Things You Could Not Ask My Mother

There are several facts about me that should be known. I was raised in an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian church. The church defined my earliest assumptions about the larger world. And for the most part, it was a warm and welcoming place for me. If it sheltered any dangerous people, I never saw any worse behavior than a tendency of certain ones to gossip, and the normal percentage of bullies among the other youth group kids. The first minister I knew, Pastor McGarvey, wore his humility and humor as easily as any other human I have met. I do not know, in blindingly white Wellsville, NY, if he had any racist tendencies, but I doubt it. When he spoke about being God’s light to the world, the man positively glowed with kindness and compassion.

This was evangelical Christianity before it made a devilish deal with politics. These are the topics that I never heard Pastor McGarvey preach about: evolution, presidential candidates, abortion, homophobia, sexism, racism, talk show hosts, tv news personalities, wars, free market capitalism, and the communist threat. He preached about the importance of getting your soul right with God, of living a sacred life, of being a beacon of light in a dark world, and being always, always ready for the second coming of Christ. That’s what it used to be all about.Hannigan women

My Mother was the impetus for us to be church people. Hannigans had no particular affinity for religion. Somehow Catholicism was lost in the Atlantic passage. My Father grew up with a very loose association with a mainstream Protestant church, as in, he didn’t attend it, but he knew where it was. But when my Mother looked at her three sweet baby girls, something fiercely protective bloomed in her heart. She wanted us to be safe from an unspoken, but looming predatory world that she feared would chew us up and spit us out. She found the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church and Pastor McGarvey, and we were safe.

Until I turned into a 13-year-old who could pass for an 18-year-old, that is. As the baby of the family, it was my God-given right to upset the natural order of the universe. Suddenly bits of my Mother’s nightmare world began to take notice of me. There was a 21-year-old Ag-Tech student that started to hang out with the Youth for Christ group. I remember that he came in with some of my Mennonite friends, and then began to hover around me. I was flattered. I could handle this. I have no memory of him other than a typical hippy from 1972 – untrimmed brown hair, a mustache, wiry. He showed up at the skating parties, and pretty much made sure to be there whenever the mirror ball lit up for a couples only skate. Truthfully at this point, I had no dating experience, no flirting experience (other than being tormented by the kid who sat alphabetically behind me every year), and no useful sexual information. I was a sitting duck waiting for a well-aimed bullet.

But my Mother came to the skating rink to pick me up, and she came inside to see us spiraling around under that mirror ball. She bundled me up, gave him a frosty look, and when he attempted to call me, she intervened. You see, she was not having any of my nonsense about being almost an adult, and she was not having any of his nonsense about him respecting me. He was an adult; I was a child. End of discussion. Of course I wailed at her, wrote some truly bleak teenage poetry, and built this inconsequential man into quite a romantic icon for a week or two. And then the boy sitting behind me whispered in my ear some flirty joke, and suddenly his acne wasn’t such a problem, and the Ag-Tech guy transformed into something a little creepy, someone I was glad to have avoided.

That was how it worked.

Obviously, I know nothing about evangelical, fundamentalist church folk now. For how can they can be comfortable with men who once prowled for teenage girls, men who felt empowered to do this as long as some sort of parental permission was granted? No man could have asked my Mother for that sort of permission. I think that Billy Graham himself could not have gotten my Mother to drop her fierce protection of our innocence. And now today, I wonder if there are girls in those same churches, where congregations are rallying to protect grown men who should have known better, girls like 13-year-old me, who suddenly need the grown-up world to protect them. What lesson they are learning today, on top of the Bible verses they memorized in Sunday School?

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What We Call Things, Now

Today is a gorgeous mid-autumn day — the bluest of skies, warm sunlight, fresh breezes through the drying leaves. In short, a perfect day. A perfect Indian summer day. And that name passes through my thoughts swift as an eel, and makes me wince. The words we grew up with, tossed about with no intent, no thought really, but now I find them catching in my throat. These are the little glitches that racism built into our American language, little tags that allow us to see just what kind of people we were, and still are.

Language is learned first from our parents and neighbors, then from the books we read, then from teachers, and finally from our forays out into the broader world. If we are lucky, we explore far and wide, and gain an understanding of language as both a tool for  communication and insight. Our accumulation of words, starting with baby babble and nursery rhymes, and progressing through high and low sources, makes up the way we talk about almost anything.

And that’s now my problem.indian-paintbrush-2119382_1920

Indian summer, Indian-giver, Indian paintbrush. We played cowboys and Indians. On rainy Saturday afternoons, we watched reruns of the worst westerns ever filmed, when the Indians looked like Europeans with mahogany makeup and the cowboy horses were all stallions. Everyone knew that Indians spoke in single word sentences, or like Yoda, got the words a little backwards. “Me no go” made perfect sense as Indian talk. Squanto was barely present at Thanksgiving, but only because of the Three Sisters of corn, beans, and winter squash, which graced the table. Did we know his real name, or the name of his people, the descriptions of their society, or the doom that the Mayflower colonists brought upon the Massachusetts shore? No. But we did know that there was a great big rock there.

Recently I watched John Wayne ride off into the sunset in “The Searchers.” I am not a fan of John Wayne. Oh, I see that the camera loved something about his face, which is always a mystery to me. Like other imperfect beauties, Wayne’s face draws us in, even as his acting often plods along. He occasionally shouts off a line like it was just shoved into his hand at the moment the director yelled, “Action!” But “The Searchers” is a masterwork of cinematography. The black framed doorway shot opens onto the glory of Monument Valley, and every wide image is saturated with beauty and light. And then the German guy in makeup shows up, followed by real-looking Native Americans, and a hateful mess of stereotypes cascades down upon us. It is hard to watch, if you’ve learned anything beyond the Squanto-comes-to-dinner Thanksgiving myth. Reviewers praised John Ford, the director, for giving a  more balanced portrait of the Native Americans than in his previous work, and much is made of how wonderfully John Wayne’s character is flawed, displaying this ex-Confederate soldier’s racism. How daring, critics point out, it was in the mid 1950s to have such an anti-hero played by such a cinematic hero as Wayne. I do not know if this was truly daring, but at least the Native Americans were called by a name they might have recognized, Comanche, and I don’t recall too many references to “Injuns” or any derivative of Indians. And I did notice, through the entire film, that not one white settler was at home in this grand landscape. The Comanche and the land were one and the same threatening, unknowable enemy to the settlers. Even Wayne’s character, the one most at ease with the elements, reacts with mad rage at the herd of buffalo. John Ford framed the first and last image correctly: the darkness was inside the cabin, framing the light of the land. The people who in darkness slept.

My language, the words that spring up unbidden to describe the world around me, holds many dark words. I don’t think my father ever called a Brazil nut a Brazil nut. If you don’t know what he called it, you are better in your ignorance. I do know what my beloved Doctor Doolittle thought of African people, and the “charming” ways Hugh Lofting illustrated them. I remember lovely Ma Ingalls’ deep hatred of Native Americans even as her intrepid family ventured across the prairies that were properly, legally “Indian Territory.” And “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe” did not involve catching tigers by the toe. Not until an adult intervened on the playground. None of these sources of my language set out to be racist. The speakers/writers used words deemed appropriate within their time period and within their social group. But all explode now with racism.

And the words always lurk down in my subconscious waiting to leap up when least expected. Why is Native American clumsier to say than Indian, when it is a truth, and the other is a lie? And for that matter, why when my language is saturated with words the first Americans left us – our rivers, our hills, our bays, some of our States, and town after town after town here in Pennsylvania and New York – can I not get rid of the stupid, mean labels we’ve attached to so many things around us? This Indian summer of mine. It could be an innocent attachment, with a reference to the period of time when the Native Americans gathered in the fall crops. Does that seem likely? Do we have an Indian spring, when the Three Sisters are safely planted? Or like to its kin, Indian-giver, is this a name that signals the falseness of the late autumn warmth, something not to be trusted? Ah, that rings far more true, for these days are a lie, a feint to catch us off guard when the cold comes in. And I can imagine those settlers living in their dark cabins, fearing everything about this new world, coming up with exactly those words.

This is a fine false autumn day. A settler called that flower a paintbrush, so why not call it settler’s paintbrush? Your friend betrayed you, and should be called a Mayflower-giver, or something of the sort. You see, the words are all part of me, every one. What burbles up cannot be controlled, language and subconscious minds being what they are. But like Ma Ingalls and Doctor Doolittle, we are responsible to be appropriate to our time and place. And today there is no room for quaint, time-softened racism, even if it springs to mind with a nursery rhyme. It is important what we call things, now.




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The Geranium Man

There are bad smells I can’t forget. The oily stench of paper mills in Virginia. The burnt metal odor that permeated my Dad’s work clothes, filling my mouth with a mercury taste. The rank cloud mushrooming out of the doorway to one of those public outhouses at northern Pennsylvania rest stops. But then there was the word-defying reek from those early spring days when my Great-grandfather, Fritz, cooked dirt.

Fritz was 84 years old when I was born. He lived in his own apartment within the family home at 113 Highland Avenue. He had sold the house to my parents at a bargain price, with the agreement that they would provide him, and my father’s mother Ida, a place to live as long as they needed it. I grew up with a house divided into ours (the first floor and one room and closet at the top of the stairs) and theirs (most of the second floor and a greenhouse attached to the kitchen). It was an old frame farmhouse that the initial Hannigans had adapted with little or no carpentry skills. FritzThe kitchen, built on a slab off what was our living room, had a floor that tilted in all four cardinal directions. Fritz’s greenhouse butted up against the kitchen; the two rooms leaned against each other like an old couple facing a hard wind. His greenhouse could not be confused with any of those lovely, glass-coated, light-filled conservatories where flowers scent the air. No. His world was full of dirt and cobwebs, dark wet plank tables, and cans filled with chemicals and powders he could no longer identify. We did not play in the greenhouse; my mother did not step foot in the greenhouse. It was the Geranium Man’s place.

Fritz grew geraniums. I don’t know if he started them from seed, or propagated them from cuttings. Geraniums are not particularly difficult to grow, but they progress slowly. The seedlings fall prey to wilts and damp rots, particularly in cool, wet environments. It can take three months to get from seed to blossom, and so Fritz would start his work before spring had even arrived. The winters of the 1960s lasted well into March and even April. To safeguard the tender plants, Fritz needed a sterilized growing medium. If he planted them in pots of garden soil, they would be attacked by any number of molds and mildews, as well as nematodes and other insects. A gas line ran to the greenhouse, and fed a make-shift stove that someone had cobbled together. Over the gas flame, Fritz would cook batches of wet dirt for hours, raising the temperature of the dirt to just shy of 200 degrees and keeping it there for about an hour. Batch followed batch, until he had enough for all the pots he planned to start.

The smell that seeped out of the greenhouse into the kitchen was worse than a dump burning. Worse than the water that collects in the bottom of a trash can in July. Worse than burning hair, or wool, or plastic. My Mom moved into the house on Highland Avenue when she was pregnant with me, and every time Fritz needed to bake dirt, she spent the day vomiting. The fact that she continued to cook and clean for him for thirteen years, even as he routinely stunk up her freshly cleaned house, speaks volumes to the goodness of her heart. But that does not mean that her moods didn’t blacken when the first horrible whiff snuck under the kitchen door. Windows were thrown open, pots and pans were smacked around a little harder than necessary. And we children fled outside to play, preferably upwind.

Fritz was an old man when I was born, and an ancient one in my memories. Small and wiry, there wasn’t an ounce of extra fat on the man. His bald head and hooked nose reminded me of a plucked chicken. Nearly deaf, nearly blind, he spent his days puttering around the greenhouse, or sitting in a chair in his upstairs parlor. By divine whim, I had no normal grandfathers, and only one overworked grandmother who was too busy to fuss over us. Ida didn’t count, as she had never successfully imitated either a mother or a grandmother. I yearned for an older person to take notice of me. Wasn’t that supposed to be part of the deal of being a child? There should have been grandfathers to slip us candy bars and teach us how to skip stones and explain why parents were so damn difficult to live with. But Fritz, while present at every meal, was too old to be that sort of grandfather. I watched him pepper his eggs black. I called him for dinner every day, since I had the loudest yell. I listened to him as he walked slowly down the stairs, his old man murmur of  “Ho hum” marking each slow step. But we never sat like two old friends on the couch, or talked about how things worked. I avoided touching him. He was the old man who lived upstairs.

The geraniums grew in the dim greenhousegeranium. Fuzzy green leaves whorled out from stubby stems. He probably grew other colors but I remember most clearly the gorgeous red ones. By Memorial Day, they were ready to decorate the graves, the front porches, and the base of the monument in Memorial Park. Fritz sold them all, to customers who came back year after year, for his special geraniums. I don’t remember if he grew anything else for the remainder of the year. By the beginning of June, our vegetable garden was in full operation — peas and new potatoes would be coming in as early as my birthday, and the tender peppers and tomatoes were safe from frost. The entire summer would be a calendar of what was ripe, and when the freezing and canning would commence. The vegetable gardens were my mother’s domain, and Fritz stayed clear of her wake as we all did.

Fritz grew geraniums until he died, age 96, in October 1971. By then, I had long since given up hope of finding a grandfather figure. I was twelve, practically grown. But in the spring of 1972, as the snows melted and the back yard thawed, no dirt was cooked over the gas stove. Instead my Mother, as always moved by tidal forces only she feels, decided that the greenhouse needed to come down. My parents were planning the first of many remodeling projects for the upcoming year, and a new kitchen was in the works as well. The greenhouse was the first step. So she began ripping it apart and carrying the lumber up to the edge of the woods where we burned things. In her zeal, she caused a general collapse of the wall near the gas line. It snapped and gas filled the air. She yelled for help and luckily one of the neighbors heard her, found the shutoff valve, and Mom went on with the demolition.

Every year I plant a couple of red geraniums, and I usually manage to kill them off before August. I wouldn’t dream of starting one from seed, any more than I would consider preparing my own potting soil. I wonder what Fritz would think of our easy order world. Everything achieved through labor that is not ours. I do not know what he thought of his three little great-granddaughters, and our wild playground outside his greenhouse windows. The Hannigan clan was not known to like children very much, and Fritz might have been at his heart no kinder than his daughter. But then, there was in him something of a genius for coaxing an astonishing beauty out of nothing. A surprising creation for this drab bird of a man.


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The Blond Blog

Michael Cooper was a better carpenter than he was a poet. I knew that when I first met him, across a bar table in Fairfax, VA, in the 1980’s. He was blond, good-looking, a compactly built man who moved with a grace that implied he could really dance. He liked to put on a good-ole-boy mask to flirt with the ladies, and his stories always started out like this: “I knew a guy who….”

We became friends for a year while we both pretended to be serious about writing, but actually were more serious about drinking, talking, and hanging around real writers. Michael’s writing was muscular, almost mute at times, but his persona was spot-on for what a struggling artist should be. He worked at construction sites to pay the bills. He had an exotic, live-in girlfriend we never saw: Yasmin. No one had a better slouch over a drink, his hand cradling a Marlboro, the smoke drifting up to his eyes, and that blond hair glowing golden in the hazy lights. Like Brad Pitt in his beautiful years, Michael knew how to work the scene to his advantage.

That was not my beautiful year. My first marriage was unravelling. I taught, badly, sections of Freshman English to students who could not test out of Freshman English. For a few months I moved out of our Alexandria apartment, still working and taking classes, and then moved back with my husband. I needed to be writing daily; instead I wrote in desperate deadline induced spurts. Instinctively, I understood that the world of my marriage and the world at the University were at opposition. I stopped trying to pull them together. My husband became, like Yasmin, part of my background story to my writer friends at the bar.

When I think about Michael, I remember three things clearly. I remember his story about alcohol saving a life: “I knew a guy, an alcoholic, who worked on a construction site with me. And this guy always told us that alcohol had saved his life. You see, he worked on a the Skyline Tower in Bailey’s Crossroads, and one night he went out drinking and drank so much that he couldn’t go to work the next morning. Had to sleep it off. And that day there was a huge accident, structural problem, and the floors crashed down one upon the other, like pancakes. He would have been working right in the middle of it all. So, as he said, alcohol had saved his life.” I have a visual memory, viewed across the room at some lame department party, of Michael leaning into the thin body of someone else’s girlfriend, and the curve of his arm around her as he showed her how to dance the two-step. And then, after all the nights of talk and smoke, I can only recall one moment when he talked about writing, and in specific, my writing: He leaned across the table and said, “Now that would be something worth reading: your love poems.”

I took a year off, went to Micronesia, and returned with no love poems, no writing at all. Michael had disappeared from the MFA program. That surprised no one. At the time, I assigned him to my pantheon of lovely men who had not found me lovely. (There are many blonds in that hallowed hall!) But now he remains a frequent ghost, especially when I walk into a bar and see a young man posed to his best advantage, body draped enough, and yet full of energy, the light falling just right on his face. All he would need is the wreath of smoke, and a slight southern drawl to bring the ghost to life. Then he would be worthy of a love poem, or two.


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The Edge of Things

Our land sloped up to the edge of the woods. On the south, the pines grew in long rows, having been planted by someone after a fire. But at the back of the Hannigan property the trees were the normal random scattering of pines and scrubby maples and oaks. A path of sorts twisted up the sharp incline, around a monstrous hemlock, and led eventually over the crest of the hill and down toward the Girl Scout camp. Here and there, along its right side, were root fences left by some dirt farmer in a distant past. The wood was driftwood gray and smooth to the touch.

Our land was full of edges. The edge to the plantation of pines was easy to cross. You just stepped through a curtain of briars to the soft carpet of dead needles. Nothing much grew under the dark canopy. For years we had a half-acre of lupines forming an exotic floral edge to the back of our land. In summer, when the lupines produced a waist-high blue and pink sea, the swarm of insect life the flowers attracted kept me from crossing that barrier. The driveway and the ditch beside the garage. The ever-flowing long trickle of water between the Allen’s and us, too small to be called any of the waterway words, not creek or spring or puddle. Highland Avenue and the sidewalk running along. The tree line behind Darr’s and Munkes’s houses. Border lands formed by lawns and woods and gardens all the way through the town.

I asked my father once about the root fences. He told me that it was faster to cut down the trees and pull their roots half out of the ground with a tractor than to drive the fence posts and construct the fence. So one by one, the farmers knocked over the stumps and ripped the great whorls of roots out of the soil. Rain and ice, borers and critters worked the wood smooth. The land was always poor for farming, even for raising livestock. So the root fences lasted longer than the farmers and the loggers. To my mind, they marked the beginning of a mystery, a line on my childhood’s map: this is where others stood, lived, and maybe died. Total strangers. And I could never find out anything more about them than these wordless root fences. No histories left but these driftwood bones.

The beginning of fiction might be as simple as crossing an edge, pushing past the boundary of what is factual to what might be possible. Or fiction might be the ability to see beyond a line of trees to what lies behind, perceiving through something that appeared so impermeable. And beyond that, concerning the patchwork of edges that makes up my interior map, the multitude of lines that cannot be crossed because, by God, there are definitely dragons there: writing fiction might just be letting the wild things through the fences, and be damned.

I don’t know. But it’s high time I figured it out.



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