Wednesday, January 25, 2012

How You Know Your Family

How you know your family.

You dream them into a small white room with bare walls after your father dies. You sit on a creaky old bed from another time and watch him walk for the first time without the braces. Without the crutches. You are all watching him. He is packing his old brown suitcase, the hard top that weighs so much. Back and forth across the room, with trousers in his hands, socks, maybe a book or two. He is packing to go and your mother watches leaned against the wall, your brother too. Mostly you just watch his legs moving smooth across the wood floor, his feet lifting and setting just the way they always should’ve. In this white room with the bare walls, your father is long and lanky and not at all old. He’s a farm boy that is packing to go. Your father but lighter. He’s wearing those white pants you’ve seen in the old pictures, the pictures from the early days of his polio. When he first started his job as a photographer, when he had a goatee and black rimmed glasses and he lifted his crippled legs up off the floor and put them up on a desk and smiled at the camera like he wasn’t angry or sad. Those white pants. And a tank top, the kind he wore under his button-ups. But here in this room of your dream your father isn’t on the edge of the bed, in his underwear, putting on each brace with the loose skin of his arms and the hardness of his mouth. No. He’s wearing the white pants and the tank top the way he would’ve, the way he always wanted. You could see that he felt his body again as a place to live instead of a place to die. You could see it as he walked back and forth across that room putting shirts and underwear in an old suitcase, packing to go.

How you know your family.

You hear the color red in their voice when you talk to them on the phone. Something red beneath the surface of their words. You feel stopped when they say the things they say. Like you ought not. Ought not what they will ask when they read this. And you will struggle to tell them ought not anything is what it feels like. Like it’d be best if you could just disappear. And maybe you have. Not in one big poof like in a magic show, or like a bullet to your head would. But day by day, moment by moment, year by year, a little bit less of you.

How you know your family.

You let them sit inside your head and whisper. Even the dead.

How you know your family.

You walk on the hard winter ground of your father’s youth and come to stand where the old barn used to be and try to fathom your young father’s heart up there in the loft with the kittens crawling and mewing with him in the hay. His delight. The tenderness in his small boy hands. And then the hard line of your Grandpa’s mouth, his words and his tall rigid body sending your dad to the creek to drown them. Your father standing at the side of the creek, the kittens squirming in the sack, mewing, their bodies curled up against the hard stones. Your father’s arm slack by his side, maybe his teeth coming down on the soft flesh of his lower lip, watching the water move.

How you know your family.

You turn 40 and you decide to go gently with yourself, to live with the tenderness of your heart alive, the fire in your belly lit. You decide that a loyalty to yourself is the only penance you need to pay for your family’s pain. You wonder why you can’t mean it as much as you wish you could.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

I Believe

**An older piece of writing, dedicated today to all my writing friends who struggle and strive to put it all down on that blank page, to tell the stories they are meant to tell. Happy New Year lovely bones. May the muse be with you in 2012!**

I believe that I am made of stories.

I believe that my stories tether me when nothing else does. To family. To place. To spirit. When I was four, I began telling stories of a mythical place that I called rainbow land. The way I told it, rainbow land was a magical place, a place where the living was easy. I told my mom and dad that I could access rainbow land from three places- the farm where my father grew up, the park across the street from my house, and Taos, the northern New Mexico town that we traveled to every summer. All I had to do was stand in wait for a rainbow to reach down and take me there.

My father taped me telling stories at this age. He was an audio visual man with a penchant for documentation. Two years ago, when my father lay in the back room dying, I listened to some of those tapes. My small voice scraping against the microphone, words just spilling out of my little PJ wrapped body. I spoke like a river- easy, constant, steady. I told stories that seemed deep and taken from somewhere important but I also told inane little diddys that seemed plucked from underneath my nails, or scraped up from the bottom of my shoe. One in particular that I remember was about building the perfect crib for my older brother. This was my long winded way of calling him a baby. I could hear my Dad snorting in the backdrop, getting a kick out of my indirect insult.

But the most striking thing about these tapes is that my telling didn’t yield or break until my father took the mike out of my hands. I just kept talking. Like it was the only thing keeping me there. Like I was born for it.

When I got to be a little older, I began writing the stories down. I figured out somewhere along the way that you can’t expect everyone to want to hear what’s inside of you. You can’t turn yourself inside out all the time and expect to be liked. So I picked up my pencil and I wrote some of it down. As I got older, though, I became impatient with writing. I felt frustrated by its limitations. My hands couldn’t keep up. There were so many other things to do, anyway. I adopted an attitude of futility. Words are like boxes, I’d say. Language is what separated us from life, I’d muse. I’ll write when I’m old and can’t do anything else.

These last years, though, I’ve been feeling too full, like I’m holding on too hard, carrying the weight of something dying. All the untold stories pushing against my ribs, closing in around my throat. Some of them sit cloistered around my heart and just burn. Listening to those tapes, hearing that river coming out of me, I understood.

I am made of stories and stories are meant to be told.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dear Heavenly Father

You gotta know the rules. And the rules are different everywhere you go.

In our house, supper starts with grace. Dear heavenly father. We don’t say it at breakfast or lunch or dinner out or dinner at friends. So its dear heavenly father when its just the four of us there in the kitchen for supper, packed tight, elbow to elbow. Dear heavenly father. Sometimes mom says let’s say grace and we all bow our heads like your supposed to and dad says just the word grace real quick and funny and we laugh and then start up like usual. Dear heavenly father.

Chris and I share a side of the table, small wooden chairs, kitchen not much bigger than the table, the stove, the sink and the fridge. We get trapped up against that wall and fight each other for elbow room. Sometimes it gets serious and finally dad takes a measuring tape, finds the middle and saws a clean line in the metal rim of the table to show us what’s what. There, he snorts, that’ll keep you quiet.

Quiet’s another one of the rules. Dear heavenly father and quiet.

I went to Tricia’s house across the street and had Italian dressing on my salad. I got home and mom asked what I had for dinner and when I told her about the Italian she seemed mad. Like thousand island ought to be good enough. Like Italian was uppity. I just liked it better I guess.

Like I said, you gotta know the rules. And one of the biggest rules is that you don’t always get to understand the rules.

After dear heavenly father comes bless this food for our good. And after that its and us to thy service. In Jesus’ name. Amen. That’s how grace goes. I get the part about blessing the food and that food is good for us but I’ve never been real sure about Jesus and us to thy service. We go to church and I know that on Christmas Jesus was just a little baby boy that got born outside with his mom and dad, the goats, and three wise men. I know that much but I still don’t know about us to thy service.

I like Tricia’s church better than ours. Her family goes to St. Agnes and they kneel a lot and touch their fingers to their body to make the cross and they even get up in the middle to get in line and stick out their tongues for a cracker. In my church the main thing is to be quiet and still and listen even when something is so funny you can hardly stand it. I draw a lot. Mostly pictures of houses. I like to make big chimneys out of brick and round windows above the front door. But sometimes Chris and I get to thinking something is so funny that we can hardly follow the be quiet rule. One time it was because Pastor Almquist hiccupped in the middle of his sermon, talking about Jesus and his friends and then real loud, bouncing off all that quiet, a giant hiccup. I like the Pastor even though his talks are boring. He’s missing one of his fingers and I think Dad said it got chopped off somehow when he was in Africa teaching Africans about Jesus. I imagine little African kids and wonder if they ever heard the Pastor hiccup or if they draw houses instead of listening.

Another one of the rules is go to your room.

It’s supposed to be a punishment but sometimes I feel real good about the fact that it doesn’t really feel like one. My room is better than the living room for sure, mainly because I have an even better couch in my room, one without wooden arms, PLUS everything else. There’s my bed with my favorite yellow bedspread that’s itchy but pretty. There’s also my doll house and my shelves and shelves of stuffed animals that came from all over. The knitted ones are from Grandpa Johnson’s neighbor at the Manor. She’s right next door and way less scary than Grandpa J. because she smiles and remembers me and gives me things. She even pats her big tall bed and invites me up while she knits. I like to watch her hands. Even though one of the rules is don’t touch, I always want touch her skin because it looks so soft and loose and freckled. I guess some of the rules don’t apply when you are just a baby because everyone likes to tell the story about how I used to be hitched up on Grandma Johnson’s hip, taking my little baby fingers and touching all her moles, tracing the lines of the loose soft skin under her chin. Everyone says she liked it and thought it was funny. I wonder if she were still alive if she’d let me touch her skin still. I wish I could remember how she laughed when I did.

There’s one person in my family who used to make me forget the rules and that’s my Grandpa Stewart.

It’s not that I broke all the rules when we’d go see him or anything, its just that when we sat down and did a puzzle or something I just felt the rules leave my body. He and my Dad liked each other a whole lot too. It always looked like the rules left my Dad’s body around Grandpa S. too, not like with his own dad. Sometimes the rules seem like they belong to everyone, but they didn’t seem to belong to Grandpa S. He especially didn’t have the no touching rule. He’d wrap his arm around me tight when I was on his lap and if I stood next to him he would lean into me a little until I knew to lean into him. My Dad would always smile and stick out his hand to Grandpa S. when we’d leave Hutch and he always took it and then pulled my Dad’s big stiff body into himself. When he released him he’d keep his eyes on his and pat and rub the outside of my Dad’s shoulders, kind of like my Dad was a kid like me, maybe a little sad to go and maybe a little scared just in general.

I had a really good dream about Grandpa Stewart one night and when I woke up in the morning and went to the living room Mom and Dad told me he was dead. Just like that. I could tell that they were trying not to upset me by trying to hide their sadness from me but it was all over the room. Even the early morning sun light speckled on the couch seemed sad. The one person in our family that didn’t have the rules just died and all of us sat in the living room and knew we’d miss him forever.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

***Over a year ago, I started a story, narrated by a young girl named Jemma. I dropped the story after only a few measley pages, but Rawlins, the adult stand-in Dad character, has dogged me since. I don't know who he is or how he came to be in charge of Jemma and Jasper. He has seemed both loved and adored by Jemma, but also hated for his harshness. This is just a little back and forth between them....I'm going to try and figure this guy out without thinking about writing or story...let him speak for himself. ***

Dear Jemma,

I’m not sure you’ve got it in you. To tell our story, I mean. I’ve been standing out here in the hot sun, tapping my foot, dressed in my white shirt like a goddamn fool, waiting on you, you know. You think I’m mean, and I’m sure that’s how you’ll tell it, but you know what you are kid? What you’ve always been? Scared, like those little rabbits out there in the field, darting off like the air is dangerous, like the next thing that’s comin is the thing that’ll end them. Your daddy thought you were something so goddamn special, so smart, he said, so observant, so “in tune”, whatever the hell that meant. But I’m sitting out here in the hot sun waiting for your observations, waiting for you to just fucking open that mouth of yours and tell us what you think, something other than your errant fuck you’s. What is it kid? Am I not good enough for you? Are you afraid of what I might do or what you might do back at me?

You could write me the way you always wished me, you know. I could clean up and be nice for your story, put my pretty party face on for you and your readers like I did at the parties and at church and in front of your mom before she got smart and high tailed it outta this fucking place…what did you call it….a yellow knot of land? Fucking poetic Jemma. Why don’t you just put me out of my misery and write it down, get me outta this stupid shirt and out of the dust and get it done.

Joseph T. Rawlins

P.S. Don’t forget to tell them that what happened to Rowdy was just as much your fault as mine.


Maybe I’ve left you out there in your boots with that white shirt on because I want to watch you squirm. Maybe I want you to watch me as closely as I always watched you, waiting for my cue, instead of the other way around. Maybe those rabbits are scared for a good reason and for all their darting around, at least they’re still alive. I mean, what happened to you, Rawlins, so scared of nothing, so big and mean, what happened to you to make your eyes get so hard, so dead? Maybe that’s what I’m waiting on. The part of the story that I don’t know. My dad, the way I remember him, was good. He was brave and smart and he always had time for me. I always figured you must have been the same way or he wouldn’t have been your friend, wouldn’t have spent those long nights up with you after mom left if there wasn’t something good and alive in you. So what happened Rawlins? I’ll write it when I know you better, because even though I hate the thought of it, you are the story. I’m the kid, the witness, the one who gets out alive because I’ve got a lick of spirit like Dad said. A lick of something fine. Do you remember him saying that? That Jasper had the guts, but I had the heart? Do you remember? Is that why you hate me?


P.S. Don’t you think I think about Rowdy every day and know what I did. The heart never forgets mistakes like those, Rawlins. You know that because I see it in your eyes, standing in the dust, waiting for me like a sinner waits for his confessor.


Well, well, well. At least I know you’re still there. Right, kid? Still there. Give me a glass of whiskey in my hand and some shade and I’ll tell you a few things.


Dear Rawlins,

Take a walk back to the porch and sit on the swing. I’ll go in the house and get you some whiskey if that’ll make you talk. But you’d better tell it to me the way your heart remembers it, because I’m just not interested anymore in anything else. God, Rawlins, did you ever think about the fact that little girls and boys and horses know a goddamn thing or two? Like maybe you couldn’t just say and do and be whatever shade of mean you wanted to be without us noticing? Without it mattering?


Dear Jemma,

Thanks for the shade. And thanks for the whiskey, but I take a couple of ice cubes just so you know for next time.

Where do you want me to start? Do you want me to dwell on my childhood like you? Talk about my mommy and daddy and all the things they did wrong? Or would you like to hear about your Dad or the war or your Mama. Or do you want me to tell you about how I see you, how I see Jasper, Rowdy, and all of those years there. Do you want me to tell you about what your Daddy said to me when he died? Or dear Jemma, do you want me to say anything at all that might change what you think you know. You’d better ask me direct.


Thursday, March 18, 2010


Thing I like best about spring is that you can hear it. The dripping of snow melt off the roof. The birds, the little ones, the ones that go away and come back, chirping in the still barren trees. The wind, not howling like sometimes in the winter but just that coming-on sound, that what’s next sound, same as tires on the highway. And my favorite….the rivers, the creeks. Water uncovered, unlocked, rushing. Gurgling over stone, meeting mud and grass.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the stillness of winter, the quiet. And I know that without that, I wouldn’t throw my doors open and listen to spring the way I do. And I guess that’s just it, what I’ve been noticing lately, same as the sages will tell you. You just can’t have one without the other. There’d be no laughter and joy without its opposite. Right?

I just wish that I could embrace pain the same as I embrace winter, knowing that around the next bend joy awaits same as spring. Just think about that. Throw open your doors and think about how without the goddamn short dark days, we wouldn’t know these long easy days of spring.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Maybe Memory

**When I attended the writing retreat with Tom Spanbauer in March our assignment was to write about a moment, after which, you were changed. I asked him at the end of the workshop if that was always the assignment he gave. He said that it was either that one or this: write about a memory that you think you have. In other words, fill in the details of a fuzzy memory. I decided to use that as a prompt today. Forgive the divergence. Perhaps you'll find the setting familiar though....**

Maybe just me, but maybe Chris too, in the backseat. Back of dad and grandma’s heads, faces forward with their history in between. I’m four. I know that much. Pretty sure the smell of mud and new green was coming in from cracked windows. Pretty sure it was the kind of early spring day that still scrapes my insides clean but for some deep longing. To go. To stay, to be something better. Something.

Dad I bet had a jacket on, kaki with a zipper, short sleeve button up underneath in case we got lucky. Grandma, I don’t know. Maybe a skirt for town, tan hose with those shoes that nurses wear, except dark so dirt doesn’t show. Their faces the same, fleshy. Cornflower blue eyes that water easy, lips that aren’t quite symmetrical. Thick, though, in a way that’s pleasing. Grandma had a mole on her chin. Everyone laughed when I put a little finger on it. She didn’t have a soft way, but I could tell she liked me. Could tell she liked to have me up there on her hip as she moved around the kitchen.

Don’t remember the drive that day, whether we took the Missile Road to the highway, past the cemetery or drove down by the Lanes’ place, past the big house with the longhorns out front. Don’t remember if I was kicking the back of the seat, chattering to no one in particular or if I was quiet and still, looking out as barns and trees and fields passed by. Don’t even remember the color of the sky. Not really.

What I do remember is pulling in to town. Dean’s restaurant there on the corner with the smell of fried chicken and gravy. Wide flat streets with little houses leaned into scrub trees. The rail station with its Spanish arches and yellow walls. Bumping up over the tracks and then the five blocks of downtown. The grocery, the five and dime, the what not store with those shelves and shelves of ceramic dogs.

Dad took a wide turn into a parking spot out in front of the drug store. I think maybe grandma had a hat on and when she turned to my dad that last time and said whatever she did, I saw the bobby pins that held it up there on her head. And when she turned back toward her door and opened it I heard the leather of her purse make that same noise Dad’s briefcase always made up against his crutch. That squeak.

And then she was out, only one foot up on the sidewalk when things seemed to slow down. Dad asked the question loud.


She was still trying to walk, get that other foot up on the sidewalk, but her body wasn’t minding. Wasn’t minding at all.

Dad leaned over toward her window, his right arm up and over the crutches in between, his hand punched deep into the seat, and asked it again, maybe louder.


Her body began to shake and the willfulness in her jaw went slack. Dad pulled himself back to straight and maybe looked back at me, at Chris if he was there too. Maybe not though, maybe the panic on his face was something I remember from another time, later on.

His thick fingers reach out for the door handle and the door pops open. Grandma's on the ground by now and out of my sight. All I’ve got to see with my wide eyes now is Dad, swiveling his butt around on the slick seat, lifting one leg and then the next, lowering them to the ground, pushing and sliding his butt to the edge so he can lever up against his legs, right hand on the dash, left on the arm rest of the door. The final push and the locking of the braces, then the long reach inside for his crutches. When he’s finally up, he looks toward the place on the sidewalk where Grandma is and then looks around until he found the man rushing out of the store.

Call an ambulance.

The man turns back toward the door.

Dad’s voice breaks and he asks the question one more time. This time quiet and to no one.


I only remember seeing my father fall once but I wonder if he let himself fall down to my Grandma then. It would have been a lot quicker, that fall, than anything else he could have managed. Maybe he didn’t even try. Maybe he stood over her, just watching and waiting for the people that would come and kneel easily over her small body and lift it into the ambulance.

I’d like to think he fell though, scraped himself up, touched her hand and whispered something through his tears.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

October 21, 2009

**There was a little confusion about the characters from a few readers so I added the following to be inserted between the first and second posts.**

Rawlins wasn’t Jasper and I’s dad, wasn’t even a real relative. He’d known my dad since they were kids, like brothers the way people tell it. Storming around, raising hell on hot gravel roads. I could make the two of them out somewhere behind my eyes, laughing quietly at the kitchen table, drinking coffee and whiskey, thinking Jasper and me were asleep. Can see Rawlins’ stiff grey face over the other side of the casket. None of it meant enough then, though, to forgive him. I was just a girl and he should have taken more care, care enough to not let things happen the way they did anyway.

I suppose it all started the day I first laid eyes on Rowdy.

**And this picks up after the second post.**

We bumped down the lane, summer grasses scraping the underbelly of truck, all of us letting our bodies limp and sway with the uneven movement. I slid my butt up further on the seat, leaned back and put a foot on the dash. Hot damp June air blowing back on my face. I tried to keep my eyes fixed on the road, or Nelson’s cornfield out past the fence. But even as I cursed myself for it, I turned my eyes back to Rawlins. He was looking straight ahead, right hand cupped up over the wheel, left arm curled out the window, fingertips up on top of the roof, tapping like they did. No give aways in his face.

Our first stop was Elsie’s place up on Missile Road. From the lane it was left down the hill past the Richards’ place, across the bridge, up just a bit with our place still hugging the left of the road and then right onto the smooth blacktop of Missile. Rawlins always took this stretch fast, pushing up against fourth gear so we could all hear the engine working. Despite myself, I hung my head out over my folded arm and smiled into the speed, skin pulling up against my bones. I looked down to the tall grass next to the road, tried to make my eyes fight the blurring and fix on one clump at a time. When it was too much and I started to get dizzy I brought my eyes up to the distance where things were still slow and easy, hills and trees moving even against the flat horizon.

Elsie was what people in town called poor country. When I was a little kid and heard someone say that, I’d asked my Dad about it. Asked him if we were poor country too. He’d pushed his John Deere cap up and back, scratched his forehead and looked at me long. He chuckled at something in his mind and then straightened his face back.

We’re working country, Jemma. That’s what we are. We work the land.

But aren’t we poor too? Just like Elsie and her boy? And don’t they work?

He’d struggled with a response, tried hard to find words that would catch up with his face. My Dad was like me, answered questions quicker and more honest with his eyes, his mouth, the set of his jaw. The words he chose were always a little less true. I don’t even remember what those words were, just that in his face he admitted to being every bit as confused as me.