Tag Archives: NY

What to Say When There is Nothing

Kiddie Pool 01

Kiddie Pool 01 (Photo credit: katherine lynn)

Yesterday, the WHAM13 news alert popped up on my cell phone while my sons splashed in the kiddie pool in my mother’s backyard.

That night, my two little boys would spend the night with my mother so I could clean our house for a real estate showing.  I had just yelled at my four-year-old, Johnny, for splashing the water too hard, speckling my phone with droplets.  He and his little brother, Sammy, had been playing a game they play often, whether in a pool or not–one lies down, hurt, and the other saves him.

The news alert: Toddler Dies After Drowning in Daycare Swimming Pool.  I clicked the link.

Now, I cannot sleep.

The first thing I did after reading the text, was tell my father that the home-daycare was in Sweden Village–the small tract that my sister jokingly referred to as “Snob Hill” when I was a teenager, a name I hated–some of my best friends lived there.  We knew the owners of the daycare in our community, their family a part of our lives in small ways.  I thought my father might cry.

The second thing I did after reading the text, was call one of my best friends whose son attends daycare where this tragedy occurred, a brave move since I had no idea what to say or ask when she answered the phone.  He had not been at the daycare yesterday.

The third thing I did was sob with her on the phone for the pain.  We all want to understand the unthinkable so we might draw a circle around ourselves, some thin line to signify that we couldn’t be the family tragedy had struck, but there was no line.  I almost enrolled my two-year-old in that daycare.  And we’ve all been in charge of another’s child at some time.

The fourth thing I did was help my mother bail the water out of the plastic pool while Johnny and Sammy stood, wrapped in towels, giggling, eating Flavor Ice in the sun.

My mother had said, “Let me do it.  You don’t want to do this.”

I said, “No, I want to.  I have all this anxious energy.  Let me use it for something.”  I took the small pink tub that Park Ridge Hospital had sent home with me after the birth of my first son almost five years ago, a tub they now use to rinse the grass of their feet before they get in the pool, and scooped the water up, then heaved it out.  I tried with ferocity to grab more water than the tub could hold, to empty the alligator-printed pool in one movement, but every time the water splashed out of the tub, it still only looked like the small amount of water I could manage.  When the water was low enough for my mother and I to dump out, we tipped the pool over and soaked the lawn.  Nothing had changed.

The fifth thing I did was watch the news.  The boys put on their dry clothes and rode their bikes in my mother’s driveway.  We park my mother’s  little red Honda at the end to keep the boys from entering street traffic: two cars per hour.  Sometimes, John scoots his Lightning McQueen bike out past the red car, and I scream frantically at him:  “Get on this side of the car!”  He looks at me, bewildered, from beneath his helmet, as if he had the phrase, he might say, “Get a grip.”

I did many things then, but I only remember uttering parts of phrases, still crying a little.  Still wondering what things a mother does after entering this tragedy.  How could I be sure it hadn’t been me?  How didn’t I lose myself in her grief?  I stopped my imagination, so many times, from going to that moment, the horrible moment that will replay in the poor family’s life for years.

After I left John and Sam with my parents, I drove past the house that held the daycare, though I knew the only thing anyone in this tragedy needed right then was privacy.  I wanted to hug them all, to ask where God was, but I said little prayers in my head, and though I know few, I made something up in my mind that sounded good enough, and what could ever be good enough for these families anymore?

At home, I cleaned with bleach and Lysol.  I went on Facebook to look up photos of the child after they released his name, and sobbed to see the two-year-old’s smooth chubby face, his blond hair, the private moments eating popcorn from a Spiderman tub in front of the flat screen with his four-year-old brother, who would wake every morning to remember that someone was missing.  I cleaned more.

I called my parents to tell them what news I had learned.  I considered going to my childhood home so I could pick up my sons and hug them, bring them home with me and tuck them tight in their beds.

My parents told me not to let my mind “go there.”  But when I told my father that the toddler had a four-year-old brother, he said, “Oh God.”

My mother said, “Jesum.”

When my husband got home from work, I told him everything I knew about everything in the world that day, which was mostly the tragedy.  No one could give any answers to the questions I didn’t know to ask.

At 3:30 a.m., I went in my sons’ empty bedrooms on the way to the bathroom and, terrified, thanked God for them both.


How to Leave a Home

When your husband shows you the house, recently re-listed on Zillow, complain that he’s been cheating on your home again.  And worse, on the Internet.  You thought you’d agreed to stay here, to stay home, in this sweet corn-yellow colonial, but instead, you find yourself clicking through the photographs, imagining your children at play in the fenced backyard, their growth ticks on the moldings (original to the house!),  watching rainstorms from the screened porch.  You have arranged your furniture in the living room.

You go to the open house with your husband and both sets of parents.  Your mother gushes as though you don’t own a beautifully remodeled kitchen in your house with tall cream-colored cabinets, rich hand-scraped floors, a farmhouse sink, the kind of kitchen your colonial always dreamed of.  You and your husband spent hours deciding on details and he, weeks making it come to life.  It is as full as it could be.  It needs no second-helpings.

The dining room in the Open House is yellow like the outside of your home.  The sun glints off the walls just right, the hardwood floors are original, too.  Outside there are sidewalks that are fast-paced to your job at the university, to your sons’ schools, to the canal.  You spent days researching the yards around the house, the Quaker Maid factory, the train tracks.  You can imagine both sons’ eyes lighting up at the whistle.  Or the Halloween doorbell.  Or summer’s Skippy truck.  These are the sounds of your childhood village, and in many ways, at the open house, you are home.

You return to the home you own, stinking of betrayal.  When your sons run to you and cry, “Mommy!” the sound of their feet on the hardwood aches in your stomach.  Your husband is smiling because he has made a decision he believes in.  His mind reels with numbers and plans and a new kitchen remodel!  He is giddy with housework.  You are grief-stricken.

Run upstairs and look out the bathroom window at the west-facing pines that have a strange place in your heart though you’ve never even touched them.  Perhaps because, as a child, your parents had a row of pine trees in their backyard, a canopy of gnats and dust and, in the late summer, pine needles you’d sift through your fingers, alone.

Nearly fall down the stairs in a hurry, and say, “We’re not moving.”

Change is not easy for you.

Before you decide to list your home, you do a quick search of the address in the village’s old newspaper, just to see.  See what?  You don’t know, you never know what you’re looking for, only what it is when you find it.  There were no violent murders in this house.  There were no crazy shenanigans (a word you love) of any kind.  Just a professor and his wife who held social meetings in the 1950s, their daughter who grew up to own the house.  This house is a home kept for family.

The offer you make is contingent on the sale of your current home.

You hardly see the flaws in the home you own anymore; it becomes like an ex-boyfriend you want back.  Your husband snaps you to reality.  “Here’s what we have to do,” he says.  And then lists: paint the hallway and the mudroom (that you actually call “the dirty room”); paint the stairs; fix the bathroom fixtures; move your books (gasp!); move the dining room table…  you are lost already, and he’s not finished.

The hallway is the first large project you feel invested in, though nearly every room in your home has been remodeled since you moved in.  While you paint the stenciled hallway a neutral tone, you think of the Thomas Hardy poem you explicated freshman year at your parents’ kitchen table–the last full paper you ever wrote with a pencil on lines.  Every stroke of paint feels like an eraser.  You paint faster because you are tired.

Your father lived in many houses growing up, your mother lived in many states, and you, you lived in one house.  In one village.  You wish the same for your boys, that they can pinpoint home, that they know its insides and outs like their own guts.

On Christmas, you went into your parents’ basement and found an old canning jar in the crawl space.  You had just finished a story about the Quaker Maid factory at the end of Spring Street in the 1940s.  You wonder if that’s where the jar came from, and before you finish the thought, you make it truth.  From now on, that’s where the jar came from, it traveled from the factory you wrote about to your parents’ cellar.  “How have I not seen this before?” you asked your mother.

You took it home and put it on top of your refrigerator and bouquet-ed your mother’s old monogrammed silverware  inside.

The other day, you packed the canning jar and the silverware in an MBS box marked “kitchen.”  You will take it with you.

And now, painting the treads of the stairs is a burden.  Three-quarters of your pictures have come down from the walls.  This Friday, the realtor will take the pictures of your house.  Friday, it will go on the market, like some fresh piece of meat.  You resist the urge of nostalgia, how your sons’ cries came down the hallways in their early days.  How the sun shone in the large windows behind their highchairs at dinner.  How much you will miss the place you made.  You examine the lines of your palm to see if there is a veer in your lifeline, if leaving a home could be it.

Though, somehow, by convincing your son how wonderful the move will be for him, you recognize those words are meant for you, too.  Be sure to tell the realtor to pass on that the frogs call beautifully in the summer nights, that the early fall air is full with cricket chirps in the afternoon, that the home calls out with love.

 


Dear Alice Munro,

Leisurely Summer Reading: Child's Play

Leisurely Summer Reading: Child’s Play (Photo credit: Madison Guy)

Dear Alice Munro,

The space you write within, the WWII and post WWII era, the train stations, the sanitariums, the surge of GI students to universities–is the world I’m finding to have preceded me.  At times, when I read a story of yours, for example, “Tell Me Yes or No,” or “How I Met My Husband,” I feel as though I’m researching, still, the history of Brockport.

You know, you are Alice Munro.  The last four pieces in your latest collection, Dear Life, are what you call “the closest thing to autobiographical,” as anything you’ve written.  I know this is both true and not.  But who’s going to argue with you?  You’re Alice Munro.  Did you ever think you would tear a reader’s life to shreds because when the text fades, there is no way to see the world as it was before?  When I finish reading your stories, I cannot get back inside, it’s like a life that’s already been lived.  The bald scalp after a relentless haircut.  The lower back after a pink kanji tattoo.  What’s done is done.  History, as Alice Munro has written it, has been.  Reading it a second time does no justice.  There are no do-overs.  Your stories, like all other stories, are not cats.  We all only have one life.

I’m writing you this blog post–which I’m sure you are waiting to read–because my mother-in-law told me to write a story about a little girl.  This will be the closest thing to autobiographical fiction I will ever write.  And I am no Alice Munro.  I am leaving behind, at least for this one story, your world of barnstorming planes and Quaker Maid factories that I have been squatting in for months.  The setting I write will be entirely my own era, but my life is not something made for fiction.  I only live in a world suitable for it.

It will be some sort of ghost story, and I don’t know, have you written a ghost story?  A real, true ghost story?  I will Google this when I finish your post. It is something I should know.

The world I enter now has factory-induced rain bubbling down the cuticle of Spring Street.  Soil that may or may not give a little girl MS.  The story will have a cast of Cold Storage workers on their way to and from shifts that seem to begin and end every minute.  The little girl will walk down a street with a car prowling next to her, its passenger will reach to pull at her skinny arm.  She will not run away.

I am sending this out into the blogosphere (an ugly word), where you will not see it.  If I were in your Canadian town with a copy in hand, I would place it under your Welcome Mat or tuck it behind the cover of a book you might check out of the library.

Sincerely.


The Next Big Thing: Authors Tagging Authors

What’s better than being both compelled to, and compliant in, sharing your work as a writer?

A vintage ice cream truck

A vintage ice cream truck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thank you, Lizz Schumer, Goddard Alum, for tagging me, linking me to your visceral writing that awes me and scares me at the same time.  I will tag two people to do this who are so alive with writing energy: Anne Panning, an award-winning writer of fiction, my writing mentor, and unofficial life-coach.  And also Sarah Freligh, whose poetry rips me away from myself, and whose Poetry Bootcamp rocks my world.

I’m lucky to have them in my writing community.

Writing, for most of us, the sitting at a keyboard, pecking away at keys and at our brains, is solitary–and almost looked down on for being solitary.  I love the solitary act of writing, but writing is not engaging unless the writer does some real work, investigates their presence in the world, becomes a private eye–not just to their own lives–but to the mysteries of the lives and places around us, what’s between the shingles and the dry wall.  To use a bit of my father’s love of the insulation world, to jump into the fiberglass and the cellulose until you’re itching in your sleep and you wake up with bleeding nail scrapes and hard scabs for picking.

So here it is: a way to propose what we plan to offer, a way to support writers whose work we admire and whose process we are curious of.

What is the working title of your book?

My project is a collection of short fiction based on news articles unearthed from archives in Brockport, NY, so I have an inkling that the title will arise from one of the stories that I am in the process of writing.  The title is important because it cannot alienate those who aren’t from Brockport.  These are stories inspired by a history that all towns have lived through.  It just so happens that I’m obsessed with examining Brockport as a way to explore the human condition, how a small-town university, a canal, a former center of industry, how all of these things unique to my own roots, creep into the world.  That said,  I’ve considered a couple–The Local Rag, From Where I am, but ehh, it probably won’t be either of these.

What is a one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Wartime housewives, untethered college students, rogue pets, and barnstorming doctors wave up from the history of a town, each meeting, and often battling, life on their own terms–in grief, anger, tragedy, surprise and love.

How long did it take you to write?

It is still in the works, but as far as I’m concerned, this love of community and sense of place has been growing since I was child beneath the noontime siren of the village and the ding of the Skippy truck’s bell or the mesmerizing spill of the bubbled puddles that fell from rain outside of the Kleen Brite factory.  I can’t honestly say that I can separate any part of me from this project.  It is as much in my bones as marrow.  I linger extra long in Java Junction’s restroom to read the newspaper ads from The Brockport Republic that plaster its walls.  I nearly slept with a collection of local ghost stories called Valley of the Ghosts under my pillow when I was ten.  I refuse to leave SUNY Brockport, the college I attended for six years because I love earth beneath it.  I, admittedly, have spent hours researching the lives of strangers on Ancestry.com simply because they were “murdered” by a dog in Brockport’s Erie Canal in the 1930s.  So I guess that is how this all started, as an obsession that I finally realized.  These are the stories that inform my writing.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

See above.

But I have two little boys for whom I want to preserve every bit of their history–family, local, anything to do with where they come from–just for them.  I want to be sure that writing, which keeps me away from them physically and mentally, comes back to them to show how the people we love are not as bound up in place and time as we might think.

Also, my husband, who is just completely supportive and way more generous with patience (and I am ashamed to say this) than I am.

My family is supportive of  me writing a book, and the energy that I devote to it, even though I am sometimes skeptical of it myself–a recognized addition.  Though my mother does wonder why I am consumed with people who are already dead.  For me, there’s real guilt there.

What genre does your book fall under?

Realism.  I struggle with labeling it as historical fiction because it spans from the 1920’s-1980’s, which feels almost too recent to consider history.  But, I can’t deny the historical research I’ve had to do in order to write these stories, so yeah, of course, there’s history.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a move rendition?

Ha.  My favorite character in any of the pieces I’ve written so far is, strangely enough, the college-aged version of Joel Rifkin before he “became” the serial killer.  He attended SUNY Brockport for a bit in the late 70s, and stole bottle of soy sauce from the Convenient Mart next to the train tracks.  That was the only thing on his record when he was arrested for murdering 17 women much later.  I imagine his character to look like a cross between Wes Bentley  from American Beauty and Michael Cera.  Their impossible love-child.

What else about your book might pique readers’ interest?

These are the quirky anecdotes that have been lost in everyday life.  These are the stories we wish our great grandparents told us.  These are the parts of our world that we don’t know enough about, so we have no option to forget.


Where We Find Our Children

"This vehicle has been checked for sleepi...

(Photo credit: fedira)

I slept with my amethyst rosary wrapped around my hand last night.  I curled up in my son’s bed, hoping I wouldn’t alarm him, but knowing that if I were him, I would be alarmed.

But he was asleep, breathing deeply as though he was absorbing all the life from every corner of the house.  I would have given him all I had.

When I was 17, in 1999, Columbine happened.  The Monday after, we all went to school, but looked a bit harder at those around us.  I told my mother not to worry, that she was crazy, smoking cigarettes one after another, inhaling hard as though she could suck away all the smoke and horror so far away.  She could not stop staring at the screen, watching trails of students running from their lives, any one of them or every one of them, one of her four children.

When I looked at my mother after Columbine, I knew she was right to worry, or at least that she was normal.

Yesterday, I didn’t hear the news until 2:30.  I hadn’t turned on the TV all day.  When I heard about it, my son was at preschool in Brockport‘s Ginther School, and I was in my kitchen, on the phone with my mom, who said, “God, are you watching this?”

She told me in brief, and I turned on the news, knowing I had to get all I could, grab my own sense of it because not five minutes later my 4-year-old and his best friend would bound through the door with Spiderman backpacks and light-up shoes and zippers and gloves and hats and I would be a parent, calming myself so I could handle the chaos of fun, the lightning fast chirping and questioning and squeals of kids being just what they are, what they should be, breathing, running, vibrant kids.

By the time they came through the door, exactly the way I’d expected, I’d seen and heard enough to be changed, to hope the red of my eyes and nose would go away before the boys would notice.

I turned off the TV.  I was scared, let alone these innocent babies.

We all are children at our core, after all.

This past week, absentmindedly, I had The Morning Show on, not thinking about how horrifying the news could be until the report came on about the mall shooting in Oregon.  My son sat across from me with a buttered english muffin, licking the butter off before biting into the bread itself.

He stopped chewing.

“Why is he naughty?  Why did he shoot?”  Johnny asked.

I wish I’d been paying attention to the TV during the lead-up instead of fixing my coffee.  I had to say something when I couldn’t comprehend it.

“I don’t know, Johnny,” I said.  “I just don’t know.  Some people are not nice,” I said.

“Well, will he go to jail?”  Johnny asked.

“Yes, Johnny,” I said, not going farther into the story than I had to, shielding him, as much as I could, from all the death.

I wanted to save him from this horror.

He would ask me about the mall shooting again after lunch.  Again, I’d shift away.

Is this what it is?  What we imagine: the pulses racing, the terror inside, the prayers we know they’d be saying if they could think about anything other than survival.

Yesterday, Johnny and his friend, Sam, clomped down the stairs to ask me to help them construct the train set, to get it back on track and make the engine run.  I did what I could, listening to them consider how to piece it together.  I looked to their innocence to negotiate my own thoughts.

When I came down, my husband whispered updates to me, turned the TV down low, and we distracted Sammy, our toddler, somehow too young to be scared, with trucks.

I’d just read the latest piece of fiction, “Creatures,” by Marisa Silver, in The New Yorker about a couple whose son is expelled from preschool for biting his classmate.  I thought, when I read it, these poor parents, their poor son, and I wonder today, how I’d read it, what might change, where my son might appear in the text, where the story would write itself from the end.

My sister-in-law came over last night for coffee, and we talked about the news as though it was just that–news, but we knew how much more it was.  We said we were sad the way everyone in America said they were sad, the way we all feel it in our guts and not in our brains because our brains can’t touch it.

Then we agreed that we should do anything to prevent this, as anyone in America would give their right arm, or more, their own lives, to prevent this from happening again.

If only we could be superhuman.

When Johnny came to the kitchen with his older cousin, he wore his blue Transformers helmet.  Every time he laughed, the noise escaped the awkwardly large dome like a robot, as though he was some machine, but from below it, I saw his shoulders wobble and peeks of human skin.

Later last night, I folded my sons’ laundry–their mini socks, their small pants with worn knees and shirts thin at the elbows from bending and jumping and dancing.

Later last night, I picked up their toys, tucking them in drawers and stacking their books on the table.

Later last night, I gasped at every moment my children entered my mind, and soon, gasping was all I could do.

We find them everywhere, and after they come, we are not only ourselves.

If only.