The North Star Monthly, March 2020
A Novel Spring | When we bought this old farmhouse eight years ago, we joked that this was the place everyone would come to in case of a “zombie apocalypse.” Now, we find ourselves socially distancing as much by habit as ethical imperative. Our pantry and freezer are full, as they are all year long because a quick trip to the store takes an hour and means navigating through any combination of snow, ice, and mud. More ...
Multiplicity Blog, June 2020
Recipe for Revision Pot Pie| To begin, I hole myself up, not bothering to shower or dress for several heart-wrenching days while I slice and dice what I thought was a perfectly fine essay. It’s so satisfying to take the meat off the bones, shred sentences, toss entire paragraphs, and turn my hard work into something unrecognizable on its way to being fantastic—or at least finished. Read more.
Stonecoast Review Literary Magazine, Summer 2020
Knock Wood | On heavy summer afternoons in Maine, when the oak and maple leaves spun backward in the shifting wind and the sky turned bottle-green, my mother brought me and my brothers and sister outside to sit on the white clapboard front porch and wait for the rain. We counted the seconds between the distant thunder and lightning flashes, “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi,” to keep track of the approaching storm. My two brothers, barely nine or ten, tested one another’s courage and raced back and forth to the barn in between the rumbles while my sister and I stayed close by mom’s side. It was the 1960s, so I picture my mother, thirty or so, in slim Bermuda shorts and a sleeveless cotton blouse—her short brown frosted hair, teased and curled during the week, losing its shape in the humidity. I see her relaxing there on the porch, a glass of iced tea in one hand, feet splayed in front of her, arms wide resting on the chair—opening her body to the breeze. I would find out many years later, when I had young children of my own, that she had been terrified of the thunder and lightning. She had put up a brave front and taken us outside to the porch because she didn’t want us to be scared. When the rain started in slow splattering drops and the seconds between rumble and flash shortened, I could crawl onto my mother’s lap, thumb in my mouth, and know I would be safe.
Step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back
We lived in a tall Victorian farmhouse on Church Street in a defunct mill town in Central Maine. My sister and I rode our bikes around town and walked to school. We crossed the street to visit the library or to play on the granite steps of the ivy-covered, red-brick Memorial Hall. There was a three-story barn next to our house, its days of sheltering animals below and hay above long gone. When my family moved in, the boys painted a basketball court on the spongy hickory floors and hung a hoop from the loft. In the driveway, my sister and I tied one end of a jump rope to the big barn door handle and took turns swinging the loose end while the other skipped. Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around. Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground. Three ancient elm trees on the front lawn shaded us, their roots burrowing under and heaving the sidewalks as though their goal was to reach the road and keep going. We graffitied the concrete walk with chalk-drawn hopscotch courts and took turns jumping one-footed up and down the row of numbered squares, careful to stay inside the lines and avoid any cracks in the cement. As the elementary school saying went, the number of cracks you stepped on was equivalent to the number of bones your mother would break. Childish grievances, such as tuna fish in our lunch boxes or no friends allowed after school, would incite us to find every cleft in the concrete. But most of the time, the goal was to avoid doing harm. I walked to Stowell’s, the little store just a half block down the street, put thirteen cents into the soda machine, and tip-toed and long-jumped back home clutching my orange Fanta, avoiding even the tiniest fracture. It’s a silly notion—a kid’s game—and yet, my mother, now age 84, has never broken a bone. At Thanksgiving last year, she raced my two-year-old yellow lab down the sidewalk while I kept a close watch for breaks in the pavement.
Something borrowed, something blue, something old, something new
When I was growing up, our family had an adage for nearly everything—probably a holdover from our Celtic roots. See a penny pick it up, and all the day you’ll have good luck, was often recited by my Irish grandfather, who never missed a coin on the street and always threw back the first fish he caught—for luck. Likewise, my mother usually had a suitable verse at the ready, whether to bring about good fortune, good weather, or good health; to provide cover for the unexplainable, or a wish for the impossible. Sometimes a rhyme could predict the future, as when she counted the buttons on our sweaters and coats, tapping each one as she went—rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Whichever occupation the button count ended on predicted whom we would marry. The game, of course, was only for the girls. When the rhyme ended with buttons to spare, she would continue with the armed services: sailor, marine, soldier. If we pointed to any missed buttons on our sleeves or pockets, she’d shrug and declare spinster. In my case, spinster might have been a better outcome. While getting dressed to marry my second husband at the age of thirty-five, I heard another one of my mother’s singsong sayings in my head, marry for money; love comes twenty years later. As a barely-making-ends-meet divorcee in her forties, she served this combination of cynicism and irrationality as wry advice to her two daughters, whom she otherwise raised with equal measures of sunny optimism and pluck. As I walked down the aisle, wearing antique earrings borrowed from my new mother-in-law and carrying flowers tied with a stiff navy ribbon, I could only hope she was right. I don’t remember for sure if my wedding gown had four buttons, but despite all the old and new, borrowed and blue traditions to ensure happiness and good fortune, my groom turned out to be a thief.
Hold your breath when you pass a cemetery
We always made a game of it. Whichever grown-up was behind the wheel slowed the car to a crawl when we passed a graveyard. To make sure we didn’t breathe in the soul of a dead person, who would haunt us forever, all the kids took a big gulp of air, and then we pressed our lips tightly together until we were safely past. I’m sure my brothers and sister cheated, breathing from their noses, just as I did. I’m at the age now where funerals are more common than weddings, and every cemetery evokes that childhood memory. I sit with my parents at family memorials and hold my breath, thinking about the dreadful day to come when I will bury them. Last summer, I visited our family plot, not far from my childhood home on Church Street, and I saw my mother’s and father’s names inscribed in granite, the dates of their future deaths still to be cut. My mother insists she doesn’t want any kind of a memorial service, but I can’t imagine not gathering to grieve.
“You’ll be dead,” I tease, “how will you know?”
“I’ll come back and haunt you,” she replies.
I don’t doubt it.
My mother was born on October 31, and Halloween is her favorite holiday—ghosts and all. On her seventy-eighth birthday, we drove from Maine to Salem, Massachusetts, site of the legendary witch trials, to see the decorations. Every streetlamp in town was draped in cobwebs, witches on brooms flew across intersections on stoplight wires, pumpkins and corn husks, caldrons and skeletons filled the shop windows, and from somewhere unknown, a spooky soundtrack of howls and moans played on a loop. For a moment, I lost Mom in the crowd and worried about her stumbling on the crooked cobblestone streets. When I spotted her, she was at the center of a coven of women wearing long black robes, their bedazzled hats, and festive boas, confusing the sartorial effect. She was beaming as she chatted and laughed with her new friends.
The trees in front of our house on Church Street, where we played hopscotch and watched thunderstorms, are gone—cut down and carted away, victims of the virulent Dutch Elm Disease in the late 1960s. I don’t like to see pictures of the yard without them there, as they were when we were little, watching over us while we played. Teddy bear, teddy bear, turn around. I wonder, can little girls still jump rope in the yard? If there are only two of them, do they know to tie one end to a door handle? Teddy bear, teddy bear, touch the ground. I read this morning that many communities have started teddy bear hunts—scavenging for toy bears placed in windows around town—to help keep children entertained during this pandemic. In these days of social distancing and uncertainty, I worry I won’t have the chance to ignore my mother’s request for no memorial service. My mother has never been sick, other than a cold or a stomach bug. Will this novel virus hasten the day I’ve been dreading? Other than to give birth more than a half-century ago, she has never been hospitalized. To keep it that way, I rap my knuckles on the butcherblock top of my desk, the painted pine door jams, or the maple kitchen table—for luck.
Like lightning, the tiny moments of childhood appear in flashes. “What was that game we used to play?” “Remember when we would …?” “How did that rhyme go?” Sometimes I feel as though I’m counting, if not the seconds, the years between each flash and rumble of memory. Last year at this time, before we could conceive that life would unalterably change, my mom and I flew to Washington, D.C. to see the cherry blossoms. All morning, we watched the skies darken—the forecast called for possible thunderstorms. When we boarded the flight, the pilots informed us that the wind was picking up, and heavy rain was on the way, but it would only be a few minutes of turbulence after take-off. I tried to steel myself for the weather and forget my fear of flying, thinking about what a pilot once told me—the first two minutes after take-off are the most dangerous; if you can count to 120, you’ll be fine. I asked my mother if she remembered those afternoons we spent on the porch watching thunderstorms so that we wouldn’t be afraid, and she reminded me that she had been scared too., As the airplane bounced and bullied its way through the clouds, she reached over and held my hand. I can be brave—even when I’m terrified—because this is what she taught me. So, I breathed deeply and began to count, “one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi.”
Link to purchase a print copy of Stonecoast Review Literary Magazine, Issue 13