The Broken Shell | A Short Story

Where the rolling sea meets the sand
you will find the ancient ocean man.
Sit still and listen if you can
to broken sea shells in shaking hands.”
-Old Sea Proverb

Vanora squats beside a rotting pile of kelp to examine the tiny insects buzzing around it. The golden tinge of sunset makes their wings appear delicate and translucent. They must be a kind of fly or gnat and she wonders how long their lifespan is. Probably days or perhaps only hours.

A wave of nausea hits and she falls forward in the sand on aching, aging knees. When did she last eat something? Breakfast was a large bowl of fresh strawberries and a cup of weak coffee in an off-white mug with a slight chip along the rim. She’d almost cut her lip but noticed at the last second and turned the mug.

The rest of the day is blurry and Vanora doesn’t like when her memories aren’t clear. Her grey hair smells of coconut shampoo and it’s braided back so the wind doesn’t tangle it. She must have showered and taken a nap. She feels clean and rested in black leggings and a loose purple sweater, but awfully hungry. She probably forgot to eat again.

For most of her life, she’s been a writer, always scribbling herself notes, poems, snippets of song lyrics, and endless to-do lists. Her novels were never on the New York Times Best Seller list, but she’s proud of how they reflect her as a mother and a woman. In the last few years, however, the words won’t come. The notes she leaves herself now are cryptic and upsetting. It’s as if she speaks a different language each day and there’s no global translator.

It’s hard to accept such a drastic change within herself, particularly as most of the time she feels like the same person—viewing the world through a lens of flowery words, colorful contrasts, and abstract connections. Yet her mind doesn’t hold everything at once anymore—sand running through a sieve collecting only the bits and pieces large enough to not fall through. It feels terribly unfair.

Sitting back, she touches the slimy seaweed with her pointer finger and sadness suddenly ripples through her chest, making it hard to breathe. This plant provided shelter, food, and protection to generations of sea life only to be ripped from its foundation and deposited onto the sandy shore like a banana peel thrown in an overflowing trash can. Or like an old woman who gave everything for her family only to find herself living alone in a travel trailer moving from town to town.

Waving her hands frantically to scare off the bugs, she lifts the limp plant up by the bulb, runs to the edge of the water, and tosses it as far as she can. The roaring waves mask any plunking sound but she imagines it’s similar to dropping dumplings into a boiling pot of chicken broth. Bloop.

Her children always loved soup night sitting around the large wooden table throwing crusts of bread at each other. It’s been years since they were all together—scattered now like sand in the wind. Maybe she should call them all to meet her by the sea. Would they come? Life can be so busy for those in the thick of it. This she remembers.

Vanora stands and brushes the wet sand off her clothes as best she can. There’s nobody on the beach except a few seagulls and a scraggly-looking crab missing a leg. She watches him scuttle sideways, struggling to cross the sand, and is struck by how similar they both are. Unable to move as they like. Pondering what’s next. Needing help.

Grabbing the large reddish shell with both hands she lifts the terrified crab from the sand and carries it into the icy water. The cold seeps into her pants and it requires all her focus to keep balanced, but she doesn’t stop until she’s certain the crab won’t be dragged back instantly to shore.

“Good luck, little fellow.”

With a flick of her wrists, she lets it go and it immediately disappears beneath the bubbly white foam. Vanora feels a pang of jealousy and wonders if anywhere will feel like home again. It’s been years since she’s felt the comforting feeling of belonging, but it feels more like decades. Lost memories and lost time. When did loneliness become her only constant?

Finding a large piece of driftwood to use as a backrest, Vanora sits in the sand with her legs out in front of her. The blue of her nail polish has chipped and she’s shivering from the cold. The sun continues to inch toward the water, painting the sky with thick, vivid brushstrokes of pink and gold. Nature’s nightly masterpiece always changes and surprises her.

“Every starry galaxy morphs and sings
caught within its own orbital rings, 
but it’s humans who have the power
choosing how to spend every hour.”

An eerie deep voice crackles beside Vanora and she turns to find a tall, wrinkled man sitting in the sand beside her staring at the sea. His limbs are long and crooked and he’s dressed in only a pair of tattered brown pants. There are tears falling from his pale green eyes, cutting a path through his weathered, sandy face. Sadness, the great connector, erases all traces of fear from Vanora and she’s left with only peaceful curiosity.

It’s as if he’s simply another creature found along the shore—nothing less and nothing more. There’s a slick wetness about him as if he crawled out of the water moments before and perhaps he did. His feet are covered in sharp, white barnacles and his long, grey hair and beard are peppered with pieces of dark green seaweed. His speech is slow and careful.

“Skulls of restless men do lie
beneath the choppy waves and sky,
searching for what they already know
love transcends the moon’s bright show.”

These words are followed by a blank expression and silence. Vanora feels as if she should respond but the man has now opened a tiny burlap sack he pulled from his pants pocket. He unties a thin brown rope and withdraws several shells with long, pointy fingers. Grasping them loosely between his palms, he begins shaking them.

The colorful sky swirls and tilts until everything is cloudy and grey. All sounds are muted except for the shells within the ancient man’s hands. Vanora sways to their rhythm finding herself falling into a sleep-like trance. Images appear dream-like and cloudy swirling for a moment until they flash into vivid, sharp focus. One after another.

Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.

Thirty-five seconds are left on the timer before the roast is ready to be pulled out of the oven. Vanora wipes her hands on her faded flower apron and watches the children rushing around setting the table. The older boys carry the glassware while the little ones help with napkins and silverware. Her husband kisses her on the cheek before washing his hands for dinner. The baby fusses in the high chair.

Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.

Turning off the radio reports announcing another deployment of troops, the family gathers in the overgrown field behind the house in the late hours of the night. Using a borrowed brass telescope they take turns looking at the moon, Venus and Mars. They eat banana pudding and vanilla cookies from a thermos. The little ones pick flowers using a flashlight. Vanora wipes a tear from her husband’s cheek with her pointer finger.

Rattle. Rattle. Rattle.

Walking through the empty house Vanora checks one more time for anything left behind. She doesn’t want to leave her home, but the war isn’t stopping anytime soon and without her husband she must do what she can to protect her children. Her youngest just learned to walk and he waddles across the clean wooden floors giggling at how much space there is to move. The oldest children fold their arms and scowl. Nothing she can say will fix this for them.

“What you have always given free
I have taken from the sea,
stolen from the ocean’s dark abyss
a broken memory shell to reminisce.”

Minutes pass into hours as the chilly night gives way to foggy dawn. Vanora sits stiffly with her eyes closed, locked in a slideshow of the past. She watches echoes of herself and her children grow up and change through vivid snapshots of her 70 years of life. Meetings and partings. Happiness and grief. Love and loss. Fullness and beauty transform into warming gratitude that radiates like flashing sparks through her tired body.

A hawk swoops across the sky calling loudly. She opens her eyes. The strange ocean man beside her is gone and the world looks bright and hopeful. A broken sand dollar sits beside her and she holds it close to her chest and smiles. Walking back to her small trailer the words flow as they haven’t in years, almost singing themselves within her, weaving with memories unlocked and free.

“What once was taken far from me
hidden inside the Tumtum tree,
this broken shell gimble gave
for might memory now to wave.

With burbling breath and flowing pen
I return back unto myself again,
for within my beating beamish heart
truth whispers of another fresh start.”

Author’s note: I’ve been working all week to get my house ready to host my mother-in-law’s memorial this Sunday and I left myself no time for writing. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if the words would come at all. I stayed up late last night, far into this morning, and this story is what developed. While it may not have stayed entirely on topic, I’m kind of proud of this one. Let me know what you think in the comments below and I’ll catch up on reading everyone’s blogs next week. I miss all your words!


Short Story Challenge | Week 35

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a conversation between artists. We had to include the words skull, galaxy, expression, trash can, deployment, visitor, brushstroke, decade, forgot, and ponder.

For an added bonus this week, here’s a picture of Angelica as a unicorn and me as Raggedy Ann back in the early 2000s. She was simply the cutest. Still is.


Write With Us

Prompt: A story that takes place in one room

Include: petting zoo, handsome, unbound, annoy, weekend, invest, immortal, piglet, cocktail, and camp


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

Chocolate Kisses | A Short Story

Zech’s got his shoulders turned away from me when we pull up to a four-way stop in the middle of Utah. There are no other cars around, but I pause for a full minute to be sure one isn’t going to blast through the intersection and into us. The rain’s so loud I can’t hear the blinker.

“Quite a storm,” I say loudly.

He nods. The reddish hair at the nape of his neck is matted and I’m certain he’s wearing the same red and blue plaid shirt he wore when I picked him up at the bus station late last night. There’s a strong smell of Old Spice and a fainter smell of chewing tobacco and I wonder if he lied to me about quitting. It’s none of my business.

Wishing I could find a way to break the tension, I glace over and find he’s twisting his hands in his lap. It’s exactly like grandma used to do, the way she’d squeeze the fingers of one hand then the next while whispering the Lord’s prayer over and over under her breath. He’s making me uneasy. Five hours left to go.

“See any cars coming?” I say.

He shakes his head no but doesn’t look at me. He’s opening and closing his knees rapidly making our economy rental car rock back and forth. His nervous energy makes me feel like I’m five years old again and he’s yelling at me for riding my bike in the street.

“You could have been killed,” he’d scream. “Don’t you know anything?”

I never knew anything. He’d tell me the statistics of kids being killed on bikes, paralyzed on roller-skates, or how likely I’d be to die in a plane crash. When I moved away to college he gave me enough pepper spray to douse the entire male population three times over.

My roommates both told me driving with my brother to our grandmother’s funeral was a terrible idea. He’d never gotten his license and we’ve not seen each other since I left for college three years ago. He calls me on Sundays to argue and tell me what’s wrong with the world. Politics and religion are his favorite topics. I still know nothing, according to him.

“Mina, you don’t have to be a hero. Your brother has been nothing but an asshole to you your entire life. You don’t owe him shit,” Megan said.

“Seriously! I know he’s all the family you have, but he makes you crazy. You always are in tears after talking to him and a nervous wreck. You don’t have to do this,” Paula said.

They offered to pool their money together to buy me a plane ticket but I couldn’t do it. He needs me and I still hold out the childish hope of having the kind of TV sibling relationship I used to dream about in our shared bed at night. We’d magically become Mable and Dipper from “Gravity Falls,” solving the world’s mysteries while looking out for each other.

The truth is, I’m not sure where my brother lives right now or if he has people in his life. He asks about my classes and my friends, but it’s mostly to assess my level of danger. We are practically strangers.

“Is it okay if I put on some music?” I say.

“No,” he says. “My head still hurts.”

Grandma used to tell us she’d be gone one day and all we would have is each other. At church on Sundays, she’d make us hold hands when we walked through the tall wooden doors so God could see we loved each other. It never made sense to me how this all-seeing and all-knowing God cared so much about how we acted and looked on Sundays. Shouldn’t we love each other every day?

“God’s watching you extra close today,” she’d say. “No wildness or wickedness on Sundays.”

We’d have to stay in our fancy clothes until bedtime. There was no outdoor playing or television. It was dominoes, reading the Bible, eating fried chicken, and having ice cream sundaes for dessert with one single cherry on top. The picture of domestic bliss on the outside, but inside it was flat and empty. I wanted more. I still want more.

“Did you hear old auntie Char will be at the funeral?” I say. “I haven’t seen her in years.”

“So?”

His voice is flat and he doesn’t turn toward me. The sunrise has begun through the haze of the misty rain and I realize today is the day we will bury our grandmother. It doesn’t feel real. I guess I figured she’d made a deal with God and would live forever. She was 92.

“Do you remember when auntie Char climbed the ladder at our Eastwood home to put up the Christmas lights and fell backward into the hydrangeas? Grandma was so concerned about her beautiful flowers, fussing and pulling the blossoms out from under her butt. Oh, Char was so mad…”

“Yeah.”

He doesn’t move or smile. He and grandma always seemed to have a secret language of misery I wasn’t a part of. I’d try to be still like them and crack the code, but I’ve remained on the outside. Tapping the steering wheel with my thumbs, I try again.

“Do you remember the name of that stupid dog she had? The little white one who humped everything? It would not leave my shins alone. I swear, to this day, I can’t stand little dogs because of that stinky thing. What was it…Jasper? Juniper? Jackson?”

“Jupiter.”

“That’s right! She’d dress the smelly thing in dirty, ugly sweaters and it would shake and shake like some kind of drug addict going through withdrawals. I’m sure it’s dead now right? She wouldn’t bring it with her to a funeral?”

It’s quiet for a few minutes and then Zech chuckles. It’s the first time since we got into the car his posture has changed. He pulls a plastic bottle of water out of the faded denim backpack at his feet and takes a big swig.

“It’s been 10 years, Min,” he says. “ I’m sure it’s dead now.”

“Unless…”

“If you say unless it’s a zombie dog I’m going to punch you in the arm.”

I smile at his remembrance of my favorite childhood movie, “Frankenweenie.” I made him watch it with me at least 50 times. I’d pretend to be terrified, pulling the blankets tight around my shoulders and scooting close to him on our well-worn grey couch. He’d make fun of me, but keep his arm around me. He liked it too.

“Big baby,” he says under his breath.

He pulls out a bag of Hershey kisses, rips open the top, and sets it on the center console between us. I watch from the corner of my eye as he unwraps the silver wrapping, pops the chocolate into his mouth, and then folds the paper over and over in his lap.

“Want one?” he asks.

“Sure.”

He unwraps it and I open my mouth. He tosses it, but it misses, hitting the side of my nose and falling down at my feet. It’s probably going to melt there or be squished by my boots. I don’t care, but he’s back to rubbing his hands together in his lap and shaking his knees.

“I’m going to pull over and get it,” I say.

He nods. I take the next exit and follow a twisting road lined with old Birch trees until we reach an abandoned and boarded-up rest stop. It’s overgrown with tall thorny weeds and there’s graffiti on the small half-burned building which used to house the bathrooms and probably a few vending machines. The rain has finally stopped.

“I’m going to stretch my legs,” I say.

He doesn’t look at me, but I examine him for a minute before closing the door. He’s stopped moving and he’s got his arms crossed across his chest. He’s holding his neck at a weird angle. I wonder if he needs a smoke, a chew, or a drink. It’s probably hard for him to be sober around me. I consider giving him permission to do what he needs to cope, but I think it would either embarrass or anger him.

Retrieving the stray chocolate from its spot near the brake pedal, I toss it toward an overflowing garbage can and watch it bounce off the side and land on the ground. There’s a fair amount of steam coming from the engine and it occurs to me it needs a break too. Following a cracked cement path, I arrive at a small patch of dirt filled with cigarette butts, discarded soda and beer cans, and several thin pine cones.

I check my cellphone for messages, but I don’t have a signal out here. The last few days I’ve received a flurry of texts and IG messages from friends I haven’t seen in a long time letting me know they are here for me if I need anything. It’s hard to tell them I feel very little at my grandmother’s death. I can’t imagine what I might need.

The sound of a low meow draws my attention to a cluster of bushes off to the left I didn’t notice before. I take a few tentative steps onto the wet ground, making sure my soft brown boots aren’t going to get stuck, and find the ground solid. A thin and dirty tabby cat pokes out its head and meows again—a sad pathetic sound. 

“It’s okay, kitty,” I say. “Are you hungry?”

We don’t have anything in the car we can feed to a stray cat, but it seems the right thing to say. The hair on the back of its neck raises and it limps through the bushes, disappearing from sight. How did it get out here? I can’t leave it behind to starve or run onto the freeway and be crushed. It needs me.

“Come back, kitty!”

Following it through the thick ugly brown bushes I find an area of short dying trees and piles of garbage. Judging by the amount of dog poop on the ground, this was probably once a grassy area for pets. There’s a tangle of black and orange extension cords, an old metal lawn chair twisted and broken, pieces of splintered wood and several large shiny black bags spilling their contents onto the ground. I step around all of it.

“Here, kitty, kitty! Here, kitty, kitty!”

There’s no sign of the cat, but I hear rushing water and follow it until I reach a cement runoff ditch swollen with rainwater. A styrofoam cup floats by followed by a bright yellow kids bucket, the kind you take to the beach. There’s a part of me yearning to fish it out, but Zech’s voice from a long time ago booms inside me.

“Don’t get any closer,” he says. “The tide can rip you out of my arms and into the ocean in an instant. I’d never see you again.”

We are standing on the beach while grandma watches us from her old white Cadillac. She’d parked it on the edge of a cliff looking down at the long line of white foamy waves, while Zech and I scrambled over the sandy dunes to the water’s edge. I’m mesmerized by the force of the waves, terrified really, at how powerful it seems. He grabs my hand and holds it tight.

“Don’t go,” he says.

His big blue eyes are filled with tears. They fall down his freckled cheeks in lines, almost as if they are drawing me a picture. My 5-year-old self promises I’ll never leave him and I mean it. I really do.

Guilt wriggles through me, squirming and singing the song of my selfishness. I wish our parents hadn’t died in that car crash leaving my brother to have a giant scar on his cheek and the burden of worrying about me. I should have picked a college close to home. He needs me.

Stepping onto the rough cement ledge surrounding the runoff ditch, I balance so my toes hang over the two-inch space and I can watch the water rush beneath me. Grandma always wore pale pastel suits with bright colorful silk scarves around her neck. I wonder if the ladies of her church chose the mint green one. It’s my favorite.

“What in the hell are you doing?” Zech calls.

Within an instant, he’s grabbing my shirt and pulling me off the ledge. I tumble forward, lose my balance, and fall to the ground. My knee hits something sharp and I scream out in pain. A jagged piece of glass pierces my jeans and sticks out of my knee. Blood begins to pool around it. Zech stares at it with wide eyes and then begins to scream. His face has turned bright red.

“I swear to God, Min, you do these things to make me crazy. Why would you wander so far from the car? Are you trying to get yourself killed? Don’t you care at all what it does to me? You don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself, always have. Must be so nice to walk through the world with people who care about you while you spit in their faces like it doesn’t matter at all. You don’t have any idea about anything. You are a stupid little child.”

He tries to scoop me up from the ground to carry me back to the car, but I push him away and stand on my own. It hurts really bad, but I’m not about to let him be the hero again. I was perfectly fine before he showed up.

“Stop it,” I say. “Just leave me alone.”

“Leave you alone! Seriously, Min. You’re telling me to leave you alone?”

“I was fine and now I’m not. This is your fault.”

Gesturing to my knee, I begin limping toward the direction of the car. He grabs my arm and spins me back toward him. The red of his face has become splotchy and his lips are pressed tight together. He punches me on the arm, hard, and then takes a step back.

“You are such a brat. Seriously. Grandma and I protected you all this time, but you don’t give a shit. You conveniently don’t remember anything. This place…this place…this is where you pull over and pull this shit. I really don’t believe you don’t remember. It’s not like you were a baby, Min. You have to remember. It happened at a rest stop just like this. Fucking, hell. You have to remember.”

I don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. Searching my memories I find only one at a rest stop. Grandma pulling up in her white Cadillac, a bag of Hershey kisses on the seat between us, Elvis Presley singing “my hands are shaky and my knees are weak…”

Zech says in a quiet voice, “I can’t seem to stand on my own two feet. Who do you think of when you have such luck?”

“I’m in love. I’m all shook up,” I finish.

“What happened before the car?” he says. “Why did grandma pick us up? You can remember the car so clearly, but nothing else. For God’s sake, you were 5. I promised grandma I’d never tell you, but you were there, Min. You were fucking there. Why do I have to be the one to hold it and you get to be the carefree one, off at college? Why do I have to shoulder it alone? It’s fucking unfair. It’s so fucking unfair.”

He’s crying now. Sobbing. He falls to the ground beside me and covers his face with his hands. I watch him and try to recall the moments before grandma came to get us. Was I in the car during the crash too? Did I see our parents die? I don’t remember anything.

Then I do. It’s like blowing out birthday candles, it comes in a whiff of smoke. My parents weren’t in a car accident. They had a fight. Another one. A big one. Zech got cut when our dad took a knife toward our mother. They left us here. They didn’t want us.

Staring at my knee I remember there was a lot of blood when they fought. Raised voices. Raised fists. I don’t want to think about it, but the tourniquet has been pulled off and the blood gushes everywhere. Our parents didn’t die. They left us. Falling to the ground beside Zech I sit as close as I dare. I’m scared and shaking. I don’t want to remember.

“Are they still alive?” I say.

Zech stops crying and looks at me. His face softens and he wipes his nose on the sleeve of his shirt. He opens and closes his mouth, but nothing comes out. He scoots closer to me and I lay my head on his lap. He’s so warm.

“I’m sorry,” Zech says. “I’m so so sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

He’s stroking my hair and his voice is soft and comforting.

“Are they alive?”

“I don’t know. I tried to find them a few times, but other than a few stints in jail over the years, there are no other records of either of them.”

“They really just left us?”

He doesn’t respond for a long time. I move up and down with his breathing and feel like a small child. How many times has my brother protected me and held me like this? How could I not see it for what it was? Reaching up, I trace the jagged scar on his left cheek.

I want to say so much to him; to apologize, to beg his forgiveness, but also to tell him I see it now. All of it. He felt responsible for me. I was his everything. He was only 10, a child like me. It wasn’t fair. None of it was fair. It begins to rain lightly, but the darkness of the sky hints it might begin to pour again any minute.

“We need to get you out of the rain and bandage up that knee,” he says.

“Okay.”

I let him help me back to the rental car and we sit across from each other in the backseat. He pulls a small red first-aid kit from his backpack and I smile. Of course, he brought one along. He probably predicted I’d get hurt and he’d have to save me. I’m grateful.

He gently pulls off my boot, cuts off my jeans at the knee, pulls out the small piece of glass, cleans the wound with alcohol, and uses a butterfly bandage to pull the wound closed. He covers the area with a clear antibacterial ointment and wraps first a soft white bandage and then a blue sticky one around and around my leg.

We climb back into the front seats and fasten our seatbelts. As I start the car he unwraps a Hershey kiss and I open my mouth. It goes in this time. The sweet chocolate melts on my tongue.

“You okay?” he says.

“Right as rain,” I say.

“Right as rain,” he repeats.


Author’s note: My brother and I have had many conversations about events in our childhood that we both remember very differently. This was the starting idea of my story this week, but I allowed it to develop into this tale of siblings connected through family trauma and the roles it cast them both in. I hope you’ve enjoyed meeting Zech and Mina. We are halfway through this 52-week journey of short stories and I’m so grateful to everyone who has read, commented, or liked my posts so far. You keep me going and growing each week. Thank you for your support!


Short Story Challenge | Week 25

Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a story about memory editing wreaking havoc. We had to include Jupiter, chocolate, domestic, blossom, ladder, steam, extension, pine cone, sunrise, and tide.


Write With Us

Prompt: A dystopian glimpse of the future
Include: wheelchair, Labrador, throne, jungle, prescription, railroad, trunk, gulley, wasp, photosynthesize


My 52-Week Challenge Journey

The Car Wash

“Auntie,” he calls from the back seat.

I adjust the rearview mirror so I can see him smiling from his car seat in his striped footie pajamas. He turns the tiny gold key to my jewelry box over and over in his small hand. We spent all morning unlocking tiny doors around the house, letting out imaginary rabbits to rush around and find carrots in the carpet.

“The van is dirty,” he says.

We make eye contact in the mirror and he giggles. His bright blue eyes are hidden behind my pink sunglasses and he’s wearing a knit blue cap. I play along.

“Are you sure?” I say. “It looks clean to me.”

“Yes! It’s dirty!”

“Well…what do you think we should do?”

“Car wash!”

He says the words with a squeak at the end. His entire body jerks and the sunglasses fall off his face.

“You think so, huh?” I say.

“Yes! Car wash!”

“I don’t know…”

“Car wash! Car wash! Car wash!”

He knows I’m going to give in and I do. When he sees the yellow duck on the sign he claps his hands and kicks his legs. I put on our song, “Working at the Car Wash” by Rosvelt, and pull the shade back from the sunroof so we can see the bubbles all around us.

“Ready?” 

“Yes!”

I watch the joy and excitement on his squishy face as he stares at the green, blue and purple bubbles. We sing, dance, and giggle over the harsh sounds of the water and the fat colorful rollers slapping against the van.

It’s pure joy.

A ritual we’ve discovered together.

An auntie thing.

He turns three on Saturday and I live for these pockets of magic we uncover. 

Our shared treasure.

They feel big and important.

And fleeting.

My own children are teenagers, beautiful and complex. We are close and continue to create new memories, but I miss when they were small enough I didn’t have to share them with school or friends.

When they were mine.

I’ve discovered playing with my nephew allows me to slip back into memories of my own kids in a new and different way; to uncover the feelings and sensations of burying them in the sand, snuggling them at bedtime, and holding them when they’ve fallen. 

These little snapshots of my kids at his age come into focus with surprising intensity. It’s like remembering an old language I used to speak, slipping on an old sweater, or opening a tiny door.

It’s a wonderful and unexpected gift.

All the love.

All the silliness.

All the tears.

All the firsts.

This week my son got his first bank account and started his first job. As I drive him to work it occurs to me it’s the exact route I took to his preschool. The feelings swelling up are familiar too; another moment of letting go and another shifting of our relationship.

The sadness I expect to come, however, doesn’t.

It feels different.

When I pick up him at 10 p.m. he requests a Happy Meal and hopes he gets a Stitch toy. He talks animately about his job and the people he met. He laughs and we listen to “Pump up the Jam” at high volume and sing along.

My boy.

There you are.

The pandemic and his accidents robbed him of growth and some of the firsts he should have had. It put us in a strange place of adversaries, and we’ve both lost the comfortable way we’d always been together. The silly way we could look back and move forward; our own dance.

I’m remembering it.

I hope he is too.

We have a lifetime of firsts left.

First job uniform.

Home, Broken, Home

fullsizeoutput_1f78

Our house in the 1970s

It doesn’t look like my childhood home anymore. It hasn’t looked like it in a long time.

The effects of depression hang in the air, tangibly thick, like the layers of neglect and random things. Peeling back each one we find plenty that’s broken, unusable, forgotten or discarded. There are cords, cigarette butts, bottles, worn-out blankets, unmatched shoes and boxes of stuff bought for a purpose or plan long since abandoned. As we shovel it all away, pile it to be taken to the dump, my heart is breaking for what is at the very bottom of it all, the thing left when you peel everything away.

My childhood home.

My childhood.

Skating in the garage. Homework at the dinner table. Christmas mornings. Biking around the court. Neighborhood friends. Mudpies. A summer wedding in the front yard. Nursing a possum back to health. Hiding in my closet. Buried pets. Ewok battles. Midnight Jane Fonda workouts. My dad at his computer. Microwave popcorn. Goodnight kisses. My purple room. First day of school pictures. Our pig running through the back and front screen door. Slumber parties. Dancing on my bed. Rosanne on the TV. Mom sewing at the kitchen table. Sandbags. Doves. Playing shipwreck. Daycare kids. Charles Chips tins. Yellow flowered wallpaper. Spacecat peeing in the entryway. Piles of leaves. Brown carpet.

None of these memories will be erased by this move. I get to keep them. They are mine.

Yet there is something profoundly sad about the way this place I grew up, this place I learned about myself and the world, became. It didn’t just get sold. There isn’t just a new family moving in.

The house was broken.

Then taken (foreclosure).

It’s violating. It’s as if a part of my childhood was left to rot and spoil in the sun, a dead fish in a pile of debris. It’s ugly and raw.

I don’t blame my parents. There is no blame to place anywhere. Sometimes families fall apart and ours did so at an excruciatingly slow pace. It’s been decades and there are still casualties. Piles of them.

Although it would be easiest to only look forward, to face away from what was, I find myself drawn back by the little pieces of history unearthed. I want to remember, to honor these feelings, to touch all the creases and cracks of the walls before they are no longer mine to feel.

This weekend we must say our final goodbye. We will take the last things off the walls. I’ll open the hallway cupboards and run my hands over the place the board games used to live. I’ll walk into my closet and shut the door and sit in the dark one last time. I’ll stare at the door to my parent’s bedroom, the one I couldn’t enter without knocking. I’ll look out my bedroom window.

I was lucky to have grown up in this middle-class suburban neighborhood. I know that. My brother and I had friends to play with, we swam in the gutters, got into fights, babysat, borrowed sugar, trick-or-treated, sold candy bars door-to-door, walked the dogs and slowly changed into the people we are today.

The home of those memories, however, has been gone for a long time. It was fractured by divorce, mental illness and time. Things broke and didn’t get fixed. Weeds became impossible to combat. Cracks too big to mend.

The park we played at has been fenced off, permanently closed due to gangs and violence. My car was stolen when I was visiting and pregnant with my first child. Most of the neighbors have moved and the new ones are not friendly. It isn’t the neighborhood of my youth, it’s as crumbling as the roof and as ugly as the butchered tree in the front yard.

Things don’t stay frozen in time. Erosion. Evolution. Transformation.

Leaving this home behind will be a new start for my mother and brother, a chance to wipe clean the wounds of the past that lay bare and bleeding. They can shed the guilt, the pain and the reality of a space no longer serving the purpose it once did. They can outrun the ghosts and the echoes of a life lived.

This is an opportunity to make things better.

It’s for the best.

I know all this, yet it doesn’t make it any easier.

I’ve never liked the end of a book or the goodbyes when someone leaves. I wish I could skip ahead to the time when the pain is a memory, but that isn’t how things work.

The pain is here right now, whether I acknowledge it or not. This is the hard part.

Once we pull away with the last load of things on Sunday, maybe looking back for one last glance of myself riding my big wheel around the court, the real healing can begin.

fullsizeoutput_1f75fullsizeoutput_1f77fullsizeoutput_1f7aIMG_6006IMG_5997fullsizeoutput_1f79

Kissing the playful father goodbye

Driving to the grocery store I see a father in his lawn running madly after a little girl in a pink bathing suit and pigtails. She is squealing with joy as he squirts her with the hose. I smile and the father sees me looking and smiles back.

I turn the corner and the smile fades quickly. Tears fill my eyes and I curse them away, angry with myself for allowing someone else’s moment of happiness to shine a spotlight on the sadness inside me.

I didn’t grow up with a playful father. I don’t remember him chasing us, tickling us or squirting us with the hose. I have no memories of being thrown into a pool, playing catch or giggling madly as he makes silly faces at me.

I’ve searched my memory and those things just aren’t there. I can remember going to museums, day trips and being dropped-off at roller-skating lessons. There are memories of seeing him at his computer, visiting him at work and picking him up at the airport after business trips.

There were Shakespeare plays, discussions about homework and watching TV. He was at all my horse shows, band performances, speech competitions and theater productions. There was never a doubt he was proud of me.

But as hard as I focus, I can’t find any memories where we are laughing and playing together. I can’t remember him hugging me or kissing me goodnight. I don’t remember hearing “I love you” or him holding me as I cry.

This is the source of the tears and the sadness.

There is this picture of me at around my daughter’s age. I’m wearing a pale blue nightgown with a dainty pink ribbon on the front. I’m sitting in my Holly Hobbie bedroom on my dad’s lap. His arms are wrapped around me. I have my hands folded in front of me and I am smiling. Our faces are close and it looks like he might be about to give me a good night kiss.

I’ve studied this picture for years, trying to remember what it felt like to be in my father’s arms. I wish I could feel the sense of warmth and love the picture suggests. I wish I could remember.

As a mother now, I think about my dad. I imagine how lonely he must have been, as he and my mom didn’t have a very loving marriage. He worked all the time at a stressful job and was exhausted at the end of the day.

I get it.

There are days when I can’t muster a board game or even to read a story to my kids. I find them irritating, far too loud and just plain annoying. I just want everyone to shut up and nobody to touch me. I lock myself in my bedroom with a few beers and pray sleep comes soon.

I get it.

My children don’t have a playful father either. He doesn’t chase them, make them giggle or ride bikes with them. There is very little in the way of interaction most days and it makes me feel all the sadness and longing all over again.

I get so upset at my husband and wish he could be the father I wanted growing up. The one my friend’s had. The dad jumping off docks, teaching them to fish, taking them on daddy/daughter dates and always telling them they were beautiful. The dad who made his daughter feel like something special, instead of always feeling not good enough.

I know it is unfair to pin any of this on my husband. He is not my father, but pain and longing are irrational beasts that don’t care about logic. They tear at my gut and whisper unkind things to me about my own kids. They remind me that everything is my fault.

Blame. Guilt. Shame. Repeat.

My issues of feeling unloved, unworthy and unheard make me look at every interaction with a childish sense of injustice. I’m always looking at how my kids are slighted. How I am slighted.

I always feel like I’ve been handed the short stick in the love department.

chessI see my husband talking with our kids. They sit on the couch and have discussions about space and science. They play chess and he talks to them about classical music. There are museum trips, Legoland, Disneyland and one epic trip to the Bahamas. Taco Tuesdays. Go-kart races. Ice cream when mom is away.

Every night, after I read stories, he comes in and tells them goodnight. He kisses them on the forehead and brings them a glass of water. He says he loves them.

Every morning, I see him peek at them sleeping in their beds as he leaves for work at 5 a.m.

These are the ways a quiet man like him loves his children.

These are the memories they will have of their father.

It has nothing to do with me or my dad.

Time to give up the pain.

Saying goodbye 15 years late

Yesterday, while dancing away in the kitchen to Prince’s “1999,” I was suddenly cleaning my childhood home with my mom. Dancing, spinning and singing at the top of our lungs as we dusted and mopped. Prince, his tight pants and high voice, will forever be synonymous with my mother.

Driving to the coast last week, “In Your Room” by Depeche Mode came on the radio and I had an instant picture of my 16-year-old self. I’m alone, crying in my bedroom, playing that song on repeat and thinking I’d never find true love.

Whenever I hear David Bowie’s voice anywhere, even shopping at the grocery store, I picture him as the Goblin King in “Labyrinth” and I’m suddenly a young girl again. I can feel a surge of hope, as strong as ever, that somewhere out there is a mythical lover waiting for me, busy creating a world for the two of us alone. Bowie brings out the melodramatic romantic in me.

There is a soundtrack to life. A musical memory to accompany all the events, people and emotions that have combined to create the person we are right this minute. It feels like magic to me.

Music, like water and air for my soul, is something I can’t live without. Whenever strong emotions threaten to break me, I need to find music to match my mood and reflect back what I am feeling.

Johnny Cash is for the blues, obviously. There is nothing like the Man in Black when you want to wallow. Nahko and Medicine for the People are for when I’m feeling hopeless, picking me up when I think I can’t take it anymore. I love Emily Kinney for when I want to feel youthful and optimistic. Beastie Boys, Tori Amos, Imagine Dragons, Pixies, Queen. They all have a role to play in my emotional rolodex of music.

For over a decade, there is one CD I have to hear at least once a week. It fits a variety of my moods, but is particularly good for when I just want to sing and be happy.

eye

I found this CD in a free bin at work about 18 years ago. It never had a case and I have always just called it the “eye CD.” As in “where did I put the eye CD?” and “I need to hear me some eye.”

This week I pulled it out again and was singing along when it occurred to me, I have no idea who the singer is.

Seriously.

This voice I have grown to love and cherish is a complete mystery. As a former journalist, I’m shocked at myself. I suddenly had to know what he looked like. I had a million questions. Is he still touring? What other music of his am I missing out on? How old is he? Where does this album fit with his other music? Where did he grow up? What are his musical influences?

In tiny writing under the eye, I find a name.

Josh Clayton-Felt.

Excited, I type his name into Google and within a matter of minutes I have all the answers.

I also have a broken heart.

This beautiful singer, whose voice I adore, whose lyrics I have sung a thousand times, died of testicular cancer is 2000.

He has been gone for 15 years.

I spend the next few hours looking at pictures of his young face, listening to other music he created before he died, reading online interviews, watching videos and tributes.

I discover his mother, a playwright named Marilyn Felt, created an entire musical fable based on his life and his music called “Lightsong.” You can download it for free. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard.

While my heart is heavy at this loss, fresh and new to me, I’m also filled with gratitude for having stumbled upon “the eye” so many years ago.

His words are a part of my soundtrack and part of who I am. Now I have a little more of him to carry me through.

Thank you Josh Clayton-Felt.

If your road has reached the ocean
But your legs still want to go
And if they taught you how to doubt it
But you know it isn’t so

And if the moments seem to miss you
And if your partner isn’t there
And if you know you could reach the treasure
But you keep coming up for air

If you want to get through
To the other side
Let the dragonfly
Come and give you a ride
Every day you’re born
And every night you die
Let the dragonfly
Come and give you a ride

–lyrics from “Dragon Fly” by Josh Clayton-Felt

More than just a little story

I felt her hand on my chest. Her fingers found the soft spot she has always loved. The spot she has been caressing since her baby hands could reach it. She once told me she loves it because it’s squishy, warm and love. I love it as much as she does.

I caress her head and she cuddles in closer to me.

“Tell me about when I was born,” she coos. I have told her this story hundreds of times, but it never gets old for her. Or me. We love this story. The story of how she came into the world and I caught her myself. How I loved her little face the second I saw it. The big tub, her brother leaning over, grandma’s tears, how little she was, her ballet feet.

It’s our story.

She knows it so well that it is almost like a memory to her now.

That’s the power of storytelling.

Memory has always fascinated me. Some things I can recall crystal clear, yet others are slippery and elusive. It’s often in the telling and retelling that a story takes it’s permanent place in my memory bank. How close it is to the actual truth, I am uncertain.

I have so many stories I tell my children about themselves. Each one is selected purposefully. Stories that show how much they are loved, how strong they are and how they have overcome obstacles.

The story of how my son got stitches at age two is a favorite one. He was running to help a friend that had fallen. He hit his face on a park bench. All our friends rallied around us. Both kids love the part about how the nurse wrapped him up like a burrito and he asked for sour cream and avocado. Even in pain he made everyone laugh. I remember that he stared right into my eyes as they stitched him up. He didn’t move an inch. He was brave and in good spirits through the entire thing.

Every time they ask for a story about them, I am happy to tell it.

These are the stories they will remember and tell their children someday.

These stories are the foundation of how they think about themselves and how they fit into the world.

They are so much more than just stories.

I was reminded of this in a painful way this week.

I have a childhood friend that I love. Adore, really. Our history is long and we have lots of stories. Silly ones like swimming in the gutters and ruining our swimsuits. Sad ones like when she moved to England and I thought my heart would never recover from the break. Happy ones like when we used to squirt hoses across the street at each other.

For some reason, she keeps sharing a particular story that really doesn’t capture the “us” I remember. In this story, I am a bratty kid with a very bad attitude. Apparently, when I was about my boy’s age, I wrote her a letter in which I tell her that her mother is a bitch. Her mom kept this letter and they have brought it up several times now. They think it is funny. Maybe it is. But it doesn’t feel funny to me.

It actually hurts.

Deeply.

I didn’t say anything about it for awhile, because it is their story. But every time it is told, it makes my heart sink. It is embarrassing and I don’t remember writing it or feeling that emotion. I must have been really angry, upset or confused. It must have been hard for me to write such an emotionally charged word.

Memories are funny like that.

They remember me as this kid that wrote that letter. They also remember me as being mean and making fun of her for not being smart and knowing math.

I have no memory of either of those truths. I know those things happened…I just don’t remember it. Not even a tiny bit.

My image of myself at that age is a positive one. I loved school and was very good at it. The teachers loved me and I made friends easy. I have such vivid memories of being joyful, playing in the yard and riding bikes.

Maybe that is because those are the stories my mom told me about myself.

Maybe we just choose to remember the good about ourselves; because that is the truth we want to remember.

I have no idea.

What I do know is that storytelling is powerful stuff.

As a parent I need to keep that in mind. Always.

My son loves to hear and tell stories about the massive fits he used to throw. I would sit in his room with my back against the door while he raged and raged. He remembers feeling out of control. Kicking. Hitting. Sometimes even trying to bite me.

He is embarrassed now thinking about it, but I remind him that he was little and was having strong emotions he didn’t know how to express. I tell him that I loved him even in those moments, especially in those moments. That’s what parental love is.

These stories I tell and retell are helping my kids to write their own life story. It is shaping who they are and will become.

It’s an awesome responsibility and one that I don’t take lightly.

It is an honor.