Journal of the Plague No. 10: Commencement

From the official Grinnell student newspaper, the Scarlet & Black, May 15, 1970. My apologies to the photographer, who is not identified, for not giving them credit.

Fifty years ago today, Grinnell College, like most colleges and universities across the United States, was closed in the aftermath of the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State. When Grinnell announced in March that it would be closing the campus after spring break, I wrote to the archivist there to confirm that 1970 was the last time the school had closed before the end of the academic year. It was, he said, and still a sore point that they hadn’t gotten a commencement until their 20th reunion—and likely to worsen, as there was a good chance their 50th reunion would be canceled as well—as has indeed come to pass.

My heart goes out to them, and to the class of 2020. If I was raised on anything, it was the sacredness of academia. I was too young to attend my mother’s PhD graduation, I clearly recall her MD graduation some years later, sitting in the balcony at Hancher Auditorium with my whole family, who had come from Michigan, Florida, Ohio, and Illinois to watch my mother cross a stage, receive another diploma, and become yet another kind of doctor. A few years after that, we all gathered in Ohio for my cousin Felicity’s law school graduation. To this day, if you invite me to your graduation and I can make it, I will—I prefer them to weddings, baptisms, and almost any other civic or religious ceremony marking a rite of passage I can think of. I recognize that my fondness for commencements is a peculiarity of mine, but I think it has a reason.

As pictured above, although Grinnell did not have a formal or real commencement in 1970, my father (in perhaps his final act on the campus) and three other professors, including his good friend Hip Apostle, a math and philosophy professor who dedicated his free time to translating the works of Aristotle with a consistent English vocabulary, held a symbolic commencement for the few students left on campus who wished to attend. They even got the notoriously stingy campus bookstore owner to get them some caps and gowns. My dad is the one in the paler colored gown up above—Harvard, in its pretentiousness, makes its PhD gowns in a dark red color (crimson, no doubt).

There are no real parallels between 1970 and the present aside from the closing of campuses and the general sense of paranoia and doom (I should note that I was not alive in 1970, but I have read so much about that era, and talked to so many people about it, that I often start to feel that I was, though I wasn’t born till the last American troops left Vietnam five years later.) But this photo of the symbolic commencement at Grinnell has nonetheless been haunting my mind these past two months, ever since Grinnell was the first college in Iowa, and one of the first in the country, to shut down its campus.

A year before, in April 1969, my father, already a notorious and not always popular figure on the Grinnell campus, became briefly famous statewide for what we call the flagpole incident. I’ve written extensively* about the history of those days, but in short, a group of students turned the American flag on campus upside down as a protest against the Vietnam War and, after it was righted (and turned upside down and righted again—leading to the excellent Scarlet & Black headline “Flag flip flops, flap follows”), my father held a vigil beneath the flagpole for several days to prevent anyone from turning it upside down again, an action that made the front page of the Des Moines Register and led to a job offer at Cornell College, where my father taught for the remaining eleven years of his life.

The flagpole incident, as we call it, is so well known to this day that last summer, in the Before Times, my son and I were at the Farmers Market in Iowa City, and he was wearing a Grinnell tshirt. “I like your shirt!” a young woman yelled over at us. “Thanks!” I said. “My mom went there and my dad taught there.”

“What was your dad’s name?” she asked. “Oh, this was a million years ago,” I said, “but he was sort of well-known—John Crossett.”

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I grew up there, went to school there, know all about.” And this was forty-nine years since the man taught there.

At the same time, though, I still get emails regularly from people who tell me my father was the best teacher they ever had. “He really taught me how to write,” said one I got just a few weeks ago.

My father began his teaching career in 1958 at Hamilton College in New York state, continued it briefly at Parsons College here in Iowa, then went to Grinnell from 1962-1970 and then to Cornell College from 1970 to his death in 1981. He was a conservative who taught through some of the biggest upheavals in academia and in the world, and yet despite his difficulties is still remembered by innumerable students today. My hope for the class of 2020–and for all of those studying at this time—is that you, too will find a teacher like that—one willing, as my father was, to keep the spirit and ritual of education alive even when the circumstances, be they fear of riots or of global pandemic, alive.

*See the title essay in my MFA thesis if you are really curious.

Journal of the Plague No. 8: Ashes

Singer Featherweight sewing machine with fabric, scissors, and manual
My great-grandmother’s Singer Featherweight.

It’s 6 pm and everyone in my house but me is asleep—well, me and the cats, but they’re only awake because I just fed them. I’ve finally figured out (I think) my new Bluetooth headphones of the sort that all the kids seem to wear, or at least figured them out well enough that I can listen to music or watch old episodes of M*A*S*H on my headphone jack less iPad and not disrupt the rest of the people in the house. I know there was a time when we all just sat down and watched the same goddamned thing on TV or listened to whatever was on the radio, but those days seem just as far away as the days when I went to work from 9 to 5 every day and my kid went to school and I went to yoga at an actual studio once a week and stopped to say hi to my friend at a different library afterward.

I had a meeting (a Zoom meeting, of course) with some staff from my son’s school today and found myself pretending that of course he’d be going back to school and so would everyone else and it would be just like before, except with more hand washing and more dealing with everyone’s emotional fragility. But of course there’s a possibility that there won’t be school, and I will have used up all my leave time, and… well, as I said, I’m trying not to think about it.

It occurred to me the other day that what makes Zoom meetings so awful is how much they resemble the panopticon. If you’re in a normal meeting, sitting around a table, or sitting in a classroom, you know there are people who can’t see you or your face at all. And even those who can are often looking down, taking notes, or doodling, or looking surreptitiously at their phones or whatever. But a Zoom meeting almost compels you to look straight at your camera the whole time and thus gives you the idea that everyone is looking at you constantly, and that you must always adjust your expression, moment by moment, to reveal some version of interest or enthusiasm or at least attention. It’s exhausting and reminds me of what it must have been like to have drawing room conversations as an upper class lady in the 19th century, or perhaps a tiny bit of what it is like to live in a totalitarian regime (not that I would, in any other way, liken any of those things to each other—but Zoom meetings produce a sort of anxiety I couldn’t place for a long time).

My household has been lucky—our physical health has been good. We have plenty to eat and enough money to buy more. We have a multitude of functional computer equipment. At least one of us is still doing important, life-saving work part-time. We have good friends in the neighborhood and around the country who check in regularly, and we are reasonably good at pantry stocking, cooking, and sewing (and even housecleaning, when we bother to do it), all of which turn out to be useful skills.

In this we are like all of my family members—at least all the ones I know of—during the Great Depression, who were employed and, if not always as well off as they had always been, were not starving. My father reported that his bicycle was stolen and he didn’t get another one for years, but I believe that was the extent of my family’s financial hardship. But just as it’s hard not to be affected by an abusive person or an alcoholic in your household, it’s hard not to be affected by the hardship of the world at large. I cry whenever I think about New York City. I want to scream every time I hear someone complain about meat rationing or insisting that meatpacking plants are somehow the most important thing in the entire economy, because God forbid we be denied our cheap ribeyes.

We can bring to life a new world from the ashes of the old goes one verse of “Solidarity Forever” (which I’ve been using as my handwashing song), and sometimes I see people ask what positive changes we think this pandemic will bring about. Well, I want to say, given that it hasn’t brought about any yet, my hopes are dim. But maybe I’m wrong. Let us hope so.

And she remembered to feed me, or why I love Warren

Series of photos white couple in academic regalia with a toddler.
My mom, my dad, and me at her English PhD graduation. Shortly thereafter, she started premed classes, because, she said, “I wanted to do something your father didn’t know anything about.”

I didn’t make any big endorsements this election cycle because I’m a 44 year old woman and I’m pretty sure nobody cares what I think, and I didn’get to caucus anyway, as I had to work, and I doubt it would have made a difference if I had: I correctly predicted the exact number of delegates from my precinct (4 Sanders, 4 Warren, 1 Buttigieg). But I have of course been thinking about it a lot.

Many months ago a friend of the family asked who I was backing, and I said Elizabeth Warren, in part because she is smart and thoughtful and hardworking and has sound ideas, but really also because she tells this story about how she had to potty train her daughter in five days in order to be able to go to law school, because the only daycare she could find required that children be potty trained, and, I said, that resonated with me, because it reminded me so much of what my mother had to do in order to go to medical school—she started when she was 32 and I was 3.5. Two years later my father died, and thus to continue she had to find not only childcare but overnight childcare, sometimes every fourth night for months running. And it made me think of what I’ve had to do (on a much smaller scale) to go on having a professional job a kid.
Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that,” he said, and I thought of course. I’d like to say I just thought that and that I didn’t yell at him about how he didn’t get what a privilege it was to be able to go to medical school and not have to do anything else, but of course I did, because I’m me.

I love Bernie Sanders and have for many years, and I love my dad, who, like Sanders, had ties to Vermont, though their similarities end there, at least politically. My mother once described my father as “making the John Birch Society look a little pink around the edges,” and I’d be hard pressed to think of a thing he and Bernie would agree on. But like Sanders, my father was beloved by many people. Even now, 39 years after his death, I hear from his former students about what an impact he had on their lives, regardless of what they want on to do, from going back to work at their family business to winning a Nobel Prize. His tough-mindedness mixed with kindness, generosity, and ongoing support is legendary. Even though he notoriously believed men were intellectually superior to women, he encouraged one former student to keep her babysitter and finish her dissertation because, he said, she was the most brilliant student he’d ever had.

That generosity of spirit, however, did not extend to his own family, or at any rate it did not extend to my mother. Once, when asked to get me up, get me dressed, get me breakfast, and get me to preschool, he did—or rather he did except for the breakfast part, which he forgot, but that was my mother’s fault. If she hadn’t been pursuing this silly medical school thing, she would have been there to give me breakfast.

I love Bernie Sanders, but I often wonder if he ever had to find childcare, and how his life and his career might have been different if he had.

Sometimes, when Sanders and Warren supporters were fighting on the internet, I’d want to go hide in my room because it felt like Mom and Dad were fighting, and indeed, I can’t think of any more apt metaphor. My father dealt with big important things in life, and they were things I care about deeply. But my mom cared about those things too and remembered to feed me.

Aside from my family, the major influence on my political upbringing were the socialists I hung out with in high school, whom I met first through the anti-war movement against the “first” Gulf War. Identity politics were one of the things they railed against the most: you should never pick someone because they were like you. And to a large extent I agree with them. I didn’t caucus for Hillary Clinton in 2008 (in Wyoming, where she and Obama were the only candidates left) or in 2016 (when I was proud to be a Bernie person). I would be thrilled to get rid of my female governor and senator in favor of just about any Democrat. But I don’t think that means you can never be for a person because they also happen to be somewhat like you.

I’m glad I was mostly distracted by digital file formats (and, of course, my kid) last night, because when I did finally look at the news, it was like watching my mom get beat up over and over and over again.

I’m mindful that the majority of white women (although none I know) voted for Trump. I don’t think I’m the only—much less most important—demographic, operating as I do from a position of great socioeconomic and white privilege. But I do mourn the losses of the only politician I’ve ever heard talk about childcare in a way that suggested she had actually experienced the difficulties of childcare, and of the way that the lack of it keeps women out of the workforce and out of public life. I have lost track of how many times I have said, “I’m sorry I can’t come to your thing because I have my kid” in the past eight years, but it might be almost as many times as I’ve said “your books are good for three weeks; your DVDs are good for one.” If I am not with my kid, it is because I am paying someone or someone is doing me a favor. And that, more than anything, is why I was a Warren person, because I think she gets that. Maybe that’s selfish of me, but surely it’s no more selfish than the billionaires for Trump.

And now I have to stop this so I can do some work for my job before I pass out, and before my kid wakes me up at 4:30 am.

Malcolm #52essays2017 no. 16

I often feel awkward, if not outright apologetic, as a white woman who gave her very white son the middle name of Malcolm after Malcolm X.

I am a pacifist at heart, but I am a follower of both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. I am a big fan of the Black Panther Party’s Ten Point Program (and for God’s sake, if you’re not familiar with it, stop reading this and go read it now), and I often fantasize about what a Malcolm X-Black Panther alliance could have done, had Malcolm not been assassinated.

My reasons for choosing Malcolm as a middle name go back a long way. They go back to my mother telling me when I was twelve that Malcolm went to Mecca and saw all races getting along and wanted to make that happen everywhere. They go back to hearing Alex Haley speak when I was in high school. They go back to first hearing the Phil Ochs song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” which starts “I cried when they shot Medgar Evers / Tears rolled down my spine / And I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy / As though I’d lost a father of mine / But Malcolm X got what was coming / He got what he asked for this time / So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.” They go back to wishing Malcolm were alive every time an unarmed black man is shot by the police. But most of all they go back to this line from a speech of Malcolm’s I read in graduate school:

We didn’t want anybody telling us about Africa, much less calling us Africans. In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree, and note hate the tree. You can’t hate your origin and not hate yourself. You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself.

I underlined that passage long before I knew I’d have a son. I underline that passage back when I did hate a lot of where I came from. I still hate some of it, still hate that I had ancestors who were slave owners (even if one of them set his slave free). I still hate that I had ancestors who profited from the labor of enslaved people, even if only directly — because really, if you bought cotton in the United States during the era of slavery, you profited from slave labor. (And really, if you bought it afterward, during the era of sharecropping, you shouldn’t feel that much better about yourself).

Malcolm X gave this speech in Detroit just after his home was bombed. I cannot imagine what that is like — to have your home with your wife and four young children bombed — but I know it is a daily reality for many people.

I can’t pretend to understand the lived experience of African Americans. And I can’t claim not to feel slightly uncomfortable claiming one of their martyrs as one of my heroes.

But he is one of my heroes, and those lines from that speech that I underlined so long ago came back to me when I was pregnant. I didn’t plan to become pregnant, and my son was born out of wedlock in a relationship that many didn’t think well of. But that line came back to me — “You can’t hate your origin and not hate yourself.” I didn’t want my son to hate himself, and so I didn’t want him to hate his origin, and so I gave him the middle name of Malcolm, the man who taught me that.

We all of us have small, personal stories that run alongside the larger historical ones. Sometimes they intersect, and sometimes they cross pollinate. Sometimes you start out admiring someone for the work he did and end up loving him for one small line. Sometimes you want to support a movement and end up selfishly supporting only yourself.

I get very odd looks from white people when I tell them that I gave my son the middle name Malcolm after Malcolm X. I don’t know what kinds of looks I get from people of color because I live in Iowa, a state where 2% of the population is black and something like 26% of the prison population is black. I visit a prison every two weeks, but even the people I see there are mostly white, because I work with the inmates with the highest level of privilege, and most of them are white, and if you don’t think there’s something wrong with that, I don’t think I want to know you.

I think a lot about racial justice and the ways in which I’m not doing enough to achieve it. My son’s middle name reminds me of a lot of things, from my idiosyncratic personal reasons for choosing it to the larger societal struggles it stands for. But most of all it reminds me that I have to try harder.

The Birthday Photos #52essays2017 no. 13

The pictures are from my seventh birthday and they make me cry. My mother found them the other day and originally thought they were from my fifth birthday, so she labeled the one she posted on Facebook that way. I looked at it and thought that was the last birthday I had while my father was alive. But I didn’t remember my father there for that birthday, and he’s not in any of the pictures. (Neither is my mom, but she’s rarely in the pictures — she took most of them.) Later my mother decided it was actually my seventh birthday (perhaps the label on the pictures tipped her off—they are labeled 5TH BIRTHDAY, but someone crossed out the 5 and replaced it with a 7), and then I thought that is a birthday when my father was dead.

It’s a little ridiculous that my reaction to the photos has nothing to do with me and everything to do with my father. In fact it was a wonderful birthday. Three friends came and got along, and we had a magician, a medical school classmate of my mom’s who did magic on the side. He pulled things from our ears and made them disappear, and to this day I’ve never seen a better magic show, maybe because that one was so small and happened right in front of our eyes. It was a good birthday, as all my birthdays but my sixth were, and my mother made it happen. But it’s hard now for me to look at any picture of my childhood and not measure it against my father’s presence or absence.

In a few short months my son will be five-and-a-half, the age I was when my father died. It’s like a clock counting down to that date, and the closer it gets the more I expect something awful to happen, though that makes no more sense. But I can’t help but look at him and wonder what he knows, what he remembers, what he will remember of this time.

The worst thing anyone has ever said to me is that it must not matter so much that my father died because I was too young when he died to remember him. Multiple people have said this to me, people who apparently remember nothing of being three and four and five. I pity them. I have so many memories of my father and of that time. I remember fishing for leaves with him off the limestone wall that marked the border of the college where he taught. In my memories it is always autumn there, as is appropriate for a small liberal arts college with old brick and stone buildings. My father always wears a long sleeves and a coat and tie and smokes a pipe, just like a professor in a book or a movie. I remember riding in the way back of the station wagon with my friend and my father saying pollylops and ephelants and giving us the mayonnaise jar full of peppermints and lemon drops, as many as we wanted, and we always wanted some of each. I remember watching tennis on television with my father as he sat in his Swedish modern chair, his pipe rack by his side and the black and white TV balanced on an end table across from his chair. Don’t ever tell me I do not remember him.

The first photo ever taken of me is actually a photo of my father. He is carrying me out of the hospital on a snowy night. My mother walks a few feet behind him. For years I assumed she must have taken the photo until the day I realized the dim figure in the background was her. It’s hard not to read that photo as symbolic: my life has been defined by my father, while my mother, who did all the work, is relegated to the background. If I were to stage a photo of how my life has actually been, my mother would be carrying me proudly, and my father would be a dim shadowy figure lowering behind. But that’s not the photo that was taken, by whomever took it — my grandmother? — and even though my photo is truer to my life, the actual photo has had its influence.

It’s hard for me not to imagine how my life might have gone if my father had lived. I know my parents would have divorced. I know in reality I would have grown up to argue with my father horribly, for he was, as one of his students described him to me, a Neanderthal in his beliefs (though I hear perhaps the Neanderthals were more advanced than we are). But it’s hard not to imagine the good times, the things we would have shared. Perhaps I would have grown up to love watching tennis and football. Perhaps we would have done translations together. Perhaps I would have applied myself more under his eye.

It’s no good to speculate, but it’s hard not to. In the meantime, the photos watch me watching them, daring me to look and see.

On Knitting #52essays2017 no. 12

My mother and I learned to knit from a book called Knitting in Plain English. She got it first from our local branch of the Indianapolis Public Library and later bought a copy. I remember her showing it to the woman at the knitting shop, who attempted to dissuade her from the purchase. “It’s a very basic book,” she said, but my mother was undeterred. She bought the book, and we taught ourselves knitting from its instruction. Later we made one of the beginning projects in it, a shawl, all garter stitch, which we gave to my grandmother for Christmas that year. I mocked up a tag to go with it about how the variations in the knitting were part of the beauty of the handmade garment and should not be considered flaws. Our gauge was all over the place in that shawl, sometimes tight and anxious, sometimes so loose as to make mesh.

We still have the shawl, and the years have been kind to it, stretching out the tight spots and shoring up the loose ones till it almost looks as though it had been knit by a single hand instead of a couple of people working at cross purposes.

My mother still knits: she is a knitter, the kind with a yarn stash and a dozen projects going at once, the kind who has special bags for carrying around socks she’s knitting and who goes to conferences and conventions of other knitters and stops at farms to see sheep and sometimes attends sheepdog trials. She first learned to knit while she was pregnant with me and the knitting got mixed up with the morning sickness and she thought she’d never do it again, but for some reason when I was in junior high she decided to get that book out of the library.

I can knit but I don’t. I’ve made a handful of things over the years, mostly scarves and hats, although once I knit a doll sweater, doing the sleeves on four points and feeling very proud of myself. I can hardly imagine taking on such a project now. For years I’ve proudly said that I don’t knit at all, some sort of latter day rebellion against my mother’s obsession.

But lately I have been knitting. I have been knitting hanger covers, a slightly ridiculous project but one that uses up bits of yarn too small for anything else. I’ve been knitting hanger covers to deal with my mood disorder.

It started last fall when a drug I was taking gave me akathisia, making me feel constantly as if I’d had too much coffee, only worse. I wanted to jump out of my skin, and I was desperate for anything, anything that would calm me down. My mother suggested knitting. I tried it, and it worked, at least a little bit. During the few weeks I was experimenting with that drug, I made three hanger covers. Then we gave up on the drug and my need to occupy my hands stopped.

Recently, though, this latest bout of anxiety and depression has left me unsure of what to do not only with my hands but also with my whole self. In the evening after dinner I clean up and then wander the house, unable to read, unwilling to watch Paw Patrol with my five-year-old son, incapable of thinking of some other way of occupying myself. The other night my mother again suggested knitting. I tried it, and it seemed to work: I had something to do, at least.

It’s not a cure for depression by a long shot, and I may end up with every hanger in the house covered before I’m done with this illness, but it’s keeping me sane, at least a little bit.

Of the many books about knitting my mother has purchased over the years (the original one is long gone — it was, in fact, quite basic), the only one that’s caught my eye is one called No Idle Hands, which is a social history of knitting. I’ve not read it (and thus I apologize for discussing a book I haven’t read), but it deals with a concept I’ve read about elsewhere, that women are rarely truly idle. We fold laundry while watching TV, iron while listening to the radio, knit socks for soldiers while sitting by the fire in the evening. Of course no one knits socks for soldiers anymore (and I can’t remember the last time I ironed something), but the pattern still exists. It’s hard even for me to feel idle at home. I always feel I should be doing something, and that feeling worsens when I’m depressed.

For now, though, my hands are not idle, and for that I am grateful to my mother and to whatever impulse led her to that book so long ago.

The Bourbon Decanter #52essays2017 no. 8

My father was a drinker, if not a drunk. Opinions vary on whether or not he was an alcoholic. I think he was, though I’ve heard arguments against it, but perhaps at this point it doesn’t matter, as he’s been dead over thirty years, and debating the illnesses of so long ago seems like a waste of time. But he was a drinker, a man who mixed himself a row of drinks every night at the kitchen counter throughout all my childhood, a man from whom I learned the word jigger at a very young age.

Bourbon was his booze of choice, and he made it into whiskey sours, though I believe he also drank it neat. I remember him standing at the counter and measuring and pouring and mixing — we had a little two-headed pewter jigger he liked to use, and various other implements of the sort people once used for mixing drinks back in the days when people drank more such concoctions at home. Our house was not far removed from a 1950s academic cocktail party, though it was the 1970s by the time I showed up on the scene to wonder at why grownups took so very long to drink their drinks when I could down my apple juice in no time.

We have been clearing out my mother’s house and recently she offered me a bourbon decanter. I had not idea there was such a thing, although I suppose now that I think of it that people in old movies drink their liquor from lovely decanters they keep on their sideboard and not poured straight from the bottle they keep in a cupboard. I own no sideboard and drink bourbon perhaps only once every month or two, so I declined the offer. The bourbon decanter was, my mother said, a wedding present, though she could no longer remember from whom, and I likely wouldn’t know the people even if she could.

As with so many things we have uncovered, the bourbon decanter is a relic of a life we no longer live, a life with formal dining rooms and sideboards, a life of dinner for twelve on china and large roasts. We did keep two small glass items that apparently are meant to form a rack where you rest your carving knife. Surely they have a name, but what it is I couldn’t say, as I rarely cook anything that needs carving, and on the occasions when I have made a turkey I’ve ended up hacking away at it with a paring knife. Such are the times we have descended to.

My mother’s family does not come from hard scrabbling, at least not for a few generations back, longer ago than anyone now living can remember. We come from grace and ease. My great grandparents had servants and took vacations of the sort where all my great grandmother had to carry was her purse. I have been reminded often that this was not uncommon for the time they lived in, but still, they had servants; they were not servants themselves, which presumably other people’s great grandparents were.

My father’s parents were not so well to do, and my grandmother on that side (who was the same age as my great grandmother on my mother’s side because generations in my family are off) kept plastic over her furniture, perhaps due to a lack of servants. But even she had silver, a few pieces of which we still have and drag out to use on rare occasions.

My house was built in 1931 and has now been added onto twice. It’s still not a large house by 2017 standards, but it was much smaller when it was built, and it was a house for a family. There were two small bedrooms and one bathroom and a living room and a kitchen, and that was the whole house. The people who lived here first did not keep servants, nor can they have had much room for china and silver. I don’t have much room for it myself, many decades and two additions later. But it humbles me to think of a family in that small space, as it humbles me every time I think of raising children in the era before on demand TV.
The bourbon decanter isn’t something I remember my father using, so it was easy enough to let it go, handsome though it is. The weight of history is upon almost all the objects in my life, and I am trying not to let it drag me down.

Papers #52essays2017 no. 6

a sword in front of a stack of papers and books
a page from Histoire de la Revolution Francaise from the British Museum
It is not possible to describe the amount of stuff there was in my grandmother’s house.

She would admit, I think, to being a hoarder of paper, though she was never diagnosed as such to my knowledge. But there were piles of paper everywhere. Old real estate listings and business cards from ever Realtors office she’d ever worked at. Book and movie reviews for her novel study group and later for the movie selection committee she was on at her retirement home. Recipes. Lists. Lists of things to buy and things to do and things to consider. Lists of home improvements and the contents of folders and filing cabinets. Lists of lists she’d already made. All these were settled around the house like snow on a landscape, and to find one among the many was akin to digging for a single snowflake.

One day when I was living with her I came home from my early morning dog walking job to find her frantically sorting. She was trying to find her property tax bill, or more precisely the piece of paper that she needed to file to be relieved of her property tax bill, as her income was low enough that she merited such relief in the eyes of the township.

I looked at her, an old woman behind a dining room table piled high with papers, the one paper she could find the one that said they were putting her house on the market in fourteen days, and the first thing I did was make her take a Xanax. Somehow we got through the day. We got a loan from the bank to cover the taxes. We went to the township office to file a new copy of the piece of paper. We went somewhere else for a purpose I no longer remember but that had to do with yet another piece of paper. We made it through.

I think of that day now as I prepare to move my mother into my house. One tactic for getting pieces of paper — and other things — out of my grandmother’s house was for us to take them, wholesale, to our own houses. Some of those boxes have been sitting at my mother’s house now for almost a decade, and some of them now will be making their way to my house.

This week we have been frantically sorting, trying to separate the letters and photos we want to save from the bank statements and lists we don’t. Even so there’s too much. I don’t know what to do about it, but I cannot yet throw away my grandmother’s letters, even the ones she didn’t send. Especially the ones she didn’t send. I can’t read them, either: they are too heartbreaking, too much the symptoms of a woman lost in her own life and not always able to fight back against the tide.

I feel bad writing about her that way. She was amazing, not pathetic, although my renderings of her always seem to come out the with more pathos than glory.

Perhaps the best way is to describe the other things in her house, the things that were not the snowfall, not the things that nearly buried her.

She also kept possession of her father’s rock collection, stored in glass topped wooden boxes of his own design. Each box held a series of wooden panels, and on each was a rock in the rough, a polished slice, and a cut and polished cabochon. He did all the work himself. The rocks lived at his house, and in later years they went on display in the schools and libraries of his descendants.

There were masks in my grandmother’s house, and bongo drums and maracas, and a dollhouse built for my mother. There were antique toys of intricate design and a glass topped table full of curiosities, including, among the things of actual value, the plastic airplanes Delta used to give out, one of which she’d let you take with you if you were good. Also in the coffee table was a small turtle, its head and tail suspended by thread. If you looked at it hard enough, she said, it would move, and it did, almost fooling generations of us into believing it was a real turtle. To this day I don’t know if it moved because we looked at it or because she nudged the table a bit while we were staring. Its movements were tiny, nearly imperceptible.

When people tell me to get rid of things, it is these things they are talking about. Oh no, they say, you can keep the stuff that means something. But everything means something. Everything in that house did.

A legacy is what’s left to you — money or goods or a cowlick or a personality trait, admission to a college or admission to a society of hoarders. It is a burden as much as it is a gift.

I look around at the things and do not know what I will do with them in my small house, but I know I am destined to cling to them, to not let them go.

I’m Not Sure We’d Be Speaking #52essays2017 no. 3

the author as a small child on her father's back
The author and her father.
While I miss him daily, I often reflect that it’s just as well my father isn’t around to discuss politics with me. While other people have to deal with the reality of family members who voted for Trump, I have only to deal with a ghost, one whose intentions can be guessed but never known. But I have a pretty good idea, more’s the pity.

It’s one thing to stand for three days beneath the American flag at the college where you teach to prevent students from turning it upside down. I respect the man for that, even though I disagree, and though I would have, as I told my mom when I first heard this story, probably been one of the people trying to turn the flag upside down. (“You and your father would have disagreed on a lot of things,” she said. “Call me if you need to be bailed out. I was on my way to an anti-war march.)

But it’s quite something else to suggest that the Republican party needs to adopt the techniques of the civil rights movement and find its own James Meredith, as my father suggested in a memo to the state Republican party in the mid 1960s. I felt ill reading that memo last year in the basement archives of the college where he taught (the same as the flag incident college). I feel ill writing about it now. But he said it, there in black and white.

Several years ago I resolved to stop writing things about or for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in part out of embarrassment at what I’d written before and in part for the real and good reason that white people, myself most definitely included, need to talk less and listen more. I’m breaking that promise now, and in the worst way possible, opening a remark about MLK with an image of my racist father. But then it’s my father I’m writing about, really, not Dr. King. If acknowledging one’s own racism is the first step in being a good ally, then surely reckoning with the racism of one’s forebears is part and parcel of that.

I’m not sure how much help it is, though. Anything I start to write is too easily contestable by those who knew him and who might well hold a different impression of the man, about whom I have heard little but good in the years since he died. But not entirely, for which I’m grateful.

I’ve been told, for instance, by multiple sources that he believed the best man would always beat the best woman. If Billie Jean King won anything, it must have been because she wasn’t actually facing the best man. (He was a tennis player and would doubtless have had an informed opinion on this, even if it was wrongheaded. I know King only as a cultural icon and have no ability to pass judgment.)

But then I’ve also been told that he was deeply and profoundly upset by anti-Semitism in any form, despite what we would now term his own anti-Semitic microaggressions, usually in the form of commentary on NPR reporters. For years I clung to this as a sign that he wasn’t completely given over to the dark side: as long as you think Hitler is evil, you can’t be all bad, right?

But what I’ve learned — in part from trying to listen more than I talk, which isn’t a strong point of mine, as this essay demonstrates — is that one good instinct does not a good ally make, or even a potential one.

So it’s just as well, I think, that I can’t talk to my father about the presidential election. Still, though, I wish I could. Because the other thing I know — from listening, from reading, from writing, from life — is that one’s lived experience rarely fits neatly into a paradigm not matter what your political affiliation. Blood, in my case, runs thicker than the bully pulpit, and I’m willing to forgive a lot in the people I love. In real life, I’m not called upon to do so much, as my family and friends largely inhabit the same bubble I do. I often say that if my father were alive, I’m not sure we’d still be speaking. But I never stop wishing we could.

The Things of the Dead #52essays2017 no. 1

I’m doing this #52essays2107 challenge. This is the first one.

black and white photo of a giant perched rock in Arizona
Perched Rock from the LACMA.
I am 41 years old and I have not yet learned that the dead no longer inhabit the objects they leave behind. My father’s body is no longer in his shirts, nor does his breath flow through his pipes. He no longer reads his books nor sits in his chair nor hangs knives from the knife rack he made that fits nowhere in my house but that I keep just the same. He does not mix drinks with the jigger that I don’t use.

The one remnant of him that lives is his voice, but it is locked away somewhere in a backpack full of reel to reel tapes I can’t play, tapes that may well, in the 36 years since he died, have disintegrated completely, so that I am carrying around a backpack full of nothing. He and I used to play a game about that—we each carried a bag full of nothing, and we were gleeful over how big our bags were. I did not know that my bag would someday fill with all the things he left behind, things I hoard even though they serve no purpose.

I come by this tendency honestly. My grandmother carried her checks in a holder with a picture of her dead father in a photo sleeve on the outside. My mother carries it now. I carry my grandmother’s cigarette case (I store credit cards in it) and wear my great grandmother’s ring. Those things at least we use. My office is piled high with my great-grandfather’s rock collection, and our house is full of boxes of papers from my grandmother’s house. To give you an idea of their value, one turned out to contain a folder labeled “Receipts—Toss.”

My grandmother never got a diagnosis as such but was likely a hoarder in the clinical sense of the word, especially with pieces of paper. The maxim that you should handle no piece of mail more than once was lost on her. Most of them got handled eight or ten times, or, more likely, piled in a pile to be dealt with later. I still remember her sitting at her dining room table, extended to its full length with leaves, sifting through pile after pile of paper looking for her property tax bill, which she hadn’t paid. She had, at least, opened the letter that said they were putting her house on the market in fourteen days if she didn’t fork over the cash.

On one of the last weekends we all gathered as a family at her house, she set my cousin Jennifer to alphabetizing her catalogs. Some were more than a decade old—the LL Bean Christmas catalog from 1994 was among them, as I recall. Jennifer looked at the catalogs, looked at me, and said, “Laura, could you do me a favor? It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, but could you go to the kitchen and get me a beer? Because I don’t think I can do this without one.” I got one for her and one for me, and we set to work.

We moved my grandmother out of her house eventually and into a one-bedroom apartment at a retirement place, but the problem continued. I used to say that getting her a printer was the worst decision we ever made, though I contributed to it, buying her a multifunction printer/coper/scanner exactly like mine so I could help her troubleshoot it over the phone. She printed out recipes and articles and movie reviews and the prices of books she owned as collected by AbeBooks and Powell’s and She was convinced her first editions would net us a fortune and always believed the highest price listed was the one we’d get.

It was maddening, and yet I loved her. I loved her even when, when visiting, I could not find a place to sit down and had to move treacherous piles of paper from the sofa to the floor in order to have a place to sleep. I loved her even though she’d never let me help—or not really. She was happy to accept help she got to delegate, so you could sort by year or alphabetize to your heart’s content (after you wiped down the corner of the table you’d just cleared so you’d have a space to sort on), but there was no wholesale tossing or recycling of the sort we all desperately longed to do. Those pieces of paper were as valuable to her as her checkbook with her father’s photo, as her mother’s ring (the one I now wear), as the china bouquet in her glass topped coffee table that came from the Chicago World’s Fair.

I suppose if I were to cling to my grandmother for real, I would keep all those scraps of paper—the movie reviews (she was always hoping to improve the selections for the movies at her retirement home), the book prices, the articles, the magazine clippings, the ancient catalogs, the piles and piles of Sunday New York Times crosswords waiting for their final clues. And indeed, sometimes when I find one, I am tempted, especially if it has her handwriting on it, writing like no one else’s.

But for all that I loved her, I am trying not to become her. So I let them go. But I keep the rocks.