My Mother’s Museum

Mark Brazaitis


When my mother died in May of 2022, at age seventy-nine, she left me and my sister her house in Washington, D.C. I visit the house frequently, ostensibly to clean it in preparation to put it on the market. Less a dutiful housekeeper and more a curious visitor to a museum, however, I never fill more than a few of the 13-gallon trash bags I carry with me. I am reluctant to disturb anything when every room is a wing of a compelling exhibition, and each object in it—photo, T-shirt, letter, knickknack, receipt—is a revealing relic of my mother’s life.


The manner in which I tour her house determines the way I read her story. It’s like inhabiting a work of experimental prose: the beginning and end are arbitrary; characters appear unexpectedly; there are frequent and abrupt jumps in time; and the narrative is nonlinear, digressive, and sometimes redundant. Occasionally my mother recedes from the tale, and I move to the forefront: a ten-year-old, a high-schooler, a college graduate, and—in a bathroom mirror—a middle-aged man still coming to terms with his past.


The following is one of my visits to my mother’s museum, her story—and mine—conjured by four objects:


A mini cassette tape labeled “Step People.” (Exhibit location: top drawer of my mother’s dresser.)


I made the tape as a humorous gift for my mother in the summer of 1989, when I was twenty-four, combining audio from my father’s second wedding and my droll (or such was my intention) commentary on the ceremony. For good measure, I mixed in snippets of pop songs, including the Kinks’ “Destroyer,” over which I shouted lyrics I invented. I named the tape “Step People” after my four new relatives—my stepmother and three stepbrothers—whom I equated with figures from a horror film, even if my oldest stepbrother was my good friend.


For my mother, my father’s remarriage was a double injury. It represented a final betrayal by her former best friend, my father’s soon-to-be wife, who’d encouraged her to divorce my father, then, a few months later, started dating him. And it was the culmination of my father’s cruelty toward her, which had begun years earlier, when we lived in East Cleveland, Ohio, and he had an affair with another of her close friends.


Periodically after the divorce, in the spring of 1982, my mother sobbed in her bed late at night. Invariably, I pulled myself from sleep and sat by her as she revisited my father’s transgressions. To comfort her, I mocked my father and his lovers past and present. My goal was to make my mother laugh. If she was laughing, she wasn’t crying.


My mother’s tears ceased before morning. Perhaps she didn’t think she could afford to let her sadness slow her down. She was the tireless, inventive, and accomplished editor and publisher of Hammer and Dolly, the monthly magazine of the Washington Metropolitan Auto Body Association. She’d turned Hammer and Dolly from a 16-page provincial digest into an 80-page glossy with an international readership. The magazine featured news from around the world on everything from computerized estimating systems to new paint technologies to controversies over aftermarket parts, as well as profiles of people in the industry and lighthearted features, including a cover story on the best “whoopee” cars.


Nor did my mother cry when one of her boyfriends was on the scene. Did she not feel the urge to cry, or did she refrain because she was worried that the man she was with would feel diminished by the feelings—negative but powerful—she still had for my father? I never asked her.


My mother would marry my stepfather a few months after my father’s wedding, but this didn’t mean he wouldn’t suddenly exit her life, as he’d done before, when they’d been dating. Meanwhile, I’d graduated from college, would soon leave for Guatemala with the Peace Corps, and wouldn’t be around to soothe and amuse her. I decided she needed something to comfort her in my absence. Whenever she felt blue, she could listen to “Step People.”


Before my father’s wedding, I placed my microcassette recorder in my suitcoat pocket. Immediately before the ceremony, I pushed “record.” I was my father’s best man. Standing with him at the altar, I might as well have been wearing a wiretap. I alternately felt like a righteous informer and a stool pigeon.


Clearly eager to appear learned and worldly in front of what he must have judged a sophisticated crowd—both my father and his bride were reporters; their wedding guests included well-known politicians and journalists—the pastor interspersed Bible verses with wisdom from other religious traditions. And he couldn’t resist sprinkling his service with lines from Kahlil Gibran, the author of The Prophet, whose overquoted words had something in common with greeting card rhymes.


At one point in the service, my stepmother’s middle son read a poem he’d written, its final couplet rhyming “Tom,” my father’s name, and “Mom.” My sister and I, trained by our maternal grandmother to be literary snobs, had to think sad thoughts so we didn’t howl with laughter.


At the reception afterward, the husband of a local news anchor protested that his wife—who was clearly used to getting whatever she wanted immediately—had yet to receive a piece of wedding cake. The cake had been cut only a couple of minutes before, but never mind—her sweet tooth needed instant gratification. He chanted his demand: “My wife needs cake! My wife needs cake! My wife needs cake!”


I captured all of it on tape and spliced highlights, or lowlights, together with music and my oh-so-funny (or snarky or sophomoric) observations.


I wonder how often my mother listened to “Step People.” Because I found the tape in an open box in her dresser’s top drawer, I suspect that she must at least have looked at it long after my father’s wedding and probably long after his death, of kidney cancer, in 2005.


From time to time, I’ve felt guilty about mocking my father’s wedding. I would have been ashamed had he ever listened to “Step People.” But staring at the cassette, titled with my long-ago handwriting, I imagine a sorrowful night in which my mother, alone in her dark bedroom, clicked “play” on her mini tape recorder. If her tears gave way to laughter, I don’t have any regrets.


A photograph of my sister and her then-boyfriend, when they were in college, sitting on an armchair in my mother’s living room. (Exhibit location: a drawer in the vanity of my sister’s old bedroom.)


My sister’s boyfriend broke up with her on Christmas Day, 1992, but only after he’d celebrated the holiday at our house and loaded the trunk of his car with the gifts my family had given him. An hour after her boyfriend drove off to his home in New Jersey, my sister shared her sad news with our father, who was living down the block with his second wife. My father grieved—not for my sister’s loss but for the money he’d spent on the guitar tuner he’d given her now ex. “My God,” he said, “he might as well have robbed me at gunpoint. It would have been more decent.”


What strikes me about the photo, however, aren’t its two subjects but what is visible at its edges. Under the lamp on the table beside the armchair is a collage picture frame with photographs of my silver-haired, tanned stepfather. Above the lamp is another collage of photos, this one featuring a baby, my stepfather’s first grandchild. On the mantel above the fireplace is a 10-by-13 high-school photo of my stepfather’s younger son. Behind my sister’s head, in an open cabinet, is the television my stepfather watched endlessly as he smoked one cigarette after another, the fumes sucked into an electric air filter my mother insisted he use.


I’d forgotten how much of the house, which became my mother’s after she and my father divorced, my stepfather had claimed. Now I remember returning to it at various times after I’d left home for college, for the Peace Corps, and for graduate school, and finding it each time a degree stranger than the house I’d felt most comfortable in, which wasn’t when my father lived in it but in the months immediately after he (and his temper and his obsession with tidiness) left.


My stepfather, who was then my mother’s boyfriend, moved into my mother’s house at the beginning of my junior year in high school. In the aftermath of a divorce, it isn’t uncommon for children to live with the stranger who is their parent’s new partner. By extension, we children of divorce live with the stranger’s family and friends, their habits and hobbies, the foods they like, the entertainment they entertain themselves with. Do most of us grow comfortable with the arrangement? I never did. The longer my stepfather lived in my mother’s house, the more it felt to me like a bed-and-breakfast whose walls, weirdly, held a few photos of me, my sister, and my mother.


After twenty years, my mother divorced my stepfather. But even now, more than a decade after he last stepped foot in the house, I find traces of him: golf tees engraved with the name of the insurance company he worked for; videotapes of his favorite comedians; a pennant from a professional football team he liked. Although I call my stepfather every Christmas and faithfully send birthday cards, I’ve never stopped thinking of him as an interloper. After my father’s exile, I was, briefly, the king of my mother’s house. I’d thought this was the way it was supposed to be; I was next in the line of succession, after all.


If I have more perspective on my Oedipal ambitions now, I am no less interested in reclaiming my territory. Anything of my stepfather’s I come across goes straight into one of the trash bags I’m carrying. Discarded item by discarded item, I begin to restore my mother’s house to the place I felt most comfortable, the place I believed was most mine, the place I would most call home.


A box full of empty boxes. (Exhibit location: the attic.)


It’s a metaphor, I decide. But of what?


Do the dozen small boxes, each large enough to hold a necklace or a tie, represent the gifts we never gave each other?

What gift would I have wanted from my parents?


When I was growing up, they gave me model airplane kits, books about dinosaurs, a baseball glove. Later: a Bruce Springsteen album, a black sweater, War and Peace in the original Russian. (A lazy Russophile, I read no more than a page.) But if I could go back in time, to when I was ten or twelve or fifteen, and ask my parents for a gift, I’d wish for something immaterial.


It wouldn’t be that they remain married, which would be to wish for both the impossible and the undesirable. They’d had two wedding ceremonies, one Catholic, one Protestant, in order to appease their Montague-and-Capulet parents, who’d deigned to attend only the ceremony they preferred. A more mature and compatible couple might have overcome this inauspicious start, but my parents’ marriage soon became strained, contentious, and, most damaging, adulterous. It needed to end.


If I wished that my parents had never married, I wouldn’t be wishing myself out of existence. I’d been conceived two months before they exchanged vows. But as resilient and tough as my mother could be, she would have found single-parenting challenging, especially because my father would have been, at best, a reluctant contributor to my welfare, stingy with his time and his money. And they wouldn’t have had my sister.


No, the gifts I wish they’d given me are the gifts I wish they’d given each other.


I wish my mother had given my father the gift of her forgiveness. From the start, he was an unsuitable partner, expected to live up to Father Knows Best standards that his own father, an alcoholic who abandoned his family when my father was eight, never came close to meeting. Tormented by his Catholicism, which sanctified sex only if procreation was its aim, my father found sin tempting not only for its pleasures but for the middle finger it waved in the faces of oppressive authorities. Early in his marriage, my father and one of his lovers received a citation for public indecency. My father considered it a kind of medal—proof that he’d defied God, the Catholic Church, and the law. When he told me the story years later, he seemed unconcerned about the only person his behavior had actually hurt—my mother—who’d found the citation in his desk drawer.


If my mother had forgiven my father, she would have freed herself from the debilitating anger and resentment she felt toward him. But even in the months before her death, she belittled his character and blasted his failures as a husband and father. She’d forgiven him nothing.


From my father, I would have wanted the gift of clarity and compassion—clarity about how he’d made my mother miserable and compassion for her pain. Had he acknowledged my mother’s sorrow and told her he was sorry to see her suffer, he might have lessened the bitterness in their relationship, thereby liberating me from my role as my mother’s confidante and consigliere—and his secret critic and lampoonist.


What gifts would my parents have wanted from me?


My mother, at her angriest and most wounded, might have wanted even more of my loyalty—perhaps my outright refusal to have anything to do with my father.


My father, I suspect, would have liked me to be less sensitive. If I’d been less attentive to my mother’s needs (or neediness, as he might have put it), I would have been more accepting of his relationships, particularly with his second wife. For a long time, I saw her only as my mother did, as someone deserving scorn.


What gift would I have given myself if I could reach across the years and place it in my teenage hands? The equanimity to accept my parents’ flaws, including their failure to temper the rancor in their relationship, and the wisdom to realize I had no power to make either of them happy—and no obligation to.


Of course, to gain such equanimity and wisdom, I needed to have lived the years I’ve lived. I imagine myself, as in a science fiction novel, returning to the time of my parents’ divorce. Do my parents notice I’m a fifty-six-year-old man with gray hair and spider-web-thin lines at the corners of my eyes? Am I able to retain my transcendent tranquility, or do I become, again, the boy I’d been, caught in the tempest of the never-ending end of my parents’ marriage?


Even now, I would have nothing more to offer than a plea—Be kind to each other, please—which is what I wanted to say a thousand times but never did.


A Rolex watch. (Exhibit location: a bottom drawer in the vanity in my mother’s dressing room.)


I’ve always thought of Rolexes in the same category as Ferraris: showpieces beyond the means of most mortals. Evidently, the watch wasn’t beyond my mother’s means, although it was difficult to determine what her means were. She was open about much of her life but deeply secretive about money. My sister and I watched her spend it sometimes in what we considered frivolous ways—she bought more Beanie Babies than should have been legally permitted, for example—and we braced ourselves for the day she would confess to bankruptcy.


I don’t remember my mother buying a Rolex. I think I would have. Although she was circumspect about her money, she was ostentatious about her purchases. Her Beanie Babies occupied half of the shelves in her house. Her Diane Freis dresses filled an entire closet. She bought enough books on tape to listen to John Grisham, Stephen King, and Anne Rivers Siddons over the course of three lifetimes.


Did my mother inherit the Rolex from her mother? When my grandfather wasn’t arguing with my grandmother, he worshipped her. Perhaps the watch had been one of the few extravagant gifts he’d bought her. Having survived the Great Depression and worked his way into the middle class, he was a devout believer in the American Dream. A Rolex would have been proof that he’d achieved it.


I’ve never imagined owning a Rolex. I’ve lost enough Timexes to wonder if I should own a watch at all. But even if it’s a woman’s watch, too small for my wrist, it’s mine now. Therefore, I’ll need to revise my idea of who I am: poet, former Peace Corps volunteer, teacher, environmentalist, and…Rolex owner! The latter puts me in the company of such luminaries as tennis star Roger Federer and jazz singer Diana Krall.


The Rolex has stopped ticking, but HNP Jewelry and Watch Repair is less than a mile from my mother’s house, conveniently tucked in the basement of Rodman’s, which sells everything from Greek wine to organic dog treats to Tylenol. HNP is owned and operated by an older Asian couple, and when I hand the watch to Corey, a soft-spoken man with a subtle wit, he smiles and says he’ll have the battery replaced in ten minutes.


As I’m wandering the aisles, I have a sweet fantasy of Corey returning my watch and, after an appreciative whistle, telling me it’s worth $20,000.


When I return to his counter, he says, “You’re the man with the Rolex?”


I nod as modestly as I can.


He retrieves it from his worktable and gives me a sly smile. “You know it’s a fake, right?”


“It is?” Surprisingly, my voice doesn’t rise in plaintive disappointment. I’ve prepared for this possibility. What’s too good to be true usually is. I ask, “How do you know?”


“From what’s inside it.”


Instead of platinum springs and wheels—or whatever the inner components of a Rolex are—I imagine aluminum and plastic.

The new battery is $25. I wonder if the watch is worth half as much.


“More fake Rolexes than real,” Corey says. His shrug suggests this is true of so much in our imitation world.


Driving back to my mother’s house, I wonder if Bob, one of my mother’s former boyfriends, gave her the “Rolex.” It was Bob, after all, who, as he asked her to marry him, presented her with a ring made of cubic zirconia. He claimed the ring was diamond, but, suspicious, my mother brought it to Tony Bonanno, a famously discerning jeweler with a workshop in the Maryland suburbs. In his gravely, Godfather voice, Bonanno told my mother, “It may be worth $3, but I wouldn’t give you a dollar for it.”


When my mother confronted Bob about the ring’s inauthenticity, he tried to reframe its value by telling her it was “made in space.”


When my mother shared this information with Tony Bonanno, the jeweler said, “Lady, I think your boyfriend was made in space.”


In my mother’s last conversation with Bob, she told him, “Either you’re lying or you’re stupid. Either way, you’re out of here.”


I helped Bob load his belongings into the back of his truck before he drove off. His last words to me were: “Go out with your hair on fire.” To this day, I have no idea what he meant.


In later year, stories of “Diamond Bob” never failed to draw a laugh from people, even from my mother, who, despite her general good nature, was sensitive about certain portions of her biography. My grandfather found special delight in “Diamond Bob” stories, perhaps because he was susceptible to conmen.


My grandfather believed not only in the American Dream but in its accelerated version. He made several investments with acquaintances who promised fast and fantastic returns. One involved a self-healing asphalt. With the technology, my grandfather told me enthusiastically, potholes would become extinct. Potholes defied predictions of their demise, and my grandfather lost $5,000.


To the end of his life, he hoped to cash in. Even as he slid into dementia, he mailed off checks to sponsors of sweepstakes, one of which, American Family Publishers, had a prominent (and seemingly trustworthy) spokesman, Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s chuckling sidekick on The Tonight Show. My grandfather was convinced that McMahon would soon be knocking on his door, million-dollar check in hand. “But don’t tell your grandmother,” he said to me. “I want it to be a surprise.”


I wonder if my grandfather received the “Rolex” as part of “winning” a sweepstakes. My grandmother would have known it was fake. But, respecting his dignity, she would have kept this insight to herself.


On my drive back to my house in Morgantown, West Virginia, I think about giving the “Rolex” to my younger daughter, who is twenty and about to leave for a junior-year-abroad semester in Italy. I picture the delight on her face as I hand her what I’ll allow her to believe is the genuine article. I imagine my pleasure at being the author of her joy. How long would I allow her to keep her illusion? Tony Bonanno is dead. He can’t tell her that her father was made in space.


I don’t lie to my daughter, but she wants the watch anyway. She’ll have fun pretending it’s authentic, she says.


I hand it to her. She places it on her wrist. I’m disappointed: It doesn’t fit perfectly. But: “Good enough,” she says, and, laughing, goes to look at herself in the mirror.


Excuses for My Disability

Miriam McEwen

This is the part where I make a call to determine my eligibility for a new power wheelchair. Excuse me. My phone is breaking up. Yes. This is the part where I drive. Yes. In my blue bus. This is the name we have for my wheelchair-accessible vehicle. Yes, really. I drive for an hour to reach this appointment with an apologetic-looking doctor. I am late. I am sorry. Excuse me, the doctor’s gray-gold eyes seem to say, but you are late. I nod. This is the part where the doctor sighs and takes me into his office despite my lateness. This is the part where he settles into his creaky office chair and says, “Yes. What seems to be the trouble?” And I say, “My wheelchair. It’s breaking. It’s seven years old. I need a new one. I’m eligible.” I show the doctor how the metal parts which hold my foot pedals on have been inexplicably crushed. This part right here is why my foot pedals dangle like that. The doctor nods. I show him how the wheelchair’s driving console keeps flashing green and red and yellow. I don’t know why. But this is the part where I confess I’ve had the wheelchair out in the rain quite a lot. The doctor’s gray-gold eyes are surprised, seeming to say, Excuse me, but you are in a power wheelchair, so small wonder the wheelchair is breaking. No. I mean—yes. But I like the rain too much not to be out in it. “The wheelchair is seven years old,” I say again. This is the part where the doctor asks if I believe I will always be disabled. “What?” I say. “Yes, yeah.” No, somehow, too. But I’m eligible.


On Love and Duty

Joyce Dehli


“Will you help me?” Michael whispered in my ear as plates of his mother’s rhubarb pie were passed around the table.


Michael had asked my partner Grace and me to join his family’s brunch one late-summer Sunday in 1995. Before others took seats, he’d motioned for us to sit on either side of him. I understood: we were his sentinels. As it turned out, he didn’t need our protection. Michael’s family had gathered for him, but they mostly left him alone. His three brothers ribbed each other incessantly, occasionally enfolding their mother into their banter. They hadn’t seen Michael since his AIDS diagnosis, though they lived only thirty minutes away, near the farm where they’d been boys together. Michael’s two sisters and a few friends cared for him.


Michael was really Grace’s friend. A decade earlier, they’d gotten sober together as part of a tight group of gay and lesbian AA friends. They were all in their early twenties then, except for Michael who was about ten years older. By the time I met Grace a few years later, her circles were widening. Still, her core group stayed tight, and I saw Michael at potlucks and picnics. We talked a little. In their boisterous group, he was the shy one. His hair was summer wheat, his eyes sky blue. I liked his field-worthy jeans and checkered, short-sleeve shirts buttoned over white tees. He reminded me of the farmers on organic cereal boxes, happy amid their grains. He tolerated discos but adored country line dancing. If he could, he would have traded his graphic-design job for tending gardens, hands in soil, and fresh blooms always in the offing. That’s all I knew. Grace was our only link; I had my own friends.


Things changed when Jonathan, the youngest of their sobriety group, died from AIDS. He was the one they’d tried to protect, the dashing and needy one who, in his late teens, had fled his small hometown in northeastern Wisconsin for Madison. Before long, his dreams of a writerly life with worldly men took him to Chicago, but he kept his ties to Grace and Michael. After Jonathan’s death, his parents whisked his body back to the town he’d despised and to a church that prayed he would be forgiven for the life he had lived. His friends drove two hours to his funeral. They did it for Jonathan, though they knew the ceremony would be brutal. I went along. On the ride home, our car overflowed with stories, hilarious and tender, of the man they loved. Michael didn’t talk much. We didn’t know then, but he was already sick. HIV had become AIDS.


One Sunday, not a year later, Michael called our house in a panic. He said his brain wasn’t right; it switched off and on, off and on, froze up and split in pain. Grace and I took him to the emergency room. After hours of tests and waiting, a doctor said he’d had a series of ministrokes called TIAs, or transient ischemic attacks. Blood flow to his brain had sputtered for a spell. AIDS was to blame, the doctor confirmed. He sent Michael home, warning him to expect more attacks.


Michael called us regularly to take him to the ER, usually on weekends. Looking back, I think he was being considerate of our time, knowing we worked long hours during the week. He contained his terrors until they burst on weekends. Most of his other friends—gay men and an ex-boyfriend with whom he still lived—were exhausted by the needs of those dying around them. They were devastated by relentless loss. Some turned away from Michael. Grace loved Michael like an older brother, but she sometimes grew annoyed when he called. Still, she remained steadfast. Unlike Grace, I could keep my distance. I wasn’t bound to Michael in the same way. I sometimes wondered: what is my duty here?


In the decades that followed, I asked myself that question often—when dying friends lingered in illness and when cancer took my dad, slowly and painfully, during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. What was my duty, and could I bear it? Could I watch what dying inflicts on a human body? Could I bear the grief that precedes death, gathering into itself like darkness before a storm? Could I bear knowing that whatever care I gave, it couldn’t be enough? And when I wanted to flee, would I stay or turn away?


As Michael’s circle shrank, his anxiety swelled. The sicker he looked, the clearer it became to everyone: this man had AIDS. Nobody took open seats near us in the ER waiting room. If he’d wanted, Michael could have lived most of his life passing as straight. But as he grew gaunt and weak, he was seen as a man with AIDS. And, given that this was the mid-1990s, people assumed he was gay.


He wouldn’t have hidden if he could. When Michael got sober, he committed to being himself in the world. Grace lived that way too, but not me. Although I was generally out, I excelled at managing what people knew about me: more truth for some, less truth for others. I calculated the risks of being out against the pain of hiding. Standing beside Michael, I felt vulnerable to derision. I didn’t always speak up for him.


Once, two white-coated ER residents ridiculed Michael for being scared. As he trembled in a gown on the edge of a hospital bed, they—a woman and a man—stood several feet away, practically shouting their questions: “What year is this?” “Who is the president?” When Michael answered incorrectly, the woman laughed at him. The man accused Michael of seeking attention. Clearly, they wanted Michael to go away. Grace and I were outraged, but we said nothing. Perhaps Grace thought it was better for Michael if we didn’t complain. We didn’t want him to get kicked out. But maybe I also feared their disdain for Michael would extend to me. I’d speak up today, but I knew less of life then.


Michael’s regular doctor said he could stay home as long as he had people caring for him. A few friends set a schedule and divided tasks, until Michael’s ex-boyfriend-turned-landlord kicked him out. He said he couldn’t watch another death. That’s when Michael’s younger sister took him in. She lived alone in a small house nearby and delivered mail in the mornings. His older sister flew in from L.A. and stayed for weeks. Before long, the sisters proposed the family brunch. The family hadn’t gathered in a long time.


By then, Michael looked twice his age of forty-three—all bones, covered by bruised and mottled skin, with wispy patches of hair on his head. If his mother and brothers were shocked to see him, they didn’t show it. The brothers came in with fists jammed in their jean pockets. They didn’t hug Michael or even touch him. All morning, the sisters were up and down from their dining-room chairs, bringing out an egg-bake and plates of cinnamon rolls to the table, filling coffee cups, and clearing leftovers for pie. The brothers talked of the growing season and how farming had changed in the years since their father’s death. Mostly they joked, drawing out their mother’s laughter to the point that she had coughing fits. One of her lungs had been removed for cancer, and now the other had it. The family had known loss and soon would know more.


Michael spoke little and ate less. Now and then, he smiled, though seemingly not about anything in particular. His eyes held one person, then another. Grace jumped into family stories, asked questions, and laughed appreciatively. I could not. I was stunned, then furious that nobody asked Michael about himself. Nobody mentioned his illness. They knew he had AIDS, just as they knew he was gay—another secret that wasn’t a secret. Yet, his brothers barely glanced his way.


I was quick to judge Michael’s brothers as cowards. Quick to assume that what Michael needed from them were words. I was certain Michael needed to hear that his family knew him, loved him, and could bear his illness with him. Now, in the second half of my life, I wonder if I was wrong. Maybe Michael didn’t need words as much as he needed his family’s presence. His brothers came as close as they dared at the Sunday brunch. And he welcomed them, though with Grace and me and his sisters at his side. Michael didn’t speak the words: gay, AIDS, dying. He put aside radical honesty in order to receive his brothers’ love as offered. This was more than Jonathan got, and maybe it was enough for Michael. I don’t know. It wouldn’t be enough for me.


Much is expected of those who love the dying, and those expectations are often enough to scare a person away. But my role with Michael seemed limited and clear. At the brunch, I knew my place: the loyal sentinel, bound not by love but by duty. I fumed, but I kept quiet and refused my slice of pie.


When Michael whispered—“Will you help me?”—I was glad for a reason to leave the table. He clutched his cane and gave me his arm. As we shuffled down the hallway, the table talk faded. I expected he wanted to nap.


“I need to go to the bathroom,” he said.


All of my anger at his brothers turned into fear for me. I didn’t want to be afraid, but I was.


AIDS deaths peaked in the United States that year. Within several months, the FDA would approve antiretroviral drugs that would turn AIDS into a manageable, if chronic, disease for many people. But for Michael, like those before him, the diagnosis was a death sentence. We had brochures from the local AIDS Support Network to guide our caregiving since we didn’t have the Internet then. Touching was okay. We knew AIDS was transmitted through blood and semen, as well as vaginal fluids, but not saliva, sweat, or urine. But what if Michael had a cut, an open wound? He had thin skin and bouts of incontinence. When his sisters cleaned him, they wore gloves. Nobody was completely sure how careful to be. I tended toward caution and focused on doing chores and running errands for Michael, not bodily care. Mostly, he and I talked, often about gardening. Grace did more. I held back not only because I was afraid of AIDS. I was afraid to watch a person die. It was my first time.


I opened the bathroom door, and we squeezed inside. Toothpaste and brushes, soap, rubbing alcohol, and creams crowded a shelf above the sink. I guided Michael to a narrow space between the toilet and the tub.


“I need you to help me,” he said.


“Okay, with what?”


“Everything,” he said. He leaned heavily toward me, exhausted.


Why me? That was my first thought. I heard his brothers’ laughter, those men who had grown up with him and had bodies like his. Why not them? Why not the mother who gave birth to him? His sisters? Even Grace? Why did Michael ask me? How did I get here? 


“Okay, so you just need to pee, right?” I asked.


He nodded. I undid his belt, unzipped his fly, let his pants drop to his ankles, and pulled down his underwear.


“Okay,” I said again. But I knew there was more to do. Michael wasn’t steady, and I didn’t want to get wet. What if there was blood in his urine? I wondered if doctors were absolutely sure urine didn’t transmit HIV. If I got AIDS, Grace would be there for me, but not my family—I felt sure of that then, but I didn’t really know. It would be just Grace and me and, as it was with Michael, a few friends. The thought of dying, as Michael was dying, terrified me.


It’s strange how many thoughts can blaze through a mind in a second or two, leaving—one hopes—no outward sign. I did what I needed to do. I held Michael’s penis, aimed at the bowl, shook off the last few drops, and wiped him.


“Thank you,” he said.


The brunch ended soon afterward, and I don’t think his mother or brothers saw him again until his funeral several weeks later. In the weeks between, AIDS-related dementia took over Michael’s mind, slowly at first, then swiftly. When Grace and I came for our shifts during the week, or just to say hello, Michael was always in bed. He’d lost language and could no longer speak with words. But I felt sure we communicated even toward the end.


One rainy day, Grace and I found Michael agitated, rustling on his bed with gym shorts over his diapers. He was as small as a skinny boy, his body was withered and worn.


It was Grace’s idea to put something on the turntable. She thumbed through the dozen or so albums on a shelf, pulled one out, and dropped the needle. She nodded at me and smiled at Michael.


“If I should stay …”  


Michael stopped moving. Grace turned up the volume until Whitney Houston’s voice swelled through the room, through the whole damn house. Grace and I sang along to Michael: “And I will always love you / I will always love you…”


Ardent and loud, we kept singing. I fumbled the lyrics until we returned to the chorus, then I belted it, and Grace did too. “I will always love you.” We twirled at the foot of Michael’s bed. We drew our hands to our hearts, then threw our arms out to him. He flung his arms toward us with glee. His eyes shone. His smile was radiant. His sounds merged with our song. We hugged him, enfolding him, all the while singing. We were happy. I believe we were all happy in that moment.


Grace had to return to work, but I stayed a little longer. I sat on the bed beside Michael, who was half-raised against pillows. I reached for his hand, surprised to feel content. Michael curled onto his side and nudged his head onto my thigh, where he fell asleep.


I wondered then, as I still do, why Michael let me near in his dying days. It’s true that he needed help and I was there. Still, he kept plenty of people out. Maybe his trust in Grace extended to me. Maybe he’d decided I was basically kind. And with me, the stakes weren’t so high. Not like they were with the people he loved, the people he wasn’t sure would come, would stay. It’s the closest ones who have the power to hurt you most. He knew that, and maybe that was reason enough.


I gave Michael so little, and sometimes not enough. At times, he asked more of me than I thought I could bear. That was a gift, but one I didn’t appreciate until years later when friends and my father were dying. Every time, I felt afraid. Every time, a voice told me to run. Still, I showed up. I stayed. I made mistakes. Too often, I said the wrong thing. By the time my father died, I knew that while words matter, you can’t say everything at the end. You don’t have to.


I went to my friends and my father out of love. But love wasn’t what drew me to Michael, and love wasn’t why I stayed through his illness. He might have been at the edge of my circle, but he was there. I went to him as I go to my garden: duty-bound to tend what is in my backyard. That’s how I imagine Michael tended his garden, from shoots through blooms through winter beds at rest. Maybe that is what he and I were doing from the start—tending each other—from those early talks at parties, through the days of his illness, to the end when silence replaced words. I think that’s right. I wonder if Michael knew how much I grew, tended by him.


Sometimes love follows duty. And, as every gardener knows, tending offers its own rewards: the rhythmic turning of soil, pressing seeds, pulling weeds. You pray for sun one day and rain the next, as if you had a say in what lives and what dies.


Announcing the Winner of the Editor’s Prize for Creative Nonfiction

Congratulations to Faith Shearin, our 2023 winner for the Editor’s Prize in Creative Nonfiction! Her essay, “Going Home,” will be available to read in our Spring 2024 issue.

Faith Shearin’s seven books of poetry include: The Owl Question (May Swenson Award), Telling the Bees (SFA University Press), Orpheus, Turning (Dogfish Poetry Prize), Darwin’s Daughter (SFA University Press), and Lost Language (Press 53). Her poems have been read aloud on The Writer’s Almanac and included in American Life in Poetry. She has received awards from Yaddo, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her essays and short stories have won awards from New Ohio Review, The Missouri Review, and Literal Latte, among others. Two YA novels — Lost River, 1918 and My Sister Lives in the Sea — won The Global Fiction Prize, judged by Anthony McGowan, and have been published by Leapfrog Press.


The Purported Magic of Broccolini

When, on several occasions, my Twitter crush tweets that he’s eating broccolini, I feel intrigued. I’ve eaten broccolini a couple of times, in restaurants, but never prepared it at home. I begin looking for broccolini each time I visit the grocery store, with no luck. After two months, broccolini becomes available from my online imperfect produce delivery. Jackpot!

            I become very excited about the broccolini, which I must wait three days to receive. Although I’m no longer in full pandemic isolation mode, I work from home, am single, and see friends only occasionally. Most of my waking life is spent indoors, staring at a screen, or on long, slow walks that I hope counterbalance those other hours.

            To combat loneliness and keep my spirits up, I try to give myself a continual stream of small thrills — walking a new route, photographing a neighbor’s rose mallow hibiscus bush, listening to a musician I’ve never heard before, and, now, exploring the purported magic of broccolini.

            I search for information about broccolini online to fuel my excitement as I wait for the order to arrive, like a child would research a gift they are expecting for Christmas. I know what I’m doing is a little silly, a contrived effort laid forth as part of a larger attempt to maintain mental and emotional health. But don’t we all need a little silliness sometimes? For me, at least, researching broccolini has healing properties.

            Since I’d heard broccolini referred to as “baby broccoli,” I’d mistakenly thought it was the broccoli plant harvested at a young age. But I learn broccolini is not young broccoli. It’s actually a hybrid of broccoli and gai lan, another Brassica vegetable also called Chinese kale or Chinese broccoli.

            Further, the word broccolini is trademarked. This hybrid vegetable, only legally allowed to be referred to as “broccolini” by the company Mann Packing, is nutritionally similar to broccoli, providing protein, fiber, iron, and potassium. But because broccolini is denser, you’d need to eat nearly twice as much broccoli to receive the same amount of nutrients.

            Mann Packing isn’t the only brand that trademarked a term for my virtual crush’s favorite veggie, though they seem to be the most successful. Other companies have trademarked “bimi” and the aptly named “tenderstem.”  Those who prefer not to use branded terms for this piece of produce may call it broccoletti, Italian sprouting broccoli, aspiration, and — my personal favorite, albeit slightly inaccurate — sweet baby broccoli.

            When my broccolini arrives, it looks slim and long. The stems end in playfully floppy, round florets. After examining it closely, I put my broccolini in the fridge. When I take it out the next day at dinnertime, I see that tiny yellow flowers have bloomed around the edges overnight. An internet search shows the yellow flowers indicate the broccolini has aged, but is still safe to eat.

            I sautee the broccolini in oil for only a few minutes as the internet had instructed, strain it, and spoon it into a bowl. Although I rarely use butter, I drop a pat on top of the slightly charred aspiration, watching the pale yellow square melt onto the green stems and bright yellow flowers. I squeeze a few drops of juice from a halved lemon over the dish, then grind sea salt on top.

            I decide to eat my long-awaited broccolini at the dining room table, like it’s special, like I’m special, and not someone who eats most meals either at her desk while looking at the computer or on the couch while watching television.

            The first bite is soft and warm on my tongue. I eat slowly, with my eyes closed. The richness of butter, the tang of lemon, make the vegetable taste luxurious, sultry even.

            All of my excited preparation no longer feels the least bit silly. My effort was well worth it. The broccolini tastes like I picked it on a walk through a field rather than ordered it online. As if I prepared it over an open flame outdoors rather than in a suburban kitchen. I feel like I’m in a fairy tale — “The Woman Who Eats Yellow Flowers” — and I don’t want to leave.

            I consider standing back up to get my phone for the purpose of taking a photo of the dish and tweeting it at him with the text, “You’re an influencer!”

            I refrain. This moment is mine.


What Comes in the Night

When I saw the bat, I didn’t think. I screamed. I picked up Frida, my 10-pound, bat-like dog, and ran into the bathroom, pulling the door closed with something akin to maternal instinct. Then my brain turned on and I thought, oh, fuck.

            It was almost midnight. I had been in bed, sitting cross-legged in boxers, a glass of white wine to my right as I talked aimless shit on the phone to my best friend. Peripherally, I had seen the unmistakable yet graceful flapping of wings. A shadowy body darting across the white of my ceiling. It was quick, nearly silent, making its way around my lofted apartment with an urgency I assume was fueled by fear.

            I ducked out of the bathroom with a towel draped over my head. After trying but failing to open a window, I fled the apartment, grabbing Frida, her leash, and a pair of black jeans that I yanked on while rushing out the door. I ran to the nearby apartment of my partner Aaron’s graduate-school friends, who I had only met a handful of times. They had kindly set up a bed in their office, complete with a lit candle.

            The bat was scared, as was I. Yet, I left and therefore trapped it, running from my own fear and probably escalating the bat’s. When I locked the door, I left the bat stuck to fly loops in my little apartment.

            Let me be honest; I was afraid before the bat. When my eyes made out the spider web-y shape of its wings, I was alone. Aaron was out of town and I was battling the recurring fear that at some point during the night, I wouldn’t be alone anymore. I double checked the locks, even assembled a small cardboard obstacle in front of the door to quell my anxiety, to warn me should someone come in. Three nights before the bat, I had an interaction with a man on the street that wound me up so tightly that I laid awake until four in the morning, waiting — to hear steps on the stairs, or the sound of my doorknob turning. Despite swallowing the white ovals of anti-anxiety medication at midnight, I didn’t drift off until almost sunrise. That night, I shone the flashlight of my phone into the living room more times than I’d like to admit, crept downstairs silently to look at the locks yet again, knew my behavior was illogical but couldn’t truly could not stop.

            The interaction with that man, in which nothing even really happened, had compromised my fragile sense of safety. Or rather, had reminded me that safety is largely illusory. My body, regardless of what I clothe it in, will be seen. My locks, regardless of how many times I double check them, could be picked. My windows, regardless of how shut I thought they were, were cracked. Or perhaps they weren’t. It doesn’t really matter because something in my apartment was open enough to let something else in.

            From the home office, I called what Google told me was the highest-rated local bat specialist. I was greeted by the gruff and irritated voice of a man I assumed to be The Bat Specialist. I can come, he told me, but it’ll be $200 whether I find something or not. I wanted to know when he could come, what he would do. He said he could be there in forty-five minutes and would look for the bat itself in addition to investigating the outside of the building to determine how it might have gotten in. By that point, it was almost 1 AM and I figured I should wait until morning to avoid disturbing my neighbors. Instead of asking him to come, I said I’d call back. I then sent my landlord an email with the subject line: URGENT – bat, help. Finally I curled up around Frida and slept briefly in the safety of a bat-less home.

            I called the bat specialist again the next morning around six (uh, hi, I have a bat— I uttered, before he cut me off. Yeah, I know. You called last night) and was told he couldn’t come anymore, that his day was now full. He gave the number of a wildlife specialist who might be able to help. When I called her, she calmly informed me that nothing could be done until the bat woke up. Is there a way to… wake it up? I asked in disbelief. No, she said curtly. Bats are nocturnal. They’re able to make their bodies so tiny that no one will be able to find it during the day. Call back when it’s flapping around. She hung up.

            Around 8 AM, my Tesla-driving landlord called me. I understand how frightening that must have been, but we cannot kill bats. They’re an endangered species. I emphasized that I didn’t want to kill any bats; I just didn’t want to cohabitate with one. She continued, In the past, we have even built bat houses, so they have somewhere to go. I’m sending someone over with a big net. The call ended and I waited for Someone with a Big Net.

            Intellectually, I knew the bat posed no existential danger. Yet, I felt a sense of primal fear spurred on by what ifs. What if it emerged while I was taking a shower and I hit my head on the bathtub because I was so startled? What if my dog ate its shit and got sick? What if it bit me and somehow I didn’t know and it evolved into rabies? I knew this wasn’t rational, yet I couldn’t stop thinking of all of the ways this encounter would turn into something Bad.

            When Someone with a Big Net arrived, I was typing out an email in the living room. I didn’t know when to expect someone and was wearing jeans and a white tank top, sans bra. I heard a key slide into the lock of my door. I heard the twist of the knob, the unmistakable creak of my wooden door opening up its hinged jaws. Then, a short, bearded man was in my kitchen holding a large fishing net. My dog bleated an urgent warning in her shrill soprano. My heart rapidly thrummed somewhere underneath my visible tits. Where is it, he asked me, his eyes wandering the ceiling, my furniture, not me, maybe me; I tried not to look. I replied in earnest, I don’t know. Again, my dog went into the bathroom. This time, I stayed out, watching him search behind furniture, in the closets. He said I’ll be back and left.

            Thirteen years ago, I stood at the edge of a bridge on South Congress in Austin waiting with a crowd of people to watch the famous bats emerge at dusk. What first looked like errant freckles scattered across a watercolor sunset in South Texas evolved into a sky in motion, made up of thousands of flapping wings and tiny black snouts. A few years later, in that same city, close to that very bridge, something happened to me in the dead of the night that forever changed my relationship to both sleep and my body. The next morning, I thought it was nothing. A few days later, something. Years later, I finally called it something other than a bad night. When I saw that storm of bats, I still thought that sleeping was safe, that he was a friend, that Austin was fun, that Texas was home.

            When Someone with a Big Net arrived the second time, he knocked. By then, I had put on a bra and an oversized denim shirt over my tank top; my tattooed arms covered. Where is it? He asked me again and I felt irritated by his incompetence. He brought a ladder upstairs and I listened to heavy boots amble up the rungs. I watched as the man stood on the ledge of my loft, watched his eyes scan my books, my bed, the haphazardly flung sports bra that I peeled off the previous night after a workout. We can’t do anything, he said, when he came back downstairs, eyes boring into me. You have too much stuff.

            A close friend, Sam, had recently moved to New Haven. I hadn’t seen her in years yet when I texted want to come help me get a bat out of my apartment? I have tequila. My phone immediately pinged lol sure. Gratefully, I waited the four hours until dusk. My landlord emailed me that the man had left the Big Net. I opened the door to find five feet of silver pole and a lime-green net leaning against the wall like it was confidently picking me up for prom. I grasped the cold metal in my hands. I was the Person with the Big Net now.

            Sam arrived around 6:30. I hugged her on the street and loved that her shape felt familiar, her curls consistent, a tattoo I remembered peeking out from the hem of her shorts. The sun was supposed to set at 7:03, which was when we needed to be ready. I poured two glasses of wine and we caught up. She had just gone through a breakup with an ornithology enthusiast who didn’t not look like Zac Efron; I thought New Haven was fine but missed Brooklyn; a bat had flown into her apartment once and she screamed until someone got it out with a towel; my dad died; her dad sucked.

            When shadows appeared in my kitchen, it was time. I kept all of the lights off and slid open a living room window. I turned on a single lamp directly in the center of the window to guide the bat out. The lamp cast a romantic glow on the green leaves of a Bird of Paradise on the other side of the window. The scene was set.

            A few days before the bat came into my apartment, I took Frida on a walk around the neighborhood. I had been working from home all day in a pair of black bike shorts and a baggy T-shirt, my hair a messy knot on top of my head. I was rounding the corner to turn towards my apartment when I could’ve sworn I heard my name called. I turned my head and saw a man staring at me so intensely that I held his gaze, my brain trying to place him: surely I must know him.

            I spent most of my twenties in Brooklyn and preferred walking to public transportation. I wasn’t a stranger to cat-calling, yet it didn’t happen nearly as often in New Haven. Younger, in Brooklyn, I felt armed with my anger. If a man said something disgusting to me, I yelled back at him to eat shit. Once, while on the phone with my mother, a man in Prospect Heights lunged towards me in a deep squat, his soft, wet tongue protruding out of his mouth and moving in gross, lapping gestures. I immediately felt my blood run hot and demanded that he get the fuck out of my way. He laughed at me, the melody of it etched into my head like a perverted iteration of the braille in a music box. I actively miss the version of myself that got angry instead of scared.

            Sometimes, the catcalls were funny. When I walked by a group of men while wearing large silver hoops, one yelled Jenny from the block!. Once, I was chased six blocks in Chicago by a man who wanted my number. I like your leather jacket, I want to take you out, he panted. I could see the particles of his breath suspended in the January air. It’s my girlfriend’s, I replied and turned to walk away, leaving him slack jawed. Sometimes it came in the form of do you need help carrying that? Let me help you carry that, that looks heavy. Other times, it was more sinister: being followed home from the subway, someone pressing their hips against my ass on the crowded morning commute. Once, on a weekday afternoon, I looked up from the couch where I had been pathetically flopped all day with period cramps to see the postman blatantly staring into my window from where he stood on the ledge. I quickly wrapped a blanket around my naked thighs and ran barefoot to the back of my apartment. When I came back out, he was gone and I never again sat on the couch in my underwear. Despite living on the second floor. Despite the fact that the mailbox was on the first.

            This isn’t unique. Women experience street harassment; water is wet. Yet, I was still surprised when this man stepped towards me on the street in New Haven, asked to get to know me. Aaron was out of town visiting family. I barely knew anyone in New Haven. I was a block from my apartment; what if this man followed me home? I didn’t want to bring my drama into the nearby liquor store that was run by a sweet family. I didn’t want to bring this stranger into the little grocery store I lived above, run by a woman whose Border Collie sniffed Frida nearly every day, as we said hi baby to each other’s dogs. In New Haven, I didn’t have the orientation I had in Brooklyn – where I knew which bars were open, which friends were nearby, where the closest train was. I felt entirely, vulnerably alone.

            Perhaps what I’m trying to get at is that none of these experiences are situated in a vacuum. One experience compounds upon another, like tile, like brick, to build a house. A man taking a step towards me on an empty street became an echo of another man telling me he wanted to taste me as I walked by became an echo of a boy who tried to forcefully pull my shirt over my arms when I was thirteen became any of the other moments when I’ve been forced to witness a man see me as less, see me as a body, see me as a mouth, a hole, an experience; see me as something that exists to please, to fuck, to watch. It echoes all of the times I’ve been forced to watch men watch me.

            People are afraid of bats because they come out at night. Bats spread their wings when the sun is down and can’t be disturbed until they deem it dark enough to be safe. During the daytime, they crunch and tuck and curl their bodies up so tiny that they can’t be found. Their slumber can’t, won’t, be disturbed. I wanted the bat out that morning, but that wasn’t possible and so the bat had the power in our dynamic. The bat had the power over me, had power over the man that came into my apartment, even had power over the landlord I pay every month for a temporary home in a brick building on the corner of an almost-busy street.

            I envied the bat. I wished I could contort my body to be so small that it couldn’t be found, that I could tuck my elbows into my knees, drape my head against my chest and wrap myself up in a blanket made of my own body. I wanted to be able to get so tiny that no one could find me, no matter how many men were scheduled to come and look, no matter how big the net was. I yearned to be able to emerge in my own time, to only be visible when I flew under a street light, for people to associate glimpses of me with an eerie magic, stay spellbound by my shadow.

            When the sun disappeared, I crept into my living room to see if the bat had woken up. I screamed when I saw it doing asymmetric loops. It’s here, I mouthed to Sam. I took a video of it with my phone, angling the camera towards the ceiling to capture flashes of movement, mostly to show myself later that I didn’t make this up: There was a bat; it came into my apartment. I have learned to document, to capture hard proof. A snapshot, a video. Evidence.

            The net was comically useless. I thought I could guide the bat out, usher it to the safety of the night. In the video, I hear myself urgently whisper I just want to help it! Eleven chaotic minutes passed: net swoops, screams, fits of laughter, silence. And then the bat left. Flew out on its own accord, slipped right over my window ledge into the void of the sky. It was over in two seconds, and if I looked the other way I would’ve missed it, would’ve spent the whole night wondering where it had gone, if it was still with me.

            I popped champagne and we clinked our glasses. Then I taped all my windows shut. I taped the heater vents shut, taped the tiny gap under my window-unit air conditioner shut, sealed everything with a manic ripping of tape, knowing still that tape can be ripped, clawed through, cut. It’s the illusion of safety that lulled me to sleep.

            Bats use echoes to navigate. They emit a high-pitched sound that humans can’t hear, see how it bounces back to evaluate distance, danger, prey. It’s with echoes that bats stay alive, that they are able to gauge what’s safe to move towards, and what should be dodged. The reverberations from past experiences are still rattling around my rib cage, emitting different frequencies. Walk faster. Go inside. Run. I feel it physically and instinctually, braille-like goosebumps rising on my skin, my blood suddenly running cold. Like a bat, I find safety through echoes, clarity through the feeling refracted back to me. The echoes that guide me through the dark.



1. My mother leans in to tell me that ghosts are harmless but unequivocally real. Insignificant mysteries add up to a more systemic experience of haunting: family photographs turned on their faces, a mess of shoes rearranged in the shut-up closet, the occasional slammed door. We aren’t old-house people, and the place hasn’t existed for long enough to accumulate a logic for the eeriness that I feel in the bursting back garden, in its aggressive, bright peonies and hydrangeas. Still, someone has a message for us and at times we joke about its contents, our heads bobbing cheerfully, until one day to me it isn’t funny anymore. Then I am no longer five years old. Then my mother retreats to her bedroom, where she clacks away at the loom as though pursuing a kind of domestic exorcism. I pick at the borders of my fingernails, bite gently at my upper lip. The shuttle glides toward home and back again, moving as gracefully over the blue yarn as the boats it’s been shaped to resemble. Otherwise the house is noiseless and I want to sit again in the belly of the fireplace at the front of the minute approximation of a parlor, like I did before it was ours.


2. The woods around Mashamoquet are full of excuses for feeling spooked. Drive the thickly forested roads, which are narrow and curve and dip and open out to brief scraps of lake before plunging again into pine shade, and you begin to understand the narratives of disappeared hikers and eerie bridges and consumptive girls converted by death to ghostly flânerie. It is a gorgeous and a thieved place, this land. Stealing it required fabricated stories of wildness and peril. The mills and factories and fields are where the real history of danger is, the legacy of coveting and stripping bare and building back up in grotesque forms.


3. My first published poem is about a laughing phantom child and is written in 1994, during a year when my mother keeps me away from the small elementary school. I write each line on a clunky desktop computer as an exercise, the keys clicking awkwardly, and save the file to a floppy disk. Submitting the poem to a children’s magazine means printing it out on paper whose perforated edges have to be ripped from the single sheet by hand. Separating the sheet from a piece of itself proves as darkly satisfying as composing the poem in the first place. It ends with a girl my own age falling to the ground in the night, the phantom child close behind her.


4. Homespun ghosts don’t turn out to be at odds with quaint family ritual. My mother hauls me into the yawning box pew, whose panels are dusty in the unfinished light. There seems to be no heat in the bare room, and next time she outfits her one child in a plaid flannel dress with an economical ruffle. The dress is unusual, having been purchased from a store or catalog and not made at home. The size tag reads 6X or 7 or 8. Later we switch to the white Congregational church with a sprawling graveyard, which we attend only sporadically. My mother recalls the denunciations and massacres that propelled our ascetic relations into their two mountain towns. She reminds me that her father’s fifth great-grandfather was a minister. I read and reread Canadian novels about children who recline in pinafores on gravestones and throw stones between them, who unapologetically trample the long uncut weeds, their braids swinging through the warm air. Across the street, someone’s misplaced idea of a cottage looms. Its pink paint is due for a refresh, but even now the colored frontispiece belies what’s inside: the thick, dust-tinted carpets and papered walls. They take preteen students once a year to see it all, pretending for a moment that we’re only tourists and can leave at any time.


5. The Puritans who ran the first homes along the town green refused the prospect of communion with their ancestral spirits. Now Halloween in the stolen colonial village is a singularly fantastic exercise. Like all events that take place at night at the old school, this one requires a trip through unlit and bumpy terrain, the spaced-out houses blinking yellow in the mostly uninterrupted dark. Unlike the other events it calls for a shivering, coatless exit from the warm interior and down the short walk to the little car, the thin excuse for a disguise stretched across your shoulder blades. You are an angel or a witch or a gnome; maybe you are wearing slippers and feel each individual stone in the gravel turnaround beneath the balls of your feet. You hug another child in the shadow of the school doorway, squealing, and your excitement echoes against the trees. You feel charmed, regal – delighted to be somebody else.


6. Our cassette deck is melting hot and plays Nova Scotian folk songs about women submerged in ocean weeds and reborn as spirits in seaside towns. Their daughters run away or choose the wrong lover and see him killed at the hands of a male relative with a penchant for violence. We fall asleep listening to the ballads, which wind and unwind their way through the motionless rooms of the house. That July amid the beach blossoms and the tides my mother becomes nearly childless, my unsuspecting body swept under too large a wave. I am half a ghost in the stale heat of the car on the hour’s drive back from the coast. My mother remembers the sensation of digging her own small belly into the sand. The songs become a sad-sweet refrain on days’ ends that never cool down despite the window thrown open and the fan it swallows up, its cheap plastic still rattling when the sun reappears.


7. I am living in New York City during my mother’s first attempt at suicide. I speak sharply into the phone from underneath the scaffolding that prefaces the door of the donut shop. The street’s exuberant noises compete with the unsubstantial voice of my mother as she describes to me a god who desires that she remain alive. I am not on the next train or the next train or the next. I sit balled in the cramped ceramic tub, lean my kneecaps into the too-warm flow of the tap. In the living room after my mother dies, the evening lights flicker without explanation.


8. The doors in this tiny canal-side apartment are always creaking open and shut. I have already discovered that I am writing about hauntings when it emerges that my three-year-old’s animated television program is also about ghosts. Het is een spook! the voiceover artist shrieks in Dutch as an army of emergency responder vehicles tears down the cartoon street through an exaggerated twilight. I find my sandals carefully stacked, one sitting atop the other, as though waiting for me to notice. My son sits placid, unflappable in the face of our shared myths. The difference between us is that I need them.


Mother Tongue

“Mommy, you sound strange.” My five-year-old looks at me curiously as I sing in Hindi to her. “It sounds funny,” she says again. I smile and nod and try to explain to her the meaning of my words. But then she is distracted and runs away. This has happened a lot recently as I am trying harder to speak in Hindi with and around my children. I play Kishore Kumar songs from the 1950s to them in the car, and I read them Hindi comics that I used to enjoy as a child, bought for an eye-watering price over the internet. But then words often fail me, as I try to grasp wispy words and feathery nuances that sound alien to my own ears.


I am the only one who speaks and understands Hindi in my house. My husband’s repertoire is limited to the words he has learned while ordering takeaway from the local Indian “curry” place: samosa, aaloo, chana. I laugh at his accent and then sometimes find myself repeating the same accent when I make the call to the curry place, impersonating the pronunciation of words, confusedly meandering between the sound that I heard as a child and the ones I hear all around me now. I worry that with this I am losing a part of my childhood and my mother tongue, and my anxiety drowns my words when I worry that my children will never be able to speak Hindi, communicate with their grandmother in India, or watch Hindi movies without subtitles. Sometimes I try and watch Hindi movies alone late at night just to remind myself where I come from, to hear the sounds that are missing from my life. For those few minutes, hours, I feel like the person who used to watch Bollywood movies obsessively as a teenager, singing out loud, playing antakshari with my friends. Often the incongruity of the meaning expressed in the dialogue and its brutal translation that smoothes out all the subtleties and gradations make me laugh, sometimes cringe. But I also feel like an impersonator, an imposter who is pretending to be something I am not. Not anymore. At times I turn the subtitles on. I feel like I am fighting to own a language that is not mine anymore, as if the memory of that language is only an illusion. That person was me, of course. But this is me, too. Where does one end and the other start?



It is strange how language shapes our identity. Am I a different person when I speak in different languages, and are my thoughts mapped by the language that I use to think and to speak in? My eldest daughter has often told me that I resort to Hindi when I am angry. Even though I switch between Hindi and English fluidly without a flicker of a thought or hesitation, no doubt there are things I cannot think or feel in either. Do I take on a different persona, another shift of identity as English becomes my way of communicating in writing and in speech? And in dreams, which are never in Hindi anymore? The rhythm of each language works in different meters, and I slow down when I speak Hindi. There isn’t that rush to get the words out before I forget, the precariousness exacerbated by the ever-present awareness that my accent will always belie my notion of being at home in this English language. But does the core of myself change with these shifts? Do I become less funny, more opinionated, more at ease in one than the other?


I went to a school run by Irish Catholic nuns, all through my primary and secondary education, where we were penalized for speaking in Hindi, the deeply ingrained colonial hangover persisting. We were better if we spoke in a language that wasn’t our own, that marked the gentile from the ordinary. English was the only language that could help us make our way in a world where we were never the desirables. I realize the irony of this as I write now in English. My parents wanted me to be good at English because that was how I would make a place for myself in this world. My mother wanted me to be good at English because she didn’t think she was, and she wanted me to spread my wings in a world that wasn’t designed for women. My father would take me to the only bookshop in town, where they had a tiny selection of books in English: some Enid Blytons and Stephen Kings, occasionally classics such as Gone with the Wind. It was our ritual every month. I wanted to be good at English so that I could read all the books that showed me a world far beyond my own, those books with green pastures and Little Women who were fierce, independent, and strong-willed, the female protagonists of their own life. I wanted to drink elderflower juice and have afternoon tea, not knowing what it tasted like. I loved this window into a new world even as I felt my face flush with embarrassment when my father would proclaim with fatherly pride that “she only reads English books.” This felt like betrayal at times as I read about the imperial rule, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the centuries of British oppression in India. The marks left by colonial rule and partition had seared into our consciousness, and there was no escaping it.


This push and pull persisted as this language of our oppressors slowly became my home, even as Hindi was still the language that bridged the gap between my parents and me.


I still find it fascinating that we studied Hindi as a second language, even though it was our first: it was the language of the first word that I heard, the language of my ancestors, the one that our stories were written in. I keep wondering what the world would have looked like if it hadn’t been like this, if we did not grow up with this shame. And I wonder when I started dreaming and thinking in shapes and patterns that were alien and uncomfortable to my own mother.


My ma felt ashamed all her life that her spoken English wasn’t that good, an inferiority that she carried because my father could speak better English than she could. I have never thought about this deeply: how this shame marred her view of herself and her own place in society; of those times that she would stay quiet, only smiling shyly when she thought that she didn’t know how to talk in public or was anxious that she would say the wrong thing, come across as ignorant and uncouth. So much of that anxiety shaped her mothering, her lack of recognition of her talents. And perhaps that is why it took me so long to acknowledge all that is so luminous about her, as she hid her resplendence from everyone including herself.



Choosing the language we speak is also linked to our autonomy; our view of our body is shaped by the words we speak, the thoughts we think, the space we occupy, and the way our mind inhabits our body.


Growing up with this discomfort around a language that is your own mother’s tongue, hiding it as a dirty secret at home, while only speaking in English at school, creates a split personality, where one has to keep shifting between two worlds of thoughts, words, and dreams, at home in one, in both, and sometimes in neither. Most people I know speak in Hinglish, an amalgamation of both languages, stepping inside both worlds at the same time, equally comfortable with Premchand and Amrita Kaur as with Hilary Mantel or Margaret Atwood. But people carry this unconscious bias that those who can write or speak better English are also better people, this halo spilling over their other attributes, giving them opportunity and privilege, while making others tongue-tied and even more inhibited in their thoughts.


Would our stories be different if this comfort around our own language had not been seeded and planted from a young age, and would the stories we write and tell our children be any different? These switches have become part of my identity, and they are how I belong in both worlds. But sometimes I can feel like an alien in both.


I remember when my eldest daughter came back irate from school, saying that they had pronounced geography incorrectly because that is how they had always heard me say it: “jaw-gruphy.” I laughed, but they didn’t find it amusing at all, though now they have outgrown that adolescent shame of a mother who has accented English, compounded by their classmates giggling at their quirky pronunciation of words that they had grown up with. I still catch myself worrying about how to pronounce words, and whether the way I speak marks me out as other, often searching for the right expression to say what I feel. It takes a while to shift this persona when I am in India, a few days to overthrow this worry about speaking the wrong word or in the wrong accent. Instead, I find myself searching for the right word in Hindi, which has been buried deep inside the mists of my time away from this place. I find myself stuttering over expressions, feverishly searching for the word that would stop me from being marked as a foreigner, and slowly it comes back. I worry less about switching between languages, and it becomes second nature once again, jolting me into a recognition of myself that I keep abandoning as soon as I leave India and fly back to the UK, reminding me how much I miss these words, this language, the poetic sensibilities of expressions that say so much.


I worry about how we can give words to our children when we ourselves feel wobbly around the edges of our languages.



And then I find the five-year-old singing the lullaby that I sing to them on most nights, in her Scouse accent, words that sound jumbled up, but she stands up tall up on the table and performs for us. I clap not just because it is utterly adorable but because hearing her speak those few words of Hindi makes me feel like coming back home, as if I never left, as if the thread from my mother to her is still unbroken, as if my mother tongue might not be hers completely or even mine anymore, but it is still a language that shapes so much of who I am, and hopefully will shape her too. And even though I have fought for my right to belong here in this place and this language, to assimilate and fit in, and I have also struggled to continue to belong to my mother tongue, I can be both or none. My mother tongue still belongs to me even though its edges are tinted with exasperation and frustration at not knowing all the words or at my accent belying my origins. It is seared and etched into my very self and my skin, and I worry less about making my children feel at home with it, because I have to remember that they are never far from home when they are close to me.



Don’t Mistake Human Remains for Cocaine

Aunt Glenda gave me and Cricket $200 to buy an urn for the ashes, and we fled. After suffering our closest (and richest) relations’ disdain and neglect from a thousand miles away our whole childhood, suddenly having them inside our small, shabby southwest Florida home micromanaging our mom’s last arrangements was a lot. But they thought we were too young to figure it all out on our own. We were twenty-two (Irish twins, eleven months apart) and fairly fucked up, so they may have been right.




Cricket and I had barely spoken since I ran away to college. Cricket and I had barely spoken before I ran away to college. Cricket and I had had little to do with each other, in fact, since we were around six years old and still building pillow forts in the over-abundant living room in the house that it turned out we couldn’t afford so we’d moved away after our mom (who was technically our grandmother) divorced her alcoholic second husband and buried her two real daughters. Having little left to give, our mom had split herself in two and given each of us half: I got her respect, but Cricket got her love.


So the two of us, likewise, split the universe in two and agreed to keep to our side. I drowned my adolescence in a pile of books; Cricket went with the more traditional sex and drugs. Cricket dropped out of high school; I escaped to college. But we were both burnt out by our aunt and uncle’s cloyingly perfect manners and good-breeding that day, so we were doing fine with each other for once.


We took the $200 and drove down to Fancy Street by the beach to find a container they would deem acceptable to inter with our mother’s ashes in the venerable family plot in Virginia. The day was moist and desolate. Hurricane Wilma had stopped by that weekend, downing nearly all the power and telephone lines, and the streets were strewn with flotsam. One whole tree had been plucked from the ground and lay on its side, its roots flipping off the sky.


We parked our mom’s indecorous yellow Toyota Matrix and wove our way into and out of stuffy boutiques, picking up hollow blown-glass artisanal pieces, fine, porcelain basins, and deceptively simple boxes imported all the way from Japan; in each, I tried to picture the woman who’d manhandled every moment of our childhoods, mostly from the comfort of her depression-bed, shutting up long enough to be called “at rest.” The well-coifed sales ladies looked at us askance, as well they should—we were obviously up to the worst kind of mischief—but they asked if they could help us, anyway. This sent us into peals of laughter. Could they help us? Could anyone help us? Were we even worth helping? Not according to most of our relations. What kind of help would have helped us, anyway?


Having no answers to these and other questions, we left before the cops could be called.


Cases, canisters, vessels, casks, repositories, barrels, bowls, tankards, pitchers, bins, and drums. We tried them all, but nothing was vibrant enough, irreverent enough, spiteful or woeful enough. We’d been at it for hours when our fractured nerves and our natural distrust for each other resurfaced. There were no contenders. We were at the end of Fancy Street, and it was clear that none of those ostentatious ladies believed our white-trash asses could pay for what they were selling.


We ended up by the pier where our mom used to bring us to play as kids, having escaped the respectable relations herself when she was much younger and Florida was still a string of quirky fishing villages. There was a kitschy tourist shack. We went in and immediately spotted a hideous pink-plastic flamingo vase for ten bucks. We bought it without conferring. Pocketed the rest of the money.


We brought the pink-plastic flamingo vase back to our aunt who was comme il faut in this and all things. Completely straight-faced, we handed it to her, knowing this would have made Mommy cackle. Watching Aunt Glenda’s perfectly manicured fingers shrink back, we pretended we were the idiots she thought we were.


“Perfect,” she said nobly.



In lieu of a funeral—our mom had been a rabid atheist—we had a gathering in the home. Even if the traditional news outlets had been functioning full-force, it would have been small. She spent her last decade razing bridges. One of her former friends, who we used to spend Christmas with, told us straight off she was there only to support me and Cricket. Our mom’s favorite cousin, in contrast, did not come because we were “two ungrateful bitches.” Neither our mom’s students nor the people she’d taught with for nearly forty years showed up. But the brassy old biddies with bad teeth and backs she’d slung fabric with at Jo-Ann’s when her retirement money wasn’t enough came out en masse toward the end of the night.


Aunt Glenda, bless her well-bred heart, greeted them with all the grace a Southern Lady could muster. I sat on the piano bench in the living room and tried to make small talk with everyone. It was Halloween. My one-year anniversary, exactly, with my girlfriend back at college. My brain kept catching on this fact. (When I asked her to come with me, she informed me the request was improper.)


Uncle Aaron said something disparaging about Provincetown.


“I love P-town,” I said, having gone there recently and discovered that women walked hand in hand all over town without anyone batting an eye.


“I bet you do,” he said, vehemently. And so my evening went.


Cricket got wasted instead.


Cricket is 4’11 and elfin—fair hair, green eyes, pointy ears, with a wyrd-witchy style. Besides our age for one month every year, and our birthright of intergenerational trauma, the only thing we share is our chest size. Though I’d never admitted this, in high school I had admired Cricket’s ability to try just enough of every drug to experience it and be liked, but never enough to get truly messed up. It was a sort of self-possession I never had. But this was not one of those nights. While Cricket was in the living room getting drunker and drunker, judgment oozed from our aunt and uncle. So Cricket sad “fuck it,” took several bottles, and went out to what used to be a garage but had more recently been our drug-dealer cousin’s room before he ostensibly killed himself in a shoot out with the police-who-never-fired-a-shot.


Cricket was staggering around beyond blackout drunk, so I called Little Crystal, one of Cricket’s best friends, to come over for support. She suggested Cricket try on the Pez dispenser costume that Cricket had put so much work into, and now wasn’t going to get to wear to any Halloween parties, after all. Cricket had collected Pez dispensers (and other small things) for years and had really done a great job with the Cricket-sized Big Bird Pez dispenser.


It fit perfectly.


Unfortunately, it had no arm holes.


And Cricket was hammered.


And the floor was concrete.


Cricket crashed down head-first. And then refused to go to the hospital. Cricket could barely speak through the alcohol and concussion but was adamant on that point. NO HOSPITAL. In hindsight, I suspect it was a fear about health insurance now that our mom had died. Even though Aunt Glenda and Uncle Aaron probably would have covered any hospital bill from that night, that would, obviously, have come with its own baggage.


But over the past four years, I had lost my mom, my cousin, the alcoholic second-husband, one of my best friends from high school, and even my childhood cat, who was eaten by the next door neighbor’s bull mastiff. Now Cricket, the last person I had left, was lying on the ground with a head-knot growing bigger than a grapefruit.


I flipped out and called an ambulance.


The paramedics came and examined Cricket. They told us that there was about a 50% chance of internal bleeding and long-term brain damage and a 50% chance everything would be fine. They also pointed out that Cricket’s stomach should probably be pumped. But they said they couldn’t legally force someone to go to the hospital, even if it would save their life.



Apparently, it takes more than alcohol poisoning and a concussion to kill a Watts.


Cricket hasn’t died yet.


Aunt Glenda and Uncle Aaron packed up and left—thank God—the next day. They took the flamingo and the bag of ashes, sans the little bit sealed up in a small wooden box that Cricket kept. (Though the flamingo had mysteriously disappeared a year later when they interred her in a muted marble urn.) I had taken the month off school to help pack up our mom’s things and deal with the details. But we didn’t do any of that. Cricket moved into our mom’s bedroom and then just went to sleep, like our mom had when her daughters died.


Week after week.


It had never actually been my house. They’d moved there after I went off to college to try to get our cousin away from his drug contacts, not that it worked. There wasn’t even a single drawing or stuffed animal of mine from grade school, let alone a bedroom—I slept in the fabric closet. I tried to get Cricket to do things that I thought would be helpful in the long-run, while I was there to be helpful. Cricket did not want to. Any more than our mom had wanted to. My whole life at home had been one interminable cycle of trying to make people do things they didn’t want to do so that I could survive and be happy.


I quit.


I went back to Wellesley. That semester was a mess. I took an incomplete in all my classes at my dean’s suggestion. My quantum mechanics professor demanded that I still come to lectures, so I told him I never got anything from his lectures and walked out. My girlfriend informed me that it had been very hard on her to have me gone for so long. As though I had timed my mother’s unexpected death of a cancer she’d been diagnosed with three weeks before she died in order to inconvenience my girlfriend.


And Cricket, who had never lived alone and unsupported, was left to figure it all out. A friend of a friend knew a friend who needed a place—a young guy around twenty—so he moved in to help cover the bills. A week later, Cricket went on a road trip. Maybe the air of depression lingered in the house when we were all gone. Maybe the guy chose that house because he was depressed.


Or maybe it was haunted.


Not long before our mom died, she reconnected with a man she’d had a crush on when they were kids. Nearly sixty years later, he was coming to visit to see if they might kindle something. Before he arrived, Mommy made Cricket take the decal of the squirrel with gigantic balls off the toilet seat. She said, “We wouldn’t want him to get the right impression of us.”


So Mommy would have found what happened next hilarious. And Cricket and I, well, we didn’t not. It wasn’t that the new roommate killed himself—that part, of course, was tragic. Cricket found him in the living room. But beside him, Cricket found the box of Mommy’s ashes pried open. A little was dribbled out on the floor beside him. Cricket realized he must have thought Mommy was cocaine. And tried to snort her.



Cricket and I sorted ourselves out, more or less, as the years went by. I earned three degrees, was baptized into the Episcopal church, and now live in California where I tutor rich kids, thereby assuring that those who have keep on having. Cricket moved to Atlanta and waited tables for a decade before moving to Portland and establishing a house-cleaning business that they work at when they aren’t rioting for political causes. Years later doctors found some neurological issues that may have been from that night or may have come from the beating Cricket took during more than a decade playing roller derby.


Cricket is the only person from my old life still alive. This is both a blessing and a curse. Otherwise, I could pretend that life never happened. Could pretend I have always been what the people here see when they look at me: a well-educated, middle-class writer and teacher, church leader, cat mother, singer, and friend. With perhaps a few more stories than average.


But Cricket calls and sounds like giving up, so I drop everything, in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of wild fire season, and drive up to Oregon, even now. And try to get them to do things that would be helpful, while they lie in bed and refuse.



Cricket kept our mom’s Toyota Matrix for years as it decayed. Someone busted in the passenger’s side door. The last time I saw it, there was no window, just a rainbow-colored fleece blanket duct-taped over where a window should have been. Despite that, someone bothered to “break in.”


The only thing they stole?


That box of Mommy’s ashes.