I write stories from my life, transcribed with interest in object and memory. Visual culture, my first passion, informs much of my work. As memories flood back to me I write, to heal. During the time of the pandemic, I committed my life to working with formerly incarcerated folx seeking recovery from trauma and addiction. I write from memory, and lived experience, with hope for reclamation of our shared history.
The candy dish, my keeper of secrets; the knowledge of which I rolled around in my mouth like a sour candy. Mother seemed to have them in every pocket of every dress. That iridescent green glass bowl was always brimming with the foul things. The proud object of my frustration, it sat atop a handmade doily, centered on the coffee table that stretched almost the full length of the loveseat. I knew why mother gave it such an important location. Its scalloped edge caught the sun through the large front windows. Light filtered through the colored glass creating curved prisms throughout the living room.
I practiced my powers often on that dish. I knew I could do it. My focus was clear. Make its contents chocolate, or anything edible. It was impenetrable. I sat on the floor and grasped it by its pedestal. concentrate. Feel the vibration of the glass. Did you know glass is alive? I could feel the grains of sand conforming to my palm. The glass warmed to my touch. Squeezing my eyes shut, my knuckles white with effort. Open the left, nothing. Open the right, Nothing.
There existed but one respite from my lemon horror. On special occasions, that cursed object would hold a different form of torture; ribbon candy. The bright delicate twists and turns mocking me. The last laugh, however, was mine. Silently, I brushed by the coffee table and reached into the dish and applied pressure with my mud-stained hand. A quick kiss to mother; satisfaction playing on my lips, and out into the warm sun I ran. “RUTH ANN!!!” She yelled too late, I was almost to the rabbit cages. She’d forgive me by the time she rang the triangle to call me home for dinner. Now was my time.
I stole through the clovers, my feet cushioned by dandelion. The song of the cicada rising and falling with humid breath. Thick, sun-kissed curls sticking to freckled forehead. Dodging a smoke bomb here and there, eyes on my prey. I held my weapon in a tight fist, the chrome top of the salt shaker gleamed in the dappled light. Almost there. Failure, again. I had yet to succeed at my mission, but I was determined. Mother promised I could keep it; a wild robin. She insisted that if I could just get a few grains of salt on its tail-feathers it would never fly again. Robin hunting, however, would not take up my entire day. I had important work to do. I had to check my sap trees. Mother had told me a story a little while ago and I intended to fact check.
I ducked under the low-hanging spruce needles, stood up in between the branches and breathed it in. The cool damp scent of growth. I reached up and touched the lowest collection of sticky sap bulging from the trunk. Mother told me that when she was my age she used to chew the sap from these trees like chewing gum but you had to wait until it hardened up a bit. Like making caramels, she said. I wasn’t so sure. I had been tending to the sap on this tall spruce for weeks. It was almost there. I pressed my finger into the glistening ball just above my head. The first layer cracked like burnt sugar revealing the gooey meat inside. I took a deep breath and popped my glistening finger into my mouth. I should have known better. Mother ate ribbon candy as a treat for heaven's sake. I spat it out almost immediately. It may have been disgusting but I had increasing respect for my mother's wretched childhood. If chewing tree sap was a treat, what awful things did she have to eat?
On rare occasions when we visited with grandma and grandpa she would whisper in my ear as they passed the corn “don’t eat that.” I glanced into the bowl to see that the canned corn grandma had dumped into the bowl was brown and slimy. They were River Brethren, a conservative Mennonite sect, and they looked the part. Grandpa’s long gray hair and wispy goat beard, his head bowed beneath his large-brimmed hat. There were no buttons on their clothes and grandpa shaved his mustache, an act of protest. He told me this was because the soldiers that persecuted our people wore big mustaches and large brass buttons on their uniforms.
When he was in a good mood, he would pull out his shiny black guitar with the inlaid abalone. I would climb onto the stair below him and marvel at the iridescence of the inlay and his deft finger plucking. He was a master yodeler and explained how it was part of our German/Pennsylvania Dutch heritage. When grandpa was feeling particularly generous, he would put on one of his precious records. I would sit quietly and listen to the sounds of steam engines roar through the paths of boxes stacked 3 high.
Much like his life, His funeral was torturous. It was in the dead of an especially thick Pennsylvania summer. I marveled at the women crowded in the small funeral home wearing heavy black dresses from wrist to ankle, their heads covered with substantial mourning bonnets. Our family looked like a bunch of heathens in our knee-high sundresses. River Brethren are mostly old farmers, and two men that looked conspicuously like grandpa stood up and preached about eternal damnation for hours; once strong but now withered hands clasped in reverence before them. At one point my mother's new husband, Frank, leaned over and whispered in my ear “makes you wanna live, doesn’t it”.
What to do with Grandma now that he was gone? Her health was failing and she couldn’t stay in that house by herself. Ugh, that house. They saved everything. I would watch her as she took off her prayer bonnet and unpinned her bun. Thin greasy black hair fell down her back almost past her butt. She was 74 but only had grey at her temples. She would drag a comb from the crown of her head through to the ends. Carefully she removed the hair that came out in the comb, then she would stuff the hair down into a cleaned out dog food can by the sink. She said she was saving her hair so that “they” could make her a wig once all of it fell out of her head. The move from Chambersburg to Benton, just a few years before his death was awful.
There were dozens of boxes full of magazines, newspapers, and every single greeting card they had ever received. Mother opened up one of the boxes out of what must have been morbid curiosity before the move. She discovered a pile of 50th-anniversary cards, many stuffed with 50$ bills. When she called it to her father's attention he said, “ah, put it back now, we will find it next time we move and it will be a nice surprise.” My grandparents were both in their late 70s at the time. Their 50 year anniversary was at least a decade ago. The house was brimming with boxes and saved paper bags. It was so full, that they could no longer sleep in their bedroom. Grandma couldn’t navigate the stairs well anymore anyway. Grandpa slept under the picnic table in the kitchen, his arms wrapped around his fat beagle, Christoper. In protest of his choice, his wife curled up in her reading chair among the cardboard towers holding memories. I liked grandma. She was silly, but only when grandpa wasn't there preaching.
That man really knew his bible. The evil of women was his specialty. When mother was 14, a farmer in town, who was friendly with her father, raped her. He was heard at the bar bragging about his conquest of the shy and pretty Mennonite girl. The case came before the county court, my grandpa met with the judge and successfully begged for leniency for his friend. No doubt they knelt in prayer over the persistent sinning nature of young girls. The farmer was cleared of all charges. I sat paralyzed as he recited verse after verse. Everyone had stopped what they were doing and turned attention to him. When Wayne started preaching, we listened whether we liked it or not. Luckily for me, I had just made a discovery.
Sitting slightly off-center on the picnic table in the kitchen was an orange glass candy dish. I saw mother begin to tap her foot when he go to the fire and brimstone. I focused on the colorful cellphone wrapped candies. I could feel her hot anger rising. And then she did it. She challenged him. I couldn’t make out everything that she said, but it got louder. Mother moved closer to him and started pointing. He closed his eyes and recited a prayer for her soul, his voice drowning hers out. She walked over to the table where I was sitting and picked up the orange glass candy dish. Glass and sour balls exploded on the kitchen floor. Before I knew what was happening, my hand in hers, we ran down the back stairs into the driveway and we never visited again.
Years later, in that funeral home, I would reflect back on that day. Mother had finally freed herself from that man. On the day my grandpa was laid to rest, we did what was necessary. We pulled out of the parking lot, in our robin’s egg blue early 70’s Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme. Mother drove the opposite way of the morose procession. Black-bumper Mennonites, she called them. They earned this monicker, she said, from the choice to blacken their chrome bumpers as a form of protest against modern shine. I looked over at mother, a relaxed smile playing across her lips. She was free.
Mother had become more rebellious since we left father. Her clothes became brighter and her accessory game was over the top. I admired her courage. When she arrived to collect me from bible camp; her attire matched the boldness of the Oldsmobile. Her large-brimmed straw hat was piled with plastic fruit that she
affixed to the brim with floral wire. Her bright red lips matched the crepe of her flowing dress, cinched at the waist with an elastic white belt. Mothers’ wooden red Dr. Scholl’s slapped against her heels in rhythm to her snapping chewing gum, as she climbed the hill from the parking lot and sauntered towards the picnic.
It wasn’t long after the divorce that we were asked to leave the congregation.
About a year before, following a particularly nasty after dinner argument, mother grabbed Joey and I and drove to the nearest payphone and called our pastor. His advice was to return home and pray and be a better wife. She and I spent the next 5 months living with uncle Dave, Aunt Betty and Aunt Susan. Mother hated to leave Joey with him, but she was not his biological mother and she had no right. Decades later she would describe leaving him behind and you could hear her voice waiver, feel the knot in her chest as she relived that moment. Joey crying in the kitchen, begging her to take him with us. Mother, kneeling down to his eye level and wiping his tears away and trying her best without avail to hold back her own.
Uncle Dave had a small working farm and I had the exclusive position as egg gatherer. He had fallen off a roof years back and was mostly in a wheelchair. That didn’t slow him down much from what I could tell. On my way to the chicken coop I would pass him as he pushed himself from his chair onto his gardening mat
to tend to the vegetables. He had a lemon tree in his office, his gold Century 21 jacket draped over his chair. A large man with a big booming voice and a shock of thick white hair, he was kind and gentle. At night, before bed he would call me into the kitchen for the candling of the eggs I collected earlier that day. Aunt Betty, his wife, was blind and sweet as pie. I would play the piano in the living room by her chair and we sang hymns together. Aunt Susan was their oldest daughter, she sacrificed a life of her own to care for her aging and disabled parents. In turn for her dedication, the farm would pass on to her when they were gone.
I was well into adulthood when Uncle Dave died. Turned out he was conning us all. He had successfully hidden his financial woes and when he was gone, the bank came to collect. Aunt Susan had to move into a small apartment, and Aunt Betty to a home. I never understood why Aunt Susan chose to spend her life caring for someone who took her for granted. But I was a child, and the complexities of such things eluded me. Watching her, day in and day out set aside her own needs and desires was painful for me. She always struck me as incredibly sad. I decided then that I would never forget myself for anyone.
After several months on the small farm, we went back to father. Mother was sure that this time it would be different. Slowly but surely, mother’s new-found brightness dimmed as we relaxed back into the somber tone of home. I missed my big brother, Joey, and his tight hug upon our return made me feel guilty for leaving him behind. He had a surprise for me too, the new black Sabbath tape. He was carrying contraband. We were not allowed to listen to music unless it was decidedly Christian. Joey and I crept into his room and popped the tape into his little radio. We pressed our ears up to the speakers and turned the volume way down. This was definitely not approved music and the punishment would be severe if we were caught. I had never heard anything like it before in my life. It was raw and loud. I could feel the rhythmic pounding of the bass in my heartbeat. It was like listening to secrets.