November 27, 2011 § 4 Comments
This isn’t goodbye, quite.
Yesterday marked a thousand days and thus the end of this endeavor. The last entry should have been last night, but then I wouldn’t have had this wonderful photograph from Antarctica that shows last evening’s partial eclipse of the midnight sun. And anyway, I was out with my son doing Christmas stuff.
Which has been part of the ongoing problem with A Thousand Days. It started out well, a story a night. But that’s hard to sustain because more and more life intervenes. Life profound, and life mundane. Lists of story ideas grow longer. They write themselves in my head, these stories, but somehow never make it to the page. An old friend of mine uses voice recognition software to get over this particular kind of writer’s block, but it works about as well as that stuff on your cell phone– and well, that’s one more frustration I didn’t need to sign up for.
Just Wednesday I was promising someone that no matter what I was going to make the last story “Why I Live Where I Live,” a love song to Dayton, (and an old idea borrowed from 1970s era Esquire magazine.) And I was going to do it before Friday. But there was broccoli salad and Sagaponack corn pudding to be made and a long drive north to my uncle’s and then the festivities of the holiday. Black Friday came and went (without a visit to a box store I might add) padding around barefoot in my pajamas half the morning. Before I knew it the partial eclipse of the sun (visible only from Antarctica) came and went, along with that last story idea.
Part of this is Billy’s fault. My old friend, a magical character equal parts vulnerability and bon vivant died last fall, just before his 53rd birthday. He slumped over at his computer watching an obscure YouTube video of a Scandinavian singing “Lucky Old Sun.” He was supposed to go out to a club that night to promote his latest musical obsession, Lady Lamb the Beekeeper, but he never showed, which was not Billy’s way at all. It was such a miracle that he’d lived so long, careening around Boston on his Vespa, (and if it was after dark he was toasted) that I suppose we all thought he’d live forever. He didn’t and since the very night he died I’ve been trying to write about him and failing. Maybe another time. I was haunted though. I felt like I had to write this piece for Billy before I could get on to the veritable laundry list of other subjects I wanted to tackle.
To wit- How to Save Christmas (I think), obituaries, stop lights, muskrats, insomnia, animal wars, Orville Wright, the aforementioned love song for Dayton, and a little piece about Lisa Spinks, a young woman who was brutally murdered by someone she thought was her friend. A half-dozen others. And Billy’s story, which finally is writing about ghosts. But there will have to be some other forum for all of those.
I am very grateful to those who stuck with me, even when I gave them little more than a gossamer thread from which to hang. The comments, support, suggestions, controversy and conversations that swirled around the blog entries have been remarkable, and somehow along the way I got to be an expert on Crooksville pottery on the strength of a single article. I’ve had heartfelt thanks and heartsick outrage left in relatively equal numbers of messages. (Only one time did I hear from an attorney, and once I took his name out he went away. Apparently he didn’t care what I had to say about his client.) If I’d had the will and fortitude to keep writing about murder victims, this really could have been something. But just like my old friend and mentor Steve Huff found, I discovered that writing about violent crime all the time eats away at your soul. Of course, other topics speak to me, and I always intended to get to them, if only I hadn’t been so busy doing whatever it was I was doing.
A Thousand Days has been as neglected and forlorn as an outgrown pony. There it sat on the Bookmark Bar, just waiting for me to click it and start writing. But I was out of the writing habit and without a deadline, I became a dilettante. I’d meet people who said how much they enjoyed my pieces and it would make me sad. I wasn’t worthy of their accolades. Jesus, a whole year went by without a single effort, and before that it had been almost six months. I needed something to make writing routine again, part of the day-to-day schedule, as regular and necessary as breathing.
So I’ve made myself a new project, 30 Days Notice. It is a very short-term blog, and I’m not sure that it will be pretty. I’ll start December 1 and write through December 30. I promise you (and myself) that I will write every single day, no matter what. What month could be more challenging than December for that– when we are all over-scheduled and trying to fit a few more hours into every day? I’ll have to train my family to stop their constant stream of interruption, or I’ll have to learn to ignore them. It’s clear that waiting for them to go to bed to have peace in the household doesn’t work anymore. In December we’ll have house guests. There may be Migraines (I hope not, but I’m a realist.) I know there will be Christmas parties, school functions, shopping, wrapping, shipping, cards, dogs, friends, family. All those will have to make room while I shoehorn the most essential thing back into my life.
How appropriate, then, to end with something as transitory as an eclipse. Something is hidden, but only for a moment. The curtain has dropped on this show. A Thousand Days is finished, but you get to be along for the ride (if you want) while I find my feet again, and with that, discipline and self-respect. If we’re lucky, perhaps it will be entertaining.
June 10, 2010 § 2 Comments
by Larkin Vonalt
JC, this one’s for you.
On Saturday morning, I got up early and went out. I drove 12 miles to an upscale grocery in the suburbs, stood in a long line, chatted with people, bought three lobsters, stood in another long line to have them cooked, brought them home (12 more miles), took one to pieces, used it to make a lobster omelet for my husband who took three bites and said “I don’t care for this.”
That’s the story. My husband objects to this story. He says that he ate “half” the omelet and that’s more than three bites. It’s more than three bites if you’re two years old. We’re talking two eggs and about a third of a cup of a lobster. How many bites can there be? Anyway, I finished eating it for him and he thinks that’s adequate compensation.
It was a great dilemma for me whether or not to buy the lobster in the first place. We’re in the midst of a serious family crisis involving our grown-up daughter. We need every dollar, so who am I to go frittering away the stuff on things so inessential as lobsters? And yet, they were only $10. That’s three times what they would be on the Island. But this is land-locked Ohio, where the only lobsters usually available are those miserable creatures stacked in grocery store tanks.
I sort of remembered that when we were newly wed in Montana that my husband humored me with a special Lobster dinner date at the Grand hotel the next town over. Larry the owner had gotten a bushel of lobsters shipped in from Boston and of course they cost the earth. They’d been cooked too long and were tough. Then there was all that business with plastic bibs and drawn butter and linen tablecloths and some kind of terrible white wine.
I know that there are other songs the lobster sings, and thinking that those might elicit more enthusiasm from my spouse, I head down the garden path to the car.
The parking lot of the upscale grocery is very full. Christmastime full. Last year they were out of lobsters in two hours. Inside, the line runs past the machine where they make the fresh mozzarella, along the deli case promising an English Ploughman’s lunch, past the island of organic strawberries ($6 a quart) up to the bakery cases full of petit fours and tiramisu. I find my place at the end, behind a man in a gray t-shirt. He isn’t particularly hairy, but from behind his shape makes me think of a silverback gorilla.
The line is long, but it’s moving quickly. A man comes by with a pad and a pencil. Is there anything I’d like from the deli while I’m waiting? I’d love a stack of pancakes, but that doesn’t seem likely so I just smile and shake my head. “No thanks.”
A foreign woman comes along with a bottle of white wine (“on sale today for just eleven dollars”) offering samples. I can see in the line ahead of me that plenty of people have taken her up on it.
“Not at nine in the morning, thanks just the same.”
“Well,” the woman says. “It’s nearly nine-thirty.”
We’ve rounded the corner, and I can see the mound of lobsters up ahead, stacked up on a fixture like so many little brown grapefruit. I see the drill: tell the man how many you want, he puts them in a bag and you take the bag to the cashier, and if you like you can stop outside and have them cooked. I’m glad I don’t have to look them in their little eyes (on stalks, yet) and choose. You, and you, and you. Your luck ran out today, lobsters. Really, though, their luck ran out some time ago.
In front of the pile of lobsters is a conventionally handsome young man. He could be a day trader or a hedge fund manager, but he is dressed very improbably in a polo shirt and a pair of melon-colored foul weather bibs. The press release from the grocery had promised that there’d be someone from the lobster boat on hand, but this is one super clean lobsterman.
“Three,” I tell the other man, the one packaging the lobsters, and I look away, down the wine aisle, as he chooses. He hands me the bag (white, with a red lobster on the side) and smiles. I take it and make a beeline for the cashier. When the bag rustles in my hand, I feel slightly ill. That’s ridiculous, I know. Look at all the people standing in line to pay for their white bag of arthropods. Over in that line a mother and her daughter, who looks about eight, are delighting over the antics of their little rustlers. I mean, what is the matter with me? It’s not like we’re leading veal calves up to the checkout.
A nice woman about my age, which means not as young as we used to be, opens up her check stand and motions me over.
“There are three,” I say, and I can hear the apology in my own voice. “I wish I could just get a ticket or something in here and pick up the cooked ones outside,” I confess. “I can’t stand feeling them moving around in the bag.”
“I know,” the woman commiserates. “I can’t either.”
Outside, there’s another line of people waiting to get their lobsters cooked. Though this line is shorter, it’s slower, the cooking and cooling of lobsters being a bit more complex than just packing them in a bag. I am sandwiched between a couple who moved here from New Jersey and a woman who grew up in Wiscasset, Maine and is now talking to her mother on the cell phone. It seems the lobster guy knows the man who runs the local lobster pound. (That’s lobster-wholesaling operation, by the way, not where they take stray crustaceans.)
“Brendan Ready,” the woman is saying into her phone. “Yes, he says he knows Albert.”
At the front of the line, under a white tent, lobsters are being poured from bag to kettle and fished from the kettle into a trunk full of crushed ice and water. There’s a kind of festival atmosphere, and if you saw a photograph of the scene you might think it was taken on the coast somewhere. Standing there though leaves no doubt that we are smack dab in the middle of Ohio.
Brendan Ready is mingling with the crowd, answering questions like “How long do I cook them at home?” (Fifteen minutes.) And “How do I keep them alive until it’s time to cook them” (Put them in a crisper under damp newspaper.) And “Do you ever get sick of lobster?” He laughs.
“No, I never get sick of it. I could eat lobster for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” Later I will look up the “Catch a Piece of Maine” phrase that’s emblazoned on his polo shirt. It turns out to be a company in Portland that seems to have made a very successful business selling the idea of a sustainable fisheries model through direct marketing and online sales. Website photos of the company’s other lobster boat captains include those of men who look like they do go down to the sea in ships.
Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey are discussing with Miss Wiscasset the different eating habits of people when confronted with a lobster on a plate. Miss W. is shocked at the people who don’t eat every last bit.
“Well, not the brain of course,” she says, referring to a collection of ganglia that amounts to about the same as a grasshopper’s brain. We all take great relief that a brain that size is not contemplating the meaning of life as it’s tossed into a pot of boiling water.
“I can’t believe some people who just eat the tail and the claws and throw the rest out,” she continues. “There’s meat in the legs, and the tomalley is a great delicacy.” Mr. and Mrs. Jersey don’t look quite convinced.
“Well, sometimes there’s just so much lobster that you don’t have time to mess with much beyond the claws and the tail,” I say. They all look at me as if they hadn’t noticed that I’d been standing there next to them for the last fifteen minutes. “I grew up on Prince Edward Island. We ate a lot of lobster.”
We are at the head of the line now and Mr. and Mrs. New Jersey hand over their two lobsters in a bag, and someone puts two other cooked lobsters in a bag and off they go. Before I know it, I have three cooked lobsters in a bag in my hand and I am headed for the car. The three I carried from inside the store, feeling their every rustle in my viscera, those have just been dispatched to lobster heaven, and in fifteen more minutes, when I am nearly home, they will be sent home with someone else.
There was a lot of lobster for us on the Island. My stepfather was a doctor there, and at times one lobsterman or another would turn up with a bushel of lobsters fresh from the pot. I remember one afternoon the lobsters arrived very much alive. A large pot was set to boil on the old stove and my stepsister and I tossed them in a few at a time. Though the claws were pegged with wooden plugs, the lobsters were still lively and could easily twist from your hand.
“I’d like to be, under the sea in an octopus’ garden, in the shade . . .” I sang, tossing the flailing lobster in headfirst. Splash! Children, if not cruel, are certainly callous.
Those little wooden pegs, as it turns out, were the sole industry of the tiny Acadian town of West Pubnico, Nova Scotia, where they were hand-whittled. It was an invention that revolutionized the lobster industry, and in the 1930s West Pubnico rightfully declared itself “The Lobster Plug Capital of the World.”
Unfortunately the pegs broke through the membrane of the lobster flesh and allowed for bacteria to collect there, a potential source of contamination. By the mid-eighties, 500 million wooden plugs later, the last of the pegs are gone, replaced with rubber bands.
The bands, like the pegs before them, make the lobsters not only easier to handle, but keeping them from killing and eating each other.
“Oh,” you say with dawning awareness. In fact that’s one of the reasons lobsters are not farmed like oysters and shrimp and salmon. The other is that it takes five to seven years for a lobster to reach market size and that’s a long time to be feeding something that keeps trying to eat the rest of your inventory.
Lobsters are sorted and banded on the boat, using a tool that looks something like needle nosed pliers to stretch the strong bands over the claws. This is a point where the little beasts can lose their claws, making them culls. Claws get caught, break off, and lobsters will sometimes shoot off their own claws. (There should be a joke I could make here, especially since a claw-less lobster is called a “pistol,” but it just won’t come.)
The Commercial Fisheries News has advice to minimize claw loss due to banding: “Hold the lobster in one hand by the base of the carapace while banding with the other hand. If the lobster is too large to hold in one hand, place the lobster on a surface and hold securely. Both of these options give the lobster a sense of security, for it is not dangling in mid-air.”
Lobster traps (also called “lobster pots” which leads to all manner of semantic confusion) are baited with flesh: herring, hotdogs, chicken necks, mackerel. A 1997 study in Prince Edward Island found that lobsters caught with mackerel were weak and lethargic. Perhaps it’s their version of a turkey dinner.
After the second world war, a company called LobLure (not to be confused with contemporary lobster scent bait of the same name) experimented with a wide spectrum of artificial bait ranging from women’s sanitary pads soaked in herring oil, bricks marinated in kerosene and, inexplicably, white coffee mugs.
The bait bag is tied to the sill in the kitchen, that’s the first chamber of a lobster trap, the one before the parlor. Some traps have more than one parlor. Wooden traps are still in use, though wire mesh has become popular. All of them are to have a door large enough to let the immature lobster recognize the error of his ways and show himself out.
When the traps are pulled, “shorts” and berried hens are thrown back, the others are sorted and banded; or if you’re lucky and they’re cooking on the Miss Jeanne M., are thrown straight into the pot.
An average “hen” lobster will produce 8000 eggs or “berries” at a time. It takes ten months for the “berries” to hatch into baby lobsters, or “crickets” as they’re sometimes called, and the colder the water the longer it takes. For every 50,000 eggs it is estimated that only two will survive to market size. All the lobstermen throw back the hens with eggs, along with the crabs and occasional eel that makes their way to the parlor.
Dr. Jelle Atema from the Boston Marine Biology Laboratory describes the mating of lobsters as “poignant” and involving a gentleness that is “almost human.”
When the hen is ready to mate, she seeks out the male of her choice in his lair, Dr. Atema explains. There she molts, shedding her shell to expose “her naked vulnerability.” (Atema’s words, certainly not mine.)
At that point the male could either mate with her or just eat her, but he chooses the former, turning the hen’s vulnerable body over unto her back. The male lobster, all dominance in hard shell, pointy legs and mouthparts, inserts his first pair of swimmerets, which are rigid and grooved, and passes his sperm into the female’s soft body. Dr. Atema observes that the female lobster will remain in the safety of the male’s den for about a week until her new shell hardens.
No matter what you’ve seen on television, lobsters do not mate for life.
To ensure not being pinched by the lobster en route from trap to sorting table (or again, if you’re lucky, traveling trap to boiling pot) the lobster must be held by its carapace, the long solid shell between head and wickedly articulated tail. Being smacked by the under side of their flipping tail hurts almost a much as being pinched. It doesn’t take long to pitch one in the pot, though and lobster eaten on the boat where it was caught has no match in any restaurant.
Traps are marked with buoys identified by the lobsterman’s license number. Occasionally whales get caught up in the lines between traps and buoys, other times the lines are cut, by storm or mishap or rival, leaving the “ghost trap” on the floor of the sea to go on catching lobsters forever and ever, amen.
Giving lobsters a sense of security. Tender mating rituals and ten months to produce the youngsters (crickets!). Kitchens and coffee cups! No wonder we have such mixed feelings about consigning them to their deaths in a vat of roiling seawater and steam.
Even Alice in Wonderland is loathe to admit that every lobster she’s ever known is one she’s eaten, choosing her words very carefully as the Mock Turtle teaches her the Lobster Quadrille. Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?
Some “animal rights” radicals have repeatedly brought up the issues of cruelty (though really how seriously can you take an organization that calls fish “sea kittens”) and various theories have been floated in response to make cooking lobster more “humane.” Some suggest a gentle steaming. Others suggest putting the lobster in the freezer for a few minutes to lull it into sleepy complacency. The truth of the matter is those are worse.
Lobsters die immediately upon contact with boiling water. Any residual twitching is a nervous response, not unlike (but less sophisticated than) the chicken running around after her head’s been cut off. As for lobsters “screaming” in the pot, they have no vocal cords and thus no way to scream. The sound is made by air escaping the carapace.
Still, though, we don’t generally handle our food while it’s still alive. (Okay, oysters, in fact are still “alive” while traveling down my throat, but it’s really a stretch to anthropomorphize an oyster.) People try hard to disassociate the living lobster from the lobster recipe, even going as far to refer to them as “bugs,” and insects and lobsters are both arthropods. Yet whole threads exist on websites like Chowhound musing the question of how to kill a lobster.
Some recipes call for raw lobster meat—and it’s true that if you use “boiled” lobster meat in puff pastry, bisque, omelets and the like that the meat will be tougher. I’ll just have to live with that, because I am not willing to take up a cleaver to butcher a living creature even if said creature is just a step or two above earthworm on the evolutionary scale. I’d rather have someone else dump it in a vat of boiling water and go on in my ignorant bliss.
The last time I’d had a lobster was October 2007 at the Red Lobster restaurant in Rapid City, South Dakota. I know, I know. Lobsters start to die little by little as soon as they’re taken from the sea. Their life in a tank is a kind of purgatory. Occasionally a particularly large or charismatic lobster will be “rescued” by a customer to be returned to the ocean. They rarely survive the trip back.
Of course, the Red Lobster restaurant charged “market price” which would have paid for two other entrees, and they brought out the melted butter and the bib. But they forgot to crack the tail with a kitchen knife and they couldn’t find the crackers. I asked the waiter to take it back to open the shell. When he brought it back, it seemed they’d taken a hammer to it. We didn’t end up paying for it finally, but even so, the lobster was so rubbery it was hardly edible. We had to go by a burger stand on the way back to the hotel, which is what we should have done in the first place.
Lobsters used to be so plentiful on the New England coast that after a storm, they’d pick them up on the beach and distribute them as food for widows and orphans. They made a regular appearance on the tin plates of prison inmates. Some employment agreements stipulated that the employee would not be made to eat lobster more than twice a week. Then, around the middle of the 19th century, someone figured out how to successfully transport lobsters to urban centers around the country and fresh lobster became a luxury food. Which brings me back to the remaining three pounds of fresh lobster (at $6.50 a pound) in my kitchen in Dayton, Ohio.
I can hear the shower go off upstairs. Carrying a cooked lobster in one hand, I tiptoe up the stairs, and standing to one side, use the lobster’s claw to scratch on the door to the bathroom.
Scratch scratch scratch.
“What is it?” my teenage son asks from within.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
Scratch scratch scratch.
“Yes?! What IS it?”
Scratch scratch scratch.
The door flies open and I wave the lobster at him.
“Argh! Mom! You killed it didn’t you?!” I’m laughing so hard I can hardly catch my breath.
“No, no—ha, ha, ha” I rattle the lobster gently. “They killed it for me.” He rolls his eyes and shuts the door.
In the kitchen, I whack the length of the tail with a chef’s knife. There’s so much tomalley I’m worried that something’s awry. I know some people love the dark green goop, that which serves as liver and intestines for the lobster, but it’s not my thing. Plus, with the rise of toxins in the ocean, I’m not keen on ingesting the lobster’s filtering system. I rinse the tail meat in the sink.
The claws have a kind of milky white jelly in them, that’s the cooked “blood” of the lobster. It’s not dangerous, but has little taste and I rinse that off too.
The last lobster is also overly full of tomalley. I wonder how many calls the upscale grocery has received from people concerned that their lobster was bad. I’ve never seen tomalley in this kind of quantity, but maybe that’s the norm now.
While I’m pulling apart one of the claws, the lobster draws blood as the sharp edge of the pincer slices my thumb.
“Dammit!” I drop the claw in the sink and raise my thumb against my mouth. “Ouch.” I have to go wash my hands and find the band-aids before I can return to making the lobster salad.
Lobster salad is for lobster rolls, my idea of culinary heaven and my last attempt to persuade my husband and son into the league of lobster lovers. It’s the meat of two lobsters, a teaspoon of green onion, a stalk of celery chopped fine, the squeeze of half a lime, a teaspoon of hot sauce and a tablespoon or two of mayo—just enough to bind it together.
This is the kind of lobster I dream about eating. If I were on death row, this is the meal I would ask for. Lovingly I spoon the mixture into the grilled-in-butter hot dog rolls. My husband eats one, but there’s not much enthusiasm. Julian seems to be finishing his, so I offer him another.
“Uh, no thanks, Mom. I’ve had enough.” When I pick up his plate, I see that he has eaten the lobster roll, but around the lobster, picking out the chunks of meat, which litter his plate.
I give up. I am resigned that lobster will join that pantheon of other things I love but They Will Not Eat. Banana pudding, coconut cream pie, crème brulee, watermelon, summer soups, tomatoes, salad caprese, steak tartare, sushi, clam chowder, mussels in saffron cream sauce, oyster stew and now, lobster.
Long, long ago in Boston, I regularly drove north to Revere Beach for lobster rolls at Kelly’s Roast Beef. A seaside joint, it’s open nearly every hour of the day (with a two-hour break from three a.m. to five a.m.) every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving. No matter the weather or the season, you walk up to the window and order your lobster roll (some people do get roast beef I guess) and bite down into absolute bliss.
We usually went at night. I don’t remember all the people that went with me to Kelly’s. My ex-husband, I’m sure. I know my mother went at least once because she still talks about it. Girls in summer frocks and combat boots, skinny boys with new tattoos, friends home from Paris and people I could hardly stand; all of us at the window bathed in a pale blue fluorescent glow—the sea stretching out behind us inky black.
I don’t remember all of them because when I think about going to Kelly’s Roast Beef I think about all the times I went there with Joe. He and I worked together and every day was punctuated with theater, gossip and lunch. We adored each other, but you know, not like that. Or maybe it was like that. Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance? I could count on Joe to hold my hand, to hold my head up, to keep me from drowning in self-pity and self-loathing.
He loaned me his leather motorcycle jacket when I needed to wear a leather motorcycle jacket. (And not just any leather jacket, either, but a Schott, like Marlon Brando’s in The Wild One.) There’s a photo of me somewhere in that jacket, looking just as brave as I needed to look.
Not that there wasn’t trouble in paradise. The worst fight we ever had was over a shower curtain, and it was bad. We didn’t speak for weeks. And when we did speak again, we got in my Volkswagen and drove to Revere Beach for lobster rolls.
Lobster rolls consumed in companionable silence in the Victorian pavilion across the street, the waves whispering along the shore. We hear the lullaby of the sea, as we go lightly across the sand. We were so beautiful then, and too distracted to even know it. Joe went to New York to be a playwright; I went to the land without lobster.
I haven’t been to Kelly’s in nearly twenty years.
It isn’t the same, quite, eating lobster rolls in the kitchen of my house in Dayton, Ohio, on a summer night, thumb bloodied and bandaged. With my eyes tightly closed I taste the lobster roll: buttery crispy hot dog bun, cool, tangy dressing, lobster sweet and resilient, redolent in my mouth. And there it is, the spell of the lobster’s song: I taste and just for an instant, I am again at the edge of the sea. Will you, won’t you, won’t you, will you, won’t you join the dance?
January 8, 2010 § 3 Comments
Today I learned that this essay, which was submitted in September for an essay contest (how cheesy, anyway) was not chosen as one of the finalists. And so I am liberated to share it with you, a much better fate for it and me. Thanks to all of you for your continued interest and enthusiasm, both much appreciated. — L.V.
Working without a Net
an examination of “growing up”
by Larkin Vonalt
My mother murmurs in her sleep. I touch her shoulder, whisper her name. She looks up at me in the half-light of the hospital room. I wake her now to say goodnight so she won’t wake up later and wonder where I am. Bending to kiss her face, I tell her I will see her in the morning, an old childhood spell. If you say it, it must be so. I would stay later, but the parking garage closes in a few minutes.
My mother is recovering: they have reworked the roadmap of her heart. It is a serious surgery, but also a routine one. As I push the button for the elevator, exhaustion tumbles over me like a rogue wave.
It is a wave of profound relief, of fatigue, of loneliness. My mother’s sisters have been here too, and her brothers and cousins and friends, but they are all at liberty to go home and think about something else. I wish I could call my father, but my father is dead. It’s a long walk to the car.
These days, I’ve been thinking about aerialists. How they work with utter faith that all the connections will connect, that the ropes will hold, that they won’t look down, lose their balance and topple. At the circus, there’s a net of course, but out where men and women walk the high wire, out there over Niagara Falls, between the ill-fated towers of the World Trade Center, over the Grand Canyon, there’s no net.
That’s what this feels like: no net. For years, that safety net was such an integral part of my life that I never even really thought about it much. Most of my life I’ve been proclaiming my independence. From the time I was old enough to walk and climbed out on the porch roof to see what that was like, I was asserting myself. As a kid, I repeatedly got into trouble for going too far, too fast, with the wrong people and never with permission.
As an only child left to my own devices, I explored empty houses, railway viaducts, the view of the world from the back of a horse. I had the moxie of the unvanquished. Even when we moved to England and the lunch ladies made me cry because of the way I held my fork, my stepfather stepped in and set them straight.
Robert Frost wrote cynically that home is where when you have to go there they have to take you in. That wasn’t my home. My home was more akin to that of Max, king of the wild things. When I got home from my adventures, dinner was still hot. Home was where you could get a Band-Aid, a dollar, an oatmeal cookie, and it was where you better be if it was after eight o’clock on a school night. Even as I struggled against the rules, and the confinement – I wanted to fly! – my sense of confidence grew from knowing the safety net was always there.
Even after coming home meant coming home for the summer, or coming home for Christmas, I relied on my parents. They would help with the rent. I could turn to them for airfare home. Birthdays and holidays brought something wonderful in the mail. It was almost like being a grown-up.
There were visits filled with a mix of applause and admonition over dinners I never could afford on my own. There were manila envelopes full of clippings, there was plenty of advice and occasionally strenuous objection—at those times I resisted, protesting, “Look, I’m twenty years old, I know what I’m doing!”
Once, when my Volkswagen lost its clutch, I parked it in the landlord’s garage until I could save the money to fix it. Finally after six months of being able to save nothing, I gave up and called my father, and he sent me $350. It turns out it was just the clutch cable: $35. I had money for that! I can’t remember what I used the car repair bailout for now.
One summer when I was 22, I came home for a visit. My job had been difficult; school wasn’t going well, I was in last throes of an awful relationship. I just needed to rest for a bit. When my mother and I pulled into the driveway, before me was a huge painted sign propped up along 30 feet of fence. It read “Welcome Home Baby Girl!” That night in my childhood bed, I cried with relief at being home. But two days later, I was fractious as a racehorse, wanting to get back to my real life.
I was a girl with two fathers, and when I married, I walked unescorted up the aisle. Not wanting to hurt the feelings of my father or my stepfather, I decided I would make the trip alone. I was a grown woman, after all, how hard could it be?
I watched from the church doors as little girls, my husband’s daughters, danced and spun along the sidewalk in their lawn dresses, the skirts twirling and lifting, the bridesmaids ushering them into procession.
Then they were away, down the aisle in front of me. The Church pianist played the opening notes of Clair de Lune. Those first steps — I might have been a spindly-legged foal; they were so uncertain and shaky. I would not have been more nervous stepping out onto a tightrope.
Maybe it would have been better to have asked all of them, a phalanx of parents to walk with me to the altar. Or maybe it was better that I learned I could do it myself, even if I felt a little shaky. There is a kind of exhilaration in being afraid and doing it anyway.
Even newly married, with two children thrown in for good measure, and certainly feeling every inch the adult, I never had to work without the net. If we were short for a family vacation, a check arrived in the mail. Every occasion was marked not just with a stack of presents in a brown cardboard box, but a butter yellow check inside each and every greeting card. We knew the checks would come, and we grew to depend on them.
Then the unthinkable: my stepfather left us one August morning. It was eleven years ago, he was brushing his teeth in a London flat, when he shot away straight to the sun. The coroner said the heart attack was so catastrophic that he was dead before his body hit the floor.
My mother had been with us that summer, and she stayed on, and that part of feeling safe slipped away. The house on the river was gone, there were no more trips to the Florida coast, no more sitting on the porch watching the dolphins play in the water. There were no more funny postcards or elaborate floral arrangements. Never again the voice on the telephone, seeing what I needed, what I celebrated, what I mourned.
Then my father died of cancer, not unexpectedly, and yet his death took my breath away. This was the person who had been my rock, my right arm, one of my very best friends. He supported me in every venture I took on, whether hare-brained or brilliant, never letting on which one he thought it was. His death left me feeling not like I had slipped from a high wire, but like I had become untethered from a spacecraft, utterly alone in a strange place, with no idea how I might get home.
Yet, I did get home. I put one foot after another across that chasm of grief, and arrived on the other side. Now there is nothing left of my brilliant childhood but me and my mother, and that relationship is changing. I am learning to take care of her, to make sure she has what she needs, to watch her while she’s sleeping, to cast our old childhood spells for safe-keeping.
So I learn to work without a net, to stand on my own two feet, and in turn, my husband and I become the same for our children, for our son who is “Nearly fifteen, for Pete’s sake, why can’t I go” and for our eldest daughter who, though she is all grown up herself, needs us in particular right now, and for our younger daughter, who pretends not to know us, but knows in her heart that we are always there for her, as she flies through the air from trapeze to trapeze to trapeze.
November 6, 2009 § 3 Comments
This piece originally appeared in June 2008 on True Crime Weblog, the website of noted crime writer Steve Huff, and appears here with his kind permission. This case remains unsolved.
by Larkin Vonalt
The woman is screaming into the television camera. There are words coming out of her mouth, but all you really hear is rage. Rage, and despair. The pain is writ so large upon her face that even at a distance one cannot help turning away out of respect. The camera pans from the shattered woman back to a twenty-something television reporter. The reporter smiles, embarrassed, and with a tilt of her head, brightly offers her reprise to the night’s top story.
Hours before, Tammy Walker trod the hallways of the city morgue, her own green mile, to identify the body of her daughter. 77 days earlier she and her husband filed a missing person report for Heather Nicole Walker, age 18. The police, by their own admission, never looked for her. Heather’s family and friends ran off flyers of the missing girl, posting them everywhere they could think of. Now it was all for nothing. When they’d turned out the lights the night before, there had still been hope, dangling on a string. There was still a chance that Heather would come banging through the door of the house on Gummer Street. Today, with the rising of the sun, that string snapped.
This evening Tammy Walker has returned to the alley where her daughter was found in a trashcan. Surely screaming can be the only reasonable response.
Dayton, Ohio is a city of 157,000 people. The crime rate falls somewhere between that of Baton Rouge and Rochester though violent crime in Dayton is significantly less than both those cities. Last year the Chief of Police was pleased to tell the media that Dayton had enjoyed its second straight year of diminishing crime.
In the days following the discovery of Heather Walker’s body, the police defended their lack of action.
“Many adults go missing throughout the year,” Sgt. Chris Williams told the Dayton Daily News, adding that “very few” turn out to be victims of foul play. They offer this information without apology. They are just cogs in a slowly grinding machine, one with no capacity to look for the needle in a haystack that is a girl lost in the streets.
Heather wasn’t the high school valedictorian. She wasn’t an accomplished coed at a prestigious university. When the media speaks of her they don’t use words like “gifted” or “promising” or “popular.” As if death wasn’t insult enough, they drop labels on her like stones: Troubled. Habitual. Runaway.
Heather’s parents had reported her missing before, six times in point of fact. But this time, Robert and Tammy Walker had been emphatic with the police: she had not taken her cell phone, or her wallet. In the past she had always called to let them know she was okay. Not this time. It didn’t matter that Heather’s absence was more sinister this February than on past occasions. She had passed that magic age. 18: you can’t buy a beer, but you can be tried as an adult, serve your country and be liable for your own debts. Oh, and the police won’t look for you anymore.
Mary McCarty, a Dayton Daily News columnist, chastised the police in a May 1 editorial for arbitrarily dismissing reports for missing individuals over 18, citing her own son, a 19-year old High School senior, as evidence of how childlike we still can be at that tender age, suggesting that the “cutoff” might be a little later. McCarty quotes Kettering, Ohio Police Sgt. Craig Moore deftly sidestepping the issue: “That’s a societal thing; we’re simply following state law as it is written,” Moore said. “That would be a change for the state of Ohio to make.”
The Walkers’ coltish daughter, half-woman, half-child, had early on seized the privileges usually reserved for adults, and did not bridle easily to the very adult responsibilities of raising her young son. The running away began when she was pregnant and reached epic proportions after Devin was born. The sixth time the police brought Heather home, just over a year ago, she left again ten minutes later. There would not be a seventh time.
Though suburbanites fear the predominantly black west side of Dayton, these blocks—east of Keowee, north of US 35—these are really Dayton’s mean streets. But like the natives of South Boston and the Bronx, the residents of East Dayton take pride in their gritty neighborhood, wearing their survival like a badge of honor.
Largely white, it is an area plagued with vandalism, theft, prostitution, homelessness, drug abuse and murder. The kids here ape black culture, posing on their MySpace pages and YouTube videos with rolls of cash, guns, bottles of Jagermeister. They imitate the speech, the dress, the swagger of the ghetto. It might be comical if it wasn’t so deadly. They’ve got the rims, the grills, they throw up the signs, pose for photos at the gravesites of their friends.
It isn’t just Heather they mourn, but also Andy Rush, who died Easter Sunday last year, accidentally shot in the head by his best friend, Tommy. His “Moms” had died just a few days before that, of cancer. Younger brother Mikey eulogizes all of them on his My Space profile. A few days ago there was a reference there to Heather, he called her his “future wife;” but to look at the profile now you’d never know they were friends. A guy’s got pressures, you know.
Heather wasn’t much of a diarist; she started four or five MySpace pages, but was never a regular presence there. Even so, the media noted that those pages were “laced with obscenities.” On both the pages that she got off the ground, she fusses about Devin’s father, Justin James Holbrook. “And for those bitches who want my baby daddy, go ahead and have him. He may look good to you and everything, but the thing is he has nothing to offer you, he don’t even have anything to offer his own son.”
On one of Heather’s early, abandoned profiles, Justin commented “hey if u ever get on here n check ur shit delete me from ur friends cause i dont want u to know nething bout wat i do so do me a favor n delete me k.” Their son, Devin, was about three months old then, and Heather was out the door as often as not.
It’s the pictures on Heather’s profile that finally provide a real glimpse of the girl behind the pose. Heather, laughing. Heather scowling, and yes, Heather (and a friend) stacking gang signs. Heather vibrant, her arms bare and smooth, a curtain of shiny hair, a wide, wide grin, goofing for the camera. Heather alive.
As a juvenile, Heather Walker had brushes with the law; shoplifting a pair of shoes, joyriding in a stolen car, the details carefully spelled out in the local newspaper days after her body was discovered. There is no record for her as an adult. She had dropped out of Belmont High, but she wasn’t alone in that. Four out of every ten students there don’t make it to graduation. On “academic watch,” the Dayton public high school features a “computer technology theme,” but has no school website. 93 percent of its students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”
On Wednesday, February 6, Heather is thought to have been on her way to a birthday party for her older brother, Rob. She is seen about 7:30 in the parking lot of Sam’s Market, a down-at-the-heels corner grocery on East Third Street, two miles from home, three blocks from where her body will be found. By Saturday morning, she has still not come home and her parents turn to the police. The police follow procedure as for any missing adult, other than those considered “endangered.” They issue a 72-hour alert, and when it expires, they forget about her.
Eleven weeks later, on a warm April morning, three passersby wend their way down an alley half a block off East Third. One of them spots a pair of shoes hanging out of a city-issued trash bin. Deciding to take the shoes, they cross thirty feet from the alley to the edge of the abandoned building where the green plastic can rests. Reaching for the shoes, they make a horrible discovery. The shoes are still on Heather’s feet.
Heather’s friends bring balloons to the site. Balloons, and stuffed toys. Letters, poems, photographs of their lost friend. It is raining, the notes run, the photos smear, the candles flicker. In the rain, in an alley in a gin-soaked neighborhood, her friends weep, stunned with grief. A photograph of Devin visiting Heather’s shrine shows a beautiful and bewildered little boy.
Heather’s father has mapped his grief upon his chest, an image of Heather; peaceful, contemplative, is newly tattooed there. Two dozen of his Mixed Martial Arts students file past, their heads bowed. Bushi Combat, where he teaches, honors Heather on their website. All that combat training, and no one to save her. Robert Walker does not rage into the television camera as his wife does, but it is clear that the death of his baby girl has broken him.
The coroner issues a statement that Heather Nicole Walker had been dead “for a while,” yet her parents identify her in the hours immediately following her discovery. While her father concedes there was decomposition, he ventures that “her head hadn’t been bashed in or anything.” It’s unlikely Heather spent eleven weeks in the trash can, as the mild Ohio spring would have rendered her to state that no one would ask a parent to contemplate.
On the box that houses her ashes, the date of death is March 1, 2008; an estimate arrived at with the help of the medical examiner. It begs the question. Where was Heather for the 23 nights between February 6 and March 1? Was she captive? Was she frightened? Was she cold?
No cause or manner of death has been established. There were no signs of trauma on her body. She was not stabbed or shot or strangled. There was no blunt force trauma. Determining asphyxiation after a certain point of decomposition is very difficult. Life isn’t like CSI: lab tests take weeks, sometimes longer, to complete. Sometimes the answers never come.
As if rushing to pre-empt the media’s speculation, Robert Walker muses to a Dayton Daily News reporter that his daughter might have died of a drug overdose. Without the toxicology reports, the Montgomery County Coroner is not willing to make that leap yet.
The Coroner’s office director Ken Betz told the paper that he “cannot support that, because pathologists have not officially determined when and how Heather Walker died.”
If the cause of death is revealed in the toxicology report, it may well put an end to any homicide investigation. Without evidence of having been dosed against her will, the best the D.A. can offer her parents in that circumstance is the possible charge of “abuse of a corpse.” That is, if they ever find anyone to charge.
Drug overdose or not, no one is buying that Heather climbed into a trashcan on her own. Why would someone go to such lengths to conceal an accidental death? Or was their means of disposing of the body some kind of cruel joke? Though the house near the site is empty, the grass is kept mowed. Heather’s father said he talked to the people who had cut the grass just a few weeks before his daughter’s body was found. “They said that trash can was not there when they mowed,” he told the Dayton paper. “Someone killed Heather. I am staying on this.”
Heather Walker: daughter, mother, sister, friend. Not just lost, but stolen.
May 22, 2009 § 4 Comments
How a Boy Lay Nameless for 35 Years
This week, a new monument was laid at the grave of “Boy X.” It is a modest stone of red granite, matching the one that has marked this spot in the Dayton Memorial Park since May of 1974.
The old one reads “On Behalf of Those Who Cared Boy X Died May 20, 1974.” The new one has a name, and a date of birth and finally answers a mystery nearly three times as old as the boy whose bones lie below.
He was James “Jimmy” Dean Johnson, a handsome sandy-haired boy with a wide smile and big ears that stuck out just a bit. He was born on the 3rd of September 1960, to a woman named Cora Walls.
Jimmy must have been among the last of her eight children (six boys, two girls) as when he was just a baby, his mother is said to have stepped out a window during an epileptic seizure. She didn’t die. In fact, she remains alive today, though her mind is clouded with dementia.
In the 1960s epilepsy was considered a non-remitting, progressive disease. Treatments were rudimentary and often not effective. By the time her baby boy was two years old, Mrs. Walls’ children had been placed in foster care.
For a period in the early seventies, three of the siblings, Rosie, Wayne and Jimmy, were reunited in the care of their mother’s sister Sarah in Cincinnati. But in 1973, Sarah Zuern left her husband, took her children and moved to Dayton. Her niece and nephews returned to foster care.
This week, little Jimmy’s cousin, Esther Zuern told the Dayton Daily News that she remembered the boy as “sweet; not rowdy or mean like most kids in foster care.” More than one relative recalled that he was small for his age. Nonetheless, Jimmy apparently became something of a “behavior problem” and in a matter of months found himself a resident of the gothic campus at Longview State Hospital. He was just 13.
In March 1974, all hell was breaking loose over Watergate. We were in the clutches of an oil embargo. Terry Jacks’ “Seasons in the Sun” was the number one song. And little Jimmy Dean Johnson walked away from the Longview State Hospital and disappeared into the Ohio streets. His absence was not reported to any authority, and apparently no one ever looked for him.
The incidents of Monday, May 20, 1974 are not precisely recounted anymore. The coroner’s report is reported as stating that the body of a male child was found at 1853 Stanley St, on a railroad embankment, behind a warehouse.
The news media has alternatively reported the body found on the banks of the Great Miami River near Leo and Stanley Streets, at 1383 Stanley; still others say the body lay up against the railroad tracks. Whoever had the unhappy discovery is long forgotten (though no doubt it is etched irrevocably in their own memory.) Perhaps it was a dockworker clocking in on Monday morning. Perhaps it was a brakeman on a passing train, or a beat cop patrolling the area late at night. It doesn’t matter anymore.
What was found was the body of a male child, somewhere between 11 and 14 years old. With sandy hair and ears that stuck out a bit. He had a homemade tattoo on his arm depicting a cross with three teardrops. His skinny little broken body was naked to the elements. He had been beaten and strangled; he was still bound when they found him.
There were no active missing persons cases matching the boy’s description. Ken Betz, the director of the Montgomery County Coroner’s Office told reporters during a February 2009 press conference that records show five different families came to see if the child belonged to them, but none of them could positively identify him. For their sakes, one hopes that some were able to positively say that he was not theirs.
Among those families was Sarah Zuern, who is said to have arrived with a photograph of her nephew, missing from the state hospital in Cincinnati. Sarah’s family claimed she never heard back from the Coroner’s office. Even in the seventies a forensic anthropologist could have made a positive identification, a reasonably good medical examiner could have made an almost certain one. Of course, none of the Coroner’s office personnel are the same now as they were thirty-five years ago.
These cases weigh on the men and women that work them. The death of a child is not something easily forgotten, and an unidentified child even more so. No one would have carelessly lost a photograph of a potential match, or overlooked calling the presumed next of kin. But the boy remained nameless, and finally, through the generosity of the community, his small body was buried in Dayton Memorial Gardens under a red granite stone that read “Boy X.”
Rosie Johnson, Jimmy’s older sister, lives in Alabama now. Last year she saw Jim DeBrosse’s retrospective story in the Dayton Daily News about the mysterious “Boy X” and she wondered, again, if that boy could be her long lost brother. This time she contacted the Montgomery County Coroner’s office.
Jim DeBrosse is owed a great debt in the work he did to help Boy X regain his identity, his history, his belonging. In remembering Boy X and making his readers remember Boy X, he helped to nudge Rosie Johnson to find the answer for her decades-long question about her little brother. His thorough research into who that child was in life is very touching, and his coverage of the family’s memorial to that boy has been remarkable. Every community should have someone like DeBrosse who so eloquently keeps the unidentified lost from being forgotten.
The Coroner’s office took the photograph that Rosie Johnson supplied them, and they took a DNA sample from her. They visited Cora Walls in a nursing home and took a DNA sample there too. They exhumed the body of Boy X, and on January 28, 2009, they had a match.
Ruby Simpkins is the daughter of Sarah Zuern, and the cousin to little Jimmy. She became the focus of media attention during the memorial held in Dayton this week, as it seems she is the most readily approachable family member for sound bites and quotes.
She told Jim DeBrosse that the family had held out hope that they’d run into Jimmy somewhere, all grown up, a handsome young man.
“But,” she said brightly, “We’ll see him again in heaven.” The television media coverage was upbeat, the anchor pursing her mouth in a little moue at the bittersweet nature of this resolution. A child is murdered, and yet he is at long last returned to his family. Comments to online print stories and websites devoted to missing persons were equally simple-minded. Even the biddies at websleuths.com didn’t seem to get it.
But the Dayton Police Department certainly seems to get it, and Detective Patty Tackett made a statement to the press that the investigation into James Dean Johnson’s murder has been reopened. She urged the public to get in touch if they have any information that may be useful. She added that they are particularly interested in “a situation of sexual assault that may have occurred on a boy of 13—we’d like to have them come forward.” The original autopsy showed no evidence of sexual assault per se, but when a body is found nude, it certainly isn’t ruled out.
The local NBC affiliate carried an interview with Ruby Simpkins in which she offered up a graphic vision of her cousin’s death. She imagines him “lying there crying as they beat him,” but “as his spirit slipped away he saw Jesus coming toward him with arms outstretched. Finally, he found the love he’d searched for so long. At last Jimmy’s home!”
Rosie Johnson didn’t make it to Ohio for her brother’s memorial. Sarah Zuern was planning to read a poem at the service, but she slipped away on April 26th.
Her obituary lists her age as 73, and notes among her survivors her daughters Esther and Ruby, her sister Cora. It quotes the words spoken with her last breath: “Before she passed on, she said ‘I hope to see you all again someday, in Heaven. I’ll be waiting.’”
There is a list of those she expected to find waiting for her in heaven, having been pre-deceased by her ex-husband, three of her special friends, Jesus Christ, (way predeceased by him) and her three sons, James, Johnny and William. Her recently identified, long dead nephew does not merit a mention. Something about the names in Sarah Zuern’s obituary stands out though, something no one seems to have noticed.
It is the name of her son, William Zuern. William Zuern who was executed by the State of Ohio on June 8, 2004 for the murder of a Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputy, Philip Pence.
The deputy was killed while Zuern was incarcerated awaiting trial for the murder of Gregory Earls, an informant who had testified against Zuern’s father. Zuern was angry with prison officials because he didn’t get his full five minutes of telephone time.
Authorities had been tipped off that he had a weapon and three of them had gone to search his cell. Zuern got off his bunk naked, and lunged at Deputy Pence, stabbing the officer to death with a 7” shank he’d fashioned from a bucket handle.
William Zuern’s life of crime officially began when he was 13, with the “malicious destruction of property.” He’d gone on a tire-slashing spree in Cincinnati. His 2004 request for clemency details his many brushes with the law, including his juvenile record: burglary, drugs, delinquency, and as adult: theft, felonious assault, murder, murder, murder. On the cover of the Request for Clemency Report, a notation is written neatly, by hand, in the upper right hand corner: EXECUTED 6/8/04
In December of 1973 William Zuern had been released to the care of his mother in Dayton, Ohio. In September 1975, he was remanded to Ohio Youth Services. A photograph displayed by Ken Betz at a press conference shows Jimmy Dean Johnson among the Zuerns: a slight blond boy surrounded by enormous people. William Zuern, at 15, had a significant height and weight advantage over his younger cousin.
Real life homicide is not so much like fictional murder mysteries. Rarely found are those clever twists, those surprising endings where the villain turns out to be the last person you’d suspect. Most of the time the answer to the mystery is the most depressingly obvious one.
Rosie Johnson speculated that perhaps her little brother had headed for Dayton looking for his aunt and cousins.
It appears that he may have found them.
April 20, 2009 § 12 Comments
for Doug on the loss of his Dad, and in loving memory of Larry Vonalt.
Last week we attended the funeral of a man we’d never met. I could not have told you much at all about him. I was four states and 900 miles away when I learned of his death. My husband read the obituary to me over the telephone, both of us learning that this gentleman had served in two wars, worked for the telephone company, he was 82, and he’d been married for 56 years. In addition to his wife, he is survived by four children, four grandchildren, a brother, a sister. While recounting the news of his death to my mother, tears spill down my face.
No, we’d never met Edsel Peters. If we’d seen him working in his yard or fishing at the lake, we would not have recognized him. But we mourn his passing because his youngest child, his baby boy, is our good and loyal friend. The kind of friend that will help you unload a moving van full of furniture in hundred-degree heat, who shoots baskets with your kid, a man of wit and grace and excellent humor. If the measure of a man is in the children he leaves behind, then Edsel Peters was a very fine man indeed.
Losing your father unmoors you. It doesn’t matter how grown up you might be, how accomplished. Suddenly you are rudderless, flying blind, walking the tightrope without a net. Three years ago, when I told my friend Judy that my father had died, she said, “Oh honey, you’ve done lost your right arm.” It was the absolute truth. I lost my sense of navigation. I was clumsy with grief.
Judy’s own father, Virg Lovell, has been gone forty years or so. He spent years raising and showing Foxhounds, and it was Judy, not her brothers, who followed in his footsteps, from the time she was two years old. Seventy years later, Judy’s still raising and showing Foxhounds, maybe the best in the country. She still talks about her father like he might well walk through the door.
We carry our fathers with us; perhaps in a gesture, a certain turn of a phrase, a predilection for Miracle Whip on our fried egg sandwich, maybe a tendency to sing along with the car radio. I wonder at times about my mother’s father, Bennie Lee Ouzts, who died after being injured in a logging accident when my mother was just twelve. Did he look out across the horizon lost in thought the way my mother does? Did he throw his head back when he laughed the way his sons and daughters do? I never saw my Nana do that, but each of the six children do.
There aren’t many photographs of him. In my mind’s eye, he looks like Gregory Peck (though my mother will no doubt say “Of course not”) and I know that his nickname for my mother was Cooter (after the snapping turtle) and I know that his death became a kind of wound for my mother that never quite heals.
My Nana’s father died when she was just a girl as well. If I knew the exact circumstances, I have forgotten them. What I remember is that his death meant that my grandmother had to quit school in the 8th grade and go to work in the cotton mills. In the last hours of my grandmother’s life, my mother sat at the hospital bedside, watching Nana sleep. Suddenly, my mother said, Nana looked to a place somewhere above the doorframe, lifted up her arms the way a child will when she wants to be carried and whispered “Papa! Papa!”
For me the first death in the family was my father’s father, my Grandpa Paul Vonalt. He died just shy of 80, after an illness. I was an adult by then, and the news, conveyed to me by telephone did not dissemble me the way I expected it to. I felt very sad, missing in advance the unassuming man who taught me to fish for bluegills, sharpen pencils with a Swiss Army knife, how to paint hex signs. Every summer visit, he’d loan me his green Huffy 3-speed bicycle to tool around town.
I expected to go to Grandpa’s funeral. It was just a day’s drive, and I made plans to go. But my father told me not to come. He said that it was too risky with the February weather, that Grannie and Grandpa knew how much I loved them, that I didn’t need to come out, that I shouldn’t. Being that this is an extended family that reassembles for fish fries and baby showers and 40th birthdays, I was puzzled by my father’s insistence that I stay in Boston and not come.
It was only after his funeral that I truly understood why. My father needed that time to be the grieving child. Consumed by sorrow for the loss of his father, he didn’t have the emotional wherewithal to be there for me. I knew this finally because when Dad died, it was my husband who stepped in to care for our son and guide him through the loss of his Grandpa. I was too shattered to be anyone’s mother.
Daniel Sullivan was the first of my friend’s fathers to be lost. His daughter Noelle has been one of my closest friends for nearly twenty years. When I first met Noelle, her father was in remission. It didn’t last. I didn’t know what to do and I wasn’t the friend that I should have been. We were new to this, to facing the unthinkable. Dan Sullivan fought the fight long and hard. I wish I could say that I was present for Noelle; that I provided tea and sympathy, a kind ear and arms to shelter in. But I wasn’t, at least not in the way I should have been. I didn’t know what to say, and I was a little bit afraid. If Noelle’s father could so easily slip away over the edge, what about my own?
In truth I had two fathers and in the end, I lost them both. My stepfather, Humphrey Clarke Booth, died while brushing his teeth, shooting straight to the sun, gone before his body hit the floor. That was always his style anyway. He was in England, the news came by telephone. This is the man who taught me to drive, (“remember to speed up in the curves”) bought me my first horse, my first car, ordered me my first Martini. He soothed my broken heart, smoothed the oft-ruffled feathers between my mother and me, and made damn sure the lunch ladies in the English primary school never again made comment on the way I held my fork. His death, instant and far away, was also a strange kindness, a leg up on being an orphan before I really had to face it.
And even then, I came undone. I stayed out all night, writing, drinking. When I slept it was fitful. When I ate, it was a dozen raw oysters and a few Bombay Sapphire martinis every night at the Livingston Bar and Grille. One night it was one of the wait staff that drove me home. Other times I’d crash on the studio floor of a painter friend. Finally I asked a woman I knew for something to help get me out of the fog. She gave me a prescription, but no one remembered to tell me that I shouldn’t wash it down with gin. That landed me in the world of ipecac and activated charcoal, discussing a Thomas Jefferson biography with one of the ER docs in between wretching. The next morning I felt much better, as if somehow I’d got my bearings back again.
My stepsister read Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night” at her father’s funeral. At the time it struck me as a peculiar choice, one made only because it is a plaint from child to father. And you, my father, there on the sad height/ Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears I pray / Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage rage against the dying of the light. Reading it now, I realize that it is absolute stricken wail of a child. It’s beautiful and it’s brilliant, but that doesn’t disguise the primal nature of the plea: Don’t leave me, don’t leave me, Daddy, don’t leave me.
My father told me he was dying by asking me if I wanted his poetry books. My father and I had many of the same poetry books. (Perhaps another shared quality, like the way I hold the steering wheel, or a preference for Cabernet over Merlot) He was an English professor; I’d grown up reading Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop and for a while was a poet myself. Some bookshelves bow under the weight of those slender volumes. If my father was offering me his poetry books it was because he would not need them anymore. That was in August. He taught his last class in December. He was dead the day after Christmas.
In the months between August and December, I wrestled with my father’s impending death. He was dying from laryngeal cancer. There had been immense amounts of radiation, and finally in a last ditch attempt the previous January they’d taken out his larynx, and made a permanent hole in his throat, given him a little black box on a cord around his neck in exchange for his voice. It was supposed to be the price for a cure, but they didn’t hold up their end of the deal.
It’s a parlor game to ask what you would do if you knew you only had a year, a few months, a few weeks left. I don’t know what my father might have said when the question was just hypothetical. When it was real, he went on with his life as he knew it. He drove down to his office at the university, met with students, taught classes, stopped by the Chef’s Pantry for good wine and roast beef and cheese on the way home. He took his wife to dinner, they listened to music. He sent emails to old friends and family members. They scheduled times for people to visit.
I suggested that we might come for Thanksgiving, and was told, no, Michael and his family were coming. I’m an only child. Michael is the son of my father’s wife. It was a stinging knockdown, one that left me sitting in tears. I wanted to finish the unfinished business; I wanted to clear the air, set things right. My father just wanted to go on with his life as he knew it. He asked for suggestions for the memorial service. I made them. He said he’d check with his wife. I lost my temper and reminded him he had other family. He sent back a six-word email “Why don’t you just cool it?”
I carefully crafted an email about how upset and enraged I felt about his impending death, how I wanted to set things right between us. He wrote that he didn’t want me to feel enraged. How could I help it? I wasn’t ready. Grave men near death, who see with blinding sight / Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay / Rage, rage against the dying of the light. It seemed that I could do nothing right. There are platitudes about having a chance to say goodbye. Sometimes it’s easier if you lose your father while he is brushing his teeth.
We went to see my father in the middle of December. He was clearly near the end. Dad went into the hospital to have a feeding tube put in. From his hospital bed, he wrote directions on a half-size legal pad as to cleaning out his office at school. I might have spent hours at his bedside, but instead I went up to the university and packed. Every few hours I would return to the hospital and ask what to do about various papers, or files, or stacks of literary journals. “Send them,” he scribbled, or “Take them if you want them,” or most often “Pitch it.” I took all the poetry books.
The doctors thought we had another month. They were wrong. As we drove away that night, through a snowstorm to Kansas City on our way back to Montana, I could not stop crying. My heart knew what my head could not yet accept. We promised to come back in two weeks. The last thing my Dad said to me, his mouth silently forming the words was “I’m sorry.”
“Me too, Dad. I’m sorry too.”
We got a phone call on the morning of the 26th. Dad had been admitted to the hospital, this was it. He might have until the close of day. I called every airline that flew out of Montana. If I could get to the airport in the next twenty minutes, I could catch the last flight that would have made a connection to get me to St. Louis at ten o’clock that night. But the airport was an hour and a half away.
“I’ll drive you to Missouri,” my husband said. “Don’t worry, I can drive straight through.” Straight through was1400 miles in the snow. I shook my head. He wasn’t even conscious anymore, it was time to act like the daughter of the pragmatist he was. The day seemed to go on without end. When the phone rang again about 8 p.m., it was all over. If we’d started driving, we would only have gotten as far as Denver.
My husband’s father died a long time ago, and when I’ve asked him about it, he changes the subject. Oh, he’ll say how he got the call. How no one in his family had told him that his father was dying. That he flew to L.A. by himself, as his first wife declined to accompany him. He’ll recall how he found a cash register slip on his father’s dresser for six Porterhouse steaks that were on sale at a great price. His father had bought them just a few days before he died and now Porterhouse steaks are forever entwined with that memory. The stories my husband tells about Pon Lieu are the stories of his life and never of his death. When I asked once how his father had died, Elmer said, “I think he just gave up.” I don’t have to ask him how he felt to lose his father; I know the answer to that.
I envy my friends who still have their fathers, and especially my cousins, the children of my father’s brothers. I worry about my husband and our 14-year-old son, who are caught up in that push-me-pull-you of adolescence. I can’t stand to hear them yelling at each other. Don’t they realize how precious is the time they have together, how we can’t really say which memories will linger on, which parts of the relationship become the legacy carried in one’s heart?
Worse still is my husband’s younger daughter from his first marriage. She is so caught up in her own anger and self-pity that she has excluded her father altogether from her life. He hasn’t heard from her in three years, and any attempts he’s made at communicating have gone unanswered. I want to take her by the shoulders and say “Don’t you realize?! Don’t you know how much you’ll regret this when it’s too late?”
It was only after my father’s memorial service that I learned from strangers that he had been proud of me, that he thought I’d turned out just fine despite everything. One person after another recounted for me the things Dad had told them about me. Sorting through his boxes and files, I found letters I’d written as a child, pieces I’d published in high school, poems I’d worked on, and reams of newspaper stories I’d written. I can’t help but wonder how different those last months might have been if only I’d known.
Driving in the car one morning the spring after my father’s death, I heard a bit of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Wood on the radio. I’ve seen the play, and I turned up the song.
People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. Holding to their own, thinking they’re alone. Honor their mistake. Fight for their mistakes. One another’s terrible mistakes. Witches can be right. Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good. Just remember: someone is on your side. Someone else is not. While we’re seeing our side maybe we forgot. They are not alone. No one is alone.
I’m a little abashed to say that I found the answer to the father-child conundrum in a Broadway song. All that expectation, all that disappointment, all that dependence and love and struggle. But there it is: People make mistakes. Fathers. Mothers. People make mistakes. In recognizing my father as only human, I am able to accept having to let him go. I am glad he went gentle into that good night, and suffered no more. I miss him every day. I wish he could have come farther along the journey with us, but sometimes people leave you halfway through the wood. Still, we carry his map and his compass.
After the funeral of our friend’s father, I wanted to say some of these things. At least I wanted to say it gets better. It won’t always hurt so much. Your questions won’t have answers but the questions grow quieter in time. I wanted to say you won’t always feel like a fatherless child. You never stop missing your father, but you grow stronger in time. But I didn’t say any of this. I just hugged our friends and said how sorry I was.