Categories
Memoir Writing

Road Trip with Nostalgia, A Wedding, and Pestilence

Mile markers slide past the passenger window on a June morning. Colorado. Nebraska. Nebraska some more. A bit more Nebraska. The husband and I unwind memories of the first time we drove to the Indiana Dunes together. We marvel at the year that a full moon rose over central Illinois as three little boys shared the back seat, a big white poodle spread out across their laps. Thirty-plus years of road trips, of picking rest areas and sharing stories. At dusk, the rolling hills of Iowa glow with summer’s deepest greens and warmest yellows.

Above Lake Michigan’s white sand beach, we sleep in the small downstairs space still called “Nanny’s apartment” decades after her passing. In the 1940’s, she and my Grandpa fell in love with this spot, set back on a small hill above the lake’s southern shore. My grandparents drove from their home in Norwood Park with my father and his seven sisters. Everyone who could helped carry groceries or building supplies a half mile down the beach. Three generations later, their descendants take turns sharing this memory-soaked refuge. We park our air-conditioned cars only two flights of wooden stairs above the back door. On these three longest days of the year, the water is cold and the weather blistering; we lie awake at night until the lake breeze cools us, shushing us to sleep with the murmur of small waves.

We drive on to Washington DC, where I was born and where my adored niece is getting married. At a picnic by the Anacostia River, Icelanders meet Israelis meet Canadians; Coloradans chat with Iowans and hug Marylanders. A band offers up some Stevie Wonder, some Lizzo, and I want never to stop dancing. As the musicians pack up their instruments, I step briefly into Icelandic with my sister-in-law, with my niece and nephew. Soon, sitting at an ice cream shop, we see the groom walk slowly past, shoulder to shoulder with his father. They are speaking quietly in Hebrew, the love between them a near-palpable glow.

On Sunday, I arrange lilies and mums, baby’s breath and daisies into five big vases for the reception. I wind white peonies together into a bouquet. Reader, will I surprise you when I say the bride is beautiful beyond beautiful? That the Rabbi is wise? That we cry and we laugh and we dance?

I hug sisters and nephews and a newly married woman goodbye. Thanks to my own husband’s pandemic-delayed fellowship in Connecticut, I drive back to Indiana alone. At a quiet hotel in Ohio, I stretch out for a long, unbroken sleep. This, almost certainly, is where bloodthirsty battalions of bedbugs conquer wide swaths of territory: my right shoulder, my belly, the tender tip of my big toe. As often happens, only days later, when the bites begin to itch and swell, will I know that anything happened at all.

I stake out three days to write at a BNB near the Dunes cottage, determined to work out my book’s outline–the confounding, dreaded, avoided outline. I sit and sit and I sit. I drive to the grocery store to pick out mauve and teal and yellow sticky notes. I have lunch. I sit down to color code my outline, then give up. The weight of discouragement behind my eyes is too thick for tears.

On the third day, I sit down to work on my outline in the three columns suggested by my teacher: Icelandic, Mamma, The Body. I stare at the columns until they make sense. I stick scenes under the headings, clustering them into sections. I keep going.

I read outside at dusk and marvel at how many mosquito bites I can get without a single buzzing in my ear. Overnight, I am awakened by itching that will not stop until I get home to Denver, where an urgent care doctor will prescribe turbo-charged steroid cream and nuclear-powered antihistamine.

But first, I hear that my baby cousin is at the Dunes cottage. I sit on the shaded deck as a group of relatives settle in on the beach. “Excuse me,” says a voice from on high. My baby cousin looks down at me through a screened window, her girl face stern as she asks who I am. I would know her anywhere, her confidence and brightness, my father’s bright blue eyes. I tell her who I am and add, “You look just like J!” “That’s because I am her daughter” comes the serious reply. I know, of course, that this is the baby of my baby cousin, but I am still startled by the passage of time. I play in the lake with her little sister, tossing back and forth a plastic pony she has named Sunshine.

Sitting on the sand, I contemplate a line of three red bites on my shin. The “breakfast-lunch-dinner” pattern of bed bug bites gives me a sickening jolt that is immediately squashed by stiff denial. Alone, I drive west, trying not to scratch the clump of welts on my shoulder. Five hours later, passing Des Moines, a strip of hives rises on my arm in threes.

Anxious and anxiouser, I call my cousin, my BnB hostess, a bedbug specialist. Sorry and sorrier, I drive on, refusing to stop in another hotel. I fine-tune my strategy to keep the monsters out of our house and to roast any car-lurkers with the heat of a 100-degree day.

Rain lets up with just an hour more to drive. Suddenly, the burnt orange sun breaks free below a bank of turquoise clouds. My heart calms as I breathe in the richness of this Colorado sky like no other. To the east, a massive double rainbow domes the prairie, pulsing higher and wider as the sun sinks below the horizon. And I am gentled. I am welcomed home.

Categories
biking Memoir

Westfjords Ride

In Isafjordur, the town where my mother was born and where she gave birth to my two older brothers, I pull my biking shoes out of my suitcase. They are heavy, with inflexible soles built to grip wide mountain bike pedals. Still flecked with red Moab dust, I carried them all the way from Denver so I could ride with Haldora Bjork, my cousin who has always felt more like a sister. She loves this village with all her heart. Only her bright spirit makes this visit possible. I feel haunted by this town, and I don’t know why. On a walk earlier in the day, my husband recognized the house where my mother was raised. It is painted a burnt yellow now. He wanted a closer look, but I turned away, frightened of nothing I could name. I can’t reconcile the three-dimensional house with the framed black and white photograph I stared at as a child, hoping for clues to my mother’s girlhood.

Dora leads us on our bikes to the old coast road—now replaced with a tunnel–between Isafjourdur and Bolingarvik. The untended pavement is riddled with deep cracks and slush patches. We ride around huge boulders and dodge small sharp rocks that have rained down from cliffs above. When cars still drove here, so many avalanches and rock slides pummeled the road that concrete shelters were erected. As we pedal under these bunkers, the pavement is smooth and wide, the air hushed.

 A mile ahead, at a sharp curve, we pause. A cross and plaque serve as a memorial to the many people whose lives ended here. Salty mist lifts from the water, and the far-off rock faces of Hornstrandir glisten with snow. The cliff just above us holds color after color—black granite slabs sliced through with ochre, a ribbed hillside specked with green moss, the vertical streams of meltwater shining gray in north-facing grooves. Below, smooth round rocks heap at the water’s edge, contrasting with small islands of jagged stone.

Just outside Bolingarvik is a museum–two small black-timbered, turf-roofed buildings alongside an old boat winch and fish-drying rack. Peeking in the window of the little house, we see two pairs of shoes. One looks like it is made of fish skin, the other possibly of seal skin. Both are tiny and flimsy looking. I remember what my brother Finn said a few days earlier: in the old days, a journey was described by how many pairs of shoes would be worn out in the walk.

Dora exclaims, Can you imagine working outside in all kinds of weather in shoes like those?! Then she tells me: I had a friend who died not long ago. He was in his late nineties. I was talking to him once and he told me that of all the new technology in his lifetime, the best was rubber boots. The rubber boots changed his life the most.

As we bike back to her house, and for days after, I think of her friend, of all the changes he saw in one long life, a life lived walking the village streets my mother left behind, first for Reykjavik, then for the US.

Categories
Memoir

Oatmeal

On a cold morning, Mamma makes oatmeal while my sister and I wait for the dusty ovals to soak up salty water and turn into food. Only Martha and I are eating this breakfast. Ruth and Kristin have left, Ruth to junior high school and Kristin at the forever-away high school. Martha and I go to Green Valley Elementary, across from and above the curved parkway outside our front yard. We can see our house from the school yard. Looking down through the chain link fence, our red brick house looks tiny. We can’t see school from our house, only the twin lines of cars snaking in different directions, and the steep concrete drain that sometimes gushes muddy rainwater into the low, paved creek bed.

My mother’s back is to us while she stirs the boiling oats. She looks big in her zip-up robe that hangs like a capital A from her shoulders down to her slipppered feet. She has smoothed her brown hair with a comb, and it lands exactly at the collar of her robe. Turning toward us, she has her cooking face on—cheeks pink, lips in a straight line, and concentration tugging her dark eyebrows together.

How do I know she is beautiful? Is it the way her eyes balance perfectly in her face? Those eyes that can be extra blue or extra green depending on the light? Is it how carefully she pulls herself together for the world, putting makeup on before she goes out to the grocery store? I know she is beautiful because she is my Mamma, and she takes care of me. She is special because she is Icelandic. I see how other people look at her, their smiles of admiration, or of envy.

In the kitchen, when she turns around and looks at us, her sixth and seventh children, the hungry girls of her second marriage, her smile brightens the air around us. My sister and I stop arguing and notice the sparkled air. Without any makeup, Mamma’s face looks easy and free. Her eyebrows let go of each other. She is all soft morning, the promise of warmth and fullness.

Breakfast is ready! She reaches to pull juice glasses from the cupboard. Martha and I have been distracted from our waiting by stirring the orange juice, concentrate slowly blending with water in the oblong Tupperware pitcher. Daddy lets us do this every time, telling us the two meanings of the word “concentrate.” He is at work or maybe asleep after a night shift.

Mamma gets tired of listening to us talk about the melting chunk of orange ice. We can argue about anything—who has had the best turn with the long-handled wooden spoon, who was right about whether there were any ice chunks left to stir or poke at, who wants to watch the thick orange goo melt to the bottom of the container or keep taking turns stirring. We argue about who gets the fanciest spoon, maybe a silver one from Iceland. That’s enough, Mamma says, patient today. She takes the pitcher we have argued over, snaps the plastic lid on top, and shakes it smooth, with no layers, no clumps.

She fills our glasses, and we drink greedily. The juice clears a sleepy taste from my mouth, paints my tongue bright for the day to come.

I fix my steaming bowl the special way Mamma once showed me, with a snow-layer sprinkle of sugar over the top. I lift the edges of the smooth oatmeal to dribble cold milk between it and the edges of the bowl. Melted sugar glistens on the surface as milk floats my breakfast like an island: it looks perfect.  But by the time I have finished making it just right, it is stone cold. I don’t want it anymore. Mamma tells me to be careful, that if I don’t eat my breakfast, the wind will lift me up and carry me away like happens sometimes in Iceland when children don’t eat enough. I look up at her, startled, but she has turned away. I spoon a few bites into my mouth and swallow them with a tight throat, seeing myself stuck in a tree like a lost kite, wanting to get back down to the ground. After we put on our coats, she kisses us goodbye, and the two of us step outside into the chill air. I don’t understand my mother. She was telling a lie, Martha explains. The wind can’t be strong enough to blow us away. Maybe it can in Iceland, but not in America.

I snap back at her, I know that! I wasn’t scared! Silken relief wraps me in warmth. Martha lets me walk with her all the way to the corner of Catskill Avenue before she runs ahead. I wish I could be in third grade, and fast like she is, smart enough to not be scared by made-up stories.

Categories
Memoir

Sunrise, 2014

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.

At Mom and Dad’s 40th wedding anniversary dinner cruise, circa 2000.

Categories
Memoir Writing

Not Just Quiet, But Peace

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.

Categories
biking Memoir Writing

Beetle Murder & Bipolar Disorder

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.

View from an evening ride.
Looking toward Kenosha Pass
Late summer sparkle.

Categories
Memoir

Dunes Morning

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.

Dreamy Dunes Mamma
Categories
Memoir

Ruin

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.

Categories
Memoir

Salting Dad

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.

In the Army Air Corps
Pre-or post swim in Florida, early 80’s
With sisters Barbara and Mardi.

Categories
Memoir

Iceland, Island, Eesland

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.

Front and center in 6th grade.