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Alexis Berry

March 10, 2020

Grandpa’s Chair

The house is quiet, still in the dimness. There is a single lamp standing crooked in the corner of the living room, rust building along the aged brass hinges. It does a poor job illuminating the mahogany bookshelf beside it, packed full of gardening books that have only been read once, but are honorably remembered word-for-word. The decorative plates, painted with the most articulate delicacy and patience, cast shadows from where they hang along the dark beige walls—ghosts of old pride, faded colors of blue, red, and green china. The ugly floral wallpaper on the opposite side of the room, where a great mirror framed in gold steel stares back, does nothing to compliment the disarray¾where the snagged carpet meets the split laminate of the kitchen floor. The magnet-plastered refrigerator looms just inside the doorway, accompanied by an opened bag of Werther’s Originals that sits alone on the marble countertop. Just across from them, placed on the hutch for optimal snacking, is a jar of cookies for youth who no longer come. The sight is just visible from the crackling of the TV, lit with the stern face of Perry Mason before two nearly identical chairs that clash against the wallpaper. But only one of them truly stands out.

My grandfather’s chair, a fossil of its past days—alive only in the subtle cracks in the paint of the plastic handle of the recliner, the creaks and cracks of the corroded steel beams that hold the cushions to the old bones of the frame. He sits there, rocking gently back and forth on the balls of his flat feet, smoking a pipe in a stained t-shirt and paint-splattered sweatpants. A pile of books sits on the floor beside him, where the rocking of coffee-stained suede lazily threatens to knock them over. Their titles are those of astrophysics, botany, political philosophy, renaissance art—things he reads about for mere enjoyment. His toe gently and absent-mindedly taps the front cover of the first book, facing the direction of the empty couch where I should be laying, engrossed in the epic murder mystery and swapping stories with Grandma. If he senses my absence, he doesn’t show it; his wrinkled fingers drum lightly against the worn fabric to a song I can’t remember. Why aren’t I two feet shorter, curled up in a ball beside him on the arm of that chair, in a time I never want to forget—when naps were the pinnacle of injustice, and scraped knees and park swings were all that I knew?

“She would have liked the sermon today,” he says vaguely, and Grandma coughs.

It wasn’t all that long ago.


I run around the corner—a triumphant only-child at the green age of four—when I see it sitting there. It’s still wrapped in plastic; the malodor of formaldehyde and the cheap perfume Grandma used to try and mask the scent, is strong enough to make my eyes water. The scent washes over me in drowning billows as Grandpa pulls the thin crumpled layer away, revealing the shiny brown chair hidden beneath.

I have never been more enchanted.

I drop everything—the coloring book in my hand, the cookie that I stole from the jar long before I had finished my dinner. I forgot about Grandma, who is chasing after me with the spatula for thievery of the cookie, about my dirt-ridden socks encrusted with birdseed and burrs from the garden. The chair is suddenly everything; all I want to do—all I can think about doing—is to sit in it, to feel the firm press of the stiff cushions against my back, under the scrawny knobs of my knees, the scrapes that lick my elbows. It is a new place, a new object that has the potential to be truly magical. I want to be the first one to explore it.

Grandpa catches me before I can even take the leap headfirst into the massive armchair— like all of the cartoon animals do on PBS Kids. “It has to set,” he tells me, and tells me again, just to make sure that I understand. “You have to wait until it stops smelling.”

“I like the smell,” I protest, but he shoos me away with a blast of fabric cleaner.

I manage to keep myself away for a good amount of time. I go outside and run around in a bed of tulips; I swipe more cookies from the kitchen and curl up on the couch with my finger-painted Leapfrog for my daily lesson. But before long, I am back in front of that shiny new chair, watching enviously up at Grandpa as he rocks gently back and forth.

Yet, although I recognize that he is merely enjoying what is his, I begin to devise a plan to get as close to that chair as I can—even if that means not actually sitting on it. I sneak forward, dragging my box of crayons with me; Grandpa didn’t see me. He is too engrossed in The Three Stooges, laughing heartily in the comfort of the felt cushions; his pipe drops ash with each labored breath. He doesn’t notice as I slip behind him, behind the chair, into the little shadowed space between the soft, hollow underside and the dust-flecked wooden panels of the wall. And suddenly, the outside world fades away—Grandpa, Grandma, Larry, Curly, and Moe—they are all gone.

It is just me in the shadows, alone to trace pictures through the grime, to run my fingers along the top of the suede and watch it change colors—lighter and darker with each stroke, as if I were actually painting. The poignant guff of furnishing wax and fresh ink fills my nose; it goes to my head, and I feel as though anything is possible. The space between the walls is no longer connected to reality; the rules of the real world don’t apply to me here.

It is one of the first places where I feel alive. My imagination sparks and everything becomes new, unseen and concealed in darkness and dust, yet familiar in every way that my home never is. I don’t know how long I am back there, huddled behind the towering wall of sienna suede, but by the time I leave, I can remember the space inch-by-inch—every corner, every single chip of paint, nook and cranny. I know it like the back of my hand.

Before I know it, I am not merely tracing patterns into the fabric. Without warning, I am armed; I have two crayons in each yellow hand, the bleeding colors of my mind—purple and green in the right, blue and pink in the left. Both move with erratic precision—this way and that, scribbles and scrapes with no direction, but with every guiding light. Each spiral, each twist—it means nothing, yet everything. It is a nebula of color that can never find its home in the rough edges of construction paper. Rather, it finds solace in the steep panels of the wall, where it will stay until I am no longer there to find solace in it.

It is then, when my project is all but complete, that Grandma finds me. Needless to say, she doesn’t appreciate my art.


Shh,” I whisper. I crush my brother closer to my chest; the grip of my hand over his mouth tightens. “It’ll stop soon.”

He squirms against my grip, but he’s only half my age; his meaty toddler hands are practically useless against me, and even if he did fight back, I have longer fingernails. It’s mean; I know that, but I can’t let him cry. They don’t know that we’re here, and if they find out, they will yell at us, too. We’re safe behind Grandpa’s chair, where the colorful, swirling patterns of the mural I drew four years ago still watches over us. The little patch of darkness cloaks us from view, from where Grandpa’s feet stand upon our afternoon sketches that are sprawled messily across the carpeted walkway. The thin sheets crinkle under his weight, but it is no concern of mine; it is only a manifestation of his rage. It’s his words that send my nerves into a panic.

He is yelling at Grandma, and Grandma is yelling back. I can’t make out what they are saying; I don’t really want to. Whenever it happens, for whatever reason—whether it is politics, or tennis, or Vietnam, or how many miles stand between us and the nearest Taco Bell—I duck behind the boulder of warm suede. Sometimes I grab Anden, if he’s near. I like it better when he is. Even though he never quite understands, it feels better to have him beside me. We huddle there together in an old cloud of tobacco haze, where alcohol stains live in the carpet that has long since needed to be cleaned. The soles of our feet turn black just walking across it.

Anden crouched with me a year ago, when Grandma fell in the bathroom and we couldn’t lift her up; we watched the boots of the firemen as they helped her to her own chair, with the phone we used to call 911 hidden carefully in the pocket of my sweatshirt. He sat by me when Grandpa was drinking out of those yellow aluminum can—so many cans, mountains of cans¾when just looking at him and his scruffy grey beard, walking strangely and mumbling to himself, made me cry. We would hide together with the bag of nacho cheese Doritos that Dad gave us before he dropped us off, knowing that we wouldn’t have anything to eat for dinner.

This is merely another slash on the chalkboard, another spiral of purple on the wall—a bruise.

Shh,” I hiss again when Anden tries to wiggle away.

“He’s being mean,” he jeers back.

I know Grandpa is being mean. They are both being mean. But I don’t want to listen. I don’t want to hear it. All I want to do is roll up into a ball like the armadillo I saw on Animal Planet, and block out the worldthe screaming, the drunken slurs, the bitter words that fall so boldly off tired lips, the malevolence behind aged eyes who have seen too much, too little. “Anden, hush!

“Drop dead!” I hear Grandpa curse, and the room falls silent. Nothing ever feels quite so large, quite so empty as the space between the wall and the back of his chair, and at the moment, I feel it swallow me whole. A cruel flash of insanity strikes me; not once in my life do I remember being as terrified as I am in that exact moment. A rush of adrenaline spurs me back to life; there is only one thing that I care about.

“GRANDMA!” I nearly trip over my own feet trying to get to her, scrambling toward her wide, bloodshot eyes with my arms outstretched. I fling my arms around her and latch on, horrified, petrified that she is truly about to fall to the floor and leave us behind. “Don’t go!” I sob. Her red sweater darkens with the salt of my tears. “Don’t go! Don’t go!”

It takes a long time to calm me down, sitting at the end of the couch with Grandma’s wrinkled, transparent hands resting on mine, staring hard at the intricate tendrils of thread that make up the dirt-ridden carpet. Even now, the words haunt me.

I wonder often if they were ever happy together, if they ever kissed just to kiss, or enjoyed each other in ways beyond mutual need. I think back far more often than I should to all the times when Grandma would talk about going to live in a tree and I, in the innocence of my youth, begged her to take me with her because living in a tree sounded cool. In the dead of night, in the whispers of the wind through the dark corridors of the streets, I hear her quiet voice¾softer, lighter than a featherin the back of that car, with her violet eyes low and brimming with tears that she would never shed. “Sometimes I don’t think that I’ve lived the life I wanted to have.”

Her words catch me by the throat; they make me wish that I hadn’t been so naive, that I had never left the comfort of Grandpa’s chair. They instill a new fear in me, weaved in lavender dreams and beer-battered pillowcases. It is an ache that I won’t be able to name until years later, when I realize the very same thing.


“Are you sure you want me to throw this away?” I call to my grandma. She is in the kitchen, filing old letters at the sticky dining room table that is finally free of old newspapers and ashes. I roll the candlestick across my palm, feeling the elegant curves and ridges of its silver surface; my hands would later sweat with the metallic aroma of old nickels. It is a staple of this housea favorite ornament of the hearth at Christmastime.

Her reaction surprises me. “That old candlestick? Yes. Toss it in the recycling bin.”

I raise my eyebrows at this, but do not question her. It is beyond me what my grandma wants to do with her things; my fifteen years hold no authority. So I toss it away and watch as it clatters to the bottom with an old milk carton and an empty juice box. I try not to let it bother me, the image of the fireplace without that stupid, ugly candlestick; I try not to pay any mind that my little sister, Gina, wouldn’t throw Lego blocks at it on Christmas Eve, trying to knock it off the shelf out of prepubescent deviance.

“Anything else you want me to carry out before I pull the tree out of the closet?” I ask. I swat at the sticky sensation of a spider web that somehow found its way across the bridge of my nose; going into any of these closets is the equivalent of touring catacombs in Ancient Egypt.

“Well, we have to get that chair out of here first. We’re going to try something different this year, so

“You’re getting rid of your chair?” My mind immediately flashes to her purple velvet reclinerthe one we had found at a garage sale when I was eleven. “It looks perfectly fine to me.”

My grandma raises her eyebrows, peering at me over her horn-rimmed glasses. “Not mine. Your grandfather’s,” she says.

“What?” I must have misheard her.

“Haven’t you seen it? It’s about time.”

The corners of my mouth twitch. I turn abruptly on my heel and speed back into the corral of the living room. Grandpa’s chair is still there, as it always isunmoved, with its feet so deeply grounded into the carpet, that the very idea of moving it seems an absurd offense. My first instinct is to defend it; the chair was fine just fine! There is no need to throw it away. It is a foundation of memories, of late-night stories and Because of Winn Dixie, of that terrible sickly-sweet stench of Grandpa’s pipe, of Svengoolie on Saturday night, and the Wimbledon Open in the Summer. It is tall tales, Jack and the Beanstalk, math lessons, and Russian lullabies. It is flowers, perennials, a leaning tower of books, and the rush of freedom that comes with flying high on the swing set.

Moving it would be wrong. I feel it deep in my bones, the fibers of my being that had grown here, on the arm of this chair, and in the little space behind it where I had first found myself.

I wonder . . .

I creep forward, careful to avoid Grandma’s prying eyes from the dining room, and peer into the shadowy space. It isn’t nearly as dark as I remember it being, and not nearly as large. It is a wonder that both myself and Anden were ever able to squeeze in there together, side-by-side; now, I don’t even think that I could. I crouch down, swallowing my teenage dignity, and run my fingers along the faded slashes of color that had once teemed with vibrancy. The wax ceases to be wax; it hasn’t retained its sticky texture, but has smoothly eroded into the wall itself. It no longer jumps out at me like it used to; it is merely an eye of comfort. Even the fetor had faded the ghastly, honeyed sweetness of stale tobacco, fresh soil, saltine crumbs, and Miller Lite. There are only remnants, a musty ghost of fragrances that, no matter how repulsive, remind me of home. And yet, even they cease to exist.

“How long has it been?” I murmur to myself, tracing patterns into the back of the napped finishpatterns that younger, more curious fingers had traced long before. Surely not that long.

But it has been long enough. I can no longer fit behind the chair; it is a space lost to me, a forgotten point in time that only now, years later, I see as pivotal. I can’t even remember how I had felt when I brought those crayons to the wood and started to draw; I can’t even remember why I was so enchanted with the tiny nook in the first place. It is hard to even think of holding Anden in my arms; I haven’t seen him since he left with my mother. It is lost to me¾beyond the crusty armchair, beyond my grandfather. It is a piece of me, born in a mess of sketches that littered the carpet years agoblue, green, pink, and purple.

“Have you got it?” Grandma calls. Her voice sounds older now. Thinner.

“Yeah, I got it,” I reply. It’s hard to speak.

“Just pull it out into the hall. Marley will grab it from there.”

I grip both of the arms from the front and stare dead into the place where my grandfather used to sit, his face buried in a book, his arm around my shoulder. It is a chair meant for kings, no matter how stained or worn, sewn from the finest brown suede and stuffed with cottona chair of tobacco haze, of reading glasses, and dirt-encrusted fingernails.

I rip it away from the wall and let go.


Alexis Berry is attending Columbia College Chicago with a major in Creative Writing and a minor in Professional Writing. She loves to write stories from different worlds—ranging from fantastical realms, to outer space, to the dusky streets of Chicago—wherein writing is her ultimate means of escape and reflection. Her desire is to write something worth reading, and to share it with the world.

Book Reviews

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen Reviews Dani Shapiro’s book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

July 18, 2019

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
Dani Shapiro
Knopf, $24.95
272 pages

In her fifth memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, Dani Shapiro is prompted by her husband’s interest in genealogy and takes a DNA test. The results delivered the shock of her life. 

Shapiro discovers that Paul, the Orthodox Jewish man who raised her, to whom she felt connected on a neshama, or soul, level is not her biological father. Belonging to a prominent Jewish family played such a major part in her identity that Shapiro begins to feel conflicted. Is her father still her father? Which of her qualities were inherited through her genes and which are a result of her nurturing father, his hug she waited for each day as a child? I was fascinated by this soulful detective story as Shapiro explores the existential quandary, “Who am I?” 

Shapiro is a mother to a college-age son, Jacob, and worries how the results of her DNA test will impact him, the next generation. How will he react when he learns he has a new grandfather who’s not Paul? “Does this mean maybe I won’t end up bald?” Jacob asks. I thought this response to her disclosure was surprising and comical, but as a parent myself, I related to Shapiro’s worry. My father died when my daughter was one year old, and when she asks me about him, I feel the weight of responding, the weight of holding the family narrative. 

As signaled by the word “paternity,” listed second in the subtitle, the exploration of Shapiro’s profound and loving connection to Paul, who died when she was 23 years old, holds a place of prominence.  Inheritance is dedicated to him, and one of the epigraphs includes the first two lines of Sylvia Plath’s poem“The Colossus,” written by Plath about her father. I imagine that many readers will find themselves searching for their own fathers—whether they’re alive or deceased, biological or soul fathers—as I did in the beautifully written passages. I was moved to tears by a scene in Chapter 25 when Shapiro visits Rabbi Lookstein. “We thought your father was a hero,” he says, and I felt the acute depth of the Rabbi’s grief and Shapiro’s loss. “Who was I without my history?” she asks, bereft. 

In the final chapter of Part II, Shapiro’s 93-year-old Aunt Shirley claimed my heart as much as the character of Paul had when Shapiro goes to visit her. Shapiro’s many books are proudly displayed in Aunt Shirley’s room and Shapiro worries if her aunt will get rid of them when she tells her aunt about the DNA results. Her aunt’s response, however, validates her existence. “You’re not an accident of history, Dani,” says Shirley. “You are an agent to help my brother express the finest kind of love.” Love infuses the pages of Inheritance: for Paul; for the teachers and spiritual leaders Shapiro seeks for help; for fellow writers and their work; for her husband and son, and lastly, for herself, as she questions, “Why am I here? How shall I live?”

Like the best memoirs, Shapiro’s story evokes universal themes and questions that a reader will relate to through the lens of their own lives. In Part III, for example, Shapiro wants to believe her parents hadn’t betrayed her by not disclosing to her that she was donor-conceived. Every child, by middle age, must reckon with their parents’ actions or inactions, in order to grow. It was only when I became a mother that I realized how challenging it must have been for my own mother to raise four children with an emotionally distant father. The memoirist documents change and the space of the page gives them an opportunity to remind themselves of their arc, their struggles, and where or how to move forward. 

As Shapiro winds her way to greater acceptance, a voyage as twined as a DNA helix, she offers the reader a personal understanding of Judaism and her Jewish identity. The book’s affirming final scene gives us the word hineni (“Here I am.”) It’s confirmation that her Jewish identity is intact, despite that fact that her biological dad isn’t Jewish. I enjoyed learning side by side with Shapiro, but it was my sympathy for her character that made me feel most connected to Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. Who among us hasn’t yearned for the finest kind of love? 

Bio: Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is a co-founder of the nonfiction reading series Tell-All. Her writing has appeared in HeadspaceBREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Hippocampus and the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Poem Village. Connect @kpnwriter.

Book Reviews

Delia Rainey writes a hybrid personal essay and book review on Sarah Cannon’s The Shame of Losing

July 3, 2019

The Shame of Losing
Sarah Cannon
160 pages
Red Hen Press, $16.95

I sit next to my mom in a hospital conference room. There are gray walls and a long gray table, where we are all sitting, eating catered deli sandwiches. Each seat is occupied by an older woman in her sixties or seventies. My mom, with her brown curlicue hair and colorful T-shirt, seems to be the youngest caregiver here. In another room, the survivors of stroke, brain injury, and aphasia also sit and eat sandwiches, catching up or playing checkers. They are husbands, fathers, grandparents. In the caretaker room, the women chat about mundane aspects of their lives: a bad knee, a bothersome mother-in-law, the local news. One woman swivels her attention over to my mom: “We haven’t seen you here in awhile. How are you doing? How is your husband? Have you been taking time for yourself?” As my mom opens her mouth to speak, the women sit around her nodding, their eyes squinting in knowing empathy. 

Traumatic brain injury is not a very understood or visible disability in our world. My family’s story is very different from Sarah Cannon’s, which she recounts in her new memoir The Shame of Losing. But every family has an important narrative found in a book of letters, notebooks, internal and external hardship. While many stories stay private, rarely spoken about outside of support groups, Sarah Cannon lets us in. She gives us permission to read her candid journal entries following her husband’s arboriculture accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury.  In about 150 pages, The Shame of Losing compiles scenes from Cannon’s life in dynamic parts. As we read, we process these events with her. She reclaims the genre of diaristic emotional scrawl while also recalling her experience. The act of writing this book can be interpreted as an attempt of self-healing. 

Cannon brings the issue of our fragile bodies, our fragile lives, up to a personal microscope. However, this memoir does more than just highlight the aftereffects of a workplace injury. Cannon wonders throughout: do people really change over the course of their lives? Sometimes Cannon thinks, yes, we do, and “other times, I think our core is our core.” 

The Shame of Losing begins immediately in the moments before the accident. Cannon recalls herself as a suburban mother volunteering at a local arts center on October 30th, 2007. She received a frantic call from her husband’s arborist coworker, trying to explain the accident, caused by a fallen tree branch: “his cheekbones are sideways.” Throughout Losing,  “sideways” becomes Cannon’s least favorite word. She goes on to describe the feeling of entering the Level 1 trauma center for serious injuries: “sitting there alone, I felt abandoned by the world.” There is a sideways nature to the experience of grief. Nothing seems straightforward anymore, no part of our day can ever be predicted. Cannon sees her husband Matt in the hospital bed, his “skull crumpled, a blown-out eye, busted eye sockets, and a collapsed nose.” This is physical evidence of a much more invisible injury, an invisible story. 

 As readers of Cannon’s writing, we must always be prepared for a drastic change in tone and time. In this memoir, Cannon also writes about her happy Seattle childhood in poetic prose; her young love and marriage to Matt; and rearing two children together. These sections seem like diversions or distractions, but they lay real context: life was simple once. One moment, Matt and Sarah are in an airplane dealing with a fussy toddler and infant, and in the next, Sarah navigates the ICU: “I clenched my stomach in preparation for something I didn’t understand.” A journal entry from November 2007 switches to a letter to Matt that she will never send: “Hey, remember when we were first dating and. . . .” Then, we read a script for a fake suburban drama, starring Sarah, explaining to the neighbors how Matt lost his sense of smell. Mundane details shock and stir: winter air and the appearance of Christmas lights upon coming home from 42 days in the hospital. Forms shift again, when we are presented with an auto-fiction short story Cannon wrote, titled: ‘Man in the Woods with a Headache.’ By collaging notebooks, letters, screenplay, and short story, Cannon redefines the typical ingredients for a grief memoir. 

I recognized my own lonely experiences in The Shame of Losing. Cannon discusses how many of her friends kept a distance after the accident, or simply lost interest. She reflects on the old Matt, and how the “cute OT girls” would never “know my husband was once a helicopter pilot and that we used to call him a human compass.” One of the hardest parts of traumatic brain injury is letting go of our old lives and the person from “before.” Cannon wonders, and so do I, how do we mourn someone who is still here? A spritely, handy husband morphs into a loner with “brain drain.” As one year goes by, “Matt has fooled everyone that he’s okay.” But the healing of traumatic brain injury is a lifelong process. In a therapy session, Matt discloses that he doesn’t know how to feel love. In a metaphor that swims throughout the book like the word “sideways,” he describes that he’s in the desert. He’s so thirsty, and he knows there’s water somewhere, but he can’t drink it. 

A major strength of this memoir is Cannon’s passionate release of her voice, her shame. She speaks to us like we are confidantes over the phone late at night. We get to hear about the tedious woes of Workers Compensation, piles of paperwork, and pinching pennies. We nod our heads as Cannon complains about the easiness of other people’s problems and her jealousy of them. We listen as she screams in the hospital: “Get me the eff out of here!” In The Shame of Losing, we see a woman who is not a perfect mother, not a perfect wife. The family unravels even as they try to move on, going on vacations, watching their kids in school talent shows.

In my favorite moments, Cannon describes small, insignificant memories of solitude. She bites off a corner of one of Matt’s Oxy pills, and drives around aimlessly, listening to Frank Ocean. She goes to the grocery store after the kids go to sleep and lovingly picks out a tub of sour cream. She drives to the hospital, just one more time, trying to reclaim a ghost. 

Seemingly stitched together with journal pages, The Shame of Losing disclosed so much, yet many details were kept. This is only the tip of an iceberg of Sarah Cannon’s truth. I hope that with books like The Shame of Losing, the public will become more familiar with the impact and realities that traumatic brain injury has on families. Sarah Cannon is not a celebrity or a famous author. This is her first book. Through the genre of nonfiction, the stories of regular people gain power. 

Back in the conference room with my mother, I get up to leave, throwing away our paper plates, meeting up again with my dad. We leave out the back door of the hospital, back to a world that can never nod its head and understand.  I leave you with Cannon’s advice: “The best thing a supporter can do is understand the strangling effect the culture’s insistence on “getting over it” can have on mental health. It’s OK to be sad, and grief is ongoing. Have faith in your truth. Accept that there are no real answers. Healing can happen, if you want it.” 

Bio: Delia Rainey is a musician and writer from the Midwest. She currently studies nonfiction in the MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. Her prose and poems have been featured in Hooligan Magazine, DIAGRAM, Peach Mag, and many others. Ghost City Press released her mini chapbook Private Again in August 2018. She tweets often: @hellodeliaaaaa.