All the lights were out when I arrived home from the airport at 3 a.m. For six months I had been living in Europe, traveling constantly for the last two. Although I sent postcards from each place I visited, my family was unable to contact me. When I left for Europe, my travel plans were open-ended; I might stay for two weeks, or two years. After six months I decided to come home and surprise my family. Walking up the front steps, I imagined the excitement my return would cause. I rang the doorbell until a light came on upstairs. A few moments later my sister Kathy opened the door and said in a subdued voice, “Oh, Bobby, it’s you.” We walked into the kitchen, where Kathy said, “Dad’s dying.”
When I was a boy, my father seemed a man of mythic proportions. He was a career Navy officer who spent eighteen years on sea duty. A combat veteran and world traveler, he was away from home at least six months each year. I remember him talking about convoy runs to Murmansk, Russia during World War II, when it was not unusual for more than half the ships to sink from U-boat or Luftwaffe attacks. I remember getting postcards from exotic places like Damascus and Cyprus, even letters from the South Pole where he traveled with Admiral Byrd. Each time he returned, his homecoming had an emotional impact greater than Christmas or my birthday. I would accompany my mother to the Boston Navy Yard to watch the huge warship glide silently into the dock, the sailors and the officers standing at attention on her deck. Laden with gifts, we would drive home to celebrate my father’s return.
As long as I can remember, I yearned for my father’s approval; he gave it sparingly. He was a disciplined perfectionist — not the kind of man to reward or encourage mediocrity. He set high standards for himself, his family, and the men he commanded. As a boy I rarely met those standards. Moreover, my father was not an emotionally demonstrative man; he seldom expressed his sentiments directly.
Kathy told me he was in the Chelsea Naval Hospital wasting away with lung cancer, cigarettes having been one of his few weaknesses. My father lived for about two months after my return from Europe. I found it difficult to visit him in the hospital for reasons I didn’t quite understand at the time. Now, I think I do. First, the fact that my father could die shattered my image of him, and made more real my own vulnerability. Second, visiting him pushed us toward an intimacy for which neither of us was prepared. We never discussed the fact that he was dying; neither of us could say to the other, “I love you.” During one of our last visits, my father reached out and grasped my hand. His eyes filled with tears. In that moment, we went from being unable to find words to not needing them.
Dawn was approaching. It was another cold, foggy, monsoon day. I’d slept in a series of short naps during the long night. I lay shivering on my canvas cot, fully dressed and holding a pistol in my right hand. The rain dripped through the leaky tent, ran down the sheer mesh of the mosquito net, and onto my clothes. With the relative safety of the gray morning light came the urge for real sleep. But in a few minutes, I would have to fly. My weary mind mechanically recorded the familiar sounds of the first helicopter leaving the flight line. Soon it would be my turn: untie the rotor blades, mount the machine guns, and fly into another endless day followed by another endless night.
A hysterical voice shattered my reverie. “King’s ship went down!” I jumped from my cot and ran toward the flames.
It’s twenty-three years later and I still agonize over those last few steps. I lie on my psychologist’s couch. She asks me to return to the past, to Vietnam, to my cot on that damp, cold morning. Once again, I relax as that dawn approaches. Once again, I run toward the flames.
“What do you see?” the psychologist whispers.
“A grunt standing at the top of the hill,” I reply.
“What do you do?” She’s familiar with the scene by now.
“I ask him where the crew is.”
My body tenses. This is where the pain begins.
“He points toward the flames, but I can’t see them.”
“The grunt points to the barbed wire. He’s talking so fast I can hardly understand him. ‘The gunner got out,’ the grunt yells. ‘He was on fire. We threw cold water on him but he just kept burning.’ ”
Across the years I watch the grunt point; I follow his finger with my eyes. Again, those countless voices start screaming inside my head. The voices get louder; they confuse me. I struggle to force the memory. I try to see the fire; I try to see my friends; I try to see the gunner.
“Stay there. Try to see.”
Tears stream down my face. My body arches in pain. A small child’s voice sobs from deep within me, “I can’t see.”
“Okay, I’ll count from one to ten. . . .”
I’m awake, stretching the painfully cramped muscles. I’m exhausted. I didn’t see my friends. I can’t remember their names or faces. I can’t even see the flames or feel the heat.
They were such good friends; my mind will never be whole until I see what I know I saw.
I’m in the kitchen and glance over to see the time so I don’t miss my favorite show, “Wheel of Fortune.” She bought the clock for me on one of her first visits to Miami. It’s a cute little Swiss house clock; I keep it, even though its innards have been completely replaced. Every time I look at it, I’m reminded of her.
Then I’m watching “Wheel,” and I think of the time she and I were in Los Angeles touring Universal Studios. We decided to try out for a game show; she was accepted and I wasn’t.
When I watch a “Dynasty” rerun, I find myself remembering how she loved John Forsythe.
Sometimes I sit at my kitchen table and notice the little flaw that’s been there since my brother fixed the leg; he drove the screw up through the table top. Or I think about the times we spent at that table when it was still in her home, and we ate lunch or played Scrabble. I can’t play Scrabble without thinking of her now. She was always eager to play, even though she rarely beat me — except the very last time, when she was in the hospital, and she beat me two out of three. I think also about the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary that we used; when I left home, she made me leave it with her. I had to buy another one for myself.
We took a lot of trips together and Mom was my best traveling companion. She often outlasted me, even though she was older by forty years. I wish we could have traveled twenty or thirty more years together. When I travel now, I’m constantly reminded of her in little ways and in the little things she enjoyed. I miss her.
I still have her wedding ring (engraved to WMB from FJL 9-28-21), which I treasure. I treasure all these moments. Each seems like a reunion with her.
My mother is a fantastic storyteller. I had forgotten how good she is at stretching a tale until I saw her this summer after a five-year separation.
During our three-day reunion, my parents and I stayed at a seaside motel in Connecticut. Around the pool, my mother would tell stories about her friends and her activities at the senior center. Driving to breakfast, she told stories about her friends’ illnesses, her friends’ children, her friends’ disappointments in their children. She told stories as we walked along the wharf. Many times I would tune her out, or tell her I wanted to take a nap. Even if I closed my eyes, she kept talking.
The story I remember most from my childhood was about a family — a mother, a father, and ten children. They were so poor, they lived in a one-room shack. One day the father consulted a wise man about how to deal with the crowded living accommodations. “Take in a goat,” said the wise man. They were surprised at this suggestion, but because they trusted him, they listened. “Take in a pig. Take in a horse. Take in a cow. . . .” I would sit at the edge of my chair. “So what happened? So what happened?” I’d ask impatiently, wanting my mother to get to the point. My mother would drag the story on forever, naming every animal she could imagine and the family’s reaction to each. Eventually the living situation became unbearable.
At the end of our visit, my father drove me to a friend’s home in the Connecticut countryside. My mother began telling another story. The details escape me now, but, in the back seat of the car, I found myself imagining a conversation with my therapist.
“What do I do?” I said. “She’s driving me crazy and there’s no place I can go.”
“Listen,” my therapist said. “Listen.”
I was surprised at her advice, but I trusted her. I listened.
As my mother talked on, I could feel the ache in my shoulders. My heart filled with sadness. I placed the open palm of my hand on my chest and breathed. The breath flowed into my belly, entering a space of emptiness, a void where a lonely little girl lived.
When my mother finished her story, she asked if I’d like to hear another.
“I’d like for us to sit quietly,” I said, resting my head against the back seat of the car.
“I was only trying to pass the time,” she responded.
And one by one the animals left the crowded space of my childhood story. “Now let the chicken go,” said the wise man. “Now the goat, the horse, the cow, the pig.” The mother and father were relieved to have such a spacious shack.
And I wanted so badly to sit with her. Just sit with her.
At the age of thirteen I spent a summer on the prairies of Saskatchewan. I worked for a man who trained hunting dogs. I drove a team of horses and a wagon across the flat grasslands as he and another hand worked with the hunting dogs. The wagon was full of dogs. When one got tired he’d put it up and take out a fresh one. We lived in an old farmhouse with no electricity or running water. His wife cooked our meals and drank beer she kept stashed in the well. She was the only woman among four men. They made the black man from Mississippi eat at a separate table. In the evening we’d play poker with matches and listen to a transistor radio we’d rented in town. “Blueberry Hill” and “Wolverton Mountain” were hits that summer. We pulled in stations from as far away as Denver. Saturdays we worked a half day, then washed in a lake and went to town in the pickup. The adults went to the beer parlors. I usually saw a movie or hung out at the pool hall. I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Sundays, local farmers came by to drink beer and talk. So would carloads of teenagers laughing and yelling.
It was a rich time for me, though I wouldn’t have said that then. I was from a cul-de-sac in a Seattle suburb. Being in the prairies thrust me into experiences that opened my eyes and broke many of the rules I’d lived by.
I saw men slug each other on the main street of town. Once a dog ripped another’s ear off through the wire. Everything alive either sweated or panted, and dust flew; we bathed once a week. The black man once told me he had more children than I had fingers and toes, scattered throughout different states. Everyone swore profusely. The land was vast. Huge flocks of sandhill cranes flew overhead.
I remember lying on my bunk at night thinking how tough and strong this experience was going to make me. I thought of all the new swear words I’d be able to teach my buddies when I returned home. I thought of how strong my arms were becoming from the work I did. I eagerly looked forward to showing off a new self in the fall.
The reunion with my friends was surprising and disappointing. Friends who had been water-skiing, eating potato chips, and cruising all summer were still stronger than I. One guy even laughed when I told him about “fuck,” the worst word I had picked up that summer. He said he’d used it for years. My buddies became restless, bored, or offended when I spoke of my summer. Now, I understand that they were too young, and what I spoke of was too unrelated to their experience. At the time, I just felt inadequate and invisible.
It seemed no one could grasp what that brawling, blistering summer on the prairies was about.
La Grande, Oregon
I was reunited with my first love two years ago. It wasn’t that unusual, because he happens to be my best friend’s older brother. I fell in love with him the very first time I went to their house. He was just an obnoxious voice in a treehouse in their back yard. But even then he could be unbelievably funny, and he could sense your most guarded fears and make you see how ridiculous and vain they were.
Christmas of 1976 he came home with all his brothers for a reunion. It was a wonderful, magical time, seeing them all so happy together. Their family had always been an emotional refuge from my own very different, sad, and somber one, scarred forever by my brother’s suicide six years earlier. I was twenty and my friend’s brother was twenty-five. I fell completely and desperately in love.
His brother and sister and I all took off in a Volkswagen bus to New Orleans to visit their other two brothers. It was the most romantic — if unexpected — of settings: winter in New Orleans. A Streetcar Named Desire it wasn’t. We walked all over the French Quarter and ate red beans and rice and then came home and plunged under the covers for some good-Catholic-girl-mortal-sin-style sex, in the middle of a January afternoon.
After those few weeks I returned to my life at school and with my family. He asked me to come join him where he was living, but I couldn’t. I remember feeling disappointed with myself for lacking the courage.
But I never forgot this happy time. In my imagination, the whole episode continued to live and grow. It ran the whole course of a successful relationship. In this fantasy life, I accompanied him on his bohemian travels. Even his marriage to a beautiful woman, and my marriage to my virtual soul mate, failed to mar my secret life with him.
I used to flee to this other life for brief moments whenever I was immersed in some unpleasant or demeaning task at work. In this other life, I wasn’t a nurse plodding along at a duty-filled existence, wiping excrement, or watching a lonely old person suffering; I was back in the French Quarter.
I saw him again after twelve years. With his sweet wife and my best friend, he came for a visit. I made them lunch (my friend helping me because I was shaking so much). We shared a lot of embarrassed but genuine warmth. It was by no means a reunion of lovers, just some pals eating enchiladas.
This reunion gave the deathblow to my fantasy life. The visit was all too real and funny and sweet in its own right to be denied. I no longer feel the urge to escape. I think it’s because once I saw that our former respect and affection remained unchanged, my fantasy life and my real life were reunited.
How can these people be so wrenchingly familiar and yet such strangers? Who are they? Why do I know their histories? How can they evoke such sentiment in me when I cannot complete an honest sentence in their presence?
They give me life, stability, even sanity in a world where friends and lovers are a long parade. They are the connection to my past, and the only future I can count on. Why are they so removed from my present? After two days of reunion, I want to get back to “reality” — to Los Angeles, where friends I’ve known for only months accept who I am and know me better than forty-two relatives ever will.
Who is my lifeline when my own self gets shaky? My family, deep in the South and entrenched in a way of life I don’t believe in, will always offer some nurturing, go-the-distance caring that is the ultimate acceptance.
Even if they believe I’m going to hell for my lifestyle, they’ll give me a ride to the airport. They’ll cook me a meal, lend me money, come over on their day off to help me move furniture or paint a room. Why do these trivialities make me weepy? I can afford the airport limousine. I can take care of myself. But who would be there if I couldn’t?
Seven million people in Los Angeles are perfectly willing to give me my personal freedom. But is there one who would care if I didn’t come back?
Between Montgomery, Alabama and Los Angeles, California
The turmoil in our house while I was growing up often drove me out the back door and into the night to look for the strength to get me through yet another day, another hour, the next few minutes. When not drinking, my father was a gentle, sensitive, quiet man, but if he had alcohol in him, he turned into a raging storm, lashing out at everything and everyone. As time went on, his drinking binges grew from hours into days. We lived in perpetual fear, going to bed while he was still out, only to be roused by his swearing and kicking in the door. He’d come home hellbent on starting a squabble; no matter how we might try to calm him, he’d succeed.
We had tried calling the police, most of whom were his drinking buddies. They’d merely sit and talk to him, and he’d either convince them it was all our fault — me, my brothers, and my mother — or he’d assure them that he’d soon go to sleep. After they left he’d start all over again, more violently than before.
One night, I decided I’d had my fill of hiding, pleading, and praying. He seemed to have been taken over by demons, throwing the dinner my mother had been keeping warm for him all over the kitchen walls and floors. Before long, utensils, dishes, pots, and pans were also flying as his rage mounted. My mother and brothers ran, expecting me to follow.
I was tired of it all; I decided not to run anymore. He headed for the drawer to pull out a butcher knife, screaming, “YOU BETTER RUN TOO OR I’LL KILL YOU!” My mother was outside the screen door, screaming at me to run. I replied, “I’m tired of running.” My father shook the knife as he came toward me, his pace slowing. I heard my voice as if it were another’s, saying, “Don’t worry about going to hell — we’re already in it.”
He let his eyes meet mine. He stared at the knife in his hand, glanced at me, and began to sob.
I did run then, but only after he dropped the knife. I ran out the back door past my mother and brothers and kept on running. My thoughts raced faster than my feet. I found myself in a grassy field, the stars above stark and clearly visible. A sudden homesickness seized me. My real home, I saw now, wasn’t a drunk wielding a knife. I wondered then when I’d be reunited with my real family . . . my real self. A feeling of loneliness came over me; I wrapped myself in it, inhabited it, and seemed finally to find its core. I was left with an unexpected sense of peace. It lasted only a few moments, but it was all I needed.
Stony Brook, New York
Barnesville. It looked so neat and tidy, kind of like a Grandma Moses painting. I remembered a restaurant called “The Green Door,” and I found it on Main Street, renamed “The Pink Cottage.” Lynn was giving directions from the back seat. When we came to the Dairy Queen, she was ecstatic. We turned onto Sandy Ridge Road, headed west past a new high school, and soon turned into the driveway of Olney Friends. My eyes couldn’t work fast enough. Stillwater Meetinghouse, the brick walk where the couples courted, the Main Building, the dorms, the old laundry building, the tennis courts, the startling green lawns. Why hadn’t I remembered how it looked?
The car stopped. We all but fell out in exhaustion, and were greeted by Cleda Mott. Kind, gracious Cleda Mott. She asked if we wanted to change for dinner. Indeed, we would. But I stood facing the girls’ dorm, fighting a tidal wave of emotion. Oh, my eyes hurt from the beauty of that sight, and what it evoked in me. Memories of a peaceful, simple life — memories of a life to which I fully belonged. Just a brick dorm with a gentle swing on the porch. That’s all it was. But my feet were on the ground — on that piece of earth I had left thirty-one years before.
I loved that evening and the day that followed. We ate dinner in the gym. I loved standing in line in the old dining room. We had green beans and salad and rolls; I chose spinach quiche instead of the meat entree, followed by coconut custard pie. It was the best meal I ever ate, or ever will.
After dinner, we wandered to the hockey field so I could sneak a cigarette. I revered that field where I first discovered Thomas Wolfe. I remembered that afternoon on the slope of the hockey field as if it were yesterday, and wished I could be alone.
From there, we went to Stillwater for the Alumni Meeting. The roll call began with the class of 1920, celebrating their seventieth reunion. Each class stood and was applauded. I was a cup, filled to the brim. The slightest recognition moved me to tears. After the meeting, my classmates talked of going out for strawberry pie, but I begged off and went to my room to sleep.
The bed was lumpy, the room too warm. I slept peacefully, easily, and woke around 4 a.m. to a magnificent choir of birds outside the window. Surely, I thought, we have as many birds at home — but these birds sang so clearly. They didn’t sound like a chorus but like a group of individual singers whose songs remained their own. Perhaps it doesn’t seem an important distinction, but it felt like a revelation.
After breakfast, I walked through Main, lingering in the hallways, gazing in at the classrooms. Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again. You can.
Charlotte McGurty Smith
I had been living in California just ten days when my mother died. My husband and I had left Chicago — friends, jobs, and familiarity — and headed west to a new life. Then I got word that my mother had reentered the hospital with a flare-up of leukemia. She died in the early hours of a Saturday morning in Virginia. Six hours later I was on a plane bound for Roanoke. In the following week, I spent my days grieving, accepting condolences from neighbors, and running errands for my father. I experienced intense, unbearable moments of a loneliness I hadn’t known before.
Then I called my friend Susan in Chicago. And Susan called Jan in Evanston. Both had lost their mothers some years earlier. Before I knew it, a reunion was being planned. The three of us would meet in Chicago during the layover of my return flight to California.
When I arrived in Chicago, Susan met me at the airport. Jan joined us later at Susan’s house for lunch. Over tuna sandwiches, potato chips, and cookies, I cried with my two friends and shared my loss. I felt at home again. California’s newness frightened me, but here I was safe. We three had a history of taking care of each other. This time they took care of me. After lunch we drove to the forest preserve and enjoyed a leisurely walk. With my friends by my side and the quiet beauty around me, I was able to breathe more easily. Sadly, Chicago was no longer my home. And Jan and Susan were parts of the life I was leaving behind. As brief as this visit had been, it restored me and gave me the courage to go on. I knew that Jan and Susan would be there for me, even if they were hundreds of miles away.
El Cerrito, California
The Navy destroyer is steaming toward port in Norfolk after five months at sea. On the pier, so used to waiting, we wait once more. The baby, who has just learned to walk and is lurching about unsteadily, grins at every face he sees — until the stranger in white appears. When he finds himself in the arms of the father he doesn’t remember, he screams. The four-year-old, who has made do with his father’s voice on tape at bedtime, is ready for games and roughhousing, while plotting his first acts of defiance as he tests his limits once again. I, their mother, feel ambivalence, resentment, longing, lust . . . and love. Only the red dog, who has tolerated the three of us and accommodated to his master’s long absence, waits with unconditional adoration.
Although we’ve been divorced for two months, I still can’t explain what went wrong. We certainly never lacked for passion; our marriage was a fire-pit, always threatening to consume us. I tell friends we were “incompatible,” and leave it at that.
He agrees to keep Maka for two weeks while I do the writing retreat. Afterward I take the bus to Lake George. We have six days until Maka and I fly home. Will I stay in the cabin we have shared for summers? Or will he go, leaving us there with no car? Couldn’t I have arranged an earlier flight home?
He tells me he is in love with the woman he used to see before we were married. I feel like a big chunk of my life has been excavated. I tell him I am not in love, though I want to be. Floating alone in the universe is a scary thing, worth facing.
He wants to make love. One last time. We buy condoms, though he got a vasectomy soon after Maka was born. I used to be the one he was safe with.
We go together again to Saranac Lake (where we had conceived in a moment of courage), camp on Halway Island. There are no loons this year, more motorboats. One day we row to Weller Pond where I break the plastic oarlock against the fierce wind; we paddle back. Another night, after Maka falls asleep, we swim in the moonlight. He builds a birch-log fire; we pass a beer between us. The last day it rains. We leave, climb Crane Mountain. On the fifth night, back at the cabin with two condoms left, we make love for hours.
At the airport we are stiff and walled-up until the last boarding call, when we grab each other and cry.
What first attracted me to Maithreyi was her beauty. She had a face like a wren, or a glossy brown nut — soft, brown skin, large black eyes, a deep red circle in the middle of her forehead, and lips a dusty purple color edged with pink. Her saris had folds and cascades of pastel silks; she seemed to have so many that it was three weeks before she’d wear the same one again.
I was eighteen years old, away from home for the first time, and miserably out of place at the State Teacher’s College; it was the only school my parents could afford and my grades would permit. The last thing I wanted to be was a teacher, particularly an elementary school teacher which I equated with permanent exclusion from adulthood.
Maithreyi was fourteen years older than I. She was on a fellowship, going for her second master’s degree in education. She lived across the hall in my dorm. We began spending long hours together, talking. I spent a great deal of time listening to her tell me, in rolling British-Indian inflections, about economic conditions in India and economics in general. I was amazed and gratified to find myself fascinated by what I’d always regarded as a dry and difficult subject. She began to call me “little sister.” She told me about Raj, her boyfriend back in Bombay, with whom she’d had a long, difficult courtship because he was from a different caste; they planned to marry when she returned.
We went everywhere together — to dinner in the cafeteria, where, as a vegetarian, she’d wind up with a tray of soggy vegetables and cottage cheese; through the snow, which she hated, to classes; and, during vacations, to my house. When we went shopping together in Manhattan, or wandering through museums, she’d hold my hand, the way Indian women do when out together.
After she went back to Bombay we wrote long letters for a time, but they grew less frequent. In 1978, fifteen years after we’d first known each other, she spent a year as a visiting professor at Syracuse University, and came across the country to spend a week with me in Washington.
In some ways we’d become different kinds of women. She was a highly regarded feminist scholar — not just in India, but in international circles — and I was a small-town journalist, introspective, and an underachiever. She was married and had two children. I was alone, after having lived with one man for seven years and another for three. In all that time, though, nothing had changed about our ability to feel close. We picked up easily where we’d left off, and talked our way through the week, in and out of cafes and on long walks around town.
Since then I’ve seen her twice, and we write to each other more frequently. We know that, for some reason, our lives have become intertwined.
In her last letter, ten pages long, on beautiful pale blue onionskin, she discussed her problems at work, her concerns about her health, her daughter, and how, when she retires in a few years, she will have more time for travel. The letter ends, “Next time we can really talk, without having to say it all in one day.” And, “I looked at the sky from my balcony and the stars told me that my little sister is on the other side of the globe.”
My mother and father had battled for years over custody of my brother and me. Yon and I were losing. One day, when I was thirteen, I found a note on Dad’s desk. He was planning to take Yon and me to Yugoslavia. I told my mother, and she took us to Spain two weeks later.
Mom falsified our names on customs documents. She told Yon he had won a free trip for his family to Europe. Dad, she told him, would join us later.
We lived in a small town in Mallorca. Every day, I fantasized about going back to California. I was desperately homesick. I would go to a pay phone and dial Dad’s number but never put money in to actually make the connection. I couldn’t. If I did, the fighting and the custody battles would start up again. Mom might have gone to jail.
My first year in Spain, I spent long hours lying with my eyes closed and an aching heart. I envisioned all the friends I had lost and all my favorite places in Berkeley. They seemed like precious fantasies that had never been real.
After three-and-a-half years, Mom was ready to deal with the consequences of her actions. Yon and I were older and better able to care for ourselves if the custody battles began.
Coming back to Berkeley was not as easy as we imagined. Mallorca had become home to us; we all felt a little sick about leaving. Berkeley looked so green; so much seemed to have grown in our absence.
“Hello,” I said. “Hello?” he said. “Who is this?” He sounded so distant. My own father didn’t know my voice. Yon was on the line as well. “Yon and Tasha,” we said. Dad’s voice became soft. “Where are you?” he asked. Each word echoed through the line, hitting my heart, cracking my voice. “We’re here,” we yelled. “In Berkeley! We’ll be right over.”
I don’t remember driving there. I only remember Dad running down the wooden stairs as we ran up. We met halfway. Dad was crying. I had never seen him cry before. I have never seen him cry like that since.