What We Leave Behind

Yesterday, I was added as a contributor over at The Mighty, a website that publishes “real stories by real people facing real challenges.” It’s an amazingly honest and encouraging place for people who have disabilities, chronic/rare diseases, or mental illnesses. As someone who has one of the many conditions listed on their site (Multiple Sclerosis or MS), I was thrilled to be able to add my voice to their robust community. If you’d like to read them, please click here.

Seeing my story on their page and reading those of other people whose lives have been impacted by MS, I started thinking about the value of words. Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved working with them, stacking them end to end to make a beautiful sentence or poetic phrase. I love the way certain words sound (Go ahead and say “mellifluous” out loud and fail to enjoy it. I dare you.) And even after 30+ years of using them, I’m still amazed at the way they can morph from noun to adjective (novel), adjective to verb (stiff), verb to noun (grid).

But I didn’t come by this lifelong obsession naturally. Many of my family members are readers, some more voracious than others. But only a few are writers, and most of them are in my generation. I have a few letters and handwritten notes written from loved ones who have passed, each of which I treasure, but there are entire branches on my family tree that have died without leaving a single syllable behind.

I have sermon notes and a short letter from my great uncle James.

james_letter

 

james_sermonnotes_tight

 

james_sermonnotes_wide

A letter from my paternal grandmother, Betty Lou Hill, given to me just weeks before she died.

betty_letter

I even have a postcard and a book inscription from Myrl Rhine Mueller, a lady in my hometown who published a book about the history of Greene County. When I was in third grade, I lugged a boom box to her little house, which was down the street from my grandparents’ and conducted an interview with her for a history project.

muller_book

 

But there are no diaries, no journals, and no handwritten notes in the margins of beloved books.

It’s an absence I’m feeling more acutely these days as members on both sides of my family pass away. I can no longer ask Papaw, my maternal grandfather, his thoughts on a current event or hear about the things he had a passion for. He loved to sing. I know that for certain, but I don’t know how singing made him feel or why he enjoyed it so much.

He played a small role in the Civil Rights movement too, but no matter how many questions I ask or how deeply I dig, I’ll never know the entire story.

In the early 1960s, he was the assistant manager of an S.H. Kress & Co. in Memphis, Tennessee. For many weeks in the late summer and early fall, young black students would stage sit-ins at the Curly-Q Luncheonette inside the store. He was given strict orders that if one happened on his watch, he should immediately stop service and turn off the lights. Some time after this, the protesters would get up and leave. It was always peaceful, always respectful, but every time Papaw flipped those lights, he felt pitiful. He was a boy from rural Arkansas—a farmer’s son, dirt poor in every sense of the word—and some of his closest friends were black. He believed in their cause, but because he had a wife and two young daughters at home, he had to toe the company line and keep the job. But he did the one thing he could do: he apologized to each of them as they walked out.

It’s not a big story of great sacrifice or drama, but it’s his. That makes it mine too in some small way, and I love it, despite the fact it’s secondhand and shaggy around the edges.

Our two kids, who we are adopting from the foster care system, already have a lot of holes in their stories. Several members of their birth families were also adopted or given up for adoption, so there’s no way of knowing exactly where they came from, who they favor in looks and temperament, who their “people” are. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I do want to leave them a legacy, a heritage of sorts.

There will be notes in my favorite books, so they’ll know why I loved them. There will be journals, short stories, poems, essays, and articles. I want to leave behind an ocean of words for them to swim in—to find me and perhaps, in some small way, to find themselves.

Advertisements

For the Record

I have come to terms with the fact my grandfather will forget my name one day. Already, he struggles to find it as he gropes through the jumbled memories in his brain, sifting for it the same way we once did for sharks’ teeth on Jupiter Beach. Sometimes, he calls me “James,” the moniker I share with my great uncle and great grandfather, probably because he’s known it longer. It’s engraved more deeply into the gray grooves of his brain, and the disease gaining ground there will have a harder time eroding it. I like to imagine James is a stubborn root that refuses to be pulled out or a well-supplied soldier at the beginning of a lengthy siege. James is a fighter, and its defeat will be a Pyrrhic victory at best.

To salvage as much of him as she can, my grandmother, who I’ve always called Nonnie, asks Papaw our names at least thirty times a day, beginning at breakfast.

“Tell me your daughters’ names again,” she says as she places his morning pills on the napkin next to his plate.

“Sherry and Jamie,” he proudly replies, knowing both are right.

“Jamie’s your granddaughter,” she replies, washing down the lump of misery in her throat with a drink of scalding coffee. “Anita’s your other daughter. Now, tell me your grandsons’ names….”

When she can’t bear to listen, she has him write down our names on a sheet of paper over and over again, like he’s a child being punished after school, forced to scratch out, “I will not forget my homework” one hundred times on the board. His handwriting, never prize worthy, is nearly illegible now, and his brain can’t process letters the same way it once did. There are times when “Sherry” is written “sHErrY” and my name is spelled five different ways. Some days, the names won’t come at all, and his pencil tip breaks under the pressure of his frustration.

There are also times when I’m Amy, Cammie, and Tammy to him, too, and the fact that they rhyme only cracks my heart instead of breaking it outright. It’s close enough to tell me I’m still in there somewhere, like an old photograph just beginning to get grainy and fuzzy around the edges.

“That’s okay, Papaw,” I tell him as we sit out by the pool one Saturday. “It’s in the ballpark.”

The word triggers something in his brain, lashing two memories together like lifeboats in a storm, and he looks at me with such clarity I almost forget that dementia, unlike amnesia, isn’t something you recover from.

“Do you remember going to Busch Stadium?” he asks, smiling broadly.

I can only bite my lip and nod. “What do you remember, Papaw?” I ask. And he tells me his recollections of that afternoon.

***

I remember it well. I couldn’t have been more than seven the first time he led me through the massive gates at the ballpark with one of my tiny hands in his. In the other sweaty fist, I carried a new St. Louis Cardinals pennant that soon snapped in half because I shook it to pieces in my excitement. While the rest of my family went off to buy hot dogs, Cokes, and pretzels, Papaw and I joined the river of people flowing through the stadium and fought our way through to buy a scorecard.

“If you want to understand the game, you have to have one of these, baby girl,” he said. “It helps you see and remember what happened.”

We reached our seats and, while we waited for everyone to join us, Papaw pulled a pen out of his front shirt pocket and began filling out the lineups. He started with “Smith,” the most common of names, but I knew who it was. Ozzie Smith, A.K.A. “The Wizard of Oz,” was the lead-off man and had long been my favorite player because he always did a back flip the first time he took the field and was so fast that he made seemingly impossible plays look simple. Ozzie didn’t field so much as dance, anticipating the ball’s every movement when it left the batter’s box.

“You put ‘one’ here where it says ‘number,’ and ‘Smith’ under ‘name,’” Papaw said, slowly writing the information on the card and letting me see it. “Then you have to put in their position. Smith is a shortstop, so he’s number….”

I counted the positions on my finger. One was the pitcher, two was the catcher, but I always struggled to remember if the shortstop was five or six. I was about to give up when he reminded me.

“Smith starts with an S just like…”

“Six!” I shouted happily. “He’s position number six.”

For me, most of the game passed in a whir of color and excitement. I was often distracted by the organ music, the box of Cracker Jacks I munched on, or the people around us, but I checked in with Papaw periodically to see how the innings looked on that scorecard. Each player had twelve perfect boxes in line behind his name, and the diamond in the center of each held the results of each at bat. A darkened line with “1B” written to the side meant a single while that same line paired with “WP” or “BB” meant the man reached on a wild pitch or a walk. “K” facing right meant a man struck out swinging while a reversed one meant he stood there and took the final one of an at bat. I learned how to mark a stolen base, a fly out, and even a homerun, and what could have been an impenetrable mess of data made sense because my grandfather served as my very own Rosetta Stone.

There was something appealing about the scorecard to me, and I found myself more drawn to it as the innings passed. I liked the way it told the story of a game in only a few lines and letters, as terse and beautiful as a haiku. When the bottom of the ninth came around, Papaw asked me if I wanted to help, and I eagerly crawled into his lap and took the pen from his hand. Comfortably perched on his knees, I watched and carefully marked down the combination of plays that produced the Cardinals’ winning run (single, sacrifice fly, stolen base, and double) and left the crowd screaming with excitement. The moment, unlike my crooked and wobbly lines, was perfect.

***

Why can’t our memories be like that? I ask myself as I listen to him talk, furious that the outcome of an inconsequential game can be recorded forever while my grandfather’s memories wash away like sand pulled into time’s dark sea. Maybe it’s because the game is a two-dimensional thing, a mass of data—nothing more runs and outs—while humans are flesh and bone. A baseball scorecard is a simple retelling of facts in the correct order. There’s no need to record a player’s motivation, his thoughts during a given at bat, or even how he felt watching a third strike whiz past or legging a single into a double. But life is made up of so many things that cannot be quantified or accurately described. The only accurate record of it lives on in memory. Beautiful. Complete. Vulnerable.

No matter how many pictures we take or how many journals we fill with our thoughts, we can never capture the essence of what matters in our lives or why. It breaks my heart to think I can never explain to anyone how much I love the crinkles that collect around my husband’s eyes when he smiles or why no broccoli casserole in the world will ever taste as good as my mother’s. I can’t tell anyone exactly what it felt like to become the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree or to stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower at night with the twinkling lights of Paris laid out beneath me like gemstones on black velvet. Those precious things, if I lose them, are gone forever. After all, no one saw, tasted, or felt what I did in those moments—and even if they had, their memories would be uniquely theirs. Not mine.

***

“…but I couldn’t even keep a scorecard anymore,” Papaw says, his voice pulling me away from the painful thoughts in my head.

“What?” I ask him to repeat, embarrassed for having tuned him out, even for a second.

“I remember teaching you how to keep a scorecard that day,” he repeats. His voice is patient, the way it used to be. “But I doubt I remember how.”

Phrases like “I doubt I could…” are dementia-speak, convenient euphemisms for truths too brutal to face. We both know he could no more keep the system of lines and letters straight in his befuddled brain than I could when I was seven. He wouldn’t even know where to begin.

But I do. I know because he taught me how. The memory of learning it from him is in my head, and I’ve reinforced it by keeping dozens of scorecards since that Elysian afternoon. What is lost to him forever is not lost to me yet. The memory of it is safe for now.

“Hold on just a sec,” I tell him and dash indoors.

Thanks to the Internet, it takes less than a minute to print out a blank scorecard. It’s not the same as the full color ones at the ballpark, those edged with player stats and ads for beer or car dealerships, but it’ll do. I come back out to where he sits, staring at the pool’s placid and glossy surface. Like him, it’s no longer rushing from one place to another, compelled by the irresistible force of gravity to seek lower elevations or by heat and cold to take on other forms. It strikes me then that both of them have reached a place of stillness and will, over time, evaporate away. And there is little I can do about either.

But, for a moment, I see Papaw kneeling by the side of our pool in Arkansas, still wearing his work clothes. His tie is flipped up over his shoulder, and his bright plastic Wal-Mart nametag, the one that reads “Boyce—General Manager” flaps wildly in the summer breeze. In his hand, he holds a bright green garden hose that is happily burbling and spewing a stream of clear water into the pool.

“Whatcha’ doing, B?” I ask him.

“Filling up the pool, baby girl. You and your brother sloshed half the water out of it playing today,” he replies, laughing to tell me he’s not the least bit angry about it. He promises me we’ll swim later and play Marco Polo until it gets dark and we have to watch out for bats drawn down by deep end’s bright light.

I know he’s the same man I knew then, but he’s somehow smaller now. Dimmer. Like a lamp whose oil is running low. I know his lost memories aren’t as easy to replace as those gallons of water once were, but I tell myself refilling him temporarily is well worth the effort.

With my laptop under my arm, I walk toward my grandfather, waving the scorecard as excitedly as I once did that poor, doomed pennant. He smiles. And for a moment, he is so much like his old self that my soul is flooded by a pleasure too sweet to describe. It’s a gossamer thing, as pale and delicate as cotton candy, and I savor it until my jaws clench and my eyes water.

It’s 3:30, and on one network or another, a game will start in less than thirty minutes. That’s just enough time to look up the rosters and put each player’s name, number, and position down for the record.

Verisimilitude

Hooray for another piece of creative non-fiction. This one is slated to be turned in Monday at 6:00, so if you have comments, feedback, or critique, send it in post haste! 🙂

***

Verisimilitude

I blame my mother really. Because she was involved in community theater in our hometown, it meant I was, too. While she rehearsed, helped decorate sets or sew costumes, or played the piano during auditions, I was left with other urchins to run wild in our own version of Neverland—the backstage area, concrete orchestra pit, and balcony of Collins Theater. During the months she and the other actors read and blocked scenes for the 1985 debut of The Sound of Music to the theatergoing public of Paragould, Arkansas, I can honestly say I was less than impressed. People forgot lines. Songs were strangled mid-verse when someone missed a mark. Dance steps were more lumbering than lovely. It reminded me of the pick-up games of baseball my brother Jarrod and I would join in at the local field—you know, the kind where only six kids have gloves and the game abruptly ends in the fifth when the only ball sails into Mrs. Wilcox’s impenetrable back yard.

I think the kids’ chorus was invented to give us, the legion of unsupervised tots at each rehearsal, something to do to keep us from tearing the historic building down. Rodgers and Hammerstein created a play requiring not one but seven children to pull it off, and the Greene County Fine Arts Council had more than enough young’uns to fill that quota. So they had to stick us in as scene fillers, mostly when the nuns were involved. However, I just knew there was no way thirty kids would live in an abbey unless it was one of the freakiest nunneries in the world. And nothing in the rehearsals suggested it was that kind of play.

That was how I was pulled onto the stage instead of dancing around it like a dervish, and the experience was altogether different in the rarefied air four feet off the floor. I could smell the gold paint being used to decorate the walls of the grand ballroom and see the rigging that held up a cobweb of lights above us. I loved the sound my heels made on the wooden floor that was slightly spongy beneath my feet and the feel of the burgundy velvet curtain as it brushed past me like a harried commuter on a subway platform.

For ever-longer periods of time, I sat in the front rows waiting for my group’s cue and watched as my mother was transformed from the woman I knew—a middle school secretary who cut the crusts of my pimento cheese sandwiches—into Elsa Schrader, the baroness who, until the frumpy nun shows up with a guitar in hand, has her immaculately painted claws securely in Captain Von Trapp.

She sang duets. She danced. She laughed in a throaty way she never did at home and drank wine from an empty glass. She was coquettish and demanding by turns. And she was radiant.

She brought her costumes home to make final alterations, and while she and Daddy were out at dinner, I snuck up to their room to see them in their finished forms. My favorite was the ruby gown she wore for three scenes, the one with the single shoulder strap that left one tanned arm gloriously bare and the slit in the side that revealed a hint of leg whenever she strutted across the stage. I finally worked up the courage to slide the dress from its hangar and try it on over my clothes. I pinned my hair up in a banana clip and stood on a footstool to get the full effect in the mirror perched over the dresser. Then I closed my eyes and sang the libretto of one of her songs that I’d l memorized weeks before—So every star on every whirling planet and every constellation in the sky revolves around the center of the universe, that lovely thing called I.

I suppose I was hoping to feel a jolt, a spark, some kind of radiating energy pouring from my fingertips the same way she must have when in character. But it wasn’t the same without the lights and sounds and smells, the glorious chaos of stagecraft going on in the wings. It was hard enough to slip into someone else’s skin with a set and supporting characters, but was it was impossible when you could see your pink gingham canopy bed reflected in the mirror, reminding you who you actually were.

***

The next summer, the council decided to host a week long drama workshop for the throngs of itinerant youth who hadn’t been sent to summer camp or gone on vacation to exotic places like Disney World (for the well-to-do) or Hot Springs (for the station wagon set). For six days, we invaded the ground floor of First Methodist Church down on Main Street, transforming the normally staid and quiet hallways into a cacophonous world filled with moxie and glitter.

One day, we were taught the basics of acting—how to project your voice, to feign emotion (something that I’m ashamed to admit came in handy both on and off stage), and to use your body to speak as well as your mouth. Other days, we learned the art of stage make-up and how an amount of blush and blue eye shadow that was garish up close was necessary if you wanted people in the back row to be able to make you out. We happily slapped foundation on one another with triangular sponges, learned how to make the “mascara face,” and practiced smiling with Vaseline slathered on our teeth.

We were given boxes of used clothing and accessories and asked to create a character based on the first three items we pulled out with our eyes closed. I drew a feather boa, a green skirt with a few glittering beads still attached, and a black pillbox hat complete with veil and became Ms. Cleo Mimosa, a former vaudeville star and unapologetic diva, for the rest of the day. I distinctly remember returning the props to their boxes, but I couldn’t shed Ms. Mimosa and spent the evening thoroughly annoying my family by referring to myself in the third person and making outrageous demands. “Ms. Mimosa doesn’t eat peas,” I told them, flinging my fork onto the pile still on my plate. And before bed, I’d stormed out of the steamy bathroom wrapped in a towel and waving my Wonder Woman pajamas over my head like a flag, screeching “You certainly can’t expect Ms. Mimosa to sleep in these raggedy old things!” When I tried the same routine the next morning, my father gave me “the look”—the one where he slightly cocked his head and arched his left eyebrow—that told me in no uncertain terms that it was best for all involved parties if Ms. Mimosa slept in.

Singing, dancing, blocking—we experienced it all in a four-day blur of creativity and color that led up to try-outs for the Saturday play. I’d memorized a thirty-second monologue that had something to do with picking daises, a snippet that could show my miming prowess as well as my ability to be surprised, delighted, and blissful. My audition must have gone well because I was one of six kids called up for speaking roles in what would become our slapdash performance of a Chinese fairy tale involving  Bashe, a cunning beast, and other assorted talking creatures. There was also Li Tan, the handsome young hero, his loyal dog, Po, and a beautiful princess named Niulang caught in the middle of it all.

Our director had the same problem many of his ilk share—a stunning lack of suitable male thespians. Drama is a source of glee for many a woman and girl, but for anyone with a modicum of testosterone in his system, it is typically something to be despised and passed over in favor of climbing trees and spitting for distance. Of the half dozen of us who could memorize lines and steps, there wasn’t a Y chromosome to be found, so the prince was going to have to be played by a girl.

My first thought was, Forget that! I didn’t go through all this just to get laughed at like some kind of freak!

Of course, I had yet to learn of La Cage aux Folles, Victor Victoria, Twelfth Night, or even Yentl. At that point, the only version I’d read of The Iliad had been stripped of the scene where Achilles’ mother dressed him in drag to keep him out of the Trojan War. In my mind, playing a dog, an angel, or even tree was all well and good because gender didn’t enter into it, but to pretending to swap one’s sex entirely (and on purpose) was unthinkable. A girl like me doing something like that was just begging to be mocked.

In elementary school, I was quite literally head and shoulders above most boys in my class, which was great when I needed to hustle a few bucks playing tetherball, but not so much during the other 164 hours of a week. I had long before decided that due to my leviathan stature, the best thing for me would be to draw attention to myself via anything done in a sitting position. So I became a word nerd, a voracious consumer of texts whose construction paper “book worm” with body segments listing the works she’d read that year went around the classroom, lapping those of the lazier students. Being on stage was the only place I could use to stand up in front of people and not be embarrassed by how I looked. After all, you’re pretending to be someone else.

“I want to be the princess,” I proclaimed, not willing to leave it to chance.

And fish, fish. I got my wish.

Because the camp’s budget was humble and most of the money put into the set, we were going to perform without costumes and only use a few props to help people figure out who we were. The kids playing animals wore cheap plastic masks, the kind that were strapped to your face with a piece of elastic and were beyond impossible to breathe through. Po, the canine sidekick, got some greasepaint whiskers to go with his faux fur ears and tail. Li Tan was given a plastic sword and shield. And I, Niulang, proudly bore a gaudy tiara covered in paste jewels.

It’s no red dress, I thought. But it’ll have to do.

As we rehearsed, two things became apparent. One, there was a great deal of rug burn involved if you were cast in any of the four-legged roles. And two, I was thrilled beyond measure not to be Rona Marsh, the girl who ended up with Li Tan’s role. She spent hours running around pretending to swing that stupid plastic sword in mock battle with Bashe, shouting my character’s name, and grunting. I was embarrassed for her.

There was one thing I wasn’t pleased with, however, and that was my surprisingly small amount of lines. Other than one scene where I told my mother I would be careful in the woods and another where I was stolen by Bashe, I wasn’t in much of the production. I spent a good deal of time on stage of course, cruelly bound to a pillar by the evil creature who planned on making a meal of me after slaughtering my rescuer, but it just wasn’t the same.

***

The night of the performance, the teachers took us into a chapel off to the side of the church’s multipurpose room where the play was to be performed and had us each lie down in one of the padded pews.

“Close your eyes,” Bob, the director, whispered. “Imagine yourself on the stage tonight. You’ve seen it with your eyes, so now you can picture it in your mind. Think about who you are tonight, who the people in the audience will see.”

I closed my eyes and tried to think about Niulang. A handful of lines and a tiara—not much to go on.

“You aren’t yourself to them; you are a beaver or an old woman. And if you believe you are that other person, they will, too. It’s up to you to take them where you are, to tell them the story,” he finished in a nearly breathless murmur. “Are you ready?”

A chorus of “mmm hmms” and “uh huhs” wafted up from the pews.

“Then let’s get out there and break a leg,” he said, putting on a grotesque latex mask. He’d had to play Bashe himself because everyone else was too small for the costume.

I’d chosen to wear a pastel pink t-shirt and a long white skirt to look feminine. And with the delicate crown firmly stuck to my scalp with the help of a box of bobby pins, I was as ready as I’d ever be. However, once I was done with my lines, done with reassuring my mother and pitifully pleading for my life, and set on the periphery of the stage to watch the drama unfold, I saw how wrong I’d been to pick the part I had.

In a pair of acid wash jeans, cowboy boots, and a black collared shirt, with only plastic weapons and the suspension of disbelief to help her, Rona became her character. I stood and watched as she gained the trust of all the animals of the forest, bravely fought all obstacles in her path, and worked her way in and out of danger. She was all dynamic action. Her curly shoulder-length black hair trailed behind her like smoke, and every gesture she made had purpose. To block. To advance. To point the way to victory. Because she believed she was Li Tan, that’s who the rest of us saw.

Meanwhile, all I could do was stand there and pretend to wriggle. I felt weak and small, not because I was loosely bound to a Styrofoam column with a piece of rope, but because I’d chosen to put myself there. I’d taken the safer role, gone the expected route, and I was missing out on what could have been my first chance to vanish in front of an audience. I suddenly felt naked in my pastel costume, more out of place than ever before. Because I couldn’t see myself as a princess, it was impossible for me to pretend to be.

When Li Tan rescued me and led me back to my mother, I followed with my head down in what everyone assumed was humble thanks but was actually shame and an eagerness to be off that stage entirely.

On the way out, my family, who’d brought me a bouquet of yellow roses, congratulated me and told me what a wonderful job I’d done.

“I really believed you were scared, being stuck up all alone in that tower,” my grandmother said, affectionately patting me on the back.

I didn’t have the heart to tell her drama looks easy when you’re not really acting.