Porch Light

In 1982, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George lived about a mile away from us in the small town of Dunedin, Florida. At Sunday pool parties, my mother would step away from the barbecue to watch Mardi and George pose on the diving board. Mardi was tall and curvy, her hair a frizzy halo over her oval face. George was round in the middle, his hair as straight as his stick legs. He gazed at his wife with exaggerated rapture while sunlight glinted off the still water. They clasped each other as if to waltz, looked up at the sky, then tilted head-first into the deep end. We all cheered. They called this splash-up “the lovers leap,” and they surfaced laughing, dark hair dripping into their eyes.

Aunt Mardi smoked Virginia Slims, holding the long cigarette between her fingers while telling me she really should quit. She drank wine or Manhattans with compulsion-free pleasure, and she was on everyone’s side, somehow, never arguing with my parents, never making anyone wrong. In those years of Mom’s relapses and undiagnosed manic-depression, I soaked up her generous mother-love. At fifteen, I began to unravel like a ball of yarn rolling downhill, but Aunt Mardi’s kindness and sanity buffered my fragile psyche.  Her help was practical and steady, a simple hand on my shoulder, a warm and encouraging smile.

For a few weeks of my sophomore year, I hardly slept at all. A panic attack slid me to the floor in math class.  Images of death overwhelmed me if I tried to rest. One night, I used an alligator magnet to post a drawing of a coffin on our beige refrigerator.  My alarmed parents called my Aunt Maralyn, a doctor, who sat on my unmade bed with me, her voice low and soothing. She told me, I work with a young woman I think you would like. She’s a psychiatrist, a doctor who helps people with their feelings, too.

Like a counselor? I asked.

Yes, like a counselor, but also a doctor, like me. I think it might help you to talk to her.

Aunt Mardi drove me to one of my first appointments. She waited for me while I sat on a leather therapy chair and revealed carefully chosen bits of myself to a competent stranger. It was Aunt Mardi who confirmed to the psychiatrist that, yes, my parents sometimes drank too much, that the stories I told about them were probably true. After a few sessions, I was prescribed little pink sleeping pills, each tucked into a clear bubble of plastic. For a little while, my parents gave me one at bedtime, but kept them hidden from me during the day. I soon finished with therapy, but soaked up sanity at Ala-Teen meetings. I learned to meditate. I got a job and counted down the months to high school graduation and freedom.

Meanwhile, Aunt Mardi and Uncle George left a key hidden on the metal shelf above the porch light of their little house on Douglas Avenue. If my mother was having an especially bad night, I got dressed and walked out into the humid Florida night. I turned right onto St. Anne Drive and walked past the rectory, a low, flat building set back from the street. I pulled the night air into my lungs and stomped outrage into the asphalt of the huge church parking lot. How dare she?

On the shortcut past the elementary school, the darkness was near-total. I felt small under the looming branches of live oak. I slowed my pace until I saw the tall palm that marked my turn onto San Mateo Drive. The songs of tree frogs and the pungent scent of swamp water drifted to me from nearby Hammock Park. By the time I turned left onto Douglas Avenue, my anger was spent. Aunt Mardi’s porch light glowed softly above her front door. As I reached up and felt the grooves of the house key under my fingertips, I was steadied. Secured. I set the key on the wooden table inside the door and felt the hush of the house gather around me. I tiptoed through the kitchen into the guest room, then pulled out the sofa bed. Drifting to sleep, I knew that the next sound I heard would be my aunt and uncle sharing quiet coffee talk while the sun warmed their back yard.

November

Note: Posting from Malawi last week with limited data was only semi-successful, so here–in a repeat for some of you–is “November”. And more to come soon about my trip to Mother Africa….  Thanks for reading, subscribing, and commenting!

Mamma stands in the November kitchen on slippered feet, her green robe loosely belted over a nightgown. Clutching her stomach, she leans over the counter between the stainless-steel sink and the humming refrigerator. She waits for the pain to stop, a grimace twisting her face like a storm captured in a photograph. My sister and I sit at the table waiting for her to straighten up and pour orange juice into our favorite glasses. But she keeps her back to us, doesn’t say a word. In another minute, she heaves a deep breath and walks gingerly down the hallway back to bed, one hand still holding her middle. She is sick, again. It is 1970.

In the tired light of not-summer, I bring Mamma milk in bed. She needs it to calm her stomach, and my five-year-old hands carry it carefully up the hallway. I want to make her better. She whispers to me, Just this much, and touches her finger a quarter of the way up a small glass.  Just this much. I won’t spill, and the milk will help, I know. I watch her sip one slow sip and set the cup on her bedside table. I tiptoe out of her dark bedroom, turning the door handle quietly as she sighs onto her pillow.

Another damp fall day, we put on our coats and get into Mamma’s brown Chevy. She drives us to the Group Health building, not far across the invisible line dividing our neighborhood in Maryland from the city of Washington, DC.  I decide to be a nurse when I grow up, even after I watch a nurse push a small tube up into my mother’s nose, sliding it down the back of her throat, then into her rebellious belly. They need to take some “stomach juice” out to see why she throws up so much, why she hurts all the time. My mother gags as the tube snakes low, then dabs her eyes and tries to smile at me. I feel the intrusion as if into my own throat, and I cringe at the scratches behind my nostrils. Soon, murky liquid lifts up through the miniature hose, coming out from a place where things should only go in. The reversal is disturbing, but I become alert. I am not bored. I will be a nurse someday. I will master this.

The spring that I am fourteen, my father takes early retirement from his job at the Weather Bureau. We are moving to Florida. Mamma decides to have the surgery her doctors have told her will end the acidic battle her digestion wages with itself. They tell her she will be well in two weeks.

A surgeon’s knife cuts out Mamma’s ulcers and most of her stomach. Soon, fevers push tiny drops of sweat onto her upper lip. She lies wordless in the hospital as her weakened body produces a parade of infections. One hundred nights she sleeps alone in that bed with metal rails. After a second stomach surgery, her left eye swells with bacteria. Another surgeon pierces that delicate orb with a needle to relieve the pressure behind my mother’s hazel iris.

I sit with her long days that summer, watching her slack face as she dozes. I open The Washington Post and entertain her with advice from Ann Landers.  Out of a hole next to my mother’s belly button, a tube drains her stomach wound—I have seen this brown-tinged liquid before. When her nurse comes to change the bandage, I go downstairs and spoon Dannon blueberry yogurt into my mouth from the hospital cafeteria vending machine. The days become mechanical and remote. In the afternoon, a doctor’s scowl lands on my mother’s impassive face. She looks away from him, indifferent, and I feel the end in her. I’ve had enough of nurses and hospitals. I just want my mother back.

But it’s her nurses who tell the story later, how Mamma shook her head in a silent No when they tried to tempt her appetite back with offers of hamburgers, of chocolate, of beer. Then, one Sunday morning in September, she wakes up asking for food, newly able to lift her head from the pillow. She wants her hair washed. The staff brings cake and balloons when she is discharged, everyone so relieved at her sudden desire to live.

Soon, my mother comes home to our new house on the Pinellas coast of Florida, a house my father bought that summer, one that she has never seen. A small kidney-shaped swimming pool glimmers in the yard, and armadillos roam in nearby Hammock Park. Without her, my sister and I have started high school in this foreign-feeling place where the sun stays high and warm, even in the fall. My mother comes home weighing ninety pounds and pale as blank paper, smiling as she leans on my father’s arm. She comes home and learns how to eat again with her fragment of post-surgery stomach. Sitting on the edge of my new bed, she brushes my hair off of my forehead and tells me not to worry about only getting A’s in my classes. In that small house with no downstairs, I slowly get used to hearing her voice again.

mom and dad c 82
Florida circa 1982

Blind Spots

When she was a lanky teen, miles taller than I was, my sister Kristin once let our mother pluck her eyebrows. Her blond head on Mamma’s lap, face contorted into a grimace, she allowed our mother to tweeze the rectangles above her eyes into surprised arches. Then Kristin stood in front of the hall mirror, fuming, as tiny red welts appeared where errant hairs had been removed. In the weeks that followed, brown spikes grew back into their natural place above Kristin’s eyes. They were not plucked again.

My mind’s eye sees clear memories like this one only after a year of struggling to write anything worth keeping about Kristin. I stopped every single time I re-read this odd statement of mine: “Over the years, Kristin and I had managed a polite but respectful distance from one another.” It didn’t strike me as a lie so much as just a weak sentence. But those easy words lifted me into a comforting cloud of dishonesty, far away from what I really felt about my adored and feared big sister.

The truth about my relationship with Kristin–and about her life–is complicated and painful. She was adopted by my father and his first wife, making Mamma her third mother. She had unpredictable bursts of violence when I was little, leaving me watchful and wary. And when Kristin died unexpectedly, six years ago, she was only fifty-four. Honest and graceful words elude me. Kristin was a nurse and a daughter, a sister and a rebel. What I called “polite but respectful distance” in our relationship was simple fear. I was slow to open my heart to Kristin, almost to the end.

A few weeks ago, I received a personal and encouraging rejection email from a journal editor who asked for a revision of an essay I had submitted, an essay about my mother and her Icelandic homeland. The rejection note included the words “very well-written” and “interested and invested in this essay”. I was—and am—thrilled. The editor suggested that I expand and clarify the relationship dynamics between me, Kristin, and my mother. I had included Kristin in my story, but only as a ghost, not as the girl who had hit, or the high school graduate who had left for Iceland, then come back, before leaving again, for nursing school in Chicago. In that essay about my mother, I had blindly left Kristin’s story out.

So, day after day, I re-write, giving Kristin real space on the page. I try and I try not to lie. I describe her awkward place in the middle of our big family, where she stormed in justifiable outrage. I see her body, recovered from anorexia and from alcoholism, but never fully healthy. I write about Kristin’s decision not to see any of us for a long time, and about the grace in her decision to come back to us while our parents were still alive. As I write, the tears flow and the words float like icebergs freed from a glacier shelf. I sit at my keyboard, tapping with one hand and wiping tears with the other.

The more I write, it seems, the more I get to trust the process, including my blind spots. And today I am so happy to see the Kristin who looks out of this photo, holding and shielding me. I have missed you, big sister.

kristin & me (2)