The snug warmth of him behind her granted her sleep. She hadn’t known how desperately she needed the sleep of trusting someone. Her hair spread out across the pillow behind her. She woke to him gently touching the strands. She shivered at the sweet intimacy of someone playing with her hair. It centered her in a way she did not realize she had been missing.
He leaned in to whisper to her, a game both of them loved playing. “I figured out the line you need to start your book,” he softly whispered. No one else could hear them. The absurdity of whispering amused them both. Now that they started the game, they wanted to play it out for a thousand innings.
“There are no tiny paragraphs. The smallest increment of spoken intimacy is the phrase ‘I love you.’ Yet it can contain the volume of a lifetime if spoken.”
She turned slightly toward him. “Aren’t you romantic? It’s barely six, and you’re already turning the page.” He laughed.
“I got a head start, watching you this morning.” He leaned in, kissed her quickly on the lips, and then sprang from the bed with his customary energy. He briefly touched her dress from the day before. It hung on the armoire. “Thanks,” he whispered as his fingers caressed the hem.
As he neared the bathroom door, he heard a subtle whisper. He turned. She had pulled the cover off.
“We have more to talk about if you’re interested.” She winked and smiled at him. He jumped to the bed from where he was standing. She howled with laughter and surprise as his landing bounced her off the bed and back.
Another typical day and another neither one of them would take for granted.
Judy’s eyes opened to see the projector clock on the opposite wall indicating 4:45 a.m. Before going to bed, she set the bedroom alarm for 5:00 a.m. and her automatic coffee pot in the kitchen for 5:15 a.m. Since it was Christmas morning, she needed to complete her to-do list before Jake scrambled out of his pillow fort. They spent at least thirty minutes last night, carefully building his sleeping fort to his precise specifications. He wanted to ensure that Santa wouldn’t find him awake in the dark. After getting Jake to stop chatting and to try to sleep, Judy pulled the presents for Jake from the trunk of her car and tucked them under the tree. It would be an austere Christmas this year. She hoped Jake wouldn’t mind.
Judy succumbed to the warmth of the bed; she pulled the comforter tightly under her neck.
The last year was beyond difficult. Judy’s ex-husband Richard spent the first four months of the year denying he had abused her. When he discovered that Judy’s decision to flee him was going to last, he turned his efforts to the court to take Jake from her. Even Judy’s mom testified against her. For reasons she still didn’t understand, the judge awarded her sole custody and granted her permission to move away. By September, she had a new apartment, a new job, and a new list of fears. Judy and Jake were on their own in every sense of the word. For ten years old, Jake somehow avoided the anguish others kids might have experienced through such a traumatic year. Judy found herself holding her breath tensely, waiting to see Jake act out. He never did.
At 4:50, Judy imagined she could smell coffee. If she overslept the alarm, the coffee always roused her from the bed. Single parents had to use a bit of creativity to keep their lives manageable. Imagining her first cup of coffee, she realized that she needed to pee. She pulled the comforter over her head as if doing so would erase the imaginary scent of coffee from her nose and the need to go to the bathroom. When she got the edge of the comforter tucked behind her head, she heard the soft melodies of “All I Want For Christmas” by Celine Dion. Most people preferred Mariah Carey, but not Judy. Celine was the voice of her angel. Deciding that she wasn’t going to quiet her mind or rest, Judy crawled from her warm bed and walked through the small dark bedroom to the tiny bathroom attached to it. As soon as she sat, she distinctly heard the music volume increase dramatically. Without a doubt, Celine’s voice played in the living room. Judy tried to finish more quickly, which only increased her need to go longer. As most moms discover, there is no such thing as quiet time, even in the bathroom. There’s always a bang on the door or an immediate need to address.
Judy quickly put on her Santa pajama bottoms and walked out into the living room. Inexplicably, the small tree next to the front window was fully lit and twinkling. The stereo next to the small television was on. Celine’s voice streamed from it. Judy walked across the narrow living room to Jake’s room. Opening the door, she went to the pillow fort and peered inside. Jake wasn’t there.
Judy quickly backed out of the room and peeked into the front bathroom. Also empty.
She turned and slid the sliding door to the kitchen open.
Jake sat at the small plain wood table. A cup of coffee sat in front of him. Next to that, a simple red box tied with twine.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!” Jake shouted as he ran over and hugged Judy around the waist. Surprised, Judy stood and rubbed her son’s hair back from his face. After a few seconds, he pulled away and reached over to grab the cup to hand to Judy. “I made this just the way you like it, Mom!”
“When did you learn to make coffee, Jake?” she asked.
“Oh Mom. That’s what YouTube is for! Plus, this is your Christmas!” Jake’s smile was as big as Judy had ever seen it. Though doubtful, Judy sipped the coffee. It was perfect. She laughed, realizing that Jake just volunteered to make coffee for her for the next ten years. “It’s delicious and so much better when someone else makes it!” She winked at him in the way that he loved.
“What are you doing up so early, son? It’s barely five.”
“Mom, I asked Santa to give you a good Christmas. He told me that I should give you a good one. I got you a gift.” Jake reached for the box on the table and pushed it toward Judy.
“How did you manage this, Jake? Do you even have money?” Judy laughed. She pulled the top bow loose to work the lid off the box.
“It was easy. I took out the trash every day for Mr. Johnson and agreed to help the building manager for a few months next year. I got Ken’s mom to get the gift at Target. Ken brought me the surprise to school, and I sneaked it home in my backpack. Simple.” He smiled. Judy knew that it had been anything but simple. Such planning for a ten-year-old was impressive. She was going to act delighted no matter what the box contained. It’s a ritual that Moms do instinctively.
Judy lifted the top off the box. She gasped. Inside the box at the bottom was a single ruby earring. Her eyes welled up as she looked at Jake. He sat, watching her, a smile on his face.
“Mom, do you like it?”
She swallowed hard to avoid crying. “Yes, of course!”
“I know that Dad took your Grandma’s ruby earrings and hid them. I could only afford one this year. I’ll get you the other one next year, I promise.”
Judy abandoned all pretense and started sobbing. She sat down hard on the chair across from Jake. Her coffee sloshed and spilled a little as she did so. Jake came around the table and hugged Judy from the side. She grabbed him and squeezed him hard against her.
“I love it, Jake! I love you.” She fumbled to pick up the single ruby earring and put it into her right earlobe. She smiled at Jake.
“Merry Christmas, Mom!”
As Celine continued to soar in the clouds in the background, Jake and Judy, mom and son, sat at the kitchen table laughing. It was a long time coming. In the living room, beneath the tree, Jake’s presents waited.
Love and Christmas were drowning them both. They swam in it.
Wherever you are and whoever you are, the season is inside you if you’ll permit it to overwhelm you.
If you want to try a show that I think should be universally loved, this is the one. Each of us will discover something about what we think we know as we watch.
A few years ago, I watched a show that defied me to dislike it: Rectify. It’s still available on Netflix. As many said, it was the best tv show that no one was watching when it first aired.
“It’s the beauty, not the ugly, that hurts the most.” As wounding as this quote was, I laughed when I heard it again this week. Laughter emanates from the recognition of at least a kernel of truth. Though I was prepared for The Stranger scene in Rectify, the wallop it hit me with caught me off guard. If this quote seems strange to you, it is because you didn’t visit the emotional world created in this tv series.
When Daniel violently taught Teddy a lesson about his ignorance of assault, I laughed at that too, even though the lesson was graphic.
Like other shows such as Six Feet Under, Rectify tore through me like a tornado. It uses language and emotion so close to my own inner monologue that I felt like someone strip-mined me a bit to create this show. I learned more from SFU during the second viewing. Rewatching Season 1 of Rectify both amplified and soothed my past life for me. For those not exposed to brutality, it may seem counterintuitive to find redemption in seeing someone else suffer to find it.
Along with books like “The Prince of Tides” or “A Prayer For Owen Meany,” I add “Rectify” to the list of great works that line the perimeter of the sublime for me. If you watch “Rectify” with a keen eye, you will see bits of me hidden in there.
Watching the show again, I must admit that a couple of the scenes almost led me to burst into tears. I think it’s because I recognized the beauty in the struggle. We’re never the same person twice.
Here’s a link from something I wrote a few years ago:
Millicent was a pretty and quite precocious young girl. By age 5, she had developed a startling trait of listening to adults a little too closely. While her contemporaries squabbled over dolls and crayons, she dedicated herself to watching the strange adults around her. Instinctively, she also learned to spread her questions around among a variety of adults. After a certain number of questions, most adults became defensive or, worse, annoyed. Much of the time, their answers made little sense. Though she was young, it didn’t take her long to decide that most adults were winging it in life. Because she figured out that it was true for almost everyone, it didn’t upset her or make her sad.
Grandma Tuggins, her mother’s mom, noticed Millicent’s vocabulary had exceeded her own by age 6. Millie often sat on the floor while the older women watched “As The World Turns.” In the mid-70s, it was the show that defined daytime soap operas for women in Georgia. During one of the biggest melodramatic moments of the season, Millie stood up and announced, “Well, the plot is a bit preposterous if I’m expected to swallow the fact that she’s in love with both of those gentlemen!” She stomped away to get herself a bottle of Coke from the fridge. Tugs and the other women laughed.
Tugs, as her friends called her, knew the dangers of a girl being too smart. Alabama was still behind the times in 1975. Tugs made it her mission to bend Millie’s inquisitive nature before things got out of hand. Tugs was the organist at the Methodist church in town. She played the organ on Sundays and did the books for Reverend Hawkins. Within weeks of watching her grandmother as she counted the money and paid the bills for the church, Millie could do the math in her head.
Everyone knew that Millicent had announced that she could read on her fourth birthday. For a year, she would stare at the books on the floor or in her lap as she sat in the rocking chair with her mom. Her lips didn’t move, but her eyes seemed to read the words on the pages. She started with her collection of Curious George Books. Soon enough and her mom found her with a Nancy Drew series boxed up in the cellar. Millie’s other grandmother, Ellie, bought Millie a set of Encyclopedia Brown books for her birthday. “Just like a real set of encyclopedias,” she proudly (and wrongly) proclaimed. No one told her they weren’t the same thing. After eating the cake with no frosting, Uncle Pete asked Millie to read a bit of Encyclopedia Brown to him, knowing she wouldn’t be able to. A full chapter later, as Millie recited the words perfectly, Uncle Pete kept saying, “Lord, where did she get all them brains from? Ain’t none of us got that much smarts.” Grandma Tugs knew better. Millie’s dead father Andrew was the guilty party to passing along so much brains. Andrew also liked to take shortcuts for everything.
What concerned Tugs the most was the Wednesday evening when Millie turned from her chair and said, “The Reverend makes a lot of money for selling promises, doesn’t he?” Tugs burst out laughing at the question. “Yes, but his message makes a lot of people happy, Millicent!” Millie looked a little troubled. “Mr. Harley doesn’t seem happy about the message. I think his drinking has him thinking he might not go upstairs when he dies.” Grandma Tugs laughed again, but she was surprised that Millicent knew that Mr. Harley had a drinking problem – or that she had a grasp of the difference between Heaven and the brimstone place.
As the years passed, Millicent’s grades suffered. She was more interested in learning from books on her own and doing things with her hands dirty up to her elbows. She learned the piano by watching Grandma Tugs. Her Grandma spent one afternoon showing her what all the squiggles were on the music book and how they corresponded to the keys on a piano. Grandma Tugs spent years to get decently good. Millie needed less than a few weeks before her fingers learned the keyboard and improvised on the fly. “Grandma, can we jazz it up a little next Sunday? Give Reverend Hawkins a shock?” Grandma Tugs hugged Millie close to her on the piano bench. “That would be a hoot, wouldn’t it?” Tugs decided she needed to keep an even closer eye on Millie.
In fifth grade, Reverend Hawkins visited Heritage Elementary School, where Millie attended. Despite all the arguing about it, her school still offered a Bible Study class. Millie hated all the discussion. “People say it means stuff that isn’t written in there! At least with Encyclopedia Brown, the answer is the answer.” Grandma Tugs would shake her head and tell her to focus on not blurting out what was going on inside her head. Reverend Hawkins had no idea that he was about to face his most formidable adversary.
“Boys and girls, I hope you’ve been reading your Bibles. It’s just as important as math and reading comic books,” he said, as Millie’s focus wandered. She started at the open dictionary on her desk instead.
Millie looked up, surprised. The Reverend had asked her to tell her what her favorite Bible verse was. “Proverbs 31:6,” Millie said immediately. The Reverend looked startled as he hastily searched for the verse in his Bible. Millie told him, “Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish.” Several of her classmates laughed. “Proverbs 20:1 says, ‘Wine is a mocker and beer is a brawler, whoever is led astray by them is not wise.'” Ms. Atkins politely applauded Reverend Hawkins.
Reverend Hawkins began to speak again. Millie cut him off, saying, “1 Timothy 5:23: Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” Both the Reverend and Ms. Atkins stared at one another in consternation.
“Can I speak to you in the hallway, Ms. Atkins?” The Reverend didn’t wait for an answer and almost ran outside into the hallway. After a minute of whispered discussion away from the eyes of the class, they both returned.
Ms. Atkins folded her hands in front of her. “Class, let’s all give Millicent a round of applause for studying her Bible so diligently!” Her face was flushed. Her classmates nervously applauded. They knew something wasn’t right but didn’t know quite what had happened. “Let’s all make our way single file to the cafeteria where we’ll all enjoy a milk and chocolate pudding with the Reverend.” At that, everyone began to talk animatedly and to lose their interest in what had happened. When Millicent stood, Reverend Hawkins asked her to wait a moment.
“Millie, how did you know those verses? Alcohol is a subject a little advanced for you.” The Reverend had underestimated Millie. He wouldn’t be the last.
“I learned the Bible, Reverend. And everyone has alcohol in their houses. Even you.” Millie smiled at him.
“You learned it? How much?” He seemed concerned. He filed away the idea that Millicent somehow knew he liked to drink a bit of whiskey. Oddly, he suddenly wanted a sip right then, too.
“All of it. It’s already broken into indexed pieces by book, chapter, and verse.” Millie wasn’t bragging.
Revered Hawkins opened and closed his mouth several times. Finally, almost croaking, he said, “Let’s go get some pudding.” Millicent ran out of the classroom, smiling.
Pinche decided to take a walk around the neighborhood. He drank three or four cups of bitter coffee and felt restless, especially for an overcast fall day. After reading several hundred pages of one of his favorite books, even those beloved words grew stale for him. Grabbing a jacket on the way out, he put it on as he crossed the old, narrow cement walkway to the street.
As Pinche passed his next-door neighbor’s house, Sam waved to him and laughed. Though it was just 4:45 in the afternoon, Sam already had a glass of ice and another small glass for his whiskey. “Hey, Pinche neighbor!” Ever since Pinche bought the old house on Elm Street, his neighbors took delight in saying his name, mainly because “Pinche” meant “damn” in Spanish. Pinche didn’t have the heart to tell them it often meant much worse. Them not knowing as they yelled his name always resulted in him laughing back. He hoped that dozens of white people were still saying his name without realizing it could be shocking to many people. Pinche’s grandfather got the blame for naming him; he cursed at least a thousand times the first month he discovered that Pinche’s mother became accidentally pregnant when she was only seventeen. When he found out that a priest was the father, he cursed even more and didn’t stop until Pinche was five years old. Pinche’s Mom decided to memorialize the cursing by choosing a potentially mild one as a name.
Pinche also always whistled as he walked. He didn’t know he was doing it unless a neighbor or passerby commented on it. From show tunes to rap to blues and rock, Pinche’s grasp of music was incredible. He studied piano for several years and could sing like an angel. One of his favorite things to do while walking was to whistle three-octave scales. His Mom told him to whistle as much as he wanted because God sent him to teach the birds how to sing.
Pinche turned at the next block and walked down Maple street, an older street with massive oak trees in many yards. As he neared the house directly behind his a street over, he noted that The Wilkerson’s house front door was open. A panel truck sat at the curb out front. Their light blue piano sat on a mover’s platform at the base of the porch steps. Almost no one knew that the piano once belonged to Liberace. Pinche was in on the secret because of his perfect pitch and skill with a piano. He knew that the Wilkersons were in Ohio visiting their son. Usually, Pinche jumped the back fence to check in on their cat Purrincess, which it turns out was probably the ugliest cat in North America. Its meow sounded like a loose cello string being dragged across an electric fence.
Pinche slowed as a man wearing a blue uniform exited the front door. He pulled the door closed behind him as he did. The man seemed surprised to see Pinche near the oak tree by the street. The uniformed man nodded and stopped at the piano.
“I can’t believe that the Wilkersons are selling that piano. They turned down a huge offer last year. They don’t play, of course. Such a waste for such a famous piano. An unplayed piano is like an empty heart.” Pinche chatted casually with everyone who would listen. It sometimes resulted in great conversation and sometimes with hurried looks of annoyance.
The piano mover sighed. “Yes, they got an offer they couldn’t ignore. Hey, could you help me shift this over the edge of the sidewalk?”
Pinche walked over and pushed the piano to the left while the piano man pushed toward the street. Surprisingly, the piano smoothly rolled. “The right equipment makes the job easier,” the piano mover said as if reading Pinche’s mind. They continued moving to the sidewalk. While they slowed, the piano man continued to push evenly. The base fluidly lowered to street level. The piano mover then drove it onto the waiting platform that was already lowered to street level.
“Thanks, you made this a lot easier if the piano had shifted.” While he spoke, he threw a protective blanket across the piano and threw soft straps across it. As he powered the lift up, Pinche asked him, “Who is the buyer? This is a fairly famous piano.”
“A buyer in New York. He’s wanted this piano for at least 20 years.” The piano mover continued to tighten and adjust the straps as he moved the piano inside the confines of the panel truck.
Pinche remained standing by the truck, watching the piano mover.
After a couple of minutes, the piano mover came back down to street level and then raised the platform and locked it vertically against the back of the truck.
“Listen, am I in trouble here?” The piano mover asked Pinche, suddenly revealing his nervousness.
“It depends,” Pinche said. “Is the piano going to someone who will play it? And did you lock the Wilkerson’s front door to prevent anyone else from paying a visit?”
“Yes to the door, and yes, indeed, he will. And the family here can take the $30,000 cashier’s check I left on the counter. Or they can file insurance for theft. Or both, if you know what I mean.” The piano mover took a moment to look Pinche in the eyes.
Pinche extended his right hand as the piano mover reluctantly shook it.
“It’s a deal.” Pinche nodded goodbye and turned to walk away.
The piano mover shook his head in a bit of surprise and confusion as Pinche walked away.
By the time Pinche reached the other end of Maple Street, and the piano mover opened the driver’s door of the truck, he could Pinche happily whistling “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” as his pace quickened.
Pinche felt a sudden case of forgetfulness overcoming him as Liberace filled the air.
I stood at the edge of the rural road, looking north. Because I knew another road once met the edge of the one I stood on, I could see the subtle difference in the ground and the trees’ varying thickness ahead that the forgotten dirt road left behind. Up until 1965, the road led to the Chowderwick house, once home to a prosperous family. It had likely fallen in now and was probably a pile of boards and tin cups somewhere back in the dense trees. It was likely that no one would remember that a house once proudly stood back there in a generation. Such places litter the South.
From the confines of my mind, I saw an image of Lilly Chowderwick when she was 6. In 1964, the Esper community went into shock when they heard Lilly had been abducted and likely murdered. Sheriff Brimley found blood along the floorboards near the wood stove in the front room and along the porch that comprised the entire length of the front of the house. Dogs lost the scent at the edge of the porch. To him, such things indicated that whoever did the crime had planned on not being caught.
Sheriff Brimley conducted as thorough an investigation as was possible in the South in those days. He concluded that Lilly was likely dead and that someone would slip up and say something incriminating one day. Or, more likely, someone would stumble upon a hidden set of bones somewhere within the rural boundaries of Maylean County.
Lilly’s dad Jeffrey inherited a good fortune. It included a store along Main Street as well as some mining interests across two counties. He didn’t inherit the savvy or patience that Lilly’s grandfather used to build a small fortune. By the early 1960s, the Chowderwicks had retreated to the acreage along the road on which I stood. Jeffrey was rumored to beat his once beautiful wife, Lilian. Lilian often disappeared from public view for days on end. Esper, like all small towns, whispered and gossiped each time. After Lilly’s murder, Lilian fell into a trance and seldom spoke. It seemed like she was waiting for her turn.
Sheriff Brimley brought in Jeffrey for questioning. Jeffrey insisted he had nothing to do with Lilly’s disappearance. Although the Sheriff believed his story, he arranged a trunk interrogation a week later. Two of his deputies grabbed Jeffrey as he walked on the edge of the town drunk. They deposited him in the trunk of one of their cars and drove him a few miles to a barn. After convincing Jeffrey he would likely die in that barn that night, they decided he hadn’t abducted or killed his daughter. He was capable of it, though. He confessed to beating his wife repeatedly.
In 1965, Jeffrey died when he drank too much and walked out onto the main road on a cold Wednesday night. A truck loaded with lumber crushed him as he stumbled out onto the road. The driver said he never saw Jeffrey. The accident happened where the swamp and creek encroached on the farmland adjacent to it. The trees often leaned and overhung the road.
Within months, Lilian left without saying goodbye. Everyone assumed she moved out west where distant cousins once lived. No one knew for sure.
I had promised to tell no one the secrets of Esper or Lilian and Lilly Chowderwick. Fifty-five years later, I knew that DNA would out their family secret. I knew what no one else did: that little girl had not been abducted or killed. Lilian murdered her husband. She endured countless beatings after the burial of the empty coffin that should have held her daughter. When the time was right, she killed Jeffrey and put his body on the road. I helped.
Despite my promise, I can finally say that I know all this because I’m the one who drove little Lily out of town in May of 1964. If she had stayed, her father would have continued to abuse her or worse.
My confession must include that I am an accessory to several crimes.
I’m not sorry, and I don’t apologize.
In a few minutes, Lillian would drive down this road and meet me in the place she swore she’d never see again. And with her would be Lilly, now 61 years old, a grandmother in her own right, with a full life that remained a mystery to me. At that age, we decided that she should know that we killed her father.
Though the air was filled with dust, the tears on my face came from a place of nostalgia.
There are hidden roads everywhere if you know where to look.
The day grew long legs while I was busy frittering away the hours. I was so accustomed to hurling myself from the bed at an early hour that I wasn’t sure my enthusiasm for a long walk would meet me outside so late in the day. I was wrong, though. Even though it was Nov 19, it was warm enough for a brisk walk, even at 4 p.m. The sun was slowly dropping toward the horizon. Its orange glow made me squint as I hurried along the leaf-strewn trail. I felt as if I could walk for ten miles and that the receding sun was being converted directly into propellant for my feet. The recognition of my initial reluctance to take a walk reminded me that once started, few walks fail to yield positive moments.
As I passed the house I had christened “hoarder house,” its yard still seemed like an abandoned junkyard. I’ve written about the hoarder house once before. Its existence had surprised me, so close to the modern new homes and bright recently-built park. I counted no fewer than five boats, eleven vehicles, and at least forty appliances scattered through the unkempt yard. Even the grass seemed to have given up, trading its light brown hue for a dingy, decaying gray. The pile had grown so unmanageable that I couldn’t see much of the front of the house as I approached it from the city limits. Last summer, I could smell the contents of the yard as I strolled past. I used street view maps to look back in time and found myself staring at a mostly empty yard. That the yard became so cluttered so quickly was a surprise.
Reaching the sign that indicated “NO turnaround, private property” a few hundred feet past the hoarder house, I turned and began my trek back. The road dead-ended a little further along, and despite its proximity to the city limits, something primal in the back of my mind stopped me from walking to the end of the gravel road. As I approached the hoarder house on my return, I noticed smoke slowly escaping the dilapidated chimney at the end of the house closest to me. I didn’t see smoke when I had passed the house the first time. At this point, it was just a few minutes shy of sundown, which was going to occur a little after five that afternoon. The orange tint to the air had deepened, and the air’s chill was beginning to feel like the inside of a refrigerator door when first opened. While I prefer the early morning sun’s desolate greeting, some sunsets evoke a deep, peaceful feeling in me. The evening walk felt like a slice of stolen time, and I realized that I hadn’t once thought about how far I had walked.
I approached the cluttered driveway of the house. I saw what I thought was a cat jumping up and down in a bare spot in the grass near the front steps and probably hunting mice in the debris. After a few more seconds, I realized it might be a human arm rising from a prone position. My pulse quickened. As I passed the rusted barrels obstructing a clear view of the house, I could see an elderly lady. She had fallen off the steps, her legs tangled under her, and her messy silver hair scattered around her face like shorn feathers. Her right arm moved up and down while her left arm remained immobile. I ran toward the porch, dodging debris and trash as I neared the fallen woman. I felt a sharp pain in my right forearm as a sliver of metal pierced my skin and cut me deeply. The metal shard was protruding from the edge of a small boat. I knew I was bleeding. For the time being, I ignored it and ran the few steps remaining to the porch.
Kneeling, I put my hand on the woman’s exposed left arm. Her flesh was cold. Had I not seen her moving, I would have been sure that she was dead. I pushed the hair away from her face, expecting some unseen injury. “Ma’am! Are you okay?” I shook her more harshly than I had intended.
I looked up toward the closed door above both me and then the small porch steps. When I looked back, the woman was staring at me, both eyes open. I almost screamed. Her eyes were clouded and silvery. Her lips began to move, although no words escaped her mouth.
“Hold on. I’ll call an ambulance.” I looked directly into the woman’s unsettling silvery eyes as I said it, to comfort her.
Her right arm came up, and her fingers encircled my left wrist. “No,” she croaked, her voice barely discernible. “Please. Help. In the house.”
Lifting her and getting her in the house was momentarily overshadowed by the idea of going inside this house at all. I had thought many times about how terrible it must be inside there. The place seemed to be the embodiment of decay. On previous walks, I could smell the presence of the house and yard from the road. I hesitated and considered calling an ambulance anyway. As I looked at the woman’s face, though, I knew that I wouldn’t call. It seemed like this wasn’t her first serious fall. I wondered what might have happened to her had I not wandered by on an impromptu walk.
Without her telling me, I knew her left arm was almost useless to her. I crouched and put my right arm under hers and pulled. She feebly pushed with one of her legs, and she wobbled up. Oddly, she smelled of vanilla and cinnamon.
We took the three steps up the porch one at a time, without any hurry. I grabbed the broken door handle with my left arm even though I knew my right arm, which supported her, was probably leaving a bloody trail across the fallen woman’s back as the cut on my arm continued to pulse in pain.
I couldn’t get the door to open, even as I pushed hard.
“Hard. Push!” croaked the woman. I leaned in and pushed with more force than I intended. The door popped open, and before I could stop us, we both fell inside. I felt the crunch and fold of paper as I tumbled in.
I resisted the urge to scramble upright, hoping our unintentionally gymnastic entrance didn’t further injure the woman. I rolled her over to her back. Her hair looked like a silver mop blown by a malicious wind. I leaned over and pulled her up. As I looked around the room, I was surprised by how few furnishings were in the living room. The floors were covered with newspapers. I shuddered to imagine what was beneath the multiple layers. A couch sat on the far left, and at least six armchairs were on the right. None of them matched one another. I moved toward the chair furthest from the door as I carefully pulled the woman along with me. Cups, saucers, and papers surrounded the chair. I knew from experience that almost all hoarders tend to make a nest in the spot where they spend the most personal time.
I helped the woman turn and let her go a bit too soon. As she fell into the chair, I heard a ‘whoosh,’ followed by a high-pitched squeal which turned out to be a startled tortoise-shell cat fleeing in surprise. It ran through the doorway near the fireplace. I noted no fire in the fireplace but didn’t understand why that seemed to bother me. While I couldn’t see into the next room, I could hear things moving, though, and I wasn’t certain whether the sounds were from mice, cats, or some strange thing better left unbothered.
Not wanting to leave the woman until I knew she was safe, I reached under the lampshade and attempted to turn on the lamp next to her chair. My hand ran across a mass of cobwebs. I quickly snatched my hand back. The old woman cackled as she reached across and brushed her hand on the lamp. It turned on immediately.
“Son, you can call me Dolores.” Her voice sounded like a broken drawl, one accustomed to fatigue.
“Nice to meet you, Dolores, and sorry about the circumstances.” I moved to sit on one of the other five chairs, trying to pose myself as little as possible across its front cushion. As I sat, I could smell the dust and years of neglect rise out of the fabric.
For several minutes we sat in silence. My mind was asking several questions, none of which did I dare utter. I wasn’t sure how much of her condition was chronic and how much might have been exacerbated this afternoon in her latest fall. I remembered the cut on my arm. It was now just bloody and drying across my forearm, although it still throbbed. It didn’t occur to me that I should leave, so I sat, in silence, waiting for some sign of what to do.
“Fetch me that album off the shelf there. The one with the purple tassel,” Delores said. Her voice had substantially cleared up. I stood up and carefully placed one foot in front of the other as I crossed the room. As I pulled it from the edge of the shelf, I realized it was a photo album. A purple tassel dangled from within its pages.
I handed it to her and lowered it slowly so that the weight of it wouldn’t surprise her. She placed it on her lap. Instead of opening it, she asked me to pull a worn stool over from near the door. Though it was well-used, it was dark black and had a faint carving in the top; whether it was a wolf or a dog, I couldn’t tell. Someone had undoubtedly made it with their own hands. I picked it up and placed it near her, and sat on it. It was strange that I didn’t hesitate to sit close to her.
She opened the album. Inside the first page was a large photograph of a mostly smiling family. Across the top, it read, “Fising Family 1922.” She pointed at a young girl in the front, probably five years old. “That’s me, sonny. I was a happy girl.” I did the math. The little girl in the black and white photo was smiling as she gripped the left leg of the man standing next to her. Dolores was somewhere around 100 years old now.
As if reading my thoughts, she said, “Today is my birthday! Nov 19.” I was finding it hard to believe that she would be alone at that age. Dolores turned to the next page, reciting names. “My sister Georgie. My brother George. My mom, Georgie Mae Nador. My dad, George Wilson Fising. He was born in Romania but was adopted by someone coming to America. His real family was wealthy and sent him here.” She continued to turn the pages. I found myself looking intently at all the strangers in her album, imagining the one hundred years they documented.
She paused. “My son George. My only child who survived childbirth. He had seventeen kids. Can you believe it?” The next picture was of George, probably taken in the 1970s. Kids were sitting, standing, and crouching in every direction. “He had 47 grandchildren. What a wonderful life.”
“Where does he live now?” I whispered.
“He died in a fire on Christmas night many years ago. A good life, no regrets. He was the spitting image of my husband. My husband ran off the day George was born. He couldn’t take watching another child die. We lost nine kids before George was born and survived. I know how he felt, so I never begrudged him leaving like that. It was a relief, actually.” She sighed, undoubtedly picturing her husband in her thoughts.
We sat, slowly looking at every picture. Dolores occasionally commented. As she turned to the last picture, I could see that it was a snapshot of a very old man. He had a high hat in one hand and a cane in the other. He was smiling outrageously at the camera. Underneath the picture, someone had scribbled, “Yikes!”
“That’s my dad, George. That’s the day he died. He died on his 100th birthday, as spry as someone forty years younger. All his life, he joked that the Fising family in Romania was so wealthy because they all lived to be over 100 years old. He loved saying “Yikes” every time we turned around. We would often tell each other “Yikes” instead of “I love you.” It was a way of reminding us that life was just as many sparks and dismay as having a good time. But lord, we lived extraordinary lives.” Dolores wiped at her eyes with her right arm. It struck me that Dolores had, indeed, lived a proud life.
We sat and let the light diminish around us. As Dolores shared stories, I felt as if history itself were sitting in the room with us, cleverly hiding its presence. I pulled my cellphone out and was surprised to see that it was 7:30 and that we had been looking at pictures for over 2 hours. I didn’t want to pry, so I asked her if there was anything she needed. “No, I’m going to sit here a spell, sonny, and let the dark catch my thoughts.” The way she said it told me that she learned the phrase decades ago.
“Dolores,” I said, “Would it be okay with you if I come back tomorrow afternoon and look at another photo album with you?”
“Oh yes, that would be divine.” Dolores crookedly smiled. “Can you bring snack cakes,” she asked, her voice trailing.
I reached out and touched her hand as I stood, grabbing the stool to move it back where I had found it.
“Tomorrow it is, and yes, for the treats,” I said, trying to get outside before I started crying.
As soon as I opened the door, I realized it was dark. Pulling out my phone, I used its glow to slowly step around the obstacles in the yard and make my way back to the road. Once I reached it, I looked back and could see no lights on inside. Whether Delores used the time it took me to traverse the obstacles of her yard to cover the crevices or her windows or turned off all the lights, the idea of her seated in the living room alone bothered me.
The next afternoon, I finished work, and instead of parking at the park nearby to walk over, I drove and left my car a few hundred feet from Dolores’ hoarder house. I brought out a package of snack cakes and walked up to the house. After navigating the yard, I knocked loudly on the door several times. Finally, I heard a voice say, “Come on in.” I pushed the door hard to knock it loose, and it popped open.
“Sonny!” Delores said with energy. “I didn’t think you’d make it back.” Delores was wearing the same thin floral dress she had on the day before. She was seated in the same chair. Had I not know it was impossible, I would have believed she had remained in the same position since last night.
I handed her the bag of desserts, and as she clumsily looked inside, she laughed. “For some reason, I thought you’d bring me a fruitcake.” She looked up at me.
“I love fruitcakes, Dolores,” I said.
“I had a thought you might, sonny. I haven’t had one in what seems like a long spell.” I made a mental note to bring her a fruitcake. Or five. She placed the bag of cakes on the floor next to her.
Dolores asked me to bring her over another photo album, so I fumbled with the shelf’s contents until I pulled down an album with a green tassel. “My grandkids,” Dolores commented.
I pulled up the stool and sat. Delores once again began flipping the pages carefully, adding an anecdote or story about each one. Time stood still in that hoarded living room. Unlike yesterday, Delores seemed energetic and intensely created a whispered narrative of dozens of unfamiliar faces. I envied her life, though, the one cataloged in that album.
Her voice seemed to mimic a minor-key melody played on only black keys of an old piano. When she spoke of some of her family and the memories, I could discern a lilting pattern and uplift to her voice.
After she finished and closed the album, she told me some of the stories her father shared with her, many of them from Romania. Her love of fruitcake and minciunele were born from inside jokes she and her father had shared. “Never eat minciunele or fruitcake when you’re sad!” he would tell me.” For a moment, I could smell baking pastry dough pulled from a hot oven.
We both sat, staring into the past. As was the case yesterday, I was unaware of how much time had passed. I looked at my cellphone. Four hours had passed.
I stood and took the green tassel photo album from Dolores, and I placed it back on the shelf.
“Dolores, Thanksgiving is a couple of days away, the 23rd. I can’t come by tomorrow, but I’d love to come to see you on the holiday if you don’t mind. I’ll bring you a fruitcake and some fixings, if you’d like.” I couldn’t imagine her not being with family, but I was committed to avoid the sin of prying.
“Ooh, I’d love that, sonny.” She smiled.
An overwhelming urge to hug her possessed me, so I leaned in and wrapped my arms around her. She smelled like cinnamon again. “I forgot what it feels like to be hugged,” she said as I squeezed. I managed to get outside before my eyes filled with tears. Over one hundred years of life under her belt and dozens of family members in the world, and yet I was the one connecting with her. I stopped at the market on the way home and bought two small fruitcakes for my Thanksgiving visit. One for her and one for me. Or both for her, if she insisted.
Three days later, I again parked on the roadside a distance away. As I came up to the infamously cluttered driveway, I noted a newer Escalade was parked with its bumper up against the debris littering the front of the yard.
“Family is here after all,” I thought to myself. Though I was glad to know she had company, I felt a little put off by their presence.
I walked through the yard, and as I was about to knock on the door, it opened in front of me.
An older lady stood at the door, a mask hanging at her neck. Beneath it, I noted an ornate cross with a diamond inset.
“Yes. Can I help you?” She asked.
“I’m here to see Delores. We made arrangements to have fruitcake today.” I smiled.
“When might you have made those arrangements, sir?” She looked angry.
“Two days ago. Is she here? Is she okay?” I was getting an uneasy feeling.
“No, she’s not okay – and neither are you. I don’t know what game you’re playing. I’m Dolores’ granddaughter. She died a year ago on Nov 19.” Suddenly, I felt dizzy.
The next thing I was aware of, someone was shaking me and shouting.
“Hey, are you okay? What the hell? You passed out.” The lady who had answered the door was leaning over me. I felt the cold ground under me.
I rolled to prop myself up and sit upright on the ground. There were pieces of tools scattered all around me, all rusted. I had narrowly missed hitting a pile of pipes when I fell off the porch. It occurred to me that I had fallen almost in the very spot where Dolores had dropped a few days ago.
After a minute, I shakily stood up.
Delores’ granddaughter must have felt responsible for my fainting as she motioned for me to wobble my way up the stairs and inside. Without thinking, I grabbed the wolf stool by the door and sat on it.
The woman handed me a bottle of water. I opened it and drank almost all of it in one continuous gulp.
“I’m Georgie. Who are you?” Her voice was softer now, although I could tell she was a little concerned that I might be crazy.
“My name is X. I live a couple of miles away.” Realizing that my name probably didn’t help, I added, “And I met Dolores for the first time a couple of evenings ago. She told me a lot of stories.” I didn’t know what to say, in part because I had never fainted as an adult.
“I’m sorry. Dolores died Nov 19, 2016… X. There’s no way you saw her a couple of days ago.”
Before she could continue, I interrupted. “Delores Fising, born Nov 19, 1917, to Georgie Mae Nador and George Wilson Fising, born in Romania. Dolores was married and had nine miscarriages until her only child, George, was born. He had seventeen kids and forty-seven grandchildren, of which you are one.”
Georgie’s face slowly took on a shocked and confused look. “I don’t know how you know all of that, X, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s been dead over a year. I’m here to hand the place over to someone who wants the property. Today was the only day I could drive here.” She waited for me to reply.
“Get the purple tassel photo album off the shelf, and I’ll tell you a few stories.” I was floating in a cloud of confused bewilderment.
As Georgie retrieved the album, she handed it to me and sat on one of the chairs nearby. I opened the book and pointed. “This is Dolores, a happy child. Her father, mother, and family. I turned the page and loosely shared the same anecdotes Delores told me. Before turning the last page, I looked at Georgie and said, “Yikes!” “and then turned the page. This pictured is your grandfather George on his 100th birthday, the day he passed away. He taught the entire family to say “Yikes!” as an endearment.”
Georgie’s face blanched as I finished, and she stood up and retrieved the green tassel photo album and handed it to me. I opened it and recited a dozen family stories.
“Your father George died in a fire on Christmas day. Dolores said those sad times will always be held in check because your family was afflicted with happiness. I think that’s how she put it.” I closed the second photo album and sat in silence. “Afflicted with happiness.”
“Wow. I don’t know what to say. You don’t sound crazy. But there’s no way your story is true, X.” She shook her head, trying to escape the feeling of underlying magic in that dirty living room.
“I’m going to need to think about this. Is that okay?” Before letting me answer, she stood up and found a short pencil and a scrap of paper. “This is where Dolores is buried. Go see her.” She handed me another scrap of paper and said, “Write down your phone number for me, and if I can bring myself to do it, I’ll call you.”
I noted my phone number. As I handed it to Georgie, she grabbed my hand and clasped it between hers. She was looking intently into my eyes. “They passed down stories about how superstitious the family in Romania was. Strange goings-on, probably just stories to spook us. It’s working. I’m spooked. Dolores had a knack of knowing things and always told everyone that life never ended, at least not the invisible part.”
The next morning, I called in sick at work. I had resisted using my ancestry skills to look for Dolores digitally. As I’m an early riser, by 6 a.m. I was driving, following the unknown roads east of town. Several missed and wrong turns later, I found myself going down an uncertain dirt path around 7 a.m. The sun was just peeking above the distant horizon. Next to me in the passenger’s seat sat Dolores’ fruitcake. I couldn’t drive any further as the dried grass and weeds made it impossible to see what might be found underneath. The wind had subsided, and the cold enveloped me as I exited my car, fruitcake in hand.
I crossed through the sparse trees and dead foliage, dodging stray limbs as I walked. Ahead, I saw the broken teeth of graying tombstones rising from dead grass. The cemetery wasn’t plotted like most rectangular gravesites. There was no uniformity between rows, nor interval space between the stones. Limbs and piles of blown leaves littered everything. Guessing, I’d say there were only thirty marked graves.
As I approached, I could see the name “Fising” engraved or marked in haphazard fonts along the stones. It seemed as if all the stones were marked with that surname. I walked along the first row, searching for signs of a recent grave. The newest one I found was already fifteen years old. Fearing I had missed the resting place of Dolores, I turned to look back, and that’s when her spot caught my eye.
Stepping hastily across the cemetery, I made a straight line to the most massive tree in the rear of the grave area. Someone had piled sandstones in a rough circle around a tombstone, extending seven or so feet from the headstone.
Her stone was a large native rock, carefully inscribed with the following: “Dolores. Lived 100 years and several lifetimes.”
Despite its primitive construction, it was a beautiful spot in an unspoiled area. I tentatively stepped on the sandstones to reach the tombstone. I opened the fruitcake and unwrapped it, placing it along one of the headstone’s smoother top sections.
As I stood up, the wind picked up, dragging rustling leaves from the fields and trees across the cemetery. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I turned to look behind me, instinctively. I felt foolish. The sun was just peeking over the distant trees, illuminating this magical place.
Just as suddenly, I felt as if someone were standing behind me, behind the headstone. I turned back and saw that no one had approached. The fruitcake, however, was gone. Only a couple of crumbs stuck to the stone.
“Yikes,” I whispered, knowing that I’d never see the explanation for what I’d just witnessed.
“Dear Dolores, yikes,” I whispered again as the swirl of leaves covered my feet in oak leaves. I waited for a reply I knew would never come.
Dolores’ granddaughter never called me. I like to think that she recognized that I was telling the truth about Dolores. In such a family, magic would undoubtedly survive.
From time to time, I’ll catch myself uttering the word “Yikes” to those around me, especially those times which evoke a feeling of connection with them. They look at me quizically, and I just smile. I’m cautious about using Delores’ magic too often.
I remember all of Dolores’ stories, each one of them. The faces in her family pictures talk to me sometimes, telling me the stories in soft voices. I think she infected me with her memory and of her life so that it might survive. Some nights, I wake up with the odd smell of Romanian forests in my nose.
Yikes, to each of you. .
I have not walked past the hoarder house since. While I am not superstitious, I’m uncertain what lesson was given to me three years ago. . . I wrote this story in November 2017. Though imperfections found in it are genuinely mine, this story came to me in one balloon, wrapped in a single moment, as I stared at the house that inspired it. It is strange how people who never existed can haunt my imagination. I put the story out of my mind and went to bed that night. To say that the fall night stretched into a swirl of years in my sleeping mind would be an understatement. I woke up the next morning as if I’d been unwillingly snatched from another person’s life.
“I don’t look for exoneration, though I want it. There is no one in this world who can be both aware of my actions and the reasons for them except for me. Since I don’t pardon myself, I expect no less from others.” -X
I do look for understanding, and if that’s not possible, acceptance. All of us desire to know who we are and that who we are is of consequence to someone.
“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.” I fail in this regard a lot, even as I continue to hope that others will assume no failure of character on my part.
“We judge ourselves by our intentions and everyone else by their actions.” -S. Covey
If you think above these for a few moments, the hypocrisy of how true it all is numbing. I’m working on it. Honestly, I always will be. I can’t imagine aiming for an authentic life without such reflection.
Most of us tentatively feel our way through our lives, wanting more of the invisible things that bind us, yet distracted by things around us. Awakening to our houses’ solid walls, we forget that whatever else we are, we are not focused on the sublime and unknowable lives of satisfaction that could be ours. It is possible that you’re different than me, and that you don’t get distracted by the volume of “other” that surrounds and confounds me.
This post is a portmanteau of lives. One was a dedicated writer, and one was a policeman; both failed to adequately recognize their afflictions.
My wife’s eyes sometimes glaze over when I hear tales of “writer’s block.” I don’t know what that is. I can’t help myself: I always say, “What’s that?” half-jokingly. It’s the same way with me regarding boredom. Reading, writing, genealogy, humor, photography, and just scrolling the window of the internet could entertain me for fifty consecutive years. I’d be ideally suited to be a vampire.
This time, we were watching “I’ll Be Gone In The Dark” on HBO. Michelle McNamara had her deadline pushed forward a month and struggled to realize her ambition of finishing her book. It was her lifelong dream. She died before DNA solved the case of The Golden State Killer. Michelle and I share many attributes regarding writing. I don’t put myself on her level, though, so there’s no need to remind me snarkily. But I don’t understand the inability to plow through. She resorted to drugs to keep her up and allow sleep when necessary. The thing she relied on to help her achieve her ambition also undid her life.
I can’t walk the street, work, or sit and listen to music without wanting to research a hundred different ideas. Things breeze into my mind at a velocity that I cherish. The satisfaction of an overactive mind isn’t diminished by the value or result of the ideas. I’m able to divorce content from needing a goal. This allows me to produce dozens of things that never see the light of day or end up in the ‘delete’ file simply due to happenstance.
Had Michelle raised her hand and admitted she was overwhelmed, Patton Oswald and their mutual daughter would still have her in their lives. Instead, her book and ambition fell to uncertain others to complete, and Michelle lost a presumable thirty or forty years with family.
While I wrote the first part of this a few weeks ago, it still is on my mind. Not just because it was a great show, or a peek into a writer’s life, but also because a piece of it parallels the life of my brother. He was ridiculously smart. He could have worked to be a writer. As I do with anyone I recognize as innately great at writing, I repeatedly tried to convince him to spend a portion of his life writing his stories. I do not doubt that he easily had several books of material in him. Much of his writing might have derived from his professional career as a policeman and detective. Even his Army career was as an MP.
Michelle McNamara’s life revolved around crime and its intricate tendrils. My brother Mike spent his career investigating and collaring criminals. While Michelle’s ambition always included being a writer, Mike could have done the same, and just as expertly.
The contradiction is that his job itself was one of his biggest impediments. It put a wedge between his personal life and his ability to live it. The schedule, the demands, and the danger of having a job that perilously exaggerated his tendency toward authoritarianism. People often ask whether the job makes the man or the man gravitates toward it. I’m not sure. As much difficulty as my brother had coming out of his youth, the job exacerbated his personality defects. It’s no secret that police are more likely to be abusive and susceptible to addiction. My brother chose alcohol to appease his conflict. Michell McNamara chose prescription medications. Anyone who gets angry at me for saying so doesn’t understand me. In Michelle’s case, her husband Patton capably framed her turmoil in a very public and touching television show.
My brother’s intentions to retire as a detective after a full career collided with his inability to stop drinking. He was forced to retire. Even still, he could have turned that blow into a blossoming retirement. Had he stopped drinking, he might have lived to be seventy instead of dying before his fifty-fifth birthday. Because he was smart enough to work in the north, his pension was protected by a formidable police union. He had the option to pursue any interest he desired.
I was envious of that and his ability to work a job that allowed it. It’s a fantasy for most of us to round fifty and shift to do whatever interests us.
In the last couple of years, I sent Mike books, starting with “The Accidental Salvation of Gracie Lee.” I knew it would ignite his interest and recognition of what writing about the South could do. It was my hope he’d begin to leave the alcohol to the side, even if it cost him herculean effort to do so. He’d be able to careen into another career writing feverishly. Whatever else Mike did or didn’t do, he also loved books and libraries. That’s something that can’t be said about many police.
Mike’s death not only closed the door on his gift of writing, but it also cost him a couple of decades with his family. They’ll each struggle with the legacy of his big personality and choices. As Mike declined, I couldn’t help but get irritated at him for the waste of his life. Instead of pivoting to change his course and take advantage of the privilege of a chosen life, he furiously wasted his and his family’s energies to dedicate himself to drink. As bad it was, we were all lucky a few of the circumstances didn’t cause greater harm to others.
Now, silence. What could have been a rejuvenated family and life is now a complicated and unenviable path to an uncertain future for all of them.
As in my mother’s case, I know that much of the harsh words I shared with my brother were a result of alcoholism. Knowing it helps more now that they are passed than it ever did while they lived. He recognized the danger, just as I always did, but relied on his devious inner voice to convince himself he could overcome it. The same personality that made him loud and larger than life also participated in his fall. Many of our family and ancestors did the same. None of our ancestors who knew they were alcoholics successfully pulled out of it. It’s a sobering thought. I’ve written about the infection of my family. While I cannot adequately describe it, the trajectory of those around me gives proof that my theory must have some validity.
Mike loved that I wrote stories. Some of them caused him grief, especially before he could come to terms with the magnitude of the shadow that our dad and others left behind us. He vested energy in secrecy while I opted to throw open the windows. I was often a terrible brother. The only safe harbor I had at my disposal was separation. Mike had trouble seeing that my life was not one punctuated by drama. He also hated that I told him more than once that were I in his shoes, I would do anything and everything to break my addiction. It wasn’t because I felt superior to him in that regard, but that I never fooled myself into believing that any of us have magical skills that preclude us from behaving stupidly. Behavior that is obviously hard-wired into our DNA is that much more insurmountable.
The shelf that could have held Mike’s books will be forever empty.
The lives he could have intersected with for the next twenty years will now bounce obliquely off someone else.
The silences and subsequent shouts of confused recrimination will echo in his vacant place.
Someone close to one of the people who has vexed me most in later life wrote and lashed out at me with the phrase “Slightly Embellished Story,” stating that I write stories because I have a need to be a victim and relish the attention. I’ve written about this before and the ongoing likelihood that if you share your opinion and stories, even if they are completely yours to tell, people are going to use whatever tactics they can to knock you into silence. Or, worse, to question yourself.
I took some time to think about what I’d been told. While I didn’t let it pierce deeply, I did examine the implications. Only callous people disregard completely what they’ve been criticized for. We all go blind to our own foibles. I will admit that my brain glazes over when people scream or lash out in anger. I spent enough of my life around that sort of craziness. It’s almost totally absent from my day-to-day life. Those who don’t enjoy such lives simply can’t grasp how abnormal such anger is to most people living their lives.
In my case, I have grown so accustomed to this sort of manipulation that it works in reverse on me. I take a moment and consider what is really going on and what demons caused the person to write those words. In short, I’m appalled but fascinated. This sort of drama propels me to write MORE, not less.
Though the story is not mine to tell, I feel empathy for the person who wrote. They have lived a life diminished by things good people should not need to deal with, especially long term. They’ll never believe that I hoped for a long time that they’d find peace even if they had to build an entirely new life to do it. Gaslighting changes you fundamentally. Protecting secrets becomes an obligation. Ask any mental health professional about the consequences of being around addiction and pathology. We internalize what we cannot avoid.
Even as I write those words, I know I’m going to stumble and say and do stupid things. And I will also waste my remaining years making the same mistakes in the face of people who are not whole. I’ve been less than whole a few times in my own life.
One of the comments struck me as odd: “…you find a new audience to hear the same song/dance…” Which is weird as well as untrue. This blog, the one you’re reading. It’s been here since 2014. The previous blog on Blogger was there for several years before that. I imported some of the ancient ones here; some I edited and reposted later but many are in their original form. I don’t understand the criticism about my voice or stories “being new.” A decade of telling them doesn’t strike me as new.
This blog isn’t hidden. Anyone can read it. I used to allow open commenting. A couple of people with anger issues ruined that part for me.
I don’t post for secrecy. That’s a stupid argument to make. I post so that anyone interested can read what I have to say. It’s a one-way conversation. Unlike social media, no one has to even scroll past it.
Before that, I shared stories without embarrassment my entire adult life anywhere such outlets existed. Things happened to me that I didn’t choose. But I learned to embrace the hard things and talk about them.
If you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll read that I had a lot of family members who didn’t want to hear that we had some evil behavior in our family, didn’t want to hear that I had the right to change my name, and certainly didn’t want to be reminded of our right to choose our own paths.
All families are difficult. Being in one stuffed with alcoholics and abusers made learning to be independent of them difficult. We don’t start out understanding that people are scared of honesty or that someone might discover their dark secrets. They have to realize on their own that people know, anyway. It’s why if I get arrested or miraculously get a DWI, I will be the person saying so immediately on social media. Telling the secrets before they are outed robs them of their power. Most of it, anyway.
I never said I got it all right. In fact, I’ve said the opposite. One of my first blog posts was to point out that we are often wrong. Following that, I wrote a list of warnings about the dangers of writing anything down.
But I’ve been here, plugging away for more than a decade, telling the same stories that are mine to tell.
In 2014, I wrote another post about “Revisionists.” Even then, in 2014, I went through a period in which the haters almost silenced me. Several wrote and insisted that I was making so much of my story up. Years later, after DNA and research proved that countless stories of mine were true, they stopped trying to revise my life story.
As for the rest, I am a victim of some things. I’m certainly not a victim any longer, not for the most part. I don’t live a life full of drama, addiction, and secrets. My life isn’t perfect – but I have successfully reached a point now for several years when my sanity isn’t called into question. I continue to work to avoid people who can’t escape their lives.
Having said all that, that’s how this works: I write, you read. Or not.
If I’ve said something that you know is untrue, with the exception of those I asked to leave me alone, I’ll entertain any assertion that demonstrates how wrong I am. I don’t like to be wrong but I certainly hate to pretend to be right if I am not.
Otherwise, each of our lives is a Slightly Embellished Story.
Though the phrase was offered in anger, it did remind me to be wary of people. They are dangerous when wounded.