In the summer of 1977 in the small southern Georgia town of Valdosta, my mother stole the neighbor’s dog. I don’t remember much of Valdosta: wet, red clay dirt, snakes in the garden, everything green, everything humid, everything on the edge of rotting. Even voices had a sweet rind of decay. Years after we moved back north, I found a cassette recording my mother made of me counting. My “two” rhymed with “chew.” My “three” and “eight” lilted and stretched into two syllables. “Ten” could be confused for “tan.” By the time I discovered the tape, I no longer had an accent, and that recorded voice revealed a separate existence that was strange and gone.
My mother, Erika, also had an accent, but she didn’t lose it. Born in Hungary, she was ten when she came to the United States with her parents and sister. She was functionally deaf in one ear as the result of an accident with a sharp pencil. The hearing loss was never diagnosed, and when Erika had trouble learning English, her American teachers thought she was slow and put her in remedial classes. The deafness was eventually detected, and she was fitted for a hearing aid, but the mislabeling had an impact. To this day, she’ll be damned if she lets anyone call her stupid. But she never lost her Hungarian accent. Never lost the identifier that marked her as foreign.
As a child, I didn’t know my mother had an accent. My mother’s voice was my origin of sound. I still don’t hear the accent unless I listen hard. But in the 1970s in the deep south, in a city nine miles south of Moody Air Force Base, my mother’s accent defined her. She was a stranger, seen and treated as an “other,” often with perceptible distaste, something she felt acutely.
My father, a CPA who worked for ITT Corporation, was raised in upstate New York by an Italian-American father who worked for the railroad and an Irish-American mother who spent her days herding seven children. While labeled a Yankee, he was, at least, American. His presence served as a social bridge in the neighborhood, but he wasn’t around much, and when Erika went to the grocery store or hauled two kids to the public library, she was on her own in a hostile territory that, through southern charm and expert dissembling, pretended it wasn’t hostile.
I didn’t know or sense any of this as a child. It was only when I was a teenager, loading the dishwasher in the house my parents bought when we returned to New York, that my mother revealed what her years in Georgia were like. I don’t recall what we were talking about when something I said opened up a wound. She told me about the slights and snubs in Georgia that rubbed her so regularly they formed a callous that protected and numbed her.
“I was alone except for you and your brother. You two were all I had,” she said.
The confession made me uncomfortable. I turned back to the dishes and my mother left the room. I hadn’t known, up to that point, that my mother could be hurt. Of everything that she was, of every quality she embodied, I knew my mother primarily—often solely—as strong. I thought she could only be angered.
The neighbor’s dog was a toy poodle named Suzy. She was alternately cared for and neglected by the Studdards, who had a son named Dean whom my brother Mark and I played with occasionally. I don’t remember much about Dean except that I had a vague understanding that he could be mean, and once, he hit me on the head with a stick when I was climbing up to the tree house. I fell and landed hard. My father came out, and there was yelling. I think my mother tried to limit the amount of time we spent with him, especially after Dean and I were discovered half-undressed beneath the Studdards’ trampoline. I tried to find Dean Studdard on the internet. There are two living in Georgia—both in Valdosta.
The Studdards’ house was directly behind ours, backyards adjacent, no fence. In addition to Suzy, they had a large, aging mutt they didn’t let inside. I would creep to the back of their house to fill an old trough beneath a spigot that served as his water bowl. I often found it near empty and would fill it as quietly as I could. I thought I’d get in trouble if someone spotted me.
My mother loved Suzy. She loved all animals, though we didn’t have any pets in Georgia, probably because of our transience. We had moved from New York to Houston to Memphis to Valdosta in a little under two years following my father’s job. Eventually, after we left Georgia and landed in New Jersey, my mother adopted a dog named Mooch and a cat named Choo-Choo, but in our house on Sherwood Drive just a few miles north of the Florida border, she had only Mark and me, creatures who required a more complex and demanding affection.
Despite our lack of pets, my mom stocked Gaines Burgers in our kitchen pantry, moisturized dog food shaped like hamburgers and made, as the box claimed, “with real meat!” I loved the feel of them—soft and mushy beneath the cellophane. My mother used the dog food to lure Suzy to our back door, and I would help her crumble half a burger into a little bowl. Like my act of filling the water trough, I knew what we were doing was good, but there was something in my mother’s manner that made me understand that it was also something illicit.
“They don’t feed her enough,” my mother would tell me as she put the bowl on the steps leading up to the back door. And Suzy, who had the run of both backyards, would make her way over and take delicate little bites. Afterward, Suzy would follow us into the house where she jumped onto the sofa and napped as my mother petted her. A little while later, she’d jump down and head back to the Studdards.
Suzy began to follow my mom around the yard, then into the house and around the kitchen as she prepared meals, smoking cigarettes and talking on the phone, a long twisted cord giving her access to the stove, refrigerator and counter. The click-click-click of Suzy’s nails on the kitchen linoleum became the soundtrack of quiet afternoons in an air-conditioned house shuttered and dark against the heat. I was confused and grew to think that Suzy was our dog, and my mother did little to clear up my confusion. The Studdards own Suzy, she’d tell me, but we take care of her, and she loves us more.
Eventually, Suzy started following Erika around the neighborhood. One afternoon, my mother took me across the street on a rare visit with a neighbor. She served us iced tea at a table next to a large, above-ground pool that I found incredibly luxurious. We were barely settled when Suzy came around the corner of the house. The neighbor’s dog, large and brutish, lunged and caught Suzy in its jaws, shaking her like a toy then flinging her across the yard. Suzy lay where she landed, not moving, bent and bloody.
My mother called the Studdards from the veterinarian’s office, told them what happened, told them how much it would cost to get Suzy fixed up. The Studdards refused to pay, telling my mom it was her fault, telling her to let the dog die. After she hung up with the Studdards, my mother called my father at the office. He said no. Hell, no, we’re not paying $300 for the neighbor’s dog. My mom cried. She hung up. Then my dad called her back at the vet’s office. He said okay. Go ahead. Get the damn surgery.
My mother loves to tell this story. She loves to talk about how my father pretended to hate animals but was really a softie. She credits him with a change of heart tied to his conscience. But I know my father was not a softie. He was a large, difficult man with a temper and whose rage was often terrifying. My mother just always got what she wanted. She still does.
A few years back, before my brother got divorced, his then wife called me in exasperation.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Your brother is a grown-ass adult man, and he can’t make a single decision without talking to your mama first and getting her blessing. He has got to cut the apron strings.”
It’s funny to think about it. How my mother rules my brother. She’s a tiny woman—five feet, two inches and my brother is a huge, ball-busting, tough guy. Barrel-chested and muscular, he worked as a bouncer through college. He shoots guns. He can scare most people without trying too hard. And my mother can cripple him with a disapproving look. She owns him. There was very little comfort I could offer my sister-in-law because my mother owns me, too. And I suspect, back in 1976 when Suzy was mauled by the neighbor’s dog and wasn’t going to live without emergency surgery, my mother owned my father, as well.
I have always been in awe of my mother’s strength. In a certain light, it could be perceived as hard-headed stubbornness and self-righteousness. In a different light, her strength is born from a clear sense of justice and a refusal to be shamed. I suspect it is a mix of both. In 2007, when Mark and I were what passes for adults, my mother was working for the State of New York in a midlevel government job surrounded by people who watched TV at their desks. She forwarded a viral email to a group of coworkers. It contained a collection of cartoons, one of which featured a snowman with a carrot erection next to a snowwoman with large snowballs for breasts. There was probably a risqué quip beneath it. When my mom forwarded the message, she cut off the tail that showed the string of state employees who received it and forwarded it on before her.
One of her coworkers reported Erika for sexual harassment. I feel like I need to write that again. My 62-year-old mother was accused of sexual harassment. She was called into Human Resources (HR) with her supervisor and union representative. She was reprimanded and given an agreement that outlined disciplinary actions: a loss of two weeks’ vacation, probation, and a letter in her permanent file. Her supervisor and union representative counseled her to sign it. She refused and explained that she merely forwarded a stupid email that had been forwarded to her. HR asked her for the name of the person who sent it to her. She refused to name names. They explained that there was nothing else they could do. Erika still refused to sign the paper and asked for a hearing. Everyone left the room.
A few days later, her union representative called her and said that HR has decided to change the disciplinary action: one week of lost vacation instead of two. The representative urged her to accept the deal. Erika refused. She demanded a hearing. A few more days passed, and they offered a new deal: no vacation loss and a letter in her file. Still, Erika said no. Eventually, the case was dismissed with no action taken. My mother had waited them out and worn them down.
I often thought about how I would have responded, the acute shame of being accused, the stacked power differential of the people in the room, the risk of losing my job. Throughout the negotiations, my mom would laugh as she recounted the latest developments, but I was scandalized. Embarrassed. I thought her disregard for consequences was short-sighted. At the same time, I liked to think I would have fought it just as she did, would have advocated for myself, would have loudly proclaimed the ridiculousness of the situation and made a stink. Or maybe I would have been just as successful in my own way, using diplomacy and reason, appeasing the offended without acknowledging the offense. But even then I knew better. In many ways, I was not my mother’s daughter. I was meek. I rolled over. I would not have fared well.
When my mother brought Suzy back from the veterinarian, the dog had a cast around her entire torso. I was delighted by the cast, the contrast between the hard, cool shell of the plaster and Suzy’s warm, wriggly body inside it. Suzy stayed with us, and my mother nursed her, made a little bed for her that she carried from room to room, so Suzy wouldn’t be alone. Nobody heard from the Studdards.
Suzy recovered quickly and was soon up and about, carefully making her way down the back patio steps to sniff around the backyard as my mother gardened. The cast was removed after a few weeks, along with the stitches. My mom brought Suzy home, and we fed her Gaines Burgers as she pranced in and out of the kitchen, jumping on and off the couch in pleasure. Later that day, we heard a knock at the back door. Dean Studdard stood there, his face set in a grimace.
“We want our dog back,” he said.
“You tell your parents that they can have Suzy back when they pay me for the vet bills,” my mom answered.
Dean glared and turned away, and we watched him walk across the backyards to his house. Shortly after, the phone rang, and my mom launched into a heated exchange with Dean’s mom who slung xenophobic slurs and threats involving the police. My mom called my dad. He talked about the neighborhood, not wanting to make enemies, not wanting to involve law enforcement, especially when, he suspected, we wouldn’t win.
“Give the dog back,” he said. “She’s not our dog.”
My mom gave Suzy back.
A few months later, my dad was transferred to New Jersey. My parents flew north to look at houses, and my grandmother flew south to watch Mark and me. My dad stayed north while my mother returned to pack up the house and to send my grandmother back home. In the last few days of boxes and moving vans and goodbyes, the Studdards called my mom to see if she had Suzy. The dog was missing. My mom said no and offered to look, saying with wicked pleasure that Suzy may be more likely to come if she heard my mom calling. We all wandered the neighborhood for hours calling for Suzy. No one could find her. Mark and I worried that she had gotten attacked by a large dog or hit by a car or that she would return to find our house empty and that we left without saying goodbye. Our mother told us there wasn’t much else she could do.
We left Georgia a few days later. My father flew back and we all drove north to my grandparents’ house in New York where my brother and I would stay until the new house was ready. It was a 20-hour drive and we were all hot, grumpy, hungry and tired when we arrived. My brother and I ran through the mudroom, burst through the kitchen door, and were astounded to see Suzy prancing around my grandmother’s feet in excitement.
“Suzy!” we shouted.
“Not Suzy,” my mother said, following us. “Susie.”
We looked at her in confusion.
“Grandma loved Suzy so much, she decided to get a toy poodle that looked just like her,” my mother explained. “And she named her ‘Susie,’ which is Hungarian for ‘Suzy.’”
We looked from my mother’s face to my grandmother’s and back to my mother’s. They both nodded.
“Susie!” we cried.
“Her nails are blue!” I shouted. “They match her ribbon!”
“I took her to the dog groomer,” Grandma said.
Mark and I understood completely. We thought Suzy was great, but Susie was ours, and no one was going to take her away.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager and both my father and Susie had long since died that I realized that Susie and Suzy were the same dog. I don’t remember what prompted the connection, but when I asked my mom, she laughed and said, “Of course! I wasn’t going to leave Suzy behind. She would have died.”
“But how did you do it,” I asked.
“Oh, it was a pain in the ass. We shipped her by plane to New York. It was really expensive. Your father almost had a stroke. We had to buy the crate, pay special fees. I worked it all out with your grandmother in advance. She picked her up at the airport in Albany.”
“So when Suzy was missing and we were all looking for her, you knew she was on a plane to New York?”
“Oh, by that time, I think she was already in New York.” She laughed again and pulled impish faces at the memory.
“Mom, you stole a dog,” I said.
“I did!” She leaned back and laughed. “But she was our dog. We loved her. She loved us. Love made her ours.”
I am still, in many ways, not my mother’s daughter. I am still meek. I often do not get my way, and almost as often don’t mind. I usually think of my pliancy as a good quality, but as an old friend once told me, there’s a dark side to every mountain. But the dark side is hard to see.
Last year, I found myself struggling in my job after a new executive director took over. In my first job review with her, she failed me in every category. Two of the categories I had “substantially failed.” The level-headed part of my brain knew this was ludicrous. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and a smidge of work ethic couldn’t fail everything. I knew something was up. I got angry. Like my mother, I refused to sign the review. And then I crumpled.
The executive director emailed me a note saying that I should submit a detailed outline describing the actions I would take to meet all expectations. She wrote as if to an incompetent idiot. The next day, I diligently toiled on a work plan to address my inadequacies and shortcomings. I addressed my communication problems that included things like “too many sentences.” I acknowledged my inefficiencies and ineffectiveness and owned it all. It was a humiliating process. I saved the document and planned to send it on Monday. Then I left for the weekend.
I spent two days crying randomly in public places. The job wasn’t ideal, but it was a work-from-home position with flexible hours, and I was a one-parent household struggling to be the type of mother I thought I should be. I was terrified of losing my job, couldn’t imagine anyone else hiring me. I couldn’t fathom how I failed so spectacularly. I didn’t know what to do.
When I sat back down at my desk on Monday and opened up the document, I thought about my mother. Her stubbornness that was sometimes brave, sometimes foolish. Her anger that was sometimes ugly but always strong. I looked at all the steps I outlined to show my boss how I would do my job better. I felt gross and ashamed. It was time to feel something else. It was time to be my mother’s daughter. It was time to steal the goddamn dog.
Standing in aisle eight of The Dollar Store—labeled “Ladies”—I was balancing reindeer-patterned Christmas boxes, curled red and green bows, a plastic tree-topper and two tubes of metallic-trimmed wrapping paper. With around $10 in my wallet, I had almost reached my spending limit for this shopping trip.
But I needed one more thing: tampons. If you didn’t know, The Dollar Store does not carry tampons. Not even the cheapest, hardest cardboard applicator ones. So I was in trouble. I didn’t have the money to go next door to Target for a $10 box of Tampax, nor did I need thirty; I was really hoping to buy a dollar box of five or so.
The average American woman is estimated to use more than 16,000 tampons in her lifetime, according to a report by The Atlantic. I know I’m complaining about cardboard applicators, but women in ancient Rome fashioned their own tampons out of wool. Indonesian women are believed to have used vegetable fibers, and African women have used rolls of grass. Gross. Ancient Japanese women, according to Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport, made tampons from paper and secured them with bandages. They had to change the dressings between 10 and 12 times a day—so it could be worse.
A few years ago, I went from needing a new tampon every hour, because it was filled with dark, red blood more often than not, to needing one or two for one day every six months. The best decision I’ve ever made was finally making an appointment at the ob-gyn and telling her that the pain and discomfort I was feeling for seven out of the thirty days a month was unbearable. The female doctor, indifferent about my agony, put me on lo loestrin fe, a low-dose birth control pill that decreases most women’s periods to two days per cycle and creates a lighter flow—a fairly new drug at the time. It changed my life, very much for the better. My period stopped almost completely. A little disconcerting because I was sexually active but nonetheless, a blessing. I still received my visiting friend twice a year, and that December was her winter vacation—and she was ready to party.
Searching for any sign of life of the cotton plugs, the fifth time I made my way down the “hallway for women” at the Dollar Tree, I found a neon-pink plastic-wrapped and bulbous pack of panty liners.
Bingo, I thought.
Let’s just take a look at the reasoning behind my thoughts. A twenty-something-year-old woman is standing in front of a white wire basket in a discount store searching for something to stop the flow of blood from her uterus, to tell her that she is not pregnant this month. She cannot spend more than one dollar for something that goes up and into her body because she is buying holiday wrapping. Instead, she searches through her purse for a payment method to check out mostly gifts for other people and napkins that will, in fact, not stop the flow of blood. She will probably have blood stains on her underwear and will have to toss them in the garbage by the toilet.
But hey! She only spent one dollar on herself. Score.
Legend has it that in the 1920s, a Kimberly-Clark employee poked some holes in a condom, stuffed it with the absorbent filling used in Kotex pads and pitched it to his medical consultant father as a menstrual solution, according to The Atlantic. But it wouldn’t be until a decade later that a Colorado-based general practitioner introduced the first commercial applicator tampon, according to Tampax.
In the sixth grade, I was, like many other girls, underdeveloped. Gangly body, no boobs and no period. I carried a guide to putting on a pad in my Vera Bradley wallet, anticipating the beginning of womanhood. The guide wasn’t needed for another year, but I prayed every day to find spatter in my panties. God answered my prayers when I was thirteen, and I jumped up and down yelling for my mom. She was honestly surprised that I had gotten it so early, and apparently, my body was too. It wasn’t real; my period stopped for another three years.
With my parents divorced, every other weekend was spent with my single dad who was clueless about teenage girls and women in general. When I got my period for the first time, I was at his house, and I had demanded that he take me to the store.
“But, why?” he said. He was the type to spend more on a six-pack of beer than food or hygiene products for his daughter.
“Dad, I can’t tell you. I just need a couple dollars,” I told him. The conversation was excruciating.
“We will not be going for no reason! Just tell me what you need,” he said.
“Pads, Dad! Pads,” I replied.
“Well, why can’t your mom get you those?”
“I need them now. You don’t understand,” I told him. Why was I about to cry?
We drove to the store, my dad huffing and puffing the whole way. He refused to leave the car and handed me two dollars as we parked at The Dollar General.
Two dollars? I thought. What is this going to get me? A roll of paper towels?
When I entered the store with the crumpled two dollars in hand, a girl I vaguely recognized from my high school was working the check-out counter. She was reading a US Weekly (cell phones weren’t popular yet). Could this get any more embarrassing? Like a Charlie’s Angel, I crept past her and power walked through the aisles looking for the feminine products.
“Can I help you?” the dark-haired, older girl said, coming up behind me. God, she was stealthy.
“Um…no! I’m okay, thanks,”
“Whatever,” she said and turned. Did she think I was trying to steal something?
Up and down the aisles once more, I found the Holy Grail. A whole row held tampons and pads, all that I could ever imagine. With no guidance, I looked at the two dollars in a ball in my right hand, and then looked up at the shelves. Everything was five dollars and above! I couldn’t go back out and ask my dad for more. That was not an option. So my eyes darted up and down the shelves once more. Finally, I saw pads for one dollar.
For a second, I thought about putting the pads, that I would later realize were panty liners, in my coat, but I knew that my Dad would kill me. Instead, I took the package up to the counter, where the older girl, I swear, gave a knowing nod. I handed her my dad’s two dollars, got ninety-four cents back and walked out the push door.
“Did you get it?” Dad asked as I climbed into the front seat.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
“OK. Change?” he said. And I handed him the quarters, dimes and pennies.
Tampax first arrived on the shelves in the mid-1930s, but a 1942 survey found that 37 percent of tampon users still used remedies like store-bought sponges, according to The Atlantic. By the 1970s, tampons had changed a lot, mostly to emphasize the secrecy they could offer a woman on her period. Before then, the period was cursed with obviousness because of thick pads that were clearly visible under shorts. Popular brands were Lillettes, Meds, Pursettes and a Kotex tampon called Fibs. Playtex also adopted a “deodorant” tampon in 1971. In 1978, The Berkeley Women’s Health Collective accused manufacturers of withholding information about the substances used in tampons, and by early 1980, 55 cases of toxic-shock syndrome (TSS) were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Seven of those cases were fatal. Later that same year, a total of 812 menstruation-related TSS cases were reported—38 fatal. It wasn’t until 1989 that research found a link between synthetic materials, such as polyester and rayon, and the deaths. Between 1987 and 1996, 636 cases of menstrual TSS were reported—51 of them fatal.
The Atlantic wrote that by 1990, a better tampon was being developed with changes including better fit, a newly-designed withdrawal cord and leak-guard protection. With these characteristics, Tampax Pearl became a hit in 2001. To prevent TSS, the current Robin Danielson Act, aka the Tampon Safety and Research Act, was introduced to create more transparency between manufacturers and consumers. But according to The Atlantic, the latest go-around marks the 10th time a bill will have been considered in Congress. This time, the bill is being given a two percent chance of being enacted, according to GovTrack.
I’d like to tell you that when I got to the front of the line at the Dollar Store, I decided against the flimsy panty liners and bought the frivolous menstrual napkins or tampons at Target, but I’d be lying. Yes, I make way more money now than I did at thirteen and in sixth grade, but I guess I’m still really the same girl. I’m still willing to ruin underwear like I was as a teenager, so it turns out; I guess my vagina isn’t worth much to me. I’m not sure why; maybe it’s because I’ve been told so many times by the media and men in my life that it isn’t. My vagina deserves more than one layer of cotton on the curves of my underwear to hold the lining of my woman parts. One dollar is all that my vagina is worth, apparently, but in reality, it’s worth so much more.
My vagina is worth hordes of one hundred percent organic cotton tampons with no weird chemicals added.
My vagina is worth Super Absorbency and a Gentle Glide.
My vagina is worth twelve-hour Midol, not the generic stuff, three times a day.
My vagina is worth substituting Christmas presents for a brand-name product going up it.
And finally, my vagina is worth my time and money.
Peters A. 2015. The tampon: a history. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/06/history-of-the-tampon/394334/. Accessed March 7, 2018.
H.R. 2379: Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Product Safety Act of 2017. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/115/hr2379. Accessed March 7, 2018.
Shultz J. 2014. Qualifying Times: Points of Change in U.S. Women’s Sport. Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
As kids, my brother and I always fought over our stuff. Especially once we graduated to our own bedrooms, the sanctity of square footage and toys became real. Doors slammed, ripping off toenails (once) and smashing fingers flat and black (multiple times.) My brother’s hairy chimpanzee, Sam, with the plastic face and feet with elastic straps so you could walk with him on top of your shoes, was frequently ransomed, and my stuffed Mighty Mouse with the blazing yellow chest and red cape was repeatedly hidden—inside and out—until my shrieking cries forced Mom to referee. I scooped up errant green Army men and buried them beneath the trash. He set my Barbie’s hair on fire with our uncle’s Bic lighter, hid her until I was convinced she was lost, and didn’t confess until years later.
I would like to know what became of Sam. Mighty Mouse was ultimately stolen by the neighborhood bully who also stomped flat my brother’s aluminum Greyhound bus.
My parents have an estate sale tomorrow in Indiana, at their home of 40 years. Every room, upstairs and down, is sectioned wall to wall with church tables covered with the evidence of their married lives: ragged felt Christmas stockings and tinsel angels; a stack of LPs including my father’s favorite Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, the one with the girl covered in whipped cream on the cover; a crocheted toilet paper cozy that sat on the back of the tank in their guest bath for years until it yellowed and cracked; embroidered towels I gave my mother for a birthday gift that she complained were too thick; a handbag she bought in Florida while vacationing with her girlfriends—faux leather with a leering flamingo in sunglasses imprinted on each side.
Mom intends to go to the sale tomorrow and buy back her own stuff that she either 1) couldn’t find when she moved into their senior-living apartment or 2) forgot she treasured. My dad thinks the estate sale people have stolen some valuable maps.
I read recently where creativity is eclipsed by the very nature of our lives being too busy—to which I say Amen—but also because we are surrounded by and dealing with too much stuff. The article went on to give advice about slowing down, breathing in and de-cluttering. I frankly get pissed off when people tell me to slow down—introverts, mostly, who take naps and drink smoothies—but I admit to being too cluttered. In basement and in mind.
There’s the physical stuff that on a daily basis you have to wade through and ignore, but there’s also the mental electrical storm of a million stimuli vying for attention: like the dentist appointment you’ve already rescheduled twice, a birthday card to your niece that even if you mail it today will not arrive on time, a pop-up ad on the widescreen of your new iPhone in better-than-living color that reminds you Cancun beckons.
Poets can’t be bothered with all that stuff. They have only the sweet, cold plums or the wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater. All of which is invisible in the course of my average day. (And if I got to eat a plum, it wouldn’t taste like childhood anyway.)
I live three states away from my parents and work long hours. My brother lives five minutes away but commutes 400 miles a week for his job. There’s just the two of us, and we’ve worked out a mutually acceptable routine where our parents are concerned. He is on hand for emergency room trips and the occasional Sunday dinner when they both feel well enough to attend. I nurture them long-distance, calling regularly to check in and cheer them, not forgetting birthdays, holidays, even St. Patrick’s Day. (Did they have corned beef in the cafeteria? What? They ran out! That’s pretty rotten.) I also remind them of their maintenance: pharmacy refills and dietary cautions, sensible shoes and glasses repair.
It all seems disproportionate in weight to worth.
My brother’s Sunday dinners are massive—cowboy-like with slabs of red meat and whole fish grilled over cedar planks and mesquite chips. He cooks all the sides, too, unless Mom is up to making deviled eggs or potato salad. Texas beans, twice-baked potatoes, asparagus spears, corn on the cob, coleslaw. He’s not big on dessert, however, so if you have a sweet tooth, you have to supply your own.
It is unnatural to consume so much food, and when you leave his table there is the insistent bite of your belt buckle nipping into flesh. After dinner, his girlfriend—a mature woman with two children of her own—is tasked with the kitchen, on a mission to package and stack leftovers.
She scours off the meat blood from the counter.
At home, I clean out closets. It is a first and probably feeble attempt to avoid leaving my own daughters a legacy of rooms overflowing with unwanted stuff. I’ve stacked ten shoeboxes of old Nikes and heels and four Hefty bags of outdated, outgrown clothes by the back door for Goodwill and consider this a reasonable start, rewarding myself with a glass of wine. When my phone pings, I hustle to find it under a stack of t-shirts and mismatched socks yet to be sorted.
My daughter leaves a message saying she and her partner are going to a mass grave for clowns this weekend.
She lives in Chicago, and I foster no illusion that she will be coming back. She’s making the world her own with big, broad brushstrokes.
I call her back.
I’ve sorted some things for you. They are in the big bedroom closet downstairs. Some art projects. Your ballerina jewelry box. Vacation souvenirs from when you were little. You can check them out when you come home next and decide what you want to keep. Or maybe, your sister?
Mom. She is clear. No one wants that stuff.
My brother has just become engaged to the sensible woman who scrubs his countertops. She will be his fourth wife. He tells me this when I come to visit for Memorial weekend, and the three of us are enjoying a steak dinner at a nouveau Italian restaurant in suburban Indianapolis. I always forget it’s the Indy 500 when I buy a ticket for this weekend, and coming to pick me up at the airport inconveniences him. I would pay for the dinner to thank him and to celebrate, but the menu is outrageously priced, and he pays for me instead.
Later on in the weekend, fairly drunk, he tells his new fiancée that I was petted and cooed over every minute of my entire life, and I flush with unintended memory and guilt.
I read once that sibling relationships are among the most influential in our lives, yet they are rarely studied. It occurs to me, and not for the first time, that growing up with me in first-chair position, my brother was intimidated to the point of rebellion and self-sabotage. Rather than give up out of fear of failure, he chose to kick up a riot to distract everyone from my glow.
Set the fire; don’t whither in in the shadow of the sun.
Six months after their move into The Village and one week after their house closes and sells to a nice lesbian couple, my mother complains that the apartment feels like living out of a hotel room. She cries a little and accuses us with making the decision while she was under the influence of powerful drugs following her last surgery. I have to get tough, reminding her that she was the impetus for the move; my father would have been content to die at 100 in his backyard garden picking beans.
Dad is convinced someone is stealing their morphine.
After dinner—it’s prime rib night—Dad has me follow him into the walk-in closet and shows me two plain-Jane boxes on the shelf, bracing upright a stack of Look magazines. (My mother as a cheerleader is on the cover of one, a story on small-town Midwest basketball during high school tournament season.)
The taller one is your grandfather, he tells me. The shorter one is Grandma. I guess you will have to figure out what to do with them.
I sometimes wonder about the weight of things.
Like, can the weight of a Midwestern July actually be measured? Because surely that air—so dense you have to swim through it to get from your refrigerated house to your air-conditioned office, heaving it through your lungs like a tadpole—is infinitely heavier than the crisp of October or even the dampness of May. And, is it possible that your head weighs more when a migraine explodes there? Or maybe pain is just an overweight illusion, a trickster in steel-toed boots. And what does that plastic patch of garbage the size of Texas weigh in the ocean, choking sea creatures and poisoning the planet’s lifeblood?
I remember the exact eight pounds, thirteen ounces of each daughter I birthed.
It is a miracle, really, that any of us can move at all.