How to Visit a Grave

Guest Post
By Shannon Huffman Polson

1. Drive down unmarked road in rental car to a quiet circular drive. Try to ignore the weight of undefined expectations.

2. Wish that expectations were defined. By you or someone else.

3. Push away the thought that the name on the back of the stone is the same as your name.

4. Take a deep breath. Before opening the car door, flex your stomach muscles in case memories come at you kicking.

5. Walk to the stone. Try not to remember the burial. The gaping hole. The depth of it. The cold of the day. The sound of dirt. The color of clay. [Read more...]

The Day My Parents Were Raptured

In the spring of 2002, my sister Alyssa and I left college behind for a weekend to visit our parents. After driving two hours to reach their home, we expected embraces, but encountered an empty house instead. We received only aloof acknowledgements from their Birman cats, Ellie and Vignoles.

Upon searching the house for occupants, we came upon a loaf of fresh banana bread—still steaming—in a pan on the range.

“Where are Mom and Dad?” Alyssa asked. “This banana bread’s still hot. Mom couldn’t have pulled it out of the oven more than five minutes ago. Why aren’t they here?”

“You’re right,” I said. “This is weird.” Of course, as the children of a Southern Baptist minister, we probably had a different definition of weird than most people.

We surveyed the living room and saw Dad’s moccasins lying on the living room floor. Mom’s blue jeans hung, faded and folded, over the arm of her recliner in resignation. The torsion pendulum on the anniversary clock swiveled back and forth like a restless child in a desk chair. The house, despite being empty, felt alive—the furnace purring, the lamps illuminating the living room.

“M-m-m-m-maybe Mom and Dad were…raptured,” Alyssa stuttered.

[Read more...]

Becoming Both Daughter and Mother

Women are strong, strong, terribly strong. We don’t know how strong we are until we are pushing out our babies.
-Louise Erdrich, The Bluejay’s Dance: A Birth Year

Last November, I discovered that I was pregnant with my first child. And these past few months, I’ve done little but vomit, sleep, and try to find foods that will stay down. My mother predicted that this would happen.

“When I was pregnant, all I could do was run to the bathroom,” she has told me, over and over, trying to assign some of her experience to mine. Trying to find something useful to say.

My mother had been pregnant four times, the first occurring when she was twenty-five and married to a man who, in her eighth month, smashed a champagne bottle on her head. She hadn’t seen her mother in almost ten years, and had no resource besides magazines and women at the office to guide her through. [Read more...]

The Anniversary of My Father’s Death

“After the first exile, there is no other.”
—Rosellen Brown, The Autobiography of My Mother, 1976

The great wheel of the year has turned once more, and I find myself back at the beginning again. Not at the start of a brand new year, but rather, at the anniversary of my father’s death.

I was eight years old when he died, on January 8, 1977, after six long months of decline from lung cancer. In the family’s last-minute midnight scramble to the King’s Daughters Hospital to offer a final farewell, I was adjudged too young and too asleep to wake up for the ride.

I found out that he had died when I crawled from bed at dawn the next morning, yawning and jonesing for cartoons, only to find a bathrobed neighbor stoking the fireplace, and my father disappeared into ether. [Read more...]

The Cost of Writing the Truth

I remember my mother used to go to bed for the day. The blackness of her mood seemed to darken her room. I don’t know why she left her door open. Maybe she knew, even in her unresponsive state, that she needed to be able to hear us. Maybe she thought it would be less frightening for us if we could see her. She was wrong. She loved us, but she was wrong.

We learned not to talk to her. We passed her doorway quickly, as if someone had died, as if we thought something might reach out from its depths and lay hold of us. Some days I wonder if something did.

Perhaps the hardest thing about writing is deciding what you will omit. Most of the first draft is usually dreck. The best may be the line you’re not even sure about, because you haven’t seen its like before, because it gouges deep and you’re accustomed to dribbling blood onto the page by the pinprick.

What the reader may need most is what you’re inclined to excise, because the terrible secrets of your life—those human truths that hold the power to make a reader see, with her quavering heart’s eye, that she is not alone—shame you, and undermine your cultivated, attractively broken image.

You court troubles, however, when you write that your mother is manic-depressive, that some of it rubbed off, that sometimes the world is so dark you can scarcely rise from bed, that it is dark no matter how early you start drinking or how late you sleep, the world is dark like the strangled light in your mother’s bedroom. [Read more...]