Dad’s thoughts

He lets them pool around rocks. But like moss or grass, the thoughts grow roots and don’t flow. When I call, he circles back in on himself, in reverberating circles.

“…she complains I don’t call or take care of her. But I’m there every weekend, I put in the air conditioners…”

“…these lawyers are just the worst. Now they’re asking about her green card. It’s like, she has a green card, that’s not even the lawsuit…”

“Yeah, I’m heading down now. Sure, I’m stopping at grandma’s. Boy, she loves you…to put in the air conditioners…”

Tidal, seasonal – the familiar march to heart and back again. He is sorry he is unrecognized. He is sorry he is subject. He is sorry he is superior.

It is through love that sometimes I am sorry I called. Like I stepped on charybdis when I aimed for carpet or for the warm hard wood my father favors, and that covers the floors at home.

Especially when thinks of my mother, when he tells my childhood as a tragedy. For a summer – I lost a summer- to pinning up his ideas, translating partial child-memories into arrows or lines in the missives he told, which I began believing.

When I gave up and quit writing for law I broke the images and ideals he gave me. He did not know I left New York after attempting suicide.

I crave understanding. I imagine giving him the news, how he might brush the hair from my temples to say, “oh…my writer, my thin blanket daughter…” How a pause might come…

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Families in Public

Are anxiety-provoking. Not because of the inherent chaos – the toddler that loses a shoe that’s run over by a backing-up Ford Explorer, or the carseat that fails to buckle properly while the grocery cart rolls to a halt in the middle of the parking lot – but because of how absent such events are from grown-up memory.

Homes are degrees of broken. Breaking gradually, relationships might stall or stop as new families erupt and generate a gravity-like pull to the center, the nucleus. Or, as in my case, scarring fireworks might clip off supposedly-unconditional bonds.

Breakfasting this morning with a girl I mentor, she told me how upset she is when she hears her friends or her boyfriend conversing easily with parents and relatives. I told her I relate. Kind questions about my family and how well they are doing can trigger envy, resentment, rage, sadness and self-hatred in me.

I don’t remember the warm parts of the chaos of childhood, at least not accurately. Subsequent events overshadow them.

I think of talks with my mother in the car. How we sat together, sometimes unspeaking, with sun flashing between the trees and remnants of snow on the ground. Of how she would put out her arm to shield me from sudden stops when I sat in the passenger seat.

But the undercurrent violence wins. “I will not see you again.” “I will not want to.” Images in my memory bear these lines like watermarks.

Most often, I think of how my mother once left my younger brother in a department store. Of how she swore as she turned the car around. And the memories don’t make me want to look back.

Tree Falls

IMG_2051Trees are blocking our driveway at home. It’s been so warm; they are probable casualties of lightning and rain, the same furious storms that lash the lake with lightning in summer.

I’m in a desert miles away, but my father texted me six pictures of our blocked driveway, with the unhelpful caption, ‘driveway blocked by trees.’ I don’t need the images to understand the problem and I don’t know why, when I am so far away, it is important for me to know about trees falling at home.

When my father sends me texts like this, my frustration softens when I realize that this will be his old age. Mundane images and snippets of life might be thrust at me.

I imagine my father’s mechanical approach to the trees. He will measure them or use rope to hitch them to the car. He will drag those trees back to the little forest in our yard. He will call me, impressed with their weight, and eager to share the facts of how trees are moved, in case I have to move them someday.

It was the same when I was younger. He would explain how to build a trailer and show me the progress he’d made. I would stand outside and listen to the wind and watch his eyes, his excitement at knowing what to do. I would feel the damp in the air, the ground sinking into the shape of my footprints. Sometimes I’d watch the light fade and grow and fade, or the sky darken.

I am not surprised by the land. So, a tree falls.

Searching

My surface is flat and smooth as a table today. Inside, I’m thumbing through the archives.

As if I work some clerical job, I do this repeatedly.  And the records are spilled on the floor of my mind…

Last Sunday I saw a boy I knew at a café but, flattened by an earlier rejection (academic),  I did not waive and when he left I felt I lost another, more dynamic potential. If I spread my body out onto another flat surface, open to the life and response of another…

I am an ocean floor –  all things live and flatten me. I feel and see them fall in from the surface.

I think too of holding babies because of how they rest against you, as if you are some more-organic lean-to, a tree and a sheet.

I want to find purpose in giving heat, as if it is always warmth. I haven’t seen smiles so radiant that they cross this line, except on the faces of students of religion. Faith confronting mystery can smile, while I am so impassive.

Training hard for compassion maybe I can find warmth; warmth that deepens to purpose…

Mermaids

I open my hands and shut them. I feel the muscles extend, grow, contract, widen, freeze into a ball.

I fold and unfold, marvelous as seaweed or wheat under sun and air, perhaps underwater I am continually moving.

Pain feels like stillness, erupting stills, like solid blocks supporting memory that flows. I push through as I swim. My head clears, my arms above my head as if I am a supplicant child. These walls give as much as the sun; they tell the space of my life beyond this pool of water.

Stretching out my mind builds a future. My path to the locker rooms, my body underwater again, under echoing linoleum, fluorescent and unchanging sky.

I will go to class to have time wring the water out of my bones. Listening, I will be restless to float back to where I am, under blue and in the blue chlorine.

I shiver when I leave the water, becoming bipedal again. It’s as if I know I am a mermaid, not a feature, a fixture, a facet of land but a droplet of water.

Zenith

“I married a woman who would not make me tired.”

“I married a woman who would not want to talk about politics at night.”

“Your mother, she could never be a political wife.”

 

-Themes in my father’s confessionals in the car.

 

We drove from my hometown, where he lived his final days of married life, to silence and Maine, to close-knit pine boughs and silent snow.

The journey is scenic, or it is highway – alternately. In fall, my hometown erupts in yellows and hysterical orange. The many ponds freeze slightly over. Jags of white and blue mirror amplify the reds, the browns of multifoliate forest.

From the school bus, we would see mist rise as the ice began to melt, and it would obscure familiar houses, leaving the colonial scenes incomplete and subject to rifts in memory.

Recitals of shortcomings persuade over time.

My mother silent after my political rants about President Bush. My mother’s deferral to other opinions. My mother and the other mothers in the pick-up line, and apart from their manicured mass. My mother picking me up at tennis lessons, her flyaway hair, her Boston accent, her wild laugh.

In childhood when the walls of self are down and disengaged, what you cannot do becomes what I cannot do.

I wanted to swing car keys like my mother. To wipe off lipstick in the rearview mirror. But I wanted to affect a power I saw in other people, to initiate the silence my father did. To tame my hair and clothes and schedule into country club order.

Associating with you, I build the weaknesses I can handle, the weaknesses that do not erode love or respect, the desire to be near and the desire to be known.

I did not sense my own limitations. I would play and assume my wants would settle into my reality as I became adult-looking. But one day, after caking my shoes with mud, I slipped and held the wood of our swing-set structure, getting wood splinters in my tiny palms.

My father held my hands outstretched and he paused before lowering the tweezers to my skin. “No calluses,” he said. “You will always be a lady.”

And then I began to perceive the work of self-creation.

There were so many ladies. I decided the best type were the ones that made cookies for you before you got home, like my friend Elizabeth’s mom.

But as I grew I found myself at odds with the packaging. When I would fold my floral clothes, I felt the absence of some essential element. I realized that hours of my day might be vacant if I stayed at home to bake. I realized men were difficult and loud, that mothers were political and unkind.

Instead of inspired, I felt capped by the problematic zenith of who I might be as a lady. As a wife – if I were a wife – I would be a political wife. As a mother – if I were a mother – I would be tender. I would wipe off lipstick in my rearview mirror. But what would I do with the reach of my mind in all those exposed hours?

Still Face

I don’t know if I read it into my memory.

She would sit at the table, sorting receipts or reading, or clearing out the accumulated contents of her purse. I would be outside or in the living room, playing or drawing or coming home from school, dropping my backpack  on the floor with the front door slamming shut behind me.

She would be there in front of me, focusing through her glasses on whatever she was seeing. I would interrupt her to show her a drawing or to tell her, unprompted, about the fascinating events of my earlier grades. About playground drama, the scandals or how I was mad at a friend, or confused.

“Mom,” I’d say.

“Mom,” I’d say. I know at least once when I tried to show her a drawing she said, ‘that’s nice dear,’ without looking up.

But some or most times, she wouldn’t answer me. I was so curious then about whatever she was doing, and a little incensed that there might be something more important to my mother than me. Maybe she explained, but I don’t remember what she did that resulted in her strained and exclusive attention.

In those moments when she didn’t respond to me, I would look at how her hair fell after she ran her fingers through it, or out the back window into the yard. Or I would look down at the pages before her and try to make sense of the shapes. They seemed like long moments. That’s what concerns me.

I learned in linguistics about this phenomenon called the ‘still face’ effect. Children whose mothers do not engage with them for a period of roughly three minutes become ‘sober,’ or anxious, and then try to stimulate in their mothers the same standard pattern of interaction. The phenomenon showed how social infants are in their attempts to re-engage their mothers, and has been widely demonstrated and used to investigate the limits of an infant’s perspective.

My mother was depressed. And I know that now. Because the phenomenon occurs with depressed parents, I wonder whether those moments I remembered are remembered because of her unresponsive, still face. Because the frequency of still face reactions children experience is thought to be predictive of later attachment styles, I wonder if those were the moments when I inherited her depression.

I can’t know whether she was in pain in those specific moments, or if she was simply ignoring an annoying and overactive toddler. So when I sort through those moments, built of sparse memories and contradictions, I realize I don’t know what’s true.

I start to fear unconscious replication, but find that I can’t acknowledge everything. Maybe the solution is to practice intentional silence.