Categories
Memoir Writing

Toad, or, Doesn’t a dream sometimes cross over into a prayer?

Early fall midnight at ten thousand feet, and a lot is happening. The stars are out. Their glimmers make me sit up and put my glasses on, then stand and look into the night at the half-circle of changing aspen. An owl is also wide awake and who-who-who’ing. I’ve never seen this owl, but my mind’s eye tracks her season after season. I lie down again and listen hard. After all, it’s not as if I can really expect to really sleep, anyway.

A few who-who’s later, I drift off, then wake to a soft mammalian whistle. What animal is making this snurfling sound. Elk? An elusive bobcat? Ah, just the husband’s breath, sighing him in and out of a dream. My favorite animal, this man who, like me, will one day take a last breath, and maybe in this very cabin. A wakeful thought, that.

And a part-time job, this sleeping, and not sleeping.  

I move to the couch at 4 and stargaze, waking to the whoosh of moving water. I think, rain, rain, rain! and am dunked in gratitude. Alas, only the coffee maker gurgling, telling me it is 5:30, officially morning. I close my eyes again.

Then. Three women doing dishes in semi-darkness. I pick up a big ceramic bowl and see a hefty toad there—lumpy, wide-eyed, and miraculously ugly. I lift the bowl and walk to the door. I want to set him free, but his container is empty. I understand the toad will be back. All I need to do is keep his water fresh. Later, this writing dream has me christen a fresh black notebook Toad. My pen drops blue ink on page after page. I remember, and deeply, the stillness and clarity of the silent creature and the harmony of the night-time women. Doesn’t a dream sometimes cross over into a prayer?

A month later, flakes fall fast in the city, where I write under a down comforter, struggling to stay awake after a solid night’s sleep. This old house is full. I can almost hear my young people all breathing the hush of their own dreams. All the beautiful ins and outs, all of the dreaming that will go on after me.

City aspen staying bright after the snow.

Categories
Memoir Writing

Creative Nonfiction: Girl, Alone by Jenny-Lynn Ellis

My mind swirls at the distance I am covering.

Creative Nonfiction: Girl, Alone by Jenny-Lynn Ellis
Categories
Memoir mental health

Son, to Part Shade

Where bold sun once beat down on hard dirt and where fresh lavender stalks pushed purple blooms toward our bright star, here we planted a tree in honor of his birth. I kneel in its dappled shade, hands coated in black soil. The sheltering arms of his skyline honey locust touch our high roofline now. Its long, brown seed pods litter the ground every summer. In the dappled shade of its yellow leaves, I seek patches of sunlit ground for pollinator plants.

This flower bed is supported by a rough line of heavy mountain stones, white and gray-veined chunks with sharp, angled corners. From the crook of one stone’s elbow, I lift a small gray rock and rest it smooth and flat against the palm of my hand. Too small to hold back dirt, too warm and smooth to throw away.

How is any rock much different from the smaller specks that clump together to make dirt? How different from molecules of air, for that matter? We move through gas particles. We inhale and exhale every day.

I need this garden like air. Its beds surround the place where I planted my adulthood, where I pulled toddlers’ jackets tight against the wind. In this yard, we turned rocks upside down to see rollie-poly bugs, to marvel at worms and centipedes. We strolled the block to gather red maple and oak leaves, then we ironed them between sheets of wax paper. Day after bright, shining day.

My hands, so much like my mother’s now, have lifted and turned this soil for thirty-three years. These palms once cradled three infants in turn, held close the start of three lifetimes. One life nearly cut short by despair and a handful of pills.

Still breathing. Still breathing. Still here. Bee balm. Astagache. Butterfly bush. All compete with weed after weed after weed. I will work this flower bed, mixing compost into clay, planting everything bright thing I can. Until the snow flies, until bitter cold casts mist from my mouth, then, when spring lures colors from these tender plants, I will kneel down once more.

Back yard astagache bush, also known as hummingbird mint.
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