Writes With Pencils

fiction, memoir, essays and poetry

Category: Memoir

Portrait of Grief

Portrait of Grief

Grief has many faces, as many as there are mourners multiplied by the number of minutes in a day: straight-backed, stoic faces standing around an open grave; wailing war widows clutching at each other; small groups of murmuring voices holding plates of green bean casserole and handkerchiefs; or horn-playing, dancing revelers. For me one of its faces is reflected in my kitchen sink, matte and bare of finish from nearly 50 years of a Norwegian housewife’s scouring hands, the sheen of porcelain glaze, a flashy finery that was long ago sacrificed in favor of cleanliness. Mrs. Larsen would not approve of the slovenliness of my grief. She would express hers more tidily and industriously. If she still occupied this modest, working man’s house built with optimism five years after VE Day, it would be dust-free and the roses and rhododendrons in the yard would be appropriately pruned and mulched for the coming cold. She would have sent thank you notes written in a neat hand for each condolence card, bouquet or casserole received within a day of its arrival.

But I’m not Mrs. Larsen. I’m not Mrs. Anyone. I can’t even claim the title of widow because we weren’t yet married. I have the pretty license in an envelope, all the spaces for names and dates are blank; William died two months before our wedding day. In these three months since I’ve become a groom-less bride, some of my condolence cards have still remained unopened and unread. Even remembering where my boxes of pretty, blank cards are packed is the closest I’ve come to writing a thank you note to acknowledge their receipt. The messiness of my grief isn’t confined to the dining room table littered with mail, the unmade bed or stacks of overdue library books in the house. It’s spilled over into the empty plastic water bottles rolling around the back of the car and the business spread sheets I keep promising myself to send to my accountant, a promise I’ve broken every day for the past five weeks.

I’m not depressed. I’m grieving, something we don’t often acknowledge, let alone express openly in this country. I’ve cried every single day since William died on July 18th of this year, but I’ve also smiled and laughed most days and even felt joy sometimes. My life was ripped open by the .22 caliber bullet he fired into his brain, and a life ripped open will never look the same, no matter how skilled a team of emotional plastic surgeons one has.

I’m fortunate to be surrounded by caring, sensitive people, many of whom are capable of just sitting with me and my grief, even holding me and hearing it wail and scream like a wounded animal without trying to fix it. Because this horrible, tragic, violent act can’t be undone, and that’s the only way it could be fixed. But some try to, by ignoring it and not mentioning it at all, as if not naming it means it didn’t happen. I’ve had hour long conversations with acquaintances or in-laws I hadn’t seen since before my grief began, in which William’s death and life were never mentioned as if he never existed. I’d begin to think, “Perhaps they haven’t heard, maybe they don’t know what happened.” Yet when I finally say that I’ve been struggling lately, that my fiancé killed himself, three-quarters of the time they respond with, “Yeah, heard about that,” followed by their voices trailing off to nothingness. Hearing this makes me want to punch them in the face, and I have no natural, violent tendencies. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” or simply “I’m so sorry for your loss,” would be fine. They’re classics, and you can never go wrong with the classics. But to ignore that a person right in front of them is grieving, that a beloved person has died, is unacceptable. When that happens I want to grab their shoulders, shake them, screaming, “Would you want to be so easily forgotten and ignored?!?”

William deserves better than that. And so do I, so does everyone who’s died or lost someone. He wasn’t “just a pebble in a pond, a few ripples and then nothing…” as he wrote to describe himself in one of his suicide notes. He was a curious, loving, sensitive, funny, responsible, quirky man. Before we met I was complete. I lived a full and satisfying life. William didn’t fill some empty place in me; he added to my life, made it easier, more fun and more profound. But now that he’s gone I feel like my right arm and left leg have been amputated and that my belly has been ripped open and eviscerated. I’m off kilter and don’t know what to do with my extremities. My gut aches and my limbs flail, and I drift without anchor.

Since early childhood I’ve been very self sufficient. At eight years old I baked my first cake without adult supervision, in the real oven, no Easy-Bake. At 12 I had my first job, a paper route that I grew so much that it had to be divided in two when I gave it up. In my teens and early twenties I moved to Europe twice. And I’ve been self employed for almost twenty years, currently as the owner of a restaurant in Seattle with 22 employees. I grew up never asking for help, and usually fought it when it was offered. But from William I learned to receive and to openly, unashamedly ask for help. He delighted in making my life better in any way that he could. And I gave him the gift of letting him help this opinionated, over-functioning, highly competent woman that I am. Nothing made him happier.

In the last month of his life as he was tortured by his starved brain and struggling with despair, I promised to take care of his sweet, little, long-haired gray kitty if anything happened to him. Boo-Boo likes the canned wet food with gravy, just like the southern gentleman in him used to like his biscuits and gravy. So I take extra care and stir in a little water to create more sauce before emptying the can into her dish each evening. It’s the kind of care William took of everyone he cared about, especially me and Boo-Boo, “his girls.” For 26 years I’ve been a professional cook and pastry chef, a master of elaborate dinner parties prepared sometimes with only the use of a hot plate. But these days thinning out cat gravy is the only cooking I can manage. I eat each meal out, or out of a box, not creating any dirty dishes to clean up. But without William here to help me, the cat food cans pile up in the sink. Grief looks different for everyone. Mine is very messy.

The Translation of I Love You

Rosalie births a Francophile

For me, my early childhood didn’t exist before the book Rosalie the Bird Market Turtle was a part of it. The drawings were sketched out in improv jazz riffs of the early sixties. The palette was simple.  Shades of sienna and black line sketches were smudged with charcoal from a Montmartre street artist’s tray and stained with strawberry details, the old-fashioned kind that are red all the way through and smell like jam. The illustrator included all the classic Parisian scenes. The gendarme pointed with authority on a street corner. A waiter in a long, white apron and thin moustache served patrons at a busy sidewalk café. Lovers gazed at each other as they passed a green grocer in a cobbled market street. Vendors sold old books and artists painted along the Seine. And gargoyles perched on the towers of Notre Dame watching the street life below. I was fascinated by all of the exotic images, but it was my father’s voice that made the story come alive and made me want to visit Paris.

We were living in a sturdy brick house too small for the six of us kids still living at home; across from a scrubby expanse of grass they called a golf course. It was the year my father had his first heart attack. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army and I was in pre-school. I had no idea that my father wanted to make the rank of full colonel before he retired, that he felt like he’d been paid for 24 years for a job he was never actually called to do. I had no idea that while he read to me he was thinking of flying off to Vietnam in pursuit of his silver eagles. I didn’t understand what my parents were fighting about in those days; they were yelling and I got out of earshot by hiding in the closet of the bedroom I shared with my oldest sister. I never heard my mother challenge his ambition; “This family won’t survive if you go to Vietnam.” It was 1971.

My clearest memories of my father in that time were of me sitting with him in the green, La-Z-Boy recliner as he read to me. It had been a gift from my mother to help him rest and recuperate after his heart attack. Those were the days before we understood that a treadmill would have been a healthier choice. Sitting together in that chair was the closest he came to hugging or cuddling me. He loved to read and digging through bookstores was one of his favorite pastimes. He never just read the text of the story. He spoke in the characters’ voices, especially Gaston, the crow. My father croaked out “Ro-sa-lie, Ro-sa-lie” as if he were Gaston himself flying over Paris in search of his lost friend. Gaston was the ultimate protector. He would never give up until Rosalie was found and safe. My father portrayed him perfectly as he sat stiffly but let me snuggle closer to him.

Instead of deploying to Vietnam to earn his eagles, he retired from the Army. He sacrificed himself on the battlefield of civilian life to save us, as he would have done for his troops in a literal war zone. But once he left the military he wasn’t ever the same. He moved us to the Seattle area from Maryland to complete his MBA at the University of Washington. Then he got a job in banking, though he never quite adjusted to how things were done in the corporate world. Within a few years he’d fallen into a depression that lasted until his death twenty years later.

Going through adolescence as the only child still living at home in a family of seven children was made even lonelier by my father’s depressed withdrawal. He had not been raised in an affectionate household and didn’t come by it naturally either. I on the other hand came out of the womb craving touch. My mother’s attempts to bring us together only made things worse. “Ray, your daughter needs a hug. Give your daughter a hug, Ray.” She never said my name, just my position in the family. Her prompt elicited a stiff, awkward embrace from my father that made me feel like an untouchable from the lowest caste whom he was begrudgingly offering charity. He was even less adept at verbal expressions of affection. In my entire life I heard him say the words “I love you” only once. It was over the phone while I was 5000 miles away studying as an exchange student in Germany. I was 16. Feeling so completely unloved by the most important man in my life had a disastrous influence on my earliest choices of male companionship.

By my mid-twenties I’d gained a little self confidence and was an accomplished pastry chef living an independent, creative life. During the winter before my 25th birthday my brother John came from out of state for a visit. I joined him and my parents for dinner at home. As usual we retold stories of when we were kids. That night we wove through reminiscences of favorite toys and books. They’d all been donated to St. Vincent de Paul years before; Mom was not a woman to hold onto things, sentimental or not. I remembered Rosalie and wished aloud that I still had it. My mother then blamed the book as the cause of the serious case of Francophilia that had flared up after I moved away from home. It had lain dormant for years before breaking out aggressively. It’s mostly under control now, but at its peek the virus caused me to intensely study irregular French verbs, learn how to make soufflés, wear berets, listen to Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel, read all of Anaïs Nin and Colette, and even to buy a house that had a view of the Pyrenees.  The house is gone and I can’t remember the last time I conjugated the subjonctif présent, but when the weather cools in the fall, I still pull my berets out of the closet.

A few months after that dinner my parents had me over again, this time to celebrate my birthday. I had studied for years and spoke French and three different German dialects, but I learned a new language that night. After a pleasant dinner of comfort food and marble cake with ice cream, a few presents were set in front of me. The first box contained a couple of blouses from my mother and another was full of fancy bath toiletries, both appreciated, but nothing special. Then Dad handed me a present that was not as neatly wrapped as the others and had no ribbon or bow. When I tore the paper off, there was Rosalie on the cover, looking exactly as she had twenty years before. “Did you save this? Was this mine?” I asked as I turned to my mother. She assured me she had no idea where it had come from. He never did tell me how he found it. It must have taken him dozens of phone calls and letters to used bookstores to find a copy of the out of print book. This was years before the internet and Amazon made the entire world searchable with a single request. My eyes filled with tears and when I hugged him he hugged me back. Then without me even asking, he opened the front cover and began to read aloud. When he got to the part where Gaston was searching for his friend and croaked out “Ro-sa-lie, Ro-sa-lie. Wherrre’s Ro-sa-lie?” I felt more loved than I ever had in my life. I smiled as I finally learned how my father said, “I love you.”

Illustration by Winifred Lubell, © 1962, Rosalie the Bird Market Turtle.
Read a review on Once Upon a Bookshelf.




The value of NO

Found Receipt

On July 18th, 2014 my fiancé fired a single .22 caliber bullet into his brain. He bought that bullet, one from a box of 50, six days before at the Big 5 Sporting Goods store in the neighborhood. It was walking distance from our house. He charged it on his credit card. He left the bill for me to pay for. I was furious when I found the receipt a month after his death, crumpled up underneath the desk in the messy home office. When I found it I was even more furious at him and the universe than I had been at the act itself, of him killing himself. He left it for me to pay for.

Two days after finding the receipt, my friend Karen helped me organize the paper chaos of a grieving life left behind. Bills had to be paid, accounts had to be closed, forms had to be signed and I hadn’t made much progress on any of that in the previous two weeks. Together we built tidy stacks of papers in neat rows that covered the dining room table. Each stack was labeled with a lime-green sticky note with clear instructions, “Pay W’s Credit Card”, “Sign and Mail”, “Ask Attorney About”, “Call and Confirm”, and “To be filed”. Three hours of organizing and a lunch of comfort food had psyched me up for heading out and getting things done

As I drove alone along Leary Way I felt progress for the first time in two months, movement of my life in a positive direction of doing. But when I passed under the Ballard Bridge on my way to my first errand, I realized that I was going to drive right in front of Big 5. Suddenly I felt trapped. I prided myself on knowing all the back streets and alternate routes through town, but in that moment my mental map went blank. The store was still blocks away, but all I could see was the road ahead that led straight past it; all the side streets faded from possibility. There was nowhere to pull over and there was too much traffic on the busy neighborhood arterial to make a gutsy U-turn. When I realized that a confrontation with the executioner’s supplier was inevitable, I breathed deeply, called on William’s spirit to hold me and braced myself for a collision with the truth. As soon as I saw the sign I felt a phantom muzzle of a gun pressed against my right temple, pulled my hands from the steering wheel, pressed them to the sides of my head, and screamed. As the cold steel of the barrel burned my skin my knuckles turned boney white from the pressure of my fingers digging into my oily roots while my palms covered my ears and tried to compress the anguish and despair. The stabbing spasms were excruciating, but there was no physical pain, nothing ibuprofen or codeine could have helped. I grabbed the wheel again but couldn’t look away from the storefront as it passed on the right. By the time it was out of view I was sobbing and shaking. A few blocks away I found a place to park out of the way of late afternoon traffic and calmed my breathing enough to drive the mile home

The neat stacks of papers with the lime-green sticky notes lost their order as they shuffled around the back seat of the car for three weeks. Big 5 killed any momentum I’d had just as its bullet had killed William. But bullets don’t kill people, people kill people, isn’t that what the NRA says? I had no choice in the direction that bullet took my life. I wasn’t with him when he pulled the trigger. I couldn’t have wrestled the gun away from him or negotiated my way out of him doing it. He’d been the one to buy the bullets, and I was stuck with the bill. Or was I?

What began as defeated sobs of “I can’t pay for his bullets,” evolved over those three weeks into assertive, tear-filled statements of “I won’t pay for them.” I refused to be held hostage by powerlessness any longer and began to see the found receipt as a little gift, rather than the torturous betrayal that it felt like at first. It was a gift because it gave me the opportunity to stand up and say NO!, I will NOT pay for the bullet he used to kill himself, the bullet that ripped my life open, eviscerated it, and left me alone. Had he paid cash, I wouldn’t have paid for the bullet, but the deed would have been done and I’d have had nothing to say about it. And sometimes all we have is our voice.

Having dodged the calls from the bank’s credit department and ignored the auto-generated letter they sent informing William that he’d now missed two payments and they were happy to help him through this difficult financial time, I waited until Karen was available to be my wing man to walk into the bank and tell them what I needed. Sitting across from the branch manager I held out the receipt and spoke my truth. I told him my story and that I was not going to pay for the bullet William put in his brain. I didn’t ask. In very businesslike terms, with tears streaming down my face, I told him that I needed the bank to credit the account $8.75, that I would then pay the remaining balance. A friend had offered to just give me that amount in cash to salve my pain and make it go away. He meant well, but that would have just buried it, not healed it. It wasn’t about the money. In this situation where I had neither choice nor power, this little bit of empowerment gained by speaking up and being heard felt pretty damn good.

The bank credited the account $8.75.

Read the poem Found Receipt

Tasting Childhood

New England maple nut ice cream on Cape Cod

Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, my only experience eating maple walnut ice cream was in the evenings after dinner in front of the television. It was my Yankee mother’s favorite. Scooped from a non-descript, half-gallon carton, it was mostly a textural accompaniment to our evening’s entertainment. Sometimes we drizzled a bit of syrup over it, but layering artificial maple flavor on top of artificial maple flavor didn’t make it taste any more natural. As a kid I didn’t know any better, having never tasted the real thing. When my parents offered me this after dinner treat I enjoyed every bite in between the canned laughter of ’70s sitcoms. It never occurred to me that there existed a version which would command my full attention. I was completely unprepared for what was scooped into the old fashioned soda fountain dish for me at Hallet’s on Cape Cod.

The first bite held the lifeblood of a species and a region: sweet nectar discovered centuries ago by native hunters and gatherers. Heightened by the five generations of Hallet hospitality radiating from the worn plank floor and counters, the cream from the mainland dairy draped across my tongue and caressed my throat. The Richardson’s have been farming their land near Salem Village for over 300 years; I could feel their care in the texture of the churn.

In each spoonful I could taste the snow’s anticipation of spring, the sweet perspiration of honest work in open air and fireside tales spun like amber threads. I wanted to return to a home I never knew: a farm in Québec or Maine full of mischievous but industrious uncles, and aunts who had learned how to make a home. I wanted to crack walnuts while settled into the lap of a grandfather who could report the snowfall of every winter in memory and how the sugaring season had been in each. And I wanted to stir the pot beside a grandmother who bottled her own sarsaparilla and canned green tomato pickles from a recipe scribbled out in bushels and pecks.

As my mouth was filled with the memory of a childhood I never had, I finally understood that my mother had longed for her own childhood in New England each time she scooped from the carton into our generous bowls. I learned more about her from the expression on her face as she tasted the real thing for the first time in decades on that late September Sunday on the Cape, than I had in any conversation we’d ever shared.


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