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#scintilla13: charmed, I'm sure

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I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 15 prompts, Tell the story of how you got the thing you are going to keep forever. Include an image in your post, if you can.We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

My favorite charm: the one commemorating her engagement to my dad.

My favorite charm: the one commemorating her engagement to my dad.

When I told my mom I was getting married, I hadn’t seen her for a few years, though we spoke on the phone frequently. “It’s no big deal,” I said. “Just a tiny wedding, just a couple of people. You don’t have to come if you don’t want.” It broke my heart to say that, but from her sigh of relief I knew I’d said the right thing.

“I wish I could. But I’m happy for you.”

My grandparents had both had serious recent health issues. I wanted her with me, of course, but they needed her. I didn’t know at the time that she was already quite sick herself and felt unable to leave home even for a weekend. I asked if I could borrow her charm bracelet to wear for the day, and made arrangements for Michelle to pick it up on her way to the occasion.

I had always loved it, ever since I was a little girl and first jingled it under her watchful eye. It was made up of around 25 charms, mostly from her teens and early twenties. I have always had a fascination for who my mother was outside of her role as a parent, and the bracelet dangled and jangled with the noise of her history. Her first job out of high school, as a secretary in an office down in the city. Her sixteenth and seventeenth birthdays. Road trips with friends to Virginia, Gettysburg, Philadelphia, New York. Her graduation, her nomination as Girl of the Month, January 1969. Her engagement and wedding. Obscure charms with dates engraved and no clue as to what they might mean—their significance secret. And now I was going to have a part of her to keep with me on the day I would make the most serious promises ever. It mattered. I walked into the art gallery where Myron was waiting for me, and when he noticed it on my wrist, he immediately tuned out the celebrant and brushed it with his fingertips. I still don’t know if he knew everything he agreed to when he said “I do.”

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When she said afterward that I could keep the bracelet, I was moved and grateful. I kept it safe and examined the charms again from time to time, especially when I missed her. I brought it with me when she went into the hospital for the last time, and I wore it through all the grief rituals in the days after she died. The cousin who gave her this bridesmaid charm came to the funeral home, and I showed it to her—Remember this? She kept it. It was a moment I won’t forget. Thirty-five years vanished for her and then rushed back again. All because of a piece of metal the size of a quarter. 

They say after someone dies, all you have left are your memories, and to an extent that’s true. And obviously, you do get to keep personal effects and grant them meaning. I love that part of what remains of my mother are these mysteries, the question of whether my scamp of a father proposed on April Fool’s Day on purpose, how it felt on July 1 when she started her job at H.K. Porter, who she was with when she visited the San Jacinto Monument. These are conversations I put off, thinking I had time. Now some holes in her history, even just a few of them, have shape. I know what I’m missing.

#scintilla13: can't take her nowhere

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I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 14 prompts, Talk about the time when you were younger and you embarrassed your parents in public, the one that still shames you.We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

I wish my mother were still around because I would call her up and ask her for an answer for this prompt, because the truth is I’m not ashamed of any of the times I would have embarrassed her. This is not going to be a great prompt response, and no great truths are going to be unearthed within. That said:

I know we were shopping for back-to-school clothes. It was 1987, and we were in the shoe section of Horne’s, which was a department store in the mall—one of many that I think Macy’s bought out. I remember the shoes I wound up getting that day, two pairs of them: one pair of peach Chucks and another pair of Reebok high tops, the kind that didn’t have the dumb velcro strap at the top. The leather was a soft, grayish blue suede, and it matched a Georgetown sweatshirt that I loved to pieces that year. The soles and shoelaces were a contrasting gray, and there was not a bit of white to be seen on them. I don’t think anyone else had that exact variety and I so wish I could find a pic for you on Google. I fucking loved those shoes.

It was near enough to the end of the day that my mom had been carrying those huge bags full of clothes, the kind they keep at the clothes counter but are really made to hold comforters. It was the point of the shopping day when I’d start to feel guilty about how much she’d spent, especially when I usually got only one pair of sneakers a year and the Chucks were not exactly durable. (But peach, you guys, peach.) But those Reeboks were dream shoes, and I could picture them peeking out below just-slouched-enough denim in just the right stonewash. 

The saleswoman packed up the stray pieces of tissue paper and I put on my old shoes. I knew what was coming: another large total on the receipt, the way she would pull each twenty out of a white Equibank envelope one at a time to pay. More guilt! And then like the gods were saying it would all be okay, “Linus and Lucy” started playing over the Horne’s loudspeaker. And I danced.

She was probably embarrassed, but she laughed, and she didn’t tell me to stop. And years later, she would remind me of that day and laugh again every time she did. It’s still almost impossible for me to resist dancing to that silly, happy tune, and I’m warning you now that if you take me out in public it could happen at any time.

#scintilla13: a place to run

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I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 9 prompts, Talk about where you were going the day you got lost. Were you alone? Did you ever get to where you meant to go? We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

This post is something I wrote in 2005. It appeared in a tiny zine.

When you are young, the only things that scare you are impossibilities. You fear slimy things in a tidy closet and vampires in the dark. In the daylight, you are stronger than any force of evil, and fate becomes something to poke at with annoying fingers. When you are so small and the world is so big, you learn that fear is fun, and that it ripples off you like notes from a harp, and you sniff in dark corners hoping to detect more safe fear.

There is still an hour before the roast will be ready. Your girl cousins draw pictures and the boys are all wrestling. You sit in the kitchen but the women ignore you, and you don’t understand what they’re talking about anyway. You smell slowly cooking meat in the air, and your stomach twists. Go play outside, the women say. Go do something.

You walk to the door and fling it shut behind you. There is no one out here. The few other houses in the neighborhood have empty yards this October Sunday afternoon and everyone else’s roast is ready. The back yard seems so big when you’re small, and you are old enough to see that it’s not as big as you once thought it was. You trudge all the way to the top of the hill, past the swings, past your grandfather’s vegetable patch, past the sandbox. The treeline is next, and you don’t pause.

Nothing to fear, after all. You’ve been in these woods plenty of times, and your grandmother would separate from the group and pretend to be lost, and one of the kids would always get hurt somehow. They trip on things and stand on fallen trees that are seconds away from crumbling. Someone would have a bowl for picking berries in case you came across some. Your littlest brother would find money or a dead raccon or something else interesting. He always looks down, sifting through what others overlook.

You’ve even gone into the woods without adults. You’re the oldest grandchild, after all, and you know the rule: If you can’t see the house, you turn around and come back home. It’s useful if the little kids want to go but you really don’t. You can come back sooner that way. But you know these woods like your pillows, like a song you know by heart. Today, alone, you don’t care about the house. You’ll come back late. They’ll have to put the leftovers away and wonder where you’ve been. By the time you come home, they’ll be worried about you.

Your blue nylon Kangaroo sneakers get muddy in the damp ground. Ther’s a chill in the wind as it rattles the leaves until they fall. You hear things, animals, things moving that are not you. Time passes and your nose gets cold, and you see your breath, and you walk, your anger fading.

You turn around.

You cannot see the house. Not even the tiniest glimpse of red brick through the trees. 

Fine, you think. You turn around. You walk back, retracing your steps. 

Ten minutes later you see a downed tree that you did not pass before. And no matter how stubbornly you peer at the trees in front of you, you still cannot see the red bricks of your grandmother’s house.

You stop moving. You look up at the sky and you cannot imagine what it is you expect to see, a bird, a power line. The sky won’t point you home, little one, and it’s getting darker. Your heartbeats are irregular; they are as panicky as you are. You keep thinking okay, okay, okay, okay. This is not okay. It will all be okay. You’ll be okay.

Your feet are moving again but warily. You scan the trees in front of you for something familiar. You watch your sneakers take step after little step in the oozing mud, hoping a trail will materialize in the thickness of the green and brown and tan and still more brown. You see the dead rabbit and nearly step on it. You flinch and step sideways, scream out.

Screaming feels good. Scream again, this time for your mother, your stepfather, anyone to help you. Scream until your throat hurts. Scream loud and long, feel your eyes fill with tears.

Through these stinging tears, you look to the left. It is your mother, thirty or forty feet away. Her orange puffy jacket is a bright light in the darkening forest, and you run to her, leaping over a fallen tree, and she bends down to be a target for you, a place to run.

#scintilla13: the kids' table

Many   of our fondest memories are associated with food. Describe a memorable   experience that took place while preparing or eating food.

www.scintillaproject.com/prompts

This is not a story. This is just a scene.

For days people had brought food. We ran out of space for it and left some of it out on the porch in the March cold, occasionally picking at bits of it here and there. I thought I was hungry, from time to time. Some autonomic system was. And then I would try to eat, and fail. People kept bringing it, though, tray after tray, and eventually we hit the point in the process where people would leave us alone with our grief. Our grief and our cold cut platters and enough overcooked industrial pasta to feed a family much bigger than our dwindling one.

The four of us went back to the house: my brother and his wife, Myron, and me. We sat at the dining room table and ate. Myron remembers my sister-in-law saying something funny to break the ice. I don’t remember much of anything. There was a tall and very fancy layer cake, one so festive and grotesquely inappropriate that it felt like someone had meant to celebrate something, hadn’t had the heart (or nerve) to do so, and passed the cake on to us in our hour of need. I think it was festooned with tiny chocolate curls. We made conversation, but there is always too much to say and no good way to say it.

So no, I don’t remember much, not enough for a story. I remember the four of us, talking like adults at the dining room table, a place heretofore reserved for special occasions and long, lingering conversations that were not for little ears. Talking like adults—we were adults; there were no children anymore in that house and we had claimed the dining room for ourselves. We were old enough to have been through this before and to remember how much better the food had been last time around, when the death was a different kind of tragedy. I remember the decorative glass of the light fixture, the tablecloth, the china cabinet displaying my mother’s good dishes. The way the coat closet doorknob was hard to close. The view through the window at the backyard. The way it hurt. My God, the way it hurt to not fall apart. There’s a time and a place for falling apart, and it’s not at the dining room table.

#scintilla13: Good.

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I’m a cofounder of The Scintilla Project, along with my friends Onyi and Dominique, two whip-smart and artfully snarky women with beautiful hair. This is my response to one of the Day 7 prompts, Write about someone who was a mentor for you. We believe that your stories make you who you are and we’re asking you to share yours. Interested? Sign up at scintillaproject.com and follow us at @ScintillaHQ.

I had plenty of teachers and adults I looked up to, and lots that were encouraging to me, but I can think of few who truly attempted to mentor me or push me farther than I was already going. The one I’m writing about today is the one I feel made the most difference.

Behind his back, I called him Nich (rhymes with hitch and stitch but never never bitch). Not as an insult; I admired him with every creative urge I had. I wish you could have met him, because that would have meant that we were together back in the 90s on the third floor, trading drafts with each other and trying to predict what he would say when he read them. He said very little, for a professor, someone whose job it was to hold our attention and make us see what we’d been missing. He was not one of those who loved to hear himself speak so much as he loved the writing he assigned, works by the best novelists and story writers in the business. I learned to read the way he wanted me to, which was more carefully and critically than I’d ever been asked to read before. I took every course the man taught, worked my schedule around his, added an extra sixty-mile roundtrip to my week just to take his fiction workshop. I would not have read the Beats or post-Beats so rigorously, seeking order and meaning out of chaos, without him. I would never have read “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” three times or Revenge of the Lawn at all. 

Nich was short, for a guy, but he usually wore shitkickers. There was something about his stature and the heels of those shoes that was less Cowboy Gone Yankee and more Prince, somehow, genteel and precise and a little highfalutin. Unlike so many of our instructors, he learned our names, all of them, and always called us Mr. and Miss, possibly in an effort to civilize us. And right when he’d civilized us, just enough, he showed us how to break rules, swiftly and cleanly as breaking a chicken’s neck.

I worked harder for him than I had for any other teacher, ever, possibly because he was so stinting with his praise. A tiny penciled “Good.” in the margin of a paper would carry me for weeks; I still have some of these “Good.”s saved fifteen years later. A question mark, also tiny, also penciled, could wreck me. What had I been thinking? Had I rushed? Had I thought that was right? What would Raymond Carver do?

The answer, almost always, was to throw away the sentence.

Fiction Workshop was the best, most concentrated dose of Nich, and worth every inconvenience. I took it three times: 264, 364, 464. I would have found a way to do it a fourth time if they would have let me. We read weekly, wrote weekly. Stray marks in the margins were there to be agonized over, but the weekly workshop packet was the sweet prize of the course. Every week Nich chose a few of our assignments to put into a photocopied packet for discussion. When he chose mine I felt unstoppable and talented and terrified, and I learned to sit quietly without defending my words even when people didn’t get what I had clearly put down on paper. CLEARLY, Y’ALL. I visited him for office hours after one workshop that didn’t go well, when a story I thought had real potential had been met with indifference by most and hostility by others. “You’re going to have to get used to people discussing your work. It’s going to happen every time you put it out there, and you’re going to be read by a lot of people. That’s a lot of people, some of whom aren’t going to see what I see.” What a difference it was to hear this specific view of my capabilities, instead of the wembley sorts of encouragement I’d gotten from others. And with built-in failure ramifications, the kind you can learn to survive! You’re smart; you can do anything you want in life is not the comfort some people think it is.

At the end of senior year, he recommended me for a prize and assigned me a long final project. He mailed it back to me before I left for Georgia, with a long typewritten letter filled with encouragement and incisive analysis—brusque with my shortcomings and yet approving of my strengths. He recommended a few little magazines that he thought would be a good fit for my work, and wished me, as you do, all the best.

Writing about him today was difficult, and not just because there was so much to him that I could never do him any justice. Mostly, it’s because I feel like I let him down in some way by not having a short story collection and a couple of novels by now, that the curt but bolstering check-ins during his office hours did not result in the kind of work that would have made him proud of me. I have no string of publications, no fellowship, no grants, no MFA. I am not read by a lot of people (although you have Nich’s permission to not enjoy what you read here, and I’m to shut up and take it). At the same time, I wouldn’t say I’ve given up on this particular plan, either. Sometimes when I reread my work, I hear it in his voice, whiskey-dark and southern accented, and sometimes I can picture the spot in the margin where that tiny penciled “Good.” would go.