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Introducing the latest issue

March 18, 2019

 

It seems fitting that our issue is being released this week because this Thursday is Persian New Year. For Iranians, Noruz is celebrated on the first day of spring, which is something I have always loved. If the new year that began in January isn’t really turning out so good, if all those promises I had hoped to keep for myself end up dropping one by one like rotting fruit on trees, then that protracted year was ending (in some sense) and I could get a do-over, a whole other New Year to try again. In March, on the first day of spring no less, I was given a second chance to reinstate the resolutions I couldn’t conquer before: quit biting my nails, write more, eat healthier, write more, spend less money, write more (you know how this goes).

 

Springtime also represents renewal and change, a reminder from the entire Earth to celebrate growth. Punctuate.has also been growing, and changing, and we eagerly look for what summers will follow our springs. But first, we’d like to thank T. Clutch Fleischmann for being a critical resource and dedicated reader as our Book Reviews Editor from 2015-2018. We’d also like to thank Ian Morris for his tireless work as Managing Editor and congratulate him on his new position as a writer at Coalition Technologies.

 

Since 2019, Cora Jacobs has handled Punctuate.as our Managing Editor and continues to manage Columbia Poetry Reviewand Hair Trigger, which are some of our sister publications. This year we also have Juliana Ravelli (Assistant Managing Editor) and Andrew Krzak (Editorial Assistant).

To celebrate Noruz, Iranians lay out a sofre. On the sofre, which is usually an elaborately embroidered cloth, my family sets out seven items such as apples to represent health and beauty; eggs (which we also decorated for Easter) to represent fertility; and a small green plant called a sabzi for rebirth. Taken together, all the items represent some aspect of spring and the wishes we hope will come true in the new year.

 

In this issue, our sofre is laid out with different prose to convey how expansive and ever-evolving the nonfiction genre can be.

 

We are privileged to be publishing Elizabeth Kadestsky’s first nonfiction comics, which is accompanied by a Q&A with Juliana discussing how Kadetsky rediscovered visual, semi-textual modes of storytelling. Jane Babson’s “Lost and Re-Found” maps the terrain of memory alongside a meditation on her son’s Chromosome 7. In “Birth Story,” Kirsten Voris juxtaposes her birth with a disjunctive timeline of her mother’s life. Our last feature “For Sale: Death and Coyote Jaws,” by Laura Manardo, is poignant and powerful as she recounts the time her therapist advised her to do something that scared her.

 

“Out of the ash/I rise with my red hair/And I eat men like air” are the last lines to Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus,” and Columbia College Chicago alum Negesti Kaudo interviews Piper J. Daniels (also a CCC alum) on Ladies Lazarus, her award-winning collection of essays from Tarpaulin Sky. They discuss Daniels’ relationship to Plath and how her collection of essays, too, went through several rebirths — from suicide note to monograph to hybrid work.

 

If you come back on April 1, we’ll also be publishing two book reviews: Gretchen Lida reviews Randon Billings Noble’s Be with Me Always(University of Nebraska Press) and Kelsey Hoff covers The Collected Schizophrenias (Graywolf Press) by Esme Weijun Wang.

 

Another thing I love about celebrating the Persian New Year is that it conveys a certain looseness to time. Although it is 2019 in the Gregorian calendar, one can also follow the official calendar in Iran, the Solar Hijri, where it’s 1397 (that is, until March 21, 2019, when the year turns to 1398). Additionally, the new year is never fixed on one day, but rather, the new year changes because the first day of spring always changes. More specifically, the new year oscillates between the March 19-22 range. In this sense, time (or Time) is not an absolute; instead, it embodies and is embodied across a spectrum where one can shift through different modes and interpretations.

 

Genre, I believe, works similarly to time. Although the concept of “genre” can be used as a totalizing force, as yet another method to create, retain, and even reify the salience of categories, nonfiction reveals again and again that its variation cannot be contained.

 

In conjunction with our book reviews, interviews and blog posts, we want to work with our writers and readers to cultivate this endlessly growing field of nonfiction. We hope you join us.

 

Noruz mobarak!

S. Ferdowsi

Assistant Managing Editor, 2015-present

Essays

Elizabeth Kadetsky

March 17, 2019

To see Elizabeth Kadetsky’s comics in full view, click below:

Elizabeth KADETSKY comic1

 

 

_________________________

Elizabeth Kadetsky is author of a memoir (First There Is a Mountain, Little Brown), a story collection (The Poison that Purifies You, C&R Press) and a novella (On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World, Nouvella). Her fiction has been included in the Pushcart Prizes, Best New American Voices, and in Love Stories For Turbulent Times — a best of the previous 25 years of the Pushcart Prize, and her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Antioch Review, and many other venues. She is nonfiction editor at New England Review and associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. This is her first published comic.

Interviews

Punctuate in Conversation with Piper Daniels, author of Ladies Lazarus

March 17, 2019

 

Piper J. Daniels, whose work has been published in Hotel Amerika and The Rumpus (among others), spent over a decade working on her debut collection, Ladies Lazarus. Her collection won the 2017 Tarpaulin Sky Press Book Award and was longlisted for the 2018 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for Art of the Essay.

For Daniels, the collection began as a suicide letter and over time morphed into a cataloguing, or rather a series, of works and ideas that gave her reason to stay alive. Infused with lyricism and enlightened with research, Daniels’ essays show her at her most vulnerable as she guides readers through difficult subjects, and she resurrects the haunted girls, women, and poets who no longer have a voice. She invokes the work of Anne Carson, Kafka, Rumi, and even Columbia College Chicago’s own David Trinidad. As readers journey with Daniels on her way to finding herself through essays, they encounter subjects and characters that may make them uncomfortable or sad, but at the end of each piece, more informed and knowledgeable on mental illness and experiencing violence.

I consider this book a must read, for those of us wishing to know more about the world around us and the essay form. It’s rare that we encounter narratives of mental illness or suicide from queer and other marginalized voices, but Daniels spent many years rectifying this. Moreover, Ladies Lazarus deconstructs the typical essay form by hybridizing lyric essay and research essay into one, thereby presenting us with fresher narratives. Each essay is aware of itself, its role, and its place in the collection, and passionately examines the intersections of feminism, queerness, violence, mental illness, and artistry.

Over the phone, Piper J. Daniels talked with Columbia alumni Negesti Kaudo MFA ’18 about the formation of Ladies Lazarus, the influence of Sylvia Plath, and her relationship to the essay.

Can you discuss the process of making the book—which essays came first and last?

The driving force of the book was the first essay “Sirens,” which took me ten years to get right. I began it as a suicide letter. I really wanted to advocate for the reasons people kill themselves—which sounds a bit crazy, but that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to explain so that people would understand why it’s not a selfish thing to do and why I was choosing to do it. As I wrote the book, I sort of talked myself out of killing myself. [“Sirens”] set the tone for the book and was the reason why I thought I had anything I could offer anyone else. And it went from there.

When I submitted the book to Tarpaulin Sky, I had a solid little collection of essays, but they wanted me to make the book a little bit longer, so I returned to some of the things I hadn’t included. The last two essays I worked on were “The Twist” and “The Return of Hunger.” “The Return of Hunger” was fairly easy. It was based on all I had focused on as a feminist.

“The Twist” was really . . . tricky. Because it was a bit more journalistic and there was more research. I was concerned about the validity of the sources. I wasn’t writing about myself. I was writing about the experiences of other people—children and vulnerable populations. I was very concerned about getting it right and not being exploitative. It took me so long, and it was so frustrating. But once it was done, [Ladies Lazarus] did feel like a book.

At one point, you refer to the Sylvia Plath poem, “Lady Lazarus,” which is reflected in the title of your collection and the title essay. How is your book in conversation with Sylvia Plath?

I think with a book-length cohesive manuscript in mind, it’s always really dangerous to hyper-focus on [connection], because you end up ruling out all these strange and interesting things that might have entered the book otherwise. I was very careful about not being too cohesive. One of the most amazing things about literary collage is that everything is related and comes together in surprising ways when you let connections emerge. I’m always fascinated by the way that happens. There are threads throughout the book that tie it together. Sylvia Plath is a huge thread. Sometimes there’s more of an emotional or tonal way, a choice of language or diction, that unites the book.

Obviously, Sylvia Plath is a huge influence to both your life and your writing career. Can you talk about that relationship?

From a very early age, I experienced symptoms of mental illness, though that is not what I called it at the time. I always felt strange and isolated. There was this time in a bookstore—I think I was twelve—and I overheard two women talking about, “Oh, Sylvia Plath was crazy. She put her head in an oven. Why would anyone read her?” And it lit me up inside. I was like, “Stuck her head in an oven?!” I was so intrigued.

I started rooting through her work, and I was a little young to fully grasp the content, but I remember feeling a) that I met someone who was kindred to me and b) what I was feeling was okay and that it would actually be a good thing and give me something to offer.

Sylvia Plath had this ability, despite what she was working with, to excel and become this extremely important person to poetry and to the world, so I think that has been and continues to be a driving force for me. She is this incredible example of a person who had a severe mental illness and also managed to be such a star student and wife and mother—and one might say those are the things that killed her in the end—but she was such an overachiever, so driven and successful, and she managed to do her own work and then type up her husband’s.

Was there a specific thought or feeling you wanted to evoke in your readers?

On the subjects of mental illness and sexual assault, I was interested in having calm, honest conversations with people who might judge someone. Other books about mental illness felt off to me; they were poorly written, very narcissistic, perpetuating this idea of a mentally ill person that I don’t think is useful to anyone, especially people who might be trying to understand a loved one. So, I wanted to bridge the gap because it was important to me that if I was going to write about being mentally ill and I was going to write about suicide, that the person reading it on the other side (who may not have experienced either) would come away with a more compassionate, informed understanding.

I’ve been amazed by the feedback I’ve received from people who are outside of the book’s experiences who have written me to say that they understand now in a different way. I think that’s a really amazing result and I’m so grateful.

I want everything I write to be some kind of lifeline because to me, that’s the point: the human condition, the loneliness we all feel and the doubts we have about ourselves. I wanted to be certain that I was reaching out to people in a sincere way and inviting them to read the book as a person with whom I have a genuinely loving connection.

Do you consider yourself a lyricist?

Absolutely, I would be happy to call myself a lyricist. I think the lyric essay is incredible and I’m really excited going forward because it feels to me that we’re in this new place where finally the right people—queer people, people of color, indigenous people, disabled people—are getting the microphone. Because of that, we don’t have to adhere to norms in terms of narrative or language. We can do our own brand new, beautiful thing.

I was really lucky to have this education as an undergraduate where I had David Lazar, who is incredible. He has the most encyclopedic knowledge of the essay of anyone on the planet. He was able to guide me, and at the same time, I had Jenny Boully, who’s this amazing lyric essayist. Being able to have those teachers at the same time made me the writer I am. Then I went to graduate school and worked with David Shields, who’s a collage writer, and very orchestral about the way he composes. He’s a very conceptually rich writer.

So, I had this triad of the most amazing influences and it made me really interested in being able to take from here, take from there, and leave the rest. I’m really interested in writing lyrically, but I also want to be sure that I’m making bold, educated, and forward-moving formal choices. It can’t just be about form and it can’t just be about content; and it can’t just be about language and lyricism; it has to be this full package in the way those things interact with one another.

Sometimes in the book, you write with an objective voice, especially in “The Twist” and “The Sylvia Plath Effect,” both of which I loved. In these moments, it’s as if you’re presenting a dissertation on mental illness, girl/womanhood and art/work ethic. Did you feel there were some topics you needed to approach objectively?

I think emotional distance is one hundred percent required in the essay. Even if I’m writing about something that has nothing to do with me, I tend to connect with it emotionally, so I always try to be very careful. I think there are people (like Anne Carson) who have that down so perfectly. I’m still learning.

I had a daily schedule in order to finish Ladies Lazarus and there were days I would cry at my desk because it was emotionally draining to write. I wanted to be certain I was bringing in things that were interesting, that were historically, intellectually, or psychologically removed from my experience, so I had to balance my emotional response with my impulse to go into this traditional essayist mode. But I mean, there’s not a lot of lightheartedness in the book. It’s not a poolside read for everybody.

In the essay “The Moon, from the Bitter Cold of Outer Space, Croons to the Griddle of the desert,” you quote Jericho Parms’ definition of pilgrimage: “. . . as an act that asks the body to journey for the soul.” I found, while reading this collection as a whole, that it moves like a pilgrimage, with you and the reader coming to understand the intersection of womanhood, mental illness, violence, and more. Do you consider Ladies Lazarus to be a pilgrimage?

Absolutely. In so many ways, desperately, yes. I did a lot of traveling and moving and trying to figure out who the fuck I was and who I was supposed to be, and I still don’t know. It’s all a pilgrimage. If we’re lucky, we grow and improve incrementally. Sometimes when we look back, we’re surprised that we’re still around and still moving ahead. As a human being, writer, partner, friend, and person trying to figure out my political and religious beliefs, it was a very long journey. This book is about surviving and finding my way—essay by essay, paragraph by paragraph sometimes—to convince myself that I was a writer, that I was worthy of being here, that I still had things to contribute. I think I really struggled, but I know so many people who are going through it bravely and fiercely and beautifully, and I really admire that.

 

Interview by Negesti Kaudo

Negesti Kaudo is an essayist based in the Midwest. She earned her MFA at Columbia College Chicago in 2018 and her work has been published in Seneca Review, Wear Your Voice Magazine, IDK Magazine, NewCity, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere.

Interviews

Punctuate in Conversation with Elizabeth Kadetsky

March 17, 2019

Elizabeth Kadetsky is not afraid of venturing into the varied ways of storytelling or to different parts of the world. She is the author of a memoir First There Is a Mountain (2004), a story collection The Poison that Purifies You (2014), and a novella On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World (2015). An associate professor of fiction and nonfiction at Penn State, Kadetsky is publishing her first graphic essay in Punctuate. In this interview, she shares her thoughts and experiences about writing in diverse genres; traveling; and yoga.

 

Juliana Ravelli: Your work in this month’s issue of Punctuate. is your first published comic, right? When did you start writing and designing comic and graphic essays? How and when did you start working on this form?

 

Elizabeth Kadetsky: A few years back, I wanted to get back into drawing, and I had a crazy idea to revisit and write about this place where I’d studied art in Greenwich Village as a teenager with my mother. Well, that idea didn’t take off because I realized that it would be much cheaper to audit a drawing class [where I teach] at my university, Penn State, instead. My teacher turned out to be a wonderful artist and graduate student from China who drew Manga. I showed her some sketches that I’d been doing from photographs, images of family members with text scrawled in the white spaces, and she suggested that I work on a comic. I had an aha! moment: I shouldn’t be writing about drawing, I should be drawing (and writing) that story about Greenwich Village and my mother. I’ve been working on that graphic memoir ever since—I had no idea the difficulty of the task I’d set for myself.

The other thing I’d recently dove into without ever accepting its difficulty was motherhood. Suddenly I had long stretches of time with my baby during which I didn’t have the presence of mind to practice my usual craft, writing. I was suffering sleep deprivation and could barely string together sentences—I think it was a fairly normal postpartum, a-verbal, semi-psychosis. It was as if language had left me. But I was able to draw and paint. I painted birds over and over, and number cards to photograph with my baby to mark the monthly anniversaries of his birth, which was four and a half years ago.

Living with a young child makes your world more visual. Language becomes more elemental—you see the world through the eyes of someone glimpsing it for the first time. As my son grew older, I encountered the rich text/image world of children’s literature and wonderful artist-writers such as Oliver Jeffers and Molly Bang. Now my son and I are reading Tintin and the original Batman’s.

I love existing in the space and flow of visual art. The mind attuned to visual art is so different from the one that writes—it is less linear; it requires long pauses; it doesn’t require one to formulate a literal idea and keep it in the head over a long stretch. I’d always loved the idea of a non-verbal mind space, and over the years, I had used drawing and drawing classes as a kind of meditation and escape from regular life. As a teen, drawing had been my first love, but I’d shied from art school. Today it’s back in style thanks to comics.

 

JR: Could you tell us about how you came up with the idea for your piece in Punctuate.?

 

EK: I was participating in a panel on text/image memoir at the NonFictioNOW conference, and I started “graphic note-taking” at the other panels and talks. I’d seen people doing this earlier in the year when I attended the Comics and Medicine Conference at the Comics Studies Society in White River Junction, Vermont. There, the organizers set aside seats at each panel for “graphic note-takers,” and there was a hashtag for their uploads. The conference also had an official graphic note-taker. When I looked over my notes from NonFictioNOW, I realized I should publish some, especially since it would give me a break from my longer project–not to mention feel good to finish something.

 

JR: What are the challenges of a comic/graphic essay? How, for instance, do you play with conciseness, drawings, text, and the arrangement of these elements on the page?

 

EK: It’s its own form, that’s for sure. There’s always so much less room for text than I expect there to be; the prose writer has to condense beyond comfort. Of course, if I don’t want to condense, I can always add another page and spread out. The give-and-take between writing and drawing is fun and dynamic. Adding another page because there’s not enough room for the text must be the craft equivalent of writing oneself into a corner and then drawing oneself out of it. Shifting brain-modes from writing to drawing and then back again provides a healthy mental calisthenics.

 

JR: You worked as a journalist, and you write fiction, personal essays, and comic/graphic essays. What motivates you to venture into all these different genres?

 

EK: It’s been intuitive, but I do really admire other artists who constantly shift modes, and are open to the modes that are getting the most attention at whatever moment. If you have a story to tell, the goal is to find an audience for that story. The mainstream publishing industry has gone bankrupt a dozen times and in a dozen different ways since I started publishing my writing. It’s terrible to feel trapped in the idea that there is only one outlet for one’s creativity. Writers have historically been at the mercy of publishing and production trends.

So, I admire writer friends who have gone into film or even TV. If TV is experiencing a renaissance, why not apply your craft in that field, where you’ll encounter other inspiring artists and gain support for your most creative output? Not that I’m going into TV. But in a weird way comics feel very vital right now—I have no qualms about trying to hop on that train.

 

JR: How do the different experiences that you have in writing influence one another?

 

EK: Journalism teaches pragmatism—the clear sentence, the chronological storyline, economy of prose, writing on deadline, overcoming perfectionism, developing a thick skin for feedback. It’s a great training for any writer.

Working visually teaches metaphor. In a comic, when you want to depict your character as birdlike, you draw her as a bird. It’s kind of obvious, but getting your writer brain to think of metaphor as real pushes your imagination. Even in nonfiction, one can probably take greater creative liberties than one thinks. The blank canvas is unencumbered—one has to think in several dimensions, and directions, at once—not just left to right, up and down, and within a palette of just 26 letters. If I think of my character as a bird, and I mean in text, why shouldn’t I get her squawking on the page?

 

JR: Traveling is a huge part of your life, right? In which moment did you find out that you wanted to know the world? And what are your memories about your first trip abroad? When did it happen?

 

EK: That is such a great question! It happened when I was nineteen and I was majoring in Latin American Studies. I got it in my head that I wanted to go to Cuba because of some of the films and writing in my classes. I found a program to send me there for free—it was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization—and I was chosen as one of a team of two Canadians and two US citizens to act as mediators between Marxists and Christians out in the fields, planting yucca trees.

Someday I will go back and rewrite (or draw) the diary I kept from that one-month trip. It was a life-altering, coming-of-age journey, in part because Communism had so completely shaped the culture of that place that there was hardly any common ground between my hosts and me. At the time, the US embargo on Cuba was total and included a news blackout going both ways. As it turned out, I knew nothing about the lives of the people there, and they knew nothing about mine—there had been a misinformation campaign on both ends. And yet, there was music, dancing, and singing bringing us together, things that transcended politics.

I remember coming home and having to break up with my boyfriend at the time because I’d changed so much as a person. Then, for several months, I was very depressed, wanting to get back to that feeling of living life so fully moment to moment, having heated discussions about every little thing, questioning and debating everything down to one’s most minute daily habits.

 

JR: Many of your trips are connected to your work, your writing. What is the difference between traveling for writing and traveling as a tourist? Is there a place that you have been to but haven’t used in your writing?

 

EK: I love this question, too, because it forces me to take stock. As a writer, one must always be working, but, in life, sometimes the imagination and the urge to document shuts down—from exhaustion, or overload. I can’t remember ever taking a trip and not feeling that I had to come away with something to say and write from it, but in reality, many of my work and vacation trips have yielded nothing aside from greater wisdom (one hopes).

I can’t even say I gained relaxation because it’s so stressful to feel one should be writing or interviewing instead of sitting on that beach. I think back on trips I took to Egypt, Morocco, Israel, and Spain as not having been particularly fruitful even though they were meant to be.

The work of the writer who travels, really, is to shake things up in one’s mind. Obviously, the outsider is not going to be the last word on any place she or he encounters. I remember reading Thomas Pynchon’s V, set in Malta, one time when I was feeling very stuck while spending the summer in Nicaragua working and presumably writing my senior thesis for college.

Later, I published a novella set in Malta, so perhaps it wasn’t a waste. Recently I recovered an old photo of myself reading The Brothers Karamazov in a hotel in Spain during a trip where I felt completely aimless, but Dostoyevsky taught me so much as a writer, and when else would I have had time to read him? I read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest in France, and that book was life changing for me.

 

JR: Aside from the stories themselves (characters, settings, etc.), in what other ways does traveling influence your craft?

 

EK: Traveling ratchets up the desperation impulse, at least for me. The finances of it all can be terrifying. Most of my international trips have been seat-of-the-pants—funding the plane fare by subletting my apartment, living on the largesse of a boyfriend’s language-study grant, stringing together freelance magazine assignments and arts residency fellowships. Even when I had the Fulbright grant to India to study and write about yoga, I had no home, job, or bank account to soften the landing when I came home.

That feeling of living on the edge can either make things feel exaggerated with meaning and importance, or simply crushing. Luckily the former describes most of my trips. I would say that each piece of successful writing that I’ve come away with from abroad bestows upon its protagonist either that desperation (in fiction), or an all-consuming and worry-obliterating single-mindedness and focus on a topic (in nonfiction).

 

JR: You lived a year in India working with Yogi BKS Iyengar and from this experience you wrote First There is a Mountain. In which ways do you apply yoga to your craft?

 

EK: Studying and researching yoga in India taught me to think of yoga as a kind of hygiene, a practical approach to living. A man I met at the Krishnamurthi Foundation in Chennai put it this way: “Yoga is like brushing your teeth. You do it every day. If you don’t do it one day, then you don’t eat that day.” Lately I do the yoga poses less than before because of injuries, but I exercise and meditate pretty much daily.

What I learned about focus and concentration from yoga applies to writing. And let’s face it, yoga, as we know it, even the Indian version, is an amalgam of dozens of Eastern and Western philosophies and ancient and modern practices, including psychotherapy and Jack Lalanne fitness. It’s all really a mash-up. So, yoga, mindfulness, techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy—call them what you like, on a good day, they completely shape how I live and write and work. Concretely, they help me attain the cognitive sharpness and flexibility to be creative—to make mental leaps, to silence the self-editor within, to take risks.

 

JR: What are your next literary and travel adventures?

 

EK: Funny you should ask! I recently found out that I was awarded my second Fulbright research grant to India for the 2019–2020 school year. The award is to research a novel dealing with the politics of cultural patrimony surrounding antiquities ownership and preservation. I don’t think anyone would mind if I came away with comics reporting on the topic. Whoops! Don’t tell anyone I said that. I’m definitely bringing my drawing pads, pencils, erasers, India ink, and brushes—and Photoshop. I hope I can find a scanner.

 

 

 

Juliana Ravelli is the Assistant Managing Editor for Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine.

 

 

 

____________________

Elizabeth Kadetsky is the author of a memoir (First There Is a Mountain, Little Brown), a story collection (The Poison that Purifies You, C&R Press) and a novella (On the Island at the Center of the Center of the World, Nouvella). Her fiction has been included in the Pushcart Prize, Best New American Voices, and in Love Stories For Turbulent Times — a best of the previous 25 years of the Pushcart Prize, and her personal essays have appeared in the New York Times, Antioch Review, and many other venues. She is nonfiction editor at New England Review and associate professor of creative writing at Penn State University. This is her first published comic. 

 

Essays

Laura Manardo

March 17, 2019

For Sale: Death and Coyote Jaws

I woke up on a Friday morning hungover, and walked, blue Gatorade in hand, toward Andersonville. Today, on purpose, I would step into Woolly Mammoth Antiques and Oddities for the first time. I had been in pursuit of finding myself again. My therapist recommended that I go somewhere, do something that scared me but did not put me in danger. I remember being troubled by the exterior of the shop even before my assault. I think my therapist wanted me to feel capable of conquering something.

The mile walk was hot and my thighs stuck together with sweat as I got closer to the shop. A man on a bike stopped on the street next to me and stared me up and down.

“Hey baby,” he said. I looked at the ground and walked ahead.

It was difficult to walk anywhere alone since last Fall.

“Honey,” he said, pedaling to stay at my pace. “Sweetheart, don’t ignore me.” The heat of the day was coming and I felt it in my gut. The man biked away.

“Safe,” I thought.

I had planned it so I’d arrive at noon, right when they opened, but at Clark and Foster my heart had begun to beat out of my chest. I stopped at the intersection and held myself for a whole minute before walking into Woolly Mammoth.

The sign on the door read CLOSED, but the door was open. The lights were out and no one was inside. No living things. Only dead. An eight-legged baby pig in a jar filled with formaldehyde. A “real two-headed cow” named Brussel Sprouts.

I’ve always been fascinated by death. When my great uncle Andy died, I was nine years old and my mother hates when I bring it up, but I touched his face in the casket. I remember the aunts gasping. My mother yanked me up and took me quickly out of the church, passing amused cousins in the back. My excuse was that I was grabbing his nose like he always grabbed mine, but I knew better. I wanted to feel the face of a man who was no longer inside his body.

I surprised myself by whispering, “Hello?” inside the shop. No one answered. I half expected the two-faced cow to moo at me, half expected the piglet to squeal. I took out my phone and snapped a picture of Brussel Sprouts. He looked sad. Or they did? Did the cow have one brain or two? And is it the heart or the brain that makes us singular? Where does the soul sit?

A man’s voice said, “No pictures,” and I looked to the back of the shop. He had a receding hairline and a thin voice. I apologized and watched as he turned the lights on, illuminating more of the once living. He walked to the front of the store and, half-closing the door, flipped the sign to OPEN. I thought in that moment that he was shutting the door, that he would punish me for taking pictures of the creatures that didn’t have a voice. I looked around for a weapon. I am always looking around for weapons. “Just in case,” I tell myself. Just in case.

In front of me, behind glass, sat a “REAL SHRUNKEN HEAD” named Lenny. Lenny sat just above a bin full of coyote jaw bones. I thought I’d smash my hand through the glass, grab Lenny, and chuck it at the man if he tried anything. I saw that the man wasn’t shutting the door, wasn’t going to hurt me, and so I was temporarily safe. I took one of the coyote jaws in my hand and felt the weight of it.

I have temporomandibular joint disorder. My jaw locks. It started six years ago and is made worse by stress. I haven’t been able to make my jaw stop clicking when I speak, eat, breath, since my assault and I wondered if the coyote who once lived with the jaw in my hand had ever experienced fear as great as being held to a bed and told to take it or die. This coyote died.

I turned around to the man staring at me and decided to ask him how he’d acquired these items.

“I go everywhere for them,” he said.

Sometimes when I feel unsafe in the presence of a man, I feel the need to talk to him, to

reveal my human-like qualities, to make him realize that there is someone inside my body. The man smiled with half of his mouth.

I walked over toward the register and noticed more little bins of oddities: “Real human teeth” for $10, “Dentures” for $15 or two for $28, and “Lucky Raccoon Penis Bones” for $14 each. The penis bones were curved, thin, long. I didn’t want to touch them, didn’t want to look at them. Nowadays, anything phallic makes me feel dirty, makes me remember having to throw away my blood-stained comforter. I couldn’t shower for a long time after getting home from the hospital. I couldn’t touch myself. I pulled out my phone to check the time and the man touched my shoulder.

“No pictures,” he said again, this time hitting the end of “pictures” harder, brasher. It made me want to cry. I didn’t tell him that I wasn’t going to take a picture, that I was just checking for the time, that I was trying to feel anything but death and the fear of it around me, but I didn’t. I turned around and walked out of the shop feeling his hand on my shoulder the entire walk back to my apartment.

 

_________________________

Laura Manardo is an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago for Creative Writing/Fiction in her second year of coursework. She received her BA at Kalamazoo College in 2015. She primarily writes stories that border the strange about love and people’s quest to find it. This is her first non-fiction publication.

Essays

Jane Babson

March 17, 2019

 

Lost and Re-found

It may well be true that my son David’s Chromosome 7 is partly responsible for an

overnight journey to Lost Lake in the Mt. Hood National Forest that I recently took with him

and his staff, Jose.  I say this because Chromosome 7 has been studied quite a bit and various

developmental disorders may be linked to its genetic material being displaced, or lost, or

shuffled, or even repeated.  It’s easy for me to blame his condition on something, so I do,

though, of course, it may not be true.

 

Chromosome 7 represents 5 – 5.5% of the total DNA in our cells.

 

5% may not seem like a lot, but it is the 7th longest chromosome with maybe 900 – 1500

coding genes depending on whose site you read, so no turning your back on this guy. Here we

were then, away from the city and the group home where David resides in order to show him

new adventures, to shake off any lurking genetic-fate, to make his life look like other

people’s.

This particular Lost Lake in the Upper Hood River Valley, Oregon, is not lost, for it

never goes away, or disappears. It can always be found at the end of a very long and windy road.

There is, however, another Lost Lake in this same state. This one is in the Willamette National

Forest and is so named because it really does disappear into three holes in the ground.  The

Spring run-offs fill the Lake, but by Autumn there is mostly a dry meadow, for there is no more

mountain water to replenish what is lost. It’s not a duplicate lake at all then, just truer to its

duplicate name. Go figure.

 

According to the Human Genome Project, when the genetic region on Chromosome 7,
called 7q11.23, is duplicated, Autism-like traits and language problems are the 
result.

 

David’s absence of spoken language, his low-functioning Autism, require that two

people accompany him for long drives and sleepaways, so it’s not lost on me that his 7q11.23

could be why we made this journey. Jose and I had no way of knowing if he really wanted to go,

but he is the reason why we did go. After we walked around the 245-acre Lake that is never lost,

we left our cabin (easy to lose in the dark) in order to find some dinner in the closest town,

Parkdale, but first had to find a Pacific Pride gas station for the group home’s company car. It

turns out there is a Pacific Pride in Pine Grove, and oh boy I should have known where Pine

Grove is⎯having passed it a million times on Highway 35 from the town, now city, of Hood

River to the village of Parkdale every summer of my life-as-a-youth.

Pine Grove’s business center is one market and one gas station and has looked exactly the

same for ever. It has not gained ground, or lost ground, for that matter, and for this alone it is

unique—at least it can be counted on not to reshuffle itself. One can, and should, say that it does

stand the test of time. You would never know a Pacific Pride lived there; there is no sign, and the

pump is playing possum behind the everybody-can-use gas station.  It’s not lost, but it’s not

easily known, that’s for certain.  If it had been there all those years, then it was invisible to me. I

could have both seen it and not seen it.

Jose, a favorite and experienced staff from David’s group home in Salem, GPS’ed a

different route back to Parkdale after Pine Grove and other landmarks appeared, puzzle pieces of

the past tinkering with me⎯Woodworth Road where I rented a house one Summer while setting

fires for the Forest Service plus a sign for the Parkdale Cemetery. The house I hadn’t thought

about for a long, long time, so it was a memory re-found, just like that—a three months’ moment

from 1974. A space, mind you, not particularly relevant to my before-then existence or my after-

then existence, but some mental pictures developed, oblivious to my say-so. My son must think

in pictures. He doesn’t know words in the sense that he can’t say them or write them, but he

knows what a lot of them mean even though he can’t picture the letters in his head, I think.

 

Three of the genes on Chromosome 7 that may be related to Autism are AUTS2,
CNTNAP2, FOXP2.

 

The gene, FOXP2, is related to one’s ability to speak. According to Adam Rutherford in

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived, “There’s only two changes between the protein

sequence of FOXP2 in chimps and us, and we can talk and they cannot.”  I like chimpanzees,

and I imagine they talk to each other just fine, but I get Rutherford’s point.  This protein

sequence seems agreeably blame-worthy plus I like its full name—forkhead box P2—even if it

might be playing with my son’s genome, lost, misplaced, or shuffled in some way. I have no

real-time words that go along with the house pictures. If only pictures remain, then, in this way, I

am sometimes like David though I can recall certain words, phrases, sentences Jose and I

shared during that time, and my son can’t, I think. David responds in countless ways,

vocalizations, gestures, various signs, so clearly some of the time he does duplicate his hominid

cousins, and nothing wrong with that⎯way too many people talk who shouldn’t be allowed to.

In her 2005 bestseller about Autism and its correlation to animal behavior, Animals in

Translation, Temple Grandin, whose Autism couldn’t be less like David’s, remarks on

her mental cognition as one of seeing in pictures: “During my thinking process I have no words

in my head at all, just pictures.” The academic and well-known author explains that words come

in, but only “after I’ve finished thinking it through” (her itals). These two things then (Temple

and David) prove the Sesame Street song to be true: “One of these things is just like the other;

one of these things is just not the same.”  But guess what? That is not the case because they

(Temple=David) do match according to the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental

Disorders or DSM-5 which is the go-to book for finding out how you are similar and different

from the normal people.

 

The DSM-5 “diagnosis will be called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and there no longer will be
subdiagnoses: Autistic Disorder,  Asperger Syndrome
Pervasive Developmental Disorder Not
Otherwise Specified,  Disintegrative 
Disorder”  (The American Academy of Pediatrics). (my itals).

 

Anyone can see that the problem with the previous DSM-IV was that it was way too

crowded with things that were really not the same but had a few look-alikes—which caused

some consternation and upset the natural Sesame Street order-of-things. DSM-5 erased that

prickly-pear of a problem by simply reshuffling the four into one, Autism Spectrum Disorder,

where a person with a PhD and another person who can’t say or spell PhD are holding the same

umbrella with a big fat sign on it saying ASD HERE. Andrew Solomon rightly quips about the

disappearing disorders in his groundbreaking work Far From The Tree: Parents, Children, and

the Search for Identity: “PDD-NOS—pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified

(which critics claim stands for ‘physician didn’t decide’).” (my Itals). Six words, just like that,

lost forever and why not, it was a mouthful and a tad on the vague side.

Compared to the mentally-neglected house on Woodworth Road, a few words and

pictures arranged or shuffled their way into memory lane when we visited the Parkdale

Cemetery, after finding the gas, but before finding the dinner. The sign demanded our presence,

for my parents are there, and I hadn’t been to see them for several years. In that sense, the house

on Woodworth Road and my parents’ resting place are not the same at all—one was a rental

house I will never see again; whereas, the cemetery I have visited a few times is my parents’

forever-home, since 2000 for my mother and since 2010 for my father. You could say that, like

one of the four disappeared Autism disorders, the House is NS—not specified; whereas, the

Cemetery is VS—very specified.

The cemetery was much smaller than memory said it would be. Alongside Mom and Dad

are four others⎯my paternal grandparents, and a paternal aunt and uncle, which was a

surprise because I had forgotten they stayed there as well. The cemetery has a dramatic natural

backdrop, Mt. Hood, and in a society under siege by the war between sameness and otherness,

it is something of an egalitarian residence given the equal payout of grave markers

for the dead by the living. No stone edifices here, no outsized monument to one father and husband,

no statues to mother and grandmother. If you have a choice for one last place

to live, you can do a lot worse than this picturesque cemetery (from GK koimeterion ‘dormitory’

from koiman ‘put to sleep’). Going to sleep with like-minded people in a similar environment

under the watchful eyes of a majestic mountain, what’s not to like?

I showed David his maternal grandparents’ places, and he jumped and hopped on them,

unmindful (no, mindless) of who, what, or where, or why we were there, while my mind saw the

lost years fly by. The quiet dormitory is surrounded by an apple and pear tree orchard, and a deer

glided through some trees, and looked at us⎯at me I was certain.  Yet who is to know

what a deer sees, or thinks?  He stopped right in front of us, and I held David’s head, trying to

force him to sight this wild nature, this deer.  He didn’t, of course, and my mindless

determination to make him see what we saw has ever been a lost gesture, yet who knows what

David actually sees? While Jose, David, and I all have the visual apparatus to sight

the young deer, maybe only two of us really did see something that, to us, was just the same.

Chromosome 7 has 159 million base pairs.

 

Sure, that sounds like a lot, but these building blocks of DNA in Chromosome 7 are the

most highly studied of all the chromosomes, and the mystery of lost words or unsighted

deer may be uncovered here. The inability of this man-son with healthy eyesight and hearing to

be able to focus on close-up or middle-distance images, never mind a far-off flying hawk,

is a never-forgotten reality of the low-functioning kind of Autism, and I don’t mean the other end

of IT⎯pretty much anyone can fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder. And fall under it they

do, although presumably far from any trees one can see. Statistics reveal Autism to be so

common but really, then, where are they all?

There is no photograph that proves the deer, and only two out of the three people there

could talk about it the next day, or the next.  But that too falls apart because the words and the

pictures in my mind and in Jose’s mind cannot also be the same.  Any meaning, if there is one

for Jose, a thoughtful artist, is his alone, and must be different than mine: he, too young to

dialogue day-to-day with mortality as I do; he, who did not know my parents; he, who has not

lost a parent. Older people seem to be mired in deathscapes, and, if they don’t like the mire, they

may be unable to stray far from it. Mire, related to swampy or boggy ground, but also⎯and so

more true to my mind⎯to be involved in a difficult situation, that is a mother who will one

day not be present and a son who will not understand why she is absent.

This deer followed me fondly for the next few days knocking on my moody

metaphysical door and kicked up a memory of another deer in the film Three Billboards Outside

of Ebbing, Missouri. The character, Mildred, is planting flowers next to one of the billboards

where she has placed an ad that is a pretty clear demand to the Sheriff to find the person who

raped and killed her daughter. She is silently thinking of her loss, and a fawn materializes out

of nowhere, stops, and looks at her. She says to the deer: “Well, you’re pretty. But you can’t be

her. She got killed, and now she’ll be dead forever. I do thank you for coming up though.”

The mother’s loss is and will continue to be profound, and the writer fuels it by

this act of suspending disbelief⎯who sees a deer staring at her when life stops at sorrow and

mortality?  Should justice prevail, Mildred’s words reveal the finality of her loss:

daughter’s death, no afterlife, the deer “coming up” as though it resides in the underworld.  

Even so, life’s grace and fragility are equal to the young, pretty deer that is not her

daughter but has given the mother the only positive response to her words on the billboards,

which have pitted the town against her.

But this clever brain-storm happened much later, after dinner, after walking through Parkdale,

after seeing the old wood church dating from 1911, the place where I was told I was baptized (maybe

1950) obviously too old at the age of three for religion to stick around and, appropriately enough, no

mental pictures or words rise up from that at all. None. No one has ever talked about it, a Not

Otherwise Specified event certainly. Come to think of it the only people who can testify to this not-

properly-a-memory are together in that dormitory.

Next appeared the building where my sisters, mother, and I went to the movies, oh-so-

long-ago, and I recall to this day, my first cinema-seeing, my painful entrée into the two-faced

Janus of comedy and tragedy. The grandfather’s orchard where we stayed every summer was a

few miles away, and for an evening excursion, we went to the local theatre, although I only

remember this one time, so maybe it did not occur often, or maybe it occurred only once,

historical facts being notably lean on the ground this trip, as anyone can see. I remember it

because the Native American women in the audience wore traditional clothes, had long braids,

and really-and-truly had babies on their backs in papooses you now see only in books.

But that is totally not why I remember it. The birthplace for this memory is because the

film scared me to death. If you want to look up The Long-Long Trailer (1953 Fox) starring Desi

Arnaz and Lucille Ball, you too will find this Hollywood artifact, perpetrator of a singular, albeit

cloudy, snapshot that I can bring to life as if it occurred yesterday, which isn’t much it’s true.

The year is probably 1954, which makes me seven and seemingly too old in today’s

terms (technology having made innocence and naivete obsolete) to be so distressed by a movie

where the characters are in peril of driving their very long trailer off the twisty-turning high

cliff road to die a terrible death. But that isn’t correct either. This is comedy, pure and light.

There is no reason, from any normal perspective, whereby the trailer could actually fall off

the cliff, crash, and harm the two comedians.  Zero. Not going to happen.

No flip side to this at all, no gray area, no dark humor. Desi and Lucy will never die, and

no one in that theatre in Parkdale, Oregon, thought they would (except me).  What I can’t prove

is that any of it is true, nor will anyone be able confirm this scene that I have incubated through

time. It is my memory and no one else’s though I would prefer it had become lost along the way

because it clearly hasn’t done me any good.  I’ve been blaming it on my fear of heights ever

since then, so I can’t back down now.  The inside theatre is no longer there, (of course,

obviously), but I remember exactly which building it was located in, and I proudly pointed out to

David and Jose, as a good tourist guide would, where I saw that movie.

Some weeks after the Lost Lake adventure, I was reading Ed Yong’s breathtaking page-

turning study of microbes in his 2016 book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a

Grander View of Life. He colorfully shows that individuals are pretty much tethered to the

microbes in their system.  Microbes in the intestines affect people’s immune systems, and it

turns out that “Many conditions, . . . are accompanied by changes in the microbiome, suggesting

that these microbes are at the very least a sign of illness, and at most a cause of it.”  Wow is what

I thought because Autism is one of those conditions he lists.  If I can just reshuffle David’s gut

bacteria, maybe he too can see the deer.

Yong writes “that we have around 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion microbial

ones. . . . ”  Microbes “. . . the brainless, microscopic, single-celled organisms that live inside

us have been pulling on our strings all along.”

Microbes in the human body outnumber every single human cell!?  Brainless they may well be,

but if it is microbes (not David’s Chromosome 7) that spin his existence, and by

extension mine, and the people who work with him like Jose, then there is more blame

to go around, which I am quite happy about.

Our next trip is to find that other Lost Lake. Jose and I have decided David

would love to see it, we mindful, but really mindless, of his true desires and so off the three

of us will go, pulled by the genes in chromosomes or by not-so-brainless bacteria or just by the

luck of the draw.  There won’t be a lake then at the end of August, just a meadow.  The water

will be lost underground and no one knows, year after year, exactly where it goes.

The three of us together will see that there is no Lake there. We will share a

similar reality as we walk through it, because the ground won’t be underwater, and maybe we

will all see a deer.  Jose, David, and I will not see what, in the past, was there and what, in the

future, will be there again.  In this way, we three will be the same. And when the mountain water

fills the meadow up with a lake next Spring, this too we will not be there to see, even

though it will be true.

_______________________

Jane Babson has a master’s degree in African Languages and Literature and a doctorate in Comparative
Literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She often writes about her son with low-functioning
Autism (Neutrons/Protons Magazine) as well as her travels in Africa, Greece, and Viet Nam (Cargo Magazine).
For the past twenty years, she has taught literature at Western Oregon University.

Essays

Kirsten Voris

March 14, 2019

Birth Stories

Dad was still filling out the paperwork as I arrived, umbilical cord looped twice around my neck.

“I guess she did an okay job,” Mom says, when I ask her to tell the story of my birth. She means the nurse. A nameless woman who was there at 3 a.m. and held Mom’s hand until I appeared.

What about me, I wonder. I saved myself from strangulation, by being born so quickly. Amazing, really. For a first child.

And so, the story goes, I was born. The cord was cut, the nasty part fell off and that was that. Mom was free to forget the whole thing.

This is what I got when I asked Mom to tell me about the amazing day. The special day. The day Mom was christened Mom.

Mom didn’t want to talk about it.

In the car on the way home from the latest baby shower, high on cake and punch, I would forget myself. I would ask, one more time, for Mom to remember my birth. She never missed a baby shower. Armed with her go-to gift, The Big Book of Mother Goose, Mom took me to my cousins’ showers. Then, I took her to my girlfriends’ showers. Over the years, I saw Mom play memory and guess-the-baby. Watched her drink the alcohol-free punch and taste the cake. When talk turned to epidurals and episiotomies, Mom smiled and listened. I watched her. I wondered what she was thinking.

Because Mom didn’t like details. Mom would give me the birth story summary. Followed by a frown. Followed by her position statement. “Women have been having babies since time began,” she would say. “They would squat in the fields, have the baby, strap it on and get back to work.”

I pictured women threshing wheat, or picking cotton. Then, I saw Mom, in her scarf and pant suit heading back to work at the department of social services. I was not clinging to her body, as she checked on her caseload. I was at Grandma’s. She didn’t strap me on. But she did get right back to work.

Mom thought having babies was not a big deal. And talking about it was something women did to make themselves seem important. To make the event seem more important than it was. This, Mom told me, was why she didn’t like to talk about it. She seemed angry as though she dared me to disagree. And I decided that, for Mom, childbirth was as ho-hum as taking a crap.

It took years of questioning to extract the story of the hand-holding nurse.

Throughout our lives together, Mom rose every morning an hour before she had to in order to read. I have no doubt she read child rearing books. I wondered about the advice Mom may have gotten. Did the books say, “Don’t spoil the baby?” Did the books say, “Let the baby cry?” Did the books say “Hands off?”  

In my family, praise and attention were handled carefully. Like radioactive isotopes.

My sister thinks radioactive isotopes killed Mom. So, while Mom was playing outside in the coal town she grew up in, poison followed the wind from the Nevada Test Site and settled on her. Why not? We don’t know what set off the chain of events that ended with Mom lying still and small and encircled by IVs. Dying. Downwinders Syndrome? Mom was contacted by researchers. We found the letter.

I’m not convinced that forces from outside Mom killed Mom. And it doesn’t matter. She is gone. There will be no new versions of her stories, from her.

I never really wanted to know whether she had an epidural. Whether it hurt. How long she breast fed. I wanted Mom to tell me that the day I arrived was a big deal. To her. The only way I knew how to ask for that, was to pester her for details. She never did tell me the nurse’s name.

 

~

 

Mom’s second career was with the IRS, and she dressed up for her shifts at the taxpayer service counter. She had a scarf for every outfit. The scarves were stored, wound around toilet paper rolls, in the bottom drawer of her dresser. Hidden behind the scarves, in the very back, was a pillbox hat.

The pillbox hat and a handful of photos were all that was left of the day she stood outside St. John’s in her blue suit with Dad.

When Mom was out, my sister and I would liberate the hat from the drawer and marry pretend men.

It was blue. I wonder if someone counseled her to wear blue. She was pregnant, after all. Although I didn’t know this when I first found the hat.  

Mom caught us one day with the hat in our hands. She told us it wasn’t a toy. She was angry and I could feel the sadness underneath it. She said we tore the veil.

Mom didn’t want our dirty hands on her pillbox hat. But here we were, holding the hat with our dirty hands. The hands that were born into this world, because of that veil. And the day Mom stood on the stairs of St. John’s with Dad.   

Mom rarely let us see her upset. I wondered why she cared so much about some forgotten thing in a drawer. Maybe she kept the hat to help her remember a moment or a feeling; a moment or a feeling that my sister and I could ruin by touching it.

Mom and I. Doctor and nurse. No one else was there to see as I arrived. Perhaps this memory of my birth contained a joy that Mom didn’t want spoiled by retelling. She knew her mind would erase bits and add parts as she repeated the story. Ad infinitum. Changing the memory with each sharing, until the joy was gone.

The night I was born, I imagine Dad lingering over the intake forms. Saving Mom and Dad from facing each other as they took in the truth of the situation. The truth was, they were helpless. Powerless, as the completely ordinary scene of my birth was unfolding.

Neither of them could have stopped me as I muscled my way past the final road block: Mom’s body.

Through her, I launched myself. The morning I was born, I was in control of two nervous systems. I was the boss. Of Mom. Maybe she didn’t want to remember that.

 

~

 

Mom kept things she didn’t want to share in the bottom drawer of her dresser.

Her mom kept private things in the back of a closet.

I didn’t find what was hidden there, in the sewing room, until Grandma died.

Mom and I were removing Grandma’s things from her house when I found a hosiery box full of clippings. There were yellowed maps of the Pacific Theater of war, photos of the Dionne quintuplets. And newspaper columns composed by a psychic.

I took these out. I read them.

Before the hosiery box, I knew Mom was the final child, the only daughter. She arrived as all three of her brothers shipped out to the Pacific to fight during World War II. Mom told me the barest story of Grandma and Grandpa and her birth. Cousins and aunts added ribs and finger bones to the skeleton. This was not enough for me. There was no love, no fear, no uncertainty in the stories I was told. Only facts.   

Someone, I don’t know who, mentioned Grandpa liked to say he had “three in the service,” during the war. I decided that Grandma resented this bragging. Felt wounded by it. In my version of the story, Grandma was anxious. She understood that she might never see any of her children ever again. Her plan, borne of fear and desperation, was to get pregnant. Have another child. Someone else to take care of and love. This happened, Mom told me, when Grandma was 42 years old.

Mom arrived. Walking at nine months, showing talent for dance and piano, Mom exceeded all expectations, according to aunts and cousins. And she was the girl Grandma had pined for. She was essentially, an only child. Her parents were decades older than the parents of her playmates. Mom told me this embarrassed her.

This was the story of little Mom. Until the hosiery box.  

“What are these?” I asked, holding out the columns.

“Oh,” Mom said. “Grandma sent her a letter during the war to find out if she’d have a girl. If she got pregnant.”

As I stared at Mom, I felt a shift in my consciousness, my world view, my understanding of Grandma. My grandma consulted psychics? “And . . .” I said.

“She told Grandma she’d have a girl.”

Implications churned. My face flushed. My scalp tingled and in the moment before thought stopped, I understood: no fortune teller, no Mom. No Mom, no me. What if the psychic had said “don’t bother?” I had to sit down.

On the one hand, I was here in Grandma’s house, sorting with Mom. On the other hand, I might have never been born. Because I was here I had trouble imagining my absence. I was alive. For the first time, this felt tenuous. Like something that was barely true.  

How long did Mom know about the psychic? Her whole life.

Why wouldn’t you broadcast the news that a psychic had predicted your birth? I wouldn’t have been able to keep my mouth shut. If it had been me who was the promised baby daughter. Mom wasn’t planning on telling me. Then, I found the clippings. I decided her silence was important. I just didn’t know why.

 

~

 

I was in junior high the time my cousin, also in junior high, spent the weekend. We were flipping through a photo album. I chose the album. The one with my baby pictures. There are Mom and Dad on the steps of St. John’s. There’s Mom in her blue suit and pillbox hat. Here’s Dad opening the car door for Mom. He’s dressed in a brown suit with pencil pants, still with the white-blond hair of his childhood.

The honeymoon in Victoria BC, the modest, pregnant Mom shots. Yes, here I am, in the sink. It’s bath time. Dad looks bewildered. Look how cute I am. As I admired my sink shots, a cousin started counting on her fingers.

“You were born in March,” she said. “Your parents got married in September…”

“Yeah,” I said. “So?”

“Your mom was pregnant when she got married.” My cousin gawped at me. Then, she started laughing. I flushed red. Then, I tried to recover. Pretend I knew. I didn’t. It was too late.

“My Mom was pregnant, too,” she said, as her giggling died. “That’s what happens when you use prayer for birth control.”

As far as I know, my parents didn’t pray. They didn’t teach me to pray. There was no ban on premarital pregnancy. No shunning or shaming. The year I decided to appear I was welcomed. In fact, another cousin, then nine, was part of the shopping expedition that produced the blue pillbox hat and veil. She knew Mom was pregnant. Everyone knew.  

The fact of it was right there in the photo album, waiting to be discovered. And still, I felt embarrassed by the news that Mom was pregnant. I was caught off guard by my cousin. I was mad at Mom because this was part of our story. And she didn’t offer to share it with me.    

I could have said something, but I preferred to wonder. It felt safer. I wondered whether Mom married, because she was pregnant. Women, Mom might have said, have been getting pregnant for millennia. You get pregnant; then, you do what is required. Did Mom want kids?  

I imagined Mom was waiting for the day I would approach her and ask: “Was I a mistake?” The day never came. Long before Mom died I had stopped asking for stories. I had already decided I was a mistake.

 

~

 

Mom got pregnant in 1966. Right after college.

Her college-era girlfriends are still living. Mutual curiosity has kept us in touch. Slowly, over the years I have plied them with questions. On one occasion I treated one of these women, J, to lunch. Over Indian food she gave me an image: Mom and her girlfriends sitting on the floor of their apartment. Drinking wine. Talking. Up until that moment, they had felt lucky. Their boyfriends had draft exemptions. Now, they don’t. College kids are getting drafted to fight in Vietnam.

I can see Mom on the floor, her legs stretched out to the side. Drinking her wine out of a water glass like a bohemian. All of the girlfriends are dressed in pencil skirts and cardigans they knit themselves. They are drinking. And smoking. I suspect that J edited the smoking out.

Mom was already dating Dad on the night of wine and smoking and worry. She had been for a while. Mom removed a cigarette from her purse the night she met Dad. “I told her I didn’t like smoking,” Dad said. He never saw another cigarette.

I like to think that Mom continued smoking, behind Dad’s back. Perhaps she set down her water glass and shook one out of the pack. She needs a cigarette. They are talking about the student body president. He was drafted. They have just learned he was killed in Vietnam.

“The war terrified us,” J said, interrupting my imagining. “It’s difficult to convey.”

Dad, like the student body president, only had a student exemption. He could be called up to serve at any time. According to J, I was not an accident. I was planned.

From the time my zygote was formed, I had a purpose. To save a life. Mom would marry Dad and I would be born. In an instant Dad would have three-layer force field to protect him from draft; three exemptions.

I imagine Mom told her girlfriends, as they drank and smoked, that she would get pregnant and marry my dad. With or without his consent. This seems too bold. It doesn’t sound like Mom. Mom, who shared stories slowly, begrudgingly. Unlike J.

She sensed my skepticism.

“Do you think your dad could have survived getting sent to Vietnam?” she asked.

I take a moment to picture Dad. In his chair, reading. In the garage, working. Almost always, alone. I tried to imagine him under fire. Taking orders. Cooperating with people.

“No,” I said.

J took a spoonful of curry and placed it on her dish. The conversation returned to Indian food.

Although I tried to introduce this topic at other times on future visits, J was silent. Perhaps she felt she’d said too much.

Mom saved Dad from Vietnam, by getting pregnant. This was her contribution to the protest movement. An example of what women did to oppose the war. I wanted to hear more about that. For a while I imagined that I was part of a baby army that saved scores of men from serving in Vietnam. We were the unsung heroes of the anti-war movement. We had purpose. We were important.

I added this gem to the collection. Stories about me and Mom. Stories Mom never told. I started making up my own stories about what it might have meant to Mom, to Dad, that I was thought of and given a life by them. I wondered how Mom felt about her choice once I arrived and she was locked into being wife and mom.

 

~

 

Mom was wanted. She was so intently hoped for that Grandma called in the psychics. Mustering forces of the unknown, Grandma leveraged control and certainty. She received a sign from beyond that things would not end badly as her sons left for Fort Lewis and from there, an un-picturable expanse of ocean.

Mom was not a mistake.

That was what the story of the psychic meant to me. Mom was wanted in a way that I never felt wanted. Grandma had shared the story of the psychic with her daughter. Mom knew what Grandma did to make sure that she would arrive as ordered. Mom was ordered. And from the time she was first thought of, she had a job.

Her job was to comfort Grandma. Mom knew that, too.

Grandma was worried her sons would die in the Pacific. That she would be alone, without children to love. Mom was worried that Dad would be drafted and die in Vietnam. Mom never told me about her plan to save Dad by making a baby. I didn’t know that I came into this world with a job. I didn’t know it was up to me to comfort Mom or save Dad from certain death. Mom wanted me to decide for myself what my job in life would be. She wanted me to be my own person.

It was up to me to figure out that I wasn’t a mistake.