The Keepthings is a beautiful journal, lovingly edited by Deborah Way, about the people we’ve lost and how we remember them. I encourage you to follow this page on Instagram and read more of these sweet and tender essays.
There’s something magical about our parents’ lives in the years just before and after we were born. Or maybe it’s only me that finds them magical. My parents met, fell in love, and made me. Out of nothing, something. Out of love, me. Magic.
Cleaning out my parents’ house after my father’s death and my mother’s move into a retirement home, I came across two slides. In one, my father and I blow the candles on his 27th birthday cake. I’m in a blue dress with white princess sleeves, and he sports a stylish narrow tie. My chubby hands brace on my legs as I take a deep breath. Seven months later, I’m in the same dress for my mother’s birthday. She wears white cat-eye glasses and a cobalt blue shift.
The setting for both dinners is my paternal grandparents’ house. My grandmother has perched homemade cakes atop pedestals, chocolate cake on a glass plate for my father, and vanilla (baked Alaska?) on a white ceramic plate for my mother. The table is set with crystal goblets, candle holders dripping glass beads, and teacups on saucers. No one else in my life set such an elegant table.
I imagine my grandmother parading in with the cake, everyone singing, and then my grandfather, a lifelong amateur photographer, setting up the shot: put the cake here, get the child, prepare to blow, hold still. I was the first grandchild. I got a lot of attention.
Part of what’s magical is seeing myself alive in moments I don’t remember now. I remember that house on Mercer Island and that dining room with the plate glass windows looking out on the deck. I remember that textured beige wallpaper and the polished cherry table. I have early memories of my mother’s hands and of my father tickling me. But I don’t remember the blowing candle moments. My brain couldn’t hold those memories yet.
But my three-year-old brain was pulsing with toddler life. Neurons were growing and new synapses firing. This frenzy of growth was developing the person who would one day find these slides and sit at the computer writing about them. The person who would one day mourn the father who wore such a fashionable tie. The person who would try to compensate for her mother’s tangled brain.
Maybe what I mean by “magic” is really “miracle,” the miracle of our selves living trajectories that can seem inevitable when looking back. But if birth and growth are miracles – if all life is a miracle – then aging and death are, too. My father’s hair would recede and grey. My mother’s would thin from chemotherapy in her fifties. The slides in their little boxes would stack up, and then prints, and then digital photos, all accumulating in the closets and computers of my parents’ house. Birthdays after birthdays, cakes alight, our lips pursed with blowing.
Some of those crystal goblets survived. After my grandparents’ deaths, I boxed up what was left and stuck them in a storage locker. This week, I unpacked them. Some had chipped but some hadn’t. I think for Easter I’ll set the table with the goblets and my grandmother’s plates, the ones painted with cherry petals and peacocks. Arline, my mother, and I will clink the crystal and sip mimosas. A little of my grandmother’s elegance will grace the table. And we’ll resurrect our memories of birthdays past.
At dusk, six of us walked the long stretch of sand at Cannon Beach, Oregon: three lesbians in butch haircuts and jean jackets, two gay men, and me. I had befriended them in college, but now that I had graduated and met a woman who loved me back, they were my people. I was thrilled that they were grown enough to rent a vacation cabin without parents and thrilled and scared as C and J held hands and kissed as we passed straight people who may or may not have been glaring at us.
Back in Olympia, where I was packing to move to the east coast with my new girlfriend, the band Beat Happening would soon be writing “Indian Summer,” a song Rebecca Brown talks about in her new book of essays about the seasons, You Tell the Stories You Need to Believe. Reading her book now, in a hotel room in Cannon Beach, I look up the video of the song and there are Heather, Calvin, and Bret in grainy footage, walking around the Olympia of my college years: Yard Birds and Sylvester Park and the Capitol Building.
(Since I will never otherwise have a reason to do this, I am posting here this photo. I was managing editor of the college paper when we sponsored a Valentine’s Day contest: Why are you Mr. or Ms. Right? Calvin won with “Because I’m Calvin Johnson and I own this town.” I got to kiss the prize winner.)
In her book, Rebecca (I know her, so I’ll do what my students are always doing with writers they know or don’t know: use her first name) writes about Beat Happening but also Blake and Levertov and Schubert and other artists. She tells stories about growing up feeling out of sorts and falling in and out of love and losing parents and friends. As I sat reading the book, the essays pressed on that tender spot in my chest that is home to nostalgia and loss.
My wife Arline and I took my parents to Cannon Beach for a few days at the beginning of September in the first year of Covid. We had all been masking and isolating since March, and I hoped that making our own meals and gathering on the hotel terrace would keep us safe. When the sun was too warm on the terrace and we moved into one of the rooms for the evening, I itched with fear that one of us had brought in the virus. But we had not.
Arline and I walked the beach one afternoon and caught up with my father, who was walking alone. From behind, he looked more fragile than I remembered: stooped, jeans sagging, his walk slow and labored. We accompanied him back to the hotel. He said, startling us, “This is the last time I’ll be here.” No, no, we said; you’ll be back; we can all come again next year. We didn’t think to ask him why he said it.
On the last day of November this year, the second year of Covid, Arline and drove into Cannon Beach for a few days respite. The little town of beachwear and ice cream shops twinkled with Christmas lights, but when we walked our dog down Hemlock Street in the early evening, no one was out. Under the dark, cloudy sky, the streets were silent. The lights blinked for no one.
The next day, I read Rebecca’s book. My writing self was struck by the way she sometimes slips into second person. Writing about adolescence, she says: “Something has started inside of you, inside your skin, and you want to do things you don’t want but then you do.” The second person point of view — you — seems to give the narrator space to distance herself from feelings that are so powerful they are almost too dangerous to examine while at the same time inviting readers to remember their own experiences.
My father never came back to this beach. He died in May of a massive stroke. You sit in the chair where he drank a last glass of wine and watched the last sun set on the last horizon. Every time you walk the beach, you remember how he shuffled across the sand. You wonder how he knew.
Recently, when talking about Cannon Beach, my mother said, “We used to go there when you were a baby. We couldn’t afford a fancy place, but your father loved the beach.” I am learning what not to say to someone with Alzheimer’s. For example, that there are facts and that one of them is that I did not go to Cannon Beach until after college. I spent my childhood vacations at my grandparents’ lake cabin north of Spokane.
Full disclosure: I have known Rebecca for a long time, over twenty-five years. She is the most generous of writers; when I returned to Seattle in the mid-nineties, she invited me to read at a festival and introduced me to other writers. Her work when I was coming out was fiercely important to me, and not only because it emerged at a time when literature by out lesbians could fit on a semester syllabus (not that my MFA program included any lesbians on any syllabus). Every sentence Rebecca wrote — sentences about lesbians! — was carefully crafted, and every story and essay Rebecca wrote — with such carefully crafted sentences! — was deeply queer. Those queer sentences helped me survive.
In the book’s afterward, Rebecca talks about the challenge of staying hopeful in these dark times. She talks about needing to “remember the seasons change….to remember the dark abates, the light and life return.” I write these words at Cannon Beach as our nine-month-old black lab puppy, Laika, sits at the window and stares longingly at the beach. We will take her out again later. She will want to run and run, although every time she does, she gobbles up something briny and rotten just beyond our reach. She will mature, we say. She will learn to come when called, to leave slimy things alone. We are imagining future visits already. This will not be our last time at the beach.
Since my father died unexpectedly in May of a massive stroke and my mother was subsequently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, the only book I have been able to get myself to read is Pema Chödrön’s When Things Fall Apart. The Buddhist nun counsels us to embrace vulnerability and change. Don’t avoid pain and grief; sidle closer.
It’s good advice, and it helps when, as I clean out my parents’ house, I uncover something that brings on tears, such as my mother’s wedding dress, handmade by my grandmother because that’s what people did then and my mother needed a dress that would camouflage the bump that was me.
But now I’ve found another book that compels me to read it. On my father’s desk was a new copy of Thomas M. Disch’s The Prisoner. In the 1970s, my father and I obsessively watched the related television series, and lines from the show became part of our family culture. If one of us said, “Who is Number One?” The other would say, “You are Number Six.” And then we both would shout: “I am not a number; I am a free man!”
In the show, a spy has been kidnapped and imprisoned in a small town called the Village. The residents pretend the Village is a normal town, but it’s impossible to leave it. And everyone is known, not by their name, but by their number. The opening sequence ends with the spy, Number Six, rejecting his status; he asserts that he is free.
It turns out Disch, a science fiction writer, was hired to write a novel based on the series; the series was not based on the novel. But it’s been fun to read and to remember the campy Village characters, the ridiculous giant balloons that suffocated escapees, and the actor Patrick McGoohan’s manly pronouncements. The ritual of repeating the lines was an acknowledgment of our shared love of the show, an in-joke, a secret language. Similarly, my family sometimes repeated phrases from Go, Dog, Go, a book I had read over and over as a child. “Do you like my hat?” one of us would say, and someone would respond, “I do; I like that party hat.”
But as I think back, I realize it was only my father and I who repeated the lines from The Prisoner, not my younger brother or mother. And my father would say the last part quietly, “I am not a number….” But I liked to shout it out, like McGoohan in the opening sequence: “I am a free man!” My mother would smile at us, a smile just short of an eye roll. But my father and I would grin, as if to say: Yes, it was cheesy and goofy and dated. But it was mesmerizing, too. Remember? Remember?
I guess reading the book is a way to say the lines again and to hear the echo of his response. I read it and sidle close to grief, to the ache of knowing that the arc of my father’s life is over, that the life I had with my parents is forever changed. My prayer: to never lose the sound of his voice.
Chop leeks, onions, garlic, and tomatoes. Sauté in olive oil until soft.
I cook in our small kitchen, chopping on the butcher block cart, and looking down occasionally at the street where masked people walk on their way to the Saturday morning farmer’s market. My parents’ 58th wedding anniversary is today, and Arline and I can’t spend it with them.
The cookbook says authentic bouillabaisse, from the south of France, features scorpion fish. My cooking is anything but authentic. I have bought frozen swordfish, pre-cooked octopus, and fresh mussels. No one is likely to complain.
My parents married in Spokane the day after Christmas, poinsettias on the altar, my mother’s belly swelling discreetly with me beneath her gown. The next day they were back on the train to Columbus, Ohio, where they were attending graduate school. I imagine their giddiness at having finally married after dating for four years, their relief at being alone again on the train after the family whirlwind. Or maybe my mother felt mostly apprehensive of what awaited a pregnant graduate student. She remembers teaching with her belly pressed to the table. No one encouraged her to continue after that first year, and she knew what she had to do.
Add fish stock, tomato paste, and saffron. My stock comes from a carton. I used up the last of the saffron, bought in Spain, and never replaced it. But I’m not afraid of how the soup will taste because I have already cried into the leeks, sorry for my mother especially, who craves time with us.
Usually my brother is in town for Christmas, so the five of us go out for dinner and a movie on the anniversary. My father puts up with our love of Star Wars and hobbits. Today Matthew is probably playing a videogame at home in Portland, although he offered to visit. In early September we risked a weekend together on the Oregon Coast, spending most of it on the terrace in adirondack chairs, my brother coming only for the day. But as Covid cases have increased, we’ve all become more cautious, and now my parents don’t want to get together at all.
Arline and I joke that she cooks like a scientist, and I cook like an artist. If she were making this soup, she would strain the broth, as the recipe dictates, and make the rouille and aioli. But I skip the extras, ladle the soup into jars, and call it good. In truth, I cook less like an artist and more like the ranch wives I descend from. Use what you’ve got. Make do. Like theirs, my heart is in it.
We assemble the jar of soup, slices of Arline’s sourdough bread, and the flan she made especially for my father, his favorite. We call to make sure my parents are home and put on our coats. This is all I can do right now to show how much I love them. It’s hard not to be bitter about the leaders who failed us, the self-absorbed who have enjoyed themselves, not realizing they lengthened the lockdown for the rest of us. But this soup is not bitter. Arline’s flan is silky and sweet. We will share it at our separate tables — together.
At the north end of the campground, in a compound of recreational vehicles, a tall pole sported the Stars and Stripes and the Gadsden flag – the yellow one with the snake hissing, “Don’t tread on me,” the one associated with libertarians, Tea Partiers, and white supremacists.
At the south end of the campground were the tents and hippy vans, the queers and more people of color than we have ever seen camping at South Beach on the Olympic Peninsula. That’s where we were, of course.
We chatted briefly with two young women about how to snag beach-front sites in the small campground that takes no reservations. When they had settled in, they invited us to their campfire that night. And that’s how we learned that Maria, daughter of Venezuelan immigrants, and her partner Lyv, granddaughter of lesbians, were living in Spokane and dreaming of a move to California. They had gotten to know the nice family on the other side of their tent, and they were so relieved, they said, to be surrounded by people they could trust. We felt the same.
Danger can arise anywhere, but recent events made us particularly apprehensive about camping on the peninsula this year. In June, a family described as multiracial drove through Forks on their way to a Forest Service campground. They were accosted in a parking lot by seven or eight carloads of suspicious locals and followed out of town. When they heard gunshots, they decided to leave their campsite, but someone had felled trees on the road, barricading them in. They had to be escorted out of town for their own safety. When we drove through Forks, we pulled into the gas station behind a black truck with hand-written white letters encouraging us to learn more about QAnon.
The view from our van (photo by Arline)
Still, we were glad to return to the campground where we have had good experiences. No grey whales swam by this time, but we took long walks on the sandy beach and fell asleep to the roar of waves. And the unexpected company of the young women cheered us. Our last morning, we woke to notes and drawings framed in driftwood on our picnic table: “The musings and stories you’ve collected on your journey through life are incredibly awe-inspiring to us both.” The day before one had said, “We want to be you someday!” That’s when I realized: we are now the queer elders. And the kids are more than okay; they are passionate and loving and creative and smart. We slept better knowing they were nearby.
In the picture on the box, several hundred colorful birds perch, fly, and hover on a white background. All have stick legs that look the same on the thousand tiny pieces spread across our dining room table. My spouse Arline and I don’t, as a rule, do puzzles. We started one on a vacation a few years ago, but we didn’t have time over the weekend to finish it. Now we have time.
There’s a method to putting together a puzzle. Start with the frame. We turned the pieces face up on the table and picked through them, looking for straight edges. It took little time to assemble most of the frame, but four pieces were missing. We looked for them for days.
In late February and early March, dread clenched my jaw, a return to the debilitating anxiety of my late 20s, which were almost thirty years ago. Every week brought a new momentous decision. Should I fly to San Antonio for a conference? Should I put my final weeks of winter quarter online? Should we go to dinner with our friends on a Saturday in March? One of the friends, a doctor, said we would be fine if we went early and used hand sanitizer after reading the menu. Two weeks later I would learn she was right, but I was on edge the entire evening. The next day, the governor closed restaurants and bars. His order limited my options, framed them. I no longer had to make my own decisions, and for the moment, my anxiety lessened.
After establishing the frame, I sorted puzzle pieces by color. I assembled several red birds — a cardinal, finches — and placed them in the frame where they belonged, according to the picture. Arline gathered bird heads in one corner of the table. Now we could pick through the pieces with eyes and beaks when all we were missing was a head.
The geography of our life contracted to our co-op apartment with occasional forays to the grocery store and daily walks. We have the comforts of a separate room for my office, of tall windows looking onto a park, and of a courtyard garden, where the two smallest residents of the co-op toddled after Easter eggs. Our building is community-minded; people leave warm muffins outside each other’s doors, and one neighbor lends us her golden retriever. Arline, retired, bakes and delivers loaves of sourdough bread. I am mindful of even more significant privileges – a job that can be done online, good healthcare in a city of medical specialists, a governor who is guided by scientists, and a representative in the House who advocates for immigrants, the homeless, and working people.
But all of those bright birds – cardinals, blue jays, hummingbirds – float on our dining room table in a disturbingly inchoate space, empty and ragged. Our puzzle-making has slowed as we stare at tiny fragments of legs, beaks, and severed wings.
By mid April, people in my Facebook feed were sharing their experiences with the virus, but they were far away. And then we got the news that someone close to us had tested positive. Arline and I looked at each other across the dining room table. How had we been lulled into thinking we wouldn’t know anyone directly affected? Of course, we would. We kept in close touch with the family, and my jaw tightened again. We lay awake in the night, dragged through the days. One morning we stood in line at Costco during senior hour to buy the family groceries. Weeks later, one member of the family has recovered and others have fallen sick. Every day we are grateful that the news isn’t worse.
I sit occasionally, listening to a book or music, and squint at the pieces. I look for one with a tiny patch of blue or red, the piece that will fit right here, that will make this bird whole. Sometimes I find one and, as it clicks softly into place, the fear eases. More often, I try to force together pieces that don’t belong. Bent over, my back begins to ache. I stand, scan the table, and remind myself that this one will take a long time.
I opened the Zoom meeting on March 9, and as my students’ faces appeared before bedroom walls, living room windows, and closets, one blurted, “How sad that we aren’t together!” Sorrow washed over me. It was the last Monday of the last week of the quarter of English 101 Plus, a ten-credit option for students who want extra support. It draws recent immigrants, international students, returning students who have earned their GEDs, and teenagers swapping high school for college. We had spent ten hours a week together for nine weeks, and we had forged a community.
During the quarter, M had passed her citizenship test, and we celebrated with cake and soda at 8 in the morning. D’s wife had an aneurysm, and he moved into a hotel room near her hospital; we checked in with him every day he was able to attend. L told us about the kidney transplant she was waiting for. P let me practice Spanish with him for a few minutes in the computer lab each week.
Now there would be no end-of-quarter party, no hugs and photos, no celebratory gallery walk, where students post their last essays on the walls and we write compliments on blue and green sticky notes. My last communication with them would be over email.
I felt less emotional about my students in the advanced writing class that had been online all quarter — until I read their end-of-quarter posts about next steps. Some students plan to transfer soon to four-year schools. A pre-nursing student will volunteer in a hospital. Another wants to take her younger siblings to Disneyland.
My heart hurt as I wondered whether these dreams would be realized. Only one student, older than most of the others, commented directly on current events. He noted that we have no idea how the pandemic will affect our work and careers, whether the government will handle it well, and if our lives will be irrevocably changed. He said, “We have to hope for the best while preparing for the worst.”
And I realized then that I’ve been grieving a lost future. Whatever certainty I had about how I would spend the last decade of my career; how I would soon celebrate birthdays with grandchildren and drink wine with my parents on their patio; travel, go to music festivals, write another novel – the certainty is gone.
Certainty was always an illusion; I know that. But at least the future I imagined was within the range of the possible. Now it’s hard to know what that range even encompasses.
At the end of the quarter, I often tell my English 101 students that they will likely forget everything they wrote in this class. They won’t remember what their response paper responded to or what their rhetorical analysis analyzed. I certainly have forgotten most of my college assignments. But hopefully they will remember that they have learned how to learn, how to figure out a new genre, draft and revise and edit, ask for feedback, tap resources, revise again.
Someday those of us who survive will look back on this time, and we will have forgotten many things. We will forget the news report that kept us awake one night, the anxiety-ridden decision about whether to eat at a restaurant, the days counted after a possible exposure to the virus.
Maybe we will even forget the dreams we once had, the ones that never came true. But we will still have dreams. That’s what I keep telling myself.
It’s “best of” season. Best books of the year. Movies. Songs. And because we are approaching 2020, the lists are expanding to cover the entire decade.
It’s hard to resist such categorization. I keep a list of books I’ve read on Goodreads, and the site just sent me an overview of my year of reading: 34 books and 11,000 pages. I’m tempted to rank them.
When I scan my Goodreads list, I remember how often I laughed this summer while walking and listening to Luis Urrea narrate The House of Broken Angels. I remember the joy of attending the book launch party for my friend Loreen Lee’s long-awaited memoir The Lava Never Sleeps. And the fun of reading Carmen Maria Machado’s book of clever, often creepy stories in Her Body and Other Parties after meeting her at the AWP conference in Portland.
Great moments, all. But do they have to be ranked? What does best even mean?
Literary critic and academic Harold Bloom died this year. He’s famous for declaring that twenty-six writers belong in the canon – the “best of” list for all time. Naturally, he included only four women (the usual suspects: Austen, Dickinson, Eliot, and Woolf) and only two from countries outside North America and Europe (Borges and Neruda). He considered other writers “canonical,” but he singled out these twenty-six for extensive analysis.
Others have critiqued canonization better than I can (see, for example, Toni Morrison: “Canon building is empire building.”).
Fangirl moment with Carmen Maria Machado. Photo by Arline García.
What I want to say about canonization comes from a different perspective: as a writer. Of course, most of us writers would love to see our names on “best of” lists. Awards validate our efforts and make publication easier with the next project. The publicity increases the chance that readers will find our work.
But most of us will never see our work mentioned in The New York Times or ordered for college literature classes, let alone canonized. And still, we write. We write to explore, to understand, to feel. To know the satisfaction of creating something artful. And, whether our work is ever widely known, we find ways to connect with readers.
I read from my novel-in-progress at Two-Hour Transport in Seattle a year ago. Two-Hour Transport is a fantastic reading series, mostly focused on speculative fiction, held at Café Racer and organized by Nicole Bade and Theresa Barker (check out the anthology).
Reading at Two-Hour Transport, Cafe Racer, November 2018. Photo by John Pfeffer.
That night, I was reading in public from the manuscript for the first time, and I didn’t know how it would go. I read a scene about a man, a radio operator, who volunteered to monitor Mount Saint Helens in 1980. In that moment, he watches the volcano erupt, knowing he will not survive. My hope was to honor him.
As I read, I could feel the room go still. I got to the last line of the scene. There was a pause, then audible sighs. I could feel it – out of words had come a real person, a beating heart, a life.
As a child, I knew nothing about the east coast; what I understood about the metropolis of New York City came from Sesame Street. The show debuted in 1969, so my family was probably living in Wisconsin when I first dropped on the floor in front of the television set to watch it. Although we wouldn’t have a color set for another ten years, even in black and white the show captivated me. New York was an exciting place where all kinds of kids ran down sidewalks to upbeat music. Friendly people sat on stoops. And they sounded different, like that grouchy puppet whose voice, I didn’t know then, was based on a Bronx taxi driver’s. If I could have, I would have moved to Sesame Street.
As I grew older, I read books set in New York, like E.L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, in which a sister and brother sneak into the Metropolitan Museum of Art and live there. I longed for a museum so vast and sumptuous that a girl could hide for days, collecting pennies from the fountain at night.
In my M.F.A program, everyone had read Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney, and although its New York of cocaine-fueled parties wasn’t one I wanted to enter, I was captivated by the bravura of the second-person narration. As a counterpoint to the mostly white and male writers in the curriculum, I made my own reading list, and that’s when I discovered Paule Marshall’s 1959 novel Brown Girl, Brownstones. Here again were those magical front stoops. By now I was living on the east coast; not only could I sit on a stoop myself, I could easily travel to New York.
On my first visit, I arrived on Halloween. My college friend was staying there temporarily, and, after I arrived, we dropped off my duffel bag and descended into the subway. We emerged in a Greenwich Village weirder and wilder than anything I’d imagined; of course, it was Halloween. Late that night, we returned to the subway, but my friend wasn’t sure if the next train was the right one. At the last second, she jumped on the train, the door closed, and I was left on the platform alone. This was pre-cellphones, and I didn’t have a phone number or address for where we were staying. A few people in scary costumes stood nearby. My throat closed in fear.
What to do? I waited many long minutes for the next train and got on it, hoping it was on the same line. At the next platform, there was my friend. We grabbed each other and held on, laughing.
That was over thirty years ago, and I’ve visited New York many times since, most recently last month. The magic for me this time was spending a morning doing research for my next novel in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. I am so grateful to the women who thought to collect all of this pre-digital material, attesting to the fact and beauty and persistence of lesbian lives: cassette tapes and videos, photographs and flyers, magazines and books (alphabetized by first name because, of course, last names are patriarchal). I could have spent days there.
Coincidentally, when we returned home, the Seattle Queer Film Festival was showing a documentary about the archives called “The Archivettes” – I highly recommend it.
Did I mention that the archives are housed in a beautiful old brownstone? In another version of my life, I am moving to Sesame Street, where I can visit the Lesbian Herstory Archives any time I want or just sit on the stoop, chatting with friendly neighbors.