Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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The sunburn on my sister’s foot is peeling. It’s seventy degrees and sunny in Knoxville, Tennessee, the tulips in my family’s front yard are in full bloom, and Natalie and I are upstairs in our parents’ bedroom, sitting on the off-white carpet, watching Veep.
“Bruh, it’s almost three o’clock,” Natalie says, standing. “I’ll finish this when we get back, but I got to take Mr. Gruff to the vet.”
Upon hearing one of his three thousand aliases, our dog Teddy gets up from his napping spot under the sewing table and stares anxiously up at her, shifting his weight from paw to paw, tongue lolling to one side.
“Let’s go, Gimpy!” she calls, and he gallops toward the door, sprained back leg pulled up to his rib cage.
It’s easy, in moments like these, with the birds chirping and the sunlight flickering through the cracked glass of the bay windows, to forget that the world is burning around us.
When all of my friends were packing up and leaving Rhodes College, pulling books from their dorm-room shelves and stuffing their twin-sized duvets into black garbage bags, I made the decision to stay put in Memphis. But wouldn’t you feel safer at home? I must have heard this a thousand times, over video chat and phone calls and in text messages and in-person goodbyes from people with cars crammed and waiting in the driveway.
I stuck my chin out, like the defender of 1940s home fires in a Norman Rockwell painting, and told them solemnly that this was my home: My stiff, squeaking bed. My chipped collection of coffee mugs. My backyard of Bermuda grass and clover. My succulents over the kitchen sink. My peanut-butter cookies that I got for eighty-nine cents at Aldi. My neighbors down the street with their befuddled dog, Cooper, who for some reason always wanted to start something with my dog, Bruno. Why would I ever go back to Knoxville and surrender my freedom to two people who, every time I called, argued for five minutes about whether or not they should put me on speakerphone?
Speaking of my parents, they spent weeks trying to convince me to come home. At the start of the outbreak they would call me together from the car and take turns trying to wear me down, like cops grilling a suspect. Mom would tell me that they were digging mass graves in Iran. Dad would tell me that nothing like this had ever happened in their lifetimes. (“Frank, Frank! That was our exit!” “Mary, I know how to drive!”) Mom would tell me that she had “heard things around the office” that she wouldn’t tell me because they would scare me too much. Dad told me this would be a great time for other countries to invade us. Mom told me to think of my sisters. (For clarification, there are four of us: me, twenty; Natalie, eighteen; Karina, fifteen; and Ilse, thirteen. Of the other three, Natalie is the only one so far who seems capable of holding a non-animalistic conversation, although Karina does show occasional sparks of self-awareness. As far as I can tell, Ilse is ruled entirely by impulse.)
“What’s wrong with them?” I would ask my mom.
“Nothing, but think of how bored they’ll be,” she’d reply.
After I promised to pack a go bag in case I needed to leave in a hurry (when COVID-19 tried to kick down my door at 2 AM), they left me alone for a while.
But then it was Mom’s birthday, and then it was almost Easter, and before I knew what had happened, I was wrestling Bruno into his dog car seat (it’s what you’re probably imagining) and leaving Memphis. On the way out of town I passed a billboard thanking “Our Essential Workers!” and another advising, “DON’T PANIC! Brought to you by cdc.gov.” I wondered if I should skip stopping at McDonald’s.
As soon as I pulled into the driveway, I was swarmed.
Karina lifted Bruno, barking frantically, out of his car seat, while Dad released the family dogs onto the front lawn and Natalie sprinted across the grass toward me. Mom, strangely relaxed, laughed when she saw me and said, “I wondered why Natalie came running down the stairs.”
My father, who has been planning for the end of the world since September 12, 2001, proudly showed me the Stash he was gathering in the dining room: ugly black-and-yellow utility bins that squatted in the corners. My mom had gone ahead and decorated the table for Easter anyway with ceramic pastel chick plates and a tiered dish designed specifically to cradle dozens of hard-boiled eggs.
“And in this box,” Dad announced like a YouTuber opening a new purchase, “we have two sacks of flour. This one we’re using for all our veggies.” My youngest sister starts high school next year, and my dad still says “veggies” for our benefit. He listed them: “Our green beans and our yams and our collard greens . . .”
(“I don’t know what in the fuck he’s thinking,” Natalie had said to me over the phone a few weeks earlier. “We are never going to eat that many cans of goddamn collard greens.”)
Karina appeared at the doorway to watch us, her entire forearm stuck down a can of Pringles.
“The bottom line,” Dad continued, clapping me on the shoulder, “is that we are set to hunker down for a long time if we need to. We’re ready to stay put. Welcome to the Compound, Emma.”
“I think I’m going to order groceries for Monday,” Mom said from the kitchen. “Do we need anything?”
Back in Memphis, while scowling and stuffing another pair of jeans into a suitcase, I had told my roommate I would be back the Monday after Easter, to which she replied from the kitchen, “OK, drive safe!” When I say the same now to my family, clustered around the kitchen table working on a jigsaw puzzle, there’s pandemonium.
“You’re not going to stay for Pascha?” Ilse cries, holding a puzzle piece in midair.
Pascha (PAUSE-kuh) is Orthodox Christian Easter, which in 2020 falls a week after the date other Christian faiths celebrate Easter. The general idea is the same, except the service is in the middle of the night, all of the eggs are dyed red, and there’s a huge party afterward that lasts until about four in the morning. No one will say it aloud, but Pascha is the one night of the year when it’s kind of cool to be Orthodox, a religion/culture mostly based around standing in church and thinking labyrinthine thoughts about the nature of life, death, and suffering while a two-year-old in front of you wipes his snotty nose on his sleeve and stares up at you, unblinking.
“Well, y’all,” I reply, “there’s no point, really. There’s not going to be a service or—”
“But why wouldn’t you spend Pascha with your family?” my mother asks.
“Yeah, what, are you going to go back to Memphis and celebrate it with Jaclyn?” Natalie says. (My roommate, Jaclyn, is Catholic.)
“Why don’t you stay here and celebrate Pascha with your family,” my mom says.
“But y’all aren’t going to do anything. You’re just going to livestream the service Sunday morning—”
“And eat the prime USDA steak that I bought from Costco,” my dad says, as if purchasing meat that’s been USDA approved were a point of pride. “These are some big steaks, Emma. These are huge, Kirkland-brand steaks.” He starts to walk over to the fridge to show me.
“OK, fine, fine! I’ll stay. I’ll stay until the Monday after Pascha.”
“You know, it’s funny,” my dad says as I swallow my sigh. “When I was stocking up for the Stash, I made sure to get an extra-big bag of dog food, because I knew that you and Bruno might come and stay with us for a while, and I wanted to make sure we had plenty.”
I don’t say that Bruno actually has a few months left on puppy chow, and that big-dog food will probably give him the runs. I just look over at Bruno, who’s sitting and waiting to be let out the back door into a yard that isn’t his. He blinks up at me.
“That’s very sweet,” I say.
Coming home feels like sinking back ankle-deep in mud. Being in my parents’ house in east Tennessee is like falling into a snow globe where dwellings are built into the sides of hills and my sisters clap when they laugh and my dad opens the garage door and says to the onslaught of animals running toward him, “There’s some dogs! Golly, we got some dogs! We got some dogs around here!”
It’s so familiar to me it’s like a second language I can speak without thinking, which is fine until I forget that I have a life away from here, with succulents to water and cookies to eat and nosy neighbors to cheerfully wave at; until I start to act like I’m part of a nuclear family again instead of a single person; until I look in the mirror and see my mother’s eyes and my sister’s lips and my father’s gap-toothed smile instead of my own face.
Who I am at home feels like a role I wrote and originated: eldest daughter and oldest sister; the friendly, outgoing one; the troublemaker who steals food, talks through the movie, and bitches in the car. I’ve got the darkest hair, the thickest eyebrows — the one who always pulls up late to pick up my sisters and their friends from school or the movies or the neighborhood pool.
My therapist loves recognizing and labeling the different parts of our interior selves. I think I could say I had run over a baby bunny, and she would click her pen and ask, “So, Emma, in that situation, which part of your Self do you think was activated?”
She also likes to talk a lot about where I am developmentally, as if I were a newborn and not a twenty-year-old woman. Sometimes I want to push back and say that I have no developing left to do; that I left my parents’ home and, one drunken night and one boyfriend later, became a finished product, ready to forge my own way in this world. But then she’ll ask, “So, Emma, why do you feel that way?” and I’ll realize that where there should be words connected to thoughts connected to feelings, there is only empty space.
Sometimes it’s as if I’m groping around in the dark, learning by trial and error, making one life decision at a time. Turns out I like almond milk in my coffee, and maybe in my cereal, too. I do actually like to wear lots of layers, even if my parents aren’t around to make me cover up. But I also love drinking and cursing and miscellaneous carousing. Some Sunday mornings I like to wake up and go to the kitchen and make French toast instead of going to church, even though I sometimes feel so guilty I can hardly eat. I like being alone, except when I wake up from a nap and the house is quiet and the sun is setting; then I start calling all of my friends just to hear a voice, propping my phone against a kitchen cabinet while I rummage through the fridge. I want a tattoo. I don’t want a tattoo. I want a tattoo. I don’t want a tattoo. I always feel bad in that moment when I go to kill a bug and it starts running away. (I nearly let a roach in my bathroom go free because it looked frightened.) That’s all I’ve really figured out so far. But now that I’m home, it feels like there’s nothing to figure out at all, like everything I need to know is in the script I wrote for myself.
I know my mom and dad think of Memphis as the big, dangerous city that’s taken me away from them; that they’re simultaneously proud and terrified that I like it there, as if I’ve chosen a mechanical bull over a recliner. They have been to Memphis twice but still know very little about it except that it’s not like here, where they livestream church on Sunday morning and kneel side by side to pack dirt in around the tomato plants in their vegetable garden.
And they’re right in some ways. I don’t have the community in Memphis that they have here in Knoxville. My mom takes Zoom calls with a dozen ladies from our church, and they all drink red wine, brag-complain about their husbands and kids, and chatter with delight about how Miss May has begun to sew her own hospital masks. The community’s like a newspaper to read and discuss when there’s nothing else to talk about. My sisters have eyes and ears almost as big as their mouths, and they squat in their respective kitchen chairs, bony knees jutting at sharp angles over the edge of the table, and tell me all the month-old gossip: this lady’s having a baby, and so is that one and that one, and apparently Miss Annie’s going to let Jenni dye her fucking hair blue since we’re in quarantine anyway — no, shut up, Ilse, I’m telling the story — and apparently Daniel has decided he’s, like, an atheist now that his parents have sent him to that Protestant school. . . .
At home it’s easier to buy into the family narrative of the future: to think that, even if I don’t follow the plan, Natalie, Karina, and Ilse will grow up and meet some charming man from the University of Tennessee who appears one day in a button-down, and they’ll strike up a delicate, “Tennessee Waltz” courtship and have a big Orthodox wedding on an early-summer afternoon and get pregnant and have babies, and then it’ll be some other young girl’s turn to say, I don’t know how she’s gonna take care of a newborn when she can’t even wrangle the two kids she’s already got.
But then I accidentally bite into one of the sour, acrid parts of quarantine. It’s easy to forget, when you live four hundred miles away, that your mother’s temper can be sparked by something as benign as family movie night or a run-in with the Hertz rental-car dealership. Coming home means smiling tightly through my dad’s Indian-call-center jokes or trying to reteach Bruno the distinction between the carpet and the grass outside. It begins to feel as if Natalie and Mom are required by law to get into a King Kong vs. Godzilla–level showdown at least once every forty-eight hours, and Ilse and Karina are physically incapable of sitting through dinner without firing a few warning shots at each other. (Ilse: “That tank top makes you look like a skank.” Karina: “Why don’t you shut the—” Dad: “GIRLS!”) None of us is perfect. My dad, if you were curious, is the type to sit down in his folding lawn chair in the living room (this is somehow better than just buying more furniture?) with his wine and plate of hummus and yell over the opening music of the 1977 Jesus of Nazareth miniseries, “DON’T YOU THINK THAT’S A LITTLE TOO LOUD?” And my mother is the type to shout back, “OK, FRANK! OK!” I do my best to stay composed, but after the tenth time I open the drawer where my mind tells me the silverware should be, only to realize that I’m remembering my house in Memphis, I start to lose the thread a little. Most nights I crawl into the bed I left behind when I was eighteen and think, Eventually this all will end.
Then there are the parts that feel perfect, like listening to Ilse bang out “Cruella de Vil” on the piano in truly horrific fashion, or watching my mother mutter to herself while she does a jigsaw puzzle instead of working, or walking into the kitchen to find Natalie laughing while she struggles to hold Teddy and Bruno at the same time.
In Orthodox school our teachers told us multiple times, as if trying to forcibly pry the image from our minds, that heaven isn’t some cloudland in the sky; that it’s just earth perfected. After the fall of Adam and Eve, earth got massively screwed up, and we got all the stuff we have now: death, famine, plague, fracking, cockroaches in the shower. But when Jesus comes again, He’ll restore the world to perfection, and that’ll be our heaven — unless, you know, you’re going to hell, in which case you leave. But the general idea is that this world is already half heaven, maybe a little over half. And that when Jesus decides it’s time to come back (ready when you are, Dude), not all that much will change. Maybe Memphis and Knoxville will be walking distance apart, and Ilse won’t have any math quizzes to fail, and Mom’s flower beds will already be mulched, and there won’t be any coronavirus updates to listen to, and all we’ll have to do with our eternal summer is sit and drink pinot on the back deck. Maybe we’ll even manage not to roll our eyes when Dad calls it the “veranda.”
The way Emma Dale describes her parents in her essay “Earth Perfected” [August 2021] is how I imagine our son sees my husband and me: as backwoods rubes who never left our small town and continue to live the same simple life we have for years. Though we’re happy and successful on our own terms — a retired teacher and a master of all things mechanical — we’re not urbane or worldly according to our son’s definition.
Dale is twenty years old; I hope she grows to appreciate her dad and his collards and dog food and USDA steaks. We parents are imperfect, but we still hope for acknowledgment that we are doing our best.
My advice to Dale: Get the tattoo. Sit on the lawn chair with your dad. Help your mom with the puzzle.