Tag Archives: family

Grouse Wing Barrel: A Letter

By Randy Osborne

“From one wing, you can determine whether it’s a male or female. If it’s a female, you can even determine whether she had a successful brood or not. And you can tell if it’s a juvenile bird.” – Kari Huebner, Nevada Department of Wildlife biologist

“Rogue intensities roam the streets of the ordinary.” – Kathleen Stewart

*

I’m going to marry that boy, you promised the grownups. Or so I was told later, back home. Maybe impulse drove you to blurt how your future looked in a passing moment. Or maybe at age ten, an excitable girl, you actually saw the future, whole and busy and colorful. Did you know, when we met that summer, that my immediate family had just exploded? Dad gone adrift post-divorce. Mom free of the drunk at last. Edgy, love-haunted, Salem chain-smoking.

kidrandyHere’s me in 1961, the sad first-grader from Illinois, arrived with his grandparents for a week with Virginia mountain kin. He shuffles from the gas station, peels the wrap off a Popsicle. Cuts across the outfield, past the tomboy who fist-smacks her mitt, waiting for the play.

He feels her gaze on the backs of his legs.

Suddenly she’s in front of him. “Gimme a bite.” Her half-smile almost a sneer. Sandy hair in her face, eyes glittery behind like a hidden animal. The game stops. “I wanna bite.”

Her teeth sink into the icy pillar, an almost inaudible crunch. Tilts her head, lips tight, savoring. Swoons. Whips back the hair and those eyes flash open. “Now you got to give me a kiss!”

He runs.

At bedtime, she shows up again. Sallie – the big people know her name – still wants a kiss. The big people are too amused. They fail to defend him, and he scrambles under the blankets. She dives in. Amid their tussle, air under fabric quickly turns humid. He smells grass, dirt, the rhubarby tang of girl. Sallie gets what she came for. You do.

You take me hiking. We flick Japanese beetles into a pond and the trout rise, a swirly slapping froth, then gone. The trout knows nothing of the beetle’s life on the bush, nor does the beetle know of the bush’s root system (only the delicious leaves), nor does the bush know of the antlered buck’s terror as it clambers past and gunshots ring. Nor do we, as by then we’re on a distant hillside watching the Holsteins graze. You point out the salt block, sculpted by cows’ lapping into an exotic shape, a smooth glide that I will one day startle myself to recall when studying the body of a nude woman.

All the matter in the mattering world matters to us. The salt block wants our tongues. Wordlessly we’re on hands and knees, faces against the gooey-slick. A distracting texture that flavor must find its way through. Bits of straw, black specks in the slurped ivory. We rotate strokes, ecstatic. You watch me. I watch you. We can’t stop.

*

Years pass. Sallie’s in high school, my grandmother Madeline tells me, her finger tracing lines on the handwritten letter. I picture you, but fading. More years. Sallie’s married now, Mad says. I register the news as a sort of wonder shaded with betrayal, mild. Then: Sallie has a little girl of her own. I graduate high school.

Jump to 1988. Mad’s in the hospital, her colon ruptured. Coma, the doctors say. Slim chance. My uncle Theodore is delayed – in Virginia, oddly enough, where he’s visiting our people – but hits town the second afternoon, when my grandmother has miraculously awakened. He tugs me into the bright hall.

Don’t tell Mad, he says. Sallie’s dead.

In the following weeks I use genealogy websites to trace how we’re related. Did you know, or was it as much a blur for you as for me, that my grandmother Mad’s brother was the husband of your father’s sister? More than enough distance on the family tree for us, anyway. Marry that boy.

I sift newspaper clippings and righteously fume at their descriptions of you. “Thin blonde,” say the neighbors. “Wild, volatile, and irrational.” Someone who claims to know you well says you “never grew up.”

A journalist myself, I understand the grabby, often slapdash nature of reporting. Fragmentary, steps removed from a reality that’s ungraspable to start with. I understand – and fume.

The Virginia clan informs me that you “got interested with the ‘dope crowd’” early on. Estranged from your husband, you have a “pretty brunette” daughter, 16. She “appeared normal,” the newspaper says. This daughter is charged with your murder. Small-caliber handgun. “Multiple” bullets to the head.

*

I ransack the internet for details about you. Find the obituary for your mother, Eleanor, who died “unexpectedly” at age 82 in February 2011. She loved her seven children. Also gardening, animals, and Elton, her husband for 65 years. I find the obituary for Elton, 86, who followed his wife in June of the same year. Proof, an example.

One happening leads to another, I guess. Any effect depends on its cause. But doesn’t cause depend just as much on effect? Neither takes priority, both dissolve in an embrace, and this is how I stop time. Just not for long.

Radiant, youthful Eleanor, your mother in a photo that you may have seen, cradles a puppy. In one that you likely didn’t see, your dad Elton – bald, speckled, perhaps arthritic –  digs into a Christmas gift bag. Of you I can find no photos.

At this moment I feel helpless that I’m not able to visualize you, and ridiculous admitting how long you’ve been with me, and embarrassed by trying to say in what way you’ve been present. You peered over my shoulder at my slippery firstborn, red and squealing. You nodded, silent, when I acknowledged my first gray hair, plucked.

I’m better at perceiving absence (vastly much more of it, maybe why) than what’s in front of me. Is it preferable to die a certain way? Would I rather perish in a head-on crash, mangled meat? Or scream into oblivion tumor-sunk, entubed and beeping on the crackly institutional slab, their goddamned TV in my face?

From Eleanor’s obituary: “We recall occasions while growing up when our mother would take in friends who had nowhere to go.” You rode with me west when I wandered, another marriage kaput. One morning near the park where I had pulled over to sleep, I watched the hunter empty his bag of birds onto a table. His dog circled madly. The hunter unsheathed his knife and inserted the blade’s tip into the shoulder wedge of each bird, one by one, wrenching loose the feathery flaps. They came away bloodless every time. He tossed the wings into the “collection barrel,” which I hadn’t noticed until then.

I touch my companion’s thigh in the winter dark. She stirs and whispers. Your hand. Hot. (I’ve experienced the heat by placing my palm on my own bare shoulder, and I want the experience to be hers also. A peculiar fever I’ve had since a boy. Doesn’t register on a thermometer. I used to fantasize throwing myself naked into a snowdrift, the hiss and great clouds of steam … ) Now I flatten my hand against the wall above the bed. I touch her again. Mmmm. Cool. Still groggy, let her sleep.

I feel her; she feels me; we feel each other mutually and ourselves individual, apart. I feel the wall, but the wall can’t feel me. Then she feels me and feels, by way of me – who is changed – the wall. So many things are like this.

Your daughter works out a plea bargain, serves time. I hear from the Virginia people that she’s living in Roanoke, not far from the trout pond and our Holsteins. One more image: Coy leaves hide clusters of Concord grapes, thick with promise. The fog on their surfaces picks up our fingerprints, proof of contact. Next the evidence is partway inside our bodies. Between our teeth the grapes pop sweet and sudden and voluptuous. We chew them down to their bitter, irreducible skins.

FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA

By Tricia Stearns

Yesterday I found myself in the doctor’s office hooked up to an EKG machine, and even the machine was having a fucking meltdown and didn’t work. There were two nurses and a doctor all hovering over me trying to get the little plastic connections that were taped to key parts of my body to read from the machine on to a paper, so the doctor could medically evaluate whether I was having a heart attack. Technology. I always thought technology would eventually kill me, and maybe God was going to show His sense of humor — His little way of getting back at me for all the expletives I yell when I can’t get a printer to work, can’t figure out how to complete an Excel spreadsheet or never set my margins right the first time. Fuck technology.

Two nurses and one doctor later, the EKG machine was ushered out of the room. Together we decided that if I continued to feel like I ate every meal at the Golden Corral, then it would be wise of me to go to the Emergency Room.

At 5:45 in the evening, the Christmas do-das on the light poles of the nearby shopping center were casting colored shadows on the paper liner of the exam table. We were all tired. While they disconnected the wires of the machine, I envisioned each nurse hustling home, each yelling at her kids to let the dog out to pee, while she heated soup or zapped those Godawful Hot Pockets for her children’s dinner. My triage crew gave me a sample of an antacid, and I went home and threw the dinner party that had been scheduled since September.

But honestly, I didn’t feel well—and I hadn’t felt right for over two weeks. But I just keep moving. I drink a cup of coffee, walk three miles despite my feet yelling at me. I work though I hate it, iron shirts, cook dinner, read a bit, write essays but never revise them, give my husband and our sex life the obligatory ten minutes. Each day I move because I must.

I thought about going to the emergency room just to cancel the dinner party; after all, I never got around to making a dessert. FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

I did manage to roast dinner in the oven between the 18 phone calls an hour, ten new emails per hour, combined with a holiday luncheon where we gave a scholarship away honoring my deceased daughter.

Thus, dessert never got made, and I was tempted to cancel the dinner party.

Suzie, one of the guests, ALWAYS serves homemade pie or three kinds of cookies, along with a scoop of made-from-scratch sorbet when she entertains. Oh, and she is ready when people arrive. I, on the other hand, have to have my husband serve the first cocktail while I go back and change – and toss back my first glass of wine just to settle into social mode.

I didn’t go to the emergency room afraid I would just catch a flu bug from some other stressed-out suburbanite, combined with the fact my husband would just reschedule with the perfect people. I was almost home free. I had a roast in the oven – the ultimate answer to First World problems.

And dinner was fine. I heard laughter and compliments and merry cheer come out of my guests’ mouths. Our dinner conversation was thoughtful – with intelligent discourse on the state of our republic. My husband was profoundly pithy with dropping just the right humor when the discussion would get too heated, but the entire time I had an internal conversation with myself.

I am just so tired. I am tired of mean people. I am tired of being a people-pleaser. I am tired of dishes, cooking, work—yes, your carpet needs replacing before we put this dump on the market. What? You bought a new car a week before we close on your first house?

I went to bed reading and planning the following day, reviewing my Fitbit where I walked 19,000 steps. And I had a heart rate in the danger zone. FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

Something happened that night. I had a dream. And my deceased daughter, who died at 20, was 8 years old. And she snuggled on my lap. We were on the patio of the house we lived in at the time. She had her hair in pigtails, and she was holding my face and making me look at her as she explained her dilemma. But this time she was holding my face and looking into my eyes, and saying, “It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay. It’s beautiful here, and I am so very happy and joyful.”

And I woke up to another day of First World problems. I wish I could tell you that my attitude improved. It didn’t. But I followed the mantra, “Fake it til you make it.”

I took baby steps. I went to the office Christmas party for the first time in four years. I got people dancing who normally stick to the walls like Velcro. I took cookies to that asshole in the mailroom. I bought Christmas pajamas for my other girls, even though they are adults. I baked cookies—for my dog and HIS friends.

FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA.

Each day I feel less overwhelmed, personally and globally. I don’t feel I can solve all ills. But this one thing has occurred to me that has been a game changer.

The Declaration of Independence says we have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. I get what our forefathers were trying to say, and I would have been on that boat with them, cold and miserable. Upon landing, we would work the fields to grow food for my family and village.

I also believe in a Cosmic God, one that is in control of the entire universe and the soul of each human being – and my dog. In John 14-17, Jesus says God created us to be happy and joyful in this world and the next.

The Declaration of Independence was ratified by a group of tired expatriates who wanted to pursue their own democratic republic, to self assert their future and the future of their grandkids.

I get the whole Peace on Earth thing, that plays on the Muzak while I wait in line at Target. But, seriously, having peace in your heart in 2016? FALALALAFUCKING LA LA LA. No way.

But, I was given a clue in my dream. I live in a world full of pain and trouble and human suffering. I do not need to add to it. I must surrender my anxiety and trust the universe.

The pursuit of happiness is just that – the chase. The get-up and hustle, the early bird gets the worm, only the strong survive, the coach yelling at you in the locker room at half- time to get your shit together and WIN.

Often in that pursuit of happiness we create Idols. We can even become our own Idol – seeking the obvious: the fast car, the material possessions, the best for our children or a politician that will save our society from suffering. And, in that very pursuit, we lose ourselves.

Through the years of working, doing and being a human, I once lost myself.

And when I lost my child in a sudden accident, the News became personal.

Tragedy is only a moment away for all of us. In any given moment, our lives can change. In my suffering, that deep internal grief that only a parent can truly understand, I have made room. I have made room to surrender to a quiet joy that cannot be bought. It does not come with my employee review or 74 likes to a selfie with my dog.

This joy is the byproduct of suffering. The suffering is the foundation of a club. I belong with other members of it, and we stand in solidarity, surrendering to pain —surrendering and living with joy despite of it.

I am too tired to pursue. Instead, I receive. I receive hope.