I’ve been uninspired lately. I have ideas, but nothing seems to want to be put down on the page yet. So, when I heard that Hugh Hefner died and then saw all the men fawning and thanking him and then saw all the women either doing the same or not doing the same, it gave me a moment to reflect on what I think about Hugh Hefner, and this morning, because I was awake at 3am, I wrote.

My father has stacks of magazines and newspapers in our living room and out on the screened in porch, on the back of the house.

He reads for many hours a day, loads of newspapers and magazines, never books.

I never ask him why he never reads books, because I don’t care to hear the answer.

He gets newspapers delivered from the places he’s lived in the past, Michigan, Florida and sometimes he gets The Wall Street Journal.

One stack of magazines that sits on an old wooden side table comes up to my chest, fitting, because this stack has Playboy, a few Penthouse and another called High Times.

The Playboy get delivered by mail and the others come from a magazine shop in Columbia, SC. Columbia is more than 30 minutes away from our trailer home on Lake Murray. We drive into Columbia in my dad’s blue Plymouth Satellite. My sister, Judy, calls the car, the blue bashy, because it has a few dents, but you can also see right through the rusted floorboard to the ground, especially in the back, where I sit, so it’s more than just bashed, but it rhymes, and it makes us laugh, so we carry on with it.

The magazine shop is in a part of town that we never go to other than to buy magazines. It is full of magazine racks. Dad goes here to buy magazines of all kinds, but this store is where he buys porn, and he takes my mother and me with him. Dad greets the guy behind the desk, as always, and heads to the back of the store. I stay as far from the porn section as I can, in the financial section. I pretend I’m looking for a magazine to improve my financial future and I suppose in a way, I am. I open the slick gloss covers with business buildings on the front and look at the rows of numbers and clean black type and think to myself “One day, I’ll work in one of those and maybe I’ll even know what these numbers mean.”

Mom runs her hands across other racks in the store, not picking up anything. She reads some of the papers my dad buys, but not as many. I’ve never seen her read any of his playboy or other porn. I don’t ask her whether she does or not, because again, I don’t care to hear the answer. I do wonder what she thinks though.

My dad reads these magazines as if they are The Wall Street Journal. I walk into the room and see the cover of Playboy, him behind it, sitting in his reading chair, turning the pages, unfolding the centerfold and holding it up. My shoulders rise up and I sneak back out before he sees me. My dad is 72 and I am 16!

After an hour or so, dad comes back to the front with a few magazines in hand. He doesn’t offer to buy me anything. He pays the guy behind the desk for 4 or 5 magazines. We then drive to another part of town and go grocery shopping, at two different grocery stores, because my mom won’t buy meat at Food Lion, but they have better produce, so we have to get the produce there. We also have to walk through every aisle in both stores, even if we don’t need anything in some aisles. Mom says “I might need something that I didn’t write down and I will only remember it if I see it.” She also has to talk to everyone in the store, the meat guy, the produce guy, the lady buying fat back, the cashier. Dad stays in the car reading his new magazines.

At home, when my parents have gone out to run errands, or to a doctor’s appointment, I sometimes look through the Playboy magazines. I mean, they are sitting right out in the open, so I might as well see what the big deal is. The women in these magazines look like no one I have ever seen in real life, so it’s kind of fake to me and now, when I think about it, maybe that’s the point? The Penthouse is more graphic, but not my style either, maybe I just don’t like porn? High Times is all about marijuana with a few photos of women here and there and I’m absolutely not sure why he had that magazine. Dad was a rabid anti-smoker after he stopped smoking cigars, he’d curse people out for smoking anywhere at anytime. He’d grumble and mumble when anyone we knew smoked “Goddamn cigarettes, waste of money, stinks.”

One day, at school, I tell my guy friends that my dad has a stack of porn out on the back porch. They ask me to bring them some and a few days later, I do, and they run off to the boys bathroom together, giggling. We never discuss the magazines I gave them again, and I don’t even care that I just gave them some of my dad’s porn stash.

So, when I think about Hugh Hefner, I think about my dad and what a strange world I lived in going with him to buy porn and I think about my Mom and what a strange life she lived with a stack or porn out on the back porch. I think if they were still alive today I might ask them about this and then I think again, I do not care to hear the answers.



I’ve been having nightmares. Not the kind that are irrational and scare the crap out of you, but full cinematic pictures that mirror real life, deep-seated psychological thrillers. The kind where you wake and you question if it was real.

This election has really done a number on me. My childhood memories of a bullying Father who knew no boundaries has me wrapped in a child-like coma, rocking in the corner of my mind repeating “I want Momma, I want Momma,” creating nightmares underneath all the outer wrappings of adulthood. I know that that little girl from way back then needs me more than ever and this is my time to help her, to help myself, and in turn to collectively help all of us.

It’s also a time for great anger and whenever I see anger, I know that anger comes from fear and behind fear is something missing, some longing. So, for me it’s a chance to look back and see why this is causing such a deep fear and deep mourning for myself. That’s how you get out of anger, fear, loathing and into elation, wonder and curiosity.

When I was 17, in May of 1988, I graduated from high school.

In April, I had come home from school to find my Mother sitting in her rocking chair on our screened in porch next to the washer and dryer.


She looks very serious, which is not unusual for her. She’s like that and I’m like her, I can switch my mood from serious to hilarious in a moment’s notice and so can she. There is something different this time though. I don’t want to talk to her, because I can sense it underneath, something is very wrong. This is something I’ve always done and we can all do, if we pay attention, we can feel what someone else is feeling.

“Mom – what’s wrong?”

“I’ve got cancer” she says in a whisper “Gaaaaddamnit.” she says, always drawing out that  sound in the front and saying it like it’s one word.

I look into her eyes and all of her suffering, all of her pain, all the light that brightens her eyes is gone. She is very serious.

I hold my fists tight and start to cry and then I’m out the door and I run, down the street, around the corner and into the woods until my lungs are heaving and my legs won’t go anymore. I bend over, hands on knees, tears rushing, mind racing, heart pounding. Giant long pine straw needles cover the ground and a tree is down on the ground next to me. I put my hands on the trunk of a pine tree, look up and scream, because there is nothing else to do. My life is beginning and hers – is ending.

I am going off to the College of Charleston, on a shoe-string volleyball scholarship, a pell grant (which is government money for poor people to go to college), and no cash. I have no idea what is in store for me, but I am going, it is the only way out.

My brother Jim’s wife Tina just had a baby and I’m going to stay with them for the summer in Florida before I start school in August. I’ll watch the baby while they work. My parents are moving back to Michigan because of my Mother’s cancer. Most of my brothers and sisters live there and I guess they’ll help out while Mom is sick.

My high school graduation is a few days away and no one from my family is going to it except for me and I don’t even want to go, but Mr. Bobby Whitehead, the high school principal tells me if I don’t go to graduation I can’t get my diploma and I need that diploma to get to college.

I don’t have anything to wear and I’m definitely not wearing a dress, which is what is required for “young ladies.” I don’t have any shoes to wear either, but a friend of mine had a pair of old ugly white flats, with a diamond cut-out pattern on them that she gave me, so those are what I’ll have on my feet.

I decide that no one will know if I wear my cap and gown without anything under it except my bra and underwear. They will all think I am wearing a dress, because technically my red graduation gown will be my dress.

So, I go to graduation in my gown, we are told we cannot throw our hats a the end because it’s inappropriate and that if anyone does throw their hat they will not get their diploma. I want to throw my hat anyway, but I don’t risk it. My graduating class is 89 people, we had 93, but 4 didn’t pass, so we’re 89 now and I’m near the end of the graduation order and it feels like all day long sitting in this heat, by the dirt track in back of the school.

I finally graduate and catch a ride with someone who is “going that way.” Everyone else is going to lunch with their families or doing something to celebrate. I’m going home to pack and get the hell out of this country town.

At home, I have a bunch of journals that I wonder if I should keep, but decide that I don’t want to hold the memories in those too closely to myself. I want the freedom to become someone new, so I throw them in the trash bin.

My boxes are packed. My room is empty. Jim and my Dad take the trash up to the green boxes, where country folk take their trash, because there is no weekly trash service in the country. When they come back,  Jim comes into my room and tells me “Dad took your journals out of the trash and kept them.”

“You let him?”

“What was I supposed to do, he said you were wasting good paper.”

He’s still trying to do this thing to me, to have power over me, from the time he moved in to now, it’s always a struggle to decide who is in charge. He wants me to come talk to him or challenge him, so he can prove something. That’s what guys like him do. They try to control you. They invade your privacy. They say things that cross the line of inappropriate about you. He wants to stop me from going and he’s not going to do it.

“He can have my stupid journals. There are a lot of thoughts about how much I hate him”

What I don’t say is there are love letters to girls that I have a crush on, poetry, and private thoughts that are not private now. He wants me to feel shame and in this moment – I do –but I won’t forever.

On Sunday, I get in the car with Jim, Tina, their 6-month-old baby and we drive away. Forever.


What I didn’t know then was that I was angry. I felt slighted. I felt terrible about myself and I went on that way for years. Slowly though, those things fell away. That small girl inside of me saw a way out and she took it. She couldn’t stand up to her Father, but she could get away. She didn’t know that leaving all that behind was about curiosity. She could have stayed, but she didn’t. She was curious about the world. We have a chance to stay curious, we have a chance to wonder and through curiosity and wonder, we can find elation. They are on the opposite side of anger.

I only wish I could breakthrough to the other side of this anger I feel about the election faster than I am. It took me 13 years last time. I’m hopeful that it will take much less.

the courage to speak

IMG_1745I’ve written about courage before, here and here.

I was in Charleston, South Carolina recently, a place that I once called home. A place that echoes a mysterious call to me. The food, the Charleston drawl, the landscape – the secrets.

Walking around in the older parts of Charleston, I can almost hear the whispers of hundreds of years of history. I can also hear and feel the pain of those whispers. Some of those whispers are my own.

On that trip, I ended up on a boat with some friends and friends of friends and some older white men and women who were obviously from money, or trying to seem like they were from money. Some were dressed in Polo shirts and khakis that were ever so crisp, others layered with beautiful linens and looked ever so “done”. Makeup, hair, clothes all in perfect alignment.

We were surrounded by beauty, the inlets off Morgan Creek, the scent of pluff mud, the green grasses and marshy water, the sun high overhead with a cool breeze. As the booze flowed and we made our way through fresh oysters and beaufort stew with shrimp caught that very morning, conversations broke off into groups. Music and a little dancing began, it was exactly as Charleston should be.

I sat on the edge of the boat looking off into the marsh, remembering other days, other times and was sinking into happiness, when off to the other side of the boat I overhead a man, late 60s early 70s say something about “some nigger”.  My heart dropped and my chest puffed out, did I hear that?  And then he said it again.  I thought to myself “I’ve got to say something right now. He cannot say that.”

Instead of jumping right up and marching over there, I was paralyzed. I’m on a boat with people I do not know, some are colleagues of one of my friends. I want to go say something to this man and let him know it is not okay to say that in front of me, in front of anyone. And yet, I cannot move, I’m a character in this story, this is not my story. It’s not my place, my people, I do not have to work with these people, my friends do.

It reminded me of a time when I was in college as a Sophomore at the College of Charleston, it was a Friday, I was in my dorm room and there were parties going on out on the breezeway and in some rooms. My roommates and I were having beers. I went out on the breezeway and was smoking and just down the way were some Citadel cadets, obvious because of their haircuts. I didn’t know them, but one called out to me “Hey dyke!” I looked and said “What? What did you call me?” he said “You’re a dyke right?” I was seething, but what could I say back? I didn’t identify as a dyke, I’m definitely gay, but I’m not all that butch or anything. I’m also a Sophomore in college, still trying to figure things out in life. What do I say?

From out of nowhere Brandon, a former Citadel Cadet that I knew through his girlfriend appeared and called these young cadets to attention and pressed them against the wall.

“Hey! You apologize to her, right now. That is not behavior appropriate for a cadet.” He barked.

The Cadet apologized to me.

Brandon told the rest of the guys that he’d be sure to see them back on campus and they should head there now. They filed past me, nodding and apologizing, shame holding down the bold words they said before.

Brandon had the courage to say something and it made a difference to me.

This is the South I remember, this is the South I left behind, the good, the bad, the courageous, the ugly.

On that day on a boat in Charleston, the whispering of old Charleston sat right beside me and I said nothing. I didn’t have the courage to speak up in the same way that Brandon did. It wouldn’t have mattered, to anyone, but me. It would have mattered to me. And I have to admit, I let myself down that day.

With everything going on in the world today, from Furgeson, to Peshawar, to Sony executives, to Bill Cosby, to change any of it, I have to start with myself and what I bring to the world everyday, not just what I say I am, but who I truly am. The things I allow in my life, the way I speak in private, is who I am.

I have more work to do. We all have more work to do.

and the holidays

Screen Shot 2014-01-20 at 9.12.08 AMWhen I was small, I loved the thought of Christmas and the thought of getting gifts. We never got much and it was almost always the off brand when we did get something, but I always hoped there was something spectacular under the tree.

Some might say, I should have been thankful for what I received. But me, at 10, 12, 16, or even now at 43 – I’ve always thought we could do better, save more, get just one nice thing instead of 10 terrible things.

When I was 11 my parents left me with my two brothers – I’ve written about this before in TODD. As we approached Christmas, I began to work on this piece about Christmas, but couldn’t finish it until now. It’s not that I hold onto these memories and dwell on them, it’s more like they hold onto me.  The Holidays are hard for me, but not as hard as they used to be. Instead of avoiding the memories, I now embrace them in this way or that and they are only a part of the story I have lived.  They don’t rule my life, they don’t define me now, but they are a reflection of my experiences and I can’t help but think about them from time to time.


Mom calls once a week and talks to Bobby and Johnny, I sometimes talk to her and sometimes I don’t get a turn.  When I do talk to her, I don’t know what to say. I just listen to her breathe on the phone. I wish she were home and I want to tell her that, but I don’t know how to make the words come out of my mouth.  She sounds happier being away, she laughs, she’s fishing, going to the flea market and visiting with people and Dad is working. I like her to be happy. So, I don’t tell her anything about me or how I’m feeling, because I don’t know.

It’s a few weeks before Christmas and I’ve long stopped wishing for something spectacular under the tree – that’s just not how it works – we don’t have the money. So, I hope for snow and trips to the library and good TV shows that I’m allowed to watch.

Mom is on the other end of the phone and she says, “We got you something you’ve always wanted for Christmas. You’ll love it. We’re sending it in a box with some other things and it will get there right before Christmas.” As I look back today, I wonder what I thought she was sending. Love? Safety? Security? What had I always wanted? That’s what I needed, but I couldn’t say it. I didn’t know how and back then – I didn’t know that’s what I wanted.

I say – “Wow! I can’t wait until it gets here!”

A week or more pass and Johnny and Bobby have decided they will get a Christmas tree, but not put it in the living room where we usually have it when Mom is here, but they will put it in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, which they have turned into the living room and the old living room is now the sitting room. Looking back, none of us belonged in that life, I wanted to be spectacular and they wanted a sitting room. We were made for better times and things.

We tromp through the snow and the woods to find the tallest tree that will fit in the house and they chop it down – because they love to chop things, kick things, build things, fix things. They drag it back to the house and get it into the stand and decorate. I don’t like decorating, because whatever I put on the tree is not right and not in the right place – according to them. So, eventually I give up and sit on the couch. I eat some chewy Christmas candy left over from last year. They string the lights, put ornaments on, throw tinsel all over and then decide it is time to decorate the GIANT pine tree outside.

The tree outside is so tall that I cannot see the top when I look up, I have to go out into the yard to see the top. I warn them about climbing that tree. “Remember Johnny – how you broke your arms climbing the tree across the street. Mom says don’t climb trees.” They laugh as if I’m crazy and get a ladder and a big mess of lights and go out into the yard. The way Mom tells the story about Johnny’s fall is: “You were in the bathtub and I had to get you out fast because someone ran up to the door and said Johnny was hurt. So I pulled you out and told you get dry and dressed and ran to the front door. When I got there – I saw his arms and they were all crooked. And I took a deep breath and said someone run and get Ardis and see if she can drive us to the hospital. And then Johnny said “I’m sorry Mom.” That’s all he said. That’s it. Broken arms and all and he said he was sorry. He didn’t cry one tear when they set them back in place. He was so brave.”  All I remember was I had wet hair and was running a comb through it and I peeked out at Johnny and his arms were all twisted around, his wrists going in the wrong direction. I felt light-headed and sat down and combed my hair some more. He came home with casts up to the elbow on each arm and laid on the couch for a week or more and someone had to help him pee. I’m glad it wasn’t me. That’s how I tell the story.

They work for hours on that tree making sure every bulb is in the right place and when they are finished it’s the best Christmas tree I’ve ever seen in person. Big red, green and blue bulbs light up and shine bright. We laugh and it’s fun being out with these guys in the snow putting up Christmas lights, even though I’m only watching. I would like to be a dare-devil and climb that tree, but there is no way I want to break my arms so I’m not doing it.

A few days later, when I get home from school Bobby and Johnny are busy doing something, wrapping something and laughing. It’s the last day of school before Christmas and I am home now for the week, it’s Wednesday and I only have to wait two days until Christmas, but really only one day to open presents – on Christmas Eve. That tradition started because my Dad used to be with his other family on Christmas day. The one he was married to and not us and that is an entirely different story for another time. I’m happy to be off school, but bored because I know I’ll be listening to a whole lot of Billy Joel and Foreigner on my Dad’s 8-track player that is now in the sitting room. These guys listen to it non-stop, so loud that I can’t watch TV.

They tell me “Stay out of here, we’re wrapping Christmas presents from Mom and Dad.” Laughing and laughing, rustling paper, I watch a rerun of Brady Bunch and there’s a small part of me that is excited and thinks maybe, just maybe this year something spectacular is going to be under that tree.

They come out of the living room and say, “You can take a look now.” I don’t care anymore, but that small part of me that hopes for something special goes to take a look. The tree is full underneath with what looks like 30 or more presents all wrapped with bows and some even have a ribbon around them. There is one giant box in the back corner of the tree, almost behind it.

Bobby says “That one is for you.”
I smile and say “Really? What it is it?”
They laugh “Stupid, we aren’t going to tell you what it is, go pick it up and shake it.”
“I don’t want to.” I say.
“C’mon just try it.” I walk around and it is so heavy I can barely lift it. “What is it?”
“Guess.” I’m really not into this whole thing of guessing. I’m never right, so I don’t guess and sit on the couch again.
They laugh and say “Don’t you wonder what it is?”
“It’s heavy.” I say
“What could be so heavy?” Bobby yells grinning ear to ear.
“I don’t know, maybe it’s a bowling ball?”
“You don’t even like bowling.” Johnny says.
I can’t figure it out.

I’m excited, but I’m not telling anyone, so I sit on the couch and wonder and wonder.

On Christmas Eve, Johnny says “Let’s open presents on Christmas morning like normal people.” Bobby says “Yeah, that’s what normal people do.” I do not want to do this so I grumble around and get mad and punch the couch, but I know they are not going to change their minds. So, we watch some TV and drink soda, eat candy and eventually I fall asleep on the couch.

When I wake up, I don’t really want to open presents but Bobby and Johnny are so excited. They say “You have to wait and open the big one last!”
“Can’t I open it first?”
“No, we’re saving the best for last, Mom said.”
“Mom’s not here, so who cares.” I fire back.
“We’ll tell.”
We open socks and underwear and I open a new nightgown and some other things that don’t matter. There is wrapping paper everywhere, all over the living room. Bobby brings me the big box. My stomach flutters as I peel back the paper and pull back the tape on the top of the box.

I close my eyes and open the box, it’s full of packing peanuts. I scoop handfuls out and onto the floor and then I see something. Gray and dark, so I dig on and I see more of something gray and dark and I stop and tears flow and flow and flow. I scoot back from the box and cry. “ROCKS!” I scream “They sent me rocks?”  I can see on their faces – they realize – they were playing a joke –but I do not think this is a joke and it is not funny.

“Amy, Amy, it’s okay, really there is a present in there, we just thought it would be funny to put rocks in there. There really is a present in there Amy, seriously.” I scoot back further. “I don’t want it. I don’t care. You are the meanest people I have ever known” I sob, sniffing snot back.

“Amy, really, look, it’s something you’ve always wanted it. Look Amy.” they plead.

I look and they have a brown plastic box in their hands. I rip it out of their hands and open it. It’s a silver watch with digital time – something I have always wanted.  I pull it out of the box, it has a stretchy metal band on it. I pull back the band and slide it over my wrist. It feels cheap on my arm, like a play toy. I pull it off and throw it down. “I don’t want it. It’s like everything else, cheap. They probably got it at a flea market.”

I put some jeans on, pull on a sweatshirt, two pairs of socks and my boots. Put my coat on, slam the door and walk to the woods where everything is quiet. In the middle of the trees and snow – I stand and cry again, the cold feels good on my hot wet face.


While my brothers are villains in this story and Todd, I adored them and loathed them.  They were kids themselves trying to take care of me in the ways they new how, like teenage boys.

On_giving and thanks_remembering

At Thanksgiving – I am more than thankful – I remember.

I remember my Mother. The way her hands moved over the raw turkey, salting and buttering under the skin. She was mindful about food and set in her ways about how this or that should be done, when it came to cooking. All ten of us kids were banished from the kitchen, but I would watch – from a distance – in wonder – at how she made things – all from scratch – all on more than a tight budget.

When I was old enough, which wasn’t very old – I was allowed into the kitchen – for a few minutes – to add butter, milk, salt and pepper to the potatoes – only in her way.

She’d mash with an old hand masher, thick grooved metal at the end and a wooden handle that used to be red, but was mostly worn down to the wood. I’d add things. In her way.

Butter first. She’d hand me a butter knife and put a stick of butter on the table, still cold in the wrapper. “We’ve got to add this butter while the potatoes are hot.” I’d slice off inch after inch of butter, unwrap and throw it into the pan – all as fast as I could. She’d mash and then stop to look into the pan. “More butter.” I’d slice, unwrap and throw in again. “See there, it’s not all white anymore.”

Then milk. She’d mash and I’d pour into the old battered, but still solid cooking pot. My small hands balancing the gallon jug of milk, one hand at the top, one at the bottom.  “Not too much milk.” She’d mash and mash. “Potatoes should be creamy, not too thick, not too thin. Add some more milk.” Bang. She’d hit the side of the pan with the masher. The potatoes fell back with a thud. “More milk.” More mashing – Bang – the potatoes fall back – with a lightness.

Then pepper.  “You should see the right amount of pepper all through the potatoes.” I’d shake and shake, the pepper never came out of the pepper shaker very fast. “See that’s right, now you can see pepper everywhere.”

Then salt to taste. I’d shake the not really white anymore, plastic Tupperware shaker with the broken lid, a few times. “Potatoes need a lot more salt than you think, Amy.” I’d shake and shake and laugh, so much shaking. She’d press on, now with more stirring than mashing, fluffing up the potatoes. She’d drop a finger into the pan and bring potatoes up to her mouth. The back of her hand would come into focus. Thin and thick at the same time, veins standing out, small brown spots, always tan, but not leathery. Their smell in my mind without ever smelling them, onions, salt, butter, flour – it’s as if she had been cooking her whole life.

“Mmmm, but not yet, more salt, a little more milk.” I’d pour and scramble to keep up. And then bang, bang, bang, the masher on the side of the pot, to shake off all the mashed potato stuck to the masher. With me standing on the chair next to the table – she’d hand over the masher. I’d scrape it clean with my hands, shoveling what was left into my mouth – jump down – turn on the sink – rinse the masher and throw it into the sink with another bang.

Mom would cover the potatoes still in their pot and I would go back to doing whatever it is we do on Thanksgiving, on a cold November day – hoping for snow, thinking about Christmas, fighting with each other, watching the black and white TV – In the middle of nowhere in Michigan.


I’ve thought about this time in my life a lot lately. It’s hard to imagine me at 11 processing these feelings on my own. I think it all adds up, all the grief, you remember, even if you don’t remember consciously your body remembers and while I do believe if you work with it and acknowledge it, it helps in the letting go – there are still times that it comes back.

* * *


5788669410_dd5f58de70_bMy home sits in the middle of a block in north Portland, Oregon. It’s a 1950s bungalow, remodeled in 1950s style and color, painted a fresh bright mint green, a brown door with three beveled glass windows in it, white trim and two taupe colored stairways leading up from the sidewalk.

One Sunday evening I am staring at nothing out the front windows in the kitchen and see a small black cat, sauntering—yes, he is sauntering—up the left set of stairs. He’s a tiny little thing with bright green eyes. “Oh look, a black cat,” I yell to my partner, Julie. “What?” she says, running into the kitchen, leaning toward the window. He walks right up the steps onto the back patio. Julie is absolutely and utterly excited about the prospect of another cat. She grabs the cat food and rushes outside, sprinkling it on the ground. Not too rushed, though. “I don’t want to scare him off,” she says. I stand inside for a moment and eventually move to the doorway with the door nearly shut behind me so Isabel, the cat that lives with us, doesn’t run out. “Oh, he’s so skinny—he must not have a home. His head looks so big because he’s too skinny.” She is knelt down next to him, but not too close, barely touching him. I can see his tiny ribs, black fur flecked with gray. He is older than I would have thought, his skin sagging a little. The shining smile in Julie’s eyes when she looks up at me has me feeling momentarily outrageous, so much so that I want to shout out, “Let’s keep him!”

“We’ll call him Todd, since his head is so big—after Big Head Todd and the Monsters,” she says. I feel it in my heart, yes, let’s keep him. What happens next is how it always is with me—my brain and my body take over. My old memories flood back to me, and I hate using the word flood to describe emotions, but it is what it feels like. I can’t turn it off. I can talk myself through it, but I can’t turn it off. The images that come to me are the way they are. I can’t really say it out loud either. So I brood on it and sit there, feeling something stuck in my throat, as if to speak it would cause me great harm, but it’s in there and it wants to come out. So much so that this little cat has become a metaphor in my life for the words that I need to speak, that I need to say aloud to help myself and possibly to help someone else. Some part of me believes this. We don’t end up adopting him, but in a way, he adopts me—appearing at just the right times over the next few months to help me remember and pull up these old memories. Coincidence? I think not—Carl Jung says what doesn’t come to you in consciousness comes to you as fate. For me, Todd is both.

So while the world is going on, Julie talking about the cat outside and how he must not have a home and we’ll have to feed him and this and that, I try to distract myself, doing something on the computer or my phone, playing a game, drinking a glass of wine—but that’s not where I am. I’m not even in my body. I’m in a field in Hartland, Michigan, and I am 11.

* * *

I’m in a field of tall grass in the heat of summer. Sweat drips and drops off of me. My blonde hair is pasted against my neck and face. I’m not a very sweaty kid, I’m more of misty kid. Sweat covers me most days from head to toe when it’s hot. I’ve never liked the heat even though I was born in the summer. It gives me a headache. I wish I did like summer. Everyone else can’t wait until it comes around, but I’m too fair-skinned to ever fall in love with it. Most summer days I’m inside, in the water or somewhere cool. If not, I’m likely complaining and miserable, because I can’t stand the heat. But not today. Today, I’m out in the field next to our home in Hartland, Michigan, just three lines in from my thumb, that’s where I live on the map. I’m playing with a bunch of kittens. They are the sweetest things ever, their tiny green eyes and soft baby fur. I love them so much I’ll even stand right in the heat of the sun for them. I whisper to them—things I’ve never heard anyone say to me. “I love you, little kitten.” Always in a hush. I know if someone hears they’ll tease me. We don’t say such things at my house and I don’t know why we don’t, but we don’t and if you even think of such things, someone will call you a baby, an asshole, a witch or something worse. “You’re my best friends.” Grinning as I tell them. A tear wells in the corner of my eye when I say it. I don’t know why that tear does that. I blink it back. “No sense crying over some silly cats.” That’s what I tell myself whenever I start to worry about something I shouldn’t or can’t do anything about. I’m 11, crying is for babies. “No sense crying over that.” The cats are tiny, maybe six or eight weeks old, two gray, one black, and two black and white—“a mixed breed,” Momma would say. I’ve named each of them after someone famous, someone I might be like when I grow up. I wouldn’t ever tell anyone their names. It’s a secret between me and my kittens and if I did tell someone they’d laugh at me and I’d never hear the end of it. There is no use for imagination where I live, but my imagination is strong inside of me. I’m the baby out of 10 kids, so I’m used to having things taken away from me, but they can’t take away what’s in my head, especially when I don’t tell them what’s there.

Momma and Daddy have been gone for nearly a year—I’m not sure they are ever coming back. Daddy, who is this old guy with wispy gray hairs on the top of his head, always covered by a trucker hat or a Greek fisherman’s hat, even though he is not Greek or a trucker, pulled me aside one day and dragged me into the park, which made me want to scream and run away because he gives me the creeps. I get that feeling inside that says something bad is about to happen whenever I am alone with him, and for all the things I don’t feel or don’t admit—that’s one thing I do listen to. He promised he just had something to tell me and wouldn’t do anything bad, so I went with him into the park—and tell me something he did. He told me, with his old coffee breath streaming right out of his mouth into my nose and out the top of my head, that he and Momma were leaving to find work and they’d come back to get me. I didn’t really believe him because I hardly know him and in my family we don’t trust people we don’t know. I also didn’t know what to say. So I stood there in silence and pretended it wasn’t going to happen.

I never knew Daddy before last year when he moved in with us. No one ever even told me he was moving in. I only overheard Momma saying to one of the older kids, “We need him. We’ll have a better life if he’s around.” I haven’t seen anything better since he’s been around. Anyone who was old enough to move out of the house did, right away. Johnny and Bobby are the only ones left with me. With Daddy moved in, the rules changed fast. No TV, unless you wanted to watch PBS, which is the most terrible channel I’ve ever watched. We ate microwave food instead of real food and it didn’t taste good. Momma didn’t watch TV with us anymore, she played cards with him and I had to go to bed at 9:00. Before that I always stayed up past 11:00.

Momma and Daddy left me with Johnny and Bobby. Johnny is 18 and Bobby is 16. Johnny is in charge because he is older, taller than Bobby, and Daddy for that matter, and has a job. He doesn’t go to school anymore, because he quit. I don’t know why he quit, he never told me, and I never asked. He just stopped going one day and that was that. People do this kind of thing all the time in my family, they stop doing something or start doing something and never explain anything and no one asks and it seems no one even cares. Why would you ask anyway?

I’m so sad that Momma left me here and is off doing something with Daddy. I yell at Bobby and antagonize him, until he can’t stand it any longer and he hits me or chases me or holds me down and tickles me until I pee my pants, then he laughs at me and I’m humiliated, which actually makes me feel better than crying about missing Momma. That’s how we work through things around here. We don’t ever talk about a thing and wouldn’t know what you meant if you asked how we were feeling. I’d respond with “I’m alive aren’t I? That’s good enough for me.” But on the inside, I tell you, there’s something dark in me that would love to just jump in the pond and go under the water and never ever come back out. Just stay at the bottom all cried out and dead.

I much prefer living with Johnny and Bobby than having Daddy leering and lurking around every corner being weird and making me watch PBS. I sure do miss Momma though, but I never tell anyone that I do. It’s fun sometimes being with Bobby and Johnny. They let me stay up late, they give me money to leave them alone, and I go to the store and buy candy. They take me with them to places with this loud music playing—I feel like a wild animal, doing whatever comes into my head! Sometimes, though, I wish I were not here but somewhere else, where it’s just me and Momma.

These little kittens I have out in the field with me are like me. Well, not really. Their Momma kitty comes back and brings them food and they get milk from her sometimes, but they are kind of growing up on their own, just like me. Nobody tells me nothing about nothing about growing up, except wash your face, don’t chew with your mouth open and don’t wear that goddamn baseball hat every day. I try to act normal whenever I get in front of anyone I haven’t met before or when I’m at school and everyone else seems to know what they are supposed to be doing, but I’m just lost, walking around looking for someone to tell me what to do. But there isn’t anyone to tell me. These kittens are my only real friends. I know a few kids from school and from around town, but I don’t trust anyone outside my family. I can’t be honest with them. I might end up in a foster house or an orphanage or something worse, and I think the evil and good you know are better than the ones you don’t.

The kittens are good, that is one thing I know for sure.

It’s a sunny morning in the summer, the middle of June, before Bobby’s birthday, which is on the 25th. He is about to turn 17. In my mind, he’s a slob and an ugly-faced pig, but in reality, he’s a sweet-looking boy with a swath of blond hair that’s unruly but handsome all the same. His eyes are twinkling blue, just like mine and just like Momma says Daddy’s are, but I’ve seen Daddy and his eyes look old and gray, not twinkling at all. Bobby’s tall and trim and wears a pair of tight swim shorts when he works in the yard. Secretly I love him so much I’d like to hug him, but I’ll never, ever mention that to anyone, not ever.

I’m out in the sun twirling around in the dirt and I see Bobby and my sister Jenny’s husband, Fred. Fred used to smoke a lot of pot and sell it right out of the kitchen in their trailer. Since they have two kids now, he stopped doing that. Fred seems old to me, 25, with his long black ponytail and scraggly beard. They’re kind of whispering, but whispering in the way that boys do, not whispering at all. Fred says, “Man, there’s about 20 cats around here, I’ve got no idea how in the hell so many cats popped up so fast, but we’ve got to take care of them. The best way to do it is either put them in a bag and throw them in the pond, or put them in a bag and bury them in a hole.” I stop still from my twirling around and around and stare at the dirt. I’m stiff like a board and I want to scream at them “Don’t kill my friends!” but I don’t. It wouldn’t change a thing and they might decide to put me in the hole or in the pond as well, and while I would like to die lots of days, I can’t really make myself go through with that whole idea.

Bobby slams the screen door to the back shed of our house. When Momma was here she would have yelled, “Don’t slam the goddamn door.” But she’s not here so no one cares. I don’t like the slam of the door, but it doesn’t bother me enough to start something with Bobby. He comes back out of the house with a shovel. He strips off his shirt and throws it over one of the three laundry lines we have hanging from the house to the old falling-down barn that has an outhouse connected to it. It’s not a working outhouse—someone filled the holes with dirt. Bobby’s back is brown from sun and I notice muscle on him that I’ve never seen before. This summer he’s working on the hay farm for the first time ever. I don’t think he likes it too much but it’s the only work he can get. His mouth is closed tight and straight across—he’s on a mission. I stand out of the way with my back against the scraped-up house. We scraped the house last year and painted it, but didn’t have enough paint for the back of the house or the back shed, so they are rough to the touch and smell deep of rain and wood. It’s a smell that I would take with me in a bottle if I knew how. He marches off to the back right corner of the yard. He’s wearing his swimming shorts, his white tube socks and his blue Trax shoes from Kmart. I hate Kmart. I’d rather go to the mall, but we can’t afford anything at the mall so we shop at Kmart once a year for clothes. He jabs the shovel at the ground and jumps up and lands on the top of the shovel with both feet pushing it deep into the ground. He does this over and over and over. I know what he’s doing, but I don’t want to admit it. So I watch and watch and then I get hungry as if nothing is going on at all and go over to where he is. “You want a bologna sandwich?” I ask. “Get out of here, Amy,” he says, short and quick. Normally I’d protest and yell something or say something back, but this time I slink off and go and make myself a fried bologna sandwich. I like to cook, and frying up bologna is a special and easy treat. My bologna sandwich has two pieces of bologna, fried until the edges are brown and crispy, Miracle Whip on both pieces of bread, mustard squirted only on the bologna and six potato chips. After my sandwich and a long cool drink out of the hose to wash it down, I go back where he is digging and sit and watch. He’s knee deep in the hole now and I pretend I’ve no idea why he’s digging. I don’t say a word because that’s what we do—we don’t ask. We just pretend we know and keep going along as if we do, but this time I do know. I know he’s about to murder my friends, my little kittens. After what seems like hours, but probably isn’t, Bobby lifts himself up out of the hole. His feet and knees black with soil that Momma says “makes my garden grow the best tomatoes I’ve ever had.” He runs to the back shed of the house and gets a black garbage bag and I still don’t ask what he’s doing. But on the inside I feel something shaking, deep down inside of me that I push down as hard as I can. He heads to the field and I follow, but not too close. He doesn’t look down at all. He grabs each tiny kitten by the scruff of its neck and throws it in the bag. I press myself close to the side of the barn, the rough splintery-filled wood cool against my cheek, breathing in the sweet smell of the barn and holding my breath. I want to ask him what he’s doing and why he’s putting those kittens in the bag, but I can’t open my mouth. My heart beats as if the whole world is counting on me to ask, but I can’t. I turn and walk steady paces long and deep to the back of the barn where I can still see the hole Bobby dug. Unless you were looking for me, you wouldn’t see me. Bobby holds the bag full of kittens wriggling and jiggling out in front of him. He walks fast and even, without looking up, staring straight ahead. He stops above the hole and for one second looks like he might turn back, but doesn’t. He drops the bag of kittens into the hole and shovels dirt back where it came from. He’s moving fast, the shovel turning over and over, and finally the hole is full. His face is without expression at all. His eyes tell me different. There is a tiny bit of sadness leaking out of him, just like those tears leak out of my head sometimes. He tamps the back of the shovel on the dirt, scrapes it over once or twice to even it out and walks away. As if to say, “There, no one will know what I just did.”

I can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t breathe. I lie down on the ground and hold onto it with my hands. The world is spinning out of control. Who puts cats in a bag and buries them? Why couldn’t I ask what was going on? Do I have time to dig them up? There’s got to be some other solution, I know there has to be. I can’t do anything though, I’m 11 and I’m just a baby on the inside still. I can’t do anything, the tears drip right out of my head, I can’t blink them back. I hold the grass as if it’s holding me back, keeping me from spinning right off the earth and into another universe, maybe one where cats don’t get put in bags and get thrown into a hole. I know I’m feeling something but I don’t know what. When I’m sure Bobby is not around, I go and lie next to that pile of smoothed-over dirt and pretend I hear those famous kittens and in my mind they are singing my name and saying, “Go, Amy—go far away and be alive.” And I know that one day I will. I’m not going to die here. I’m not going to die. I will never give up. I will say it over and over and over, I’m not going to do this. I’m not going to stay here and be like this. I’m going to get out. I’m going to get out.

Ashes to Ashes

6782686535_f10c0ee9df_bWonder dog’s ashes are in the kitchen on the counter in a red and yellow flowered tin. No one asked – plastic bag? box? plain silver tin? I thought this was getting easier and yet – today it’s so much harder. I held back tears at least 10 times. I mean that’s what you are supposed to do – right? when you can hold them back you do? when you can’t you don’t? They all came out later, but in the moment I didn’t want to cry anymore.

We picked up Wonder’s ashes at Dignified Pets Cremation and drove to the Oregon Coast with the windows down and Wonder in her tin. Zelda our other dog laid in the back of the car as if nothing was different. The day Wonder died little Z went over to Wonder’s bed and laid down in it, but other than that nothing seems different for her.

I asked Wonder for a sign – I know that sounds silly – seeing as I don’t believe in an afterlife. I do believe energy is energy and it has to go somewhere. So, I asked and at the Coast nothing remarkable happened. No sign – okay.

We got home, fed Isabel the cat and Zelda and went for a drink and some dinner. We ended up at Cascade Barrel House. We don’t go there that often, but it was a spring-ish/summery kind of day and the only beer I like are sours and it seemed fitting for warm weather.  Julie, my partner of partners, my forever dream date, has been amazing through all of this, looks at the menu and says they have a Wonder Red on the special list. I hadn’t told her about asking for the sign and I hadn’t looked at the menu yet. Wonder Red? A sign? I don’t know – I’ll take it. I’ve never seen a beer called Wonder or another dog called Wonder. So maybe somehow the two mean something. Wonder. Wonder?

It takes me back to when my brother was dying. He was having a hard time coming to terms with it. He was 30 and I was 25. I didn’t understand it either. He had moved to Portland to be closer to family. I didn’t know that meant he was going to die soon. Looking back, it should have been obvious. He had once been tall and handsome. But now his 6’2″ muscly, strong body, had withered to less than 100lbs.

He pulled me aside one day, his soft pin-striped button down brushing against my skin, his cane clicking every other step as we walked. It was just after my birthday, where he had given me a diamond earring. Now I see he was trying to tell me something. But at the time, I only wondered why he’d given it to me. He’d never given me anything before, except a hard time, like any good big brother.

He stopped, his eyes dropped to mine, bending over a little. His blue eyes dancing, “I want to take you to breakfast this week, okay? Just us, okay?” “Yeah sure Bob, yeah.” He liked to be called Robert these days, but I could never come to terms with that change. He was Bobby to me. No matter what my Father said years ago about a real man not being called Bobby. He was a real man – an ex-Navy officer.

We went to breakfast at his favorite place and he ordered his bacon – soft, not crispy. I thought – who orders bacon in a particular way? It’s just bacon. That’s how he was though, unlike me he knew what he liked and how he wanted it. I took note that I might want to figure that out one day.

We sat and ate and talked about our Mother and Father, who had both been gone for 6 years. Then he stopped and with conviction said “Amy, I’m going on a trip, do you want to go with me?”
“Bob, you should ask your doctor about this trip, I don’t think you can go on a trip right now.”
“No really, I’m going on a trip and I want you to come.”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“I’m going with or without you.”
“Okay then, where are you going?”
“Somewhere like Hawaii or something tropical.”
I was young. Going to Hawaii was so far removed from my life that the thought of saying yes made me dreamy and so I did. “Yes, I’ll go with you.”

Bob ended up in the hospital ten days later. He kept saying he wanted to go home and see his dog Molly. He wanted to be home with her. While people left to get “home” ready for him, I sat on the side of his hospital bed “Do you need more morphine?”
“No, I’m fine. I just want to be home.”
We talked but not much.
His breath slowing.
“Can I hold your hand?” I asked
He smiled. “Yes.”
“I’m sorry if I start crying Bob, I know it’s probably weird to have people standing around crying when you are here feeling like this.”
“It’s okay.”
It was clear he was not going to be going home.
“You know Bob, if there is something after this, could you send me a sign? I’ve wondered if there is something else after this life and I know you understand that. So send me a sign okay?”
“Yeah, okay.”

He took his last breath not long after that. And he was gone.

I went about life as quickly as I could, working, being busy, getting away from grief. Bob came to me in dreams those first couple of weeks, continuing to talk about his big trip. I thought that was sign enough, but I was young and kept asking him for more signs.

I went camping not long after that. I loathe camping, but for some reason I was going camping. One night as a million stars shined down, I looked through the fire and there was Bob standing by a tree and he said – “I’m still going on that trip. Do you want to go with me?”

I don’t know if it was real or I was delirious from grief, but it scared me, so much so that I yelled “You’re scaring me now! I can’t do this – you have to go!”  I have not seen my brother again.

Was he trying to tell me that there was something after this life or that your energy doesn’t die? My brother and I agreed before he died that it was the latter. You don’t disappear you live on in some way even if only in the collective thoughts of everyone else.

That’s how life goes. We learn from our previous experience, or if we choose not to learn, we might experience it in the same way. For me – when I ask for a sign, I’ll take the first one. Thank you Wonder Red for appearing on a menu.
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July 1976_searching

It’s my birthday.

For my birthday, I’m putting up this writing session which makes me sad, but at the same time, it makes me happy. I look back at the little me at five and think, you’re amazing. GO! I also look back and think, THAT HAIR! And a pink shirt!?

I am pretty certain that my Mom must have cut my hair for this photo and for some reason it looks orange. My sister always argued with me about this photo and one other saying it was her, but I know this was me. So there. Regardless, it could have been any of us.

We’re human, we’re amazing, it’s what we do with it that matters.

~ July 1976 ~

“Momma, I can sing real good if you want me to.” I said. She looked down and said “No girl, singing’s not going to get you anywhere. Learning is what you need.”

“But Momma, I’m big when I sing.” I stand up tall. She shakes her head back and forth, short curls swaying close to her head. ”No girl, singing’s not for you.”

“I’ll be right back, don’t come looking for me either.”

I know she is not coming back, the little feeling that I’m choking comes up in my throat.

“How long Momma, how long will you be gone?”

Looking down at me she lifts a hand, the back of it brown from sun, she slaps her leg and laughs a little. Her mouth is empty, only a few teeth left, those are black and brown and broken on the edges, she has one gold one in the back. We aren’t that bad off if she hasn’t had to sell that tooth yet.

“I can’t find peace with you Gaaddamn kids”. She mostly smiles with her lips pursed straight across, so that she doesn’t have to show her teeth.

I need to know how long she will be gone.

“How long will you be gone Momma?”

Her serious sad face, her saggy skin hanging down “Just a few minutes.” Turning to the door

“Is a few more than a couple?” I ask. “A couple means two right Momma?” “Yes a few is more than two.” she says “Like five?” “Yes, three, four or five is a few.” “No more than five, right Momma, that would mean many and you said a few. Do you promise Momma? Do you promise it will only be a few?”

“Yes, only a few minutes.”

I throw my arms around her leg and take hold.

When she lies, I feel all tingly on the inside, I can tell so I ask more questions to see if I can figure out the truth.

“How long, how long, how long, don’t leave, don’t leave.” the rhythm of the words choking back tears. Please just tell me “5 minutes, 10, an hour.”

“Now let go of my leg and behave” her polyester pants scratching me as she moves her leg, her hands pushing me down and away. My hands turn cold and as she gets close to the door; I run to it pressing my hands against it as it closes.

I run back to the couch and sit stiff like a board.

“Three, four, five, she’ll be back in three, four or five.” I sing, “3, 4 or 5. 3, 4 or 5 is a few, means more than a couple, that means 2.” I watch the clock. I always watch the clock when she is gone. “Sit still, very still or you might cry. Watch the clock. Watch the clock.”

“3, 4, 5.” I sing, in a small and quiet way.

At three minutes I am hopeful. I can move a little now because I know she’ll be back soon. Four feels good, hopeful. Five is very long but by six she’ll be home, she said so. Five comes and goes and I am not sure what to do. My head says she is not coming back. Five, five, five, she’s not home. I rock back and forth, running my hand along the seam of my pants. They are my favorite pants, purple pants. What if she doesn’t come back?

I punch my leg hard. Maybe I won’t think about her never coming back if I do something else. I hit the place where the bruise is deep, black and lumpy.

The bruise is from Peggy and a game she plays with me to see how much I can stand before I cry. Peggy hits me over and over. I don’t even feel it anymore. It’s just about being strong enough to not cry.

Last week when Momma was in the kitchen making noodles, I was on the couch, watching the black and white TV. Peggy sat beside me and hit the soft fleshy part of my thigh. I winced, but no crying. Pausing, in between the balling up of her fist, she pinched. I looked straight ahead, no crying. My face hot, not saying a word. It could have been worse she could have been kicking me or hitting me with the brush or broom handle, or threatening to stab me with a knife, which is much more scary than this.


“Ready to cry yet?”


Smack. Sucking in air, holding my breath

“How about now”


Smack, smack, smack.


No longer able to hold back the breath, chest rising and falling, the tears came, giving away the pain. I couldn’t stop them once the bruise was deep enough.

I didn’t want her to be able to make me cry.

She turned away happy, smiling, her wavy brown hair flying behind her bee-bop walk into the other room. I got myself back together and just as she was about to leave the room, I laughed and I couldn’t even stop myself from doing it. I laughed and laughed, which brought her back and the hitting and asking started again.

Today, when I hit myself, it doesn’t hurt much. The tears are already welling up because Momma is never coming back. The punching makes me wince, but I’m not afraid of that hurt. Only afraid she is not coming back. It’s 8 now. I want to go looking for her. She said not to, but I have to.

I know when I go looking for her I don’t like what I find.

I can’t wait any longer. Ten minutes is too long for me, I will check with Granny to see if she knows where Momma is. She’s not really my Granny, but that is what everyone calls her. She is smaller than Momma and bent at the shoulders, her blue and pink flowery housedress is always pressed and clean, small glasses shade her eyes, her thick panty hose sag at the ankle. I don’t know her real name. She lives next door and I like that she only has a basin and a toilet, no bathtub or sink in the bathroom. I would like it if I did not have to take a bath. There is a sink in the kitchen, but none in the bathroom. If Momma is not there Granny will give me a cookie, she always does, the kind with jam in the middle from the store, not the kind we have at home.

I peek out the front door though the plexiglass window. It used to be glass-glass but has been broken too many times from angry slams. Every time it broke Momma started crying, someone cleaned it up and put cardboard in the window. Whoever broke it was always long gone and the rest of the day we’d all try to be quiet to not make Momma cry anymore.

After checking the front door, to make sure no one is lying in wait, I open the door, the handle jiggles because it is loose. The smells of summer, grass, lilac, rough wood siding, slip through me. I run down the stairs and across the cement that was replaced earlier in the summer, but has already shown wear because one of my brothers didn’t know how to mix cement. There’s always something half way finished around here.

Running fast across the two driveways, ours and Granny’s, touching the big maple tree that stands in-between them. Hand hitting bark, rough, it’s not smooth like a birch. The gravel is hard on my bare feet, but I am a fast runner and I don’t care.

I hear them after me already, my brother Bobby and his friends, Phil, Joel and Pat, like a wild pack of heathens. Momma calls them that. I am not sure what a heathen is, I imagine it as some sort of monster, gray like a rat with yellow teeth and the legs of a lamb, where you aren’t quite sure what you are going to get the good side or the bad.

Yelling, they chase me.

“Yeah, get her, we’re going to pound you AmyBeth.” They say my name as if it is one word all strung together. Stomach lurching, eyes darting back and forth searching for an exit, I run faster.

At Granny’s door, I know I should knock and wait for her to come but if I knock they’ll be here before I get in. And today they might wring my neck good. I reach and grab the doorknob, lungs pumping, hands slippery wet with sweat, open the door shove myself through and quickly but gently close it behind me. I slide my back down against it, breathing out fear.

I hear Momma laughing in the other room, a laugh that comes from the belly, the kind like you really mean it.

“Who’s there?” Granny calls, she sounds like the voice on an old record.

“Probably one of those gaaddamn kids looking for me.”

I walk through the kitchen, the dining room, and into the sitting room. Passing the cookie jar, which seems to smile at me as I walk past. Standing up tall and proud, a fake smile across my face, maybe they’ll think I’m pretty.

“I found you Momma.” I say as sweet as I can.

She looks angry and rolls her eyes. My shoulders fall forward, head down.

“I told you not to come looking for me.”

She nods to Granny “I can’t stay away for not one minute.”

Granny who smells like liniment, laughs and smiles at me as if to say you’ll be ok.

“Now gaaddamn it I told you I’d be home soon now get the hell out of here, I’m having a quiet time with Granny.”

It hurts me in my heart, more than punching my bruise, when she says things like that. I turn around and run but know I can’t go back outside, I don’t want to get beat up just yet.

I’ll wait until I hear Momma leaving.

I pretend to leave, opening and closing the door and then shuffle into Granny’s bathroom, lifting the lid of the white wicker hamper, I hike one leg up and pull using my back to push forward, I slip down into the hamper and close the lid. The rubber rim around the lid does not make a sound when it closes. I sink down into the dirty clothes. It is musty here, but it feels safe. The smell is like the hair from Granny’s trash that we burn on the burn pile. She wears her hair in a bun, when she lets it down it’s down to her waist. When she brushes it hair gets trapped in the brush, she pulls it out in little bundles and throws it into the trash that we collect, because we are always helpful to Granny. I like to watch the long gray hairs burn, bright red at the ends, winding around through paper. The smell of it is nice and bad all at the same time and I like it.

In the hamper, I get nervous that if I don’t go home Momma will hit me with the paddle for coming to look for her, I wait for a while longer, which is probably only a minute or two and scramble out of the hamper, head first, hands out, the whole thing tilting behind me. I make the few steps from the hamper to the door silently. I stand on tip-toes looking out the glass-glass in Granny’s window. No one is around. Bobby, Phil, Joel and Pat are in the backfield. I grab the handle and turn it as quiet as I can. Sliding out the door, this time not running at all. They may not hear me if I walk soft. I pass through gravel, tree, dirt, broken cement, uneven stairs that creak which reminds me. Momma says they’ll need to be fixed by winter and where the hell is she going to get that money?

I’m not tall enough to see in the door window from the outside. Most times no one is home during the day but me and Momma, so I don’t feel too much worry going back into the house.

It’s quiet inside and smells of dust and plaster.

Maybe if I can sleep, I will wake up and she will be here. That’s what I’ll do, I’ll sleep, close my eyes.

To be safe, I move the couch out just a little using my hip and leg to push with force. I grab a wadded up blanket from the chair and slide behind and under the couch. The heathens can’t find me here. Momma will know to look for me if she comes home though. She knows all my hiding places. Lying there, I stare at the wall. She might be gone forever. Sleep, sleep, sleep. Sing your song. Sometimes singing makes me sleepy. Go on sing. I know that singing makes me feel better especially if I get all the words right. Where is thumbkin, where is thumbkin? I sing quietly, the words rock me back and forth. I use one finger from each hand to talk to the other.

It takes a long time to fall asleep during the day, especially if when Momma is gone forever and I don’t know where I’ll get any food. But, if I am behind the couch with a blanket it seems like a cocoon and that is good. I know I can’t get up and look at the clock because she is still not home and it makes the lie seem bigger the longer she stays away.

I pick at the plaster and at the peeling off wallpaper. No one can see it here, it’s ok if I peel it off. I won’t get yelled at. The paper is brown on the edges. It used to be tan, now its ugly and torn like someone peed on it. I am sure someone probably did or spilled some slop on it. The carpet behind the couch smells like dirt and old things. It’s red and yellow with a wavy curly design in it. It has been worn thin, even here behind the couch. Yellow fibers show through where there should be red. Sometimes the dusty smell makes me sneeze. I know how to sneeze real quiet so no one will hear me or find me back here. As long as I am hiding, no one can see me, they can’t bother me.

The creak of the door scares me, hot air streams in.


We don’t have chores in our house. We do what we’re told when we’re told to do it.  If we don’t do what we’re told, we get the paddle. No amount of whining and complaining can make a difference, although we all try it.

We are lucky though because most of the time Momma does everything and this is how I think she feels like she is taking good care of us, although we would be glad to help if it made her less anxious. She’s always worried, worried, worried – about everything.


 ~August 1975~

“Gaaddamn it, get the degreaser.  Hurry up, put the Gaaddamn degreaser in.”

I don’t know what degreaser is and I’m not sure why I should put the damn stuff in. I do know it comes in a yellow bottle.  It’s tall with ridges on the outside.  I can’t always open it quick enough and I hope Momma didn’t tighten it with her grip of steel, because if she did I’ll never get it open before she yells it again. “Put the Gaaddamn degreaser in!”

Laundry is a science to Momma and she’s always rushing around as fast, as fast as she can. With ten kids the laundry takes up the whole day and she doesn’t mind reminding us every time she does it.  She starts while the sun is still light and bright without heat and takes the sheets right out from under me while I sleep.  She does the same thing to all ten of us. Sometimes it wakes me up, but sometimes not. The older kids complain about it and fight with Momma over being woken up, but I don’t care much about getting up early, because I get to help Momma if I get up early. She doesn’t like help and I have to do things just so, because laundry is important. She says, “We might not have money, but you kids aren’t walking around dirty.” There something about being poor that makes most people dirty, but not us.

“Amy Beth, where’s the damn degreaser, quit fooling around and get over here.”

I step up on a rickety old stool and grab the cool metal cup from the shelf that is hung half-crooked, the cup slides if you don’t put in the right place, it perfectly covers a ring on the shelf from the rust on the bottom of the cup.  I’m careful while pouring.  For something named degreaser, it’s very greasy.

“Just half full not all the way full, or you’ll have to start over, don’t waste it.”

We have an old-time washing machine, a wringer washer. It’s white with a red ring painted around the middle, smooth on the outside and cool to the touch.  There are two rubber rollers on top and if you don’t watch out, your hands will get the hell pinched out of them when the rollers are rolling and squeezing the water out of the clothes. That’s what Momma says.  There is a rusty stain on the underside. I’ve tried to wash it off, but it doesn’t work, it’s stuck on there, forever and ever.  The washer stays in the back room over the basement door in the floor.  I’m glad that it hides the basement door, I think bad things are down there and all the other kids tell me so too. I will not go down there unless I am forced, that has only happened once and that time I saw a man’s butt crack, Peggy said – “See! I told you – plumber’s smile!” Staring at the backside of some guy working on our water pump.  I don’t understand what that means, but I laugh and laugh so I can get the heck out of there.

Momma and I boil water on the stove for the load of whites. Sometimes we have hot water on the tap and sometimes we don’t, because we can’t always pay our bills and even if we have hot water, she yells, “That water isn’t hot enough, boil it some more, I like my whites white! And don’t touch that pot, it will burn the hell out of you.”  It takes three giant pots of water to wash the whites.  We make one pot of hot for the colored clothes, mixed with cold water.  For dark colors or when we are lazy and don’t care if we stink and our whites are dingy, we can wash in cold, which is never.

The cold water comes from the hose, which tastes like the metal ring at the end of the hose. The hose runs from around the side of the house and we prop open the screen door to keep it from pinching the water off.  This lets the flies in, but there isn’t any other way to get the hose into the back room.  Then we spend the afternoon killing flies with the pink and white flyswatter that has a long wire handle and is covered in guts. Sometimes in a pinch Momma will swat us with the flyswatter, if the paddle isn’t close enough.

I fill the washer with hose water, turn off the water and unhook the hose from the faucet and leave it lying on the ground, but far away from the house so when the water we drain from the washer comes out, it doesn’t run back on the house and rot the foundation.  I learn a lot from Momma, she explains things as she goes along and I might not understand it all, but I am good at remembering.  I have to know everything or else someone yells about something, so it’s easier to remember everything and do what I need to do right, the first time.

Momma let’s everything soak for at least 30 minutes because we are all so Gaadamn dirty.

Once the clothes have soaked, Momma plugs the electric cord into the light bulb on the ceiling and then she lets me flip the switch that turns it on.  The washer makes a loud grinding noise and the whole backroom shakes. We let it agitate, that’s Momma’s word for swirling the clothes around, for 10 or 15 minutes; standing there not hearing another sound in the world except the grind of the washer.  After agitating, I take the end of the hose and screw it to a spout that comes out of the bottom of the washer, the spout is old and needs to be cleaned with “C Cleaner” which Momma says gets the calcium off.  We open the spout on the bottom and drain the dirty water outside through the hose.

I run outside to watch the water come out and make sure there are no hair or other clogs that back it up.  I hope with everything that there is no clod of hair that gets stuck. I almost throw up thinking about it having to touch it. The water flows dark and murky, making a trail down the dirt driveway.

Once the water has drained, we taking the sopping wet clothes and run them one by one through the wringer to squeeze out all the water.  I am not allowed to put them through the wringer. I am not old enough yet.  My job is to catch the clothes as they come out.  Momma doesn’t like them slapping onto the dirty floor when they come out all squished flat.

Then we rinse the flattened clothes by adding cold water from the hose into the washer and firing it up again.  One more time through the wringer and they are ready to hang on the line in the yard.  There are two lines, one short and one long, both run from the house to the barn, which doesn’t work like a barn anymore, it’s now just an old building full of junk and wasps.  It does have an outhouse on the side of it, but you can’t go to the bathroom in there anymore, it’s been sealed up tight.

Momma doesn’t talk much during laundry, she explains what she’s doing so I know how to do it on my own one day and she yells out things to do “Degreaser!” “Turn the hose on!”  “Now turn it off Gaaddamn it!”

Before we start hanging the clothes, we start another load to soak.

I’m not allowed to hang the clothes, because Momma says “You don’t hang things right, they’ll come out all wrinkled if you hang them, and I’m not spending the whole day ironing.  You’ve got to hang them so the breeze can get through them.”  I don’t even hang socks right, which are supposed to be easy.  My job is to hand things to Momma real fast so they don’t get too wrinkled sitting in the basket and then I take a metal pole and raise up the laundry on the wire.  It’s heavy to lift, but I can do it even when Mom yells at me not to.  I just laugh when she yells when we are in the yard, because she is too far away to smack me.  While she’s hanging the laundry I look for wasps and bugs that bite because I’m afraid of them.  If I see a wasp or a bee, I run in the house until it goes away.

“Get your ass back out here” Mom says, but I just pretend I can’t hear her.  I’d rather hear Momma yell than get stung by a wasp.


I had no idea that there is any other way to do laundry, in the winter we do go to the Laundromat sometimes, so I know that there are indoor washers and dryers, but I have no clue that someone could actually buy one and have it in their house.  I also have no idea that all my other friends are having their clothes washed inside their own house.  I assumed that everyone washes clothes like it’s 1950.

I’m sure it seems that Momma was mean to me, but I never saw it as mean, she had no patience for misunderstanding and if you did something wrong or ruined the load of wash, it could cost her hours of time.  I learned to cook the same way, trial by fire, get it right or get the hell out of the kitchen!  If you put too much salt or milk in something you were helping Momma make, it could mean none of us ate that day.  I understand why she felt like doing it herself was faster.  She was doing the best she could and for that I’m thankful.

Ham Sandwich_1978

Fight or flight – you learned it early in my family, there was no other option.

My fight or flight instinct was activated, over and over and over.  Most anything that happened was traumatic and dramatic.  In those moments, the world might have actually come crashing down. Today, I have to remind myself that life is not as dangerous as it once was and that I’m grown now and I’ve evolved into an adult and there isn’t much to be “AFRAID” of anymore. Other than the scary things, like wars, republicans, pollution, genetically modified foods…imminent danger is not always near.

Ham Sandwich

~June 1978~

I want a ham sandwich, I have asked Patrick and Bobby to make me one and they are too busy to even listen to me.  Peggy says “I have to take a shower, no time for you.” she smirks and laughs a litle, knowing I know she has all the time in the world, she just slept around 900 hours.

I can do most anything myself, but I like it better when someone else helps me, but I’ll never tell them that.

The yellowy-green refrigerator is old and rattles when it kicks on.   I sling open the door, which I can do because no one is here to tell me not to, someone is always telling me what not to do, they’d probably tell me not to make this sandwich by myself, but since they won’t help and I’m hungry, I’m doing it.  I keep the fridge wide open letting all the cool air rush around me, the marischino cherries in their sweet syrupy juice inside the glass jar in the door catch my eye. I’m not supposed to eat them, but my hand is just the right size to slip down into the jar and take only one.  My mouth watering, I look away. I know Momma will be mad at me if I keep eating those.

A giant platter, the good kind you only use on a Sunday because it has flowers on it and isn’t made of plastic, holds the ham.  Tin foil covers every inch of ham. Momma says it won’t dry out if you cover it.  She swears there is nothing worse than dry meat.

I reach in and slide my arms back and forth to get the platter onto my arms. The bottom is cool and slick.

I back up teetering under the weight of the platter, sliding my feet out to steady my balance. I turn, take a few quick steps to the chair next to the table, the platter moving me on it’s own toward the table and hike one foot up on the chair to boost it onto the table, because I am not tall enough to reach it otherwise.  I slide my arms back and forth again to rest the platter on the table.

Standing on the chair, I’m careful peeling back the foil, one tear and the meat will dry out when I put it back in the refrigerator. I hop down off the chair and step to the drawer, there’s red wallpaper behind the sink, with pretty ladies in dresses with black hair and flowers that look like they are flying all around. It’s peeling off in places, but that’s okay, looking at those ladies makes smile and not think about how the paper is peeling off.

I pull out the drawer. Loose silverware jingles, I’m not supposed to touch the big wooden-handled knife in the drawer, but ham, is a tough meat and a butter knife won’t do. That’s what Momma would say if she were here. I’m careful carrying the knife back to the table, holding it out in front of me as far as I can, the blade facing away from me, and slide it onto the table before I climb onto the vinyl-covered chair.  I hop up, and stand low and wide, I ease the knife off the table, pointing the blade away and set to sawing on the ham, back and forth trying to cut a big piece.  I can’t slide the knife all the way through the meat and have to jiggle it to keep cutting, the knife sticks and I can’t get it out of the meat.  I pull with both hands balancing on the chair.  The knife slips and jumps free.  I teeter and fall sideways, one foot forward to balance, the other lifting, moving in slow motion, trying to find balance.  My left hand slips down onto the table the right raises the knife up high. My feet lose their grip, my arms turn in wide circles and the knife lands on my head.  I feel a sting. The knife slides right through skin and then I feel blood.  For the longest second everything is still and quiet and blood is leaking down my face. I drop the knife from my hand as if it is hot, open my mouth and scream, my tongue lolling and body shaking, I scream and scream.  “I cut my eye! I cut my eye!  I cut my eye!”

Peggy runs out of the bathroom – naked. I stare with only one eye.  She is 15 and has boobs and I have never seen naked boobs before.  I want to look away, but her pink round boobs are staring at me.  She has hair between her legs. For one second I want to laugh, but remember I have just stabbed myself in the head, my head throbs and I forget laughing about her hair.

“My eye!” I yell at her “My eye!” in case it wasn’t clear enough through my sobs.

She scrambles toward me across the plywood floor, water streaking behind her, her wet hair flat against her head.  She grabs a dish towel, her hands grab my head and mushes it onto my eye.  A throbbing headache settles into my left eye.

I am crying, sobbing and sucking in breath while still screaming.

“My eye, my eye, I cut my eye!”

“Shhh, shhh, shhh.” She says to me quietly, rocking just a little. It feels like Momma.

I lay my head against her naked shoulder, sniffling and crying.

I want her to put clothes on but my head hurts too bad to ask her.

She pulls me down off the chair holding the towel on my head.

“Let’s go in the bathroom, so I can get dressed and we’ll get a washcloth.”

Momma’s answer to most anything is a wet washcloth and now it’s Peggy’s and mine too.

I’m lightheaded and sick in the back of my throat.  My throat is closing up.  She steers me toward the bathroom, because I’m squeezing my eyes shut.  I don’t want to see the blood.

She pushes me down and I sit on the soft shag cover of the toilet.

She pulls my hand up and presses it on the towel.

“Hold this right there.  Press hard so it stops bleeding.” She’s not being so nice anymore. She’s like that, sometimes she’s meaner than mean and sometimes she’s nice, I never know which one she’s going to be.

“My eye!” I’m still yelling over and over and crying.

“Shut up!” she yells back at me with a heavy pause in between the words.

“You’re not dead, let me get my clothes on and we’ll look at it.”

I stop yelling like she says and sit stiff, holding the towel as hard as I can against my head. I’d stuff the entire towel inside my head if it would make the blood and the hurt stop.

I hear her slipping pants on and shuffling around.

I know I’m blind for sure and will have to wear a patch over the place where my eye has been taken out. I’ll be teased by people and asked stupid questions about what happened. “I’m wearing a patch, what do you think happened?” I’ll say matter of fact.

“Ok, let me see” She kneels down in front of me, touching my knee, her clothes brushing against me.

“No, I don’t want it to bleed anymore.” I know she has to look at it. Someone always has to look at it.  I want her to wrap my entire head in gauze with the wet washcloth and let me lie on the couch until it heals.

“Amy, take the towel off, I need to look at it and see if you need stitches.” She says firm but not mean.

“No! No! No! I’m not going to the hospital. You can’t make me, I’m not going!”  My sister Jenny once went to the hospital to visit old Mr. Micky when he was dying and she passed right out and smacked her teeth into the marble wall outside the elevator, so hard that they left a dent in the marble and knocked her teeth out.  I can’t imagine what will happen to me.

She grabs my hand and pulls the towel off holding my chin with her other hand.

“Sit still damn it.”

It stings and I know the blood is pouring out.

I want to run away from her and bleed to death somewhere else.

“It’s not that bad Amy. It’s not that bad.” Softly again.

She leans us both into the tub and turns on the water.

She pulls a washcloth off the side of the tub, wets it and puts over my eye and pulls my hand back up to hold it.

My shoulders shake each time I cry.

My eyes are still pressed shut.  She stands me up and pushes me into the living room, but I drag my feet.

“Let’s go look at it in the mirror in Mom’s room, you’ll see it’s not so bad. I promise.”

Her hand in the middle of my back she pushes me until we are in front of the mirror in Momma’s room.

She takes my hand down from the towel. I keep my eyes closed.  I am afraid to look at it.

“Open your eyes, it’s not that bad Amy” I turn my head.

“No, I don’t want to see.”

“It’s just above your eye Amy, it’s not that deep, it’s ok, you can look.”

“No!  I don’t want to. I want Momma.”

“Ok, I can’t leave you here like this, please look, it’s not that bad and then I’ll go look for Mom.”

“I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I want Momma!”

“Calm down, you little freak. Just look at the damn thing, you’re not going to die.”

I feel light-headed and a pain in my chest, and a dark black hole in the middle of my neck.

I have to look.

My head is down, I open my right eye and there is blood on the floor.  I am in trouble for that for sure. I want to run.

Peggy raises my chin with her hand and moves in front of me.  She touches my forehead. I feel her breath on my cheek. Her wet hair smells of strawberry Suave shampoo.  I love strawberries.

“When I count to 10, open your other eye and look in the mirror.”

“Ok” I whisper.

She moves to the side of me,

“1, 2, 3” I stiffen

“4, 5, 6, 7, 8” I squeeze my eyes shut as hard as I can

“9, 10, ok look.”

Ready, I sigh, open my eyes and shut them again.  I catch a glimpse of myself.  Blood is smeared around my face.

I open again and look. I hold my breath.

I lean in and look.

My eyebrow is split wide open with white bone underneath.

I turn away and run in circles screaming, my arms and legs flying this way and that.

“You lied! You lied!  I can see the bone! I can see the bone!” I’m running so fast I get dizzy.

She runs around after me, with the bloody washcloth, catching me, shoving me against the dresser and clamps the rag back on my split open head. It aches and throbs.

“Calm down Amy.”

“Liar! Liar! I’m telling Momma you’re a liar, I want Momma”

“Ok” she pushes me into the living room, “Sit your ass on the couch and hold that washcloth on your head and I’ll go find her.”

“You can’t leave me alone, I’m bleeding to death”

“You need stitches, so I have to go find her, there isn’t anyone else to stay with you, I’ll just be a minute.” I don’t believe her and don’t want her to go, a minute lasts hours sometimes.

Sucking my stomach in and out, I cry into the bloody wet rag. Blood smells like the monkey bars at school. I don’t want to die.

I hear the door slam as Peggy leaves.  My eyes are shut.

I wait and wait and wait and wait for what seems like hours, tears leaking out of my good eye.  Pressing the rag against my head as hard as I can.  It hurts and the blood keeps seeping through onto my hands.


There is more blood than I think you are supposed to lose out of your body.  I learn at the hospital that cuts on the face bleed more than anywhere else on the body.  It’s even more stressful than it should be, because we don’t have a car and Momma has to ask around for someone to take us to the emergency room, which takes even more time and me crying out “My eye!” When someone finally to take us to the hospital, I lay in the back of the car and cry while we drive.  I end up with 3 stitches and leave the bandaid on for weeks. Momma yells at me to take it off and eventually just rips it of my head one day after my bath, because I would not dare remove it. EVER.  The stitches are taken out a little too late, by our neighbor Mrs. Faust, who used to be a nurse. This too is traumatic and dramatic, someone having to hold me down to get them out. Everything is complicated. Always.


I’ve been hesitating lately at putting any new memoir writing sessions up, but I said I would and that’s what I’m going to do, hopefully the path will continue to unfold as I move along through this process.  Not sure why this piece of writing is what I posted, but it’s the piece I kept coming back to, so it’s here now.

This is my third grade photo, if you look above my left eye, you’ll see the scar.  I still have it today, it’s just a lot smaller, or my head’s a lot bigger. Maybe both. And that’s the point right? Hopefully as we learn and grow and distance ourselves from a traumatic event, we can heal ourselves. I used to think this story was 100% funny, but now I have compassion for both me and my sister for having had this experience.

Peter Levine in Waking the Tiger says: Traumatic symptoms are physiological as well as psychological…trauma represents animal instincts gone awry. When harnessed, these instincts can be used by the conscious mind to transform traumatic symptoms into a state of well-being.

We don’t have to be victims. We can heal ourselves.