this bothers me most/ crawling its way into my tired consciousness as I try and find unconsciousness at 3am/ I was an egg in my mother while she grew in her mother/ how can three generations be so different? / how can they all have been one? / how did we breathe and live and feed in apparent harmony? / did we all listen to Frank Sinatra / in deep, hot water that spilled over the bathtub / until our skin was pink and raw / craving something salty never sweet / rebelling against the expectations that each father help for perfect daughters / that never existed / and made bad choices to then suffer the consequences / in empty rooms and full glares while the rest avoided us? / I was an egg in my mother in her mother / she carried her who carried me
Soph Murraywas spurred back into writing because of the global pandemic. It was a necessary tool to maintain sanity amidst working from home and homeschooling a gang of children. Soph taps into motherhood, magic, and innate misanthropy in her poetry to express the things that would otherwise wake her anxious brain at 4am in the morning. She has been published in anthologies by Hecate Magazine, Mum Poem Press, and Faces of Motherhood by Blood Moon Poetry Press. Work can also be found on Instagram.
Daddy had on his red swim trunks with fish that squirmed when he walked. Stains rimmed the armholes of his wife-beater undershirt. The worst name ever. He pocketed his car keys and grabbed the deck of playing cards with pictures of naked women.
I pinched his arm hair. “Can I go with you, please? I won’t make a peep. Promise!”
“Not this time, honey. Besides, Mom is on her way home.”
He could’ve at least pretended to have a job—to pack a lunch pail and head out in regular clothes. Every time he left, I had this fear, he might not come back. He was in such a damn hurry he forgot to kiss me goodbye.
His shadow wobbled inside the truck cab as he backed out the driveway. I pressed my nose to the smeary front window and flipped him the bird. He slowed at the curb to wave, but my nine-year-old fists were frozen to the glass.
The truck evaporated, and I wondered when mom would really be home. First, she had to stop and scoop up my little brother from a lady with a house full of other people’s kids.
I slid off the couch and attacked Daddy’s argyles with scissors, making a spiffy skirt for my doll Carol Sue. Then I scampered off to the bathroom, squinting at the peach fuzz between my eyebrows. Mom said I was too young to pluck. Maybe a razor would work? But I worried about stubble.
In the kitchen, I stretched the curly cord on our Bakelite phone. It had a pullout drawer with a thin pad inside. The number of Mom’s work was written in red pencil. I’d only called a couple of times because the manager always sounded like he wanted to smack someone.
I traced a hole on the dial with my finger, wondering if my friend Bonnie could come over and practice smoking. We’d never truly be grown up until we could inhale without coughing. And I wanted to teach her the right way to hold a cigarette. Not between her two middle fingers.
Our wall clock said six-fifteen. She’d be combed and spruced at her dining room table with cloth napkins her mother had ironed while wearing red bareback pumps. Her father would be passing a bowl of fluffy potatoes made from a box and a platter of pork chops with crispy fat.
Sometimes it was hard being Bonnie’s friend.
Roger would ditch dinner to come over; he loved me that much. I picked up the phone and started to dial his number, then slammed it down because there was this birdbrained rule against girls calling boys. Instead, I called the cocktail lounge around the corner. “Is my daddy there?”
The guy who answered said, “What’s his name?”
“Hang on, kid.”
I heard him holler, “Anyone in here named John?”
“Sorry, kid,” he said when he came back. “He’s not here.”
“Are you sure there isn’t a John?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
“Then what do you people do? Pee on the floor?” He laughed before hanging up, but it didn’t make me feel better.
I slid a stick of Beech-Nut into the phone drawer for later, snatched a steak knife off the kitchen counter, and wound it in a paper napkin.
The sun gave up the day beyond the window and backyard fence. It blew me a fiery kiss, and I blew one back, heading to the tree in the front yard. It grew from a square of dry weeds between the sidewalk and gutter.
Since our nosy neighbours were probably watching, I made a big show of hiking up my skirt before hoisting myself onto the lowest limb. From there, it was an easy climb to the branch that was all mine—the one near the top under the streetlight. Not that I was afraid of the dark. I liked places where no one could see me.
My legs dangled, ankles hooked, as I uncurled a thick strip of bark. The flesh underneath glistened and smelled slightly sweet, as if Green Apple Kool-Aid gushed through its veins.
More from Goat’s Milk Magazine
I felt light-headed from going all day on a single peanut butter-and-graham-cracker sandwich. The leftover goop that stuck to the roof of my mouth was long gone. I carved a lazy S, pressing down hard, watching the tree bleed. I didn’t care that I was scarring it because there was love in what I was doing.
“Sherry and Roger sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g . . .” I hacked a crooked W for my last name. “First comes love, then comes marriage . . . ” I wiped the blade on my skirt, then dug in to carve Roger’s R.
I heard our Rambler before it floated below me into the driveway. Mom got out and walked to the passenger’s side, her kitten heels clicking. She moved slowly like she didn’t want to get to where she was going.
Once inside the house, the lights flicked on. She’d put my brother to bed, probably still in his play clothes, without brushing his teeth. I’d never get away with that.
Would she come outside to look for me? Maybe if I faked a cough, she’d smear an old t-shirt with Vicks VapoRub, wave it over a flame on the stove, and smooth it on my chest.
The porch light twitched. “Sherry, are you out here?” Mom moved into the amber light, shading her eyes, a skinny shadow of herself. “Are you up in that tree?”
“Coming!” She hadn’t forgotten about me after all.
“Oh, honey. You shouldn’t be up there in the dark. Where’s your father?”
“Um, at the Piggly Wiggly?” No way I’d rat him out. He got in enough trouble on his own.
Mom took my hand as soon as I hit the ground, and I knew all I needed was her warmth. “Have you had dinner?”
I took off my headband because the metal teeth were scalping me. “Not yet.”
“How about a fried Spam sandwich? I’ll let you open the can.”
I loved the tiny key that hooked over the thin sliver of metal. I loved twisting it and hearing the sucking noise of salty jelly just pink enough to let everyone know a pig had been pulverized before being squeezed into a tin. And I loved my mom because she never forgot I loved those things.
The next morning I threw back the covers and slid from the bed, hoping to catch her in the bathroom before work, drawing on cat eyes with a liquid pencil. She’d paint her naturally plump lips with Pink Minx lipstick in a hairspray fog. I doubted Daddy appreciated his wife’s movie star qualities.
“Mom?” No answer. “Mom!”
The house was quiet. Nothing left but her smells. I stood in the bathroom
where they were strongest, inhaling sprays, sticks, and creams, wondering if my parents even liked each other.
I’d seen the employee’s lounge at her work—a square room behind the office where the mean manager hung out when he wasn’t bossing people around. The room had a mini-refrigerator, a portable hot plate, and a square table to eat on. If I squinted hard enough at the cot, the manager’s idea of getting off your feet, I could picture Mom’s overnight valise and fuzzy slippers between its wooden legs.
I climbed on the kitchen counter for a box of Cocoa Puffs, figuring Daddy spent the night somewhere else. Then I saw him in the backyard through the window. He was dead asleep in the hammock in a weird position, looking like a rubber toy.
Some kids learned to tiptoe on days when their dad worked graveyards. I learned to do the same after one of Daddy’s all-nighters. I eased the sliding glass door over its gritty runners, stepped out and dropped to my hands and knees, then crawled toward the hammock.
There was no reason to sneak. Daddy probably wouldn’t wake up if I turned the garden hose on him. He never looked like this, not even on his worst hangover days. Pale and grinning too hard, matching that awful snapshot in my dreams.
I got that upside-down fizzy feeling in my stomach and inched closer when I saw a spider on his shoulder. I figured a spider could kill a man who cheats when playing checkers with a fourth-grader.
“Daddy, wake up! There’s a spider!”
He jolted from his stupor. “You trying to give me a heart attack!”
“S-s-pider . . . . your shoulder!”
Daddy jerked, and the hammock swung, nearly dumping him on his empty beer cans. He seized the culprit, squished it gutless with his fingers, and displayed what was left on the tip of his thumb.
“Damn black widows. Females are the worst. That’s why you have to clap your shoes together before putting them on. Always remember that, okay, honey?”
“Okay, Daddy.” He pulled me in, and I pressed my cheek to his t-shirt because stinky dried sweat was better than nothing. “You saved my sorry ass, honey.”
That life-saving deed did something to me; it made me feel it was my job to look after him. Maybe because we didn’t have a dog or cat that would scratch my eyes out or one of those goldfish from the school fair that you get when your Ping-Pong ball lands in a glass bowl. Or maybe because no one else cared enough about him.
That night I felt like such a baby cradling Carol Sue when just the day before Roger and I had been practicing kissing on top of my bedspread. She shook in my arms when wordless voices bled through the wallpaper. First rat-a-tat anger, then a dull sob. “Can’t take it anymore . . . ”
I stroked Carol Sue’s stiff hair and told her the lie that everything would be okay.
Mom pleading. “Just sign the papers.”
I slipped from the bed and pulled a sheet of paper from my notebook. Using my ruler, I drew a straight line down the middle. A stick figure of Daddy on one side and Mom on the other. I set the paper on my dresser, folded it in half, and creased it until my thumb hurt. Then I folded it the other way and did the same.
Daddy’s voice. “I’ll get a job.”
“Really? Who’ll hire you?”
I tore the paper carefully, starting at the top, working to give my parents equal halves because I wanted to be fair. The teensiest scrap fluttered away on its own. I figured that lost piece was me.
I grabbed a bobby pin off my dresser and stuck it in Carol Sue’s skull. Dumb doll.
Sherry Shahan’s personal essays have appeared in F(r)iction, Critical Read, Exposition Review, Normal School and are forthcoming from Fiddlehead, Hippocampus, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and taught a creative writing course for UCLA for 10 years.
When he was 70, about the age I am now, my father taught me how to harness the power of breath. He had been an athlete in his youth, a welterweight boxer. That must be when he came to know, although I think he’d forgotten it for many years.
I was floating in the pool at his Florida retirement complex, keeping myself from sinking with lots of kicks and strokes.
“You don’t need to work so hard,” he called from his poolside chaise. “Use your breath. Watch what happens when you inhale.”
I inhaled deeply, and my body began to rise to the surface of the water.
“Now exhale,” he called, and that made me sink so that I had to splash to rise back up.
“Inhale,” he prompted, and I rose again. It was all in the rhythm. Sink a little. Rise a little. Rise a little more. Playing with the timing, I was in control.
I learned to love floating that day, the ebb and flow of water rocking me while my mindful breathing played its counterpoint, holding me from inside. Facing the sky, I watched the glide of a long-limbed bird in shadow, then tilted my head poolside. My father nodded and held my eyes for a moment before turning back to his newspaper.
Now, whenever I remember to take a deep breath, especially during my yoga practice, my father comes to mind. This is strange because he wasn’t always one to bring on calmness and peace; quite the opposite. He was given to violent rages when I was a child.
Things had changed between us, changed for the better, ten years earlier. It was on Thanksgiving. That was when he and I began to clear our way. But before that could happen, the English boy had to bring me the message.
My older sister and her family arrived around four, bringing her spirit of liveliness and jocularity.
I was leaving my Wednesday afternoon Foundations seminar at Columbia on the day before Thanksgiving. More than half of the students had been absent. That’s how I found myself walking out with a boy I didn’t know very well. I call him a boy even though he was an older student, like me. Something about his effect made me think of him as younger than he probably was. He had some sort of posh British accent, which made whatever he uttered in class sound intelligent, whether it was or not.
We walked across campus towards the gates on Broadway, and I asked him what he was planning for the next day. He shook his head, “Nothing. Home is too far away for a long weekend, and besides, it isn’t really my holiday.”
I laughed. “I know that.”
I might have invited him to come with me to my parents’ house in New Jersey if I had known him better and had different parents. Mine wouldn’t have welcomed a stranger, holiday or not, particularly not a male stranger. My own home had never been warm or welcoming to outsiders. My mother didn’t like surprises, and she’d had enough surprises in the last year. She and my father had been making quite an effort to adjust to my new divorced status and move to Manhattan.
“Besides,” he burst out, “I hate going home!”
I looked at him questioningly.
“They tell me that what I remember from my childhood never happened, and it makes me feel like I’m crazy!” His voice shook with suppressed sobs.
I kept a respectful silence, thinking, so it’s the same in England. That shouldn’t have surprised me, but I was just then reaching out to a larger worldview, and I was only beginning.
I didn’t ask him what happened. It was a short walk to the gates; we were going in different directions, and I still needed to pack and catch a late Port Authority bus home.
More from Goat’s Milk Magazine
That Thanksgiving, the first since my divorce, was going to be awkward. My divorce perplexed my parents, almost as much as my move to New York and dedication to studying literature. They were practical people. The only graduate work they understood was vocational—medicine or law—and that was for men. Girls married; they didn’t become. And in their eyes, I had married well—a medical student. Unlike my father, whose long hours and night shifts tending bar had been the only way he knew how to provide for his family, my husband’s intense dedication to his studies promised delayed gratification in status and money. How do I explain, even now, decades later, why I needed to get out? I remember nights when I’d leave the rowhouse I lived in with my husband, climb into my car and drive onto the empty New Jersey highway, shove the gas pedal to the floor, and scream at the top of my lungs. Nothing catastrophic happened; I guess I was lucky. After a while, I’d slow down and head back home. The door to my husband’s study would still be closed, his desk light seeping onto the hallway carpet from underneath. I doubt he’d noticed I’d been gone.
My mother was in her element early Thanksgiving morning, all burners lit plus the oven, cooking, stuffing, baking, filling their little ranch house with all sorts of wonderful smells. I followed her orders and fell back on years of routinized holiday procedures. In the den off the kitchen, my father faded into the background. Not quite sixty, he had retired the year before and gone on disability, the result of a bad fall that had shattered his heel. I had never seen him so relaxed. Occasionally I heard the rustle of his newspaper and his murmurs as he read aloud to himself or his snores as he napped.
My older sister and her family arrived around four, bringing her spirit of liveliness and jocularity. We immediately took our places at the table, my father at the head, my brother-in-law at the foot, my niece and nephew on one side, my mother, sister and I on the side closest to the kitchen. My sister and I carried in course after course, giving my tired mother a chance to rest. The family ate in silence, knives and forks scraping on my mother’s good china. Some music would be nice, I thought but knew better than to say. That would be getting above myself.
“What happened out there?” she whispered.
We ate fast. We always did, vectoring towards dessert. My sister brought in the apple crumb and I carried the pumpkin. The two of us sat back down, all set to dig in. My father looked around the table and barked, “Fran! Tea!” My mother quickly pushed herself away from the table and began to rise.
I put my hand on her arm to stop her. “I’ll get it Dad,” I said, “Mom’s tired. She’s been on her feet all day.”
He frowned and nodded, his eyes on his plate. My mother sank back, and I went into the kitchen. My sister followed me and stood beside me at the sink where I was filling the kettle.
“I thought Daddy was going to smack you,” she whispered. I looked sideways at her. She had a half smile—part confident, part rival.
“What do you mean?”
“When you talked back to him.”
Surprised, I responded without thinking. “He’s never going to raise a hand to me again!”
After a slight pause she responded “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Even now, I think of the different ways I might have reacted. I might have snapped back with “Talk back to him—what are we, eight years old?” Or challenged her by asking “Why would you think that?” But we were locked in the distant past, where sudden rages were commonplace and instant denials a given.
An image of myself as a little girl flashed through my mind. No older than four, I had run into the bathroom, the only room with a lock on the door, to hide from my father and his strap. But that bathroom lock was built for privacy not safety. He broke through with a few good slams and dragged me out from my hiding place where I had crammed myself between the toilet and the bathtub.
To this day, I don’t know why my mother used to wait until after a beating began to scream, “Stop Ben! You’ll kill her!” Why not before? Maybe shock. Maybe to save herself. Maybe to close the windows first so the neighbors couldn’t hear. How confusing it was for me to be forsaken by the same cuddling woman, my mother, who read me to sleep every night of my young life. Little Women. Little Men. The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew. As for my sister, three years my elder, I don’t know where she was, hiding probably. Anyway, she was too small to help back then.
Now herself the grown mother of two, my sister methodically stacked plates in our mother’s sink. Some bad memory of her own had forced its way to the surface of her mind long enough to be spoken and whisked back into hiding. Nothing. It was nothing. Now you see it, now you don’t. What lingered was her denial. She still had that half smile pasted on her face. All’s well; now and always. A year or two earlier, before I’d left home, I’d have tried to connect through our eyes, but I no longer had the desire to bond. As I watched her toggle between truth and lie (only one could exist at a time)—I wondered how my sister could keep her skull from exploding, but of course she’d had a lifetime of practice. We both had.
I thought of the English boy back in New York. “It makes me feel crazy,” he had said. It—the thing that must not be acknowledged, that was denied in plain sight. What collective will exists in some families—my family— to be able to conjure and maintain a lie over the years. I’d admire their strength if they hadn’t been so destructive.
I set the kettle on the stove without turning on the flame and walked through the dining room towards the front door. I had to get out of there. No more seeking validation from the women in the kitchen. Was that my original thought or something I’d read in one of my literature courses? I still don’t know.
In families like mine, you learned to feel danger before it happens. We three women could pick up an atmospheric shift at ten paces. My mother had not left her seat near the kitchen, and yet she was alarmed. “Where are you going?” she called urgently as I sped past her.
“For a walk,” I said, jamming on my coat. “I need some air!”
“You can’t go out now! It’s dark! Ben—go with her!”
My father rose obediently from his chair. He moved slowly, contentedly, his appetite sated, his family around him. With his limp, a faulty heart and emphysema, he was no longer a physical threat to anyone. The only scary aspects that remained were his bass growl and resting scowl face.
I didn’t want to walk with him, and yet I waited, still submissive under the influence of family. And silent, even though I was thinking that the street outside was perfectly safe. Margate New Jersey, a nice ocean town, safe night and day. It had been inside our house that wasn’t safe.
My father put his arm around my shoulders as we walked. It felt like an unbearable weight. I was still fuming from my sister’s denial and resisted the impulse to shrug off my father’s arm. “It makes me feel crazy,” the English boy had said. My breath caught in my throat, and my mind was racing. This was a moment to speak; they don’t come often. But what if he can’t take it? His heart?
“Dad,” I said tentatively.
Sweetheart? When had he ever called me Sweetheart? I took a breath and searched for the right words. “No one here will admit what it was like when I was a kid.”
“What do you mean?” he responded, still in the throes of contentment. I was sure his tone would change any second.
“I mean no one admits how hard things were.” I couldn’t get the words right. “How angry with me you always were.” I was sidestepping the physical violence, but it was the best I could do, better than I expected. He didn’t take his arm away from me. Our pace didn’t change. I was still afraid he’d drop dead, that his weak heart wouldn’t withstand my words. We walked a little way in silence.
“It was my fault,” he finally said. “I had a rotten temper.”
Rotten was a word from his fighting days. Who used such a word anymore unless you were describing spoiled food? Me. I did.
“I thought I was a rotten kid,” I found myself saying.
“No. No. You were a great kid!”
“I wasn’t great. I wasn’t terrible. I was just a kid.”
“You were great. It was me. I had a rotten temper,” he repeated. He never took his arm away from my shoulders, although I kept expecting it. He didn’t drop to the ground either, the way I’d feared.
Slowly, I became aware of our surroundings, the crisp, cool November air, the darkening bay water at the end of the block. With his admission, he had come through for me, had shown up, steady and clear. It would never excuse his violence against me when I was small, but I felt freed to make my own sense of that childhood trauma. To hold it up to a clear light and untangle my memories from family myth.
We continued our walk around the block in companionable silence. I kept my eyes straight ahead. There was no need to look at him. I felt him by my side, and I knew that it felt good to him too after all those years of isolation while we women protected him from himself. When we got back to the house, he walked directly to his recliner, picked up his newspaper and scissors from the end table, and started cutting out supermarket coupons for the weekend.
My mother was waiting for me by the kitchen door and motioned for me to follow her into her bedroom. She didn’t bother with the light. “What happened out there?” she whispered.
“Dad and I talked about the past.”
She searched my face for a moment and then shrugged. “You should have asked me. I would have told you.”
“I know,” I soothed. “I know.”
Barbara Janoffrecently retired as an associate professor in the department of English and Communication Studies at FIT/SUNY, where she taught literature and creative writing. Her essays and poetry are published in journals and magazines, such as Columbia: A Women’s Journal, Communication Arts, and The Berkshire Review. The Widow’s Log reflects on end-of-life caretaking and survivor’s healing. She lives and writes in upstate New York.
My beloved, crazy, generous, funny, bawdy, loopy, glamorous, tragic Aunt Ruth died and was buried at a Vancouver cemetery in a downpour. Most of the gathered mourners huddled beneath a canopy erected for the graveside service. I was among the two-dozen or so who didn’t fit under the shelter and stood nearby clutching our umbrellas, a patch of black mushrooms. To the sound of the drops popping on the stretched fabric of my little protective dome, I craned my neck to take in the rite—the solemnity, the mumbled words, the rain-bright colours, and most of all Ruth’s body, once so vibrant, now lifeless, inert, boxed up for eternity.
The memory from many decades ago, my twenties, welled up recently while I was in a department store shopping for a new umbrella. The one that caught my eye throbbed with a tie-dye pattern of swirling rainbow colours—a wink of whimsy to bring a little cheer to our soggy struggle with Oregon’s ceaseless rains and oppressive monochrome skies.
More from Goat’s Milk Magazine
Umbrella in hand, I took my place in the long line of customers waiting to check out. My mind began to wander . . . what if I’d had this umbrella at Aunt Ruth’s funeral? The rebellious young man I was would have delighted in popping it open, delivering a technicolour manifesto of my individuality, freedom, and style, loudly advertising my unwillingness to conform to colourless convention.
How anxious and uncertain I was about my identity in those days so long ago. How desperately I tried to carve myself a face.
The line moved, and I shuffled forward one place closer to the cashier.
Today when I look in the mirror, I see my face and its many familiar flaws, but I also see the faces of a hundred others too—family, friends, colleagues. We stand together, temporary survivors, protected from the rain under our flimsy nylon domes. We play out for one another our parts in the rituals we’ve created to salve the pains of our inevitable loss. We remember, we mourn; we howl with grief for the one whose number has been called.
And we’re damn grateful we have not yet moved to the front of that inescapable line.
Ross West has placed fiction, essays, journalism, and poetry in publications from Orion to the Journal of Recreational Linguistics. His work has been anthologized in Best Essays Northwest, Best of Dark Horse Presents and elsewhere. He served as senior managing editor of Oregon Quarterly magazine and as a text editor for the Atlas of Oregon and Atlas of Yellowstone.