Friday, January 7, 2011


I participated in a show last night at the Continental Club Gallery. It was a variety show - Austin style. Artists, musicians, and writers all convening to share their view of the theme: Uninhibited/Inhibited. It was a beautiful night with some soul bearing, laughs shared, songs sung and some habits revealed. Here's my piece. Oh My Soul...

Oh My Soul
We are on our knees on the stone dry creek bed. Heads held up to the shining blue sky. Deep guttural moans emanating from way down in our bellies. From our core. From the source that makes us us. Like a prayer from the very center of our being we chant. Both of us in harmony. Tears streaming down our faces. In agony. In ecstasy.

Our children have run ahead. They have no time or patience for the mortification of this public display of adoration. My own father would leave the house at midnight to attend nocturnal adoration. But that was different. Sanctioned by the church and all. Midnight prayer. This was my prayer. An unearthly cry. On my knees. On the dry creek bed. Head held high to the luminescent blue sky as if waiting to be carried away in rapture.

As we chant, we are aware of nothing other than the resonance in our chest. The moans that echo within us. And seemingly without us. A force of their own. Not ours. Just through us. A family coming down the trail gives us a wide berth. We don’t see them but we’re told later by our children, “they thought you were crazy.” Perhaps. That’s kind of how it feels. This grief of ours. This missing of our dear soul. Our Alma. And I am on my knees next to her partner of 23 years on the dry creek bed. Both of us calling her name. AAAALLL-MAAAA. It is like an ohm. But more. More complete. More of everything. AAAALLLL-MAAAAA.

I have tasted sadness before. This was not it. Sadness can be sweet. It can be comforted with a soft cheek. A cup of hot tea. Or a shoulder to lean on. Like when my dad died. No anguish. That was the natural order of things. We were there. We were waiting for the moment when life became death. We held him until the very last minute as we gathered around his bed looking out at the lake through the big picture window in the room we called the library which no longer held any books. Just a hospital bed and all the accoutrement of the sick and dying.

My dad used to pray out loud during every storm, “From thunder and lightening deliver us oh Lord. From a sudden and unprepared death protect me oh Jesus.” His death was perfect. Not overly lingering, just long enough. Not much pain. No thunder or lightening. Visits from friends and family to say a final hello and goodbye. Eggplant parmesan the night before he died made by the old Italian lady that lived next door. We might have wished for a few more years but his life was complete. To him and to us. A loving wife of 50+ years. Nine children who cherished him and a giant damn in North Jersey built from the visions of his own mind.

Alma’s death was sudden. No illness. No time for final hellos or goodbyes. Not conscious ones anyway. Though I talked to her the night she died. She got up from bed to go downstairs. For something, who knows what? She fell and never got up. For a while we said aneurism because it made us feel better but really it was just a fall. On steps she had gone down a jillion times before. In her own home. On steps that made life become death.

My phone rang at 4:30 a.m. on the east coast where I was up, at 4:30 a.m., saying goodbye to my mom after a week alone together. One on one. A rare treat for this 8th child of nine. Ready to walk out the door I saw my niece’s number. A drunken teenage pocket call, no doubt. Crying on the other end, “Alma fell. She’s not gonna make it.” And I fell to my knees. On the cold wet New Jersey driveway. Moaning. WHAT? NO!! Crying on both ends. My Alma. My number 2 of 9.

Still I headed to the airport to be with my own family of six who needed me there after a week on their own. All the way I moaned. Bawled. And questioned the reality of this news I had just heard. In my own row of three seats I heaved great heaping sobs with one very nervous man in front of me. Let me ask you this, if you were on a plane and the person behind you was so completely and physically distraught, would you ask them if they needed help? I didn’t wonder then but I wonder now. Would you ask someone if they were okay? I buried my head in my sobs and my scarf. No one dared reach in. Not even the flight attendant with the cart full of drinks. My 3 ½ hour nonstop public display of anguish too much to handle. Apparently this was not in the training manual.

This sadness holds no semblance of sweetness. A cup of tea couldn’t even begin to touch it. (Though I did bring a 2 pound bag of Buddha’s Bliss to the house of my dead sister as if it would somehow help us all.) But this feeling doesn’t even deserve the same word. It is more physical. A pain from the center of my being. From down in my belly rising up into my chest and spreading out to every cell. Pounding like a dull resounding ache. I thought I knew heartache.

It is months now. 5 days shy of 3 if anyone is counting. Which I am. Like counting the time from a baby’s birth. First days. Then weeks. Then months. And so I know the years will follow. And still I’ll count. And still I’ll chant. And call out to her in unrestrained prayer. Every month on the eleventh I will remember. Alma Regina Noll. Born and died on the eleventh.

Her ashes sit on the altar we have made. I want to spread them somewhere. But I don’t want to give them up. I want to hold them to me. I want to taste them. And so I do, as I sift through them. Now she is in me. Like never before. AAAAALLL-MAAAA!!!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

From where I sit

You don’t know that you don’t know. Simplicity. You know you don’t know. Doubt. You know you know. Belief. You don’t know that you know. Trust.

From where I sit I see four children running amok in the yard. All together they are - sometimes messy and randomly cumbersome and frequently entertaining too. The care and feeding of all these children falls in my hands, and my mates too, but I can’t see the view from his chair. It is his. Like the time we looked out the very same window from two different angles. One saw winter. One saw spring. So it is.

From where I sit I see one 12 year old girl who teeters on the edge of childhood and maturity. She dangles one leg on each side of the proverbial fence. She hops off on occasion, running to one or the other, building fairy houses in a rotten stump. Constructing forts in the crook of a tree. Playing house or school or calico critters for hours on end. The next day, or minute even, she leaps over the rail and lands directly in the exploration of her future self. Playing with style and attitude and words and big, giant, adult-sized emotions - trying to familiarize herself with, herself.

From where I sit, squarely in the seat of middle age, I remember my own twelve-ness. If I close my eyes it was yesterday that I stood where she now stands. My mantra has become, out of necessity and so as not to addle her with my unfinished adolescence: I am me and she is she. I am me and she is she. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I am me and she is she. It is and needs to be my constant verse. If I close my eyes it was yesterday too that this twelve year old came to us in all her newborn-ness, with this brave new world unfolding before us. When she arrived we became. Family.

She makes her own way out there now. Sometimes. Has her own relationships that are not mine, and has a way about her that is hers and hers alone. From where I sit I can focus on all the mistakes we made or the things we didn’t do or the lessons we didn’t know how to teach or even knew needed teaching. Or we can focus on the here and the now and be glad for all that is.

When I go down the rabbit hole of regret I remind myself that she came to us. She knew where she was going. She knew what she was getting herself into. She was our first. Our test. Our only only. Never been here before nor knew where we were headed. She was and will always be our not knowing we didn’t know plain and simple.

I see 8 ten year-old boys playing Lord of the Flies Cirque de Soleil on the fourteen foot high steel playground slide now equipped with rope ladders dangling and swings too of various handmade varieties. These boys climb and slide and push and wrestle and monkey their way around each other and around this world of theirs. From an upstairs window I check their faces to make sure their fighting is for fun and frolic. I can see when it makes the shift. And I hesitate. I want them to know it too and learn what to do. But sometimes they need a hand not going too deep. I call out, “PAUSE”.

They are dirty and sweaty and happy as happy can be to be out here, in the fresh air, with the fire going, and the rules abandoned, for a day at least, being that it’s a party and all. I want to abandon the rules more and the only way to do that is to leave them to their own devices. Not looking. Not taking advantage of my view from the second floor. I see my own freckled boy in the fray and I watch him being remarkably ten. Body, mind and spirit.

From where I sit I wonder if we’ve done what we could with this lad of ours. Letting him feel the feelings that seem bigger than any I have known. When he was younger and these emotions were new, I made him a ten pound blanket, to lay on him like a lead apron. When it fell upon him, he melted and was glad for the reprieve. Watching him, I melted too.

His feelings are enormous. His anger roars. His silliness crosses lines drawn and seems spastic looking in. His sadness sinks with its heaviness. His moving body is strong and requires so. Much. space. All of what he feels he wears on his sleeve. The learning curve of him is a wide and expansive arc. We study him. And long to know what to do, sometimes doubting our ability. He is our knowing that we don’t know.

From where I sit I see a magical seven. A child born of fairy of that we are fairly certain. With her green eyes and elfin ears and delicate frame we are sure she is a changling, delivered to us in exchange for our human baby. She is enchanting with her incessant creativity and ability to fall deep into lands of her own imaginings.

From here I can just watch her, not parent her as much as just be here - to guide her on her path. She eats like a bird and moves like a ballerina on acid – twirling, leaping, spinning and jumping. Sometimes screaming uncontrollably at the end of it all. She is drawn to big crowds, stunning things, wild patterns, vivid colors, and drinks them all in like water. Yet still they wear her out.

From where I sit I hear crazy laughter. Excited screams. And even cries of protest. I hear her pleading for help changing her clothes, brushing her teeth or carrying her body out from bed to table. She lives in an ethereal world. My ethereal girl. And the mundane bodily tasks, like eating, seem a waste of good power.

From where I sit I watch her entertain an individual or a crowd with her willingness and desire to be seen. To sing out of tune. To play the games. And when they ask for a volunteer from the audience, her hand shoots up like lightning. She is sometimes loud. And sometimes crazily quiet too. She is attractive. And a tiny force to be reckoned with. We trust that we know we know. Belief.

From where I sit I see one small three year old boy. He is at once scatological and deeply profound. I see him slowly explore every bug, bird and blade of grass on the trail. And then name them all too with a solid and easy knowing. His intense passion requires that I hop off this seat of mine and join him in his paces of inquiry and intuition. When I resist it is a struggle. Acquiesce and all is well, for all of us, most of the time. He requires lots of food and space and energy both of body and mind. We drink in all of his phases. Whether we like it or not. Like his fetish for bending ears. Literally. Grabbing them with his tiny hands and bending, folding and mutilating them for comfort. Any ear in a storm.

We do not rush this boy through his paces rather we let him bring us where we need to be. He has shortened our commutes and shifted our priorities and created movements that we never knew about nor dreamed of. He has brought us all home, this wee boy born right here in this home with the five of us all serving as witness.

He is the tipping point. He is the strange and quiet comfort of not knowing that we know. Trust.

Far away I see one 85 year-old mother who delivered me here to this earth 45 years ago. Before that, a mother who delivered her and another and another. As far back as the eye can see and then some. Knowing. Not knowing. Doubting. Questioning. Believing. As it is now and ever shall be. World without end. Amen.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Table Dance

In the beginning, it was just us, at our little table in our little shack of a rental house.  Side by side we would make our feasts: chopping, slicing, sautéing. The two of us at the table sipping wine, eating our curries or fiery salsas and fantasizing about what the rest of our lives together would be.  We’d linger for hours over more red wine and a few cigarettes and maybe a coffee at the end.  We would eat late and long and imagine living in a big building with a big room and a big table  - where we would eat late and long all the days of our lives.  
In this same house with our first baby and still we ate late into the evening and not much changed in our ritual.  Not much changed while we cooked and she snoozed in her sling.  While we ate, she’d nurse, then collapse on my chest, neither of us always noticing or ever minding the salsa in her hair.  In those early days of babe many things remained the same and we thought that’s how it would always be, with our little carry-on-bag of a smiling, contented, only baby.  
As she started to crawl, we wriggled away from that hovel of a house that held such sweet emotion.  We left that house of first meeting, first marrying, first baby and were off into our own first home.  Our first own home that was not the enormity of our fantasies but rather the smallness of our bankbook - that made us choose between a living room and our dreamed of big table, and of course we chose the latter.  At this big table our meals were a little earlier and our menu a bit altered and our sentences unfinished as we split chores in different rooms and we split kids, as now there were two.  You change the baby and I’ll cook the dinner, you read a story and I’ll set the table, you run after them and I’ll run into the bathroom and take a deep breath.  And then we’ll all sit down together at our big table, not late or long, as the attention spans are shorter and the bedtimes never early enough.  
There are no more cigarettes but still there is red wine or a cold beer.  Still we fantasize about the future, even more so now, as we imagine not only our own lives but our children’s too.  These fantasies though are often interrupted by spills and crying and questions and directives:  Eat your supper, get back on your chair, keep your hands to yourself, don’t forget to chew, and with this last command they are requesting (for the 100th time) the retelling of the caveat of the time as a kid I forgot to chew and I threw up whole orange slices all over the floor.  
Three kids now and we fully surrender to the meals at 5:30 instead of 9:00 and they are in bed an hour or more before we ever would have even entertained the notion of cooking.  Detailed conversations are rarely attempted, as no thought is too great to be left uninterrupted and only a rare sentence sees completion.  We have ritual in the setting and the lighting of the candle and I have my own private, mindful, sanity-retaining moment of deep breathing, in through my nose and out the mouth, like childbirth and then salud, and I gulp my beer.   
Dinnertime is chaotic and messy and we must remember not to sweep until the rice dries.   The commands are many and seemingly more all the time, and the reminders to behave and to be nice and to listen, but so too increases the conversations and the sharing and the stories of our youth or theirs - those one or two or thirty long years ago.  We exhale when all is said and done, or not (next time can we have macaroni and cheese?).   With that exhale or with a lengthy discussion as to whose turn it is to blow out the flame, our dinner candle is extinguished.   
Though we sometimes question our sanity at the concept of dining regularly with such ritual and with three small sometimes frantic and frenetic children, and though we sometimes start at their getting too close to the candle or their knocking over of their cup or their falling nonsensically from their chair or their singing during our moment of silence (read: moment not minute), it is our hope that what they will take away is the desire to one day sit and linger long and late and enjoy a meal shared with each other, with us, with friends or with mates.

Day of the Dying

In the hospital I asked him, “Any regrets, Dad?” He had just gotten the news a few days prior that his cancer was back with a vengeance and had spread into his marrow. The prognosis was weeks to months. He pondered the question a minute, “I just wish I had been able to run the 400 hurdles,” he sighed. “But they didn’t always have that event back then.”
A few days later we brought him home to die. Dying at home meant life continued around him and was not paused in that lethargic, sickbay way. The meals could be eaten at normal times, the children could play instead of having to sit, waiting idly and sleep could actually take place at night without the buzzers and beeps of the hospital halls and the constant awakenings to find out if one is sleeping okay.
I was there for a visit at first; all the family was there. As the time came to leave, with my husband’s encouragement, I decided to stay -- it was summer, my parents’ house was big, my kids were little, and we had nowhere we needed to be. Living far away had been my cross to bear all these years, but now it felt my reward in that it gave me time again in my parents’ house -- nighttime swims in the lake with my mom, bedtime backrubs for my dying dad, quiet moments with him without the weight of visiting hour conversations, and intimate candle lit talks on the deck with various visiting sisters and brothers. When my brother returned home after a weeklong visit, he asked me if I didn’t feel burdened having to stay. No, in fact I felt gifted.
Right after the news of his fate, my dad called the reservoir where he had worked in water supply for over fifty years. “I’m dying,” he told them. “And if you have any questions, now is the time to ask." He knew, as did they, that in addition to the facts of the water and the dams and the methods, he had the history and the lore and other wisdom not in any books or files. A select few came and were loaded up with stories, maps and experience. Conversations were lucid and bright, shortened only by the physical exhaustion and he dismissed his guests clearly and succinctly: “Okay, thanks for coming. It’s time to say goodbye.” As each person left, they cried and hugged us, sorry for what they were losing, grateful for what they had received.
Several days before the very end, the quiet became more frequent; he had said what he wanted to say and so had we and we didn’t want to saddle him repeatedly with our thoughts of being left behind. My mom would ponder this later, wondering if she could have/should have said more, forgetting that in the end he was already departing, his spirit and his soul already taking leave and heading for the celestial sphere.
On his last day and night he was physically spent, unable to use those same legs that longed to hurdle. The visiting nurse had brought him a catheter condom, the very first condom he would ever wear in his life. That night as my mom and I were settling him in for sleep, the catheter got caught and pulled off.
“Oh no,” exclaimed my mom. “The visiting nurse put that on. I don’t know how to use those things.”
“I do,” I assured her, smiling.
“Oh, thank goodness. See, for everything I didn’t know how to do, someone was sent,” she gratefully observed.
My dad lay his head back upon the pillow and closed his eyes as I struggled with the medically jerry-rigged condom; all of us aware of a lifetime of modesty wiped out with one terminal illness. Trying hard to be gentle and even harder not to bawl at his incapacity at the end of a very capable lifetime, I got the thing rolled out and he smiled his 76-year-old, trademark, I’ve-got-a-joke-coming smile. 
“I don’t want to get your mother pregnant and then leave her,” he chuckled, still with eyes closed.
His weakness was increasing now by the hour. That morning he stood, that afternoon he sat, that evening he ate eggplant parmesan, and that night he was too weak to move his own body, which had slid too far down in the bed. My mom and I tried to hoist him by each grabbing an armpit, but we were fearful of hurting his now too thin limbs. I got up on the bed, straddled him and grabbed him around the torso. “Hold onto me,” I instructed. We held each other in a tight embrace and I hoisted his body up into position. Who thinks when we lift up our little babies, that one day they will be lifting us? We hugged each other a little tighter and a little longer.
In the kitchen my mom and I talked in a sad, hushed tone. How long can we physically do this, we wondered. Up until now it had taken no physical stamina, just time and care and pampering, of which we both had plenty. Up until that night, he had been weak but not unable, even sitting daily on the deck overlooking the lake. Now he was dying and we didn’t know how long it would be.
Overnight his decline continued at the same rapid pace. His breathing was labored and his eyes were heavy. We called those close-by. “Come now,” we told them, for now was all we had. And they came -- his children and some grand, his brother and nephews -- and we waited. We sat and held my dad’s hands and rubbed his legs and wiped his face with cool cloths and spoke through tears in low, calm voices.  All morning everyone was in and out of the room, the house, and with each entrance a new wave of grief washed over us. The little kids were there too, earnestly in and out of the room with their play and myriad cousins. Occasionally they’d forget death was at hand, only to solemnly remember. “Grandpa’s dying,” they’d announce in their serious, curious tone; half statement/half question.
On the porch the five-year-old picked up the baby from the playpen. We watched questioningly, as we would watch anyone removing a contented baby from a playpen. The five-year-old turned, gestured toward the baby with her head and informed, “She needs to see Grandpa.” The big sister carried the little sister in to sit with her dying grandfather whom she would know only from stories. I imagined a future conversation in which she would ask, “Did I know him?” and we would take out the one picture of her with her dying Grandpa, her face cupped by his tender hand, and I would tell her stories of the vibrant dad I had and the summer of his death.
The day went on, with food brought to the back door by neighbors who knew and felt the vibe, or who had heard from one of us across the fence. Some we left uninformed, unable to bring them in just yet, like the woman across the street in her robe, smoking on her front porch, “Do you know someone’s dying over here?” I wondered. I stared a minute, then waved and went back into the house.
Inside, the natural shifts of people continued as we held my dad and rubbed his feet and fed him a crushed Darvocet mixed with water. Like feeding a baby bird we put the syringe in the corner of his mouth and dripped it in slowly. Thankfully that was all his pain needed as he breathed on heavily, rhythmically. The little ones were in and out, peering through the screen door in their wet bathing suits, intrigued, entranced by this life ending. Throughout the morning they popped in randomly to check out the scene, feel the forces, look at the faces and marvel at the fact that all these adults they knew and loved were all crying together. And when they caught our eye our faces lifted through our tears and they marveled again that we could smile while we wept.
After lunch, a grandchild came out to the kitchen, “Grandma, his breathing is changed all of a sudden.” And indeed it had to a faster, shallower rhythm. Now we all came in together, including the kids, focused on the task of dying. We circled the bed and held my dad and each other, all linked around the room. My mom asked us all to release him, remove our hands from his body, stand silently, and let him go. His breathing stopped and this silence was met by the exclamations of a three-year-old boy with his fingers in his ears and his face in the couch, beseechingly calling, "CAN YOU HEAR ME? CAN YOU HEAR ME"? My dad returned just for a second, maybe to say goodbye to a grandson that wouldn’t remember. Then the stillness released him after all. His lifelong prayers for a happy, peaceful death were answered.
We cleaned him in a tender post-mortem bath, donned him in fresh white cotton, combed his hair and sat with him and with each other; grateful now for the uncle that told us not to panic at death but rather to linger in the passing.
As we sat, the sky darkened from blue to steel gray and the clouds opened and it poured the kind of rain that makes conversations stop at the futility of not being heard. We all exalted and the kids ran out in it led by their fifteen-year-old cousin and together they all raced across the lawn and dove into the lake. While the rain teemed down and my dad lay dead, we sat on the covered back porch to a meal sent over at the perfect time and a table magically prepared by someone, who knows, maybe us in our blind grief.
A few hours later we called and the funeral home picked him up. They admired the room in which he died; picture windows and glass door framing two different views of the water. They commented on the size of the crowd and at the kids in the room, and smiled appreciatively that this death was not lonely. The five-year-old stayed and watched as they wrapped her grandfather in crisp white cotton sheets, leaving only his face showing. They then placed his shrouded body in the black bag, zipping it up to his chin, again leaving his face. They lifted him ever so gently and sympathetically and walked out to the hearse followed by the five-year old who perhaps never again would think of death as scary.
The obituary read, “Dean Charles Noll passed away at home on August 3rd, 2003. His death was gentle. He is survived by the stories we tell."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Growing up we had a washer and dryer in the basement. In the winter the dryer vent was turned back into the house to capture the hot air through the foot of a stocking, which captured the lint. If the machine broke, we called Sears and the repairman came out to fix it. If it was unfixable, we just ordered up a new one and had it delivered and installed. I thought everyone lived like us.

In my first apartment, a basement apartment in a million dollar 200 year old house in Washington DC, the owners left fresh squeezed orange juice and cinnamon toast for me every morning on the top of the stairs. The washer and dryer was in the utility room, in the basement. There was a curtain that hung behind it. Sometimes it flurried. Sometimes soft radio sounds wafted through. But mostly it was still and quiet. One day I saw a tiny Filipino woman scurry back behind the curtain. She was the maid and that was where she lived. It was where she ironed. And read. And listened to classical music on the radio.

My second apartment was a four story brick building with coin operated washers and dryers in the basement. The first time I used them I left my clothes in the washer and came back a little later only to find them in a sopping pile on top of the dryer with a nasty scrawled note: HEY BITCH. WE ALL NEED TO USE THE MACHINES.

My third apartment had no washer and dryer and so I let my clothes pile up for weeks on end until I had nothing left to wear. I’d haul my big canvas bags down the street and take up three machines in a row not caring who else was there or what they needed. The Laundromat inspired this feeling. I’d bring my journal and a pen. No laptops back then. I kept to myself. Mysterious like.

I saw a woman about my age. She had 5 little kids scrambling all around her. Each item she dropped into the machine got sprayed liberally with stain remover, yet every garment they wore was horribly stained with months of drippy meals and spilled sodas. I listened to her dialogue with herself as she ignored her kids and cursed the owner of the clothes she washed. Not hers. Not her families. A strangers. For pay.

I flew up to Chicago to visit my man and stayed for six weeks. In the Laundromat across the street an entire family lived in the room behind the washers and the dryers. A blanket hung in a doorframe separating their world from ours, but the sounds of deafening t.v. and screaming mama and neglected children wafted through shrill and clear. A crawling baby kept trying to escape but was dragged back in repeatedly by the scruff of his neck. Like a kitten. But there was no escape.

A few months later, my man flew to Texas to marry me and father our children. First though it was just us. In our little South Austin love shack that cost $200.00 a month. We added on a screened porch and an outside closet for the washing machine. Up north nobody washed their clothes outside. When we moved out we had to sign an affidavit swearing that we gave up rights to the buildings we built on that property. The landlord was afraid we’d come back and claim them one day. Hmm. Now that’s an idea.

We bought a house just down the street. We have four kids. We have a washer and dryer in the utility room. We have pondered putting a stocking over the dryer vent in the winter to keep the warm air in.

My seven year old asked me one day, “Does everyone live like us?”

Living Under Water

My dad was in water. Clean water. In 1950 he got a job, right out of college, working at a reservoir for the state of New Jersey and worked there until the day he retired. In his years there he imagined, designed and oversaw construction of a dam that supplied water to millions of people.

He used to joke that he was a “dam” engineer. He never swore otherwise. Rarely drank. Never smoked. Loved his wife and his 9 children too. He was a clean liver.

In his last days of life people gathered around his bedside to collect his stories about water supply and the reservoir and the land and the people all around it. If he died before they heard them, the stories would die too. So one by one they came. To hear as many stories as my dad could tell before he dismissed them from fatigue.

When we die, all that’s left are the stories. And a dam if you built one. And nine children too.

My grandfather was in water too. Hot water mostly. Too much of the drink. Too much of the smoking and a little too much of the fondness for the women folk as well. He lived in Canada for his last few years because my grandmother said his Mexican divorce didn’t count for nothing. She’d sooner see him rot in jail for bigamy than forgive him for his carousing.

Funny thing was that even years after they divorced he and my grandma hung out together. Had family dinners. And holidays too. They hung out so much that my mom didn’t know for a long time that they were divorced. Dirty secret. At the end though, with another wife in the picture, my grandmother could stand it no more.

He was an engineer, like my dad. And a tinkerer. He invented lots of things including a valve for those big old metal scuba helmets. He traveled to Japan a lot. Kind of the land of invention back then in the fifties. We have lots of little Japanese dolls and toys to prove it. There’s a belief that he had a family over there. No proof though unless you count the picture of him with the Japanese woman and the Eurasian looking kids. I didn’t know my grandfather. He died when I was young. But my older cousins told me he would give you a pretzel if you ran and got him a beer. I probably would have liked that.

When we die, all that’s left are the stories. And a scuba helmet. And maybe a family in Japan. How long before it’s all wiped away is up to the family. And the stories we tell.

Things Aren't Always What They Seem

When I lived in Washington, DC I worked one day a week for a farmer who drove into town from his farm in West Virginia to sell produce. He sold lots of different things but his main crop was apples. I learned a lot about apples in that job.
I wore overalls and t-shirts to work totally playing the part of the little farm girl even though really I was just one year removed from my New Jersey upbringing where the only farm I went to was the one we visited on class trips and before Halloween for the picking of our pumpkin. But nobody needed to know that now, did they? For all they knew, I was the farm girl who picked the apples. I was the one who woke up early to muck the stalls and make sure our buttermilk was freshly churned and our trees were free from blight.

The farmer had all kinds of apples. My favorite variety was called a Nittany named for the Nittany Lions which was the mascot of Penn State where this particular variety was created. After a few months I found out, that other than a few boxes, the apples were purchased just outside the city limits at a produce market where all the small stores and vendors bought their goods. But nobody needed to know that, did they? For all they knew these apples were picked fresh every week and brought all the way up from West Virginia in that quaint little West Virginia pick up by these quaint little West Virginia farmers. It didn’t even matter if it was apple season or not.

One week the farmer asked if I could handle the stand by myself for a few hours as he had some errands to run around town. He walked off and halfway down the street I saw him join up with a young girl with long straight hair and tight jeans and a red and black plaid flannel shirt falling casually off her shoulder, grunge style. He came back a few hours later and I watched them kiss goodbye just around the corner from the stand. But his wife didn’t need to know that, did she? For all she knew he was off earning money to keep their West Virginia farm dream alive and keep their 3 daughters in piano lessons and 4-H fees.

A few months later the farmer asked if he could borrow my apartment because he needed a nap and was so tired and my place was right up the street and all. Even though I knew that his nap wasn’t really going to be a nap I gave him the key. What was I going to say? When I went home later that evening I found the bed all messed up and an empty bottle of cheap champagne in the garbage can. Probably a condom in there too but I didn’t need to know that, did I?

The next week a customer asked me about a certain apple, whether it was any good, where they came from, and how I liked farming. Good. West Virginia. Then I paused, “Well, it’s hard you know, because sometimes apple farming isn’t always what it seems. Sometimes you think you’re getting apples and really what you’re getting is a big old can of worms.”

She looked quizzically at me but chalked it up politely to some kind of West Virginia vernacular to which her city self just wasn’t privy. “Yes,” she said. “Sometimes things just aren’t what they seem.”

“No they’re not,” I replied, heavy on the New Jersey accent.