Last fall, I visited a friend and we went to meet her lover. We found the woman squatting over her sidewalk like a clam, using her fingers like pincers to pull tiny weeds from between the slabs of concrete. She looked up with red, wet eyes as we approached, and she swiped at tears with a bent wrist, keeping her dirt-blackened fingers away from her damp and florid face.

“I miss my father,” she said to my friend, and since I didn’t know her, I pretended not to hear. During the visit, I pieced together that this day was an anniversary of his death, and that her father had died many more years ago than mine.

I have never been overcome by tears in the middle of the day while thinking about my father. In fact, I’ve never been overcome by tears at any time when thinking about my father since his death. Then and now I wonder what is wrong with me. I loved him. I had love for him.

My journal entry on the date of his death was this:

My father died.

I can’t be certain that I wrote down my weight early that morning and then learned of my father’s death later in the day. I can’t be certain I didn’t note that my father had died, and then sometime later that day, got onto the scale, and then entered the numbers at the top of the page like I did every day. I can’t be certain I wasn’t, as I always am, still thinking about my body’s weight, even under the weight of knowing, knowing my father was dead. I can’t be certain I didn’t grab a fold of skin and wish I could just trim it off like I might my bangs, or the fat off a roast. I can’t be certain that I didn’t just carry on after he was gone.

Last week I dreamed my father was a homeless man, strumming a guitar on the I-94 freeway leading out of Milwaukee, and I was afraid he would be killed.

Of course it was a dream because my father was dead, died of a bleeding colon. We donated his eyes to science. And he never lived in Milwaukee, nor did he ever play guitar, but I have spent the last six days since the dream wanting to rush out of my life and go looking for him, like a lost dog, like a missing limb.

My Purple Heart

In college biology, we saw two cadavers,
regular people who donated their bodies
to science. One was a man, the other a woman,
but so much the same once opened up
for our cautiously curious eyes. Our professor
explained the man’s heart
was enlarged due to years of abuse–
I think, maybe Big Macs and milkshakes
and years of sitting in a corner office.
The woman’s, by comparison, was petite,
compact, like the hearts of the chickens
butchered on my childhood farm.

If my chest were sliced, ribs spread
open, organs exposed, what would my heart
look like? Stretchmarks, for certain,
veining my heart walls since
the day he was born, instant expansion
as I looked upon his face, felt
the heat of his new body burn
my hands as I held him.

Would the students who gather and gaze
at my fragile egg of a heart see
the fine cracks feathered faintly
like a net? Each fine line
a record of days, despair and disappointment
tap-tapping a pattern
on its walls until only a membrane of will
holds it together? Would they see the scar tissue
tough like rind? Bruises
deep purple and still pulsing.

In my poor tired heart, there is a chamber
carved out like water does to rock,
worn down and empty from each wave
of terror that sluices through
when he is ill, when his body seizes,
and his mind retreats, reboots,
when I sit in waiting rooms, doctors’ offices,
beside pulsing machines that scan and probe
his brain. Perhaps someday a “why”
will work to heal this crack in my heart,
but if not, scientists will marvel
at the phenomenon that, for years,
my heart kept beating while broken.

Material as Memory

There are four blue opaque Tupperware tubs stacked in my basement. They contain all that is left of my mother and father’s house, my brother’s and my childhood. Four boxes of musty memorabilia picked out from mounds of decaying mess in the basement of the house that flooded, it seemed, every spring as my father aged there alone, unable to reverse the tide of time and its subsequent erosion. Mostly the tubs contain my mother’s things; she brought the most to their marriage, both in terms of stuff, and the stuff a life is eventually constructed from: history, health, hurt.

It has been thirty years since she died. It has been four years since I packed up those four containers, bought hastily after googling the nearest Wal-Mart, brought hastily back to our house in Milwaukee, full of musty memories. Just days after his death, a dumpster lay out on the yard, crushing the sea of dandelions, welcoming all that we threw out. My husband and uncle worked in the basement, using shovels to scrape the decayed material, mold, and mice, from the cement floor in the basement. I worked upstairs, separating the destroyed from the desirable. We filled a dumpster that day.

I made decisions, then and there, standing in the aftermath of my father’s death, of what these things meant, and what these things might mean enough to keep, after the land—the corn and bean fields, the tumble-down trees in the unproductive apple orchard, the caved-in roof of the granary building that once housed litters of feral kittens—and the house where we lived, were no longer ours. There, my mother had wept, attempting to stave off an early but inevitable death with a small, brown bottle of nitroglycerin tucked always into a pocket. There, my father had sat, maybe waited, until a neighbor stopped by when he didn’t come to church that morning and found him bleeding into his easy chair.

Strangely I am afraid when I open the containers now the smell will take me back to before my mother’s things—her antique china cups, her travel pamphlets from Denmark and France, her hand-crocheted and glue-glittered stars that adorned our Christmas trees, her boxes of costume jewelry worn by generations of women who lived through wars and childbirth—, became nothing but detritus, when each pretty thing still begged to be touched, admired. I am afraid that to touch might reanimate what now sits passively in my basement, encased in impenetrable rubber, deprived of air, each item empty like hollowed-out milkweed pods along our driveway, the seeds long since lifted into the wind, like bodies absent souls.

Maybe some day patience and pragmatism will override my superstition, and I will bring life to material as memory.

The First and Only

(This essay appeared in the Death Blues Ensemble album here.)

The first and only poetry prize I ever won was for a love poem. Written to my older cousin, Kevin, the youngest of four siblings on my mother’s side. It was a radio contest and the winners were announced one morning on the local AM station. I can’t remember if my poem was read over the air. Regardless, I had won my age group, and my mother was over the moon. 

In our home, the radio was a constant, especially in the mornings. Amid the local news and weather, we occasionally heard songs such as Dancing Queen, or something by Gordon Lightfoot. We always listened to Paul Harvey later in the day. After my father left for work at Mower County Soil & Water Conservation, having heard the day’s grain prices, my mother settled down with a second pot of coffee and listened to “Party Line,” a call-in show that was not only emblematic of the social fabric of our community, but helped my mother feel connected because we lived so far from town. She had lived her whole life in small cities, in churches, in schools, and being alone with herself seemed to drain her dry. My poem put me in esteemed company, if only for a very few minutes. 

I don’t remember what my poem said or why I said it. In my mind now, I see it written in crayon on otherwise blank notepaper, hearts drawn near the top of the page, but I doubt I was that young, and I doubt my mother would have allowed me to submit it as such. Perhaps she even rewrote it on lined paper with her precise schoolteacher handwriting before we walked the envelope down our long driveway and tucked it into the mailbox, misshapen from too many scrapes with the road grader, for pickup. 

Because she died when I was twelve, I cannot ask her about these things, things that I suspect are fiction, but for which I have no more reasonable memory. No doubt I extolled my cousin’s virtues in the poem, in schoolgirl terms, though I actually knew him very little since he was at least 10 years older than me and living in Minneapolis, a veritable Oz two hours north of our farm, which instantly escalated him to star status. 

Kevin had a job, and money, or he must have, because he would show up late for Christmas gatherings every year with some expensive and hastily-bought gift that, instead of offending us with its obvious lack of planning, thrilled us because we rarely had a lot of money spent on our presents. (My favorite was the Simon electronic memory game, even if I did have to share it with my brother.) We came to expect those gifts, so when he stopped attending the annual Christmas get-togethers because he was spending time with his girlfriend, our Christmases lost the sense of surprise and indulgence, even romance, he brought with him.

It could be that the poetry contest was the first time I believed I could be a writer, or maybe I never thought I couldn’t be one. My mother had been a 1st grade teacher before moving to the country to marry my father, so reading and language and storytelling was something I’d taken to early, not because it was genetic (we were adopted), but because the house was filled with books for young children, and, also, her expectations. 

Most of her old school books were lined up on built-in shelves in the unfinished basement, but she had a small set of bookends on her dresser in my parent’s room that held just a few treasured volumes. Most were religious, and I particularly remember something by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, but tucked between two hardcovers was a hand-bound book of poetry, with very few pages, handwritten, and illustrated in pencil. Even now, I can nearly feel the silky twist of rope that threaded through the pages because I stroked it with my thumb whenever she would let me investigate her things, usually on rainy days. 

I can’t remember what her poems were like, or whether they were any good, or if the book was anything more than the result of a school project she’d had to complete many years before, but what I did know is that they were written by my mother. My mother had a book of poetry. A whole book! And it was evident to me then that if something was in a book, no matter the size, it was valuable. And it was precious, not just because she kept it in a place of some honor, but also because it was tidy, and deliberate, and somehow alive with a person’s history. 

Years after my mother died, my father got remarried and anything that my mother had owned of value, antiques collected by a family of collectors, was sold. The profit was used by my new stepmother redecorate the house, erase the lingering presence of my mother, reverse the decay that had started to eat at its edges. Anything that wouldn’t bring in money, like that handwritten book of poetry, was moved down to that partially renovated, but still prone-to-flooding basement. Not carefully placed on shelves, but piled in boxes, one on top of the other like a small city of remembrances. I had no interest in rescuing the objects of my childhood because I was about to leave for college. Well practiced at packing my own memories into boxes labeled simply “Better Times” and storing them in some dark corner of my mind, I had little affection for what I would leave behind. 

Their marriage lasted less than a year; the renovations had not been enough to make two people unfit for each other stay together. My mother’s things remained in the basement as water seeped in each spring and mold grew up the new drywall, my father living alone upstairs, maybe believing the memories stored in the basement would be enough to hold the house, and himself, up.

Our basement had always frightened me as a child, its many rooms hiding spots for spiders and mice, and any other kinds of menace I could imagine. When I was very young, the basement had been used to clean, weigh, and carton the eggs our chickens produced, and the process left behind bits of feather and residue from cracked and leaking eggs long after the chickens were gone.  

When our washing machine broke down and we couldn’t afford to replace it, my mother rolled out a decades-old monster of a machine that had lurked unused under the stairs for years. It washed our clothes in its round gut, but didn’t remove the water that a spin cycle would. She had to wring each piece dry through a press that resembled a large pasta maker. It was hard work, and we didn’t yet know about my mother’s glitchy heart. Later, even after a new automatic washer made the laundry easier, she never descended the stairs to the basement without a small brown bottle of nitroglycerin pills tucked into a pocket.

After she died and the laundry became my responsibility, I’d go into the basement as infrequently and as briefly as possible, dash up the stairs when I was done, especially after seeing my first horror movie, “The Evil Dead.” The basement stairs were free-standing and the large space underneath, with built-in shelves and cupboards, had served as a pantry. There were still jars of my mother’s canned goods—peeled peaches and bulbous tomatoes, yellowed cucumber pickles in pale green brine growing a grotesque virus of garlic and dill—stored amid opened paint cans and retired pots and pans, like bloated body parts in jars in a mad scientist’s lab. 

When my father died five years ago, having spent the majority of 22 years alone in the home he and my mother had had built during the first year of their marriage, my husband and I were tasked with emptying out the house for sale, and we confronted what turned out to be the actual horrors of the basement. After years of flooding, the resulting mold, and my father’s growing poverty and passivity, most everything abandoned in the back rooms of the basement had disintegrated, forming a two-foot undulate layer of debris that had to be shoveled and scraped off the floor. 

We picked through the mess, searching for survivors. An old stuffed bear looked to be in good shape, but, unearthed, it was missing half its face, like some storybook phantom, eaten away by mice looking for nesting material. Even the shelved books were ruined, musty, their pages reduced to dust at the corners or stuck together with damp. I now have four plastic tubs stacked in my own basement that hold a spare number of rescued items moved from that house to mine.

I don’t know what happened to my mother’s poetry book, the one I imagine she had kept on her dresser to remind herself of who she had once been. I’d like to have it now, so I too could have a tangible representation of the faded but inextinguishable passion for words that seemed always to burn within her. Perhaps that’s why she was so thrilled by my poem, that winning poem, despite the obviously questionable object of my affection. Maybe in that poem, she could see herself in me. And she was relieved to know that despite my adoption, I was her daughter, that she had successfully lit a flame in me to write something just as tidy, deliberate, and alive. I wish now that I had written that love poem for her, but then, maybe, it was. 

The Lottery

A urine collection bottle shaped just for bedridden men
leans in the bathroom sink, this time
collecting the drip-drip of a broken
faucet, the water bloody with rust.

An over-stuffed blue Lazy-boy,
arms dark where food-dirtied hands
rested while the television blared,
cups stained and frayed towels in its cushions.

On the drop-leaf table next to the chair,
a stiff and yellowed doily lies drunkenly under
a glass serving bowl offering up the remnants
of a last meal of chicken noodle soup.

Also on the table a copy of my mother
and father’s wedding bulletin and a picture
of his father and two other men dressed like 1920’s gangsters.
Numbers and notes doodled on paper scraps.

A lottery ticket, its corner trapped
beneath the soup bowl. Maybe the fruit flies
know if it held a winning number, if my father,
after death, became a winner after all.

What We Found

I didn’t want to go in. That was obvious. Even in less disastrous times than these, the occasion of my father’s death, I never really wanted to enter his house. The smell for one thing. When you first opened the door and the odor of mold hit you in the face, you wanted nothing more than to pull your t-shirt up over your nose and mouth, prevent that smell from entering your body. Or maybe you wanted nothing more than to turn and leave, find sanctuary in your car, your oh-so-clean car, even with the lingering smell of a quick McDonald’s lunch after your long drive. The smell was easy to explain. Numerous years of basement flooding had destroyed the drywall throughout the downstairs rooms.

But it would not be until later that day, when my husband and I, and my brave 70 year old uncle who should not have volunteered to help with this task, descended the wooden stairs that led to the basement from the front door of my father’s rectangle ranch house, that I would realize the extent of the damage. How all of the toys—a baby carriage, a Lite Brite, one of a pair of Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots–, the boxes of school papers, the stacks and stacks of books my mother collected from years of teaching first grade, the antiques she had collected from her travels to Europe before she met my father, had been slowly drowned by the creeping water and nothing ever salvaged.

The bugs were another problem, but you saw those before you even entered the house. The decaying front entry way that I remembered being added to the house when I was 7 or so, was covered with Japanese beetles that looked like harmless ladybugs but were carried their own particular stench if you touched them, daddy longleg spiders having weaved their homes into the corners, and the boxelder bugs, strangely menacing with their black and white armor.

The evidence of rodents was obvious immediately there too. Holes chewed into the walls, causing insulation to seep out like dirty cotton candy. If you were brave enough to enter the house and look, for example, a water glass, you would see more evidence of mice, maybe rats, creeping in and out of cupboards and Tupperware as they perused the kitchen looking for scraps of food amid yellowing boxes of Morton’s salt, Hamburger Helper, and amber bottles of pills long since emptied.

When had he given up? Maybe he had long-since decided that if he couldn’t make things what they once were, keep a material sort of shrine to keep my mother’s memory alive, then he would shut his eyes to the decay and dreams of days when my mother’s collection of tea cups say washed and gleaming on the dining room table, awaiting the women from Ladies’ Aid, but he had time to steal just one more date cookie, the same kind his mother had made when he was a boy coming in from the fields.