Tag Archives: family

Still Life with Mason Jars

By Shannon M. Turner

Every time I go home to visit my grandmother, certain things occur.

  1. My grandmother asks if I’m dating.
  2. She bemoans the state of the world, despite the fact that all the people she prefers are currently in power.
  3. At least one painfully long silence descends. I would rather watch even Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy! than talk about the topic she has chosen (which is usually politics or my dating life).
  4. I give her a pedicure. She presses a twenty-dollar bill into my palm, like I’m a politician she’s trying to bribe. I make ardent protests. She mentions how much she’d rather I do her feet than “those people in the shopping center” (her coded language to disguise the racism).
  5. As I’m preparing to leave, she asks if I’m “doing OK.” Others might mean this question in a health or spiritual manner. She means money. She fills my arms with canned goods and leftovers.

At times in my young adult life I bristled at the final step, felt she was implying I wasn’t taking care of myself properly. The hidden message was that I needed to try harder, get out of my nonprofit lifestyle. Until I reached a comfortable plateau – perhaps marriage? – she needed to keep me alive, nine cans of Hormel Frank and Beans at a time.

One day, after I’d had enough therapy, it hit me. It happened when I was standing at her door, arms loaded, and she said, “Oh, but what about some tuna?”

I just looked at her square in the eyes and said, “I love you too, Ma.”

She stared back at me blankly, caught at her game.

I’ve made this joke with her many times since, and it only works about half the time. She hates it. This is not a woman who likes to talk about feelings, even in the most roundabout way.

As I’ve grown more health conscious, I’ve gotten better at saying no to her store-bought canned goods and yes to home-canned goods. These days the supply of the latter is dwindling. They’re like gold to me.

* * * * *

Two years ago, my father did something shocking and awful. It tore our family apart, breaking everything in reality as we knew it. In response, my mom did something very brave and left him within the week, ending their 44-year marriage. We’ve spent the better part of the last two years living in this through-the-looking-glass-world.

In the final years of my parents’ marriage, they lived on a small farm. They canned a lot of delicious food, and for the rest of my life, my nose will recall the smell of fruits and vegetables in Mason jars cooking on a stove. I can close my eyes and see the beauty of all those jars, their gorgeous colors. The orange-red of the tomatoes, the khaki of the green beans floating in their salty juices, the deep purple of the blackberry jam, the strange off-white of the sauerkraut. All lined up on their own shelves like stripes in an Appalachian pride flag.

Often asked to come home and help with canning, I never wanted to. I found any excuse to be unavailable. The thought exhausted and sickened me. I enjoyed the results of their labor, but I never wanted to see how the figurative sausage got made. Part of me, I think, could feel the growing resentment in their marriage.

My father loved to garden, and spent many hours out on his little square of land. I think the only peace he ever really knew came when he worked the soil and then stood in the evening air to survey his work. I watched him there in the gloaming, wondered what he was thought about in those moments, and wished I could preserve him there so he wouldn’t shuffle back inside with all the anger that seethed under his crooked front tooth.

Middle of the summer, he would start to bring in his crop. He ceremoniously plopped his yield on the kitchen countertops. The piles grew and grew. He spread tomatoes of every variety and size on newspaper and towels.

The remainder of the work was left to my mother. She didn’t want to do it – had never been asked – and some of the produce began to spoil before she started. She was tired from a lifetime career of nursing, in a lot of pain from a body that betrayed her, and the last thing she wanted now was to be a farm wife. This was how other aspects of their relationship worked, too. Or didn’t.

Anyway, their combined efforts paid off. Despite the mood of creepy, controlling tension in the dining room, we smiled and nodded over the saved food.

* * * * *

One day recently I found myself staring, yet again, at the wall of my grandmother’s pantry.

I know it probably feels important to you to know to which of my parents Ma gave birth. She’s my mom’s mom. Thank goodness his mother didn’t live to see this time in our lives. It’s still important, though. They were all a tight little unit. Ma has had a very hard time wrapping her mind around all that’s transpired.

The pantry collection has slowly turned from half glass jars to mostly Food City brand metal. As I was saying no to this and maybe to that, she picked a couple of “real jars” of green beans from the bottom of a far right shelf.

Although both had the same year on the lid in my mother’s beautiful handwriting – I always meant to make her some labels – one looked a funny color, the juice pinkish. “That jar’s not right, Ma. I think it’s turned.” She smirked at it dismissively, set it back on the shelf, and handed me another, which looked fine.

For many years, out on my own, I maintained a special shelf dedicated to my parents’ jars. I went to it for special occasions. I might be cooking dinner for a gentleman caller or friends and wanted to impress them, or maybe I was feeling homesick.

Since The Great Departure from Reality, the designated cabinet has dwindled like my grandmother’s stock. I stopped thinking about that shelf. It made me sad.

But a week or so after bringing home the green beans, I had just the right plans for them. I would fix one of my favorites – a meal made completely of summer veggies. Green beans, corn-on-the-cob, new potatoes in garlic and rosemary, and (of course) sliced tomatoes.

I opened the beans. My nasal passages were immediately assaulted by the most rancid smell I have had the misfortune to encounter. And I’ve encountered some pretty bad smells.

Working at a camp while in college, I cleaned Porta Potties – one of which had been misplaced and forgotten for an entire season. In my twenties, my basement apartment in the Virginia woods featured one wall in the bathroom closet so attractive to mice that, trapped, they died in it. My roommate and I endured the ripe fragrance of their decomposition on a regular basis. Once, when I worked for a dance company, the grease trap shared by several restaurants in our parking lot baked in the sun every blessed summer day. Awful.

Yet, I have never smelled anything like these beans. It was like a dead man’s halitosis.

I pulled my shirt up over my nose, raced outside and dumped the contents in the far corner of the backyard. Then I put the jar in the dishwasher and forgot about it.

When, a couple of days later, I thought to put a few more things in the dishwasher’s unwashed half-load, I opened the door and again was nearly knocked off my feet by the stench. I ran the dishwasher half full, which was appalling to me.

Later – as an amateur environmentalist who eschews the heat cycle – I opened the dishwasher to let things air dry. That smell? Still. There. Now it had invaded all the other dishes.

I ran a second cycle with soap and bleach, mourning the waste of water. Afterward the stink remained, only somewhat less. In surrender I put away the dishes, then placed ramekins of bleach, vinegar, and baking soda inside the dishwasher and put the offending jar away in a cabinet with all my beautiful, now-empty collection.

A few days had passed when I went to the cupboard for a jar to store some trail mix. The whole area smelled like fetid compost.

How was this even possible?

I became locked into a pattern. About twice a week, I’d visit the dishwasher, then the cupboard, and inhale their atmospheres like a drug-sniffing dog. The smell stayed unpleasant, but I was fascinated with its slowly receding awfulness, lured unconsciously into my own ritual. It was like when someone says, “This smells awful – here, smell this!” That urge to make a horrific sense experience communal and shared, witnessed and justified.

Eventually, I got one of those car deodorizers for the cabinet. My jars now smell like Ocean Breezes or Spring Rain or some such.

I started to think about the green beans episode as a sign. A message, but of what I wasn’t sure. After two years of not speaking to my father, was the jar a final revenge he managed to exact upon me? All the previous humiliation wasn’t enough? Maybe it involved a wider curse, the sins of my family handed down to me with a screw-off lid.

If I could have seen the tragedy coming, I would have hoped the relief after would have been so much greater and more explicit. If you actually ‘open a can of beans’, isn’t there supposed to be some revelation in the exposure?

In the end, I concluded that smell was the specter of deep, persistent, near-impossible-to-shake grief. There’s no covering it up, and no absorption rate that’s measurable. Gradually, so slowly you barely even notice, by throwing the doors open, letting the light shine in and the air blow through, one day an empty jar becomes, not a reminder of what once filled it, but a vessel for something new.


By Mauree Culberson

Dear Daddy,

I hope you are enjoying Thanksgiving. I bet you can have all the dairy you want in the afterlife and the salt crystals fall from the sky like snow on your dinner plate, and no one tells you that’s too much.

I was sitting watching some awful film in the living room with our relatives, and I overheard mom and sister asking Andrew if he’d ever carved a turkey before. It was a stupid question or, at bare minimum, rhetorical. Of course he’s never done it. You have always carved the turkey.

It’s just another example of a hole left in the family without you in it. The gunmen stole you from us. They left holes in you that ripped through the seal of our family, leaving us ragged, like a scorched kitchen towel from some long-forgotten mishap.

This Thanksgiving lacked what you provided. No one was there to egg on rivalries or differences of opinions between relatives for the amusement of the rest of us. No one was called out for their exaggerated claims to shame the unreliable narrators who tell you parts of their dramatic life stories. No one complained too loudly that my sister only made fourteen desserts. No one challenged the decades-old tradition of me doing almost no cooking whatsoever. (I ‘stir up’ cornbread from scratch and then crumble that and other breads for the dressing. Then I go back to doing nothing. Little sisterhood has its privileges.)

There was no one to command all the males to do all the heavy lifting. There was no one to pack the car with our luggage the night before we left or to insist we don’t bring it in ourselves. No one handled trash and recycling without being asked. No one conducted the ‘now what are we watching’ TV council. No one was there to hear my aunts yell, ‘Shut up, Maurice,’ when they’d had enough of being teased. No one rolled their eyes when discussing who was invited to drop by and who was told to …. ‘Have a blessed holiday.’ No one lamented all my mother’s good deeds that go unthanked.

I slept next to mommy in your spot. Mom still sleeps neatly on her side of the bed. Your reading glasses are still there. There’s an opened pack of gum which I bet was yours still sitting on your dresser. Some of your mail is there, next to your Sunday school book. I laid there and cried. I whispered to my sleeping mother, while looking down at your slippers which are still on the floor on your side of the bed, “Mommy, I want my daddy back.” That was dumb, I know. I just long for the days when my mother could fix anything. She could fix a toy, break a fever, make broccoli taste good somehow, and soothe me to sleep. She can’t fix this broken heart, though.

In the morning, I looked in your closet that you share with mommy. All your suits are pressed. Your best suits remain in plastic … minus one, the one you’re wearing right now. Your ties are in color order and displayed for easy selection. I put my feet in your shoes, like I did when I was smaller, and flopped around a bit. I remember putting my feet on top of yours as we danced around once.

When I took a shower, many of your toiletries were missing. It’s sensible, I reminded myself. Yet I felt sad until I went looking for toothpaste and found it all neatly put under the sink. When I stood up, I saw your bathrobe still hanging on your hook on the back of the bathroom door.

I stepped out to the vanity to do my hair. I wondered and couldn’t resist opening the drawers on your side. The bottom drawers contained clean, perfectly folded white underwear, undershirts, socks paired and separated in white black and then all other colors. The top drawer hid an item I’d never thought I’d see again. I saw your phone.

Your phone is way outdated but bright red because black phones are hard to find in the dark, you’d said. Sometimes you’d forget to take it with you. I used to think this was rebellion against  technology in general but I later came to realize that a built-in GPS and calculator was an intellectual affront to an accountant who lived in the same city for 60 years. Nestled next to it was the car charger. That’s where the gunmen found you, in the car. The car is now back in the garage. No one drives it, it just takes up its usual space.

For a few glorious moments, I imagined you were just out of town and traveling light. I smelled your deodorant and your cologne. I fake yelled back at you complaining that my showers are so long they take up all the hot water. I danced around the room a bit putting my mother’s many brooches to my chest, as if I’m trying them on at a store. I get carried away and bump the dresser holding one of the brooches in my hair, when a card slips out that’s tucked next to a jewelry box. I open my mouth to fake sassy reply ‘Nothing is broken, geez!’ to your usual grumble when there’s an unexpected noise … but I’m deflated by the piercing words on the pointy white index card.

You’re not here.

That realization coats me thickly like giblet gravy. My relaxed shoulders tense. I close the drawers and put your slippers away back where I found them. I take off your robe and pull the plastic covers back down on your suits. I put back the piece of gum I took out of the pack on your nightstand. My mom left or put all these things this way. I better put them back before one of y’all catches me and … before mom catches me. It could get weird, or she could get angry. Discussing our innermost feelings is prohibited per the roaring lion standing firmly atop a box securely locked, marked ‘Feelings, etc.” on our family crest. Plus, if she cries, I’ll cry too, but I won’t be able to stop.

The white index card asked for an opinion on the care of your gravestone and burial plot.

You’re not out of town. You’re not complaining about my shower time, or the bumping noise, nor are you carving the turkey. I’m not a little girl who snuck into her parents room to play dress-up.

You’re not here.

You’re at plot N64 in a hole in the ground. All that is displaced in the soil is nothing to what has been displaced in me. I cannot patch these holes. We will not be whole again, this family, not like we were.

I spotted a pair of your socks on the floor. I’d let them escape the drawers, but, when I went to put them back, I opened the wrong drawer first. I opened the undershirt drawer a bit wider than before, and I found bags and bags of them. I lost it. My mouth covered on my knees, and I heaved, letting gigantic tears bombard the plastic bags.

You seemed … we seemed like we didn’t love each other sometimes. We fought so much. You could be harsh and angry, and so could I towards you. You were stubborn and gave me that stubborn quality that has served me well.

In those plastic bags were decades’ worth of Father’s Day and birthday cards. Some were on decaying newsprint with dashed lines clearly made by tiny hands. In the bottom, the bags had collected confetti, glitter, ribbons, macaroni pieces and other bits from the temporary medium of cards. Bunches of paper scrawled on in purple ink, pencil, drawn on hearts, scriptures and glued-on cotton balls kept tucked away but kept in preservation and reverence.

Encased plainly and put in the drawer, buried memories lie yet unmarked. That drawer has no holes. It is full.

Your BabyGirl (still),



Manic Depressive Pictures Presents

By E.M. Yeagley

On a good day, you and your mother wait on Cora’s doormat while the cast recording of South Pacific seeps through her wall. She answers the door looking radiant, with the front of her hair done up in tight pin curls, a bright red smear of lipstick on her dentures.

She’s still young–young for a grandmother, certainly, and she looks good. She dyes her hair red or black, depending on drugstore sale prices. Cora has tiny tits and a huge ass, but taken all together, it works.

When things are calm, her apartment smells of coffee and lemon Pledge, and she gamely pretends to be offended when your mother screams in mock terror at the velvet Jesus above her toilet. Cora has a sixth sense about kids–she’s hidden shoe boxes painted to look like treasure chests throughout the apartment. You make a beeline for one, parsing through the costume jewelry, the telescopic cigarette holder, the homemade Play-Doh, the seahorse-shaped cocktail stirrers.

She and your mother play Gin Rummy at the kitchen table. After a couple of hands, Cora starts with the funny stories. The punch lines often involve her lobbing a real zinger at an unsuspecting stranger:

“—in the checkout line! I said, ‘Lady, if you ram me in the ass with that cart one more time—’”

“And I told him, ‘Phil—it is Phil, right? Try wishing in one hand and shitting in the other, and let me know which Phils up first. Ha!”

Stories are her specialty. Visiting, she calls it, although conversations with Cora are generally one-sided. The stories are funny, and you’ll laugh, but uneasily. You were there the time she chased down a guy for braking too quickly. “Are you out of your fucking mind?” she yelled against his rolled-up window, squeezing your hand hard enough to bruise. “I had my granddaughter in the car! I’m placing you under citizen’s arrest!”

When Cora finally comes up for air, your mother asks about her Lithium, and she demurs. When pressed, she tells your mother to back off, that she feels great.

In Cora’s bathroom, your mother finds a mostly-full prescription bottle at the bottom of the wastebasket, beneath a wad of lipstick-blotted toilet paper. Post-its line the wall next to the mirror–project ideas, song lyrics, Bible verse, grocery lists.

There are telltale signs of hypersexuality, too: a cologne-reeking, pit-stained undershirt slumps over the toilet tank, beneath the velvet Jesus. Your mother imagines its anonymous owner taking a leak eye-to-eye with our savior. She remembers the time she overheard one of Cora’s boyfriends saying that crazy chicks make better lays, and prays that, whoever he was, he brought condoms and was kind.

In the kitchen, there’s a confrontation. Cora doesn’t need the pills anymore. Her own daughter doesn’t trust her. Everyone’s full of shit. Everyone’s a piece of shit. It’s time to go home. Your mother takes a deep breath as the door closes behind you.

Once upon a time, Cora was married to her high school sweetheart, your grandfather. He was a police officer and, later, a TV weatherman. When you were still an infant, your mother took you to the television station to meet him. “Just let me hold her once,” he pleaded. “Just five minutes.”

Even in front of all those cameras and people, she handed you over reluctantly, stood close enough to snatch you back and run. You peed down his shirt; he covered it up with a jacket and delivered the weather like everything was normal. You never saw him again.

Because it seems so unreal, you sometimes have to remind yourself that long before you were born, when your mother and aunt and uncles were still children, your grandfather exploited Cora’s mental illness in order to conceal his own.

Late one night, Cora woke up and walked out to the yard. Your grandfather stood in the dark next to his cruiser, eyes wide and wild. In the back seat lay a bicycle and two small sets of clothing, two small sets of underwear.

“I was teaching them how to swim,” he told her. “If anyone asks, that’s what you say.”

And that is how she found out what he was. What he’d done. That’s how she figured out that he’d been doing the same to their children, his sister’s children, and now neighborhood children. When Cora tried to leave with your mother and her siblings, he called his buddies at the police station, and then the hospital.

“My wife is having another episode,” he said. “We’ve been through this before. She a needs a few months of rest and quiet; she responds well to electroconvulsive treatments.”

At the house, they looked at her–howling, spitting, throwing punches–and then at him–calm, concerned, controlled. A fellow officer. A man. Your mother and her siblings were too terrified to speak. Cora didn’t stand a chance.

He signed the forms; they pried her lips apart and shoved a bit between her teeth, ignored her when she swore to them that she saw this thing and knew it to be true, and worse, and worse, and please, I need to save my children, please. Strapped to that table, with 460 volts rattling her skull, she alone knew the real reason he sent her there, and if she wasn’t crazy before, well.

From time to time, you think about this, and your stomach will twist up and go sour. When Cora is being especially combative, you try to put things in perspective:

If she wants to talk nonstop and listen to show tunes and eat junk food all day without getting shit from anyone, why not? If she gets satisfaction from causing scenes in the supermarket checkout line, can you really blame her? So what if she passes out and burns the house down. Has she not earned it?

Later, you learn that it continued for years. That your grandfather’s second wife was complicit. His own mother was complicit. You learn that his mother did the same to him and his sister. You collect pieces of the story, each more abhorrent than the last, and file them away. You feel powerless, as Cora must have.

When your grandfather enters into hospice, half of Cora’s children go to watch him die. Once he’s dead, she refuses to collect his social security money.


Now she takes you to Chuck E. Cheese and shows you how to spot the tables with abandoned pizza.

Now she has a new boyfriend who used to be in the Black Panthers. She’s permed her red hair into an embarrassing White Lady Afro and wears a dashiki out in public.

Now she’s up all night with you building pillow forts, distracting you from an ear infection. She lets you eat two full rows of Oreos.

Now she insists on handing out condoms from a plastic Jack-O-Lantern outside the 7-Eleven.


You’re almost grown now; your life has been better than you realize. Cora lives with you, and today she’s talking an awful lot. If she in any way notices the tightening at your jawline or the apprehension in your eyes, she won’t let on. You run through the mental checklist of warning signs, ultimately concluding that this is just Cora being extra Cora-like. It isn’t always so easy to tell—she’s enthusiastic by nature. She speaks loudly and irreverently regardless of her mental state. Life has taught her that the most important thing is to be heard.

Not for the first time, you’ll marvel at how much smarter and funnier and weirder she is than other people’s grandmothers. You once found among her stuff a high school report card that sums things up nicely: Cora is unusually bright, it said, but prone to outbursts and difficult to control.

On a manic day, Cora begins early, long before the sun rises. She hasn’t slept in a while and has more energy than she knows what to do with. She wants action, excitement, noise, people—above all else, she craves conversation, but no one is awake. She takes a shower to pass the time. The night air filtering through the open window feels incredible against her skin. She throws open the shades and decides against getting dressed, although she will put on one, two, three coats of lipstick. Sometimes she’ll stay naked all day; you learn not to bring friends home after school when she’s high.

She makes a pot of coffee, drops a Danny Kaye record on the ancient Zenith, and scrubs down the kitchen.

Manic-Depressive Pictures presents:

Hello, Fresno, Goodbye!

Produced by R. U. Manic

And directed by Depressive…

By the time the record ends, she cannot wait any longer and heads for the phone. If they don’t answer, she calls back. If they do answer, she calls back.

On a manic day, Cora serves you a box cake buried beneath three inches of icing–Happy Birthday in her vining cursive, three months early. Egg salad straight out of a mixing bowl. On the first bite, you crunch down on shell. No time to peel the eggs.

Perhaps she’s bought nothing but bananas for weeks. There are green ones piled on the counter tops. Dense, bruised bunches in brown paper bags abandoned just inside the door. Bananas fill the freezer, blackening against the scummy drifts of frozen condensation. The house reeks. Fruit flies congest the air in ashy clumps; layers of their tiny, dried out husks collect in the windowsills, in the stove’s drip pans, behind the sofa. Walking through the kitchen is much like witnessing the final hours of Pompeii.

Your mother reaches her limit, finally chucking them all in the dumpster. Cora is livid. “How dare you.”

The years pass. The rest of Cora’s body catches up with her big ass. She gets meaner, as old people often do. Her highs aren’t as high–she’s irritable and obsessive more often than euphoric–but the lows, the lows are abyssal.

On a bad day, you find Cora sitting on the sofa in the dark, smoking pack after pack of Marlboro Lights. Her speech slurs; she may scream or sob or press the heel of her hand against her temple when you ask if she’s okay.

On a bad day, Cora might tell you that she’s ashamed of you, that you make her sick, that your mother is useless, that you are the reason your mother never finished college. She finds the chinks in your armor and digs in. Once you are exposed, she becomes glass shards and serrated edges.


Now she’s taken too many downers, tripped and busted her forehead open; you hold her hand as the surgeon sews her back up. “You should have left me there,” she says. “You should have left me.”

Now she’s sitting on the floor with a pair of scissors, cutting your mother’s work uniforms into tiny pieces.

Now she thinks she’s psychic; the Virgin Mary talks to her, tells her that all of her children forgive her.

Now she’s in the hospital again, and although it’s the right thing to do, your mother hates herself for sending her there.


Once that well of dopamine has run dry, foul memories take Cora hostage. On a terrible day, she won’t open the door, no matter how long or loud you knock. If you are especially brave or especially unnerved, you might force your way in.

It could be that she’s in bed, stretched into a shapeless old sack from too many days without rest. Or perhaps she’s so overwhelmed by the aggregate of her life’s tragedies that her legs cannot bear her weight. Or she’s finally given up, the unthinkable, the unspeakable. That time may come, but for now, Cora presses ever on.

Grouse Wing Barrel: A Letter

By Randy Osborne

“From one wing, you can determine whether it’s a male or female. If it’s a female, you can even determine whether she had a successful brood or not. And you can tell if it’s a juvenile bird.” – Kari Huebner, Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist

“Rogue intensities roam the streets of the ordinary.” – Kathleen Stewart


I’m going to marry that boy, you promised the grownups. Or so I was told later, back home. Maybe impulse drove you to blurt how your future looked in a passing moment. Or maybe at age ten, an excitable girl, you actually saw the future, whole and busy and colorful. Did you know, when we met that summer, that my immediate family had just exploded? Dad gone adrift post-divorce. Mom free of the drunk at last. Edgy, love-haunted, Salem chain-smoking.

kidrandyHere’s me in 1961, the sad first-grader from Illinois, arrived with his grandparents for a week with Virginia mountain kin. He shuffles from the gas station, peels the wrap off a Popsicle. Cuts across the outfield, past the tomboy who fist-smacks her mitt, waiting for the play.

He feels her gaze on the backs of his legs.

Suddenly she’s in front of him. “Gimme a bite.” Her half-smile almost a sneer. Sandy hair in her face, eyes glittery behind like a hidden animal. The game stops. “I wanna bite.”

Her teeth sink into the icy pillar, an almost inaudible crunch. Tilts her head, lips tight, savoring. Swoons. Whips back the hair and those eyes flash open. “Now you got to give me a kiss!”

He runs.

At bedtime, she shows up again. Sallie – the big people know her name – still wants a kiss. The big people are too amused. They fail to defend him, and he scrambles under the blankets. She dives in. Amid their tussle, air under fabric quickly turns humid. He smells grass, dirt, the rhubarby tang of girl. Sallie gets what she came for. You do.

You take me hiking. We flick Japanese beetles into a pond and the trout rise, a swirly slapping froth, then gone. The trout knows nothing of the beetle’s life on the bush, nor does the beetle know of the bush’s root system (only the delicious leaves), nor does the bush know of the antlered buck’s terror as it clambers past and gunshots ring. Nor do we, as by then we’re on a distant hillside watching the Holsteins graze. You point out the salt block, sculpted by cows’ lapping into an exotic shape, a smooth glide that I will one day startle myself to recall when studying the body of a nude woman.

All the matter in the mattering world matters to us. The salt block wants our tongues. Wordlessly we’re on hands and knees, faces against the gooey-slick. A distracting texture that flavor must find its way through. Bits of straw, black specks in the slurped ivory. We rotate strokes, ecstatic. You watch me. I watch you. We can’t stop.


Years pass. Sallie’s in high school, my grandmother Madeline tells me, her finger tracing lines on the handwritten letter. I picture you, but fading. More years. Sallie’s married now, Mad says. I register the news as a sort of wonder shaded with betrayal, mild. Then: Sallie has a little girl of her own. I graduate high school.

Jump to 1988. Mad’s in the hospital, her colon ruptured. Coma, the doctors say. Slim chance. My uncle Theodore is delayed – in Virginia, oddly enough, where he’s visiting our people – but hits town the second afternoon, when my grandmother has miraculously awakened. He tugs me into the bright hall.

Don’t tell Mad, he says. Sallie’s dead.

In the following weeks I use genealogy websites to trace how we’re related. Did you know, or was it as much a blur for you as for me, that my grandmother Mad’s brother was the husband of your father’s sister? More than enough distance on the family tree for us, anyway. Marry that boy.

I sift newspaper clippings and righteously fume at their descriptions of you. “Thin blonde,” say the neighbors. “Wild, volatile, and irrational.” Someone who claims to know you well says you “never grew up.”

A journalist myself, I understand the grabby, often slapdash nature of reporting. Fragmentary, steps removed from a reality that’s ungraspable to start with. I understand – and fume.

The Virginia clan informs me that you “got interested with the ‘dope crowd’” early on. Estranged from your husband, you have a “pretty brunette” daughter, 16. She “appeared normal,” the newspaper says. This daughter is charged with your murder. Small-caliber handgun. “Multiple” bullets to the head.


I ransack the internet for details about you. Find the obituary for your mother, Eleanor, who died “unexpectedly” at age 82 in February 2011. She loved her seven children. Also gardening, animals, and Elton, her husband for 65 years. I find the obituary for Elton, 86, who followed his wife in June of the same year. Proof, an example.

One happening leads to another, I guess. Any effect depends on its cause. But doesn’t cause depend just as much on effect? Neither takes priority, both dissolve in an embrace, and this is how I stop time. Just not for long.

Radiant, youthful Eleanor, your mother in a photo that you may have seen, cradles a puppy. In one that you likely didn’t see, your dad Elton – bald, speckled, perhaps arthritic –  digs into a Christmas gift bag. Of you I can find no photos.

At this moment I feel helpless that I’m not able to visualize you, and ridiculous admitting how long you’ve been with me, and embarrassed by trying to say in what way you’ve been present. You peered over my shoulder at my slippery firstborn, red and squealing. You nodded, silent, when I acknowledged my first gray hair, plucked.

I’m better at perceiving absence (vastly much more of it, maybe why) than what’s in front of me. Is it preferable to die a certain way? Would I rather perish in a head-on crash, mangled meat? Or scream into oblivion tumor-sunk, entubed and beeping on the crackly institutional slab, their goddamned TV in my face?

From Eleanor’s obituary: “We recall occasions while growing up when our mother would take in friends who had nowhere to go.” You rode with me west when I wandered, another marriage kaput. One morning near the park where I had pulled over to sleep, I watched the hunter empty his bag of birds onto a table. His dog circled madly. The hunter unsheathed his knife and inserted the blade’s tip into the shoulder wedge of each bird, one by one, wrenching loose the feathery flaps. They came away bloodless every time. He tossed the wings into the “collection barrel,” which I hadn’t noticed until then.

I touch my companion’s thigh in the winter dark. She stirs and whispers. Your hand. Hot. (I’ve experienced the heat by placing my palm on my own bare shoulder, and I want the experience to be hers also. A peculiar fever I’ve had since a boy. Doesn’t register on a thermometer. I used to fantasize throwing myself naked into a snowdrift, the hiss and great clouds of steam … ) Now I flatten my hand against the wall above the bed. I touch her again. Mmmm. Cool. Still groggy, let her sleep.

I feel her; she feels me; we feel each other mutually and ourselves individual, apart. I feel the wall, but the wall can’t feel me. Then she feels me and feels, by way of me – who is changed – the wall. So many things are like this.

Your daughter works out a plea bargain, serves time. I hear from the Virginia people that she’s living in Roanoke, not far from the trout pond and our Holsteins. One more image: Coy leaves hide clusters of Concord grapes, thick with promise. The fog on their surfaces picks up our fingerprints, proof of contact. Next the evidence is partway inside our bodies. Between our teeth the grapes pop sweet and sudden and voluptuous. We chew them down to their bitter, irreducible skins.


By Tricia Stearns

Yesterday I found myself in the doctor’s office hooked up to an EKG machine, and even the machine was having a fucking meltdown and didn’t work. There were two nurses and a doctor all hovering over me trying to get the little plastic connections that were taped to key parts of my body to read from the machine on to a paper, so the doctor could medically evaluate whether I was having a heart attack. Technology. I always thought technology would eventually kill me, and maybe God was going to show His sense of humor — His little way of getting back at me for all the expletives I yell when I can’t get a printer to work, can’t figure out how to complete an Excel spreadsheet or never set my margins right the first time. Fuck technology.

Two nurses and one doctor later, the EKG machine was ushered out of the room. Together we decided that if I continued to feel like I ate every meal at the Golden Corral, then it would be wise of me to go to the Emergency Room.

At 5:45 in the evening, the Christmas do-das on the light poles of the nearby shopping center were casting colored shadows on the paper liner of the exam table. We were all tired. While they disconnected the wires of the machine, I envisioned each nurse hustling home, each yelling at her kids to let the dog out to pee, while she heated soup or zapped those Godawful Hot Pockets for her children’s dinner. My triage crew gave me a sample of an antacid, and I went home and threw the dinner party that had been scheduled since September.

But honestly, I didn’t feel well—and I hadn’t felt right for over two weeks. But I just keep moving. I drink a cup of coffee, walk three miles despite my feet yelling at me. I work though I hate it, iron shirts, cook dinner, read a bit, write essays but never revise them, give my husband and our sex life the obligatory ten minutes. Each day I move because I must.

I thought about going to the emergency room just to cancel the dinner party; after all, I never got around to making a dessert. FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

I did manage to roast dinner in the oven between the 18 phone calls an hour, ten new emails per hour, combined with a holiday luncheon where we gave a scholarship away honoring my deceased daughter.

Thus, dessert never got made, and I was tempted to cancel the dinner party.

Suzie, one of the guests, ALWAYS serves homemade pie or three kinds of cookies, along with a scoop of made-from-scratch sorbet when she entertains. Oh, and she is ready when people arrive. I, on the other hand, have to have my husband serve the first cocktail while I go back and change – and toss back my first glass of wine just to settle into social mode.

I didn’t go to the emergency room afraid I would just catch a flu bug from some other stressed-out suburbanite, combined with the fact my husband would just reschedule with the perfect people. I was almost home free. I had a roast in the oven – the ultimate answer to First World problems.

And dinner was fine. I heard laughter and compliments and merry cheer come out of my guests’ mouths. Our dinner conversation was thoughtful – with intelligent discourse on the state of our republic. My husband was profoundly pithy with dropping just the right humor when the discussion would get too heated, but the entire time I had an internal conversation with myself.

I am just so tired. I am tired of mean people. I am tired of being a people-pleaser. I am tired of dishes, cooking, work—yes, your carpet needs replacing before we put this dump on the market. What? You bought a new car a week before we close on your first house?

I went to bed reading and planning the following day, reviewing my Fitbit where I walked 19,000 steps. And I had a heart rate in the danger zone. FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

Something happened that night. I had a dream. And my deceased daughter, who died at 20, was 8 years old. And she snuggled on my lap. We were on the patio of the house we lived in at the time. She had her hair in pigtails, and she was holding my face and making me look at her as she explained her dilemma. But this time she was holding my face and looking into my eyes, and saying, “It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay. It’s beautiful here, and I am so very happy and joyful.”

And I woke up to another day of First World problems. I wish I could tell you that my attitude improved. It didn’t. But I followed the mantra, “Fake it til you make it.”

I took baby steps. I went to the office Christmas party for the first time in four years. I got people dancing who normally stick to the walls like Velcro. I took cookies to that asshole in the mailroom. I bought Christmas pajamas for my other girls, even though they are adults. I baked cookies—for my dog and HIS friends.


Each day I feel less overwhelmed, personally and globally. I don’t feel I can solve all ills. But this one thing has occurred to me that has been a game changer.

The Declaration of Independence says we have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. I get what our forefathers were trying to say, and I would have been on that boat with them, cold and miserable. Upon landing, we would work the fields to grow food for my family and village.

I also believe in a Cosmic God, one that is in control of the entire universe and the soul of each human being – and my dog. In John 14-17, Jesus says God created us to be happy and joyful in this world and the next.

The Declaration of Independence was ratified by a group of tired expatriates who wanted to pursue their own democratic republic, to self assert their future and the future of their grandkids.

I get the whole Peace on Earth thing, that plays on the Muzak while I wait in line at Target. But, seriously, having peace in your heart in 2016? FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA. No way.

But, I was given a clue in my dream. I live in a world full of pain and trouble and human suffering. I do not need to add to it. I must surrender my anxiety and trust the universe.

The pursuit of happiness is just that – the chase. The get-up and hustle, the early bird gets the worm, only the strong survive, the coach yelling at you in the locker room at half- time to get your shit together and WIN.

Often in that pursuit of happiness we create Idols. We can even become our own Idol – seeking the obvious: the fast car, the material possessions, the best for our children or a politician that will save our society from suffering. And, in that very pursuit, we lose ourselves.

Through the years of working, doing and being a human, I once lost myself.

And when I lost my child in a sudden accident, the News became personal.

Tragedy is only a moment away for all of us. In any given moment, our lives can change. In my suffering, that deep internal grief that only a parent can truly understand, I have made room. I have made room to surrender to a quiet joy that cannot be bought. It does not come with my employee review or 74 likes to a selfie with my dog.

This joy is the byproduct of suffering. The suffering is the foundation of a club. I belong with other members of it, and we stand in solidarity, surrendering to pain —surrendering and living with joy despite of it.

I am too tired to pursue. Instead, I receive. I receive hope.