Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Stuff and Treasure

I have a book of Guy du Maupassant stories. On the cover is an impressionist painting of a woman coming out of the bath, drying her feet. I assume it’s by Degas because he’s the impressionist I did my high school French class report on and, as far as I’m concerned, all impressionist paintings that aren’t famously and obviously by some other painter, were painted by Degas.

Degas started going blind at the end of his career. Tragedy. Tragedy for him and for us. I am legally blind. The tragedy is merely personal. The world does not mourn a loss over the fact that reading, for me, is slow and difficult. I have to be choosy about what I read because it takes so much time and effort. In college, I chose to read that book of Maupassant stories. After college, I chose to read it three more times.

Those stories can be a little like Far Side cartoons. Sometimes you don’t get it on your first shot. Sometimes you need someone to explain the world and the ending to you.

My junior year of college, I had a little time between this and that, who knows—I don’t remember the obligations, I only remember the time in between. There was an in between place on the Vanderbilt campus where four paths met in a sort of pedestrian roundabout. At the center of the circle was a planter overflowing with the campus’ signature Spring gold tulips. At the center of the planter was a blossoming dogwood, shedding its white, covering the ground in floral snow. The circle was bordered by ancient shade trees and magnolias. There were antique style street lamps dotted around. At night, they cast pale blue efficiency light. There were glossy wooden benches.

I was alone in the circle, in the in between time, in the in between place, sitting on one of the glossy benches. I was reading Guy du Maupassant.

I read a story about a man who observes another man’s gaudy, worldly treasures and also his beautiful daughter and wife. That’s the whole of the story—the observations of the one man and the bragging of the other on all his gaudy, worldly possessions. It’s the kind of story that, when it ends, you flip the pages expecting another ending and find only the beginning of another story. Maybe the printer made a mistake.

I stood up from my glossy bench, chewing on it. I went to my other obligation. I went back to my dorm room overstuffed with the detritus of a busy college career. I called my mom.

I told my mom about the story and asked her what she thought it meant. She said it was quite obvious, wasn’t it? The treasure was the women. In all that house full of stuff, (I looked around my own room and was embarrassed), in that house full of stuff,, (I thought about how often I had walked through that in between place circle with its gold tulips and dogwood snow and ignored it on my way from stuff-to-do to other stuff-to-do and was embarrassed), in that house full of stuff, the women were the treasure. The family bond was the precious thing,

I thought about how often I neglected to call home in favor of some seemingly more pressing or interesting stuff. I was embarrassed. My life was stuffed with such stuff.

I told my mom she was an epiphany. I asked her how her day had gone.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Writing Exercises

Matchy Matchy on Anyone Else

At some point my mom stopped wearing closed-toed shoes. At some point she went entirely to sandals. California girl gives up on formality. In retirement, she retired fancy footwear. Men ditch the noose. My mom ditched confining shoes.

Hobnobbing with high powered lawyers over million dollar medical malpractice cases, her working life shoes were stunning—more for the sound they made than anything else. Strident strides. Authority on pavement come from the parking lot into the courthouse to win the day and withhold the money.

When my mom came to visit me for the first time in my first apartment as an adult, I heard her long before I saw her. She parked in the visitors’ lot, under my window, and clicked her way through the security gate somehow before I got down there to let her in. The gate yielded for her, or whoever was holding the gate, because of course it/he did.

She was wearing a pale yellow dress and her shoes matched. They matched the dress exactly. Her purse matched too. Matchy matchy on other people looks sickening. On my mother, matchy matchy looks like all is right in Heaven and Earth and nothing evil can touch you here. Her jewelry was gold. The stones in her jewelry were yellow topaz.

All is well. All is well. Heaven and Earth can rest.

She rearranged my apartment during that visit. She had gentle suggestions and the place got a major undoing and redoing. The couch went from the wall to the middle of the room creating a second space against the wall for my desk and piano. The artwork got frames and was properly hung, not puttied to the walls as it had been in my dorm room, my home before this one. Bad adolescent decorating habits carried over. She fixed that.

She bought a purple decorative pillow for my couch to match the purple in the decorative rug I had under my glass coffee table. She made sure my accidentally contemporary living room flowed seamlessly into my accidentally country bedroom. The purple flowed through from pillow to pillows. The floral arrangement on the dining table matched the flowers on my bedspread. The drapes, different colors but the same style, were made and hung by the same pair of hands.

When she left—when she clicked her way back through the gate and went back to my childhood home more than a thousand miles away to knock heads and pointed heels with lawyers who weren’t expecting so much trouble from a woman, I looked at my newly gorgeous apartment and cried. I missed my couch and everything else up against the wall because I didn’t know any better. I missed the curl of the art posters pulling away from their putty.

I missed her clicking more.

I kept my apartment the way she left it: objectively beautified. With only my soft sneakers to scuttle along the scuffed floorboards, the beautiful quiet was too quiet and would have been quieter had I reverted entirely to me. Emptier. Emptier and quiet.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

Reality on Her Fingers

My dad, divorced from my mother for more than ten years at that point, told me that what she really loves is jewelry. She has the bling gene, as we call it. That’s not what he said. That’s a little too clever, a little too kind.

She loves costume jewelry, but has a grounding in the real. Always reality on her fingers. On her left hand, she always wears a blue topaz ring she had made. The topaz is set in a simple, modern swoop of solid gold. It’s meant to show off the stone, bold as a blue diamond. The way she wears it, you would swear it was a diamond.

On her right hand, she wears a ruby set in a cluster of diamonds. The ruby is her birthstone. It is pigeon blood red. It is the best you can get. She had this ring made too.

She wears a little silver ring I gave her. She wears a simple gold chain bracelet on her left wrist.

A touch of reality around her neck too. A shy diamond set in another modern swoop of gold, smaller, more delicate—a stylized teardrop. It sits against a black backdrop, created shadow. The diamond is from her mother’s engagement ring—her mother’s first engagement to my mother’s father.

They took that necklace off my mom when she went into the hospital so it wouldn’t interfere with the MRI. They took her rings and bracelet too.

She had to be in the hospital alone because of the virus. She was there a week. I called her every day, at least once a day. She told me many times about how they had taken her jewelry. She told me many times she was sure she would get it back. She had faith they were good, honest people, and that she would get her jewelry back even though she couldn’t quite remember where they had put it in her room. It seemed she thought about that more than she thought about her infection, her surgery, the second attempt at her surgery, and what life would be like after.

She recovered enough to come home. Once home, it took her another two weeks to recover enough physically and mentally even to want to put her jewelry on again.

She fished it out of her purse. It was all jumbled up in a green, semicircular plastic holder that looked like something you would put false teeth in. All that reality. All her reality. All those gems.

She put the topaz on first. This was what she earned—her badass career—the woman she was before retirement—the woman who made male lawyers quiver and go limp—the woman who could afford a topaz like that and all that swoop of gold.

She put her ruby on next. This was the woman she was born, badass in essence from the start. The little girl who chopped down an entire row of bird of paradise in front of her mother’s house because she didn’t like the way they looked at her when she got home from school. She planted snapdragons there instead. Their fierce little faces were sweeter.

The gold bracelet. She fastened that on herself. She bought it somewhere borderline seedy while on a Caribbean cruise—her first. First of many with a group of globetrotting women, badass as she was, exploring everything, planting their flags everywhere.

She needed help with the engagement diamond necklace. I tried for more than fifteen minutes and couldn’t get it. The clasp is so tiny, I wondered how she ever got it on in the first place as her well kept fingernails are long and lustrous and mine are bitten to the nubs. It should have been easier for me having my actual fingertips to work with, but it was impossible.

She sighed as I handed it back to her. She looked down. “I don’t like to be without it,” she said. “You wouldn’t believe how easily the nurse took it off.”

Finally, she slid the little silver ring with the created pink gemstones I gave her for her birthday on to her little finger. The ring had turned black. Something they injected her with had burned her inside, leaked out of the injection site, run down her arm, and burned off whatever real silver there was on the ring. This was before the MRI. Before the box. Before she was bereft of everything. Before it was all protected.

That silver ring I gave her—the timid whisper that is my life’s contribution to hers, turned black in her illness—she wears it anyway. Right alongside her gold and precious. She wears it anyway.

-M.

Creative Nonfiction, Family, Memoir, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Exercises

It Grows and Grows

Talk about disease.

It puts me ill at ease when my mom starts talking about my grandparents’ cancer—how they were dying at the same time, in hospital rooms next to each other. Lung cancer.

They smoked together. I’m sure he lit her cigarettes when they were dating. A sexy gesture. A sexy pull. Firsthand smoke to firsthand smoke. Breathing in each other’s breaths. Secondhand to secondhand. Thirdhand smoke in each other’s clothes. They breathed it in when they were dancing close.

Thirdhand smoke in their clothes still, even their clean clothes that my mother had to divvy up amongst relatives or donate after they passed. You never really can get rid of the smoke, the breath, the illness, the cancer. It grows and grows.

My mother’s marriage was falling apart as her parents were dying. My father was useless.

One day, after having worked a full day and spending most of the evening sitting at her parents’ bedsides, my mom came home to find that my father had put my sister and I to bed in our day clothes. She tells me he didn’t even bother to take our shoes off. That’s the part she couldn’t get over.

Unemployed and couldn’t be bothered to take our shoes off.

Unemployed and he would do the laundry at three in the morning with all the lights on in the house and Hank Williams roaring from the record player.

She wasn’t spending her evenings with him. He couldn’t throw a toddler’s tantrum, so he chose Hank Williams instead and, “You did say you wanted me to do the laundry, didn’t you?”

The cancer grew and grew.

My grandparents died and my mom got a divorce in the same year.

I once asked my mom if she was glad my grandparents weren’t around to see her get divorced. I asked her if there was some relief in it for her—in their passing. I don’t remember how she answered. I know she spoke, but all I really remember is the silence while she thought about it.

-M.

Family, Humor, Memoir, Nashville, Personal Essay, Prose, Writing Life

Christmas Onions 2000

My first Christmas in my first apartment alone, trying to be a big time grownup. I made French onion soup for dinner. I called home to California earlier in the day. I had read a scripture, I told my mom, something about getting my house in order, and I felt I needed to do that, which involved me staying in Nashville for Christmas, again, alone. She wasn’t convinced, but because she couldn’t fly out and physically drag me home, she accepted it. 

I was trying to be so adult. I was trying to prove something, though, looking back, I can’t imagine what. Was I trying to prove that I could withstand severe holiday depression? Was I trying to prove that no matter how badly I wanted to off myself that season, I didn’t need my family to help me not become a statistic?

I called my Hungarian violin teacher after I called my family. He was a big part of my life then as music was a big part of my life. I also adored his stories of escaping communism. Communists used to make Hungarians eat diseased cow meat and chocolate made from blood. Zsolt was also disappointed I wasn’t coming home. He was put off by my choice of Christmas dinner. He said, “Well, maybe you could float an ornament in it and make it more Christmasy that way.” I laughed and felt lonelier by the minute.

God I was miserable then—a miserable sort of miserable that radiated in waves across the country from Nashville to my little city Berdoo.

I was new to keeping my own appliances then, just as I was new to keeping my own household in general. For example, while I had used a garbage disposal many times as a kid growing up, I somehow never learned that putting onion skins down one is not such a great idea. By the time I had all the onions in the Christmas soup pot sautéing with butter, beginning to oddly smell like apples, my garbage disposal was filled to brimming with onion skins. 

I ran the water and turned the disposal on. It growled like an offended demon and the water didn’t go down. It began to spit up chopped onion skins in great belches, making of the sink water a slimy, stinky soup of its own. I stopped the thing. “That was not bright,” I told myself.

I grudgingly lugged my plunger into the kitchen from the bathroom. In retrospect, it is amazing I had a plunger given that, when I first moved it, I hadn’t realized until I was in dire need that toilet paper doesn’t grow on the roll. 

I stuck the plunger to the drain and plunged for dear life. More and more onion skins belched forth from the disposal along with other unspeakable things most likely from tenants past. I sucked everything out that I could. 

The water still didn’t go down. The chopped onion skin and unnamable goo mocked me as it danced its spiral around the sink.

I ended up having to strain all that onion skin and other detritus out of the sink with my bare hand, letting the water slip through, but retaining the chunks that clung to my fingers. I pulled the trash can up next to me and went to town. I think a year might have gone by. 

The sink came clean, the water went down, and the garbage disposal growled happily, its gut no longer sick.

I washed my hands at least three times. I washed the plunger. I raised the plunger over my head and made He-Man muscles. 

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I proclaimed to my empty apartment.  

“I am the Garbage Disposal Master of the Universe!” I shouted again just in case the ghosts I lived with hadn’t heard. 

I lowered my plunger and shrugged my shoulders. Shoving the onion skins down the disposal was not the only terrible mistake I made that lonely Christmas. Not by a long shot.

Family, Memoir, Prose

Unaffectionate Boy (memoir)

Natanon was near the last one to deplane and make his weary way through the Roy Rogers airport. He met us by the empty spinning of the baggage carousel. His mother sent him to us from Thailand to finish his education in the States.

He was sent to us to get a little time with his dad.

He was dressed in black like a cowboy villain, but almost bald being only two weeks out from a stint as monk in his hometown of Phuket. His father and grandfather hugged him welcome. He smiled, but his shoulders were drawn up. He and I shook hands. He smiled again, but looked down at his shiny, square-toed shoes.

Later that day with the family, eating fast food Chinese— a mystery to him—he slid his cookie’s fortune across the greasy table for me to read to him, his English still a little weak. I read it low-voiced like a mystic and, as benediction, exclaimed, “…in bed!”

His English and teenage hormones were just strong enough to make him blush, drop his head and silent shake his drawn up shoulders down, with laughter.

-M.