How to Grow a Family Tree

Family Tree

My former mother-in-law is sitting on the cafeteria floor when I arrive. She’s come to watch Bug’s karate class. I slide down next to her. She leans over and touches her head to my shoulder. She smiles.

We have not seen each other in 6 years.

Continue reading “How to Grow a Family Tree”

Lost & Found

diamond in sand

Six years ago, I lost a diamond. It was a tiny bit from the whole, just one of many fragments — a single round stone from my father’s mother’s wedding ring, chips from my maternal grandmother’s jewels, and a white gold base that had been my own simple engagement ring. A craftsman put all these together and carved it with fine floral scrollwork.

At a December birthday party for Bug’s preschool friend, I glanced down and noticed the hole in this wedding ring. It was one of several small diamonds, easily replaced. Even so, the loss agitated me. In that tilting moment, I felt stripped, even a little ashamed.  The chattering conversation with other parents swirled around me and I couldn’t find my place in it anymore.

Looking around was futile. The dizzying bounce-castle playland reeled with dozens of shrieking children, a mini train, a video arcade, and a vast carpet littered with cake crumbs and rock salt shaken from winter boots.

I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. The hole felt like exposure, like it was baring some part of my story I wasn’t ready to face or share. I turned the band around to hide the cavity inside my fist.

When the ring came off six months later, it stayed off. By then, the holes in the marriage had multiplied beyond repair.

The ring lives now in my jewelry box. A little tarnished, it still bears the lovely tiny flowers. It still holds my Grandma Francis’ flawed stone. It still has the cavity where the lost chip used to be. For five years, I’ve been meaning to have the thing refashioned. With no unmarried cousins in line, why not turn the raw material into a necklace? A tiara? A bindi dot for nights on the town? This is what the brokenhearted do sometimes. They start their repairs from the outside in, turning burdensome symbols into pretty trinkets.

A wise idea, no doubt, yet here we are. Down in a dark tangle of discarded costume beads and widowed earrings, the ring is silent, holding what’s left of my grandmothers’ gems. It still contains that tiny reminder of something shaking loose, something escaping when I was looking the other way.

In grim or sentimental moments, I lift the ring from its shadowy velvet coffin. It is less fraught now, just metal, stone, and a little bit of history. The hole there no longer chills. In fact, I am oddly fond of that missing piece. That space is where the light shines through.

Back then, the story called for a way, and an opening appeared. This is how it goes with loss.

Now I claim the absence along with the substance.

I imagine the lost diamond out there, carried away in the tread of someone’s shoe, crushed into an icy Glens Falls sidewalk. It rises with the spring thaw and courses along rivulets, down, down, until it splashes into Lake George and sinks to the cold, jagged bottom. It returns to its beginnings. It becomes what it was all along: rock, debris, the stuff of earth churning back into itself.

Freed from the confines of its white gold setting, it expands, morphs, rearranges its atoms.

Eventually, in the full, unfurling expression of the shape it’s decided to take (for now), it returns.

When it does, I barely recognize it.

The messenger, the man, is already kin. I blink until I see in him the resemblance of the generous gift of my family’s love now multiplied. Their glinting progeny reaches for my wrist and draws me – the girl, the woman – into the next chapter. From their place in the wings, the ones who have passed from the story now urge us to carry on. Their part is over. They leave us here to do what we will with what they entrusted to us.

Last night, my grandmother’s diamond returned.

Changed, certainly.

And so much more lustrous than if it had never gone its own way.

 

 

63. Things I Can Recite: Alas, Poor Yorick

denmark-girl-at-kronborg-castle-garrisonsIt’s July 9th and raining again. My former father-in-law sends me photos of my son at the beach on an island in Lake Michigan. Bug is scrabbling on the shore near his two cousins. They are all turned away from each other, each bent over a single small universe of sand. The girls are 12 and 10 now. I held them when they were babies. They were my nieces before. Now they are just someone else’s children.

Sorrow again.

Or rather, sorrow as always.

In Pacific Heights, the 1990 thriller that put even the most liberal of us squarely on the side of monied landlords, a happy couple invites the dude to move in. He does, and proceeds to lay waste to an entire world one light fixture at a time.

This sorrow here with me? He is my tenant from hell. It is hard to believe he once so completely charmed me, but he must have.

Back when the pages of my 8th-grade diary needed an indigo flourish, he came oozing up from the spiral binding and began scoring my lines with crenelations. He had callouses and clean fingernails, serving up a Darcy-Heathcliff cocktail with a twist of Bond. It took a few years and a semester of college English Lit to peel back the pinstripes. He was the Danish prince all along and stopped bothering to claim otherwise. Now he’s as indelible as he is unmistakable, moping around the crumbling grounds in a state of masturbatory melancholy that borders on solipsism.

It’s too late to eject him.

I’m too mortgaged to try.

What came before? I see a picture of myself at 10 or 12 on a beach in New Jersey. The snapshot catches me mid-leap in the surf, a dragonfly in amber. Water arcs from the bucket in my hand and my friend shrieks. Her note twinges the air, humming across years like wings. We are neon streaks, brown limbs, airborne, foam.

I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

The faithful prince catches me again and twines my feet in those calligraphic lines. He promises me Elsinore and all her ghosts, as if such an offer holds any appeal. I climb the stone steps still trailing silver thread, making my way to the keep. A trap door opens in the floor and I follow the stairs as they spiral down and away. Back to apotheca. To kitchen. To dungeon. I trace the walls again, again, walls unbroken by portculis or bridge.

I remember windows when he lets me.

Sorrow. My voice. My lodger.

My common-law spouse.

The shape of the skull on my shoulders, the heft of it in my hand.

 

Photo credit: Sisse Brimberg & Cotton Coulson, Keenpress for National Geographic

The Year of Pottery

We had a cookie ceremony. Friends and family poured ingredients into a shared bowl. Sugar, flour, chocolate, salt. The dear ones who were married long enough to know something about sticking it out through the rough stuff had painted a bowl to hold this moment. They’d splashed it sunflower yellow and added coral loops. Their baby daughter’s footprint marked the base.

Each participant stepped up and told a story. My almost-sister-in-law cracked open an egg and recalled the chicken coop in the yard in Wisconsin. My mother added pecans and told about the trees on the long-gone land of our Oklahoma kin. Each story found its way into the mix that was becoming Us.

When the mandolin and fiddle played the happy jig, the ceremony turned into dancing and caterers served chocolate chip cookies to everyone.

Nine years, it would have been.

We live up the street from each other now, both of us just a short jump to the park where we stood laughing in the sweltering sun on this day then. The man I married is my friend, our mix now composed mostly of flour and salt. It’s light on sugar but I don’t mind. It’s been 18 months since I’ve eaten a cookie. I’ve shed the craving for sweet.

The yellow bowl is a pop of light on my kitchen counter. It cradles lemons, nectarines, the paper husks of garlic bulbs. When my boy and I come home from school, I dance around the sink and stove cobbling together a meal. My son goes to relax in his “spot,” a bare wooden chair in the corner under the calendar.

He reaches into the bowl and pulls out a banana just like he did the last time he was here.

“You hungry for a snack, bub?” I ask.

“Sort of.” He splits the peel open and settles back. “This is just what I do now. This how it is.”
 

Offering

This is the ritual. Like smoke
braiding then falling then
choking. We fumble
chopsticks
(at least one of us does)
unwinding ribbons of cabbage and shrimp.
We are so civil. So kind.

The sun is a slow river
of lava rolling over the windshield of a car
that growls at the curb. Heat seeps in
through the cracks around the door
and eats at the legs
of our narrow table.

How can he be
so quiet? So calm?
I want to cry
out for the server to close the curtains
and turn up the chill, to cry
for the sake of noise.
I strain to say
how good it is we survived
and he says Yes, this is what we do.
This is how it is.
So I press on
the scorched balls of my feet (to stanch
the boil or start it?)
but he does not
call for ice. He does not shudder
from the quiet. He’s never known
what it is to be a woman
burned.

We rate our happiness on a sliding scale.
I felt big things
always, never anything as tiny
as a skewered curl of shrimp
poised over sweet vinegar in a tea bowl.

This man will be a friend
of sorts even though he opens the door
for me on my way in and
in the slope thrusting up
before us.
He waits
for me to step through. I want to marry
myself. If such a thing could be done,
if by walking backward
across the face
of the clock, I could take the weight
of the girl who shares my name
again
and let her lean here on this older
version. The one across the table
is old too
but I would not be so warm
or pleased
or waiting at the door
with a white smile.
I would be the one
who grips the earth
and her
when she forgets how to keep her skin
around her bones
and carry her

over the threshold.
I would reach to loosen the cord
at the volcano’s neck
and take the first step
into its spilling open
mouth.
 

The Price is Right

It’ll cost you
the title, your hero,
your favorite villain,
and at least half the notes
you’ve added to the score.
You’ll be charged the magic carpet
of your pride and its rareified view
from a distance that has shrunk
so mercifully the proportion
of your never diminishing guilt
along the contours
of your history.

Into this dowry will go your cardinal
north and the map you drew
with measurements meticulously
if mistakenly
taken. You’ll hand over the slide rule
along with the legend
of triumphant good and forfeit
the last word,
the last laugh, the last time
you’ll ever have to deal with that shit again.

Hidden fees will take your breath
away and the fine print
sting your eyes:
You can’t throw anyone
under the bus, gather an audience,
hand-pick seeds
to sow, spin bristles into yarns,
tally fault, count beans,
spit venom, or squirrel spite
into the pocket of your cheek
and chew its cud in righteous silence.

You will pay yourself empty
of the solid weight
of your myth
just to buy a ticket
to a lottery whose odds are against you
and whose prize is nothing
more than a single fleeting frame

of sun-warmed bleachers
in an early spring thaw
where you loll with your son
and the person who shared
the bed where he was made

watching a stuttering rainbow
of children cast balls from turf to net
and another family
maybe taking shape
and maybe changing the currency
that drops in your palm
one penny at a time.