A Story, Spoken: Chapter Two

If you haven’t read Chapter One of my serial, A Story, Spoken, you can read it here.

Three months had passed since we’d lowered my mother’s body into the ground. Three months since I’d thrown a handful of dirt onto a brown box that contained the broken shell of bone and flesh that once held her soul. Three months of living a life that no longer made sense, but was my reality, though I hardly felt awake.

Nan had been released from the hospital a week after the accident. Neither of us wanted to be alone, but unable to bear speaking the words, I quietly drove her back to the apartment instead of to her house around the corner. She never asked me why.

I gave her my room, but I’d slept on the couch, pushing its aged springs and cushions past their limit with my heavy-hearted weight. It was second hand, to begin with, frayed and creaking, now it was a bowing cradle I retreated to at the end of every empty day, longing for the woman who’d rocked me in my first.

The medical bills came, then payment requests for a loan I was furious to hear Nan had taken out against her house to help me pay for college. All those years of sending checks with a simple explanation of, “It’s just something I had tucked away.” I was angry at her for the risk and angry at myself for not realizing the impossibility of her having that kind of money simply “tucked away”. Knowing that we couldn’t sustain the payments, we made the hard decision to rent out Nan’s house and officially move her into the apartment with me. We’d use the rent money to pay bills and climb out of the financial hole that seems to appear as a twin to tragedy. It wasn’t a long-term fix, but it was a place to start where we both felt comfortable.

Cheney, my best friend since grade school, had come over the day before the move to help me go through Mom’s room. I’d gone in a few times to look for documents required for a variety of things, and I’d picked out an outfit for her body to be buried in, but I hadn’t been able to handle the reality of vacant space. I think Nan had it somewhat easier in that sense. She was occupied with trying to figure out how to live without her sight, and I imagined how nice it would be to not see the obvious emptiness of life, of space, that my mother had filled.

Cheney left me in the jumble of my mother’s clothes and tchotchkes to pick up some storage bins. I had filled a box and most of a trash bag before I saw the glass on her bedside table. A thin beam of light from between the blinds was reflecting off the side and I could see a smudge on the rim. I held up the glass, staring at the rough, lined imprint of my mother’s mouth. Not one to wear lipstick, it was the slightly pink tint of cherry-flavored lip balm. I stared at that smudge, trying to trace every wrinkle into my memory. Unsure why it was so important to remember. Knowing I couldn’t ever, really. I lifted the glass and carefully aligned my lips with hers and pressed them into me. I drank the dusty water that shuddered in the bottom, taking it in like I was drinking her essence. I didn’t lick the excess moisture from my lips, not wanting to mar the sensation of the glass, and the print it held.

I stood and carried it with me outside to the flowerbed, unable to still the image of fairies scattering that flashed before my mind’s eye. I snapped and ripped the stems of the few blooms not wilting in the summer heat and carried them back to the apartment. I refilled the glass with water, placed the flowers inside, and set them on the window sill above the sink, turning the glass so the overlapping marks were facing outward to the sun.

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The next day found me alone in Nan’s empty house after the mover’s had left. Cheney had gone on to meet them at the apartment a few hours before and tell them where everything should go. I had stayed to clean the place up for the new tenants, enjoying the quiet of busy work without questions about where my memories of the house were to be stored or sold.

I was working on a scuff mark on the kitchen linoleum, lost in the mindless motion of the task when I realized I was writing a story.
I had been thinking about the scuff, the shape and sweeping lines of it that reminded me of an errant brush stroke. My mind skipped like a record from scuff marks to scuff marks on the soul, scuff marks on the soul that kept someone from living their lives the way they wanted to, kept them from reaching for their dreams because what dreams could come true when you are scuffed and broken.

I pictured a young man, one pained by abuse and abandonment, a true Dicksonian character. I saw him trudging down a windy city street, holding the hood of his jacket across the bottom of his face, trying to keep the rain and cold from stinging his tender skin. He was walking toward something important. No, he was walking to something mundane, but today he was aware that the act of doing it, or rather not doing it, stopping in his tracks with people bumping into him from behind, cursing him, would be life-changing. Garrett was his name, and he had just experienced a rare moment of knowing exactly what must be done to pull himself from his current state of existing and into something more.

I didn’t know the details of his story, just a very vivid understanding of that moment of clarity. I saw it play out in my mind. I saw his young face with early lines across his brow. I saw the rain dripping from his dark eyelashes. I saw him blink them away just as he blinked away the dazed life he’d been leading up until the moment that he wasn’t anymore.

He looked across the street, saw a park with open trails of calm and quiet, and then looked back toward the path he’d been walking. He followed the mundane continuation of his life stretching out before him and on into his eternity as a fabrication of a grieving mind. I watched him turn deliberately, coming to a decision, and walk toward the welcoming green of the park. I watched as the sun broke through clouds, and the rain slowed as he crossed the street into a new, unplanned future.
I battled with myself as I scrubbed, wanting to scratch the image down on paper, but not enough to stop the rhythmic motion of the brush on the floor. I was giving in to the excuses and comfort of my weaknesses, but I didn’t care. It was just a man walking to a park instead of down the street. He was nothing of substance – nothing I couldn’t call from memory later if I really needed to. I just kept swiping the brush over the scuff, silently damning the movers who’d drug Nan’s dresser instead of lifting, feeling the burn of tired muscles start to twist and tighten.

He was still in sight, not quite lost in the foliage. I could still get up and write him down. I could flesh him out. I could find out what his mundane life consisted of. I could find out what his past held, what made him afraid to be alone. I could explore whether I thought that loneliness ate at him, shaming him into solitude, or if he so craved attention and intimacy that he was cavalier with his heart and with his body. I could explore what future he was walking toward. I could find out what his dream was, the one strong enough to pull him from the ease of monotony. Would he succeed? Would he fail? Would any of that matter because it was really about the journey and not about the outcome, especially considering that stories never really die until a person does. And even then, they live on with all the other people they touched along the way. As I asked myself these questions, I was already answering them. I knew I could fill them out even more. I knew I could build his world, his entire existence into something meaningful.

But I couldn’t. Not anymore.

I moved on to another section of the floor, leaving Garrett and his story on the square of linoleum where I’d found them.

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The front door opened behind me, and I jumped, nearly slipping as I turned to see who had entered.

“Hey, honey.” Cheney smiled at me as she pushed the door open before hooking her arm back through the crook of Nan’s elbow and helping her step over the threshold.

“Nan, you didn’t need to come out here. Everything’s done already.” I stood and crossed to help walk her over to the window seat in the living room.

“I know that.” she snapped. “But it’s my house and I’m here.”

Cheney eye-balled me over the top of Nan’s head. Clearly, it had not been the first sharp moment for Nan’s tongue in the hours since I’d left the apartment that morning.

“How’s it going?” Cheney changed the subject, going back to stand by the open door now that Nan was safely seated. She wanted to go. I could see she was tired and she’d already helped so much.

“I’m done. Just being nitpicky now.” I lifted one corner of my mouth in the best smile I could muster and then let her off the hook. “Why don’t you go home. We’re all set for the night. Nan and I can drive through Jake’s on the way home for dinner. Tell your mom I said thank you for helping with the consignment stuff.”

“Oh, sure. I’ll tell her.” Cheney held her hands in front of her, wanting to say more, knowing it wouldn’t help.

“It’s okay, Cheney. We’re good.” I managed both corners that time and she nodded in acceptance.

“Okie dokie,” she chirped back, clearly trying to lift the mood before retreating. “I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”

“Yep.”

“Thank you, Cheney,” Nan called just before the door shut behind my friend. I watched Cheney turn through the window, hearing Nan’s voice and waving before sheepishly pulling her hand back down and lifting her shoulders to me in apology for forgetting Nan couldn’t see it. I waved her on and smiled a little more easily.

“Cheney waved.” I couldn’t hide my mirth. Nan grunted a small laugh in response and then a deeper chuckle rumbled up.

“Oh, that’ll be fun to give people shit about,” she sighed. “Keep snitching on them, will you?”

“Doctor Reeves even did it at your check up the other day,” I confessed with a small laugh.

“Ha! That’s rich,” she shook her head, still smiling. “Remind me next time so I can tease him.”

“You’re gonna get me in trouble, but okay.” I laughed, stretching out the tightness in my shoulders.

“I sure hope so.” Her blank eyes wandered around the room as she turned her face from side to side. “Tell me what it looks like, Annie.”

“What do you mean? It’s an empty house.” I leaned my head down, resting it on her shoulder as I stared at the hollow space before us.

“Babe, I lived here for almost forty years. Your grandpa laid the bricks on the front walk. I brought your momma home to this house. Watched her grow up in this house. She brought you home to this house after your daddy disappeared. When you ran away from home, you came here,” she paused, wiping away a tear, sniffing back the threat of more. “I never thought I’d leave it. And now I can’t even see it for the last time. But you can tell me what it looks like.” She kissed the top of my head and waited.

“Okay,” I swept the tears from my own eyes and cleared my throat. I sat up and looked around, still seeing where everything used to be, picturing vividly the moments that made it so hard to leave.

“Remember the crescent-shaped burn mark on the counter by the stove?” I began. “It’s still there. I always thought it looked like a taunting smile, endlessly reminding Mom of scorching it with that giant stock pot you guys used to make soup in,” I looked back to see Nan smile at the memory and continued. “There are dimples on the carpet where all the furniture used to be, like everything is still there, just suddenly invisible,” I looked around for something else. “The sun is coming through the kitchen window, and it’s almost to the edge of the living room carpet. I used to look for that when I was little because it meant Mom would be here to pick me up soon.”

“Really?” Nan laughed, sniffing again as more tears ran down her soft face. “I never knew you did that.”

“Yeah, every day. I don’t remember when I first noticed it, but it was like my own secret message that she was on her way. ‘When the light met the gold’” I laughed, quoting my childhood imagination.

“What’s that?”

“Well, you know the little strip of gold between the carpet and the linoleum?” she nodded in understanding.

“I don’t know. It’s just what I called it.” I shrugged, glancing around for something else to jump out at me that I could tell her, but there was nothing more to see. Stains and scuff marks were all that remained in the house she loved.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.” I gasped in as the knot in my throat clenched and I couldn’t hold back the tears anymore. “It’s just empty.” I fell back into Nan’s arms and even as she shushed me, she cried.

I suddenly felt sick of the whole thing. I didn’t want to be in the house anymore. It hurt too much to sit on the bench my mother had read countless books on waiting for Grandpa to get home after work. I hated that when I looked up to see what time it was, the mantle clock wasn’t there to chime. I couldn’t stand that all I could smell was cleaning products and the sweat of strangers and not the mixture of staling potpourri, fresh bread, and Pledge that should have been there.

I stood, realizing I was on the verge of a panic attack and needed to move, and then I saw Nan. Her eyes were wide and frantic, glossy with tears. She was lost. I didn’t know if she couldn’t tell where she was or just worried where I was, or if she was lost in the pain of memories she could no longer call forth with visual clarity. I pulled her up off the bench and wrapped my arms around her.

“It’s okay. I’m okay.” I held her gently and somehow swallowed the rest of my sorrow for the moment. I was needed and so couldn’t need. Not right now.

“Are you ready to go?” I whispered in her ear.

“Yeah, baby. I am.”

I took her arm and walked her to the door, opened it and stepped out before her to allow more space to walk through. I turned to face her, still holding one hand, but she stopped in the doorway. She reached up and set her hand on the wooden frame, patting it gently like you would a good pet.
“Thank you,” she said. Not to me, but to the house that had held her life for so long. I could swear I saw her absorb every memory she’d let the house carry for her so she wouldn’t leave them behind. Her shoulders dropped almost imperceptibly as the weight of them settled around her. She grasped my hand tighter and stepped out on the stoop, the door swinging shut behind her.

Being a Mom

Being a mom is existing within an undulating definition of self.

Being a mom is long hours of hard work that you hardly ever feel was done well enough.

Being a mom is early mornings when the sun has yet to rise, but your three-year-old has.

Being a mom is balancing firm with soft, strong with gentle, freedom with boundaries.

Being a mom is being challenged on ideals, instructions, and with fierce independence.

Being a mom is gasping with excitement at the new chapter opening up before your child only to have the breath catch with a sob of grief for the one they’ve just left.

Being a mom is letting go and holding fast.

Being a mom is trust, questioning, and surrender to what will be.

Being a mom is a close examination of everything you believe in and recognizing that beliefs grow and change just as much as your children do.

Being a mom is accepting bodily fluids as a part of life.

Being a mom is an extra cup of coffee that you won’t finish before it’s cold.

Being a mom is laughing until you cry and crying until you choke.

Being a mom is wiping butts, noses, and tears.

Being a mom is not being sure what the stain is.

Being a mom is forgetting the last time you showered.

Being a mom is deeply appreciating a shower.

Being a mom is holding your tongue.

Being a mom is reading the Riot Act.

Being a mom is slammed doors, eye rolls, and whining.

Being a mom is the sweetest laughter, warm hugs, and heavy heads relaxing into your shoulder.

Being a mom is dancing through days that you wish were over, knowing you’ll wish to remember them when your bones start to creak and your house is no longer full.

Being a mom is hoping you end up with more laugh lines than frown.

Being a mom is the thrill of watching your child display perfect manners and compassion.

Being a mom is embarrassment when they don’t.

Being a mom is deep, whole-hearted forgiveness and a love so overwhelming that to reflect on it feels like drowning in equal parts joy, worry, and gratitude.

Being a mom is feeling unworthy and underappreciated.

Being a mom is knowing the answer to the question, “Why?”

Being a mom is learning as you teach and teaching as you learn.

Being a mom is to appreciate your own mom in every way you didn’t growing up.

Being a mom is wanting to be a good example, and being honest when you fail.

Being a mom is whispers and tiptoes and sneak attack tickles.

Being a mom is stroking hair and fluffing pillows.

Being a mom is grinning at their grins, challenging their scowls, and empathizing with their tears.

Being a mom is everything and nothing like you thought.

Being a mom is wanting a moment, but not for too long.

Being a mom is selfless and selfish, eager and wary, rational and paradoxical.

Being a mom is life lived with purpose that you truly understand only in the periphery of your mind and in the depth of your soul.

Being a mom is…

Favorite Books: A Journey

Do you ever travel back through memories to see if you can pinpoint which things or moments altered your course in life? Not necessarily a big shift, but just recognizing that once that thing, whatever it was, was said or done or experienced you were different. Sometimes it’s special because it’s a first. The first time you jumped off the diving board. The first time you skated all around the roller rink without falling. The first time you finished a book that did something more than entertain you. As I’ve been practicing my craft and building my writer muscles, I started asking myself which books I think really made a difference. I wanted to examine which stories stayed with me over the years and what I feel they gave me.

This blog is supposed to be about my writing life and my reading life is a big part that. As you know, I’ll be sharing my reviews of newly published books this year, but I couldn’t neglect the books I’ve already read that helped lead me to this point. I want to use my love of books and writing to reach others who share that love. Maybe I’ll introduce you to a new book, or remind you of an old one you haven’t thought about in a while, but I don’t want to just talk about them…I want you to read them.

Once a month I’m going to share a book with you from my past. One that is meaningful to me in some way. If you share my blog and send a screenshot to me on Facebook or email it to me here, I will enter your name in a drawing to win a copy of the beloved book I share that day. I’ll leave the pool open for one week and then draw a winner! This won’t make me a dime, you won’t be entered into some weird database or anything, I just want to put more books in people’s hands and I thought this would be a fun way to do it!

What book is first on deck? Let’s see, shall we…

I believe I was in fourth grade when I first encountered this book. We read some of it aloud in class, but mostly had chapter assignments to read at home. While other students groaned at the reminder, “Make sure you finish Chapter Three over the weekend so we can talk about it on Monday!” I was thrilled and grateful for every spare moment I could read.

I always read ahead, even when we were asked not to. Reading books in class felt painfully slow to me. The flow of the story was broken horrendously when only a chapter a week was assigned. And reading aloud in class? Torture. As an adult, I appreciate the importance of having children practice this, but, at the time, I could hardly sit still listening to classmates stumble over words and read an emotion-filled scene with all the passion of a dust mote. I would watch their lips move, and their finger trail along under the words and wonder if they were even aware of what they were reading or just making the sounds required.

I’d trudged through weeks of trying to pace myself, only allowing a chapter or two ahead of the class before going back to read along again and wait, but I reached my limit and decided one weekend to just finish the dang book already.

I sobbed. The book made me sob. I cried so hard, my emotions swaying in a synchronized dance of heartbreaking sadness and honest surprise at the heartbreaking sadness that my mom came running into my room to see what was wrong with me. I think I just pointed at the blasted book. That! That’s what did this to me!

I’m sure she smiled, I’m positive she hugged me. She knew. She knew how books could grab hold of you and make you care. This was my first real experience with it. I had been reading since two, had gotten teary-eyed a few times before, but this visceral reaction to the written word was entirely new. That day a door opened for me. The magic of books had just jumped from card tricks to vanishing acts. The magic of books that was growing alongside me suddenly shot over my head and through the sky. Simple words. Simple story. Deeply complicated feelings. Who knew?

The book was Where the Red Fern Grows.

If you’ve never read it, don’t let my sob story keep you from it. It’s an exceptional book. I have a copy on my bookshelf waiting for the day my son is ready for it. It wasn’t originally written for children, but Rawls truly captures the spirit of childhood. The energy, the thoughts, the dreaming.

If you’ve had the unfortunate chore of growing up without having read Where the Red Fern Grows, it’s a story about a boy living in the foothills of the Ozarks. He saves up his money to buy his heart’s greatest desire, a pair of coonhounds. The journey of their friendship and training winds through the forest of his childhood so closely you can smell the leaves crunching underfoot.

Read it as an adult to reflect on days of running around barefoot and the unconditional love of a dog. Have your kids read it to discover a different time, a different way of life, and perhaps some deeper emotion stored up somewhere just waiting for a good book to draw it out. Read it for nostalgia. Read it for heart. Read it for soul. It’s worth every salt-spiked tear.

…and bleed.

Several years ago I had this amazing professor who, beyond all other things he taught me, helped me accept my path to being a writer. I’ve always been the person to get distracted by ideas and the excitement of something new, and while that feeds the creative in me, and makes for some great fun, it really generated a map of winding roads of potential that made me dizzy.

I loved books and writing, but there’s that societal judgment I’ve referred to before about how useful or worthwhile people perceive writing as a career to be. I also love photography, showed a flair for marketing in a few jobs over the years, cooking held my eye, stomach, and attention all the way up to meeting with an advisor for a culinary arts degree before deciding the hours weren’t what I wanted. Teaching had held a residency in the possibilities section of my brain since I was in first grade, and after years of bouncing ideas about the future off myself, I finally thought I’d settled on a winner.

I had a plan, I had mapped out all the courses I’d need, and settled on a practical (gag) History Degree/Teaching Certificate. I love History, don’t get me wrong. Intricate stories, exotic settings, heroes and villains that switch roles depending on perspective? Hello! It was certainly up my alley. But the idea of settling for something “practical” irked me and made me fidget in my seat with discontent. Luckily, one of the required courses, when I started off, was Creative Writing. It was not lost on me that I was more excited about that class than any of my History courses.

Enter Professor Harmon, who confirmed every hope I had about writing to be true. I had never had a teacher so passionate about writing. His love for the craft poured out of him into his lectures, leaving my fellow classmates and me to wade through the water of creativity. We had no choice but to bathe in it. He expected no less than our best. He expected growth. He expected respect for writing and its power. He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t animated, but he spoke with such deliberate care and consideration for every word. I was giddy with joy. I went into every class with butterflies of anticipation and left every class riding a high of adrenaline.

Not long into my semester, I realized there was a voice in my head that was getting louder with each day. I could feel my journey down the path I had chosen starting to list to the left. My heartstrings were pulling and I could hear the call. THE call. You know, the one people talk about but seems too cliche to be real.

Along with this indisputable realization that I was going down the wrong road came this sickening feeling of shame and absolute dread at telling people that, yet again, I had changed my mind and was going to shift my trajectory. How, I asked myself, could anyone possibly take me seriously when I’d danced all over the map of life goals like a nomad of dreams, but no, no…THIS is the real one. This time I’ll put down roots. This time is for real.

When I did start talking, man, could I feel the invisible pat on the head and the subliminal, “That’s nice, dear.” I resented it and felt I utterly deserved it all at the same time. But let me tell you a little something about me. I know how to rise to a fucking challenge. Every patronizing smile, every word of masked exhaustion with my pattern of flitting from aspiration to aspiration, every infuriating dismissal drove me harder. Yeah, I had some setbacks, but, to my credit, this time they were valid ones. I moved across the planet, I got divorced, I worked hard to create a stable life for myself and my son, all the while, taking notes and holding tight to the “one day” on the horizon where I could pick my dream back up again in earnest.

When I made new friends, my writing was one of the first things they learned about me. The more I talked about it, the more my tribe gathered around me in support. I was gifted journals, books about writing, a beautiful vintage typewriter, and unwavering belief. All that time of not being taken seriously, it was the bed I’d made. But I tore the sheets off and traded the Bed of Maybe for a Writing Desk of Definitely.

There’s a quote from Hemingway that says, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” That intimacy of writing is everything to me. Good writing requires you to be authentic, to show up, and this quote follows and haunts me with every word I type. See, when faced with the truth of my future, I fell so deeply in love with it that I realized that I could never let it go. Not for anyone, any fear, any bit of doubt. The best relationships are built on a layered trust that holds us up during times of trouble, and I trust in writing. I trust myself when I’m with writing. And I know that no matter what happens in my life, writing will be there for me. Asking nothing of me, but myself.

So here’s to professors that don’t know they are changing a life, to friends who see the spark of true calling and won’t let you ignore it, to quotes that resonate in your soul at just the right time, and the guts to throw caution to the wind and chase a dream…a truth…with everything you’ve got.