Jenny-Lynn is a former psychotherapist living in Denver and in South Park, Colorado. Her essays have appeared in The Colorado Sun, Pithead Chapel, and Dreamer's Creative Writing. She blogs at themoreiwrite.net and can be found on Instagram @writeriderepeat.
It was, objectively speaking, a terrible time. In eight years, I’d grieved the deaths of both of my in-laws, of my mother, and of my sister Kris. One friend and a counseling client died by suicide. Another friend, not yet forty, was felled by a stroke at a Christmas party. In the middle of it all, the horrors of the Aurora theater shootings ripped through the university counseling center where I worked. Crisis after crisis, sorrow after sorrow—even now I refuse to list them all. But my body took every blow.
Just as had my mother and her mother before her, I grew a lump in my throat that wouldn’t go away. My Icelandic grandmother had died from complications after a thyroidectomy; my mother’s thyroid cancer had been successfully treated when she was in her fifties. As my own nodule grew, swallowing became more and more difficult, and my voice weakened like a drought-choked river. All the while, my widowed father lived joyfully into his 90’s. Just weeks before he developed his final pneumonia, I scheduled the thyroidectomy that I had long dreaded.
A few days before my surgery, the husband and I flew to Florida to say goodbye to Dad. He slept on his back in a bright room, under clean white sheets, as if resting for a journey. When I leaned over to kiss the warm dome of his forehead, his eyes opened, baby blue as a late spring sky. Oh, Yenny! (He always called me by the Icelandic version of my name.) Yenny, what a treat to wake up and see YOU here! As he drifted back to sleep, I knew that had been our moment, that after my own death, I’d open my celestial eyes and say, Oh, Daddy, what a treat to wake up and see YOU here!
My endocrinologist described my common papillary thyroid cancer as indolent, a word Dad would have appreciated. By the time he took his last breath, I was recovering from surgery. My tumor had been successfully removed–no radiation, no chemo, just a Viking-boat shaped scar on my neck and replacement thyroid hormone every morning. I was resting–sore throated and groggy–when the husband stepped up to our bed, phone in hand. Concern edged the corners of his mouth, and his eyebrows furrowed with sadness. Is Dad gone? I asked, and he nodded. I cried the bitter tears of an orphan, shocked at how raw such expected—even gracious–news could feel.
The next day, I woke at 4:30 to the echoing call of a back-yard robin. I wanted to go outside, to see the open sky where my father had gone. In the darkness, I quietly opened the heavy wooden door of our old house and made my way the half mile to City Park Golf Course. Full of energy and purpose, I felt like I could walk forever. Eastern clouds shone pink and mauve as a faint glow appeared on the horizon. I threaded my way past the empty driving range and crested a hill where raked sand traps and geometric greens cast long shadows. Soon, sunlight touched the snow-white tufts of pollen heaped at the feet of hundred-year-old cottonwoods.
I felt the balm of my father’s presence and the morning joy he savored. A childhood hymn echoed in my mind, Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms. Leaning, leaning, leaning on the Everlasting Arms! When I was small, Daddy would hold the hymnal for me, running his fingers along the words that he sang by heart. My father, who wept as we sang in church. The same father who told jokes too vulgar to repeat, and whose capacious mind was our Google long before the World Wide Web.
Tears stung my eyes. Suddenly, I felt bone tired. My legs trembled. Thirst scratched painfully at the place where my thyroid had been just three days earlier. I found a bench and watched electric golf carts line up at the club house. I waited until a low current of strength returned, then stood up and slowly began the walk home. I had lost my father, yet begun to breath more easily. A long and gentle set of years began that morning, a miraculous stretch of time with no hospital visits, and no funerals.
On the last day of 2021, we woke to hills transformed into gigantic piles of soft cotton. The snow in the meadow covered all but the tips of tall yellow grasses. Even under cloudy skies, a sunny glow suffused the meadow. The husband and I had arrived early for our New Year’s cabin retreat. We satisfied a dream–to get snowed in with our cross-country skis. It was a blissful get-away, even if one of us did go a little crazy. It wasn’t him.
On New Year’s morning, I woke to a Covid exposure notification on my phone. Of course, I said to myself, that scratchy throat, I knew it! A home test was negative, and my throat settled down, but a too-familiar Covid anxiety squeezed my cranium. Triple-vaccinated, I wasn’t worried; I was just in the mood to not get sick. I mean, wouldn’t it be cool not to get Covid during this vertical wave, this tsunami of contagion? When we texted our friends who had breakthrough cases, none of them wrote back, Hey, this is fun, you should try it!
We had hoped for a road trip to Arizona, but mean Mother Omicron shook her finger at us: “Oh, no you don’t!” A day at a hot spring pool also felt risky, so forget that. Instead, we wrote and we read. We slept hard, watched shooting stars before dawn, and skied. Even four days of great skiing, though, only ate seven and half hours.
First cheerfully, then with an edge of disagreement, we discussed what animals may have left the distorted tracks around the cabin and in the woods. Coyotes, he said, and I said moose. He guessed coyote again. The strangest prints turned out to be from snow blobs that had fallen off of the bare branches. Back in the house, I start pacing.
On day five, running low on fresh food and drinking water, we headed to Prather’s market, commercial hub of Fairplay. The store was full of people, none of them masked. Wide-eyed, we snagged some frozen spinach and only a few gallons of drinking water, which quickly ran low. I stepped in and out with a big pot and scooped up snow to melt on the heat stove. I was glad to have this little chore–it greatly expanded my pacing route.
I settled down with a book, and the husband immediately walked down the stairs just to say, Oh, it’s chilly down here. Half an hour later, I got restless again and found him. It’s really warm up here, I say. We did this again and again.
One day, we chatted outside with a neighbor for a few minutes. I found myself wanting to cling to his arm, to ask, Must you go? Marrying and keeping one favorite person is a great thing, but, honey, I think we might need to start talking to other people.
A howling wind storm scoured the snow into hard drifts on our driveway. We ate quinoa for lunch, followed by oatmeal for dinner. I fantasized about sushi, about traffic jams and air pollution, while my introverted sweetie got happier and happier. I’m never leaving, he intoned as he gazed at the winter sky, his face serene. He said this every day. Every. Single. Day.
The gusts calmed. I cleared the driveway and escaped over Hoosier Pass to Arapahoe Basin for a downhill ski day. After a few runs, I sat at picnic table in the sun and giggled at a sweet email from a writer friend.
Now you have to tell me what’s so funny, came an unfamiliar voice from the far corner of the table. A conversation with a stranger! Do I remember how to do this? I asked him where he’s from, and he asked for music recommendations in Denver. I haven’t been out to music in a really long time, I said. I wonder why? He parried back, and we laughed together.
After a few minutes, I stood up, my sandwich finished, and said It’s been lovely talking with you. It really was lovely. I took a few fresh stories back for our last night at the cabin, suddenly full of hope for 2022.
When my boys were young, we read K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series, about alien worms who crawled into people’s ears in order to take over their brains. These interstellar slugs were slowly conquering the world. At regular intervals, the alien worms, called yeerks, returned to their collective pool to regenerate. Human hosts, controlled by the aliens, would lean down at the edge of the goopy water as the slugs oozed out to do their yeerk thing and strategize about how best to control the universe, one slugged brain slug at a time. Luckily, a group of intrepid young humans had gained the ability (from good aliens, of course) to morph into animals. So, as soaring hawks or hive-brained ants, they waged covert battle with the yeerks.
When my son, now thirty, has bipolar depression, as he does today–immobilized by invisible neurostorms–I think of the Animorphs shouting to each other, as they prepare for yet another impossible mission, Time to kick yeerk butt! And off they go to save the world.
When I meet someone who might become a friend, I often take the risk of disclosing that my son carries a bipolar diagnosis. Then I brace myself for the harshness of the typical first question: Is he taking meds? Or recently: Is he taking drugs? “Drugs?”–that one stumped me. Were they asking if he also has addiction, as so many folks with bipolar do, or were they blending the term for prescribed medications and street drugs? In these conversations, I often hear about someone’s sibling, ex-partner, or parent who struggled with mental illness. But the medication question almost always comes first. As if medications are a fix, as if surrendering the brain to psychiatry makes bipolarity disappear.
The “take medication, be fixed” way of thinking is familiar. I thought that way myself a dozen years ago, when my son was an intellectually gifted teen with a rebellious streak. Before his first real manic episode bloomed like toxic algae, before our family’s genetic pattern was revealed. Before I visited my elderly mother in the psychiatric ward, and before two of her other grandchildren were also diagnosed. For so long, I didn’t know I was thinking, why don’t people just take their medications? But I was.
Every year that goes by, I am more and more grateful for the miracle of modern psychiatric medications, for the lives they improve and the lives they save. And still, more than once, more than twice, my son has been following every recommendation of a complex treatment plan—medication combinations, support groups, highly skilled on-going psychotherapy—and boom, he is hit, as if by a stray bullet. Up he goes like a shining, untethered balloon. Or down he goes into the dark pit of depression. These cycles leave him facing yet more lost opportunities, yet more go-rounds of self-blame. The yeerks are at it again.
How to be a mother on days like this? I want to morph into a bull elephant and drain the pond where the alien yeerks strengthen, where they strategize ways to rob humans of their freedom and self-command. I try instead to stick to my known super-powers, encouragement and food. Every day, I tell him I love him and ask if he’s eaten his vegetables. I text him funny memes, even when I know his phone is off. I buy organic spinach and kale, heaping it onto his plate at every opportunity. Of course, no amount of mother love can banish symptoms. I beat back my grief and helplessness. I battle my destructive impulse to make everything right by sheer force of will. Then, slowly sink into the hard-won understanding about my mother, my son, myself: all of us, always, are doing our best. Yes, it helps to take medication, and no, even the bravest heroes are not always cured. But on they go, day by day, season by season, kicking yeerk butt.
Wherever I am, every day is a tug-of-war between cranky anxiety and inner peace. It’s more than quiet here, the husband says, as dawn lands in shining patches atop the Buffalo Peaks. We watch from the cabin couch as pink sky brightens to clear blue. December already. We’ve been kept away from this sanctuary for many weeks by his bruised ribs–mountain biking giveth and mountain biking taketh away–and by my lingering bronchitis. We’ve missed these wide-open views and sheltering circles of aspen. Even in this retreat, the quiet morning harmony is not guaranteed to last, not if I’m involved.
In November, I went to DC and to Connecticut, soaking up time with some of my favorite people. One day, my morning Course in Miracles lesson is “Let all things be exactly as they are.” This message speaks directly to my perfectionism, my hyper-criticality and impulse to control. So I do it: I let all things be exactly as they are. I sit up in bed and breathe deeply, cradling my cup of coffee like a chalice. Yes, I will remember this one. This one is perfect, my mind crows. And then. And then: other people, the news, bronchial irritation. I am annoyed by not having slept well, bothered by how quickly my caffeine high fades. I write a little, but hate the sentences I produce, then I scan the headlines and seethe. What ails these politicians? Why do people make the simplest things so hard? My jaw clenches as I wonder if I will ever sleep without a cough again. A typical morning–basking in serene intentions at dawn, then falling flat on my spiritual face by nine am.
Setting my notebook aside, I drive along streets overhung with fiery maple and birch leaves to the Cornerstone Athletic Club in West Hartford. I sigh with pleasure as I lower myself into the hot tub. I relax. Then a slender young woman, blonde hair cropped short, annoys me. In response to an older man’s question, she says My ballet background informs my yoga teaching. Just two people making friendly conversation. I blend Yoga and Astrology and Art, she says. Oh, please! I think. I fight down the disdain, the eye roll at all things new age. This person needs to just stop: stop being so young, so well-rested, so graceful and sure of herself. Oops. Then I remember: let all things be exactly as they are.
I shake my head at myself and plunge into a deep swim lane dappled with sunlight. Quickly, the sheath of warmth cloaking my body dispels. I move through cool quiet, watching bubbles form under my fingernails as I push my hands forward. There is no quiet like underwater quiet, no view like underwater sunlight. My jumpy mind stills, and on I go. Back and forth in the pool, back and forth between my wandering thoughts and my steady beating heart. Every day, I set peaceful intentions, then forget that serenity exists.
Today, I meditate and look at the mountains. I write a sentence I don’t hate. I breath in the beauty, then criticize my privileged self-indulgence. Back and forth, back and forth. Even quiet that is more than quiet doesn’t guarantee peace. And while I’m deep into my post-religion adult life, I can’t help think of an illiterate Jewish peasant, his egalitarianism so threatening to the authorities that he was murdered, his calls for justice and connection so compelling that his friends somehow kept his story alive. I’ll go up to the mountains (forgive, forgive, forgive), down into the water (back and forth, back and forth). I’ll do the small things I can for my loved ones, for strangers. And as I used to sing in church every Sunday, I will ask: let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.
Japanese beetles are iridescent green, shiny–and beautiful. I admire the engineering genius in the strong grip of their tiny claws and the protective shell of their winged backs. I murder them because they feast on all my favorite garden plants: Virginia Creeper vines become laced skeletons; rose and hibiscus blooms are hollowed out before they can unfurl. Day after day for three summers running, I killed the destructive fliers by the hundreds–shaking them into drowning bowls of soapy water.
This summer was bountiful, disorienting, and full of noxious invaders. Covid 19 seemed to be exiting stage left while we adjusted to socializing and the smiles of strangers, then—well, you know that story. Between visits from long-missed friends and during breaks from clouds of wildfire smoke, I was on the couch or on a bicycle. My write-ride-repeat summer plan quickly became a ride, read-a-little, ride-some-more reality. Then all of a sudden, there was snow on the deck, and I hadn’t written in what seemed like forever.
I had fought a losing battle with hungry beetles in the city, and with noxious knapweed in Fairplay. Knapweed is a thistle that sprouts in soft green tufts in the spring only to morph into two-foot high shrubs holding hundreds of needle-sharp seed heads. It has been my enemy roughly since the time that my son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which was around the same time that my mother was dying. My therapist then heard a lot about knapweed. And she once asked me to say out loud the names of each person I loved who had died over the previous eighteen months. I only made it to four, about half way, before losing track and crying. But I pulled a lot of knapweed that year, grateful for one thing that I could destroy back.
This August, while I was obsessing about beetles and knapweed instead of writing, Sunlight Press published an essay of mine that included more about bipolar disorder in our family than I’d written before. Encouraged by the journal’s editor, and with the full blessing of my son, I connected the dots between my mother’s illnesses, my own first major depression, and my son’s bipolar diagnosis. (Have a look if you missed my post about it on Facebook: https://www.thesunlightpress.com/2021/08/22/colfax-and-monroe/).
The more I write, the more I learn to write about (if not publish about) the hardest things. I step into those memories and experiences not out of self-pity, but because they are the truest stories I have. They help anchor me to my current happiness, providing contrast, expanding my gratitude. Maybe those stories also have the most potential to help others.
I chose to become a therapist many years ago because I wanted to be part of transformational conversations, and to be genuinely helpful. Maybe I was most helpful on days that I felt like a failure in my own life, when I was blind to the generational patterns that look so obvious in retrospect. Maybe the counseling I offered on days when I showed up to work confident and energized were my least helpful days in the profession. Possibly, the days I needed to cry in the parking lot for an hour before I could walk into my office were my days of most lasting service to clients.
No shining cosmic memo will tell me that something I did as a therapist or wrote since that time made a real difference to another person. But, like the genuine practice of psychotherapy, a genuine writing practice shifts me away from my petty, narcissistic side and toward a vision of a better world. Beetles and knapweed and bipolar and all. Looking deeply inside ourselves and telling the truth about what we find there, is, I believe, inherently healing. And the more I write, the more of that I want.
So what are you working on today? My writing friend asks over zoom the other morning. Oh, I’m working on my shame list. You know, things I’ve been hating on myself about, just a couple of small things that I can get done. The list had two items: re-post the Dunes memoir essay that had gone out via email but not “stuck” to the blog site, and write for ten minutes about the weather. Notebook weather reports are a “way in” when I’ve not been writing, my word boat becalmed. The currents of a reopening world pulled me into travel and bike rides; the weeds in my garden begged to be pulled before the heat of the days set in.
That recent morning, though, I managed to repost the essay and write these sentences in my notebook (lightly revised—I’m compulsive that way):
The weather is so hot! The sun beats down from an ozone sky, orange sunrise bakes the back yard by 7:30. Hot light seeps in through the edges of the kitchen blinds and bounces off the shine of the counter top. Weather is what happens outside but it feels personal. It feels like an assault, this heat, like a pummel. Like someone is holding a magnifying glass between the city and the sun. And soon the dot of magnified heat will move to a dry stick west of here and the conflagration of parched forests will begin.
End of writing day. Two things are marked off the shame list, but self-loathing remains.
The next day, after not writing at all, I text my friend, I’ve been feeling mildly brain dead on couches. Maybe it’s a mood thing or ozone pollution or not having a job? Or just something to wait out? Blech. And then, Maybe it’s Covid. Maybe it’s menopause. Maybe it’s Maybelline! I hug a blue couch pillow and say to the husband, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. He laughs, familiar with my dark side. We both know that his patient laugh is medicine.
I start to text that same sentence to my same friend, Maybe I’m not meant to be a person anymore. Suddenly, I’m afraid of how depressed, even suicidal it sounds. I’m not depressed, I add to my text, or suicidal, but I appreciate that you would ask meif you thought I might be. I delete the text—it feels like too much. I wrap my arms around the pillow and roll over on my left. I think about failure. If I hug this pillow long enough, I ask the husband, will I start to feel like a person again? His response, so admirably calm: Probably.
I don’t want to be a mood ball. I look at my ups and downs and wish I were different, wish I were steadier, more reliable and responsible. When I can see my moods dispassionately, I appreciate their relative mildness. I wrote here a while back about how I never “qualified” for a bipolar diagnosis, which is true. But over the years, I qualified for plenty: General Anxiety Disorder (my therapist at the time found this diagnosis less stigmatizing than PTSD), and my two post-partum depressions were officially Major Depressions. All this before the genetically-driven family pattern of bipolarity became clear.
When I’m down, every small thing feels effortful. Not doing my laundry makes me sad, makes me ashamed. But I can’t put my whole neurology on the shame list. Because, really, there is nothing wrong with me. I’m a human with a messy and beautiful brain. Almost everyone has felt this way at some point. If you feel this way today, I salute your ability to feel, to be exactly as you are, right now.
Still, I hear my mother’s critical voice telling me I am spoiled and lazy, lazy and spoiled. And I may be spoiled and lazy, but I’m not bad or wrong or morally flawed for losing time to moods. I say this today. Two days ago, I felt unworthy of personhood.
Whatever shame said to me that afternoon, I was able to kiss the couch goodbye for an hour and ride my bike under trees clothed in baby-leaf green. I was able to feel sweat gather at the ends of my hair, and to stop for breath while looking at clear sky. I came home feeling better, tired in a different way. This morning that sky is indeed smudged with smoky haze from distant wildfires. And this morning, I’m writing again. Shame be damned.
Bird song echoes off a sandy hill behind the Indiana Dunes cottage and filters through the wood-framed window screen, waking me early on a June morning. High notes bounce off the moss-specked cinder block foundation, then rise along the chipped wood siding and skip over patched roof tiles to the brightening sky.
Woo woo woo wooooooo, ta ta ta ta ta! The bird trills again from the clothes line that runs like a curved track outside our bedroom window. The song sparrow announces that I am at my favorite place, the Dunes, a two-day drive from our brick house in Maryland, and a world away from the disappointments of first grade. At the Dunes, my mother’s cold winter sadness is forgotten. Her fights with Daddy never happened. At the Dunes, Mamma doesn’t stay up late crying or sleep through breakfast.
The cottage on the south shore of Lake Michigan sighs with the breath of my sleeping sisters, one in the bunk above me, and one in a single bed just across the room. I listen for waves, and hearing only birdsong know that this morning, the lake will be calm, clear as a mirror. Quietly, I push off the quilt that someone has pulled over me in the night. I tug off my nightgown and step into my swimsuit and a pair of shorts, then wrap a dry beach towel around my shoulders to keep off the morning chill. I tip-toe across the braided rag rug and onto the cool linoleum of the empty kitchen.
Through the second-story window, the lake spreads out before me, a fresh water ocean shining up at the sky, never ending. Down below, a thin line of gravel curls along the shore, shifting up and down in the shape of yesterday’s small waves. I see Mamma walking slowly by the water’s edge. She is compact and graceful, dark hair curling around her face as she steps slowly along the shore, looking down. One of her hands cups the crinoid fossils she is finding among the sandy pebbles. We call them “cronies,” and they look like Cheerios that have sat in the hot sun for weeks. They can be almost too small to see, or–rarely–as big as my thumb. They are rocks holding the shape of the stacked spines of water lilies that lived here so long ago that there were no people on earth yet, Daddy says; so long ago that the glaciers that melted to make this lake hadn’t frozen into place yet.
I stand in my bare feet and hear Daddy’s baritone coming up the stairs from Nanny’s kitchen. Nanny is his and all my aunts’ mother. She has her own small apartment downstairs and gets up very early in the morning. I go down the back stairs slowly, not wanting to wake my sisters or be seen by Daddy and Nanny, who sit at her small kitchen table, holding mugs in front of small plates of coffee cake. I don’t want to sneak, but I duck past Nanny’s window. I want to go to Mamma on the beach, to be with her inside her solitude.
I go to my mother, drawn to her peacefulness, to this chance to be alone with her. I run to her, soft sand flying under my feet. She looks up with a smile. We collide gently, and she wraps one strong arm around my shoulders. I press my head into her side, closing my eyes. Look, she says, I found three nice cronies, with holes all the way through! I walk slowly back with her along the water, wet sand cold under my feet. I feel helpful and quiet, looking down for cronies. Aren’t you hungry? She asks, as we approach the cottage. Suddenly I am. We walk up the stairs holding hands. We rinse our feet in the short plastic bucket, and wave good morning to Daddy and Nanny.
In our upstairs kitchen, Mamma scrambles eggs while I set the table. My big sisters wander in, sleepy, and sit down to look at the lake. A moment later, Daddy comes upstairs, refills his coffee and gives Mamma a kiss. After breakfast, we go back down to the shore, like returning pilgrims. I sit with my legs straight out in the water, my hands lifting wet sand that I dribble into small towers on my thighs. I dunk into the cold water, then lie on dry sand until the sun soothes my goosebumps and seeps down into my bones. All that day, I stay close to my mother.
Mamma is warm at the Dunes. Warm like the beach at mid-morning, like the shiny paint of her fingernails. Warm like the sandy hill rising to the woods; gentle like the tiny wavelets at the edge of the water before they moisten her feet. She is crystalline; blue-green as the lake, graced by summer. And I soak her in. She is such a woman as she is nowhere else, when she sits and looks out from the shore, studying the line of water and sky, the sailboat or the seagull, concentrating, almost forming the scene, as if it were her homeland harbor. It’s at the Indiana Dunes where Mamma feels most alive to me. It could be the morning air slowly moving tiny grains of sand over our footprints, or the smoothness of her face as the sunlight glances back to her from the white beach. Maybe it’s the speckled rocks or the flat green skipping stones that I place on the arm of her beach chair, for safekeeping.
My mother pulls the long cord of connected metal beads that hang to the right of the dining room drapes, long beige fabric panels patterned with forest vines. They overhang the sliding glass doors that open to the painted concrete steps of our back patio. Outside, maple leaves edged in gold hint at fall, and giant marigolds tip heavily toward the lawn. Only a few miles from our house in Maryland, Gerald Ford has announced his pardon of Richard Nixon.
Mamma lifts her hands one above the other and closes off the view of the back yard. Late Saturday morning, and I have come upstairs from watching tv alone. Only Mamma and I are home, giving the morning that forever feeling, stark, like when I was small and home with her all day. Daddy must be on a weekend shift at the Weather Bureau, and, at eight, I am either too young or too hesitant to be included in whatever my big sisters are doing this morning. I am bored. I’ve watched Lynda Carter grasp the magical Egyptian bracelet on her wrist and declare, Almighty Isis! And she spins around and around, unblurring into “Wonder Woman,” resplendent in a gold bathing suit, ready to do good. Mamma is wearing cleaning clothes, a cotton top and an old pair of old pants with mud stains on the knees from the summer’s vegetable garden. Her clothes telegraph that that she is not going out, no shopping or errands today, just a determination to get something done in this house.
She pulls a dining room chair in front of the closed drapes and stands up on it, then reaches her short arms up to where the curtains hang in a smooth-running track. What are you doing? I ask. These are dirty, so I am taking them down and washing them. Her Icelandic accent, even directed into the soft fabric, sounds sharp. How do curtains get dirty? I ask, but I know this is my father’s question. He might hold a cold can of Stroh’s as Mamma fills a bucket with soapy water, and opine The floor looks fine to me. Why wash it? Cleaning is something my mother prefers to do alone, if she can.
But she answers my question. They get dirty from dust, and from people pulling on them with dirty hands instead of opening them the right way, by pulling the cord. Mamma removes each metal hook from the top of the curtains and hands them to me to put on the dining room table. Keep them together, don’t drop them. Then she hugs the fabric panels close to her slim middle and walks with them downstairs to the laundry room.
The patio doors look naked and bereft, the rod like an accusing eyebrow over a blank stare. When I was little, I made a private world between the drapes and the panes of sliding glass. Invisible from inside the house, I could see out into the world but still be sheltered and warmed. But this Saturday I am twice as old as I was when the dining room’s leafy green plants were a jungle surrounding my other-world hiding place.
Later, still bored, I go to the basement laundry room. My sullen mood shifts to a desire to be helpful, so I heave the heavy, wet drapes out of the washing machine and stuff them into the black mouth of the electric dryer. I push the start button and walk away with my shoulders back, feeling grown up and responsible. An hour later, I am in my straightened room when I hear Mamma approach. Her feet land on the floor with the weight of a bureaucrat’s stamp. She is angry.
Arriving at my door, she asks, Did you touch the curtains? I nod. Come here, and look what you have done! I follow her into the dining room. The curtains are hanging in front of the glass doors again, but they look all wrong, shorter than they should be and puckered in places where they are supposed to be smooth. These never go in the dryer! They are ruined! The drapes hang six inches above where they usually meet the floor. I stand in front of her as she glares at me. A light film of perspiration shines her face. The drapes had been so pretty, the long brown fabric that I used to hide behind, pretending to climb the upward-reaching vines. Blood rushes to my feet. My face flushes, then tingles to marble.
All day, my pallor and stiffness linger. And Mamma is sorry. She walks me back to the dining room and shows me that the drapes have stretched down again, almost to the floor. They have lengthened and smoothed themselves out. They are okay—see? Her voice is soft and her eyes look at me like a warm day. She is sad for me, but she can’t undo my shock or the way I pulled her anger inside my body. Her rage of the morning is tucked under my jaw line and layered behind my eyebrows. Frozen inside me and scraping against the calcium of my bones is knowledge of my capacity to ruin. I will need to be careful. Forever.
My father taught me to float on my back when I was eight. Over and over that summer of ‘74, while my older sisters read books or sunbathed with my mother, Daddy held me up as I stiffened and sank, then startled and coughed. Holding one big palm in the small of my back and the other between my shoulder blades, he told me, your lungs are balloons that hold you up, let them hold you up. I took air into my body and let go its weight; I forgot to worry what might happen tonight if my parents drank too much and argued. Instead, I filled the balloons of my lungs. I felt the bones of my skull become feather-light as water rose to the outside corners of my eyes. Then I floated between water and sky, held up by my breath, and by trust.
I swam with Daddy in crystalline swimming pools and in the cobalt swell of Lake Michigan; we floated on calm days in the Chesapeake Bay and rode waves to the sandy shore of Ocean City. My mother, raised in Iceland where learning to swim was mandatory, worked her careful breaststroke with us if the water was calm and clean. She pushed her hands forward with each stroke, as if in prayer. Mamma swam without splashing, tendrils of hair curled at the nape of her neck, but Daddy and I always went under, even in murky water. We would risk river mud or ocean brine that dried on our limbs into filament shirts. Bobbing like rafts at the surface, we became still and gazed at the sky. He told me, Floating in salt water is easier because the minerals help hold you up. “Salt” became a verb–to swim in the salty ocean or briny bay is to be salted.
Salt adds buoyancy. And salt corrodes. My father’s love and his brilliance–his extraordinary wit and joyful wordplay—exist as a top layer of sun-warmed water that—if left undisturbed–lingers over cooler currents. A shaft of light moves over fine sediment as I swim my way through layered memories of my father, blurring the family struggles my father could not soberly acknowledge. I can’t see through the layers of my father’s character—they must be scented on the tongue as the rippled sandbar falls out of view and the cold darkness opens below.
Daddy was the weather man. Every day, I trudged to first grade at Green Valley Elementary and he drove to his office on Branch Avenue to decide what the sky would do the next day. While I contemplated the ragged edges of a Maryland map taped on the classroom wall, he sat at his desk and used wax pencils to draw contour lines of storm fronts onto forecast maps at the National Weather Bureau. With us, his young daughters, he would name clouds: Cumulous, Cirrus, Stratus. He taught me to look up, to see the sky and the wild paw paw fruit growing along Suitland Parkway. If you ever asked him if it was going to rain or snow, he would say, Yes, definitely. The only question is when.
Dad was named for his father, but had no brothers. He had seven sisters and six daughters. His adored step-sons carried the name of their Icelandic father. My parents were trying for a boy when they had me; instead of being James D. Ellis III, I was named Jenny in my father’s honor. But Daddy always called me Yenny, as my name is pronounced in Iceland.
Very small, I rested my cheek on the white cotton tee shirt over Daddy’s heart, while my sister, only one year older, lay her head on his shoulder. Morning light slanted through the windows as we rested on the big bed in Mamma and Daddy’s room. This mist of pre-school memory is parted by the crystal clarity of my father’s voice echoing through his chest and into my ear, and by the thrum drum-drum of his heartbeat as air whooshed through his lungs. He told us about his sisters and about their little dog, Nelly. The details of those stories fade, but the message doesn’t: Daddy had been young, had been small and sometimes frightened. He often started stories of his childhood by telling us, Back when I was a little girl…. I imagined how he had shape-shifted away from the boy who was so small, so skinny, that when he tried to float, he sank like a stone.
One summer, we drove to visit Daddy’s aunts in Danforth, Illinois. They lived in a small house that seemed to grow like native moss on the side of a green hill above the Iroquois river. Walking into the water with Daddy, slick mud sucked me ankle-deep as we made our way into the slow current. Unlike the ever-changing waves and undertows of Lake Michigan, the river movement was predictable, always going in the same direction, deep brown and fast in the middle. I gripped Daddy’s arm to rest only once as we swam all the way across. Then we stood on the far bank, looking toward the cottage where our elderly relatives looked tiny sitting in their hard-backed chairs.
At home in Maryland, we drove through the suburbs to our friends the Downs’s house, to swim. My father’s body was round and buoyant in the algae-tinted water. Even if the pump had been broken for weeks, the chlorine depleted and the pool walls slimed with green, he would dive in. He enjoyed cold water, surfacing with wide eyes and a shake of the head to declare the water Invigorating! or Quite refreshing! When we swam on visits to Florida, where my American grandparents lived when I was small, Daddy and I salted from Dunedin’s causeway beach, moving through warm water and slick sea-grass as pelicans floated nearby. Sitting together in the shallows, Daddy pulled up handfuls of soft gray sand to examine. The spiral shells of snails fascinated him. Yenny, look at this one! He held a small conch shell in his outstretched palm, and we watched as the slow creature emerged from its spiral-staircase house, then sent out an exploratory foot to suckle traction from the palm of my hand.
My father loved flat toothpicks, often keeping one pressed between his teeth as he read after dinner. When I kissed him goodbye to go on a date, or to say goodnight, he would pull the softly worked toothpick all the way into his mouth, then pucker up. After a kiss, the toothpick would reappear on the corner of his lip.
When he was in his late eighties, a few years after my mother died, I once called my father and woke him from a nap. Oh, Yenny, he said, I was just dreaming about Iceland. Maybe I can even go back to sleep after we talk a little bit so I can see it again. Above his bed was an oil painting of Iceland’s Mount Baula, painted with sea-worthy skies, all blues and blacks and greens.
With so much wonderful sympathy around, I wish I were more depressed! said my father, the year after my mother died. He wished very much to be married again. We sat together in his assisted living facility and talked about ways he might find a new wife. I said, Online dating seems complicated. What about putting a sign on your door? Without missing a beat, he responded: Yes! It just needs to say ‘Come in! First man you see! At his funeral two years later, I learned that he’d asked every woman in his small congregation, including the minister, to marry him.
At 89, Dad’s memory was eroding fast, but he was looking forward to his big birthday. One of my sisters asked him where he would like to celebrate his 90th. On Earth, I hope! He also said he wanted to be surrounded by beautiful women and to get drunk. The night of his party, held on a pier overhanging the Gulf of Mexico, his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren darted around his shoulders and landed happy kisses onto his cheeks. He drank white wine from a plastic cup and sang out whatever songs the river of his mind brought forth.
That night, the husband of decades helped me put my tipsy father to bed. We guided his walker up the hallway of his assisted living facility just as that last glass of wine swished into his bloodstream. As he wobble-sat on the edge of his bed, we took off Dad’s shoes and pants, then each of us held one of his hands as he swiveled his body around and sank into his pillows. As he began to doze, his face beamed the same beatific smile I’d seen almost forty years earlier, as we swam together at the Indiana Dunes lake shore. On that warm day when giant swells had settled into soft rollers, he sat facing the beach on a shallow sandbar as frothy waves pulsed over his shoulders from behind. Bubbles coursed around his ears and played over his skin, like an ermine trailing her white tail over his chest. Yenny, it feels so good! Try it! he called to me, eyes closed over that smile. Despite my fear of turning my back on moving water, I waded through the current to him and took his outstretched hand, sinking to my knees on the sandbar. Churning bubbles landed on my back in a steady, comforting stream. I sank my hips to my heels and let go, closing my eyes to better feel the blend of water and air on my skin. The joy of that fresh-water froth, how air can be held by water so securely, until the liquid sphere breathes itself free, returning to the lake or making its way as vapor to the sky.
Dad called the room where medications were dispensed at his assisted living facility the “pillory”. He would say, After breakfast, Dear, we should stop by the pillory.
One of my last games with Dad, as his memory thinned and tore like silly putty tugged too far, was to remember the three close relatives of the llama. Alpaca was easy—that one stayed in his mind the longest. Both of us had to think for a minute before Vicuna came to mind. But, two years before his last salting, Guanaco was out of his brain for good. What quiet storms inundate the hemispheres of eroding memory, where once-anchored words float free?
We last salted Dad nine years ago, when he was 89. My sister and I drove him from his assisted living apartment to Florida’s Honeymoon Island State Park, a placid shoreline where the sand ramps gently down to the Gulf of Mexico. Dad’s legs were swollen with edema and his toes were numb with diabetes. A swim in salt water was on the far margins of his ability, but his face bloomed with delight when we suggested the outing. I can’t remember the last time I salted! Oh, girls, that would be wonderful! We held on to each other as he lumbered across a boardwalk toward the water. He listed to the left, a ship without ballast, rolling along on tender feet no longer accustomed to sunlight or the pressure of wood planks. White sand glowed down to the water, its shine extending to an infinite horizon. Sea gulls hung in the humid air as tiny waves brushed our ankles. We held Dad until he was hip deep, then let him go. He reclined into the water with a deep sigh, his arms floating around him like wings.
Iceland, spelled in Icelandic, is Island, the plain English word “island.” But when Icelanders pronounce their country’s name, Island, it sounds different, Eesland, instead of island. “Island” spells “Island” means Iceland, my mother’s first home. As a child learning to love words, I ponder this oddity and the unpredictable nature of that far-away and mysterious place. Iceland is the land of fire and ice. It can explode like my mother does sometimes, in white-hot rage. And it has cold dark winters as bleak as my mother’s face on a November morning when she can’t get out of bed, when the effort of making breakfast for us before we go to school is too much.
It is the 1970s, and I am maybe seven. I watch a color tv documentary with my mother about the emergence—through four years of volcanic eruptions–of a new island, named Surtsey, off the southwest coast of Iceland. My mother was born and raised in village of Isafjordur that rests in the crook of a northern fjord. In her thirties, she moved to the US with my American dad and their combined family of five. I am her seventh child, one of two girls born to her after she became a foreigner, living just outside America’s capital city.
Usually when she watches tv, my mother’s hands are busy with knitting or needlepoint, her eyes glancing up at the screen as she works. But now, sitting in the basement of our five-bedroom house that she keeps “spic and span,” Mamma’s attention is rivetted, her chin resting on her palms as she leans toward the image of a hot ash explosion lifting over ocean water. This is unbelievable! She exclaims. There was nothing there, and now there is an island. A cooling gray river of lava, red underneath, flows slowly into the water and hardens with a crackling hiss, meeting the North Sea like a sworn enemy.
Under the water, subterranean vents continue to discharge magma that piles on top of itself in layers until it expands the land mass named for Sutr, a Norse fire giant. Surtsey began to form in 1963, and grew into a rounded mile of land where once there was only moving water. It is a slowly greening island, now eroded to half its original size. Surtsey holds a solitary place above the ocean; its only part-time residents are sea birds, seals, and scientists.
In fifth grade, in Mrs. Corkum’s class at Green Valley Elementary, each of us draws our own map of the world. Standing in her blue skirt, brown hair pulled back into a bun, our teacher holds a globe in her hands. I locate Iceland by looking for the white-painted oblong of Greenland at the top of the Atlantic, then finding the rough-edged island tucked below to its right, just outside of the arctic circle. The class is paying attention because we all like Mrs. Corkum–she is fair and talks to us like we are smart, almost grown-up. Class, when we draw our maps, continents that are small will look bigger, and some things that are big will look smaller. We are flattening something that is curved to fit it on our paper. The round world, represented flatly, is distorted. This feels true to me.
I pencil faint guide-lines, holding my hand next to a wooden ruler with a thin, metal edge bent at one corner. My map is bisected vertically by the Prime Meridian, which is intersected by the Equator, and by the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. We draw Madagascar first, a fat ell-shape off the right-hand coast of Africa. I trace precise coastal shapes set within the grid of latitude and longitude. Starting with Madagascar, then working our way around the world, my class copies the world map one shape at a time. Tracing coastlines through meridian grids, pencil gripped too tightly, I recreate the world in the shape of islands.
Americans don’t even know where Iceland is! my mother complains. But I do. I know Iceland is a small, independent country that had democracy hundreds of years before America got its start. And I know about Leif Erikson–Mamma teaches me to say his name right, so it sounds like “Laif,” not like “leaf”. He was the first European to go to North America, in a sturdy Viking ship. Iceland is part of Scandinavia and also part of Europe. In Iceland, women know how to dress. They don’t go around to the stores in blue jeans, and they don’t have to be skinny or stupid to be pretty. Icelandic women are not like American women. They are one right way. Like me at ten, they know that they know a lot.
Iceland happens apart from me as I watch my mother’s back. She turns herself to the endless routine of cooking and cleaning, grocery shopping and cigarette smoking. She scrubs and she shines, always moving. A few months later, she seems to just sink into herself, the fiery island pummeled by scouring waves.
As I grow up, my mother’s language is like the water surrounding Iceland, chilling in its depth. Icelandic mystifies me, pulls my full attention to its musical cadence of words I don’t speak or understand. I see the surface of the language; images appear in my head when one of the few words I know float by. I can say “sael” for hello with a proper back-of-the-tongue click on the ell, and I say “bless” for goodbye, the polite beginning and ending. “Jaejae” is an all-purpose word of mild impatience that winds things up. Jaejae, says my mother as she inhales and stands up from the kitchen table, where a yellow ashtray rests half-full. I know she is getting ready to hang up the phone after talking to one of her Icelandic friends who also lives not far from us. The landline phone is anchored high to the wall, in the doorway to the dining room. It has a twisted cord long enough that Mamma can get up and look out the back door, toward the north, as she talks in her private language.
Every land form surrounded by water is a version of my mother’s home. I sit with the tip of my tongue drying in the air, tracing the shape of Madagascar. It is bigger than Iceland. It is warmer than Iceland. It is far away from Iceland. Iceland. Island. Eesland. The place I go in my mind where the air is always clear, where my mother is happy because she is in her real home. My Iceland is both far-away and more real than this America where childhood plods along, where I make the dreary winter walk to school while dreaming of riding a sure-footed Icelandic pony past moss-covered fields of ancient lava rocks.
But I am not there. I am not even all the way in America. I can’t be popular or all the way American or brash like a boy, so in fifth grade, I try to copy the world onto paper and make it look good, make it right. Over weeks, all of the continents appear, and finally, I add the dragon shape of Iceland. Sitting up in my wooden chair and setting my blue pencil down, I see a miniscule piece of the gigantic world, almost meaningless next to so many other place shapes. Surtsey is so tiny that even adding it as a dot would be wrong.
Our world maps are drawn on three separate sheets of paper that cover the surface of our small desks. After weeks of work, with new calluses on our index fingers, we carefully connect our pieces of flattened earth using invisible tape. My map looks how I want it to look, just right, pleasing to Mrs. Corkum and to me. It is hung in the school hallway alongside the worlds of my classmates, and every time I walk by, my eye goes straight to Iceland, confirming its existence. Even today, I can’t help but center the world and much of my imagination exactly there.