Relic/Remnant #5: My Father, August 1962

A deep, wild current runs between father & daughter.  Through her, he sees the evolution of a woman--the dazzling progression from infancy to willowy childhood to adolescence.  It can change a man, witnessing this transformation.  Through her father, a daughter learns how to love or how to lose.

In this photo, he is in the Navy--still unmarried, still childless, still trying to find his way out into the world.  He is already in love with my mother.  Their passionate correspondence burns across page after page of their letters.  His hasn't been an easy childhood, & in my mother, he sees home for the first time.  He sees the first thing worth waiting for, worth becoming a better man for.  This is what he tells her.  He begs her to wait for him.  He spins elaborate stories of what their life together will be like.  He mentions the children he sees in their future.  Two, a boy and a girlTheirs.  Perfect.

I am something my father never saw coming.  The fifth born, but only the third to be born alive.  My father got his perfect two babies and then two stillborn sons.  Loss can also change a man.  By the time I was born, I was already a reminder of all that wasn't.  No fault of my own, but I was the baby born carrying the weight of the bones of the dead who came before me. 

This quiet heartbreak of my father's may have been what started us down the path to all that came after.  When I look at this photo of him: August, 1962, I feel a confused wash of maternal love.  He is so young here.  So many trials & sufferings still coming.  I want to reach out & stop him for what he will do.

The story is still being written.  It is dark & sad & full of thickets, bramble-wild.  I have "Mom" tattooed over my heart--but, "Dad" may be the deepest scar I carry on it.  A week & a half ago he was in the ICU, my beautiful, adrift, complicated Irish father.  He has come through another trial & it has stirred up in me old vestiges of our fractured past.  What I know:





that I may yet get to learn forgiveness.       

Relic #4: Betty Ann

This is something else you are missing: Betty Ann, 11 months, October 17, 1944.  I'd like it to mean something happy, her first steps.  But all I could think when it first started was, "Greatanother person I love walking away from me."  Mother tells me I need to stop having these thoughts.  She says I need to tell Betty Ann that you are in the war, deployed to France or Germany, fighting the good fight for all of us.  That you never return will be just another sad piece of wartime fiction, like the cheap brass wedding band on the third finger of my left hand my father bought for me.  It turns my skin a dull, bruised green, but I'm not allowed to take it off.  It's another one of the bargains I've made with my folks to keep them supporting me in all of this.  Lies are compliance, are the secrets we'll all take to the grave.   

Betty Ann has your eyes.  That's another thought I'm not allowed, but it's the truth.  Your eyes were so blue it was like they swallowed the whole sky, some suffusion of light and molecules scattering through the space between us.  When she looks at me, I see you.  A final parting curse you left.  A sign that proves your existence, though nothing else can.  I tried to tell you all of this that day.  I tried to say, "You have a daughter."   But, your wife wouldn't let me get the words out.  

Still.  Betty Ann is here, striking out into the world on her own two feet.  Betty Ann is yours.  Ours. 

Silence is not erasure.

Relic #3: Helen of Emerald Springs

Helen's face would never launch a thousand ships, so she caught her own...a train-car out of Emerald Springs. No Ajax or Odysseus or Theseus showed up to steal her in the night. Some fates you have to make yourself. Some choices, too.

Her lipstick, Plush Red.  Her gloves from Finney’s 5 & 10, perfect white satin with pearl buttons on the wrist. Her mother told her to save money and just wear her old Sundays edged with yellow lace, but when Helen left that town with all of its smallness, its starlight, its heartbreak, she damn well wanted to be wearing new gloves. Travel gloves. Gloves filled with hands that never touched a dirty dish at the restaurant or the concave tilt of Joe Kemper’s lower back as he unfolded his body over hers.  No. 

Helen wasn't the kind of girl to wait tables forever or to wait for men to choose. Helen chose herself. Chose freedom. Raised her white-gloved hand high and waved goodbye.

Relic #2: And Then What

On the back of this photo, it reads:

"This was taken on Easter Sunday. I had long curls.

Keep this from me."

When she says, "keep this from me," she might mean keep this photo from me...keep this memory away...the memory of long curls and girls in neatly-pressed dresses, squinting into the sun. the memory of us, the way we were once on a dirt road in our white shoes. hopeful.  uncertain. careful not to get dirty. maybe what came next was just too much. the curve in the road. the bleached out sunlight halo. the lost dog. the lost innocence. or maybe what came next was so perfect, it's impossible to remember the moment just before. the perfection obliterating everything after.

Lately, I have been thinking of all of the things I keep from myself. deliberately. subconsciously. the things I know but ignore. the intentional muting of my voice. the hum of the voices of others around me--a busy hive of story and identity and flitting visibility on cracked glasspaper wings. one thing I keep from myself are the questions: who am I as a writer, these many years into this process? the post-MFA, post-scattered-publications, post-award, post-fellowship I want the next steps? what are the next steps? is it enough to me to sacrifice all to the silent, solitary, steady craft? isn't that all there really is?

When she says, "keep this from me," she might mean, "let me forget." lately, I have been thinking of what comes next. the moment after the photo is snapped. after the stories we live by and tell, over and over as currency, are done being told. after he breaks your heart. after you feel the death all the way to your bones. after the violation. the suffering. the brokenness. the loss. the poverty. the disease. this happened to me. yes. and on the other side of the stories that fence us in there is a wide expanse of possibility. this moment happened. yes. and then what.


Relic #1: She Begins With the Breath

"I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am."  ~Sylvia Plath~


On the edge of spring she sits, waiting for the light to sink into her winter-weathered bones.  One deep breath.  Two.  A heart that brags itself into existence.  A fence stands sentinel along the yard, demanding that she choose a side.  In or out.  Pickets biting into the frigid air like teeth set in a grassy jaw.  Choose.

Or not.  She can let the waiting choose for her.  Hat blown from careless lap, hair escaping from its neatly-pinned chignon.  The breeze swells with the musk of clover and damp earth.  She begins with the breath.  With the fledgling spring, where everything is possible.

I begin here, with her.