First, A note about the story:
To Whom It May Concern,
The following is a short story or a novel exploration; it is a very, very rough draft (obviously)... Right now, what I have is this: some characters and their house. What is on the following pages is what has spilled out of my head thus far. What I need to do next is this: I need to have something happen. The story is about Ella’s parents and their profound, but messed up love for each other and also for Ella. It is about their problems and how that they do not have the strength to transcend them due to their own weaknesses and mental unsoundness. The story is about Ella and how she triumphs despite her loss (her mother’s suicide). And the story is also about the characters’ relationship to Delia (Ella’s half sister, her father’s first daughter) and how she (Delia) shapes the rest of the family whether she is present or absent. This is trying to be a story about what happens when there is loss…. I keep thinking that Ella, the main, teenage character is (or at least becomes) “strong in the broken places” like Hemingway talks about.
And here is the actual, thus far untitled story:
“Living here all together was so sweet. Even when we fought.
I felt like it would never end. I’ll always miss it.”
-Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Good Squad
“I want to go up to them and say Stop,/ don't do it--she's the wrong woman,/ he's the wrong man, you are going to do things/ you cannot imagine you would ever do,/ you are going to do bad things to children,/ you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of, / you are going to want to die.”
–Sharon Olds, “I Go Back To May 1937,” The Gold Cell
The year my mother killed herself, we still lived in the tiny and white New Englander that my parents had rented forever from Ryder, one of my father’s oldest friends from his RISD days. The house sat snugly on three acres of meadow, a knuckle of spiny apple trees out front and four stained glass windows punctuating the house's old clapboards which bathed our inside rooms and hallways with violet and emerald light for the whole entire day and for part of the evening.
Ryder came up from Manhattan with his wife and their two small boys once a year to look at the leaves. They spent the week with us, helping with household chores that were too big for my mother to take on alone while Dad worked as many hours as possible at the pallet factory down the street from us; they helped us with cleaning the house’s gutters and also helped repaint the deck a rich slate color. When they had finished for the day and my father drove up our driveway from his job--where the only day off was Sundays--we’d all sit outside under the stars. Dad and Ryder would strike up an easy melody on their just slightly out of tune guitars, teaching us kids and our moms lyrics to their goofy, boyish songs, born out of their unaffected, childlike perceptions that belonged to their art school days when life was one big welding project, there were no mouths to feed, and every other person was a like-minded hippy or hipster. "The stars, the moon, your smile in June," we would sing and laugh, feeling like forever was a good thing, and not that life had already passed us by.
My father did miss his younger days though; there was no doubt. When the guitars were put away and it was time to drive back to the factory, the poetry he lived in often disappeared quickly. His college friends seemed to miss the old days as well, only his friends seemed less sad than Dad and also seemed older, too. Dad’s friends, especially Ryder, seemed, in my child and then teen mind like this: they are wearing ties to work and sometimes even to the dinner table on certain nights while eating with certain company; they are talking about preparing for depositions and the stock market; they seem collected in their mannerisms, their speech, and in their home décor, choosing clean lines over comfort. My dad: he is wearing a perennial flannel and worn Levis; he drinks beer on our over stuffed couch, letting a series of Rolling Rocks clatter collectively to the floor in his absent-minded way. He does not expect Mom to pick these up, though she will. My dad’s friends seemed to take care of their parents; one even purchased an immaculate cobalt colored stained cape on a popular, resort town’s just for his mother. My mother stared at this friend as though star-struck when he told us the details.
“I cannot have her forever sitting around at our summer place, right? Cathy’d divorce me before the summer's half over. This way she can just come over for dinner and watch the kids. At her place”
Sometimes my mom had to borrow money from her father for the rent. My parents could never seem to save up enough money to put on a down payment, and Dad was too proud to borrow or just plain accept a gifted down payment on a house. My father owned one tie for funerals and weddings. Each time the tie resurfaced from its burrow, we had to watch youtube videos to figure out how to get it looking good or even normal, like a person who was not impersonating a straight person. I was better at this task than my dad, but my mom usually was the one who got it the most normal
looking, but only after watching the video about six.
Though visually and viscerally fascinated with the choices this man had, both my parents also held a minute buzz of disdain, feeling that their belief system led them to their own life which bumped up against poverty. They had to look down on people with money; if they could not do this, then they were failures. I remember visiting this guy’s mom who hosted a dinner at her impressive lake house. I remember she was so sweet to her son and even kinder to her daughter in law, which made us all squirm, as we knew how much her daughter in law loathed her. This place was a bargain, she’d tell us. But even as a bargain, she'd say "my goodness, the cost of this place is more than twelve regular houses off the lake. I wish my father were alive to see me here, to see how well things are going for all of us.” And then she’d add with wonder how usually art majors like her son were penniless. She meant no harm to my father when she said this, but I am sure it was difficult for my father to hear nonetheless.
"What did the necktie say to the hat?" My father would laugh. I would answer, my mouth forced into a serious line to perfect the delivery, "You go on a head; I'll just hang around." My mother would shake her fluffy hair at us, happy that we were assuaging her anxiety at whatever event we were off to. Mostly, funerals and weddings often forced us to not only scavenge for Dad’s tie, but also propelled us to reluctantly conflated with her rich, stuck up parents who sneered at my father’s “career” at the factory and seemed baffled about where my mother could find a hairdresser or a copy of The New York Times in the sticks.
Because I loved my mother and because she was an addict and then a suicide and also because I lost her so young, you probably assume I remember the dark things more intensely than our happy times: the reason for why my mother, desperate to quiet her mind, took two consecutive Ativan prescription of my father’s, washing them down with a bottle of inexpensive, red wine. It is true: I do see our sad times from those days. I think of them though without much clarity, with a fuzzy, distant uncertainty: my parents’ rabid fights which left behind broken dishes in the kitchen and holes in the dry wall of their bedroom; both of their stints at rehab, when I worried the state would place me in a foster home and the vapid characters my parents would begrudgingly invite to our home, trying to make the best out of the sad situation that was their mutual, court-ordered attendance of AA; my mother’s “extra-curricular” boyfriend who dealt pot, but shot speedballs and who lived in a lean-to made out of sticks and indoor-outdoor carpet remnants located deep in our town’s conservation land (my mother’s boyfriend: famous for showering at the Y and then sometimes at our house while Dad ripped apart pallets, also famous for driving in zig-zagged patterns down our long, country roads); and then there was my much older, half sister whose sporadic visits left my father with a sadness so visceral to him, he would shoot up for days in his closet office, leaving his works out, a jumble atop blood spotted song lyrics.
I can still see him as though I am peering into a dollhouse, the wall only figurative for the house’s spectator. I am looking at this father doll; he is so close, his mouth big and handsome covering strong, but crooked rocker teeth. His hair is thick, matted like a dog in the woods. Looking at him in this way: his fragility scares me; I could extend my arm, reach into the house, pick him up, look into his eyes, and then maybe I could save him, if only I didn’t crush him first. Seeing him this way, inside of this house without him noticing, I see a situation: my sister is gone after a particularly draining visit and he is like a man you’d see in a Vietnam vet documentary, a picture of shell shock: those boyish, scared eyes, eyelashes that both girls and women alike coveted, boyish strength undercut completely by uncotrolled disaster; everything in him and around him broken and beautiful at the same time. My father: nodding out in the kitchen, too scared to be alone, but too messed up for actual conversation, the shapes of his words overwhelmed by low sounding vowels that sound like moans. My father, with his usually perfect voice singing his perfectly boyish songs reminded me of an old man with throat cancer on days like these.
My half sister, Delia, had schizophrenia and lived with her rich, maternal grandmother in another state, hours away from us. The distance did keep her at a safe distance; however, it added stress onto the already stressful visits, and it added to my father’s guilt which was already about to break him where she was concerned. She would come to our house once every two months for a long weekend. She would leave her suitcase in the kitchen and it would stay there until me or my mother bought it into my room, where we had a twin bed set up for her. For the whole visit, with the exception of meals we ate in the kitchen, she would sit in front of the television while my mother watched the clock and talked in a voice that sounded different from what I knew. Misery and confusion rolled off of Delia while I sat next to her; I was half enthralled, half disgusted. And I always grappled with the confusion I had which was this: was she hideous or beautiful or neither, just regular? I always wondered how the same blood was racing through our veins. I was like my mother in almost every way: light with light blue eyes. You could nearly see though my hair, ashy blond. We are both waifs, my father could pick us up at the same time which he does on the weekends when he is not too tired from ripping up pallets in the factory. He never did this on Delia’s weekends though. In fact, in the recesses of my mind, it is hard to place Delia and my father in the same room. I can see her sitting next to me, only speaking to complain about our house or my mother’s food, or our water pressure. I can see her dark, solid limbs and longs hair that was pretty, but too thick somehow, looking like it would turn into dreadlocks if she had skipped brushing for more than half a day. I can see her near my mother, looking so dark and solid in comparison. Near my mother she is always scowling; and there is my mother with her pseudo cheer, exhausted just underneath the surface, almost grey, counting the moments to the visit’s end.
Delia was built in a solid way, but was also she was tiny in terms of height like her mother I’d seen once at a rest area, where we’d met to pick her up. This gave her a matronly look, which she had had even as a young teenager. I think it was weirder for my mother to have her in the house when she would see the two of us looking so very differently. My mom would look with her head tilted as though puzzling out a crossword; Delia was oblivious, zoned out on reruns. It was as though my mother were a desperate woman, looking for a clue, for anything, a sort of figurative glue that would turn the situation into a solution; she wanted to welcome Delia into our lives, for Delia had been in their lives before I had, but mother could not love Delia. And not loving Delia made the guilt of my father’s inability to care about Delia in the way he cared about me unbearable.
It was when my father got laid off from his factory job that my mother said to him one night in their room, the walls so thin it felt like they were at the foot of my bed, “Sam I cannot have her here anymore. You need to be here for Ella. Delia's got her grandmother. What does Ella have? Ella needs you here."
And it was true, I did need my father in a way that Delia did not. She had a safety net, while I had my parents. I was seven years younger than my sister who only seemed like a child, but was partly into her adulthood. She needed our father, too; however, her need was insatiable. In her teen years alone, she had visited more mental hospitals than my parents had visited rehab during their whole lives. Her life, despite the fancy language lessons during high school, constant cruises, and endless shelves of fashionable, but overly girly clothes, was unpleasant. However, her grandmother and litany of preppy cousins cushioned the space that was her tricky mind. The French lessons, her leased horse, the swimming pool felt stacked up in a neat pile next to my own life: the rented house full of broken poetry and parents who lived in a hopeless whisper.
When she no longer visited us, I was mostly relieved. My mother breathed in a deeper way. And my father, after binging on JD for a fortnight at the bar down the street, seemed lighter, too. She was not our problem. But somehow we could not erase her. Like the violet and green brilliance that permeated our house, my sister was a ghost who could not be erased. The spiny apple trees out front, my father hugging our bodies close to his for warmth, the way the three of us were like the knuckles on a one body’s hand now was flowered with just a little bit of guilt. And I wonder now if it was this guilt that finally tipped us over the edge.
But when I look back, it is not her visits or even her ghost that I remember with any lucidity. Gathering memories of Delia is a struggle, as they--along with the other, darkly sad times--that were at least in part responsible for my mother’s overly careless inability to take care of herself, are like shadows cast across a vibrant sidewalk chalked with a hopeful series of hopscotch rectangles.
My mother could hardly take care of herself, never mind her supposedly beloved thirteen-year-old, eighth grade daughter. But where she neglected me, I rose to take care of myself. Her neglect made me strong where it broke me. And what I remembered in my strength is now infinite. Her short, but pretty, smooth fingers as she brushed her hands through my thick hair, her freckly skin polka-dotted more so on the left side, where her face and arm was exposed to the sun while she drove me to school, ballet classes I received through a kind scholarship, and art classes at the local, art center. I wish you could see her like I do now, still: my mother, smiling tiredly at my as my father impersonates the childlike, unaffected and adorable Jonathan Richman’s infamous song about being straight. They adore his razor edge ideology, as it is the opposite from their own despite the fact they have me and want the world and the moon for my life. Mom’s head is in her hands, her whole body bouncing happily with giggles when my father sings with mock seriousness, “Oh, I’m certainly not stoned, like hippie Johnny is.”
I have memorized the year my mom left this planet the way my third grade self could see multiplication facts in the camera of my mind, penciled hurriedly with excitement. For me, even as a little girl, math facts were like prayers that were not fantasy or a just an idea; they were prayers that had real answers every time. Like the magical math, I can see my mom’s last year on earth the same way I know my own face in the bathroom mirror. I can feel her last living twelve months in a physical way, the way I know how my own teeth feel each moment--and each moment after this one--in my very own mouth.
I read something years after my mother died when I was pregnant with my own daughter: When a mother gives birth, her cells are inside of you, and your cells are still inside of her. When she is carrying and loving you during her pregnancy they are in you, and you are in her. Then, after you are in the world on your own, next to her, coloring a picture of a star, you are also still inside of her and she is inside of you, too. Each mother holds the cells of her children after they leave her body. These cells are like tiny tattoos of your soul on her heart.
My mom had a tiny Polish box filled with mementoes from her girlhood and in this box she also saved my baby teeth. My cells stayed inside my mother, until that year she took her life, like the baby teeth in the Polish box. When she left this earth, I wondered if I was literally lighter on this planet, my cells less numerous. The etching of me she carried inside got snuffed out, unseen, unheard, and unknown except to me and my father, and maybe other people, too, if they ever thought of us.
I can still see her Polish box, round and orange with tiny black, brown, and green detailing sitting on the top of her dresser though it now sits on my own holding not only my baby teeth, but now my daughter’s as well.
I can see this box vividly, as I can see other details in our little, rented house of my childhood: All of my art work is hung almost professionally, though my parents have little money for small things, even like frames. It is displayed mostly in the hallway where our stairs led down to our kitchen; and it is overlapping sometimes just slightly in frames resting on the tops of the bookshelves in my father’s office and in the hallway that met the stairs. Every time I climbed the stairs to do my homework or go to bed, I could see my progression as an artist.
I worked mostly with charcoal and Cray pas, but sometimes I experimented with other mediums. I adored the idea of hand colored photographs. There was I did collaging, too. I would paint oceans of grey and green and blue hues and then tear these pages, sometimes for hours past the middle of the middle of the night, and then glued these oceans into shapes that were precise little houses. These houses seemed better than our own, sturdier, less poetic, but sharper architecturally. The collages were from middle school, as were the hand color photographs. The charcoal started when I was maybe eight. I remember the art teacher showing them to us, and she worried more about the mess than the product. Recanting the teacher’s anxiety to my mother, she laughed sadly, remarking, “That’s public school for you…”
My dad’s factory job and my mom’s inability to find work as a nurse because of her drug felony could not place me into the private, alternative private school they dreamed of in their minds. As a result, whatever grades I brought home were perfect. If I failed English because I wrote poetry refusing to apply the assigned meter, my parents believed I was a subversive genius. If I excelled, as I always did in my art classes and seemed to do in math as well, adoring the rules of algebra, which felt as perennial and true as tiger lilies, my parents knew that my genius was pulling up the idiot IQ of the “other” more “common” kids whose brains certainly would have rotted without my presence.
I remember the morning best, the whole house still and hushed with only our sleepy murmurs to each other like far off crickets in a damp, just lit meadow. I would stagger down the painted white stairs that glistened under my artwork and the light of our stained glass windows. Barefoot, I would walk across our sticky kitchen. My mother was a late riser on her own, but my father and I were morning people, so she always pulled her body out of bed. She had trouble talking so early, but she always made coffee for dad, tea for me. As I sat in my chair, Dad would greet me like we were pals from another lifetime, recently reunited, “Good morning Cowgirl in the Sand!” My father’s green eyes held mine, and he smiled.
I felt sad for my father almost every morning back then, for he was a welder by trade and was an artist, too, our yard punctuated by his innovative butterfly and bird sculptures made from metal scraps found by the factory’s trash bins. I hated that he went somewhere he hated everyday, and I hated that there seemed very little I could do about it. He also was in a band, the band sometimes changed, as his buddies, like my dad, were always in and out of rehab, but there was hardly ever a time when people weren’t coming over to jam with my dad. He was usually the singer, but occasionally played bass, too.
My father was not a nine to fiver by nature; he was a definite free spirit artist confined by the family life burden we forced on him without meaning to. We would have encouraged him to leave if we had thought he would have listened, but he loved us more than life itself, so it would not have mattered what we said. We lived so far in the woods it was impossible to find high paying union work. “And in this economy, really, “ my dad explained to me once, “even if we moved closer to the city, in some sketchy as shit triple-decker, it would do us zero good. They’re constantly union busting these days.” Watching my handsome, artist dad, a dreamer if there ever was one, stuck inside at a factory—even on Saturdays, especially on Saturdays--broke my heart each and every morning.