Multigenerational Mom Muses on Twin Toddlers & Twenty-Something Daughters



Death’s Door and Other Existential Thoughts

Death steals everything but our stories.

Jim Harrison

I heard that line on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and it stuck with me. It’s the final line of a poem called “Larson’s Holstein Bull,” about a young girl gored in a pasture. It really speaks to me — as in, it speaks lies to me.

Because unless we record our stories, Death steals those too.

In the last three months I’ve lost two loved ones — and countless stories. Their stories. And my own.

I’ve had massive writer’s block. I try to dive in. I try to ride the smallest wave of an idea. It fizzles and fails. I fizzle and fail.

And then there’s all the stories of theirs that I’ve lost.

My father’s stories, wrapped up in gullible goodness and bland bouillabaisse. He told fishy tales. Suspect ones, full of adult idealism and fairy tale naivete. If he were a character in a comic, neon bubbles would circle his words — citrus and magenta shades for his grandiose schemes and shooting star aspirations. Don Quixote tilting at windmills — so chivalrous and sometimes so sad. Folks took advantage of his inert, innate goodness. Neighbors took advantage. I wish I could remember the details. I’d hold them accountable for their sins. But I tuned him out, so I’m holding myself accountable.

And then there’s my aunt’s stories. Stories of her ER escapades; the trauma bay dramas. The bludgeonings, bullet wounds, foreign object removals. Those foreign object ones were my favorite of hers, and she had so many. The fellow arriving in an ambulance still sitting in his driver’s seat, impaled by tomato stakes. The fellow arriving with the ice pick through his brain, talking, animated; until he wasn’t. The naked sunbather wheeled in on a trifold vinyl lawn chair, his testicles entangled and swollen amongst a twisted nest of spaghetti tubing. I wish I could remember the specific details of those stories, her blue lilac eyes, so animated as she recounted them; until they weren’t. Until dementia dulled them. Her eyes and her stories. And the details were gone.

So many stories tuned out. The soundtracks of their lives, the background noise of ours. And now they’re gone… and I can’t remember.

Remembrance. It’s a motif in Hamlet that pairs with the theme of “What Happens After We Die.” Legacy. The Ghost, Hamlet’s father, begs him: Remember me. Hamlet begs Horatio, his most loyal confidante, to tell his story: Report me and my cause aright.

And that’s what I need to do too. I need to tell their stories. Report them and their cause aright. And mine too. Before it’s too late. Before it’s all lost forever, behind death’s door.

Because that Harrison poem’s FIRST line is a doozy too:

Death waits inside us for a door to open.

Damn. What a line. What a truth.

That Harrison poem speaks lies AND truths. Which is why it really, really speaks to me. Right now. At this moment. This moment where death’s doors have shut so recently on those I love so dearly. And because none of us is getting out of here alive. There is a door waiting, a doorknob made of flesh just waiting for the twist.

Morbid, I know. But then, Life is morbid. And what happens after we die is why Shakespeare wrote in the first place. And Spenser. And Keats. And any author, really. (Me too. That’s why I write too.) To tell our stories, and to be remembered.

But I have let my loved ones down. I should have listened more. I wish I’d listened more.

But I’m telling my story. Stories. All of them. And I’ll keep at it till I get them right, writer’s block be damned. It seems the devil really is in the details… but get behind me, Satan. I’m ready to dance.

Because the rest, as Shakespeare says, is silence.

And here’s that poem in its entirety, for those of you who want lies and truths to rattle you as well…

“Larson’s Holstein Bull,” by Jim Harrison

Death waits inside us for a door to open.
Death is patient as a dead cat.
Death is a doorknob made of flesh.
Death is that angelic farm girl
gored by the bull on her way home
from school, crossing the pasture
for a shortcut. In the seventh grade
she couldn’t read or write. She wasn’t a virgin.
She was “simpleminded,” we all said.
It was May, a time of lilacs and shooting stars.
She’s lived in my memory for sixty years.
Death steals everything except our stories. 

Fear and Self-Loathing in Lost Places

I recently discovered a little demon that had hidden itself away in my cells, quietly waiting for the perfect time to rear its ugly head and wreak havoc on my heart. It birthed itself during a quick, two-hour road trip a couple months back.

I thought that demon was long dead… thought nothing I heard about my past could do much damage anymore. I was wrong. Turns out, the demon wasn’t dead, just dormant. And turns out, it could still do a helluvalot of damage.

Ever since, I’ve been working my way through a very hard memory…

Memories. They’re never photographic and never completely accurate. They’re fuzzy and fragmented and colored by our own personal perceptions and perspectives.

This one, I kept buried for a long time. But it bubbled and bloomed under the surface. Time softened it… but in a furry, moldy, sordid, slimy sort of way. But the time has come for it to be dug up. Time to bring it into the light, dry it out, turn it to dust, and blow it away.

And y’all, I’m not talking metaphorical demons here. I was a sixteen-year-old junior when I was told I was demon-possessed.

Now I was a far-from-perfect child. I had a major crush on the butterscotch boy next door; I was writing mysteries with teenage girls with plunging necklines and music minister murderers; and I was failing my Algebra II class. But I’m pretty sure I wasn’t demon-possessed. At least, not until that night.

I recall standing in a marble entryway with a bathrobe on my lanky frame and a chip on my shoulder. To my right was a still life painting of cream roses in a shadowy vase. To my left were double oak doors, locked. Before me, my accuser, arms crossed, eyes blazing, telling me the devil was in me. Telling me I was going straight to hell.

That night, a pervasive demon of fear and self-loathing tangled itself up with my youthful defiance and climbed through the dilated pores of my freshly showered skin. To avoid my accuser’s red glare, I focused on the still life instead — the gold ochre roses captured in a burnished vase. Crashing waves of Prussian Blue smashed mercilessly into and around them. Petals broken and fallen. Plunged into oily darkness.

My accuser would remember the scene differently, I’m sure. Would remember the wayward daughter with the rebellious streak and the raging desire. The girl consumed by fire. The girl caught up in the ways of the world. The world caught up in the girl. She needed purging in the worst sort of way.

Funny thing about memories… two people remembering the same incident can have two entirely different accounts of what happened. And it doesn’t make either account less true.

With really difficult memories, the differences and disparities reveal the differences and despair in each individual. And each of us felt them… profoundly.

The facts are straightforward; the truth is not.

The fact is my parents were doing what they absolutely thought best. The fact is they did their best to raise me. The fact is they knew the world to be a dangerous place. The fact is they submerged all of us in strict doctrine and stern dogma to save us.

And the fact is I was a far-from perfect child. I was headstrong and fighting for my life. I did my best to escape them and the cult of domesticity they were raising me in. And I did. I escaped with my newly-planted demons of fear and self-loathing, with an ample serving of defiance, and I went to live with my guardian angel grandmother.

They did their best. And so did I. Those are the facts.

But the truth belongs to each individual — and we are all colored by our pasts. By our truths. And our demons. Even my father.

He confessed to me on that two-hour drive how sorry he was that he sent me to live with my grandmother.

… he was sorry for burdening her heart at her advanced age with a rebellious teenage girl.

Shame and guilt overwhelmed me. That demon of tangled up fear and self-loathing, tinged with teenage defiance tore through my gut in a blaze of ungodly glory. And it refuses to leave.

But then today I found some hope. I read a chapter from Jen Pastiloff’s On Being Human, called, “Rewrite Your Story: Memory Lost and Found.” It focuses on facing and excising your demons. Denouncing them as liars.

I took it as a sign. Especially after I soon found this little gem: “Don’t die with your music still inside of you.”

So I decided to write out my memory and sing out my sorrow. This demon is no longer allowed to hang out as a devil inside.

So I hope someone out there is listening. I want to be absolved. I need to be absolved. And I want to help absolve others. Because Toni Morrison, the greatest writer of our time, once said something I believe in wholeheartedly: The function of freedom is to free someone else.

I kept her quote taped to my writing desk for years. And now I keep it stapled in my soul.

Today, I share my memory, my song, and my freedom. And I beg you to share yours too.

Share your truth and be saved from the devils breeding somewhere deep in the darkness of your past.

A Patchwork of Darkness and Light

I have some of the strongest memories locked inside my brain. Images, random and detailed, like a giant patchwork quilt of varied fabrics and disparate patterns all attached by the crazy-stitched thread of my life.

When I close my eyes, they appear. Without prompting and without warning. Some warm and welcome, others not.

Last night, a couple of sisters appeared from the deep recesses of repressed memories. I was sitting in the pew – if you can call aluminum-framed, hotel conference chairs with nubbed upholstery lined up hip to hip a pew –  but anyways, I was sitting in the pew behind them. Someone was preaching. Someone was always preaching. And I was trying to underline the scripture in the same, perfectly inked slices as the blond teenager on my right, whose family had followed us out to Texas from Mississippi.

I remember the first time I saw her – yet another random memory. I was in first grade; she was a bit older. Her hair, woven in two braids, the tips fringed and skipping across plaid-shirted shoulders as she herself skipped through the halls of the elementary school. She reminded me of a favorite character from a Disney adventure movie. I can’t remember who or what movie now. That memory is gone. But my girl, skipping with hay-colored hair woven in precise and pretty farmgirl plaits, was only missing a straw hat to make the allusion complete.

Anyway, this girl always underlined the scripture while the preacher – do you call him a preacher when everybody else calls him Brother, and nobody ever actually refers to him as reverend or minister or preacher (or anything, really, beyond Elder and Brother), and you find him repulsive and his eyes beady, and he licks his thin lips almost constantly leaving tiny beads of milky spittle in his meticulously trimmed beard and mustache– I don’t know… I don’t want to call him a preacher. But anyways, I tried my best to underline my bible in perfect inky slivers like my curly-headed blond neighbor. No longer braided.  Branded, though. She’d been branded. She was theirs.

But back to those sisters sitting in the pew in front of me — their heads full of curls as well. But those curls were tight-rolled – turned and twisted into spindles of cast iron Aqua Net sculptures. Sausage curls riding atop waves of cream satin dresses with puffy sleeves, wedged collars, and fabric buttons.  Whipped cream slaves to the Cult of Domesticity. Already. At ages 11 and 9.

And me, I was trying to copy, to imitate, to forge. To sell myself as authentic and stay off the radar of that preacher behind the pulpit — actually hotel podium turned pulpit. So I pressed my pen to the soft tissue of the Living Word and sliced.

Why do I remember these girls, so buttoned up and branded and boxed in? Why have their curls floated to the surface of my wacky, whip stitched brain?

I honestly have no idea.

Yesterday, it was sausage curls.

Today’s it’s sausage fingers… with scarred knuckles, sliced up with threaded white lines at the top center of his fist underscoring their importance. Their power. Their tenderness.

And tender, they are… to speak like Yoda. Like the Yoda he loves. He is hard and soft, this man with sausage fingers and hairline scars surfing the mountain ridge of his fisted knuckles.

His hands are mountains. And they live in my present, not my past, helping me hoist up the heaviness and fear and cover my naked vulnerability.

And its not the sausage curls or the stark lines etched in stony scripture or even the spittle-flecked beards themselves that upend my security blanket and leave me shivering and cold.  It’s the batting underneath it all – a woolly foundation of guilt sutured on with aged and brittle sanctimony. It snags when the memories slip for half-a-second, and then it unleashes its infection and stench.

But that’s where the man with mountains for hands — sliced and ridged and ready to rumble — comes in. He brings balance when the dark and twisty lines of metallic, make-shift church pews and underscored bible verses push their way back into my present.

It’s not that he saves me.  Not at all. I’ve learned in the past ten years – because this week marks ten years with him, ten years of finding balance and bravery – I’ve learned in these ten years, I’m no damsel in distress. Far from it.

I’m a woman with a weighty past, absolutely. With baggage that slides like sewage into the present and stinks it up for a bit, that’s for damn sure. But a damsel in distress? Nope.

Not this gal.

But I am somebody who now has a dedicated partner with hands like mountains who works with me to lift and redistribute the guilt and to wring out the sewage when it seeps out of my seams. Together, we clean it all up again. Because it’s a never-ending process, rinsing the demons out of the dark underbelly of my life.

But I don’t want to erase the darkness; I just want to keep it clean. Because that dark background is part of what makes my life so beautiful.

Without darkness, who could recognize the light?  Without hard, who could appreciate the soft?

And me and my guy, we clean up quite nicely, if I do say so myself…

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