Jul 082017


In the summer of 1962 my father was transferred to Atlanta when the small oil company he worked for was bought out by a rising giant, Tenneco. After only two years in the New York suburb of Mamaroneck, our stuccoed Tudor house, with its arched interior doorways, shag carpet, and library adjoining the living room, proved just another stage set, ready to be replaced. So much for the promised security and stability.

There was no question of my choice in the matter. In fact I welcomed the reprieve from a full-year sentence under sixth grade’s glowering disciplinarian, Mrs. Cohen, and looked forward to my first plane ride, the jet to Atlanta. By now I was becoming accustomed to the constant moves, revolving schools, goodbyes to friends.

The New South was bustling with economic expansion and widespread Civil Rights activism. Atlanta was not a prime focus of the racial unrest, though it did serve as a magnet for new money. Housing developments and shopping centers sprouted like kudzu out of the impoverished countryside. My parents bought an antique-brick, colonial-style house in Sandy Springs, an expanding suburb north of the city. The house was barely finished, with no grass yet on the lawn—just hardscrabble red clay that clashed with the bright white columns of the façade.

Behind the house, dense pine woods stretched eastward, more or less undisturbed, all the way to Stone Mountain. Exploring the surroundings, I hiked up a ridge from where I could see the monolith in the distance, looming over the treetops—beckoning, I thought, like an ancient god, or shrugging like a gigantic gray Civil War monument. (The mountain face became precisely that a decade later when the Confederate Memorial Carving was completed, billed as the largest bas-relief in the world). A faint gray line traced the middle distance, a gravel road through the trees, with glimpses of black tarpaper roofs, snatches of radio music in the dusty breeze.

I turned back down the trail home, reflecting on how tenacious was the Civil War legacy, a full century after the fact. In my first week, I had visited the famous Cyclorama, a panoramic museum tribute to the Battle of Atlanta. Around the city, Confederate flags and memorial plaques kept the past alive. Meanwhile the Negroes, as we still called them, had not yet claimed their fair share of the American pie.

In the freshly constructed subdivision in Atlanta’s northern outskirts, I found a ready-made gang. I spent hours on the telephone flirting with Phyllis, Sandy, and Denise, or playing kickball with them and the boys, Mark and Gene and Jimmy, on a vacant lot. One day a bunch of us rode the bus downtown to wait six hours in line for a Beach Boys concert, where the girls screamed like all the other teenyboppers in the era of Beatlemania. We gathered on summer days at the neighborhood pool to swim, play water polo, plug the soft drink machine, and conquer the world at Risk. We learned to dance together, spinning records at Phyllis’s house, and on the slow songs, experienced that first thrill of two bodies pressed close. My new friends told me I talked like a Yankee.

Two new friends.

Mark was a chunky, solid character, in the latter stages of puberty. He and I competed for the most authentic Beatle haircut. He taught me how to bowl. Together we would go on splurges, spending our lawn-mowing money on model kits for classic cars, James Bond or Tarzan books, and the latest hit singles. The cult of Davy Crockett was long gone; and “playing army” was no longer in vogue.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was still two years away, and I was too young, or too preoccupied, to take seriously the threat to world survival when Kennedy outbluffed Khrushchev in that game of nuclear chicken called the Cuban Missile Crisis. No, my battles were fought with fist-sized classroom spitballs or in pickup baseball games on suburban lawns.

Younger sister Randall.

There were always two worlds represented in that housing development at the edge of the woods. My world faced front: the opulent, white-columned verandah of the ersatz mansion, the country club my parents joined, the lawns I mowed, the shiny new schools I attended, the neighborhood pool parties and ball games. The other view, out back, began in the shadowed glade with its bed of soft pine needles where my sister Randall and I would pitch a tent or play football one-on-one. The clearing faded into dreamy forest, where I stumbled one day upon a decaying and overgrown plantation house, a shaded pond (where I would later bring my father to fish for bass), and a little farther on, Barfield Road.

I had only once set foot on this long straight gravel road, peeking out from the woods. It was lined with a string of shanties, hardly visible but for half-hidden tarpaper roofs issuing thin columns of smoke, and clotheslines hung with bright patches of laundry. This was the Negroes’ road—the Negroes who never appeared on the front side of our nouveau-colonial house. Lying awake late on a Saturday night, I heard the roar of their drag races, muffled by the thick Georgia woods that stood between us. Theirs was a world apart—full of dark mystery, which in my ignorance I perceived as a kind of vague menace.

In sixth grade, I was introduced to “current events.” The savvy young teacher had us study newspaper reprints about Civil Rights actions all over the South. The South was rising again—this time in blackface. Atlanta was spared the more dramatic shootings and bombings, which would claim the lives of blacks and Northern sympathizers alike in Alabama and Mississippi. In 1964, Lester Maddox, a restaurant owner who later became state governor, would stand on an Atlanta street selling axe-handles to symbolize, and to enforce, his supposed right to bar blacks from his restaurant.

My father, long a sports and horse racing fan, respected black stars like Baltimore Colt halfback Lenny Moore and mingled with the integrated racetrack crowd as a matter of course. My mother in my early years had hired a black maid, as my grandmother still did. Dora, my mother told me years later, quit the day I asked her why her skin was black. Both my parents subscribed to the cliché: “They’re fine as individuals. It’s just as a race…” I listened curiously to James Brown on the kitchen radio, until one of my parents would complain about “those screaming n—s.” Even then, hearing them use that word, I found it offensive, but in my preadolescence so free of adult responsibilities, I could find no moral ground from which to offer a critique.

But one autumn day Mark and I were tramping around, kicking up piles of dead leaves in the woods beyond the subdivision. We heard voices—different voices. We looked up and saw dark figures darting along the ridge. Something whizzed and struck with a plupf into the leaves at Mark’s feet.

A calling card from the boys of Barfield Road.

“Hey, come on,” Mark said, his hackles up and voice cracking. “They’re throwing rocks. Let’s get ’em.”

Our naïve hearts beat war drums laced with fear. The boys we glimpsed through the trees appeared younger than we were. Did they have reinforcements?

Our first throws fell short. But this return fire piqued the interest of the fleeing strangers. They doubled back behind the ridge and lobbed a volley of stones over our heads. We couldn’t see them but could hear them shouting. More boys approached from the direction of Barfield Road: big brothers, little brothers. Mark and I retreated to within earshot of our paved road. We saw Jimmy Moore on his bike.

“Hey Jimmy!” I yelled. “We’ve got a rockfight in here, colored guys from Barfield Road. We need some help, there’s a bunch of ’em. See who you can round up, quick!”

A rock skimmed the pavement behind Jimmy’s rear wheel. He pedaled away, fast, shouting, “Okay, you got it!”

Mark and I stole back into the woods, using trees for cover and forcing back the more adventurous snipers. When our own reinforcements arrived, we engaged in an all-out fracas, with a gang of a dozen on the white side, and half again as many on the black—counting the little ones. We aimed for the bigger boys. Yelps and nervous laughs rang through the air.

Though the battle was drawn along the color line, the boys on my side displayed no vicious intent, racial or otherwise. Nor did I sense hatred from Barfield Road boys. The tenor of the fight was more like a spirited crosstown baseball match on a common sandlot. Except the opponents were utter strangers to each other.

We didn’t know where our black counterparts went to school, where they shopped, or where their parents worked. We avoided eye contact, recognized no faces and never learned their names. Meanwhile we knew the larger dimensions of social confrontation arrayed in the nation. This was a proxy war, a living cyclorama, fought for symbolic equality.

Never having experienced a rock fight before, I didn’t know how seriously to take it. Were they trying to hurt us? Unsure of any rules of engagement, I floated my rocks wide of any human victim and targeted smaller stones to sting an arm or leg. The trees themselves stood guard, protecting both sides.

After half an hour, our pitching arms grew too weary to carry on. The black boys melted back into the trees, their voices fading. The adrenaline of mock battle gave way to exhaustion, and we took stock, wondering how this all began and where it might have ended. There were no serious injuries on either side, as far as we could tell, and no ground gained or lost. The two stone-wielding armies drifted back to their separate worlds, never to meet again.

Except, that is, for the hair-raising encounter I dreamed that night. In those same, deep woods, on crackling dry leaves, suddenly a boot appeared, and higher up, big black hands holding an axe. That was enough—I awoke, heart pounding. Was he grim-faced, or smiling? I never saw his face.

Which more or less explains, with the benefit of hindsight, the larger problem of fear, hostility, misunderstanding, projection. In our dreams as in our lives, we act out the stereotypes we are given.

My mother the housewife, in suburban kitchen.

In three more years, my family would be gone from this place, too, back to hometown Baltimore, which straddled that contested middle ground between South and North. The landmark Civil Rights Act signed into law; Malcom X gunned down; the urban riots in Watts and Detroit; and the assassination of Martin Luther King. As a white family we remained buffered from racial violence and oppression, yet we were not immune to economic turbulence as my father toppled from his executive position to the ranks of the unemployed.

The reasons for his fall from grace were never entirely clear. Was it a corporate reshuffle, or, as my mother insisted with bitterness, the fault of his drinking? My older sister and brother already having fled the nest, Randall and I were left to go along for the ride, in our old ’58 Pontiac station wagon loaded like a dust-bowl jalopy. This time, bound for no upscale Tudor stucco, but a brick wilderness of row houses, all the same.

I took consolation in the opportunity to root close-up for my old baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles. By the time school let out for the summer of 1966, I had a new hero, black superstar Frank Robinson, who teamed up with established white star Brooks Robinson to lead the run for the team’s first championship. The bad news was, I turned sixteen, and my parents said I had to find a summer job.

My father had found work for another oil company, and my mother had re-entered the workforce as a secretary for an old family friend. I was attending a private Quaker school on a scholarship to make up for an academic history scrambled by too many moves. So getting a summer job wasn’t about the money. It was an obligation of manhood.

I fumed and despaired, argued and cried, wondered what in the world I would do. How could I find a job in a still unfamiliar city with no connections, no experience, no skills? So far I had only mowed lawns, raked leaves. My parents—they were together on this raw new deal—suggested I try the day job agencies where middle-aged black men lined up in the morning to be sent out on temporary work crews, doing manual labor in the oppressive heat and humidity for minimum wage.

So I walked the streets of the seedy Hampden district knocking on doors. It didn’t look like any business there could operate with margin for a new salary, even at a bargain rate. After a few dozen grizzled shopkeepers had scowled at my peach-fuzzed face, told me to speak up, and then sent me on my way, I lost all hope. Did I have too much of a Southern accent now?

Nor did my parents offer much sympathy. That night, talking it over with them in our basement den, I chose to voice my frustration by diverting attention to my father’s drinking, still a sore topic though he was working again. My mother did not take the bait; she saw through my stratagem. My father launched an angry tirade, only empty bluster, it seemed to me.

Six feet tall, he still had three inches on me, and fifty pounds; a barrel chest, broad back, and long thick arms. Imposing as any brute axe-man, his face I knew all too well. He was the old man, and I was bristling with adolescent self-righteousness—so I pushed him in the chest. He staggered a half step, glowered at me, and cocked his fist. My mother caught his arm. He huffed and puffed, a harnessed beast, as she shrieked at me to go to my room. I slipped away, still shaking. But my parents’ united stance carried a bitter justice: I would indeed have to make my own way in the world.

Next day I tried again to find work, knocking on more doors. Finally, a little humpbacked man with a weasel smile hired me to stock shelves and clean cages at a pet store a block from home. I would make a dollar twenty-five an hour, and feel grateful for it.

—Nowick Gray


Nowick Gray is a writer and editor based in Victoria, BC. The present text is an excerpt from a memoir of his nomadic youth in the Baby Boom generation, a quest for new roots. Educated at Dartmouth College and the University of Victoria, Nowick taught in Inuit villages in Northern Quebec, and later carved out a homestead in the British Columbia mountains, before finding the “simple life” in writing, travel, and playing African drums. Visit his website at nowickgray.com or Facebook page at http://facebook.com/nowickg


Jul 072017


36 Eddy Street

This is my former backyard at 36 Eddy Street in Waltham, Massachusetts, where we moved to that summer from 33 Weston Street, two blocks away. It was a four-family house painted light gray with slatted wood siding and we lived in the second floor apartment above our heads.

My uniform’s clean so I know it’s before a game. I always felt an obligation to get it dirty, to prove that not only did I want to win but that I’d slide head first into a base to do it.

To my left, glove hand, affecting his best “I got a million of ‘em” pose, is Uncle Dave, my Great Uncle. A good guy, generous, loud and gregarious, a corona was always squeezed between his fingers. He lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and made his living as an auto mechanic. At one point, before he retired and sold the building, he operated a two bay garage without gas pumps, repairs only. My father insisted I was in it several times, that I’d enjoyed playing with the tools and poking my fingers in the tubs of grease, but I have no recollection of being there. I do remember Uncle Dave drove a 1950s model Hudson, one of those gangster-type cars that was all slopes and silver detail. On the weekends he and my Aunt Grace visited us, my brother and I would insist he take us for a ride, which he always did, out to the quiet back roads of Lexington and Lincoln and Wayland. We’d usually be settled in the spacious back seat all ready to go before Uncle Dave and my father got in and Uncle Dave released the emergency brake.

It was always exciting to see Uncle Dave, though when I was small, probably up until the age I was in the photo, he had a penchant for tickling me and keeping at it until tears streamed down my cheeks to the point I wasn’t sure if I was laughing or crying. Then, from my middle teens on, he was always telling me, “You’re doing good things, Paul, not like some of these other kids today.” I was never sure what I’d done or said to merit that comment since my main activities were playing sports, getting into trouble at home and in school and trying to talk girls into going here and there with me. Maybe those weren’t such bad things to do after all?

The last time I saw Uncle Dave I was a college freshman on Christmas break. My parents made it a point to take me up to Portsmouth to see him even though I didn’t want to go and made a big fuss about it. We argued, but their explanation of matters finally won out. A lot had changed since I’d last seen him. Uncle Dave had been having health problems for a few years, but now he was in a wheelchair, no longer the big, outgoing personality, but a quieter, sad presence. Diabetes had progressed to the point where both of his legs had to be amputated, cut off just above the knee. His face and torso were thin, as if hollowed out. Up at his place, we spent the afternoon watching a college basketball game. Uncle Dave smoked a cigar as we talked. Talking about me, our family, everything but him and how he was feeling. Before we left that evening I shook his hand and I think we both knew we were saying goodbye for the final time.

That’s my father to my right. He was a machinist and tool designer, and as you see he smoked cigars too, a habit he might have picked up from Uncle Dave, one of his favorite people.

“Stogies,” my father called them. “Why I think I’ll have a stogie. No, you can’t have one so get away from there.”

El Producto was his brand in those years when they were made by hand. He bought them by the box and I collected the empty ones, which, with the Spanish language name and trademark design, always started a reel of images rolling in my head of an exotic country with palm trees, white beaches, girls in bikinis, thatched roof huts… A place far away from Waltham, which in those years was a struggling city of small stores and too many bars and not enough money and the factories my parents and my friends’ parents worked in and couldn’t wait for the end of the week to be out of for a few days. I filled those boxes with my most precious objects: baseball cards, small vintage toy cars, a ring, a wristwatch, anything that had meaning to me. I labeled each with a black marker and stacked them on my bookshelf. Then, as the collection grew, my father puffing away at the rate of about two a day in between a couple of packs of Lucky Strikes, I stood them in a column in a corner of my room like a file cabinet that could only be opened from the top.

One evening that summer (or the one after it?) I challenged my father to a race down the driveway you see by the white picket fence, about a hundred feet to the sidewalk. I beat him, pulling away and bursting into the street. I knew he hadn’t let me win, like he’d let me take a game of Eight Ball to keep up my interest on those occasions he took me to Vern’s Billiards over on Felton Street. My easy victory was a surprise to both of us, I think, and I knew another race would end with the same result so I never asked him again.

My father seems happy in the photo. It’s one of the few pictures I have where he’s smiling for the camera, showing the viewer the moment was pleasant, his number one uncle was visiting, his son had a ballgame they were going to take him to after a picture was taken (by my brother?) to fix the three of us in time. In many of the other photos I have he appears so uncomfortable I wonder why he ever agreed to let the other person take it, or if there had been a tremendous struggle for the camera afterward to try to get at the film to destroy it? Not that he was always unhappy, or incapable of finding pleasure in an activity. But there was some deep problem bothering him he never talked about or sought help for, that kept him brooding and on edge.

Was it from the war? His physical wounds from that brutal conflict were obvious. An Army Sergeant assigned to an artillery unit in WWII, he was in Italy when his knee and shin were ripped open by shrapnel. The scars were wide and deep. More painful to look at than live with, he assured me.

I knew the story. The flashing, deafening explosion, him blacking out, awoken the next day in a pain so excruciating he fainted in bed, a vein removed from the thigh on his right leg fused with others in the damaged one, six months recuperating in an army hospital…

But what of his wounds that couldn’t be seen? I wouldn’t find out until after he died that he was taking a tranquilizer every day. It had been a surprise to my mother too. “He didn’t tell me anything about it,” I recall her saying at the time my brother found the small container of pills under the front seat of his car.

I suppose my father was one of the storied silent soldiers who came back from Europe after World War II and never talked about it except to say it was a bastard, a hell, whatever, and he’d never wish an experience like it on his worst enemy. I’ve no doubt he had what was called “shellshock” then but is now referred to as PTSD, a condition out of the closet and taken seriously.

This is the period of my childhood I look back on with the fondest recollections. The rest after that seemed an extraordinary struggle, filled with my father’s anger and arguing between him and my mother, enormous frustrations expressed by two people who didn’t know how to, or didn’t want to try to make their life together better. It continued until my father died in 1993, long after I’d left home. I’m not sure what had happened that turned them on each other like that. Maybe it was something that was brought forward from a period of their lives before I was born? Or did it start right after the explosion that tore into my father’s leg and shocked his psyche?

This picture softens those memories. I’m glad I found it a few years ago in an envelope in the back of a cabinet in my mother’s apartment to remind me of my father during that time, of my Uncle Dave, and 36 Eddy Street.



This is my cousin Susan with my father in the living room of our apartment at 36 Eddy Street in Waltham, Massachusetts, with the trophy shelf and rocking chair and organ in the background. Susan was three years younger than me, my Aunt Kathryn’s only child and my father’s favorite niece.

The picture was taken a few years after Aunt Kathryn (she was called Kitty) died of liver cancer. Her doctors never came to any conclusions as to exactly what had caused it. My father was sure it was due to the toxic chemicals she worked with at a company that, among other things, made weapons for the Department of Defense. Aunt Kitty and her husband Gus had divorced when Susan was seven and my grandmother, who was living with them, assumed legal custody. They had a first floor apartment on the street behind ours and from our back porch, between two other houses, we could see their front door and windows.

Aunt Kitty, Mother, Grandmother, Grandfather, Uncle Dave (seated) and my Aunt Grace also seated.

After Aunt Kitty died my father became Susan’s favorite adult, and though his expression in the photo might not show it (he was a moody and oftentimes harsh and depressed man), a softness came over him whenever Susan was around. “Sue Sue” he called her, his voice going high, a smile forming on his lips whenever his eyes settled on her. “Sue Sue, how you doing?” he’d ask.

As the photo shows, Susan would return those feelings. She was a gentle, high-spirited girl, and when freed from my grandmother’s overbearing supervision and the object of my father’s attention she became excited, talkative and happy. Though “overbearing” might be too soft an adjective to use when it comes to describing my grandmother’s supervision of her. The fact was, my grandmother was a stern, domineering woman. Her temper was sharp. Her language could be humiliating. Her prickly tone of voice would visibly alter the expression on Susan’s face and when I saw it happen I wanted to rise up and defend her. I wanted to tell my grandmother it wasn’t right to talk to her like that. But I never did. And far as I’m aware no one else ever did that either.

That was what we saw at Sunday dinners and family events and casual get-togethers. What went on in that apartment on Everett Street no doubt continued. I know Susan did much of the cleaning and cooking, and though there was an extra bedroom my grandmother made her sleep in the same one she did. An immigrant from a poor southern Italian village, my grandmother may have been continuing an old world way. And that wasn’t all of it. On nights and weekends Susan rarely, if ever, went out to hang with friends. A boyfriend, even a secret one, would have been almost impossible for her to have.

And yet, my grandmother’s domination over her might have been worse than that. I’d thought it. My mother and father had too. But as far as I know there was nothing we, they, could do. I recall their conversations about contesting custody and taking Susan in with us. But it likely would have been impossible to get her away from my grandmother and so it was never attempted.

Knowing all that, I worried a lot about Susan. The summer before I started college I recall running into her at Brigham’s, a popular local ice cream franchise at the time. She was with our cousin Dorothy drinking a soda at the counter. She seemed thinner than ever, fragile, as if she hadn’t been eating. In the photo you can tell she’s quite slim, her clothes loose (it in fact might have been taken near the time of that Brigham’s meeting). But that afternoon I noticed her blouse hung from her shoulders as if from a wire hanger and her pants were baggy around her hips and legs. I feared something awful might happen if she got sick. Later that day, I told my mother what I saw and how I felt, how living with my grandmother wasn’t any good for her. My mother agreed. After all, she’d said it long before I had and she responded to that conversation as she always did in stressful moments, by reaching for the rosary beads she kept in a pocket.

I suppose living with my grandmother had a tremendous, and perhaps dire, psychological impact on Susan. I say this as a way of leaping ahead to the call I received in my dorm room when I was a college sophomore. The calming voice of the Jesuit brother, who presided over spiritual matters for undergraduates, informed me he was at the security desk downstairs and needed to see me right away. He greeted me with a smile and at the same time a look of concern. He led me to a small side office, shut the door, and when we were seated he spoke in a quiet voice. My cousin Susan had passed away and I should call home right away. While the news rattled me, I wasn’t shocked. The Jesuit brother and I talked about Susan for a few more minutes and at the end he asked if I had any questions or if there was anything he could do for me? No, I shook my head, not crying, but saddened I wouldn’t see Susan again.

Up in my room I made a collect call home. My father answered in a broken voice and repeated what I’d been told. Susan had died of an unknown brain disorder and I understood disorder might mean a lot of things. Just as with my Aunt Kitty, the doctors didn’t know exactly what it was. And then something happened I’d never heard before and would never hear again. My father started crying. Balling uncontrollably might be a better way to put it. And that shook me up as much as the news about Susan.

What went on after she was rushed to the hospital was never explained to me. I’m not sure if my father ever found out, or if he’d ever pursued the details. Had there been an autopsy? I don’t know. If so, had my father kept the results to himself so he didn’t have to talk about them? It isn’t a long stretch to think that. It was sudden. Did it matter how and why? Did Susan have a tumor that sent her into a coma she never came out of? That would be the expected diagnosis and one I’m sure would have been discussed. There was talk she’d gotten hold of a bottle of my grandmother’s pills and overdosed on them. It might have been that. It might have been several other things. Who knows? I don’t. For me, now, I’m still curious even if it’s too late to matter. But back then, Susan’s death had a tremendous impact on all of us. She had just turned seventeen and was the first person I was close to to die.

I have another recollection of Susan. When I was in the sixth or seventh grade and the weather was too cold or too bad to hang outside with my friends, I’d go to my grandmother’s after school and wait until my mother got home from work (she’d stopped trusting me with a key since I’d almost set fire to our apartment trying to make parchment paper over the flame of our gas stove). One afternoon, soaked in a heavy downpour, my grandmother thinking I might catch pneumonia, she was adamant I take off my wet clothes and put on one of her bathrobes. She gave me a heavy green flannel one and I went into the bathroom to change. In the full-length mirror I looked like a waif out of a Dickens’ novel, wearing an ugly green overcoat I’d pulled from the bottom of a closet. I was so embarrassed I intended to stay in there until my mother was home and could bring me a dry change of clothes. But my grandmother insisted I come out. When she started beating on the door I gave in. Seeing me, Susan laughed and didn’t stop laughing. She spent the next hour, unsuccessfully I must say, trying to pull the cloth belt off, the only thing keeping the robe closed and me from exposure. Over the next months we joked about that quite a bit.

I continue to wonder what Susan would have become? There’s no way to know, of course, but I feel sure if she were alive her home would be a place I’d look forward to stopping at whenever I was back in Waltham.


The Work You Must Do

My father and grandfather when my father was back from WWII and still on crutches.

My paternal grandfather, “the well-known auto repair man” as a Portsmouth, New Hampshire newspaper had referred to him, was an inventor who’d obtained at least six patents for mechanical devices and processes.[1] As far as I know the last of these was titled “Apparatus for Treating Box Blanks,” which, if I read the specification correctly, improved the production of cardboard boxes with a more efficient way of scoring, gluing and folding them into completed receptacles.[2] The prototype was designed and constructed with my father’s help in the machine shop my grandfather started and ran in Waltham, Massachusetts.[3] My grandfather would die a year after the patent was granted by the U.S. Commissioner of Patents (in 1952) when a blood vessel hemorrhaged in his brain, and not much longer after that the shop went bust. Why my father wasn’t able to keep it going, he never explained to me, though by the time I was old enough to surmise a world where appearances were the topics of the day and the realities behind them never discussed, I understood its failure as one of the troublesome subtexts behind the many problems he and my mother had.

The box blank machine.

The shop on Charles Street Ave. was a thousand square feet of clutter, of lathes, milling machines, drill presses, small motors, cans of oil, gears, greasy tools, and hundreds of other gadgets and parts needed for whatever was being worked on at the time.[4] It prospered by providing welding, custom design, metal stamping and other machine tool services. At least five other machinists worked in it. The exact number was iffy in my father’s recollection. But while business was going well, and they had skilled help, time was freed up for he and my grandfather to work on the projects they’d hoped would bring them riches. And that was, even more than providing a livable income, vital as that hard fact of life was and remains, the shop’s intention all along; to be a venue where they could employ their talents and express their ideas to invent and design and develop.

They must have felt certain, or at least hopeful, that at some point one or more of their creations such as “Apparatus for Treating Box Blanks” would bring large sales or a sizable lump-sum payment from a company that would go on to produce many thousands of them. But my grandfather’s abrupt illness, and my father’s failure to keep the business going, put an end to those expectations.

“He was a great man. If that hadn’t happened to him we would have been rich,” my mother never hesitated to tell me when the topic came up. Then inevitably, she’d add, “Your father’s talented, but he doesn’t know anything about running a business. He’s not practical-minded like your grandfather was. And he never learned how to toot his own horn.”

My father explained the shop’s demise from an entirely different viewpoint. “No luck,” he replied with an inward gaze the few times I’d asked him what happened. “I swear to you the name has a curse on it. You’ll find that out someday.”

Apparently, that was a persuasive enough argument to keep him from taking a stab at starting another company. His father’s success,[5] and his failure to keep the shop going, must have always been right there with him, and after a while he rarely (and I mean almost never) mentioned either. It was obvious he’d convinced himself he wasn’t equipped to sell an idea and get financial backing and manage people. And there was his family to think about, a burden on his conscience and wallet. A steady income was needed, and so from then on he worked as a machinist and tool designer.

And that was how I knew him, as a discontented forty-hours-plus a week laborer who brown-bagged his lunch to the places that employed him, a variety of companies that included military contractors, research outfits and universities he’d stay at for one or two or three years before moving on for whatever reason there was to leave: a layoff, the expectation of more uninspired assignments he wanted to liberate himself from, a personality conflict with his boss; there had been plenty of those.

Aside from his hourly wage earner role, my father never lost the urge to create. It was a desire he satisfied by filling spiral drawing pads with diagrams of machines, electrical devices and toys. Some were easily recognizable: a mechanical soldier in ceremonial dress would be depicted in a series of Muybridge-like frames marching forward and backward while blowing steam out its ears. But others were true imaginings. Only he knew what they were, how they operated, and what practical function, if any, they might have. Asked to describe one of the more obscure, for example, a machine on four wheels that would roll sideways and had a single long arm with a roller at the end shown moving vertically, he’d smile, lift his eyebrows and say, “It’s just an oddball idea right now. But maybe it’ll paint a wall while you stand around and watch it.”

Just where some of those oddities came from is impossible to pinpoint. They might have been leftover from conversations he’d had with his father in that disarrayed shop on Waltham’s west end. Or maybe they’d sparked up while he was reading one of the books or magazines he’d browse on the couch after dinner and on weekends, that included issues of “Popular Mechanics,” science fiction paperbacks (he had more than twenty by Asimov), early computer manuals, and volumes with titles such as Science of Billiards, Modern College Physics, Chemical Magic and Z80 Instruction Handbook.

It was the latter that intrigued me most when I came upon it after he died in 1993. Computers, in fact, fascinated him. Had he been born in the era I’d grown up in he might have gone on to study them formally, no doubt tinkered with their electronics, and maybe, if all fell into place (the curse on the family name be damned!), even invented something he might have been granted a patent for and got him the attention he’d wanted.

I know his first PC was the Radio Shack TRS-80 he’d ordered from the back of “Popular Mechanics.” Introduced in 1977, it featured the Z80 processor he had the handbook for, with 4 kilobytes of RAM, a small keyboard, a black-and-white video display and a tape drive. With a brief Internet search I was able to find out it sold for around $600, a sum, I’m certain, he’d lowered by a few dozen percentage points when my mother asked him what the thing cost.

The only other PC he ever had was the used, Korean-made IBM-clone I’d replaced and given to him in the late 1980s. A more advanced machine than the TRS-80, he took it apart and put it back together, fascinated with its sophisticated components, and at the same time, I imagine, thinking in his own self-confident way that with the right knowledge base and enough time and money he might have built something from scratch just like it, or maybe better.

But while the computer’s hardware was easy enough for my father to figure out, he had difficulty understanding the applications it was designed to run. I still remember the phone call he’d made to me one night complaining about a popular word processing program, and the conversation about it going something like this:

“Hey Paul, can you help me? I’m having trouble with this damn software.”

“What is it you can’t figure out?”

“Everything, that’s what. How do you people get anything done on it? I sure as hell don’t know. And to tell you the truth, I’m starting not to want to.”


Except for when he was ill those last years of his life (“No ambition,” he’d answer when I suggested he try to do some work) my father never stopped drawing in those spiral pads he bought at Nickerson & Hills on Main Street. There was always the need to be involved in something besides what he did during the day and being with his family at night. He never had a shortage of ideas to flesh out. He penciled lines and shapes and descriptive fragments no matter who was around or what other activity was in progress. Even when he was sitting at his favorite end of the couch (where no one else, not even guests, would settle) he seemed to be working out a problem, undistracted by the chatter or blink of colors flashing on the t.v.

He filled those pads with the intention of doing more than setting them aside to gather dust. Some of the drawings became the guidelines used to bear something into the 3-D world. To my delight, he constructed the above-mentioned mechanical soldier, though when idea met reality he had to make one important modification. Instead of steam coming out its ears, a function that would obviously prove to be problematic in an independent mechanism built on a small budget, its hat moved up and down in time to the taps of the drum strapped to its waist.

“Silly isn’t it,” he said about it. “You can have it if you want.”

He did that work in the basements of the buildings we rented apartments in. A few weeknights after dinner and most weekend afternoons, he put on the stained gray work smock and stood, never sat, at the heavy wood bench that was covered with tools, spools of wire, dozens of glass jars with nuts and bolts, coffee cans filled with oil and solvents, a selection of plugs, coils, capacitors, transistors, springs, small motors and whatever else might be useful. The chestnut-stained toolbox with multiple levels of drawers he’d owned since before I was born was kept within arm’s reach. It was the size of a small trunk, incredibly heavy, and held many of the tools he needed: wrenches, gauges, screwdrivers, drills, files, calipers, wire cutters and others. I was fascinated with its slick, polished exterior and the fine quality of its contents even if he warned me not to get too familiar with any of it. He feared, I knew because he’d told me, that I might be lured into making a living doing what he did.[6]

I recall those hours in the basement being some of his most serene, when he was at ease with himself, clear of vision, and fully involved in the moment; the same lighted satisfaction he must have seen on his own father’s face when an idea bloomed then obsessed him. He enjoyed being alone with his thoughts and materials, his skills employed for purposes that didn’t have to do with the bottom lines of large companies or for the military to destroy things and people with.

The dream of commercial success long over, he nevertheless approached his projects methodically, as if someone or some enterprise was waiting for them: the concept imagined and re-imagined, conveyed to paper, the parts gathered on his workbench then assembled meticulously, soldering, grinding, tightening, fitting and refitting with the most fastidious workmanship. He wasn’t bothered or burdened by failure. If something wasn’t working out as he’d wanted it to he’d move on to whatever was next in the imaginary queue he must have kept in his head; after all, there was more to build than there was time for.

Some of his larger constructions included a lathe he designed and made all the parts for and a telescope with lenses he ground by hand. (One evening, as I was watching him sand down one of them, he implied the glass had cost quite a bit. When I asked how much, he responded, “More than five hundred bucks, Paul, but don’t tell your mother, she’ll have my head if she hears that.” And then he let out a long, low whistle. It was a secret I was able to keep for as long as he was alive.)

Other constructions included an oscilloscope he had no real use for and a can opener that could open four cans at once (though only in theory, it turned out) and that looked oddly similar to the parachute jump amusement ride at Coney Island he might have been aware of. There was also a giant remote control airplane made of balsa wood that I watched him fly a few times at Brandies University’s athletic field.[7] Whatever their purpose, or lack of one, he felt compelled to build them, or he wanted to prove to himself he could make them, or he wanted to get a chuckle out of seeing them function, which may have been satisfying enough. The days spent in earsplitting machine shops that paid rent and bought food were time-consuming distractions when he was fully involved in something “down there,” as my mother, brother and I would say, sometimes humorously, sometimes sarcastically. The only events that could deter him more than a day or two were a major family crisis (which were recurrent enough) or a Bruins playoff hockey series. He derived great pleasure from working, but just on the things that interested him.[8]


As generous and inoffensive as my father was, he wasn’t a social man. At times he could be gruff and distrustful, difficult to get close to and figure out. I know when he was at his jobs he stayed by his machines during his breaks instead of spending the hour or so connecting with his co-workers. Instead, he used that time to make something for his projects out of whatever scrap material might be leftover around the shop. It was a self-absorbed activity that I’m certain made him seem distant and might have even instigated more than a few stressful moments of the kind that can develop between people who are uncomfortable with each other but still have to work in the same physical space five days a week. I’ve no doubt that was another reason he changed jobs often as he did (only rarely did he mention how his day had gone, and when he did his descriptions made me aware they’d not been easy or enjoyable).

When he was done with a project, and my brother and I were still living at home, my father would emerge victoriously from the basement to get our attention. We were his only regular audience. Rarely would my mother be interested, and never when he was between jobs. (All that tension between them was also a battle between the practical and impractical worlds.) After the demonstration, wanting to find out if his effort was successful, he’d assume his usual, skeptical air and ask us, “So what do you think about that? Any good?”

If it were a toy, or something we could play with, it might entertain us for a day or a week until we abandoned it like a cheap Christmas present. Eventually, it would find its way back to the basement where my father would clear out a spot for it on a dusty shelf, or put it to rest in a cardboard box he’d stack on top of other boxes that had works of his in.[9] By then, anyway, he’d be deep into something else. The process from idea to drawing pad to building the object provided the creative satisfaction he needed. Beyond that, the finished piece would have little more value than to mention to visiting relatives or neighbors with a grin that would imply he’d made something with his hands that was pretty impressive even if they might not know how impressive or think much about it at all.

No matter what the reaction, or lack of one, he continued doing the work he wanted to do even if it had no sensible or profitable place in the world (that was all going to hell anyway, according to him).

He did make one attempt I know of to sell an idea. After he died I discovered a paste-up board in a brown envelope for a product called MAGCHEK, an electronic sight for bows he’d advertised in the back of a national archery magazine. “Tomorrow’s sight today” stated the catchy sales pitch. I’m not sure how many months the magazine carried it. I don’t remember him mentioning a word about it. I’m also not sure if he had any buyers. But from the price he was asking, $19.50 ($12.50 for replacement parts), he was obviously planning to keep his day job.

Only a few objects remain, one MAGCHEK, the tube and tripod stand for the telescope (but not the expensive lenses), a loose-limbed wood puppet that looks like it might have been a maquette for something more ambitious. It’s all that’s left besides memory to remind me that was what he chose to do with some of the precious free hours he had. And in saying that it’s taken me this long to see the similarities in what I do as a writer, in my own creative urges and struggles, and in the tremendous frustrations and surprising hidden joys of it as well.

—Paul Perilli


Paul Perilli

Paul Perilli‘s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The European, Baltimore Magazine, New Observations Magazine, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail and others. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in bioStories, Hektoen International, The Transnational, The Satirist, Coldnoon, Litro, Intima, Numéro Cinq and Thema.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. I say at least because much of the documentation from 1924 to 1951 is missing. Whatever was developed and formally submitted to the U.S. Commissioner of Patents in those intervening years, and what might have happened to it, remains unknown to me at this time.
  2. If my information is accurate, the first patent issued to him in 1928 was titled “Propelling Mechanism for Vehicles,” which, put simply, was a “walking automobile.”
  3. The shop was on Charles Street Ave., a side street in Waltham’s west end and my father began working in it after he was back from WWII. As of 2015 the building is still intact and in use, though it’s much smaller than I remembered or imagined it being.
  4. It’s likely I was in it, perhaps many times, but, as I would have been less than a year old, I have no memory of being there.
  5. The manifest from the Citta di Napoli that brought my grandfather to Ellis Island listed him being twenty years old (he would actually be twenty four months later), single, a peasant, illiterate, and having $16 on him, thus making his activities after that fairly impressive. I’ll speculate some here, and say they might have been too much for my father to try to match or exceed,
  6. My father was so adamant about keeping me away from the skilled trades that my wife, a visual artist familiar with tools and materials, is often amazed at how inept I am repairing things around our house.
  7. He eventually crashed it into the stands and the damage was so extensive he never repaired it.
  8. My father had other diversions. Actually, he had a lot of them. He was also a fine figure skater, archer, bowler, pool player, woodworker, landscape and portrait painter (and self-proclaimed as someone who could “do anything well but make money”). He approached each with the same ferocious dedication he’d built that telescope and lathe with and also was, in a way, his own equipment manufacturer. A bowling ball, for example, would have to be sanded down so the weight was to the smallest fraction of comfort; the forefinger and thumb holes cut into it had to fit just right or be filled in, re-measured and re-cut until they were. The top brand of bow purchased new would transform from a finished product to raw material after he brought it home. Taken to the basement, he’d strip it down to its basic components and rebuild it, tinkering with the string and pulleys to get the right feel in the draw, honing the stabilizers so the arrows released with the absolute minimum vibration. Arrows were treated the same, new tips would be added, any decorative paint scraped off.
  9. As an artist, my wife requires even more room, equipment and storage space than my father needed (or could afford). Whereas I, when looking for a creative outlet, saw writing was the cheapest, least physically intrusive and most mobile of all.
Jul 042017

Mary, the summer before the big talk.



he day my mother taught me about sex, she sat me on the end of her bed and explained that within the next couple of years, I’d hit this thing called puberty. I was a very undeveloped ten-year-old, and earlier that day had asked why, since the six of us kids had all been potty trained for years, my mother still had diapers sitting on top of her dresser. Now, I could not take my eyes off those diapers, which I was learning were not diapers at all but my own mother’s panty liners, and they loomed in front of me, a dark foreshadowing of my own impending puberty.

I should have known, when she called my name from the top of the stairs and asked me to join her in her bedroom, that the news wouldn’t be good. In past years, being summoned thus had meant that Santa wasn’t real, or our pet rabbit Cadbury had died of heat stroke, or she’d found out that I’d stolen my younger sister’s money to buy a Trapper Keeper from the school store. But nothing could prepare me for this latest revelation.

“You will start to see some changes,” she said. She pulled out a yellowing booklet titled What’s Happening to My Body? A Girl’s Guide to Puberty (a book, I was starting to realize, that must have once belonged to one or both of my older sisters) and took me through a smiling cartoon girl’s journey to womanhood.

It all seemed terrible: the sprouting hairs, the budding breasts, the blood that one day would just start gushing out of a hole I didn’t even know was there. And then there were the things you couldn’t see: eggs dropping, menstruals cramping, hormones pulsing through my body like an incurable illness. My life as I had known it for the past ten years was over. Once the process started there was no turning back. And all for what?

“So you can experience the gift of children,” my mother said. To this point, she had been all it’s-just-as-natural-as-waking-up-in-the-morning, and now she tried to make it sound pleasant, special, exciting even.

“It goes where?” I asked in horrified disbelief when she got to the part about penises. “But how does it get in there through your pants?” You would think I’d have seen at least one sex scene in a PG-13 movie, or at the very least, heard rumors about sex from my peers. But my parents had a gift for making me believe that if it wasn’t Disney, it wasn’t worth my time, which meant sex as a concept was completely off my radar and playground whisperings about it fell on deaf ears. So, I couldn’t imagine how, in Jesus’ name, two perfectly grown adults (my parents among them) would find themselves naked at the same exact time, and long enough for him to put a baby inside of her.

I knew my parents slept in the same bed, this bed, in fact. But by my calculation, even when they were changing from day clothes to bed clothes, there was about a ten second window between taking a dirty pair of underwear off and putting on a fresh pair to get the whole thing over with. The way my mother described the process, ten seconds would barely get him in. It must happen, I reasoned, on mornings when the man can’t find his jeans, and the woman realizes her skirt is wrinkled and has to pause mid-change to iron it. This would give them at least two minutes without pants. I’ll always have my clothes pressed in advance, I promised myself. To my mother I said, “I don’t think I want kids.”

“You will,” she replied. “That’s what happens when you get married.”

Once the mystery of life was out there for me to dread, my mother sought out further teaching moments, usually centered on the idea that having a baby was a miracle, a God-given gift. To prove her point, she led me out to the doghouse one hot summer day where my cat, Waffles, was giving birth.

Waffles had come to me in a laundry basket as a gift from my parents for my eleventh birthday. She was all fluff and gray eyes and tiny little raspy meows. We’d had cats before, but not one of them had belonged to me, and all of them had died in various tragic ways: an owl, a shovel, a speeding car. Waffles was mine and I, like my own parents had done, would shelter and protect her from the evils of the world.

I spent my birthday weekend with Waffles, teasing her with balls of yarn, carrying her around in the pocket of my overalls dressed in doll clothes, and subsequently coaxing her out from under my bed. Then Monday rolled around and the birthday fun was over. Time for Waffles to move outside with the dog. “What if it gets cold?” I protested.

“That’s why pets have fur,” my parents explained.

It did not take long for Waffles to become street-wise and pregnant. The first summer, she gave birth to three kittens, then four more the following spring. This was her third litter, and my mother thought this would be a fun mother-daughter-cat bonding moment. We knelt in the grass, braced our hands against the frame of the doorway, and pushed our heads into the doghouse to get a good look. “Isn’t it beautiful?” my mother asked as the cat tensed, emitting a strange, guttural moan. Her legs parted and a slimy, matted, rat-like baby forced its way out and fell into the widening pool of stickiness beneath her.

We watched five more born this way, my mother marveling at the wonder of nature, me trying not to vomit into the cat’s placenta. The last kitten that had come out was stillborn, and the cat pulled it gently from the group of newborns nuzzling into her belly, and licked it clean. “Incredible,” my mother whispered, just before Waffles widened her jaw and sank her teeth into its neck.

I didn’t feel the same love for Waffles after that. Not because she had devoured one of her own kittens, as cats will do, but more because she was the very vivid answer to my speculations about what birth was like, the final nail in the coffin of my innocence. In truth, we’d been growing apart for a while. Her life outside had turned her somewhat feral, and we saw her only when she stopped by to drop off another litter of kittens (some litters striped, others, calico) before disappearing again.


Now, when my classmates talked about sex, I tuned in. “Do you know what Ian said on the bus?” Courtney asked me at an overnight birthday party. “He said you have to have sex twice for every kid you have, and that your parents have had sex at least twelve times.” Ian had a knack for turning anything into a sexual innuendo I didn’t understand. Bragging about being the ball girl at your older brother’s soccer game, or asking a classmate to borrow his pencil, or saying your favorite character from Toy Story was Woody—it was all fair game, and I had to watch what I said around him. I hated him for always targeting me, and now, for targeting my parents.

“That’s not true,” I replied to the group of giggling girls. “My mom said you’re only supposed to have sex when you know it’s going to make a baby. So, they’ve only done it six times.” It seemed better, somehow, to think that my parents had conception down to a science, that their little bedroom game of looking for jeans and ironing skirts had happened only once in my lifetime before my younger sister was born. Still, I feared Ian might be right, and started to wonder about Waffles. If humans had to have sex twice for each kid, what about cats? By this time, she’d given birth to a total of eighteen kittens and was likely to have another litter before my fourteenth birthday. I began to suspect that Waffles had another life beyond our front yard—an indecent one.

Just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, a girl in my older brother’s high school class got pregnant. Until now, I had assumed it was impossible to get pregnant unless you had a husband or were the Blessed Virgin Mary, an axiom both my parents gladly reinforced. It coincided nicely with my theory about how sex worked: if they weren’t married, why would a man and woman possibly be getting dressed in the exact same bedroom at the exact same time? It had seemed I was safe from sex until I was married.

But when I heard about the pregnant girl, I burst into my mother’s bedroom, where she was getting dressed, and threw myself down on the bed in despair. I had not seen this latest pubertal hazard coming. There was something she wasn’t telling me about how it all worked.

“I’m going to get pregnant when I’m seventeen!” I wailed.

“No you won’t,” she replied calmly, the same way she had when I said I was probably going to contract pinworms after I heard about an outbreak in a family of cousins I hadn’t seen in months.

“But how do you know?” I cried. “If it can happen to Shannon, it can happen to anybody!”

“Because,” she said, attaching fake pearls to her earlobes. “We’re not those types of people.” I assumed she meant people who watched R-rated movies and skipped church on Sundays.

Despite her confidence in me, I felt the best way to protect myself from an early pregnancy was to avoid puberty altogether, and I spent the next two years doing what I could to fight it. I traded in my dresses for tee shirts and wind pants, played soccer with the boys at recess instead of standing off to the side giggling at them, and I ignored the existence of deodorant until my mother came home with a stick one day, all pink and flowery and smelling like powder, and told me I could just put it on my dresser until I was ready to use it. When I started to get some tenderness in my chest, I worked up the courage to ask my mother for a bra. “But I only want sports bras!” I shouted. It was, after all, her fault I even needed one.

As I approached high school, I felt the dark pubescent forces making their advance. I noticed some small changes, but nothing that couldn’t be concealed behind loose-fitting athletic wear. And sure, I thought some of the boys in my class were funny, but I didn’t like them like that. Just to prove it, I avoided all middle school dances, because dances were for people who wanted to flirt. Those were the types of people, I bet, that got pregnant at seventeen.

I got through junior high with little more than a pair of small, flattened breasts and shaved armpits. But the worst, I knew, was yet to come. I woke up every morning in a panic, rushing into the bathroom to check for blood, relieved each time I saw I had yet another day to live without a panty liner.

Of course, puberty did come, sometime between eighth grade and high school, and I sat my mother on the end of her bed and told her I would need to borrow some of those diaper things, and I guessed I should get one of those bras with the hooks in the back. She was less devastated than I thought she would be. She didn’t put on black and mourn the loss of yet another child to adolescence. Instead, she stood up and said matter-of-factly, “Well, that’s what happens when you turn fourteen,” and handed me the pack on her dresser. I shoved it under my sweatshirt, pressing hard to hide the bulge.

“Don’t tell Dad!” I yelled before slamming the door on my way out.

Dad, I knew, would mourn the loss of his little girl. Maybe he found out, or maybe he’d just assumed it had happened, but suddenly, the bedside chats with my mother turned into passenger seat chats with my father when he picked me up at 11:58pm from Molly Stanton’s adult-supervised, co-ed, alcohol-free, cross-country team sleepovers. I wondered what he thought went on after midnight.

“It’s just not appropriate,” he tried to reason with me when I whined that everybody else’s parents let them stay overnight. “We’re not everybody else’s parents!” He was right about that. Nobody else’s father was the coach of the cross country team. Nobody else’s father knew better than everybody else’s father that the nerdy boys on the team were the least of the threats to my girlhood. I glared at his reflection in the passenger side window so that he’d know just how cruel he was. When I felt I’d made my point, I whipped my head around and said, “You’re so unfair!” then turned again to watch the guardrail whiz by.

“That’s what happens when you have a daughter,” he replied.

Despite hating him for making me the only kid who had to leave the co-ed sleepovers early, I worried he might be right about other boys. They were all out to get me pregnant, or at least to second base—whatever that was—and it was best not to date at all.

I completed Freshman year without so much as a group date to the movies. My father seemed content with my apparent aversion to boys, so had no reservations about me taking my first job at an all-boys summer camp. I would work in the dining hall as a sort of sous-chef: emptying vats of peanut butter into smaller vats of peanut butter and vats of mayonnaise into smaller vats of mayonnaise, and serving English muffin pizzas and Jell-O to boys half my age. The camp was across the lake from our summerhouse, a rustic getaway just a few miles from our real house, so my father could easily patrol the waters until I boated home.

But what he didn’t know, and neither did I, was that a boy named Tim Fox would be there. Tim was the bronzed sailing instructor from New Jersey, and I caught him looking at me from his dinner table while I served sloppy joes one evening. Another night he lingered a few seconds after I unloaded a scoop of macaroni and cheese onto his plate to ask me how my day was. The morning he came into the kitchen where I was emptying a vat of blueberry yogurt into a smaller vat of blueberry yogurt was the morning I decided he’d be my first kiss, my prom date, and probably, my husband.

He inhaled deeply as he walked in, paused at my workstation, and whispered breathily, “That smells good.”

“The yogurt?” I asked.

“No, you,” he replied, even breathier than before.

I began spending the hour before my shift in our bathroom applying mascara and sparkly eye shadow, doing and redoing the bun on the top of my head until I had achieved the right balance of tight and messy, then walking out in a spaghetti strap tank top and swirl of “Simply White” GAP body spray. Between shifts, I stretched out my two-piece like a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model as the sailing class floated by, peeking out from behind an outdated copy of Cosmo I’d borrowed from a friend to see if Tim had noticed me. One day, during a lunch shift following a morning on the dock, he asked me from across a tray of chicken patties, “Did you enjoy the sun?”

I handed him a sesame-spotted bun and replied softly, “I did. How was sailing today?”

“Beautiful,” he said, pausing just long enough to let me know he wasn’t talking about the lake. “I’d like to take you some time.”

Unfortunately, my father had noticed too: the hair, the makeup, the hours spent sunning on the dock. “I’m not letting you go sailing with some guy I don’t even know,” he said. The discussion ended there, but the romance did not.

It was a drawn-out affair—four summers—that ended each August when Tim went back to New Jersey and I went into my bedroom to cry, and began awkwardly again the following June when he strolled into the camp kitchen, already tanned. Those first two summers we stole glances in the dining hall and passed whispered words of disguised flirtation across the serving counter. I was sure that if I was ever going to kiss anyone, it was going to be Tim. I’d earned a reputation at school as an un-dateable non-partier, but at camp, where no one knew me, I played up the mystery of my off-season life. I didn’t lie about the fact I’d never had a beer or a boyfriend, but when other counselors asked me (on Tim’s behalf) to party with them in the evenings, I said I had other plans. “Too cool for us,” they teased. I smiled and shrugged, and let them believe that I was.

In truth, I was still too scared, and too mystified about what happens or what’s expected when you kiss someone. The camp counselors, Tim among them, were not like the cross country kids I hung out with at school. They smoked cigarettes, drank beer after the campers went to bed, and had probably been around a couple of bases, the actual details of which I had never worked out. Besides, Tim and I were rarely alone. He was surrounded by campers during the day, and I was forbidden from hanging out with the camp guys in the evenings.

Twice, though, I had my chance at that first kiss. The first time came late one night under the deck in the rain, three summers into our suppressed romance. After the kids were in bed and my parents asleep, Tim canoed across the lake to my house. We sat together exchanging hesitant touches and few words (we preferred basking in our true love to speaking.) When it started to downpour, we tiptoed under the house where my parents lay sleeping upstairs. Rain dripped between the cracks of the deck above us, and we huddled together, Tim occasionally commenting on how nice I smelled while I held my breath so I wouldn’t choke on the scent of a thousand stale cigarettes. When the rain slowed, the quiet highlighting the silence between us, he leaned in, and I panicked.

“How’s that crack you patched in the sailboat holding up?” I improvised. Something told me that kissing under a deck in the rain while your father slept upstairs—that’s what got you pregnant at seventeen, and at seventeen, I couldn’t risk it.

The second chance came the following summer. My parents agreed to let my cousin Hannah and me spend the night on the lake alone while they stayed at home. Hannah was my age, a good girl like me, and together we decided to break that habit, just this once. We invited Tim and another counselor, Evan, to come by. They arrived by canoe again, this time with a backpack of beer. I sat on the deck railing as Tim leaned his rock-hard abs against my bent knees. He pulled a PBR from the backpack and offered it to me. I took it from him, casually, I hoped, and cracked it open. If they could see me now, I thought, “they” being my classmates and “now” being me drinking alcohol and hanging out with the hottest guy at camp. I took a long sip of beer and forced back a gag reflex.

“What do you normally drink?” Tim asked.

“This, mostly,” I said. It was true, of course. That one sip was the most I’d ever had in my life. When I was halfway through, he asked if I was ready for another. “Yeah!” I said, and set the half-empty can aside.

Meanwhile, Hannah had disappeared inside with Evan and the backpack. Tim sat beside me and wrapped his arm around my shoulders, which were tightening with that feeling I was in too deep. His voice was soft again, his head bending to reach mine.

Suddenly, I was tired. More tired, in fact, than I thought I had ever been before. I yawned and stretched my arms up, loosening his grasp, and declared I should go to bed. He called to Evan who emerged from the house with a giggling Hannah. Tim grabbed my hand and promised to see me tomorrow, and the two boys canoed off into the night.

That was the last summer I saw Tim, a summer that ended with a mysterious girlfriend from New Jersey coming for a visit, a shattered heart, and my father finding out about the beer-drinking and the almost-kiss and summoning me to the end of the dock for a chat.

“I don’t even know who you are anymore!” he grieved. My tears splashed into the water below as I tried to explain everything to him, from the two half-drunk PBRs to the shoulder hug, but he held his hand up and said accusingly, “I don’t want to know what happened that night.” I begged him to tell me how he knew what he thought he knew, but he refused. I hid my diary between mattresses after that.

My mother was away at the time, and I met her at home two days later, prepared for a second blowup. Instead, she called me into her room where she sat up in bed reading her morning prayers, her back against the headboard, and gently patted the spot next to her, the spot where my father slept each night, and reached out to stroke my hair. “I know how it is,” she said sympathetically, and I burst into tears.

I didn’t really blame my father for his overreaction. Who knows what might have happened that night had I taken my first kiss? I certainly didn’t. Despite legally being an adult, I was still my father’s little girl, still more clueless about kissing and dating and sex than the rest of my peers. But I was no longer the little girl with the fluffy kitten who was afraid of puberty. I’d practically kissed a boy. As for Waffles, she had gone missing that first summer I worked at the boys’ camp, only to be found months later, alone and flattened in the middle of the road.

I didn’t cry when my mother broke the news to me from the foot of her bed. I suppose I’d been dealing with the loss for years. And while I knew Waffles wasn’t held to the same standards as I was, I couldn’t help but feel there was some larger moral lesson in her fate. “You see,” I sensed my mother saying, concealed by words of comfort “that’s what happens when you have sex before you’re married.”

— Mary Brindley


Mary Brindley grew up in Orwell, Vermont, spent her twenties in Boston, and recently moved to San Francisco where she works as a freelance copywriter. She graduated from the Vermont College of Fine Arts with an MFA in creative nonfiction, and is indebted to her large family for providing her with the fodder for most of her essays.


Jun 032017

Mark Foss being tickled by his brother.


Jesus Understood

In 1961, my parents buy a split-level, four-bedroom house in a new subdivision in the west end of Ottawa called Pinecrest, a middle-class suburb where none of the mothers work (outside the house), and the kids walk home for lunch to find the front door unlocked. They are creating more space for their unexpected third child — me — although I never seem to find it.

I learn to tell time by the kitchen clock, which is seven minutes ahead so my father won’t be late for work. In the morning, I sit on his knee and eat half his breakfast grapefruit. In the afternoon, I kneel on the pink chesterfield, staring out the living room window for a sign of his imminent arrival on the horizon. I am in the crow’s nest of a ship, a pirate suffering from scurvy desperate for nourishment.

Like all of our neighbours, my family is white. Like most of them, we are vaguely Protestant. I have no religious instruction other than Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories, which haunt my dreams. In one, a young boy is hit by a car. In the hospital, the boy in the next bed teaches him to hold his arm up at night to accept Jesus as his saviour. But the boy in the accident is pretty beat up. They have to prop up his arm on some pillows. The boy’s arm collapses when he dies overnight, but Jesus understood. I long to be understood too.

My father fears break-ins at the house during weekends to the cottage. Unsolicited, I pray the way I’ve seen on television with both hands folded to my chin. Fearing that Jesus will not understand, I cite a thesaurus of property crimes to ensure our house is not burgled, broken-into or robbed. Is it “A-men” or “Ah-men”? I hedge my bets, saying it both ways. A few times even, with variations, so that Jesus does not feel slighted and punish us for bad grammar or syntax.

A week after the minister from the United Church visits our house, my father drops me off at the church to join a friend in the choir. But my friend is not there. I am ten years old, too shy to put up my hand, too afraid to make waves. I sit alone, listening to the hymns in tears, waiting to be saved.

My mother doesn’t answer when the Jehovah’s Witnesses come to the door. She stays in the kitchen, and tells me to hide behind the pink chesterfield so they think no-one’s home. I wait forever, worried they will simply try the knob and find it unlocked. I want to understand who they are, but accept at face value the need to fear them. I lay low.



My father takes up so much space that, like my mother, I feel the only option is to be smaller-than-life. At a friend’s birthday party, I win the balloon for staying quiet the longest. It’s no effort at all since being well-behaved is my default position. It makes me invisible and, paradoxically, gives me the attention I crave.

Even my Old West action figures are unfailingly polite. Johnny West and Captain Maddox take turns watering their horses out of the back of the humidifier on top of the landing beside my parents’ bedroom. While my mother has one of her many five-minute rests, they tiptoe around the mesa and bring their mares back to the corral before my father gets home at 6:07 p.m. expecting dinner on the table.

My parents eat upstairs, while my brother and I dine in the rec room in front of the television. He’s ten years older and gets final say on shows, but allows me to switch during commercials. With all the back and forth, the channel selector on the Zenith starts to go, allowing ghostly images from one show to cross into another. In his workshop, my father files a groove into the broken shaft of a Sherwood hockey stick so it fits perfectly over the channel selector. A firm push — a poke check, really — sends the phantoms back to the world where TV shows live when you’re not watching them.

The stick demarcates space between channels, but also between the two of us. We keep it handy on the coffee table, a desk my father got surplus from work. He cut the legs in half, and my mother varnished the oak surface in a deep red. The TV Guide, our sacred text, is on my brother’s side. He forbids me to draw moustaches, beards, and eye patches on the celebrities featured on the covers until the week is over, and of course I comply.

My older sister is long gone and, after my brother moves out, I eat downstairs alone. I can watch what I want now, but sometimes I watch his shows to pretend he’s still sitting beside me. I respect his rule for defacing the cover because he might visit from Winnipeg and I don’t want to disappoint him.

There are so few rules in my family that I need to make my own. On Christmas morning, I open my stocking and one present before waking the household. When I come home with a friend after school, the two of us play with my chemistry set on the deep freeze in the garage until my mother returns. I long for bigger rules and firmer principles. Unlike my action figures, I am malleable in all directions.

I don’t care for superheroes, identifying instead with the tormented vampire of my Dark Shadows comics. He pretends to be writing a book to cover his absence during daylight hours. I like how he flits between human and bat, how he moves between the past and the present, how he hides in plain sight. Now you see him, now you don’t.



In sixth grade, I start a five-year diary that gives four lines to take stock of the day. Not much room to express feelings, but that suits me fine. I look for them instead in the lives of others.

I hatch a plan to sneak into our classroom after school to flip through Nicole’s little black book. I fear the cleaning lady will see through me or that Nicole has not seen me at all. The best I can manage is writing her name in my diary that night. A few choice words.

Nicole disappears with the other cool kids at recess while I play a ball game called “Baby” with my nerdy friends. Since players can twist their bodies but not move their feet, I roll the ball strategically to tag them out. I win a lot except the last game of the year. Because it is my last recess — the beginning of the end of childhood — my feet are glued to the earth, but my head is somewhere else. I am busy recording what to remember.

As the calendar year draws to a close, I am restless. Not for the excitement of a new year, but rather so I can repeat the description of last year’s “yummy dinner” in the space allotted for January 1. Echoes and symmetries. The promise of the familiar offers comfort I can find nowhere else.



One of my first books is Tommy Visits the Doctor, which offers a reassuring picture of a middle-aged male physician with greying temples who gives his child patients a lollypop when they leave. A parallel story shows a young bunny going to the rabbit doctor who receives a fat carrot on the way out of the burrow. I do not think to be afraid before reading the story.

I do not visit the doctor when the dead limb falls off the tree, carrying me to the ground. I lose my wind, look around for it in panic. How does my mother hear my gasps? I am in the woods, far from the cottage. She bids me rest in bed with the blinds closed, as if darkness itself will stop the new route my spine plans to take.

I live at the cottage with my mother all summer, dreading the arrival of my father on weekends. He is the great surgeon and I the nurse, expected to hand him the instrument required — a Phillips screwdriver, a square of coarse sandpaper, a pair of sidecutters or needle-nose pliers — before he himself knows it’s needed.

The tools are a mystery to me, much less interesting than the stories of Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot. As I eliminate murder suspects, the troublelight droops in my hand, throwing my father’s work under the car into shadow. I have no defence, no alibi. But even as he chastises, I am secretly pleased since my guilt means he sees me.


Social Studies

I invite different friends to the cottage for a week at a time, but never Allan, one of my Chinese friends. I am not even sure we are friends at all. I share lockers with him from fifth to eighth grade. I play foot hockey with him at recess and when I curse for the first time at a bad play he enthuses that I’ve finally become one of the gang. The sense of belonging this creates makes me want to swear for joy.

I go to Allan’s birthday party every year, which is managed by his older sisters. We play hockey on the rink in back of the Catholic school near his home, and then play more games in his basement. I win first prize one year — a can of lychees in syrup. I feign appreciation, but it’s a strange reward, especially when the runner up gets a hockey puzzle in a can. It must be a Chinese custom, one more thing I don’t understand or question.

When Allan gets sick in eighth grade, I am the one who delivers a cassette tape of limericks recited by the class as a get-well-soon gift. My classmates record it dutifully, and I resent being picked as the messenger. The class knows without knowing this is no ordinary illness and no-one wants to get too close.

I visit Allan in the hospital where he wears a baseball cap. When he returns to school, he ends up on the “skin” team in gym class, and we all see the marks on his chest. He doesn’t seem to be the same. Even his hair is different.

He disappears again from school, and I deliver another tape of dumb poems. I bring him homework, too. Maybe his backdoor is unlocked, even if he lives on a less desirable street. But I don’t check. I don’t want to get trapped into spending time with him, of witnessing his decline. So I leave the books on the barbecue in the carport outside the door and call him from home. After all, I only go to his house on birthdays and he’s never been inside mine at all.

Allan misses graduation and the chance to leave five words to be remembered by in a cheap photocopied keepsake the teacher makes for all of us. So she writes something for Allan, making a joke based on his last name which rhymes with “wrong”. Like the limericks, it’s not so funny.

I wear brand new white wide-legged Howick jeans with four stars on the back pocket to the graduation party. Unlike everyone else who eats KFC, I get a plate of cold meat, which provokes many questions. Ask and ye shall receive. I want to be seen, and yet don’t stay for the dance, running home, faster than when I feared the bullies in third grade. Nicole will be there, and all the other girls I pine over and can’t approach.

The summer before high school I am up at the cottage, which is a good reason not to visit Allan in the hospital again. I don’t know whether he propped his arm up the night he died.

It’s a Chinese custom, I’m told, for the older children to handle the funeral. Same goes for the square of white paper containing a quarter and a candy they hand me at the wake. A candy to sweeten my loss, and money to buy more sweets.

He looks less real than ever, lying there, the first dead body I’ve ever seen. Our teary-eyed teacher hands out a tissue to everyone, a little melodramatically, but my own tears won’t come. Neither will words. Not here.

Ready or not, my childhood is over. What I have left is my desire to keep him alive. I hang onto the wrapped up sweet and the quarter, and the single page in Allan’s hand from Social Studies class. I must have borrowed it from him one day when I was sick and he got sick before I could give it back.

We were learning about Australians, how they have many of the same things we do in Canada. Most live in the cities. They enjoy life. These are the things worth remembering.

— Mark Foss



Born in Ottawa, and now living in Montreal, Mark Foss is the author of three books of fiction and numerous short stories. His most recent novel, Molly O, appeared in 2016. Spoilers, his first novel, was partly inspired by his radio drama, Higher Ground, which was broadcast on CBC in 2001. A collection of linked stories, Kissing the Damned, was longlisted for the ReLit Award in 2005. His stories have also appeared in such literary journals as The Fiddlehead and The New Quarterly, as well as in Canadian and American anthologies. He is currently completing a new novel. Visit him at www.markfoss.ca.


Feb 052016



N THE 1940s, we travelled sixty miles in the old utility truck to visit my grandmother. She lived with my aunt Marjorie on the edge of the Liverpool Plains at the village of Bundella in northern New South Wales. Petrol was scarce and rationed, so we didn’t go there often, perhaps once every six months. We crammed in – my father and mother, my sister and I – bumping along the roads with the windows up despite the heat, because of the dust. It still seeped in through crevices in the dashboard and up through the floor. We drove from our hilltop house, past the small coal mine, then turned south, down the valley beside the wheat paddocks of Narrawolga towards Quirindi, but only as far as Quipolly. We crossed the rackety wooden bridge and turned west, then the scene opened out to the plains. They stretched as far as the distant blue of mountains. It was a good fifty miles from there, mostly across black soil, to my grandmother’s. The crags of the Liverpool Range loomed just ten miles to the south.

The Range

To me it was a magical place with rusty remains, like the single-furrow plough once pulled by heavy horses, my great-grandfather plodding behind. There were outbuildings of battered corrugated iron which included the wash-house. There were the old slab stables (part of the woolshed), housing the abandoned buggy and the sulky. Horse collars, harness and chains still hung from rusty nails and hooks. It was where my mother grew up.

1918In 1918 by the woolshed, mother second left.

There were saddles in the harness shed and a rusted iron bedstead where mum had met the fox. There was the anvil, dull from neglect, the bellows and the tools. Bridles hung in a row from the vertical slabs and a side-saddle, the leather blackened, dried out, cracked and dusty. ‘Grandma Ewbank’s saddle’, Mother had said. It belonged to my great-grandmother who’d left Bundella in offended silence in 1908 when she was sixty-five. She had no further use for such a thing as a side-saddle.

D. Caption 'My Great-grandmother c. 1874'My Great-grandmother c. 1874

Now there were no horses. At night by the light of the kerosene lamp, I studied the faded snapshot of the man sitting tall on the high horse – my grandfather who died before I was born – beside four of his five children on horseback – my mother the young girl in the wide-brimmed hat on The Creamy.

E. On horses (Caption 'In 1922')In 1922

Life at Bundella behind the village Store and Post Office was simple but tough – no electricity or gas, no town water supply (only the rain and it often didn’t rain very much), plus hard well water for the bath, heated on the fuel stove or in the copper, carted in a bucket to the bathroom. I’d sit with a cake of Pears soap in an inch of water at the bottom of the old white tub which had feet like a lion. And down the backyard I’d clutch the edge of the scrubbed pine seat in the lime-washed slab-walled dunny, holding my breath because of the smell as I balanced over the cesspit, hoping not to fall in. Then I’d open the crooked door with its leather hinges and run past the fowl house, scattering chooks and grey-and-white-spotted guinea fowl as they foraged in the yard. I’d detour through the wild garden, under the trees, round the shrubberies and scented flower beds, keeping an eye out for snakes.

The house

My grandmother sold up in 1950 at the age of seventy. She moved from Bundella to the city with Marjorie. We went out in the ute to clean up the sheds. My father couldn’t come because the mine was flooded, so Charlie from the pit was at the wheel in his greasy hat. We squeezed in beside him, my mother in her best hat and gloves. I, being the smallest, had to straddle the gear stick that rose from the floor. There had been flood rains and the black soil road was treacherous. No dust but plenty of mud. Charlie smoked incessantly, rolling his own as he drove.

When we arrived, Marjorie was sitting as usual, prim-faced at the switchboard, her thick black plait pinned firmly over the crown of her head. She waved us a greeting but said to a subscriber at the other end of the line, ‘Sorry, the number’s engaged. I’ll try again shortly…Number please?’ In the kitchen, the heavy blackened kettle was boiling on the fuel stove and my grandmother made tea. Charlie ladled in the sugar, then tipped the tea into his saucer. He blew on it and drained it down.

Family 1946

Marjorie & my grandmother 1950Marjorie & my grandmother 1950

My mother removed her hat, donned her overalls and went out to the shed. My grandmother temporarily took over the switchboard so Marjorie could lend a hand. She rushed up with a sack over her shoulder and dropped it with a clank on the ground. It contained rusting rabbit traps that were put to one side ready for the auction. A bonfire burned in the yard. Charlie hurled on everything my mother condemned to the flames. By evening the shed and other outbuildings were bare, the bonfire a heap of smouldering ashes.

The goods for the auction were piled high: saddles and pitch forks, axes and ploughs together with the mangle, the anvil and the galvanised iron wash tubs. At the centre of a heap of dusty objects I spotted the gleaming statue of Grace Darling.[1] She was about my height and I was seven. Jim and Fred from up the creek had carted her from the house. She’d always been in the dark hallway, peering out at the raging sea and that shipwreck. At least that’s what my mother said. She said Grace Darling was a heroine. Now she stood on her pedestal in the mud, holding the lantern high and gazing out across the sodden plain, her hair and gown, as always, blowing in the gale.

It was wet the day of the auction and a bleak wind scoured the paddocks. I peered out between the lopsided doors of the shed to watch old Johnny Ferguson playing the auctioneer. He stood on a battered crate, felt hat down to his eyebrows, pulling at his braces to adjust the sagging trousers. ‘Come on you lot,’ he admonished the bedraggled onlookers. ‘How about these rabbit traps or that there box of pony shoes.’ But times were tough; few people were bidding. Next day, after friends had been in to help themselves, Fred and Jim carted truckloads of junk a few miles down the track and dumped it in a gully.

‘What ever happened to Grace Darling?’ I asked my mother years later, but she couldn’t remember. Nowadays when I look back, I see Grace Darling lying somewhere across that black soil plain, still holding her lantern.

The Plains

Parts of this essay first appeared in the memoir ‘Vanished Land’, published in 2014.


I never knew what to expect when I picked up the heavy receiver of the antiquated telephone attached to the wall in our hallway. My mother took many of the coal orders, but from the time I was able to answer the phone, I relayed messages to her and later was able to write them in my childish hand in the untidy message book.

Small orders came from householders in town who needed coal for their fireplaces, their fuel stoves and their laundry coppers. Conversations went something like this:

‘That the coal mine?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Mrs. Mingay ‘ere. Tell yer dad I need quarter of a ton, an’ I don’t want none of them big boulders.’

‘Yes Mrs. Mingay. I’ll tell Dad when he gets in.’

Large orders came from Tamworth, twenty-eight miles away, from the Power Station, the hospital, the butter factory and Fielders Flour Mill where they made the bread. There were calls from mine inspectors and the NSW Government Railway’s head office, and the NSW Coal Board in Sydney. The Coal Board always wanted the coal production figures for the week. I’d say in my best seven-year-old voice (as my father had instructed): ‘The output was the same as last week.’

Sometimes there were calls from truck drivers – those hard-working, easy-going, likeable men who drove the fleet of battered and unreliable coal trucks: Bedfords, Whites, Internationals and Macs. Some were ex-army vehicles, for it was only a few years after World War II.

The Coal TrucksThe Coal Trucks

I had little knowledge of the workings of trucks, so I passed on messages, sometimes with little understanding, but often with some merriment. The calls varied:

‘Tell yer Dad me engine’s buggered, just outta Currabub.’

‘Got a punsher an’ me spare’s ‘ad it.’

‘Me muffler’s busted. Sounds like a flamin’ tank.’

‘Blew me gasget’, ‘Think it’s me pistons’, ‘Stripped me gears’ and one day ‘smashed me sump on a bloody tree stump’. I kept careful records in the message book.

There was one particularly memorable call:

‘’Ello. That the coal colliery?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘It’s Bill ‘ere. Tell yer dad I done me big end, out by the cemetery. I’ll sit ‘ere and wait for a tow.’

‘Right-o Bill. I’ll tell him as soon as he comes up from the pit. You’re not hurt?’

‘Strewth no! Jus’ blew up.’

I finished the call and carefully replaced the receiver. Before I could write anything in the book, the image of the overweight and balding Bill with his exploding big end got the better of me. I just couldn’t stop laughing.

Keep Out


Keep Out

Remember when we went to live in Tamworth, and you said we were going to explore that haunted house up the top of the road? Old Mr. Hill lived at the back there somewhere. We used to see him galloping his horse and sulky down the slope with all the kids hanging on, and Mrs. Hill petrified beside him. He’d be shouting, ‘Shut up you bastards!’ at the kids. But we hadn’t seen him for ages, had we. You thought they’d gone away, so we walked up the road after school. You read out the notice painted on the old piece of tin nailed to the front gate: ‘Private. Keep Out’ so we went round the back and scrambled through the thorny hedge. I got scratched on the arms and the face, but you said, ‘Come on, don’t be a baby.’

The wooden house was derelict. My father always said it had never seen a coat of paint in its life. I could see the grass and weeds growing up between the floorboards of the back veranda. The back door was chained with a padlock, but you kicked it, and the padlock just fell off, and the door flew open. You went in first, and the floor rocked up and down when you stepped on it. The place was empty and dark with cobwebs and dust. I remember those old portraits in curly gold frames still hanging on the wallpapered walls, all flowers, and the chair with the broken leg lying in the middle of the room and that old chamber pot full of soot in the fireplace.

‘Look in here!’ I said, but you said, ‘Shhhhhhhhh!’ and we heard someone crashing through the undergrowth somewhere down the back, then ‘Clear off out of there you bastards!’ from a distance. ‘Quick!’ you said, and I tried to open the front door. It was locked, but you managed to heave open the front window. I didn’t like cobwebs and spiders, but you said, ‘Come on, scaredy cat’. You gave me a leg up and pushed me over the splintery window sill. I fell out onto the veranda. ‘Run!’ you said as you climbed out too. We clattered down the front steps into the jungle and fought our way through the thorny hedge. Old Mr. Hill was shouting ‘Get the hell out of there!’ at the back door, but we were taking off for home down the gravel road.

Mother was in the front garden pruning roses. ‘Don’t stop,’ you said to me as we streaked by. We thought Mr. Hill was charging after us. ‘Don’t wave. Don’t let him know where we live!’ and we kept running – past Mrs. Chaffey’s and round the corner into the back lane, then into our garden through the back gate. ‘Now don’t you go tittle tattling to Mum’ you said when we’d stopped puffing.

‘I saw you girls tearing past this afternoon,’ Mother said later when we came in for tea. ‘What was all that about?’ ‘Nothing,’ you said as you spread the Vegemite on your toast. I just pushed the spoon right down inside my boiled egg . . . Remember?

With my sister & Buster

—Elizabeth Thomas


L_Writer. Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian, born in inland New South Wales before the end of World War II. Her professional life has been devoted to music education. She studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before taking her Education Degree in music from London University in 1973. She initially taught in England. On returning to Australia, she taught at all levels over the next thirty five years, from preschool to tertiary (the latter in the 1980s at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, now part of the University of Tasmania). She was involved in the formulation and writing of a new school music curriculum for the NSW Department of Education during the early 1980s. In the last twenty years she has run her own private music studio in Sydney. Over the years she has published (in education journals, music teacher and parenting magazines) material on child development and music, and aspects of music pedagogy. Her final work in this field was a regular essay in the journal of the United Music Teachers’ Association of NSW between 2005 and 2012. Creative writing and poetry have been important leisure activities since childhood although publication was never in mind until the completion of a memoir, Vanished Land, published in 2014.


Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Grace Darling was an English heroine of Victorian times. As a young woman she rowed out through raging seas with her father to rescue survivors from a sailing ship wrecked on rocks in the storm.
Jan 132016

Jacket Photo 2015

White Brothers Dairy Farm

White Brothers Dairy Farm


Drought field of Iowa cornDrought-stricken field of Iowa corn


Every Sunday during Mass, our priest prays for rain. He prays for the health of Pope John Paul II, he prays for peace with Russia, and he prays for the sick to be healed.

His last prayer on the list: we pray for rain for the farmers.

The congregation answers in unison: Lord, hear our prayer.

It is the summer of 1983, and St. Mary Magdalene’s Church is in the small town of Bloomfield in southeastern Iowa, a few miles from the Missouri border, an area hard hit by a drought called the worst in a half-century.

Father Wilkening’s prayer for rain goes on for weeks.

During the Universal Prayer, I sit in the hard wooden front pew, my mother’s unfailingly devout seating choice, squeezed between my older sister and brother. Each time Father Wilkening begins the series, I close my eyes and press my palms together beneath my chin, and pray. But in my selfish little eight-year-old heart, I don’t care about the Pope. I don’t care about peace with Russia. I don’t care about the sick.

I care about the rain.

Farm Crisis Manual

I pray for the rain when I’m in church. I pray for the rain at night in my bed before I go to sleep. I pray for the rain when I play outside beneath the broiling hot Midwestern sky. I pray for the rain when I walk across the dry, brown soil that turns to powder beneath my bare feet. This is the dirt of my father’s and my uncle’s farm, my grandfather’s farm before it was theirs.

Sometimes, I see my father’s ruddy face, creased, worried, as he stands in the yard and studies his cornfields that have become a mass of stunted brown and yellow stalks with nubby, kernel-less cobs. I shade my eyes with my dirty farm kid hands and study the fields with him. I turn to the clear blue west where I know clouds are supposed to form, and I pray, Please bring rain. Please water the corn. Please refill the creeks and ponds. Please save us.

But the clouds do not form. The rain does not come.

This goes on for months.

Finally, a small afternoon storm arrives with a steady downpour, a few cracks of thunder and splinters of lightning. I splash barefoot in the puddles, letting the raindrops beat the top of my head and soften my curls to silk. My hand-me-down T-Shirt and cutoff jeans become soaked and stick to my skin as I dance and play in the water and catch more raindrops on my tongue. It is rain, at last.

But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried.

It’s not enough, he says, shaking his head.

I don’t understand. It’s rain, I say.

One little storm, it’s not enough, he repeats.

Kali's First Communion, age 8Kali’s First Communion



That fall, Father Wilkening continues to pray for rain. Our tiny parish of barely twenty-five families—few of them farmers—don’t care about the rain as much as I do, I’m sure of it. All they worry about are their dead, crunchy lawns or the low, brackish lake where they want swim. My mother unfailing writes a check every week to put in the church collection plate, and I pray twice as hard to equally do my part.

Soon, farmers around us quit farming. Sometimes there are auctions and crowds and the families cry when their tractors and wagons are driven away, their tools picked over. Sometimes the farmers just leave. One day a kid is at school in the desk next to me, the next day he is gone. I don’t know where they go.

I hear my father and my uncle speak in numbers and vocabulary I don’t yet understand. Twenty-five to thirty-five bushels an acre for harvest compared to a normal yield of one-hundred and twenty five. Land values down four percent. Cattle prices down. Milk prices down. Bankruptcies and tax delinquencies up. Five hundred public farm auctions a month.

The Channel 5 news anchor talks about the Caterpillar Tractor Company plant in Burlington, Iowa shutting down. He talks about 20,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the eastern half of the state. He talks about John Deere laying off workers by the thousands. My best friend’s father works for John Deere.

The nightly news terrifies me.

I double my prayer efforts.

In September, a bank in town closes. The 112-year-old, three-story brick Exchange Bank on the northeast corner of the square with the plush red carpet and sparkly chandelier in the lobby. One day without warning the green blinds are drawn over the tall windows of the ground floor, and there is a hasty, hand-written “out-of-order” sign hanging on the night depository chute. Customers wander by the “closed” sign taped to the front door. Farmers pull on the brass handle only to find it locked. They try to peek through the covered windows before giving up and wandering a few doors down to a café, confused, disbelieving. They order a cup of coffee at the counter and sit because they don’t know where else to go.

Bloomfield Exchange BankBloomfield Exchange Bank

No one realized it wasn’t insured, I hear my parents say, and I don’t know what that means.

We’re not depositors at The Exchange Bank, though. Our money is in the other bank across town and I am so grateful that I say a prayer of thanks our bank belongs to something I hear about for the first time, the FDIC, whatever that is.

I hear the names of families who lost money in the Exchange Bank. I know their kids. We go to school together. Sometimes I steal glances at their faces in class and wonder, did you pray enough for your bank when you were in church on Sunday? And I feel smug, because I prayed, and my bank had the FDIC.

I get my third grade school picture taken but my mother does not order copies to save money. Two months later, my teacher old Mrs. Judd hands me a packet of printed pictures anyway. I don’t know why. We didn’t pay for them. The bank closing, it seems, has confused everything.



Our little town is on the local news. Then the national news. The New York Times writes about us. I listen with my father to Peter Jennings on ABC, on our Channel 5 that is always snowy. He reports that there are 424 uninsured banks in the United States. Four are in Iowa. One, is in my town. And it is already closed.

At church, Father Wilkening prays for rain, and now for the families who had money in the Exchange Bank.

After the bank closes, the brick building sits empty. After a while, it becomes a sandwich shop, then a pizza joint, and other businesses I can’t remember because they come and go so fast. The popular bank president leaves town with his wife and two handsome teenage boys. My sister had a crush on the younger one. They never come back. I don’t know where they go.

Diamondz PizzaThe exchange bank turned into Diamondz Pizza

In the winter of 1984, the Davis County High School boys’ varsity basketball team has a winning season and makes it to the state tournament. Our town finally has some good news. Something to celebrate. The boys on the team are heroes and there is a city-wide pep rally. Father Wilkening prays on Sunday for the boys to have a safe trip to Des Moines, and for a win. The school prints T-shirts that say “Davis County Too Tough To Die” like The Ramone’s album, though I don’t know who The Ramones are. My mother buys shirts for me and my sister and brother. They have gold sleeves and maroon lettering and our galloping mustang mascot on the chest. Giant “Too Tough To Die” billboards are erected on Highway 2 and Highway 63, greeting motorists as they come and go from our town.

Good Morning America hears about our uninsured bank that closed, and about our basketball ball team going to the state tournament, about our T-Shirts and billboards, and they come to our little town because we’re suddenly interesting.

They film kids wearing the T-shirts in front of the west side of county courthouse—a beautiful gothic building in the center of the town square that makes a perfect backdrop for the camera shot. I am there wearing my gold and maroon T-shirt, and my neighbor Jessica hoists me up for the camera because I am too short and lost in the crowd. On three, we all shout “Davis County! Too tough to die!” and cheer while the camera rolls. Joan Lunden tells the story of Bloomfield and our bank and our basketball team, and I get up early to watch, before the bus comes to take me to school. For the first time in my life I see myself on television, a tiny speck in my neighbor Jessica’s arms. I’m smiling and look happy.

Joan talks about us for only a few minutes, and then we go back to the forgotten middle of nowhere. Our boys don’t win the state basketball tournament.

Seasons pass. Harvests. Calvings. Powdery earth still beneath my feet.

Depositors at the Exchange Bank never get their money back. The drought persists. More farmers leave. A few, I overhear in terrifying whispers, go out into their barns and shoot themselves.

A protest group comes to our little town. They assemble white wooden crosses and plant them in the yard of the courthouse, the exact same spot where I smiled and cheered for Good Morning America. One cross for every farm foreclosed in our county. There are dozens and dozens of the haunting white ghosts.

White Crosses on Courthouse LawnsWhite crosses on the courthouse lawn.

West Side of the Davis County CourthouseDavis County Courthouse

Nothing, it occurs to me, has changed. I’m sorry that I smiled and cheered for Good Morning America.

Father Wilkening leaves and we get a new priest. Father Gottemaller. He also prays for rain. My mother gets a part time job at the liquor store on the square to help make extra money. She still writes a check to the church every Sunday.

Only now, the checks make me angry. I don’t trust money anymore.



At last, a spring planting season brings rain. Not just one isolated rain shower, but weeks and weeks of rain, and the ponds and lakes refill, the grass turns green, the creeks swell, and I dance barefoot in the puddles and cry Hallelujah! My family’s farm is saved.

Flooded creek and fileds on my dad's farmFlooded creek on my father’s farm

But then, my father’s face. Still creased. Still worried.

It’s too much, he says, shaking his head.

I don’t ask him what he means, because this time I understand. This is how it will always be. Too much. Not enough. Too tough to die.

The next Sunday, Father Gottemaller prays for the rain to stop, for the flooded creeks to subside, and for the swamped fields to dry out so the farmers can plant their crops.

My mom writes her check. But I don’t pray.

I am a farm crisis kid now.

I don’t trust money. I don’t trust the sky.

—Kali VanBaale


Kali 3rd Grade School Picture

Kali VanBaale’s debut novel, The Space Between earned an American Book Award, the Independent Publisher’s silver medal for fiction, and the Fred Bonnie Memorial First Novel Award. Her second novel, The Good Divide, is forthcoming June 2016. Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Milo Review, Northwind Literary, The Writer and several anthologies. Kali holds an MFA in creative writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives outside Des Moines with her husband and three children.


Nov 022015

E_Sunhats (1949)Sun hats, 1949


B_Photo - Across the valley (Photo credit Anne Quested)Across the valley (Photo credit Anne Quested)

WE LIVED ON THE HILL. From our gate we could see far across the valley to the mountain. Everyone called it Terrible Billy though its real name was Mount Terrible. At the foot of the mountain was our town, Werris Creek, just three miles from home. At night we watched the lights sparkling, mainly street lights and those at the loco yards where steam locomotives shunted the freight cars. In summer I slept on the veranda. The night sky shimmered and I heard trains puffing slowly up the valley.

The coal mine was further down our hill, hidden by gum trees. It was small and inconspicuous as pits go, with the boilers beside the rusty corrugated iron shed that confined the steam engine. All day I heard it in the distance, groaning and hissing as it wound the steel rope that heaved the coal skips from the tunnel. I could smell the black coal smoke that billowed from the chimney stack.


Going to Town

We sat in the battered utility truck, my big sister and I, looking out for the pit horses as my father drove down the paddock, jolting along the track as far as the cattle ramp. The tar road started there, a narrow pot-holed strip that went all the way to town beside the railway track. We had to get half off the road if we met a car. Sometimes we saw Tommy Windsor on his tractor, ploughing a paddock, or Mrs. Fred Jones milking her nanny goat in the lucerne patch. Mr. McClelland shuffled out of his old wooden house to close the railway gates across the road. It would be a freight train, perhaps bringing coal from our pit or wheat from the silo. The passenger train didn’t come through until lunch time. Occasionally we had to wind up the windows because of the smoke and soot as the locomotive chuffed past. We waved to the driver in his greasy clothes and maybe saw his mate shovelling coal into the furnace.

J_Our town Werris CreekOur town, Werris Creek


We ran into the schoolyard and up the slope trying not to trip on the cracked asphalt, but we always had skinned knees painted with orange Mercurochrome. If the boys had rung the bell, we joined the juniors, standing in front of the big kids, ready for assembly. The sun was hot at nine o’clock in the summer. Our headmaster, Mr. Porter, would be on the retaining wall at the edge of the playground with the other teachers. They lined up on either side of the flag pole. The sixth class boy battled with the flag then hauled it up the pole. We saluted, shoulders back, and sang ‘God Save the King’ for George VI who lived in London on the other side of the world, and ‘Advance Australia Fair’, or ‘There is a land…’ but I didn’t know the words except for the chorus: ‘Australia Australia Austraaaaaaalia’. It made me feel funny in the chest like I was going to cry. We recited the school pledge which to me was a jumble of words, then sang the school song. ‘Werris Creek Central School’ were the only words I managed to make out. I just sang ‘la la la’ when I didn’t know. Mr. Porter would shout, ‘School dismissed!’ like they did in the army and we marched away to the crackling sounds of a brass band issuing from the tinny loudspeakers. Sometimes it was ‘The British Grenadiers’ or ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’, other times ‘Waltzing Matilda’. ‘Swing those arms. Lift those knees. Left right left right.’ We marched round the playground and eventually up the wooden steps into school.

C_On the swing in 1948 - my sister pushing (Insert before 'Going to Town')On a swing with my sister



In Kindergarten I played in the sand tray with Noah and his animals and drew on a small blackboard with broken chalks, or opened my book and traced the fish with a wobbly line and coloured the hippo with blunt pencils. Then I danced on tippy toes and stomped like the giant, or sang about little nut trees and kookaburras sitting in old gum trees. We all slept on blue mats after lunch then played with big wooden blocks and it was three o’clock and time to go home.

But my father would be doing the mine inspection. He couldn’t collect us for another hour. I’d go to my sister’s Second Class room. They didn’t finish till half-past-three. Mrs. Boram gave me a special drawing book. I drew pictures with pastels in delicate colours, not like the red, white and blue of those broken chalks. On the first page I drew flowers with long stems, beautiful petals and ladybirds. ‘Bring your work here and show me,’ Mrs. Boram said from her desk at the front. ‘Just a minute,’ I called back. I still had more ladybirds to draw. ‘Don’t “just a minute” me, young lady,’ she said, looking fierce. ‘Bring your work here immediately!’

One of the big boys from sixth class ran across the playground and rang the bell at half-past-three. I walked down to the gate with my sister. Her name was Dora. We sat on our school ports or played hopscotch for ages till my father came in the ute. On Tuesdays and Thursdays we walked over to the convent straight after school for piano lessons with Sister Paula. I thumped away at middle-C and Jesus looked on from the wall, with his bleeding heart.

D_Rag Dolls & Curling Rags (1949)Rag dolls & curling rags, 1949



At lunchtime we sat in the school playground on splintery benches. Bees buzzed overhead in the pepper trees. I’d have an apple and Vitawheat biscuits with butter and Vegemite. I squeezed the biscuits together and out through the tiny holes wriggled lots of butter and Vegemite worms. No one else (except my sister) had Vitawheat biscuits with worms. Sometimes I swapped for slabs of white bread and jam or half a cream bun. I didn’t tell my mother.

On Fridays we bought lunch from Mrs. Munson at the sandwich shop across the gravel road opposite the school gate. I got a baked bean sandwich or sometimes egg or devon or tinned sardine. In winter it was a pie or sausage roll with tomato sauce. My mother said, ‘Now don’t you go buying lollies. Buy an apple.’ But I just had a big round All-Day-Sucker for a penny instead. It changed colour as I sucked. I took it out often to see what colour it was. Soon my fingers were multi-coloured and sticky. The lolly didn’t last all day but sometimes it lasted so long I still had it in my mouth when we went back into school. ‘Are you eating?’ Miss Barwick would say. If the lolly had shrunk to the size of a small bead, I crunched it between my teeth and swallowed, but sometimes it was too big and I was caught. ‘Show me,’ she’d say and I’d open my mouth. She’d look disgusted as she peered in. She’d say, ‘Put that in the bin!’.

Sometimes I bought pink sherbet instead in a small white paper bag with a short liquorice tube like a straw. The sherbet fizzed as I sucked it in. It made my teeth go pink and my tongue go red and the liquorice made my lips go black and my fingers too. Sometimes I bought a long black liquorice strap. I spent the rest of lunch time chewing on it and pulling faces to scare everyone with my mouth, tongue and teeth all black. Sometimes it was a small paper bag of Conversation Lollies – tuppence worth. They were flat, in different shapes, with a message on top like ‘I love you’ or ‘Be my friend’. I offered them round in the paper bag like a lucky dip.

F_With my big sister and a friend ('1949')With my big sister and a friend



Mr. Cox was the dentist. He had a moustache and wore a white coat. I went down to the Railway Institute after school with my sister and lined up with the other kids. He was only there on Mondays. His room was tiny like a walk-in closet and there was a big chair like Nippy the barber’s. I clambered up and he leant the chair back and said, ‘Now open up’. He peered into my mouth with his little round mirror on a stick and his spiky probe. If he found a hole, he said, ‘Now this won’t hurt,’ and he pedalled away with one foot to make the drill turn and I heard a ‘whirr whirr’ sound like a bicycle. I felt the drill slowly grinding into my tooth. It made a horrible noise in my head. Sometimes I jumped because it hurt but mostly it didn’t. He mixed grey stuff on a little glass tray and rammed it in the hole. ‘Now have a good rinse,’ he’d say and I swilled my mouth out with the pink water and spat in the dish. One day he was poking about in my mouth with his finger and he said, ‘Now bite’. He started to remove his finger and I just didn’t think. I snapped at his finger because I thought I was going to miss. I bit it – hard. He was very cross but I couldn’t see why. He said ‘bite’ so I bit – and there was nothing else there to bite, only his finger.

G_The Railway Institute (mentioned in 'Dentist')The Railway Institute



It was First Class, when I was six. We sat in desks with curly cast iron legs, lined up in rows facing the blackboard. We kept our books on a shelf under the desk. That was the year I learnt that time extended further back than ‘the olden days’ when ladies wore long dresses like Scarlett O’Hara and there were coaches and horses like on the biscuit tin. Before that, Miss Kievis said, there were cave men who lived in caves and rubbed sticks together to make fire and didn’t wear clothes unless it was cold. Then they wore animal skins. I drew tiny cave men in my book. She didn’t mention what came before that. Not a word about dinosaurs. I didn’t find out about dinosaurs until I saw them at the pictures, killing the cave men.

H_Friends ('1950')Friends, 1950



The dunnies were across the playground under the pepper trees. There was no roof, just a high corrugated iron wall round the battered wooden cubicles. I could see the sky through the branches above and got wet when it rained. It was the same in the boys’ only they had a urinal as well. Mr. Porter said at morning assembly that the boys had to stop peeing right up the walls. The bees roared in the trees but the blow flies roared even louder. I ran in holding my breath because of the smell. I tried not to look down into the sanican underneath the wooden seat because there were masses of maggots writhing, especially when there was a heat wave.

The nightcart turned up when the cans were full. Sometimes it arrived when we were in the playground. We watched from a distance as the big filthy boy took each slopping can on his shoulder out to the truck and returned with an empty one. We held our noses and said ‘pooooh’ and the sixth class boys jeered and laughed until the job was done and the old truck revved up and disappeared down the lane. The new cans reeked of Phenol and for a few days there were no maggots.

Sometimes there were squares of cut up newspaper hanging on a rusty nail behind the wooden cubicle door but more often there was no paper at all. We could bring some from home. If we ran out, or forgot to get it from our school port before coming out at recess or lunch time, we weren’t allowed back inside to fetch it. We scouted round the garbage bins to find some, maybe old lunch wrap or something, and the blow flies buzzed and swarmed round. We washed our hands outside, under the tap over by the weather shed – cold water, no soap, but we could bring that from home too. I had a little bag for my soap. I kept it in my pocket, together with some paper and a handkerchief. But some kids had nothing; they didn’t even have shoes.



In Second Class our reading book was full of animals like the platypus, the wombat, the dingo and the kangaroo but I struggled with the words. And there was the Race for the Stars, a big chart on the wall with everyone’s name. ‘If you do good work you’ll get more stars,’ Miss Beavis said. But everyone else was getting lots of stars; I didn’t know why I wasn’t getting many. And they won prizes but I didn’t get any. That was the year Dora and I learnt a piano duet from ‘Teaching Little Fingers to Play’. I had the bottom part. Mum said we weren’t playing loud enough, but we played so loudly on the night of the open-air concert, the nuns said they could hear us at the convent, and that was over beyond the Presbyterian church.

I_Me aged 7 with a small cousin ('1951')Me aged 7 with a small cousin


Cold War

When I was seven I saw something remarkable through the small square panes of the Second Class window. It was a jet trail. I’d not seen one before. It was far up in the blue sky like a streaky cloud, so high I could barely make out the plane in front, just a tiny glint in the sunshine and the trail growing longer like toothpaste coming out of a tube. Robert sat at the desk beside me. He said it was a jet trail because he’d seen one in Life Magazine and a jet plane too, and on the newsreel at the pictures. We rarely saw planes in our skies. If we saw one when we were in the playground, we waved and shouted to the pilot but he probably couldn’t hear. They were small planes with propellers. Once we even saw a helicopter. The day we saw that jet trail, Robert said, ‘It’s the Russians coming,’ but we didn’t tell Miss Beavis because we were supposed to be getting on with our work. We’d heard grown-ups talking about the war and the Germans and the Japs but that war was over and my uncles were all back home. Now it was the cold war and the communists with their hammers and sickles and the Russians who made trouble with the Berlin blockade, whatever that was.

Mr. Muir owned the cafe opposite the pedestrian bridge that went over the railway to the train station. My father said Mr. Muir was a red hot communist. I didn’t know what a communist was. We sometimes spent time in the cafe talking to old Mr. and Mrs. Muir and their son, Kevin, after my father collected us from school. Kevin had a girl friend called Daphne who was the waitress. She wore a white apron and cap. My father talked and laughed with Daphne as he leant on the Laminex counter, but they didn’t talk about hammers and sickles. I’d have ice cream in a fluted glass dish with sticky strawberry topping, crushed nuts and a wafer triangle, and maybe a malted milkshake with a straw, to fill in the time.

One day I wandered out to the back room. There were heaps of newspapers stacked on a shelf. They had strange letters and words printed on them and photos of soldiers and tanks parading through crowded streets, and fat old women wearing overcoats and headscarves in the snow. ‘Can I take this home to show Mum?’ I asked Mr. Muir, waving a paper at him. When I got home, my mother said, ‘A Russian newspaper! Where on earth did you get that?’ It was only an old newspaper with foreign writing but she thought it was something to do with this cold war. She told my father he shouldn’t be going to Muir’s cafe. He just laughed. ‘Half the blokes at the pit are bloody commos,’ he said. ‘They’re always waving the red flag.’ But I didn’t see any red flags.



Third Class was my last year at the Werris Creek School. I was eight and I had a crush on Ken Hays. His father owned the dairy. I posted him a letter during the Easter holidays but he didn’t answer. He pretended not to see me when we went back to school. At the end of the year Miss Barwick had some of us line up in the playground. She photographed us with her Box Brownie camera. She said we were her shining stars.

We’d learnt about explorers. They mostly got lost in the desert or died of thirst or were speared by Aboriginal people. Nobody mentioned all the Aboriginal people killed by white settlers in those early days. I didn’t even see this at the pictures though I saw lots of American Indians being killed by cowboys, and we all cheered. Gloria was in my class. She was an Aboriginal girl. Her skin was like chocolate. She had a big smile and gleaming white teeth. My father said her father was lucky because he worked on the railway and they lived in a railway house down near the loco yards. Other Aboriginal people weren’t so lucky.

K_Miss Barwick's stars (1952)Miss Barwick’s stars, 1952


Picture Show

On Saturday afternoons we went with our friends to the pictures in town. We called it the matinee. We sat at the back and ate red Jaffas full of chocolate, or Minties or sometimes it was Fantails which were chocolate coated toffees. My sister saved the wrappers because they had things on them about the film stars. There were hardly any grown-ups, just children. The lights went out suddenly and we cheered as the curtains opened because we saw Hoppalong Cassidy riding Silver, and the Mexican bandits hiding behind boulders. Then Hoppalong was galloping across the desert after the baddies and we shouted ‘Come on Hoppalong’ and stamped our feet with all the kids and jumped up and down, raising the dust from the bare floor boards while Jaffas rolled under the seats. Some man would yell, ‘Pipe down you kids’ and we went quiet for a while. Then we were laughing at Felix the Cat, or Tom chasing Jerry, in colour. Next we saw the serial with robbers stealing the treasure and falling into the snake pit or sinking in quicksand or being trapped in a cave with moving walls covered in spikes that slowly closed in. Just as the heroine was about to be impaled, the screen seemed to flash open and the voice said, ‘Don’t miss the next thrilling episode of – The Drawn Dagger’, or whatever it was. We came out of the pictures so excited and I had nightmares for weeks about snake pits or boiling oil.

On hot summer nights we went to the open-air picture show which had a neon sign over the entrance. It said ‘Talkies’ in red but the ‘T’ often didn’t light up so it said ‘alkies’. That sign was old then, at least from the Thirties, my father said, and it was now the Fifties. The theatre was surrounded by a high battered corrugated iron fence with the silver screen at one end and the corrugated iron entrance door and ticket office at the other. There was a dirt floor and we sat in deck chairs under the stars with our parents. The big kids came with their friends.

There were pepper trees round the perimeter. When I was bored with the film or there was too much kissing, I looked up at the black velvet sky and saw the Milky Way and shooting stars or maybe looked for the Southern Cross, or watched the possums clambering in the branches overhead. I heard the puffing locomotive’s whistle and the crash of the freight cars being shunted in the loco yards.

Sometimes the projector broke down and a few electric lights came on at the back. We talked to our friends and ate tiny pink musks or got fruit flavoured Jujubes stuck to the rooves of our mouths while we waited. Kids ran up and down the aisles until the lights went off and the film started up again. The picture show man flashed his torch to make the naughty boys sit down.

Once I was unlucky because the old canvas seat started to rip. My bottom sank through and my knees ended up level with my eyes and someone had to pull me out. I watched the scary movies between my fingers so I could cover my eyes if I couldn’t stand it, like when King Kong was climbing the Empire State Building in black and white. I cried at the end of ‘Goodbye Mr Chips’ with Greta Garbo. Everyone cried in ‘Lassie Come Home’ and when Bambi’s mother was killed in that fire, and it wasn’t in black and white – it was colour.

—Elizabeth Thomas


L_Writer. Elizabeth Thomas

Elizabeth Thomas is an Australian, born in inland New South Wales before the end of World War II. Her professional life has been devoted to music education. She studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music before taking her Education Degree in music from London University in 1973. She initially taught in England. On returning to Australia, she taught at all levels over the next thirty five years, from preschool to tertiary (the latter in the 1980s at the Tasmanian State Institute of Technology, now part of the University of Tasmania). She was involved in the formulation and writing of a new school music curriculum for the NSW Department of Education during the early 1980s. In the last twenty years she has run her own private music studio in Sydney. Over the years she has published (in education journals, music teacher and parenting magazines) material on child development and music, and aspects of music pedagogy. Her final work in this field was a regular essay in the journal of the United Music Teachers’ Association of NSW between 2005 and 2012. Creative writing and poetry have been important leisure activities since childhood although publication was never in mind until the completion of a memoir, Vanished Land, published in 2014.


Aug 122015

Meg HarrisAuthor photo by Abigail Kibler


C Picture Three


ou remember it as a holiday weekend at camp, an outdoors club your grandfather and a few of his friends and brothers started in the early 1900s. It’s the summer of 1962 and friends and families, who’ve descended from those nine original members of Royal Outing Club, mill around the grounds in rural south western Pennsylvania. Someone starts a bocce game on the lawn, others play cards, drink beer and smoke cigarettes. They lounge around on lawn chairs or the wooden porch swing which hangs from the branch of giant tree near the mess hall. The smell of roast meat emanates from the old wooden building and laughter and conversation rise and fall ubiquitously. Horseshoes clank and thud in the dusty pits behind the beer-garden where old men play poker and drink an amber liquid from tiny glasses. Their cigars make a canopy of oaken smoke over a low hanging black walnut branch which shades the lichened table where they sit. Bright glints of afternoon light chink through the foliage here and again. Inside the crowded beer garden, nutshells crunch under your sandals, bigger kids push past you. Teenage girls, hips swathed in plaid peddle-pushers, sway rhythmically to the beat that rolls from the grill of the Seeburg juke box.

B Picture Two
You and some girls your age run up to the ladies’ bunk to play. It’s the kind of afternoon where you can wander as a pack for hours and someone or other’s mom or dad peeks in on your game when they visit the powder room or stroll down to the creek-side. The cool cement floor and spare block walls of “the house” are the perfect setting for a game of hospital—this and the rows of metal WWII cots with their sagging mattresses. It’s quiet here too, with all of the grownups down at the bar or out on the lawn, even the napping babies become a part of your game of hospital. The children’s ward is in the back room where cribs stand end to end those patients sleep soundly. Ailing 3, 4 and 5 year old patients with measles, river fever, or snake bites convalesce and suffer in the camp hospital. You recall that you and Regina Gemperle or maybe Susie Larkin doctored and nursed with some authority and aplomb. You minister to the sick moving somberly from bed to bed. You are tall enough to reach their pale slight faces and feel for fever, offer a sip of water or medication, bandage an injured wrist. Your mother’s magnifying mirror and other instruments, curling irons and shower caps become the tools of your trade.

A Picture One

Years later you are told by the ladies that so many children were born in 1957 because the summer before your mother taught everyone the rhythm method of birth control. The result of these instructions were you and at least six other children.

D Picture four
The playing hospital in the women’s bunkhouse part of the day is the clearest in your memory. Maybe you needed a nap or maybe the afternoon grew especially hot and therefore you recall only the blurred moments. You’re not certain as to how or when the day changed profoundly. What you do remember is this day included your first awareness of your mother’s being drunk.

On the back stoop of the bunkhouse your dad holds you in his arms as you sit together on the cool cement slab. You lean your head away from your mother’s distorted face, her mouth coming toward you for a kiss. She comes in close making you swoon and whimper.

“Aaawwwhatsamatterdoll? Don’t cry,” her speech slurs and you catch the scent of sour breath with her words. You are aware of grownups laughing on the lawn and the afternoon suddenly green and bombed with intoxicating heat and sounds which bore into your small head. Your mother’s never been like this; all of the world tips on its edge, if not for the sure arms of your dad you’d collapse on the lawn. Years later, you will blame your nightmares in which your mother is replaced by a shaved-head-Nazi, on this day and that is probably exactly where those nightmares began.
E Picture five
The gravel road from camp leads out to the Buhl Bridge on old Route 8 and just a few steps from there you can double back on Cottage Lane as it runs with the tracks for a time until it turns toward the tall stalks of corn and leads to the little cottages. Each place is brightly painted and one of these belongs to your Aunt Cle and Uncle Dick. Your favorite is the white cottage with red decorations and the giant letter on its front. Today, you and your father do not stop to visit any of the cottagers. You have trouble keeping the rough chunks of gravel out of your white sandals and your stride is clumsy. No matter your appeal your father does not carry you. Only, he pulls you down the lane, the strap of your summer romper slipping from one shoulder, the buckle on your sandal rubbing a blister onto the side your foot. Your father does walk you through the labyrinth mowed into the tall weeds across from your uncle’s cottage and there you grow dizzier with each twist and turn of the maze, the tall grass moving in a haze of green with the soft shushing of an afternoon breeze which lulls you to doze. One day you will puzzle at the uncomfortable feelings games of hide-and-go-seek that grass maze calls up in you, how you are unable to play along with the other children.
F Picture six
This is your father rescuing you from the upset of your drunken mother. He takes you for a walk ‘out the road’ and then back toward the cottages and finally, full circle, he walks you across the ball field back toward the camp grounds. The field needs a mow, overgrown barnyard and crab grasses scratch your drowsy feet and scrape your ankles. Ground bees lumber about your moist person. Your wee-self fills with weariness as you approach the back of the mess-hall knowing that opposite is the bunk-house where, in the darkened back room where the cribs are and the soft wooden floor and giant overhead fan. You will rest in your own little bunk with its pink pillow-case on top of the soft-worn Indian blanket. You are by now tired and troubled enough about your mom that you haven’t the energy for finding Tobie cigars with the kids, or beheading dandelions, or the touching of Monarchs, or finding blue fairies, or gathering Queen Anne’s lace. No time for spotting black snakes, hooking worms, or building sand castles creek-side. Your father has insisted that you walk with him and because you adore him you do your best to please him. Your soft light brown curls stick to the perspiration on your forehead and the slow buzz of a no-see-um sounds eternal in your ear.

At last the crepe soles of your sandals meet the scruff of the paved sidewalk leading to the bunk and your father scoops you into his arms. You rub your face into his neck. The damp cotton of his shirt smells of nicotine, sweat and dial soap, a somehow tender and comforting scent. Years after he dies the smell of cigarettes still gives you a sense of security and, you believe, adds to your long struggle to stop smoking.

Your eyelids grow heavy and you are letting yourself slack into afternoon dreams when you hear the distant sound of your mother, “Oh, Stuart,” she is saying and something more you cannot make out as she staggers near.

“It’s alright, Rita,” your father tells her, setting you down on your feet and taking your hand once again. To you he says, “Come on, Babydoll. Let’s walk around the block again.”

You cry. You tantrum. All protests are ignored by your gentle father and after a visit to the ladies’ bathroom, once again you walk with him around the tracks and along the lane where the earth is a gravelly gray clay which traps puddles that will last as long as summer. Your toes are black with dust and your sandals are now a dirty white. This time around a train passes sounding its horn into your sunburnt temples. One of the cottagers drives slowly down the lane heeding the yellow “5 miles per hour” sign and rolls to a slow stop next to you and dad. It is your aunt and uncle and your father picks you up this time allowing you to sleep deeply on his warm shoulder. The sound of his voice chatting with these passersby tumbles up to your ears from his warm chest and soon you are in a deep sleep. He carries you the rest of the way back to camp. The only sound his melodic random whistle and the stirring of the cicada’s call as the warm afternoon gives way to evening.

G Picture Seven
Years later you will recall this experience while talking with your sister and you will ask if she remembers the time mom was so drunk and how it upset you to the point where dad had to take you for a walk around the block at camp.

She will laugh at your recollection and explain, “Mom wasn’t drunk. Dad was walking you around because you kids got into Sis’ sleeping pills. You were playing hospital in the bunkhouse,” Later other old friends will fill in the blanks for you.

“We called doctor Klatman and he wanted all the kids to take syrup of ipecac.”

“Your dad refused to make you throw up because you hated it so.”

“He decided to walk you around until the effects of the drug wore off.”

“You were five, I think. Our Carol was just a baby at the time. Just two, I think.”

“No. Your mom was not drunk. She wasn’t even drinking whiskey. Just a few beers.”

Your mom is gone over a decade when you learn the truth of what happened that day and you have a vague recollection of perhaps even being the person who distributed the medications. You do remember that as a child you loved to explore, especially into the business and belongings of others. Your sister’s make-up, the old photos your mother stowed in the cedar chest, your brother’s girlie magazines.

You remember some things now and it makes sense that the medication was the culprit making you light headed and sleepy. You see now the deep affection that your father showed for you that day. The cloak of unfaltering devotion from your father bolsters you even today some 40 years after his death.
H Picture 8
That summer marks the first but not the last time you were inebriated. You know that your condition then made you somehow able to see something you’d never seen in your mother. Drunkenness. It was something you’d never fail to distinguish again. You would also never fail to forgive it, not in yourself, not in your mother.

—Meg Harris


Meg Harris grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania but has lived in New England since the 1980s. Recently Meg and her husband took occupancy of a home in Connecticut that was purportedly a tearoom in the 1700s and originally a “great barn” in the 1680s. Today, “Sol’s Path” is Meg’s writing retreat. A chap of Meg’s poems, Inquiry into Loneliness is forthcoming this month from Crisis Chronicles; her stories and poems have appeared in both print and online journals. This is the first time Meg’s creative nonfiction has been published.


May 092015

Early Autobiographical Work, age 5Early autobiographical work

Leona age 9Nine years old


The pop machine

MY FATHER OPERATED a garage in the small prairie town of Bredenbury, Saskatchewan, pop. 500 or so, located just off the Yellowhead Highway 30 miles west of the Manitoba border. The garage was low and squarish, with a huge sign mounted high on the front that read ‘Hi-Way Service,’ navy blue letters against white. I don’t know how much that sign set my father back, but I know it was too fancy by half for a small-town shop in the sixties. A year or two after the sign went up, the new highway went in, skirting the town entirely. The unlucky Hi-Way Service now fronted on a low-traffic graveled street little different from any other street in town. Over time, the blue letters weathered to a colour close to purple.

Inside the garage, over to one side, was a pop machine built like a chest freezer. Sometimes, not often, on a hot day I would slip into the garage, into dimness after sunlight. The clank of a tool hitting a workbench, the pffft of an air hose, the earthy smell of oil. I would make for the pop machine, use all my muscle to push open the lid, and peer over the side at the rows of glass bottles. They hung in their separate metal tracks, NuGrape, Orange Crush, Seven-Up, Club Soda, Coca-Cola, suspended by their bulbous little chins, their lower parts immersed in a bath of ice-cold water. I could reach way, way over, feet lifting off the floor, and plunge my hot hand into the cold bath. Once in a long while, or maybe once, period, my father found a dime and slipped it into the coin slot, and I slid a bottle of NuGrape along its track and out past the metal guard. Ten cents bought one release of the guard and the satisfying slap as the metal fell back into place after the bottle came out. An opener was mounted on the front of the machine, a pry mechanism, and below it a cap-catcher shaped like a tiny pregnant belly. I held the bottle, sliding-wet from its cold bath, and my father gripped it further up, along its tapered neck, and helped me lever off the cap. It fell, clink, against the other caps inside the little belly. I have never lost my appreciation for the earth-sweet smells of gas and oil. I wasn’t really even supposed to be in the garage.

Hi-Way Service before the SignHi-Way Service before the sign


The pasture

I was a town kid, but Nickel’s pasture was my little bit of wild. I could get there by walking: across a gravel street, across the corner of a neighbour’s triangular lot, across a ditch. Not there yet: across the gravel road that used to be called a highway, across another ditch, and finally along a lane. I liked to sit in the pasture at the bottom of a little draw, low enough that I couldn’t see a single house or car or shed. The pasture was rimmed by scrubby bush: chokecherries, saskatoons, spindly poplars. Down in the draw I was in the Wild West, a place I knew from TV, in all its black-and-whiteness. Kicking around the house we had an Indian-princess hairpiece—a pair of braids made from three pairs of old nylon stockings. Bobby-pinned into my hair, the braids hung on either side of my white and pink and freckled face and draped onto my shoulders. I don’t recall if I was wearing the braids on the day I’m thinking about now, the day I was frightened by my own heartbeat. Crouched in the draw, summer warm on my hair, sun frying my freckled nose, I listened to the silence of that small world. And then I heard a beat, relentless, rhythmic. Indian drums! From the stand of poplars over there! I froze for a moment; then I ran home fast, listening as the drumbeat sped with me, inside my chest.

Years later, my sister and I and the girl from across the street put the pasture to another use. Hanging from a nail on our kitchen wall was a tin matchbox holder, and in it was a box of Eddy’s Redbirds. The tips of the matches were banded blue and red and white, the colours of the Union Jack. We’d grab them by the handful, couldn’t stop ourselves from licking them to taste the naughty taste. We’d make off with them to light our little fires. In the pasture we pulled together small, dense stooks of dry grass, lit them, and watched as they went poof, and flared and died. One day the flare didn’t die. We high-tailed it away and waited for a grown-up to notice the grass fire. Eventually, a grown-up did. The volunteer fire department came out in force to quell the flames, and we were either not found out or were silently excused without a fuss.

The _Little Kids_ (Leona on the left)The Little Kids (Leona on the left)


The nuisance grounds

Small-town Saskatchewan kids were free-range kids in the sixties. We could walk along a country road to what we called the nuisance grounds, about a half a mile from town. On one excursion, we three girls found skin magazines, and we ripped out pictures of partially naked women and folded them into our pockets. Were we ten or so? In the heat of summer days, among the reek of rotting left-behinds, we found other memorable junk—one day the remains of the combination mailboxes the post office had disposed of after the conversion to keyed boxes. The old boxes had metal fronts, about five inches wide and four inches high, each with two concentric dials on the front that reminded us of the safes we saw on “Get Smart.” These metal doors were still attached by hinges to wooden drawers, and the drawers slid in and out of what remained of the wooden framing that housed them when they were still in use. Some of the frames were open at the top, and we could see inside the guts of the mechanisms well enough to figure out the combinations by watching closely as we turned the dials. Every kid needs a place to store her secrets. We had a wagon with us (of course), and we each took home a mailbox or two. We memorized the combinations, closed the open tops with nailed-on boards, and hid the dirty pictures inside.

Water lines


The Red Thing

We four sisters shared a bedroom. Two sets of bunk beds. I assume that The Red Thing, which stood at the foot of one of the beds, began as a display stand that came to the Hi-Way Service in the course of business, and once the product it displayed was sold out—oil, antifreeze, wiper blades?—my mother or my father carried it half a block to the house so it could be put to a new use. It was made of heavy-gauge wire, say three-eighths of an inch in diameter, and the wire was coated with a red material, silicon or plastic or some such. It had two or three shelves, and the back and sides were an open grid of wire. Into and onto this rig we piled books, teen magazines, comics, puzzles, paper dolls.

—Where’s my Nancy Drew?

—It’s on The Red Thing.

The Secret of the Old Clock, Donna Parker, The Curly Tops Snowed In (my first-ever hard-cover book, which my mother brought home from a magical place in Regina called The Book Exchange), Heidi, Treasure Island, Little Women, Call of the Wild. The bottom shelf was low to the floor, and the broom wouldn’t fit underneath; you’d have had to move the entire rig to sweep there, and so when I sat in front of it to sort through the sliding stack of Archie comics and colouring books I could see the dust curls underneath. We weren’t much for housekeeping anyway. Words were the thing.

We discovered The Red Thing was sturdy enough, and freighted with enough printed matter, that it could counterbalance the weight of a child hanging upside-down off the front of it, feet up top, hands grasping the sides halfway down. Every kid needs a members-only club, and every club needs a pledge. I remember one of my sisters, face blossoming red, hair dangling inches from the dust bunnies, reciting “I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down, I will hang upside-down for my club, the upside-down club.” I can recall no function of the upside-down club other than hanging upside-down.

One evening—I think I was about nine—I heard my three sisters laughing in the bedroom, and I walked in and grouched at them, because what could be funny when my mother had just told me we were about to lose the house, and we’d all be out in the snow with our furniture by Christmas? Snow falling on the bunk beds and The Red Thing, I supposed. And on all the books, the ones on The Red Thing and the others, hundreds of them ranged on shelf after shelf in the living room, the ones I had to stand on the back of the sofa to reach.

I don’t know how my mother succeeded, ultimately, in saving the title to the house. A lot of yelling went on, those years, and we girls managed sometimes to tune out the specifics. I do think it must’ve been my mother who saved the title. My father was smart in his way, a small-time genius as an inventor, mechanic and electrician, but he had no head for business or law, and he was so good at avoiding the tough questions that he knew how to leave mail unopened for years if he didn’t like the address on the upper left corner of the envelope. Long after my parents died, going through old files, I came across a sheaf of papers that had to do with the house, the garage, the courts: eight letters from the sheriff, seventeen from various creditors, fifteen notices to do with unpaid taxes, and three to do with court proceedings. A note in my mother’s handwriting attests that a letter from one creditor remained unopened for seven years; it was old enough that the mailbox the postmistress would have sorted it into would have been opened by combination rather than key. Through the years when all that was going on, I would sometimes sit in front of The Red Thing and open my copy of Heidi and bring it to my nose and sniff the pages. The smell of ink and binding glue and pressed paper would call up a feeling that I want to describe as friendship. I still do this with books; I still am surprised by that same feeling, whether or not I know beforehand that it’s what I’m looking for.

SistersWeavingSisters weaving


The garden

In the early years, we grew vegetables in the vegetable garden. One summer my next-older sister and I—we were the “little kids” and the two oldest were the “big kids”—were paid 88 cents each for a couple of days of hand-pulling portulaca and pigweed free of the stubborn clay. Why 88 cents? Because the general store was advertising an 88-cent sale and as part of this special occasion they’d brought in toys, a rare addition to their stock. When my sister and I walked into the store clutching our coins we learned that most of the toys were in fact priced at $1.88 or $2.88. We did each come home with something cheap and plastic and unmemorable, I’m sure we did, and I’ll bet we loved these things for as many days as we would have loved the more expensive bits of plastic. But weeding—we hated it. The garden became a wonderland only after my parents lost interest in using it to grow vegetables. In the area where a different family might have planted potatoes and beans and corn, my sister and I dug an enormous hole, an underground fort. Evenings, I would scratch my scalp and have my fingernails come away full of grit, a satisfying feeling, evidence of a day well spent. We dragged old boards from here and there and laid them across the top of the hole, and we crouched inside amid shadows and candlelight. The smell of a candle burning inside dirt walls gave me a thrill I felt low in my tummy. A finger in the flame, how long can you hold it there? Or drip some wax into the palm of your hand and feel the bite. The small rituals of our club of two in our safe little hideaway, built too small for grown-ups. We were the bosses down there. We owned the place.

Sisters in the Garden (Leona on the left)

 —Leona Theis


Leona2014 #2

Leona Theis writes novels, short stories, memoir and personal essays. She is the author of Sightlines, a collection of linked stories set in small-town Saskatchewan, and the novel The Art of Salvage. She is at work on two other novels and a collection of essays. Her essays have appeared in or are about to appear in Brick Magazine, Prairie Fire, The New Quarterly and enRoute. She lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.


Mar 082015


The cuckoo flower.

“Oh, that one’s bad luck if you take it into the house,” my mother said, so we left it where it showed four pink petals and a greeny yellow heart.

The devil’s bit scabious.

“No,” my mother said, examining the bluish purple blossom.  “I don’t know what it’s called either.”

I learned cowslip, white clover, oat-grass, creeping buttercup, meadow barley, meadowsweet and – floating at the tranquil edges of the croaking, churning quagmire – watercress and forget-me-not. When it came to the rarest Callows flower, bell-shaped and creamy white and hidden among the prevailing browns and greens, I would have to wait, as with the devil’s bit scabious, until a book identified the “summer snowflake”.

I hungered for books but books were scarce in our house.  Though my mother appreciated the value of books, money was often too short to afford them and the nearest library an inconvenient eight miles away, in Loughrea.  I made do for a long time with a huge tome called Flaming Flamingos that my uncle Mattie had brought.  All of nature seemed contained in that book.  The Camargue, Lake Nakuru, the Orinoco, that book whetted my hunger.  It widened my thought even if I often got stuck in the mud of its ornithological intent.  Over time it grew shabby and dog-eared and its spine broke.  Finally someone must have fecked it into the fire while I wasn’t looking.  But still it lingered even as I walked the Callows with my mother and the flamingos lit up those river meadows in my imagination.

The Callows was big when I was small.  It flooded or was supposed to flood in spring and autumn.  Flooding is too strong a word.  It stayed dry on higher areas and even in winter offered more a splashy sheet of wetness than a flood.  It held marshy tracts as well but we and the handful of neighbours who shared it always called it Callows and this, together with its four rivers, made it one.  I’m certain that the further back I go into my childhood, the slobbier, wetter, more unstable the Callows becomes.

Callows 1

It was entirely treeless apart from a few diminutive blackthorn bushes nibbled by the wind as much as by any grazing animal.  Its rivers, too small to carry names, trickled beyond their banks in some places but in others made me gawp at the force of the fresh current that linked them to the main river flowing across Foxhall Little and away outside the reach of my thoughts.

Several harsh-throated, drab-plumed birds depended on the Callows.  Greenland geese flying in V shape made weary-sounding, high-pitched cries and the creaking of their wings – together with their feral smell – filled my head.  Shyer than my mother’s geese, they wheeled their large white-fronted bodies about and chose to land well away from where I stood.  Whooper swans stuck out their black and yellow beaks, hissing a warning as I skirted the turlough.  Golden plovers, more white than gold, reeled in flocks, resembling miniature pieces of flickering litter as their bodies caught the sunlight.  Wild ducks, the males with their vivid plumage, dipped and dabbled.  The corncrake broadcast his arrival in late spring by “serenading” the world night after night, his voice harsher than two rusty nails being scraped together.

Some birds stayed all year.  The curlew rose almost straight up and made me feel melancholy by the way he called his own name as he glided back to earth.  The sound of the snipe’s drumming tail-feathers always stopped me in my tracks, and his zigzag flight easily deceived my eye.  The skylark dwindled to a heavenly dot, singing as he rose.

“Closer, closer,” the quagmire croaked when my mother let me go alone.  I would step and thrill and step until my wellingtons got stuck.  More than once I had to scramble back or even to step out of them in order to escape.  I gave up this game the day one wellington slowly filled with mud and sank without trace.

Callows 3

The Callows became a kind of outback to which I could escape and go walkabout.  I never felt less lonely than when alone there.  Often I felt sad as a child, the sadness of disappointment.  I wondered what the disappointment was.  Maybe, I told myself, it involved the waiting that had to happen before I could do the ‘great thing’ for which I had been born and would be remembered.  Maybe it included the worry of being responsible for this great achievement, the nature of which I had not the least inkling.

Mostly I tried to coax the sadness to behave itself the way I might Jack, our jet-black pony, a kicker and a biter.  Everyone must carry the disappointment that is part of them, I decided.  But in the Callows the disappointing mope in my heart would shrink and I’d find exhilaration by sprinting barefoot and fast.  A salt taste tanged my mouth and heat rose behind my ears; sometimes a stitch jabbed at my heart.  Later, a similar abandon erupted in fights with other boys – the thrill of landing a telling blow, of ending a pent-up frustration.  In my teens the drumbeat and the squawking of an electric guitar across the darkness from the dance carnival at Mullagh Cross also tapped into this sensation as powerful and primal and worth bringing on.

The Callows let me live in the moment and the moment could run and run until I completely forgot myself or, for that matter, other people’s opinions of me.  I was in my own manner “forgetting human words”, as W. B. Yeats said of Synge.  I see now that I didn’t have even the most basic sense of how to care for myself.  I went without a coat in rain or frost no matter how often my mother might advise me to wear one.  The cold and the wet and the pain served as balm against the sadness I felt.  They couldn’t stop me from exulting each time I sprinted and turned and sprinted again.

Years later, when I was a young teacher, I worked with boys who reminded me of myself as a child.  They, too, went without.  Some, unlike me, lived in utter poverty or wilful neglect.  Others suffered a lack of physical affection similar to my own.  Cold and hunger were second nature to them.  They had far more genuine excuses for being difficult or disruptive than I ever had – but I still recognise the boy I was, the boy who thought himself king of the Callows and who would happily have thrown away the blanket of mist and the cold kiss of a frog for the touch of human warmth that wasn’t given – not out of any meanness on the part of my parents, for they didn’t have a scrap of meanness in them, but because in the way of that time such things just weren’t done.

My need deepened as I grew older.  At first I cycled to and from St. Brendan’s College in Loughrea.  Cycling meant breezes and drenchings, but I refused to wear an overcoat.  Cycling also meant avoidance of talk, especially with girls.  And when the bus took the place of the bike, the driver – lamp-headed, incandescently so – said go up the road to Castlenancy or I won’t stop for you.  There they were – the girls, their long hair shining and the shape of their breasts and thighs suggested behind the ruck and pucker of convent uniforms.  I stole looks at them, racked my brain trying to think of something smart to say.  If I could only speak the first sentence… but no, I looked away again, stayed dumb for five years, give or take, and the girls stayed dumb with me.

“Look down,” the wet meadow whispered.

Black oily goo oozed from a wound in one place, while in another a seepage of glorious rusty orange happened.  I saw feathers scattered where a fox or hawk had struck, and a crow standing on a dead sheep’s head, trying to lever out its eye.  I didn’t wonder about ugliness or beauty, cruelty or compassion, or if I did the Callows wasn’t bothered.

Nor was it bothered when one spring a group of about twenty men arrived with nets – an extensive network of nets – and used thin rods to set them in place in the shape of a huge, open-mouthed pen.  The men spread out along the perimeter of the Callows and beat the vegetation, shooing and hallooing.  Hares rose and ran ahead of them until eventually there was a drove of maybe a hundred hares.  These were flocked into the pen, where they frantically scrabbled against the netting even as it closed on them.  They would be used at coursing events in various country towns where most, if not all of them, would be torn asunder by competing hounds.

I felt powerless.  The big world couldn’t be kept away.  Its entertainments were the same as its hungers: they required to be fed.  A small dread started in me there.  The future would happen, changing everything, including myself.  I understood at some basic level that I would have to leave when the future came.  My only solution was to immerse myself ever more deeply in the Callows.

Callows 5

At each visit I would lift the large flat stone that lay at the Callows’ edge.  There I might find a slug the colour of a lemon drop, a centipede that resembled a frazzled piece of twine, or a harvestman taking slow, articulated steps as if he were a flimsy wound-up toy.  They couldn’t stand the light of day and maybe that’s why I loved them – they were shyer even than me.

Then I would enter the cold, queasy pottage of what I would later describe in a poem as “land aspiring to be water; water wanting to be land”.  It had the raw look of a place still beginning.  It didn’t hold out much hope of anything remarkable.  But if you leaned into it, if you stayed quiet enough for long enough, its creatures would forget you and make free.  So I heard the pheasant hiccoughing as though drunk with sunset, and I found the eels – collectively if implausibly known as “a fry” – slithering their way across the waterland.

One evening I dug below the dank mat of roots and soil and clutched up a fistful of white dripping clay.  It was marl, but I didn’t know that then.  Slowly I crumpled its gritty sponge and found isolated on my palm three small egg-shaped shells.  Smooth and whorled and beautiful to my eye but, after holding onto them for a day or two, I gave them to my mother.  She could hardly have looked happier if I had given her a pearl necklace.

“Maybe the Callows was a lake,” she suggested.  “Maybe water snails lived there long ago.”

“But when was that?”

“Oh, not since Adam was a boy.”

She let the shells drop into the torn pocket of her apron where she assured me they would be safe, and I have no recollection of her ever mentioning them beyond that.

Callows 4

The Callows stayed with me long after I’d grown up and “become sensible”.  Its landscape turned into thought.  I wanted to preserve its sights and sounds and smells the way I tried to restrain three pheasants in a furze clump once, “flocking” them with my hands for several minutes until finally they burst upwards past my chest and face to escape.  Nearly four decades later I recalled

the marl excavations: white, with small
tell-tale shells remembering a lake
where the Callows found its first
foothold – and where your heart’s pangs
are shallow waves, breaking still.

My mother had become old and enfeebled now, laid up in Portiuncula Hospital after yet another stroke, one more sweeping of the ground from under her.  I had drawn the bed curtain across, sat with her through the night.  I stayed awake listening to her breath, her scraping restlessness, and staring at the Callows meadow scene painted on the curtain itself.  Flowers aplenty there, patches of water, tall grasses.

Towards dawn I held her wrist while the doctor clumsily took blood.  Some blood squirted from his syringe onto the curtain where it formed a black flower among the lightening colours of the wetland meadow – one more beauty to add to the forty plus species per square metre that river meadows are capable of supporting.  I thought of the many walks she and I had taken together.  And I found myself wishing for the shells back, or maybe for the moment of offering them to her again.

—Patrick Deeley

patrick-deeleyPatrick Deeley via Five Glens Arts Festival

Patrick Deeley was born in Loughrea, Co. Galway in 1953, and currently lives in Dublin.  His poetry collections published by Dedalus Press include Intimate Strangers (1986), Names For Love (1990), Turane: the Hidden Village (1995), Decoding Samara (2001), The Bones of Creation (2008) and Groundswell: New and Selected Poems (2013).  He is the recipient of a number of bursaries and poetry prizes, and translations of his work to French and Italian have come from Alidades Press and Kolibris Edizione respectively. “A Callows Childhood” is an extract from a memoir, The Hurley-Maker’s Son. His personal website is here.


Mar 052013

Rich baseball


It is August 11, 1978. A humid morning succumbs to another blistering New England afternoon. Potbellied cumuli gather low on the horizon in an otherwise pristine cobalt sky. Colleen is twelve, three years my senior, an insurmountable chasm of days standing between us. I am already madly in love with her. She lives next door on Walter Street in Worcester, Massachusetts. For fifteen years, our bedroom windows will stare unblinkingly at one another across ten yards of space. Blue eyes (of course), a demure grin, tan legs, and a habit of staring straight through me when she speaks. From time to time, a tiny cluster of heat blisters forms on her lower lip like a welcoming galaxy.

“Can Ritchie walk to the store with me?” Colleen asks my mother. We are standing in my small kitchen. My sister is playing on the floor. Golden light leans through the screen windows. My memory paints this moment like a Vermeer.

There must be a split second of panic for my mother as she decides. The store is a mile away and I’ve never walked this far without an adult before. Colleen’s request challenges the very frontiers of a boy’s permissible geography. Is this okay? Even I don’t know the answer. But I am praying, pleading in silence, for my mother to say yes.

Why Colleen requests me to accompany her confuses me beyond logic, though I’m wise enough not to interrogate such confusion. After a long pause, my mother slips a dollar into my hand and tells me to be careful. A tether snaps.

While we are gone, Colleen’s father will suffer a massive heart attack and die in their living room. The margins of childhood will be forever defined by this hour-long walk to the store and back. And though I will be only a peripheral actor, a bit player in this tragedy, Mr. Gearin’s death will haunt me, too. This hour, even today, stands in sharp relief to almost every other.

Anne Carson writes, “We live by tunneling for we are people buried alive.” Why do we continue to tunnel? Why don’t  we simply breathe in the dirt and forget? Are we digging for meaning? For connection? Salvation?

In childhood, the exceptions stood out. The most vivid days were the occasional ones, when routines snapped and I was estranged from the habits of life. Maybe I’m tunneling for these.

How an overnight storm piled snow beneath my bedroom window like huge pillows. The floor heater creaked as I woke and, with frigid feet, crawled to the window. There, below me, was a landscape transformed. I climbed back into bed and listened to the whip of snow against window, my mother turning a radio in the kitchen. I held my breath until I heard: school or no school.

Or the summer day when I was five and the Fowlers’ house was struck by lightning. It was my mother’s birthday and we were next door. Colleen was there, Kelly, Cathy, Shawn, and Mrs. Gearin. Our fathers were at work. An awful boom rattled the walls. We raced to the front door and gazed into the street. The facade of the gray, two-story house literally had ripped away from its frame, so that I could see into the upstairs bedroom, as if looking into a life-sized dollhouse. A fireman leaned out from the smoldering second story, inspecting the damage. The black sky snapped again. Terrified, I reached for my mother’s hand.


RichJen on couch

Colleen’s father has given her money for a handful of things. Bread, butter, a carton of milk. We follow long meandering sidewalks past the houses we know. Walter Street could double as a Dublin phone book: Baxter, Doherty, Farrell, Fowler, Gearin, McCarthy, Murphy. We curl down Paradox Drive, moving silently in front of the Bermans’ brick house, Elkinds, Jacobsons, and Flannagans. Past Sansoucy’s quarry. When we turn left onto Beaconsfield Road, we enter a terra incognita. The same songbirds chirp and the same shade cools our skin, but these front doors are unfamiliar.

What do we talk about on the journey out? If there’s a cruelty to time, it’s the erasures, the things we lose. What does Colleen wear that day? What does her voice sound like? I forget the name of purple wildflowers that we pinch between our fingers. I forget even the name of the store we are walking toward.  But I remember feeling grown up beside her. I remember how easy it is talking with Colleen, and the strangeness of this sensation, because, at nine years old, shyness and silence are my default positions around girls. What mixture of tenderness and warmth does Colleen radiate that gives me the confidence to be myself? How does she draw me out?  A word comes to mind: grace.

Twenty minutes speed past and we enter the store. A blast of air conditioning cools our sweat, brings a relief like water. We separate here, me to spend my dollar and Colleen to gather things for her father, who, at that very second, is taking his last breath.

Thomas Wolfe writes, “O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” What ghost returns? What orients the jurisdiction of memory?  Why is time as ungainly as the growing feet on a young boy?

I had a happy childhood.

Under certain wind conditions, I could smell Mrs. Sheedy’s simmering marinara sauce from two doors down. I watched the same wind turn elm leaves from green to silver as a storm approached. The sky seemed endless, full of possibilities. White vapor trails rulered across the blue as jets descend into Logan or, further south and east, into JFK. I identified them all, a taxonomy of flight: 747, L-1011 and DC-9. The planes’ contrails were as distinctive to me as faces, as nicknames.

Nicknames were a mark of respect on Walter Street. Orson, Shed, Burger, McMurphy, Sadness, Bessie. The “Big Kids” were teenagers when I was nine. They watched out for me with a tolerance and concern that, even now, seems uncommon. Somewhere along the way, they christened me ‘Head’. To have a nickname at nine amongst teenagers felt like a laurel wreath, a brass trophy with arms upraised on a pillar of marble.

Our families were Irish and Italian, Catholic and Jewish. We stood a single rung above blue collar. We shared the liminal space of upward mobility: close enough to the mills of the BlackstoneValley to still smell the grease but far enough out for new bikes and above ground swimming pools. Life was intuitive, and instincts of the body overruled the brain.



Colleen and I meet back near the cash registers. Inexplicably, my father appears. He stands in line with us. He is on his way home from work and he offers us a ride.

“I’ve got to grab a couple of pizzas first,” he says. “I’ll take you guys home if you want.”

Why do I decline my father’s offer? How do I know this is the right thing? How do I know that a half-hour walk with a twelve year-old girl contains more mystery than the convenience of a ride on a hot day?

I follow Colleen up Pleasant Street. Cars whir past. It is a Friday afternoon and people are heading home early. We move past our school, the red-bricked Tatnuck Elementary, dormant for a few weeks more. Colleen will start middle school in the fall. I will be going into fourth grade.

We turn the corner, cut through the fire station driveway, and then begin to climb back up Beaconsfield Road. When it snows, this stretch of road is the most treacherous. Potholes and cracked humps of concrete mar the surfaces. Someone is sealing a driveway. The smell of asphalt rises on a breeze.

Surely I am aware of Colleen, of the proximity of her, though I have no idea what to do with such feelings yet. We ascend the steepest half of the road, past run-down American Four Squares, freshly painted Tudors and CapeCods, all of them inhaling this summer day through open front doors.

Our legs straining, Colleen points to a path and we take it. The three years between us have widened her intimacy with place. She knows the paths, the shortcuts, better than I do. One more hill before home, this one through a wooded boundary between the neighborhoods. We are in shade, beneath a verdant stand of tall trees, following a footpath.

“The point of departure must be unyielding despair,” Pattiann Rogers writes.  “We start from the recognition of that point to build the soul’s habitation.” Was this the work we were doing that day—building a habitation for our future souls? Why did the walk have to end? Why couldn’t we have just kept going, beyond our homes, back out into the woods?

Other days come back. I’d gone fishing with my friends at Cook’s Pond. Tony, Chris, Randy, Dean, Eric, Glenn, Mark. We baited our hooks with worms and watched orange and white bobbers float across the dark surface. A bobber sank. Someone hauled a fish ashore. We stood around rejoicing the catch until Glenn stuffed a lit firecracker in the perch’s gaping mouth. The slimy fish flopped in the dirt as we all laughed, waiting for the bang. But the wet wick fizzled out. Our curiosity about the world was confused, mixed with a cruelty we all assumed we would forget. Not to be deterred by failure, we grabbed an insulin needle from Mark’s lunch pail and began injecting fruit punch into the fish’s spine. It didn’t die, but contorted into a palsied horror. The fish’s back curled around, an anguished arch that I’ve never forgotten. We slipped the deformed creature back into the pond and watched as it corkscrewed into the depths, blowing up tiny bubbles.

My grandfather taught me to fish. My first catch was a ten-inch bass that I wrapped in plastic and kept in my freezer for six months as some sort of morbid trophy. My grandfather also gave me a brass 20mm cartridge from a ship in the war. A Japanese Zero had strafed their deck. Navy guns fired back.

“I saw a captured Jap pilot once,” he told me. “The little guy was shaking. He thought the Americans were going to chop off his head. He didn’t speak a word of English, but he asked for a cigarette.”

My grandfather placed two fingers up to his mouth and made a puffing sound with his lips. Why does this memory return so clearly?

The first model I ever built was a 1/48 scale Japanese Zero. It took a week to assemble, from start to finish, but the shiny Japanese fighter plane never measured up to the one pictured on the box cover. Globs of glue piled up at every joint. Thick brushstrokes of silver paint defaced the wings and fuselage. One of the orange ‘rising sun’ decals tore down the center. Still, I was damn proud of completing it.

In time, my bedroom became a crowded menagerie of airplanes in flight. Suspended on monofilament fishing thread, an F-4 Phantom, loaded with heat-seeking missiles, banked left. An A-10 Thunderbolt, gear down, lined up on short final over my bed. A Russian Mig-21, red Soviet stars on its tail, climbed out on patrol.


Grampa Tisdell

Colleen brushes back thorny bramble as the path continues. We are almost home now, just a few hundred yards left. We cross the Edinburghs’ front lawn, and slip through their side yard. The grass is worn flat and gray-brown. The path skirts along the edge of the Deans’ house with their lush gardens. A red, wide-plank fence defines the yards. The Deans own the florist’s shop in Tatnuck Square. Every year at Halloween, the Edinburghs pass out nickels while the Deans pass out baskets of treats, whole candy bars, caramel apples wrapped in red cellophane. From here the path jogs right, behind the Markowitzs’ house. They have a two story game room that I’m never allowed inside. Once, I left a banana peel in their yard by accident. Mrs. Markowitz knocked on the front door, insisted I come back and retrieve it.

Wild flowers and tall grass gives way to a copse of white-barked birch trees into the Sheedys’ backyard. Mr. Sheedy is an air-traffic controller. His wife loves Elvis Presley. They have a son, an old dog, but no car. Yellow taxis take them to the grocery store, to work.

Are we still talking as we approach the Bessettes’ huge front lawn? The Bessettes are my neighbors on the other side. They were the original family on Walter Street. A large field, remnant of the original farms, wraps behind our backyards. Crab apple trees line the field. Once, they planted and sold Christmas trees in the field, a whole grove of evergreens like a perpetual holiday.

Colleen and I stop in the shade of a flickering birch. We are so close to the end. The air smells humid, the afternoon light beginning to soften.

Emerson writes, “All loss, all pain, is particular; the universe remains to the heart unhurt.” Loss radiates out from the center of this moment. The innocence that is Childhood cannot escape unharmed, despite what Emerson says.

In front of us is an ambulance in the street, lights flashing. A fire truck idles further down. There is an indecipherable second before either Colleen or I can register what’s happening.

We inch forward. The distance from where we spot the flashing lights to my front door is no more than thirty yards. To cross this ninety feet of space is to cross a galaxy.

Perhaps the great shame is that I only think of myself. Is the emergency at my house? Who is the ambulance for? I feel a twinge of relief when I realize that whatever is happening, is happening next door. I’ve forgotten that Colleen is just inches away.

Why don’t I take her hand? Why don’t I at least say something? Of course, I am nine. What possible words do I possess?

The most amazing thing is that we keep walking. In lock-step almost. Neither one of us breaks into a run. Neither one of us thinks to turn around. We simply walk forward in silence.

In the driveway is my father, still in his work clothes. Half the neighborhood stands together on my front lawn. The scene appears almost festive except no one is talking. No one is smiling. They all turn toward us as we approach, but no one speaks.

We come astride my front steps. Colleen stops, but I keep walking toward my father. He is, of course, safety. He can orient the confusion for me. A second later, Cathy, Colleen’s older sister, appears in my front door. Her face is red and swollen. My mother is standing behind her.

“What is it?” Colleen asks. She is so brave then, standing alone, apart from the rest. Just a twelve-year-old girl asking for an explanation.

“It’s Daddy,” Cathy says to her from behind the screen.  “He’s dead.”

Then my mother does what I’ve failed to do. She comes down the stairs and takes Colleen in her arms, brings her inside. The screen door closes. I stand next to my father and the others in the driveway. We watch and wait.


Richie 1

Chekhov writes, “Happiness is something we never have, but only long for.”  I disagree.  I’m certain that I had a happy childhood. But perhaps happiness can only be understood when it’s held up against sadness. Contrast defines and focuses the feeling, and this happens slowly, after decades. On that bright summer afternoon, I learned something about love and joy, something about death and sadness. I caught a glimpse of life that I have never forgotten.

I walked a mile from my home with a girl I loved. Neither one of us knew what that walk would mean. We never could have guessed at the way world would suddenly change by the end.  And more than any other, that single hour taught me about the precarious, precious and magical nature of being alive. How it can turn in an instant. How we never know what’s waiting.

Childhood was an island unto itself, sacred, broken, pure. Those days were both a paradise and a prison, as all such islands must be. Memory was the penance, forgetting the sin. I’ve left out so much. So much has disappeared, like, cumulus clouds and the smell of asphalt on a summer afternoon. To snare even the outline of such things demands the habits of organized lunacy.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell

Richard Farrell is  the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of Vermont College of Fine Arts students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including short stories, memoir, craft essays, interviews, and book reviews, has been published or is forthcoming at Hunger Mountain, upstreet, A Year in Ink Anthology, Descant, New Plains Review and Numéro Cinq. He lives in San Diego.

For more NC Childhood essays visit our Childhood page.


Jan 012013

  Me at the age 4, having just finished a violin lesson. Circa 1985.

New Year’s Day, the beginning of  Numéro Cinq‘s fourth year of publication — we have a lovely example of a set essay, a beautiful, poignant, shocking evocation of a Manhattan childhood from Tiara Winter-Schorr. NC publishes three set essays: Childhood, What It’s Like Living Here and My First Job. And by set essay, I mean an essay written to our guidelines, not exactly free form (though, of course, in the hands of a terrific writer the set essay always departs in imaginative ways from its guideline roots). We have had some wonderful results from this project. See the slider at the top of the page for more stellar examples of the Childhood series. And don’t forget that Melissa Fisher’s “My First Job” won the $1,000 3 Quark’s Daily Arts & Literature Prize in 2012. After you read Tiara’s latest contribution, take the time to browse the set essay archives and see what our contributors have accomplished.



Prologue: Exile in the City

My story begins when my grandfather slaps my pregnant 19-year-old mother to the ground in the backyard of his house on Smith Street in Glens Falls, NY. She is carrying my brother and engaged to a black man she met at college. My grandfather is a decorated World War II soldier who weds himself to German pride and American patriotism. He knocks my mother back into the muddy spring earth when she reminds him that her own mother is Filipina and his marriage is interracial. My grandmother sits on a swing, silent but crying. The child doesn’t deserve to live, he says. Get out, he says.

Days later she is in New York City, noticing that the sky here is never a uniform shade of black but rather a deep red shot through by light from yellow street lamps. She moves through the whole city in a span of nearly 40 years. My brother and I are both born in different corners of the city, but he dies in Glens Falls near Smith Street, on his first visit home, the first time the family has tried to remember itself since his birth. Almost a decade has passed. A day comes during this reunion when he is biking down a dead-end street with our cousins and is killed by a man named Ralph Midgette who is drunk behind the wheel of his vehicle. My grandfather uses his army training to run a heart pump, trying to keep my brother alive. My brother dies three days later. At Ralph’s trial, my mother asks the court for leniency because his wife will be left alone to support five children. The court grants her request.

My mother returns to the city under a red night sky to begin another period of exile, one of grief and searching. Four years later, I am a clump of cells stuck to her insides and her search is ended. She waits for me and walks through Times Square on nights when I do not stop kicking. She teaches me the city streets by the rhythm of her muffled footsteps.



I am born during an autumn storm, the kind that is composed of continuous rumbling thunder and spurts of lightening. My mother’s water breaks in bed and I am born in a flash, in less than an hour. I sleep in a bassinet next to her hospital bed instead of in the nursery down the hall with other babies. She lives only for her children but she is also an art teacher, a photographer, a runner, and a reluctant wife. My father is an art professor, a painter, a writer, and an asthmatic.

Love is always fresh between them, the kind of freshness that makes a tone of voice warm even in the coldest of times. Over the years, they pass me artifacts of their love: a gemstone belt buckle from my mother, a silver ring with the sign of Christ from my father, stacks of photographs that also seem to be memories.

My parents — Justin Schorr and Sharon Winter (holding me as a one-year-old) — 1982

Is he your real father?

People ask this rudely before I am old enough to understand. Yes, he is real from the time I am born, mopping his paint-splattered floor 17 times before my mother arrives home with me.  He puts his name on me and my birth certificate so he will never be reduced to a step-father.  At night he sings to me in a flat voice that is all gravel and we dance across the living room until I rub my eyes into his neck, fighting sleep. He has a sharp smell that hangs around him, a mix of turpentine for his work and peppermint candies for his indigestion.  His canvasses cover the white walls, mazes of color, gobs of paint like gems and smears of nameless shades.

My mother straps me to her chest and we move from the darkroom to the bedroom to the kitchen, where steam from the pots and pans make me sweat. I remember straining my neck to watch her hands develop film in one room or chop vegetables in another. Eventually, always listening, she turns me facing outward so I can watch. I am probably a year old by now. I become fascinated with watching by the time I am two. She gives me my first camera, a black plastic Olympus with a sliding lens door, when I am two and a half. I take pictures of her from the ground up, so she is enormous like a towering religious statue.

Home is 106 Morningside Drive, a building sitting at the top of a long hill which rises above Harlem. Apartment 83 is half art studio, half home. The hallway is an endless passage that leads into a jungle. The jungle is actually a double living room with an archway that is entirely obscured by plants. Six-foot trees lean into wandering Jews that snake down into the wide leaves of a dumbcane. Then there is a green creature with leaves like giant four-leaf clovers that can cover me entirely when I am two. A palm tree bends against the ceiling, entangled with a wall of green leaves and reaching plants. The wall of deep and light green leaves separate the double living room and takes a space large enough that I can disappear in the greenery.

I learn to run like my mother. I use her white cowboy boots and round sunglasses to do it. The boots are stiff, too stiff to let my knees bend but I run anyway and I keep running the passage until I fall. I do it again. The hallway is also lined with my father’s paintings, gargantuan squares of pastel color and splashes of white and black. They are secure, like him, stuck down solidly and easy to use as a way to steady myself during a burst of running. My mother stands at the end of the hall every day, ready to help me put the boots back on or carry me away after a bad fall.

I do not hear my parents argue until I am at least ten years old, but my father moves out when I am three and does not return home until he is nearing the end of his life.



My mother and I walk relentlessly because we both have jumpy, energetic legs accustomed to sprinting. We start at Mondel’s Chocolates. The darkness under the awning is always deceptive, a bit scary but also enticing because of the window overstuffed with all three kinds of chocolates, the milky kind that slides easily to the back of my throat, the dark kind that puckers my mouth as if it is lemon, and the silky white kind that is too sweet and smells like vanilla. Rows of these multi-colored candies rise above my head so far that I can tilt my head back until I am dizzy and still see more rows of raspberry-drizzled chocolates and truffles decorated with tiny red flowers made of sugar frosting. To one side are the stacks of chocolate and to my other side is a tower of stuffed animals like jungle animals tied to a skyscraper. Gorillas at the top and tigers at the bottom are large enough to almost frighten me, but the smell of melting dark chocolate that hangs persistently is a constant reminder that this place traffics in magic and wonder. Kaleidoscopes hang at different angles from the ceiling, the paper kind that shoots simple patterns of color toward your eye and the glass kind with crystal that spins out the most intricate patterns your childish eye can detect. The world fragments into a million pieces and comes together again in shifting sequences of light and color. Look into a kaleidoscope and you are down the rabbit hole, the smell of liquid chocolate in your nose and the constantly shifting patterns of light and dark, candies and tigers and odd flashes of colored glass that tumble toward your eye like gemstones.

"Wonderland"                  Mondel's Homemade Chocolates, NYC 1985Mondel’s Homemade Chocolates, NYC 1985

Kevin is a homeless man who haunts the streets between Morningside Drive and the lower sections of Broadway around Columbia University. He sings. I am holding my mother’s hand, leaving Mondel’s, and I hear a deep sound like I only hear on the rare occasions we go to church. He is a tiny man in dark clothes that are torn in different places. I remember his shoulder being exposed to the cold sunlight. My mother drops my hand to search her pockets for money as he keeps singing. The tone is as soothing as the lingering smell of melted chocolate. I see Kevin again on these walks and eventually in front of the building where I live. One year, my mother brings him upstairs to give him a piece of my birthday cake and he sings again, this time happy birthday. Days before, he intervenes between her and a potential rapist as she arrives home late from work. I know unspoken rules are broken when she brings this man into our building but I am proud and his voice takes me back to Mondel’s that cold day and the warmth of my mother’s hands.

Sometimes we stop for wings and fries at The West End Gate, an expansive dive bar where William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg notoriously performed on a regularly drunken basis. The tables are etched by knife carvings that have dates I cannot fathom, like 1968 and 1977. I remember tracing my finger into the carvings and listening to stories of poets who used to spit lines of lyrical obscenity on a small raised platform in the back of the dive. It is a place of old poems and mysterious men and loaded nachos. It is a continuous fall down the rabbit hole and into wonderland. The world opens into a kaleidoscope of shadows, colors, banquets of candies, and long concrete streets dotted with homeless singers and lost poets.



My father teaches art and architecture at Columbia University, a sprawling red-brick and white limestone array of structures. My mother earns her doctorate here so the campus is a constant in my life, coloring more memories than I can count. The lawns and open plaza with two overwhelming fountains that spout water straight into the air and back into a surrounding pool are two places on campus that substitute for a backyard. All the faculty children play here, running the noisy and shaky ramp meant for wheelchairs and pulling brightly colored flowers from the manicured grounds. I find my place at the edge of the fountains because here ladybugs collect and frequently drown. I remember bursts of red flowers, so distant from my perch on the fountain’s edge. The red shells of the ladybugs are more compelling and my favorite pastime becomes rescuing the water-logged and semi-conscious creatures from the fountain.

 "Borderland" Columbia University, circa 1987Columbia University, circa 1987

One autumn I bring home a rescued ladybug even though my father tells me it is dead. I keep its tiny body in a box my mother gives me. The box has a tan seashell as a top, and it is lined with mirrors on the inside and mother-of-pearl on the outside. The motionless ladybug lay there on the windowsill through a blizzard and then a thaw. When the air is warm enough, I open the box. I blink, and the ladybug vanishes. Maybe it blew out the window, my father says. Ladybugs hibernate, says my mother. She has flown away with the spring air.

Columbia sits at the border of Harlem and also slightly above it, perched at a higher elevation. This means that Harlem is first a picture out of my living room window. The late 1980s in Harlem means rows and rows of burn-out buildings. Police sirens and the Mr. Softee ice cream truck jingle are sounds from below that slip in through open windows. The windowsill is a place to sit because at night there are fires burning in the park that separates our small area from Harlem. During the day, you can see into the park and it looks like a vast and desolate wilderness. In fact, in the 1980s, it is a kind of no-man’s land reserved for junkies and homeless people. Not many people cross this border but one day I am sitting on the windowsill and three shots ring out. Suddenly my mother is there and I am carried away. Later, I hear my mother and my father talk about the black Exeter student from Harlem who was killed by a police officer for no clear reason other than the fact that he had crossed the park and started walking up toward the university. The rationale behind his killing remains controversial, a symbol of the clash between an ivory tower and the forgotten ghetto beneath it.

"Borderland" View of Harlem in 1985, from the living room window of apt 83.View of Harlem in 1985, from the living room window of apt 83

Harlem is not just a place of fiery nights and distant gunshots. Harlem is also the manic bustle of 125th street, where motorized cars hang from toy store ceilings. My mother buys me one with whitewall tires, 1920s style. The smell of African incense and the roasting meat from street vendors is not the smell of melting chocolate like at Mondel’s. This is the smell of the street, food and religion and grease all rising from the pavement. There are men like Kevin who live in the street but none of them sing when we pass by.

The last time I remember seeing Kevin I am coming down a winding staircase of a building that belongs to Columbia. My mother is with me and when he sees her, he tell us both that the university guards arrested him for using the bathroom to pee and this is why he has been gone so long. I am ashamed when he says this even though my mother calls them pigs for taking him away. I am ashamed of the dangerous park and the clean white buildings and the guards in their blue suits that call me honey when I pass by to go to my father’s office.

The borderland that is Morningside Heights is a collision of poor and privileged during the mid to late 1980s, but apartment 83 with its jungle of plants and windows onto other worlds is still a place of quiet love.


Gems and Bones

The first time I see a six-foot amethyst geode I am standing in a darkened room surrounded by towering gems that have been carved out in the center like narrow caves. These gems are housed by The Museum of Natural History, a place my father brings me regularly so we can stare up at the gigantic stones. Above us in a room as bright as the gem room is dark, a skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus Rex is encircled by a metal gate as if he might escape. I am four years old and easily able to imagine a time when monsters roamed the earth but the bones are bleached white and held together by shiny chrome screws, like the skeleton hanging in my mother’s darkroom. My father and I ride the escalator between the gems and the bones, going back and forth to examine each. The dark purple hues of the amethyst and the striped green malachite are like his paintings, except the colors to do not crash and collide like they do on canvas.

 "Gems and Bones" My mother's darkroom, 1984My mother’s darkroom, 1984

My father’s smell of turpentine and oil paint comes from his hours locked away in a painting studio at the university. I visit him there a few times, shocked and delighted by the way he splashes paint at the canvas and by the way his balding head and calloused hands are spattered with color specks when he is done. There are rows and rows of wooden easels, some cracked and repaired and others freshly varnished. This is his factory, a place where his smell becomes the smell of art and safety, where canvasses appear and are hung like smashed geodes mounted on the walls.

My mother’s darkroom doesn’t scare me, even though the light is pure red most the time and the skeleton hangs in the corner against a black velvet background. The jaw is loose so she lifts me up and I snap it open and closed, as if bones can come alive and speak. I name him “skellie” and soon my mother is teaching me to develop film, shaking canisters and watching images appear like magic as the chemicals seep into the paper. The darkroom makes me dream of gypsies because of tarot cards pinned to the walls and the clutter of religious items. Pictures of my late uncle and late brother are scattered about and here in the darkroom is where I begin to learn about my brother’s death. The red light colors everything. My mother’s hair looks almost black. Family stories sound like magic tales about long-lost people. She plays Stevie Wonder songs as we work, and when we leave the darkroom, the plain white light of the living room is like wandering out of Wonderland and into reality.



My grandmother goes by “nannie,” the name French children use for their grandmothers. She doesn’t want to be called grandma. The French excuse comes up when I am fifteen and I am bold enough to ask why I cannot call her grandma. I want something irrevocable, some variant of grandmother. It is late in her life and we have fallen in love over mixed drinks and shopping trips and manicures during her rebellious months-long trips to visit me and my mother. She tells me lifetimes of stories, the life she lived as a wife and the life as a violinist denied to her.

"Violin".      My grandmother, Virginia de Borse, circa 1921My grandmother, Virginia de Borse, circa 1921

The first time I try to learn to play the violin I am four and unhappy. I sit for a photo after the first lesson, scowling and frustrated by sore fingers. The teacher has forceful hands that pushed my fingers to reach the notes. That year my grandmother sends a miniature stuffed terrier with a note attached to his neck: “He is afraid of thunderstorms. He is lonely.” By this time my grandmother and I have met several times, but I never remember her afterwards. I remember the house on Smith Street. The attic. A violin she has refused to play since my uncle’s suicide and stories of lost chances to go study in New York City when she was young. The terrier sits near my violin at the top of my closet until the night of a storm that brightens the sky above Harlem with thick bolts of lightening like streaks of daylight breaking through. I watch from the living room window and then take the terrier out of the closet. I wonder if he is really lonely. You were born in a thunderstorm, my mother reminds me.

  Me at the age 4, having just finished a violin lesson. Circa 1985.Me at the age 4, having just finished a violin lesson. Circa 1985

The house on Smith Street smells like Avon products from my grandmother’s cache of beauty products and vanilla tobacco from my grandfather’s pipe. I am about four the first time we meet. He lifts me on to his lap while I struggle to tie my shoe, frightened that he is even bigger than my own father. He tells dirty jokes and tells me stories from the Old Testament. The details of the jokes are gone but the story of Jacob’s struggle to reconcile with God in place of his own brother is with me. My grandmother is a woman who sits behind a wall of silence, even when she giggles or rises to vacuum.

I find the attic hidden behind a door with a short flight of steps that are too steep for me. The attic is a place of living ghosts. The beams of the ceiling are exposed and cobwebbed but the lighting is bright and the stacks of clutter seem to have their own logic. I look down from the beams and see a wooden bench. He sits on it, a white plaster shell of a former person. His face is unpainted and expressionless, a face made of places where bones might protrude. Night in Glens Falls is blacker than the city and the window behind him throws my reflection back at me with his and we are doubled and I am scared. But not scared enough to run and I watch him in his hunched-over position. This is the closest I have come to a likeness of my Uncle David other than in photographs, which usually show a dark-skinned man cooking or wrapped around congo drums. I have seen plaster casts before in my parents’ art studio but nothing like this, nothing that captures the hollowness of a man whose death was ruled a suicide.

After learning the smells and finding the attic, I remember leaving Smith Street for the first time. I am afraid of my grandmother. We are eating dinner and the crack of her palm against my cousin’s cheek is like the gunshots I hear back in the city, but this is closer and this is my cousin who can punch numbers into the phone pad and make it ring back like magic. I remember the sound and feeling sick in my stomach. My mother’s voice was louder than the slap and angrier. I don’t remember when we left, only standing in the street facing my godmother while my mother and grandfather talked on the porch. My grandmother and cousin did not come out of the house. The day was cold, the kind of barren cold that sets in after Christmas when nearly every day is the sky is grey or white. My grandmother goes silent, along with my grandfather, for four years.

When I meet my grandmother again I am ten years old and I think of this attic in a home where she raised seven children and gave her hands over from music to ushering her children and grandchildren in and out of life. I am 15 before she ever mentions death to me and then it is only to say, “I live with it every day.” My grandfather is at her side when she says it and he nods but neither look at me.

By the time I am ten, my grandmother is living in central Florida, a lush overgrown place where alligators wander onto highways and lizards dart across sun-scorched grass. I visit with my mother twice, once taking a road trip down the east coast on our way. The sun toasts my skin two shades of darker each time I am there. My grandmother is quiet in Florida, nearly silent, just as she had been in Glens Falls. My grandfather still tells Old Testament stories, although now his mornings begin with whiskey. The house is sprawling and modular this time instead of brick. The southern sun pushes through every curtain until even shadows disappear. My grandmother wears black boots, pointy and shiny like a witch. She stares at them so much in her silences that I start to stare with her. She stares at them especially when my grandfather speaks. Gook, he says to her, and she never talks back. He says it one day when we are sealed indoors, hiding from 103 degrees of spring heat. I am hot and angry about this place where people use racial slurs and the heat does not relent for even a day. Where’d you learn to hate? I ask my grandfather. Why am I even in your house, old man? I think to myself. He waits for my mother to chastise me but she doesn’t. When he answers, he does not tell me why he hates:

At the height of my military career, I am an intelligence officer over a battalion of men. I make decisions in a split fraction of a second because men’s lives depend on me. One day I am guarding my camp and an Asian woman is pushing her baby carriage, back and forth, back and forth, over a bridge. As she passes, explosions begin that carry through the camp. I wait long enough to lose at least one man. When she is within sight, I stand up and shoot her in the head at long-range. I make sure the baby dies with her. I had to do it.

Days later, a storm takes Florida that is mythic in its darkness and battering rain. Tiny frogs stick to the windows with suction cup feet. I am afraid to go outside. I sit on my grandmother’s bed with her, her white German Shepherd, and my mother. I listen to her tell my mother that the war still lives in my grandfather so vividly that he has slept every night with a gun under his pillow since he came home in the 1940s. The gun points toward her head and does every night, she says, but she is also pulling out her violin as she talks. The antique violin, casketed in a peeling case she has kept since tenth grade, is made of wood so old that I count the tiny cracks along the edges when she opens the case. The story of being forbidden to attend Juilliard by her mother stays with me. She would not be a mother or a wife if she had been allowed to pursue music, she says. She promises to give me the violin then, and silently I pledge to learn to play.

The second time I try to play the violin I am using my grandmother’s instrument and she is flying between New York City and Florida with uncharacteristic bursts of independence. I am 15 and for a moment her silences are punctuated by the roar of engine jets and the squeaking of  her violin bow in my hands.  My grandfather makes one trip with her and lays a shotgun across my mother’s kitchen table. I wander in and out to get a snack before I realize what he is saying. No one will break my family up or take my wife, he is saying to my mother. The violin is yours, she is saying to me as she packs.

I never learn to play my grandmother’s violin. But it stays with me, always with me, shrouded in its case from 1935,  like a living memory. I am still exiled in New York City but also rooted here now, in this city where my grandmother was forbidden to go and where my mother was left to wander alone. When my grandmother leaves, passing her violin to me, I know I will never see her again.  And here, in accepting what is given to me, my childhood draws to a close.

—Tiara Winter-Schorr

Tiara Winter-Schorr


Tiara Winter-Schorr decided to become a writer 12 years ago in one of Douglas Glover’s classes at the University at Albany-SUNY. She received a BA in Creative Writing from Columbia University and is beginning an MFA in Fiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2013. She lives in Manhattan with her mother. See also her earlier essay “What It’s Like Living Here.”

Sep 242012

Tom Bauer, a Montreal writer, pens here a brief, poignant addition to the NC Childhood Series. Bauer’s writing is telegraphic and elliptical, yet he manages with few words to evoke the mind and memory of a child: the inexplicable nature of childhood, the mythic adults, the fear and confusion. The photo at the top seems iconic (the father looming, in focus); the one at the bottom moreso (the author inhabits only a corner of the picture looking dazed and uncertain). Lovely to add this to the collection.



I was born in the Misericordia Hospital in Winnipeg, 1963. We always had animals in the apartment at Roslyn Court: a skunk waddling along the long wooden hall, cats bounding on tables. My father taught animal behavior, my mother worked in a zoo.

My father liked to carry me around on his shoulders. I pulled his hair once so hard he cried. I was standing on the couch in his study. I’m not sure if he was genuinely hurt, or fake-crying, but I was afraid I’d hurt him. I felt sorry about it. I think I remember this because it jolted me with fear at the time.

My father liked to stand at one end of the long hall in the Roslyn apartments and send me to the other. He’d open his arms and shout “Tovarich!” and I’d run down the hall into his arms. It was one of my favorite things.

My father was German and his voice was sharp, his accent rough. In his study was a wooden Afghan stool made of yellow leather, a tripod stool. His chess set, which I still have, contains a roll-up chess mat made of vinyl. The pieces are large and wooden.

His books smell of cigarette smoke. I looked through them all throughout childhood, memories for each: issues of Avant Garde, books of cartoons by Mordillo, the drawings of Heinrich Kley. He had a big record collection with Indian music and spoken word recordings of various poets, and liked to cook curry and burn incense. There were always pungent smells, cooking oil and cigarette smoke, the smell of empty beer bottles.

At night I would sometimes sneak out and eat brown sugar from the bowl on the kitchen table and watch the woman across the way taking a bath. I got in trouble for things like that, getting out of bed, getting into mischief. They tied me in my crib when I was little. I don’t remember that, unless unconsciously, in my limbs, the occasional anxiety passing through. They told me about that later.

I remember looking out the window waiting for my mother to get home. It is getting dark, sunset on the river, an evening view from five floors up. I am anxious for her to get home, the kind of feeling one gets in a dream. It might have been a dream, I don’t know. Sometimes dreams and memories get all mixed up.

I remember riding in a car, must have been a friend of my parents as they didn’t own one, probably going to an Italian place, maybe on Lulu Street, where I snuck wine from my parent’s glasses when they weren’t looking. If I think about it now it must have been a game. They must have seen me take the glasses and sneak the sips.

Apparently I ran along the street afterwards leaping at low-hanging branches, snatching leaves, crying out: “It’s spring! It’s spring!” I don’t remember that, it was one of the stories that get told, but I’ve heard it so often it feels like a memory. I can see the tree, the early evening air, my father calling my name, can hear the sound of my boy voice.

Later memories, after I was five and we moved to Montreal, into a house, are stronger, harsher. My father’s angry face, his belt, and shouting, warning me not to steal again, the forbidden smell of my mothers purse, her wallet, the sick feeling of taking coins and later getting caught and punished. Sometimes he used a bare hand, which hurt too much. I preferred the sting of the belt, less severe. There are many memories like this, vivid, clear, my mother overseeing from the doorway of my room, the bare wooden floor, the window near my bed, books and clothes on the floor, a half-finished plastic tank model, the smell of the glue and not getting the pieces to fit right, watching from the doorway as I’m told to never do it again, promising through tears, begging, the sick feeling in my stomach as I fear the pending spank, and crying.

When we first moved to that house there was a vacant lot on the opposite block. It had been a Pom Bakery factory before we got there, torn down by then. Nothing left but yellow-earth, rubble, stones, some ruins at the far end of the empty lot. The kid next door, whose front door was painted white, was older. He had a basement full of stuff, including a BB gun, and a work area where he made things with tools and a vise. He was always inventing things. Many boys were like that back then, inventors of objects, tinkering with things in basements. Even I did a bit of that whenever we went to the suburbs to visit my mother’s parents, and my grandfather would let me into his basement with hammer and wood and I’d sit down there and bang nails in, smelling the soft odor of pine, the silvery smell of the nails and metal hammerhead.

The kid next door took me across to the field, around in the rubbly parts, digging out odd-shaped bricks of some kind of orange bubbly plastic, deformed, almost molten, like cauliflour billowing out around the basic shape of a brick. He told me it was “Hash man! Hashish!” At that age I didn’t know what hash was, which probably took all the fun out of it for him. He asked me once to stand on the street and wait for a police car to go by, then shout: “Ew, it’s the fuzz!” I did, and he laughed.

—Tom Bauer


Tom Bauer works in television, researching shows for Discovery and History channel. He has had fiction and poetry published in Maple Tree Literary Supplement, Headlight Anthology, and in the anthology In Other Words: New English Writing from Quebec. His stories have also been short-listed for the CBC Literary Competition and the Quebec Literary Competition. He lives and works in Montreal.
Author photo by Karin Benedict.
Dec 092011

Herewith a lovely, meditative essay on the conjunction of poetry, memory, and childhood from Nancy Eimers. The essay draws its inspiration from Proust and the art constructions of Joseph Cornell and draws to a close with Mary Ruefle’s Now-It, an erasure book made from an antique children’s book about Snow White. Nancy Eimers is an old friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In March NC published poems from her new collection, Oz, published in January from Carnegie Mellon University Press. Her three previous collections are A Grammar to Waking (Carnegie Mellon, 2006), No Moon (Purdue University Press, 1997) and Destroying Angel (Wesleyan University Press, 1991). She has been the recipient of a Nation “Discovery” Award, two National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowships and a Whiting Writer’s Award, and her poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary magazines.  Nancy teaches creative writing at Western Michigan University and at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.


 Charmed Objects: Poetry and Childhood

By Nancy Eimers


The genius of Cornell is that he sees and enables us to see with the eyes of childhood, before our vision got clouded by experience, when objects like a rubber ball or a pocket mirror seemed charged with meaning, and a marble rolling across a wooden floor could be as portentous as a passing comet.  —John Ashbery


Image from Webmuseum at ibiblio

Joseph Cornell’s Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) is a brown box with metal handles on either side. Here is a list of its contents.

—blue cloth
—blue thumbtacks
—a map of the moon
—three glass discs
—light blue egg, in a cordial glass
—doll’s head, painted blue and gold
—three white wooden blocks
—white clay bubble pipe

Really, they are ordinary things, in one world or another.

If you visit Untitled (Soap Bubble Set) in the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, you must keep a distance.  You will not be allowed to open the box and play with the bubble pipe.  Not even if you bring a child.

Now, a look at the box.  But not an image.  Words are the medium here.

Oh roundnesses you can feel in the palm of the hand. The moon’s at the center, silvery blue, and dominates.  Carte Geographique de la Lune.  The doll’s head, cheeks scarred, has been smiling now for how many years?  Also a silvery blue, the doll and the egg are bathed in the thought of the moon.  The discs of glass are laid at the floor of the box; if you picked one up, the rim might cut your hand.  Every circle is synonym to a bubble: doll’s head, egg, bowl of the pipe.  Even the craters of the moon.  One of the books Cornell loved was a series of lectures delivered in 1890 by a scientist, C. V. Boys, to an audience of children, on soap bubbles.  You cannot pour water from a jug or tea from a tea-pot; you cannot even do anything with a liquid of any kind, without setting in action the forces to which I am about to direct your attention.

 Image from Rocaille

I haven’t seen that soap-bubble box except in a book, but I’ve seen Untitled (Forgotten Game) in Chicago’s Art Institute.  A pinball-like game of a box with holes behind which there are pictures of birds cut out from the pages of old books.  Inside the box there are ramps down which a ball is meant to slide.  If you could open the little door at the top and insert a blue rubber ball, if the ball were to slide down the ramps and reached the bottom, a bell would ring.  That it doesn’t ring is part of a terrible sweetness.

Forgotten game, blue-silver moon, recessed birds, egg in a cordial glass, to what forces have you drawn our attention?

“Perhaps what one wants to say,” said sculptor Barbara Hepworth, “is formed in childhood and the rest of one’s life is spent in trying to say it?”


I remember a gaudy, jeweled pin worn by my grandmother.  I say “gaudy,” but I didn’t think it was gaudy then.  Costume jewelry is made of less valuable materials including base metals, glass, plastic, and synthetic stones, in place of more valuable materials such as precious metals and gems, explains Wikipedia helpfully.  But I hadn’t read and wouldn’t have been helped by this sentence then.  The jewels, their blue and pink sparkles, enchanted me.  They seemed almost to say, there is this other world.  The pin is lost forever, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers somewhere between Oz and Kansas.  But I feel the pull of a former feeling, not subject to reason, proportion, knowledge of anything likely/unlikely to happen.  In memory, where I am holding it in my hand, the invented and the real haven’t quite parted ways.  You can’t get beauty.  Still, says Jean Valentine, in its longing it flies to you.

I think this will not be an argument but a meditation—held together by asterisks, little stars—on how charmed objects, long lost, come back sometimes in poetry, present only as words, touchstone, rabbit’s foot, amulet, merrythought, calling us back, calling us forth.  What are they, now that we’ve lost them?


The Child Is Reading the Almanac

The child is reading the almanac beside her basket of eggs.
And, aside from the Saints’ days and the weather forecasts,
she contemplates the beautiful heavenly signs.
Goat, Bull, Ram, Fish, etcetera.

Thus, she is able to believe, this little peasant child,
that above her, in the constellations,
there are markets with donkeys,
bulls, rams, goats, fish.

Doubtless she is reading of the market of Heaven.
And, when she turns the page to the sign of the Scales,
she says to herself that in Heaven, as in the grocery store,
they weigh coffee, salt and consciences.

In an almanac there are moons, full and half and quarter, and there are new moons that look like black moons.  There are meteor showers, tides and eclipses.  Signs of the zodiac.  Questions of the Day.  Why is the ring finger sometimes called the medical finger?  Weather predictions.  Three misty mornings indicate rain.  Fact and prediction, the seen and the unseen intermingle; the strange is detected in the commonplace, and the commonplace in strangeness.  No wonder the child in this early twentieth century poem by French poet Francis Jammes has been tempted to set down her basket and read.

Jammes “wrote of simple, everyday things,” says the introductory paragraph on the torn yellow book jacket of my copy of his Selected Poems.  And inside the book, in the introduction, Rene Vallery-Radot marvels, “From a little provincial town there rises a voice that ignores all the gods, that tells of life simply, not at all systematized in theories.”  In a photograph just inside the cover Jammes, an old man in round black glasses and a long wispy beard, looks down at a page he is writing on.  For all we know he was writing this almanac poem. The child must have stopped on her way to or from the market (to sell the eggs? having just bought them?).  Perhaps she wonders if even an egg, like the animals in the market, has its counterpart in the stars.  The wondrous almanac testifies that as things are on earth, so they must be in heaven: how miraculous, how natural, that Heaven resembles an earthly grocery store on this most ordinary of days!

Still, Jammes remembers enough not to oversimplify, or presume.  On earth, scales are also associated metaphorically with justice, even by a child.  And like any child, this one must have done something, committed or contemplated committing some small act, a rebellion or peccadillo for which, in some small way, she’d paid, or feared to pay.  She spoke harshly to the donkey.  Maybe she broke an egg.  She dawdled on the way to the market.  Whatever it is, she keeps it secret.  Let us not trespass.


It is because I believed in things and in people while I walked along those paths that the things and the people they made known to me are the only ones that I still take seriously and that still bring me joy.  Whether it is because the faith which creates has ceased to exist in me, or because reality takes shape in the memory alone, the flowers that people show me nowadays for the first time never seem to me to be true flower. —Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

In her autobiographical story “In the Village,” Elizabeth Bishop invents or remembers this from her childhood:

We pass Mrs. Peppard’s house.  We pass Mrs. McNeil’s house.  We pass Mrs. Geddes’s house.  We pass Hill’s store.

The store is high, and a faded gray-blue, with tall windows, built on a long, high stoop of gray-blue cement with an iron hitching railing along it.  Today, in one window there are big cardboard easels, shaped like houses—complete houses and houses with the roofs lifted off to show glimpses of the rooms inside, all in different colors—with cans of paint in pyramids in the middle. But they are an old story.  In the other window is something new: shoes, single shoes, summer shoes, each sitting on top of its own box with its mate beneath it, inside, in the dark.

The child is bereaved, though she doesn’t entirely know what this means.  It is for her too new a story.  Her father—her mother’s mate—like one of those shoes, has been closed inside a box of his own, but forever, unlike the shoes.  This story is one of those houses with its roof lifted off, so the writer, so we, may look inside.  But we may not enter.

Memory affords glimpses: of a flower, a doll or a shoe in a box, a marble rolling comet-like across the floor.  “My life,” writes Tomas Transtromer:

Thinking these words, I see before me a streak of light.  On closer inspection it has the form of a comet, with head and tail.  The brightest end, the head, is childhood and growing up.  The nucleus, the densest part, is infancy, that first period, in which the most important features of our life are determined.  I try to remember, I try to penetrate there.  But it is difficult to move in these concentrated regions, it is dangerous, it feels as if I am coming close to death itself.

Maybe it is important not to explicate our childhoods.  Or simply, merely impossible?  Cornell, from a journal entry, May 13, 1944:

 . . . stopped by pond of waterworks with cool sequestered landscaping—gardens & here had one of profoundest experiences + renewal of spirit associated with childhood evoked by surroundings—it seemed to go deep through this strong sense of persistence in the lush new long grass—the most prominent feature turned out to be “no trespassing” sign

Water, hiddenness, the cool, such things return for a moment from—exactly when and where?  What did it look like there? We can’t quite know, we can’t see inside.  No trespassing.   But the grass is/was lush.

Talking about her younger brother Joseph, Betty Cornell Benton recalls this scrap from their childhood:

Late one night he woke me, shivering awfully, and asked to sit on my bed.  He was  in the grips of a panic from the sense of infinitude and the vastness of space as he was becoming aware of it from studying astronomy.

From an earthly point of view, a comet is stationary, seen at night—then remembered in daylight—then seen—then remembered—over the rooftops.  It is there for a time.  Star with a wake of light.  Then it is gone.  That too is remembered.


“Stove” is one of the six end-words of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.”  A Little Marvel. Brand new, that model would have been painted silver.  Through daily use, it would have grayed; open the door and it would be blackened inside.  MARVEL: the name is on the door.  It dominates like the map of the moon in Cornell’s soap bubble box.  Above, below, on either side there are swirls and curlicues forged in the cast-iron, resembling serious, stirred up clouds.  It has four legs, curving outward, stubby and braced.  In an early twentieth century village, a stove was a daily thing in anyone’s house, but to a child it must have seemed marvelous, like Saturn’s rings.

I have only seen photographs of the Marvel; but they were not photographs of the real thing.  All I found was a salesman’s sample, 16 inches high, still advertised on eBay but already sold.  That ship had sailed.  And a toy Little Marvel, complete with two ovens, burners and lifters.  Nickel plating over cast iron.  All complete and in very good all original condition.

A child in me is entranced.

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

House.  Grandmother.  Child.  Stove.  Almanac.  Tears.   Six end-words, like miniatures on a bracelet.  (Even the tears have their charm.)  Each time the words, all nouns, come back, they are in their original form—no juggling with word play or parts of speech, no punning or homonyms.  Simple words, like primary colors, or figures from an old storybook.

Or they are like comets, passing before us seven times from the early twentieth century, Great Village, Nova Scotia.  As in the story “In the Village,” there is death at the nucleus.


And so on.  In the ordinary world a grandmother is trying to amuse a child.  Each time a word comes around again it feels sadder.  Even tears get sadder; the teakettle weeps, the teacup fills with dark brown tears.  To the grandmother, tears are recurring, equinoctial. The child senses something.  Unspoken grief is working its magic: the almanac begins to resemble a bird; the stove gets philosophical; the world grows cold.  The almanac knows what it knows but won’t say what.  How much does the child know, what is she warding off?  The poet senses something.  Does the child miss the man in the drawing?  How much can even Bishop have known of the child she was?  “Early Sorrow” was the poem’s original title.  Then withdrawn.  Explication fails, or it is irrelevant.  The child sees little moons in the almanac fall down like tears.  The poem ends, as it began, in present tense.  The child draws another inscrutable house.

That moment of wonder and puzzlement goes on orbiting but it is in the past, forever out of reach.  So are the stove and the almanac, ancient tears, the worried grandmother and the inscrutable child.  All in the past, except for the house in Great Village.  (. . . it is difficult to move in these concentrated regions, it is dangerous, it feels as if I am coming close to death itself.)  That house is still there.  You can visit it; you can go inside; you can even arrange to stay.


In her art review of the Ann Arbor exhibition “Secret Spaces of Childhood,” Margaret Price describes certain characteristics of childhood hide-outs:

Almost always the entrance to a secret space is guarded, to protect the privacy and sometimes the fragility of what lies inside. . . .  Moving through the doorway into the space itself is often a rite of passage, and often the point of access is the most highly charged area of the whole secret space: usually elusive, always exciting, and sometimes dangerous.  Often they, or their entrances, are small . . . . being small of stature confers the privilege of access.  A hideout cannot function for a person too large to fit into it.  On the other hand, a child’s small size is a    passing attribute, and children know it.

Peering into the windows of a dollhouse, I feel almost an ache of pleasure.  I think this has to do with its smallness; the feeling is paradoxical.   I am charmed by the inaccessibility; and I yearn to be small enough to step inside.  If I could grow small enough to enter, the house and furniture would no longer seem miniaturized to mini-me and so would have lost their mystery; but I might find among the toys in its nursery (for in a dollhouse there is almost always a nursery) a tiny dollhouse, and who knows, perhaps an even tinier dollhouse inside of that dollhouse’s nursery, and so on and so on, as if longing were satisfyingly infinite.

Is remoteness integral to a certain kind of charm?  In a silk-lined box I keep my charm bracelet, a mercury-head dime and a single clip-on pearl earring.  I know they are there, but I hardly ever look.  I like the look of the hinge that fastens the lid.

from the Art Institute of Chicago

On the basement floor of the Art Institute in Chicago you can visit the Thorne Rooms, a permanent exhibit of miniature rooms behind glass.  These aren’t so much dollhouses as interiors, 68 rooms that, “painstakingly constructed,” as the museum website explains, “enable one to glimpse elements of European interiors from the late 13th century to the 1930’s and American furnishings from the 17th century to the 1930’s.”  The rooms contain exact reproductions of period furniture, carpets, wallpaper, chandeliers, other objects—all somehow failing to interest me, I finally realized with some disappointment the last time I visited.  Perhaps it was more petulance I felt than disappointment; I had come in the spirit of a former child, and being there felt more like studying than play.

What bewitched me, though, were the windows.  Out every window there was a view—an exterior—tiny, intricate gardens with bushes and flowers; patios; benches; trees; and an artificial light from a source that wasn’t visible.  I started over, room by room, looking not at interiors but out the windows, craning my neck to see as much as I could; it was tantalizing, I couldn’t see everything.  Shining faintly into miniature rooms in the basement of a grand museum, the light seemed remote, a late-fall, old-world light.  Out of every window of every one of the 68 rooms was a little world a child might just have begun imagining . . . .

Or perhaps it was simpler, perhaps I just wanted to be inside looking out.  In fact, it occurs to me that may be why (at least in part) I’m so happy when it snows: as opposed to looking into dollhouses or the windows of other people’s lighted homes at night, I finally feel as if I’m inside something.


A charm is a miniature object worn on a bracelet.  A sombrero.  A bell.  I am childless, who will I give it to?  You can’t hear the tinkling of the tiny bell for the tinkling of the bracelet when you pick it up.  The use of the word charm as trinket did not occur (was not recorded) until 1865.  But charm has meant “pleasing” since the 1590’s.

It wasn’t until Elizabeth Bishop arrived in Brazil and found herself, for a time, enormously happy, that she began to be able to write of her childhood in Great Village.  She says in a letter to friends, “It is funny to come to Brazil to experience total recall about Nova Scotia—geography must be more mysterious than we realize, even.”

Of course she meant some geography of the interior.

Even from the simplest, the most realistic point of view, the countries which we long for occupy, at any given moment, a far larger place in our actual life than the country in which we happen to be. —Marcel Proust


Ghost stories written as algebraic equations.  Little Emily at the
blackboard is very frightened. The X’s look like a graveyard at night. The
teacher wants her to poke among them with a piece of chalk. All the children
hold their breath. The white chalk squeaks once among the plus and minus
signs, and then it’s quiet again.

This is an untitled prose poem from Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End.  I have been that child, puzzling over the signs and portents on the blackboard, messages sent by way of math, of grammar, or even handwriting, strange row of continuous l‘s or o‘s.  In a way, it seems like a minute ago.  Did the teachers know how wildly some of us may been mistranslating what they were writing on the board?  Numbers especially, and their plusses and minuses, went beyond the explanations of words, beyond even paragraphs.  I am a teacher myself now, though white boards and dry erase markers have replaced the powdery chalk.  I am still a little frightened, like Emily, standing in front of the class.  The white boards haven’t solved or eliminated the mystery, yesterday’s propositions, assertions, and mistakes still lurking under today’s.

Though the blackboards of my childhood were almost always green, the first blackboards were black, made of slate.  For a newer generation of blackboards, the color green was chosen because it was believed it would be easier on the eyes.  As for the chalk, I can still feel the powder on my hands as I lay it back in one of the crevices of the metal rim.  I had been asked to do a problem on the board.  Or to outline a sentence.  Or maybe I hadn’t touched it at all but was sitting at my desk, watching my teacher, mentally tracing the swoops of her hand (his hand) as it held the chalk.  Oh mysteries of the chalkboard’s palimpsest, yesterday’s sums or sentences only half-erased.  And let us not forget the mystery of the chalk itself, composed partly of limestone, the sum of fossilized sea animals.


Vivien Greene, whose family moved repeatedly when she was a child, devoted much of her adult life to the study, collection, and restoration of Victorian dollhouses.  She had seen her own beloved house in London bombed and split open in the Blitz.  It seems that rift was decisive: after that she and her husband (the novelist Graham Greene) permanently lived apart.  (Graham, who wasn’t interested, said Vivien, in either her dollhouses or domesticity, had already formed what they used to call “another establishment.”)  “Houses have influenced my life deeply,” wrote Vivien Greene in a brief essay called “The Love of Houses”; “They have entered into dreams, made me stand enraptured, suddenly in unexpected places, filled me with a longing to possess; or they occasionally frighten.”  Fear of . . . bombs?  Of ghosts, of moving yet again?  She doesn’t explain.  In the evenings during the war, she used to sit behind blackout curtains working on her dollhouses, tearing down old wallpaper, adding the new.  Greene was the author of several excellent books on vintage English dollhouses.  They are filled with exquisitely old-fashioned and discursive descriptions of staircases, windows, doorways, furniture, even the crockery.  At one point, she writes, apropos of nothing,

 As some people ask and need to be stripped of ownership, so we can believe others are hardly fully alive, complete as persons, until certain material things, a horse, a place, a boat, have been loved and owned and afterwards remembered.


“In the lyric you can stop time,” said Ellen Bryant Voigt in an interview; “you pick that moment of intensity and hold it. The narrative moves through time.”  In Michael Burkard’s poem “The Sea” nothing really happens.  There is instead a kind of lyrical parallelism that advances no narrative but deepens the shades of emotion.

It could have been worse but for the sea. The watch of it. What was it
Chekhov wrote?—”Self same sea”—Yes. Yes. It was there, as was my mother’s
family, in Nova Scotia. There beyond the sloping meadow near Aunt Dorothy’s
farm, there from Cousin George’s kitchen window. The sea and its often daily fog
permeated everyone, everything. And because there was no electricity in those
days, only candles, lantern light, and no plumbing, it seemed almost a sea more in
the air than in the sea. You could not shut it out.

The poem travels sideways, or inward.  Certain words appearing numerous times, sea, there, now, as if, become on one level sheer sound, a force, a mystery.  They don’t so much stop the moment as return to its vivid pastness, over and over again.  There is something bygone and sepia about the scene described.  “There” suggests something in existence but away.   The landmarks in the poem are family names, a meadow, a kitchen window.  And the sea.  Which is also a kind of weather, an intrusive force or guest.  The residents of the poem are mired there, in a world miniaturized by memory.  Here is the rest of the poem:

And the lanterns we ate by, sat by—how small! Yet this permeated as much as
the sea, as much as the fog from the field, the conversion of one cowbell to
another cowbell in the fog, the red-yellow light flickering, now against a deck of
cards, now against faces and hands playing the cards, now being carried with one
or by one off to sleep. Sleep by the sea, as if the sleep were to last a thousand
years, as if the summer were a medium for color which could become
permanently framed, wearing only so slowly for another thousand years. Self
same lantern light shadows, sea and shadow of sea, and her face there, a thousand
years ago, only to be seen a thousand years hence and then to stay beside her face
for as long as ever is.

The fog doesn’t so much occur as seem always to have been; the family members play cards, listen to sounds, fall asleep.  Memory’s village: perhaps everything wasn’t always filmed over with sadness?  “A thousand years” means one thing to a child looking forward, and something else to an adult looking back.  Is the face that appears the face of the speaker’s mother?  On one side is there and ago, on the other hence and ever.  Stay is not an accomplishment but a plea.  Ever: at all times; always.  Matched by is, the moment stopped in time.  He doesn’t say “forever,” though.  He is, we are, outside the time that is “as long as ever”; it is already over.

Cowbells, by the way, come in various colors and sizes, but the ones I hear in the poem sound silver, and tarnished.


We move through time, like characters in a story.  The objects we loved with intensity seem timeless.  Is this because we let them go?  And yet, resurrecting the thought of them, don’t loss and accomplishment co-exist?  The story goes on and we go with it, but part of the story is what we’ve lost.  In “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp,” Zbigniew Herbert asks forgiveness from three charmed objects:

Truly my betrayal is great and hard to forgive
for I do not remember either the day or the hour
when I abandoned you friends of my childhood . . . .

His “friends” are: a pen with a silver nib, illustrious Mr. Ink, and a blessed lamp:

when I speak of you
I would like it to be
as if I were hanging an ex-voto
on a shattered altar

Herbert’s elegy might as easily be to a soap-bubble, or a forgotten game.  But not to the story that edited them out.

I thought then
that before the deluge it was necessary
to save
warm faithful

so it continues further
with ourselves inside it as in a shell

There is that moment when we touch something for the last time.  But the child can’t know, as Herbert says, still addressing his “friends,” that “you were leaving forever / / and that it will be dark.”  Against that dark, the poem saves one thing, something that, reimagined, paradoxically remains miniaturized but it holds us: it is we who dwell within.

But before we leave that dark, W. G. Sebald has something else to say about it:

. . . in the summer evenings during my childhood when I had watched from the valley as swallows circled in the last light, still in great numbers in those days, I would imagine that the world was held together by the courses they flew through the air. . . .

Some yearning of the child’s imagination, Sebald suggests, forged those patterns of meaning in the flights of swallows.  If, like the swallows that have diminished in number, some freshness in our early imaginings gets lost along the way, poetry yearns for the “half-created” in things we once perceived.  A Marvel stove, school chalk, cowbells, a blessed lamp, a silver nib, things that once ordered the dark—or were ordered by it.  If nothing can bring back the hour of splendour in the grass, still, isn’t there something swallow-like and mysterious in our yearning, resistant yet integral to the very passage of time?  Poetry imagines the traceries that might once again hold things together, lost possessions, past and present, worlds real and imagined.  It restores the lost moment, shoe, cowbell, basket of eggs or blessed lamp, utterly itself; it is we who are changed, because we know it is lost.

* (last little star)

In Now-It, a collage-and-erasure book Mary Ruefle made out of an old children’s book called Snow White or the House in the Wood, she has pasted the words “the cry of the button” beside the picture of a streaking comet.  Oh you here and there, you cry and streak, all that’s precious in the commonplace!  Now that button and comet have found each other, the child in me believes nothing more need be said.

—Nancy Eimers


Works Cited

Art Institute of Chicago, website on Thorne Rooms.

Ashbery, John. “Joseph Cornell,” Art News, summer 1967.

Bishop, Elizabeth.  “In the Village,” in The Collected Prose.  New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984.  261-2.

Bishop, Elizabeth.  “Sestina,” The Complete Poems.  New York, Farrar Straus Giroux: 1983.  123.

Boys, C.V.  Soap-Bubbles and the Forces Which Mould Them.  Memphis: General Books, 2010 (reprinted).

Burkard, Michael, “The Sea,” My Secret Boat.  New York: Norton, 1990.  22.

Cornell, Betty Benton, quoted in A Joseph Cornell Album, Dore Ashton, author.  New York: De Capo Press, 1944.

Cornell, Joseph. Theater of the Mind: Selected Diaries, Letters and Files.  Ed. Mary

Ann Caws. : New York: Thames & Hudson, 1993.  105.

Greene, Vivien.  English Dolls’ Houses of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979.  23.

Greene, Vivien.  “The Love of Houses,” The Independent (London), Nov. 29, 1998.

Hepworth, Barbara.  From notebooks.  Quoted in Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Museum, St. Ives.

Herbert, Zbigniew, “Elegy for the Departure of Pen Ink and Lamp,” Elegy for the Departure.  Trans.  John and Bogdana Carpenter.  Hopewell, NJ: Ecco, 1999. 127-132.

Jammes, Francis.  “A Child is Reading the Almanac,” Selected Poems of Francis Jammes.  Trans. Barry Gifford and Bettina Dickie.  Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1976.  23.

Price, Margaret.  “Secret Spaces of Childhood: An Exhibition of Remembered Hide-Outs,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2000.  248-278.

Proust, Marcel.  Remembrance of Things Past: 1.  Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin.  New York: Penguin, 1954.

Ruefle, Mary.  Now-It.  Carol Haenicke Women’s Poetry Collection, Rare Book Room, Western Michigan University.

Sebald, W. G.  The Rings of Saturn.  Trans. Michael Hulce.  New York: New Directions, 1999.  67.

Simic, Charles.  “Ghost stories written,” The World Doesn’t End.  Boston: Mariner Books, 1989.  13.

Transtromer, Tomas.   For the Living and the Dead: New Poems and a Memoir. Hopewell, NJ:  Ecco, 1995.  25.

Valentine, Jean.  “Then Abraham,” Break the Glass.  Port Townsend: Copper Canyon, 2010.  16.

Vallery-Radot, Rene.  Quoted in Introduction,” Selected Poems of Francis Jammes. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 1976.

Voigt, Ellen Bryant.  Inteview, The Atlantic Online, Nov. 24, 1999.

Dec 062011

Here’s a lovely, wistful addition to Numéro Cinq‘s amazing collection of Childhood essays. Liz Blood grew up in Oklahoma amongst siblings and dogs. But this essay focuses on the universal passage from innocence to knowledge, the sad realization that idylls of childhood are shadowed by the opaque mysteries of adulthood. You grow up wondering, always, what you didn’t know, didn’t understand, at the time. Liz is a nonfiction student at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program. She teaches English at a school in Gunsan, Jeollabuk-do, South Korea. See her “What it’s like living here” essay published earlier on these pages.




By Liz Blood


A neighborhood black Labrador made puppies with a neighborhood Dalmatian and the litter was up for grabs. My mother piled us—me, eight; Emily, six; Rebecca, four; John, two—into the metallic brown Mercury she drove then and we headed down the street towards the park. I hung my head and arm out the passenger window and, as we rounded the corner to the blonde-brick two-story, I saw him. Nixon—though he didn’t yet have that name—an all black puppy, running nonstop circles around the inside of a small, white wire-fenced pen. If my mother had taken any hints from this rambunctiousness, they were quickly ignored. We squealed in delight at this puppy, and squealed even louder when, after coaxing him onto his back with lots of petting, we discovered of a diamond-shaped tuft of white hair on his chest. This settled it, he was special in our eyes, and we took him home to the backyard.

It’s always been a dog backyard. Before Nixon we had Chevis and Bianca and Goth, but they all were old and soon would need replacing. Nixon was unlike any of those dogs, however. Where they were calm in their old age (the only ages at which I knew them), Nixon continued to act like a puppy long after he no longer looked like one. And I disliked him for this. His tail hurt when it wagged against your leg and it was always wagging. He bounded through the house if we didn’t confine him to the kitchen and, later, he became a chronic fence jumper. I suppose he had neighborhood gallivanting in his blood—after all, that is how he came to be. And even though I wanted to leave the backyard, to go beyond the fence, I couldn’t understand his need to do so. What did Nixon do out there among the wanderers? Did he mingle with the transients who asked for bus money? Did he run with the children on their way home from school? My parents warned if he did it again after so many times, they would not pick him up from the pound. I envisioned doggy gas chambers and wished he would just stay in the yard.

Continue reading »

Nov 292011


Here’s a Childhood essay unlike any on NC so far, dubbed a geografictione[1] by its author, a psychogeographical meditation on suburbia by Cheryl Cowdy (who started life in Mississauga, a huge suburban agglomeration west of Toronto where many of dg’s relatives have lived from time to time).

We all live in the suburbs these days, and we’re all embarrassed by it. Here Cheryl challenges the notion that the suburbs are necessarily a cultural or imaginative dead end as she returns ambivalently to Mississauga, seeking the ghosts of untold stories – her own, but also those that might be buried within its golf course mountain of refuse.

Cheryl’s fascination with suburban spaces began long before the phenomenal success of Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs album. Her Ph.D. dissertation investigated the often conflicted meanings of the suburbs in post-war English-Canadian literature. Her essay “Ravines and the Conscious Electrified Life of Houses: Margaret Atwood’s Suburban Kunstlerromane” appears in the current issue of Studies in Canadian Literature (36.1. 2011)



Mississauga: Cadence of Desire and Return

A Childhood Geografictione

By Cheryl Cowdy

To Aritha van Herk, for Places Far From Ellesmere,
from which this piece borrows generously,
most obviously in italics.



“I had a lot of luck, then, which saved me from all kinds of side-tracks: neuroses first off, and perhaps psychosis, and psycho-professionalization, from which many intelligent people never recover. Next, the militant path, and finally—this may seem strange—it saved me from the suburbs, universe of my childhood, kind of wonderful, but which is often, all the same, a cultural dead end.” [2]



Beneath the flight path of airplanes heading for or just leaving Lester B. Pearson Airport, the temptations of exile pass through your acoustic space approximately once every six minutes(58). Thankfully (perhaps) you haven’t experienced the same kind of luck as Guattari. Luck has saved you from certain undesirable side-tracks but not from the suburbs. Home: what you visit and abandon. In spite of your desire for escape, the universe of your childhood is a familiar ambivalence to which you reluctantly return, physically and psychically. Your dream geography if not the geography of your dreams.

Home: an asylum for your origins. A variety of exits off the 401, bringing your grandparents westward from Port Hope to Scarborough in the nineteen fifties. When the Empress of Canada landed in Montreal in 1966, it would have brought your mother, eighteen, blithe and bonny, to Scarborough too. The 401 a mosaic your grandfather pieced together from the air for the PSC Photographic Survey Corporation. Your  father spent his days piecing it together from the ground, laying humid asphalt over dirt, soil, concrete, then navigating the labyrinth of paved earth long nights moonlighting in a rented cab, ferrying the more privileged to invented island destinations.

The 401: Anecdotes accumulate along its paved shoulder; details get on here, merge, some leave by the next exit. Like the time a bunch of the guys got drunk after work and Dad streaked down the 401. Or the time he stopped his cab to help someone after a collision – only learning later that the guy had robbed a bank then had his face blown off by the cops in a gun fight. How could he drive without a face? Sometimes this anecdote drives in the lane beside another one; tall tales weave back and forth between lanes, stealing and sealing the gaps between stories and messing with their integrity.

What about Mum? Or your Gran, for that matter? Where are they? It’s almost always the fathers doing the driving. Not much material for a tall tale fitting women for bras in Simpson’s, although every woman must have heaved a story in her D-cup. Your mother tending the cash register evenings at the corner store after caring for you all day. Her escape from the explosives factory in Stevenston, Ayrshire, Scotland her one big story. After that, your mother’s stories occur in parentheses, take circuitous back routes, avoiding left-hand turns and never, never, getting on the 401.

Yes, highways are constructed and anecdotes accumulate. Can a “literature” be built here too? Is this a place from which to launch a world, a river, or even a short story? Can it launch itself? Mississauga is premeditated, its stories pre-fabricated. Fake lakes and mountains made out of garbage then turned into golf courses.  Can we transform ourselves if our surroundings are right? Somewhere there’s an exit-also-an-entrance that brings you back to or beyond the prequel.

A romantic child, you search optimistically for stories. The week your family moves to Meadowvale (Meadowjail) you notice the generic head of an Indian on the banner of the Mississauga News. Like Louise in Barbara Gowdy’s The Romantic, you look for Indians expectantly: Lake Wabukayne, the Credit River, Lake Aquitaine. (When you learn that “Aquitaine” is a European name, you switch allegiances; look for ladies in the fake lakes, under the stormwater collection equipment). Eventually you meet members of the Mississauga Nation who look nothing like the Indian on the local paper.  As you write this, the Six Nations are resurrecting their blockade against suburban development at Caledonia, resisting, like Oka, like Ipperwash, the suburban narratives with which we’ve barricaded them.

The Great Train Derailment of ‘79 was your own private Cuban Missile Crisis. For one night and all of the following day you watched Mississauga burn and waited for the knock on the door. Evacuation held the promise of Rapture, you could feel it in the texture of the toxic air.  You wished to join that community of the elect, the early evacuees who spent an entire week camping out on cots in the Square One Shopping Centre (every kid’s dream to be stranded in the mall after the lights go out). Instead, you are transported to more eastern points of the 401 – your familial origins – Scarborough and Agincourt and Flemingdon Park. Where it all began.

You will remember less about those 4 days of exile than you will about that one day of waiting.

You develop and move from one townhouse complex to another, somehow keeping track of all those unit numbers.

Complex/ kompleks/ n. & adj.n. 1. a building, series of rooms, network, etc. made up of related parts (the arts complex). 2. Psych. A related group of usu. repressed feelings or thoughts which cause abnormal behavior or mental states.  (inferiority complex; Oedipus complex). 3. (in general use) a preoccupation or obsession (has a complex about punctuality). 4. Chem. a compound in which molecules or ions form coordinate bonds to a metal atom or ion. – adj. 1. consisting of related parts; composite. 2. Complicated (a complex problem). 3. Math. containing real and imaginary parts. [French complexe or Latin complexus past part. of complectere embrace, assoc. with complexus braided]. [3]

There has to be a minotaur somewhere.

How to escape? Borrow more authentic addresses: Streetsville seems more small town, so for a time, you date Streetsville boys exclusively. Later you set your sights on bad boys from the city: Toronto: Downtown with a capital “D.” Whoring after strange places. Their addresses are rendered more exotic by the three-hour pilgrimage that takes you from the labyrinthine routes of the Mississauga Transit to the more pragmatic Toronto Transit Commission. Never getting on the 401, except the time dad snatched you back from an escapation attempt.

Escape artist, you look to Hollywood for familiar narratives, real and imaginary: Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club. It’s the 80s – you listen to The Smiths, The Cure – and so for a time you are saved by the treacherous optimism of the cynic from certain side-tracks, seductions of the dreaming screen. You seek out copses of wood in the ravine, beside the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles, grocery buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC. You aren’t picky at that time and will accept pre-fabricated nature if that’s the best they can offer. Writing place: hiding place. You write Songs of Disaffected Innocence and Experience. They never seem right.

Next the militant path. You drop out of high school for a while, sell remainders in the record department at Woolco (Square One, at last). Miraculously, you find salvation in a secondary school for the lost. When you graduate, you pick the University with the most alien geography, Montreal a universe in which to dream a different language. You step over the homeless who sleep in front of your door. You have a Murphy bed and a rat that isn’t a pet. You are only mildly dissatisfied with your verse.When asked where you are from, you can say, “Toronto.” You think you are happy.

Four months later, you return.


Return: escape to embarkation/ escapation.

You’re not exactly certain how the return was effected. Somewhere along the highway you took the wrong exit, forgot to merge, got trapped in a narrative you don’t recall writing. All exits are also entrances. You should be in exile in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood along with everyone else in academe: you missed the Rapture again?

They cleaned up the fake lake, swamp of stolen bicycles and shopping buggies, plaid chesterfields, pizza boxes, condoms, cigarette butts and underpants, beer bottles, pop cans and PVC (evidence of your own adolescence may still be down there). Anecdotes accumulate, advertising copy trying desperately to disguise itself as his/tory:

“The 16 hectare (40 acre) Lake Aquitaine Park is one of Meadowvale Community’s best-known attractions. Designed in the late 1960s and opened in 1976, the park surrounds an artificial lake. This lake, considered a model by other cities, was the first stormwater management facility in the province to be a focus for a residential community. It is designed so the lake can significantly change water levels and store water during and after major storms.

Nature is being allowed to reclaim the edges of the lake, and new wetland and meadow areas are being nurtured. This will make the park more welcoming for fish, birds and other wildlife.”

Mississauga goes on with its falling, one molecule at a time: and you too in your ache to archive it there to read/ remember/ blame. To unhinge, and to carve with words, a reading act: this place of origins, of forbiddens and transgressions, of absence and remains.

Jeanette Winterson has a theory that “every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.” [4]

In the explorations of memory and place lie unsolved murders.

Some ghosts return because the narrative demands it. What are your ghosts doing now? Do they keep each other company, the streetwise adolescent ghost roaming the culs-de-sac and walking through the McDonald’s Drive-thru window at 2am, and the urban undergrad ghost haunting your condemned bachelor apartment on rue St. Denis? There are ghosts in Ottawa, some begging for change at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor (you have had more successful escapations). Do they sneer at the soccer mom?  If you wonder too much about which routes brought you back here, not just to the same community but the very same street you lived on prior to your first defection … from 6154 to 6205, a difference of only fifty-one numbers in eighteen years…

You dream yourself breaking into unruly houses, coveting secret passageways, and hidden rooms, always their subterranean floors. Nights you don’t dream thoughts toss and turn. (Stories in parentheses). Sometimes you rise, grope for notebook on night table, tiptoe into the bathroom, the only place you can write without waking husband, kids, dog, cat. Writing place: hiding place.

“You don’t reach Serendib by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings . . . serendipitously” writes John Barth. [4]

Perhaps you can’t reach Serendib by the 401.  How then to occupy a place? Be the crack in the plaster. Persistent mushroom exploding through dirt, soil, asphalt, concrete. You must live up to your fictions, that’s all there is to it; you must help yourself achieve geografictiones of the soul. Get off the highway then, and take the back roads. Excavate the stories from parenthetical constructions. Tear down the “No Exit” sign. See/k what has been wiped off the map. Construct an asylum for your origins, a mythology, a highway of heroes.

In good faith, you’re still losing your bearings.

–Cheryl Cowdy

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “A fiction of geography/ geography of fiction: coming together in people and landscape and the harboured designations of fickle memory.” Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere, Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990: 40.
  2. Guattari, Félix. “So What?” Chaosophy. New York, NY: Semiotext(e), 1995: 8
  3. Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Ed. Katherine Barber. Don Mills, ON: Oxford UP, 1998.
  4. Winterson, Jeanette. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. London, UK: Vintage, 1991.
  5. Barth, John. The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor. Boston:  Little, Brown, 1991.
Oct 312011

Eric FoleyEric Foley

Here’s a lovely, sad Childhood essay by Eric Foley. It’s a meditation on presence and absence, the presence of his sister growing up in Toronto and her sudden death, at the age of 14. It’s a meditation on photography and the strange way photographs carry the mark of absence, of love and loss, even as they record (in snapshots, sometimes double-exposed or damaged) the apparent trivia of family life. What’s the difference between life and a photograph? And what is the meaning of those ghostly images of loved ones now gone? Eric Foley has been a finalist for the Random House Creative Writing Award, the Hart House Literary Contest, and winner of Geist Magazine and the White Wall Review’s postcard story contests. Eric currently attends Guelph University’s Creative Writing MFA program (last summer, he was a student of mine in Guelph’s mentorship program), where he is at work on his first novel, and a memoir about living in Morocco. His poetry and criticism can be found online at influencysalon.ca.




In photography, exhibition value begins to displace cult value all along the line. But cult value does not give way without resistance. It retires into an ultimate retrenchment: the human countenance. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuse for the cult value of the picture. For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. But as man withdraws from the photographic image, the exhibition value for the first time shows its superiority to the ritual value. To have pinpointed this new stage constitutes the incomparable significance of [the photographer Eugène] Atget, who, around 1900, took photographs of deserted Paris streets. It has quite justly been said of him that he photographed them like scenes of crime. The scene of a crime, too, is deserted; it is photographed for the purpose of establishing evidence. With Atget, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free-floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way. At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him, right ones or wrong ones, no matter. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. —Walter Benjamin

The above quotation is from Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” By cult value, Benjamin is referring to the private, ceremonial, spiritual status of the art object, where what matters most is the object’s existence, rather than it being constantly on view. The photograph in the family album or the musty cardboard box in the attic, rather than the framed print on the (facebook) wall. Writing in the 1930’s, Benjamin saw photography and film as “the most serviceable exemplifications” of a new function of art where “absolute emphasis” was placed on the exhibition value of the work. I’m interested in the tension that exists between cult value and exhibition value in relation to photographs taken prior to the existence of the digital realm for essentially private family albums. What happens to these images when they are scanned and disseminated online, for all to see? Who today would allow a picture of themselves to be taken (or to remain undeleted on a camera), without imagining its appearance on Facebook?

As I came to try and make a narrative out of a series of the most resonant photographs from my childhood, perhaps it is no surprise that I kept returning Benjamin, who, in the end, inspired me to use this narrative not only to narrate but also to essay, to attempt to think about the nature of photographs and their use within a family. Here then are a series of the pictures that still obsess me, an album of images for which I “have not yet found the law,” with obligatory captions (right ones or wrong ones, no matter).

November 16, 1979

An image is not a permanent referent for those complexities of life which are revealed through it; its purpose is not to make us perceive meaning, but to create a special perception of the object – it creates a vision of the object instead of serving as a means of knowing it. – Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique”


By a chance double exposure, the first picture taken of me, less than one hour old in my mother’s arms, also contains the last picture taken of her before she became a mother. In the ghosted image snapped one day earlier, she sits with her hands on her lap, hands that push through time to rest on my newborn head. Of course, I’m also in her stomach in that fainter image, more than a week overdue.


Eleven Days Old

One of the—often unspoken—objections to photography: that it is impossible for the human countenance to be apprehended by a machine. This the sentiment of Delacroix in particular. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

“Look at the camera!” my parents must have said, voices young, soft, and joyous. “Look at Daddy!” My mother’s robed arm propping me up. What am I looking at? It appears to be an otherworldly orb, a gaseous rupture in the surface of the image, but in fact, this rupture inserted itself along my line of vision several months after the shutter was clicked.

In the spring of 1980 my father went on a canoe trip in with his best friend Joe, bringing along his camera, which contained the undeveloped film from my first months of life. Stepping out of the canoe, my father dropped the bag with the camera into the lake. When the pictures were finally developed, they had this milky, bluish cast, as if light were peeling away the surface of the image. My mother was heartbroken.


Fall, 1980

Over the next several years, my mother would take thousands of pictures, like this one of my father and me in France:

.Or the one that begins this piece, of my brother Andrew and me, which perfectly captures our opposing dispositions. Andrew: carefree, happy-go-lucky, singing away in his own fine world. Me: well, me.


103 Glenrose

Hopkins describes these obsessive images of objects as things for which he has not “found the law.” They are unfulfilled in meaning, but take up a lot of room in the memory as if in compensation. They seem both gratuitous and inexplicably necessary. – Charles Baxter.

I grew up in Toronto, in a three-story brick house surrounded by oak trees and lilac bushes. A beer commercial had been shot on the property a month before my parents bought it, and for the first few years we lived there, we would gather around the TV excitedly whenever the ad came on to watch three sweaty, blue-jeaned men kick back on our porch with a couple of cold ones.

Jumping through that first-floor window and reversing the camera angle, we can travel ahead seven years in time, to where I sit poised at our newly acquired 1906 Steinway Grand, my father’s dream-come-true..
“Put your hands out like you’re about to play,” my mother instructed, “and look over at me.” So I did. To take this picture, my mother would have had to stand in the entranceway to our living room, which, if we the reverse the angle again, is approximately here:.

.That piñata was one tough mother. Forty minutes of heavy abuse, and it wasn’t even dented. My friends and I exhausted, their parents due to arrive any moment, my father pulled the piñata down and dumped the candy onto the hardwood floor for us to flail over.



In making a portrait, it is not a question only…of reproducing, with a mathematical accuracy, the forms and proportions of the individual; it is necessary also, and above all, to grasp and represent, while justifying and embellishing,…the intentions of nature towards the individual. – Gisela Freund, “La Photographie au point de vue sociologique”

I had better luck with these two:





My mother snapped these from opposing angles in the living room of my grandparent’s cottage. The first was taken in the summer of 1987, at my sister Kristen’s third birthday party. The piñata hangs from a long wooden beam that at Christmastime held up to twenty-eight stockings at once. In the second image, you can see one of the stockings in my cousin John’s hands.

This picture was taken a few years earlier, from where the piñatas would later hang:

My parents had seen an ad in the paper for dwarf rabbits, and decided to get us one for Christmas. But by the time they went to pick one up, this monstrous creature was all that was left. It hopped around my grandmother’s carpet leaving a trail of brown pellets. Andrew crawled along behind picking up the pellets and putting them into his mouth, thinking they were chocolate-covered raisins. That spring, I forgot to close lid of the rabbit’s cage and the rabbit escaped. My Dad told us it probably got eaten by raccoons. The body was never found.


Speaking of Cages

Consideration of the image is still a sacred cause today only because the fate of thought and liberty are at stake in it. The visible world, the one that is given to us to see: is it liberty or enslavement? – Marie-Jose Mondzian, Image, Icon, Economy: The Byzantine Origins of the Contemporary Imaginary

Two photographs taken thirty years apart. The first is of my mother on vacation with her family in Florida, 1961. The second one shows my sister Kristen with our new dog Tessa.

We used to go on a canoe trip every summer to Algonquin Park, and I always wished Tessa could come, but she was too hyper, my Dad said. He worried that if she spotted a loon she would go crazy, tip the canoe. I was, however, allowed to bring Tessa along in the form of an image of the two of us together on a t-shirt:


Communications technology reduces the informational merits of painting. At the same time, a new reality unfolds, in the face of which no one can take responsibility for personal decisions. One appeals to the lens. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

My brother’s favorite pet was a hamster named Rusty. Like our rabbit, Rusty also escaped. One day after school Andrew and I were playing floor hockey in our unfinished basement, when Andrew slapped the ball past me into the furnace room. I went in behind the woodpile to retrieve the ball and there was Rusty: trembling, emaciated. He had been missing for five days. Andrew carried him upstairs and tried to feed him, but the animal was too weak to ingest anything. When my father got home he gave Rusty a series of sugar-water infusions, reviving him for three weeks, after which the hamster passed away. “The shock to Rusty’s system must have been too great,” my father explained.

The above photograph was taken for a series of watercolor portraits my mother commissioned her friend Maureen to do (mine of course featured Tessa and me). In the background of the photo below, taken during one of our theme dinners, Andrew and Rusty’s portrait hangs above the mantle between a framed photograph of Kristen and one of me as a toddler standing beside a baguette. Here is evidence that not all the pictures my mother took were intended solely for our family albums (lined up chronologically in the cupboard behind my father’s left shoulder).

If, when she clicked the shutter, my mother happened to capture an image that made her feel a particular warmth within (and she says she always knew it with that initial click, before the film was developed), something to do with natural lighting, composition, the expression on a face she loved, if all of these combined to preserve a moment she wished to keep on seeing, then the image would be enlarged and placed on more permanent display..

No House, Hardly a Room

There used to be no house, hardly a room, in which someone had not once died. – Benjamin, “The Storyteller”

Going over these photographs, I think of the spaces they were taken in. What, besides pets, died there? A look? An object? A gesture? An idea?

These pictures were taken to preserve moments now past, but in another way they also constitute my past. As I grew, so did the pile of images that related to me, and I regularly went to that cupboard where the albums were kept and pored over them, using them to build the narrative of who I was, where and what I had come from.

I could always count on my mother to fill the plastic pages of those gilded, leatherbound books thick with photos from each year, forming a canon of accepted family imagery, a pictorial narrative that each of us could access at will (and, for the most part, agree upon).

Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory—it will be thanked and applauded. – Baudelaire, on the proper use of photography



It is no accident that the portrait was the focal point of early photography. The cult of remembrance of loved ones, absent or dead, offers a last refuge for the cult value of the picture. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

These pictures of my sister Kristen almost didn’t make it into the canon. They were taken after she had gone into the bathroom, aged three, and given herself a haircut. For years, Andrew and I used these images to tease her. She hated them, wanted them destroyed, at one point even stole them from the family album. I’m surprised they still exist. I’m glad they still exist, because in 1999, at the age of fourteen, Kristen died of meningitis, and our family’s narrative was irrevocably changed. After such an event, every trace of the past gains in significance.

Following Kristen’s death the old canon of images splintered apart, reforming with her at its centre, as my mother disassembled the master albums to make copies of pictures, reassembling them into more than fifty individualized mini-albums for friends and family.

For the last time the aura emanates from the early photographs in the fleeting expression of a human face. This is what constitutes their melancholy, incomparable beauty. – Benjamin, The Arcades Project

There are photographs from that time, still not held in any album, that are crucial to me. One shows my father kneeling in front of Kristen’s open casket, my two-and-a-half-year-old sister Kathryn in his arms in a green dress, sucking on the nub of a glass bottle filled with apple cider. Another is of the cemetery: it has started to rain, and I’ve just opened a burgundy umbrella, which I’m holding high over my mother’s head. My father and I are looking up at that umbrella as it floats above the crowd of relatives and friends. As I look at the picture now, it occurs to me that it is the only image I have of any of these people looking so sad; an uncomfortable thing to behold, but all the more valuable for that. Also: no one is looking into the camera. Their attention is elsewhere.


Postscript: Summer, 2002

In the end, we managed to convince our father to let us take Tessa along on a camping trip. She was nearly twelve by this point, her hips going, unlikely to bolt up for a bird or anything else. For the last three days of the trip my father had to carry Tessa, the hair of her hindquarters stained with diarrhea, along the portages. She died not long afterwards, but at least she got to see the Barron Canyon from the belly of a canoe.

The work of art is valuable only in so far as it is vibrated by the reflexes of the future. – André Breton

What reflexes vibrate these photographs? Are they art, or the merely the passing memories of a single family? The above image was taken on the first day of our trip to the Barron Canyon. Andrew and I, now young men, sit behind the stump of the jack pine from Tom Thomson’s iconic painting of Round Lake. The tree has been cut down years before, but a sapling grows from its roots. This picture takes me back to the very first in this series, of my brother and me as children. Many things happened between that earlier photo and this one. Many things happened afterwards, and continue to happen to each of us, every day, and we are all filled with multiple exposures. The hands of time push through to rest upon our heads. A feeling kicks in our stomachs, waiting to be born. But “the true picture of the past flits by,” as Benjamin says, and, at least for now, the images of all those places, times, and events not shared between us will have to remain lost.


—Eric Foley

Oct 042011


Curious and maze-like story behind this delightful essay about an atypical Mennonite childhood in southern Ontario: Rick Martin lives in Kitchener, Ontario (it used to be Berlin, Ontario, but was renamed after a famous English general—Lord Kitchener—during the First World War). He lives next door to dg’s old friends Dwight and Kathy Storring. Long ago in the Triassic or, maybe, the Cretaceous, Kathy was a reporter at the Peterborough Examiner while Dwight took photos and dg was the sports editor (yes, yes, we all have a secret, sordid past). Kathy showed Numéro Cinq to Rick and Rick got inspired by the NC Childhood series to write his own story. Kathy showed Rick’s essay to dg, and here we are. (Accept this is a peek into the byzantine editorial apparatus behind NC—if you want to get published here, it helps to move next door to the Storrings.)

Rick Martin  is a technical documentation and training consultant. He has taught technical and business writing at the University of Waterloo and York University. He has had dozens of technical manuals published and has written numerous essays and poems for his own pleasure and the enjoyment of family and friends.



rick_2yrs-260x300Two years old.

“What is a true story? Is there any such thing?”  Margaret Laurence, The Diviners

I was a shy child and bewildered by almost everything around me.

My mother and father were born into horse-and-buggy Mennonite families in Waterloo County, Ontario. My father’s family were regular Old Orders, who eventually moved to the more modern Conference (or “red-brick”) Mennonite church so that my grandfather could have a truck to haul his produce to the Kitchener market. My mother’s family belonged to the more extreme Dave Martin Mennonite sect (founded by her grandfather), and when my grandparents were born again and joined the small Plymouth Brethren congregation in Hawkesville, they were completely shunned by their family and friends.

My father was a long-distance truck driver, so he was often absent. My parents’ first child died in his crib when he was four months old, so there was always a ghost in our lives. When I was 18 months old, my little sister was born several months premature and lived in an incubator at the hospital in Kitchener for months. With no means of transportation to the city and no one else to look after my older brother and me, my mother was stuck at our rented farmhouse near St Clements, unable to care for her fragile new baby.

dad-1958Dad in 1958.

When I was still quite young, my mother, on the verge of mental collapse, had a spectacular conversion, in which Jesus appeared to her in a vision and assured her she was saved and going to heaven. This experience gave her strength to carry on through the adversities of near blindness from a childhood eye infection, too many kids (there were soon 5 of us), poverty, and a mostly absent husband who, she was convinced, was not saved: Dad drank and smoked and swore, had an explosive temper, and didn’t much like going to church.

When I was 5, my dad was transferred to Sault Ste Marie, 500 miles from family, friends, and any sense of security we had. We lived in a rented farmhouse about 5 miles west of the city for the first year, then bought an unfinished 3-bedroom house in a barely developed subdivision on the eastern fringes of town: gravel roads, no municipal water or sewers, roadside ditches, and no bus service for the first few years. Because my mother couldn’t see well enough to drive a car, we were stuck in the neighbourhood except on the weekends, when Dad was home.

rick-and-sibsRick and siblings.

With her fundamentalist mixture of Dave Martin Mennonite and Plymouth Brethren beliefs, fed by radio preachers like Theodore H. Epp, my mother thought that TV, movies, card-playing, and dancing were all worldly, if not sinful. We grew up believing that everyone around us was a heathen, headed for hell, intent on tempting us into lives of sin. We could play with neighbourhood kids, but we understood they were different than us, and we shouldn’t get too close to them (in the summer, my mother held Daily Vacation Bible Schools in our yard, in an effort to convert our friends).

I knew, from the time I was conscious, that I was a sinner, headed for hell unless I accepted Jesus as my saviour. And I knew—from my mother’s and grandparents’ experience—that such a conversion was dramatic, that when you were saved, you knew it. Jesus never appeared to me, despite my nightly pleading, and I was never able to find the assurance that he lived in my heart.

Dad, of course, was a worry. I was pretty sure he wasn’t saved, and I knew he was in constant danger: fellow drivers were periodically killed in spectacular crashes, skewered by steel against some rock-cut on the winding road to Toronto. We prayed on our knees for his safety and his salvation, among other things, every night before bed.

And we believed in the Rapture, that Christ could appear at any moment and sweep true believers up into heaven, leaving the unsaved to a horrible stint with the anti-Christ. This was a concept invented by the founder of the Brethren, John Darby.

rick_4yrs-206x300Four years old.

In many ways, the east end of Sault Ste Marie was a wonderful place to be a child. Just a block south of our house, on the other side of Chambers Avenue, there was bush all the way to the St Mary’s River, and on the other side of highway 17, a half mile north of us, it was bush pretty much all the way to James Bay.

The neighbourhood was all young families with lots of kids and not a lot of discipline. We ran wild, exploring and building tree-forts. We played baseball in empty lots and kick-the-can and hockey on the streets. At night, there were hide-and-seek games that ranged across the whole block of back yards.

We’d take day-long hikes back into the bush on the other side of the highway, cutting across the Indian Reserve and getting lost in the meanderings of the Root River. We built rafts in the drainage ditches and ponds down towards the river. We rode our bikes down to Belleview Park in the city and 7 miles out to Hiawatha Park to go swimming. In winter, we would hang onto the rear bumpers of cars and slide along behind them until they got going too fast and we rolled off into the snowbanks.

Mom often didn’t have a clue where we were or what we were doing; she just prayed constantly that we’d all get home safe and sound for supper.

going-to-churchGoing to church.

Every Sunday, there were three services at Bethel Bible Chapel on North Street: 9:30 Breaking of Bread, 11:00 Family Bible Hour with a sermon for the parents upstairs and Sunday School for the kids in the basement, and 7:00 Gospel Hour. We rarely went to the first service, but almost always to the other two. If Dad was too tired, Mom would arrange for someone else to take the rest of us.

It was at Sunday School, we understood, that we could make real friends: these were Christian people, unlike our neighbours in the east end. So Sundays were the high point of the week. Often I would be invited to a friend’s place for the afternoon, between services. I soon realized that not all Brethren families were like ours. Most of them had much nicer homes and furniture and toys than we did, some of them had TVs, and many of them had a happy, easy-going, fun-loving approach to life. A few of the kids, whose parents had invited me, were selfish and nasty and treated me like dogshit on their shoes.

We’d often have Sunday School friends come home with us, too. Dad was the cook on Sundays, and he usually made a big mid-day meal of roast beef or pork and mashed potatoes and gravy and tossed salad. After dinner, we’d often go for a drive and a hike at Gros Cap or somewhere along the Lake Superior shore. I was always sad when the Sunday evening service was over and we’d pile into the car for the drive home to another week of school and neighbourhood friends.

mom-readingReading as a group activity.

Mom read stories to us every night before we said our prayers, things like The Five Little Peppers. It seemed our house was full of reading material (especially compared to those of our neighbours): the Bible, of course, but also novels, magazines, and newspapers. Mom was always reading, with her book held close to her nose, and—when he was at home and awake and not fixing something—Dad was often in his easy chair reading the Family Herald or National Geographic or some trucking journal. I can remember starting to learn to read, identifying letters and words, sitting on Dad’s lap while he read the newspaper.

At first, most of our reading material other than newspapers was religious in nature. Every Sunday, we got little pamphlets from Sunday School, and every Christmas our Sunday School teachers gave us story books and, later, novels with blatantly evangelistic aims. But when we got access to school and city libraries, we read the Hardy Boys, Enid Blyton’s several series, the Swallows and Amazons books, and all sorts of stuff: pretty much anything we could get our hands on. Eventually, in high school, I graduated to Steinbeck, Hemingway, Kerouac, and Kesey.


My older brother was always pursuing some hobby—stamp collecting, oil painting, magic, photography—with a passion that was infectious. I’d always end up doing what he did. I sent money off to some mail-order place in BC to get bags of stamps and bought an album to put them in. I got hold of an old Brownie somewhere. I helped my brother develop our film in the little dark room he carved out amongst the boxes in the tiny attic off our bedroom. But somehow, I could never generate the enthusiasm he had for these activities. It was always a borrowed interest, not strong enough to sustain me.

The one thing I did take up more or less on my own was a fascination with bicycles. I collected old frames and wheels in the annual spring clean-up, and from them I’d assemble strange bikes: I remember one that had a 28-inch front wheel and a 20-inch back wheel. About grade 8, I put together one of the first 10-speeds in town from parts I had lying around, parts I scrounged, and parts I bought at my friend George’s father’s hardware store. I would ride all over town, exploring every neighbourhood, and out into the countryside as far as Island Lake and St Joe’s Island.

I was also infatuated with cars and knew the year, make, and model of almost everything on the road by the time I was 5 or 6. Dad subscribed to Mechanics Illustrated, and I’d avidly read Tom McCahill’s car reviews every month. We would go to the annual Auto Show at the Memorial Gardens, and I’d drool over the new models. I remember the first Mustang I ever saw and the first MGB. I thought I’d gone to heaven when my dad’s friend took me for a ride in the ’66 Dodge Charger he bought with insurance money from the truck he’d crashed on highway 69.

bikeHome built bike.

Our family was always short of money, usually running up a bill at Jean’s Handy Store for bread and milk between pay-cheques. Among other methods of getting cash, we’d pick wild blueberries in the late summer and sell them door-to-door in the neighbourhood for 10 cents a quart.

When he was still pretty young, maybe 10 or 11, my older brother got a paper route, delivering the Toronto Telegram across the whole East Side, and I was conscripted as his helper. The first night was miserably cold and snowing, and we wandered about through the snow drifts looking for addresses on Boundary Road and Trunk Road, a mile or more from home. We split up to find the last few houses, he in one direction and me in the other, and I never did find the one I was looking for. I arrived home what seemed like hours later, freezing and wet and miserable, feeling a failure.

When I was 12 or so, I landed a Sault Star route, and my dad loaned me the $50 to buy a brand new Super Cycle 3-speed, electric blue, with chrome fenders. I had about 50 customers spread along a 3- or 4- mile route that wound through the neighbourhood and ended up at the Husky Truck Stop down the highway at the very edge of town. For awhile, I had several customers across the tracks on the Rankin Reserve. I cleared about 5 dollars per week.

In the summer, I’d strap the paper bag on the back of the bike and race through the route in just over an hour, but in the winter, it was a long, slow slog in the dark, with the bag biting into my skinny shoulder and my hands freezing. When I got home, everyone else would have already finished supper, and I’d eat alone while Mom washed the dishes and my younger sibs dried them and put them away.

One year—1966, I think—as a bonus for signing up new customers, I won a trip to Toronto with a bunch of other carriers and some crusty old newspaper types as chaperons: it was the first time I’d been away from home with strangers. We stayed at the King Edward Hotel. We saw the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Detroit Red Wings, the first time I’d seen a professional hockey game (no TV, remember). And we went to see the movie Fantastic Voyage. It was the first time I’d ever been in a movie theatre, and my lack of familiarity with the conventions of either film or science fiction rendered the narrative completely unintelligible. The whole weekend was equally surreal and disturbing.

siblings-1963Sunday Afternoon at Grandma’s in Waterloo, 1963.

Mom always put a very high value on education (she and Dad had only gone as far as grade 8), and I did well in school, usually at the top of my class. But there was really little competition, given the sub-working-class character of our neighbourhood, and there was only one other boy, Roger, who did anywhere near as well as I. The other boys were all rough and rowdy, bigger than me and barely literate.

I was lousy at sports and a wimp on the playground. I was always in the Crows in singing class. I had to stand out in the corridor with the Jehovah’s Witnesses when the class sang God Save the Queen and recited The Lord’s Prayer. I had to sit out while they learned to dance in Phys. Ed. and learned about sex in Health. I was entranced by the girls, but afraid to speak to—let alone play with—them. I hung around the edges of things, much like my ghostly eldest brother.

family-reunion-1966Family reunion, 1966.

We often went to my grandparents’ place in Waterloo for our vacations—Christmas, sometimes Easter, and usually a couple weeks in the summer. If my dad couldn’t get off work, Mom would somehow find a ride with somebody who was heading down that way: she and her 5 kids crammed into the back seat for the 10- or 12-hour journey “home.” Our times in Waterloo County were usually a whirlwind of visits with all the relatives. Unlike my siblings, I had no cousins my age, and I wasn’t really close to any of them, but I’d often end up spending a few days in the home of some aunt and uncle I barely knew, homesick and struggling to decipher the strange habits and rhythms of my cousins’ lives.

with-fishDad’s latest catch.

Every summer, Dad would take some time off to go camping. He loved the outdoors, and he loved fishing. We had a big orange canvas tent that we’d pitch at Echo Lake or Twin Lakes on St Joe’s Island. Dad would rent a boat, put his old 5-horse Johnson outboard on it, and go out fishing, taking any of us who were willing to go. My mom and the others would hang around the campsite, reading, paddling in the water, or playing on the beach.

ice-fishingIce fishing.

Dad was not a patient man, and I could never get the hang of casting. I never caught a fish and couldn’t see the point of just sitting in a small boat in the sun all day, bothered by mosquitoes, worried about storm clouds. But it was better than the ice fishing, when we’d be huddled out on Lake Superior in our thin ski jackets and rubber boots and home-knit mittens, freezing as the sun set in the late afternoon behind the rim of ice. In both cases, I endured the misery only for the opportunity to be doing something with Dad.


Perhaps it is because they are relatively rare that I remember my times with Dad so vividly. He gave me access to a different world than my mother’s. It was Dad who helped me realize I could fix things. I remember one evening helping him disassemble and repair the coaster brake from one of my bicycles on the back porch. He showed me how the parts went together and where to put the grease (probably Vaseline) and explained how the brake worked. Later, he showed me how to change spark plugs and set the points on his car.

I would sometimes hang around the garages where he worked on the trucks he drove: changing the oil, fixing the brakes, or overhauling an engine. Because he worked for fly-by-night operators during the 60s, most of the garages were awful places, old warehouses with dark puddles in the corners and rats scurrying around in the trash piles. He and the other drivers worked on the trucks under feeble lights, getting me to fetch tools or rags, swearing and laughing, and drinking beer when they took breaks. They were always friendly with me, giving me bottles of Coke and teasing me.

Once in awhile, I was allowed to go on a trip with Dad in his truck. It was wonderful, heading out into the night way up in the cab of that roaring machine, stopping in truck stops for hot hamburger sandwiches, going to places I’d never been before: Hamilton, Windsor, Muskegon, Grand Rapids. But it was also terrifying, being away from the familiar rituals of Mom and home, conscious of the 50 tons of steel or lumber on the trailer behind, worried that Dad would fall asleep or enter a curve too fast. And I always had to pee, but was afraid to tell Dad, to force him to pull over on the soft shoulder of the highway.


As it turned out, we got home safely every time. Both Dad and I survived my childhood, perhaps thanks to Mom’s prayerful intervention.

I somehow managed, out of all of this, to cobble together a persona: about grade 6, I adopted the role of class clown, with little respect for rules or authority and with what I thought was a clever and cynical wit. That carried me, not especially happily, through high school.

—Rick Martin


Sep 142011

Read this as a lament, a keen. It was written, to start with, for Numéro Cinq’s series of “Childhood” essays. But this is no island idyll. It’s not even poignant; that’s too mild a word.  It is sad beyond sad. It is a trip to the heart of darkness. It is also beautiful and rich and generous to that which deserves generosity. In places it makes for nearly unbearable reading. And yet it demands to be read. Years ago, I took a chance on an unknown writer and included one of Kim’s stories in the annual anthology Best Canadian Stories which I edited at the time. In the intervening years she has proved out my intuition, growing deeper, more complex, more heartbreakingly open.

Kim lives in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan (she chronicled her move there from Toronto for NC with two lovely “What it’s like living here” pieces).  She is a writer and artist who grew up in Bermuda and earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her watercolours have been exhibited in galleries, and her writing has appeared in Best Canadian Stories, The New Quarterly, Room, Event, upstreet and other journals. She recently completed a memoir, The Girl in the Blue Leotard. She is a Founding Member and Editor of Red Claw Press and leads an annual retreat to Bermuda for writers and artists. 



I was born and grew up in Bermuda where my father was born and grew up, and a few generations of Aubreys before him. Photos show me as a baby, sitting in a laundry basket full of oranges, fruit as bright, round and juicy as the world must have seemed back then.

Next to the plump oranges, I looked pale and thin. My parents worried I wasn’t gaining enough weight. My father bought me goat’s milk and fussed over me, helping me to sleep by bouncing me in his arms every evening when he returned home from selling jewellery in his shop on Queen Street.

Kim in the orange grove

As a toddler, I was so slight that my mother had to cross the straps of my overalls twice—first on my back, then across my chest. When a big wind rushed in from the Atlantic, she held onto me so I wouldn’t blow away. I loved how the wind pushed against my face, pressing my mouth open, promising to take me someplace new. But I loved the island too—the oranges dangling from their leafy ceiling, the crabgrass tickling my feet, the warm Bermuda earth, red-orange with iron.

When I was six or seven, my parents rented “Rocky Ridge,” a blue bungalow on a cliff overlooking Harrington Sound, where my mother taught me and my brothers, E.R. and Mark, how to swim. We’d run across our backyard to the grey limestone steps, which led down to the sea through a hollowed-out cave, its sandy walls the colour of cream. We’d rub our fingers against the crumbling limestone, stare at the small holes that seemed drilled into it, looking for the creatures that had burrowed there. Sunlight filtered through the cave, cast arcing shadows over its bright surface, enticing us to follow it out into a world of light and water.

Aubrey house with the orange trees

The cave opened onto a long narrow dock stretching out over the blue-green sound. If you stared down from the end of the dock, you might see bright fish or dark sea rays. If you looked out across the sound, you’d notice that it was encircled by land, sheltered, enclosed. But we seldom looked out; we ran for the steps leading down into the clear water where purple sea urchins raised their spikes from the sandy bottom, and shiny sea cucumbers lay waiting for us to squeeze the water out of them.

My mother taught my father to swim too, even though he’d spent his whole life on an island surrounded by water and she’d grown up in a small town in Maine at least an hour from the coast. She’d learned to swim in the cool waters of Great Pond where her aunt and uncle had built a log cabin, while my father had avoided the beach, afraid of the bullying surf that could send you sprawling under, push water up your nose and salt into your eyes.

South Shore Bermuda

The sound could be calm and glassy, or gentle waves could hold you floating. Only in a storm did the water leap up and fly against the limestone cliff, swamping the dock and filling the cave, washing away more sand from its soft walls. Sometimes, the waves would blast up over our house, and once we found a trumpet fish stranded on the driveway out front. My mother flung it over the cliff, back into the water before it could begin to stink.

Trumpet fish are long and thin. They camouflage themselves by standing on their noses amongst strands of like-coloured coral, or swimming with schools of like-coloured smaller fish on which they prey.

Sometimes, my brothers and I fished off the dock. Once I caught a squirrelfish—orange-red with a big dark eye. Squirrelfish usually hide in the reef, emerging at night, protecting themselves by raising the spines on their backs and croaking when threatened. I don’t remember if my squirrelfish made any noise. I kept it in a pail of water for a while, then dumped it back into the sea.

On Good Friday, we flew kites. My father taught us to make them out of tissue paper and oleander or fennel sticks, starting with the traditional diamond shape formed from a cross of two sticks, its flight meant to reflect Christ’s rise to heaven. We nicked slots in the ends of the sticks with a penknife, and threaded twine through the nicks, pulling it tight and knotting it, then covered this skeleton of stick and twine with different shades of tissue paper. One year, my mother could find only white paper, so to brighten my kite, I pasted on oleander petals and cherry leaves. They fell off when the wind stole the kite into the sky.

The whole island flew kites. Good Friday afternoon, the sky filled with their bright shapes and colours. Every March, a radio and TV ad campaign reminded kite flyers about the dangers of power lines, and every Easter on our way to church, my brothers and I would lean out the car windows and laugh to see all the kites stuck in the lines, or on the branches of trees.

In our backyard with its fence marking the edge of the cliff, my father would hold up the kite while I clutched its ball of twine, waiting for the wind from the sound to rustle the taut tissue paper bound within its frame of sticks and string. “Now,” he’d call, and I’d rush forward across the lawn, my kite rising into the air behind me as I hurried to let out more string, the ball of twine flipping in my hand, the kite straining against its narrow lead. Its tail, made from torn-off bits of rag my mother had knotted together, gave it ballast, weighting the kite so the wind wouldn’t toss it around and crush it. I stopped running as the wind lifted the kite higher. Its tail streamed out behind, anchoring it to the clouds.

On Guy Fawkes’ night in November, my father and his younger brothers, Dennis and Peter, set off fireworks on our back lawn near the cliff’s edge. Rockets and fountains burst and shrieked into the night sky. My brothers and I ran around in circles laughing and shouting. When our uncles lit the Catherine’s Wheel, we stopped and clung to our mother, watching the great circle of fire spin and hiss, flinging sparks into the cool damp air.

In the distance, other people’s fireworks cast brief bright shapes against the dark as we waited for Dennis to bring out the Guy. It was made from an old jacket and pants stuffed with newspaper, its head a brown paper bag, also stuffed, topped with a straw hat. I stared at its face, drawn with black marker. Its slit eyes and wide grin leered back at me like a malicious Frankenstein’s monster. I half hoped half feared the fire might spark it into life.

My father, Dennis and Peter built a small bonfire from dry sticks and crumpled paper, lit with several matches. Once the fire caught, spreading through the kindling, they mounted the Guy on top, and we watched the flames burst out from inside his dark pants and shiny jacket, consume his mean face and feed on his crackling hat. Soon the guy was one enormous flame eating away at the dark, launching flakes of ash into the sky.

One night in September, I’d learned that my mind could float free of my body, flying up like a kite or a piece of ash. My parents had gone out to dinner to celebrate my mother’s birthday, leaving my brothers and me with our teen-aged uncle, Peter. Outside, the wind tapped tree branches against the living-room window. Inside, I practiced the pliés I’d learned in ballet class that afternoon, holding my back straight, bending my knees, then rising onto my toes. The reflection of my head bobbed up and down in the darkening window. I was not yet eight and had only begun learning ballet a couple of weeks ago. E.R. was six, and Mark, who had just started nursery school, was four.

For the past year, Peter had been molesting us in the basement of his house where our parents sent us to play on Sunday afternoons, while they sat and drank tea with our grandparents. In that shadowy basement, Peter terrified and shamed us into secrecy, keeping our parents ignorant of what was happening.

If they’d told us he would be baby-sitting, I’d probably have spent the day chewing my fingernails and getting a stomachache, even though I hadn’t believed that he would hurt us in our own house. The familiar ordinariness of the wood-encased TV set, the living-room carpet we sat on to watch cartoons, the purple couch where my parents usually relaxed in the evening seemed to offer a protective spell. Besides, a summer spent visiting our New England grandparents, swimming in cool dark lakes, and picking blueberries in the woods of Maine had already begun to wash out my memories of that basement, making them less vivid, as if those things had happened to three other children.

When Peter yelled, “Stop that jumping!” and lunged after me, I froze at first, then dashed towards the hallway where the bathroom door had a lock. The TV shouted ads from its corner, the wind rattled the windows, and the walls seemed to blur as if suddenly plunged under water. Peter grabbed my arm, clamped my legs between his, pushed my face against his belly. The fibers of his shirt scratched my eyelids. I tried to scream, tried to bite him through his shirt. He gripped my mouth with one hand, forcing me to breathe through my nose, while his other hand crept up my bare leg and into the bottom of my leotard. At first, his fingers tickled, making me feel warm and shivery, then they jabbed into my flesh, sending a sharp pain up through my whole body and into my head. I tried to scream again, tried to bite his hand, but it was pressed too tightly against my mouth. My head felt light and spinny, throat dry and empty.

I learned how to run while standing still, to run until I lifted from the ground and the wind carried me up, a ballast of fear anchoring me to the ceiling. I learned how to pretend something shameful wasn’t happening, and how to clean up the evidence afterwards. Sitting in the bathtub behind a locked door, I washed streaks of blood from my thighs, learned to let the water run until all the pink had swirled away.

The next day, my brothers told my mother that Peter had shown us his penis. I told her I didn’t want him to babysit ever again. I had no words for what had happened. When we visited our grandparents, my mother and father no longer sent us to the basement to play with Peter. My brothers and I forgot what he had done to us. Memory swirled away like a pink stain in water.

Every Good Friday, we flew kites, making them as bright and beautiful as we could, multi-hued hexagons or octagons, borrowing their colours from the hibiscus, the oranges, the cherry leaves, and the clear waters of the sound. We flew kites, cheered when we managed to launch them and they didn’t get caught on a shrub, or drag our spirits to the ground. We flew kites, watching them rise unblemished into the blue, their spokes like outstretched arms, watching them shrink into distant sparks of light, longing to follow, to lift off from the red earth and climb the sky.

—Kim Aubrey

May 132011

Keith Maillard2

Because he had a difficult time pronouncing “Keith” when he was a child, Keith Maillard called himself “Keats.” Because he was sick a lot, he made up stories; he drew stories on the bathroom tiles and his grandmother cleaned them off every day so he could do more the next. Because he was a kid during the Second World War, he thought Kilroy was a magical, ubiquitous person. Herewith is a second excerpt from Keith Maillard’s memoir Fatherless (NC published “Richland” in March). It goes straight to the heart of childhood, that gorgeous, magical moment in time when adults are mythic creatures, the night holds unspeakable terrors, words are mysterious and difficult to control, illness visits and strange medicines applied, and the self applies itself fiercely and joyously to the task of understanding. Keith Maillard was born and raised in West Virginia. Currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, he is the author of thirteen extraordinary novels and one poetry collection.



I’ve always had the impulse to tell stories. It must have started with wanting to hear stories. When I was little, my mother put me to bed by telling me the adventures of Bucky the Bug, a tale that she made up on the spot, that evolved day to day. I was so little that I had to go to bed before it was dark. “You never minded,” my mother told me. “You always wanted to hear the next part of the story.” Those summer nights, as they settled down on me, felt as huge as continents. The light would be fading out at the windows; I’d be tucked into bed but not sleepy yet, and my mother would be telling me what was happening to Bucky the Bug right now. I don’t remember the stories, but I do remember the sense of living inside them. When my mother stopped telling me stories, I begin to tell them to myself. As soon as I could, I notated them—first with stick figures, then, much later, with words.

The lower half of our bathroom walls was tiled. Each tile—cream-colored and blank—looked to me like the panel of a comic strip. I’d sit on the bathroom floor and draw on the tiles with a soft lead pencil, filling in each one with the drawing that went with the story I was telling myself, working my way around the bathroom walls until I had filled all of the tiles as high as I could reach. Every evening my grandmother would scrub them clean with Ajax Cleanser so I could start over the next day and do it again. I felt no sense of loss when my comic strips were wiped away. I loved waking up in the morning knowing that I had all those shining blank tiles to fill—more than I could count—unending rows of cartoon squares where I could tell myself stories.

When I got older, I moved from bathroom tiles to paper. I was sick so much as a child that they bought me a bed table and a special wedge-shaped pillow so I could sit up and draw. Whenever I got sick, I had to take unbelievably nasty blue pills called “pyrobenzamine.” My grandmother would smear my chest with Vicks Vaporub, cover it with a layer of cotton, then a layer of cloth—thin t-shirt material. She’d set the vaporizer going in the corner of my bedroom; it hissed quietly, making everything steamy and scented of camphor. She turned on the radio for me—a box made of Bakelite with a green dial. Voices from the radio told me stories as I drew my own stories. The first two fingers of my right hand became callused from holding pencils and crayons. Sometimes I had fever dreams as thick with images as wallpaper. In my earliest years I had visitations that were worse than nightmares.

Night terrors occur in the early part of the sleep cycle when there’s no rapid eye movement. They afflict toddlers and young children, can be deeply frightening to adults if they don’t know what’s happening—as my mother and grandmother didn’t. Adults often describe the children as looking possessed. They cry out. They’re obviously deeply distressed, and sometimes stare fixedly at something just beyond their field of vision. Most children, when they have night terrors, don’t remember them, but I remembered mine. My mother and grandmother kept saying, “Look at his eyes, look at his eyes, look at his eyes.” I don’t know what my version of “Oh, my God!” would have been, but that’s what I was feeling. My mother and grandmother’s voices sounded rumbly, echoey, as though they were in another room, a huge one with stone walls. I couldn’t move a muscle—Wrong with my eyes, wrong with my eyes, what could be wrong with my eyes?—heard them saying over and over again, “Look at his eyes.” My eyes, my eyes?

Another time it was a shower of pins that were many different colors. They weren’t nice colors, like rainbow colors; they were sharp nasty colors—blue and black and red—and they were falling in a thick cloud of little pins all lined up together, not dispersed, coming down all together. From the way I was seeing them, they were above me and to the left—a countless number, millions of tiny pins raining down on me, trying to do something pitiless to me. I don’t know how long I had night terrors, but they made the night dangerous. I tried to keep them out by pushing on the front door to hold it shut. I might have sleepwalked there; I was not fully awake—I know that—and the radiating glow of that awful yellow light, threatening, disgusting, smeared through the curtain on the door, on our door that led outside to where there were things. I drew that shower of pins. “Like that, like that. It looked like that.”

When I’d first been learning to talk, Keith had been hard to say, so I had become Keats. That’s how I thought of myself, and for years that’s how I signed the cards I gave my mother and grandmother at Christmas and on their birthdays. While I was still inside that eternity of “not-in-school-yet,” I consumed comic books like peanuts, and the classic, iconic pop-culture images from the late Forties flowed into my own stories. Like Batman, I drove a sleek, murderously fast car jammed with amazing modern gadgets; mine was called “the Keatsmobile.” My headquarters was a complex series of interlinking caves deep underground beneath our apartment; the walls were lined with jewels—diamonds and rubies and emeralds and sapphires—and I could see them in my mind, fabulously glittering, as I strode down the corridors. This wondrous place, my home inside myself, was called “the Keats Cave of Splendor.” I lived there with a dozen or so of my friends, and I was the ruler of that world, the fearless hero in charge of the whole works. Like Superman, I wore a uniform with a cape; the letter K was emblazoned on my chest. My best friend and constant companion, my advisor, my right hand man in the Keats Cave of Splendor, was Kilroy.

In the war that was just ending—the terrible exciting war I saw in movies and newsreels and magazine photographs—Kilroy had been everywhere. Wherever our soldiers had gone—even into the most dangerous, bombed-out, desolate, death-ridden cities of Europe—Kilroy had always been there ahead of them. He left drawings of himself, two little dots for eyes, his big nose hanging over a fence, and his eternal message: “Kilroy was here.” The GIs kept trying to find some place, any place at all, where Kilroy had not been there ahead of them, but they’d never been able to find it. That’s the story of Kilroy as my mother had told it to me, and I was lucky to have Kilroy as my best friend. Because he’d always been there first, he understood everything. If I was ever confused or upset, Kilroy would come and explain to me what was going on and why things were happening the way they were. He was a magician, a shaman—my tutelary deity, my guide, my mentor—and these are all adult words. In my childhood he was simply my pal. He was a wise man who knew everything, who could tell me everything I needed to know. He was—and it’s taken me sixty years to see this—someone like a father.

My first work of fiction, written in my head and notated in stick figures that were wiped away every evening, was entitled “Kilroy and Keats.” What we did in the Keats Cave of Splendor was fight against evil. I knew what evil was because I had stared at it when no one else could see it, because it had rained down on me like pins. I knew that evil sometimes sniffed around outside our front door. Evil is what the Japs and the Nazis had done to people—the worst things that anybody could imagine—and they’d done it happily and laughing like the villains in Superman and Batman stories. There were things called “concentration camps” where the Nazis had done really evil things, but Kilroy had been there, and he could explain it to me—how people could have done things like that.

I can remember—just barely—when the War was still going on, imagining it on the other side of the river, but I can’t remember it ending. I told my mother that I wanted to build a fort in our back yard. She said she’d help me do it, but that we’d better put little American flags on it so that when our planes came over, they wouldn’t bomb it. I was terrified. If there was even the faintest possibility that our planes would bomb my fort, then I simply would not build a fort, and I never did. Later—how much later, I don’t know—it came to me in a flash: Nobody would bomb a little fort in our back yard. My mother had lied to me. Kilroy would never lie to me.

We were Americans, and we’d won the war. We’d beat the evil Japs and Nazis. We’d beat them with the bombs that I saw in newsreels, atom bombs brighter than a thousand suns. Kilroy knew all about them. He’d been in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and watched them fall.

—Keith Maillard



May 122011

Here’s a lovely addition to the growing list of Numéro Cinq “Childhood” essays from Court Merrigan who grew up in Nebraska and lives just across the state line in Wyoming. Court was raised on a farm. He has that authentic Western voice, a voice bred in the  dirt and heat and the smell of oil from the farm machines and the chink of irrigation pipes and sound of distant thunder (farmers watch the sky far more than city folk). I have a fondness for the piece based on personal history—the first story I published was about a hail storm on the farm where I grew up. Court’s father towers over this story, his laugh, his exhortations and his reading. What’s really particular and authentic here is that father, Catholic, Jesuit-trained, literate, and wise. He’s appeared before on NC, just in passing,  in Court’s “What it’s like living here.”




By Court Merrigan


The Nebraska Panhandle, 1988

First water, we called it—the first water of the summer irrigation season—first water was coming. On the Fourth of July, 1988, the summer before I entered seventh grade, my father had my whole family at the end of a field of Great Northerns laying ten-inch irrigation pipe over new corrugations.  It was 111 degrees in the shade and all I wanted was to be at the lake with the guys, riding in a motorboat, waterskiing, maybe sneaking a can of beer from a cooler to pass around.  But beans don’t irrigate themselves.

My father was talking about Cincinnatus, the hero that saved Rome and then refused to be dictator, returning instead to his fields.

“This country could use a Cincinnatus or two,” he said.

My grandparents, resolute Catholics, had deemed it their duty to apportion a son to the Church.  My father had been shipped off to seminary at age thirteen, joining the last wave of men to receive a pre-Vatican II education.  Just shy of ordination, he decided celibacy was too heavy a cross to bear.  He bolted for co-ed college and Vietnam and this farm, toting along his classical education like sharp jeweled shards.  It has always seemed to me that these shards jab his brain even when he is about the grittiest of farm labor.  Perhaps more so then.

Cincinnatus was a favorite theme.  We heard the story many times.  I think about him still in moments of reverie, dreaming of accomplishing heroic deeds myself in the camera’s unblinking eye, refusing all offers of position and prestige, returning to my farm with a final wave to the hushed TV masses.

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Apr 062011

It’s a pleasure to introduce Cynthia Newberry Martin’s lovely contribution to the Numéro Cinq “Childhood” essay series. Cynthia is an author, a current Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA student and publisher of the terrific writing blog Catching Days, one of Powell’s Books “Lit Blogs We Love,” where among other delightful things she has a terrific series of posts called “How We Spend Our Days” in which well known writers give readers the lowdown on a typical working day. Her fiction, essays and book reviews have appeared in Contrary Magazine, Storyglossia and Six Sentences, among other places. She has been an NC supporter from the very beginning and has contributed also to our “What it’s like living here” series.



by Cynthia Newberry Martin

“She sees that she has before her an important task: to understand that all the things that happened in her life happened to her…That there is some line running through her body like a wick.”

–Mary Gordon, The Rest of Life

It’s 1962

You’re four. You’re living in Atlanta, Georgia. On February 20th, you stand by your parent’s bed, just taller than the mattress. You stare at your mother. She turns you toward the TV. Look, she says. You’ll want to remember this. That’s John Glenn in a space ship, going around the earth.

You’re five. It’s your first day of kindergarten at Spring Street Elementary School. You wait with the other kids under the awning. The principal rings the bell. You line up. At recess, you ask a girl her name. Dee, she says. You will be best friends until seventh grade when you switch to a private school because your parents say desegregation and busing are going to change things. You play troll dolls at Dee’s house after school. Her grandparents are there, but not her mother who is divorced and works. Henry’s mother comes to the classroom to give puppet shows in French. You love the sound and the magic of the words. Sixteen years later you will major in French and Linguistics. It’s Sunday, June 3rd, and everyone is quiet. Even outside you have to be quiet. Across the street are cars. Miss May’s sister died in the plane crash. In Paris.  Hundreds of people from Atlanta are dead. Your parents will never let you fly on a chartered flight. You will see the cross when you fly into Orly Airport five years later and again ten years after that.

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Mar 292011

Keith Maillard

Here’s a gorgeous yet chilling excerpt from Keith Maillard’s creative nonfiction book, Fatherless. Keith was five when his father went to work at the Hanford nuclear plant in Richland, Washington, on the Columbia River. Originally part of the Manhattan Project (nuclear material for the bombs Fat Man and Little Boy dropped on Japan came from its reactors), Hanford grew rapidly during the Cold War. Now it is mostly “decommissioned” although vast environmental damage remains. Keith’s memoir is chilling in part because of the very ordinariness of domestic life within the immense and hugely dangerous nuclear manufacturing community but also because, to a large extent, not much has changed—the illustration of the fast breeder reactor bearing Keith’s father’s signature below is eerily like the many plant drawings the press has been using to explain the current nuclear plant disaster in Japan. All of this is aside from the poignant recreation herein of Keith’s search, as a grown man many years later, for the estranged father he never knew. Keith Maillard was born and raised in West Virginia. Currently the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia, he is the author of thirteen extraordinary novels and one poetry collection. Many thanks to our mutual  friend, Lynne Quarmby, for bringing Keith to the NC fold.




My father began working at the Hanford nuclear plant in 1947, the year I turned five. He pasted into his scrapbook only one reference to his official work—a pen and ink drawing so anomalous that it jumped right off the page. He’d made a clear, simple, easy-to-understand drawing of a “LIQUID METAL FAST BREEDER REACTOR (LMFBR),” labeled all of its parts, and signed it “E. C. Maillard.”


Within his first year in Richland, Gene Maillard had clearly established himself as the number one song-and-dance man in town. In 1948, while living in a dormitory room and composing on a “collapsible” organ, he wrote “Our Richland,” a song that told the story of the building of the “atomic city,” a song approved by the General Electric Company suggestion department.

The Richland Junior Chamber of Commerce produced a brochure to accompany the “Atomic Frontier Days” that were held during the first week in September of 1948. Celebrity guests Roddy MacDowell, the Cisco Kid, and John Wayne entertained, with Rudy Vallee as the Master of Ceremonies. The cover of the brochure is illustrated with a crude silhouette-style drawing in red and black—the skyline of a booming town with smoke rising from smokestacks, a great flair of white-out at the center, the whole works crowned with an atom, its neutrons zipping in orbit around the dot of the nucleus. The white nothingness that represented nuclear power is firing straight lines of white in all directions and hangs over rolling hills where a chuck wagon and three men on horseback are making their way across an empty desert spotted with sagebrush.

Under the heading of “Let’s Look Back,” the Junior Chamber of Commerce presents its version of Richland’s history.

In the year 1943 a group of men sitting around a table in Washington, D. C. seriously watched as one of their number pointed to a tiny spot on a large-scale map of the Pacific Northwest. Richland! Here, they decided, was the place! Thus was sown the seed from which sprouted a great plant and a thriving community.

Within a few months the pastoral quiet of this agricultural region was no more. Giant bulldozers leveled great tracts of ground, massive trucks roared day and night along erstwhile country lanes, new roads appeared and factories exploded into being from the desert sands. The fantastic barracks town of Hanford materialized to house thousands of construction workers. The nucleus of a vast, secret plant, born of wartime necessity, had been created.

The old farming center of Richland was evacuated and transformed into a modern community designed to eventually house thousands of production workers and their families.

Erection of plant and village ended; production of plutonium began. Only a handful knew “What”, and they were not talking. The village kept its secret well, so well that the nation and the world first learned of its existence only after the announcement of the A-bomb.

The Second Annual Atomic Frontier Days was held in August of 1949. The accompanying brochure was no longer free but now cost twenty-five cents; the cover had changed from red to blue, from hand-drawn illustration to photography, and featured “hard hats and assault masks in the northwestern desert.” Gene has pasted a clipping to the front of the brochure—a picture of close harmony being sung by the “Atom City Four” and a shot of himself with the caption: “A soft shoe tap in black face was an Atomic Frontier Days variety show headliner as done by Jean Millard.”

The Richland Chamber of Commerce expressed its gratitude to the people who made the 1949 Frontier Days a success, and one of them was my father. Once again, we are given Richland’s proud account of itself.

Scattered deep within this natural isolation are this nation’s most modern industrial plants. The vaunted American mass production, the assembly line method by which we lead the world in motor cars, in refrigerators, in turbines and egg beaters and pots and pans, is merely a fumbling dress rehearsal compared to the engineering know-how, the construction skill, the unusual operational methods required in this plutonium manufacturing plant.

The product itself, plutonium, is a man-made element which will be usable a thousand years from now for either war or peace. It is a packed power which will not deteriorate with time, which is a million times more powerful than any known fuel. Its manufacturing raises problems of production, storage, worker protection, national security, and world-power-plays, as no other American made package has ever done. It is owned by a free people; it bears a union label.

At the August, 1950, Atomic Frontier Days, thirty-five booths were set up in Riverside Park, offering “fun and refreshment.” Professional wrestlers went at each other in two exciting matches, and there was a fireworks display with “more than a dozen set ground pieces and bursts of two and three aerial displays at the same time.” The Queen of Atomic Frontier Days was crowned, along with her four princesses. And, of course, there was a free variety show—with twenty-three acts that included a comedy routine starring “Tony the Atomic Clown, Little Atom, and Koko, Hydrogen (H20) Bomb.” The night ended with the entire cast doing “Baked a Cake.”

Gene is listed as one of the directors and appears a number of times in the program, dancing twice with his fifteen-year-old student, Gail Muller. He’s a year away from turning fifty but in the pictures looks younger than that—a lean, fit, grinning showman in two-tone oxfords and a theatrical suit. Two shots catch each of them at the height of a “wing”—balanced in the air with arms flung outward, one foot kicking and the other striking the floor with a toe tap. We can almost hear the laughter and shouting voices egging them on, feel the electrifying exuberance of their performance.

The last photograph in the sequence shows Gene and Gail acting out the story of “Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy.” The image is so crisp that we can see every detail of Gene’s hairline moustache. Gail has one foot resting on the top of a folding chair. Gene is polishing her classic black patent tap shoe with a rectangle of cloth. On the bottom of this photo, Gail has written in a schoolgirl’s careful hand—“To the nicest and best dancing teacher anyone ever had.”

When my father was working there, Hanford’s only business was the manufacturing of plutonium for nuclear weapons. Not until 1963—when the N-Reactor added its bit to the Washington Public Power Supply System—would Hanford’s nuclear energy ever be used for any peaceful purpose whatsoever. Hanford officials constantly reassured those employed at the plant, or living near it, that they were perfectly safe, that “not an atom” escaped, but Hanford is the most contaminated nuclear site in North America. It had always discharged radioactive material into the Columbia River and continued to do so until its reactors were decommissioned. It fouled not only the river but the groundwater beneath it and left behind fifty-three-million gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks that are leaking. Radioactivity from Hanford has been detected as far away as Oregon, northern California, and southern British Columbia. By 1951, the plant had sent more than 700,000 curies up its smokestacks, most of it in the form of iodine-131. For the sake of comparison, the 1979 Three Mile Island accident released less than 25 curies.

On December 2, 1949—in an exercise called “the Green Run”—the Hanford Works intentionally released radiation into the atmosphere so that scientists could monitor the resulting radioactive plume and apply that knowledge to the monitoring of Soviet nuclear production. My father—and anyone else living near the Hanford site—was exposed to twenty times more radiation than the limit allowed by the lax standards of the day. Readings on vegetation afterward were nearly a thousand times over that limit. The Green Run was conducted in absolute secrecy. No one was warned. The public would not know a thing about it for years.  By the time that Gene could have first read a newspaper account of the incident, he would have been eighty-five years old.

On July 31, 1997, I interviewed my father’s old friend, “Brink,” and a younger man, Carl, in the Travel Lodge in Delta, British Columbia. The notes I took are sketchy, cursive. Most of what I heard about my father, I wrote down, but large chunks of the interview didn’t make it onto the page.

We sat in the room as the daylight faded away and no one bothered to light a light. The TV was on, a bunch of pros playing a game of something, somewhere—baseball? The volume was low. Carl—along with a possible shadowy fourth presence—was watching the game, but Brink wasn’t. He was talking to me. In the distorting glass of my memory, the scene is set in twilight, lit with the flickering pixels of the TV screen. Brink was friendly enough, helpful enough, but as blunt and straight as a hammer handle. Initially, I read him as a man who had reached an age from which he figured that there was no reason to speak anything other than the plain truth, and I liked him for that.

I see from my notes that Brink had been an engineer. He and his family moved to Richland in February, 1948. Brink originally worked for DuPont, but his employer kept changing names. DuPont morphed into General Electric, and there were several others—United Nuclear, Martin Marietta, Isocan Rockwell. The word “Hanford” must never have been spoken because it doesn’t appear in my notes at all.

When Brink first arrived in Richland, Gene was already there working as a draftsman. He lived alone and avoided crowds because he didn’t want to “get a bug.” Later he bought a little two-story apartment building in Kennewick, lived upstairs, called it “the Maillard building.” Brink laughed at that—at Gene’s seemingly boundless ego—and so did I.

Gene “performed tap dancing”—yes, that’s exactly what I wrote down, so that’s how Brink must have put it. He’d told Brink a story from his early days on stage. Gene was in a comic role, so he used pecan shells to make himself look cross-eyed, but the effect was too realistic. Instead of finding him funny, the audience felt sorry for him. There was nothing worse, he said, than trying to be funny and not getting any laughs, so he worked out another gag. When he made his exit, he was supposed to tip his derby. He lifted it up, and there was another derby under it. He lifted that derby, and there was another one yet—and then another one. He got a big laugh for that one.

Brink told me that he’d built a little studio in his basement for his daughter, Kippy. He had to dig out the basement first because it was only half dug when they’d moved in. He finished it and tiled it, and that’s where Gene gave Kippy her tap lessons. Gene came every Tuesday night. He charged $2.50 for an hour. Then he’d stay and eat supper with them. As Kippy got older, she gave lessons to other kids in that basement studio.

Carl joined the conversation, and for awhile the two men reminisced about Kippy. Carl was a talkative guy. He’d known my father too, had seen him dance lots of times. Richland had been packed with remarkable people like my father—interesting, talented people. It was a nice little town, a great place to grow up. I’d read a lot about Richland by then, and I agreed with him—it must have been a nice little town. Carl said that he couldn’t imagine any other high school anywhere in America that would have had as many PhDs teaching in it. Yeah, he said, it was a nice little conservative town—making sure I got the point. He didn’t need to do that; I’d got the point awhile back.

“When I was growing up,” I told him, “I imagined my father dancing like Fred Astaire.”

Carl laughed at that. “Oh, no. He wasn’t like Fred Astaire at all. He did fast tap dancing, really athletic stuff… definitely athletic. If you had to compare him to somebody, he was more the Gene Kelly type.”
I wanted to bring Brink back in. “Did Gene talk about his wives?” I asked him.

“Well, he had three wives. He didn’t talk about them too much. One couldn’t be without her mother. She wrote to her mother every day. If she didn’t get a letter from her mother every day, she’d get upset. She’d say, ‘I didn’t get a letter. I have to call her.’ Gene asked her, ‘Do you want to live with me, or do you want to live with your mother?’ She said, ‘I want to live with my mother.’ ”

That was my mother—I’d recognized her instantly. I waited to hear the rest of the story, but there was no rest of the story. Could my mother have actually said something like that—made that admission? If she did say it, maybe it had been on the day she’d left him.

“Gene knew you were a writer,” Brink said.

“Oh?… Did he ever talk about reading anything I’d written?”

“No, he didn’t.”

Before I could find another question, Brink said, “Gene had the impression you didn’t want to see him.”

“That’s not true. I did want to see him.”

“Well, that’s not the impression he had.”

I’d known right from the beginning that there was something going on below the surface, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I kept coming up against a hard edge in this man. Gene and Brink had worked together, had known each other for years. They’d been friends. I now read Brink as very much on Gene’s team, so what did that make me? Some unknown guy who’d arrived too late, appearing out of nowhere to ask a lot of dumb questions? It was as though Brink felt it was his duty to present Gene’s point of view as clearly and firmly as possible. “He thought your mother had poisoned you against him,” Brink said.

“Maybe she did,” I said. “I know she tried to do that, but…” I made an expansive gesture. “Here I am.”

“He had cancer, you know… testicular cancer. He had a testicle removed. The day he got out of the hospital, he got into his car and drove into the desert. His car broke down. He got stuck in the desert. He had to walk back. It was right after the operation.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“We could never figure out why he’d done it,” Brink said. “It seems like an odd thing to do… to drive off into the desert the day you get out of the hospital.”

We must have talked about other things after that, but I can’t remember them. The last entry in my notebook might have been the last thing Brink said—“Gene always talked low. I never heard him raise his voice.”

Talking to Brink was as close I was going to get to talking to Gene, and it badly shook me. For days afterward, I woke up feeling not right—a particularly nasty variety of not-right that was like waking up sickened by the stench of bad breath and realizing that it’s your own. I felt as though I had received a message directly from my father—one that predated the “fuck you” he’d sent me in his will when he’d disinherited me. If I was going to continue the conversation, what was I going to say back to him? I’m sorry about the surly letter I wrote to you when I was twenty?  Gene would have been sixty-one when he got it—if he got it. He was still working at Hanford then. He might have talked to Brink about it. I hated the thought, but maybe that had been my only chance to connect with my father.

I knew why Gene had driven into the desert the day he’d got out of the hospital. I couldn’t have explained it to anyone, but I understood it because I could have done the same thing. Walking in the desert with one ball, Gene had been thinking about me, I was certain of that. How the hell do you get testicular cancer? I didn’t have a clue, but I suspected that being dosed with several hundred thousand curies of radioactive iodine probably didn’t help.

—Keith Maillard


Feb 192011

Michelle & her brother in the Badlands

Here is Michelle Berry’s “Childhood,” the third in Numéro Cinq‘s new essay series (click on the “NC Childhood Series” tag to see the others), a gorgeous, lively, poignant tale of  a nomadic youth and the bond between a writer and her brother growing up. Very human, achingly real. For the truth is these essays are also about what they do not tell—growing older, looking back through the haze of memory and the struggles of adulthood. Most of you are already familiar with Michelle through her “What it’s like living here” essay earlier published here. I put an hilarious Michelle Berry story in Best Canadian Stories in the days when I still edited that annual anthology. She’s energetic, comic and prolific. A new novel This Book Will Not Save Your Life and a new story collection I Still Don’t Even Know You were both just published last year.



By Michelle Berry


Robin Hood

A Robin Hood record with a book attached to the sleeve. My brother remembers I coloured all over the record book, red and blue crayon. He still doesn’t believe me when I tell him I have no recollection of it.

“Why,” I ask him, “would I have done that?”

“You were always doing things like that,” he replies.

Like the time he got a Swiss Army knife for a present and, sneaking into a barn in Virginia, climbing the huge bales of hay and jumping down to the floor, my brother tossed me his Swiss Army knife for safe-keeping. I can still see the glint of the metal as it twisted through the air – slow motion – and disappeared in huge mounds of hay.

“I was six years old,” I say. “You should have known better than to throw it to me.”

“Still,” he says. “It was a great knife. We never found it.”

I thought my father rented a metal detector but he has no memory of this. I think we did apologize to the farmer for sneaking into his barn.

I worried for a while that a cow might have eaten the knife in a mouthful of hay, and then I would imagine someone cutting into a steak one day and finding it.

In England

Road Trips

The long road trip of my childhood.

Moving, traveling. There was a lot of both.

I was born in San Francisco, spent my first year in Claygate, England – first word: “hoss,” because they clip-clopped down the street carrying young girls going for a ride – lived in Virgina until I was seven, then Victoria, B.C.. We traveled across the country in a huge moving van, my mother driving the car behind us with our cat, Sassafras. I sang, “Leaving on a jet plane,” with my hand surfing wind out the van because my teenage cousin from New Jersey had taught it to me while she played the guitar. Every day in the van or car we had a new gift to keep us busy – colouring books, puzzles, snacks, mazes. We saw Prairie Dogs in the Badlands standing on their little back feet watching us watching them. Every motel we stayed in had a roadside pool. Once the gas in our U-Haul moving van was siphoned out of the van somewhere in Pennsylvania. Super Bowl this year my husband and father made silly jokes about the Steelers misspelling their name.

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Feb 112011

Here’s a splendid, gritty Texas “Childhood” essay from Brad Green in Denton. You all know what Denton, TX, is like because Brad also contributed a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” essay in December. Brad Green is a prolific author and editor, a uniquely rich, harsh, dry and despairing voice on NC, and he’s about to be a father again as dg types these words.



By Brad Green


Sloth and Envy

When I was twelve, I had the world’s meanest boil on my ass. Picture the swollen eye of a pissed-off bull, Aztec red and glaring. I’d run my palm with wonder over the furuncle’s tender heat and trace the rising, tight flesh to a pale tip that when brushed made my arms stiffen and toes clench. The day that boil popped was one of the worst of my life.

Hours were spent face down on my bed while the attic fan in our small elbow of a house droned, culling the scent of honeysuckle through my bedroom window. Those bushes were my favorite place in the world at that time. They’d inched up through the clay-cobbled dirt around our trailer in Argyle, Texas, and as they unfurled in the sun, I retreated to their shadow. That crosswork thatch of limbs laid sun-dappled shade under my window and I’d sit on the cool, damp earth, full of breath and light.

Butterflies flooded the air around the vines. The honeysuckle attracted clouds of them, each a fluttering thumbsmear of color. Flying in and around the bushes, the butterflies landed on my arms, tickled paths across my scalp. There was an immediacy to that experience that lifted one beyond the gravity of the skin.

But of course, my hidebound father tolerated none of that woolgathering. One day he thumped his Bible down on my bedside table, opened to Job, his mophandle finger stabbing at the verse. “Unlike him, I believe you done something wrong,” he said. Then he flicked his finger against the back of my thigh near the boil and I bucked on the bed. “You think about what sins brought this upon you.”

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Jan 202011

Here is the first in a new series of Numéro Cinq essays called “Childhood.” The idea is for writers to evoke the place, time and ethos of their childhood in words and pictures, not childhood in general but a particular childhood, not their children’s childhood but their own. Steven Axelrod has been writing on and for NC almost from the beginning. He’s a very witty and loquacious participant in NC contests and a fine observer of the world in his own Open Salon.com column. He wrote a lovely “What it’s like living here” piece about Nantucket. I had often heard him talking about his father, and so it seemed appropriate to ask someone like Steve, for whom childhood was so important, to write about his childhood. As a point of entry, it’s helpful to know that Steve’s father was George Axelrod who wrote the play The Seven Year Itch and the screenplays for such movies as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Manchurian Candidate, and How to Murder your Wife.



By Steven Axelrod




Dog Days

For years I wanted a dog desperately. Wandering the stacks of the New York Society Library on 79th street, I discovered the works of Albert Payson Terhune, and with a boyish, single- minded passion, shared his love for a succession of collies and hunting dogs in books like Lad: a Dog, Buff: a Collie and Lochinvar Luck. Terhune is largely forgotten now, possibly because he really didn’t seem to like people very much. His works introduced me to a number of racial epithets which my Mom used as teaching tools, to explore the fascinating world of human bigotry. “’Chink’ is what people call the Chinese, so they can feel superior to them,” she informed me. “It’s fun to feel superior to other people, especially when you’re not.”

She was stubborn on the subject of dogs, though, knowing full well that the bulk of the care and feeding of any pet would fall on her. And of course we lived in an apartment, not the ideal environment for a herding animal; but Central Park was just three blocks away.


I actually found my dog in the park during a dreary Sunday softball game with a bunch of kids I didn’t like, a group I didn’t want to be part of, the uncool group at school. But during a long, dreamy session in the outfield (even in this crowd, I played deep left), I struck up a conversation with a lady walking a collie. Someone scored a homerun during our conversation, but the dog was due to have pups in a few months, and the lady took my number. She called me when the litter arrived. Even at age nine, I was much better at chatting up interesting strangers than I was at baseball, where I achieved a rare incompetence trifecta: I couldn’t hit, throw or catch. I could run all right, but I preferred not to.

The images release themselves, out of order, seemingly at random: my collie darting back and forth ecstatic in his first Central Park snowfall, taking a bite from a drift and leaping away, barking loud enough to wake up all of Fifth Avenue; and his snout, pressed to the rear window of the car that took him away two years later, when my allergies made keeping him impossible. And the counselor at camp that summer, who built a splendid impossible tower of tooth-picks and threw it into the final bonfire, the flames torching it all at once, the sudden light blinding, the heat intense, the crackle deafening and the column of smoke rising like a cobra from a basket, its hood dispersing against the high clear stars.

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