bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: www.biostories.com. Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Give Me a Sign

by Linda Tharp

There’s a lava rock wall in front of a Maui condo complex from which a nondescript sign announces the complex’s name, a series of leapfrogging n’s and o’s heralding vacation before you’ve even dragged your jet-lagged self out of the rental car. The wall’s rocks are rough and my daughters’ skin, still mainland pale, appeared delicate in comparison as they stood under the sign for the requisite photo in their matching sundresses and Salt Water sandals, their hair not yet chlorine-brassy and their noses not yet peeling.

Nine years later Mom and Dad invited me back to Maui; they returned every April or May and always stayed at the complex with that rock wall. My husband endorsed my joining them, probably hoping time away would have a mellowing effect on me, and assured me he could handle his job, the house, three kids, and our Dalmatian for a week. A week! It was too good to be true.

“Are you sure you don’t mind?” I asked him. “Because you’ll have to get the girls back and forth to school.”

“Yeah, I know,” he said. “Don’t worry—I mean, I can drive.

I shook my head. “It’s not just that. Things come up that you never have to deal with, things you don’t even know about: permission slips, missing library books... There’s more to it than just driving.” Then I said, so quietly he asked me to repeat myself, “Besides, what about Erin?”

“What about her? I told you, we’ll be fine. Just go have fun.”

I half-heartedly bought sunscreen and a paperback or two, and agreed—perhaps too enthusiastically—when others said, “That’s so exciting you get to go!” What they didn’t know was that a lethal cocktail of melancholy and guilt threatened to derail my trip before it even started. Worse, I feared my cocktail glass would be refilled every time I saw the sign hanging on that rock wall and remembered my girls standing under it. 

I’m not sure how old they were in that photo—probably five, six, and eight. It seemed as if time stood still then, like I’d be forever unsnarling tangles from tender scalps and refereeing turns in the front seat, and I remember feeling comfortably stuck, contentedly itchy with life’s predictability. Now, even though it had been six years since life morphed from comfortable and predictable to this, returning to a spot we’d all enjoyed seemed callous, like I was trying to forget—or ignore—what has happened. Because today, Erin, our oldest, is in a wheelchair, nonverbal, and permanently disabled. She will never stand or speak again.

Six years after that photo was taken—six years after she tied a plastic grass skirt around her waist and swayed her nonexistent hips, six years after buying her sisters puka shell necklaces with her allowance—Erin lay in a teaching hospital’s ICU in a medically-induced coma, her private room so crammed with monitors and IV pumps and nurses that she seemed inconsequential by comparison. She eventually survived the tenacious virus that breached the usually unbreachable blood-brain barrier. Or, that is to say, doctors called her existence survival.

I expected things to become more complicated as the girls got older, and when Sarah, our middle daughter, accidentally baked her pet rats Phoebe and Camille in a misguided attempt to give them a morning of fresh July air (which became intense heat sooner than Sarah anticipated), I felt a perverse sense of relief despite my rants about irresponsibility. The complications I anticipated were along the lines of nefarious boyfriends and speeding tickets; sun-dried rats, I decided, would provide exemption from future catastrophe.

Often I wondered if Erin’s doctors were misguided, if their achievements weren’t necessarily in Erin’s best interest; if her survival—by their fluid interpretation, anyway—would be enough. In the era of that photo, I believed Erin’s future held more than the comfortable predictability she was raised with. The particulars swirled in my imagination like glitter, bits of hope and promise catching the light but not settling into a discernable pattern. That pattern took shape in Erin’s early teens, her passion for space exploration blossoming into dreams of a NASA career, and while she lay fighting for her life in ICU, a dog-eared NASA application packet with the return address of “Astronaut Selection Office” lay at home on her bedroom desk—which illustrates the fluidity of the word “survival.”

We did our best to maintain an illusion of normalcy during Erin’s eleven-month hospitalization, but life felt like a series of wrong choices: spending time at Kelley’s science fair awards instead of at Erin’s bedside, or letting Sarah and Kelley go to Catalina Island with Mom and Dad for the day despite a nagging fear that the ferry would sink. I was governed by guilt and doubt, no longer trusting instinct or common sense. Part of that, I know now, is because life was upended for no reason other than a willful virus. Nothing seemed safe anymore, or sacred, or sure. In a matter of hours I had gone from weighing Erin’s desire for our attendance at her space launch, to listening as a neurosurgeon recommended sawing away part of Erin’s skull. Now I was afraid seeing that condo’s sign would unnerve me more than finding those two caged heatstroke victims in our backyard. 

I was in no hurry to leave our rental car’s backseat despite the five-hour flight spent seat-belted to a barely cushioned concrete slab, my reluctance having nothing to do with comfort and everything to do with avoiding that sign for as long as possible. But as fate would have it we neither hit traffic nor careened off a cliff so here we were, pulling into the condo’s parking lot, and there it was, not thirty feet in front of us. Empty, is what I thought—the wall looked empty without three little girls in front of it. I waited for the smack upside the head I’d expected, the harsh realization that all three girls would never stand here—or stand anywhere, for that matter—ever again. The smack never came.

I spent hours on the same chaise lounges the girls squirmed on as they waited to go swimming after lunch, Coppertone making them slick as eels, and on the same beach where they built castles that melted like sugar with the tide. The smack never came, but a revelation did: even if Erin hadn’t gotten sick, even if our whole family was here right now, the girls wouldn’t be in matching sundresses, I wouldn’t pose them for another cheesy picture, and there’d be no more sand castles. It had nothing to do with Erin’s illness, and everything to do with the passage of time.

After Erin got sick I spent countless nights wondering if her survival would be enough, if blinking and breathing and swallowing would be enough for a girl with the former determination—and the former smarts—to join NASA. But in my either/or mind, I’d lumped “survival” and “NASA” together: Erin couldn’t have one without the other. When those sand castles were washed away, the girls built new ones, some more elaborate than the original, some less, but they didn’t stare at their now-vacant lot pining for what was.

The nonverbal, wheelchair-bound Erin will never join NASA. But the able-bodied Erin would not have received a standing ovation upon her high school graduation three years after she was almost declared brain dead, or be named Ambassador of the Year for her involvement with a nonprofit that provides wheelchairs to the disabled in Third World Countries ten years after that. The old Erin lived large, but so does the new Erin—without ever uttering a word.

I’ve returned to Maui every year since then with Mom and Dad. That rock wall is still there, but it no longer symbolizes evaporated plans—now it’s simply jagged stones, possibly thousands of years old, possibly manmade and bought at Home Depot, stacked like a jigsaw puzzle. And if I look closely, I see tongues orange from POG juice, fingers sticky with Roselani ice cream, and am reminded of what’s waiting at home.



Linda Tharp loved language from an early age when she first realized words can hurt you, a tactic she employed against neighborhood bullies due to her inability to throw either sticks or stones very far. She lives in Southern California with Gary, Erin, and grand-dog Maggie, and is currently writing a memoir based on the impact of Erin’s illness.

Monday, August 3, 2015

On Raising Snakes

by Ed McCourt

Corn Snake Mike is pointing out a wooden bird house on the edge of his property and is beginning to tell the story of how he came to build it when a broad-chested blue jay darts down to rest on its roof.
“Almost as big as a kingfisher,” I say.
“Close.”
Instead, Mike tells the story of an abandoned hatchling blue jay a neighbor found squeaking on his porch. That neighbor knew to bring it to Mike. He took it in, hand fed it, raised it up indoors: “It learned to imitate the sounds of the house.” He tells me about the first time the blue jay barked like a dog, then when it learned to whistle, and finally when it started imitating the ringing of his kitchen phone.
“My father would come in and answer the phone and yell about pranksters because no one would be on the line!” He follows this punchline with his habitual, guttural laugh and a push of his glasses. He is wearing a black T-shirt and on it is an eagle carrying a banner that reads “100% American” and practical sneakers. I know that, before becoming a Corn Snake guy, Mike was raised here in the south and retired from the automobile manufacturing industry. He tells me more about blue jays, how they love anything shiny, how he trained his to take pennies from his hand and drop them into his shirt pocket only to land on him later to ensure the coin was safe.
I’m not sure how I first found Mike, but I do remember that at the time an internet search of “Corn Snakes” and “Florida” turned up his home-made website as a top result. I asked him once how his website got so much traffic; it turns out he had taken a continuing education course search engine optimization, and the next month, he was in the top ten results in Google for “Corn Snakes.” We are friends now, but at first, I was just a guy curious about snakes and he was a popular google search.
Why snakes? Slithering, yes.  But isn’t there something elegant about it? And their skin! Cooler, smoother, and much softer than anyone who has not held one might imagine. That curious flicker of tongue, those severe (concerned?) eyes. For such a simple animal, it can be polarizing; as an order the serpent elicits a response matched by few, save the arachnid. My curiosity includes serpents, but also extends to other reptiles, or more accurately ‘herps,’—a commonly truncated nominalization of the word ‘herpetology,’ the scientific study of reptiles and amphibians.
When I talk with Corn Snake Mike, we stand between the side by side sheds: the snake house on the right, fully insulated and temperature controlled, and the smaller, less sophisticated hut on the left that he calls the “Mouse Farm.” It houses hundreds of adult mice alongside their thousands of offspring, many of the females puffed out awkwardly at both sides like those pickup trucks with obtrusive double wheels on the back axle. All generations live together in plastic tubs: pinkies (the babies, named because they are furless), fuzzies (for their short fur), hoppers (they are jumpy), and other adults. Screens top each tub, pinned down by old peanut butter jars filled with water, a small hole drilled in the bottom so the mice can lean up and suck a droplet through the mesh.  
There is also the side of the ‘farm’ I choose not to see—the table where Mike does the killing. “I just grab them by their tails and wham!” He gesticulates a fast turn of his wrist, a quick, mechanical snap—a motion he repeats hundreds of times each week. “They never feel a thing ... it is like falling off a twenty story building for them.” The silent victims of the pet trade, millions raised like miniature cattle, slaughtered to sustain pets, mice and rats are used in lab experiments because they share DNA strains with humans. Ultimately, we sacrifice these millions of mammals, our close genetic kin, to facilitate the hobby of keeping cold blooded species.
This is a world I have found myself in, but not without reservations. Animal husbandry has always operated on a basic tenet of symbiosis: grain for eggs, pasture for milk. The arrangement with traditional pets is a bit less concrete, but clear; well-timed treats for loyalty, affection, or a coy purr.
This is more difficult to explain in terms of herps.
Yet they are bred nonetheless, in impressive numbers. According to a study presented to the 112th Congress, some five million homes in this country house nearly fifteen million reptiles, and as a nation we exported an additional eleven million. Most of these are produced by hobbyist breeders in small spaces like Mike’s, and a huge cottage industry has risen alongside it.
Mike has huge varieties of corn snakes in his collection. I would drive up his long dirt driveway and park along the chicken wire he uses to coral his hens and tortoises, and he would appreciate my interest and explain to me the tenets of good snake husbandry. But there was one piece of the corn snake puzzle Mike never really addressed: the science.
So I read. I found online forums and bought corn snake books written by the respected breeders in the field. I got a juvenile ‘normal’ (the ‘wild’ coloration and pattern) from Mike and kept him as a pet, mostly because I wanted one, but partially for the purpose of familiarizing my wife with the notion of having a reptile in the house. This wasn’t an easy sell at first. “I don’t think we are snake people,” she would say, invoking the stigma of the snake.
In my research I learned that, like the modern dog, reptile breeders work to isolate aberrant genetic traits. For corns, these genes have been mostly recessive, and include amelanistic genes, anerythristic, hypomelanistic, diffused, dilute, stripe, motley, lavender, sun-kissed, lava, charcoal, caramel, and cinder. What is further is that these genes are on separate alleles and hence can be combined to make literally millions of potential varieties, called ‘morphs.’ There are candy cane corn snakes and pewter ones, avalanche and coral, plasma, gold dust, and citrine. There is snow, opal, and both—snopal. And each year people are breeding to further diversify the offerings in what is the largest segment of the pet trade running, though being outpaced in terms of growth by more exotic snakes like pythons and boas (for the corn snake is a species of colubrid native to the US). Eventually, I found a pair for myself that were heterozygous for multiple traits and could hence produce variegated offspring.
And like that, I was a snake breeder. I have learned that it doesn’t matter how many pairs one has, even if it is a single pair of domestic and otherwise non ‘exotic’ colubrid, if they produce eggs, then one is irrevocably a snake breeder. My wife can say goodbye to her weekly book club if that gets out.
As a father of snakes, I have become much more attuned to the stigma surrounding them, particularly in a state like Florida where venomous species are indigenous. There is a kind of ubiquitous serpent mythology here; local newspapers document rattlesnakes simply for having the nerve to be seen in public. In my neighborhood, I have seen dozens of ‘rattlesnakes’ killed and laid out with the trash, only to identify them has harmless, overgrown Florida garters, racers, or banded water snakes. A friend of mine actually will not use the word ‘snake’, and instead calls them esses (for the letter S, and the sound they make), because in his experience, uttering the very word conjures them.
It would be misleading to say it is a local phenomenon. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the first man and woman were duped by a devil in serpentine form. Similar mythology has sprung up around the Ebola virus. The story goes that the virus originated from a woman carrying a basket containing a snake. When opened, the snake gave Ebola to the first man it encountered. It is said that the serpent is still alive, roaming the country side, only now it can, like the equally terrifying snake-headed medusa, stricken a man with Ebola just by fixing its gaze on him.
The fear of snakes is logical as metaphor. The snake—as an extension of nature, of death, of disease—can live in plain sight undetected, and then when it is not at all expected, rise and strike with unmatched accuracy. For that reason, it is not quite the danger that scares us, but the quiet cunning of the thing.
Of course, this is not the experience with a clutch of eggs. Like an expectant mother, I fretted over the oblong eggs and watched them swell. I checked temperatures, humidity levels, and practically prayed over each nose ‘pipping’ out of its egg. I was, after all, growing living beings from a shoebox of peat and perlite in the stifling heat of my office closet. I did end up with some genetically unique animals, though when I compared them to the morphs Mike had in his collection, they weren’t really anything new, other than how vivid the ‘cube’ pattern was that graced the dorsal line of a handful.

Breeding aside, my favorite snakes of Mike’s aren’t the unique, strange, genetically aberrant in his collection. My favorites, by far, are a pair of ‘wild’ sub-adult yellow rat snakes that have found their way into the Mouse Farm and have taken up residence, pressed into the narrow slot between two tubs of mice.
In the shed, Mike opens a mouse rack: an offering. The rat snakes come over and peek in, look back at us for a moment, and snatch one of the scurrying bunch.
I love these yellow rat snakes, not because they are more beautiful than the selectively bred specimens next door, but because of their condition. Their presence, in as much as we can anthropomorphize the behavior of cold blooded reptiles, is an act of volition. They are free to leave, but because of Mike, because of his mice, they remain—without enclosures.
When I happen upon a wild snake, I try to give them that same choice. Choose not to bite me, and you might come to my home. Choose to eat my food, and you can stay. It is a simple system that creates some sense of contract between two living beings.
So why not stop there, with a wild snake that has ‘chosen’ to stay? If husbandry is ultimately a refined form of biological symbiosis, and we do not receive the obvious benefits from reptiles that we do from other animals, what is it that we gain from the keeping of herps? Perhaps I raised snakes for the same reason I write—to accomplish the most challenging thing in the world: creating something unique, beautiful, and complete.
Perhaps the entire “exotic” pet trade is, in some way, an effort to compartmentalize the wild element of nature into something manageable and urban. We restrict animals to square boxes the way the sun is contained behind the right angles of the neighbor’s house, the high-rised skyline. The mouse farm, the snake racks, our own homes and neighborhoods—all of us in boxes.
But there are other explanations that I worry about. Does this make the animal into spectacle? The same kind of misguided apotheosis as the circus elephant, crowned, bejeweled, glorified, but depressed and severely malnourished when back in its cage? Perhaps it is a symptom of the dissonance between man and nature: the best we can do is scrape together this facsimile of wildness, a tamed pseudo-beast that would rather allow itself to be manhandled than to strike out in its own defense, to provide ourselves a surrogate for nature. Does it in some way relieve the burden of our manufactured cartons, the various cloistered spaces of our lives? Perhaps we find it more tolerable knowing that something ‘wild’ is similarly confined and still surviving. Or worse, is it vindictive: I am in a box, and so it will be for you. Misery loves company, scales and all.

It wasn’t long after writing on this subject that I went back to see Mike, and of course, to pick up an order of mice. It was spring and as we spoke I noticed the boughs of his white grapefruit trees were full and bent to the point of breaking. He offered me whatever I could reach, and told me about his two varieties of fig trees. Through the branches, I noticed one of his bird houses that line the southern corner of his property. It is always difficult, I thought, to imagine the bird—with all its darting and soaring—contained in a wooden box.
“There are actually two nests in that—one in the house, and another below it in the top of the log where something bored out an opening. You can lift up the house and see a second nest beneath.”
We walked over. Mike told me he had seen a tufted titmouse going in and out, and hoped that the nests would be full of eggs, or better, hatchlings. “Unless a rat snake has made a meal of them,” I joked. Macabre, but this was the same place where we let patient rat snakes feed on live mice practically from our hands.
His face was solemn, “I sure hope not.”
We didn’t see anything at first, but I whistled a bird call, and by the end, we counted five down coated heads, popping up, mouths agape, waiting to be fed.
It was these hatchlings that reminded me why we kept these corns snakes: the natural world is magnificent but ever fleeting. The whole industry is but an attempt to keep in boxes some connection to nature that is otherwise uncontrollable and transient. We whistle and call it up to us, and after a glimpse, its downy head is back, low and hidden in some thicket. This practice is a meager attempt to sustain that singular instance in which nature is summoned to us, all beaks and scales, down and fur, and graces us with a moment of mutual recognition.


Ed McCourt is an Associate Professor in the English Department at Jacksonville University. His essays and poetry have appeared in the Little Patuxent Review, the Portland Review, Gravel Magazine, the Bacopa Literary Review, and elsewhere.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Ha-pence of Sense

by Peter Wadsworth

Soon after reaching his hundredth birthday, my father decided he had finished with looking after himself and moved into a nursing home.

I visit once a week.

I enter the room to find him slumped in a chair. The thought insinuates: "he's dead!" A rattle, and saliva trickles from his mouth. I shake myself and stride towards him. "Hello dad," I say, and repeat louder when I get no answer. A gentle pressure on his shoulder elicits no response, neither does a firm grip. I retire, defeated, to fetch his jacket from his room, and pass a resident in the corridor determinedly making progress while clutching her walking frame and muttering to no one in particular. Returning with the coat and a wheelchair, I grasp his shoulder. He stirs, eyes flickering open and shut as his consciousness struggles to return to the resident's lounge. Still a little confused, he looks around and notices my presence. After a few seconds his dazed expression turns to recognition and a little smile flickers across his face. I sit next to him while he gathers strength, inspecting his face. The forehead sports a large plaster earned from his latest fall. Yellow teeth few but still his own. Hair pure white, the waves hinting at once lustrous full locks. The face still remarkably unlined, belying his 102 years.

When I was fourteen he constructed a kayak in our garage: a two person—well, a one man and one boy. We were going on an adventure. A template was ordered, paper patterns for tracing the cross members in ply, and detailed instructions on how to form the skeleton and clad it in canvas. But my father had a better idea: he had acquired the very first samples of a new development, glass fibre. Little by little we (that is he, while I watched and occasionally passed a tool) built up the frame until we had what looked like the bones of a twelve foot prehistoric sea monster. Over this were stretched layer after layer of glass fibre fabric and lashings of resin. This was not a light nimble craft but a dreadnought, only just able to be lifted by the two of us. That long hot summer my father and I cannoned down the river Wye. Water levels were low and we were the only kayakers on the river. Stories are told to this day in those whereabouts of the two crazies who barreled down the half dry river bouncing from rock to boulder to rock in a miraculously undamaged kayak.

He has little conversation, and grunts as I ask him if he wants to go out. He readies himself for our little routine. The wheelchair is positioned next to his chair. I take his hands and become his strength. "On three," I intone and pull him gently forward while he rocks his body. A second pull and he has the rhythm. With the next he pushes himself forward and I carefully draw him out of the chair as he gradually, with great effort, rises to his feet. He steadies sufficiently for me to guide his left hand to the wheelchair, and I lead him on a slow, unsteady pirouette to line him up with his destination. On my command he trustingly slumps backwards and is safely ensconced in the seat. I propel him purposefully down the main corridor towards the entrance, passing staff who wish him a good trip or teasingly place orders for fish and chips.

Inserting my father into the car takes all of five minutes for a drive of a thousand yards to an ordinary looking pub, which unaccountably but delightfully has an excellent chef. Our five minute disembarkation routine has us safely inside the building. Seating is tricky. I get my father out of the wheelchair with the one two three routine and plonked down on the bench seat. Then I need to maneuver the heavy table as close to him as possible. I gently lift one foot up and move the table base under it, repeating the procedure for the other foot. I scramble up off the floor and smile inanely at the bemused fellow diners. I roll up my father's sleeves and tuck in a number of napkins under chin and chest. We are ready. My father orders lamb, which comes on a raft of sweet potato with assorted vegetables, all beautifully presented. I have had the dish before and it is delicious. I cut the meat into bite-sized pieces and place the cutlery in his hands. Food has always been an important and serious occupation for my father and we proceed in strict silence. He struggles to grip his knife and fork, then spends much time and effort in persuading sufficient morsels of food to remain on his fork as he lifts it waveringly towards his mouth. I find myself transfixed by the spectacle, hoping that his efforts will be rewarded and saddened at his frequent failures. A residual determination drives him to persist. Forty minutes after commencing his meal he is pursuing the few remaining rebellious peas around his plate with a persistence worthy of a door stopping reporter. "Did you enjoy your meal?" I ask. "No", he responds, looking down at his empty plate. "I like it plain and simple."

Like all seventeen year olds I realised that I knew more than my parents. They were old, behind the times, could not understand. One of the less objectionable manifestations of this obvious truth was that I believed I was a better cook than my mother. So, with the arrogance and ignorance of youth I took over the preparation of the evening meal. Not having trained with Escoffier I would raid the pantry and refrigerator, pillaging anything vaguely edible. Unique and scary concoctions, often of ill-assorted vegetables, perhaps some dubious meat or fish, seasoning, spices and/or herbs, were placed triumphantly in front of my long suffering parents. Unlike my mother, who often retreated to wedges of bread smothered in butter, dad reveled in the strange and unexpected,and so looked forward to his evening repasts. After a particularly enjoyable meal my father said he would like the dish again sometime. I did not reply. I had created a concoction of such complexity that re-creation was an impossibility; I could not recall all the ingredients or quantities. I sighed, another culinary masterpiece was lost to the world.

After the meal we complete the afternoon by a drive in the country. The hinterland of West Yorkshire is a mosaic of crisscrossing roads linking once industrial towns with ribbon development. But this seeming megalopolis contains unblemished hills and moors, prosperous farms and dense woods. These hidden places are what we seek. Each of these trips is an exploration, every turning done on whim, meandering through unexpected villages and stone bounded fields. My father gazes around, trapped in a metal box but enjoying the views. "Perfect clouds," he volunteers.

In his fifties he took up gliding. It became a passion. The silence, the freedom, the vantage of an eagle. He became a skilled but individualistic pilot. Low speed flight was a fascination. As air speed drops lift caused by airflow over the wings decreases and eventually the craft stalls, one wing losing lift completely. The glider drops suddenly to that side, spiraling down out of control unless the pilot has the skill and sufficient altitude to recover by putting the nose down and diving to gain speed. My father wondered if it would be possible to keep a stalling glider from losing control. On a series of flights he gained maximum altitude for safety, and gradually, after repeated stalls, he found he was able to keep flying by innumerable subtle adjustments of the ailerons. The slower he travelled the faster the plane dropped, but still under control. Back at the clubhouse he eagerly told the flight instructor of his discovery. The instructor was furious, said that was impossible and that if he tried such a stupid maneuver again would be grounded.

Later that season my father had a launch by winch. The driver, inexperienced, released him too soon. He did not have sufficient height or speed and was therefore unable to circuit round to land. Rather than spiral into the ground, he used his new technique to keep flying, dropping ever faster to the ground. The glider landed normally but very heavily. Both he and the glider survived. He with a painful back, the glider with scratches. Ground staff were astonished. "Why did the glider not crash, you could have been killed!" My father kept his silence.

He awakes as we pull into the nursing home drive and I decant him into the wheelchair. He needs his bathroom; I can see that his pad is leaking. In his suite I manhandle him onto the toilet seat. Exhausted, he rests for a while as I close the door to give him privacy. Looking around his bedroom I notice a faded photograph in a silver frame. A pleasure boat on a river, a glimpse of a man leaning out of the cabin. My father swings open the bathroom door. He is ready to have his pad replaced.

When my sister and I were in our early teens our parents bought a thirty foot cabin cruiser: four berth, galley, washroom, centre control cabin, gleaming white timber hull, sparking chromium fittings. It just happened to be called Yvonne, my sister's name. My mother was afraid of water but that was of no concern to my father. It was his pride and joy. The boat was berthed in a small marina hidden on a minor tributary of the river Severn, a pastoral idyll. We would drive down for the weekend, my parents disappearing into the boat to get things ship shape while my sister and I were free to wander. I loved exploring further up the little river, now too narrow for pleasure craft. I passed through swathes of nettle, both white and pink flowered. Tempted to stroke the leaves in the direction of the barbs to avoid being stung, invariably I had then to search out dock leaves to rub on my inflamed hands and legs. Being brave in the face of adversity, I would continue further into the wilds. A plop caused me to look across the river bank, a plump water vole was sculling towards its muddy hole. On a stagnant outreach of the waterway busy water boatmen skittered on the placid water surface, whirling legs bending the elastic membrane. A little upstream I caught a flash of turquoise and froze, moving my head round very slowly until I espied a kingfisher perched on a thin branch stretched out over the water. A full five minutes passed but the bird remained a statue. I slowly and quietly withdrew, only to hear a splash. I hurried back to see an empty branch and ripples spilling out from the water below.

During one long languid summer spent on the river Severn we ventured down a small tributary of the main river and chose a shady clearing to camp. My father made the craft secure, then began to forage. Mystified, my sister and I watched as he gathered broken tree branches and bunches of reeds. Squatting down beside the boat he began to strip the branches of bark, the green wood shimmering in the dappled sunlight. To our delight, half an hour later an elegant yet sturdy child sized stool with willow frame and reed woven seat stood before us, created using but saw screwdriver and hammer. The stool was used constantly all summer, supporting our fidgeting bodies without complaint until joining that optimistic group of goods mentally labeled “will be needed again” and consigned to the furthest recesses of the garage.

We head for the lounge and his favourite armchair. I retrieve his walking frame and he transfers to it from the wheelchair. Always a man of few words, he waves at the chair. I eventually deduce that he wishes for it to be moved alongside the adjacent armchair. "Not fall," he mutters, and I realise that placing the chairs together would prevent cups or biscuits placed on the arm falling down the gap. After flopping down into the soft upholstery of his chair he fiddles with his walking frame against the chair front. I reach over and move it to one side. He bristles and harrumpfs. The thought comes to me that his fiddling had been to some purpose. He had placed it hard against the chair so that his leverage would be maximized when he later had to struggle out of the chair by himself. I am comforted that in such a reduced existence his intelligence was still at work.

He hated school. Most of his teachers regarded him as "thick"; dyslexia had yet to be recognized. But in mathematics he excelled, particularly with problems, exercises in logic, the harder the better. Later in life he ran a plumbers' shop in a chemical works, but spent much of his time solving problems throughout the massive site. On one occasion he was presented with the first samples of a new wonder plastic, polythene, and asked to play about with it. Some of the samples were of tube, which sprang back into shape if bent. This was a challenge to my father, and he tried many possible techniques until finally succeeding in having them retain a bent configuation. A little while later he attended a seminar run by the scientists and chemists who had invented the plastic. During their presentation it was stated categorically that the tube could not be bent permanently. Although a man of few and hesitant words, my father stood up and explained that he had devised a method of doing so. The experts laughed him down. "Impossible", they cried. Dad, disgusted, walked away fulminating against "so called experts who don't have a ha'pence of sense between them." In his nineties this under-educated man obtained one patent for flood defenses, and a second for generating electrical power from ocean tides.

He looks around at fellow residents, some asleep, others staring into the void. Helpers position a hoist over a chair and gently lower an old lady into place. A heartbreakingly dispiriting environment. He wishes to be moved to the dining room, even though the evening meal is an hour away. We go through the one two three routine, I move him the thirty feet to the dining room, and lift, adjust, cajole, and shuffle him into place at his favourite table. He is dismissive of the food at the home. “All reheated from the day before,” he grumbles unfairly. But any food is better than no food, and so alone in a sea of plastic tables, confident that he will not miss his next meal, he retreats into his memories as I withdraw until next week.



After leaving a long career as an architect, Peter Wadsworth now uses time once consumed with his work to pursue writing. Following the advice and encouragement of Alex Shoumatoff, the renowned Vanity Fair travel and environmental writer, Wadsworth has recently dusted down old scribbles and now works on new ones, delighting in recording the lives of people in all their complexity and the places they inhabit. He loves to travel to far flung places, recording both people's differences and their common humanity, but is always drawn back to his homeland of West Yorkshire with its gritstone towns, purple moorland, and proud, friendly people.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Red Wings

by Susan E. Lindsey

“Your stepmom and I are sorting stuff,” Dad said over the phone. “Is there anything of your mom’s you want? When you come out to Washington, you can take what you want back with you to Kentucky.”

My mom, an educated, well-read, and articulate woman, had been dead nearly twenty years. She died of cancer in her fifties. We had sorted and disposed of most of her belongings shortly after her memorial service, but Dad had kept a few things.

My father and beloved stepmother, Bernice, had been very happy together, but they were getting older and more aware of their mortality. Dad was calling his kids to pass along his possessions, starting with the things of Mom’s that he still had.

I pondered his question for several days. I had loved my mother very much. Shortly after she died, my father gave me her wedding and engagement rings. I had since passed them along to my daughter when she married and she wore them with pride and affection. Nothing of Mom’s would mean as much to me as her rings, but Dad obviously wanted me to have something else of hers. I thought about durable, but sentimental things—things that had meant something to her and would mean something to me, but that were portable enough to survive a trip of more than 2,000 miles. Not the delicate rose-covered china or the beautiful lead crystal—my sister, who lived closer to Dad, could have those. Not furniture or the boxes filled with her many books—too bulky to transport or ship. My brothers could divide them.

I called him back. “If no one else wants it, I’ll take the sterling silver flatware you and Mom got for your wedding.”

“OK. I’ll hold it for you.”


A couple of weeks later, Dad greeted me at the SeaTac Airport baggage claim and wrapped me in a bear hug. Bernice said, “Hi, sweetie,” and kissed me on the cheek. At their house, I dropped my bags in the guest bedroom and wandered into the kitchen. There, spread on the kitchen table, was Mom’s silver service. Knives lay in long, neat rows. Bowls of spoons glimmered. A bottle of silver polish and several cleaning rags lay nearby. A pile of blue flatware storage cloths sat next to the bottle of polish.

“I went to the bank and got it out of the safe deposit box,” Dad said. “I’ve been trying to clean it up for you.” I was oddly touched at the thought of Dad storing Mom’s silver at the bank, making a special trip downtown to pick it up, and polishing it in anticipation of my arrival.

I sat down with him and as we polished the silver, we caught up a little. I told him news of the family in Kentucky. He told me news of the family in Washington. It was an easy conversation. When it lulled a little, Dad stepped into the family room to check on Bernice.

I polished a teaspoon, working the blue liquid into the Damask Rose pattern on the handle. I thought of my parents on their wedding day—Mom, twenty-one, and Dad, twenty-three. They had married in the church her parents attended, the same church where my father’s grandfather had preached. Neither of them came from money, but my grandmother had well-to-do friends, and my mother worked in a jewelry and china shop. The couple registered for china, crystal, and silver, and received enough gifts to set a table for twelve.


They didn’t know on their wedding day that they would have seven children and little need for such elegant tableware. We grew up eating off Melmac plates and drinking from cheap glasses with painted-on daisies. We used everyday stainless steel flatware. We never got out the china and silver, even on holidays. Counting Dad, Mom, and all of us kids, we had a family of nine, and usually Uncle Ed and Aunt Jean and their six kids joined us. Even service for twelve wasn’t adequate.

So the china and crystal sat in the cabinet—lovely and fragile and representing an ideal at odds with reality. Perhaps when my mother was a young bride, she and my father had a few romantic dinners for two on the rose-strewn plates. Maybe she dreamed of someday holding supper parties or inviting the pastor and his wife over for dinner. Somehow, in the process of raising seven kids, she never found time to host formal meals. I wondered if she ever had the urge to tug open the china cabinet doors and set a lovely table.
When I was a child and dusting the dining room, I stared through the cabinet’s glass doors and dreamt of elegant dinner parties. Sharing a table with five brothers and a sister was usually loud and crazy—no formality, no grace, no elegance. I often yearned for something several steps above Melmac and meatloaf.

Dad walked back into the dining room and broke my reverie. He held a sturdy shoebox. “Red Wings: The Fittin’est Shoe for Work” was emblazoned on the side. Dad had worked for the phone company most of his life. He installed and fixed phones, and climbed poles to repair storm damage or string wire. He loved to work outdoors, in the garden, or in his workshop. Red Wing shoes, his first choice in footwear, were a lot like Dad—sturdy, hardworking, dependable, and without pretention.

“I think it will all fit in here,” he said. “This box should hold up well on the plane.”

I had a sudden post-9/11 realization. “Dad, we’ll have to ship it. They aren’t going to let me on the plane with a box of knives—even if they are Damask Rose.”

I researched shipping options. When we finished polishing the silver, we carefully inserted the knives, dinner and salad forks, teaspoons and soupspoons, seafood forks, butter knives, and miscellaneous serving pieces into the pockets of the tarnish-proof cloths, rolled them up, and tied them. We tucked them into the box, alternating the rolls, placing handles to the right and then to the left. It all fit beautifully and Dad taped it up eight ways to Sunday.

We took the heavy box to the Fed-Ex store, bought insurance, and shipped it to my workplace. I flew out of SeaTac that night and the box arrived safely.
To this day, I’m not sure why I chose my mother’s silver. I don’t lead an elegant life or host champagne suppers or dinner parties. A few times, I used the silver for holiday dinners—always with great joy—but most of the time, it remained stored in the Red Wings box.

I recently bought a wooden silver chest at a garage sale. I took it home, retrieved the Red Wings box, and unpacked all the silver. I slipped the knife blades into the velvety slots, stacked the forks and spoons into narrow channels, and found perfect places for every piece. The silver was lovely shining against the dark blue lining.

I picked up the Red Wings box and opened the kitchen trashcan. I hesitated. I thought of my mother and her china cabinet filled with beautiful things she never used. I thought of my father and his work shoes; I thought of him polishing an expensive set of silver and entrusting it to a shoebox. In the end, I could not throw away the Red Wings box.

Years from now, when I’m gone, my daughter and son will sort through my things. My son will kneel to pull things from under the bed, pick up an empty old shoebox, and raise a quizzical eyebrow at his sister.


Susan E. Lindsey fell in love with words in the second grade while reading The Wizard of Oz. After a nearly 20-year career in corporate communication and public relations, she now leads a much happier life as a writer, professional editor, and speaker. Her essays, short stories, and articles have been published in various newspapers, magazines, and anthologies. Susan earned a degree in communication at Pacific Lutheran University. A member of three writing groups and numerous historical and genealogical societies, she is completing work on a nonfiction manuscript.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Mount Osceola

by Frederick Keogh

        Every summer I make the pilgrimage home, flying from Milwaukee to Hartford via a random city I could care less about. I still get joy from looking out the window of the jet, but lately there always seem to be clouds or I am put in the aisle seat. Lately, something always comes between me and joy, and it is with immense relief that I greet the landing at Bradley International, the nets on the tobacco fields circling the runways like spider webs caught in morning dew.
        The relief is not long-lived, for I am always going to visit my mother, who lives in the same house that my grandmother lived in before she died. My mother is alone now, her husband—my father—gone, although Mom, in her mind, is never really alone. Sometime after heart surgery when she was eighty, her mind became stronger than her senses, so that of late, she sees and, more importantly, hears things that are only present for her. She talks of her husband in the present tense and is certain, at least for that moment, he is still alive. The doctors say she has dementia, as if a label like that explains anything, but whatever she suffers, it can be nerve wracking. It is far worse for her, to be sure, for she is the one certain that a child is bleeding to death on the road outside her house, or that men are plotting murder outside her bedroom window, but it is no comfort to us, either. And so, as part of every summer trip to Connecticut, I plan a visit with Jim.
        Jim lives not far from my mother, but in summer he spends most of his time at his place in New Hampshire. He can do this because he is a teacher, and it does seem that he needs the break. Every time I visit he seems that much older, and so I blame him for the feeling that I get after visiting that I, too, am that much older. His place, after all, is in the foothills of the White Mountains, and only men who are not old might venture far into them. We venture far into them every year, and so it must be that our increasing age is an illusion. My mother has taught me that illusion is often stronger than reality, and so I must rely on that. With Jim, my old high school buddy, we are forever young and forever we will climb the Whites, and that is how it has always been, since the time I moved to the Great Lakes a long time ago. A time so long that I now bring my son with me, who is old enough to climb not only the little Whites, but even the bigger ones, as we did two years ago shortly after I had reached my fifty eighth year and my son his seventeenth.
        It was our third visit to Jim’s place up north together and already we had established a routine. I would pull the rental car into my mother’s small gravel drive and begin to unload the luggage, when I would see her totter out, barely able to keep balance, her eyes shining with expectation and a little fear. Who could it be? “It’s me, Mom, remember?” I say, and thank God she always does, and she gives me a hug and I feel the bones through her thin skin, her form now more spirit than substance. Then I introduce Jeff, my son, who she takes on faith is who I tell her he is. “How tall he’s gotten!” she always says, and we get our things and talk of her times as a child that may have happened and her times now that certainly did not (“I heard you singing in the attic last night—what were you doing there?”) I later visit my brother and sister who still live nearby and stay a few nights with Mom, her home sweltering in late summer, always, she always cold, her sweater pulled tightly against a never-ending winter that confounds the heat warnings on the TV. After a few days, we pack up early and I tell her, “Going up north to New Hampshire to visit Jim. Be back in a few days,” and she gets that wild look again, not quite understanding: is this forever? I assure her again and again and finally we are on our way, plodding though the traffic up through Hartford and Springfield until the hills of the north come into view, and then the mountains of Vermont.
        It is a tangled trip from there once over the Connecticut River and into New Hampshire, and always I clutch the old, tattered directions for reassurance as we drive through small towns and bad roads until the long dirt driveway to Jim’s place comes unexpectedly, always as if by chance. It is a pleasure to be among the steep hills and white pines, and we swim at dusk, where now it is too cold, but we do it anyway because Jim and Jeff love it and that is what we have always done. At night we drink beer and talk and plan for the big hike the next day. That year, Jim had decided on Mount Osceola, a 4,300 footer that is not tall by Mount Washington standards, but I have learned that any mountain in the Whites is tall enough. They are steep, and you sweat going up them, then freeze at the top, so you always carry an extra shirt or a sweater in the backpack with the water and sandwiches. These are always several hour hikes, and that night Jim tells us this is a fairly long one, but I am ready, as I always have been. For Jeff, these mountains are always nothing, and we—Jim and I—have done a lot together. This will be just another.
        And so the stage is set. In the morning I brush off a slight hangover with a few cups of tea and pack some extra sweets for Jeff, who I think could live on them contrary to the laws of nutrition, and then we bundle ourselves into the rental. The rentals always come with satellite radio, and I have to turn at least once to the Grateful Dead station while up there, because the north has always been like that for us, since we were younger than Jeff is now. From the beginning it has been the place of hippy dreams, although no New Hampshire farmer would understand it, pulling out rocks every year that grow in the cold winter like gray, sharp edged potatoes, but to us it has always been so. In Vermont they have somehow really made it into a hippy dream, growing their third-rate high country pot while living on woodworking and who knows what, while in New Hampshire they still want to Live Free or Die, but that, too, is part of the dream. Of course Jeff does not understand—this is ancient history to him, this living off the land, but he has come uncomplaining to climb the mountains as he always has because afterward we will go swimming in an icy river with cliffs over a pool of deep, swirling water, his favorite spot. That day as we drive towards the mountain, he is happy in anticipation, and sits in the back quietly as Jim and I discuss old times, problems with the kids, problems at work and everything and anything until I am told to turn. “I think it’s this one—yeah, there’s the dirt road. The pull-off is up a half mile on the right.”
        The trail starts out gently, as these trails often do, and I am in love again with the deep woods, my home of homes, lost to me now in the rolling farmland of Wisconsin. We cross a river, cold as always, coming past our knees, and then slog through a swampy stretch of road that makes my sandals squeak and slide around my feet. Here the blackflies start, but they do not last long, for soon the angle of the trail picks up and we are on hard rock. The trail splits off, one to the small lakes at the bottom of the mountain, and the other to the mountain itself, but the signs are angled, half fallen down, and we have to guess. In the first half mile I am wondering, if this is the wrong way, but soon the incline increases again and we know that this must be right. Jeff starts to get further ahead, bored with our pace, but it is fine with me. I could walk like this all day, as always. I almost hope that we find Jeff panting by the trailside, exhausted by going too fast, but we do not. Instead, we find him throwing rocks off a cliff, waiting. I save my strength by plugging on, and the mountain gets steeper. Jeff goes ahead, out of sight again, and again the mountain becomes steeper.
        “There, that must be the top. Not too much longer,” I think. Getting pretty steep! I pick up my pace a bit, but only for five or ten minutes, for my heart is starting to race and it is still a ways to the top. “Slow down,” I tell myself, “another fifteen minutes to go.”
        Fifteen minutes later and Jim and I see the real top, way up there, but no sight of Jeff. It has now gotten impossibly steep, where we often have to grab on with our hands. A family group passes us coming down, the father quiet, almost grim, and the two boys red-faced and sweating. “How long?” I ask hopefully. “Half hour or so,” says the man, and we see them no more, almost literally putting our noses to the rock and dirt as we bend into the trail. We go for fifteen minutes more and I have to stop, heart racing again, and I look to Jim.
        “Christ, this is effing steep. How long to the effing top?”
        Jim looks up at me, annoyed with the same fatigue and says, “You can’t just stop. What did you expect?”
        That shuts me up. I am no baby, but damn, it hurts. Jeff pops up before me and I offer him some water and ask him if he’s seen the top.
        “Been there already and got bored. What’s taking you guys so long?”
        “How long to go?” I ask hopefully.
        “I don’t know, a quarter mile or so. I’m going back up,” and he does, losing us again within a minute, for we are moving slowly now, so slowly. It will never end. I have never been defeated by a mountain before, never, and now … but we press on, pulling ourselves over the last quarter mile like dying men across the desert. We do make it. The views are not spectacular, much of the top covered too thickly in pine to give us a panorama. What we do see is the vast slope of the mountains, like a massive green wave, trees and trees set in the wide blue of sky, infinite. Yes, as always it was worth it. But this time, this time …
        It would continue to bother me, how hard this climb was, but like everything unpleasant in life, after the pain was gone, all returned to normal. We sat to eat our sandwiches and then were met by a very large man who had made it up, too, impossible though it seemed. In his thirties, young to me now, he took our picture, Jim with his hat and dark glasses, Jeff open to the breeze as if on a picnic, me, with my gray hair plastered to my forehead. How had he made it, I ask him.
        “I take my time. I give it about two-three hours. I’ve climbed most of the Whites that way.” Remember that, I told myself, you need to. Take your time.
        Going down was easy, nobody with bad knees, and we swam at the lake towards the bottom, water dark with tannin and cold from the mountains, the water always cold there. I dried in the sun, but when a cloud parsed its heat, had to put my shirt on again. The other two lingered in the frigid water while I thought again—that was tough, that climb. Maybe it was too much beer the night before, maybe the cigarettes we rolled from the hidden can used for such nights. Or maybe I had to take my time now. Maybe something had changed permanently, and time had become as much a friend as an enemy, more necessary than it had ever been even as there was less. Less for me, anyway, but not for the mountains. They take their time in big gulps that are impossible for us to imagine, their year a million to us while we are ground down, made humble and small before them, climbing to the top only to retreat, while they stand tall, always, as we settle below after so short a visit.
        We would hike again the next day, this time only along low ridges, and swim in the cold river and listen to the owls again at night over stories and beer, and then Jeff and I would leave the great, heaving hills of forest to see my mother again, to see her tottering out to meet our car. “Is it you?” she asks. “When did you come? How long will you stay?” It is almost as if we never left or never came, all the same to my mother, or nearly so.
        Two days later we would leave, as always first thing in the morning, and my mother would stand out by the door watching us go, hanging on for balance as if a slight wind could take her away, as it might. And since that time I have known that this is it—I am following my mother who will follow my father, and her thin skin and varicose veins leave one with the horror of one’s future as well as with something sublime. In it, in the mountain, in my mother, I have seen my death; oh, it is coming, in slowed steps and labored breath, and that is the horror. But it is also the way it should be, and in it is a peace, too, a peace like the high mountains and the drift of forest veering off into the great sky. It is time, resplendent, a power beyond all sense, cruel yet beautiful as no painting or poetry could ever be. It is not negotiable, this time; it may be spent on a mountain top, its massive shoulders holding us like gnats, or in the valleys, warmed by voices and light, but even there, no turn of the brush or pen can change its presence. Cruel, infinite, sublime—it is why we have made our gods, for it and they are beyond grasp, beyond reach. In the middle of time lies death and around it, life, whirling like the stars around Earth, and we cry at our losses or hold up our hands to the sky in wonder, and still it turns, meaning everything, everything that we can never know while the power remains in our legs and hearts to climb the mountain. Then we drift, totter, fade into skin and bone and spirit, and it is a horrible and a beautiful thing.


Frederick Keogh is the author of the memoir, Dream Weaver (2011). His essay, The Finger, was chosen as a semi-finalist in the 2013 Writer’s Digest essay contest. After fieldwork in the Venezuelan Amazon, he completed his PhD in Anthropology from the University of Michigan in 1995, and has worked as a teacher and an editor. He now resides in rural Wisconsin with his wife and son. Visit his website.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Black Baby Born

by Toni Martin

            My ninety-six-year-old mother, shrunken two inches under five feet, sits in her recliner and waits. She says that she has never lived like this, in a place where she has to wait for everything—to go to meals, to come back from meals, to wash, to dress, to go to bed. As though it is the fault of the help in assisted living that she is stuck in a wheelchair. Because of this limitation, she would have to wait wherever she was. A few years ago, after fourteen years living with one daughter and the next, she wanted her own apartment. In those years, when she could still walk, she said she wanted to be independent, as though she were twenty-one and setting out from her parents’ home. She has never seen herself as others see her.
When my mother visited the passport office for the first time in the nineteen fifties, they thought she was white because of her light skin color, and they thought she was crazy because the birth certificate she offered them as proof of her identity read, “Black baby born, April 21, 1914.” She had to locate her baptismal certificate, which included her name and sex, before they would issue her a passport.
She left one senior apartment in a huff because the white people there couldn’t tell that she was black. Always her father’s daughter or her husband’s wife, even when she held a job, she had never faced explaining to white people on a daily basis how she could be black. Lucky her.
             Lucky, too, that her father was a wealthy man who owned an insurance company, a funeral parlor, real estate, and the only movie theatre in the ‘colored” community of Savannah, Georgia. At a time when most white people didn’t finish high school, both her parents were college graduates, from Tuskegee and Fisk.  In the winter, my grandmother took all the children to live in Columbus, Ohio, where they attended integrated public schools. In the summer, my mother sat on the porch and read. She never needed a summer job. Lucky her.
            But marriage was a shock, because she did not marry a man as rich as her father. She had to learn to cook at least, though she never learned to clean.
 “Why did you have so many children, Mommy?’
            “Because your father liked babies and I always had full time help.”

            My maternal grandfather’s two brothers went north and passed for white. My mother only met her New York cousins once (they didn’t know that their father was “colored”), and now they are lost to our family. When I asked why her father stayed in Savannah, Mother said, “He was a businessman, and he saw more opportunity in Savannah.” Opportunity to make money: he was much more successful than his brothers. But the family couldn’t eat in the restaurants downtown or shop in the white stores. The police could arrest them for drinking from the wrong water fountain. They kept to their own. As a small child, I didn’t think that there were white people in Savannah, since we never saw any.
            My father, the son of a doctor, also grew up in segregated Savannah. His father was Cuban, and his skin color gives me my ambiguous ethnic look. Jewish? Arab? Latina? People never know. My bone densitometry results, like my mother’s, lists my race as “white”. No one asked us.
            Anger fueled the ambitions of my parents, who both held masters degrees. My father became the editor of Negro newspapers and then a politician. My mother worked as a free-lance editor until age 90 and wears her Phi Beta Kappa key on a chain around her neck. But anger does not burn clean. The legacy of segregation hung over our family of five girls like a toxic cloud. The unspoken question in our household was, “What would white people think?”  
Since the stereotype of black girls is that we are loose and sexual, we were raised to be uptight and inhibited. “Don’t draw attention to yourself.” Chewing gum, blue jeans, short skirts, made us look like whores. “Jitterbugging and fingerpopping” were forbidden. Although we were “just like other black people.” my father refused to buy watermelon in the supermarket, in case someone might see him. The song from “Porgy and Bess”, “I got plenty o’ nuthin, and nuthin’s plenty for me” sent my mother into a rage. How dare that white man Gershwin imply that black people enjoyed poverty. They were always looking for racism and they always found it.
Their intent was to protect us, but my parents didn’t give me much hope. My father said that white people would hate us because we were light-skinned and educated, too much like them to dismiss. And black people would hate us because we were light-skinned and educated, too different from them to embrace. We all coped in different ways but once I left for college, I never spent a summer at home. I moved to California from the east coast, I married a darker-skinned man whose optimism is a balm, and I became a doctor. I couldn’t breathe in their house, and I wanted to see all the stars in the sky
My mother’s backbone has collapsed from osteoporosis and she can’t walk, but she still nurses her grudges. She is afraid that we will forget. How could we forget? She lived to see the end of segregation, traveled the world and dined with presidents, including the young black one, but in her mind, it is too little, too late. Nothing about her life was lucky. She is jealous of the opportunities we had, and says that her primary role, a mother, was “worth nothing.” None of us were ambitious enough for her, despite our careers. The toxic cloud still hovers above her, threatening to envelope me again at each visit.
I type her fantasy memoirs, where she imagines that but for segregation she would have become a Nobel prize-wining psychiatrist, called in to counsel heads of state. This woman who avoided cafeterias because she couldn’t make choices quickly and worried about making the people behind her wait, thinks she was tough enough for medical school in the nineteen forties. If she were white, she could probably fly, too.
 I wish, in her old age, that she could not forgive, not forget, but escape the segregation of her youth. Ignore who’s watching and act the fool. (I wish that for myself, too.) Take pride in what she did accomplish. Create her own happiness. But my mother will die believing that there was another, better life she could have lived, if only she had been born white.


Toni Martin is a physician and writer. Her second book of non-fiction, When the Personal was Political: Five Women Doctors Look Back, was published in 2008. Her work, medical essays, memoir and fiction, has appeared in the East Bay Monthly, The Threepenny Review, ZYZZYVA, LiteraryMama.com, The Los Angeles Review, and The Bellevue Review. She lives with her husband in Berkeley, CA, where they raised their three children. Visit her website.