My brothers and I were raised listening to our mother’s childhood stories of the laughing man in the top hat and tails who would jump back and forth over her bed at night, a fancy cane tucked lightly under one arm. We also knew that her brother Jack once became two Jacks: she passed one Jack walking up the stairs, then turned the corner into the kitchen to find a second Jack drinking water in his underwear. She convinced us that eating the end of a pickle would kill us, that we could drown in a teacup, and that a glass of water on the night stand would make us fall out of bed to our deaths, its jagged shards cutting our soft necks.
Driving at night, my mother always watched for a car with only one headlight. This would certainly be “The Crazy Amish Man,” a maniac who prowled Ohio’s back roads with a burned-out headlight, straddling the center line and running poor families into the ditch. As our mother scouted for the Amish man, my brothers and I watched out for a palm-sized piece of ice in the road that could pick up our two-ton 1947 Buick and toss it end over end across the frozen, corn-stubbled fields, killing us all.
One day, my mother was ironing a blouse and laid her pantyhose at the end of the ironing board. As she ironed, she jogged the board, and the pantyhose fell. When she set the iron down and bent over to pick them up, they weren’t on the floor. She looked to see if they had gotten hung up on the ironing board. They hadn’t. She looked everywhere, searched the entire room, but found no trace of them. They were gone.
“It was weird,” she said later. “Spooky.” Then she added, “Thank God you kids were playing outside when it happened.”
I was lying on a wicker couch with worn red cushions and eating vanilla ice cream with raspberries — my favorite. An African documentary came on TV. Two lines of men were standing on either side of a path of coals. Even in black and white, you could see the coals smoldering, smoke rising from the edges. The men chanted and swayed, then one by one began to walk over the coals. I looked closely to see if their feet were being burned up. Each strolled through the coals unharmed and returned to his place in line.
That night, I told my father what I had seen, and he, a doctor, assured me that it was a hoax, like the two-headed midget in a sideshow.
Many years later, I was living in a farm community in western Oregon. One August, my friends and I had just returned from picking blackberries and were hand-cranking ice cream. Awaiting my turn, I lay in a hammock between two large maples. A visitor from Santa Cruz was telling me about a friend of hers who had recently been to a “firewalk.” Did you believe it? I asked. Why not? was her reply.
Four months later, I moved to a tiny apartment in Eugene, Oregon. On a bulletin board I saw the message “FIREWALK,” followed by a phone number.
The workshop used firewalking as a way to conquer personal fear. It began with the ignition of a very substantial pyre using a gallon of kerosene. While the wood burned down, we passed the time in formal and informal discussion of our individual hang-ups and frustrations. Every time someone checked the status of the fire, I felt a new wave of terror. I really did not want to have my feet burned and blistered. But I did want to believe that it could be done — that I could do it.
Darkness came. The coals were ready. We were instructed to write down specific problems we wanted solved, or changes we desired. Some folks wrote pages. I finally decided on one that seemed at the root: self-condemnation. That was what I wanted to release into the fire.
We took off our shoes and socks and rolled our pants up to the knees; it was real fire and could burn our clothes. We made a circle around the sixteen-foot bed of orange coals. The workshop leader touched my shoulder and told me to breathe deeply a few times. Then he said, “Ask yourself if you have permission.” Before his instruction even registered, I began.
I looked straight ahead, moving slowly. I could feel the coals crunch beneath my weight.
And then it was over. Someone was hosing coal pieces from between my toes. I returned to my position in the circle. I wanted to go a second time, but my inside voice said, “No, you’ve had enough tonight.”
Later, we took turns washing and drying each other’s feet, and giving one another general foot inspections. Some had a few blisters. I had none. We dressed and agreed to meet the following Thursday for a potluck and post-firewalk exchange of experiences.
On my way to the reunion the next week, I ran into an old friend, and instead of the potluck we went for a bowl of French vanilla ice cream with blueberries.
My grandma was a farmer’s wife. She raised four children, tended a kitchen garden, and harvested the orchard, putting up the produce on a wood-burning stove. She sewed most of the family’s clothes, embroidered, and helped with church functions. She could not, however, drive, set her hair (my grandpa did that for her), or tie her shoes, because her left hand and wrist were atrophied from the polio she’d had as a teenager.
“Fingers were made before forks,” she would say as she dove right into her fried chicken, or anything else she could eat with her hands. She loved clothes with snaps, shoes that buckled, and Velcro. When my grandpa died, she had to learn to drive or else move off the farm. By sheer grit, she got her license. It was always a wild ride. After my son was born, on those postpartum days when I was tired and disoriented, I would think of how she’d had to manage cloth diapers and pins, and tell myself I had it easy.
After her hip replacement, she came up with even more inventive ways to perform such tasks as dressing and bathing. She told me that, when confronted with a new chore, she’d simply ask herself, “Now, how am I going to do that?” That statement epitomized her approach to life.
Diana L. Dickman
Walla Walla, Washington
In 1952, I was born to an alcoholic mother. I stopped making drinks for her at age nine, and after that watched her crawl downstairs to make her own. My father left when I was ten. When I was twelve, my mother began calling me a slut and told me I wouldn’t make it past my sixteenth birthday without getting pregnant. Somewhere around that birthday, my two older brothers left, leaving me alone in the house with my mother and her abusive lover — my father’s nephew. Her drinking pissed him off, so every other night he would choke her until she was breathless and slam her head against the wall between our bedrooms: bang, bang, bang! Also around that time, he began making random visits to my room and putting his hands all over my body and sticking his fingers in me. When I told my mom, she didn’t believe it. I told her she had to choose between him and me, and she chose him. I moved out. She died in March of my senior year in high school.
Now I’m forty-two and live happily with my own daughter. Once in a while, I dream that black-and-blue batlike creatures with pointed beaks fly through my bedroom window and set my hair on fire. They scream hideously and scratch and peck at my melting scalp. Always, I am able to force myself awake, because I know what is happening is impossible.
Spring Hill, Florida
How is it possible, on this dear earth that is home to the goldfinches I now watch settling on the heavy heads of our sunflowers, that three men tried to kill my son? How is it possible that they shot him in the leg, my boy’s leg — that flesh I tended as if it were God’s own? How could they have chased him half the night through the jungles of Peru after killing his friend, shooting that boy in the chest, blasting him into food for the fish and reptiles of the Maranon River? How is it possible that the friend’s mother still lives, works, eats, and sleeps?
How could my son have known how to escape? (“I was like an animal,” he said.) How did he know to smear mud over his body so that the moon would not reveal it, to bury himself in the soil as the bandits with guns walked past, stalking him? (“They think white people eat their kids,” he explained.)
When he came home, wounded but healing, after the Peruvian military rescued him, after kindly women tended to him in a makeshift hospital, I wondered, How is it that the earth sustains all this at once: a dead child and a live one, a bereft mother and a grateful one?
I was living in an Airstream trailer in the woods of Vashon Island, in Puget Sound, and I didn’t have a telephone. It was a hot August Friday, and I was on my way home after a hard week’s work clearing dense underbrush for a surveyor. I was dirty, sweaty, and exhausted, and looking forward to a bath, or at least what passed for one in the Airstream: sitting in a tiny, triangular tub, my knees nearly level with my chin, and pouring water over my head from a small aluminum bowl.
As I drove up the winding dirt road to the trailer, I suddenly had a vision of my mother in a hospital bed. My father was standing next to her, holding her hand, and my brother was nearby, dialing a telephone. It was so vivid that I momentarily lost sight of the road, and tears came to my eyes.
Once home, I shook my head clear of the image, took my bath, changed my clothes, and drove uptown to Al & Tony’s Pizzeria — my island hangout and the place where people could call to leave messages for me. When I walked into Al & Tony’s, the cook informed me that some man had called for me an hour earlier. “He didn’t leave his name,” she told me, “but he said he’d call again later.”
I sat at the counter, ordered a turkey sandwich and a cup of coffee, and chatted with a friend as I ate. Just as the evening’s live music was about to start, the cook said I had another phone call.
It was my brother, Bill, calling from a hospital in Tacoma, where our parents lived. Dad was there with him. “Mom’s in the hospital,” Bill said. “It looks like she might die. You should probably come.”
“I already know,” I told him.
“What do you mean?”
I tried to explain the vision I’d had while driving up the road to the trailer. Bill’s only response was a protracted silence. He obviously didn’t believe me, or thought I was nuts, or felt that I was belittling the seriousness of our mother’s impending death by making a psychic episode out of it.
I can see why he felt that way, but the thing is, it happened.
Samuel Wilson III
Vashon Island, Washington
When I was very small, my father would take the six of us children to a swimming hole on the Mahoning River. He taught only the boys to swim. I managed to learn the dog paddle on my own, to keep from being carried away by the swift current and to avoid irritating my father with my helplessness. Much later, in my thirties, I signed up for swimming lessons and went on to become a certified diver.
At twelve, I wanted to play in the school band. The director let me use an old, tarnished alto horn that had been donated to the school. When I practiced at home, my father mocked me and said I would never learn, would never even be able to carry the big horn, let alone play it. I earned first chair.
When I was sixteen, my father said I would never get my driver’s license because I couldn’t work the clutch without stalling. My big brother let me use his automatic to take the test, and I passed. Twenty-odd years later, I bought a convertible VW bug, made a bumper sticker for it that read, “I roll backwards,” and soon mastered shifting; I zipped up and down hills and around corners with my hair flying.
When I graduated from high school, my father expected me to move out, go to work, and support myself. I did, but I never stopped going to school. In my thirties I earned an associate’s degree, and in my forties a bachelor’s. This fall, I begin work on my master’s.
Alice Marie DeBerry
At fifty-eight, I am getting comfortable with my fallibility and mediocrity, and I am therefore more frequently pleased with myself. I am now able to admit freely that I am often wrong, I sometimes lie (to myself and others), and I often don’t fit into culturally expected roles.
Earlier in my life, for instance, it would have been impossible for me not to bake banana bread if I had a glut of ripe bananas on hand, even if the weather was lovely and I’d rather have been outdoors hiking or biking, or inside taking a nap. But now, as a grandmother of five, I make no secret of preferring reading and writing poetry to baking cookies, something that would have been unthinkable not too long ago, as my husband and children wondered aloud, “What kind of grandmother are you?”
Now I will be myself, and that’s enough.
A year ago last May, I retired from the only job I’ve ever known. For twenty-three years I’d worked in my family’s business, side by side with my father in a store he built and owned. The business ruled our lives. Even growing up, we knew the business came first. Family time, vacation, and days off were allowed only if the business permitted.
When I gave birth to my only child nineteen years ago, I went back to work two weeks after she was born, working ten hours a day, six days a week. Fifteen years later, seeing how I was missing out on time with my daughter, I pulled back to five days a week — making me a “part-timer” in my father’s eyes.
I was expected to take over the business, but for years I thought about leaving. Still, I couldn’t bring myself to make the break. I was afraid of disappointing my father, afraid to leave the business he’d built from nothing, afraid my parents would have to work harder if I left. My father and I would have horrible arguments over my wanting to leave. He would tell me to go, then recant and ask me to stay. Each time, guilt and love, misguided though they were, kept me there.
I can’t remember the final breaking point, but I eventually gave him a three-year notice, deciding that my last day would be the day before my daughter graduated from high school. He never really thought I would leave, and he still believes I will come back. Sometimes even I don’t believe I made the break. And sometimes I can’t believe I waited so long to do it.
Rancho Palos Verdes, California
My husband and I danced naked in the bedroom of our small apartment in the big, dirty city. I was likely coming down from a cocaine binge; that summer was full of binges, and drug runs to Central Park West with my lover. He and I would spend hours roaming New York City, ducking into hotel lobbies and restaurant bathrooms to snort lines from enameled cigarette cases, then gulping alcohol in dark bars to keep our hearts from beating too fast. The thought of my husband sitting at home barely crossed my mind, except when the cocaine wore off, and guilt and depression set in.
My husband’s distant demeanor and his drinking, coupled with my irresponsibility, had kept us apart that summer. Yet this night, I was home with him. We had been attempting to make love, but it wasn’t working. Tom Waits’s “Tom Traubert’s Blues” was on the turntable, and we got up from the damp sheets to dance. At that moment, the guilt of my hidden addiction and my affair washed over me like a cold sweat. My husband and I were skin to skin, in the dark, dancing together to the saddest song ever written. I thought it would be impossible, no matter how long I lived, to ever be that sad again.
Two years later, after we had both sobered up and my affair was long over, I began to realize how important my marriage was, how much I wanted to make it work. Then one day my husband and I were standing in the kitchen of the home we had just bought, and he told me that he needed to leave, that he could not be married anymore, that he loved me, but not like that. I thought back to the night when we’d danced without clothes, and realized I had been very, very wrong about how sad I could be.
All of the third- and fourth-graders — 150 of us — assembled in the cafeteria. We were having an aptitude test to determine our musical ability. The test giver, seated at a piano that seemed very far away, solicitously asked, “Is this the same pitch as the one played a moment ago? Or is it higher? Or lower?”
A week or two later, my parents and I were officially informed that I possessed no aptitude for music and that, whatever my innate talents were, they lay in other fields of endeavor.
I now make my living teaching music, have had my orchestral music recorded, and am about to release a new CD.
Don’t listen to the test givers.
Paul F. Renz
A young Latina woman comes into the busy labor-and-delivery unit where I’m a nurse and says she hasn’t felt her baby move since last night; she’s a week overdue. We scan her belly with the ultrasound machine and see that the heart is no longer beating. I wait for the father to arrive, then tell the two of them there is no heartbeat; the baby has died. The young woman’s loud, anguished cries fill the room. The father pins her to the bed in a tight hug as she beats him and flails for a long time.
There is still a lot to do. She’s in labor and having painful contractions. I explain to them that she must push her baby out, that a Caesarean would be a double insult: having to heal from major surgery, with no baby in return.
The epidural anesthesia makes the mother numb from belly to legs. She has to wear EKG leads, a blood-pressure cuff, and an IV line. She and the father cry quietly off and on, and twice he takes me out of the room to ask, “Why? What did we do wrong?” It seems impossible to him that this could have happened. I explain that it was probably an accident; babies can choke on the cord.
She dilates quickly and is suddenly ready to push. I refrain from the usual cheerleading. The baby’s head emerges sluggishly, covered in the bowel movement that indicates severe stress. The rest of the body follows slowly. It’s a boy. I clean him quickly and wrap him in a large blanket. He is a six-and-a-half-pound replica of his daddy, seemingly perfect in every way, but the smell of death, even mingled with the smell of birth, is unmistakable.
He gets a bath, and footprints, and photographs, and a certificate. Then I dress him in a gown with a blue flower on the collar, wrap him in a blanket, and leave him for them to mourn.
There are a million details left for me to attend to, and I do so professionally. But after they leave, I sit on the woman’s bed and cry. I am exhausted and drained, and I have to work again tomorrow.
After seven years of kidney dialysis and related problems, my mother’s health took a turn for the worse. Her leg arteries had become occluded, and, unless she agreed to arterial surgery, she risked losing the use of her legs, possibly even the legs themselves. It was a risky procedure, but she reluctantly consented.
The results were not good. Although the surgeons were able to restore circulation to her legs, the operation triggered a number of systemic failures throughout her body. Her condition rapidly deteriorated, and she became unable to eat or digest, to turn herself in bed, or even to speak beyond a few whispered syllables. She was incontinent, nearly comatose.
Although her doctors told us that, with continued intravenous feeding and round-the-clock care, she might survive for months, we all agreed that such an existence hardly constituted living. We decided to take her home from the hospital, keep her as comfortable as possible, and prepare for the end. The doctors warned us that, without the IV, she would die within a matter of days.
After a painful ambulance ride home and the difficult transfer of her bloated, wasted body into the bed, we sat numbly, braced for the end.
About two hours passed, and my mother asked for some soup. Not only that, she wanted to eat it in the kitchen. She sat at the table, fed herself, and asked for more. Within three days, she was walking to the kitchen without assistance. Within three weeks, she was cooking the soup herself. And within three months, she was going to the hairdresser and telling jokes.
Now, almost two years later, and despite a few lingering problems with her feet and legs, my mother is fully recovered — and has undergone a remarkable change in outlook. Once a vain and proper woman, she now looks for substance beneath the outer shell. She laughs often, swears occasionally, and demonstrates daily her love for us.
When I asked her what she thought had made her recovery possible, she said, “When I got home and saw all of you, and all my beautiful things — and when I thought about my wonderful life here — I decided I didn’t want to leave.”
Risa Sherer Scranton
Albany, New York
Ray isn’t home, but he’s supposed to be. My mother paces the apartment, pulls at her fingers until they crack, and twists knots in the telephone cord. She says I can eat or not — it’s all the same to her. She tells me my voice gives her a headache.
I pretend my mother’s boyfriend is never coming back. I lick the salt off pretzel sticks and picture him dying in a car wreck or a subway bombing, and I try to cry, but I can’t.
If Ray were gone, my mother and I would go shopping, and I would try on silver and gold shoes, and satin and silk party dresses, just because. My mother wouldn’t look at her watch every ten minutes. We wouldn’t have to run to catch an early train. She’d wrap sequined belts around my waist, and we’d model hats in three-way mirrors. She’d tie scarves around my neck with fancy gold pins. We’d get our nails done — my mother’s with long fake tips, mine with gold stars on the pinkies. Then we’d soak our feet in hot water and have a lady massage our toes with oil. We’d eat lunch in a place with tablecloths under glass and napkins folded like fans. At night we’d watch movies with mariachi music and happy endings. Then my mother would put cream on her face and let me brush her hair. She’d sing as she tucked the blankets under my neck, and sit there with her hand on my cheek, still sitting there and singing even after I fell asleep.
The doorbell rings. My mother is wearing fresh lipstick and has her hair tied back with a ribbon. The newspaper is set out on Ray’s favorite chair, the silverware lined up like soldiers.
“How you doin’, kid?” Ray says, tossing me a comic book. I tell him I’ve read that one before.
Over her shoulder, my mother stares me down, her chin high, her lips curled, letting me know this is her dream, and mine doesn’t matter.
Merrick, New York
Listening to news reports about the Chicago Marathon, I used to think that 26.2 miles was too far for a person to run. For me, forty pounds overweight and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, one mile was too far.
Eventually, my doctor’s chiding got me to evaluate why I overate and drank and smoked. An attempt to run around my neighborhood park revealed the damage I was doing to my body: after about half a mile, my out-of-shape muscles started screaming for oxygen, and my lungs felt as if they were being cut open with a paring knife. But I started running regularly, deriving a great sense of accomplishment from going just a few hundred yards farther than I had the day before.
After a year of steady progress, I ran my first race, 3.1 miles. After another year, I ran my first marathon. And after completing twenty-three marathons, I signed up for a hundred-mile race that traversed the India-Nepal border at an altitude of thirteen thousand feet. With Mt. Everest visible in the distance, I ran the full hundred miles.
Hebo is a fistful of buildings on the soggy western slopes of the Oregon Coast Range. One of the only things I liked about living there was that I could pull on my rubber boots, rubber overalls, rubber jacket, and rubber hat, and walk down to the river to watch the salmon.
Their upstream passage blocked by a dam, the salmon roiled the still waters. The river was small and the dam was small, but some of the fish were close to fifty pounds. They would mill about, bright scarlet and black, battle scars white with fungus, sometimes brushing against my boot as I stood in the water. A fish ladder was tucked like an afterthought in the shallows to one side, and occasionally a fish would find it. As for the rest, every few minutes one would come hurtling out of the water at eye level and fall at the face of the dam with a great splash. None ever came close to clearing the dam, yet never had utter failure seemed so impressive.
Those that found their way to the fish ladder ascended directly to the hatchery, where Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel would kill them, slit them open, and fertilize their eggs more efficiently than the salmon could themselves. The young that hatched would be fed pellets until they were old enough to contribute to the Oregon economy. I worked for the Forest Service, which did much the same thing, only with trees.
Andrew C. Emlen
In 1940, I was born in a hut in the Puerto Rican countryside. When the midwife brought me into this world — weighing only four pounds and two months premature — she said that I would not live without an incubator. But I fooled her.
My destiny in life was decided for me: I would be a sugar-cane cutter like my father and grandfather. But I refused to spend the rest of my life under the grueling tropical sun cutting sugar cane for two dollars a day. Education was the only way out, I knew, but the local school taught only a scant hundred words of English — a language I knew I’d need.
My father’s sister lived in New York City, and, at age twelve, I convinced my parents to let me go live with her and continue my education. “You can’t survive in the white man’s world,” I was told, but I went anyway.
My aunt’s world was limited to work and church; it was not the New York I had imagined. So, when I was fifteen, I got a part-time job and rented a furnished room. I was free, but soon fell into gang life. The Red Dragons became my family, and they were openly scornful of education.
To escape the gang, I moved to Pennsylvania, where I got a job ironing women’s stockings at a West Reading sweatshop: no union; eat lunch while you work. I worked there three years, until I joined the navy. In 1964 I got my high-school diploma and Sara, my wife, gave birth to our son, Ronnell. Two years later, I was sent to Vietnam. In 1967, my tour of duty completed, I returned to work at the sweatshop.
Then minorities began demanding equal opportunities in the workplace. Though I had nothing to do with the protests, I became the first Hispanic at Bell Laboratories in Reading. My salary, however, was only half of what I made at the sweatshop, so I kept that job, too.
“If you want to go any higher,” my lab supervisor said, “I suggest you go to college at night.”
How? There are only twenty-four hours in a day. That made eight at the lab, four at the sweatshop, four at school, four for family, and four for sleep.
It took me six years to get an associate’s degree, but I got my promotion.
The boss took one look at my lanky, seventeen-year-old body and proceeded to tell me how tough the job was, and that many guys didn’t make it through the trial period. It was obvious he thought I wouldn’t make it either, and I seemed destined to prove him right.
The work was scraping blubber from salt-cured sealskins. It was physically demanding, and also exacting, for one had to be careful not to damage the valuable pelt. The trial period — eighty grueling hours in a St. Louis fur-processing plant — weeded out the weaker applicants and prepared the successful ones for a summer’s work on St. Paul Island in the Bering Sea.
My mother had found out about the job from a friend whose son had made the trip. This son, whom I didn’t know, served as my inspiration. As I toiled away, I muttered repeatedly under my breath, “If he could do it, so can I.”
Somehow I endured my eighty hours without quitting, and, in June 1951, I embarked on the first of three summer trips to faraway St. Paul Island. During my second summer, I finally met my inspiration — the son of my mother’s friend. He was an enormous, powerful man who made the work seem ridiculously easy. In retrospect, I wonder, if I’d known him beforehand, would I have made it through my eighty-hour ordeal?
I remember thinking as a child that certain things just couldn’t happen to me. But they happened anyway: alcoholism, abandonment, the death of a parent, divorce, depression. How, then, could I have been surprised at thirty-eight to learn that I had cancer?
When, after six months of chemotherapy, the cancer returned, the next step was a bone-marrow transplant. I lost every fingernail and toenail, and cannot walk up a steep hill or stay alert for a full day. But the spring air smells sweet just after the rain. And the breeze brushing so delicately past my bald head is freedom. The song of a single bird can lift my heart. Watching my dog dream makes me smile, as does the gentle purring of my cat when she curls against my chest.
That the exquisite beauty of these moments ever escaped me seems impossible now.
Mary Michel Butler