The house is silent.
The children asleep.
The kitchen empty.
The light above the stove welcomes me home,
even here, in this new house, still a stranger.
My mother’s bedroom
with the man who was first my classmate
is upstairs, with dark sheets,
overlooking the bay.
The kitchen counters, the floors, even the table
Whispering to me
and later at 27
and before at 13 and 11
and even now at 52
in my own hushed and tidied kitchen
sixteen years after we slept in the space where her table stood
on the night she took her last breaths…
“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said — no.
But somehow we missed it.”
That quote, or one very much like it, was tacked above my desk in the apartment where I lived during my senior year at the University.
I wrote it down on one of my study cards because of Carol’s brother Dave.
He fell asleep at the wheel.
Dave was just a year ahead of us in school, and we had been at a party together the week before.
The enormity of the fragility of life, at an age when we were supposed to be immortal, shook me, and put me into an early depression at a time when I was meant to be living high.
This quote returns to me now, 30 years later, when I visit another college friend. After another accident.
I sit off to the side in the crowded sanctuary with her profile in view. Her hair, once tight and curly, dark as night, is now silver like the moon, straight and streaming.
My mind flashes back on other times together long ago. On silent walks across the campus in the snow. On late nights that forced us out into the hallway outside our dorm rooms to whisper about life and love and what to do about both. A train across Europe. A ferry boat. The streets of London.
While her teenage children grieve the loss of their father, I think back to when she and I belonged to ourselves.
If we knew then what lie ahead, could we have taken another step forward?
We would have said — no.
And yet, if we could go back, knowing what we know now, I wonder if we’d change a thing.
cream butter and cream cheese thoroughly; mix in sugar and add vanilla and nuts
if it seems dry, add a little milk
(my mother’s recipe)
I remember the first birthday cake that I ever baked. It was my father’s thirty-second birthday.
It was also the first occasion that we celebrated in our new home on Connor Rd–a steep hill lined with duplexes, reserved for officers. We lived at the very top, and looked out over the base and into the embrace of the Highlands above the mighty Hudson River.
Years later, many, many years later (but before Homeland Security), I returned to West Point to discover that I could no longer see the river from our place. The view had been obscured by trees–ones that had only just been planted when I first arrived on the base at the age of 11.
It was the mid-seventies, and my mother was still baking from scratch (sometimes), and sewing our costumes for Halloween (all the time), and keeping our house immaculately tidy–except for now. Now, she was crying in the tiny bathroom off the small kitchen which was just like all the others in this row of Captains quarters.
Beneath us, on the flat stretch below, were the First Lieutenant’s homes–somewhat smaller, and without a view, but nicer than those beneath them–in the apartments assigned to Second Lieutenants.
We would live on this base in this duplex for 3 years, until my father became a Major, which wasn’t enough of an advancement to get us one of those fancy homes with the big lawns and the screened porches. My father used to drive us down those tree-lined roads, which were closer to the Academy and the Chapel; and sometimes, he’d even venture into the exclusive cul-de-sac at the heart of West Point–reserved for Generals.
My mother hadn’t left yet. Hadn’t woken us girls up and carried the youngest ones out to the car sleeping, and then silently winded her way through the base, past the Generals’ homes, and out the gate, into Highland Falls; where she pulled up to the curb at the liquor store; and I held my breath; before she drove 4 hours in the dark to her hometown at the shore.
On my father’s thirty-second birthday, in mid-September, she hadn’t mustered that courage. Instead she was weak, and weepy, like a dog.
In fact, when I think back to this day, I think of Tigger–the dog that belonged to my baby sister once she was grown. I remember hearing her scold Tigger once, and then I watched, as Tigger bowed her head, slinked into the bathroom, and hid there until she was absolved.
My mother was hiding too. She had been hiding for a long time. Hiding pain. Hiding the bottle. Hiding from my father.
On this day, he banished her from the celebration at the kitchen table saying, “You don’t belong here, Mommy.”
She was drunk.
Because she was drunk, I decided that I would be the one to make the cake.
Carrot cake was my father’s favorite, and my mom made it every year with that cream cheese frosting and pecans.
It was a tall order for my first try. I never made it to the frosting.
The cake sat there–flat–on the table between us. Stiff, like clay, in our mouths. Especially after we sang Happy Birthday, Daddy to the sound of our mother’s shame echoing off the walls of the tiny bathroom.
Les vrais paradis sont les paradis qu’on a perdus.
The true paradises are those which we have lost. ~Marcel Proust
Better joy in a cottage than sorrow in a palace.
I was born beside the sea, delivered by the Sisters of Mercy, on the Feast of Immaculate Conception, of our Blessed Virgin Mary. From there I was placed into the arms of an overbearing Queen, my beautiful grandmother Lila, and brought to live with her in a castle on a barrier reef.
Rich, green ivy climbed the castle’s brick walls, and tall white columns ushered in honored guests. At the foot of the steps was a golden engraving, bearing the castle’s name: Sixty-Twelve.
6012 was a child’s delight. There was a staircase taller than any father, and a cherry bannister that curved its way from earth to sky. Soft green stairs cushioned the descent of any who chose to ride.
There was music too. Piped into every room. An orchestra playing just for you.
Crisp, cool, mountain air, brushed your skin as you glided from place to place, no matter what the temperature outside.
Deep lush carpets and plush thrones lured you in forbidden rooms. An inner chamber beckoned you further–toward heavy drapes that hid the world outside. If you were brave and if you were strong, you could shove one of these aside and hold it in place with your face pressed against the glass to spy people passing by.
But better than the floor to window panes was the golden box built into a wall. If you could reach it, if you could drag a chair upon which to precariously stand, you might be able to touch the dials, and if so, your orchestra would grow hushed or suddenly boom.
The sun was strong. Just right for July. Summer’s peak. Like me, at 14.
We stopped at McDonalds along the way. I got my own fries. (Daddy wasn’t there to say, “Share.” )
I got a milkshake too. (Daddy wasn’t there to say, “Absolutely not.”)
I’d been living like this for a month. No parents. No little sisters. Just me and Linda and Larry who lived in the officer’s quarters attached to ours. (They even gave me my own room.)
Daddy finished up his commitment to the army in early June and packed up the house to join my grandfather’s practice at the shore. Mommy and my sisters went too. Everyone was finished school, but me.
I stayed behind to face my first set of Regents exams. Three years earlier, we were transferred from Denver, and it took me awhile to find my academic stride. Just as I did, it was time to leave the small base school at West Point in order to enter the large public high school in Highland Falls. The hallways haunted my dreams. The throngs of beards. The cleavage. The smoking room. The changing room. The parking lot. Tori’s perfect everything.
Linda helped prepare me for Math. She was a professor at the Academy, and she got her colleague next door to help me with my French. I aced EVERY ONE of those Regent exams.
On the last day of school, I moved from Larry and Linda’s to my best friend Janet’s house at the bottom of the hill where the enlisted men were housed. Janet and I made the base ours that summer. Traipsing around town on the buses, shopping at the PX, baring our new bikinis at Delfield Pond.
I still remember the moment. Big Boys Don’t Cry was playing on the tiny transistor radios. I was heading toward the high dive. A line of cadets lifted their heads from their towels as I passed by.
“Why are we going to the airport?” I say.
Linda and Larry called Janet’s house that morning and told her mother that they were coming to get me.
“Because your father’s flying in for the day, and he wants you to meet him.”
“Why is flying in?” I say, as I lick the salt from my fingers.
“There was some kind of accident. A higher-up. He asked for your dad.”
Linda and Larry are lying, but I don’t notice.
I sip on my shake. They ask if I’m excited about next week–my first time as a Counselor in Training at West Point Youth Camp where I’ve been a camper the past two summers.
They tell me about their time in the Peace Corps. How they traveled the world. I decide that I want to be just like Linda and Larry when I grow up.
The conversation stills as we approach the airfield and park the car. I grab my shake as we head inside the small terminal. Floor to ceiling windows look out over the runway and I watch as a small plane lands and taxis in.
I open the glass doors and step outside, shielding my eyes from the sun.
I feel the saliva stretch between my mouth and the straw as I toss the cup into the trash bin beside me.
When I see my father jump out of the small plane and head toward me, I bound down the wide set of cement steps.