemned her dry pork chops and burnt bread. Before she’d send us out to their trailer in Concho she’d wonder out loud how we’d survive with nothing to eat. That woman was the only grown up I was allowed to call by her first name and every time I used it my belly knotted up a bit, complicit in her condemnation. Before I could put it to words I felt all the blame for my grandmother’s pain falling like rotten petals exclusively on her shoulders and at her feet. Beautiful but putrid. As if my grandfather had not also been a cheat.

As I grew I started to wonder. Do we just lie here and take it then? Is that our lot, like Lot’s wife or his daughters? Like Eve with that dolt, Adam. Is it always our fault? And I got it. I got it. It’s not like I didn’t love my father’s mother fearfully, with her thimble pie and pear butter and brittle rage. With her house that smelled like it was about to fall down, smelled like perm solution and wet adobe. The concept of loyalty was driven early into me. But now that there’s a flower covered cross in the bend of the first treacherous hairpin turn of each love I’ve been in, I’m starting to think perhaps we could have been kinder.

If a person cheats at cards, they’ll cheat at this life. I learned this young, watching my grandpa and his second wife with their series of complicated tics and gestures, all memorized to lead trumps and take tricks. We are what we are and only as much as we are capable of imagining ourselves seen. Predictable. Isn’t this how God came into being, simultaneously awe inspiring and tedious, yawning arrogantly like an author whose characters never take him by surprise? Much later, while I struggled to remain unaware of the arc of my own narrative, my grandfather’s wife stole money from her dying sister. So my granddad left her, too, and lived for a while in his truck by the river.

Violence in Five Acts

for Matthew, without regret or reservation

In the summer, I’d climb up the dying elm with her
slick and pernicious gashes, her plague of elm bugs,
to watch the cottonwood seed cluster and
breathe across the grass. You found me there once,
threw up a lighted strand of Black Cats that went
off at my feet. I nearly fell to my death.

You said “make me some lunch”
and the unjustness was just too much.
You shoved me effortlessly through the
pantry door, my skirt tore to the waist band.
For a skinny kid you sure had a low center of
gravity. Like an old shaolin monk. Like you’d
been patiently weaving a private gamut of landed
licks and meditating to drown out the nay-saying jocks
mumbling on in their neckless turpitude.

I made a break for it then, and cleared the hill on
foot before you caught me up in the green Datsun,
pulled the brake as you threw it in neutral.
We were all so competent driving stick back then.
Maybe that’s the take away. That town that bruised and
bullied the light right out of you gave you this practical gift.
I give up. I gave up then. And you dropped me like
rolled sod over the tailgate and drove me home.
A weird and lonely float in a southwestern gothic parade.

In the yard you turned the hose on me. The cold water
tasted like copper. But then so did the split in my lip.
My hair dripped down my neck and back, my whole
body rose in goose bumps and my shirt was sticking
and bunched across my chest. I cried out truce.
Please, truce. You agreed to stop if I didn’t tell.

My brother, before I could slip through the
front door you had it closed and bolted between us.
Nothing could ever be easy with you I screamed,
sprinted for the side door as you locked the
screen. I boiled over. You pushed your head against the
mesh, your thumbs in your ears, taunting me. I
calmly brained you with a rusted monkey wrench
dad asked us to put away. At that crack, before
the fall, as my short lived and stressful victory
settled like a dying wind around us, I knew I loved you,
staring at me, startled and wide-eyed in wonder
like you were seeing me for the first time.

Holy Rolling

dive under the breakers, bob over the swells

A moment of reverie for the 8-track without which I would never have learned the art of disappearing in close quarters or how to switch from being to listening while the long shadow we cast skittered along the rock walls of the Salt River Canyon. The Tioga listing forward toward Yellowstone or the Mogollon Rim packed stern to bow with children. My father, my captain. My mother, his competent first mate. And man, did they mate. Until the camper could barely contain us. Until the riveted seams buckled and bulged as we clambered over one another for our shot up front between them. The enviable sweet spot, that prie dieu before the chunky altar of the 8-track emerging clunkily with one fat volume knob, one square button that could only bypass multiple tracks at a time. The space race was over and I believed we had clearly won it. Yet we couldn’t skip a dud song without missing a few good ones.

So we memorized whole albums like atlases, studied the geography of each song. We learned to anticipate crescendos and key changes and percussive crashes, any of which might provoke my father’s splayed palm to fall hard on our bare thighs with a sharp crack followed by a hot sting. Divine and warranted, he would roar. He would say, “boy, that’s gonna leave a mark!” as our tender flesh reddened and rose in what we hoped would be a perfectly hand-shaped welt we could show one another like a badge or a medal earned through impossible patience and the extreme discipline of letting our guard down though we knew full well what was coming. We’d scuttle back to the recesses of the cabin where the violence was more predictable and fair. And just like that, and for just a moment in time, that quiet notion that we might be anonymous was briefly dispelled. My family full of rough lovers and rough love being the thing we pass along. Until our own children can’t sit near us without running the risk of being spanked or wrangled, pinched, pink-bellied or having a claw raked through their tangled hair. Until our own children can no better control their own desire to torture what they love a little bit.

A moment of reverie for the 8-track, for the cumbersome case with its austere clasp and the 12 cartridges pushed neatly into their individual slots, which is how I learned to hear music in the order that it was intended. A patience my daughter may never know with her shuffling selection, the ease with which she can track past a lengthy ending or dismiss a tune that no longer pleases her. Even as I anticipate the daunting task of getting a sleeping body, grown too long to carry, out of a car and into a bed, she has a thousand songs nested in her elegant fist. She commands them into position between herself and the darkness of that languid drive’s last leg, rolling out like a slow black ribbon. And I think about my siblings, tucked into our cubbies and cots, the only things saving us from the permanent silence I imagined the Rim was composed of were my father’s heavy breathing and a slender neon bulb above a hand sink that stuttered on reluctantly and couldn’t even work without humming.

Dia de los Muertos

what heals you, get you to it

I have only ever touched three dead bodies. Each with my index finger tracing the middle proximal bone, past the knuckle, stopping at the end of the capitate of the right hand laid gently over the left. There is something about cold skin that renders the body ageless. I remember that my brother, not even twenty, felt as old as my father at 49. And that poor cadaver in between; she could have been in her sixties, the skin over her ribs peeled neatly back. With her I had to strain so hard to tune out the nervous and brutal chatter of other students. I later laid my hand across my father’s breast bone as well, thumb along the sternum, fingers spread over his ribcage. He was dressed in his temple clothes and they were so white; my hand like a tea stain upon them. I felt my own heart stutter and understood, finally, the futility of a deep longing for a thing that can never, ever be. I wanted to believe it was a brave and loving gesture, but really it’s just so difficult to give and receive love from the dead. Before he had even gone we had already begun the systematic transfer of our affection to the space he occupied in memories and stories. Such as it is with a long illness; you have nothing but the fleetingness of time.

I have a young daughter who explores dead things. She pores over each squirrel and chicken. Sometimes through a scrim of tears, though it happens less and less frequently. In part, she seems coldly eager to understand the lifelessness of a thing that once scampered or preened about. But she’s also taking her first tentative steps to peer into the face of her own inevitable passing. I admire her courage. There is very little space left over in me for reverence, but for her I’m still capable of a private awe. For a week in September I watched her navigate her father’s complicated nature following 24 months of absence. Two years so saturated with longing, I could have wrung out time and made a salty lake of desire in our back yard. When he finally arrived she was exact in her loving gestures. She was precise in her grief when he left. Sometimes, if I’m being honest, I regret how vulnerable I am to her losses. Before her, I too could determine how much I was willing to unravel, how much love I would pour out and at which intervals. Now I round out my days watching her speed down the road with her breakable bones and delicate membranes, my heart somewhere in my throat.



Home, Body: Homeward Bound

reconsider the sweet spot of the thing but come up wanting

During the early summer of 2005, I drove across the country in a caravan of various vehicles, all of which were peopled by my siblings and their children, my mother, and a large black labrador. The majority of us were relocating to the fertile farmlands of eastern Pennsylvania in a bizarre little anti-diaspora that was difficult for my most modern friends to understand.

It was difficult for me to understand. I was awash in that postpartum sea separating me from my pre-baby self. Bobbing farther away from the poems and the pool hall near the bookstore. The heady kisses, the conversations that ran long, the racy autonomy, and the ease. Drifting away from the desert in an easterly fashion, watching scrubby ranch land grow greener, more humid, more fecund, and more foreign. All of my possessions were boxed neatly and had gone with my husband two days before. I carried only a few changes of clothing with me, five CDs in my back pack, a nine month old baby still at the breast, and a disquieting itch in the back of my brain.  By Oklahoma I suspected I was making a big mistake.

I’d chosen those five CDs carefully since space was tight. Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde,” A Velvet Underground anthology, Jonny Cash’s “America IV,” Something Will Oldham-y, maybe “Ease Down the Road,” and Smog’s “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love.” Arguably five of the most perfect albums to play while taking in the lazy hush of the middle american landscape. But nobody would let me listen to them anyhow. Ten minutes into the Velvet Underground anthology, Bethany, who was driving while giving herself a full manicure on top of the steering wheel, said she didn’t think she could take any more of it. Actually, I think she said something like, “Uh,  I don’t think so!” whilst ejecting the disk with a neatly filed fingertip. We were in the lonesomest part of rural America, maybe the border of Kansas or across it and into Missouri, passing field after field of corn broken up occasionally by raggedy little porn shops.  Why so many porn shops, I wondered? Later someone told me that they do a lot of business with truckers on a long haul. That made me sad to know, that disconnect between a human and actual human contact.

After we left Amy in Chicago, I took up driving Kristen’s car with my mom riding shotgun. She couldn’t see very well by then, and she also must have felt accommodating because of the fight we’d had in the motel room that morning after she’d insisted we sleep with the air conditioner on high and the baby and I had woken up with earaches.  This finally left me the run of the stereo. I put on “A River Ain’t Too Much to Love” and let it play straight through. God, what a revelation of an album! The slow rhythms and bottom notes suited the languid hurt in my tense body relaxing, matched the rise and fall of the soft green swells with their dark shadows and bright curves. My mom was quiet and thoughtful and Ohio rolled out around us.  The baby made small and occasional baby sounds but mostly she slept a little fevered sleep. I considered hopefully how every road trip, every marriage, every move, and every single baby turns us into a boomerang, flung so far out from our center we become disoriented and foreign. But in all that frightful spinning an imbalance is created, a wobble that returns us more fully to ourselves. When it ended my mom waited a good five minutes before tentatively asking me “So, was that man talking or was he singing?” but all I could consider was the brilliant promise of that single line “Oh I cantered out here, now I’m galloping back” and the potential in the pacing of musical notes that followed.