While I was away at college, my stepmother threw away everything I owned, except what I had in my dorm room. It’s too easy to say it was a wicked thing for a stepmother to do…she was a person who was in a lot of pain, and I’ve told myself many times since that day that if those things were important, I should have taken better care to have them with me.
But “those things” were signed yearbooks, school essays, childhood journals, letters from friends, birthday cards, scrawled poetry, my earliest writings…and it actually gives me a soft ache in my chest just thinking about them. Perhaps if I still had them, they wouldn’t seem so precious, but I doubt it.
A strange topic for Thanksgiving, but I’ll get to the point.
I think that losses bring home the importance of things, in a visceral way, a way that sticks. The thought of losing something is nothing like actually losing it.
So, when a box arrived on my doorstep fairly recently from my stepfather, I took notice. It was the sum total of my 90-year-old mother’s family history. Photographs, scrapbooks, notes in fading sepia ink…but the great treasure was two journals, one from each of my grandmothers -- Ethel’s from Evanston, Illinois in 1901, and Bula’s from Fort Dodge, Kansas in 1904.
Grandma Ethel’s is truly disappearing before my eyes, with small pieces of cracked and powdered red leather littering my desk each time I open it to transcribe, but I’m saving it, page by page, on my computer. Grandma Bula’s holds up better -- I’m saving it, too, by typing the words into a document that goes on the external hard drive for safekeeping.
Ethel and Bula couldn’t possibly have conceived how much their words would mean to a granddaughter who was 9 and 17, respectively, when they died. Computers and hard drives would be a mystery to the young girls who rode out to “socials” in a horse and buggy, and wondered whether to wear the blue frock with the satin ribbons, or the white shirtwaist with the red stitching.
But those girls had hard lives…expected to begin earning their way at fourteen, be married a few years later, manage a house, raise children, care for their husbands, and somehow keep their dreams alive. I can read it in every page, and I’m so grateful for their point of view.
They’ve given me back my history. And to the ache in my chest about my lost writings? They would say, “Feel it. Move on. Write some more.”
“Try to pick the pen up off the table.”
The unlucky one is the first to raise her hand. The one who is certain that this time, no matter how many seminar exercises have shown her up before…THIS time, she’s got it nailed…
Triumphant, she leaps up and goes to the front of the room. In one swift move, she picks up the pen and holds it at eye level for the coach to see. Some heads tilt in the watching crowd. They’re waiting, wary.
The leader’s voice, in its smoothness, betrays the fact that this was his expected result. He speaks gently, as if to a child. “No. You picked up the pen. I said to TRY to pick up the pen.”
Her smile evaporates, and the critic inside her speaks reprovingly. She sighs, and smiles, and fights the urge to say aloud the words that should have materialized just seconds before she raised her hand.
“Try not. Do... or do not. There is no try.”
And then the critic says, shaking its little critical head, Well, you can at least be glad you didn’t quote Yoda out loud…
Again, the coach says, this time, with just a trace of slightly sadistic glee, “Try to pick the pen up off the table.”
The ensuing pantomime is inevitably comical. The pen seems to be glued, fused to the table. No matter how hard she tries, it will not budge.
Some of the laughter from the audience, it must be said, is due to relief that they hadn’t been foolish enough to raise their hands. But a person trying and failing to do something, repeatedly, no matter how hard they struggle, hits home.
After a time, the coach has mercy on the pupil. He says softly, “Now. Pick up the pen.”
As the pen rises again, the sigh from all involved is audible.
Success. Thanks, Yoda…
I’m listening now to Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” and although the phrasing seems foreign, it also seems brilliantly to recollect what little I remember of the late ‘50s Beat Generation-speak. To me, the language, and especially the dialogue, is as much an artifact as the speeches of Bronte’s Jane Eyre. And to both, that language was modern and true when their works were written. As a writer, I often read and listen to books as if I were wandering through a museum with the great masters.
And yet, as I listen to Kerouac, I have a memory of a day spent in my uncle’s print shop in downtown Los Angeles. I must have been about nine. I was dropped off by my mother early in the afternoon, and waited until six p.m. or so to get the ride to San Juan Capistrano for the weekend at my aunt and uncle’s house on the beach.
With no entertainment but a set of colored pens and a very thick pad of paper, I chose not to draw, but to write. I can still see the pages in my mind, and would give much to have them to read again. But Kerouac brings back the cadence of the writing I did that day, in his “this happened, then that happened” descriptions of his life on the road.
I remember my running monologue of people passing by, what they were wearing, onomatopoeic references to the clunk-clunk-thwap of the printing presses in the next room, musings about the thoughts of the workers, revelations about my nine-year-old self, peppered with the self-conscious vocabulary of a child that loved to read the dictionary looking for new words with which to paint the world around her.
I seem to recall that I filled over fifty pages of paper during that four or so hours, and that the time flew by. And I’ve read that Kerouac kept small notebooks into which he wrote his thoughts as he travelled, despite the legend of the “scroll,” the 120-foot piece of teletype paper that he supposedly filled with “On The Road” at one go.
But just the fact that a novel written in 1951 could bring my 1962 self into focus, here in 2011, reinforces my belief in the power of writing. Jack had no idea or care for the result, I imagine. He only knew he had to write it.
That moment, between the oblivion of sleep and when my eyes open, finds my head full of words wanting to be written. On weekends, it happens naturally, to the distant sound of birds, or the lowing of the cows in the pasture just outside my open window. On workdays, all too often it’s brought on by the alarm next to the bed, or the sound of the Harley across the way, or the rattle of the schoolbus or the snowplow.
This particular morning, it happened with the aid of no sound at all, as far as I can tell. I simply felt myself stir, and I wanted to write. “I’ll nap later…” I thought, and I was up, dressing in the dark so as not to wake my husband, finding my way through the cats around my ankles to the office, hoping the words would stay with me until I could write them down.
There’s an urgency to it, even when the result is ordinary, simple, and decidedly lacking in profound truths. The ideas press on me, with the potential of being brilliant, but still fuzzy, amorphous, unexpressed, like dreams.
But however I find consciousness, the words are there. When my mind isn’t otherwise engaged in keeping my body alive, say, driving on the freeway; or moving from one task to another, solving challenges at work, or deciding how to fit in all the myriad responsibilities of a full life, the words are there.
Right now, as the coffee bubbles, and wafts down the hallway, smelling so good I can taste it, I stand and walk to the kitchen and pour a cup…but only in my mind, as a wish. My body will wait until my mind is at ease.
And again, I wish I could access my laptop with my brain, typing away in psychic fashion as I pour the coffee. But that’s just another form of wanting it all. Wanting more time, wanting to be paid for it, wanting the written words to match the sense of wonder that I feel when they’re still in my head. I call myself a writer, and I suppose this is what makes me one.
This is such a cliché, really. A writer, writing about writing. But I have to write. It’s not a choice. And then, I can finally have my cup of coffee...
My claim: Everything that follows here is the truth.
My disclaimer: The truth may matter a bit too much to me, but there you have it.
This is a story I’ve been told by my mother for as far back as I can remember. I don’t remember the actual event, but she told me the story so many times, it felt as if I remembered it.
When I was three, my mother, my brothers and I were invited to an audience with the Queen of England. This is not as far-fetched as it may seem, because when I was three in 1956, my mother was one of the most recognized women in the world.
I was a beautiful little girl, dressed just like a princess, in a blue satin dress with white eyelet lace, full petticoats, and blue satin ribbons in my blonde curls. In my mind, as she told the story, I thought of a tiny Cinderella at the Ball.
I was so pretty, in fact, that I just couldn’t resist seeing again how pretty I was. So, as she turned away to do something for the boys, I climbed up and peeked into the huge fountain outside Buckingham Palace. I leaned over to see better, and plop! I fell in the fountain, pretty satin dress, petticoats and all.
The punch line (and there was always a punch line with my mother’s stories) was that I met the Queen of England in a towel.
I would say, “Really? Did that really happen? Really truly?” Mom would pull back and give me that look, as if to say, How could you doubt me? Then she would answer, “Absolutely, positively the truth. You met the Queen in a towel.”
Now, I know most children are told stories by their parents, some true, and some not. But I had spent so little time with my mother that her stories took on a kind of mythic importance in my mind. As I grew up, this story somehow became a drumbeat in my life.
It was simultaneously very otherworldly (how many American children get to meet the Queen?), and very real (I did, after all, fall in the fountain). It was funny, and possible, and a connection to my mother that became inordinately important. I was special, I was a princess, and even though my mother didn’t tuck me in every night like other mothers, I had the compensation of knowing that this unique thing had happened to me.
And the truth of it, through so many years of telling and retelling, so many times of me asking her, and so many times of her laughing off the asking, was never in question for me.
When I was thirty-five, and my son was six, I was putting him to bed one night. He loved me to tell him stories before bed. Made up stories, real stories, things we had done together. I always told him when the stories were real and when they were made up. I told him the story of Mommy falling in the fountain in front of Buckingham Palace again, and once more, he said, “Really? Did that really happen?” and I said…”Absolutely…
Suddenly, I got a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I stopped. I held him closer, and said, “I don’t know if it’s true. I need to ask your grandmother.”
Truth was very important between my son and me. I had never knowingly told him a lie…trying always to give him the reasons behind the half-truths and white lies that become a necessary evil in polite society.
My mother, on the other hand, used to say that she got bored with her stories, and tried to vary the endings to keep herself interested. I, at twelve, or thirteen, or fourteen, always the stodgy one, would say, “But what you were just talking about really happened, how can you vary the ending?” Which would usually be met by a good-natured laugh, and, “Oh, Susie, you’re a piece of work!”
She’d told me stories all my life, why was I so sure this was the truth? But now, it involved my boy, and stodgy me wanted to know. To really know.
The next time we drove down to Mom’s, I took her aside. “I need to talk to you about something serious.”
“Did I really fall into Buckingham Palace when I went to meet the Queen?”
Her laughter was immediate…the laugh that she always saved for my most serious moments. It was a laugh like a bell, that made her face even prettier than usual. It was a laugh that had gotten her through many a tough interview, and I’m sure many a fight with the men in her life. It always made me feel silly, and usually made me back off. Not this time.
“Is it true? That’s all I want to know.”
“Of course it’s true. I’ve always told you it’s true. What’s this all about?” And on the heels of that question, which never was a question at all, but was the end of the discussion, she turned and walked away.
I hounded her all weekend. She thought I was insane, and said so. If I’d been outside of myself, looking in, I might have agreed with her. I was relentless. Finally, in frustration, she threw her hands up, very angry, and said, “FINE! You want the truth, I’ll give you the truth.” Her tone said I’d be sorry I asked.
“When you were three, we went to England. I was invited to a party by Princess Margaret. You spilled some chocolate milk on your dress, so we had to go into the bathroom to clean it. You met Princess Margaret with a wet spot on your dress.”
She stood, legs apart, defiant, a look on her face that was somewhere between triumph and hatred. Her look said clearly Are you happy? Is the truth so wonderful? What have you accomplished here?
I blinked, and I think my mouth was slightly open. It was such a little thing, I thought, this little lie, this little death of a story. But somewhere inside me, my past was melting away. All the stories in magazines about our perfect life, juxtaposed with the fights that raged in the master bedroom when the cameras stopped.
I knew in that moment that if I was determined to know the truth from my mother, I would only find it like this…with anger, hatred, defiance, and her sure knowledge that a good story was better than the truth any day.
And one of the things that has always made me a mystery to her is that I'd rather have the truth. I'm a romantic, an idealist, and have even been called Pollyanna more than once. But yes, I'd rather have the truth.
Then I take a deep breath. And on the heels of the harsh judgment that rings so clearly in the words I’ve written here, I add a tempered point of view. One that comes with age and experience and the understanding that the world isn’t painted in bold black and white brushstrokes. It’s gray, and detailed, and limitless in its exceptions to the rules.
The land of make-believe was, in fact, the world my mother lived in. Her life was made up of stories, and literally, “made-up stories.” And although I’d like the truth to be concrete, immutable, unflinching…it wasn’t wrong of her to tell me that story. In fact, her truth was that I fell in the fountain at Buckingham Palace on my way to meet the Queen.
Another deep breath. Ah, hell, who am I to shatter illusions? We all get through our days here as best we can.
I have the truth now. I’ll just keep it to myself.
Freedom and attachment spread me North and South
Into a Michaelangelo pose
The pull of the hand held, the spooned mornings
Draws seductively away
From the calm and the certainty of quiet nights alone.
The places in my heart that need
The holes in my soul that want
The corners of my life that clutch
Cry out to have you here.
While the voices of my past drone on
Holding fast to peace, hard-won
Independence that I want so much
Awareness that I hold so dear.
I love the roller-coaster ride of love
It dips and spins and tells me I’m alive
But it stops with a bump, leaves me breathless
With exhilarated memories and shaky, stunned legs.
So here I sit, laid bare
Soft silk ribbons pulling wrists to you
Ankles scarred with rope burns
Pulling downward to be grounded.
And I know I’ll buy the ticket, and I know that ropes can stretch
And that ribbons can be flimsy and can break with just a touch.
Freedom may be uncomplicated
But it bears a bitter truth:
I’m here to ride the ride
To stretch, to pull, to find the balance
Between freedom and attachment
And, with ribbons, flying, dance.
When I met my husband I was in the middle of a journey that I believed I needed to take alone. As with so many things in life, he was an unplanned event. We don’t always know what’s best for us, however. Sometimes the detour off the path is the path itself.
Fifteen years later, I look at a man who loves me unconditionally still. He sees me in a way that I often wish I could see myself. His confidence in me is infectious. And when my speech gets a bit forceful, as it often does when I feel strongly about something, he says, smiling, with clear affection in his eyes, “I’m not scared of you…”
And although I could have taken the journey alone, I’m so grateful he’s by my side. As I wrote fifteen years ago, “I’m here to ride the ride.” He still sits next to me, sometimes with arms overhead, laughing, sometimes afraid, sometimes just peacefully looking at the view before the next drop. He's warm in the seat next to me, and, I say this with the sure knowledge that it labels me a bonafide sap…we still hold hands.
My brother nearly lost his life
One rainy Halloween when I was twelve.
My memories fragment
Forming a collage of desperate whispers
Waiting room vigils
And a bloody watch suspended in time.
Big brothers don’t die at sixteen
They grow old and fat and bald
To provide babies for an aunt’s knee.
The prospect of death
Took these sweet imaginary children too.
So at twelve, I mourned our future
And waited, in pure white and confusion.
We cursed the machine and prayed for the doctors.
The machine was left mangled in the October rain.
And my brother is nearing thirty.
My brother Kimball neared thirty, and indeed, passed it. But he went on to live out fifty-seven years of what anyone would call a complex life. If there was a straight path from point A to point B, Kim would wind through the alphabet in haphazard fashion, standing, falling, sometimes sleepwalking, gaining and losing people along the way. He could be infuriating, adorable, hurtful, and he could be so loving that it would nearly break my heart with its sweetness.
The motorcycle accident left him with two shattered legs, and the forty-two years that followed were filled with operations, crutches, wheelchairs, braces and countless pins and plates to hold his bones together. With one leg shorter than the other, he limped for the remainder of his life, and the resulting pressure of his 6'9" body on his hips and ankles put him in ongoing pain.
The pain led to alcohol and drugs, and recovery, and relapse, and finally, in his forties…a full recovery that gave him a sense of himself, and peace. When he felt it slipping, he would go down to the jails and spend nights in the detox units, helping others through those impossibly desolate first nights of getting clean. And he would remember. There but for the Grace of God go I…
And then, just as he may have been taking a breather…his thinking started getting fuzzy. He couldn't seem to find the right words. He forgot how to get places he'd been hundreds of times before. But he remembered how to get to the hospital, so he took himself there. He didn't know it, of course, but he would never drive his car away from that parking space.
The tumor on his brain was aggressive…it needed only from late January to early May to take him from us.
Kimball made me laugh more than anyone else ever could, and looked at the world with a deliciously warped sense of humor and an attitude filled with grace. From the time the kids were little, up until the very last time we were all together, when “Unca Kim” came to visit, we would eat, swim, play poker, and laugh. And laugh. And then laugh some more. Kim could make those kids giggle to distraction. I asked them once why they loved their uncle so much, and one of them said, “Unca Kim is like Disneyland!” I didn’t even need to ask what that meant.
Kim was my big brother in every way. Big. All nearly 7 feet of him. I have so many memories as a young girl of him standing over me, exaggerating that booming voice of his, trying to scare me into doing something he wanted me to do. But I learned the truth quickly…he was the gentlest of giants, a man of endless love and great compassion, with a soft spot for his little sister. When I was being bullied, he was the first one to come to my defense.
Kim and I shared the unique experience of being children of a famous person. We grew up in a spotlight, with magazine articles that talked about the perfect life we were leading…while we, in the reality of it, spent more time with our nannies than with our parents as their marriage unraveled. I was the only girl, which came with its own set of challenges…but Kim was the middle child, and I sometimes wondered if, for all his size, he felt he simply disappeared.
But in the end, he turned out to be the most creative of us all. While in the hospital for nineteen long months as his legs struggled to recover from the Halloween night accident, he taught himself guitar, and to read music. Soon, the piano followed, then the flute, and then a myriad of instruments that he could layer one atop the other in the recording studio, before adding his smooth baritone, singing words that grew painfully from his growing understanding of a transient world.
So, although that “middle child syndrome” might have made him the weakest of the three of us, he was in fact, the strongest. When I think of him choosing the chart for this life, it occurs to me that he might have been a bit less ambitious: “I’ll be the middle son of an American icon, have an accident at fifteen that cripples my legs for life, acquire an addiction to drugs and alcohol, and on top of it, have to bend down for every doorway I pass through.”
Kimball passed with flying colors. And now, he’s quite literally flying. No limp, no pain, no struggles.
As an added gift, Kim gave me a roadmap about how to face death with bravery, honesty, and humor. His last three months will inspire me every day until I go to meet him. I sat with him as he toggled, sometimes in thirty second increments, from grief, to pain, to flirting with the nurses, to long, profound and deeply loving searching of my eyes, then to dancing with head and shoulders as his cell phone rang, then to a string of profanity that was positively Shakespearean in its beauty and variety, then sleep. Through it all, he was fully present, not wishing to let the morphine that was readily available dull the moments he had left here.
One day, as I was feeling very far away and sad about Kim, I talked with a friend who had just visited him, and asked, in very somber tones, “How’s he doing?” The friend laughed and said he had just left Kim, with five gorgeous women in his hospital room, sitting on his bed, giving him massages. And as I laughed too, I thought, “Kim is a lover. A lover of life, a lover of women, a lover of food, a lover of laughter.” He loved all the good things this life has to offer, and faced the bad things with courage. I can hope to be like him.
When I finally finish my work here, and cross over to the other side, I expect to see him standing there with arms open, saying, “Soooooozie!” ready to scoop me up off the ground in a huge, warm Kimball hug.
Until then, I live my life fully, as he did.
‘Night, Kimmie…your little sis loves you…