Tag Archives: family

17 months

You’re too young; you won’t remember wriggling in your body, hugging my neck hard with those pretty, fat hands, giving kisses and showing us the food you’ve chewed up before you swallow it. (We delight in this; yes, we are those people, laughing at one child’s antics in a restaurant.) I’m leaving you–aunties are meant to leave for a while, go to other countries, come back with strange scarves and foreign chocolate as presents. But there has never been space between us, you little one, and me, and not between me and your big sister, the careful, wise child to whom I cannot even bear to say goodbye. (Beauty mark. Inner wrist. You have my whole heart.)

I’m going away. Moving, over land-land-ocean. How will you get there? Your big sister asks. Airplane. Luck. With thoughts of your small faces and easy laughs in my mind.

Be good, littlest niece. Jump in the Fall leaves. Grow as big as you can–I’ll bite my tongue not to say “don’t get bigger”–and show it all off to me when I come home to hold you, soft, in my arms again.

As to you, California redwoods, sunshine, ocean, and city fog: we’ll ride the days out together as you’re in my veins, pumping my blood, moving me forward.

Cereal for Dinner

Final post: Alas, this is my last week as a part of the 5×500 crew. I’m sad to go, but excited for the next phase of writers. It’s been so much fun being a part of this. Thanks for reading. – Mel

Everybody’s standing in the yard waiting for dad. I’m the oldest, so I hold Megan, the baby, in my arms. Mom is in the car already, looking exhausted. I have the feeling like I’m somewhere I’m not supposed to be, like I’m about to be caught. My legs get all tensed up, ready to run, and my breathing gets shallow. I wonder if that’s what’s happening to dad right now, if that’s why he’s locked himself in the downstairs bathroom and refuses to come out.

We’re supposed to be at grandma’s for our cousin’s birthday party, but we’re almost an hour late now. I look to mom to see if there’s any indication when we can just give up and go back inside. When we can stop standing in the yard like a pack of wolves – all eight of us kids, plus the baby. There’s a slamming, and for a moment I think dad has finally vacated the bathroom, but then mom walks up beside me. She says, “He’s overwhelmed with work,” and takes the baby from me. I wonder why we don’t just go to grandma’s without him, but the way mom’s shoulders droop as she carries the baby and tucks Jen, the five year old, under her armpit, I can feel the reason why without entirely knowing it. The rest of us follow suit: Reinard, the ten year old, two year youngers than me; Laurence, nine; Bennett, seven; Maxwell, five – Jen’s twin; Leigh, four; and Peyton, two and a half. She lets us eat cereal for dinner. It takes two boxes of Frosted Flakes, and by the time I pour my own, the milk is down to its final drops and I use water to fill the bowl. Mom nurses the baby, digging entire handfuls of cereal out of the box and eating it, not noticing the tiny white and beige crumbs landing on the baby’s head.

Making room

Our mother is too young
to care for – and yet,
there she is, her suitcase at her feet,
her only company.
Look inside,
there is everything she owns:
Those capris with cherries on the butt
that look like jeans on her;
Jergens lotion, cherry-almond;
those off-brand, fake fur-lined boots
she made me buy her before heading back
to Hawaii.
These and other things accompany her
from island to island to mainland.

It is just a bigger island, I remember
my uncle saying, accent-heavy
and sweaty from eating all that pig,
eyes and bones left, nothing else.

What Was Taken

Tonight we came home to this scene: The front door, ajar. Our things – clothing, books, dishes (broken), and those tiny milk glass figurines I’d been collecting since I was in high school – strewn about. I leaned against the door frame, staring, thinking about all of the words I would use to describe this: Agape, ajar, strewn, shattered, nausea. Dennis whispered commands at me: Get back! Call the police! Get your cell phone! Don’t touch anything! The more he hissed, the heavier I became, pushing against that door frame like a life support. In the end, it was he who rummaged through my purse to find my cell phone. He had to hang up twice and redial because he was fidgeting and shaking so much he couldn’t dial 9-1-1.

By the time the police arrived, Dennis had dragged me into the yard, standing close to the truck so we could make a quick getaway in case the “people who did this” decided to exit through the front door and chase us. We stood in silence as the sirens and the lights singled us out to the neighborhood. Heads poked out of houses, blinds slid open, and cars driving by slowed. And all I could think – as the officers walked through the house and Dennis, taking inventory, barked the things we were missing at them – was about that weekend I went camping with my dad when I was 12. We had just pulled up to the campsite, the sun had set and he was in a bad mood because traffic had delayed us. He hated pitching a tent in the dark, but still, he whistled while he did it. Perhaps it was his whistling that roused the buck nearby, who came charging out of the woods at such a speed I couldn’t help but stand and stare at it, wondering at the way I couldn’t make out its hooves. The only thing I’ve ever seen that has matched the speed of that deer was my father, who picked me up and threw me in the truck so fast that my shoulder popped out of its socket. The buck head butted the driver’s side door, making a dent that looked like a sculpture. My father drove up about a half mile from the campsite where he put my shoulder back in place and let me drink some of his soda with whiskey in it. When we went back to the camp site a few minutes later, my tears dried and sticky on my face, the tent was in shreds and our cooler of food was on its side, sandwiches and ice cream bars mushed into an unrecognizable pile. I sat quietly, thinking about cleaning up all that mess, when my dad put the truck back into drive and pulled away. “It’s just stuff,” he said when I sniffled.

Brother’s Last Letter

Dearest sister,

These days I’m drinking tea to stay warm. The water takes so long to boil, but the anticipation warms in its own way. Mama would be upset to see how I’ve let her house grow cold; she worked so hard to make it warm. The quilts have faded, but her stitches refuse to fray, even with my nightly clenching and thrashing among them. The winter lemons are blooming, but I cannot bring myself to pick them, let alone squeeze them into my food or drinks. I know this tea wouldn’t be so bland with their help, but the back door will not budge against the packed snow. I have not bought a shovel in years, and the basement is much too cold to go scavenging.

All in all, I am doing well, though my descriptions may be bleak. I live amongst memories, and this is always as I pictured myself. When others would thrive in sunshine, I held out for overcast days when I could sit next to the window, staring out for hours. There is nothing left for me to look forward to, and my eyes welcome the rest from strain.

Give my love to the children and to Ren,

Mr. Eldman’s Hands

There were tables full of food at the wake for Jay’s dad, from the church, from his coworkers. Mrs. Eldman’s book club brought desserts and fresh fruit sliced to look like flowers and tiny animals. Mrs. Eldman stood at the open front door looking like she wanted to shut it or run through it. She greeted friends of her late husband. They used words like “condolences” while they carried trays of meats and casseroles, party food that insulted her lack of appetite.

Jay and Melissa ate pineapple because they’d heard that it helped you digest meat. It was something Jay’s dad had told them, after a barbecue, their diaphragms pinched from fullness. Melissa had watched his hands, always speckled with paint splatters, as they held firmly the knife that sliced downward toward the picnic table. The juice gathered in rivulets, escaping with ease through the gaps in the planks of the homemade picnic table. Mr. Eldman’s hands had made that table.


Here are some vignettes I’ve been working on for a while, the most recent drafts. They are separate, but work as a group.

“In the Kitchen at Dusk”

Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and my mother, her long black hair and the scent of cherry-almond Jergens. She dances, her hair a beat behind her swaying, and her falsetto following Van as he la-la-las. Her breath will smell like beer when I get close enough, I’m still a good two feet shorter than she is at this point; that disparity along with everything else will change in the coming years. For now, me, my brother, and my sisters are moving around the kitchen with bare feet, barely understanding what making love means. Mom – dancing and understanding all too well. Dad is in the backyard doing things he did back then: Building the red swing set that sits behind me in so many pictures, taking our Rottweiler Elsa out, grilling steaks that have been marinating over night. The windows and the back door are open; everywhere it smells like cooking. It’s that part of the day when everyone in a subdivision is home, when the heat of the Virginia summer has retreated and the breeze is welcome and cherished. Later, my sister and I will have a disagreement, I will probably cry, and my mom will swoop in, calling me baby the same way she will when I’m well into my twenties. After dinner, my sisters, brother and I will fall asleep in some combination of the floor, the sofa, and the loveseat, though in the morning we will wake up in our own beds without memory of being placed there. There are other things I will forget. I will not remember the time between living with my dad and not. I will not remember if there were tears, confusion, though I will assume that there were. But before all of that, we dance in the kitchen whether we know the words or the rhythm or the reason.

“Orange Slices”

Mom is asleep on the couch. Gino coughs cigarettes out of his lungs and moves my mother’s legs off of his lap onto the floor so she is lying asleep with her feet in a sitting position. Her mouth is open, her bottom lip loose. She does not hear Gino ask me to get him an orange. Even at six I understand, reaching into the bottom drawer of our fridge, that this is my father’s orange. If he were not out to sea, he might be peeling this very orange for me right now, alternating between popping entire wedges into his mouth and giving me a piece to bite and feel the juice run down my chin.

“Answering Blocked Phone Calls at Midnight”

I consider keeping her on the phone forever, think about falling asleep with her breath on the other end. I could listen while she cooked – practically smell the onions, garlic, ginger – or as she disciplined other people’s children, the only job she ever held long enough to become an expert.

I have many mothers: The mother who laughed with her head thrown back and mouth open. The mother who sent us to get switches for her to whip us with. The mother who danced, declared every song on the radio her jam, turning the volume dial as high as it would go. There is the mother my sister and I found asleep on a tire outside of our house, an empty bottle of vodka in her hand, the saliva dripping from her lips her only movement. The mother who sometimes cried for reasons I am afraid to understand. The mother with eyes bloodshot for no reason, bracelets that jangled, nails tracing stories on my back as I fell asleep. Sleeping on the floor of our tin house with no power, only candles, there is the mother who made the boils on my brother and sister’s skin seem temporary and harmless. The mother who calls all of us baby and does not discriminate amongst us. The mother who taught us not to discriminate amongst ourselves.

We’re both crying now, promising each other and ourselves that someday money will not be an obstacle. She says, “Mel, I pray every night.” “Every night,” she tells me, and neither of us question why they have not been answered yet. She ends the conversation telling me not to be sad, and though she is calling from half a world away, the sound of her swallowing over and over is the clearest sound.